For those of you who were able to catch the first ten chapters of Accessory After The Fact last week, you might allow the next ten chapters to absorb your attention while awaiting the newest edition of the Sentinel to roll off the presses.
Back in the familiar surroundings of my home, it came back to me that I had a regular life, with a routine and rhythm of its own. I am a member of that privileged class known as attorneys, permitted to affix an esquire to the end of my full name and licensed to represent others before the courts of the state of California. These privileges put lawyers in an esteemed position, but the truth is that with the recognition comes responsibility. And responsibility can cut down on one’s freedom. My time is rarely my own, at least during the hours of the day when court is in session. Missing a scheduled appearance in my line of work is a serious thing. Leaving a client in the lurch like that might not necessarily get you disbarred – prohibited from practicing law – but, then again, it might. My schedule is something of a waking nightmare, with the demands of one client or another sometimes requiring me to be in one courtroom while the demands of a case for another of my clients requires me to be in another courtroom before another judge on a different floor or across the hall or across town at the same time. It is never easy or graceful for me to extricate myself from these scheduling dilemmas, but I somehow manage. I am a partner in the law firm of Exeter, Delbert, Sampson and Shuey, and, if I was not alert enough to see the scheduling conflict ahead of time and have the matter recalendared, a phone call can generally rally someone, usually a junior member of the firm, to appear for me to request an extension or a delay until I can show up. That morning I was scheduled only for one hearing in court, pretrial arguments on a matter involving a dispute over a strip of property that was likely never to go to trial. My clients’ position was a strong one and I could not feature opposing council forcing the issue, but he was spiritedly sparring with me now, hoping for a compromise or a signal from us that we would entertain a buy-out offer as a settlement. It was crucial that we have a strong showing today and there was no chance for postponement. I also had some filings to make with the clerk of the court on a myriad of cases I was involved in, including one of the briefs I had stayed late preparing the previous night. After that, that would be it for the day, other than preparation for the next day.
I was puttering through my house, getting ready. In the kitchen I loaded the coffee maker with just enough grounds and water for a cup-and-a-half. From there, I went up to my room and began laying out my clothes on my bed, the same bed that had been only limitedly slept in the previous night. I selected a medium blue serge suit and a very light blue shirt with darker blue pinstripes, and a tie that was neither thin nor wide with a mixture of hues that were predominantly blue ones. From the box atop my dresser I drew a pair of silver cufflinks. Before I got into the shower, I descended to the first floor and went into the kitchen again. I was famished and gave a long thought to making some bacon and eggs, some hash browns, and maybe some toast. That would take too long, I decided, and opted instead for cereal. I grabbed a box of Cheerios from the pantry and some milk from the refrigerator and ate a first, second and then third bowl, smacking my lips and tipping the bowl like a glass to drink the remaining milk from it when the rolls of toasted oats were gone. I left the bowl in the sink after partially filling it with water, deferring the minor domestic duty of washing it out until much later.
I went back upstairs and ran the shower to warm the water. Before the steam had a chance to fog up the mirror, I stood before it, lathered the bottom of my face in shaving cream and shaved. Just as the steam was creeping over my reflection, I gave myself a hard look. The entirely black get-up was a little overdramatic, I could see in the stark morning light. It gave me a slightly suspicious air too, I now realized. It had been fortunate I had not run up against the authorities during my previous night’s sojourns. The steam fog from the shower was enveloping the bathroom and I peeled off the dark clothes and underwear and got into the cubicle enclosed by two portions each of wall and glass on the sides. All in all my excursion beneath the stinging needles of water, less than ten minutes in duration but long enough for me to shampoo my hair and scrub my body, proved refreshing. I toweled myself off, applied some deodorant and stepped into some underwear and socks. Back out in the bedroom, I pulled on the outer clothes I had laid out for myself. I affixed the tie – with a double Windsor – and did up my cuffs. I put on my vest, but left the coat on its hanger. As I brushed my hair before the dresser mirror, I examined my face closely, pleased to note that it at least appeared no worse for wear despite the previous evening’s ordeal. Making sure I had both my own keys and Williams’ and my own wallet and Williams’ wallet, which I gingerly handled with one of my dirty socks to keep from leaving fingerprints, I uncharacteristically left my clothes in a heap on the floor in the adjoining bathroom, went downstairs, and let myself out by the front door and then double locked it. I carried my suit coat over to the Buick, and hung it on the shoulder harness dispenser behind the driver’s side. Before I got in, I visually checked to see that the lock was in place on the garage door. I got in and headed down into the heart of the metropolis, stopping at a bank branch on Wilshire a dozen or so blocks down from the high-rise that houses my office, where I withdrew $200 in twenty dollar bills from an insta-teller machine. Less than ten minutes later I was parked in the underground garage beneath the high-rise. I took the elevator to the 24th floor and disembarked. My firm’s offices occupy the entire 25th floor and all but two of the suites on the 24th. At that hour – 7:25 – there was no one at the receptionist’s booth and I strolled by it and hooked right at the far hallway and went down to my personal office. I let myself in with my key and went over to my desk. I sat down and picked up the paperwork I had prepared the night before, notices, writs and an administrative motion, all of which I wanted to see filed that day. I reviewed them quickly, determining all was in order.
Using a sheet of paper, I retrieved Williams’ wallet from my back pocket. I laid it down on the desk and using two pencils, unfolded it. I then used one of the pencils to partially slide the cards out from their holding place and with the eraser end, indexed through them to find his driver license. Putting pressure on the pencil, I fully liberated the license from the wallet. Using the pencil, I slid it over to the heap of documents I had just finished signing and flipped the license up on top of them. I stood up and carried the pile of filings and the license with me out of my office and down the hallway to the copy room. Being careful not to handle the driver license, lest I leave on it tell-tale fingerprints, I made copies of everything, 100 percent reproductions of the filings and a 166 percent reproduction of the license. I carried everything back into my office. I put the copies of the filings into a folder I keep for the same that serves as a temporary holding file before each motion or document is later filed with the back-up case file I keep in my filing cabinet for each case. Using the pencils again I put the license back into the stack of credit cards.
I put the original filings into my briefcase and placed the blow up of the license near the top of the desk. I studied the signature on it. With a pen then, I practiced recreating it time and again on a blank piece of paper.
His penmanship had been less disciplined and elegant than mine, although his G had more of a flourish than I give it. He gave a distinctly wider loop to his letter l than I do, to the point that if it were any wider it might have been mistaken for an o. His m as well had a peculiar backhand quality that it took me a while to master. After several dozen runs through, I was able to replicate the signature of Gregory A Williams with an easy dexterity and with such accuracy that it would require a trained handwriting analyst to detect the forgery.
I studied the blow up one last time for the information it contained and then took it and the two sheets of paper I had been practicing the signature on back down the hallway to the copy room. In the corner of the room I loaded all three one after the other into the shredder and watched as they fed through and dropped into the bin below it. I went back to my office and closed the door behind me. I used the pencils again to pull out Williams’ American Express card. I bent over the side of my desk to retrieve the telephone directory from the far end of the credenza. In the yellow pages I found a listing for a travel agency in Santa Monica. I dialed the number and, using Williams’ name and credit card number, secured a reservation on that day’s AmericanWest Airlines 2:40 p.m departure from LAX to San Francisco and a room – 224 – at the Holiday Inn. I noted the specifics on a file card and put it in my shirt pocket. With a sheet of paper, I clumsily shuffled all of the cards into the wallet and, folding it up, put it into my pocket. Before I shut my briefcase, I double-checked its contents to make sure I had everything I needed. Satisfied, I shut it and picked it up and let myself out of my office just as several of my colleagues were beginning their morning office runabouts to prepare themselves for their approaching court appearances. I exchanged greetings with a few. It was coming up on 8:30, I saw by the clock in the foyer between the receptionist’s desk and the elevator. I took the elevator down into the parking level, found my car and carefully negotiated my way out of the underground garage, which was overpacked with vehicles by that point. It took me fifteen minutes of abrupt stopping and starting in bumper-to-bumper traffic to get to the courthouse. I pulled into the five dollar all-day parking lot across the street, paid the attendant and parked in a midsize stall. I got out of the car and reached back in to get my suit coat, still hung on the shoulder harness dispenser. I pulled it off the hanger and slipped into it, buttoning the middle button. I took a few seconds to admire myself in the back side window’s reflection. “Regular tailor’s dummy,” I thought to myself. I retrieved by briefcase, locked the car and headed over to the courthouse.
I entered into the Halls of Justice on the Third Avenue Entrance and proceeded among, around and through the milling and forming crowds down toward the clerk of the court’s filing windows. Only two of the attorneys’ windows were open and there were nearly a dozen people in line in front of me. I glanced at my watch. I was scheduled to be in Department 11 that morning before Judge Brian Parker on an unlawful land confiscation case. The line dwindled slowly and by 9:10 I was at the window filing motions and notices, signing and dating each document in the clerk’s presence, and she time date stamping each filing as I handed it to her. The clerk took each of my filings in succession, stamping each one, and then entering notation of the individual filing and the relevant case number into a computer. I made out a check from a book of firm checks bearing my name above that of Exeter Delbert Sampson and Shuey, one for each separate case as I completed the attendant paperwork. There were eleven total filings on matters involved in four cases and the total drawn against the firm account for all of the filings totaled $674.80. The clerk took the four checks and processed them in a manner much like the other documents, but with a different stamp on each check’s backside. She provided me with a print-out listing the filings, case numbers and costs and then four similar print-out receipts, each bearing the firm’s name and the client name relative to each line item. I placed the printouts and receipts into the proper folder in my briefcase, shut it and lifted it off the counter. I thanked the clerk and headed off toward Department 11.
I peered in the window at the door to Department 11. I could see that Judge Parker was on the bench. I gently opened one of the double doors and walked down the gallery’s center aisle midway down the eight rows of chairs to take a seat on the left.
Over in two of the three rows of the jury box sat nigh on a dozen detainees from central detention in their L.A. County blue jumpsuits. They were chained together at the hips and their arms were fastened to their hips as well. Each wore his own individual set of leg irons. Below Parker at the prosecution table was a deputy district attorney and on the defense side to the right a member of the public defender’s office. Arraignments for the motley group of gentlemen seated in the jury box were ongoing. I could see that they had already moved more than halfway through that morning’s schedule, for the man being arraigned was obliged to stand during his proceeding and the fifth fellow from the end in the back row was now standing. I listened only vaguely to these matters, with the judge calling the defendant’s name and the junior member of the prosecutor’s office citing the penal code offense or offenses alleged and offering the court a cursory outline of the supposed perpetrator’s action. Through most of this the deputy public defender made no comment whatsoever, though on a couple of occasions she made a motion for the delivery to her office of this or that police report or piece of evidence. I settled fully into a seat and put my briefcase sideways onto the chair next to me and then opened it. From it I pulled out the compendium of documents relating to my case that morning, arranged in color-coded file jackets for easy reference. I set them on my lap and thumbed through them, recommitting to memory some of the relevant details that would figure in my upcoming representation.
In short order the arraignments were through and Judge Parker announced a five-minute recess as the bailiff and the sheriff’s deputy accompanying the shackled prisoners led them out of a side door. Judge Parker picked up his coffee mug and himself retreated into the door to his chambers, which was set in the wall behind the bench just below and slightly to the right of a huge bronze Great Seal of the State of California. I looked across the aisle to see that Andrew Foster, my opponent, was in the courtroom. We made eye contact and he acknowledged my presence by raising his right fingers as a subdued wave. I nodded and returned my attention to the documents before me.
A few moments later Judge Parker emerged from his chambers door and the bailiff sharply commanded that we all rise. When we had done so he announced, “Court is in session, the Honorable Brian Parker presiding. You may be seated.”
Ours was the second matter on his civil calendar that morning, after a dispute involving the rightful ownership of looms that had been the corporate property of two clothiers who had since dissolved their partnership.
Parker intoned: “Beinschroth vs. Anderson”
“Steven Forsyth for the plaintiff, your honor,” I said, walking up to the litigants’ table where I set down my briefcase.
“And Andrew Foster for the defense.”
“I see this matter has to do with a fence,” said the Judge. “Your summary, Mr. Forsyth?”
“Yes,” I said. “What we have here, your Honor, quite simply is a case of thwarted adverse possession. The uncontested facts are that Mr. and Mrs. Beinschroth obtained title to the property in question 17 years ago. In that time they have made roughly $29,000 worth of improvements to the property, which they are maintaining as the site for their retirement estate.
“Seven years ago, Robert Anderson acquired the lot directly adjoining the Beinschroth property on their west facing property line. At a date we have yet to precisely determine at least 38 months ago but no more than 42 months ago, Mr. Anderson constructed a fence running the entire depth of the property. We have since determined, and Mr. Anderson does not now dispute, that the fence was placed 11 feet east of the legally recorded property line along its entire 980-foot span. Though he was first informed, or learned, about the fence’s erection 38 months ago, it was not until eight months ago that Mr. Beinschroth first noted the apparent discrepancy between the fence’s placement and the actual property line. He initiated a discussion with Mr. Anderson at that point, your Honor. It should be noted that at that time that Mr. Anderson represented to my client that he believed my client to be in error and that he had taken every required surveying precaution in staking the fence.” I popped open the top of my briefcase and pulled forth an orange folder and threw it open to seize a document within it. I held it up. “This correspondence from Mr. Anderson in his own hand and signed and dated will attest to that,” I said. “It was only after Mr. Beinschroth hired a surveying team which carried out a survey that plotted precisely the location of the encroaching fence with regard to the true property line, that Mr. Anderson acknowledged the misplacement of the fence.” I deftly reached for the purple folder and withdrew from it a surveyor’s document and a county recorder’s document. “I have here a certified copy of the subdivision map showing the dimensions of the Beinschroth’s lot and a certified copy of the survey carried out by Talleyrand Engineering showing the fence to be beyond the property line a distance of 11 feet 2 inches for the 740 feet of the fence commencing at the north end of the lot and by 11 feet 6 inches the remaining 240 feet to the fence’s terminus at the southern end of the property. This equates to a property taking of 13,180 square feet or more than one quarter of an acre.
“Mr. Anderson’s response to the Beinschroth’s request for the fence’s removal,” I intoned, “was an offer to purchase, at fair market value, the property now in dispute. This correspondence from Mr. Anderson to my clients signed and dated will establish that, your Honor.”
I reached into the orange folder to hold up a copy of a second letter and then continued. “The Beinschroths rejected that overture. Since that time Mr. Anderson’s attitude has been that since he is in practical possession of the property, he can assert a claim to legal ownership under the doctrine of adverse possession. He is patently in error in this.
“Adverse possession, your Honor, in California law pertains to the acquisition of title to real property by continuous possession for a period of time prescribed by statute. There are five basic requirements, all of which must first be fulfilled, for someone to claim title to another person’s land by adverse possession. The defendant in this case, your Honor, has fulfilled at best three of those requirements and by other interpretations only two.
“Those requirements,” I continued, “are that one) possession must be held either under a claim of right or color of title; two) possession must be an open and notorious occupation of the property in such a manner as to constitute reasonable notice of that occupation to the actual owner; three) the occupation must be exclusive and hostile to the title of the true owner; four) possession must be continuous and uninterrupted for fives years; and five) the occupier must pay all taxes assessed against the property during that five year period.
“Your Honor,” I said, reaching into a green folder and producing from it a document from the county recorder’s office, “This constitutes the defendant’s claim to title of the property in dispute. It is a document that was recorded by the defendant six months ago in which he fraudulently redrew the legal description of his property to include the property owned by my clients which he has enclosed behind his fence. This document was recorded by the defendant after he was informed of the survey results showing the misplacement of his fence. By my interpretation, your Honor, the recording of that document constituted theft or an intent to commit theft. Land theft. But it did fulfill one of the five basic requirements to assert adverse possession. And we do not contest that the occupation of the property now in dispute before this court was both exclusive and hostile to the Beinschroth’s title to it, which is a second requirement for sustainable adverse possession. Another requirement they have made a show of meeting is the open and notorious occupation of the property. They will assert that their occupation of the property is open and notorious in that the fence is plain to view and we do not dispute that. But if you will recall, your honor, Mr. Anderson asserted in his first letter to Mr. and Mrs. Beinschroth his belief that the fence had not encroached upon their property. And it would be unreasonable to expect that my clients would instantaneously recognize that the fence was inappropriately located since there are no obvious landmarks to show that. So there is a real question as to whether Mr. Anderson’s possession of the property was indeed notorious and whether he has met the third requirement.
“But whether he met that requirement is moot, since there can be no disputing that he has not met the final two requirements the law outlines to allow for the application of adverse possession,” I said, cadencing my speech with energized expectation as I was about to deliver the coup-de-grace. “One of those is the requirement that the possession be continuous and uninterrupted for at least – and the statute is very specific in this, your Honor – five years. Five years. Sixty months, minimum. At most, the fence has been in existence 42 months.” I reached into a blue folder and pulled out three enlarged photographs. I held them up. “These were taken 43 months ago. They clearly show that at that time, the fence was not in existence.
“And finally,” I said, reaching into a yellow folder and retrieving a handful of documents, “these are the Beinschroths’ property tax statements and billings from the county tax collector for the previous six years and copies of the canceled checks used to satisfy those tax bills. You can see that it was the Beinschroths who have paid the property tax on the land between the fence Mr. Anderson erected and the true property line. Mr. Anderson has never paid tax on that property. And the fifth requirement for adverse possession is that the occupier must pay all taxes assessed against the property during the five year statutory period.”
I paused. I glanced around the courtroom, looked point blank at opposing council for a brief stare-down and then made eye contact with Judge Parker.
“Your Honor,” I said, “the law is abundantly clear with regard to this matter. The property in dispute is the full and legal possession of my clients, Mr. and Mrs. Beinschroth. The fence that was erected by Robert Anderson has denied and is continuing to deny them their right to the full enjoyment of that property. We are not demanding payment for more than three years’ occupancy of that property, although under the law we could. Mr. Anderson has not established possession of the property under the statutory requirements of sustainable adverse possession. There is no need to take this matter to trial, your Honor. Your Honor can expeditiously settle the entire affair by granting a summary adjudication based upon the facts. We are asking that the court deliver an order calling for the de-erection of the fence and a declaration of true title under the full authority of this court recognizing the true right and possession of the property described in the title deed that has been in Mr. and Mrs. Beinschroth’s possession for the last 17 years. And they hope to recover from the defendant all legal and court costs they have had to sustain throughout this effort to regain the property that was unjustly taken from them. Thank you, your Honor.”
Judge Parker reached up under the left sleeve of his robe with his right hand to scratch the back of his forearm. His eyes held me in a slightly sleepy, almost vacant stare for a couple of seconds and then he fixed his gaze at Foster. “Mr. Foster?” he intoned.
“Yes, your Honor,” Foster said. “First let me object to Mr. Forsyth’s characterization of Mr. Anderson’s recording of the title document earlier this year as fraudulent and the insinuation that this somehow constituted theft. I can assure the court that Mr. Anderson’s intent with the recording of that instrument was merely to assure that the title document accurately reflected the present borders of the property, nothing more and nothing less.
“As to Mr. Anderson’s claim of title to the property under the well-established theory of adverse possession, we would pray that the court heed the law both in letter and in spirit, to wit: Mr. Anderson erected the fence 41 months ago, believing at that time and at all subsequent times until it was finally brought to his attention otherwise that the fence line lay at the true property line between his land and that of the Beinschroths. There was never any intent to deprive the Beinschroths of their property. The misplacement of the fence was purely a surveyor’s error that was totally independent of my client. The question now before this court is with the fence and de facto property line established for such a period as it has been established – and the plaintiffs are not contesting that the fence has been in existence for a significant period of time – the question now before the court is what remedy can be achieved that is fair to all parties involved. I would suggest, your Honor, that the best course for this court is to recognize the property line as now existing at the fence line. I make this suggestion for three reasons.
“First, my client is willing to remunerate Mr. and Mrs. Beinschroth for the property under dispute. We have done a preliminary study to show that the fair market value of the property as it is currently agriculturally zoned is somewhere above $7,000 but in no case above $12,000. We are willing to enter into negotiations with the Beinschroths to settle upon a purchase price that will double the amount anywhere between those two figures inclusive.
“Second, within California Real Estate Law, within the very section of the code pertaining to adverse possession, favor is granted to use of property over non-use,” Foster continued. “The legislature in its wisdom has recognized that when disputes over land arise, a major factor to be taken into consideration during arbitration is the purpose to which the property will be put by the disputing parties. There is adequate evidence before this court to show that it is my client rather than the plaintiffs who have and will continue to utilize this property for its highest and best purpose. That is indisputable, your Honor. My client has been making active use of the property for the last 41 months in conjunction with his farming operation. These exhibits will demonstrate to the court how the property is being put to use.” He stepped toward the courtroom’s display board and clipped into place first a large map showing the two properties and four photographs.
“As you can see, your Honor, this line represents the old property line, that is, as it was originally stipulated in the Anderson and Beinschroth title documents,” Foster said, pointing to one of the lines visible on the map. He then pointed to another line that paralleled it. “This is the actual existing property line – the fence line. And here,” Foster ran his finger along the area between the original property line and a third parallel line opposite the fence, “is a road that was constructed by my client. The existence of this road is significant. It demonstrates that my client has made resourceful use of the property. There has been no commensurate development of the property on the other side of the now existing property line. In fact, as this photo, which was taken last Friday demonstrates, the Beinschroth’s property has continued to lay fallow. It sits there looking very picturesque but has no function. And you can see by this photo here, your honor, and this photo, and this as well, your honor, my clients are making far higher use in their agricultural application of the property than are the Beinschroths. In fact, your honor, it was not until more than three year’s after the fence was built that Mr. and Mrs. Beinschroth even noticed the misplacement of the fence. This road is necessary for thirty permanent and 150 seasonal employees to reach, your honor, their workplaces, one of the last remaining agricultural operations in Los Angeles County.”
With that, Foster gave Parker the brief pause that every one of us attorneys, from the cheap ambulance chasers out in Bell Gardens to the best firms in the skyscrapers downtown, have in their repertoire as they are delivering their piece-de-resistance.
“And that brings us, your Honor, to the third reason, which is the imperative in the law for a balancing of hardships,” Foster earnestly delivered. “Mr. Anderson has made known to this court and the Beinschroths before this matter commenced that he is willing to compensate them for the property in dispute at twice its assessed value. That offer will, your Honor consider, balance those hardships. The hardship to remove the fence would not fall on Mr. Anderson alone, but will impact fully 180 of his employees, who would then need to travel a road that will be perilously close to the new fence that will need to be built. This represents not only a hardship but a hazard, your Honor, for nearly a half of the county’s surviving agricultural community, a segment of our community, your Honor that today is already near extinction. To balance that hardship, your Honor, look at how little hardship will be suffered by the Beinschroths if the fence is let stand as is.
“The hardship on them in comparison, your honor, would be small. They will have lost but a small strip of property they hardly knew was missing, which we are anyway absolutely willing to compensate them for very generously.”
Foster paused then. He looked across at me and then looked up at Judge Parker and started again.
“I agree with Mr. Forsyth in this regard, your Honor: There is no need for this matter to move to trial,” he said. “You can put this matter to rest, as Mr. Forsyth suggested, with a summary adjudication. I believe, after your Honor considers all factors involved here, a ruling allowing Mr. Anderson to maintain possession of the property he has so responsibly assumed stewardship of 41 months ago, a ruling allowing the fence and road to the Anderson farm to remain in place, a ruling that will allow all of the farm workers employed by Mr. Anderson to continue to work safely will be the fairest one this court can make.”
I tried to read, from the expression on Judge Parker’s face, what impression we had made on him. He was unreadable. His eyes were a vacuum. He waited a thoughtful 20-second or so interval and then looked at me. “Your rebuttal?” he said.
I tried to assemble my thoughts.
“Yes, your Honor,” I started and then hesitated a few seconds before continuing. “Mr. Foster just spoke about honoring the letter and spirit of the law. The law exists to secure for all citizens rights. In the case before you now, the rights in question are property rights. I’m befuddled, quite frankly, at opposing counsel’s argument. As I explained, the letter of the law outlines specific criteria that must be met to allow for a taking of property from someone who holds legal title to it. Clearly, the defendant failed to meet the legal requirements specified under the theory of adverse condemnation to make himself eligible to take possession of the plaintiffs’ property. Opposing counsel’s assertion that the defendant has held possession of the property for a significant period of time was a nice try, but the law requires five years’ possession, not 42 months.
“This comes down to a matter of unlawful confiscation, tantamount in my view, to theft,” I continued. “I don’t know, exactly, what analogy I can use… Let us say that your Honor owned an antique car, a fancy one, one that you did not have for practical but rather for show purposes. Let us further say that there are only limited opportunities to show it off, once every six months or so when there is an antique car show, a parade, or the like. And let’s further postulate that your Honor has a nice detached garage on one of your pieces of property where you keep it stored and that you might not have occasion to check up on it for weeks or maybe even months at a time.
“So one day, unbeknownst to you, someone breaks into the garage, hot wires your antique roadster and heads off,” I said. “But before he does, he closes up the garage so that, from the outside anyway, it does not appear as if anything is amiss. A month goes by. There are no car shows and you don’t have occasion to look in on your prized vehicle. A second month goes by. Then a third. Maybe you go on vacation. So then for four months someone else had been driving your car around and you finally have the opportunity to look into your garage and at that point you discover your car is gone. You immediately report that it was stolen, but the police department has a backlog of stolen car cases and it’s another four months before it is found.”
I paused. “Now, I ask: what would your reaction be if the person who took it – the car thief – argued that it was no theft at all, and that he actually owned it, based upon the length of time that he had undisputed possession of it? What would you say to his argument that you had essentially renounced ownership of it because you had failed to notice that it was gone for four months? What if he argued that he deserved to have title to it because he was driving it every day and putting it to higher and better use than your Honor was by leaving it undriven for months at a time? Would you say, ‘Okay, I guess it belongs to him now. He can have it.’? Would that argument prevent the police from arresting him for grand theft auto? I think not.”
I shook my head and stifled a laugh. “Mr. Foster was reaching with his argument, your Honor, really reaching. The law, and common sense, dictates that you reject his logic.”
My rebuttal finished, I stood there, confident my presentation would carry the day. I was a bit chagrined at Judge Parker’s response.
“Eloquently summarized, Mr. Forsyth, but your analogy is a false one, I am afraid,” Judge Parker said. “I will need to review points and authorities and the law itself on the five-year statute of possession, and if you are correct, your point is well taken. But the law governing real estate possession is distinct and quite different from that governing the possession of other material items. The law clearly recognizes that land cannot be stolen in the sense that other goods, such as in your analogy, a car can be stolen. Property lines, such as in this case – in the middle of a field with no other preexisting landmarks – are not self-evidently apparent to the untrained eye. That is why we have surveyors. That is indeed why adverse condemnation has been codified in the state of California’s civil statutes. So, I think when you state that Mr. Anderson is a thief, it is actually you, Mr. Forsyth, who is doing the reaching.”
I just stood there, staring blankly. I glanced for a second over at Foster, who looked a little bit like a cat who has just increased his mass by the weight of a fair-sized canary.
“Well, gentlemen, I have now heard both of your presentations and will take them under advisement. In conjunction with my review of points and authorities and my clerk’s research, I will very likely issue a summary judgment since I find both of your assertions that this matter need not move on to trial compelling,” Parker said. Then he said, not to us but to his clerk, “Notification by post.” He shifted something on the desk before him and called out, “Cotrell v. Wiest,” referring to the next case.
I picked up the various folders and documents before me and slipped them into my briefcase and then closed it and latched it. I took it and briskly walked out of the courtroom, not bothering to jawbone with Foster. Normally I would have taken a couple of minutes to engage in some informal friendly banter with opposing council after the hearing was over and we could let our guard down, the ritual of bonding between two suede-shoers who must battle it out in the trenches. But I didn’t have time. I was on a mission.
After I came out of Department 11, I went up to the second floor and used one of the pay phones there to call Westwood Studios. It had been more than four years since I had punched in the number but I remembered it like my own name. I asked for Neil McGetrick’s office. Emli came on the line.
“Neil McGetrick’s office.”
“This is Steve. When can you get away?
“Yes I confirm that. I will be on time for my appointment at 1 p.m. today,” she said.
“Get on the road as soon as you can. Write this down. I will be at the San Francisco Airport Holiday Inn in Room 224. Got that? Room 224 at the San Francisco Airport Holiday Inn. Under Williams’ name.”
“Write this down. Take the Golden State Freeway – Interstate 5. It turns into what they call the Grapevine all the way through the San Joaquin Valley. Take it all the way to State Route 152. That will be about 240 miles from Los Angeles, give or take. Go west on 152 all the way to Gilroy. That’ll be another 40 miles or so. At Gilroy take Highway 101 north the rest of the way toward San Francisco. I’ll be at the Airport Holiday Inn. About a mile-and-a-half north of the airport, just off 101 on Airport Blvd. That’s the Airport Holiday Inn, not the Holiday Inn at the Civic Center or the financial district or Fisherman’s Wharf. There’s even a Holiday Inn Express motel about five miles south of the airport. There are five or six Holiday Inns in and around San Francisco. Don’t get them confused. I’ll be in the Airport Holiday Inn, Room 224. Got that?
“Yes, I do. That is account number 5 to SR 152. Then dash 101 to finish. And, oh yes, R 224 at SFAHI.”
“Assuming you can get out of town as soon as possible, you can be there by 8:30. Go straight to room 224 and wake me. If you haven’t awakened me by 10 p.m., I’ll be in the lobby waiting for you to come in.” I paused. “Did you get cash?”
“Interstate 5 North to State Highway 152 West to Gilroy and then Highway 101 to just north of the airport. Room 224 San Francisco Airport Holiday Inn. If there is a mix-up or they’ve given me the wrong room, I’ll be in the lobby. Don’t ask for Williams or draw attention to yourself. Be careful driving.”
“Yes, I will. And thank Dr. Shumacher for rescheduling at such short notice.”
I hung up and went down from the second floor and out from the courthouse. I put my briefcase in my trunk and then drove two blocks south and then four blocks west to the jewelry district. I parked down on Spring, more than two blocks west of an optometrist shop. I fed four quarters into the meter and walked back to the optometrist.
I went in. I walked in toward a woman near a display case.
I casually asked her what she had in way of cosmetic lenses.
“What color?” she asked.
“Hazel,” I said.
She produced a box containing a six-month’s supply of one-month disposable contacts, hazel. I purchased a bottle of all purpose wetting solution and a small bottle of artificial tears.
I walked out $48.72 poorer. I looked at my watch. It was 11:40. I went back toward my car and then past it to a discount variety store. I went in and bought a box of Band-Aids. I went back to my car and drove over to the Hollywood Freeway and took it west to Vermont. I headed north and less than two miles up turned down the street to Emli’s apartment. I passed the apartment complex and pulled over to the curb there. I got out the artificial tears, and squirted a little in each eye. I had never inserted lenses before. I had watched one of my college roommates do it enough times though. Slipping the right one in was accomplished easily enough. I pried the eye wide with my left forefinger and thumb and with beginner’s luck magically found suction between the lens and the eyeball. Putting in the left was a disaster. I reversed the hands, holding the eye open with my right and trying to achieve even contact to get adhesion by setting it into place with my left hand. Not only was my left hand proving far less dexterous than my right, but my nerves seemed suddenly somehow on edge and I literally blinked the lens out of my hand. I searched for it but could not find it. I tore into the box and retrieved another packaged pair of lenses. I ripped it open. I attempted to put one of them into my left eye. I could not. I could not steady my hand nor control my eye, which reflexively blinked every time I tried to insert the lens.
My neck was beginning to ache with the strain of the conscious effort of trying to hold my head precisely positioned so my eye could coordinate with my inexact hand. My head was dampening with sweat as I failed again and again to insert the lens unto my eye.
I looked into the mirror. The contrast between my eyes was most conspicuous. I put the lens in my hand back into the package with its mate and pulled another package of the disposable lenses from the box and put both packages, the sealed and unsealed into my pocket. I put the bottle of artificial tears into my other coat pocket. I opened the Band-Aid box and proceeded to bandage the tops of my right and left thumb and index and middle fingers. I shoved a handful of Band-Aids into my pockets. I picked up the leather gloves that were still on the passenger side seat and put them on. I seized the keys from the ignition, got out of the Buick and locked it. I dropped my keys into my pocket as I pulled Williams’ key ring out. Casually I walked up to the Oldsmobile, unlocked the door and got in. I fired the Olds up and its idle purred evenly. I pulled away from the curb and for the second time that day turned around in the parking lot of the small retail center. I wistfully glanced up at Emli’s apartment complex as I drove by, continued out to the end of the block and then turned south down Vermont Avenue and took it to the Santa Monica Freeway, which I took west. Where the Santa Monica Freeway met the 405, I took the 405 south and exited at Sepulveda Boulevard to go south straight through to LAX. I turned in at the second Seven Dollar maximum per day lot, found a space and parked.
Here I removed the gloves and renewed my effort to lay the lens over my iris. I started out this time with a generous squirt of wetting solution on the lens. This caused it to fold in a form that could not be wielded. I took the still dry lens out of the ripped open package. I squirted my eye full of the artificial tears to the point that I felt a saline sensation in my sinuses. With a brutal firmness, I attempted to layer the lens across my left eyeball. The Band-Aids on my fingertips were not making it any easier. Again I failed. And then again. And again.
I made a half-hearted attempt to pull the one lens I had in out, but failed at that as well. I gazed at myself once more in the mirror. I picked up the lens I had originally overwetted, but which was drying and hardening. I lightly adhered it to my left ring finger and tilted my head slightly down. With sheer force of will, I somehow slid it in place and then with my right forefinger and thumb scrunched my upper and lower eyelids over the lens. It was in. I looked into the mirror. The image was still mine, except with slightly oversized soulful hazel eyes. I picked up the package and other lens and placed them in my pockets. I put the gloves back on and placed the parking stub on the dashboard. I let myself up out of the car and gave it one last visual inspection. I had left nothing that could be traced back to me, I was certain. I locked the door and shut it and headed away from Williams’ Oldsmobile across the parking lot toward the terminal. I looked at my watch. It was 1:48. I took the gloves off as I walked across the parking lot and chucked them into a trash receptacle as I went into the terminal.
I took the moving sidewalk down to the AmericanWest Airlines counter. I casually waited in line and wended to the front in no time at all. At the counter I was assisted by an attractive enough young woman. I gave my name as Greg Williams and reached into my back left pocket to pull out Williams’ wallet. I used my taped up fingers to handle it and used them again when I pulled out Williams’ credit card. The transaction was made and I was given a receipt to sign. I handled it too by my Band-Aid wrapped fingers. I signed it giving my best rendition of the signature I had practiced forging in my office. It came out pretty close. I handed it over, again using my taped up fingers. In return I was handed my tickets in an envelope, and given my departure gate. I walked to a television monitor below the AmericanWest Airlines logo and the list of arrivals and departures showed my flight as on time.
I went over to a sandwich shop opposite the gate my flight was on and ordered a pastrami sandwich, French fries and a Pepsi. I was famished and it all went down easy and fast. I came out of the sandwich shop and passed through security, having to take out both of the sets of keys I carried, as well as my pocket change and remove my shoes and place them on a tray before I stepped through the metal detector. I picked up the keys and coins, stood on one foot and then the other to reshod myself, tying the laces while I stood like a stork, and then continued on toward Gate 8. On the way, I loosened my tie and then unlooped the knot and pulled it off. I rolled it up and shoved it down into my right pants pocket. At the AmericanWest Airlines booth before the chairs in Gate 8’s waiting area, I stood behind a few others. When I came to the front of the line, I pulled my LA-to-SF ticket out of the envelope and handed it over to the airline conductor. He asked me for some identification. I retrieved Williams’ wallet and pulled out his driver license. The conductor eyed it and checked it against the ticket rather than against my face. He took the ticket, stamped it and handed back to me Williams’ license and an AmericanWest Airlines boarding pass. He told me the flight was right on time and I thanked him. I went over to one of the chairs in the waiting area. Before I sat down I placed Williams’ license into the wallet, careful not to handle it by any of my unbandaged fingers. I put the wallet back into my left hip pocket.
I sat there, trying to look anonymous, my left eye irritated by my earlier persistent failed attempts to insert the contact lens. I gazed nonchalantly around, not really studying anyone long enough to invite eye contact from them. I picked up a discarded newspaper from the seat beside me and fanned it open before me, obscuring my face from just about all onlookers. I maintained this posture for as long as my arms could without too great discomfort hold the position. After my arms wearied, I remained seated and kept my gaze cast down, finishing my perusal of the newspaper sections laid across my lap. At 2:25 an AmericanWest Airlines employee queued us up and allowed us to pass beyond him down a loading ramp toward the plane in the numerical order of our boarding passes. I was number 67 and I stepped nimbly down the enclosed gangway into the plane. I filed back and seated myself on the right side two rows behind the wing. Already in the seat next to the window was a gentleman I would estimate was in his early 60s. He was looking out the window at something on the tarmac. He at last turned his gaze away from the window and gave me a slight nod. I secured my seatbelt and reached for the copy of AmericanWest Magazine. I opened it and gazed over the table of contents and then leafed to an article midway in the periodical and made a false show of reading it. Several minutes later, the hiss of the engines changed to an even higher pitch and then was muffled as the airplane door was shut and sealed. A few minutes later I could sense the subtle movement of the plane as it backed away from the passenger loading bay and then turned to follow the lane on the tarmac that leads toward the take-off path. We taxied at less than 15 miles an hour down to the far end of the runway and made the 90-degree turn and taxied to the westernmost path and made another 90-degree turn. The 737 remained still for almost two minutes and then we lurched forward to about ten miles an hour and then at first slowly and then more rapidly began to accelerate. The cacophonous rumbling loudened and intensified before peaking into an almost spine-rattling vibration and then died away, with the ground dropping out from beneath us and the plane lifting up into the Wild Blue Yonder.
A few minutes after we were at altitude a steward and stewardess came up the aisle, passing out packages of peanuts and taking orders from us for beverages. I asked for some tomato juice. I felt tired and was considering nodding off right there, but waited for the steward and stewardess to return. After they had come back, I sipped at the tomato juice and looked out the window at the banks of cloud below us and what contours of the California geography were visible.
Starting off methodically, my mind clicked over the events of the past fourteen hours. As I went over them, my thinking began to race and minor details loomed for seconds at a time far larger than they were. Beginning with being awakened, I mentally summoned the visual images – Emli on my doorstep; her sitting opposite me in my living room; my following her out to her apartment complex; our silent ride into the Valley; the illusively peaceful way Williams’ house looked when I first drove up to it; Williams’ death grimace; my efforts to dispose of the body; my encounter with the Forty-niner in the pick-up truck; the drive back; our final sanitizing of the house; my encounter with the paperboy; the drive across town with a dead body in my trunk; unloading the body into the garage; practicing Williams’s signature over and over again as I sat at my desk; ordering the airline ticket and accommodations; my performance in court; the episode with the contact lenses before and after my drive to the airport in Williams’ car; my masquerading as Williams twice at LAX and my forging of his signature – and each image spun through my mind like a videotape on fast forward.
By my count I had not committed more than a dozen separate but related felonies in the last twelve hours. I thought of how many things had fallen into accordance with my hastily arranged plan, and how many had not. The Forty-niner had severely complicated matters, leaving me in a particularly precarious position – one in which the most incriminating evidence that could be imagined was spread out on my garage floor, a ticking time bomb just waiting to go off. And the paperboy had been the extra joker in the pack I could not have possibly counted on, along with the timing. If I had come out of the house 45 seconds sooner or later there would have been no problem. It was dark, but he had young eyes that were well adjusted to the limited lighting at that hour and he had a close look at me. And what had he written down as I drove past? My license plate number?
I crushed the empty plastic cup that had contained the tomato juice and one of the small cubes of ice popped up and out of it and tumbled to the plane’s floor. I was in the grip of a full-blown anxiety attack. The situation I was in was grave despite the outer show of calm I constrained myself into on the surface. One slip-up on my part or unforeseen intrusion into my privacy could sink me. I thought of the words in my rebuttal argument before Judge Parker: “What if unbeknownst to you, a thief were to break into your garage?” Now there was a Freudian slip. What if? What if? What if while I was away the house or garage were burglarized and one of my neighbors called the police? What if the responding officers decided to take a look around?
I began to dwell again on the paperboy. That led me to consider something that had slipped past me. The gun. The murder weapon. While he was throwing papers further up Williams’ street I had tucked it underneath the passenger side seat in my car, which was now parked down the block from Emli’s apartment. I had not given the gun a moment’s thought after that. But it remained in my Buick, another ticking time bomb, awaiting discovery. What if? What if? What if someone stole the car or broke into it and the police got involved? What if they came across the gun? What if the car was towed to the city yard and someone came across the gun there? And there were two grocery bags full of Williams’ belongings, or Williams’ and Emli’s belongings, sitting on the back floor of my car.
What if? What if? What if the paperboy had called the police with my license number and LAPD right now was looking for my car? If they impounded it and in time found the gun and it was registered to Williams, I would eventually be indisputably linked to him. How would I explain the contents of the bags – several dozen photographs of him and presumably Emli, one of my old girlfriends – some of her love letters to him and who knew what else? It was as if I was asking to get caught.
So uncomfortable was that thought I attempted to stand up, but was restrained by the seat belt. I undid it and stood up, hitting the top of my head into the bottom of the carry-on compartment above me. I acutely felt the pressure in my ears. My left eye itched so much I wanted to scratch it out. I felt claustrophobic in the plane. I wanted out – out into the open, out of the confinement I was in. I took a deep breath, sat down and closed my eyes. Slowly I calmed myself, concentrating on the panorama toward the only partially clouded Sierra Nevadas out the window. The steward came back down the plane and took from me the crushed plastic cup.
Shortly after that we were advised to secure our seatbelts and the plane began its descent. We glided into San Francisco Airport, ending in another heavy duty rumble along the tarmac that would have given me a headache if I had to endure it any longer. We taxied around and pulled into the proper bay. I remained seated until nearly everyone in front of me had disembarked and then I went out of the plane and through into the terminal by way of the enclosed ramp.
I oriented myself carefully and strolled with a forced air of leisure toward the central area, bypassing the baggage pick-up, and headed to where the incoming passengers dispersed out toward the parking lots. I ambled across to the various bus and shuttle waiting areas and waited less than 15 minutes to catch a Holiday Inn shuttle. I was across to the hotel in no time.
I got out of the extended van and walked into the lobby. Nice place, altogether, in that by-the-airport kind of way. I went over to check-in.
“I will help you, sir,” a front desk clerk said.
I pulled out Williams’ wallet.
“Do you have a reservation for Williams?” I asked
“That’s me,” I said.
I took Williams’ VISA Card out of the wallet and handed it over.
“That will be $126.56,” the clerk said. He took the card over to a charge account processor and swiped the card through.
He came back a minute later with the receipt for me to sign. I did the best replica I could of William’s hand, being particularly careful with the G, the ls and the m, and gave it back.
The hotel-guy handed me the key to 224.
“Baggage, sir?” he asked.
“It’s already taken care of,” I said.
I trudged on over to the elevator and took it up to the second floor. I went along until I found Room 224. I let myself in. I immediately went into the bathroom and, under the lights and with some effort, succeeded in lifting the lenses off my eyes. I set them down on the counter. I went out and checked the room out. After that I went in and used the bathroom, came back out, got undressed and then went back in the bathroom and showered.
I came out, put my underwear back on and sat on the bed. I felt like I was slowly winding down. I called down to the desk and asked for a wake-up call at 9 p.m. I threw the bedspread and blanket back and slipped beneath the sheet. Its crisp coolness was perfect. I settled my head back into the pillows, soft and fresh, and closed my eyes. It was not long before I settled into a blackness so deep that no memory of it survives.
For the second time that day I was awakened by Emli’s insistent pounding on my door. I came out of my heavy slumber, adjusted to my surroundings and slid out of bed. The room was in total darkness. I turned on a light and put my pants on. She was just starting to pound again when I opened the door. She came into the room.
“This must be the place,” she said. She pushed past me and went straightaway into the bathroom. I walked around for a minute or two, stretching and coming fully awake. I took my shirt off the dresser and put it on. I had it buttoned and was fastening the cufflinks when Emli came out. She had just logged 370 miles up Interstate 5, the major arterial running up the spine of California, and State Route 152 and Highway 101, putting in as many miles that day behind the wheel as your average truck driver. She did not look any the worse for wear. As if belying her appearance, she said, “I’m bushed.”
“Are you hungry?” I asked, bending and reaching to retrieve my socks and shoes. I sat on the edge of the bed and put them on.
“Not hungry, really,” Emli said, almost robotically. “Just tired.” She paused. “I was getting highway hypnosis toward the end there.” The cadence of her speech was deliberate and robotic. I could see that she was fading fast.
I left my vest on the dresser but put on my coat. “Give me your keys,” I said.
She produced them from her purse. “I’m going to take a quick drive into town,” I said. “Why don’t you crawl into bed and get some sleep?”
She started to yawn, stifled it and then yawned all the way. “Okay,” she said, simply. She kicked off her shoes and with no hesitation whatsoever, disrobed down to her lingerie. I braced myself against my surging heartbeat and stepped toward the door. I turned to look back at her before I went out. She was crawling into the spot I had just left, pulling the sheet sideways back over her. I looked at my watch. It was 8:26. I went back toward her, around the bed. I took up the phone and called the desk, gave them the room number and canceled my wake-up call.
I went back toward the door.
I turned off the light. “Sweat dreams,” I said and let myself out the door.
I went down and out through the lobby and over into the parking lot. I walked around for a while, not being able to find Emli’s car and was about to go up to my room to find out exactly where she had parked when I saw it, a 1999 Toyota Cressida, down next to a huge planter at one end of the parking lot. I marched right up to it and the key I extended into its lock was an instant match. I adjusted the seat back before I sat down.
I noted the ergonomics as I started the car up. The gas gauge showed the tank was half full. I set off, turning around in a backwards U-turn to go to the opposite side of the parking lot and head out onto Airport Boulevard and quickly achieved Highway 101. I took it straight up past Candlestick Point to the right and a few miles further north Golden Gate Park and then I headed across into the city. I headed up the San Francisco Peninsula into what many consider the most splendid metropolis in the world. I was not really on a viewing excursion to take in Mission Dolores, Nob Hill, the Golden Gate Bridge, The Presidio, Fisherman’s Wharf, Coit Tower, Telegraph Hill, Hyde Street Pier, Russian Hill, The Museum of Modern Art, Bernal Heights, Chinatown, the Bay Bridge, The National Maritime Museum, or Alcatraz, Angel or Treasure islands out in the bay. It was too dark, anyway. What I did was make a purposeful foray straight out Market Street, which runs diagonally SW to NE, essentially bisecting the city into the main commercial sections to the north and the older sections and industrial areas to the south. I turned into the financial district, which was a closed down but still well-lighted bastion forest of steel, concrete and glass structures reaching for the sky. I drove past the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange, the 12th Federal Reserve District Bank, the Home Office of Bank of America, the Transamerica Pyramid and the Mitsubishi Building. I slowed to a 20-mile-an-hour crawl on the mostly deserted street. A few blocks further down, as the district ended into the remnants of an aging commercial district, the business buildings were shorter and showing signs of dilapidation. It was in this neighborhood that I saw the first signs of what I had driven into downtown for – the denizens of the streets. The first sighting was an unfortunate fellow sleeping on a large piece of cardboard spread out on the sidewalk. I continued past him. Further down the street were two gentleman squatting with their backs against the back wall of a building at the end of an alleyway. One finished taking a long pull on a bottle of port before he passed it to the other. At the next street I turned left and parked about half a block down. I got out of the car, taking with me the keys but leaving it unlocked. I walked across the street and down one more block. There was a wide alleyway further down and I could see several dozen homeless had set up a small shantytown there. I angled toward the encampment. I still had the Band-Aids on, though they were starting to peel at the edges. I pulled out Williams’ wallet. I flipped it open and counted twenty-seven dollars worth of bills. That would do. I flipped it closed. When I was about forty feet from the closest of the street denizens, a fellow who was propped on what had once been a dock with a shopping cart full of his earthly belongings beside him, I slowed and stopped. No one seemed alarmed by my approach. I turned ninety degrees to the right and looked up in the darkness toward the top of the building, which looked to be about three stories. There were no lights up it. I turned the other way. The buildings along the opposite side of the alley were a story or so higher. Only a few scattered lights burned high up on the fourth floor. I turned again toward the shantytown. A dim light at one of the docks further down showed a few huddled figures. I could see some spread out on the ground in sleeping bags. A few had bivouacked in what looked to be to be a creative use of some large sheets of cardboard and canvas sheets. I slowly continued forward, quiet steps at a time. When I was in close enough almost to touch the first vagrant, I veered to the other side of the alley and walked for a short time at the periphery of the encampment. Two or three of the disheveled lot there gave me a look in the darkness. At that point I very casually dropped Williams’ wallet, breaking its fall with the side of my leg to lessen the sound of it hitting the ground. No one noticed. I inched a way forward some more and then turned back, heading out the alley the way I had come. I paced myself to keep from running as I approached the street and then glanced back once to make sure no one was following me. I came out of the alleyway and I angled back toward my car, walking leisurely across the street which was entirely devoid of vehicular traffic at that hour. As I approached the car, I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out the envelope containing the SFI-to-LAX return plane ticket. I pulled the ticket out. I folded it three times and then tore it several times crosswise into strips. I then tore up the strips. I dropped a few on the ground, but kept the rest in my left palm when I got into the car. I started the car up and headed down to the next block to turn left to head back toward Market Street. A couple of blocks down I rolled down the window and sprinkled a few pieces of the torn up ticket out onto the street. A few blocks up I did the same and after I was on Market Street again I cast the last of them out and then pulled the Band-Aids off my fingers and threw them into the passing wind too. Before I got back on Highway 101 to go back to the airport, I pulled off Market Street and went down into the parking lot of a shopping center anchored by a supermarket and a drug store. Both were still open. I parked and went into the drug store. After I looked for a while I found a sales clerk, who showed me where the pillows were. I bought two along with a blanket and a couple of bottles of soft drinks. I put the pillows and the blanket in the back seat of the Cressida and set the soft drinks into the passenger’s side bucket seat. I looked at my watch. It was 9:17. I drove off into the Northern California night, back down the peninsula toward Candlestick. There was only light traffic. Fourteen minutes later I was back in the vicinity of the Airport Holiday Inn, where I found a filling station and paid cash to fill the gas tank.
I parked much closer to the entrance than Emli had in the Holiday Inn parking lot. I went in and asked for a plastic ice bowl and a courtesy toothbrush at the night service desk. I used the bowl to score a good half-gallon of ice cubes from an ice machine. I put the bowl out into the Cressida, on the front seat. I went back into the hotel and took the stairs to the second floor. As silently as I could I let myself into the room. Emli slept soundly. I went into the bathroom and closed the door behind me before turning on the light. I picked up the lenses from off the counter and slipped them into my pocket. I stepped over and emptied my bladder for the 370-mile journey ahead. I went back over to the sink and washed my hands. I turned the water cold on and took out the toothbrush and used the complimentary toothpaste to thoroughly brush my teeth. I then rinsed my mouth just as vigorously. Continuing with the water, I turned it warmer and liberally splashed my face and then turned it ice cold and splashed my face some more. I grabbed a face towel and toweled off. I studied my stark image bathed in the bathroom’s incandescence in the mirror. My visual size-up was of a secondary stage picture of Dorian Gray, with some youth remaining on my features generally but somehow more roughened around the corners than I was used to thinking of myself. A certain loss of innocence was betrayed in the eyes, or was that perhaps tiredness? I started to stare myself down in the mirror, in the fashion of the courtroom gimmick we lawyers use. I heaped upon my reflection my haughtiest look of moral outrage until at last I was forced to turn away from the condemning gaze of my own reflection.
After I came out of the bathroom, I went over to the bed and turned on the lamp. I nudged Emli on the shoulder with my hand. “Time to get up.” She came to and gently pulled my hand over to the side of her neck just below her ear. She gently used my hand to stroke the side of her neck and then she reached up and gripping my arm pulled herself up. She swung her legs out from underneath the sheet and blanket and sat up on the bed. She started to yawn. I swear her breath was like incense, inviting, almost an intoxicant. I stepped back.
“Get dressed,” I said. “You can sleep in the car. Let’s get under way, right now. I’ve got one more thing to take care of downstairs and while I’m down there you put your clothes back on so we can skiddattle.”
I took off my coat and went over to the closet for a hanger. I put the coat on that. I walked over to the dresser and picked up my vest. I put it on. As I did so, I said, “I’ll be back up in five minutes.” I grabbed the ice bowl off the room’s service table, took up the coat and went out of the room and down the stairs to the lobby. I went out into the parking lot and opened the Cressida’s back door on the driver’s side and hung the coat close up against the left back window. I closed that door and opened the driver’s door and got in. Leaving the door open, I put one of the bottles of pop in the bowl I had just brought down from my room and I heaped about half the ice from the other bowl around it. I scrunched the other bottle down into the remaining ice in the first bowl. I got up out of the car and went back into the hotel and up to the room.
Emli was just coming out of the bathroom as I came in. She was fully dressed but still trying to shake off sleep. I turned on all of the lights. I looked about to make sure we were not leaving anything behind. I handed Emli her purse. Satisfied there were none of our possessions lying about, I took Emli by the hand and headed for the door. She followed docilely and when we came out into the hallway she changed the way we were linked up by pulling her hand free from mine and then dropping her arm down behind my arm and then folding it at the elbow to reach up and grip me around the upper arm with her hand, the way she had preferred walking with me when we had still been the center of each other’s universe. In that fashion we walked toward the elevator and I did not mind at all the image I caught of us in one of the long mirrors built into the wall at the end of the hallway. We got into the elevator and went down to the lobby. We went across and out the entrance so coupled, like we had been eternal lovers all those six years. At the car I opened the back driver’s side door and lifted my coat off the clip and draped it over my arm. I then reached in and pulled out the first of the pillows. I tore the cellophane cover off and then reached for the next pillow, doing the same. I put the pillows back into the car and took out the blanket. I turned to Emli. “Climb on in,” I said. “You can sleep while I drive.” When she looked like she was hesitating I said, “You won’t be able to stretch all the way out back there but you curl up when you sleep anyway. You’re going to need to sleep now because you might need to relieve me in another four hours or so.” She scooted around the side of me and got in. I tore open the cellophane enclosing the blanket, completely unwrapped it and handed it in to Emli. “You might want this to keep warm,” I said. “I’m going to need to have my window open to keep alert.” I juggled all of the cellophane in my hands and rehooked the hanger with my jacket on the clip. “I’ll be right back,” I said and shut the door. I stepped quickly back toward the entrance of the Holiday Inn and ducked inside. I threw the mass of cellophane into a small trash receptacle at the side of the lobby and went over to the desk where I dropped my room key into the night check out box. I padded across the carpeting toward the entrance and went out into the parking lot.
When I got to the car, Emli was hidden from my view behind my suit coat. I opened the door and peered in. She was just laying herself out, with her head toward the driver’s side. “It’ll be better the other way,” I said. “I mean, if you put the pillows on the other side and sleep with your head over there, my coat will block the lights from hitting you in the eyes. You’ll probably sleep better.”
I got in and shut the door. I looked back over my right shoulder. Emli was lying face to that side, shadows cast around her. All I could see, all that registered with me was she was beautiful. My emotions peaked and then drained… I started the engine.
I backed up and turned around and headed out of the parking lot. I turned away from the airport down 101 to San Bruno, then Burlingame and at San Mateo, I took the San Mateo Bay Bridge across the bay, paying the $1.25 toll. Across the bridge I headed straight to Hayward, which I reached by 10:45. From there I went North to San Leandro on 680 and then east on the 580 to Castro Valley. I then hit Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore in short order, and headed south on Interstate 5. The temperature in that part of California turned out to be lower than I had anticipated, and the window ended up being rolled up within two inches of being closed. There was only a sliver of a moon, but my night vision is good enough that I could see the landscape had changed. It was more rural and rustic. The midnight hour approached and then passed. The agricultural communities of Patterson and Newman had something of this Norman Rockwell feel to them – Norman Rockwell as if he had migrated to central California and was headed down the highway at 68 miles an hour in the middle of the night. As I drove on in the darkness, only occasional cars approaching me, I scanned the situation. If events unknown to me had not yet played me wrong, I was in fair shape, I reckoned. The way it would look – if I could yet safely execute the remainder of my plan and take care of the problem lying in my garage – was that Williams had made a trip to San Francisco. For work or pleasure would be unknown. He would never have returned from there, as far as the airline was concerned. Essentially his trail would end at the San Francisco Airport Holiday Inn Hotel or perhaps with some credit card purchases in downtown San Francisco. It would take time for any investigator to get that far. It would take three years worth of gumshoeing to go beyond that, I figured. It would be and forever remain a mysterious case of disappearance, if… if my luck held. If I could execute and take care of the problem lying in my garage. When an unthinkable thought crossed my mind and I was at any point in danger of being ripped back into the panic I had felt in the plane, what I would do would be to glance up in the rear-view mirror and turn it down slightly so I could see Emli there, sleeping, sleeping an almost mild sleep as I drove the highway. That image restored me and rebalanced me.
I marveled at her face, her perfect face, as I punched through Stanislaus County. Its cool perfection refocused me to the chain of events that had brought us to the improbable reality I was caught in.
It had been her face that had made me open the door. And it had been her face that had launched me down my present path. The previous morning – a scant 24 hours before – in my living room I had been looking right into that beautiful face when she said, “I don’t know if you remember. You said once that if I ever needed help, you would come through for me.”
I had remembered very clearly. It had been about a month or so after she had cast me off. I had gone to her apartment unannounced. She wasn’t too thrilled to see me and we ended up taking a walk, so we could talk and not disturb her grandmother. It seemed so pathetic in aftersight but my desperate intent had been to incantate her affection for me, to somehow jar her into feeling the passion we had lost. I did not succeed but after we had concluded our walk I stood just inside the doorway to the apartment a few feet from her grandmother’s baby grand and I can still hear myself saying, “Look, Emli, you know how I’ve always felt about you. If you or your grandmother ever, I mean ever, need anything or you get in a fix and need help, I’ll be there for you. I promise.”
I could have broken that promise, just as four years before she had broken the promise of her love to me. But in my living room the previous morning I had been looking into her face, thinking of that promise I made four years before, when by some uncontrollable urge, some instinctive impulse I cannot myself examine too closely I set out to help her.
Enframed in the rearview mirror was the last woman I had been intimate with. There had been a few awkward dates or extended conversations with a couple of women after that. One or two of the women were attractive enough, but what would have been the point? Not one of them was Emli. Simply put, Emli for the short time I possessed her, engaged every one of my senses and occupied my soul. Losing her had been disappointment enough and I was in no hurry to involve myself with anyone less arresting and satisfying than she had been on both the immediate or cosmic levels. I did not relish the prospect of getting into a relationship with any woman whom I know I would inherently be measuring against her.
And all those years my ideal of femininity had held herself away from me. But there she was, asleep and entrusting totally to me as we barreled down the highway, so close to me I could with only a little difficulty reach back and touch her. We were sharing the same air, hurtling through time and space together, crossing the Merced County line.
At that point, driving into the dead black of the 2:30 a.m. evening, I was heading into the hinterlands, San Joaquin Valley, the breadbasket of California. Fresno County. Still the night drove on, my speed outrunning the headlights in front of me. Kettleman City. Lost Hills. Five miles later was Buttonwillow. Tempting was the turn off to Bakersfield, which I did not take, but where I did exit to purchase gasoline. I filled the tank myself, prepaying with cash. Emli slept through it all, like a child, never stirring as I watched her through the side window as I filled the tank.
I took ever Interstate 5 south, until at times it seemed I was caught in some perpetual loop of reality and was traveling the same span of highway again and again and again and again. Finally I came to Old River and then Wheeler Ridge, which is hardly anything of a place by citified standards. Twenty miles further on we hit another wide spot in the road called Lobel, population 347 and not one of them looked to be awake. It was a little bit after that when Emli woke up. I noticed her in the rearview mirror just as we were about four miles from Gorman. I saw her in the rearview mirror when she sat up.
“Where are we?”
“About 90 miles from Los Angeles.”
“What time is it?”
We drove on in the hum of the Japanese automotive engineering enclosing us, the road rolling in smooth vibration beneath us.
“I’m sorry about the line I used on you last night about being unreliable,” I said. “I didn’t mean it. You were great the way you did everything I asked and showed up just as I told you to.”
We were both silent for another mile or two and then she spoke again.
“I know you’re right that there are things I shouldn’t know,” she said. “But it would help if I knew a little bit.”
I had moved up behind an eighteen-wheeler. I changed lanes without even looking in my rearview mirror and swung out and accelerated to pass the truck and its trailer in one burst. After a decent interval I swung back into the right hand lane. I looked into the rearview mirror, not to see the truck, but to look at Emli.
“So you’d like to know why we had to go on this little excursion 760 miles out of our way?” I said.
“Something like that.”
“Seems like an absurd goose chase?”
“I wouldn’t say that. I know you had a really good reason and I think I understand part of it. I’d like to be sure, is all.”
“Are you hungry?” I asked.
We were coming up on the exit to Gorman and I took it, taking my foot off the accelerator and braking as we came up to the stop. I turned left and drove under the freeway to cross to the frontage road along the northbound freeway that offered an all night diner. There were a handful of vehicles in the parking lot including two eighteen wheelers, a Highway Patrol pick-up truck, A California Department of Transportation snowplow and four or five cars.
There was no snow on the ground, but it felt cold enough to be snowing when we got out of the car. We stepped quickly toward the restaurant. The place was warm and smelled vaguely like cooking onions when we came in. Near the center straight in from the entrance was a counter behind which you could see the short order cook through a wide bar window. He was serving up two dishes as we walked in. To the far left and right of the counter there were booths. A single Highway Patrolman, whose heavy duty winter parka was hung over the back of his seat, sat a few chairs to the left side of the counter. The waitress who had stood behind the counter talking to him as we came in came over to the short order window and retrieved the two plates. She carried them over to the right side of the restaurant and served them to two people seated in one of the booths there. We went down to one of the booths on the left side, well out of earshot of the Highway Patrolman and another customer in the booth furthest to the left if we kept our voices down.
I sat in the booth facing the middle of the diner. Sitting there I felt as if I was perched on some hallowed point of vantage over the rest of the world, like magical spots I had envisioned as a kid which I imagined existed in the Alps or Himalayas or the Andes. Perhaps it was the near rapture provoked in me sitting opposite Emli, who for all the world after the four years had passed still appeared to me the most beautiful woman in the world. It seemed so unreal to me that despite myself I reached across the table and gently stroked the side of her hair and then her cheek. She did not flinch. I drew my hand back. The waitress came over with two menus. She handed them to us. I flipped it to the backside and looked over the breakfast offerings.
I asked Emli what she wanted. She told me to go ahead first. I ordered the Early Bird – two slices of bacon, two sausage links, four eggs, hashbrowns and toast. And a large orange juice. Emli said she wanted a bagel with cream cheese and some tea.
“So where were we?” I said when the waitress had left. “Oh, yes. The reason for our sojourns.”
I glanced around to make sure the party three booths behind us was still there. I lowered my voice.
“It’s simple enough. Your friend’s last whereabouts of record will now be so far removed from you as to leave you absolutely unconnected with his disappearance. Your presence at work yesterday and today will give you an absolutely ironclad alibi. He will have ridden off into the sunset swimming or pontooning or whatever the hell to Alcatraz while you were arranging photo shoots in Pasadena and Orange County and Beverly Hills.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out first one and then the other cosmetic lens. I held them in my right palm and then extended my arm across the table. I turned my cupped hand slightly toward the table and the lenses slid onto it in front of Emli. I withdrew my arm.
“I wore those and got on the plane using your friend’s name and credentials. He was nice enough to let me charge the whole excursion including our little stay at the hotel onto his credit cards.”
I sat back. The waitress came up and brought Emli a mug and a tea server full of steaming water on a saucer. On the saucer was a tea bag. From the same tray she set down before me my orange juice. She walked with the tray back toward the middle of the restaurant.
“These are cosmetic lenses,” Emli said.
“The left one itched like hell,” I said.
“Greg’s eye color.”
I heard her say his name for the first time. She called him Greg.
“I needed hazel eyes to get on the plane.”
“I’m impressed,” she said.
She stared into my eyes. “I always liked your eyes better than his,” she said.
I felt myself blush at the compliment but did not want Emli too get too far into comparing my organs with Williams’.
“The reason I had you drive up was I didn’t want to fly back under my own name. I’d like to keep my name out of this entire affair if I can help it. I know it sounds crazy, but by both of us being in San Francisco we made it so neither one of us was in San Francisco, at least in any way that can be traced. Does that explain enough to you?”
She nodded her head. “Yes. I think so. I was just curious, though. Why San Francisco? Last night you said Las Vegas.”
I glanced around behind me. The customer back there was just getting to his feet. He began putting on his coat. I lowered my voice even more. “On reflection it seemed wiser to keep everyone’s travels – yours, mine and his — entirely within the state of California.”
I remained silent while the customer came walking down the aisle past us, carrying his check. He continued beyond where the Highway Patrolman was sitting. At the cash register, he paid the waitress. As he went out, I kept my voice low and said, “Eventually, someone will probably get around to asking you if you have seen Mr.,” I paused, “Williams. It’ll probably be later rather than sooner. Probably in another month or two. When that happens tell them the truth. Tell them you last heard from him a few months after you two broke up. You can truthfully say that you understand he frequently traveled all over California for any of a variety of sporting events. You don’t know any more than that. You can truthfully say you have not heard from him since two months or so after you quit dating. If they get around to mentioning that he’s missing, act concerned but not too concerned. Say that he’s just probably off at some sports thing and he stays to the end even if he doesn’t make it into the finals.”
The Highway Patrolman had gotten up and was talking to the waitress at the cash register. I did not see him pay. He went out into the cold night just as the waitress was bringing our early morning breakfast to us in the all-night diner along the Highway of Eternity. Emli set the lenses to the side as the waitress placed our separate plates down before us. I watched the state policeman as he got into his car. He used his windshield wipers to scrape away the iced condensation that covered the windshield before driving out of the parking lot.
I turned my attention to the food. The waitress had spread it all before us, including the ketchup. Emli took up her knife and cut the bagel in half. Before she could set them down again or dollop one side or the other with cream cheese I reached across and deftly seized her plate. I laid it to the side of my own and transferred about a third of my eggs, one of the sausage and one of the bacon strips to her plate. I set it back before her.
“You don’t eat enough to keep a bird alive,” I said.
“If I lived with you, you would make me fat,” she said. She set the bagel down on the napkin and took up her fork.
I could tell that she was enjoying the eggs and bacon every bit as much as I. She held off on the sausage till last. She sliced it into seven or eight coin-like pieces. She ate each one separately and with relish. “You know how I love sausage,” she said, in spite of herself.
“You’re going to need some reserves,” I said. “It will be important that you be able to go through the entire workday just as usual today,” I said, changing the subject. I worked on the hash browns, which were primitive but excellent. “Did you get enough sleep to make it through ’til five o’clock?”
“Standing on my head,” she said.
“You have to stay chipper and be characteristically polite and professional,” I said. “A day no different than any other.”
“I think I’ll be able to manage,” she said. She took one of the bagel halves and switched it for one of my toast halves.
I stared deep into her eyes, their perfect lucidity the most alluring color I will ever know. If there was a flaw in her face, I would have been damned if I could find it. I’m not sure how long I was sitting there like that, entranced by her face.
“What?” she said.
“Oh, I had just forgotten how beautiful you are,” I said.
“Oh, stop,” she said.
“It’s true, as beautiful as ever.”
There were tears in my eyes, I swear, as I thought of the years I had longed to simply look at her again. I continued to stare. I returned into the trance as before, but this time brought myself out.
“Are you just about ready to go?” I said.
She nodded and we both got up.
When we were getting back on the I-5, it was still pitch black. I drove on, this time somewhat self-consciously, with Emli sitting up front.
It was still dark but the edge was coming off the darkness at Castaic Lake. We were plowing along at sixty-eight miles an hour with very little traffic around us yet.
Less than a half-hour had passed and we were heading into the Santa Clarita Valley sunrise.
“You know, I’ve been curious as hell,” I said.
“About?” Emli said.
“About your grandmother. You still live in her apartment.”
“It’s as nice as anything I’m likely to find.”
“When did she move out?” It occurred to me as I asked that I might not enjoy the answer.
“It’s been just about three years,” she said.
“She’s still alive?” I felt skittish asking.
“Oh, yes. She’s up in Spokane, now, with my Dad. It was maybe a year after I last saw you that she had a bad viral go-round. I had to take her to the hospital and for three days it was touch and go. I thought I lost her. She literally couldn’t walk or get out of bed. I got a call from my dad and after I told him he straightaway made arrangements for her to go live with him up there. As soon as she was well enough to fly, we flew up. She’s been living there ever since.”
“Doesn’t it get really cold up there in the winter?”
“They really go out of their way up there to get around that. Every house has heating, a fireplace and weatherproofing.”
“Very funny. That’s not what I meant exactly. She can’t exactly go strolling around for what – four months of the year? I know she would love to walk around, just to the store.”
“Well, like I said, they’ve gone out of their way up there to make it so you can still do things like that. They have malls and enclosed marketplaces where you can stay warm and go from shop to shop. She’s okay. But you’re a real sweetheart to have been thinking about her all these years.”
“I was very fond of her.”
“And she was of you. You know,” she said, and hesitated slightly, “she never said so exactly, but I could tell, after you and I stopped seeing each other, she was disappointed. She asked about you.”
“And what did you tell her?”
“I told her you were still practicing law.”
There was a slightly awkward silence. I thought I would go with the awkward flow and ask an awkward question.
“What did your grandmother think of Greg Williams?”
“She never met him. I just told her about him in some letters.”
“Well, what if she would have known him?” I asked and flipped the sun visor down and pulled it first toward me and then toward the side window to block out the rising sun to my left.
“I don’t think she would have liked him,” Emli said.
“He wasn’t very good to me after the beginning.”
“How did you meet him?”
“You’ll never believe it.”
“He just dropped out of the sky and landed next to me.”
“You were right. I don’t believe it.”
“Mmmmm. It was Sunday afternoon and I was at the supermarket grocery shopping. I was wheeling the shopping cart across the parking lot to my car when he landed in his hang glider in the field next to the shopping center. Just zoomed down out of the sky like that. I started talking to him and we had our first date right there. We went into the pizza parlor and had a pizza and a pitcher of beer.”
“It was the thought of non-motorized, heavier-than-air flight that did it for you,” I said.
“I have to admit, I was caught up in the romance of it very much at first. The moment I saw him I wanted to hang glide with him so I could show him I could do it.”
“So did you?”
“No. I lost my illusions about it the first time I watched him do a running take-off from 4,000 feet. The closest I ever got was one time he got me to step out of a plane.”
“We bailed out from 15,000 feet.”
“What was that like?”
“Scary and exhilarating all at once. I’m glad I did it but I’d never do it again. I had a pretty rough landing. I jarred my left leg at the hip and bruised my arm so bad when I rolled I thought it was broken. Then I got scraped up when the parachute dragged me.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“It wasn’t that bad. It’s just that it was a little too dangerous. And expensive: $150 for being in the air five minutes. And time consuming. We’d spend three-quarters of Saturday driving out to the airport, getting ready, triple checking all of the gear, waiting for a flight, doing the jump and driving back. I went with him a couple of other times when he went up without me.”
She paused as if she was thinking about something or debating whether to tell me something more. Finally, she said: “That was what drove us apart, really. He was about the most active guy I’ve ever met. The time it took to do all those things turned into a real strain, though, for me. I can’t tell you how many ball games or competitions or tournaments or expeditions I went to with him. Every week-end, usually Saturday and Sunday. There’d be the drive, which wasn’t so bad but then I’d be sitting in the stands or in a lawn chair out in a field just being a spectator, and watching stuff like that for me isn’t all that exciting. Actually it was pretty boring. There would be the other wives or girlfriends there and some of them were pretty ditzy. I got tired of being the little woman going along just to be there. I’d bring along a book to read or some work but it got old.”
“But you did love him.”
She did not answer right away.
“I’d say I was infatuated with him, at least at first. I was fascinated but I wasn’t really smitten. It wasn’t like I was head over heels in love with him like it was with you.”
I gave her a sidelong look when she said that. Her eyes held mine for a second or two but then she looked away.
“You never considered marrying him.”
“He never asked.”
“And if he would have proposed?”
“No. I wouldn’t have considered it.”
“He just wasn’t the marrying kind.”
“Well, he could be really nice. He was nice. Not overly considerate, but he could be very sweet. But…” She paused and I did not help her.
“…he had a mean streak.”
“Mean. Mean how?”
“Not in a physical way, usually, although sometimes. I don’t think he hit me more than a half dozen times. He never hit me as hard as he could have. He would have killed me if he did. He’d twist my arm. He was just bitter and sometimes that came out.”
“What was he bitter about?”
“Part of his life had been really hard. Before he met me. A long time before he met me. When he was still a teenager.”
“What do you mean ‘hard.’”
“He just adored his father. Really looked up to him. The summer before Greg went into high school his father was riding a motorcycle, a dirt bike, in the hills and it turned over on him somehow and he ended up paralyzed.”
We drove on in silence for several seconds.
“So that justified him getting rough every once in a while.”
“I’m not trying to oversell the point,” she said. “I know it was really hard for him is all I’m saying. Sometimes that venom just spilled out. He was trying to deal with it. He didn’t drink to excess a lot, and he wasn’t really a mean drunk, but… once or twice… And to be honest, I probably did a few things that set him off.” She said it matter-of-factly and did not say anymore. I looked over toward her and she looked back toward me, squinting from the sun. “Can we talk about something else?” she said.
“Sure,” I said.
I could not think of anything to talk about though and we drove on in silence for a while. After about a mile she said, “So, have you made full partner yet?”
“No, but I am the senior associate now.”
“But you’re the best trial attorney in the firm.” She said it like there was no question about it.
“Arguably, but I might lose the argument. Besides, let me cut you in on a little secret.”
“The whole trick in the lawyering business is to not go to trial.”
“Right, but you need to be able to make the other side think that you have the upper hand if you do go to trial so you can negotiate a favorable settlement. So a good trial attorney is a firm’s best asset.”
“Well, not quite.”
“The highest paid attorneys are the ones with the skill to work everything out quietly over the phone or across the table in a restaurant – an expensive restaurant. Discovery, and expert witnesses and litigation in front of a jury are time consuming, manpower intensive and expensive. While a trial attorney is going through all that for a single case a lawyer who can compromise and reach a settlement can dispose of twenty different cases. Way less strain. Way less wear and tear. The most favorable battles are the ones that are never fought.”
“But you still take pride in what you do.”
“Most of the time.”
We were coming down over the Santa Clarita Pass into the northernmost section of the San Fernando Valley. Traffic was thickening around us, not anything like a traffic jam, to be sure, but enough that I had to check my speed and I eased off the gas to slow down below 60 miles per hour. The sun had risen just to that point over the eastern horizon where its brightness overwhelmed everything, with rays of light glinting off the chrome and even the windows of the cars beside and in front of me. The light was intense and almost piercing, seeming to penetrate the objects before me like x-rays. Such a visual condition increased the degree of concentration one needs to simply negotiate the roadway in front of him and even then, at 55 miles per hour, chances are that you would never be able to react in time if, God forbid, someone were to radically slow or come to a stop in front of you. My squinting or the strain of concentration must have somehow shown in my face, because at that point, Emli opened the glove box and reached into it to pull out a pair of her sunglasses. She held them out to me.
“Put those on,” she said.
I took them in my right hand but did not take my attention off the road in front of me. “I’ll stretch them out,” I protested.
“Don’t worry about that,” she said.
I put them on. They were a snug fit but they cut down on the glare considerably.
We were now in the heartland of the San Fernando Valley, with more and more cars merging into the traffic stream. Our speed was in the low fifties. We were at that point close to Williams’ residence. I was acutely conscious of that. We stayed on I-5 past Burbank and Glendale. A few miles further on I moved over to the right lane and three-quarters of a mile on from there, I exited the freeway at Los Feliz Boulevard.
As I took Los Feliz southwestward and then went down Vermont Avenue toward Emli’s apartment, the sun’s glare reflected full into my face off the car’s mirrors. I adjusted the rearview and the one on the driver’s side, and just tried to live with the intense shine angling at me from the passenger side.
As we were just a few blocks away from her apartment, my mind filled with a dreadful anticipation of a sudden for what we might discover when we arrived. I half expected my car to be gone, either towed or stolen. With each block closer, I was more and more convinced that my car would no longer be there. In fact, I was sure of it. I could feel myself wanting to hyperventilate, but glancing sideways to look at Emli, I somehow choked back the panic I was feeling and tried to maintain. When at last we turned down her street, the panic lurched fully to the fore when, straining to see down the road, I could not see my car. So focused on this was I that I drove right past the entrance to her apartment complex, ignoring Emli entirely when she uttered a mild protest. But then I saw my Buick, parked exactly where I had left it, just beyond a few other cars and a pickup truck parked next to the curb. I heaved a sigh of relief, an audible one. I went down the street to the small strip mall, pulled into the parking lot and turned around in it and then turned left out into the street again to head toward the apartment complex. As I slowed to make the left turn into the complex’s vehicle entrance, Emli reached across to a nook in the console and pulled out the remote gate opener. She pushed the activating button and set the device back into place. At once the gate at the entrance began to slowly glide on its mechanized rollers along their supporting track. I waited until there was enough clearance and pulled slowly ahead up over the curb cut and sidewalk and headed down the driveway to the side of the apartment buildings. About a hundred feet or so down was the first of the apartment complex’s parking structures off to the right side. The driveway was wide enough for two cars and as I headed in another car coming in the opposite direction went past us out toward the street.
“Don’t tell me,” I said. “Let me see if I still remember where your parking space is.” I drove on all the way to the back and made a left turn at the ninety degree bend in the driveway, continuing on a short distance and then swinging wide to pull into the space beneath one of the parking canopies I remembered as the one that had been allotted to Emli’s grandmother.
“You got it,” Emli said. I eased the Cressida gently into place and stopped. I put the transmission into park and reached down and shut off the ignition.
“Well, we made it,” I said. I pulled the sunglasses off and handed them back to Emli. She put them back into the glove box.
Emli undid her seatbelt and shoulder harness. She twisted her petite body to the right to press her back against the door and swung her legs up and to the left. She set the bottoms of her shoes down across the top of my right thigh about midway between my knee and lap.
“We should go back there someday when we have more time to spend,” she said, her sharply bent knees slightly below the level of her chin. “San Francisco, I mean.”
“Someday, maybe,” I said.
“It goes without saying how great you’ve been,” Emli said. She was looking up at me like she was a little kid and I was a parent who had just snatched her from the jaws of an alligator.
“I didn’t have anything to do last night, anyway,” I said.
She was still staring at me like I was some kind of god. I basked in that until it started to feel awkward.
“Well, you’ve got to get ready for the whole of the day…” I said. I pulled the keys from the ignition and handed them over to her. Undoing the shoulder harness, I reached for the door handle and gently inched it open and then lifted my left leg and set my foot outside onto the pavement. With my body turned slightly to the left like that I pivoted my head to the right to look at her. “It’s going to be important for you to carry on today just like all days. If you have some letters to type or email to send – something with a date on it that will firmly establish that you were in place today, do that. It probably won’t come up, but if it comes down to a question about whether you accompanied Williams up to San Francisco, you’re going to need to show that you were in Los Angeles.”
I gently slid my leg out from beneath her feet, pushed the door further open and pulled myself up out of the car and gently closed the door. I opened the back door and unhooked the hanger holding my coat from the clip. I pulled my coat out. Taking care not to close the door on the coat, I stepped to the side as Emli was getting out of the Cressida. I glanced around to see that there was no one within earshot and then leaned across the top of the car. “You know, it was really good that you didn’t use the phone to call me the night before last. Even local calls are logged on the phone company computers and they can be traced. We’re going to need to stay very careful. If you need to contact me, don’t use your phone or the office phone. Call me from a pay phone.”
“Okay,” Emli said solemnly.
“There’s no telling if the authorities are going to get involved in looking into your friend’s disappearance or how serious they’re going to get if they do,” I said. “They might never pick up on how you two were an item. But they might. And if they get that far and connect you to me, there are going to be a whole lot of questions they’re going to ask that I’d rather not have to answer, let alone that they’ll be asking you the same questions. If your answers are different from mine or too much different from mine they’ll really get suspicious. So let’s keep it as simple as possible. If someone asks about Williams, he was a guy you went out with for a while, but you broke it off and haven’t seen him for however long it’s been. If they ask about me, that’s ancient history and you can barely remember what I looked like. Like I said, call me from a pay phone if you have to. I’ll be just as discreet if I need to get a hold of you.”
I looked her over, or at least the top half of her, for what I figured might very well be the last time. She was still the best thing I had ever seen. It was hard to do so, but I turned away. “Now, I’ve got some people I have to finish suing today,” I said. “Take care,” I called over my shoulder.
“Goodbye, Steve” I heard her say. “I’ll always be grateful.”
With the hook of the hanger over two of my right hand’s fingers I carried the suit coat draped over my right shoulder trailing my back and went out from the parking shelter and angled across the pavement toward the corner of the complex. At that moment I was acutely conscious that this was to be my final stage exit from Emli’s orbit. I played it like John Barrymore, holding myself as erect as I could, heading dramatically off into the rest of existence.
I went around the side of the complex and walked out toward the street. I let myself out through the gate and headed toward my car. It was a little bit of a wistful walk. My not entirely clearheaded conception of it at that moment was that this had been a not altogether pleasant and not altogether unpleasant interlude in the separation Emli had unilaterally imposed upon us for the rest of our natural lives four years previously. I recognized that I would need to contact her again in a couple of weeks or a month or two to see if the detectives had hooked up with her. That could be done over the phone, I figured. Short and sweet, or rather, short and bittersweet. And that would be that. I would then be free to move on with the rest of my life, such as it was.
I unlocked the Buick’s door after I walked up to it. The two shopping bags were still on the floor of the back seat. I affixed the coat on the hanger onto the side clip behind the driver’s seat. I slid in behind the wheel and shut the door. I leaned down and with my right hand felt beneath the passenger side seat, satisfying myself that Williams’ gun was exactly where I had left it. That done, I sat back up, snapped the shoulder harness and seatbelt into place, and started the engine.
Even though what was immediately ahead of me was nothing more than a relatively simple drive back to my place, I was now seized by a fourth go-round of panic in less than a day-and-a-half. Reaching down to touch the gun had done it to me. It reminded me of the even larger time bomb ticking away in my garage. There followed a veritable litany of uncomfortable thoughts over how I was going to have to deal with the whole issue. It occurred to me then that the best I could hope for was that I would be able to deal with it myself. Worse, much worse, would be for circumstances to evolve to where others were doing the dealing with me. And then my panic soared. I envisioned my street, with all of the neighbors out on their lawns, Mrs. Reed foremost among them, craning their necks as a good dozen police officers and detectives were milling around on my property, which was cordoned off by yellow police tape, while the coroner and his crew were in the garage, its door wide open, courtesy of the now cut lock casually discarded to the side of the driveway. An early morning nightmare. They say it is not the actuality of your fate or what is going to befall you that is so bad, but anticipating it. I was trying to remember what the current life expectancy for a man was. I calculated I would not be spending any more than 35 or 45 years in Folsom. Nah, I told myself, I would get off with ten-to-fifteen and with good behavior would be back on the streets in six or seven years, with my bar card taken away. My anticipation for what I was going to answer for had telescoped down from living out the rest of my life containing a dark and destructive secret to a cinema verité scene of a law enforcement reality television show. I could feel myself breaking out into a heavy sweat. The image of the rat in the maze hit me again. It seemed like muscles all over my face were twitching uncontrollably. It felt like my body was trembling from top to bottom. I looked at my hands on the steering wheel. They were steady. Steady and at the ready. I was controlling the car perfectly. I was following the vehicle in front of me neither too closely nor at too great of a distance. I glanced into the rear view mirror to check out my visage. I looked for all the world like the calmest guy you would ever hope to meet. I returned my focus back to the road before me.
Such is life and the discrepancy between appearance and reality. The placid cast of my face reassured me somehow, though, and had a temporary calming effect. As I drove the rest of the way toward the Hollywood Hills my anxiety re-escalated, so that as I was headed out on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and then turning left up onto my street my paranoia was reaching a piercing, nearly unbearable crescendo.
It was a true anticlimax as I came up the street to see it was the picture of serene domestic tranquility. The only element in reality even vaguely resembling my fantasy of disaster was Mrs. Reed was out in her front yard, watering the lawn. The hose she held featured one of those plastic bottles connected beneath the spray nozzle for dispensing nutrients or herbicides into the water flow. I waved at her just before I made the turn up my driveway. I undid the shoulder harness and seatbelt and leaned over to reach beneath the passenger seat and pull out Williams’ .22. I made sure the safety was still in place. Holding the gun in my right hand, I used my left to open the door. Careful to keep the firearm low and below the field of vision of Mrs. Reed or anyone else looking on, I dropped it down onto the driver’s seat. Fully out of the car at that point I reached into the back seat and pulled each of the grocery bags out. Deftly and quickly, with my body shielding the act from outer view, I lifted the gun and dropped it into one of the bags. That was a good thing, for after I closed the door and reached down to hoist the bags, stuffed my suit coat between them and then turned to walk around the back of the car and up toward the house, Mrs. Reed had come all the way across the street and was just starting up my driveway.
“I know it’s none of my business,” she said, “but you sure have been keeping some peculiar hours recently.”
For a second I did not know what to say.
“Oh, that happens once in a blue moon,” I said, “but normally I’m an eight-to-five guy.”
At that point I was just behind the Buick, right in front of her so that there was not more than three or four feet between us. I made sure to keep the bags up high so she could not peer in them and perhaps see the .22 automatic.
“And, you know, I have a court appearance in another hour-and-a-half,” I said.
“Always on the go,” Mrs. Reed said. “I’ll tell you what. You get ready and I’ll make you some breakfast.”
I was about to protest that I had eaten not too long before, but thought better of it.
“Pancakes?” I said.
“On my griddle if that’s what you want,” she said.
“You don’t have to ask me twice. Let me shave and get a shower and I’ll be right over,” I said. I headed with the bags up toward the house.
After I let myself in, I walked around the first floor, going from room to room, undecided on where I should leave the shopping bags. I finally settled on putting them in the closet off the hall that led to the ground floor bedroom and bathroom. I set them on the floor and shoved them as far back as they could go. I shut the door, went back down the hall and trudged up the stairs. The sight of my unmade bed and the clothes strewn around and on top of it, untypical of me, threw me for a second, but just a second. What the hell, I thought, peeling off my clothes and tossing them haphazardly on top of everything else. I went into the bathroom and lathered my face up, retrieved a razor and shaved myself.
A few minutes later, after the water had warmed up, I stepped into the shower and lingered in the familiar sensuality of the hot stinging needles raining down on me, the water adjusted to as high a temperature as I could stand. I shampooed my hair and lathered the whole of my body. The sweat and contact grime, the smog and dust that I had picked up between San Francisco and Los Angeles was liberated from my skin and hair, cascading down my trunk and lower extremities, swirling momentarily in a pool at my feet before disappearing down the drain. When I caught myself luxuriating in the hot shower’s ambience too leisurely, I perversely turned the hot water down and replaced it with cold in three separate stages until I was naked beneath a flow of entirely cold water. Though it was probably no cooler than 55 degrees, it felt like ice water. I began a little dance, a less than perfectly graceful one, hopping from one foot to the other, momentarily unable to breath. I counted silently and quickly down to zero from 25 and ended the little ritual, shutting off the water stream.
I stood there for a second with the water dripping off me, suddenly refreshed if not entirely recharged. I stepped out of the shower stall and grabbed a towel. Yeah, I was tired but I felt alive. After all of the inconvenience, the hassle, the danger, and the continuing risk, over the last thirty hours I had been in motion. For four years I had been stuck in park and occasionally switched into first and maybe second gear.
Since Emli had awakened me the previous morning, I had zoomed into first, then second, through third and fourth gears and then up into overdrive. She had ratcheted up my intensity level a good three notches over my workaday existence. I finished toweling off and attired myself, this time in a neat, smartly cut, but otherwise conservative gray affair, which I garnished with a gray pinstriped white shirt and a medium-width gray and maroon tie. I affixed it with a Windsor knot and brushed my hair opposite the dresser mirror. I pulled my keys, change, comb and wallet out of the just discarded pair of pants in the heap on my bed and put them into my pockets.
As I headed down the stairs I went over all I needed to do that day. A short, or so I hoped, court appearance. A handful of discovery reports I would have to at least start going over. There would be a few motions landing on my desk, one or two of which might require an immediate response. Other than that all I would need to do was prepare for court the next day if I had an appearance or appearances, which at that moment I could not recollect. I had completely neglected the end-stage preparation for that day’s scheduled hearing. It was a pretty straightforward matter, though, and I did not anticipate any problem.
I went out, locking the door behind me and headed down the walkway, traipsed across the street and let myself through the gate in the white picket fence girdling Mrs. Reed’s front yard. I stepped up onto the porch and gave a knock on the wooden screen door, which resounded with a rattling in the jamb rather than a solid banging. Because of the sun I really could not see through the screen and I could not see Mrs. Reed until she came up to the door and pushed it part way open for me. As I came in, I could see she had a spatula in her hand. The front door led straightaway into the living room, a comfortable arrangement that featured older but well maintained furnishings. I had been inside a few times before, usually for dinner on Saturday or Sunday evening. I followed her into the dining room, which lay right off the living room.
“Go ahead and sit down,” she said.
I took a place at the table where I could see her finishing up the breakfast’s preparation. She had one of those old stoves with the griddle built right into it between the burners. She would pour the pancake batter from a pitcher she had onto the griddle, where it oozed into disks five or six inches across. After a minute or so she would flip them with the spatula and let them sit until they were done.
“I used to hate making breakfast,” she said, calling the words out over her shoulder. “But it gets lonely for an old widow and now I wish I had my Leonard back to cook for every morning.”
She turned the griddle off and brought over to the table a plate stacked with golden brown pancakes.
“You’re not so old,” I said.
“You can’t kid me,” she said. “I’m old enough to be your grandmother.”
“Who’s kidding whom, now?” I said. “My grandmother was old enough to be your mother.”
That made her smile. “What kind of syrup do you want?” she asked.
“What you got?”
“I have maple,” she said.
“And strawberry, and blueberry and boysenberry.”
“I’ll take the blueberry,” I said.
She set a plate down in front of me along with a fork and a butter knife.
I pulled a couple of pancakes off the stack in the serving plate and plopped them onto my plate. As I did so, Mrs. Reed set a pourer with blueberry syrup down onto the table. In the same movement, she used an ice cream scoop to dollop a sphere of butter slightly larger than a golf ball onto the topmost pancake.
“You’re going to want more than that,” she said, and used another fork to put two more pancakes on top of the butter. She put another scoop’s worth of butter on top of that.
“Blueberry was always my favorite, too,” she said.
“Boysenberry’s good, too,” I replied.
“Did you know,” she said, and turned back toward the stove, “that boysenberries are a combination of raspberries and blackberries?”
“I didn’t know that,” I said.
“They’re a hybrid. A California hybrid. A hundred years ago there was no such thing as a boysenberry.”
She opened the oven door and pulled a plate out. It had scrambled eggs and sausage on it. I thought I had smelled sausage when I had come in but was not sure. Using her spatula, she slid three of the sausage links and about three-quarters of the eggs onto another plate and set it down next to the one already in front of me.
“This is really too much,” I protested.
“No, it’s not,” Mrs. Reed said. “What would you like to drink? I have coffee, instant. I can get you some juice.”
“Water’s fine,” I said.
She went to the cupboard and then the sink and brought me a glassful. She retrieved a plate for herself and sat down opposite me.
She filled her plate with portions not even half the size she had foisted on me.
“So what will you be planting in your garden this year?” I asked.
“Same as last year, except I’m going to forget about the squash. I’ll try cabbage and lettuce in their place.”
“How do you control the birds and the bugs?”
“Do they really work?”
“They keep the birds and most of the insects away. Doesn’t help with the ants.”
“So what do you do about them?”
“Nothing. I’m not going to use insecticide. That’s the whole reason for having a garden: so you don’t have to eat the chemicals they use on the farms.” Then, as an afterthought, she said, “The ants aren’t bad. They go for the ones that crack open and leave most of the others alone.”
We ate in silence for a few seconds and then I said: “So that wasn’t an insecticide bottle on your hose?”
“Oh, that? Heavens, no. I use that to spray around a little ammonium nitrate, potash, and phosphate.”
“Those are chemicals.”
“But they’re not poisons. They’re nutrients, good for the plants. They’re good for the soil. And I wouldn’t go eating them straight out of the box myself, but it doesn’t hurt you and they even make the fruits and vegetables more nutritious.”
“You use them on the lawn?”
“The ammonium nitrate.”
“I always wondered why your lawn is greener than mine.” That reminded me. I had not watered the grass the previous night.
We ate on in silence for a little time more. The lady did know how to make pancakes. I turned my concentration to the eggs and sausage, my second go-round with such fare that morning. After I had packed most of that away, I reached for the cloth napkin beside my plate and patted around my mouth.
“Have you heard from your son lately?” I asked.
“He called Sunday night.”
“Well, that’s good,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. She had a faraway look in her eyes.
“He’s doing well?”
“I think so,” she said.
“Out in New York?”
“New Jersey, actually. He takes the train into New York City to work everyday.”
“That must be a hassle.”
“He says he can get work done on the train. And then he takes the subway right to where he works.”
“It’s a whole different lifestyle there,” I said. “We think it’s crowded in Los Angeles, but from what I’ve seen we live in a ghost town compared to Manhattan. But he likes it back there?”
“That’s where he can make the most money,” she said.
“You really miss him.”
It was a little awkward for me. I went back to finishing my eggs and the last half sausage link. I washed it down with about eight ounces of water. My lips had left a greasy imprint on one side of the glass near the rim. I used the cloth napkin to wipe it.
“I’m sure you must take tremendous satisfaction in knowing that he has gone on to become what he has,” I said. “You and Leonard gave him that. He is professionally successful because of what you instilled in him, his values and talents. It’s really too bad that he has to be 2,000 miles across the continent to be where the business world values him most. But you’re there with him. Every day. Not physically, but every bit as much in spirit as you would be if he were sitting where I am right now. You know in your heart you would much rather have him out in the wide world meeting challenges and cutting his own path than have him in a situation where he wasn’t meeting his potential or was homeless or still living here sponging off you. You have your success as a parent and no one will ever be able to take that from you.”
“You know,” Mrs. Reed said, “you remind me of my son. Always so serious. And well dressed.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you saw me on Saturday mornings. I sit around in my underwear until noon, watching cartoons.”
That made her laugh.
“What’s your son’s name, again?” I asked.
“Kenneth, after my father.”
“Ken,” I said.
“Where are your parents?” she asked.
“They’re gone,” I said.
Another awkward silence.
“Well, whenever you need contact with the older generation,” Mrs. Reed said at last, “I’m just across the street.”
I got up and took both of my plates and the glass over to the double-sided sink. I turned on the warm water and held them up under the stream to rinse them over the drain into the in-sink-erator. Mrs. Reed came up behind me and put her hand on my left forearm. “No, now, you set those down there and get going. I’ll take care of all that.”
I set the dinnerware down and turned around to face her. “Well, it was very good,” I said. I bent down and kissed her on the forehead.
I wound my way around the table and out toward the living room. “Thanks, again,” I called. Mrs. Reed waved me off with the back of her hand and I went out.
As I was making my way across the street, my garage loomed as the largest object in my vision and my mind went fully to the subject of what lay within it. I walked up the driveway and into the three or four foot gap between my Buick’s front bumper and the garage door and lingered there for a few seconds. There was no telltale odor that I could detect emanating from the garage. The lock was still safely in place. I walked around the side of the garage and up to the side door. I checked it to make sure it was still locked. It was. I went back to the Buick, opened the door, checked to make sure my briefcase was still there and got in to back down out of the driveway and head off to work.