Twenty-two years ago, Ike Rossi’s life was shattered when his parents were murdered in cold blood. He surrendered his football scholarship and returned home to find their killer and raise his nine-year-old sister. Now, the crime of a local ten-year-old genius, Jack Cole, threatens to unearth old wounds rather than provide the closure Ike desperately wants.
When Ike meets Jack inside the Pittsburgh courthouse, he doesn’t see a murderer but instead a boy who has been victimized by a system that has left them both without justice. Despite knowing the case will resurrect the painful demons of his parents’ unsolved murders, Ike agrees to clear Jack’s name. The court of public opinion and the district attorney have an airtight case. Worse, taking Jack’s side thrusts Ike into the crosshairs of the most powerful family in Pittsburgh, the Falzones.
Now, with only days before the trial, Ike confronts the Falzones’ crumbling empire to find the shocking evidence that could save Jack. At the same time, he races to decipher a series of cryptic clues from Jack’s dead father that could hold the key to his son’s freedom. But each step closer to the truth draws them further into danger, and as three fractured families collide, Ike is forced to choose between saving Jack-and saving himself.
Jack Cole knew they were coming for him next. He waited in the dense shrubs with a vengeful patience. He reminded himself he was here for a reason-one that justified the action. He fought back the dark sensation that this was wrong. Thou shalt not kill had been drilled into him at Saint John’s. But this was the only way to end it-to be safe.
His hand shook as he gripped the heavy rifle and took aim at the front door of the mansion across the private cul-de-sac. He settled the jitter with the thought that this man had killed his dad.
He leaned back against the tree and braced for the kick. Then, through the bushes, he saw a sliver of light widen as the front door opened. He dropped his head and took aim through the scope. He’d been watching the lawyer’s house for days.
The thick door swung open and his target stepped out, closing the door behind him. Jack hesitated when he came face-to-face with him through the scope. Still, he steadied the heavy rifle and squeezed the trigger.
The blast slammed his back against the thick tree. The kick felt stronger than it had when he’d fired it on his first hunting trip with his father, just two months ago. As he scrambled to regain his balance, he saw his prey-the man responsible for destroying what was left of his family-fall against the front door of the red brick home, his white shirt splattered with blood and his face paralyzed in shock. Blood smeared as the man grabbed at the door, apparently reaching for someone inside. Finally, the attorney collapsed with his contorted body wrapped around his large legal briefcase.
Jack stood and froze, shocked by the carnage he’d unleashed. When the door swung open and a panicked woman rushed out, he came to his senses.
In seconds, Jack secured and covered the rifle and began his escape. Halfway down the cul-de-sac, he was sure someone had called 911. As he calmly pulled the red wagon his father had given him on his ninth birthday, he heard the police cars responding. They raced through the expensive suburban homes toward 1119 Blackbird Court.
The two cars turned onto the cul-de-sac and slowed when the patrolmen passed a mom and her children standing in their driveway, gaping at the terrifying scene. At the deep end of the cul-de-sac, the police cars screeched to a stop. Their doors sprang open and two officers swept the area with their guns drawn. The other two rushed to the porch. The woman cradled the man’s body, screaming wildly. Blood coated the porch and covered the woman’s face and arms.
Jack fought the urge to run and wandered out of the cul-de-sac. Two other police cars and an ambulance raced past. Over his shoulder, he saw the paramedics rush to the porch. Then Jack turned the corner and lost sight of what he’d done-and he began to cry.
Six Months Later
Ike Rossi hated this place. Not because something had happened here. Instead, it was something that hadn’t. It represented failure. A rotting failure that he placed firmly on his own shoulders. While it had been twenty-two years, the wound was as raw as it was on that dreadful day he’d tried to forget for most of his adult life. Now, after years of dead ends, he was here once again to close that wound.
He waited on the hard bench in the massive lobby of the Allegheny County Courthouse flanked by murals of Peace, Justice, and Industry. Despite their ominous presence, he ignored them. He’d never found any of those here.
As nine a.m. approached, the lobby swelled with people making their way to their destinies. Their voices and the clicks of their best shoes echoed through the massive honeycomb of thick stone archways as they wound up the network of stairs leading to the courtrooms on the floors above. Nameless faces all carried their tags: anger, sadness, fear, and arrogance. Those who were above it all, those who feared the system, and those who just saw money. While he’d always heard it was the best system on earth, he was painfully convinced that justice deserved better.
Three benches down, Ike’s eyes locked on a small boy who was crying and leaning into a woman’s side as she tried desperately to comfort him. When he recognized Jack Cole from the flood of news reports over the last six months, he didn’t feel the prickly disdain that had roiled in his gut as he watched the initial reports on TV. At first, he’d condemned the ten-year-old boy as another killer-one who took the life of someone’s parent. But as the case unfolded he’d discovered the boy had lost his father. The constant wound Ike kept hidden in his soul opened a little wider. He knew what it was like to lose a parent.
According to the reports, Jack Cole’s father had committed suicide as a result of a nasty divorce from Brenda Falzone Cole, the estranged daughter of one of the richest families in the country. Jack, a genius ten-year-old, had shot and killed his mother’s family law attorney-not exactly what Ike expected from a kid. When he was finally identified in video from a neighbor’s security camera and questioned, he shocked investigators by admitting the act.
Claiming he didn’t have a choice under Pennsylvania law, the prosecutor was trying the boy as an adult. Jack faced a murder charge. Due to his young age, both sides wanted to fast-track the trial. It was scheduled to start next Monday, just a week away.
The boy looked up and caught Ike’s gaze. Despite his best efforts, Ike couldn’t look away. Tears streamed down Jack’s face, but at the same time, his eyes begged for help. A mix of fear and generosity accumulated deep in Ike’s chest. He knew the boy sought the same help he’d sought for himself years ago, but the prospect of exhuming that pain warned him to stay away.
Still, yielding to a magnetic force that had no regard for his own protection, Ike stood, smiled, and walked to the boy, ignoring the condemning stares from the people eyeing Jack. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulled out a small Rubik’s Cube he carried to amuse distressed kids on long flights to distant oil provinces.
He stopped in front of the pair and asked the woman, “May I?” while he showed her the toy. The dried streaks down her cheeks told him she shared the boy’s pain. He recognized her from the news reports but didn’t want to remind her that millions of people were now witness to her custody battle with Jack’s mother’s family-and the progression of her devastating pretrial defeats at the hands of the district attorney.
“Oh, that’s so kind of you,” she said, nodding gently.
Ike gave Jack the toy and sat beside him. Jack’s smallish build and timid posture made it hard to believe he was ten-and he’d killed someone.
Jack sniffled and wiped his nose with the back of his arm.
“Here, honey,” the woman said as she handed him a Kleenex. Jack wiped his nose and immediately began twisting the cube, ignoring Ike.
“I’m Lauren Bottaro,” the woman said. “This is Jack. I’m his aunt.”
Ike reached out. “Ike Rossi.”
Her eyes flamed with familiarity. She seemed stunned. “You’re Ike Rossi?”
Jack handed the cube back to Ike. “Done!”
Ike wasn’t sure what startled him more, the look on Lauren’s face or the fact that Jack had solved the cube in less than a minute. “That’s great, Jack.” Ike offered Jack a high-five, but Jack awkwardly hesitated. Finally, he slapped it and Ike returned the toy. The tears were gone, replaced by a proud smile. Ike looked back at Lauren, who’d apparently caught herself staring at him.
She seemed to regain some composure, and a serious expression swept across her face.
“Mr. Rossi, can I ask what you do, now?”
Ike hesitated, hearing more than just that question in her voice.
He looked up and saw Mac Machowski, grinning.
“I’ll tell you what he does.”
Ike could have kissed Mac for the timely rescue.
Mac counted on his thick gnarled fingers. “He fixes things that can’t be fixed. He keeps fat cats from getting kidnapped-or killed if they do-and he’s the best damn investigator I’ve ever seen.”
Ike noticed Jack had stopped playing with the Rubik’s Cube and was listening intently to Mac, along with Lauren.
Ike smiled. “Mac, I’d like you to meet Lauren and Jack.”
Mac tipped the bill of his Pirates cap to Lauren. “Ma’am.” Then, extending his meaty paw, he knelt painfully and came face-to-face with Jack. “Nice to meet you, young man.”
Jack nervously looked away but reached for Mac’s hand and shook it.
“Jack. What do you say?” Lauren said.
Jack faced Mac. “Nice to meet you, sir.”
Mac’s joints creaked as he reached to the floor and pushed himself up. “You ready there, partner?” he said to Ike. “We gotta catch him before he leaves the courthouse at nine.”
As Ike stood, Lauren rose with him. “So you’re a detective?”
Ike threw a nod toward Mac. “He is-a retired homicide detective. I’m a private security and investigative services consultant in the oil and gas business.”
Lauren tipped her head back, as if enlightened. “That makes sense now.”
“What makes sense?” Ike said.
“I saw your name written on my brother’s day planner.”
The claim jolted Ike. “My name?”
Lauren nodded again. “Did you speak to him?”
“No, I’ve never talked to your brother.” Ike was sure investigators would have checked the planner, but he’d never been questioned.
Jack reached up and tugged on Ike’s forearm. “Can you help me?”
Those eyes were begging again.
Lauren gently pulled Jack’s hand from Ike’s arm. “I’m sorry,” she said. “He’s been through a lot.”
Jack kept his eyes, now wet again, locked on Ike. “My dad wouldn’t do that to me. He wouldn’t kill himself.”
Ike was frozen by Jack’s stare. It was as innocent as any ten-year-old’s. A primal desire to protect Jack stirred in Ike’s heart. He didn’t want to believe the kid-but he did.
Lauren hugged Jack. “It’s okay, honey.” She looked back at Ike and Mac. “We have no right to ask you th-”
A thick, towering woman with dark brown hair and a stone-cold stare wedged into the space between Mac and Lauren. She studied Mac, then Ike. “What’s going on here, Lauren?”
Ike immediately recognized her from the news reports. Jenna Price represented Jack. For the last two months she’d been billed as a hopeless underdog, and the string of losses so far-other than prevailing at the bail hearing-supported that label. A basketball player-turned-lawyer, she was battling a DA who so far showed little mercy. She worked with her father in their tiny firm, and every talking head said she didn’t stand a chance.
Lauren said, “Jenna, this is Ike Rossi and Mac … I’m sorry?”
“Machowski,” Mac said as he shook Jenna’s hand.
Jenna gripped Ike’s hand and held it as she spoke. “My dad said you were the greatest quarterback ever to come out of western Pennsylvania.”
Ike always had one answer to that comment to quell any further discussion of his accolades. “That was a long time ago.”
“What are you doing now?” she asked.
Jack leaned around Lauren and nearly shouted, “He’s a detective. He can help us!”
Lauren hugged him tight again. “Shhh.”
“A detective?” Jenna said.
“A private security and investigative services consultant.”
Jenna nodded and held her gaze but said nothing.
“We gotta go now,” Mac said, looking at his watch.
Ike stepped back from Jenna. “Stay strong, Counselor.” He nodded to Lauren. “Ms. Bottaro.” Then Ike offered a handshake to Jack.
Jack sheepishly held out the Rubik’s Cube for Ike. Immediately, Ike felt Jack’s awkwardness.
“You keep that, Jack.” Ike raised his hand for another high-five. Jack took the cue this time and slapped it. “Ladies,” he said, turning with Mac and walking down the hall.
As they reached the stairs at the end of the corridor, Ike glanced over his shoulder. He could see Jack edging around the two women to keep his eyes on Ike, with the Rubik’s Cube clutched in his hand. Ike turned back to the stairs.
“You okay?” Mac said. Ike nodded and started up the stairs to meet a man he despised. A man who might finally deliver the key to his parents’ murder.
Excerpt from The Victim of the System by Steve Hadden. Copyright © 2018 by Steve Hadden. Reproduced with permission from Steve Hadden. All rights reserved.
Steve Hadden was born in Columbus, Ohio but spent much of his childhood in North Severna Park, Maryland. Building a short-wave radio with his father (an electrical engineer), frequent trips to the US Naval Academy, and the gift of a chemistry set, sparked his interest in chemistry and mathematics at an early age. At the end of elementary school, Steve’s family moved to Columbus, Indiana where he developed his love for basketball and where his favorite book was Stranger Than Science by Frank Edwards. Two years later, Steve moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where his junior high school creative writing teacher sparked his interest in writing. Steve attended North Allegheny High School and fell in love with Clive Cussler’s Raise the Titanic.
He attended Penn State, graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, and began a career in the oil and gas business, where he’s worked in engineering, management, and advisory roles. He’s traveled to intriguing places around the world and met fascinating people. His experience in the oil and gas business ultimately led to the idea for his first thriller, The Sunset Conspiracy. His interest in biology and science formed the foundation for his next four thrillers, Genetic Imperfections and The Swimming Monkeys Trilogy. He returned to his hometown of Pittsburgh with his latest thriller, The Victim of the System, a story with a mind-bending scientific twist.
Steve now lives in the foothills of the Cascades outside of Seattle. When he’s not working on his next intriguing thriller, Steve is hiking the trails with his wife and two Labrador retrievers, playing guitar or piano, reading great books, listening to music and consulting on business matters.