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Coldwater Cove, Washington
It was a damn three-ring circus. And Olympic County sheriff Jack O'Halloran had gotten stuck with the job of ringmaster. Despite the cold spring drizzle, the hillside was covered with people, many carrying cameras. Some bolder, or more curious, individuals pressed as close as they could to the white police barricades. Kids were running all over the place, laughing, shrieking, chasing one another, having themselves a dandy time. The mood couldn't have been any more electric if a bunch of TV stars had suddenly shown up on Washington's Olympic Peninsula to tape an episode of NYPD Blue.
Ignoring the rain dripping off the brim of his hat, Jack scowled at the vans bearing the names and logos of television stations from as far away as Spokane. Which wasn't all that surprising. After all, Coldwater Cove had always been a peaceful town. So peaceful, in fact, it didn't even have its own police department, the city fathers choosing instead to pay for protection from the county force. Crime consisted mainly of the routine Saturday night drunk and disorderly, jaywalking, calls about barking dogs, and last month a customer had walked off with the ballpoint pen from Neil Olson's You-Pump-It Gas 'N Save. It definitely wasn't every day three teenage girls barricaded themselves in their group home and refused to come out.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ida Lindstrom, their court-appointed guardian and owner of the landmark Victorian house, had apparently set off this mini-crime wave when she'd been taken to the hospital after falling off a kitchen stool. Although the information was sketchy, from what Jack could determine, when a probation officer had arrived to haul the unsupervised kids back to the juvenile detention center, Ida had held an inflammatory press conference from her hospital bed, adding fuel to an already dangerously volatile situation by instructing the girls to "batten down the hatches."
Having grown up in Coldwater Cove, Jack knew Ida to be a good, hardworking woman. Salt of the earth, a pillar of the community, and unrelentingly generous. During her days as the town's only general practitioner, she'd delivered scores of babies including him. Since lumbering was a dangerous business, she'd also probably set more broken arms than any doctor in the state, and whenever she lost a patient whether from illness, accident, or merely old age she never missed a funeral.
She'd inevitably show up at the family's home after the internment with a meatloaf. Not one person in Coldwater Cove had ever had the heart to tell her that her customary donation to the potluck funeral supper was as hard as a brick and about as tasty as sawdust. Ida Lindstrom had many talents, but cooking wasn't one of them. Six months ago, when they'd buried Big John O'Halloran, Jack's father who'd dropped dead of a heart attack while hiking a glacier on nearby Mount Olympus, Jack's mother had surreptitiously put the heavy hunk of mystery meat and unidentifiable spices out on the back porch for the dogs. Who wouldn't eat it, either.
Jack admired the way Ida had taken to opening her home to at-risk teenagers at a time when so many of her contemporaries were traveling around the country in motor homes, enjoying their retirement and spending their children's inheritances. But the plan, agreed to by the court, the probation officer, and Ida herself, dammit, had been for the retired doctor to provide the kids with a stable environment, teach them responsibility and coax them back onto the straight and narrow. Not turn them into junior revolutionaries.
"I still think we ought to break down the damn door," a gung ho state police officer insisted for the third time in the past hour. Jack suspected the proposed frontal attack stemmed from an eagerness to try out the armored assault vehicle the state had recently acquired at a surplus government military auction.
"You've been watching too many old Jimmy Cagney movies on the Late Show," Jack said. "It's overkill. They're only juveniles."
Juveniles whose cockamamie misbehavior was proving a major pain in the ass. The standoff was entering its sixth hour, television vans were parked all the way down the hill, the satellite systems on their roofs pointed upward, as if trying to receive messages from outer space. Jack figured he was a shoe-in to be the lead story on the six o'clock news all over the Pacific Northwest. Hell, if he didn't get the girls out pretty soon, they may even make the national morning programs. And while Eleanor O'Halloran would undoubtedly be tickled pink to see her only son on television, the idea didn't suit Jack at all.
"They're not just your run of the mill juveniles," the lantern-jawed officer reminded him unnecessarily. "They're juvenile delinquents."
"Minor league ones. The most any of them are guilty of is truancy and shoplifting. Want to guess how a bunch of grown men wearing combat gear staging a military assault on three little girls would play on TV?"
"Crime's crime," another cop from neighboring Jefferson County grumbled. Although the standoff wasn't occurring in his jurisdiction, that hadn't stopped him from dropping by for a look-see.
He wasn't alone; Kitsap, island, Clallam, and King counties were also well represented. Even the Quinault and Skokomish reservations had sent uniformed men to offer backup and gain experience in hostage situations. Not that this was exactly a hostage situation, since the girls were all alone in the house. The assembled cops were having themselves a grand old time. Jack was not.
"He's right," another cop agreed. "You may not consider shoplifting a punishable offense in your county, Sheriff, but in my jurisdiction, we view teenage malfeasance as a slippery slope to more serious crimes."
"Got a point there," Jack agreed dryly. "One day a kid's swiping a tube of Mango orange lip gloss from a Payless Drugstore and the next day she's toting an Uzi and holding up the Puget Sound National Bank."
He took the cellular phone from its dashboard holder and dialed the Lindstrom house again. The first time he'd called, the oldest girl, Shawna, had informed him that Ida had instructed her not to speak to him. Then promptly hung up. From that point on, all he'd gotten was a busy signal, suggesting they'd taken the phone off the hook. And dammit, apparently still hadn't put it back on.
"There's always tear gas," one of the Olympic County deputies suggested.
"In case you've forgotten, one of those girls is pregnant. I'm not willing to risk harming any unborn babies."
"So what do you propose to do?" a grim-faced man asked. His belted tan raincoat with the snazzy Banana Republic epaulets on the shoulders made him stand out from the local crowd clad in parkas and Gore-Tex jackets. He'd introduced himself as being from Olympia, an assistant to the governor. Unsurprisingly, the state's chief executive was concerned about the public relations aspect of this situation.
Jack shrugged and thought of his six-year-old daughter. He imagined how he'd want the cops to respond if Amy took it into her head to barricade herself in their house.
"They aren't going anywhere." They'd also refused to speak to anyone but Ida. Deciding the contrary old woman would only get them more stirred up, he'd instructed the hospital to remove the phone from her room. "The way I see it, the best thing to do is wait them out. For however long it takes."
No one argued. But the grumbles from the assembled lawmen told Jack that he was all alone, out on an increasingly risky limb.
New York City
The mob began to gather early. The senior citizens chanted slogans and marched in circles, holding their placards high. One of their leaders bellowed through a bullhorn, reminding them that this was a war. They all cheered. Some waved their signs, others their fists.
By the time Raine Cantrell walked out of the federal courthouse a little before noon, the protesters were primed for battle. Anxious for blood.
"I think I've just discovered how it feels to go diving for sharks without the metal cage," she murmured.
She'd been warned there'd be a demonstration, but given the demographics of the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit, she hadn't expected such an unruly mob. The cacophonous chants echoed off nearby buildings; catcalls and belligerent shouts rang out over the blare of car horns.
The street was jammed with illegally parked vans bearing the insignias of all three major networks, along with CNN and various local television stations; thick black cables snaked across the sidewalk and the crowd of reporters, photographers and cameramen jockeyed for position.
"Christ. Every reporter for every half-assed paper and television station in the country must have shown up for this circus," her client, Rex Murdock, muttered.
During the months they'd worked together preparing a defense, the CEO and principal stockholder of Odessa Oil Company had revealed himself to be a man accustomed to controlling everything and everyone around him. He was brash, rough-mannered, impatient as hell, and handsome, in a roughhewn way. All the women at Choate, Plimpton, Wells & Sullivan would inevitably cease work whenever he strode through the offices, the wedged heels of his lizard skin cowboy boots tapping a purposeful tattoo on the Italian-marble flooring. Even sixty-four-year-old Harriet Farraday, who'd worked as comptroller at the law firm since the Stone Age and had a dozen grandchildren, had taken notice.
"Why, he's a man's man, dear," Harriet had explained one day when Raine had questioned the effect her client had on seemingly the entire female staff. "You don't find many of those anymore in these so-called enlightened years." She'd made a little sound of disgust as she looked around the office. "Especially around here."
"You'd think the bastards would have better stories to chase than this half-baked, bush-league case," that man's man was grumbling now.
"Perhaps we should go back into the building and try leaving by the rear door," a second-year associate attorney from the firm's investment division suggested. His face was pale, his anxiety, evident. Raine wondered if he was rethinking his decision to enter the glamorous world of big-city corporate law. She also decided that as bright as he admittedly was, he wouldn't pass Harriet's male litmus test.
Raine's legal team was made up of a clutch of associate attorneys, a paralegal whose job it was to hand over briefs with the precision and speed of a transplant-team surgical nurse, and various dark-suited minions who'd been at her client's beck and call during the past three weeks of the trial.
Standing between them and the elderly crowd was a reassuring wall of blue. The police were grasping riot sticks she suspected none wanted to use. After all, video of burly cops beating up Grandpa and Grandma headlining the nightly news would definitely undermine the mayor's effort to refurbish the city's image.
"Slinking out the back way would make it look as if we were ashamed of our case," she said.
Okay, she may have made a slight miscalculation regarding the emotional impact of what, had it not been for the millions of dollars involved, should have been a routine contract case. But her Grandmother Ida had taught Raine that nothing could be solved by sticking your tail between your legs and running away from a problem. "Perhaps I should stop long enough to answer some questions."
"No offense, Raine. But I'm not real sure that'll calm them down," Murdock warned.
"They're definitely in a feeding frenzy. But avoiding the issue won't make it go away. We may have won in court, but believe me, Rex, the media's going to play this as a David-and-Goliath story. And from the average person's point of view, you're going to be cast as a malicious, greedy giant."
"Remind me once again why I should care?"
A low burn began to simmer just below her ribcage. Raine ignored it. "Do the two little words Exxon Valdez ring a bell?"
His scowl deepened.
"I'll just try to defuse the situation a bit," she said, taking his nonreply as begrudging consent. "Before it gets totally out of hand."
"Hell, you've handled this case damn well so far." He did not add, as Raine suspected he might once have for a woman. "Might as well let you ride it out to the whistle."
Raine realized this was a major concession on his part. A wildcatter who'd struck it rich back when the gushing black gold could put a man on easy street for life, Rex Murdock did not surrender the reins easily. In fact, there'd been more than one occasion in court when she'd seriously wished the bar association guidelines allowed attorneys to muzzle their clients.
They'd reached the police barricade. Show time. Raine willed herself to calm as she faced down the crowd. The motor drives of the still cameras whirred, sounding like the wings of birds fighting against the wind that was ruffling her chin-length brown hair.
It was a cold day that gave lie to the fact that according to the calendar, spring had sprung; atop the building the flags snapped loudly in the wind and the taste of impending rain rode the brisk air. Foolishly believing the wake-up forecast predicting sunny skies, Raine had gone to work in a lightweight charcoal gray suit and white silk blouse that allowed the wind to cut through her like a knife.
"Ms. Cantrell!" A sleek blond woman sensibly clad in a black trench coat shoved a microphone past one of the cops. Raine recognized her as an attorney turned legal correspondent for CNN. She also occasionally showed up on Nightline. "What is your response to those who say your client is snatching bread from the mouths of the elderly?"
Raine looked straight into the camera lens. "I would simply reiterate what the court has decreed. The plaintiffs' claim was rejected because my client adhered to United States law by properly informing all employees, upon the signing of their employment agreement, that the company reserved the right to alter or terminate their retirement benefit package at any time."
As her response was answered by a roaring tidal wave of boos, Raine's attention drifted momentarily to an elderly woman sitting in an electric wheel chair. The woman was dressed in a navy blue fleece warm-up suit and high-topped sneakers bearing a red swoosh. Her white hair had been permed into puffs resembling cotton balls and her apple cheeks were ruddy from the cold. A black helium-filled balloon bearing the message Shame in bold red letters floated upward from a white string tied to the back of the chair.
Strangely, as Raine looked down at the elderly protestor, the white curls appeared to turn to salt-and-pepper gray, and the apple round face morphed to a narrow, more chiseled one that was strikingly familiar. Impossibly, Raine could have sworn she was looking down at her grandmother.
She blinked, relieved when the unsettling hallucination vanished. It was not the first such incident she'd had in the past few months. But they seemed to be getting more vivid, and decidedly more personal.
"Excuse me?" she asked a reporter whom she belatedly realized had been speaking to her.
"Jeff Martin, Wall Street Journal." The intense young man wearing wire-framed glasses impatiently reintroduced himself. "Would your client care to comment on the Gray Panthers' latest press release claiming that by cutting off access to health care for retirees and their spouses who are not yet qualified for Medicare, the defendant and you, by association are risking the lives of our nation's grandparents?"
This question was followed by a roar from the crowd. When the fanciful vision of Ida Lindstrom's disapproving face wavered in front of her eyes again, Raine shook her head to clear it. Then forced her uncharacteristically wandering mind back to the reporter's question.
"No offense intended to the Gray Panthers, but not only is that accusation an overstatement of the facts of the case, it's blatantly false, Mr. Martin. My client" she purposefully avoided using the reporter's negative term defendant "offers one of the most generous retirement packages in the industry."
The boos intensified. Protesters shouted out rude suggestions as to what Odessa Oil Rex Murdock in particular could do with its retirement package.
"But Odessa Oil also has a responsibility to its stockholders, many of whom are those same retirees." Determined to make her point, Raine doggedly continued, fighting back a drumming headache as she raised her voice to be heard over the crowd. "The decrease in crude-oil prices worldwide has left the company with no option but to discontinue free health-care benefits to those who opt for early retirement. As a federal court has determined today they are well within their rights to do."
The boos reached the decibel of the jackhammer that had begun pounding away inside her head. The placards were waving like pom poms at a football game. Someone in the crowd threw an egg that broke at Raine's feet, spattering her black suede Italian pumps with bright yellow yolk and gelatinous white. The attack drew enthusiastic applause from the coalition of protesters even as two of the cops waded into the crowd to find the assailant.
"You've given it your best shot, Raine. But these folks are flat-out nuts." Murdock had to yell in Raine's ear to be heard. "We're like Crockett and Bowie at the Battle of the Alamo. Let's get the hell out of here."
The icy wind picked up. The adrenaline rush of her courtroom victory had begun to wear off. Fearing that the next egg or something even more dangerous might hurt more than her shoes, Raine was ready to call it a day.
With two of New York City's finest clearing a path, Raine and the others began making their way to the black stretch limousine double-parked in the street beside an Eyewitness News van. They were pursued by the pack of reporters who shouted out questions like bullets from automatic rifles. Without waiting for the uniformed driver to get out of the car, one of the minions rushed to open the back door.
The limo, boasting two televisions, a fully stocked bar, and wide leather seats, was the height of comfort. The first time she'd ridden in the lush womb on wheels, Raine had felt exactly like Cinderella on her way to the ball. Today, although she'd never considered herself even a remotely fanciful woman, Raine imagined she could actually hear her grandmother's voice.
"Never forget girls," she'd instructed Raine and her sister on more than one occasion while they'd been growing up under her Victorian slate roof, "it's a lot easier for a camel to get into heaven than a rich man."
The saying was only one in her grandmother's seemingly endless repertoire of malapropisms. The last time Raine had heard it had been six years ago, the weekend she'd graduated from law school, when she and her grandmother had shared a grilled-portabello-mushroom-and-feta-cheese pizza at Harvard Law's Harkbox Café.
She glanced out the tinted back window at the protesters, watching them grow smaller and smaller. While the men rehashed the trial, Raine wondered why she didn't feel like joining in the conversation.
She should be jubilant. After all, she was the one who'd brought Odessa Oil into the firm in the first place, which had bolstered her reputation as a rainmaker. Today's verdict should put her on the fast track for partner in one of the largest, most prestigious law firms in the country. It was precisely what she'd been working toward for years, ever since she'd grabbed hold of the brass ring that had landed her a summer intern job at Choate, Plimpton, Wells & Sullivan. It was her personal Holy Grail and it was finally in sight.
She was intelligent, articulate, a former member of the oldest, most respected law review in the country, and currently a successful litigator who'd put the tiny northwestern town of Coldwater Cove, Washington behind her. She was a winner in a city that lionized victory. She had a three-thousand-dollar-a-month apartment furnished in sleek Italian leather, brass, and marble, and since the firm paid the tab for hired cars to drive their attorneys home at the end of the admittedly long workdays, she hadn't stepped foot on the subway since her arrival in New York.
Life was nearly perfect. So what the hell was wrong with her?
Raine rubbed her cheeks to soothe tensed facial muscles and sat up straighter in an attempt to untangle the knots in her back muscles. When the simmering flames began burning beneath her ribcage, she took out the ever ready roll of antacids and popped two into her mouth.
She'd become more and more restless these past weeks. And, although each night she'd fall into bed, physically and mentally exhausted, she'd been unable to sleep. She'd conveniently blamed it on the gallons of coffee she'd drunk while preparing for the trial, but if she were to be perfectly honest, her uncharacteristic distraction and anxiety, laced with a vague feeling of discontent, had been stirring inside her even before she'd begun preparing Odessa Oil's appeal.
As she chewed on the chalky tablets, which were advertised to taste like mint but didn't, Raine decided that her only problem was that she'd been working too hard for too long. After all, one-hundred-hour workweeks were common for those trudging along the yellow brick road to partnership.
Especially litigators, who tended to do the lion's share of the firm's traveling.
At first, after escaping the grinding poverty of law school, she'd been excited by the prospect of seeing the country at the firm's or, more precisely, the clients' expense. She'd looked forward to the frequent-flier perks attorneys at smaller firms could only dream about: being met at the airport gate by a uniformed driver holding a sign bearing her name, automatic hotel upgrades, and first-class airline tickets.
In reality, most of the time the only part of the country she was able to see was from thirty-thousand feet in the air. During visits to clients' cities, she tended to spend her entire time in airports, hotels, and office conference rooms and jet lag had become a way of life.
But life was filled with trade-offs, Raine reminded herself with a stiff mental shake as the limousine wove its way through the snarl of midtown traffic. And unlike so many others, hers came with a six-figure salary, health, life, and disability insurance, a 401(k) plan, bar association dues, and in the event she were ever crazy enough to try to juggle a demanding career and motherhood, paid parental leave.
She just needed a breather, she assured herself as she felt the familiar steel bands tighten around her head. She reached into her briefcase, took out a bottle of aspirin and swallowed two of them dry as she'd learned to do over the past months. On afterthought, she swallowed a third.
A short break to recharge her batteries would be just what the doctor ordered, she considered, picking up her thoughts where she'd left off. Perhaps it was time to take that long-overdue vacation she'd been planning and putting off for years. The one where she'd spend several sun-drenched days lounging beside a sparkling blue tropical lagoon while handsome hunks delivered mai tais and rubbed coconut oil all over her body.
This time the image that floated into Raine's mind was not one of her grandmother, but of herself, clad in a floaty, off-the-shoulder sundress emblazoned with tropical flowers. Not that she owned such a romantic dress, but this was, after all, a fantasy, so Raine wasn't about to quibble. She was strolling hand in hand with a drop-dead gorgeous man on a romantic, moonlit beach.
Music drifted on the perfumed night air as he lowered his head to kiss her. His mouth was a mere whisper away from hers when the rude blare of a siren shattered the blissful fantasy.
This time she was really going to do it, Raine vowed as a fire engine roared past the limo. While the others continued to gloat, she took out her Day-Timer and made a note to call a travel agent.
As soon as she cleared her calendar. Sometime in the next decade, she amended as she skimmed the pages filled with notations and appointments. If she was lucky.
Copyright © 1999 by JoAnn Ross