Lieutenant Hales pulled up to the Biltmore, guided me out of the car, and walked me to the front entrance. Through the fog of denial and disbelief, the shocked features of Angel, the doorman, floated before me.
“Rachel, what’s wrong?” he asked as he opened the door and took the elbow Hales wasn’t holding.
“She’s had a tough night,” Hales said tersely.
“I’ll take it from here,” Angel said proprietarily, with an accusatory glance at the lieutenant.
I didn’t have the energy or the sentience to explain that it was nothing the lieutenant had done. I remained mute as Angel led me inside and steered me toward the elevator.
He managed to get me to my room, and I meant to thank him, though I’m not sure the words made it out of my mouth. All I know is that the moment the door closed behind him, I pulled out the bottle of Russian Standard Platinum vodka someone had given me a while ago and poured myself a triple shot.
I looked at the television. Was the story being aired yet? I decided I didn’t want to know. And I couldn’t bring myself to call Toni. Talking about it would make it real. Right now, all I wanted was oblivion. I tossed down my drink, then poured myself another and didn’t stop pouring until I passed out cold.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Less so now, the morning after. I had a jittery, buzzy kind of hangover that told me this was going to be a really special day. I groaned as I got out of bed and crept into the shower. Somewhat revived, I called room service and ordered my usual pot of coffee and 2 percent milk, but this time I decided to treat myself to some real food—scrambled eggs and a bagel—instead of my usual egg whites and stewed tomatoes. Screw the diet; I needed some comfort food.
I ate as I stared at the blank television screen, daring myself to turn it on. Finally curiosity won out over denial, and I reached for the remote, dreading what I was about to see. But when I scrolled through the channels, I saw nothing. I tried again. Still nothing. I frowned—that was odd, very odd. I clicked off the television and enjoyed the quiet that settled over the room. In my current condition, the less noise, the better.
Not seeing the story mentioned on the news even fleetingly had left me feeling weirdly isolated, the whole experience of last night surreal. Now eager to talk to Toni, I quickly downed enough coffee to be semifunctioning and went out onto the balcony to check the weather. I pulled my fluffy robe around me and shivered at the cold bite in the air. The darkened skies told me that the clouds that’d rolled in last night were going to show us why. I threw on gray wool gabardine slacks, a black turtleneck sweater, and black low-heeled boots. I decided to pack my .357 Smith & Wesson revolver instead of the more compact Beretta. After what I’d seen last night, I was willing to trade a lighter load for more firepower. I picked up my briefcase and the black cashmere muffler that had been a Valentine’s Day present—for some reason it was the only souvenir I’d kept from my last ill-fated relationship—wound it around my neck, and walked out to the elevator. I punched the down button and tried not to wince at the sound of the bell when the doors slid open.
The brisk six-block walk to the courthouse marginally helped to calm some of my jittery buzz, but as I approached the metal detectors, I noticed that I was holding the .357 in my pocket in a death grip. I flashed my badge, and the deputy waved me through. Seeing an open elevator, I ran for it and quickly jumped inside, then endured what felt like a million stops on the way to the eighteenth floor. I punched in the security code on the main office door and realized that I was going to be right next to Jake’s office. I wondered whether they’d put up crime scene tape to seal off his space and reflexively looked down the hall to see if it was there. Not yet. But the glimpse of his closed door undid me, and my eyes filled with tears. I blinked them back, then took deep breaths as I turned and walked up the hall, away from my office.
“Knock, knock,” I whispered hoarsely, unable to bear the sound of my knuckles on the frame of Toni’s open door.
Toni, who’d been working on her computer, turned to look at me. “My oh my, but you look like shit. So was it a very bad night or a very good one?”
I sank into the county-issue metal-framed chair that faced her desk. The sky had grown even darker in the few minutes it had taken me to ride up in the elevator. Right on cue, the first big, bloated drops of rain began to splat against the window. I took another deep breath, swallowed, and tried to make myself say the words I still didn’t want to believe. “Tone,” I began, then had to stop. A lump swelled in my throat as the enormity of it all hit me afresh.
Toni regarded me with alarm.
“Honey, what is it? You okay?” she asked.
“It’s Jake. He’s dead.”
Toni reflexively looked in the direction of his office. “What?” She shook her head, her face closed in denial.
I nodded, struggling to stop a fresh wave of tears. Her face frozen in shock, Toni automatically handed me the box of Kleenex we all kept at our desks for victims and their families.
As I pulled a tissue out of the box, it occurred to me that this was the first time I could remember either one of us using it.
“How? He’s, what, thirty-five?” Toni said as she focused on a point on the wall to the left of my head, trying to grasp the reality. “Was it a car accident?”
I shook my head and swallowed. “Somebody killed him, Tone.”
“No,” Toni said, shaking her head again. “That can’t be,” she said softly, almost to herself.
I told her what I’d seen the night before.
As I spoke, Toni folded her arms around her body and leaned forward.
“Our Jake—in that sleazebag motel. I can’t believe it. He was like my…” Toni broke off.
“… little brother,” I said, finishing the thought.
She nodded as her eyes welled up with tears. She bit her lip, then put a hand over her mouth, trying in vain to rein in her emotions. “It’s so wrong for someone so… young and so sweet to be… dead,” Toni said.
At her words, the last photo taken of my sister, Romy, with her sixth-grade gap-toothed smile, filled my mind, and my throat tightened with pain. I nodded, overcome, unable to speak. As always, I pushed the thought of Romy away. It did no good to revisit the memories that always ended in the same abyss of guilt and self-loathing.
I sat unmoving, trying not to think. Toni blinked rapidly and put a hand to her chest, as though to ease the ache in her heart. “Do you know if he has any family in L.A.? Or a girlfriend?” she asked.
In all the time we’d spent together, he’d never once mentioned his parents. But since we’d never really talked about anything personal, I’d never given it any thought until now. I scoured my memory for any personal snippet. “He never mentioned a girlfriend, but he did mention a sister.”
“What in the hell was he doing in that hole anyway?” Toni asked, her features twisted in confusion. “And who on earth would want to kill him?”
I’d been asking myself the same things for the past several hours. I shook my head, and we sat in silence for a moment. I again tried to make sense of it. And again I failed.
“I guess the Feds will handle the case?” Toni asked.
“Yeah, it’s a conflict of interest for us, so it’ll go to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
Toni’s intercom buzzed, and we both stared at it as though it were a UFO. It had to buzz a second time before she finally reached out and picked up the phone.
“Yes?” Toni answered. She listened for a moment, then said, “Yeah, she’s here. Send him down.”
I looked at her quizzically. Before she could reply, a cop appeared in the doorway. It took me a second to recognize him as the brass from the crime scene. He had a gritty, stubbly look that told me he hadn’t been to bed yet, but his uniform still seemed remarkably crisp.
He nodded to Toni, then to me. “Lieutenant Hales, from last night,” he said. “I drove you—”
“I remember, of course.” My tone was frosty at best. Shooting the messenger.
“I was in the office for a meeting with your boss—”
“Eric?” I asked.
“No, Bill Vanderhorn.”
I nodded to myself. Of course. With a case this politically sensitive, he wouldn’t meet with the head of Special Trials—he’d go straight to the DA.
“The case going to the Feds?” I asked.
“Probably,” he said noncommittally. His attitude made it clear he didn’t want to discuss it, which annoyed me even more. If he didn’t want to talk about the case, then what the hell did he want?
He seemed to sense my irritation. “I just wanted to make sure you were, you know, okay.”
The warmth in his voice startled me. I looked up and saw that he was watching me intently, his expression one of concern. The personal interest flustered me and made me uncomfortable, which only served to increase my irritation. I knew that, as Carla would say, I was just displacing my grief with anger. Carla had been my childhood shrink in the aftermath of Romy’s disappearance. Twenty-six years later, with five hundred miles separating us, she was still a major force in my life. But I didn’t care what Carla would say. I’d burned right through the denial stage of grief and was eager to get to the fury. Anger was good. I was comfortable with anger. And action. I needed to do something about this. I wanted to get the son of a bitch who’d killed Jake.
“How about telling us what you’ve got? There’s no point keeping a lid on it. The news’ll be all over the place within the next hour, and we both know the DA’s office won’t be handling the case.”
Hales frowned and fell silent for a moment.
“She has a point, Lieutenant,” Toni said, using the velvety voice that usually made men blubber and stammer.
Hales did neither. If anything, his expression seemed to get more strained. He stared out the window, and I followed his gaze. The rain was beating steadily now, and traffic had snarled to a stop on First Street. A cab that’d been barreling down Temple Street came to a brake-squealing halt inches behind the bumper of a brand-new Mercedes that was ambling slowly through the intersection. I saw the cabbie lean out and shake his fist and then lift a middle finger at the driver of the Benz, who continued to amble at his own pace, slowly and implacably. I shared a moment of empathy with the cabbie.
“Please, my name’s Graden.” He paused a moment. “How well did you know Jake?”
I could tell him a lot about Jake professionally—the good-luck “believe me” suit he always wore at closing argument, his favorite judges and least favorite defense attorneys, but I knew that wasn’t what Graden was after. When it came to the personal things, I had nothing—I couldn’t even have said whether Jake liked Chinese food. I frowned as I realized how bad that would look. But I knew Hales would find out for himself soon enough, and since he wasn’t answering my questions, I didn’t feel any obligation to answer his. I kept it short and sweet. “Pretty well. He’s one of the best lawyers in the office and one of the hardest workers. Everyone in the unit liked him.”
That actually said a lot, though I doubted Hales would know that. Special Trials was a small unit, just seven deputies, and the major-league egos assigned to the unit were always on the prowl for the big case, which occasionally led to some nasty politicking. Personally, I never got into that politicking—not because I didn’t want the big case but because I was superstitious. I firmly believed that if you chased a case, it would come back to bite you.
But Jake never chased a case because he never cared about being a star—he just wanted to be in trial, so he’d take whatever came his way. This led to him getting more than his fair share of dogs, but it also meant that he was beloved by the piranhas in the unit. And the fact that he wound up being a star anyway said everything about how talented he really was Was. My throat closed up again. I held my breath and willed the tears back as I looked out the window to give myself a moment.
Toni nodded her agreement. “I can’t imagine a soul in the world who’d want to do him harm.”
Graden looked uncomfortable, and I thought he was going to just clam up and leave. But after a beat, he took a deep breath and said, “Since you were close to Jake, you’re going to be questioned pretty closely, so you’d probably figure it out on your own anyway. But I need you to keep this to yourselves. There’s going to be a tight lid on this case for a while. Promise me you won’t talk about this to anyone until there’s an official release.”
He paused, waiting for our nods of agreement.
“Jake wasn’t alone in that motel room,” he said quietly. “There was a young boy—school ID said he was seventeen years old. We found a nude picture of the boy in Jake’s jacket. At this point, it looks like murder-suicide. Jake shot the boy, then himself.”
© 2011 Marcia Clark
Marcia Clark is a former LA, California deputy district attorney, who was the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder case. She wrote a bestselling nonfiction book about the trial, Without a Doubt, and is a frequent media commentator and columnist on legal issues. She lives in Los Angeles.