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Assistant State's Attorney Zac Hennings leaned back in his chair the second before a newspaper smacked against his desk.
"If there's any blowback on this," Ray Gardner said, "it's yours."
Zac glanced at the newspaper. On page one, below the fold, was a photo of a young woman-brunette-gazing out a window framed by a set of gold drapes. Someone's living room. The headline read Fighting for Justice. He skimmed the first few paragraphs. The Chelsea Moore murder.
A burst of adrenaline exploded in Zac's brain. Big case.
Turning from the newspaper, he looked back to his boss. Ray's generic gray suit fit better than most he wore but still hung loose on his lean frame. Once in a while, to keep his staff sharp, Ray would show up in a blue or black suit. Regardless, the guy needed a good tailor, but Zac wasn't going to be the one to suggest it. Not when Ray led the Criminal Prosecutions Bureau, the largest of the six divisions of the Cook County State's Attorney's Office.
Ray gestured to the newspaper. "The Sinclairs got traction with this. Steve Bennett-"
"The detective? The one who died last week?"
"That's him. Brain cancer. He apparently refused to face his maker without clearing his conscience. He sent Emma Sinclair a video-starring himself- telling her the witness who ID'ed her brother wasn't sure he got the right guy. According to Steve, detectives pressured the witness into saying he was positive."
Zac took his time with that one, let it sink in. "We locked up Brian Sinclair for murder and now we've got deathbed revelations?"
"Something like that. The State's Attorney called me at six this morning after seeing her newspaper. She wants the office bulldog on this. That's you, by the way. You'll have all the case files this afternoon."
More files. Every open space in Zac's office had been jammed with stacks of folders containing all the lurid details of crimes ranging from robberies to murders. Where he'd put more files he had no idea, but as one of nine hundred assistant prosecutors in Chicago, a city plagued with over five hundred murders last year, he had bigger problems than storage space.
Not for the first time, his responsibilities settled at the base of his neck. He breathed in, gave that bit of tension its due diligence and put it out of his mind. Unlike some of the attorneys around him, he lived for moments like this. Moments when that hot rush of scoring an important case made him "the man," marching into court, going to battle and kicking some tail.
The cases were often brutal, not to mention emotionally paralyzing, but his goal would always be telling the victim's loved ones they got a guilty verdict. No exceptions. In this case, they'd already convicted someone. Zac had to make it stick.
Adding to the drama was Chelsea's father, Dave, who was a veteran Chicago homicide detective. A good, honest cop who'd lost his child to a senseless act of violence.
In short, Zac wanted to win. Every time.
"We're already behind the curve with this article," Ray said.
"I'll get us caught up."
When Chelsea Moore's murder occurred, Zac had been grinding his way through misdemeanors. After getting promoted to felonies, he'd worked like a dog to win his cases and it paid off. Big-time. Ray had just assigned him a politically and emotionally volatile case that he'd bleed for in order to keep Chelsea's killer behind bars.
No matter how hard Emma Sinclair came at them, Dave's daughter deserved justice. And Zac would see that she got it. He'd study the trial transcripts and learn the facts of the case.
"The P.D. will go to the wall for Dave Moore," Ray said.
"Yep. The guy breaks cases no one else can. He won't tolerate his daughter's murderer going free. His buddies won't, either."
Ray pointed. "Bingo."
If Emma Sinclair managed to get her brother's conviction overturned, the Chicago P.D. would not only be angry, they'd also make sure Helen Jergins, the new State's Attorney who'd promoted Zac, got run out of town. Hard.
Ray shifted toward the door then turned back. "Whatever you need, you let me know. We have to win this one."
"I got this," Zac said. "Count on it."
Emma stood in front of the huge whiteboard she'd rolled to her mother's basement wall and contemplated her revised list of target defense attorneys. Given the newspaper article, today would be the day to once again get cracking on Project Sinclair.
Eighteen months ago her twenty-two-year-old brother, a guy who had nothing but love for those around him, had been convicted of strangling a young woman outside a nightclub. Unable to withstand the injustice of the circumstantial case-no fingerprints or DNA-Emma started banging on the doors of defense attorneys all over the city, trying to win a reversal. No matter how many times she was told no, she would not be silenced. Not when her innocent brother was rotting in prison.
She flicked her finger against the whiteboard. The new video evidence would lure one of these lawyers in. It had to. The case suddenly had all the political melodrama- corruption, false witness testimony, withholding information-defense attorneys thrived on.
She spun back to the oblong folding table, shoved aside an open banker's box, grabbed the binder with her latest set of research and made a note to study up on Brady and Giglio material. Being a first-year law student, a field she'd never imagined for herself, she hadn't yet mastered the concepts, but they involved impeaching a witness and items prosecutors were required to share with the defense. Maybe in the next few days she'd have a defense attorney-preferably pro bono, considering that she was broke-to help her slice through the technical aspects of the case.
Above her head, the exposed water pipe clunked. Her mother flushing the toilet. Emma sighed. She should move all this stuff upstairs to Brian's old room, but her mother didn't need to see a daily reminder that her son was a convicted murderer. Bad enough the poor woman had to think about it, never mind see it every time she walked upstairs.
So Emma and her effort to free her brother would stay in the cold, dreary basement, surrounded by cobwebs that, no matter how many times she brushed them away, kept returning. When the time came for her to move out on her own again, she'd have a finished basement. No doubt about it. For now, she'd left her cute little apartment in Wrigleyville so her widowed mother wouldn't have to face her demons alone.
A rapid click-click-click of heels hitting the battered hardwood came from the first floor. Emma had spent countless hours listening to her mother's footsteps above. Whether early morning or the darkness of night when sleep eluded them, Emma recognized the sound of her mother's shoes. The ones she'd just heard didn't belong to her mom. Someone's here.
"Emma?" her mother called from the doorway.
"There's a Penny Hennings here to see you."
Emma froze. Penny Hennings. She perused her whiteboard, where she'd alphabetized the lawyers' names. Hennings. There it was. Not Penny, though. Gerald, from Hennings and Solomon.
Maybe Penny was a relative sent to check her out for Gerald Hennings, who might want to take the case. And if said relation fought downtown traffic on a weekday morning and hauled herself to the North Side, to Parkland, it had to be serious. Emma linked her fingers together and squeezed. Please, let it be.
"Be right up, Mom."
She glanced down at her sweats, torn T-shirt and pink fuzzy slippers. Great. She'd have to face some snazzy lady from a big-time law firm in this getup. She plucked a rubber band from the little bowl with the paper clips. Least she could do was tie back her tangled hair.
Forget it. She had to put her appearance out of her mind. For all she knew, Penny Hennings could be a cosmetics saleswoman.
But what were the chances of that? Particularly at 9:00 a.m. on the morning an article about Brian ran?
"Emma?" her mother called.
She straightened. If Penny Hennings was from Hennings and Solomon, Emma had to go into full sales mode and convince this woman that her firm should take Brian's case. After eighteen months of studying overturned convictions and hounding lawyers, it was time for their odds to change. And Hennings and Solomon could make that happen.
Emma ditched her slippers at the base of the stairs and marched up. She looked like hell, but she'd dazzle this would-be-lawyer-slash-cosmetics-saleswoman with her powers of persuasion.
The basement door stood open and Mom's voice carried from the living room. Emma closed her eyes. This could be it. After a long, streaming breath, she stepped out of the short hallway.
A minuscule woman-maybe late twenties-with shoulder-length blond hair sat on the sofa. The plaid, overstuffed chair tried to swallow her, but her red power suit refused to be smothered. No, that puppy screamed strength and defiance and promise. Could be a good sign.
Plus, to the woman's credit, she kept her gaze on Emma's face and not her attire. One cool cookie, this blonde.
Emma extended her hand to the now standing woman. "Hello. I'm Emma Sinclair."
"Good morning. I'm Penny Hennings. I'm an attorney from Hennings and Solomon. I'm sorry to barge in, but I saw the story on your brother this morning."
Emma glanced at her mother, took in her cloudy, drooping brown eyes and flat mouth. A heavy heart had stolen her mother's joy. Ten years ago, at the age of forty, the woman had been widowed and learned that hope could be a fickle thing. Emma, though, couldn't give in to that defeatist thinking. There was a reason she'd been left fatherless at sixteen and now, with her brother in prison, had assumed the role her father would want her to take. To watch over Mom and free Brian.
Some would say she didn't deserve all this loss. Why not? It turned out their family had crummy luck. Her father's sudden death from a brain aneurysm had left a void so deep she'd never really acknowledged it for fear that she'd be consumed by it and would cease experiencing the joy the world offered. Ignoring that vast hole inside her seemed easier.
Then Brian went to prison-more crummy luck-and the hole inside grew. The thing she held on to day after day, the thing that kept her focused and sane and standing, was the fight to free her brother.
Whatever it took, she'd find a way to put their family back together.
Make this happen. "Forgive me. I'm well, I'm trying not to get ahead of myself, but you're the first attorney to contact me in eighteen months and I'm really, really happy to see you."
Penny offered a wide smile and instantly Emma's pulse settled. "Please, have a seat. Would you like coffee?"
"No, thank you. I can't stay long. I spoke to my father- Gerald Hennings-on the way over. He indicated that you'd contacted him about this case some months back."
Emma sat on the love seat and rested her hand over her mother's. Maybe they'd finally get the break they deserved. "Yes. He was kind enough to review the case, but said there was nothing he could do."
"At the time, that was true, but I'm intrigued by this video you've obtained. If the video is accurate, we might be able to prove that your brother's constitutional rights were violated. Any information regarding witness testimony should have been turned over to the defense before trial."
"It's Giglio material, right?" Emma asked.
Penny cocked her head. "You've brushed up."
"Yes. I'm also a first-year law student at Northwestern. I left a job at a public relations firm so I'd be available during the day to work on my brother's case. With the hands-on experience, I figured I might as well go to law school. I waitress at night and work my classes in around everything else."
"Wow. You're good."
Emma shrugged. "Not really. My brother is innocent and he's slated to spend the next twenty-five years in prison. I can't let that happen."
Penny's expression remained neutral, her lips free of any tightening or forced smiles. No pity. Good. They didn't need pity. They needed a shrewd legal rainmaker.
"That's why I'm here. I'd like to review the information you've collected and possibly take your case. Pro bono. I'm not going to lie: this will be tough. The victim's father is a Chicago P.D. detective. The State's Attorney will go to war with us to keep your brother in prison, but I won't back down. If Brian's rights were violated, I'll prove it. Besides that, I'm hungry for a big case and I think yours might just be the one."
Suddenly, Penny Hennings seemed young. Idealistic maybe. Not the battle-hardened defense attorney her father was. Did it matter? Her wanting to step out from under her father's shadow and make a name for herself was a great motivator.
She's a rainmaker, smart and determined.
Emma gestured down the hall to the basement door. "Would you like to see what I have on the case?"
Penny smiled. "You bet I would."
Zac pushed his rolling cart stuffed with case files from the courtroom to his fifth-floor office. Along the way he passed other prosecutors dragging their own heavy loads and their stone faces or smirking, sly grins told the tales of their wins and losses.
Zac's day had consisted of jury selection for a murder trial he was scheduled to prosecute. The pool of candidates wasn't ideal, but his evidence was strong and he'd parlay that into a win.
He nudged the cart through his doorway and turned back to the bull pen for Four O'clock Fun. On most days, prosecutors coming from court gathered to compare notes, discuss the personalities of judges and opposing lawyers, anything that might be good information for one of the other ASAs. Some days, Four O'clock Fun turned into a stream of stories that would scandalize the average person, but that prosecutors found humorous. For Zac, gallows humor was a form of self-protection. A way to keep his sanity in the face of the day-to-day evil he grappled with.
"Zac," Stew Henry yelled, "Pierson got his butt kicked by Judge Alred today."
Alred had to be the easiest-going guy on the bench. It took a lot to aggravate him. Two steps toward the bull pen, Zac's cell phone rang. He checked the screen. Alex Belson, the public defender on the Sinclair case, returning his call.
"Have to take this," Zac yelled to the bull pen before heading back to his office. "Alex, hey, thanks for getting back to me."
"No prob. Got to say, screwy timing since your sister called me today, too."
What's that about?
"Yeah. She's taking the Sinclair case. Wants copies of all my notes."
Zac dropped into his chair to absorb this info. "You didn't know?" Alex asked.
Penny had left a voice mail earlier in the day, but he'd been in court and hadn't had a chance to get back to her. "I haven't talked to her today."
Another call beeped in and Zac checked the screen. Penny. "Alex, let me call you back." He flashed over to his sister. "Pen?"
The sound of a horn blasted. Outdoors.
"Hi," she said. "Are you in your office?"
"I'm walking into the lobby. Be there in two minutes."
She was here. "What's this about your taking the Sinclair case?"
"Word travels fast. How'd you know?"
"The PD told me. Pen, I caught this case."