You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
Today's Wild Card author is:
and the book:
B&H Books (March 1, 2013)
***Special thanks to Laurel Teague for sending me a review copy.***
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Visit the author's website.
SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:
When Gina Ford, the daughter of a prominent Tennessee politician, goes missing from the University of Memphis a week after another girl was murdered on the same campus, police call in the FBI. Nick Hagar, married to his job as Special Agent in Charge, is assigned to the case, and when Gina’s body is found, her father demands justice.
Maddie Baxter is the forensic expert running DNA tests from the crime scene. When they come back without a match, Nick asks her to do a familial DNA run that yields a shocking result: the prime suspect is Adam Alexander, the very same guy who broke Maddie’s heart when she was in college.
But do scientific advancements tell the whole story? Strand of Deception offers romance, suspense, and a lively debate about the impact of DNA testing, for better or worse, on the United States justice system.
List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: B&H Books (March 1, 2013)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
The stack of photographs slipped to the floor, splaying across the wood planks like wildflowers over a grassy meadow. Her hands trembled as tears flowed down her cheeks.
This wasn’t real. This couldn’t be happening.
Yet the pictures proved otherwise. This was real, very real.
Her knees weakened. She slumped into the leather chair behind the desk. Even the familiar whoosh couldn’t comfort her now. The proof of his betrayal assaulted her. On the floor. On the desk. In her hand.
Photographs of him in another woman’s arms. How could he do this to them, his family?
To her? Surely he knew this would destroy them, but he cheated anyway. She didn’t understand. Did they mean so little to him?
Her heart ached in a way she never thought possible. Like someone shredded her insides. Another sob escaped her clenched lips. It bounced off the walls and rattled her ears. She never imagined betrayal like this would hurt so badly. So deeply.
She held her head in her hands, her elbows digging into the unyielding wood of the desk. Her lungs fought to push air in and out. Her legs wouldn’t stop quaking.
The morning sun beat past the curtains and flooded the loft with light. How dare such a symbol of joy invade when her entire life had just been destroyed?
Swallowing against a dry mouth, she bit her bottom lip and stared at the photographs. All of a sudden, she felt physically ill. This would destroy not only their family, but his career. His future. Was that why the pictures were taken?
Her heart slammed against her ribs as another thought raced through her mind . . . Why were the pictures here? Everything in her didn’t want to believe what stared her right in the face. But there was no other explanation. The photos were here . . . for what? Money?
Bile burned the back of her throat. This was all wrong. Everything.
Her mind struggled to comprehend. She’d let him into the family. Trusted him. Thought she loved him and he loved her. Apparently, she was wrong.
The pictures mocked her from all sides. This was her fault. She didn’t have a choice now—she’d have to confront him and hear his excuse, not that she’d believe any lie he told. She’d destroy the photographs, all of them, and demand the negatives. Then she’d shut him out of their lives forever, even though it would kill her.
Her legs barely supported the weight of her decision as she ran for the bathroom.
“Adversity is sometimes hard upon a man; but for one man who can stand prosperity, there are a hundred that will stand adversity.” - Elvis Presley
Two Weeks Ago
“We call Ms. Madeline Baxter to the stand.” Maddie wiped her hands on her skirt and stood. She’d testified at various trials over the years, but never one like this. Only a handful of people sat in the stuffy courtroom, the heat turned too high. She took the oath to tell the truth amid little fanfare before taking her seat in the witness stand.
She glanced over the few people sitting on the very hard, very uncomfortable pews. The judge had closed the hearing to the media, but the hounds waited just outside the oversized doors of the Shelby County Courthouse. Those allowed inside were legal figures, police, family members, and of course, the defendant.
“Ms. Baxter, will you please state your name and occupation for the court record?” 1
She leaned forward to the microphone. “Madeline Baxter. I’m a forensic scientist specializing in serology and DNA.”
“And you are currently employed by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, correct?”
Maddie licked her lips. “In the Forensic Services Division, yes.”
The defense attorney shuffled through pages on the legal pad he held. “Can you tell us a little about your professional back- ground and qualifications, Ms. Baxter?”
Standard questions, but for the first time in her career, she felt like she was in the hot seat. “I hold a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, as well as one in forensic science from the University of Tennessee. I graduated magna cum laude ten years ago and have been working for the TBI ever since. As such, I am a commissioned law-enforcement officer.”
“Would you be described as an expert in your field, Ms. Baxter?”
They always asked the same question, just worded in various ways. Getting it on the record. “Yes.”
“And the lab where you conduct your tests . . . is it accredited?”
“The TBI forensic lab is accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board.”
“Good.” The lawyer paused for effect, Maddie was sure, returning to the table where the defendant sat, back straight and shoulders squared. “Now, Ms. Baxter, I’d like to direct you to a recent DNA test you conducted at the request of my office, regarding the defendant, Mr. Mark Hubble.”
And here we go. Maddie licked her lips again. “Yes.” “You recall performing this test?”
“Can you give the court a brief overview for the record?”
“Our lab was supplied a saliva sample taken nine years ago from a crime scene involving a sexual assault. The sample was well preserved. I initially made tests, presumptive tests, for the presence of blood, which is orthotolidine. I utilized hydrogen peroxide as the tests reagents. I conducted testing for acid phosphatase, testing for P30 protein and for amylase, which is an enzyme found in saliva in high concentrations.”
“Go on.” The attorney nodded, as if he understood every- thing she said. He didn’t. Most people didn’t. All they wanted to know was what she would testify to next.
“We were also supplied, by the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, a saliva sample of the defendant.”
“And you ran these same tests on that sample?”
The lawyer paced slowly in front of the courtroom, paused, then moved beside her. “And you compared the two results?”
“And what was your conclusion?”
Maddie sat up straighter. “That Mr. Hubble is excluded as a match for the saliva sample.”
The attorney smiled as he faced her. “So, in your expert opinion, Ms. Baxter, the tests you ran on the samples concluded the samples were from a different person, right?”
She nodded, then remembered she was in court. “Yes.”
“Are you positive?” “Yes. Science doesn’t lie.”
The defense attorney smiled broadly. “Thank you, Ms. Baxter.” He grinned at the judge. “I have no further questions, Your Honor.”
The judge glanced at the opposing table. The prosecutor jumped to his feet. “We have no questions, Your Honor.”
“You may step down.” The judge excused her.
She marched from the witness stand, catching the defendant’s stare as she did. His eyes were dark, lifeless as he stared through her. A chill settled over her as she rushed past him.
The victim had stood in court, faced the man, and testified that Mark Hubble had sexually assaulted her. He’d been found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years. He’d served six already when his appellant lawyer discovered the saliva sample sitting in evidence and the order for DNA testing came through.
Looking at him now, Maddie’s stomach knotted. He gave her the creeps, but DNA didn’t lie. She had run the tests twice and gone over the results multiple times, twice with the head of the crime lab. The samples weren’t from the same person—she was 100 percent positive of that fact. She stood behind the science over eyewitness testimony. How had the victim identified the wrong man?
Within moments, the judge had overturned the conviction and set Mr. Mark Hubble free with the court’s humble apology. Right . . . Maddie could see the defense attorney’s eyes shining with visions of dollar signs as he would prepare a civil suit for wrongful incarceration and try to get rich off sensationalizing this case. The media would grab hold of the details like pit bulls, locking their jaws on the story and not letting loose until the next big one surfaced.
Maddie shoved open the courtroom door and ducked behind the marshal as he held up his hands to ward off the vultures waiting in the hall. Flashes snapped.
She rushed down the hall, trying to ignore the reporters tailing her. Turning, she let the music soothe her as it had for years. “If you’re looking for trouble—”
“Ms. Baxter, is it true Hubble’s DNA wasn’t a match to the saliva sample?” Yes. She kept walking at a fast clip. Daa-da-da- da-da.
“Is it possible your lab contaminated the samples?” No. “You came to the right place.”
Gritting her teeth to stop the retort on the tip of her tongue, Maddie stomped toward the exit. While most of the media stayed behind at the courtroom to hound Mark Hubble, a few industrious reporters dogged her heels.
“Ms. Baxter, a statement, please?”
No way. Daa-da-da-da-da.
“How do you feel about your results freeing a man?”
If only the man didn’t give her the creeps . . . if only she could believe he was innocent.
“What would you say to Mark Hubble’s victim right now?” Maddie stumbled at the last question. How did she feel toward the victim? The woman had to have mistakenly identified Hubble, right? But how would she feel when she heard the news that Hubble was free?
Dear God, please be with that poor woman. Wrap her in Your arms and comfort her in the way only You can.
Maddie regained her footing and broke free out the doors. She paused, gulping in the cool February air. The midday sun shot through the sky but didn’t offer much heat against the breeze. She rushed down the stairs to the street corner, then turned back to the courthouse.
Her sword at her side, the statue of Lady Justice with her blindfold permanently in place stared back at Maddie. The marble she was carved from as cold as Maddie’s heart.
Science didn’t lie.
Present Day, Friday
“Sir, is it possible your daughter might have stayed the night at a friend’s and just overslept today?” Special Agent in Charge Nick Hagar peered into the man’s face, gauging even the slightest nuance for possible deception.
“No, it’s not.” The man’s stance tightened, his Adam’s apple bobbing.
Nick sighed. Missing children were the worst cases—parents distraught, scared, and rightly so, no matter the child’s age. The enormous emotional toll on parents when they didn’t know what happened to their child . . . he knew all too well what that looked like. Memphis kept her secrets—always had, always would.
“Gina is well aware of the immediate consequences if she misses a check-in.” Les Ford’s public expression usually hid well his fifty-nine years. Today, every year weighted the lines of his ebony face. His tensed shoulders seemed out of place against the smooth lines in the formal living room. “Especially in light of that girl last week.”
“I understand that, sir, and I mean no disrespect. I must ask these hard questions to find your daughter. If there’s even a remote chance she’s merely out of touch . . .”
Despite her father’s prominent position, Gina Ford was a college student. One who could’ve stayed at a party and crashed with a friend. Or stayed somewhere she didn’t want her father to know about. Several other reasons she was just out of touch. So far, nothing indicated she’d been taken hostage to manipulate her father or she was a victim of foul play. Nick made brief eye contact with Darren, motioning him over to the couch.
The distraught father ran a trembling hand over the top of his head. The ends of his closely cropped black hair were tipped with white. “I apologize, Agent Hagar.” He let out a long, slow breath. “Call it a gut feeling or father’s intuition, whatever, but my daughter’s in trouble.”
“Okay, let’s back up. I know you’ve already told the police everything, but I’m going to ask you to tell me so I have all the details.” Nick sat forward on the high-back chair, taking in every movement, nuance, and gesture Les Ford made. “This is Agent Timmons, who’ll be taking notes for our investigation.”
Nodding at Darren, Ford flexed, then relaxed his fingers dangling in front of him. “Last night, Gina had study group and didn’t plan to get home until after midnight.”
“Do you know the names of those in her study group?” Darren asked, pen poised over his notebook.
“Rebecca Dragon, Cynthia Mantle, Lisa Trainer, and Rachel Boxer. But Rachel wasn’t feeling well last night so she called to tell them she wouldn’t be able to join them.” Gina’s father shot Darren a look that indicated he knew everything about his daughter’s life. Or thought he did. He turned his piercing black eyes to Nick. “The group usually meets every Thursday evening in the McWherter Library from eight until eleven, then they go out for pizza at Garibaldi’s.”
Darren scribbled while Ford continued. “Last night, Gina returned to her room early. She told me she didn’t feel like pizza and had some stuff to do before her workout in the morning. So she planned on going to bed as soon as we hung up. That was at eleven fifteen last night. I haven’t heard from her since.” His voice cracked.
Nick waited, understanding the father needed a moment to recompose. Nick cleared his throat. “What time did you realize she was out of contact?”
“Ten thirty this morning. She always calls when she arrives at the university’s fitness center, and we walk half an hour on the treadmill together every weekday.”
Nick glanced at his watch—closer to one than noon. The silent ticking of every second falling off the clock skidded down his spine. “And when she didn’t call?”
“I called her cell. It went straight to voice mail. I called her room. No answer. I went to her apartment. She wasn’t there, but I saw evidence that she’d slept there last night.”
“You have a key to your daughter’s place?” Darren asked.
Ford shot him a look full of disdain. “I’m her father. Of course I have a key to her apartment.” He pushed to his feet and dug out a key ring from his front pocket. His hands trembled as he pulled a single key off the ring and passed it to Nick. “Here’s her key. Her car wasn’t there.”
This was feeling less and less like a kidnapping and more and more like . . . what? Nick swallowed the sigh and stood, staring out the expansive window overlooking a private garden. “And your wife? Is it safe to assume she has no idea where your daughter could be?”
“Mrs. Ford hasn’t heard from Gina. Of course, she is extremely upset at the moment. I ordered her to take a sedative to calm her nerves and to lie down for a bit.” He gave a slight shrug. “She had a minor medical procedure performed a few days ago and needs her rest.”
Oh, yeah, Nick understood all right. He’d seen video clips of Jennifer Ford on the news recently, leaving the dermatologist’s office. Rumors floated around that she’d had some lightening done. Without intent, his gaze settled on the framed photos adorning the marble mantle. Jennifer’s skin looked like smooth mocha as she smiled at the camera.
Nick stopped at the photograph of Gina. “May I?” He pointed at the frame and raised a single brow to Ford.
“Certainly.” Ford nodded. “That was taken a few months ago.”
The girl was beautiful, there was no doubt about that. Her skin was even lighter than her mother’s, her chocolate eyes wide, but not as wide as her smile showing off perfectly straight and white teeth. There was a freshness to her face . . . a reflection of genuine passion for life. Nick’s chest tightened at the mere word—passion. How long had it been since he’d felt passionate about much of anything?
He shook off his thoughts and directed his attention to Gina’s father. “Did she mention what stuff she needed to do this morning before her workout?”
Ford shook his head. “I assumed it had to do with schoolwork.”
Nick sat back on the chair. “We’ll get her schedule later. Right now, tell me about Gina. What are her interests? Hobbies? Special people in her life?”
Ford’s eyes glistened as his voice warbled uncharacteristically.
“Gina is kind and loving, a wonderful daughter and person.” He cleared his throat, staring off into space. “She loves the ballet and art. Takes after her mother that way.” A gentle smile was affixed on his face and he swallowed hard. For a moment, Nick forgot who the man was and saw only a scared father.
The Tennessee afternoon sun settled over the garden just on the other side of the wall. Various flowers extended and poised toward the warmth of the rays against the February chill. A gust shoved against stems, swaying them.
“Gina is an excellent student. Takes pride in her work. All of her professors tout how much they enjoy her being in their class.”
Which could just be lip service to an important man, who happens to sit on the University of Memphis’s board.
“She’s active in various community-volunteer positions, mainly through my office. My assistant can give you a list of them.”
Nick nodded. “What about the people she spends the most time with?”
“Gina’s best friend is Cynthia Mantle. They’ve been close since high school. They were on the dance squad together back then.”
They’re also in the same study group. Nick would definitely speak with Ms. Mantle.
Darren tapped against the notebook. “What about a boyfriend?”
The senator frowned. “Gina understands it’s not prudent to become serious with anyone while she’s so young.”
Surely Ford didn’t believe his daughter didn’t date.
“She has, however, begun seeing a young man. A David Tiddle.”
Nick leaned forward again. “I mean no disrespect, sir, but I’m sure you’ve had him checked out, so I’d like to see your report, if I might.”
Ford stared down his nose. “She’s not serious about him. He’s only been to the house a couple of times for dinner.” He shrugged. “Seems like a nice enough young man.”
And Nick would just bet Ford had a nice, fat dossier on Tiddle. “Sir, I’m not judging you or your family, but anything you can provide will help us to find your daughter.”
Ford stood and moved to the desk in the corner of the room. He opened a drawer and withdrew a thin manila envelope he passed to Nick. “That’s all the initial query gathered. I haven’t authorized more digging. Hadn’t planned on it unless Gina felt like the relationship was turning exclusive.”
Nick slipped the file under his arm and stood. “Thank you. One last thing . . . can you think of anyone who would want to harm your daughter?”
“Considering my position? I have many enemies, Agent.” “Anybody in particular recently?”
“Let me get you a list of those on our current threat-watch.”
Interesting they had to keep a current list. Nick paused at the door while Ford returned to the desk. Nick turned to Darren.
“I’m going to question Ms. Mantle. You check out the other members of the study group. And pull Gina’s phone records.”
Darren nodded as Ford returned and passed a piece of paper to Darren.
Nick moved to the hallway and addressed the senator. “Is there anything else you can think of? Even if it’s remote and seems unimportant at the moment?”
Ford’s fear flickered across his face. “Please, find my daughter.”
Chest tightening, Nick nodded. “I’ll do my best, Senator.”