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x v

Prol ogue

A moonbeam stole in and sliced against the polished
blade, casting an unanticipated glint across the room. A
red indicator blazed on top of the security camera, even though
it was no longer connected to the recording system. He knew
because hed cut the wires and disabled the system.
X, or was it Y?it was impossible to tell with all four of
them wearing the same masklet out a hiss. Stop playing
around and put the sword in the bag. X, definitely.
Sabre, not sword, he whispered to himself as he slipped the
beautiful Civil War artifact into the velvet bag. He was Z, the
last one selected for this special mission. The afterthought, but
theyd needed a security systems person familiar with this par-
ticular setup. Hed never done anything like this before, probably
wouldnt again, but his sons increasing medical bills had shoved
him into desperation.
Y turned back to the task at hand, reaching for the book rest-
ing inside the opened glass case.
No! X shook his head. Were not supposed to take that.
But it looks like its worth a lot of money. Y ran a gloved
finger along the case. Why cant we take everything?
X covered the short span of space between the men and
grabbed Ys black collar. Because. We stick to the plan, we dont
get caught.
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Theyd been over the details, ad nauseam. At least it seemed
that way to him. They memorized the list of what to take . . .
because W already had buyers lined up. Theyd gone over again
and again how to get in and outeverything was planned down
to the last facet. He didnt even know the other three mens
names. Oh, he knew Ys nameCharlie was the one whod con-
tacted him for this job. Quick and easy, and a good, guaranteed
payoff. So he went along with the plan, even the parts he thought
silly, like addressing the others by initials only.
So far, everything had worked like a charm. Hed deactivated
the security system easily. The extra security had been disposed
of before theyd arrived on-site. Everything would go as it
should, as long as they stuck to the plan.
Ive got it! Were done. W stepped onto the third floor, his
commanding voice barely muffled by the mask. Time to go.
While he wasnt supposed to know, he was pretty sure W
was the private investigator who ran those discount coupons in
the monthly sale circular.
We still have a couple more things on our list, X answered.
No time. Move. W silently led the way down the stairs to
the first floor and out the back door.
The four men, all dressed in black, stole across the plush
lawn, dodging the security lights. They slipped into the open
side door of the black van, pulling in the four laden velvet bags.
W shoved in the key and revved the engine. X reached for the
side doors handle.
Hey! A uniformed muscled mass of a man sprinted over the
grass, drawing his weapon. Stop!
W punched the gas.
But Y didnt hesitate. He pulled out a handgun, leveled it at
the security officer, and pulled the trigger.
The man fell facedown onto the grass.
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W slammed on the brakes. You shot him? Are you crazy?
You werent even supposed to have a gun! Hysteria plowed from
behind the masterminds mask. The man who seemed in control
since the planning of this job.
Zs chest tightened. A perfectly planned robbery had just
escalated to armed robbery, assault, and possibly murder.
They were doomed.
He was doomed.
1
Chapter One
Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and
possess the land the LORD your God is giving you.
DEUTERONOMY 16:20
Was she insane?
Lightning pulsed past the ominous clouds pollut-
ing the sky with their foreboding. She shouldnt be hereevery
ounce of her screamed this was a bad idea. What had she been
thinking?
That was the problemRiley hadnt been thinking lately.
Her love life had come to a screeching halt. Shed messed up
so badly at work that her boss awarded her a mandatory leave
of absence until she redeemed herself, though how she could do
that while on leave was a mystery. Now, the hearing. She should
go home, bury her head under the covers, and just cry until she
couldnt cry any more.
Yet, she wouldnt let herself leave.
Riley pressed her balled hands into her abdomen and leaned
back against the door of her car. Her shoulders and neck were
so tight and tense, the ache felt as if itd taken up permanent
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residence. Shed lost almost ten pounds in the last two weeks,
just from the stress of today. There were a million reasons for
separate appearances before the board. Why hadnt she heeded
any of them?
Because her heart wouldnt let her.
Ms. Baxter?
At the attorneys deep baritone, Riley pushed off the dented,
scratched compact and pivoted. She smoothed her pants with
damp palms.
The cheap pinstriped suit jacket hung off Corey Patterson
as he rushed across the parking lot. I didnt think youd make
it. His blond hair glistened as lightning streaked across the sky
again.
Hed sure tried enough times to discourage her. His argu-
ments had almost worked. Just this morning, shed debated using
the weather as a possible excuse to back out. After all, as she
heard on the news, April ushered in full tornado season in south
Louisiana.
If the weather wasnt bad enough, the barbed wire atop the
fence as she entered the property almost did her in. Everyone
would understand if she changed her mind. But if she didnt
show, shed never be able to live with herself.
There was no other option. She had to look him in the eye,
see if the crazed haze still glowered in those irises. Needed to
see him in person, not on some impersonal terminal via video-
conferencing, to know if he still wore the illness in the lines of
his face. She had to hear his voice to determine if the venom still
bittered his words.
I said Id be here. She eyed the crowded parking lot as she
fell into step beside the aging prosecutor. So many people lin-
ing up to board the white visiting buses ... mainly women and
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children. Some infants. It broke Rileys heart. Why didnt people
think about the consequences on their families before they did
something stupid? Such a waste.
The next clap of thunder didnt cover Mr. Pattersons heavy
sigh. You really shouldnt have come. This wont be good for
you. Those big, blue eyes of his stared into hers. He squeezed
her upper arm.
She denied the urge to sigh herself, already mentally past
the argument. They dodged the first raindrops as they made
their way along the sidewalk, past the fence with rolls of barbed
wire. Riley shivered, then followed Mr. Patterson through the
green-trimmed door. The tips of her heels rat-a-tat-tatted on the
polished brown tile.
Wait here for a moment. The attorneys damp soles
squeaked as he headed down the hall.
She leaned against the white cinder-block wall. Icy cold crept
into her spine, chilling her from the inside out. Women and chil-
dren moved like cattle to sign in for visitation. Her mouth went
dry. What would it be like to have to visit someone you loved
like this? Maybe that was the story she needed to get back in her
editors good graces.
Jeremy was beyond furious with her. Hed accused her of let-
ting her bias against criminals get in the way of good journalism.
His yelled reprimand that she find emotion for the reader and
ignore her own still rang in her ears. What better way to steal the
hearts of readers than to expose the angles of pain worn raggedly
on some of these womens faces?
It would also prove she was capable of writing a story 100
percent unbiased against someone close to criminal involvement.
Given the reason she was here and the emotional mess her life
had become, that would be no easy feat.
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Theyre ready. Mr. Patterson appeared at her side, barely
touching her elbow. Do you remember what I told you? The
procedure? He led her down one hallway into another.
They all looked the same to Riley, but it hardly mattered.
Nothing about the location mattered. Her stomach threatened to
reverse the cappuccino shed drunk on the drive here. She licked
her lips with a dry tongue. Yes. I remember.
He paused outside a closed gray door. You can still back out,
you know. You can just walk out, get back into your car, and drive
off. He cleared his throat. We could meet for dinner later and
I could fill you in.
Her heart pounded. A bead of sweat dotted her upper lip.
Temptation swirled like a tornado inside her chest, and for a
moment, just a split second, she considered the option.
But then she squared her shoulders. She never backed out.
From anything. That wasnt who Riley Baxter was. Especially
when this was so important.
And so personal.
Im fine. If only her knees would get that message and stop
quivering. Good thing shed worn slacks so nobody could see her
shaking. The beads of sweat felt like lead on her upper lip.
Okay. The disappointment draped off his shoulders as
badly as the ill-fitting suit jacket. He opened the door and
motioned for her to precede him into the room.
It was smaller than shed expected. A computer monitor
sat on one table, showing three peopletwo men and one
womansitting behind a conference table. Directly across
from the monitor were two empty wooden chairs. Adjacent to
the monitor a video camera rested atop a tripod, pointing at the
empty chairs.
A lady wearing a washed-one-too-many-times dress sat
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behind a desk, an armed guard hovering behind her. Her atten-
tion never lifted from the open file in front of her.
Mr. Patterson waved Riley toward a row of chairs along
the wall. A lady shed never seen before sat in one of the chairs.
Quite pretty with long, dark hair. Spanish and exotic looking.
Beside her sat Alicia Lancaster.
Riley knew who she was only too well: Simons older sister.
The one who had cried on the witness stand. Who testified
at his sentencing hearing that her brothers drinking was an
illness brought about by genetics, so he shouldnt be incarcer-
ated, but rather, hospitalized. Who told a story of a boy abused
by an alcoholic father who had merely followed in his fathers
footsteps.
Riley swallowed hard, curling her sweaty palms into a ball.
She hadnt known Alicia would be here, but she shouldve con-
sidered the likelihood. As much as Riley wanted Simon to stay
behind bars, Alicia wanted him free.
Chest tightening, Riley concentrated on breathing normally.
Inhale through the nose, slow exhale through the mouth.
Mr. Patterson gestured for her to sit. He wanted her to sit
next to Alicia? The bile rose in Rileys throat. No alternatives
miraculously appeared with a second glance. She eased to the
edge of a chair and slid as far from the woman as possible. Mr.
Patterson studied her as if to satisfy himself she wouldnt bolt,
then lowered himself onto the chair beside her. Its leg scraped
against the waxed floor, the grating bounced off the cement
walls until Rileys teeth sat on edge.
The rattle of keys clanked down an adjacent hall, the
unnerving jangle drawing closer to the room. Nearer. Nearer.
The door on the opposite side of the room opened. An armed
guard entered. Another. A prison official wearing a worn suit.
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And then Simon Lancaster shuffled into his parole hearing
at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Alicia gasped, and Riley had to press her lips together not
to do the same. She didnt know what shed expected, but this
wasnt it. His cheekbones stuck out more prominently than
Riley remembered, making him appear gaunt. He wore his hair
combed back from his pallid face. He walked with the gait of a
man ten years his senior.
The guards ushered Simon to the empty chair and assisted
him in sitting. The prison official sat beside him and opened a
file, skimming the contents.
Simon smiled over at Alicia and the other lady before letting
his gaze trip to Riley. He met her stare, hesitation in his eyes, as
if trying to place her. After all, itd been eight years since hed
seen her. Then, shed been twenty-five, still so nave. Oh, how
shed changed since then.
The prison official looked into the camera, rattled off his
name, and introduced Simon Lancaster to his parole board.
He read directly from the chart how Mr. Lancaster had been a
model citizen while incarcerated at Angola, how his work ethic
in the silk-screen department was to be commended, and how
hed been active in his religious activities, proving his moral
rehabilitation.
Riley thought she might be sick.
One of the men on the monitor cleared his throat and leaned
forward. What do you have to say for yourself, Mr. Lancaster?
Simon straightened in the chair, stole a quick look at his
sister, then stared into the camera on the tripod. I believe Ive
changed in here. I take part in AA, Im now a Christian, and I
can be a worthy member of society now.
Worthy member of society? Right. Hed run straight to the
nearest bar as soon as he broke free of the prison walls. Riley
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bit her tongue while clenching her fists. Her nails dug into her
palms but she ignored the pain.
The woman on the parole board spoke. I understand you
have family members to speak on your behalf?
The prison official waved to his sister and the lady. Both rose
and crossed the room. Alicia stood beside Simon, tears glistening
in her eyes. Im Alicia Lancaster. Simons my baby brother. She
wrung her hands in front of her. You need to let Simon out. Hes
served his time and needs to come home.
So if Mr. Lancaster is let out on parole, youll provide him a
place to live? the woman on the parole board asked.
Yes, maam. Hell be living with me and his fiance here.
Alicia motioned to the pretty lady beside her.
His fiance? We dont have any notation of his engage-
ment, the woman said over the monitor.
What a crock! Riley sat on the edge of the hard chair.
S, I marry Simon. As soon as he out.
The pretty ladys broken English confirmed Rileys suspi-
cionsthis woman no more loved Simon Lancaster than Riley
did, and that was as likely as hades freezing over.
I see. By the parole womans tone, it was clear she wasnt
fooled by this . . . fiance.
Riley let out the breath shed held.
And he has a job waiting on him, Alicia interrupted.
What type of job? one of the men asked.
Working in the shop where Im the cashier. Alicia nodded.
Boudreauxs Paint and Body. My boss said hed hire Simon as
soon as he was released.
Doing what?
Just being a hand in the shop. Cleaning up spills. Putting
tools back in their places. Alicia shrugged. Doing whatever is
needed.
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I see, the second man on the parole board said.
A place to live. A job. People who cared about him. Riley
clutched her hands together. Surely they wouldnt consider let-
ting him out? They couldnt.
Anything else youd like to add, Mr. Lancaster? the first
man asked.
Yes. Simon turned and met Rileys stare. Im sorry my
drinking killed those people. I wish with everything in me that
it hadnt happened. But it did. All I can do now is say Im sorry.
With her stomach reversing the coffee shed inhaled this
morning, Riley shot to her feet and rushed from the room. She
couldnt breathe. Couldnt take it anymore. Fresh air . . . she
needed fresh air.
And to get away from the scumbag whod murdered her
parents.
Tears burned Jasmines eyes. She couldnt let them spill out.
Not with her mom watching. Mom had been through enough
already today. The idiots at the prison . . . She and Mom and
Mikey shouldnt be punished because the guards thought
Dad did something wrong. Since when was food considered
contraband?
Would have been nice had someone told them not to come.
Theyd already wasted an hour or so driving to the prison, using
up gas they didnt have the money for. The storm had made the
trip long and tedious. Theyd all been tense when they arrived.
Now, to be told they couldnt see Dad . . . well, it was just plain
wrong.
Her little brother, Mikey, continued his wailing out the front
door of the prison and into the parking lot. At only six, he didnt
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understand why he couldnt see Daddy after Mom had told him
they would. Hed been so excited to tell Daddy about his Easter-
egg hunt at kindergarten that hed even let Mom put him in that
ridiculously ugly shirt that made him look like a girl.
Jasmine turned and kicked the leg of the bench outside of
Angolas front entrance. Her toes crunched against the concrete,
but she didnt care. She didnt even pay attention as people came
in and out of the prison. She ignored the water puddles, the rem-
nants of the storm from earlier. The rain had disappeared, but
the dark skies remained. Shed had enough of Angola already,
but if Dads appeals kept being denied, she would have to deal
with it for many more decades. Hed already been in for almost
a year now.
Mikey, honey, I know you want to see Daddy, but we cant
today. Just get into your car seat, sweetie. Ill get you McDonalds
on the way home if you be a good boy. Mom tried yet again to
ease him into the booster seat.
Buy McDonalds with what, Mom? We put the last twenty
we had into the gas tank. The tears slipped down Jasmines cheeks
in spite of her determination not to cry. And for what? We cant
even see Dad. She swiped the back of her hand against her face.
Mom struggled with getting Mike to sit in his seat. Well
figure it out, Jasmine. Just help me get Mikey settled.
Its not fair. Dad shouldnt even be here in the first place
because hes innocent, much less not be allowed to see his wife
and children because he had a certain kind of food hidden in his
locker. Its food, not a weapon or cell phone or anything. Jasmine
stomped against the asphalt. Since when is it a crime to hoard
food?
She stopped fighting the tears. Hes already lost so much
weight. I dont understand why we cant see him. She bent her
head into the crook of her elbow and sobbed. She didnt want
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to put any additional stress on her mom, but she couldnt take it
anymore.
Plain and simple, they were broke. Dad had been the money-
maker of the family. Mom had gotten a job at the local grocery
store chain right after Dad was sentenced, but it wasnt enough.
It was never enough. Not enough for gas. Not enough for grocer-
ies. Forget about new clothes. Theyd lost the house months ago
and now rented a mobile home in a trashy trailer park. Just two
days ago, shed heard Mom on the phone to the electric company,
begging for an extension and not to cut their power off. If things
didnt change soon, theyd be homeless.
Jasmine, honey, just get in the car. Well talk about this
at home. Mom buckled Mikes seat belt. Hands on noses,
Mikey. When he complied and had his hands safe from getting
squished, she slammed the back door and stared over the hood
of the Honda. I know youre disappointed, but theres nothing
we can do here. Were both upset right now.
Upset? Mom, Im mad as hell. Dads innocent and were all
paying for something he didnt do.
Watch your mouth, young lady.
Jasmine waited for Mom to come around and unlock the
passenger door. Even the automatic lock and unlock button were
broken on the old car. Everything was unfair. Dad hadnt been
involved in the stupid robbery. It was all a setup. Why hadnt the
jury been able to see that?
I wont have you talking like a heathen. Mom jammed the
key into the door. No matter how upset and disappointed you
are.
A heathen? Really? Where was Mom and Dads all-powerful
God in this? Why had He let an innocent man go to prison?
Why was He letting the whole family suffer like this?
Excuse me.
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Jasmine turned as her mother did. The woman standing
mere feet from them had a familiar pain in her eye.
I couldnt help but overhear your conversation. She took
a step closer, her brown hair bouncing against the top of her
shoulders.
Im sorry if we disturbed you. Mom opened the car door.
She pushed Jasmines shoulder, trying to shove her inside.
No, please. The woman joined them. Im sorry, Im mess-
ing this up. Let me start over. My name is Riley Baxter. Her
piercing blue gaze darted between Jasmine and her mother. Did
I hear correctly, that your husband isnt allowed visitors today
because he hid food?
Yes. How stupid is that? Jasmine blurted out before her
mother could respond.
Mom shot her a glare, then focused on Ms. Baxter. Why are
you asking? No offense, but its really nobodys business.
Talk about rude, and Mom was forever on Jasmines case
about her sharp tongue.
Im a journalist and am interested in writing a story from the
point of view of an inmates family.
Mom frowned. Were not interested. She pushed Jasmines
shoulder again. Get in the car, sweetie.
I want to tell readers how hard it is on a family. Ms. Baxter
laid her hand on the car door. How the family is punished just
as much as the inmate. Sometimes more.
Yeah. Jasmine shrugged off Moms touch. At least Dads
guaranteed three meals a day and a bed.
Im sorry, Ms.Baxter, did you say?but we arent inter-
ested. Mom all but shoved Jasmine into the front seat, then
slammed the door shut behind her.
Ms. Baxter followed Mom around the front of the car.
Jasmine couldnt hear their conversation, but she recognized
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Moms body language. Whatever the lady reporter said, it was
working. Moms resistance was crumbling like a package of
crackers in the bottom of her purse.
I wanna see Daddy, Mikey whined from the backseat. I
want McDonalds. Mom promised.
Jasmine ground her teeth. Her brother didnt understand.
Couldnt. Even Jasmine didnt understand all the stupid rules of
prison. In a minute, Mikey. She leaned over and opened Moms
door.
I promise I wouldnt print anything I didnt get directly
from you or your family.
Mom hesitated, glancing into the car at Jasmine and Mikey.
She ran her tongue over her bottom lip.
The lady laid a hand on Moms arm. It could help prevent
other women and children from going through this. People who
read my magazine are potential jury members. Maybe this could
even help your husband, if the right people read the article. Id
send those people a copy of the article.
Jasmine couldnt keep her mouth shut. Come on, Mom. If
it could help Dad . . . She leaned over the front seat, practically
lying prone.
Mom frowned at her but turned to Ms. Baxter. Fine. You
can call. Im listed in the Baton Rouge book.
Ms. Baxter passed something to Mom. Here, take this. For
hearing me out.
Mom opened her hand. We dont need your money. We
arent a charity case. She tried to give it back.
Well ... Jasmine would argue that point at the moment.
I delayed you. I heard you promise your son a treat, and Ive
kept you from that. Its the least I can do.
Mom hesitated, then shoved the money into the side pocket
of her purse. Thank you.
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Ms. Baxter nodded. Ill call you.
Mom slipped behind the wheel and pulled the door closed
before starting the Honda. Jasmine smiled through the wind-
shield at the lady. Ms. Baxter gave a finger wave.
Maybe this trip hadnt been such a waste of gas.