The bloodstains on the courtroom floor belong to attorney Nina Reilly. Months earlier she'd been shot during a heated murder trial. She should have died that day. Instead, Nina has returned to the same Lake Tahoe court. Her only concession to her lingering fear is to give up criminal law. She figures an invasion of privacy lawsuit is a nice, safe civil action that will help her support her young son and pay the bills for her one-woman law office. She figures wrong.
Nina's client is Terry London, a filmmaker whose documentary about a missing girl is raising disturbing questions. The girl's distraught parents believe the film invades their privacy. But Terry's brutal murder changes everything. Breaking her promise to herself, Nina decides to defend Terry's accused murderer, a man she'd known years before and hoped never to see again. Suddenly the secrets of Nina's past are beginning to surface in a murder case that gets more dangerous every day. The evidence against her client is shocking and ironclad--a video of Terry's dying words. The only chance Nina has to save the man may be illegal. And if it fails, Nina may lose the case, her practice...and even her life.
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Silence in the court. The only smiles came from the middle of the room where the Sweets sat, holding hands. Milne wiped his glasses on his robe, rubbing his eyes before putting them back on. Nina knew he had a criminal trial resuming at eleven-thirty. He had no time for wordplay. She felt the weight of the crushing time pressure caused by too many cases and too few judges, which made attorneys forget their best points and judges miss the ones they remembered to say.
"Ms. Reilly? Would you care to respond?" Milne was saying. She picked up her notes, gulping the dry air, as the courtroom waited for the first words to issue forth from her empty mind. Up you go....
"Just a few brief points, Your Honor. Let me first introduce my client, Theresa London." The judge gravely inclined his head. Terry also nodded, as Nina had coached her to do, and sat back down gracefully.
"Opposing counsel's bombast aside, Your Honor, Terry London has been working on this film for over a year. She has put countless hours and a lot of her own money into it. It's a work of art, based on truth. The world will be able to judge its merit. The plaintiffs, Tamara Sweet's parents and friends, encouraged Ms. London to make this film because they thought it might help them to locate her. And now they want to destroy it. Why?"
Nina caught Milne's eye, held it, and made him listen.
"Our expert, Monty Glasser, producer of the television series Real-Life Riddles, says this film has considerable artistic merit. As a documentary, it takes a point of view. The plaintiffs are offended by the filmmaker's point of view, because the film portrays them without masks, as they are, no more and no less.
"That's what this lawsuit is all about.
"But the film doesn't belong to the plaintiffs. They did not finance it; they did not labor over it; it is not their artistic effort.
"The United State Supreme Court doesn't look kindly on muzzling artistic expression in this country. Plaintiffs don't know what the reaction of the public to this film is going to be, Your Honor, so there has been no harm to them. There may be no harm. To prevent a book or film from even being made public is prior restraint. It's the kind of First Amendment censorship our courts are least likely to order."
Milne looked at the clock. Even the United States Constitution didn't sing for him today. Nina decided to finish quickly, with her best ammo.
"And, of course, the plaintiffs can't win this case on the merits," Nina said. "One of our affirmative defenses makes it a lost cause. Consent, Your Honor."
Milne stopped writing and gave her his full attention.
"This is really just a simple contract matter. Let's assume for the sake of argument that the film does invade the privacy of the plaintiffs under the usual definitions," Nina said. That woke everybody up.
"The contracts my client made with the plaintiffs said that she was going to make a documentary about the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Tamara Sweet based on film footage she gathered, and that she reserved the sole right to edit the footage. It's all here in the exhibits, signed, dated, and notarized. Consent was given in the broadest possible terms.
"There's no invasion of privacy if there was consent. It's as simple as that. The plaintiffs had the right to say no, I don't think I want to participate. But no one ever said that, Your Honor. These people gave their consent to be filmed, so there's no case, and we should all go home."
Nina turned and looked at Jonathan and Jessica Sweet, as if challenging them to rise meekly and file out the door, but they just sat there, looking shaken. She quelled a stray pang of compassion. They were suing her client. They were the enemy.
"In short, Your Honor, this case meets none of the requirements for issuance of a preliminary injunction. There's no proof the plaintiffs will be harmed by this film. There's no tort, because there was consent to the filming and no agreement the plaintiffs could take part in editing the film. The equities are in favor of the defendant. And there's a strong constitutional reason for not issuing the injunction--namely, that this film is protected free speech."
Milne nodded. Riesner scowled. Nina allowed herself a slight smile.
"Last of all, Mr. Riesner has called my client a voyeur, and a sick opportunist, and asks this court to tell her, quote, she's looked through the wrong window...."
Nobody was breathing. Nina smiled.
"She only recorded what was already there, the dirt, cobwebs, and cockroaches. I suggest to the court that she was invited in, and it's bad law to try to make her pretend the house was clean."
Nina sat down. Terry gave her a thumbs-up under the counsel table.
"Thank you," Milne said. "The Court will take this matter under submission." He went through his private door, chuckling.
A few minutes later, Nina and her client stood just outside the courtroom doors, alone. The first snowflakes swirled past them at a forty-five-degree angle from a steely sky. Terry's fur coat brushed sensuously against Nina's hand just as she was pulling on her glove.
"Lynx," Terry said. "Just the thing to wear on a freezing day like today. Women want to bury their faces in it. Men want to bury their pricks in it. So, did we win?"
"It went fine. We'll know in a few days, when the Minute Order comes out. I'll call you right away," Nina said. Unwritten rule of legal practice number 678: Never promise a client she'll win, particularly Terry, who had now buried her own hard nose in her fur.
"You never know, though," Nina went on, tucking her long brown hair under her upturned coat collar. "Sometimes judges make the wrong decisions, and then you have to appeal. I still don't understand why you won't make a few changes to the film, Terry, delete the part about Jessica Sweet being a regular barfly, and the bit about Jonathan Sweet being unemployed for two years around then. And your theory that she was murdered by some psycho lurking around Tahoe. Even if we win today, the trial itself could be lengthy and costly."
Terry's face, white as milk against the soft gray of the lynx, looked sly. She stepped closer to Nina, and Nina felt the lush fur brush her again. "Did you see the woman from the Tahoe Mirror in back?" Terry asked.
"Controversy. Lawsuits. Publicity. Worth every dime. This is my chance. No more chamber of commerce propaganda films. No more PBS shit that pays close enough to nothing. After this is shown, I'll be able to get the backing for a full-length feature film. It's already in the planning stages. And it'll blow everyone away. I'll be rich and famous. Riesner got it right. He's an asshole, but he reads me right."
"That's not what you told me at my office. You said you had put your heart and soul into this work of art--"
"And a hundred fifty grand, mostly borrowed."
Nina realized then that she disliked Terry. The First Amendment was America's most shining statement of liberty. She had taken this case because it presented a constitutional issue, but Terry mocked it while she hid behind it.
Terry said, "Come on, don't give me that high-minded crap you gave the judge. You're not that naive. You look like one thing, but you're really something else, hmm? Soft on the outside, doe-eyed. Curvy little female body. Inside overloaded with that big bulldoggy brain. I saw you push Riesner away. That was gutsy. He must outweigh you by a hundred pounds."
Nina said, "Well. Call you next week, as soon as we get the judge's decision." And when I get it, I'm outta this case, she said to herself.
"Don't you want to know how Riesner's right?" Terry said. "I mean, between you and me, confidentially of course?"
"Okay. How's he right?"
Terry leaned close, pushed Nina's hair away from her ear. The snow had begun falling. The lynx coat pressed against her, deep and warm and sensual, but made after all from carnivores. "I am a pervert," she whispered. "Maybe someday you'll find out some of the things I've seen and done. I gave up on conventional standards a long time ago, and I'm not just talking art here."
Nina cleared her throat, moving away, thinking that no one knew what lawyers had to put up with on a daily basis. "I see."
"Wait," Terry said, taking her by the arm to stop her. "I want to ask you something--you lived in Monterey before coming to Tahoe, right? I mean, you've been up here less than a year."
"That's right, except for a few years in San Francisco. Of course, I spent almost all my summers up here."
Terry stared at her. "I'll just bet you did," she said, nodding, her initial astonishment slowly giving way to a more calculating expression. "How is it I never made the connection before? I saw you with Riesner, and it started me thinking....Here I am going through life congratulating myself on how damn smart I am. Well, is my face red. I thought I'd hire the new local hotshot woman lawyer, do my bit for the females of the world. And look what I got!" she said. "You, of all people."
"What are you talking about?"
Terry let go of Nina's arm and stood a few feet away, seeming to study or memorize her features. Then, in a burst, as if she couldn't help herself, she began to laugh, and the laugh built until tears ran down her cheeks. "Gotcha!" she said suddenly, stepping toward Nina, then back. "Gotcha!"
Nina moved far enough away to feel she had an adequate safety zone between her and her client. People passed in the hallway, some noticing Terry's crazy laughter, some ignoring everything. Some time passed before the torrent spent itself, and Terry's face spasmed back into focus, reorganizing into the person Nina had thought she knew.
"Are you all right?" Nina finally ventured to ask.
"Me?" Terry said, her voice miraculously restored to normal. "If I were you," she said slowly, "I'd worry more about myself." She turned, her heels clacking on the hard floor and out the door into the snow, enveloped in her dead skin, looking like a strange thing, an animal walking upright with a human head.