TV journalist Mary Carelli admits that she shot and killed Mark Ransom, one of the world's most famous authors. She claims it was self-defense. She swears he tried to rape her. Now she has to prove it in a court of law—with her former lover acting as her attorney…
Christopher Paget is one of the top lawyers in the country. But defending the mother of his son in the trial of the decade, he begins to have doubts. Is Mary telling the truth? Did she invent her story about the rape? What is she hiding? With each shocking revelation, Paget is forced to question his defense, his ethics, and the whole legal system. Because no one, not even the judge, is completely innocent. And guilt is a matter of degree…
About the Author
RICHARD NORTH PATTERSON is the author of The Spire, Eclipse and fourteen other bestselling and critically acclaimed novels. Formerly a trial lawyer, he was the SEC liaison to the Watergate special prosecutor and has served on the boards of several Washington advocacy groups. He lives in San Francisco and on Martha's Vineyard with his wife, Dr. Nancy Clair.
Richard North Patterson is the author of In The Name Of Honor, Eclipse, The Spire, Exile, The Race, Degree Of Guilt, Eyes Of A Child, Silent Witness, and many other bestselling and critically acclaimed novels. Formerly a trial lawyer, he was the SEC liaison to the Watergate special prosecutor, the assistant attorney general for the state of Ohio, and has served on the boards of several Washington advocacy groups. In 1993, he retired from his law practice to devote himself to writing. His first novel, The Lasko Tangent, was the winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel in 1980. He is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and Case Western Reserve University School of Law, and is a recipient of their President's Award for Distinguished Alumni. He lives in Martha's Vineyard, San Francisco, and Cabo San Lucas with his wife, Dr. Nancy Clair. "Richard North Patterson is a terrific novelist."-The Washington Post
Read an Excerpt
Degree of Guilt
By Richard North Patterson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1992 Richard North Patterson
All rights reserved.
The woman froze in the hallway, staring at the numbered doorplate.
For a moment, she felt uncertain that this was the same suite she had left perhaps a minute before. Then she turned the knob slowly, wincing at its metallic click.
The door cracked ajar, a pallid sliver of light coming from inside. She paused, looking over her shoulder, less from fear of being seen than the desire to stay suspended in time, outside the room.
Time. She glanced at her gold wristwatch. When had it happened? she wondered. No way of telling now. Thirty minutes, she decided arbitrarily. Thirty minutes, and she had not decided what to do. Her mind was sluggish, numb with disbelief. She felt drugged.
Her fingertips were damp, she realized. With every thought, her choices seemed to narrow. She fought the impulse to stop thinking, to run. It took all her will to do nothing.
The chime of an elevator rang.
She flinched. Quickly, she tried to remember arriving in the elevator, how far it was down the hallway. Afraid to turn, unable to recall the corridor right behind her.
She straightened, squaring her shoulders, and pushed open the door.
The rectangle of light from within captured her like a photograph, a slender woman with long black hair, standing motionless in the door frame. The elevator opened. A second chime penetrated her shock.
She stepped inside and shut the door behind her.
Closing, it sounded heavy. Final, she corrected herself. It sounded final.
She turned to face the room.
Her eyes sought out details. Drawn blinds. Her black leather purse on the floor. The gold neck of an empty champagne bottle, above the rim of a silver ice bucket on a glass coffee table. The two crystal glasses. The heavy oil painting of San Francisco Bay she had remarked on, slightingly, when she first entered. Her panty hose on the carpet, ripped in one leg.
She touched her throat, feeling for scratches. She had broken a nail; it was that, oddly, which made her remember her own fragility.
Finally, she looked at him.
There was blood on the carpet now, beneath his chest. His pants were pulled below his knees.
A sudden jumble of images: Legs splayed at crazy angles. Blue argyle socks. A curly shock of red hair. Thin craggy face, turned to chalk. Eyes open as if to stare at the black handgun, lying near his head where she had left it.
For an instant, she was paralyzed.
She breathed in deeply, once, and exhaled. Then she took three steps, standing over him, and stared down at his bare buttocks.
The wave of revulsion hit her again, rose to her throat. She felt sure she would vomit; some cold, distant part of her brain wondered how that would look to them. Perhaps they would see her fear, see how afraid he had made her. Then the hatred ran through her again, hard and deep and raw.
She shut her eyes, remembering. What he had done. What he had wanted to do.
When they opened again, she felt stronger, more ready. More like the woman who had come here. More like the woman she had always been.
The nausea had passed. She sat beside him on the carpet.
There was no hole in his back, she saw; the bullet had not gone through. The flabby skin of his buttocks was turning gray. She could hardly see the scratches she had left there.
In her new resolve, she tried to summon a clinical dispassion. Perhaps forty minutes before, she realized, his heart had stopped pumping blood. The great man, bottom in the air, pale as a fish. It was almost comic.
The smile, small and involuntary, hurt her bruised mouth. The dark mirth vanished.
The rest of her life, she resolved, would not be about him. She would not let him do that to her. She would leave this day behind her.
She looked down at her watch. Too much time had passed. She must think quickly.
She stood with a kind of awkward dignity, preparing herself.
Walking carefully around the dead man, she knelt again on the other side, to pick up her panty hose. She left the gun where it was.
She held the hose dangling in one hand, reflecting. Then she hitched up her skirt, examining her legs. The scratch on her left thigh traced the tear in her panty hose.
They would ask to see her legs, she was certain.
Long, slender from the twenty years of exercise since college — running in the morning, gyms at night. Twenty years of willpower: like everything else in her life, her body was as nearly perfect as she could make it. But today, it had seemed, not perfect enough.
Struggling into the hose, she realized that her shoes were still under the coffee table.
What mattered? she wondered. It was hard to know.
She walked to the coffee table, staring down at the tape recorder.
Small and black, it stood upright near the glasses. Through its plastic window she saw that the tape had played until it stopped. And, with it, the woman's voice. Low and smoky, damning in a monotone a man whom she had never met and yet had believed in. Until now.
It was a moment before she realized that her fists had clenched. Another before she could move again.
As if in her sleep, she straightened her dress, put on her shoes. Looking around the suite, she saw that the bedroom door was shut. Strange, she thought, that he had not shown it to her.
She looked back toward the room.
The desk drawer was still open. She walked across the room, past the body, and closed it.
As she turned, the mirror above the couch caught her face.
It stopped her. With an odd detachment, she realized that the cameras would magnify the bruise beneath her eye.
She found nothing else. Neither the years since Washington, nor the past hour, had changed her much. No matter what he had said or done, or could not do.
She studied her reflection.
A face that photographed well, filmed well. A strong face, high cheekbones, clear brown eyes. It had always helped her, whether or not she had wanted that kind of help. She did not know whether it could help her now.
Turning, she took one final look at him, then at the room around her. To remember. Simply to remember. It would be a long day, she knew, a long night without sleep. Perhaps many nights until she slept. But she would need to remember, not forget.
Briefly, she thought again of the boy, and was ready.
The telephone was on an end table, next to the couch. She picked it up, standing stiffly, listening to the dial tone. Then her gaze caught the tape recorder.
They would record her, she knew. Listen to her words over and over. Listen to her tone of voice.
She swallowed once, clearing her throat. Her mouth tasted bitter.
Willfully, she stabbed the numbers.
The dial tone broke, became a ringing on the other end. She listened, steeling herself for the answering voice. But the man's brusque tone startled her. How foolish, she thought, to have wished for a woman.
"San Francisco Emergency," the male voice snapped again.
She found herself staring at the man on the floor, fixated on the black gun by his head. A foreign object, she thought. Foreign in her life. Foreign in her hand.
"There's been an accident," she said simply.
Teresa Peralta glanced at her watch. It was close to five, and he still had not sprung the trap.
The deposition had been going for seven hours. It was like watching a cat-and-mouse game where the cat had his eye on a second mouse; what lent the game its fascination was the smugness of the second mouse, who sat watching the cat toy with the first mouse, secure in his delusion that the cat had not seen him.
"Perhaps I can refresh your memory," Christopher Paget said pleasantly, and handed the first mouse a document. "Can you identify Defendant's Exhibit 13?"
This particular cat wore a navy double-breasted pinstripe of soft Italian wool. With that came a silk floral tie; a white cotton shirt; square gold cuff links. As with other things about Christopher Paget, Terri wondered whether the careful dress was a form of camouflage, meant to deflect attention from who he really was.
They sat in a large conference room with a view of San Francisco Bay. Two lawyers on each side of the table, a witness and a court reporter. Terri was next to Paget, watching. The document — which seemed to have transfixed the witness — was his last.
"Please take your time," Paget suggested calmly.
Time, Terri thought again. Through the window, dusk was falling across the bay; lights were beginning to glimmer from the city and, across the gray swath of water, from Marin County. Five o'clock; the day-care center would close at six. It was on the other side of the Bay Bridge, for Richie's convenience, near where they lived because Richie liked Berkeley better than the city. Next to her was a message, brought in at four-thirty. Richie was having dinner with some "business associates," to work on his new software "deal"; Terri must pick up Elena.
Forget it for a moment, she told herself. Learn something. Watch him do this.
Her metaphor, she decided, was better than she had thought. Paget had a cat's patience, a cat's still blue eyes. And there was a look of fineness to him, the result of great self-discipline and much exercise. The copper hair, ridged nose, and clean angles of his face seemed little different from the classic photograph, taken fifteen years before.
Christopher Paget had been famous so young, she knew, that some saw his career since then as an afterthought; the picture had been on the cover of Time, when he was twenty-nine.
She had found it in the library, as she was about to interview for a job as his associate. It was a well-known cover: a young lawyer testifying before Congress, the portrait of idealism and risk. Curiosity had led her from one article to another, relearning things she had heard about but had been too young to remember clearly.
The case had involved William Lasko, a close friend and financial supporter of the President. Paget was an investigator for the Economic Crimes Commission, assigned to check out Lasko's stock transactions. A key witness — one of Lasko's employees — had died in a hit-and-run "accident," leaving behind one ambiguous memo and the suspicion in Paget that someone within the ECC was betraying his inquiry.
Slowly, Paget had begun to uncover corruption within the ECC, which, he came to suspect, reached all the way to the White House. Then a second witness was kidnapped. When Paget persisted, someone had tried to kill him, just before he pieced together the meaning of Lasko's transactions.
The transactions, it turned out, were meant to funnel one and one-half million dollars to the President's campaign. And the man who had been leaking information about the investigation to Lasko was the chairman of Paget's agency. A man named Jack Woods.
It was never clear, Terri had found, whether Paget had entirely uncovered the corruption within the ECC itself. But he had taken the story to the Washington Post and then to Congress. A second witness had come forward — a young woman lawyer who was Woods's chief assistant. The results were prison sentences for Woods and Lasko, and political ruin for the President.
Christopher Paget was the first twenty-nine-year-old, a columnist wrote sourly, to bring down a President without using sex. The columnist seemed slightly nettled; Paget refused all requests for interviews.
As far as Terri could tell, he had never spoken of the Lasko case again.
The strain must have been enormous; everyone wanted a piece of him. The young woman witness, Terri knew, had become a television journalist. But Paget seemed to want no part of it. And, much more than the woman, he had earned the undying enmity of partisans of the President, who felt that he had tampered with the scales of history. He had left Washington and returned to California for good.
He had started his own firm, turned down requests to enter politics, made a specialty of white-collar crime. Within the office, Paget's time in Washington was treated like some private trauma, which people were too tactful to mention. In six months, she had learned almost nothing about him except that he was very good at his job.
"Mr. Gepfer?" he asked politely.
Across the table, the witness was staring at several pages of handwritten figures, seemingly unable to move or speak. He looked like a mouse, Terri decided: thin, sharp face, sandy hair combed to cover a bald spot, small eyes that shifted between avarice and fear. Had he not been so dishonest, and the moment so sublime, she would have felt sorry for him.
"I don't recall this document," opposing counsel broke in. "I'd like to know what this is and where you got it."
It was with Starr that Terri's conceit of cats and mice broke down. He had a basilisk face, slicked-back gray hair, and an air of deliberate shrewdness; it had not surprised her to learn from the skinny associate who sat next to Starr that he treated his staff like serfs.
Ignoring him, Paget turned to the court reporter, a young woman who sat watching from the end of the table, fingers poised over her machine. "In Mr. Starr's excitement," he said, "the witness may have forgotten the question. Perhaps you should read it back."
Starr leaned across the table. Terri scrutinized him, trying to figure out how much he understood. Not quite enough, she concluded; he looked like a man who was prepared for a setback but not for a disaster.
"Oh, go ahead."
"Thank you." Paget's tone held the barest trace of irony. He nodded to the reporter.
"Can you identify Defendant's Exhibit 13?" the reporter read out.
Almost inaudibly, Gepfer answered, "Yes."
Paget took up the questioning. "And is that document in your handwriting?"
"Could you read the heading at the top center, please."
Gepfer's eyes shut. "Liberal Accounting Adjustments," he said in a monotone.
"How did you come to call it that?"
"David Frank suggested it."
"When he was still chairman of Lyon Industries?"
"Did you also get the figures under that heading from Mr. Frank?"
Starr watched the questioning without changing expression. What Terri noticed was how intent he was.
"He set the direction," Gepfer answered miserably. "I came up with the numbers for him."
"And what do these numbers represent?"
"The amount of additional income Lyon needed to show a profit in fiscal 1991."
"Additional, or imaginary?"
Gepfer frowned, as if pondering a complex thought. "We didn't make the money," he finally answered, "if that's what you meant."
"But the figures on the document," Paget said, "became the figures on Lyon's financial statements, correct?"
"And were used to raise $53 million in the public offering?"
"Mr. Frank sold stock in that offering, correct?"
"And made several million dollars."
"And you also sold stock in the offering?"
"And made roughly $670,000."
"Yes," Gepfer said again.
Paget had him in a rhythm now. "Whose idea was it to change the books?"
Gepfer's voice turned accusatory. "Mr. Frank's."
"And you just went along."
"Did my client, Steve Rudin, know about this?"
"Objection," Starr cut in. "Calls for speculation."
Paget's eyes widened. "Really, Mr. Starr, I'm proving your entire case. I'd think you'd be more grateful. ..."
"Come off it. Frank killed himself. How can this man know who Frank talked to?"
Paget looked at him a moment. Not for the first time, Terri had the sense that nothing surprised him; that something had taught him not to show what he felt; that he expected very little from anyone. "You mean you haven't asked him?" he asked Starr softly. "You're prosecuting this case against my client, this man's cooperating with you, and you haven't asked him yet?"
Starr leaned back. "I'm not the witness here," he retorted. "I'm not telling you what I've asked or haven't asked. That's work product."
"I'll try another question," Paget said agreeably, turning to the witness. "Before today, when was the last time you saw this document?"
Starr's face said everything; too late, he saw where this was about to go. Could hear the next five questions before they were ever asked.
"July," the witness said. For Gepfer, Terri knew, the worst had already happened; the questions were now worse for someone else.
Paget sat back, looking at both Starr and the witness. "At that time, did you give this document to anyone?"
Paget had stopped looking at Gepfer now. When he asked the next question, his gaze was fixed on Starr.
"And who was that?"
"Objection!" Starr stood up. "That's work product."
The court reporter's head had begun moving back and forth, following the voices.
Paget turned to Gepfer. "You may answer."
"Press on," Starr snapped, "or we're walking out."
"That hardly seems reasonable." Paget had yet to raise his voice. "Let me suggest this, Mr. Starr. Why don't we call a magistrate and get a ruling by telephone."
"Fine." Starr spoke with more assurance. "But the courts close at five — there's no one there to give us a ruling. I'm busy the next few weeks. Maybe sometime in February."
Terri suppressed a smile.
"Curiously," Paget said to Starr, "I anticipated this problem and called Magistrate Riordan's office this morning. He'll be available until six."
Excerpted from Degree of Guilt by Richard North Patterson. Copyright © 1992 Richard North Patterson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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