by Ann Roberts
The greatest hold on the present is the past.
For twenty-five years the memory of her brother’s murder has followed Ari Adams like a shadowy companion. Now Ari has found new evidence, a picture of Richie’s killer and a new hope for justice. But what seemed to be a simple botched robbery proves to be far more sinister.
To uncover the truth Ari must confront her own grief and misery—and face her father, Detective Jack Adams, who also blames himself for Richie’s death.
The seventh installment of Ann Roberts’ award-winning series finds detective Ari Adams on the search of her life, where guilt and resentment can only be extinguished by justice.
An Ari Adams Mystery Series Book 7.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Who killed Richie Adams?
I’ve been waiting to answer that question since the beginning of the Ari Adams mystery series, but timing is everything. The seeds for Justice Calls were planted over a decade ago in the first Ari Adams mystery, Paid in Full. Ari knew her eight-year-old brother Richie was collateral damage during a convenience store holdup, but she knew little else. The killer escaped and Ari and her family struggled with loss throughout her youth—and the gaping hole Richie’s death left in their lives.
I had not determined the details of Richie’s murder at the beginning of the series, but each book added more texture and definition to Ari and her family—their dark side, their secrets, and the overwhelming guilt each one carried about Richie’s death. It would have been impossible for Ari to solve Richie’s murder early in the series because she wasn’t ready yet. She wasn’t a good enough amateur detective with the confidence necessary to balance her overwhelming feelings for her little brother and the logical search for clues and evidence that would reveal his killer.
And then…the cliffhanger-ending of A Secret to Tell.
Justice Calls, like all the books in the Ari Adams series, stands alone. Many readers have read the series out of order, but there is a definite setup between Secret and Justice, as the character of Richie is introduced through flashbacks in A Secret to Tell.
So, think of this as a pitch for two books, not one. If you haven’t yet read A Secret to Tell, I’d read it first. And to those of you who’ve followed the series religiously… Here’s what you’ve been waiting for."—Ann Roberts
This is Richie’s blood.
Ari Adams turned over the large plastic bag, the word EVIDENCE written in bold script across a label slapped haphazardly to one side. The bag contained a portion of her dead brother Richie’s baseball card collection, his 1992 Dodger stack, made crimson when he dropped to the floor after being shot. Most of the cards had congealed, but she could still read the name on the top card. Darryl Strawberry, Richie’s favorite player.
He would routinely lay the trading cards across the kitchen table, like a version of solitaire only he understood, his somber expression conveying the importance of his work. She’d imagined he was memorizing his baseball statistics. While he collected cards for all the teams, his favorite was the L.A. Dodgers. He’d coveted the Strawberry card and always kept it on top of his Dodger stack. He had the entire 1992 Dodger team—except for Eric Karros, the first baseman. Richie had died searching for that last card. Her hands shook as she set the bag on the floor. His beloved cards defaced by his own blood…
She raced downstairs to the bathroom. A strong whiff of pine suggested her father’s cleaning lady had visited recently. She leaned over the toilet but the sick feeling passed. It was time for a break. She headed for the kitchen and a glass of water, mulling over her actions. Have I committed burglary?
She had a key to her father’s house, and she had a specific reason for her visit today: to water his two ferns, Lucy and Ethel. He was vacationing with his new girlfriend, Dylan Phillips, Phoenix’s Chief of Police. It was a test to see if they could travel together. Ari liked Dylan and had come to terms with her father’s romantic involvement with someone who wasn’t her mother. After Lucia died from cancer, Jack Adams had closed off his heart—until he met the new chief.
But Ari had an ulterior motive for her visit. She was here for answers, ones her cop father wouldn’t provide. As she passed a mirror in the hallway, she glanced at her reflection—and saw her mother. Her short, black hair framed her Mediterranean features, olive skin, chestnut brown eyes, aquiline nose. She’d always considered Lucia beautiful, but it wasn’t a quality she’d ever associate with herself. She hated wearing makeup or formal clothes, anything that required much attention to herself. Fortunately, her girlfriend Molly didn’t care.
She headed back upstairs to Jack’s office and opened a window, welcoming the fresh scents of spring and allowing the cool April morning breeze to circulate throughout the room. It provided a counterbalance to the tableau on the floor: the evidence bag of bloody baseball cards, Richie’s Dodger hat, a scrapbook, and his case file. She’d found it all underneath a false bottom of a drawer in her father’s desk, a desk he’d built himself.
She sifted through the contents of his in-basket—electric bill, storage unit bill, and weekly ads. At the bottom was a greeting card with a sexy message on the front. She groaned, imagining it was from Dylan, celebrating something like their three-month anniversary. She returned everything as she’d found it, but something nagged at her. She pulled the bill from Quick and Safe Storage. When her father had relocated from Oregon, he’d brought little with him. Why does he need a storage unit now?
She dropped into the comfy desk chair he’d owned since she was a little girl. The smell of quality leather still lingered decades later, and when she inched the chair forward, it squeaked. She’d often interrupted his work and climbed onto his lap while he made notes on a case, but whenever she ran through the door, he would quickly flip over the crime scene photos before she could see the gruesomeness of his world. When she grew older and the curiosity she’d inherited from him blossomed, she once snuck into his office after he’d gone to bed and peeked at a file. She wanted to see the front side of those pictures. But the black and white images of a man and woman with slashed throats extinguished her curiosity. Until the night Richie died.
Sometimes Jack locked the office door, but she knew the key’s hiding place. She wondered if he’d wanted her to find it, recognizing that the only thing that would slake her natural curiosity were answers.
A month after Richie’s death, she’d again snuck inside the office and found a headshot of her eight-year-old brother, lying sideways on the linoleum floor of the convenience store where he’d been shot. His expression, eyes wide open and mouth agape conveyed his shock, as if he couldn’t believe what had occurred. She’d stared in disbelief before she burst into tears and ran out of the room, not bothering to close the door or replace the key. She’d stewed for hours, thinking her father would yell at her. But he never mentioned it. And she never sneaked into his office again. That image of her brother lingered as the official photo of his death.
She took a deep breath and slid off the chair. She set aside the evidence bag of cards. Why is this here? Richie’s murder was an open case, a cold case definitely, but no one had been convicted—even accused—of his murder. Ari had suspected Jack was secretly investigating the case. This was her proof.
She picked up the Dodger hat, the one he wore every day, even to bed. She brought it to her cheek and the tears flowed as she remembered. He’d gone to the 7-Eleven around nine p.m., his allowance burning a hole in his pocket. It was summer and he’d been sure he’d find the Eric Karros card. He begged her to go with him, knowing that Jack and Lucia would probably agree to the trip if his twelve-year-old big sister went with him. He’d wanted to go to a 7-Eleven that was an extra ten blocks away, almost to the northern edge of Glendale. But she’d said no, so for the first time in his life, he’d defied their parents and left through his bedroom window.
If only I’d gone with him.
She cried until her tears turned to ragged breaths. She inhaled a sharp musty odor from the cap. If only I’d been a good sister. He would be here.
She placed the cap on top of the cards and opened the scrapbook—to Richie’s second grade school picture and his obituary. She loved that picture. His smile was natural, despite two missing teeth. It would’ve been unnecessary for the photographer to coax a grin from him. He lived in a constant state of happiness. He was eight and innocent. He wore his dark brown hair longer than most boys, and curly locks covered his ears.
The obituary was only a paragraph. By then so much had been written about him in the Glendale and Phoenix newspapers, there wasn’t anything left for Jack or Lucia to print except what they had included. “Our beloved son Richard went to heaven on August 25, 1992. He was a wonderful brother to Ari and a friend to all.” That was true. Richie rarely met a person he didn’t like or couldn’t persuade to like him.
She closed the scrapbook and picked up the case file. As a former police officer, she knew what she’d find there, including the grisly photos of the night he died. She guessed the file weighed a few pounds and imagined it was complete. Although Jack had worked for Phoenix PD, he had many friends amidst the various law enforcement agencies in the metropolitan area, including their home city of Glendale, where Richie died. She imagined a sympathetic brother in blue had copied the file for Jack.
It would take hours to digest all of the interviews, reports, and Jack’s notes that littered each page. She skimmed the initial report from the first officer who arrived on the scene, Grady Quigley. She’d actually met him a few weeks prior. He’d been young and green in 1992, but he’d been genuinely affected by what he’d observed that hot August night. She knew the story by heart, particularly the clerk’s eyewitness statement. Richie had been in the candy aisle choosing trading card packets when a man in a plaid shirt entered and demanded the money from the register. Richie came around the corner and surprised the gunman, who shot him and ran off with two hundred dollars from the register. Glendale PD conducted an exhaustive search for the killer, but he never surfaced.
She shuffled through the top pages of the file and found the composite sketch provided by the clerk, one she’d seen several times on the news during the first month of the investigation. There was nothing memorable about the killer’s face, but she’d forgotten about the baseball cap. Covering his close-cropped brown hair was a green ball cap with a John Deere logo.
The sketch was only mildly accurate. After twenty-five years without a real lead to the killer’s identity, Ari had found one—film footage that provided a split-second look at the man in the plaid shirt entering the 7-Eleven. She pulled a computer printout from her back pocket. She’d taken a picture of the exact moment he faced the camera. It was grainy and slightly out of focus, but when she placed it next to the sketch artist’s rendering, she grimaced.
While there were some similarities, she didn’t think they looked anything alike. It wasn’t surprising. Eyewitnesses often were not reliable, especially ones held at gunpoint. “And he put on his hat,” she muttered. She shook her head. No wonder the police hadn’t found him.
In the back of the file were the crime scene photos. She knew there would be several of Richie lying in his own blood, including the one she’d seen when she was twelve. She wasn’t sure she could—or should—look. It had been so long ago. She’d catalogued a series of memories, each one serving a different purpose, whether it was to cheer herself up, build her self-esteem, or motivate her to finish a task. Ironically her dead brother had become her life coach. She worried the crime scene photos would forever taint her perfect pictures.
What about justice?
She pulled out the thick stack of photos. Several showed the 7-Eleven’s interior. The harsh fluorescent lighting obscured the finer details, but enough was visible to jog her memory. She’d been in the store frequently until Richie’s death. Now it all came back. The ice cream case, the Slurpee machine, and the candy aisle. How many times had she stood with Richie in front of the baseball trading cards?
She flipped to the next photo. There he was, face down. Wisps of curly brown hair rested on the collar of his striped polo shirt. His hands outstretched, the baseball cards around him. In the corner of the photo were three trading card packets still in their wrappers—the ones he intended to purchase.
She frowned and grabbed the evidence bag. She couldn’t see any cards in a wrapper. Where are they?
She moved through the next several photos, her emotions detaching as she theorized what might have become of the missing packets. When she came upon the familiar photo of his face, her lips parted and a wail burst forth. She slapped the photo over, face down. No clues would come from staring into his soft brown eyes.
The final set of pictures were of the 7-Eleven’s exterior. There was little to see except the empty parking lot, the back dumpster and the side lot, which contained an old sedan that Ari surmised belonged to the store clerk. A shot of the storefront showed Richie’s abandoned Schwinn just to the right of the front door. He hadn’t planned to be there very long, and he’d already broken curfew, so it wasn’t surprising that he’d neglected to park the bike in a rack and lock it.
She scanned the front parking lot photo again. The light pole that illuminated it sat at the edge of the property. In the movie she’d found, Richie and their friend Glenn had met under that pole before Richie went into the store. Glenn had stayed back filming, just long enough to catch the image of Richie’s killer before his camera ran out of film.
The crime scene photographer had deliberately taken several shots of the crowd that had assembled, thinking perhaps the killer might have stayed and watched the police work. She thought she recognized the faces of several neighbors lured outside by the wail of the sirens, but the man in plaid was not among them. Some wore bathrobes and slippers since the police had not arrived until after ten p.m.
The beginning of a headache tweaked her skull. She scooped up the reports and pictures and shoved everything back in the file. She debated whether to take it with her. Would her father miss it? She guessed he didn’t review Richie’s case on a regular basis. He’d often told her the best way to catch a break on a cold case was to periodically reread the file. “Eventually,” he said, “a lead will jump out at you.”
And I found one. But she hadn’t shown the movie to anyone—yet. Jack was out of town for three more days. Molly was also away, providing security detail for a millionaire tech guru, but she would return Saturday night. She hadn’t phoned Glenn and asked him more questions about the film because she had no idea how to contact him, and she wouldn’t know how to approach the conversation over the phone since Glenn was autistic. He’d rarely spoken to anyone that summer, and he’d left Arizona immediately following Richie’s funeral.
Ari decided to take the file and the scrapbook to see if anything jumped out at her. Then she’d return it all before her father got home. She picked up the cards and hat. She’d take the cards as they might provide clues, but she couldn’t decide whether or not to take the hat. Sentimentality won out and she set it on top of the file. She resituated the bottom of the drawer and saw a folded paper that had fallen out with everything else.
It was a handwritten note in Jack’s chicken scratch. Ari, if you’re reading this, it’s time to talk.
After six hours of studying Richie’s case file, Ari realized her parents had kept an important fact from her. Parts of the file were now splayed across her dining room table, and she’d taped several crime scene photos to the wall, excluding the one of Richie’s face. That one she kept inside the file folder, determined never to look at it again. She couldn’t gaze into his sweet eyes, knowing there was nothing she could do to bring him back. Instead she retrieved her favorite picture from her bedroom. It showed the two of them on the swings at Encanto Park. Lucia had taken it as they each swung to go higher than the other. It was just like Richie. Always so competitive. Always wanting to keep up with Ari.
“And he usually could,” she murmured. The picture brought her joy and strength—and the resolve to find his murderer even if the memories brought her pain.
She returned to the crime scene photos and the fact she’d unearthed. She was twelve when Richie died, old enough to ask questions about his death once the initial shock passed. Jack and Lucia were always candid with their children, and up to this point, Ari assumed she knew the entire truth. Jack maintained Richie was only in the candy aisle, and when he came around the corner, headed for the cashier, he surprised the robber, who, according to the clerk, turned suddenly and fired.
She now had proof Richie had ventured to another aisle—to get a treat for her. One photo captured everything he’d held when he was shot, including a box of animal crackers, her favorite childhood snack. And the photos of the store’s interior confirmed what she remembered: crackers and cookies were in a different aisle. He was buying those for me, even though I refused to go with him. The realization started the tears again.
She understood why Jack and Lucia hadn’t told her about the cookies. They knew she would have blamed herself. What they didn’t know was that she already did since she refused to go with him. And he’d returned her insensitivity with kindness. To know that would have destroyed her young heart.
Yet it remained an important clue. Whereas the candy aisle was past the cash register, the cookie and cracker aisle was directly in the clerk’s line of sight. He would have seen Richie in that aisle, but he hadn’t mentioned it during any of his interviews with the police or Jack.
The clerk was Elijah Cruz. She found his original statement from that night. The kid headed straight for the candy. By the time the guy came in and hurried up to the register, I forgot the kid was even in the store. The guy’s gun was already out. He was nervous, shaking. And his voice cracked. I couldn’t understand what he said, but I opened the drawer, figuring that’s what he wanted me to do. I handed him the money as the kid came around the corner. I musta looked over at him, and the guy whirled around and pulled the trigger. It seemed like an accident. He made this gasping sound and ran out. Then I called the cops.
She read through two subsequent interviews with Cruz, all conducted by the lead detective, Floyd Hubbard. Cruz’s story changed during his second interview, as he remembered more. He acknowledged other customers had entered between the time Richie walked into the store and the appearance of the gunman. She found Cruz’s background attached to the second interview. Nineteen years old. No priors. Attending Glendale Community College to start an electrical engineering program.
She lined up Hubbard’s interview transcripts side-by-side and read them again. Never did Cruz mention Richie in a different part of the store. The third interview, conducted two weeks after Richie’s death, was the longest. Hubbard asked Cruz to recount the events as he remembered them, and he told the same story. But then Hubbard asked him to describe the last customer before Richie was shot and the purchase. Cruz struggled to remember. Ari frowned. One of the most confounding facts of Richie’s case was the lack of video footage. The franchise had not yet invested in video cameras.
She went back to Cruz’s last interview. He said he thought the last customer before Richie’s murder was a woman buying beer, but he couldn’t be certain. He mentioned “the kid with the camera” came in earlier that day, the one who’d come in several times before with other kids that summer—Glenn, the autistic cousin of one of Ari and Richie’s best friends, Scott Long. Glenn’s mother had dropped him off in Arizona at the beginning of that summer with his aunt Henrietta, Scott’s mother, claiming she couldn’t handle him. Glenn was indeed quirky, and he instantly took to Richie. He spent the summer with a movie camera to his eye. And his love of film might be the reason we find the killer.
Ari highlighted the part of Cruz’s statement about Glenn. The kid came in around four thirty and walked through the aisles a few times. Just up and down. Didn’t bother to stop and look at anything or buy anything. He started bothering people and I asked him to leave.
But that was nearly five hours before Richie died.
Behind Hubbard’s transcripts were Jack’s notes. He’d interviewed Cruz three times on his own, the first interview a year after Richie’s murder. By then Cruz had abandoned his engineering degree and was working at the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant as a Nuclear Operator. “He must be competent if he’s babysitting nuclear reactors,” she muttered.
Jack had included a newspaper clipping of Cruz’s wedding announcement to Isolde Tovar in 1995. However, two children who looked a lot like Elijah and Isolde were included in the picture. They had obviously been conceived before the marriage.
Jack had interviewed Cruz again in 1999. By then Cruz was serving on one of the Glendale mayor’s ad hoc citizen committees, was a deacon at his Catholic parish, Little League coach, and never had been in trouble with the law.
“He made a good life for himself,” she murmured.
At the end of Cruz’s biography was another newspaper article dated August 19, 2015. A short message was scrawled across the top. Jack, I thought you’d want to see this. G. It was a human-interest piece on Elijah Cruz, now in his mid-forties, celebrating his twenty years of volunteerism with Habitat for Humanity.
She plugged in the movie projector and started Glenn’s last reel of film. It opened outside the 7-Eleven. His vantage point appeared to be the edge of the parking lot. Ari glanced at one of the crime scene photos and confirmed his exact location. Facing north, east of the light pole. Richie approached on his bicycle and stopped beside Glenn. Richie waved and held up his stack of trading cards. There was no audio, so she couldn’t understand what he said, but his excited gestures suggested he was eager to spend his allowance. He seemed relieved to see Glenn, who, unlike Richie, regularly snuck out. Oh, Richie. He waved goodbye and headed for the front of the store.
A few seconds later, the man in the plaid shirt came into the light from the west, looked over his shoulder and flung open the closest door. Glenn’s zoom lens caught him in that moment. She guessed he was in his early twenties. His blond hair was close-cropped over his ears but longer on the top and parted on the side. Stubble surrounded his mouth and his eyes were close set. He was thin, gaunt. It was the face of a user.
Ari yearned for a few more seconds of the movie, but the screen went white and the reel’s tail flapped. She rewound the scene again. She’d seen the movie so many times that she could perfectly judge how much celluloid was needed to fill the empty reel for Richie to immediately pop up on the screen.
This time she stopped the second the killer entered the frame, his profile still visible. She recognized the outline of something in his back pocket—his John Deere cap. She started the film again, saw his profile, and noticed that as he pushed the glass door open with his left hand, his right hand grabbed the cap and the screen went white.
She rubbed her temples. She’d watched the film at least thirty times. Half a day couldn’t pass without her threading the old projector and watching Richie come alive once more. She loved the part when he pointed to the stack of cards. She knew he was telling Glenn that he was sure he’d find the one card he needed to complete his 1992 Dodger team.
Richie was that kid. Always the optimist. Always the believer in the underdog. Glenn was routinely shunned for being different, but Richie would have none of it. He looked at Glenn and saw a friend. Richie’s only struggle was his black and white view of the world, a typical quality for an eight-year-old. Still, Ari imagined he would’ve been student body president of his school. Homecoming king. Head of a community service project. Editor of the Law Review at a university. His life would’ve shone.
She sobbed again and found herself standing in front of her liquor cabinet. She debated whether to pour herself a scotch. While Molly was the acknowledged alcoholic, Ari knew from past experience that she sometimes relied too heavily on the mind-numbing effects of a few scotches. She raised her hands in surrender to her better angels and backed away.
She vowed to watch the film just once more before she went to work. This time she’d focus on other angles. She’d already missed a late morning meeting with her business partner, but would spend the early evening researching prospective houses for her new buyers.
She prepared the footage and the all too-familiar front of the 7-Eleven appeared. She stared above Richie’s head. Perhaps someone else entered the frame? It was common in the early nineties for kids to ride their bikes throughout the neighborhoods after dark. Although Richie had broken curfew, had he arrived home safely, the punishment would’ve been mild. Neighbors knew each other and looked out for every child, which made Richie’s murder all that more shocking to the community.
She could see the silhouette of the trees lining the street along the east side of the 7-Eleven. One was especially memorable because of a low-hanging branch that had smacked her on the side of the face one day as she rode her bike down the sidewalk. Fortunately, it had missed her eye by a few centimeters, but she still had a tiny scar on her temple that Molly routinely traced with her finger. Ari stared at the limb—and then it vanished. Just at the moment when Richie’s assailant appeared on the screen.
She stopped the projector and found the rewind switch that pulled the delicate celluloid back a few frames, to the point where Richie waved goodbye to Glenn. The nasty tree branch was just over his shoulder. She was certain of it. Richie rode away and her hand remained poised on the dial, ready to stop the projector if in fact the branch disappeared again.
She held up a crime scene photo that closely matched the angle of Glenn’s lens—and saw the difference. Not only was the low-hanging tree branch missing, but more of the 7-Eleven’s east wall was visible, including the graffiti tag “WHB,” Westside Homeboys, the gang whose territory included the 7-Eleven. She rewound the film again and focused on the exterior wall. It was difficult to see, since the glare from the light pole bounced off the tan paint, but at the moment the tree branch disappeared, the “B” of the graffiti tag appeared.
“He paused it.”
She looked around, as if there were someone to share her epiphany. She recalled the hours and hours of footage she’d watched of Glenn’s tapes when she helped her friend Scott solve the mystery of his mother’s murder. Glenn would randomly pause the camera, but his eye remained glued to the viewfinder, so no one really knew when he was filming. It was a safe way for him to see the world. Whereas most of his films jerked from breakfast to afternoon car rides to games of horseshoes in the evening, this transition was nearly undetectable. Although he was standing in practically the same place, it was two different moments in time made imperceptible by the shadows of the night and the intermittent glare of the light poles. But it could be highly significant. There was missing time between Richie entering the store and the killer arriving.
“What the hell happened in that store?”
Unable to sit still, she paced. In less than a week, she’d found two important clues. She needed to tell someone, and the only person she could think of was her best friend Jane Frank. As she picked up her phone, mariachi music played and Lorraine Gonzalez’s name appeared on her screen. She cleared her throat and prepared to be reprimanded by her business partner.
“Hi,” she said tentatively.
“Where are you, Ari?”
She winced. Lorraine hadn’t offered her customary greeting. She was pissed. “I’m so sorry for missing our meeting. It’s just—”
“That’s not why I’m upset. How about a phone call or a text, huh?”
“What’s up with you? You never miss our strategy sessions.”
She heard her genuine concern. Lorraine wasn’t one to dwell on negative emotions. Ari owed her the truth, and although she was dying to tell someone about the film and what could be breakthroughs in Richie’s case, she couldn’t fathom sharing the information with anyone but Molly or her father first.
She could at least be vague and honest since Lorraine was quite familiar with her tragic and complicated past. “I’m in the middle of something personal right now. It’s taking over my mind, but I apologize for being rude and not calling. I should’ve at least done that.”
“No worries, Chica. Is there anything I can help you with?”
“Not right now, but I’ll let you know if that changes.”
“Please do. You know I have many connections,” she added seriously, referring to her family’s network of shady characters throughout the metro Phoenix area. There wasn’t any service or product—legal or illegal—that Lorraine didn’t have at her disposal.
“Are you good to meet the Carpenters tomorrow or should I go in your place? You know how nervous they are about buying their first home.”
“No, I’m fine. I’ll be there. I’ve already got four great listings to show them.” She hoped she sounded convincing. By tomorrow, she would have four listings—at least.
“Okay. Call me afterward, Chica. I’m here for you.”
“I will. Thanks. And again, I’m sorry.”
She hung up and smiled, grateful to have Lorraine as a co-broker in their realty firm. She looked down—at a highball glass filled with scotch. She closed her eyes and groaned. She’d gone on autopilot.
“No sense in good liquor going to waste.” She picked up the glass and stared at Richie’s broad grin that filled the small screen. “Here’s to you, little brother. We’re gonna figure this out.”