Probate attorney Hollis Morgan is branching out into criminal law. Pardoned after serving time for her then-husband's white-collar crime, she knows something about the workings of the criminal mind. Hollis' first criminal case quickly gets complicated. Her client is a young man initially accused of identity theft, but his charge soon includes murder. Hollis has a knack for detecting lies, and although Justin Eastland lies with every breath, she doesn't believe he is a killer. Eastland is let out on bail as bait, and Hollis struggles to keep her client alive. She enlists the services of her young friend Vince, a former addict she helped get back on track, telling him to not let Eastland out of his sight. At the same time Hollis is handling a sensitive probate matter for a whistle-blower hiding from a revengeful cartel. It has not been easy for Hollis to learn to trust again, and in both these cases, a surprising number of people are not telling her the whole story. She thinks she can sort the truths from the half-truths and the outright lies, but how reliable are her instincts? Hollis' sense of justice does not always consider the law. If she's wrong, her clients aren't the only ones who could lose their lives. The sixth and final book in the Hollis Morgan mystery series.
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Hollis was going to be late getting into the office.
She bent over to give John a light kiss on the forehead. His snoring stopped momentarily and then continued on. She smiled. She no longer complained of his snoring, or his corny jokes, or his yelling at the 49ers quarterback through the TV screen. He was home, and he was safe.
It had been almost seven months since he'd returned from a Homeland Security undercover assignment that left him at death's door. He'd spent a month in the hospital to recuperate from his burns and broken bones, and did yet another month of rehab. Finally, after a third month of departmental psychological assessments and debriefings, he was finally released for return to duty. Thank goodness it was desk duty.
She gave his sleeping figure one last look, then tiptoed down the stairs of their townhouse and out to the garage. The sky was just beginning to pale and the sun to rise as she merged onto the freeway.
Dodson, Dodson and Doyle, or Triple D, as it employees referred to it, was one of the oldest law firms in the Bay Area. It was small, well regarded, and fit her purposes perfectly.
As usual, Hollis was the first to the office. She turned on the firm's lobby lights, and quickly made her way to her office. She checked her calendar for the week. Other than today's lunch with Stephanie and Rena, it was back-to-back client meetings and preparation for a court hearing.
With single-minded determination, she took the top file off the stack and began making notations for Penny to follow up.
When Hollis looked up again, Penny stood in her doorway. The middle-aged woman was a force to be reckoned with. Dealing with her no-nonsense personality was a small price to pay for availing of her sharp mind and analytical skills. As a paralegal, she was unsurpassed.
"You'll be late for your lunch if you're going by the courthouse first," Penny said, bringing in two more files.
Hollis glanced at the wall clock. "You're right." She stood and picked up her purse and briefcase. "Time got away from me."
"Well, it's the same time for everybody."
"Yes, thank you, Penny, for your ... your keen observation."
After John, Stephanie Ross and Rena Haddon were Hollis's best friends, and their regular lunches helped keep her grounded. Stephanie had come to her aid during a few life-threatening incidents, and Rena was a member of the Fallen Angels Book Club. A fellow book lover as well as a white-collar ex-con, Rena shared with Hollis the nightmare of having to slowly regain society's trust, and even more gradually their own self-respect.
Hollis was silent as Rena and Stephanie chatted on about a recent celebrity break-up. Her thoughts drifted to that period of time, not that many years ago, when she thought she would never get her footing back. When she doubted that her life would be anything but an uphill battle just to break even.
Prison life had definitely soured her, but as she thought it through, it wasn't prison life that had cast her into a tail spin; it was her ex-husband's betrayal that made her lose confidence and trust. Back then she had built up such a thick shell around her that after almost nine years it had become a self-made prison. But cracks started to appear. She could thank Jeffrey Wallace, her parole agent, for the first chink. He'd believed in her unconditionally, and introduced her to the Fallen Angels Book Club.
She took a bite of salad.
The Fallen Angels Book Club had been the key to her emotional resurgence. They still met monthly and knew the members of their group would always have their backs. It was where she'd first met Rena.
She lifted her gaze and looked into two pairs of curious eyes.
"Hollis, where are you?" Rena asked gently. "You zoned out on us."
She felt a sheepish smile cross her face. "Sorry, I guess I did drift off. It's not that I don't think the exploits of Hollywood stars make for fascinating conversation, but I'd rather hear about your exploits. Stephanie, any interesting cases?" Stephanie shook her head. "Oh, no, Hollis, we came here for a girls' lunch, not a serious work re-hash." She took a sip of her iced tea. "But now that you've asked, I do have this strange autopsy file — the body of a young man without any signs of trauma or physical ailment. He just died."
"You mean his heart just stopped beating?" Rena asked.
"Well, didn't it have to stop beating for a reason?" Hollis said.
"Yes," Stephanie agreed. "That's why it's my puzzle for the week." She pushed her plate away. "But enough of him. What about you, Rena? Now that you're managing buyer for Barney's Pacific region, what's your challenge?"
Rena shook her finger. "Oh, don't think I didn't hear the tone of condescension in your voice, Stephanie. You think that you and Hollis have the corner on life's grittier issues, that my work world is fashion fluff. Well, I still have to deal with real people and real problems. Which brings to mind, Hollis, my other half, Mark, wants you to give him a call about a possible new client — she needs to probate a trust. And that reminds me, are you coming to the book club meeting Friday night? You haven't been to a meeting in months."
Hollis hesitated before answering.
"Hmm, I'll give him a call later on. It must be a good one. He usually doesn't come across routine matters." She paused. "I'll try to make the club meeting, but I promised John we'd have a quiet evening at home."
Stephanie and Rena exchanged looks.
Rena cleared her throat. "How's he doing since he's been back? You guys don't seem to socialize much anymore."
"Of course not. He needs to rest," Hollis snapped. She folded her napkin in a small square. "My God, he was almost killed; it's not easy for him to get back to normal."
"Not easy for him, or for you?" Stephanie averted her eyes to the remnants of her sandwich.
Hollis could feel her face flush with heat. "What are you two trying to imply?"
Rena tapped her mouth with her napkin. "We're not implying, honey, we are telling you that you appear to be taking on the role of mother tiger. A role, I might add, that must be terribly difficult for you to keep up. Where do you think you're compensating?"
"So now you guys are amateur psychologists?" Hollis said, failing to suppress a frown. "I don't know what you mean."
Stephanie reached across the table and placed her hand on Hollis's arm. "You're afraid of how you felt when you thought you'd lost John. You were vulnerable and exposed and you hated it, so now ... now you're trying to keep him close so you never have to feel that way again." She squeezed her arm. "But it's not like you, so you're clinging to work and dumping your irritation on the rest of the world ... and your friends."
"Because that's where you still have control," Rena added, putting her hand on Hollis's shoulder. "But you're still off balance because you're really angry with John, and you know that's even crazier."
Hollis looked from one to the other, and she could feel her eyes moisten. She gruffly shook off both their hands.
"Enough, I'm out of here." She stood and gathered her purse. "It's you two who are making me nuts ... and ... and angry. I think you're both way off base."
Hollis walked briskly to her car parked out front, but not before she caught the high-five exchange between her friends.
Returning to her office, Hollis looked at the messages Penny had left for her and punched a number into the phone.
"Mark, hey, how are you?" she said. "I'm sorry I didn't get right back to you. My caseload is really active now and you know what a glutton for punishment I can be."
Mark Haddon had started with Triple D not long after she had and was fired about a year after that. A co-worker had set him up for a speedy departure when he realized that Hollis and Mark were about to reveal the co-worker's illegal transactions. Mark had literally saved her life, and she'd introduced him to the love of his life, Rena.
They went way back, if not in years, then certainly in intensity of experience.
"No problem," he said. "Rena told me you were real busy." They chatted for a few minutes before Mark said, "I thought you preferred probate because you didn't have to deal with live people."
She chuckled. "I know, I know, but I always find myself trying to right some wrong and ... and that's somewhat gratifying."
"Your clientele are quite, er, diverse. I can attest to that."
The both laughed, remembering.
"It's never boring," Hollis said and then she glanced at the time. "I can't talk long. What did you want to discuss?"
Mark cleared his throat. "I've got a client who needs your help. This is a very confidential matter; exposure could endanger her life."
"Okay, this sounds ominous. What's it all about?"
"Let's do drinks," he said, rustling papers. "I'll show you the file. We can meet at Petro's. Not the one downtown — the one closest to Alameda."
Hollis furrowed her brow at Mark's selection of the out-of-the-way restaurant. "All right, see you at four. I've got a meeting with Gordon first, and I don't want you to wait."
"Four o'clock," Mark agreed and hung up.
She needn't have worried. Her meeting with Gordon was typically a fifteen-minute conversation, expanded to thirty minutes as he fielded phone calls, texts, and emails. Gordon Barrett had been her supervising attorney for just over a year, during which he had surmised that her deductive skills were better served in the criminal, rather than in the probate courts she now served. Slightly above average height with a nice build and a full head of thick brown hair, Gordon had brown eyes that didn't gaze — they pierced. When focused on you, they felt more like X-ray machines than mere organs for vision. He excelled in bringing in, and winning, the firm's biggest criminal cases.
However, since he had no background in probate law and more importantly, no interest, he and Hollis got along fine.
"I've been looking at your billable hours," he said, pointing to a sheet of paper. "You've really improved your record." He gave her a small smile. "I know you think I'm always after bigger numbers, but I wanted to tell you —"
His phone vibrated and he snatched it up to look at the screen.
"Hollis, I've got to take this," he said sheepishly. "Touch base with me later."
"Of course," she replied, managing not to laugh until she reached the hallway.
The afternoon went by quickly. After tackling a few last-minute files, she had to scramble to arrive on time for her meeting with Mark.
Petro's was a lively old-country Italian restaurant under the High Street Bridge on the way to Alameda, an island city in the East Bay. Alameda was only reachable through Oakland by car and boasted a top speed limit of twenty-five miles per hour. Upper-middle-class seventeenth- and eighteenth-century homes graced wide, tree-lined streets. It was a hidden jewel amid the hustle and bustle of the urban San Francisco Bay Area.
Her eyes quickly adjusted to the restaurant's dim lighting, and she spotted Mark's wave. After they exchanged hugs, she slid across from him into a maroon-leather booth.
"I haven't been here for years," she said, looking around at the half-filled room. She perused the menu. "I don't know why not, because I love their food."
Mark grinned. "It's too out of the way and probably easy to forget."
"Is that why you chose it for our meeting?"
He coughed. "I forgot how perceptive you can be. Yeah, that's one of the reasons."
He didn't expand on his comment, and a server came over to take their drink order.
"I'll have the Malbec," Hollis said to her. She turned to Mark, who was still considering his choices. "Let's order now — that way we can talk without interruption."
He nodded, and the server was quickly on her way.
"Okay." She furrowed her brow. "Now, tell me what's going on."
He took a sip of water. "I have a client — a friend — who is in the federal witness protection program. Lindsay blew the whistle on a money-laundering ring about three years ago. It wasn't big enough to make the news in California, but in Chicago, the United States v. Dorn Enterprises case was a big deal. In exchange for her testimony in open court, the feds gave her immunity, a new name, a new social security number, and enough money to start over two thousand miles away."
Hollis eyes grew wide. "You are kidding me. This is like in the movies."
"I don't know about that," Mark said. "She hasn't had a peaceful day since, always looking over her shoulder. But...."
He stopped. The server delivered their drinks and assured them that their order was coming right up.
He waited until the server was out of hearing range and continued, "She did well for herself. First she opened up a small consignment store; then, when she could, she opened an antiques store. She's built a new life and has become quite wealthy." He took a sip from his drink.
"Why do I feel that it goes downhill from there?" Hollis murmured.
Mark twisted his glass on the napkin. "Because it does. For obvious reasons, after her relocation, she couldn't remain in touch with her family. She left behind her now sixty-seven-year-old mother, a career, and a host of friends. A short time ago, Lindsay was diagnosed with cancer and given a year to live. She beat it and the cancer went into remission, but still, it scared her and now she wants to get her estate settled in case it returns."
Again, he fell silent when the server brought their food. For several minutes, they each tucked into their dinners.
Finally he resumed his story. "She is resigned to her future. Her medical diagnosis was a wake-up call. Lindsay wants to spend the years she has left with her mother, but she's afraid that the Dorns will come after them. So, she's prepared to live and die alone."
"Weren't they able to get convictions?" Hollis said.
"They got convictions on most," Mark said. "But believe it or not, there are still four cases pending, and a lot of people are uneasy. Lindsay wants her mother to get access to her money and inherit her estate without drawing a lot of attention. I've convinced her that you are the one to handle the situation for her."
"I'd be glad to do it," she mused, already starting to strategize. "I just need to make sure that I don't leave a trail. Her mother will have to be cautious in her spending. Otherwise, they'll suspect she got access to Lindsay and her money. I'll meet with each of them separately and design a trust that addresses their needs." Hollis straightened in her seat. "When can I sit down with Lindsay?" Mark gave her a nervous smile. "She's sitting in the next booth, waiting to meet you."
Hollis raised her eyebrows and turned around to face a woman looking to be in her mid-thirties. Mark waved her over.
"Lindsay Mercer, this is Hollis Morgan, the attorney I spoke to you about."
Mercer was medium height and build. Her thick, shoulder-length dark-brown hair complemented large brown eyes and a generous smile.
She reached out to shake Hollis's hand. Mark offered to call the server back to get her order.
"Mark, don't." Lindsay urged. "I'm not hungry and I am fine with water."
He looked from one to the other. "Well, Lindsay, why don't you tell Hollis in your own words what it is you want done." He stood. "Unfortunately, I have another meeting to attend, so I'm going to leave the two of you to discuss matters."
"Not a problem." Hollis smiled. Mark would owe her a favor. "We'll be fine."
Lindsay put her hand on his. "I'll call you tomorrow and we can schedule a time to get that other paperwork done."
"Sounds like a plan." He gathered up his briefcase and coat, and giving them both a nod, quickly left the restaurant.
The two women assessed each other openly. Hollis spoke first.
"I suppose you overheard Mark giving me a summary of your ... situation. But I want to hear it from you. We can do it now, or perhaps my office would be a better place to talk."
"Yes," Lindsay replied. "I think your office would be best. Mark spoke very highly of you. I wanted the chance to observe you, to make sure we're a good fit, and I think he was right."
Hollis found herself re-appraising her new client. In the full light, she was not as young as she initially appeared — more likely in her forties. Judging from her manner of speaking and tone, she was educated and from the Midwest.
"Good, I have some time tomorrow afternoon," Hollis offered.
Lindsay shook her head. "No, I have to prepare for an important customer who is coming in to view a china collection. Wait. Let me look at my calendar." She pulled out her cell phone and quickly scrolled through the screens. "What about Wednesday? Say, late morning, eleven o'clock."
Excerpted from "The Identity Thief"
Copyright © 2018 R. Franklin James.
Excerpted by permission of Coffeetown Enterprises, Inc.
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