When attorney Lucinda Hayes reluctantly agrees to represent the mother of a brutally slain child, she must convince the court that the makers of a pornographic film are liable for the murder. As the case unfolds, Lucinda calls upon all her personal strength and legal talent, facing down her own ghosts as well as the powerful entertainment industry's star lawyers.
In Chilling Effect, Wesson affirms the power of free speech to inspire the best and the worst human behavior and explores the tension between freedom and accountability
|Publisher:||University Press of Colorado|
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CHILLING EFFECTA novel
By Marianne Wesson
UNIVERSITY PRESS OF COLORADOCopyright © 2004 Marianne Wesson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt was the ghastliest fax I ever received.
I was alone in the office, sitting at our secretary's desk, when it arrived. I'd been looking through the jumble of supplies in Beverly's bottom drawer, hoping to find a new cartridge for my printer, and just as I gave up the search I heard the rattle of the fax machine. It's an old one, and it groans when summoned into service like an arthritic doorman whose stiff joints protest when he has to get up to admit a visitor.
I watched idly as the first sheet emerged, expecting to see the letterhead of some other law firm, or perhaps a meeting announcement from the Boulder County Bar Association. But as it rolled out I saw that the page was blank, except for the unreadably small source information at the top-and the neat even handwriting, a single line about a third of the way down:
Is this the kind of case you handle? I'll be calling.
All these months later I can still summon up those tidy letters if I close my eyes and try, but it's the sheet that followed this one that sometimes still unrolls in the eye of my memory unbidden, and unwelcome. I watched the second page of the fax slide from the machine, so dark in spots that itglistened and curled with the weight of the ink. I pulled it out straight and as the image resolved in my perception I hunched my shoulders, as though by folding up my own body I could protect it from the knowledge of that one, so small, so violated, and even in black and white so obviously dead.
I looked away, but not before noting that the eyes were wide open, watching things that nobody should ever have to see.
I wanted nothing to do with it. You'd have to be crazy in some particularly ugly way to send something like that, I figured-to fax it, for God's sake, to someone you didn't know. I'd had enough crazy in my law practice the past few years; it wasn't romantic or interesting any longer. So when the phone rang ten minutes later I pretended to be a secretary, and told the woman she'd have to call back when one of the lawyers was in. I didn't really think she would, but I was wrong. She called back that evening, late, while I was preparing to leave for the day. My partner Tory took the call, and that was where all the trouble started, our first step along the crusade route.
At first it seemed the crusader would be Tory, and she's a far more plausible knight than I am-fearless, even reckless sometimes. But the mission became mine almost without my noticing. My friend Andy Kahrlsrud has recommended that I make an effort to understand why it happened that way.
* * *
I'm Lucinda Hayes, attorney, practicing in Boulder, Colorado. I wasn't born in Colorado. I came here to go to law school, and stayed. Boulder is a garden of transplants; almost everyone here is from somewhere else, so that's not unusual. But sometimes I think the particular place of my birth and upbringing, and my chosen exile from it, have shaped my path more than any other influence.
Try it yourself. Ask an American born before about 1957: What's the first thing you think of when you hear Dallas?
Where Kennedy was shot. Or maybe John Kennedy, or President Kennedy. That's the response you'll get, almost every time.
Nearly anyone old enough to remember it will give you that answer. Except for people who lived there at the time-you'd expect them to say something else, perhaps my hometown, or where I was born, and most Dallasites will. But not me: I answer like an outsider. It's my hometown all right, but for me it will always be first the place where the president was shot and killed.
Perhaps it's because that day I experienced for the first time a feeling that's haunted me, on and off, ever since: the impression that nearly everyone else understands something that I don't, has signed on to some agreement without inviting me to join it. I was a bit older when I started to think that those of us who were somehow excluded from this arrangement needed to look out for each other. And older still before I realized how many of us believe we're in that category, including some I wouldn't necessarily commit myself to looking out for. Leonard Fitzgerald, for example. No doubt there's more to this strange fragment of identity that I still haven't understood. But I know it started that day, or perhaps the day before.
I was nine, in the third grade, Miss Brewer's class. President Kennedy was going to be in Dallas. That's what he was called in my house, at least by my father: President Kennedy. Others, I knew, just called him Kennedy.
The day before he was to come, Miss Brewer told us we'd be making flag pictures during Art. Because of the President's visit, she said.
Kennedy is a traitor, said one of the boys.
Do you know what that means? asked Miss Brewer.
It means he's a faggot, said another boy, and some of them laughed. I didn't know what faggot meant, and I was unsure about traitor, but I raised my hand and said my father said he was a good president.
That day, after school, the boy who'd said President Kennedy was a faggot informed me that my father was a nigger-lover.
I know, I said, although I hadn't. From the way he said it, it was like being a faggot. But I was loyal to my father and said I know, without flinching. The boy looked at me hard and spat on the ground at my feet. But what he said then was not as mean as I had expected: I hate this school. Nothing ever happens here.
Maybe he would have been meaner if I hadn't been a girl, and hardly worth bothering about. I can't remember any of the boys' names, and not that many of the girls'. But I remember Celia, of course. She was my best friend.
* * *
Tory's my best friend now, I suppose, although I think her best friend is her lover Linda, so where does that leave me? We've been law partners for nearly nine years, Tory and I. Hayes and Meadows, P.C. Sometimes she's granite, and I lean against her when I start to wobble. Other times I worry that the burden of the bad times a few years ago will drag her back to the dark place in her mind, where she's already done enough time. I try to keep an eye on Tory's moods, and around the time we met Peggy Grayling I thought she was getting edgy. Her sarcasm was less playful, more stinging, and she'd taken to correcting my grammar, not just on paper when she proofread my legal work, but while we were talking. When I'd mention this to her, she'd disclaim any worries other than the usual one about how we were going to survive as lawyers in a town where there were too many of them, but I thought I knew better.
That evening-the evening of the day the fax arrived-she stood framed in my office door, one hip cocked. "Do you know anything about a Margaret Grayling calling this morning? She's on the phone now, says our secretary told her to call back later. Has Beverly stopped taking messages?"
"It was me," I admitted. "I got the call, but I thought she was a nut case, so I put her off. I didn't think she'd call back."
"Well she did. She's on the line now. What's so nutty about her?"
I was reluctant to mention the fax, and knew I didn't want Tory to see it. She needs crazy even less than I do, and she's more drawn to it. But I realized I needed some evidence to back up my impression of the woman's instability. "It looks like some little girl was murdered horribly. I don't know who this woman is or what she wants, but I guess she actually had a crime scene photograph, and faxed it here before she called. It was awful. Worst I've ever seen. We don't need those kinds of clients, Tory. Can't you refer her to Billy?" Bill Woodruff officed across the hall from us, a nice young lawyer with so much enthusiasm and so little judgment that he would take any client that moved.
Tory inclined her close-shorn copper head. "Depends. What does she want with a lawyer?"
I shrugged. "I think she knew the little girl, maybe she was related to her. So she faxes over the photo and asks me if that's the kind of case we might be interested in. I don't know why she picked on us. Maybe our ad." After some debate, we'd recently placed an ad in the Yellow Pages.
"Where's this fax?" asked Tory.
"I don't know, Tory. Jesus, I threw it away. Why would you want to see it? Didn't you get enough of that at the DA's office? It was horrible."
"What's this, then?" Some uncanny impulse had turned her gaze toward the chair next to me. My battered leather briefcase rested there, a sheet of paper protruding unevenly from the top. She walked over and pulled out the spotty-looking page.
I peered at it. "I guess that's it. I must have stuffed it in there."
But she wasn't listening. She was looking at the photograph.
"Tory? Don't look at it. It's pointless. Throw it away, okay? No, give it to me, I'll toss it. Here." I held out my hand.
She shook her head abstractedly and turned to walk back toward her office, gripping the fax with both hands. As she passed under the old chandelier in the reception area her face caught the light and I could see her expression-one that I knew and didn't like. The child's photograph had drawn her in, forged some connection to her tangle of loyalties and yearnings in the instant it struck her eyes. I heard her sit down in her creaky desk chair, could barely discern her murmur into the phone. I tried to shrug and get back to the billing records I was working on, but ten minutes later I could see that one of the lights on the telephone was still lit and I knew that Tory had not told the woman that we were the wrong firm to help her.
I rose and walked to her office, dread rising in my body like a fever. The only light in there was the greenish glow from the banker's lamp on her desk.
"I think I know how you must feel," she was saying. She swiveled around in her chair, seeing me at the door. What? I mouthed at her, but she just shook her head and turned back to the phone. The gruesome fax was lying on her desk next to the phone, its creases softening slightly as though she had smoothed it out.
"Sure we can. Sure," she said. "In person would be much better, I agree. I think tomorrow would be okay. Let me look. Hold on for a moment, please. Please. I'll be right back." She punched the mute button on her phone, and laid the receiver down tenderly next to the photo.
"She's the mom," she said.
"Hers." She gestured toward the fax. "Her mom."
"Well, is she okay?"
"She's not okay, Cinda. Her little girl was tortured and murdered. She's never going to be okay. She wants to come talk with us."
"A lawsuit. For her daughter's death. We're the ones she wants to represent her. She says she's met you. Do you remember her?"
I shook my head and looked down at the carpet, which I noticed was stained pretty badly in spots. "I don't know her. I don't think we can do anything for her, Tory. You know we can't bring her daughter back."
She looked at me with scorn, then picked up the receiver again and punched the mute button. "Mrs. Grayling? Why don't you come over here about ten tomorrow, and we'll talk with you then? We don't charge for an initial consultation. One thousand seven Pearl Street, right over Pasta Jay's. Are you all right now? Is your husband there? Oh. Well can you call a friend? Good, why don't you do that? Right. Take care, and we'll see you at ten."
She hung up and sat down in her wooden swivel chair, then swung it round to face me. "Can't bring her daughter back," she mimicked. "When was the last time we represented someone who actually hoped to get back what she'd lost? The one whose husband ruptured her spleen and messed her head up so bad she'll be in therapy until she dies? The one who got raped at knifepoint and then the guy slashed her face up because she didn't fake an orgasm?"
I made a gesture of surrender.
"That lady knows we can't bring her daughter back," said Tory. "Or I think she does. And if she doesn't we can certainly make that clear. She just wants the same thing our other clients want."
"I've been wondering about that lately," I said, sinking into the chair across from her desk. "What is that?"
"What is what?" She was pacing now, the room too small to contain her energy.
"What our clients want."
"I think they want a person on a tall bench in a black robe to tell them and the world that it's not right what happened to them. It's not acceptable. They want to know that someone is responsible for what they lost, and is going to have to pay for it."
"Well, someone killed her daughter. Does she know who it was?"
"Yeah, she knows. A guy confessed."
"So she wants us to sue him?"
"He was prosecuted for it last year," said Tory. "In Chicago. Acquitted, NGI."
Not guilty by reason of insanity. "I suppose we could sue him anyway," I said skeptically. "Insanity's not quite as good a defense to a tort as it is to a crime."
Tory shook her head. "She says she doesn't want to sue him. He's locked up in the psych ward, he's never gonna get out, and he's got no money."
"Then who?" I asked. "Who does she want us to sue?"
Tory turned back to her desk, scrabbling through piles of paper, looking for something. "I believe the word is whom. And I don't know whom she wants to sue. Something about an accomplice, I couldn't quite get it; she got very quiet toward the end of the conversation. She's coming in tomorrow, ten o'clock. We'll find out then. Now you better go home." She found a half-gone yellow legal pad, and started to make a bulleted list.
"What about you?"
"I'll be right behind you," she replied without looking up, and added another bullet to her list. I could almost smell the mania rising in her veins, and I thought, God help you, whoever you are.
I woke up the next morning in time for a run, but it was snowing lightly, a drippy puky nuisance snow that extinguished my interest in outdoor exercise. Even after an exceptionally thorough pass through the Boulder Daily Camera, I was dressed and ready for work by 7:45. When I got there the place felt chilly and awfully quiet under the fluorescent lights. Margaret Grayling wasn't expected until ten, and I knew that Beverly wouldn't be in until eleven because Tuesday is the day she and her chronically unemployed husband Charley have couples therapy. I didn't want to sit down in the bleak emptiness of my office, so I left my briefcase on my desk, stuffed a printout of the brief I was working on into my backpack, and decamped for the Trident across the street. Half coffee shop, half used bookstore, the Trident is an old Boulder tradition that Starbuck's will never replace. It's Buddhist-owned and operated and they make great coffee there, but I like it mostly for the curious stillness that permeates the air and underlies the buzz of steam and reggae music and conversation.
I kept my eye on the time as I marked up the brief, and dashed back across the street to the office at five minutes to ten, but Grayling must have arrived early. I could hear talking as I entered the reception area, two voices drifting out of Tory's office.
"Journalism," the not-Tory voice was saying. "University of Illinois at Chicago."
"And Alison's father?" Tory's voice had none of its usual edge.
"We're separated," she said. "Divorce underway. He's an academic too. Geology, Northwestern University. Glaciers, mostly. He's still there."
I stepped into the room. "Hi, sorry. I guess I'm a little late. I'm Cinda Hayes." I offered my hand to the slender gray-haired woman sitting in Tory's guest chair. She turned her face up as she took my hand in hers; the face and the hand were both worn, both beautiful. About fifty, I guessed; no makeup, no hair dye. Her hair fell in careless streaky ripples to her shoulders, and the only jewelry in sight was a thin gold chain around her tanned neck. She certainly didn't look crazy.
"Cinda," she said softly, in the voice I had heard on the telephone. "I'm so glad to see you again."
"Me too," I said inadequately and probably ungrammatically, but her greeting had made me uncomfortable. I had no memory of ever having met this woman before. "Let me unload this thing"-I hefted the backpack off my shoulder-"and get a notepad, and I'll be right back." The red light on my desk phone blinked, suggesting that a caller had left a message on my voicemail, but I ignored it and rummaged for a legal pad, then rejoined Tory and Margaret Grayling.
Excerpted from CHILLING EFFECT by Marianne Wesson Copyright © 2004 by Marianne Wesson. Excerpted by permission.
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