Ethan Millner hit the gas and sped his Porsche past the last traffic light in Tolosa, Texas, leaving the city behind. He raced down the deserted two-lane highway, accelerating until he’d blown past the fifty-mile-an-hour speed limit and was heading for sixty.
The faster he went, the faster he wanted to go.
Even though the sun had long since disappeared behind the towering pine trees that lined the road, still the choking heat of the Texas summer made it hard to catch a breath without searing a lung. Any sane man would have put up the top on the convertible and flicked on the air-conditioning, but Ethan didn’t want comfort right now. The landscape whizzing past him like a video on fast-forward suited his state of mind.
The blonde in the seat beside him ran her fingertips along the polished walnut of the passenger door, then turned to him with a satisfied smile. “Great car, baby. I do love convertibles.”
The scorching night air licked around the edges of the windshield, whisking the woman’s hair into a wild frenzy. She wore a too-tight dress, too much makeup, and an erotic, heavy-lidded expression that said she was ready to get horizontal as soon as he said the word. Ten minutes ago, as they were leaving Bernie’s Bar and Grille, he thought he remembered her saying her name was Sheila.
Almost immediately after the Randall verdict had been read, Ethan had left the courthouse, gone directly to Bernie’s, and ordered a scotch straight up. He’d downed it in a few gulps and ordered another one. Then he’d sat back to let the anesthesia take effect as he watched the Rangers game on the television above the bar.
Halfway through scotch number two, he’d answered a congratulatory cell call from his father, the one he always received whenever word got around to the old bastard that his son had put another check mark in the “win” column for Millner, Millner, Monroe, and Dade. Sometimes Ethan preferred the near-lethal dose of silence he got on the rare occasion when he lost.
During the third inning, the blonde slid onto the stool next to him. He knew within seconds what kind of woman she was, and that was fine by him. He was long past messing with young law clerks who gave him million-dollar smiles paid for by their rich daddies. Women with kids to support who had desperation in their eyes and his money on their minds. Forty-somethings who’d gotten dumped by husbands with midlife crises that only twenty-somethings could resolve. Every one of them was drowning in her own sea of problems that sooner or later became his problems.
At this point in his life, only one kind of woman interested him—the kind who was beyond flowers and promises, who could be bought for a drink or two and a spin in his Porsche, who lit a cigarette after sex and reached for the remote to catch the last of The Tonight Show as he made his way out the door.
The woman swiped her windblown hair out of her face and gave Ethan a big smile. “You told me you wanted to do a little celebrating tonight. So what exactly is it we’re gonna be celebrating?”
He stared at the road ahead. “Winning.”
“Oh, yeah? Tell me I picked the right man and you’re talking about the Texas state lottery.”
“I’m a lawyer. Just won a case.”
“So tell me about it.”
“Not much to tell. I won. Saved my client from a prison sentence. That’s all that matters.”
“That’s funny. I thought justice was all that mattered.”
“Justice?” Ethan gave her a sly smile. “Interesting concept. Please tell me you’re not going to sing ‘God Bless America.’ ”
The woman laughed. Even as Ethan smiled along with her, his hand tightened against the gearshift. Justice? He wasn’t sure he even remembered the meaning of the word. He’d simply done his job as he always did, with a competency that made his clients thank God for the day they’d coughed up the extraordinary amount of money it took to retain his services. Ethan had been taught from his first breath what mattered in this game, and if money was a way of keeping score, he was clearly winning.
The woman leaned across the console and stroked her hand along his thigh. “Well, now. If I ever get into trouble with the law, it looks like you’re the man I need to call.”
“Sorry, sweetheart. You couldn’t afford me.”
“Oh, yeah? I’d say that’d depend on what you’d take instead of cash, now, wouldn’t it?” She inched her palm higher. “Maybe tonight I could give you a little advance payment against future services. How does that sound?”
The woman started talking trash to him, promising him sexual gymnastics guaranteed to take him straight to heaven. Ethan pictured himself peeling away her skimpy dress, stretching her out on a king-size bed, and sinking inside her to the hilt, letting her body take his mind to another place.
But no matter how much he tried to concentrate on her preview of coming attractions, her voice began to annoy him, like the drone of an insect he couldn’t swat away. In spite of the freedom of the road, the wind thrashing past, and the prospect of breathless sex with a woman who undoubtedly knew her way around a man’s body, he felt tense and confined.
He rubbed the back of his neck. It was slick with sweat.
Maybe the heat really was irritating him. August in Texas could be a real bitch, particularly when they were into their third week of hundred-degree heat with no end in sight. Or maybe it was the fact that the two scotches he’d tossed back hadn’t even begun to blur his senses. Or maybe it was the stranger in the seat next to him, a woman whose name he wouldn’t even remember in the morning.
Or maybe it was Thomas Randall.
A big shot at Bryan Industries, Randall had been accused of raping a young Mexican woman after hours who worked there as a cleaning woman. He said it was consensual; she said no way. Because the prosecution had little else, the he-said/she-said testimony had worked in Randall’s favor. It had been a slam dunk for Ethan to convince the jury that a man of his stature couldn’t possibly have committed an act of rape.
Of course, the fact that Ethan had rummaged through the woman’s background and unearthed a significant number of sex partners hadn’t hurt things, either. He’d danced around the rape shield laws with a creative interpretation of the Sixth Amendment, then hammered the plaintiff about those liaisons in excruciating detail, making her look more promiscuous than a two-bit hooker. The expressions on the faces of the jury members as they left for deliberation told Ethan he’d hit a home run and the verdict wouldn’t be long in coming.
Will the defendant please rise.
Randall had stood up and calmly folded his hands in front of him, wearing an eighty-dollar haircut and a thousand-dollar suit, keeping that poker face he’d honed during all those years as executive vice president of a multinational corporation. Ethan stood beside him, his own ability to keep a poker face stemming from something else entirely: He’d been there hundreds of times before.
In the matter of The State versus Thomas Randall . . .
Out of the corner of his eye, Ethan saw Randall’s chest expand as he drew a deep, silent breath.
We, the jury, find the defendant . . .
And then came the pause. Always the pause. Jurors watched too much television and had an overstated sense of the dramatic.
Randall faltered slightly, that momentary weak-kneed reaction that befell even the strongest man when he got the news that he’d escaped doing twenty years in Huntsville. Then he smiled broadly and hugged his wife, who was dressed as if she’d cut her Junior League meeting short to drop by the courthouse for the verdict.
On the other side of the aisle sat the plaintiff, a fragile-looking woman wearing an ill-fitting rummage sale dress. She began to sob, and Randall turned to look at her. When she stared back at him with a teary-eyed expression of utter despair, his victory smile faded. He swallowed hard and looked away. Body language didn’t lie.
Defendants did, though. All the time.
“So was your client really innocent?” the woman asked.
“Innocent?” Ethan said. “Of course he was. They all are.”
“All of them?”
“Sure. Just ask them. They’ll tell you.”
The woman laughed again, but it sounded hollow and unnatural. Dusk had transformed the pine trees along the road into huge, hulking shadows, and as Ethan pressed the accelerator down a few more millimeters, he felt as if he were speeding through a black hole.
The woman’s expression wavered. “Hey, you’re going a little fast, aren’t you?”
Her words seemed muffled and distant, like a radio station he couldn’t quite tune in. He took another curve, the Porsche’s tires squealing in an attempt to maintain their traction against the blacktop. For a split second Ethan imagined what would happen if he touched the accelerator a little harder and that traction disappeared. Knowing his reputation with the Tolosa PD, when the cops pulled his mangled body from the wreckage, the only thing they’d be lamenting would be the loss of a sixty-thousand-dollar sports car.
“Hey, baby,” the woman said, her voice shaky. “It’s time to slow down now.”
Ethan tightened his fist around the steering wheel, the leather hot beneath his hand. He pictured Randall doing a little celebrating of his own tonight. Friends and family surrounding him, glasses clinking, backslapping all around. He pictured the young Mexican woman, crying herself to sleep, then looking over her shoulder for the rest of her life.
Then, like a monster creeping to just within his line of sight, Ethan caught a glimpse of himself, a bleak mirror image of something he’d never intended to become.
“What the hell are you doing?” the woman shouted, clinging to the armrest. “For God’s sake, slow down!”
He hit the gas harder, his heart pounding, his mouth dry.
The woman gasped. “Look out!”
Ethan blinked, suddenly aware that a pickup truck had lumbered onto the highway from an intersecting gravel road. He slammed his foot down on the brake and swerved hard to the right, but still he clipped the rear bumper of the truck. The impact sent his Porsche sliding sideways, its tires striking a sheet of sand and loose rocks on the shoulder of the highway. The car skated along, turning ninety degrees before leaving the shoulder entirely, bumping down a low incline and smacking into a pine tree. The impact slung Ethan sideways, the seat belt biting into his neck and shoulder.
For several bewildering seconds, the only sounds Ethan heard were the heavy chirping of crickets, the woman’s labored breathing, and his own pulse hammering in his ears. With a muffled moan, the woman dipped her head and rubbed the back of her neck. When she looked up again, her voice shattered the silence.
“Are you out of your mind?”
He recoiled. “I-I’m sorry . . . I didn’t see . . .”
“Didn’t see? Hell, no, you didn’t see! You were going ninety fucking miles an hour!”
She ripped off her seat belt and climbed out of the car. Staggering a little, she pushed her hair out of her face with a defiant swipe of her hand, then climbed the low incline and stormed down the road.
Ethan glanced at the truck he’d hit. A young man stepped out wearing a western shirt, Wranglers, and a baseball cap, walking with the reeling gait of a man who’d come within a few feet of being T-boned at ninety miles an hour. Ethan gripped the steering wheel, his breath coming in shallow spurts, feeling as if he were moving through a dream.
Then he saw the red lights.
A black-and-white unit came to a halt on the shoulder of the road, its headlights slicing through the darkness. An officer stepped out. As the woman approached him, Ethan could hear her shouting: “Driving like a maniac . . . wouldn’t slow down . . . just about killed everybody . . . ”
Every accusation reverberated inside his head like the smash of a hammer through glass. He held up his hands. They were shaking.
What the hell had he just done?
When he saw a flashlight beam moving in his direction, he knew the officer was approaching his car. Ethan made his living talking his way out of situations that the average attorney wouldn’t even have attempted.
But he wasn’t going to be able to talk his way out of this.
* * *
“Mr. Millner. I see you escaped a DUI charge by the slimmest of margins. How very fortunate for you.”
As Judge William Davis flipped through the records presented to him by the bailiff, Ethan stood before him, awaiting the disposition of his case. Davis was a judge with twenty-some years on the bench and possessed every bit of the smug bearing that generally accompanied that tenure, and right now he was pouring as much of that attitude onto Ethan as he possibly could.
As he had with most of the judges in the city of Tolosa, Ethan had clashed with Davis in the courtroom more than once. Davis didn’t like it when an attorney with a talent for creative defense made the prosecution look incompetent, and in the cases Ethan defended that happened more often than not.
Ethan maintained a deferential expression, but inside he was smiling. This wasn’t going to be nearly the legal problem he’d anticipated that night. As luck would have it, he’d sailed through the roadside sobriety tests, and on the Breathalyzer exam he’d squeaked in beneath the legal intoxication limit. Much to the dismay of the arresting officer, Ethan had emerged from the experience with nothing more than a reckless driving charge.
“You realize, Mr. Millner,” the judge went on, “that if not for some extremely fortunate timing on that state highway that night, we could be discussing a manslaughter charge instead of a misdemeanor.”
A miss is as good as a mile.
“Yes, sir. I was traveling far too fast and failed to observe the intersection to the degree I should have.”
“That’s stating it mildly.”
That’s stating it factually.
“I’m requesting deferred adjudication,” Ethan said. “I’ll pay the two-hundred-dollar fine and take a defensive-driving class.”
The judge raised one of his excessively bushy eyebrows. “Oh, you will, will you?”
Ethan held his expression steady. No matter how much Davis was throwing his weight around, there was a limit to the sentence a judge could impose in a case like this, so Ethan knew he had the upper hand.
“Actually,” Davis said, “deferred adjudication is the general course of action in a case like this, and that’s exactly what you’re going to get. Only it’s not going to be in the form of probation and a defensive-driving class.”
Ethan felt a twinge of foreboding. What else could he possibly—
“I’m sentencing you to forty hours of community service.”
Ethan felt as if the judge had shot him. Community service? Good God. He’d rather pay ten thousand dollars than mess with something like that.
“I see,” he said, fighting to maintain an even expression. “And from which roadway will I be picking up trash?”
“No, Mr. Millner, that would be way too easy for you. Physical activity? You can get that by going to the gym and pumping iron. What I have in mind is something considerably more involved.”
“Forty hours of community service on a neighborhood crime-watch patrol.”
“You heard me. You get into a vehicle and scour a neighborhood for suspicious activity. It’s a very worthwhile pursuit.” He sat back with an expression of extreme satisfaction. “And I know just the person who can administer your sentence.”
Ethan gave him a wary look.
“Sandy DeMarco. Perhaps you’ve heard the name?”
At the mere mention of the name DeMarco, Ethan’s brain went on red alert. Hell, yes, he’d heard the name.
He’d never met Sandy DeMarco personally and wouldn’t know her if he saw her. But he did know two very important facts about her: She was chairman of the Tolosa Crime Watch Council, and she came from a family full of cops who’d just as soon spit on him as look at him. The chances of her never having been subjected to her three brothers’ opinions of him were exactly zero.
“There may be a conflict with that,” Ethan said. “Her brother was the investigator on a rape case I just won.”
The judge raised his eyebrows with mock surprise. “Oh, was he really?”
Asshole. “I’m afraid I don’t have the time—”
“Make the time.”
“Forty hours seems excessive for a first offense.”
“You’re lucky I’m not making it a hundred and forty.”
“For anyone but me, you’d be making it twenty.”
Judge Davis rose slowly, skewering Ethan with a fierce glare. “My chambers, Mr. Millner.”
Davis stepped down from the bench and disappeared behind a heavy oak door. Ethan had no choice but to follow, feeling like a bad boy being summoned to the principal’s office, which was precisely what Davis intended.
Ethan entered the judge’s chambers and closed the door behind him. Davis settled into his brass-studded leather chair, giving Ethan a stony stare. Ethan stood in front of his desk, meeting that stare with one of his own.
“Do you frequently summon defendants to your chambers?” he asked.
“I have a few things to say to you neither you nor I would want the rest of that courtroom to hear. Shall I continue?”
Ethan was silent.
“I’ve been watching you for a long time now, Millner. In all my years on the bench, I’ve never seen anyone like you. You bend the law, you skew the law, you twist the law, you tie the law into a goddamned pretzel so it’s not even recognizable as the law anymore. Just about every time you go to court, one more scumbag ends up walking the street who should be behind bars. And you know what? I don’t like that. And now that I have the opportunity to force you to take a look at the other side, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
Ethan had to practically bite his tongue bloody to keep from lashing out. He did his job, and he did it well. That was what was eating this guy.
“Perhaps it’s time for me to request a jury trial,” Ethan said. “That’s my prerogative.”
“Yeah, Millner, it is. You can walk out of here and right into a courtroom in a few weeks if you want to. I can’t stop you.” The judge glared at him. “But let me warn you that I have a very long memory, and you will be trying cases in my courtroom again.”
“Forgive me for saying so, Your Honor, but that sounds suspiciously like a threat.”
“I don’t give a shit what it sounds like. Take the deal or pay the price for it.”
Ethan had a hundred other things he wished he could say on the subject, but experience told him it wasn’t wise to utter a single word, no matter how irritated he was. The judge was within his rights to impose community service, and in spite of the fact that Ethan had threatened a jury trial to get himself off the hook completely, he knew what he had a chance of defending and what he didn’t. The woman who’d been in the car with him that night would be the prosecution’s star witness.
He gritted his teeth and relented. They stepped back into the courtroom and made it official, and Ethan left the courthouse knowing that before the day was out, news of Davis’s creative sentencing would undoubtedly make its way around the entire criminal justice system of Tolosa, Texas. He could already hear the laughter, and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.
He thought about what lay ahead—long, unbearable stretches of time in a car driving in circles. He’d rather take a beating with a hot poker. And with Sandy DeMarco, of all people. What an excruciating experience that was likely to be. If she was anywhere near as pushy and overbearing as her brothers, he was in for one hell of a forty hours.