On the drive to San Quentin, cold, misty air blew at Natalya Drummond
through the passenger-side window, which was permanently stuck halfway
down. Her colleague, Rick Cropper, had insisted on driving his ancient,
pollution-producing Impala. It hadn’t been easy convincing him they
needed to visit their client, Jared Hegner, on death row. Rick didn’t
want to do any work that wasn’t absolutely required of him, and that
included prison visits.
A few miles into the two-hour trip from Sacramento,Nat said, “Let’s
just try to calm him down a bit, if we can, okay?” Hegner was furious
because he felt his appeal was moving along too slowly; he’d been
sending them hostile letters, basically calling them incompetent idiots.
“We don’t need to coddle the guy,” Rick said. “We can just tell
him there’s a hell of a lot of work to do on an appeal like this.”
“We’ve had the case for six months, Rick. We should have visited him
way before now.”
“You agreed we’d do some research on the case first.”
“I didn’t think it was going to take more than a couple of
Rick frowned, staring ahead at the road. “That’s pretty unrealistic,
don’t you think?”
Nat sighed. She thought of Hegner’s latest letter saying, among other
things, “You better hurry things up, OR ELSE!!!” They’d already
written to him, explaining it would take a year or two of full-time
effort just to complete the first legal brief and years beyond that to
get through the court system. Hegner hadn’t wanted to hear any of
that. Of course he was right, it was unconscionable, the length of time
these appeals took.
After a few minutes, Nat looked over at Rick, and he peered back at her,
his forehead crinkling, as if he was noticing her for the first time.
She felt a sharp constriction in her chest. Rick could almost be her
dead husband’s doppelgänger—something she’d always noticed—but
for some reason the similarity now struck her with more force. Rick had
Tim’s wide forehead, the rust-brown complexion, the unusual
grayish-blue eyes. Even the tall, sinewy build. Turning his attention
back to the road, Rick ran his hand through his crow-black hair, the
gesture so much like her husband’s. God, she missed Tim. She felt
awkward and oddly unsettled now, trapped with Rick in the tense
atmosphere of the car.
Half an hour later, registering Rick’s bleary-eyed look, Nat suggested
they make a quick stop for coffee.
“Good idea, sweetness,” he said, nodding. He called every woman that
when he was feeling mellow or effusive, but today his cowboy twang was
flat and dull; he’d probably been up late smoking pot with his buddies
again. Rick was thirty-six, only four years older than Nat, but
sometimes he seemed like a seventies throwback. She had nothing against
smoking pot, but she’d never let it interfere with work.
Taking the next exit, they found a drive-through Starbucks and ordered
their coffees. Back on the road, Rick gulped down some of his Americano,
holding the cup in one hand and steering with the other, and actually
attempted to be sociable. He asked about her daughter Sofiya and
confessed to wanting to have a kid himself someday. She silently
questioned, though, whether he’d ever settle down.
He smiled occasionally as they talked, and this congenial version of
Rick momentarily drew her in. After a lull in the conversation, Nat said
quietly, “Rick, we do need to work things out with Hegner. He’s not
too happy with us.”
Rick shook his head. “Hegner’s not a real happy guy,” he said
loudly, frowning. “He’s an abusive motherfucker. I can represent him
from my office in Sacramento. I don’t know why in the hell you talked
me into going to see him.” He was practically shouting.
“Jesus, Rick,” Nat said sharply. She hadn’t meant to set him off.
He flashed an irritated look at her, and the car swerved, causing coffee
to spatter his khaki pants. “Damn.” He wedged the cup on the seat,
between his legs.
Nat turned away, staring through the half-open window at the acres of
agricultural land along the freeway. It always amazed her, how swiftly
Rick’s moods could shift, especially when anything associated with
work came up. She tended to avoid him when he was in one of his more
volatile states—angry one minute, yelling at someone in the office,
and in the next moment waltzing one of the secretaries down the hall,
singing a country-western song at the top of his lungs. In this way, at
least, he was nothing Tim. In the two years since he’d died in an
accident, Nat had felt a chronic, agonizing need for her steady,
She and Rick refrained from more talk, making the atmosphere in the car
that much more strained. Nearing the prison, they passed a strip of
blanched stucco houses with truncated front yards, and Nat wondered how
much these cottage homes with their dramatic view of San Francisco Bay
would go for on the Marin County real estate market. How much was a view
worth if you had to sleep that close to murderers, rapists and child
molesters? Nat would never allow her daughter to come within fifty miles
of a prison, let alone live practically next door to one. She pictured
Sofi at the sitter’s, playing with little Danny. At least her daughter
was safe in Corman, their small town where the most serious crimes were
As Rick turned onto the serpentine road leading up to San Quentin, Nat
took in the murky green of the ocean beneath the smear of steel-gray
clouds. Last May, when she’d visited the prison to see a client
convicted of burglary, the sky and sea had flaunted robust shades of
turquoise and teal, with bevies of gulls floating in wide spirals. The
entire scene had produced a kind of staged cheer, as if to convey some
life-affirming message of hope beyond the prison walls. But on this
chilly November day, the thought of entering the medieval fortress of
San Quentin filled her with dread. It was more intimidating than the
other prisons she’d visited in the past, which didn’t house as many
“Let’s get in and out of there as fast as we can,” she said.
“Hey, I’m with ya there,” Rick said with his Okie drawl,
exaggerated for effect. “You’re the one who wanted to see the
“I just hope he doesn’t get belligerent. I don’t want a pencil
shoved in my ear.”
Rick glanced at her. “What are you talking about?”
“Two months ago an inmate at San Quentin stabbed his attorney in the
ear with a pencil. Punctured the guy’s eardrum. Didn’t you hear
Rick shook his head.
“The inmate had the guy down on the floor before the guards knew what
was happening. Now the lawyer’s on disability. He lost some of his
hearing. Lucky it wasn’t a punctured brain.”
“The guards don’t give a damn about defense attorneys.”
“That’s for sure,” Nat said. “And they’re seriously
Rick pulled his decrepit car into the prison parking lot and brought it
to a shuddering halt in a remote corner, undoubtedly to keep it from
getting any more dents. He was always going on about his “classic
automobile”—he seemed to love the car the way some people loved
As they walked toward the entrance, Rick whistled “Blue Skies,”
which sounded eerie and incongruous in the frigid air blanketing the
prison. Nat was trying to figure out how they could get through the
visit efficiently and spend the least possible time in the company of
the pugnacious rapist-murderer they were supposed to get off of death
row. None of the inmates she’d represented in the past were as vicious
as Hegner, even though they’d all committed serious crimes. And this
was her first visit to a death row inmate—and one who was threatening
them besides. Despite Hegner’s hostility, though, Nat wanted to do a
good job on his case; she didn’t do things half-assed. A man’s life
was at stake, after all.
She tucked her binder securely under her arm. Electronics weren’t
allowed in the visiting room, so she’d have to resort to pen and paper
to jot down notes. She’d worn her charcoal-gray pantsuit, hoping to
appear authoritative. Rick, on the other hand—well, Rick was Rick. She
glanced at him in his wrinkled white shirt rolled up at the forearms and
coffee-stained pants. Not even a sweater or jacket, despite the chill in
the air. He normally wore jeans to the office, as she often did, too,
since they rarely made court appearances, but they couldn’t wear them
here. Blue denims were forbidden inside the prison, to keep visitors
from being confused with inmates in case of a riot or some other
catastrophe. Why hadn’t Rick at least worn a sports coat? He was
obviously rebelling against what he saw as a superfluous prison visit.
At this point, Nat supposed the most she could hope for was a passable
outcome for their visit, a day without incident.
Entering the processing center, she automatically shifted into the
watchful state she assumed inside prisons. She and Rick showed their
State Bar cards and driver’s licenses, then moved to the metal
detector. Rick took off his belt and shoes, placed them along with his
wallet, pen, keys, and watch into a tray on the conveyor belt and
stepped soundlessly through the detector.
Nat removed her jacket, slipped out of her shoes, and deposited these
items along with her coin purse, wedding band, and binder into another
tray. When she stepped through the frame of the detector, an alarm
shrieked, piercing her temples like a jolt of electricity. The sound
still vibrating in her ears, she frowned at Rick, who merely shrugged. A
stout black female guard waved her over to a glass-enclosed area. Nat
had no choice but to pad over on bare feet, leaving her jacket and other
belongings on the conveyor belt.
In full view of visitors in the check-in area, the guard made Nat hold
her hands behind her head as she ran a detector along the inside of her
pant legs, then scanned her upper body, stopping as the device emitted
high-pitched beeps alongside her chest.
“Underwire bra?” the guard remarked scornfully, staring at Nat’s
blouse, which was pulled tightly across her chest in this awkward
position. “One of them push-ups?”
“It’s an underwire,” Nat said evenly, her face smoldering as she
lowered her arms to her sides. In her rush to get to the office this
morning, she’d forgotten that underwires weren’t allowed in
The guard stepped back and stood with her legs braced a couple of feet
apart, keeping her eyes leveled at Nat’s chest. “We’ve got the
detectors cranked up today. We had a tip someone was going to smuggle in
a weapon. If you want to go inside, you’ll have to take off the
bra.” She handed Nat a large Ziploc bag. “Put it in here.” She
pointed toward the restroom. “You can take it off in there.”
Nat stared at the guard’s impassive face. This woman wanted to
confiscate her bra? “Is this really necessary?” she asked.
“You’ll keep it with you, but you can’t wear it if you want to go
in. You have to pass through two detectors without setting off the
alarm. It’s the rule.”
“Wonderful,” Nat mumbled. She took the bag and strode toward the
restroom, passing Rick, who gazed at her with a half-grin.
Excerpted from "Weighing the Truth: A Novel" by Christine Z. Mason. Copyright © 2016 by Christine Z. Mason. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.