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Her fate determined in a verdict rendered five years before, Sarah was found guilty of slashing an old man's throat in central California's sheltered El Nido Valley. All subsequent appeals have been denied. Now, six months from execution, she turns to the one man she hopes can save her. Greg failed once before trying to rescue Sarah from her private demons. This time, however, the demons may not be just in her head. . . .
The phone rang yet again. Greg Monarch reached for it, but his hand stopped short. His head ached so badly, he could barely see across his desk. He'd been reading case files since dawn, preparing for three trials at once. Now he longed only for a dim silence. Closing his eyes, he imagined himself back in Pecho Rancho State Park, where he'd spent the week-
end. Eight thousand acres of lost Central California coastland. Hidden coves, wooded stream canyons, golden poppy fields . . .
At least the phone had stopped ringing.
Greg rose from his chair and walked to the window. Through the pane, he studied the creek winding past La Graciosa's central plaza. It was dusk,
the sky a pale pink glow. Shoppers and families were gathering on the town plaza, local farmers were spreading their apples and avocados on the backs of pickup trucks, children were tossing bread crumbs to ducks at the creek's edge. Greg turned back to his desk. His head still hurt, but he could see now.
He almost wished he couldn't. There, on the desk's edge, sat the embossed,
gold-lettered card. The invitation to the Chumash County Criminal Bar Association's annual awards dinner. And, beside it, the announcement of this year's Lawyer of the Year: Greg Monarch.
The Sullivan murder trial, the Plaskow business, the Danny McCloud case-Monarch had cultivated a singular reputation on the Central Coast.
He'd won his share of acquittals, he'd shown his instinct for doing what was needed, but he'd not lunged for the spotlight. No showboating on TV,
no tell-all books, no unctuous self-promotion. "His efforts have well served the legal community and the public at large," went the citation to be presented at tonight's dinner. "Greg Monarch has provided a standard of excellence for all others in his profession."
What would he say when it came time for his acceptance speech? Greg glanced at a legal pad where, during breaks from his trial preparation,
he'd been trying to scribble out some comments. We all play a critical role, a necessary role. . . . Without a zealous adversary for the defense, the system breaks down. . . . What's at stake is the integrity of the law as an institution.
. . . What's at stake is the state's interest in a just society. . . .
It was there Greg had lost his thread. He picked up a pen, started anew.
What's at stake is the mask of propriety. The defense attorney provides the mask. The defense attorney's unfettered advocacy of his client validates what the state does. . . . Without the defense attorney, the state would look mighty bad indeed. . . .
Greg stopped, put down his pen. That wouldn't do. No. He'd have to wing it. He'd ad-lib from the podium.
Greg was reaching for his coat when he heard a knock at the door in his anteroom. He ignored it. His office was closed; he was already late. The knock came again, three hard raps, insistently. Greg turned toward the door. Four,
"Monarch?" The man calling from the street was offer-
ing more a greeting than a question. The voice sounded patrician, and familiar. "Monarch, I know you're there. Let me in."
Greg wished he could ignore this summons. It wasn't every day, though,
that Judge Daniel Solman came knocking at a lawyer's door. Solman, the chief federal district judge for the Central California region, could be found more often at a public podium, speaking before hundreds, if not thousands. That was so even back at Chumash State, where he and Greg had been passing friends and classmates, sharing the occasional teacher and lecture hall. Student government had been Solman's province in those days,
and his stepping-stone. It was a shame really that he'd gotten himself appointed a federal judge seven years ago, for that development, however lustrous, had derailed a promising political career. The United States District Court did not offer Solman enough opportunities to orate.
No, he couldn't ignore Judge Solman. Greg reached for the doorknob.
"Evening, Judge," he said. "I was just heading out."
"Won't keep you long," Solman began, stepping inside without invitation.
Greg studied his guest. The sweeping breadth of the forehead, the mane of curly gray hair, the cast of the mouth, and the expression in his lively eyes all portrayed an uncommon flair-hardly the sensibility of a judge.
Without his robes, Daniel Solman suggested a thriving entrepreneur more than a man of the law. He favored Italian crepe wools, cashmere blazers,
hand-sewn calfskin moccasins. Greg wondered where he bought his clothes.
"In town for the weekend, and on my way to the county bar dinner," the judge was saying now. "Saw your light still on, so thought I'd stop by.
Just an impulse. Had a notion you might be interested in what's crossed my desk."
"Yes. . . . Quite a curious habeas corpus petition. Pro se, handwritten,
pauper, rather hapless. Right up your alley, in other words. Another poor,
vulnerable lass, fighting institutional power."
Greg took a step back from Solman. Despite his flip manner, the judge didn't appear all that relaxed. It was so unusual for him to show up like this. "Wouldn't say that's exactly my alley," Greg said. "Why come to me?"
"She needs a lawyer if she's going to proceed." Solman peered at Greg with curiosity. "And . . . well, Monarch, she's sort of asked for you."
Greg showed only mild interest. So many prisoners sent him urgent pleas these days. Urgent pleas and densely packed boxes of documents. "Sort of?
What do you mean?"
"She attached a note to her petition, requesting that a copy be sent to Greg Monarch."
"But her petition has already been written and filed. She doesn't need me."
"This petition won't get her through the door."
"Why do you think anything will?"
Solman's eyes roamed about Greg's small unadorned office. "Well now,
that's just the question. Probably not. Probably she has no chance at all.
Still, the way she puts things, the way she writes . . . Hard to explain.
You'll see if you take a look. No federal judge would act on this as it is, but-"
"What's she in for?"
The question stopped Solman for a moment. "Murder one," he offered finally, sounding uneasy with the notion. "Slashed an old man's throat, it seems, out by a riverbank in the El Nido Valley. One moonlit night five years ago. She's been losing appeals ever since."
As well she should, Greg reasoned. Why should throat slashers win their appeals? Why should murderers walk free? "Sorry, Judge, I've had my fill of death-row cases." He paused. "I've had my fill of defending killers."
Solman looked now as if he regretted this unplanned visit. "I understand,"
he said with sudden conviction. "Don't blame you." He stepped toward the door. "It was just something I thought you should see. As I say, I stopped by on impulse. Maybe because of the time issue . . . I'll be off now."
"Time issue?" Greg asked. "What do you mean?"
Solman slowly turned back to him. "She's only six months from the executioner. They've set the date. This is her last appeal."
Greg, without thinking, glanced at his watch. Habeas petitions were a particular quagmire. Unwinding the past with virtually no chance of getting anywhere. Courts weren't even interested anymore whether your client was innocent, just as long as the judges and prosecutors dotted all their i's. Not more than a hundred out of ten thousand federal habeas petitions even won review each year, and of those, maybe four or five prevailed. A miserable waste of time.
"Sorry, Judge," Greg said. "Still not interested. My plate's pretty full.
Our dedicated prosecutor here in Chumash County keeps throwing new criminal cases at me. I take it he's anxious to keep me gainfully employed. That leaves little time for a no-chance dance down a dead-end road. Give it to some eager young kid just out of law school."
Solman nodded his agreement but seemed lost in thought. He stood at the door, hand on the knob, not moving. Greg had never known Solman to cerebrate like this.
"Tell you what," the judge finally suggested. "I'm going to send this woman's petition over to your office by messenger. We'll slip it through your mail slot, despite your full plate. Read it with your nightcap this evening. Send it back tomorrow morning if you're not interested."
"That's just what I'll do," Greg promised.