September 20, 1990
The law offices of Pohlmann, McIntyre, Sorensen andFrost
surrounded a courtyard in a low, white-painted adobe building in
the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Lush flower bushes,
pines, and succulents bedecked the hilly front yard where steps led
to the main door. In the bright sun of mid-September the building
looked overexposed, bleached like the sand on the beach at the foot
of Ocean Avenue. Now, at ten in the morning, streams of Lexuses and
Infinitis already cruised this side street, hungry for parking
Nina Reilly grabbed a pile of mail on the receptionist's desk.
She had worked as a paralegal at the law firm for the past year,
having snagged this coveted job simply by submitting a
résumé. Her mother called it Irish luck, but Nina
suspected it had more to do with another Irish character trait. Her
father, Harlan, knew Klaus Pohlmann because he hobnobbed with
everyone, but he would never confess to having pulled strings with
Nearing eighty, Klaus was a legend in the community, the most
daring and successful lefty lawyer south of San Francisco. He only
hired the best, and that included Jack McIntyre, Nina's latest
crush. Jack was over at the Monterey County Superior Court at a
Nina called out to the receptionist, "Back in an hour, Astrid. I
Hurrying down the walk, she caught her sandal on the edge of the
stone steps and stopped herself from falling by dropping the mail
and raising her arms for balance. She dusted the letters as she
picked them up, then tossed them through the car window to the
seat, counting to keep track in case one fell between the seat and
Could mean the difference between a future and no future at all,
getting every one of those envelopes to the post office. If she was
going to be sloppy about details, she might as well slit her throat
today and skip the stomachaches and nights of worry altogether,
because in the legal profession, as in medicine and architecture, a
minor oversight could be lethal.
Nina had finished college a few years before with a degree in
psychology, studying film, art, and people in the luxurious fashion
of a girl-child awaiting her prince. She wished now that she'd had
better guidance from the adults in her life, who should have known
-- what? The future, what real life held for a single mother in her
late twenties entering a slow economy? Her psych degree had not
even prepared her for service positions in the restaurant
But she was making up for that now, between law classes,
paralegal work, and Bob, not in that order. Fog murked its way in
front of her. She scrutinized the hazy road for patrol cars, then
executed a swooping, illegal U-turn, arriving at the post office in
downtown Pacific Grove, heart pounding. She shoved the letters into
the metered-mail slot.
Relieved to be rid of her latest emergency, she fired up the MG
along with the radio. Moving out into the street, she narrowly
missed a waiting Acura. She swung onto Pine Avenue, drifting toward
the middle line as she rummaged in her bag for the address for Dr.
Lindberg. She located his card, swerved to avoid a jaywalking
tourist family, and turned left onto Highway 1. The pines loomed on
either side as the fog drizzled over the Pebble Beach road. She
drove swiftly the few blocks to her mother's cottage, parking in
front of the huge Norfolk pine in the front yard.
Honking, she reminded herself about the miserable people she saw
every day at work, injured on the job, alone and poor. She conjured
these images to steel herself for the sight of her mother carefully
locking up, pausing every few steps, looking down as if she weren't
sure where the sidewalk was. Her mother had ordered her not to come
to the door. She didn't like being reminded of the changes in her
In the one minute she had to herself Nina leaned back and closed
her eyes. Breathe deep. In. Out.
Let's see, Wills and Estates tonight. Professor Cerruti made it
her favorite class, but she also liked what lawyers called the
"settled" law of that ancient and noble subject. Unlike
environmental law, for instance, which fluxed through revolutions
every time a new president came in, with Wills one could learn
rules that had stuck for centuries. How nice if she could apply a
few firm rules to the tatty loose ends of her own life.
I'll read the cases while I eat dinner, she decided. So much for
school. As for work, she had all afternoon to obsess about how much
she was falling behind there. Deal with it when she got back to the
As for friends, ha ha, they must think she had moved to
Tajikistan, for all they ever heard from her; a boyfriend was not
an option, she didn't have time, though she had fallen into some
casual overnighters a while back that had left her feeling worse
than lonely. But she did feel warm whenever McIntyre came into her
office. Her mind began bathing in a certain bubble bath -- but
right now here came her mother, struggling down the concrete
Today, the skin on her mother's face looked tighter than usual.
Nina opened the passenger-side door from the inside. Ginny paused
to remove her right glove, uncovering a hand scrimshawed in pale
blue lines. She leaned in and touched her daughter's hand. "Honey,
why not let me take a cab? You're a busy woman."
"God, Mom. You're like ice."
Nina's mother had changed so much. Always a handsome woman with
sparkling eyes and a daunting energy, she had gradually seemed to
lose all color and character. Her skin stretched as tight as a
stocking mask over her cheekbones, even pulling her lips back as if
they were shrinking. Her once mobile face now looked somehow both
flat and puffy, due to both the illness and the steroids used to
treat it. Still she tried to smile.
"You always look so cheerful," Nina said, giving her a brief hug
after she had maneuvered into the low-slung car. "How do you do
"The right attitude makes me feel stronger. You know how much
you hate it when people condescend to you, 'Oh, poor Nina, raising
a boy on her own, working so hard'?"
"Oh, come on. I don't pity you."
"Sure you do. Anyone with half a brain would." Ginny patted her
shoulder. "Let's just admire how delightful the leaves are at this
time of year, okay?"
Maybe it had been better, those days of not knowing what was
wrong, because of the hope they'd had then. Did her mother still
Nina drove quickly to Dr. Lindberg's Monterey office on Cass
Street. Would she have time later to run by the school library for
that book on reserve? She had a mock trial coming up in a week in
her Advanced Civil Procedure class and a paper due for Gas and Oil
Law that demanded lengthy research. If she hurried, she could pick
up Bob at nursery school, drop him with the babysitter at home,
stop by the library, and be back at the office by two. Would Remy
notice she had been gone longer than her lunch break allowed?
Gritting her teeth, she thought, Remy would notice.
She parked at a meter and ran around to the side of the car.
"Need help, Mom? Those stairs are pretty steep. Let me help you up
them at least."
Her mother let her help her out of the car, then shook her off.
"I rise to all occasions. That will never change. Please don't fuss
so much, Nina."
"If Matt doesn't show up to pick you up, promise me you'll leave
a message for me with Astrid. I'll come get you."
"You're a worrywart."
Her mother trusted Nina's brother, Matt. Nina hoped she would
call if Matt didn't show up. Again.
A few blocks north of Dr. Lindberg's office, Bob attended a
preschool chosen after Nina had looked at a dozen of them and
settled on this one as the least of all evils. The playroom walls
were covered with outsider art Picasso would have envied, committed
by three- and four-year-olds who were never given
fill-in-the-blanks coloring books. Children were making collages at
each table, and she spotted Bob, dark hair fallen over his round,
delicious cheeks, smearing a magazine tearout onto gluey paper
à la André Breton or Max Ernst.
Seeing her, he called out, "Mom, look!" Resisting an impulse to
check her watch, she pulled up a tiny preschooler plastic chair and
sat next to him, nodding at the collage.
"Finish up, honey, we have to go." Thank God he loved the place
and was reluctant to leave. "What's this?" she asked, pointing at a
tray of wooden puzzle pieces alongside the collage.
"My job." He reached over and with startling dexterity stuck the
pieces into their slots to complete a duck puzzle.
"Oh. A duck! Cool!"
"But now watch this." He dumped the pieces onto the table, then
stuck them across the middle in a snaggletooth row. "My keyboard,"
he said with a grin. "Like at home."
"But this one you can't play."
"Huh?" He ran his fingers up and down the wood pieces, humming.
He was playing a sea chantey CD at home these days. "'Way haul
away, we'll haul away home -- '"
"But you ruined your puzzle."
"We can go now."
Taking her son's backpack and his hand, Nina ushered him to the
door. Bob currently loved the cheap battery-operated keyboard she
had found at a discount store. He didn't want to learn real songs
yet, just loved making noise, but sometimes she caught him
fingering the same notes over and over with a thoughtful expression
on his face. She would have to find a way to pay for piano lessons
when he was older. Never squelch potential talent, Ginny always
As they pulled the door open, an aide handed Nina a paper bag
full of dirty pants. "He had two accidents today," she remarked,
carefully noncommittal. Nina took the bag. Bob looked up at her
with a worried expression. "Mommy, don't break my heart," he said,
watching her face. She smiled and patted his hot cheek, hustling
him outside, chastising herself for her impatience.
On the way to the parking lot, she ran into an old friend she
hadn't seen for ages.
"Well, look at you," Diana said.
Nina hugged her, remembering how much Diana favored flowery
perfumes. "When I told you I was pregnant, you never said a thing
about being pregnant yourself."
"I was scared," Diana said. "I'd already had two miscarriages
and began to think I'd never have a child. Her name's Cori." They
stopped to watch Diana's curly-haired daughter gather up her
"So you settled down," Nina said.
Her old friend waved a set of flashy rings. "He just wouldn't
let me alone. Good thing. He teaches chemistry at the community
"You always said you'd never marry."
Diana corralled her daughter and nudged her toward a red
minivan. "Yeah, surprise! I turned out normal. How about you?"
"No surprise. I didn't."
Diana tilted her head. "So what if you never go about things the
way other people do. You're exceptional. Not abnormal."
"I decided to get everything out of the way at once, be a single
mother, go to school, work like a cur. That way, I'll have earned
the right to a long commitment to some quiet loony-bin spa by the
time I'm thirty."
"I gotta scoot." Diana started the battle to get her daughter
strapped in. "Let's gossip soon."
"You back at work?"
"Part-time until the little gal's ready to launch. Two more
years. I couldn't find full-time child care I can trust that would
have her." Diana latched the seat belt across her daughter's car
seat with a sigh.
"It's like getting them into a good college, applications,
"And then they reject you or your child, or your private
financial status." Diana shrugged, slamming the door against her
cranky child. "I discovered passable child care involved dark rooms
with peed-upon plastic mattresses, watery peanut butter, and
drunken college students. I realized, hey, I can do that and pay
How nice for her, Nina thought. Diana had a partner to help and
an option to stay home with her daughter. How might that feel? No
doubt good, no doubt fortunate.
"Take care," Nina said, strapping Bob into his own car seat. He
had a new book to study, so he let the process happen peacefully
for a change. Suddenly starving, she climbed inside her car,
rustling around in the MG's glove compartment for a snack. She
found nothing to eat there, only an old brochure for a restaurant
she could never afford. Disgruntled, she raised her head to another
Richard Filsen leaned against the brick wall of the church that
bordered the parking lot, smoking a cigarette.
Excerpted from SHOW NO FEAR: A Nina Reilly Novel ©
Copyright 2011 by Perri O’Shaughnessy. Reprinted with
permission by Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.