Prices may change without notice. Check price before purchase.
Release date: March 9, 2021
Publisher: Write Choice Ink
Print pages: 314
Content advisory: Some profanity
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Written in Blood: A Claudia Rose Novel
From the upstairs window of her home office Claudia Rose watched the man in the Mercedes SUV heave himself out of the driver’s seat. Tall, around six foot, and just shy of obese, he gripped the doorframe, settling himself on the roadway before going around to the back of the vehicle. He was lifting out a briefcase when the front passenger door opened and a woman stepped out.
Claudia’s new client had the kind of looks other women would kill for. Men would call her ‘smokin’ hot.’ Tight black turtleneck over skinny jeans with knee-high boots. Stylish. She tossed back silvery blonde hair—the kind whose long waves had been shaped and highlighted by an expensive colorist—and bumped the car door shut with a curvy hip. Clamped under one arm was a wriggling Bichon Frise. The other hand pressed a phone to her ear.
Claudia left the window and went down to admit the pair. Paige Sorensen was still at the sidewalk, still on the phone. The SUV driver had made it to the top of the steep staircase winded and huffing for air. Taking in his sweaty forehead and flushed cheeks, Claudia hoped she wouldn’t have to call for an ambulance. He looked like a heart attack waiting to happen.
“Sorry about the stairs,” she said. “Are you okay?”
He nodded unconvincingly, trying to catching his breath. In defiance of the cool fall afternoon, he plucked a handkerchief from his breast pocket and mopped his forehead. “Mrs. Sorensen—” it came out as a gasp. “will join us—in a—moment—Good to meet you—Bert—Falkenberg.”
They shook hands, and over his shoulder, Claudia saw that her client had ended her phone call and was headed up the path. Switching the Bichon Frise to a front hold, she ran effortlessly up the stairs, as lithe and smooth as a panther. Bert Falkenberg was still recovering from the climb.
“You don’t mind Mikki, do you?” Paige asked. “He’ll cry if I leave him in the car.”
Claudia gave the little dog a scratch behind the ears. “He’s fine. Please come in and have a seat.”
The visitors followed her inside and seated themselves, Paige at one end of the sofa, Bert Falkenberg easing his large frame against the cushions at the other. Right away, his eyes began to roam the room, traveling from framed family photos on the mantel, coming to rest on a snapshot of Claudia in the arms of her partner, Joel Jovanic. They had been on the pier with her brother and his fourteen-year-old daughter; a happy day worth remembering. In the photo, Jovanic was leaning down so they were cheek-to-cheek, a rare grin replacing his homicide investigator’s standard deadpan expression. Falkenberg stared at it for a long time, his face giving away nothing.
As Claudia settled in an armchair opposite, Paige assumed control of the meeting. “Like I told you yesterday, my husband’s will is being contested and my attorney says I need a handwriting expert. He told me you are the best.” She had sounded young and vulnerable when she phoned the day before, tearfully explaining that her husband had recently died. This well-turned-out, confident woman was causing Claudia to revisit that first impression.
“It’s been horrible. His children are accusing me of—” A tinkling sound from her Gucci bag produced an audible sigh of annoyance from the other end of the sofa. Apologizing, Paige answered her phone and listened for thirty seconds before interrupting the high-pitched voice that bled through. “Stop, Annabelle. That’s enough. I already told you to stay in my office until we get back. And tell Brenda to send the other girls to their rooms.”
Ending the call, Paige dropped the phone back into her purse with a frown at Bert Falkenberg. “I knew you should have stayed behind, Bert. Somebody needs to be in charge.”
With a quelling look at her, he said, “Before there’s another ‘emergency’ that can’t wait, let’s cut to the chase. Here’s the situation—”
The touch of her hand on his sleeve arrested him mid-sentence. He sat back against the cushions without protest, but not before Claudia caught the flash of irritation that lit his eyes. What was the relationship between these two? The victory in the power struggle went to Paige. Her little dog fidgeted a bit, then laid his head on a miniature forepaw, yawned, and closed his eyes as she spoke. “My husband had a stroke and passed away a month ago. He left everything to me, and his kids are claiming I forged his signature.” Tears welled in the impossible blue eyes; the pouty lips trembled. “It’s crazy; I would never do anything like that.”
“Utterly absurd,” Falkenberg murmured.
Claudia adjusted her impression of Paige a little more. If her husband’s children were old enough to accuse her of forgery, he must have been significantly older than her. She gave them her sympathetic professional face. “I’m very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Sorensen—”
“Paige,” her client interrupted. “Call me Paige.”
“The sad truth is, this sort of thing is not rare, Paige. Quite a few of my cases are between family members disputing who gets what when someone dies or divorces.”
Paige’s eyes widened. “Seriously?”
Claudia smiled. “Totally seriously. Who is your attorney?”
“Stuart Parsons. He thinks the world of you.”
“We’ve worked together a couple of times.”
Unlike many of the attorneys she worked with, Claudia had found that Stuart Parsons was not shy about protecting his expert witness from the vicious attacks opposing counsel sometimes launched during trial. “I mentioned on the phone that I’ll need exemplars of your husband’s genuine signature to compare to the questioned one on the will. Did you bring some?”
“Bert?” Paige said, then returned her gaze to Claudia as Falkenberg opened his briefcase. “I’m a nice person and they’re calling me a thief. I need you to prove it’s my husband’s signature. There’s too much at stake—my reputation.”
Millions of dollars, too. Paige had let that slip during their phone conversation. The Sorensen Academy was the centerpiece of the estate. Its website showed an exclusive Bel Air private girl’s school—the kind of high dollar warehouse for parents who could afford to have someone else deal with their troublesome daughters.
Glancing at Bert Falkenberg, Claudia noted his broad hands as he took some files from the briefcase and fanned them out on the coffee table. He hasn’t always worn Armani, she thought. Those workman’s hands with their poorly manicured fingernails seemed more fitted for outdoor work than a desk job; an affront to the Italian silk suit and tie.
Repositioning the Mikki on her lap, Paige reached for the files. “These are some checks and other papers that Torg—my husband…” She paused to take a tissue from her purse and dab at the fat tear that spilled onto her cheek. “Please excuse me. It was such a shock when he died, and then I found out he’d left everything to me. And now, this mess.”
“Take your time,” Claudia said.
Bert Falkenberg shifted his bulk, fidgeting. Extinguishing some internal reaction to Paige’s words, Claudia thought, spreading open the folder her client handed over. Leafing through the documents inside, she saw that the signatures on checks, trust deeds and business contracts had been executed in a bold, firm hand.
Extra-large capital letters; elaborate, written with a flourish. Flipping one of the checks over, she ran her fingertips across the back. Torg Sorensen had exerted pressure on the pen, strong enough to emboss the paper. To a handwriting analyst, it all added up to an inflated ego and an aggressive need for power. Torg had been the type of man you couldn’t push around; not easy to live with. But behavioral profiling was not why her client was here.
If she accepted this case, Claudia’s task would be to compare the true, known signatures of Torg Sorensen with the one on his will and offer an opinion as to its authenticity. Period. She could privately visualize the personality of the man who had penned that showy signature, but in the courtroom her two specialties rarely converged.
The second folder contained three checks, a grant deed, and a power of attorney. The signatures on these documents bore little resemblance to the first group. The letter forms were shaky, the writing stroke exposing the tremor of an unsteady hand.
Claudia picked out the grant deed. The signature rose at an extreme angle above the printed line. The final letters faded into a feeble trail of ink. The weakened state of this signature seemed even more than the others to beg the question of why someone in such obvious poor physical, and possibly mental, condition was signing legal documents. “Is there any question about his competency to sign?”
“None,” Falkenberg answered quickly. “I’ll testify that he was absolutely lucid when he signed the will. The children wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if they tried to use that argument. There was no mental impairment.”
“Um, I’m sorry; I don’t know your involvement in the case?”
“I’m the Sorensen Academy’s business manager.” He cleared his throat. “And as a personal friend of the Sorensens, I offered to help out with this matter.”
“Okay, thank you. So, Paige, all of the documents in this folder were definitely signed after the stroke?”
“Yes,” Paige confirmed. “He insisted on signing those himself.”
The final folder remained on the table between them. It contained a certified copy of Torg Sorensen’s will, the document whose signature was being contested by his children. This was the crux of the case—the reason Paige needed a handwriting expert.
A probate court stamp on the first page indicated that the original will was on file in the County of Los Angeles Superior Court. Claudia viewed the shaky scrawl with a practiced eye. Decline in writing quality was to be expected after a major assault on the brain like a stroke. It could also make proving authenticity more difficult. “How old was Mr. Sorensen when he died?”
Paige hesitated. “He was seventy-three.”
Claudia did a quick mental calculation. Around twice Paige’s age.
As if reading her mind, color flooded the other woman’s face. “I know people think I’m just some gold digger who married an older man for his money, but it’s not true. And I didn’t forge his signature, either. I loved him.” Sensing his mistress’ distress, the little dog jumped up with a sharp yip and pressed his front paws against her chest, licking her chin and doing a little cha-cha on her lap.
Bert Falkenberg frowned and cleared his throat, antsy again.
He doesn’t know what to do with her.
“I know it’s got to be upsetting to be accused,” Claudia said in a neutral tone. “If I take this case, I’ll need some additional information. For example, a list of his medications.”
Paige frowned. “Why would you need that?”
“Some drugs affect handwriting, so it helps to know what he was taking. I’ll also want to see his medical records, so I’ll know exactly what his physical condition was at the time he signed the will.”
“I told you, he had a stroke, he—”
“Did he sign on his own, or was someone guiding his hand? Was he lying down or sitting up? Was he wearing corrective lenses? What kind of writing surface did he use? What time did he take his meds?” Claudia met Paige’s bemused expression with a smile. “It’s always helpful for me to know these things, but in a case like this, where there’s such a big change in the handwriting, it’s vital. I’ll give you a list of my questions.”
Paige’s eyes were glued to the paper Claudia held. “At first, he couldn’t use his right hand at all. Then he started working with a physical therapist, and after they released him from the hospital, we hired a private therapist. When was that, Bert? Do you remember?”
“Two-and-a-half weeks after the first stroke.”
“He was pretty impatient and hard to deal with.” Paige’s lips twisted in a rueful smile. Her next words confirmed what Claudia had seen in Torg Sorensen’s handwriting. “The truth is, he was always—well, difficult, he—” She seemed to catch herself. “About a week after he came home from the hospital, he had me call his secretary over to the house. They were locked up in his room together all afternoon. That must be when he changed his will. It was a couple of days later when the second stroke hit him and he went into a coma. He never came out of it.”
The will had been witnessed but not notarized, which Claudia found surprising, given the size of the Sorensen estate. A mobile notary could have been called in.
There were two witness signatures below the name of the testator; Bert Falkenberg was one of them. His small, illegible signature slanted to the left—he would not be forthcoming unless there was something in it for him. Left-slanted writers were particularly hard to get to know, guarding their emotions. The illegibility added another layer of emotional distance.
The second witness signature was larger and more conventional. The name Roberta Miller was penned in the Palmer model common to older women who’d had religious school training, and was typical of many who worked in administrative jobs.
“Is Roberta Miller the secretary?” Claudia asked.
Paige confirmed it. The question was more out of curiosity than a need to know. Paige’s attorney would question the witnesses, but unless they were accused of forging the signature on the will, there was no need for Claudia to interview them herself.
The rude bleat of a cell phone interrupted once again. This time it was Bert Falkenberg who dug out his mobile phone and checked the screen. He sighed. “Annabelle again. Naturally.” He hauled himself off the sofa and headed for the front door, answering the phone as he went.
“She’s a new student,” Paige said. “It’s not easy for her, settling in with a roommate.”
“Oh, it’s a residential school?”
“A few of the girls live in; Annabelle is one of them. The trouble is, there’s some bullying going on. The other girls are constantly picking on her because she’s, well, a bit different from them. She doesn’t even try to fit in.”
Paige looked uncomfortable, as though she regretted having opened that line of conversation. She leaned toward Claudia as though someone might be listening in and dropped her voice. “This is confidential, right?”
“Yes, of course.”
“A few weeks ago, Annabelle tried to kill herself. She came to us straight out of the hospital.”
Claudia’s heart dropped. “That’s so sad.”
“That’s why we can’t ignore her phone calls. She’s still pretty fragile.”
“How old is she?”
“Fourteen, but—” Bert’s return cut her off.
“I’ll deal with it when we get back,” he said.
“She’s taken a liking to Bert,” Paige explained. “He’s kind of a father figure for some of the girls.”
Claudia felt a stirring of interest about the girl who had been so unhappy that she had attempted suicide, yet felt comfortable phoning this bear of a man. He did have kind of a cuddly look. Maybe she saw him as a teddy bear, rather than a grizzly. A sad girl of Annabelle’s age might be drawn to that kind of man. Returning her attention to her client, she tapped the file folders. “Frankly, Paige, this is not an easy case. The physiological effects of the stroke on your husband’s handwriting complicate things. So, if you want to retain me, I’ll do my examination and let you know whether I think I can help, but I want to be sure you understand, there are no guarantees.”
“But Bert saw him sign it, didn’t you, Bert?”
“Yes, yes, that’s right, I did.”
Something like desperation came into Paige’s eyes. “You have to testify that his signature is genuine; that’s what I’m paying you for.”
Claudia stacked the folders together in a neat pile and slid them back across the coffee table with an apologetic shrug. “I’m not your lawyer; I’m an advocate of the court, and that means I deal with the truth, whatever it may be. What you’re paying for is my objective opinion, and that’s all I can promise you.”
“But I’m telling you the truth—”
“I’m not disputing that you are, but my testimony has to be based on what I see in the handwriting, not on what someone else tells me.”
For a long moment, no one spoke. The sudden roar of a leaf blower outside shattered the silence, startling them all. The sound rose and fell under the window, amplifying the tension in the room as the gardener walked the noisy machine up the pathway. The return to quiet when he switched it off was as jarring as the racket it’d made.
Bert Falkenberg snatched the file folders from the table and dropped them into his briefcase, turning an icy stare on Claudia. “So be it. If you can’t handle this case, maybe you can refer us to someone who can.”
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...