I waited for the front office door to shut before I dared to move. I had been tempted to take the case without any further research for the money alone. In all my years of practice, I had never had a prospective client offer to pay more than I asked, let alone suggest they would pay double my rate. She didn’t even know my rate when she suggested it.
On rare occasions when I had obtained a successful result, a client might pay a bonus, but most seemed to feel like I had been fairly compensated, even though I had changed their life by keeping them out of prison.
I knew the value of my services and made sure to price my fees accordingly, so I didn’t particularly care if somebody wasn’t grateful at the end. And there was always the problem of those who were found guilty.
Those clients were never happy.
I let out a low whistle, thinking of the opportunity this represented. It’s not like I was hurting for money myself, but it was a current matter of contention between my other two partners.
It might smooth things over if I could bring in a little boon like this. There would be a lot of ground to cover during the initial phase of Penny’s case. The additional fees could certainly help out the partnership.
It might well mean that there still is a partnership two months from now.
Perhaps things for my partner Tony would have changed by then. It had been a long time since he had successfully brought one of his personal injury cases to a close, but he had a number he was working, and always seemed to be taking more. If he were to collect tomorrow everything that he could potentially earn, it would be well over two million dollars in fees for the firm. Things didn’t usually work out that way, and most of his cases still had months on the legal treadmill, if not years.
Give it a month or two. Who knows what the financial scene will look like then?
Maybe Tony would have a massive windfall that would make my other partner, Veronica, rethink her plan to leave our partnership.
It was tempting to call Penny back and tell her that I’d take the case, but a little voice in the back of my head said that things were never cut and dry, and this had the potential to be a big mess.
The very fact Penny was willing to pay so much money was a red flag.
I had learned the hard way with past clients to take a magnifying glass to something that seemed too good to be true. In a complicated case with one client, they had given me a video that purported to prove they were somewhere else the night they had been charged with armed robbery.
My investigator had discovered that the video timestamp had been doctored.
Luckily, things had not gotten too far, so I didn’t get egg on my face by trying to submit it as evidence. We ended up doing a plea bargain. I’d never been so happy to watch a client walk into prison.
Penny Moyer had shown up unannounced and asked me to hunt down a pet theory of hers with precious little for evidence.
I shook my head. What would she expect if I let her pay double my normal fee? Would she think I would be at her beck and call whenever she wanted?
The more I thought about it, the more things did not sit right for some reason I could not explain.
Even though I had a motion with a fast-approaching deadline, it was difficult to turn my attention back to it. All my brain wanted to do was to focus on the puzzle right in front of me.
Penny Moyer and the death of her husband presented an enigma.
Perhaps she wanted it that way, I mused, thinking about her entrance and how I had suspected her tears were fake.
While I had been surprised at her request, I supposed I should not have been.
She appeared to be wealthy. Rich people thought money could solve their problems, even if they asked for something unusual. This was a case with fleas on it.
It’s not like I need the work right now, I thought, opening up my motion but leaving it untouched on the computer screen in front of me.
Judging by her fastidious appearance, Penny was an organized person. She came across as goal-oriented, even a bit wily. She recognized that she would have to plunk somebody she controlled into the middle of it to get it resolved in the way she wanted.
What if there’s something to her theory?
I chuckled darkly.
Or maybe she’s the murderer. Maybe she tried to frame Vivian for conspiracy, but the police missed it, and she still wants Vivian to go to prison.
That could also explain what little I knew about the case.
It would be difficult to get the information I needed to make a proper assessment.
I would not get access to the prosecution’s evidence while sitting on the outside. The prosecution had no obligation to disclose information to me, and Mason’s attorney wouldn’t see the point of involving me.
He didn’t need somebody backseat driving.
I needed to be in the middle if I was going to get to the bottom of this. I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines.
My phone rang. It was Denise.
“What do you need?” I asked with more than a note of impatience in my voice.
I was frustrated that I still had not yet gotten back to the motion and had instead wasted time thinking about Penny’s case.
I repressed a sigh.
I was taking it out on Denise again.
“Penny Moyer is on the phone,” Denise said as if walking on broken glass. “Would you like to speak with her?” Perhaps Denise had recognized that I had been irritated she had sent Penny through in the first place because she continued. “I can tell her you’re busy and take a message if you like. I’m sorry, I didn’t know what you’d want me to do, so I figured I would just check with you first.”
I almost instructed Denise to do just that, but I’d already wasted ten minutes thinking about the case anyway. It wouldn’t hurt to learn what Penny wanted, assuming I kept the call brief.
“Go ahead and send her through,” I said, less gruffly than before. “Don’t take offense if I’ve been a little harsh. I just have a lot on my plate.”
“No problem,” Denise said, “Penny is coming through now.”
There was a click.
“Thank you, Mr. Turner, for taking my call,” Penny said right away, “I recognize you’re busy and that I’ve already taken up a lot of your time.”
“What can I help with?” I asked more brusquely than I intended.
“I just wanted to make another plea for you to take this case. As I walked out, I got the sense you didn’t think I was serious or that perhaps I might have nefarious reasons for my actions. I can assure you that I had nothing to do with the death of my husband.”
The statement took me off guard because it was exactly what I had just been thinking. I didn’t quite know how to respond.
“I have not yet made any decisions,” I said as diplomatically as I could, “but I am concerned I would not be able to adequately represent your interests, especially as the trial against Mason Harwood proceeds.”
Penny didn’t miss a beat. “I’ll sign whatever you want me to sign, waiving upfront any type of malpractice claims. I just want you to handle this because I know you do good work. You have an interest in justice, don’t you?”
I didn’t answer, assuming the answer was obvious and that it was a rhetorical question.
“Justice is not always possible within the confines of our legal system,” Penny continued, “and I get that, but you have a better record of obtaining it than others. I did my research on you before I came in.”
Why so much flattery? I wondered. Why has she singled me out? If what she said was true, I was finally starting to develop the reputation I’d been hoping for.
She is just telling me what I want to hear.
Justice was important to me.
I wanted to make sure that everybody knew it, but at the end of the day, it sometimes wasn’t practical to get real justice. It was one of the unfortunate truths of working in an imperfect system.
The guilty often went unpunished. The innocent sometimes went to prison.
And then, of course, there’s always a question of what is justice anyway?
Having a reputation for getting justice was just as good as having a reputation for winning.
I hoped to have both. I had not won every case, but I had won enough.
“Don’t you see that you are the only one qualified to figure out the truth? I read about that case you handled last year, the one where the roommate’s head was blown off. The roommate was accused, but it was actually his mother.”
My pulse skipped a beat. It was not public knowledge that I had solved that case, primarily because my client had wanted to go to jail for his mother.
I had kept that from happening.
I didn’t think he could bring a malpractice claim against me for getting him off, but it was not something I wanted to risk.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” I said calmly. “I just proved my client was not the murderer, that’s all.”
“But if you read between the lines, it is obvious you’re the one who put together that it was his mother. The prosecution didn’t figure it out. The other defense attorneys couldn’t find the truth. Unlike the other lawyers I researched, you care about truth and bring it to light more often than anybody else in the papers. I have read all the news stories about you.”
“Which is it?” I asked. “Did you read the stories or speak with a client?”
She was unperturbed. “Both, Mr. Turner. I need you. Anyhow, this is not the reason why I called. I have something else for you to mull over. I am confident that once you have thought this through, you are going to take the case. You’re a smart man. I need a smart man to get me through.”
“What is it?” I looked at the clock, a pang of anxiety shooting through me.
“A couple of weeks ago, when Max came home from the office, he told me that he had seen something that gave him pause. Vivian had got into the same car as Ronald Berg.”
“Ron is another partner. Vivian brought him on as a partner a few years back.”
“What is strange about that? It sounds like they know each other. It seems like ordinary behavior if you ask me.”
“It was late at night, for one thing. Max described their behavior as flirty. Ron opened the car door for her. I wasn’t there, so I can’t give you my opinion, but Max said that he was quite confident the two were in a relationship.” She finished as if this were significant in some way.
“Is it your theory that Ronald and Vivian conspired to provoke Mason into killing Max?”
“No. I’m not saying that at all. I’m just saying it’s strange that the two were together. Max has an instinct for these sorts of things, so I’m sure his assessment is correct.” There was a pause and a gasp. “Max had an instinct.” Another lengthy pause. “He seemed to know when people were in relationships. Sometimes it seemed like he almost knew when two people were going to get together. He just told me there was something funny going on between the two of them. It is just a little strange, so I wanted you to know while you think about my case.”
“Thank you for calling to let me know. I will keep this in mind.” I didn’t see the relevance of this information without additional context, particularly in my review, but I wasn’t going to argue about it anymore.
“I don’t think I’m being clear enough with you, Mr. Turner,” Penny said, apparently sensing my ambivalence, “technically speaking, in the corporate hierarchy, Vivian reports to Ron. They have an internal policy that prevents bosses and employees from fraternizing with one another. Do you see what I mean?”
“I get it,” I said, trying to sound as if I recognized that this was important information, “you are suggesting that they were in violation of a company policy.”
“But do you see the significance?”
“Please tell me what you think is significant.”
“She was willing to break company policy. If she is willing to do that, what else is she willing to do?”
I didn’t have a direct response, mainly because I didn’t see this in the same light as her, but there was no sense arguing about it. Most executives felt that they were an exception to company policy.
“I will take this all into consideration,” I said as if this were vital information to my understanding of the situation even though I disagreed, at least on the point about breaking company policy. Most companies had so many policies that you could pick any employee and find at least half a dozen policies that they were currently violating.
I sometimes wondered if companies did this to make it easier to fire employees they didn’t like. Penny was trying to say that this was an indication that Vivian was a lawbreaker, but I wasn’t going to go there, not with so little information.
“Why do I get the feeling that you are just being polite so I will get off the phone?” Penny asked.
“Before you came into my office, I was hard at work on a motion that I must file before 5:00 PM. You have now delayed me twice, no offense. While I am interested in your case, I do have another responsibility to a client I must handle.”
“I see.” There was a brief pause after she acknowledged this. “Another thought just occurred to me. I might know of a way to get you more involved directly in the case. I don’t know what you’ll think of this, but you could see if Mason would be interested in having you represent him.”
“What?” The way she said this made me think that this had been her plan all along. I didn’t believe for a second she had just thought of it.
The one question I had wanted to ask Penny but had not was why she was so interested in Mason. It seemed like she was more concerned about Mason than the death of her husband.
“Yeah, that could work,” she said as if she had not heard me. It sounded rehearsed. “He is after all being represented by a public defender right now.”
“He probably does not have the money—”
“Oh, he has the money, he has plenty of money. He just doesn’t feel like there’s a reason to fight the charges against him. Last I heard, he was contemplating a confession.”
“Are you in contact with him?”
“That would be a great idea,” she said as if she had not heard me. “If you represented him, I could still pay you as a consultant, of course—”
I cut her off. “If I represented Mason, I would have a conflict of interest representing you as well in a similar matter. That would not be possible without a signed consent and waiver from him, but it still might not be ethical. Even if it didn’t run afoul of the professional rules, I wouldn’t do it anyway.”
“Perhaps I could pay his fees then. That way you could keep me abreast—”
“If you paid for his legal representation, he would be my client, not you. I would have absolutely no responsibilities or duties towards you. In other words, I couldn’t tell you what was going on.”
I cut her off.
“Let’s hypothetically say that Mason hires me to represent him. I would focus solely on him and his welfare. Even if you paid his legal fees, I would not report to you any of the information I found. You would have no input into the case. You would know absolutely nothing unless you read it in the papers. If I believed the case needed to go a direction that was adverse to you or your interests, I would do it without even thinking about it.”
“I understand,” but judging by the way she said this, it did not sound like she did. “I recognize you would not be my attorney. But you represent the best possible hope of Vivian going to jail. That is what I want. I don’t care how that is obtained.”
Vivian going to jail.
That’s what this is really about.
It’s not the death of her husband. She has an ax to grind and is determined to scratch her itch.
“We can’t expect his court-appointed defense attorney to nail Vivian to the wall,” Penny said with disdain.
I bristled under the collar. I had good friends who were public defenders. They were underpaid and overworked.
“Many court-appointed attorneys do an excellent job. If you are implying—”
“I wasn’t implying anything,” she said soothingly in a patronizing voice.
I leaned back in my chair and pulled the receiver away from my ear while I gathered my thoughts. I had not realized I’d been pushing it so hard against my face.
“How do you know so much about this guy Mason?” I asked.
Penny hesitated. There was something to the pause that I could not quite read.
“I went to see him in jail early this morning and again when he got out on bond just a few hours ago.”
Of course, you did.
“All right,” I said as if it were an everyday occurrence for the victim’s wife to visit her husband’s murderer the next day. Of everything she had said, it was this last statement that bothered me most. I hoped I covered up my surprise, so she was not aware of just how much I was taken off guard.
“You went to his arraignment?” I asked, trying to keep my voice free from emotion while assessing her reaction as I tried to puzzle out the connection between her and the suspect.
“Yup, it was this morning. I posted his bail because he didn’t have enough liquid assets. He’s going to pay me back by the end of the week.”
I sputtered. “You what?”
This just keeps getting better and better.
“I posted his bail.” She spoke as if it was not a big deal. It would’ve been okay if she was his wife or perhaps his girlfriend, but she was the victim’s wife.
“Are you in a relationship with Mason?” I asked, wishing we were still face-to-face so I could get a better read on her reaction.
Penny didn’t hesitate. “No. I just want to get Vivian so badly that I’m willing to bail him out. He might have killed Max, but he is not the murderer.”
“Okay,” I said as if accepting her explanation, which I did not. “Are you sure there is not a plausible explanation as to why this guy killed your husband?”
“I know what you’re implying, and I won’t even dignify that with a response. That woman murdered my husband. You mark my words. When you start digging into this case, you’re going to figure that out.” She paused. “Justice, Mr. Turner, I want justice. Let me know when you’ve decided.”
She hung up.