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Hollis stared out the restaurant window at pedestrians huddled under umbrellas against the chilly Bay Area spring rain. Ordinarily she'd be irritated that Rena was late, but Rena was always late.
Actually she was grateful for the opportunity to go through her snail mail, particularly the envelope holding the invitation to the one- year reunion of her Hastings Law College class. It had taken her twice as long as most students to graduate, but then most students didn't have a break in attendance to serve time in prison. She gazed at the notice with satisfaction.
She'd done it. At thirty-three, she'd gotten the pardon, finished law school, and passed the bar. She was back on track.
She glanced at her cellphone. No messages.
John must still be in his interview. He hadn't been able to hide his excitement when he told her that if the final interview went well, he'd be offered a job. Then he'd leave his detective position with the San Lucian Police Department and become a special agent with Homeland Security. John didn't dwell on it, but she knew he was concerned that his years on the police force might be seen as a negative — too many habits and procedures to unlearn.
Thinking of Police Detective John Faber and their times together brought a smile to her face that was about more than self-gratification over achieving personal goals. A flurry of movement at the entrance caught her eye and she looked up to see Rena rushing toward her.
"Sorry, sorry." Rena placed her wet umbrella on the floor and reached over to give Hollis a lopsided hug before draping her tan trench coat across the back of her chair.
Rena had let her hair grow into a wavy mass of shoulder length dark curls that set off her oval-shaped face and café au lait skin. Her cheeks were rosy and her hazel eyes were wide and lively. In fact, she practically glowed.
"Not to worry," Hollis said, returning the envelope to her briefcase. "It gave me a moment to catch up with myself." She ran her fingers self-consciously through her unruly auburn locks. "Take a minute and get settled. I'm not in a hurry."
"Well, I am, but my meeting is right down the street." Rena brushed invisible lint from her tan cashmere top and smoothed black slacks tucked into black knee-high boots. As usual, she looked like a high-fashion model. They met when Rena joined the Fallen Angels Book Club. She'd been referred by their former parole officer, Jeffrey Wallace. Hollis resisted new members, but Rena won her over with her knack for predicting a character's true nature. She could also spot a motive a chapter ahead. Besides, Hollis owed Jeffrey. They all owed Jeffrey.
Hollis smiled to herself. The Fallen Angels Book Club had been Jeffrey's idea. Its then seven members had all been convicted of white-collar crimes. The book club had been her lifeline since her first year out of prison Then, two years ago, one crisis after another forced them to turn from discussing books to being suspects in a murder, with Hollis leading the list. It had been a torturous few months; however, they'd come through it, their pasts exposed but otherwise no worse off. Still, they hadn't met since She missed the group, even though she and Rena had stayed in touch.
She briefly glanced down at her own conservative navy suit and simple pale-yellow-linen blouse. She was still finding her personal style after years of wearing a school uniform. But it was the almost two years in prison blue that did her fashion sense in. She motioned to the waitress, who came immediately and took their order.
"I thought you said this could be a long lunch." Hollis took a sip of her herbal tea. "I told my paralegal I wouldn't be back until two."
Rena moved her shoulders up and down. "Well, la-di–da! You told your paralegal. My, my, I remember when you were the paralegal. Things have changed. I hope now that you're an attorney you're not too good for the rest of us."
"Yeah, right. I'm the lowest associate attorney on the Triple D totem pole," Hollis said, then grinned. She'd rather be on the bottom at the law firm of Dodson, Dodson & Doyle than toiling in a pressure cooker law firm anywhere else. Triple D had been good to her, supporting her while she cleared her name and received the pardon that had made her dream of being an attorney possible. "But since your time is limited, let's get to the point. Why'd you want to meet today, anyway?"
"Did Mark tell you about my cousin?"
Mark Haddon was Hollis' friend and Rena's live-in boyfriend. It still surprised her that she had introduced the two of them. Mark had been employed as a Triple D junior lawyer, and Hollis took him under her paralegal wing. He was the first person Hollis let back into her life when she was trying to start over again after prison. In fact, he'd literally saved her life.
"No, he and I haven't spoken for about a month, not since he's taken on this corporate fraud case," Hollis said.
"I know. He's been obsessed with that case for weeks. We haven't had much time together either." Rena mouthed a thank you to the waitress, who set a large Cobb salad in front of her. "He probably didn't want to pre-empt my telling of the story."
Hollis perked up, her curiosity piqued. "Okay, so tell me. What about your cousin?"
"Her name is Shelby Patterson. She's actually my second ... no wait, third cousin. We share family on her mother's side. She's several years younger than I am. Her father died in a car crash when she was three and her mom remarried when she was five. Darol Patterson is a jerk, but he did adopt Shelby and give her his name. No one in the family likes him much, but he was Aunt Susan's — that's Shelby's mother — choice. They didn't have much money. No one in our family did, and yet, everybody got along okay."
Rena paused and Hollis knew from her strained expression that whatever was coming next must be sensitive.
"Then Darol's mother came into money. She owned some commercial buildings on land that the county wanted, and got about three million after taxes. We all celebrated. But no one celebrated more than Darol. Anyway, he quit his job and pressured his mother into buying him and Aunt Susan a home, and to put in a couple of widescreen TVs. Aunt Susan was embarrassed but she couldn't stop Darol from constantly begging his mother for support."
Rena stopped speaking for a moment to take a bite of her salad.
Hollis chewed a mouthful of her own lunch thoughtfully, and waited for her friend to continue.
Rena took a deep breath. "Anyway, we didn't know it at the time, but theirs was not a smooth marriage. From the outside it looked average, but no one has a marriage without problems. My own parents got divorced when I was fifteen, so it was just Mom and me until I married Christopher's father." She stopped speaking again to take another bite.
Hollis knew that Christopher's father was an archetype for the "bad boy." He had taken most of Rena's money, which led to her writing bad checks, which led to her going to prison, which led to her sharing a parole officer with Hollis when she got out.
Hollis grimaced. Who was she to judge? Her own stint in prison was a result of putting her trust in others above her own instincts.
"When Shelby turned twelve, her mom — my aunt Susan — died of a heart attack. I was twenty-two and in prison at the time. What no one knew, except maybe Aunt Susan, was that Darol had an adult son and daughter from a previous marriage. They all came to live in that house —"
"What house? Who owned it?" Hollis interrupted.
"Remember, I told you. Darol had nagged his mother into buying them a house. She knew her son, however, and that's why she put the house in Aunt Susan's name. Old Mrs. Patterson liked Aunt Susan, and other than questioning her judgment in marrying her son, they got along well. She didn't want Darol to have anything in his name that he could sell after she found out that Darol had a drug habit. His kids, too."
Rena paused and looked inward, as if returning mentally to that time period, then resumed.
"That's what I meant when I said from the outside everything seemed okay. Aunt Susan never said anything, but she was worried that Shelby would figure out about the drugs, so when Aunt Susan began to have health problems, she sent Shelby to live with relatives in LA. Everybody knew what was going on by that time. Didn't matter. After Aunt Susan died, Darol got his hands on the house because they were still married at the time of her death, and thanks to California's community property laws, it took only a year for him to overload it with liens and eventually lose it to loan sharks." Rena tapped the top of her head. "Oh, did I tell you he lost his job right after Aunt Susan died? Back then his drug habit was too obvious for any employer to ignore. Then Darol and his kids went to live with his mother in her house in San Lucian hills. "
The waitress came by to collect their plates and to refill their cups.
Hollis reached into her tote. "I think I need to take notes."
Rena nodded. "Anyway, to make a very long story short, Darol and his kids — to their credit — kicked their habits, but not soon enough. Darol's mother died several months ago. She had a wonderful spirit. In her will, she left family members and close friends small bequests. She even left me a few dollars and Christopher a small savings account toward college. But the kicker was she left Shelby her house — the one Darol and his kids lived in — with the understanding that Shelby would sell it and use the money to cover her living expenses and her tuition for college."
"Hold up a sec, Rena. How did Darol take that?"
"Well, Mrs. Patterson had basically disinherited her son and grandchildren. Darol was furious because he didn't get a thing from his own mother and now his stepdaughter was going to make him homeless.
Hollis listened and said nothing.
"Unbelievably, even with her stepfather's fury, Shelby still remained close to Darol. I guess she was desperate for family. He was the only dad she could remember. For her, I suppose, a lousy dad was better than no dad at all." Rena took a sip of water. "Despite his pleading to Shelby, Darol's family kept watch and made sure she wouldn't give in and allow him to get his hands on the house. Even so, since he still wasn't working, he started selling things out of the house. Gone were the antique furniture, silverware, and his mother's jewelry."
Both women turned silent when the waitress returned to remove their plates. Rena checked her watch.
"Anyway, once the good stuff was sold, he was onto Shelby to add his name to hers on the deed. He told her he wanted to get a small loan against his mother's house, to start his own computer repair business. Thank goodness we were able to talk her into refusing. He got his family to loan him money; I don't know what he's done with it. A few days ago Shelby got accepted into UCLA. We're all so proud of her."
Hollis stopped writing and looked up. "But . ..."
"But now she needs money for her tuition, books, and college expenses. She's going to have to sell the house. It's still in her name alone. The market isn't that great, but if she's lucky she'll be covered for all four years. Needless to say, Darol and his kids have already put the word out that they'll refuse to leave. He's threatened to contest the will, saying that his mother wasn't of sound mind. He talked with somebody who told him he still had rights."
Hollis thought she knew where this was headed. But as she opened her mouth to comment, her cellphone rang with a jazz piano ringtone. It was John.
Rena waved her a go-ahead.
"Hey," she told John, "I'm with Rena."
"Well, tell her hi from me and tell her I think I got the job."
Hollis beamed. "Oh, John, I'm so happy for you. When can we celebrate?"
"I have one last meeting; they want me to have breakfast with one of my future colleagues. I'm taking a four o'clock flight to Oakland on Wednesday morning. How about dinner after I get back?"
"If that's happening, you must have gotten the job. Dinner sounds perfect. Love you, and congratulations."
She didn't try to suppress her delight as she slipped the phone back into her purse.
Rena gave a laugh. "Well, let me guess. He got the job."
"You know he's been on edge for weeks. This was his third interview. I'm so proud of him." Hollis grinned until she saw Rena's furrowed brow. "I'm sorry. I interrupted your story."
"No, no, I've talked too long already. You get the idea. What do we need to do?"
"I need to meet with Shelby and take a look at her grandmother's will. Did she have a trust? Or, did Mrs. Patterson's family go through probate?"
"There was a trust. Everything has been finalized. And Shelby's eighteen — she's legally an adult."
Hollis sighed. "Well, that's good news. The process takes time."
"I'll get her to fly up in a few days. We're having a family get- together this weekend. She can stay with me."
"Sounds good. When can you get me the paperwork?"
"I'll talk to her Aunt Denise. She's Darol sister and a lot like their mother, old Mrs. Patterson. I'll let you know as soon as I hear." Rena looked down at her phone to check the time. "I've got to go."
"Me, too. I want to do a little research. Do you realize that Shelby will be my first client?"
New associates had to build their own clientele. It was common in a law firm for associates during the first year or two to work under the wing of a supervising attorney. Gradually, they would prepare specific assignments for simpler cases and then to handle new matters by themselves.
Rena smiled. "Great, and she can pay you, too. Well, she can once you win her case."
Hollis grinned. If necessary, she would've probably worked pro bono for a first client. "Well, there's an incentive. Call me when you have something."
Hollis watched Rena walk swiftly up the street to a nearby high-rise. Her first client: even the sound of it had promise. Now all she had to do was win.CHAPTER 2
It was quiet now. Jeffrey could hear the slow thump of his heart. He must have been unconscious. He knew he'd been shot in the stomach.
He tried to sit up, but the pain pierced through his body like a red hot lance. He moaned. Even so, the hole in his stomach was nothing compared to the sorrow in his heart. He lay back.
Searing, unrelenting pain.
He clutched his stomach. Why was it so dark? The lights in his office should still be on. Wait, were his eyes closed? He was too weak to open them. Would someone find him before it was all over?
He was so cold. The cold started in his feet and was gradually climbing up his legs.
He wiggled the fingers on his free hand; they still worked. That could be a good sign. He rubbed them together and felt sticky ooze.
Blood. Through the creeping cold, the warm blood was soaking his shirt and jacket.
It was oozing out like the slow and steady flow from an upended bottle of syrup. He thought about his life and how he failed. He tried to turn his head, but his brain was shutting down. His neck stiffened.
The cold reached his chest, and there was no more pain.
He prayed for mercy.CHAPTER 3
The phone on Hollis' desk rang — a number she didn't recognize. Rena had confirmed the meeting with Shelby for the end of the week. But maybe the young Miss Patterson had changed her mind about flying up to meet with an inexperienced attorney. Hollis had reviewed the Patterson trust with diligence to ensure the validity of the claim and the most expedient approach to liquidate the house. She braced herself for disappointment.
"Hollis, this is Gene."
She caught her breath. The voice from her not so distant past hit her like a rock.
She stumbled a little. "Gene, wow, how are you? It's been ... gee, Gene ... it's been almost a year. What's been going on?"
Gene Donovan was indeed a voice from her past. He was one of the founding members of the Fallen Angels Book Club. She smiled, remembering Gene's blond good looks and his love of manicures. A columnist for a local paper, he was gay, and at thirty-seven, the second oldest member in the club. Thanks to his brother, the owner of a local newspaper, Gene hadn't had to worry about checking the felony conviction box on an employment application. Like her, he hated small talk.
"I've got some bad news."
Hollis' heart skipped a beat. Typical of Gene: no niceties, just cut to the chase.
"Jeffrey Wallace is dead."
Hollis leaned back in her chair. It was as if she was seeing herself from above and looking down. The shock was like a hole in her chest that didn't show.
Gene gave her a moment to absorb his words then continued, his voice subdued.
"He was murdered, Hollis, in his office. Somebody shot him."
"No, it can't be." Hollis shook her head. "He was one of the good guys. He was . ..." She choked back tears.
Gene murmured, "I know. He might have been my parole officer, but he was also a friend."
"When did it happen?"
"Last night. It came across the police log this morning, but I didn't notice his name until a little while ago. I knew you would want to know and I still had your number."
"Did he suffer?" Hollis' voice faltered.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Return of the Fallen Angels Book Club"
Copyright © 2014 R. Franklin James.
Excerpted by permission of Coffeetown Enterprises, Inc.
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