Read an Excerpt
Night of the Panther
By Suzanne Forster
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Suzanne Forster
All rights reserved.
Johnny Starhawk was the one they'd all come to see.
The courtroom was packed to capacity with concerned citizens and curious spectators. Young lawyers squeezed together to catch a glimpse of the "renegade with a cause" in action. Outside, in the halls, the media waited, ready to pounce on the Irish-Apache attorney when the legal proceedings broke. The trial was a hotly contested one, a contract dispute between a small community church and a huge multi national oil company.
Starhawk was defending the church's right to lease oil-company land, and he was arguably the most controversial, yet celebrated, attorney in the country at the moment. His recent victories in civil-rights and environmental law had made him a legend at thirty-five. Everyone wanted a piece of him. Nobody really knew him ... with the exception of a quietly beautiful young woman sitting unnoticed in the back of the spectators' gallery.
Honor Bartholomew had taken a seat there, hoping not to be seen. To that end, she had dressed in nondescript gray clothes, and covered with a scarf the long blond hair she'd knotted in a loose coil at the back of her neck. But it was Starhawk's notice she feared, not the media's.
Clutching a small turquoise stone in her hand, she kept a watchful eye on Starhawk, whose back was to her, his exotic black hair spilling over his shoulders as he sat at the defendant's table and jotted notes. The stone grew warm as Honor worked its smoothness between her fingers.
Johnny Starhawk had given her the Apache good-luck charm a very long time ago, just days before another trial took place. Only Johnny wasn't an attorney then; he was the sixteen-year-old defendant, and the trial's tragic outcome had altered the course of both their young lives. That was eighteen years ago, and Honor hadn't seen Johnny since ... until today.
The question that tormented her now was why she was here, sitting in a courtroom in Washington, D.C., over a thousand miles from home. It had been an impulsive, emotional decision. She'd come at the behest of Johnny's maternal grandfather, an uncanny old man with rattlesnake eyes who called himself Chy Starhawk. The Apache shaman had shown up in her Scottsdale, Arizona, bookstore a week ago with a bizarre request for help that had truly astonished her.
"Only you can bring Johnny Starhawk back to the white mountains," he'd told her, transfixing her with his strange, lidless gaze. "Go to him," he'd urged her quietly. "He will come back for you."
At the mention of Johnny Starhawk's name after so many years. Honor had been stunned and disbelieving. She'd had no idea what the old man was talking about or why it was so important that Johnny return to his tribe until the shaman began to describe the terrible setbacks on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. The tribe's livelihood was in jeopardy, he'd explained. Its cattle were sick, dying. Pollution from a nearby uranium mine was fouling the streams and rivers, but the Apache hadn't been able to get an injunction against the mining company.
Honor had known immediately that he was talking about her father's mine. She'd been estranged from Hale Bartholomew for years, but she was well aware of her father's bottom-line attitude toward environmental concerns. He'd always maintained that saving jobs was more important than saving trees. Even as a child. Honor had seen both sides of the argument, but she'd known better than to clash with her formidable father.
"What you're asking is impossible," she'd told the shaman. "If Johnny remembers me at all, it's not with goodwill. He must still ... hate me. Surely you know that."
"I know only what the dreams tell me," the old man had countered. "My grandson vowed never to return when he left the reservation. He won't come back for me, but he will for you."
His certainty had been hypnotic. Honor had found herself being drawn in, swayed by him, especially since she was sympathetic to the tribe's plight. But somehow she'd resisted Chy Starhawk, even when he'd vividly described his prophetic dreams and his belief that only Johnny could win a lawsuit against the mining company. She'd had to resist him. He'd said nothing to ease her fears about Johnny's hatred. "I'm not the right person," she told him.
"You are." The old man's voice was firm, as if there were no doubt of it. "And you will go. Not for me, or even for the White Mountain Apache. You will do it for yourself. It's the only way you can be free of the past."
Honor had recoiled from the cold truth of that statement. It had rocked her to have her past sins thrown up to her so unexpectedly. But in the end she'd known he was right. She had never been free from guilt in the eighteen years since she'd last seen Johnny. She was the reason he'd been sent away. She was the one who had betrayed him....
"Do you believe in a higher power, Mr. Rutledge?"
Johnny's voice brought Honor back to the present. He had risen to cross-examine a witness for the plaintiff, one of the oil company's executives, but Honor was barely aware of the man's awkward attempts to answer the question. Her attention was riveted on Johnny. She was hungry for whatever information her senses could give her about him. She needed to know how he might have changed. And she was praying that he hadn't.
She'd followed his career through newspaper and magazine accounts, and she was familiar with the media's fascination with his "pantherish charisma" and his "killer instincts." They questioned him at press conferences about his predatory style, and interviewed him on issue-oriented talk shows about his views. But whether they agreed or disagreed with his latest cause, they flocked to his trials to watch the panther make his next kill.
Their references weren't wasted on him. Honor conceded silently. Defying courtroom tradition, Johnny wore his jet-black hair long and free-flowing, as much a symbol of power as any animal's mane in the wild. Even his eyes lent themselves to the imagery. They flashed like mercury when the light struck them, reminding her of a cat's opaque glare. Maturity had given him height and muscularity, she acknowledged silently. It had made him physically powerful, but it had taken nothing away from his lethal grace.
"Would you have the church demolished, Mr. Rutledge?" Johnny asked, quietly cornering the executive. "And then what? You'd build a gas station in its place? Or a storage yard?"
He allowed the man to fumble overlong with his answer before posing another, equally damaging question. "Or maybe you'd sell the land to the highest bidder? Its market value has appreciated considerably in the twenty years since the church was built, hasn't it?"
Over the next quarter hour Johnny continued to stalk the flustered executive, flushing out his moral ambiguities with the stealth and cunning of a natural predator.
He had changed, Honor realized, bringing the stone to her lips as she sensed how much. The fiery pride she remembered was still there, evident in the taut slash of muscle that rode his jawline. But it was fueled by a new, more potent weapon—ruthlessness. She could see the cold calculation at work in his eyes, the native intelligence. Like a cat, he was infinitely patient with his prey. And like a cat, merciless.
"What is the value of a small community church?" Johnny asked, posing the question to the executive as he turned to the gallery, his dark gaze sweeping the room. Honor pressed her back against the wooden bench, afraid he might see her. But his eyes passed over her without any sign of recognition.
Her heart was pounding wildly. Once she'd decided to make the trip, she'd convinced herself that if she could watch him work, she would be better prepared to deal with him in person. She couldn't have been more wrong. After observing his performance today, the prospect of coming face-to-face with him terrified her. The press was right. He did have killer instincts. His prowess in the courtroom lent him an aspect of danger and unpredictability, of deadly advantage.
And yet she had no choice in the matter. She had an appointment the next morning. She'd made arrangements with his secretary to see him at ten, and so far the appointment hadn't been canceled, even though she'd used her own name. It had surprised her that he would be willing to see her. Was it possible he didn't remember her? It had been so many years.
Her thoughts drifted automatically to the only other time she'd seen him in a courtroom. She'd been called at the last minute by the prosecution as a surprise witness. Johnny had been charged with three counts of assault and battery against high school boys his own age. She'd fought against testifying, pleading with her father not to make her take the stand; but he'd been unrelenting, and finally he'd persuaded her it was the right thing to do. To her eternal regret, she had believed him.
She would never forget the confusion in Johnny's expression as her name was called, and she walked to the front of the courtroom, tears in her eyes. By the time she'd told the prosecutor what she knew, Johnny's confusion was gone, replaced by pain and rage. It was her testimony that had convicted him.
Honor adjusted the gold bracelet band of her wristwatch, opening and refastening a clasp she knew was already secure. It was now thirty minutes past her scheduled appointment time with Johnny, and it wouldn't have surprised her if he was intentionally keeping her waiting. If he'd hoped to make her nervous, it was working. The minutes were ticking away in her head like a countdown to Judgment Day.
She'd taken in every detail of his beautiful but severely appointed reception room—from the neo-modern decor and the striking black-and-white photographs hanging on the walls to the sleek thirtyish receptionist who'd greeted her without the slightest hint of curiosity.
Honor had even taken inventory of her own clothing, wondering if the sandwashed silk suit she wore was appropriate. Were its dusty pink hues too pale for her fair skin? The shawl collar overly feminine?
As she tucked an errant strand of blond hair into the softly braided coil at the nape of her neck, she glanced up at Johnny's office door. The dark wooden portal was a compelling trigger to her deeper fears. Her mind made a startling leap ahead, trying to predict the future, imagining what consequences awaited her on the other side.
How would he react to seeing her after all these years? If she'd been dealing with any other man, she might have been able to convince herself that years could make a difference, that time had worked its own healing process. But she'd seen him in the courtroom; she'd watched his skill at using the witness's weaknesses against him. He'd been unrelenting.
She knew in her heart that if Johnny Starhawk was the kind of man who sought revenge, she would be all but helpless against him. It wasn't just the guilt she harbored. She was not a fighter by nature. She didn't have the instinct for it. He did. It came to him through ancient bloodlines. She could remember reading historical references about travelers who reserved the last shot in their revolvers for their own heads if they were captured by Apaches, so excruciating were the tribe's methods of torture thought to be.
Honor pulled a magazine from the table in front of her and chided herself for being an alarmist. She didn't need Johnny to scare her; she was doing a fine job of that herself.
"Ms. Bartholomew? Mr. Starhawk will see you now."
The magazine slipped from Honor's hands. She rose, unbearably nervous.
He was standing by the window, seemingly unaware of her as she entered his spacious office. His profile tugged cruelly at her emotions. There were things about him that hadn't changed, things that would never change—from the high arc of his cheekbones to his fine, sensual mouth. The promise of male beauty in his youth was stunningly realized in his dark and brooding features.
But it was the shadowed melancholy in his expression that caught at her heart. It dragged her back eighteen years, bringing home a painful awareness. This imposing man was once the sad and lonely boy she'd known.
For a moment she forgot to be cautious. She wanted to walk over and touch his arm, to be whisked back in time to the river where they used to meet, to see his dark eyes regarding her with silent wonder. It astonished her now to remember how much she'd loved that lithe, dusky-skinned boy. No one had reached inside her silence but Johnny, no one had touched her heart and brought her out but him....
She said his name, whispered it softly.
He inhaled sharply, and she thought she heard his breath tremble as he released it. But when he turned toward her, and she caught the icy glint of his eyes, she knew she was wrong. Johnny Starhawk, the man, had no melancholy left in him, no sad emotions where she was concerned. Only coldness.
"To what do I owe the ... honor?" he asked. The edge he put on her name was cruel.
"I'm here to—" She broke off, sensing the futility of appealing to his sympathies in any way. "I was in the area, and I thought—"
"In the area?" He cut her off softly, savagely. "Don't patronize me, Honor. And don't waste both our time. Just tell me what you're doing here."
She stepped back, frightened. "All right then. I'm here to ask for your help, that's all. But it's important."
He approached the desk, a faint smile compressing his lips. "My help?" he said, taking in her clothing, hair, and jewelry as though they were incriminating evidence of a plot to exploit the masses. Even as a young girl, she'd sensed his unspoken disapproval of her family's wealth, and yet now, from all appearances, he'd gone to great lengths to surround himself with expensive trappings.
"I'm not asking for myself," she said.
"Ah, that explains it." He flashed a quick, cold smile. "Slumming, are we? Got some worthy cause you want the courtroom warrior to promote now that he's made a name for himself? Maybe I could be your poster boy?"
Honor steeled herself against his cutting tone. His ability to slice to the bone with words had always intimidated her. But at least he'd made clear the rules of this game they were about to play. The gloves were off. He meant things to be nasty. Still, she realized, for all his apparent desire to wound her, there was something fiendishly beautiful about his wrath, and she, after all, was a deserving target.
He nodded toward one of the chairs that faced his desk.
She took it, relieved when he sat down as well. Somehow he didn't seem quite so dangerous across the expanse of teakwood, perhaps because their heights were more equal. She gauged him to be at least six foot two, several inches taller than she was at five foot five.
"I wasn't sure you'd remember me," she said, making a clumsy attempt at conversation. "It's been a long time."
The bones of his face seemed to sharpen as he stared at her, intensifying the dark, flaring angles. "You don't give yourself enough credit," he said. "I've been trying to forget you for eighteen years."
Honor touched the hem of her jacket with unsteady fingers, adjusting the silky material. She'd opened herself for that blow. What she hadn't expected was that he would so readily admit how affected he'd been by her.
She glanced up, wishing she could express to him how sorry she was, longing to say anything that would help heal the wounds. But even if she'd been able to summon the words, it wouldn't have been safe to utter them. The cold white flame that burned in his eyes told her not to try anything so condescending as an apology after all this time.
"Maybe I should tell you why I'm here," she suggested.
"Yes." He leaned back in the leather executive chair, ebony hair cascading down his back. "Do that."
"I'm sure you're aware of what's happening on the White Mountain Reservation." She hesitated, anticipating a reaction, and got none. "They believe something's polluting the groundwater."
"What does that have to do with you? Or me?"
Honor saw no choice but to tell him what had happened. It was the only way to explain why she was there. The shaman had told her that he'd called and written Johnny, asking for help, but Johnny had turned down his requests. Obviously the old man intended Honor to be a troubleshooter. She'd been sent in to fix a problem no one else could.
"Your grandfather came to my bookstore in Scottsdale," she explained. "He asked if I would talk to you."
"He came to you? Why?"
Excerpted from Night of the Panther by Suzanne Forster. Copyright © 1992 Suzanne Forster. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.