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God, I want this maniac!" Lily Forrester said, her voice bouncing off the colorful tiled floors and decaying stucco walls. The Santa Barbara courthouse was a beautiful but ancient structure that would have served better as a museum than a processing house for justice.
"Why did you ask Judge Orso to meet with us this early?" Matt Kingsley asked his supervisor, a tall, lanky woman with freckles and curly red hair. Lily didn't look old enough to have a daughter in her second year of college. One of the most impassioned prosecutors in the county, she whipped around the office with nonstop energy, putting the younger attorneys to shame. In many ways, such intensity was frightening. Of course, anyone would get excited about the crime they were presently handling. The victim was an eight-year-old girl. Her father, Henry Middleton, had been arrested the day before on charges of attempted murder.
The crime had occurred on Halloween. Betsy Louise Middleton, dressed in her pink satin ballerina costume, had consumed what easily could have amounted to a fatal dose of strychnine administered in a straw-shaped candy. The child's parents appeared to be upstanding citizens. The father owned a chain of furniture stores and served as a deacon in the First Baptist Church, one of the reasons the police had not immediately identified the couple as suspects. Instead, every person Betsy had visited while trick or treating that fatal night had been put through the wringer.
The investigation had been time-consuming and exhaustive. Only four days before, the break the authoritieshad been waiting for had finally arrived. While working a convenience store robbery, a police officer had stumbled across a Spanish-speaking witness in Ventura, a neighboring city located approximately twenty miles south of Santa Barbara. The woman had positively identified Henry Middleton from a photo lineup, stating that she remembered him purchasing that particular brand of candy the day before Halloween while his wife and children waited outside in their red Ford Explorer. The witness recognized the defendant, as she had purchased a mattress from his furniture company.
"Didn't you speak to Judge Orso yesterday?" Matt Kingsley's voice cut through the morning calm. His eyes were a muted shade of hazel, his blond hair stylishly long. His look was that of a former surfer without the charred skin. To add to his appeal, he drove a bright yellow Ferrari and purchased his clothes at Saks Fifth Avenue or Nordstrom.
"Yes," Lily said crisply. "I caught him on the golf course, though. He probably doesn't remember half of our conversation."
Santa Barbara was a small judicial district, and due to the early hour, the courthouse had yet to come alive. A bedraggled attorney was leaning against the wall, sipping a cup of coffee out of a Styrofoam cup. Kingsley, with his Brooks Brothers suit and squeaky new shoes, smirked as he took in the other man's morning stubble, wrinkled shirt, and dirty white sneakers. "Think this guy overestimated the travel time?" he said, spotting what looked like a garment bag on the floor next to the man's briefcase.
Lily's jaw dropped. For a few moments she just stared, unable to believe her eyes. She considered turning around, but there was no other way to reach their destination.
"Is something wrong?" Kingsley asked, noting how ashen her face had become.
She tilted her head so Kingsley would follow her instead of lingering. Once they were out of earshot, she stopped walking. "You're not sharp enough to lick that man's boots, let alone compete with him in the courtroom. You just walked past one of the finest legal minds in the state."
"Fine, whatever," Kingsley answered, straightening the knot on his tie. "Want to tell me why someone with one of the finest legal minds in the state is hanging around the courthouse like he lives here?"
Lily continued walking. "He doesn't want to take a chance on being late."
The young attorney snickered. "Hard to believe you'd worship this guy just because he always shows up on time."
"That's only one of his finer traits," Lily told him, flicking a piece of lint off her green linen jacket. Young guns like Kingsley always chased after the big case. When their heads hit the pillow at night, they dreamed of dynamite arguments, surprise witnesses, killer pieces of evidence, complex legal analyses. Only with maturity did they learn the truththat many times the seemingly insignificant traits were what put a person in a league with the legends.
Matt Kingsley pulled his collar away from his neck, a stream of perspiration dotting his forehead. Only 8:00 A.M., and already the courthouse was steaming. By noon the place would be as hot as a boiler room. The building was not air-conditioned. Age alone precluded any attempt at modernization, and the historical society wouldn't allow them even window units. The only thing that made life tolerable was that everyone suffered: the judges, the prosecutors, the prisoners, even the jurors.
Once they reached Judge William Orso's chambers, Lily tried the outer door and found it locked. "Damn," she said, anxiously jiggling the handle, "don't tell me he forgot about our conference this morning. Someone's got to get this man to retire. I swear he's so senile he has trouble remembering his own name."
"How did Officer Stevens put this together?" Kingsley asked as they waited, reaching into his pocket for a package of chewing gum. He offered a stick to Lily, but she waved it away. "Certainly he didn't carry a mug shot of the father around with him. This wasn't even Ventura's homicide. The way I heard it, Stevens was at the store to investigate an unrelated robbery."
"I've known a lot of callous killers," Lily said, ignoring his question. "I honestly believe Middleton is the worst piece of human garbage I've ever seen. He sat there and fed his own child strychnine for no other reason than greed."
"Maybe it was a mercy killing," he suggested. "The girl has a serious illness. Isn't that how they explained the million-dollar life insurance policy? I mean, no one insures their kid for that kind of money unless they think there's a chance they're going to die."
"Don't you know anything about this case?" Lily asked, appalled that he wasn't better informed. "Betsy suffers from a rare genetic disorder called Aicardi syndrome. She has a defect in the corpus callosum, the middle brain, which allows the right brain to communicate with the left brain. At the time Middleton had insured her, she hadn't been officially diagnosed. Her parents might have suspected that she had the disorder, however, because someone in their family could have died from it years before."
"Can't we find out?"
"Probably not," Lily told him. "These are the kinds of things families keep hidden, although they pass it along by word of mouth from one generation to the next. Aicardi syndrome was identified only in 1965. If one of the Middleton ancestors did die from complications from it, the correct cause of death was probably not listed."
"Hey, I'm not a doctor," Kingsley said. "I read something about right brain versus left brain when I was in college. That's about as far as I go."
"Just listen," she continued. "Children who suffer from Aicardi syndrome have seizures, some more frequently than others. Betsy also has a hole in the retina of her left eye and a small lesion on her right."
"Then she's blind?"
"Not blind," Lily corrected him. "Visually impaired."
Kingsley smacked, his gum. I thought she was retarded."
"We're just talking," the young attorney said. "I wouldn't use the word retarded in the courtroom."
Lily gave him a look that would drop an elephant. "Then don't use it now."
Kingsley decided to shut his mouth.
"Okay," she said a few moments later, "here's how I see it. Middleton needed money. Because he had two normal children, he decided Betsy was expendable. Like a ripped sofa, you know. Except he didn't just toss her out, he cashed her in like a lottery ticket. Can you imagine holding your child in your arms and listening to her scream in agony?"
Kingsley's hand instinctively flew to his stomach. "Weren't the other children insured as well?"
"Not until Betsy was born," Lily said, chewing on a ragged fingernail. "To prove how diabolical Middleton is, we have to show the jury the years of preparation that went into this crime."
The picture she had painted was so evil the hairs were prickling on the back of his neck. "How could a person plot his daughter's death almost from the day she was born?" Kingsley asked. "You make it sound as if he was charting a long-term bailout plan for his company."
"Precisely," Lily said, her eyes expanding.
The young attorney could see the case unfolding on his supervisor's face, almost as if he were watching film footage of the actual crime. And what Lily visualized in her mind was generally accurate. She had a gift, an ability to take all the minute and disconnected pieces and fit them together like a puzzle. Up until a few days ago, when the Ventura police had handed them the goods, most of the prosecutors and investigators in the Santa Barbara office had decided the crime had been the result of a random act and would never be solved. Lily's conviction that Henry Middleton had poisoned his daughter had never wavered.
Lily fell deep in thought, her eyes trained on the floor. Suddenly she remembered something, jerking her head up. "You didn't tell me what the hospital said this morning."
"I told Mike Armstrong to call."
Lily's voice rose several octaves. "Did I tell you to have Armstrong check on Betsy's condition?"
"But, my ass," she shouted. "What are we going to charge Middleton with?"
"Attempted murder, of course." A few sheets of paper fluttered in Kingsley's hands. "The complaint's right here. You don't have to go ballistic."
Lily snatched the papers from him, then darted around the corner. She tried to reach Armstrong on her cell phone, but the investigator's voice mail came on. Dropping down on a bench, she buried her head in her hands, asking herself why she had accepted another position as a prosecutor. Reviewing cases for the appellate court in Los Angeles might not have been as challenging, but the stress level was minimal. Since the events which had transpired in Ventura six years before, she had visited a shrink once a week. Therapy, however, was nothing more than a Band-Aid. Her sins were too serious to reveal to a priest, let alone a psychologist. Once she regained her composure, she returned to where Kingsley was waiting.
"You were right about that lawyer," he said, staring down the hallway. "He disappeared, then came back looking good enough to go on national TV. I swear. He wasn't gone longer than ten minutes max. He shaved, changed his clothes, combed his hair. The guy must carry everything he owns in that garment bag."
"Doubtful," Lily said, deciding to call the hospital herself. Each time she tried to punch in the numbers, though, her hands began shaking and she had to start over. How could she function when the only man she had ever loved was standing only a short distance away?
"You're probably right," Kingsley decided. "That's a Valentino he's wearing. I know, because I almost bought the same suit. What's his name, by the way? I think I might have seen him on Rivera Live the other day."
"Richard Fowler," Lily said, tossing the words over her shoulder as she ducked into the rest room.