Branded: A Retribution Novel Book One

By Cindy Stark


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9 mins


Chapter One

Nicole Camden panicked when she stepped off the elevator and onto the unexpectedly deserted fifth floor of her office building in downtown Portland. She’d been so careful to keep her appointment calendar updated so she wouldn’t miss another early morning staff meeting. With her stomach churning, she hurried to the opposite side of the floor, hoping she hadn’t missed much.
As she drew closer to the conference room, the hairs on her arms stiffened. There was no meeting. Instead, her co-workers had congregated near her cubicle. Nicole’s first thought was old Mr. Hadley who sat opposite her must have suffered another heart attack, but as she drew near, a hush fell over the crowd and all eyes turned toward her.
She slowed her steps, basic instinct putting her on alert.
Two men wearing coats with “police” in bright yellow letters on their backs sat in her space, both wearing plastic gloves. The dark-haired one emptied her drawers while the bald one placed her keyboard into a large plastic sack.
She tried to find an innocent reason why the cops would be pawing through her stuff, but came up with nothing. Her world had bumped against the law before, but this was the first time their spotlight had landed on her.
“What’s going on here?” She glanced at her co-workers. Julie and Mary from IT wouldn’t meet her gaze, and John from Personnel cleared his throat before looking away. However, Susannah from the first floor, who’d found her way upstairs to watch the commotion, stared at her with excited eyes.
The dark-haired officer stood, his lanky frame towering over her by several inches. “Nicole Camden?”
He stepped toward her, his height and demeanor imposing. “You’re wanted for questioning as part of an on-going investigation.”
“What?” She wanted to think this was some kind of practical joke, but his expression argued otherwise. “Why?”
“If you’ll come to the station, we’ll answer your questions and give you the opportunity to do the same. You can go willingly or force us to get an arrest warrant.”
A tremble erupted deep inside, bringing her childhood fears to the forefront of her thoughts. She gripped the edge of her cubicle for support as her friend Riley approached. He was the only person on her floor who’d been more friend than co-worker since she’d begun her employment at First Freedom Financial.
“What did you do?” He widened his light blue eyes.
“Nothing. I…I don’t know.” Fear tightened her vocal cords, raising the octave of her words.
“Shall we?” The detective took her arm and tugged her toward the elevator.
“Don’t say anything. I’ll call my lawyer,” Riley called as she stumbled her way through the maze of workstations.
She nodded over her shoulder, panic stealing her rationality as the dark-haired man led her away. She’d never been anything except upstanding and honest, despite her upbringing. “I don’t understand any of this.” Someone had made a serious mistake.
“It’s a good thing you’re coming with us to get it sorted out, then,” the detective replied as they entered the elevator.
“Can you tell me what I’m being questioned about?”
“The embezzlement of ten million dollars from your employer.”
She gasped, trying to comprehend the idea of it. It couldn’t be true. But the officer and his uniform looked legit. “Is this an office joke?” Maybe in honor of her six-month anniversary?
He returned her searching gaze. “I’m afraid not, ma’am.”
* * *
Events during the next half hour blurred together. Warm October sunshine contrasted with the darkened interior of the backseat of a police car. The detective who’d escorted her to the lobby left her in the custody of another officer who drove her to the precinct.
Walking past the officers’ desks frightened her. Convicting eyes studied her even though she’d done nothing wrong.
Worse still, her experience continued to dredge up memories of her childhood. Memories of a loud blast and a bright flash of light ripping her from her sleep. Of armed men busting into her home. Of yelling and scuffling she hadn’t understood. She’d hidden under her bed and watched as policemen roughed up her father and kidnapped him in the middle of the night.
When the commotion had settled and the men had gathered in the front room, she’d slipped from her window, down the fire escape to hide across the street in some scratchy bushes. Hours had passed before the cops left, before she could sneak back inside.
Years later, she’d realized the police had been conducting a raid. At the tender age of nine, she’d spent five days alone, waiting and wondering if her father would return. When he did, he’d been so proud that she’d evaded the police. Told her she was just like him.
He’d been wrong. So wrong. She’d never been anything like him, never would be. Still, her father’s opinions and lifestyle left her with a healthy apprehension and distrust when it came to the police.
That was the past. Her future concerned her now. If they learned who her father was, would they consider her guilty, too? Was that why she was there? And good Lord, ten million dollars? The thought rolled her stomach.
The officer guided her to a small, nondescript room with a marred wooden table and four chairs. He left her there with nothing but the furniture and an intimidating one-way mirror. She glanced at the reflective glass, wondering if anyone watched her. She blinked and looked away.
A few minutes later, a man a couple of years older than her thirty-one entered the room wearing a buttoned-down shirt and a loosened tie. His dark blond hair had been ruffled enough to give him a laid-back look.
A friendly smile settled on his face as he sat opposite her, but she could tell his intense brown eyes studied and assessed everything about her. “Ms. Camden, I’m Detective Sam Holden. I have a few questions I’d like to ask.”
She twisted her fingers in front of her. “Okay.” If he wasn’t questioning her integrity, she might have thought him attractive.
He glanced at his yellow notepad. “I show that you’ve been an employee at First Freedom Financial Company for the past six months. Is that correct?”
“Yes.” Or it was. If her bosses thought she’d stolen money from them, she doubted she’d still have a job even if she was innocent.
“And you have access to their financial computer system?”
Common sense kicked in. She might be innocent, but she was also smart enough to not say anything without representation. “Shouldn’t we wait for my attorney?” She hadn’t been formally charged or read her rights, but she didn’t think he could deny her.
His smile disappeared. “I wasn’t aware you’d called a lawyer.”
She swallowed a heavy dose of nerves. She really didn’t want to piss off this man, but she had to protect herself. “A friend at my office called for me.”
“I see.” He stood and picked up his notepad. “We’ll wait for your lawyer then.” The sound of the door closing echoed through the isolated room.
Embezzlement of millions of dollars? That was grand larceny, and the irony of it mocked her. Grand larceny had been the one indictment that had finally stuck to her father and had landed him in prison. Interesting and unnerving that the amount was the same as his last heist. Not the crime he’d been convicted of, but the authorities had been certain he’d been behind that theft, too.
A massive tremor ripped through her. Now, she had the same accusation hovering over her head, and she didn’t need anyone to tell her she’d somehow become entangled in a serious mess.
She dropped her forehead to the cool table and closed her eyes, forcing herself to breathe in a normal pattern.
Another hour passed before an older gentleman entered the room. Nicole would guess him to be about her father’s age, if her father hadn’t died. Enough gray appeared in his hair that he could no longer call it black, but the close-cropped cut gave him a suave, smart appearance.
He approached the table and held out his hand. “Cecil Barton. Riley called me.”
She stood and shook his hand, appreciating the warmth and strength she found in his grip. “Nicole Camden.” She resumed her seat, and he followed suit before pulling a legal pad and pen from a leather case.
“Ms. Camden, or may I call you, Nicole?”
She released a breath, feeling a tad less vulnerable. “Please, call me Nicole.”
“Well, Nicole, these are some pretty serious charges they want to question you about. What can you tell me?”
“Honestly, not much.” At his raised brows, she continued. “I don’t know why they think I would steal ten million dollars, but they have to be lying or mistaken or something. I would never do that. Ever.” She didn’t know what else she could say to convince him.
Mr. Barton went through a few hasty preliminaries with her, but she truly had no further information she could possibly provide. The whole thing had been an unexpected shock.
The door opened, and Detective Holden walked in, an air of confidence surrounding him. “It appears your counsel has arrived, Ms. Camden.” He exchanged polite greetings with Mr. Barton.
“Let’s get down to business, shall we?” Detective Holden took a seat and glanced at his notepad before targeting Nicole again with his gaze.
Her attorney cleared his throat. “I’d like the specifics on why you’ve brought my client in for questioning.”
The detective shifted his eyes toward Mr. Barton. “Of course. Late last night, we were contacted by the CFO of First Freedom Financial Company. He reported that he’d received notification of a ten-million-dollar transaction that took place a few hours earlier in the evening. Normally, he is made aware of large transfers beforehand, and he was suspicious because protocol hadn’t been followed in this case. He did some research, found it to be an unauthorized transaction and immediately called us. We reviewed the surveillance video which places Ms. Camden at the scene of the crime during the suspected time period.”
She stared at him, disbelief thrumming through her veins. “I work there. Of course I was at the scene of the crime.”
“After hours.” Detective Holden tapped his pen on the yellow pad in front of him.
Nicole started to shake her head in denial and then stopped. “I went back last night after I’d left, but that was only to retrieve my TriMet pass. I’d shown it to a co-worker earlier in the day when she’d asked about using mass transportation. I’d forgotten to put it back in my purse, and I can’t get home without it. I was in the office maybe one minute.”
“Four minutes and fifty seconds to be exact.”
“Maybe if you counted the time it took me to get to my desk and back outside.”
“If enough planning were put into place beforehand, that amount of time is sufficient to complete a transaction.”
“Are you saying I’m under suspicion because I went back into the office? In a building that large, I can’t imagine I was the only one there at that time.” Although she hadn’t seen anyone else while she’d been there. “The cameras must have captured others, too.”
“You were the only one caught on video.” Detective Holden pinned her with a questioning look.
“This does have the appearance of a witch hunt, detective,” her attorney interjected.
The younger man regarded her lawyer for a brief second before turning back to her. “The transaction moving the funds into an offshore account was made from your computer at the time you were in the building. There is only one set of prints on your keyboard which we are assuming are yours. We will need to take your prints before you go. You can give them willingly, or we can arrest you.”
Cold hands of fear gripped her neck, robbing her of her ability to breathe properly. They’d backed her into a corner. She was right not to trust any of them.
She flicked her gaze to the closed door. Freedom lay not far beyond it. Freedom she wanted. Freedom she deserved. “This whole thing is ridiculous. I shouldn’t even be here.” She stood, no longer agreeing to be a pawn in a sick game.
The detective stood as well. “Leaving is not an option at this point, Ms. Camden.”
She walked toward the door, but her attorney met her before she could reach for the handle, taking her by the forearm.
“Nicole. They’re not going to let you walk out of here without answering a few questions first.”
She shook off his hand, her fears liquefying, flooding the corners of her eyes. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said, her voice quivering.
“I understand. This can be an intimidating process.” He put a warm arm around her shoulders and led her back to the table. “But it is a process. You haven’t been charged yet, but they can legally detain you for a period of time. The best thing we can do is go forward.”
“I’m innocent.” How could she make everyone understand that?
“It doesn’t matter at this point.” He waited for her to sit before resuming his seat.
“How can it not matter? I didn’t do it. I don’t know how to steal money by using a computer. I’m lucky if I get my word program to work like it should.” If her panic would take a backseat for a moment, she might be able to figure a way out of this mess.
Detective Holden cleared his throat. “Ms. Camden, do you have access to the company’s financial records?”
She dropped her head in her hands. “Of course I do. I work in their finance division. But it’s not like I can go anywhere in that system and do whatever I want. My logon only allows me to go into certain areas.”
“Have you ever been given access to any other parts of it?”
Her insides crumbled. She tried to speak, but it took her a minute to get her voice to cooperate. “My boss did give me her password once about…four months ago. She was out of town and needed me to finalize a client’s transaction. She had everything ready to go. I logged in and hit send after the client gave his verbal agreement over the phone. That’s all I did. I assumed she would have changed her password after that.”
“What else does your boss have access to?”
“I don’t know.” Nicole’s voice rose with hysteria. “I didn’t look. I did what she asked and then logged out.” She wiped the tears from her cheeks. “I’m an honest person, Detective Holden. I don’t snoop into other people’s business, and I certainly don’t steal other people’s money.”
“I believe my client has answered enough questions, detective. She’s denied being involved, and everything you have up to this point is circumstantial. If you’re not going to charge her, then I think we’re finished here.”
A frown settled on the detective’s face. He glanced between his notepad and Nicole. “Fine. She can leave. For now.” He stood, focusing on her attorney. “I’ll be in touch.”
Mr. Barton stayed seated after the detective left. He steepled his fingers, staring intently at her. A large diamond ring glittered on his right hand. He probably cost a fortune to retain. How would she ever pay his bill?
“How much are you charging me for this?”
“We’ll consider this your first, free consultation. After that, my usual rates are two hundred dollars an hour.”
“Oh, my God.” She blinked, waiting for him to say he was joking. He didn’t. “I don’t make much money. Despite what the police are claiming, I live on my salary and nothing else.”
“There should only be minimal amounts of time spent on this case unless you’re formally charged.”
“What do you mean by minimal?”
“A couple of hours total would be my guess, depending on what the police come up with, assuming you want me to represent you.” He paused for a brief second. “Which I would highly recommend.”
At that rate, a handful of hours would wipe out her savings account. “What if I can’t pay? Can I ask for a court-appointed attorney or something?”
He seemed affronted by the idea. “Ms. Camden, this is your future we’re talking about.”
She gave him a helpless look. “I have some in savings, but not much.”
“Fine. I’ll have associates work on the majority of your case, and I’ll toss in a pro-bono hour or two. But if this goes to trial, you may want to consider asking family and friends to pitch in. Chancing your freedom on an unproven attorney could have some serious consequences.”
She nodded. If the worst happened, she couldn’t afford to not pay.



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