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A True Crime Thriller: Murder of Innocence by James Patterson

MurderofInnocencebyJamesPatterson_NovelSuspects



Prologue

July 14, 2000

Carey flutters open her eyes, but she can’t see much of anything.

Hot water is running down her face. Swirls of rising steam engulf her.

Her head is spinning, and her legs and arms feel wobbly, like the Jell-O shots she and her sorority sisters make for their house parties.

Carey has been drunk before. And stoned. More times than she can count.

But this feeling, what’s happening to her right now, is different.

Very different.

Carey gropes blindly for something to hold on to. Her fingertips make contact with a wall of wet tile. She claws at the slick surface, feeling dangerously shaky. Then she forces herself to take some slow, deep breaths. And think.

She’s standing upright in a hot shower. That much Carey’s sure about.

But she has no idea whose shower.

Or where she is.

Or how in the hell she got here.

And—oh God—Carey realizes now that she’s completely naked.

What happened to her clothes?

The last thing she remembers is the start of the night. It was Friday, and she and some girlfriends decided to head off campus and go barhopping on State Street, Santa Barbara’s main drag. They ended up at O’Malley’s, a popular, proudly inauthentic Irish pub. The place was packed with fellow University of California students, all drunk and sweaty, sloshing their Coors Lights and moving their bodies to pulsing hip-hop.

Most of the guys there were undergrads like Carey. But one of them was older. Quite a bit older. It was hard to tell for sure in the dim bar, but he looked well into his thirties. He seemed out of place in this sea of students, but he was tall, with a great head of dark hair, and he had a charm and confidence about him that most boys Carey’s own age lacked. Their idea of flirting was leering at a girl, dropping a cheesy pickup line, then offering to buy her a couple of shots.

Not this man. He came up to her with a glass of ice water from the bar already in hand—cold and refreshing, exactly what Carey was craving after hours on the dance floor—and struck up an actual conversation.

He introduced himself as Andrew. He asked what she was studying and where she was from. Art history and Sacramento, she told him. He said he’d grown up in California too. In Malibu and Brentwood, to be specific, which she knew were wealthy enclaves of nearby Los Angeles. He was a filmmaker. He loved to surf. He owned a bungalow on the beach in Mussel Shoals, a twenty-minute drive away. And he claimed he knew a secret recipe for the best margaritas in the entire world. Would Carey like to come over and have some?

That’s where her memory begins to blur.

Which is why Carey deduces with horror that she has been drugged.

She can recall the rest of the night only in vague, dreamlike snippets. She remembers stumbling into the front seat of the man’s forest green SUV. She remembers gripping his shoulder for support as she tottered along the beach behind his house. She remembers collapsing, loopy and exhausted, onto his couch.

But how did she end up in the shower?

Her breathing quickens as she tries to formulate a plan. If she can just stop her head from spinning, if she can just make her muscles work again, she can step out of the shower. She can get dressed. She can go home.

But Carey doesn’t get the chance.

The bathroom door opens, and in walks the man from the bar.

He strips off his white linen shirt and board shorts, pulls back the shower curtain, and steps in behind Carey, brushing his nude body up against hers.

Carey gasps. She’s filled with nausea and fear. She goes rigid from head to toe.

“Feels good, hmm?” he says, nuzzling Carey’s neck and sliding his hands along her thighs and up to her bare breasts.

No, it doesn’t feel good, Carey thinks. Stop, please. No. Stop!

Carey wants to scream and yell but no words come out, only muffled sobs.

She wants to fight off this monster. Spin around, knee this son of a bitch in the groin, dig her nails into his eyeballs.

But she just stands there in the running water. Frozen. Dazed. Helpless to speak up or resist.

Praying for this nightmare to end as the man pushes himself inside her.

Chapter 1

Four Years Earlier

Paddle faster, dude, you’re gonna miss it!”

Andrew Luster, still boyishly handsome at thirty-two, lies stomach-down on an eight-foot-long freshly waxed pinewood surfboard that glistens in the rising California sun. His arms are churning the water like a pair of twin-engine propellers.

Behind him, a massive wave is surging—and he’s determined to catch it.

Heeding his friend’s words, Andrew pumps his arms harder. A salty sea mist stings his eyes. His shoulders start to burn. But he doesn’t let up. He’s set his sights on that wave, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to let it get away.

That’s the kind of man Andrew Luster is and always has been.

He’s a man who knows exactly what he wants.

A man used to getting exactly what he wants.

No matter the cost.

Soon, the wave begins to swell. Andrew leaps up onto his board in a squatting position. As the water crests, he stands upright, turns sideways, and feels himself picking up speed.

“Yeah!” he shouts. He pumps his fist, savoring the thrill. “Hell yeah!”

But Andrew’s joy is short-lived. Without warning, his board jerks. He loses his balance and belly-flops into the surf.

He quickly fights his way back to the surface, coughs up seawater. His friend Jon Balden—his neighbor and occasional early-morning surfing partner—is floating on his own board nearby, pointing at him and cackling. “Nice wipeout!”

For a moment, Andrew is overcome by a rush of shame and fury. He hates being laughed at almost as much as he hates not getting his way.

But then Andrew forces a smile, reverting to his typical, easygoing self. “I meant to do that!” he calls to Jon. “I just wish I’d gotten it on tape!”

He’s only half joking. As much as he loves his surfboard, Andrew loves another toy even more: his Super VHS camcorder. His video camera is practically attached to his shoulder whenever he’s not in the water. He films snippets of his daily life, documents his travels, interviews his friends. Constantly. He especially likes turning the camera on himself. Some might call this habit odd. Eccentric. Narcissistic. Andrew calls it his passion.

Andrew spins his surfboard around and is preparing to head back out when he sees his companion paddling toward the shore. “Come on! You’re not quitting on me already, are you, Jon?”

“Wish I could stay out longer. But I’ve got somewhere to be this morning. It’s called a job. J-o-b. Ever heard of it? You go to an office, sit at a desk, earn a salary? You should try it someday.”

Andrew rolls his eyes. This isn’t the first time his friend has teased him about his enviable lifestyle. One of the great-grandsons of Maksymilian Faktorowicz—better known as Max Factor Sr., founder of the mega-successful global cosmetics company that bears his name—Andrew was born into a life of incredible wealth and privilege. When Andrew turned eighteen, he was given access to a hefty trust fund, a portion of which he used to buy a cozy oceanside bungalow in the sleepy California beach town of Mussel Shoals.

That was almost fifteen years ago. He hasn’t worked a single day since.

“Yeah, yeah,” Andrew says, brushing off Jon’s dig. “I’ll probably hit the waves again later, around sunset, before I head downtown. You should join me. For both.”

Jon shakes his head good-naturedly, well aware that when his neighbor says “downtown,” he means the strip of bars he likes to haunt in nearby Santa Barbara.

College bars.

Women, the younger the better, are Andrew’s third great passion in life. If he’s not surfing or shooting home movies, he’s talking about girls. Or chasing them. Or bedding them. Fit, tan, charming, and rich, Andrew has no trouble bringing home a different beautiful girl practically every night of the week. He rarely sees any of them twice.

“Sounds tempting, but maybe another time,” Jon says. “I’ve got to go to work tomorrow morning too. Imagine that.”

The men say goodbye and head their separate ways—Jon toward the shore, Andrew toward the waves.

As he scans the shimmering water looking for the next big swell, Andrew can’t get Jon’s mocking comments out of his head. So what if he doesn’t work a traditional nine-to-five? So what if he was born wealthy? He gets to spend his days and nights doing what he loves.

Which suddenly gives Andrew an idea.

Chapter 2

And…action!”

On cue, three tall, voluptuous, gorgeous young women—a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead, each carrying a surfboard and each wearing a string bikini about the size of three postage stamps—begin jogging down the beach in front of Andrew’s bungalow. They playfully push and swat one another, giggling.

Kneeling in the sand nearby is Andrew Luster. His bulky camcorder is perched on his shoulder; a dopey smile is plastered across his face. Peering through the viewfinder, he tracks the models as they run, filming every sultry second of it.

When they reach the water’s edge, he yells, “Now get rid of those tops, girls! Let ’em fly!”

The trio fling their bikini tops into the air, pounce on their surfboards, leap into the shallows, and start paddling away. Water splashes all over their bronzed backs and shapely behinds.

“And…cut! That was great, ladies. Really great. Let’s try it one more time.”

A few hundred yards away, Jon Balden is cooking oatmeal in his kitchen; after he eats, he’ll head to the office. Through the window, he notices what’s happening on the beach. It’s not uncommon to see pretty girls frolicking in the surf. But three statuesque models emerging from the water half naked while his neighbor films them?

Jon turns off the burner. He has to check this out for himself.

Jon starts marching down to the shore, where Andrew is standing in a huddle with the three women as they casually retie their bikini tops. He’s giving them direction, pointing out where along the beach he wants them to scurry next.

“Quite the production you’ve got here, Mr. Spielberg,” Jon calls out as he approaches. He means it as a joke, but that seems lost on Andrew, who beams with pride.

“I know, right? I’m a director now! Can you believe it?”

No, Jon thinks, I can’t. “What are you shooting exactly? A homemade Baywatch porno parody?”

Now Andrew’s smile starts to falter. He puts an arm around Jon’s shoulders and guides him out of earshot of the talent. “You think this is porn? No way. This is a real Hollywood movie. I wrote the script myself. It’s a surfing action comedy called Waves and Babes. It’s gonna be huge.”

Jon looks at his wacky neighbor for a moment, then lets out a belly laugh.

Andrew pouts, insulted.

Too late, Jon realizes Andrew was being completely serious. “I mean, uh…that’s cool,” Jon says, backpedaling.

“I started a real Hollywood production company too! Check this out.”

Andrew excitedly reaches into the back pocket of his sandy board shorts, pulls out a stack of crumpled business cards, and hands one to Jon. The smudged lettering reads DEEP SIX FILMS ~ ANDREW S. LUSTER, PRESIDENT AND CEO.

Jon is at a loss for words. Is his friend delusional? He finally says, a little awkwardly, “That’s great, Andrew. I’m excited for you.”

Now it’s Andrew’s turn to laugh—smugly. “Thanks, bro. I’d love to keep chatting, but I’ve got to get back to my job.

Jon watches his surfing buddy return to his three scantily clad starlets. Andrew yells “Places!” then “Action!” and resumes filming them as they run and jiggle, strip off their bikini tops, and splash around in the water.

A real Hollywood movie? Yeah, right, Jon thinks.

All he knows for sure is that his neighbor is a real odd duck.

Chapter 3

Tonja steps out of the terminal at Santa Barbara Airport and sets her bags down on the curb. She closes her eyes, enjoying the warm afternoon sunshine on her face. She exhales, savoring the delightful peace and quiet.

Compared to sprawling and chaotic Phoenix Sky Harbor International, where she departed from two hours ago, this tiny regional airport feels calm, even soothing. The single-story terminal building is made of smooth white stone, topped with a red-tile roof, and surrounded by swaying palm trees.

Tonja’s big sister, Lisa, who had been begging her to come visit ever since she’d moved out here a few years ago, always said Santa Barbara was a little slice of paradise. Tonja’s already starting to understand. If the airport is this nice, she thinks, how gorgeous must the rest of this place be?

Beep-beep. A gray Honda with a dented front bumper pulls up to the curb. Lisa hops out and throws her arms around her baby sister, then takes a step back and gives Tonja a once-over. Her eyes travel from Tonja’s scuffed-up cowboy boots to her full denim skirt to her giant strawberry-blond perm. Lisa teasingly clicks her tongue. “You can take the girl out of Arizona, but you can’t take the Arizona out of the girl.”

Tonja feigns offense. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re in Southern California now, not the Wild West. But don’t worry. I’ve got the perfect dress for you to borrow. You’re going to look amazing in it.”

“I think I look fine in this outfit, thank you very much.”

“Of course you do. But that’s not the point. You’re skinny, you’re gorgeous, and you’re twenty-one. You’d look hot wearing a garbage bag.”

“Is that supposed to be a compliment?”

Lisa laughs. “Come on. Toss your crap in the trunk and let’s go.”

The ride from the airport to Lisa’s place is short and dazzlingly scenic. They pass sweeping hillsides, gorgeous Spanish mission–style mansions, stunning views of the glimmering Pacific. Tonja’s jaw hangs open the entire time.

Lisa’s apartment isn’t nearly as grand; it’s a modest one-bedroom rental in a middle-class part of town. But it’s bright and breezy and clean and just a few minutes’ drive from both the beach and downtown.

Tonja flops onto her sister’s pullout couch, where she’ll be spending the next five nights. Her trip has barely begun and already she’s feeling sad about leaving.

“Here’s that dress I was talking about,” Lisa says. She emerges from her room holding up what is essentially a wisp of fabric, magenta with a white floral print. “What do you think?”

“That’s a dress? I have headbands bigger than that.”

“That’s your problem. Just try it on.”

“Maybe later. I was thinking tonight we’d slip into some pj’s, order a pizza, watch some trashy TV, and just talk. Like we used to do when we were kids.”

“Are you joking? This is your first night in Santa Barbara,” Lisa says, tossing the slinky outfit at Tonja. “We’re going out!”

A few hours later, all dressed up, their hair done, in full makeup, the two sisters hit the town. They start the evening by grabbing some grilled fish tacos at a fantastic hole-in-the-wall Mexican place Lisa knows and washing them down with ice-cold Tecate beers. Next they head to State Street, a glitzy strip of bars and restaurants stretching from the beach to the foothills. Even though it’s a weeknight, the area is teeming with people, a mix of well-heeled tourists, local beach bums, and rowdy college students. Tonja soaks up all the sights and sounds, loving every moment.

The sisters go to a few different spots, downing a drink at each. Eventually they find themselves at Calypso, a combination grill and nightclub with a kitschy tropical theme. They’re on the dance floor together, grooving blissfully to some reggaeton, when Tonja feels a tap on her shoulder.

“Hey, I love your dress.”

Tonja turns to see a tall, good-looking man. His brown hair is thick and wavy. His shoulders are broad. But he’s in his thirties, a decade older than the guys she’s usually attracted to.

Normally Tonja’s first instinct would be to brush him off. Even if he were her own age, she’s here to hang out with her sister, not to let unknown men hit on her. Yet there’s something striking about this one, something undeniably alluring. An instant spark.

So Tonja says, “Thank you,” and unconsciously tugs the hemline of her tight magenta skirt down toward her knees, bashful under his gaze.

“You look a little thirsty,” the man says. He flashes Tonja a smile—warm, friendly, instantly disarming. “Here. Do you want a glass of water?”

Chapter 4

No, thanks,” Lisa says, butting in. “But we’d love a couple of vodka and cranberries.”

The man pauses for a moment, then bobs his head. “What do you say we grab a table on the patio?” he asks. “It’s quieter out there. Easier to have a real conversation.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Lisa answers, and the man heads toward the bar.

“What are you doing?” Tonja demands. “Do you even know that guy?”

Lisa shakes her head. “But I saw the way you were looking at him.” Tonja blushes. “I think he’s kinda cute too! Look, let’s just sit down for a minute, give our feet a rest, have a free drink, make a little small talk, then we’ll leave. What do you say?”

Tonja isn’t thrilled about the idea of leading a guy on like this, but she agrees.

A few minutes later, Tonja, Lisa, and the man are easing onto a banquette on the rear patio. Flickering tiki torches cast shadows across their faces.

“Three Grey Gooses and cranberry,” he announces. He hands Tonja and Lisa each a glass filled with ruby-red liquid and keeps one for himself. “Cheers. To new friends. And new adventures.”

They all clink glasses and take a sip. The sharp tang of alcohol catches Tonja by surprise. “Wow,” she says. “These are pretty strong.”

“Mike, the bartender—he’s a friend of mine. I asked him to mix them like that.”

Lisa introduces herself and her little sister, Tonja. “She’s visiting from Arizona,” Lisa tells him.

“No kidding,” the man says, turning and staring intently into Tonja’s eyes. “I would’ve guessed you came from heaven.”

Lisa groans. It’s a painfully corny line, and all three of them know it. But Tonja genuinely laughs. Maybe it’s the booze. Maybe it’s his magnetism. Or maybe it’s something else.

“I’m Andrew, by the way. And I couldn’t be happier to meet you both.”

From there, the conversation flows easily. Despite his cheesy intro, Andrew is suave and engaging. He drops enticing hints about his life, which sounds quite charmed. He tells the two women that he’s a successful screenwriter and director and that he owns a major production company.

“Would we have seen any of your movies?” Lisa asks.

“Probably not. I’ve been focusing on smaller, independent films so far.”

When Tonja says she’s considering a career in real estate, Andrew shares his experience buying his beachside bungalow and offers some thoughts on the Southern California property market. When she says she’s always wanted to try surfing, Andrew practically leaps out of his seat. He’d love to teach her sometime.

“Another drink?” he asks Tonja as she’s finishing the last sip of her cocktail.

It’s Lisa who answers. “Thanks, but it’s getting late. We should probably—”

“Sure!” Tonja interjects.

Andrew holds up his hand and gets the attention of a passing waiter, who hurries right over. “Hey, Andrew, good to see you! What can I get you guys?”

“Brian, these are my new friends, the lovely Tonja and her equally lovely sister, Lisa. We’d like another round, please.”

Andrew removes a massive wad of folded cash from his pocket and slips a bill into the waiter’s palm. It’s dark on the patio, but Tonja sees it’s a hundred. The waiter nods appreciatively and scurries off.

“The bartender, the servers—seems like you’re pretty popular around here,” Lisa says.

If Andrew detects a hint of judgment in her voice, he ignores it. “That’s because I love it here. I work hard, I play hard.” Subtly brushing his fingertips across Tonja’s forearm, he adds, “Is that a crime?”

The next round of drinks arrives and the conversation continues.

Tonja can tell that Lisa is unimpressed by Andrew. Rich LA guy, full of himself, likes to party and hit on younger women. Thinks he’s a total bad boy but is about as exciting—and dangerous—as a wet beach towel. Living in Santa Barbara, Lisa has met his type a million times, and that’s what she tells her little sister under her breath while Andrew’s busy chatting to another waiter.

Tonja shrugs off Lisa’s comment. She’s hanging on Andrew’s every word. She’s flattered by his attention, charmed by his confidence, and more impressed by his money and success than she wants to admit to herself. When she finishes her second drink, she’s the one who suggests a third.

“Now it’s really getting late,” Lisa says with a sigh. “Tonja, you’re probably wiped out from traveling. It was nice meeting you, Andrew, but we should get going.”

“Actually, I feel great!” Tonja says brightly. “You can leave if you want. I’ll take a cab back or something.”

Lisa gives her younger sister a long, hard look. Is this really what she wants? Tonja stares back steadily. She’s an adult, old enough to make her own decisions, live her own life.

“Okay. Sure,” Lisa finally says. “You two have fun. I’ll see you when you get home, Ton.”

Alone with Andrew on the banquette, Tonja scoots a little closer to him. “Should we order more drinks?” she asks.

Andrew grins. Rests a hand on her bare knee.

“I was thinking…I could make us some. Back at my place. I know a secret recipe for the best margaritas in the world.”