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Exonerated

By Cameron Carroll All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Drama

Blurb

Seven years ago, Sheriff John Turner put the serial child murderer Marcus Goodwin behind bars. Last week, Marcus was proven innocent and set free, after DNA evidence showed his brother Lucas Goodwin was the true killer. Both their lives forever changed by Marcus’s wrongful conviction, the John and Marcus attempt to reconcile and form an unusual bond – a unlikely friendship that surprises them both. While John struggles to atone for his part in Marcus’s tragedy, Marcus is working to move beyond his past and find meaning again; together, they begin to rebuild their lives and make amends. Eventually, John realizes that his feelings for Marcus run deeper than friendship, but their shared history and his continuing guilt stand in the way of admitting how he really feels. Just as he discovers that his feelings might be reciprocated, the Lake Madeleine killer strikes again, once again throwing their lives into upheaval. If Lucas Goodwin wasn’t the only killer, who is the murderer in their midst? Who can be trusted, and who knows what really happened seven years ago? Can they even trust each other? And most importantly – how do they stop the killer before another child goes missing?

Chapter 1

John's sitting at a table in front of a coffee shop, a little coffee shop on the corner of 12th and University Way. It's called Flowers. He's a handsome man, although not young anymore; light brown hair, green eyes, sharp chin, strong shoulders. He's sitting at a little black metal table under a blue and white striped canvas umbrella and there's a slight breeze tugging along his right cheek, the rush of the street, the wind of the cars going by and zipping through the spring air.

It's kind of a long story how he got here.


Seven years ago, about fifty miles outside of this city, there was a string of child disappearances. Those are the words no one ever wants to hear: a string of disappearing children.

John Turner took the helm of the county's investigative task force. It was only natural. He was only twenty six at the time, but in the wake of his father's death he was the sheriff's lead detective. It was early summertime, a hot melted sticky summer, and at least four kids under age seven had vanished from the farthest corners of the county – vanished from swingsets, from sidewalks, from schoolyards, popsicles in hand and sweat-plastered hair. Parents were warned, alerts were made, but it was too hot. The children would not stay indoors.

Then two small bodies were discovered in the woods by Lake Madeleine. There was no evidence of sexual assault, but the children were… dismembered. Disemboweled.

Dissected.

The parents locked their doors.

Two more children disappeared, three more bodies were found, all under seven years old and all missing their eyes, their fingers, their teeth. Ribs cracked open. The heat wave boiled over into hysteria, and John's phone rang and rang with shrieks and demands. Night after night he patrolled Lake Madeleine, unable to sleep, shadows under his eyes, a little girl's empty eye sockets burned into the back of his brain.

Then the big break came:

A body was found in a house.

Marcus Goodwin's lakehouse, to be specific. On Lake Madeleine. His neighbor Mrs. Manesciewicz thought she heard a noise in the night and noticed that his lights were on, even though he had not yet taken his annual vacation time to stay at the lakehouse. His car also was not in the driveway. Fearing a burglar but feeling uncertain, Mrs. Manesciewicz got into her car and honked the horn. The lights in the house suddenly turned out. She called the police.

When the police arrived, they knocked and shone a flashlight in the window… and saw a tiny, limp hand on the floor.

Three hours later, John and his partner were dragging Marcus Goodwin out of his townhouse as the man shouted to his wife, struggling against his handcuffs. And when they slammed the car door shut on him, John felt a cold shiver jab up his spine and a big, long breath let out of his lungs.

The trial was long and damning, a blur of paperwork and camera flashes and cold glares. There was no sign of forced entry, the doors were locked, and CSI showed that the little boy had been killed in the bathtub. Traces of several of the other children were found in the crevices of the bathroom. Mr. Goodwin had no alibi for the nights in question except his weeping naïve wife, who said she thought he had been home but she couldn't be sure. He sometimes went out for nightly drives. He was almost too cliché to be real; twenty nine, clean cut, childless, religious, boring. His neighbors all said he was quiet and polite. He appeared shrunken inside his orange jumpsuit, with black-brown cropped hair and wide blue eyes that showed the fear that silently trembled in his hands.

He looked so fucking ordinary.

Two years after his arrest, the entire time spent in jail awaiting his judgment, Marcus Goodwin was sentenced to six consecutive life sentences. He didn't cry. He didn't even seem to hear. He just walked dumbly out of the courtroom, stumbling in his chains.

And that concluded the horrific nightmare of the Lake Madeleine Killer, all the demons put to rest, and John still couldn't sleep at night but everyone else slept just fine so, small fucking favors, alright? He was elected sheriff shortly thereafter and at least that gave him new purpose. Happily ever after. That was the end.

Until four years later, when a three-year-old boy went missing.

This time, the killer had not been so careful. The job was not as clean as the other six, something that a psychologist would later testify was a sign of his compulsion to kill, the ravening compulsion he couldn't control any longer. Where the others had been spotlessly devoid of DNA evidence, this little boy had not been cleaned so thoroughly. The medical examiner found residue of saliva on his wrist. The residue was collected and sent to a high-profile lab for testing, and the results matched someone already in their database –

Lucas Goodwin. Marcus Goodwin's brother.

The litigation that followed was much more complicated than the first trial. Lucas plead guilty to the little boy's murder, and Marcus's appeal began in earnest. Experts testified how little Kenny's killer was almost certainly the same killer as the previous six, how none of Marcus's DNA was ever found in connection with the bodies, how Lucas had a spare key to the lakehouse. They testified how the county had been looking for an easy answer, how poorly Marcus's attorneys had defended him, and most importantly – how Lucas now admitted he had killed the other children.

Marcus was exonerated, and every possible ounce of shame in John's body collected in his feet and made him want to sink into the ground and never come up. John got the news and went home and drank until he blacked out.

So now a week later he's sitting at a café called Flowers, and he's waiting for Marcus Goodwin to show up.


"I just don't understand what he wants from me," John said to his brother Nick over the phone earlier that day. "If I were him, I'd be the last fucking person I'd wanna see."

"Maybe he just wants you to say you're sorry," Nick suggested.

John snorted. "Yeah. Because that'll make it all better. More likely, he's planning to shank me with his prison shiv, and I can't say I blame him."

"You need to stop beating yourself up, John. You weren't the only one who made a mistake –"

"No, I'm the one who made the mistake," John snapped. "I made the call to arrest him. I sat there on the stand and I swore to that jury that he was the only possible one who could've done it."

"Look. I'm just saying… it happens."

John rubbed his eyes. "Maybe that's true, Nick. Maybe it happens. But it shouldn't happen, not on my watch. And what's more…" He licked his lips and closed his eyes. "Nick, Kenny Whidbey would still be alive."

"You don't know that!"

"If I had caught the right guy, he would be. That kid would be in kindergarten now…"


So he's sitting at Flowers and waiting for Goodwin to arrive, and his coffee's getting cold but he just can't bring himself to drink it. He lowers his eyes to his cup and he secretly hopes that maybe he's forgotten, maybe he won't show u–

"Hello."

John starts.

The man's voice is unnervingly low, lower than he remembered. He looks very different from how he looked before – calm, collected, eyes steady and unrelenting. He walks different, too. He walks taller, somehow, straight and measured, not the haggard pale man in the baggy jumpsuit. He pulls out the chair across from John.

"Hey," John says, just like that.

Marcus sits down and looks at him.

Sweat trickles down the small of John's back. "So," he says, and he clears his throat. "You wanted to see me?"

Marcus doesn't even blink. "I heard about your resignation."

Ah. John looks back to his coffee and gives a nervous half-chuckle. "Yup, I… I sure did resign."

"Why?"

His fingers tighten on the cup. He pauses for a moment. "Oh, a lot of reasons." He closes his eyes. "Most of 'em to do with you."

They sit in silence for a minute, the cars whipping by in the busy street.

John takes a deep breath. "Survey says, this is the part where I say I'm sorry."

Marcus waits.

He blurts out, "But I don't think that's right."

Marcus's eyebrows tighten, and he tilts his head.

"Look, I can make my apologies, and you can take them or leave them," John goes on, rubbing the back of his neck. "And we can both toss around some pseudo-psychological bullshit words like, like 'closure' and 'acceptance' and all that crap, but when it comes down to it, the only person my apology helps is me. Is it gonna make you feel better? No. Is it gonna bring back the last seven years of your life? Hell no." He snorts and clenches his hand into a ball. "All it's gonna do is take me off the hook for actually doing anything to fix the shit I did. So you if you want me to say I'm sorry I'll tell you I'm sorry, but I'm gonna be sorry either way and I'm gonna be sorry the rest of my life. Telling you doesn't change that."

And John takes another deep breath and waits for the inevitable verbal smackdown, and Marcus…

smiles.

John blinks.

It's a small, quiet smile, but it's definitely a smile.

"You certainly have an interesting philosophy," Marcus says. "But I'm not looking for an apology."

John squints. "What?" he says. "Why not?"

Marcus exhales heavily. "For many of the reasons you said. Because of the impotence of intentions. Because I have already received so many apologies from so many people."

John sets down his coffee. "Then why did you ask me here?"

Marcus looks at him for a long moment, concentrated and sharp. Finally, he says, "When I heard you resigned, I knew what I had to do." His chair scrapes against the asphalt as he stands up. "Would you drive me down to the lake?"


It's been a long time since John set foot near Lake Madeleine.

The two of them sit at the public access, little more than a gravel beach with a bench, and they look out at the gray water and the few brown ducks paddling in the shallows.

"Daphne put the lakehouse up for sale," Marcus comments. "No one will buy it."

"Understandable," John says.

"She's living in Michigan now," he adds. "With her family."

John swallows thickly. He knows about Daphne, Marcus's wife... now, ex-wife. He knows about Daphne's side of the family in Michigan. He knows far too much about what Marcus's life looked like seven years ago. 

The two of them sit and watch the flat, cold lake.

"Did you know?" John asks abruptly.

Marcus frowns in confusion. "Know what?"

"Your brother," John elaborates. "Did you know it was him?"

Marcus's face darkens, and he turns away from him. "You think I would protect a child killer," he mutters.

"No," John hastily blurts, "I didn't mean that, I just wondered – if part of you knew."

Marcus lowers his head, and his shoulders sag. "No," he admits. "I had no inkling. I often wonder if… I was truly that blind, or…"

The silent lake watches back.

John gets it. He really does. Because it's the exact same scenario he plays over and over in his head, when he thinks about the interviews he conducted with Lucas, all the times he met him, shook his hand, cracked a joke. Not once did his cop instincts throw up a red flag. Not once, in all the time that he spent building the case against Marcus, did he ever suspect the real killer was the loyal brother who couldn't vouch for Marcus's whereabouts but who was sure there had been some mistake.

"I was naïve, back then," Marcus says quietly. "I didn't hire an expensive attorney or try to throw suspicion on anyone else. I was certain that, since I was innocent, I wouldn't be convicted. I thought the truth would win out."

"Me too," John croaks. "I thought that too."

Marcus turns his head to peer at him.

"I know you probably don't believe me, but – I thought I was doing the right thing," he insists hoarsely. "You were so quiet, and I thought if you were innocent you'd – I don't know, there'd be some evidence. Some tell. When I arrested you that night and I locked the cuffs around your wrist I just had this feeling in the pit of my stomach, this feeling that I'd… I'd…" He trails off.

"… won," Marcus finishes for him.

John can't meet his eyes. He stares out at the lake.

"It was a puzzle to you. A game. I don't mean that disrespectfully."

A sarcastic laugh chokes out of John. "How else could you mean it?"

"It was a game with incredibly high stakes, and I believe that you understood the stakes intimately." Marcus's expression is even, placid. "I know you didn't take your responsibility lightly. But when you solve the puzzle, you don't keep looking for other solutions. You won the game… and your job was done."

Something deep in John's chest sinks with the truth of his words. He rubs the corner of his jaw.

"I mean that wholly," Marcus continues. "Your job ended there."

John glances up at him.

"After that, I was tried and convicted by other people," Marcus says. "And yet you seem to think you bear the burden of responsibility."

"Because I do," John counters. "Because they all relied on me."

Marcus cocks his head. "So you, out of all parties involved, had the greatest hand in my fate?"

It sounds so damning to hear it out loud.

John presses his mouth tight and nods. "That's about the shape of it."

The quiet on the lake is eerie. It seems to linger in the air, cling to the skin.

"That's the shape of it," John murmurs, the sickening metallic tang of guilt on the roof of his mouth. "You spent seven years in prison because of me, and nothing I can say can ever make it up to you." He looks Marcus straight in the eye. "I'm sorry, Marcus," he says, sincerely and hollowly. "It sounds so fucking empty, but. I'm sorry."

And Marcus reaches across the bench

and put his left hand over John's right.

John stares at the hand pressed down on his own, the long pale fingers.

"John Turner," Marcus says, "I forgive you."

John's breath stops short in his throat.

"I know I'm not the only one you seek forgiveness from, but, for what it's worth…" Marcus squeezes his hand. "You have mine."

"I – I – I don't understand," John stammers, hot dampness springing in his eyes, roughening his voice.

"I don't want to forgive you, John." Marcus's gaze pierces through him. "But I need to. I refuse to carry the burden of hatred for the rest of my life. This is something I am doing for myself, so that I can find peace. I forgive you, and I wish you luck in your future endeavors."

"Jesus," John breathes. He pulls back his hand. "Jesus fucking Christ." He stands up.

Marcus's eyes follow his hand and travel up John's face.

John strides away from him briskly. "Fuck." He stops a yard away and pinches his eyes and sucks in a deep breath. "Fucking Christ."

They're a picture on the shore of Lake Madeleine, two characters frozen in tableau: one sitting on a bench, smooth and implacable, the other turned away, agitated and sharp.

"What's wrong with you?" John barks, spinning on Marcus. "How the hell are you so fucking zen? You on some kinda drugs?"

A slight shadow passes behind Marcus's eyes. "I've been in solitary confinement for six and a half years," he says. "For my own protection. I've had a lot of time for self-improvement."

"Fuck!" John swears again.

"Somehow, I thought you'd be more pleased," Marcus comments dryly.

"Pleased?" John asks incredulously. "Pleased? I'd be pleased if you served me with papers. I'd be pleased if you cussed me out. It's the absolute least I deserve. Hell, why don't you even – just take a swing at me!" He throws his arms wide open. "I owe you that much! Just punch me in the face! I won't even swing back."

"That's not how I choose to spend my time." Marcus looks back out toward the lake. "Now that I'm a free man, I understand how precious time is. I won't waste it on violence."

"Then what do you want?" John asks. "What do you need? C'mon, name it. New clothes, money, booze, women, letters of recommendation from the mayor. Tell me what you want and I'll get it for you."

"I don't need money," Marcus informs him. "I was given a hefty settlement by the state."

"There's gotta be something," John says.

Marcus's eyes sharpen on the cottage across the lake. "Well. I do have an idea."

"What is it?" John asks eagerly. "Punching is still on the table."

"First," Marcus says, a small grim smile twisting at his mouth, "I want to burn down the lakehouse."


"You're gonna what?"

"Look, Barry, at least seven children were murdered in that house," John reasons over the phone. "Probably more. Absolutely no one is going to live there. And any developers that want the property are gonna have to tear it down anyway…"

"But Jesus, John, there are proper routes and – "

"It's going up in flames today, Barry," John cuts in, sloshing gasoline with one hand and holding his cell phone in the other. "I'm just giving you a heads up so the neighbors don't suffer collateral damage. You're the fire chief, you figure out how best to mitigate the situation."

"And you're the sheriff!"

"Former sheriff," John corrects. "And it's not like they can fire me."

"Hold up for one goddamn minute. Forget firing – you realize you're confessing to arson, right now, on the phone?"

"Yeah," John retorts. "And what fucking jury is gonna convict us?"

Barry groans deeply into the phone.

"I'm not asking any favors, Barry," John says. "I'm just telling you to get your boys down here in about ten minutes. And I'm just telling you that it's in your best interests to let it all burn to cinders and walk away, because absolutely no one is going to feel sad that a couple of yahoos burnt down the Goodwin murderhouse."

Then he hangs up and pockets the phone, and continues pouring gasoline.

He and Marcus meet around the front, having emptied about a dozen gallons of accelerant on the exterior of the house.

Marcus pulls out the Zippo lighter and lights a rag stuffed into a bottle full of the stuff.

"So," John comments, "we may be arrested in a few hours. It's hard to tell at this point."

They walk back a few yards, and Marcus hurls the flaming bottle at the front door.

With an amazing whoosh sound and a surprisingly searing burst of heat, the house goes up. Twilight is just starting to beckon over the hills, and the burning house shines bright and alive in the early dusk.

"Then, I suppose…" Marcus wipes off his hands on his jacket. "We should get started quickly on the next item on my list."

"You have a list?" John asks, impressed.

He nods.

"And what's item number two?"

Marcus smiles. "Sex."


The morning light shines brightly through gap between the cheap yellow motel curtains. 

"That was weird," John groans, shading his hungover eyes.

Marcus groans in response from the bathroom.

"We shoulda got separate rooms," John adds. "I don't remember why we just got one room…"

Vomiting noises emanate from the bathroom.

John squints at the rumpled bedsheets, the clothing scattered on the floor. "Did we have a foursome? Jesus, tell me we didn't have a foursome…"

The toilet flushes.

John throws off the covers and crouches onto the floor, rummaging through his clothes. "Shit, shit, shit. A hooker stole my wallet! One of the hookers stole my wallet! I bet it was that shitshow Candide, what kind of fucking hooker is named Ca– oh wait, nevermind. Found it."

Marcus stumbles out of the bathroom, buck naked. "Candy," he mutters. "Her name was Candy. Candide is a Voltaire novella…"

John blinks. "Oh. That makes a hell of a lot more sense." He rubs his eyes and realizes he's also nude. "What was yours called again?"

"Shakira," Marcus replies. "But you kept calling her Fergie."

John's head throbs hotly and his mouth is cotton dry. "You have a good night?"

"No," Marcus says quietly, sitting down on the bed. "Not really."

Shit.

John gets up from where he was rummaging and sits next to Marcus. "Look, we jumped into this too fast," he says. "Hookers were… probably a little much."

Marcus nods. His face is a closed door.

"You wanna, uh…" John clears his throat. "You wanna talk about anything?"

"I miss her," Marcus murmurs. "I miss Daphne."

John isn't sure what to say.

"She tried… to reach out, when the news came out…" Marcus looks down at his bare feet. "And we spoke for a long time, and I feel it was a healing experience. But she – she believed them, what they said about me, when I was convicted, and… that's not something you can come back from."

John nods slowly.

Hookers were a really fucking bad idea.

Strangely, though, he now feels an odd sense of connectedness to the man sitting beside him, feelings other than guilt and shame. In their sorry state, they are somehow alike, somehow tied into this world together. A weird bond of nakedness and morning breath and headaches and clothing stinking of gasoline has been forged between them.

"Let me get you a coffee," John says, patting his knee. "We'll go to Denny's."

"I'd like to shower first," Marcus says.

"Well. That goes without saying. You smell like Fergie."

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