Poisonous by Allison Brennan is the 3rd installment of the Max Revere series that follows investigative reporter Maxine Revere to Corte Madera, California, where a mentally challenged eighteen-year-old is convinced his step-sister was murdered, but the truth may have grave consequences (Available April 12, 2016).
Teen-aged Internet bully Ivy Lake fell off a cliff and few people cared…except her mentally-challenged eighteen-year-old step-brother, Tommy. He loved her in spite of her cruelty. He’s distraught and doesn’t understand why his blended family is falling apart. After a year, the police still have no answers: Ivy could have jumped, could have been pushed, or it could have been an accident. With too many suspects and not enough evidence, the investigation has grown cold.
Tommy thinks that if someone can figure out what happened to his step-sister, everything will go back to normal, so he writes to investigative reporter Maxine Revere. This isn’t the type of case Max normally takes on, but the heartbreak and simple honesty in Tommy’s letter pulls her in. She travels to Corte Madera, California, with her assistant David Kane and is at first pleased that the police are cooperative. But the more Max learns about Tommy and his dysfunctional family, the more she thinks she’s taken on an impossible task: this may be the one case she can’t solve.
If Ivy was murdered, it was exceptionally well-planned and that kind of killer could be hiding in plain sight…planning the next act of violence. Max believes the truth is always better than lies, that the truth is the only thing that matters to gain justice for victims and their families. But for the first time, she wonders if this time, the truth will kill.
Maxine Revere and her right-hand everything, David Kane, flew into SFO on Labor Day. Max didn’t like traveling on holidays, but with her hectic schedule she didn’t have much of a choice. They took a shuttle to the car rental lot and David handled the paperwork while Max scanned her e-mail. A dozen messages down the inbox was a message from her lover, Detective Nick Santini.
I know you’re angry that I canceled our plans this weekend. I’ll find time later this week to come up for a day. Let me know when you land.
Max didn’t know why she was still so irritated at Nick. She’d planned on flying in a few days before her scheduled meeting with the detective in charge of the Ivy Lake homicide—thus avoiding flying on a holiday. But Nick called her Thursday night and canceled. He said he had to swap shifts at the last minute. Something about his excuse didn’t ring true, so she’d pressed him for the reason. Maybe what bothered Max the most was that she’d had to push him before he told her the truth. His ex-wife was fighting for sole custody of their son Logan and Nick had a critical meeting with his lawyer. Max hadn’t met Nancy Santini, but she doubted she’d like the woman who was attempting to prevent a good father like Nick from spending time with his own child. Based on everything Max had been told, Nancy Santini was manipulative and vindictive, and why Nick couldn’t see it, she didn’t know.
She dropped her smartphone into her purse without responding to Nick’s message. What could she say? That she understood? She didn’t, and she wasn’t going to lie to Nick about how she felt. He didn’t want her opinion on the matter, and she certainly wasn’t going to tell him she would be eagerly awaiting his unconfirmed arrival. If he drove the hour to Sausalito to see her, great. If not … well, she really didn’t have much say in what he did or didn’t do. Nick had made that perfectly clear when she started asking questions about his custody battle.
David approached her, rental keys in hand. “Whose head did you bite off?”
She looked at him and raised an eyebrow. When she wore heels, she and David were eye to eye. “Excuse me?”
“When you’re angry, your eyes narrow and the lines in your forehead crease.”
“You’re telling me I have wrinkles. Terrific.”
“If you already know, why ask?”
David led the way to the rental car. Max wished he wouldn’t act as if she were on the verge of dumping Nick. She was the first to admit she didn’t do long-term—or long-distance—relationships well.
Nick was different, and she wasn’t being overly romantic to think so; she wasn’t a romantic at heart. Yet when he’d canceled their weekend plans, her gut had twisted. She didn’t want it to be over.
David popped the trunk of the luxury sedan and maneuvered his lone suitcase into the trunk alongside Max’s two large bags. Her laptop and overnight bag went into the backseat. She sat in the passenger seat and slid back the seat for comfort. After five and a half hours on a plane, she needed to stretch her long legs.
If she had to she could travel light, but she didn’t know how long she’d be investigating this case. She’d told Ben she wanted ten days for the Ivy Lake investigation. He’d scowled at her—that was the only word that fit his irritated-with-Maxine expression. Then she told Laura, his admin, not to schedule anything for two weeks. Max had almost managed to skip town before Ben found out she’d blocked off so much time. He called her in a tizzy on the way to the airport and whined. She’d already recorded the October show—early, she reminded him—it wasn’t like she had to rush back. If she needed to do retakes, they had a sister studio in San Francisco.
“You took a week off in Lake Tahoe, and now for an investigation that shouldn’t take more than a few days you’re taking two weeks?”
She knew what needed to be done to keep her show running smoothly, and she’d do it. She wasn’t going to explain herself. “Goodbye, Ben.” She hung up.
Pulling out of the parking space, David merged the rental into the dense traffic that would take them through San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge. Max stared out the window. She liked San Francisco, but didn’t feel the passion for it like she did for New York City. She’d never once considered living here, though she’d grown up only forty minutes south of the city. She couldn’t put her finger on why—maybe it was that San Francisco was too close to her family.
“Why does he let her get away with it?” Max asked after several minutes of silence.
“What are you talking about?”
“Nick’s ex. The games she’s playing.”
“Nick is not letting Nancy get away with anything,” David said. “There’s a process.”
“She’s trying to deny Nick the right to see Logan.”
“No,” David corrected. “She’s seeking full custody so she can leave the state without violating the joint custody agreement.”
“Why do you know more about this than I do?” Max had mixed feelings about David’s relationship with Nick. While it made her life easier that her closest friend actually liked the man she was sleeping with, she didn’t particularly appreciate that Nick and David had conversations she wasn’t privy to. Lately it seemed like Nick had been talking to David more than her.
“This is an area I have more experience in than you,” said David.
“Maybe instead of a journalist I should have studied law and become a judge,” she said.
David’s spontaneous laughter didn’t improve her mood.
“I would be a good judge,” she said defensively. “I’m exceptionally adept at weeding through fact and fiction.”
“Maybe in criminal court,” he said, clearing his throat. “Not so, in family court.”
“I’d certainly put a stop to her blatant manipulation tactics. She’s changed her mind three times about where she and her boyfriend are moving. And who is this guy, anyway? First they’re getting married, then they aren’t, but are planning on moving in together. With Logan in the house? And doesn’t Nick have a say in who his minor son shares a house with? The whole situation stinks.”
“You need to stay out of it, Max. Nick knows what he’s doing.”
“I don’t get it,” she said.
“That’s a first.”
Max didn’t respond. She wondered if there something else going on with Nick and his ex that David knew about that she didn’t. But why would Nick hold back from telling her? They’d had a wonderful vacation together in Lake Tahoe six weeks ago—all of them. David and his daughter Emma had joined her, Nick, and Logan. At least it was wonderful until Nick’s vacation was cut short by his ex-wife. Still, Max had been understanding. Sort of. At first.
Okay, maybe she had been a bitch after the fourth call from Nancy Santini demanding that Nick bring Logan back to town. Nick never told Max the nature of his disagreement with his ex-wife but something Nancy said had Nick packing their bags and leaving the same day.
Max hated these sort of games, especially when kids were involved. She had no children of her own and doubted she ever would. But she’d interviewed enough kids over the years and learned one important fact: young people picked up on lies faster than most adults. Even if their parents tried to shelter them, they knew what was going on in their family.
Nick refused to say a negative word about Nancy in front of his son, and while Max could respect his position on the one hand, telling the truth was not being negative. The truth was neither good nor bad, it simply was, and Logan was smart enough to come to his own conclusions.
“You’re thinking quite loudly,” David said.
“I haven’t said a word.”
“Sometimes you don’t need to.”
“Speaking of kids, will you be allowed to see Emma?” She winced at her tone. David didn’t deserve her anger, though he seemed to be trying to irritate her. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Yes, you did,” David said. “I’m going to Brittney’s tonight. She said we’d play it by ear.”
“Another manipulative bitch,” Max said under her breath.
“She is,” David concurred, “but I want to see my daughter, so I deal with it. I have fewer rights than Nick because Brittney and I never got married. I will not risk my time with Emma.” He paused, then added, “Stay away from Brittney, Max.”
In one sentence, David’s tone had gone from normal to threatening. A few months ago, Max would have pushed the conversation, but she’d realized over this last summer how deeply she valued David’s friendship. She wasn’t risking her relationship with her best friend and business partner by arguing with him about the mother of his daughter. So, as difficult as it was for Max to shut up, she shut up.
Brittney treated David like garbage. She insulted him in front of Emma and refused to let David have more time with his daughter than the court mandated. The one consolation was that Emma was a smart and completely wonderful girl. She’d be thirteen next week and adored her father. Considering her parents didn’t get along, she was surprisingly well-adjusted. Brittney may be a bitch, but David got along with his ex-wife’s parents and apparently they had a lot of clout over her. If it weren’t for them, David once said, he couldn’t have been a part of Emma’s life.
Max put David and Nick and their respective children out of her mind and spent the remainder of the drive responding to messages from her producer, Ben Lawson, and staff. Ben had wanted to send a small crew with Max because he sensed this case was going to be good—meaning good for “Maximum Exposure” ratings. Max axed the idea of traveling with anyone but David. She needed time in the field without a cameraman. The interpersonal connections she made were key to her investigative success. Nuances in tone, expression, and body language could be lost when a camera was involved. Before agreeing to host “Maximum Exposure” for the cable network NET, Max had been a freelance reporter for years and she still preferred to work a case alone, asking questions, pushing people to be truthful, proving or disproving evidence.
She’d be the first to admit she was happy to let the competent NET research team take over much of the grunt work. They’d compiled all the public information on the Ivy Lake investigation, including news clippings, profiles of Ivy’s friends and family, and television coverage. Having a staff saved her hundreds of research hours.
After going back and forth with Ben on the news crew until her irritation overflowed, she sent back a message: I’ll call in the crew when I see fit. TTYL.
Ben just didn’t know when to drop a subject, or how to give up control.
She could relate.
While Ivy’s stepbrother’s letter had affected Max and prompted her to act, she’d grown even more curious about the case after actually speaking on the phone to Tommy Wallace. Or trying to; Tommy barely spoke. She’d tried to get him to talk about why he wrote the letter, and his responses were simple and brief. Any other case and she would have been suspicious and likely dropped the matter altogether, but after reading the Ivy Lake media reports, she realized Tommy was mentally handicapped.
Which made her wonder if he wrote the letter himself or if someone helped him. And if so, why?
After talking to Tommy Wallace, Max had spoken to Grace Martin, the detective in charge of the Ivy Lake investigation. Max wanted to feel out whether law enforcement was inclined to help or hinder her investigation, and then specifically to ask about Tommy.
“I spoke to Tommy Wallace several times,” Grace had said. “He’s slow, not stupid.”
Grace seemed amenable to Max’s involvement when they talked on the phone—the case was fourteen months cold with no leads. She agreed to meet with Max in person, which was a big win for Max—too often she had to fight with the local police for access.
Max read Tommy’s letter multiple times. What really hit her was the lack of anger or grief. Maybe Tommy’s “slowness” made him less emotional. Generally, when people wrote to Max of tragic events, there was pain and anger. Rage on the page, Ben called it. But Tommy’s plea was unlike any she’d read before. And while he may have had help writing the letter, there was no doubt its sentiments were all his. There was a truth in the words that pulled her in immediately.
Tommy’s letter got her looking at Ivy Lake’s death, but the circumstances themselves propelled Max to action. Ivy had been seventeen when she’d been killed—pushed off a cliff, according to the forensics report. The police had interviewed dozens of individuals, mostly teenagers, and it seemed many had reason to hate Ivy.
If the pen is mightier than the sword, the keyboard is mightier than the pen. Perhaps unwisely, Ivy had used her keyboard to expose the secrets of her schoolmates through social media—including one girl who’d committed suicide after bearing the brunt of Ivy’s attacks.
Ivy’s dramatic death from being pushed or thrown off a cliff had spun a web of coverage in the media about cyberbullying, but in the end, the news stories stopped, the investigation hit a dead end, and life went on. With no killer in custody. No answers for the family.
No justice for Ivy.
Copyright © 2016 Allison Brennan.
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Allison Brennanis the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than twenty novels and many short stories. A former consultant in the California State Legislature, she lives in Northern California with her husband Dan and their five children.