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Doug Bard has been a detective with the sheriff’s department in La Graciosa, California, long enough to know the score. Now that an influx of upscale chain stores and luxury housing has turned sleepy Chumash County into a boom town, the last thing anyone wants is crime casting a shadow over the prosperity. But Bard also knows he’s not the kind of man who can write off a double fatality as a tragic accident—especially when all his instincts tell him it was murder.
When a devastating housefire claims the lives of a kindly local retiree and his eleven-year-old piano student, District Attorney Angela Stark wastes no time declaring the blaze a mishap. But the verdict just doesn’t sit right with Bard. Inconclusive but troubling clues—marks on the dead girl’s neck, a strange bootprint on a kicked-in door—are enough to make the veteran detective buck the party line and fight to keep the case open. It’s a stand that puts the renegade Bard at odds yet again with his superiors. Until a suspect surfaces.
Placed at the scene of the deadly fire by an eyewitness, Jed Jeremiah is a backwoods loner with a homicide conviction in his past. But even as the sensational murder trial gets under way, the same instincts that told Bard there was foul play afoot now convince him that the wrong man may face the death penalty—and a calculating killer is still at large.
Defying the sheriff and the D.A. and putting his job on the line, Bard begins to dig for the truth. What he discovers is a shocking link to his own past—one that will put the people he loves most in deadly jeopardy.
From crime scene to courtroom, Lines of Defense unravels a cunningly plotted tale of detection and justice. Michael Connelly has declared, “with Barry Siegel you don’t read a story. You feel it. You live it. And you always want more.” The third novel by the acclaimed author of Actual Innocence and The Perfect Witness brilliantly proves him right, on all counts.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Barry Siegel is the author of four previous books: Actual Innocence, The Perfect Witness, Shades of Gray: Ordinary People in Extraordinary Circumstances, and A Death in White Bear Lake, which was nominated for an Edgar Award in the Best Fact Crime category. He is a Pulitzer Prize–winning national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.
From the Hardcover edition.
In La Graciosa, ten miles from the sea, the most luminous summer evening can still suggest winter’s chill. The central plaza’s park benches, its bear statue, the winding creek, even the asistencia itself can abruptly vanish behind a low, thick wall of fog. Cars crawl then, blinking futile headlights. Pedestrians step with care, searching for familiar landmarks. Muffled voices blend with the smell of kelp. Invisible feet crunch on gravel.
“Goddamn, Jimmy, you know where we’re going?” Douglas Bard, Chumash County sheriff’s detective, peered into the mist.
“Of course I do,” promised Jimmy O’Brien, editor of La Graciosa’s News-Times. “I can find my way to JB’s blindfolded.”
“Just what I’d expect of a journalist. No doubt you’ve memorized each step from the newspaper to the tavern?”
“That would require far too much concentration. I’m just following the smell of whiskey.”
“All I smell is seawater.”
“Jesus, Doug, how can you be a detective if you can’t find your way to JB’s?”
In truth, Doug Bard could find his way anywhere, for he held in his mind an intricate image of Chumash County. When all else failed, this mental map guided him through the densest fog. He savored La Graciosa’s misty insulation. To him, it felt like the protective embrace of home.
“That’s why I need you, Jimmy. You’re better than a guide dog. Without you I couldn’t—”
A burst of static from Bard’s two-way radio interrupted him. At first he heard only a crackly electronic hiss. Then a distant voice. Jake Baum, the sheriff’s dispatcher.
Trouble at Ollie Merta’s house . . . not sure what’s up . . . urgent open call . . . Whoever’s listening, get on out there . . . need all the help we can get tonight . . . Repeat, this is urgent . . .
“Ollie Merta?” Jimmy frowned. He knew Merta as a kindly if peculiar old man. Not someone to have trouble at his house. “What’s that about?”
“I don’t want to know,” Doug said. “I’m off duty.”
“As are all your colleagues.”
Jimmy had a point. It was early Sunday evening, so there were only two deputies working. Likely, one would be trying to resolve another of the Clackhorns’ sorry domestic disputes, while the other would be in bed with the Foghorn’s barmaid, his radio turned off. Bard gazed in the direction of JB’s, then turned and started for his car. “Okay Jimmy, you win. Hold a stool for me at JB’s, I’ll be there just as soon as I can.”
“What do you mean, hold a stool? I’m coming with you.”
“Why bother?” Bard asked. “Haven’t you already closed tomorrow’s paper?”
“I can reopen it if I want. That’s the awesome power of a small-town newspaper editor.”
Ollie Merta’s home, ten miles from La Graciosa’s central plaza, sat by itself in a tranquil, oak-thick dell framed by the eastern foothills of Chumash County. Bard kept his foot heavy on the accelerator despite the fog. Heading down a twisting country lane, he and Jimmy could see a pink glow in the distance. Black smoke began to fill the sky as they closed on the house. Rolling around a final bend, they found three county fire trucks and four sheriff’s patrol cars, their blinking red lights piercing the mist. A dozen men milled about while radios screeched.
The fire was out. Merta’s house, drenched now and smashed apart, had burned half to the ground.
“Christ,” Bard said, sitting motionless behind his steering wheel.
Next to him, peering through the windshield, Jimmy counted the officers. “Nearly everyone with a badge or siren seems to have shown up.”
“Even the honorable sheriff himself.”
Doug climbed out of his car and walked over to Sheriff Howie Dixon. He studied his boss, holding back, waiting. Dixon had a bristly crew cut, a barrel chest, and hands like catcher’s mitts. He didn’t get out in the field much anymore. He preferred the comfort of his office, where he could swivel about in his high-backed leather chair and work the battery of phones that kept him linked to everyone who mattered in Chumash County. At the moment he looked indisposed, as if suffering from indigestion or an aversion to the smoky night air.
“Goddamn it, Doug,” Dixon said. “What’s that reporter doing in your car?”
“As you know, Howie, Jimmy isn’t a reporter anymore. He’s the editor of the News-Times.”
“Reporter, editor, what the hell. He’s the press.”
It’s obvious you can and will print anything you see fit. That was Dixon’s standard response whenever Jimmy O’Brien sought his comments about a controversial investigation. When out-of-town reporters left phone messages, he offered even less. “You do whatever you wish,” he’d write to them, “but I have no intention of spending county money on a long-distance phone call to you.”
Bard watched Dixon seethe as Jimmy climbed out of the car. “O’Brien was with me when the call came in,” Doug explained. “So I let him hitchhike. He’d have made it out here by himself anyway.”
“Maybe so,” Dixon snapped, “but he’ll have to stay back. This is a restricted zone right now.”
Bard looked toward O’Brien. “Hear that, Jimmy?”
“Hear what?” the newspaper editor called out. “You know my ears aren’t so good.”
Dixon turned away and gazed at the smoldering house. “There’s a body inside,” he said, talking softly now. “I assume it’s Ollie. Been so hot, we haven’t pulled him out yet.”
Bard stared at the sheriff. “He’s still in there?”
Dixon nodded and shifted on his feet.
“Still too hot?” Bard asked.
“The fire crew just went in for him.”
Bard stepped toward the ruined home. He steeled himself for whatever he’d find. Fire victims, burned a blackish brown, grimy and blistered, were among the worst corpses to look at. Sometimes there was no face left at all, no ears, no hands or feet. You were supposed to deal with death in a clinical manner, not project a personality on the body. But looking at such victims, Bard always thought, that’s someone’s husband or mother or child.
Squinting, handkerchief to his mouth, he entered what was once Ollie’s living room. Smoke filled his throat and made his eyes water. He moved slowly, feeling his way with his hands. He sank to his knees when he reached Merta’s body. Ollie lay curled on the floor in the shell of a bathroom, watched over by two silent, ash-covered firemen. Recognizing Gergin and Turloff through their grime, Bard murmured a greeting. With relief, he saw that they’d quenched the fire before it had entirely consumed Merta. He still had a face. You could tell it was him. His shaggy brows and thick gray mustache were burned off, but those were Ollie’s big funny ears, that was Ollie’s round gnomish body. A lifelong bachelor, he’d lived alone, in his own way. Watching him ride his small mule along the Graciosa Creek horse trail, it was easy to consider him eccentric. Merta wasn’t the least bit disagreeable, though. Not to Bard, at least.
He rose and continued stepping through the wreckage. Charred shelves, blistered cans, mounds of ashes—slowly he worked through the residue of Ollie Merta’s life. A pile of toasted books, a stack of old melted record albums, a scorched computer . . . Bard stopped. In a corner of the kitchen, a crumpled form half-hidden under charred beams caught his eye. He walked over, sank again to his knees. For an instant, he felt dizzy. Another body. This one much smaller, under five feet. The burned ribbon in her hair looked pale blue. A little girl. No more than ten or eleven. Just about the age of Bard’s daughter.
“Two bodies,” he called out. “Not one.”
Sheriff Dixon was suddenly at his side, bending over. Shock spread across his broad wrinkled face.
“A little girl,” Bard said. “Any idea who she is?”
“Who says it’s a little girl?”
Bard looked up at Dixon. “I do.”
Another figure suddenly appeared beside Dixon. In the gloom, Bard squinted, trying to see who had joined them. Keen dark eyes set in a pale oval face stared back. Usually, Chumash County District Attorney Angela Stark wore her long raven-black hair pulled across her scalp, but now it fell loosely to her shoulders. Instead of her customary business suit, she was wearing a black-matte jersey dress and three-inch heels. The dress clung to her body. Fresh from another high-powered dinner party, Bard figured. His eyes moved slowly down her legs.
Stark said, “What are you looking at, Bard?”
Bard nodded at the small form. “A second body. Ollie Merta wasn’t alone. As I was telling the sheriff, it’s a little girl.”
A tremor played across Stark’s face, or so it seemed to Bard. In the gloom, he couldn’t be sure. Studying her now, he saw only her customary steel, a steel that usually came tempered with a good deal of impatience. The DA rarely responded to a dispatcher’s call. She wasn’t one for field work, preferring to contemplate the big picture, which—she made plain—she felt Chumash County sorely lacked. She spent considerable time at legal conferences, plotting possible runs for statewide office. She liked her action fast paced. Being under pressure ga...
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