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Dying For Justice

Dying For Justice, May 2011
Detective Jackson #5
by L.J. Sellers

Spellbinder
Featuring: Gina; Detective Jackson; Lara Evans
310 pages
ISBN: 0983213836
EAN: 9780983213833
Kindle: B004QZ9PS8
Paperback / e-Book
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"Go along for the twists and turns on this wild, scary ride!"

Fresh Fiction Review

Dying For Justice
L.J. Sellers

Reviewed by Lynn Cunningham
Posted May 21, 2011

Mystery Police Procedural | Thriller Crime

Detective Wade Jackson has solved many homicides in his career on the police force, but the one that he's never been able to solve is the one that is the most important to him. Eleven years ago, his parents were gunned down in the middle of their living room. At the time, a handyman was arrested and convicted of the crime. Now, all these years later, this handyman, Hector Vargas, contacts Jackson, asking to see him. Vargas is dying and wants to clear up something very important with Jackson-- He isn't the man that murdered Jackson's parents. Vargas contends that he was abused into confessing and wants Jackson to know that the real murderer is still on the loose.

In the meantime, detective-in-training, Lara Evans, catches a case of a woman, Gina Stahl, who has just awakened from a 2 year coma claiming that someone tried to kill her. At the time of Gina's incident, everyone believed that she had tried to commit suicide by overdosing. Gina now claims that wasn't the case and that someone had attacked her and given her the medication. She was never supposed to wake up but she's beaten a lot of odds to do so. When it turns out that her ex-husband is a cop and she's accusing him of trying to kill her, things get really interesting.

Jackson is pulled into Evans' case while simultaneously digging into a past that he hopes will help him finally put his parents' murders to rest. The evidence keeps pointing in all sorts of directions so no one can possibly suspect what's coming with regard to both cases.

DYING FOR JUSTICE is an amazing book! You're caught up in the story that Ms. Sellers wants to tell you from the very first sentence. The characters are so real that it's like you know them. Every page brings something new and unexpected to the reader. Also, watch for some slight, but interesting, interaction between Jackson and Evans. Don't miss this one!

Learn more about Dying For Justice

SUMMARY

When Gina wakes up from a two-year coma, she realizes someone tried to kill her and make it look like suicide. Detective-in-training Lara Evans is assigned the case, but when she discovers who the main suspect is, she fears she’s in way over her head. Meanwhile Detective Jackson learns the man in prison for murdering his parents is innocent of the crime and another officer coerced the detainee into a confession.

As the two investigators work the cold files, members of their own department come under suspicion and their cases begin to overlap. Can they find the killers before the crimes of the past explode in the present?

Excerpt

Sunday, September 5, 8:05 a.m.

Jackson read the letter again, then let it fall. What the hell was this? It had to be some kind ofscam. The convict was trying to manipulate him for some gain he didn't understandyet. Vargas had confessed to the murders and entered a plea bargain toavoid the death penalty. His guilt was never in question.

Jackson pushed up from the table and took his coffee out to the back deck. The sky was blue andwarm, he had the day off, and he'd planned to take his gorgeous girlfriend on along trike ride. Life was good, he reminded himself. He sipped his coffeeand tried to remember how he'd felt before he opened the stack of mail. But hispeace of mind had been shattered.

Reluctantly, he went back in the house and called the state prison. After a short, tenseconversation, the warden agreed to let him visit that afternoon. Jackson'sconversation with Kera was longer and friendlier, and she made him promise to comeover for dinner later, with Katie. Jackson was grateful for his girlfriend'spatience with his job. Police work could be a relationship killer.

An hour later, he was cruising along I-5 on his newly built three-wheeled motorcycle, deep inthought.

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Jackson waited in a small windowless room containing only a wooden table and three chairs. Themetal chair was already bothering his surgery site and he'd only beensitting for twelve minutes. Still, it was better than waiting in the mainvisitors' area with the beaten-down wives and surly children. He felt sorry for thekids whose fathers were locked up, but he had less empathy for the women whoclung to a relationship long after the man had proved hisworthlessness.

Jackson's law enforcement status gave him a special pass to visit Hector Vargas, so a deputy hadescorted him past the other visitors, through three electronically controlledsteel doors, and down a maze of hallways to this little closet room. Hewould be allowed a private conversation with the inmate, and Jackson was bothgrateful and worried. He wasn't sure he trusted himself to be alone withthe man who'd murdered his parents. Jackson didn't know how he wouldreact. So many years had passed, and he wanted to believe he could remain cool anddetached. Just another conversation with another scumbag. He'd beenthrough so much lately—a stunning health diagnosis and surgery, followed by theshooting of a young suspect and nearly quitting his job—so his emotions feltclose to the surface.

After another five minutes, an overweight deputy with a nasal wheeze escorted Vargas intothe room. The inmate had been a small man even before the cancer consumed mostof his muscle, but now Vargas was as emaciated as an anorexic teenage girl.His mustache and knuckle tattoos seemed out of place on his fragile body.

"I'm Deputy Hutchins," the wheezer said, as he pushed Vargas into a chair. "How much time do youneed?"

"Thirty minutes at most." Jackson didn't expect to hear anything new or truthful. He was annoyedwith himself for making the trip. Yet how could he not come?

"Behave yourself, Vargas," Hutchins said with a nasty laugh.

The door slammed shut and Jackson's pulse quickened. He dreaded the emotions that were about tosurface. "I'm going to document our conversation," he announced, setting hisdigital recorder on the table. Vargas didn't object. "This is Detective Jacksonwith the Eugene Police Department. I'm in the Oregon State Penitentiary inSalem at the request of an inmate. Please state your name."

"Hector Vargas. I make this statement willingly."

Jackson got right to the point. "You confessed to killing Clark and Evelyn Jackson, then entereda plea bargain. Why should I believe anything you say?"

"I have cancer and I'm dying. I have no reason to lie." Vargas' dark eyes were watery but they heldno deceit. "I didn't kill your parents. They were good to me, and I'mashamed that I took their money, but I never hurt them. Never!" Vargas' speechhad a Hispanic accent, and Jackson suspected English was not his firstlanguage.

"Why did you confess to their murders?" This was the part that made no sense.

Hector hunched forward, his voice intense. "The police kept me in a little room for threedays. They screamed and threatened my family. They held a gun to my head. For threedays, I had little food and water. They left my hands cuffed and wouldn't letme use the toilet." Fear and bitterness transformed the inmate's face. "I wetmyself and became so hungry I was dizzy. If I fell asleep they would wake me. Atthe end, I didn't know what I was saying. I just wanted it to stop."

Jackson didn't want to believe it could have happened in his department, but much had changed inthe last decade. Eleven years earlier, he'd still been a patrol officer but he'dheard rumors. The sergeant who'd run the violent crimes division back thenwas old school and not exactly respectful of anyone who wasn't white andmale. "Why should I believe you?"

Vargas rolled up his sleeve to display two small round purplish scars. "Detective Bekker burned mewith a cigarette."

Jackson stayed silent. He was starting to believe Vargas, and rage made his chest tighten. Hehated officers who abused their power and made the rest of the department lookbad. Even more, he was outraged they had not searched for and caught the realkiller. "What was the other detective's name?"

"Santori. He seemed to be following the older cop's lead."

Jackson wrote down the names, but he would never forget them. Rick Santori was now working ininternal affairs, and the irony of that was hard to take. Gary Bekker hadtransferred out of the detective unit a few years back for a promotion to patrolsergeant. Jackson knew both men, but not well enough to say what they werecapable of. "Why did you wait so long to tell someone about this? Why didn'tyour family hire a lawyer?"

"We had no money. My wife and kids moved to New Mexico to stay with her brother. And I knew God waspunishing me, so I accepted it." Vargas let out a small noise, like a mantrying to hide his pain. "I took your parents' money and I'm ashamed of that." Hehung his head for a moment, then looked up with pleading eyes. "My family washungry and we were about to be evicted. I was desperate and I knew the moneywas just sitting there. I planned to put it back when I could."

He paused, but Jackson didn't offer any empathy, so Vargas continued. "When they found the money inmy house, they called me a killer and slammed my head into a wall. I wasshocked to hear the Jacksons were dead. I told the police I didn't do it, butthey wouldn't listen. They said I had killed a cop's parents and I would pay, oneway or another."

Guilt fueled Jackson's anger and he didn't trust himself to speak. Vargas had spent elevenyears in prison for a crime he didn't commit. For the theft alone, he would havebeen released in less than a year. Finally Jackson said, "Tell me about theday my parents died. I want to know everything."

Relief washed over Vargas' face as he sensed that Jackson believed him. "I came to the house tofinish building the little rock wall in the front yard. I had done a lot ofjobs for your parents and they liked my work. No one was there when I arrived,but I thought they would be home soon so I got started." Vargas winced in painand held his stomach.

Jackson waited him out. He still had twinges of pain from his own surgery that spring, butcancer was in a class by itself. "Do they give you medication for the pain?"

"Some," Vargas said through clenched teeth. In a moment, he continued his story. "I had to usethe bathroom, so I went around to the back of the house. Your mother alwaysleft the back door open for me when I was working so I could use the toilet bythe laundry room. I checked to see if it was open and it was. She knew I wouldbe there that afternoon."

Jackson's heart ached with the memory of his mother's kindness. For people who worked hard and livedhonestly, she would do almost anything. His father had been kind as well, but alittle more cautious. Jackson could imagine him disagreeing with hiswife's decision to leave the back door open for Vargas. "You went into thehouse?"

"I did. I regret that." Another flash of guilt, or maybe just cancer pain. "When I left thebathroom, I heard a radio playing in the back of the house. I thought maybe someonewas home, so I called out. No one answered so I went down the hall. Their bedroomdoor was open and the room looked messy, like someone had been searching forsomething. It was odd. I had never seen your parents' house look like that.Everything was always perfect."

Oh yes, Jackson thought. Clean as a whistle. He'd had his ears twisted as a young boy for wearing muddyshoes in the house.

"I saw the closet was open and the locked grey box was sitting there. I knew it had money so Igrabbed it and left. I went out the back like I came in, then I got in mytruck and drove home. I broke the box with a sledge hammer and found athousand dollars in it." Vargas moved his cuffed hands from his lap to the smalltable. "It was enough money to take my family and leave Eugene. I called mycousin in Redding and told him we were coming. My wife wasn't happy with me, butshe wanted to leave Eugene too. We weren't doing that well here. We packedeverything and waited for the kids to come home from school, but the police gotthere first. I was stunned when they said your parents were dead. I never sawthem that day."

Jackson thought parts of his story didn't add up. "You said the cash box was just sitting onthe closet shelf in plain sight?"

"It was on the floor, but yes, in plain sight."

Why would his parents get their cash box out and leave the house with the back door unlocked? Andwhy had their bedroom looked messy? "You searched the room, looking for themoney, didn't you?"

"No."

"How did you know the box had money in it?"

Vargas shrugged. "I knew your parents. They were old and careful and they always had cash."

Old and careful. He had thought of them that way toowhen he was a kid. Yet they were alsosweet. His father had been stern at times, but he'd hugged his boys everynight before bed for as long as they put up with it. Jackson tried to fill the holein his heart with details from the case. He had to think like aninvestigator, not a grieving son. His parents had been found dead in the living room.Both shot with an unregistered gun that had never been located. A coffeetable had been knocked on its side and his father's body had bruises that wereconsistent with a fight.

"Did you tell any of your friends or relatives that my parents kept money in their house?"

"No." Vargas was emphatic. "I didn't think about the money until that day when I saw the cashbox."

"Did any of your acquaintances own a handgun?"

"I hardly knew anyone in Eugene. We'd only been there for a year. Their deaths had nothing to dowith me, I swear." Vargas made the sign of the cross on his chest. "I willsoon meet God and I'm trying to make everything right. I'm telling you this nowso you can find the real killer."

Jackson believed him. "Did you see or hear anything that seemed out of place that day?"

"Not really."

"You said you came to finish a brick wall. Did you work the day before?"

"Yes, for about five hours. Why?"

"How did my parents seem that week? Were they worried? Did they argue about anything?" Vargas wasprobably not the right person to ask, but he had to start somewhere.

"Everything seemed fine." Vargas grimaced and held his stomach again. "I have no idea whowould hurt your parents. They were very kind. The had no enemies.

Except the bastard who shot them. Despair washed over Jackson. His chance of finding the killer—or killers— after all this time seemed hopeless. He had no crime sceneto analyze, no witnesses to interrogate. Even if the samepeople still lived next door to hisparents' house, what were the odds they would remember anything useful after elevenyears?

He had to try, but he worried he would make himself crazy in the process. He tended to becomeobsessive about working a case, even when the dead were strangers to him. "Whatelse can you tell me about that day? Any little detail could help."

"I didn't see Clark and Evelyn. They weren't home and the truck was gone."

"The car was there and the truck was gone?"

"That's right."

Jackson didn't know how it could be connected, but if they had taken the truck, they expectedto buy something big or haul something dirty. He felt jumpy now, anxious to getout of the cramped windowless room. He stood. "Thank you for telling me this."He wouldn't apologize to Vargas for the way the detectives had treatedhim. Someone should, but it was not his responsibility. If the handyman hadn'ttaken the money, he wouldn't be here.

"Thank you for believing me." A strange look passed over Vargas' face. He started to say something,then stopped.

"What is it?"

"Probably nothing."

"Tell me anyway."

"You asked about the day before. Late in the afternoon, right before I left, your brother Derrickcame to see your parents. He had a duffle bag and a suitcase with him, likehe planned to stay for a while."

"Did he say anything to you?" Jackson didn't think the information was relevant. Derrick hadmoved in and out of his parents' house a few times.

"We didn't talk. He rushed into the house and I left soon after."

"If you think of anything else, please contact me." Jackson pressed the red buzzer to summon theguard.

 

On the drive home, he rehearsed telling his boss, Sergeant Denise Lammers, that he wanted to work anold case that had been successfully adjudicated. No matter how he presented it,Lammers didn't approve, even in his visualized version.

She wouldn't like that he was personally connected to the case,and she would hate hearing that two Eugene law enforcement personnel hadabused a suspect until he confessed, even if it had happened a decade ago.Typically, if an officer violated department rules, the case would be turnedover to internal affairs. But one of the accused, Santori, was now working in IA, sowhat was the protocol? The district attorney would also have to benotified as the one to files new charges...if Jackson found the real perpetrator.

It was screwed up at least six ways.

Two young guys in a sports car passed and gave him a thumbs-up. His three-wheeled motorcycleoften affected people that way, and it gave Jackson a jolt of pride every time.The memory of building it from a pile of VW and motorcycle parts helped him clearhis mind and enjoy the rush of wind on his face. He didn't get manyopportunities to experience the open road.

By the time he reached Eugene, he'd decided to keep the case to himself and work it on his ownfor a while. He would focus on finding a new suspect and not bring up theabuse of Vargas just yet. They were separate circumstances, and bringing justiceto his parents was more important than punishing two cops who'd thought theywere doing Jackson a favor at the time, however misguided it was. He would notlet the abuse go forever though.

 

Jackson pulled into his driveway on Harris Street, relieved to be home. Before putting thetrike in the garage, he took a moment to gaze at the canopy of trees over the cozybungalow he'd lived in for fourteen years. The For Sale sign in thefront yard disturbed him every time he saw it. He didn't really want to move, buthis ex-wife owned half of the house, and she was pressuring him for her equity.Other than sell, his only option was to refinance on his own, then take outanother loan to buy out the thirty grand she figured she had coming. His banker hadsaid he'd never qualify for both.

After a long talk with Katie, Jackson had put the house on the market and they'd talked about movingin with Kera—and her entourage—when it sold. He was still trying to come togrips with all the changes in store for him.

While he waited for Katie to come home, Jackson sat at his kitchen table and made a list of thingshe could do to get the investigation rolling: 1) find the old case file andread through the paperwork, 2) talk to old neighbors, 3) callDerrick.

The last entry would be the hardest. He hadn't spoken to his brother since the month after theirparents' funeral. They'd argued about what to do with the house and personalitems. Their parents' will had instructed that the house be sold and the profitssplit. Derrick, who had just moved back in, wanted to stay in the home and buyout Jackson's half of the inheritance. Jackson knew his brother would probablynever pay him, but in the end, he'd given in rather than be an ass about it.Derrick had made only two payments, but he was still living in the house. Afteran argument about the equity, ten years of silence had followed. Jackson nevermeant for the rift to go on that long, but somehow it had.

He didn't care about the money, even though he needed it now more than ever. It was theprinciple. Derrick had caused his parents a lot of grief as a young man. He'd beenin one mess after another. Even after he settled down and found steady work,he never quite paid his own way. Jackson resented the burden Derrick had beento his parents when they were alive, and he resented Derrick's presence intheir real estate now.

But he had to put all that aside because he needed Derrick's cooperation. Some of their parents'personal items were likely still in storage in the house and Jackson wanted toexamine everything. He didn't know what he expected to find, but it was a placeto start. Someone had come to the house and shot Clark and Evelyn Jackson.Now that robbery was not the motive, there had to be another reason.

The front door flew open and Katie rushed in, finding him at the kitchen table, his favoriteplace to think and talk. "Hey, Dad. I discovered a great band today. Have you everheard of Rebel Jar?"

"They're local, right?"

"Yes, and they're awesome." She dropped her backpack on the floor. "What are you thinking about?You look sad."

"My brother Derrick."

"Are you going to call him?"

"I plan to stop by and see him."

"Woohoo!" Katie gave him a high five. "About freaking time."

Later at Kera's house, he rang the doorbell but no one answered. They heard voices and a babycrying.

"Let's just go in," Katie said. "Kera told me to treat her house like my home." His daughteropened the door and called out, "We're here." Jackson followed her in.

Kera, her daughter-in-law Danette, and little Micah were in her bright spacious kitchen. Danetteheld the red-faced baby over her shoulder while Kera tried to rub hisgums. "Oh hi," she said, giving Jackson a kiss as he stepped close. "Micah isteething."

"Red licorice works wonders for that," Jackson teased.

Kera gave him an indulgent smile, and Jackson felt happy for the first time that day. Tall andmuscular, with long copper hair and wide cheekbones, Kera was a striking womanwho made people of both genders stare. He'd met her during a homicide case theyear before, and they'd started dating soon after. At that point, she was livingalone in the house, still grieving for her son who'd died in Iraq.

"If we get desperate, we'll try the licorice," Kera responded. "For now, a little of thisnumbing gel should work."

"What are we having for dinner?" Katie asked, peeking in the oven.

"Chicken enchiladas and corn salad."

"Yum. Can I hold Micah?" Katie held out her arms. Jackson was surprised by how bonded his daughterhad become to Kera's grandchild.

"Sure." Danette, who looked much like Kera even though they weren't genetically related, handedMicah to Katie and the baby squealed with joy. The young mother had datedKera's son before he shipped out to Iraq and Kera had taken her in after thebaby was born. Jackson loved Kera for her generosity, but Danette's presence hadaltered the course of their relationship.

During dinner, Kera asked both young women about the classes they'd signed up for. Danette wouldsoon start at Lane Community College to take prerequisites for nursing school.Jackson didn't think she seemed like the nurturing type, but he kept it tohimself. He listened to the women talk about school, careers, andclothes—between interruptions for feeding and wiping the baby—and wonderedwhat it would be like to experience this every night. Was he ready to movein here when his house sold?

"You're pretty quiet, Wade," Kera said later, as they cleaned up in the kitchen.

"I keep thinking about my parents and how to investigate their case." He'd called and told herabout the letter before visiting the prison.

"Is there a file from the original investigation?"

"I'll find out tomorrow."

The concern on her beautiful face made his heart swell. Jackson reached for Kera, pressing hislips to hers in a lingering kiss. "When are we going to be alone next?"

"I'll have to come to your place. Danette never goes anywhere." Kera whispered and kissed his ear atthe same time. Jackson filled with lust and had to step back. The kidscould burst in at any moment.

"I think Katie has plans to be out of the house this Friday."

Kera gave him a wicked smile. "I hope I can wait that long."

His daughter stepped in and announced. "Micah won't stop hiccupping. What should I do?"

"Make him laugh," Kera said. "If that doesn't work, bring him to me."

When Katie left, his girlfriend asked, "Have you had any buyers interested in your house?"

"An older couple looked at it last week, but I haven't heard back from them." Jackson loaded dishesas they talked. "My agent thinks I should lower the price."

"Are you going to?"

"It seems too soon."

"It's been on the market all summer."

Jackson was quiet.

"Are you having second thoughts about moving in here?"

He'd had second and third thoughts by now. "I admit, it makes me a little nervous, but nothinghas changed. I want to get out of my mortgage with Renee and I want to wake upevery day with you."

"Then let's get your house sold. Maybe you need a new agent."

"We'll drop the price a little first and see what happens."

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Just be patient with me. Especially while I investigate my parents' murders."

"I'm worried that you'll lose yourself in this one."

"Me too."


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