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Final Truth

A Novel of Suspense

Final Truth by Mariah Stewart
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From New York Times bestselling author Mariah Stewart comes a novel of sexy romantic suspense for fans of Nora Roberts, Catherine Coulter, and Karen Robards.

In her thrill-packed trilogy Cold Truth, Hard Truth, and Dark Truth, Mariah Stewart proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that she can brilliantly and suspensefully handle the truth. Can you? Then prepare yourself for the shocking, eye-opening Final Truth, in which a woman who specializes in exposing lies finds herself trapped in a real-life nightmare.

All that stands between Lester Ray Barnes and the state of Florida’s death chamber is a judge’s signature. He is sentenced to die for the rape and murder of a young woman, his conviction hinging on two pieces of evidence: DNA testing and an eyewitness who placed him at the scene. But when the story breaks that the DNA testimony at trial had been fabricated and that the eyewitness was coerced by a cop, all hell breaks loose. In the absence of credible evidence to sustain the conviction, the court is forced to set Lester Ray free. It’s the sort of circus the media adore–until it turns into the kind of Grimm’s fairy tale the media love even more.

Intrigued by the story of a young man railroaded by justice, true-crime writer Regan Landry is drawn into Lester Ray’s camp like a moth to a flame. For Regan, writing is a way to stay connected to her late literary-legend father, and her knack for detective work makes her a natural when it comes to uncovering new leads in even the murkiest mysteries.

Eager for the spotlight, Lester Ray willingly agrees to work with Regan on a tell-all about his experience as an innocent man on death row. But less than a week after leaving prison, he vanishes from the Sunshine State. Soon after, darkness descends on the outer banks of North Carolina as a string of women are raped and murdered in a frenzied spree. Fearing the worst, Regan, along with Special Agent Mitch Peyton and the FBI, sweeps in to confront the unspeakable: the horrifying possibility that they have helped to free a cunning monster with an insatiable appetite for death–and a ruthless determination never to be caged again.

From the Hardcover edition.
Random House Publishing Group; May 2006
ISBN 9780345493736
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Final Truth
Author: Mariah Stewart

Regan Landry sat cross-legged on the floor of her father’s study and thumbed through the contents of a file, one of several she’d brought up from the basement in an unmarked cardboard box earlier that morning. Her father, Josh Landry, internationally renowned bestselling author of true crime books, had been the world’s worst record keeper. Almost two years after his death, Regan was still sorting through the boxes of material he’d left scattered throughout his home outside Princeton, New Jersey. So far this past week, she’d uncovered newspaper articles in a box in the attic that related to cases chronicled in the file cabinets in the basement. Not for the first time, Regan rolled her eyes. The man had been the most unorganized person on the face of the earth. When her cell phone rang, she had to move several piles of newspapers to find it. A glance at the caller ID screen brought a smile to her face.

“So what are you doing on this fine morning in May?” Mitch Peyton asked.

“What am I always doing when I’m at my dad’s?” She laughed good-naturedly. “Sorting through files and trying to organize the mess.”

“I’d think you’d be used to it by now.”

“You’d think.”

“I don’t know why you don’t just hire someone to do that for you.”

“How would someone else know what to do with all this?” She glanced around the room and frowned.

“You’d tell them. You’d show them what you’ve done, point them in the direction of the materials that still need to be sorted through, and tell them to follow your lead. If a file exists, file the newly found material in it. No existing file, you make a new one.”

“I wasn’t aware that the FBI taught a class in Filing 101.”

“You’d be surprised what they teach us down here.”

“I’ve seen you at work, Mitch, up close and personal. There’s little that you do that surprises me.”

“I can see I’m going to have to work on my technique. Can’t have the woman thinking she knows all my secrets.”

Regan could have replied that Mitch had been an open book right from the start, but she let it pass.

As a special agent with the FBI, Mitch was a member of a distinguished team within the Bureau that sought out the best of the best. But when it came to Regan, there’d been no sign of the wily investigator with crack computer skills that had brought him to the attention of the team leader. Mitch was a man who wore his heart on his sleeve, and had since the first time they’d worked a case together.

“Maybe you’re right.” She sighed. “Maybe I should just have someone come in and make a list of the files we already have, then go through the other boxes, check the list for duplicates . . .”

“There you go.” He didn’t wait for her to run through the entire process as he knew her mind was already starting to do. “You’ve spent enough time on cleanup. You have a book due.”

“Already turned it in to Nina last week, which is one of the reasons I’m here at Dad’s now. I’m trying to decide what I want to do next.”

“No ideas?”

“I have plenty of ideas, but none of them have struck my immediate fancy.” She stood and went to the desk and flipped through one of the files she’d left out last night, thinking it might be a contender for the topic of her next book. “There are lots of possibilities, but nothing seems to be jumping out at me and demanding my attention.”

“I always wondered about the process you writers go through,” he said. “How you decide on one idea over another.”

“The story that needs to be told decides for me. It’s simply a matter of finding it. I’m just lucky that Dad did so much of the groundwork on several potential projects. There’s no end to the number of books he’d wanted to write. Which, of course, explains why there’s no end to the number of boxes and folders he left everywhere from the attic to the basement to one of the outbuildings.”

“But until some idea grabs you by the throat . . .”

“. . . I’ll be sorting through files, hoping something does, sooner rather than later.” She sighed. “I get antsy when I’m not working.”

“I’ve noticed. While you’re waiting for lightning to strike, move the search for an assistant to the top of your list of things to do. You know how things go with you: something lands on your radar, and you forget about everything else.”

“You know me too well, Agent Peyton. Once I get started, finding an assistant will be the last thing on my mind. I shall put an ad in this week’s Princeton Packet and one of the Trenton papers—maybe I should try New Brunswick, too—and see what kind of response I get. It would make more sense to have someone else doing this”—she stared around the room at the piles of files and boxes—“so that I can focus on my next project.”

“Speaking of projects, anything new on your search for the elusive Eddie Kroll?”

“Not really.” Regan sat in her father’s oversized leather chair and swiveled around to stare out the window.

“Dolly Brown still not returning your calls?”

“No. She called me back, left me a message saying, effectively, she’s told me everything she knows and to stop calling her. I can’t for the life of me figure out what she’s hiding, but she’s lying about something.” Regan paused. “I think if I work on her sister-in-law, Stella, I might be able to finally get some answers. But since her husband, Carl, died back in March, I’ve given Stella a pretty wide berth.”

“Carl was Dolly and Eddie Kroll’s brother?”

“Right. Stella always seemed to have something she wanted to say, but she was a bit wary of speaking up in front of Dolly, and Dolly was always around.” Regan watched several ducks land feetfirst in the pond behind the old farmhouse. “Maybe I should make a quick trip to Illinois, stop in and see if Dolly feels like chatting. While I’m there, I can stop at Stella’s as well.”

“Good idea. But put that ad for an assistant in the paper before you leave. Think you can be back in time for the weekend? I’m planning on a few days off, and I was hoping we could meet up at your place in Maryland. I miss you.”

“I miss you, too. I was thinking about going to look at boats on Saturday. You can come with me and put in your two cents.”

“I’ll brush up on my boat-speak. Fore and aft. Avast and ahoy. Bow and stern.”

“You’re going to have to do better than that, if you’re going to crew for me.” She laughed. “I guess I’ll see you . . . when?”

“Let’s shoot for Friday night. I’m leaving this afternoon for Michigan, but I don’t expect this case will go more than a day or so. I’ll let you know if there’s a change.”

“Okay. I love you, Mitch.”

“Love you, too, babe.”

Regan closed her phone and slipped it into her pocket, hoping that Friday night would find Mitch on his way to her home in Maryland rather than the scene of some other heinous crime. She admired his work, was proud of his reputation as one of the FBI’s top agents, understood the urgency of his job. But there were times when she needed him, too. Like now. She wished she could have his company for even an hour, right now.

Unfortunately, wishing alone couldn’t make it happen, she reminded herself.

She forced her thoughts back to Sayreville, Illinois, and the mystery she’d found there a year ago, a mystery that remained unsolved.

She turned the chair around to gaze on the boxes she’d brought up from the basement. It had been in a box very much like any one of those that she’d first found report cards, dated from the 1940s, from Saint John the Baptist Elementary School in Sayreville, Illinois, for a child named Edward Kroll. From the comments written in the small, precise hand of Sister Mary Matthew, Regan had learned that Eddie Kroll had been an asset to the class, had shown an aptitude for mathematics, was inquisitive and an excellent reader. But there’d been no explanation of how or why her father had come into possession of these pieces from another boy’s childhood, or why he had kept them hidden away. She’d searched through hundreds of files since her father’s death, but the name hadn’t turned up anywhere else. She’d even asked Mitch to run a check through the FBI computers to see if Edward Kroll had a criminal record, but he hadn’t gotten any hits. The puzzle had led Regan to place ads in all of the newspapers local to Sayreville, Illinois. It had been one of those ads that had come to the attention of Dolly Brown.

Dolly Brown told Regan she’d been a neighbor of the Krolls, and how, at age thirteen, Eddie Kroll and two of his friends had lured another classmate to a vacant lot, where they’d beaten the boy to death. Eddie, as the youngest of the three, and the least culpable, had been sentenced to juvenile detention until he turned twenty-one, at which time he was released. No one knew what happened to him after that, Dolly Brown had said. Eddie Kroll had simply disappeared, and they’d heard a few years later that he’d died.

Dolly Brown had lied.

Dolly neglected to tell Regan that her maiden name was Kroll, and that she was the sister of the sought-after Eddie. It had taken Regan a while to figure that out.

She still wasn’t sure why Dolly had lied about all that.

And there’d been that business about the other Kroll sister, Catherine. Dolly had shown Regan photos of Eddie as a child, but had insisted there were no pictures of their younger sister, Catherine, beyond early childhood.

Another lie of Dolly’s.

Regan still had no explanation of why Dolly’s sister-in-law, Stella, had quietly slipped a packet of old family photographs into Regan’s purse during her last visit to Sayreville. There, amid photos of Eddie that had been taken prior his incarceration, were pictures of a pretty young woman identified on the flip sides as Catherine Kroll. The pictures were dated 1963. Regan had already determined that Catherine had been born in 1938, so she’d have been twenty-five years old.

Why had Dolly lied?

Regan had returned to Sayreville to discuss this very thing with Dolly, only to find she’d gone to Florida for the winter and had instructed everyone she knew not to divulge her whereabouts to anyone—especially to Regan Landry. When Regan had stopped at Stella’s home, she found Stella’s husband seriously ill, and she’d declined to press the matter. After a phone call to Stella in April, she learned that Carl had passed away several weeks earlier, and once again Regan chose not to question the woman.

“I guess the real question is why can’t I let it go,” Regan muttered under her breath as she reached for the file. It sat off by itself next to the phone on the corner of the desk, as if waiting for Dolly to call back with answers to all the questions the file seemed to ask.

Why can’t I let it go?

Regan rested her chin in her hand. What difference would it make if she ever found out what happened to Eddie Kroll—where he’d gone, how he’d died, where he’d been laid to rest—or why Dolly had been so protective of him, even now, all these years later?

Questions without answers. Regan didn’t know why it mattered. She only knew that it did, and that she was driven by something she didn’t understand to take it as far as she could.

To that end, she went online and booked herself on a morning flight to Chicago. She could drop in on Stella, pay a sympathy call on Carl’s widow. Of course, while she was in Sayreville, she’d drop in at Dolly’s as well, see what that crafty old bird was up to, see if she could figure out whatever it was Dolly didn’t want her to know.

Her travel arrangements made, Regan turned her attention to her search for an assistant. She hunted up the phone number for the local newspapers’ classified departments, and dialed the first number on the list.

Mitch was right. It was time. Time to get her father’s files organized. Time to get on with her next book.

And once she’d hired that assistant, maybe she’d have time to figure out just what Dolly Brown was up to.

From the Hardcover edition.