Every Reasonable Doubt
Two top-notch female attorneys must put aside their personal differences long enough to defend the biggest murder case of their careers. Forced to fight a common enemy, they develop a bond that sees them through the uncertainties of trial, the pain of betrayal and pressures neither could have imagined.
Read the excerpt below!
Max rested his forearm on the registration desk as his eyes anxiously crisscrossed the lobby of the Beverly Hills Ritz Carlton. He watched as people milled about, dressed in tuxes and evening gowns. He made eye contact with a short, brown-skinned cutie who sashayed by in a dress so tight he could see the faint outline of her thong. Max smiled. She smiled back. Too bad he was already about to get laid. Otherwise, he definitely would’ve taken the time to follow up on that.
“Here’s your key, Mr. Montgomery,” said a cherub-faced girl with a shrill voice. “You’ll be in room 502. One of our most elegant suites.”
When he reached for the key, his fingertips accidentally brushed her hand and she nervously looked away. She wants me, Max thought. But she was way too young for his taste.
He thanked her and headed for the bank of elevators. Max tapped the up button and the doors of the elevator car to his left instantly sprang open. Some of the tension eased from his body once he was safely inside. He had waited nearly a week for this night and his wait was almost over.
The anonymous invitation to a “private evening of intimacy” had intrigued him and he had immediately decided to accept. No questions asked. A man like Max didn’t make hasty decisions very often. On the rare occasion that he did, it was only because he was expecting a huge payoff.
Max stepped off the elevator, studied the sign directly in front of him, then made a left. He walked with a distinctive, self-assured stride, like a male model taking a slow stroll down the cat walk. He stopped near the end of the hallway and fished the key from his breast pocket.
A huge smile of anticipation spread across his face as he entered the lavish suite. The place was a classy collection of muted colors, luxurious fabrics, and calming scents. From the flowing silk curtains, to the massive mahogany sleigh bed, to the expensive suede comforter, everything in the room spelled class with a capital C. And that pleased him.
Max made his way over to a nightstand near the window, his feet sinking into the plush Berber carpet with every step. He examined a champagne bottle sitting near an antique lamp. Dom Perignon, vintage 1995. Definitely his style. He only hoped his host was familiar with some of his more erotic personal preferences.
The sight of a red teddy hanging from the corner of the headboard triggered a twinge of arousal that warmed him inside. He rubbed the soft fabric between his fingers and smiled again. On the floor near the nightstand, he spotted a large wicker basket with three packages of rose petals, twelve scented candles, two champagne glasses, and a book of matches. A fancy gold card provided additional instructions for the evening.
Max glanced at his watch. He didn’t have much time. He scooped up the basket with one hand, began undoing his tie with the other and proceeded to the bathroom. It was just as dazzling as the rest of the suite. The marble floor, the shiny granite countertop, the extravagant gold fixtures, were all symbols of an affluent lifestyle Max knew well.
As the card commanded, Max filled the oversized Jacuzzi tub with water, sprinkled it with the rose petals and positioned the candles strategically about the room. He lit each one, then turned off the lights to admire his handiwork. Yes, yes, yes, he thought. He was about to have himself one big ball.
Max ripped up both the invitation and the card and flushed them down the toilet. A married man could never be too careful. Just as he was about to head back into the bedroom, the enormous mirror strategically placed across from the tub stopped him in his tracks. Max grinned. He would get to watch.
Marching into the bedroom, he stripped off his Hugo Boss suit and draped it over the back of an armchair near the bed, making sure his pants were carefully folded along the crease line. After he had removed the rest of his clothes, he grabbed the champagne bottle and strode naked into the bathroom where he eased into the steaming hot water and waited.
All day long he had tried to figure out who his freaky little hostess might be. He had immediately ruled out Janice. A single parent with three kids didn’t have the time, not to mention the energy, to plan something this extravagant. She could barely escape from her solo law practice for their once-a-week lunchtime romps. That left Paula, a stewardess who had served him on a flight to New York three months earlier, and Natasha, the big-breasted Swede who was temping as a receptionist at his firm’s Newport Beach office. She had straight out boned him with her eyes when he walked up to the reception desk to find out her name. Yeah, both Paula and Natasha were kinky enough to plan something like this.
Max poured himself a glass of champagne and took a long satisfying sip. The air jets pelting his back with spurts of water felt great. He closed his eyes and slowly twisted his head to the left as far as it would go, then repeated the move on the opposite side. The muscles along the base of his neck felt like dense, knotted fists. Maybe she would give him a massage afterwards.
At the sound of the hotel room door opening, Max jolted upward, causing rose petals to splash onto the floor. He could feel his pulse racing as he waited for his mystery date to appear, and when she did not, he settled back into the tub and tried to calm himself down. She was probably just slipping into that sexy little teddy, he thought. He was so hard now he had to fight the urge to jack himself off.
Max reached for the champagne bottle to refill his glass just as a sharp, searing pain attacked his left temple. He hoped it wasn’t another migraine coming on. There was a time when he could almost will them away if he concentrated hard enough. But that wasn’t working anymore. He sat the bottle back down. He would wait and share the rest with her.
Max leaned back, sucked in a long deep breath and closed his eyes for several seconds. When he reopened them, he could not focus. A thick curtain of haze had suddenly filled the room. He tried to sit up, but his head felt heavier than a bowling ball and fell backwards, slamming hard against the tiled wall. He was now blind, dizzy, and in severe pain.
By the time the bathroom door opened, Max could feel the presence of someone else in the room. He could even hear a voice. A voice he was too dazed to place, speaking words he could not quite make out. Max had never had a migraine like this one before. He tried to speak, but his lips spewed nothing but gibberish. Had the champagne been spiked?
Without warning, a powerful jolt of pain pierced the right side of Max’s chest at the same time his head seemed to explode.
His visitor, hovering over him now, plunged a knife deep into Max’s chest, then repeated the motion. A second time, a third time, a fourth time. The stabbing continued until the rose petals disappeared into a pool of deep, dark red.
The brain is a funny thing. Sometimes it’ll just go numb for no apparent reason. Like when you’re in the middle of a conversation and whatever you were about to say just tumbles out of your head. That’s exactly what happened when I heard the jury’s verdict. My brain went totally numb.
“Congratulations, counselor,” beamed David Winslow, my ever-arrogant second chair and a fellow associate at O’Reilly & Finney. He was smiling just like Howdy Doody. “Think this verdict’ll get us a multi-million dollar book deal?” he whispered.
I took exception to his use of the word “us” since he’d been nothing but a pain the entire trial and shook his extended hand anyway. I could still smell the stale scent of the three double espresso lattes he consumed each morning before eight.
Turning away, I gripped the edge of the plaintiff’s table and tried to steady myself. I’d just won the biggest verdict of my career and I felt faint. The entire courtroom was one big beige blur. The judge was speaking now, but I didn’t hear a word he was saying. I was buzzed from a strong blast of adrenalin, but trying hard to play it cool. As if juries handed me five million dollar verdicts every day.
I suddenly remembered my client, Roland Hayes, standing next to me. He was gasping for air like an elderly asthmatic. The verdict obviously meant a whole lot more to him than it did to me. He’d be set for life. I pulled out his chair and motioned for him to sit.
When I saw the jury rise, I assumed we were done. I sloppily stuffed papers into my Coach briefcase, hugged Roland for the second time, and watched as he ran off into the arms of his ecstatic wife. David, meantime, was flashing our despondent opposing counsel a gloating smile.
As we headed out of the courtroom, a gang of reporters rushed toward us, nearly knocking us back inside.
“Vernetta Henderson,” somebody shouted, “the jury’s five million dollar verdict is a pretty hefty award in a single-plaintiff race discrimination case. How do you feel?” I looked to my left and saw that the question came from the skinny blonde with the bad split ends from Channel 7.
Before I could answer, another reporter hurled a question my way. “Ms. Henderson, why do you think the jury went so heavy on the punitives?”
Because my client worked for a bunch of racist yahoos , I wanted to say.
Instead, I squeezed through the crowd, chin forward, shoulders erect, ignoring them. Just like they did on Law and Order . I looked over at David. His thin lips were pursed into a taut, straight line. No one had bothered to stick a microphone in his face and he was pissed.
When we reached the elevators, we found the down button blocked by a fortress of reporters. The hot, gleaming lights from a small TV camera nearly blinded me and somebody’s microphone kept nudging me in the back of the head.
“Ms. Henderson, were you surprised at the verdict?” yelled a voice from the rear.
I brushed passed the inquisitive mob, determined to ignore them. “No questions for now,” I said finally, as David and I escaped toward the stairwell. “We’ll talk to the media later this afternoon.”
By the time we made it back to the offices of O’Reilly & Finney, word of the verdict had already raced through the firm. I barely had time to shove my purse underneath my desk and touch up my lipstick before I was whisked off to the 38th floor to continue bathing in the glory of my mind-blowing victory.
A handful of my colleagues pounced on me before I had barely entered the conference room, corralling me in a small circle of professional envy. Lawyers are a lot like ten year olds. They smile and pretend to be happy when someone else wins the big case, but on the inside they’re pouting.
Al McAndrews, a tax partner, was the first to congratulate me. “Incredible work, counselor,” he said, giving me a benign pat on the back. McAndrews routinely ignored me during our morning elevator rides. I hoped this didn’t mean I would have to make small talk the next time we were stuck in an elevator together.
For the next twenty minutes, I graciously accepted praise heaped on top of praise even though I knew most folks were there for the jumbo shrimp. I spotted David across the room entertaining his own flock of worshippers. I could hear snatches of his conversation. He was explaining how well we had worked together. All lies.
The post-trial victory celebration was an O’Reilly & Finney tradition. It was a first for me, having been at the firm for only nine months. I scanned the room, looking for Jim O’Reilly, the firm’s managing partner, but he was nowhere in sight. When I saw Neddy McClain walk in, my body stiffened.
For a reason I had yet to figure out, the woman acted as if she despised me. The fact that we didn’t get along was especially tragic since we were the firm’s only African-American attorneys. Black folks are like crabs in a barrel, my grandmother used to say. As soon as one climbs up, another one pulls ‘em back down.
As usual, Neddy’s lips were ziplocked into an obnoxious frown, broadcasting the perpetual state of discontent that she wore like an old sweater. Thank God we had different practice areas and never had to work together.
I took a sip of a Diet Coke somebody had handed to me and checked my watch. If I didn’t leave soon, there was no way I was going to make it across town for dinner with my husband. I had promised Jefferson that as soon as the trial ended, I was all his. I had also promised to give some serious consideration to starting a family. The first promise I planned to keep. I was still searching for a loophole big enough to get me out of the second one.
All the bodies hemming me in were beginning to make me feel claustrophobic. Just as I was about to make a break for it, an attorney I barely recognized bogarted his way through the huddle. “Way to go, Henderson!” he yelled, giving me a high five.
All I could do was grin. The rays of praise beaming down on me felt so good I almost wanted to squeal. Truth be told, I had actually fantasized about this day in law school. This was what it was all about.
While the praise fest continued, I watched out of the corner of my eye as Neddy studied the colorful display of hors d’oeuvres. She did not appear anxious to make her way toward me, but decorum dictated that she must. I wondered just how long it was going to take her to march across the room and give me my props.
O’Reilly finally towered in, giving her a temporary reprieve. He grabbed an empty wineglass from the tray of a passing waiter and gently clinked it with a knife.
“May I have your attention?” He didn’t actually need to ask for the floor. When O’Reilly walked into a room, all heads automatically turned his way. An oversized, gregarious Irishman with curly, reddish-brown hair, he had an easy-going, Clintonesque style about him. He was just as comfortable addressing a room full of wealthy bankers as a congregation of black Baptists.
“I want to give an official O’Reilly & Finney congratulations to Vernetta and David on the Hayes verdict and a jury award so big even I couldn’t believe it.” O’Reilly looked extremely pleased. Probably because forty percent of that five million dollar award would go straight into the coffers of the 80-attorney litigation boutique founded by his grandfather.
“It just shows you what good, solid legal work can produce. Keep on kicking butt, guys!” He raised his glass and everyone applauded. Except Neddy. Her hands were conveniently occupied. She took a sip of wine and dipped a broccoli spear into a bowl of Ranch dip.
A few minutes later, O’Reilly headed my way and pulled me off to the side. “You won’t believe it,” he whispered excitedly. “You heard about Max Montgomery’s murder Saturday night, right?”
Who hadn’t? Max Montgomery was a local icon. Rich, attractive, politically connected and undeniably brilliant. His investment banking firm owned most of the city’s prime real estate. The murder made the front page of the L.A. Times and every news station in town was milking the story like it was a prized cow.
“Well, guess who’s a suspect, and guess who wants our firm to defend her?”
I had absolutely no idea who “her” could be.
“His wife!” There was sheer joy in O’Reilly’s voice. “And you, lucky lady, are going to be sitting at the defense table.” He turned his back to me and began scanning the room.
He was right. I couldn’t believe it. This was the kind of case that turned lawyers into celebrities. Although I was wiped out from the round-the-clock hours demanded by the Hayes trial, the prospect of a sensational criminal case caused a tingling sensation to overtake my weariness. Then I remembered my promise to Jefferson. He would freak when he found out I’d taken on another, even more-demanding case. I downed the last of my Diet Coke and momentarily waved that worry from my mind. I’d deal with Jefferson later. I was about to be catapulted into super-lawyerdom.
Then I heard O’Reilly call Neddy over and my heart did a flip-flop.
“This is going to be a helluva case,” he said, turning back to face me as Neddy walked up. “You ladies can thank me later.”
“Thank you for what?” Neddy asked.
“For teaming you up on L.A.’s next high-profile murder case.”
Neddy and I locked eyes, but we both exercised our right to remain silent.
O’Reilly, still all smiles, threw his burly left arm across my shoulder and pulled Neddy to him with his right. We were the perfect Jet Picture of the Week.
“Yep,” he said, looking first at Neddy, then shining his gaze on me. “I’d say you two ladies are about to become very, very famous.”
Itried to ignore the knots forming in my stomach as I followed O’Reilly and Neddy out of the conference room and into O’Reilly’s spacious corner office. As soon as he closed the door, his face took on a childlike elation. “L.A.’s long overdue for another big, juicy murder trial and this is it.” He sat down in his cowhide leather chair and propped his feet up on the desk. He was smiling so hard his cheeks looked like they had been stuffed with grapefruits.
Neddy and I took seats in the matching Queen Ann chairs in front of his desk. We had yet to acknowledge one another.
“The police tried to question Montgomery’s wife last night, but she refused to talk without representation.” He turned to face Neddy. “She called us because she remembered that acquittal you got in the Langley murder case last year. But it was my idea to pair you up with Vernetta.”
O’Reilly was definitely satisfied with himself. I almost expected him to stand up and pat himself on the back.
This kind of case was right up Neddy’s alley. She’d spent fifteen years at the Public Defender’s Office before O’Reilly & Finney recruited her four years ago to strengthen the firm’s criminal defense practice. Since joining the firm, she had successfully defended a string of high-profile criminal cases, including two wealthy murder suspects and a string of accountants and bankers accused of securities fraud. My practice, however, was strictly employment law.
I was the first to speak. “O’Reilly, have you forgotten that I’m not a criminal attorney?” I couldn’t exactly tell him I didn’t want to team up with Neddy just because she walked around looking like the Wicked Bitch of the West.
“Wait a minute,” O’Reilly protested, “didn’t you tell me you’d be open to learning other practice areas when I hired you? Well now’s your chance.”
I hated having my own words thrown back at me. “You’d actually want me to cut my teeth on a case this big?”
“Why not? You’re an incredible litigator, Vernetta. You just won one of the biggest verdicts this firm has ever had. And without a doubt, Neddy’s sharper than ninety-nine percent of the prosecutors down at the D.A.’s office. You two have Dream Team written all over you.”
Neddy’s left eye began to twitch.
“And anyway,” he continued, “Tina Montgomery was elated when I mentioned your name. She’s been following the Hayes trial on TV.”
O’Reilly was leaning forward now, his elbows planted on his desk like a pair of upside down turkey legs. “Think about it? Two smart, attractive African-American, female lawyers defending a prominent, African-American socialite accused of murdering her rich husband? Hell, the defense team’ll get more publicity than the trial.”
So that was it. We would no doubt be the first all-black, female defense team handling such a high-profile case. That would mean coverage in the mainstream media, the legal press and the black community. And O’Reilly was banking on all that publicity bringing a lot more clients through the door. But teaming up with Neddy would leave me relegated to second-class citizenship. That definitely wouldn’t work. I had to find an escape clause and quick.
“So let’s be clear here,” I said, feigning indignation. “Are you assigning us to this case because we’re black or because we’re women . . . or both?”
“Aw, don’t give me that politically correct bullshit, Henderson.” O’Reilly swatted away my question with one of his mammoth hands. “You two know me better than that. I’m all about getting whatever mileage I can out of any case that comes through this door. Do you know how many attorneys would kill for a case like this?”
“But I’m not a criminal attorney, O’Reilly.” Of course that hadn’t been a concern for me when he first mentioned the case. I took in a breath and hoped I didn’t sound too whiny.
“Yeah, but Neddy is. And she can teach you all the procedural stuff you need to know inside of two weeks. The real job in trying a case like this is analyzing the evidence. It’s all about how you present the good facts and how you spin the bad ones. You’re a whiz when it comes to the nuts and bolts of a case. And don’t quote me, but after the Hayes verdict, with this case on your resume, when your name comes up for partnership next year . . .” He arched his eyebrows and smiled.
Finish the sentence, I wanted to say. But O’Reilly wasn’t stupid enough to make that kind of binding oral promise with a witness present. I knew he was right. After the Hayes victory and an attention-grabbing case like this, win or lose, my fate as far as partnership was concerned would be happily sealed. I’d become the firm’s first African-American partner.
I wondered why Neddy was playing mute. I doubt she wanted to work with me either. But O’Reilly couldn’t dangle a partnership carrot in front of her face. She had negotiated a deal for a permanent Of Counsel position and seemed satisfied with that arrangement.
While I was still pondering my predicament, Neddy finally opened her mouth.
“Hold on a minute,” she said. I couldn’t tell from her tone exactly how she felt about O’Reilly’s proposed arrangement. “You only said the police wanted to question Montgomery’s wife. Who says she’s even a suspect?”
O’Reilly smiled. “C’mon Neddy, don’t bullshit me. We both know innocent people don’t go calling lawyers just because the cops want to talk to them.”
“That’s not necessarily true,” Neddy challenged. “Anybody with any sense knows you don’t talk to the police without a lawyer present. Thank God she was savvy enough to demand one. It doesn’t mean she killed the man. If you ask me, it just means she’s smart.”
O’Reilly frowned. I could tell he was alarmed that his visions of a media feeding frenzy might be vanishing before his eyes.
“I agree,” I said hurriedly. “Maybe she’s just being cautious. There’s no reason for us to assume the police plan to charge her with murder.”
O’Reilly leaned back in his chair and stroked his chin. “Well,” he said, with a sly grin, “I don’t know about you two, but I’m sure hoping like hell they do.”