By Christopher Darden
By Dick Lochte
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WARNER BOOKS EDITION
Copyright © 1999 by Darden Family, Inc.
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ALSO BY CHRISTOPHER DARDEN
ALSO BY DICK LOCHTE
The Neon Smile
I would like to thank:
San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Michael Runyon and Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Patricia Ector, two old friends who were kind enough to read the early drafts of this text and offer their comments.
Special thanks to a lawyer with a conscience, my former boss, Head Deputy District Attorney Roger Gunson, Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office. We tried.
Dean Leigh Taylor and the faculty and student body at Southwestern University School of Law, for putting up with all the distractions.
Deputy District Attorneys Michelle Gilmore, Karen Nobomoto, Charlene Underwood, and Shante Penland, for your inspiration.
My good friend and mentor, Norman Brokaw, chairman of the board at the William Morris Agency, and my literary agent, Mel Berger. Thanks guys. We did it our way, with class and dignity.
My publicist at the Brokaw Company, Claudia de Llano. I can't help but laugh whenever I reflect on the way you took on the "big heads" at the Republican National Convention.
My friends and editors at Warner Books, especially Susan Sandler, who worked long and hard on Nikki's behalf. Thanks for everything. Larry Kirshbaum, you've made a dream come true.
A very special thanks to Dick Lochte, my new best friend. A great writer. Nikki Hill lives and breathes on paper. You have my endless gratitude. You, sir, are the bomb. Okay?
Finally, my heartfelt gratitude to the thousands of people who stopped me on the street to say "thanks," gave me the thumbs up on the crowded Santa Monica freeway, or who wrote me during difficult times. You helped make my life easier. God bless each and every one of you.
Nikki Hill awoke to colored lights dancing on her bedroom ceiling.
She raised her head high enough to glimpse a youthful Marlo Thomas on the silent TV, wearing a Peter Pan collar and a worried expression. Just what I need, she thought as she flopped back against the pillow, a white-bread night-light.
She was suddenly puzzled. If the TV sound is off, what am I doing awake?
As if in answer, the phone rang.
With a groan she shifted on the bed, sending Witkin on Criminal Law, Volume 5 and several Manila folders and their contents tumbling to the carpet. Her "Liar For Hire" T-shirt, a joke gift that she perversely embraced, was sticking clammily to her body. At least she hadn't fallen asleep in her good clothes again.
The phone rang once more.
As she reached for it on the bedside table, she saw the time glowing on her radio alarm: 3:47 A.M. She cleared her throat. "This better be an emergency," she warned her caller.
The voice sounded vaguely familiar. "Yeah?" she replied warily.
"Joe Walden." It was her boss, the district attorney for the county of Los Angeles. "Sorry to wake you, but this is an emergency."
Her head was fuzzy. "Uh...right," she managed to reply, feeling a little embarrassed, as if he'd caught her doing something weird. Like getting a night's sleep. She turned on the bedside lamp, then grabbed the TV remote to send Marlo back to nostalgia heaven.
"You okay?" he asked.
Something caught her eye—Bird, framed in the doorway, observing her curiously, black curls obscuring part of his dark handsome face.
Nikki winked at him as Walden asked, "You familiar with Madeleine Gray?"
"Uh... sure," Nikki said. Her mouth had that dry, sucking-up-smog-all-night ashy aftertaste. "On TV. Big Viking of a woman. Whiter than rice with a mess of blond hair. Does gossip news. Interviews. Not exactly Barbara Walters."
"Lucky for Ms. Walters," District Attorney Walden said dryly. "Maddie Gray's big white naked body was found in a Dumpster in South Central a few hours ago."
Nikki forgot about the early hour, morning mouth, and nearly everything else except the voice on the other end of the phone.
"A suspect was apprehended near the corpse," Walden was saying. "They're getting ready to interrogate him."
Bird approached the bed, yawning.
"A couple million people watched Maddie Gray every night," Walden said. "The media jackals are going to dine large on this one. It's got everything. Sex. Drugs. Showbiz.
I want you to get down to Parker Center ASAP and keep tabs on Homicide's progress."
She didn't know Walden very well. She couldn't imagine why he'd phoned her—a midlevel deputy D.A. who'd been stalled at Grade 3 for three long years in Compton, the Siberia of the district attorney's office. But she wasn't about to question his decision. Any prosecutor with an ounce of ambition would slit both wrists for a chance to rub up against a high-profile case like this one. Nikki had more than anounce.
"I'm your man," she said, trying not to giggle as Bird touched his tongue to a bare brown foot he discovered sticking out from under the covers.
"Good," Walden said. "I hope I'm not, ah, taking you away from anything...more pressing."
"What could be more pressing?" Nikki replied, reaching out a hand to grab Bird's curly head.
"Yes, well, as soon as you know something, I want to know it, too. Okay?"
"Okay," she said, scowling at the clock radio.
"Oh, and should the detectives handling the case wonder what you're doing there, tell them you're my special assistant. Assuming you're okay with that title."
It took a moment for her to realize she was being promoted. Not a major promotion—probably wouldn't mean more money—but it was a step up, and it made her feel the time she'd spent in Compton hadn't been wasted. "No, sir, no objection at all. Thank you."
Bird, who was not used to a subservient tone in her voice, gave her a questioning look.
"We'll see if you're still thanking me by the time this all shakes out," Walden said.
She replaced the phone, exhilarated. "Guess who's just been appointed the special assistant to the district attorney?" she asked Bird happily.
Bird yawned again, unimpressed. He didn't really get the gist of her question. Though he understood nearly fifty words, the only ones he really reacted to were "food," "walk," and "cat," and, of course, the special commands. He was a Bouvier des Flandres, a coal-black Belgian sheepdog weighing eighty pounds, much of it muscle. The full name on his papers read Charlie "Yardbird" Parker.
He had been the bequest of the only man Nikki had ever loved, and she couldn't look at him without thinking of his departed owner. Tony Black. She smiled wistfully. "Tall as pine, black as crow, talk more shit than radio."
Her first thought had been to find Bird another home. At the time, she'd been in no condition to assume the responsibility for a large animal who demanded a certain amount of attention. Especially one who would be a constant reminder of all that she'd lost. Something about Bird—her best friend, Loreen Battles, said he looked like a beautiful holy man in a dog suit—kept her from giving him up. In fact, Bird had helped her through that difficult period of mourning, had been a protector and companion and, on those long, lonely nights when she felt she had to talk to someone or she would freak completely, a doggy shrink.
That had been four years ago. Now, she could hardly remember what her life had been like before she began sharing it with the lovable, loyal, hardheaded, territorial, demanding beast who obviously adored her.
Bird was digging his nose into the skirt she'd dropped on the floor the night before. She grabbed it from him. "It's messed up enough without you slobberin' on it, fuzzball," she said.
He cocked his huge head to one side, staring—critically, she imagined—at the other clothes sharing the carpet with law books and files and scattered newspapers and magazines. "Okay, so I ain't Martha Stewart," she said, slipping her feet into her tatty but comfortable old Bugs Bunny slippers. "You're not exactly Lassie."
Bird followed along devotedly as she padded her way through the dark, mainly unfurnished ranch-style house they'd moved into only months before. It was much too big for just the two of them, about four times the size of her old apartment. But Nikki had always dreamed of moving up to this particular location—Ladera Heights, the black Beverly Hills. The deal had been one she hadn't been able to refuse. The Asian couple who'd purchased the place sight unseen had taken one glance at the cemetery just down the hill and raced away in search of better karma. Essentially, all Nikki had to do was take over the monthly notes.
She looked out of the kitchen window and smiled at the tombstones. "Roll them bones," she said, remembering the depressing little one-bedroom apartment that she and Bird had been sharing next door to the dangerous neighborhood known as the Jungle.
She left the window and turned on the sound system that the builder had thoughtfully wired into every room in the house. An all-news station was providing a litany of the previous night's tragedies. Fires, wrecks, robberies, drive-bys, carjackings. Murders. She wondered when Madeleine Gray would make the list.
Bird emitted his "feed me" yelp and Nikki responded quickly. Though most of the house was barren of furnishings, the kitchen was filled with enough pots, pans, gadgets, and instruments to pass for a Williams-Sonoma showroom. This was the result of a six-night cooking class taught by a local celebrity chef that Loreen Battles had dragged her to. "You know what they say about a man's stomach leading the way to his heart," Loreen had said.
While Nikki had never put much stock in that stomach theory, she'd gone along with her friend. And discovered the joy of cooking. Ever since childhood, however, she'd had a tendency toward obsessive behavior. Great for her career. Less great for real life. In this case it had resulted in an awe some collection of rarely used cookware that ran the gamut from a fuzzy-logic rice steamer to an Italian espresso machine so medieval it made only one perfect cup at a time.
She used her state-of-the-art Scandinavian can opener to trim the lid from a tin of the special food the vet had recommended for Bird's diverticulosis, plopped most of the can's contents into his bowl, and topped it off with a flea pill. While Nikki would have to be at death's door to see a doctor, Bird visited the veterinarian on an almost bimonthly basis.
One ear tuned to the news, Nikki carried the food and a water bowl out to the patio. The animal would have to dine outside and perform whatever daily rituals he found necessary without her assistance. She had no time for their usual morning workout.
She returned to the kitchen, set the glistening chrome and glass coffeepot to perking, took one final loving look at Bird hungrily devouring his food, and said, "Now for the hard stuff."
The bright bathroom light made her wince. Her image in the mirror above the washbasin made her wince even more. Her light brown face with its freckled, full cheekbones was puffy and pillow-wrinkled. Her dark brown eyes, which Bird's master used to rhapsodize over, were bloodshot. Her thick black hair vaguely resembled an unpruned shrub.
Damn, she thought. I don't need a shower. I need that fountain at Lourdes.
The shower helped.
Nothing else seemed to.
No time for a curling iron. Her last clean panty hose looked like a cougar had been pawing it. The cream for the coffee had curdled. Bird's flea pill was resting at the bottom of his empty bowl, untouched. And the four-fifteen news summary informed the world that "the battered body of television star Madeleine Gray was found several hours ago in an alley in South Central Los Angeles. The police have not released any further information, but we'll try to have more for you at five A.M."
Nikki knew that by five she'd better have discovered that information firsthand. After anxiously consulting her watch, she tracked Bird down in the yard and force-fed him the pill he'd avoided. Then she was on her way.
Her loyal Mazda RX7, as dependable as always, started right up. And, at four-twenty on the warm, dark Monday morning, she was zooming toward downtown L.A. along nearly deserted streets, confident she'd be on the job within minutes. That's when she noticed the gas gauge was on empty.
She swung into a service station. Only when she was parked did she realize this was one of the more dangerous stretches along Crenshaw Boulevard, particularly at this time of the morning. She placed her black coffee on the dashboard, tried to ignore the abrasive rub of her shoes against her bare heels, and removed her credit card from her briefcase. She hesitated, gave the area a quick scan, then took out her police special, too.
She was anxiously pumping gas when the man approached her. Another of the city's homeless population, she thought. Grizzled, grimy, ageless, and apparently aimless.
"You up kinda early, sistah," he said.
She casually dropped her right hand from the pump and slipped it into her pocket, wrapping her fingers around the gun grip.
"Don't worry, sistah," he said quickly, holding up empty palms and keeping his distance. "Juppy don't mean no harm, specially to a fine-looking woman like yourself."
Great, she thought. On top of everything, she was getting hit on by some raggedy-ass homeless man.
"Gals your colorin' we useta call Red," Juppy told her." 'Cause they redbone. Bet they calls you Red, huh?"
"No." It was a lie. Even her father had, back in the days when they were speaking. Maybe that's why she hated the nickname so. "And don't you, either."
The Mazda's tank was far from filled, but the man made her uncomfortable and she'd pumped enough gas to get to the office and back. She replaced the nozzle, keeping an eye on Juppy.
As she got into her car, he said, " 'Scuse me for saying it, but you got a lovely ass."
"Oh? You don't think it's too round?" she asked sarcastically.
"Hey, can't be too round," he said, stepping closer to her open window. "You look like you a happenin' woman. Goin' up in the world. Juppy been up there, too. Think maybe you can spare Juppy a li'l somethin' somethin', sistah?" He held out his hand.
"I'm not your sister, Juppy," she said, staring into his surprisingly clear brown eyes. He was right about her being on her way up. The thought made her feel magnanimous enough to take a couple of dollars from her wallet and hand them to him. "Here's your somethin' somethin'."
"Thank you for your gen'rosity," he said. "You won't regret it, Red."
Damn, she hated that name. "I'm regretting it already," she said, jamming her foot on the gas pedal.
The city was still cloaked in early-morning darkness when Nikki entered Parker Center, home of the Los Angeles Police Department. In spite of the petty annoyances that had been plaguing her since she'd gotten out of bed, she felt on top of the world. Nothing could dampen her spirits, not even the building's atmosphere of neon-lit, brusque indifference, nor the near-toxic smell of the cleaning crew's pine-oil disinfectant. She was the new special assistant to the D.A., assigned to what promised to be a major murder case. She was, as Juppy had observed, "a happenin' woman."
Still, as she waited for the elevator, the specter of doom flitted through her mind. Bad luck often traveled in the guise of good fortune, a fact she'd discovered the hard way the last time she'd been poised at the brink of success.
Three and a half years before, she'd been assigned a low-priority homicide. The defendant, a career criminal named Mason Durant, had stood accused of murdering the proprietor of a mobile lunch stand who dispensed hot dogs and other foodstuffs daily in Durant's neighborhood. Though there had been no witnesses to the actual murder, five schoolchildren and their teacher had heard the shots and observed Durant running from the dead man's "roach coach" with a gun in his hand.
Ordinarily, the trial would not have gone beyond page four of the Metro section of the L.A. Times. But Durant offered a rather unique defense: the gun six witnesses had claimed to have seen had actually been ...a hot dog. A local television station used the declaration as a tongue-in-cheek "light side of the news" item. Then Jay Leno coined the term "weenie defense" in his Tonight Show monologue, turning the bright light of national publicity on Nikki's little trial.
It had been an almost perfect case for the prosecution. In addition to the ideal witnesses, the accused had been apprehended leaving his apartment building "lugging a suitcase and on the run," according to one of the arresting officers. The police lab had turned up traces of the lunch stand's brand of mustard on bills in Durant's wallet. There was only one small problem: the weapon had not been recovered. Still, getting a conviction looked like a walk in the park. Not even the accused's overworked public defender could mention the "weenie defense" without smiling. The jury deliberated for only two hours before finding Mason Durant guilty of murder in the first degree with special circumstances. Life with no parole.
The district attorney at the time, Thomas J. Gleason, a professional Irishman whose resemblance to the late John Wayne had convinced voters that he was a rawboned crime fighter, knew what to do with a media opportunity when one dropped in his large lap. He invited members of the press to "a simple lunch to publicly congratulate deputy Nicolette Hill on a job well done."
A photo of Gleason and Nikki dining on Nathan's franks at the luncheon adorned a section of that Sunday's L. A. Times and even found its way inside People magazine. For about a week, television couldn't get enough of Nikki's sound bites. She was invited to an assortment of Hollywood parties where, to her surprise, the celebrities wanted to meet her. She was, in short, flying high. Then came the fateful day when the trial's evidence boxes were delivered to her office. While waiting for someone to remove them to the D.A.'s evidence locker, she idly lifted the lid on the top box and began browsing through the items in their protective plastic bags. One held the contents of Durant's hastily packed suitcase— a comb, a nearly empty bottle of aspirin, a razor, a dry shave cologne. She sniffed the pungent scent. So that's what Hi Karate smells like.
Bag two contained apparel Durant was wearing when apprehended. Rumpled black chino pants and a strictly seventies shirt, shiny dark blue synthetic with bright purple and red streaks, collar rolled up.
The third bag became her personal Pandora's box.
When she opened it, a ghastly odor chased away every hint of the Hi Karate. There was only one item—a tan poplin windbreaker. What was that stench? She felt a small, solid object in the jacket's inside pocket. Her fingers daintily searched for... God! She yanked her hand out. What had she touched? Something hard and furry.
Scowling, she shifted the jacket and shook the object loose.
It fell onto the floor of her office. The remnants of a moldy bun wrapped around a gaseous chunk of nearly desiccated meat.
Reeling not only from the odor but from the implication of her discovery, she pulled a Kleenex from the box on her desk and returned the remnants of Mason Durant's defense to the windbreaker's pocket, then shoved the jacket back into its plastic bag.
She had little doubt of Durant's guilt. She'd done her homework prepping for the trial. The witnesses had been certain that they'd seen a metallic gun in Durant's hand. He'd definitely been on the run from something. Though it had not been admissible as evidence, he had a long rap sheet and had previously stood trial for murder. That time, the jury had found him not guilty. But investigators had provided Nikki with a number of people, including the victim's widow, to whom Durant had later bragged that he had indeed killed the man.
Did any of this permit her to ignore the fact that she was in possession of evidence that might possibly have changed the outcome of the trial? While she wasn't sure what her obligation was to the law, she knew what her conscience was telling her.
Well, as Grandma Tyrell, who had raised her, used to say, the only way to handle bad news is to take off your gloves. She went to see Tom Gleason.
The district attorney was not amused. His ruddy, normally jovial face went purple with apoplexy. He took a small plastic bottle from his desk, removed a tiny pill, and popped it into his mouth. He grimaced, then demanded, "Who in their right mind digs through evidence after they've won? What the Christ were you thinking?"
"I sure wasn't thinking four-month-old hot dog," she told him.
He glared at her. "Well, you're not gonna like what I'm thinking."
He picked up the phone and dialed the number of his head deputy, Raymond Wise, who answered almost immediately.
Waiting for the call, Nikki thought. Like Rover listening for his master's voice.
Gleason explained the situation tersely, requesting that Wise join them. Then he strolled to his windows, where he remained staring out, ignoring her, until his head deputy limped into the room.
Wise was a pale, thin, unsmiling man in his mid-forties, with lank brown hair lying on a high forehead. His manner of dress was ultraconservative except for aviator frame glasses perched firmly on a long thin nose. He was the top prosecutor in the county, but his coworkers, though they envied his conviction record, considered him arrogant and egotistical, not to mention sexist and racist. The origin of his stiffened right leg remained something of a mystery. Nikki imagined he might have broken it trying to climb up Gleason's fat ass.
He stared at her blankly, then said to his scowling boss, "There's no legal obligation here. The acknowledged precedent in these matters, Brady v. Maryland, 1963, refers specifically to a trial in progress. Even there, the prosecutor must be convinced the evidence is exculpatory. I doubt a desiccated hot dog qualifies."
"C'mon, Ray," Nikki said. "You know how much emphasis was placed on the hot dog. It was Durant's main defense."
"You see, Tom," Wise said to the D.A. "That's exactly what I was telling you. We've got too many deputies like Hill who don't know what their job is."
"Hill knows enough about her job to recognize evidence when she sees it," Nikki said heatedly.
"Evidence of what?" Gleason asked. "That a murderer ate half a hot dog? Even if Durant's pathetic lawyer had dangled the sausage under the jury's nose, they still would have found him guilty. Maybe even guiltier."
"Why's that, Ray?" Nikki asked skeptically.
"Because, you, People magazine's sexiest D.A. of the year, would have explained that Durant was so cold-blooded that he calmly stood there eating his victim's hot dog while blasting him in the gut with the gun six clear-eyed witnesses saw him holding."
"Any way you slice the weenie, Ray, it's still evidence."
"You honestly think this scumbag is an innocent man?" Wise asked.
"No," Nikki replied, remembering the people she'd talked to who heard Durant boasting about beating the rap on his last trial. "I'm sure he's a murderer. And I'm about ninety-eight percent sure he's guilty in this case. But that doesn't change the fact that the jurors were not in possession of all the evidence when they decided to send him off to Folsom for the rest of his life."
Wise threw up his hands.
Gleason leaned forward and said in as calm a voice as he could muster, "Ms. Hill. Nikki. Thanks to your trial this office has been on the receiving end of some very beneficial publicity. We're not gonna dump that and run the risk of looking like donkeys just to satisfy some fucking schoolgirl notion you have about the law."
Nikki stood, tingling in anger. "We'll see what the court says about my fucking schoolgirl notion."
"No, we won't," Gleason said softly. "Because if you go public with this, I'll put you behind bars for the rest of your life."
Nikki couldn't believe it. He was threatening her. "What kind of bullshit is this?" she asked.
"Hiding evidence from a jury during a murder trial with special circumstances can put a prosecutor away for life," Gleason said calmly.
"You saying I hid evidence during the trial?" she asked, eyes narrowing.
"I'm saying you discovered that devil's own wiener in the midst of the trial, but failed to disclose it. You came to me today because your conscience has been bothering you.
"Isn't that right, Ray? Isn't that what you heard?"
Wise looked surprised and a bit shaken. He said nothing.
"Well?" Gleason prompted him.
"Tom, don't ask me to be a party to anything like this."
Gleason's eyebrows shot up. "Excuse me. I thought you were somebody I could count on. Somebody who knew how to play the game. Hell, this is all speculation anyway. I'm sure Nikki's bright enough to do the right thing, which is to flush the evidence of her crime down the crapper and go on about her business. Right, Nikki?"
The jive-ass son of a bitch!
Both men were staring at her. She wanted to scream. Or tear out their hearts. Something.
Gleason took her silence for affirmation. "Fine, then," he said. "Ray, you'll supervise the removal of the 'old business.' "
"Tom," Wise complained, "you're carrying this too far. Let's just put the fucking hot dog back in the box and file it. We're still on legal high ground there, but no matter how inconsequential the evidence is, once you start destroying it—"
"That's the point, Ray," Gleason said, grinning. "That's how I can be sure there'll be no more discussion of this matter. You two will get rid of the so-called evidence."
"I...I don't think so," Wise said.
Gleason stood, his face filling with angry blood. Then he seemed to relax. He slumped back in his chair and grinned at Wise. "That's a curious career choice, Ray. Just after I bumped you up to head deputy. Could be a short-term decision."
- On Sale
- Mar 1, 1999
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Grand Central Publishing