Chapter One

Mike watched as the dark blue sedan pulled onto the dirt shoulder off HWY 1 just outside the Lompoc city limits. He remained watchful behind his Ray Bans until he got a clear look at the driver. The vehicle came to a stop amid a trail of dust and the engine was cut. Mike pushed away from his 1964 Mercedes Cabriolet and walked slowly toward his assignation with the man he despised most in the world. It was going to take every bit of self-restraint to keep from beating him to a bloody pulp.

As if feeling the hostile vibes emanating off Mike, Steven Ridley faltered before stepping away from his state-issued sedan. Mike made note of the hesitation and was satisfied. He kept is expression neutral but let his posture and slow, deliberate gait send the message that one word or action put wrongly would end this confab and may result in a sound thrashing, regardless of the consequences.

“Thank you for meeting with me,” Steven said, futilely holding out his hand. A wave of Mike’s seething hatred made him drop it to his side.

“You’ve got exactly sixty seconds to convince me this wasn’t a waste of my time,” Mike warned him.

“I’ll get right to the point, then,” Steven replied with as much aplomb as he could muster, nervously shifting the manila folder from his left hand to his right. “The warden of the women’s prison in Chowilla spoke off the record to me about an inmate who she feels doesn’t belong there. She has serious doubts that the woman, Lindsay Bartholomew, committed the crime for which she is serving a twenty-year sentence. Because of the work I’ve been doing since my release, she thought I might have access to resources to assist in clearing this woman’s name and reuniting her with her child.”

“What crime was she convicted of?” Mike asked, arms folded across his chest.

“Murdering her husband.”

Mike let out a disdainful huff as he continued to glare at Steven. “What makes you think I’d be interested in this?”

Steven fought back a bemused smile while Mike struggled to retain a saintly composure. “You and Madeline have proven yourselves to be superheroes when it comes to righting wrongs and fighting for the underdog. Given what I put Madeline through, and the price I’ve had to pay for my crimes, I know where her sentiments lay. I’m no detective, but I did a little poking around into Lindsay’s background and I would have to agree it seems like her trial was a bit of a farce.” He glanced down at the file, hoping it would give him a modicum of credibility.

Mike wagged his head slightly to convey his skepticism. “I still don’t see why we should get involved.”

“I think if you look at the file, you’ll come to the same conclusion that this woman just isn’t the type to kill anyone,” Steven said, clearly not enjoying having to grovel while he was trying to do a good deed.

“Almost no one is as they appear,” Mike said pointedly, “despite how they might come across. Look at you, Steven—you were God’s gift to investors and borrowers, until the truth came out. Even Madeline—who once adored you—was completely unaware of what a sociopath you are until you degraded her in the worst possible way and tried to have her killed.”

Flashbacks of Madeline covered with ligature marks, red wine, brambles and dirt when she arrived at the District Attorney’s office filled him with rage and remorse. With obvious deliberation, Mike fought the temptation to secure real justice for the woman he’d loved for more than twenty years. He turned and marched purposefully back to his car. As satisfying as it would be to unleash on Steven, it would not make Madeline happy to know that he’d taken this meeting in the first place.

After absorbing the hateful vibes, Steven gathered his courage and set out after him.

Mike swung around, barely able to control himself. There was only so much a man could take before every fiber of his being screamed for retribution.

“I think if you could just set aside the past for a moment and listen to this woman’s story, I—”

The power traveling down Mike’s arm and out his fist delivered a punch that knocked Steven sideways. The folder flew out of Steven’s hand and cartwheeled over the low brush, papers tumbling out among the patchy weeds as the satisfying sound of bone colliding with bone engendered a deep craving for more. Mike caught himself as the desire to let his feet participate in this much-deserved punishment almost overwhelmed his restraint. He glared down at the pathetic man cowering in the dirt and his anger seeped away, leaving a contemptuous pity in its place.

Steven tentatively rubbed his face as Mike gave him one final look of disgust and turned back to his old Mercedes. Steven staggered to his feet and went to retrieve the contents of the file from the brush.

“Wait,” Steven called through jaws that barely functioned as Mike reached for the door handle. The taste of blood and searing pain made him suspect a loose molar. “Just hear me out.”

Mike turned with deliberate slowness as many conflicting reactions flooded through him. He moved slowly, threateningly toward Steven.

“Forget that I’m the one who brought you this case,” Steven said as he rocked uncertainly on weak legs. “You can speak directly to the warden, get her take on it. You can imagine how rare it is for someone in her capacity to speak out on behalf of an inmate.”

The intermittent drone of the sparse traffic filled the void in the conversation. Neither man said anything for nearly a minute.

“Look, just imagine for a moment that you’re me.” Mike’s sneer strengthened Steven’s resolve. “No, seriously. Imagine that you destroyed every relationship you ever had—and I think you know a little of what I’m talking about.” Steven paused to let that sink in. He recognized the flicker of shame that passed quickly across Mike’s features.

“You remember how hard it was to regain Madeline’s trust and love. Just think how much further down I’ve sunk and all the lives I’ve ruined and what I had to face while being in the hell of my own making.”

Sensing he’d gotten his point across, Steven paused and took two heaving breaths. “I worked my way out of prison knowing that I must walk a very fine line in order to keep my freedom. The only way I have of using my…creativity and hard-won knowledge is by making a positive difference in other people’s lives.”

Mike barked out a skeptical laugh, shaking his head at Steven’s impudence.

A reasonable facsimile of shame showed on Steven face before he hung his head and concentrated on the ground beneath his feet.

“As hard as it might be for you to trust me, just keep in mind I have nothing to gain or lose here. Though I went through most of my life focused on what I needed to be happy, I can honestly say that I feel…fulfilled whenever I find placement for an inmate. But even if you don’t believe that, my record speaks for itself. Over three-hundred convicts have been assimilated back into society without recidivism in the eighteen months I’ve been doing this. But even that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what can happen now that I’ve got a government agency behind me. It’s—”

Mike held up his hand in protest. “Spare me the self-aggrandizing bullshit, Ridley.”

Steven absorbed the slight and changed his tack. “Please…just take the file. Look it over and do whatever you feel is right. That’s all I’m asking.”

Mike glared at him through narrowed eyes, as if he could penetrate the scheming mind behind the placid façade. In the end, he realized he had no need to commit anything to this man. He reached out and snatched the file out of Steven’s hand, his eyes sending a powerful message that going back to prison would be a better choice than doing anything that might jeopardize Madeline’s safety or peace of mind.

“If I’m interested in this case, I will make contact with the warden up in Chowilla, but I’m making no promises.”

With that, Mike headed to his Mercedes. Before he reached it, he turned back to Steven. “Don’t ever contact me again, for any reason.” He got in and started the car, then pulled back onto the pavement with enough speed to generate a spray of dirt mixed with gravel which settled slowly on Steven. He couldn’t help finding a small comfort in the sight of a former back-stabbing leech reduced to such humble circumstances. Still, prison is where Ridley belonged, and no amount of good deeds would ever settle the score as far as he and Madeline were concerned.

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