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He stood still, listening as the car pulled out of the driveway. When the sound of the engine faded into the distance, Zack looked at his watch: 9:36 a.m. Perfect. Three solid hours of “me” time. He eagerly trotted down the thinly carpeted stairs to the basement, the heavy bass thud of his work boots echoing through the empty house. Clutched in his hand was the magazine photograph of the canopy he intended to build. He figured it would’ve cost a small fortune at one of those fancy designer stores, but the copy he’d make would be just as good, if not better—and for less than a tenth of the price. A smile curled Zack’s lips as he enjoyed the mental image of Lilah’s naked body framed by gauzy curtains hanging from the canopy, wafting seductively around the bed. He inhaled, imagining her perfume as he savored the fantasy.
Zack jumped down the last step and moved to the corkboard hanging above his workbench. He tacked up the magazine photo, pulled out the armless secretary chair with the bouncy backrest, and sat down heavily. The squeak of the overburdened springs jangled in the stillness of the dank air. The room was little more than a cement-floored cell, but it was Zack’s paradise, filled to bursting with the highest quality carpentry tools he could afford, acquired slowly and lovingly over the years. Since he was a kid, he’d found that making things with his hands had the power to both calm and inspire him. His brother, Simon, said it was his form of Zen. Zack shook his head. Simon would’ve made a great hippie if he hadn’t been born about twenty years too late.
Hanging on the walls were framed photographs of Zack’s completed projects: the seven-tiered bookcase, the cedar trunk with inset shelving, the wine cabinet. Each one had come out better than the last. His gaze lingered on the photograph of the wine cabinet as he remembered how he’d labored to carve the grape leaves on its doors. It had to be worth at least five hundred dollars.
Zack turned to the bench. He pulled a steno notepad off the shelf above it and snagged a pencil from the beer stein where he kept his drafting tools. The stein had been a Christmas gift from his rookie partner, who hadn’t yet learned that, unlike the other cops in their division, he wasn’t much of a drinker.
He rolled his chair back, put his feet up on the desk, and began to sketch. Minutes later, he’d finished the broad outline. He held the drawing at arm’s length to get a better perspective when a sound—a soft rustling somewhere behind him—made Zack stop, pad still poised in midair. He dropped his feet to the floor and carefully began to scan the room.
He sensed rather than saw the sudden motion in his periphery. Before he could react, the weight of an anvil crashed into the side of his head. Blood-filled stars exploded behind his eyes as he flew off the chair and landed on his back on the hard cement.
Zack opened his eyes, dimly aware of a voice—his own?—crying out in pain. Someone was poised above him. Again he sensed movement, something cutting through the air. In a hideous moment of clarity, Zack saw what it was. An ax.
He watched in mute horror as the blade came whistling down. At the last second, he squeezed his eyes shut—hoping to make the nightmare go away. But the ax plunged deep and hard, the blade slicing cruelly through his neck, right down to the vertebrae. As the blade yanked out, his body arched up, then collapsed back to the ground, and blood spurted from his severed carotid. The ax rose again, then hurtled downward, blood flying off its edge and onto the walls. Again and again, the blade rose and fell in a steady, inexorable rhythm, severing arms and legs, splitting the abdomen, unleashing coiled intestines and a foul odor. When at last the bloody ax dropped to the floor, a fine red spray spattered the walls and the shiny trophy photographs of Zack’s creations.
He moved with purpose. That alone might have drawn attention to the man in the soiled wool overcoat, but the postlunch crowd was a briskly flowing river of bodies.
The homeless man picked up his pace, his eyes focused with a burning intensity on the woman ahead of him. Suddenly he thrust out his hand and gripped her forearm. Stunned, the woman turned to look at her attacker. Shock gave way to outrage, then fear, as she twisted violently in an effort to wrest her arm away. They struggled for a few seconds in their awkward pas de deux, but just as the woman raised a hand to shove him back, the man abruptly released his grip. The woman immediately fled into the crowd. The man doubled over and began to sink to the ground, his face contorted in a grimace of pain. But even as his body sagged, his eyes bored into the crowd, searching for her, as though by sheer dint of will they could pull her back.
Finally, though, unable to resist the undertow, he sank down onto the filthy sidewalk, turned on his side, and began to rock back and forth like a child. The river of pedestrians flowed on, pausing only long enough to wind around him and then merge again. After half an hour, the rocking stopped. A passerby in a janitor’s uniform leaned down to look at the man for a brief moment, then continued on his way. A young girl pointed her cell phone at him and took a picture, then moved on as well.
It would be another hour before anyone noticed the spreading crimson stain under the homeless man’s body. Another hour after that before anyone thought to call the police.
I looked out the window of my office on the eighteenth floor of the Criminal Courts Building, sipping my third cup of coffee of the morning and savoring the view—one of my favorite pastimes. It had poured last night; early this morning, an unexpected wind kicked up. All vestiges of smog were wiped out, bequeathing to the citizens of L.A. an uncommonly sparkling day. I watched the sunlight dance over the leaves of tall trees whose branches whipped to and fro, threatening to crack the heads of those scurrying up the street toward the courthouse.
“Rachel, don’t you have a preliminary hearing on that arson murder in Judge Foster’s court this morning?” asked Eric Northrup, my boss and the head deputy of the Special Trials Unit.
As with all cases in Special Trials, my arson murder case was that ugly combination of complex and high-profile. Proving arson is seldom as simple as it sounds. You have to rule out all accidental and natural causes, and frequently the necessary evidence burns up with the victims—who in this case were the elderly parents of the murderer. The press probably wouldn’t hang around for the preliminary hearing, but they’d been making noises about wanting to cover the trial. And that meant I’d have them breathing down my neck while I slogged through the reams of testimony required to stitch together a million little pieces of evidence, praying that the jury didn’t get lost along the way. Fun. But ever since I’d joined the district attorney’s office eight years ago, I’d dreamed of being one of the few handpicked deputies in Special Trials. And this kind of gnarly beast of a case, which swallowed up any semblance of a personal life, was exactly what I’d signed up for.
“Yep,” I replied. My motto: Keep it simple and never offer more than the question asks for. With a little luck, the questioner gives up and goes away. That motto is less effective when the questioner happens to be your boss and you’re in your office when you’re supposed to be in court doing a preliminary hearing on a murder case.
Eric put his hands on his hips and looked at me expectantly. “I know you hate waiting in court, but…”
I hate waiting in general, but I especially hate it in court, where you’re not allowed to do anything except sit there and watch proceedings so boring they make you want to bang your head against a wall.
I held up a hand. “You don’t have to tell me,” I said. I’d heard that Judge Foster was on the rampage about having to wait for DAs to show up. “But he’s got another murder on the calendar before mine, so I’ve got—” At just that moment, my phone rang.
I motioned for Eric to give me a second as I picked up. It was Manny, the clerk/watchdog in Judge Foster’s court.
“Rachel!” Manny whispered. “Stop eyeballing the calendar and get down here. Are you out of your mind? You know what’ll—”
I refused to give Eric the satisfaction of knowing I was already on the verge of being chewed out, so I did my best to put on a relaxed smile. “I’m so glad you called,” I said cheerily, as though I’d just heard from a beloved sorority sister, which it might have been…if I’d ever joined a sorority. “I was hoping we’d get a chance to talk!”
Manny, momentarily nonplussed, sputtered, “What the…?”
I mouthed sorry at Eric and again smiled pleasantly. Eric raised a suspicious eyebrow but moved off down the hall.
I waited a couple of beats to make sure he was gone, then curtly answered, “I’ll be down in fifteen seconds.” I snatched my file and scrambled out the door, strategically heading for the hallway less traveled.
I’d made it down two corridors and was just about to dash out to the bank of elevators when a voice behind me said, “In a hurry, Knight?”
I abruptly downshifted and turned back to see Eric standing at the other end of the hall, his arms folded.
Exhaling through my nose in a futile effort to hide my recent sprint, I forced a calm tone. “No, but I figured I should go see what’s happening, just to be on the safe side.”
He shot me a knowing look, turned, and walked into his office.
I trotted out to the elevator, wondering why on earth I’d ever thought I could fool Eric. Four stops and twelve additional bodies later, the elevator bumped to a halt on the fifth floor. I pushed through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd and made my way to court.
I moved swiftly into the courtroom, trying to keep a low profile so Judge Foster wouldn’t notice me. The case before mine was still in play, and defense counsel was making an objection that, fortunately for me, kept the judge occupied. But it didn’t shield me from the wrath of Manny. He gave me a stern look and shook his head. I pointed to the lawyers as if to say, What? No one’s waiting. Manny just rolled his eyes. I took a seat at the back of the courtroom; that way, when they called my case, it would look to Judge Foster like I’d been there all along. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a murder trial or a blind date—it’s always about strategy.
The judge overruled the defense objection, and the deputy district attorney resumed direct examination with the standard nonleading question: “Tell us what you saw.”
The prosecutor looked vaguely familiar, though his name escaped me. He was in his early thirties, and his carefully coiffed brown hair, perfectly tailored navy-blue suit, red power tie, and French cuffs sporting pricey-looking cuff links said that he didn’t have to rely on his civil servant’s salary to pay the rent. Or that he was still getting a free ride with Mommy and Daddy.
The witness, a surfer dude with long, bleached-out hair, stroked his sparse soul patch and licked his lips nervously before answering. “Uh, he reached out toward that lady, and the next thing I knew, he was lying on the ground.”
“And when you saw he was on the ground, what did you do?” the prosecutor asked. “Did you call the police?”
The witness bent his head and hunched over. He looked away from the prosecutor, and his eyes darted between the floor and the top of counsel table for a few long seconds. Finally he sighed and replied in a quiet voice, “No. I, like, I don’t know. I guess I thought he was just drunk or high or something.” The low hum of whispers and shuffled papers suddenly stopped, opening a vacuum of silence around the witness’s last words. The surfer dude reddened, darted another look around the courtroom at all the eyes now fixed on him, and added defensively, “No one else thought it was a big deal either. I mean, no one called…at least, not for a while.”
Every face in the courtroom—with the exception of the prosecutor, who’d been expecting that answer—reflected the ugliness of the mental image those words had painted: of people callously stepping over a man who lay dying on the sidewalk. For me, that image immediately sparked the thought of Cletus, my homeless buddy, who made his bed just south of the courthouse on most Wednesday nights. I’d been bringing him Chinese takeout from the Oolong Café nearly every week for the past couple of years. I imagined Cletus slowly bleeding out onto the cold concrete while people stepped around him as though he were an overturned garbage can. I didn’t know who this victim was, but it didn’t matter. No one should die like that.
“Objection, irrelevant,” the defense attorney said in a bored voice. I recognized him as Walter Schoenfeld, a seasoned public defender. “And no question pending,” he added.
“Sustained,” the judge ruled, his voice equally flat.
It was just a preliminary hearing, so there was no jury and the prosecution only had to show probable cause, not proof beyond a reasonable doubt. That meant the objections, while legally proper, didn’t matter much. The judge could winnow the wheat from the chaff.
“So you saw the man fall to the ground and stay there. What happened next?”
“I saw the cops come, and one of them came into the shop and asked if any of us had seen anything—”
“Objection to whatever the cops said,” Walter interjected. “Hearsay.”
“Overruled. ‘Did you see anything?’ It’s a question. Questions aren’t hearsay.”
“Do I keep going?” the witness asked.
“Yes.” The judge sighed. “Overruled means you’re in the clear.”
The witness went on. “And then Keshia, uh, the other counter person that day, told them she saw me out by the homeless guy before he, ahh…”
Gun-shy after the reaction to his last mention of the man he’d abandoned to die on the sidewalk, the witness trailed off.
“And then you told them what you’ve told us here today?”
The witness nodded.
“You have to answer out loud,” the prosecutor instructed. His duh was implied.
“Do you see the man in court who stabbed the homeless guy?” asked the deputy district attorney.
“Wait, excuse me,” the judge said, stopping the witness and turning to the prosecutor. “‘The homeless guy’? He had a name, and I’m sure it wasn’t ‘homeless guy.’ Have the People not come up with any identification for him yet?”
“No, Your Honor. The defense refused to waive time, and so far he hasn’t turned up in any database.”
So not only was he left to die on a city sidewalk but we couldn’t even acknowledge his passing with a name. The sheer loneliness of it all was a lead weight in my chest.
The judge cast a disapproving look at the deputy. “Then, Mr. Prosecutor, the appropriate term would be either victim or John Doe—not homeless guy.” He turned to the witness. “Is the person who stabbed the victim here in this courtroom?”
“Uh, well…” The surfer dude nervously looked around the room.
The prosecutor sighed impatiently. Now it was bugging me—I knew I’d seen him around before. What was his name? I mentally scanned the nameplates on the doors in the DA’s office. It took a moment, but I finally had it: Brandon Averill. Though I didn’t know him, I knew the type. He was one of those young Turks who are self-impressed, self-promoting, always on the hunt for fame and glory, and just handsome enough to entice press photographers. Everything about his attitude said this case wasn’t worth his precious time.
After more silence from the witness stand, Averill became visibly irritated. “Try looking over there,” he said, pointing to the defense table.
The defendant pulled his head down toward his shoulders, shrinking to make himself a smaller target.
Defense counsel jumped up. “Objection! Suggestive and improper! Motion to strike!”
Judge Foster raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure you want me to strike that, Counsel? You can’t think of a way to use that brilliant move in front of a jury?” he said, the word brilliant soaked in sarcasm.
Walter smiled. “Withdrawn.”
“Indeed,” the judge said.
By forcing the witness to focus on the defendant, Brandon had basically tubed his own case. Now, even if the surfer dude did identify the defendant, Schoenfeld would be able to tell the jury that the witness had been strong-armed into it.
The judge’s tone had been relatively mild, given his notorious distaste for all counsel. I figured he must have a soft spot for Walter. Judge Foster was a big man, six feet three barefoot and about 270 pounds. As smart as he was impatient, he didn’t need a microphone to be heard in court. When an attorney got on his nerves—a more than daily occurrence—you could hear it in the cafeteria, five floors below. I’d always liked him because, although he was a tough old bird, he was equally nasty to everyone. In my book, the perfect judge.
The witness did as he was told and looked straight at the defendant, who was so nervous I could hear him sweating.
“Nuh…uh, no,” the witness said in a thin, wobbly voice. “I seen him there, on the street, but I din’t see him stab nobody.”
“But isn’t it true that you told the police at the scene that this man,” Averill said, pointing to the defendant, “was the man who’d done the stabbing?”
The defense attorney was on his feet again. “Objection! Improper impeachment!”
But the judge waved him off. “Have a seat, Counsel. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. But let’s cut to the chase, shall we? It’s just a preliminary hearing. No sense pussyfooting around.” The judge turned to the witness. “Did you tell the police this was the man who did the stabbing? Yes or no?”
The witness rubbed his soul patch, clearly torn. “Well…uh. Not exactly…Your…uh…Your Worship.”
“Just a simple Your Honor will do,” Judge Foster said. “Then what did you tell the police?”
“I just said I seen the dude,” he said, turning toward the defendant, a man named Yamaguchi. “He was, like, nearby, you know? But I din’t ever say I saw him, like, stab nobody, you know?”
Brandon Averill was red-faced. “Wait a minute, you mean you’re denying that you pointed out this defendant at the scene and told the cop that you saw him stab that guy?”
“Yuh…uh, yeah,” the witness said, casting a furtive look at the defendant. “I’m denying it.”
Brandon turned back to counsel table and shuffled through some papers as the courtroom again fell silent, waiting. Judge Foster had just opened his mouth to tell the prosecutor something he undoubtedly wouldn’t be happy to hear when Averill produced a report with a flourish and marched up to the witness stand.
“Isn’t that your name?” he asked, pointing to the top of the page. “Charlie Fern?”
The witness mouthed the words quietly. “Uh, yeah.”
“Then read this statement aloud for us,” the prosecutor demanded, pointing to a line on the page.
“Objection! Hearsay! What the cop wrote on that report is hearsay!” Schoenfeld shouted, again on his feet.
“It is,” the judge agreed. “Sustained.”
Brandon Averill’s mouth opened and closed without sound like a netted fish’s while he tried to grab hold of a thought. “It’s not admitted for the truth of the matter. It’s…uh, well, it’s offered to prove the witness’s state of mind.”
“And this witness’s state of mind is in issue because…?” Judge Foster asked, his tone sarcastic. “He’s here to identify the defendant as the stabber, true or false?”
“True, Your Honor. But I—,” Averill began.
The judge cut him off.
“There is no but, Counsel.” The judge’s merely annoyed tone of a few minutes ago had given way to truly pissed off. Of all the judges in the building, Brandon had picked the worst one to hear a case this weak, this poorly prepared. The only things Judge Foster hated more than unprepared lawyers were cases that were too thin to be in court. He’d called the district attorney’s filing unit more than once to “order” them not to file cases that couldn’t make it past a preliminary hearing. If a case wasn’t even strong enough to show probable cause, which boiled down to the standard of “more likely than not,” then it shouldn’t be in court, wasting his time.
Now he turned to Brandon Averill, his bushy brows pulled down, his voice ominously low. “Your eyewitness has denied making the statement attributed to him by the officer. If you want to get that statement into evidence, you’ll have to call the officer. This gentleman”—the judge gestured to Charlie Fern, who’d probably never been called that before in his life—“does not seem inclined to go along with the program.”
I could see the skin around Brandon Averill’s collar turn red. “Can I have a moment to call the investigating officer, Your Honor?”
“You may have exactly one minute, Counsel,” Judge Foster said, his voice beginning to rise. “In the meantime, I presume we’re finished with this witness? That is, unless defense counsel would like to try and change his mind?”
“No, thank you,” Walter Schoenfeld quickly replied. “No questions, Your Honor.”
The judge turned to Charlie Fern. “You’re excused, sir.”
Sir. I had a feeling this was yet another first for the redoubtable Mr. Fern.
I saw the bailiff, clerk, and court reporter brace themselves, having recognized the signs of an imminent eruption. Ordinarily I would’ve felt codependently nervous for the prosecutor, but Brandon Averill’s cavalier attitude had me actively rooting for an ass-kicking. I sat tall and suppressed a smile. How often in life do you get to see the right foot meet the right ass at kicking time?
Brandon walked quickly out of the courtroom, and when the door swung shut behind him, the entire place fell silent. Everyone looked away from the bench; eye contact might invite the judge to find a new focus for his palpably growing ire. Walter turned and whispered to his client, and the other waiting lawyers huddled and spoke softly among themselves. One minute ticked by, then two.
“Bailiff,” the judge intoned loudly, “please go and fetch our prosecutor.”
“Yes, Your Honor,” the bailiff said.
“And if he hesitates,” the judge added, “shoot to kill.”
The bailiff was smiling as he walked down the aisle, his rubber soles squeaking on the linoleum. Seconds later, he returned with Brandon in tow. The prosecutor was not smiling.
“Your Honor,” Brandon said, out of breath, “I need a recess to locate the officer.”
“No, Counsel, you may not have a recess,” the judge’s voice boomed.
The looks on the faces of Clerk Manny and the court reporter told me the festivities had begun. Manny grabbed the water glass he kept on the shelf above his desk, and the court reporter’s expression hardened as she prepared her fingers for flight.
“As you know very well, Counsel, the defense has a right to a continuous preliminary hearing. Do you see all these lawyers lined up here?” the judge shouted in his thunderous baritone.
Averill nodded. I noticed the tips of his ears redden, matching the skin above his shirt collar.
The judge continued, “I’ll be damned if I make an entire calendar cool its heels while you figure out where your witnesses are!”
Brandon touched the knot of his tie like a condemned man fingering his noose. “Perhaps the defense will waive the right to a continuous preliminary hearing so the court can take up the next case while I locate my witness?”
“Oh, indeed?” the judge replied acidly. “Let’s find out, shall we?” He turned to the defense. “Counsel, do you waive your right to a continuous preliminary hearing?”
“No, Your Honor,” said the attorney. “The defense does not waive.”
“Shocking,” the judge said. “Any other bright ideas, Mr. Prosecutor? Or, better yet, any other witnesses? Some incriminating evidence for a change?”
“I don’t have any other witnesses, Judge,” Brandon said, trying to regain his cool with a nonchalant shrug.
“I suppose so.”
“I have a motion, Your Honor,” Schoenfeld said, beginning to rise.
“Don’t bother, Counsel,” the judge said, signaling him to sit down.
The judge banged his gavel and barked, “Dismissed.”
The spectators gave a collective gasp, then erupted in a buzz that built and rolled through the courtroom. The dismissal of a homicide wasn’t a typical day for even the most seasoned courtroom veterans.
The defendant, a wiry, lean, young Asian male with black shoulder-length hair, sat quietly at first, absorbing the shock. Then, all of a sudden, it seemed to hit him like a thunderclap. He thumped his fist on the table, the clanking of his waist-to-handcuff chains underscoring the gesture, and turned to his lawyer. “I told you! I told you it wasn’t me!”
Judge Foster gave another loud rap of his gavel, stopping the defendant in mid–fist pump. “This is a court of law, not a sports bar!” he thundered. “Get your client under control immediately, or I’ll do it for you!”
Walter grabbed Yamaguchi by the arm and whispered through gritted teeth. I couldn’t hear what he said, but it worked. The defendant folded his hands on the table and sat quietly.
Legally speaking, the dismissal was well justified. But it rankled. Maybe this defendant really wasn’t the guy. And maybe I would’ve let it go at that if it hadn’t been for the “I could give a shit” look on Brandon’s face. Because maybe it was him, and the murderer was about to walk out of that courtroom and away from this victim for no good reason—just like everyone else had walked away while he bled out on the sidewalk.
I couldn’t just sit there and let it happen. For Cletus, and for all the others who wound up on the periphery of an overpopulated, uncaring world, I had to do something. I quickly moved up the aisle and walked over to Brandon.
“What the hell?” I whispered heatedly. “Where’s your cop? Did you subpoena him?”
Brandon glared at me wordlessly for a moment. “Of course I subpoenaed his ass,” he shot back.
“Then tell the court you’re going to refile so they don’t let this guy out,” I said as I watched the bailiff take the defendant back into the holding tank.
By law, the prosecution can refile a case that gets dismissed at the preliminary hearing, and we usually do if it’s been dismissed just because a witness didn’t show up. But the sheriffs don’t have bed space to waste. If Brandon didn’t tell them he intended to refile, the defendant would be released.
“You’re never going to find this defendant again,” I said heatedly. “He’ll be in the wind the minute they open the gate.”
Averill threw the last report into his file. “Tell me, since when does a Special Trials hotshot give a shit about some homeless guy?”
“Tell me, since when did it matter whether a victim drove a Mercedes or a shopping cart?” I fired back.
“Maybe since the ‘victim,’” he said, making air quotes—which I hate almost as much as I detest snotty prosecutors—“had just grabbed a lady and was probably going to rob her.”
“Based on the fact that he was found holding a box cutter, and surprisingly we didn’t find any packing tape nearby.”
“But surprisingly he’s the only one who’s dead, and if someone killed him in self-defense, then how come they’re not around to say so?”
“You’re so fired up about this dog, why don’t you refile?” he said with a smirk. “Be nice to see one of you Special Trials hotshots get down in the muck with the rest of us.”
If he hadn’t been such a huge jerk, I might’ve taken a moment to think about whether there was any hope for this case. But as it was, he’d pissed me off so royally on so many levels that I didn’t pause for a second. I grabbed the file out of his hand and turned to the judge.
“Excuse me, Your Honor,” I said, loud enough to break through the courtroom chatter. “I’d like to notify the court that the People will be refiling the case of”—I paused to look at the file—“People versus Ronald Yamaguchi.”
Judge Foster raised an eyebrow. “I had no idea the Special Trials deputies were in the business of trolling for cases. Must be my lucky day,” he said dryly. “Deputy Stevenson,” he said, addressing the bailiff, “tell your folks not to rush. It appears Mr. Yamaguchi will be staying with us a little longer.”
The bailiff nodded and picked up the phone on his desk.
“And I have the next case, Your Honor,” I said, setting down the murder book—the binder cops put together that holds all the reports on a murder case—on counsel table with a heavy thump.
“You ready?” the judge asked.
“I am,” I replied.
“But I’m not, Your Honor. Sam Zucker for the defendant.” He was a really young, slick-haired type in a chocolate-brown pin-striped suit that said wowee-look-at-me-I’m-a-lawyer. “I’m standing in for Newt Hamilton, who’s got the flu. We’ll be asking for two weeks—or more if the People want.”
Since Newt Hamilton had been privately retained, I had the feeling the onset of his “flu” might be related to the defendant’s lack of cash. I knew the judge wouldn’t force a stand-in to go forward on a murder case, so I didn’t bother to object. We quickly picked a new date, and as the judge called the next case, I saw a detective come barreling in, his eyes on fire and his jaw working sideways. He headed straight for the clerk’s desk.
“Detective Stoner, investigating officer on the Yamaguchi case.” He pulled out his badge and handed Manny his card. “I just heard the case got dismissed,” he said, his voice tight with barely restrained fury.
Manny, who’d had enough fury for one day, quickly pointed to me. “Yeah, but she’s refiling.”
Thanks, Manny. The detective turned to look at me, steam blowing out of his ears. I motioned for him to meet me out in the hallway and braced myself for the nuclear blast. He nodded curtly, turned on his heel, and headed for the door in rapid, angry strides. Although I was closer to the exit, he moved so fast he got there ten steps ahead of me.
I found the detective out in the hallway and walked over to introduce myself. “Hi, I’m Rachel Knight. Guess I’ll be handling the case—,” I began.
The detective turned toward me, but before he could respond, his attention was drawn to a point over my left shoulder. His eyes narrowed and his chest filled. “Excuse me,” he said roughly, and marched past me.
I turned to see where he was headed, and there was Brandon, sauntering out of the snack bar, carrying—what else?—a cinnamon-covered latte.
Detective Stoner flew at him like a heat-seeking missile. “Why the hell didn’t you give me a subpoena for the uniform?”
Brandon had enough sense to blanch, but not enough to back down. He took exactly one second to find his voice. “I did. I sent it over. You just never picked it up. You blew it, Stoner, so don’t try to blame me for your fuckup.”
“You never sent anything over, you dumb punk! And I can prove it! The subpoena records show nothing was ever issued for the uniform!”
“Yeah? And who controls those records?” Brandon said in a grating voice that’d probably set people’s teeth grinding since he was in kindergarten. “Oh, that’s right, you guys.”
Everyone has a breaking point. Brandon had just found Stoner’s.
The detective pulled back his right fist with a vengeance that would’ve knocked Brandon into his next life if he hadn’t flinched just in time. The potentially lethal blow glanced off Brandon’s left shoulder. Even so, the force was enough to send him and his latte flying. Stoner’s momentum carried him forward, knocking them both to the floor. The detective seized the opportunity to land a solid punch to the kidney.
Brandon managed a strangled “Help!”
I wasn’t strong enough to break up the fight if I’d wanted to—though I admit I didn’t mind having an excuse to stand by and let Averill get what he so richly deserved. But there were about twenty cops standing around at the time who were more than capable of taking control. They gave Stoner at least a solid minute before stepping in. I made a mental note to get all of their names. I wanted to personally write them thank-you cards.
It took three of them to pull Stoner off, and when they yanked Brandon to his feet, still dripping with the remains of his latte, he couldn’t straighten up. But did that stop him from yapping? Holding his side with one hand and the wall with another, he went off: “I want that asshole arrested! He attacked me! You all saw it!”
We glanced at one another blankly. Nobody moved. Stoner looked Brandon over with hooded eyes, then, cool as a cucumber, flipped open his cell phone and called for the paramedics.
After they’d carted Brandon off to get checked for any possible major damage, I turned to Stoner.
“Want to try again?” I said, extending my hand. “I’m Rachel Knight.”
“Stoner,” he said, taking it and giving it a firm shake.
“No first name?”
“None I want to share,” he said flatly.
“You really going to refile?” he asked as he straightened his sports jacket and adjusted his tie.
I paused. Common sense was beginning to enter the picture. “You really think it’s a righteous case?”
“We got blood on the defendant’s sleeve,” he replied. “No lab results yet, but it looks good so far.”
Meaning: enough to keep the case alive and see what else pans out. But I had one big question before I took the plunge.
“What about that box cutter? You think our victim was about to mug someone?”
Stoner shrugged. “It’s possible. You know, cut the purse straps and run.”
My expression must’ve shown my reservations. Stoner went on, “I know what you’re thinking. It looks like a possible self-defense case. Tell you the truth, I would’ve been willing to let this one go as a manslaughter, if the suspect had said the guy threatened him.”
“The defendant didn’t say he’d been attacked?” I asked.
“Nope. Claimed he wasn’t there when the victim got stabbed.”
It was classic. Suspects generally don’t get nailed by confessing. They get nailed by saying something provably false. Like claiming they’d never been in a house after their fingerprints were found all over the place.
“But your eyewitness backed up on you big-time,” I pointed out. Translation: maybe this defendant is telling the truth.
“Our eyewitness is a little sketchy,” he admitted.
I nodded, but if the only eyewitness was sketchy—and from what I saw, that description seemed accurate—that didn’t leave much to rely on. Again, Stoner read my expression.
“Look, I’m one hundred percent aware that we’re going to need a lot more,” he said. “Just give me the time to get it.”
“And if you don’t?”
“Then I’ll be the first to say, let it go.”
They always say that. Maybe no-first-name Stoner was one of the few who meant it.
But I knew that if I didn’t refile the case now, it might never see the light of day. A victim with a box cutter looked bad, but neither the defendant nor anyone else had claimed that the victim tried to attack them, which told me this probably wasn’t a self-defense killing. If so, our homeless man was a real murder victim. I didn’t know much about the case, but I knew one thing for sure: he didn’t deserve to die nameless and abandoned on a dirty stretch of concrete.
“I’ll go put the paperwork through,” I said.
“I’ll make sure the defendant stays in pocket.” Stoner turned to go, then stopped. “I may not be able to keep the case if that DA makes a stink about this. So…thanks,” he said. “In case I don’t get the chance to tell you later.”
“Glad to help,” I replied. “And thank you too. On behalf of those who didn’t get to see you in action.” I had a feeling there were many who would’ve danced in the streets if they’d witnessed Stoner bitch-slapping Brandon.
The detective nodded.
It took the better part of the morning for Sabrina to go from head-turningly gorgeous to invisible functionary, but the success of her efforts was undeniable. No one noticed the woman in the dull brown pantsuit with the flat-colored hair that lay in a low bun against her neck. She moved around the edges of the cocktail-wielding guests in tentative steps, blinking rapidly, nervously pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. A timid little mud bird, so inconsequential that even the security at the door hadn’t given her credentials more than a fleeting glance.
Not that the others around her exactly glittered. It was a low-key-looking bunch: pearls and tastefully small diamonds, navy blue and black, pumps and wing tips. But a word from any one of the men and several of the women in that room could shake Wall Street and rattle the NASDAQ. And, in fact, they had.
Sabrina was unaccompanied, but she was not alone. Now and then, she’d duck her head and offer a twitch of a smile to a man or woman passing by. They weren’t friends. Every single one of them worked for her. Sabrina moved from the fringes of one group to another, watching each individual with a fierce, penetrating intensity. That gaze would have been disturbing had it not been effectively masked by frequent sips from her drink—water disguised as vodka—and fidgeting with her glasses. Sabrina could “watch” like no other—it was one of the many unusual arrows in her quiver that made her the best at what she did. With the patience of a sniper, she surreptitiously tracked every nod, turn of the head, and gesture made by the key figures, but she made sure to take in the more peripheral figures as well: noting who spoke to whom, who leaned in closely to whisper, who left with whom. In that time, she’d seen what no one else would ever have noticed…and then some.
Finally, she signaled to a waiter (another of her employees), put her half-empty glass on his tray, and—shoulders hunched, head tilted obsequiously—approached the circle of suits surrounding the congressman, a tall, slender man whose blond head hovered above the crowd.
A lull in the conversation gave her an opening. “Congressman, it’s an honor to meet you.” She extended her hand. “Sabrina McCullough. I was wondering whether you intend to oppose the cap and trade bill?”
The congressman glanced at her, then turned a warm smile on the circle surrounding him. “That’s a complex bill. I never like to form any final conclusions until I’ve had the chance to consider all of the possible ramifications. But I’d love to hear what you gentlemen think of it.” Dismissing Sabrina completely, the congressman put his hand on the shoulder of a solid man with heavy jowls that swayed with every turn of his head. “Senator Beasley?”
Sabrina nodded, though she knew he wasn’t looking and didn’t care. Frankly, neither did she. She’d made the necessary contact with her target. Her employees, especially Chase, had pointed out the danger of these encounters, insisted they weren’t worth the risk. But Sabrina said that the personal contact, however brief, gave her unique insight. The truth that she didn’t admit, even to herself, was she craved the adrenaline rush of physical proximity to her targets—it was an addiction, not a choice.
Sabrina waited to find out if the congressman would say anything of interest. But after the senator “fumphed” his nonreply regarding the cap and trade bill, someone changed the subject to the congressman’s upcoming vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, which set him off on a journey of boring reminiscences about his boyhood summers on the Cape. Sabrina slowly melted out of the room. On her way down the stairs—she avoided elevators, which threatened tight proximity with too many eyes, not to mention the close-up security cameras—she took off her glasses and, masking her movements from any unseen surveillance, removed a small item from the frame. Just before stepping out into the lobby, she put on her sunglasses. One of the valets came to attention, and when she nodded, he ran to get her car. His tip came wrapped around Sabrina’s microcamera—which he quickly pocketed. Sabrina never traveled with anything that could be traced back to her job. The valet would send his intel about all of the guests, along with the camera, by a well-established secure route.
The next morning dawned bright and warm. Sabrina tossed her carry-on into the backseat and tilted her face up to the sun. Winter in Miami—there was nothing like it. Even California didn’t have it this good. She started the engine, pushed the button to roll back the convertible roof, and sped off to the airport, her long black hair a darkly glowing streamer in the wind.
She pulled out her cell phone and hit the number 1.
“ ’Lo?” Chase answered, his voice thick with sleep.
She’d forgotten she was three hours ahead, but she didn’t care. An early start wouldn’t kill him. “I’m done here.”
“When do we have to deliver?”
Silence. Chase always got nervous with tight deadlines. But she knew he worked best under pressure.
“You find our friend yet?” she asked.
“No. But we know he’s not in any of the hospitals.”
“You saw him go down? You’re sure?”
“There’s no doubt,” Chase replied.
Sabrina nodded to herself. So far, so good. As long as he stayed down.
Paperwork in hand, I headed to the clerk’s office and got lucky to find Rosario, one of the more efficient filers, on duty. She let me in behind the counter, where I’d be able to avoid the usual obnoxiously long lines. Then I got even luckier and ran into Toni LaCollier—fellow denizen of the Special Trials Unit and one of my two “besties.”
I gave her the lowdown on my eventful morning.
“Girl, trouble and you are like white girls and Justin Bieber—one always chasing the other,” Toni said, shaking her head.
“Kind of like black girls and Usher?”
“We don’t have to chase,” Toni sniffed. “We just have to slow down.” She looked around and lowered her voice. “But, seriously, you need to watch out for that little tool, Brandon.”
“You know him?”
“I know of him.” The clerk passed Toni the complaint for her case—the initial charging document—and she signed it.
“From?” I asked.
Judge J. D. Morgan was Toni’s on-again, off-again boyfriend. Perfectly suited for each other, they had all the bad and the good things in common. Since both were commitment-phobic, this meant that one or the other would inevitably back away after they’d been together for any length of time. And once they’d been apart for a while, one would eventually sidle up to the other. They were currently in one of their “on” phases.
“He tried a case in front of J.D.,” Toni said. “According to him, the guy was a showboat—without the boat.”
“That fits,” I replied. “And he’s got a big hard-on for Special Trials.”
“Want to know why?” she asked.
“No,” I replied.
Toni ignored me. “Guess who’s his boss and big angel in the office?”
“No clue,” I said, shaking my head.
“Phil Hemet,” Toni replied.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said, stricken. “The idiot who lost the only case he ever tried?” I fished through my memory. “A caught-inside-the-car joyriding case.”
“A genius he ain’t,” Toni agreed. “But he’s a world-class brownnoser.”
“Right. Got promoted to director of central operations at one point, didn’t he?”
“Yeah,” Toni snorted. “And on his way up, he headed Special Trials for about five minutes.”
“Thank God we weren’t around for that. But how did they let a fool like that run a unit like Special Trials?”
“How do they do anything around here?”
The clerk pushed the complaint for my case over to me, and I stopped to sign it.
“I will tell you this, though,” Toni said. “I heard that the deputies in the unit gave him endless shit. Refused to talk to him about their cases, never listened to a word he said, and if he called a meeting, no one would show. They’d all say they had to be in court.” Toni recounted the story with relish.
“Sounds like good, responsible lawyering on their part,” I replied.
“Most definitely,” Toni agreed. “But you know who demoted his ass?”
I shook my head.
“Your buddy, District Attorney Vanderhorn,” she said.
“Nooo!” I replied, truly shocked.
Toni held up her hand. “If I’m lyin’, I’m flyin’. ”
Vanderhorn and I were like oil and water. He thought I was insubordinate and unpredictable. I thought he was a boneheaded politico with no legal skills whatsoever. On any given day, we could both be right. But apparently he’d had a rare fit of good judgment where Hemet was concerned.
“Well, you know what they say…”
“Yeah, I do, so spare me,” Toni said, knowing what was coming.
I continued, undaunted. “Even a clock that’s broken is right twice a day.”
Toni walked out ahead of me, muttering to herself—something about gagging.
I knew the defense would jam me into the earliest possible date for the preliminary hearing, which meant I wouldn’t have much time to pull everything together. From what I’d heard in court, and the flimsiness of the file in my hand, there was still a lot of work to do, not the least of which was to figure out who my victim, currently listed as “John Doe,” was. So I turned down Toni’s offer to hit Little Tokyo for a sushi lunch and grabbed a no-guilt turkey-and-lettuce sandwich to eat at my desk while I worked.
By the time I settled in and spread out the file, the eighteenth floor was largely deserted. Quiet and empty, just the way I liked it. I shoved the murder book onto the table next to the window and tried not to look at the teetering pile of other murder books and case files that were starting to impinge on my treasured ninety-degree view. I opened the bottom drawer of my desk, dropped my purse on top of the bottle of Glenlivet, and propped my feet up on the edge of the drawer.
I flipped open the slender file. My John Doe had been walking north on Hope—insert irony here—between Fourth and Fifth Street, when he lunged out and grabbed a woman’s arm. They struggled for a moment, and that’s where the narrative got murky. Either she broke free and then the victim fell to the ground, or he fell to the ground and then she got loose. The report quoted witness Charlie Fern as saying that the defendant, Ronald Yamaguchi, was standing right next to John Doe, so he had to have done the stabbing, though Fern hadn’t exactly seen it.
It was an interesting twist on what Fern had said in court. Not so much a contradiction as a difference in emphasis. The gap was right there in plain sight: he “hadn’t exactly seen” the stabbing. Why he’d shaved down his statement in court was anybody’s guess. Taking the oath can make witnesses nervous, but it was equally possible that Fern had exaggerated what he’d seen when he’d spoken to the cops. Regardless, the statement itself gave fair warning of a possible problem, and a prosecutor who was paying attention would’ve noticed that and either taken some time to interview Fern before the prelim or at least anticipated a possible snag on the witness stand. In other words, if “I could give a shit” Brandon Averill had been doing his job instead of his hair, he would’ve made sure the cop who took that report had his butt firmly planted in the seat next to him before he even thought about announcing “ready” in court.
As a general rule, I don’t like to second-guess fellow deputies. No one but the trial deputy really knows what’s going on, and sometimes his smartest moves are the ones he doesn’t make. But there was no benefit of the doubt to be given here. Not after what I’d seen in the report. I had no doubt that Stoner was telling the truth and Averill had forgotten to issue the subpoena.
So how had Fern fingered Yamaguchi for the police in the first place if, as Fern claimed, he didn’t know Yamaguchi?
I quickly paged over to the arrest report. Apparently Yamaguchi had been in the crowd of gawkers who’d gathered when the police had finally been called to the scene. Charlie’d noticed him there and pointed him out. Odd. Why would Yamaguchi return to the scene when he’d gotten away free and clear? Then again, he wouldn’t be the first defendant to get off on watching the police work the crime scene he’d created.
And who was our John Doe, who lay alone and ignored on a filthy sidewalk while his life seeped away? I imagined a mother looking down at her newborn’s face, full of hopes and dreams.
I pushed aside the depressing thought and refocused on the report. John Doe’d had a box cutter in his pocket, and he’d grabbed that woman. It was possible the killer had stabbed John Doe in response to a threat. But if it wasn’t a self-defense killing, then I owed it to John Doe to make his murderer pay, or at least to give it a fair try.
The crime scene was just a short hike from the office and only a few blocks away from my home—a suite at the Biltmore Hotel, a grand historical landmark in the heart of downtown L.A. I’d been lucky enough to score a sweet deal as a long-term resident after getting a sentence of life without parole for the murderer of the CEO’s wife. Recently, the CEO had upgraded me to a suite with two bedrooms, claiming it wasn’t getting much use anyway. I’d been a little reluctant to be on the receiving end of even more of his generosity. But when he continued to insist, I caved in. It did make sense that my old room, being smaller and more affordable, was easier to book.
I picked up the phone and punched in Bailey’s number. Being at a crime scene always gives me a firsthand feeling for how everything went down—gives me ideas about where to look and what to look for. And it always helps to have the benefit of Bailey’s discerning eye.
“Detective Keller, please,” I said.
I gazed out at my view of downtown Los Angeles. Having a window office had thrilled me from the moment I’d landed here, in my dream job as a prosecutor in the Special Trials Unit. I made it a point to enjoy the spectacular view every day, no matter what else was going on. The wind was still wreaking havoc with skirts, hats, and hair. A young couple in jackets that were way too thin for the wintry cold shivered and clung to each other as they waited to cross Spring Street. An older woman—who’d unfortunately chosen to wear a wide skirt—awkwardly walked with one hand pressed to her thigh as she hugged the shoulder strap of her purse with the other hand. Behind her a teenage boy mugged for his friends, pretending to be Marilyn Monroe in the famous skirt-blowing scene. He pressed his hands to the legs of his jeans and puckered his mouth as the others snickered. Yeah, I thought, you try walking downhill in a skirt and heels in this wind, smart-ass.
My call was put through.
“Knight here. Want to walk a crime scene?”
“John Doe stabbing?”
How the hell…?
“It’s all over the station, Knight. But how’d you wind up with this case? It’s not exactly Special Trials material.”
“The guy who had the case was a useless sack—”
“Who was gonna dump it, so you got pissed off and grabbed it. And, now that you’re in this thing up to your ears, it turns out the case is a dog.” Bailey sighed. “You know, I get your whole ‘justice for all’ thing. What I don’t get is why it means I have to be roped in.”
As if Bailey—or Toni, for that matter—was all that different from me. This wasn’t just a nine-to-five job for any of us. But given Bailey’s current attitude, not to mention the fact that she was right about the case being a dog, I decided now was not the best time to point that out. “Because you’ll get to give me hell about my lack of impulse control?”
“I can do that anyway, and besides, I’m in the middle of a report…”
I saw that I’d have to up the ante. “I’ll give you the blow-by-blow on what happened in—and out of—court.”
Bailey exhaled. “Where’s the scene?”
The lure of gossip. It seldom fails. I told her.
“Meet you in ten,” she said, and hung up.
It gets tiresome the way Bailey goes on and on.
I called Melia, the unit secretary, and told her I’d be going out to a crime scene. Then I pulled on my coat, reached into the pocket for my .22 Beretta, flipped off the safety, and headed out.
I found Bailey standing at the corner of Hope and Fourth Street, her short sandy-blond hair barely ruffled by the heavy wind. Only the tall and lean Bailey could pull off a midcalf-length camel-hair coat. The day was cold enough to make even the weatherproof detective wrap a scarf around her neck, and its jewel-toned colors brought out the green in her eyes. If she weren’t one of my besties, I’d hate her guts.
“According to the report,” I said by way of greeting, “our John Doe was slightly more than halfway between Fourth and Fifth when they found him.”
We headed toward the spot.
“I didn’t leave my cozy cubby just to walk a scene with you. What the hell happened in court?”
I filled her in.
“Jeez,” she said with a sigh when I’d finished. “Poor Stoner. He’s had it rough lately.”
“So you know him?”
“We worked together in Hollywood Division a while back. Really good guy, and a great cop.”
“So I should believe him when he says he won’t give me grief if the case goes south?” I asked.
Bailey hesitated. This did not reassure me.
“What?” I asked impatiently.
“Yeah, he’ll probably be okay,” she said, then stopped and looked off down the street. “It’s just that he’s going through a real bitch of a divorce. It’s got him a little…unhinged. Otherwise he never would’ve gone off on some dumb-punk DA, no matter what he said.” Bailey put her hands into her pockets and looked at the ground for a moment. “But you did him a solid—pulled his case out of the Dumpster. I’d think you’d be bulletproof where he’s concerned.”
I didn’t care for the choice of words, reminding me as it did that if Stoner lost it, I might literally need to be bulletproof.
A group of men in business suits who were trying to navigate the sidewalk and talk at the same time created a moving roadblock, so I stepped to the curb to avoid a collision. They never even broke stride or seemed to notice that they’d commandeered the sidewalk. They’d probably walked around my John Doe with equal oblivion.
“Anyway, it may all be moot,” Bailey continued. “If that DDA beefs Stoner, they’ll make him ride a desk until it all gets sorted out.”
“So who’ll I get?”
“Depends on who’s up.” Bailey shrugged, then gave me a little smile. “But I’d take the hit and work with you for Stoner’s sake.”
Bailey and I had met and bonded over a serial-killer case we’d worked together six years ago. We’d wound up becoming best friends and had finagled our way into working more than our fair share of cases together. But then Bailey got transferred into the elite Robbery-Homicide Division, and we didn’t need to finagle anymore. It was common practice for Robbery-Homicide to funnel nearly all of their cases to the Special Trials Unit.
Bailey thought a moment. “I could probably get clearance to babysit the case until Stoner’s beef is settled. That should be long enough to at least get it through the preliminary hearing.”
“Yeah, and I’ll bet no one’s going to fight to get their hands on this one.”
“True story.” Bailey sighed and shot me a sour look. “Seriously, Knight, would it kill you to get me in on an easy one for a change?”
“Apparently,” I said with a shrug. I did seem to have a habit of sticking us with some of the nastier messes. “You want to call Stoner and let him know we’re out here?”
“Probably be the smart thing to do.”
Bailey opened her cell, and I looked around at the businesses on this stretch of Hope Street: a travel agency advertising low-fare tickets to Costa Rica, a dry cleaner whose window afforded a view of racks filled with men’s dress shirts, a bank, a liquor store, and a Subway sandwich shop. I watched a man in a flannel lumberjack coat bite into a thick, juicy meatball-and-cheese submarine and remembered that I’d been too angry to finish my wafer-thin turkey-and-lettuce sandwich. I felt my stomach rumble as I watched the tomato sauce drip onto the paper wrapper he’d spread on the table. I was just about to throw caution to the wind and go order one for myself when Bailey snapped her phone shut. Her expression was grim.
“What? Is he pissed?” I asked. Maybe we should’ve gotten his okay before invading his turf.
“Apparently that asshole, Averill, already beefed him. Stoner’s gonna be stuck at his desk for a while.” Bailey shook her head. “The good news is, he’s glad to have me help out. For now anyway.”
This had clearly put Bailey in one funky mood, but since there was no chance she’d get a whole lot happier in the next hour or so, I decided the only thing to do was to roll on with the business at hand.
“Most of these places have surveillance cameras, don’t they?” I asked.
“They should.” Bailey looked up and down the street for a moment, then stopped and gazed at a storefront near the northwest corner of Hope and Fifth. “Especially that one.”
I followed her gaze and saw that there was a check-cashing store across the street. I hadn’t noticed it before, because the sign was so small. I figured that was a testament to the business’s popularity. I peered at the building and thought I could see a camera mounted above the storefront window.
It was the start of rush hour, and traffic was beginning to get serious, so we walked up to the corner and waited for the light. Between the commuters in a hurry to beat the bottlenecks and the homicidal taxi drivers, jaywalking was tantamount to a death wish.
“Wouldn’t you think Stoner would’ve done this already?” I asked.
“Maybe he did and just didn’t have the video in time for court.”
“Or maybe he got it and it didn’t help,” I said.
Bailey nodded. Neither of us voiced the third possibility: that Stoner had dropped the ball because his life was falling apart. That was definitely not Bailey’s style. Or mine. We were great at what shrinks call compartmentalizing. Frankly, I think being able to keep your worlds separate is a great thing. Keeps me sane. Or close to it.
As check-cashing places go, it was relatively discreet. Just a cursive neon sign in the window to let people know they could get fleeced in exchange for a fast return. We entered the small store and walked up to the counter, where an older Asian man with wire-rimmed glasses and a few strands of comb-over hair sat on a high stool behind a cash register.
Bailey flashed her badge. “LAPD, homicide investigation. I’d like to speak to the manager.”
He calmly inspected the badge and glanced at Bailey to match the photograph, then sat back. “First time I see detective as good-looking as you,” he said, his speech accented but very intelligible. He seemed appreciative in a completely nonlascivious way. “What can I do for you, ma’am?”
“Does your surveillance camera pick up a view of the street?” Bailey asked.
“Of course,” the man replied. “You talking about the day that homeless guy died?”
We both nodded.
“I hear he lay there long time before someone call,” the man said, shaking his head. “Sad business, very sad.”
I was glad to find someone who seemed to get that.
“You have exact date when it happened?” he asked. “Camera record on a loop. After so long, record over itself.”
“It was twelve days ago,” I said. Please don’t let it be a ten-day loop.
He smiled. “You in luck. It’s fourteen-day loop.”
He called out, and an older woman in thick-soled rubber shoes and polyester pants and blouse shuffled out from the back of the store.
“Show them tape for twelve days ago,” he ordered her.
The man let us behind the counter, and we entered a back room so cluttered it looked like it was occupied by hoarders. Literally every single square inch of space was covered with layers of paper of all kinds: invoices, newspapers, dry-cleaner trade magazines. The woman gestured for us to follow her to a tiny office at the back. It had only a computer and monitor on a small desk, which was handy because that’s all there was room for.
She punched some keys and asked us for the date and time. We gave it to her, and then she punched some more keys and sat back to let us watch.
The black-and-white images didn’t allow us to discern any details, only gross movements. But we could clearly see John Doe reach for a woman in dark sunglasses who was walking in front of him. She spun toward him at first, then recoiled and tried to pull away. Seconds later, John Doe’s arm fell, and the woman broke free. John Doe watched her for a moment, then sank down and dropped out of the frame. By that time, the woman was out of sight.
“So that’s when he got stabbed,” I said. “But it doesn’t show the stabber.”
“Because our John Doe’s body was blocking him from view—at least from the angle this camera had.”
“And I couldn’t see what that woman did just before he went down, could you?”
“No,” Bailey replied. She tapped the screen. “Would you mind replaying it for us?”
We watched again. “Look,” I said, pointing to the monitor. “He grabs her, she stops, then somehow she gets free and turns away. But he’s still standing.”
“Right,” Bailey agreed. “So he got stabbed after he let go of her.”
“Could you please rewind a little and freeze it?” I asked.
I watched again as the homeless man grabbed the woman’s forearm. At the moment the woman pulled away, I told the shopkeeper to freeze the picture.
I pointed to the screen, which showed John Doe still on his feet. “Makes it hard to believe that the stabber was just trying to protect her,” I remarked.
“Though not impossible,” Bailey said. “We need to find some surveillance footage from another angle.”
“Ideally, one that shows the stabber,” I agreed. “And it’d be good to find this woman. She had to have seen something.”
“Right,” Bailey replied.
“So why’d she split without reporting?” I asked.
Bailey shook her head.
We continued watching. Our John Doe dropped out of frame. Pedestrians walked by. Eventually a man stopped and looked down at the spot where John Doe had fallen, then walked on. Some minutes later, a young girl aimed her iPhone at the same spot, then continued down the street. Other passersby parted around an unseen obstacle, then rejoined and kept moving. I winced as, one by one, each of them walked right past my John Doe, most without so much as a second glance.
According to the time counter, John Doe lay on the ground for two and a half hours before the police arrived.
Chase sauntered into her office and dropped the flash drive on her desk with fake nonchalance. “We’ve got him,” he said with a superior smile.
Sabrina flashed him a skeptical look. “We’ll see,” she replied. She didn’t really doubt him, though. Chase wasn’t a braggart. Tenacious and whip-smart, he had an almost perfect track record. Which was why she’d brought him in as her right-hand man. Well, that, and the fact that she’d always trusted him more than anyone else in the world. Though what that meant was somewhat murky, since she trusted no one else at all. Sabrina waited as Chase flopped down into the cushy sofa to the right of her desk and pulled off his “cover”—a wig and fake glasses. Sabrina wasn’t usually a fan of disguises. Too often, they screamed “costume,” which only managed to draw more attention. But she was forced to admit that for Chase, there was no other option. His long nose, piercing black eyes fringed by insanely long lashes, and thick curling brown hair presented a combination distinctive enough to make an impression on even a marginally observant witness.
“I take it my intel was good, then?” she asked.
“I don’t know how you do it, but it’s the best.”
Sabrina plugged in the flash drive, then picked up the remote and pressed a button. The floor-to-ceiling metallic shades moved quietly across the wall of windows and shut out the afternoon sun. Now the only light in the cavernous office came from the glow of the cobalt-blue buttons on the remote in her hand.
She swiveled her chair to face the wall on the right and pressed another button. A flat screen descended and locked into place at eye level. Sabrina hit play, and the image of an empty bedroom filled the screen in gray scale. The colors were so muted, it was difficult to make out what was in the room. She adjusted the contrast for maximum definition, and the outline of a bed, a dresser with a television set, and two nightstands—typical hotel furniture—came into view. Seconds later, a man in his sixties—in slacks and shirtsleeves, his expensive suit jacket slung over one shoulder—entered, loosening his tie. He tossed his jacket onto a chair in the corner, lumbered over to the king-size bed, and sat down heavily, hands hanging loosely between his thighs. Sabrina smirked. The man was obviously more than a few drinks into his good time. He rubbed his face, then looked around the room. Sabrina hit pause and peered over at Chase.
“Can you enhance this? I don’t want there to be any doubt.”
“Yeah, of course. But, trust me, there won’t be.”
Sabrina turned back to the screen and continued the footage. The man went over to the minibar and pulled out two small bottles of champagne and two flutes. The door of the mini-fridge closed with a thunk, and when he set down the glasses, the clink gave a clear treble tinkle. Sabrina noted the clarity of the sound, pleased. A knock came at the door, and the man went to answer it. The visitor moved past him into the room and stopped dramatically at the foot of the bed.
She was tall and slender, with waist-length blond hair, and dressed in a classic trench coat cinched with a knotted belt. When she spoke, her words nearly boomed from the speakers in the silent room. “Pour the champagne, darling. We don’t have all day.”
The man obeyed, and the visitor undid the belt and dropped the coat to the floor to reveal a black sequined bustier and black fishnet stockings. She strutted over to the man. They clinked glasses and drank, and the man reached out with one hand and began to caress her breasts.
She drained her glass, sat down on the bed, and leaned back on her elbows, letting her hair cascade down her back. “Bring me any prezzies?”
“Just this,” the man said, brandishing a clear baggie holding what looked like three grams of white powder.
“For the girl who has everything.” She took the bag, dipped in a long plastic fingernail, and scooped out a nice little mound.
Sabrina hit pause, freezing the image of the woman holding a healthy snort of cocaine on her nail.
“Congressman Rankin, you dog,” Sabrina said to the screen. “Or should I say bitch?” She gave a low chuckle. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was fake.”
“I couldn’t fake it, man. Who could ever dream up stuff this crazy?”
There was that. A transvestite and a coker. And married with children. The rank, arrogant stupidity of it all was incredible, almost laughable. “Bless their pointed little heads—and Adam’s apples,” Sabrina remarked with a smirk.
“It was touch and go for a minute there. I lost him after the lunch break—somehow he melted into the crowd and got away from me. I panicked at first, but then I spotted his boyfriend there”—Chase gestured to the man on the screen—“the one you singled out in Miami. He was leaving the restaurant, so I followed him.”
“And the rest, as they say, is history.”
Chase gave a modest shrug.
Sabrina paused, then frowned. “How’d you get the camera in?”
“My old standby, the maintenance-man rig. Told the front desk I had to inspect the wiring and suggested they could give him a drink while he waited. They’ll never check the maintenance logs. I mean, who’s gonna complain?” Chase snickered.
Sabrina gestured to the flat screen. “I assume our lovebirds ‘get down’ after this?”
Chase’s features twisted sourly. “You don’t want to see it.” He turned to the screen. “But the picture’s good enough, right? And the sound. Couldn’t be better, right?”
Sabrina nodded. “We got him.”
“So when do we get paid?”
By the time Bailey and I thanked our store manager for his help and stepped out onto the sidewalk, lacy cirrus clouds had spread across the sky, covering the sun and causing the temperature to drop. I shivered inside my peacoat and looked longingly across the street at the Subway sandwich shop.
“You hungry?” Bailey asked, seeing the focus of my gaze.
“Kinda, yeah,” I said, though I knew it wasn’t just because my stomach was empty. I needed some comfort food. This case was making me feel sad and lonely.
“I’m with you,” she said.
We headed back across the street and walked in. I’d just begun to read the menu on the wall behind the counter when I saw a familiar face.
I nudged Bailey. “That’s the eyewit, the guy who pissed backward on the stand today,” I whispered. His long, stringy hair was thankfully imprisoned by a hairnet, but there was no mistaking the face with that scraggly soul patch.
Bailey smiled. “Some things were meant to be, weren’t they?” she whispered back. “What’s the name again?”
I told her.
Bailey moved up to the counter and smoothly whipped out her badge. “Charlie Fern? We need to take a few moments of your time. If you don’t mind.”
Not that we cared if he did mind. It just sounded more genteel to say it like that.
“Oh!” he said, his eyes widening at the sight of the shield. “Uh, okay. Uh, sure. I’ve got a break coming up in about five minutes. That okay?”
“That’ll be just fine,” Bailey replied. “We’ll be right over there.” She pointed to a table against the wall.
Charlie nodded. We ordered our sandwiches from the young Latina standing next to him—a pastrami six-inch for Bailey, and a vegetarian six-inch, no mayo, for me. I vowed that after a couple of weeks at the gym, I’d be back to answer the siren song of the meatball and cheese.
I was about two surprisingly tasty bites into my sandwich when I saw Charlie lean in and say something to the woman at the register. She nodded, and he waved to Bailey and me and signaled that he’d be right out. He began to untie his apron as he turned and moved toward the kitchen.
I set down my sandwich and saw Bailey do the same. There was no need for discussion. Bailey and I jumped out of our seats and ran. Seconds later, we screeched to a halt at the side of the building—just as Charlie Fern burst through the back door. Bailey reached out, swiftly snatched a fistful of his T-shirt collar, and gave it a firm backward yank.
She held on to his shirt and shook her head. “Dumb, really dumb.” She looked at him with annoyance. “You made me leave my sandwich.”
I contributed a tsk-tsk of disapproval. “You know, Charlie, it really hurts our feelings when witnesses dodge us like that.”
Charlie’s eyes darted between me and Bailey so rapidly I thought he was going to give himself a seizure. His voice came out in a squeak. “Look, man, I told the cops I din’t see who stabbed the dude!”
“That’s not how the cop remembered it,” I said. “So let’s hear the whole truth and nothing but. Did Yamaguchi do the stabbing or not?”
Charlie was breathing hard, and I could see he was facing a personal conundrum. Though I had a pretty good idea what it was, I decided to wait and see if he’d pop it out himself. We all stood there in silence for a few moments as Charlie weighed his options.
Finally he gave up, and his whole body drooped. Unfortunately, since Bailey still had a firm grip on his collar, this meant that the neck of his shirt dug into his throat, slightly strangling him.
Alarmed, he squeaked, “Okay! Let go and I’ll explain.”
Bailey looked at him impassively and didn’t move.
“Please,” he said beseechingly. “I promise I won’t run.”
Bailey gave him a stern look as she moved her hand from his collar to his forearm.
“Ever had a broken arm?” she asked.
“N-no.” Charlie looked at her warily.
“Hurts like a son of a bitch.”
He nodded and cleared his throat. “I’m on probation for receiving stolen property,” Charlie said. “But I wasn’t guilty. I tol’ my public defender, man. That stereo receiver was mine. That ass…uh…guy, stiffed me, so I just went and took it back. My dump truck of a PD said to just take the deal. I was scared of going to jail, so I did. I never shoulda listened.” Charlie still looked aggrieved.
I wasn’t buying the dump-truck story. My experience with public defenders, which was considerable, was that they’d happily fight a case that had any shot at all of winning. I’d bet good money our little Charlie was a thief. But I did buy the part about him being on probation.
“You’re dealing out of here, and you got nervous about the cops watching your action, so you told them what you thought they wanted to hear,” I said flatly.
Charlie gave me a wounded look. “No!”
Which meant yes.
“And you’re in trouble with your PO,” I said, sounding as bored as I felt.
I hate the predictable. Which, I guess, is one of the reasons I love my job.
Charlie sniffed. “It was a bullshit deal. I got caught with a little weed. But my PO said if I screwed up again, he’d violate me.”
“So you figured you’d earn brownie points with the cops. That way, they’d leave you alone and maybe even help you out with your PO if you just happened to get unlucky enough to get busted again,” I said.
Charlie nodded glumly. “I’m totally screwed now, aren’t I? You’re gonna bust me for lyin’ .”
Bailey sighed. “Just give us the truth, Charlie. No more bullshit. What’d you really see?”
“I really did see that dude—whasisname? Yamashiro or something—”
“That’s a restaurant, Charlie,” I corrected with a sigh. “I take it you mean the defendant who was in court?”
“Yeah, him. He was there just before the homeless dude went down.”
“You mean the victim?” I couldn’t stand hearing one more person call him the homeless guy.
“Yuh, uh, yeah, the victim,” Charlie said nervously.
“How close was Yamaguchi to the victim when you saw him?”
“Real close, like from me to her,” he said, gesturing to Bailey, who was about seven inches away and still holding his arm.
He looked from his limb to Bailey, who ignored his silent entreaty and held fast.
“Was he still that close when the victim went down?” I asked.
“That’s the part I don’t know,” Charlie replied, shaking his head.
Of course he didn’t. That was the part that mattered most. “Try to picture how it happened,” I said.
Charlie stared at a spot on the pavement and played out the images in his memory. “I seen the victim reach for that lady, then I saw the Yamashiro dude there—”
I didn’t want to, but I had to stop him and ask, “And at that point, what was the lady doing?”
“I think she was moving away—”
“Are you sure?” Bailey asked.
“Yeah, pretty sure,” Charlie replied, forehead wrinkled with the effort of replaying the incident.
“So the victim wasn’t holding on to her anymore,” I said.
“No, couldn’ta been,” he answered, nodding to himself. “ ’Cuz she was moving, and the homeless—uh, I mean the victim was still standing there. That, I’m sure about.”
“And did you notice where the Yamashiro guy was at that point?” I asked. Having scored a major victory with victim instead of homeless guy, I decided to give up on the defendant’s name.
“No. He mighta still been there, but I just din’t see. Next time I saw him was after the cops came. He was standing with all the looky-loos, watching ’em do their thing.”
“Can you describe the lady?” I asked.
“About so high.” Charlie put his hand at chin level.
I estimated that would mean she was about five feet seven without factoring in what kind of heels she’d been wearing. So I guessed maybe five feet five or less.
“All I could see was long black hair, big sunglasses.” Charlie paused and frowned, then shrugged. “It happened really fast, you know?”
Unfortunately, we really did. Bailey took his contact information and we thanked him for his time and generous cooperation. The sarcasm was wasted on our little doper buddy, who rubbed his arm, cast a wary glance at Bailey, and said, “You’re welcome, man.”
We’d turned and gone just five steps when Charlie called out to us. “Hey, wait! If that dude Yamashiro gets out, can I get some protection or something?”
“What for?” Bailey asked. “He’s going to know you’re the one who told us you never saw him do it. He’ll probably send you roses. Besides, he’s no gangbanger, Charlie. If he skates, the only one he’s liable to go after is the city of Los Angeles. Make himself some money,” Bailey said flatly.
Charlie stroked his chin. “Yeah. Guess you’re right.”
He waved, we waved, and he walked back inside the sandwich shop.
“If this case gets any thinner it’ll fly away,” I remarked. “I’d like to get ahold of the arresting officer. Find out how the defendant reacted when they popped him.”
A defendant’s reaction to the news of his arrest could tell you a lot. I’d had a case where a drug dealer had tied up his four rivals, put pillowcases over their heads, and then stabbed them all repeatedly. When the cops went to arrest him, he’d earnestly stated, “It was self-defense.” Granted, it doesn’t usually get that good, but inspirational tales like those keep the fires of hope burning.
I’d checked the paperwork before I left the office. “Arresting cop is Hank Aronofsky.”
Bailey pulled out her phone.
“He’s on patrol,” she said as she ended the call. “He’ll meet us at the Wells Fargo building at Second and Grand.”
“You want to get your car?” I asked hopefully. It was an uphill hike for some long blocks, and I was wearing three-inch heels.
“No,” Bailey said. “I don’t want the hassle of parking.”
“Since when did you start worrying about parking?” Cops do not have the cares and woes the rest of us mere mortals do when it comes to tickets and towing.
Bailey glanced at my shoes and sighed. “Fine, let’s go.”
We threaded our way through the briskly moving horde of office workers who were heading for their cars and trains, and finally arrived at the Police Administration Building, where we picked up Bailey’s car. Minutes later, we pulled up behind a patrol car that was parked in front of the Wells Fargo building. Officer Aronofsky, whose uniform hung loosely on his wiry frame, met us on the sidewalk, and we all shook hands. I got down to business quickly.
“What’d you say when you first approached him?” I asked.
“Just that I wanted to talk to him about what he might’ve seen,” the officer replied.
Smart move. Aronofsky hadn’t given the suspect any hints. He’d just given him rope.
“You already knew the vic had a box cutter?” Bailey asked.
“Yeah. So I figured he might claim self-defense or defense of someone else. And if he did…” The officer shrugged.
Bailey and I nodded. The case would have ended with a manslaughter—at most.
“But he never said a word about the box cutter,” Aronofsky continued. “Just said he saw the vic grab that lady’s arm, so he pushed the vic off her and walked away—”
“Which didn’t jibe with what your eyewit said,” I remarked.
“Correct. So I told him he needed to come clean about what happened. But he just kept saying he’d told me the truth, he never stabbed anyone, yadda yadda. That’s when I noticed the blood on his sleeve.”
Excerpted from Guilt by Degrees by Clark, Marcia Copyright © 2012 by Clark, Marcia. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted May 19, 2012
GUILT BY DEGREES by Marcia Clark is an interesting crime thriller/fiction. D.A. Rachel Knight returns with another fast paced thriller. See,”Guilty By Association”,but “Guilt By Degrees” can be read as a stand alone. Ride through the L.A. court system with Rachel Knight. Full of murder,secrets,and romance with harrowing suspense and witty banter. Come on a ride with Rachel as she and Detective Baily Keller locate a killer and work through the L.A. court system. A sit on the edge of your seat thriller. A nail biting story from the first page to the last. A not to miss thriller/mystery. Received for an honest review from the publisher.Details can be found at Mulholland Books,the authors website, and My Book Addiction and More.
HEAT RATING: Mild: Mild detailed scenes of intimacy,mild violence or profanity
REVIEWED BY: AprilR, My Book Addiction and More
8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 15, 2012
Guilt by Degrees was a well-written entertaining mystery. When I started the book I wasn't sure I would like it as I had not read anything by Ms. Clark, but it was a very good read. DA Rachel Knight takes over a case from another prosecutor who could.not care less about the case and so it would not be dismissed. Rachel is a member of the Special Trials Unit a department that is highly criticized due to the fact that they get all the high profile cases. She also has issues in her personal life from childhood. Her boyfriend Graden, does a background check and learns her secret and her two friends Bailey and Toni help her with the investigation. Rachel and company get shot at,beat up and were involved in a traffic accident meant to kill. This was a wonderfully developed story and I loved the way the characters were created. I highly recommend this book.
Thanks to Little,Brown and Company and Net Galley.
4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 25, 2012
Really a terrific read. The characters come to life, flaws and all. They are exciting women with a
tough job to do. Very exciting from start to finish. The romance factor doesn't hurt at all.
I sincerely hope that Marcia Clark continues to write. I thought that this was a very, very good read. I'd recommend this book to everyone.
3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 28, 2012
I Also Recommend:
Rachel Knight has been successfully running from the ghosts of the past that haunt her every day. She is at the top of her legal game in the Los Angeles DA’s office, but still holds back when it comes to her personal life even with her best friends. When Rachel picks up a case that every other lawyer wanted to kick to the curb, the unexpected drawback is the tragic memories she kept under control would come back. Rachel has to take control of her emotions and her life. Right now, every ounce of her inner strength is being called up to keep her from jumping off the emotional deep end.
When Rachel took on the case to find the murderer of a homeless man, her fellow lawyers in the DA’s office dismiss her. The timeline for results is short so she pulls in her friends on the police force and together they walk through what on the surface appears to be a random murder on the streets of Los Angeles but in reality is anything but that. Rachel digs deep to get answers and when they start popping even Rachel is shocked by the turn of events and the undercurrent that is pulling her toward terrifying results. The heartless crime that drove the start of all this him to this life is even more disturbing than anything Rachel has ever reviewed.
Then the tide turns completely against Rachel and every demon that has ever knocked on her subconscious comes barging through the door Rachel knows she will finish this case but at what cost. It no longer is a game to find out what happened to someone else as much as it is keeping herself out of the morgue and when evil is looking for you is there any place you can hide?
Marcia Clark writes stories that are filled with mesmerizing details, characters you relate to, and an abundance of unbelievable plot diversity. Ms. Clark knows how to give the reader a proper balance of startling information added to take your breath away revelations.
2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 8, 2012
Marcia Clark has written a very enjoyable and absorbing book. She makes her main character a person the reader can easily relate to. This book is as good as her first one and I hope she contines to write books on a subject that she knows so well.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 6, 2013
If you enjoy chicklit legal mysteries set in L. A. with likeable if stereotyped protagonists a la those typically made for tv, this is for you. In fact, it is remarkable that CBS, ABC, NBC, or Fox haven't picked it up for a possible season or two.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 7, 2012
I thought this book would be a novelty because of Marcia Clark and OJ. But imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a really great story! Kept me turning pages to find out what happens next. And the humor kept me smiling all the way throigh. I highly recommend this book!
Posted October 18, 2012
Posted September 16, 2012
I admit I hesitated when saw OJ's DA as the author, but this was a great read. Ms. Clark is a great writer. The characters' banter is realistic - not a bunch of legalese. The story is a real page turner, with a twist at the end; a hint that another case is in the future.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 8, 2012
Posted September 7, 2012
Posted September 5, 2012
I'm a voracious reader, but this is the first Marcia Clark book I've read. It will likely be my last. It seems as though she is writing for teens; at the very least it is condescending. The prose and dialogue are sophomoric and awkward, (for instance, what adult woman calls her close friends her "besties"?) I'm glad it was a daily special or I would really regret the expense.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 5, 2012
Posted September 5, 2012
Posted September 5, 2012
Posted September 5, 2012
Love the courtroom appeal of these books and will definitely get more by Marcia Clark. She didn't disappoint with her writing style...easy read and kept me invested in the story!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 5, 2012
i always liked marcia clark, and was excited to read her book. but it was choppy, and i could tell she was writing it from too much experience in the field. it would have been better had she written it with a real writer, as the plot was good.
but there were some important ends not cleaned up. like, what happened to the baby? omg. she left that one out.
Posted September 5, 2012
The bare story was intriguing -- if you could get past the restaurant tour of Los Angeles. But the most frustrating thing was the fact there was no ending. Only one of the four main story lines had resolution -- and it was a weak resolution at best. Don't waste your money or your time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 5, 2012
Posted September 5, 2012