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"Ben, stop splashing around so much. You're scaring the fish."
"I'm trying to get this stupid hook out of the water."
"Use the reel, Ben. That's what it's there for."
After fumbling a few more moments, Ben Kincaid tightened the drag and began drawing in his line. Why, he asked himself for the millionth time, had he ever allowed Christina to talk him into a camp-out? As a legal assistant, she was first rate; as a travel agent, she had serious drawbacks.
So far, this sojourn to the Ouachitas had succeeded only as a demonstration of his incompetence as an outdoorsman. Ben didn't know the first thing about camping. To make matters worse, Christina did.
Christina waded across the waters and stood beside Ben. "I think I understand why you haven't caught any bass all morning."
"The fish don't appreciate my wit and charm?"
"No. You haven't got any bait on your hook. Très pathétique."
Ben checked the end of his line. Sure enough. Sharp eyes on that woman. "I thought you promised no French on this alleged vacation."
"That was during the drive from Tulsa. Now that I'm out in the wild, I can't be restrained. Joie de vivre!"
Ben continued reeling in his line, but it caught in a snarl. "I hate baiting the hook. Worms are so squishy and disgusting."
"Worms?" Christina propped her rod against the bank. "I've got some more bad news for you, mon ami. We're fly-fishing."
"Fly-fishing, huh?" Ben decided to bluff his way through. "Does that mean I'm supposed to bait my hook with a dead fly?"
"Not exactly, no." She suppressed her laughter as she untangled his line.
It hardly seemed fair that she should make fun. After all, this whole escapade had been her idea. One minute she was talking about a pleasant drive to soak up some Arkansas scenery; before he could say "Get a reality check," he was standing in Fulton Lake, deep in the Ouachita Mountains, in green hip-high waders. "You must think I look pretty silly, huh?"
"Oh, I don't know," Christina replied, trying to avoid eye contact. "Relatively silly, I guess. Not as silly as last night when you were trying to pitch your tent."
"Well, excuse me. We didn't pitch tents when I was growing up in Nichols Hills."
"That much was clear." Christina whirled her line in the air and delivered it expertly to the middle of the lake. "Assuming anyone from Nichols Hills ever went camping, they probably had servants follow them in RVs stocked with fine china and an assortment of exotic wines."
"Now wait a minute—"
"I think you've had enough fishing for one day, Ben. Let's get some grub."
After a concerted effort and about half a can of lighter fluid, Ben managed to get the campfire started. In fact, it blazed. Out of control. Christina had to throw dirt on the flames just to keep them inside the ring of stones that theoretically defined the campfire.
"Thanks for the assist," Ben said sheepishly, after the inferno was contained.
"No problem," Christina replied. "Stay away from the matches."
Christina had released all the fish she caught, and neither of them was particularly hungry for more canned beans, so they decided to settle for roasted marshmallows. Christina placed a white fluffy one on the end of her roasting stick and tossed the rest to Ben. "Bon appétit."
Ben sat beside the campfire and admired the scenery. The camp area was surrounded by tall, majestic loblolly pines. It had been a lovely summer day, and now the light of the setting sun trickled through the pine needles and cast a hazy glow over the lake and the hills. Even a confirmed city boy like Ben had to admit this was not bad.
After skillfully toasting a marshmallow to a deep golden brown, Christina removed her harmonica from its velvet case. "How about a sing-along? I can play 'Kum Bah Ya.'"
"Ugh," said Ben. "No thanks." Now that they were out of the water, he noticed how sharp Christina looked in her Banana Republic khaki shorts. If camping accomplished nothing else, it had at least distanced her from her usual dismal wardrobe.
"What's your problem? You love music."
"Music, yes. 'Kum Bah Ya,' no." Ben lowered his marshmallow over the flames of the campfire.
Christina brushed her long strawberry-blonde hair behind her shoulders. "What would you like to hear, then? I can't do the Ring Cycle on my harmonica."
"More's the pity."
"Would you settle for some Burl Ives? I can play 'Glow Little Glowworm.'"
"Thanks, no. Don't you know any French songs?"
"Like 'Que Sera Sera'?"
"I don't think so. How about some Bobby Darin tunes?"
"Bobby Darin tunes? Ben, no one plays Bobby Darin anymore."
"Of course they do. He was a genius. Ahk!" Ben yanked his stick back just after the marshmallow caught fire. "Rats. I hate it when it burns."
"You held it too close to the fire."
"I was distracted."
Christina smiled. "Miss the office?"
"No. That's all that prevents me from complaining about being impressed into this vacation. I don't miss the office."
"Not even Jones? Or Loving? You're his hero, you know."
Ben placed another marshmallow on the end of his stick. "It's always been my dream to be worshiped by a barrel-chested, two-hundred-and-fifty-pound gumshoe who considers eyeball gouging a form of gentle persuasion."
"What about Jones?"
"Jones and his typing and filing skills are marginal at best. On the other hand, he's never dragged me on a fly-fishing expedition."
Christina burrowed in the ice chest. "Giselle, then. You must miss your cat."
"Why? Is that a requirement for sensitive-guy status? Mrs. Marmelstein is looking after Giselle. She'll be fine."
Christina passed Ben a carton of chocolate milk. "You seem a tad grumpy this afternoon."
"Yeah, well, I wanted to go to Silver Dollar City." Ben plucked the sticky marshmallow from the end of his stick. It was underdone, but that was better than charred.
"Camping will be good for you," Christina said. "You need to get out more. Relax, unwind. Get in touch with nature."
"Aha! So this purported vacation is actually thinly disguised therapy. Part of your longrange plan to make me warm and cuddly."
Christina shrugged. "What are friends for?"
Ben's response was interrupted by the sound of a car backfiring. Someone was ascending the narrow dirt lane linking the main road to the campground.
"Any idea who that is?" Ben asked.
"Maybe Smokey the Bear, dropping by to lecture you on the dangers of excessive lighter fluid."
"Somehow I doubt it." Ben dropped his marshmallow stick. "Guess there's one way to find out."
Ben and Christina walked toward the edge of the campground. A red pickup stopped in front of them, a top-of-the-line number with mudgrip tires and a smoked-glass Western panorama on the rear window.
A thinnish man in blue jeans and flannel shirt stepped out of the driver's side and extended his hand. "My name's Harlan Payne. Are you Ben Kincaid?"
How on earth ...? "That would be me. This is Christina McCall."
"You're an attorney?"
"Yes. Why do you ask?" Ben suddenly realized he was still wearing his green waders. He yanked them off. "There. Now maybe I look a little more professional."
"Don't matter to me what you look like," Payne said. "You're from Tulsa?"
"Long way from home."
"Well, I like to get away from time to time." He ignored Christina's smirk.
"I've been looking for you all over the lake."
Now Ben was definitely intrigued. "How did you know I was here?"
"Sammy Dean told me."
"At the bait-and-tackle shop up the road a piece."
"Oh. Right." Christina had regaled the man at the bait-and-tackle with stories about Ben's courtroom prowess, most of them exaggerated vastly out of proportion to reality, while she selected lures and other fishing paraphernalia. "Why would Sammy Dean tell you about me?"
"Because I'm looking for a lawyer. To handle a case."
"Really?" Normally Ben would be less than thrilled to have someone offer him work in the middle of his vacation, but if it gave him an excuse to duck Christina's fly-casting tutelage for a few days ...
"Civil or criminal?" Ben asked.
"Criminal. You'd be representing the defendant."
"Great." Ben grinned. "What's the charge—fishing over the limit?"
"Not exactly." Payne stepped closer and looked Ben straight in the eyes. "It's murder. Gruesome, premeditated murder. In the first degree."CHAPTER 2
"Murder?" Ben had to pause a moment to recollect himself. "You committed a murder?"
"No, no. Of course not. I'm a lawyer, just like you. Well, not just like you." Payne fumbled for his wallet. "See? Here's my bar card."
Ben scrutinized the plastic card. Sure enough, Payne was a member in good standing of the Arkansas Bar. "Why don't you handle the case yourself?"
"I don't know diddly-squat about murder trials. I'm a probate lawyer. I draft wills for folks, take care of their estates—you know, pleasant, easygoing stuff. I was appointed to this case by the court because the defendant can't afford his own lawyer. And I don't know word one about criminal law."
"Ben does," Christina said, without missing a beat. "Ben's a murder-trial expert. He's handled dozens of big cases. He won one of the biggest, most controversial murder trials Tulsa has ever seen!"
Ben rolled his eyes. Good ol' Christina, his personal PR agent.
"That's what Sammy Dean was telling me," Payne said to Christina, as if Ben were a million miles away. "He must be a humdinger."
"If he weren't," Christina said, "I wouldn't be standing here. I'd be in a cell somewhere waiting for the Big Needle."
Payne's eyes glowed with admiration. "I've never been around one of you superstar litigators before."
"Now wait a minute," Ben said, edging Christina out of the way. "I'm no superstar. I've only been out of law school four years. I've handled a few criminal matters." He shot Christina a disapproving look. "Not dozens."
Payne appeared crestfallen. "Then you haven't handled murder trials?"
"Well, I have, but—"
Ben was interrupted by the impact of Christina's elbow in his ribs. "Pardonnez-moi. May I speak with you for a moment, Mr. Kincaid?"
Ben frowned. "Excuse me, Mr. Payne, while I confer with my legal assistant."
"A lady legal assistant. I reckon you are big-time. Sure, take as long as you need."
Christina and Ben strolled behind their two tents. "Okay," Ben said, "what's the big idea—"
"Listen up." She pressed her finger against his chest. "You may not care whether you make any money during the current fiscal year, but believe me, your staff does."
"I hardly think—"
"You are very lucky to have a loyal and dedicated staff—Jones, Loving, and best of all, me—who do not complain about the—how shall I say it?—erratic manner in which you pay us. I know getting a solo practice started is slow, hard work. But the fact remains, you haven't had a bona fide blue-ribbon case since you left the Apollo Consortium, and that's been many moons."
"Ben, be quiet. This case probably won't make us rich, but if the court is paying, at least we won't have to worry about collecting the fee. Plus, this is exactly the kind of exposure you need to attract big-time cases. So march over there and tell Mr. Payne you'll take the case."
It was clear to Ben that nothing other than blind obedience would be acceptable. "Yes, ma'am."
Payne was waiting patiently by his pickup. "After conferring with my staff," Ben said, "I've decided to consider taking the case."
"Great." Payne mopped his brow. "What a relief."
"I haven't agreed to represent him yet," Ben insisted, more for Christina's benefit than Payne's. "Where can I find the defendant?"
"At the city jail. I'll drive you into town."
"When can we do it?"
"The sooner the better. There's a pretrial conference set for half an hour from now."
There wasn't enough room in the cab of Payne's pickup for three people and Payne's extensive rifle collection, so Christina had to ride in the back. Normally Ben would've insisted that she ride up front; under the current circumstances, however, he thought it was only fitting.
The truck handled the winding mountain roads considerably better than Ben's aging Honda Accord had the day before. Ben had another opportunity to admire the Ouachita scenery: dogwood trees surrounded by brilliant yellow coreopsis.
The road swerved up and down and in and out as it wound through the Arkansas hills. Ben began to feel nauseated. The back roads were bad enough, and Payne's foot was heavy on the pedal. Ben assumed Payne was worried about making the conference.
"Are you sure it's safe to drive this fast?" Ben asked.
"Oh, yeah. These mudgrip wheels can handle anything. They could take twice this speed. I just don't want your girlfriend to fall out."
"Very thoughtful. By the way, she's not my girlfriend. She's a good friend, and coworker. But that's it."
"And you two ... coworkers are camping out together?"
"Boy, you metropolitan types play by a different set of rules. My wife wouldn't let me anywhere near a campground with another woman. Even if I were glued to my sleeping bag."
They descended from the mountains and followed a dirt road into Silver Springs. Ben had seen the town only briefly when he and Christina arrived. Most of the residences on the outskirts of Silver Springs had a decided Victorian flavor—bright colors and prominent gables. As they passed into the downtown business district the buildings became predominantly gray limestone. Ben spotted the bingo parlor, the mercantile store, and the five-and-dime, all constructed in a turn-of-the-century style.
It appeared to be a two-street town; Main intersected with Maple, and both streets extended three blocks in either direction. Ben spotted a small grocery, a hardware store, and a drugstore that looked like a relic from the Roosevelt administration. The Teddy Roosevelt administration.
Ben heard the low wail of a train in the distance; otherwise the town was still. The streetfront stores were closed. A small group of teenage boys in bib overalls sat on the tailgate of a parked pickup, sharing a six-pack. Another group of kids pitched pennies against the side of a broken-down filling station. The only real signs of activity came from a pool hall and a few bars. One in particular, the Bluebell Bar, had a row of pickups outside that stretched all the way down the block.
"The Bluebell looks like the local hot spot," Ben observed.
Payne grinned. "That's for certain. We're right on the outer edge of Reeves County, which is just about the only wet county between Fort Smith and Hot Springs. The good ol' boys get tanked up, then head home 'fore it gets too dark."
"After appointing a designated driver, I'm sure."
Ben noticed a restaurant offering OZARK BAR-B-Q. "We're a bit south of the Ozarks, aren't we?"
"Ozark barbecue describes a kind of cooking, not the place you get it. Like Mexican food. You don't have to be in Mexico to eat a burrito."
"See that auditorium over there?" Payne pointed at a flat limestone building at the crest of the next hill. "Bill Clinton once played with his high-school band in that very building. That was in 1963. They've got a plaque up there now."
A few minutes later Payne parked in front of the county sheriff's office. They went inside, where Ben was introduced to the local lawman.
Sheriff George Collier was a wiry man with a brown-and-gray-flecked mustache. He was wearing a western shirt, Levi's, and silver-tipped cowboy boots.
"You're out of uniform, Sheriff," Payne said jokingly.
"One of the perks of being the boss," he replied.
"My friend Ben is here to see your prisoner," Payne explained.
"That a fact? You'll be the first. Other than Mr. Payne, of course. When's this case going to trial, anyway?"
"Next week," Payne answered.
Ben did a double take.
"Good," Collier said. "I'll be glad to get him out of my cell."
"Has he been troublesome?" Ben asked.
"Naw. It's just a hell of a lot of work, keeping a prisoner. Bringing him meals, cleaning the toilet. I got bigger fish to fry."
Ben tried to appear sympathetic. As they spoke a man in a gray uniform entered from the back.
"Ben, this is Deputy Gustafson."
Ben extended his hand. "Nice to meet you."
"Ben is going to represent your prisoner," Payne explained. "Well, probably."
Gustafson withdrew his hand. "That so?"
"Well, I don't know," Ben said. "I haven't even met the man yet...."
"You'd best watch yourself," Gustafson said coolly. He waved them toward the back door.
Payne steered Ben and Christina through a wooden door to the iron-barred cells.
"What was that all about?" Ben asked.
Excerpted from Perfect Justice by William Bernhardt. Copyright © 1993 William Bernhardt. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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