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From her second-floor office at 238 W. First Street, Kit Shannon looked down Broadway, a street seeming to change right before her eyes.
When she had arrived in the city in the summer of 1903, the avenue bore the quaint marks of a township emerging from frontier roots and lazy hacienda ways. One could still find long patches of dirt in the asphaltum strip back then, pockmarked by horse hooves and footprints, by rainfall following dry Santa Ana winds.
Now, nearly two years later, the thoroughfare running through the heart of Los Angeles was a picture of urban exhilaration. Skeletons of new buildings rose into the sky like great sculptures. Horses and buggies still dominated the street, but gasoline-powered automobiles were becoming a more frequent phenomenon. The sputter and bang of horseless carriages filled the morning air like gunfire at a Fourth of July picnic.
And people everywhere—moving, always moving, as if afraid to stop lest they miss that promise of fortune, the hope of a better life that seemed the chief lure of the City of Angels.
That lure was one of the consistent subjects of the Los Angeles Times, housed in the building at the southeast corner of Broadway and First. Kit felt as if she could reach out the window and touch the forbidding stone edifice and indeed remove the letters of its signature sign: All the News, All the Time.
Kit turned from the window, a wisp of her auburn hair sweeping over her Irish green eyes. Hands placed on her hips, she looked at her assistant, Corazón Chavez, who sat with pencil and pad, taking dictation.
“And furthermore,” Kit said, continuing her oration, “the influx of charlatans and mountebanks needs to be of greater concern to our civic leaders, especially those in the offices of the district attorney and police.”
She paused, watching Corazón’s feverish attempts to capture the words. “I can write this myself, Corazón.”
No,” the young woman with the silky black hair protested. “I do not learn the shorthand without practice, yes?”
You’re doing wonderfully. I only hope the Times will print this.” Her arguments were more in keeping with the progressivism of the Hearst newspaper, the Examiner. But Kit was persona non grata there after her triumph in the Hanratty murder trial. Hearst and his editor had been against the policeman, Ed Hanratty, from the start, manufacturing a sensational story to gain more circulation. They hid witnesses and tried to bully Kit out of defending an innocent man. So the Times was the only major news organization left. The smaller papers, like the Express, had little influence. And the sensationalist Gazette was beneath her dignity. It wanted scandal, not reform.
General Otis is such a booster of the city,” Kit continued to muse. “He is sometimes willfully blind to what is happening around us. Vice and greed and confidence games. Ooh, I like that. Write that one down.”
And greed and confidence games. There lurks in the shadows of our grand buildings and magnolia trees an element of corruption. As a good people, a progressive people, we must be ever vigilant to root out this pestilence—”
Ah, these words!” Corazón said.
Am I going too fast?”
I will keep up!”
And I will double your salary.”
Miss Kit! There is no need—”
Our Lord said the laborer is worthy of his hire.”
Corazón became thoughtful. “I will not argue with our Lord,” she said.
Kit laughed as the door to the office cracked open, tentatively.
Yes?” Kit offered to the woman who peered in.
Are you Miss Shannon?” the woman asked.
Kit nodded. “Please come in.”
The woman was middle-aged, though her eyes looked older. Earl Rogers, the city’s most famous lawyer and Kit’s early mentor, had always told Kit to assess a client’s eyes before anything else. They often told more than the client’s words. These eyes seemed to do that. A fearfulness filled them.
Corazón rose and offered the woman a chair.
This is my assistant, Corazón Chavez,” Kit said. “If you are here on a legal matter, I would like her to stay and take notes.”
The woman seemed tentative for a moment—Kit thought her the sort who would be tentative about everything—and then nodded. She was wearing a rich chocolate-brown satin dress. The bodice had a beautiful ecru-colored front with an under blouse featuring a high collar and an embroidered pattern of pastel flowers. Her hat was stylish and feathered. In short, she was what Aunt Freddy, Kit’s dear departed great-aunt, would have called one of the city’s “well-appointed women.”
“I am Mrs. Truman Harcourt,” the woman said. “I didn’t know who else to come to.”
Kit said, “I will certainly offer any advice I can.”
“I am so ...” Mrs. Harcourt’s voice trailed off into a barely audible moan.
“Please, Mrs. Harcourt, take your time. And remember that whatever you tell me will be held in the strictest confidence.”
That seemed to be a great relief to Mrs. Harcourt. Her shoulders relaxed somewhat.
“The law protects people’s private lives, does it not, Miss Shannon?”
“In some cases, not in others.”
“What others?” Mrs. Harcourt’s face furrowed with concern.
“Criminal matters, for example,” Kit said. “Someone who is a material witness to a crime will have to expose relevant information, whether private or not.”
“What about in matters that are not criminal?”
“Again, the circumstances will tell.”
“What is the law concerning libel?”
Kit folded her hands patiently. “Libel is defamation of character in written form. The basis of the action is that it is an invasion of a person’s interest in their good name. Is that your concern, Mrs. Harcourt?”
The woman looked down at her gloved hands, which trembled ever so slightly. “You did say that all would be held in confidence?”
“That is a promise,” Kit said.
Then the woman looked up again, and her face reflected depths of apprehension that seemed bottomless. “All right,” she said. “I will tell you everything.”
Kit nodded, recognizing that a Rubicon had just been crossed inside Mrs. Truman Harcourt. What she was about to say was going to be of great import.
“My name, before I became Mrs. Harcourt, was Celia Normandeau. Does that name mean anything to you?”
Somewhere in Kit’s memory, the name did sound familiar. But she was not at all sure why. “I may have heard it.”
“It is the name of a well-known Baltimore family.” Celia Harcourt paused and took a deep breath. “And a notorious one. I was the cause of that.”
“The Normandeau murder case,” Kit said quickly.
Celia Harcourt nodded. “Then, you do remember.”
“Only vaguely. It was, what, twenty years ago?”
“Almost to the day.”
“I would have been only five years old. It seems to me, though, that I read about it later.”
“They turned it into an ugly nickel novelette. It was quite the scandal back then.” A thin veil of anger fell over the distraught face of Celia Harcourt. “I was just eighteen when I met Clyde Jefferds. I will admit I was prime for such as he. I was in rebellion against my parents, my church. When Clyde came into my life, talking so smoothly—and oh my, he was handsome. We were going to be married, see the world together, he said. It was all so romantic.”
She spoke the last words without emotion, as if reading a dry crime report taken by a police officer. “I shamed my parents. When I told Clyde I was with child, I still remember the horrified look on his face. He was no longer handsome. He told me he had no intention of marrying me, that his feelings had changed. He had found another, he said, and that was the breaks. I remember him uttering those words exactly. ‘The breaks,’ he said.
“Naturally I could not tell any of this to my mother or father. They would never have understood. Nor my church. It was a cold, stiff religion they preached. My only hope was to convince Clyde that he had to take the honorable course.
“I went to him at night. I went with a derringer. Not to shoot him but to frighten him. To show him I was in earnest. And I found him there with her. The other woman.”
As if reliving the scene, Celia Harcourt’s eyes took on a distant gaze. Kit listened closely and noticed Corazón wasn’t writing a word, so caught up was she in the story.
“When I saw them like that,” Celia said, “and saw the look of anger—no, of hatred—in Clyde’s eyes, I was stunned beyond anything I had ever felt. At some point I had the gun in my hand, and at some point Clyde came toward me. And then the gun fired, and Clyde fell. That was all I remembered.
“At the trial the woman, her name was Bromiley, made a rather unsympathetic witness. That was what saved me, I believe. That and the fact I was carrying my child, my Louise. The jury, I am quite sure, did not want to see an orphan brought into the world. And so I was found not guilty.”
Kit said, “What was the reaction in the community?”
“It was swift and severe. My parents disowned me. The minister of my church publicly denounced me. In fact, I was the subject of a number of sermons in the city on the wages of sin.”
Kit felt her heart aching for this poor woman. To have parents and church and community turn against her, and she not even twenty years old. Many a girl had come to a bad end in similar circumstances, forced to sell body and soul on the street, and Kit had known more than a few coming of age in New York and also in Los Angeles. Prostitution was an urban pestilence everywhere.
“I thought of suicide,” Celia Harcourt said just above a whisper. “But then I thought of my baby. I knew I could not do it. Somehow, I felt God was watching me still. I ran away from home and ended up in a shelter for destitute girls in Newark. It was there that I heard the Gospel spoken of as one of forgiveness and love. Like the woman caught in adultery, I was told that I could receive mercy. I vowed to sin no more.
“I got work at a dry-goods store in Newark. It was there that I met my Truman. He was a clerk. For some reason known only to God, he fell in love with me. Even after he knew my whole history. It cost him his family, too. We ran off to a justice of the peace, then came west, to Denver, where Louise was born. Eventually we moved here, where Truman has made a name for himself in the land business.”
“Yes,” Kit said. “I think I have heard the name Truman Harcourt. My great-aunt Freddy may have mentioned it once or twice.”
“He is the only father Louise has ever known. I have never told her of her real father. She thinks I ran off with Truman in a romantic elopement that estranged us from our families. I don’t know what I should do if she were ever to find out....” A sob came softly to her throat.
“Is that your concern?” Kit asked. “Is that why you are here?”
“Yes, Miss Shannon.” Celia Harcourt took another deep breath. “Louise is to be married in a week to Mr. John Whitney.”
Kit nodded. “The Whitneys are well-known in Los Angeles.”
“And well regarded. If they knew about Louise, about me, I am certain they would not allow this wedding to take place. It would mean the ruin of my only child’s happiness. It would ruin Truman, too, here in Los Angeles. Of that I am sure. Oh, they can’t know, they can’t!”
“Do you have any reason to think they will learn of it?”
Fear returned to Celia’s eyes. “I believe we are going to be blackmailed,” she said. She proceeded to tell Kit about the visit of the man calling himself Dr. Rasmussen. By the time she was through, she looked completely spent. In a weakened voice Celia Harcourt said, “Can you help me?”
In truth, there was little Kit could do. She was a lawyer, yet nothing of a legal nature was at issue. This imposter, whoever he was, had not contacted the Harcourts with a demand for money. The blackmail theory was just that—a theory. Nor had a crime beyond petty theft been committed. The district attorney would not care in the slightest for a case about a missing photograph. John Davenport, the D.A., had his sights on larger game.
Yet something inside her told Kit that she could help, though in a way not yet clear. It was, she was sure, the whisper of God, which Kit had determined always to obey. With her financial independence secured through Aunt Freddy’s bequest, Kit could take on cases selectively, the ones she felt God wanted her to pursue. This was beginning to feel like one of those.
“Let me see what I can find out for you,” Kit said.
Posted April 4, 2013