In Her Defense
Danielle McKean glanced at her watch as she power-walked into the Graham Correctional Facility. By her estimation, she had less than twenty minutes to meet with her potential client before visiting hours ended.
“First time?” the corrections officer inquired.
“At this facility,” she replied, though they all gave her the willies. A bead of sweat ran down her back as she stuffed her belongings into the visitors’ locker and removed the key. He preceded her down the hallway.
As one of the older correctional facilities in South Carolina, its age showed. Inside, the paint had chipped away, as if the despair of the prisoners who’d walked these halls hung too heavy in the air, pulling the paint down with it.
On the left, they came to a long bank of windows, the room inside partitioned down the middle. Prisoners on one side, visitors on the other. “That’s general visiting,” the officer indicated with a wave of his hand.
Danielle’s eye caught on one of the male prisoners with a very familiar flame tattoo running up his forearm. She stumbled to a stop, her legs refusing to move. Donovan Hunt. Behind the glass, Hunt’s gaze drifted toward her. One corner of his mouth twitched up in recognition before he turned his attention back to his visitor.
“Ma’am? You okay?” the guard asked, concerned.
Hell no. Would she ever be again?
She pasted on her patented lawyer smile and turned toward the guard. “Sure. No problem.” Hands shaking, Danielle fumbled with her locker key as she slipped it into the pocket of her slacks. She sucked stagnant air deep into her lungs, ignored the nose hair curling scent of disinfectants, and focused on her meeting.
The guard stopped in front of a steel door and peered through the tiny window. “Your client is waiting inside, handcuffed to the table. The table and his chair are bolted to the concrete floor.” The guard looked her over and must have noticed the sweat beading on her upper lip because he then added, “He can’t harm you. But I can stay in the room with you if you prefer.”
Danielle wiped her lip and the sight of Hunt from her mind and sent the guard a reassuring smile. “That won’t be necessary.”
Taking her at her word, he nodded, and ushered her inside. He checked the time. “Fifteen minutes left for visitation. Press the buzzer if you finish earlier.”
Danielle thanked the guard. The stuffy room was a half-step up from closet-sized. The shift in air pressure buffeted her eardrums as the heavy door closed and bolted behind her. She approached the table. “Mr. Daven?”
The prisoner expelled a lungful of air. “I thought you weren’t coming.”
“Sorry. Tanker overturned on I-95. Had to take the back roads.”
She sat opposite him and made a quick visual assessment. Brown hair, cut short. Sweat dampened the fabric under his arms, hollowed cheeks, and dark smudges accented the puffy circles under his eyes. “You look like you’ve been through hell, Mr. Daven.”
A rueful smile turned up one side of his mouth. “Michael. Please. And around here, hell is considered a promotion.”
With visitation time running short, she got to the point. “So why did you contact me?”
“Honestly, I’m outta options. I can’t afford the bigger firms. I hoped a start-up might be hungry enough to take me on.”
Needing a high profile case wasn’t the only reason Danielle had agreed to come. If she took this case, Michael Daven could become the first person released from prison with the Freedom Foundation’s money. The foundation she’d started with her father’s life insurance money to help people falsely imprisoned.
When she didn’t say anything, he rushed on as if afraid she’d have second thoughts. “You may not care if I’m guilty or not, but I swear to God, I’m innocent. I did not kill my partner, Peter Holt.”
She leaned back, her gaze appraising. “I’d just hired on at Montgomery, Walsh and Associates, awaiting the results of my bar exam, when my firm took on your defense case seven years ago. You don’t have a problem that I was employed at your defense attorneys’ law firm at the time of your trial?”
He shrugged, half-hearted. “Depends.”
“On what, Michael?”
“On if you’re a better lawyer than they were.”
Danielle suppressed a grin. There had been the inevitable water cooler talks that perhaps the defense had dropped the ball. But that didn’t mean he was innocent. For the sake of her foundation, and her father’s legacy, she needed to be convinced of his innocence. “I remember the evidence against you. Quite compelling. Why should I believe you? The jury didn’t.”
The skin around his eyes flushed red. His voice wavered. “Because if I’d wanted my partner dead, I wouldn’t have left his body in the middle of a busy construction site for anybody to find. He’d have become part of the resort’s foundation and never would have been found.”
She sent him a quelling look and rattled off the pertinent facts in response. “According to court records, you were overheard by five members of your construction crew arguing with your partner less than eight hours before he was found dead.”
Daven rolled his eyes. “Peter and I discussed ongoing projects every day, sometimes at the top of our lungs. He was one of the most brilliant, stubborn people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.” He leaned forward in his chair and looked her dead in the eye. “But I wouldn’t kill him because of it!”
Danielle listened, watched, and took in his every movement, searching for any indicators of deception. However, despite the fact the room was hot and the air too still to breathe, Daven calmed after venting. Pursing her lips in consideration, Danielle said, “As equal partners in the business, you stood to gain by his death. You were the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. A company involved with South Carolina’s biggest projects. That’s one hell of a motive if you ask just about anybody.”
“Not me.” He shook his head, indignant. “I’m not the kinda man who can take a bat to his best friend’s head for money. It’s obscene, and it’s dead wrong. We were successful, but to Peter and me, the work was about the projects, not the money.” Light flickered in his eyes as he spoke about his work. “Each project bigger, better and bolder than the last. The impending merger would have put us in a financial position to do incredible work. But that dream, Peter’s and mine, died with him.”
Daven leaned forward, the restraints so tight against his wrists the skin underneath blanched. “I folded the company the day they laid him in the ground.” He lifted his chin. “Then I donated his life insurance policy to charity. I never profited from his death.” He shook his head, his voice thick with emotion. “I couldn’t have lived with myself if I had.”
As a defense lawyer, Danielle knew people who could feed a line of bullshit and make it go down as smooth as Bavarian chocolate. Maybe Daven’s palpable anguish made her a believer. Or the sheen of moisture in his eyes he blinked back. Whatever it was—pain, loss, desperation, or innocence—it spoke to her soul and deep down in her gut she believed him.
He’s the one, Daddy. He’s the first one we’re going to help. “I know about the donation. I’ve done a little poking around.” The corners of her mouth twitched upward as she folded her hands in her lap.
“You have?” His eyes glistened as tears flooded in. He turned his attention to the flickering fluorescent bulb overhead. Using his shoulders, he dried his cheeks and said, “Does that mean you’re taking my case?”
“It means I’ll investigate your motion for appeal. Together we will decide if it’s enough to present before the court.”
Daven smiled for the first time. “That’s a yes?”
She smiled in return. “That’s a yes. Now tell me about this new information you have.”
The deadbolt slid open with a solid thunk, the door opened and the guard stepped in. “Visiting’s over.”
“We’re not finished,” Daven complained.
Danielle approached the guard. “Is there any way I could have just a few more minutes?”
“Do you have a documented court date coming up?”
“No,” Danielle replied.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. You’ll have to leave.” The guard glanced at a clipboard in his hand. “But Mr. Daven is allowed two visits a week. Tuesday through Thursday.”
It was already Thursday, so the beginning of the week would be their first chance to meet again. “The sooner the better,” Danielle said to no one in particular. “Is Tuesday okay with you, Michael?”
“I’m pretty sure I can squeeze you in.”
The humor in his words made Danielle wonder how long it had been since he’d had any reason to hope for a better future. “We can go over the information you have then.”
Michael nodded. “I can’t hand you anything, so I left the information in an envelope at the security desk. You can sign for it on your way out.”
“Sounds good. I’ll look it over before we meet on Tuesday.”
Saying her goodbyes, she followed the guard out of the room. The hair rose on her arms as they passed the window overlooking the communal visiting room. Though it had been almost seven years since Hunt had assaulted her and caused her miscarriage, there were times when she still felt his hand over her mouth and the tightness in her chest as his weight pinned her to the ground.
Danielle retrieved the envelope and fidgeted as she made her next appointment. The victim in her wanted to run, the lawyer in her wanted to walk away slowly, purposefully, and in complete control. In the end, she settled on a brisk walk through the parking lot. Back in her car, Danielle tossed the envelope into her briefcase, then rested her forehead on the steering wheel, closed her eyes and sucked in a ragged breath. Hunt won if she lost control. No way would he get the best of her again.
A knock at her window, Danielle stifled a scream. Her ex-father-in-law bent down. His dark hair had grayed more at the temples and the laugh lines around his eyes had deepened, both accentuated his handsome face. She rolled down the window and willed her heart rate to a respectable level. “Jackson. Didn’t think the partners still made house calls,” she teased, sending him a heartfelt smile.
Leaning through the window, he planted a kiss on her cheek. “Not usually,” he said without explanation. “Still living in Spartanburg?”
Shaking her head, she said, “We moved back to Charleston a few months ago. My mother’s health is declining. I wanted to be closer and give her a chance to get to know her granddaughter better.”
Considering her marriage to his son ended in part because she hadn’t wanted children, she expected a reaction from Jackson at the mention of her daughter, but he gave no outward indication it bothered him. After some idle chitchat, Danielle said her goodbyes. She drove away watching him recede in the rearview mirror. Tall and strong. Wide shoulders narrowing down at the waist. As the distance grew, his gray hair blended into the black, his age lines blurred and he looked twenty years younger and firecracker hot. Her stomach flipped.
He looked like his son.
# # #
“Michael Daven is dead,” the warden explained.
“Holy shit! I mean…shit…sorry. Hold on warden.” Caught in Friday evening’s rush hour, Danielle guided her car to the shoulder of the highway and concentrated on the phone call from the Daven’s warden. Perspiration gathered on her forehead, even with the air conditioning blasting.
“Nobody saw anything?” Danielle asked.
“No one’s talking. Even my normal sources are quiet. Investigation just got started. I’ll let you know what we find.”
After ending the call, she sat in her car, stunned. A car horn blared and refocused her mind. She dialed private investigator Bobby Crenshaw and filled him in on the murder. “The shower was full of inmates when they found him,” she said.
Bobby responded, dripping sarcasm. “They all must have had soap in their eyes.”
“And any ones who didn’t aren’t talking.”
“All I know,” Bobby said, “is the asshole behind the hit must be pretty fucking powerful if even the warden’s usual snitches aren’t talking.”
This case stank.
In her heart, she believed an innocent man had been imprisoned. And murdered. Michael’s tale could be her father’s story all over again: falsely imprisoned, killed at the hands of a fellow inmate. She’d become a defense attorney, because of her father’s murder. One innocent person in prison was one too many. She swallowed down the old hurt. Her eyes burned, remembering her father, but she refused to shed tears at the injustice. Tears wouldn’t help find Michael’s killer. At least this time, she could do something about it.
Hieroglyphics would be easier to understand than all the lines and squiggles on the survey Michael had given her. First thing Monday, she would find a translator.
“So whatcha want me to do?” Bobby asked.
Her car shook as a semi-truck barreled past her. Too bad Michael hadn’t had the chance to tell her the survey’s significance, or give her an idea who may have sent it to him. She brushed at her nose as if the stench of the case were real. Her client—dead. The warden—investigating. Michael wasn’t her responsibility anymore.
The hell he wasn’t.
She’d dig a little deeper, see what surfaced.
“You still there?” Bobby sounded impatient.
“Yeah. There’s something you can do.”
“I hoped you’d say that.”
Danielle smiled, and gave the investigator the names of Michaels’s original defense
attorneys. “See if they’re willing to speak to me about the case. Maybe they can give me insight. Then get the update on the collapse of the Kensington Resort’s dome.”
“I’m on it. Anything else?”
“No. I’m heading out of town right now, spending the weekend at the Montgomery estate for a wedding.” As Charleston’s city limits receded behind her, her daughter, Elissa, stirred but remained asleep in the backseat. “When I get back, I’ll find an expert who can maybe explain why this survey’s worth killing over. Call if you need me.”
“Sure.” Bobby ended the call.
Danielle tossed the phone into her cup holder, confident she’d hear from him soon, because once Bobby sank his teeth into an investigation, he made a pit bull look like a soft-mouthed bird dog.
# # #
Jack Walsh followed the line of nervous groomsmen to their places and waited for wedding music to start at his cousin’s wedding. Enormous. Opulent. The most common terms used to describe the ballroom at his uncle’s estate. The live orchestra sat to the right of the altar. Rows of chairs for the three hundred guests lined either side of the aisle with military precision. A colorful forest of flowers provided a backdrop to the arch of the altar.
He caught his cousin’s eye with a wink, then a small commotion to Jack’s left stole everyone’s attention as the side door opened and the maid of honor stepped out. He watched as the groomsmen before him paired off with the bridesmaids and walked down the aisle. Then his eyes landed on the last woman in line. The bridesmaid paired with him.
Aw, hell! Jack coughed into his hand and pasted the smile back on his face. The reason he’d left Charleston seven years ago walked toward him in practiced step to the halting music. The air grew still as if all the guests held their breath with him, watching her approach.
Damn. She’s magnificent.
Time had improved on what nature had designed. All highlighted by the strapless, form-fitting excuse of a dress. Maybe his imagination ran wild, but time had added curves and fullness to the woman, leaving the immaturity and sharp angles of the girl behind. Dark hair bunched on the top of her head and drew his attention to her almond shaped eyes. Her expression—painted-on pleasantness, as if she were pleased to see him. He knew that face and knew better.
She glanced up when she stopped before him. For less than the span of his rapid heartbeat, he saw turbulent guilt beneath her quiet mask. He couldn’t say if that made him feel better or worse.
When she spoke, her voice smoothed over him, as soft as the silk of her dress. “Hello, Jack.”
Because his saliva had evaporated, cementing his throat shut, Jack couldn’t speak. Instead, he extended his elbow for his ex-wife to take. Except for the touch of Danielle’s gloved hand on his coat sleeve, Jack felt nothing but ill. At least he managed to walk down the aisle without stumbling like an idiot.
A few steps from the altar, he regained his control. Without so much as a sideways glance, he deposited her by the other bridesmaids then took his place beside the groomsmen. A high-pitched squeal at the far end of the aisle had all heads turning.
“Leggo me!” The ring bearer tried to shrug the flower girl’s hand off the shoulder of his tiny tux, but she held on with all her might.
Jack grinned. Kids made weddings.
As the groom focused on his bride, his eyes filled with love and pride, then he coughed and swallowed what looked like a bunch of rocks. Jack knew the feeling. He’d once looked at Danielle that way. Had once felt that way. But not now. Not ever again.
As his cousin accepted the hand of his future wife, Jack stole a peek at Danielle. Her exotic beauty still took his breath away, but as he tried to find remnants of the powerful love that had once filled him, he realized he was empty.
Utterly and completely.
# # #
After the ceremony, Peter Holt's killer, nicknamed Griffon, listened to the phone report, and growled his reply. “She’s staying here tonight. Search her office. Search her home. The envelope’s there somewhere." He rattled off the number of his new disposable cell phone. "Call me when you have it.”
Anxiety knotted his muscles. He had to destroy the last tangible evidence tying him to the Holt murder. He’d come too far, risked too much, for it all to come crumbling down now.
# # #
Later that evening, Jack couldn’t quite garner the enthusiasm to re-enter the ballroom. Though he hated to admit it, facing all the curious glances between him and Danielle took its toll. At least he’d fulfilled his duty to his cousin. First thing tomorrow, he was history.
He made his way to the stairs and walked up a few steps before turning to sit. The white Italian marble cooled his skin through the summer weight fabric of his tuxedo. He planted his feet two steps below him, rooted his elbows on his knees, and rested his head in his hands. Tired. Irritable. He wanted to get the hell home.
The soft scrape of tiny shoes skipping by caught his attention. They stopped then approached. Jack peered through his fingers as two black patent leather clad feet climbed up the steps, stopping on the stair below where he sat. He lifted his head and glanced over at the sweaty flower girl standing beside him.
“Why aren’t you happy?” the little girl asked.
Jack took a long, hard look at her pouty face, and a smile tugged at the corner of his lips. “Why aren’t you?”
“Momma won’t let me have soda. Too much sugar and ‘feene she says.” She sat down with a sigh, her perfect little eyebrows drawn together over stormy blue eyes. “I promised I’d go straight to bed when it was time, but she wouldn’t listen. I never get to do anything! I’m almost six, you know!”
No need to do the math. Jack scrubbed a hand through his hair. His child would have been close to six and a half if Danielle hadn’t miscarried. The little girl dug her elbows into her knees, assuming a pose similar to Jack’s, the frown on her face tugging at his heart. If only his problems were that simple.
The little girl had danced with half the men, and women for that matter, but had never stayed around one person long enough for him to determine who her parents were. “Where’s your mom now?”
“Getting me milk.” She stuck out her tongue at the distasteful thought.
She looked like she’d lost her best friend. She’d seemed so happy dancing in the ballroom. Inexplicably, his chest tightened. “Would you like to dance with me?”
She glanced up, hopeful, then stared through the open doors of the ballroom as another waltz began to play. She shook her head, and her shoulders slumped. “I can’t grown-up dance.”
“It’s not so hard. A good dancer like you could learn fast enough. I could teach you.”
Her milk woes evaporated. She beamed, big and bright, and nodded so hard strands of her hair popped free.
He stood up and held out his hand for her to shake. “I’m Jack.”
“I’m Elissa.” She shook his hand as if introductions had been rehearsed long before today. “You look like Big Jack. I like him.”
“That makes two of us. He’s my father.”
Jack felt a tug in his gut when Elissa beamed and hugged his leg as if that was all it took for him to be her friend. Then, with her hand engulfed in his, Jack led her onto the dance floor.
“All right princess, put your hand on my waist and put your feet on mine. That way you can learn the steps.”
Elissa did as told, and he waltzed her once around the floor, her added weight insignificant. By the second time around, she stepped off his feet and tried the steps on her own. By the third round, she danced better than half the women on the dance floor. By the fourth, he gave her a twirl. Her face lit up, and she giggled so sweet and high-pitched it shattered his heart. At thirty-five, he should have been teaching with his own child how to dance, not someone else’s. His throat threatened to close with an emotion he didn’t dare acknowledge. When the song ended, Jack laid a hand on the back of her satin dress and leaned her back into a dip.
She came back up laughing and bouncing up and down. “Do that again! Do that again!” Unable to resist, he did as she told him.
“Thank you for the dance, princess,” he said, as he stood her back up.
Her grin stretched from ear to ear, her pearl-white baby teeth shining bright. Then she tilted her chin up and looked down her nose at him, a mischievous glint in her big blue eyes. “If I’m a princess, aren’t you ‘spose to bow?”
Jack threw his head back and laughed. “Pardon me, Your Highness.” He crossed one arm in front and one arm behind and gave her a bow that would have pleased King George himself.
She giggled, then her eyes focused on something behind him. She grabbed his hand and pulled him with her. “Momma! Momma!”
Jack turned, then let Elissa’s hand slide from his as she ran to her mother.
“Sonofabitch,” he muttered, shaking his head.
“Momma, Mr. Jack taught me to grown-up dance! And he spinned me and called me princess and he bowed!” Elissa rattled on.
Her mother handed her the glass of milk, then took Elissa’s free hand and walked toward him. Elissa chugged her milk along the way, leaving a creamy milk mustache on her upper lip. Jack jammed his hands in his pockets, fisting them there. He should go. No, he should run. But like a deer caught in the headlights, he found himself trapped on the edge of the dance floor, in the path of certain disaster.
“Hello, again,” the flower girl’s mother said.
For a moment he didn’t speak. He glanced around at the curious faces in the crowd. Clearing his throat, Jack managed a tone of polite indifference. “Danielle.”