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Three years ago, Caro Warrick was acquitted for the murder of her best friend Amelia Bettencourt, but the lingering doubts of everyone around Caro are affecting her life. Sharon McCone is confident that she can succeed where other detectives have failed (though at times it's hard to shake her own misgivings about what happened), but when Caro is brutally beaten right at Sharon's doorstep, the investigation takes on a whole new course. How many more people remain at risk until Amelia's murderer is finally caught?
LETTER TO SHARON MCCONE FROM
CAROLYN WARRICK, PROSPECTIVE CLIENT:
Dear Ms. McCone,
The world's forgotten me. No more mentions in the press. No requests for interviews. No photo ops. The websites are being taken down. I'm yesterday's news.
And I never got my message across.
Firearms. They should not—cannot—be allowed in the hands of the wrong persons.
I know the truth of that. Oh, yes, I know. I saw my four-year-old sister Marissa with the blood drained from her tiny face. Saw my nine-year-old brother Rob staring down in disbelief and horror at the gun he'd just accidentally fired.
And my best friend, Amelia, ripped and shattered by bullets on her living room floor.
When I was unjustly arrested for the crime, I thought I could make a difference. State my beliefs to the court and press, leave a legacy for all the countless victims of the indiscriminate sale of firearms.
Right from the beginning everything went wrong: People magazine didn't go into the issue and, adding insult to injury, they used a bad picture of me—dirty hair and crow's-feet and snarly lines around my mouth. Oprah and all the other talk shows turned me down. I guess they didn't consider a woman who supposedly killed her best friend in a hideous manner and then was acquitted an entertaining draw.
Now I have my opportunity: Greta Goldstein wants to coauthor a tell-all book with me, but Jill Starkey, that bitch who used to be with the Chronicle and covered my trial, is writing one of her own and trying to block ours. Starkey has attacked me in her columns from the first, and now she's bound and determined to profit from a false accounting of the crime I didn't commit.
Truth is, I feel cheated. I suffered all that pain, spent months in jail, endured that awful trial. I deserve to tell my story. Greta Goldstein's a best seller, and a profitable book would help me escape from my boring little job in the real-estate agency; my tiny, damp, behind-the-garage studio apartment in the outer Sunset district; the defection of my friends and family members. I want to set the record straight about the loss of Amelia and Jake.
Always those losses.
Amelia, my best friend, and Jake, my former lover. She: shot multiple times by, as they now say, a person or persons unknown. He: because he believed the police's original case and couldn't bear to lay eyes on me. He's as good as dead, as far as I'm concerned. I bet that after I was acquitted, he couldn't bear to look at his face in the mirror either. At least I hope so.
Am I bitter? Damned right I am. Am I going to do something about this empty, empty existence? I hope so. I am requesting that you reinvestigate my case. I know this is unusual, since I was acquitted, but surely you understand how public opinion often overrides the judgment of a jury of one's peers. If you would grant me the opportunity of a meeting with you, I would be extremely grateful.
Yours sincerely, Carolyn Warrick
Tuesday, January 3
Already I was tired. These boxes: how had I accumulated all that stuff during the years my agency was located in the now-doomed Pier 24½? Cardboard cartons filled the floor space in my new office on the top story of the narrow blue house on Sly Lane, a short block above the Embarcadero, below Tel Hill and Coit Tower. I wanted to shove them down the chute to the incinerator and turn up the flames.
My office manager, Ted Smalley, had found the building shortly before the city's port commission served notice on us to vacate the pier. I'd been dubious about the new location at first, but the underground parking garage and elevator—the old-fashioned kind with a metal grille—had seduced me. And the view was superb, even better than that from the pier, because I was looking out over the Bay from a height of exactly 143 feet above sea level—a fact I wouldn't have known, except that Ted had been given a handheld altimeter for Christmas. It had become his constant companion so, as he put it, he would always know how high he was.
But all those attractions were nothing, compared to the building's unsavory past—
My intercom buzzed. I picked up, and Ted said, "Your new client's here. Carolyn Warrick."
I had a new client? For an instant it didn't compute. Then I remembered her letter, which I'd received nearly a week ago. It had intrigued me and I'd researched her case, which had only intrigued me more.
I said, "Show her to the elevator, please. And warn her about the mess up here."
With the acquisition of the altimeter, Ted had become fond of using aviation terms.
I stood up, brushed dust off my jeans and sweater, and went to the elevator. It began whining and clunking its way up—noises that still alarmed me, even though the brand-new inspection certificate mounted on its wall said it was good to go.
When it arrived and settled—bumping some—I opened the grille. A woman peered out at me, brow wrinkled, mouth turned down. She was about my height, five foot six, with blond hair pulled back from a heart-shaped face and twisted into a bun at the nape of her neck. Better dressed than I, in a dark green suede jacket, black pants, and black boots.
"Ms. McCone?" she asked.
"Please, call me Sharon." I extended my hand to her, mostly to keep her from tripping, since the elevator hadn't quite aligned itself with the floor. "And you're Carolyn Warrick."
"Caro." She followed me into the office, glancing around at the stacks of cartons.
I invited her to sit down, motioning at the pair of clients' chairs.
"Sorry about this—we've just moved."
She selected one and sat. I took the other. There are some clients who feel more comfortable with you across the desk from them in a position of authority. Others want you beside them, to be their friend and—possibly—confessor. I sensed Caro Warrick was one of the latter.
"What a wonderful view," she said tonelessly.
"Thank you. When I get these cartons unpacked, I hope to enjoy it. Now, what can I do for you?"
She drew a deep breath. "Of course, you've read my letter."
"I did, and I've refreshed my memory of your case on the Internet."
"I'm surprised you agreed to see me."
"Well, the details are pretty sordid. Supposedly killing my best friend over a man, trashing her apartment after she was dead, trying to kill him after he found her body."
"You were acquitted. And you can't be taken to court again—double jeopardy."
"Acquitted, yes. But the stigma is still affecting my life. Many people have doubts about the justness of the verdict. As I explained in my letter, I haven't been able to get a decent job or afford a decent place to live. My family and friends have deserted me. Apparently everyone needs more proof of my innocence than the opinion of a jury of my peers."
"And you want me to supply that proof."
"As I said, so I can make it public in the book I'm coauthoring with Greta Goldstein. And I need it done quickly: a local journalist who has a vendetta against me is writing her own book and trying to block publication of mine."
"I know of Greta Goldstein's true-crime works. And the local journalist is Jill Starkey?"
"Yes." Her mouth twisted as if she'd bitten down on something sour.
"I see." Jill Starkey, a former ultraconservative columnist for the Chronicle, had covered Warrick's trial; her reportage had been negatively, even viciously, slanted. "Why do you say she has a vendetta against you?"
"I've always been a staunch supporter of gun control. For years I worked as an assistant director of the San Francisco Violence Prevention Center, and I had a close connection to IANSA—the International Action Network on Small Arms. Jill Starkey is a vocal member of the NRA. At my trial I spoke in my own defense, citing my beliefs and work as a reason why I couldn't have shot my friend. May I ask you something?"
"What is your stance on gun control?"
Not an easy question to answer. "I own two guns—for professional reasons only. I have a carry permit, but the weapons stay locked up most of the time. I take practice at the range very seriously."
"In short, you're for responsible gun ownership."
"I'm afraid I'm rabidly against firearms—with just cause. My father owned guns and kept one loaded in his bedside table drawer. That's where my nine-year-old brother found it before he accidentally shot my four-year-old sister to death."
God. That would make a believer out of anyone.
"Would my position prejudice you against working on my behalf?" Caro Warrick asked.
"No. I've worked for all kinds of people whose beliefs differed from mine. "
"In what ways?"
"Politically, religiously, racially—you name it. I learned something from each of them. All of them, I hope, made me a more understanding individual. Besides, our views on gun control aren't as far apart as they might seem to you. I'm for strict licensing. The need to demonstrate a reason for possessing a weapon. Background checks. Required practice; I'm a pilot, and I have to fly so many hours a month to remain current."
Warrick still looked skeptical. "Have you ever killed a person, Ms. McCone?"
"I don't see as it's relevant to your case."
"That's a yes, then."
"Okay, yes. In defense of myself and others. The nightmares still plague me."
She nodded, apparently satisfied with my reply. "Will you take me on as a client? Help me end my own personal nightmares?"
I considered. The woman fascinated me; so did the weapons issue. Also, I had too much time on my hands lately: My efficient staff had settled into our new offices and were proceeding with business as usual. Hy was traveling a lot among the various offices of the international executive protection firm he owned. Close friends were away on winter vacations. Hell, I hadn't even found a good book to read lately.
Instead of committing, I said, "Tell me your side of the story."
Three years ago last October, shortly before her twenty-sixth birthday, Warrick had discovered that her best friend, Amelia Bettencourt, was having an affair with her lover, Jake Green. She allegedly confronted Bettencourt at the latter's apartment on Nob Hill and, in the course of a violent argument, shot her twelve times. The crime scene, according to newspaper accounts, was chaotic—items of furniture and smaller objects smashed, walls sprayed with blood and other human matter, windows shattered by so many bullets that it indicated Warrick had reloaded her weapon—a nine-millimeter semiautomatic—and gone on venting her anger even after her friend was dead.
Jake Green was coming to pick up Amelia for a dinner date and heard the shots from the hallway. He rushed inside and discovered Amelia's body and was phoning 911 when someone stepped out of the shadows and fired on him. He dropped to the floor unhurt, and within seconds the intruder left the apartment.
Green immediately suspected Warrick was the killer—a suspicion he relayed to the investigating officers. They questioned her, and she claimed innocence, but two eyewitnesses said they'd seen her leaving Amelia's building earlier that evening. Bettencourt's family was prominent in city political circles, and Jake Green, an up-and-coming stockbroker with a large Montgomery Street firm, claimed he had never liked Warrick and was intent on revenge. Caro Warrick was indicted and in the spring the case went to trial.
Warrick's attorney was Ned Springer, a public defender with a degree from what many considered a diploma mill in Idaho and less than two years of trial experience. No one expected he would win such an open-and-shut case, which was perhaps why the prosecution was not as prepared as it should have been. In the course of the trial, Springer stressed Warrick's staunch aversion to firearms and advocacy of gun control, and also brought a number of inconsistencies to light.
The murder weapon was never found, and according to state records, Warrick had never bought or owned a gun, nor was she the type of woman who would have known how to acquire a Saturday night special. The presence of Warrick's fingerprints in Bettencourt's apartment proved nothing, because Warrick often visited there. Warrick, a real-estate saleswoman, had been showing a house in the Richmond district at a time that would have made it nearly impossible for her to have arrived at the Nob Hill building by the time of the murder. And no blood-spattered clothing or other evidence of the crime had turned up in her apartment in the Marina district. Plus Jake Green's obvious vengefulness worked against the prosecution.
Juries are notoriously unpredictable. Caro Warrick's had surprised many by exonerating her of her friend's murder. Now Caro wanted me to help exonerate her all over again.
I told her I'd think about it and get back to her within twenty-four hours. She asked about my fee and found it reasonable. After she left I ignored the unpacked boxes and returned to my desk, swiveling to look out at the rain-soaked waterfront.
Behind me the elevator's grille clattered and Ted—slender and wiry—came through the opening. He looked immaculate in his blue silk suit—his latest fashion statement—but his dark, thinning hair stood up in tufts as if it were undergoing replacement treatments. I'd known Ted for many years, ever since I'd gone to All Souls Law Cooperative on an interview for its investigator's position and his big, bare feet had confronted me from behind the receptionist's desk. Over the years he'd changed fashion statements nearly as often as most people change their clothes; this latest was the best yet, but I doubted it would last.
"Lunchtime!" he announced.
"I thought I'd send out for a sandwich—"
"No way. You're going to have a decent meal for a change. You always cut corners in the food department when Hy's away."
My husband's and my schedules frequently didn't mesh: he traveled a lot; I was usually bound to my offices here in the city, but—wouldn't you know it—when a case took me out of town, I frequently missed his time there.
Defensively I said, "We've been busy with the move, so I haven't gone out much, but I eat at home—"
"You nuke stuff when Hy's gone; there's a difference."
I sighed, looked at the cartons of books, and gave in. "Where do you want to go?"
"Delancey Street?" The restaurant run by an organization of former addicts, criminals, and other disenfranchised people who had banded together to turn their lives around. Good food, reasonable prices, and not too far away on the Embarcadero.
"You paying?" I asked.
"As a matter of fact, I am. This isn't about business—it's about keeping you healthy."
Rain spattered against the window next to our table. I looked out at it glumly; it seemed winter would never end. Of course, it wasn't the kind of winter they'd been having in the storm-battered Eastern and Midwestern parts of the country, but as a native Californian I expected better than this. Oh well, the snowpack was up in the Sierras, the skiers were happy, and we wouldn't have to worry about a drought—this year, anyway.
Ted said, "You're so down lately."
"It's January, Hy's gone a lot, and this morning I had a somewhat depressing new-client meeting."
"Right." I related Warrick's story.
"You taking her on?"
"I told her I'd have to think about it. It'd be a challenge, but…"
"I'm not sure it's the kind of challenge I need right now."
"Because it promises to be major, and you know I've dealt with too many other major—and personal—cases in the past few years." My half brother Darcy's disappearance. My friend Piper's kidnapping. Others just as intense.
"But this one wouldn't be personal."
"Not at the beginning. But when did you ever know me not to get personally involved with anything more than a routine skip trace?"
"Never. But that's your nature."
"Maybe I'm sick and tired of my nature."
Ted just smiled and forked up what was left of his caramel cheesecake.
My nature. My goddamn nature.
The narrow blue building was silent, except for the pattering of rain on the mansard roof above my fourth-story office and the humming of the remarkably efficient furnace. At the pier the rain would have been banging off the tin roof, the cars rumbling on the span of the Bay Bridge overhead. I'd've been freezing cold from the wind blowing through the dilapidated structure. And yet I missed it. Missed it in the way I missed my old MG that had broken down frequently.
I shelved the last carton of books, then sat down in my newly reupholstered chair by the window. The chair had followed me from a tiny office under the stairs of All Souls Legal Cooperative's Bernal Heights Victorian to a bigger office there, to the pier, and now to Sly Lane.
Always ratty, sometimes disguised under a hand-woven throw. But the throw had worn out, a spring in the seat had started protruding, and when it came time to move here, I'd decided the otherwise comfortable chair deserved a makeover. Now it was handsome in light brown leather, and I'd ordered a hassock to go with it.
Outside, the lights of lower Tel Hill and the Embarcadero shimmered through the raindrops on the glass; the palm trees that grew along the central greenbelt were great shadows, their trunks swaying, their fronds wind-tossed. The day's rain was now turning into a full-blown storm.
I told myself I should go home before it got any worse, but still I sat there. If I wasn't back by seven, one of the young women next door—whom I paid to house- and cat-sit—would go over to take in the mail and feed Alex and Jessie. Hy was busy in Boston this week. I had no responsibilities; even my daily paperwork was done. I also had nothing I wanted to do. So I sat and let myself become mesmerized by the lights and the rain.
And finally it came to me: I was waiting for my decision. Tell Caro Warrick I wouldn't take her case, or tell her I would.
Part of me resisted; I didn't particularly like the woman, didn't understand her need to be vindicated again. But then I remembered Bobby Foster, a young black man on San Quentin's death row, whom I'd exonerated of the murder for which he'd been convicted. Bobby's trial had been a gross miscarriage of justice, based on a false confession—which he'd later retracted—induced by a lack of sleep and food and by police coercion. Apparently Caro Warrick's indictment had been another such miscarriage. Bobby had been fortunate to have out-of-state family members who would take him in after his release, so he could get an education in a place where his alleged crime was unknown. Caro hadn't possessed that luxury. If this book with Greta Goldstein could change her life, why should I deny her my aid based on a negative first impression?
Warrick lived in an apartment behind the garage of a modest pale green stucco house on Forty-Fourth Avenue, a block from the L Taraval streetcar line. A cracked concrete walkway led between the house's right side and a newish redwood fence. Rainwater sluiced off the house's roof and splashed onto my hat—clogged downspouts, no doubt. I followed a shaft of light to Warrick's door. When she opened it, the odor of an aromatic candle, underscored by mildew, dilated my nostrils.
She took my hat and raincoat, shook them out, and hung them on a hall tree. Urged me toward a sofa. After I sat she went off behind a faded blue curtain that masked a kitchenette to make us tea. I took the opportunity to look around.
The ceiling was water-stained, the walls victims of bad patch jobs. But the Oriental rugs were of good quality, the sofa and chairs somewhat worn but durable. A flat-screen TV—maybe thirty-five inches—dominated one wall, and art glass knickknacks were positioned on the end tables. When Warrick returned she carried a silver tray containing a blue Wedgwood tea set.
She might have been living in a damp garage apartment, but her possessions affirmed that she had once been an affluent woman.
"I'm so glad you've agreed to take my case," she said as she poured.
"Before we proceed, I'll need your signature on our standard contract." I handed her the document I'd drawn up before leaving the office.
She read it over, signed it, said she'd give me a cashier's check for the retainer the next day. I put the contract into my bag, then took a piece of lemon from a little plate and squeezed it into my cup. I don't really care for tea unless it's iced, but lemon makes it palatable.
"Do you mind if I record our conversation?" I asked.
"Of course not."
I set my voice-activated machine on the table between us. "First I'd like some background about your life before the murder. Where you were born, how you grew up, that sort of thing."
"I'm sure that's all on record."
"But not in your own words."
"I see." She looked down at her folded hands for a moment. "I was born here in the city. At home, in the big house my parents used to own in the Marina. They had to sell it to help pay for my defense—even public defenders run up expenses. Now they live down the Peninsula in a tacky apartment complex in Millbrae and don't speak to me. Neither does my brother Rob or my sister Patty. They blame me for their losing the family fortune—such as it was. It's not fair: I didn't ask my parents for financial help."
She looked at me as if she wanted some sort of approval. I nodded. "Go on."
"Well, as I said, we lived in the Marina. I was the second child. We all got along pretty well—no sibling rivalries, no parental neglect or conflict. But then my older brother Rob accidentally shot our baby sister, Marissa. After that Mom and Dad were guilt-ridden and pulled away from us and each other."
"Did they become abusive?"
"No. We weren't that kind of family. Everybody just wanted the…incident to never have happened. We hardly even mentioned Marissa after the funeral. Mom and Dad threw themselves into their careers—she as an interior decorator, he as a financial planner. We kids threw ourselves into our schoolwork. Rob and Patty went to public schools, but after sixth grade I went to a private one—Miss Harrison's. I had special needs."
- The author is one of the few female writers adept in writing about the hard-boiled detective...Muller's heroine/sleuth, Sharon McCone, is compelling and endlessly interesting."—Asbury Park Sunday Press
- "Top-notch mystery and more from one of the genre's Grand Masters."—Library Journal
- On Sale
- Sep 24, 2013
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing