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It never ceased to amaze Hollis how normal things could look on the outside when all hell was breaking loose on the inside. After taking a last look at the sailboats passing at a leisurely pace under the San Francisco Bay Bridge, she closed the window shutters. With renewed determination, she turned to tackle the maze of boxes in the room behind her.
Packing tape bulged along the edges of the storage box with a finality that marked not only the end of Hollis' law studies but the conclusion of a turbulent chapter in her life. The box was too heavy to lift, so she kicked and pushed it down the hallway to her spare bedroom, where it joined the growing stack of boxes, old clothes, and items waiting for a final resting place. Shutting the door firmly, she leaned against the door frame and caught her reflection in the hallway mirror. Her thick auburn hair had slipped from the bun atop her head, and a pair of tired brown eyes gazed back at her.
The California Bar was done and so was she. Law schools wanted students with life experience. But she doubted it included thirty-three-year-olds who had taken time out for a stint in prison. That sad chapter in her life began with a conviction for a white-collar crime orchestrated by her now deceased ex-husband. Fortunately the prison sentence that followed — eighteen months of real incarceration time — was not the end of her dreams. She fought to clear her name and received a rare pardon. Since then, Hollis tried to make up for lost time by making each day count.
She turned off the light and headed downstairs. It had been a long road and now she was ready to hit the restart button. After four months she was returning to her old job at Triple D, or as the letterhead put it, "The Law Firm of Dodson, Dodson and Doyle."
She sprawled out on the couch and closed her eyes. Just a few minutes of pause; then she'd finish returning everything to its place.
The ringing of the kitchen phone jarred her awake.
Adrenaline pumping, she squinted up at the clock and went to the kitchen.
"Hollis, this is Cathy Briscoe. I'm sorry for calling so late. But I need to talk to you. Can I come over?"
"Cathy? What's wrong?" She opened her eyes wide. "It's almost eleven."
"I'll tell you when I get there. Still living in San Lucian, right?"
"Yes, but here — "
"Hollis, one day you need to look at why you don't like friends to visit your home. But no matter, I don't have time to deal with your phobias."
"It's a preference, not a phobia." Hollis sighed. "No, I haven't moved. Sure, come over, but I can't promise I won't fall asleep on you."
"I won't take long, I promise. I'll be there in ten minutes."
Catherine Briscoe used to work for Triple D. She had gone to Hastings Law School and shared her first year with Hollis, but unlike Hollis she had finished on time. She took the bar and returned to Triple D as one of their top notch associates. While Hollis specialized in getting through her sentence for insurance fraud in Chowchilla Prison, Cathy specialized in intellectual property and fit right into Triple D's boutique law niche. When Hollis followed in her footsteps and got hired by Triple D as a paralegal, Cathy took her under her wing and wouldn't let her get too discouraged or too vengeful.
Hollis straightened the kitchen table and chairs. She turned on the living room light, put water on for tea, and placed two wine glasses in the freezer.
No one at Triple D was surprised when, after two years, Cathy was lured away by McClouds, one of the largest international law firms in San Francisco, but she never forgot Hollis. Over the last couple of years they had kept in contact, meeting for drinks or meals on a regular basis. In recent months, while Hollis was studying for the bar, phone conversations and emails with Cathy had taken the place of visits. Cathy had offered to play proctor for Hollis' practice exams. Hollis appreciated the offer but declined; she did her studying better alone.
Ten minutes later she heard Cathy's knock on the front door. Cathy, at five four, was only a little taller than Hollis. Her hazel eyes were framed with thick dark eyebrows and her long dark hair was pulled back into her trademark braid. She carried a briefcase, tote, and manila folder stuffed with papers. The minute she was in the door, she had her jacket half off. Hollis couldn't help but notice the sheen of sweat on her cheeks and forehead.
After a few moments of catching up, they settled onto the living room sofa and Hollis set two cups of tea on the coffee table.
Cathy looked around. "Have you got any wine?"
"Sure." Hollis got up. "Glasses are in the freezer. Start talking; I can hear you."
"Thanks, Hollis. I'm sorry to bother you. I remember what a mound of babble I was after I took the bar, but you're the only one I could think of who might be able to help me. Mark thought so, too."
Mark Haddan was an attorney who used to work at Triple D. After he also moved on to McClouds, he and Hollis remained good friends. She owed him.
"Mark is pretty savvy," Hollis called out from the kitchen. "Go ahead, let's hear it."
"I didn't tell you because you were deep into studying, but I left McClouds about five months ago. I'm now a freelance writer covering stories with a legal slant for Transformation. You know the one that greets you at the check-out in the grocery store?"
Hollis raised her eyebrows but said nothing. Transformation was cousin to Intercept and Speakeasy tabloids.
"Why didn't you tell me the last time we talked on the phone?" Hollis put a tray with glasses and a bottle of white wine on the table.
Cathy shook her head and hugged herself, gripping her upper arms. "I thought about it, but you were finishing up at Hastings and then studying for the bar. Anyway, I was burning out on the law, and I realized I liked taking on freelance assignments." She paused. "Last month I submitted a story about a non-profit group with ties to Dorian Fields and his Fields of Giving organization." She took a sip of wine. "I cleared all the research and we had a ton of corroborating testimony."
She nodded. "It was good. It was my first investigative article. Dorian Fields is masquerading as a warm-hearted entrepreneur while using his non- profits as shells for money laundering. I got photos and tapes. Here's a copy of my article. It was to be the first in a three part serial."
"Wow, I get it." Hollis glanced quickly over the pages. "Where did you get your hands on evidence like this?"
Cathy raised her glass in a mock toast. "A whistleblower who wanted to remain anonymous. It's not uncommon with tabloids. Anyway I went through each piece of information. It all checked out."
"Okay. Do I hear a Pulitzer?"
She snorted. "Last Wednesday, I was served a lawsuit for libel. Mr. Fields asserts my story was completely bogus. He's suing me for twenty million."
Hollis paused with her pen in the air. "You, personally, not the paper?"
Cathy nodded. "Both. Transformation has me under a freelance contract. I'm still on probation. I knew it was risky, but I couldn't imagine anything would happen that would put me at liability. I've practiced intellectual property law; I made sure I vetted copies of the evidence with our attorneys...." Her voice trailed off.
"Did it actually get published?"
"No ... well yes, Transformation distributes copies on Thursdays. This issue was stopped at the warehouse. Boy, was management pissed."
"How did Fields find out?"
"I have no idea. Although, in a way, it saved me. If the paper had been distributed, the suit would have been three times as large."
Hollis looked up from the pad in her lap. "What can I do? I'm just a law student anxiously waiting for the next months to go by quickly so I can know by Thanksgiving if I passed the bar exam."
"While I was lamenting to Mark, he reminded me what a great researcher you are. Look, Hollis, I don't have a lot of money. I'm still paying off law school loans. I need you to help me re-gather the information on Fields. It took me three months of twenty-four/seven to pull together everything the first time. I don't have that leeway anymore. My hearing is next month. I already asked for an extension. I'm pro per."
"Are you sure you want to represent yourself? Wait a minute, I'm confused. Why do you need research? You already found all the information to back up the article."
Cathy balled up her fists and hit the arms of her chair. "Two nights ago all my research was stolen. I had to go down to L.A. to take care of a financial matter, and when I got home the house was a mess and my research papers were gone. I had copies on my laptop and a backup on my flash drive. They got both."
"Did you call the police?"
"Yes, of course. But I was also missing my TV, my music system, and some jewelry. So they said it was a routine burglary. There was nothing that pointed to Fields."
"So, you think he was getting rid of your proof before the court hearing?"
"You better believe it."
"But why me? Surely, you know people who are better at this than I am."
Hollis couldn't shake the feeling there was more to her friend's story than she was saying.
Cathy nodded with understanding.
"I remember when your doggedness solved the murder and fraud case at Triple D. I was at McClouds, but everybody there knew you saved Triple D a ton of money. The number of lawsuits was minimal, because Triple D got jump on the client settlements."
"But that wasn't libel."
"Hollis, what's the only real defense against libel?"
"Exactly. Dorian Fields knows that I know the truth. He has to stop me from ruining his name."
Hollis didn't want to point out he was off to a good start. She ran her fingers through her hair.
"Okay, okay. Look, it's almost midnight and I'm beat. I return to the office tomorrow for the first time since I went on leave to study for the bar. I can't think straight. Let me get some rest. I'm not a night person and I need to think through what you've told me. I'll call you tomorrow."
"No, you don't understand. I don't mean to be unreasonable, but I haven't slept in days. I need to know now that you'll help me. Just take a look at this." She reached into her tote and brought up a file filled with clippings.
Hollis patted the file without holding it. "Cathy, I can't. Give me until tomorrow morning. I'll call you first thing — promise. My brain feels like oatmeal. I want to help you, but if I had a little sleep, I might even be able to think of somebody who could be more help."
Cathy's shoulders slumped and she closed her eyes. When she opened them, Hollis could see they were bloodshot and glistening.
Resigned, she gathered her tote and briefcase. "Tomorrow then."
Before leaving for work the next morning, Hollis glanced through the material Cathy left behind and made up her mind to help her. It shouldn't take too long to substantiate the assertions, and she already had a couple of ideas — first, she would interview the nonprofits. Punching Cathy's number in her cellphone she was greeted with a monotone response. Hollis left a voice message to get in contact.
Triple D's lobby hadn't changed. Other than having the name of one of its partners removed from the directory, it was the same as it had been for years. Hollis thought it would look or feel different to her after being on leave for the past three months. It didn't. Taking advantage of Triple D's employee professional education assistance program, she'd converted her vacation time to paid hours that were matched by the firm.
"Welcome back!" Doe-eyed Tiffany smiled up from her perch at the receptionist desk. Her perky wholesome looks masked a sharp mind. "How did it go?"
Hollis took a deep breath. "It was grueling. I don't know if I did well or not, I'm just glad it's over. I've started to — "
"Hollis, good morning, you're here bright and early, just like the old days." Ed Simmons, the firm's managing partner, came through the lobby doors with briefcase and iPhone in hand. "We really missed you. There are a couple of probate cases that are giving George grief. I'm sure he'll be even happier to see you than I am."
Without waiting for her answer, he walked past into the hallway leading to his office. Ed's appearance was as no-nonsense as his manner. Plain suit and tie, nothing flashy, and a face few witnesses would be able to describe because of its ordinariness. His receding brown hair, capped regular features, and with eyes a little too close together, very little escaped him.
Tiffany made a sympathetic face and picked up the ringing phone.
Hollis grinned and shook her head. Ed had not changed either; he was still in charge and the firm would always come first. It was good to be back.
Triple D had been her refuge in the past and she hoped it would continue to be in the future. The last months had been a mesh of study, intense study, and mind-bending study. Preparing for the bar exam had consumed her life. At the end, after hundreds of hours, it came down to three days, two performance tests, six essays and two hundred multiple choice questions. She wouldn't find out the results until November, three more months, which was fine with her. It would take her that long to recuperate. Now, back at work, she found her office to be both familiar and distant at the same time, like looking at old photographs of herself as a child. No one had moved a thing since she left a month ago.
"Good morning. Am I glad to see you!"
Hollis smiled at the tall man in her doorway. George Ravel was a good boss. He had twenty years on her in age, but his youthful outlook and good nature closed a good part of the gap. He dressed like he lived, down to earth. She was glad he hadn't changed. He was more like a peer.
"You know, it feels great to be back."
"How did it go?" He occupied the only guest chair in her office.
Hollis took the next few minutes to recount bar exam details. George listened intently. He could appreciate her description and knew exactly what she had been through.
"Anyway," Hollis concluded, "except for the last essay I'm feeling pretty good. But I've heard much the same from people who've crashed and burned."
"Hey, hey, don't look so glum. It's all over now."
"George, almost half the room was filled with people who had failed the exam at least once. One guy failed three times."
"What's your point?" George said. "They're not you. But now that you bring it up, I kind of like the idea of you being my paralegal for life."
Hollis laughed. "No way, buddy, take advantage of my skills now 'cause come fall, I'm out of here."
He grinned. "Good, that sounds more like you. But while you're still here I could sure use your help. Take some time to get back into gear. Then let's meet around ten o'clock to go over cases with our new associate."
Hollis glanced over to her in-box.
George had meant what he said; he was glad to see her. She glanced through the stack of filings and a shorter stack of correspondence needing responses. After thirty minutes of flipping through files, she realized that — improbable as it was — some of these cases seemed to be where she'd left them months ago. She felt challenged, rather than overwhelmed, knowing she'd have everything up to date in short order.
Hollis punched in Cathy's cell number and got her machine again. "Cathy, you've sold me. I want to help. Give me a call at the office." She also sent a text message.
Where was Cathy? Last night she'd pushed hard for an instant decision.
In George's ten o'clock meeting, she met Tim Walker, a new associate attorney on their team. Hollis could tell this was his first job. Young and a little gawky, he was rightly embarrassed when Ed, on his way out, pointed to his one navy blue and one black sock. In response, the new associate's cheeks and rather prominent ears turned beet red. Hollis, concentrating on going through papers, pretended not to hear or see a thing.
George followed her example.
"Hollis, we have a case that came in right after you left. It took a while to ascertain there were no heirs, and now the client's house is listed for sale. The furniture needs to be inventoried and sold through an auction house. Ordinarily, I'd give it to you, but ... ." his voice uncharacteristically drifted.
"I'll be fine. I'm not traumatized." She reassured him. She knew George hesitated because the last time she inventoried a client's assets it resulted in her being left for dead. She had trusted her then-manager emotionally and professionally and he had joined her list of betrayers. But other than random unintentional looking back — she didn't. She refused to be defined by obstacles.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sticks & Stones"
Copyright © 2014 R. Franklin James.
Excerpted by permission of Coffeetown Enterprises, Inc.
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