"Trust her, they aren't. I can smell them from here, I don't even have to look, I can't tell you how many of these things I've gone out on. They never pan out."
"I'm sure you're right. Do this for me anyway."
I looked dubious. "Do I actually get to touch these books?"
"Take your surgical gloves along and maybe. You did keep some rubber gloves from your police days?"
"No, but they're cheap and easy to get."
"Kinda like the women you used to run with, before me."
"That's it, I'm outta here."
She touched my hand and squeezed gently. "Poor Cliff."
She took another bite of the Roadrunner. "This really isn't half-bad, is it?"
I shook my head and slugged some beer. "Oh, Erin, you've got to get out more, you're working too hard, your taste buds are dying from neglect. I'll volunteer for the restaurant detail. I promise I'll find us a place that'll thrill your innards."
"When you get back from Paradise."
I ate, putty in her hands, but at some point I had to ask the salient question. "So do you ever plan to tell me about this thing?"
She didn't want to, by now that was almost painfully clear. "Take your time," I said soothingly. "I've got nothing on my plate, we could sit here for days."
"The defendant's name..." She swallowed hard, as if the name alone could hurt. "Laura Marshall. Her name is Laura. She's accused of killing her husband. She wants me to defend her, but I've got two cases coming up back-to-back. Even if I took her on, which is far from certain anyway, I couldn't get out there until sometime next month. That's it in a nutshell."
"I thought you said she had an attorney."
"He's her attorney of the moment. He sounds very competent, but he's never done a case like this."
She gave me a look that said, That's it, Janeway, that's all there is.
"Well," I said cautiously, "can we break open that nutshell just a little?"
I waited and finally I gave her my stupid look. "What is it you want me to do, Erin? This isn't just an appraisal job. I get the feeling it's something else."
"Maybe you could talk to her while you're there. Take a look at her case."
"I could do that. I'm sure you don't want me to advise her. The last time I looked, my law degree was damned near nonexistent."
"Go down, talk to her, report back to me. You don't need a law degree for that. Just lots of attitude."
"That, I can muster. In fact I'm getting some right now. So tell me more."
"I'd rather have you discover it as you go along."
A long, ripe moment followed that declaration.
"She'll tell you the details," Erin said. "And by the way, I pay top rates."
"So now you're bribing me. Is this what we've come to?" I gave her a small headshake. "Something's going on here. This isn't just some yahoo case that dropped on your head. It's more than that."
She stonewalled me across the table.
"Isn't it?" I said.
"She was my best friend in college. In fact, we go back to childhood."
"We haven't seen each other in years..."
"No, Counselor, what that is, is bad-lawyer bafflegab. Tommyrot, bushwa, caca, bunkum, and a cheap oil change. Not to mention piffle and baloney."
"Old oil sludge," I said. "Remember those ads? Dirty sludge, gummy rings, sticky valves, blackie carbon. And a bad Roadrunner burrito."
She laughed. "Are you all through?"
"Hell no I'm not through. Help me out just a little here. Make at least some sorry stab at giving me a straight answer."
"Marshall was the first great love of my life. Is that straight enough for you?"
Copyright © 2005 by John Dunning
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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