Benefit of the Doubt: A Novel

 

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About the Author

Copyright Page

 

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To my Dad

James Phillip Griffin

1925–2008

I’d like to think this would have made him proud.

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I’ve come to learn that like police work, the publishing industry places great value on dogged persistence. A detective can have the acumen of Sherlock Holmes, but without the application of a good bit of shoe leather, little will come of it. So it is with the aspiring writer. Nothing can take the place of words on the page, except more words on more pages, every day. For that long list of fellow cops and writers, early readers, my family, friends, and all the others who over the years encouraged me to stick with it, you have my deepest appreciation.

And, a good outcome in publishing is not unlike a successful criminal investigation. The measure of success is dependent on the team assembled. Early on, my incredible agent, Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, was like the first cop to arrive on scene. She found something that looked mildly interesting and, even though many others had just walked by, Jill saw a lead. It needed to be fleshed out, but there was potential. She took a chance and I will be forever grateful.

Emily Heckman, a freelance editor of impeccable skill and straight talk, was my field training officer. She didn’t pull any punches in an early assessment of my work and that has made all the difference.

Beat partners are those senior cops still on the job, who look out for the rookies. They’re the ones who have better things to do, but still take the time to help out the new guy. My beat partners make up the who’s who of crime fiction. Joe Wambaugh, the godfather of the genre, who can and still does bring it. Don Winslow and Jeff Parker, a couple of local SoCal guys who have made the big time but never turned down a chance to provide a word of encouragement. Jon Land, Hank Ryan, Andy Gross; the list is long and formidable. I couldn’t have dreamed up a more accomplished group of supporters.

Then there’s my boss. The precinct sergeant. The ultimate authority. Melissa Ann Singer,
my
editor at Forge, who has watched over this project from start to finish. She knew what the end product would be and she kept us on course. Like all the best cops I ever worked for, Melissa is “old school” and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. To Melissa, Tom, Linda, Patty, Emily, Diana, and all the others at Team Forge: I hope we get to do this again, and again and again.

No cop ever goes it alone. There is always a partner. An indispensable one who sits in the passenger seat and listens to all the complaining and grousing. Who shares the victories as well as the setbacks. My wife, Olga Diaz, is my one true partner. An amazingly accomplished woman in her own right, she took the time to cheer me on and stand by me every step of the way. Olga, I owe it all to you.

 

PROLOGUE

Harlan Lee took one last hit off the joint, then popped the glowing stub in his mouth, a habit left over from prison life. He clenched his jaw, pressed his tongue firmly against the roof of his mouth, and took in the odor of burning flesh. From the seat of the stolen car, he fought the nervous inclination to move things along.
Stick with the plan,
he told himself. Either that or just plan on another long stretch of hard time. Then a chill of anticipation started in his chest and pushed out until it bumped up his skin. He checked his watch.

“Okay, lady. Time’s up.”

Harlan stepped into the crisp moonless night and walked a hundred yards of deserted sidewalk. He hunched his shoulders against the cold and cast his gaze to the ground, doing all he could to convey a sense of the ordinary, but it was a lie. Harlan felt anything but ordinary. Three weeks out and the exhilaration of his newfound freedom remained, accompanied by a rage of confounding intensity.

Seventeen years.
The thought swirled through his head in a hazy cloud brought on by the dope. He’d never get past the waste of it. The anger in it. He’d learned the hard way that prison didn’t end when a man walked out. It lingered and gnawed, holding on to the mind. It sure as hell hung around. It was on his skin. It was in his hair. Even his clothes reeked of captivity. Every free moment provided Harlan with another reminder of all the things a man missed by being caged.

There. That’s the one. Harlan figured he had ten minutes to work with, maybe twenty. The jack-off had shown a tendency to run late.

The house stood bathed in a white light reminiscent of a guard tower beacon. The front door was unlocked. Inside, the warm air carried odors of garlic and sage. He heard the sizzle of a hot pan and breathed deeper. Salmon. The woman’s voice came from what he assumed must be the kitchen.

“Hey, you. You’re early for once.”

Harlan sensed she had stopped to look up and wait for him to emerge into view. He closed the door and threw the bolt, picturing her smile of anticipation.

“Pour the wine. Dinner’s in ten minutes.”

Harlan walked into the open kitchen and found the woman studying his unfamiliar shadow.

“I don’t answer to ‘you,’ and I can’t say as I much care for wine.”

Her head cocked sideways in a moment of confusion that in the blink of an eye changed to terror. She let out a piercing scream that rang in his head and that he thought might have carried outside. Harlan figured her next thought would be more about flight than fight, but instead she kept it simple and reached for a phone on the countertop.
Can’t allow that.
Three easy numbers and he’d be fucked. Harlan closed in with several quick steps and raised his arm. He let the gun settle just inches from her face, forcing her to focus on the copper bullets that stared out from the cylinder.

When he was certain he had her full attention, he spoke a chilled warning.

“Shut your mouth and stay away from that damn phone or we’ll end this right now.”

She pulled her hand back. Harlan looked hard into her eyes and concluded she’d never been closer to a real gun. He took in the scene around him, noticing the nearby candlelit table set for two.

“How cozy.” He spoke with a contemptuous nonchalance.

Standing barefoot and stock-still in a thin T-shirt and tight jeans, small hissing noises escaped her throat and grew to quiet sobs. She drew a breath, immediately followed by another and then another. Large, hitching gulps without exhale. She forced herself to speak, and the words conveyed her desperation.

“Look, just take what you want and leave. I won’t make any trouble for you. Just … just leave me alone, please.”

Harlan picked up on the quiver in her voice and the shaking of her hands. She raised her arms a bit and backed away. She had every right to fear his intent.

“I ain’t here to steal from ya. And I got no interest in forcin’ myself on ya neither.”

“Okay, okay. Just tell me what you want. I don’t know what I did—”

Harlan cut her off. “I got no quarrel with you. Fact is you shoulda been more particular about your associations.”

He saw her fight to get her wits about her, saw the irrepressible shivers that spread over the appealing curves of her body. Harlan read people well and sensed her resignation. She’d suffer any indignity that offered the slightest chance of survival. Were the circumstances different, he might have acted on his base desires, but with a calm detachment, he pressed ahead.

“That boyfriend of yours. Shouldn’t he be comin’ right along? Mr. William Petite, I believe.” He spat out the name with no shortage of spite. “I hear he’s had quite the run as a shyster lawyer. Am I right, Rebecca?”

“Did his wife send you? Is that what this is? I won’t see him anymore. I swear I won’t.”

Harlan sensed regret in her words but only the sort felt by most anyone once their offense has been discovered. He corrected her thinking.

“His wife ain’t got no part in this and I couldn’t give two shits who you put out for. It’s just a little something between me and Petite. Not much can be done about you gettin’ caught up in the middle.”

Harlan looked her over one last time. A damn pretty woman, no doubt. It crossed his mind again that she likely had some skills in carnal affairs, but he gave no thought toward reconsideration. Her path was set.

“Ain’t no sense draggin’ this out. Take a second and make your peace.” Harlan cocked the hammer with a calloused thumb. In the way another man might target a rusty beer can balanced on a fence post, he took quick aim and fired twice.

The small-caliber weapon popped, and he felt the jump of the gun. She threw her hands out as if she intended to catch the bullets in midair, but both projectiles found their way to the meatiest portion of her slender gut. The cotton of her shirt puffed out in a tight circle of smoke, and splotches of red appeared like magic as the lead sliced into her. Harlan figured the hot burrow of the metal tore through muscle and flesh with a good bit of sting, but all the woman could muster was a coarse grunt. She brought her hands to her belly, and he watched the red seep heavy between her fingers. He imagined the blood running wild through her, filling crevices and empty spaces, turning her into nothing more than a human sink.

She looked down to take in her predicament, then fell to her hands and knees. She fought to stay there, arching her back and tensing her body. Her face turned up and she met his gaze. All was lost now and she knew it. In a pleading voice, she begged for a reason.

“Why? Why me?”

Harlan stared back, impassive. Explanation would be meaningless.

She dropped to the floor, landing with her face pressed against the tile, one arm twisted beneath her body. Blood began to pool and form a frame of crimson around her figure. She rolled to her back and struggled to stand but could not.

Harlan closed the distance until he stood directly over her, avoiding the blood. Struggling for breath, her lips parted in a rhythm reminiscent of the bass and pikes he’d caught as a small boy growing up in the deepest forest of Florence County, Wisconsin. He looked down at her face and offered what he believed to be good advice.

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