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Authors: Linda Peterson

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BOOK: The Devil's Interval
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“Like those Northwestern journalism students who tracked down evidence that a guy on Illinois's Death Row was innocent?” I asked.

“Exactly. That's where the Center for Wrongful Convictions
was founded. In fact, there are Innocence Projects all over the country now, but none are willing to take on this case. Joe Kotter, the guy who defended my client, is a more-than-competent attorney, which makes it even tougher to pursue the appeal. And that's why Eleanor thought we should talk to you. We've got an innocent guy on our hands, really innocent, it's not just that flimflam stuff you think we lawyers do.”


Small Town
is a city magazine,” I protested. “We're not exactly home base for hard-hitting investigative reporters. The only things we're tough on are bad movies and unsafe sushi.”

“We know that,” said Eleanor. “We just want to start by asking some advice. If we go to a—forgive me, Maggie—a real reporter, somebody on the crime beat, they've got to run with the story. This is a delicate situation.”

“Okay, what do we know so far? It's delicate and I'm not a real reporter. As you guys would say, ‘I'll stipulate to that.' But I still don't know exactly what it is you want my advice about.”

Eleanor looked at Isabella. “It's your story to tell,” she said.

Isabella nodded. “My client's name is Travis Gifford. He's forty-one years old, retired from the military. Ran a couple of motor pools on big Army posts, made sure the brass got driven around. So when he got out of the service, he tried driving a taxi part-time, but he didn't like it. His mom's got a jazz club in the city, and he used to play there sometimes, but the club didn't generate enough income to support both of them. Anyway, he's a very smart, personable, presentable-looking guy, so he went to work for one of those upscale car companies. He'd do airport runs and longer-term assignments for executives. He had a license to carry a gun, so sometimes he'd do security-related driving.”

“Wait a second,” I said. “Travis Gifford. I remember this story. Your client's the Limousine Lothario?”

Isabella nodded. “That's what they called him. He's a handsome man, and before he went to prison, he did enjoy the company of women.”

“In the limousine? Isn't that right? He used it for assignations?”

“Sometimes.”

“And then he murdered a woman in the company's limousine?”

“That's what the jury concluded.”

“But that's not what happened?”

Isabella pulled the pencil out of her topknot, opened her perfectly made-up lips, and began chewing on the end of the pencil.

“Isabella,” prodded Eleanor, softly.

She took the pencil out of her mouth and said, “Absolutely not.”

CHAPTER 3

I
left Eleanor's house with two souvenirs: the leftover pastries and a thick file on Travis Gifford, the Limousine Lothario. The file included a number of society-page clips featuring Grace Plummer—a tall, ashy blond with a high cheekboned, sculpted face that either signaled great genes or extraordinary cosmetic surgery. There she was in a Rita Hayworth, put-the-blame-on-Mame black dress with a frothy white fishtail hem at the Black & White Ball, dancing cheek to cheek with Mr. Plummer; on a sailboat in the bay, leaning out over the water; barefoot at the beach, laughing directly into the camera with a live crab in each hand; making a runway twirl in tennis whites at the Junior League fashion show; holding an extravagant bouquet of roses at the San Francisco Garden Show. A breathtaking woman with what looked like a carefree, pleasure-filled life. Underneath the clips was a short stack of black and white, way too graphic police photos. Isabella warned me as I picked them up.

When she warned me, I'd looked at just one. Grace Plummer, the late Mrs. Frederick G. Plummer, lying face down, arms cinched tight
,
wrists bound with something that looked like a flowered chiffon scarf, on the back seat of a very spacious sedan. A limousine, in fact. Travis Gifford's limousine. I couldn't see her face, but I could see what three bullets had done to the back of her head. It was as awful a sight as I ever wanted to see.

“What happened?” I asked, turning the photograph face
down, just like the once lovely Mrs. Plummer.

“We don't really know. But here's what the prosecution said happened,” answered Isabella. She took a deep breath, hugged her knees to her chest, and rocked a bit, as if she hurt, deep in her gut. “Travis met Mrs. Plummer because her husband hired him to drive on a regular basis. To and from meetings out of San Francisco, to and from the airport, frequent trips up and down Silicon Valley. When Mr. Plummer didn't need Travis's services, Mrs. Plummer often did.”

“This is Frederick Plummer, venture capitalist to the once and future dot-com stars?” I asked.

“None other,” said Isabella. “Travis and Mrs. Plummer became friendly. Then they became even friendlier. They became lovers. And they both had…wide-ranging tastes. A little tasteful bondage, a little playful S&M.”

“Is this the prosecution talking?”

Isabella sighed. “No, up to this point, it's the defense talking, too. But this is where we part company with the DA. Nobody argues with the fact that Travis and Grace Plummer got a little adventuresome in their love life. But the night she was killed, Travis claims they made love in the limo, parked out at Land's End, and then he delivered her safe and very much alive to the Plummers' home, around 10 p.m. He drove the limo home, parked it in his garage, climbed two flights up to his apartment, and went to bed.”

“And then?”

“The next morning, one of Travis's neighbors was leaving early. He parked next to Travis in the garage, and right away he saw that the limousine had been pulled in so crookedly that he was going to graze the side of it if he didn't back out really carefully. He wrote a note to leave on the windshield, complaining to Travis. But he noticed the car was unlocked, so he opened the door to leave the note on the front seat, and the smell knocked him over. Then he saw—well, you saw what he saw.”

“Travis shot her?” I asked.

Isabella shrugged. “Someone shot her. But she may have
been dead already, from a broken neck. The DA argued that the gunshots were just to mislead the cops, that her neck was broken in some sex play that got out of hand.”

Isabella handed the file back to me. “It's all in there. You can read it yourself.”

“This sounds ridiculous. Who'd be crazy enough to kill someone in their own car and then park in the garage?”

“That's what the defense argued. But there was too much evidence. Travis's semen in Mrs. Plummer. Skin samples under her nails. No one who had seen Travis deliver her home, as he claimed.”

“How about the husband? Isn't the spouse the automatic best suspect?”

“Generally, yes. But Plummer had a dinner meeting that night, and a whole crowd of young gearhead entrepreneurs and their lawyers has given him an alibi until nearly 1 in the morning. Coroner says the time of death was between 11 p.m. and midnight.”

“Okay. But, going back to Gifford, why would he leave a dead body in his car, in his garage?”

Isabella shrugged. “The prosecution had an answer for that, too. The limousine had darkened windows, no one could see in. He didn't know anyone would open the door—they claimed he planned to get rid of the body later that day.”

“And what about the gun? You said Travis was licensed to carry one. Did they find the gun used to shoot Mrs. Plummer? Was it Travis's gun?”

“They did find it,” said Isabella, “and it wasn't his. Different caliber. It was wrapped in a pretty disgusting mess of used kitty litter in a trash can next door to Travis's apartment building. It was impossible to tell whose gun it was, because the serial numbers had been obliterated.”

“What does your client think really happened?”

“He doesn't know. He figures—we all figure—that if she had something going with him, she might have had other extracurricular activities. Though he admits he didn't think she
did. And it didn't much matter, because we couldn't turn anything up before the trial.”

“And now?”

“Well, during the habeas process, we've got an investigator looking into everything. But frankly, people like the Plummers don't have lives that open themselves easily to the kinds of investigators we can hire.”

Eleanor cleared her throat. “Which is where you come in, Maggie.”

I looked at her. She had that carefully neutral expression I was used to seeing on the faces of my children when I was trying to ascertain who had fed the dog underneath the dinner table.

“The Plummers and their friends are exactly the kinds of people
Small Town
covers. You've got access to a world and information we just don't have.”

Moments like this were precisely when I realized I should have gone to journalism school instead of, as a literature and piano student, lying around on rump-sprung sofas, reading 18th-century novels or scouring the music building for hunky cellists to play chamber music with. I should know how to respond, but I didn't have a clue.

I shook my head. “I don't know. This doesn't smell all that different to me than the cops coercing information out of media organizations.” I held up my hand. “I know, your cause is just and all that. But, if you do it for one side, you do it for the other.”

“Wait a second,” said Isabella. “We're not asking you to turn over confidential interviews.”

“What are you asking, exactly?” I said, as I put the file back on Isabella's lap.

Isabella put the file on the floor between us.

“Just this. I think there's more to the story that we could understand if we had access to the Plummers' lives. How does a woman like Grace Plummer spend her time? Who does she hang out with when she is doing all her socialite charity activities? Who's her hairdresser? What valet parkers does she hire if she's having a
party?” She unfolded her legs, stood up, and started wandering around the living room, patting her pockets in the unmistakable tic of a recently reformed smoker.

“Look, Maggie. It's not all that different from the journalism professor at Northwestern who sent his class out to uncover evidence to have that Death Row case reopened.”

“It is different,” I said. “Those kids weren't working journalists, with a responsibility to a publisher and to their readers. Plus, I'm not an investigative reporter. I'm an editor. I sit in front of a computer, harass writers about deadlines, and argue with the lawyers who never want us to say one single controversial thing to anybody about anything.”

Isabella stood over me, and nudged the file back toward me with one, red-tennied toe. “How about this? Take the file home, read it through, look at the clips. Talk to some people at the magazine, see if the story appeals to anybody. Mrs. Plummer was a pretty high-profile player on the social scene—that's got to be of some interest to your readers. We're not asking for any favors with the information you find. We just think that if
Small Town
stirs the pot, something might happen. Right now, we're only asking you to spend an hour reading the file. Then, give me a call.”

Eleanor cleared her throat. “Travis Gifford was somebody's baby boy once upon a time,” she whispered.

“Such a cheap shot,” I whispered back. I closed my eyes for a moment, willing that image of Grace to go away. Suppose it was one of my boys wrongly accused. Unthinkable. Too ridiculous to contemplate. I opened my eyes, picked up the file, and stood.

“Okay, I'll look at it and I'll call you.”

Isabella smiled, and pulled the red pencil out of her dark hair.

“Here's one of my lucky pencils. Just put a little check mark next to anything that puzzles you.”

I looked at the pencil. It was a soft No. 1, and down its length, it read:


Antes que te cases, mira lo que haces
.”

“Before you get married, look what you're doing?” I asked,
puzzled.

Isabella laughed, “It's the Spanish equivalent, of ‘Look before you leap.' The mom of a guy I dated in law school always used to say that. For a long time, I thought she was worried her precious
hijo
was going to marry me. Then, I figured out it was great advice for anyone nuts enough to go into criminal law.”

“What do you think now?” I asked, standing up, tucking the file under my arm.

“Now I'm convinced she was very worried he was going to marry me. But it's still good counsel.”

Eleanor walked me to the door.

“Thanks for coming, Maggie. We really appreciate your help.”

“I've only agreed to look at this stuff, Eleanor. I haven't said yes to anything else,” I reminded her.

“I know,” she said. She reached over and gave my cloche a little tug, straightening it for me. “Very between-the-wars look,” she said. “I love your hats. They always make me feel as if I'm in a classic movie.”

“Me, too,” I said. “I feel that way almost every day—only I don't have a script and have to make up my own lines. Sometimes I'm not even sure I know what character I'm playing.”

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