THEY SHUFFLED INTO the courtroom like twelve of San Francisco's homeless, shoulders hunched and heads bowed as if searching the sidewalk for spare change. David Sloane sat with his elbows propped on the stout oak table, hands forming a small pyramid with its apex at his lips. It gave the impression of a man in deep meditation, but Sloane was keenly aware of the jurors' every movement. The seven men and five women returned to their designated places in the elevated mahogany jury box, bent to retrieve their notebooks from their padded chairs, and sat with chins tucked to their chests. When they lifted their heads, their gazes swept past Sloane to the distinguished gentleman sitting at the adjacent counsel's table, Kevin Steiner. A lack of eye contact from jurors could be an ominous sign for an attorney and his client. When they looked directly at the opposing counsel it was a certain death knell.
With each of Sloane's fourteen consecutive trial victories and his growing notoriety, the plaintiffs' firms had rolled out progressively better trial lawyers to oppose him. None had been better than Kevin Steiner. One of the finest lawyers to ever grace a San Francisco courtroom, Steiner had a head of thinning silver hair, a smile that could melt butter, and oratory skills honed studying Shakespeare as a college thespian. His closing argument had been nothing short of brilliant.
Despite Sloane's prior admonition not to react when the jurors reentered the courtroom, he sensed Paul Abbott leaning toward him until Abbott's Hickey-Freeman suit nudged the shoulder of Sloane's off-the-rack blue blazer. His client compounded his mistake by raising a Styrofoam cup of water in a poor attempt to conceal his lips.
"We're dead," Abbott whispered, as if reading Sloane's mind. "They're not looking at us. Not one of them."
Sloane remained statuesque, a man seemingly in tune with everything going on around him and not the slightest bit concerned. Abbott, however, was not to be ignored. He lowered the cup, dropping all pretenses.
"I'm not paying you and that firm of yours four hundred dollars an hour to lose, Mr. Sloane." Abbott's breath smelled of the cheap glass of red wine he had drunk at lunch. The vein in his neck --- the one that bulged when he became angry --- protruded above the collar of his starched white shirt like a swollen river. "The only reason I hired you is because Bob Foster told my grandfather you never lose. For your sake you better have something good to blow that son of a bitch out of the water." Threat delivered, Abbott finished the remnants of water in his cup and sat back, smoothing his silk tie to a point in his lap.
Again Sloane did not react. He had visions of a well-placed elbow knocking Abbott over the back of his chair, and walking calmly from the courtroom, but that wasn't about to happen. You didn't bloody and abandon the grandson of Frank Abbott, personal friend and Saturday morning golf partner of Bob Foster, Foster & Bane's managing director. Pedigree and circumstance had made Paul Abbott the twenty-nine-year-old successor to the multimillion-dollar Abbott Security Company, and Sloane's worst type of client.
Abbott had conveniently forgotten that he now sat in a San Francisco courtroom because, in the brief period he had served as the CEO of Abbott Security, his incompetence had eroded much of what it took his grandfather forty years to build. An Abbott security guard, convicted of three DUIs that a simple background check would have revealed, had sat drunk at the security desk in the lobby of a San Francisco high-rise. Half asleep, the guard never stopped Carl Sandal for identification, allowing the twice-convicted sex offender access to the building elevators. Sandal prowled the hallways late that night until he found Emily Scott alone in her law office. There he viciously beat, raped, and strangled her. A year to the day after that tragedy, Scott's husband and six-year-old son had filed a wrongful-death civil suit against Abbott Security, seeking $6 million in damages. Sloane had urged Abbott to settle the case, especially after pretrial discovery revealed a number of failed background checks on other security guards, but Abbott refused, calling Brian Scott an "opportunistic whore."
From the corner of his eye, Sloane watched Steiner acknowledge the jurors' gaze with a nearly imperceptible nod of the head. Though too much of a professional to smile, Steiner gently closed his binder and slid it into a trial bag creased and nicked with the scars of a thirty-year career. Steiner's job was finished, and both he and Sloane knew it. Abbott Security had lost on both the evidence and the law --- and for no other reason than that its CEO was an arrogant ass who had ignored all of Sloane's advice, including his pretrial admonitions against wearing two-thousand-dollar hand-tailored suits into a sweltering courtroom of blue-collar jurors just looking to find a reason to give away his grandfather's money.
From her perch beneath the large gold seal of the State of California, Superior Court Judge Sandra Brown set aside a stack of papers and wiped her brow with a handkerchief hidden in the sleeve of her black robe. The elaborate climate control system in the recently constructed state-of-the-art courthouse had crashed under the weight of a weeklong heat wave gripping the city, causing a pack of maintenance men to scurry through the hallways lugging bright orange extension cords and portable fans. In an act of mercy, Judge Brown had taken a ten-minute recess after Steiner's closing argument. To Sloane it felt like a temporary reprieve from the governor. That reprieve was about to be rescinded.
"Mr. Sloane, you may give your closing."
Sloane acknowledged Judge Brown, then briefly reconsidered the scrawled blue ink on his yellow legal pad.
It was all an act.
His closing argument wasn't on the pad. Following Steiner's summation Sloane had slipped his own closing into his briefcase. He had nothing to rebut Steiner's emphatic appeal and horrific description of the last moments of Emily Scott's life, or the security guard's wanton negligence. He had nothing with which to "blow the son of a bitch out of the water."
His mind was blank.
Behind him the spectators sitting in the gallery continued to fan the air like a summer congregation in the pews of a Southern Baptist church, a blur of oscillating white sheets of paper. The persistent drone of the portable fans sounded like a swarm of invisible insects.
Sloane pushed back his chair and stood.
The light flashed --- a blinding white that sent a lightning bolt of pain shooting from the base of his skull to a dagger point behind his eyes. He gripped the edge of the table as the now familiar image pulsed in and out of clarity: a woman lying on a dirt floor, her broken body surrounded by a blood-red lake, tributaries forging crimson paths. Struggling not to grimace, Sloane forced the image back into the darkness and pried open his eyes.
Judge Brown rocked in her chair with a rhythmic creaking, as if ticking off the seconds. Steiner, too, remained indifferent. In the front row of the gallery, Patricia Hansen, Emily Scott's mother, sat between her two surviving daughters, arms interlocked and hands clasped, like protesters at the front of a picket line. For the moment her steel-blue eyes ignored Sloane, locking instead on the jurors.
Sloane willed his six-foot-two frame erect. At a muscled 185 pounds, he was ten pounds lighter than when he'd stood to give his opening statement, but his attire revealed no sign of the mental and physical deterioration inevitable after five weeks of fast-food dinners, insufficient sleep, and persistent stress. He kept a closet full of suits sized for the weight fluctuations. The jurors would not detect it. He buttoned his jacket and approached the jury, but they now refused to acknowledge him and left him standing at the railing like an unwelcome relative --- hoping that if they ignored him long enough he would just go away.
Sloane waited. Around him the courtroom ticked and creaked, the air ripe with body odor.
Juror four, the accountant from Noe Valley, a copious note taker throughout the trial, was first. Juror five, the blonde transit worker, followed. Juror nine, the African-American construction worker, was next to raise his eyes, though his arms remained folded defiantly across his chest. Juror ten followed juror nine, who followed juror three, then juror seven. They fell like dominoes, curiosity forcing their chins from their chests until the last of the twelve had raised her head. Sloane's hands opened in front of him and swept slowly to his side, palms raised like a priest greeting his congregation. Foreign at first, the gesture then made sense --- he stood before them empty-handed, without props or theatrics.
His mouth opened, and he trusted that words would follow, as they always did, stringing themselves together like beads on a necklace, one after another, seamless.
"This," he said, "is everyone's nightmare." His hands folded at his midsection. "You're at home, washing the dishes in the kitchen, giving your child a bath, sitting in the den watching the ball game on television --- routine, ordinary tasks you do every day." He paced to his left. Their heads turned.
"There's a knock at your door." He paused. "You dry your hands on a dish towel, tell your son not to turn on the hot water, walk to the front door with your eyes on the television."
He paced to his right, stopped, and made a connection with juror seven, the middle school teacher from the Sunset District, who, he knew, would be his client's harshest critic.
"You open the door."
Her Adam's apple bobbed.
"Two men stand on your porch in drab gray suits, a uniformed officer behind them. They ask for you by your full name. You've seen it too many times on television not to know."
She nodded almost imperceptibly.
He moved down the row. The tip of the accountant's pen rested motionless on the pad. The construction worker uncrossed his arms.
"You assume there's been an accident, a car crash. You plead with them to tell you she's all right, but the expressions on their faces, the fact that they are standing on your porch, tell you she is not all right."
The white sheets of paper stilled. Steiner uncrossed his legs and sat forward with a confused, bewildered expression. Patricia Hansen unclasped her daughters' arms and put a hand on the railing like someone at a wedding who is about to stand and object.
"Their words are harsh, matter-of-fact. Direct. 'Your wife's been murdered.' Your shock turns to disbelief and confusion. You feel a moment of absurd relief. It's a mistake. They're at the wrong house.
"'There's been a mistake,' you say.
"They lower their eyes. 'We're sorry. There's been no mistake.'
"You step onto your porch. 'No. Not my wife. Look at my house. Look at my car in the driveway.' You point up and down the block at your middle-class neighborhood. 'Look at my neighbors. Look at my neighborhood. People don't get murdered here. It's why we live here. It's safe. Our children ride their bikes in the street. We sleep with the windows open. No!' you plead. 'There's been a mistake!'"
He paused, sensing it now, seeing it in their hollow eyes, pleading for him to continue, yearning to hear the soothing comfort of his voice, taking in his words like drugs from a syringe.
"But there hasn't been a mistake. There hasn't been an accident. No. It was a deliberate, calculated act by a sick and depraved sociopath who, on that particular night, at that particular moment, was intent on killing. And there was absolutely nothing anyone could have done to prevent him from doing that."
He spread his arms, offering to shelter them from their pain, acknowledging the difficult task that awaited them.
"I wish the question before you was whether Emily Scott's death was a horrific, senseless killing." It was a subtle reference to Steiner's closing argument. "On that we would certainly all agree."
"I wish the question was whether her husband and their young son have suffered and will continue to suffer because of Carl Sandal's indecent act." His eyes scanned their faces. "More than any of us could imagine." His words blended with the drone of the fans in a hypnotic cadence. "But those are not the questions you must answer, that you swore an oath to answer. And deep within, each and every one of you knows that. That's what makes this so difficult. That's why you feel so pained. The question before you can't be answered by emotion. You must answer it with reason, in a case that has no reason. There is no good reason for what Carl Sandal did. There never will be."
Tears streamed unchecked down the blonde transit worker's face.
He looked to juror five, the auto mechanic from the Richmond district, and at that moment knew somehow that the man would be elected the jury foreman.
"I wish to God there was a way to prevent senseless, violent acts by predators intent on committing them. I wish to God we could do something here today to prevent anyone from ever opening his front door again and receiving the news Brian Scott received. I wish to God we could have prevented Carl Sandal from doing what he did." He felt them now; he felt the part of them that had once resisted his words welcoming him. "But we can't. Short of living in fear, barring our doors and windows and living in cages like animals . . . we can't."
He dropped his gaze, releasing them. They had opened their doors; they had greeted him into their homes. And at that precise moment, Sloane knew. He did not need to say another word. Abbott Security had not lost.
And he wished to God he could have prevented that, too.
PARKED BENEATH THE cover of an aspen tree, Charles Town,West Virginia, Police Officer Bert Cooperman pinched the dial of the scanner between his thumb and index finger like a fisherman feeling a nibble. Try as he might, he couldn't set the hook, and he sensed he was about to lose whatever played at the end of his line.
It wasn't dispatch. Kay was on duty, and no red-blooded American with a pecker would confuse Kay's come-hither West Virginia drawl with the man's voice that Cooperman's scanner was intermittently picking up. It could be park police; the switchback road, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, bordered the edge of the Black Bear National Park, which was within the park police's jurisdiction, but the dial wasn't close to the park police's frequency. It was tweaked just a hair past 37.280 MHz, which was damn near Charles Town's frequency. And that was what puzzled him.
Cooperman cocked his head toward the radio and continued to massage the dial, a fraction to the right, left, back again.
"Come on. Give me something." Hell, he'd take anything at this point.Ten hours into a twelve-hour shift, he was already working on his sixth thermos cap of black coffee, and his eyelids still felt like garage doors wanting to roll shut.The damned full moon had given him false hope. Bullshit superstition or not, the crazies usually came out with full moons. When the crazies came out twelve hours passed like twelve minutes.
Tonight it felt like twelve days. At least he had the weekend off, and with his wife and newborn baby boy in South Carolina to visit her family, that gave him a real chance to get in some uninterrupted sleep and some long overdue hunting. That thought --- and the voice teasing him on the scanner --- was the only thing keeping him awake. The voice had come out of nowhere, as Cooperman sat parked on the side of the road munching on an egg salad sandwich that was now stinking up the inside of the car.
" . . . fire roa . . . eight miles ou . . . just about . . . iver."
There it was again --- faint, breaking up, but still biting. Damned
if he was going to let it get away.
". . . underneath a bush . . . emban . . . abo . . . waist."
Definitely a man. Sounded as if he'd found something in the
bushes. Cooperman strained to listen.
". . . no question . . . dead."
"Damn." Cooperman sat back, slapping the steering wheel.
"Animal fucking control." They were likely calling in a road kill. Wasn't that just his luck? He dropped the Chevy into drive and pulled from the gravel turnout.
The scanner crackled.
" --- He's dead --- "
Cooperman hit the brakes. Coffee broke over the rim of the thermos cap, scalding his leg. He lifted himself from the seat and threw napkins and newspaper under him, then quickly regripped the dial --- left, right.
"No . . . no . . . no. Come back! Come back!"
He dumped the remnants of coffee out the window and sat back, the moon taunting him. The thought hit him like his father's hand slapping him in the back of the head when he'd done something stupid
What if the guy isn't dead, Coop? What if he's still alive?
Anxiety and caffeine surged through him. He sat up. "Shit."
What if he's out there dying?
He hit the gas, but another thought caused him to hit the brake again. "Hell, he could be anywhere out there." Finding a man dying of a gunshot wound would be like searching for a needle in a haystack
That's not good enough.
"I know, goddamn it. I know."
What the hell did the man say? Think! What did your tired-ass mind
"I'm thinking. I'm thinking." But he wasn't. He couldn't. His mind was going over all the ways he'd screwed up, and the inevitable confrontation with J. Rayburn Franklin, Charles Town's chief of police. He'd be on graveyard forever, doomed to roam the night like a damned vampire
Cooperman sat up. "Fire road. Right. He definitely said 'fire
Which could be nearly anywhere in the mountains, idiot.
He rubbed the back of his neck. "What else? What else!"
"That's right, he said 'eight miles.'" The conversation filtered
Where the rivers meet.
"Where the rivers meet."
The Shenandoah and Potomac.
Cooperman grabbed the shift, stopped
No. Not the Shenandoah and Potomac. Too far.
"Has to be closer. What's closer?"
The thought burst like an overfilled balloon.
"The fire trail. Shit, he's on the fire trail. Got to be. Bingo."
He tossed the remnants of the egg salad out the window and hit the switch, sending strobes of blue and white light pulsating against the trunks and branches of the trees. He pulled a U-turn from the gravel shoulder onto the pavement and punched the accelerator.
FOUR MINUTES LATER, Cooperman maneuvered the switchbacks with one hand on the wheel and returned the speaker to its clip. He'd given his position as north on County Road 27. Procedure required that he call for backup, but he knew it would take time for Operations to contact the park police, and more time for them to get an officer out to the scene.
This was his call --- possibly his first dead body.
The cobwebs and burning eyes had been replaced by a burst of energy as if he'd just completed a set of ten on the bench press. Damn, he liked the rush! He looked up at the sky and howled.
"Full moons, baby!"
He punched the accelerator some more, leaning into a horseshoe turn, unafraid of overshooting the fire trail, which he could find with his eyes closed. Evitt's Run meandered in a somewhat perpendicular line until it merged with the Shenandoah. In February and October, when Fish and Game stocked the river with trout and bass, the fire trail became a regular thoroughfare. The rest of the year it was mostly deserted, with a rare hiker or hunter seeking access to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Every year one or two of them blew off a toe or hit a buddy in the back with buckshot. This was likely one of those occasions, though it sounded serious. Cooperman figured the voice must have been calling 911, which was how his scanner picked it up. It was just like Tom Molia said. The Charles Town detective had the department in a lather with a story about his scanner picking up a man and woman screwing over the telephone, telling each other to do all kinds of crazy shit. It sounded like pure Mole bullshit --- the Mole liked to stir the pot --- but damned if he didn't bring in an article from the Post talking about a glitch in the wireless technology that was causing scanners to pick up telephone calls like antennas picking up radio signals.
Cooperman grinned."Well, it may not be two people humping, Mole, but wait till the boys hear my story."
He might even save a life, be a hero. J. Rayburn Franklin would call it "Damn fine police work," the kind of attentiveness he liked to see in a young officer.They'd probably write Cooperman up in the Spirit of Jefferson, the local weekly. Hell, he could get a mention in the Post, for that matter.
The car fishtailed, its back tires catching loose gravel at the edge of the road and sending it close to the embankment. Cooperman accelerated, then braked and corrected the wheel into the next turn. "Just like at the academy, Coop." He maneuvered another switchback, saw the familiar triangular sign reflecting yellow in the car's headlights, braked hard into a right turn, and corrected the wheel to bring the rear end in line.The car bounced and pitched on the unpaved road, dirt and gravel pinging beneath it. Its tires caught air cresting the bluff, and the car landed with a bump, headlights shimmering on the white ash and maple. Cooperman swung it to the right and stopped when the headlights illuminated a bearded red-haired man standing outside the cab of a beat-up white pickup truck.
He looked like a deer caught in headlights. "That's right, Red, the cavalry has arrived."
Cooperman threw the car into park and jumped from behind the wheel slapping his billy club into his utility belt while pulling the flashlight from its clip in two quick, rehearsed motions. The adrenaline pushed him forward, though somewhere in the recesses of his mind his instructors at the academy were yelling for him to slow down and think it through. His feet weren't listening.
He called out as he approached. "You the one who made the call?" The man raised a hand to deflect the light. Cooperman lowered the beam. "You call about a body?"
Red turned to the truck. Cooperman followed his gaze with the flashlight, illuminating the back of a head framed by a gun rack holding two high-powered rifles. The short hairs on the back of his neck twitched, enough for him to instinctively unsnap the Smith & Wesson on his hip, though he resisted the urge to draw
Think it through. Use your head. Always.
Red wore jeans, boots, and a denim jacket --- appropriate hunting attire. Check.The two men wouldn't have much luck without rifles. Two men. Two rifles. Check. The license plate on the truck was the rolling West Virginia hills at dusk below the familiar words "Wild,Wonderful." Check again. Just a couple of good old boys sneaking off into the mountains to do a little hunting.
The passenger door of the truck swung open, and a stocky dark-haired man stepped down from the cab. Cooperman directed the beam of light toward him.
"I'm Officer Bert Cooperman, Charles Town Police. You call
nine-one-one about a dead body?"
The man nodded, approaching with a cell phone in hand. It was just as the Mole said.
"Yes, Officer, I just made the call. Damn, you gave us a start getting here so quick and all. Surprised the hell out of us." The man
spoke with a distinct West Virginia accent. He sounded winded.
"I picked up the call on the scanner. I was patrolling nearby."
The man pointed toward a thicket of Scotch broom that looked to have partly swallowed a black Lexus. "Thought it odd, the way it was parked and all," he said as he walked toward the car. "Thought maybe it rolled. Nobody in it. Just a suit jacket. Thought that weird, too, so we took a look around, just out of curiosity, you know?" The man pointed to the edge of the embankment, changing direction as he spoke. "The body's just down the bluff.We didn't hear nothin', but it looks to me like he just done it."
Cooperman followed at a quick pace. "Just done it?"
The man stopped at the edge of a steep slope. At the bottom the Shenandoah flowed as dark as a tarred road at night. "Shot hisself in the head. Looks that way, anyway."
"Dead?" Cooperman asked.
"Body's still warm. I mean, we ain't doctors or nothin', but . . ." Cooperman looked over the edge. "You think he could still be alive?"
The man pointed. "You can just see the legs right there, just to the left of that big bush --- about twenty yards there.You see 'em?"
Cooperman swept the beam of light over bubby brush and red buckeye, then brought it back quickly and settled on something grotesquely out of place: a pant leg protruding from the shrubbery. A body. Goddamn, it was an honest-to-God body. Of course that was what he expected, but seeing it . . . his first one . . .
Things started moving fast again, thoughts rushing at him like
objects in a kid's video game. Cooperman started down the bluff, stopped
Call it in. He could still be alive. The body's still warm.
He started, stopped again
Even if he's alive, he'll need more than you can give him. Call for an ambulance.
He climbed to the top of the bluff, started for the car, then turned to let the two men know what was going to happen. "I'm going to --- "
Cooperman dropped the flashlight, the beam rolling across the ground and coming to a stop on the black toe of the hunter's boot. The veterans said it looked big as a sewer pipe and was something you hoped never to see.
"My backup will be here any minute," Cooperman said.
The dark-haired man smiled. "Thank you for that important bit of information, Officer." The accent was gone. So was the cell phone. In his hand the man held a large-caliber handgun.
Cooperman stood staring down the barrel.
Excerpted from THE JURY MASTER © Copyright 2011 by La Mesa Fiction, LLC. Reprinted with permission by Warner Books, an imprint of Time Warner Bookmark. All rights reserved.