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Gregarious Vegas entertainer Wally Lederer hasn't always enjoyed the attention of center stage—something he learned about himself over thirty years ago when he was in the slammer serving time for picking pockets. He claims he's turned his life around, and his lucrative and legitimate showbiz career seems to support this. But will the police believe he's a changed man now that Jay Wilkins, a childhood friend, is accusing him of stealing a valuable artifact? More important, does respected attorney Barbara Holloway believe him when he pleads his case to her?
Wally swears he's innocent. There's no way he would jeopardize years of hard work for the fleeting thrill of minor deception. But when Jay is found murdered, Barbara knows Wally is in serious trouble—the police have named him as their prime suspect.
Barbara begins to "dig up the dirt" and is shocked to learn that Jay's wife is now missing—and that Jay himself was far from being the upstanding businessman he claimed to be. Before long, new evidence points toward an unlikely killer, and Barbara must decide if protecting her client by revealing the truth will destroy another life she means to save.
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Kate Wilhelm is the bestselling author of dozens of novels and short-story collections. Among her novels are the science fiction classic Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, The Good Children, The Price of Silence and the popular Barbara Holloway legal thrillers, including Clear and Convincing Proof, The Unbidden Truth and Desperate Measures. Born in Ohio, Ms. Wilhelm now lives in Eugene, Oregon, where she is currently at work on her latest novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Frank Holloway liked the extensive library in the offices, and he liked being left alone in it. Now and then one of the junior partners of the law firm started to enter, saw him at the long table with stacks of books and discreetly withdrew. Once, one of them had been at the table already when Frank entered and claimed his preferred chair, dead center, where he had room to spread books on both sides. The younger man had wrapped up his own research quickly and f led. As well he should have, Frank had thought with satisfaction. He had been stocking the library when that fellow was still a suckling; he had certain privileges.
That morning he had already put aside a few volumes with yellow notes sticking out indicating page numbers. After he left, around noon, Patsy, his secretary, would photocopy the cases he had marked, add her own note about volume and page, and have the copies on his desk the following morning. Like clockwork, a well-oiled machine working efficiently, he also thought with satisfaction.
Thus it was that he looked up in annoyance when Patsy entered the library at ten minutes past eleven. Pointedly, he glanced at the wall clock above the door, then at his own watch, and scowled at her. She frowned back. She had certain privileges, too. She had been with him for forty years and was determined not to retire a day before he did, but now that he was a published author, and on his way to writing a second book, she was no longer hinting broadly at every opportunity for him to speed that day along.
"A Mr. and Mrs. Wallis Lederer want to see you," she said.
"Walk-ins," she added disdainfully.
"Send them away. Or sic them on one of the loafers hanging out at the watercooler." She nodded and had turned back toward the door when he said, "Hang on a sec. Wallis Lederer? How old's the fellow?"
"Well, I'll be damned. Wally Lederer. After all these years. Tell them to wait a few minutes. These are ready to go." He motioned toward the marked books, closed the one he had been reading and put it in the other stack. Patsy would put them all back on the shelves. The one time he had started to return them, she had been indignant.
In his own office Frank placed the folder of copies in his briefcase, washed his hands and then went to greet his visitors.
"Wally Lederer!" he said when he saw them. "It really is you. It's been a while."
"Forty-some years," Wally said, shaking hands, patting Frank's back, grinning. He turned to the woman at his side and said, "I told you he'd remember me. Meg, meet Frank Holloway, the guy who saved me back when I was a smart-assed kid. My wife, Meg."
Wally was five foot ten and stocky with wavy white hair and white eyebrows, a nice suntan and very white teeth. He was showing many of them in his broad smile. Meg was no more than five foot two or three, slender, with a round pretty face and curly brown hair showing streaks of gray. When she smiled, a dimple came and went quickly in her right cheek. They were both well dressed, he in a sport jacket and slacks, shirt open at the throat, and she in a nice blue pantsuit exactly the color of her eyes.
"Well, come on back. Lots of history to catch up with. This way." Frank led them through the hallway to his office, paused at the library door and looked in at Patsy who was shelving his books. "When you have a minute, maybe you could bring my guests some coffee." He didn't miss the glint of approval in her eyes when she nodded. He had said "guests" not clients. They could read each other so clearly, they were like a long-married couple. He knew none of the young attorneys would dare ask a secretary to bring coffee these days, but he also knew that Patsy would be outraged if Frank waited on guests or clients.
In his office he motioned toward the comfortable chairs at the coffee table.
Wally gave an appraising look at the immaculate desk, the glass-door bookshelves, the leather-covered furnishings. "You've come way up in the world," he said. "Folding chairs and a Goodwill desk in the early days," he said to Meg. "I knew him when. One of his first clients, in fact."
Frank laughed. "You look as if you've done all right for yourself, as well. What have you been up to?"
"This and that. I have an act, down in Vegas, sometimes in Atlantic City, casinos, things of that sort. Eight or nine shows a year, a week at a time. Not a headliner, just an act between the big draws. I brought a video to show you."
Patsy tapped on the door and entered with the coffee service on a tray. She poured for them all and left.
"A performer? Song and dance?" Frank asked.
"Not exactly. I'll show you. See, Meg and I, we were dating when I was on probation back in the early days, and we decided the day I was done with community service, all that, we'd take off and make a fresh start somewhere else. Then, down in San Francisco I got in trouble again. Our first anniversary. Broke, waiting for Meg at her workplace in an uppity department store, and this rich bitch left her purse on the counter while she was wandering back and forth trying to pick out earrings or something. There was a fat wallet in plain sight and my hands did their thing. I was nabbed. Five years. State pen."
Wally sipped coffee, added sugar and sipped again, then put the cup down. "So there I was, with an old black guy as my cell mate, in for twenty, four behind him. And he wasn't going to last the next sixteen, that was for sure. Old and sick. And mean. He cursed me out, swatted me a time or two and called me a goddamn idiot. Told me a gift like mine should make me a fine living, but I was too dumb to take advantage, and I'd be back looking just like him if I didn't shape up. And Meg, well, she said she'd wait this time, but if I crossed the line again, she'd be gone. Between them, they got through to me."
When he paused again, Frank asked, "Your gift?"
"Ambidexterity. I could do brain surgery with either hand." He reached into his jacket pocket and brought out a wallet, tossed it down on the table. "I think that's yours."
Frank felt his own pocket, then burst out laughing. "Son of a bitch! You're still doing it!"
"But legitimately. My act is putting on demonstrations for the credulous. A few pretty well-paying gigs a year, benefits for bunco squads, convention managers, things like that. A good living. And old Joey taught me how to play cards."
Wally shook his head. "I never gamble, and I'm not into card tricks. You don't have to cheat, just pay attention and learn how to count. That's the clue, paying attention. Same as with picking pockets. Joey taught me that, too. It's been a pretty good living, all in all."
Meg had been silent, but now she said, "As soon as Wally began to make money with his act, he sent ten percent to Joey. Every performance, ten percent."
Wally looked sheepish. "I owed him a lot," he said. "Least I could do. A few bucks in the pen makes a difference."
Frank nodded. "What brings you to Eugene?" Meg answered. "Christmas Eve. We were in a hotel in Las Vegas, and I said, "Let's go home, get our own house in the country." We had moved around so much, apartments, motels, hotels, never our own house. I don't even know if I was serious when I said it, but it took, and we both knew that was what we wanted to do. We came home in February and bought a house in the country with two acres of blackberry brambles and a barn. We're fixing it up, restoring it." Her words were lightly spoken, but she was tense. She smiled and the dimple came, then vanished again.
Where did dimples go when they weren't visible? Frank wondered, drawn to this woman with her blue eyes and dimpled cheek, and carefully managed anxiety. While Wally was voluble and engaging, she appeared to be reserved and almost shy.
There was no trace of her dimple when Meg said, "Wally's been accused of stealing a little gold boat that's said to be worth about thirty thousand dollars."
"I haven't been accused," Wally said quickly.
She gave him a scornful look. "You have, or will be in the next day or two."
Frank held up his hand. "Hold it, you two. I should have made this clear at the start. I'm sorry I didn't. This office no longer takes on criminal cases, I'm afraid."
Meg didn't try to hide her dismay, and Wally took her hand. "Honey, this will blow over. Jay isn't going to press any charges. He's just having us on for kicks or something."
Meg kept her gaze on Frank. "Can you recommend someone else?"
"Indeed I can," he said, getting to his feet. He went to his desk and placed a call.
Barbara Holloway cradled the phone and sat regarding an open folder on her desk for several minutes, a case from a walk-in client at Martin's restaurant. More of the same, she thought, and closed the folder. She did not underestimate the importance to her clients of the problems they brought to her twice a week, doing double duty as she was while Shelley was away, but on the other hand, for her they were routine and, she had to admit, boring.
She considered the word boring with surprise and decided it wasn't exactly what she was feeling. Restlessness? Waiting for something to happen? It was the April blahs, she told herself firmly and stood up. A beautiful day outside after a few weeks of heavy rain had left her wanting to be out there playing, walking, doing something. Her father had warned her that after years of one difficult case after another, she might feel restless. But, he had added, she should relax and enjoy the respite.
She nodded. Right. She walked to the outer office and said to Maria, "Dad's bringing over a couple of people, and since it's getting on to noon, take off when you are ready. After I see them, Dad and I will go out for lunch and I don't think I'll come back afterward. Nothing for you to do. Go f ly a kite with your kids or something."
"Want me to put on coffee?" Maria asked.
"Sure. Just measure stuff and if they want it I'll turn it on." Ten minutes later Maria tapped on the door and Barbara opened it to receive her visitors. Frank made the introductions, then retrieved a third client chair from against the wall and positioned it in front of her desk. He angled it in such a way that he would have a good line of sight to watch Wally and Meg as they talked. Taking her cue from him, Barbara seated herself behind her desk and pulled her yellow legal pad within range.
Wally adjusted his position in his chair. "Your dad told us a little about you on our way over."
"I also told them that I'd fill you in on some background over lunch. So they can get right to their problem," Frank said.
"Yes, our problem," Wally said. "Not that it is a problem exactly, but Meg's afraid it could become one and we should be prepared, just in case. See, a fellow we know is missing a little gold boat and he told his insurer and the police that I must have taken it."
Meg interrupted before he could continue. "Ms. Holloway, let me tell it with a few more details. We ran into Jay Wilkins over at the casino in Florence on Saturday night. I recognized him right away because we had seen his picture in the newspaper a month or so ago."
"The Buick dealership Wilkins?" Frank asked.
"Yes. We all went to high school together. Anyway, when I saw Jay, I spoke to him, and he invited us to his house here in Eugene for a drink on Monday, when we'd all be back in town. He said to talk about old times. We went, but as it turned out, it was not a comfortable visit and we didn't stay very long. He wanted to show off his collections, for one thing. A wall filled with cases that held dozens of model cars, and another with Egyptian and Etruscan artifacts. He opened that case and we all handled a little gold boat. He said it was a model of Cleopatra's famous gold barge. It's very beautiful, about five inches long. Then we went into another room with a bar and we had our drink. He didn't really want to talk about the old days, but rather about his wife. Apparently she's away on a trip back east, and he seemed very preoccupied about it. He mentioned her on Saturday, and then talked about her on Monday. He's concerned because she hasn't called. As I said, it was not a comfortable visit and we stayed only long enough to have a drink, then left."
"That boat's of no interest to anyone on earth except a collector," Wally said then. "Not something you could take to a pawnshop and unload. He said it's worth thirty grand, definitely not the sort of thing to grab for a quick buck."
Meg put her hand on his arm. "Your turn's coming." She faced Barbara again. "That was Monday. Yesterday, I had just left the house to go get our mail. I was still in the driveway when a car pulled in and two men got out. A detective and an insurance agent. They said they wanted to ask us a few questions." She patted Wally's arm. "Your turn."
"About time," he said in a good-natured way. "Right away the detective said I might as well hand it over. Practical jokes didn't make it. Give it back and Jay would forget the whole thing. I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. They told me the boat was gone and we were the only two who had been in the house. They didn't tell me more than that, no details, except that it was gone and no one else could have taken it. I told Meg not to worry, it'll turn up. But here we are."
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