Authors: Steve Martini
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Paul Madriani Book 05
Sleuthing California defense counsel Paul Madriani lands one of his twistiest cases to date. His client, sport fisherman Jonah Hale, won $87
million in a lottery but lost his heart. Jonah's got custody of his eight-year-old grandkid Mandy, because his daughter Jessica is a cokehead party animal. Sprung from jail, Jessica demands cash. Jonah says no. So Jessica and Mandy disappear, with help from marital-rape-victim-turned-fanatical-activist Zolanda Suade. Suade's group, Vanishing Victims, specializes in thwarting courts and bashing rich males. Madriani tries to reason with Suade, who almost pulls a gun on him, then taunts him with a press release: Suade's going public with Jessica's charge that Jonah molested Mandy. Madriani's girlfriend works in Child Protective Services, so he gets a tidbit or two of inside info--the charge is phony, but because CPS can't comment on cases, the smear will suffice to ignite a media firestorm. When Suade turns up dead, media interest does not subside. In court, circumstantial evidence forms a tightening noose around Jonah's neck, and Madriani starts wondering whether Jonah did kill Suade. Also, underworld types who may know Jessica and/or a Mexican drug lord start stalking Madriani, and more corpses pop up.
Martini, who covered the Manson trial, then became a lawyer and a bestselling novelist, is great at realistic, ingenious courtroom suspense, media-circus scenes, and dramatizing the impact of office politics on legal proceedings. His characters and prose are workmanlike but sturdy. Always grouped with lawyers-turned-writers Scott Turow and John Grisham, Martini thinks Turow's a better writer (in terms of character and dialogue), and Grisham's a natural-born storyteller who towers over all, but that he, Martini, is a better storyteller than Turow and a better writer than Grisham. The Attorney is evidence that he may be right.
i can Trace it back with precision to one of those fitful weeks in August, when the thermometer hit triple digits for the tenth day in a row. Even the humidity was high; unusual for Capital City. The air conditioner in my car had died and at six- fifteen, traffic on the Interstate was stalled behind an overturned truck-and-trailer rig filled with tomatoes on their way to the Campbell's plant. I would be late picking up Sarah from the sitter's.
Even with this as background, it was an impulsive move. Ten minutes after I got home, I called a realtor I knew and asked the fateful question: How much can I get for the house? Would you come by for an appraisal? The real estate market was heating up, like the weather, so in this respect my timing was good. Sarah was out of school, in that awkward gap between fifth grade and middle school, and not looking forward to the switch. Her best friends--twin sisters her same age--were in the southern part of the state. I'd met their mother during a legal seminar in which we were both speakers, almost three years ago now.
Susan McKay and her daughters lived in San Diego. Susan and I had been seeing a lot of each other, between monthly trips to San Diego and meetings at the halfway point in Morro Bay. For some reason that adults will never comprehend, the kids seemed to bond at that very first meeting. In San Diego, the weather was cool and breezy. And it held the promise of family life, something Sarah and I had been missing for nearly four years. We had spent two weeks visiting in early July, part of that in Ensenada, south of the border. I had become infected with the scent of salt in the air, and the facets of the sun dancing on the surface of the sea at Coronado. In the late afternoon, Susan and I sat on the beach as the girls played in the water. The Pacific appeared as some boundless, undulating crucible of quicksilver. After fourteen short days, Sarah and I bade farewell and piled into my car. As I looked at my daughter, I could read her mind. Why are we going back to Capital City?
What is there for us? It took her an hour in the car to verbalize these thoughts, and when she did, I was prepared with all the cold, adult logic a father can command.. I have a job there. I have to get back.
But you could get another job down here. It takes a long time for a lawyer to build a practice. It's not that easy. You started once before.
You could do it again. Besides we have money now. You said so yourself.
On this point she had me. I had made a killing in a civil case eight months earlier, a wrongful death that went to the jury. We'd hit a verdict. Harry Hinds and I, like gold bars on the pay line of a slot machine. We'd plucked the insurance company for eight million dollars.
It's what happens when a defendant circles the wagons in a bad case. A widow with two children was now financially secure, and Harry and I had been left with a tidy nest egg in fees, even after taxes. Still, uprooting my practice was risky. I understand. You're feeling lonely, I told Sarah. I am lonely, she said. With that I looked at my daughter sitting in the passenger seat next to me, staring doe-eyed, braces and long brown hair, waiting for an answer that made sense. I didn't have one. When my wife, Nikki, died, she left a hole in our lives that I have never been able to fill. As we headed back toward Capital City, the nagging question remained: What is here for us? The corrosive politics and blistering summer heat of Capital City held few attractions and a great many painful memories. There had been the year of Nikki's illness that even now I could not blot out. There were places in the house where, when I turned a corner, I still saw her face. Couples who had been friends no longer had anything in common with a widower approaching middle age. And now my daughter wanted to put it all behind us. On a Monday morning, the last week in August, I called Harry into my office.
At one time, Harry Hinds had been one of the foremost criminal lawyers in town, trying mostly front-page felonies. Fifteen years ago he lost a death case, and his client lost his life in the state's gas chamber.
Harry was never the same. By the time I opened a practice in the same building where Harry had his offices, he was defending drunk drivers and commiserating with them on bar stools after hours. He came on board to lend a hand with the Talia Potter murder trial, and ever since has been a fixture. Harry's speciality is the mountains of paper produced in any trial. With a mind like a steel trap, Harry refers to his document searches as "digging through the bullshit to find the flowers." He is the only man I know who hates losing more than I do. I didn't have the heart to tell him I was leaving Capital City, so I put it out as just opening a branch office. He surprised me. His only question was where.
When I told him, his eyes lit up. It seemed Harry was game for the move himself. A new practice in a fresh place, the mellow swells of the Pacific, a few boat drinks along the way, maybe snag another big judgment in a civil case and head for the pastures of semiretirement. In that instant Harry saw himself sipping pina coladas and surveying the swells on their yachts from the veranda of the Del Coronado. Harry has a fanciful imagination. We found an associate to keep things together in the Capital City office. Harry and I weren't ready to burn our bridges.
We would take turns trekking back to the home office, keeping one foot in both worlds until we could make the jump south for good. In these months Susan played a pivotal role as surrogate mother for Sarah. I could leave my daughter with her for a week at a time. When I called Susan's house on those weeklong trips it was difficult to get Sarah even to come to the phone. When she did, her voice was filled with laughter and the abruptness that tells you that your call is an interruption. For the first time in five years, since Nikki died, our daughter was a carefree child. Even when Susan's house was burglarized in the late winter, I felt secure in her ability to protect and care for my daughter. Susan is seven years younger than I, a dark-haired beauty, and divorced. She has the fine features and innocent looks of a child, coupled with the mind of a warrior. For eight years, Susan has been the director of Children's Protective Services in San Diego, an agency that investigates allegations of child abuse and makes recommendations to the DA regarding prosecutions and to the courts regarding child custody. To call Susan's vocation a job is like calling the Christian Crusades a hobby. She pursues it with the zeal of a true believer. Children are her life. Her training is in early-childhood development where the mantra Save the kids has become a battle cry. We have been seeing each other for more than two years, M though even no / in San Diego, we do not live together. I moved south to be with her, but--after some discussion--we decided not to move in together. At least not yet. When I moved south, some unstated law of independence dictated that we maintain separate households. It seems we spend increasing amounts of time in each other's company; that is, when I am not on the road back to Capital City. That particular Gordian knot will be cut as soon as Harry and I have secured a sufficient client base in the south, which is why today I am renewing an old acquaintance. Jonah and Mary Hale sit across the desk from me. He has aged since I saw him last. Mary looks the same, different hairdo, but in the ten years she has not changed much. That was before Ben's death and Talia's murder trial. Oceans of water under that bridge. Jonah was one of my earliest cases in private practice, soon after I left the DA's office where I'd cut my teeth. The firm had directed him down the hall to the new man in the cubicle at the end. At the time, Jonah was just a working stiff, a married man in his fifties with a daughter in her late teens. He was getting ready to retire--against his will. He worked for the railroad in Capital City, the locomotive works which was in its death throes. Jonah had a chronic bad back and knees, thanks to years of toil on hard concrete lifting machine parts. So when the railroad was looking to downsize, he was an immediate candidate to go.
Even now he walks with a cane, though this one is much more ornate than the plain curved- handled wooden stick I had seen him with back then.
"The legs don't get any better with age," he tells me as he shifts back into his chair to find the point of relative comfort. "But the smile is as good as ever," I tell him. "Only because I've found an old friend. I only hope you can help me." Jonah has the good looks of an aging Hemingway, with all the wrinkles in the right places. Even with his infirmities he has not put on weight. His tanned face is framed by a shock of white hair. His beard is close cropped, his eyes deep-set and gray. He is a ruggedlooking man, well dressed, with a dark sweater-vest under a cashmere sport coat, and light-colored slacks. On his wrist is a gold watch the size of an oyster, a Rolex he could never have afforded in the old days.
I introduce him to Harry.
"I've heard a lot about you," says Harry.
Jonah just smiles. He is used to this by now: people coming up, slapping him on the back, cozying to get close.
"It's what happens when your number comes up," he tells Harry.
"Everybody assumes that you had something to do with it."
"Well, you did buy the ticket," says Harry.
"Yes. And there have been times when I wish he hadn't," says Mary.
"Having money can be its own curse," Jonah tells us. One senses that he means what he says.
Jonah won the largest lottery payout in state history: $87 million.
He had purchased the ticket five years after I'd won his case, securing a disability from the railroad that paid him $26,000 a year plus medical benefits for life.
"I couldn't believe it when I saw your name in the phone book.
I told Mary when I saw your name it had to be you, or your kid.
How many Paul Madrianis could there be? Especially lawyers."
"One of a kind," says Harry. "Broke the mold."
"So what can we do for you?" I ask.
"It's our daughter," says Jonah. "I don't think you've ever met Jessica."
"I don't think so."
"I went to the police. But they said it wasn't a criminal matter.
Can you believe it? She's kidnapped my granddaughter, and the police tell me it isn't criminal. They can't get involved."
"Kidnapped? "I ask.
"I don't know what else to call it. For three weeks now, going on a month, I been runnin' around like a chicken without my head.
Going to the police. Following up with the lawyer we hired."
"There's another lawyer?"
"Yeah, but he can't do anything. Supposedly nobody can."
"Calm down. Tell me what happened."
"My granddaughter, Amanda, is eight years old. She's lived with us, Mary and me, almost since the day she was born."
"She's your daughter's child?"
"Jessica gave her birth, if that's what you mean," he says. "She's not what you would call a good mother. Jessica's had problems with drugs.
Been in and out of jail." He pauses to look at Harry and me.
"The fact is, she spent two years in the women's correctional facility at Corona." This is not jail, but state prison. Harry lifts an eyebrow in question and before he can put it to words, Jonah responds.
"For drugs. She was caught transporting a quantity of cocaine across the border for a dealer down in Mexico. God knows where she meets these people. We paid for her attorney. He made some kind of a deal with the federal government so that she could serve her time in a state facility rather than a federal penitentiary, supposedly so she could be closer to Amanda. The fact is, she's never really shown much interest in Mandy.
That's what we call her, Mary and I." He reaches into the inside of his coat and pulls out a small leather container. It looks as if it is designed to hold expensive fountain pens. He opens it, and I see cigars.
"Do you mind?" Mary shoots him a disapproving look.
Ordinarily my office is a smoke-free zone, but I make an exception.
He offers me one, but I decline. Harry accepts.
"My doctor says I shouldn't smoke. My only vice, besides the boat and fishing. Do you ever go out?" he asks. "Sport fishing?" I shake my head.
Jonah is wandering now, trying to avoid a painful subject.
"You should try it sometime. Soothes the soul. I'll take you out on the Amanda." The words stick in his throat for a second. "I named it after my granddaughter. She used to love to go out."