Conflict of Interestby Nancy Taylor Rosenberg, Laural Merlington (Read by)
District Attorney Joanne Kuhlman is struggling to put her own life together after the trauma of retrieving her children from her ex-husband who had kidnapped them. Now she must make a decision that could end her career. While trying three defendants for robbery, Joanne discovers a far more serious crime may be unfolding. One of the defendants is ignorant of the true nature of the crime. His attorney and mother insist he was cruelly exploited by his crime partners. When the young man disappears, Joanne fears he may have been murdered in a ruthless act to silence him. Her sympathies for this defendant lead her to entangle herself with his attractive attorney and compromise her career so the truth may be revealed.
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Thursday, February 8, 2001, 9:29 A.M.
For two years Joanne Kuhlman had gone to bed each night not knowing whether her children were dead or alive. That morning, Leah, her fifteen-year-old daughter, had made her so angry that Joanne had felt like shipping her back to her father. Even if she'd been serious, the man was currently in jail and would more than likely be sentenced to prison.
Exiting her white Lexus, Joanne jogged toward the main entrance to the Ventura County courthouse. She wondered how many people in her office knew about the situation with her ex-husband. Worrying about gossip, she told herself, should be the least of her concerns. Her prayers had been answeredLeah and Mike had been located and returned. The fact that Doug's first trial would be held in Los Angeles was another reason she should be grateful. At least the divorce was final now. The papers had come through the previous month. Joanne had filed over a year ago, yet with Doug's whereabouts unknown, the proceedings could not be finalized.
At thirty-nine, Joanne was a petite and youthful-looking woman, with shoulder-length chestnut-brown hair, pronounced cheekbones, and large hazel eyes. Naturally slender, she self-consciously tugged on the hem of her jacket. In less than three months, she had gained ten pounds. People said she looked great. She didn't mind having a curvaceous body, but she couldn't afford to buy a new wardrobe.
Pushing her way through the heavy oak doors, Joanne leaned against the back wall to catch her breath. Leah wasshifting from one behavioral problem to the next. The night before, she'd decided to go joyriding, then failed to turn the headlights off once she returned home. The battery on the Lexus had been dead that morning. With the help of their neighbor, Emily, Joanne had scrounged up a pair of jumper cables in the cluttered garage and managed to get the car started. The court hearing had been scheduled for nine, however, and it was already nine-thirty. Joanne was not only late, but she had a run in her nylons and a grease stain on the front of her turquoise blazer. Thrusting her shoulders back, she shook her hands to release the pent up tension, then strode briskly down the aisle to speak to the bailiff.
"Did Judge Spencer get my message?" Joanne asked, glancing over her shoulder at the defense attorney and his three clients. "My car ..."
Officer John Shaw was a stone-faced redhead in his late twenties. He tapped his watch with his finger, his voice as flat as his personality. "The longer he waits ..."
"Right," Joanne answered, feeling idiotic for offering an excuse, particularly to a bailiff. Unless something unexpected occurred, Shaw's job consisted of saying a few words and then standing around like a statue.
Shaw plucked a piece of chewing gum out of his mouth, wrapped it in a scrap of paper, then tossed it across the room into the trash can. "Are we ready?"
Joanne was leaning over, yanking her paperwork out of her green nylon backpack. Her co-workers made fun of her, telling her she looked more like a camper than an attorney. Compartmentalized to hold file folders as well as her laptop computer, the backpack had been a birthday present from her father. For years, she had lugged around heavy litigation cases or costly briefcases. Next month would mark her ten-year anniversary as a prosecutor. Image no longer mattered. All she cared about was distributing the weight evenly on her back. "No, John," she said facetiously. "I thought we'd just sit around and shoot the breeze for the next hour."
The bailiff's jaw dropped, but he knew to keep his mouth shut. Joanne Kuhlman might be slightly frazzled today, but she was a major player in the Ventura County judicial system. Although she'd declined for personal reasons, she'd been offered a judgeship the previous year. Everyone knew she was renting Judge Spencer's beach house, and had even become friends with the presiding judge's wife who lived next door.
Anne McKenzie, the court clerk, was a pretty blonde with dove-gray eyes and a pleasant disposition. Dressed neatly in a white shirt and black sweater, she took over for the bailiff. "Are you serious, Ms. Kuhlman? Should I buzz Judge Spencer or do you want us to wait for you to get organized? I've already called the jury room."
Picking up her pen and jotting down a few notes to herself, Joanne answered without raising her head. "I assumed you notified Spencer as soon as I got here." When she discovered her pen had run out of ink, she threw it aside and grabbed another one.
"I just thought ..."
A muscle in Joanne's face twitched. She stared at the clock mounted on the wall over the clerk's console, the minutes clicking off inside her head. "I appreciate your consideration, Anne," she said, attempting to smile. "We should begin immediately, though, don't you think?"
Her neighbor had lectured her over the hood of her car that morning. "A human being can only take so much stress," Emily Merritt had told her. "You need to take yoga classes, meditate, book yourself a nice vacation."
Emily was married to the presiding judge, Kenneth Merritt, a man twenty years her senior and extremely wealthy. She knew Joanne's predicament. When you lived at Seacliff Point, everyone knew your business. The community consisted of only thirty-three homes, the lots so narrow, they could hear each other's toilets flushing.
Judge Kenneth Merritt had inherited the fifty-acre parcel of prime coastal real estate from an ancestor, then later sold lots to handpicked individuals, most of them friends or family members. Unlike Joanne, Emily spent her days shopping, sunbathing, or playing bridge at the only commercial establishment Merritt had allowed behind the gates at Seacliff Point, a spectacular structure he had named the Cove.
Perched on a cliff above the water, the Cove was shaped in the form of a star, with the rooms branching out in five different directions. The building was supported by enormous steel poles embedded deep in the core of the rock's surface. Merritt boasted that the Cove was sturdy enough to withstand a major earthquake.
For the residents of Seacliff Point, the Cove was their exclusive club. With the availability of on-line shopping, investing, and other computer-related technology, the residents never had to physically venture beyond the gates to the outside world. The Cove was their kitchen, their recreation room, their meeting place, their local pub, their ballroom. The way it was designed, a person could enjoy a sunset and watch the waves breaking on the shore directly below from all but two of the five public rooms.
Emily's intentions had been good when she spoke to Joanne that morning. Regardless of the differences in their lifestyles, Joanne liked the woman and enjoyed having her as a neighbor. But Joanne couldn't walk off her job or leave her kids to go on a vacation. Her ex-husband was facing child-stealing charges for abducting her children, along with a multitude of other crimes. Her children were home now, but the emotional damage Doug had inflicted would take years to overcome. Taking yoga classes wouldn't replenish her bank account. A second job might help. There weren't enough hours in the day, though, let alone enough energy.
The lovely home Joanne had owned in Ventura had been sold the previous year, the profits used to trace her children's whereabouts. Judge Spencer, the man she had kept waiting this morning, had been kind enough to let her use his beach house until she managed to get back on her feet financially. The clock was ticking there as well. In three months, she would have to find another place to live. While she was struggling to pay off her debts and become financially stable, her despicable ex-husband had a pile of money, more than likely stashed in an offshore bank account. The problem was finding it.
"Division 23 of the Ventura County Superior Court is now in session," the bailiff announced, his deep voice echoing in the courtroom. "Judge Richard Spencer presiding."
Spencer was a brilliant and well-respected judge. Joanne watched as he climbed the stairs to the bench, his black robes swirling around him. With his white hair and bushy beard, he resembled a good-natured grandfather. She heard two of the three defendants snickering across the room. They probably thought drawing Spencer as their trial judge meant they were in for an easy ride. They were in for a big surprise, Joanne smirked, feeling some of her earlier anxiety slipping away. Of all the Ventura County judges, Spencer was by far the most punitive. People swore he would send his own son to prison if he was certain he'd broken the law.
"The State of California versus Ian Decker, Thomas Rubinsky, and Gary Rubinsky," Spencer spoke into the microphone. "Case number A987243."
Joanne glanced over at the three defense attorneys. Arnold Dreiser, who was representing Ian Decker, was a tall, handsome man in his forties. Dreiser's area of expertise centered around medical malpractice. Rumor had it that his fees were astronomical. Not only did Dreiser hold a law degree from Harvard, he'd also served a year on the Los Angeles bench.
Gary Rubinsky was represented by Joseph Watkins, a public defender. At five-eight, Watkins had thinning blond hair, blue eyes, and a round face. Marilyn Cobb, Tom Rubinsky's attorney, was also a public defender. At twenty-seven, she had curly red hair, freckles, and was toothpick thin. Whereas Watkins had been a public defender for seventeen years and was a supervisor over his unit, Marilyn Cobb had only been with the agency for a year.
The case involved the December 16, 2000, armed robbery of a Quick-Mart convenience store. Since none of the defendants possessed criminal records as adults, the court had released them on bail. Ian Decker had never received so much as a parking ticket. The Rubinskys had committed numerous offenses as juveniles, all fairly minor, the majority having occurred during their early teens.
In the past, juvenile records were inadmissable in adult proceedings. Laws had recently been passed, however, that allowed the court to consider both the adult and juvenile histories of an offender when rendering decisions regarding bail or sentencing. As long as the defendant's juvenile offenses didn't involve acts of violence, or weren't reflective of a specific pattern of criminal behavior, Judge Spencer didn't attach a great deal of weight to them.
Two of the defendants, Ian Decker and Tom Rubinsky, were each twenty-one years old. They had been childhood friends who had only recently renewed their friendship. Tom's brother, Gary Rubinsky, was twenty-five. Neither of the Rubinskys had been employed during the past year, leading Joanne to suspect that they were far more entrenched in criminal activity than their records indicated.
Decker, on the other hand, had been attending welding classes at Franklin Junior College as well as holding down a job as a busboy. From what Joanne had been told, the Rubinskys' parents had disowned them, so they weren't getting money from home. This meant Ian Decker was the only one of the three who had any legitimate income prior to their arrest. The question that kept nagging at Joanne was how Decker had come up with enough money to hire Arnold Dreiser.
Joanne read through the list of witnesses, knowing she needed to focus on the business at hand. At least the trial was not fully under way, which would have made her tardiness even more serious. The present stage of the criminal proceedings was technically referred to as voir direthe process of selecting a jury.
While a young Hispanic housewife was being questioned by Dreiser, Joanne's gaze drifted over to the three defendants. Ian Decker was a pale, meek young man, with dirty blond hair, a narrow face, and a dull look in his murky brown eyes. In contrast, the Rubinsky brothers stood over six feet, had bulging biceps and crude tattoos, their appearance more or less in line with the crime they were accused of committing.
From Joanne's experience, robbers looked and behaved like robbers. They moved around in their seats with restless energy, laughed inappropriately, and spoke when it was in their best interest to remain silent. Individuals who committed crimes such as homicides or rapes were harder to profile. The crime of robbery required a high degree of boldness. Fast money, she called it, especially when the suspects targeted a convenience store.
Robbery was on Joanne's list of what she called stupid crimes. It wasn't like a murder, where, in the majority of cases, the only witness was dead. When a person confronted their victim face-to-face, it was usually only a matter of time before they were apprehended. The odds grew even greater with convenience stores, gas stations, and establishments that stayed open late at night as most of these places had security cameras. The defendants in this case had lucked out. The videotape from the Quick-Mart had been so severely distorted, Joanne had decided not to introduce it as evidence.
The three scruffy defendants might not be bright, but they had nonetheless grown up in the technological era. According to the clerk at the Quick-Mart, Gary Rubinsky had pointed what appeared to be a cell phone at him, advising him it was actually a firearm. When the poor man decided to call their bluff, one of the Rubinsky brothers had pushed a button on the decoy phone and fired off a round. After several months of research, the ballistics division reported that the weapon the clerk described had first surfaced in Europe. Since it wasn't legal, the authorities knew the gun was being traded in the underground market. The police had not recovered this new deadly device during their search of the defendants' property, which would have made Joanne's job far easier. They had the bullet, though, so they had sufficient evidence to prove that the crime had been committed with the use of a firearm.
Seeing Ian Decker slouched in his seat, Joanne wondered if he was under the influence of narcotics, also a common denominator in most holdups. Decker turned around and stared at her. Joanne felt a chill, but it wasn't menace she saw in his eyes. He seemed to be attempting to communicate with her.
During breaks, the Rubinskys acted as if Decker didn't exist. He stood several feet away from the other men, his arms dangling at his sides. Crime partners were known to stick together for a number of reasons. Something about these men struck Joanne as strange.
Several more jurors were examined before Judge Spencer recessed for lunch. He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes, a bedraggled look on his face. Voir dire was one of the more tiresome stages of the criminal process, and Arnold Dreiser seemed to have been moving at a snail's pace. "I'd like to accomplish something by the end of the day. We'll reconvene promptly at three," Spencer said, giving Joanne a stern look.
Excerpted from CONFLICT OF INTEREST by Nancy Taylor Rosenberg. Copyright © 2002 by NTR Literary Inventions, Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Nancy Taylor Rosenberg’s fourteen-year career in law enforcement included jobs with the Dallas Police Department, the New Mexico State police, the Ventura Police, and the Ventura County Probation Department, where she was a superior court investigator. A New York Times bestselling author, she has won acclaim for her novels. They have been translated into almost every language and have been bestsellers in many countries. Her writing program for inner city youths, Voices of Tomorrow, has received national attention. She lives in the Los Angeles area.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Liked the plot, but wished it was longer than 100pp.
Great page turner! Loved the ending which was different for NTR's style of writing! I even cried a bit! Can't wait for the next book!
This is my favorite book by Rosenberg. It was even better than Buried Evidence...I was up all night reading it.
I was very disappointed with this new Taylor-Rosenberg novel. I felt that the characters were cheesy and without any depth. The story line was sappy and uninteresting. I expected more from this novel. I always counted the moments until another Taylor-Rosenberg book was published, and I felt like it was such a let down.