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Fatal Flaw

GUY FORREST was sitting on the cement steps outside the house when I arrived. His head was hidden in his hands. Rain fell in streams from his shoulders, his knees, tumbled off the roof of his brow. He was slumped naked in the rain, and beside his feet lay the gun.

From his nakedness and the diagonal despair of his posture, I suspected the worst.

"What did you do?" I shouted at him over the thrumming rain. He didn't answer, he didn't move.

I prodded him with my foot. He collapsed onto his side. "Guy, you bastard. What the hell did you do?''

His voice rose from the tangled limbs like the whimperings of a beaten dog. "I loved her. I loved her. I loved her.''

Then I no longer suspected, then I knew.

I leaned over and lifted the gun by the trigger guard. No telling what more damage he could do with it. Careful to leave no prints, I placed it in my outside raincoat pocket. The door to the house was thrown open. I slipped around his heaving body and stepped inside.

Later on, in the press, the house would be described as a Main Line love nest, but that raises images of a Stanford White-inspired palace of debauchery-red silk sheets and velvet wallpaper, a satin swing hanging from the rafters-but nothing could be further from the truth. It was a modest old stone house in a crowded Philadelphia suburb, just over City Line Avenue. The walls were bare, the furnishings sparse. A cheap table stood in the dining room to the left of the entrance, a television lay quiet before a threadbare couch in the living room to the right. There was a Jacuzzi in the bathroom, true, but in the furnishings there was a sense of biding time, of making do until real life with real furniture began. In the bedroom, up the stairs, I knew there to be a single bureau bought at some discount build-it-yourself place, a desk with stacks of bills, a fold-up chair, a mattress on the floor.

A mattress on the floor.

Well, maybe the press had it right after all, maybe it was a love nest, and maybe the mattress on the floor was the giveaway. For what would true lovers need with fine furnishings and fancy wallpaper?

What would true lovers need with upholstered divans, with Klimts on the wall, with a grand piano in the formal living room?

What would true lovers need with a hand-carved mahogany bed supporting a canopy of blue silk hanging over all like the surface of the heavens? Such luxury is only for those needing more in their lives than love. True lovers would require only a mattress on the floor to cast their spells one upon the other and enjoin the world to slip away. Until the world refused.

The mattress on the floor. That's where I would find her. Rain dripped off my coat like tears as I climbed the stairway. My hand crept along the smooth banister.

Around the landing, up another half flight. As I rose ever closer, my step slowed. A complex scent pressed itself upon me like a smothering pillow. I could detect the sharpness of cordite and something sweet beneath that, a memory scent from my college days touched now with jasmine, and then something else, something lower than the cordite and the sweetness, something coppery and sour, something desolate. A few steps higher and then to the left, to the master bedroom.

The door was open, the bedroom light was on, the mattress on the floor was visible from the hallway outside. And on it she lay, her frail, pale body twisted strangely among the clotted sheets.

There was no need to check a pulse or place a mirror over her mouth. I had seen dead before and she qualified. Her legs were covered by the dark blue comforter, but it was pulled down far enough to reveal her cream silk teddy, shamelessly raised above her naked belly. Crimson spotted the blanched white of her skin. The teddy was stained red at the heart.

I stood there for longer than I now can remember. The sight of her unnatural posture, the colliding scents of gunpowder and pot, of blood and jasmine, the brutal mark of violence on her chest, all of it, the very configuration of her death overwhelmed me. I was lost in the vision, swallowed whole by time. I can't tell you exactly what was flailing through my mind because it is lost to me now, just as I was lost to the moment, but when I recovered enough to function a decision had been made. A decision had been made. I'm not sure how, but I know why, I surely know why. A decision had been made, a decision I have never regretted, an implacable decision, yet pure and right, a decision had been made, and for the rest of my involvement in that death and its grisly aftermath that decision guided my every step, my every step, starting with the first.

I took a deep breath and entered the bedroom. I squatted, leaned over the mattress, touched her jaw. It was still slightly warm, but the joint now was not perfectly   slack. The skin at the bottom of her arm had turned a purplish red. I pressed a finger into the skin; it whitened for an instant before the color returned. It had been about an hour, I calculated. Still squatting, I leaned farther forward and stared closely at her face.

Her name was Hailey Prouix. Black hair, blue eyes, long-necked and pale-skinned, she was thirty years old and lovely as a siren.

While still alive she had peered out at the world with a wary detachment. She had seen too much to take anything at face value, her manner said as clear as words, she had been hurt too much to expect anything other than blows. She wore sharp, dark-rimmed glasses that were all business, but her mouth curved so achingly you couldn't look at it without wanting to take it in your own. And her stare, her stare, containing as it did both warning and dare, could weaken knees.

To gaze at Hailey Prouix was to have your throat tighten with the wanting, and not just sexual wanting, though that of course was part of it, but something else, something even more powerful. There is inevitably, I suppose, a gap between all we ever wanted and all we ever will have, and that gap can be a source of bitter regret. But sometimes there is a glimpse of hope that the gap might be narrowed, might even be obliterated by one brilliant leap. In Hailey Prouix's detached beauty, and the silent dare to break through her barriers, there was a glimpse of that hope. That her detachment might prove absolute and her barriers inexorable was no matter. To take her and hold her, to squeeze her arms, to kiss her, to win her and make her yours seemed to offer a chance to conquer life itself.

Oh, yes, she was as lovely as a siren, and like a siren, she had drawn Guy Forrest from his wife and two children, from his high-powered lawyer's job, from his finely appointed mini-mansion deep in the suburbs, onto the mattress on the floor of her small stone house just over the city line. And now, I suppose, as was inevitable from the first, he had crashed upon the shoals.

Before I pulled away from the corpse, I gently took hold of the bottom edge of her teddy and tugged it down to cover the exposed dark triangle.

On a crate by the mattress, along with her glasses, an alarm clock, a lamp, and a couple of books, sat two phones, a small red cellular thing and an old-style, corded phone. If anyone saw me arrive at the house, I didn't want there to be too much of a time discrepancy between when I entered and when 911 logged the call, so I picked up the handset of the line-locked phone, dialed 911, and reported the murder. Then I went to work.

I'm a criminal lawyer. People like Guy Forrest, in the depths of the deepest troubles of their lives, call me in to clean up their messes. It is what I do, it is my calling, and I'm damn good at it. I reach my hand into the mess, rummage around, and pull out evidence.

That's what I work with, evidence. I accept what evidence I must, discredit what I can, hide what I might, create what I need, and from this universe of evidence I build a story. Sometimes the story is true, more often not, but truth is never the standard. Better the credible lie than the implausible truth. The story need only be persuasive enough to clean up the mess. But I don't always win, thank God. Some messes are too big to be cleaned, some stains can never be rubbed out, some crimes call out for more than a story.

And some victims deserve nothing less than the truth. If this house had been in the city proper, I'd have had plenty of time to rummage around the crime scene and do what I needed to do. But this house wasn't in Philadelphia County, it was in Montgomery County, the suburbs. There is crime in the suburbs, sure, but of a different quality and quantity than in the city. City cops are overworked, their attentions stretched taut, not so in the suburbs. Out here a murder call trumps shoplifting at the mall. The call was already out, the cars would arrive in minutes, in seconds.

First thing I did was grab the cellular phone off the crate and dump it into my pocket. I was glad it was there in the open, it would have been the first and most crucial thing I searched for. Then I took a quick look around.

In the bathroom, soapy water still filled the Jacuzzi tub, gray and wide, with its water jets now quiet. A Sony CD Walkman and a large pair of Koss headphones sat on the rim, along with a small plastic bag of weed, a pack of papers inside. I left the Walkman and the headphones but stuffed the weed into my pocket with the gun. I didn't need the cops taking Guy in now on some drug misdemeanor-there were things he and I needed first to talk about.

I took out a handkerchief, covered my hand with it, and opened the medicine cabinet. I ignored the cosmetics and over-the-counter remedies and went right to the little plastic bottles. Valium prescribed to Hailey Prouix. Seconal prescribed to Hailey Prouix. Nembutal prescribed to Hailey Prouix. The whole Marilyn Monroe attitude-adjustment kit. And then something else. Viagra prescribed to Guy Forrest.

Well, that, at least, was a cheery sight.

Back in the bedroom I started opening drawers, looking for something, anything. Not much in the bureau other than clothes, cufflinks-Guy was a fancy dresser when he was dressed-loose change, condoms. I picked up one of the foil packages.
Fifteen bucks a sheath. It pissed me off just looking at it. Under the clothes in the middle drawer was an envelope filled with cash. New hundreds. Two thousand, three thousand. I counted it quickly and put it back. The top drawer of the desk held stamps, pens, business cards, golf tees, loose change, nothing. One by one I checked the side drawers. File cards, batteries, Post-it notes, bent paper clips, an old driver's license, knicks and knacks, the unexceptional detritus of a now expired life. Who designed these things? Who manufactured them, sold them, bought them, kept them well beyond any useful purposes? I didn't know, all I knew was that there was some great underground industrial complex filling every desk and kitchen drawer in the world with this stuff. I picked up the license and examined it.

It was Hailey's. It had expired eighteen months ago. The picture didn't really look like her, she was scowling, her hair was flat, the glasses were less than flattering. Hailey Prouix was glamorous and cosmopolitan, this woman in this picture looked anything but. Still, I took it anyway, put it in my pocket as a keepsake.

And then, in one of the drawers, I spotted a little paper box filled with change, staples, a staple remover, paper clips, keys.


Car keys, house keys, old file-cabinet keys. I used the handkerchief to shield my fingers as I rummaged. I was tempted to take them all, willy-nilly, there was no telling what secrets lay behind their locks, but I had to leave something for the suburban detectives.

So I took only one, slipped it in with the license before closing the drawer. As I searched, I tried not to think of the body on the bed. When I remember back, I am amazed that I could still move with such alacrity, still make snap determinations, no matter how warped. I wasn't thinking so clearly-if I had been I might have taken the money. I might have taken the condom because, well, because it was lambskin. I might have checked those file cards more closely.

But even so, what I took proved to be valuable and I am stunned at my level of functioning. If it all sounds so calm and deliberate, so bloody cold-blooded, then that is only in the voice of the remembering, for I assure you my knees were shaking uncontrollably as I moved about that room, my eyes were tearing, my stomach was roiling upon itself from the scent of her blood, her perfume, the sickly sweet smell of smoked marihuana. A decision had been made, and that had calmed me some, but I was still only an inch away from vomiting all across the floor. The Forensic Science Unit technician would have been so pleased as she took her DNA samples.

But then it was time. They would be here any second, and it would be so much better for everyone if I was outside with Guy. At the head of the stairs I took one last look at Hailey Prouix, wiped at my eyes, climbed slowly down.

From the hallway closet, I removed Guy's black raincoat. He was still collapsed on the steps, naked, drenched. I gently placed the raincoat over his body and squatted beside him, like I had squatted beside Hailey. It was strangely peaceful on that suburban street, leafy and quiet except for the stutter of the dying rain and Guy's weeping. The world smelled fresh and full of spring. I stayed silent for a moment, let the rain cleanse the bitter scent from my eyes.

"Why?" I said finally, in a voice just soft enough to rise above the quiet roar of the rain.

No response. He just lay there, sobbing.

"Why did you kill her, Guy?''

Still no response.

I slapped the side of his head. "Tell me.''

"I didn't," he said through his sobs. "I loved her. I gave up. Everything. For her. And now. Now.''

I stayed silent, let my emotions cool.

"I gave up," he said. "Everything."

"I know you did, Guy." I reached down and petted his hair. "I know you did.''

"I swear. I didn't. I didn't.''

"Okay. I'll believe you for now.''

"Oh, God. What? What am I? What?''

"Shhhhhh. You'll be all right, Guy. I'll do what I can. The police are going to come. They are already on the way. Do not talk to them. Do not say anything to the police until we can talk first. I'll do what I can.''

"I loved her.''

"I know.''"Victor. God. I loved her. So much.''

"I know you did, Guy. I know you did. That was the problem.''

I was still petting his hair when came the cars with their sirens and their flashing lights, and the three of us, Guy and Hailey and I, were no longer alone. 

GUY FORREST was sitting now at the dining room table, his head in his hands. A cop had brought down some clothes for him, and rain was no longer streaming from the angles of his body, but his head was still in his hands. His head was in his hands and his lower jaw was trembling, as if struggling to say something, anything. But I maintained a hand on his shoulder and made sure he kept it all to himself. That's what defense attorneys do. We're there to make sure our clients don't do anything stupid after they've done something worse than stupid.

With my hand on his shoulder, Guy wasn't talking, and maybe he wasn't thinking either. Maybe he couldn't acknowledge the realities of his world now that Hailey Prouix was dead. Love can do that to you. It can send you soaring higher than falcons, it can rip you open from your sternum to your spleen, it can send you running. That's what Guy was doing now, at the dining room table with his head in hands and his jaw trembling. I wouldn't let him do anything stupid like talk to the cops, so instead, in his mind, he was running, but he wasn't going to get very far. He was a handsome man, Guy Forrest, wavy dark hair, swarthy good looks, a five o'clock shadow that emphasized his classic bone structure. He worked out regularly, always had, even when we were law students together, but even so, there was something weak

about him. His chin was too sharp, his gaze too wavering. Looking at Guy, you had the sense you were looking at a Hollywood facade of what a man should look like, perfect on the outside, but one stiff breeze would blow him down. And now he had been beset by a hurricane.

It had grown crowded in and about that little house. Someone upstairs was taking pictures. Someone upstairs was dusting for fingerprints and swabbing for blood. Someone outside in the rain was examining the windows and flower beds for signs of forced entry. Someone in the neighborhood was going door to door, asking questions. Television vans, alerted by the scanner, were on the street in force. The noose was already tightening around Guy Forrest's neck, and there was precious little I could do about it.

The coroner's van sat on the street by the house's front entrance, its motor running, its lights flashing. The attendants were in the front seat reading the Daily News, drinking coffee, waiting for the okay to take the body away. We were in the dining room, drinking nothing, but also waiting to be allowed to leave. I had already given as much information about Hailey Prouix's next of kin as I could extract from Guy, the name of and an address for her sister, and had packed for Guy a small gym bag with a change of clothes. Twice I had tried to exit the house with him, twice I had been politely ordered to remain until Guy could speak to the detectives. Except Guy wouldn't be speaking to the detectives.

"Mr. Carl, is it?" said a tall, good-looking young woman in jacket and pants who entered the room. Her hair was cut short, her nose freckled. With her broad shoulders and confident smirk, she carried the athletic air of a field-hockey coach and referred to her notepad as if it were a playbook.

"That's right," I said. "And Mr. Forrest?''

Guy raised his head, looked at the woman, said nothing. His eyes were impressively red-rimmed, the eyes of the seriously bereaved. Or, considering what I had found in the bathroom, maybe the eyes of someone who was about to ask you to bust open another sack of Doritos, dude. "As you can understand," I said, "it's been a very difficult evening for us all.''

"Of course," said the young woman. "I'm County Detective Stone. With me is County Detective Breger.''

She gestured at the man standing behind her, whose attention was turned away from us as he examined the edges of the dining room carpet. He was a good three decades older than she, with a sad face and plaid jacket. His shoulders were thick and rounded, his posture slumped, he was a great hunch of a man. There was something soft about Breger, something tired, as if he had grown comfortable in a routine that was being shattered by his younger, more enthusiastic partner.

"I am sorry for your loss, Mr. Forrest," said Detective Breger even as he continued his inspection of the room. "I have been doing this now for thirty-six years, and it is still a tough thing to see.''

Guy tried to get a thank-you past his quivering jaw and failed.

"Miss Prouix was what to you, Mr. Forrest?" asked Stone. "Your girlfriend?" "His fiancée," I said.

"Fiancée?" said Breger. "Oh, hell. That is a tough one. When was the wedding supposed to be?''

"As soon as Mr. Forrest's divorce came through," I said.

Stone shot me a look. "Mr. Carl, you're a friend? An adviser? What?''

"I am a friend of Mr. Forrest's, but I am also a lawyer. Mr. Forrest called me when he found Miss Prouix on the bed.''

"So you're here now as what?''

"A friend," I said. "But a friend who knows that when a man is in shock over the death of a loved one, maybe it's not the best time to be talking to the police.''

"It is if the goal is to get the bastard who did this before the trail grows cold. We have questions for Mr. Forrest.''

"I don't think he'd be much help in his current condition."

"Seems to me you're acting more like a lawyer than a friend.''

"For the moment, yes, that's how I'm going to handle it.''

"Is that what he wants?" said Stone, nodding her head at Guy.

"That's what he wants.''

"What about our questions?"

"I'll answer what I can," I said.

Stone looked at Breger, Breger shrugged. This is normally when the cops get angry and indignant, this is normally when it all turns adversarial. This is when Stone starts threatening and Breger holds her back and the whole madcap mad-cop routine plays itself out. I knew it was coming, anxious as I was to get Guy out of that house I was steeled for the onslaught of police craft, but instead of putting on a snarl, Stone smiled. "We appreciate your help. Having you here to assist us will make things easier. At some point we will need to ask Mr. Forrest some questions."

"Mr. Forrest is still in something of a daze. Could your questioning of him wait until tomorrow?"

"If that's what you think best," said Breger, his gaze now scanning the ceiling.

"I do.''

"Of course you do," said Breger. "Mr. Forrest is going through an ordeal. His fiancée is dead in their bed, a bullet wound in her chest. Any of us would be in shock. You want him to be able to pull himself together before he speaks to us.''

"How's tomorrow morning?" said Stone as she handed me her card.

"I think that would be all right. I'll let you know in the morning if his condition makes it impossible. I was going to take Mr. Forrest to my apartment for the night.''

"Good idea," said Breger, who had stepped over to a window and was closely examining the sill. "Mr. Forrest looks like he could use a stiff drink or two.''

"He knows not to leave the area," said Stone.

"I'll make sure of it. I'll bring him to you myself tomorrow morning.''

"Along with his new attorney," said Stone.

Stone smiled at me. I smiled back. This was something completely new. They were playing good-cop, good-cop. I supposed that's how they did it in the suburbs.

"So now," I said, "if we could be excused, I'd like to let Mr. Forrest get some sleep.''

"If it is any consolation, Mr. Forrest," said Breger, looking straight at Guy now, "we are going to do our best to get the bastard who did this. We will put all our resources into digging out the truth and, believe us, dig it out we will. We will not rest until the killer is found and tried and convicted. We will not rest until the killer is rotting away in the penitentiary. I want you to know that, Mr. Forrest, and I hope it gives you some comfort.'' "Yes, well, thank you for that, Detective Breger," I said. "Now, if we could be excused.''

"Can you just give us a moment, Mr. Carl?" said Stone. The two detectives stepped out of the dining room. I patted Guy on the shoulder and followed.

"Can you tell us what you know?" said Stone, who was taking the lead in the questioning while Breger examined some paperwork.

"I was home, sleeping through the baseball game, when Guy called.''

"What did he say?''

"I can't tell you. Depending on the circumstances, it might be a privileged communication."

"You mean if he was calling you as a lawyer," said Breger, "instead of as a friend.''

"That's right. But he didn't say much. He wasn't really coherent. He sounded out of his head, confused."


"With grief, maybe. I didn't know what to do. I told him to stay calm, that I'd be right over.''

"What number did he call?''

"My home number." I gave it to them. "When I arrived, he was sitting on the steps waiting for me.''

"In the rain?''

"Yes. Sobbing. And he was naked. I ran upstairs and found her on the mattress. I used the upstairs phone to call 911. Then I took a black raincoat from the hall closet, went back out with Guy, covered him as best I could. I waited out there with him.''

"When you were up in the room, did you see a gun or shells or anything?"


"Did you smell anything, anything funny?''

"Other than the gunpowder and the smell of the blood? No.''

"It must have been a shock for him to see her dead like that," said Breger.

"I suppose so.''

"Why, then, do you think he called a lawyer?" asked Breger, his head still in the file. "Of all the people he could call when he saw what he saw, why do you think he called a lawyer? I don't think I would call a lawyer. Adoctor, the police, my mother maybe, but not a lawyer.''

"He burned a lot of bridges when he left his family and his job to move in with Hailey. We had stayed in contact. He had introduced me to Hailey months ago. Maybe there was no one else for him to call.''

"You say Guy left his wife for her?" asked Stone. "What is the wife's name?''

"Leila," I said. "Leila Forrest. They weren't yet divorced."

"Do you have an address?''

I gave it to her.

"That's Berwyn.''

"Yes it is.''

"Nice place, Berwyn. Any idea who might have wanted to kill Ms. Prouix other than this Leila Forrest?''

"I never said Leila wanted to kill her. And I don't know of anyone else.''

"What was she like, the victim?''

"I don't know, Hailey was . . . special. Sweet, in her own way. Pretty. A nice girl. This thing is just tragic.''

"Any problems between Mr. Forrest and Ms. Prouix?''

"They were in love, madly in love. Sick in love. Anything else?''

"You want to get him out of here, don't you?" said Breger. "You want to take him someplace where the body of his fiancée isn't lying dead on a mattress upstairs."


"Good idea. We'll see you and Mr. Forrest tomorrow. Is nine too early?''

"It's going to be a tough night," I said. "Let's shoot for ten.''

Breger and Stone glanced at each other. Maybe it was my unfortunate choice of verb.

"Ten it is," said Stone. "You didn't by any chance have an umbrella or something?"

"No, why?''

"Thank you for your help," said Breger, his gaze back in the file. "See you tomorrow at ten.''

I left the two of them huddling in quiet conversation and went back to Guy in the dining room. I spoke to him softly. I helped him stand. I helped him put on the raincoat. I took hold of his gym bag. Gripping his arm, I helped him toward the door before Detective Breger dropped his meaty hand on Guy's shoulder.

"Mr. Carl," he said, while looking not at me but at Guy, "we won't ask Mr. Forrest any questions, because you asked us not to, but could we perform one small test, just for our peace of mind?''

"I'm not sure that's such a good idea," I said.

"Just one test," said Breger. "It won't take but a minute. Just a precaution really. Shirley, come here please. Shirley is one of our best Forensic Unit technicians. Shirley, could you do what you have to do with Mr. Forrest's hands?''

"I really should get him out. Why don't we leave this for tomorrow?"

"This won't take but a minute," said Breger. "The strips are already prepared, which makes it go really quickly. And it could really help us move the investigation forward.''

"Hold out your hands, Mr. Forrest," said Stone in a quiet but commanding voice that left no possibility of refusal. Guy did as he was told.

Shirley took wide strips of clear adhesive and pressed them on the back of each of Guy's hands, concentrating on the web of flesh between the thumb and the forefinger. With a flourish she ripped the strips off, one at a time, and carefully put them on a fresh backing. Then she did the same to each palm.

"What do you think?" said Breger.

"His hands seem too clean," said Shirley. "How long was he out in the rain?''

Breger turned to me and raised an eyebrow.

"Could have been twenty minutes," I said, "could have been more."

"Doubtful there would be anything left," said Shirley, "but you never know.''

"Okay, thank you," said Breger. "We appreciate your cooperation, Mr. Carl. See you tomorrow."

I grabbed hold of Guy's arm and tried to rush him out of the house before they could think of some other hoop through which they wanted him to jump. We were just about to step outside when I heard Breger say, "Oh, Mr. Carl.'' I stopped, breathed deep, turned.

He was bent on one knee, examining the carpet to the left of the doorway. Without looking up, he said, "It's a little nasty out there tonight. Be sure to drive carefully."

Suburban cops.

If this had been just a few blocks over, on the city side of City Line Avenue, it wouldn't have gone down with such sweet understanding. The city cops would have put Guy in custody right smack away. They would have seen him as the obvious suspect, as the only suspect, actually. And the fact that he had called a lawyer before an ambulance would have been for them absolute proof of his guilt. Next day I'd be standing next to Guy in the crummy little courtroom in the Roundhouse as he was arraigned for first-degree murder. The DA would have noted the crime was a capital one, the judge would have denied bail, and Guy would have spent the next year growing sallow in jail as he waited for his trial. And with him in jail, what good could I accomplish? With him in jail, how could I ask what I needed to ask, learn what I needed to learn?

A decision had been made and I needed Guy out of jail, even for just a few days, a few hours, to carry it through. It is why I scoured the crime scene like I did, why I took the reefer and didn't tell them about the gun. Even so, I didn't think it would be enough, even so even the greenest city cop would have taken him in. But see, we weren't on the city side of City Line Avenue, we were on the other side, the suburban side, where the police were ever helpful and ever polite. Despite the little incident with the gunpowder test, the suburban cops maintained their form and sent Guy and his lawyer off into the night with a kindly admonition to drive carefully.

"Thank you, Detective Breger," I said, feeling the weight of the gun pull down at my raincoat pocket, "you've been most kind." And I meant every word of it.

I CARED for him as best I could.

Like a Secret Service agent, I took for myself the blows of lights and flashes from the cameramen and photographers waiting predatorily outside the house. The reporters had already ferreted out the details of the crime, knew the name of the victim, the name of her fiancé. "Mr. Forrest, any comment about what happened to Miss Prouix?" "Mr. Forrest, who killed Hailey?" "Guy, can you tell us how you feel?" "Are you devastated?" "Show us some tears."

"Why did you do it, Guy?" "Was there a stripper involved, like the other one?" "If you have nothing to hide, why won't you talk to us?" "Hey, Guy." "Yo, Guy." "Over here." I deflected their questions with a smile and a few brief words about the tragedy. I strategically kept myself between Guy and the camera lenses while pulling him to my car. Speed and silence, I had learned, were the best weapons against the media, giving them nothing of interest to show their sensation-starved audience. But then again I've always found it hard to turn down free publicity-one of the very few things money can't buy. So even as I pulled Guy to my car, I forced a smile and gave a little speech and handed out my business cards to make sure in the early editions they spelled Carl with a "C."

As I drove off, the cameras and their lights were staring at us through the car windows like alien eyes.

The rain had tapered off somewhat, now it was only spitting on the windshield as we drove through the glum night. Guy tried to tell me in the car what had happened and I wouldn't let him. I wouldn't let him. His face was green from the dashboard light as we drove past the dark, rotting porches of West Philly. I suggested he lie back in the passenger seat and close his eyes. I didn't want him to talk about it just then. The time would come that night, but not just then. I checked the rearview mirror to make sure no reporters were following and spotted nothing.

The street outside my building was dark and wet. I helped him up the stairs to my apartment and sat him on the couch. I turned the lights out except for the lamp by his head, which bathed his trembling body in a narrow cone of light. I gave him a beer. He tried again to tell me what had happened but I shushed him quiet.

I let him sit alone on the couch while I changed the sheets of my bed, the pillowcases, laid out a fresh towel for him, a new toothbrush still in its wrapping, an old pair of flannel pajamas in case he wanted to be cozy. Atop my bureau I placed the gym bag with his change of clothes.

On the table, by my bed, lay a book I had just started rereading, a potboiler to take my mind off the trials of my day. I had bought it for a buck from a street vendor. The story started with a murder, it ended with a confession, there was a cunning investigator, a lecherous old cardsharp, a prostitute with a heart of gold. I stared at the volume, the blue binding and lurid gold letters of the title. Crime and Punishment. The words seemed just then like a moral compulsion. I considered for a moment putting it away so as not to trouble my guest and then thought better of it, placing a bookmark in the final page before the epilogue and setting the book beside the reading lamp next to the bed. Before I left the room I switched on the lamp.

With the bedroom taken care of, I stood in the shadows and watched Guy as he finished his beer. I went to the fridge and got him another. I pulled a chair close to the couch, but not close enough to be within the cone of light, and sat down. Once more he tried to speak, and once more I wouldn't let him. The silence acted as a comforter, blanketing us both in calm. My raincoat, still wet, pocket bulging, was draped over the back of a chair. I glanced at it every so often and then looked back at my friend, my friend, as he slumped on the couch.

I cared for him as best I could and I waited until he couldn't help himself and when he started again to say something, this time I let him.

"What am I going to do?''

I didn't answer. He had a sharp voice, the words seemed to gallop out of his mouth with a certainty that turned every question rhetorical. Guy had never been one for self-doubt and it was hard for him to play the role of the confused and humbled man, even if that was exactly what he had become.

"I loved her so much," he said. "She was everything to me. What am I going to do?" The words, which could have been full of pathos coming out of another man, were now like the words of a business executive analyzing a deal that had gone south and asking his lawyer for advice.

"I don't know.''

"Why? Tell me why? Why? I don't understand."

"What don't you understand, Guy?" I said, leaning forward. "She's dead. She's been murdered. And you're the one who killed her.''

He looked up at me, a puzzled horror creasing his face. "I didn't. I couldn't. You're wrong. What are you thinking? Victor, no. I didn't.''

"That's how it looks.''

"I don't care how it looks. I didn't do it. You need to make them believe it. She's gone, my life is ruined, and I didn't do it. How can I make it right?''

"See a priest.''

"I need a lawyer. You'll be my lawyer. That's what you do, isn't it? Make terrible things right again.''

He stared at me for a long moment, his face straining for an expression of pained sincerity, which might have worked except for the raw fear leaking out his eyes.

I leaned back. "Not me. You need someone else. I'll recommend somebody good. Goldberg, maybe, or Howard. He's at Talbott, Kit tredge, so he's expensive, but whoever you get, it's going to cost. A case like this will absolutely go to trial, and a trial is going to cost.''

"I don't care. What's money? Money's not a problem.''

"No?" I said, surprised and interested at the same time. Guy had left his wife and left his job and in so doing seemed to have left all his money behind.

"No. Not at all." He shook his head and a shiver ran through him.

"What happened? I don't understand. Who did this to me?''

"To you?''

"Who did this?''

"You tell me.''

"I don't know.''

"Tell me what you do know.''

"I got home from work late. Hailey was in bed already, asleep. I greeted her, tried to kiss her. She wouldn't get up. Instead she murmured something back and pulled the comforter over her, and that was it, the last we spoke. I filled the Jacuzzi, climbed in, put on the headphones, jacked the Walkman loud, turned the timer to start the jets, lay back in the tub.''

"What about the reefer?''

"It was already out, so I rolled myself a joint. We used to smoke some, together. Everything was like we were kids again. I might have fallen asleep in the tub, I don't know. The music was loud, the Jacuzzi also, and I don't know if I heard anything, but I did startle awake for some reason. Maybe just something in the music. I took off the headphones, turned off the whirlpool, called out for Hailey. Nothing. I put in some more hot water, lay back, listened to the rest of the disc. When it was over, I got out, dried off, brushed my teeth. That's when I found her.''

I tried not to react too strongly, tried to keep it simple, conversational. "What were you listening to?''

"A Louis Armstrong thing.''

"What happened when you saw her?''

"I panicked, I went crazy. I looked around, and there, on the floor, I found the gun.''

"Had you ever seen the gun before?''

"Yes. Of course. It's mine.''

"Yours? Guy, what the hell were you doing with a gun?''

"You think it was easy what I did, leaving everything for Hailey? You think it just went smoothly? My wife went nuts, and her father. Her father, Jesus, he's a scary bastard, a heart of stone. There were threats, Victor, some shady private eye giving me the number. You'll never know what I went through for love, never. I was scared. I had a gun before, when I was out west, and knew how to use it. So I bought one, kept in the closet downstairs. Never touched it, never even took it to a shooting range to bone up. But when I found her dead, there it was, on the floor. I picked it up. It stank of gunpowder. I thought the guy who used it might still be in the house. I went downstairs looking for him. Nothing. I threw open the door. Nothing. I ran back upstairs and saw her there, still, and I fell apart. When I was able to crawl, I crawled to the side table, picked up the phone, and called you.''

"Why me?''

"I don't know. It was the first thing I thought about. Hailey had mentioned something."

"Hailey?" I fought to keep the startle out of my voice.

"A couple days ago she had asked me a strange question. Who I would call if I was in serious trouble. I said I didn't know, hadn't really thought about it. She asked about you and I told her, yeah, Victor would be a good one to call. Aren't all your clients in trouble when they call?''

"That's right.''

"So I had it in my mind to get you.''

"Why not the police? Why not an ambulance?"

"She was dead, an ambulance wasn't going to help. Victor, I didn't know what I was doing. I was in trouble and I called you. You were the only one I could count on, the only who would understand."

I stared at him.

"You're all I have left.''

If I was all Guy had left, he was totally bereft. "Okay," I said. "That's enough. I don't want to hear any more. Why don't we go to bed, get some rest. Tomorrow we'll get you an attorney, and together you'll figure out what to tell the police. I set you up with a towel and new sheets.''

"I'll sleep on the couch.''

"No, you need your sleep. I'll stay out here.''

"Victor, how much trouble am I really in?''

"More than you could imagine.''

"It's hard to believe it could be worse than I imagine." Pause.

"Hailey's gone. And I didn't do anything. It's not fair.''

"Fairness has nothing to do with it. They found her murdered on your shared bed. From what I could tell, there were no signs of forced entry. They'll check fingerprints, but my guess is they'll discover yours and Hailey's, that's it. By now they've found the money in the bureau, so they'll rule out robbery. And then they'll dig into your lives and find a motive. Had you been fighting?"

"No. God, no, we were in love.''

"No trouble in the relationship?"

He looked away as he said no.

"They'll find a motive, Guy. There's always a motive between a man and a woman: jealousy, passion, heat-of-the-moment anger. It doesn't take much to convince a jury that one lover killed another. How were you and Hailey really?''

"Fine. Great.''

"Tell me the truth.''

"We were great.''

"Was there anyone else?''

"No. I had given up everything for her. We had been planning our future together just the other night. We were going to Costa Rica for two weeks. Why would I screw around with anyone else? Everything was rosy.''

I stared at him. He stared back.

"Rosy," I said.

"That's right. And then this nightmare. That's what it is, a nightmare. And it's only just beginning, isn't it? Jesus.''

"Let's get some sleep.''

"What am I going to say to them tomorrow?"

"You're either going to tell the truth or you're going to say nothing. Those are the options.''

"Which one am I going to follow?''

"It's not up to me," I said. "We'll get you a lawyer tomorrow, and the two of you will figure it out.''

I helped him up off the couch, took him into the bedroom.

"Thanks, Victor," he said as I stood in the doorway. "Thanks for everything."

I nodded and closed the bedroom door behind me. Then I sat in the living room, outside the cone of light, and waited. The toilet flushed, the faucet turned on and off, the toothbrush scrubbed, the faucet turned on and off once again. I wondered if he would glance at the page in the novel I had left marked for him, but the light under the crack disappeared too quickly for that. I waited a while longer and then, when I heard no sound for a quarter of an hour, I stood and went to my raincoat, still hanging over the chair.

I took out the portable phone, the expired license, and the key and placed them in a kitchen drawer. I took out the marihuana and ran it, wad by wad, through the garbage disposal until there was nothing left of it. Then, with my handkerchief, I lifted the gun out of the raincoat pocket.

I lifted the gun out of the raincoat pocket.

The gun.

I took it to the kitchen, wiped the trigger guard where my fingers had touched it when I picked it off the step, and dropped it into a plastic sandwich bag.

It was a revolver, thick and silvery, a King Cobra .357 Magnum, so said the markings on the barrel. It felt heavy, solid. It felt just then like a serious instrument of justice. Even in its plastic sheath it was a comfort in my hand.

I brought the bagged gun with me back to the couch. I turned off the light, lay down with my head on the armrest, placed the gun on my lap. I had never much liked guns before, never even wanted to fire one, but, I had to admit, it gave one options. I lay down on my couch with the gun and tried to figure what to do about my old friend Guy Forrest. What to do about Guy. Because, you see, I had listened very carefully to everything he had to say about Hailey Prouix and her murder, listened to his whole sad story, and, at the end, I knew, beyond a reasonable doubt, beyond any doubt at all, that dear old Guy was lying.

Excerpted from FATAL FLAW © Copyright 2003 by William Lashner. Reprinted with permission by HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

Fatal Flaw
by by William Lashner

  • Genres: Suspense
  • Mass Market Paperback: 576 pages
  • Publisher: HarperTorch
  • ISBN-10: 0060508183
  • ISBN-13: 9780060508180