Authors: C. E. Tobisman
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 Cynthia Tobisman
All rights reserved.
No part of this book 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
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Cover design by Salamander Hill Design Inc.
For Nicole, in gratitude for all of her support and patience. Richard Ford once said: “Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.” He was right.
The doctor’s steps were light as he jogged down the tree-lined path. When he reached the hill that paralleled the coastline, he increased his pace, attacking the incline just like
said to do. Even as he labored, a warm glow of satisfaction rose in his chest. All his sacrifices had been worth it. His professional life had been fraught with hard decisions, trade-offs, and difficult calls. But now he could justify every one of them.
He let himself revel in his triumph. An unseemly emotion to indulge around others, he could still enjoy it alone. How many people could say their life’s work mattered? That their time on Earth counted for something? Today, the doctor knew with certainty that his did.
Pushing hard toward the top of the hill, he squinted into the sun, trying to make out the shape of the Bon Air Beach Club. The gray structure squatted on the shore a mile around the broad curve of the bay. By this hour, his friends would be hunched over the club’s mahogany bar, regaling one another with Hollywood war stories and boring each other with laments about wives and lovers. But he had no use for any of it. Not anymore.
When the trail plateaued, he eased off his pace. His legs burned with the expended effort of the climb that now lay behind him. Life always seemed to be like that. It wasn’t until he’d slowed down that he felt the pain. But by then he’d achieved his goal. He’d arrived at the peak. Victorious.
The doctor’s musings were cut short by the sight of two men on the path ahead.
One lay on the ground. The other leaned over his fallen comrade. Their bikes were parked side by side under a grove of palm trees thirty steps away.
“Are you guys all right?” the doctor called out to the lanky, pale man who was still standing. He had a red birthmark the shape of a lima bean on his cheek and wore one of those hipster ski caps that seemed impossibly hot in the California sun.
“I’m fine,” the pale man answered, “but my buddy needs some help. We were racing up that hill back there, and he just wiped out after we got to the top.”
“Let me take a look,” the doctor said.
He crouched beside the injured man. Shorter and heavier than the first but just as pale, the man clutched his ankle and groaned.
Giving him a cursory assessment, the doctor noted that—oddly enough, given his accident—the man had no dirt on his biking pants. Lucky break for the wardrobe.
“I haven’t practiced for a while,” the doctor said, “but I haven’t forgotten how to evaluate a fracture.” He gently grasped the injured man’s leg, palpating the soft tissue of the ankle while monitoring the man’s face for a wince. There was none.
Instead, a look passed between the men.
Suddenly everything became horribly clear. The bikes parked too neatly, too far from the path. No sweat on the fallen man’s brow. No dirt on his clothes.
The doctor’s heart began to hammer in his chest.
“Probably just a sprain.” He straightened up to standing. “I’ve got an Ace wrap in my car. It’s just down the hill. I’ll go grab it.”
He took two slow steps away before breaking into a sprint back the way he’d come. He hoped he’d misconstrued an innocent scene. He considered how strange his behavior would appear to the two men if he had.
But then he heard a muffled thud, and two blazing points of heat seared into his thigh.
A Taser gun!
The doctor stumbled, his muscle spasming with electricity.
Swinging a hand blindly for the cause of the pain, he snagged one of the leads, breaking the connection and stopping the current. Still, his leg screamed in agony.
But the pain paled in comparison with the shattering recognition that his fears had been founded. Fears he’d dismissed as late-night paranoia. Fears now horrifically realized as he staggered down the deserted path. They’d come for him! My God, they’d really come for him.
He shouted for help. But there was no one around. Just an empty plumber’s truck parked on the side of the road bordering the running path.
The path! The doctor’s eyes raked the edge of it. Beyond it, a chaparral-dotted embankment dipped sharply down toward the beach a hundred feet below.
Digging deep, he threw himself over the lip.
His shoulder hit the ground hard, scraping the skin exposed by his tank top.
He rolled down the hill, scraping and jolting his way through the rocks and scrub brush until he came to rest on the beach.
Groaning in pain, he propped himself up on one arm to look around for help.
His eyes met nothing but empty sand and indifferent sea. He was alone.
The doctor had no illusions about what his pursuers intended to do when they reached him. He was going to die. Right now. Right here on this beach.
The knowledge hit him with such force that he almost crumbled under the weight of it. But then he remembered. There was one last thing he needed to do. One final task to complete before the curtain closed.
He fumbled with the zipper of his waist pouch, forcing himself to concentrate.
Once he’d pulled out his phone, he tried to type his password. But his hands, slick with arterial blood from a deep gash on his wrist, slid across the touch screen.
A cascade of pebbles rained from above. His attackers were side-slipping down the hillside, approaching rapidly. They’d be on him in seconds.
The doctor wiped his hand on his shirt and tried again. He had to get critical information free from his mind before it died with him.
Forcing his trembling hand to steady, he entered his password. Then he moved on to writing the text message. The letters and numbers came more quickly. He’d planned for this. With adrenaline coursing through his body, the doctor no longer felt his injuries. His entire existence boiled down to the glowing screen he held.
He couldn’t fail. Not now.
He hit “Send” just as the crunching of footsteps stopped behind him.
His eyes blurred. His head swam. The clinical part of his mind told him he’d lost at least a pint of blood. He’d lose consciousness soon.
But he was still conscious when he turned to face the killers.
He was still conscious when he met their cold eyes and begged, “Please, no.”
And he was still conscious when the tall, pale man stepped behind him, gripped his neck, and twisted it hard, bringing down the final darkness.
The man in the ski cap crouched beside the corpse. Middle-aged. African American. Nonpracticing doctor. Definitely his target.
He pried the phone loose from the dead man’s hand and looked at the screen.
Then he met the eyes of his compatriot and shrugged.
He wiped the phone of fingerprints and dropped it in the sand.
Caroline Auden hunched over her laptop, her shoulders constricting in her woolen business suit. Her hair fell across her eyes as she studied the chessboard. The computer was playing the Sicilian defense. That meant she needed to play the Perenyi attack. She hated to sacrifice so much material, but if she wanted to win, she’d have to do it.
Caroline let the game’s complexity distract her from the churning in her gut. In ten minutes, she’d report to her first day of work at Hale Stern, LLP, one of the most dynamic law firms in Los Angeles. Until then, she was hiding out in one of the tiny cafés that serviced the buttoned-down set. With its graffiti-art murals and its staff that smelled faintly of dope, Black Dog Café stood in stark contrast to its conservatively dressed patrons.
“It will be. I promise it will,” floated a voice from across the café.
Something raw and desperate in the sound made Caroline look up.
She found the barista leaning on the counter, talking on the phone. His tattooed forearms and blue Mohawk were incongruent with the forlorn, almost childlike fear in his eyes.
“I know, but I swear I—” he began, but then his shoulders slumped. “I understand.”
Hanging up, he turned to clean the counter. The haphazard sweeps of his towel bespoke the tumult in his mind.
Her chess game forgotten, Caroline watched the barista, trying to imagine what had caused his discontent. If his choice of personal styling was any indication, this was a man usually unbothered by anyone’s opinion. A generally confident soul whose confidence had forsaken him on this cold, clear morning.
Caroline felt a sudden kinship with him.
“What was that about?” she called across the café.
The barista paused before answering. “My boss thinks I’ve been overcharging customers and pocketing the money,” he said before continuing his assault on the innocent countertop, the strokes of his rag hard and angry and ineffective.
“Did you?” Caroline asked.
“No. But the register dumped a bunch of charges. I can’t find them anywhere.” He shot the offending machine a scornful glare. “Stupid fucking computer.”
Caroline nodded. She’d seen people crumple in the face of technology, laid low by a password-protected banking site or an application that wouldn’t launch properly. She knew the problem was almost always user error.
“Can I see it?” she asked, rising from her table. Even if she couldn’t stop the worries that circled her own mind like hungry crows, she could stop his.
The barista eyed her.
She knew what he saw. A petite woman with mahogany hair, messy despite her best efforts to tame it. But smart eyes, quick and alert. She didn’t fit the stereotype of a tech geek.
She could feel him judging.
After another moment’s hesitation, he moved aside.
“I’m dead if I can’t find those charges,” he muttered.
Caroline took stock of the interface. Unix platform. Antiquated point-of-sale software.
She glanced at the barista, who now stood beside the espresso machine, drying coffee mugs. He held the rag in his right hand. Okay, so he was right-handed. That meant he handled the register with his left hand while serving hot beverages with his right.
Scanning the left side of the register’s interface, Caroline noted the inventory keys.
“Did you recently restock?” she asked.
“Yes,” the barista answered.
Caroline’s fingers flew across the screen.
“It’s not supposed to look like that,” the barista said, his voice rising in alarm.
“I’m just isolating the recently modified records.” She changed the filter and hit “Enter.” “You must’ve hit the menu key when you were restocking. The charges got saved as an inventory file. It’s all fixed now. Everything’s back where it belongs.”
Caroline retreated to her table to gather her things. She’d stalled long enough. It was time to go.
As she shut down her laptop, she regarded her discolored leather bag. Passable in the tech world, it struck her as too coarse for the legal world. She’d have to get a new one when she got her first paycheck. Or not. Saving up to move out of her mom’s house was more important than a laptop bag without stains. Sanity first. Accessories later.
“I don’t know how you did that,” the barista called from the register, “but you saved my ass.”
“It was nothing.” Caroline shrugged. It was nice to be able to fix something. The tech emergency was far more fixable than the carnage she’d left at home. Her uncle snoring on the couch, still wearing last night’s clothes, reeking of Grey Goose and Drum. Her mom listening to that same damn Jason Mraz song on Spotify all day long until Caroline wanted to blow her brains out.
Before heading out the door, she’d tossed her uncle’s car keys in the bread drawer. That would keep him from driving until he was sober.
“Can I get you a cup of coffee?” the barista asked.
“I’m good with hot chocolate.” Caroline didn’t want to explain that coffee left her vibrating like a whirligig in a hurricane. With a natural disposition like a tuning fork, she was having a hard enough time keeping her mind steady.
“Next time, it’s on me,” the barista insisted. “You work around here?”
“I’m starting a new job today.” Caroline’s stomach torqued, even without the coffee.
“Let me guess—computers,” the barista said, grinning at her.
The barista’s eyebrows climbed up his forehead. “Really? Why not computers?” he asked. “You’re good with computers.”
Caroline stayed silent. It was a good question.
Caroline rested her head against the window of her new office. She exhaled a long breath, leaving a blurry white continent on the glass, moist and fleeting, dissolving around the edges. Her pulse throbbed in her ears, drowning out the sounds of lawyers and assistants and staff in the halls ramping up for another day’s work.
An hour earlier, she’d learned the document-management program. She’d enrolled in the firm’s health plan. She’d even given her address to the health club downstairs so she could start her week of free membership.
Now she waited for her career to begin.
When the office administrator left, he’d promised her that no one waited long for their first assignment. But the last hour had passed slowly in a Chinese water torture of worried moments, conjuring the same prickling agony Caroline had experienced before boarding her first roller coaster. Trepidation mixed with hope. Mostly trepidation.
She reached into her pocket for her worry beads. Her fingertips brushed empty fabric.
Damn. What a day to forget them.
It didn’t matter, she told herself. She deserved to be standing on the thirty-fifth floor of a skyscraper. Louis had chosen her. Of all the students the master litigator had taught in his clinical course at UCLA School of Law, he’d plucked her out of the lecture hall and offered her a job.
But Caroline couldn’t forget the statistics. The hiring trends. The attrition rates. The fact that only 15 percent of female associates survived to become partners and that unless they had a strong mentor at their law firms, their chances were closer to zero.
Doubts circled like flies attracted to the stench of self-pity. Why had she left the tech world? Mother’s milk and coding. She’d been raised on both. But the latter had never really sustained her, she reminded herself. Even worse, tech brought out aspects of her personality that were . . . problematic. She had good reasons for becoming a lawyer. She just needed to learn her new trade. At warp speed if possible.
Caroline’s phone lit up with an incoming page.
Her assistant’s voice crackled onto the line.
“Louis wants to see you,” said Silvia.
“Please tell him I’ll be right there,” Caroline said.
Louis Stern. The man she’d come to work with and the smartest person in the firm.
She took a deep breath and brushed her hands down her suit.
It was game time.
Caroline stood at the threshold of Louis’s office. If practicing law was like learning tennis, her first lesson wouldn’t be with the kindly old instructor at the local park. No, she’d signed up to learn from the King of Clay, Rafael Nadal. She waited, gripping her racket, preparing for him to serve at 150 miles per hour.
She tapped on the open door to announce her presence.
Louis Stern looked up from the papers on his desk.
“Ah, Ms. Auden. Welcome. I do hope Silvia’s taking good care of you.” He raised his white eyebrows above the top curves of his wire-rimmed glasses, creating the impression of two fuzzy caterpillars resting atop them.
“She is,” Caroline answered, matching her boss’s breezy tone. She was glad her voice betrayed none of her nerves.
“Thanks for sharing her with me,” she added. Louis’s decision to assign his assistant to her desk was either a mark of favoritism or a way to keep an eye on her. Or both.
“Silvia’s quite good. She knows all about computers and whatnot.” The white-haired partner waved a hand around, vaguely encompassing his own computer, which remained asleep, its monitor a black mirror reflecting the deepening light of the day.
Caroline suppressed a smile. Louis’s distaste for technology was legendary. Not only was his computer dark, so was the office lighting system. The only illumination came from an antique floor lamp, its green shade casting a glow on pictures of Massachusetts in the 1800s.
Louis himself evoked a bygone era. In his glen-checked bow tie and herringbone blazer, he looked like he’d stepped out of one of the pictures on his wall. He wore a gold ring on his right hand, adorned with the pig’s head crest of Harvard’s elite, old-money Porcellian Club.
“Have a seat.” Louis gestured to the guest chair positioned in front of his heavy walnut desk.
Sitting down, Caroline clasped her hands in her lap. Her fingers itched for her laptop, but Silvia had warned her that Louis “found it distasteful” to look over a screen to speak to someone.
“Where’s your legal pad?” Louis asked.
Caroline just grimaced and shook her head.
“Always bring paper and a pen to meetings.” Louis offered her a Montblanc from his penholder, then handed her a yellow-lined legal pad from the top drawer of his desk. “It signals you’ve come for more than just idle conversation.”
Louis spoke with the broad
s and clipped endings of the eastern elite, a species rarely seen west of the Mississippi. Caroline knew his story. He’d moved to Los Angeles fifteen years earlier when Thompson Hale had offered him the helm of his respected firm. Since then, Louis had regularly topped the legal papers’ lists of bet-the-company litigators. Meanwhile, Thompson had taken emeritus status, collecting a share of the firm’s profits while practicing his golf game.
Now Caroline waited for Louis to make the next move. These early salvos of this first conversation were important. Even though Louis knew her from class, he’d no longer be comparing her to other law students. He’d be comparing her to the talented attorneys at his firm. Although his offer of employment was a vote of confidence, she still needed to earn a spot in their ranks. Even these early niceties were a way of probing her worth. So far, she’d done nothing to impress him.
She silently vowed to do better.
“Now that we’ve finished the idle-conversation part of our meeting,” Louis said, a hint of amusement playing across his patrician features, “I’d like to give you your first assignment.”
“I’m ready.” Caroline waited, borrowed pen poised over borrowed legal pad.
“I’m putting you on the
case. I’m sure you’ve seen it in the news.” He raised his eyebrows again, his expression hopeful.
Caroline shook her head. She hadn’t heard about the case, and she didn’t want to lie.
With a pang in her stomach, she noted the flicker of disappointment in Louis’s eyes.
is a major milestone in mass tort litigation,” Louis explained. “It’s the first major case brought against a biotechnology company for injuries caused by a genetically modified organism.”
Caroline dutifully wrote down the information.
“The financial stakes are huge. Last year, biotech companies grossed twenty billion from genetically modified seeds. One of the most profitable seeds on the market today is SuperSoy.”