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A Stranger’s Game


“Merle Raye, get your lazy butt in here!”

“What’s wrong, Daddy?” Merle Raye said, skidding to a stop on the waxed linoleum kitchen floor.

“I thought I told you to wash these dishes.”

Merle Raye glanced at the coffee cup and saucer that sat alone in the white ceramic sink. “I ––– ”

“I told her I’d do it, Big Mike,” her stepmother said.

Merle Raye’s father turned on her stepmother, his eyes narrowed, and one meaty hand fisted. “If I’d wanted you to wash up, Allie, I’d have said so. I want her to do it.”

“I only thought ––– ”

“Don’t think!” her father retorted, slipping his arms into the shoulder rig he wore as a cop with the Austin PD. “Just do what the hell I tell you to do!”

As he turned, Merle Raye shrank back, knowing what was coming but also knowing there was no escape from Big Mike’s fist. At the last moment, he opened his hand and slapped her across the face. Even that blow was enough to send her skinny eleven-year-old body flying. She hit the refrigerator with a thump, the “Remember the Alamo!” refrigerator magnet gouging her back and then falling to the floor along with her, where it broke in half.

“Goddammit! Now look what you’ve done!” her father bellowed.

Merle Raye pulled her knees up to her budding chest and put her hands up to protect her head and fiery face.

“Big Mike!” Allie cried. “Don’t!” Her stepmother took a step forward and caught the punch meant for Merle Raye on her own shoulder, gasping at the pain of it.

“Get out of the way, Allie,” her father snarled.

“It’s only a cup and saucer,” Allie argued. “There’s no need ––– ”

“The girl needs to learn I mean what I say.”

While Big Mike was diverted by her stepmother, Merle Raye scuttled out of the kitchen on her hands and knees. As soon as she was clear of them, she stood and ran down the hallway. There was no sense trying to hide in her room. Her father had already broken the latch by kicking down the door.

Merle Raye scampered for the linen storage closet in the hall, crawled behind the winter blankets stacked on the floor beneath the bottom shelf, and crouched there, curled up in the smallest ball she could make of herself. So far, this hiding place hadn’t been discovered. But she was stuck here until her father left the house for work.

Merle Raye was always amazed ––– and grateful and guilt-ridden ––– whenever Allie stepped between her and Big Mike, taking the brunt of the beating intended for her, as though Merle Raye was her own flesh-and-blood daughter. The guiltier Merle Raye felt for escaping all that pain at Allie’s expense, the more fiercely she loved her stepmother. She’d vowed to pay Allie back someday; although, she had no idea how.

Merle Raye couldn’t understand why Allie didn’t leave Big Mike. Merle Raye would have given anything to be old enough to runaway. She’d tried it once last year, but Big Mike had gotten every cop in Austin to hunt her down and then hauled her back home. She still hadn’t figured out why he’d wanted her back. All he did when he got her home was yell at her and hit her and call her names.

Merle Raye shuddered when she heard Allie scream. One of these days Big Mike would end up killing one of them. Merle Raye’s heart pounded as she heard her stepmother running down the hall to the bedroom she shared with Big Mike and Big Mike roaring oaths as he chased after her.

Merle Raye knew how things were going to end. Big Mike’s rage would find another outlet. Merle Raye put her hands to her ears to shut out the sounds of Big Mike doing what he did to her stepmother.

She wished her real mother hadn’t died when she was born. Maybe if Big Mike hadn’t been drowning his sorrows in beer, he wouldn’t have named her after his two best friends. Lots of kids in Texas had two names ––– Jimmy John, Billie Sue, Bobbie Jo ––– so her name wasn’t really that odd. But because Merle Raye had learned to keep her mouth shut unless spoken to, the other kids had pegged her as shy, and she’d gotten the unfortunate nickname Mertle the Turtle.

Being Mertle the Turtle was a heavy cross to bear. And because they’d lived in the same neighborhood in Austin her whole life, the nickname had stuck. Folks shouted “Hey, Mertle!” at her far more often than her real name. Merle Raye had vowed that as soon as she was old enough, she was going to change her name to something simple and elegant. Like Grace.

Nana Glory, her birth mother’s mother, said her father hadn’t gotten drunk so much before her mother died, though she reckoned he’d always been a mean son of a bitch.

“Shows what happens when a female falls for a pair of broad shoulders, a headful of shiny black hair, and some twinkly blue eyes,” Nana Glory had said.

Merle Raye didn’t have her father’s broad shoulders, but she’d definitely gotten his blue eyes and his straight black hair. She figured she’d gotten his short temper, too, because she sure got mad enough in a hurry when he got mean.

That’s where the similarity ended. Merle Raye had never raised her hand against a soul, man or beast, and never planned to ––– with one exception.

She had thought long and hard about killing Big Mike.

Merle Raye had imagined a thousand ways of doing it, ways in which she wouldn’t get caught. She was smart and she kept her ears open every time Big Mike bragged about how he’d unraveled the clues and brought some killer to justice. There were some benefits to being a homicide detective’s daughter, one of which was learning how to kill and get away with it.

Someday she’d be old enough to run away. Before she did, Merle Raye imagined the satisfaction of killing Big Mike. He surely deserved to die. It was bad enough that he beat her and her stepmother black-and-blue whenever he felt the mood strike him. But he’d done worse than that.

In a fit of rage, Big Mike had flushed her turtle ––– the one Allie had given her for her tenth birthday, which she’d named Mertle ––– down the toilet. Mertle was the first living thing that had ever been put in Merle Raye’s care. For the two weeks she’d owned Mertle, she’d held her and loved her and fed her and taken the very best care of her she knew how.

When she’d realized the finality of what Big Mike had done, Merle Ray had felt an unbearable ache in her chest and a sudden knot in her throat. Tears had brimmed in her eyes. Then some sort of dam broke, and the sobs came so hard and fast she could barely catch her breath. Her eyes had swollen up and her nose had run.

She’d bawled like a baby for two hours, until Big Mike had kicked her door in, picked her up and shaken her so hard her head flopped on her shoulders, and said, “Shut the hell up!”

And she had. She hadn’t cried over anything or anyone since.

Merle Raye bared her teeth as she thought of how many times Big Mike had disappointed her. And hurt her. And hurt those she cared about. Anyone who’d flush a poor, defenseless turtle down the toilet was a horrible human being.

Someday, she vowed, as she listened to Big Mike slaking his meanness on her stepmother’s body, Big Mike would get what he had coming. He’d be stone-cold dead. And no one would ever know it was his own daughter who’d done it.

Chapter One

Ten years later

FBI Supervisory Special Agent Breed Grayhawk was caught between two barnyard dogs, their neck hairs hackled and their teeth bared, warily circling, looking for an opening to rip out each other’s throat. He didn’t move. He hardly breathed. He didn’t want to get noticed and maybe have both beasts turn their slavering fangs on him.

Or at least, that was how it felt.

In reality, he was leaning against the window ledge in his boss’s office, listening to two opinionated, bullheaded FBI special agents argue over security for the upcoming visit of the U.S. president to the University of Texas at Austin campus.

“I understand that you want your team to be more involved in security during the president’s visit, Vince,” Special Agent in Charge Craig Westwood said. “But between the Secret Service, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and the SWAT team I’m bringing in from the regional field office in San Antonio, we have everything covered.”

“So my agents are stuck doing previsit background checks on anarchists and white supremacists?” Assistant Special Agent in Charge Vincent Harkness retorted.

“It’s necessary,” Westwood replied in a steely voice.

“But peripheral,” Vince persisted.

“Come on, Vince,” Westwood said. “We’re a team. Sometimes you don’t get to pitch. You have to field balls.”

“Shit, Craig,” Vince flared. “My agents aren’t even in the goddamn game!”

Breed tensed, waiting to see whether the San Antonio SAC, who was his boss’s boss, would jump down Vince’s throat. Breed gripped the hardwood window ledge under his hands, resisting the urge to thrust himself into the fray. It wasn’t his battle, and Vince wouldn’t thank him for interfering.

Breed watched as Vince’s eyes darkened from brown to black as he glared at Westwood, who stared right back. Vince’s pale skin flushed, and his jaw worked.

Breed could understand his boss’s point.

President John Coleman was giving the keynote address at the National Governors Association Annual Meeting ––– just five days away ––– in the LBJ Auditorium on campus. More than a thousand people were scheduled to attend. The nation’s governors, the public, and the president were potentially at risk.

The Secret Service, now under the Department of Homeland Security, was in town to do the protective groundwork and provide security during the event, with the assistance of the Texas DPS and the FBI. At least, some of the FBI. The Austin satellite office, like an ugly stepchild, was being told, however nicely, to butt out.

Breed felt his body respond with a rush of adrenaline to the palpable tension between his boss and Westwood. He gritted his teeth, waiting to see who would blink first.

Westwood’s hands were steepled beneath his chin, and the ankle of one leg was propped on the knee of the other, so he appeared deceptively relaxed in one of the two studded maroon leather chairs across from Vince’s definitely-not-government-issue cherry wood desk.

Abruptly, Vince picked up a Montblanc pen from his desk, breaking eye contact with his boss. “You know we’ll do our part,” he said, before adding even more quietly, “however small it turns out to be.”

“I appreciate that, Vince,” Westwood said. “You’re doing a fine job here.” He dropped his foot to the ground and sat upright, his hands slapping his knees, signaling that the meeting was over.

Vince shoved an agitated hand across the flat top of his dark brown crew cut, before once again meeting Westwood’s gaze with belligerence. “This might only be a satellite office, Craig, but I’d pit my agents against yours any day of the week.”

“I’m sure your men are good at what they do, Vince. Langley doesn’t let them loose on the world unless they’re good. Like Grayhawk here, whose JTTF team has run down perpetrators of both identity theft and bank credit card fraud over the past year, if I’m not mistaken.”

Breed found himself the object of Westwood’s piercing blue-eyed gaze. He stood upright, his weight forward, as though to defend himself from physical attack. But Westwood was smiling at him. Breed wasn’t sure how to respond to the SAC’s compliment, which could just as easily have been construed as a slur, since the criminals his Joint Terrorism Task Force had apprehended weren’t, in fact, the sort of domestic and foreign terrorists they were supposed to be hunting.

So he said nothing.

Breed knew he was only present at the meeting between his boss and the San Antonio SAC because, as supervisor of the Austin JTTF, he was in a position to know whether there were any active threats to the president of the United States on the UT campus. He’d already made his report to Westwood: not only were there no active threats on campus, there hadn’t been an active threat of domestic or foreign terrorism on campus during the entire two years Breed had been assigned to the JTTF.

“Anything else you want to mention about the situation on campus while I’m here?” Westwood asked Breed as he stood, his broad-shouldered six feet five inches towering over a still-seated, five-foot-nine-inch Vince.

“No, sir,” Breed said, broadening his stance and easily meeting the SAC’s eyes. “There’s no known threat to the president of the United States or to the governors of the fifty states, three territories, and two commonwealths who’ll be on campus next week.”

“No known threat,” Westwood repeated, his gaze sliding from Breed to Vince. “I’m relying on both of you to let me know if that situation changes between now and Wednesday, when the president shows up. I don’t want any surprises.”

Vince made a sound in his throat that might have been a grunt or a snort or a snicker.

Breed wondered if the same thought had occurred to his boss as had occurred to him. Can anyone really account for the unexpected? Surprises are surprises precisely because no one anticipated them. Why are we going to be responsible if a disaster occurs, when we’re so uninvolved in preparation for the president’s visit? Are we being set up to take the fall if something goes wrong?

Breed watched as his boss finally rose, as though he were the one dismissing Westwood and not the other way around.

“We’re a first-rate resource, Craig,” Vince said. “Use us.”

“I will ––– if I need you.”

Breed watched a muscle tick in his boss’s jaw as Vince shook hands with the San Antonio SAC and imagined Vince biting his tongue to keep from making another retort.

“Don’t be a stranger,” Vince said to his boss. “Stephanie and I and the kids would love to have you and Emily and your kids join us at our cabin on Lake LBJ for a barbecue and some water skiing some weekend before it gets too cold.”

“We’d enjoy that,” Westwood said. “Let me have Emily give Stephanie a call and set it up.”

As soon as the door closed behind Westwood, Vince said, “That son of a bitch!”

Breed grinned. “I can’t believe you just invited that son of a bitch to spend the weekend at your cabin.”

“He and I both know he’s too busy to take me up on it,” Vince said as he reached for a jacket on a hanger behind the door and slipped it over a stiffly starched white oxford cloth shirt. He shot his cuffs and adjusted a red-striped tie. “Craig Westwood has been a thorn in my side ever since I joined the FBI.”

“What did he do that was so bad?”

“Kissed a lot of ass on his way to the top.”

The edge in Vince’s voice kept Breed silent.

“Aw, hell,” Vince said, suddenly grinning and slapping Breed on the back. “I’m just pissed because when Craig and I went through the FBI Academy at Quantico a thousand years ago, I graduated five spots ahead of him and now the son of a bitch is my boss.”

Breed laughed, because Vince laughed. But the bitterness in Vince’s voice told him it wasn’t really a laughing matter.

Breed strode out of the Friday-night-empty FBI office ahead of Vince and got blasted by the lingering South Texas heat. He looked at Vince in his standard FBI dark suit and tie and was grateful for the work he did on campus that made it possible for him to wear a Stetson, an open-throated, Western-cut shirt, blue jeans, and cowboy boots.

“What did Westwood do that got him promoted ahead of you?” Breed asked.

As Vince’s car remote chirped to open the door on his black SUV, he said, “It wasn’t so much what he did as what I didn’t do.”

Breed lifted an inquiring brow.

“Stephanie’s mother got sick,” Vince explained. “I had to ask for a transfer from the Southwest region, where things were hopping, to a satellite office in Georgia near Stephanie’s mom ––– a place where things were definitely not hopping. Craig stayed put, then went to Langley, and made a name for himself, before returning to South Texas as regional SAC.”

“Tough luck,” Breed said.

Vince shrugged. “That’s the way it goes.” He glanced at his watch and hissed in a breath as he settled onto the hot black leather seat. “I’m late. I promised Stephanie I’d be home by six to take her and the kids to the cabin this weekend. Which I shouldn’t have the time to do, if Craig were using the manpower in this office the way he should.”

“I guess that means you can’t join me for a drink,” Breed said, as he stood by the door to his pickup.

Vince shook his head. “Not tonight,” he said as he started up his car and rolled down the windows. “See you on Monday, unless a terrorist threat rears its hydra head over the weekend. If you need me, you know how to reach me.”

“Yes, sir.” Breed watched Vince drive away, then got into his cobalt-blue Dodge Ram pickup, and headed west on U.S. 290 out of Austin. It had been a helluva day. With the president’s upcoming visit, he’d better enjoy the weekend, because it was likely to be a helluva week.

He needed a drink. And a woman. Preferably in that order. And he knew just where to find both.

Chapter Four

Grace Caldwell has been careful over the past year to live in the shadows. She’d never had an easy life, but it was better now than it had ever been when she was Merle Raye Finkel. That naïve, battered thirteen-year-old girl had been accused, tried, and convicted of the horrific double murder of her father and stepmother.

Merle Raye had felt a dark thrill of pleasure when she heard ––– from the cops who’d arrested her for the crime ––– that her father was dead. And she had been devastated when she learned that her stepmother had died along with him. Anyone who knew her, and it was her own fault nobody really did, would have known that she revered her stepmother, and that she would never have done anything to hurt Allie.

Unfortunately, Merle Raye had made no secret of the fact that she detested her father. It had been mere coincidence that the day her father and stepmother had been shot to death with her father’s service weapon, her father had beaten Merle Raye badly enough that she’d finally gotten the courage to run away again.

When she’d been caught, she’d been wearing sunglasses to cover a black eye and had wrapped a scarf around her face to cover her puffy lip where it was split. Her mussed black hair had hidden the large knot on her head, and her cracked ribs and the belt-buckle wounds on her back were covered by several layers of clothes. She’d put her wrist in a sling, knowing the injury was more than a sprain but afraid of the questions that would be asked if she tried to have it treated at a clinic.

She was sitting in the back of a Greyhound bus headed to Phoenix when the police intercepted her in El Paseo, believing her to have taken flight after murdering her father and stepmother.

The .45 caliber Glock 30 she’d supposedly used to kill her parents was never found. However, several years earlier, her father had used his Glock to kill a felon in the line of duty, and Austin PD records for that incident had been matched to the bullets recovered from her parents’ bodies, confirming that Big Mike Finkel had been killed with his own gun.

Because of the heinous nature of her crimes, the State of Texas had wanted to put Merle Raye Finkel behind bars for the next forty years, something allowed by new Texas laws on determinate sentencing for juveniles, who were moved to an adult prison when they turned twenty-two to serve out the rest of their life sentences.

Nana Glory had hired one of the best criminal attorneys in the state to argue that Merle Ray had been acting in self-defense, and that her stepmother’s death had been incidental and accidental, since it appeared a stray bullet aimed at Big Mike had killed Allie.

Nana Glory had sworn that she believed Merle Ray when she’d protested her innocence. But the defense attorney had convinced her grandmother that Merle Raye should admit to the murders, plead self-defense, and ask for mercy from the court, since the circumstantial evidence against her was overwhelming.

So she had.

Merle Raye’s cracked ribs, belt-buckle scabs, black eye, and broken wrist had gone a long way in convincing the judge that she’d been a battered victim, not a cold-blooded killer. So she’d been tried ––– but convicted, of course ––– as a juvenile offender.

Merle Raye Finkel had spent the next eight years, from age thirteen to twenty-one, in the Texas Youth Commission’s high restriction facility at Giddings, barely an hour east of Austin. Giddings had locks on the doors and strict rules and more violence inside than she’d ever experienced in all her years as an abused child on the outside.

At Giddings, Merle Raye Finkel had shed her chrysalis and become a new person, Grace Elizabeth Caldwell. The name had been the easy part. She’d always wanted to be called Grace. To her, the name sounded elegant and quiet and serene. Elizabeth was for a girl she’d met in juvie who’d saved her life ––– at the cost of her own. Grace had figured she owed Lizzie that much. Caldwell was from the phone book. She’d opened the book, put her finger on a name, and taken it for her own.

Merle Raye Finkel’s eight years inside hadn’t been wasted on Grace Elizabeth Caldwell. Merle Raye had absorbed a great deal about how the criminal mind worked by listening to her father, the homicide detective. At Giddings, Grace had learned how to be a criminal.

Juvie had been a school of hard knocks, and Merle Raye had graduated with honors. She’d learned all there was to know about lying, stealing, intimidation, handmade weapons, picking locks, boosting cars, and faking identities. Most important of all, she’d learned patience. How to wait for what she wanted.

Grace Elizabeth Caldwell had come out of Giddings with a mission: to find the son of a bitch who’d killed her beloved stepmother and framed her for a double murder ––– and make him pay. She hadn’t yet decided the form her vengeance would take. That could wait until she found the bastard.

Unfortunately, Nana Glory, the only person left on this earth to whom Grace was attached, had died a year before Merle Raye’s sentence was completed. But Nana Glory had bequeathed Merle Raye an amazing gift.

In her grandmother’s will, which Grace had received a copy of when she turned twenty-one and was released from juvie, Nana Glory had written: “I’m leaving this money to help you in your search for the man who killed Allie and that mean son of a bitch who was your father. I know how much you loved Allie, and how much she loved you ––– as though you were her very own daughter.

“The fact Allie didn’t have a mark on her, while you’d been beaten black and blue, makes me certain your stepmother must have come home after you’d gone. Otherwise, Allie would have put her body between you and your father, as she always did.”

Grace could have cried then, if she could. But she’d gotten out of the habit in juvie, and her tear ducts no longer seemed to be working. She’d fought the lump forming in her throat and the physical ache in her chest. Feelings made you vulnerable. Feelings could get you killed.

It was the clue left in her grandmother’s will that had set Grace on the path to finding the man who’d set her up.

“Allie told me your father had some big case he was working, something that was finally going to get him noticed, get him a medal, get him promoted. He wasn’t going to share the glory with his partner. He was doing it all on his own. All I can think is that it must have gone bad.”

That was the only help Nana Glory had offered. That and the $3,575,432.31 she’d left to her “beloved granddaughter Merle Raye Finkel” in her will. Nana Glory’s gift ––– once it was deposited, with the help of an attorney, in an untraceable offshore account ––– gave her the financial wherewithal to search for the person her father had been tracking down. The person who’d apparently turned on him and become the hunter, rather than the prey.

Instead of reporting to the adult parole office who’d been assigned to her by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Grace Elizabeth Caldwell had created false ID to back up her new identity, then carefully killed and buried all traces of Merle Raye Finkel. She didn’t want the real murderer to be able to find her once he realized she was looking for him.

Grace had started her search almost a year ago with the papers and notes her father had left behind, which she’d stolen out of storage. That had been a dead end. She’d then used newspapers to find out who’d been murdered in Austin in the two years before her father’s death, and which of those crimes had been solved and by which police officers. By process of elimination, she’d come up with five unsolved murders that her father had been investigating at the time of his death.

Over the past year, Grace had posed as a UT student by day. And become a thief by night.

Her first break-in had been at the home of her father’s partner, Merle Hogart. It turned out Merle drank every bit as much as her father had when he came home at night ––– and left his work papers at the office.

Then she burgled the home of her father’s other best friend, Ray Simms. That was where she’d struck pay dirt. It seemed Ray planned to become Joseph Wambaugh someday and write a book about his life as a policeman, because he’d copied all the murder books for every case that had been opened in the department over the past ten years. He kept them hidden in boxes in chronological order in the closet. Or had, before Grace stole them.

Using the stolen murder books, Grace learned how evidence was collected to solve a crime. She’d followed every lead on the cases over the two years before her father’s death that had been concluded successfully, that is, where the criminal was now behind bars, to see if any of them were connected to her father’s death.

They had all been dead ends. Nowhere could she find a link to Big Mike’s murder.

It was the unsolved cases that had intrigued her. Slowly but surely over the past year, Grace had solved four of the five “cold” cases her father had been working on at the time of his death. Grace had anonymously provided the information she’d uncovered in each case to the Austin Police Department, so the murderer could be apprehended and brought to justice.

Grace knew she’d been dubbed the Angel of Death by the Austin PD, who’d been working to find out who she was as hard as she’d been working to find out which homicide might be linked to whoever had framed her for murder.

She had one final homicide left to investigate ––– the death of FBI Special Agent Harve Thompson, in what the papers had dubbed the Cancer Society Murder. Her father and his partner were the homicide detectives assigned to what eventually became a joint Austin PD-FBI murder investigation.

By process of elimination, it had to be someone involved with Harve Thompson’s murder, who’d killed Big Mike and Allie. She even had a suspect, someone whose behavior in relation to the Cancer Society Murder bore further scrutiny.

That was why she’d decided to break into the home of Breed Grayhawk’s boss, FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Vincent Harkness.

Excerpted from A STRANGER’S GAME © Copyright 2011 by Joan Johnston. Reprinted with permission by Pocket. All rights reserved.

A Stranger’s Game
by by Joan Johnston

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Pocket
  • ISBN-10: 0743454383
  • ISBN-13: 9780743454384