If there's a maniac or an ax murderer within a hundred-mile radius, he -- or she -- will come straight to me, Clare Westbrook, hapless attorney at law, like steel filings to a magnet.
Take Peter Bailey. Please -- take Peter Bailey.
The very day I opened my new storefront office, in one of Phoenix's less sought-after neighborhoods, he wandered over from the mental health clinic next door and peered at me through the glass door, hands cupped around his face. It was a childlike stance, reminiscent of a little boy yearning after puppies gamboling in a pet store window.
Of course I didn't know his name yet. Nor did I know he was under psychiatric care, though it wouldn't have taken a nuclear physicist to figure it out. He had that look -- eyeballs spiraling in two directions, lean body seeming to hum with that frenetic energy peculiar to those whose brain chemistries are seriously out of whack.
I remember that I sighed philosophically and reminded myself that I'd chosen my office because it was smack in the middle of Dysfunction Junction. I'd recently inherited twenty-odd million from the father I never knew, and after weighing my suddenly expanded options, I'd taken the high road. Since bringing in a paycheck was no longer a matter of desperate compunction, I had decided to use my law degree and my hard-ass reputation to strike a few blows for the underprivileged. The ones who needed my expertise but were unable to write a retainer check -- at least, one that would clear the bank.
The man staring through my door probably qualified.
I crossed the mostly unfurnished room, turned the lock, and let in a rush of hot desert air. October, and the temperature was still high enough to roast a lizard on a rock.
"May I help you?" I asked.
He recoiled as though I'd thrust something sharp at him, and for a moment I thought he was going to bolt.
"You're Clare Westbrook," he said, shifting from foot to foot. "I've seen you on TV. Lots of times."
Thanks to my recent involvement in some very high profile cases, just about everybody had seen me on TV, or in the newspapers. He looked me over, and his mouth quivered a little. Drool gathered at one corner, and he wiped it away with a feverish motion of one hand.
"You're prettier in person," he added earnestly.
I'm used to comments about my looks -- shoulder-length dark hair, fairly good body, brown eyes, and high cheekbones. When I look in a mirror, I don't see those things. I just see me, a complicated bundle of faults, foibles, and contradictions. I'm smart as hell, for instance, but common sense often eludes me.
"Thanks," I said. "Was there something you wanted?"
"My friend, Angela -- I think she's in trouble. A lot of trouble."
Now we were getting somewhere. I stepped back so he could pass. "Come in."
He hesitated, wringing his hands a little, then ducked back to the middle of the sidewalk to look both ways and then up. That, like his eyes, should have been a clue to his mental state, but I was trying to set up a pro bono practice, and for that, I needed clients. Just then, I wasn't too picky.
"This isn't a good place, you know," he observed, edging nervously over the threshold, sweeping the room with his gaze. "The bad people know you're here. They might try to hurt you."
A spark of uneasiness flashed in the pit of my stomach.
"Tell me about Angela," I said carefully, indicating the client chair facing my newly purchased desk. I hurried to move a box of file folders so he could sit down. "What kind of trouble is she in?"
He didn't sit. He seemed too agitated for that. "I shouldn't have come here," he said. "I'm supposed to be next door. I have an appointment with Dr. Thomlinson. Do you know Dr. Thomlinson?"
Ah, I thought. Yes. The doctor had introduced himself earlier that morning, warned me that one or two of his patients might stray my way. Many of them were paranoid schizophrenics, he'd said. No need to be alarmed -- they were mostly harmless. Pick up the phone, and he'd send someone to round them up.
"I know him," I affirmed pleasantly, edging a little closer to the telephone on my cluttered desk. "If you're late for your appointment, I'll certainly understand if you have to rush."
He shook a finger at me, already backing toward the door. "You need to be very careful. The dolls. You have to look out for the dolls."
"Right," I said. "I'll be careful."
With that, he was gone.
I sagged into my chair, hoping that interview wasn't going to set the tone for the rest of my career.
After a few minutes I was over it. I got back to work, and since nothing out of the ordinary happened that day, or the next, I figured I was home free. I was destined to save the downtrodden.
Three nights later, feeling industrious and -- okay -- avoiding some things that were going on in my personal life, I decided to paint my office.
My on-again, off-again lover, Detective Anthony Sonterra, and I were in the "off" phase again, leaving a serious gap in my social calendar. So there I was, at ten-thirty, with only my niece Emma's dog for company. Perched on the top rung of a folding ladder, I glanced with pride at the legend newly scripted on the barred window. My name, my degree.
It still did something for me, seeing them so prominently displayed. I'd earned my sheepskin the hard way, waiting tables at a Tucson bar by the ridiculous name of Nipples, hitting the books on every break, sleeping a maximum of four hours a night. After graduation, I put in five years of indentured servitude with Harvey Kredd -- a.k.a. "Krudd," in police circles. Harvey specialized in setting the guilty free, and he was the shyster's shyster.
Believe me, I paid my dues.
Beneath my name, in smaller letters, was the proviso: Qualified Clients Defended at No Charge.
By "qualified," I meant innocent -- as I defined the word. Much to Sonterra's annoyance, not to mention that of the prosecutor's office, I see shades of gray, and I make allowances for extenuating circumstances. In the three days since I'd signed the lease on the storefront -- a former lawnmower-repair shop -- wedged between Dr. Thomlinson's clinic and a thrift store, I'd already turned away half a dozen prospective clients, and I wasn't even open for business yet. I'd accepted two others: Barbara Jenkins, a woman accused of conking her abusive husband over the head and rolling him into the fishpond in their backyard, where he subsequently drowned, and a slightly nerdy and very overweight young man named David Valardi. David was a computer whiz, allegedly the creator of the insidious Barabbas virus.
Now, paint-smudged, tired, and ravenously hungry, I was ready to call it a night. I stepped down a rung, and in one seemingly eternal moment, my front window splintered with a horrendous crash. A barrage of bullets slammed into the wall, inches above my head.
I dived for the floor and scrambled under the desk, where the dog, a Yorkshire terrier called Bernice, had pressed herself into a corner, whimpering and shivering. I groped for her, checked her for wounds, then gave myself a hasty once-over. Fortunately, neither of us had sprung a leak.
It's the neighborhood, I thought, with that odd detachment that comes of abject fear, remembering Sonterra's admonition. "Counselor," he'd said, just before our last big fight, "in Phoenix, nobody in their right mind sets up shop on a street named after a president."
I waited, braced for another round of artillery fire. My heart was beating so hard that for a few moments I couldn't hear anything but the blood roaring in my ears, and I was definitely hyperventilating. Clutching the dog to my chest with one arm, I used my free hand to ferret through the bottom drawer of the desk for my purse, and the .38 and cell phone inside.
I had barely connected with the 911 operator when I heard the sound of sirens and screeching tires in the near distance.
I gave the dispatcher my location.
"Officers are en route," she told me calmly. "Are you injured? Is the assailant on the premises?"
I closed my eyes, breathing deeply and slowly, trying to regain my equilibrium. "I have no idea where the assailant is," I answered after a few more desperate slurps of oxygen. "I don't think I'm hurt, but I'm scared." Shitless, clarified the voice in my mind, which always wants to put in its two cents.
More squealing of tires. A hard rap on the street door, apparently still intact. A shout of "Police!"
Still holding the dog, which had just peed down the front of my T-shirt, a violation I could well identify with, given the circumstances, I crawled to the side of the desk and looked around the far edge. After all, anybody can lay rubber, knock on a door, and say they're the law.
There, where the inside and outside light met in a blurry pool, I saw two cops, guns drawn. One was scanning the street, the other squinting between the bars on the door.
"That was fast," I told the dispatcher.
"Let them in," she prompted.
Duh, I thought. "Now there's an idea," I replied aloud, getting to my feet, dog, soggy T-shirt, and all. "Thanks."
The dispatcher chuckled good-naturedly, and I imagined what she was thinking. Shots fired? All in a night's work, and not uncommon here in Presidentsville. "Stay on the line, please. I need to confirm a few things with the officers. By the way, what's your name?"
"Clare Westbrook," I answered shakily. I was on a cell phone, rather than a landline, which meant the pertinent information wouldn't necessarily pop up on her computer screen.
My legs were like noodles. I swayed on my feet, took a firmer grip on the dog, and braced the cell between my ear and shoulder. Somehow, I got across the room, worked the dead bolts, and admitted the cops.
"Are you all right, ma'am?" asked the one on the left, who had been covering the street. His gaze dropped to the dog.
"Yes," I answered, surprised at the steadiness in my voice, and introduced myself. My internal organs had turned to jelly, but I'm resilient by nature. In a crisis, I slip into my inner phone booth and become Super-Lawyer, saving the hysteria for later. "The dispatcher wants to speak with one of you."
The other officer accepted the cell phone, thrust at him by me, while his partner took me lightly by the arm and squired me to the nearest chair.
"What happened?" he asked, words that could be carved on my tombstone, I've heard them so often. Crouching in front of me, with a creak of his leather service belt, he took one of my hands and simultaneously patted Bernice's furry little head.
While I explained, as coherently as I could, the other guy finished his conversation with the 911 operator. I watched, out of the corner of one eye, as he took out his own cell phone, dialed a number, muttered a few words, then grabbed a bottle of water from the miniature refrigerator on a nearby wall and brought it to me, politely twisting off the lid first.
I narrowed my gaze, even as I accepted the water with a nod of thanks. I'd seen this guy before, I realized, in the group photo of Sonterra's softball team. I guessed, accurately, it turned out, that he'd just called his good buddy and given him an update on the adventures of Clare.
Without a trace of chagrin, Cop Number Two gave a slight, crooked grin, confirming my suspicions.
"Anybody out to get you?" the crouching cop asked. His name tag read "Atienzo," and I decided I liked him. His manner was gentle, nonconfrontational.
The dog began to squirm, and I set her down on the floor, stalling while I weighed the question. Two months before, I'd had some problems, but that was over. It didn't even occur to me to mention Peter Bailey; I'd written him off as local color.
"Not that I know of," I answered between restorative sips of ice cold water. In Arizona, it's important to stay hydrated, particularly in times of stress. I get those a lot.
"It was probably a drive-by," the standing cop said with weary resignation. "This isn't the best part of town."
Shades of Sonterra. Okay, so there are a lot of pawnshops, seedy dives offering "adult entertainment," and boarded-up businesses around my office. There are also some decent restaurants, well-stocked supermarkets, churches, and community centers. Should the good guys bail out, and leave the place to the scumbags?
I held the wet part of the T-shirt away from my stomach. "No," I said carefully, "it's not the best neighborhood. All the more reason for me to be here. I like feeling needed."
The guy rolled his eyes, and I could guess what was going through his mind. If he and Sonterra were pals, then he'd most likely been filled in on my history, my stubbornness (to which I readily admit, by the way) and probably my inherited millions, too. I guess he couldn't be blamed for wondering why I didn't just paint my toenails, lounge by a swimming pool somewhere, champagne flute in hand, and watch the dividend checks roll in. On the other hand, it was none of his damn business if I cut each and every dollar bill into little pieces and flushed them down the john. It was, after all, my money.
"According to what's left of the window," Atienzo observed, rising to his feet with another symphony of leather and jingling handcuffs, "you defend people for free."
"If I think they're innocent," I specified.
"Innocent," murmured the second cop, as though nobody had ever been accused of something they hadn't done, in the checkered history of American jurisprudence.
I sighed. A lot of cops take a dim view of human nature, and it isn't hard to see why. In Phoenix, or any other major city, they run across so much blood, insanity, and flat-out meanness, they come to expect it. They are outgunned, underfunded, and mostly unappreciated. You couldn't pay me enough to do what they do, so I try to keep perspective.
"Some people, Officer" -- I squinted to read his name tag -- "Culver, are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Culver gave a grunt. He was obviously unconvinced. Oh, well.
Just then, through the shattered window, I saw Sonterra's SUV whip up to the curb. He'd made good time, I thought ruefully. He must have been close by. Homicides were common in that section of the city, and even though Sonterra's official beat was Scottsdale, he often worked in conjunction with the Phoenix PD. When he wanted to get somewhere quickly, all he had to do was snap his handy-dandy cop light onto the roof of his car and put the pedal to the metal.
Atienzo busied himself checking out the arc of bullet holes in the wall, making notes for the inevitable report.
Sonterra boiled into the office like a dust devil, and slammed the door so hard that the last tiny fragments of glass tinkled from the front window.
"Fancy meeting you here," I said. We'd had our most recent disagreement two weeks before, when I insisted on moving into the modest house I'd bought in Scottsdale, instead of taking up permanent residence at his place, and we'd been at an impasse ever since. I operate on a need-to-know basis; if I'd cussed and moaned and even shed a few tears over the estrangement, well, Sonterra didn't need to know.
"Jesus," he said, taking in the shambles with a sweep of those chocolate brown, miss-nothing eyes, "this place looks like a back street in Baghdad."
"Of course I'm okay," I said pointedly.
His jawline tightened. Sonterra is a specimen of true genetic excellence, with his dark hair, smoldering eyes, and GQ body, but his personality could use a little work. The concept of winning friends and influencing people is beyond him.
"Is the dog all right?" he asked. Bernice scrabbled at his shin with her front feet; he bent to scoop her up, and even let her lick his face. She was in one piece, and there was no blood, so I didn't bother answering. I merely folded my arms and willed him to leave.
He eyed my yellow-stained T-shirt, allowed himself a shadow of a grin. No doubt it cheered him up to know I'd been peed on. "Get your purse, Counselor," he said. "I'm taking you home."
Half an hour alone with Sonterra, with him lecturing me on my poor career choices -- just what I didn't need. I looked to Officer Atienzo for some sign of support, since I knew Culver would take Sonterra's side.
"You'll need to give a statement," Atienzo said.
"Tomorrow," Sonterra said flatly. I thought Atienzo looked mildly bent out of shape -- detectives outrank uniforms in the cop hierarchy, and sometimes that rubs the guys and gals on the beat the wrong way -- but in the end, Officer Friendly merely shrugged.
Sonterra, still holding the dog, fixed me with a glower. "Your car is in the alley, I take it, since I didn't see it out front?" The subtext was, I've told you a million times: park in well-lighted areas. Are you trying to get mugged, raped, or murdered?
"Right as always," I said brightly. "Good thing I didn't follow your sage advice. If I'd left my car on the street, it would look like Swiss cheese right about now."
Sonterra lowered his eyebrows and frowned, but I wasn't intimidated and I let him know it with a level look. That always pissed him off, and it prompted me to wonder what he saw in me, since he obviously preferred the acquiescent type. "Perhaps one of these good officers will do us the favor of driving it home for you," he intoned.
"I'll do it," Culver said, like a Boy Scout going for a badge. What a suck-up.
"I'm perfectly capable of driving," I submitted.
Sonterra opened my purse, helped himself to the keys, and tossed them to Culver. "Thanks," he told the other man without breaking his visual headlock on me. "Fifteen Twenty-two Cactus Creek Road. Just leave it in the driveway."
Culver jingled the keys. "Where should I put these?"
It was all I could do not to tell him exactly where to put them.
"Lock them in the vehicle," Sonterra said. "There's a duplicate set."
I took the dog back, but gently. It wasn't Bernice's fault that Sonterra suffered from an excess of testosterone.
"Done," Culver replied. He found the back door on his own and went out.
Atienzo paused beside me and laid a hand on my shoulder. "You're all right with this?" he asked, ignoring Sonterra's eyeball scorch. Atienzo had guts. I like that in a person. Plus, he was cute, with brown hair and green eyes and a very nice butt.
"Yes," I said. One of the things you learn while treading the hallowed halls of justice is to choose your battles. Sonterra being on authority overload, I was sure to lose this round, so I decided to conserve my personal resources for the next one. "I'll stop by the station tomorrow to sign the reports."
"Good," Atienzo said mildly. He ruffled Bernice's floppy ears, leveled a look at Sonterra, and strolled out to the waiting squad car.
Sonterra and I just stood there for a long moment, trying to stare each other down. I swear, if the sex hadn't been so good, I wouldn't have given him the time of day, let alone a big chunk of my life.
I watched as Atienzo got behind the wheel, switched off the blue-and-red flashing lights, and drove away. I inclined my head toward the street. "Is he married?" I asked sweetly.
Sonterra isn't the only one who knows how to get under somebody's skin.
Copyright © 2004 by Linda Lael Miller