Ebook available on Amazon @$2.99 for a short introductory period. Also available in hardcover and paperback.
Publisher Hillrow Editions
Ebook available on Amazon @$2.99 for a short introductory period. Also available in hardcover and paperback.
"Weighing the Truth is more than a legal thriller. It's a close inspection of morals, ethics, and values in the face of threats, gang involvement, attorney interactions, and a level of professional involvement that suddenly turns all too personal, unexpectedly placing Nat on the other side of the witness stand . . . [W]ill delight readers who look for more personal touches and protagonist development in their legal fiction." --D. Donovan, Sr. Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
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 months.”
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, reliable husband.
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 car burglaries.
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 dangerous prisoners.
“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 guy.”
“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 about it?”
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 understaffed here.”
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 their dogs.
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 maximum-security prisons.
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.
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Christine's novels include Boundaries: A Love Story, set in Cape Cod, northern Maine, and the West Coast; Weighing the Truth, a character-driven legal thriller; and a children's novel, The Mystery of the Ancient Stone City, an adventure story set in Micronesia. All of her books are available in ebook and print editions.