Authors: John Lescroart
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Thrillers
Dismas Hardy 04
J o h n L e s c r o a r t
"We would give her more consideration, when we judge a woman, if we knew how difficult it is to be a woman."
"The fickleness of the women I love is only equaled by the infernal constancy of the women who love me."
—George Bernard Shaw
Jennifer Witt rechecked the table. It looked perfect, but when you never knew what perfect was, it was hard to be sure. There were two new red candles — Larry had a problem with half-burnt candles, with guttered wicks — in gleaming silver candlesticks.
She had considered having one red candle and one green candle since it was getting to be Christmas time. But Larry didn't like a jumble of colors. The living room was done all in champagne — which wasn't the easiest to keep clean, especially with a seven-year-old — but she wasn't going to change it. She remembered when she'd bought the Van Gogh print (A PRINT, FOR CHRIST'S SAKE! YOU'D HAND A PRINT IN MY LIVING ROOM?) and the colors had really bothered Larry.
He liked things ordered, exact. He was a doctor. Lives depended on his judgment. He couldn't get clouded up with junk in his own home, he told her.
So she went with the red candlesticks.
And the china. He liked the china, but then he'd get upset that things were so formal in their own home. Couldn't she just relax and serve them something plain on the white Pottery Barn stuff? Maybe just hot dogs and beans? They didn't have to eat gourmet every night. She tried hard to please, but with Larry, you never knew.
One time he wasn't in the mood for hot dogs and beans; he'd had an especially hard day, he said, and felt like some adult food. And Matt had had a bad day at school and was whining, and one of the plates had a chip on the side.
She shook her head to clear the memory.
Tonight she was making up with him, or trying to, so she decided to go with the china. She could feel his dissatisfaction… it got worse every time before he blew up… and she was trying to keep the explosion off for a few more days if she could.
So she'd fixed his favorite — the special veal kidney chops that you had to go get at Little City Meats in North Beach. And the December asparagus from Petrini's at $4.99 a pound. And she'd gotten Matt down early to bed.
She looked at herself in the mirror, thinking it odd that so many men thought she was attractive. Her nose had a hook halfway down the ridge. Her skin, to her, looked almost translucent, almost like a death mask. You could see all the bone structure, and she was too thin. And her eyes, too light a blue for her olive skin. Deep-set, somehow foreign-looking, as though her ancestors had come from Sicily or Naples instead of Milano, as they had.
She leaned over and looked more closely. There was still a broken vein, but the eyeshadow masked the last of the yellowish bruise. As she waited for him to come home, checking and rechecking, she had been curling her lower lip into her teeth again. Thank God she'd noticed the speck of coral lipstick on her tooth, the slight smear that had run beyond the edge of her liner.
Quickly, listening for the front door, she stepped out of her shoes and tiptoed over the hardwood floor — trying not to wake Matt — to the bathroom, where the light was better. Taking some Kleenex, she pressed her lips with it and reapplied the pencil, then the gloss. Larry liked the glossy wet look. Not too much, though. Too much looked cheap, like you were asking for it, he said.
She walked back to the front of the house. When she got to the champagne rug, she slipped her pumps back on.
Olympia Way, up by the Sutro Tower, was quiet. It was the shortest day of the year, the first day of winter, and the street lights had been on since she had gotten back from shopping at 5:00 p.m.. She checked her watch. It was 7:15.
Dinner would be ready at exactly 7:20, which was when they always ate. Larry arrived from the clinic between 6:50 and 7:05 every day. Well, almost every day. When he got home he liked his two ounces of Scotch, Laphraoig, with one ice cube, while she finished putting dinner on the table.
She wondered if she should turn off the oven. Would he still want his drink first? If so, what about the dinner? She could put it out on the table, but then it might be cold before he got around to it. Larry really hated it when his meal was cold.
Worse, he might think she was trying to hurry him. What he didn't need after a long day seeing patients was somebody in his home telling him to hurry up.
The asparagus was the problem.
What if Larry walked in the door in exactly one minute and wanted to go right to the table and the asparagus wasn't ready? It had to cook in the steamer for ninety seconds — if there was one thing Larry really couldn't abide it was soggy limp asparagus. Maybe, if he came in and sat right down she could dawdle over serving the rest of the meal and the asparagus would be perfect just at the right time. That's what she'd do.
It was a little risky but better than putting it on now, thinking he'd get home on time and want to sit down right away, and then having him be late and the asparagus be overcooked.
No sign of his Lexus coming up the street. No one was coming up the street. Where was he? Damn, she was biting her lower lip again.
7:20. She turned the heat off under the rice. At least that would be all right for a while if she kept it covered — each grain separate just the way Larry liked it.
She made sure the water was right at the boil and that there was enough in the steamer. Everything depended on the asparagus being ready to go as soon as Larry walked in the door. As soon as she heard him, even. If the water wasn't boiling, or if it ran out underneath, that would ruin everything.
By 8:15 she had taken the chops out of the oven, refilled the water in the steamer three times and added butter to the rice to keep it from sticking, but there wasn't any hope now. At 7:35, she had poured Larry's Scotch and added the ice cube, now melted long ago. At the hour she poured the diluted drink into the sink.
She heard the footsteps on the walk outside. God, she hoped he'd found a parking place nearby. Sometimes if you got home late there wasn't anywhere to park within blocks, and that always put him in a real bad mood.
The dinner could, maybe, be saved. She knew what she could do… she'd pour him the new Scotch now, with a new ice cube, greet him at the door and let him unwind for twenty minutes until the second round of rice was cooked. She could microwave the chops on low power and they probably wouldn't get too dry. The asparagus wouldn't be any problem.
She had the drink in her hand, ready for him, when he opened the door. He was tall and very handsome — with his cleft chin and his body still young at forty-one. He had all his hair, wavy and fashionably long. An Italian suit, colorful tie with a snow-white shirt — colors, he said, were okay in a tie, so long as they didn't clash. She put the drink in his hand, pecked his cheek, smiled up at him.
"Where have you been?"
God she hadn't meant to say that. It had just come out, and right away she wished she could take it back.
"What do you mean, where have I been? Where do you think I've been?"
"Well, I mean it's late. I thought… I was worried."
"You were worried. I like that." He seemed to notice the drink for the first time. "What's this?"
"It's your Scotch, Larry. Why don't you sit down, relax."
"What time is it? You know when I get home this late I don't like to drink before dinner. I'd like some food in my belly."
"I know, but I thought…"
"Okay, you thought. You're trying. I appreciate it. But I'm starving. Let's just go and eat, all right?"
She stepped back, not too far, not as though she were retreating. "Dinner'll just be a few minutes, honey."
He stopped. "What do you mean, a few minutes? I walk in the door and there's no dinner? I work all day and I come home to no dinner?"
"Larry, there was dinner an hour ago. I didn't know you were going to be so late—"
"Oh, so it's late now. And somehow I've ruined dinner. Somehow it's my fault."
"No, Larry, it's not that. It just needs to be warmed up, it's all ready. Why don't you just have your drink? I'll call you in a couple of minutes."
She could use the old rice. Luckily she hadn't thrown it out. Maybe he wouldn't notice. And if she put the asparagus right in and micro'd the meat a little higher it should all be ready in five minutes, maybe less.
She saw his jaw tighten, his fists clenching shut. Opening, closing, opening, closing. She flinched backward, then, realizing it, gave him a quick smile. "Really," she said, "five minutes. It'll be no time. Promise. Enjoy your drink."
He looked down at the glass. "Don't tell me what to do, Jenn, all right? I've got patients all day giving me their opinions about things they know absolutely nothing about. All right?"
"Okay, Larry, Okay. I'm sorry."
He shook his head. "And please stop saying you're sorry for everything."
"Okay." She started to repeat that she was sorry and stopped herself just in time.
He was sipping his drink. His fists had stopped clenching. It looked like it was going to work.
For forty-three workdays in a row Dismas Hardy had put on his suit and tie and made a point of coming downtown to the office that he had rented. The office was an interim setup, not a commitment. He wasn't quite ready to go to work for a corporate law firm — not yet, at least, not without first seeing if he could work for himself and make a decent living involving the law.
He was beginning to doubt if he could.
His landlord was David Freeman, another attorney who had hung up a shingle to make a go of it — except Freeman had done it. Sixty years old and crustier than San Francisco's famed sourdough bread, the old man had become a legend in the city. His shingle now was a burnished brass plate — David Freeman & Associates — riveted to the front of the Freeman Building, a gracious four-story structure on Sutter Street in the heart of the financial district.
Freeman and Hardy had met as adversaries in a murder case a year before. Before it was over, they had begun grudgingly to admire one another for the traits they shared — a certain relentless doggedness, a rogue streak regarding how the law game was played, a passion for details, a personal need for independence. The admiration had gradually turned into friendship.
Over the next months Freeman had courted Hardy, subtly, counseling him on the perils of life in the big corporate firms. Oh sure, the money was great but there was also the tedium of the paperwork, the burden of having to find forty billable hours week after week after week, the dependence on some partner you'd have to kiss up to (who was probably younger than Hardy's forty-one). You lived in a beehive and every decision you made — from where you indented the paragraphs in your briefs to what you were going to plead for your clients — was subject to some committee's approval. Did Hardy want all
Why didn't he give his real dream and instincts a chance? Freeman would let him rent an office upstairs, use the library, borrow his receptionist, pay a nominal rent, at least while he made up his mind.
So forty-three days ago Hardy had come in.
He had been in the courtroom at the Hall of Justice four times since. Three of these cases — two referred to him by David — had been DUIs, driving under the influence, where Hardy's involvement had been, at best, tangential. The clients wound up paying their fines and going home. In the fourth case, one of Hardy's acquaintances had a friend, Evan Peterson, with fifteen unpaid parking tickets. Pulled over for gliding through a stop sign, Peterson had been arrested on the spot on the outstanding warrant. Peterson had called for his friend who'd called Hardy and asked if he'd come down to the hall and walk him through the administrative maze, which Hardy had done.
Life on the cutting edge of the law.
It was the middle of the afternoon. At lunchtime he had gone home to see his wife, Frannie, and their two children, Rebecca and Vincent. After lunch, he had run four miles along the beach, through Golden Gate Park, back along the Avenues to his house on 34
. Then, giving in to his old Catholic guilt — what if a client was pounding on his door and he wasn't there? — he dressed in his suit again and drove back downtown.
Hardy had his feet up, reading. Looking up from the pages, he took a breath, trying to be philosophical about it, telling himself that today was the forty-third day of the rest of his life.
Freeman's receptionist, Phyllis, stood at the door to his office. She was a rigid but, Hardy thought, potentially sweet woman in her mid-fifties, smiling hesitantly. Hardy took his feet off his desk, put down his copy of
A Year In Provenance
— dreams, dreams — and motioned her in.
"You're not busy? I'm not interrupting you?"
He allowed as how he had a few minutes he could spare.
"I just got a call from a woman named Jennifer Witt. Do you know who she is?"
Hardy's feet were suddenly on the floor. Phyllis stepped further into the office. "She was arrested this morning and wanted to talk to David but he's in court." Freeman was always in court. "And none of the associates is here."
Freeman had a small crew of young lawyers working for him and managed to keep them all busy.
"David want me to go down?" Hardy was already up.
"I buzzed him and he just called me back. They were having a recess. He's afraid Mrs. Witt will go to someone else if we don't get a representative down there in a hurry. He asked if you wouldn't mind…"
"Jennifer Witt?" Hardy repeated.
Phyllis nodded. "I think it's maybe a big one," she said.
* * * * *
Coverage of the crime itself had been all over the newspapers and television. It was the kind of grist that was the lifeblood of local news — Larry Witt, a doctor, and his seven-year-old son Matt had been shot to death in their home. The mother had been out excercising. A neighbor had heard shots and dialed 911. When the mother returned from jogging, a policeman had just arrived at the door and had told her to wait downstairs while he went up. He then discovered the carnage.
In the first couple of weeks news reports had advanced the theory that a professional hit man had, for some unknown reason, been hired to wipe out the Witt family. Mrs. Witt had allegedly seen a suspicious man — an Hispanic or African-American — in the vicinity on the morning in question.
Jennifer Lee Witt, the wife, was hot copy on her own. Even the worst likenesses of her, two columns in the
or frozen as a teaser for the 6:00 p.m. news, crying or in apparent shock, revealed the photogenic face of a young woman just past innocence. The good shots tended to be so captivating that she almost appeared to be posing.
* * * * *
She was dressed in a yellow jumpsuit like all the other prisoners on the seventh floor. Though her blondish hair was cut short, the sides fell slightly forward, partially obscuring her face. She stared at the floor as she walked.
Through the wire glass window Dismas Hardy watched her approach the visitors' room, then turned back and sat at the table and waited until the guard could open the door and present her.
There was the sound of the key and Hardy stood.
"Mr. Freeman?" Tentatively, she had her hand out.
Disoriented, she now pulled in her hand and stepped backward. Hardy thought she looked about ready to break down. He spoke quickly. "I work with Mr. Freeman." Not strictly true. "He's stuck in court."
She didn't move. "What do you lawyers do, just pass people around? I called my husband's attorneys and they said they couldn't help me but David Freeman could. He's the best, they said."
"He's very good."
"So I agreed they could call him, fine, and next thing you know her
are. I'd never heard of Mr. Freeman. I've never heard of you. I can't believe I'm arrested. For Larry's murder, and my son Matt's for God's sake. They
think I killed my little boy." At the mention of the son's name, her lip began to tremble. She turned away, hand to her face. "I am not going to cry."
Hardy nodded to the guard, who stepped out of the room and closed the door behind her. It was a small room, five-by-eight, with a pitted desk and three metal chairs taking up most of it. The window faced the office for the women's side of the jail. Two uniformed female guards moved in and out of the picture to their cluttered desks, up, out somewhere, then back in. The women's common tank was just around the corner. When the door had been open, noises exploded every minute or so. Clangs, sobs, voices. Now the door filtered most of the sound.
Hardy waited for Jennifer Witt's breathing to slow down. Finally she turned back to him. He was sitting with one leg over the corner of the table. "You can have Mr. Freeman if you'd like but he won't be available for a while. This is a grand-jury indictment. There is not going to be any bail."
"You mean I have to stay here? God… how long?" She was struggling with the effort to get words out. Suddenly she hung her head and sat down.
Hardy felt like an intruder. He let an eternal minute pass.
She took in a deep sigh as though she'd been holding her breath. I'm sorry, it's my fault. I just didn't want to get in any more trouble and I thought I should have a lawyer."
"Okay." Hardy had come off the desk and went to sit across the table from her.
"Not that it matters."
"It might," Hardy said.
She wasn't going to fight about whether having a lawyer was a good thing or not. Wearily, she shook her head. "I keep thinking something's going to help, something's going to make it better."
Hardy started to say that the right representation could make all the difference. But her gaze was a blank. He wasn't getting through. "Mrs. Witt?"
She wasn't there. Or rather, as far as she was concerned, Hardy wasn't there. She shook her head from side to side. Eventually, a pendulum winding down, she stopped. "No," she said. "I mean Matt. My baby."
Hardy took in a breath himself and held it a moment. He, too, had lost a son. Over the years he had gotten better at keeping it out of the front of his mind. But he would never forget, never even approach forgetting.
Looking at this woman — frail now in the jail's jumpsuit — he found himself feeling a strong connection. It was unguarded and maybe unprofessional, but there'd be no harm in letting the legalities wait a few minutes. God knew, once they began they'd go on long enough. "How long has it been?" he asked.
She pulled at a strand of her hair. "I can't accept it." Her voice was hoarse now, her eyes distant. "Nothing seems real anymore, you know?" She gestured around the tiny airless room. "This place. I feel like I'm sleepwalking in a nightmare… I want to wake up… I want Matt back…" She swallowed, seemed almost to gulp at the air. "God, I don't know. What can
do? What do you care?"
"I do care, Mrs. Witt."
She took that in without a blink, not a sigh, not a glance at him. Inside herself again.
Hardy looked down at his hands, linked on the table between them. Jennifer Witt wasn't worried about her lawyers and their games, about her bail and her baggy yellow jumpsuit. She'd lost her son and nobody was going to bring him back. She was right. Nothing Hardy could do would make that better.
* * * * *
There was a square of light from an outside window over one of the guard's desks. It had moved nearly a foot since Jennifer had been brought in.
She had begun to open up, to listen. The details of Hardy's proxy representation accepted for the moment, they were finally getting down to it. She didn't want to spend the rest of her life in jail, did she?
"Not for something I didn't do, Mr. Hardy."
"Okay. But let me ask you, what did you mean when you said you deserved it? Deserved
In a reaction that struck Hardy as pathetic, she ducked away, as if she were going to be hit. "Nothing, anything… this…"
"I shouldn't have let it happen. I wasn't there. Maybe if I'd been there…" She shook her head again.
happen? Why do the police think you did this?" Hardy wanted to hear her version. Never imagining he'd have any part in it, he'd followed the news of the crime casually as it appeared in the papers or on television, just another of the many stories of domestic woe that came and went to help sell soap or hamburgers or newspapers.
. I don't understand. When they came to arrest me I asked them—"
"And what did they say?"
She shrugged, apparently mystified. "They got to talking about my rights, warned me about anything I said, that I could have a lawyer, that kind of thing."
"But you saw this was coming? You must have—"
She stopped him, interrupting with a dry noise that sounded bitter when it came out. "I haven't thought about
, don't you understand that? I've been trying just to get through the days."
Hardy knew what she meant. She scraped a fingernail over the tabletop, staring at the yellowing strip of varnish that lifted and flaked away. Again, she swallowed — as though keeping herself from breaking down. But her voice — the tone of it — sounded almost matter-of-fact, if weary. He was sure the coloring was protective. Well, she would have to try to soften it if her case ever went to trial, if she ever testified. She would come across as too cool. Even cold.
But that, if at all, was a long way off.
"I was just getting used to the awfulness of it. I mean, okay, there might have been somebody who was robbing the house or had some problem with Larry — I don't know what. And Larry gets shot. Larry, Jesus… But
She was losing the fight with her tears.
Hardy was with her. "The papers always said Matt must have been an accident, he walked in at a bad time, something like that."
She nodded. "
what I've been thinking about, Mr. Hardy. If only he hadn't been there, if it had been a school day, if Matt hadn't walked in or said something or whatever it was he did… Or if I had stayed home, could I have protected him?" She bit her lip, hit the table with her small fist. "That's what I've been thinking about, not the goddamn
somebody might have thought it was me. And that's
I've been thinking about." A tear hit the table and she wiped at it with her hand. "Goddamn it," she said. "Goddamn it."
Again sounding tough.
"It's okay," Hardy said, meaning the language, the loss of control.
Hardy sat back in the hard chair. She was right. And he believed her.
Eventually she came up with something.
"I guess maybe they thought it was the insurance, but it wasn't—"
"How much insurance?"