WITNESS FOR THE DEFENSE
The shot wasn't loud. Nothing more, really, than a sharp pop. Another pop followed maybe thirty seconds later. Barely discernible above the background din of a busy city.
Alexander Rudd wouldn't have thought twice about it if he'd been anywhere else. On any different errand.
He pulled the blue windbreaker across his chest in an effort to shield himself from the late-night fog—and the certainty that gunfire had erupted not more than fifty feet from where he stood.
Rudd cursed under his breath. He didn't need this. Not now. His legs moved of their own accord, away from the spot on the narrow street where the shots had been fired.
Getting involved was out of the question. It would mean explaining what he was doing out at midnight in a part of the city where he had no business being. The proverbial can of worms. Once the lid was opened, there'd be no putting it back.
He couldn't. Not now.
But how could he walk away?
Rudd pressed against the building, cloaking himself in shadow. He stood still, ears alert, eyes watchful.
The street was empty. Dimly and unevenly lit, although lights shown sporadically in the surrounding houses. And quiet. Even the wind seemed to have settled. In the distance, the roar of a motorcycle, the screech of sirens, the slamming of a car door. City sounds. Oddly comforting.
Funny, he felt no fear. Just the high-tension anxiety of moral dilemma. Clinging still to the thin edge of darkness, Rudd heard the soft tread of rubber-soled shoes, caught a glimpse of movement in the narrow sliver of public stairway on the other side of the road.
Street thugs, he told himself. A drug deal gone bad. Urban rats.
He tried to still the voice in his head, the voice that urged him to offer help. If there was a life in balance, he could tip the scales. Wasn't that what his own life had once been about?
A long time ago.
Out of the corner of his eye, Rudd caught the blur of movement. His heart quickened. He reminded himself to breathe.
A darkened figure hurried past him on the other side. Crossed briefly through the soft glow of a lone street light, and then once more into the cloak of night.
Rudd wanted to slip away, forget he'd been here tonight. Forget the sound of gunfire. It wasn't anything that concerned him.
Except for that life that might be hanging by a thread.
Again, he cursed silently and crossed to the downhill side of the street. A stream of light angling from an opened doorway caught his eye. He hesitated, then started down the path that led to the entrance.
And then he saw it. Just inside the doorway, the crumpled form of a human body.
Rudd approached cautiously. A pool of blood had already begun forming on the tile floor below. He felt for a pulse, and found none. The flesh was still warm, but it wouldn't be for long. The load of Rudd's moral dilemma lifted. There was nothing he could do.
There are things you know before you know you know them. If I'd been listening to those cautionary whispers instead of silently debating my options for lunch, I might have turned Terri Harper away on the spot. Advised her to seek representation elsewhere.
As it was, she sat across from me, separated by the width of my faux-walnut desk, and regarded me earnestly with eyes the color of a summer sky.
"All we need," Terri said, "is someone to guide us through the legalities."
She tucked a strand of blond hair, highlighted by the hands of a professional, behind her ear. It was a gesture she'd made repeatedly since arriving at my office ten minutes earlier. Habit or nervousness? I couldn't decide.
"Mere paperwork and legal hoops," she added. "Nothing more."
I nodded, not convinced. Clients rarely understood that mere paperwork was an oxymoron. That every clause in a legal document, every word, in fact, was fraught with potential pitfalls.
Terri fingered the thin gold chain around her neck and smiled. She appeared to be in her early thirties, about my age or maybe a couple of years younger. A cotton sweater of warm taupe was draped casually around her shoulders, softening the formality of her linen slacks and white silk shirt. The diamond on her ring finger was the only thing about her that wasn't classically subdued.
"You come highly recommended, Ms. O'Brien. And I'd feel more comfortable working with a woman."
That was, as far as I could determine, my only real qualification for the job. "There are attorneys who specialize in adoption, who've got a network of contacts—"
"But I told you, we've already found a baby. That's the hard part. Believe me." Terri Harper's voice was girlish and dusted with the remnants of country twang, belying the model-like features and aura of sophistication that made such a striking first impression.
"How old is the baby?" I asked.
"She isn't born yet. Melissa's due in a couple of weeks. Melissa Burke, she's the birth mother."
A couple of weeks. That was manageable. And maybe a couple of weeks on the other end. I'd just finished a big trial and there was nothing major looming on the horizon. Except bills. Straightforward and short-term were just what I was looking for. Breathing room. Money to tide me over until the rest of my life sorted itself out.
Terri leaned forward. "Steven had only nice things to say about you."
My chest tightened. A name from the past. A name I'd had a hard time relegating to history.
Dr. Steven Cross had been an expert witness in a big case about seven years ago when I was still with Goldman and Latham. He'd advised us behind the scenes on another case a couple of years later, just before his wife and daughter were killed by a hit-and-run driver. I'd sent him a sympathy note and received in return a printed acknowledgment with a hand-scrawled thanks for caring. I still had the note, but we hadn't spoken in the five years since. I was sure it was for the best.
"He's the one who gave me your name," Terri said.
"What's your connection with Dr. Cross?" Steven was a psychologist, formerly a consultant to the FBI, and now associated with UC Berkeley, but he probably saw private patients as well.
With a quick brush of her hand, Terri again looped her hair behind her ear. "He's my brother," she said.
"Half-brother really. His father died when he was eight. Arlo married our mother a couple of years later and I came along ten months after the wedding." She capped the explanation with a smile, like she'd been down that road many times before.
"How's he doing?" I knew I would be better off not asking, but I couldn't help myself.
"He's doing okay," Terri said after a moment. "All things considered."
In general I shied away from clients with strings to friends or relatives, but Steven Cross wasn't really a friend. Certainly not anymore.
And I could use the income.
I uncapped my pen. "Let me get some information, and then we can map out what needs to be done."
We covered the key points quickly. Terri's answers were concise and to the point, a far cry from what I get with some clients who ramble on, telling me everything but what I want to know.
Melissa Burke was nineteen. She'd come to California from a small town in Ohio last fall in order to establish residency for in-state tuition. She'd been sharing an apartment in Berkeley with three others until she'd joined the Harpers in their Pacific Heights home across the bay. At the time of the move, she'd quit her job making sandwiches at a local deli. The baby's father was a young man Melissa had known casually. There was no ongoing romance between them. Never had been. He had no interest in the child, and was relieved to be off the hook.
"I know you'll want a retainer," she said when we'd finished.
"If that won't be a problem."
"No, not at all." She reached for her purse. "Oh, I almost forgot. My husband's attorney suggested this affidavit. The man is obsessed with petty details."
Suddenly I was wary. "Your husband's attorney won't handle the adoption?"
"I wouldn't want him to. He's a grump who hasn't a drop of human blood in his veins." She pulled out a letter and handed it to me. "My husband couldn't come today but he signed this statement so you'll know we're together on this."
Buff-colored paper of the finest quality. Embossed letterhead. But what jumped out at me was the name at the bottom.
Terri Harper was the wife of Ted Harper, former star quarterback for the 49ers and now the voice and face of TelAm Communications, hot new contender in the digital phone arena. His roguish smile graced billboards and print ads, but it was the sexy television commercials that swelled the ranks of his female fans. An adoption was an adoption, I reminded myself. But I had the feeling there'd be a lot of eyes watching this one.
(The baby is born but before the final papers are signed, there is a complication.)
I was in court all day Friday on a slip-and-fall case. From there, I went straight to the gym. I knew if I went home first, I'd find some excuse to keep me there. Or I'd putter around the house until it was too late, then curl up with a glass of wine and a book, and promise myself that tomorrow, for sure, I'd do a healthy workout.
On the way home, I picked up a veggie burrito and held off eating it until I'd poured myself a glass of wine. Jared had called asking me to phone him when I got in.
I half-suspected he wanted a rundown on the Harpers' Pacific Heights house and thought about putting off the return call. Prudence won out, however, and I picked up the phone.
"Hey, Boss," Jared said. "We got a problem."
"It can't wait?"
"I don't think so."
"Can you handle it yourself?" For a guy who saw himself as the Perry Mason of the new millennium, Jared was sometimes maddeningly unwilling to step up to the plate.
"Bram Weaver was here, boss."
"Weaver? The talk show host?"
"Yep. The man women love to hate."
Not all women. There were a surprising number who ate up his sermonizing about a woman's role. "What did he want?"
Jared paused. "His daughter."
"He claims he's the father of Melissa Burke's baby."
© Jonnie Jacobs. Web site by interbridge.