Chapter Seventeen

MISS BIRDIE RETIRES TO BED AFTER the "MSASSH" reruns go off at eleven. She's invited me several times to sit with her after dinner and watch television, but so far I've been able to find the right excuses.

I sit on the steps outside my apartment and wait for her house to become dark. I can see her silhouette moving from one door to the next, checking locks, pulling shades.

I suppose old people grow accustomed to loneliness, though no one expects to spend his or her last years in solitude, absent from loved ones. When she was younger, I'm sure she looked ahead with the confidence that these years would be spent surrounded by her grandchildren. Her own kids would be nearby, stopping by daily to check on Mom, bringing flowers and cookies and gifts. Miss Birdie did not plan to spend her last years alone, in an old house with fading memories.

She rarely talks about her children or grandchildren. There are a few photographs sitting around, but, judging by the fashions, they are quite dated. I've been here for a

few weeks, and I'm not aware of a single contact she's had with her family.

I feel guilty because I don't sit with her at night, but I have my reasons. She watches one stupid sitcom after another, and I can't bear them. I know this because she talks about them constantly. Plus, I need to be studying for the bar exam.

There's another good reason I'm keeping my distance. Miss Birdie has been hinting rather strongly that the house needs painting, that if she can ever get the mulch finished then she'll have time for the next project.

I drafted and mailed a letter today to a lawyer in Atlanta, signed my name as a paralegal to J. Lyman Stone, and in it made a few inquiries about the estate of one Anthony L. Murdine, the last husband of Miss Birdie. I'm slowly digging, without much luck.

Her bedroom light goes off, and I ease down the rickety steps and tiptoe barefoot across the wet lawn to a shredded hammock swinging precariously between two small trees. I swung in it for an hour the other night without injury. Through the trees, the hammock has a splendid view of the full moon. I rock gently. The night is warm.

I've been in a funk since the Van Landel episode today at the hospital. I started law school less than three years ago with typical noble aspirations of one day using my license to better society in some small way, to engage in an honorable profession governed by ethical canons I thought all lawyers would strive to uphold. I really believed this. I knew I couldn't change the world, but I dreamed of working in a high-pressure environment filled with sharp-witted people who adhered to a set of lofty standards. I wanted to work hard and grow in my profession, and in doing so attract clients not by slick advertising but by reputation. And along the way, as my skills and fees

increased, I would be able to take on unpopular cases and clients without the burden of getting paid. These dreams are not unusual for beginning law students.

To the credit of the law school, we spent hours studying and debating ethics. Great emphasis was placed on the subject, so much so that we assumed the profession was zealous about enforcing a rigid set of guidelines. Now I'm depressed by the truth. For the past month, I've had one real lawyer after another throw darts in my balloon. I've been reduced to a poacher in hospital cafeterias, for a thousand bucks a month. I'm sickened and saddened by what I've become, and I'm staggered by the speed at which I've fallen.

My best friend in college was Craig Baiter. We roomed together for two years. I was in his wedding last year. Craig had one goal when we started college, and that was to teach high school history. He was very bright and college was too easy for him. We had long discussions about what to do with our lives. I thought he was shortchanging himself by wanting to teach, and he'd get angry when I compared my future profession with his. I was headed for big money and success on a high level. He was headed for the classroom, where his salary was subject to factors out of his control.

Craig got a master's and married a schoolteacher. He's now teaching ninth-grade history and social studies. She's pregnant and teaching kindergarten. They have a nice home in the country with a few acres and a garden, and they are the happiest people I know. Their joint income is probably around fifty thousand a year.

But Craig doesn't care about money. He's doing exactly what he always wanted to do. I, on the other hand, have no idea what I'm doing. Craig's job is immensely rewarding because he's affecting young minds. He can envision the results of his labors. I, on the other hand, will go

to the office tomorrow in hopes that by hook or crook I'll seize upon some unsuspecting client wallowing in some degree of misery. If lawyers earned the same salaries as schoolteachers, they'd immediately close nine law schools out of ten.

Things must improve. But before they do, there are still at least two more possible disasters. First, I could be arrested or otherwise embarrassed for the Lake fire, and second, I could flunk the bar exam.

Thoughts of both keep me tottering in the hammock until the early morning hours.

BRUISER'S AT THE OFFICE early, red-eyed and hung over but decked out in his lawyer's finest-expensive wool suit, nicely starched white cotton shirt, rich silk tie. His flowing mane appears to have received an extra laundering this morning. It has a clean shine.

He's on his way to court to argue pretrial motions in a drug-trafficking case; and he's all nerves and action. I've been summoned to stand before his desk and receive my instructions.

"Good work on Van Landel," he says, awash in papers and files. Dru is buzzing around behind him, just out of harm's way. The sharks watch her hungrily. "I talked to the insurance company a few minutes ago. Plenty of coverage. Liability looks clear. How bad's the boy hurt?"

I spent a nerve-racking hour last night at the hospital with Dan Van Landel and his wife. They had lots of questions, the principal concern being how much they might get. I had few solid answers, but performed admirably with legalspeak. So far, they're sticking. "Broken leg, arm, ribs, plenty of lacerations. His doctor says he'll spend ten days in the hospital."

Bruiser smiles at this. "Stay on it. Do the investigating. Listen to Deck. This could be a nice settlement."

Nice for Bruiser, but I won't share in the rewards. This case will not count as fee origination for me.

"The cops want to take your statement about the fire," he tosses out while reaching for a file. "Talked to them last night. They'll do it here, in this office, with rne present."

He says this as if it's already planned and I have no choice. "And if I refuse?" I ask.

"Then they'll probably take you downtown for questioning. If you have nothing to hide, I suggest you give them the statement. I'll be here. You can consult with me. Talk to them, and after that they'll leave you alone."

"So they think it's arson?"

"They're reasonably sure."

"What do they want from me?"

"Where you were, what you were doing, times, places, alibis, stuff like that."

"I can't answer everything, but I can tell the truth."

Bruiser smiles. "Then the truth shall set you free."

"Let me write that down."

"Let's do it at two this afternoon."

I nod affirmatively but say nothing. It's odd that in this state of vulnerability I have complete trust in Bruiser Stone, a man I would never trust otherwise.

"I need some time off, Bruiser," I say.

His hands freeze in midair and he stares at me. Dm, in a corner picking through a file cabinet, stops and looks. One of the sharks seems to have heard me.

"You just started," Bruiser says.

"Yeah, I know. But the bar exam is just around the corner. I'm really behind with my studies."

He cocks his head to one side and strokes his goatee. Bruiser has really harsh eyes when he's drinking and having fun. Now they're like lasers. "How much time?"

"Well, I'd like to come in each morning and work till

noon or so. Then, you know, depending on my trial calendar and schedule of appointments, sneak off to the library and study." My attempt at humor falls incredibly flat.

"You could study with Deck," Bruiser says with a sudden smile. It's a joke, so I laugh goofily. "Tell you what you do," he says, serious again. "You work till noon, then you pack your books and hang out in the cafeteria at St. Peter's. Study like hell, okay, but also keep your eyes open. I want you to pass the bar, but I'm much more concerned about new cases right now. Take a cellular phone so I can reach you at all times. Fair enough?"

Why did I do this? I kick myself in the rear for mentioning the bar exam. "Sure," I say with a frown.

Last night in the hammock I thought that maybe with a little luck I might be able to avoid St. Peter's. Now I'm being stationed there.

THE SAME TWO COPS who came to my apartment present themselves to Bruiser for his permission to interrogate me. The four of us sit around a small round table in the corner of his office. Two tape recorders are placed in the center, both are turned on.

It quickly becomes boring. I repeat the same story I told these two clowns the first time we met, and they waste an enormous amount of time rehashing each tiny little aspect of it. They try to force me into discrepancies on thoroughly insignificant details-"thought you said you were wearing a navy shirt, now you're saying it was blue" -but I'm telling the absolute truth. There are no lies to cover, and after an hour they seem to realize that I'm not their man.

Bruiser gets irritated and tells them more than once to move forward. They obey him, for a while I honestly think these two cops are afraid of Bruiser.

They finally leave, and Bruiser says that'll be the end of

it. I'm not really a suspect anymore, they're just covering their tails. He'll talk to their lieutenant in the morning and get the book closed on me.

I thank him. He hands me a tiny phone that folds into the palm of my hand. "Keep this with you at all times," he says. "Especially when you're studying for the bar. I might need you in a hurry." The tiny device suddenly grows much heavier. Through it I'll be subject to his whim around the clock.

He dispatches me to my office.

I RETURN TO THE GRILL near the orthopedic wing with a solemn resolve to hide in a corner, study my materials, keep the damned cellular phone handy, but to ignore those around me.

The food is not terrible. After seven years of college cuisine, anything tastes fine. I dine on a pimento cheese sandwich and chips. I spread my bar review course on a table in the corner, my back to the wall.

I eat first, devouring the sandwich while examining the other diners. Most wear medical garb of some variety- doctors in their scrubs, nurses in their whites, technicians in their lab jackets. They sit in small groups and discuss the ins and outs of ailments and treatments I've never heard of. For people who are supposed to be concerned with health and nutrition, they eat the worst junk foods possible. Fries, burgers, nachos, pizza. I watch a group of young doctors huddled over their dinner, and wonder what they would think if they knew there was a lawyer in their midst, one studying for the bar so he could one day sue them,

I doubt if they'd care. I have as much right to this place as they do.

No one notices me. An occasional patient either limps

through on crutches or is wheeled in by an orderly. I can spot no other lawyers sitting around, ready to pounce.

I pay for my first cup of coffee at 6 P.M., and soon lose myself in a painful review of contracts and real estate, two subjects that revive the horror of my first year in law school. I plow ahead. I have procrastinated to this point, and there's no tomorrow. An hour passes before I go for a refill. The crowd has thinned, and I spot two casualties sitting near each other on the other side of the room. Both have lots of plaster and gauze. Deck would be in their faces. But not me.

After a while and much to my surprise, I decide that I like it here. It's quiet and no one knows me. It's ideal for studying. The coffee's not bad and refills are half-price. I'm away from Miss Birdie and thus unconcerned about manual labor. My boss expects me to be here, and though I'm supposed to be scouting for game, he'll never know the difference. Surely I don't have a quota. I can't be expected to sign up X number of cases a week.

The phone emits a sickly beep. It's Bruiser, just checking in. Any luck? No, I say, looking across the room at the two wonderful torts comparing injuries from their wheel-chairs. He says he talked to the lieutenant and things look good. He's confident they'll pursue other leads, other suspects. Happy fishing! he says with a laugh, and is gone, no doubt headed for Yogi's and a few stiff ones with Prince.

I study for another hour, then leave my table and go to the eighth floor to check on Dan Van Landel. He's in pain but willing to talk. I deliver the good news that we've contacted the other driver's insurance company, and there's a nice policy waiting for us. His case has it all, I explain, repeating what Deck had told me earlier; clear liability (a drunk driver no less!), lots of insurance coverage and good injuries. Good, meaning some well-busted

bones that might easily evolve into the magical condition of permanent injury.

Dan manages a pleasant smile. He's already counting his money. He has yet to deal with Bruiser at pie-splitting time.

I say good-bye and promise to see him tomorrow. Since I've been assigned to hospital duty, I'll be able to visit all of my clients. Talk about service!

THE GRILL is crowded again when I return and assume my position in the corner. I left my books scattered on the table, and one plainly labels itself as the Elton Bar Review. This has caught the attention of a group of young doctors sitting at the next table, and they eye me suspiciously as I take my seat. They are instantly silent, so I know they've been discussing my materials at length. They soon leave. I get more coffee and lose myself in the wonders of federal trial procedure.

The crowd thins to a handful. I'm drinking decaf now, and amazed at the materials I've plowed through in the past four hours. Bruiser calls again at nine forty-five. Sounds like he's in a bar somewhere. He wants me in his office at nine tomorrow to discuss a point of law he needs briefed for his current drug trial of the month. I'll be there, I say.

I'd hate to know my lawyer was being inspired with legal theories to use in my defense while chugging drinks in a topless club.

But Bruiser is my lawyer.

At ten, I am alone in the grill. It's open all night, so the cashier ignores me. I'm deep into the language governing pretrial conferences when I hear the delicate sneeze of a young woman. I look up, and two tables away is a patient in a wheelchair, the only other person seated in the grill. Her right leg is in a cast from the knee down and extends

out so that I see the bottom of the white plaster. It appears to be fresh, from what I know about plaster at this point in my career.

She's very young, and extremely pretty. I can't help but stare for a few seconds before looking down at my notes. Then I stare some more. Her hair is dark and pulled back loosely behind her neck. Her eyes are brown and appear to be moist. She has strong facial features that are striking in spite of an obvious bruise on her left jaw. A nasty bruise, the type usually left by a fist. She wears a standard white hospital gown, and under it she appears to be almost frail.

An old man in a pink jacket, one of the innumerable kindly souls who act as volunteers at St. Peter's, gently places a plastic glass of orange juice on the table in front of her. "There you are, Kelly," he says like the perfect grandfather.

"Thanks," she answers with a quick smile.

"Thirty minutes, you say?" he asks.

She nods and bites her lower lip. "Thirty minutes," she tells him.

"Anything else I can do?"

"No. Thanks."

He pats her on the shoulder, and leaves the grill.

We are alone. I try not to stare, but it's impossible not to. I look down at my materials as long as I can bear it, then up slowly until my eyes can see her. She does not face me directly, but looks away at almost a ninety-degree angle. She lifts her drink, and I notice the bandages on both wrists. She has yet to see me. In fact, I realize she would see no one if the room was full. Kelly's in her own little world.

Looks like a broken ankle. The bruise on the face would satisfy Deck's requirement of a multiple, though there appears to be no laceration. The injured wrists are

puzzling. As pretty as she is, I'm not tempted to practice my solicitation techniques. She looks very sad and I don't want to add to her misery. There's a thin wedding band on her left ring finger. She can't be more than eighteen.

I try to concentrate on the law for at least five uninterrupted minutes, but I see her dab her eyes with a paper napkin. Her head tilts slightly to the right as the tears flow. She sniffles quietly.

I realize quickly that the tears have nothing to do with the pain of a broken ankle. They're not caused by physical injuries.

My sleazy lawyer's imagination runs wild. Perhaps there was a car wreck and her husband was killed and she was injured. She's too young to have children and her family lives far away, and she sits here grieving over her dead husband. Could be a helluva case.

I shake off these terrible thoughts and try to concentrate on the book before me. She keeps sniffling and crying silently. A few customers come and go, but no one joins Kelly and me at the tables. I drain my coffee cup, quietly ease from my chair and walk directly in front of her on my way to the counter. I glance at her, she glances at me, our eyes meet for a second and I almost crash into a metal chair. My hands are a bit jumpy as I pay for the coffee. I take a deep breath, and stop at her table.

She slowly raises her beautiful wet eyes. I swallow hard and say, "Look, I'm not one to meddle, but is there anything I can do? Are you in pain?" I ask this as I nod at her cast.

"No," she says, barely audible. And then a stunning little smile. "But thanks."

"Sure," I say. I look at my table, less than twenty feet away. "I'm over there, studying for the bar exam, if you need anything." I shrug as if I'm not sure what to do, but I'm a wonderful, caring klutz anyway and so please forgive

me if I've stepped out of bounds. But I care. And I'm available.

"Thanks," she says again.

I ease into my chair, now having established that I am a quasi-legitimate person who's studying thick books in hopes of soon joining a noble profession. Surely, she's remotely impressed. I plunge into my studies, oblivious to her suffering.

Minutes pass. I flip a page and look at her at the same time. She's looking at me, and my heart skips a beat. I totally ignore her for as long as I can bear, then I look up. She's lost again, deep in her suffering. She squeezes the napkin. The tears stream down her cheeks.

My heart breaks just watching her suffer like this. I'd love to sit next to her, maybe place my arm around her, and talk about things. If she's married, then where the hell is her husband? She glances my way, but I don't think she sees me.

Her escort in the pink jacket arrives promptly at ten-thirty, and she quickly tries to compose herself. He pats her gently on the head, offers soothing words I cannot hear, wheels her around with tenderness. As she's leaving, she very deliberately looks at me. And she gives me a long, teary smile.

I'm tempted to follow at a distance, to find her room, but I control myself. Later, I think about finding her man in pink and pressing him for details. But I don't. I try to forget about her. She's just a kid.

THE NEXT NIGHT I arrive at the grill and assume the same table. I listen to the same busy chatter from the same hurried people. I visit the Van Landels and deflect their endless questions. I watch for other sharks feeding in these murky waters, and I ignore a few obvious clients just waiting to be hustled. I study for hours. My concen-

tration is keen and my motivation has never been more intense.

And I watch the clock. As ten approaches, I lose my edge and start gazing about. I try to remain calm and studious, but I find myself jumping whenever a new customer enters the grill. Two nurses are eating at one table, a lone technician reads a book at another.

She rolls in five minutes after the hour, the same elderly gent pushing her carefully to the spot she wants. She picks the same table as last night, and smiles at me as he maneuvers her chair. "Orange juice," she says. Her hair is still pulled back, but, if I'm not mistaken, she is wearing a trace of mascara and a bit of eyeliner. She's also wearing a pale red lipstick, and the effect is dramatic. I was not aware last night that her face was completely clean. Tonight, with just a little makeup, she is exceptionally beautiful. Her eyes are clear, radiant, free of sadness.

He places her orange juice before her, and says the identical words he said last night. "There you are, Kelly. Thirty minutes, you say?"

"Make it forty-five," she says.

"As you wish," he says, then ambles away.

She sips the juice and looks vacantly at the top of the table. I've spent a lot of time today thinking about Kelly, and I've long since decided my course of action. I wait a few minutes, pretend she's not there while making a fuss over the Elton Ear Review, then slowly rise as if it's time for a coffee break.

I stop at her table, and say, "You're doing much better tonight."

She was waiting for me to say something like this. "I feel much better," she says, showing that smile and perfect teeth. A gorgeous face, even with that hideous bruise.

"Can I get you something?"

"I'd like a Coke. This juice is bitter."

"Sure," I say, and walk away, thrilled beyond words. At the self-serve machine I prepare two large soft drinks, pay for them and set them on her table. I look at the empty chair across from her as if I'm thoroughly confused.

"Please sit down," she says.

"Are you sure?"

"Please. I'm tired of talking to nurses."

I take my seat and lean on my elbows. "My name's Rudy Baylor," I say. "And you're Kelly somebody."

"Kelly Riker. Nice to meet you."

"Nice to meet you." She is pleasant enough to look at from twenty feet, but now that I can stare at her without embarrassment from four feet away it's impossible not to gape. Her eyes are a soft brown with a mischievous twinkle. She is exquisite.

"Sorry if I bothered you last night," I say, anxious to get the conversation going. There are many things I want to know.

"You didn't bother me. I'm sorry I made such a spectacle out of myself."

"Why do you come here?" I ask, as if she's the stranger and I belong here.

"Gets me out of the room. What about you?"

"I'm studying for the bar exam, and this is a quiet place."

"So you're gonna be a lawyer?"

"Sure. I finished law school a few weeks ago, got a job with a firm. As soon as I pass the bar exam I'll be ready to go-"

She drinks from the straw and grimaces slightly as she shifts her weight. "Pretty bad break, huh?" I ask, nodding at her leg.

"It's my ankle. They put a pin in it."

"How'd it happen?" This is the obvious next question, and I assumed the answer would be perfectly easy for her.

It's not. She hesitates, and the eyes instantly water. "A domestic accident," she says as if she's rehearsed this vague explanation.

What the hell does that mean? A domestic accident? Did she fall down the stairs?

"Oh," I say as if everything's perfectly clear. I'm worried about the wrists because they're both bandaged, not plastered. They do not appear to be broken or sprained. Lacerated, perhaps.

"It's a long story," she mumbles between sips, and looks away.

"How long have you been here?" I ask.

"A couple of days. They're waiting to see if the pin is straight. If not, they'll have to do it again." She pauses and plays with the straw. "Isn't this an odd place to study?" she asks.

"Not really. It's quiet. There's plenty of coffee. Open all night. You're wearing a wedding band." This fact has bothered me more than anything else.

She looks at it as if she's not sure it's still on her finger. "Yeah," she says, then stares at her straw. The band is by itself, no diamond to accompany it.

"So where's your husband?"

"You ask a lot of questions."

"I'm a lawyer, or almost one. It's the way we're trained."

"Why do you want to know?"

"Because it's odd that you're here alone in the hospital, obviously injured in some way, and he's not around."

"He was here earlier."

"Now he's home with the kids?"

"We don't have kids. Do you?"

"No. No wife, no children."

"How old are you?"

"You ask a lot of questions," I say with a smile. Her eyes are sparkling. "Twenty-five. How old are you?"

She thinks about this for a second. "Nineteen."

"That's awfully young to be married."

"It wasn't by choice."

"Oh, sorry."

"It's not your fault. I got pregnant when I was barely eighteen, got married shortly thereafter, miscarried a week after I got married, and life's been downhill since. There, does that satisfy your curiosity?"

"No. Yes. I'm sorry. What do you want to talk about?"

"College. Where did you go to college?"

"Austin Peay. Law school at Memphis State."

"I always wanted to go to college, but it didn't work out. Are you from Memphis?"

"I was born here, but I grew up in Knoxville. What about you?"

"A small town an hour from here. We left there when I got pregnant. My family was humiliated. His family is trash. It was time to leave."

There's some heavy family stuff prowling just beneath the surface here, and I'd like to stay away from it. She's brought up her pregnancy twice, and both times it could've been avoided. But she's lonely, and she wants to talk.

"So you moved to Memphis?"

"We ran to Memphis, got married by a justice of the peace, a real classy ceremony, then I lost the baby."

"What does your husband do?"

"Drives a forklift. Drinks a lot. He's a washed-up jock who still dreams of playing major league baseball."

I didn't ask for all this. I take it he was a high school athletic stud, she was the cutest cheerleader, the perfect all-American couple, Mr. and Miss Podunk High, most handsome, most beautiful, most athletic, most likely to

succeed until they get caught one night without a condom. Disaster strikes. For some reason they decide against an abortion. Maybe they finish high school, maybe they don't. Disgraced, they flee Podunk for the anonymity of the big city. After the miscarriage, the romance wears off and they wake up to the reality that life has arrived.

He still dreams of fame and fortune in the big leagues. She longs for the careless years so recently gone, and dreams of the college she'll never see.

"I'm sorry," she says. "I shouldn't have said that."

"You're young enough to go to college," I say.

She chortles at my optimism, as if this dream buried itself long ago. "I didn't finish high school."

Now, what am I supposed to say to this? Some trite little bootstrap speech, get a GED, go to night school, you can do it if you really want.

"Do you work?" I ask instead.

"Off and on. What kind of lawyer do you want to be?"

"I enjoy trial work. I'd like to spend my career in courtrooms."

"Representing criminals?"

"Maybe. They're entitled to their day in court, and they have a right to a good defense."


"Yeah, but most can't pay for a private lawyer."

"Rapists and child molesters?"

I frown and pause for a second. "No."

"Men who beat their wives?"

"No, never." I'm serious about this, plus I'm suspicious about her injuries. She approves of my preference in clients.

"Criminal work is a rare specialty," I explain. "I'll probably do more civil litigation."

"Lawsuits and stuff."

"Yeah, that's it. Non-criminal litigation."


"I'd rather avoid them. It's really nasty work."

She's working hard at keeping the conversation on my side of the table, away from her past and certainly her present. This is fine with me. Those tears can appear instantaneously, and I don't want to ruin this conversation. I want it to last.

She wants to know about my college experience-the studying, partying, things like fraternities, dorm life, exams, professors, road trips. She's watched a lot of movies, and has a romanticized image of a perfect four years on a quaint campus with leaves turning yellow and red in the fall, of students dressed in sweaters rooting for the football team, of new friendships that last a lifetime. This poor kid barely made it out of Podunk, but she had wonderful dreams. Her grammar is perfect, her vocabulary broader than mine. She reluctantly confesses that she would've finished first or second in her graduating class, had it not been for the teenaged romance with Cliff, Mr. Riker.

Without much effort, I bolster the glory days of my undergraduate studies, skipping over such essential facts as the forty hours a week I worked delivering pizzas so I could remain a student.

She wants to know about my firm, and I'm in the middle of an incredible reimaging of J. Lyman and his offices when the phone rings two tables away. I excuse myself by telling her it's the office calling.

It's Bruiser, at Yogi's, drunk, with Prince. They are amused by the fact that I'm sitting where I'm sitting while they're drinking and betting on whatever ESPN happens to be broadcasting. Sounds like a riot in the background. "How's the fishing?" Bruiser yells into the phone.

I smile at Kelly, who's undoubtedly impressed by this call, and explain as quietly as I can that I'm talking to a prospect this very instant. Bruiser roars with laughter,

then hands the phone to Prince, who's the drunker of the two. He tells a lawyer joke with absolutely no punch line, something about ambulance chasing. Then he launches into an I-told-you-so speech about getting me hooked with Bruiser, who'd teach me more law than fifty professors. This takes a while, and before long Kelly's volunteer arrives for the ride back to her room.

I take a few steps toward her table, cover the phone with my hand and say, "I enjoyed meeting you."

She smiles and says, "Thanks for the drink, and the conversation."

"Tomorrow night?" I ask, with Prince screaming in my ear.

"Maybe." Very deliberately, she winks at me, and my knees tremble.

Evidently, her escort in pink has been around this place long enough to spot a hustler. He frowns at me and whisks her away. She'll be back.

I punch a button on the phone and cut off Prince in mid-sentence. If they call back, I won't answer. If they remember it later, which is extremely doubtful, I'll blame it on Sony.

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