Chapter 1


Julie Lawson could remember having all sorts of expectations about college. First and foremost, although her parents were never especially strict, she’d relished the idea of being out on her own, free to do what she wanted, when she wanted. And while her hometown of Bishop, in Northern California, was a nice enough place to grow up, in the end, during her last two years of high school, it had begun to feel agonizingly small, and she’d looked forward to an active social life – filled with parties, club meetings and sporting events – where she could meet new people and make other friends. On occasion, she’d also entertained being challenged a bit more in the brain department, particularly during those hours spent in Mr. Stilwell’s American History class, since all he ever did was show movies and give a ten-question quiz once a week, for which he provided the answers in advance. Not exactly rocket science, by any stretch of the imagination.

Never, during those moments spent thinking about her bright collegiate future, though, had she envisioned being hauled in to the University Police Department on suspicion of grand larceny. Yet, there she was, barely two months into her freshman year at San Diego University, getting grilled across the table by an expressionless, uniformed cop like a scene out of “Law & Order.”

Rhonda Sparks, a UPD patrol officer in her late twenties, with thick blonde hair pulled back tightly in a ponytail, poised her pen over a yellow legal pad and said in a voice as flat as the nose on her face, “Let’s hear your side of the story,” giving Julie her cue.

Having been picked up a mere twenty minutes earlier, Julie hadn’t had sufficient time to rehearse her lines for the surprise guest appearance on “L&O,” and was suddenly at a loss for words. As a rule of thumb, she never lied, but in this instance, telling the truth might actually land her in jail.

“We don’t have all day,” Officer Sparks prompted, tapping her pen impatiently.

Julie licked her dry lips then began. “Well, a group of us from the dorm met for lunch at the cafeteria. Normally, I just grab a sandwich or a salad at the deli in the Student Center, but on Mondays they set up a taco bar, and it’s actually pretty good, I mean, compared to what they usually serve—“

“I’m not interested in what you had to eat,” the policewoman cut her off.

“Right,” Julie murmured, wringing her trembling hands under the table. “Anyway, we were pretty much the last ones to leave. As we were picking up our trays to go, we noticed someone had left a set of keys on the table. We figured they belonged to Daphne; we’d seen her earlier. Somebody, I don’t remember who, came up with the idea to borrow her car for a quick spin.” It had been Cheryl Winecroft, but Julie was no snitch.

“Borrow,” Officer Sparks said skeptically.

“Yes, borrow. See, none us own a car. A new frozen yogurt place just opened in the Village, and we wanted to give it a try. I always crave something sweet after Mexican food, don’t you?” Officer Sparks didn’t so much as blink in reaction to the friendly suggestion, prompting Julie to add hastily in her defense, “We were there and back in twenty minutes.”

“During which time Miss Fitzsimmons called us and reported the black Mercedes convertible stolen.”

“I guess.” Julie looked to her left at the stick-thin girl seated ramrod straight on the edge of her chair for confirmation. Daphne Fitzsimmons was dressed impeccably in designer duds that must have cost a quarter’s tuition. Beside her, Julie felt like a slouch, outfitted in chain store jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers. Slovenly, too, having practically inhaled three chicken tacos for lunch. Five-eight and 130 pounds, give or take, next to dainty Daphne, she resembled a linebacker. Julie wondered what Daphne’s diet consisted of: Diet Coke and carrot sticks?

“When I got back to the dorm after lunch, I couldn’t find my keys,” Daphne recounted. “I remembered leaving them on the table in the cafeteria, so I went to look for them. Obviously, they weren’t there.” She tossed her caramel-tinted tresses over her shoulders and regarded Julie with contempt. “Fearing the worst, I ran out to the parking lot and saw my baby was gone!”

Baby? Julie rolled her eyes.

Officer Sparks cleared her throat, obviously finding Daphne’s diminutive for the car hard to swallow also, before addressing Julie. “And you were the driver of the stolen vehicle?”

Julie winced at the word ‘stolen.’ Obviously the term ‘borrow’ hadn’t flown. The question threw her off-guard. The policewoman already knew the answer, as she’d been part of the black and white reception committee greeting her when she returned the Mercedes to its parking spot. Julie, having dropped off her three companions in front of the dorm to save them the walk, was the only person in the car. Her heart began to race. Was this it? Did Officer Sparks want to wrap up the incident with a neat and clean confession?

“Miss Lawson, I’m waiting,” the cop said impatiently.

Evidently. Julie wasn’t in such a rush to seal her tragic fate. “No one else had a driver’s license on her,” she finally offered up as an excuse, carefully avoiding a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.

Daphne, who’d been practically salivating at the prospect of spilled blood, blew out a disgruntled sigh, while Rhonda Sparks’ mouth fell into a frown. The officer shook her head disapprovingly and began scribbling on her legal pad.

Boiling over with apprehension in the ensuing silence, Julie launched into a sputtering, last minute plea. “C’mon, it was a joke. A prank! This is college. We’re students! We’re supposed to do wild and crazy things.” The officer glared at her under a furrowed brow. Apparently this viewpoint didn’t extend to San Diego University.

In desperation, Julie faced her accuser and placed a hand tenderly on her knee. Which was so bony, it felt more like an elbow. “I’m sorry, Daphne. I had no idea Baby meant that much to you. And now I can understand why, having driven her. That is one beautiful car; worth every penny, I’m sure.” She’d found out from Officer Sparks that a Mercedes C-class convertible retails for roughly $50,000. “Anyway, I am truly, truly sorry. Really.”

Daphne regarded Julie blankly over the bridge of her perfectly formed ski jump nose for several seconds, and then turned to the police officer. “I want her arrested for theft and prosecuted.” She batted her narrow-set eyes once at Julie and added frostily, “To the full extent of the law.”

It was the thin, satisfied smile Daphne delivered after the denouncement that sent Julie over the edge. Before she could manage to constrain herself, she was on her feet, with her hands balled into tight fists.

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