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It was a lazy Friday afternoon, the kind of day that leads thoughts to hammocks and shade trees. Barbara Holloway stifled a yawn as she escorted her last client of the day at Martin's Restaurant to the door. August was always slow, and she had taken notes of four clients' complaints about neighbors, evil debt collectors, recalcitrantlandlords. She had caught up with Internet news, had her terrorist anxiety renewed, answered e-mails and was wishing that she had a shade tree and a hammock. She was looking forward to a dinner with friends and then a movie.
Now it was time to take down her Barbara Is In sign. "Don't worry," she said. "Guys like that turn into pussycats when authority hits them in the head. Sometimes the law can carry more punch than a bat." Her client, a thin young woman of twenty-one, with a three-year-old child and a one-year-old, looked relieved.
When Barbara opened the door she was surprised to see another woman standing by the steps. And she was not the sort of client who usually turned up at Martin's. Her hair was gray and beautifully styled, short with a bit of wave; her skin was lovely and unwrinkled. About sixty, trim, and well-dressed in a cream-colored linen skirt and silk shirt, wearing a gold chain and small gold earrings, she looked as if she could be the owner of the black Saab parked at the curb. It was as out of place here as she was. Martin had renovated a simple house, had torn down interior walls to make a dining room with six tables and six booths, and he cooked some of the best food to be found in Eugene, but Barbara doubted that the woman on the doorstep had ever driven through this neighborhood, much less considered eating here.
"Ms. Holloway, may I have a few minutes?" the woman asked.
It was ten minutes before five, and at five-thirty Martin liked to have the restaurant empty, in order for him and his wife Binnie to set the tables.
"Of course," Barbara said, moving aside. She took down her sign and motioned toward her table where Martin was picking up the carafe and cups. He paused a moment.
"Can I bring you something? Coffee, wine?"
Martin was big enough to fill a doorway and as black as night. A white beret was striking in contrast; it seemed to glow. And he never offered wine to her clients. He had sized up this woman as rapidly as Barbara had done.
"No, thanks," the woman said, seating herself.
Then, as Martin walked back to the kitchen, she turned to Barbara. "I know it's late and I'll be as succinct as I can. My name is Louise Braniff. I'm in the music department at the U of O, and I give private piano lessons to a few students. Also, I'm a member of a society of women. We call ourselves the Crones' Club, but officially we're the Benevolent Ladies Club. We sponsor various causes that we consider worthy. Sometimes surgery, sometimes a scholarship, or helping someone get a start in business, various things. All directed at girls or women. We want to retain you."
"To do what?"
"Defend Carol Frederick, who is accused of murdering Joe Wenzel."
Barbara studied her more closely. "Murder suspect comes under your definition of worthy cause? I think you'd better start a bit further back."
"Of course. How we choose our recipients is a starting place, I imagine. When one of us learns of a particular instance where a gift of cash would change a life, we meet and discuss it and investigate the person we're considering, and if we all agree, then one of us is chosen to make the proper arrangements. In this instance we decided that I should approach you since I was the one who proposed helping Carol Frederick originally."
She paused and gazed past Barbara as if gathering her thoughts, then continued. "One of my associates at the university told me about a young woman who was playing piano at a lounge here in town and insisted that I go hear her. Another member of our group and I went together. We had dinner in the adjoining restaurant and then sat in the lounge for most of one evening listening. She is a first-class pianist, gifted but untutored. She needs a bit of technical help. We took it up at our meeting and the other members arranged to go hear her play, and then we voted to assist her. What we proposed was to make it possible for her to go to Hamburg and study under the tutelage of Gustav Bremer. He is the master, and after a year under his guidance she could become a world-class pianist. I am convinced of that. I was chosen to make the arrangements, but before anything could be done, someone killed Joe Wenzel, and the following week, last week, she was arrested."
"Do you know her, anything about her? Or him? Wenzel?"
"No. None of us know her. Apparently she has been here in Eugene for no more than five or six weeks. I don't think any of our group ever met Joe Wenzel. I don't know whether she killed him, but that's beside the point. She needs the best defense possible and we agreed that you could provide it, not a public defender, who is overworked and understaffed. She, of course, has no money."
As Barbara continued to regard her thoughtfully, Louise Braniff opened her purse, withdrew a check and placed it on the table. "If you agree, there are certain conditions," she said.
"I thought there might be."
Louise Braniff nodded. "First, you won't try to find out who else is in our club. We prefer to remain anonymous. For tax purposes you are to give the Benevolent Ladies Club as the payer for your services. I am the only one you will ever contact, and then only if the retainer is not sufficient to cover your expenses and your fee. We understand that if she accepts a plea bargain, the expenses will be minimal, but if she continues to plead innocent and there is a full trial, the expenses will be much higher. In that case you will notify me and I will provide another cashier's check for whatever amount you name. And finally, Carol Frederick must never be told who her benefactors were, only that a group of people put together a defense fund for her."
"I see," Barbara said, although she didn't. "Why the secrecy? Why did you come here instead of using my real office? I assume you investigated me and know that I have an office."
"Yes, we know about your office. And some of us have followed your career for the past few years. We know about you. But my name is never to be associated with this any more than the names of any other members of our group. Not in your records, not in your files, nowhere. The only client you will have is Carol Frederick, and the Benevolent Ladies Club will be financially responsible. You won't report to me or anyone else except your client. We shall follow the case as it is reported in the newspapers, that's all."
Barbara glanced at the check then. Twenty-five thousand dollars. "I have to think about this," she said. "You must know how irregular it is, and for all I know you killed Joe Wenzel yourself, and in a fit of conscience you're trying to make amends to a wrongly accused woman." She spread her hands. "You do see my point."
"I do." Louise Braniff smiled. "And it's well taken. I have permission to give you one name for reference. Judge Barry Longner. But I warn you, that's all he will admit. We exist, and we help girls and women. You'll want my card, my address and phone number so you can verify my identity." She took a card from her purse and put it on the check.
"It will be her decision," Barbara said. "If she says no thanks, then what?"
"Send the check to that address, registered mail. That's all. If it isn't returned, we'll assume you've accepted our proposal and that you're working on this." She pushed back her chair. "But first, your word that you accept the conditions I outlined."
"No written receipt? No lawyer-client agreement? Not even made out to the Benevolent Ladies Club?"
"Just your word," Louise Braniff said. Her expression had remained almost bland, neutral, as if she were interested but not involved in the matter and now, for the first time, she leaned forward and watched Barbara intently.
After a moment Barbara nodded. "If she agrees and becomes my client, I'll honor your conditions."
Louise Braniff stood up, her expression once more that of an interested bystander. "Thank you, Ms. Holloway. Don't bother to see me out." She turned and walked to the door and left as Barbara remained by the table watching her.
Barbara sat down again wondering what Louise Braniff's stake in this case could possibly be when Martin came from the kitchen carrying two glasses of pale wine.
Barbara stirred herself. "Thanks, Martin, but she's gone."
"I know. I saw her leave. That's one classy lady. This is for you, and this one's for me. You look like you've walked into quicksand and haven't got a clue about how to get out."
Barbara took the glass he offered and sipped a very good chardonnay. "Martin, you're not only the world's greatest chef, you're also a very perceptive mind reader. That's exactly how I feel, as if I've blundered into quicksand."
"It's Dad's fault," she muttered later, sitting in her nice office, which Louise Braniff had bypassed. On returning to the office, she had learned that quite sensibly Shelley, her colleague, had left shortly after five, while Maria Velasquez, secretary to both of them, had pretended to be busy until Barbara got back. She seldom left until Barbara ordered her out.
After making notes about the clients who had consulted her in Martin's Restaurant and putting the check in her safe, Barbara sat at her desk thinking about Louise Braniff. Backtracking, she found the cause for her unease: For a moment she had seen past the neutral exterior on Louise Braniff's face to the intensity of her gaze, an almost rigid stiffness in her posture.
She would research Braniff and Wenzel, of course, but later. Now she mused about her conclusion that her acceptance of a case she believed to be hopeless was her father's fault.
First, in March his book on the art of cross-examination, years in the making, had finally been published. And he had thrown a party to celebrate. She had been his hostess. She recalled the expression on his face when she took off her coat and revealed her costume for the event: a long black velvet skirt, silky white cashmere sweater and the lovely necklace he had given her for Christmas. Sapphires and amethysts, it had been her mother's. For a moment he had gazed at her saying nothing, then embraced her, and she murmured, "She would have been so proud." Drawing back, he had nodded. "She would have been," he agreed, and she understood that his book was not uppermost in his mind.
Then the guests had started arriving, and among them had been Darren Halvord. She stared at him. "What are you doing here?"
"Invited," he said with a grin. "I called to congratulate your dad, and he invited me to his party. Do I get to come in?"
All evening, every time she glanced around, he had been there, chatting with a judge, in conversation with an attorney, laughing with Alex and Shelley, uncorking more wine, bringing in more hors d'oeuvres, talking seriously with Frank in the kitchen.
For the next months it had seemed to her that every time she turned around Darren was there, invited, coincidence, whatever, and she had realized with indignation that her father was scheming, playing matchmaker, for God's sake! And with Darren! He had set off her anger button the first time they met, and almost every time afterward. A more arrogant, self-satisfied man she could not imagine.
The last time, only two weeks ago, Darren and his son Todd had appeared for dinner at Frank's house on Sunday, the day Barbara always had dinner there. After the meal she and Darren volunteered to clean up the kitchen.
"What are you afraid of?" Darren asked.
"Cobras, black widow spiders, ravenous tigers, homicidal maniacs wielding axes."
"That's it," she snapped.
"Ah," he said, handing her another plate to go into the dishwasher.
A day or two later Will Thaxton had called, inviting her to dinner and to hear a new sensational musician. Theirs had been a comfortable, easygoing relationship, no questions asked, no demands, good dancing, good sex, never an argument, her anger button untouched. Although she had decided that it was over, she had accepted. Why not pick up where they had left off? Make it more than clear that she had no interest in Darren Halvord?
Will was always up on any jazz group playing in town, any group touring, any new genius waiting to be discovered. She was surprised that Saturday night when he drove to a motel restaurant not far from the interstate, one of many motels on the strip along with fast-food eateries, gas stations, myriad brightly lighted tourist-oriented outlets.
This restaurant was called the Cascadia, and apparently it catered to first-class travelers. The restaurant had white tablecloths, waiters in black, an impressive menu, and the food was better than just passable. In the background, piano music played, the kind of easy-listening nostalgia-arousing melodies that tended to be soothing even when only vaguely recognizable. Throughout dinner Will talked about a new client in the mocking tone he occasionally used to describe his clients, and she half listened.
She didn't know when the music stopped, but it was not there when Will beckoned the waiter and murmured, "We have a table reserved in the lounge. We'll have coffee and cognac in there."
The waiter led them to a bistro table and a minute later brought coffee and oversize goblets with cognac. Barbara swirled hers and watched the way the liqueur crawled back down, expecting now to hear the phenomenal jazz discovery. Instead, she was jolted when the piano player started again, this time with the passionate, assertive opening of Rhapsody In Blue. She had not seen the pianist return, and her view of the woman playing was obscured by a fishbowl on the piano with a few bills in it. Without a pause the music changed, became sweet and dreamy, "The Blue Danube." Again a change without a transition, and it was "Dancing in the Dark." From there it dissolved into "Greensleeves," into something she did not recognize, then Mahler, Chopin, something she did not know. The lounge had gone silent, no murmuring voices, or clinking of glasses, just the music with one piece dissolving, flowing into another with apparently effortless ease. The poignant strains of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" a lilting and gay "Farmer in the Dell," Offenbach's "Barcarole," a bit of Mozart. She stopped trying to identify the pieces that came and went seamlessly, and then there were single notes, and she heard the words in her head that went with them. When will they ever learn?
There was silence for a minute when the last note sounded; someone began to applaud, and then everyone applauded wildly. The pianist stood up, bowed her head and swiftly walked away out of sight through a doorway behind the bar.
"My God!" Barbara whispered.
"Didn't I tell you? Phenomenal, isn't she?"
Her coffee had grown cold, and she no longer wanted the cognac. Will had finished his. "She'll be back in twenty minutes or so," he said. "But not like that. More easy-listening stuff. Want to leave now?"
Will had talked about the pianist all the way back to her apartment until she had wanted to gag him. "Probably an addict, those long sleeves are hiding needle marks, or maybe she's shacked up with a guy who beats her and she's hiding bruises. She could have become a concert pianist, but instead she's playing in a bar in a two-bit town. Probably a hooker. She'll rake in the tips, you bet she will. And move on."
At her door she had not asked him in, to their mutual surprise.
Now that woman was her client, although she had yet to meet her. And it was Frank's fault, she said to herself, getting back to her starting point. If he hadn't tried to push her into Darren's arms, she would not have gone out with Will, she would not have gone to that lounge and heard Carol Frederick play, and if she had not heard her play, she doubted that she would have taken the case. It appeared to be open and shut.
Carol Frederick was a drifter with no permanent address, no known family, no real friends in Eugene. According to the newspaper, and the leaks providentially dropped by the D.A.'s office, she had been pursued for weeks by Joe Wenzel, the owner of the motel and had avoided him, or lured him on, depending on how one looked at it. The night of his death she was seen talking with him in the parking lot after she quit work, arguing with him? Fighting with him? She had been seen entering his room.
The next day Joe Wenzel's body was discovered on the bedroom floor of his suite in the motel. He was wearing a lightweight summer robe, nothing else. Carol Frederick's hairs were on his coat, her fingerprints on a glass in the suite.
Tried and convicted by leaks, Barbara thought then. But any public defender, with a minimum of bargaining, would get her off with no more than involuntary manslaughter. And that would result in prison. Barbara shuddered to think of that magical piano player in prison, but she doubted very much if she or anyone else could do any better for her than that.
At eleven the next morning Barbara was in a small meeting room in the county jail waiting for Carol Frederick to be delivered to her. The room was dismal, with a metal table bolted to the floor, two wooden chairs and a harsh overhead fluorescent light that turned skin tones to a shade somewhere between yellow and avocado-green, and made any lipstick a garish purple. The door opened and a guard ushered Carol into the room.
"Hi, I'm Barbara Holloway," she said, standing by the table. "Can we talk a few minutes?"
Carol Frederick was not pretty in any conventional way, but striking looking. Long, straight black hair in a ponytail, dark blue eyes, heavy eyebrows straight across, and facial bones that suggested some Native American in her genealogy. She regarded Barbara with suspicion and remained standing by the door. "Why? I don't know you. How do you rate a private room?"
"I told them I'm your new defense attorney." She pointed to her briefcase, which had been searched. "My credentials," she said with a smile. "Of course, that can change if you kick me out, but as it stands now, that's why."
Copyright © 2004 Kate Wilhelm