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©1997, 2013 Vicki Hinze
This couldn’t be happening to her. Not now.
Again, Colonel Jackson’s edict reverberated in her ears. Keener, I’ve assigned you to defend Captain Adam Burke.
Captain Tracy Keener, a Staff Judge Advocate relatively new to Laurel Air Force Base, Mississippi, swallowed a knot of dread from her throat. “Is that a direct order, sir?”
“If necessary, yes, it is, Captain.”
She tensed her muscles to keep her boss from seeing how appalling she found the notion. Only a sadist would be elated at hearing they’d been assigned to defend Adam Burke. What attorney in her right mind could be anything but appalled at being ordered to defend him? If the rumors proved true, he’d deserted his men. Abandoned them to die.
Refusal burned in her throat, turned her tongue bitter. This had to be a bad dream—a nightmare. It couldn’t be real.
But from the look on Jackson’s face, it was real, and there was no escaping it.
“This won’t be an easy case to defend.” He passed a file across the desk to her. “On paper, Burke’s assigned to Personnel, but he actually works for Colonel Hackett.”
“Burke is in Intel?” Could the news get any worse?
Jackson nodded. “And because he is, the prosecutor is going all the way on this one. So far, the charges are conduct unbecoming, disobeying direct orders, cowardice, and treason.”
Choking back a groan, she fixed her gaze on an eagle paperweight atop a neat stack of files at the corner of his desk. Sunlight slanted in through the blinds at his coveted office window. Washed in its stripes of light and shadows, the bird looked arrogant. Sinister.
“It gets worse.” Jackson grimaced. “Four counts of murder are coming down the pike.”
“Murder?” She really should have seen this assignment coming. Burke’s was the last case any Staff JAG officer would want to take on. It was a guaranteed career-breaker. A ball-buster—which is why, as low man on Laurel’s Judge Advocate General’s office totem pole, she’d gotten stuck with the unholy honor. “Wasn’t this an accident during a local war-readiness exercise?”
“The incident occurred during a local readiness exercise, but it was no accident—at least, not in the way you mean.” Jackson rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “The troops were split into two teams, Alpha and Omega. Omega played the enemy. Burke headed Alpha team with orders to infiltrate Area Thirteen—Omega’s ‘enemy’ territory—to jam their communications, and gather Intel.”
“Sounds typical, so far.”
“It was,” Jackson said. “But the woods are dense in Area Thirteen. Burke got lost and led his men onto an active firing range.”
“He got lost?” An Intel officer who can’t tell directions? That didn’t fit.
“According to Hackett, it happens all the time out there. The terrain disorients.” Jackson leaned forward. “The worst is that Burke realized he’d screwed up and bugged out.”
A shiver crept up Tracy’s back. “He admitted that he deliberately abandoned his men?”
“He’s admitted nothing. In fact, he’s not talking. But he was the only Alpha team survivor. Four skilled operatives died.”
“So why murder charges?”
“Burke threatened two of his team less than a week before the exercise. Investigators are about to conclude that he carried through on the threat and the other two men were sacrificed.”
Could anyone be that cold? “Why did Burke threaten the men?”
How could she defend him against murder charges when the basis for them was classified? Killing and sacrificing men—during an exercise, for pity’s sake–and she had to defend him? Now?
She had to get out of this assignment. That, or kiss off her career.
Desperately seeking a chink in Colonel Jackson’s armor, she studied him. He was a big, imposing man with an intelligent face, pushing fifty and graying gracefully at the temples. In the months she’d been at Laurel, he had earned her respect. More than once during case discussions at the morning staff meetings, compassion had burned in his eyes, and that compassion had come through in his recommendations. According to Tracy’s overqualified assistant, Janet Cray, the only thing that sent Jackson through the proverbial ceiling was clutter, and that melded into an odd combination of human characteristics, to Tracy’s way of thinking. How could he show a murderer compassion but lack so much as the scent of it for any staff member who tolerated a staple on the carpet near his or her desk?
Yet Tracy had worked for worse. Gutless wonders who’d rather fold than fight were a dime a dozen in the military. Fortunately, so were the dedicated, the proud, and the sincere. Soldiers who took their oaths to serve and protect into their hearts and did their best to live by them.
Jackson fell into the ranks of the latter. Yet no compassion shone in his eyes now, nor did any latitude. There was no chink; his armor unfortunately appeared intact, but he did look…guilty.
Smoothing her uniform’s dark blue skirt, Tracy set out to find out why. “You do realize that in taking on this case now I’d be begging for career disaster, right?”
The veiled empathy flickering in Jackson’s eyes snuffed out. He darted his gaze to his office door, as if assuring himself of privacy, and then nodded. “Frankly, yes, I realize the risks.”
His tone removed any doubt about his damage-assessment expectations. Enormous risks. Enormous.
Should she feel relieved that he had acknowledged the risks, or despondent that he had realized them and had put her in the direct line of fire anyway?
Before she could decide, he rocked back in his chair. The springs groaned and his stern expression turned grave, dragging down the creases running alongside his mouth, nose to chin. “I’m not going to sugar-coat this situation, Captain,” he said. “The Burke case has tempers running hot and hard up the chain of command and the local media is nearly out of control. Between the two of them, they’re nailing our backsides to the proverbial wall.”
Hope flared in Tracy. If he could see that, then surely he would see reason and assign someone else to the case. “I’m up for major, sir,” Tracy interjected. “My promotion board meets in about a month.”
“I know.” A frown creasing his lined forehead, Jackson doodled with a black pen on the edge of his blotter; a frequent habit, judging by the density of his previous scrawls. “And I know that you’re up for Career Status selection.”
Oh, man. Tracy hadn’t yet even considered Career Status selection. This was her fifth year in the Air Force. Her first and—by new policy adopted three weeks ago— her last shot at selection. If not selected, she’d promptly be issued an invitation to practice law elsewhere, outside of the military.
This was not a pleasing prospect to an officer bent on making the military a career.
Decidedly uneasy, the colonel fidgeted with his gold watch. It winked at her from under his shirtsleeve’s cuff. “I understand the personal risks and the potential sacrifices you may have to make, but there’s a lot more at stake here than your career. The Air Force Corrections System is on trial, Captain, and all eyes are watching to see if it’s up to the test.”
He let the weight of that comment settle in and then went on. “Burke is a coward and a disgrace to the uniform. He deserves to die for his crimes—and I have no doubt that he will die. Yet he is entitled to a defense and—”
“I agree, Colonel,” she interceded, doing her best to keep her voice calm. “Burke does deserve a defense. But can’t an attorney who already has Career Status defend him? If I lose this case—and we both know I will lose this case—then that’s a huge strike against me with the boards. Competition is stiff and losses bury you. I’ll be passed over for promotion and for Career Status selection. If that happens, my military career abruptly ends.”
“I’m aware of these, er, undesirable conditions. Captain.” Jackson lowered his gaze to his desk blotter. “But I’m afraid a reassignment is impossible.”
The regret in his tone set her teeth on edge. This was another slick political maneuver; she sensed it down to her toenails. Some jerk with more clout, rank, or backing from his superior officers didn’t want his butt stuck in a sling, so they were planting her backside in it first The unfairness of it set a muscle in her cheek to ticking. “May I ask why not?”
“I’d prefer that you didn’t.”
She just bet he did prefer it. A stern edge crept into her voice. “I mean no disrespect sir, but if I’m going to risk sacrificing my career then I think I’m entitled to know why it can’t be avoided.”
Unaccustomed to being challenged, even respectfully, Jackson clearly took exception. Red slashes swept across his rawboned cheeks and his tone chilled, nearly frosting the air between them. “Officially, you’ve developed a reputation as a strong litigator.”
Tension crackled in the air and an uneasy feeling that she had indeed been slated for sacrifice crept up Tracy’s backbone and filled her mouth with a bitter taste. “And unofficially?”
Jackson pursed his lips and held his silence for a long beat. “General Nestler specifically requested that you be assigned to defend Burke, and Higher Headquarters agreed.”
A by-name request? From Nestler? Oh, great. Just great. No one refused Nestler anything. Within two days at Laurel, while assisting Ted, a fellow attorney, on a contract case, Tracy had learned that. Now she’d learned Nestler’s clout ran straight up the chain of command.
She was screwed. Screwed. Pure and simple. “I wasn’t aware General Nestler even knew my name.”
Jackson’s resigned look faded and the corner of his wide mouth twitched. “Don’t be fooled by the actions of some generals, Captain. General Nestler knows everything that goes on with his staff, on the base, and in the community—within and outside of the military.”
No conflict there with what Tracy had heard and observed. At last month’s First Friday gathering at the Officers’ Club, Janet privately had referred to Nestler as Laurel’s god. Sees all, knows all. Since then, others had used that same analogy, and Tracy innately knew she wasn’t going to like his rationale for choosing her to defend Burke. “So why me?”
“Why not you?” Jackson issued a challenge of his own.
She could think of a dozen personal reasons, but not a single professional one.
Jackson stood up and turned his back to her, then stared out the window at the red brick building next door. Two airmen were washing its windows.
A long minute passed in taut silence, then he stiffened his shoulders, braced a hand in his pants pocket, and faced her. “Frankly, Captain, the general feels your professional acumen, poise, and appearance will be an asset in dealing with the media.”
“What?” That response she hadn’t expected. She forced her gaping jaw shut.
“I’m sorry, Tracy,” Jackson said, for the first time calling her by her given name. “But it’s vital we keep this incident as low-key as possible. That’s why we’re trying the case locally.”
He plopped down in his chair. Air hissed out from the leather cushion, and he leaned forward, lacing his thin hands atop the blotter. “The truth is, the local media’s chewing us up and spitting us out on this case. We don’t want national-level media jumping in, crawling on our backsides and blowing this out of proportion. The last thing the military needs is another fiasco of the magnitude of Tailhook.”
How could she disagree? That scandal, and others since it, had caused a lot of people sleepless nights, agony, embarrassment. Careers and lives had been ruined. And innocents had suffered the shame as much as the guilty.
“We need every possible advantage. We’re fighting deep budget cuts at every turn, base closures that could include Laurel—we escaped the latest short list by the skin of our teeth—and the end of the fiscal year is breathing down our throats. This case has every military member’s reputation on the line.” Frustration knitted Jackson’s heavy brow, making him appear every day of his fifty years. “You’re bright and attractive—that surely comes as no surprise to you. You’re a media asset, and as unfair as you might deem it, we’ve chosen to exploit our assets.”
He let his gaze veer to a bronze statue of Lady Justice on the credenza below the window, and then to the flag beside it. His voice softened. “As rotten as it is, we have to exploit our assets. We’re a war-weary, all-volunteer force with a nation of people depending on us to protect them—not to mention other nations.”
“I’m aware of that, sir.” Who in the military could be unaware of that?
“Then you understand the challenge. Burke has complicated our mission. He’s tarnished the image of the entire military, and it’s up to us to salvage all we can, any way we can.”
She was a means to an end. He could destroy your career and your life, but, hey, it’s nothing personal, Tracy. Suck it up and take one for the team.
Her stomach churned acid. She stared at the eagle paperweight, at the dark shadows between the glints of light reflecting off it. As much as she hated admitting it, Jackson and Nestler’s rationale made sense. As a senior officer in the same situation, she’d use whatever assets she found available to defuse the situation. Could she fault them for doing what in their position she would do herself?
Not honestly. Still, she couldn’t stop visualizing her shot at promotion and selection sprouting wings, or imagining her forced exit from the Air Force. Burke was guilty. Everyone knew it. And while she might be media-attractive, she wouldn’t get him off. She didn’t want to get him off. But even F. Lee Bailey couldn’t get Burke off, or come out of this case unscathed.
Yet the man was entitled to the best possible defense. Would any other JAG officer make a genuine attempt to give it to him, knowing personal disaster was all but inevitable?
Probably not—and Tracy couldn’t condemn them for it. Given the sliver of a chance, she too would have avoided this case as if it carried plague. But she couldn’t avoid it, and that made only one attitude tenable. She had give Burke her best. Not so much for him, but because it was the right thing to do. When this was over, she had to be able to look in the mirror and feel comfortable with what she’d done and the way she’d handled the case and herself. Considering what this would to do her resume, her self-respect is likely all she’d have left.
“We should have word on the murder charges later today,” Jackson said.
Tracy nodded. Since she’d lost her husband and daughter five years ago, she often had imagined herself as an eighty-year-old woman, wearing the same gold locket she wore under her uniform now, looking in the mirror and asking herself where she’d screwed up, what she’d done or left undone that she wished she hadn’t. In grief counseling, she’d learned that the death of a loved one changes a survivor’s perspective, sharpens it, forcing the survivor to focus on what matters most. The one thing she would not face the eighty-year-old she’d become with was more regret. She couldn’t handle another drop. And that meant, she had to do the right thing.
Resigned, she lifted her gaze to Colonel Jackson and accepted responsibility. “I understand, sir. I’ll get started on it”
Jackson blinked, then blinked again, clearly expecting her to body-slam him with a sharp-tongued comment. When it occurred to him none would be coming, he gave her a curt nod. “Fine, Captain.” He lifted a pen and turned his attention to an open file on his desk. “Dismissed.”
Tracy unfolded her legs, hoping her knees had enough substance left in them to get her out of his office before she crumpled. Dismissed. And how. From his office and, she feared, from her chosen way of life.
The office grapevine was operating at peak efficiency.
Walking directly from Colonel Jackson’s office down the gray-carpeted hallway to her own office, Tracy realized that word of her defending Burke was already out. Sitting in their offices, her coworkers craned their necks and slanted her pitying looks, proving they knew she’d been tagged. The jovial moods of the attorneys behind her confirmed it. Their laughter rang out a pitch too high to be anything but relief that they had escaped the assignment
All of her training—every single course the Air Force offered and she was eligible to take: JAG School, Procurement Fraud, Program Managers Attorneys Course, Safety Officer’s School, and the Government Contract Law Symposium, a small coup for the junior-grade officer she had been at the time—and a hard-won reputation as a crack litigator—and it could all flush down the tubes because she was bright and media-attractive. That combination had gotten her stuck with defending Adam Burke at an extremely critical point in her career.
Once, she might have vented her outrage to a coworker. But after Matthew’s death, Tracy had learned not to become emotional. So although she felt the others gawking at her back, she walked wordlessly to her assistant’s office, intending to go straight through into her own and privately rage at the walls.
Janet stopped her. Her chin braced on the heel of her hand, she shot Tracy a look of pure empathy. “How about we skate out a little early, go stuff ourselves at El Chico’s, and gripe about how life sometimes sucks?”
Drowning her sorrows at Grandsen, Mississippi’s sole Mexican restaurant—the only one worth its salt between Jackson and Hattiesburg—sounded like a great place for a good pout, but Tracy rejected it. “Sorry, fiscal year-end budget report is due in today.”
“I see.” Janet sighed. “I promised myself I was going to keep my mouth shut and just let you dump out all your righteous indignation. But I can’t.” Tapping the mug’s handle, she put a warning in her tone. “Don’t do it, Tracy. Burke’s case will break you.”
If she didn’t find a strong legal hook, it definitely would break her. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.” Tracy stared at her grapevine-attuned assistant. In her mid-thirties, Janet was about three years Tracy’s senior. The lines under her eyes and around her mouth proved Janet’s were high-mileage years, not that Tracy’s had been easy, and physically, they had little in common. Janet was petite, sleek, and trim; Tracy tall, and damned to curves. While Janet had gleaming black hair and the exotic features of an Asian, Tracy fought with a wild mass of summer-streaked blond hair and, thanks to Scottish paternal ancestors, skin that tanned to the color of a pale rose. Her nose was slightly crooked, her deep blue eyes a little too far apart, and yet tossed together, the package wasn’t half bad. Janet’s was more perfect—especially her nose. Pert and straight, flawless even now, with her nostrils flaring.
“File thirteen the sarcasm, okay? This doesn’t have a thing to do with confidence. We both know you’re good at what you do, but Burke’s case carries all the signs of becoming Intel-intensive and that’s no place for an Intel novice to cut her teeth. For heaven’s sake, Tracy. Colonel Hackett, Burke’s own boss, is pushing as hard as the rest of the honchos for four counts of murder and the death penalty.”
“The death penalty?” That, Colonel Jackson hadn’t mentioned. Tracy frowned, upset but also grateful that Janet’s former Intel service still netted her the lowdown from on high.
“Intel Rule Number Six. Compromised cover equals death. Figuratively, or literally.” Janet shoved her gold bracelet up on her arm. “Refuse the case. Just say no.”
Tracy grunted. “I don’t even rate an office window yet. I can’t ‘just say no.’”
“Claim you can’t be objective.” Janet licked at her lips, warming to her topic. “Everybody knows, you’re as opinionated as a heart attack on everything—especially Burke’s offenses.”
“That’ll certainly impress my superiors,” Tracy retorted, wishing she could say she had an open mind about Burke. But why lie? Janet had made another valid point, too. Tracy wasn’t up to defending this case. She met life straightforward and head-on. You play fair, and you deal honestly. If you deserve lumps, then you take them. But in an Intel-intensive case such as Burke’s, being straightforward and head-on could jeopardize missions and endanger lives.
Tracy fingered Burke’s file. “I’m not surprised they’re pushing for the death penalty.” How could she be surprised? Even the compassionate Colonel Jackson thought Burke deserved to die. “But even if I were, I couldn’t skate out on this case.”
“Now isn’t the time to be noble.” Janet let out a sigh that ruffled her spiky bangs. “I’m not knocking nobility. I wish we had a little more of it floating around. But don’t be stupid, Tracy. This is going to cost you big.”
“Probably,” Tracy admitted. But she had to do it.
How she’d do it, she had no idea. Not yet. Her sense of justice and trust in the system was at war with her disdain. Burke’s crimes were inexcusable. Heinous. Even a saint would be challenged to defend him with conviction. Yet without conviction, she didn’t stand a chance.
Somewhere, somehow, she had to latch on to something good. Something she could build conviction on—and her case.
“Tracy, think, okay? Is your nobility worth your life?”
“My life?” Tracy grunted, and shoved a wild tangle of hair back from her face. “This is a case, my career and professional future, but it’s hardly my life.” Her garden. That was her life. Her garden and her memories.
Janet rolled her eyes back in her head. “We are talking about your life. Literally,” Janet insisted. “Burke is Intel.” She tapped at her temple. “Lots of supersensitive stuff locked inside his head. And lots of creeps out there who’ll use anyone—even his attorney—to get it.”
Her life. Literally.
Tracy absorbed the gravity in silence. She’d known the risks when she’d joined the Air Force. True, she hadn’t expected to actually be called upon to take them, but that wasn’t the military’s fault. The recruiter had been honest. She’d been in denial—and eager to leave New Orleans, her ex-brother-in-law Paul’s domain. Yet Janet jerking Tracy out of denial changed nothing. She still had to do what she had to do. “I have no choice.”
“Everyone has a choice,” Janet argued. “I’m living proof.”
Frowning, Tracy poured herself a cup of coffee from the pot on the corner cabinet. Janet had left active duty and taken the civil service job as Tracy’s assistant— though she was overqualified for it—because she’d gotten tired of working Intel. She wanted a more normal life. One free of danger and intrigue. Because she had radically changed her life-style, she firmly believed anyone could choose anything at will. “Hear and listen, okay? I have no choice.”
Realization dawned and gleamed in Janet’s eyes. Bracing her forearms against the edge of the desk, she sucked in a sharp breath and stiffened. “Oh, man. You got tagged to defend him. Word was, you volunteered, but you didn’t. You got tagged to defend the jerk.” Janet grimaced. “Who did it? Jackson? Higher Headquarters? Who?”
“The baseline is I am going to defend Adam Burke. To do it well, I need Intel expertise and insight and I don’t have it. I need your help.”
“Oh, no. No way. I’m done with danger, remember?” Janet sputtered a sip of coffee. “Stop looking at me like that. No way.”
“You just said my life is at stake. The man’s incarcerated and bail is out of the question, so I don’t see how I could be in danger, but you obviously do. Doesn’t that prove I need you?”
“It proves you should ask for different counsel to be assigned. Make the honchos give the case to someone with the credentials necessary to survive it.”
“The honchos have given the case to me,” Tracy said, deliberately flattening her tone to let Janet know this point of discussion was closed. “Help me, Janet. Please.”
“You’re asking me to sign your death warrant. I won’t do it—and I can’t believe you’d ask me to, knowing how I feel about this, and about Burke. Five minutes alone with him, and I’d fry him myself.”
A lot of people, particularly ones in uniform, shared her feelings. “I’m going to defend him with or without your help. My best chance of survival is if you assist.”
“Forget trying to put me on a guilt trip. I have no conscience. I’m Intel-trained, remember? Only rules and the drills survived my active-duty days.” Janet twisted a scowl from her lips and narrowed her eyes, staring at her long nails. “I’ve warned you, and that’s it for me. You go on from here and get yourself killed, and your blood is on your own hands, not on mine.”
“Do you want me to beg?” Tracy rifted a hand, palm upward. “Okay, I will. I’m beg—”
“No!” Janet let out an exasperated groan. “I worked with Burke in Intel. I know how he operates. He’s a shrewd, smart operative, and I’m steering clear of anything to do with him. I’m telling you that the fallout is going to be explosive, Tracy. Burke will see to it, and I’m not eager to find myself buried in the rubble.”
“But I need a background check on him,” Tracy persisted. “One that digs deeper than his manufactured personnel file.” Shoring up her courage, she voiced her real need; one that for a truckload of reasons she feared being fulfilled. “I need his Intel file.”
“Are you crazy?” Janet screeched.
“I’m desperate. To build a case I can live with building, I’ve got to find something good about this jerk. I need to know how his mind works. Who he is inside.”
“He’s a coward. A ruthless, treasonous coward who got four good men killed. Operatives who were my friends.”
They had been Intel and, at heart, Janet was still Intel. No one ever walked away and forgot the rules and drills or the camaraderie. They put their lives on the line together, depended on each other to survive, and nothing ever broke those kinds of bonds. Not duty, family, or even death.
“I’m sorry your friends are dead, Janet. Maybe Burke did get them killed. Maybe he is a coward and in his years of service to this country he hasn’t done one thing good or right or made even one small sacrifice for someone else. But maybe he has. And if so, I need to know it.”
Janet glared at her desktop, her voice tight and grating. “Intel records aren’t accessible.”
“Ordinarily, they aren’t. But I know you. If you want his records, you can get them.”
“Usually, I can get access. But I’m not going to do it. Not on this one.” Scowling, she focused on Tracy’s locket. “The man is guilty as sin. How can you expect me to help him?”
No progress whatsoever. Those Intel bonds were tugging hard. Tracy reached across the desk and touched Janet’s hand. “Quit huffing and listen to me. If I fail to handle this case right, we all lose—you, your friends, the legal system, our country, and me. Don’t you see? The only way we can win is to do the best job possible for him.”
“Don’t you see that it won’t matter what you do?” Janet stabbed her pen into its holder. “His fate has already been decided. The man’s crashed and burned, Tracy. He’s going to fry.”
Tracy’s stomach soured, then filled with resolve. “Maybe. But he’s not going to fry before I give him a defense that doesn’t get me fried with him.”
Janet gasped, stilled then dragged a frustrated hand through her hair. “Your promotion…”
Tracy nodded, her stomach furling. “And I’m up for Career Status selection.”
Staring at the mural of a window on the far wall, Janet finally riveted her gaze back to Tracy. “Okay, you can quit rubbing your locket,” Janet said “I’ll try to run the background check on Burke—for you, not him.” She clenched her cup in a white-knuckle grip. “I wouldn’t spit on his grave.”
“Thanks.” Grateful, Tracy let go of her locket, supposing she did rub it when in a crunch. It was her last gift from Matthew, one that held a cherished photograph.
“That’s a pretty romantic habit for a sworn non-romantic,” Janet commented. “Rubbing the locket to remember him whenever trouble strikes.”
It was anything but romantic. “I wear it to remember losing him, Janet. And so I never forget how much loving someone can cost.”
“Good grief.” Janet slid her a sour look. “Talk about jaded.”
“It’s not jaded.” Tracy let the pain of losing Matthew and their daughter, Abby, shine in her eyes. “It’s realistic.”
“No,” Janet contradicted. Speculating had her irises flickering golden brown. “It’s safe.”
“God, I hope so.” Tracy sipped at her coffee, praying hard that proved true. She had survived all the losses she could stand for one lifetime.
“I’ll do what I can on the file—but no promises.” Janet flattened her lips to a thin coral line. “After what he’s done, there’s not a soul in the world eager to help Adam Burke.”
The truth in that remark had Tracy frowning and heading toward her office.
“Wait.” Janet called out after her. “Randall phoned. You should tell him about the assignment before he hears it somewhere else.”
Janet too often fantasized that Tracy’s relationship with Dr. Randall Moxley was a heated affair: a ridiculous notion. Randall, a pathologist at the base hospital, was charming and a bit of a rogue, and he did love to playfully hit on Tracy. But if she were to hit back, the man would probably faint. He’d definitely run, which is exactly what allowed them to be friends. “I’ll call him when I get home.”
The dreaded call came through from Colonel Jackson’s office just before the end of the duty day at 1620—4:20 p.m. Burke had officially been charged with four counts of murder.
The alleged threats remained classified information, and adding that bad news onto the heap had Tracy depressed to the gills. She drove to her suburban home in the Gables subdivision, pulled into the driveway, and stared at the three-bedroom, two-bath cookie-cutter house she called home. The windows were dark, the house empty, and she wondered how long she would live here after she lost Burke’s case, failed to get Career Status, and they kicked her out of the military.
Janet thought the house felt cold, and Tracy agreed. It did. But that hadn’t been an accident. It was a deliberate warning: Don’t get too comfortable. You’re a guest here for a time, and you won’t be invited to stay.
Realizing that warning extended to herself, Tracy harrumphed and tapped the garage-door opener on her visor. Maybe she had become jaded. Morbid, too.
The garage door slid up, and she drove inside. It was at times like this that she missed the perk of having a husband to talk to about her troubles. Before Matthew’s death, that’s how she’d always found her legal-hooks. She missed feeling close to a man, too, but she’d resolved to move mountains to avoid losing someone who mattered too much again. And there were other times, such as when Janet was nursing her weekly broken heart, that Tracy felt grateful for the reprieve.
Catching the scent of vanilla potpourri, she locked the kitchen door behind her, then changed into a pair of soft jersey slacks and a baggy T-shirt. Feeling the locket against her skin, she recalled Janet’s reaction to it. She clearly considered Tracy an emotional cripple. But Janet couldn’t understand. She hadn’t lived through loss. Tracy wasn’t a cripple, she was a survivor. And for a survivor, she was content. Satisfied. Happy.
Bristling at her conscience’s tug, she opened her bedroom door. Okay, she was a nearly content satisfied, and happy survivor. At least she had been, until the Burke case was dropped in her lap.
Slipping on the Winnie-the-Pooh slippers she always wore when she needed an attitude, she admitted that sometimes she did feel slightly crippled. But only slightly, and considering her past, that wasn’t bad.
She walked down the short hallway to the kitchen, snagged the phone, then dialed Randall. Waiting for him to answer, she stared down at the twin Pooh heads on her slippers’ toes and again heard her dad’s voice: When the world’s kicking your tail, hon, kick back. Just make sure you’re wearing steel-toe shoes.
Randall answered, sounding as if he had a mouth full of toothpaste. “What?”
“Don’t you sound chipper?” Glancing through the huge windows to her garden, a sense of calm settled over her. It was her refuge. Her candle in the window. “Most people say hello before biting your head off.” Tapping the faucet, she filled the teakettle.
“Mmm, let me guess.” His sigh crackled through the line. “She’s had a bad day.”
“She’s had the ultimate bad day.” Tracy set the kettle on the stove to heat and then told him she’d be defending Adam Burke.
Ten minutes later, after Randall had given her every reason conceivable to God and man why she shouldn’t take Burke’s case, Tracy began wishing she hadn’t called him. “Would a little sympathy and commiserating be asking for too much?” The teakettle whistled. She filled a mug plastered with Mickey Mouse’s smiling face full of hot water. “You’re supposed to be my friend.”
“You do something crazy and you expect sympathy?” Randall paused, cleared his throat, and tamped down his temper. “Look, I understand that you feel obligated to defend the man, but get a grip, Tracy. You’ll be committing career suicide. Claim a conflict of interest. Tell them your personal feelings hinder your ability to defend Burke.”
“The promotion board would love that.” Her spoon clinked against the edge of the mug, and she grunted. “Their pencils would leave screech marks on my file, adding ‘unprofessional’ to ‘too young and idealistic’ in my bio.”
“Then lie. Say anything. Say you’re in love with the man.”
Revulsion coursed through her in shudders. How could any woman be in love with Adam Burke? “I won’t lie. And I won’t say I’m in love with a traitor and murderer. The boards would swear I was either crazy or stupid. Maybe both—and I’d agree with them.”
“Do you grasp the severity of this? Your promotion and status selection are on the line.”
“My whole career as a Staff JAG is on the line, Randall.” Bobbing the tea bag by its string, she grumbled and glanced out the window at her roses. Beautiful—and still in full bloom, though the blazing heat had most gardens sun-scorched and burned. “Giving the board more ammunition against me won’t help cinch my promotion.”
“Well, you’ve got to do something to get out of defending this case.” His frustration hissed static through the phone line. “My hospital board will go nuts.”
About to take a sip, Tracy frowned into her cup. “Excuse me?”
“My board. It’ll take a dim view of me being close friends with Burke’s attorney, and the members will be very verbal about it. You know how they are about controversy, and you’ve got to admit, Burke’s beyond controversial.”
Great. Didn’t she have enough to worry about already? But Randall was right. His hospital board was extremely conservative and protective of its image. The members would take a dim view of their friendship. It was the nature of Burke’s crimes that would turn everyone against her for defending him. It didn’t matter that she’d been assigned: people felt too passionate about treason, murder, and sacrificed men. She stood in Burke’s defense, and that would stick in everyone’s craw. In situations like this, emotion always buries logic.
Mentally seeing Randall standing front and center before the board members, his blond head bent, his lean shoulders stooped, she barely managed to stave off a sigh.
Regardless of what he said to them, the members would come down hard on Randall. “I have no choice.” She let him hear her regret. “I didn’t volunteer, I was assigned.”
“So dream up an excuse and get out of it. My board would be fine with your refusal.”
His board? Bristling, she stilled, the tea bag dangling in midair over the sink. What about her promotion and selection? Her career? All this case could—and probably would—cost her.
Irked that her challenges didn’t weigh at all in Randall’s considerations, Tracy slung the tea bag into the sink. It thumped against the stainless-steel bottom, and steam poured out of it. Any second, she expected an equal amount to pour out of her ears. “Careful, friend,” she said in clipped tones. “You’re sounding like your convictions only run as deep as you find convenient.”
“Image matters.” His voice turned cold and distant. “You know my personal goals.”
Oh, did she. She snatched up a dishcloth, then mopped at a tea splash near the faucet. He drove her crazy with his strategy updates, but his attitude on this rated downright selfish and self-serving.
She tossed the cloth onto the counter and cast her slippers a suspicious look. But Pooh wasn’t responsible for this attitude. Truth was the culprit. Randall Moxley was a fair-weather friend. And knowing it, Tracy couldn’t get off the phone quickly enough. “I think we’d better agree to disagree on this and let it go.”
“Fine.” He slammed down the phone.
Clenching her teeth, she put the phone down, and resumed searching for her legal hook.
Feeling as she did about Adam Burke, how could she defend him with conviction?
She had until tomorrow morning to figure it out. That’s when she was due at the facility, commonly referred to as the brig, to meet Adam Burke.
Just the thought of having to look the coward in the face had her stomach revolting and her head throbbing. She’d bet her bars he would play the innocent victim. He’d blame someone else—anyone else—for everything.
It was a safe bet. The guilty assigned blame elsewhere with monotonous regularity. And considering Burke’s crimes were positively the worst that could be committed by man, she should expect nothing better from him.
Disgust turned her tea bitter. She dumped the contents from her cup then went out to her moonlit garden, needing to cleanse herself of her distaste for both men.
Dropping to a wicker chair beneath the huge magnolia, she lifted her chin and inhaled its blossoms’ sweet scent. Randall—if he appeared genuinely repentant for being a jerk about this—she might forgive, but Adam Burke?