CHAPTER 1 S
andy Whitefeather walked into the inner office, closed the door, and sat down in one of the orange client chairs, wearing her usual expression of firm dignity. On the phone with a probation officer who was preparing a sentencing report for one of her criminal defense clients, Nina raised her eyebrows, but Sandy’s expression did not alter.
The secretary and lone staffer in the Law Offices of Nina Reilly, Sandy ordinarily stood at Nina’s desk, so either she was tired or some cataclysm was afoot. Since at 8:00 a.m. Sandy usually was well into her fourth cup of coffee, she probably wasn’t tired. She had been hard at work when Nina arrived, and Nina had meant to ask her what was bringing her into the office so early these days, and why she would close out the file on her computer whenever Nina came near.
Outside, the weather had turned cloudy, the thick white clouds that meant they would have snow. This was the tumultuous season, as the mountains left winter and moved into spring.
“Sorry, gotta go. Call you back later,” Nina told the officer, and hung up. “So?”
“Scumbags have been sitting in these chairs for four years now,” Sandy observed. She wore a belt with small silver conchas and tan leather cowboy boots under a long skirt. A member of the Washoe tribe, Sandy had lately gone country-western in her dress, and the appearance of a snorting stallion in the parking lot one night would not surprise Nina.
“They do the job.” Nina got up, spun one, and tried not to notice the ugly brown stain not exactly adorning its back. When had that got there?
“We need new chairs. Comfortable. Leather so they clean easier.”
“That’s low on the list.” Nina indicated the stack of files and phone messages stacked neatly on her desk. “Today, we work on generating cash, not spending it. As I recall, you told me Friday that we are low on the accounts receivable front, no surprise, considering that nobody in town has a dime to litigate these days.”
“Fine, if you like cooties.”
“So hire a steam cleaner. Do we need to have this conversation right now? Is that why you came in? I’m working.”
“I saw brown leather chairs at Jay’s Furniture over in Reno this weekend. Four hundred apiece, but your clients can rest their heads and they won’t have to put their arms on this cold chrome.”
“No money for extras now.”
“How about if you could make five thousand bucks in ten minutes?”
Nina waited, but Sandy sat, arms crossed. Unable to stand it any longer, Nina asked, “New client?”
“Someone we know awaits outside.”
“Strong?” Nina felt a nasty stirring in her gut. For two years, she had tried to put that name out of her mind.
“Jim Strong’s father.”
“What did Philip say?”
“He’ll pay a big retainer for a problem he has.”
Nina covered her eyes with her hand.
“You look peaked. Maybe you ought to see a healer. I know one up at Woodfords everyone says—”
“Philip Strong’s waiting in our outer office?”
“Marched right in five minutes ago. I was busy writing something important, but he didn’t mind interrupting. Says it’s urgent.”
Nina heard herself, voice higher-pitched than usual. “I don’t want to.”
“You may not want to, but you oughta. Listen. You have an appointment with Burglar Boy in twenty minutes. Just hear Philip out and I’ll scoot him away when you’re done.”
“Send him upstairs to John Dominguez.”
Sandy shook her head. “Claims he needs to consult with you. Only you.”
“Why is he here?”
“No details, but I’m thinking it’s about his ski resort.”
Paradise Ski Resort. Nina pictured the lodge up the mountain behind town, the enormous stone fireplace, handsome people pulling off their rigid boots, downing hot toddies, beers, and champagne, singing loudly, throwing arms around each other before eventually venturing out into the night, heading for their rented condos or a long night of gambling. Straddling the border between Nevada and California, a neighbor to Heavenly Ski Resort, Paradise was a hidden gem. The lifts cost less, the lodge had delicious food, and the runs rivaled world-class Heavenly in their variety.
Those really in the know, though, remembered that two years earlier the resort had seen a serious family tragedy, one Nina didn’t care to remember.
“I don’t know why, but the phrase deep pockets
popped up in my mind the minute I saw him,” Sandy continued. “You should fit him in.”
Nina leaned back in her chair. The sharp sunlight of Lake Tahoe in March lanced through the window. Only a few miles to the east in Nevada, across the Sierra massif, in the high desert, the sun reigned most of the year. Outside in the well-plowed street of the mountain town, old Hummers and other full-size trucks and SUVs tankered by as though the price of gas had never been close to five bucks a gallon, the vehicles spattered brown with slush.
Nina made her palm into a stop sign. “I never want to hear Jim Strong’s name again.”
Sandy nodded. “Neither does Philip, I’m thinking. Look, he’s one of the few people left in this town with money.” Sandy scratched at the metal arms of the chair, then leaned forward to see the result of her handiwork. “But what strikes me is that you need to know what’s going on here even if we don’t accept him as a client.”
“’Cuz if it’s about his son, it affects you. You’ll get lassoed into his stuff sideways if you’re not careful. At least find out why he came.” Sandy had the strongest fingernails of any human on the planet, it appeared. They continued scratching on the chair arm in one tiny place. The chrome began to disappear as though she were using a tiny Brillo pad.
“Direct him upstairs.”
At the door, Sandy turned once more to Nina, her eyebrow cocked into a final question mark.
“Tell him I’m sorry,” Nina said. The door closed, and Nina went to the tiny mirror by the door, examining the blowy hair, the darkness under the eyes, the brown eyes that now appeared almost amber, translucent in the reflection from the light behind her.
No one had ever hated her, hurt her, or scared her as Philip Strong’s son had. Nina would never recover from the blows, never. Knowing Jim would never come back helped her to sleep at night. She walked a few more steps to the corner of the big window, where she liked to look out over her personal shimmering sliver of Lake Tahoe.
In the outer office, voices competed for airspace, Sandy’s mostly prevailing. Nina recalled Philip Strong as a quiet man, and Sandy seldom raised her voice, so why all the shouting? A crash made her rush to open her office door and take a look.
Sandy, feet stuck to the floor, sturdy as a tripod, gripped the back of Strong’s parka like a bouncer. Sure of her hold, she shoved him implacably toward the door. Strong grabbed the jambs, preventing her from propelling him out, yelling, “I need to see her!”
Sandy paused and looked back at Nina, eyes her usual cold coal black. “Told him you had other plans for him. Upstairs.”
“I’m not leaving!” Philip cried. “This is important, damn it!”
Sandy’s grip tightened. Nina, recalling some old business between Philip and Sandy’s mother, something vague, something that probably made Sandy nuts, said, “It’s okay, Sandy.”
Sandy held tight. Was that a hank of hair stretching between the fingers of her left hand? Philip yelped again. “Really?” Sandy asked after a few moments of Philip’s twisting left and right, bubbling with anger but unable to free himself from her hold.
“Yes,” Nina said.
Sandy let go.
Philip, caught off guard, nearly fell to the floor, tried to regain his balance, and set a hard hand against the wall to steady himself. He pulled a hand through his thinning hair as if to recapture his lost dignity.
Sandy adjusted her belt and brushed off her skirt.
Then they both looked at Nina. “I found a minute,” she said.
“Thank you.” Strong righted himself and said, “Sorry, Sandy.”
“Hnf.” Sandy went to her desk and plopped down to a ringing phone. While she answered it and Philip Strong tucked his shirt back into his pants, Nina took a good look at him.
He had aged. Thick, dark hair that once curled around the bottom half of his skull had diminished to wispy white strands since she last saw him. He had lost weight in two years. He must be in his sixties by now. Even so, he maintained an attitude of physical health, wearing a red parka and jeans that accentuated stringy, once athletic legs. He stared back at her as if he’d forgotten what she looked like. He looks haunted, she thought.
“Come in,” she said, holding the door.
Almost as the door clicked shut, he was saying, “I have news, Nina. It’s killing my family. It might kill you, too. But you need to know.”
She tensed. A threat, not even two minutes into the conversation. She had been right to want him upstairs, not here, in her face, frightening her.
“Jim’s alive. My son’s alive.”
© 2011 Mary O’Shaughnessy and Pamela o’Shaughnessy