wrongfulChapter 1

Friday, Nov. 21, 7:45 a.m.

YOUR DAUGHTER IS A WHORE. Clare Devonshire drew in a sharp breath. The phone pinged again, and a second text landed. No message this time, just an attached video. Fear pulsed through her torso. Paralyzed, she stared at the device. A third ping signaled another text. If Ashley was in some kind of trouble she had to know. Bracing for the worst, she clicked it open. The message was brief: The video will go viral unless you pay me $15,000 to destroy it. You have until five today to get the cash. If you call the police, I’ll post it everywhere. I’ll text with instructions soon.

Oh god. What had her daughter done? Clare tried not to think about the money. They had just cashed out a retirement fund to pay their portion of her husband’s second round of leukemia treatment. And they’d maxed out their credit cards long ago. With a shaking hand, she plugged her phone into her laptop, downloaded the file, and clicked it open. In a low-lit room, Ashley lay on a mattress, naked, with her eyes closed. The bed was pushed up against a wall, covered with only a wrinkled white sheet. The camera focused on her daughter’s face, then zoomed in on her pubic area. A hand came into the picture, covered by an elbow-length, dark-leather glove. The bastard began to fondle Ashley’s genitals. Her daughter didn’t move. She was unconscious! Coffee soured in Clare’s stomach. The man began to probe Ashley’s vagina, and Clare moved to shut it off.

But not fast enough.

“What are you watching?” Her daughter rushed into her small office and leaned over her shoulder. “Was that me? Turn it back on!”

The look on her daughter’s face hurt Clare’s heart. “You don’t need to see it.” She stood and tried to take Ashley into her arms.

Her daughter pushed her away. “Where did that come from?”

“It was texted to me.” Clare didn’t want Ashley to know about the blackmail. “But don’t worry, we’ll handle it.”

“How?” Ashley shrieked. “It’s a video. It’s probably online already!” She burst into tears. “If people see it, I can’t go back to school.”

The outburst brought her husband into the room, his pale, gaunt face pinched with concern. “What’s going on?”

Clare would have preferred not to burden him with more stress. He’d been through so much recently, just to stay alive. “Let’s all sit down and be calm,” she said. “We have to figure out what happened, then decide our next move.”

Jay’s eyes darted back and forth between the two, but he didn’t sit. “What is this about?”

“Read the text.” Clare handed him her phone.

“What does it say?” Ashley demanded. “I have a right to know.”

Clare couldn’t hold back a sigh. “He wants money to destroy the video.”

“How much?” Ashley started to cry. “I’m so sorry.”

Through clenched teeth, her husband said, “We have to call the police.”

Clare knew he was right. But Ashley shrieked, “No! I’m not talking to the cops. I’m not getting a rape kit. I’ll kill myself first.” She was sixteen and fully developed, but emotionally still a kid.

“Sit down, Ashley!” Clare had to take charge before her daughter lost control. The girl was high strung and probably needed a prescription, but they’d tried to teach her meditation and self-calming techniques instead. Clare didn’t trust antidepressants, or any mental health drugs for that matter. “Take three deep breaths and visualize yourself at the beach with all this in the past. You’ll get there soon.”

Ashley started to breathe in, then ran to the hall bathroom, where they heard her vomiting.

Jay squeezed Clare’s hand. “Did you watch the video?”

“Only the first minute. Ashley is naked and unconscious and being sexually molested.”

Jay let out a guttural sound, then jumped up and swore like a bouncer at a biker rally. He paced the room, shouting questions. “How did this happen? Where was she? Did you ask her?”

“Not yet. She got hysterical.”

“I’m calling the police.”

“Wait. Let’s find out what we can from Ashley first. Maybe we can handle this.”

“We don’t have that kind of money anymore. We should call the police.”

“He said he would post the video if we did.” Clare heard her own voice rise in pitch. “What are the cops going to do? They’ll never find him in time to help us.”

Ashley came back into the room, her face chalk white and damp from being splashed. “Don’t do anything! Don’t call the police and don’t pay him. This is my fault.”

“Who is he?” Clare finally asked. “Do you know him?”

“No!” Her daughter’s eyes were wild with pain. “I was at a party, and I must have blacked out. I woke up in front of the house after midnight, and I knew I’d been raped.”

“When did this happen?” Her husband’s voice had a tortured quality—as if he knew the answer would hurt.

And it did.

“Wednesday. The last night you were in the hospital.” Ashley glanced over at Clare. “Mom was out with friends.”

Guilt ripped at her guts, and Clare lashed out. “Goddammit! One fucking night to cut loose and be a person, instead of a nursemaid or a mother or housekeeper. And now we all have to pay for it!”

Her husband and daughter both looked stunned—Jay, with his mouth open, and Ashley with tight, angry lips.

“I’m sorry.” Clare met her daughter’s eyes. “This isn’t your fault. You were victimized. But you need to tell us everything about the party. What house? Who was there? Who did you talk to?”

“I can’t! My friends will hate me.” Ashley spun and fled the room.

Clare turned to Jay, her jaw aching with tension. “Should we just borrow the money and pay him?”

Her mild-mannered husband slammed a fist into the back of a chair, making her jump. “Even if we could get a bank loan, it’ll take a week.” His face twisted into a derisive sneer. “Do you want to ask your mother for it?”

“You know I can’t. What do we do?”

“I don’t know yet.” Her husband’s voice was so tight, he sounded like a stranger.

Clare’s cell phone pinged again. “That’s him, texting with instructions.”

“Tell him we need more time.”


* * *

Friday, Nov. 21, 5:25 p.m.

Officer Dan Thompson recoiled at the man’s smell—booze, piss, and a splash of vomit. But he handed the homeless guy a blanket and a pair of wool socks. Everyone had a story, and some people’s bad luck started early in life. “Find shelter and stay warm tonight.” The old man thanked him and headed back toward the camp, a hodgepodge of ragged tents and cardboard lean-tos. It wasn’t a sponsored, supervised site like Opportunity Village or the rest stops, but those sleeping areas were limited in how many they could accept. This camp was farther from the town’s center than usual, but his fellow officers routinely rousted the campers, forcing them to keep moving.

Only a few more people lined up near the back of his truck, where he handed out jackets, blankets, and whatever warm items the community had donated over the last week. He did the giveaway every year when the temperature dropped down. It was always on his own time, but he’d kept his uniform on to help build goodwill with the homeless community. His weapon was locked in the truck for the same reason.

A woman with a young child stepped up. “Do you have a jacket for my daughter?” The mother was still in her twenties, but even in the fading light he could tell she’d been homeless long enough for her facial skin to develop a protective thickness.

“I’m sorry, but I gave away the children’s coats at Shelter Care.” The complex where homeless families with young children could stay temporarily had been his first stop. But why wasn’t this woman in a shelter? This camp wasn’t safe for children. He handed her a blanket and a sweater. “This is the only clothing I have left.”

“Thanks, officer.”

“Where are you sleeping tonight?”

“In a tent here with a friend.”

“It’s freezing, and your daughter should be in a shelter.”

“I know.” Her face crumpled with anguish. “But I missed my intake appointment because I had a job interview. Then I didn’t get the job.” Tears rolled down her face.

Thompson dug for his wallet and held out a couple of twenties, all he had left. “Go get a motel room for tonight, then show up at Shelter Care first thing tomorrow morning and talk to Gayle.”

The woman hesitated for a brief second, then grabbed the cash and stuffed it into her front jeans pocket. “Thank you so much.” The woman and child hurried away, heading back toward Sixth Avenue where they could find a cheap room rental.

Thompson handed his last blanket to the next man in line, thirty-something with a full beard, but clean—and based on his eye contact—sober too.

Thompson looked at two men in line behind him. “I’m sorry but I’m out of stuff.” No matter how much he collected, it was never enough.

“Do you have more money?” One asked, stepping toward him.

Thompson recognized him and his brother. Twins—who’d been a part of Eugene’s street scene for as long as he could remember. Henry and Jacob. But he could never tell them apart.

“No. I’m done here. Sorry.” Thompson closed the tailgate and climbed in his truck. There was nothing more he could do for the homeless tonight. Engaging with the mentally ill brothers would be a waste of time.

He sat for a moment, watching the camp a half block away. This one didn’t have sponsors, stability, or a portable toilet like several others in town did. It was chaotic and messy, with an ever-changing population. The drunks and crazies stayed here because they weren’t welcome—at least for long—in the other camps, and most had been banned from the Mission. But they were still people, and he slept better at night knowing they wouldn’t freeze to death on his watch. The cold had come early this year, and the warming centers weren’t open yet, so people on the street were vulnerable.

Thompson reached for his keys, ready to go home, pour a shot of bourbon, and unwind. If he could. He had a lot on his mind and tough choices to make. A knock on the passenger’s window startled him, and he turned. Now what?

Buy Wrongful Death.