Authors: Robert Dugoni
A riveting new legal thriller from the bestselling author of
My Sister’s Grave
In San Francisco’s seamy Tenderloin district, a teenage street hustler has been murdered in a shelter for boys. And the dedicated priest who runs the struggling home stands accused. But despite damning evidence that he’s a killer—and worse—Father Thomas Martin stands by his innocence. And attorney Peter Donley stands with him.
For three years Donley has cut his legal teeth in his uncle’s tiny, no-frills firm, where people come before profits. Just as Donley is poised to move on to a lucrative dream job, the shocking case lands in his lap, and he must put his future on hold while putting his courtroom skills to the test. But a ruthless DA seeking headlines and a brutal homicide cop bent on vengeance have their own agendas. Now, as he unearths the dirty secrets surrounding the case, Donley must risk his neck to save his client’s life…and expose the face of true evil.
“Dugoni has given the reader another gem of a story, full of action-packed scenes, intelligent plotlines, and very real characters.”
“Robert Dugoni delivers plenty of mystery and courtroom antics in his latest high-stakes legal thriller. The courtroom scenes are top-notch, but even better are the pages dedicated to the investigation.”
Praise for Robert Dugoni:
“John Grisham move over.”
“Dugoni has put the thrills back in the genre.”
“Dugoni [is] the undisputed king of the legal thriller.”
“Scott Turow fans should add Dugoni to their list of must-reads.”
About the Author
Robert Dugoni is the author of the bestselling Tracy Crosswhite series (
My Sister’s Grave
Her Final Breath
In the Clearing
) as well as the critically acclaimed David Sloane series (
The Jury Master
). He’s been ranked number one on Amazon’s list of most popular authors in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France, and Italy, and he has been a
New York Times
Wall Street Journal
, and Amazon bestseller multiple times. Dugoni was nominated twice for the Harper Lee Award for Legal Fiction and for the International Thriller Award.
My Sister’s Grave
won the 2015 Nancy Pearl Award for Fiction and was named one of the best thrillers of 2014 by
. Dugoni’s nonfiction exposé,
The Cyanide Canary
, was a
Best Book of the Year, and the
referred to him as “the undisputed king of the legal thriller” and “heir to Grisham’s literary throne.” Visit his website at www.robertdugoni.com and follow him on Twitter at @robertdugoni and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AuthorRobertDugoni.
ALSO BY ROBERT DUGONI
The Tracy Crosswhite Series
My Sister’s Grave
Her Final Breath
In the Clearing
(a short story)
(a short story)
The David Sloane Series
The Jury Master
Nonfiction with Joseph Hilldorfer
The Cyanide Canary
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2016 by Robert Dugoni
All rights reserved.
No part of this work may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Thomas & Mercer are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.
Cover design by Rex Bonomelli
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
December 21, 1987
Peter Donley had run out of time. Behind the elevated bench at the front of the courtroom, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Franklin Jefferson Barnes peered at Donley over the top of his reading glasses.
“If counsel is prepared to submit this matter, I am prepared to issue my ruling,” Barnes said, adjusting his considerable girth hidden beneath the pleated black robe.
Opposing counsel Rebecca Rattigan shot from her chair, its legs screeching on the worn tiles, though the sound was still not nearly as grating as her voice. “Submitted, Your Honor.”
And why wouldn’t she? Possession being nine-tenths of the law, and her client being the possessor, Rattigan figured she’d won, and rightfully so.
Judge Barnes shifted his gaze to Donley. “Mr. Donley, is the plaintiff prepared to submit?”
Donley looked down at his seventy-eight-year-old client. Victor Russo sat slumped beside him at counsel table, as forlorn as a man who had just lost his best friend. In some respects, Russo had. Since the death of his wife, Russo had shared an apartment above Victor’s, Russo’s North Beach restaurant, with Albert, an African gray parrot. That is, until Russo’s cleaning lady opened Albert’s cage without closing the apartment window. Russo spent two weeks calling animal shelters and pet shops. A store on Divisadero said they’d sold an African gray that matched Albert’s description, but when Russo offered the twenty-four-year-old, tattooed, punk-rock drummer twice what he’d paid the pet store, the man had refused. Russo called Donley’s Uncle Lou for help.
Donley gently scooted back his chair and slowly stood, prepared to submit the matter, but when he opened his mouth to speak, he just couldn’t bring himself to do so. Instead, he heard one of his Uncle Lou’s favorite adages.
You only go around once in life, kid. You might as well have some fun.
At twenty-eight, just three years out of law school, Donley already felt like he’d gone around in life more than once. He looked at his client. The tears that had pooled in Russo’s eyes throughout the afternoon began to slide down the man’s cheeks.
“Mr. Donley?” Judge Barnes asked, now sounding impatient.
What the hell,
Donley thought. He straightened and faced Barnes. “Your Honor, the plaintiff wishes to call one more witness.”
Rattigan’s smug expression turned to exasperation. Throughout the trial, her inexperience had been on display like a bad actress overacting her scenes. “Your Honor, the defense objects. Mr. Donley has called every witness disclosed on his witness list.”
Donley tried to sound conciliatory. “I apologize to Ms. Rattigan and to the court, but this witness’s possible testimony just recently came to my attention, and it is germane to the issue of ownership.”
Rattigan shook the witness list Donley had submitted to the court. “If this
witness is not on the list, he cannot testify. Code of Civil Procedure, Section—”
Judge Barnes held up a hand as thick as a catcher’s mitt. “Ms. Rattigan, why don’t you concentrate on making the objections and allow me to worry about ruling on them,” he said, a hint of his Louisiana dialect slipping into his baritone voice.
“I apologize,” Rattigan replied, “but this is highly prejudicial—”
Barnes again raised his hand, this time with the index finger extended. “Unless you’re going to tell me that your client has transformed himself into Rosa Parks and been asked to sit in the back of an Alabama bus, I don’t think it’s possible for him to have suffered any further
than you’ve already opined during this three-hour trial.”
Rattigan’s face flushed, but for once she had the good sense to remain silent.
“Now,” Barnes said, slowly turning his attention to Donley, “who is this
witness, Mr. Donley?”
Donley steeled himself. “The plaintiff wishes to call Albert to the stand.”
The reading glasses that had been perched on the bridge of Judge Barnes’s nose fell, dangling by a chain. “Say what?” Barnes asked.
“I know this request is unusual—”
“Unusual?” Barnes drew out the word like a worked-up Southern Baptist preacher. “Unusual? Mr. Donley, you just asked me to call a
to the witness stand.”
“Actually, Judge, Alfred is an African gray parrot.”
“I know what he is, Mr. Donley. And if I recall from my simple southern education, I do believe a parrot is a
“What I mean,” Donley continued, “is that, well, being a parrot, Albert is . . . for lack of a better word, he is able to ‘parrot’ back certain phrases he’s been taught or has learned on his own.”
Though Barnes’s brow remained furrowed, his expression of disgust softened, and his eyebrows rose. Was it curiosity? At least he hadn’t rejected the idea outright, or directed the bailiff to put Donley in handcuffs for contempt. “And you intend to put him . . . it . . . you intend to put the bird on
witness stand and have it mimic a phrase it has been taught?”
“Every day when Mr. Russo left his apartment, he turned on the television to keep Albert company.” Russo nodded like a bobblehead doll. “And it seems that Albert picked up an ability to mimic something he heard.”
Rattigan furiously flipped the pages of her Code of Civil Procedure book. “Your Honor, we object. This is a bird. Only people can testify.”
“You found that in the code, did you?” Barnes asked.
Rattigan lifted her head. “Well . . . no. But I mean, it has to be in here . . . somewhere. I mean, this . . . this is a bird!”
“Actually there is precedent for introducing animals as evidence.” Donley snapped open his black binder and pulled out a short brief he’d typed up late the previous evening but had hoped to never use. He handed one copy to Rattigan and a second to Judge Barnes’s clerk, who provided it to the judge. “The court will take particular note of the Connecticut case
Adams v. Martin
, in which Barney, the dancing terrier, was allowed to demonstrate a unique ability to juggle red rubber balls.”
“Your Honor, that is not the same thing,” Rattigan whined. “We’re talking about letting a bird testify, not demonstrate a trick.”
Donley lowered the brief. “I mean no disrespect to this court, but the most important thing here, the equitable thing, is to determine Albert’s rightful owner. Allowing Albert to take the witness stand will conclusively prove either he is, or is not, the same bird that has lived with Victor Russo for more than five years.”
Barnes sighed. “What exactly is the phrase you contend this bird will mimic, Mr. Donley?”
“It’s not exactly a phrase, Judge.”
“Then, what is it?”
“It’s . . . well, it’s a show tune.”
Barnes leaned forward, now considering Donley out of one squinted eye. “A show tune?”
“Apparently, Albert is particularly fond of
The Andy Griffith Show
“Yes, Your Honor. You know . . . Mayberry RFD. Andy and Barney, Opie, Aunt Bea—”
“I know the show, Mr. Donley; I raised three kids of my own and have seven grandchildren.”
“Right. Well, apparently Albert picked up the ability to whistle the show’s opening tune.” And with that, Donley put aside what little dignity he retained and whistled the tune to
The Andy Griffith Show
Barnes sat back, lips pursed, running a hand over his bald head for what seemed an eternity but was just a few seconds. Then, without uttering a word, he looked to his bailiff and swept his hand toward the large birdcage on the table between the two counsel tables. When she hesitated, Barnes repeated the gesture and widened his eyes to encourage her. The bailiff lifted the cage by the ring and placed Albert on the witness chair.
Now it was the clerk’s turn to look perplexed. “Should I . . . swear in the witness?”
Barnes closed his eyes and gently shook his head. Opening his eyes, he gestured for Donley to proceed.
“Your Honor, if it is acceptable to the court, Mr. Russo would like to handle this witness himself.”
Barnes clasped his hands. “Of course he would. Why not?”
Donley whispered in Russo’s ear. “OK, Victor. He’s all yours.”
Russo pushed back his chair and walked to the open space between the judge’s bench and the witness stand. He bowed with great deference to Barnes and turned to the cage.
“Albert? Over here, Albert. That’s a good boy. Albert, do you want to watch Andy Griffith? Andy Griffith?”
The bird began to prance along the bar and bob its head.
“Andy Griffin, Albert. You know.” Russo whistled.
“Objection!” Rattigan shouted so loud, Russo flinched as if she’d snuck up and goosed him.
Barnes looked dumbfounded. “Excuse me, Ms. Rattigan?”
“He’s leading the witness, Your Honor.”
Barnes bit his lower lip and closed his eyes. “Overruled.”
“But, Your Honor—”
The catcher’s mitt hand reached out again. “Sit . . . down, Ms. Rattigan.”
Barnes moved his hand as if placing it on Rattigan’s head and forcibly lowering her into her chair. “Sit . . . down.” He looked to Russo. “Continue, Mr. Russo.”
“I think he’s distracted, Your Honor,” Russo said.
“Just do your best, Mr. Russo,” Barnes said.
Russo bowed again and resumed. “Andy Griffith, Albert. Andy Griffith.” His voice became desperate. He whistled, but Albert remained silent.
Russo coaxed the bird a third time, also without success. Tears had again pooled in his eyes, and he dropped his head in resignation.
Barnes sat forward, speaking gently. “Thank you, Mr. Russo. I think that will be all.”
Donley stepped out from counsel table and touched Victor Russo’s elbow, leading him back to his seat.
“Madame Bailiff, you may take Albert from the witness stand,” Barnes said.
As the bailiff carried Albert back to the table, Barnes said, “I assume you are prepared to submit this matter, Mr. Donley?”
Resigned, Donley nodded. “Yes.”
“Very well, then. Mr. Russo, I’m deeply sorry, but the burden in this case was upon you, as the plaintiff, to convince me the parrot belonged to you, and I’m afraid I can’t conclude that is the case. Therefore, it is the decision of this court—”
“Andy Griffith. Andy Griffith.”
The court reporter, taking down every word spoken in the courtroom, lifted his head, uncertain who had interrupted the judge. Everyone else, however, had turned to the table behind Donley, where Albert, head bobbing, pranced along the bar.
“Andy Griffith,” he squawked.
“I’ll be damned,” Barnes said.
And with that, Albert began to whistle.
At nearly six in the evening, Donley had expected Ruth-Bell to have left the office and gone home, but when he stepped into the cramped reception area, she remained at her desk, the telephone pressed to her ear. Lou’s voice spilled from his office, a one-sided conversation indicating he, too, was on the telephone.
Ruth-Bell handed Donley a stack of pink message slips without any further acknowledgment, and he stepped past the file cabinets and small table with the stained coffeepot into his office.
He draped his jacket over the back of a chair and set his briefcase beside his desk. Outside, he heard two of San Francisco’s homeless arguing. The Law Offices of Lou Giantelli were located on the first floor of a historic building in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. The building’s proximity to the courthouse had prompted Lou to buy it three decades earlier, when the neighborhood had been a relatively safe area. The intervening years had not been kind to the Tenderloin. What remained were run-down apartment houses and commercial buildings, and corner liquor stores and peep shows that attracted drug dealers and addicts, prostitutes and their pimps and johns, and the homeless and mentally unstable. Sometimes getting to work meant stepping across bodies—not all still alive.
Donley’s desk phone rang, and he was surprised to see from the console that it was Ruth-Bell. Usually, she just shouted from reception that Donley or Lou had a call.
“You have a call,” Ruth-Bell said.
When Ruth-Bell didn’t elaborate, Donley said, “Did they give you a name?”
“Someone named Polly.”
“Polly? Polly who?” he said, and immediately regretted it.
“Polly want a cracker,” Ruth-Bell cackled, and with that Lou, who had obviously been waiting just outside the door, stepped into Donley’s office flapping his elbows and squawking. “Andy Griffith. Andy Griffith.”
Ruth-Bell hurried in behind him. “I heard you almost got yourself in trouble because your star witness was a little
,” she said.
“Very funny,” Donley said, letting them have their moment. “You two should go on the road together.” He checked his watch. “How about now?”
Lou paused, laughing so hard he was having trouble catching his breath. When he did, he said, “I would have given anything to have seen it.”
“Can’t believe it worked,” Donley said. “And it cost me only my dignity and my career.”
Lou’s voice rose. “Are you kidding? You’re the talk of the courthouse. My phone has been ringing off the hook. Three judges called to ask if it was true; apparently, they’re having their Christmas party, and Barnes is telling everyone and anyone who will listen.”
“And that’s a good thing?” Donley asked.
“The papers seem to think so.” Ruth-Bell handed him a pink message slip. “Bill Main called from the
“And I just got off the phone with Victor,” Lou said. “Three television trucks are parked outside his restaurant. He and Albert are going to be on the six o’clock news. It’s the best publicity his restaurant has had in twenty years.” Lou turned for the door. “Come on. Let’s watch it on the television in my office.”
“I’d rather not,” Donley said. “I had to live it.”
Ruth-Bell started for the door. “And much as I’d like to, I’m already late, and if I don’t get home and make husband number three something to eat, I’ll be looking for husband number four. That man can’t boil water.”
After Ruth-Bell had left, Lou leaned on the edge of the round table in the corner of Donley’s office, nearly toppling the stack of case files.
“Come on, give me the details.”
Donley explained how he knew he had not proved the bird belonged to Russo and how he’d come up with the idea the night before and performed research to support the argument. “I just couldn’t bear the thought of Victor watching that guy carry Albert out of that courtroom. To be honest, I was surprised Barnes let me do it.”
“Please,” Lou said. “Franklin Jefferson Barnes lives for stuff like this. He’s got an ego as big as his gut, and you made him the star attraction at the party. Trust me, no matter what he looked or sounded like in court, the only thing Barnes likes better than telling a good story is when he’s in it. And he’ll be telling this one long into his retirement. He won’t forget it. Neither will you.”
Lou straightened and started for the door, but he paused at the threshold and turned back. His shirtsleeves were rolled up, revealing meaty forearms. Though nearing seventy, Lou had maintained much of the stocky build that made him an All-City high school football player back in the day when running backs were still called wing backs. The notable exception was an expanded waistline from a healthy love of Italian food. “I know this hasn’t been exactly the practice you had in mind—”
“Lou, I’ve told you before, I’m grateful for the job.”
Not to be deterred, Lou continued. “Your day will come, Peter. And when it does, you’ll be ready because of days like today. There’s no experience like standing up in court before a judge or a jury and letting your ass hang in the wind. You don’t get that experience sitting in a law firm library performing research and drafting interrogatories for six years.”
“Let’s hope I don’t die from overexposure,” Donley said. Just three years out of law school, he’d already had seventeen jury trials and numerous bench trials.
Lou laughed. “Your Aunt Sarah made calzone. You want to join us?”
“Thanks, but Kim usually needs a break from Benny about this time,” he said, referring to his wife and two-year-old son.
Lou left the office with a skip in his step, whistling a tune Donley also knew he’d not soon forget.
Father Thomas Martin prayed for bad weather the way some people prayed to win the lottery. Tonight it looked as though his prayers would be answered. Dark clouds advanced across an indigo night sky, and gusts of wind rattled the glass panes in his office and whistled through the putty-filled cracks in the hundred-year-old wood sash.
Bad weather was good for business at his Tenderloin boys’ shelter. He had no empirical data to support his theory, but in the few months since he’d opened for business, he’d noticed a definite correlation between bad weather and the number of boys who chose his shelter over sleeping on San Francisco’s streets.
He counted eight entries on the log-in sheet, then drew a line through the name of Andrew Bennet, who’d checked in but left unexpectedly. Seven boys. Father Thomas always hoped for more, but he tried not to get discouraged. He knew it would take time to build the boys’ trust. They considered anyone over thirty either an agent of the police department or associated with social services. With that thought, Father Martin placed the log-in sheet within the pages of his Bible, shoved it into the top right-hand drawer of his army-green metal desk, and locked the drawer. He quickly pushed back his chair and checked his watch. He was late locking the front door. He could stall only so long. Rules were important at the shelter. He didn’t want it to become a midnight crash house. The goal was to get the boys off the street before they sold themselves or did drugs.
He stepped into the hall. The front door was at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Halfway down the hall, however, he turned 180 degrees, like a pitcher lifting his leg and spinning to fake a pickoff move to second base. He walked instead to the dormitory at the other end of the hall. He’d check on the new boy. Then he’d lock the door.
Just hoping for one more.
The dormitory looked like an army bunkhouse with metal-framed beds perpendicular to the wall, but it was the best use of the space. Several boys lay watching grainy images on the television mounted to the ceiling. The shelter received only four channels, none clearly. Cable was not in the budget, which explained the cardboard box of well-used videocassettes.
The new arrival sat on the edge of the bed nearest the window. Father Tom had never seen him before. Sadly, the faces in the Tenderloin changed too often. Getting a boy to come to the shelter was difficult, and establishing trust that first night, critical.
The boy had been unwilling to provide a name. This being his first night, Father Martin decided not to push it. The boy said everyone called him Red. With bright-red hair, it wasn’t difficult to figure out why. Father Martin watched Red take a quick drag on a previously concealed cigarette and flick the burning butt through the grate covering the window. He prohibited smoking in the shelter, as well as drugs, alcohol, and fighting.
Father Tom stepped lightly; he liked to make the boys think he could materialize out of thin air, everywhere and nowhere. “How’s it going?” he asked.
Red’s head snapped as if on a string. Strands of red hair fell across his face. He’d shaved the other half of his head nub short. Silver loop earrings pierced his left nostril and right eyebrow on a face pockmarked by acne. Father Tom estimated him to be fifteen, though in the Polk Gulch, age was often difficult to determine. The boys grew up fast. Red’s problem at the moment was he had not exhaled his last drag.
Father Tom looked out the window as if to consider the darkening sky. “Looks like a storm,” he said. “Why don’t we close the window so we’re not heating the neighborhood, as my mother liked to say.”
Red’s face contorted. His brow furrowed.
“Do you smell smoke?” Father Tom asked. He turned to Danny Simeon. The young man sat in a corner of the room working with an array of circuit boards and computer parts. “Danny, do you smell smoke?”
Simeon lifted his head and sniffed the air like a dog detecting an odor on the wind, all part of their routine. “You know, Father T, I think I do smell smoke.”
“I hope it’s not a fire, could burn the whole building down.”
Unable to hold out any longer, Red coughed a gray cloud. When he’d stopped hacking, Father Tom smiled and pointed to the sign on the wall—a cigarette outlined in a red circle with a slash through it. “You have any more?”
Red shook his head.
At check-in, each boy stored his valuables in a locker in Father Tom’s office. Cigarettes fell into that category. It prevented bartering and intimidation. Everybody at the shelter was equal. Each had nothing.
“OK. Any questions?”
Red shook his head. Then he blurted, “Yeah. Are you really a priest?”
“Don’t I look like a priest?”
Red shook his head. “No.”
Father Tom wore blue jeans with holes in the knees and a white T-shirt stretched tight across sinewy muscles. His shaved head, diamond-stud earring, and tattoo had caused considerable alarm in the upper-middle-class parish to which the Archdiocese of San Francisco had first assigned him. Those parishioners’ rejection had given him the opportunity to pitch the archdiocese his idea to open a shelter for troubled young men. When the shelter finally opened—after a long detour around roadblocks, red tape, and vocal opposition—an article in the
San Francisco Examiner
had dubbed Father Tom “The Priest of Polk Street.”
Father Tom smiled. “Yes, I’m really a priest.” He pulled out a large ring with multiple keys. “Though sometimes I feel more like a janitor. At the moment, I need to go lock the front door. Then I’ll come back, and we can talk.”
He walked to where Simeon sat, deep in concentration. Once a street kid himself, Simeon had been Father T’s first real success. They’d met at a homeless shelter. Simeon had an affinity for computers, and Father Tom eventually convinced him to enroll in technical classes at a local junior college. To get Simeon off the street, Father Tom had him supervise the dormitory at night. With Simeon’s class load increasing, however, he needed more privacy to study and kept a room at the back of a restaurant where he worked as a busboy.
“One kick-ass computer, Father T,” Simeon said. He fit two pieces onto a circuit board. “Though this is like putting parts of a sixty-five Chevy into a new Cadillac.”
“Sorry, Danny, right now we need lights and heat more than a computer.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Simeon put down the stubborn pieces. “Lockdown?”
“We’re a shelter, Danny, not a penitentiary.”
“Tell me about it.” Simeon stood. “If we were a pen, we’d get a lot more money from the state, and better food.”
Father Tom couldn’t argue the logic.
Simeon faced the bunks and spoke in an uncanny Sylvester Stallone impersonation. “All right, convicts, lockdown. Warden here is taking the keys. Anyone leaves, better hope to find a stairwell smells like urine to sleep in.”
Father Tom smiled and shook his head. He walked out the door, checking his watch. He was really late. He hurried down the hall, sandals slapping the worn linoleum. A streak of lightning flashed overhead. He looked up to the chicken-wire-reinforced skylight. It shone blue. Seconds later, thunder rumbled. Music to his ears.
Then the lights cut out.
“Damn,” he said, stopping. He hoped it was the weather and not PG&E cutting power to the building. He was late paying his bills again, though he’d called and they’d said they’d work with him. He hoped it was just a blown fuse. The building was old and still on a breaker system, and fuses were cheap.
From down the hall, he heard the dormitory door open. “What’s going on?” Danny Simeon asked.
“Could be the storm,” Father Martin said. “I’m going to check the fuse box. Get the flashlights out of the closet, and keep everyone inside the room.”
The fuse box to the building was in a closet located at the back of the recreation room, which was situated across the hall from Father Tom’s office. Father Tom kept a flashlight in the closet. He sorted through his key ring in the limited ambient light from the skylight, found the key, and unlocked the double-wide doors. Stepping in, he hurried across the room. In the dark, the life-size ceramic Nativity scene at the front of the room looked like a group of San Francisco’s homeless huddled against the cold.
He’d made it halfway across the linoleum when his sandal slid out from under him and he fell backward. Instinctively, he put out his hand to brace his fall, catching his left wrist at an odd angle. He heard it snap. An electric bolt of pain shot up his arm, momentarily sapping the world of color. On the tile floor he writhed in agony, fighting the nausea and urge to vomit. When he was finally able to sit up, he cradled his arm to his body. A cold sweat broke out across his forehead. He’d broken his arm, no question about it, and he’d need to get to the hospital, which meant calling an ambulance and leaving Danny in charge. He looked to the spot where his foot had slid; he needed another leak in the roof like he needed a hole in the head.
Instead of a puddle, however, he noticed a series of spots, a linear pattern that didn’t fit with a leak. Neither did the dark color, too dark to be water, even with the lights out. He touched a spot with the tip of his finger and held it up to the dim light. Still uncertain, he touched his finger to his tongue and recognized the bitter, iron taste.
He checked his hands and elbows but found no cuts.
In pain, and with his nausea worsening, he managed to get to his feet. Clutching his arm, he followed the trail of blood to where the three Magi knelt shoulder to shoulder alongside a lamb and cow, all in adoration of the child in the manger.
Father Martin stopped. Though his brain urged him forward, his feet remained anchored to the floor. He dropped to his knees and reached out, hoping to touch porcelain but instead feeling flesh.
Andrew Bennet’s body lay in the manger, arms draped over the sides, knuckles dragging in the puddle of blood beneath the straw.
Lightning crackled overhead, a strobe of sharp, blue light. A second later, thunder rocked the building, and the first drops of rain splattered on the glass roof.
The storm had arrived.
Donley shut the door on his way out of Benny’s room and stepped over Bo, their Rhodesian ridgeback. Bo lay in the middle of the hallway, trying to get as close to the heater vent as possible. The lights glowed in their bedroom, but Kim had rolled onto her side, with her back to him, covers pulled tight. He picked up the legal file from the filing cabinet doubling as a nightstand, slid into bed, and adjusted the flexible lamp clipped to the headboard. No rest for the wicked. He needed an argument to explain why another of Lou’s clients, Vincenzo Anitolli, was of sound mind at the time he executed a codicil to his will, re-inheriting his three sons.
It would not be easy. Witnesses for the stepmother, thirty years Anitolli’s junior, would testify that Anitolli claimed to be Elvis Presley the day before he executed the document and had broken into a spontaneous rendition of “Jailhouse Rock” in the retirement-home cafeteria—still apparently nimble enough to get up on a table, arms and hips swinging until his pajama pants slid to his knees and the orderlies corralled him.
Where Lou found all these people, and how he had managed to run a law firm for forty-plus years without charging them, were two of the great mysteries of his practice. Lou’s clients knew him from every walk of his life, and every one of them professed to know and love Lou like a brother. Thank God one of those was Archbishop Donatello Parnisi, who had grown up with Lou in North Beach, and whose friendship explained why the Catholic Archdiocese had rejected the downtown law firms for the solo practitioner with the crazy clientele to handle its legal matters.
Too tired to concentrate, Donley set aside the file and reached to turn off the light. He hesitated when he saw Max Seager’s business card on his nightstand.
Seager was a highly regarded and successful plaintiff’s attorney who had approached Donley in the Superior Court halls after one of Donley’s trials. Seager offered him a job on the spot at a salary three times what Lou could afford to pay him. He told Donley to set up an appointment with Seager’s assistant after the holidays.
Donley turned out the light. Lightning flashed outside the bedroom window, coloring the cloud layer a purplish hue. He counted, as his mother had taught—a way to calm a frightened child.
One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand . . .
Thunder rumbled, finishing with a boom. Donley listened down the hall but did not hear Benny call out.
When another streak of light pulsed, Donley reached only “one thousand one” before the boom rattled the windows and rain tapped a ticker-tape beat on the roof shingles. Again, he listened but did not hear Benny. Mother Nature was putting on a show, but Kim, a sleep-deprived medical resident, looked intent on proving she could literally sleep through a storm. He pulled back the covers to check on Benny when Kim said, “Let him sleep.”
“You’re awake?” Donley slid over and spooned her, feeling the radiating warmth.
“Who could sleep through this noise?” She rolled toward him. “He’ll be three in a month. You have to let him go to sleep alone; at this rate, you’ll be sleeping in his college dorm.”
He rested his chin on her shoulder. “I just don’t want him to be afraid,” he said.
She found his hand under the covers. “You had something to fear, Peter. He doesn’t. And if you don’t start getting to bed earlier, we may never have sex again.”
The magic word.
“Is that an invitation?” When Kim didn’t respond, he brushed strands of dark hair from her face, tracing the contours of her Korean features with his finger. “You were quiet when you got home.”
“Two of my students got into a fight.” Despite her schedule at the hospital, Kim continued to teach tae kwon do classes at a local YMCA. “It’s the stuff they watch on television. Teenage mutant turtles. What the hell are those things, anyway?”
“Well, it is martial arts,” he said, tweaking her.
She inched close, as if to kiss him. “Tae kwon do is taught up here,” she whispered, gently touching his temple. “It has nothing to do with this.” Her hand beneath the covers grabbed his groin.
“Ow. Hey, OK, OK, I’m sorry.”
She laughed. “Two can play at that game, Mr. Donley.”
He rolled on top of her, pinning her arms. “I tease you only because it makes you horny.”
“It does not.”
She halfheartedly struggled but was physically no match for him. At six feet two inches and 215 pounds, he outweighed her by nearly a hundred pounds. He kissed her.
The telephone rang.
“Let it ring.” He ran his fingers along the curves of her body.
“It could be the hospital,” she said.
“You’re not on call tonight.”
“It could still be the hospital.” She reached for the phone, but he grabbed her arm.
“Not tonight,” he said.
They treated him as if he were something to be placed in a plastic evidence bag, zipped closed and tagged. Father Martin sat in a folding chair, the events continuing to swirl around him, the pain and nausea causing the room to tilt and whirl, everything black and gray.
Uniformed officers, plainclothes detectives, and crime-scene technicians came and went, stepping around yellow sticky notes marking the drops of blood on the floor. They took photographs, dusted for fingerprints, and drew sketches. A doctor from the medical examiner’s office and his assistants attended to Andrew Bennet’s body. Static echoed from radios, and flashes of red, white, and blue lit up the windows from the lights atop the patrol cars parked in the street.
Father Martin cradled his arm, now immobilized in a splint and elastic wrap but still painful. His wrist had swollen to the size of a lemon, and he remained so light-headed, he thought he might lift from the chair. He pressed the soles of his sandals to the floor, desperately trying to keep the room from spinning.