In her opulent Pacific Heights mansion, above a city glittering in the night, Lara Ashford lies dead. A former beauty queen and the wife of a powerful ex-congressman, she was a woman who made mistakes--married to a man who made even more. Now, from all over San Francisco and across the country, cops and investigators, lawyers, and politicians, are being drawn into the most controversial case to hit the Bay Area in years. They claim they're coming for justice. But for some of them, justice will be at the ultimate price.
Grace Harris and Barrett Dickson are the two attorneys caught in the fray, clinging to their careers, their troubled lives, their shaken ideals. The trial of Elliot Ashford for the brual murder of his wife will turn them into adversaries in the courtroom, even as they find themselves dangerously close to each other outside of it.
With a key piece of evidence mysteriously vanished...with the D.A. trying to run from his secrets all the way to the Governor's mansion...and with influential people pulling strings on both sides, an innocent jury will be drawn into the cross-fire, as a case driven by personal vendettas and hidden motives erupts in violence.
For behind the headlines, the politics, and the legal maneuvering, behind the lies, the evasions, and the stunning reversals--another player is in the game: one with a front row seat, and a history of madness and murder...
In The Alternate, top trial lawyer and bestselling author John Martel combines a richly textured, morally complex portrait of a justice system spinning out of conrol and an electrifying novel of page-turning suspense.
Read an Excerpt
The various and arcane means by which one human being sometimes ended the life of another had always fascinated Grace Harris, head of the district attorney's homicide trials team, but this one, she thought, took the cake.
"A shard of glass?" she said, as Chief Investigator Sam Quon fished the object from a canvas pouch. Quon, graying hair, medium height, and an unlined, expressionless face that gave no hint of his nearly sixty years, had moved from the police department to the D.A.'s office nearly twenty-eight years earlier.
"Yeah," he said, "this is it." He then offered the eighteen-inch exhibit to Grace Harris with outstretched arms, as an acolyte might hand his bishop a scepter. She gingerly touched the point, then rocked the glass blade in both hands, gauging the heft of it.
"One would think," she said softly, "that a man as wealthy as Elliot Ashford could have used something more elegant."
They stood in the center of District Attorney Earl Field's spacious office on the third floor of San Francisco's Hall of Justice, waiting to brief him, knowing he would want to be involved in the press conference soon to begin. They were flanked by luxurioussome said garishtextured silk coverings on which were hung abstract paintings by unknown African-American artists, a form of decor favored by Field over the more traditional service plaques and professional certificates his predecessor had displayed. The district attorney had made a good deal of money in private practice before entering publicservice and didn't mind showing it offa practice that both antagonized his detractors and delighted his supporters.
"What broke the mirror?" Grace asked.
"Her face," said Quon.
Grace shuddered as she handed the shard back to the older man. She then picked up the coroner's report and began turning the pages with fingers uncommonly long and graceful for a petite woman. Grace had always been shorter than her friends when growing up and had hated it. Now, at five feet three, though she still sometimes envied those pencil-thin models that would have towered above her, she was grateful at the age of forty-two to still be petite in the right places. Her ankles were trim and shapely, and her flat, firm stomach betrayed no evidence of a pregnancy now sixteen years in her past. Time, and a rigorous regimen of work and exercise, had treated her body kindly, and her facial features were similarly delicate but for eyes that were large and warm and the color of chestnuts.
"Ever meet her, Sam?"
"Once, back when her husband was on the Police Commission. Not too bright, but a real beauty. Long black hair like yours. Same height as you, too. In fact, she looked a lot like you."
"Why, Sam Quon, I think you just complimented me."
"So sue me," said Sam. "Anyway, she was a bit weird, but always smiling, looking much younger than she was. Ashford made life easy for her."
"Not so her death," said Grace softly, still thumbing through the coroner's report. She turned back to page one.
Case number 97-5597, Lara Ashford: The body is that of a forty-four-year-old Caucasian female with brown eyes and black hair, 64 inches in length and weighing 108 pounds.
Grace unconsciously pursed her lips as she skipped down to "time of death," estimated at 8:00 P.M. based on "early nonfixed lividity" and incipient signs of rigor mortis in her neck and jaw. The body was just beginning to cool to the touch when they found her.
Without looking up, she said, "The maid heard Lara arguing with her husband at around seven?"
"Yeah," said Quon, "on the way out for her weekend off. Heard quite a commotion. Five hours later, Ashford claims he 'discovered' his wife's body when he got home. She'd been dead at least three hours at that point according to forensics."
"Home from what?"
Quon anticipated the assistant D.A.'s next question and added, "Alone. The movie was a rerelease of A Man for All Seasons and in its third week. Slow night, only three people on duty and nobody saw him. Ashford couldn't even remember who played the part of Sir Thomas More. Great movie. Bad choice."
Grace arched an eyebrow. "The old 'phantom alibi' routine?"
Quon nodded. "It's strange, isn't it? A rich, smart politician with Mafia connections does his wife, walks off leaving his own blood on her fingertips, and can't come up with a decent alibi in more than three hours?"
Grace nodded. "What else do we have on him?"
"More than you'll ever need," said the chief investigator. "She's murdered not long after the maid hears Ashford screaming at her. Ex-lover's name mentioned. No sign of a break-in. Outer doors locked. Lights out. No rape. Nothing stolen. Crime lab also finds jealous husband's blood type in the bathroom sink near her body and on a towel. Throw in the fake alibi when apprehended and it's verdict for the People."
She nodded again, handed the file back to him.
"High-profile," he continued, "has all the elements. Celebrity suspect. Beautiful victim. Big bucks and Pacific Heights venue. Particularly heinous crime. This is the one you've been waiting for, Grace."
"Amazing Grace" Harris had headed the homicide trials team for the past four years, supervising a staff of six top assistant district attorneys and personally trying two or three first-degree murder cases a year. She had earned the highest regard of her opponents at the criminal bar and was current chair of the Bar Association's criminal law committee. She had been honored for helping to organize the association's legal services outreach to the poor and served at the clinic six nights a month.
But she knew Sam was right. This was the case that would provide the public recognition that all her honors and years in the trenches had failed to produce. She hardly dared imagine where it all might lead, but it was no secret that Earl Field had his sights fixed on the governor's mansion and that a determined group of professional women would support her if she chose to run against Chief Assistant Jack Klegg, Field's heir apparent.
She pictured her father back in New York, astonished as he read about her election as district attorney of San Francisco, and the thought sent a pleasant shiver up her back.
"Am I right?" said Sam. "Slam dunk for the good guys? Hello? Earth to Grace. Come in, Grace."
Grace met Sam's intelligent, patient eyes. "Probably, but it just doesn't figure Elliot Ashford would be this foolhardy."
"The hell it doesn't," boomed a voice from the doorway.
Grace and Sam turned to see Earl Field strolling toward them, flashing what he called his "ten-dollar smile" and looking fit in one of his tailored $1,500 suits. Grace mused that voters who had paid that kind of money for their automobile or for their first and last month's rentpeople to whom Earl Field was justly a heroseemed to revel in the D.A.'s excess as much as in his attacks on the rich. When a reporter once suggested that his flashy attire seemed out of step with his liberal social agenda, Field had smiled and replied, "You can't bring a dying city to life dressed like an undertaker."
Field greeted each of them warmly, then circled his desk and took a seat in his high-backed swivel chair. "Elliot Ashford is foolhardy, Grace," he said, opening the file Sam had put on his desk. "Almost as foolhardy as he is arrogant."
"Arrogant, yes," said Grace, taking a seat across from him, "but nobody took Ashford for a fool when he was the conservatives' fair-haired boy in Congress."
"Oh, he was in Congress all right," said Field with a raucous laugh, exposing teeth that would have looked unnaturally white even without the contrast of his ebony skin. "Which explains why the deficit got so high. Notice how things have improved since he left?"
Grace smiled but persisted. "If Elliot Ashford, with all his rumored mob connections, brains, and money, killed his wife between seven and eight, he'd have had at least three hours to concoct a better alibi than going to a movie alone. The defense will argue that makes him either innocent or too stupid to have even located the congressional men's room."
"Okay, Grace, you win. You've convinced me he's even more arrogant than he is foolish. The man's problem is that he's been getting away with murder in this town so long he thinks he's above the law."
Grace saw the warning spark in the D.A.'s eyes and decided to back off. For now, at least. She was aware of Field's hatred for Ashford and saw no point in deflecting any of it toward herself. The politically conservative Ashford had been using his wealth and media contacts to harass Earl Field since the day Field entered politics as the only black member of the Board of Supervisors, then later as a crusading state assemblyman, and now as the city's chief law enforcement officer.
Some insiders believed that Field was envious of Ashford's fame and immense wealth, but others conjectured that their mutual animosity was grounded as much in their similarities as in their differences. After all, both men were smart, colorful, and dashing, drove fast cars, wore expensive clothes, and had shamelessly frequented Las Vegas. Both loved power and had gained it without yielding to the conventions normally associated with elective office, and both were revered by their constituents in a city known for its eclectic and tolerant nature. Finally, both had married beautiful women, and as of yesterday, they shared the status of eligible bachelors.
But Grace knew their bitter enmity went deeper than politics and was more primal than a matter of clashing political philosophies. She knew that Earl Field had committed the unpardonable sin of dating Lara Lake before she became Lara Ashford, and had then compounded his initial offense years later by asking her to dance one night at an inaugural ball in Sacramento. Lara had risen to his invitation a bit too eagerly, onlookers recalled, then smiled as they slow-danced away from the heat of Elliot Ashford's glare, her white-gloved arms twisting like pipe stems around Field's tux-clad shoulders and licorice neck, drifting across the floor as smoothly as a pair of ice-skaters toward a column behind which a beat photographer for the Sacramento Bee was about to have his prayers answered.
Grace felt Field's eyes on her, reading her thoughts.
"He's been a crook, Grace, now he's a wife killer. Sure, he's also been a burr under my saddle and people will talk. Let 'em talk. I've got his ass planted on a steel bunk on the sixth floor, and it's going to stay there until it's time for him to be strapped down and dance the funky chicken flat on his back."
"You'll ask for the death penalty?" said Sam.
"Hell yes, Sam. The guy tortured her. 'Special circumstances'!"
Sam looked unconvinced. "Sure, she was tortured, Chief, but going for the needle on Ashford on a domestic-violence killing will make it tougher to get a murder one conviction."
Field looked up, his eyes smiling. "Nearly thirty years a D.A. investigator and it just now comes out you're opposed to the death penalty?"
"Earl's right," said Grace. "We can't make exceptions."
Sam shrugged. "I'm just saying the guy's got fans out there."
He might have been President, some San Franciscans said of Elliot Ashford. He had made all the right moves since his election to Congress in 1978, had once even given the keynote at the Republican national convention and, thanks in part to his populous home state, had even been considered a front-runner as a vice presidential candidate. But a tabloid piece picked up by the Washington Post revealing lurid details of Lara's fling with U.S. Senator Dwight Cliftonthe name overheard by the maid during the argument just before Lara's murdercombined with sudden cash-flow problems, had forced the publicly cuckolded Ashford back to private life in San Francisco.
Despite his expulsion in shame from the nation's capital, Elliot Ashford remained in the national limelight, for no city, not even San Francisco with its colorful, chaotic history, could boast a man with more notorious and contradictory credentials than Elliot Ashford. Although the SFPD organized crime and drug units suspected that his construction company now fronted a mob money-laundering operation, he had once sat on the mayor's Police Commission. Known as a fiscal conservative during his service in Washington, he had personally provided seed financing for the city's second-largest homeless shelter. And although friends said he had forgiven his gorgeous wife's indiscretions, he now sat in the city jail charged with her murder.
The newspapers and tabloids were in ecstasy, for the celebrity couple had been dogged for years by rumors of adultery and other consensual sins unbefitting their high social station. Ashford's list included reckless gambling and womanizing; even Lara's older sister Shannon was rumored to have succumbed to his charm, causing a bitter rift between the sisters. And Lara's association with cult figures in San Francisco, together with the graphic exposé of her affair with Senator Clifton in Washington, had helped relegate her husband to a political boneyard from which not even his ambition and wealth could deliver him.
The jealous-spouse motive made spicy tabloid reading, thought Grace, but the media's interest in the Lara-Clifton affair had died out with the famous couple's return to San Francisco, and they'd have to find a better motive.
"How long will it take to get a DNA blood match on Ashford?"
"They're working up a PCA analysis as we speak," said Sam. "It'll confirm the type AB match we've already got."
"Sounds like a slam dunk," Field murmured.
Grace watched her steepled fingers tapping against one another as they did sometimes when something was troubling her.
"Something bothering you, Grace?" asked Field. "You're uncharacteristically quiet today."
"It seems almost too perfect," said Grace. "I guess I'm looking for the grinch."
"The grinch," said Grace. "For starters, it's August now. I suppose they'll stall long enough to try for a Christmas mercy verdict."
Field stirred impatiently. "No grinch. We won't let them stall. No mercy verdict. It's airtight, Grace. Clear jealousy motive. Ashford's blood everywhere. Lied about where he was."
"Then he'll try to plea-bargain."
"We won't let him."
"All the way?"
"To the death," said Field, grinning. "Hell, Grace, you're supposed to be the by-the-book hard-ass in this office. What the hell more do you want?"
"What do I want?" said Grace, trying to control a growing impatience with Field's macho optimism. "I want an analysis of the victim's fingernail scrapings for starters. Then I want PCA DNA confirmation on the blood, a thorough investigation of all other suspectsex-lovers, rivals, cult associations, whatever. Then I want statements from all the neighbors and relatives as well as confirmation of Ashford's reputed mob connections. That's what I want. For starters."
"You heard the woman," said Field to Sam. "She wants the perfect case."
"The perfect case?" said Grace, shaking her head. "There's no such thing."
"Well, this is as close to one as I've ever seen, and with your help, Grace, I'm going to nail the bastard."
Grace's head snapped around. "With my help?"
"It will be terrific," said Field, his head buried in the police report. "We've never tried a case together."
"Together," she murmured as the realization sunk in. She glanced at Sam. He looked away.
Grace had found the grinch.
What People are Saying About This
The Alternate starts with a bang and never lets up. The crime is startling and complex, the legal atmosphere is authentic, ad the courtroom scenes engrossing.
Author of No Safe Place
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Alternate is a legal thriller that is fast-paced and will hold your interest. However, I felt the earlier reviews tend to overrate the book. I found that while the plot had many twists, most were predictable. Further, the relationships between the key characters were also able to be predicted well in advance. Nonetheless, Martel tells a story that will make you want to read on and has developed characters that you will care about. Actually, while I rated The Alternate a '3', it really deserves a '3 1/2'.