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"Your Honor, the State strongly objects to the release of this convicted felon. Counsel from Release Initiative has produced inconclusive DNA results." Gwen looked at the defense table to her left. Her nemesis, defense attorney Aaron Zimmerman, wore a rumpled wool-tweed blazer despite the summer heat. In the years she'd known him, he'd rotated through several hideous jackets at court appearances. She didn't think he owned a suit, even though she'd recently made him laugh out loud by suggesting the name of a local tailor. She suppressed a sigh at what a cheerful mess he always seemed to be.
"Is defense counsel prepared to provide expert witness testimony on what these DNA tests mean?" Judge Tanner asked.
Aaron rose from his chair in that lazy, catlike way he had. "I am, Your Honor. Our expert witness will testify to reasonable doubt in the culpability of James Edward Conner, given there's only a forty percent chance the DNA is his."
"Your Honor" Gwen began, but the judge slashed his hand in the air. She'd been about to remind the court that eye witnesses in the original case had placed the convict at the scene.
"I'll hear your expert witness, Counselor, tomorrow morning at eight o'clock but this better not be a waste of time," Judge Tanner pronounced. Then he hammered his gavel to conclude the session.
Gwen's shoulders sagged ever so slightly as she gathered her files. She didn't need to add another appearance to her already overloaded schedule. And John Fry, Chief of Criminal Appeals for the Maryland Attorney General, would not be happy that she'd been unable to make this one go away. Her boss took a dim view of wasting time on the endless efforts of certain organizations to get ostensibly innocent criminals out of prison. She didn't like it much herself. Release Initiative, Inc., was one of their least favorite.
"Ms. Haverty, may I speak with you?" She looked up into the gray-green eyes of Aaron Zimmerman, counsel for that particular nonprofit.
"We need to prepare for this afternoon's depositions." Her colleague Logan Brown was being protective, certain she wouldn't want to talk with Aaron. He was right.
"It's about another case," the defense attorney said. "If we could discuss a few details over coffee across the street, I'm hoping we can conclude at least one case quickly."
She eyed him, amused and wary at the same time. Was he seducing her into a private meeting with the promise of an easy conclusion or extorting the time out of her with the threat of another drawn-out court battle? This invitation was a first, so she couldn't be sure. Aaron had seemed direct and sincere when they'd worked against each other in the past, but she'd been fooled by menparticularly male attorneysbefore.
Her experiences forced her to suspect he was manipulating her in some hidden way.
"If you have hard evidence of a wrongful conviction, the State Attorney's Office will cooperate in the release of the incarcerated individual," she recited coolly. "Produce the evidence and there won't be a drawn-out court battle. We don't need to chat over coffee to make that happen."
He smiled at her, which seemed as inappropriate as his attire. "C'mon. Please? It won't take long and you'll see why we need to talk when you hear the situation. And everyone needs a coffee break now and then."
She almost laughed. But then he looked past her as Logan opened his mouth to protest again. "I promise I'll have her back in time for the deposition," Aaron said.
He made it seem as though she required Logan's permission to have coffee. She couldn't let her young and sometimes overly protective colleague believe he had anything to say about her activities. As manipulations went, Aaron's ploy was stunning. And effective. She had to admire that.
To Logan she said, "You can get started on the prep. I'll only be a few minutes with Mr. Zimmerman. I'll meet you back at the office." She touched Logan's sleeve to indicate her appreciation and to assure him she'd be okay with the Release Initiative attorney. Logan went all hurt-puppy on her anyway, but then he nodded and resumed packing his briefcase.
To Zimmerman she said, "I'll meet you at the Starbucks in five minutes and then I'll give you ten. If you need more than that, you'll have to schedule a meeting."
He put his hand theatrically over his heart and vowed that he'd be eternally grateful. He backed away, holding her gaze with his ever-amused eyes. At the door, he saluted jauntily and disappeared. This time, a small grin escaped her, despite her best efforts.
"He's such an asshole," Logan said. "You don't have to listen to whatever he wants to say."
"Actually, I do," she said. "Once in a while his organization finds someone deserving of the help they offer. Prosecutors are all about fairness and justice, right? We don't want people in prison if they shouldn't be there."
"Ha! Tell that to the boss," he said. "And you know as well as I do that ninety-nine percent of Release Initiative's clients are hardened criminals. They're all supposed to be in prison."
She looked at Logan, sorry he was already jaded. "You haven't been at this job long enough to be quite so cynical."
He grinned. "I've had a good teacher, so I caught on quicker than most."
She sighed at the truth of that. She'd certainly been an excellent role model in cynicism. There was no denying she shared her supervisor's belief that the clients of Aaron's nonprofit legal-aid organization were mostly guilty of something.
"Nevertheless," she said, "the public needs to have confidence in our impartiality on each individual case. So I'll listen to what he has to say at the coffee shop. If it's his usual nonsense, I'll soon be back helping you with the preparations."
"Waste of time, if you ask me, but we have to go through the motions, I suppose." He picked up his briefcase and headed for the door.
Gwen watched him go. Alone in the courtroom now, she glanced around the space. She'd always loved the sense of impending truth that permeated an empty hall of justice. Too bad a populated courtroom lost that noble ambience courtesy of the human propensity to lie. She sighed again and wondered how Zimmerman managed to stay so positive. Maybe it was because his job was to get people out of prison while hers was to put them in. And keep them there.
She picked up her purse and briefcase and headed into the stream of people in the hallway outside the courtroom. She would give Zimmerman a few minutes of her time and maybe, just maybe, he'd have some reliable evidence that would allow her the rare pleasure of helping to return an innocent person to freedom.
As she left the building, the Baltimore summer enveloped her in humid heat. In seconds, the blouse beneath her suit jacket became damp with sweat. But she didn't take it off. It was important to be professional at all times, and wearing a well-made suitthe uniform of a state's attorneywas part of that, especially when going to meet opposing counsel. Besides, the Starbucks was within sight. The air-conditioning inside would seem frigid by comparison.
Sure enough, the place was downright chilly once she crossed the threshold. Zimmerman had secured a table and waved when he saw her. He waited while she got a latte from the barista. She hadn't had lunch and eyed the cookies and scones, but decided she didn't want to be eating in front of Zimmerman while they talked business. Taking her drink, she sat across from him.
"The clock is ticking," she said as she took her Black-Berry from her purse and placed it on the table where she could see the time.
He raised an eyebrow, withdrew his identical unit from an interior pocket and set it across from hers. It was as if they'd laid down their respective six-shooters as a sign of truce. She almost laughed, but sobered when she realized he'd intended to amuse her.
"Talk," she commanded.
"Are you always so tense?" he asked without any hint that he might be making fun of her. "I know your job is stressful, but I hope you can let yourself relax now and then."
She squinted at him. "Is this what you wanted to discuss?"
He quickly suppressed a smile. "So there's this young man, Omar Kingston. He was convicted of armed bank robbery, but he didn't do it."
She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "You say that about all your clients. You and the other lawyers at Release Initiative have devoted your lives to getting people out of prison on the premise that they didn't do it. Too bad it's seldom true."
His gaze took on an intensity she'd rarely seen in him before. "It's true this time. One of the witnesses is recanting her testimonythe eye-witness testimony that got him convicted."
"That doesn't mean he didn't do it." She delivered this truth as gently as she could. Zimmerman worked hard for his clients and it wasn't his fault most of them didn't deserve his help.
He sat back in his chair. "I didn't have you pegged as one of those prosecutors who figure that even if someone has been wrongly convicted, they surely must have committed some crime or other, so they ought to be in prison anyway and we can let 'em rot."
It was her turn to lift an eyebrow. "I'm not. I don't think that." Or at least she told herself she shouldn't think that way. "The justice system wouldn't work very well if we got to put criminals away on the easiest charge to prove to a jury, regardless of the actual crime," she added. But she also recalled Logan's cynicism and her role in making him that way. And then there was her boss, John Fry, who believed with all his heart that public safety required them to keep all convicted criminals behind bars without the right to endless appeals at taxpayer expense.
Aaron's shoulders relaxed. "Okay. That's good. My faith in your fairness is restored. So I'm hoping you'll come hear what the witness has to say and join me in a motion to release. She's dying in a hospice center."
"You know I don't have the authority to make that decision on the spot."
He nodded. "But you could work your awesome skills of persuasion to get Counselor Fry to agree."
She couldn't detect any note of sarcasm laced through the compliment, but she suspected it was there. While she had no doubt that her skills were awesome, she couldn't imagine her opponent sincerely agreeing with that assessment. "Send me the details and I'll get back to you. But we may have to let the judge decide this."
She reached for her BlackBerry, but he put his hand over it.
"Give yourself permission to drink your latte," he said softly. "I swear it won't ruin your career to be seen talking to me."
Gwen couldn't keep herself from stiffening and he immediately withdrew his hand. She sat still for a moment, considering her reaction. Maybe any suggestion to relax for a few minutes sounded like a wicked temptation after all the years of pushing herself to excel. On the other hand, it seemed vaguely ridiculous to dash out without taking so much as a sip of her drink.
She lifted the cup to her lips, and his gaze seemed to linger on her mouth. The heat of a blush spread over her cheeks as she wondered what he was thinkingor wanting. Her own focus drifted once more to note the changeable color of his eyes, sometimes green, sometimes gray.
She needed to say something distracting and found herself speaking before she knew what would come out. "As a nonprofit, Release Initiative can't possibly pay you enough. Yet you work very hard for people who are rarely innocent. Why do you do it?"
"So you do think my clients are the scum of the earth," he countered. "I'll have you know that our recidivism rate is the best in the nationvery few of our released clients commit new crimes."
She took another sip from her paper cup. "You believe they're decent, hardworking and upstanding citizens who were caught up in a corrupt justice system?"
He laughed. "No. They're usually pretty unproductive members of society. But every now and then, the ones who really deserve our help make my job worth every hour I put into it." He grinned. "Despite the paltry wage they pay me."
"You could come over from the dark side and join us in putting the bad guys out of business."
"Ha! You don't get paid all that well yourself, working for the State." He looked like he was about to say more, but his attention shifted past her.
"Hello, Gwendolyn," she heard. Suppressing a groan, she looked up to see her ex-husband standing behind her.
"What do you want?" she asked, pleased with her tone. Pointed but calm.
He ignored her and turned to Aaron. "J. Clayton Hav-erty, estate planning," he said as he held out his hand.
"You're Gwen's husband?" Aaron asked after introducing himself.
"Not anymore," Gwen muttered as she got to her feet so she could herd her ex away. She couldn't help but notice Clayton was wearing one of his power suits, probably Armani. Nothing but the best for Clay.
"Ex-husband now," Clayton said pleasantly, stepping back to give Gwen room. He switched his attention to Gwen and his voice took on a familiar chill, meaning he was annoyed with her. "I wanted to let you know I'll be taking Joshua to New York with me this weekend."
"No!" Gwen couldn't be calm about this. She clenched her fists at her sides. "Josh and I have tickets to see the Blue Man Group. He's waited a long time to go. You changed your visitation schedule so you could have him next weekend and we planned around that."
Clayton shrugged and smiled at Aaron like a conspirator. "Sorry to hear that, but it's my weekend to have Josh. I haven't seen him in two weeks. Now that I got my work trip postponed, a weekend in New York with his father needs to trump the Blue Man Group. Change your tickets to another night."