From Chapter One
“WHAT HAVE WE got, Lou?” Ben asked the gray-haired desk clerk at Corinth Police Department. He glanced at a handcuffed man who sat on a nearby bench, staring down at the scuffed linoleum floor. The man’s dark hair was disheveled, falling low over his forehead and brushing his long eyelashes as his eyes flicked up at Ben. He looked to be in his mid-twenties. One knee jiggled with nerves, and his jaw worked as if he was biting the inside of his mouth over and over. His dark blue eyes were mistrustful, almost pained.
“That guy was driving the vehicle involved in the hit-and-run yesterday,” Lou said. “Browne and O’Donnell brought him in. They’re with the captain.”
Just that moment, the door to the inner sanctum of the station opened, and Jason Browne strode out of Captain Buckley’s office. The sleeves of his uniform were rolled up as usual, to show off his muscular, tanned arms.
“How was court, brother?” Jason sounded cheerful, but his gray eyes were cold. In Ben’s partner and best friend since high school, that was never a good combination. Ben gave Jason a long look, then shrugged.
“As expected.” He didn’t want to think about the peculiar effect Mr. Abbott’s words had had on him, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to discuss it in front of a suspect, or Lou.
“You missed all the excitement.” Jason gestured toward the handcuffed man, who had his gazed directed at the floor again. “Saunders here knows some pretty colorful language, and he was none too happy to accompany us, neither.”
“Hence the handcuffs?” Ben asked, his tone dry.
Jason nodded, smirking.
“Wasn’t me that hit that kid,” Saunders muttered, his dark voice shaking with suppressed anger. “Told y’all I wasn’t in town.”
Jason sighed, folding his arms across his chest with exaggerated impatience. “And I told you this: We got witnesses placing you at the scene, smart-ass. It’s your word against theirs. Who’re we gonna believe, some deadbeat, or the boy’s mother?”
Ben frowned at his partner. They had been in the radio car on their usual route the day before when the call about a hit-and-run near Corinth High had come over dispatch. O’Donnell and Myers, the department’s other two sergeants, had been closest and responded to the call. Last night, back at the station, O’Donnell had told them that the boy had a broken leg from being flung off his bike, but that he would undoubtedly survive. There really was no need for Jason to be so aggressive about the issue.
Saunders sat up straight on the bench, glaring at Jason. “It wasn’t me! Why’re you not listening?” His eyes were wide with fury.
Ben, knowing Jason’s thought processes and impulses almost as well as his own, stepped in his partner’s way. Gaze fixed on his friend, he said loud enough for Lou and any bystanders to hear, “Why don’t you and I take Mr. Saunders through to the interrogation room for a statement?” He put special emphasis on the last words, hoping Jason would get his meaning: Anything other than a polite request for an official statement from the suspect would be out of order at this point.
Taking Jason’s reluctant jerk of the head as assent, Ben turned around, intending to escort Saunders to the interrogation room. But as soon as his back was turned, Jason stepped nimbly around him and grabbed the man hard by the upper arm.
Saunders flinched, but Jason’s grip on him was like a vise. Saunders’s eyes met Ben’s, and there was pure animal fear in them, as well as something Ben couldn’t quite place. Anguish, perhaps?
He stepped up close behind Jason. “If you dislocate his shoulder there’ll be an awful lot of paperwork to fill in for both of us, brother.” Ben kept his voice quiet and even, but Jason knew him well enough to detect the steely undertone. After a moment, Jason huffed, then let go of Saunders and took a step back. There were finger-shaped marks on Saunders’s bicep, just below the rolled-up sleeve.
Now Ben stepped forward, and Saunders looked at him. His breath still came fast, but the fear began to fade from the indigo blue eyes.
Ben motioned at Saunders to stand, then pointed down the corridor. “Would you come this way, please?”
Good cop, bad cop. Ben hated playing this game, but Jason had left him no choice. Saunders got up. He was no taller than Ben, who just about scraped five foot nine. Jason towered over them both, still glowering. Saunders gave him a quick, disgusted look, then preceded Ben down the dreary-gray hallway, handcuffed arms held stiffly behind him. His narrow back was tense, the shoulders hunched.
At the door to the interrogation room, Ben let Jason draw ahead. He followed the two men inside and closed the door. Jason approached Saunders, who had backed up against the one-way mirror.
“Turn around,” Jason growled.
Saunders ignored him and stared straight at the bottle-green linoleum floor. Ben spoke before Jason could get angry again. “Sir, the sergeant will move the handcuffs to the front so you can sit down more comfortably.” The eyes that met Ben’s were still full of mistrust, but after a moment, they softened and Saunders turned around.
“Sit,” Jason said when he had shackled Saunders’s arms again in the front. Saunders flopped into the single chair on one side of the square floor-bolted table. Ben and Jason took the two chairs opposite.
Leaning forward, Ben waited until he had the suspect’s attention. “Do you mind if we record this conversation?”
“You’re arresting me?” The narrow blue eyes were suspicious again, but Saunders sounded more wary than belligerent. And he ignored Jason, his gaze never wavering from Ben.
“No, we’re not,” Ben said in an even tone. “But having a record of what we talk about will aid your cause.”
Saunders chewed this over, trying to decide whether Ben told the truth. Eventually he gave a small shrug.
“Sir,” Ben said. “Please state for the protocol: Do you mind if we record this conversation?” Forcing the police procedural on this man was distressing. The tension vibrating off him made Ben wince. Saunders gave him a pained look.
Jason pressed the digital recorder button on the small panel in the tabletop to his right. But it was Ben who spoke again. When they interrogated a suspect together, Ben usually started off the interview. His milder, calmer demeanor tended to relax the atmosphere better than Jason’s hot temper. For now, Jason seemed to have gotten all his anger out by playing scary cop in front of Lou and sat back in his chair without interrupting.
“Statement protocol, September twenty-second, eleven forty-five a.m. Officers present: Sergeant Ben Griers and Sergeant Jason Browne.” Ben nodded at the suspect. “Please state your full name for the record, sir.”
“Donnie Saunders.” The man’s voice was quiet, and he sounded tired.
Ben waited for Saunders to look at him again, and nodded his thanks. Then he glanced at Jason, eyebrows raised, reminding his partner with his most level stare to act appropriately. “Officer Browne will now ask you a few questions.”
“All right,” Jason said. Ben took this as the opening of the interview and an affirmation that he would stay calm. “Mr. Saunders, your pickup truck was seen driving away after hitting Dennis Mallory on his bike while he was riding home after school yesterday afternoon at about three thirty p.m.”
“I told y’all three times now, it wasn’t me. Why is it that you can’t hear me?” Saunders’s voice had risen again in volume, but there was a strange quiver in it, too. He leaned back in his chair as far as he could, regarding Jason from eyes narrowed in anger.
Before Jason, who looked ready to explode again, could respond, Ben said, “Let’s rephrase the question: Sir, where were you yesterday at three thirty p.m.?”
Saunders didn’t immediately reply. His eyes darted around the room, never meeting Ben’s, and still ignoring Jason. Then they settled on the shackled, tightly folded hands in his lap. Is he trying to come up with a lie?
At last, Saunders said, “Was in Atlanta. Had an appointment at the DFCS.” His voice was very quiet, and he didn’t look up. It didn’t sound like a lie, but a truth the man was reluctant to share.
Ben decided not to press for details. It was none of his business why the guy had been summoned to the Division of Family and Children Services. As long as he could determine that Saunders had been forty miles away from the scene of the hit-and-run, he had done his job.
“I need to know who you were there to see,” Ben said just as quietly, and wasn’t surprised when his gaze was met with one of suspicion again. He added in explanation, “A phone call to the person you had the appointment with will clear you.”
Saunders gave a small jerk of the head in understanding. “Stacy Miller.”
“Thank you.” Ben looked at Jason, considering his options. Could he leave these two alone for a few minutes? His partner’s steel gaze never wavered from Saunders, and Ben could feel Jason’s tension. But if he told Jason to make the phone call, would he try very hard to get at the truth? No, Ben would have to call the DFCS himself. He’d just had to be quick.
“Jason, stay with Mr. Saunders. I’m going to call Ms. Miller.”
Not waiting for Jason’s acknowledgment, or asking permission from Saunders to make the call on his behalf, Ben got up and left the room. He went back to the front desk. “Lou, find me the number for Atlanta DFCS.”
The desk clerk looked grumpy for a moment but then started hacking away at his keyboard without a word. Finally he picked up the phone, dialed a number, and held the receiver out to Ben.
“DFCS switchboard,” a tinny voice announced in Ben’s ear. “How can I help?”
“Stacy Miller, please,” Ben said, ignoring Lou, who tried hard to look like he wasn’t listening in.
“Hold the line.”
Ben half turned away while he listened to the annoying phone queue music. After a few moments, there was a click and a crisp voice said, “Medicaid assessment team. How can I help you?”