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Authors: Linda Peterson

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BOOK: The Devil's Interval
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“Want to split that last brownie?” I asked Michael. “And what does a tax lawyer know about jail or prison anyway?”

He pushed the plate with the lonely brownie my way. “All yours,” he said. “Where do you think tax evaders go?”

“Congress,” I said. “Maybe the White House. Corner office in some Fortune 500 company.”

“Very amusing, Maggie. Did those bleeding-heart criminal-defense Gasworks chicks put this idea in your head?”

“They did not,” I said indignantly. “I read an article in
The Wall Street Journal
. But Gasworks, that's a great idea. I'll bet they can cut through some of this red tape for me.” The Gasworks Gang is an ad hoc group of stay-at-home mommy-lawyers who handle death-penalty appeals. Since the community affairs officer at San Quentin had been less than enthusiastic about my proposal to personally stock the shelves with my bags of books, I knew I'd need some insider help getting access.

“I know the Dewey Decimal System,” I'd burbled over the phone. “My junior year I worked as a library aide at St. Agnes High School.”

“Well, now, Mrs. Fiori,” he began, “you have to understand that we have procedures,” which roughly translated into, “Okay, lady, drop your books at the gate, get on with your sweet suburban life, and keep your friggin' Dewey Decimal System to yourself.”

Oddly enough, Michael raised that very question.

“Maggie, why can't you just drop the books at the guard gate? You don't have to turn this into ‘Avon calling' on Death Row, do you?”

I was silent.


Cara
?” prompted Michael, “what are you up to?” He used Italian endearments primarily when he felt I wasn't listening to him.

“I'm just curious,” I said. “I've lived in the Bay Area almost twenty years and I've never been to San Quentin.”

“It's not a tourist attraction,” he said. “That's Alcatraz.”

“Well, I know.” I vacillated. “This whole thing about books and—”

“And felons. Killers,” Michael completed my sentence.

“Books and desperate people,” I said. “It interests me. Maybe there's a story.”

Michael sighed. “Well, maybe. But they're not going to let you take a little library cart around so you can interview these guys. Which is,” he muttered, “a big relief to me.”

I waited a moment. “Are you
telling
me not to deliver the books, Michael?”

His face went blank. “Certainly not,” he said. “Entirely your decision.”

“Thank you,” I said formally. “Just clarifying.” I stood and began clearing dinner plates. Time to leave the room before the chill in the air froze us both into familiar conflicts. Our marriage had been tested the last year or so, and it had been my fault. Entirely. Completely. And not a day went by that I didn't regret a series of moral missteps, beginning with temporarily abandoning the whole “forsaking all others” thing, continuing through an inadvertent run at ruining Michael's career, and ending with imperiling a few lives, including my own. I did, to be perfectly fair, unsnarl the murder of my boss (and former lover) at the magazine along the way.

Since that series of misadventures, I had become painfully aware that the life Michael and I had made together, which once seemed relatively easy to navigate, had become strewn with hidden ordnance. In what felt like an endless loop, I relived every dim-witted detour I had taken off the moral high road. Turns out there's no page in the Dick Tracy Crimestoppers Notebook warning amateur sleuths about collateral damage to marriages caused by adultery or sleuthing or, worse yet, both. Which led me to remember that we'd decided to join the rest of the Bay Area's middle-class, overly self-scrutinizing couples in marriage therapy. Our first session was coming up and, all in all, I would have preferred to have an encounter with the Brazilian wax specialist.

Still, before the all-too-familiar chill had hit our conversation, Michael had innocently planted the Gasworks Gang idea in my head, and it seemed like precisely the access I might need. I had discovered the group via Edgar “the Invincible” Inskeep, a ruthless and very successful criminal attorney. We'd met when Michael introduced him to our friend, and my former managing editor, Glen. It was the climax of my
annus horribilis
when Glen confessed to murdering our former boss, Quentin Hart, the late, great—but not particularly nice—editor of
Small Town
. Edgar, in turn, had introduced me to his wife, also a criminal attorney. Unlike her money-grubbing husband, who defended drug dealers and society
batterers for big bucks, Eleanor Inskeep was a public defender. Like many other women, when she became a mom, she looked for more flexible ways to run her professional life. She began doing death-penalty appeals and found it was satisfying but lonely work. To her surprise, she kept bumping into other new moms who were doing the same kind of work—and feeling the same way. Ninety percent of the time, they found themselves researching and writing, all alone by the computer and the phone. No more offices full of gossipy colleagues willing to dish fellow members of the criminal bar or commiserate when the same clients showed up for one, two, and then three strikes. Even your clients don't call—or at least, not often. And when they do, it's collect.

In the process of thanking Edgar profusely for mitigating Glen's troubles, I'd made one of those “anything I can do for you” offers we sometimes live to regret.

“Yeah,” he said, “take my wife out to lunch. She's going stir-crazy at home with the new baby, and she's taken up with a posse of other new moms, death-penalty types. I think they're up to no good.”

Eleanor was delighted to go out for lunch, especially when I dispatched Anya, our live-in Norwegian art student/au pair, to babysit.

“Lunch?” she said. “And you're sending a babysitter? You're my new best friend.”

She explained Gasworks to me over sand dabs and chardonnay at Tadich's. Tadich's is a long, wooden bar and boothy, clubby-looking San Francisco fish house where they put mashed potatoes in the tartar sauce and the waiters are all old enough to have been honorably discharged after the War of 1812.

“Hope it's not too noisy,” I said when we sat down.

Eleanor waved her hand at the room. “This is what I miss. The sound of adults eating and drinking.”

“So, tell me about Gasworks. What is it and why is it?”

“It's a cross between a professional interest group and a new mom survivor society,” she said. “A whole bunch of us criminal-
defense types became new moms all at once. You remember what that's like, right?”

I nodded. “More or less. It fades or blurs or something. Or I guess the species would die out.”

“Right,” said Eleanor. “Exhaustion, isolation, days and nights on end when you can't figure out if you'll ever do a productive grownup thing again. And then you're just brought to your knees by this helpless little tyrant you worship.”

“Been there,” I said.

“But then,” she continued, warming to her soapbox, “you're a trained professional, you're a criminal-defense lawyer. So you're trying to hold on to your self-respect and bring some money in, so you agree to accept death-penalty appeals.” She buttered her sourdough bread with more vigor than necessary.

“More isolation?”

“No kidding. It takes months and years, and the only people you talk to have bad news and horrible stories. Investigators who keep turning up tales of hellish childhoods, social workers who want to let you know that your client's mother just died and that her deathbed wish was that you ‘take care of her boy.'”

“Holy shit,” I said softly.

Eleanor's eyes brimmed. “I was nursing Tyler when I got that particular call from the social worker.” She swallowed. “I looked down at my son and thought: Once upon a time, my awful, terrible, pathetic, dumb ass violent client was somebody's baby, just like Tyler. Once upon a time, he was innocent.” She took a gulp of wine. “Plus, you know, all that postpartum emotional stuff. I was falling apart. That's when I got on the phone and started calling around to my old buddies in the Women Defenders.”

“Women Defenders? They sound like superheroes.”

She laughed. “Well, we think we are. It's a bunch of lefty criminal-defense lawyers from all over the state. We're the daughters of the women who did sit-ins at Berkeley and Columbia. Anyway, within a few days, I'd hauled together a few of us who were new moms and did death-penalty appeals. And that's how the Gasworks
Gang got its start.”

“And the name?”

“Come on, Maggie,” she said. “Surely it hasn't been that long since you had babies. What did you obsess about?”

“Sleep. Getting back into a size eight. Flawless birth control.”

“No, I mean about the babies?”

“Oh, colic, poop, and naps.”

“Exactly,” she said. “So, at our first meeting, we realized that we were talking about gas, gas, and more gas. Who's got it? Who hasn't? What do you do about it? And then, before lethal injections came along, executions took place.…”

“In the gas chamber,” I said. “I get it.”

“Right. And by the way, they still use the same puke-green room to do their dirty work. So, we decided we were the Gasworks Gang.”

After my lunch with Eleanor, I assigned a writer to research a feature on the gang for
Small Town
. I sent Calvin Bright, my favorite photographer and willing sidekick during my debut days as an amateur sleuth after Quentin's death, to shoot one of their meetings.

He showed up, contact sheets in sweaty hand, and delivered nonstop commentary as Linda Quoc,
Small Town'
s art director, and I looked through the shots.

“Those women are fine, fine, superfine,” he said.

“They do very good work,” I agreed. “It's thankless, but somebody's got to do it.”

“Oh, loosen up, Mags. I mean, that was one sexy group of broads.”

“They're all new moms, Calvin. Have a little respect. Plus, didn't they look awful? Circles under their eyes and everything?”

“I don't care. All those hormones in one room, all that ‘fullness-of-womanhood' shit, cooing over each other's babies….”

“Unbuttoning to breastfeed,” Linda added dryly.

“Yeah,” said Calvin, “that too. Yummy icing on the cake. You know what? I think we ought to do a once-a-month follow-up for
a while.”

Linda and I exchanged glances. “Get out, Calvin,” I said. “You've got the mind of a lecher and the maturity of a twelve-year-old.”

“And that,” said Calvin, on the way out the door, “is why you girls find me so irresistible. Plus, you know what they say, ‘once you've gone black….'”

“No one says that, Calvin. Not one single real human being. Dream on,” I said. It was too late. He was gone. And the pleasant distraction of bickering with a real person instead of staring at a screen came to an end.

But the Gasworks piece was a big hit for the magazine, and Eleanor and I became friends. So now, all these many months later, it was my turn to call for help. The Gasworks Gang, with their up-close-and-personal relationship with San Quentin, seemed like the perfect way to make sure my books got delivered to the Death Row Library.

When Eleanor answered the phone, I explained my request.

“Bring your books over,” she invited promptly. “We can have coffee and catch up. Besides, there's somebody in our group who wants to meet you. I've been meaning to call.”

“Advice on criminals or colic?” I asked.

“Something weird has come up,” she said.

“Weird?”

“Isabella Fuentes is the member who wants to meet you. She's got an innocent client on Death Row.”

I laughed. “Hey, Eleanor, isn't that what they all claim?”

“I'm not kidding, Maggie. I don't mean legally innocent; I mean
really
innocent.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah,” she said seriously. “It's one of a kind. We could use some ink.”

Interval No. 1 with Dr. Mephisto

T
he night before we went to our first session with Jessie McQuist, MFT, PhD, and couples counselor to every other yuppie/buppie/guppie committed twosome in the East Bay, some miserable brew of guilt and dread gave me a killer case of insomnia. Beside me, Michael snored gently, deep in the untroubled sleep of not just the guiltless but also the noble and forgiving wronged spouse. At first he'd been furious, then cold and businesslike, and slowly he'd started to return to his normal, careless, affectionate self. But therapy! Yuck. That seemed likely to reignite the whole cycle of fire and ice. To distract myself, I focused on Dante's second circle of hell, the one that was home to those who lusted. At least it was a cool club that would welcome me—Cleopatra was there, and Helen of Troy, and Guinevere. Beauties, queens, and me, a weak, slightly bored, and hassled dilettante writer-editor-mom. The irony, I realized, was that it hadn't even been lust that had tempted me into the affair with my late boss. It was curiosity about someone who seemed so elegant and elusive. It was hero worship. It was a chance to see myself as something other than the mom on the Wednesday pickup for soccer practice. It was exciting to feel seductive, to make love in the middle of the afternoon, to have a secret. But of course it was also the secret that made me miserable. And the worst moment of my life rolled around, as I should have known it would, when Michael told me he knew. It was the morning after Quentin's death, and we were jockeying for mirror and sink space in our bathroom, as we did every morning. I sniffled something about what a wonderful, irreplaceable editor and friend Quentin had been. And then Michael shut me up. “Was he a wonderful lover, too?” he asked. We were both facing the mirror, Michael shaving, his eyes cold and flat. “What do you mean?” I stammered. And then he told me. He knew. He'd known for a long time. He knew it was over, and he didn't want to talk about it. Ever.

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