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The instant Ben pushed open his office door, three men with briefcases sprang to their feet.
"Mr. Kincaid!" they shouted in unison.
Bill collectors, Ben thought unhappily. He could spot 'em anywhere. Why did everyone expect Ben to pay his bills on time? None of his clients did. "Sorry, gents, I'm on my way to an important meeting."
The three men flung invoices in his path, but Ben sidestepped them and rushed to Jones's desk in the center of the lobby.
"Jones," he said sotto voce, "please tell me I have an important meeting this morning."
Jones, Ben's office assistant, pushed a thick expanding file across his desk. "Even better. You're due in court. The Johnson case, remember? Continued from last week. Judge Hart awaits."
"Right, right. Of course I remember," Ben bluffed. "This is the public inebriation case, right?"
Ben thumbed hurriedly through the file, "Well, that's what I meant. Where's Christina?"
"Excuse me, sir. I must insist." One member of the briefcase brigade tapped Ben on the shoulder. "My name is Scott Scofield, and I represent the Arctic Breath Air Company. I'm concerned—"
"You're the one who installed the air conditioner."
"Well, my company did. Certainly I was not personally involved in the installation of your unit." Scofield adjusted his tie. "At any rate, your payments are woefully behind schedule."
Ben pointed toward the machine in question. "This pathetic bucket of bolts you sold me hasn't worked since day one!"
"Perhaps you should consider our extended care package for your unit. Of course, I'm not at liberty to offer it to you while your account is in arrears, but once everything is in order, and assuming you have not made any unauthorized alterations to the unit or attempted to repair it yourself, you could take advantage of our long-term maintenance service. This particular unit ..."
Scofield droned on. Ben waited patiently for the man to take a breath. He wasn't going to permit him to slide by with the standard salesman snappy patter. This was serious business. The temperature in Tulsa was over a hundred, and had been for almost a month. August in Tulsa was never a picnic, but this summer had been a record-breaking sweatfest. As a rule, Ben was not fond of summer, and he liked it even less when the air conditioner in his apartment worked only sporadically and the clunker in his office didn't work at all.
Ben detected a momentary break in Scofield's spiel and seized the opportunity. "Look, at the moment I don't have a penny, and even if I did, this unit is a flat-out dud—"
"The debt must be paid, sir."
"Look around, pal. You're in a closet of an office on a block full of pawnshops and bars in the worst part of downtown Tulsa. My staff is on half-salary and my assistant is typing on the back of old pleadings because he can't afford typing paper! Do you think I have money to throw at faulty air conditioners?"
"Your financial status is no concern of mine, I'm sure."
"Thanks for your compassion."
"If you do not remedy this deficit immediately, we will be forced to turn your account over to a collection agency—"
"No you won't. I've filed a formal complaint pursuant to the warranty clause in our sales contract."
Scofield shook his head despairingly. "Lawyers." He sighed.
"And if you mess up my credit," Ben continued, "I'll haul you into court for defamation and abuse of process!"
Scofield drew himself up. "Are you threatening me, sir?"
"I'll do a heck of a lot more than threaten if—"
"Boss," Jones interrupted. "You're due in court, remember? The Johnson case."
Ben stopped in midoutburst. "Right. I don't have time for this, Scofield. Work it out with my assistant."
"Oh, thank you very much," Jones said.
"I'll be at the courthouse if—" Jones grabbed Ben's arm and yanked him back. "What do you want now?"
Jones pointed through the street-front windows. "Psst. New client alert."
Ben looked through the front windows and saw a middle-aged black man carrying a large shopping bag. "Well, if he is, make an appointment. I gotta vamoose."
He started to leave again, but Jones jerked him back. "Boss, look at him."
"I'm looking, Jones, but I don't see anything that inspires me to incur Judge Hart's wrath by being late."
"Some detective you are," Jones snorted. "You see, but you do not observe."
"Okay, Sherlock. Give me the lowdown."
"Take a look at his car, Boss. What do you see?"
"Nothing in particular, except that it's a cheap old Ford Pinto with the front end smashed in."
Scofield tried to cut back into the conversation. "Mr. Kincaid, I really must insist—"
"Butt out, Scofield. We're doing important detective work here. Okay, Jones, his car is a wreck. So what?"
"Note the loose flecks of paint near the impact area. This was caused by a recent accident. Now notice how the man limps. Put it together and what have you got?"
"Traffic accident," Ben murmured. "Personal injury case."
"Contingency fee agreement," Jones added. "Quick settlement. Easy money. Staff gets paid. Bill collectors go home. Take the case, Boss."
"You've certainly become a venal so-and-so, Jones."
"I like to eat regularly, if that's what you mean. And I've been on half-salary since June. Which of course is more than the air conditioner manufacturer is getting, but still ..."
"All right already. I'll take the case."
Jones batted his eyelashes. "My hero."
Ben made a break for the north door, but the way was blocked by the other two briefcase men. He pivoted quickly and made his way toward the other door, only to find himself standing face-to-face with ...
"Julia!" Ben said awkwardly. "It's been ... well, it's been ... well, at least ... I mean ..." He inhaled. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to see you, of course." Julia Kincaid Morelli Collins, Ben's sister, was cradling her baby son, one arm expertly curled beneath his body. Her long brown hair fell over her shoulders and tickled his chubby little face. "Is this a good time?"
"Well, to tell you the truth—"
"This is your nephew, Joey." Julia propped the baby up in her arms. "Joey, say hello to your uncle Ben."
"Please don't call me that. I feel like I should be cooking Minute rice."
Julia ignored him. "Can you say hi to your uncle Ben?" She looked up. "He's seven months old. He can only say a few words." She wiggled her fingers and spoke in high-pitched baby talk. "Say, 'Hi there, Uncle Ben. Hi there!'"
Joey did not follow her lead, which Ben thought showed great presence of mind on his part. Ben took the moment to give his sister a quick once-over. She'd changed since he'd last seen her. Not surprising, really—it had been more than two years.
She had slimmed down considerably. Working as an emergency room nurse in Glasgow, Montana, had undoubtedly played a part in that. Not to mention her second divorce, just after the baby was born, and the stress of caring for a newborn on her own. Something about the new improved Julia bothered him, though.
"So what have you been up to?" he asked.
"Oh, you wouldn't believe it." Joey was getting restless—squirming and scrunching up his face. Julia plopped him over her shoulder, burped him, then switched him to her other arm. "I finished my contract term at the hospital in Glasgow and got offered a seat in a graduate program in Connecticut. It's very exclusive."
"So you'll be accepting?"
"I hope to, but there are a few problems." She smiled at Joey, then wiped a bit of drool from his face. "I can't believe how long it's been since we last saw each other, Ben. Why is that?"
"Well," Ben said hesitantly, "I thought it was because you didn't like me very much."
"Don't be silly. Where would you get that idea?"
"Because you always said I was a jerk."
"Did I? Sorry about that."
"Because you said I don't care about anyone other than myself."
"I'm sure I didn't mean it."
"Because you told Mother I tried to drown you in the swimming pool when you were eight."
"Well, you did do that, but let's let bygones be bygones." She wriggled the diaper bag down off her shoulder, wrested free a wet-wipe, and cleaned up Joey's face. "It didn't help family relations, you know, when you took Mike's side during our divorce."
Mike Morelli was her first husband—and Ben's old college buddy, currently a homicide detective with the Tulsa PD. "Did I? He thinks I took your side."
"Well, he's wrong. As usual."
Ben diverted his attention to the infant. "He's a cute little guy, isn't he?"
"Oh yeah. And very advanced for his age. He can already pull himself up in his crib. He'll be walking in another month or two. Here, why don't you hold him?"
"Oh, no," Ben said quickly. 'That's all right."
"Come on, Ben. He's your nephew. He won't break. Hold him a second."
Ben reluctantly extended his arms. It wasn't anything personal against Joey. Ben just didn't know the slightest thing about babies. He didn't even know where to place his hands.
"No, no," Julia said, "like this. He can hold up his head now, but you still need to brace his body."
Ben contorted in accordance with her directions. Joey gazed up at his uncle and made a strange gurgling noise.
"See?" Julia said. "He likes you."
"If you say so."
"Tickle his lower lip. He loves that."
Ben did as instructed. The baby did seem to smile a bit.
"'Scuse me, sir."
Ben turned. It was the black man he and Jones had spotted outside. He stood unevenly, leaning heavily on his right leg. "My name's Ernest Hayes. Friends call me Ernie. Sorry to interrupt, but I'm wantin' to talk with you 'bout handlin' a case—"
"Right," Ben said. "I'd be happy to do it."
The man blinked. "Jus' like that?"
"Sure. My pleasure."
Ernie hesitated. "I gotta be honest with you, Mr. Kincaid. I ain't got much money."
"Not a problem. I'll do it on a contingency fee. My assistant will give you some forms to fill out—terms, provisions, and so on. There are standard percentages for cases of this sort. Here, I'll sign now." Ben scrawled his name on the bottom of one of the forms. "We'll talk about the details when I get back from court."
"Land sakes. This was even easier than I thought it would be."
Ben winked at Jones. "Happy now?"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Kincaid. I'm attempting to be patient, but this is truly the limqit."
It was Scofield again. "You know," Ben said, "if your air conditioner was half as resilient as you are, I wouldn't be standing here worrying about the baby sniffing my sweaty pits."
Scofield appeared shocked. "Really! If this is your idea of humor—"
"Can't you leave me alone for a minute? I'm bonding with my nephew."
"I hate to interrupt any familial bonding," Jones said, "but you seem to keep forgetting about your trial."
"Yikes! What time does it start?"
"Nine A.M." Jones glanced at his Mickey Mouse watch. "That would be exactly five minutes ago."
"Jiminy Christmas!" Ben shouldered Scofield aside, using the baby to run interference.
"Julia, I hate to make goo-goo faces and run, but—"
He froze in his tracks. "Julia?"
Ben whirled around, but Julia was gone. Without a trace.
And he was left holding the baby.CHAPTER 2
"Where'd she go?" Ben screeched.
One of the briefcase brigadiers guarding the front door offered an explanation. "She left. Got in a green convertible and drove away."
"Drove away? You're kidding!"
"Why would I kid? Looked like she was going somewhere in a hurry."
Ben cast his eyes upward. "This is so like Julia. Only she could leave and forget to take her baby. I don't believe this!"
Jones rose from his desk. "Stay calm, Boss."
"Stay calm? How can I stay calm? I'm due in court. And my sister disappears and leaves me with this—this—" He looked down at the bundle in his arms.
Joey's tiny blue eyes suddenly widened. After gazing up at his uncle's face for a second or two, he began to wail.
"Omigosh." Ben pulled the baby up to his face. "I didn't mean anything—I mean—don't take it personal, but I have this court date, see...."
"He's seven months old, Boss. I don't think he understands about court dates."
"Oh, jeez." Ben swung the baby back and forth in a herky-jerky manner. The wailing attained an all-time-high decibel level. Ben awkwardly cradled Joey in his arms and tried to prop him against his chest. The bawling continued, but went into decrescendo.
"Jones, he's crying!"
"I noticed, Boss. We all did."
"Did I hurt his feelings somehow?"
"More likely he has a wet diaper."
Ben held the baby out at arm's length. "Really?"
"Or maybe he's hungry. Beats me."
"Well, you're the would-be detective. Detect already."
Jones rummaged through the red diaper bag Julia had left on the floor. "Here's some toys. Lots, actually. Say, this is nifty stuff."
"Jones, stop playing with the baby toys!"
"Oh, right." He continued searching. "Several outfits of clothes." He frowned. "And diapers. Dozens of diapers. Hmmm."
"What do you mean, hmmm?"
"What I mean is," Jones said slowly, "I don't think Julia left him behind by mistake."
"What are you saying?"
"Remember? Julia said she wanted to start that graduate program in Connecticut, but there was a problem? The problem was, she had a seven-month-old baby." Jones clasped Ben on the shoulder. "So she left the baby with Uncle Ben."
"With me?" Ben's face flushed. "But—I can't have a baby. I'm a lawyer!" He looked down at Joey. His cheeks were puffy and red and streaked with tears. "I'm sorry, little guy. If I knew why you were crying, I'd do something about it. But I don't." Ben looked up abruptly. "Here, Jones. Take him."
"Me? I don't know nothin' 'bout holdin' babies."
"Well, learn. I have to get to court!"
"What am I going to do with him? This is a law office—sort of. Not a day-care center."
Ben pressed the baby against Jones's chest. Joey's sporadic sobs reverted to a full-throttled wail. "You're a resourceful guy, Jones. You'll think of something. I've got to get to the courthouse before Judge Hart holds me in contempt."
Jones cautiously took the infant into his arms. "Boy, Boss ... if I do this ..."
"I know. I'll owe you."
"You already owe me. We're now talking about a debt the magnitude of which most men have never contemplated."
After a five-minute sprint in the sweltering downtown heat, Ben made it to the Tulsa County Courthouse at Fifth and Denver. The courthouse elevators were the oldest and slowest in all creation, and Ben couldn't afford to wait around, so he panted up the stairs to the sixth floor. Breathing heavily, he slid through the doors to the Honorable Sarah Hart's courtroom, hoping he could enter unnoticed.
No such luck. "Mr. Kincaid," the judge said, the instant he stepped through the door. "How kind of you to grace us with your presence."
"Sorry, Judge. I was unavoidably delayed."
Judge Hart nodded. "Creditor problems again?"
"Uh, no." Well, not entirely, anyway. "Someone brought me a baby."
"A baby?" Hart lowered the glasses on her nose. "Does this relate to some previously undisclosed episode in your past?"
Ben smiled. Hart could be a tough judge, but at least she had a sense of humor. "No, ma'am. It relates to the dangers of being a member of a family."
"You'll forgive me if I fail to follow up on this intriguing dialogue, but the assistant district attorney is anxious to continue the trial. I believe you know Mr. Bullock. So you know how insistent he can be."
Ben glanced over at Jack Bullock, who was sitting at the prosecution table. He did indeed know Mr. Bullock. Before Ben moved to Tulsa, they both had worked at the district attorney's office in Oklahoma City. Jack Bullock had been his boss. More than his boss, really. His mentor. His idol. His hero.
Bullock and Ben had spent a long summer working on several incredibly complicated white-collar crime cases, Bullock as lead trial counsel, Ben as lead research grunt. And Ben had loved every minute of it. Not because Bullock was such an excellent attorney, although he was, but because he believed in what he did. When you worked with Jack Bullock, you were on a holy crusade, a battle of right versus wrong. All summer long, they worked shoulder to shoulder, upholding the letter of the law, putting the bad guys behind bars. Their work—indeed, their lives—were imbued with a sense of purposefulness, of optimism, of idealism, that Ben had seldom glimpsed since.
Excerpted from Cruel Justice by William Bernhardt. Copyright © 1996 William Bernhardt. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted August 10, 2013
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