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San Diego, 1996
Lacey Garder stared dispassionately at the man sitting across the table from her in the attorney conferencing room. He was a typical-looking public defender: thin and watery-eyed, with a choirboy haircut and a little too much cologne. He didn't exactly inspire confidence, but she was considering how lucky she was to have him as she assessed his cheap blue suit. The more helpless she appeared in court, the better her chances were of beating this rap and getting the hell out of town.
"How do you intend to plead?" Paul F. Baker asked in a monotone that suggested he'd already posed the question a hundred times that day.
Lacey ignored his question and glanced up toward the ceiling. Bright floodlights were placed in three-foot intervals above her head, adding to the stark reality of the room. She imagined that most people who sat where she was now probably felt like rats under glass, but she'd done this dance so many times before it was like a walk in the park to her.
"May I make a suggestion?" her tireless public defender asked. He leaned back in his metal folding chair until it creaked. "Plead guilty."
Lacey still didn't respond. She chewed her gum and stared at him, at his thin lips, his chinless face and tiny blue eyes, and waited for him to explain-because she knew he was dying to.
"It'll save the city the cost and hassle of a trial," he continued, "and the judge may take that into consideration during your sentencing. Trust me. Plead guilty."
Possibly a suggestion for someone with a little less determination to avoid a prison term, but Lacey was a bit more motivated than that. What had thisman been thinking when he'd been handed her extensive file? That he'd be defending a half-witted idiot?
"Frankly," he added, with a faint chuckle, "I'm stumped at what you could hope to gain by pleading innocent."
Uh-oh. Perry Mason was stumped. "Exactly how long have you been practicing?" she asked.
He blinked, probably more surprised that she'd dare to question his impeccable credentials than that she'd finally opened her mouth and spoken.
"Two years?" She leaned back in her chair and folded her arms. "Well, Mr. Baker, two years ago I was being brought up on charges for my fifteenth misdemeanor. Which would suggest that I've spent more time in a courtroom than you."
He smirked at her. "That's not exactly a point to brag about, Miss Garder."
"I agree. I'm certainly not proud of being caught so many times."
She knew she'd shocked him by the way his small eyes narrowed, and it was her turn to smirk. Ever since the age of seven, when she'd lifted her first wallet, her chosen occupation had been a life of crime. And remorse was something she'd never felt. Hell, to ask her to feel bad about what she did for a living would be like asking Mr. Baker here to repent for taking the bar exam.
He cleared his throat and leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table. "Miss Garder, just exactly what do you intend your plea to be?"
Lacey sighed and began her standard speech. "I was born to a heroin addict, and spent the first five years of my life in and out of hospitals -- until my loving mother was finally charged with child abuse. I was then shuffled back and forth between a countless number of foster homes before being labeled unmanageable. I landed in a youth home when I was thirteen, and remained there until I turned eighteen. I am without means, without prospects, and I'm only trying to survive in this dark, dangerous world the best way I know how. My crimes are nonviolent, do not involve children, are basically unimportant compared to the rest of the judge's docket, and putting me in jail for any significant amount of time would be cruel and unusual punishment." She finished by punctuating her statement with a tight smile.
"You intend to tell the judge all that, do you?"
"No, Mr. Baker, that's your job. My job is to wear something unassuming, and cry at all the right moments."
He frowned and casually looked her over as if reassessing his initial opinion. Then he turned his attention to the thick file resting on the table in front of him and thumbed up the top page. "I take it this tactic has worked for you in the past?"
"I've never spent more than three days in jail." She could tell that that fact surprised him by the way he stared at the paper. "Your rap sheet's almost five pages long."
"The last judge I appeared before called me a victim of society. He advised me to seek counseling, and then sentenced me to ten hours of trash recovery and a two-hundred-dollar payout. You get fired when you screw up on the job, counselor. I get community service and a fine."
"But you do have two prior felonies," he was quick to point out -- a little too quick in Lacey's opinion.
"They're inadmissible," she replied.
Considering he was supposed to be on her side, Lacey thought he seemed awfully smug about that little fact.
"The diamond ring you lifted from Madison's was worth over" -- he ran his index finger down the page -- "twenty-five thousand dollars. Felony number three."
Three strikes and you're out!
There were people on the streets selling drugs to children, raping women, murdering helpless citizens in their homes -- hell, shooting the life out of each other in gang wars, but because Lacey Garder had made the careless mistake of getting caught committing her third felony, a harmless jewel heist, she'd be spending the rest of her life in prison. Unless, of course, she could manage to wriggle her way out of this situation as she had all the others.
"Who's the judge?" she asked. She intended to beat this rap, even if she had to dance naked through the courtroom.
"And what's his position on this new crime law?"
The lawyer smiled like a man about to pull the switch on her electric chair. "He's a she. And Susan Johanson is one of the judges who pushed for getting career criminals like yourself off the streets."
Career criminal? Lacey supposed that was, in fact, what she was. But Paul, here, was a career lawyer, which wasn't much better in her view. She chewed her gum and stared him down. "You don't like me very much, do you, counselor?"
"It's not my job to like or dislike you," he replied.
"It's my job to give you the best--"
"Representation the state can afford," she finished for him. "I've heard the speech before."
"Yes," he said, "I'm sure you have."
She leaned toward him and whispered, "It bothers you that I've spent the better part of my life manipulating your precious criminal system, doesn't it?"
"It's conniving, corrupt people like yourself, Miss Garder, who make me hate my job."
"Well, it's hypocritical, self-righteous people like you who make me love mine."
The man took an angry breath and rose from his chair. "Your arraignment is scheduled for two o'clock this afternoon." He picked up his briefcase from the floor with one hand and gathered up her thick file with the other. "I suggest between now and then you consider my advice about pleading guilty."
He turned for the door and Lacey smiled at the wrinkles in the back of his blue jacket: a cheap cotton blend, just as she'd suspected. "Counselor?" she called. He stopped and faced her. "Thank you for living up to all my expectations."
His thin lips pinched, and he turned and yanked open the door. The female guard standing outside in the hallway gave him a startled look, and he said something that Lacey didn't quite hear as he slammed the door shut behind him. Lacey shook her head. Some people's buttons were just too damned easy to push.
She went back to staring at the ceiling, and telling herself that she'd find a way out of this mess somehow, but she had to admit that the Honorable Susan Johanson had her a bit worried. Experience dictated that a woman judge would be harder on her than a man. The last female judge she'd stood before back in Tucson, Arizona, had given her two weeks of community service and a two-thousand-dollar fine. It had taken Lacey almost four straight days to scam that kind of money.
No, male judges were a lot easier to deal with. Probably because they suffered from the hero syndrome, that mind-altering disease that incapacitated masculine free-thought patterns, and forced them to come to the aid of helpless females. Lacey could appear plenty helpless when she wanted to -- she had her small stature and unique coloring to thank for that. Men tended to fall all over themselves to help her out of a jam. They also tended to underestimate her. Which was why she'd always been so remarkably successful at robbing them blind.
Now, however, her profession and her freedom were in danger, and the very idea of spending the rest of her life in prison was enough to make a shiver run down her spine. She forcibly shook off the feeling, however, knowing she couldn't allow herself to think pessimistically. She had to keep a positive outlook. She had to handle this situation with the same kind of cool head and clear thinking that she'd used to handle all the others. Woman judge or not, she would manage her way out of this mess one way or another.
And then it would be time for her to find some new stomping grounds - - maybe in another country, some place where she could pursue her chosen career without any interruptions from heavy-handed crime bills--
"And why am I not surprised to find you here, Miss Garder?"
Lacey looked up to find a woman with short brown hair standing in front of the closed door. She hadn't been aware that anyone had entered the conference room after Paul F. Baker's hasty exit, and became instantly annoyed at this woman's unannounced intrusion. How long had the lady been standing there? And had she witnessed the brief moment of defeat Lacey had just experienced?
"I'm waiting to be returned to my cell," Lacey replied.
"Your home away from home?" The woman came closer. "I understand you're facing life in prison. I must admit I had my worries about leaving you alone for any length of time. It's so good to see they were unfounded," she added dryly.
Lacey wasn't in the mood for any more visitors, and so her first impulse was to send this little lady packing, but she hesitated. Lacey was sure she'd never met the woman before, and yet she had a sense that she knew her.
"Who are you, and what do you want?" Lacey demanded.
The woman stopped a few inches from the table. "You've shown a knack for getting yourself out of sticky situations in the past, Miss Garder. Maybe I thought I'd stop in and see how you intend to get yourself out of this one."
The woman was wearing a charcoal gray suit, a glowing strand of thumbnail-sized pearls, and an annoying smirk on her queer little face. "Do I know you, lady?" Lacey asked cautiously.
"In a certain sense," the woman replied.
Well, maybe a better question would have been, Do I want to know you, Lacey thought. At this point in her life she wasn't interested in meeting up with any old friends unless they had some pull with the San Diego judicial system.
"You might say that I am the answer to all your problems, Miss Garder."
"And what can a leprechaun in an expensive gray suit do for me?"
The woman actually laughed. "Oh, you have made a lovely disaster of your life, my dear. I suppose it is premature of me to expect a little contrition this early on."
"It means remorse. Sorrow. Repentance--"
"I know what it means," Lacey snapped.
The woman arched her dark brows. "Really? Well, it certainly doesn't show."
That remark would normally have earned the woman a scathing put-down, but Lacey was too intrigued to be baited. She figured the woman had to be from either Paul F. Baker's office or the prosecution's, which meant the "career criminal" couldn't afford not to listen to what the bite-sized barrister had to say.
"To answer your no doubt burning question," the woman said, "I am here to offer you a deal."
That grabbed Lacey's attention in a heartbeat. "A deal?"
Mystery solved. It was the prosecution she was facing. And the little lady was definitely talking her language.
But a deal? The district attorney's office had made it very clear that they had a vivid image of Lacey's face on videotape as she'd filched a five-carat diamond ring from Madison Jewelers' display case, something no other district attorney's office had been able to boast about before. She'd gotten a tip on the street that the security system in Madison's was in the process of a major overhaul, and, as a result, its cameras and inner alarms were being temporarily disconnected. It had seemed like such an easy mark. All she'd had to do was bypass the door alarm, quietly sneak in, steal one or two expensive pieces, and then quietly sneak back out.
She should have known from the get-go that it had been too damned easy. When the San Diego bunco squad had come barging out of the back room, Lacey realized that the tip had been bogus, planted to fish a criminal or two off the streets. Clear and blatant entrapment, as far as she was concerned. The law, however, thought otherwise.
"Why so quiet, Miss Garder? We aren't planning a jailbreak, are we?"
"What's the deal?" Lacey replied.
"Very well then. We'll get right to the heart of the matter. I have been authorized to see you completely removed from these circumstances."
Lacey was unable to keep an expression of shock from coming over her face. "What?"
"It will be as if this misfortune had never occurred." Lacey couldn't believe her ears. The only reason she could think of to explain this wild turn of events was that the D.A.'s evidence wasn't as iron-clad as they'd claimed. They must have lost the videotape. "How about dishing out a few details."
"As far as I can see you have only two choices. You can either stay here and spend the rest of your life behind bars, or you can let me send you to a place where you will have the chance to make a whole new life for yourself."
"Send me some place?"
"The only thing I need to hear from you is a yes or a no," the woman continued, "and you will be relocated--"
"Relocated?" Lacey interrupted, rising to her feet. "Relocated to where?"
"To your home."
Lacey grunted. "My home is whatever hotel I can afford at the moment."
"I'm talking about your true home."
"I don't have a true home."
"Here is your first lesson, Miss Garder: I am rarely ever wrong. Things will go much smoother from now on if you simply accept that fact."
"Just who the hell are you?"
"I highly doubt you're prepared to hear the answer to that just yet--"
"I make it a habit to be prepared for anything, and this conversation is finished if you don't answer my question."
The woman paused for a moment, as though the request were a weighty one, and then nodded. "All right... Miss Garder, I am your spiritual guide. I am here to return you to your rightful place in time. To put it simply, there was a mix-up during your temporal placement, and, as a result, you are now living in the wrong century."
Lacey stared at her for a long, silent moment. Then she planted her hands on the tabletop and slowly leaned forward. "I beg your pardon?"
"Shirley Garder was not your intended mother." A feeling, not unlike a hot knife slicing through her belly, took hold of Lacey. "Shirley Garder wasn't intended to be human, let alone anybody's mother." After all these years her mother was still a sore subject with her.
"You had an unfortunate childhood--"
"Unfortunate? Really? Is that why I've spent my entire life trying to forget it?"
"What you've done, Miss Garder, is spent your entire life making the rest of the world pay for your misfortunes. You have failed to take responsibility for your own actions, and I, for one, am extremely disappointed in you."
Anger swelled up inside Lacey. Claiming disappointment was the wrong thing to say to someone who'd never been able to live up to anyone's expectations -- including her own. "Oh, well forgive me." She circled the table toward the woman. "I mean, far be it from me to disappoint you."
Although Lacey's slight frame towered over her by a good four inches, the woman stood her ground. "You are being given a rare opportunity, Miss Garder. I must know now whether or not you are interested in pursuing it."
"Listen, lady," Lacey began, pointing her finger at her, "if you've got a deal for me then just spit it the hell out -- and don't waste any more of my time with all this other mumbo jumbo!"
The woman pursed her lips. "Lesson two, Miss Garder: I do not take well to being shouted at. In fact, the last young woman who bellowed at me found herself left in a very precarious situation. I suggest that you do your best to remain calm."
Lacey flexed her hands at her sides. "Tell... me... the... terms," she stated evenly.
"I intend to send you to a place where no one has ever heard of Lacey Louise Garder. You will have the opportunity to start fresh, to build a whole new life for yourself--"
"What's the catch?"
"Miss Garder, you are being offered the opportunity of a lifetime. Considering your circumstances, don't you think it's time to stop being so tediously suspicious of everything and everyone and agree to accept a little help?"
"Why am I being offered this illustrious opportunity?"
"Now that is a very good question. In your twenty years on this earth you have proven yourself to be conniving, hostile, and completely untrustworthy. But I am willing to concede that your life might have turned out differently if circumstances had not been as they were. Everyone deserves a second chance. This, young lady, is yours. But I think it only fair to warn you that, if you continue to wreak the kind of havoc you're used to, you will be snatched back to this jail so fast you won't know what year it is."
"Wait a minute. Then you're saying the charges against me aren't being dropped?"
"They will be waiting right here for you if you should choose to re-embrace them."
"So let me get this straight. You're telling me that I, a convicted felon, get to be taken to a place where no one will know me, where I can begin a whole new magical life for myself -- even though the case against me is solid?"
"That is correct."
"Oh, come on, lady. Do I look like an idiot? What the hell is really going on here? You can't be expecting me to testify against anybody because I always work alone, and the only criminals I ever come into contact with are two-bit hoods. I wasn't exactly beaten over the head when I was arrested, so this can't be about a civil suit. The only thing I can think of is that something has happened to that damned videotape I've been hearing so much about."
"I assure you, Miss Garder, the videotape is real and intact."
"Then frankly, lady, I am mystified."
The woman sighed. "I am offering you a chance at a better life. It is as simple as that."
"And where is this wonderful new life? Indonesia? Lower Mongolia? Maybe Red China?"
"Washington. I believe it's referred to as the Pacific Northwest."
"Seattle?" Lacey laughed. "Sorry, lady. I passed through the town last summer, and I can assure you that they know me very well there."
The woman closed her eyes, clearly growing impatient. "Integrity, Miss Garder. Try to memorize the word because I intend for you to acquire a bit of it very soon. The town is called Tranquility."
"Never heard of it."
"That's because it isn't a town any longer. It died out in '79."
Lacey gave her an incredulous look. "You're banishing me to a town that's been deserted since 1979? Well, that certainly explains why nobody will know who I am."
"I said '79, Miss Garder. Not 1979. I intend to send you back to the year 1878, to the small logging town of Tranquility, Washington."
Lacey stared hard at the woman. To think she'd been standing there for close to fifteen minutes arguing with a lunatic. "Who let you in here?" she demanded.
"May I suggest that you at least allow me to prove my claims before you dismiss me out of hand?"
"You want me to let you prove that you can send me over one hundred years into the past?" Lacey let out a laugh and sat down on the edge of the table. "You know what, lady, I'm going to take that bet. I could use some entertainment until my arraignment."
"And I will take that as your agreement," the woman replied.
The next thing Lacey knew a strong gust of wind was hitting her full in the face. She hunched her shoulders against a bone-jarring chill and opened her eyes, not exactly sure when she'd closed them. Her mouth subsequently dropped open in shock. She was standing outside, in the middle of the woods, no less, and she had absolutely no idea how she'd gotten there.
She spun in a tight circle, looking around in bewilderment at the snow-covered ground as snowflakes drifted down from the sky and caught in her hair and eyelashes. "What the..."
Something brushed against her ankle, and she looked down and found her brown suede purse lying at her feet, the purse that had been locked up in the personal effects safe. She stooped and picked it up as confusion, fear, and exhilaration blended within her to wreak havoc with her heart rate. In the blink of an eye she'd gone from an attorney conference room in sunny San Diego to a snow-covered hillside in the mountains.
She turned from left to right, searching for the pint-sized lady she'd been talking to, but nothing moved among the dense trees surrounding her. Lacey cocked her head, listening carefully, but heard only an intense silence. She looked up at the sky, at the smoky gray clouds that were shielding the sunlight, and felt the snowflakes as they drifted down and melted against her face. What the hell had happened?
"Enjoying yourself, Miss Garder?"
Lacey started, and then settled her awe-filled stare on the small, smiling woman suddenly standing in front of her. "What's going--" Her eyes widened. She sucked in a sharp breath and swallowed her gum. The woman was standing in front of her all right... but, unlike Lacey, her small feet weren't making any impressions in the snow. "How are -- You aren't -- Who the hell are you!" she finally got out.
"I told you. I am your spiritual guide. And this" -- the woman made a broad sweep with her arms -- "is 1878 Washington Territory. Welcome home, Miss Garder."
"You are standing just outside the city limits of Tranquility. It's getting cold. May I suggest you start looking for shelter."
And without so much as a good-bye, the woman simply vanished.
Lacey's knees went weak, and she crumbled down to the snowy ground where she sat for what had to be ten minutes with her mouth hanging open in stupefaction. She'd always considered herself to be something of an atheist, believing that nothing was beyond life and the world as she knew it. Quite frankly, she wasn't sure she liked the ramifications of what she was now being presented with. She felt dazed, and slightly numb--
And then she felt the biting cold.
She quickly stood and brushed herself off, but the cold continued to tingle her toes, and soon began to seep through her pink leather pumps and into her feet. It traveled quickly, into her ankles, up her calves to her knees. The breeze, which she hadn't even noticed before now, penetrated the tight knit silk of her sheer stockings and chilled her to the bone.
Her fingers began to burn. They were starting to turn pink. She brought them to her mouth and breathed heavily on them, trying to bring back some warmth, but the shivers beginning to wrack her body made the effort impossible. At this point Lacey forgot all about spiritual guides and magical transportations, and started worrying about freezing to death.
She folded her arms across her chest, tucking her frigid fingers beneath the armpits of her tailored pink jacket, and hurried toward a tall tree where the snow didn't appear to be as deep. But the thin trunk provided meager shelter against the unrelenting cold.
"Damn it," she whispered. She lifted her face to the wind and shouted, "Is this my sentence then? To freeze to death out here?" Her only answer was the rustle of the snow-laden trees.
She huddled against the tree trunk, wondering how long a person could survive in such frigid conditions. And then she heard the cry of an eagle. She looked up and watched the giant bird soar across the sky and into the distance. And that's when she noticed a thin snaking of black smoke on the horizon. Where there was smoke, there was fire. A hot, crackling fire.
Her mind intent on one thing -- warmth -- Lacey left her meager protection and began slowly to make her way toward what she hoped would be some kind of shelter. She wasn't exactly dressed for a hike, let alone a march through fresh snow, and she trudged along for what seemed like an hour before finally coming upon a large ranch house.
So cold she could barely move her legs, Lacey slowly climbed the three snow-covered steps to the front porch, and knocked on the screen door. Pain shot through her stiff knuckles, so she gave the metal door a few good whacks with the side of her fist. When a stout, blond-haired woman finally opened the inner door, Lacey's teeth were chattering so badly she couldn't get a word past her lips.
"Who is it, Hazel?" a male voice called from within.
"I'm not sure," the woman replied, pulling the wooden door open wider and staring at Lacey through the screen.
The heat from the house brushed against Lacey's face, and she moaned and stamped her feet, not only to get some feeling back into her extremities but to work up the energy to speak. The entire porch creaked and shook with her effort. She heard a distinct, dull groan come from somewhere above, and looked up just in time to see the snow pack on the eaves break loose and come crashing down over her head.
She stood there, unmoving, barely withholding a scream of frustration as the freezing snow caked around her neck and slid in icy chunks beneath her jacket and down her back.
Life certainly didn't get any better than this.
Copyright © 1996 by Suzanne E. Witter