Nina Reilly lay on her stomach, her eyes closed, a white washcloth draped over her backside. The endless mental lists had fled from her head, lulled by Chelsi's electronic ambient music and her soothing hands on Nina's back. Now Nina kept slipping into a snooze, the kind where you disappear and then snap back your head as your senses return.
Let's see, she had dreamed a little dream about an old woman approaching, babbling something. This apparition had a dreadful aspect, as though if Nina ran away she would become gigantic and even more frightening. She kept coming closer, the hideous old witch, whispering so low Nina couldn't quite--then she understood, and deep dream relief came over her.
All the old lady wanted was a piggyback ride, then she'd go away. Nina crouched and the old lady hopped on---
"Lots of my clients take naps," Chelsi said as the snap thing happened and Nina's eyes jerked open.
"And miss the whole massage? No way," Nina said.
"Your body will remember."
"Big deal. This is too good to spend asleep."
"We could talk a little if you want. Some people just like to relax." She was stroking Nina's sides, almost lifting her up from the table, her hands strong and the points of her fingernails digging in now and then. Chelsi was a tall ponytailed girl in her early twenties, and the smile she always wore seemed to be for real.
"You talk," Nina said. "I'll just moan here and there."
"All right. Let's see. Well, last week when I worked on you for the first time, I thought, She's somebody. I even thought you might have used a fake name. That would have been fine, by the way. LeAnn Rimes came here when she was appearing at Caesars last year and wrote down that she was somebody named Ms. Exter. It's not an insurance situation, so who cares what you want to call yourself?"
Chelsi waited, but her hands kept working and Nina didn't respond.
"Dr. Whittaker sends me all his headaches. He says ninety percent of the time it's tension and he says I have good hands. He comes to me himself. Oops, I'm not supposed to say that. Anyway, my dad says I got the curious gene. He says I ought to be a detective. Wow, you are so tight around the neck."
"For instance," Chelsi said, then pressed hard, her hands making tiny squeezing motions on the back of Nina's neck. She was using kukui-nut oil to baste her. One could die at the beginning of the hour and Chelsi would never know it until her chime went off. "I'm gonna say you're a swimmer."
"Whenever I can," Nina managed to say.
Chelsi laughed in delight. "I knew because you have these excellent muscles in your shoulders, square shoulders and a tiny waist. A swimmer's back. I am so good. Now, your neck, I've seen that a lot with people with big pressures at work. Last week when I did that scalp massage you practically melted. It's definitely the cause of your headaches. That or your eyes. I'll work on them in a minute.
"And then there's this." Chelsi's finger delicately traced the scar along Nina's side, still sore after almost three years. "You don't have to tell me or anything. I'm putting oil on it because you may not have incorporated that place back into your body and you need to have it witnessed. It's part of you and it's nice and neat---"
"It's ugly, come on." Nina's voice came out harsh.
"Never mind, I'll move on, just let me touch it again next week, okay?"
"It's an exit-wound scar," Nina said. "From a thirty-two-caliber pistol fired by a woman in a courtroom."
"I knew. I just knew it. You're a policewoman!"
"What if I said I'm a bank robber?"
Chelsi's hands paused. "I don't believe that. It wouldn't bother me if it was true, though, I have to admit. I had a guy from Vegas in here who told me about how he embezzled from his boss at a credit agency. Even hustlers suffer from stress and hold it in their muscles. But you're not a bank robber. Your haircut is too primo. Long layers, really nice, no spray. And you don't wear much makeup. Your style is all wrong for a bank robber."
Nina didn't answer. She imagined Chelsi's big-haired mama of a bank robber.
"Let's work on your neck some more." She dug her fingers under Nina's skull at the back. It should have hurt. Instead, it was a catharsis, a stream of accumulated tension breaking up and flowing away. "You are kidding me, right? Although you don't work at Tahoe long before you realize we're all running some kind of hustle. Look at all the rich people who rent a garage on the Nevada side and claim they're Nevada residents so they won't have to pay state income tax in California. I hustle a little myself. You're paying me on the cash-discount basis, right? It's a tax-free zone up here. The showgirls make so much money outside the shows doing entertaining, you wouldn't believe it. No offense, but I also know you're not a showgirl."
"Too petite. And, you know, not in your twenties anymore. So what do you really do?"
"Law. I'm a lawyer." The hands stopped, and Nina wondered if Chelsi would slide out of her cheerful mood. Confessing her profession at a cocktail party often resulted in a step back and eyes averted from hers, as though she'd admitted she was a hooker.
Both necessary evils, she said to herself.
But Chelsi took no offense. "Right! Nina Reilly. I read about you in the paper. You do murder trials. Keep your head down. Relax."
"I do all kinds of law work. Whatever comes through the door. Not just murder trials."
"Well, that might explain your neck. Is that where the headaches start?"
"Actually, they start right in my temples, even when I haven't been reading," Nina said.
"Let me try something," Chelsi told her. She rolled Nina over and began massaging her face, starting with her forehead and temples, circling the eye sockets with expert fingers, prodding under her jaw. "It's a Tibetan technique. Kum Nye." Again, the relief was both subtle and intense. Nina felt her jaw go slack for maybe the first time since childhood.
"You poor thing. You need to come in at least once a week for a couple of months. I can do more for you than those pills you were prescribed. You have stored-up tension everywhere."
"It's a deal," Nina muttered.
There was a long silence while Chelsi did some acupressure on Nina's cheekbones and around her sinuses, then did that dainty pressing around her eyes again. "I'm sorry you got shot," she volunteered finally.
Nobody had ever said that to Nina at the hospital or afterward. Her brother, Matt, had been furious with her for taking the murder case in the first place. Her son, Bob, had been inarticulate with shock. She had been given flowers, kudos for catching a killer, but not a lot of sympathy. In fact, looking back, there had been a tinge of "you asked for it" in the reactions of the courtroom personnel. You take murder cases, you take your chances, was the attitude.
Nina realized that she still felt resentful about that, but even as the realization came, the resentment was going away, in waves accompanying the long strokes of Chelsi's hands.
So it was true, you did hold emotions in your muscles.
Chelsi was as healing in her speech as in her hands. She was working Nina's jaw hinges again. "Whenever you start to feel tense, yawn. Do you like what you do?"
"When I win. When I do good work."
They lapsed back into silence for some time while Nina's shoulders and biceps got a final workout, Chelsi leaning over Nina from above like an angel of mercy.
"Let's give you a foot rub. Are you good at it?"
"Now, see, I ask women that, and hardly ever do they say yes. The guys never hesitate. They say, 'Sure.' You're awesome to have that kind of confidence. What is it really like? I mean, really?" She oiled Nina's foot and started tweaking and pulling on her toes, as if they had muscles too.
"Practicing law? Well, a case starts with an immediate problem. Your client is in jail, or your client's about to be evicted, or your client's marriage is falling apart. You try to organize this real-life chaos into a theory or story that calms things down and will resolve the problem in a fair and orderly way. You get all the information and you try to work the system so your client has the outcome he or she deserves."
"How do you come up with this theory?"
"You read other legal cases and try to organize the facts so that your client comes out the hero, not the villain. Then you try to convince the judge that your version is the best version. Because the other guy always has a good story, too."
"You don't try to get the client what they want?"
"Sometimes they don't know. Sometimes they are unrealistic. Sometimes the system can't give them what they deserve. All the system can really do is lock people up or transfer money around. It can't bring back a loved one, for instance, and sometimes that's all the client wants. What's the matter?" Chelsi's hands had faltered, and she sighed.
"You make me think of a loved one I lost," she said.
The chime rang.
"That darn thing," Chelsi said. She gave Nina's feet one final squeeze and said, "You take as long as you need to get dressed." The door shut behind her, the soft New Age chords switched off abruptly, and Nina, deposited back into rude reality, blinked open her eyes to a shelf of unguents and towels and strong mountain sun filtering through the pines outside Chelsi's window.
She sat up reluctantly and slid off the table. While she dressed, she thought about Chelsi. She pulled on her blue silk jacket last and brushed her hair in the mirror above the sink, then consulted her watch. Court in thirty minutes.
She opened the door.
In the cubbyhole office, Chelsi hung up the phone and said, "Feeling better?"
"Much better. There's one thing I wanted to ask you. For about two minutes, when you were working on my face, I suddenly got the most splitting headache. Then it disappeared like air, and now I'm fine."
"That was your headache quota for the week. It let go all at once. You'll have a good week."
"Thanks. Really. I'm glad I found you. What do I owe you today?"
"Not a thing. And nothing next week, either." Chelsi folded her arms over the flowers embroidered on her smock. "I'd like to ask you a favor instead. My uncle Dave has --- he needs --- he has a legal thing. Would you talk to him?"
Nina put on her sunglasses and laid her business card and fifty dollars on the desk. "Like I said, Chelsi, anything that comes through the door. The first consultation is free."
"It's urgent. My dad and I have been trying to help him find a lawyer fast." Fast usually meant too late. Nina grimaced. "He's charged with a crime?"
"No! No! He was a victim. He and my aunt Sarah. Two years ago. There was a robbery in a motel they were staying at near Prize's and --- and my aunt Sarah was shot." Chelsi gave Nina's body a look and Nina could almost feel her curious fingers on the scar again. "The South Lake Tahoe police couldn't find the shooter. Uncle Dave went to a lawyer who helped him file a suit against the motel. For --- for---"
"Right. Something like that. And he put in a bunch of John Does like the lawyer said, so when he found out who the robber was he could do a---"
"Substitute in the robber as a defendant," Nina said. "There must be a wrongful-death cause of action too."
"That sounds right. Even if the police didn't feel they had enough evidence to arrest the robber, Uncle Dave could still sue him for damages. But now there's a court deadline or something where the motel is going to have the suit thrown out. Uncle Dave drinks too much, you know? He's broke and he's broken. My dad and I can put in some money to help, but --- anyway, would you talk to him and look at his papers? For two massages?" She handed Nina her money back.
"I'll be getting the better of the barter," Nina said. "Have your uncle Dave call my office and set up a time with Sandy, my secretary."
"Great! My aunt Sarah was such a good person. It can't happen that the universe could let her die and not punish anyone. She was only thirty-eight, and here's the worst, it still makes me choke up to talk about it, she was pregnant. Their first baby. They had been trying so long. It makes me so sad and mad. My mother left us when I was three, and Aunt Sarah was always there for me. Anyway, I appreciate it."
"I'll see you next week, then."
"We won't talk about it during your next massage. It's bad for relaxation."
"I'm sorry about your aunt, Chelsi," Nina said.
Chelsi gave her a pained smile.
"Thanks. I can tell you mean it. I know you can't bring her back, but --- anyway, thank you. Now here's your assignment for the week. Yawn whenever you feel tense," Chelsi said.
Two days later, a fresh mug of Italian espresso in hand, stockinged heels riding the edge of her desk, Nina stole a moment to reflect.
The long workday had begun. On the drive down Pioneer Trail that morning toward the office, Nina had watched the bicyclists and joggers with even more than her usual envy. They were out grabbing the last glories of fall, so damn happy, smelling the fresh tang of high snows and watching fluttering dry leaves while she contemplated her day, the bitter child-custody battle coming up, along with two grisly settlement conferences, all to be conducted in the windowless courtroom of the irascible Judge Flaherty.
Long ago, when law began, the advocates and judges must have met in tree-shaded glades, toga-clad, birdsong the accompaniment to their work, courtesy and dignity their style, and ---
--- And of course, as a woman, she would have been pouring the wine from the ewer, not arguing the case. But one could fantasize at 7:45 in the morning while watching birds and squirrels chase around the autumnal marsh that rolled out toward a distant, twinkling Lake Tahoe.
After several months in Monterey, she and her teenage son, Bob, had returned to Tahoe. Sandy Whitefeather had returned to her domain in Nina's office in the Starlake Building and was drumming up business before Nina had time to put down her cup on the desk. The young woman lawyer who had been handling Nina's cases found a law job in Reno, and left open files and a busy calendar of court appearances.
In spite of the time crunch, Nina found just enough space in the morning to pour Hitchcock's kibble and Bob's cereal, and to enjoy the short trip up Pioneer Trail to her law office.
When evening came, after she and Sandy locked up, Nina would drive home through the forest to the cabin on Kulow Street, noting the hints of winter to come she perceived in the dry pines and parched streams. The cabin still basked in early evening sun. Inside, she would kick off her shoes and pour herself a glass of Clos du Bois and watch the world news, make dinner, and nag Bob into finishing his homework. Once a week she called her father, and once or twice a week she and Bob went to her brother Matt's house for dinner.
September and October passed in a flurry while she reestablished her routines. The fees rolled in and she paid off her debts.
The judges accepted her back. She had a pretty good working relationship with most of the local lawyers, and she finally knew what she was doing.
The small office suite in the Starlake Building on Lake Tahoe Boulevard, right in the heart of town and less than five miles from the Nevada state line, now felt like home, but some part of her was still restless. She had gone from Carmel to San Francisco to Tahoe and back to Carmel and then back to Tahoe again in the past few years. She was starting to ask herself, uncomfortably, if she would ever settle down. Bob deserved stability, and she was going to have to stay put for a while.
She wasn't even sure why she had returned to Tahoe. She might just as well have stayed in Carmel and joined the Pohlmann firm, which had made her a very good offer.
And she had made one other uncomfortable discovery since returning to Tahoe.
Her ex-lover, Paul van Wagoner, and his new flame, Susan Misumi, had quickly moved in together down in Carmel. Fair enough, since Nina had ended it with Paul. The choice of Susan Misumi, with her black bangs, her humorlessness, escaped Nina, but it wasn't her business anymore. Nina and Paul still checked in on each other. They managed to stay friendly because they had been friends before they became lovers.
Nina had moved on. She went out, danced, ate good food, had a few unexpectedly intimate conversations. But she had discovered that she didn't expect much from men anymore. She didn't want to try for love.
That feeling had been growing in her for a long time, and she sometimes wondered if it had something to do with the breakup with Paul. Finding a partner seemed impossible, based on her experiences, so she put it out of her mind.
Men and places. Still, the restlessness would come over her, and she'd feel a need for another place and another man. Other people followed their lifelines. She careened along, too fast, not able to see her own.
But she would always have two constants to ground her: Bob, and her work.
Today, we persevere, she thought. With the last gulp of coffee, she threw two ibuprofen down her throat.
* * *
The phone buzzed. Nina swung her legs down, sighed, and picked up the phone. Sandy must have come in. Her desk was only ten feet away, through the closed door, but Sandy didn't like getting up.
"He's here, and so's she. Your eight o'clocks," Sandy said.
"And a fine morning it is."
"Hmph. You have half an hour."
The man stood with his back to her, hands in his pockets, looking at one of Sandy's decorations, a Washoe Indian basket on the shelf. He wore a green-and-black plaid lumberjack shirt tucked into a well-broken-in pair of jeans. The belt, a leathercraft affair, must have dated from the sixties. Work boots, a body used to physical work.
A conservative local, Nina thought, pegging him almost before he turned around. Nice wrinkled tan face.Grim expression. Plenty of gray-brown hair on both head and chin. A belly, that was a surprise.
Behind him, pretty Chelsi nodded. She was taller than her uncle. She wore her hair down today and it fell straight and satiny. Something had turned off the smile.
"Hi. I'm Nina Reilly," Nina said, looking the man in the eye, holding out her hand.
"Please come in." After ushering Chelsi in, too, Nina glanced toward Sandy, who, resplendent this morning in a heavy turquoise necklace and a denim jumper, seemed to be writing something in the appointment book. Sandy gave Nina a swift look back, one eyebrow cocked.
Now, that was an interesting take, since Uncle Dave looked harmless, but Sandy's first impressions had to be taken seriously. Sandy knew where clients hid their guns and buck knives; she knew if the Rolex was real or faux; a few words to her in the reception area revealed if a new client was resentful, desperate, or suicidal. Recently they had installed an emergency button hooked up to the local police under her desk, and the golf club propped behind her desk only doubled as a decoration.
Such is solo law office life in a gambling town. Prepare for
Uzis, Sandy frequently said.
Nina closed the door and Hanna pulled an orange chair away from the wide desk. He sat, crossing one leg at the ankle, stroking his beard, looking out the window behind her desk toward the steel gray lake, but not focusing, just gazing. Chelsi sat in the chair next to his, back straight.
Nina took her time getting comfortable, arranging a few papers on her desk, adjusting her chair. Let them get used to her.
"I don't know why I'm here," David Hanna said finally.
"Because you need to be," Chelsi said.
"I'm not working much. Money's tight. Chelsi and her dad, they've offered to pay for your services, but I just don't know. It doesn't seem right. I hear Chelsi's already told you about the case."
"A little," Nina said.
"Rog was Sarah's brother. I know he can't help wanting to do something. What I can't figure out, what I haven't been able to get my head around all along, is what good it does, suing someone. My wife is gone."
"What's your brother-in-law's name again?"
"Roger Freeman." While Nina made a note on her yellow pad, Hanna watched, squinting.The tops of his ears were red and his nose looked sunburned, too. Either he spent a lot of time outside, or, as Chelsi had suggested, less healthy indoor pursuits heightened his natural color. "What's your usual line of work, Mr. Hanna?"
"I'm a carpenter. Used to be a firefighter."
Nina looked at her client-interview sheet. "Placerville's a great town."
"It's a long drive up Fifty to get here. I don't come up the Hill much anymore since it happened. Chelsi said this conversation right now isn't going to cost us anything?"
"Free consultation," Nina said. "We have half an hour and you came a long way, so how can I help you?"
Hanna shrugged and said, "That's the point. I haven't got a fucking clue."
When Nina didn't bridle at that, he added, "Like I said, talk won't bring her back."
"But you're already involved in a lawsuit. Isn't that right?"
"I had a lawyer in Placerville named Bruce Bennett. Two years ago, after Sarah died, Roger contacted him and had this lawyer file a civil suit against the motel where it all happened. I wasn't sure about the whole thing, but Bennett got us in his office and oh, he talked it up, how much money we were going to hit them up for, how they were negligent. They let the bastard onto the property. No video camera and the clerk off somewhere. The lawyer talked us into suing the motel. Why, he practically had us convinced that the motel owner, who by the way wasn't even around that night, did the shooting."
"Sounds like he was trying to put on a very aggressive case on your behalf."
"I guess." He shook his head. "It never sat right with me, blaming the motel, but Roger was so gung ho. We used up some of Sarah's life insurance to pay Bennett, but when the money ran out he filed a substitution-of-attorney form and left us flat."
"I guess that didn't leave you with a very high opinion of lawyers. I know Bruce. The lawsuit stayed active?"
He shook his head. "I really don't know where things stand with it."
"You couldn't pay Bruce Bennett, so he quit?"
"I would think carpenters were in big demand around here. I can never get anyone to come out and fix my porch," Nina said.
"I don't work much lately." He sighed. "I have problems."
He chewed on a thumb, as if the question demanded arduous consideration that was beyond him. Scanning the room as if he might locate a swift escape route that wouldn't require him to pass Sandy, his eyes landed on Chelsi.
"Uncle Dave's been sick," Chelsi said, taking her cue.
"Hmm," Nina said. "Well, I understand you were going to bring me the court papers to look at," she went on neutrally.
"Right." He reached inside his wool shirt and pulled out a battered envelope. He set it on the desk, the hand revealing a slight tremor. Nina looked at him carefully, noting the thin burst of broken capillaries in his ruddy cheeks, the tangle of red veins around the edges of his eyes.
He hasn't had the hair of the dog this morning, she thought, and he misses it. No wonder Sandy had given her a warning eyebrow. Sandy didn't like drinkers.
On the other hand, wasn't it a positive sign that he had held off to talk with her? Maybe there was still hope for him.
She opened the envelope and pulled out several legal documents in the Wrongful Death and Negligence case of Hanna v. Ace High Lodge and Does I-X.
The complaint Bruce Bennett had drafted was on top, followed by some unserved summonses, an answer filed by the Ace High Lodge, and a set of pleadings filed recently by the Lodge's attorney, Betty Jo Puckett of South Lake Tahoe. While Nina skimmed through the pleadings, Dave Hanna slumped in his chair, never taking his eyes off her.
Chelsi had displayed a good grasp of her uncle's legal situation. He was about to have his case dismissed on the motion of the Ace High Lodge, because he had done nothing to bring the matter to trial for almost two years.
Bennett had done a workmanlike job laying out the facts in the complaint. The Hannas had been celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary by spending the weekend at Lake Tahoe at the Ace High Lodge, one block from Harveys and the other Stateline casinos. They had gone to a show at Prize's and walked back, then stepped out to the second-floor balcony of their room.
There, according to the dry legalese of the complaint, "they observed an armed robbery in progress." And, in what seemed to be a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, at thirty-eight, third-grade teacher Sarah Hanna had been shot once through the heart. She was three months pregnant.
There were few traces of the gunman or other witnesses. The motel clerk, Meredith Assawaroj, had heard the shots from an adjoining property. She had missed seeing the killer but had provided the South Lake Tahoe police with a fair description of the three motel guests who had been held up, young people who had packed up and left before the police arrived.
The clerk's descriptions of these three led nowhere. The gun hadn't been left at the scene. The witnesses had paid in cash and the description provided had been inadequate to find them. Nina made a note to find out more about that.
Now the Ace High Lodge wanted out of Hanna's lawsuit, which alleged that its clerk should have been in the office, that the motel security should have been better, and so on and so on. Hanna might have had some sort of case on the merits if he had pursued it, but leaving it to languish for so long had exposed him to Betty Jo Puckett's Motion to Dismiss.
Puckett's work looked good. Her law was solid. Statutory limits restricted the ability of plaintiffs to file a lawsuit and then do nothing, as Dave Hanna had done. Puckett had apparently advised the motel owner well --- to lay low for as long as possible and then attack Hanna for failure to prosecute. Nina hadn't met the lawyer, but the courtroom grapevine said she had an effective style.
She looked up. Hanna's cheeks flamed, but his eyes were sunken into the sockets. He looked like a big, healthy man who had developed some wasting disease that was ruining him. Nina wondered how long he had been drinking way too much. At least he was sober at eight in the morning. She found it painful to imagine what he'd gone through, how bitter he must feel now.
She cleared her throat. Setting down the motion to dismiss, she said, "Your wife seems to have been the classic innocent bystander."
"Did you know she was expecting?"
He shifted in his chair, like the seat hurt him.
"What do you plan to do now?" Nina asked him.
"Slink away, I guess."
"The Lodge wants attorney's fees."
"I might get socked with their lawyer fees?"
Dave Hanna put his hand on his heart and said, "Let me get this straight. They want me to pay them? How much money are we talking about?"
"I don't know. I could guess, from the amount of work I see here, possibly several thousand dollars."
"If I do nothing, what will happen?"
"You'll probably have to pay their fees."
During a long silence Hanna deliberated about whether to --- what? Confide in her? Walk out on her?
"Well?" he asked finally.
Nina raised her eyebrows.
"What do you think?"
"It isn't hopeless," Nina said.
"There isn't a damn thing I can do to stop them, is there?"
"You can fight the motion. The Code of Civil Procedure does require that a suit like yours be dismissed two years after service on the defendant with no action. But it hasn't been quite two years. It's still in the discretion of the court."
Hanna blurted, "Look, lady. I understand you need to drum up business. Maybe you hope we've got a stash of dough hidden away. I hate to say this, but we don't. Bennett demanded a hundred fifty dollars an hour and five thousand up front, and called himself cheap. I don't want to bankrupt Roger and Chelsi. And I'm broke, like I keep telling you."
"We'll take care of the money, Uncle Dave," Chelsi said.
"I will need a retainer," Nina said, thinking of Sandy, who would hold her accountable. She came up with the lowest amount she could manage. "Two thousand, billed against my hours. I also charge a hundred fifty an hour. There may be expenses. If we manage to keep the case going, those expenses could mount up fast."
"Done," Chelsi said, whipping out her checkbook. Hanna bowed his head, looked at the rug. "It's not for revenge," Chelsi said. "It's not for money. It's for my aunt. You know?"
Nina nodded. She pushed the button as though Sandy hadn't left the door open a crack and been listening the whole time.
After Hanna had signed an agreement and left with Chelsi, Nina adjusted her suit coat and hung her new briefcase over her shoulder.
"You think we can make money on this?" Sandy said. She reposed like a Buddha in her Aeron chair, detached, hands folded calmly on the desk over Nina's notes.
"I do. Fast money. That's if we can get past this motion to dismiss. The motel clerk should have been in the office. The area should have been less of an ambush invitation. There may have been other incidents --- this kind of crime occurs in clusters. Maybe the motel should have been on notice."
"The client's unreliable."
"Yes. But his relatives seem to have him in line. I think some money might help him, Sandy. Rehab. Grief counseling. Whatever. I trust Chelsi to steer him right."
"Where do you want to start?"
"Let's get the police reports and check to see if there were similar crimes reported in the area over the past ten years. File a notice that I'm in as Hanna's attorney and send a copy of the notice to Betty Jo Puckett. She represents the Ace High Lodge."
"Betty Jo Puckett?"
"You know her?"
"I met her. She has a problem in the tact department."
Nina smiled, saying, "Report anything else you hear."
"Before you go, what else do you need?"
"Get the file made up. I'll get going on drafting the Response to the Motion to Dismiss after court. There is a long line of precedents regarding innkeeper liability for inadequate security. Sandy, remember Connie Francis?"
"The singer? Nineteen-sixties. 'Lipstick on Your Collar. 'That wasn't even her biggest hit. But even now it strikes a chord with me." Sandy's husband, Joe, and she had broken up for many years and only recently remarried.
"She won an early motel-security case. The damages award was in the seven figures. I don't think it was in California, though. The trial took place in the mid-seventies. See if you can locate the case on Lexis."
"She was robbed?"
"She was raped. While staying in a hotel room. It was brutal.
I think it almost ended her career."
Neither woman spoke for a moment. Nina was thinking that people don't get over violence like that. They may carry on, but they are changed forever. Finally Sandy said, her voice tight, "So some turkey fired off a wild one during a stickup and killed a pregnant third-grade teacher. Do we go looking for him, or just nick the motel?"
"We go looking."
"We get started, at least."
"Shall I call Paul?"
"He's tied up."
"You'll need an investigator, and he's the best."
But for many reasons, Nina did not want Paul van Wagoner involved. She did not wish to see his confident face, his flirty manner, his sexual vibrations. She was over him, at least for the moment. Someday, Paul could reenter her life neutered into a professional associate. Until then, he needed to stay filed in the Great Memory file.
She said with emphasis, "Do not call Paul."
"Okay, okay. I heard about another good investigator who might be available."
"Good. See what you can do." Nina trotted down the hall and climbed into her old Bronco. Five minutes until court. She bumped off the curb into the street.
There's an advantage to small-town law. She would make it to court right on time.
Two days later, just after five, Nina drove north on the Nevada side of the road that circled Lake Tahoe.
Her response had been filed with the court that morning, and opposing attorney Betty Jo Puckett was nothing if not decisive. She had called Nina within an hour of the faxed service to her office and invited Nina to have a drink with her at her home in Incline Village, on the North Shore.
In all her time practicing law at Tahoe, Nina had never been invited to the home of another lawyer. A talk like this would ordinarily occur in a paneled office where computers clicked and whirred just outside the door. The reason, she had long ago decided, was that she was one of the few women lawyers in town. Men could meet after work, but a meeting with a woman lawyer caused gossip and trouble at home.
She hoped Ms. Puckett would be reasonable. Maybe she'd even be a congenial person, a new friend. Nina snorted at herself as she waited at the Stateline light. A new friend! The woman was a lawyer on the other side of a case, for Pete's sake!
At least she'd enjoy the forty-five-minute drive.
Rush hour does not exactly exist on the twenty-five-mile stretch between the south and north shores of Lake Tahoe. Traffic may be slowed by gawkers, by people pulling over to park at the nude beaches, by the construction projects that last all summer, but the population for a real traffic jam just isn't there.
Just barely over the Nevada state line, extending for a few blocks along Highway 50 on the South Shore, the gaming industry reigned supreme. "Gaming" had a much nicer ring than "gambling." "Gaming" implied ingenuity, and Nina did admit poker and blackjack to a realm where gambling could ascend into skill. Most people played the slots, though, and everyone knew that slots were the main source of casino revenue.
The casino district's face-lift was almost complete, down to a new gondola gliding up the slopes of the Heavenly ski resort. Old Cecil's Liquors with its narrow aisles and products piled to the ceiling had been replaced by the new Cecil's, twice as expensive, a neon sign advertising its new location, too brightly lit, too neatly stocked.
Cecil's also had new, twenty-first-century neighbors: a bookstore, a Starbucks. The Village Center—brand-new, built with a heavy hand from fieldstone—held a hotel and expensive shops. On her left, the unregenerate originals, the T-shirt shops and tchotchke vendors, stuck it out behind shabby storefronts, still fielding plenty of customers. Raley's Supermarket had been gussied up into chalet style. As she passed that corner, Nina searched for the lone tree in the parking lot, which had once figured in a murder case she had handled.
No tree. Progress had leveled trees, crime scenes, and favorite haunts with the same dispassion.
At Prize's, with its house-sized treasure-chest logo looming overhead, she saw that Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo Cantina had started up. Caesars, the class act of the district, had the Reno Philharmonic playing Carmina Burana, but for the regulars, DJ Jazzy Jeff was spinning CDs at Club Nero. X—An Erotic Adventure would be getting playful on Friday night at Harveys. Tall, forest green Harrah's looked down its nose across the boulevard from humble Bill's, which didn't monkey with erotica, magic, or expensive music acts, but got right to the point. Its neon marquee simply promised "Loose Slots."
She hit another light at the end of the row, near the Lakeside Inn, the locals' casino, the last casino before the forest crept back in. To her left now was Kahle Drive, where the casino workers lived in mobile homes and cottages facing an undeveloped meadow. A young woman with long bleached hair, a leopard print blouse, and jeans walked her big, wild-looking mastiff, fitting symbols of the transition from civilization back to the wooded mountains.
The forest closed in, olive and brown, the sky blindingly clear and the lake on her left filtering its blue-grays now and then through the firs.With air so dry and at an altitude of over six thousand feet, everything was high-focus, almost too clear.
Off Cave Rock, a white cabin cruiser trailed dark blue waterlines. The lake looked as enormous as an inland sea. Sometimes waterlines appeared by themselves out there, sinuous ridges that had given rise to the Tahoe Tessie legend.
Just after the Carson City turnoff, the road wound up high above the lake and the Bronco passed an unmarked gated trail to the left. Nina knew from Sandy that this led down to Skunk Harbor, where the Washoe Indians had been granted an exclusive right to camp, hunt, and fish. The cove was invisible, but she could see from her high seat the untouched meadows and forests below. A couple of hikers toiled up the trail.
Fifteen minutes later she came to the North Shore, the water suddenly close and sparkling on her left, down a hundred feet of steady-sloping granite and dirt to the nude beaches. Nina could see a few plumes of smoke on the distant West Shore—prescribed burning even this late in the year.The mountains over there were a deeper blue frosted with white from early snowfall.
She was alone on the road, Sand Harbor's shallow, bright water just ahead. Swinging the wheel, she continued around the curve past the old Ponderosa Ranch and took a right at Country Club Drive, the street name that told her, in several ways, that she had entered Incline Village.
The Bronco labored up the mountain. Just off Mount Rose Highway she came to Champagne Way and turned down the long, winding street, marveling at the chateaus with their mile high views of the lake basin. She had heard of this street. Local gossip said that a very well-known singer, songwriter, and record producer had a home here. The neighbors didn't exactly look poverty-stricken, either.
At the end of the street she arrived at a large stucco hacienda with a green-tiled roof surrounded by walls with fir-tree borders. The house was built on a promontory of the mountain. Nina slowed down to take in the view, but then Betty Jo Puckett appeared in the flagged driveway and the Bronco plowed toward her.
Betty Jo practically dragged Nina out of her seat. "I've been wanting to meet you," she said. A tall, rugged, gray-haired woman in her fifties; her jeans and white shirt encased a rangy body. Her face, sawed into a hundred lines and angles, exhibited every second of wear, and she had let dark eyebrows grow in thick. She looked a little like Judge Milne, in fact.
"Let's go inside." They passed through a tall entry with saltillo tiles underfoot and a lot of plants into a high-ceilinged living room with a flagstone fireplace next to a bar at the far end.
A little old man stood behind the bar, pouring from a bottle of vodka. "Heh," he said.
"That's Hector, my husband. He doesn't talk too well these days, but he loves company.What would you like to drink? Here, set down."
Nina chose a leather chair near the fire. "Tea?"
"Tea?" Hector growled almost incoherently, obviously peeved.
"Tea," Nina said firmly.
He took a flowered teapot from below the bar and flicked the lever of a spigot over the sink. Steaming water filled the pot. He measured quantities of tea from a silver tin, dunked a big silver tea ball into the pot, and set a timer. He said something Nina couldn't catch.
"Four minutes," Betty Jo translated.
They chatted while they waited and Nina looked around. Picture windows, French doors, whitewashed beams, a lot of expensive furniture. Precisely four minutes later, Hector removed the tea ball, poured liquid into a mug for Nina, and shuffled over to her.
"Thanks." Close up, she saw he wore a silk ascot. His teeth were blindingly white and perfectly regular. The tea sloshed dangerously as he handed it to her.
"Heh." Back behind the bar he began sipping something of his own. Betty Jo sat on the long white leather couch opposite Nina's chair, picked up a beer mug from the Noguchi coffee table, and said,"Salud!"
They all drank. Nina took a sniff, then a taste. The tea tasted delicate, perfumed with flowers and something like popcorn, quite a change from the supermarket stuff she was used to drinking. "What is this? It's great."
"Is that the stuff from China we got last year, doll?"
Hector nodded his hoary head. He was very old, in his eighties,
"Shoot. I forget the name. Hector, what's it called?"
He examined an ornately decorated canister and answered her.
"Right," Betty Jo said, nodding. "How'd I forget that?"
Nina, who had not understood him, sipped some more, wanting to know but not enough to ask again.
"Oh, here's Jimmy." Betty Jo got up to greet a man who had entered the room. She took him by the hand and brought him in for a hug, then led him toward Nina. "Jimmy Bova, Nina Reilly."
Bova shook Nina's hand.
"I'm the owner of the Ace High," he said."You know—the motel." Bova wore a red sweater, which clung like silk to his well-defined upper body. He had fleshy lips, a long Roman nose, the kind that drops straight from the forehead, and unusual, light-colored eyes set off nicely by the even tan a tanning booth provides. He looked like a man who took his exercise inside a gym, wearing really nice sweats, rather than the typical Tahoe man, who got it outside at the wood-chopping block.
"Glad to meet you," Nina said. "I didn't know you'd be here." Betty Jo had sprung a surprise, inviting her client along. Bova smiled. It was a warm smile, and Nina gave him one back, always ready to give the benefit of a doubt. If he hadn't been on the opposite side, she might not have described him to herself quite so harshly. He actually had a dash of Sylvester Stallone when he smiled.
"I hope you don't mind," Betty Jo said innocently. "I always reckon people should talk, get to know each other. Didn't figure Mr. Hanna was ready to join us, though. He's hell to talk to. I'm glad you're in the case, Nina."
Nina set her cup down and decided to play along with Betty Jo. They were all friends here, with no sticky clients like Nina's around to mess the place up. "Your house is superb. Spanish style isn't common up here."
"Hector and I couldn't resist when we saw it. We're from
Modesto. Only been up here a couple of years."
"Happy practicing law at Tahoe?" Nina asked her.
"Oh, yeah. Love it."
Bova, roving the room as if searching for a comfortable landing site, made no attempt to enter the conversation. Walking over to the fireplace, he picked up a poker, which he used to make a perfect pyramid of the burning logs.Then he turned to look at her, and Nina felt a shiver in spite of the warmth from the fire. She had been a little startled by how attractive Betty Jo's client was. He did not resemble the mean-spirited innkeeper of her imagination. His amber eyes glowed in the dimly lit room like the fire behind him.
Betty Jo launched into a story about meeting Sandy at the grocery store." She walked by me and I noticed one of the buttons on her blouse had popped. It happens to us big gals, so I kind of whispered as I passed, 'Look down in front.Your button.' So she looked down and she fixed it. Our carts passed and she never said a word.Then at the checkout she came up behind me and she whispered, 'Look behind you. Your butt.' "
And at that, illustrating for them, Betty Jo turned her back on them, bent over, rolled her neck so that she could see her backside, and jiggled it.
When nobody said anything, she jiggled again. She was not to be denied.
Nina and Bova, equally astonished at this display, looked at each other and broke out laughing.
"Sandy doesn't take kindly to being corrected," Nina said when she recovered herself.
"Well, I'm sure she's a fine legal secretary in spite of that big honking mouth of hers," Betty Jo said, sitting down again on the couch. "And she's observant. I do have a big ass, which Hector considers a major asset, don't you, Hector?"
Studying Betty Jo there on the couch, taking it all in—the invitation, the fire, the down-home way of talking, the drinks, the little old husband, the alert eyes—Nina suddenly realized what this foolishness was all about. Betty Jo wanted Nina unguarded. She wanted her friendly. She wanted Nina to underestimate her enemy. A little joke at her own expense was far cheaper in the long run than a big settlement. Legal strategy, country-style.
"Now, I also hear that you recently came back to Tahoe and set up again. That right?" Betty Jo was saying.
"I tried something else out for a few months, but I'm back for good now."
"Glad to hear it. The more women we get up here, the less cussin' and fightin' there'll be in court." A Chihuahua skidded into the room, followed by a large gray cat. They both jumped into Betty Jo's lap. Her strong hand settled the sudden squabble as they vied for position.
Nina said, "How about you?"
"Oh, I was living in the same little place I'd had for thirty years down there in the Central Valley, doing a little divorce work here and some personal-injury there. And what should pop up one fine morning but a great big injury case with a deep pockets insurer. I had to litigate it. By the start of trial I was in hock to my kids, my friends, plus the devil. Three weeks we went to court every day, me palpitating and my poor old client on his last legs. Then the jury came in and gave us fifteen million bucks." She laughed. "You believe it? Like winning at Lotto. Impossible odds."
"I always thought I would hit a big one. Thirty years was a long time to wait, though. Anyway, Hector and I fell in love and got married and decided to spend our best years someplace beautiful. So we came here. You married?"
"Divorced and widowed." Nina felt rather than saw Bova absorbing the information. He cruised over, close to her chair, shifted on his feet, and leaned in.
"And still so young," he said.
She couldn't believe it. He was flirting with her. And this wasn't the first time since she had returned to Tahoe she had been hit on in ridiculous circumstances. Could it be some kind of single-female pheromone she put out now that she was no longer with Paul?
If so, she didn't mind too much, because she liked male attention, always had. Lately, maybe, she had started to wonder if she had come to rely on it a little too much. That didn't mean she trusted Bova. She drew away from him, attempting to use body language to send him an unmistakable friendly nonverbal signal to get lost. Businesslike, aloof, and polite: She went for that effect, and it worked. Bova stepped away and resumed his examination of the objects in the room as if nothing had happened. Nina picked a few grapes from a bowl on the immaculate glass coffee table and ate them, giving herself a moment to slip back into lawyer mode. "Shall we talk about the Hanna case? I'm afraid I'll have to get back soon."
Betty Jo said, "I know you're busy. Yet you came to see me right away and didn't put us off. I like that."
"I consider this situation urgent. You're fighting to have David Hanna's case thrown out and I can't let you do that."
"In a nutshell. Yes, in a nutshell. Here Jimmy and I thought we were in the home stretch and then you galloped up from behind. Your responsive papers are good, and that worries me. Understand, Jimmy didn't do anything wrong. You can't put up an electrified fence around a motel with a guard gate to prevent robberies, especially right around the corner from a casino district. You could just as well have sued the cops for not showing up and preventing the incident."
"You don't need me to tell you the law," Nina said, "so I know I don't have to remind you that places of public accommodation have duties to their customers that are completely different from the duties of the police."
"Jimmy's a nice guy." Betty Jo continued to talk as if Bova weren't there, ears cocked to take in every word. "The motel's all he's got."
Nina took a long sip of tea. "No offense, but Mr. Hanna lost everything he held dear when he lost his wife."
"He's only suing me because he can't find the guy who killed his wife," Bova interrupted. "I'm sorry about that woman. I heard she was pregnant. Is that true?"
Nina nodded, watching him touch the smooth brown skin on his forehead.
"It's a shame. You think I don't wish every day this hadn't happened? But I'm not responsible."
"You have a proposal?" Nina said, on firm ground with him at last. "Do you want to settle this case and have peace of mind? Because I'm sure Betty Jo has told you, we can do that. We can settle with you and keep looking for the killer."
"We can come up with something," Betty Jo said before he could respond, "but I'm afraid your client won't want to take what's on offer, because we're the only money around, and he thinks we should pay for everything."
"Surely the motel's liability insurance covers this situation,"
"The company said no for a long time. But in the last two days they offered to make a payout."
"What is the policy limit?"
"They offered twenty-five thousand. And we'll drop our claim for attorney's fees."
"I see," Nina said.
Hector brought over another bottle of beer for his wife. She gave him a pat. She had not touched the first beer after the initial toast. Her mug now stood on the coffee table like warnings to Nina not to relax too much. "It's all standard stuff," Betty Jo said to Nina.
"Standard? One, you won't tell me their limit, and two, the offer's a pittance." Ah, she loved this tea. What in the world was in it to create an effect so relaxing yet so exciting? She felt a sneaky sympathy for Betty Jo, who was doing her damnedest to settle the case for a miserly amount of money, and who would not succeed unless she found more. For a moment, she wondered if Hector would go so far as to spike her tea somehow.
No. It was just wonderful tea.
Betty Jo looked at Jimmy Bova, now sitting beside her on the sofa. He shrugged. Then he turned his yellow eyes toward Nina. They now held nothing personal.
"Jimmy's just getting by. But he can put a little in too, from his personal account. Now, let me explain something about the way I practice law. I really think the way the men do it, with all the dicking—excuse me, I mean dickering, around, and the heehawing and trying to score points, is a waste of energy. What I do is this. I make my last and final offer the first time around. And I stick to it. It never goes up, because I've already put out everything I can.
"A good attorney on the other side, she's going to appreciate how efficient that is. It takes a little trust to work. I know I haven't got my reputation established up here in the mountains. All I can tell you is, I'm about to make you a last and final offer from the Ace High Lodge, and your client has two days to decide whether to accept it. After that, we incur a bunch of expenses getting ready for trial, and we withdraw the offer."
This practiced-sounding speech had a lot of appeal. Implicit in the offer was an assumption that the motel would lose its motion to dismiss. If Nina heard right, then Betty Jo was making a concession lawyers weren't supposed to make, in addition to offering an authentic settlement.
"I don't know how much you're offering yet, but I appreciate your frankness," she answered.
"Jimmy can scrape together another twenty-five thousand. That's absolutely all he can spare and keep going. He feels terrible about what happened at his motel and he's willing to dig deep. But these fringe places are strung out on the profit end, Nina. He's not a rich man. We're prepared to show you his income-tax returns to reassure you that he's not hiding money and that this constitutes a real sacrifice. So, fifty thousand dollars to the bereaved husband, and you can still go after the killer."
"I'll talk to my client," Nina said. "But I can't advise him to take your offer. I'll advise him to request the policy limits, which are going to be quite a bit more."
"The insurance company won't go for that. You think I haven't tried?" Betty Jo said.
"Maybe losing the motion will convince them."
"It won't. They already factored that in. Even if a jury finds the motel negligent, it's only contributory negligence. They'll decide that the motel is about ten percent responsible and the killer's responsible for the rest. So even if you get a half-million judgment, we're still only going to have to pay the same old fifty thousand. Last and final, Nina."
"I understand," Nina said. She stood up. "Nice to meet you, Hector. That is some amazingly delicious tea."
"He's delighted you liked it," Betty Jo said cheerfully.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Bova."
Bova said, "I'm sure we can work something out." The words were basically formulaic, but Nina thought he really did want out, and that there wasn't any more money. How would Dave Hanna react to the offer? Nina followed Betty Jo's broad backside outside.
At the Bronco, Betty Jo said, "I forgot to mention one teeny thing, which is a possibility based on complete speculation and not a scintilla of evidence, that Jimmy might have a line on one of the witnesses. The tourist kids with the fake IDs."
Nina stiffened. "What's that?"
"He'll be glad to tell you when we settle."
"You can't do that. You'll be getting my interrogatories tomorrow, and he'd better answer the questions."
"He doesn't have to provide complete speculation to your client."
"He'll be in court if he—"
"Let's part friends," Betty Jo said gaily. "Okay? Let's just think on it. We'll talk again. Meantime, I like your style, Nina. You're a cool customer."
Nina smiled. "Okay. We'll talk. I appreciate your straightness, too. I'm with you on the negotiating business. I also prefer to lay what I have on the table."
"We'll have lunch sometime. I'd like to hear some juicy legal gossip."
"Sure. Nice having you up here, Betty Jo. The winters must be knocking your socks off after Modesto."
"My love bunny keeps me warm."
"Oh, yes. He had a bad accident and crushed his larynx and suffered a little brain damage. But he's fit as a fiddle in other respects. In all the ways that count." She smiled. "He was as broke as me when we tried his case, and we both got rich at the end."
"He was your client?"
"Yeah, he got ten million and I got five, and we decided what the hay, let's put the whole shebang together." Betty Jo put her hand on Nina's shoulder and said, "I wouldn't have done it if he wasn't a world-class lay. Life's short, and you better pay attention to that, sister."
Nina got into her vehicle, and Betty Jo closed the door after her. "Jimmy and I look forward to hearing from you."
Nina started up the engine and waved. Betty Jo had seen it all, engineered every nuance of the evening, this canny, middle-aged lady from Modesto. Driving away with her windows open to the night, loving the way the cool air lifted the hair on her arms like the brush of a hand, Nina thought, Life's short. She's got that right.
Excerpted from CASE OF LIES © Copyright 2005 by Perri O'Shaughnessy. Reprinted with permission by Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.