A Twist of the Knife by Becky Masterman is the 3rd book in the Brigid Quinn series (available March 21, 2017).
Ex-FBI agent Brigid Quinn, now happily settled in Tucson, doesn’t visit her family in Florida much. But her former partner on the force, Laura Coleman—a woman whose life she has saved and who has saved her life in turn—is living there now. So when Laura calls about a case that is not going well, Brigid doesn’t hesitate to get on a plane.
On leave from the Bureau, Laura has been volunteering for a legal group trying to prove the innocence of a man who is on death row for killing his family. Laura is firmly convinced that he didn’t do it, while Brigid isn’t so sure—but the date for his execution is coming up so quickly that they’ll have to act fast to find any evidence that may absolve him before it’s too late…
35 years later …
It is a well-established fact that stranger homicide is rare. Most murderers kill people close to them. This is a story about a man on death row for killing his whole family, and about the women who loved or hated him. This is a story about the lengths we go to seek justice as we see it. It’s also about prisons, some made of stone. And along those lines, it’s about the family legends we tell, to each other and ourselves, that imprison us. Heroes and villains, they all got family.
This story begins with my father. My mother had called me from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to tell me that his bronchitis had turned into pneumonia, and an ambulance had just taken him from their assisted living facility to the hospital. I had to go. I had my ticket and I was packed.
But this story also begins with Special Agent Laura Coleman.
Here is what I saw in a room at Tucson Medical Center the day after she nearly died saving my life:
I saw the backs of three people who formed a cordon around her bed as if they could protect her from the world, the kind of family that hugged and kissed and were overly generous with their emotion. They were dressed in dark clothes. I had met the father and the mother, who was in some stage of Alzheimer’s, several days before. The brother had just arrived. They turned and thanked me ten times and left for the cafeteria so Coleman and I could talk.
When her family peeled away from the bed I saw Laura Coleman, surrounded by things almost as pale as her face, the hospital gown, the sheet, the screen next to the bed. She was hooked up to an IV. She was thinner after going without water for more than twenty-four hours, not long but too long in a desert climate. Her bones cast shadows. A bit of antiseptic wash seeped through a gauze bandage covering the ear that had been stapled. I saw that her knees were supported on a cushioned platform to keep her ankles elevated after they repaired her sliced Achilles tendons. Her cap of curly hair formed individual coils from sweat and oil.
I felt guilty that I was upright, and only a little bruised. I looked down and noticed beneath my fingernail, despite the thorough cleansing, a speck of something that was likely not my own blood.
When I looked back at her I saw her eyes: at first gauzy from the sedative, but then they saw me.
Not me. The doctors, the family, they had distracted her momentarily, but I could see that my face plunged her back to where we had been the night before. She pressed her head back into her pillow as if she had been struck lightly.
I had been there with her, and even I had trouble dealing with it. This had been her first time of death, and what she had experienced, what she had witnessed, would have done in most agents, male or female. You don’t just shake it off no matter who you are, and anyone who says you do lives in a comic book world.
I put my tote bag on the foot of her bed, moving slowly so as not to startle her, and gently so she wouldn’t feel it in her ankles.
“You need to wash your hair,” I said, to show her it was me, Brigid Quinn, and that this was a day like any other. None of that generic are you okay we’re concerned about you bullshit. She would know that wasn’t me.
Coleman started to pull her bedsheet to her chin and then must have thought how like a frightened child it made her look.
“I understand,” I said. It doesn’t take some kind of hooey-hooey New Age thinking to know that the violence we shared had linked us. “You’ll get over it.”
The terror left her eyes as she came back to the present and finally saw just me.
Coleman cleared her throat and changed the subject with small talk. “Willis. My brother, Willis, lives in North Carolina,” she said. “I’m taking some leave and spending it with him in Hendersonville, in the mountains of North Carolina. It will be good.” She said those words, but she didn’t look enthused. “I worry about Dad having to deal with Mom by himself, though. It was one of the reasons I stayed out here.”
“I can see you have good family. We should all have such good family.” And then, being inept at small talk, I asked, “Has that jerk-off come to visit?”
The pain meds had her fogged somewhat, but she still followed me. “No. He wouldn’t.”
“Of course he wouldn’t. I haven’t told you that I tried to get him to believe that you’d been kidnapped. But he was more worried about having our conversation overheard by his wife.”
“Let’s l-let that go, Brigid,” she said, stuttering the way she had the first time when she accidentally called the prosecuting attorney by his first name, and saw that I could tell they were lovers. “Nag me when I can fight back. Right now I’m tired.”
Best thing to do for trauma is force yourself to review it over and over again until even you get bored with it. I said, “I know an excellent person in Asheville. It’s a bit of a drive from Hendersonville, but he’s worth it. He got me through a rough time once, and no one in the Bureau will know.” I had already written down the name and phone number, and now reached into my tote bag where the piece of paper rested on top of all my other crap. I put the paper on her rolling bed table.
“Don’t lose it. Oh, and I’ve already contacted him to let him know you’ll be calling, so if you don’t see him I’ll find out.”
“You’re treating me like a rookie,” Laura said.
Which she wasn’t, technically. Coleman had been working for some years investigating Medicare fraud, following the money. But she had switched to homicide just before we met. Whole new territory for her; hence her rookiness. With her encounter of violence still fresh, Coleman wasn’t yet aware that she stood now at a crossroads, either living the present or living the past. Just because a bad guy dies in the last act doesn’t mean he can’t still pull you after him into the grave. At the time I wasn’t aware of how this idea, that dying isn’t always the last thing that people do, would affect Coleman and me.
“Any more advice?”
I realized I had gone into my thoughts and was about to picture Laura Coleman doing herself harm. I’d seen it happen to others, but not her, I told myself. She was too resilient for that. I came back to the room to hear her repeating, “Any more advice?”
“I’ve rethought what I told you about staying with the FBI. There are times when you walk away. This is one of those times. You’ve done your service. You’ve done a lifetime of service. After you’ve healed, after you’ve really healed, do something else.” Despite my intention to stay tough, even in my own ears my voice sounded embarrassingly like a mother’s, a little whiny pleading note in there somewhere. And no surprise; if I had ever had the ill luck to bear a child, she probably would have been Laura Coleman.
Her eyes and mouth went a little slitty despite the sedative, tightening the way they did when anyone got in her way. Laura never could control all those tells. Her look lifted me, because it reassured me that there she was, Laura was still in there. “Any other advice?” she repeated.
I knew when to back off. “Don’t fall in love with the wrong man again. And always wait for backup.”
She chuckled, just a small one, and probably for the first time in a while. My tendency to joke in the face of trouble wasn’t all bad.
“That’s it?” she asked.
“One more thing.” I stopped to figure out how to put this.
“Don’t be me.”
* * *
I hadn’t spoken to Coleman in a while, and it had been a year since we’d worked that case together in Arizona. Last I heard she had moved from her brother’s place in North Carolina to Florida, where she had signed on with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, working on cold case homicide investigations.
On a day in June I called her from my home in the high desert north of Tucson to let her know my dad was in the hospital and I was going to be in Fort Lauderdale, and ask if she wanted to get together. Before I had a chance to do that, she told me she wasn’t with the PBCS cold case squad anymore. Hadn’t been there for seven months. Since we last spoke she’d gone to an Innocence Project fund-raiser and met a high-end criminal defense lawyer who wasn’t part of IP but did some pro bono work for felons’ appeals he thought had merit. He had hired her as an investigator. This was her third case. With that reluctance that showed how she took losing personally, she told me the first two had been unsuccessful. But she wasn’t totally bummed, because those guys were guilty. It was a whole different thing to defend someone who was innocent.
“The attorney’s name is William Hench. Right now we’re working on an appeal for a man who’s been on death row for fifteen years,” she said. I could feel more than hear that intensity in her vocal cords, her voice a little higher pitched and raspier than usual, like she was trying to pretend she wasn’t being gently strangled with a phone cord. She got that way when she was passionate. She was very passionate.
“Remember the Lynch case?” she asked.
Did I remember the Lynch case. That was what nearly got us killed, because she insisted on fighting to free a man she knew was innocent of serial murder even if he was guilty of necrophilia.
She didn’t wait for the obvious answer. “This is the Lynch case again. It combines cold case with wrongful conviction. It’s, like, what I’m meant to do with my life. We don’t think this man did the crimes. But,” she went on, “we’re missing a couple of pieces of evidence. There’s a thing with getting evidence released in Indian River County, and they’ve been stonewalling Will. I told him you might know some people in this area who you could put the pressure on. Will’s heard of you. He was impressed that I knew you.”
“Well, you’re both in luck. What I called to tell you is that I’m coming over. My dad’s in the hospital with pneumonia. Eighty-three years old and a smoker. I think he’s got emphysema, too. No one there to help my mother except my brother, and he’s useless. But we’re not what you’d call a close family. I’ll probably need a break from the hospital. Let’s get together. Just think what fun it will be to talk out a case together again.”
“I was thinking more like you could just make a phone call to some—”
“Nah. Who’s the guy you’re trying to get off?”
Alarm bells. I didn’t know everything, but I knew Creighton was guilty. Laura was going to lose. I remembered again Laura didn’t care much for losing, and that made me question what she was doing working appeals. Then I remembered how the first time I met her she was so impassioned about a man’s innocence she nearly leapt across the table at me in her effort to convince me she was right. But I didn’t say any of that. I just said, “No shit? Seriously?”
“You remember the case.”
I said, “That case was Casey Anthony huge. O. J. Simpson huge. Even if I hadn’t been working in the area at the time, it was national news.”
“Huge. The difference is, there was a stronger case against both of them, and yet they both got off. Seriously, who’d have thought? We think we can find evidence for Marcus Creighton that will, if not exonerate him fully, overturn the death penalty ruling for a life sentence. If he’s proven innocent, the publicity will add to the current groundswell against capital punishment.”
“It doesn’t hurt that he’s an upper-middle-class white guy,” I said.
Silence on her end.
“I’m just saying I don’t need a lecture,” I said.
“Public opinion is turning, Brigid. Most legislators on both sides of the aisle feel the same way.”
“But, Laura. Marcus Creighton.”
It struck me that she might know me as well as I knew her when she said, “You think I’m deluding myself. I know what the odds are on this, but I think sometimes it’s worth going against the odds, and I know you do, too.”
“Right now I’m thinking I’ve always hated arguing over the phone.”
“Well, don’t then. Not until you hear what new evidence we’re tracking.”
“Tell you what, e-mail me anything you’ve got on the case so I can take a look. I’m coming in tomorrow afternoon, I’ll stop by the hospital and then meet you at that Howard Johnson’s on the beach in Deerfield.”
So. Parents, then Laura. Good thing I didn’t have any pressing cases to attend to in my investigation business, because I was clearly needed elsewhere.
I packaged up my firearm, took it to the post office, and shipped it to Laura’s address because of TSA rules. Not that I was anticipating trouble.
Did I just say that? I always anticipate trouble. What I didn’t anticipate, and what Laura didn’t know at that point, was that the following day, around the time I was changing planes in Phoenix, the governor of Florida was signing the warrant for Marcus Creighton’s execution by lethal injection.
Copyright © 2017 Becky Masterman.
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Becky Masterman, who was an acquisitions editor for a press specializing in medical textbooks for forensic examiners and law enforcement, received her M.A. in creative writing from Florida Atlantic University. Her debut thriller, Rage Against the Dying, was a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, the CWA Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel of 2013, as well as the Macavity, Barry, and Anthony awards. Becky lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband.