Authors: Antoinette van Heugten
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult, #Thriller
“That’s not how it happened!”
Tony ignores her and continues, his voice completely devoid of emotion. “You march to the Fountainview unit in a rage, where you find the Morrison boy dead in his room. Your unconscious son is in the room, covered with the decedent’s blood. A persuasive case is made that Max killed the boy by brutally stabbing him with a five-prong, eight-inch metal comb. In all, the coroner tallied three hundred and ten puncture wounds. Given the grouping of the wounds, this reflects sixty-two separate acts of stabbing. Of particular note is the wound to the boy’s femoral artery, which is all but ripped open. When the head nurse arrives, she finds you dragging your bloodied son to the door, trying to escape with him, and all of the relevant physical evidence—the murder instrument and Max’s bloody clothes—stuffed in your purse.”
Sevillas closes the leather binder and raises his eyes. A world-weary look is in them. “I have to tell you that the facts
are as bad as they come.” He ticks them off on his fingers. “The murder weapon found in the room unquestionably caused the injuries and death of the decedent. Max’s history of increasing violence with Jonas and his hallucinations that the boy was trying to kill him provide motive. There is no evidence of another suspect nor, in my opinion, is there likely to be. It is also unlikely that an Iowan jury will find an assertive New York female lawyer who has tried to flee with her son and the murder weapon sympathetic, let alone a young man who may have viciously murdered a patient of Maitland, the employer of over three hundred of the good citizens of Plano.” He glances at her. “I’m sorry to be so blunt, but you need to know that we’ll be swimming against the riptide from day one.”
Danielle grips the arms of the chair so tightly that her knuckles blanch. She fights a rolling wave of nausea. It’s all wrong, so horribly wrong. How does she begin to explain Max, much less herself? It is critical that she divorce herself from fear and approach this like a lawyer. And she must somehow convince Tony that Max did not kill Jonas so that he presents a defense so compelling that no jury will convict him. She can’t begin to think about the charges against her. Nothing matters but Max. But why should Tony believe her? All she has done from the moment they met is lie to him. And now she is going to lie again. She must use all of her powers of persuasion—all of her training—to convince Tony that someone else killed that boy.
And that the killer is not, in fact, her own son.
“Well?” Tony’s gaze is direct.
Danielle leans forward, her voice eager. “Look, Tony, I can counter every allegation. But understand this: Max did not kill that boy. I know it looks awful, but I can explain what
happened. Yes, I was angry when I left the meeting with Reyes-Moreno and went to Fountainview to see Max, but he wasn’t in his room. I thought he was in the cafeteria with the other patients. As I was leaving, I noticed that Jonas’s door was open, and I looked in on him.” She looks up. “His mother and I are good friends. Did anyone tell you that?”
Tony shrugs. “Go on.”
Danielle’s voice trembles. “I can’t even describe the horror of that room; all the blood; the hideous sight of poor Jonas.” She struggles a moment, then goes on. “I grabbed him to see if he was still alive, but it was too late. I was just about to scream for help when I realized that Max was on the floor, covered in blood. I thought he was dead. I…dropped to the floor and checked his pulse. He was unconscious, but alive.”
“Where was the comb?”
Danielle takes a deep breath. She has no choice. “It was across the room in a pool of blood.”
Tony frowns. “What did you do then?”
“When I couldn’t rouse Max, and none of the staff heard me scream, I tried to drag him out of the room to find help. With all that blood, I couldn’t tell if Max had been stabbed, too.”
“How did the comb wind up in your purse?”
Danielle is prepared for this. “I was convinced that the murderer had planned to kill Max as well, but I interrupted him. I grabbed the comb and shoved it into in my purse because I was afraid he’d come back and kill us both.”
“What about Max’s T-shirt?”
She looks at him earnestly. “I tore it off of him when I was trying to see if he had been stabbed. I don’t remember putting it into my purse, but I guess I did. I was completely out of my mind.”
He makes a few notes and then stops to look at her. “By
the way, do you have any idea how your comb wound up in the Morrison boy’s room?”
“I have no idea,” she says. “It was always in my purse. Someone must have taken it, or I dropped it somewhere.”
Sevillas’s cross-examination is staccato, his gaze unwavering. “Did you leave your purse lying around?”
“Do you remember lending it to anyone?”
“Do you remember the last time you used it?”
“Could you have dropped it in the boy’s room at some earlier time?”
“I could have,” she says. “I was in and out of his room almost every day, visiting Marianne.”
“But you don’t recall losing it.”
“Did Max regain consciousness from the time you found him until the nurse entered the room?”
“Did you see anyone else on the unit coming or going?”
She shakes her head. “It was lunchtime. The staff was usually in the cafeteria with the patients, as I said. As far as I know, only Max and Jonas were left behind. There could have been others—staff or patients. That’s definitely something we need to investigate.”
“Hmm,” he says. “Why did they leave your son and the other boy behind?”
Danielle shrugs. “Max was undergoing an extensive medication change. He usually slept through lunch.”
“And the decedent?”
“You’d have to ask the staff.”
“Who won’t talk to us until formal discovery starts. The
D.A. will see to that. And certainly not in time for the hearing,” he replies. “Did they leave these boys unattended? That seems irresponsible.”
“There may have been a nurse somewhere on the floor. I don’t know.” She is careful to keep her next words measured and even. “But they made sure they couldn’t move around. They kept Max in restraints and there was a security camera inside his room. Someone disabled the camera, unfastened the restraints and dragged Max into Jonas’s room.”
Sevillas gives her a skeptical look. “Or the duty nurse forgot to put Max in restraints and he finagled the direction of the security camera, filched the comb from your purse, and stabbed Jonas to death.” Danielle starts to speak, but Sevillas interrupts her. “And don’t tell me he couldn’t have disabled that camera. That’s exactly what happened in Jonas’s room.”
She glares at him. “That is not what happened.”
He leans slowly back in his chair. “I don’t think you can make that statement given the fact that Max was repeatedly violent with Jonas and had vivid hallucinations that Jonas wanted to kill him. It seems much more plausible that Max acted out his psychotic hallucinations and killed Jonas before Jonas could kill him.”
Her jaw tightens. “And he did this while unconscious?”
Tony shrugs. “We don’t know when Max became unconscious. It could easily have happened after he killed Jonas.”
She doesn’t blink. “Or after the murderer dragged his un conscious body into Jonas’s room, intending to kill Jonas and frame Max for the murder.”
“We won’t really know what happened until we have a chance to speak to Max,” he says. “Although Maitland has documented that historically he is completely unaware, after the fact, of his actions during these psychotic fugues.”
Danielle shakes her head. “I don’t believe Maitland’s entries.”
“And why is that?”
She catches herself. This is no time to admit that she broke into Maitland’s computer system and read legally privileged information from Max’s file. “It’s just a feeling I have.”
He gives her a sharp glance. “Feelings aren’t evidence.” Danielle’s cheeks flame. Tony crosses his arms and studies her carefully. “So, do you have any idea who might have done this? You’ve had some time to think about it.”
Danielle feels her stomach constrict. She has thought of little else since that unspeakable moment when she found Max bloody and curled up on the floor—clutching the comb. All she could think of was that Max was alive, safe. And that is all she is thinking of now.
And it is possible that there is a viable suspect other than Max. She didn’t spin this concept from whole cloth. In jail, as she replayed the hideous scene for the hundredth time, she suddenly recalled a form flitting by Jonas’s window—just after she saw Max on the floor. Immediately after the turmoil and horror of finding Jonas dead and Max bloody and unconscious, only celluloid clips of those ghastly moments ran through her mind. It was not until later, after the arrest and jail, that she had sat quietly in her cell, closed her eyes and actually focused on the image. It swam into her mind’s eye, an ephemeral eidolon that shimmered through blurred glass and then glistered away.
She asks herself the same question she did in jail: Did she really see this phantom, or is she simply desperate to have seen it? Even if she cannot believe that Max murdered Jonas, is she now sand-shifting the past to deny Maitland’s contention that Max was not only psychotic, but apparently had repeated hallucinations that Jonas wanted to kill him? There is also no
denying that she found Max gripping the comb covered in Jonas’s blood.
She shakes her head. As his mother, she is utterly incapable of believing that her son has murdered. She knows him better than any human on earth. They are warp and weft, fire and flame. There has to be another suspect—the real murderer. If there isn’t, then all that is left is the unthinkable: Max will spend the rest of his life in a psychiatric institution—or prison—without her. No, she cannot go to that black place, no matter how unbalanced or violent Maitland claims he is. She sighs. If a client gave her such a story, she would never have bought it—and neither will Tony. No matter. Even if she is deluding herself and there is no other suspect, they must still build a defense sufficient to raise reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors to acquit Max. This seems almost impossible given the damning physical evidence against him, even without the critical information she has concealed.
Her next thoughts are thorns. Every belief and value she has proclaimed immutable for herself now turn upon this one event, this one moment in her life. As an attorney and an officer of the court, she believes in the system, with all its frailties and foibles. As a human being, she believes in the dirt and clay of right and wrong. She is duty-bound to tell the truth, even if that truth leaves her son’s entire life in jeopardy, in danger, in pieces.
Danielle fights off a sick feeling in her gut. There is another moral dilemma that she has refused to consider, the mere possibility of which fills her with self-loathing. If they are unable to find the real killer, she will be forced to decide whether or not to marshal evidence to cast suspicion upon innocents. She has convinced herself that, if it comes down to the wire, whatever evidence she will be able to uncover probably won’t be enough to convict anyone—just enough to raise the req
uisite reasonable doubt to acquit Max. She can only pray that they find the real killer. If not, she doesn’t trust herself to say that she will not cross over the line into what is, for her, a mortal sin. She would walk willingly into hell for Max. But will she forfeit her soul to save him?
Before Danielle can speak, the telephone rings. Tony murmurs a few words and hangs up. “Listen, before we go any further, there’s someone I’d like to bring in on the case.”
He smiles. “Not quite. His name is Doaks. He’s a retired cop, now a private investigator. Since our position is that Max didn’t do it, we’re going to need someone top-notch who knows where all the bones are buried. Someone with connections to the local constabulary.”
Danielle notices his phrasing. Max’s innocence is framed as a legal position, not verity. “That sounds like a good idea. You’ve used him before?”
Sevillas nods. “I’ve known him for thirty-five years. We grew up in Plano together. He’s a little rough around the edges, but he’s the absolute best and, frankly, exactly what we need.”
“Then get him.”
Sevillas stands and walks to the door. “Let me grab his number from my secretary and you can sit in on the call. I have to warn you, though. He calls it like he sees it.”
She meets his probing gaze. “I can take it.”
Sevillas points at a document on his desk. “Why don’t you look this over? I’ll be back in a minute.”
Danielle stands quickly and walks over to him. She wants so badly to touch him, to have him know what she feels for him. He moves, as if to take her into his arms, and then stops himself.
His brown eyes search hers as they both stand, immobile. “Danielle,” he says quietly. “I think we should focus on one thing—your and Max’s defense. The rest is too…complicated.”
“I know,” she whispers. “But you have to know that our night together was real, that it was…true. I was just too afraid to let you in.”
The brown eyes are warm again. He leans forward and kisses her gently on the forehead. “I believe you.” He stands back and shakes his head. “This is insane. It might be the first time in my life that I’ve fallen so hard and so fast. And, of course, the woman turns out to be a defendant in a murder case with the absolutely worst facts I’ve ever seen.” Sevillas sighs as he leans forward to embrace her. Danielle feels the warmth of his whisper against her neck. “I’m not sure how any of this is going to turn out, but I want you to know that I’m going to do the very best I can. As for the other,” he pauses, “maybe it was just one wonderful night. If so, it’s one I’ll always cherish.” With that, he strides to the door and disappears.
Drained, Danielle collapses into her chair as her forehead falls into her hands. Silent, treacherous tears slide down her face. Her universe is a vortex that has her in a pitiless grip. She struggles to quell her panic, now at an unprecedented height after Tony’s rendition of the damning facts. She takes deep, ragged breaths. Max…she must think only of Max. She focuses on his smile; the light gray of his eyes; the curve of his cheek. Slowly, she comes to herself.