Unfit to Practice
The eighth book in the Nina Reilly series, 2002
D EDICATED TO
ALL THE DESPERADOS OUT THERE TRYING
TO PRACTICE LAW ALONE
A FTER BEING DROPPED OFF at a filthy parking lot underneath a gloomy concrete overpass, Nina Reilly stopped in for coffee at the Roastery on the corner of Howard and Main streets. A river of chilly air flowed through the tunnel-like streets around the skyscrapers of the Financial District. The buildings seemed to lean in at her, threatening. She had her pick of caffeine oases, not that it mattered. She was not here by choice. Any black bile would do.
At the bottom of Howard, the Embarcadero and Bay Bridge buzzed unseen, angry hives of energy. The tall buildings’ glass reflected the sun’s intense beams right at her. People glowed like aliens, or so she projected. San Francisco wasn’t her city anymore. The town of South Lake Tahoe had sheltered her for the last few years after she left the Montgomery Street law firm where she had begun the practice of law, and the city had become a stranger.
Nina sank into a rattan chair. A young man at the next table, his Chinese newspaper close to his nose, blew steam across his cup.
Women like her, wearing expensive jackets and gold earrings, waited anxiously in line, then carried their medicine right out the door, swallowing on the run.
Where was Jack?
She watched a boy from some cold country, bearing a heavy backpack, lounge against the counter, waiting for his espresso. Next to him a balding man, not very much older but with the suit and briefcase of one who has settled into his life, took an apple from a bowl while the woman behind the counter heated up a muffin. The scent of cinnamon moved through the room, smelling of home, its effect immediate and painful. She thought of Bob, who was staying with her brother, Matt, back in Tahoe. She needed her son beside her but she didn’t want to put him through this. It would hurt him too much.
She looked around. Jack should be here by now.
What a strange and terrible day, she thought, taking in the sounds of traffic and the city through the open doors.
Here she sat waiting for her ex-husband, a man she had never expected to see again, but as a result of this six-month-old legal case they had a closer relationship now than when they were married. Jack as a colleague was a savvy, reassuring presence beside her-a much better lawyer than he had been a husband.
Jack blew through the door from Main Street, tossing a raincoat on the chair next to hers. “Sorry I’m late.”
“I just got here myself. We got stuck in traffic coming off the Bay Bridge. How much time do we have?”
“A few minutes. What time did you leave Tahoe?”
“Four-thirty.” A long, long time before the dawn. She tried to smile back, remembering that attitude is everything. Reinforcements had arrived and she should straighten up.
Jack looked spiffy in his suit, his square jaw scraped clean. Fresh from the blow-dryer, his ginger hair stuck out as if fired by electricity.
Smoothing his hair down with one hand, he read from the green boards. “I’ll be right back,” he said, getting up and walking over to the counter.
Nina watched him sneak in front of a pale office worker, apologizing as if he hadn’t seen her, offering to wait in line behind her, but the girl was already bewitched and said, oh, no, you go ahead. Jack had charm, that rare quality that eased the tensions in the courtroom as well as in life. Good. He would need that magnetism over the next few days.
He returned and slurped, careful of his white collar. Then he took her hand. “Relax, now. It’s just another day in court.” His eyes moved over her in a mix of personal and professional interest. “I like the suit. You could pull your hair back.”
Nina considered the measure of control Jack now had over her, found a barrette in her purse, and pulled her long brown hair back.
“We should go in a couple of minutes. We’ll be more comfortable if we have a minute to settle in before the judge shows up. You look worried. No, you look mad. Mad and worried. What’s up?”
“I’m ready to fight, only who are we fighting? I can’t stand this feeling that we’re being manipulated.”
“So we use the hearing to find out. We focus on that. Meanwhile, don’t get weird on me.”
“I’ll look confident. But don’t tell me how to feel.” His eyes moved to her hand, where she had bitten a nail down to the quick. She rubbed her lips with her finger, opened her briefcase and withdrew a delicate mirror, then looked herself in the eye. The eye was still brown and showed no panic. Amazing.
“Why didn’t you come down from Tahoe yesterday? I can see how tired you are, and we’re just starting. You should have stayed with me in Bernal Heights last night, saved yourself that drive. What did you think I would do? Jump you?”
She didn’t answer, telling herself, this is not the time. Lack of sleep and the months of tension building to this moment were unfettering them both.
“Sorry,” Jack said after a moment. “The shoes are nice. You look remarkably respectable today. Like someone I might marry.” He smiled, and the smile invited her to play along. He always wanted to brush the edge off, smooth things over with humor. Life is folly, his eyes told her. When she didn’t smile back, his face hardened and he turned back into Jack the Knife, his lawyer-self. She preferred that. She believed it to be the real him.
His eyes flitted to his watch. “Time to go.”
They left, hustling although they were still early.
Nina’s new briefcase felt heavier with every step. Its contents, tagged paper exhibits, represented months of work. This was the most important hearing of her career. Still, she was not ready. She could never be ready for this.
They moved through a warren of skyscrapers into a dank alleyway. At an outdoor stand, more coffee shot into impatiently jiggling cups. The whole city seemed to be fueled with caffeine, hyper, irritable, on the move. Pushing through double doors, they walked up to a security desk. “Good morning. Do we need to sign in?” Jack asked.
A friendly black woman eyed their attachés. “You going up to the court?”
“That’s us. Is the judge in a good mood?”
“You tell me when you see him. Sign in up there,” she said. “Sixth floor.”
The elevator gleamed bronze and silver. They rode up in silence, exited toward a sign that read QUIET, PLEASE. COURT IN SESSION, and laid their nail clippers, keys, and coins on a brown plastic tray before passing through the metal detector. As Nina walked through, the alarm sounded. The attendant, a young man in a starched white shirt, motioned her back. He looked down at her feet. “Hmm. No buckles,” he said.
She removed her watch and walked through again. Again it rang. By this time other people in a small waiting area to the left, several that she knew, were staring at her. She swallowed and tried to think what in the world she was wearing that would make the thing go off. An underwire bra? No, she’d gone for the soft athletic one, invisible under her suit jacket and more comfortable for a long court day. She was already ridiculous. She felt an urge to flee.
“Your barrette, Nina,” Jack said.
Nodding, she removed it. Her hair billowed out, but she walked through soundlessly this time. The guard smiled at her and handed her the barrette. “Sign in here.” He pushed a lined pad toward her. “Put 9:22 as when you checked in. You don’t have to sign out if you leave for a few minutes. Just at the end of the day.”
“Can we go on in?” Jack asked. “We’re scheduled in Courtroom Two, I believe.”
“The clerk is already in there. Go ahead.”
Nina felt the eyes on her back as they walked inside.
“Your hair,” Jack reminded her.
“To hell with it.” She slid her barrette into her pocket.
Small and windowless except for two lengths of frosted glass that ran alongside the door to the waiting area, the courtroom formed a long rectangle. On the right, the trial counsel, Gayle Nolan, sat at an L-shaped table behind two large black notebooks. Nina and Jack took seats at an identical table on the left, Jack seated on the outside, Nina tucked into the L, feeling the unnatural chill of an overactive ventilation system, grateful for a warm jacket.
Jack put papers on the table and handed her one of two bottles of spring water that were sitting there. She unpacked the briefcase swiftly and efficiently as she had done so many times before in her legal career, getting into it, appreciating the tight organization resulting from so many hours of work.
A study in neutrality, the courtroom walls were brown, white, and gray. The chairs they sat in bore innocuous stripes. The furnishings were affectless, designed to suck moods right out of the air. Details like the clock on the wall, circular, simply numbered, the judge’s podium, and a large digital clock, right now showing dashes instead of numbers, were strictly functional. Behind them a dozen chairs for observers or witnesses lined the back wall of the court.
She could be in Chicago or New York. She could be back in her home courtroom in South Lake Tahoe, the room was so stylized. It reminded her of the set of a play she had seen not too long ago at a little theater, Sartre’s No Exit, a black place presumably surrounded by the Void. Purgatory, timeless and eternal.
But this wasn’t Tahoe. The mountains outside beyond the gray were tall buildings. The dreamlike element, the clash between the bland courtroom and the often terrible events that brought people there, gripped her. What am I doing here? she thought. Who has done this to me?
Jack reached over and ran his hand along her arm.
“Okay?” he whispered.
“Totally freaked out,” Nina whispered back.
“How you can feel that way and still look so Darth Vader-tough I’ll never understand.” Jack fingered an empty Styrofoam cup, a scraping, ghastly wakeup. Gayle Nolan got up, ignoring them, and wheeled in a cart marked Chief Trial Counsel weighted down with thick notebooks, folders in file boxes, and code books. So many papers. Nina tried to enjoy the sight of her struggling with the load. No eager law clerks helping here. Light gleamed off Nolan’s specs as she stacked the paperwork onto her table. Finally, she sat back down.
“Hey, Gayle,” Jack said. “And how are you on this fine morning?”
“You can still back out.”
“Don’t make me laugh.”
“This whole thing is a laugh.”
“Yeah? I notice she’s not laughing.”
“She wants the last laugh.”
The judge entered from one of three doors at the front of the room behind the podium. They all stood. Extra tall, with a full head of gray hair he had brushed back, he sported a small, neat mustache, not bushy like the one Jack used to wear. He didn’t look at them. The file engaged his attention as he sat down, allowing them to sit, too.
A placard at the front of his desk read JUDGE HUGO BROCK. “We’ll go on the record,” he said. Sitting on his left with headphones over her ears, the clerk clicked on a keyboard. The digital clock at the front flashed to brilliant red life. It was the brightest spot in the courtroom, and they all stared at it as if the day had exploded.
“ California State Bar Proceeding SB 76356. In the matter of Reilly,” said the judge.
The Grove, Nina’s mother called her school, and whenever she thought of that name later on she naturally thought of rows of ripe apples and oranges, as though when she was six years old she had lived a country idyll. But it was only a hilly neighborhood in California, and the elementary school was really called Pacific Grove Elementary, a functional name without romance. Nina had gone to first grade there.
On the playground, little girls swung around a long metal bar about three feet off the ground. Little boys were not allowed to do this exquisitely exciting thing. One leg pushed off from the ground, the other draped over the bar, hands holding the bar, over and upside down she went, at every recess and after school when she could swing all alone. When she got her rhythm right she could somersault ten or twelve times continuously, and get dizzy and watch the hills and trees turn upside down, becoming other forms in an ever-changing world.
The first important thing in her life happened at The Grove. One day, all alone after school, she swung around and around on the bar, and after a while a thought swung into her head: I am me.
She had never had this thought before. As a matter of fact, she had never been aware of her thoughts before. I am me. My name is Nina and I live down the street. I swing on the bar. I am me! Wildly excited, she turned furiously upside down. The hills were the same hills now, just upside down.
Once this thought entered her head, she was never the same. She became aware of things she had never noticed and that was a loss, because she had been mindlessly free before, but there was also the joy of seeing how things fit together. She made discoveries about where she fit into this new orderly world, into her family especially, Mommy and Daddy and baby brother Matty.
And at school her teacher taught her rules. Follow the rules to keep away confusion. Follow them to keep things in order. Line up when the bell rings. Raise your hand to go to the bathroom. Little girl bathroom, little boy bathroom.
The second important thing happened toward the end of the year, after school again. Nina should have been heading home, a block away, but the heat made her thirsty, so first she had a long drink of water from the girls’ water fountain. Little girls’ fountain, little boys’ fountain over by their bathroom, that rule was clear.
While Nina watched, a mother and a little boy came up to the little girls’ water fountain.
And to her horror, the little boy started to take a drink from the little girls’ fountain. Nina ran right up to tell him he couldn’t do that and tried to explain. But the mother, ignorant and uncaring, brushed her aside and told him to go ahead. And he, who must have felt confused, decided to do what his mother said, but Nina now blocked the way, arms out, defending the fountain. It’s the rule! she said, but the tall grown-up bent down and told the boy to drink up, and he gave Nina a little push to get her out of the way.
So Nina slugged him. That stopped him. He sat down on the concrete and cried, holding his hand over his eye. Nina breathed a sigh of relief and satisfaction, but then along came a big teacher with the mother and made her go into the office and called Mommy and said she did a bad thing! And no one got it, that her defense had saved the fountain and the rules and maybe the orderly world itself, that she was a champion of the girls’ fountain. She had done the right thing and was punished for it.
To be so completely sure, and then have the system go topsy-turvy on her! She decided, and this was the most significant decision of her life, that from what she knew, she was right to defend the fountain and they were wrong because rules had meaning and purpose. What meaning and purpose, she didn’t know yet. But rules made sense out of her blurry world.
In high school about ten years later, Nina went to Monterey with her class to watch a trial. The scruffy-looking, confused man on trial had done something very bad, maybe. Everybody was against him. But one person stood up for him and held them all off, making sure the rules were followed. And as she watched, she understood. This champion was not just defending that poor underdog but a system that kept the world sane.
How do people with different values, religions, economic status, and hopes coexist in peace?
Law provided a method.
And so at age sixteen she decided to become a lawyer.
T HAT THURSDAY IN early September billowed up blue and white, as breezy and innocent as a picnic, the air filtering through shimmering sunlit leaves. But during the afternoon, the true Sierra atmosphere showed its face in a ferocious summer storm, ruthless, unpredictable, and dangerous.
And because the storm dislocated all sorts of human arrangements that night, or because life is a mist of error, or perhaps just because she had been working too hard and couldn’t deal with one more thing that day, Nina Reilly made a small, critical mistake that changed everything.
The day began at eight-thirty sharp with the Cruz custody hearing, now in its second day and going fine, if anything could be fine about a family splitting up. Lisa Cruz, Kevin’s wife, took the stand, and she loved their two kids, no doubt about that, but she had some very strange ideas, too.
“I’m a full-time mom and a professional with a deep spiritual side,” she said from the witness box, gazing at Jeffrey Riesner with large, earnest, liquid eyes that seemed to beg for further help. “I depend on the great philosophers for guidance.”
Kevin began an astringent, whispered commentary. “Moving right along from Jim Beam, to pills, to marathons, and onward into religion,” he muttered.
Lisa had a pale, heart-shaped face and a tentative, breathy voice. She wore a structured jacket and creased slacks and looked fragile, but Kevin had told Nina that Lisa could run five miles without breaking a sweat; had no compunctions about kicking him when he was down; had an extensive, X-rated vocabulary; and bore unswerving allegiance to nothing and no one except their kids.
Lisa adjusted her body, as she had frequently during Riesner’s questions, raising one leg over another, then deciding against it. She was not a woman who enjoyed sitting still. “I studied philosophy at the community college,” she said.
“She took one course, and quit before the final,” Kevin whispered to Nina.
“I consider myself a truth-seeker and scholar. Of course, I work hard to impart the right values to my children: hard work, healthy diet, goal-setting.” She had a lot to say about vitamins.
More whispering. “She’d use a cattle prod if she thought she could get away with it. She’s fanatic about physical fitness. Those kids don’t get a moment’s peace, between the death marches up and down mountains and the bogus mind crap she feeds them.” Kevin had arrived at court very emotional, as always. Nina had to watch out for him when she should have been giving all her energies to watching Jeffrey Riesner, the attorney representing Lisa. She shook her head sharply, her eyes closed, and Kevin understood and stopped.
Nina and Riesner went way back, but not to good places. They had a long history of conflict, which had begun almost the day she had arrived in the town of South Lake Tahoe and set up an office as a sole practitioner. A partner in Tahoe’s most prestigious law firm, Caplan, Stamp, Powell, and Riesner, Riesner viewed her as an out-of-town upstart who had barged into his territory and seduced away several good felony defendants. Nina saw him as a relentless greedhead who held grudges and hated women, her in particular.
She watched him playing Lisa now, playing the judge, playing the court, as homey in a courtroom as you could be without moving in a couch and pillows. How he warmed their hearts with little stories of Lisa’s generosity and kindness. The smallest smile was calculated, a warm nod to the judge, practiced. She could never understand his reputation for success in the courtroom. Apparently, judges and juries could not see through the tall, smooth-talking, Armani-clad exterior to his squirming, wormy insides.
Under Riesner’s careful handling, Lisa went on for quite some time, modestly recounting her achievements as a parent and a volunteer firefighter with several exciting stories to tell. Slowly, Riesner built up his Wonder Woman. Her mother, who lived nearby, watched the children for her during fire emergencies, when volunteers were called out. She attended church, raised money for good causes, met with teachers for conferences, and loved her children.
What interested Nina most was not what she said, though, but how, whenever Lisa started to show real emotion by raising her voice or letting a little vehemence enter, Riesner gently steered her back to calm, like a fairy-tale hero sparing her the scary, dark woods. After several minutes, having wrung all the good he could from his client, he turned back to his table and sat down, but not without first casting a victorious sneer Nina’s way.
Nina stood. She had thought a long time about how to cross-examine Kevin’s wife. Lisa wasn’t a bad mother, just as Kevin wasn’t a bad father, but both parents couldn’t have the children. Many had tried to split custody, and the only parents who succeeded were parents who respected and liked each other after the divorce. Lisa and Kevin didn’t like each other anymore.
Emotional volatility was Lisa’s weakness. She sat in the box, hands neatly folded, like a female Buddha. Nina needed to get around that pseudoserenity.
“Mrs. Cruz, you describe yourself as a seeker,” Nina said. “Could you tell us a little more about what you mean by that?”
Riesner cleared his throat, considering an objection, probably. The phlegm went no farther than his esophagus and lodged there, to judge from its sudden halt. He didn’t like the question, but must have decided to let it ride.
“Well,” Lisa said, any ease she had developed during Riesner’s questioning now gone. She hesitated, tongue-tied, staring at Nina with a half-fascinated, half-repulsed expression on her face, drumming her fingers on the rail in front of her.
“Mrs. Cruz?” Nina said.
Lisa finally spoke, although the words sounded forced. “Life has a deeper meaning than just-this,” she said.
A few observers in the audience looked around the earth-toned, windowless courtroom and chuckled.
“I don’t mean just this moment,” she said defensively, “although every moment is significant. And this one certainly is, since it involves the future well-being of my children. But to answer your question more broadly, I would say I’m interested in the big picture. Taking responsibility for your actions. Accepting blame when you do wrong.” Flat brown eyes followed Nina’s every move as if she expected Nina to jump her at any moment.
“You are a religious person, I understand.”
“Yes,” she said.
“You take your children to church every Sunday?”
“I understand your religion forbids blood transfusions?” Nina asked.
“I haven’t lost my senses just because I joined my church,” Lisa said. “I’m open to advice from conventional medical doctors, and would take Kevin’s wishes into consideration even after our divorce is final, as I always have before. You know, I don’t limit myself when it comes to a personal philosophy to live by. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we should live as well as why we live and I’ve drawn some conclusions.”
Lisa sat back in her chair, considering the question seriously. “Oh, there’s a level we operate on in this country-hey, I’m not knocking anyone else, okay? But I don’t want my life bogged down by trivia and reduced to a long series of tasks to be done. I try to keep my life spiritual, focused, and tranquil.”
Nina knew Lisa had balked and complained bitterly for years about the changes in her life since having children. She had no more time for her personal pursuits, felt limited in her important volunteer work, and unduly burdened by the dragging weight of child rearing. Some of Kevin’s resentments percolated around his wife’s stubborn refusal to contribute to the normal running of their household.
“You have two children,” Nina said. “Surely there are many chores that need to be done? Surely there is a great deal of trivia?”
“Of course. Children make messes. That’s their job.”
“And tranquility isn’t really a normal state of affairs in a young family, is it?”
“No. Tranquility is an aspiration. It doesn’t come easy.”
“Isn’t one of the big surprises about becoming a parent finding out how little we control the dynamic in the household and how quickly the most basic things can get out of control?”
“I’ve adjusted,” Lisa answered dryly, understanding the direction Nina was taking. “Of course I do chores. Big ones, little ones. Petty ones. Many, many chores.”
“You make sure your children have clean clothing?”
“You have a regular laundry day?”
“I do it when the basket is full.”
“Whenever the basket is full?”
Lisa had begun to fidget. The questions about her domestic routine bored her. “Yeah, whenever,” she said, looking at Riesner, who treated her to some serious eyebrow action. “Because what’s the difference if I do it on Monday or Friday as long as it gets done eventually? You know, people don’t realize how they try to re-create Victorian standards of living without the kind of help people had then. Yes, our standard of living is higher than ever, but just because you have a dishwasher, does every dish need to be done that minute? Just because you have a vacuum, should you be expected to vacuum every day?”
“‘Eventually’ you do the laundry?” Nina persisted. “Would that be once a week or twice a week?”
Lisa rolled her eyes. “Probably once every two weeks, if you were to average it out.”
“Do you feed your children regularly?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Of course I feed them regularly.”
“How would you define the term regular?”
“Well, breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” she said, lips curling with disdain at this truly degraded level of conversation. “Am I missing anything? Oh, yes. Snacks after school.”
“What did you make them for breakfast this morning?”
She shifted in her chair. “This morning I was in a rush. Look, Joey and Heather are seven and nine, plenty old enough to get themselves cereal. The days of a home-cooked breakfast are pretty much gone.”
“Why is that, Mrs. Cruz?” Nina asked.
“Who has time?”
“Do you like to cook?”
“I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite thing, but I know how to put together a healthy meal.”
“Your petition says you are at home full time, except during fire emergencies, because your children are young and need you there.”
“What did they eat for breakfast this morning, Mrs. Cruz?”
“Do you know?”
“No. Although they ate for sure. There were dirty dishes in the sink.”
“Did they get up before you?”
“No. I’m the first one up. I run in the mornings.”
“You always run in the morning?”
“You don’t make them breakfast.”
“Not when I run.” Again she adjusted herself in her chair, found a position, changed it, and frowned.
Nina had never seen a witness so ill-suited to spending a long time idle, although her excessive energy might serve her well as a mother and in her work, Nina had to admit. “Did your husband make breakfast for the children when he was still living with you?”
“Sometimes, I guess.”
“Isn’t it true he always made breakfast?”
She sighed. “You know, I’m a mother, but I’m also a professional who needs to stay fit and strong for my work as a firefighter. I’m in the business of saving lives.” She glared at Nina. “I don’t think it hurts my children to get a meal for themselves once in a while. And low-sugar cereal with milk is a fine, healthy breakfast for children, anyone can tell you that.
“I only run five miles. Half the time they don’t even know I’m gone. And my mom lives really close.”
“And when you come back from the run, you take a shower?” Nina was reading from the deposition of Lisa Cruz taken some months before.
“So what if I do?”
“Who dressed the children for school? When you and Kevin were still together?”
“Kevin basically got them off to school. Okay? I have to run.”
“Who gets them off to school now? Now that Kevin isn’t around?”
“They’re older now. Jeans, T-shirt, grab their books, out the door. They don’t need me.”
“And after school?”
“My mother. I told you. I spend every single evening with them.”
“Except, let’s see, Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday all day.”
“Those are my prayer-meeting evenings.”
“Mrs. Cruz, how often do you do your housecleaning?”
“Regularly,” Lisa Cruz said, mocking Nina’s earlier line of questioning, this time enjoying the reaction she got.
Nina laughed along with Judge Milne, dropped her smile, and repeated her question.
But as time went on, as Nina continued grinding at life’s petty concerns until the small issues had been hammered to dust, the atmosphere of the courtroom changed. Lisa didn’t care about the trivial details of her children’s lives, however much she cared about their salvation. She got bored. Her answers became careless. Her composure slipped into irritation.
The judge listened to the boring, trivial questions, the fidgety answers, giving no clue about his thoughts. Riesner objected as often as he could, but Nina’s questions, while mind-numbing, were relevant to Lisa’s mothering skills, so Judge Milne continually ruled against him. Lisa looked to Riesner for help, squeezed her lips tightly, and exposed an utter lack of interest in or skill at housekeeping, a preference for her own needs over her children’s needs when it came to school activities, a chronic inability to pick the children up on time after school, lack of knowledge about her children’s current schoolwork, and adamant opposition to any organized sports for her son, Joey, who really, really wanted to play soccer.
After nearly an hour spent on trivia, petty concerns, and the most mundane, rude mechanics of life, including toilet-scrubbing, Lisa was visibly fuming. Her hair had unpoufed and her crisp suit jacket looked wilted. Five miles couldn’t make her sweat, but Nina’s long journey through life’s ordinariness had worn her to a frazzle.
“I’m good in the ways that matter,” Lisa said in answer to a question about Joey. “I care about helping my kids grow up right.”
“Does that include punishment when they do wrong?”
“I discipline them, of course.” Nina heard tightness in her voice.
“What methods of discipline do you use?”
“That depends on what they do. How bad they’ve been. Like, say they talk back or use bad language, well, I might explain that’s not allowed, that we respect each other and I must be respected as a parent. Then I might send them to their rooms.”
“You don’t like them to use bad language?”
“You don’t use bad language?”
“I don’t condone it, no.”
“You don’t use it?”
She had to answer honestly or risk impeachment, although her reluctance was palpable. “Very rarely. It’s a poor way to communicate.”
“Do you spank your children?”
“You don’t ‘smack them on the butt’?” Nina asked, quoting from the deposition.
Lisa remembered what she had said. She answered carefully. “Rarely, and only if they intentionally disobeyed me in some major way. Crossed the street without me, or did something dangerous. But never hard, never to cause pain. Only to get their attention.”
“Does your husband smack or spank the children?”
“He’s pretty poor at discipline.”
“Does he smack them?”
“No. In my opinion, he lets them get away with way too much. I have to go back and do the correcting he doesn’t bother to do. I have to be the bad cop, while he’s Mr. Fun.”
“Do you yell at them?”
“I don’t think you should yell at your kids.”
“Do you yell at them?”
“I’m sure I have. I’m not going to lie. But I try to be patient and thoughtful.”
“Does your husband yell at them?”
She thought about the question. “No, he doesn’t, not at the kids. Like I said, he plays the nice guy and I get stuck with the trouble after.”
“Can you really describe yourself as a patient person?”
Anyone with eyes could see the restless, jumpy woman in front of the courtroom this morning was anything but.
“I try to be.”
“Would you describe yourself as a happy person on the whole?”
Lisa looked down at her hands, then back up. She refused to meet Nina’s eyes. “I don’t see life that way. Life is a vale of tears. There are such sorrows-” She stopped herself, changing direction. “Happiness is not an end in itself. If you’re lucky, it comes along now and then.”
“Mrs. Cruz, you’ve stated in your deposition that you were very close to your father and took his loss hard. Do you think that has affected your parenting since his death last year?”
Lisa stared at her, and Nina saw what she had been looking for, pushing for, serious anger flickering behind the shadowy brown eyes. She did not like this question. “No.”
“You were seeing a therapist?”
“Yes, but I’ve done that for several years. That’s part of the growth process.”
Nina consulted her notes. “After he died, you took to your bed for three weeks?”
Lisa struggled, then said in a voice fat with distaste, “Yes.”
“Who watched your children during that time?”
“My mother. And Kevin.”
“How long before you recovered from your father’s death?”
“I’ll never get over my father’s death. That doesn’t stop me from functioning. I may not be a barrel of laughs every day.”
“In fact, yesterday on the stand the mediator in your divorce case described you as a ‘restless, troubled person, who blames other people for her unhappiness.’ Do you think that’s accurate?”
“That’s not me.” She shook her head. “I’ve had plenty of joy in my life. Plenty. Just not lately.”
“Your own doctor said you’ve had ongoing problems with depression.”
“I’ve got that licked now,” she said. “I’m off the meds. Joining my church has helped with that a lot.”
“There was another time you took to your bed, wasn’t there?”
“I don’t like that way of putting it.”
“Went into your bedroom and locked the door for several days, wouldn’t talk to Kevin or the kids, ate very little and didn’t feel able to cope?”
“I don’t remem-”
“In Seattle? When you and the family lived there?”
“That was a long time ago. Kevin got in trouble at work. The kids were little, screaming all day. We lived in a small, noisy apartment. I didn’t have a decent stroller that would hold both of them. No washing machine, kids to drag everywhere I went, every single thing I did an ordeal. So, yeah, I’ve had some hard times. I’m stronger for getting through them.”
“Your husband stayed home to take care of you that time, didn’t he?”
“A few times,” she said grudgingly.
“He went to work late and left early?”
“I don’t remember.”
“And lost his job as a result?”
“He lost his job because he screwed up at work. My problems were caused by his problems, not the other way around!”
“Mrs. Cruz, what happens the next time a problem comes along that you can’t solve? Who will be there for your children?”
“My mother helps me a lot. I’m not perfect. I need support, just like anybody. Anyway, right now, my life is going just fine, if I could only settle this thing with Kevin.” Lisa’s arms crossed into the classic defensive position, almost as if she were trying to rein in all the nervous tension she exuded.
Nina decided the time had come.
“Mrs. Cruz, you don’t like to cook, you don’t like to clean, you don’t like chores, yet you admit children are messy; when things get tough you take to your bed; by your own admission, you haven’t gotten over your father’s death; you’re moody, changeable, unpredictable in your discipline-”
Riesner stood up. “Objection!”
“Ms. Reilly, what’s your question?” the judge said.
Nina’s attention never veered away from Lisa Cruz. “-can you really, in good conscience, describe yourself as a good mother?” She held Lisa’s gaze, made her want to open her mouth, made her want to answer, to tell her off, to stop Nina from nipping at her like a bedbug. The fire Lisa had been trying to hide burst into her dark eyes.
Riesner stood quickly. “Your Honor, I-”
But Lisa would not be gagged anymore. “Who do you think you are,” she said, directly addressing Nina. “You-fucking-hypocrite. Are you home with your kid today? I hear you have one. Shame on you. I do my best to have a life and do well by my children. But your job is to distort truth to serve your purposes. If you were defending me, I’d be your golden example, wouldn’t I? It’s so sickening.”
All the time she spoke, Riesner tried to speak louder to shut her up. He waved his hand as if to dissipate the aggression she was finally hurling at Nina.
“Mrs. Cruz! Control yourself,” Judge Milne said finally, taking up his dusty gavel and pounding it once. He looked startled at the noise.
But Lisa ignored him. “Instead I come off here as a selfish bitch, a creature you invent out of some weird bullcrap about my housekeeping, for chrissake. None of that shit matters when it comes to kids, and you know it! They need someone with something more on the ball than a Gestapo-tidy house and three servings of beef a day, which is what Kevin seems to think is required. They need somebody who cares about their souls!” She slapped her hand down on the railing in front of her. “You dare to talk about my father. About my grief. I know all about you. I see right through you, right down into your rotten heart that doesn’t care who gets hurt!”
She stopped, her mouth still open, breathing hard, as though she’d just come in from one of those big runs.
“Do you lose your temper like this with the children, Mrs. Cruz?” Nina said.
“Get off my back!”
“I’m going to adjourn this court for ten minutes,” Judge Milne said as Lisa fell into her chair, shaking, pushing her hair back. “Mr. Riesner, get your client under control. You hear?” He stepped down. Chairs scraped and voices rose behind Nina. The bailiff, Deputy Kimura, had appeared at Lisa Cruz’s side. He took her arm and helped her step down and walk past Nina’s table and didn’t let her slow down for a second. Riesner followed her out.
Kevin’s eyes followed his wife. He turned back to Nina. “You did it,” he said. He didn’t smile.
“I’m sorry,” Nina said. “It had to be done.” And she was sorry, too. Lisa may have had a foul mouth and some weaknesses as a parent, but Nina sensed the depth of the love she felt for her children in every intense word. She was fighting for her life.
“She’s going to have a rough night. You hit hard.”
“Kevin,” Nina said, “something’s going on here. Why was she attacking me? Is this something about her father?”
D URING THE BREAK, Nina tried to get Kevin to talk, but he needed to make a nervous trip to the rest room. On her way to the ladies’ room, she ran into Stamp, a senior partner in Riesner’s firm. A tanned, fit, superb-athlete type, a man who would always be more comfortable with a tennis racket or golf club in his hand than a briefcase, he did not brush past her in his usual fashion. “Hey,” he said, coming to a dead halt. “Nina Reilly. It’s been a while. Haven’t seen you since that casino-gambling case.” He pushed a hand into hers for a firm handshake.
“Well, hello!” The artificial enthusiasm she rallied was designed to obscure the fact that she wasn’t entirely certain of his first name and wasn’t about to call him Mr. Stamp. Wasn’t his name Michael?
“Yeah, you banged us up good in that one. Rumor is, Steve Rossmoor was impressed, so impressed he approached you to represent his casino. Rumor is, others might follow.”
“You know better than to listen to rumors.”
He liked her answer, but wasn’t ready to let go yet. “You’d have to pass the Nevada bar,” he said thoughtfully. “But I venture to guess you’re too busy for that, trying to keep a solo practice afloat.”
“That’s so true,” she said. So Stamp was worried she wanted the casino business. That would cut him where it hurt, right in the wallet. Might as well put him out of his misery. “ California ’s big enough for me at the moment.”
He had his hands in his pockets, and seemed ready to settle in for a nice chat.
“Listen, I’m sorry,” Nina said. “I’ve got to run.”
“Sure. Good to see you. Give me a call sometime when you’re not so rushed.” She felt his eyes crawling over her back as she continued down the stairs. In the bathroom, she looked in the mirror for any signs of femme-fatality and found none. So, take the man at face value. He was worried she was after the casino business. She wasn’t. Now he knew, which was the purpose of their conversation. She decided to like him for having the character to compliment her for winning against his firm, and for flattering her by worrying about rumors that reflected well on her. Riesner certainly never would.
After the break, Riesner took a crack at rehabilitating Lisa Cruz, who apologized to Judge Milne for her outburst and regained her poise, but the damage was done. He was brief, then returned to his table. Riesner, who did not like watching his nicely crafted case sink to the bottom of the ocean, stared down at the table in front of him. This time, when he finally looked toward Nina, fury glistened in his eyes like oil slick.
Nina had really worried about Kevin, who had temper problems of his own. But Lisa’s example had taught him something. When he finally took the stand, he made an excellent witness. Nina had hoped he would have the advantage of plenty of experience testifying because of his work as a police officer, and it seemed he did. He looked relaxed and low-key up there, a nice guy, his legs splayed comfortably, his big body relaxed. Handsome, clean-shaven, with fuzz for hair and even white teeth that he used to good advantage, he spoke warmly about his children, his job, what fatherhood meant to him.
He told Judge Milne that he loved his children. His changing schedule wouldn’t create problems because he had a good support system of local family and friends. He loved to cook, was a methodical person who was trying to teach his kids organizational skills. He had coached his son’s soccer team until Lisa made Joey quit, saying he did not have enough time to finish homework.
“Did you agree with your wife?” Nina asked.
“Sure sounded like he had a lot of work, and she really talked it up. On the nights he was with me, I didn’t see so much, but she told me it was much worse the nights he was with her. Made me wonder what the world is coming to, when a seven-year-old has too much homework to play sports.”
He netted several sympathetic looks at that.
“I wanted to talk to Joey’s teacher, but Lisa asked me not to.”
“She admitted the homework wasn’t as bad as she made out. She doesn’t really like Joey playing soccer anyway, or any sport. She’s afraid he’ll get hurt, and doesn’t want the extra driving. I offered to do more of the chauffeuring, but she didn’t want that either.”
Although he was not a churchgoer himself, he wanted the children to go to Sunday school at his church instead of Lisa’s. “They ought to know what’s right and wrong, and the Bible’s a great resource and comfort to some people. What I don’t like is too much talk of hell and damnation. That just scares kids, does them no good.”
He knew every subject his children were taking in school, knew their teachers well, and could quote from their report cards. He showed pride, pleasure, and a caring attitude.
When Nina finished with Kevin, Riesner got up and brushed off his lapels, as if he’d already started the dirty work.
“You’re a police officer, aren’t you, Mr. Cruz?”
“A risky job.”
“It can be, but I’m well trained in my work, Mr. Riesner. I work hard at defusing potentially dangerous situations before they get serious.”
“Uh huh. Yet this is your third position as a police officer, isn’t it?”
“Why did you leave those other two positions?”
“The first one up in Seattle -I was fired. I was young, we had two little kids, I felt pushed and pulled in a lot of directions. There were family demands, and my family came first.”
“And then there was that little trouble about an old man who ended up in the hospital after you beat him and left him in the gutter?”
Kevin looked at him calmly. “You make it sound like I put him in the hospital. I didn’t. I also didn’t beat him. And I left him propped against a building in a seated position, to set the record straight.”
“You were accused of using excessive force while attempting to arrest a known, chronic alcoholic who was seventy-two years old.”
“He was belligerent. I used the force I needed to use to stop him from attacking me. Then I left without arresting him because I felt sorry for him. He ended up in the hospital because he was drunk and fell down after I left him.”
“You were fired for that?”
“Mr. Riesner, I did nothing wrong. An internal investigation exonerated me but the damage was done to my reputation. Every time I came in late, it was noted. I was held to higher standards than the other officers, and because of the demands I had on me, with two young children and a wife that was having some emotional problems at the time, I couldn’t keep up. It was decided that I should go.”
Very respectable, the way he didn’t blame Lisa for his problems. Nina liked that, and she thought Judge Milne would, too.
“Records show that the internal investigation did not exonerate you. They merely did not find enough evidence to prove the charge,” Riesner went on.
“That’s right,” Kevin said. “It was never proven because there was nothing to prove.”
“So you went to work in Marin County.”
“It says here”-Riesner waved a paper-“you signed on for a permanent job but only lasted six months.”
“We discovered pretty quick we could never afford to live decently there. Lisa would have to go to work and Joey was still very young to leave during the day then. I was offered a good job here, so we moved up to Tahoe.”
“You quit without notice, didn’t you?”
“I had to think of my family first. Tahoe wanted me right away.”
“Not very responsible, was it, leaving your old job without notice?”
“I explained that,” Kevin said.
“It must have been hard on your family, moving around all the time?”
“We didn’t move all the time.”
“Three times in the past five years?”
“The kids were too little to care much, although it was stressful at times, yes.”
“You don’t stay in one place long, do you?”
“I was looking for the right place. I’ve found it now.”
“You know that after less than a year?”
“You think this one’s going to stick when the others haven’t?”
“I’ve been promoted once already. I think I’m doing well.”
“Not all that well, actually. I understand you failed the detective exam when you took it this summer?”
“I put a lot of time in with my kids. I guess I just haven’t put my energy there.”
“Are you going to take it again?”
“I’m planning on it.”
“You’ll have to study nights for it?”
“I’ll make sure Heather and Joey come first.”
“Of course, if you happen to pass it this time, that will mean you spend even more hours on the job, is that correct?”
“Probably, but now the kids are in school, that should work okay and the extra money will come in handy.”
“Or you’ll flunk it again and move on to some new town?”
“No. I’m settling here.”
“Now, you say that money would come in handy, Mr. Cruz?”
“Do you resent the child support you’ve had to pay pending this hearing while the children were with their mother?”
“You’ve paid late three months out of nine months. Is that what you call being financially responsible?”
“There was some kind of foul-up. It’s corrected.”
“The kids didn’t get the money they needed, and it’s just a foul-up to you?”
Kevin’s face hardened. “I love my kids.”
“You’d rather spend the money on, let’s see, new bowling shoes the first month you were late, and, oh, in August there was that trip to Vegas.”
“It was one weekend. The child support was only ten days late.”
“So what comes first?” Riesner said, taking a long step toward the witness box and sticking his chin out.
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“You know, bowling shoes and Vegas seem to come first. The kids can wait.”
Kevin put his hand up to his mouth. “I-”
“Move to strike that last malicious comment by counsel,” Nina said.
“I’ll withdraw it, Judge. How’s your temper, Mr. Cruz?”
“Well, I think I’m holding on to it pretty good, considering how you’re talking to me right now.”
That got a relieved laugh from the audience, and Nina thought, he’s going to get through it.
“Tell us more about your schedule, Mr. Cruz. How do you intend to put in the time it takes to raise your children when you’re never home?”
Kevin kept his cool, got a few more chuckles, even one from Judge Milne, kept smiling, and looked confident.
Nina was satisfied. Aside from the vague and unproven trouble on his first job, which did not reflect badly on his abilities as a parent, and the late child support, Kevin had the edge. He was never violent with his kids. He wouldn’t even spank them. Even Lisa had admitted that.
At lunchtime, Judge Milne adjourned the hearing until the next day. Kevin made a mumbled excuse and ran out ahead of Nina before she could speak with him.
Feeling like she’d had all her teeth yanked out of her jaw, the usual feeling that the court clerks, the other attorneys, and the witnesses milling around her in the hall probably shared as they made their way toward the exit at noon, Nina hurried out. As she left the courtroom in the crowd, Jeffrey Riesner sidled up behind her, brazenly close, brushing against her, walking in step, mimicking her short, swift stride for a few moments. She forced herself to ignore him. Thinking back to the case, hustling away, she refused to dirty her mind with rank images of what lurked underneath the gray silk slacks he had pressed so noxiously close.
In the hallway, where the other courtrooms were adjourning for the break, she felt a hard push to her shoulder and whirled around, prepared to confront him. But instead of Jeffrey Riesner, Officer Jean Scholl now stood behind her, uniformed, a skyscraper to Nina’s low bungalow, six feet tall if she was an inch. “Ms. Reilly,” Scholl said, her voice a slow drawl. “So sorry to jostle you like that, but you got right in my way.”
“I don’t believe I did,” Nina said firmly, standing her ground. “Look, if you have something you have to say, why not just spit it out?”
“Okay,” Scholl said, a hand on her hip. By now several other police officers had paused to watch. “Stay out of my face. I don’t appreciate the way you handled the Guitierrez case. You made me look bad, when I was just doing the best job I can. I like to think we both serve justice, but when it comes to someone like you, I wonder. Now, you and I both know he stole that T-Bird and wrecked it.”
“The judge saw it differently,” Nina said. “Obviously, since he let the man off.”
Scholl leaned in until Nina could feel the heat of her breath. “We didn’t read him his rights because the rotgut he was drinking left him comatose. He wouldn’t have understood them anyway.”
“He has the right to a defense. He got it.”
“Technicalities be damned,” Scholl said. “Did you ever think about the kid who spent six years restoring that car? He came into our offices crying. But you don’t give a damn about that, do you? You don’t think about all the harm you cause, setting bad guys loose.”
“Are you done?” Nina asked.
Stepping back slightly, Scholl nodded. “Look forward to seeing you in court again real soon, Counselor.”
Nina fled for the outdoors.
Caught in a rush of wind, her friend Betty, a deputy clerk, sighed, “A big one coming up.” The trees around them rattled and Nina watched clouds massing over the Sierra Nevada to the east. Betty ran for her car. Clutching her blue blazer around her, Nina ran for Paul’s new Mustang, parked in a no-parking zone right out front.
“Let’s blow, otherwise you’ll get a ticket for sure,” she told Paul as she climbed into the passenger’s seat. “There were at least ten police officers in the hall with me. Some big drug case. Jean Scholl was in there. She’s a real old-timer in the department, been there eight years at least and also has a lot of support in the sheriff’s department. She blew up at me in front of everybody. She’d love to lay a ticket on us.”
Paul backed out.
“I don’t know why, but lately it seems like she’s involved in every case I defend. I think she’s taking it personally.” Nina consulted her watch. “I’m exactly four hours into my day. I had to take a witness apart and it was damned unpleasant. Jeff Riesner was opposing counsel. I had to sit passively through his nasty cross of my client. Then Officer Scholl gave me a push and a warning. A morning like this makes me wonder why I do it.”
“Hello to you, too, Beautiful,” Paul said.
She exhaled the breath she had been holding and all the poisons of the courtroom went with it. She smiled, shook her head, said, “Sorry.”
The man deserved her full attention. Ah, how she adored him. Tall and blond and hers at the moment, Paul van Wagoner worked for her as an investigator now and then. She had spent the past several weeks at his home in Carmel playing house, making love, and jumping ocean waves with him. Now they were back to their real lives, his in Carmel and hers in Tahoe, and, although the geographical separations hurt, Nina felt more tightly bound to him every day.
Using his left hand, he pulled out of the lot. His right arm circled her, pulling her close to him.
Taking in the fresh smell of his leather jacket, she kissed his cheek, letting the physical tensions of the morning slip away in his comforting presence. “The farther we get from the courthouse, the better.”
“Good. Let’s go all the way out to the Y and eat at Passaretti’s. You have time?”
“Kevin Cruz’s hearing was adjourned for the day. We start up again tomorrow.”
“Besides what you’d expect in a full-scale custody battle?” She paused, reviewing the morning, which chugged through her mind in a blur of questions, answers, and lightning judgments. “Riesner’s odd lately.”
“What do you mean?”
She shrugged. “I really don’t know. Just more at me than ever.”
“Family-law cases are the worst,” Paul said. “Give me a good old corporate dispute, partners gouging out eyes, stabbing each other in the back, but, hey, it’s just business. Next week they’ll be toasting the next great joint venture.” He turned left onto Lake Tahoe Boulevard.
“Anyway, it’s over until tomorrow and I’m going to put it out of my mind. And concentrate on you.”
“I like that,” Paul said. He ran a finger down her cheek. “Love me right and I’ll love you right back.”
She kissed him again. “It’s so great when you’re here. I wish you could stay forever.”
“Come live with me in Carmel. You know that’s what I want.”
He popped that out as casually as popping a beer. It was the ongoing struggle between them. How could they possibly create something strong and permanent living 250 miles apart?
“Luck was with me this morning,” Paul said. “I got the two witness declarations you wanted signed. Wish you had been able to drive Highway 89 with me up to Tahoe City. Whitecaps starting up, the sky that sensational transparent blue that you only see when it’s swept clean and a storm’s blowing in. Fall announcing its imminent arrival. The file’s in the backseat.”
Nina disentangled herself and twisted back, retrieved the file, and set it on the floor in front of her. Otherwise she’d never remember it. Curling herself against Paul again, she said, “I hate it that you have to leave.”
“Job’s over,” Paul said. “I’ve got an office in Carmel crying for my attention. You could always come down again this weekend.”
This reminder that he led a life complete and separate from her gave her a pang. The nights without him were hard. She missed the rise and fall of his chest, the rhythm of his breath. “You know I want to, but I’ve got an office in Tahoe crying for my attention too, and Bob needs new shoes and the house is a wreck.” They drove along the lake under a lowering sky. Wind flattened the water way out and threw up ruffled whitewater closer in. One last sailboat tacked into the Keys harbor, the sail taut and the two people inside pulling hard at the ropes, their yellow life jackets bright in the half-light.
“We better get you on the road fast,” Nina said. “You should just drop me at the office.”
“No way will I miss lunch with you. It’s too early in the year for snow. What’s a little rain?”
“You’ve seen the mountain rainstorms,” Nina added. But she didn’t really want him to leave so she didn’t ask again. While they ate at Passaretti’s, the light rain turned into a downpour. By the time Paul kissed her good-bye in the parking lot of the Starlake Building, the skies were delivering a four-star one-for-the-books drenchfest.
Inside, she barely had time to fold up her umbrella and prop it in the corner of her office before the afternoon steamrolled her. Her assistant, Sandy Whitefeather, was in and out on errands, leaving Nina mostly on her own to answer the phone and handle emergencies. Two old personal-injury clients soaked up time without resolving anything. An interpreter slowed down a complicated phone call to the Vangs about a settlement offer in their insurance case.
Then, to cap off an already crowded afternoon, sisters named Brandy and Angel told her a harrowing story about witnessing something on a camping trip that had ended with a suspicious death the next site over.
She took notes, thought fast, kept her eyes on the tasks at hand, tried to keep track of everything. Between the phones and the thirteen other cases that needed attention in the interstices of the main appointments, she drank her bottled water and hung in there. She let the rough morning go and decided she had had a good day because Paul was in it.
Outside, dark came early and water flowed down the street. The lights flickered once or twice. Inside, Nina kept right on trying to fix people’s problems and bring order back into the chaos that afflicted them. She thought once or twice about the Cruz custody case. Paul was right. Custody disputes between two more or less competent parents who both loved their kids were the most painful cases for the lawyer as well as the parents, because no just solution existed. You couldn’t saw the kids in half. They had to spend most of their time somewhere.
She felt bad for Lisa Cruz, for what she had done to her.
When the last client had left and she was finally alone, she washed most of the hardened crud off the coffeepot, turned out the lights, packed her briefcase, and slung her purse onto her shoulder. Umbrella in hand, she headed down the hall not feeling anything at all except the desire to get home. She made it only a few steps at a normal pace from the office door before immense raindrops, ballooned into drunken saturation, reduced her hair to string and her boots to sodden. A gust of wind turned her umbrella inside out.
Abandoning all dignity, she ran for protection. She threw open the Bronco’s door with such force that it seemed for a second it might break off. Safely inside, she tossed her briefcase and broken umbrella to the floor of the backseat and waited. The sky could only dump so much water. For a few minutes, she watched heavy branches ripping and scattering like twigs in the force of the storm. Freshets of water cascaded down Highway 50. Cars pulled over to the side, wipers going like mad, as the street became a brook, a river, a lake.
She let the drumming on the roof occupy her consciousness. Bob had probably made it home from school by now, and Sandy should be safe at home. Paul would be over Echo Summit and down in the Sacramento Valley by now. The briefcase on the backseat floor held her most pressing client files, the ones she would take to bed with her to read and consider.
Sharp pellets struck the roof. Hail. People on the streets scurried for cover like mice escaping a marauding cat. “Just ducky,” she muttered as the streetlights blinked out all at once. Across the street, the neon flicked off on the Mexican restaurant’s sign.
The whole town went dark, and this time the lights didn’t come back.
A mountain town without power isn’t a town at all, but an animal hideout under the trees, like a deer nest or bear cave. They saw it all the time up here, the facade of civilization casually torn away by snow, wind, storms, not to mention the raw human emotions uncovered after losing everything at the all-too-civilized casinos on the Nevada side of town. Scylla and Charybdis, and humanity reduced to headlights in the din.
Now what? She gave it another minute, pulling for civilization, but nature had the town firmly in hand. No lights, rain lashing the windshield. She fumbled for her car keys, which were supposed to be clipped with a metal carabiner to her purse strap, but they weren’t there. She must have dropped them somewhere. She clicked on the overhead lights, which ran on the battery, and looked through her keys on the ring. House key and office key, check, mystery key, check, Bob’s spare bike-lock key, yep, but no car key.
She hadn’t seen the doggone key since she’d parked at the office at eight that morning. Sandy had dropped her off at the courthouse and Paul had picked her up.
She should go back into the building and look for the key, a very daunting thought right now, but she was already half out the door again when she remembered that she had an old plastic key in her wallet, which the auto association had sent her for use in an emergency.
The fan on the heater at home wouldn’t work without electricity. Bob would be making a fire and enjoying the process entirely too much. She should hurry before he burned the cabin down.
She would find the key tomorrow. Tonight she couldn’t go back in there. She fished out the plastic key and turned it in the ignition, hoping the flimsy white plastic wouldn’t break.
The Bronco started up with a mighty roar.
She crept down Pioneer Trail in four-wheel drive, sending up fin-shaped, watery plumes and jouncing over the forest trash. A few stalled cars surprised her in the middle of the road, one with the driver’s-side door hanging wide open, its driver too concerned about getting home to care about water damage.
A branch from the sugar pine next to the porch sprawled across her downsloping driveway. She crunched over it, ran up the steps to the wooden porch, and unlocked the front door, noticing a pair of mountain bikes pushed together under the eaves. Two bikes, not one.
In the entryway, stripping off her boots and socks, she could see just a corner of the orange Swedish fireplace, and all she could think about was dinner.
A muffled commotion in the living room and scrabbling paws over the wood floors gave her warning of Hitchcock just before the big black dog rushed her. “You’re supposed to hear me before I come in the house, you silly animal.” She kissed the dog’s head and pulled gently on his ears. “Bob!”
In the living room, the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the backyard was inky-no one had pulled the curtains-and the wood stove was cold. She groped for the lights, and when that didn’t work, she reached above the refrigerator for matches and lit the big candle on the coffee table.
“Right here,” Bob said from the couch a few feet away. In the flickering light, another tangle of jeans and hair emerged next to him. Nina recognized Nikki, Bob’s bandmate, three years older and three centuries wiser, she of the sly brown eyes. Nina knew Nikki well, well enough to distrust her. An ex-client, sixteen years old, she had the anarchy-of-spirit thing down pat. Nina did not like her sitting there on the couch, feigning innocence, or the skinny hand clasping Bob’s.
“Hi,” Nikki said, then, as if cued, disengaged her hand from Bob’s. She picked up a can of cola and drank deeply. Bob watched her drink.
To cover a spasm of alarm, Nina turned her back on them, went to the fridge, and uncorked the half bottle of Clos du Bois, forcing herself to pour a glass instead of taking the swig she so fervently desired at that moment.
“We were trying to do homework, but the lights went out,” Bob said.
“I see,” Nina said. She took two sips and two deep breaths, walked back into the living room, and drew the curtains shut. While Bob and Nikki sat primly on the couch, she crumpled newspapers, tossed them on the grate, and dug out some kindling from the basket.
“I’ll do that, Mom,” Bob offered. He got up.
“Good idea. Nikki, there are more candles in the kitchen above the dryer. Would you mind getting a few? It’s still too dark to see.” And unwelcoming, to say the least, she thought.
“Cold, too,” said Bob, who had apparently not previously noticed. He took the poker from Nina, jabbing the burning sticks in the wood stove. Nina sat down on the carpet, held her glass, and waited for the fire to flare up and send warmth her way. The sleeves of her blouse were wet, her very soul was wet, but she was damned if she was going to go into her bedroom to change and leave these two alone.
Nikki’s bony knee came and went through a gaping hole in her jeans as she set candles around the room. The forlorn face and familiar defiant, ready-for-rejection expression inspired Nina’s pity, exasperation, and righteous motherly fear.
“We were just going to practice a new song I wrote,” Nikki said. “I brought my guitar. It was all very structured. But you can’t play without electricity.”
“Uh huh,” said Nina.
“Well. I’m outta here,” Nikki said, heading for the door, reading Nina’s mind. “Have a good night.”
“It’s pouring out there. Does your mother-?” Nina started.
“I left a note, but she’s not home anyway.” Nikki found her parka on the floor. With the hood pulled tight around her face, she looked like an orphan boy.
Bob said, “I’ll ride you home.” He got up.
“Not necessary,” Nikki said.
“Back in half an hour,” Bob told Nina.
“I can take care of myself,” Nikki said.
“Don’t be stupid. When are you gonna get a good offer like that again?”
“Then I’m stupid.”
“Wait. I’ll drive you,” Nina said.
“No. It’s not that far. Stay here and enjoy your supper.”
Nina almost invited Nikki to supper right then, she looked so much like a starving hound dog who hasn’t eaten for a week, but there were limits. She wanted Nikki to go home, Nikki was heading out the door, and Nina wasn’t going to stop her.
“Later,” Nikki said, strapping her guitar on her back. She flipped a hand at Bob and went out the door.
Bob went to the window and looked out. “We should have made her stay,” he said.
“Haven’t you got homework? You’re not supposed to-to-”
“Never mind. Do me a favor, honey. Just let me sit here for a second and drink my glass of wine in peace.”
Bob shrugged, went into the kitchen, and came out with a turkey sandwich and a Gatorade. “Supper is served,” he said, then went into his room and shut the door, not too loudly.
On an ordinary night, at this point in the course of events, she would cook, then tackle the files she had brought home, but the fire continued to burn, Bob had his sandwich, and the rocking-chair pillow lured her with its softness. She sat down to stare into the orange and red, listening to the whine and howl of wind outside. The briefcase was in her car. She was in no mood to stuff her warm feet into stone-cold boots and throw a coat on so that she could fight her way back through the damp, freezing night. She could allow herself to spend an hour this Thursday evening dozing here, stroking her dog.
She yawned and flashed to a memory of Bob as a toddler. They were still living on the Monterey Peninsula, where she worked as a law clerk during the day and studied law at night. His preschool teacher called her in the middle of a meeting. “Bobby won’t lie down for naps,” she said. “We’ve tried everything, Ms. Reilly, but I’m afraid you’ll have to come and get him and take him home. He’s a disruptive influence on the other chil-dren.”
She hadn’t known what to do with him then, and she didn’t know what to do with him now. But for now he was safe and warm, and she didn’t have to worry.
She woke from a doze and checked her watch. Already nine o’clock! Down the hall, holding a candle like a Victorian to light her way, she opened the door and saw Bob retired safely under his covers, flashlight glowing, his French textbook open beside him.
Hungry, she made herself a grilled-cheese sandwich and poured herself another glass of wine, telling herself that up to twelve ounces actually helps your heart. Scanning the newspaper by the last of the firelight, she yawned again and pushed it into the brown recycling bag in the kitchen. A hundred small tasks in that room drew some spotty attention. She wiped, closed cupboards, listed groceries needed. It was late and too dark to work, but she still should go get her papers out of the truck.
The kitchen lights crackled and died again. She hunted in the cabinets for the big flashlight for a long time, even exploring the dreaded laundry area. Giving up, she felt her way upstairs and down the hallway. Once in her own room, she tossed her clothes on the floor and climbed into bed, pulling the comforter up to her neck. Her files would be safe enough in the Bronco until morning.
But they weren’t.
Routines. The first slap of cold water on the face, the scalding-hot shower. The lick and promise of lotion over rough spots on her feet; the peppermint of toothpaste. Bob rummaging for cereal, the clink of his spoon as he ate. The radio flipping from pop to talk and back again.
Friday morning rushed along, the storm over, the world outside steaming and sparkling, Bob late, Hitchcock barking for a walk before she had shaken off her nighttime coma and having to settle for a trip into the backyard, eggs needing to be cooked. The power had been restored and a multichrome rainbow of sunlight drenched the kitchen.
She loved the part where she walked out the door in the morning, loved the blowing leaves, the smell of wood smoke, and heart-piercing mountains all around. Another day awaited, full of large frustrations and small triumphs and more fresh coffee, if she was lucky. Her office was her second home, and Sandy and Sandy’s son, Wish, were her second family. Her heart felt full; she felt sharp and cool; her son was ready for school; she had a full day ahead.
But that morning when she went out to the driveway all dressed up in navy blue for morning court she stopped cold in her tracks. Two long seconds of unreality struck before she could collect herself and make sense out of what greeted her.
An empty driveway.
Her car wasn’t there.
Stupidly, she walked up the driveway to the street and looked left and right as if it had somehow moved itself in the night. Had it rolled into the backyard? No, she had let the dog into the yard earlier. No Bronco there. She tried to think. Yes, she had definitely driven it home last night, she remembered clearly.
Nikki? Her mountain bike was gone. Anyway, although she bemoaned the fact, Nikki didn’t have a license to drive last time Nina heard. Neither did Bob.
The key! The white plastic key still sat in her wallet. But-
A lost vehicle isn’t like a lost dog. You can’t run around the neighborhood calling for it. Some jerk had stolen her truck right out of her own driveway. Nina went back inside and got Bob, who came out to stare in disbelief at the spot where the Bronco usually sat. Then she called the South Lake Tahoe Police Department and her office. Then she remembered the files.
Her heart fell to her shoes. She had definitely locked the truck, she remembered what a hassle it was with that stupid plastic key…
She counted the files in her mind. Three: the Cruz custody battle, the Vangs and their insurance claim, and-oh no, the new one, the campground-murder case, with the sisters, Brandy and Angel.
Confidential files. Her most sensitive cases, the ones with information no one should see, stuffed inside her briefcase on the floor of the backseat of the Bronco.
Out there somewhere, in someone’s sweaty, thieving paws.
W AITING ON THE DRIVEWAY for the police, Nina walked up and down rubbing her neck, and when that didn’t take the rigidity out of it, she rotated it a few times. She had made the mistake that everybody makes once in ten thousand events. Nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine correct decisions, one mistake, and with any luck at all, you don’t get called on the mistake. You leave something important in the car, smack your forehead in the morning when you realize it, run outside, and find all is well.
Across the street, her neighbor climbed up a steep ladder to his roof and fiddled with green shingles.
He could fall, she thought. He could die. Every day presented new opportunities for catastrophe.
She decided not to wave at him.
A mud-spattered patrol car pulled up in front. Gleaming pines and firs dripped all around, but the asphalt steamed in the morning sun, rapidly drying. Bob, ready to take the bus, ran up behind her begging for money, lunchless because she had been hunting for the extra copy of the Bronco registration and the title. She shoved several crumpled dollars she had in a pocket toward him, leaning out for a kiss on the cheek as he passed.
“Good luck, Mom,” he said, running down the street to the stop where his school bus was already loading.
Two officers, a man and a woman looking like carpenters with all the tools hanging from their belts, hauled themselves out of the car, leaving the police radio on loud to make sure all the neighbors would know there was trouble at the Reilly house. “Counselor. How you doing,” said the tall woman.
“Officer Scholl. Thanks for coming.” Great, Nina thought. Of course they would send Jean Scholl. She didn’t feel thankful, she felt annoyed at her rotten luck, but she had no choice but to accept the help on offer.
Scholl stared at her for a minute, tightened her lips, then looked away. She didn’t offer to shake and neither did Nina. Her gray eyes raked the empty driveway, looking for traces, suddenly all business.
“Good morning,” Dave Matthias said, introducing himself. Newer in the department, he was narrow-jawed and short on hair.
A major drawback of doing criminal-defense work in a small town was that sometimes Nina had to try to discredit the work and the motives of local cops for the sake of her clients. Some cops lied and some were biased. Whatever the negative attitude, they didn’t appreciate being called on it in court. Scholl’s outburst on Thursday showed that. The best Nina hoped for from these two would be wary reserve, so she was pleasantly surprised when they listened intently and worked the information like pros. To her relief, Scholl had apparently decided to put their differences aside for the time being and do her job.
Nina spent an hour with them, retracing her trip home the night before, where exactly she had parked, handing over copies of the truck papers, which she had made on the home fax copier. They all went down to the driveway and looked for bits of glass, footprints in the still-damp pine needles in the cracks in the asphalt, anything. The driveway had no conspicuous clues to yield.
“You’re sure you lost your car key sometime during the day yesterday,” Officer Scholl said at least five times.
Nina had spent the past few minutes reliving the night’s activities in excruciating detail. Her car key was gone. That was a fact. “I can’t find it in my purse or the pockets of the clothes I was wearing.”
“But you don’t think the key could have fallen between the seats. Or something.”
“I don’t know. What I’m saying is that I locked the doors of the Bronco last night with my spare key. So nobody just came up and was searching through an unlocked car and just happened to find my key. Either they broke in and hot-wired the Bronco or they somehow have my lost key.”
“No one could have used your spare key. The plastic one.” The monotonic, carefully nonjudgmental voice made Nina feel worse.
“It was in my wallet in the living room. I always lock the house up tight and turn on the alarm. It was right there. This morning I found it in the wallet where I left it.”
Officer Matthias gave the gate an experimental kick, as though this might make it give up a hint.
Nina went on, “It was the storm. It’s a quiet neighborhood. I meant to go back out right away but I got distracted.” Thank God, the house and office keys hadn’t been on the same keychain. Nina closed her eyes for a moment, recalling a recent conversation with Paul in the Long’s Drug Store parking lot as they had watched a man get out of his car and go into the store, leaving his motor running. “If someone drives off in that car,” Paul said, “he’s doing that ass a favor. They oughtta arrest him as an accessory, teach him a lesson.”
The officers wrote down what Nina told them about the three files. “Legal files,” she said.
“Client files?” Scholl asked, scribbling on a notepad.
She bit her lip. “Yes.”
“Names on the files?”
“Yes. The files were labeled.”
“I get that. But what were the names?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“You won’t give us the labels on the files? How are we supposed to identify them if they’re found in a trash can behind some house in Meyers?”
“Call me and I’ll come down and look at any legal-sized manila folders you find.”
“And what if one of the people in your files decided he wanted them back? How are we going to question him if we don’t even know his name?” Scholl asked, putting her pad down for the moment, letting only a glint of irritation enter her eyes.
“I can’t help you there.”
“Kind of a drawback to our investigation.”
“Yes. It is.”
“What’s in the files?”
“Pleadings.” Those she could reproduce, with copies from the clerk’s office. Those were public documents. The Decree of Dissolution with the attached Marital Settlement Agreement in Kevin Cruz’s case, for instance. “And business correspondence,” mostly boring. Innocuous or technical lawyer letters from the other side. Transmittal memos to the court.
“And?” asked Matthias. Both officers now stood side by side waiting to hear the rest. They already knew, but they wanted her to say it.
Officer Scholl wrote. “That would include what?”
“My attorney work-product, including my legal research notes, my notes of consultations with experts. Confidential.”
“Uh huh. Like what?”
“Like my client-intake notes. I can’t give details. Most of it is protected by the attorney-client privilege.”
“Right,” Nina said, picturing the client-intake forms in her mind. Addresses for people who did not want to be found. Figures for a hefty insurance settlement that would make some people sit up and take greedy notice if they knew about it. Kevin’s secret.
The ramifications rushed at her like a Roman phalanx. Kevin Cruz was a local cop. He would hear about the auto theft and the files and would want to know if his could be involved. He would be concerned.
The custody hearing continued at eleven-thirty this morning.
How could she manage this catastrophe? She had to get into the office, talk to Sandy.
“Because what I’m wondering…” said Officer Scholl, digging around in a pocket and putting on expensive-looking mirrored sunglasses against the glare of sun. She faced Nina directly: “Is the auto theft ancillary? You know? Did this thief want your files?”
“How could anyone know I’d be taking them home last night? I don’t often do that,” Nina said.
“You don’t take files home?”
“Well, yes. But these particular files-”
“Could someone have seen you leave and followed you home?”
“I didn’t notice anyone, but I wasn’t looking either.”
“This young lady, Nicole Zack. She left after you had arrived.”
“I’m sure she had nothing to do with it.”
“Maybe. But it’s raining, it’s dark, she’s supposed to be biking home. Maybe she opens the Bronco door-”
“It was locked. I locked it.”
“Maybe. But maybe she sees a key on the seat. You dropped it there. Maybe she decides to borrow the Bronco just to get herself home.”
“She’d have to break in, because as I keep telling you, the Bronco was locked with my spare key.”
“You were tired. Maybe you just thought you locked it,” Officer Matthias put in.
“Talk to her if you want,” Nina said. “But it wasn’t her. I locked the doors. I didn’t hear anything.”
“Well, but, you know? Nikki Zack, right here last night, walking along this very driveway on a noisy, stormy night. We know her. You defended her once.”
“I know what you’re thinking, but she was acquitted. She was proven to be innocent of that crime.”
Scholl sighed. Here police butted heads with defense attorneys daily. “Maybe she was proven innocent of that crime,” she said. “But, speaking generally, involvement with the law, meaning us, gets to be a bad habit. Like cigarettes.” She smiled in an overly friendly fashion. “People get hooked before they know it. They can’t quit.” Below his own sunglasses, Matthias’s pale mouth wiggled in response to her joke.
“That may be the opinion around the good old police department,” Nina said, knowing better but unwilling to conceal her disdain, “but she’s a friend of my son’s, and I trust her.” She didn’t, but they didn’t have to know that.
“She know any of the people whose files got stolen? Any people who might be mentioned in the files?”
Nina thought about her cases. “No. Look. This is simple auto theft. I believe that, but it’s an emergency for me because of the briefcase. The files. This is urgent, Officer.”
Scholl snapped her notebook shut. “We’ll give it the same urgent attention we’d give any theft of property.” She delivered the news in that same controlled officious monotone that made Nina think paranoiacally of all sorts of things: whether she was more unpopular than she knew with law enforcement, whether they might actually put the theft on the back burner to cause her further discomfiture, whether Scholl was laughing at her problems behind those unfashionable glasses, for starters.
“I have to get to my office,” Nina said. “I have to call a taxi. I-”
“Call me if you find your files at your office,” Scholl said, handing Nina her card.
“I won’t. They were in the truck.”
“Check anyway.” Officer Scholl asked for Nikki’s address and phone number and Nina gave the information. As soon as the two officers pulled out, Nina got on the phone to the taxi company. Another half hour passed before she arrived at the Starlake Building and rushed down the hall to her office, feeling naked without her briefcase, stripped, vulnerable, mad, and frightened all at once.
“Three questions,” said Sandy as Nina came into the office. “These points and authorities on the summary-judgment motion…”
“I have one for you,” Nina said, tossing her things into her office and turning back to face her secretary. “Did I by any chance leave a pile of files on your desk last night?”
“You always leave a pile.” Sandy pointed to a stack of paperwork Nina had left. Sandy Whitefeather, a member of the local Native American Washoe tribe, had been working with Nina ever since Nina had left her marriage and job in San Francisco and moved to South Lake Tahoe several years before.
“Not those.” But she rummaged through the papers on Sandy’s desk anyway.
“Whoa, Nellie,” Sandy said, putting a smooth brown hand with short nails and a heavy silver wristband down on the stack of files just in front of her. “You lost some files?”
“I lost the Bronco.”
“I lost the entire Bronco, and my briefcase happened to be in it.” Sandy’s eyebrow rose perceptibly as she tapped her fingertip against the tip of her nose, listening while Nina told her in a few words what had happened. “I know, I know,” Nina said. “I never should have left them sitting there on the floor of the backseat. That was foolish. I can’t believe my rotten luck. The Cruz case. That’s up in the air, and there’s something strange going on with Lisa Cruz, who went nuts on the stand yesterday. The third day of Kevin’s temporary-custody hearing is in two hours. He wants those kids and she gives him a hard time about letting them visit.”
“He’s been waiting a long time. He’s not gonna let you put it over.”
“No, he won’t. He shouldn’t have to.” Interject a massive guilt attack into the hellish clash of emotions she was feeling. “But Kevin told me something in strictest confidence. It’s on the client-intake form, information that could ruin his chances to get joint custody of his kids if-if-”
“If his wife finds out. Can you handle the hearing without the file, that’s what I wonder.”
“Of course that’s my biggest concern at the moment. The basics-most of the prep work for the hearing-we have the computer file.”
“I’ll make you a printout.” Sandy started hitting the keyboard keys as they talked. The printer clicked and hummed and sucked in a sheet of paper. They watched the paper fill with words.
“What about the exhibits?” Sandy asked.
“Kevin was bringing the originals to court. I only had copies in the file. This hearing I can manage.”
“What about the others? Kao Vang and the two sisters?”
“All those files contained were my client-intake notes. But they are crucial. Oh, this is such a mess. It’s the same as with Kevin’s file. Those notes contained material that can’t get out.”
Sandy heaved herself out of the tight black swivel chair. “Well, before we get all panicked, let’s look around here. Car key. Briefcase. Three files.” She moved around the two rooms, sandals light-footed, long blue cotton skirt swaying, long glass earrings tinkling.
Nothing showed up in Sandy’s stack or on Nina’s desk.
Sandy searched through the cabinet behind her. Nina moved over to the client area and restacked magazines, checking for anything that didn’t belong. They let the voice mail pick up the ever-ringing phone.
“Where’d you see the briefcase last? Maybe we can apply the eighteen-inch rule. Whatever you lost is almost always within eighteen inches of where you saw it last.”
“I saw it on the floor in the backseat of the Bronco.”
“And the key?”
“That’s a tough one. I keep it on a separate keyring and keep it handy because I use it all day long. I know I used it when I drove to the office yesterday morning.”
“Yesterday, during the day, when it was out in the parking lot, was the Bronco locked?”
“No. The CD player broke six months ago and we just took it out so I’ve been a little lax about locking up.”
“So. Could you have left your main car key in the Bronco yesterday?”
“It could have fallen just as I got out. You’re saying anybody could have been nosing around out there and found the key. But why not steal the truck then and there? Why wait until I drove it home?”
“Okay, then maybe you lost the car key somewhere else while you were running around town. Where were you?”
“At the courthouse. In Paul’s Mustang. Passaretti’s at the Y. The office. That’s it.”
“I’ll call the court administrator and get hold of the janitors. I’ll call Paul and have him search his car. And the owner of the restaurant. Have him search the place.”
“Yes. Thanks, Sandy.”
Sandy straightened up, turned, and put her hands on her hips. “Guess we’ll have to get out the old eighteen-inch ruler another time.”
“Check the library for the files one more time before we give up, will you?” Nina searched her office again. She went down the hall to the bathroom and looked around, or maybe she just went in there to catch her breath, regroup, because it had acted as a haven from turmoil so many times in the past for her. She walked outside to the parking lot, analyzing every step even though by now she was positive the briefcase had gone home with her and the car key was in someone else’s pocket.
The files were gone. Might as well quit wasting energy. She felt the cold edge of panic.
Nevertheless, a half hour later Nina was examining the closed files for the third time when Sandy touched her arm and said in a softer tone than usual, “They aren’t here.”
Nina sat in one of the orange client chairs. “Well, I’ll be doggoned. I will be doggoned. I have been robbed, Sandy.”
“Soldier on. The Cruz hearing is in exactly”-she squinted at her watch-“one hour and fifteen minutes. Before you do anything else, Sandy, would you please call Kevin and ask him to bring his entire file? He’s got copies of all the main stuff. Dog-eared, coffee-stained, scribbled-on, ask him to bring it. I’m going into my office to try to reconstruct my closing argument.”
“You can take my car when you go.”
Nina got up.
“It’s an oldie but a goodie,” Sandy said. “Watch out for the transmission, though. It doesn’t like shifting gears.”
When she arrived at the courthouse, Nina called Sandy on her mobile phone. “Did you call Kevin Cruz?”
“He’ll meet you by the rocks.”
“His wife’s lawyer faxed us a supplemental witness list three minutes ago. You know who.”
Sandy had worked for Jeff Riesner once and loathed him so much she refused to say his name. In agreement with Nina about the insidious poison of the man, she even kept some compromising material she had on him in a safe place for self-protection, like an antidote to snake venom.
Nina had been trying not to think about Lisa’s attorney. Once again, his routine consisted of violating normal ethical standards, his version of a walk in the park. “He can’t do that! The hearing’s in an hour. Who’s on this list?”
“Just one new witness. I never saw the name before. A woman. Name’s Alexandra Peck. I just looked her up in the phone book and checked some Net directories. There are some Pecks in Tahoe, but her name is not listed.”
Nina said, “Oh, boy,” and rubbed her forehead. “This is not good. This is bad.”
“I figured it might be.”
“Does Riesner share even the barest bones of testimony he expects her to give?”
“What you’d expect. Matters relating to the ability of Respondent Kevin Cruz to care for the minor children.”
“I’ll talk to Kevin about her before court. Riesner has such diabolical instincts, Sandy. He knows Kevin won’t wait another day to get this settled and won’t let me ask for a continuance.”
“Who is this witness?” Sandy asked.
“I’ll deal with it.”
How could Riesner know about Ali Peck? Had he known for some time? Was he pulling a Riesner special, trying to kill her case with a last-minute, high-voltage shock? Or had he somehow learned about Ali within the past twelve hours, from her client-intake notes? Anything was possible. Riesner had means that put Nina’s to shame, and ends that would shame a squid.
A fantasy bloomed in her mind-Riesner following her home in the storm in his sleek black Mercedes, creeping around the Bronco, his dapper Italian loafers squishing through the puddles, stealing her car like a street thug. Almost funny, if you left his face out of the picture.
Or what about Lisa Cruz? She had been very, very angry at Nina in the courtroom the day before. Did she pick up Nina’s car keys?
Nina put aside her suspicions. She couldn’t find her vehicle right this minute. She needed to move on to a more immediate problem, discussing the unfortunate reappearance of Ali Peck with an overwrought client who was heading into the courtroom to face one of life’s decisive moments.
“That man better not be pulling something,” Sandy said, referring to Riesner.
“Our old buddy,” Nina said to Sandy. “Never far from our hearts.”
Sandy’s wrathful snort carried over the miles.
B ECAUSE SIXTY-FOOT-TALL FIR and pine trees towered over the two-story structure, the familiar brown and rustic El Dorado County Courthouse building sat in what seemed like perpetual shade, the better to cast a muted mood over its denizens. In the same building were housed not only the courtrooms and clerks and judges’ offices, but also the jail. Next door was the plate-glass window of the South Lake Tahoe Police Department. Across the courtyard another low building held various offices connected with county law enforcement, health, or the judicial system, including the Tahoe offices of the El Dorado County district attorney and the public defender’s office.
Locking Sandy’s car carefully, Nina tramped across wet grass to reach the mass of granite boulders erected to honor two Tahoe pioneers. Kevin Cruz sat in a tiny patch of sunshine on one of the large rocks smoking a cigarette.
“Hi, Kevin,” Nina said.
They sat down on the bench and talked, Kevin firing up every two minutes, Nina wondering how to approach the bad news she carried and full of questions for him about Lisa.
Kevin had bulked up since his wife left him six months before. Like Officer Scholl, in perennial cop fashion, he wore impenetrable shades over his eyes. He didn’t look good today. He must have been to the barber, because his hair was so aggressively trimmed Nina could see pink scalp under the fair hair. His court clothes, a sport coat and slacks, looked unfinished without his usual nightstick appended. One of those men who look hopelessly phony in a necktie, he had settled for an open shirt under the jacket.
“You were brilliant yesterday,” Kevin was saying again.
“Kevin, there’s something you haven’t told me. Lisa’s got something personal against me.”
“Hey, you got what you needed to get out of her,” he said. “She got mad. She looked bad. She showed what a witch she can be.”
“Okay, okay.” He stamped out one cigarette on the ground and rummaged for another. “I didn’t see any point in telling you,” he started. “Ah, shit. Okay. She holds you responsible for her father’s death.”
“It’s a long story, but I’ll give you the short form. Her dad ran a small logging company that did a lot of cutting up near Wright’s Lake. Sound familiar?”
“Remember Richard Gardener? Client of yours? Guy who lost his leg in a logging accident.”
“You helped his worker’s-comp lawyer get him a big award, then you went after the company for shoddy safety practices and won a bunch more. Well, her old man ran the logging company, and that lawsuit wiped him out. He died shortly after it folded, heart attack. She blamed you.”
She remembered the bankruptcy, the notice she had received of the death.
She was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Why did you hire me, Kevin?”
He flushed, embarrassed. “She was always on about how tricky you were in court, how smart-ass. I didn’t know you, Nina, I just knew I wanted a damn good lawyer. You fit the bill. I never liked her dad. He was such a sleazeball, and to be honest, it always sounded to me like your guy deserved the money.”
Nina thought about that for a while. Realizing she was in the situation too deep to climb out, she decided to accept it. “It’s a big day for your case,” she said finally. “We’re winding things up. Are you ready?”
“I’m not ready for any of this. You know, I never hit Lisa, never scared the kids, always supported the family, always came home after my shift. But I know I made mistakes.”
“We have to talk about that,” Nina started, but Kevin rushed on.
“I think you were right yesterday, when you pointed out that her dad’s death hit hard. He cherished her and spoiled her. She isn’t as close to her mom.” He shrugged. “Who knows why? But she was never a happy person. Since her dad died she’s in a permanent state of, I don’t know what to call it. Confusion? Despair? She’s like a speed freak out to find a cure. She grabs at anything that might give her a moment’s peace. Heather and Joey are so confused, they forget how to tie their shoes right.”
“But the firefighting will go the way of all her other fads. She’s probably already losing interest, talking about throwing it up to train as a nurse. Or an optometrist. Or a dancer. Or a skydiver, maybe.” He sighed. “She’ll never be happy. She’s a terrible influence. Thank God I’m going to get those kids away from her before she wrecks them.”
“Kevin-” Nina put her hand on his arm.
Reading something in her expression, he shut up.
“They know about Alexandra Peck.”
Only two weeks before, during one of two panicky, weepy, middle-of-the-night phone calls to Nina, Kevin had told Nina a secret. After a big argument with Lisa, she had kicked him out of their bed and he had started sleeping with a seventeen-year-old police cadet.
In one of those programs that are nobly conceived but loaded with hazards, high school students rode around with patrol cops on evening shifts to observe, learn, and assist. Like police officers, they wore uniforms and looked like adults, but these were kids, half of them girls, while the cops they rode with one-on-one were almost all adult men.
Kevin, raised in a small Catholic New Mexico town, had married Lisa at twenty. When he met Alexandra Peck, he didn’t know what hit him. “It just happened,” he said, and the shame in his voice over the phone only magnified the banality of his words. “We rode together for three months before I touched her. I fought it for a long time, but-Ali had no compunctions. She said she had fallen in love with me, and God, how that girl came on to me. I was so lonely. Nobody cared about me but her. In the end I couldn’t resist.”
Next he would be telling her that the girl was very grown-up for her age. Nina didn’t want to hear it. “How did it end?”
“She bolted,” Kevin said, “right after I asked her to marry me.”
“How is she now?”
“I don’t know. She dropped out of the program. She lives with her parents, so I don’t feel right about calling.”
No, Nina had thought. He wouldn’t. As he talked, she thought about affirmative action, about bringing women into male-dominated professions, about human nature, about the victims of this particularly ill-conceived experiment in social engineering. Disgusted and disappointed in her client, she allowed a few cynical thoughts about the naiveté of the police-department human-services staff who had dreamed up this program, but she kept her opinions to herself.
Kevin’s confession rearranged the balance of blame for the failure of the marriage, if Nina had cared to think about that, but she was Kevin’s advocate, not his judge. Kevin had assured her during that late-night phone call he had been very careful and that no one knew, not Ali’s parents, not his chiefs, and especially not Lisa.
Up to now, the story had stayed hidden in Kevin’s file, existing only in Nina’s scribbled notes on yellow legal paper.
Now Nina put a hand on the cold granite rock and told Kevin that Alexandra Peck had been discovered.
“Of course we can object to the late notice,” she said. “But Kevin, suddenly the case is complicated. The recommendations might change.”
His latest cigarette had burned down his finger. He dropped it.
“There’s more.” Steeling herself, Nina told him her Bronco had been stolen the night before and that his file had been inside it. “It’s possible-I mean, we have to consider whether whoever took my truck read your file and somehow, for unknown reasons, informed your wife or her lawyer about the contents.”
“Wait a minute. How’d you find out they know about Ali?”
“I got a fax in my office just a short time ago.”
“You think this has something to do with your lost files?”
“I just don’t know. It’s suspicious. On the other hand, they could have known about her for some time and waited until the last minute to spring it on us.”
“But how else-” Kevin stopped. “Is she going to testify?”
“Yes. She’s been subpoenaed. She may be here today.”
“Then they knew about her yesterday, right? Before your files were gone.”
“Possibly. But it’s also possible they got her in on very short notice.”
“My God. The kids. We’ve got to stop her!”
“I will object, but if the judge decides to let her take the stand, I’m afraid we can’t,” Nina said. “All we can do is hope she’s fair, Kevin, and hope the judge can put the relationship into perspective, as part of who you are.”
“Lisa did it,” he said. “You saw her yesterday. She’s pissed at you, and believe me, she doesn’t hold back when she’s got an issue. She can’t stand to be criticized, and you really let her have it. They can’t steal my damn file and use it against me, can they?”
“I will object,” Nina said again. “It’s wrong. But I have to give you the heads-up.”
“You let them take my file from you?” The news finally reached him.
Nina said, “I don’t know who took my truck. I don’t know if they found out about Ali from my file.”
“Don’t try to defend yourself,” Kevin said. “Don’t put a spin on it. Don’t give me a song and dance. Jesus!” His mouth contorted. “I’m gonna lose the kids over this! You have to fix this!”
“Listen, Kevin. We can continue the hearing, give ourselves some time to sort this out. If they want to put Ali Peck on the stand on this notice, we have a right to prepare for it. Let’s continue the hearing. That’s my advice.”
“Continue it? For how long?”
“It depends on the judge’s calendar.”
“I waited nine months for this hearing, which is only a temporary-custody hearing anyway. It’s almost over. Today’s the last day. So you tell me. Can you keep Ali out if we continue the hearing?”
“I don’t think so,” Nina said. “The purpose of the continuance would only be to allow us to prepare for her testimony, you see?”
“She’d definitely testify?”
“We wait God knows how long and then she takes the stand anyway? Why are you suggesting this to me? Object today. Stop it.”
“I can try. But if we don’t ask for a continuance-”
“My kids are growing up! A continuance is only going to drive me crazy, you understand, Nina? Nine months I’ve waited, while Lisa jacked me around on the visits. Ali or no Ali.”
“It’s time. We should go. Can you stay calm, Kevin?” Nina didn’t feel very calm herself. Riesner’s missile had launched and now zoomed through the air toward their flimsy bunker.
N INA AND HER CLIENT entered the familiar doors of the courthouse, passed through security, and turned right, taking the stairs up, Kevin moving fast. With her heavy bag in tow, Nina had to struggle to keep up with him. Setting it down for a moment to rest her arm at the top of the stairs, she looked around, seeing no sign of a girl in the hall. She allowed herself a happy thought: Maybe we’ll luck out and Ali’ll evade process or fight it. Sometimes the lawyers kept the cases right on track, and sometimes the cases oozed in unexpected directions, along with the witnesses.
Inside the courtroom, Kevin took his place at the table beside Nina, his face set and his eyes averted from her. She smiled first at her good friend Deputy Kimura, the bailiff today, who was on the phone as usual, then nodded at Judge Milne’s clerk. Praying for the glint of a car key, she sneaked a quick look under the table. Nothing there.
Just to their right, Jeffrey Riesner took his place alongside Kevin’s wife and whispered into her ear. Lisa Cruz inclined her head toward her lawyer, listening. When he finished, she turned toward Nina and stared, holding still, all frantic activity ceased for the moment, almost frightening in her cold disgust. Eventually, she turned back to the table. She had a stiffer look today-her long hair sprayed into a twist, tiny pearl earrings, smooth white skin.
Lisa’s long-fingered hands eventually settled down on the photo of her children on the table in front of her that had kept her company throughout. Riesner finished his intermittent whispering, then got up and approached Nina. She stood to meet him, tensing her muscles to prevent herself from flinching.
Of course he noticed. Stretching to emphasize the whopping height difference between them, he plastered on a fake smile for the onlookers. “We should chat.”
Kevin excused himself to go back into the hallway momentarily for some water, leaving the two lawyers alone at Nina’s table.
“Why?” she asked.
Riesner nodded. “Outside.” Seeing her expression, he chuckled a nasty chuckle. “In full view of the glass front door of the police department. That way there’s no chance you’ll lose control. Get violent. Or something.” Although he overtly referred to an actual physical altercation they had gotten into during another case a few months earlier, the subtext was, as always, sexual.
“No,” Nina said. “I don’t think so.”
They both kept their voices low so the conversation, already bursting with tension, held an intimacy that made Nina recoil.
“Am I supposed to coax you? Don’t worry, I only eat what tastes good. You’re too sour to bite.”
“You already bite,” Nina said. She gave herself an immediate, silent tongue-lashing about not giving him the satisfaction. A cringe, a flinch, a flash of anger-he lapped up her emotional reactions like Dracula lapped blood.
The slightly upturned corner of his mouth twitched with pleasure. He had shaken her already. Success. “My client has a settlement proposal.”
“You better be serious.” Nina looked at her watch. Court convened in seven minutes. She indicated the back of the courtroom with her head. She wasn’t going to get out of Deputy Kimura’s sight this time.
Riesner followed her to the back wall and leaned against it, arms crossed. His eyes were green, the same color as fungus on the rotting stump in her backyard. “Well?” she asked.
“Mom gets sole physical custody. She’ll agree to joint legal custody. Under the circumstances, she’s being generous. Supervised visitation. He can have Christmas. She doesn’t celebrate it, so she doesn’t give a shit. And the kids go to her church.”
Sole physical custody meant the kids would live with Lisa. Kevin would have visitation rights. Joint legal custody meant Kevin would have to be consulted regarding important issues such as the kids’ educations and health.
The offer wasn’t much. Lisa couldn’t get a better deal even if she won in court. Plus Kevin had already rejected the whole idea of Lisa taking physical custody of the kids.
But Ali altered the topography of the case. Could Kevin lose even joint legal custody? Nina thought about it briefly, then decided. When in doubt, give nothing. “Too bad,” she said.
“What do you mean, too bad?”
“You weren’t serious.” She began to walk away.
“Last chance,” Riesner said. His celebratory tone stopped her. “Personally, I’d just as soon drag this thing out, rack up fees, and end by humiliating you. That would be a pleasure.”
“Why should my client consider this offer?” Nina said. “Give me one good reason.”
“Don’t you remember sweet Ali?”
“I faxed the notice in advance, as you well know.”
“Too late under the rules.”
“Just learned about her myself. Ask for a continuance if you want. Heck, let’s both make more money on this thing.”
“How did you learn about Ali Peck?”
Riesner blinked. “Such an attractive young lady. Such a young, young lady.”
“If you don’t answer my question right now, this discussion is over.”
An innocent look. “As I will be happy to tell the judge, I received a call about six this morning at my home.”
Nina steeled herself and asked, “Who called you?”
“Ali Peck, stricken by a guilty conscience?”
“I don’t believe you,” Nina said. “I’m going to object.”
“Of course you will. I told my client you would.”
Nina didn’t know if Riesner already knew her files had been stolen and she recognized her need to tread extremely carefully. Just keeping her face straight stressed her out at the moment. “Where is she?”
“Oh, she’s here somewhere, trailing her subpoena, rarin’ to go.”
“If she came forward, why is she under subpoena?”
“I don’t have time right now to get into all that. Suffice it to say that Lisa now knows all about her husband’s adultery. Suffice it to say that she’s not taking it well.”
Adultery. The word recalled red letters, pulpit-thumping, and that old-time religion. Nina tried for a noncommittal expression.
“Cruz folds. He pays my fees,” Riesner said, moving away from the wall and putting an open hand out as if making a generous gesture. “He can even have a payment plan.”
Nina said through gritted teeth, “I’ll speak with him.”
“Do that.” He smiled at her, one hand in his pocket, projecting suave. “Save the little girl from the witness stand and all those sordid details about that big bad cradle-robbing client of yours.”
“Is that it?” Nina said. She looked at the clock on the wall.
“He looks chipper today,” Riesner said. Again he laughed. “He puts on a good front. Maybe that’ll make it easy for him to do the smart thing.”
“Don’t concern yourself with my client.”
“Now, there’s some damn good advice.”
Back at the table, in a hurry now, she leaned down to give Kevin a brief rundown of the conversation. He fixated on one thing. “Where’s Ali?” He looked around the court.
“Probably waiting outside by now. Riesner’s keeping her out of sight until the last second so we can’t talk to her.”
He ran a hand across the fuzz on his skull. “She worried that it might come out more than I did. I’d hate for her to go through this. Oh, man.”
“Kevin, joint legal custody gives you a lot of say, and I would make sure the visitation was generous. But it’s not the result we wanted.”
“I’m sick that this is going to happen, but I’m not going to give up. Like you said. Maybe the judge can see past Ali. I have to get Heather and Joey away from Lisa.” He shook his head. “No, we have to win. We have to fight.”
“Of course the choice is yours.”
He turned to look at Lisa and Riesner, then looked back at Nina. “I’m the better parent.”
“We still have a strong argument,” Nina said. “We’ll work around Ali. We have to.”
“Good. Thanks for not telling me to give up.” Nina felt a pang. He sure shouldn’t be thanking her when she might be part of his problem.
Nina looked over at Riesner and gave her head a sharp negative shake. He shrugged and bent to Lisa’s ear.
They all stood while Judge Milne entered the room and took his seat. Judge Milne, a tall, imposing man, had a deep golf tan and an untroubled brow. He trusted himself, that was his secret. He made his decisions and then never thought about them again. Luckily, if you appealed to his pragmatic side, his judgment was pretty good.
And luckily, he seemed to have a soft spot for Nina. She played to that. There were limits to high-mindedness.
After the preliminaries, Riesner, straightening an imaginary bend in his faultless tie, stood at his table.
“I would like to call a final witness,” he said.
“Objection, Your Honor.” Nina leafed through the pitifully small pile of papers relating to the case just to give herself another second to construct her reaction to this unsurprising news. “There are no further witnesses on his list, Judge. It’s improper and should not be allowed.”
“I see that,” Judge Milne said. “What’s going on here?”
“Your Honor, I have provided the court with a copy of a supplement to the witness list, duly faxed to counsel as soon as the witness was discovered and filed this morning. I just received some information about Miss Reilly’s client that has bearing on his fitness as a parent. I apologize that I was unable to give reasonable notice to his attorney, but this information came to me through a third party early this morning. I took Miss Reilly aside just before court and advised her again of the circumstances, so I hope we aren’t going to have a show of disingenuous surprise.”
“Inadequate notice, Your Honor.”
Judge Milne found the supplemental document. “Oh, here it is. A supplemental witness. Affidavit in support thereof. Ms. Reilly. You are requesting a continuance?”
Kevin shook his head. No.
Credit the judge for giving her a full ten minutes to argue her objection for the record. She realized from his expression almost from the beginning that he would allow Peck to testify. Finally he raised a hand to stop her. “I’ll continue it if you need additional time, Counsel. Otherwise, we’ll proceed.”
Nina sat down, already moving her mind on to the testimony. No sense letting this lost skirmish knock her off-balance. Judges were notoriously lenient about allowing evidence when it came to custody hearings. There was no jury to confuse and they wanted as much information as possible.
As Riesner escorted a young woman into the courtroom, Kevin no longer looked the confident father. He murmured something unpleasant and started to get up. Nina clamped a hand on his shoulder and shoved until he sat. “Settle down,” she whispered.
“I can’t just sit here and let them screw me!”
“Shh,” Nina said.
The buff-looking girl clumped up to the stand in jeans and hiking boots, her pink cheeks complemented by shiny black hair. Kevin clearly favored athletic women, Nina thought, as Ali swore to tell the truth. Riesner got right to it, rushing through the boring preliminaries and dallying in the salacious details.
An older version of the girl sat in the back of the courtroom, wincing. Ali’s mother.
“We went together for about three months,” Ali said in answer to a question.
“How often did you engage in sexual relations?”
She lowered her head. “A few times a week.”
“And you were seventeen at the time.”
“Not even old enough to vote or drink a glass of wine, were you?”
“Objection,” Nina said. “She was seventeen. We get it.”
“And where did you have these sexual relations?” Riesner asked, steepling his hands on the table.
“Different places.” Her voice had a note of anger in it. Resentment at being hauled over here today? “Sometimes on a blanket in the woods.”
“In his car.”
“His patrol car?”
“No, his regular car. Never in the patrol car. We had a rule.”
She flushed a deeper red and didn’t answer.
“Did you ever have sex with Mr. Cruz at his home?”
Although Kevin seemed ready to explode, Nina put her hand on his arm and sat calmly. No point in objecting. Riesner would insist on this one and the judge would allow it.
“Please tell the court how that came to happen.”
“We had finished for the day.”
“You mean, the youth cadet program?” he asked, with the emphasis on youth.
“Right. We were done for the day. We stopped at his house on the way to my house and, uh, we got carried away.”
“Where did you get carried away?”
“Uh, in their bed?”
“‘In their bed.’ ”
“Your Honor,” Nina started.
“We can hear, Mr. Riesner. No need to repeat,” said the judge.
“And where were the children?”
“Where do you think they were, asshole?” Kevin whispered. “Standing there watching?”
“I think they were gone somewhere. Yes, they weren’t there. We just got carried away. Kevin wouldn’t have-Kevin kept me away from his kids. I never met them.”
“Were there any other such incidents?”
“You mean did we do it in his house again?”
“No. We didn’t. Except kissing once out front on the porch.”
“Where were the children that time?”
“Oh. They were supposed to be asleep but that one kid, the boy, he woke up. Kevin had to put him back to bed.”
Kevin jabbered into Nina’s ear. “Joey never saw anything, I swear it, Nina. We had no privacy-things got out of hand, but we were so careful. The door, that one time at our house, it was locked and the kids weren’t even home. I would never harm my kids, never expose them to anything like that.”
When Nina’s chance came to cross-examine the girl, she took only enough time to clarify the issues. The girl had entered into the relationship willingly and had, in fact, initiated it. The Cruz marriage had already broken down. Kevin Cruz had always shielded his kids from knowing anything about Ali. Nina kept her questions short. The longer she stayed up there, the worse things would be for Kevin.
Although Kevin tried to talk her into it, she decided not to put him back on the stand. Refuting the details of Ali’s statements might work just to etch sordid details of the relationship into the judge’s mind. And anything Kevin said now might be used against him in the further complications that were sure to develop due to Ali’s age. She had to protect him from incriminating himself.
Besides, what could Kevin say in his own defense?
Riesner made a powerful closing argument, holding forth on the virtues of Lisa Cruz, pooh-poohing the doctor’s report on her ongoing depression except to say that she was “striding toward a healthy future with her children.” He spoke glowingly of his client with zeal and warmth Nina knew was affected but seemed absolutely real. Now that he had Nina back where he wanted her, in the weaker position, he seemed assured and smooth, his old self.
“Your Honor,” he continued, “there’s been some effort on the part of the respondent to use religion as a factor in this case. Doctrines that have to do with the celebration of Christmas and birthdays or participation in voting or military service have been held to be outside the realm of religious views that could be considered as a danger to a child’s mental or physical health when it comes to deciding custody in a divorce proceeding.”
“I have your citations, Mr. Riesner,” said Judge Milne.
“Mrs. Cruz has stated that she does not know what she would decide in the sad event that a blood transfusion was recommended for one of the children but that she would be open to the input of medical professionals in addition to the opinion of Mr. Cruz. Her community activities as a firefighter and fund-raiser for good causes should be seen not as a distraction from her mothering, but as a shining example to her children, and must be considered in the light of her overall excellence as caretaker to these precious children. She’s a superior mom and commendable human being, that is clear.
“Mr. Cruz, on the other hand, with his spotty work history and reprehensible immorality, brought his adulterous behavior right into his home. The best interests of these little children are to remain with their primary caregiver. Not to cast this as a morality play, Your Honor, but consider the character of the players. Consider Mr. Cruz. Moral turpitude, Your Honor. Sexual misconduct. A crime. Mr. Cruz may end up in jail, jobless. He committed statutory rape. I will of course be compelled to turn this information over to the district attorney’s office.”
She started her own list, a list of Kevin Cruz’s practical virtues. “A careful review of the testimony given in this case shows that Kevin Cruz would make the better custodian of his two minor children.
“Lisa Cruz’s religious activities, while admirable, are extremely time consuming. To make up for the time she spends away from home looking for converts, she told the court she would take her children along with her door-to-door. We have previous testimony that this activity, while not necessarily harmful in itself, can in time generate painful conflicts between her and the children.”
At this point, she skidded hard into the mental-health problems suffered by Lisa Cruz, recapitulating the testimony of Lisa’s own doctor, hammering home his words “chronic depression,” and reminding the judge that her own doctor said Lisa Cruz’s chronic condition was likely to come and go for the foreseeable future and could be considered a lifelong disability.
“Now, as to Ali Peck. Mr. Cruz was in fact worrying about his children and did keep her away from them, as she testified. The point is, his children were not affected in any way by this affair. His marriage was in trouble. He was lonely. He made a mistake. What’s important, Your Honor, is that this affair lasted only a short time and is long over. A single misstep should not in any way overshadow the mediator’s recommendation and finding that overall Mr. Cruz is better suited to have physical custody.”
After she sat down, she caught her breath and, by chance, caught another unsettling glare from Lisa Cruz. After Lisa turned away, Nina scrutinized Judge Milne, trying to read him.
The judge was looking at Ali, who had taken a seat in the back row, probably picturing sweaty embraces observed by little kids. Nina almost saw the decision forming like a cloud over his face. He turned back to his notes. He had decided that an excess of spiritual seeking was better than an excess of lust.
They had failed. Ali, the trim little cadet, had dispatched Kevin directly into the lonely hell reserved for loving fathers without custody.
Okay, that wasn’t fair. Kevin had put himself there.
Her client had also spent the past few minutes studying the judge. One glimpse of his white, balled knuckles was enough to tell Nina he knew what she knew. After court adjourned, he stood in the doorway shaking, curling and uncurling his fists, apparently waiting to punch somebody out. Nina nudged him through the door safely, but once they got outside he ran after Lisa, who was walking with swift steps toward the parking lot.
“Wait right there. I want to talk to you,” he said.
Nina ran up behind him. “Kevin, no.”
“Leave me alone, Kev,” Lisa said. “I’m warning you. Stay away from me.”
“You stole my file, didn’t you? You talk ethics night and day, but you know what? I know the real you under that sanctimonious bullshit. You’d do anything to keep Heather and Joey. You’d lie, cheat, steal-anything. But now hear this. I won’t let you have those kids.”
“You have no choice, do you? Just had to have your little girlfriend. You cheated on me, and you cheat your kids, behaving that way, like an animal. You have nerve even talking to me today.”
Her composure pushed Kevin right over the edge into the abyss of his fury. “Watch your back, Lisa!” he yelled, shaking a fist at her. “Those kids are mine!”
Nina held his arm. “Don’t touch her. Please don’t,” she said.
“Don’t threaten me, you loser,” Lisa said. “I’m not afraid of you or your dipshit lawyer. I’m the one in control now. And you’ll be living with that for the rest of your days.”
Kevin looked at his fist, put his hands at his sides.
Lisa turned to Nina. “As for you? I’m not surprised you crawled out of the woodwork, that’s bound to happen with vermin. Maybe it’s a good thing. I finally can tell you exactly what I think of you. You disgust me. You’re a disgrace as a human being. Why am I not surprised you get your jollies out of hurting another mother?” With that parting shot, she pulled open the door to her car and drove away.
“T HREE FILES,” SANDY said back at the office. “Our trickiest cases.”
Five P.M. The end of the day had arrived. Unlike every other day, when they would leave the door unlocked until they actually left, this Friday they had locked the door promptly and turned on the voice mail. The public business of this calamitous day had ended.
Nina had already reviewed Kevin’s hearing and its probable outcome with Sandy, who had reacted with initial restraint at the news that Nina had probably lost. Now Nina stood beside Sandy’s computer and pointed to a sheet of lined yellow paper. “These weren’t complete files, so I’ve tried to outline what I know was there in some detail over here.”
“What’s this?” Sandy said, her beringed finger hovering over a small dark blob on the sheet.
“Jelly,” said Nina promptly.
“Is not. You cried.”
“I never. But I know I shouldn’t worry so much. My files are as dry as dead beetles to anyone but another lawyer. They’re in a trash can somewhere, dumped by the delinquent who stole my car. The courthouse is always swarming with criminal defendants. If you tried to think of the worst place to drop your car keys, try the place where car thieves spend half their lives.”
“Whoo-wee.” Sandy examined the list.
“The client-intake notes are my biggest concern. People are forthright with me, and of course, like a good schoolgirl, I write it all down. And as I’m listening, I’m scribbling my thoughts and impressions.”
“Not to mention doodling all over the page. Let’s start with Kevin Cruz.”
“The secret’s out. Ali Peck testified. The result isn’t going to be pretty.”
“Quite a coincidence, her showing up at the last minute. Her name’s in the missing file.”
“I know. They might have found Ali without the file, but the time frame-”
“Anything we can do?” Sandy asked.
“Not about the hearing. It’s too late to do anything about that,” Nina said.
“That man’s gonna win,” Sandy said, referring to Riesner. “And we were five and O!”
“I wasn’t keeping score. This isn’t about-”
“You can bet he was.”
Nina stuck to the point. “Kevin was having a relationship with a young girl. Milne isn’t a prude, but, boy, she looked young up there.”
“Well, don’t sound so guilty. He slept with her, not you, for Pete’s sake,” Sandy said. “How’d they say they found out about her, anyway?”
“In court this morning, Riesner said he got a tip at home early this morning. Implied she called him.”
Sandy frowned. “He claims he just found out about her but it’s my policy never to believe a word he says. Maybe he knew months ago and sprang it on you. However. Maybe he did get a phone call. From a car thief.”
“Exactly what I’m afraid of.” Nina noted with clinical interest that her throat seemed to be closing up. She went over to a client chair and sat down and knew she was finished for the day. Time to go home.
“Wish knows Kevin. Says he’s seen him around the community college. Says Kevin comes down hard on the druggies.” Sandy’s son, Wish Whitefeather, helped around the office, studied criminology at Lake Tahoe Community College, and now drove Paul’s old van. He idolized Paul, and made a good sidekick when Paul needed help on his Tahoe work for Nina. “So. Moving right along. Number two-the arson case-the Hmong. The Vang family.”
Nina went to the window. The purple mountains’ majesty didn’t soothe her as much as usual. A Sunfish with its tricolored sail hoisted high glided into view on silver water toward the Tahoe Keys Marina in the distance. False tranquility, Nina thought. Too beautiful to be true. She remembered someone telling her once there might be bodies lingering on the bottom of Lake Tahoe, perfectly preserved in the melted snow.
She said, her back to Sandy, “The Hmong. Nobody, but nobody, knows about the insurance claim I filed.”
“It’s a pitiful story. What was the worst thing in the file?”
“Kao Vang’s address. He didn’t want to give it to me but I insisted. Kao said, he warned me, that his family would be in danger if the news got out that he might recover a settlement from the fire. People might get angry.”
“Angry enough to do what?”
“I don’t know. The Vangs won’t talk about it.”
“What should we do?”
“I don’t know.”
Nina’s voice must have told her assistant to leave things at that, because the usually exhaustively thorough Sandy moved briskly forward. She scribbled a note in pencil, then went back to the list. “Brandy Taylor and Angel Guillaume.”
“Witnesses to a murder. Deeply buried, until I wrote it all down for our thief. I have to get Brandy and Angel to the district attorney and get them protected. How I hate unknown quantities. Those two are about as unpredictable as my cooking, especially the younger one, Brandy. She got dragged here by Angel in the first place. They could get hurt, Sandy. My intake notes-I listed Angel’s address here in Tahoe, and maybe even Brandy’s in Palo Alto. Along with the whole story they told me.”
“Yeah, it’s bad. I read your notes while I was making up the file.”
“Anyway. The weekend is starting. I’m taking a run down to the Monterey Peninsula tomorrow morning, and I plan to ask Paul to come up here as soon as he can next week.”
“Wish could help out in the afternoons.”
“We could use his help. Could he come in next week?”
“You kidding? He’ll make time.”
Nina already felt better.
“The A-Team,” Sandy said. “Back together again. Last time was, I think, the Nikki Zack case.”
“You know, Sandy,” Nina said, “believe it or not, I saw these cases as a symbol of our success. We were helping ordinary people in the worst trouble of their lives who heard such good things about our work, they trusted us to do a good job.” She found herself unable to continue with the thought. “Let’s finish here quickly and go home. I have to see everyone on Monday.”
“Maybe you should wait longer.”
“I can’t. I’m not feeling good about even taking the weekend. I have an ethical duty to tell these clients promptly that there’s been a possible breach of confidentiality. Monday’s as late as I can wait. If the files turn up, great. Maybe the police will find the car with the files intact. But I have to give myself the weekend. I have to think and talk to Paul, and the insurance company. And-” She stopped.
“Two days to pray.”
Sandy said, “Things were rolling along so great. For a minute there we had so many clients we almost had the money for bigger offices. If this gets out, we’ll be lucky to keep the fig in Miracle-Gro.” They both looked over at the plump-leafed tree, which, in spite of the misfortune of living in a law office, thrived in its sunny corner. “Look. Let’s get some perspective here. Some skunk is banging around in your Bronco, having a whee of a time. He has zero interest in a briefcase full of papers lying on the floor in the backseat under his empty beer bottles.”
“The Bronco bunged up and the papers ignored-that would be the ideal outcome, and I never thought I would feel so casual about my truck. I love my truck.”
“You pay that legal-malpractice-insurance bill I put on your desk a couple of weeks ago?”
“Sent it out last Thursday.”
“Good.” She punched her lip with a pencil, thinking. “So we went down today.”
“It’s not a football game, Sandy. Like I said.”
“He makes a lot of money.”
“Yeah, he does.” Nina had had the distinct displeasure of visiting Riesner’s leather-swaddled, mahogany-bedecked offices a few times in the past.
“I’ll tell you something about him and money. He’s also a cheapskate. When I used to work there, he gave the most pathetic Christmas presents. Instead of bonuses. Stuff he makes down in the basement at his house. Spice racks, lazy Susans, wood bowls.” She made an impolite sound. “We’d have to admire his talent. What we would have really admired was a big gift certificate from Macy’s. His ego is the size of Cave Rock. I still have one of his bowls. The dog admires it when he drinks his water. Yeah, he’s a prick, no way around it.”
“Sandy, you’re going to have to find another description for Riesner. I find that term objectionable.”
“You offended? You never said that before.”
“I’m not offended. It’s just objectionable.”
“I’m going to make a couple of quick calls before I go.” Nina opened the door to the inner office and went in, leaving the door open.
After a few minutes, Sandy called, “So what’s your objection? Why’s it objectionable?”
“It’s not offensive enough,” Nina said, and was rewarded by a dusty chuckle from the outer office.
Sandy said, “I’ll call Angel Guillaume tomorrow morning to set up the appointment. How do I get hold of Brandy Taylor?”
“I think she’s still at her sister’s.”
“And Kao Vang?”
“Call his friend Dr. Mai. He gave me his phone number in Fresno.”
“If it’s okay with you, I gotta go right now. Joe and I are on the committee to organize a powwow down by the lake two weeks from now. So far, lots of discussion and nothing getting done.”
“Sounds like my life. Go get ’em, Sandy.”
“Yeah, we’ll ruffle some feathers tonight. Don’t forget to lock up. And.”
As soon as she heard the outer door slam, Nina punched in the number of her malpractice insurer, Lawyer’s Fidelity. No answer. The company had gone home for the weekend. She should have called earlier.
She called the Lake Tahoe Police Department and asked for Officer Scholl or Matthias. The officer on duty took her message and told her the Bronco hadn’t been found yet.
She called Paul.
“Van Wagoner Investigations.”
“Hi!” She always forgot his voice, so warm and full of life.
“Paul, I changed my mind. I have a big problem up here I need to discuss with you. And I miss you. I can be there about four tomorrow. Okay?”
“Sure. I was just on my way out the door. Big football game tonight at Carmel High School. Can you tell me what’s up right now? Are you okay?”
“I’m okay. It’ll wait until tomorrow.”
But Paul made her give him the outline, and from the long silence on the end of the phone when she finished she knew he, too, was grappling with what to say.
“You go on,” she said. “You’ll miss the game. And I have to get home.”
“Wait, Nina. Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to call an old buddy of mine who happens to be certified to practice in the state-bar court. All he does is lawyer-discipline cases. He can help us sort this out.”
From the new relief she felt, Nina knew he was on the right track. She needed information. “That sounds great. But is this attorney good? You know this person well?”
“He’s been around. Left private practice two years ago and does this exclusively now. Lives in SF and loves to come down to the Monterey Peninsula. Big talker, big ego, but you see plenty of that in your business.”
“What’s his name?”
“Let me call and see if he’s available first. Meanwhile, pack light. My big plan for the evening won’t involve dinner clothes.”
Nina’s bed did not offer its usual comforts that night. Instead of resting, she journeyed bleakly through times she had screwed up or swerved into the windy side of the law. Green sunglasses-two years ago, she had hidden this evidence of one client’s presence at a crime scene. Hypnosis-she had assured another client it would remain private. She had been wrong and Misty Patterson had almost been convicted of murder because of it. Bob’s No Fear cap, recognized by her at another crime scene-she had never told the police about that. And then there were the pieces of a dead man out there buried under the pine trees of Tahoe-a murder had been committed to protect her and Bob.
She had thought of herself as a good lawyer, good enough to look for the spirit behind the letter of the law sometimes, looking for the real rule that ought to govern the situation, trying to be brave about applying it.
She had been accused of recklessness many times, but she had always managed to pull the right result out of the situation before. Sometimes, she had to admit, she had taken risks that were more suitable to a horse track than a law practice. All in the service of the clients, she told herself.
Last night? She hadn’t even identified the risk in advance. She had been careless and lazy.
How hard would the clients get hit?
How hard would she get hit? For the first time, she let her most private, selfish fears loose, and the thought came:
Fuck! I could get disbarred!
And then what would I be?
She opened a bleary eye to the green clock light at 2:30 A.M., then rolled and tumbled until dawn in the twisted sheets. Gut-wrenching self-doubt, the whole night long.
“Y OUR BAG?” PAUL said, peering into the backseat. He must have been watching for her, because he had appeared the moment her car pulled up. Paul lived in a neighborhood called Carmel Heights at the top of the hill high above the ocean. Dry fir trees around his townhouse condo whistled and creaked in a hot wind. Behind them lay the hills that led to Carmel Valley a dozen miles inland from the central-coast community of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Beyond the trees of his parking area, the Pacific twinkled in the sun. Even in the shade the air felt heavy with heat.
“This is it.” She shouldered a small duffel. She had stuffed it with her weekend needs early in the morning: a toothbrush, a nightie, swimsuit, and a few other items, imagining herself as Grace Kelly in Rear Window, reaching into her minuscule designer case to pull out a fluffy negligee, making Jimmy Stewart’s eyes bulge. She unzipped a corner and showed him a bit of transparent chiffon.
His eyes didn’t exactly bulge, although he gave her a squeeze that made her jump. “You won’t even get a chance to put it on,” he promised.
“No, no, I insist that you tear it off me.” Satisfied, she stuffed her nightie back into the bag. “Is your friend coming?”
“We’re driving down to Big Sur with him for lunch tomorrow.”
Inside, he pulled the door shut behind her and did exactly what she had imagined he might do during the long drive from the mountains to the ocean, lifting her off her feet until their faces matched, kissing her with the passion she found so moving.
She licked his neck, lounging in the spot where his hair curled slightly, and ran her hand down the dip in his back as far down as she could reach. They swayed in the doorway for some time before he set her gently down.
“I have a bottle of Veuve Clicquot in the fridge. Do you know that you can take the cork out of that thing and let it sit all night and the next day it’s still fizzy? It’s a wonder. Let’s get started. Even if it is four in the afternoon.”
“I’m hot. Long drive.”
“The towels are clean in there.”
She went into the bathroom, stripped down, and jumped into the shower. Paul’s decor followed his stated principle about himself: What you see is what you get. Simple and direct with a touch of whimsy in the forties’ posters of guns and molls, the room had white walls, a black-and-white-tiled floor, and white towels.
She heard Paul pop the cork off the balcony deck. He had put on the Michael Hutchence CD they both liked and was humming along. He was happy to see her. The evening would seem to stretch on forever, and that was how she wanted it: dinner, drinks, talk, lovemaking, a swim in the condo pool, late night on the balcony, his arms around her as she fell asleep.
She needed this night away from everything. Just this one night, she told herself. So it always went with Paul. “You’re already married,” he would tell her. “To your briefcase.”
As she hung the damp towel neatly on its rack, she admitted something to herself: Their relationship had changed forever on the day, just a short time before, that she realized that Paul had saved her life by killing a man who was trying to kill her. She trusted him now in ways she didn’t trust anyone else, even her brother and father. In the face of his extraordinary act, she had surrendered much of her resistance to him. She felt bound to him in some primitive way that she had better sort out fast. Coming to him now, when she was so vulnerable, felt natural and right.
She needed him. Before, he had needed her. Her need for his solidity, his loyalty, was beginning to overwhelm all those other conflicts between them.
This feeling is new, she thought to herself, looking in the mirror. Was weakness driving her so urgently to him now?
Did it matter?
Sun poured through the window. She looked at the black teddy. It wouldn’t do. The 1950s were dead, R.I.P. Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart, but viva the new century! She would at least skip the underwear.
Pulling her shorts and tank top out of her duffel, she dressed swiftly, giving one final glance to the woman in the mirror, the physical one that seldom communicated with the cyborg of the office, the one with nipples obvious under the thin material of her top, the one with tangled brown hair and bare feet. This woman could be irresponsible without dire consequences because she knew it-Paul would never hurt her. She could relax into a blur of sex and pleasure with him, if just for tonight, sleep dreamlessly in his arms, and store up power for Monday.
Out on the deck, Paul grilled teriyaki tuna and steamed asparagus with butter. She fed the blue jays, letting them do the chattering. They ate at a patio table covered with a red cloth, the candle flame flickering in the breeze. As the sun moved west across the ocean and the moon revealed herself, splendid and yellow, Nina ended up on Paul’s lap. They moved right along into the bedroom and Paul finally revealed the rest of his big plan.
As she walked toward the living room late on Sunday morning, she heard the low rumbling of masculine voices. His lawyer friend must have arrived. The man stood up when she came in and took a step toward her, his hand coming up and then hanging in the air, along with his mouth.
She stopped, her mouth frozen in the polite smile.
“Oh, no. No, Paul,” she said.
“What’s she doing here?” her ex-husband, Jack McIntyre, said at exactly the same time.
They both turned to Paul, who sprawled in his chair, long hairy legs stretching out from his khaki shorts. “You both would have said no. You’ll both thank me later. Get you something, Nina?” he said.
“I’ll get it,” she said, retreating into the kitchen, trying to figure out what in the world she felt, seeing Jack again. Shock, definitely. They hadn’t met since before their divorce, not since the day Jack walked out on her and their place in Bernal Heights.
She walked slowly back out, holding a soda. Apparently not a word had been spoken. Jack held a beer to his mouth and appeared to be draining it. Beer on Sunday morning. That was new.
“Well,” Paul said. “Ha, ha. Jack, Nina. Nina, Jack.”
“Hello, Nina,” Jack said. He raised his eyebrows, shrugged, smiled slightly. “Believe me, although I should have suspected he was up to something, I didn’t.”
“Hello.” She sat down on the couch, keeping her legs together, and crossed her arms. “What’re you doing here?”
“I was invited,” Jack said. “It’s been a couple of years now, hasn’t it? Amazing. I meant to call Bob more often.”
“He’s been busy. Like you, I’m sure.”
“You always did fit into a T-shirt just right,” Jack said.
Nina crossed her arms.
Jack broke into a broad smile. “Paul, you old fox.”
“Don’t get the wrong idea, buddy. This is business,” Paul said.
Jack ignored him. He did look fine, if pale from the years in high-rise San Francisco and away from the beaches. Shorter than Paul, he was brawny, although leaner than he looked, something you only saw when he took his shirt off. He had reminded her of a teddy bear when they met, a hairy Big Sur guy who brooked no shit but had a ready smile and a kind word for everyone.
Nina was remembering her last phone conversation with Jack. He had urged her to hurry up and sign the papers so he could marry his girlfriend. She had reacted, well, with a certain lack of gentility. The old anger hadn’t had time to rise up yet and all she felt was nervous and curious. She looked again at Paul, who cleared his throat, stalling, as if waiting to see how she would react.
“He’s the state bar defense lawyer?”
“I hear he’s good,” Paul said. “Of course, I hear that from him.”
Jack said, “Ah ha. The pieces begin to come together.”
Odd, to be in a room with two men she had slept with. She had no urge to compare them, then suddenly found herself doing exactly that. Apples and oranges, she thought. Onions and leeks. Cucumbers and bananas. She giggled. Nerves.
“What’s so funny?” Jack asked.
“I haven’t even started my song and dance yet, and you’re smiling.” He turned to Paul. “Did you tell her about Eva? Is that why she’s smiling?”
“Tell me what?”
“She dumped my ass,” Jack said. “Two months ago.” He looked hurt when he said it.
“Really,” Nina said.
“I didn’t even see it coming. She moved out and served me the next day.”
“She does move fast,” Nina said. Jack’s new wife had also been the attorney who represented Jack in his divorce from Nina.
“Go ahead. Tell me I deserved it.” After a pause pregnant with Nina’s silence, Jack said, “Well. You get a gold star for restraint. Here I am, battered and blue. So, Paul, you going to tell me what’s up?”
Paul got up. “Let’s save that until we’re on the deck at Nepenthe. It’s a forty-five-minute drive and I’m already hungry.”
Jack and Nina continued to sneak looks at each other. She decided he was as intense and brash as ever but he had a new aspect today. He looked wounded, maybe. Chastened.
Improved. Definitely improved.
“Okay,” Jack said. “Sure.”
They took Jack’s green Chrysler Sebring, top down. Paul sat in the rear seat, his legs digging into Nina’s back. The fog had drifted out to sea around the Highlands Inn and the twisting road revealed glimpses of deep blue sea on their right around every turn. Vacationers blew past them as Jack stuck to the speed limit. When the houses grew sparse, the road hugged a cliff that stretched high above them on their left and down a thousand feet, to the crashing surf far below.
“Awesome!” Jack shouted over the noise of the engine. “I always forget.”
As they crossed the Bixby Creek Bridge, Paul leaned forward to touch Nina’s shoulder, because she had a very bad memory of that place that had to do with her mother’s death many years before. They swerved past the Point Sur Lighthouse, where the navy was on the lookout for terrorists these days. The world had changed since Nina’s childhood, when VW vans full of bell-bottomed kids had traveled this beautiful road.
At the thick redwood forests of Pfeiffer Big Sur they dipped into shadow. Jack told them about how his wife had taken their hamster with her and how he had seriously considered filing for custody. Solemnly, he laid out his legal strategy, even citing some cases, probably invented but nevertheless credible and detailed. Some people in trouble turned to counseling; Jack turned to storytelling. His disasters always evolved into deadpan comedy skits, which was his way of controlling and reshaping his psychic traumas.
They parked in the driveway at the foot of the concrete staircase that led to the Phoenix Shop and Nepenthe. “Haven’t been here in years,” Jack said. “Lots of good times here. Remember that Halloween party in, let’s see, I forget the year. Who was it wore the pumpkin head? Probably Paul.”
Paul took Nina’s arm as they went up. They both puffed, but the hike was worth the wait because Nepenthe possessed a spectacular view. Under the enormous, shifting sky, miles and miles of ragged cliffs collided with the ocean.
“There are seven wonders, but are there seven wonderful views?” Jack said as they arrived at the top. “There ought to be. Put this one at number one.”
They sat on the outside deck and ordered burgers and margaritas. Paul and Jack had fallen into the old banter Nina remembered from years ago when she had first met them. She had been a law student clerking at Jack’s firm in Carmel, and Paul-incredible! Paul had still been a cop. Bob was a toddler then. Her mother was alive.
So much had happened since, too much too fast. Another marriage, another loss…
“I was sorry to hear about your husband, Nina. What a sad way to die. How terrible for you and Bob.”
Jack had wormed his way into her heart, just like old times. She never knew what to say. “Thank you.”
“How’s the law practice up there in the mountains? I look east sometimes outside my window on the thirtieth floor in the Financial District and I think of you in your cozy town and I think, you finally figured it all out-”
Nina gave a short laugh. “Right.”
“She needs to talk to you professionally,” Paul said. “So straighten up. Go ahead, Nina, dive in.”
“I’m still thinking about it,” Nina said. “Jack, are you really a certified specialist in state bar matters?”
“At your service, fair lady,” Jack said. He stood up suddenly and pretended to sweep a cap off his head and bowed. “I’ve been hoping Paul dragged me down here just to get us talking again, actually.”
“I didn’t even think about that,” Paul said. “Actually.” He put his hand over Nina’s.
“So you guys are lovers?” Jack said, Jack-style, no pussyfooting around. “She’s with you?”
Paul pulled Nina close. Jack’s eyes flickered.
She felt vaguely like a sack of flour being weighed by two merchants. “Paul and I aren’t your business,” she said.
“Maybe. Still, I find myself absorbed by the implications, and just a little aggravated. Paul, you could have said something. I’ve talked to you on the phone many times. We went climbing this summer at Pinnacles. We hit Vegas last month. You never once mentioned Nina.”
“No time like the present.”
“Well, well, well,” Jack said. “Coffee for me,” he told the waitress. “Nina? Anything?”
“I’ll have the chocolate mousse,” Nina said.
“That’s right. Chocolate in times of stress. I remember that. You have need of my services, I take it,” he said. “I’m sorry to hear it. That’s the first thing I always tell my clients. I also tell them it’s inevitable. Happens to every one of us sooner or later. Complaint from a client. Ceiling caving in. It’s the grand old practice of law these days.”
“I’m looking for some advice. Some information. About malpractice,” Nina said.
“Okay,” Jack said. He folded his hands. “You get a complaint against you? Malpractice?”
“‘Not yet.’ A wallop awaits behind those two little words. What happened?”
Nina told him. She didn’t spare herself, telling about the missing key, her stolen truck, her sleepiness, the fact that she often brought files home. Jack shook his head and Paul narrowed his eyes. Then she got to the worst part.
She talked about Jeff Riesner’s new witness in the Cruz case and her fear that Kevin’s file had been read. “These particular files-they are seriously confidential. The ones where-the clients could suffer severe harm if the files are read by the wrong people. That may already have happened in the Cruz case. I don’t know for sure.”
“Hard luck,” Jack said. Putting his hands behind his head, he expelled a long breath.
“Well?” Nina said.
“You want to know, are you going to get into trouble with the California State Bar? You could get sued, too, in a civil action, but let’s put that aside right now. It’s your license you’re worried about right now, not your fortune. Or have you got a fortune these days?”
“I’m paying the bills. I put a down payment on the cabin where Bob and I live. I’m not rich.”
“You talked to your malpractice insurer?”
“Couldn’t reach them. Monday.”
“Talked to the clients?”
“Not in the other two cases. Monday.”
“Current status of the police investigation?”
“I called this morning before I even got out of bed. No Bronco, no files, no progress. They’re already tired of hearing from me, and I wasn’t popular before.”
“Hmm. First. Paul did right, coming to me. I do this stuff all day long.”
“Thanks for listening.”
“No problem. Pick up the tab and you can write the whole dinner off. It’s a legal consult now. Hire me.”
“Okay, I’m hired. Pay to be worked out later. This is now an unassailably privileged conversation.”
“What about Paul?” Nina said. “He’s not a lawyer.”
“You’re not here, buddy. Never forget that.”
“Okay. Second thing. I have never heard of anybody getting disbarred for losing some files, for a single act of carelessness. You have to work at it to get disbarred. A pattern of dipping into the trust funds, sure. Conviction of a felony. Taking off, address unknown, with the retainers and leaving the clients twisting in the wind. Mostly it’s money stuff.”
“There was-a complaint some time back.”
“Jeffrey Riesner got annoyed with how I was handling a case. The bar slapped me on the wrist, verbally, of course.”
“No harm done, then. Tell you a big secret.” He leaned his head close to Nina’s. “They’ll reinstate just about anybody after a few years. There’s no such thing as disbarment for life. You can always lay low and do community work and try again later. But I’m getting ahead of myself.”
“I can’t imagine that happening to me. I’ve been a lawyer for years, Jack, and for that privilege I slaved for four years in night law school, working days at Klaus’s firm. It’s all I know and all I ever wanted.” There was a catch in her throat.
“So you’ve never heard of a disbarment for lost files,” Paul said, prodding him.
“I’ll tell you what concerns me. The state bar prioritizes, you know. They get more complaints from the public than they could ever start to handle. So they look at the complaint, and the main thing they want to know in almost every case where it isn’t just summary disbarment, where you killed your wife and you’re out, buddy, the main thing is the extent of the harm to the client. That’s the criterion. And that’s my concern here. It’s not just, ah shit, I lost some paperwork, I’ll just run down to the courthouse and get duplicates. Or incorporation documents or even a contract dispute. Right?”
“Not these cases, no,” Nina said.
“These are people who have something privileged they have told you, and it’s gonna shake their world if somebody reads your notes and talks to the right people?”
“Anybody gonna commit suicide if the story comes out?”
“Oh God, I hope not!”
“There’s that potential?”
“I can’t say.”
He tilted his head. “How bad is it? Is it possible one or more of these people might be physically harmed by someone else if the news gets out?”
She didn’t trust herself to speak.
“So, you feel seriously compromised. If the worst happens, that one innocently careless act might result in irreparable harm,” Jack said slowly. He thought for a while, scratching his thumb back and forth along the wooden table. “My advice to you is, when you get back think about what you can do to prevent the clients from getting hurt.”
“The first thing I’m going to do is disclose everything to them,” Nina said. “My indefensible carelessness. The whole thing.”
“No, no, no. No sackcloth and ashes. They don’t need that. Just tell them somebody stole your truck with the files in there, and definitely tell them immediately.”
“I might be able to maneuver better if you don’t tell them right away, Nina,” Paul said. “Tiptoe in there and find a few things out before they’re warned.”
Jack didn’t get it at first, then he said, “I don’t know, Paul.”
“What’s not to understand?”
“Looks to me like you’re personally involved here,” Jack told him, frowning.
Nobody said anything for a moment.
“A job like this requires extreme subtlety, quiet smarts. Maybe-”
“I’ll quietly smart you,” Paul said, grinning. “I’m on to you. You’re jealous.”
“Well, she is my wife.”
Nina interrupted. “I was your wife, Jack. Past tense, over, and let’s not forget it because so far, that has worked for me.”
Paul’s smile grew.
“Of course I want your help, Paul,” Nina said. “Thanks.”
“Obviously,” Paul said.
“But I plan to take Jack’s expert advice. I’ll tell them tomorrow, if possible.”
Now Jack smiled.
Paul shrugged. “I can live with that.”
Jack steamed forward. “Okay. That was the good news. It’s not the usual disbarment situation. Also on the plus side, Nina, your truck might still be found with files intact. Or nothing comes of this for whatever reason, and nobody complains to the state bar, so no process gets initiated. Now let’s talk about the bad news. Let’s assume a client does complain.”
“Okay,” Nina said, bracing herself.
“Let me lay some startling statistics on you. Solo practitioners are about twenty-three percent of the lawyers in California. That’s sizable. About one out of four out of one hundred seventy thousand lawyers. Now. Fifty-four percent of complaints, which are called inquiries, are filed against solos. You get twice as many complaints filed against you, you solos, proportionately. You get that?”
“Yes. Why’s that? It doesn’t seem fair.”
“I’ll get to that in a minute. You think that’s unfair, listen to this-seventy-eight percent of the cases the state bar takes through the disciplinary-hearing process to completion are solos. Damn near four out of five, although solos only constitute a quarter of the lawyers. What does that tell you?”
“It tells me something’s wrong with this picture,” Nina said.
“Now. Let’s skip the small-firm practitioners with fewer than ten lawyers in the firm. They don’t get off easy, but don’t do nearly as badly as the solos. Let’s compare what I just said about solos to the big-firm lawyers. Lawyers in firms with more than ten people. About forty-four percent of the lawyers in California are big-firm lawyers. But guess what percentage of inquiries concern them.”
“I won’t even try,” Nina said.
“Only twenty-eight percent. And guess what percent of the cases the state bar prosecutes to completion are big-firm lawyers.”
“Two point eight percent. Less than three percent, compared to seventy-eight percent for the solos.”
“No,” Paul said. “You’re kidding.”
“No lie. Of you solos, four out of five are going all the way. If you’re big-firm, one out of forty is going all the way.”
“That’s got to be illegal,” Paul said. “Targeting the little guys.”
Nina sat there, stunned.
“So you don’t, repeat, don’t, want to get close to the system. It’s a whale. Sucks in the little krill, avoids the sharks.”
Nina gathered her wits. “But that’s discrimination. Deliberate or institutional, I can’t believe my colleagues would allow it.”
“Who knew?” Jack said. “There were rumors for years, and we finally got a law passed to force the bar to keep the statistics and make a public report. It’s called the State Bar Report under Senate Bill 143. Read it and weep.”
“But what are they going to do about it?” Nina said.
“Not a goddamn thing. They report the stats because they have to, then they apply a thick coat of whitewash. The whitewash goes like this: It’s the fault of the solos because they don’t make as much money, don’t have lots of clerks, don’t have other lawyers around to make appearances when they’re down, operate under more stressful conditions. They say the solos are more dishonest, basically, more likely to dip into the trust account. I say bullshit to that. I don’t think that’s what happens. I’ve represented enough lawyers in these proceedings that I’ve got the real picture.”
“And?” Nina said.
“It’s two things,” Jack said. “First, when one of their own gets in trouble, the big firms pay off the client. Poof, the problem goes away. And second, the state bar disciplinary procedure is totally different from regular courtroom procedure. The mines are buried in different places. The solos in trouble often can’t afford a lawyer. They start thinking well, shit, I’m a lawyer, I’ll represent myself. Boom, they make a minor technical mistake and they’ve lost their profession and their livelihood and incidentally their reputation and often their marriages and they don’t even know what hit them. It’s ironic. They’re babes in the woods just like the pro pers who get slammed around all day in regular court because they don’t have lawyers.”
“I see,” Nina said. She stared at her plate.
“But you’ve got me,” Jack said, smiling. “You want me to represent you beyond this consult? I’m willing.”
“I could represent myself,” Nina said. “In spite of what you just said. I’m a good trial lawyer. It can’t be that different. If it comes right down to it.”
“No. No, you can’t do that. Let me give you just two reasons among many why that would be a big mistake.”
“First, here’s a small thing, subtle. If you represent yourself, you don’t get to be called Counsel. You’re Ms. Reilly, and the other guy, the state bar lawyer, she’s ‘Counsel.’ You’re a second-class citizen. You don’t get any respect. You argue your brains out, the judge is looking at you thinking, well, it’s her ass on the line, can I trust this citation she’s giving me? See?”
“I’m still listening.”
“And second, much bigger. You’re your own lawyer, you’re on double trial. You’re trying to make a point, and the judge is watching you, saying, she did all right with that one, or she’s an exaggerator, or she’s all over the map on that one. You see? You incriminate yourself every time you open your lovely mouth. Your every flaw is blown up for the judge’s viewing pleasure, as big as in the movies.”
“That’s a good point,” Nina said.
“And I didn’t even mention the xenophobia. These people are as ingrown as my right big toenail. You sound like an outsider, you can’t help it, you don’t know the right approach, the lingo. The judge’s nose twitches, you give him a headache with your foreign ways. You need me.”
“What would you charge, Jack?” Nina said.
“Half price. One fifty an hour.”
“I do want the benefit of your counsel even if this goes nowhere, Jack. But it has to be at your regular rate.”
“I’m trying here,” Jack said. “Will you please let me make nice? For old times’ sake.”
“Don’t overdo it,” Paul said.
“I’m on to you, too,” Jack said. “Who’s jealous now?”
Paul held Nina’s shoulder in a death grip and scowled at Jack. Jack leaned across the table, practically snarling back. Nina nestled into Paul’s arm, furtively enjoying the posturing of these two rival males. The primitive female in her felt hugely gratified.
But back to business. They were all professionals. This hormonal dustup would settle down fast.
She reached her hand out and shook with Jack. She had a lawyer, even if everything he had told her so far discouraged her.
They moved on to topics that didn’t piss anyone off, heinous murders, extortions, securities fraud. Paul gave them the rundown on his latest conquest, locating an in-house theft ring at a local restaurant that included a stockpiled warehouse of fine wines and frozen gourmet pizzas.
Six o’clock came and went, and the waiters went around lighting the candles. Beyond the redwood railing the faraway cliffs softened as evening fog rolled in here and there. Suddenly feeling anxious, Nina thought about the long drive home, Bob waiting to be picked up, the dog at Matt’s, grocery shopping to do before starting her week. “I have to hit the road, gents,” Nina said, rising. Both men stood up, too.
They drove back to Carmel, Paul in the backseat again, Jack holding forth in the driver’s seat. The waves below reflected the gold of the setting sun and Nina lowered the sun visor in a useless effort to stave off its assault on her eyes. She wouldn’t be home until ten and she would be tired, but she felt better. She knew there were others supporting her. Like a general, without precisely realizing it, she had spent the weekend mobilizing that support.
This time she accepted a hug from Jack in the driveway, feeling some of the tension ooze away as she hugged him, but pulling away quickly.
“It’s been so wonderful to see you, Nina. You’re more beautiful than ever,” Jack said.
“Give it a rest,” Paul said. “I’ll see you in a couple of days, Nina. Call me.”
“Better yet, call me,” Jack said. “Or I’ll call you. See how it’s going with the clients.”
Her kiss good-bye to Paul was perfunctory because she didn’t want to precipitate any more dissension in the ranks. She left the two men standing side by side, her soldiers preparing for war, she hoped not against each other.
The mail came late, at four in the afternoon. Nina had just grabbed her purse and was running out the door to pick up Bobby at Tiny Tots when Anne, the lead secretary at Klaus Pohlmann’s law firm, rushed down the hall toward her.
“From the state bar,” she said, handing Nina the white envelope.
Her bar-exam results. Only half the law-school graduates passed on their first try.
Nina returned to her cubbyhole law-clerk’s office, shut the door firmly, and leaned against it. She had taken the bar over a grueling two-day period in July and now, five months later, Santa and his reindeer decorated her window. Outside, the dark had begun to crawl over the cottages, shops, and shiny cars, bringing on the twinkling Christmas lights of Carmel.
During that long wait for the results, as she toiled through her daily life, she had thought so many times: Will I make it? She had never felt sure that the years of work would pay off. She never had enough time for the homework, and she had sometimes fallen asleep during the endless night classes. The devilishly difficult bar exam had seemed like a plot to keep out as many people as possible. She sat down in her worn chair, taking the load off her weak knees, swiveled back and forth, and stared at the envelope.
“The time has come,” she thought, “to believe impossible things.” She tore the thing open.
“… pleased to announce… welcome you to the bar… ceremony in San Francisco…”
“I passed! I passed!” She emerged into the hall again, where Anne waited inches from her door and threw her arms around her.
“Good work!” Anne said. Nina ran down the hall to Klaus’s office. The old man had heard the commotion and was already hobbling toward her across his fine Isfahan rug, his face wreathed in smiles. He held her tight, his slight bony body seeming to send waves of strength through her.
“Congratulations, Counselor,” he said, and hearing this word, which meant everything to her, Nina realized it was true at last. She was a lawyer.
Handing her a handkerchief, Klaus sat her down on his leather couch. From his desk drawer he produced a big bottle of scotch and a tray full of etched shot glasses. The rest of the lawyers and staff of the small firm had streamed into the room, beaming, nobody talking yet while Klaus poured the shots with a hand that trembled only slightly.
“I would like to propose a toast,” he said quietly. “To our new member of the bar, who I know will bring honor to our difficult and rewarding profession.”
Then they were drinking to her and clapping her on the back and hugging her.
When everyone else had left and only Nina and Klaus remained, she asked, “Klaus?”
“Yes, my dear?”
“Do you think-that is, can I-”
“Of course you can. You may turn out better than any of us. Perhaps because you have had the hardest struggle, working, studying, raising your little boy the whole time.”
“I’ll never let you down. I promise,” Nina said. “You gave me my job and helped me all the way. I’ll always look up to you as my example.”
“Don’t think about me,” Klaus said. “I am the past and you are the future. Just try to relieve a little of the suffering in this world with your skills. I know you’ll never disgrace us. Now, go get your little boy and go home.”
“I’m so happy. But also afraid.”
“You can handle it.”
Before she left, she bent over and kissed his withered cheek.
“I’ll make you proud of me,” she said.
O N HER WAY OUT of Tahoe again on Monday morning in the white subcompact the insurance company had laid on her, Nina drove past the lot on Highway 50 where the Vangs’ Blue Star Market had once conducted business: ragged wooden fencing, a chipped construction sign, and disturbed dirt had reclaimed their space, as though the dreams of the Vang family had never existed. On both sides of this neat emptiness, small businesses-a hair salon, a video store-carried on as though arson and death didn’t exist and the world remained a just and benign place.
She had an appointment to meet Dr. Mai at the Strawberry Lodge, a half hour from Tahoe on the highway to San Francisco, a meeting place that would preclude the worst part of his drive. The Vangs wouldn’t be there, he had explained on the phone when she called him at his home in Fresno on Sunday night. She became insistent. He became gruff. No Vangs. He would drive up to meet her alone. She would have to take what she could get on this Monday morning: the Vangs’ elderly adviser.
Just before Echo Summit, at the famous place in the road where the cliff drops a couple of thousand feet and tourists coming the other way catch their first glimpse of the lake, she pulled over at the lookout and stood by the edge, wind whipping her hair, a few drops of rain hitting sideways. September snow had fallen the night before on the granite summits all around the lake, which appeared only as a vague gray line far away. From her seven-thousand-foot vantage, she looked down at Christmas Valley, a solid green forest with a hint of the single main road that snaked through it. Eighty miles west in the San Joaquin Valley where Dr. Mai lived, people would be complaining about the heat of late summer, but up here she needed her warm jacket.
Nina had first met Kao Vang about a month before, in early August. He came into her office for a free consultation.
He and his family had fled from the middle hills of Laos as refugees in the early eighties. Nina had never heard of his hill people. Later, after she took the case, she read up on the subject, learning that the Hmong were an ancient people who had supported the U.S. during the Vietnam War. For this assistance, the Communists punished them after taking over the country in 1975. Every year, the Hmong came before the U.N. to request that observers be sent to the remaining refugee camps to investigate reports of systematic arrests, beatings, and murders, but with so many trouble spots in the world, this was a backwater that had receded into history.
Still, in recent years life had improved for the Hmong, and many longtime refugees returned to their homeland. The lucky ones returned with American money in hand for themselves and their extended families, which went a very long way.
What Nina saw on that first day was a small, slight, youngish man in new jogging shoes who spoke very little English and didn’t crack a smile. Kao Vang’s shy wife, slightly built, with bright, intelligent eyes, sat lightly on the edge of the chair beside him. Her name was See, she told Nina, but after that she didn’t speak at all. Their young son, Boun, and another fellow had come with them, a gnarled older man wearing some sort of tribal vestments, who said he was from Kao’s church.
Later she learned that Dr. Mai, the older man, had connections to no church and no normal medical practice. He was some sort of shaman. The culture was simply so different that they had tried to put her at ease by presenting themselves in terms she could understand.
They arrived early for their appointment and sat up straight in the client chairs, speaking in low tones to one another. Sandy went back to her filing. The Hmong language sounded very, very foreign. When Nina came out to greet them, she felt the hesitation before her hand was grasped by the older man. She brought them into her office and shut the door. They emanated a simplicity and formality that made small talk impossible.
Dr. Mai talked. Often he asked Kao a question and translated Kao’s response. See Vang listened, her hands in the lap of her long skirt, crossing and recrossing delicate feet that ended in rubber thongs.
Nina looked over her sheet. The Vangs wanted to consult her about “insurance.” Kao had given no street address, listing his residence just as South Lake Tahoe. No phone either. Nina insisted and explained that the address, along with the entire conversation, would remain confidential. Finally Dr. Mai gave her the address of an apartment near the casino district.
In answer to her first questions, Dr. Mai told her that the Vangs owned a convenience store in the tiny shopping center anchored by the Grand Auto Store, about a mile from Nina’s office. He showed her a lease made out to Kao and See Vang. She had never been in there, but something tugged at the edges of her memory.
“How long have you been in the U.S.?” she asked Kao.
“Twelve years,” answered Dr. Mai. “Very difficult. No money. Two children. These are very hard workers. Work all day and night.”
“I am curious as to why you came to see me,” Nina said with a smile. “There are many lawyers.”
“You were recommended.”
“By others in our community.” He gave no names.
Nina felt absurdly flattered. Apparently her recent notoriety was paying off. She picked up her pen. “How can I help you today?”
Dr. Mai talked with Kao for a moment, then said, “An insurance claim. A business policy. You can help with this?”
“Is it in litigation? Has someone been sued?”
“No. This is-this is private.”
Kao launched into a short speech, talking to Dr. Mai rather than Nina. Energetic and quick-moving, he was what some people might call the mercurial type. A big Fossil watch, sunglasses peeking from his pocket. All-American in some ways. Nina had trouble reading his mood. Was he nervous? Worried? Afraid? Anyway, smiles were miles away.
“Kao would like to know if you would be able to work quickly. Can you begin immediately?”
“I have some time, I’m not in trial at the moment. But how much is the claim amount?”
“He doesn’t know yet. You will help him decide.”
“What is the reason for the claim?” She began her habitual note-taking, copying down fragments of sentences, making a few of her own observations.
“You brought the policy?”
“And other papers. Police reports also.” Ah, Nina thought. Police reports equal a crime. Again, memory nagged at her. A crime involving a liquor store. She had overheard one of the deputy D.A.’s talking about it. She couldn’t pull it back into consciousness. But the emotional content of the memory remained. Something chilling.
She pushed back her chair, crossed her legs, balanced the pad across her lap, and said, “Tell me about it.”
Their story was all the more wrenching because of the matter-of-fact way in which Dr. Mai spoke.
Kao and his family had worked and saved for a number of years to earn the start-up expenses to open a store. When they had found a well-placed business for sale eighteen months earlier, they were overjoyed. The purchase took everything they had. After much happy discussion, they named their new venture the Blue Star Market.
Their original plan called for a grocery store, but liquor sold better, so they stocked liquor, but they also sold imports from Southeast Asia-canned food, spices, toys, candy, clothing and hats, magazines and newspapers from Thailand and Vietnam. The store had been modestly successful from the start. People came from Reno and Fresno, where over twenty thousand Hmong lived, to find familiar items unavailable outside San Francisco otherwise. Tourists from all over enjoyed stopping in to look at the exotic items and usually left with something.
Their twelve-year-old boy, Boun, worked there after school with See Vang. Their daughter did not, for unexplained reasons. Kao worked two shifts, from ten to two in the midday and again from seven to midnight.
Dr. Mai explained that the Northern California refugee community viewed Kao Vang as a big success story. The family bought a Jetta. All the Hmong people in the area knew about the store.
One night, about a year earlier, a man-“A Hmong man?” Nina asked, but got no answer-entered the store. Waiting until the other customers had gone, he put a six-pack of Budweiser on the counter, pulled out a gun, and told Kao to open the cash register. As this story unfolded, Kao sat tensely beside Dr. Mai. Now Dr. Mai paused and Kao spoke his first English words: “I say, ‘Go to hell!’ I reach to take gun-” He spoke in a thick, garbled voice.
The robber shot Kao in the face and sauntered out, leaving Kao bleeding but still conscious on the floor behind the counter. Showing unusual presence of mind, the robber had hung the CLOSED sign and locked the door behind him.
Kao came close to dying. But minutes later, Boun found him and called 911. While they waited for the medics, the boy wrapped his father’s head in his shirt and held it gently in his lap.
Immediate surgery took care of the initial repairs to Kao’s shattered jaw. Some weeks later, surgeons inserted pins. Two months after that, he underwent further surgery designed to rehabilitate his speech. Unfortunately, that didn’t work very well, but at least now Kao could make himself understood.
Then Kao went back to work. But he had a new attitude.
“Could you identify the robber?” Nina asked. “Did they make an arrest?”
Dr. Mai shook his head impatiently. “No identification,” he said. Nina wrote on her pad, “Knows the guy? But closed society, these people don’t want to go outside.” She was guessing. She couldn’t tell what Dr. Mai was thinking or how a Hmong would handle being shot in the face.
“That must have been very painful,” she said gently to Kao. Dr. Mai translated. Giving his injured jaw a smack with his own hand, Kao shrugged to show his obliviousness to pain. Nina wrote, “Brave guy.”
“Go on,” she said.
For the sake of his wife and son, Dr. Mai said, Kao bought a gun to keep under the counter. Several months passed. In early June, just before closing, a man came into the store, keeping his face hidden under a cap. But Kao Vang, alone behind the counter, knew immediately who he was.
“The same man?”
“Yes. Back again.”
This time Kao was ready. When the man pulled out a gun, Kao already had his hand on his own gun. No time to think. He pulled out his gun and shot the robber point-blank in the chest.
This time Kao punched in 911. Then he called his family.
“Yes,” Nina said. “I remember this story.”
The Tahoe police detectives made out the report, clapped Kao on the shoulder, and recommended no further action. The dead man had thirteen previous felony convictions including two assaults with a deadly weapon in the course of a robbery. But the police also took away Kao’s gun. Two days later he got his first E-mail. The one-word message, a sort of declaration of war, came in his own language. “Revenge,” it read. Family or friends of the robber probably wrote it.
Dr. Mai said, “Kao couldn’t sleep anymore. His jaw hurt all the time. He was afraid to leave his wife alone in the store. He didn’t know what to do.”
Nina wrote all this down. She looked up to see Kao adjusting his jaw again as though it had slipped off its track. Dark, intense eyes studied her. When his hand came down she noticed that his jaw was not symmetrical.
“Kao and his family came to me. We decided he must continue. Friends came to the store to help. Kao worked hard.”
The July fourth holiday brought tourists and heat to Tahoe. Kao woke at four o’clock the next morning to a phone call from a fire marshal who yelled that his store was on fire. By the time they got there, the interior of the store had been gutted by quick and successive plagues of flame, smoke, and the rescuers’ water and foam.
Everything was ruined. All the Vangs’ stock had been reduced to rubble. Cash register, counters, display shelves, bottle glass, melted candy pieces, and ashes jumbled together in blackened heaps.
“Destroyed,” said Dr. Mai, putting a finger to the bridge between his glasses and pushing delicately upward. “So much hard work for nothing.”
“I am sorry,” Nina said, moved, knowing her words were inadequate. She felt the urge to apologize for all Kao’s bad experiences in America.
Kao said something curt. “But this is America,” Dr. Mai translated. “Kao had a small-business loan.”
Nina nodded. “So he was required to carry casualty insurance,” she said.
Now Kao nodded. “Casualty insurance,” he repeated.
“No one knew,” Dr. Mai said. “No one thought of this when they destroyed Blue Star Market. Kao was supposed to crawl away. But he brought me the policy. And I wrote a letter to the insurance company.” Dr. Mai laid two much-handled documents in front of Nina. She picked them up but did not look at them yet.
“When was this?”
“I wrote the letter on July twelfth and sent it certified.”
Almost a month ago.
“They sent me this letter quick.” The letter bore a July 18 postmark and the imprint of Heritage Insurance’s office in Reno. The company was sorry to hear of his loss. Kao had ninety days from the date of the event to file a claim.
Nina flipped open her calendar. “Today is August eighth. October third would be the deadline. We have plenty of time. Good.”
“Kao and his wife would like to know if you wish to help them.”
“Yes,” Nina said. “Yes, I wish to help.”
“No one must know of the claim.”
“No one will know. But why does it matter?”
“If anyone learns that Kao is not destroyed-that he will have some money even-then his family will be in very great danger again.”
Nina said, “Why? Who is threatening Kao? Are the police being told everything?”
Dr. Mai consulted with Kao. “There are no suspects.”
“If you know who these people are,” Nina said, “you have to tell the police.”
“You don’t understand. Kao does not want revenge. He does not want justice. He wants his family to live. Kao wants to take his family back to Laos. For that he needs the insurance money. Whatever you can obtain for him.”
Nina wanted to tell the Vangs to stay here, fight the good fight awhile longer, do it our way, put ’ em away. Again her eyes met Kao’s. Maybe now she understood better what she saw in them. Kao was brave for himself, but he was afraid for his family. He had no fight left in him. He wanted only a dignified retreat.
“Okay,” she said. “All right.”
Dr. Mai nodded. “Thank you. Also I do not know what is charged for these services.”
Nina considered this. To take a percentage of the Vangs’ recovery seemed wrong to her, like another nick at them, and it would probably result in an overpayment to her. She adjusted her sliding scale lower than she had in a long time and said, “I would charge forty dollars per hour for this work.” She drew a retainer agreement out of the drawer.
Another short consultation. This time, See Vang spoke to Dr. Mai, too, although she said only a few words in a soft voice. “That is fair,” Dr. Mai said.
That same night, at her second office on her bed at home, Nina read the documents Dr. Mai had laid in front of her, three different sets of police reports, news accounts, medical bills, the insurance policy, the loan documents, and the lease agreement for the store. Every detail matched. For her, the sad and notable reality was how little attention had been paid to Kao’s tragic experience. The Tahoe Mirror buried the incidents in single-paragraph back-page items: “Shopkeeper Shot in Robbery.” “Police Seek Arsonist.” Nina wondered if the lack of coverage reflected public apathy about poor, foreign people and their worries, or if it reflected a bigger picture-such grievous events had become frequent enough to be commonplace and therefore unworthy of newsprint.
A determination grew in her to have one thing go right for Kao. The family, traumatized, wanted to return to Laos. So be it. She would help them get the insurance money. They had followed the rules, paying the premiums each month. Examining the policy again, she saw that the maximum insurance payout could go as high as $250,000.
The next day she called Heritage, locating the adjuster assigned to the claim, a woman named Marilyn Rose, who seemed startled to hear that the Vangs had hired a lawyer. Nina gave her an overview of the situation and promised to submit a detailed claim shortly. She tried to communicate the urgency of the Vangs’ problems by going on at some length about their difficult adjustment to a new country, how hard they had worked, and what their trials had cost them personally. She felt she connected. Her contact at Heritage sounded sympathetic by the end of the conversation.
A few days later, on a hot mid-August Sunday, Kao, his wife, his son, and Dr. Mai returned to her office. They brought every business-related scrap of paper they possessed with them in white plastic trash sacks.
They all sat down on the beige carpet in the outer office and started making piles. The documentation consisted of hundreds of paper scraps-mimeographed, penciled, faded, half-legible, in the writings of half a dozen Southeast Asian languages-and most of it was legally irrelevant. Many of the actual receipts, the inventory list, the bills, had burned in the fire. This would be no ordinary insurance claim.
“Many times no receipt,” Dr. Mai explained. “Mrs. Vang went to Salvation Army, houses of friends, farmers’ market in Fresno to buy items for Blue Star. Paid cash. Many items burned up with no receipts.”
“Can we get a list of those items?”
Dr. Mai spoke to Mrs. Vang, who first shook her head and then shrugged.
“Things came from Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos. Refugee items. Records burned up. Wrong language anyway.” Dr. Mai squatted comfortably on the floor. They all drank Sprites. Although Kao’s wife looked much younger than he did and was more traditional-looking with her turquoise bracelets and black braid, she too bore the careworn look of premature age. She could have been twenty-five or forty.
“Don’t worry,” Nina said.
“But we cannot-we just cannot prove all the lost items.”
“Just make me a list. In English. Everything you remember. Can you help with that, Dr. Mai?”
“But-we do not know the money paid.”
“Estimate. Here.” Nina made a heading on a fresh legal pad and picked up a scrap. “What does this say?”
“Four pairs sneakers. No amount.”
“What kind of sneakers?”
Shrugs all around. Kao’s shoulders sagged. He and See looked at each other.
They could have been Chinese and worth five bucks a pair. They probably were Chinese.
But they could have been Nikes.
“Estimate forty dollars a pair,” Nina said. “We’ll make sure the insurance company knows it’s only an estimate.”
At the end of the week the family trekked back to the office. This time Nina managed to persuade them to accompany her to Sato’s for dinner. Dr. Mai wore his usual oxford-cloth shirt and sandals. Kao somehow managed to look debonair in spite of everything. Boun, their son, came, too. Their daughter, Dr. Mai explained, was ill and couldn’t come. See smiled here and there, and Nina got the feeling that she had a sunny disposition in better times and understood English fairly well. After dinner, Dr. Mai presented Nina with the list. Estimated $54,000 in inventory lost.
She gave it back and said they must have missed a lot.
By the following week the loss amount topped $175,000. Nina had gone over almost every item. Almost twenty pages long, with several hundred paper scraps pasted onto ink-jet paper as exhibits, the list had been generated out of thin air, the same thin air that the inventory had burned into.
Nina spent a whole office day, phone off and door shut, dictating the claim letter. She gave a lengthy summary of the violent events and attached all the documents she had along with photographs of Kao’s face after the first shooting, creating a package both heartrending and intimidatingly thick. A solid week passed before she and Sandy had all the exhibits organized completely to her satisfaction. Kinko’s had to keep the package overnight to make the copies, and the final hefty original had to be carried in a box.
After completing all this labor, Nina drove the claim over to Heritage personally, staying for a long chat about the need for discretion and speed with Marilyn, who did not overreact to the large claim amount and continued to flash hints of a beating heart.
Sandy took the first call from the insurance company on the first Tuesday morning in September. She came into the office, where Nina was stuffing pleadings into her briefcase for court, and said, “Heritage’s first offer is in. They’re starting at a hundred fifty thousand dollars.”
“Glory be,” Nina said.
“It’s like the miracle of loaves and fishes.”
They experienced a rare moment of perfect harmony. Sandy approved. Nina was elated. Sandy liked Nina to win for the less powerful in the community, and Nina liked to imagine that occasionally she actually helped to alleviate some human suffering, her way of giving back to the planet. Even more important, she felt that justice would be served. Wrongs would be compensated. The system was working.
“They’ve decided to work with us,” Nina said. “Call the court and tell the judge’s clerk I’ll be a few minutes late.” Picking up her own line, she called the adjuster, thanked her, and refused the offer.
“But we can’t even read the receipts. As you well know,” Marilyn Rose said.
“Did you see the medical photos?” Nina said. “It makes me ashamed. They come all the way here to start a new life in the land of freedom and-”
“All right already. I’ll get back to you.”
Thursday brought another call. “Two hundred ten thousand,” said Marilyn. “That’s the best I can do.”
“What’s the point?” Nina said. “Why not pay out the limit?”
“Because that puts some new procedures in place with some different oversight. Trust me, you don’t want to go for the limit. Look, you’ve probably only got about sixty thousand that actually meets our documentation standards. This is it, Nina. I’m not holding back a nickel of what I got approved.”
“I’ll get back to you tomorrow. Thanks.” Thrilled, Nina called Dr. Mai and the Vangs and told them about the offer. “I think we should sleep on it,” she said. “Maybe I can squeeze out another ten thousand.”
“It is wonderful. Wonderful,” Dr. Mai said. “Kao calls me every day. He never expected so much, I know.”
“Does the family still plan to return to Laos?”
Dr. Mai hesitated. “It is complicated. Everything in Kao’s life is complicated.” He seemed unwilling to explain further. Again Nina had the feeling that no amount of reading about Hmong culture would give her much useful insight into the family’s American experience. Dr. Mai seemed unnaturally restrained to her, as if he felt shy about sharing the extent of the family’s suffering.
Maybe they were just the kind of people who disliked having to ask for help of any kind. Or perhaps Dr. Mai’s reluctance arose out of embarrassment that the people who had snuffed out Kao’s livelihood and who would come after any money he might possess came from his own hills and his own culture.
“I will call you tomorrow,” she said.
That last call to Dr. Mai had occurred on Thursday, September 6, four days earlier.
And that night, that ill-starred night, wanting to take one more look through her notes to decide whether to try for a larger claim or just shake hands with the princess of generosity who had adjusted the claim, Nina had taken Kao Vang’s file home in the Bronco. The file had been right on top in Nina’s briefcase in the backseat-not the enormous claim file, which was safe, but the client-intake file with her notes of her interviews with Kao and the notes regarding negotiations.
Just the notes that could tell Kao’s enemies just how much money was involved, and contained her speculations that he knew exactly who they were.
And the Vangs’ home address, which they hadn’t wanted to give her. Gone.
Nina hadn’t called Marilyn Rose at Heritage that Friday. She had waited until now to meet with Dr. Mai. Today she had to tell him. Taking a deep breath of cool mountain air, she strapped herself back into the rental car and drove on.
The Strawberry Lodge was a big, beat-up, green-roofed, barnlike edifice alongside the highway. Usually you could stop for a cup of coffee there, and the place bustled on weekends, even in fall. In winter there was cross-country skiing and sledding down the hill, but today, an off-season Monday, the weekend fun-lovers had deserted. A few rebel stragglers had parked SUVs out front. She parked the rental and went inside.
Dr. Mai waited for her on the wooden deck outside the coffee shop in back. In the near distance, the American River, low in September, more like a creek in this spot, swished along. Dr. Mai wore the same suit, a bit thin at the knees, the same shirt, the same dusty sandals, and that somber visage, the look of the priest who can’t understand how the world could have sunk so low. She wondered for a moment what his story was, what persecutions he had endured, what had driven him from his homeland.
No time to find out today.
Sitting across from him at a rustic table, drinking from a glass of water, she gazed out at the scruffy dry grass and trees beyond. “I need to speak with Kao,” she said. “He is my client. I’m concerned about confidentiality.”
“I am his agent and adviser in all legal matters,” Dr. Mai said, not moving.
His demeanor toward her had changed indefinably, and she felt even more uncomfortable, but she had no choice. The information had to be conveyed today.
“You have accepted the offer?” he asked. “The money will be available when?”
“I haven’t called the company back yet. The offer is still on the table. Dr. Mai, I-I’m afraid another matter has come up.”
Dr. Mai unfolded a piece of paper in English with the signature Kao Vang and a date. “Kao Vang instructs you to accept the offer immediately,” he said. “This is what you call a power of attorney. I can sign for them.”
“Kao Vang didn’t write this himself,” Nina said. The paper appeared to have been copied by hand from a legal form book and was correct in form.
“He asked me to write it. He signed. He dated.”
“All right. We’ll get back to this in a moment. May I please speak to you about the matter about which I contacted you?” They had moved somehow to a very formal basis.
Dr. Mai pushed up his glasses. “Speak, then,” he said.
“Kao Vang’s file has been stolen,” she said. Keeping the story short and straight, she explained the circumstances. As she spoke, not sparing herself, Dr. Mai’s face fell into a grimace of pain and disappointment.
“I am very sorry. I want to say that directly to Mr. and Mrs. Vang,” she said.
He waved a hand at her, his face still screwed up with that awful expression.
“What is wrong?” she said.
“Sad how one ill leads to another,” Dr. Mai said.
“Where is Kao?”
Dr. Mai closed his eyes.
“Where is he? What’s going on?”
“Just get the money to me,” Dr. Mai said. “As soon as possible. Kao cannot talk to you right now. Just do what you have promised.”
“Does someone know about the insurance? Please tell me.”
“I love this family,” he said. “Kao is my wife’s nephew. My wife died in one of the camps. Kao is all the family I have left. I must support him, but it is sad.” He looked out the window, and she caught the same weary expression that she had seen in Kao’s eyes.
“Dr. Mai?” She reached over and touched his hand. “Dr. Mai!”
He turned his head toward her and said, “We mean nothing to you. Nothing at all. Just get the money.”
“It’s not true. I do care. And-and I fear I have-from your reaction I am very concerned. I must know if the Vangs are safe.”
“Just get the money. Please do your job. Get the money. Have your secretary call me when you have the money. That is all I have to say.”
“Let me help to protect the Vangs. I have a friend-”
“No more of your help.” He walked out on her, shaking his head.
N INA PICKED UP A SANDWICH in Meyers at the deli and ate it while driving, wondering how long a long Monday could last. A margarita might have temporarily eased her own misery, but that would only lead to more trouble, so she settled for a V8. Although Dr. Mai’s reaction had not been entirely unexpected, his vehemence unsettled her. To prep herself for her next appointment with the girls from the campground, she turned into the Starlake Building parking lot, mentally rehashing the meeting she had hosted in her office with Brandy and Angel four days before, on Thursday.
The two women had shown up at Nina’s office for an emergency appointment late in the afternoon. Although they refused to say why they needed to see her so hastily, Sandy squeezed them in before leaving to run an errand. “The girl that called sounded scared. Terrified.”
“An abusive husband?” Nina asked. Sad that that would be her first thought, but experience taught unhappy lessons.
“I don’t think so.”
One wore her peroxided hair short in rough layers, the other had swinging shoulder-length brown hair, but Nina needed only one look at their wide gray eyes. “You’re sisters,” she said, rising to greet them.
“Angelica Guillaume and Brandy Taylor,” the blond said, shaking her hand. “Call us Angel and Brandy. Thanks for seeing us on such short notice.”
They flopped into the orange client chairs, but Nina could see their casual ease was a pose. The muscles in their identically wiry legs remained tense, as if ready to propel them right back out the door. To give them a minute to orient themselves and calm down, Nina waited while they commented on her view of Lake Tahoe and admired the Washoe baskets on the wall. Nina quickly figured out that the blond, Angel, acted as leader. Twenty-three to Brandy’s nineteen, she wore a hip-hugging skirt and a tiny black cotton shirt that stopped just below the rib cage. Her face was in sharp focus: red lips, each lash carefully highlighted with mascara. Brandy, considerably taller and vaguer, wore a cotton floral skirt and loose sweater. She drooped behind her sister.
“What can I do for you?” Nina asked.
“Brandy saw a murderer,” Angel said.
Nina pulled out the legal pad. She took notes while they told their story in fits and starts with constant sisterly interruptions. The trouble had started right before Labor Day weekend, the week before.
“Brandy. You can’t just leave Bruce and run away to our house every time you have a fight,” Angel’s husband, Sam, said. “If you’re going to marry the guy, you’ve got to learn to work things out-”
“This wasn’t a fight. It’s over.”
The phone rang, Bruce again. Sam wanted to talk to him but Brandy snatched the phone away, slamming it into the cradle. “This is none of your business!”
“Like hell it isn’t!”
At that point, baby Jimmy and two-year-old Kimberly began to bawl. Sam, heading for the bathroom, the Tahoe cabin’s only refuge, tripped on a bag of groceries and let loose with a string of shouted curses. The children cried louder.
Angel turned off the kitchen faucet and saved the day, bustling in and plopping the kids in front of cartoons with crackers.
“We haven’t had a minute to talk, Angel,” Brandy complained. “I have nowhere else to go. I’m sorry if I’m getting on Sam’s nerves, but I’m hurting!”
“Don’t worry about Sam. He likes you, but he gets cranky when we’re all crammed in here like this. Listen, Bran, let’s do like we used to when Mom and Dad got weird on us,” Angel said. “Let’s split. It’s a long weekend. Just give me an hour to arrange the kids and someone to cover me at the salon.”
Unfortunately, by the time they had located two musty sleeping bags and properly provisioned themselves with graham crackers, chocolate, wine, marshmallows, and sweet rolls from Raley’s, the campgrounds at Richardson’s, D. L. Bliss State Park, and Nevada Beach were full. The ranger advised them to try the Campground by the Lake, right smack in the middle of South Lake Tahoe.
“Damn,” Brandy said. “Why didn’t we think of this? It’s Labor Day weekend, the worst time in the world for camping. We’re stuck in the center of town-unless you want to drive some more?”
“We’re not likely to find any vacancies for miles around here and it’s actually a really nice campground. Let’s see if we can find something. I’m sick of driving around and we still have to put the tent up.”
They amused themselves surfing the radio until they got to the campground at the corner of Rufus Allen Boulevard and Highway 50, finding it also full. “Let’s take a look anyway,” Angel said.
“Oh, forget it. It’s getting so late. Let’s just go back to your place and try again in the morning. Shoot. Sam’s going to hate it if we come back tonight. Did you see what he did when we drove away?”
“He has got a silly way of waving good-bye.”
“That was his victory salute, Angel.”
“He’s just kidding. He loves me madly,” Angel said. “I’m so hot he couldn’t do anything else. Watch this.” She leaned out the car window and gave the ranger on duty at the entrance a sexy smile and a long look down the front of her tank top and they were through the gate without paying the day-use fee in about a second, giggling like when they were kids.
Sure enough, around a bend toward the back, they found a family of five pulling up stakes on a large dome tent. “Ze miracle she is arrived,” Angel told Brandy, then, out the car window, “You leaving?”
“Sure are,” said the wife, tossing a picnic blanket and cooler into the back of an old blue minivan. The kids were stuffing bags of chips and cookies into brown bags, handing them off like a bucket brigade toward the car.
“Any chance we could grab your spot?”
The wife laughed. “Believe me, you don’t want it.”
Angel put the car into park. She and Brandy both got out of the car and approached. “Why not? Is it haunted or something?”
“You could say that.” She jogged her head in the direction of the next camp over. “Coupla lowlife rowdies.”
“They come over here and cause you any trouble?” Brandy asked.
“No. Nothing like that. Drinking, carousing. Using foul language. People like that are trouble, just being alive.”
Brandy reached into her purse. “Here,” she said. “Here’s thirty bucks for your campsite. You already paid, right?”
The woman’s face brightened. “Yes, we did. Only for the one night. But not this much.”
“We’d be so grateful if you’d just let us camp here tonight.”
“Just so you know what you’re getting into. You’ve been warned.”
While setting up the tent and bags, they had a good laugh over old farts who couldn’t take a joke or a little profanity now and then. Luckily, setting up the tent turned out to be a snap. They saw no sign of the so-called troublesome neighbors and decided the people in the orange tent next to them must have zoned out early.
By ten o’clock, they had a fire crackling, had stuffed themselves full of sweet goodies, and started in on the wine. So fun! Trees and stars surrounding them like comforters, and all of it totally safe, just like summers at camp.
“I hate drinking wine after I eat. You waste the full effect,” Brandy said. “Harder to get to that pleasantly blurry, sentimental stage.”
“Hasn’t stopped you. You have definitely reached that place.”
Brandy leaned back against a log and twisted her hair into a bun in back. “What a relief to be somewhere quiet. You know I love your kids,” she said, taking a swig from the bottle, “but it’s nice to get away.”
Angel took the bottle. “I’ll drink any chance I get, mainly because I never get any. Two kids put a crimp in your style. You have to be a grown-up all the time.”
“Hey, next week’s sign for the salon! Don’t put a crimp in your style!”
“I like it. Maybe you should try to get a job with that advertising agency you worked at while you were at college-”
“Out of business. I called before I left Bruce.”
“Ah, and so we arrive at the night’s topic,” Angel said. “Why you left. What happened? He’s got another girl?”
“You’ve got another guy?”
“He works too much?”
“I don’t mind that. He’s trying to gather a nest egg for both our sakes.”
“Mom’s driving you nuts with wedding plans?”
“Yes, but no.”
“So tell, before I slap you silly out of frustration.”
“I went off sex.”
“I can’t make love with him anymore,” Brandy said. “So how can I marry him?”
“Criminy, Bran. This is serious. Is he kinky? Does he want you to wear rubber strappies and a head thing with studs or something?”
“No. He’s a little-old-fashioned. That’s one big reason I fell in love with him, you know? It’s simple with him. Roses, candles, naked bodies, beautiful music. All the love you want when you want it. You know, Angel, he’s my real love. That’s why this is so hard.”
“Let’s just say it’s me.”
“Did you see a doctor?” Angel asked, really concerned. “Maybe you could take testosterone shots or something. I’ve heard they make you horny.”
“You’re the geezer. You’re closer to running out of hormones than me.”
The flap over the door to the tent came loose in the wind and Angel got up to tie it back down. “Here I come out in the night and I’m forced to drink wine and eat chocolate and listen to insults from my punk sister. Life so sucks.” She walked back over to throw a log on the fire just as two faces peered out from inside the orange tent about fifty feet away-a yawning girl with long black hair and a man, unshaven and ragged-haired but a muscular hunk nevertheless. He said, “Get a fire going, woman,” but in an affectionate, relaxed voice.
Brandy and Angel broke chunks of chocolate off their Ghirardelli bar as they watched the girl next door pile sticks haphazardly into the fire pit. She saw them watching and gave them a wave. They waved back. She started to sing. “She sounds like a sick cat,” Angel decided after they had a chance to listen for a few seconds.
“I did see a doctor a few weeks ago,” Brandy said a few minutes later. “A head doctor. He was such a dork. I felt like he didn’t take me seriously.”
“Bran, don’t you love Bruce anymore?”
The wine hit, or something, because Brandy started crying then, big jagged sobs. “That’s what really stinks. I love him as much as ever. I just don’t want him to, like, touch me.”
“Have you told him?”
“Are you kidding! I can’t hurt him like that!”
“Aw, Bran, go on, cry awhile. Here, have some more wine.” And that was about it, Brandy polishing off the rest of the bottle and crying and saying she loved Bruce, who must be a quickie Dickie, that was Angel’s instant speculation, but she was going to wait awhile to tell Brandy.
They went to bed shortly after, just as the fire next door got hot. After another half hour or so, loud music started up at the next site over. They peeked out, seeing a boom box and two floppy figures dancing by the fire.
“How nice for them,” Brandy groused, “but isn’t the routine you dance first, then crawl into a sleeping bag together?”
“Oh, ease up. It’s amore.”
Campers from across the way got involved at this point, telling the couple to please turn the music down. They did, and a temporary hush descended upon the campground. Then a motorcycle with an engine like a 747 pulled up. The biker joined the couple. The music went up again, as did, after some time, the voices. Back and forth, something about money paid out, money owed, money not paid out, love and sex and other personal realms. Angel and Brandy listened avidly. Other campers complained again, but gave up when the boisterous campers ignored them. After a good half hour of arguing, a fistfight started between the biker and the camper guy.
“You goddamn lying, cheating, scum-sucking piece of-” Thwack.
“Where do you get off coming here with an attitude like that? Phoebe chose me, Cody, not you. C’mon, baby.”
“Phoebe’s been two-timing them,” Brandy guessed. “I think the one who spent the evening tucked into the tent with her is named Mario.”
The thunk of a fist contacting skin was followed by a shoving match.
“Round Two, I guess,” Angel said wearily. “Well, we were warned. Should we do something? Get the ranger?”
“A hundred people are listening to this. Someone else will get him eventually.”
They sneaked a look through the netting, hiding in toward the edges.
“She looks scared,” Angel said. “You know what? I don’t like the way this looks at all. We should do something.”
The studly camper, Mario, shoved by Cody, the biker with long hair, landed against their tent, almost crushing Brandy’s leg. “That’s it,” Brandy said, as he lurched back to the fray. “I’m going for the ranger!”
“They’ll see you,” Angel said. “I don’t want them to know anything about us. Use your mobile phone and call.”
Brandy dug around in her bag while the fistfight escalated into a free-for-all just a few feet from their tent. Incoherent screams and cries rent the night. Only Phoebe made any sense at all.
“Help!” she screamed. “Help!”
After the ranger came to bust it up and Cody thundered away on his bike, things settled down at last, the dogs quit howling, and the kids stopped crying, but now neither Brandy nor Angel could sleep. They lay in their bags for the next couple of hours checking their watches and chatting quietly.
“I have to pee,” Brandy said.
“So, enjoy. You know where the bathroom is.”
“Come with me.”
“C’mon, Angel. Don’t make me go alone. Remember that story Sam told about the night the bears came to your cabin and broke into that refrigerator you keep in your garage?”
“There was only one bear and he was dinky.”
“Sam said that dinky bear knocked the refrigerator over, broke open the door, and ate all the frozen meat. When you came out in your nightgown to scare him off, he chased you across the yard. You screamed, too.”
“Oh, chill, Brandy. I haven’t heard a peep from anything or anyone since the ranger came.”
“Please? I’m scared.”
They pulled on flip-flops and sweaters, examined the road carefully for shadows, and stepped outside into the stinging-cold night. Brandy waited for another latebird lady to finish washing up, then used the bathroom in private while Angel stomped the concrete to heat up her toes, keeping a watch outside for bears or strangers or anything at all, but the dark made it hard to see much except lights reflecting off the lake in the distance. Hard to believe they were right in the middle of the city of South Lake Tahoe.
“Gag me,” Brandy said, when she finally came outside. “It smelled like vomit in there. That poor woman partied too hearty for her own good.”
“She did look terrible, except that I loved her hair,” Angel agreed. “Should have stuck to chocolate and wine like us, huh? No ill effects, except maybe that we’re jumpy as little bunnies.” They walked through the darkness toward their camp.
“Wait!” Brandy whispered suddenly, putting a hand out to stop Angel. She pulled her sister back toward the side of the road.
“Is it a bear?”
“Let’s go. You’re not three years old anymore. No need to be so damn scared of the dark.”
“Shut up!” Brandy hissed.
Angel shut up and looked in the direction Brandy’s nose pointed, seeing nothing.
“It’s so dark,” she whispered. “What are you looking at?”
Brandy’s finger shook as she pointed toward the orange tent next to their site. “There’s enough moon to see.”
Angel stared but saw nothing special.
“He’s gone now.”
“I saw someone leaving that tent.”
“So what?” Angel said. “When you gotta whiz, you gotta whiz. You’re living proof.”
“But, Angel, didn’t Cody-the biker-leave after the ranger came around?”
“How come he’s back, then?”
“No idea. You sure you saw Cody, Brandy?”
“Unless Mario suddenly grew his hair long, has lost about fifty pounds and gone all ugly, and looks just like Cody.”
“Where’s the bike, then?”
“He knew he’d wake up the whole camp if he came in on that thing so he parked it out on the street?” Brandy guessed.
They puzzled about it for a minute or two, but the camp remained silent and peaceful, so they went on back to their tent, slept for the few remaining hours of the night, and got up the next morning, deciding to strike out early for a hike up to Beauty Lake and a new campsite at Wright’s, out of town and out of the whole city campground B.S.
“They found her body in her sleeping bag, dead, the next morning when the ranger tried to roust them out of the site,” said Brandy. “Mario was still asleep, right next to her!”
“You seem sure Cody is responsible for the woman’s death,” Nina said. She had paused in her note-taking. The office door, slightly ajar, told her Sandy was probably listening.
They stared at her. “Well, heck, I don’t think there’s much doubt,” Angel said. “Cody came back, Brandy saw him. And even a drunk wouldn’t jump back into his sleeping bag and pass a peaceful night next to the dead body of his girlfriend like Mario did. If Mario had done it, he would have run straight across the state line, across Nevada, and all the way to Colorado before he stopped to breathe.”
“Ms. Guillaume, Angel, you mean to tell me your husband didn’t mention a murder at a campground to you over the weekend? We don’t get many up here.”
“He never saw the story or he would have freaked.”
“Why didn’t you go straight to the police when you got back to town on Tuesday?” Nina asked them.
“I’m ashamed to say, we don’t always read the papers,” said Angel. “We just saw an article about what happened this morning. It’s so sad! It’s just terrible! That poor girl. Cody must have snuck back and strangled her in the night. Mario was so drunk, maybe he didn’t even wake up.”
Nina picked up the phone. “I’ll arrange for you to speak with the police or the D.A.’s office as soon as possible. They should know what you saw.”
“Hold on. Did you read about these people?” Brandy said. “The camper, Mario Lopez, the one they arrested, had just gotten out of prison that day! He’s a violent felon. He was in for assault for years. The other guy, Cody, he was in for drug trafficking last year, plus he has a whole bunch of other convictions. The truth is, we’re scared to death to tell anybody.”
“If I have your story right, no one, except for the tourists you replaced, even knows you stayed at that campground that night,” Nina reminded her.
“Which is the one reason I can still sleep at night,” Angel said.
“I just don’t want to talk to anyone about this until I’ve had a chance to talk to my fiancé,” Brandy said. “So we came here today for your free consultation. Besides, Angel told me all about how you kicked butt in the Misty Patterson case, even though you got hurt in the process. You’re tough.”
“I’m lucky,” Nina said. She touched her hand to the scar on her chest. Did anyone realize how superstitious even the most pragmatic lawyer could be?
“Will it make any difference to Mario if we don’t come forward today? I mean, is he in some horrible place where he’s going to get brutalized or something?” Brandy asked.
“No. Remember, this man just got out of state prison. The jail in Placerville can’t compare to that. But, Brandy, you have to tell the prosecutors what you saw as soon as possible.”
“What about the chances of Cody leaving town before I say anything?” Brandy said.
Nina said, “The article mentions the fight, then it says Cody Stinson has a local friend who says he spent the rest of the night with her. She’s his alibi. He’s also on probation. Probably isn’t allowed to go far. Although I’m sure the police will be questioning him, since they have a suspect in custody, he has no reason right now to worry about getting arrested.”
“He will when he hears what Brandy has to say,” said Angel.
“We’ll explain our concerns about your safety. The D.A.’s office won’t reveal your names or anything about what’s happened until you’re well protected.”
“I won’t talk. Not until I reach Bruce,” Brandy said. “Tomorrow, first thing?”
“You can call him from here,” Nina pushed.
“Like I told you, we’re at a rough patch,” Brandy said. “Bruce and I haven’t been speaking, so it makes everything more complicated. After a week of calling me nonstop, he quit answering his phone. Just give me some time. Meanwhile, don’t worry. I won’t let Mario go down without telling the police Cody came back that night. I just can’t do it yet.”
“The longer you hold off, the more complicated your situation becomes,” Nina warned. She got names, addresses, and phone numbers for both the women. After they left, she tucked her intake notes into the manila file she planned to take home in her briefcase that night. Maybe Brandy would decide she was able to go first thing in the morning. Nina wanted to review her notes and prepare for anything.
The whole story was scribbled on yellow legal sheets and sitting in that damned file, the one she took home that night.
And here in front of her on Monday afternoon sat the sisters, Angel with her platinum-tipped bristles, Brandy with her dimples. But there were no smiles. They said they hoped Nina wasn’t too upset that they didn’t get back to her on Friday. They had their reasons. They knew she might insist that they go talk to Henry McFarland, the assistant district attorney for El Dorado County based out of Tahoe, right away, but they hoped that wasn’t necessary.
Well, they did have to go right away, Nina told them.
“We can’t go,” Brandy said, tearing up. Nina got up and shut the door.
Angel spoke up, her tone very serious. “Brandy’s fiancé has taken off. We have to find him first.”
“Taken off?” Nina said.
“I mean, I know he was upset at me, probably, but why would he leave home like that? Angel drove me home to Palo Alto over the weekend so that we could maybe work some things out, but he was gone!”
“We talked about it on the way over here,” Angel said. “Bruce took his wallet, but he didn’t take his mobile phone. He doesn’t exist without that phone. Brandy says he starts yakking on it when he brushes his teeth in the morning and doesn’t let up all day long. He took some clothes, but stuff Brandy says he hates.” Her voice dropped. “So we had this thought. We’re thinking him being gone is suspicious. We’re scared. We’re thinking, maybe Cody found out somehow and went over to the house and did something. To Bruce. You know?” She put her arm around Brandy. “You know what I’m saying?”
Now Nina had to speak. She said she understood, but unfortunately had to add to their fear. She told them that someone had the file with all their information, the names, the addresses, the phone numbers. She told them that she was worried, too. Their concerns about Bruce just added to the all-around bad news.
Two sets of frightened gray eyes stared back at her.
“I’m going back to Palo Alto tonight,” Brandy said. “I have to try again to talk to Bruce.”
“Not alone you’re not,” Angel said. “I’m coming. Sam’s taking some time off. He’s taking the kids to Oregon to visit his mother. I’m supposed to join them, which I will when I get around to it.”
“We can stay at Maria’s. Cody won’t have that address.”
Angel turned to Nina. “We’ll make you a deal,” she said. “We’ll drive back up first thing in the morning. I’ll make some arrangements at the salon. We’ll meet you there.”
“Don’t go,” Nina said. “Let’s talk to the D.A. today. It’s not safe.”
Brandy’s jaw set. Angel looked at her, looked at Nina, and shrugged. “That’s the deal,” she said. “We’ll be careful.”
They looked unbudgeable. “My investigator, Paul van Wagoner, will pick you both up at your beauty salon at ten tomorrow morning,” Nina said.
“Okay,” Angel and Brandy said together.
“Give me Maria’s address and phone number.”
“No offense,” Brandy said, “but you’ve already got my mobile phone number.”
Only after they left did Nina realize what she meant. They didn’t feel safe entrusting her with the information. They didn’t, in fact, want to pay much attention to her advice at all.
She had lost her credibility with them and they were spending another night on the road. She could only hope they wouldn’t look back and find Cody’s motorcycle on their tail.
A T FOUR-THIRTY that Monday afternoon, while stumbling toward the rental car with the large gift she had just picked up for Matt’s wife Andrea’s party that night, Nina saw Officer Jean Scholl in the parking lot outside her office. The policewoman stood by while Nina strained to open the trunk of the rental car and ended up dumping the big gift box on the asphalt while she fooled with her key.
Scholl watched, detached, while Nina stuffed the present into the trunk, adjusting it into several positions before it would fit. Only then did Scholl say, “We found your truck. Let’s go get it.” She led the way to her patrol car, clanking and clinking all the way.
Behind a chain-link fence, the pockmarked, lava-colored sea of asphalt that constituted South Lake Tahoe’s impound lot was not far from the police station and courthouse. Officer Scholl, driving Nina in her patrol car, waved to the security man on duty, got out, and used a key to unlock the gate.
“Where did you find it?”
“In the Heavenly parking lot.” Heavenly Resort was only a few miles away, straight uphill from where they stood at the foot of a ten-thousand-foot mountain, the highest ski resort this side of the Rockies.
“I spotted it in a nicely painted parking spot at the base of the World Cup run, not that anyone’s skiing this time of year. Lots of hikers and gondola riders leave their cars up there. Logical place to dump a joyride if you don’t drive it straight out of town. And then it’s pretty easy to catch a ride down Ski Run Boulevard back to town. Or just walk. It’s only a mile or so.”
The big, dirty SUV looked foreign to her, but the Hawaiian-print seat covers told her that the Bronco was her old familiar mountain buggy.
“Not too much harm done,” Scholl said, her finger inserted into a long scratch on the left bumper. “That’s old.” She reached into her pocket and tossed Nina the metal key. “We found it on the front seat.” She sounded bored as ever, but Nina sniffed out the contempt in her words. Officer Scholl didn’t bother to conceal her antipathy.
Nina walked around the Bronco, noting the nicks and scratches.
“Any new dings?” Scholl asked.
Her truck led a visibly hard life. Nina couldn’t distinguish new dings from old. “I don’t know. Can I get in?”
“It’s your truck, or so the registration says.” She opened the driver’s-side door.
“You didn’t lock it?”
“The barn door’s already open.”
I’ll say, Nina thought. She climbed in, bent toward the backseat, and began to hunt.
Scholl let her look awhile, then said, “No briefcase, if that’s what you’re hoping.”
Nina sat up, disappointed, rubbing her forehead. “My files?”
“No sign of them.”
“Did you dust for fingerprints?”
“We did our jobs.”
Nina straightened up wearily.
“What I wonder is, were they ever even in the truck?” Scholl said.
“I told you they were. What do you mean?”
“Maybe you lost the files some way you don’t want to talk about. Maybe they’ve been lost awhile. Maybe one of your crook clients took them from your office and you invented this cute cover story.” She came over to Nina, looking down at her through those anachronistic reflective sunglasses, and said, “Maybe you’re lying.”
“I resent that. I told you the absolute truth,” Nina said.
“Yeah, like you tell the judge the absolute truth about your clients.”
“Like you never exaggerated a word in your police reports. You seem to have a problem with me, Officer,” Nina said. “But whatever you think of my work as a lawyer, what’s happened here is that my truck was stolen and I’m grateful to you for finding it.”
Scholl didn’t answer. The police radio blasted out a call and she went to answer it.
“I represent police officers, too,” Nina called after her.
Nina called Sandy. “No files in the Bronco. But the truck’s okay.”
“So the files have been stolen,” Sandy said. “I never would have believed it. The briefcase?”
“Gone. Thanks for staying late tonight.”
“I would sure like to know what is going on,” Sandy said. “Wish is coming in tomorrow morning. I cleared the decks for an hour.”
“Paul and I will be there. He’s driving up from Carmel as we speak.”
“Bring doughnuts. Cinnamon-sugar and glazed. Good for thinking.”
“There’s a Minute Order in the Cruz case.”
Much too fast. It should have taken ten days for the judge to rule. “Damn,” Nina said. “Physical custody to the mother?”
“Damn,” Nina said again. Defeat struck hard. “I’ll call Kevin.”
“Call later. Andrea called. She says it’s okay to come late. You go on over and visit with your family.”
A compulsive demon took hold of Nina. After finishing her call, she stopped at the first gas station she saw to fill the almost-empty tank, then ran the truck through the automatic carwash twice. When she got back to the office, she transferred the big box from her rental car to the Bronco. Sandy arranged to get the white subcompact back to the rental agency while Nina drove to Raley’s for cleaning supplies.
After removing the seat covers and tossing them into the back for laundering, she used an entire roll of paper towels and nearly a bottle of ammonia-laden cleaner on the interior. Sandy left for home.
Nina was exhausted, but the Bronco was hers again. Dark descended, and the parking lot emptied. Dinner would be waiting, and she would sit on the old couch and visit with Matt and Andrea and the kids, and gather the strength to call Kevin-who dashed her plans to procrastinate by driving up in an unmarked police car just as she completed this thought.
“Hey,” he said, leaning out the window. “Lisa called me to crow. I can’t stand this. What can we do now? Where can we talk? Listen, let me treat you to something at that Mexican place across the street. It’s true, isn’t it? I lost?”
“It’s true. I’m so sorry, Kevin, but I have to be somewhere. Of course we’ll talk. I’ll call you at about ten tonight.”
“Just a drink,” he pleaded.
“I’m sorry-people are waiting.”
“Sure wish I could say the same for my son and daughter.”
He had just had the worst news of his life. “I have ten minutes, Kevin,” she said.
They crossed the busy highway together, Kevin’s long legs in khakis progressing two steps ahead for every one of hers. Taking a booth by a window facing a side road with a glimpse of mountains, they were both silent for a moment. Kevin’s emotional hell had hollowed his usually blunt, fleshy face. “I have to hit the head,” he said suddenly and left.
She leaned back against the upholstery of the booth and drifted back to an afternoon she and Paul had spent across from his office in Carmel at the Club Jalapeño. He had work to do but blew it off in favor of a long lunch, later walking her down to the beach, removing her shoes, and spreading a blanket on the sand at sunset. She licked the salty rim of her margarita, remembering Paul’s kisses, thinking she would see him in just a few minutes. Right now, she wanted him fiercely.
Anything to stop thinking about the files. And the loss in court.
“Bottoms up,” Kevin said, returning. He downed half his beer in a gulp. She snapped back to attention. No way could she make this easy on him. “Kevin, I’m sorry. It’s true, what Lisa told you. The judge awarded Lisa temporary physical custody of Heather and Joey.”
Kevin leaned forward and jabbed a finger into her face. “There has been a huge mistake here,” he said. “I mean, huge. They can’t get away with it. I’m starting to figure out exactly how I have been abused by Lisa. And I won’t be abused. Not by her and not by her stinking lawyer. You know, there is absolutely no justice in this stinkin’ world.”
“It’s very hard, I know, but remember this was a hearing about temporary custody. The permanent-custody hearing is another opportunity.”
“That doesn’t happen for months. I already waited nine months for the temporary hearing. We both know how the system works. Mom gets temporary custody, the kids get used to her place, they get comfortable, they don’t want to live with their dad anymore. They tell the county investigator they want to stay with Mom and the investigator sees, yeah, it’s working okay. So now they have a known quantity, the kids are doing all right living with Mom, leave ’em alone, they don’t need another move. I’ve lost, and it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Now I don’t have anything.”
She patted his hand. But he spoke the truth. “I am also very concerned-” she said, then stopped.
“About the file you left in the Bronco? Yeah, I talked to Jean Scholl at the station today. She found your vehicle, no files.”
“Yes.” Nina looked at the tablecloth.
“You shouldn’t have left them there. Easy to lift. Hey. We all make mistakes. I made my own mistakes in my time.” He looked to the side, shook his head.
“That’s very kind of you to say, Kevin.”
“But my kids mean everything to me. You understand?”
“I know how hard it is for you. We’ll make sure you get plenty of time with them, I promise. Kevin, I’m going to ask you to do something for me. You should know this could be risky, considering your possible legal problems, now that your relationship with Ali is public knowledge.”
“A potential statutory-rape charge.”
He flushed red all over. “It won’t come to that. It was consensual. She was nearly an adult.”
“It doesn’t seem likely,” Nina agreed. “But you should be thinking about the possibility.”
“What is it you want me to do?”
“Call Ali. Jeff Riesner said that someone contacted him. Was it Ali, and if it was, why did she do that? Why, at the very last minute? Would she talk to you about it?”
“Oh, geez. Call her? Her parents must be so pissed. Now that she had to go to court-” He took note of Nina’s face and a puzzled expression came into his eyes. “Would it help me get my kids? Could Lisa have stolen my file? It’s so complicated. I’m all confused. I get mixed up and I make mistakes.”
He has a big heart and a small brain, she thought, then mentally kicked herself. “Never mind, Kevin. It’s all right. I’ll find out another way. I just want to know if her appearance in court was somehow related to the loss of my files.”
“Why? Who cares at this point?”
“Well, there were two other files.”
“Oh, right. Big problems for you. Listen. I’ll talk to her. I want to talk to her. Don’t worry, I’ll be careful. I just don’t want to make things worse, is all.”
“Maybe I’m wrong to ask you, but I think it would really help,” Nina said. “You’re a police officer, Kevin. You can do this carefully. This might be useful to you in other ways, too. Maybe talking to Ali will help you find out whether the D.A.’s considering a charge against you. And we really need to find out what happened, how Lisa’s lawyer learned about Ali.”
“Why don’t you just ask Riesner?”
“Because he and I have a history. We don’t get along.”
Darkness shrouded Kevin’s face, and Nina thought, I have to be careful not to make Kevin any more angry. She knew it was tricky, putting him in contact with Ali. But she wanted to start fighting back, and Ali was a lead.
Kevin was settling in. He waved at the waitress, who swooped down in a flash.
“Ready to order?”
Nina checked her watch. “I told you. I have to go.”
“Don’t leave!” Kevin said. He sent the waitress away. “I’m so alone right now. Please don’t leave me.” He gave her those sad eyes. She could see how he might look in ten years. He would age fast, the slight pouches under his eyes and chin would coarsen his face, the sad expression would harden to bitterness, the extra bulk would lead to a big belly, and too much smoking would lead to wheezing breath and coughing spells when he woke up in the morning.
She hoped she was wrong, that he would find happiness with someone new, that he would see the kids regularly and develop a sane visitation schedule with Lisa. That he would quit smoking. She wished that she could fix all that had gone wrong for him.
But some people never got past the divorce. It cleaved their lives too deeply.
“Call me tomorrow. We’ll talk some more,” was all she could say.
“I’ll walk you back across the street. It’s dark.”
“Don’t bother. It’s the middle of town.”
“It’s no bother.”
When they got to the truck, Nina said, “Good night. Try to get some sleep.” She touched his arm.
Kevin fell onto her like a drowning man hugging a life preserver. Bending his head down, he broke into heavy sobs. The big cop cried on her shoulder. After a few seconds, she patted his wide back. She got into the truck, putting distance between them, reminding him that they still might turn things around later.
After giving the dog his dinner, she and Bob drove straight to Matt’s house, spotting Paul pulling up in his Mustang right out front. Bob ran for the house as she walked up to greet Paul.
He opened his arms and she rushed into them. Her arms went around him and she held him tightly, kissing his slightly stubbly cheek, smelling the leather he wore on cold nights. His mouth was warm and as she pressed against him she felt his instant readiness. He was attuned to her physically, and she, melting against him, was helplessly responsive.
“Paul,” she said. She buried her face in his shoulder.
“What is it, honey?”
“Just a hard day. I missed you.”
“I’m afraid I’m starting to depend on you.”
“Is that so bad?” He caressed her shoulder and whispered in her ear, “I want you to depend on me.”
“All right, then,” she said, holding his face in her hands and looking into his eyes. A few droplets fell on them, and she released him slowly.
Paul smiled at her, then turned to the Bronco. He walked all the way around it, kicked the tires, patted its hood. “Good to see you again,” he told it as Nina described the impound yard and her words with Jean Scholl. The drizzle turned to rain, and Nina began to shiver. “In we go,” Paul said. “There’s some kind of party going on in there.”
“Wait. Can you help me with this thing?”
He pulled the big box out of the truck and they ran up the steps. Paul gestured toward the mailbox. “Mind explaining the box? And those balloons?”
“You’re crashing a baby shower.”
Inside the house, they found Matt and Andrea holding court in front of the fireplace, a fire burning, a dozen other people floating like confetti around the room along with wrapping paper, paper plates, and yellow-cake debris.
“Sorry we’re late,” Nina said, helping Paul to arrange the box within Andrea’s reach.
Her younger brother, Matt, and his wife, Andrea, were expecting a third child. Andrea had been married once before and had a child during that marriage, so this would be Matt’s second biological child. Since they already had Troy and Brianna, they didn’t require one sex or the other, feeling free to root for a different sex each day depending on where whim led them, although Nina imagined Matt probably wanted a son of his own. Wasn’t that hardwired, wanting a child of your own sex? When dreaming about another universe, Nina occasionally imagined a sister for Bob, a daughter for herself.
Matt ran a tow business in winter and took tourists parasailing in summer. Nina made sure he carried heavy insurance. He made sure his equipment met tip top safety standards and groaned about the bureaucracy.
Andrea worked part time at the local women’s shelter. Matt and Andrea were Nina’s best friends. Complicated, loving, loyal people, they had built a true marriage. Matt disapproved of Nina’s profession even more than her father did, but most of the time he kept his mouth shut about it.
Matt put a beer in Paul’s hand. Paul sat beside him and drank thirstily.
Andrea pointed at Nina’s large box. “What did you bring baby?”
“This is more for the parents.”
Andrea pushed her curly red hair back from her face and went at the present with a pair of scissors. “I know I should save pretty paper but screw it,” she said. “Oh, Nina! Wow! Wonderful! You remembered how I used to rave about these things.” She went over to Nina and gave her a kiss.
“I remembered it was the most-used present I ever got.”
Someone turned on some music, Burl Ives singing “The Little White Duck.” Someone popped champagne and someone else sang along in a pleasing baritone. Children shouted, marauding through the room in bursts.
While Paul, Andrea, and Matt took turns making a mess out of assembling the automatic rocking baby chair, Nina squatted on the floor, remembering baby Bobby swinging away in the dead of night all those years before, his bright eyes wide open, his soft-spun hair, silent as long as the rocker moved. During those long nights of his infancy, she had sat up with him, looking out her window, at peace.
Her mother had given her the baby chair. Funny she had forgotten that. She thought more often of her mother lately, maybe because lately there was always that idea about moving to Carmel with Paul oscillating like static in the background of her mind. The thought came: She would be closer to her aging father if she lived with Paul in Carmel. She would be closer to her mother’s grave.
Later, Paul headed for his hotel room at Caesars alone and Nina and Bob drove home at eleven o’clock, beat. “Uh oh,” Bob said as they swung onto Pioneer Trail. “I forgot something.”
“I have an essay due tomorrow.”
“Oh, Bob, no. You shouldn’t have gone to the party.”
“A bunch of kids were gonna be there, Mom. Aunt Andrea asked me and Troy to play games with them and keep them out of the living room.”
“I’ll write you a note.”
“Ha, ha. Make me laugh. ‘Bob had to go to a party.’ How long since you were in school, Mom? I’m dead. Forget it.”
They argued about this until Nina gave in. Back at the cabin, they dialed into the Internet and looked for anything they could find about Thomas Dewing, a nineteenth-century artist.
“He paints women to look like pieces of furniture, Mom.”
“How insightful of him. I feel like a broken-down footstool at this very moment. Can we go to bed now?”
But Bob’s research had woken him up. He had other ideas. “Mom? Sometimes I miss my dad. I wonder what it would be like. To have two parents in the same place. I mean, that party. A new baby and everything and all of them together.”
Instantly, a gap opened in her heart. She thought of the men in her life. Kevin Cruz, the father about to lose his children. Jack, Bob’s absent ex-stepfather, and Kurt, his biological father, so far away in Germany. How confusing it must seem to him. How lonely. “Call Kurt,” she urged. “It’s morning in Wiesbaden by now. You’ll probably catch him at home. But make it short, it’s late.”
Bob made the call, spending nearly an hour on the phone. He would be so tired in the morning. She would set her alarm early to make sure he had enough time to wake up and get rolling. Listening from her bedroom to his pauses and happy laughs, she reminded herself that rates after eleven were the best they would be.
When she heard the thunk of the phone returning to its cradle, she went into Bob’s room to say good night to him and kiss him on the cheek. “Thanks for letting me call him,” he said, his voice thick with fatigue. “Sometimes I get low.”
The words struck like a whip. She said, “Everyone does, honey. You know that, don’t you?”
“Sometimes I feel alone. You work so hard.”
“Is there anything special you want to talk about?” She thought of Nikki. She hadn’t had time to think about Nikki and Bob. “Is everything all right at school?”
“Same as usual.”
“Are your friends doing all right? Taylor? Nikki?”
“Screwed up, as usual.”
“Then what do you feel low about?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Paul and me? Is that bothering you? Do you want to-”
“Things were easier before. It’s more tangled up now. I want to get to know my dad better, but he’s so far away and I live here with you. I want to stay on your good side, but you don’t like my friends. You need me, so does he.”
“I do need you, Bob.”
“But he needs me in a different way. You need me to stay your little kid.”
“But, Bob, you are still a kid.”
“Sometimes. Sometimes I’m a man.”
“What?” Nina said. She was too tired to deal with that one.
“G’night.” He closed his eyes.
“Good night, honey.”
She managed to brush her teeth and throw water on her face before climbing into bed. Could it possibly still be Monday? She checked her watch, the modern curse, again.
No. Tuesday had arrived. Maybe she’d get a chance to breathe.
But then she remembered what T-Bone Walker said about Stormy Monday:
… Tuesday’s just as bad…
P AUL PROPELLED A LEG from the Mustang and then a small Styrofoam cup full of espresso he was holding, lid askew. Then the rest of him slid out and straightened up. Not one drop spilled, not that the asphalt of the Starlake Building parking lot would have suffered. The air had that peculiar late-summer Sierra quality of being both crisp and warm at the same time. He checked his watch, saw that it was one minute to nine, and leaned back against the car, planning to spend the entirety of that minute with his face turned to the sun and his eyes closed.
A large indeterminate-model brown car-who made brown cars and why did anyone buy them?-pulled up sedately beside him. Wish Whitefeather was in the driver’s seat and Sandy sat in the passenger’s seat, spine straight, purse in her lap. Paul saw with a small start that both Wish and his mother had the same profile, strong brow ridge and nose, beetling brows. As Wish turned off the ignition, they both turned toward him. Sandy said, “It’s you.”
Paul bowed and opened the door for her. “And how is my favorite Washoe maiden?” he said.
“Don’t think that’s gonna gain you any points.” Sandy gathered her coat around her. Paul had noticed that she often wore her coat outdoors, even on warm summer days. Heaving herself out of the car, she brushed out the coat crinkles and adjusted herself while Paul shut the door. “Well, speak up,” Sandy demanded. “How was the drive?”
“Long. I wish a big earthquake would come and cram the coast against the mountains so I wouldn’t have to drive so far.”
“You could always move here,” Sandy said. Paul smiled and thought he detected a faint thawing of her expression in return.
“How you doin’, buddy?” he said to Wish, who had carefully locked up and was following them toward Nina’s office. Wish was still a sloucher, too tall for the rest of the world and trying to blend in. He wore his straight hair longer these days and a loose black sweater contributed an illusion of broad shoulders. At age twenty, he was starting to settle into himself without any of the jaded irony of his fellow MTVers. Paul liked that, liked his straight-up enthusiasm and naiveté, but had to stay watchful when Wish rode with him.
“Real good. Been hiking a lot. Goin’ to school. Gave the van a paint job.”
“You did? What color?” The van had once been Paul’s.
“Then you don’t have to wash it so much.”
“So Nina talked you into helping out for a few days?”
“I only have three classes this semester, and a pretty flexible schedule. I wouldn’t miss out for anything. Mom says Nina needs help.”
“I never said a thing,” Sandy said.
“You don’t have to say it, Mom. I knew it the minute you told me to get up early and come to the office with you. Don’t worry, Paul, you got backup now.”
“I feel better already,” Paul said.
They went into Nina’s office and Nina called from the conference room, “In here.” She shut the law book she had been reading when she saw him, looking relieved. New strain lurked in her eyes and she’d forgotten the mascara that morning, a sure sign that the night had not gone smoothly.
She got up. Paul came around the table to give her a hug and a kiss while Sandy and Wish hovered back in the outer office. Nina’s soft brown hair swung around her face, smelling like a rain forest, and he rubbed her back through the silk blouse and inwardly cursed her high IQ. Once in a guilty while, a dull-normal version of Nina who didn’t have any significant problems or complexity held real appeal. He was not proud of these thoughts; they were as involuntary as the sexual response she aroused when she brushed her hair against his cheek. Lucky for him, she couldn’t see into the dull-normal corner of his mind or she wouldn’t be looking at him so kindly.
“Thanks a lot for coming,” she said. “I know it isn’t easy for you to get away.”
“Couldn’t let you down.”
“Hey, Wish. It’s good to see you.”
“At your service,” Wish said, stopping just short of a courtly bow. “I can’t wait.”
When they were all settled around the long table with their notepads, instead of launching into discussion, Nina did a strange thing. She picked up the cordless phone and punched numbers, a finger touching her lips.
“Dr. Mai?” she said a moment later. They could only hear her side of the conversation. “How are you? Uh huh. Yes, I have some news. We are settling the insurance amount at two hundred ten thousand as Kao instructed through you. Yes.” She paused, then said, “That’s why I’m calling. Right. I’ll have the check this afternoon. But there’s a problem.
“A problem, right. I can only turn the money over to Kao Vang and his wife. I’m sorry, but you’ll just have to find him and bring them up here. Well, you’ll just have to. No, I won’t turn the money over to you. I know you have the power of attorney. I can’t accept it. I regret that I am unable to accept it.”
Her pause this time lasted quite a while. Then she said, “I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. I am not going to go into my reasoning at this time. I’m going to hold the check until my clients are available. Dr. Mai? Dr. Mai, listen to me. Where is Kao?”
She raised her eyebrows and set down the phone. “He hung up. He’s angry. I wanted you all to hear me withhold that check,” she said. “It may be legal malpractice, but I had to do it. Now let me back up and tell you about the Vang insurance case. Then I would like to know if you think I just did the right thing.”
She told a succinct story of Kao Vang in five minutes. For once, she had not prepared the usual written case summaries for them, she just laid things out, ending with, “And that’s the first file that’s missing. I have two hundred ten thousand dollars that belongs to Kao Vang that I am picking up from the insurance company this afternoon, and I am not going to go through an intermediary like Dr. Mai no matter how many powers of attorney are thrown at me. So. I’d like to hear your thoughts.”
“I don’t get why,” Wish said immediately. “Dr. Mai wouldn’t steal the file, would he? He already knew everything because he was there with your client all the time. So why don’t you trust him?”
“Good question. I only know one thing. Over the weekend, I lost touch with my clients and that doesn’t feel right. I have to know the Vangs are all right. I have to see that for myself, not take anyone else’s word for it. And once I hand that check over to Dr. Mai, I will never see him or the Vangs again.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because they never wanted to come to a lawyer in the first place, Wish. They aren’t comfortable with this system and they don’t particularly trust me, I would guess. They want to fade into the woodwork, maybe leave the country. That’s fine, but with the file missing and Kao unwilling or unable to talk to me, I have reached a degree of discomfort or concern that is going to prevent me from handing over that check even to an authorized represen- tative.”
Wish scratched his head. “You mean you have a gut feeling things aren’t right?”
Nina said, “You got it, cowboy. Did someone call someone else with information that was in my file? The guy who robbed his store, the one Kao shot dead-did someone in his family steal my file to get at Kao? Is Kao in danger? Is Dr. Mai legit?”
“What do you think is wrong?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been doing some reading about the Hmong. They’ve had a hard time adapting to this country, and with California cutting off welfare benefits after two years, Hmong people are going hungry. The violence in their own country left many of them with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Hmong men sometimes just die in their sleep for no known reason. It’s called sudden adult death syndrome, and the medical guess is that severe and unremitting stress causes it. The women have their own set of problems. They usually take care of big families and do the whole second-class citizen thing, walking five steps behind the men. That doesn’t work too well when there’s no man to walk behind, for instance.”
Sandy said, “But they need that money. And withholding a client’s money is an absolute no-no, isn’t it? I thought Dr. Mai was all right.”
“Maybe he is all right,” Nina said. “Maybe he’s trying to help the Vangs. Maybe I’m causing them a big problem. I can’t help that if they won’t talk to me directly.” She firmed up her jaw.
Paul said, “I hark back two days to our talk with Jack. Remember? He said the state bar problems usually have to do with money disputes. Have you talked to him about this? You could just pass on the check, avoid any question of malpractice, and flourish the power of attorney if Dr. Mai steals the money. You would be protected.”
Nina waved her hand. “True, the power of attorney seems to be legitimate. Paul, would you pay out the money in these circumstances? Did I do the right thing morally? Totally aside from the fact that I’m exposing my own rear end.”
Paul sighed and said, “Of course you did, honey. You have Mai’s address in Fresno? I’ll follow up for you.” She smiled and gave it to him. Paul went on, “I need to look at this large claim you put together. Maybe there’s some information hidden in a receipt or supplier’s note about where the Vangs live.”
“Very little of the supporting documentation is in English.”
“Can we have it translated?”
“That’ll take too much time, Paul. I can’t hold the check for very long. Here are the police reports that detail the original robbery and shooting, the second attempt when Kao killed the robber, and the arson. These reports will tell you all I know about Kao Vang’s enemies. But first, obviously, you need to try to talk to Dr. Mai.”
“Okay. We begin with Mai, who you just jump-started. He’s sitting in Fresno right now looking at the phone and realizing that if he doesn’t cooperate, nobody will see that money. He ought to talk to us. What else?”
“The man Kao killed in self-defense. His name and address are in the police reports. The name was”-she flipped to one of the exhibits on the claim-“Song Thoj, age eighteen, a known gang member in Fresno.”
“That brings up a new set of concerns.”
“I have to agree that I don’t think we understand enough about this situation,” Paul said.
“So I’ll keep the check safe and you and Wish make sure I put it into the right hands, Paul.”
“I realize that the main question right now is, where is Kao? But there is that other question hanging fire,” Paul said. “Are the bad guys who torched the Vangs’ convenience store also the ones who stole the files out of your truck?”
“I hope not,” Nina said. She rubbed her forehead and went on, “But if they followed the Vangs to my office, if they followed me home, if they saw files and took them opportunistically, then they would know where the Vangs live. They would know about the settlement money. Which would make an extortion attempt possible.”
Sandy stirred at this. “You’re suggesting they kidnapped the Vangs because of the files? Then they call Dr. Mai and say, get the money to us and we’ll let them go.”
“Oh, my gosh,” Wish said.
“It’s the kind of thought that strikes at three A.M., yes, Sandy,” Nina said. “Let’s hope it’s just another bad dream.”
“But who are these ‘bad guys’?” Wish asked.
“Let me know when you find out.”
They took a break so Nina could deal with a couple of phone calls in her office. Wish walked outside.
Sandy sat down behind her desk, slammed an offending open drawer shut smartly, and looked at Paul, saying, “And that’s only one file out of three. Now look. Why does she have to dredge so deep? How does a simple insurance claim turn into this? Is it her?”
“In a way, it is,” Paul said. “Another lawyer would give Mai the money, make rapid washing motions with her hands, and move on.”
“What about if these enemies stole the files?”
“Another lawyer would say, ‘Let the police find the files.’ And move on.”
“She feels responsible,” Sandy said.
“Yeah. The advice Jack gave her was, try to prevent harm to the clients. He was thinking about her. But you know, she’s thinking about the clients. She does want to prevent harm. Reminds me of another lawyer I worked for once, a big-shot personal-injury lawyer. He’d work the claim for years, never give an inch, throw a thousand curves, wear down the other side until even the big insurance companies gave in and handed him the big recovery. Of course, by then, the client wouldn’t need the money anymore, because the client would have gone insane from the endless delay.”
“I get you. He won the case but he didn’t do right by the client.”
“You notice that she talked to Mai first, then asked us what we thought,” Paul said.
“She didn’t want us to feel like we had responsibility in making that decision not to pay out the money?”
Nina came out of her office. “Ready for the next round?” she said. “What are you looking at?”
“A pretty good lawyer,” Sandy said.
“Let that be my epitaph,” Nina said.
Five minutes later, back in the conference room with a half-dozen doughnuts piled on a plate in the middle of the table, Nina said, “And now we discuss the second file-the Cruz custody case. The players are Kevin Cruz, his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Lisa Cruz, and his ex-girlfriend, Ali Peck.” She went through the background and summarized the hearing.
“Ali may be the best lead we have on the lost files,” she finished. “How did Riesner hear about her? Did she contact him directly?” She wiggled a chocolate doughnut out of the middle of the pile and took a bite. As she talked, she had been doodling ducks and snakes all over the page in front of her.
“Check,” Wish said. He made another note. He had pages full of notes by now.
“We have an address on this girl?” Paul said.
Sandy passed it over, studied the doughnuts, and picked out a glazed one, which she set neatly on a napkin beside her coffee. “Watch out. Alexandra Peck still lives with her parents,” she said.
“But Kevin Cruz already lost custody,” Wish said. “Aren’t his problems too late to fix?”
“At the hearing last week, he only lost temporary custody,” Nina told him. “I agree, now that Ali has been outed, the temporary-custody order isn’t likely to change, and there’s still the possibility of further damaging charges hanging over him. But let’s speculate with what we know. Let’s think further. How did Ali get outed?”
“Assume the files were stolen to find out Kevin’s secrets, you mean,” Paul said.
“Okay,” Wish said. Relying on a genetically programmed aid to thinking, he was worrying his lower lip exactly like Sandy did sometimes. Paul looked over at Sandy and darn if she wasn’t doing it, too. Nina’s pen scribbled angular abstracts all over the nice clean page she had just exposed on her pad. Paul noticed that he himself had just polished off his second doughnut. So had Sandy.
They all felt the strain.
Wish finally let go of his lip. He raised a finger. “Mrs. Cruz.”
“She hit gold there,” Sandy agreed, tearing off another chunk of doughnut.
“Mom, are you sure you want that?”
A dreadful, anticipatory silence descended upon them. Sandy drew herself up slowly. “Sometimes I feel like hog-tying you and leaving you out in the field for the red ants,” she said.
“But you said-” Wish blurted.
“Dip him in powdered sugar first,” Paul advised.
“But she said I should stop her if she-”
“Nina?” Paul said hastily. “You were saying?”
“Lisa Cruz testified at the hearing on Thursday morning,” Nina said. “She could have picked up my truck key lying on the counsel table during a break, or on the ground if I dropped it and she saw me. It’s also just possible Jean Scholl, the patrolwoman who found the Bronco, had something to do with it. She was there that morning in court. I saw her.”
“Yeah, but how could anyone know you would leave files in there that night?” Wish asked.
“You know what I think?” Nina said. “I don’t think anyone deliberately set out to get my files. I think someone found or stole my key and then used it late that night with a vague hope that they might gain access to something they could use against me, or to win a case. Something balled up in the litter, even.”
“Sometimes when you’re looking for a break, you see a chance and you say, dingdong! This could be my opportunity!” Wish said, still casting a wary eye upon his mother.
“We’ll talk to Ali,” Paul said, “and do some checking on Scholl.”
“I’ll tell you who won that day. Lisa Cruz’s lawyer,” Sandy said, referring to Jeff Riesner. She did not look at Wish as she took a big bite of her doughnut.
“I like to think I would have noticed such a loathsome creature slinking around my driveway,” Nina said.
“I still have a good friend at that man’s law firm. She eats lunch with his secretary every day,” Sandy offered.
“Wouldn’t hurt to try to find out what Riesner was doing Thursday night,” Paul said. “Check him out, Sandy. But quietly.”
“Which brings up a point,” Paul said to Nina. “Nicole Zack actually was in your driveway on Thursday night.” He angled toward Wish, explaining. “Bob’s girlfriend.”
“Bob has a girlfriend?”
“Bob does not have a girlfriend,” Nina said. “But you’re right, Paul. You need to speak with Nikki. She’s capable of a joyride.”
She handed over a copy of the written statement Nikki had given to Officer Scholl. “The police found no fingerprints, nothing, in the Bronco.”
“Impossible,” Paul said. “Unlikely, anyway. They must not be looking hard enough. I’ll also have a chat with Officer Scholl.”
“Oh,” Nina said. “I should tell you I told her about these three files.”
“Got it,” said Paul.
“So Bob has a girlfriend,” Wish said. “When I was thirteen, I fell in love for the first time, too. She was a year ahead of me in school, on the track team. Sita, that was her name. She broke my heart and I’ve never been the same.”
“He never could watch a track meet again,” Sandy said. “It does something to you.” She popped more of her doughnut into her mouth and chewed.
“Make fun of me if you want, Mom,” Wish said. “You always put on this big act about not being sentimental. But I heard you crying in the kitchen the night Dad called and said he was coming home-”
Sandy’s face began to turn purple and her eyes bulged. Wish watched the changes with an alarmed expression.
“What was that you said, Wish?” Paul put in hastily. Wish seemed unable to take his foot out of his mouth this morning. They all knew how much Sandy hated any mention of her private life. “I didn’t catch it. Nina didn’t either.”
Nina nodded vaguely. Sandy said nothing. She was grimacing and seemed to be building up to something. Paul thought, oh brother.
“Oh, but before you say anything more, Wish, I have a question for Nina,” Paul said, trying to deflect whatever was coming. “Um, so, returning to the issue of Bob’s girlfriend, didn’t you tell me once she doesn’t have her driver’s license yet?”
“Bob does not have a girlfriend,” Nina said. “And not having a license isn’t necessarily going to stop you from driving. I’d like you to talk to Nikki. Now can we move on? Wish? Sandy?”
Sandy’s eyes were still popping. She made a gargling sound. Her hands gripped the edge of the table. Paul thought, this is it. She’s gonna explode like Krakatoa. Wish finally did it this time.
“Sorry, Mom,” Wish said. “Mom?”
“He’s extremely sorry,” Paul repeated. “Sandy?”
Nina watched Sandy. They all watched Sandy, waiting for the forthcoming eruption, ready to take cover under the table if necessary.
Sandy coughed loudly into her napkin. She coughed again. Her highly bruised color faded slightly back toward normal.
“Why didn’t somebody clap me on the back?” she demanded. “Couldn’t you see I was choking? None of you did a darn thing to help!” She glared at them. “Now, what’s so funny?”
When order returned, Nina said, “People, File Number Three presents what I think are the most urgent problems. Let’s go through this. These two young women, sisters, were staying here in South Lake Tahoe at Campground by the Lake, right off Rufus Allen Boulevard-” She summarized the facts of the campground homicide.
Paul struggled to assimilate it all. He wasn’t used to having so much thrown at him at one time. Nina was going to run him ragged with all these people. But he had to agree, with the file gone and Nina’s notes on the events of that night gone along with it, Angel and Brandy needed to make their report to the D.A. and the South Lake Tahoe police even if he had to drag them there by their crimped and moussed hair. He and Wish would have to roust them from Angel’s beauty salon right after the meeting. Paul liked barbershops with their phallic striped poles and no-nonsense razor jobs where the tacit guy agreement called for lickety-split efficiency, and he couldn’t understand why women had such a different take on the same operation. What exactly did women do to their hair that could possibly require an entire afternoon?
“Angel’s salon is located in Harveys Casino, in the basement,” Nina said.
Paul said, “I think Angel and Brandy have to come first. If this fellow Cody is the one with the files, he’ll come after Brandy. It’s possible. Telling it all to one of the deputy D.A.’s over at the courthouse may or may not get them adequate protection. Brandy shouldn’t be at home alone.”
“She’s worried about her fiancé,” Nina said. “He seems to have disappeared. It’s another unsettling event of the weekend that may or may not be connected to the theft of the files.”
“It’s a lot, Nina. I don’t think we can bodyguard Brandy plus look for the boyfriend and get the other work rolling, too.”
Nina said, “I have an idea. I’ll see if Andrea can put Brandy and Angel up at the Tahoe Women’s Shelter. Brandy shouldn’t go back to Palo Alto, especially if her boyfriend isn’t there.”
“Excellent,” Paul said. “Give us a chance to try to untangle a few things. The sisters have to come first. There’s some major exposure there, and I think it goes beyond speculation.” He pushed his chair back.
“We’ll crack it,” Wish said. He got up and gave Nina a serious nod.
Paul and Wish went outside and slid into Paul’s Mustang. Wish drew on his sunglasses and smoothed back his hair.
“Let’s roll,” he told Paul.
D OWN BELOW HARVEYS CASINO, through caverns measureless to man, amid the video arcades and Mexican restaurants and the boutique bursting with burlwood bears, Paul and Wish found a curtain of orange crystalline beads framed by an archway. Beyond that, a door with a glass insert advertised the salon. On the glass, painted in flesh-pink and sea-green tones, Cupid shot an arrow toward filmy clouds shaped into the words Angel’s Heavenly Hair.
Wish shoved the beads out of the way and stepped through, followed by Paul, who took a battering as the beads, released by Wish, fell back into his face.
“Oops,” said Wish.
The stench of primitive chemistry greeted them as they pulled open the door. A chime rang, unnecessarily announcing their arrival into the small room.
Several female faces turned to look at them, looking both intrigued and astonished. They had entered the forbidden precincts.
A young woman with brown hair, dressed in a long soft skirt, stepped up to a kind of podium. “Um,” she said, flipping a notebook open and picking up a pen. “What can we do for you?”
“We’re here to see Angel Guillaume and Brandy Taylor,” Paul said, handing her his card. “Are they here?”
At the back of the room, a girl with white tips to her choppy hairstyle, a mouth full of pink tissue squares, and hands full of hair nodded so vigorously a few of the tissues flew. “Mmpf,” she said. She wore a pale blue apron with a white badge in the shape of Gabriel blowing his horn over her breast. Angel, it said.
The girl who had greeted them said, “I’m Brandy. Why don’t you sit down and wait here for a minute.” Pretty and young, she curved sweetly enough to guarantee Wish couldn’t take his eyes off her.
“My pleasure,” he said.
She dimpled at him. Wish sat down on a prissy brass-legged bench in front of a window. He picked up a magazine with pictures of women with long hair, short hair, tall hair, wide hair, but he was distracted, watching Brandy walk away. Paul continued to stand while Brandy took the spike-haired blond by the arm and steered her through a pastel curtained doorway in back.
Angel’s the punk star, he thought, making his quick classification. Brandy’s the gentle dreamer. Another woman with an angel badge came rushing out from the back, brandishing a pair of scissors like a relay runner who has just been passed the baton.
“I’ll finish you up,” she told the lady in the front chair with twists of cone-shaped aluminum on her head.
“If I wanted you, Jill, I would have asked for you,” said the lady. Jill smiled, bent over, and gave a vicious yank to a metallic cone.
“Hey!” her client said.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. Did that hurt?” She winked at Paul. “How do you know Angel?” she said a moment later. They could all hear the whispered voices rising from behind the curtain.
“I don’t. Not yet, anyway,” said Paul. “Mind telling me what you’re doing there?”
“Frosting,” she said, then laughed at his expression. “I’m streaking her hair. It brightens up a dull look. Helps transition ladies to gray.”
“You saying my hair’s dull and gray?” asked the client.
“Oh, come on. Would I insult you? You’re one of our best clients,” Jill answered without answering.
“Angel, I don’t have all day,” called the other woman in curlers.
The whispers stopped. Angel came out first, smoothing her apron. She put a hand on the woman’s shoulder, said a few words in a low voice, and walked up to Paul, followed closely by the girl in the skirt. “Follow me, okay?”
“After you,” Wish said. They all squeezed out the door into the walkway right outside the salon. Slot machines pinged all around them.
“Nina’s waiting. We have an appointment set up for you,” Paul said.
The two women looked sick. Brandy said, “Mr. van Wagoner, I don’t know if we can go through with this. We went back to my house in Palo Alto last night and there’s still no sign of Bruce. I’m scared. I don’t think we should tell anyone anything. Maybe Cody kidnapped Bruce!”
“And I’m worried about my family.” Angel bit her lip.
“What should we do?” Brandy asked, agitated. “Tell the police Bruce’s kidnapped? I don’t even want to see the police. I want to stay out of this thing. Maybe he’s fly-fishing somewhere in Alaska for a few days with some client of his who’s got money to burn. That’s more logical, more real. That guy, Cody, why would he go after Bruce anyway?”
“Right! He’d go after us!” Angel said. “He won’t be thinking about my kids and my husband. They’ll be safe because he’ll want me or my sister. We want to hide until they all go away.”
“Where?” Paul asked. “Where would you go?”
Brandy looked at Paul and Wish. “Somewhere only we know.”
Angel shook her head. “I’m so confused. Oh, man, this is the point on TV where people don’t tell the police what they know and get whacked.”
“Nobody’s going to get whacked,” Wish said, horrified. “We’d never let that happen.”
“You have no choice,” Paul told them. “The police can arrest you as material witnesses if you don’t come forward. Believe me. Talking to them is the wise thing to do.”
“Can’t Nina just tell them what we told her?” Brandy asked. “She knows the story.”
“You have to tell the D.A. what you saw,” Paul answered, tired of arguing. “Let’s go.”
“And exactly who are you, anyway?” Brandy asked Wish.
“She sent me to protect you,” Wish said. “Don’t worry.”
“Oh. Wow.” Brandy gave him a radiant smile and Wish dissolved into his high-tops.
Paul didn’t think telling her they weren’t leaving without them would improve the situation. “We’re here to escort you safely to the police. Once the D.A. has your statement about what happened at the campground, you’ve done your duty,” he said. “You’ll be safer. It’s like insurance.”
“Angel, if you don’t come back in here right now,” said a voice from inside the salon, “I’m going to get up and walk out of here with one half of my head full of pink curlers, then I’m going up to Raley’s and tell everybody there why I look so foolish.”
“Coming!” she said. “Look, I have to finish Mrs. Gerdes before I can leave.”
“How long will that take?”
“Let’s see, finish rolling, then the perm, wash it out, dry it. Make it look outstanding. At least an hour, maybe longer.”
“We’ll wait,” Paul said. “But you’ll go?”
Angel looked at her sister, then back at Paul. “Yeah, we’ll go.”
When Paul’s stomach began to rumble as loudly as Wish’s, he sent him out for some food. Paul balanced himself on the flimsy bench in the salon and observed Jill’s frosting of the coneheaded woman and the manufacture of artificial curls on the head of Angel’s client.
Brandy sat with him. She spoke hardly a word to Paul, but she perked up when Wish arrived, slightly bent with the weight of bags full of quesadillas and nachos. They spread the food between them and ate and talked. Brandy asked Wish questions about his studies. Listening to them, Paul learned that she had been a philosophy major at community college and that she didn’t feel like she belonged in Palo Alto. She didn’t talk about her fiancé, Paul noticed. Wish seemed to be making a conquest. Or he was being vanquished, Paul wasn’t sure which.
After a while, Angel finished and joined them. They all piled into the Mustang.
“You know, we always intended to go to the police. We wouldn’t have let that bastard get away with killing her,” Angel said as they drove alongside the lake toward Al Tahoe Boulevard. “We’re just afraid.”
“Sure you are,” Paul said.
“Why did Cody have to kill Phoebe?” Brandy asked.
“You know why,” Angel said. “Sexual jealousy. She was with another guy.” Sitting in the front seat beside Paul, she pulled her feet up on the car seat as if settling down for some titillating gossip. “This is what we heard. Phoebe is sleeping with Mario but he gets arrested and lands in prison for a long time, like maybe a whole year,” she explained. “He and Cody were old friends from way back, and so Phoebe and Cody’re hangin’ out together moaning about poor Mario. And then one fine night they get-”
“Down and dirty,” Brandy said from behind her.
“And Mario gets out of prison earlier than anyone expected,” Angel continued. “He shows up out of the blue at Cody’s house. Well, it makes sense. He goes to see his best friend first thing-”
“Wanting to spend the night on the couch and collect the money Cody’s keeping for him,” Brandy said.
“But Cody’s surprised and not that happy to see Mario after all. He’s cagey. He doesn’t want Mario to know about Phoebe hanging with him, so he makes up an excuse and says, ‘You can’t stay here.’ He swears he doesn’t have the money but promises to get it and bring it to Mario the next day.”
“They were in on a drug deal together and Cody held the money for Mario while he was in prison,” Brandy said.
“Taking the rap, I think,” said Angel.
“So Mario asks, ‘Well, then, where the hell can I go?’ ’Cause you have to remember, he’s got practically no money,” Brandy added.
“So then Cody gives him twenty bucks or so and sends Mario to the campground with a ratty old tent and a bag. Some friend.”
“Meanwhile, guess who’s listening from somewhere behind the drapes?” Brandy asked rhetorically.
“Mario’s old girlfriend, Phoebe, who’s actually been missing him or maybe is just getting very sick of Cody, his second-rate stand-in,” said Angel. “Mario was definitely the better-looking one.”
“So Phoebe sneaks out and follows Mario to the campground. And initiates a rowdy reunion. If she’d only known. It’s so awful. I guess that’s what those other people who had our campsite before really objected to. Probably they were hanging all over each other,” Brandy said.
“Indiscreet,” Angel agreed.
“So Cody-he came back late at night. And he killed her! Angel, should we really do this?”
“It’s for the best, Bran.”
They fell silent, both with one arm folded, the other resting under a chin.
Paul turned up Al Tahoe, intrigued and moved by these two young women. Telling the story lightened their emotional load. Nina, the amateur psychologist, would probably say their reworking of these memories helped them to gain control over their fear. And then there was the relationship between them. They were like children of exactly equal weight on a teeter-totter, shifting back and forth in perfect harmony. He sighed, thinking of his own sister in San Francisco. The last time he saw her, he had been in the hospital with a broken leg. The moment he regained full consciousness and saw her there at the foot of his bed, all he could think about was how to send her scurrying home.
“Then Cody showed up,” Paul said, prompting them.
“He’s got this shattering motorcycle engine. I mean, you couldn’t hear a china cupboard collapse over the noise of that thing,” Brandy said.
“Or a house fall down, for that matter,” Angel added.
“A Harley,” Wish said. “Or maybe Kawasaki? They make some really powerful engines.”
Brandy, sitting next to him, seemed startled at this sudden show of interest. “Who knows?” she said. “Just really loud.”
“Cody hops off the bike,” Angel said, “and the fighting starts. He’s really pissed about Phoebe. He says she’s already jumped in the sack with Mario, hasn’t she?”
“Which is literally the truth,” said Brandy. “I always wondered if those double bags were roomy enough.”
“Mario says, ‘F-off! She was mine before and she’ll always be mine. And by the F-ing way, where the F is my mother-F-ing money?’ ”
Paul stifled a laugh. Mario’s language had even the bold Angel cringing.
“So they got into a fistfight, and I called the ranger and the ranger came and ran Cody off,” Brandy finished suddenly. “That’s the whole story.”
“Except that Cody came back and strangled Phoebe,” Angel said.
This time, no amount of prompting could lift the sisters out of their silent funk.
They found Nina leaning against her Bronco in the parking lot at the county offices. She went into the D.A.’s office with Brandy and Angel while Wish and Paul waited outside for a long time.
When the women returned, Angel looked wrung out down to the ends of her bleached hairdo. Brandy had lapsed into introspective gloom. Nina had a court appearance in another fifteen minutes in the building across from the D.A.’s office.
“We have lined up a place for you two to go that’s safe,” Nina said.
“What?” Brandy said. “I thought you guys said talking to the D.A. was our insurance.”
“This is just intensive short-term protection,” Paul said smoothly. “The D.A.’s office agrees it’s a good move.”
“We’d like you to move into a shelter operated by my sister-in-law, Andrea Reilly, at least for tonight,” Nina said. “The location is kept very private. They have excellent security, and it’s just the spot for you two until the police can arrest Cody Stinson. It’s my advice that you go there immediately. They have everything you need for an overnight stay.”
“Forget that,” Angel said. “I’m sleeping in my own bed tonight. We’ll bar the door. Sam’s still out of town with the kids, so they’re all safe, and I am so tired of running around. We’ll be fine at my house.” She shook her head and twisted her mouth at the thought. “We’re not going to some icky place for abused women!”
“You hired me for advice. Now take it,” Nina said firmly. “This is a good, clean place with some wonderful professional people who know how to make you feel comfortable in addition to providing security you need. As long as Cody Stinson is out there, there may be danger for you both. The district attorney’s office has placed people at the shelter before.”
“No.” Brandy folded her arms. Angel followed suit.
Nina and Paul both argued hard, but in the end, the two women, armed with their elbows and stony expressions, formed an impervious blockade against all imprecations.
When Nina had to leave, Paul and Wish offered to take Angel and Brandy back to the salon. Angel announced that she was ready to call it quits for the day. She and Brandy wanted a ride back to the Harveys parking lot to pick up Angel’s car, then they planned to head straight back to Angel’s cabin. Subdued, they said little about their meeting with the D.A. other than to report that he seemed like a fair man who believed them and now would go out and get Cody Stinson and lock his butt up.
With that hopeful analysis behind them, they clammed up. Wish rose to the occasion, suddenly voluble on several topics, beginning with motorcycle lore, skipping to detective lore, finally landing upon hip-hop music, which sparked some interest.
Paul dropped the sisters at the casino and drove around the corner. A few moments later he watched the two jump into Angel’s car. The women drove off into the late-afternoon traffic. Paul followed behind a couple of cars.
“We’ll escort them safely home,” Paul said. “I’m thinking we’ll sit on their curb tonight.”
“Well, sure. They’re in danger.”
The sisters passed the turnoff at Al Tahoe that would lead to Pioneer Trail. At the Y intersection, Angel swung the Echo right. Brandy held a small purple mobile phone to her ear. Holding tight with one hand to the oh-shit bar above the door to keep herself steady against Angel’s erratic driving style, she talked. Since Paul knew she lived on Blackfoot Avenue about two miles west of Nina’s, he also knew that they were not, as advertised, going directly back to Angel’s.
At Camp Richardson, the Echo swerved right. Paul narrowly avoided missing the entrance. The dapper little car jaunted all the way to the end of the narrow camp road, past the one-room cabins lining it, and stopped in a marked spot at the end where the asphalt broadened. Paul and Wish followed a few seconds later.
The girls had landed at the Beacon Bar and Grill. Paul heard them ordering espressos while he and Wish hunted for a table where they could observe without being noticed. They ordered iced tea, which arrived in wet, cold glasses. Wish busied himself with a multitude of sugar packets while Paul squeezed his lemon slice.
At this late hour, Lake Tahoe rippled in a steady breeze. Gulls coasted above. Even the narrow stretch of beach sand wore a glaze of tiny airborne granules. Umbrellas above the tables adjusted dangerously. Behind Mount Tallac the sun slipped low and the sky shifted from azure to indigo. The wind hushed, bringing that moment of quiet before the onset of evening.
The girls packed away two hot drinks each rather quickly, checked their watches for the time, and with what must have been a zinging buzz, left a pile of one-dollar bills on the table and set off down the beach at a near run. Paul and Wish established a slightly more leisurely pace but stayed close. “Getting some exercise,” Wish guessed, “staying fit.”
“They’re meeting someone.”
“Ah. The phone call. The time.”
The sisters walked west toward Kiva Beach, passed by a succession of joggers and bikes until Beach Road ended, then entered that sparser realm just a few steps past all public areas where only the intrepid ventured. Trees crept closer to the edge of the water, their long shadows casting triangles, blotting the beach.
“Who could they be meeting?”
“If I were to guess,” Paul said, “I’d say Brandy’s boyfriend, Bruce, is supposed to appear.”
The women stopped suddenly, turned away from the lake, then stepped into a black patch of shade and ducked into the woods.
“You don’t think he will?”
“Damn!” Paul said, breaking into a trot, then a run as a shout, then a scream rode toward them.
“Wish and Paul saved our lives,” Brandy said, sobbing in Nina’s office a half hour later. Nina had stayed late after receiving Paul’s urgent call. “If they hadn’t happened to be walking along the beach at the same exact time-”
Angel put a hand on her sister’s head. “Bran, wake up, they didn’t happen to be there.” She looked up at Paul. “You followed us.”
“Exactly what happened?” Nina asked.
“Brandy got a phone call while we were going home from a guy that said he was a friend of Bruce’s, that he had asked this guy to call and let Brandy know he would meet her at Kiva Beach at a certain time.”
“You weren’t suspicious?” Nina asked.
“Of Bruce? He didn’t have his cell phone. That’s unusual, but not impossible. And I always thought he might follow Bran up here.”
“Why the beach?”
“He said he wanted a quiet spot for them to talk. It’s a public place, you know,” Angel said. “I wasn’t about to let her go alone, even though she told me not to come.”
“We walked along the beach,” Brandy said, “then we heard someone calling us from the trees. It was windy-not like you could identify a voice. Anyway, even if it hadn’t been Bruce’s voice, when someone says, ‘Over here,’ you go over there.”
Paul coughed and shook his head in the direction of the floor.
“And he leaped out at us like-like a rabid dog,” Brandy finished, “a wild creature. Angel tried to jump him, so he knocked her down right away, the entire time just jabbering. I screamed and tried to fight him. He grabbed me from behind but before he could do anything else, Wish and Paul ran up and pulled him off me. I-I-”
“She was screaming her head off,” Angel said. “So was I. Paul wanted to know were we okay, but it took us a minute to realize there was no blood anywhere on us. Not even a nick. We were so lucky.”
“That wasn’t luck,” Brandy said. “Wish and Paul being there wasn’t luck at all.”
“He got away,” Paul said, and a world of disappointment underlaid his words.
“You recognized him?”
Paul nodded. “Same as the guy in the paper, Cody Stinson.”
Wish said matter-of-factly, “It was definitely a Harley chopper. Heard it first, and glimpsed him taking off.”
“I tried to get them to see a doctor but they refused. We have agreed they’ll spend the night at the women’s shelter. They wanted to come here first,” Paul said.
“Yes,” said Angel, turning her attention back to Nina, “because any way you look at it, Cody would never have come after us if you hadn’t lost that file.”
“It sounds mean, but yes,” Brandy said, “a man attacked us today, and it’s all your fault.”
“He’s out there, and you know what?” Angel asked. “He wants my sister dead.”
“So our question is-”
“What are you going to do about it?”
T HEY DON’T HANG PEOPLE in Old Hangtown anymore. They don’t even call it that anymore; it has mutated into the innocuous foothill resort town of Placerville where they pop the accused into the sleek new El Dorado County Jail, all very civilized.
On Wednesday afternoon, Paul exited and drove uphill past swatches of red dirt to Forni Road and parked in the second parking lot. He followed a long concrete walkway inside to the blue-and-white-painted glass-walled entry of a brick building that resembled a college campus. Only a closer view to the left of the main building, behind barbed-wire-topped fencing, exposed slitted windows that revealed its true purpose.
He walked into a blue-and-white room on a color-coordinated white vinyl tile floor speckled with blue toward the reception area behind glass at the right, wondering what considerations determined decor for a place that housed criminals. Were these two colors thought to be neutral? Upbeat? Tranquilizing? He spoke into a metal disk-shaped speaker in the center of the glass, signed paperwork, and slipped it through the slot below. The clerk directed him first to a set of blue-and-chrome chairs permanently attached in rows balanced on one bent leg apiece where he waited for a few minutes. Then the clerk moved a hand toward him, allowing him through the door and into the windowless bowels of the building. A green stripe led the way.
A young man wearing a blue shirt that strained to cover a muscular build entered the visitors’ room and sat down across from Paul. Paul introduced himself as an investigator for attorney Nina Reilly.
“She’s not my lawyer,” Mario said. “What are you doing here?” A shave and a haircut and a few days in jail had eliminated the unkempt drunk the sisters had described. This tall, strong ex-con had pale green eyes, a mouth with only a hint of meanness in its arc, and an intelligent expression. Paul classified him as salvageable, although he had a long record, a lousy education, and a public defender who didn’t return Paul’s phone calls.
“I need some information.”
“I can’t talk to you about my case.”
“No, you shouldn’t. I’m just looking for information about a friend of yours, Cody Stinson.”
Mario sat back and laughed from one side of his mouth. “I thought you said a friend.”
“I’m trying to find him.”
“So I’d like your help with that.”
“Don’t buck me, man. You talk to your lawyer lately?”
“She’s coming in today.”
“She’s bringing good news. A witness in your case saw Cody come back to the campground the night you allegedly strangled your girlfriend. The D.A. took a statement that may just be your ticket out of here.”
“Is this a joke or a trick? Because I don’t take kindly to being jacked around.”
“It’s all true.”
“Let me see your license again.” He examined it, then said, “You got any cigarettes?”
“Lay ten bucks on the guard and I don’t even care if you are jackin’ me.”
“I always pay my way,” Paul said.
“I’m getting out?”
“I don’t know what the next steps are. But Cody’s looking like the killer.”
Mario leaned in toward Paul. “Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. Because I never touched her. I’ve been saying it all along. How’d he do it?”
“Came back while you were sleeping it off that night.”
“And didn’t kill me?”
“Here you are.”
Mario looked down. “I can’t believe I was laying right there. I was royally passed out. Poor Phoebe. I ain’t never drinkin’ again. Now let’s think. You all want Cody. I know old Cody, I sure do.”
“Cody’s made himself unavailable to the police. They can’t question him; they can’t arrest him if they can’t find him. They’ll be along, probably today with your lawyer.”
“What’s your interest?”
“I can’t get into that. Going back to our original question, do you have any idea where he might go?”
Mario wiped a bead of perspiration off his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. “I think I can help you there. Thing is, he’s waiting on some big money, supposed to come in any minute. He won’t leave Tahoe without that.”
“Where would he wait?”
While Paul was down in Placerville visiting with Mario Lopez, Nina scooted out of an appointment to stop in and see how Brandy and Angel were making out at the shelter.
A roomy old vacation house within walking distance of Regan Beach, the structure for the women’s shelter had been donated by an eccentric widow, Anabel Wright, a dozen years before. In those years it had provided a refuge for women and children with all sorts of problems.
At first it had been lacking in almost every modern amenity, but the earnest efforts of Andrea and friends over the past two years had wrought big changes. A new laundry area attached to the kitchen had been built with two washers and dryers. New donated countertops and cabinets had been installed by skilled women who had volunteered labor on the project. A forest-green trim on the windows spiffed up the wood exterior without making any statements except that this was a well-kept property. Inside, gracious Arts and Crafts-style wooden furniture, more donations from wealthy patrons and grateful former clients, gave the living room the character of a charming mountain lodge, and due to the goodness of a group of retirees, every bedroom now sported a homemade quilt.
Andrea had decided to work part-time months before she even knew she was pregnant and Nina knew she was loving spending more time at home with her children, but she was there today to greet Nina and show her where to find Brandy and Angel, in the basement recreation room engaged in a savage game of foosball. Insults flew between the two of them as they flipped and thwacked the sturdy plastic characters. While Andrea and Nina watched, Brandy, cheeks ruddy with concentration, finally edged Angel out. “Ha!” She threw up hands open wide with delight. “I beat you.”
“Flake. You blew three goals.”
“Ingrate. You know I gave you all three.”
Brandy noticed Nina and said, “Hey! You got him?”
“No, not yet. I’m just checking to see if you’re okay here.”
“Oh, we’re fine. Andrea’s very nice. The room is great. Everything’s great except that life’s on hold, Angel’s husband’s upset. She can’t go to work. My boyfriend’s missing and I can’t go looking for him. We’re twiddling our thumbs.”
“Let’s hope it’s not for long,” Nina said. Her mobile phone rang. With a quick good-bye to the two women and Andrea, she took the call on her way out the door.
“If there’s any possible way, Kevin Cruz wants you to stop by,” Sandy said.
“That’s what the man said. He and Lisa are fighting about exchanging the kids this afternoon, one of those he-says-she-says deals. It’s his turn to take them for dinner. No, it’s her turn. You get the picture. I think she’s still there. He said please come to his condo. It’s urgent.”
From where she was parked, a slip of the blue lake glimmered in afternoon sunshine. “Everything’s urgent,” Nina said. “Where does he live?”
“Here’s the address. You going?”
She unlocked the Bronco’s door and jumped inside, checking the time. “I don’t have anything else scheduled until three, do I? I’ll swing by.”
Since splitting up with Lisa, Kevin had rented a condo at Lake Village just across the state line in Nevada, no more than a half mile past the casinos. Perfect for a bachelor, the hilly clumps of two-story buildings offered a generous pool and tennis courts, along with some glorious views of Lake Tahoe, spectacular sunsets, and a green-gold golf course. He had an extra bedroom for Heather and Joey.
Nina remembered his comments on the new bunk beds he had found in Reno at Macy’s, not even on sale. He seemed proud to have overpaid, as if he were making something up to his children by repudiating petty frugality.
Poor Kevin, she thought, understanding perfectly. Being a single parent sometimes meant that you did crazy things in the name of making your kids happy, which kept you from drowning in the bottomless well of guilt out of which you could never crawl.
Driving past Caesars, she thought of Paul and the nights they had spent together there, so romantic, in love, in lust, oh, God, she didn’t know what to call it. Paul had never been a parent, and according to him, he would never be. If she stayed with Paul, or married him, she would have to resign herself to the fact that she would never have another child.
Why did she keep thinking about Paul? Why was he, a simple man by his own definition, suddenly such an obsession?
She located Kevin’s place easily on Clubhouse Avenue, not too far from the pool or the highway, on the shady but noisy side of the street. Lisa stood outside shouting at him. Kevin yelled back. The language was not pretty. The children stood behind their dad, clinging to his legs. The little boy, tousle-haired and flushed with emotion, shrieked, eyes tightly closed, a siren without a fire on this clear, cool day. Silent tears ran down the stricken little blond girl’s face. As soon as Lisa caught sight of Nina, she ordered the kids into the car. Kevin kissed them both, wiped their cheeks with a handkerchief, and led them to their mother’s car, speaking softly to them, so softly, Nina couldn’t hear.
“I’m not through with you!” Lisa said, slamming the door on her kids and jumping into the driver’s seat. “I’m not through with either one of you!” Tires screaming, she took off with the children.
Nina parked in a visitors’ spot in the lot beside Kevin’s building and walked up a winding path through dirt and low bushes up to a set of shredding wooden steps. Kevin now stood on the porch looking at the spot where Lisa’s car had been parked.
“You okay?” Nina asked, approaching.
He ran a hand over his short hair. A cigarette burned forgotten in his other hand. Hot ash fell onto the tinder wood of the porch. Nina forced herself not to move, but watched the ash turn from orange to gray before she breathed again. He lifted a Coke can from the ground, poured its contents out into the dirt, and smashed it flat with a fist. “I hate when we lose it like that in front of the kids. Did you see the looks on their faces?”
“Sorry. I really am. It’s rough. I think you ought to have me arrange for a civil backup when you and Lisa are making trades.”
“Have a cop stand by? I’d be a laughingstock. I know everybody. I don’t know what happened, how we exploded. I picked them up from school. I thought Wednesday was my night this week to make dinner and then get them back to Lisa’s by eight. But she came screeching over here insisting tomorrow was the night. I decided to let it go just before you drove up.”
“I looked at the visitation schedule, and Thursday’s your night for dinner with Heather and Joey.”
“Guess I was mixed up. Schedules. Every day something different. It isn’t good for them. And Lisa. I never saw her blow up like that. She’s steamed about Ali.”
“Shouldn’t we go inside?” Nina asked, feeling the eyes of the neighborhood, but Kevin sat heavily down on the bottom step, and after a moment considering the damage that might be done to her suit skirt, but seeing no alternative except to stand officiously, she sat beside him. He tossed his cigarette into the dirt.
“Fuck it,” he said.
“Kevin, before we get any further, did you get a chance to talk with Ali Peck?”
“I called her,” he said. “I asked her what the deal was, with her spilling out the story of our relationship at the hearing. I mean, she knew how much that would hurt me. Well, she didn’t volunteer anything. She said Lisa’s attorney called and woke up her parents first thing Friday morning, then some guy showed up and handed her a subpoena. Her parents called their lawyer. She was told to come to court and she did. She had to tell.”
Riesner. Nina’s teeth ground. How did Riesner know about Ali? Did he really get a phone call? Where was Sandy when she needed her to say something objectionable?
“He suggested that Ali called him,” she said. “He didn’t come out and swear it.”
His lips formed a hard line. “You’re surprised? I thought that’s what lawyers are famous for.”
Nina said with heat, “Do I do that, Kevin? Do I lie and mislead people? I’m sorry to think you have such a low opinion of lawyers in general. As a matter of fact, I’m proud of what I do.”
“Forget what I said, okay? I get those comments all day in my line of work, too. Sorry.”
“Oh, well. Never mind.”
“You know the upshot, and that’s what matters. Lisa’s got her teeth in my kids. You say it’s temporary. I say, I have one more chance to get them back and I’m giving it all I got. Whatever it takes.”
“Does Ali know whether the D.A. is pursuing a statutory-rape charge against you?”
“She said the D.A.’s office talked to her about it. She said she was real honest, and after they talked, they seemed inclined to let it go. She also told them if they went through with it, she’d leave the state. She would never testify against me. She thinks it’s offensive that a mature seventeen-year-old can’t make her own sexual choices without the law butting in.” He shook his head. “Isn’t she something? I believe her, Nina. Apparently, they did, too. So I think that gets me off that particular hook.”
“That’s good to know, Kevin. It must be a relief to you.” This news wouldn’t help him keep his kids, but at least they didn’t have to worry about a wrench flying in from that direction to smash their case.
“Of course, things aren’t looking too good at work now they know about Ali. They’re investigating the situation before they decide whether to put me on probation or fire me. And there’s still Lisa to worry about.”
“Maybe Lisa stole the Bronco. Maybe she did,” Nina said, half to herself, remembering the coldness in Lisa’s eyes as she drove away. Paul had a lot to do but he was going to have to check Lisa out, and soon.
“Maybe she did. I don’t know,” Kevin said flatly. “It’s a fight to the death between us.” Hopelessness drained color from his eyes. “I would like to take back everything that’s happened. I wish I could go back to those weekends. We’d take a paddleboat out of Zephyr Cove, or rent a motorboat over at the Ski Run Marina and take off with a bottle of wine and this sweet honey bread Lisa made. And peanut butter. Have you ever looked at her lips? So soft,” he said. “Malleable. That’s a word, isn’t it? Maybe I thought that meant she was malleable.”
He picked up a forked branch and began to break pieces off. “I thought Lisa and I were together for life. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? I can’t go on like this, watching my kids cry.”
She saw hostility in his eyes. Representing him in his divorce and custody fight meant she represented all that was going wrong with his life. She took information from the alcohol on his breath. That couldn’t be helping him with his problems. “Since I’m here,” she said, “let’s go over how the visitation schedule works.”
“It’s too complicated. I did crummy in math in high school.” His arms crossed over his barrel chest, as if to defend himself. He must be getting cold out here. She thought, I want to leave. What good am I doing sitting here with this guy? He seemed to be working himself up to something. She hoped it wasn’t another revelation.
“Would it help if we organized a simple calendar for you?” She tried again to find a practical solution to his insoluble dilemma.
“What would help?”
Kevin leaned in toward her.
“I guess only one thing,” he said, his voice desperate.
“What?” At that moment, she would do anything to make him happy and get him out of her hair. She had never thought a cop would need so much hand-holding.
He answered by seizing her face between two meaty fists, pushing his face against hers, sticking his tongue down her throat, and moaning joylessly.
The whole thing lasted about half a second and she was so shocked it took her that long to fight back. Then she pushed so hard he fell back against the porch railing. He stood up. So did she. She moved away, putting several feet between them. Looking down, she saw that when she pulled away he had grabbed for her, ripping her silk blouse. Her bra was showing. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, never taking her eyes off him.
He took a step toward her. She carried a small can of pepper spray in her purse. She opened the purse and put her hand inside, found it, and took it out.
Kevin’s face flared red. Apologizing profusely and abjectly, he backed toward his doorway. Making very little sense now, practically babbling at her, he insisted she wait while he looked for a pin for her blouse.
She had been assaulted by him. Had he gone crazy?
“Come inside,” he babbled. “You can’t drive around like that! Just inside for a minute. I can fix this.” He was almost shouting. “Don’t go! Please let me make this one thing right!”
“I’m leaving now,” she said. “Don’t come after me. Go inside, quiet down, and go to bed.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean-it just happened. Don’t look at me like that.” He kept calling after her, but she didn’t wait to hear any more.
A FTER INTERVIEWING MARIO LOPEZ at the jail in Placerville, Paul drove back to Tahoe in good time and picked up Wish at Nina’s office. Nina listened without much comment to his report, passed on joining them for dinner, and examined her watch, saying she had to pick Bob up from somewhere. She looked upset, but she waved off his questions.
So Paul gathered Wish up from under the iron fist of his mother. On the way out of town, they hit the Coyote Grill in Round Hill Mall, a spanking-new shopping center just over the Nevada state line. Stuffed full, they drove along the eastern side of Tahoe toward Incline Village as dark descended and stars burst into the dark of a moonless sky. Moist lake smells floated around them until Wish complained of frozen ears and Paul pulled over and raised the soft top.
A funky bunch of wooden cabins that had been around for as long as Paul could remember, the Hilltop Lodge loomed over Truckee from a small hill southeast of town. The lodge rooms backed up to views of the town and curved around a central area. They pulled up to a spot not too far from the main building and parked. For several minutes, they watched groups in various stages of happiness laugh, reel, and lurch around the parking lot, in one case piling into a Jeep, deciding not to drive after all, and bumping out down the hill singing, arm-in-arm.
“Looks like a permanent party,” Wish said.
Paul got out. “Wait here. Keep watch.”
As Wish rolled down the window, Paul could see his breath in the air. In September the weather changed from moment to moment; a cold front must be rolling west from Nevada. Clouds spiraled up in the night sky and a few drops of rain fell on Paul’s head as he went looking for the manager’s office.
Not surprisingly, no one had registered under the name of Cody Stinson. A minor lie involving a special request for service from the girls in number eight that made the manager’s cheeks flame and got him away from his desk briefly meant Paul could check out the register, but no name leaped out as an obvious alias.
He returned to the car. Wish stood next to it, arms wrapped around himself. “Must be under forty degrees tonight,” Wish said. “You bring an umbrella?”
“No,” Paul said.
“Tough guys don’t use umbrellas.”
They watched from inside the car for a long time, using the defroster and heat intermittently to keep the windshield clear and their bodies from freezing. Cars from the highway below whizzed by, and the lights of the town turned cloudy in the mist.
Doors opened and closed. People came and went. No sign of Cody Stinson.
At midnight, Paul told Wish to take a nap. They would need to stagger each other. He had a chart marked, keeping a record of who seemed to belong to what lodging, and by now they had narrowed their field of interest to three doors. He hunched into his jacket and prepared himself for a nightlong wait.
By three in the morning, all celebrations ceased. The dull roar from the town stopped. No more trains flew by on the tracks below; the cacophony of different musical styles from bars on the main street faded. Wish snored in the backseat. Paul pulled his leather jacket tighter.
Door number two opened. Paul, half dozing against the steering wheel of the Mustang, first noticed the absence of light. Generally when someone opened a door, they left a light burning in the room behind long enough to see the way out. This time, only a qualitative change in the black of a shadowy doorway showed him someone was standing there.
Paul reached a hand into the backseat and tapped Wish on the shoulder. “Wake up, Sleeping Beauty,” he said in a low voice. Wish opened his eyes with the immediate alertness of the young and slipped silently out of the car to watch with Paul.
The door opened wider and a man stepped out into the light rain, long-armed and lean, carrying a brown bag. Cody Stinson.
They both recognized him. “Now what?” Wish said.
“We call the cops as soon as he goes back inside.”
Stinson stretched, and as he approached a pool of light from an outdoor post, Paul saw that he was fully dressed in heavy boots and a jacket.
“He’s not going out in this,” Wish said. “Not on a bike.”
But he was. He pulled on goggles and a helmet, mounted the Harley, and, indifferent to the hellish commotion of its engine or, more likely, proud of it, revved a couple of times to warm it up and took off down the hill, leaving a drizzle trail.
Paul and Wish jumped back into the car. “Should we call the police?”
“And say what? Tell ’em to go looking for a guy on a motorcycle?” Paul asked, frustrated. “We need him back in his room tucked up tight in bed, or somewhere for more than five minutes so that they can swoop down and grab him without a slipup. Oh, great.” Pea-sized hail pelted Paul’s windshield. His wipers pushed futilely against the onslaught.
“You’re not supposed to eat in bed,” Nina told Bob, who balanced a bowl of tortilla chips and a plate of salsa on the sheet as he talked into the phone. He wore boxers and a towel draped around his neck.
Lately he had begun taking half-hour showers. As his teen years bore down on him, he had fallen into the grip of passions that he understood no better than Nina, passions about everything, from a certain kind of cereal to be eaten every morning for three months, to blue shoelaces ordered off the Net. He had suggested that he would like to dye his hair. His attention span for school subjects had dropped to about five minutes, but he could still surf the Net for hours with an intensity befitting a brain surgeon.
At the same time the blitheness of childhood left him, he began to suffer from a lack of confidence. He believed that he was ugly and socially maladroit, though he was strong and healthy with no particular drawbacks that Nina could see. In fact, she thought he might, with luck and a softening of his lantern jaw, grow up to be an attractive fellow.
However, there were a few years to go between now and then.
“So bye,” he said to the phone, and hung up. He dipped another chip, which dripped onto the sheet. He gave Nina a look.
“Was that a glare?” she said.
“All I did was look at you.”
Nina sat down on the bed. “Could I have some?” They ate a couple of chips. Bob wouldn’t look at her. He picked up the remote and an ancient episode of Friends popped up on cable TV. Nina felt the usual pangs. If only she had forbidden TV, maybe Bob would be happy and outgoing and an Eagle Scout.
Clothes and CDs covered every surface including the floor. She tried not to notice. Her run-in with Kevin had left her fuse short and her nerves shaky. “Was that Nikki?” she said in what she hoped was a casual tone.
“How’s she doing?”
“Fine.” When she waited for more and the silence grew oppressive, he broke, adding, “Working on the Web site for that hard-core band from Sweden.”
“Will you be seeing her soon?”
Bob didn’t answer.
“Is she still doing home-schooling?”
“What do you care? Is that a problem for you?”
“I was just asking.” She had many questions about Nikki but didn’t dare ask them. She would have to find out somehow for herself without trampling further upon this mine-filled earth.
Bob munched on another chip. Hitchcock roamed over to his side of the bed and he patted the dog’s back.
“So how’s the band?”
“That’s our band name. Nikki finally came up with it. Like it?”
“It’s kind of unusual,” Nina said. “Hard to spell. But-”
“Defunkt with a k. Aw, you don’t care. Admit it. You don’t care about the band at all.”
“I do want to encourage your interest in music.” But not your interest in Nikki, she had to add to herself. “Any luck finding a bass player?”
“We’ll find one. Why are you cross-examining me? I confess, I did it to Colonel Mustard in the library. With a drumstick.” He scowled. “This isn’t court, Mom.”
“Bob, all I was trying to do was-”
Bob rolled off the bed. Hitchcock jumped up to meet him. “Think I’ll take a shower. Lay there as long as you want, Mom. Eat all the chips you want.” Mockery lurked in the words.
Why, you’re getting damn disrespectful, she said to his back as he disappeared into the bathroom. But she didn’t say it out loud. A bad influence was at work, no question, and this bad influence was cute, and maybe she’d be famous someday like Courtney Love, but Bob wasn’t going to be part of Nikki’s band much longer. Defunkt would soon live up to its name, she decided.
Hitchcock took a running leap onto Bob’s bed and the salsa did the merengue all over the sheets. Nina pushed the dog off. She wadded the sheets up into a dirty ball and tossed them into the hall. As she remade the bed, Bob whistled in the shower “The Little White Duck.” The children’s tune must have stuck in his brain from Andrea’s baby party.
She followed along with the whistling. The white duck on a lily pad, visited by a green frog, and then a buzzing black bug.
And along came the hissing red snake to frighten the other critters away.
What snakes were they turning up?
Unable to answer that question, she went back to whistling the innocent children’s song with its ominous undertone. Opening Bob’s window, she looked out into a late-night storm. Hail battered the roof like falling pebbles.
Paul gripped the wheel, struggling in vain to see something through his windshield. “We have no enemy but winter and rough weather, and man, those are serious enemies.” The hail splattered down like a million shards of breaking glass. He could hardly hear himself shout above the racket.
Wish shrugged. “When you live up here, you get used to it. It’s almost always sunny, except when it’s a blizzard.”
“Look, Cody’s motorcycle has just the one dim light fading into obscurity up ahead of us. He doesn’t care if he lives or dies, and that’s a dilemma, because I’d like to go on living at the moment. Where are we?” He gave the wheel a swift tilt to the right, narrowly avoiding a swimming pool in the middle of the road.
“Well…” Wish considered, then peered out the window to place himself. “We’re headed east on 267. He skipped a couple of side roads and seems to be going fast-”
“-so he’s probably not planning to stop anytime soon. Anyway, there’s no major place to turn off after Northstar for miles. He’s heading for the lake.”
“If I can stay up with him past the Northstar turn, we’ll have a breather, maybe,” Paul said, pushing the accelerator down. “Then if he gets ahead, I can catch up without committing suicide.”
“Don’t you just love a solid V- 8,” Wish said, smiling, approving of the Mustang’s speed.
The speedometer crept up, and Paul used all the old tricks to keep himself from skidding off the road, two hands in proper formation on the steering wheel, cold sweat left unwiped on his brow.
“Most people don’t go out on nights like this,” Wish observed, arms folded calmly, “even if it isn’t three in the morning. More roadway for us.”
His nose as close to the windshield as he could get it, Paul cursed. “We lost him on that last curve. So quick-decision time. Turn right at Northstar or keep going toward King’s Beach?”
“I don’t gamble,” Wish said, “not much anyway, but somehow I can’t see any friend of his living at Northstar. Too ritzy. I bet on passing.”
“Okay,” Paul said. The sign indicating the Northstar ski resort area swept by in a blur. Paul stomped down again, the car swerved right, then left, then straightened itself on the road.
Wish flicked the radio on. A static howl filled the car.
Paul flicked it off. “Are you nuts?” he said. “I’m doing sixty on a dark wet road in the middle of a blizzard!”
“I just thought we’d see if there was a weather report on,” Wish said reasonably. “Anyway, we have nothing to worry about. There he is.”
Sure enough, there he was.
“Ooh,” Wish said, as the hail stopped suddenly and a beautiful starry night materialized like magic. “I just got my first good look. It’s a 1960s Arlen Ness chopper, customized in the seventies, I’d say. That’s a California streetdigger or lowliner, if you’re in the market. No wonder it’s noisy.”
This time, Paul jumped hard on the motorcycle’s tail and didn’t let go.
Once Cody Stinson’s motorcycle reached King’s Beach, he slowed down, scrupulously following the speed limit. They followed him through King’s Beach to Tahoe City, expecting him to stop, but he never did.
“The scenic route around the west shore,” Wish said. “He’s heading around the lake the hard way.”
“He’s nuts. He must have a death wish to take 89. A road designed by Lucifer,” Paul murmured, following as close as he could up and down the narrow, curving roadway above Emerald Bay, invisible a thousand feet below in the predawn. “He’s going all the way back to South Lake Tahoe.”
Stinson passed through the Y intersection at the bottom of the lake, riding along the boulevard.
“Where could he be going?” Wish asked.
“No idea.” By now, Paul had been without sleep for a good twenty hours. His mind simmered grayly, like overdone pot roast. “What I know is, Nina wants us to find him and get the police on him, so that’s what we’ll do the minute he stops for more than ten seconds.”
“Uh oh,” Wish said, straightening up. Wish, a local, knew the streets better than Paul. Paul knew only that they had made a turn up the highway toward the bright lights of the casino district, wherein sat Caesars, wherein was his bed, a warm place he liked. What he did not know was what subtle confluence of geography in the small town that constituted South Lake Tahoe had prompted Wish to utter those portentous words, “Uh oh.”
“So?” he asked as they turned off Lake Tahoe Boulevard toward Regan Beach.
“I thought Nina said this place was really, really private. Somewhere nobody knows about.”
“What place?” Paul asked, turning to follow Cody down a small, dark, empty street on the left.
“I mean, he’s definitely not the type I would expect to know,” Wish said, voice heavy with disapproval.
“Know what?” Paul said.
“Maybe a girlfriend told him or something.”
“Told him what?”
“About the shelter.”
There wasn’t any way to head Cody Stinson off before he got to the women’s shelter, so Paul continued to follow.
“He must know I’m right behind him.”
“If he does,” Wish said, “he doesn’t care.”
This seemed accurate. Cody stopped the chopper dead on a side street near the shelter, setting off on foot.
Paul and Wish did likewise, ditching the Mustang at the corner of Berkeley and Alameda. Paul, who hated mobile phones for completely unoriginal reasons, had bowed to necessity and bought one. He flipped it open and turned it on. The phone began its start-up routines.
Hurrying up the street, he heard himself huffing. Every time he came up here, he had to make the adjustment to the impossibly high altitude. He was tired of feeling red-faced, dried out, and oxygen-deprived. He wanted Nina to land in Carmel with him, in the richly oxygenated air at sea level. He wanted her to evacuate from her mountains, her frenzy of trouble, her daily trials, and move into a place where there was the placid calm of ocean and good healthy light.
The women’s shelter came into sight, Cody Stinson making headway up the steps.
“What’s he going to do?” Wish asked, astonished. “Just knock?”
He did knock. Nobody answered. He wasn’t brandishing a handgun, at least.
Paul punched 911 with great deliberation. “If some lamebrain woman has it in mind to answer the door,” Paul said, “we take him out.”
“Did you bring a gun?”
“No, I did not bring a gun,” Paul said. He had, in fact, left his gun behind in the glove compartment. It was the mistake of an amateur, and it made him worry about his edge and lack of sharpness, but by now four in the morning was creeping up, and Paul did not feel at his best. He knew he could take this guy if necessary. He had thirty pounds on him, height, superior physical training, and a will to succeed, he reminded himself.
“How do we take him out, then?” Wish whispered.
“Any way we can,” Paul answered.
Cody, at the door to the shelter, had started yelling. “Please, somebody let me in,” he called pathetically, pounding loudly. “It’s so cold out here.”
“Where are these people?” Paul said, giving attention to his inattentive phone. “Why don’t they answer?”
“ 911,” a bright voice piped.
He gave brief details, starting right in with the fact that Cody Stinson was a wanted man.
“We’ll be there asap,” the lady said, asap all one word.
“They’ll be here asap,” he told Wish.
But by now, Cody Stinson, impatient with the lack of response, had decided to take matters into his own hands. He wandered back out into the yard in front of the shelter, picked up a loose limb, held it high in one hand, and broke the front window. “What does it take to get you women’s attention, anyway?” he yelled.
A woman holding a rifle appeared in the window. Andrea Reilly.
“The police have been called,” she yelled. “If you don’t leave, you’ll be arrested and charged. Leave now.”
“I’m not here to cause anybody any trouble,” Cody Stinson whined. “I just want to talk. Are Brandy and Angel here by any chance? I heard they might be.”
Paul made his move. He ran up swiftly and quietly behind Stinson and pulled him down. Stinson didn’t resist or say a word as Paul straddled him and searched his pockets. Wish came over and said, “We got him, buddy!” and Paul heard the welcome siren of the South Lake Tahoe police at his back.
“Drop the gun!” the police ordered Andrea. “You there, freeze,” they advised Paul. He froze, the full weight of his body pressing down on Cody Stinson.
A FTER SOME PALAVER, the police arrested Cody and escorted him away, deaf to his protests. “I wasn’t doin’ nothin’! Hey, I got a right to come here, same as anyone else! Big deal about the freaking window! I said I’d pay for it!”
Back in his hotel room at Caesars, Paul left a message for Nina at the office, deciding not to wake her. He and Wish caught six hours of precious sleep, Paul on the bed, and Wish all over the easy chair. Then they got back into the car. After all the time they had spent driving recently, the Mustang felt about as comfortable as a camel. They wended their way six thousand feet lower in altitude to the city of Fresno, where the Vangs had recently moved, arriving just after the morning rush-hour traffic.
After the Gold Rush, not much had happened in Fresno for about a hundred and fifty years, except that tracts of ranch houses sprouted in place of orchards these days and strip malls lined the once-lazy country roads. Over the years immigrants from many lands had adopted Fresno. They found the pickings good in the agricultural central valley of California and didn’t mind the long series of hundred-degree days from August to October. They came mostly from Mexico and Central and South America, as always; they came from Bosnia and the Ukraine; and they came from the villages of Asia, the brave and the desperate, to stoke California’s goliath agricultural engine.
The Hmong had arrived during the mid-1970s and after, jettisoned by the war in Vietnam, which had spilled over into wars in Laos and Cambodia. When Laos went Communist, the Hmong went resistance. Preferring their traditional village systems, they distrusted the increasing centralization of power in the lowlands and generally became thorns in the side of the Pathet Lao government. After the U.S. lost the war, many Hmong fled to refugee camps on the Thai border and from there dispersed to new lives in California. Their people mostly practiced Buddhism, Paul knew. Hard-working and intelligent, they had been brutally rushed into the twenty-first century.
WELCOME CENTER read the wooden plaque on the wall of a small bungalow in the old part of town. Letters in a strange and beautiful alphabet just underneath must have said the same thing to those in the know. Paul pulled into the parking lot behind the building.
Inside a fan circulated air. Greenery filled the windows. Hardwood floors and a few straight-backed chairs left the front room austere. In the larger room beyond, Paul saw a large group of preschoolers sitting on the rug, singing a ditty to their teacher, a young lady playing the piano.
“Well, that’s sure not Dr. Mai,” Wish said, disappointed.
Paul noticed a door marked Kitchen and poked his head inside. A scanty-haired elderly man who met Nina’s description of Dr. Mai worked at the sink, washing a huge aluminum kettle, rubber gloves on his hands and a dishtowel around his waist. When he saw Paul and Wish, he dropped the kettle, which bounced onto the linoleum, and looked around wildly for an escape as if confronted by thugs armed with AK-47s. Clearly, he had been through a war. Paul held up his hands, showing his palms in the universal sign that he came in peace. Then he reached into his pocket and presented the old fellow his P.I. card, telling him that Nina Reilly had sent him.
Dr. Mai sagged in relief, catching hold of the sink edge. “Just a moment,” he said, and straightened up. He took off the apron and gloves, hanging them neatly over the sink. “She has regretted her decision? You have the check?”
“She has a few questions first.”
“No check?” he mumbled to himself, shaking his head as if in disbelief. “After all this, no check. Why come here, then?”
“To find out about the family.”
“She doesn’t need Kao. She has the power of-”
“She’s stubborn that way.”
Mai shook his head. “Kao is safe,” he said. “They are all safe.”
Wish picked up the pan and carefully placed it in the dish drainer. Paul leaned against the wall, put his hands in his pockets, and said, “You know, sometimes when people come to this country it doesn’t go smoothly. Sometimes they open up businesses that bad people want a piece of. Sometimes they still owe money to the agents who brought them here. Is something like that going on here?”
“No, no,” Dr. Mai said. “It’s nothing like that.”
Hmm. The old guy dismissed the idea so easily, it had the ring of truth. Paul had developed his own private working theory, sure the urgent need for the settlement money came from a shakedown gone bad. It had crossed Paul’s mind that Kao had shot one of the enforcement boys and had his store burned down in retaliation.
Then again, maybe not.
“What are you cooking?” Wish asked Mai.
“Vegetable stew,” Mai answered shortly, while Paul wondered how to get the information he needed.
Wish nodded. “Want some help with the chopping?” When the old man didn’t say no, Wish washed his hands and picked up the knife and skinned an eggplant with expertise Paul had never suspected he had. Also watching, Mai appeared to relax. “Your mother must be a good cook,” he said to Wish.
“My dad taught me. You should taste my dad’s chili. My dad, he used to run a store on the Indian reservation where he grew up. Sold everything you can think of, fishing gear-he lived by Pyramid Lake, you ever hear of it?-canned food, toilet paper.” Wish finished the eggplant and took a big yellow onion and had the skin off it in half a second. Chopping rapidly, he added, “He never could make a living off it, though. He went into truck driving after that. Gets me thinking about Mr. Vang. I know he doesn’t want to see us, but maybe Mr. Vang doesn’t know Nina’s awfully worried. If only we could tell her he’s all right.”
Dr. Mai seemed to be mulling this over. Paul decided to lie low and see if Wish could take this situation somewhere.
“You want me to put some water in the kettle?” Wish asked. Mai went over and started doing that. He was thinking, and Paul let him think. Mai let Wish put the heavy kettle on the stove, turn on the heat, and dump in salt. He picked up a potato peeler and handed it to Wish.
“I’m tired,” he said.
“Sure.” Wish started peeling potatoes into the garbage can.
Mai pulled out a step stool and sat down slowly. “Kao deserves peace. He has suffered gravely. I have stayed with him all this time, through the surgeries and the fear.”
“We want to help him,” Paul said.
“Kao Vang knew the men who robbed his store.”
Paul grabbed the word men and filed it. The police reports had only mentioned one robber, Song Thoj, the man Kao shot during the second robbery attempt.
“What really happened, Dr. Mai?” Paul said. Mai shook his head with a look that said, next you’ll be asking me to describe the hereafter.
“Will she be satisfied if I take you to talk to Kao right now?” Mai asked. “Will she stop this stubbornness, this misguided attempt to help?”
“If he personally directs us to give him the check.”
“All right. If we must do it this way. I have to finish the lunch. Come back in an hour.” He didn’t invite them to lunch, but that was fine, Paul wasn’t into vegetable stew, he was into easing Nina’s mind about this family so he could run down other leads on the lost files.
“It’s a deal,” Paul said.
He and Wish went outside to sit in the car, which by now had surpassed the temperature of Mercury’s sunny side. The hood had been pocked by hail the night before. That would cost a pretty penny to fix. He turned the engine on and got the AC blowing.
“Nice job softening him up,” he said.
Wish, leaning back with his eyes closed, said, “Huh?”
“The story. About your dad and his store. That worked.”
“Well, my dad did have a store. But I did lie some.”
“Well, about him becoming a truck driver. What happened was, he fell in love with another lady-”
“You mean, besides your mother?”
“That’s what I mean-and then they took off. My mom tried to run the business but she couldn’t keep it going. It reminded her too much of him.”
“Well, I’ll be.” Paul knew Sandy had divorced Wish’s father, Joseph, years earlier, and remarried him only the year before. He had never heard the details.
“I was still pretty young,” Wish said. He reached into his pocket, took out an apple, and bit a huge chunk out of it.
“Damn, I’m hungry,” Paul said. Wish offered him the other side of the apple but Paul shook his head. He checked his watch, a Swiss Army Chronograph he had found on eBay. “We’re going to have to wait on lunch. I don’t want Dr. Mai to change his mind and leave. Did you catch what he said? He mentioned more than one man involved in the robberies.”
“So-one is still alive!”
“And he’s a good prospect for the man Kao’s hiding from,” Paul said. “We don’t have much in the police reports, but one thing we do have, the last known address of Song Thoj.” He consulted his notes. “He lived near the Chaffee Zoological Gardens on Palm. The Hmong have a tight community. The other bad guy might live there himself.”
“Do you want to go there after?”
“Maybe we won’t have to. Maybe Kao will be fine, and maybe we’ll see him and go home and Nina will get him his check.”
“Okay. So we wait for Dr. Mai. So I was saying how my mom had a broken heart.”
“I always thought she did. I’m glad the story has a happy ending. She and Joseph found each other again.”
“Yeah, they’re happy,” Wish said. “It’s a love story.”
Paul leaned back and dozed. He was trying to decide who could play the lead part in the movie of Sandy’s life. Gertrude Stein would be good, but she was long gone. He thought of the Eskimo receptionist he had seen in recent reruns of the TV series Northern Exposure, who might even have hit the forty-something mark by now. Perfect.
His thoughts moved on to Nina, another love story, this one belonging to him. The question was McIntyre. Would he actually make a play for her again? Would she be interested? Jack had always liked women, many women, though Paul had enough collegial loyalty never to mention that to Nina.
Nina could never choose him over Paul. Jack was built like a kiln and as cynical as a bookie. However, she had in fact married Jack once, he couldn’t imagine why. The clear thing to do right now was to take care of her problems, so Jack could recede back into her past where he belonged.
“Maybe we shouldn’t leave Dr. Mai alone,” Wish said. “Somebody might try to kill him while we’re sitting out here. Aren’t you nervous?”
“Nobody tried to kill him before we got here and nobody’s going to try now,” Paul said. “He’s not a target, he’s a go-between. He just needs to finish his cooking.”
“It’s not always gonna be excitement and broken windows and getaways. It’s mostly steaming in a hot car, starving.”
But hyper as a greyhound right before the rabbit runs, Wish pointed. “Ah ha!” he said, which made Paul jerk upright.
“What? What’s happening?”
The elderly man in shirtsleeves and shiny pants right off the Salvation Army rack exited, holding tight to the rail as he came carefully down the steps. Nothing much was happening, it was just a hot, quiet afternoon in a sleepy town, but Paul felt a thrill, because this particular old man knew something Paul didn’t know. Paul started to explain that to Wish, then thought, let the kid figure it out for himself.
That thrill kept Paul in the business, not the tension and aggression and the rush of adrenaline, but the pursuit, the persistent uncovering of the facts, the coaxing away of denials and obstacles, the buttons slowly unbuttoned, the murmured confessions, and finally, the moment of eye-widening, naked, sexy truth. He eyed Dr. Mai and thought, now we get down to it.
Wish climbed into the backseat and Dr. Mai, smelling comfortingly of onions, sat next to Paul as they turned onto the shaded street. Mai’s face was thin and bony, the skin not much wrinkled. He led with a long, yellow-nailed finger to the freeway on-ramp, and they moved north on the highway. At the off-ramp he pointed again, and they moved onto the boulevard of used-car lots and strip malls. Paul didn’t disturb the silence. He didn’t want to accidentally offend, even though the KFCs and Burger Kings they were passing made him want to moan with hunger.
“Here.” They turned onto a residential street and Paul stopped while a school bus let off some kids. They scurried in all directions, heavy backpacks flopping. Following the finger of fate one more time, Paul stopped in a driveway halfway down the block at a tract house just like the rest. No car rested in the driveway; the garage door presented a blank facade. Dry grass and a couple of thirsty-looking bushes flanked the front porch. Paul assumed they were expected.
The door opened. A lovely young girl stood there with long black hair, big almond long-lashed eyes, and a pair of brown legs with just that turn of the flesh, that absolutely perfect curve of calf and thigh that Paul had dreamed of every night from the age of thirteen to the age of eighteen. These firm, luscious legs thrust beyond ragged cutoffs, descending into sockless athletic shoes.
“Uncle Mai,” she said, and pulled the door open, giving Paul and Wish hardly a glance, her mind clearly somewhere else.
“This is Yang.” Mai slipped off his shoes before he went in, which caused a delay as Wish’s hiking boots took awhile to unlace and pull off. The girl disappeared and they finally entered a barren living room furnished primarily with a low, round table and big patterned seat cushions. In the window alcove Paul noticed a red cabinet with a mirror and a Buddha statue draped with white scarves and flowers. White votive candles burned and the room smelled of incense.
“Kao!” Dr. Mai called. “Kao!” He said a few more words in his language, the warning tone unmistakable.
A small Hmong man came into the room, wearing shorts and a black T-shirt. He paused in front of Paul, then stuck out a hand.
“Hi,” he said.
“As you can see, he’s fine,” Dr. Mai said.
Kao Vang did look fine, perfectly healthy, a sheen of light sweat over his scarred face, no signs of torture or duress, no cameras in the corners that Paul could see, no shadowy figures lurking in the kitchen. But tension entered the room with him.
“Can we sit down?” Paul said. He pulled up a pillow and found it wasn’t so bad so long as he could lean his elbows on the table. “You know who I am?”
“I explained to him,” Dr. Mai said.
“He said ‘hi’ just then. He doesn’t speak English?”
“Only some. I will translate.”
“Okay. How are you, Mr. Vang?”
“He says ‘I am fine.’” As if to illustrate how fine he was, Vang pulled out a pack of Indonesian cigarettes and lit one, looking away from Paul. A moody customer, Paul decided, and not a happy one.
“How is your wife?”
He stiffened. He had understood that.
“Is she here?”
“She is working so the family can eat while waiting for the check.”
“Where does she work?”
“Not far away.”
“I see that another young lady is staying here, too.”
A few sentences went back and forth.
“Yang is their oldest child. Their son Boun is twelve.”
“Nina hasn’t met Yang yet, has she?”
“Yang is busy with school.” Well, she ain’t in school right now, Paul said to himself. “How old is she?”
“Fifteen. Why do you ask about her?”
“No particular reason. Well, Mr. Vang, thank you for seeing me today. We can clear up this problem once and for all.”
“There is no problem,” Dr. Mai said, although Vang hadn’t spoken.
“Is there any special reason why you can’t come up to Tahoe to go to the bank with Nina and get your check?” Paul said. The Hmong began talking and gesticulating. Kao and Dr. Mai didn’t seem exactly mad at each other, but there was some disagreement.
Wish got up and went over to the altar to examine the statue. He started edging toward the hall door, which was ajar. Yang’s listening to every word, Paul thought. An itch rode up his back to his neck and his scalp, and he thought, she’s part of this somehow.
Wish pushed at the door. It opened. No one there now.
Dr. Mai said, “Kao has to stay here right now-”
“This isn’t the Communists. You don’t get to know everything. Kao is very disturbed that he hired this woman lawyer who is keeping his money from him for no reason. Now. The money is urgently needed. Kao is returning to Laos. If I must, I will return to Lake Tahoe to receive it. Kao asks you to call your boss and ask her to deliver the check tonight or at latest tomorrow.”
Paul thought this over. “Let me go outside and make a call to her.”
“Yes. Get your instructions.”
“I have to explain a couple of things to her when I call.”
Dr. Mai’s eyes rolled upward.
“This second robber, the one that got away. Has he threatened Mr. Vang?”
“Call your boss! Get the check!” Kao yelled. He had been frustrated into using English. “I will call the police on her! She is a thief!” He held his jaw, moved it back and forth, grimaced. “Look at me! Look what that money is for! It’s my money!” He lapsed back into Hmong.
In the back room, Paul heard a sound. Crying.
“All right, I’ll go out and call.” He motioned to Wish and they walked out into the blazing sun. Paul stood under the garage overhang, far enough away from the house that he wouldn’t be heard, and called Nina.
“Honey, this guy Kao is very annoyed,” he told her. “Nobody’s beating on him. Nobody’s got a gun on him.”
“Where’s his wife?”
“He claims she’s working. I could check that out. I could keep harassing this guy, checking everything he says. But you know, I’m not getting the feeling that the wife has been kidnapped. This is not a straightforward extortion. It’s something, but I don’t know what. And the thing is, they don’t want us involved. We could be making things worse. It’s his money, right?”
He heard Nina sigh. “If he turns that money over to someone who is pressuring him, Paul-it’s his family’s future. It’s the difference between extreme poverty and college for their kids, a farm wherever they’re going-”
“At some point you have to do what he says,” Paul said. “I think we have to give him the check. Kao himself is asking for the money, that’s clear. Still, there’s the young girl. She’s a beautiful kid, Nina, you should see her. She was crying in the bedroom. I got one of those flashes you always talk about. That she is involved.”
“Where’s his son?”
“At school, I think.”
“Wonder why I never met his daughter. They brought their son to my office,” Nina said, mule-like, still balking at letting the money go.
“By the way, there was more than one robber,” Paul went on. “Mai let that slip.”
“So Kao lied to the police. Why would he do that?”
“Someone dangerous is still out there and the police don’t know about it.”
“I would say very simply that Kao wants the money to return to Laos,” he said, “maybe because of the second guy. But that isn’t all of it. This young girl-”
He almost heard the decision being made during a portentous silence on the line.
“I’m not going to do it yet, Paul. I’ve got it deposited in my trust account, but I’m not going to write out the check yet.”
“So how do I wrap this thing for you? Make you feel like writing the check? What do I tell this angry client?”
“Just one more thing, Paul. Talk to Mrs. Vang and make sure she and her son are safe, too. She’s co-owner of the store. She’s my client, too. Just do that. Jack wants to talk about all this some more. I’d like to get his thoughts on this before then.”
“Find the wife.”
“Sorry, Paul. It sounds difficult-”
Back in the house he tried to put a happy spin on Nina’s decision. Yes, she would deliver the check just as fast as she could. Maybe even Monday, wasn’t that a happy thought? There was just this one teeny detail, he had to talk briefly with Mrs. Vang-
Kao hit the roof. He started shouting again and this time Dr. Mai couldn’t calm him down. Walking into Paul’s face, Kao poked his finger in Paul’s chest. Paul stepped back, telling Wish it was time to go, they’d be in touch. In perfect American English, Kao said, “Get out!” and herded them outside, hard fists at the ready. The door slammed, leaving the lot of them behind, the old man, the angry man, and the teenage Venus of Fresno.
“What now?” Wish said.
“Food,” Paul said.
A BOUT FOUR-THIRTY ON THURSDAY, Paul’s second call came in. Driving back from court in the nice clean Bronco, Nina had just passed the Swiss Chalet Restaurant on the left when she heard the ring from the purse lying next to her on the seat. A warm breeze pouring through the open windows made it hard to hear.
“Last report of the day,” he said. “We’re en route to the coast to get a line on Brandy’s fiancé, Bruce, so I thought I’d give you the finals. First, Cody Stinson has been arrested for the murder of Phoebe Palladino, as I mentioned in my message this morning. Word is Mario Lopez will be released sometime this afternoon. Then there’s the Vang file. Mrs. Vang wasn’t too hard to track down. We met her at a fabric store in the suburbs, where she works. She says she has a new place.”
Stuck at a red light, Nina said, “New place? She’s not living with her husband?”
“No, she isn’t. That’s the key to everything. She’s moved out. She looked fine, by the way. No sign anybody was trying to extort from her. She says her kids are safe and well and I believe her.”
“You got a lot out of her. It sounds like she knows English better than I thought. But something major has happened?”
“Well, you were right and you were wrong about that. Before we left town, we talked with a chatty neighbor who is not Hmong. Found a few things out. The family has split up, but that doesn’t seem to have any connection with the lost file. It’s the settlement money. Here’s the story. Vang’s beautiful young daughter took up with a gang member by the name of Song Thoj who lived down here in Fresno. The Vangs lived at Tahoe at that time, and he spent a lot of time up there.”
“The man Kao shot!”
“That’s right. Kao found out about the relationship and locked up his daughter. The boyfriend couldn’t get to her, so he drove up to Tahoe one night with a gun and shot Kao.”
“Why didn’t they tell the police?”
“And ruin the daughter’s reputation? She’s only fifteen. She never could have married. They wanted to save face. That’s how Mrs. Vang explained it to me.”
“Poor Kao. And his poor daughter.” Green light. She drove on toward the office.
“So the parents carried on as well as they could, but Kao started packing a weapon. Sure enough, the boyfriend, Song Thoj, came back again to the store with another guy. This time Kao had to kill Song Thoj or be killed.”
“What was really going on in that store? Who was this second guy we’re hearing about for the first time? They didn’t tell the police about him.”
“Apparently, they found it useful to claim these were simply attempted robberies. Then the store was burned down, and I have the impression the second robber was suspected, at least by the Vangs, but they refuse to talk about him and so the complete story about what happened remains murky. The store’s burning broke Kao completely. All he wants is to get back to Laos somehow and save his daughter from this den of iniquity. Dr. Mai helped him make the insurance claim to get the ticket money.
“Meantime, Mrs. Vang has lived here long enough to undergo a revolution in her thinking. Turns out she’s an excellent seamstress. Hmong women are not supposed to work outside the home, but with the Blue Star situation, Kao had to let her. She’s been studying English and made some new friends, particularly a lady from El Salvador who works with her, a big influence. In short, Mrs. Vang doesn’t want to go back to Laos, and furthermore, she doesn’t want her children to go back. She wants her son and daughter to be American.”
“She says he’s stubborn. He won’t go to the cops for all the reasons mentioned, and he’s paranoid. She loves him but she says she won’t go with him. She says she’ll die if she has to go back to the old life. I have the impression that there is even more in their past-did you know the men often have several wives? I suspect that there may be another wife in Laos. Anyway, there doesn’t seem to be any solution except for the family to split up.”
“What about their kids?”
“The final decision hasn’t been made. Dr. Mai and a few of the senior members of the community are trying to mediate that. Mrs. Vang seems sure the kids will remain here.”
Nina said, “It’s tragic, Paul. It isn’t fair. They have had to go through so much.”
“One more twist,” Paul said over the phone.
“Right. Mrs. Vang didn’t know you had the check and didn’t know Kao was trying to collect the money without her cooperation. She didn’t say much about that, but I could see the information hit her hard. Evidently Kao figures he’s the head of the family, so he’ll take control of the money. Then he’ll pressure his wife into doing what he wants her to do.”
“But this is America,” Nina said, “and Mrs. Vang owned half their store. Half the money is hers.”
“Thanks so much for going the extra step, Paul. I never would have forgiven myself.” Nevertheless, Nina felt sad. The family had cracked. The insurance money couldn’t save them as a family. She couldn’t fix that no matter how hard she tried.
“None of this has anything to do with the file,” Paul insisted. “You had a gut feeling something was wrong and you made me look into it and we prevented a major injustice.”
Nina pulled into the Starlake lot and turned off the ignition. “I don’t expect to fix all the problems in the world. I just wish I could.”
“Take a step back,” Paul advised. “One more thing. I also went to the last known address of the boyfriend Vang shot during the second robbery attempt. It’s a dump under a freeway overpass. I was looking for information on the second robber. The people who live there now are from Alabama and never heard of the kid or his family. I think, since you knew nothing about a second robber, whoever has your file doesn’t know either, so there’s been no contact. I don’t think we need to worry that there’s danger coming from that quarter, and I couldn’t do any more on it today. We have two other files demanding attention, so I quit for now. Is that okay?”
Holding the phone to her ear, Nina walked into her building. She waved at the real-estate ladies in their office, walking all the way to the other end of the hall to her office, thinking: Was this new information enough to appease her gut-level worry about this case? How far could she go? She now understood Kao Vang’s demand for immediate payment. She didn’t like hearing that there was another loose end, a second robber even the police didn’t know about-but this could go on forever.
She was satisfied that the Vangs were safe and unthreatened. Her duty now was to give them their money and provide them that resource as they flailed around trying to solve their other family problems.
“Go on down to Palo Alto and turn that eagle eye to the campground case,” she said. “I’ll tear up the joint check and issue two separate checks, half and half, from my trust account, then have a courier deliver them to Mr. and Mrs. Vang separately on Monday. I just want more time to let things settle in my own mind. They’ll get their money. We can’t get involved any further. It’s already Thursday, so first day of business next week.”
“Good plan,” he said.
He knew she was delaying, but that was her choice. The jerky, sudden twists and turns of the case continued to make her apprehensive. She needed to sit on the information for the weekend and didn’t want to rush into something she would regret.
“Vang won’t be happy to be outfoxed by you and the wife.”
“Tough,” Nina said. “I understand. He’s been hurt. He feels the money is his because of his injury. He’s the father of the girl who precipitated all the problems and the head of the family. But the money can’t make up for all that. The money is for the business, which Mrs. Vang put her toil into, too. So we do this our way. Give me Mrs. Vang’s address.”
“Now, there’s a final issue. Who took the files.”
“Do you think, after you visit Palo Alto on the campground case, and after you interview Ali Peck up here on the Cruz case, that you could zero in on which of our three favorite people had means and motive, et cetera?”
“You mean Lisa Cruz, Jean Scholl, and Riesner. You want alibis for the night the Bronco was stolen?”
“We’ve been stamping out wildfires all over,” Nina said. “But overall is this burning smell from the big question we haven’t had time to address.”
“I’ll hang on to the hose until I keel over.”
Nina heard the fatigue in his voice. “I’m sorry to ask so much,” she said. “But nobody ever said I was easy, even back in the days when I was.”
He laughed and she hung up, opening the door from the hall to to the outer office. No clients awaited.
Sandy, bent way over in her chair, filing, sat up when she heard the door. “Good,” she said. “Mountain of messages on your desk.”
“Well, Jack called twice. He said call him back.”
Nina closeted herself and answered the other messages. She wrote out two Vang checks while Sandy got ready to go. At just after five, Sandy appeared at the door, saying, “So long.”
“Have a good night, Sandy.”
“Don’t be takin’ any files home, now.”
After Sandy left, Nina picked up the phone message from Jack, put it down and started to get up and leave, sat down, and picked it up again. She wasn’t sure she liked Jack’s sudden devotion. He called her almost every day now with thoughts, advice, and reprovals. She had latched on to him in the first moments of panic, and she was grateful that he had been available and willing to help, but…
Putting her feet up on the desk, she thought about the three cases. The Vangs were under control. Brandy and Angel were safe and Stinson had been caught, although Paul still needed to find out where Bruce Ford had gone. That left Kevin Cruz, the desperate cop she couldn’t represent anymore. She had cleaned up the harm as well as she could. She could do nothing more for him.
She flashed to the moment when he had grabbed her, to her disgust at his touch and the nascent fear she now felt. What he had done was an incomplete gesture, so fraught, like an obscene promise that must be kept. Why had Kevin gone so far? He didn’t need her comfort as much as he needed her skills as a lawyer. He knew that. Then why? She searched but could not find a reason why. She didn’t feel able to tell anyone about Kevin. Paul would overreact. Kevin was her client and she couldn’t turn on him for one very bad move, go to the police or something. He was already in so much trouble.
She hugged herself, remembering. He could have hurt me, she thought. Then she topped that thought: It’s not over with Kevin.
She called Jack. Predictably, he was still at his office. She imagined him on a high floor of the Transamerica Pyramid, at a wide mahogany desk, an Italian lamp’s hot halogen rays broiling his Harvard blotter.
“I’m just checking in,” Jack said. “What happened with Taylor and Vang?” The depth of his interest extended beyond his casual words. “Did Paul find everyone?”
“Vang is under control,” she told him, and explained, then went on to tell him what had happened at the women’s shelter with Cody Stinson.
“Paul could have handled that better,” Jack said. “Should have held on to the guy at the Hilltop and called the cops.”
She knew Paul wasn’t happy with the way things had gotten away from him either. “So easy to second-guess people, isn’t it?” she said.
He laughed. “No need to defend him, honbun. He’s capable of a mean left hook if I get too rough with him.”
She couldn’t believe he had resurrected the hated nickname of their married days. Through her teeth, she said, “As for the Cruz file, Paul plans to interview Ali Peck tomorrow to try to find out how the secret came out. Kevin’s asked her but I need Paul to cover that ground again.”
Jack asked more concise questions and Nina responded concisely.
“You still have no idea who took the files?” he said.
“For purposes of discussion, we’ve narrowed it down to three potentials, Jeffrey Riesner, Jean Scholl, and Lisa Cruz, but you know, Jack, I have stepped on many toes up here. It could be someone I can’t imagine.”
“Are you putting Paul to work on it?”
“I think-I hope the damage is already done when it comes to those files. But I would like to know. So, yes, within limits.”
“The police aren’t moving on it?”
“They figure getting the Bronco back is all they can do,” Nina said. “The files have no tangible value and I couldn’t explain why I was so worried.” She told him some more about Officer Jean Scholl and their problematic relationship, but fended off Jack’s offer to get emphatic with the local police.
“You sure you have enough help? I mean Paul is good, no question, but Wish, he’s not a trained investigator-”
“He doesn’t work independently. Paul supervises. And Wish is a friend.”
“Loyal, honest, idealistic,” Jack said. “When will you grow up and get with the dead dust of this cynical, postapocalyptic world, girl?”
“The day I get cynical is the day I know I’m done. No offense.”
“None taken. I think it’s essential to be a cynical bastard in this profession, but that’s just me. No, actually, I want to say this. I’ve always been so impressed by you as an attorney, Nina.”
“But not as a human being?” she asked, unable to resist the provocation.
“Well,” he said, “now that you mention it, there was that kid plumber. That definitely colors my perception of you. You half-dressed on the couch, legs spread. Him on top.”
So he had materialized at last, the bugaboo plumber of Bernal Heights, the invisible man that stood motionless between them, undiscussed and misunderstood. “You know, Jack, we should have had this conversation a long time ago. I can’t believe you still hold that guy against me. We were kissing. My legs were not spread. We never even-”
“You only stopped because I showed up and scared him off. That stupid earring he wore. You ten years older than him.”
The disgust in his voice drove away all her pretense of composure. Her voice rose. “So? What about the fact that you were sleeping with another woman at the time? Huh? I mean, talk about lonely. I was in hell, and I never knew why. I couldn’t think what I’d done wrong, except maybe work too hard.”
“People ought to restrain themselves, under the circumstances. Maybe you could have talked to me. We were still new together, only two years into it. Maybe our marriage was salvageable at that point, if you hadn’t-”
“You cheated. You lied. You blamed me for everything that went wrong-”
“Nina,” he said softly, “did you ever love me? Did you ever really love me?”
The question brought her up short. She couldn’t think of an answer. She had married Jack for a million reasons: his sense of humor, his passion for his work, his devotion to her and Bob. They had such fun fantasizing a life together in San Francisco.
Bob needed a father.
She needed someone.
“Yes, I loved you. But you made me so lonely.”
“I was lonely, too,” he said. “What a shame neither one of us had the guts to deal with the problem without all that drama.”
Emotion swept over her. “Worse than that. It was melodrama.”
“We both screwed up,” he said.
Admitting her role in the breakup was hard. The time had come to make peace. Maybe she knew from the first time she set eyes on Jack again they would arrive at this moment, the chance to nail down the coffin lid on their marriage. “Yes,” she said finally, “we both screwed up.”
“I regretted it right away, you know. I married her, and I knew it was a mistake from day one. I wish you and I had tried harder.”
Did she regret the end of her two years of marriage to Jack? The answer came quickly. Not anymore. If she had stayed with Jack, she would never have married a man she had loved with all her heart. After his death, she would never have found her way back to Paul.
“While we were drinking margaritas at Big Sur,” Jack continued, “I had a fantasy that you and I might fall into each other’s arms again.”
“Then you saw me and thought again,” she teased, ready to lighten up.
“I saw you and I saw him. I saw the whole damn thing.”
“Jack, I’m sorry about the way it ended.”
“Me, too, Nina-Pinta. Me, too.”
Papers shuffled over the phone on his end as she closed her eyes and sighed deeply.
“So,” he said, in one of those rapid turnarounds that made him so successful in his work, “moving on.”
“Oh, sure. Of course. We have work to do.”
“What were we talking about?” he asked thoughtfully. “Oh, yes. Your abilities as an attorney. To go on, I’m sorry you’re running into the usual snags, and I know you won’t let it get you down. ’Cause you’re one of the good ones, Nina. Destined to debate. Well-intentioned. The old-fashioned, go-for-real-justice kind of person our profession needs. Unlike me.”
Not quite as fast to recover from their earlier exchange, she said shakily, “Oh, you’re not so bad.”
“I am. I am proud to be bad. Luck or talent, I don’t care what helps me win, as long as I do. And I’m not afraid to get dirty just for the sake of winning. It’s detestable, but it’s me.”
Suddenly the compliment looked less complimentary, as if Nina had a weak, feminine side that prevented her from dirtying her skirts.
“That’s why people are smart enough to hire me and I’m up to my neck in lucrative trouble,” Jack went on arrogantly. “P.S., did you know Paul considered law as a profession?”
“Yes, indeed. We took the LSAT at the same time, but he blew it. Hates tests, our Paul. Won’t be judged by people he doesn’t admire, and those he admires are few and far between. So, keep that in mind when he begs you to join him in Carmel to live a life of leisure as his concubine. He flirted with the law and it slapped him down. Don’t let him sabotage you. You’re too good to fritter yourself away like that.”
“You are so out of line.”
“I love the guy. He’s my best friend. He has many fine qualities. His relationship with the world isn’t one of them. He’s brilliant sometimes at his job, but partly that’s because he never follows any rules but his own. He made a lousy cop because of it, and I don’t trust him as a P.I. because of it.”
“Shut up, Jack. I don’t want to hear this.”
“Be wary and be smart if you insist on hanging with him. That’s all.”
“Do me a favor. Stick with the legal advice. I don’t need you for personal advice.”
“Okay. All right. Live with him and be his love, but call me if things don’t work out, deal?”
“Sure. Back to business. All right? Put all that aside for now?”
“Back to business.”
“Give the Vangs their money. Potential exposure is that Mr. Vang will be so pissed off that his wife got half that he’ll file a complaint with the bar that you withheld the money by a couple of days. He won’t look good and you will. I say you have no problem there.”
“I’ll send it on Monday.”
“Don’t wait. Do it right away,” he said. “As your attorney, I advise you to get this one out of your hair immediately.”
She opened her side drawer, looked at the checks, shut it, and opened it again. “Okay, Jack,” she said, angry. She should never have mentioned that she was waiting to courier the checks. That had been an unconscious slip, a desire to get his stamp of approval. Predictably, he had picked up on her delaying strategy. He knew her too well. He didn’t want to know why she wanted to put it off, he didn’t want justifications, he just wanted a clean slate. Was this what it meant, having an attorney? Taking unwelcome advice? Doing things that made you queasy?
Yes. She put the checks on her desk. She would get them on the road before she left today, like an intelligent client following the expert advice of her attorney over her own instincts.
“The sisters. Brandy and Angel,” Jack said. “There’s more exposure. This suspect, what’s his name, Stinson, assaulted the girls on the beach. An argument can be made that Cody heard from the possessor of the files that the girls saw things. But who knows why Cody got on ’em? Maybe some other camper told him something. I can’t see a complaint from them going anywhere.”
“I know the timing makes it look that way. But let’s just stop right here. Listen, Jack. I want you to tell me what you really think. Did the theft of my files cause these innocent people to be threatened?”
Jack gave his answer some thought. No lawyer likes to tell what he really thinks. “Frankly, I don’t believe it. I think old Cody found out some other way, from a fellow camper, maybe. I think Kevin Cruz’s wife found out about Cruz’s girlfriend on her own, too. And I see no evidence any outsider has made any mischief in the Vang case.”
“You’re not just trying to make me feel better?”
“I think you can rest easy. I don’t mean that. Don’t rest easy. Be vigilant. Take care of business. But I don’t believe you’re being set up. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stay in close touch with me. Every lawyer in California ought to be in close touch with me. You’re all gonna get complaints sooner or later.”
“But not this time.”
“It’ll fade. You lost some files. You had to run around. There was worry, but nothing is gonna develop. You know what Mark Twain said. ‘I’ve been through some awful worries, and some of them actually happened.’ ”
His tone comforted her. He always could comfort her. She had always relied on his strength, his assuredness. “Thanks,” she said. “It’s a relief to hear you say that.” She wanted to believe him.
“Only the Cruz case is still a concern. We’ll stay on it. We should get together and have dinner alone sometime, Nina.”
“What for? You have to ask? We’re old friends back in touch, aren’t we?”
“Ex-spouses back in touch,” Nina said. “There’s a world of difference.”
“Let’s erase that old garbage, okay? We’re past that now. Let’s not discuss it again. I’m curious about your life, how you’re getting along. I’d like to see old Bob. How about if I come up on the weekend? We’ll go for a bike ride.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You’ll be astonished how much fun we can have. Come on. Don’t be that way.”
“Is Paul jealous of me? Because obviously he has no reason to be jealous,” Jack said, sounding irritated. “I think I’ve made that clear.”
This jarred her, and she thought, I also remember how he used to drive me crazy, cutting from one emotion to the other like now, confusing me, never really listening. All she said was, “Gotta go.”
She left the office and drove home, thinking about the men passing through her life. Kurt Scott, Bob’s father. Jack. Collier Hallowell, her husband for a very short time. Paul. All of them incomprehensible, when you looked deep. Every one so alike on the surface, so impossibly complex within.
What does Jack want with me? she wondered. To get my defenses down, then take revenge? Show me what I missed because we broke up? Wile his way back into my heart for sport?
L YING IN BED at the Menlo Park Inn early on Friday morning, forty miles south of San Francisco, half-dreaming, Paul came to a conclusion. He had reached that sensitive state in which a man has to do what a man has to do. An entire workweek had passed, five days, and he and Nina had met like professional cohorts, on courthouse cement, in offices, in rapid-fire telephone conversations that did not contain his preferred content and did not usually end in a satisfying manner.
His frustration was not bearable and, worse, was not necessary. He needed to touch her, to hold her, to smell her shampoo. He needed to see her tonight and convince her to love him forever, to marry him, to run away with him, to make a life with him. He wanted to make love with her and open up a new universe.
To start with, he opened an eye.
To cartoons. Rocky, high-pitched voice of reason, and Bullwinkle, idiot savant, cavorted through an episode loaded with Cold War innuendo three feet away.
“Turn it off,” he told Wish distinctly. He might have to share a room, but by God, he would not watch cartoons first thing in the morning.
“Okay,” Wish said, wandering off toward the bathroom, toothbrush foaming in his mouth, the television untouched.
In this episode, Boris once again plotted Rocky’s downfall. He knew who held the real power. Natasha, as always, went balefully along. Paul pulled a pillow over his head, otherwise powerless to resist. He and his sister used to watch this same cartoon. She played Natasha and he was always Rocky, the intelligent do-gooder, although something perverse in him identified more closely with Boris. “I said turn it off,” he shouted through the flimsy brown door.
“Uh, okay,” said Wish, returning clean-shaven and freshly scented to press a button on the remote.
After Paul took his turn in the bathroom, they asked at the reception desk for a recommendation and ended up at Ann’s Coffee Shop on Santa Cruz Avenue for breakfast.
“So old-fashioned,” Wish pronounced, lighting into an impressive pile of pancakes. “People don’t hardly eat like this anymore.”
“No, they don’t,” Paul said, making headway through his plate of deliciously greasy potatoes and eggs.
“Great to get a decent night’s sleep for a change,” Wish said, yawning. “Remind me again why we had to go rushing off to Palo Alto instead of back to Tahoe last night?”
“To find Brandy’s boyfriend,” Paul said.
Spearing a pie-shaped chunk, Wish nodded. “I guess over the weekend I’ll have time to make up some assignments before next week starts.”
Paul grunted, not knowing. Of course, Wish’s classes were important, but what came first for him was the current pressing issue of the day: Bruce Ford, fiancé manqué.
“Where are we meeting Brandy?”
Did Paul imagine it, or did Wish’s ears seem redder than usual?
“I told her we’d meet her on University Avenue. Her boyfriend works near there.”
Wish had never, in the two or three years Paul had known him, shown anything but enthusiastic curiosity for any subject at hand. This time, Wish frowned. “You think we’ll find him?”
“That’s the plan.”
Wish sipped orange juice. “Yeah.”
“Funny,” Paul said. “I get the impression maybe you don’t want to find him?”
“Brandy is pretty, isn’t she?”
They paid for their breakfast and went out into the warm fall weather, directing the car toward Palo Alto, the next town over. “Why couldn’t we stay there?” groused Wish as they passed the grand, landscaped Stanford Park Hotel. “Too expensive?”
“Full,” Paul said. “Some name-brand politician is giving a lecture at Stanford.”
“Plus Brandy said Bruce’s mother always stayed where we stayed and that maybe Bruce Ford would think of the place. Too bad we didn’t get to try the Hotel California over on California.” Wish’s oblivious reaction to the suggestion told Paul that he did not even know the song. Paul remembered that Wish was twenty and he was twice that. His good mood evaporated.
“So did you talk to the manager at the inn?” Wish asked.
“I did. No sign of Bruce. He said he’d get in touch if he saw him.”
They made a left off El Camino onto University and drove down the tree-lined street until they crossed over Hamilton and parked. They walked south until they came to a three-story building that looked like a church. Wish checked the address, nodded, and in they went.
Brandy sat on a concrete bench near the pebbled stone entryway. She stood up to meet them, all pink and cream and gentle languor. “Bruce wasn’t at home, and I already checked his office,” she said. “He isn’t there either. By the way, thanks for coming.” She seemed subdued.
“You’re welcome,” he said. “Can we see his office?”
“Okay.” They took an elevator to the fourth floor. Bruce Ford shared a receptionist with four other loosely associated professionals. The receptionist hadn’t seen him in days and had nothing more to report than that “a man came by” before Bruce left. As to the identity of this man, she couldn’t say. She described him as “rough” looking, a description that certainly fit Cody Stinson.
“What exactly does your boyfriend do?” Paul asked as they walked the long hall toward a front office.
Brandy sighed hard. “Didn’t you know? He’s a tax lawyer.” Sticking a key into the lock, she swung the door open.
A flatscape of houses with the San Francisco Bay beyond unfolded outside Ford’s office window. A walnut desk piled with folders sat in front of the wide window, waiting to be rifled. Brandy went to a small photo on the desk and showed it to Paul and Wish. “Our engagement party.” She had worn pink. He had worn a white tux. The man, who was much taller than Brandy, had curly black hair, too long for someone in serious business, and grinned like a winner. His hair blew out in strawlike tendrils from under the breezy arbor.
“Look wherever you want,” Brandy said. She sat down on a chair across from the desk. “I don’t expect you to find much. Bruce is careful.”
Paul started on the tabletop while Wish picked through the contents of the drawers. While Brandy sighed and stretched, Wish’s eyes straying her way every minute or two, they conducted a thoroughly professional search of the office.
In the bottom right-hand drawer, exactly where you might expect to find it, Wish unearthed a day diary and started to read it out loud, but as Brandy’s brows furrowed, Paul took it away from him and shut it. “We have what we need. Let’s see where your boyfriend has gone.”
“My fiancé,” Brandy corrected, looking conflicted. “We’re supposed to get married in June.”
“Right,” Paul said, tucking the photograph of Brandy and Bruce into his pocket.
He let Wish slip a picture of Brandy from the credenza into his pocket without remark. In the photo, she wore a demure red bathing suit, not a bikini, but the effect was obviously irresistible. Well, what harm could it do? Wherever Bruce was, he didn’t care at the moment, and neither did Paul.
They walked up to Il Fornaio for caffeine, coming out slightly brighter-eyed. “Shouldn’t we go through his diary?” Brandy asked. “I figured that might tell us where he would be. If he’s got another girlfriend, I might as well find that out right now.”
“On the relevant day,” Paul said, looking at the right page but keeping it well out of her line of sight, “he planned to attend a lecture at Stanford, then go to a French film at someplace called Aquarius.”
“He studied French in college. I never did.”
“Where did you go?” Wish asked, his notebook and pencil poised.
“Why does that matter?”
“You never know what might be important,” he said.
“I went to Mission College down near San Jose. He went to Santa Clara University and got a law degree. Now, are you going to tell me or not? Was he alone?”
“He was meeting someone,” Paul said.
“Someone named Kirby.” That sounded safe. That was a male name.
The lines in her forehead cleared. “Oh, Kirby! Let’s go talk to him! Of course, I called him already when I called all Bruce’s friends. He said he didn’t know anything, but he’s a pal. He’d lie for Bruce. He’s from back when they used to make student films and Bruce was planning to become an auteur.”
“I thought you didn’t know French,” Wish said.
“I only know one line,” Brandy said. “Aimez-vous les pique-niques?” She said it artlessly, with no awareness of the impact of her words. Paul propped Wish up to make sure he could get out the door without fainting.
Kirby lived only a few blocks away, on a wide residential street lined with soldierly groups of luxuriant trees, in a compact thirties bungalow with a sky-blue-painted porch and generous front yard. Brandy led the way. “Kirby works nights, so he should be home.”
“Nice little place,” Wish observed. “I might like living in a neighborhood like this.”
Brandy laughed. “After you’ve made your first five million. This house would set you back at least a million.”
“How do people make that kind of money?” Wish asked, staggered. “And why would they spend a million of it to live in a house that’s half the size of my mom’s?”
“Kirby owns a chain of twenty-four-hour printing shops and he lives here because-oh, this is a great location. Between two major airports, beautiful weather, money growing on trees.” She sounded tired. “What more could you want?”
“Bruce likes this area?” Wish asked.
“What about you?”
“Where we live isn’t the problem between me and Bruce.”
“Then what is it?”
Brandy cast a cold eye on Wish, then Paul. “It’s personal.” She pressed the doorbell.
A small, sandy-colored man on the sunny side of thirty answered the door after several minutes, his eyes opened only halfway. “Brandy?”
“Sorry to wake you up, Kirby, but it’s important.”
He opened the door to let them inside, but didn’t move past the entryway. Brandy made introductions. After inspecting Paul’s license at great length and asking Wish a longer-than-polite series of questions about his role in all this, Kirby invited them to sit in the living room. “You’re still looking for Bruce, I take it.”
“Do you know where he is?” Brandy asked. “Because I really need to find him.”
A white-paneled door to the right of the fireplace opened. “Hi, Brandy,” said Bruce.
Bruce Ford, wearing thin black-rimmed glasses and hair trimmed and tamed since his photograph, was taller than Paul, which made Paul want him to sit down. Kirby excused himself shortly after Ford’s arrival, which left Bruce at one end of the room, Paul in a chair by the dining-room archway, and Brandy and Wish aligned in chairs by the fireplace, which held an ornate iron grille and tall candles instead of a fire.
Paul couldn’t figure out a way to get Bruce down, so after a moment or two, he stood and leaned against a squat pillar.
Bruce seemed to be waiting for something from Brandy, who finally realized it and got up to kiss him at the same time as Wish seemed to find something mesmerizing about his shoelace.
“As you can see, I was worried about you,” Brandy said, disengaging from Bruce’s grip.
“You hired a private investigator to find me?” Bruce asked.
“Well, are you going to tell me why you took off like that, without a word?”
“I’ll get to that,” Brandy said. “Let me just tell you how we got here first, okay?”
He folded his arms and listened. When she got to the campground story, the agitation began. “Brandy, you owe me an explanation.”
“I know but…”
“You run out on me, then waltz in here and tell me you’ve been mixed up in a murder!”
“I’m not waltzing.” Brandy folded her arms, too. “And I tried to reach you but you left your phone at home!”
“My phone’s broken, so I left it behind. And, in case you’re wondering why I’m here and not home, it’s because your campground friend came around to my office and scared the hell out of my staff.”
His staff? Paul thought. She must be some dazzling part-time receptionist. “Cody Stinson came to your office?”
“That’s the name he gave.”
“What did he say?” Paul asked.
“First off, he was loaded on something and didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Second, he’s not the type we get in our offices usually. Not an easy man to talk to. He said that we were trying to get him thrown in jail for something he didn’t do. Well, when he got to the part about not strangling someone, I cut the conversation short. I got him out of there and came to stay at Kirby’s until things settled down. That seemed like a logical response, considering a very strange person with a scary story had shown up in my office.” He turned back to face Brandy. “I called Angel’s, assuming you were there, but I got the machine.”
“Sam’s out of town with the kids,” she said.
“Then I called your mobile, and got more mechanical messages. You need a decent message system! You’ve got to keep that thing charged up! I’ve been frantic, worrying about where you were and what was going on!”
“Bruce, I’ve been trying to call you everywhere! I went to meet that guy, thinking it was you!” By now, Brandy was in tears.
“Brandy, this is awful,” Bruce said. “No more fighting. C’mere.” He held out his arms, and she walked into them. “I’m so glad to see you.”
“We need to talk in private,” Brandy said, sniffling, to Paul and Wish.
Paul and Wish returned to the car to wait.
Wish took out his notebook and took his lip between his thumb and pointer finger. “So what have we learned so far?”
“We found him. I guess that makes her glad.”
Brandy stayed inside for a long time. Through the glass of the Mustang’s front window, Paul and Wish could easily follow the overall thrust, if not all the details, of the argument.
“Brandy is saying that she hasn’t been fair with him,” Wish reported, leaning his head out of his open window to hear better. “Bruce wants her to come back, but she’s not willing to live there again unless-unless they don’t sleep together anymore. Bruce hollered when she said that.”
“What does she say?” Paul had jazz on low, trying to obliterate the background brawl, which reminded him of moments in his two past marriages he preferred not to revisit.
“She says-she says she just won’t do it.”
“What does he think of that?”
“He says he’s not clairvoyant. He wants to know what the heck does she want from him? She says-ah, it’s pretty private.”
“Come on, Wish, spit it out. Nothing’s private to a private investigator.”
“She says she never wanted to hurt him, she loves him, but she thinks they better cancel the wedding. She won’t tell him why. That makes him insane, basically.”
Oh, that girl, Paul thought, hoping for Wish’s sake she reconciled with her man, and fast. What a handful.
“Now he’s really mad,” Wish said unnecessarily. He turned the music up. “I’m going to buy you some new music,” he said. “Something newer than thirty years old.”
“This stuff never ages, Wish. It’s classic.”
“A fancy word for obsolete. By the way, what was so private in his date book you took away from me?”
“There is another woman?” Wish guessed.
“He’s working like a dog. He lives at the IRS office and tax court. There’s no other woman. Listen, I think it’s time we bow out on Bruce and Brandy. There’s been enough intemperate sharing of information in this case already.”
“He’s young to have big sex trouble, isn’t he?”
“I hate to speculate.”
“Yeah, it is pretty disgusting, thinking about another man’s sex problems.”
“On the other hand, I’m going to sleep good tonight, hoping that. What could be wrong with his approach, do you think?”
“Settle down, Wish.”
“She could like me, if she dumped Bruce.”
He was such a messy mix of mournful and hopeful, Paul almost laughed. “She’s almost a married woman. You ain’t got no business there, to misquote Sippi Wallace.”
The blue front door to Kirby’s house flew open. Brandy stepped outside, pulling the door shut hard behind her.
“Things didn’t end well,” Wish almost chortled.
“I reiterate, we don’t get involved with clients,” Paul said. “It’s unprofessional, plus it could get you in real trouble.”
“Okay, Rocky,” said Wish.
“I’m going back to Tahoe,” Brandy informed them.
Wish, grinning broadly, jumped out to open the back door for her.
Around Vacaville, Brandy finally started talking again. “I told him I’m going back to Angel’s for a few more days. He’s very mad at Nina for bringing all this trouble our way.”
“He’s mad and he’s a lawyer,” Paul summarized.
“Beeg trouble for Moose and Squirrel,” said Wish.
Friday-night traffic up the freeway to South Lake Tahoe made the long trip an infinite exercise in stop-and-go and imposed patience. The usual four-hour drive took them six. For dinner, to appease Wish and Brandy, Paul stopped in Placerville. They carbo-loaded at Mel’s Diner, a chrome-trimmed restaurant on the main drag. Paul left them to it and went out to the car to use his phone. Reaching Nina at her office, he was happy to hear Bob had been invited to sleep over at a friend’s house, which meant they would have the four-poster bed and the yellow comforter to themselves for the entire night. Elated, Paul hung up and went back to the table.
Watching Wish as he talked with Brandy, Paul stuck to iced tea, amazed that the gawky kid’s social gaffes and big elbows did not seem to register with her at all. Brandy ate like the hungry girl she was, oblivious to the effect she was having on the big lunk. Meanwhile, Paul did what he could to urge things along. He wanted to get to Tahoe.
Unfortunately for him, there was an unavoidable delay. In a ritual that probably originated with the first language, Brandy and Wish needed to exchange life stories. Brandy talked first. I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours, thought Paul, exasperated, trying not to study his watch too openly. But Wish, Paul observed, was having the time of his life, listening intently as Brandy talked about her childhood, flirting in his oddball Washoe way. After she reported extensively, Wish told his own story in fits and starts, glossing over college, launching into asides about Sandy and Joseph, their marriage, divorce, and remarriage, their ranch near Markleeville, their activism in Native American causes.
“Your life is so exotic, Wish,” Brandy said after he finished his narrative of his vital legal investigations for Nina’s office.
“You know, Native American people and heritage, such fascinating roots in a culture struggling to maintain dignity and identity in a new, complicated era. Your mother sounds cool, too.”
“Oh, that describes Sandy to a T,” Paul said, slipping out of the booth, meditating upon the mincemeat Sandy could make of a Wish-Brandy alliance. “And on that ominous note, I think we’d better hit the road again.”
Back in South Lake Tahoe, Nina prepared for Paul’s arrival. After packing Bob off to Taylor Nordholm’s-driving him there herself just for the reassurance that he was, in fact, exactly where he said he would be-she ran through the cabin with stern determination, shoving kitchen piles into drawers, kicking loose shoes and laundry into Bob’s room and shutting the door, and cutting stems off three bunches of flowers she had bought to splash around the place. Roses in three-colored bunches, yellow, pink, and red, were arranged loosely in vases, placed and replaced on tables and in corners.
Then she examined her handiwork and decided things looked unearthly neat, so she messed a few magazines around on the coffee table. As if Paul cared. But the work was automatic and inexorable, as important as a court appearance to her on this night. She wanted everything beautiful and harmonious.
She missed him every night. She loved him so much! She wanted to be with him forever. Or something!
In the kitchen, she laid out ingredients as directed by Andrea to be swiftly boiled, blanched, and assembled later: fresh rigatoni, Swiss chard, toasted crumbs, anchovies, newly grated Parmesan. She tossed sliced tomatoes, slivered carrots, and two kinds of lettuce into a bowl, covered it tightly, and put it into the refrigerator. She would add homemade tomato-basil croutons and dressing, her specialties, later. A frosty bottle of champagne rested on the middle shelf, lonesome. She inserted a second beside it.
After lighting a pyramid of orange and blue candles on a side table in the living room, she threw a fresh log on the fire.
She took Hitchcock out for a brisk trot up the road, and then, murmuring words of apology, she tossed a big bone into the laundry area and shut him up inside for the night.
Upstairs, she changed the sheets on her bed and gave the yellow roses a pat. Checking the clock, she stepped into the shower. Hot steam forced her to shut her eyes. She stayed under the waterfall for a long time, until her skin was pink and shining, all the sins of the days and weeks drained temporarily away. Back in her room, she settled on a silk nightie with a matching silk robe loosely tied at the waist. She brushed her long brown hair, despaired of controlling it, and let it fly.
The phone rang. She started toward the bedside table.
The doorbell rang. She let the phone go to the message machine, racing downstairs to answer the door. Paul walked in the door, grabbed her, and trundled her into the warm, vanilla-scented living room, his mouth all over her neck, shoulders, and breasts, lips cold with the outside. Within minutes, he removed his shirt, her fine silk.
Bliss, or fatigue, or mutual satisfaction must have knocked them both out, because a strange sound woke Nina, the sound of a key jiggling in the front door.
But how could that be? Why wasn’t she in bed, with this long, hairy arm across her breasts covered demurely by a down comforter? Why did she feel so exposed?
The fire must have kept them warm, she thought groggily, realizing they had never made it to the bedroom. Paul, who lay all over and around her in an intimate clutch on the living-room rug, snored softly. Before she had time to heed the situation further or form a plan to stave off impending disaster, the front door opened widely.
Bob stepped in. “Mom?” he said. “Taylor’s grandma’s sick. I tried to call-” His voice fell away.
Closing her eyes, Nina played asleep, trying to keep her breathing regular, just like Bob used to do when he was little and was caught late at night reading by flashlight.
“Mom.” This time, Bob said the word more softly. He stood there in the entryway for what seemed like months, then tiptoed past them and crept up the stairs to his room.
“Wake up,” she whispered to Paul when she felt convinced of the thoroughness of Bob’s absence from the room. She tried to lift Paul’s heavy arm off her, but the arm, awakening slowly, had other things in mind. She repeated herself a few times, watched the lazy hazel eyes open wide at last, and fended off his hands, which had gone exploring. “I have to get up. Let me go!”
Something in her voice worked. He removed his arm. “What’s the matter?”
“Bob came home,” she whispered.
“Are you awake? He caught us lying here.” She moved her leg out from under his leg and stood up.
“God, you are so pretty from this vantage point.”
“Paul, get up!” She took his hand and tried to get him to his feet. “Put something on.” She handed him his shirt, which he obligingly put on. She handed him his pants. He pulled them over his legs. “Now button that shirt,” she commanded.
“What’s the rush?” He fumbled with buttons. “He’s on to us. There’s no going back now.”
Trembling, she picked up her nightgown and robe. She put the robe on and climbed the stairs to her room. “Shh. I’ll be right back.”
She returned fully dressed in a sweater and long knit skirt. Paul sat at the kitchen table in front of a beer and half-empty glass. Nina went directly to the refrigerator and pulled out the champagne. “We might as well open a bottle of this,” she said, and she knew how she sounded, sick at heart, horrified.
“Sure,” Paul said, ignoring all that. He popped the cork. She handed him two crystal flutes, which he filled.
“To us,” he said, clinking. “Bob will take it all right.”
She nodded and drank.
“Dinner?” Paul said, pointing his glass toward the full countertop.
“Yes, except Bob hates anchovies. You mind if I leave them out?”
“I don’t mind.”
“You can’t stay over tonight,” she said. “Taylor’s grandma’s sick.”
Before Paul could respond, Bob’s door opened. “You guys decent now?” he called down the hall. “Can I come out?”
“Come on out,” Paul said.
“What will I say to him?” Nina asked.
“Say it’s time for dinner. You’re delighted he decided to join us after all. Say you’re sorry about all that. Ask him if you can put anchovies in my half of the pasta.”
Lacking a better idea, she did.
O N SATURDAY MORNING, despite the pressure Nina and Paul felt to work, they both dropped everything when Bob extorted his way into their plans.
“The only thing that’s going to make it up to me is a hike up to Cave Rock, Mom,” he told Nina slyly, after she offered awkward apologies for the previous evening’s living-room debacle. “I’ve been wanting to go there all summer, and now winter’s coming and we still haven’t gone.”
Nina called Paul to tell him. Paul invited himself along. “Let me check with Bob,” Nina said.
“Sure,” Bob said, “let’s invite Paul. He’s such good company. But I guess you know that.” Chuckling, he took off to find his boots.
Although Nina was clearly still worrying about Bob, he seemed untraumatized enough to Paul when he picked them up. They drove past Zephyr Cove to Nevada State Park, parking in the lot below the tunnel, Bob talking nonstop about why he needed to see the famous cave. “Wish told me there are spirits here and if we don’t make any noise we’ll hear them.”
When Bob let up for a few seconds, Paul listened to Nina tell about her conversation with Jack, and how Jack felt she was in the clear. She watched him out of the corner of her eye, as if daring him to say something different. He kept his skepticism to himself. He also kept himself from making one single crack about Jack.
The parking lot abutted Lake Tahoe, ending at a boat ramp, and the two or three other cars all had empty boat trailers. Flights of gulls punctuated the delicate sky, which looked as if it might destabilize into a storm during the afternoon, but the lake lay passive and cool beneath.
In a triumph of functionalism over history, Highway 50 had been blasted through the bottom of Cave Rock as a WPA project. Cars roared through the tunnel as they climbed up the hill in light scrub. Bob sat on the edge of a wall overlooking the lanes until Nina, nervous, called him back.
“The Washoe used the waters below this cave for their sacred burial area,” Bob lectured, climbing on ahead, Paul behind, Nina on his heels. “I asked Wish to come along, but he said he has too much homework, which is too bad, because he knows a lot more than I do about it.” They came very quickly to a flat area marred with concrete and broken glass with an enormous natural archway entry into the rock. Within the gloom they made out a hundred years of graffiti on the walls. Stacked bits of granite, feathers, and twigs, offerings of mysterious origins, decorated the large slabs of granite at the far end, where the rock narrowed into a V.
“There is a cave like this on Oahu,” Nina said. “Bigger, but with that same narrowing at the back. It’s still an opening, but it seems to continue down into the earth at that point. The Hawaiians say it’s where their race was born.”
They walked back into the light and poked around. Bob set off, climbing beyond it onto a hillside of loose shale. Nina, who had been sitting cheerfully on a rock overlooking the lake getting her picture snapped by Paul, got up grudgingly to continue on with him.
“I’ll wait here,” Paul said, checking out the steep rock walls, noting the places where climbers had attached fixed holds. After they left, he walked around until one particular line on an outside wall of the cave attracted him. Cave Rock might be a sacred place to the Washoe, but to the profane rock-climbing community it was a vertical park.
Pulling his climbing shoes and some chalk for his hands out of his pack, he quickly readied himself for some free climbing, scoped the line out some more, eyeballed some handholds, and pulled himself into the ascent.
How he loved to climb. He loved the stretch of muscle under his skin, the adrenaline rush, the cold edges of rock that nicked him as he felt for handholds. He ignored the pitons left by more cautious roped-up types. After a while, he settled into a slow rhythm, taking no chances on the holds, which were, true, not too reliable, just enjoying himself in the moment, doing what his body was meant to do, his eyes six inches from Mother Earth, his hands holding her tight.
He reached the top fairly fast and sat down to enjoy another fantastic view of the lake and surrounding peaks, clouds massing in the east, a sliver of moon ghostly in the thin morning air. His reverie was interrupted by a shout, followed by a second shout, followed by his name.
He scuffled down the gentle backside of the rock face, toward the voices. There he found Nina kneeling over Bob, who was sitting at the bottom of a long rockfall, blood gushing from his knee. A bruise was beginning on one cheek, and scrapes on his arms told Paul he had taken quite a tumble.
“You all right, Bob?”
“It’s not broken. I can walk.” Nina started to help him up, but he shook her off. “Leave me alone, Mom.”
They walked, or in Bob’s case, hobbled, down the hill to the car, where Nina found her first-aid kit. By the time she bandaged the wound, Bob had established a policy of silence, which he somehow maintained through the stinging, painful cleansing regimen.
They rode back without even the soothing effects of music. Nina turned on NPR, and they listened to Bob Edwards telling, in his earnest round voice, the latest disheartening world news. By the time they reached Caesars, Paul was happy to say good-bye, although sorry for Nina. They got out while Bob stayed in the car, and walked a short distance away.
“What happened up there?”
“He was fine until I told him he couldn’t go to ‘band practice’ this afternoon at Nikki’s. I made up an excuse but he saw through me, which upset him. He suddenly decided to leave the trail and climb a steeper part of the hill. I told him to stop, it was too steep. Then he fell, which humiliated him.”
“You can’t imagine how much he looks up to you, Paul. He didn’t want you to see him.”
Touched, Paul said, “I’ll take him out sometime and teach him a few things.”
“I don’t want him rock climbing.”
“He’s getting older, Nina. It’s a safe sport if he learns right. I started at about his age.”
“Sure. He can spend the nights with Nikki and the days risking his neck. Why not? He’s a big thirteen years old!”
Paul said gently, “He’s going to grow up with or without you, honey.”
“You don’t understand,” Nina said with that fierce note in her voice, and Paul did understand that he’d better back off or she might kick him out of the stepfather competition. He was feeling a certain solidarity with the kid, and she didn’t like that. Did “stepfather” mean being a yes-man for the mother? He experienced a moment of doubt about Nina. She was too driven and too protective of the kid.
She made a good boss, though, and unfortunately he was in love with her. He had wanted to do some serious talking about their future the night before, and it didn’t look like the opportunity would come again soon. “I’ll call you after I speak with Ali,” he said.
He set out up the road toward Meyers, the next town over on the California side of the lake.
The Peck family owned some acreage on a side street off South Upper Truckee Road. Consulting his map and watching for a crooked wooden sign Ali had described, he arrived at the house at a few minutes after noon. U-shaped, with an open grassy courtyard in front, the house stepped down a hill on the backside and must have had some expansive glass in back for admiring the craggy landscape beyond. He looked forward to a peek inside, but as it turned out, he had no opportunity.
Ali Peck waved him over to the side of the house. She had a split stack of wood beside her on the left, a few short logs to the right, and a two-foot log set up lengthwise on a low stump. As he walked over, she gave it a smack with a long-handled ax. The log fell open like the O.E.D. She threw the two pieces toward the split pile, then started in on another one. “Hang on,” she said, “I’m almost done.”
She wore jeans and a V-necked T-shirt that read One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila, Floor. He watched her shoulders work. He could see her appeal. Youth, pep, spirit-she had it all, and if he could see that in a few strokes of the ax, imagine what riding with her day after day must have shown Kevin.
She stopped, set the ax against the stump, removed gloves, and wiped her hands on her jeans. “I won’t shake,” she said. “Blisters.”
“You know who I am.”
“Yeah. You can call me Ali if I can call you Paul.”
“I don’t know what you expect to get out of me. This mess with Kevin has been such a pisser.” She pushed hair away from her face, and Paul noticed she had not broken a single nicely manicured fingernail.
“Your parents around, Ali?”
“They do a big grocery shop on Saturday afternoon. I don’t want them involved.”
A careful and mature young lady, Paul thought. And it made things easier for him. “Looks like you do a lot of that.”
“Two cords a season. My father chops the other two cords. He’s a karate instructor. Do you want to sit down? How long is this going to take? I’m willing to do this one last thing for Kevin, whatever loose ends you’re here to take care of, but tell Kevin I won’t be taken by surprise again. I’ll be out of state when the permanent-custody hearing comes around. I’m not going to go through another court scene. So embarrassing. I don’t specially like hurting my first lover, you know.”
“Where are you going?”
“To spend the spring at my aunt’s ranch in Arizona. It’s too hot for me here in the mountains at the moment. I’m a scandal.” She laughed. “I just hope all this doesn’t ruin my career in law enforcement.” She sat down on a smooth rock in the yard and Paul sat on a log beside her. The yard, Tahoe style, had been left natural. The well-spaced pines and the soft lawn of needles made it look like a nature preserve.
“You may still get subpoenaed,” Paul said. “Even in another state. There are ways.”
“I’ll get a better lawyer if I have to. Can we get this over with? I heard that Kevin lost the hearing. He really loves his kids. It’s too bad.”
“How did it happen? You and him, I mean?”
Her eyebrows went up and she smiled. For once she looked her age. “It just happened. We were alone a lot. I was helping him right down to assisting in the apprehension of suspects. I know cadets aren’t supposed to be put in harm’s way but things happen fast. We became like real partners who trust each other totally. Sometimes we went on stakeouts and we’d tell each other all about our lives. Kevin was miserable with his wife. He finally broke down and told me.” She glanced at Paul.
“I’m sorry, I forgot how old you are. I need to make a note,” Paul said.
“Yes, legally I was underage. Kevin worried about that all the time. We had to be incredibly careful. He might be fired. Has he been disciplined?”
“There’s an investigation.”
“He has to be in trouble. Everybody knows about us now. At least I fended off that statutory-rape garbage. My father wanted to go to the police but I wouldn’t let him. After it came out, they decided not to prosecute, because I wouldn’t cooperate. The fact is, we were in love. We were two adults and what we did was our own business.” She had a clear, intelligent way of talking. Maybe someday she would become a police officer, but she had some work to do on her judgment first.
“I’m confused,” Paul said. “Did Kevin and his wife split up because of the affair?”
“No! Absolutely no way could she know about it. They were living together the whole time. This custody issue hadn’t come up. But we were in love. Kevin was everything to me. I planned to marry him.”
“So the two of you talked about marriage?”
“Sure. He wanted to marry me, too, but he wanted to be sure he’d get the kids. I wasn’t sure what I wanted except that I wanted him.”
“So did Kevin tell his wife he wanted to separate while you two were still, ah, in the relationship?”
“No. We almost got to that point. We had plans. Go to Alaska, if you want to know. I was there two years ago on an Outward Bound kayaking trip. It was an excellent place. My parents wouldn’t like me going, but they would respect my rights. But it never got to that point.”
“Well, we had been together about three months. We were patrolling the condo area up at Ski Run around eleven at night in a snowfall. We had a big talk. Kevin told me, okay, Ali, this is it, I’m going to tell her tomorrow. And we’re going to go to Alaska and start over, and I’ll bring my kids and we’ll get jobs and live in a cabin and do some hunting and trapping. He had finally come around to what I wanted. We had sex in the patrol car. I fibbed in court when I said we never did it there, incidentally. Then I went home and went to bed.”
“I see,” Paul said. He checked her face again. Was she truly eighteen, or some hard-nosed mama of forty?
Ali did that smile again, the smile with the eyebrows up that made a sort of facial shrug. “Yeah,” she said, “that’s how close I came. But then when I went to bed I couldn’t sleep. I thought stuff like, we don’t have any money, how do we get to Alaska? And I don’t like doing dishes or anything, so do I want to take care of kids? All of a sudden, you know, this lightning bolt hit me and I fell out of love. Like this.” She snapped her fingers. “All of a sudden I couldn’t understand what I ever liked about Kevin.
“He has no ambition. He’s actually kind of passive except when it comes to his kids. The truth is that I initiated everything. He liked being dragged along. And the sex was good but he was only my second boyfriend and there was this cute exchange student from Sofia-that’s in Bulgaria, in case you were wondering-at school who I was starting to think about, like, you know, what a shame. He’s soulful. He wants to be a writer. You know?”
“I know.” He thought back to a beautiful artist he knew once.
She shook her head wonderingly. “I felt like I had been sick with flu and just suddenly got over it. I searched my soul that night and I realized I didn’t want to go to Alaska. I knew it was over. Has that ever happened to you?”
“Not since I was seventeen,” Paul said.
“Are you saying I’m immature? Because-”
“No, no. I have no problem with that.”
This magic sentence always worked. Ali’s defensiveness dissolved and she said with a trace of boastfulness, “So that was my love affair. Is that all you wanted to ask me about?”
“Not exactly. Although you have been very frank and helpful.”
She nodded and said, “Anything I can do.”
“What I need to know is how you ended up getting subpoenaed.”
“I explained that to Kevin when he called. And incidentally, tell him not to call again. I’m with somebody else.”
And I bet that somebody else writes beautiful love letters in Cyrillic script, Paul thought. “Explain it to me one more time.”
“Simple. The phone rang last Friday morning about seven. My parents talked to this lawyer named Riesner, Lisa’s lawyer. He told them he’d heard Kevin and I had been involved in a serious sexual relationship. They didn’t believe it at first. It shocked them quite a bit when I admitted it. I hated it coming out that way. I felt bad that I hadn’t told them before on my own, so that wasn’t fun. There was some shouting, you know how it is. Then a little later someone came to the door, a grungy-looking man wearing a wrinkled flowered shirt looking lost. At that point, my parents weren’t in any shape to answer, so I did. He said, ‘Ali Peck?’ I said, ‘How’d you know my name?’ He handed me some papers and I said, ‘Listen, pal, I’m sorry, I already go to the Lutheran church,’ and he said, ‘It’s a subpoena, dollface. Read it and weep.’
“My parents read it and they called their lawyer. He said I was a witness in Kevin’s hearing that same day and he could get the hearing continued if I wanted but eventually I’d have to tell the truth because now Lisa knew. I said I might as well get it over with even though I was plenty nervous. Then I needed to talk with my parents for a long time, explain everything until they understood. After that discussion, my parents said they respected my need to live my own life.”
So sixties, thought Paul.
“So our lawyer talked to Lisa’s lawyer and gave me advice on how to testify and what they were going to ask me. The whole experience was pretty gross. Very embarrassing, but the worst thing was knowing I was hurting Kevin. But I couldn’t lie about the big stuff. That would be perjury.”
Paul made some notes, looked at the healthy radiant girl in blue jeans with the bright future, and said, “Just wondering. Why didn’t you call Kevin before the hearing? A little advance warning. That sort of thing.”
“I had a lot going on! My parents upset. A trig test I might miss. Kevin would have cried, too. He wouldn’t have even thought about my feelings. About how I, an innocent party, got sucked into this ugly custody hearing.” She picked up the ax and ran her finger along the edge.
“This subpoena came as a complete shock to you.”
“Yes. Kevin said Lisa’s lawyer sort of implied that I called him and told him about us. That’s a complete lie.”
Paul closed his notebook. “Just one more little thing I need to go back to, Ali. You said that Lisa Cruz never knew about the affair until the time you were subpoenaed.”
“No one knew. Kevin would never have told her.”
“You’re a woman of the world,” Paul said. “Obviously you’re no fool. Don’t you think Lisa might have figured it out? Maybe from Kevin’s attitude, or his lack of interest in her-”
“She kicked him out of her bed and for some reason expected him to stick by her. She drove him crazy, starting up one manic lifestyle racket after another, then, when it didn’t fix her life or make her happy, she turned off like a run-down battery toy. I really think he tried to make her happy for a long time, but she’s one of those people who’s so self-absorbed, she barely registered him.”
Paul nodded. He stood up just as a Ford Explorer rolled into the driveway. Paul passed the man and woman inside on his way to the Mustang out front. “It’s okay, Mom,” Ali called.
Like their daughter, the Pecks practically vibrated good health, but they looked nervous. He would be, too, if he had Ali for a daughter.
After his visit with Ali, Paul stopped in at the South Lake Tahoe police station to check out the Bronco theft investigation. As soon as he walked into the building, old, familiar sensations assaulted him, which quickly overrode his well-being.
He hadn’t fit into the San Francisco Police Department from the beginning. Following a beer or two, when he felt insightful, he sometimes reflected that the cause of his unease there was not only a generalized problem with granting any idiot authority over him. His problem was also with specific idiots, the officious ones that seemed to have an almost military need to break his spirit and create the right kind of soldier. He irked them. They irked him. And one day, after a series of incidents, rather than granting him yet another promotion in Homicide, he was fired for insubordination.
Now, just over forty, entering what should be his maturity, he still got riled at the signs ordering this and that, the stone-faced officer on duty, the vigilant questions, the general militaristic smell of the place. But he disguised his prejudices, gave a pleasant smile to the cop at the desk, and asked to see one of the officers who had responded to the theft of Nina’s Bronco.
After turning his ID this way and that, as if to make better sense of it from a different angle, the cop said, looking closely at Paul, “Officer Scholl’s on duty,” buzzing the inner sanctum. Officer Scholl came out and asked him to walk her over to her car. She was going off duty now, and was dressed in a red turtleneck sweater over slacks and ankle boots, civilian clothing that flattered her stocky body.
They walked out together into the damp mountain world, where breezes whispered softly, and plump, new, green acorns on a huckleberry oak shrub made the ugliness of human behavior in a place like this so much more difficult to stomach than in any given urban slum.
“There’s nothing to report,” Scholl told him with a frown after he explained his mission.
“Any progress on the missing files?”
The speed in her step made him rush to keep up. “Things have been happening in these cases that suggest-a possibility that someone is using information from the files.”
She stopped, turned to face him, and put her hands on her hips. “What things?”
“Sorry. I can’t discuss the specifics.”
“Huh. You people.” She took off again. They reached her car, a midsized family sedan. She pushed a button on a keyring remote to click the lock open. “Doesn’t matter that we can’t do our job, doesn’t matter if people may get hurt, must keep the lying client’s secrets.”
Frustration overrode all other feelings. “Officer, we need those files back.”
“You’re a real one-note samba.”
“I know you don’t have the best opinion of Nina Reilly. But she appreciates your getting her vehicle back, and says you’ve been very professional in your dealings with her.”
“My personal feelings don’t interfere with my job.”
“Exactly what I’m saying. I’m glad you were able to put your differences aside and find her Bronco.”
“You have new information I can use?”
Paul was silent.
“Of course you don’t. We got the vehicle back, that saved her a bundle, but now some backseat litter’s missing, which no one will describe. Well, that’s just tough, isn’t it? Tough for us, tough for her.” She opened the car door. “Mr. van Wagoner, I’m off duty. I’ve got better things to do than to listen to you grumble about this problem not getting priority over the dozens of other cases we’re handling.”
“Listen, I’m aware you have bigger trouble in this town than a defense attorney’s missing papers. I was a cop.”
“I know,” she broke in. Seeing his surprise, she said, “You think in a little town like this when a city type like you comes nosing around we aren’t interested? You run an investigative agency in Carmel, which has business when it wants it. You’ve been coming up here for a couple of years now, working mostly for Nina Reilly and only occasionally for other private clients. You were fired from the SFPD years ago. You went to work for the Monterey Police Department and that didn’t work out either. You have a buddy on the force here, Sergeant Fred Cheney. He speaks well of you or I wouldn’t be standing here.”
“How is he?”
“Working too hard.”
“So what you’re saying is-”
“Don’t give me any more shit about Nina Reilly’s petty problems, ’kay? It’s my investigation and it’s open. I do my job whether I like the vic or not. Anything else?” She got in her car and stomped on the accelerator, swinging out of her parking space with a cop’s practiced skill.
Hands in his pockets, Paul watched her drive away. Scholl hadn’t liked talking to him but she had done it. Was she looking for the files at all or had she back-burnered them? He couldn’t say. He didn’t like the way she said Nina’s name. He didn’t like her tone, civil in the middle and hostile around the edges. He could use police help on this-hell, he could use any help at all on this. He couldn’t think of another case where leads had vaporized into smoke so fast.
He walked beyond the courthouse to the city jail. Cody Stinson had not been moved to Placerville as yet, which was convenient. At the jail, Paul submitted to the usual rigmarole before being admitted to a visiting area. Stinson came in shortly after.
“You!” he said. As slight in build as Mario Lopez was built-up, Stinson was spending his time in jail creatively, sculpting a new goatee. “You’re the one who tackled me. They ought to arrest you, not me. I wasn’t doing anything illegal at that shelter. I even knocked. What in hell was that woman doing with a gun, anyway? I didn’t do nothing!”
Paul explained his purpose. “We just want to know who tipped you off about the two women you met at the beach.”
“Why should I help you?”
“I’m trying to get to the bottom of all this. If I do, and if you are innocent, that’s got to help you, Cody.” This was sticky strategy. If Cody was innocent, well, he might jump. If he was guilty he still might jump, because people in jail leap for any old broken rings if they think there might be some advantage. “If we find another bad guy in all this, you’ll get out of jail.”
Cody thought for a while, scratching his chin with a stubby finger. He had bad skin, which the overhead lights exaggerated. “I got a call.”
“I don’t know. Somebody. Probably a guy, but it sounded like the voice might have been changed. Synthesized or something.”
“What did this person say?”
“Told me some names and where these people lived. Told me that these women were running around telling the cops and the D.A. and anybody who would listen that I strangled Phoebe that night. That they saw me at the camp later that night.”
“When did the call come? What day of the week?”
“I don’t know. Last weekend. Saturday, I think.”
“To your house?”
“So you decided to talk to the witnesses, straighten them out.”
“That’s right. Like I told you, I’m an innocent man. They’ve got no business running all over town wrecking my good name.”
“So how’d you find them?”
“I called around. Called Brandy Taylor’s house in Palo Alto. Their machine message gave her cell number out. I called the number a couple of times. When I finally reached her, she asked did I know where Bruce was? So I, uh, played along you might say. Told her he wanted to meet her, that his cell phone was broke so he couldn’t call her himself. Can you believe she bought that? People ought to be more careful. She must have been desperate to see the guy.”
“You met her at the beach just to talk?”
“That’s right. But those two ladies, they’re loons. Before I could even introduce myself, they started screaming and jumping around. I tried to settle them down, and the one got knocked over. Things went from bad to seriously bad. Then, you know, I holed up at the Hilltop in Truckee. Laid low.”
“While you waited for some money to come in.”
“That’s right. Mario tell you that?”
“He has a share coming, if I ever contact that guy that owes us, which doesn’t look too likely with me stuck here.”
“Mario would be delighted to hear that.”
“Yeah, he probably thinks I’m planning to stiff him. Maybe I will. Least I can do for Phoebe.”
“You mean because if you didn’t kill Phoebe, odds are, he did.”
“Yeah. Bastard,” Cody said. “How could he do that? You think you know someone. Oh, I’ll never get over her. I can’t believe she’s gone. You ever see a picture of her?”
“Then you know she was drop-dead hot. But she was somebody, you know? A real nice person, warm. Homey. She also had this completely lousy singing voice.” He sang a few notes in a grinding, off-key falsetto. “Like that. Bad enough to bend a spoon. She knew she sounded terrible, but she didn’t give a damn, sang all the time anyway, loud.” He sighed. “She’d tickle my face with that silky black hair of hers to wake me up… We were just starting to talk kids when Mario showed up.” He shook his head, sounding forlorn. “Jealousy’s a mean, unpredictable son of a bitch.”
“While you were at the Hilltop, you got another call? I mean, how did you know those two women were staying at the women’s shelter?”
“I called Carol-a family friend-and we got to talking. We were guessing where two ladies who wanted to feel safe might hide. She told me about the shelter. Before her divorce she escaped from her former old man there once.”
Paul remembered that name. “Carol Ames is the woman who gave you the alibi for that night.”
“She wasn’t lying. She never even knew I left. She sleeps hard. It was easy to sneak out.”
“Who is she?”
“Just Carol. She’s always around.”
“No, man, I was with Phoebe and Carol was clear on that. Carol’s from way back. After I had the run-in with Phoebe and Mario at the campground, I went over to her apartment. She’s a good lady and she opened the door and said I could stay. I was blasted. She could see I didn’t want to be alone. I sat down at her kitchen table, thinking about going back. She tried to talk sense into me, but you can’t talk sense to a jackass, which is what I am. So we went to bed. She fell asleep but I was tortured, man, thinking about Phoebe. So I snuck out. Look where it landed me.”
“What happened at the campground that night, Cody?”
He sat back against his chair. “Mario had just gotten out of prison that day and he came by my place to collect some money I really do owe him. This was in the afternoon. Well, Phoebe was there, hiding in the back room, scared to death he would find out we were now a couple, right? So I wouldn’t let him in. I gave him twenty bucks to camp because money was tight temporarily, and I couldn’t cover a motel room right that minute with what I had in my pocket. Phoebe was in a crappy mood after he left and she wouldn’t even talk to me. Anyway, a while later, she took off without saying where she was going. I figured I’d find her at the campground. I should have just left them alone. But Mario can get rabid when he drinks.”
“You thought he might get rough with her?”
“Well, yeah. Now wait a minute. I don’t mean I was afraid he’d kill her! I never thought that.”
Paul nodded, listening.
“So I went over to see if she was there. She was.”
“And what did she say?”
“Not much. He told me they were back together, everything was simpatico now. We all got to drinking out of nervousness and that’s when Mario and I got into it a little. I found it hard to accept that she would just walk out on me like that. So we fought over her. She was in the middle, torn, you know? Mario was her original boyfriend and she felt loyal. But I know she cared about me a lot.”
“You folks caused quite a commotion. The ranger got involved, as I understand it.”
“Right. He broke it up and sent me on my way.”
“But you came back. What did you do, park your bike on the street and walk in?”
He nodded. “The last thing on my mind was to wake up Mario. I just wanted to talk to Phoebe alone, without his influence. I ducked in and woke her up, and believe me, it wasn’t easy. She was passed out. When she finally seemed conscious we went outside the tent and I asked her, did she want him or me. That’s what it came down to. Him or me. I told her I loved her.”
“And she said?”
“She told me to go away and we’d talk in the morning. She kissed me and I still thought I had a chance. I had no reason to kill her, man!”
“And that was the end of it.”
Cody’s eyes hardened. “That’s right. She crawled back into the tent and that’s the last time I saw her alive.”
“And what time was this?”
“Nighttime, late. How should I know?”
Jack’s face when he caught sight of Paul arriving at Bueno Nalo Restaurant in Sacramento that night with Nina: priceless.
Once upon a time, while Nina and Jack were still married and living in San Francisco, that look of raw irritation at being thwarted from some private ambition would have scared her, made her jump to attention and try to alleviate it. She had been deeply involved with Jack then and his disposition prevailed over hers. She would tiptoe around his fits of temperament as if avoiding potent, half-hidden land mines.
Now the look on his face made her laugh. He looked like a small, spoiled child, face puckered, tantrum brewing. Smiling, saying hello and sitting down, she wondered again what he could possibly want with her aside from a good legal fee.
Paul seemed in a fine humor. Ignoring Jack’s mood, he left to wash his hands as soon as the margaritas had been ordered.
“I expected to meet you alone,” Jack said.
“But that was not to be.” The drinks arrived and Nina slouched a little and had a short sip. “Oh, sorry,” she went on. “A toast. To-to Saturday nights.”
Jack, unbending, said, “I’d like you to send Paul on his way.”
“Because I need to speak frankly with you. About your situation. Talk law with you. We’re putting Paul in a spot. The conversation’s not privileged if he’s here.”
“He’ll never tell. Besides, he’s our investigator. It’s work-product.”
“Okay, the truth. I want to have dinner with you, just you. Get a little undivided attention.” He rubbed some salt off the glass and had a taste of it. Grimacing, he took his napkin and wiped all around the rim, saying, “Could you just tell him we have to talk alone? Please?”
“Why don’t you tell him?” All this was so familiar. Jack’s power play, her automatic resistance.
“That’s a laugh. He’d never leave.”
Nina looked down. “I want him here, Jack. Please don’t make a big deal about it. Back to business, remember?”
“Well, I’m disappointed.”
“Why? Why should we be alone?”
“Because we have a lot to say to each other.”
“I’ve been thinking some more since our phone call. I want you to see how I’ve changed since we were together.”
“For Pete’s sake,” Nina said, exasperated. “One thing sure hasn’t changed. You’re the king of chutzpah. Paul and I are together. He’s in the bathroom right now, unaware that his good buddy is trying to undercut him. And what is it you want? An ego boost? I don’t believe you’re pining for me. I can’t.”
Jack said, “Whoa. Please, Nina. Don’t turn into a lawyer on me. Don’t use words to hurt me. I’ve been hurt a lot recently.”
Fortunately for Nina, Paul slid in beside her before she could break down and apologize to Jack’s large, sorrowful eyes. “Ah,” Paul said. “I see you started without me.” His sharp eyes took in the situation. “What’s up, buddy?” he asked Jack.
“I wept on Nina’s icy shoulder. But to return to our earthly concerns, Nina, report.”
“Well, on the way here, I delivered two checks to Fresno, one to Kao Vang and one to Mrs. Vang, for a hundred and five thousand dollars apiece minus legal fees and costs. Mrs. Vang cried, then thanked me and put a white scarf around my neck and gave me a blessing.”
“And Kao Vang?”
“He muttered in Hmong. Dr. Mai didn’t even try to translate. The tenor of Kao’s remarks was that he wuz robbed. I think he put a juju on me, or the Hmong equivalent.”
“Any chance he’d go after his wife for her share?” Paul said.
“I think she can handle herself. I doubt Kao is a violent person, Paul. We’re always so paranoid.”
“Call it cautious until proven paranoid.”
Jack set down his drink hard. “It’s out of your hands now. You made the payout. Case closed.”
“I still don’t have the file with my intake notes,” Nina said. “And the other robber, the arsonist, is still out there.”
“Loose ends,” Paul said. “How I hate loose ends. Especially when it’s possible they connect. Maybe the second robber in this insurance case took your files. He knows about the money now, and he makes a move on one or both of the Vangs. Case maybe not closed is my feeling.”
“I talked with both of them about that,” Nina said. “They are aware that they need to be careful. I even took Mrs. Vang to the bank and helped her deposit the check. But I know what you mean, Paul. I’m still concerned.”
“Part of it has to do with the events of the other two cases,” Paul said. They ordered the specials and a pitcher of margaritas this time. Now halfway through his drink, Jack seemed to be settling down, but Nina had an uneasy feeling that the three of them should not have sat down together tonight.
“Okay, status report on the other two cases,” Jack said.
“Warning flags,” Paul told him, “described in brief. In the Cruz case, the girlfriend, Ali Peck, insists the subpoena originated with Riesner.”
“So we still don’t know if Riesner knew about her all the time and saved that little surprise for the last day of the hearing, or if the thief called him and told him, or if Riesner stole my Bronco, or Lisa stole it, or Scholl-” The waitress brought fresh salsa and chips, and salads of greens, orange slices, and jicama. Both Jack and Paul watched her saunter away.
“I think the first he heard of Ali Peck was the night the Bronco was stolen,” Paul went on. “Cody Stinson told me he got a call. No reason for him to lie. So I think we do have somebody out there with the files and a phone. Could be Riesner got a call, too, just like he said. If he knows anything more that’s useful about this supposed phone call, we have to know it.” He attacked his salad. “We need to ask him.”
“What, and expect a straight answer?” Nina asked. “He lies just because he can. And, Paul, you can’t go to him. He’ll call out reinforcements the minute he sees your face.”
“Let me guess why,” Jack said, taking a tortilla chip from the bowl and loading on the salsa. “Paul’s famous composure.”
“This from a man who prides himself on drawing blood in a courtroom without the benefit of a weapon,” Paul said. “Need I say more? And while we’re at it, shall we discuss your cool with Riesner, Nina? That little pepper-spray episode?”
“Maybe a third party could convince him that it wouldn’t hurt him to help for once,” Jack said. “Like me.”
Paul and Nina looked at each other.
“You?” they said.
“I could explain that I represent you in the matter of the lost files. I’d make him see how he doesn’t want us thinking he had something to do with it.”
“Scholl had the best opportunity,” Nina said. “She found the Bronco. Maybe she stole the Bronco, discovered the files in there, did some damage, then took her time to let me know she had found my truck. And Lisa Cruz, well, she has a grudge against me, which was resurrected when Kevin hired me. I wouldn’t put anything past her. Wish I knew more about these people.”
“They’re on my To Do list, Nina,” Paul said. “Along with Riesner.”
“How far do you need to take this investigation?” Jack asked. “Maybe it’s a waste of time at this point. The cats are debagged and running wild already.”
“Know your enemy, Jack,” Paul said. “Nina’s got one, and I think she ought to know who it is. This might be the skirmish before the battle. She’s got to be prepared.”
“Sandy called a friend of hers at Riesner’s office to hear what she could hear,” Nina said. “She found out that the same night the files disappeared, Jeff Riesner hosted a family reunion at his house. At least seven relatives stayed over. His house was bursting at the seams. His secretary went over there and spent the evening serving hors d’oeuvres. I know, I know, that is by no means an airtight alibi. But for him to sneak away in the middle of the night with so many people around him-it just doesn’t sound right. Besides-auto theft?”
“Then why don’t I just ask him again?” Jack said. “It may be the only chance we have to find out who outed the girl, right?”
Paul said, “You don’t know this dude, Jack.”
“You’re the only one allowed to help Nina, is that it?” Jack asked.
Another shift in the weather, both Paul and Jack glowering.
“Give it a shot,” Nina said, worn out with her peacekeeping efforts. “I’ll have Sandy call you with the number.”
But the swift changes of atmosphere of the last few minutes seemed to have billowed up into a major storm.
“Jack, get over it.” Paul put his hand on Nina’s knee this time. “Deal with reality, meaning me, or get off the case. She doesn’t need you anyway. According to your own view, there is no case anyway. The clients are muddling through without their files. Maybe you should just head home while you can still drive under the DUI limit.”
Jack took a big slug of his second margarita. “Some friend,” he said. “Some freakin’ friend you are.”
“You left her! Have you forgotten?”
Nina waved her hand. “Hey, guys, remember me? The one who pays you both? How about we finish our talk, have a nice dinner with lots of ice water, and all of us hit the road. We’re tired and hungry and as a result we’re not at our best. So, how about we pack up our troubles and enjoy the meal?” Big hot plates of flautas and enchiladas and chiles rellenos had materialized in front of them. The aroma quickly softened their glares. They picked up their forks and dug in.
Nina took a bite, then put her fork down. She had lost her appetite. “Let’s start over. I think the issue here is, what about these loose ends? Am I out of the woods yet? Jack says I am. Paul seems less certain. And I, well, I’m going to chew my fingernails, not just because there are some details we don’t know, but because I got my clients and myself into this situation in the first place.”
“Don’t blame yourself,” Paul said.
She waved that away. Of course she blamed herself.
She forged on, “Paul, thanks to you, we have something new to work on. We know that Cody Stinson says he got an anonymous phone call telling him about Brandy. If he did get that call, it was from someone motivated and cruel enough to place those two women in a potentially life-threatening situation. So who might that be? Mario didn’t steal the files. He was in jail. Cody didn’t steal the files, because at that time he had no idea the girls were witnesses.”
“Maybe he did,” Jack said.
“Maybe he noticed the girls that night at the campground and decided he better check them out. Maybe he followed one of them to your office. Maybe he followed you home that night, seeing you put your briefcase in the truck. He’s about to snag the files and he thinks, let’s dirty the waters, I’ll take the truck, too.”
Nina popped a slice of orange into her mouth and considered this. “Maybe,” she said. “Paul, can you find out if Stinson has ever been arrested for auto theft or theft in general?”
“Sure will,” Paul said. “Then what?”
“Maybe we return to our normal impossible caseloads and pardon Nina for her terrible misdeeds for the time being?” Nina said. “The leads peter out at that point. The police aren’t going anywhere. Maybe nothing further will happen.”
“Cody claims he didn’t kill Phoebe,” Paul said. “Do we care if he’s telling the truth?”
“Trust me, they all say that,” Jack said.
“I’m not a rube, Jack. I’m telling you both, he left some real questions in my mind.”
“What do you recommend?” Nina said.
“I’ll pass on my concerns to Fred Cheney at the police department. Beyond that, Cody has his own lawyer. I’ll keep tabs. That’s about it.”
“What about the sisters?” Jack said. “They had a bad scare. They could still file a complaint against you.”
“And Brandy’s fiancé, Bruce Ford, was accosted by Stinson,” Nina said. “He’s a lawyer. It’s my fault Stinson did that. He was angry.”
“You know, I have a different feeling about lawyers since they became my sole clients,” Jack said. “They are deeply conservative. They want to avoid personal trouble. Ford didn’t get hurt. Would he waste a lot of his valuable time filing a complaint against you?”
“What about all those lawyers that flood the courts by filing trivial legal cases?” Paul asked. “You hear a lot about them.”
“We already know you have a low opinion of lawyers,” Jack said. “Maybe if you’d gone on to law school yourself you wouldn’t have that attitude. I told Nina where that jaundiced attitude comes from.”
Paul said, “You did, eh?” He fixed Jack with a stare. Nina looked back and forth.
“About time she knew, buddy.”
“Don’t call me buddy right now, McIntyre. I’m wishing you had never horned in. You’re useless. Are you gonna charge her six hundred bucks for this dinner?”
“You’d love it if she gave it up. Admit it.”
Paul said, “I sleep with one, I work for them, and I still talk to you, though I’m starting to wonder why. I have no chip. I got lucky and didn’t get in. It’s a lousy profession. It’s a guaranteed heart attack by age fifty. So I will be blunt and I will say that if Nina gets drummed out of the corps, she may end up happier and healthier.” He wiped tomato sauce off his lips with his napkin, not looking at Nina.
“You don’t care if I get disbarred?” Nina said, floored. “Don’t you know how much I love-” She choked up. “Don’t you understand that it’s everything to me?”
“Anyway, this is the last supper. You’re terminated, McIntyre.” Paul still wouldn’t look at her.
“My job is never over until every single person involved in the file theft is dead of old age,” Jack said, “whereas you ought to hit the road, head home to your dying business, and give Nina a break from all this. I’m advising Nina of that. Nina, I want you to go home, take in a movie or something. Rest, babe. I think you squeaked through.”
“Thanks,” Nina said. She smiled and Jack smiled back at her.
“The next time I take you to dinner we won’t even talk law,” he said.
“No reason for a next time, then,” Paul said.
Nina paid the bill, the only decision that evening Paul and Jack didn’t dispute.
P AUL KISSED NINA GOOD-BYE and gave Jack the finger as he climbed back into his Mustang for the long drive back to Carmel. He drove fast to the highway, started to take a right at the exit to go west, then changed his mind and swerved into the left lane, making a left instead.
He headed east, driving all the way back to South Lake Tahoe thinking he might catch a glimpse of Nina’s Bronco, but he never did. The night was beautiful, and the drive up and down the mountains into the wavery blue, black, silvery town stirred him, as it always did. In Meyers, he cut through on the Trail to avoid traffic, then booked himself back into a room at Caesars with the flirt at the front desk, who had no rooms unreserved for the weekend but found one anyway.
He didn’t call Nina. He had work to do the next morning, and he didn’t want any discussion or argument about how he would do it. He wanted to know who stole her files. Someone was after her, and he wanted to know who. He wanted to know whatever there was to know.
Sunday morning, showered, shaved, and fed, Paul hit the Yellow Pages. Lisa Cruz was listed, which he took as a good sign. Pioneer Trail led straight behind the casinos a mile or so to Woodbine Road. He took a right, checked out the street, then pulled back onto the Trail and parked out of sight around the corner. Pulling a clipboard with a pencil tied to it from the floor, he got out of the car and locked it.
Lisa Cruz lived a few houses down from Pioneer Trail in a neat cabin with a porch trimmed in blue. He knocked on the door of the house next to her cabin, then on the door beyond her cabin, then up and down the block, talking with her neighbors. He saw no sign of Lisa or her kids.
“I’m from the city,” he said, waving his clipboard officiously and making meaningless check marks when a friendly door opened here and there. “We’re going to be doing some road work on Pioneer Trail next week and just wanted to let you folks know in advance so you won’t be too inconvenienced.” Actually, this might not even be a lie. Road work on the Trail happened during the dry weather in preparation for winter every year. He was probably doing them all a favor, reminding them. “Work on the potholes and drainage. You should be getting a notice in the mail about this. ’Course, you know how the city is about this stuff. Schedules change, so don’t bet the ranch on it.” He scratched his head and shared a laugh. Then he squeezed out any gossip worth squeezing.
After speaking with four people on that block who seemed to know what they were talking about, and two with strong feelings in the various matters, he walked around the corner to Lisa’s mother’s street to encourage further tattle.
Before hitting the police station, he called ahead to make sure he could chat with his buddy, Sergeant Cheney. Cheney answered the phone.
“You again?” Cheney asked.
“Did you get my message?” Paul asked.
“Yeah. I got that guy’s record for you, and now you gotta quit compromising my integrity. No more favors.”
“How about a burger at Heidi’s? My treat.”
“Now you mention it,” Cheney said, “I’m hungry and you owe me.”
They arranged to meet at the restaurant at one o’clock. Paul arrived early, picked a corner booth, and sipped coffee, enjoying the spirited racket of the happy weekend crowd. Cheney arrived late by fifteen minutes.
“You’re skinnier every time I see you,” Paul said, standing to greet him.
“Don’t try to butter me up,” the sergeant said, pleased.
He really did look better as time went on. His smooth caramel skin glowed with health. Cheney, somewhere in his fifties, had a much younger wife he worked hard to keep happy. “Don’t tell my wife but I switched to a diet where you drink these disgusting drinks instead of eating real food.”
“Sounds hard,” Paul said.
Cheney picked up his menu. “Nah. Much easier not to eat than eat the crap she wants me to eat.”
They ordered. While they waited for their food, Cheney filled Paul in on Cody Stinson’s record.
Their order arrived, Paul’s a thick sandwich, Cheney’s a salad. Cheney proceeded to eat most of Paul’s sandwich.
“Man, there’s nothing like a little bacon fat to get my mouth drooling and my insides moving.”
“Good. When you’re finished, I’d sure like help figuring out Officer Jean Scholl and Jeffrey Riesner.”
Cheney crumpled his napkin and set it on the table. “I knew this was going to cost me.” He licked a blob of mayonnaise off his finger. “I guess this means you’ve heard the rumbles.”
“Yeah,” Paul lied. “What I want to know is, what’s your take on all this?”
Sunday went well, mainly because Nina and Bob spent most of the day at Matt’s house helping him to put some new asphalt shingles on the roof before the winter weather arrived in full. She was doing what she could to make something up to Matt. After the incident at the women’s shelter, Matt had called her. The idea of his pregnant wife with her rifle fired up and ready to take out a dangerous criminal type had brought back all his fears about Nina’s law practice. He asked her again to keep his family away from her clients.
Matt would be pleased if she left the law. She hadn’t paid much attention to these attitudes of Paul’s and Matt’s in the past, but the lost files had spotlighted just how difficult the past few years had been. During her first homicide case up here, she had been shot; she tried not to think about that, but she carried the scar. She had been threatened and so had Bob. The man she loved more than she loved herself, her husband of only a few weeks, had been killed by someone she had trusted.
She had landed in a challenging town, doing criminal-defense work. And she had wanted the challenge. Now she had the reputation and the respect she sought, but at such a cost.
So when they stopped at four and Matt and Bob sat down to rest and watch TV in the living room, Nina took Andrea out back. She respected Andrea as the most well-balanced person she knew, and the wisest.
“I wonder if I’m relieving suffering, or causing it. I’m confused, Andrea.”
“You do good work, Nina,” Andrea said. “You help people in trouble and you don’t get much support. I’m proud of you. Don’t forget that.”
Nina kicked at a stone that had fallen off Matt’s rock wall. Squirrels ran along the top, chittering. “It’s all I ever wanted to be. I don’t have any other identity.”
“Now, there you’re wrong. You’re a mother, a householder, a person full of promise, and you’re young yet. What are you, thirty-four? Five? If you had to change jobs, you could go back to college.”
“And study what?”
“Well, psychology for instance. You could be a counselor. Or a teacher.”
“I am a counselor. I counsel people, I plan their lives, I defend them when they’re attacked, I help them order their business affairs, I speak for them, I take care of their problems. This work is so broad in scope-I never get bored, that’s for sure.”
“I know it’s hard. The responsibility is killing,” Andrea said. “I just want to say that I admire you. Now don’t turn away. Let it sink in. Accept it. I admire you. A lot of people admire you. Are you listening?”
But she wanted to know what to do with her life. She felt so troubled by what was happening, she had lost her touchstones. “That wasn’t what I was getting at.”
Andrea laughed. “But that’s what you got.”
“We’re bummed that it’s come to this,” Brandy said, frowning, hands in her silk trouser pockets.
“We’re very unhappy,” Angel agreed, even her hair subdued. She looked like Annie Lennox. Sweet dreams were not made of this, however.
“What has it come to?” Nina asked, knowing she did not want to hear the answer. Monday morning often went haywire as the weekend’s buildup piled in. Sandy tapped in the next room. Messages sat in sorted piles on the desk. Forty-seven other cases called to her from the file cabinet. Meanwhile Brandy and Angel blocked the doorway to the inner office.
“Ladies, take a seat,” Nina said. “What’s on your mind this morning?”
They came in and sat down. “It wasn’t my idea,” Brandy said. “And Angel’s husband, Sam, thinks it stinks, too. We want you to know that.”
“No question. It stinks,” Angel agreed.
A knock on the door interrupted them. Nina got up to answer and found Sandy there.
“Nina, Paul’s on the phone. Will you take the call?”
Nina apologized to the two women, closed the door halfway behind her, stepped into the reception area, and picked up the phone.
“I’m sorry to butt in like this. I understand you’re busy.”
“It’s a bad time,” she said. “Something’s up with Angel and Brandy. I’m in the middle of it.”
He hesitated. “I can call back.”
“No. Tell me, what’s going on?” she asked. Sandy licked an envelope slowly. Then her hands took their stations, hovering over the keyboard, unwilling to break into the conversation.
“Listen, Nina, I’ve got several things to tell you but since you’re busy, we’ll discuss those later. But I want to say-things went frosty at that dinner. I shouldn’t have said what I said about you practicing law.”
“It’s okay. I’m taking a poll, actually.”
“The condo in Carmel is always waiting for you.” He paused. “You are so dear to me.”
Nina glanced back through the crack in the door into her office, where the two women were engaged in a frantic, whispered debate. “Paul, I’m sorry. I can’t think about that right now. I can’t even talk anymore.”
“No problem,” he said. “I’ll check in later.”
“Okay.” She put the phone down.
Sandy’s fingers resumed their customary tapping. Nina walked back inside her office.
“We’ve been beating around the bush,” Angel said, taking charge, “but now, here goes.”
Brandy stood up suddenly and went over to the window. She put a hand on the ledge but never once looked outside. She looked at Angel, at the desk, at the file cabinets, at the framed documents on the wall. She looked everywhere except at Nina. “I told Bruce the whole story, beginning to end, about what happened at the campground, about seeing Cody Stinson, about meeting him in the woods and Angel getting knocked over and me getting grabbed-”
“He was upset,” Angel added unnecessarily. “First off, he hated that she was here without him, and second, Cody Stinson went to see him and scared him good.”
“I really don’t want you to get the wrong idea about us,” Brandy said. “We’re not vindictive or vengeful people.”
“Not at all,” Angel said. “None of us are.”
“So when Bruce showed up at Angel’s on Sunday with this letter, we were surprised.”
“Shocked, you mean.”
Nina got the drift, and drifted away. She looked out the window at Mount Tallac, crowned with white. Then she turned her attention to the lake, the ancient, sacred lake. She considered the hill of beans that was her life, insignificant beside those two regal natural features, and felt a stab of sorrow, because petty or not, it was her hill, her life, and she had loved everything about it. Now along came a letter from a lawyer and it would explode and she could do nothing to stop it. Subterranean terror. Fractures in her beautiful geography.
Maybe the women had some inkling of the full effect of their revelation, and maybe not, but at last Brandy managed to say what they had come to say.
“Bruce wrote a complaint to the California State Bar about you. And I signed it,” Brandy said, standing up.
“So did I,” Angel admitted, also rising.
“We thought it would be really low not to bring it to you personally and say that-”
“We’re awfully sorry.”
Nina couldn’t trust herself to speak, so she didn’t speak. She kept her back to them, trying to control a quiver that had started up around her shoulders and threatened to take over her body.
“Sorry,” they said again in unison, and left.
No sooner had the two women wandered out than the phone rang.
“I am in conference,” Nina said to Sandy. Closing the door, she leaned against it, hyperventilating. Only two things in the world could inspire this level of dread. The other was an IRS audit. The audit was definitely a remote second to a complaint to the state bar. Eyes closed, she took the blow. When she started to feel like she couldn’t stand it, she leaned over and let her arms hang and made herself breathe. She had had a panic attack once before and she was afraid it might happen again. Be cool, be cool, she told herself.
Call Jack, call Paul, call-
A knock. “Phone,” Sandy said. “They said it’s important.”
“Who is it?”
“Heritage Life. The adjuster in the Vang case, Marilyn Rose. She says she has to talk to you. Something about the check.”
Like a ninety-year-old in ill health, Nina leaned on the desk as she went around it and sank into her chair. She rubbed her face and somehow put Bruce Ford aside.
“Hi, Marilyn,” she said. “How are you?”
“Hoping you didn’t send that check to the Vangs yet.”
“Well, did you?”
“Over the weekend.”
“Well, then we’re both in deep shit,” Marilyn said rapidly. “Now I’m definitely going to get canned, and I owe it all to you. I trusted you. I liked you. You’re going to get a letter and by God you’d better have an explanation or my ass will be out on the street, and I’ve got a mortgage and a sick husband and two kids and if that sounds like I’m scared shitless, well, Counselor, I am in fact scared shitless. It hurts me, it does, the way you used me, and it amazes me that I could misjudge another human being the way I misjudged you. My supervisor is sitting in her office right now writing up a report to three vice presidents in our company, and I’ll be spending all evening groveling on their carpets. I’ll be applying for employment opportunities at Hooters with this job market. But by God, Nina, you’re going down with me. You are. I’m not going down alone. I can’t believe a fellow woman would do this to me-”
Nina held the phone away from her ear and rubbed her temples, where the headache drummed. Sandy watched from the door. “Get on the other line,” she mouthed.
She listened again. Marilyn said, “I’m so horribly disappointed,” and burst into tears.
“I just had to call you myself because I thought-I thought we were friends.”
“We are friends. Marilyn, listen to me. No, listen. Please. I have no idea why you are so angry.”
“Don’t play any more games with me or try to finagle your way out of this.”
“Please tell me what you think I have done.”
“You can’t hide the truth anymore. Your file was mailed to us.”
“You know what file. Your file on Kao Vang. The convenience-store arson.”
So astounded was Nina that all she could think was, did they read my confidential file? “You read it?”
“The mail clerk read it. My secretary read it, then my assistant. Then I read it. Now the entire upper echelon of Heritage Insurance Company Incorporated has read the file or knows what it says and we have an office in Irian Jaya, so that is a lot of people. Nobody knew what it was at first. It came in an envelope and it looked like one of ours. So, yeah, it got read, that’s right, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Nina’s thoughts ran in circles. “But what-there’s nothing in that file but my intake notes.” Her mind scurried through what she could remember and could find nothing that would generate such heat from an insurance company.
“How could you?”
“Oh, Marilyn, I’m so sorry I’ve hurt you somehow. But I don’t know how! Marilyn, who mailed you the file?”
“No return address.”
“A concerned citizen,” Marilyn said, and laughed a hysterical laugh. “I’ll never forget my assistant coming in and handing me that thing. Turning point of my professional life. Done in by a con.”
“But all that file had were my notes! And I’m very concerned that my client’s attorney-client privilege-”
“That’s the least of your problems. It’s not going to protect you. You’re finished, and you finished me along the way. I just wanted you to know how much you have hurt me. You may not have even thought about me. I’m just a faceless bureaucrat who you scammed. I’m going now. You’ll hear plenty more, but not from me. You ruined my life.”
“Don’t go! There’s been a misunderstanding. I haven’t done a thing wrong, except maybe allow confidential files to fall out of my care. Look, Marilyn, pretend for just one second that I don’t know what you’re talking about. Tell me what I did. Please. Please, Marilyn.”
“This is ridiculous. As if you don’t know. Well, now we do. We know you knew all about who set that liquor store on fire-your client, Kao Vang. He set it on fire himself to collect the insurance. You knew it when you called me about the claim, you knew it when you put together that big package of fraud and deceit you brought me. You knew it this whole time and you deliberately acted as his accessory. It says so right there in your file.”
“Marilyn,” Nina said from a throat that felt ashen and weak, so cold had she become, “my file says nothing of the sort.”
“In your own handwriting. There’s no wiggling out of this one. At least you should be honest with me, honor our relationship, and admit it between you and me-”
A colder wind blew through Nina and she thought, they’re taping this, or someone else is listening. “I didn’t try to defraud the company or hurt you, Marilyn. If there’s something in that file that purports-”
“… purports to be my handwriting, saying that Kao Vang set that fire, then it’s a forgery. A forgery, all right? A forgery!” But she was talking to dead air.
Sandy came in a few moments later. Nina stood at the window, eyes open, blind. “Here,” Sandy said, holding out two ibuprofen and a shot glass of the Courvoisier a client had given the office the previous Christmas. “Come on, drink it down. You look like the phlebotomist just drained all your blood out. Sit down. Come on.”
“It’s a forgery.”
“I called Paul and Jack. I canceled your meeting at the health department. You’re going home.”
“Someone. Is out to get me. What Paul said, cautious until proven paranoid. No need to be cautious. Too late for that.”
“Did Vang really torch his own store?” Sandy had heard enough of the phone call.
“No! I mean, not that I know!”
“So she’s all mixed up. Maybe there’s something you wrote in there that she misunderstood?”
“I certainly didn’t write anything like that in my notes. That’s the point, Sandy. If there is a note in the file now, I didn’t put it there. Someone else did. Someone stole the files to get me.”
“It always was a possibility.”
“Someone evil. It’s evil. People hurt besides me. Collateral damage.”
Sandy pulled her into the reception area, closing Nina’s office door behind her. “You don’t look well. I’m gonna drive you home.”
“That’s just what they want. To destroy my livelihood. Make me close the office. Take control out of my hands. Make all my decisions for me.”
“Here’s your jacket. Put it on.” She held the jacket open and Nina stepped into it. “Let’s go.” Locking the door carefully behind them, she led the way into the parking lot, Nina following behind. Sandy put her in the brown car and drove her home to Kulow Street. Marching up to the front door, Sandy found Nina’s keys, opened the door, and pushed her inside. “Now go lie down. I called Andrea. She’s gonna bring you some lunch. Sleep it off. You never get enough sleep. Go on, upstairs. Do I have to tuck you in?”
“I have to figure this out. I have to.”
“Not right this second you don’t.”
“Someone is out there.”
“Are you afraid?” Sandy said.
“Do you want me to stay down here until Andrea comes?”
“It’s not that kind of fear.” Nina went upstairs automatically, welcoming the relief of numbing shock. She pulled the curtains shut on the sun. Zombielike, she dropped her jacket, blouse, and skirt on the floor. Then she got down under the covers and held her hand across her mouth. But there were no sobs, no tears. She had reached a place where tears couldn’t reach.
A good long stretch of vacancy passed during which she inhabited her body and her mind, but they glided along without her, her body under the covers: warm. When she came out of her suspended animation, rose and threw water on her face, she smelled soup and heard Andrea banging pans around the kitchen.
Downstairs she greeted her sister-in-law, and made her sit down. Nina poured the soup into bowls, found crackers, sat down and made small talk, deflecting any questions about why she had returned home at ten in the morning to be put to bed like an invalid. Andrea refused to leave until Nina told her what had happened, so Nina did, without going into detail about the cases.
Hand on her slightly swelling stomach, Andrea said, “You seem almost nonchalant.”
“I’m not. Someone is trying to hurt me. Has hurt me.”
Nina hadn’t thought that far. “I don’t know.”
“Maybe the worst has already happened.”
“There were three files. We’ve only heard from two.”
Andrea grasped her hand. “You’ll get through this. You always do. Whatever happens, you have me, and Bob and Matt and your dad. Nina, you have us. You’ll always be okay.”
Comforted by what sounded like a blessing, Nina fought off tears. So, she could feel again. Progress.
She sent Andrea home. Upstairs, she brushed her hair carefully, put on lipstick, got a fresh suit jacket, and put on her work heels.
Then she called a cab and went back to work.
Sandy looked startled to see her. “You okay?”
“Fine,” she said. “Let me have a look at my calendar for this afternoon.”
“Three appointments I was just about to cancel, one court appearance. Last but not least, a meeting with Kevin Cruz.”
“We better get busy, then,” she said, closing the door to her office and on Sandy’s expression, which showed a newly active fault line in the center of her forehead. Of course, there had to be a meeting with Kevin. That would complete this disastrous day.
“Paul’s on the line.”
“Says he won’t wait.”
She picked up.
“Nina,” Paul said. “I’ve got to tell you a few things I found out this weekend from Sergeant Cheney. I had lunch with him at Heidi’s on Sunday.”
She felt disoriented. “You’re here?”
“No. I’m home. I drove back to Carmel on Sunday night.”
“You didn’t let me know you were in town?”
“No point, unless I found something out.”
“You did, didn’t you?”
“He looked into Cody Stinson’s record. Stinson was in fact charged with auto theft once, at the age of eighteen, although he pled down to a lesser charge. Now he’s twenty-six. I think he’s discovered drug trading is more lucrative and easier to hide. They caught him for that just once.”
“He might have stolen my car, then,” Nina said. “He knows how.”
“That’s right. If he was caught once, you can bet he did it more than once.”
“You think he did it?”
“I just don’t know,” Paul said. “And I talked with Lisa Cruz’s neighbors. Turns out, she got in trouble with one of the neighbors. He cut a tree down that blocked his sun. She claimed the tree was on her property. She sued him. When she lost, his house mysteriously caught fire. Nothing ever proved, but he bought himself a Rottweiler and hasn’t had any more trouble.”
“She tried to burn him out?”
“He was away at the time. All the neighbors knew he spent Christmas with his aunt in Montana. Another time, the windshield on a neighboring teenager’s car was broken. His family’s trash ended up decorating the street. Lisa didn’t like the noise he made coming home late. Everyone incriminates Lisa, although no one says it to her face. Since her father died, she’s had a pretty tenuous hold on sanity, sounds like. She’s not popular in the neighborhood. Does a lot of screaming. They worry about her.”
“Great,” Nina said. “I’ll pass that on to Kevin’s new lawyer.”
“When her father died, she accused you to all and sundry of being responsible for causing his death. Couldn’t stop talking about how ruthless you were in ruining his business. How careless you were about what effect your client’s lawsuit would have on a sick man. When she found out Kevin hired you to represent him, she went apeshit, according to her neighbors.”
“I’d call her a viable suspect.”
“Where was she the night the Bronco was stolen?”
“At home. Well, we all know how close to home she sticks when she’s got her track shoes on. And she doesn’t live far from you.”
“You don’t sound right.”
“Just keep going, Paul.”
“Then there’s Officer Scholl, the self-made woman. She’s a go-getter from a poor family in rural North Carolina. First in her family to go to college, male or female. You know she went to Duke?”
“Smart lady. Unfortunately, she had to drop out due to lack of funds. She moved to Tahoe when her parents had both passed away, looking for a new life, I guess. She was one of the first females hired in the department. This part you already know: She’s wanted to move up from Patrol to the Detective Unit for years. When she thought she finally had it locked in, you came along to ruin it. Plus, there’s something about a T-Bird, some kid’s car was trashed or stolen by one of your clients.”
“I know the case.”
“Did you know he was paralyzed in a car crash a few weeks after you got your client off?”
“No. How awful.”
“She blames you.”
“She got to know the kid really well, became close to the family. They kind of adopted her. She felt like an older sister to the boy. When your client wrecked his car, he cadged lifts with friends to get to and from his job. One of them drove drunk.”
“I never even heard about it.”
“Why would you? Nothing to do with you. Unless we’re dealing in the old philosophical idea: Anytime you walk across the street you ripple the air and change the weather off the China coast. There’s that, if you’re dying to blame yourself.”
“I like to think I’m doing some good,” Nina said. “According to them, I’m just a one-woman wrecking ball!”
“You are doing good,” Paul said. “On the whole. Unfortunately, everyone’s talking about Scholl, her vendetta against you.”
“Just another day in court for me, and a life-changing experience for her.”
“Getting a lot of attention on the road lately?”
“Three speeding tickets in the last month. Can that really be what you mean?”
“My advice: slow down. Scholl’s calling in chits. Sorry to tell you, she hates your guts. She tells everyone she’s waiting for her big chance to get back at you. Ring any bells?”
Nina didn’t know what to say, as the bells tintinnabulated.
“Know what else I think? I think Scholl’s jealous.”
“Yep. Envious of your success. Thinks you grew up with a silver spoon.”
“Yeah, funny. But she doesn’t know that. You’re the success she wants to be. Respected in the community. Getting lots of positive press.”
“Yes, they love me. Until they hate me.”
“So we come to Jeffrey Riesner.”
“No, we don’t.” She had heard enough. She knew every case rattled the status quo, affecting many lives. She did her small bit, nothing more, serving a society that kept its peace by agreeing to abide by rules. But human order was so thinly imposed over disorder.
What good am I doing? she thought.
“We need to talk about ol’ Jeffy,” he insisted. “Let’s start with a little personal history. You know anything about his family?”
“Turns out Riesner’s mom is the old-fashioned salt of the earth. Stayed home with her kids, gave them stability, loved them to death, built up their egos. His father’s an alpha male who fought his way to the top of one of the biggest firms in San Francisco. When Riesner got married to the girl next door, he went to work for Pops and was riding high. Mom was happy. Everyone was happy. Then his wife decided she had to live in the mountains so she could pursue her dream to become an Olympic skier. With his parents’ encouragement, he said no. But she’s not loyal like Mom. She left him, and he followed her up here.”
Nina remembered his blond wife, glimpsed once on a boat, model-pretty.
“Must’ve given him quite the headache. Mom’s disappointed, not having her darling son in town to spoil. Pops is disappointed he’s such a loser he’d give in to a woman. So he needed to show them. His goal became becoming the biggest fish. Impress the folks in the way they really understood, by making money and being a huge success. That worked for a while. He made partner, got lots of press, won a few biggies that even got reported in San Francisco. Something for the folks to brag about. Convinced his wife to give up her ridiculous hopes and start working on a family. By then he didn’t want to leave. And the spotlight was back where it belonged, on him.”
“And then I come along-”
“You waltz in, fresh from San Francisco, cute as a button, getting all the attention, dancing your way into all the best cases. He’s floundering lately. Everyone cites your last coup as the reason why.”
“My last coup?”
“The gambling interests he used to represent lost faith in him. Some negotiation strategy you pulled?”
“Apparently you hustled him out of a fee. Worse, you called him ‘asshole’ in front of some very important men.”
“That was naughty of me.”
“Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, he got into a shouting match outside the courtroom with his partner Michael Stamp and a few things were said-let’s just say his partners are grumpy about a loss of income. There’s more going on behind closed doors there, and I worked on finding out what this morning, but the people at his law firm are trained well. They don’t talk to strangers, except to sing Jeffy’s praises.”
So, it was as she had suspected when Stamp cornered her that morning at court. Riesner’s firm had finally been kicked into taking the competition-her-seriously. How unsettling for Riesner. Still. “Paul, Riesner’s a professional in a tough business. He’s had years of success up here. He wins plenty. He’s got friends, contacts, a wife he seems to care about who’s willing to play the game his way. So why does he hate me?”
He paused, then said, “It’s instinctive. You’re a woman; he’s an alpha male.”
“So what?” she said, frustrated.
“He wants you to be beta.”
She met with two new clients, hosted a deposition, and appeared in court on a hit-and-run case that was held over, going through all her activities with the competence of years of practice. She thought clearly, spoke articulately, operated at her keenest level of thinking, and kept her mind on her tasks.
She supposed people whose family members had wasting diseases went through something similar every day. Each day, they got up, leaving behind someone, maybe a lover, maybe a parent, in the bedroom, maybe crying, maybe screaming. They straightened a tie or stocking, and walked out the door into life moving on. The mountain grew cold and accepted the snow; the lake roughened under the wind.
At four-thirty, Kevin Cruz did not appear. Instead, a courier delivered a letter, or rather, the copy of a letter.
Addressed to the California State Bar.
To Whom It May Concern,
I feel that I must inform the state bar of a serious breach of ethical duty by my attorney, Nina Reilly, Esquire, of South Lake Tahoe. While representing me in a custody case she engaged in a sexual relationship with me.
As a result, it’s my feeling that her representation of me was compromised because of personal feelings and entanglements that made her objectivity impossible. I lost temporary custody of my children, and will probably lose permanent custody as a result of her immoral behavior, which made it hard for me to concentrate on how my case should be properly handled. I also believe that, for her own personal reasons having to do with maintaining a long-term serious relationship with me, she didn’t want me to get custody at all.
As an attorney practicing in California, she has a duty to uphold the highest standards of ethics and legal behavior, and in those two arenas, she has failed. I respectfully request that the state bar open an inquiry into her legal practice, which I think will result in the exposure of further illegal or immoral activities.
I am available for any questions and look forward to your response.
Attached to the letter was another letter, this one an original, from Kevin Cruz, firing her as his attorney of record.
Without a word, she handed the letters to Sandy.
Sandy read the first letter, fixing on every word, while Nina struggled to keep control. What she wanted to do was laugh, laugh loudly, uproariously-
“Sure hope at least he was hot in the sack,” Sandy said.
That did it. Nina started to chuckle, and that grew into laughing, and she went to the window, tearing up from her laughter, and said, her back turned to her secretary, “Sandy-ha, ha, ha-what a staggering day of heartbreaking shit. Sandy, I’m so screwed.”
Silence. Then, “I find that objectionable,” Sandy said calmly.
Nina stopped laughing, although she had to work hard to do it. “I’m-I’m sorry if I offended you,” she managed to say.
“It’s not offensive enough,” Sandy said. “Change it to you’re fucked, and I’m with you.”
Their laughter boiled up and overflowed. Sandy had a weird laugh, a sort of hupping laugh, hilarious really. “You want-hup, hup-some more cognac?”
“That’s a good one-ha, ha, a new tradition-I’ll pass-”
“Save it for-the-hup, hup-boyfriend-good idea,” Sandy said. “Hoo, boy. Ah.” She dug a tissue out of a box on Nina’s desk and wiped her eyes. “Girl,” she said, “life is cold.”
Nina sobered. “You’ve got that right.” She sat down heavily. “Kevin. Kevin. Why?”
“I never liked that guy.”
“I did, at first.”
“How’s he think he’s going to get away with this? Don’t you have to be able to prove what you say?”
Nina said, “I’ll bet he’s got proof.”
“Of what? That very bad scene you told me about?”
Nina nodded. “Photos or a video, carefully cut. Two scenes. One outside the restaurant across the street. A clinch. The other, at his