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Book Jacket

0736919155
Trade Paperback
pages
Jul 2007
Harvest House Publishing

Sticks and Stones

by Susan Meissner

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

One

Rachael Flynn stepped out of her car, stepping gingerly onto the gathering snowflakes, pressing them into the asphalt at her feet. Above her, the sky was a swirling whiteness. Four to six inches were in the forecast. It looked more like eight to ten, to her seasoned eye. Rachael had grown up with the peculiarities of Minnesota springs, she had hunted for Easter eggs in fresh powder more than once in her childhood.

She wished she could’ve picked a different day to visit her brother. But her return to part-time work after the move back to Minnesota left her with fewer days for personal agendas. And there were, after all, only certain days the prison allowed visitors. She might’ve been able to sneak in a weekday visit if she were Joshua’s attorney, but the fact was, Joshua hadn’t allowed Rachael to defend him when he confessed the previous fall to killing a man. Not even when she begged him. She had been certain that he was innocent. And in a way, he was—morally, if not legally.

She closed the car door and the padded air quickly absorbed the sound. Her husband Trace had tried to talk her out of driving the 100- mile round trip from their loft apartment in downtown Minneapolis. They had both watched The Weather Channel that morning and saw the forecast, though it had been accidental that they were watching at all. Their eight-month-old daughter, McKenna, had a fondness for the station and its colorful, moving weather maps. The Weather Channel had become a part of McKenna’s morning routine as much as rice cereal and apple juice.

“I think I can make it back before it gets too bad,” Rachael had said when Trace suggested that she could wait until next Saturday to visit Josh. “It’s not supposed to start until early afternoon.”

But the snow began to fall just after she left the Twin Cities. It followed her south to the prison and was now fully committed to its task. Didn’t seem fair. It was mid-April already. In Manhattan, where she and Trace had lived until five months ago, New Yorkers were walking the sidewalks in shirt sleeves and open-toed shoes.

The only thing she could credit the snow with was the way it added a touch of elegance to everything it fell upon.

It made even the prison look good.

Rachael walked tentatively across the lot, noting that many others had braved the weather to visit the errant people they loved nonetheless.

The lot was full.

She made her way to the visitors’ entrance and began to mentally prepare herself for her visit with her younger brother. Rachael had seen Joshua only twice since his sentencing, mostly because life had taken on a rather hectic pace since she and Trace moved from New York back to the Twin Cities. Her new job as an assistant prosecutor for the Ramsey County Attorney’s office was somewhat of an experiment for both her and her employer. She had negotiated a workweek that amounted to three days instead of five so that she could spend Thursdays and Fridays with her daughter. The arrangement had translated into a challenging blend of court preparation and appearances on the trio of days that defined the front half of the week.

Rachael had found it odd to be at the prosecutor’s table instead of the defendant’s. For the past five years she had represented juvenile delinquents. Now she spent her days representing the local human services agency and partnering in the county’s effort to end parental neglect—a trigger for juvenile delinquency as much as anything.

Rachael stamped her feet onto the floor mat just inside the prison entrance and then turned to walk down the long hallway to the registration area. The visiting commons was full of people—parents who had come to see wayward children and children who had come to see wayward parents. Wives and sisters waited in the chairs. Brothers and girlfriends. She signed in and took a seat near a window to wait for Joshua to be led into the room.

Her brother had tried to talk her out of moving back to the Twin Cities. It took a bit of convincing to assure Josh it wasn’t merely pity for his circumstances that brought Rachael and Trace back to Minneapolis. And it wasn’t pity that drove her to visit him at the prison as often as she could. Josh was five years younger than Rachael but she had always been in awe of his insights into human character. That talent had always made him seem older. He saw far more than she did. He always had.

That was precisely why she had braved the storm and come in spite of the forecast. Josh knew what went on in the minds of hurting people. Despite what he had done, Josh was still the most compassionate man she knew. And she was in need of his insights.

Rachael wondered if Joshua had heard what had happened to her several weeks earlier in the Ramsey County courthouse parking lot. She could scarcely believe it had been real herself. Some days she woke up unconvinced that she had indeed had a gun held to her head for a few fleeting minutes. It had happened at the end of a long day in court. Rachael had gone out to her car and unlocked it, and then she had run back inside the courthouse to make a last-minute phone call. In these brief moments, a distraught mother whose children had been ordered into long-term foster care at Rachael’s recommendation had slipped into her backseat. When Rachael returned to her car, the barrel of a gun had been thrust at her head and a rush of angry words had been leveled at her. Of course, she had been afraid at first, but then the fear had given way to pity.

The woman didn’t want to kill anyone; she wanted her kids back. By the time her attacker had been subdued, Rachael was strangely certain her life had never truly been in danger. Rachael was sure of it, but no one else was—especially her friend and colleague Will Pendleton, the police detective who saw her sitting in her car in the icy twilight as he also left the courthouse and who had come to her aid. The mother never would’ve pulled the trigger, Rachael had told Will. Will had told her gently that that was something she couldn’t know. But somehow she felt she did. She wondered as she waited if Josh would understand this. Surely if anyone would, it would be her brother.

A woman twice her weight and seemingly half her height now took a seat across from Rachael, interrupting her thoughts. Rachael smiled at her and the woman smiled back.

“Rotten day for visiting,” the woman said, adjusting her body in the foam-padded chair.

“Yes,” Rachael answered.

“I didn’t even bring my windshield scraper. Took that out of the car three weeks ago.”

Rachael nodded. “Me, too.”

“You here to see your husband, too?” The woman looked dubious. Rachael knew her expensive clothes gave her away every time she came here. She didn’t look like the type to have a family member in prison.

“No. My brother actually.”

“Oh. Caught selling drugs?”

Rachael shook her head. She looked toward the doors where Josh would emerge. “No,” she answered.

“So many fine young people get caught up in those drugs. Happened to my Douglas. He’s not here though. He’s in treatment. Clyde, my husband, got off them a long time ago. But he’s here just the same.”

Rachael smiled and said nothing.

“Your brother rob a bank or something?”

Rachael sighed but the woman didn’t seem to notice. Clearly, Clyde’s wife wanted to know what Joshua had done to land him in a place like this. Was it as bad as whatever it was Clyde had done? Or did it place Josh and Clyde in a fraternity of some kind and thus bind their women as well? Rachael doubted she would adequately be able to describe how Josh ended up in prison for killing a man. She decided she’d give the woman what she wanted and hopefully gain her respect and silence.

“My brother is here for voluntary manslaughter. He killed a guy who was running a prostitution ring in Frogtown.”

The woman’s mouth opened a little. “He killed a man in Frogtown? In the Cities?”

“Yes.”

“And it wasn’t about drugs?”

“My brother was trying to save two teenage girls from forced prostitution, but he was too late. And when my brother realized what this man had done—not only to those girls but other girls, too—he lost it. He killed him. He crushed the man’s skull.”

The mouth was now open wide enough for a dentist to have a peek inside.

“The judge ruled it voluntary manslaughter because my brother hadn’t meant to kill him,” Rachael continued. “But he did kill him, of course.”

The door across the room opened and several inmates entered the room—Josh was among them. Rachael stood up.

“Nice talking with you,” she said quickly and moved away before the woman could respond. If indeed she was planning to.

Rachael waved to her brother and walked quickly over to the visiting tables and took a seat. Josh smiled and met her there. They clasped hands across the table. Rachael saw that Clyde’s wife was staring at them both from across the room. She knew what the woman was thinking. Josh didn’t look like a violent man.

“Is that snow in your hair?” her brother said, giving her hand a squeeze before letting go.

“Can you believe it? They’re expecting half a foot.”

“Gotta love Minnesota.”

Rachael studied his face, searching for a sign that underneath the prison jumpsuit and the stress of the last five months Josh was still the same person she had grown up with. Compassionate, quirky, and utterly devoted to helping the helpless. The truth was, he wasn’t a violent man.

“Are you doing okay?” she asked.

Her brother, lean, tall, and pony-tailed, shrugged. “Other people have it worse off than me,” he answered. “Food’s not bad. Company’s a little hard to please sometimes. The chaplain here is a nice guy, though. He wants me to help him lead a Bible study.”

“That’s great, Josh,” Rachael said, reaching across and squeezing his hand.

“Yeah, I guess that’s something I could do.”

“You’ll be great at it.”

Josh smiled. “Perhaps.”

“So, you’re sure you’re okay?”

“I should be asking you that,” he replied, the smile never leaving his face.

“Me?”

“We get newspapers in here, Rachael. And cable.”

Rachael sat back in her chair. So he knew. He knew what happened to her in the parking lot. She was glad he knew. One less thing for her to have to describe for him. “The newspaper made it seem so much worse than it really was.”

“How much worse could it have gotten, aside from getting shot?”

“She wasn’t going to use that gun. She was just mad. And frustrated.”

“I heard your friend Sgt. Pendleton say she had every intention of using that gun. He said on the news that he believes that woman had planned on shooting you as you walked across the parking lot, without even talking to you. That she had been waiting around the side of the building for over an hour. You changed your mind about getting into your car and went back inside. But you had already unlocked your car. That’s when she got inside it. ’Cause she wanted you to know who it was that pulled the trigger.”

Rachael stiffened. Josh had been afraid for her. He still was.

“But she didn’t pull it,” Rachael said softly. “She wasn’t going to. I’m sure of it.”

“Yeah. I read that in the paper,” Josh continued. “That that’s what you thought. Like it was an unfortunate mishap that she climbed in your car with a gun.”

“I really don’t think she was going to pull the trigger, Josh. She was just desperate and calling out for help. She was like all the people you yourself have reached down to help. I thought you would understand that.”

Josh studied her face and said nothing. She wondered what he was thinking. It wasn’t the first time in the past few months Rachael had told him she was sure of things she couldn’t actually prove.

“Will Pendleton saved the day, I hear,” he said.

“Yes. Will saw me sitting in my car. He was able to convince her to give up her gun.” Rachael said it all as if there were no weight to the words, but Will had drawn his own weapon and there had been several tense seconds when there were two guns within inches of her body. She should have been terrified. What consumed her tangled thoughts in that awful moment was only that Will would shoot first.

“God was watching out for you, I think,” Josh said.

“I’m not saying he wasn’t.”

Josh held her hand and stroked it. “Sometimes he lets the bad stuff happen, Rachael.”

“Look, I’m not going to do that again, Josh. I won’t ever leave my car unlocked again. I promise. But I’m telling you, I knew somehow that I wasn’t truly in danger.”

Josh was silent for a moment. “What does Trace say about all this?”

Rachael smiled ruefully. “At first, Trace wanted me to quit my job.”

“Maybe you should.”

Rachael held his gaze for several long seconds. “That’s not what you would do.”

Josh said nothing.

“Can you stop being who you are?” she said to him. “Even in here, can you stop being you, Josh? Are you telling me you don’t look at every guy in this place who got dealt a heavy hand and don’t find yourself looking for ways to help him?”

Josh looked away. When he brought his gaze back to her his smile had softened. “You always were the smart one.”

A moment of silence passed between them. Rachael was ready to change the subject. She could tell Josh didn’t particularly like what she had told him. But he at least understood that she was not imagining things. He too, had been gifted in ways that defied explanation.

“I don’t want you staying if we’re going to get that much snow,” he said a moment later. His voice was kind, but authoritative.

“I’ll be all right, Josh.”

“You should head back. The roads will be slick.”

“I can stay a little longer,” Rachael countered.

But Josh stood up. “I want you to be safe,” he said. He reached for her hand and she held it out to him. He kissed it.

“Bye,” he said.

“Josh, I’m sure another half hour won’t make a difference.”

But her brother had turned and was walking away. He raised up a hand in farewell.

There was nothing Rachael could do except sign out and leave.