Authors: Marti Green
Tags: #Suspense, #Mystery, #Thriller
riving to her home in Bronxville, a Westchester suburb a commuter’s distance from HIPP’s office, Dani’s thoughts lingered on George Calhoun. As usual, cars inched north on the FDR Drive in spurts of ten to twenty miles per hour. What should have been a thirty-minute drive home usually took an hour or more. When it snowed, it could take close to two hours. Dani supposed she could take the railroad into the city and then take the subway, but she liked having her car with her in case a problem arose with Jonah and she needed to get home right away.
Before Jonah was born, she and Doug had lived in Brooklyn Heights, in a one-bedroom walk-up on the second floor. It was less expensive than Manhattan and an easy subway ride from the city. She loved living there. At night she and Doug would stroll over to the Promenade and gaze at the Manhattan skyline, the twin towers of the World Trade Center like two fists proclaiming the superiority of the city. She’d moved away before 9/11. After Jonah was born, they’d needed more room and bought a fixer-upper in Bronxville.
Dani passed the United Nations and saw a steady stream of traffic ahead. She slowly wound her way past the Queensboro Bridge, still graceful despite its advancing age, gradually picked up a little speed as she approached the Triboro Bridge, and had a reasonably smooth ride the rest of the trip home. She tuned the radio to a classic rock station. The pounding beats of Bon Jovi in the background didn’t stop her from mulling over George’s case. Inmates, guilty or not, regularly claimed innocence. It seemed strange, though, that he kept insisting the victim wasn’t his daughter. Was he delusional? Had he killed his daughter, thinking she was someone else? Or was his wife delusional, imagining that George had killed Angelina?
She turned into her driveway a little after four o’clock—not bad time, considering the traffic, and early enough to greet Jonah when his school bus pulled up at 4:15. Katie, their housekeeper, was always on hand in case Dani lost the battle with the roads. Katie came in every day at three o’clock, tidied up the house, made dinner for the family, and left at seven. That way Dani knew someone would always be home for Jonah. Even though he was twelve, he needed help.
Jonah had Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that caused mild retardation. But it also gave him the sweetest disposition. Most days a smile graced his face and he was friendly to everyone. Too friendly for today’s world, but it was hard wired.
“Hi, Katie,” Dani called out as she walked in. “Everything okay?”
“I’m in here,” a voice called from the direction of the kitchen.
Before Dani entered the cozy room with its 1940s vintage Wedgwood stove, she recognized the unmistakable fragrance of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven. “Mmm, smells yummy. Almost ready?”
“Not for you, they aren’t,” Katie answered with a smile. She knew Dani had been trying to drop ten pounds and acted as her conscience. Dani wished she could take Katie to work with her. The younger people in the office could eat all day and not gain an ounce. They sat at their desks, downing Krispy Kreme doughnuts with their morning coffee and peanut M&Ms for an afternoon pick-me-up, and Dani couldn’t resist when they’d offer their extras. So the ten pounds had been an uphill battle.
“You’re a sadist, Katie McIntyre.”
“True enough, but at least I’m a saint with Jonah.”
Dani couldn’t argue with that. After returning to work, she had gone through two housekeepers before finding Katie. The first two were disasters, putting her in a state of constant anxiety each morning as she left home knowing she had entrusted Jonah to their care.
Dani and Katie turned their heads turned their heads at the sound of the school bus pulling into the driveway. Dani opened the door for Jonah, and he bounded up the few steps in front of their home and rushed into her arms.
“I had a serendipity day at school today, Mommy.”
That was another thing about Williams syndrome kids. Despite their low IQs, they tended to have extensive vocabularies, although their choice of words often just missed the mark.
“What’s that palatable aroma? Are there cookies in the oven?”
Katie stuck her head into the foyer and nodded. “You bet. I made them just for you.”
As Jonah sat at the kitchen table with a plate of cookies and a glass of milk in front of him, Dani headed upstairs to the home office she shared with Doug. On one of the walls adjacent to the door were two desks, each with a computer sitting on top: his and hers. A bulletin board filled with snapshots of her family hung on the wall over her desk. She settled into her deeply cushioned chair and redirected her thoughts from warm, freshly baked cookies to George Calhoun. Vicious murderer or innocent victim? She had taken his case to find out the truth and prayed he was the latter. If he didn’t convince her, she would drop the case. Her rule was hard and fast: She didn’t represent child murderers, even if they hadn’t received a fair trial.
“Mommy, I feel discombobulated.”
Dani opened her eyes and saw Jonah standing over her. His cheeks were flushed and his dark brown eyes looked like pools of muddy water. She turned toward her alarm clock, and the bright red digits read 6:10, almost an hour earlier than her usual wake-up time. Doug slept soundly next to her, the covers of their down quilt pulled up to his chin to guard against the chill from the open window. Dani preferred a cool room to sleep in; Doug liked it toasty. So the window stayed open, but they’d splurged on the warmest down quilt they could find.
As she sat up, Dani tugged at Jonah’s arm to sit him next to her on the bed. She put the back of her hand against his forehead, and it felt warm and sweaty. Definitely a fever. Williams syndrome children were prone to an abundance of medical problems, and Dani strived to resist the immediate panic response to every illness. By and large, she had done well over the years, but behind her calm response a surge of terror often arose, and she needed to remind herself it was probably irrational. At least, she always told herself her fears were absurd as she pushed that sense of dread into the background.
“Come, Jonah, let’s go back into your bedroom,” she whispered to him. Dani put her arm around his shoulder and led him down the hallway. His bedroom looked like any other twelve-year-old boy’s, with posters of baseball heroes and rock stars adorning the walls, clothes hanging over the back of a chair, and stacks of textbooks on his desk. She settled him back into his bed and traipsed to the bathroom for a dose of children’s Tylenol and then to the kitchen for a glass of orange juice to wash it down.
With Jonah medicated, she made herself comfortable on the plush carpeted floor in his room, to keep him company. “Try to go back to sleep, sweetie,” she said as her own eyes drifted closed.
Deep within the recesses of her head, Dani heard the faint buzzing of an alarm clock down the hall. Her eyes shot open and she realized she had fallen asleep. She looked at Jonah and saw that he too had fallen back asleep. A soft guttural sound came from his slightly opened lips, and a shaft of sunlight peeking through the curtains lighted up beads of perspiration on his forehead. She stood up and felt his neck. Still warm. Quietly, she tiptoed out.
Doug lay in bed, his eyes half-closed. “Where were you?”
“In Jonah’s room. He’s sick.”
Doug’s eyes shot open and he raised himself up. “What’s wrong?”
“Probably just a cold. He has a fever, though.”
“Have you spoken to Dr. Dolman?”
Harvey Dolman, a doctor at Montefiore Hospital, treated Jonah for matters large and small. Dani thought him a godsend, a physician who not only understood Williams syndrome and its far-reaching tentacles but also treated his charges and their families with an inexhaustible supply of patience. The Bronx hospital had opened its Williams syndrome center just a few years ago, and it had simplified their lives immeasurably.
“It’s too early to call. I’ll wait until nine.”
“His service can reach him any time,” Doug said as he reached for the phone on the side of the bed.
Dani put her hand over Doug’s. “He’ll be okay. I’m sure it’s nothing serious. We shouldn’t disturb Dr. Dolman now.”
Doug stared at her a moment. “All right then, if you’re sure.” He lay back down. “You know he’ll want you to stay home with him.”
She did know. They were supposed to take turns, but Dani couldn’t resist Jonah’s pleading for her to stay.
At nine o’clock she called Dr. Dolman and received the reassurance she’d hoped for. Jonah had a cold, an ordinary cold like every child gets from time to time. He felt better after sleeping for a few more hours and awakening to discover he would spend the day at home with his mother. His smile returned, along with his gushing chatter. Dani enjoyed spending time with Jonah. In fact, most adults enjoyed his friendly and cheerful personality. If she hadn’t felt pressed by the Calhoun case, she’d have relished a day at home with her son. Instead, she picked up the phone and called her office.
“I’m going to work from home today,” she told Melanie. “Let’s schedule a conference call for two o’clock and we’ll go over what we have. Let Tommy know, okay? Oh, and if the retainer comes in from Calhoun, call me.”
An hour later she got a call back from Melanie. “It arrived in the morning mail. George Calhoun’s retainer letter. Do you want me to call his trial attorney?”
“He wasn’t just his trial attorney,” Dani reminded her. “He handled the appeals as well. I’ll give him a call from here.”
Telling the former attorney he was being replaced always presented a challenge. Sometimes HIPP got lucky, and there was visible relief that he’d be removed from his place as the last link in the chain of events leading up to a person’s death. More often there was defensiveness, because the first avenue of review on an appeal was ineffective assistance of counsel. The judicial system afforded everyone the right to counsel. With death cases, the Supreme Court had ruled that it must be effective counsel. Sadly, there were too many instances of overworked, inexperienced, incompetent, or just plain unfit attorneys defending the accused on trial for their lives. Dani had read so many trial transcripts where the defense attorney was admonished for alcohol on her breath or prodded awake when it was his turn for questioning that she wasn’t shocked anymore. With George’s trial counsel handling his appeals, the issue of ineffective counsel wouldn’t have been raised.
Dani looked him up on the Martindale Hubbell website, the bible for lawyer résumés. Robert Wilson was a small-town lawyer with one associate and no partners. Most likely, the current associate hadn’t worked there during George’s trial. She copied his phone number, but Jonah interrupted her before she could dial it.
“I’m bored,” he whined. “Why can’t I go to school now? I feel acceptable. I miss my friends. You’re too busy to interplay with me.”
Despite his pouting lips, Jonah looked cherubic, a characteristic common with Williams syndrome children, whose faces were often described as pixie-like. Dani walked to him and placed the back of her hand on his forehead. It felt cool. She was torn. She wanted to get started with Robert Wilson. The search began with him—the recitation of facts from the man initially charged with defending his client. Did he believe George was innocent? Did he think George was crazy? What had his trial strategy been? The foundation for her attempt to save George’s life, if HIPP decided to take his case, would be contained in Wilson’s files. But she knew Jonah needed her now. He’d never been good at entertaining himself; the desire for social interaction was too strong. Now that his fever had broken, he’d become restless. A familiar feeling washed over Dani—that she was balancing on a seesaw ten feet in the air, and the slightest movement in the wrong direction would send her tumbling to the unforgiving concrete below.
Reluctantly, Dani turned away from the telephone. “Okay, Jonah, I’ll play a game with you, but just for an hour. Then I’ve got work to do.” Jonah’s face lit up, and Dani pushed aside the knowledge that she was going to play Monopoly while a man awaited his destiny on death row.
After persuading Jonah to entertain himself with computer games, Dani finally returned to George’s case. She picked up the phone in the home office, which had become a tapestry of all the threads that made up their lives. One wall contained the ceiling-to-floor built-in mahogany bookcases they’d promised themselves they’d have once they owned a house. On the opposite wall was another built-in, this one housing a Murphy bed in the center, for rare overnight guests, with large open shelves on either side. The wall opposite the two windows enclosed a twenty-seven-inch television, modest by the standards of the day, along with various knickknacks they’d collected over the years and held on to as memories of their younger days. There was the large conch shell they had found the week they vacationed at the beach in Montauk, when Jonah was a year and a half and just learning to walk. They were so happy when he finally took those awkward baby steps, the kind where he looked like a drunken sailor ready to topple over at any moment. Dani had laughed when he plopped onto the warm sand next to the shell and held it tight to his little body. “Your first shell, Jonah. You can take it home with you.”
When she put the shell next to her ear, she could still hear the waves of the ocean crashing against the sand and see the smile on Jonah’s face as he carried his prize back to the motel. On another shelf were framed photographs of Jonah at various stages of his life. During the years when Dani had stayed home with him, she dabbled in photography, teaching herself the intricacies of apertures and shutter speed, ambient light and artificial light. She set up a darkroom in the basement and experimented with black-and-white film. Jonah was her subject, her muse, and stored in the recesses of her closet were boxes upon boxes of his image.
Once, Dani had fantasized a family of five children. She was an only child and envied her friends with many brothers and sisters. Their homes were always filled with noise and clutter, unlike the serenity of her own home, but it was a pandemonium that seemed infused with joy. From an early age, she knew she wanted a career, but somehow thought she could combine that with a large family. That changed after Jonah was diagnosed with Williams syndrome. She knew the physical and emotional toll that would go into raising her son. Having more children would inevitably shortchange Jonah or shortchange his sibling, she’d thought at the time. She sometimes wondered whether she’d been right. Looking at Jonah, she rejoiced at his development and knew that the commitment she and Doug had made to him had helped him get to that point. Yet she sometimes missed having a larger family. She’d met many couples with Williams syndrome children who had other children. Not just older siblings, but younger ones as well. They’d managed—even done well. She and Doug had made their decision, though, and it was too late to look back.