Seven a.m. on the first Monday morning in September. Nina Reilly and Paul van Wagoner snoozed in his king-size bed in the sole bedroom of his Carmel condo. As the sun came through the shutters, striping the rug with light, Paul kicked off the covers on his side and, as Nina opened her eyes, turned over so all his long naked backside was displayed: the blond hair, smooth, well-muscled back, strong legs, and narrow feet.
As if he felt her attention, he turned to face her. Eyes closed, he grabbed her around the waist and pulled her tight to his body.
Nina was naked, too, the way Paul liked her. Herself, she favored expensive silks or shabby cottons, but since she had gotten involved with Paul, she had learned to appreciate what he called his simple needs. He liked skin, he liked the smell of her, he wanted nothing to come between them, so nothing did, at least not when they were in bed together.
This time with Paul was precious. Her son, Bob, fourteen, had spent the previous night with his grandfather. She had "freedom," in the way all mothers had freedom, meaning contingent freedom, but at least Bob was safe enough for the moment. She stretched in Paul's arms so her toes reached his calves and kissed his stubbled cheek.
"Mmm, coffee time," Paul said, smiling, eyes closed.
It was her turn. She didn't have far to go in the compact condo. When she came back with the mugs, Paul was sitting up in bed, legs crossed.
"I feel suspiciously elated, considering it's Monday morning," she said.
"Ben Franklin would call us slackers. He would have been up since five, making a kite."
"Progress means we get to do whatever the hell we want this early in the morning," she said.
Nina had moved to the Monterey area from Tahoe in early summer to be with Paul, just to see how things would play for them. She had gone to law school here, at Monterey Peninsula College. Her father lived here, and she had other old ties. But now, after her move from Tahoe and after a brief vacation of sorts, she had signed on for her second murder case in three months.
Her part started today, though the poor client had been counting the days at the Monterey County Jail for four months. A new case, a new chance to test herself and show her stuff, was always a thrill. So she felt good right now, enjoying the smoldering looks she was getting from Paul.
"Get back in here," Paul commanded. He patted the bed beside him.
"Be polite or you won't get this coffee. Triple-strength fresh-ground French roast. You'll never get better."
"All right, I'm begging you, please, get back in here. Or is the plan for me to admire you standing there with your hip cocked like that?"
She climbed into bed and pulled up the sheet, and they both sipped their coffee. Paul seemed to have something on his mind, so she held back the impulse to jump up and throw her clothes on, waiting to hear it. He ran a very successful investigation and security business. Selfishly, she hoped he was worrying about work and not anything that would slow her down.
He set his cup on the bed stand and drew her close. "Back to the grind for our girl. I hope Klaus is paying you a whole lot to compensate you for putting your life in such an uproar."
"I'm just glad to have a paying gig again, even though I'm coming in so late. It's going to be very demanding. But I've got you, and I've got Sandy to back me up, so I'm wallowing in a pleasantly fuzzy false sense of security."
"What about this case snagged you? You told me you weren't going to accept any more work until you made some decisions about the things that really matter. Remember?"
She knocked back some of the coffee left in her mug, remembering a distant time when she made decisions with only her own future to consider. But she had Bob to worry about, too. "Klaus called. He needed my help. And then the case . . ." She stopped. "I don't know much yet, but Klaus is ready to go all the way with Stefan Wyatt. He says Wyatt is accused of stealing a skeleton and strangling a woman in Monterey named Christina Zhukovsky. I'm going to meet the client today and start going through the files."
"Fine," he said, so absorbed in his own thoughts he probably hadn't heard hers. "But what is it about this case that has you looking so damned"--he paused to run his hands through the tangle of her long brown hair--"gorgeous?"
She laughed and hit him with a pillow. "That's your eyes giving you trouble. I've heard that happens as a man ages."
"You don't fool me," he said, pulling her into a full-bodied kiss. "You like distinguished. Aged red wine; ripe bananas; men with faces that show they've lived a life of excess and pleasure; flaky cheeses . . ."
"Shall I compare thee to a flaky cheese? Do you really want that?"
He laughed. "Anyway, have you considered this? Maybe this case will lead to a partnership opportunity. How would you feel about that?"
"Would you like that?" She knew the answer. She asked to avoid answering.
"Yep. You know I'd love to tie you down right here on the Monterey Peninsula. I'm always on the lookout for opportunities."
She smiled at him. "I guess I'll deal with a partnership offer when and if the time comes." Life felt easy here in his arms. Protected. But she was starting to notice something after this time she had spent away from work and from her own solo practice at Tahoe. She felt smaller, younger, less able.
Criminal defense work had always been her big place, her New York City. Good at her job, getting better all the time, she helped the hapless, damn it. She had a calling to go out and save miserable souls who could not save themselves, help them through the labyrinth, make sure the rules were followed and that they had their defense, even if they were guilty. She liked a large life. She wasn't sure yet how big her life could be with Paul.
He looked at her now, considering something, stroking her hair. Then he reached beyond her and pulled open a drawer to the bedside table. "Maybe the time has come," he said.
"What? Nobody's made me a partnership offer," she said.
He pulled out a small, ornately decorated enamel box. "Oh, but I have."
"Ah." She pushed her hair out of her eyes and looked at the box.
"We should have talked about this last night, at dinner, when we had time."
He shook his head. "Last night was chaos."
She remembered. Bob had decided he needed their dog, suddenly, for reasons known only to him, but he had been so insistent on her bringing Hitchcock that they interrupted their dinner date to drive back to her house to get him and then drove to her father's to deliver him. Paul had done it all so patiently, even though she had been fuming.
"Anyway, I don't want to talk, Nina. We've said it all and now's the right time for this. Mornings with you are so beautiful." He took her left hand and turned her to face him, popping open the box to reveal a twinkling square diamond ring, with two tapered baguettes flanking it.
He had asked her to marry him before, but the ring was a new, serious development. Nina held up her side of the sheet, gazing at the ring, her lips parted. The band, a sleek platinum, held the big stone between elongated prongs so that the light could dance around it in all directions.
"It's called an azure-cut--four equal sides. It was my grandmother's," he said. "A bluestocking in the early 1900's, I'm told. Seemed like the symbolically perfect thing for you."
"It's gorgeous," she said, stammering a little.
He took the ring from its box. "Nina, will you marry me?"
He had been patient with her. He deserved an answer. "I think . . ."
She took her hand out of his, and covered the hand holding the ring with both of hers, feeling tears coming to her eyes. "I really love you!" she said.
"Then say yes."
"Marrying you means what? Staying here? Or would you come with me back to Tahoe?"
"I want you with me, Nina, forever and ever." Blond hair fell over his forehead, and his bare flat stomach creased delightfully at the waist.
"There's Bob," she said.
"He's a kid. He'll adjust."
"My work. Matt, Andrea, their kids. My whole life is in Tahoe."
"Unless it's here with me." He pulled the ring out and turned it in the sunlight, watching it twinkle. "Wear it?" he said. "Be mine?"
"I am yours."
"Yet, I get no answer." He said it lightly, but she could hear his disappointment.
"I just . . ."
"Okay. Bad timing, trial comin' up. So here's what we'll do. You try it on for size. See how it feels on your finger. Take some time. Think if you must. Sound like a plan?"
She let him slip the ring on her finger. She liked the way it felt, and how pretty it looked there.
They kissed for a long time, languorous, loving.
"Maybe I should wear it on a chain around my neck," she said, "or everyone will assume we're engaged."
"Wear the ring. Maybe you'll discover you can't take it off."
She glanced toward the clock on the bureau. Well, if she was a little late, so be it. Her client wasn't going anywhere. "Paul, I have questions."
"Being together," she said slowly, "what's that mean to you?"
He leaned back and laughed. "I don't want a Stepford wife, okay, or why pick you? There's a babe out there somewhere who is ready to bake a rhubarb pie for me, and even wash my dirty laundry once in a while as part of the deal. I hope you will sometimes. Maybe I'll do the same for you, in a pinch. I'm willing to go untraditional. I just want us to take the next step. It would be beautiful to marry you."
She rubbed a finger against his rough morning cheek. "What I'm trying to say is, how about a counteroffer? I don't see why two people who love each other, two strong people, have to . . ."
"Marry? It's not a bad word. Go ahead. You can say it."
She nodded. "Marry. It's not as if--you always said you don't want kids."
"I do say that."
"So that's not an issue. I mean, you have such a fine life here, your business, friends. And I've got another one up in Tahoe. I miss it. I think all the time about my little house and my brother's family, and I check the weather up there every day. When it's foggy here, I think about how sunny it probably is in the mountains. When it rains here, I wonder if they're getting snow."
"Is this a no?"
She shook her head. "Just, I have questions. Isn't what we have good enough? Isn't it excellent?"
"I don't know what to expect. I don't know if you're coming, going, staying."
"I'm not sure I know what you mean by 'marry.' "
"Enough discussion, okay?" He fiddled with the ring on her finger, centering the stone so that it glittered. "You know what I mean when I ask you to marry me. You know. Don't start quibbling. Now come closer, you're making my brain ache with all this talk."
Her thoughts whirled. Only his touch brought them to a screeching stop. "Is this close enough?" she asked.
"You always know exactly what you want and you aren't afraid to make your wishes known," she murmured. "I have to get to work. I have a meeting."
"I really can't. Five."
"Five isn't enough for what I have in mind."
"Okay, ten, if you can convince me you'll make it worthwhile."
"Damn lawyers! Everything's a negotiation."
Later, his body wrapped tightly around hers, he said, "Nina?"
She was busy covering his neck with tiny kisses. "Yes, Paul?"
"I love you."
"Ditto," she said.
"I await your final verdict."
Nina walked down the hallway at the Salinas jail behind the guard and went into the cubicle he indicated. Featureless, windowless, worn, it held one scarred chair, a wall phone, and a shelf under the large window through which her new client would soon spill his secrets.
As soon as she had pulled the chair up to the window and placed her briefcase on the floor, the door on the other side of the glass opened and a hesitant young man entered. Stefan Wyatt had a soul patch on his chin and enormous biceps developed during, or maybe due to, his months of imprisonment. He wore the usual jail-issue orange jumpsuit, and tripped over the chair that faced Nina through the window before sitting down. The deputy, just closing the door from his side, reflexively reached for his weapon at the sudden movement.
At this first meeting with her client, Nina examined him as severely as she would a new pair of shoes, checking for hidden defects. Sometimes clients brought a smog of evil into the room along with their stories, and she knew right away: here's one who could have done it. This one didn't strike her that way.
"It's all right, man," Wyatt said to the deputy, who relaxed, seeing there was no harm intended. Fumbling with the phone, twisting the wire straight, he said, "Hello, there." Twenty-eight, tall, a college dropout with a spotty employment history --- odd jobs, bartending, almost a year at a moving company, and six months on a fishing boat --- he had blue eyes, an average IQ, and a great smile that indicated a nature so sunny even this dungeon hadn't stolen his spirit.
Nina showed him her State Bar card and smiled back, saying, "How are you?"
"Fine?" He shook his head as if uncertain of the truth of his own words. The blue eyes on her were wide open, bewildered. Had Klaus forgotten to mention her during his visit the day before? "Er, I'm Nina Reilly."
"Right. You're working with Klaus. I'm Stefan. I guess I didn't expect . . ." He paused, smiling. "I guess I thought you'd look like Klaus."
Nina raised an eyebrow. "I probably will, at his age."
"Nooo. Not ever."
"Ready to settle down this morning and do some work?"
"Like Klaus, I'm your attorney, and you have the same privilege of confidentiality in talking with me as you do with him. Do you understand that, Stefan?"
"You can't tell anyone what we talk about. I know."
"I'm here to ask a few questions. You probably understand that I'm coming in late to your case and need to hear it all."
"Klaus didn't explain everything to you?"
"Okay," he said amiably. "What do you need to know?" She was already forming more judgments about the young man in front of her. Sane, at least oriented to reality at the moment. Engaging. Nice mouth, set of beautiful teeth, a healthy fellow but passive and awkward, the big body not quite coordinated. His eyes held a hangdog eagerness. He looked anxious to please. A certain kind of woman would want to take care of him.
Klaus had said this divided room wasn't bugged. They could talk safely, he believed, so she would put her doubts aside and ask for the whole story.
Uncapping her lucky Mont Blanc pen, Nina wrote the date on her yellow legal pad.
"It's not like I know who killed that woman," Stefan said. "I was in the wrong place, just trying to help someone and make a few bucks I really needed."
"All right," Nina said. "I'm listening. Tell me what happened right up to your arrest."
"Everything. What you were thinking, not just what you did."
Stefan began to talk, his story coming out in spurts as if he were still coming to terms with some of the things he had done. As he spoke, Nina looked up from her notes now and then and watched him, gauged him, weighed the words.
"It was April, cool at night."
"What day in April?"
"The twelfth. Right into the next morning, April thirteenth. Lucky thirteen, ha, ha."
Stefan had waited for the sun to sink low, so he could get it over with. He didn't want the job; just thinking about it made him feel like some grisly comic-book character.
But he had already delayed one night on account of rain and a minor drinking binge that sent him to bed early instead. Alex might be angry about that, and he didn't like disappointing people. Still, if anything could wait, in a weird way, it was this. After all, the old man had been dead for decades. He wasn't going anywhere.
But now, if he was going to do this thing, tonight was the night. He would go light on the brewskis and be primed for action later.
He couldn't tell Erin, which put a strain on what should have been a great Saturday night. He had made a solemn promise to her never to break the law again, and here he was preparing to break it just this one last time. Feeling guilty in advance, he took her out for fish and chips at her favorite place at Fisherman's Wharf, the Captain's Gig, where, stoked on caffeine, she talked fast --- happily, it seemed to him, though as usual she looked longingly at the shops across the street that carried wind chimes and sea otter statues and that gnarled burlwood furniture they couldn't afford. And jewelry, beautiful rings…
While Stefan listened with one ear to a guy ranting through a microphone across the plaza, who actually said a few things Stefan agreed with about working people and how important strong unions were, Erin got on the topic of her family and how much they would like him once they got to know him.
Stefan knew what this meant: What they had heard of him made them not like him. They had heard he had a record. Erin wouldn't lie about that to anyone. He didn't feel ready to meet them until he had his life in better order. But he loved Erin, so he listened to her as they walked home, hoping she wouldn't raise the issue of meeting her folks again.
When they got home, Erin drank the shot of tequila he poured for her in the kitchen. Flushed and beautiful, she sidled up behind his chair to give him a kiss and back rub. Shit, Stefan thought, heaving a sigh, pouring himself a beer. How he would prefer to be pulling that yellow sweater over her head and taking advantage of her mood. But that had sabotaged him the night before. Tonight he couldn't let it happen. Erin showed no signs of slowing down, and he needed her asleep, so he pretended to keep pace with her while discreetly tossing his own Coors down the kitchen sink. He drank most of one first, to be honest.
They sat down at the kitchen table. "My favorite place, if you're gonna talk about places worth noticing, is that spot between sleeping and waking. Like after good sex?" Erin nudged him with her knee. "You float around like you're in a boat."
"Uh-huh." He stuck his nose into her neck, getting a whiff of her warm smell.
"You tickle." Smiling, she pushed him away a little and put her hand on his leg, then she slid it up and started messing with his fly.
He really did not want to leave.
His brother Gabe called Erin "dim" behind her back, but Stefan didn't know what that was supposed to mean. She was hard to read sometimes. But if Gabe meant brights, well, Erin was brighter than Stefan. Gabe wouldn't think that was saying much, but it meant something to Stefan. He respected her. He liked the surprises that came out of her. "Deep" fit her best. Her politics were naive to nonexistent, but she had something he didn't have. She had connection, to people, to the earth.
He touched her and listened to her, staring beyond the window curtain to the darkening trees.
Thinking: Where is that shovel?
And: I wish to God I didn't have to do this.
Erin's chin sank to her chest as she nodded off. He led her into the bedroom, took her clothes off, and tucked her into bed regretfully. Her eyes closed instantly. "Stef," she mumbled.
"Stef," she said again, and then just breathed.
Dark had gathered outside. Yellow lights brightened in the mist. He leaned down to Erin and stroked a strand of hair back from her forehead.
"Forgive me for this," he whispered. "Never leave me."
He put on a warm jacket, located the new gardening gloves he had bought, and stuffed them in his pocket. Outside, he pulled tools from the shed where Erin stored things for her landscaping jobs: a shovel, a pick, a few other things that he thought might come in handy. He tossed them into the trunk of his Honda Civic.
A few cars passed, and every one made him jump. One slowed down as it passed, and he regretted not making sure the light had been out above the shed, but in the dark, he couldn't make the car out, and in the end, he decided it didn't matter. What he had to do was macabre, yeah, but not wrong, exactly.
Who was there to care about an old man dead for decades? The only people who might care didn't, as far as he could tell.
Stefan patted the wallet in his pocket. He needed this money. Erin wouldn't have to pay the rent again this month, and with what was left over, plus what was to come, he could buy something for her that he had wanted to buy for a long, long time.
He took Del Monte Avenue as it curved around the bottom of the bay, passing the wharf and the Doubletree Inn right in the middle of Monterey, then drove north along Lake El Estero and turned toward the two main town cemeteries. The narrow gates at both entrances to the Cementerio El Encinal were closed, and beyond the wrought iron the green grass looked gray.
Driving around the perimeter of the cemetery, he looked for a hidden place to park nearby. The cemetery boundaries didn't include any good private places, so he pulled into the lot at Dennis the Menace Park. No brightly lit ball games at the field next to the park, the kids in bed, the old locomotive engine at the entrance to the park a dark volume against the thin night. All good.
Stefan checked his watch, discovering it was just past midnight, then pawed through the back seat until he found the flashlight. From the trunk he pulled out the shovel and pick, which he pushed into the army-surplus duffel bag he had brought. Walking along the boundary of the cemetery, the bag slung on a long strap over his arm, he watched for cops, taking in the sounds of the night, amazed at how vivid white clouds looked against the black sky. In spite of his black jeans and black polo shirt, he felt bright as a peacock.
Avoiding the gate with its pointed metal shafts, and the open side around the corner that had no wall but seemed too exposed, he threw the bag over the six-foot wall, listening for the soft clank as it hit ground on the other side. He cast one last look at the street. Bums and dopers sometimes hung out at the picnic tables across the street, but he couldn't see anyone. Still, he definitely felt watched.
The ghosts aren't happy to see me, he thought.
He had meant to cheer himself up, but this joke had the opposite effect. Childish fears woke up and started working on him.
Maybe this wasn't illegal. Was it? It was trespassing, sure, but was it more? He didn't want to break any laws, not only because he had promised Erin, but because he always got caught. He was a poor risk. Whether you believed in the system or not, there was power behind it, and you were the little guy getting squeezed like a juice box if it took hold of you.
He fingered the little Buddha Erin had given him to wear around his neck, saying it might help avoid the bad luck that followed him around everywhere like an evil little brother.
Stefan had always had bad luck. If he used a meter, it expired before he could finish his business, and the meter maid would show up in a bad mood. If he so much as palmed a ballpoint pen after signing a credit-card receipt at the store, the clerk ran after him to get it back.
Five hundred dollars in my pocket, he told himself. More to come when the job is done. Now, that's good luck.
Grabbing a tree limb, he got his boots onto the rough wall and dropped into the cemetery, landing on wet grass. He was on the end near the corner, roughly in position. Turning the flashlight on, he skulked off the path among the graves, hunting for the headstone he had scoped out two days before. At first he stepped gingerly between the stones, but then he loosened up, thinking, The people aren't under the stones. They're stretched out in front of their stones, right where I'm walking.
Some of these flat stones were a hundred years old. The groomed green grass and silk flowers kept the place --- well, not pretty, but kind of sweet during the day, but in the dark, they became brown blobs that could trip him if he wasn't careful.
He looked for an odd marker, one with two straight parallel boards at the top and, below, a crooked, slanty one. He flashed on the headstones, on the strange names and lettering. Why did so many Russian people come to Monterey, he wondered, enough of them to rate their own neighborhood of the dead?
After what seemed like forever, he found a funky headstone marking the right name. Unlike most of the graves here, this one had a concrete rim and contained just muddy dirt and gravel instead of a grass surface. Opening his case, he pulled out the pick, swallowing hard. He swung it back and when it hit dirt it buried itself right up to the shaft in the damp ground.
Stopping, he looked around. The nearby graves did not open. No bony fingers pushed up the stones. He could smell the kelpy waters of Monterey Bay on the breeze, hear the street traffic, but he couldn't shake the feeling that some things didn't sound natural. Standing with the shovel poised over dirt, he listened hard, heart pounding even though he hadn't even started digging.
Dead means dead. Don't start thinking about it.
Working furiously, Stefan assaulted the soil next to the complicated gravestone. As he dug, his body warmed up. The chunk-chunk of the shovel covered up what the wind did to the trees and bushes around him, and to his heartbeat.
Once his eyes adjusted, not daring to leave his light on for long, he turned it off and went mostly by feel. He dug as fast as he could, which wasn't very fast.
When they were both young, he used to dig holes with Gabe. He remembered trying to dig to China, and ending up with a shallow hole in the grass, and his mom pitching a fit.
He had a few good memories mixed in with the bad ones. When his brother had gotten sick, that was bad. Gabe would lie in bed, pasty white, listless, while their mom rushed around to doctors looking for hope. Sometimes Mom looked at Stefan, and even though she tried to hide it, he saw her outrage that it was Gabe who had gotten sick, and not him. Gabe was her favorite, born loved and deserving of success, with Stefan the sidekick goofball who slipped on banana peels when there weren't any.
But Gabe got cured, and Stefan was proud that he had been able to help him with that. Now look at Gabe, Mom's gold-star boy, making decent money and taking her out for Mother's Day next month to some fancy restaurant in San Francisco. And check out her younger boy, out here in the cold, digging up a dead body, getting a rhythm going, panting, liking the exercise and finding the work remarkably easy. This dirt wasn't hard; in fact, it was strangely uncompacted, considering the guy had been buried for over twenty-five years. That heavy rain last night must have softened the ground a lot.
Gabe would never have agreed to do this. Mom always said Gabe got the smarts and Stefan got the muscles. Stefan didn't necessarily agree. He had ideas, lots of them, as many as Gabe. He would like to start a business someday, where he could work outside. He thought he could do better, now that he had Erin. He had someone who respected him, who thought he came first.
Yes, he would have a business, and then they would have kids, and that was fine by him. He wanted that. He wanted to create a happy family with her. His childhood wasn't happy, with his mom always treating him like second-best after his brother, her hero. A chronic, infernal worry about money had hung over their lives like a bad moon. His mother and brother both loved him, he believed that, but being poor didn't help family relations. He would love his kids equally. He would take them camping, be the good father he had never known.
His thoughts went back to Erin. He would buy her a new bed, with a pillow-top mattress, and an aquarium for her birthday. Erin liked goldfish. And after tonight, he could finally afford that ring, the one in the window she pretended not to notice, the one that made her look hungry.
Something in the dirt stopped the shovel. He looked into the open grave. Dirt, blackness, wet. A shiny patch? He probed at it, around it. Six feet deep, that's how deep the old man was supposed to be, so how come he'd only dug a couple of feet and the shovel was hitting something?
He scraped around the obstruction, trying to figure out where the edges were in the big hole. Because he felt fear overtaking him, he put the shovel aside for a moment and, head up, listened to the wind, which was stirring up the plants and getting loud. Dude, didn't anybody else notice? No, they wouldn't. They were dead!
He laughed, his nerves tingling right down to his fingertips. Eucalyptus and the scent of the local pine mixed unpleasantly with the damp old dirt in the air, hanging around him like mildewed walls. Working the soil again, he couldn't locate any edges to the thing, whatever it was, in the grave, so he gave up with the shovel and put it on the ground beside the hole. He jumped in with the pick, staying close to the edge, but rubbing up against the dirt. He had worn canvas shoes so that they could be washed later.
Flipping on his flashlight, he reached down with his gloved hands and felt around inside the hole. Smoothing away another layer of dirt, he could see what was there: a couple of big plastic garbage bags all wrapped together and tied with loose rope. Trash? An old Christmas tree? He tried to lift the bundle. No, too heavy, and all one piece. Had a relative tossed in a bag of the old man's possessions at the funeral in 1978? Did Russians do that? Had they buried the old man in a bag? Then his breath caught as he thought, It's a body that got out of its coffin! The shape was right, the length and size of the thing in there --- did they even have plastic trash bags in 1978? The bags didn't look twenty-five years old, either. Scrambling out of the hole, he shivered. The urge to get out of there was so compelling that he had to plant his feet harder on the ground to keep himself from leaving the whole shebang behind and running like hell.
He stomped his feet a few times, got back in, and shined the light carefully all around the bags. Just more damp dirt, harder underneath.
He scratched his head, heedless of the dirt. Okay. Open the freakin' bag. He took out his buck knife and slit through three layers of black plastic, and . . .
An arm fell out. He shined the light on it, saw what it was, and stumbled back against the dank soil wall he had dug, half in and half out of the grave.
"Shit!" he shouted. He looked anxiously around but saw nobody. Wind flowed in from the sea and lifted his hair.
The thin female arm, ending in painted nails, wore a plain watch with a black leather band. Crouched right there, a foot from the bag, Stefan looked at the arm for a second. She might be alive! He reached out gingerly to touch the cold, dirty hand. He lifted it, feeling for a pulse.
He was ready for the thing to start twitching, to grab at him. But the hand was dead, and so was its owner. He pushed the button on the watch and the backlight flashed on, ticking, time accurate to the minute.
Now he should slit the bag and look at her, but he did not want to see her face, maybe see the evidence of some wasting disease or car-crash injury. He didn't want to dream of a dead face for the rest of his life. She was none of his business! No --- he was none of hers!
Momentarily stifling his fear, anger flashed through him. Somebody was playing with his head. He should go right now, gather up his stuff and just bolt.
He reconsidered. Maybe the gravediggers often threw someone in on top of another coffin. Weren't there double tiers sometimes? The cheap seats. The bunks. He didn't smile at the thought. He had gone through all that worry, dug until his back was killing him, and now, by God, he would find the old man and get what he came for.
All the hard work was done. He pulled his gloves up tight, then lifted the body in the trash bags. Her body, heavy, flopped around like a beat-up stuffed toy. He found it hard to hold on. Horribly, her arm fell against his chest as he laid the body on the ground beside the hole. He cried out.
She's dead. She doesn't care, he told himself, jumping back into the hole. In staccato, powerful thrusts, he struck the ground with the pointed tip of his shovel, rapidly opening up a narrow trench. For some time he didn't think at all. Another hour went by. She became company, his silent witness, rolled over a few feet away and sleeping. Did souls hang around after death? What would her soul look like?
Would he just feel it like a worm wiggling into his ear? Damn these chills running up and down under his parka --- he was going to have to quit, he felt sick with fear . . .
"Shit!" Hurting his shoulder, he hit something. He dug harder, deeper, like a crazy man. Not much farther down, the top of a mahogany casket showed up, exactly what he had been told to expect.
"There you are, you damn dead Russian," he grunted.
The clasp, so firm looking, was not locked. Wiping off the dirt, he closed his eyes and opened it.
Swamp air. As squeamish as a tourist on a tossing boat, old food rising in his esophagus like a tide, he opened his eyes and looked at the remains of Constantin Zhukovsky.
Thank God. Just bones in rags. Not enough humanity left to say, Get away from my casket, you son of a bitch.
Pulling the duffel in, Stefan breathlessly stuffed the bones in, everything falling apart as he packed sloppily, like he was going on a little vacation to Hell. Feet. The skull, with hair, the hat falling off. Bits of clothing clinging to the skeleton fell away as he picked up the ribs.
Something small and hard fell into the coffin, and he rooted around until he found it. In the dark he couldn't see very well what he had, but it was made of metal. He ran a grimy fingernail over the blackened surface and saw a golden gleam. The haunts were everywhere, all around him, outside and inside, and his thoughts had gotten disorganized. Fingers trembling, he stuck the metal object into a pocket. Quickly, he pushed the duffel out of the hole and slammed the lid of the casket. Then he climbed out, filthy, not caring, just wanting it to be over.
The dead woman lay in her plastic shroud on the gravel, pitiful, frightful. "Sorry," he mumbled. He felt her wrist one more time --- the lifeblood not pumping --- tucked her arm back in and rolled her over to the lip. He let her drop and heard the thud. Then he shoveled dirt until his heart pounded with the effort and sweat flicked off his face.
He tried hard to repair the surface so the gravel wouldn't look too bad. He couldn't see well enough to know if he had succeeded. The edges could probably use something to make the merge between the intact and the disturbed earth invisible, but all he could do was stomp the ground and riffle around with the toe of his shoe, hoping things would look okay when daylight came.
Bones, it turned out, weren't so heavy, but they didn't lie neatly in the duffel. They seemed reluctant to give up their structure. He couldn't zip the bag all the way. He carried the partly open thing over his shoulder across the grass and stones, under the dripping trees, then threw it over the fence, climbed over, and skulked back to the car, looking around the whole time, seeing things that just couldn't be there, eyes in the bushes, dark forms of ghosts hiding behind trees.
Trying to open the trunk, he fiddled with his keys, but his hands shook so much, the usual jiggling didn't work. He laid the duffel in the back seat, on the floor, stuffing it down and covering the remains with a blanket.
All he had to do now was drive up Highway 1 and drop the duffel into a Dumpster behind the self-store place in Marina. The guy who had hired him would take it from there, and mail Stefan another five hundred the next day.
Driving slowly along Pearl Street, he struggled with himself, sweating in the cold. Who was the dead woman? Was he meant to find her? Why? On Aguajito he turned at a dignified speed. A few other cars, lights, people. He felt comforted being around the few night stragglers still on the streets.
He turned on some music and sank in to the driver's seat, let out a big breath. All good. He fingered the little Buddha around his neck.
At the corner of Sixth, a red light erupted behind his car, just the silent, turning red light, but he knew right away that it didn't matter that he had driven perfectly.
He should have known. He never got away with anything.
He pulled over.
Telling the story had drained him. "Erin dumped me. She only came to see me once, to tell me she dropped my stuff at my mom's."
"That's rough," Nina said.
"Her parents were already iffy on me because of me being in jail a couple of times before."
Nina nodded sympathetically.
"That's the worst part, losing Erin. But here's what I'm thinking. I go on the stand --- whatever you call it when you get up in court to testify --- and I tell the jury what happened, the whole thing, spit it out. What do you think are the chances that they'll believe me? Because if they do, she has to. I know she's hurting, too."
"It's an interesting story." He did tell a good story, but then many of her clients did. They all had such excellent motivation for lying, and months in jail to perfect their yarns. If a lie bought you freedom, and telling the truth bought you imprisonment, well, the choice was a no-brainer for most of them. "I'm going to go back to it in a minute to ask you some questions. But I ought to say right now, Stefan --- you won't be telling any of this to the court."
"It's very unusual for a criminal defendant to testify. You have the right not to testify, and a jury isn't allowed to draw any negative conclusions if you don't. If you do, all kinds of havoc can break out. In your case, you have two prior convictions. The prosecutor will make a very big deal out of them if you testify, which automatically makes you look very bad to the jury. Sometimes that's fatal."
"Yes, but how will the jury know what happened if I --- "
"The witnesses and the hard evidence have to do the job for you."
Then Nina took him through the whole thing again.
Nina parked a block away and walked past the flowers and art galleries of the quaint tourist mecca of Carmel to the offices of Pohlmann, Cunningham, Turk. She arrived at the white woodframe office on the corner of Lincoln and Eighth by eleven-thirty, buoyed by her talk with Stefan Wyatt. The early morning fog had burned off and she had made good time from Salinas, consolidating her thoughts all the way.
Innocent or guilty, at least she liked the client. Some clients were so angry, so distant, or so disturbed that they were an ordeal to sit next to at all. Stefan was a cooperator. The jury wouldn't dislike him on sight. She reminded herself to try to get some young women on it.
Walking up the white-brick stairway to the law offices, she remembered herself in her thick-soled athletic shoes bounding up these same stairs during her law clerk days. Somehow she had managed to take care of Bob as a single mom, work at the Pohlmann firm, and go to the Monterey College of Law at night. None of her subsequent incarnations, as an appellate lawyer in San Francisco and as a sole practitioner at Tahoe, had been as harried, yet she remembered those days, when she had been deeply immersed in learning new things and raising a little boy, as happy and rewarding.
Back then she had assumed that the financial need, her single life, and her direction in law would all be resolved by now. Well, marrying would be a resolution of sorts, but she had lived enough to know that a good life didn't resolve. It offered satisfying moments, new beginnings, and more irresolution.
Nina wasn't completely lacking in self-consciousness, but she found thinking about her own life confusing. Other people's lives never bored her, though --- their lies, their capitulations, their bad luck, their fates. Other people's situations made her skin vibrate, her heart beat louder, her blood pump harder. She could do practical things, applying her intelligence and rationality to their lives in ways she never could for her own. She could make a difference, and what else was there to live for before you ended up moldering in a coffin, bones, like the poor man in this case?
Love? She held up her left hand and looked at the glittering diamond on her finger. It had a sharp, definite look about it.
Near the top of the stairs, hurrying too much, she paused by the window. One of the secretaries had kept a delicate flower garden going out there in the old days, and the white building that had started its life as a house had blue irises, red geraniums, and a hominess that didn't seem present anymore in the practical juniper bushes and clumps of tall grass waving in the soft gray air.
Nodding at the receptionist, she walked down the short hall and opened the door to her new office.
Nina's secretary from Tahoe, Sandy Whitefeather, filled the brown chair in the compact front office like a lion balancing four legs on a tiny stone. Today she wore a down vest over a black turtleneck over a long denim skirt and burgundy cowboy boots. Sandy's long black hair was pulled into a beaded band that fell down her back. Behind her, a mullioned picture window looked over a courtyard full of stalky weeds and wildflowers.
She hung up the phone, saying, "About time. I see you have new shoes again. You're gonna break your neck one of these days, wearing those torture heels."
"You have new shoes, too. Don't tell me those narrow pointy toes are the shape of your foot. I've seen your feet. I bet they're killing you."
"Yeah, but I like what I see when I look down."
Nina sat down and kicked off the high heels. "Okay, we'll both get bunions. Peace pipe?"
"Hmph. The Washoe people don't use peace pipes. Get your stereotypes straight." She studied Nina. "New shoes," she said, "and jewelry, too. A whole new you."
Nina felt obscurely embarrassed, but she held out her finger for Sandy's scrutiny.
"Big," Sandy said. She wasn't looking at the ring. She was looking at Nina.
"It was his grandmother's."
"Tradition is good."
"No need to fall out of your chair celebrating or anything."
"Congratulations, of course."
"It's a big step."
"Forward," Nina said firmly.
"How did Bob take the news?"
Bob had spotted the ring the minute she picked him up from her father's house. She tried to explain, but he put up a hand. "I know what a ring means, Mom." His reaction had been mixed, not altogether positive, but not harsh, to her relief.
"He'll need time to adjust to the idea," she told Sandy, realizing she was using Paul's words.
"So you'll be staying here. With the golfers and the retirees."
More assumptions. "We haven't worked out the details."
"Hmm." Sandy turned back to the paperwork on her desk. "I made up the files and left a list of the D.A.'s office and other numbers on your desk. Mr. Pohlmann says the firm's taking you to lunch. He dropped off some of his files for you."
They had a month to work through everything, including the upcoming trial. Although Nina had succumbed to Klaus almost immediately, she hadn't actually committed to Stefan Wyatt's case until she had found out Sandy wasn't just available, she was eager to take a break from Tahoe. Solid, matter-of-fact, and smart, Sandy was a friend too, for all her crankiness and obstinacy. With her along for the ride, Nina felt strong and supported.
After finishing up a job in Washington lobbying for more Washoe ancestral lands, Sandy had come down to Monterey County with her husband, Joseph, and established herself immediately with some old friends who ranched near Big Sur, where her son, Wish, was already staying. As she explained it, one of her daughters had shown up unexpectedly a month before at their ranch near Markleeville, kids in tow, husband glaring.
Sandy didn't go into what had brought her daughter home, she just said the tepee up in Alpine County, actually a small horse ranch she and Joseph owned, was feeling mighty cramped these days. Joseph was recovering from surgery and needed fresh air, riding, and "no more of what that girl of ours has to give at the moment." She had accepted Nina's offer of a temporary position at the Pohlmann firm without bothering to ask a single question.
If Nina stayed here in Carmel with Paul, she would lose Sandy. Sandy was rooted to Tahoe deep as the white pines and ancient oaks on her property. The idea made Nina quake. She needed Sandy.
"How did it go with Wyatt this morning?" Sandy asked.
"It's a long story." Nina gave her an abbreviated version. "Could you get my interview notes into the computer today?"
"Sure. Guilty or not?"
"Didn't you form a first impression?"
"He looks harmless."
"But then so did Jeffrey Dahmer. I heard Stefan Wyatt went to school at CSUMB for a while before he got arrested," Sandy said. Her son, Wish, had also attended California State University at Monterey Bay that summer, picking up more credits toward a degree in criminal justice. "You know their thing, right?"
"No," said Nina. She picked up the top file Klaus had left and scanned it.
"Holistic studies," Sandy said, her voice passing stern judgment.
"Good place for kids with bad attitudes who can't cut it in the real world."
"Wait a minute. Your own son goes there. Wish says he has terrific teachers."
"He's not doing that holistic stuff. He's on the vocational side."
"I think it sounds interesting. And it sure fits Wyatt's style. He's young, loose, in the tearing-down phase politically."
Sandy, shifting in a borrowed chair, black eyes narrowed, expressed the mood of the displaced and dispossessed, saying, "Other people have to be practical about what they study so they can get along after college. Other people settle down, pay a mortgage, keep a business going . . ."
"Without gallivanting around the Monterey Peninsula, grabbing diamond rings, when they should be back practicing law at Tahoe with their long-suffering secretary. Is that what you're saying?"
Sandy put on her poker face.
"I'm not sure I need a hard time from you this morning, Sandy."
"You call this a hard time? Where's the groom?"
"Paul's due in a few minutes. I called him on my way in from Salinas and told him about my interview with the client."
"That Dutchman's a bad influence on you."
"Yeah?" Nina said, putting one report aside and picking up another. "Seems like you always used to promote him as the solution to my problems."
"Did not," Sandy said.
"What are you working on there?"
"Paperwork, to do with your temporary employment here, health insurance forms, tax info. As usual, you generate more stuff to be assembled than a four-year-old at Christmas. Meanwhile, take a look at this."
Nina took the file. "What have we here?"
"When Stefan Wyatt first retained the firm, Klaus hired a detective. This is his report. Read it and weep, while I finish copying the rest for you."
Nina went into her temporary office. Yellowing oak book-shelves covered three walls, mostly full of California codes. The stately blue leather compendiums of yore were quickly becoming obsolete in law firms. She could rely on her computer for most of her research these days.
One wall held a big window to the courtyard with its beach fog, bees, and weeds. She sat down at the unfamiliar desk, into a chair molded to fit some other body. She opened a drawer in the desk she had been loaned for the duration. Inside, lint, dust, and moldy mints had accumulated. Not allowing herself to think of her bright and pleasant office at Tahoe, now in the hands of a young lawyer friend, she shut the drawer, picked up the file, and began to read with concentration this time.
"So?" Sandy asked from the doorway a few minutes later.
"Aside from its brevity," Nina said, "what surprises me most about this report are Klaus's notes about it."
"Exactly. There aren't any notes. No follow-ups. No signed witness statements. The report itself --- this investigator interviewed witnesses, but he gave Klaus a couple of no-content paragraphs on each interview. I question whether he talked to these people in person or just gave them a quick call. Why did Klaus hire this guy anyway? He's known and used Paul for years. Why didn't Klaus call Paul?"
Sandy wore an expression that looked exactly like the first and the last time she had eaten squid in Nina's presence. "Sandy?"
"Mr. Pohlmann did call Paul."
"Oh, no," Nina said. She already knew: Klaus had called Paul, but Paul didn't know; ergo, interception.
"If Bob was in jail, what would you do?"
Sandy's son, Wish, had been charged with a serious crime earlier in the summer. Abandoning her temporary job in Washington, Sandy had come to make sure Nina and Paul were going to keep him out of jail.
"You're telling me that while we were using Paul's office this summer, at his kind invitation, you took a call for him from Klaus?"
"I did answer a few of his calls. Paul was really strapped for time."
"Klaus said he needed Paul's help on the Zhukovsky case but you never told Paul?"
"Triage is what they call it in an emergency," Sandy said. "Caring for the sickest first. So when Klaus called, I told him Paul wasn't available. He was busy."
"That wasn't right, Sandy."
"Yep." Sandy pulled at her lower lip, a sign of deep thought.
"Does Paul know?"
"Okay. I don't like this. We're going to have to help Klaus get organized. Call this investigator and find out if you have all the reports. Find out who he actually interviewed. I'll give you a list tomorrow of the people he should have spoken with. Call them and try to get some appointments for him. Coordinate schedules with Paul, so he's free when we need him. We have to catch up, and there's no time. Paul's going to miss some sleep, and so are we."
"Fair enough. Logical consequences. I'm paying the price." She took the file and picked up the phone.
"If Sandy's paying, I want to be invited," said Paul, poking his head through the door. He wore the forest green cashmere sweater Nina had given him for his last birthday, and tan slacks. Gently, he touched Nina's shoulder, nodding at Sandy.
"Congratulations, Paul," Sandy said. "Such changes."
He grinned. "Thanks. Taking me to lunch, are you?"
"Sure," Sandy said.
He had been joking. Now he looked flabbergasted.
"A big, nice lunch," Nina said. "Sandy was just saying how she's looking forward to working with you again and really wants to treat you today. To one of Carmel's finest restaurants, your choice."
"Sounds great," Paul said, exuding faint alarm. "What time?"
"I get it. You have some friendly words of advice for me and Nina, huh?"
"Who said anything about being friendly?" Sandy turned back to her desk and got busy.
Paul followed Nina into her office, swept her into his arms, and gave her a delicious kiss on the mouth. "You look fantastic in navy blue," he said. He squeezed her waist.
"That's good, since it's about all you'll see me in for the next month." Nina moved out of his arms and rustled through a steeple of files.
"Maybe I've misjudged Sandy," Paul said, stepping toward the window to peer out. "I admit to occasional midnight doubts that she likes me at all. That's a very generous offer."
"She likes you, all right. And she respects your work more than you know. Take a look at this."
Paul came over to her desk to take the main body of the investigative report. As he read, he scratched his head. "Feeble. I mean, 'Subject said he didn't know anything'? It's like that all the way through. Somebody always knows something. You'll find that on page one of Paul van Wagoner's monograph for the novice investigator."
"If somebody knows something, you'd never know it from this." She tried to keep most of the concern she was feeling from her voice. So far, everything Klaus had given her had been sketchy at best. Where was the promised preparation? Not in this report.
"Why didn't Klaus call me?" Paul asked. "First time to my knowledge he didn't when he needed some real work done. He around?"
"Not yet." She glanced at her watch. "Our firm meeting's in a few minutes. He's late, ferrying Anna somewhere in that car he loves so much."
"Klaus and Anna are one of those couples where you can't imagine half being left behind." He knocked his hip against hers. "Kind of like us."
"We are all alone. Togetherness is illusion," she said. "All the poets say so."
"Which is why my bedtime reading is John D. MacDonald." Paul impatiently flipped the page he was holding and looked at both sides. "Who wrote this damn thing, anyway?"
Nina looked around. The front page had fallen under her desk.
She picked it up and handed it over.
He read the sheet. He put it on top, then he took the few pages, inserted them into the blue file folder, straightened the edges carefully, tapping them on the desk. He tossed the folder into the trash.
"Deano." The name came out as if forcing its way past rough terrain in his throat.
She reached down to extricate the file from the plastic canister and read the top sheet. "You know Dean Trumbo?"
"Yeah." A peculiar half-smile lit Paul's face. "You know, I'm surprised I didn't recognize his special touch right away."
"He's done work for you?"
"He's done work on me."
"You don't like him?"
"Actually --- I kind of look forward to running into the guy again."
Nina said, "Let's make a list, then." They outlined a sped-up course of action for the investigation.
"We seem to have some blood evidence," Paul said. "Are you bringing Ginger in?"
"Sandy called her already. Ginger's driving in from Sacramento. She's due here at two-thirty."
"Rush, rush, rush," Paul said.
"Klaus hasn't --- I don't see any independent defense analysis of the blood yet." Nina put her hand on his arm. "Paul, Klaus doesn't seem to have done much work at all."
"You've worked with him in the past. Does he usually prepare more thoroughly?"
"I don't know. I never worked this closely with him before."
"Well, he did one thing right. He brought you in, honey," Paul said. "Let's start filling in the holes."
Excerpted from UNLUCKY IN LAW © Copyright 2004 by Perri O'Shaughnessy. Reprinted with permission by Dell. All rights reserved.