Hi there! I won’t pretend that’s me, but my quest to make $1,000 for the Red Cross by Dec. 21 may be just as hopeless.
That doesn’t mean I’ll quit, though. Who knows? Maybe I’ll succeed. Nobody knows anything, right?
So … once again, here we go …
Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to my literacy campaign.
You’ll get one or more of these books in return for your contribution. If
you’re your contribution is really awesome and you live in or are willing to come to my local area, you’ll get to meet the goofy blonde with the shit-eating grin who can barely type this post. Ha ha ha …
So … I was telling my husband today, that now that his mother is doing so much better and she doesn’t have the keys to the car, he shouldn’t be so worried about her. She’s living on her own and still quite capable, you know. He just worries way too much, but then he’s an only child. I’m fortunate to have siblings. I realize that.
However, I also realize that I’m responsible for living while I can, despite being tortured constantly. This means I have to make decisions wisely, so this blog must bite the dust. Soon!
BTW, I’ve been working on a shitty first draft of DEEP SIX, the fourth Sam McRae mystery. See what you think:
I once spent the night with six prostitutes.
It’s not what you’re thinking. In fact, I’m probably not who you’re thinking either. I’m Stephanie Ann McRae, better known to most people as Sam, the nickname I created from my initials. As you may have gathered, I’m a woman. I’m also a lawyer, in my late 30s and single, but not inclined to use the services of the world’s oldest profession.
The prostitutes and I spent our night in mutual discomfort in a holding cell in Landover, Maryland. It was my first, and hopefully last, time in jail.
If I learned one thing from the experience, it’s that I wouldn’t last a minute in prison. I also learned that I can’t pee when other people are watching.
Once I was in lockup, I spent a good deal of time pacing along the bars. Then I tried leaning against the bars. They started wearing grooves in my arms, so I switched to a wall that might have been beige somewhere under the grime and obscene graffiti. How did the graffiti get there? Smuggled crayons? I mulled this over a bit, then went back to pacing. I avoided eye contact with my fellow inmates, having no desire to strike up a conversation. I think the feeling was mutual.
After a few hours of this, I tried to get what little sleep would come sitting on the cold concrete floor, knees up and huddled, keeping a shirtsleeve between myself and the filthy wall. I managed a half-doze, but kept getting snapped back awake by one of the prostitutes, who had a cough of tuberculin vigor, and a retching drug addict who’d joined the party late, but gotten a head start on celebrating.
Walt finally managed to spring me around 4:30 a.m. Even Walt Shapiro, one of the county’s finest criminal defense attorneys, must have had his work cut out for him that night.
You see, several hours before, I’d shot someone.
Ten days earlier
I could think of better things to do on a sunny morning in early May than to sit at a shabby desk in my small, sublet office waiting for the phone to ring and going over my severely diminishing law office’s financials. But the latter made the former necessary. So I opened the window to allow myself a taste of the mild spring, which would soon enough transform into a sullen, hot Maryland summer.
Law can be a seasonal business. Thanksgiving and Christmas are often a bust—people too entrenched in the holidays to bother with legal matters—but afterwards, look out. There’s usually a run on divorces wrought by dysfunctional family “cheer” and both criminal and personal injury cases resulting from too much festive drinking. For whatever reason, I’d been experiencing an extended drought in business since the end of last October. Where are all the drunk drivers and assault perpetrators, I grumbled to myself. Or, much as I hated handling divorce and custody cases, I’d settle for a miserable spouse or two. Or someone hopelessly mangled in a car wreck. I grimaced at my thoughts. Only a lawyer would suffer such longings. But I was struggling to cover my overhead, plus unanticipated repairs to my car. My billables were a joke, but I wasn’t laughing.
I looked out the window onto Laurel, Maryland’s historic Main Street, all beautifully restored with brick and flowering trees lining the street. This part of town was the heart of old Laurel, what remained of a time that had long given way to suburban sprawl and houses of ticky-tacky, as the song goes. I could stand here looking out the window all day thinking about that or I could sit at my desk and think about that. But I couldn’t go out and chase ambulances or hand out business cards at funerals. I could advertise on the Internet. I could tell people all about myself and what I do. But I couldn’t force them to hire me.
So I did what I could to pay the bills. I sat at my desk, kept my books, ran an honest business and waited for the phone to ring. I turned from the window, went back to my desk and landed in my chair. Thud. Then the phone rang.
When the phone rang, I nearly answered, “Sam McRae, will represent you for food.”
I settled on my usual greeting instead. “Law offices.” Like I have more than one. One that I sublet, no less. Funny.
“Sam? Sam McRae, is that you?”
The voice rang a faint bell, but I couldn’t place it with a name. Was it a former client? “Yes,” I answered. Hopefully, not a former client with a complaint.
“Oh, my gosh, Sam. It’s been forever, but this is Linda Parker. Remember me?”
“Linda Parker? Holy shit, lady.”
She laughed, and I joined her.
I’d met Linda while doing my undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland. We’d kept in touch for a few years afterward, but our contacts attenuated to yearly Christmas cards after a while. Then, at some point, the Christmas cards stopped.
“Nice to know you haven’t changed,” she said.
“Some things never change.”
“Yeah, well.” She paused. “Some things do and some don’t.”
Why did I not like the sound of that?
“So, it’s been ages, Linda. We should get together sometime and catch up. But was there a reason you called me at my office?” Because I’m such a busy, busy big-time lawyer now.
“Actually, I hoped you could help me with a legal matter.”
My turn to pause. I wanted to say, “Well, sure, Linda! But I don’t do divorce work for friends. And I don’t work for free for anyone. However, because you’re an old friend, I’ll take a check up front, okay?”
“Sam? Are you there?”
“Yes, Linda. Uh … what kind of legal matter?”
“I’d like to take some time to explain it, maybe over lunch or dinner? I’ll pay, of course.”
Must be a mighty interesting case. I decided to hear Linda out. Besides it had been ages since we’d seen each other, and who was I to object to a free meal?
“Well, there’s room on my calendar tomorrow to meet for lunch, if you’d like.” Yes, I think I can manage to squeeze you in, old friend.
“Great! Why don’t we meet at the 94th Aero Squadron in College Park. Eleven-thirty, say? Can’t wait to see you.”
We hung up, and I thought, I can’t wait to see you, too. I thought briefly of an old line another lawyer used to say: “Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.” I felt chilly, despite the day’s warmth, then the chill passed.
At eleven-thirty on the dot, I walked into the restaurant, housed in a pseudo-French farmhouse circa WWI, and was escorted to a table next to a big picture window, where the waiter removed the napkin from my goblet with a flourish and poured my water with equal fanfare. Linda was nowhere in sight. The place had a low wooden ceiling with thick parallel beams and a brick fireplace in the corner.
I vaguely recalled seeing a show on the History Channel about bombs buried under real farmhouses in Europe during World War I, as a defense against the Germans. The British were taking steps to tunnel down and recover them. However, some of them were going off accidentally. Possibly due to lightning strikes.
I sat in my solid wooden chair and admired the detailed recreation of history, including the brass pots and pans hanging near the fireplace and the mantel clock. A bookshelf lined one wall. A clarinet noodled a swing tune solo in the background. Each table was adorned with a pristine white tablecloth, draped over a red one, and full place settings arranged around a candle flickering in a cut glass holder, in hopeful preparation for someone to sit there. No threat of the Kaiser, no bombs submerged below the painstakingly decorated eatery. None that we knew of.
I shifted in my seat. For some reason, my jaw felt rigid, so I tried smiling. I figured sitting by myself smiling made me look goofy, so I stopped. My mouth was dry, so I sipped my water. One sip of water didn’t quench my thirst, so I took another. My mouth still felt dry. Why was I so nervous?
I looked around at all the neatly-set tables again, waiting for customers. So far, the only takers were myself, one quiet couple, and a group of four men and two women, all in suits, talking about sales figures and laughing too loudly at each other’s jokes. I turned away to gaze out the window, guzzled water, and watched a Cessna make a lazy circle over the landing field.
Finally, Linda came in about thirteen minutes (which felt like an hour) later, moving through the room with the fluid grace of a gazelle and the self-assurance of a woman on a mission. A smile broadened across her pale, freckled face, and her wavy, red hair flowed back as if blown by a secret wind. The air seemed to freshen in her presence, as if she’d brought some of the outdoors in with her. I got up and we hugged.
“Sam,” she said. “It’s been too long.”
“Feels like a million years,” I said, overlooking her tardiness and lack of explanation. “You were with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service the last time we spoke.”
“Can you believe I’m still there? I’m probably a lifer, even though every year, they make me to do more with less budget. But how many jobs are out there for biologists?” She jerked a shoulder up in a “who knows?” gesture. “Bureaucracy and paperwork just seem to worsen over time, too. But, if you can ignore the bullshit, it’s decent work.”
“I know what you mean.” My problem was I couldn’t abide the bullshit of office politics and bureaucracy. That’s why I’d left the Prince George’s County Public Defender’s Office years ago to start my own practice.
As we took our seats, she said, “I’m really sorry I’m late, but I got waylaid at the office.”
I waved my hand. “Don’t worry about it. It’s so great to see you again. You’re well worth the wait.”
Her and the free lunch.
We scanned menus the waiter had left with me. Linda chose the Cobb Salad. I decided to go all out with filet minon, since Linda was paying. This meal could be both lunch and dinner.
After the waiter took our orders, Linda turned to me and said, “How’s business?”
“Fine.” Never let them see you sweat. Even if they’re old friends you haven’t spoken to in forever. Not if they’re going to be your client, maybe.
Linda raised her eyebrows. “Okay.”
I sighed. “I’ll be honest. Things are a bit slow right now, but they’ll pick up I’m sure. They always do.” That’s me. Little Miss Sunshine.
Linda leaned toward me and touched my arm. “I wish we had more time to catch up, but I can tell you about my case and you can see what you think, okay?”
I sat up straighter. “I’m all ears.”
Linda leaned back in her chair and folded her hands on the table. “Two years ago, I started a local activist group where I live. It’s named Citizens Advocating Sensible Development, but everyone calls it CASD.” She pronounced the acronym as if it were spelled “cazd”.
“We’re trying to preserve a large tract of undeveloped land in southern Prince George’s County, where I live,” she continued. “The group plans to appeal a zoning decision that would pave the way for a big new development—five hundred-plus acres of former farmland has been rezoned to let a developer fill it with houses, offices and stores.”
“Interesting,” I told her, “But I’m not a zoning expert.”
“But, it’s really not that hard. It’s all politics, really. Couldn’t you please do it just this once?”
Okay, meeting an old friend you haven’t seen forever is awesome. Doing an old friend a favor is awesome. Mixing business and pleasure, sometimes not so cool. And this contact from my long-lost friend had tripped my bullshit meter now, big time.
“Have you thought of approaching any local firms?” I asked, casually. “Many of them will take a case like this pro bono for the publicity.”
She shook her head. “We tried three or four firms. We’ve offered to pay. No one wants to fight Graybeck.”
“Is that who we’re talking about?” No wonder no one would take the case. They were probably all fighting for his business. I felt torn between fears that I’d be in over my head trying to fight Graybeck and a weird thrill at the prospect of doing it anyway.
“I guess you’ve read the articles about this.” Linda twiddled her thumbs, a tiny vertical line forming on her brow. “The fact that Graybeck is a minority-owned business and the push for upscale development in a mostly-black county doesn’t help us. The press is playing the race angle like the environmentalists are a cross between Greenpeace and the Klan. Sometimes I wonder why we can’t just all get along.”
I’d often had that same thought, knowing that if it came to fruition, I’d be out of a job. Our food arrived, and she fell silent, pushing her salad around on her plate a bit. I sawed off a healthy bite of my filet minon, bit it off my fork and chewed. Perfect. I was still thinking of all the reasons to turn this down, when she said, “We’re willing to pay you eight grand up front, if you do this.”
I swallowed my bite half-chewed and felt it inching down my esophagus, like a mouse through a snake. I grabbed my water and gulped half the glass. When I set the glass down, I could swear the meat was still stuck way down in the bottom of my esophagus. Well, at least, no one had needed to perform the Heimlich Maneuver on me.
I raised my napkin to my lips. “That’s more than generous,” I managed to say.
“We were willing to pay that to the firms, so it’s yours, if you want it.”
My mouth went slack. “How … who … where did you get this money?”
“The group got together and collected it.”
I peered at her. “Really?” I pictured a bunch of hippies, handing out flowers for donations.
“Our members have resources and friends with money.”
Ah. That helps.
I was ready to offer another polite demurrer. Then, I remembered Jamila Williams. She worked as a real estate attorney for one the biggest firms in Prince George’s County. She was definitely politically connected. I could consult with her on this. Jamila and I were tight. We were there for each other when the going got tough.
“Well,” I said. “I feel funny about taking a zoning case. But, for you, I’ll consider it, okay?”
I still had misgivings, but with eight thousand reasons to take the case and a stack of unpaid bills, I couldn’t say no.
After we dispensed with that, Linda seemed to relax.
“Thank you, Sam,” she said. “You have no idea how much this means to me.”
Let’s not get carried away. I said I’d consider it.
“Linda, please don’t take this the wrong way,” I said. “But I need a day or so to think about this and make sure I have the resources to do a good job for you. Do you understand?”
She reached out and touched my arm again. “Of course. You have to do what’s right for you.” Linda leaned back and smiled. “You haven’t changed a bit.”
I thought about that. Was that really true? “Oh, I don’t know.”
“Well, I can tell. You’re as stubborn as ever, and probably a hundred times better than most of the high-priced lawyers in this county.”
“Well,” I said. “Being stubborn doesn’t mean jack shit when it comes to being a good lawyer.”
She laughed. “See? That’s why you’re the best. You’re honest. Thank you for that. I hope you will consider my offer. Please.”
After we finished eating, Linda said she needed to go back to the office right away. She flagged the waiter over, pulled her wallet from her shoulder bag, and retrieved an Amex credit card. A silver Amex credit card, to be exact. The waiter hustled over through the nearly empty room and presented the bill in its folder, like an engraved invitation. Linda gave it a cursory glance, nodded, then stuck the credit card in the slot and handed it back. The waiter hurried off.
“Here’s my card, Sam,” Linda said, pulling a shiny, gold-colored metal cardholder from her shoulder bag. She popped it open with her thumb and retrieved a card from the stash within. “I’ll write my home and cell number on here, too.”
While she scribbled that down, I fished around for a business card and a pen, finding both. I paused, then wrote down my cell phone, which I normally don’t give out to clients. Linda was turning out to be the exception that would prove the rule that no good deed goes unpunished.
I left the fake World I French restaurant, hopped in my old purple Mustang convertible, and rejoined the ugly reality of 21st century College Park and good old Route One. I could’ve taken the Baltimore-Washington Parkway instead of Route One, but frankly I was screwed either way. Traffic in this area is a bitch, no matter what road you take. Since they began making improvements on the Parkway, the traffic has become even screwier, no matter what time you’re on it.
The trip back to my palatial sublet office took me well north of the University of Maryland campus proper, right into the thick of Berwyn or Beltsville. Older suburbs of brick ranchers. The kind of houses they don’t build anymore, because people are looking to buy bigger houses that are made more cheaply. Lovely.
Through some miracle, I found a place to park out front of the old Victorian house where I sublet, instead of having to pull into the lot in back and walking around to the front door. I know, I know … I sound lazy, but I walk all the time. And I ride a bicycle to stay in shape, so no one can say I’m not working it.
Once I’d parked, I grabbed my shoulder bag and marched up the walkway, then climbed the three short, grey-painted wooden steps to the little porch before the front door. To the right, a small ramp slanted alongside the steps. My landlord had installed the ramp, requiring a complete architectural redesign of the front porch, in order to accommodate disabled employees and clients in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. He’d also had to get permission from various Laurel zoning and historical authorities. My landlord must really love having his business in Laurel to go through all that shit, huh?
I entered the waiting area, where my landlord’s elderly receptionist, Sheila, was nodding and making “umm-hmm” sounds into her headset, while typing on her keyboard. I waved hello and kept going toward the stairs leading up to my plush digs on the second floor. Sheila punched the hold button, apparently, because her head swiveled and she said, “Hang on. We need to talk.”
Oh, shit. I froze in place. I could’ve ignored her, but why put off the inevitable?
Once Sheila finished nodding and murmuring into the phone, she hung up and turned to me and said, “Sam, could you step outside with me, while I take a short smoke break?”
How interesting, I thought. Sheila keeps her silver-gray hair tied back in a bun, giving her the look of a skinny, chain-smoking librarian. One who’s never felt any compunction about smoking in the office, despite the law that says you shouldn’t. The woman smokes like … well, a house afire. Obviously, she wanted to talk to me where certain busybodies couldn’t hear her.
So Sheila and I went outside and huddled on the small porch together.
Not one to waste words, Sheila got right to the point. She said, “I hate to bring this up, but Milt is getting on my ass about the rent.”
I nodded. “I know, Sheila. You guys have been more than kind to cut me this slack, during a tough time. But I’ve got what looks like a promising client. Just give me a little more time, to square my accounts with you, okay?”
Yeah, we all have to pay the piper, don’t we?
I can’t begin thank you enough, Robert Crais! And Johnny Rotten. And Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Block and Laura Lippman.
And (in no particular order, because I totally didn’t plan this) Stephen Leather, Tim Hallinan, Simon Wood, Karen McQuestion, Brenda Wallace, Derek Haines, Scott and Mary Clevenger, Chris Vosburg, Cassie (if you’re still there), Wendy, Caren Kennedy, Louise Phillips, Dale Phillips, Marcia Talley, Sasscer Hill, Ray Flynt, Mary Ellen Hughes, Karen Cantwell, Joe Konrath, Jack Bludis, Graham Powell, Jim Winter, Zoe Winters, Zoe Sharp, Scott Nicholson, L.J. Sellers, C.J. West, Bill Gagliani, Jenny Milchman, Janet Rudolph, Peg Brantley, Frank Zafiro, Austin Camacho, Jeremiah Healey, and Louise Titchener.
And each and every one of my readers, of course.
And all the other awesome ones I’ve left out, but you should know who you are.
My literacy campaign will not be financed by my mother-in-law. That’s not the point. The point is to do something awesome and promote literacy by distributing my books in exchange for contributions. Will you help?
Time to grow up and take responsibility.
Here’s a link of possible interest: Take that, Amazon!
And, finally, from Nik Nak’s Old Peculiar, this
amazingly apt quote:
“When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
Leonardo da Vinci
And this appropriate tune from Wings.
Thank you, Paul! Again and again.
The awesome Paul, the awesome Trevor and me.
Me and Paul at THE Brentwood Library.
Remember … all you need is love, right? Ha ha ha …
UPDATE: I totally forgot to mention The Awesome Bloggess, Jenny Lawson! :-O This is why I never usually make lists. Plus, she’s had a shitty week. I hear that!
But today she posted this. That’s awesome!
BTW, I still need to wrap gifts that include these books.
UPDATE 2: I’ve wrapped all my gifts, which include this book, too.