Sunday, June 07, 2009

Excerpt - WITNESS TO MURDER by Jill Elizabeth Nelson

Witness to Murder
Jill Elizabeth Nelson

Publisher: Steeple Hill
Release Date: June 2009
ISBN: 9780373443451

Poised for an interview, TV reporter Hallie Berglund walks into a murder scene instead. The victim’s boyfriend stands over the body, murder weapon in hand. Hallie couldn’t stop the crime, but as the star witness, she’ll see the man brought to justice . . . right? Not according to her colleague Brody Jordan, who is convinced the police—and Hallie—are targeting the wrong man. To prove it, he’ll need Hallie’s help. The victim was wearing a bracelet handcrafted by Hallie’s long-dead mother. Now Hallie is the only one who can unearth the secrets of the past—and bring the sinister truth to light.

Excerpt of chapter one:

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Channel Six television news reporter Hallie Berglund put her right foot on the bottom step of the swaybacked porch, then stopped cold. The hairs on her arms prickled. What was that awful noise coming from inside the house? Some kind of music? This century-old Victorian was rented by four University of Minnesota coeds, but even if they liked punk rock they wouldn't listen to this. And why was the front door several inches ajar?

Careful to keep the heels of her pumps from clacking against the wood, she walked carefully up the remaining two steps, but angry creaks from the porch boards announced her arrival. Whoever—whatever—was inside gave no indication her approach had been heard. The noise progressed in decibels.

Hallie frowned. There had to be a logical explanation. On the telephone, Alicia Drayton had sounded eager, almost desperate, to do the interview as soon as possible. The part-time fashion model and full-time student had said her roommates would be out all afternoon—a perfect opportunity for the two of them to talk privately.

The sound continued—long, drawn out. Like something a person would hear on a dark and moonless night, not in the balmy afternoon of a cloudless June day. She doused the impulse to back away and wait for her cameraman to catch up with her. She was a reporter, and she needed to find out what was going on. Sooner rather than later.

Her rap on the warped door panel widened the opening, revealing a foyer done in dark wood and last decade's wallpaper. She stepped inside onto a scatter rug and was greeted by lingering scents of mingled women's perfumes. To her left a set of stairs led upward. Ahead and to her right lay an opening framed in old-fashioned wide wood.

"Alicia?" Hallie's voice sounded hollow in the open space.

The noise stopped, and silence fell like a skipped heartbeat. Then a loud sniffle announced a fresh round of wails, this time in words spoken in a masculine tenor. "No, no, no. This isn't real. Allie, baby, wake uuuuuup!"

Hallie's breath caught. Was Alicia hurt? Hallie hurried forward, heels tapping the faded floorboards. She stepped through the opening, and a squawk escaped her throat.

What whirlwind had trashed this living room? The couch was tipped onto its back, an easy chair lay on its side, and the entertainment center had fallen face down, scattering shattered electronic equipment. And who lay sprawled on the floor near the heavily curtained picture window? The head and torso were concealed from view by a lean man with spiked blond hair who crouched over the inert body. His bare, muscular shoulders quaked beneath a sweat-streaked tank top the same shade of tan as his running shorts.

"Who? Wh-what?" The words stuttered between Hallie's lips. "Should we call 9-1-1?"

The man eased to his feet, all six feet six inches of him. He swiveled toward her like a man in a trance, slate-blue eyes staring blankly. Wetness glistened on drawn cheeks in a face all sharp planes and angles. In his fist he clutched a braided gold cord. "She's… dead."

Hallie's gaze fell to the head and shoulders on the floor behind the man's feet. She gulped. Whoever had trashed this room had also done a number on the woman's face… and her neck. Raw cord marks dug into her pale throat.

Alicia? The glossy auburn hair splayed around her head matched the publicity photos that had been sent over to the station, but the facial features were too puffy to be identified.

The giveaway was the man with what appeared to be the murder weapon in his hand—Alicia's boyfriend, Minnesota Golden Gophers' bad boy, Damon Lange. The college basketball player's famous temper had finally turned him into a killer.

Hallie's gaze locked with his. Ice encased her muscles, and her heart slammed against her rib cage. A change melted over Lange's face. Pinched sorrow fell away, relaxed into open-mouthed awareness, and then red-faced fear—and fury. Lange raised the fist that held the cord and charged toward Hallie.

She shrieked and whirled away, racing toward the open door. The scatter rug on the floor slid beneath her heels. Hallie's cameraman, Stan Fisher, stepped into the house, exclaiming, as Lange's body struck Hallie from behind. She careened into the cameraman, and the two of them went down in a heap at the foot of the stairs. Hallie's knees hit the floor— hard—and her suit pants did little to protect them. Pain speared up her legs. Damon disappeared out the door. His boat-sized feet struck a hollow tattoo on the porch.

Gasping for air, Hallie rolled away from Stan, who lay on his back spluttering and clutching his precious camera to his bony chest. Heedless of her aching knees, she scrambled on all fours toward the doorway and gripped the doorpost. Out on the sun-soaked street, Damon charged into the street, arms pumping, the braided cord no longer in hand. A green-and-blue Papa Morelli's Pizza delivery car whizzed up the road, and the ball player dodged barely in time to avoid being hit. Then he raced onward and out of view between the houses.

"What was that all about?" Stan's footfalls came up behind her.

Dazed, Hallie stared up into his wide-eyed face. "Call 9-1-1. Damon killed Alicia. I saw." Her voice came out in a rasp. She struggled to her feet, leg muscles jittering. "At least, I think she's dead. I'd better…I need to check." She forced a lump down her throat.

Stan gaped at her, freckles standing out like punctuation marks on his pale cheeks.

"Just call." Her voice rose an octave.

She brushed past him and wobbled into the living room. Debris crunched under her pumps as she approached the body. To one side lay the cord she'd seen in Damon's hand. He must have dropped it when he fled. In the background, Stan's excited voice reported the emergency.

Gaze averted from Alicia's face, Hallie watched the body's chest for some sign of rising and falling, but she spotted no movement beneath the gauzy, long-sleeved tunic top swirled in psychedelic 1970s colors. She crouched beside Alicia and pressed two fingers to the inside of her wrist. She held her breath while she counted to ten. Not a flicker of life.

Groaning, Hallie closed her eyes and bowed her head. Not again, Lord. Why did women stay with men who abused them? She'd asked that unanswerable question over and over in the nine years since Teresa's senseless death. Back then, as a college sophomore, she had been powerless to gain justice, but this time she was in prime position to make certain the guilty party didn't get away with murder just because he was a popular athlete.

Jaw clenched, Hallie opened her eyes, and her gaze fell on the edge of a band of metal on Alicia's wrist that she'd nudged aside in order to feel for a pulse. The etching on the band looked familiar. Hallie pulled the featherweight shirtsleeve away from the inch-wide bracelet and took a closer look. Every muscle went rigid.

She knew the unique markings on that brass and copper armband. The Nigerian artisan had been dead for over two decades, since Hallie was eight years old. But the woman had never in her life sold her work commercially—only given it to people she regarded as special.

Why was Alicia Drayton wearing a bracelet fashioned by Hallie's mother?

Hallie sucked in a deep breath, and then let the air seep from her lungs. Her hand dug for the camera phone in her purse's outside pocket. This was going to be the most distasteful thing she'd ever done in her life. But she couldn't step away without a clear record of her mother's work, and she couldn't make off with the bracelet. Blanking her mind and moving quickly, she snapped several shots of the dead woman's arm.

"The cops and the paramedics are on their way." Stan's voice came from the doorway.

She glanced over her shoulder and spotted an eight-by-ten photograph lying face-up on the floor. The glass inside the cherry-wood frame was cracked in a crazy pattern that suggested someone had stepped on it, but she could still make out a man's smiling face. No taller than average, with hair touched by gray and a middle displaying a small paunch, his confident presence overshadowed the women in the photo. He stood between them with an arm around each of their shoulders.

One of them could only be Alicia, just a few years younger. Her full lips pouted beneath a bored green gaze. Typical teenager. The other woman, Alicia's decades older mirror image, stood stiffly and a bit glassy-eyes, as if the camera made her nervous. The man—Alicia's father?—grinned like he'd won the lottery. And why not? His wife was stunning and his daughter even more so. Correction. The daughter had been stunning. These parents now had horrible news coming to them. A whimper squeaked out Hallie's tight throat.

Nausea squeezing her stomach, she stood and picked her way toward Stan. How could he hover there, calmly panning his video camera over the room?

"Remind me," she said as she brushed past him into the foyer, "never, ever to volunteer for the police beat."

"You couldn't guess in a million years the trouble Hallie walked into this afternoon."

The tense words brought Brody Jordan's head around from the sports highlights he was editing in the video room. Vince Graham, the crime reporter, stood in the doorway, craggy face drawn into those taut planes that made his mug so compelling on the air. Brody clicked off the video and waved Vince in.

The crime reporter shook his head. "No time for a chat. Stan called the story in, and I'm headed for Alicia Drayton's house. The woman's been beaten and strangled, and Hallie caught Damon Lange in the act."

Brody stiffened, nostrils flaring. "I don't believe it."

Vince frowned. "Hallie's not given to hallucinations, Jordan. The cops and the medical examiner are already on the scene, and they're taking the whole thing very seriously."

"No, I didn't mean Hallie imagined a murder, but there's no way Damon hurt Alicia."

The ends of the crime reporter's mouth twisted upward. "Enjoy your illusions, buddy. One thing I've learned on this beat is anyone's capable of anything."

"Have they got Damon in custody?"

"Naw. He skedaddled. There's an APB out on him."

"I'm coming with you." Brody rose.

"Aren't you forgetting something?"

Brody narrowed his eyes at his smirking coworker.

"The six o'clock news broadcast? You can't be in two places at once."

Brody checked his watch. "It's later than I thought. This is one time in a million I could do without being the evening sportscaster. Just let me know if Damon is arrested, okay?"

"You got it." Vince strode away.

Brody grabbed his suit coat from the back of the chair and headed up the tile-floored hallway toward his office. Should he call Hallie and get the story firsthand? He could find her cell number on the interoffice list. Arriving at his desk, he opened the top drawer then froze, hand on the internal directory.

No, getting her on the phone was a bad move. Not only would she be up to her neck in police questions right now, but he didn't want to have this conversation long distance. He had to look her in the eye and make her repeat the claim that Damon killed Alicia. Even then he wouldn't buy it. He knew the young basketball player too well. In his experience, Hallie told the news with integrity and enthusiasm, but maybe her crusading nature got things exaggerated or misconstrued this time.

Brody frowned. Then again it was kind of hard to misunderstand a dead body. He sank into his desk chair, tugged at his left earlobe, and ruffled his fingers through his coarse brown hair.

A few months ago, Brody hosted the Golden Gophers star basketball player for a live interview, and the young man had brought Alicia along to watch. Yes, she sometimes treated Damon like gum under her shoe, but that day she'd been in a good mood, playful even. She teased the ball player about his "camera presence," green eyes sparkling in that cameo-perfect face. Damon adored her. He would have given his life for her, not snuffed hers out.

Brody bent and pulled his trash can from under his desk. If he could get Hallie to himself for a few minutes and ask his questions, maybe he could start to understand. Fishing amongst crumpled papers, he came up with an invitation he'd chucked a couple of days ago. The rectangle of card stock showed a multi-colored cake with many candles on top and read: Guess Who's 29. For Real!

The decision not to attend the surprise party thrown by Hallie's two best friends had been a no-brainer—even though everyone at Channel Six was invited. Hallie and he hadn't exactly hit it off in the three years since she'd joined the staff. Not that he didn't find her attractive. Who wouldn't? The camera loved that glossy, raven hair, those big, brown eyes and the gleaming, white smile against her smooth caramel complexion. She was all grace and wit. She was also openly disdainful of sports figures she considered "arrogant jocks." And according to the cameraman who'd quit the station before Stan came on, she expected the moon from herself and everyone who worked with her.

Exactly the kind of high-maintenance trouble this thirty-five-year-old divorcé needed to avoid. After his experience with Deborah, only God's unexpected grace saved him from becoming a bum on skid row rather than a man with a career he loved.

Brody flipped the invitation over and read the details about when and where. He'd really rather stick his hand into a piranha tank, but it looked like he was going to a party after all.

"Vince is here to do the story."

Stan's voice brought Hallie's head up from the backrest on the news van's passenger seat. A metallic blue sports coupe glided into a spot at the curb in front of the van. The crime reporter thrived on drama, even in his choice of vehicle. She flipped down the sun visor and used the attached mirror to help her readjust the enameled pins that partially tamed her mop of black waves, and then refreshed her Perfectly Plum lipstick. She frowned. Her eyes were almost as red as they were brown.

Giving a statement to the police had about turned Hallie into blubbering mush. In her head, Teresa's dead white face kept popping up alongside Alicia's battered features. Could she get through this TV interview with the tiniest shred of dignity? I'm going to need a boatload of strength, Lord. Grimacing, she climbed out of the van and smoothed her mocha colored pantsuit.

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