Prison is not the place for an outdoor lover.
“I don’t understand why you confessed to a murder that you now say you didn’t do.”
“I’m pretty sure I didn’t do it,” Chet clarified.
That makes no sense. “Then why did you plead guilty?”
His mouth twitched, and he went back to picking at the notch. “When they brought me in, the officers told me I had done it.”
“I believed, because of my drinking, that it was impossible for me to remember.”
“You were an alcoholic.” Zander had wondered if that was the case because of all the alcohol-related arrests in Chet’s record.
“Still am. But back then I would drink until I was fall-down, blackout drunk. Don’t get to do much of that anymore,” he joked.
“You were too drunk to remember hanging someone from a tree.” Zander struggled to believe it.
“Yep. But in my sleep, I could see myself do it. I figured I had some weird subconscious block about the hanging and that what the police told me was truth.”
“You confessed because you assumed you killed him?”
“Something like that. Did you see I took a polygraph? I knew it couldn’t be legally used, but I took it because I hoped the test would tell me if I did it.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“The results of the polygraph said there was something going on in my head at the subconscious level, so I figured what the cops had told me was true. I’d had a lot of drunk blackouts before that—and people had always told me about shit I’d done that I had no memory of doing. This didn’t seem very far-fetched.”
Zander was incredulous. “But you had never killed anyone while you were drunk before.”
“No, but I got in plenty of fights and banged up a lot of people that I don’t remember.”
“What made you change your mind and start saying you were innocent?”
Chet wrapped his fingers around the table’s metal attached to his chain. Even via the video, Zander could see his knuckles were huge and dark hair sprouted from the backs of his hands. “I decided I didn’t do it.”
“A complete reversal.”
“I didn’t wake up one day and decide I was innocent. It took time. I got in a couple of brawls here—even when I thought I was going to die in one, I never had the instinct or desire to kill the person who was fighting with me. Never. I just wanted to live.”
Zander listened, and a slow chill started at the base of his spine.
“Lincoln and I got in a bar fight that evening. That’s the first time I’d met the guy. I remember bloodying his nose—which is another reason I thought I mighta killed him—but nothing happened beyond me ripping off his jacket. That’s why they found his jacket in my hotel room.”
Chet’s gaze was steady. He wasn’t trying to sell Zander on his innocence. He was simply telling his side.
Dammit, I believe him.
“Does the name Cynthia Green mean anything to you?”
Chet thought. “No. Should it?”
“She disappeared two weeks before Lincoln Mills was hanged. We recently found her remains near Bartonville.”
Annoyance wrinkled his features. “Do you know how many times cops have been in here to ask if I committed another crime simply because of the Lincoln Mills case?”
“Yeah. It’s ridiculous. They come from all over the US. Talk about desperate.”
“She was a teenage African American girl who disappeared from a beach near Gearhart.”
“Telling me what she looks like doesn’t prod my memory because I’ve never done shit like that.”
He seemed insulted.
“Did you know there was another hanging in Bartonville a few days ago?”
The surprise on Chet’s face seemed genuine and then faded into contempt. “Hadn’t heard. At least they can’t convict me for that one.” He scowled. “Who’d they hang?”
“A young man in town. Schoolteacher.”
“You don’t know anything about it?”
His brows shot up. “Seriously? Didn’t we just cover this? Fuck off.” He snorted, derision in his eyes.
Zander considered asking more questions about the hanging, but Chet’s reactions felt natural. He wondered if the man had had any recent visitors who might have talked about the Fitch hanging—before or after it happened.
Zander wrapped up the video session and again called his buddy at the state prison, requesting the name of anyone who had visited Chet Carlson in the last five years. He specified a long period, hoping to get an idea of whom the man associated with. The prison employee promised an email within a few minutes.
He idly tapped his fingers on the desk in his hotel room, craving an omelet from the Barton Diner. His stomach made him fully aware he hadn’t eaten breakfast yet. He refreshed his email for the third time, spotted one from the state prison, and immediately clicked.
Over the last five years, Chet had had a single visitor. But she had come twice.
Both visits had been within the last twelve months.
Zander stared at the name for a long moment. Who is she to Chet Carlson?
She hadn’t visited enough times to be family.
A suspicion formed, and he accessed the state DMV records, immediately finding a driver’s license for Terri Yancey. She was thirty-nine, brunette, and lived in Beaverton, a few miles west of Portland.
He caught his breath at the photo. Madison.
Terri Yancey looked like Madison. Emily and Madison shared family similarities, but if Madison had been run through an age-progression app and been given dark hair, she would look exactly like Terri Yancey.
Could this be Tara?
The resemblance was there.
Why did she visit Chet Carlson?
The bigger question was why she had never contacted her family.
Plugging Terri’s address into his phone, he saw he could be at her front door in less than two hours.
Do I tell Emily?
Emily’s stomach convulsed. “Are you sure?” she whispered to Zander as they stood on the mansion’s porch.
Zander pulled up an image on his phone.
Emily clutched the phone, staring at the picture. Tara looked back at her. She was older, her hair was dark. But it was Tara.
“How?” She forced out the word.
“I had a video interview with Chet Carlson this morning.”
Her gut twisted and spun again. “Jesus, Zander. Any other shocks for me?”
He paused. “No.”
Emily wasn’t sure she believed him. She focused on Tara’s face again, her heart trying to beat its way up her throat.
“After I talked to him, I checked his visitor records. Your sister has been to see him twice in the last year.”
She blinked hard, trying to keep Tara’s face in focus. “Maybe you don’t consider that to be another shock, but I do. Why did she do that?”
“I don’t know. I thought I’d go ask her.”
Emily’s head jerked up, her pulse pounding. “You’re going to see Tara?”
“She goes by Terri now. Terri Yancey. She lives in Beaverton.”
Emily sat in one of the heavy metal chairs on the porch. Her brain was spinning; Tara was close by.
“Would you like to come?” He crouched beside her, his gaze even with hers. Substantial concern radiating from him.
“I don’t know.” She couldn’t process his request. Her mind was locked on the fact that Tara lived two hours away. And had never called. Why?
“Chet Carlson still claims he didn’t kill your father.”
“Yes,” she said woodenly. “He’s said that for several years. Did he try to explain why it wasn’t him?”
“A little. He doesn’t have any proof.”
“What did he say about Tara?”
“I didn’t find out about Tara until after the interview.” He had a hopeful look in his eyes.
He wants me to go with him.
She could think of worse things than to spend a few hours with Zander.
In her heart she was dying to see her sister, but her emotions were all over the place.
Am I ready to find out why Tara abandoned us? Will she talk to me? What if she refuses?
She had to decide now.
It was nearly noon when Emily and Zander stopped in front of a beautiful house.
A tiny bit of envy sprouted in Emily’s heart—an unusual sensation—as she bit back a gasp. Tara’s home was in a well-to-do neighborhood where the lawns were perfectly manicured, and a German luxury vehicle sat in her driveway.
Emily compared her totaled Honda to the Mercedes. She could barely afford to keep her car in tires. Soon she’d find out how little money her insurance company would pay for her now-totaled old car. It wasn’t going to be pretty.
She felt Zander study her.
“I can’t believe Tara lives here,” she muttered. “The mansion is falling to pieces around our ears.”
“You don’t have to come in.”
Surprise made her choke. “I came all this way. You bet I’m coming in. Especially now that I see Tara’s been living here while I struggle to take care of three elderly aunts, my sister, the mansion, and the diner.”