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Excerpt

Excerpt

Guilty

Chapter One

August 1994

“WHERE THE SWEET HELL do you think you’re going?”

Just after midnight on a steamy Friday in Baltimore, fifteen-year-old Katrina Kominski was halfway down the fire escape of the run-down brick apartment building where she had lived for the past seven months when the bellow from above froze her in her tracks.

Busted, she thought, because what she was doing was sneaking out after being grounded for the weekend.

Clutching the peeling black metal rail and casting a scared glance up, she discovered her foster mother leaning out the fourth-floor window above her, fat cheeks jiggling, pink curlers bobbing, tent-size pink housecoat zipped up to her cowlike neck. Behind her she could see two of the other girls ––– Mrs. Coleman took in only girls; right now she had five in the three-bedroom apartment ––– crowding around. Twelve-year-old LaTonya looked scared. Sixteen-year-old Natalie looked smug.

Jealous witch had probably told.

“Out,” she yelled back. The response was pure bravado, because down below her friends were watching. Inside, where no one could see, her stomach knotted in fear. Her heart pounded.

Should she go back, or…?

“Come on, Kat!” Jason Winter ––– the to-die-for-cute boy she was crazy about ––– yelled up to her. She looked down in terrible indecision. He was at the wheel of his beat-up blue Camaro, which was idling in the alley below. It was crammed with kids; her best friend, Leah Oscar, had her head stuck out the rear window on the driver’s side, yelling “Come on” to her along with Jason, while making urgent get-down-here-yesterday motions. A kid with black, curly hair ––– Mario Castellanos, one of Jason’s good friends ––– had his head out the front passenger window, his hands cupped around his mouth as he yelled insults at Mrs. Coleman, who was now raining abuse down on Kat’s head.

“Look out!” Leah shrieked, pointing at something above Kat. Jason yelled something, too, and a couple of the other kids stuck their heads out the car windows as they screamed warnings, but Kat was already looking up again, and what she saw sent her heart leaping into her throat.

Marty Jones, Mrs. Coleman’s live-in boyfriend, had taken Mrs. Coleman’s place and was halfway out the window. Last time she’d seen him ––– about half an hour ago, when she had supposedly gone to bed in the small room she shared with Natalie and LaTonya ––– he’d been zonked out on the couch. Now here he came after her, barefoot, wearing his gray work pants and a wife-beater, which looked disgusting on his huge, hulking, hairy body. Like Mrs. Coleman, he was maybe in his mid-forties. Unlike Mrs. Coleman, he didn’t even pretend to like the girls she fostered for a living.

Except in a creepy way. Like, he’d told Kat to call him Marty instead of Mr. Jones. And he was always trying to get her to sit on the couch next to him while he watched TV. And a couple of days ago he’d popped the lock on the bathroom door ––– he’d sworn it had been unlocked, but she knew better ––– and “accidentally” walked in on her when she was in the shower. And… well, there were lots of ands.

Kat hated him. He’d been eyeing her since she had arrived from the group home where she had been sent after the last foster-care placement hadn’t worked out. Being a skinny, cute, blue-eyed blonde was not a good thing when the world you lived in was full of predatory men like Marty Jones. Over the last couple of years, Kat had learned to recognize them at a glance, and to keep as far away from them as possible.

Only it was getting harder and harder to keep away from Marty.

“You better get your ass back up here right now!” Almost through the window now, Marty saw her looking up at him and shook his head threateningly at her. He held a baseball bat in one hand. As their eyes met through the open metalwork of the stairs, Kat’s stomach plummeted toward her red Dr. Scholl’s sandals. Time to face the truth: Marty scared the bejesus out of her. “Right now! You hear me, girl?”

Oh, yeah. She did. And even as the weight of him emerging onto the top of the fire escape made the whole thing shiver warningly, she ran, hanging on to the rail, clattering down the remaining steps to the encouraging screams of her friends, heart pounding, sweating bullets all the way.

If he caught her…

“Hurry, Kat!” “He’s coming, he’s coming!” “Fat old fart, you gonna knock them stairs right off the building you don’t get off them!” “Kat, you gotta move!” “Jump for it!”

“You better not run from me!” Marty yelled after her. “When I catch you, I’ll…”

What he would do Kat never heard, because she jumped down the last two steps just then to land hard on her wooden soles on the cracked asphalt of the alley, and hands reached out of the Camaro’s door, which had opened in anticipation of her imminent arrival, to drag her inside. She half leaped and half was pulled in on top of a shifting mass of teenage bodies. The door was still partially open when, tires squealing, the Camaro peeled rubber out of there. It slammed shut, though whether from the force of the forward motion or because somebody reached out and grabbed it she couldn’t have said. As she struggled to sit up, Kat caught glimpses of long rows of brick walls broken up by cheap aluminum-framed windows and zigzagging fire escapes, and overflowing dumpsters and piles of trash that hadn’t quite made it into the dumpsters, and an odd person or two slinking through the dark as the headlights flashed over them.

“That was so cool!” “Man, he almost caught her!” “Is that fat guy your dad?” “I thought he was gonna knock the whole fire escape down.” “You think they’re gonna call the cops?”

“No, they won’t call the cops,” Kat replied to the last thing she heard as she wiggled her butt down between Leah and her boyfriend, Roger Friedkin, while Donna Bianco was squashed against the far window. With the four of them wedged into the backseat and Jason and Mario up front, the car was hot despite all the windows being rolled down, which was due to a broken air conditioner. It was too humid for jeans, which she was wearing because she didn’t possess any shorts, but she had teamed them with a red tank she’d “borrowed” from LaTonya so she wasn’t actually dying or anything. “If they did, the social workers would come and take me away, and they don’t want that. They need the money. I heard them talking about it.”

“You gonna be okay when you go back there, Kitty-cat?” Jason asked with the quiet concern that had first made her lose her heart to him. His eyes ––– blue as the waters of Chesapeake Bay ––– looked into hers through the rearview mirror. Her stomach fluttered in response.

She nodded.

“That fat old fart’s gonna whup your ass, Kitty-cat,” Mario chortled, turning so that he could look at her. He smirked at her. “I bet he’s gonna like it, too.”

“Shut the hell up, why don’t you?” Jason punched his friend in the arm.

“Ow!” Mario, glaring, covered the spot with his hand.

“It’s okay,” Kat said to Jason. Then she looked at Mario. “Why don’t you go jerk off somewhere?”

Mario gave her an ugly look in return, but something, probably the thought of incurring Jason’s further displeasure, kept his big mouth shut.

Too late to erase the image he’d implanted in her mind, though.

The thought of what her reception was going to be like when she returned to the apartment was already enough to make Kat want to puke. Realizing that she’d given Marty an excuse to lay his hands on her terrified her. Mario was right, although she hated him for saying it. If she went back, Marty would do something to hurt her and enjoy every minute of it. And she was as sure as it was possible to be that Mrs. Coleman wouldn’t object.

Her fists clenched. Her mouth dried up. Tears pricked at the backs of her eyes, although she’d die before she’d let any fall.

I’ll worry about it later.

“Hey, how about we get us some beer?” Mario yelled. He had to yell, because they were on the expressway now, speeding toward D.C., and with the wind rushing in through the open windows and the radio blaring and several conversations going on at once it was the only way to be heard. The big halogen lamps lighting the road from high overhead made it almost as bright as day inside the car. The Camaro was speeding, weaving in and out as it passed other cars and light trucks and a couple of big eighteen-wheelers that rattled like marbles in a tin can as the Camaro shot by.

“Yeah!” “Beer! Woo-hoo!” “I could use a beer!” “None of that light stuff. I like my beer heavy!” “Let’s get us some beer!”

Kat hated beer, but she said nothing.

The Camaro swerved suddenly, and Kat clutched reflexively at Leah’s arm. From the blur outside the window she knew that they were off the expressway and flying down an exit ramp. Jason stomped the brake at the intersection at the bottom of the ramp and everybody was flung violently forward, with the four in the backseat nearly thrown onto the floor.

As they picked themselves up and wedged themselves back into place, they all started laughing like what had just happened was the funniest thing ever.

Kat, too, because they were her friends.

As Jason swung the Camaro out onto a nearly deserted four-lane road crowded with closed retail establishments, Mario banged his fist on the dashboard and turned to look at the rest of them. “Anybody got any dinero?”

“I got a dollar and… look at that, twenty-two cents.” “I got a buck.” “I got seventy-five cents.”

“I… don’t have any money,” Kat said, when all eyes were on her after everyone else in the backseat had turned out their pockets. “I’m not thirsty anyway.”

“That’s okay.” Jason looked at her through the mirror again. “I’ll spring for yours.”

And he smiled at her.

The hard little knot in Kat’s stomach eased.

That late at night, even McDonald’s twin arches were turned off. The only things still open were gas stations and convenience stores. A Quik-Pik on the next corner was all lit up, and Kat assumed that was Jason’s destination.

“Does somebody have an ID?” she asked, meaning a fake one, as the Camaro, still traveling too fast, bumped into the parking lot and slid to a stop beside one of the gas pumps. The parking lot was deserted. Through the glass windows, Kat could see a solitary clerk behind the cash register. It was a woman. She looked Hispanic, and young.

“I do, but it don’t matter.” Mario grinned at her. “I can pass for twenty-one easy.”

“His ID’s good, though,” Justin said. “Way better than mine.”

Everybody piled out of the car and started walking toward the store.

“I gotta pee,” Leah announced cheerfully, and looked at Kat. “You wanna come to the bathroom with me?”

“Yeah,” Kat agreed, and the two of them broke off to head around the side of the building where a battered sign announced Restrooms. They had both finished and Kat was washing her hands while Leah, peering around her into the mirror, fluffed her hair, when they heard a series of staccato sounds from outside.

Crack! Crack! Crack!

“What the hell?” Leah gasped, whirling to look at the door, which had no lock.

“It’s a gun.” Kat knew what gunfire sounded like. Mrs. Coleman’s government-subsidized apartment was actually one of the nicer places in which she had lived. The seven years she had spent with her mother were a blur of crack houses and abandoned buildings and the occasional homeless shelter. After that, she’d been passed around among relatives and friends until one day a social worker had come and taken her away. During that time, the sound of gunfire had been a nightly occurrence. For years she had slept huddled in corners listening to it, praying that a bullet wouldn’t find its way through the walls and into her flesh.

“Oh, shit.” Leah ran for the door. Kat was right behind her, slowed a little by her cumbersome footwear. What they saw as they burst around the corner of the building was the rest of the gang bolting toward the Camaro like something bad was chasing them. They were screaming at one another, fighting about something, but Kat was too far away to understand the words. All she knew was that Jason looked scared to death ––– and Mario was holding a gun.

Her breathing suspended. Her gut clenched.

There was a man between her and Leah and the car. An older man, stocky and gray-haired, in what looked like a blue uniform. He was on his knees with his back to them. Leah flew past him without giving him so much as a glance. As Kat ran up behind him, he groaned and kind of toppled over on his side, then rolled onto his back. She saw that he was clutching his chest ––– and then she saw why and stopped in her tracks.

Bright blood bubbled up between his fingers, which were pale and pudgy, spilling over them, pouring on the black asphalt that glistened faintly in the store’s reflected light. In a single lightning glance, she saw that there was a badge on his chest, gleaming silver, with a cheap plastic name tag below it. She wasn’t close enough to read the name.

He’s been shot. She remembered the gun in Mario’s hands, and a chill ran through her.

He saw her. She could tell he did, because his eyes flickered.

“Help… me.”

Oh, God. She dropped to her knees beside him, bent over him, looking at him in horror, frantic to do something, anything, moving his hands aside so that she could see the wound. Then her hands came down one on top of the other as she pressed desperately against the hole, trying to stem the flow of blood. It was warm. And slimy. There was a smell. A sickening, raw-meat kind of smell.

“Hurts,” he muttered. And closed his eyes.

“Kat, come on!” The voice ––– Leah’s ––– shrieked out at her as the Camaro screamed to a stop just a few feet away.

“Come on! Come on!” They were all shouting at her, but she couldn’t move. Couldn’t have gone to them if she had wanted to. She could feel the man’s ––– his name was David Brady, she could read his name tag now ––– life slipping away, feel the energy leaving him as if his soul were rising around her. All she could do was stare at the car and feel the dying man’s life ebbing, and her own heart thudding, and then the Camaro sped off with a squeal of rubber and she was left alone.

Really alone, because David Brady was dead now. His life force was gone.

She stayed beside him until she heard the sirens. Then she jumped to her feet and fled into the darkness, with David Brady’s blood still dripping from her hands.


Chapter Two

Thirteen years later…

SOMETHING’S WRONG. The thought hit Tom Braga with all the explosive force of a bullet to the brain.

His gut clenched. His pulse speeded up. As his breath caught, he continued to listen to the empty silence on the other end of the phone with building intensity. He didn’t know how he knew it for sure, but he did. They were speaking on cell phones, he and his younger brother, Tom from his unmarked car, which was at that moment slicing through the downpour en route to Philadelphia’s modern Criminal Justice Center, where he was scheduled to be in court at nine ––– that would be in about three minutes ––– Charlie from wherever the hell he was. They were both cops, he a homicide detective, Charlie a sheriff’s deputy. On this rainy Monday morning, they were both on duty. And unless he was totally going around the bend, Charlie was in trouble.

“Yo, bro, you still there?” Tom gripped the phone so hard its edges dug into his palm, but his voice stayed deceptively casual. They’d been talking about Mom’s weekly Sunday dinner, which Tom had missed for the third time in a row yesterday because he was tired of being ragged on all the time about being thirty-five and single and because sometimes his congregated family, nineteen strong, was enough to drive him nuts. In the middle of rubbing Tom’s nose in the glories of the chicken parmigiana, which Charlie knew was his brother’s particular favorite, twenty-eight-year-old Charlie had grunted as if in surprise, then simply stopped talking in the middle of a sentence. And Tom had started getting this really bad vibe.

“Yeah,” Charlie replied, to Tom’s instant relief. Until he realized that his excitable brother’s voice was absolutely flat, and he could hear Charlie breathing hard. “Um, look, I gotta go.”

“Okay, well, you tell your sweet little wife Marcia hello for me, hear?” Tom’s tone was hearty. Cold sweat prickled to life at his hairline. “Tell her I’m looking forward to that homemade lasagna she promised me.”

“I’ll do that,” Charlie said, and his phone went dead.

With that answer ringing in his ears, Tom practically ran through the red light he was rushing up on. Slamming on the brakes hard enough to make the department-issue black Taurus fishtail on the wet street, he managed to stop just in time to avoid barreling out into the middle of the busy intersection. Despite the fact that he was way too close to it, he was all but blind to the traffic that began rolling past just inches from his front bumper. The steady procession of headlights made the gloomy day seem even darker than it really was. Rain sluiced down over his windshield, pounding on the roof and hood with big, fat drops that hit with a quick rat-a-tat and splattered on impact. The windshield wipers were working hard on high. The radio played easy listening.

He was oblivious to all of it.

Charlie’s wife was named Terry. And fixing peanut-butter sandwiches for their two little hooligans was about as good as her kitchen skills got.

“Jesus.” It was both prayer and expletive.

Taking a deep breath, Tom called on years of experience to sep­arate mind from emotion, and did what he had been trained to do in emergency situations: What came next. Unwanted, an image of Charlie as he’d last seen him flashed into his head. Black-haired, lean and good-looking, as all the Braga siblings were, Charlie had been sitting in a plastic blow-up kiddie pool in his tiny backyard about three weekends back, clad only in trunks, happily yelling for help while his four-year-old twins dumped bucket after bucket of hose-cold water over his head. Seeing his brother’s laughing face in his mind’s eye didn’t help, so Tom did his best to banish it as he punched buttons on his cell phone. His hand was steady. His thoughts were clear. His pulse raced like a thoroughbred pounding for the finish line.

An infinity seemed to pass as he listened to the ringing on the other end.

Pick up, pick up, damn you to hell, Bruce Johnson, pick up.

“Johnson here.”

“Tom Braga.” Tom identified himself to Charlie’s supervisor. The cold sweat that had started at his hairline had by now spread to his whole body. Adrenaline rushed through his veins like speed. There was a tightness to his voice that he could hear himself, yet at the same time he felt very focused, very calm. “Where’s Charlie?”

“Charlie?” Johnson paused. Tom could picture him kicked back in his chair, coffee and a newspaper on his desk, an island of good-­natured calm in the center of never-ending chaos. The Philly sheriff’s office was large, with numerous departments and hundreds of deputies and support staff, but he and Johnson had grown up together in tough South Philly and in consequence knew each other well. The big, burly sergeant was a favorite with Tom’s whole family. “Let me check.”

He covered the mouthpiece ––– not well ––– and yelled, “Anybody know where Charlie Braga is this morning?”

Hurry, Tom thought, gritting his teeth. Then, having realized what he was doing, he deliberately relaxed his jaw.

Seconds later Johnson was back on the line. “He took a witness from the jail over to the Justice Center. Wasn’t that long ago, so he should still be there. Any particular reason why you’re interested?”

The Justice Center. Tom could see it, a little more than a block away on the right. It was a tall stone rectangle topped by a dome, with vertical lines of windows glowing yellow through the rain.

The light was green and the intersection in front of him was clear. He registered that and at about the same time became aware of impatient horns honking behind him. A split second later he stomped on the gas. The rear tires of the Taurus sent up plumes of water as the vehicle responded.

“I was talking to him on the phone right before I called you.” Tom’s voice was steady despite the fact that the bad feeling he’d had was getting worse. He was rushing toward the building now, anxiously scanning as much of it as he could see while weaving in and out of traffic in an effort to get where he was going fast. Cars were parallel parked all along Filbert Street, the narrow, pre-Revolutionary War era avenue out in front of the Justice Center. People hurried along the sidewalk, past the building, and up and down the wide stone steps leading to the main entrance. A sea of umbrellas and splashing feet were about all he could see of the pedestrians. From outside the revolving doors, he got a glimpse of the security checkpoint with its guards and metal detectors. Nothing looked out of place. There was no sign of trouble. But his gut was telling him otherwise, and one thing he’d learned during his thirteen years as a cop was to never go against his gut.

“He gave me a signal, like.” Even as he scanned the area, Tom continued talking to Johnson. “Something’s wrong. You need to alert whoever else you’ve got over there that something’s possibly going down. Get some backup to Charlie’s location, stat. And tell them to keep it quiet. No sirens, nothing like that. I just got a real creepy feeling.”

Johnson snorted. “I’m supposed to send in the troops because you’ve got a creepy feeling?”

“Yeah.”

“Will do,” Johnson said. He was enough of a professional not to take chances when it was a matter of another officer’s safety ––– and not to question another cop’s instincts. He covered the mouthpiece again, and Tom could hear him giving the necessary orders.

“Where in the Justice Center?” Tom yelled into the phone. Yelling was necessary to get Johnson’s attention again. Tom was in front of the Justice Center now, cruising past the long row of bumper-to-bumper parked cars, where there was, he discovered with a quick glance up the block, no longer an available place to park. Not that it was going to make any difference. Ignoring the cars piling up in honking indignation behind him, he double-parked beside a big silver Suburban.

“Subbasement,” Johnson replied. “Probably.”

Shit.

The subbasement was a badly lit and ventilated rabbit warren two stories underground. Holding cells for prisoners needed in court that day, administrative offices, the courtroom for arraignments, anterooms for lawyers and court officials and bail bondsmen ––– all that and more were located down there. The place teemed with activity from seven a.m. on as the accused, the convicted, the acquitted, and everything and everyone connected with their cases rotated in and out.

Charlie could’ve found all kinds of trouble down there.

“I’m on the scene,” Tom said grimly, and disconnected.

Jumping out, head bent, into the pouring rain that began instantly soaking his short, thick black hair and court-ready attire of navy sport jacket, white shirt, red tie, and gray slacks, he slammed the door and took off at a sprint toward the building. As he ran, he reached beneath his jacket to unsnap the safety strap on his Glock.


Chapter Three

Being a prosecutor is not for sissies, Kate White thought grimly as the backs of the elegant Stuart Weitzman pumps she had bought on eBay for ten dollars rubbed against her increasingly tender heels with every purposeful step she took. The pay was lousy, the perks were nonexistent, and the people ––– well, all she could say was that there were a few good apples mixed in with all the rotten ones. A very few.

“Get a move on, would you? If we’re late he’ll hang us out to dry,” Bryan Chen muttered behind her. A small, compact Asian-American, the forty-two-year-old veteran assistant district attorney was definitely one of the good apples. Four months before, he’d taken her under his wing when she had graduated from law school at age twenty-eight and joined the prosecutor’s office. It was the first step on a career ladder that she was determined would take her to the (lucrative) pinnacle of one of Philadelphia’s stellar super-firms. Bryan, on the other hand, had been an assistant DA for going on sixteen years now and seemed perfectly content to make a career of it. Of course, he didn’t have a hundred thousand dollars in student loans to pay off and a young son for whom he was the only source of support, either.

She personally wanted more, for herself and for Ben, her sweet-faced nine-year-old, than to live for years on end in a tiny leased house on a diet of pasta and peanut butter at the end of every pay period.

And she meant to get it.

“We’re not late,” she replied, with more confidence than she felt.

Pushing through the heavy mahogany doors of Courtroom 207 in the Criminal Justice Center, she was relieved to see that she was right. The “he” Bryan had been referring to ––– Circuit Court Judge Michael Moran, a humorless appointee who was presiding over today’s circus ––– was nowhere in sight, although the courtroom deputy stood in front of the bench with an anticipatory eye on the door that led to the judge’s chambers, obviously expecting His Honor to appear at any second.

Hurry. Must not get on wrong side of notoriously cranky judge before trial even starts, she thought as she strode ––– big, long strides that killed her feet ––– down the aisle. Her shoes were wet and the highly polished terrazzo underfoot was slippery, making speed a dangerous proposition. But under the circumstances she felt she had no choice. The defense was already in place, and the courtroom galleries were full. The only thing missing was the judge ––– and the prosecution. Still, cutting their arrival dangerously close to the wire wouldn’t cost them a thing as long as they were in place before the judge came out.

In other words, what he didn’t know couldn’t hurt them.

The deputy kept watching the door to chambers. Meanwhile, the bench remained unoccupied. Silvery rivulets of rain streamed down the pair of tall windows that flanked the bench, making the courtroom seem unusually closed off. It had been officially autumn for more than a week, but today’s cold rain was the first real indication they’d had that the seasons had changed. The downpour was also why they were late ––– every available parking spot near the Justice Center was taken, which meant they’d had to park in a garage on the next block ––– and why unruly strands of her normally sleek, shoulder-length blond hair were escaping from her once-neat bun to wave around her face. She could only hope the mascara she’d hurriedly swiped on ––– it was waterproof but cheap, so you never knew ––– was still framing her blue eyes and not making inky rivers down her smooth, ivory-pale cheeks. Looking like a sad clown was not the way to win the kind of notice she wanted.

Despite the danger inherent in charging full-tilt toward the counsel tables without keeping her mind totally in the moment, Kate multitasked. Juggling umbrella and briefcase, she ran her fingers beneath her lower lashes in the hope of doing away with any errant black streaks, then brushed down the front of her once-pricey black skirt suit with quick little whisking motions that just seemed to make the wet spots bigger, and plucked the damp front of her white Hanes T-shirt away from her chest so that it wouldn’t cling too closely. At the same time she absorbed all of it, the large, high-ceilinged room with its mahogany-paneled walls, the bent heads of the public defender and his client close together as they conferred over a yellow legal pad, the steady murmur of conversation and rustle of movement from the packed gallery, the musty smell of too many damp bodies jammed in together, with a quick surge of satisfaction. This was her world, the world she had fashioned for herself out of nothing but her own determination. The knowledge that she belonged in it now, that she was one of the good guys, brought a small smile to her lips. Walking a little taller, she was instantly brought back to earth by the stabbing of the thrice-damned shoes into her heels. The price on the pointy-toed pumps had been right, they were black and real leather and definitely added to the professional aura of her secondhand suit, but Jesus, they hurt. It was all she could do not to limp.

Beggars can’t be choosers, as the last ––– and least lamented ––– of her foster mothers used to say. This month she had paid the rent and the utilities and the babysitter and the minimum on her Visa billand student loans and put gas in the car and bought Ben a new pair of sneakers. Now, with six days to go before the first of October ––– she was paid semimonthly, on the first and the fifteenth ––– she was scarily close to dead broke. That was pretty much how it went every month, which meant there was little ––– as in practically zero ––– in the budget for work clothes. The thing that made it difficult was that to achieve her goal, she had to look like a professional. A successful professional. Ergo, she turned to eBay when necessary. But like everything else in life, getting the right clothes on the cheap came with a price, and today the price was apparently going to be hamburger heels.

The minute hand on the large, round clock that hung over the door to the hall through which prisoners were brought into the courtroom moved incrementally. It was now officially nine o’clock.

To hell with her shoes. They had to move.

“Look out, here he comes.” Bryan practically shoved her through the low, swinging door that separated the gallery from the well just as the stone-faced deputy turned to face the crowded courtroom and drew himself up to his full height.

“All rise,” he boomed, fixing Kate and Bryan with a warning stare as they scrambled into place behind the counsel table at the last possible second. Everyone else stood, too, so that they were all on their feet ­together and focused forward as the door to chambers was pulled open from the inside. “Court is now in session. The Honorable Judge Michael Moran presiding.”

While Judge Moran ––– “Moran the Moron,” as he was known to the assistant DAs ––– strode out, his black robe flapping around his portly frame, his round, ruddy face beneath its short thicket of iron-gray hair already tired and cross-looking at nine o’clock in the morning, a steaming coffee cup in his hand, Kate quietly dropped her umbrella to the floor, slid her briefcase onto the table, and struggled to catch her breath. Instead of watching the judge assume the God position behind the polished mahogany bench, she shifted her attention sideways to the jury box, which was to her right. It held fourteen people, twelve jurors and two alternates, skewing older, white, and female, which was just the way she had wanted it. This was at its heart an armed-robbery case, nothing unusual for Philly, but the defendant, Julio “Little Julie” Soto, a twenty-three-year-old street punk, had beaten up the woman behind the convenience-store counter badly enough so that she had spent five days in the hospital. That degree of violence, in Kate’s estimation, was uncalled for and the mark of a dangerous man. She had refused to plea-bargain. The Commonwealth ––– that was her ––– was asking for a sentence of not less than twenty years.

Not surprisingly, the defendant had opted to exercise his constitutional right to a jury trial. Not that it would help him in any way. She had the goods on him, from eyewitnesses to fingerprints to tape from a security camera, and unless he was next in line for a miracle, he was going away for a long time.

“Good morning,” Judge Moran said to the courtroom in general. His tone was sour. Kate presumed he didn’t like rainy Mondays any more than anybody else. To the left of the bench, the court reporter, Sally Toner, a plump, fiftyish blonde, was seated in front of her computer. Her fingers flew over the keys as she recorded the judge’s greeting, as she would everything else that was said in the courtroom that day.

“Good morning, Your Honor,” Kate and opposing counsel chorused faux-cheerfully in reply. Synchronized small talk was a skill largely left untaught by law schools, but most lawyers managed to pick it up anyway. Over time Kate was sure it became as automatic as sucking up to the judge.

Judge Moran nodded and settled into his tall leather chair, carefully positioning his coffee in front of him and accepting a sheaf of papers handed to him by the deputy. That was everyone else’s cue to sit, too, which Kate did with relief, surreptitiously easing her feet a little way out of her shoes. The deputy turned back to the courtroom with his usual bit, announcing that they were assembled there in that courtroom on that morning in the case of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania vs. Julio Juan Soto, blah, blah, blah, blah. Kate tuned him out.

First chance I get, I’m sticking Band-Aids on my poor heels. She always kept some in her briefcase.

Since she was wearing hose, that would require a trip to the ladies’ room, which would have to wait for a break.

Rats.

Pulling her notes from her briefcase, she discreetly checked her reflection in the small mirror she kept clipped to one of the inside pockets. What little makeup she wore seemed to have survived the deluge more or less intact, she was relieved to see. Just as she had feared, though, her hair was well on its way to working free of its bun ––– she quickly pushed the pins holding it in tighter ––– and her nose was shiny. Otherwise, she was good to go. She wasn’t gorgeous by any means, but she was attractive, with a square-jawed, high-cheekboned face punctuated by intelligent blue eyes and a wide, soft-lipped mouth. Her nose, which was a little too long, was her worst feature, in her opinion. The fact that it was, at the moment, glassily reflecting the fluorescent lights overhead didn’t help. Under the cover of setting her briefcase on the floor, she managed to swipe her nose with a blotting tissue from the packet she kept in there along with various other emergency items, then straightened just as the deputy ended his spiel.

Judge Moran’s attention, she was glad to see, was still focused on the papers in front of him. Beside her, Bryan had pulled a yellow legal pad and pen from his own briefcase and was doodling away. This was nominally his case, but she had done all the preparation and would be trying it. After the trial was over, unless she did something horribly wrong and got fired, she would be handling cases on her own from then on out, no longer tucked under Bryan’s wing. Her bar exam results had come in just days before: She had passed with flying colors. Except for the official swearing in, she was now a full-fledged member of the Pennsylvania bar, and no longer required supervision to work as a prosecutor.

She, Kate White, was a real, honest-to-God lawyer.

Just saying the words to herself gave her a thrill. Who woulda thunk it? Nobody she had ever known once upon a time, that’s for sure. Sometimes she had trouble believing it herself.

“Mr. Curry?” Moran looked up from the papers at last and frowned in the direction of the defense. “What’s this?”

Kate’s antenna went up. “Mr. Curry” was the public defender, Ed Curry, who had been opposing counsel on several of the cases Kate had worked, enough so that she thought she knew how he operated by now. Average height, thin, balding, mid-forties, dressed today in a rumpled gray suit with a white shirt and navy tie, Curry wasn’t given to springing surprises in court. Straightforward and unimaginative, with an air of impatience, he did a competent job for his clients in the meager time he was able to allot to each of them.

Curry stood. “Your Honor, I apologize, but our office just received the information on this witness late Friday. Over the weekend, I talked to the man in jail, and I found him to be cred ––– ”

“Witness? What witness?” Kate jammed her feet back into the torturous shoes and shot upright, accidentally sending her wheeled chair flying back toward the bar. Bryan grabbed it, stopping it before it crashed. Judge Moran sent her a quelling glance. Curry’s gaze shifted her way for a split second, and then he quickly refocused on the judge. He looked uncharacteristically ill at ease. As well he should, Kate thought. Springing a surprise witness on the opening day of a trial was one of those Lawyer 101 no-no’s that even newbies like herself knew not to do. A quick check showed her that the jurors had brightened with interest. Not good. Whatever was up, she didn’t want the jury hearing about it until after she did. She needed details on what was going down and time to assess its impact on her case, to say nothing of coming up with a way to neutralize any potential negative fallout before the jury got so much as a whiff of whatever it was. “Your Honor, permission to approach the bench.”

“Permission granted. You, too, Mr. Curry.”

Kate whisked out from behind the counsel table and marched toward the bench, her screaming heels be damned. Body language was worth a lot in a courtroom, and sometimes you just had to make the opposition aware that you weren’t going to take their crap. Otherwise, the bullies ––– and there were lots of them in the legal profession ––– would gleefully kick your ass.

Refusing to look at her ––– Hah, he knows he’s out of line ––– Curry walked forward, too. As soon as he joined her in front of the bench, Kate pounced.

“Your Honor, opposing counsel knows very well that it’s too late to introduce a new witness. Discovery was closed weeks ago. I ––– ”

“Spare me the lecture, Ms. White.” Judge Moran held up his hand for silence. “You can rest assured that I’m well aware of the appropriate timetable here.”

Kate clamped her jaws shut, crossed her arms over her chest, and glared, hopefully presenting a picture of five feet six inches ––– no, five-nine with the shoes ––– of slender, eloquent indignation for the benefit of the jury. The jury couldn’t hear what they were saying ––– the conversation was being conducted in low tones for just that reason ––– but she hoped that at least they could read her body language loud and clear: The defense is trying to pull a fast one. Don’t be fooled.

“In case it somehow escaped your notice, you interrupted Mr. Curry,” Moran continued. He looked at the public defender. “Mr. Curry, I presume you were about to tell me just why it is that this is the first we’ve heard about this witness. And I warn you, if I find that you’ve deliberately withheld information from the prosecution…”

Curry shook his head vigorously. He, too, knew Moran’s reputation for firing off contempt citations at lawyers like parking tickets, and nobody wanted a contempt citation with its accompanying time in jail until somebody could get the offending attorney off the hook. It cost the unlucky recipient too much time, money, and aggravation.

“Nothing like that, Your Honor. As I was saying, the witness just got in contact with our office on Friday. He’s in custody himself, and claims he was unaware of the facts of the case until then. His evidence is compelling, and it provides my client with a full alibi. You may be sure that I wouldn’t have brought it to your attention otherwise.”

“Bull ––– ” Kate caught herself in time, swallowed the inevitable ending as Moran turned a warning gaze on her, and hastily substituted the judge-friendlier “ ––– ocks, Your Honor. The evidence against the defendant is overwhelming, as Mr. Curry knows. This witness cannot possibly provide a credible alibi for his client because we already have eyewitnesses, a security videotape, and forensic evidence placing Mr. Soto at the scene. There is no way your client” ––– and here she shot a hard-eyed look at the public defender ––– “isn’t guilty as sin.”

“Ms. White, I realize you’re just out of school so we all have to cut you some slack, but for future reference that’s usually up to the jury to decide,” Curry said. As Moran’s focus shifted to Kate, Curry gave her a snarky smile.

“That’s right,” Moran said before Kate could reply. He nodded gravely, and Kate saw just how he had earned his nickname: The man clearly didn’t know when he was being had. She also realized that Curry knew Moran far better than she did, and was using that knowledge to his advantage. It didn’t matter if his tactics were blatantly out of order. All that mattered was how they played to this particular judge on this particular day. Now Moran was frowning at her. “Remember, Ms. White, we are here to find out the truth, whatever that may be. Potentially exculpatory testimony cannot be ruled out simply because the timing is inconvenient for the prosecution.”

Moran’s lecture had the patronizing tone of a professor to a student, and Kate’s hackles rose even higher. She pursed her lips. The defense’s tactics were becoming as clear as glass to her: Curry knew he couldn’t win today in court, so he was trying to delay. Delay was a defense attorney’s best friend. Put a trial off long enough, and anything could happen, with most outcomes favorable to the defense: Witnesses could move away or die, evidence could be lost, memories could fail. Prosecutors could move on to other jobs. Judges could retire. Even in the absence of any of those, with each day that passes the case loses priority. There is so much crime, so many criminals, out there that a case not tried in a timely manner could easily get lost in the judicial system shuffle.

Debbie Berman ––– the store clerk whose cheekbone and eye socket had been broken by the defendant ––– deserved better than that. She was there, in the courtroom, losing more time from work, for which she wouldn’t be paid, waiting to testify, to bring her attacker to justice. So was the customer who had been in the store at the time. So was the man who had been out front pumping gas at just the right moment to see Soto run out. So was the cop who had analyzed the videotape. So was everybody connected to the case, all brought together in the courtroom today as a result of her, Kate’s, painstaking work, all relying on her guarantee that showing up and doing the right thing would be worth it, that this time one of the bad guys was going to get what was coming to him. She had organized everything, assembled everyone, dotted every pretrial i and crossed every pretrial t. The prosecution was set up to run like clockwork, with the case going to the jury by the close of the day, probably less than a day for deliberations, late tomorrow or Wednesday at the worst for the verdict to come in. And it would be guilty.

Guilty, guilty, guilty. There was absolutely no doubt in her mind about that. A solid conviction, justice done all around, one less bad guy on the streets, and everybody could go home happy.

Only now Curry was screwing with the plan. She scowled at him before she could stop herself. Luckily, Moran’s attention had already swung back to the defense attorney.

“Mr. Curry, you want to give Ms. White and me a quick idea of who this witness is and what he is prepared to testify to before I rule on admissibility?”

Curry glanced at her again. Kate could see the craftiness at the backs of his eyes. He knew his witness was full of crap. He knew that there was no way anyone could testify truthfully that Soto was not at the scene of the crime, because Soto was there, had committed the crime, and all the evidence proved it.Her gaze shot to the judge, whose expression was solemnly unctuous.

Doesn’t he see it? Doesn’t he see that Curry knows this is bullshit? Doesn’t he get that he’s being had?

Apparently not.

“My witness ––– and I don’t want to give his name here in open court, for his protection, but he is a longtime acquaintance of the accused and his family ––– says Mr. Soto has a cousin who…”

The cheerfully funky notes of the Pussycat Dolls hit “Don’t Cha” blared without warning from somewhere in the courtroom. While Judge Moran stiffened and Curry glanced over his shoulder, his expression ­sur­prised as he sought the source of the disruption, Kate froze in horror.

She knew the source of the disruption without any possibility of mistake. It was her cell phone. She ––– and this was another big courtroom no-no ––– had forgotten to turn it off. The mortifyingly unprofessional ringtone only made things worse. Ben and his friend Samantha had been experimenting with her phone yesterday when she had driven them through the McDonald’s drive-thru on the way to returning Samantha home from a playdate. This had been their favorite ringtone. This was what they had left on her phone. This was what she had forgotten all about, and thus hadn’t gotten around to changing back to its usual businesslike chime.

She always turned her phone off before walking into court. Always. But in all the rush, today of all days, she had simply forgotten.

“Whose cell phone is that?” Judge Moran asked awfully.

A stricken glance at Bryan’s face told her that he knew the distracting sound was emanating from somewhere around their table.

Her briefcase, to be precise. Nestled against the far leg of the counsel table, there on the floor beside her chair. Although she couldn’t see the black leather rectangle from where she stood, she guessed the thing was practically vibrating with the energy of the song.

Her phone let loose with the bouncy melody again, and she felt about two inches tall.

“I want an answer!” Moran said.

Everyone glanced around, searching for the culprit. The three deputies stationed around the courtroom looked at one another, then at the judge for a cue as to what to do. Knowing Moran, this was going to get nasty fast.

Kate faced the awful truth: There was no way out. She had to ­confess.

“It’s mine, Your Honor,” she said, doing her best to keep her chin up even though she felt like sinking straight down through the floor. Right on cue, the ringtone sounded again.

If only the damned thing would shut up. Please, let it just shut up.

“I’m so sorry, I…”

“Turn it off.” Moran’s voice was like thunder. His face was taking on color like a quickly ripening tomato. “Now.”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

Toddling off in the direction of counsel table while doing her best to maintain some semblance of professional cool, she was hideously conscious of being the cynosure of all eyes. Bryan’s face was a study in dismay. Beyond him, in the galleries, Kate faced a sea of wide eyes all focused on her. Except for another exuberant burst of melody from her damned phone, the silence in that courtroom was absolute.

Oh my God, I don’t believe this. I’ve made an absolute fool of myself and Bryan and the entire district attorney’s office. Moran’s going to wipe the floor with me. How could I have let this happen?

Those, and more along the same line, were only some of the happy thoughts that pounded through Kate’s head as, teeth clenched, she crouched beside the prosecution’s table, flipped the clasps open on her briefcase, and thrust her hand into the side pocket to grab her vibrating phone.

Kate found the button and turned off the ringer with a quick, vicious jab even as recognition dawned: The phone number dancing across the little digital display on the front of the phone was that of Ben’s school.

Even so, her uppermost feeling for the next split second was relief that blessed silence now reigned.

Then anxiety of a different sort raised its head, playing havoc with her already frazzled nerves.

Ben.

She had dropped him off at seven-thirty, as she did every morning so she could get to work on time. He was part of the breakfast group, which was maybe a quarter of the school’s population of two hundred under-twelves, basically the kids whose parents had to be at work by eight. They had juice and cereal or whatever in the cafeteria until seven-fifty, when they were allowed to go to their classrooms for the official beginning of the school day. This ––– fourth grade ––– was Ben’s first year at the school, because they’d moved into the district at the beginning of the summer when she’d been hired on at the DA’s office. So far, he had told her, it had been “okay.” Which in Ben-speak meant he didn’t want to talk about it. Which worried her. Which was no surprise. Practically everything to do with raising Ben worried her.

She was so afraid she wasn’t doing it right.

Now the school was calling, and the knowledge made her stomach tighten with anxiety.

Was Ben sick? Was he hurt? Or was it something else that the school wanted, something administrative maybe? Yes, that was probably it: a form she’d forgotten to fill out, a check she’d forgotten to send, something of that nature. Whatever it was, though, she couldn’t possibly return the call now. The best she could do was wait until she could somehow manage to squeeze in a break.

Please don’t let Ben be sick or hurt, she prayed as she stuffed the now silenced phone back into her briefcase, slid Bryan an apologetic look, and, cringing inwardly in anticipation of what she knew she was about to face, rose to her feet.

Crack! Crack! Crack!

The sounds, faintly muffled, came out of nowhere.

With her peripheral vision, Kate caught a blur of sudden movement: a door ––– the tan metal door to the secure corridor where prisoners were kept in a series of holding rooms until their presence was required in court ––– flew open. As she whirled to face it, someone in the gallery screamed.

Those are gunshots was her instinctive first thought as the courtroom erupted into chaos around her.

To her astonishment, Little Julie Soto sprang to his feet and ran around the far end of the defense table, his wiry, five-feet-six-inch frame conveying a surprising amount of menace despite its diminutive proportions and the ill-fitting gray suit he wore for the benefit of the jury. His long black hair and pale blue tie bounced as he moved, and his narrow face was alight with savage triumph. From somewhere he had acquired a pistol; it was in his hand.

Kate sucked in air. Her heart gave a great leap.

No! But her throat didn’t work; her lips didn’t move. She screamed it only inside her head.

“You ain’t putting me back in jail,” Soto shouted to the accompaniment of an explosion of frantic screams.

Judge Moran was on his feet, she saw as her disbelieving gaze followed Soto’s. The judge raised his hands, palms outward, as if to ward off the threat. His eyes were wide and his mouth was opening, as if he was about to speak, or yell, or something. Whatever he meant to do, she never knew, because she was just in time to watch ––– bang! ––– as his head was blown to pieces.

Guilty
by by Karen Robards

  • Genres: Fiction, Romantic Suspense
  • hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0399154612
  • ISBN-13: 9780399154614