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Excerpt - Double Identity by Diane Burke

Double Identity
by
Diane Burke


Sophie Clarkston is shocked to learn that she isn't who she thinks. Her birth certificate is forged. Her name—made up. And her widowed "father" is suddenly missing, leaving behind a heartbreaking letter asking forgiveness. Desperate for answers, Sophie turns to private investigator Cain Garrison in tiny Promise, Virginia. But the moment they leave his office, her life is threatened and her home ransacked. Who is after her? And who, exactly, is she? With questions about his own past, Cain vows to help Sophie uncover the truth. Before someone comes out of the shadows to keep it hidden forever.

Excerpt of chapter one:

"According to this report, Miss Clarkston, you do not exist."

Cain Garrison looked up from the file folder lying on his desk. He had to admit he was intrigued. It had been quite a while since anyone had contracted his private investigator services for anything more than getting the goods on a cheating husband or following up on insurance fraud. Usually, it was so quiet in the small town of Promise, Virginia, that he found most of his work in neighboring counties or in the city of Charlottesville.

Tapping his index finger on the folder, he said, "Your birth certificate and social security card are phony." His eyes locked with hers. "Okay, I'll take the bait. Who are you really and what do you want from me?"

He leaned back in his chair and studied the petite young woman sitting in front of him. If he had to guess, he'd say she was in her early twenties. Thick ebony hair covered her shoulders and trailed down her back. She wore a T-shirt, jeans, sneakers and little, if any, makeup. But then she didn't need any.

She squared her shoulders. He might have bought into her calm-and-collected facade if he hadn't noticed her ramrod straight posture as she perched on the edge of her chair and her white knuckles from the tight clasp of her hands.

"My name is Sophia Joy Clarkston but everybody calls me Sophie. I was born twenty-two years ago to Elizabeth and Anthony Clarkston. My mother died in a car accident shortly after I was born. My dad raised me." Her lips pursed in distaste and she nodded toward the folder on his desk. "I don't care what lies are written on that piece of paper. I know who I am. I need you to find my dad."

Ahh, the plot thickens. Cain tried to hide the smile pulling at his lips. This must be his sister's idea of a prank. He'd been complaining lately about being bored. Voila. Phony case that she knew he'd salivate over. Okay, he'd play the game. Why not?

"Your dad's missing?"

Sophie chewed on her bottom lip and nodded. She smoothed her jeans, picking at pretend lint, trying unsuccessfully to hide her nervousness.

"Adults aren't usually considered missing, Miss Clarkston. My experience has taught me most people leave of their own volition, mostly because they're just tired of being where they are or with the people around them. How long ago did your father disappear and what makes you think this qualifies as a missing person case?"

"He's been gone two weeks now." She rummaged in the tote bag resting at her feet and withdrew a white piece of paper. "I received this letter a couple of days after he left."

Cain reached across the desk and accepted the letter from her hand. He knew from the crinkled and stained condition of the paper that the note had probably been crushed into a ball, tossed in the trash, only to be rescued, folded and put away for safekeeping. If the variety of stains meant anything, he was pretty sure this note had hit the trash can more than once. Whatever the contents, one thing was evident. This letter had created a seesaw of emotions in this woman.

He read the first line. He blinked hard and then read the first line again.

By the time you get this letter, I'll be dead.

Cain shot a look to Sophie. Sea-foam green eyes shimmering with an ocean depth of emotions stared back at him. Maybe this wasn't a prank. He focused his attention on the paper in his hands.

Sophie studied the man's face as he read the letter—again—for the third, maybe fourth time. His chiseled features revealed none of his thoughts or emotions. For all intents and purposes, it was easy to pretend he was one of her sculptures. An inanimate object, consisting of carved angles and sharp edges, incapable of emotion.

Unless, like herself, he'd learned how to bury those emotions.

She'd read the letter at least a hundred times in the past two weeks. It still had the power to make her feel like someone was physically ripping her heart out of her chest. What had her dad been thinking? Why hadn't he confided in her? Trusted her? Maybe she could have helped him.

A flush of anger swept over her. Didn't he know how frightened and worried she'd be at his sudden disappearance? How could he have done this to her? Just as quickly she was filled with remorse. She shouldn't be mad at him. Obviously, he wasn't thinking clearly. He was in trouble. Desperate and feeling alone. Pretty much like she was feeling right about now.

Sophie steadied her trembling hands. She needed to stay levelheaded. She refused to believe her dad was dead. If he was, she'd know, wouldn't she? There'd be a huge, aching void where her heart had been. Instead, all she felt was pain, fear and confusion.

He had to be alive. Nothing else was acceptable or compre-hendible. She had to find him before his words came true.

She drew in a deep, calming breath and tried to remain patient while the investigator continued reading. His body language indicated he was intrigued by the document in his hand. Subtle movements. Chewing his lower lip as he read. Fingers drumming a steady rhythm against the arm of his chair. A slight squinting of his eyes, fanning lines across his skin. How many times was he going to read the letter? She could recite it for him if he wanted. She knew each word by heart.

I am enclosing this gift as a token of my love.

Sophie's hand flew to the hand-carved wooden heart hanging around her neck. Her fingers traced an idle path along the intricate design.

I know you don't understand why I left without a word. But for your safety, I could not tell you then and don't dare tell you now.

For my safety? Mine?

Oh, Dad. What's going on? What do you mean you'll be dead? You can't be dead. You can't.

They're coming. I must hurry and say good-bye.

I am ready, princess. I am ready to go on that last great adventure each one of us inevitably takes.

Just know that I love you…with all my heart.

Her breathing quickened and her eyes flew to Cain Garrison. Was he going to take the case? She didn't know what she'd do if he turned her down. Would he be able to help? She'd tried everything she could think of and he was her last hope. She fidgeted in her seat. How much longer would he sit there staring at that rotten piece of paper that had caused her nothing but sorrow and anger?

Dear Lord, help me be patient. After all, I've had time to digest this nightmare. This man's had about six minutes.

The prayer came automatically, almost as if her mind didn't remember that she had stopped talking to God. He didn't answer prayers…or, at least, He didn't answer hers.

Sophie brushed her hair off her shoulders, letting it fall in waves down her back, and sat straighter in the soft leather chair. She could almost hear her dad's scolding voice from childhood. "Sophie Joy Clarkston, what's wrong with you? You're full of itches and twitches, girl."

Itches and twitches.

Sophie chewed on a fingernail and thought about the last time she'd seen her dad. After a late dinner they'd sat together on the front porch, listening to music, gazing at the stars, sharing idle conversation. She'd kissed him good-night and gone up to bed. The next morning she'd found a bag filled with money—a huge sum of money—lying on the table by her chair. He was gone. Without warning or word of any kind. Until two days later when the letter had arrived in the mail.

Her breath came in short, quick gasps and she felt like she was going to crawl out of her skin. She needed to distract herself. Fast.

Crossing to the window, she raised a slat and looked outside. Main Street consisted of four blocks of mom-and-pop stores, a restaurant or two, an insurance company, a pharmacy. A handful of passersby bustled past the window as they hurried about their business. A few people stood together on the sidewalk chatting.

Nothing scary.

Nothing ominous.

So why couldn't she shake the feeling that someone was watching her every move? Her nerves were shot. She hadn't had a good night's sleep in weeks and it was starting to show.

"Forgive my rudeness, Ms. Clarkston," Cain said as he placed the letter on his desk and stood. "Can I offer you a cup of coffee or a soft drink?"

"Coffee would be wonderful. Cream and sugar, please. And call me Sophie."

Blinking hard to hold back tears, she returned to her chair. She admired the professional yet welcoming atmosphere of the office as she looked around. Two brown leather chairs faced a highly polished mahogany desk. The tall cabinet on the far wall looked more like a fine piece of furniture than storage for files. A variety of plants and a large silk tree added an outdoor ambience to the room. Two framed professional investigator licenses hung on the wall to the left of heavy hunter-green drapes.

Two? In such a small town as Promise?

The deep, rich aroma of freshly ground coffee wafted from behind a silk screen standing in front of a small kitchen area. Sophie's stomach growled, reminding her she hadn't had any breakfast.or dinner the night before.

"One sugar or two?"

Sophie liked listening to the deep resonant tone of his voice. He seemed sure of himself, in control. And that's what she needed right now, someone to help control the chaos surrounding her.

"Two, please."

She watched him approach. His thick chestnut hair tumbled in an unkempt wave across his forehead, almost obscuring his vision, and she had to sit on her hands to control the absurd impulse she had to reach up and swipe it out of his eyes. He was handsome, sort of a young Johnny Depp look-alike, late twenties, maybe early thirties. If he was as good at his job as he was to look at, then she was definitely in the right place.

Cain winced as he carried the coffee mug to his client. The stiffness in his left leg shot a wave of pain into his hip.

He could feel her eyes boring into him as he limped across the room.

"Don't worry. It looks a lot worse than it is." He grinned and handed her a mug.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to stare."

"Don't sweat it. You're simply wondering if you're spending your money wisely or if you've made a mistake."

"It's not that," she stammered.

"Of course it is." He grinned and perched his hip on the edge of the desk. "Never apologize for considering all the facts when making a business transaction." He slapped his leg. "I could joke and say it's an old war injury. In a way it probably is. A war wound from my undercover narcotics days when I worked for the Charlottesville police."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be. You didn't do it." He slid off the edge of the desk and went back to his chair. "After my injury, they offered me a life behind a desk but that wasn't the life for me." He rapped on the desk. "Unless I own the desk, of course."

Her smile made him happy that his words had had their desired effect.

"How long have you been a private investigator?" Sophie asked.

"Three years now. My partner and I opened Garrison Investigations shortly after I moved back home. I decided I'd had enough of big-city living and wanted to return to my country roots."

"Pardon my rudeness, but I'm surprised you have a partner, Mr. Garrison. If I remember correctly, Promise is a very small town."

Cain grinned. "That's so true, Ms. Clarkston."

"Sophie…"

He nodded. "Sophie. My sister, Holly, is my partner. She runs the diner across the street. Serves the best home-cooked meals you've ever tasted. But every now and then when I run into a situation where a female touch would have more success, she steps in and helps out."

Sophie nodded her understanding.

He leaned back in his chair. "How did you hear about us? Yellow pages? Word of mouth?"

"You're listed in the Crossroads Church business directory."

"You attend Crossroads? I don't remember seeing you there. Not that I know everyone, of course, but it is a small community and newcomers have a tendency to be noticed."

"I haven't attended really. I've just arrived in town." She shifted in her seat, her eyes downcast. "Besides, the Lord and I aren't on speaking terms these days."

Cain tented his fingers in front of his lips to hide his smile. "That so? Yet you chose to get your business references from the church directory instead of the yellow pages?"

Color heightened in her cheeks.

"Where are you from?" Cain asked.

A shadow of hesitation crossed her face. "I'm a bit of a nomad. I don't call any one place home."

Cain tilted his head to the side and studied her bowed head. There were many layers and hidden secrets to Miss Sophie Clarkston. She intrigued him.

"Well, let me be one of the first to welcome you to Promise. I'm surprised you found us," he said. "But I'm glad you did."

"I'm familiar with Promise, Mr. Garrison. My family has owned a small cottage about ten miles out of town for as long as I can remember. My dad and I travel extensively so we rarely stay in it, but if I had to call one place home, I guess Promise would qualify."

Cain rested his forearms on his desk. "Tell me about this letter."

She sipped her coffee then placed the mug on the desk. "I received the letter two days after my dad disappeared. The postmark made me think he came to the cottage. If he did, he didn't stay."

The pain he saw in her eyes stirred him.

"Has your father ever done anything like this before?"

"No. Definitely not. My father would never hurt me."

Cain didn't bother to point out that that is exactly what he had just done.

"It's always been just me and my dad," Sophie said. "He's hardworking, kind, loving. He has a strong belief in God and lives his life modeling his faith. I don't understand. He never would have left me without a word. Never. Unless he had no other choice. I need your help, Mr. Garrison. I need to know what happened to my dad."

"Call me Cain. In this small town, Mr. Garrison is still my father's name." He grabbed a tablet and pen out of his side desk drawer. "Why don't we start at the beginning?" He made a few notations on the paper and asked without looking up, "I assume when your dad disappeared you notified the police." Her hesitation caused him to look up.

"Yes." She squirmed in her seat and didn't make eye contact with him. "At first, they weren't much help. It's not against the law for an adult to decide to leave. When I got this letter, I tried to convince them that he was in danger and we needed to find him."

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