Once Dismas Hardy was a cop. Now he spends his days in a lawyer’s suit, billing hours to a corporate client in a downtown San Francisco office. Hardy’s wife and kids like it that way. Then one client changes everything.
Graham Russo, a former baseball star, is charged with murdering his dying father. Was it suicide, the last desperate act of a dying man? Was it murder? Or mercy?
Now, as a carnival of reporters, activists, cops, lovers, and families throng around the case, Dismas Hardy is going to trial with a client he doesn’t trust, a key witness he cannot believe, and a system that almost destroyed him once. For Dismas, this case will challenge everything he believes about the law, about his family, and about himself. Because a chilling truth is beginning to emerge about an old man’s lonely death. And what Dismas knows could put him next in line to die. . . .
Praise for The Mercy Rule
“Very entertaining . . . a large and emotionally sprawling novel.”—Chicago Tribune
“As usual in a Lescroart novel, character dominates plot as the author proves, yet again, that resonant drama can be found in family.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“An edge-of-the-seat legal thriller that has it all—hot-button issues, deception, greed, corruption, and a labyrinthine plot that will keep you guessing until the very last page.”—Faye Kellerman
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About the Author
Hometown:El Macero, California
Date of Birth:January 14, 1948
Place of Birth:Houston, Texas
Education:B.A. in English with Honors, UC Berkeley, 1970
Read an Excerpt
Dismas Hardy was enjoying a superb round of darts, closing in on what might become a personal best.
He was in his office on a Monday morning, throwing his twenty-gram hand-tooled, custom-flighted tungsten beauties. He called the game "twenty-down" although it wasn't any kind of sanctioned affair. It had begun as simple practice--once around and down the board from "20" to bull's-eye. He'd turned the practice rounds into a game against himself.
His record was twenty-five throws. The best possible round was twenty-one, and now he was shooting at the "3" with his nineteenth dart. A twenty-two was still possible. Beating twenty-five was going to be a lock, assuming his concentration didn't get interrupted.
On his desk the telephone buzzed.
He'd worked downtown at an office on Sutter Street for nearly six years. The rest of the building was home to David Freeman & Associates, a law firm specializing in plaintiffs' personal injury and criminal defense work. But Hardy wasn't one of Freeman's associates. Technically, he didn't work for Freeman at all, although lately almost all of his billable hours had come from a client his landlord had farmed out to him.
Hardy occupied the only office on the top floor of the building. Both literally and figuratively he was on his own.
He held on to his dart and threw an evil eye at the telephone behind him, which buzzed again. To throw now would be to miss. He sat back on the desk, punched a button. "Yo."
Freeman's receptionist, Phyllis, had grown to tolerate, perhaps even like, Hardy, although it was plain that she disapproved of his casual attitude. This was a law firm. Lawyers should answer their phone crisply, with authority and dignity. They shouldn't just pick up and say "Yo."
He took an instant's pleasure in her sigh.
She lowered her voice. "There's a man down here to see you. He doesn't have an appointment." It was the same tone she would have used if the guest had stepped in something on the sidewalk. "He says he knows you from"--a pause while she sought a suitable euphemism. She finally failed and had to come out with the hated truth--"your bar. His name is Graham Russo."
Hardy knew half a dozen Russos--it was a common name in San Francisco--but hearing that Graham from the Little Shamrock was downstairs, presumably in need of a lawyer's services, narrowed it down.
Hardy glanced at his wall calendar. It was Monday, May 12. Sighing, he put his precious dart down on his desk and told Phyllis to send Mr. Russo right on up.
Hardy was standing at his door as Graham trudged up the stairs, a handsome, athletic young guy with the weight of this world on his shoulders. And at least one other world, Hardy knew, that had crashed and burned all around him.
They had met when Graham showed up for a beer at the Shamrock. Over the course of the night Hardy, moonlighting behind the bar, found out a lot about him. Graham, too, was an attorney, although he wasn't practicing right at the moment. The community had blackballed him.
Hardy had had his own run-ins with the legal bureaucracy and knew how devastating the ostracism could be. Hell, even when you were solidly within it, the law life itself was so unrelentingly adversarial that the whole world sometimes took on a hostile aspect.
So the two men had hit it off. Both men were estranged from the law in their own ways. Graham had stayed after last call, helped clean up. He was a sweet kid--maybe a little naive and idealistic, but his head seemed to be on straight. Hardy liked him.
* * *
Before the law Graham's world had been baseball. An All-American center fielder at USF during the late eighties, he'd batted .373 and had been drafted in the sixth round by the Dodgers. He then played two years in the minor leagues, making it to Double-A San Antonio before he'd fouled a ball into his own left eye. That injury had hospitalized him for three weeks, and when he got out, his vision didn't come with him. And so with a lifetime pro average of .327, well on the way to the bigs, he'd had to give it all up.
Rootless and disheartened, he had enrolled in law school at Boalt Hall in Berkeley. Graduating at the top of his class, he beat out intense competition and got hired for a one-year term as a clerk with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But he only stayed six months.
In early 1994--the year of the baseball strike--about two months after he passed the bar, he quit. He wanted, after all, to play baseball. So he went to Vero Beach, Florida, to try out as a replacement player for the Dodgers.
And he made the team.
At the Shamrock he'd made it clear to Hardy that he'd never have played as a scab. All along, all he'd wanted out of the deal was for the Dodgers to take another look at him. The fuzziness had disappeared from his vision; he was still in great shape. He thought he could shine in spring training, get cut as a replacement when they all did, but at least have a shot at the minors again.
And that's what happened. He started the '94 season with the Albuquerque Dukes, Triple A, farther along the path to the major leagues than he'd been seven years earlier.
But he couldn't find the damn curveball and the new shot at his baseball career, upon which he'd risked everything, lasted only six weeks. His average was .192 when he got cut outright. He hadn't had a hit in his last seven games. Hell, he told Hardy, he would have cut himself.
Graham had a lumberjack's shoulders and the long legs of a high hurdler. Under a wave of golden hair his square-jawed face was clean shaven. Today he wore a gray-blue sport coat over a royal-blue dress shirt, stonewashed jeans, cowboy boots.
He was leaning forward on the front of the upholstered chair in front of Hardy's desk, elbows on his knees. Hardy noticed the hands clasped in front of him--the kind of hands that, when he got older, people would call gnarled--workingman's hands, huge and somehow expressive.
Graham essayed a smile. "I don't even know why I'm here, tell you the truth."
Hardy's face creased. "I often feel the same way myself." He was sitting on the corner of his desk. "Your dad?"
Salvatore Russo--Herb Caen's column had dubbed him Salmon Sal and the name had stuck--was recent news. Despondent over poor health, his aging body, and financial ruin, Sal had apparently killed himself last Friday by having a few cocktails, then injecting himself with morphine. He'd left a Do Not Resuscitate form for the paramedics, but he was already dead when they'd arrived.
To the public at large Sal was mostly unknown. But he was well known in San Francisco's legal community. Every Friday Sal would make the rounds of the city's law workshops in an old Ford pickup. Behind the Hall of Justice, where Hardy would see him, he'd park by the hydrant and sell salmon, abalone, sturgeon, caviar, and any other produce of the sea he happened to get his hands on. His customers included cops, federal-, municipal-, and superior-court judges, attorneys, federal marshals, sheriffs, and the staffs at both halls--Justice and City--and at the federal courthouse.
The truck appeared only one day a week, but since Sal's seafood was always fresher and a lot cheaper than at the markets, he apparently made enough to survive, notwithstanding the fact that he did it all illegally.
His salmon had their tails clipped, which meant they had been caught for sport and couldn't be sold. Abalone was the same story; private parties taking abalone for commercial sale had been outlawed for years. His winter-run chinooks had probably been harvested by Native Americans using gill nets. And yet year after year this stuff would appear in Sal's truckbed.
Salmon Sal had no retail license, but it didn't matter because he was connected. His childhood pals knew him from the days when Fisherman's Wharf was a place where men went down to the sea in boats. Now these boys were judges and police lieutenants and heads of departments. They were not going to bust him.
Sal might live on the edge of the law, but the establishment considered him one of the good guys--a character in his yellow scarves and hip boots, the unlit stogie chomped down to its last inch, the gallon bottles from which he dispensed red and white plonk in Dixie cups along with a steady stream of the most politically incorrect jokes to be found in San Francisco.
The day Hardy had met Sal, over a decade ago, he'd been with Abe Glitsky. Glitsky was half black and half Jewish and every inch of him scary looking--a hatchet face and a glowing scar through his lips, top to bottom. Sal had seen him, raised his voice. "Hey, Abe, there's this black guy and this Jew sitting on the top of this building and they both fall off at the same time. Which one hits the ground first?"
"I don't know, Sal," Glitsky answered, "which one?"
Now Sal was dead and the newspapers had been rife with conjecture: early evidence indicated that someone had been in the room with him when he'd died. A chair knocked over in the kitchen. Angry sounds. Other evidence of struggle.
The police were calling the death suspicious. Maybe someone had helped Sal die--put him on an early flight.
"I didn't know Sal was your father," Hardy said. "Not until just now."
"Yeah, well. I didn't exactly brag about him." Graham took a breath and looked beyond Hardy, out the window. "The funeral's tomorrow."
When no more words came, Hardy prompted him. "Are you in trouble?"
"No!" A little too quickly, too loud. Graham toned it down some. "No, I don't think so. I don't know why I would be."
Hardy waited some more.
"I mean, there's a lot happening all at once. The estate--although the word estate is a joke. Dad asked me to be his executor although we never got around to drawing up the will, so where does that leave it? Your guess is as good as mine."
"You weren't close, you and your dad?"
Graham took a beat before he answered. "Not very."
Hardy thought the eye contact was a little overdone, but he let it go. He'd see where this all was leading. "So you need help with the estate? What kind of help?"
"That's just it. I don't know what I need. I need help in general." Graham hung his head and shook it, then looked back up. "The cops have been around, asking questions."
"What kind of questions?"
"Where was I on Friday? Did I know about my dad's condition? Like that. It was obvious where they were going." Graham's blue eyes flashed briefly in anger, maybe frustration. "How can they think I know anything about this? My dad killed himself for a lot of good reasons. The guy's disoriented, losing his mind. He's in awesome pain. I'd've done the same thing."
"And what do the police think?"
"I don't know what they can be thinking." Another pause. "I hadn't seen him in a week. First I heard of it was Saturday night. Some homicide cop is at my place when I get home."
"Where'd you get home from?"
"Ball game." He raised his eyes again, spit out the next word. "Softball. We had a tournament in Santa Clara, got eliminated in the fourth game, so I got home early, around six."
"So where were you Friday night?"
Graham spread his Rodin hands. "I didn't kill my dad."
"I didn't ask that. I asked about Friday night."
He let out a breath, calming down. "After work, home."
He smiled. "Just like the movie. Home alone. I love that answer. The cop liked it, too, but for different reasons. I could tell."
Hardy nodded. "Cops can be tough to please."
"I worked till nine-thirty. . . ."
"What do you do, besides baseball?"
Graham corrected him. "Softball." A shrug. "I've been working as a paramedic since . . . well, lately."
"Okay. So you were riding in an ambulance Friday night?"
A nod. "I got home around ten-fifteen. I knew I had some games the next day--five, if we went all the way. Wanted to get some rest. Went to sleep."
"What time did you go in to work?"
"Around three, three-thirty. I punched in. They'll have a record of it."
"And what time did they find your dad?"
"Around ten at night." Graham didn't seem to have a problem with the timing, although to Hardy it invited some questions. If his memory served him, and it always did, Sal had apparently died between one and four o'clock in the afternoon. This was the issue Graham was skirting, which perhaps the police were considering if they were thinking about Graham after all. He would have had plenty of time between one o'clock and when he checked in to work near three.
But the young man was going on. "Judge Giotti, you know. Judge Giotti found him."
"I read. What was he doing there?"
Graham shrugged. "I just know what everybody knows--he'd finished having dinner downtown. He had a fish order in and Sal didn't show, so he thought he'd check the apartment, see if he was okay."
"And why would the judge do that?"
The answer was unforced, Graham recounting old family history. "They were friends. Used to be, anyway, in high school, then college. They played ball together."
"Your father went to college?"
Graham nodded. "It's weird, isn't it? Salmon Sal the college grad. Classic underachiever, that was Sal. Runs in the family." He forced a smile, making a joke, but kept his hands clamped tightly together, leaning forward casually, elbows resting on his knees. His knuckles were white.
"So. Giotti?" Hardy asked. Graham cast his eyes to the floor. "You weren't his clerk, were you?"
The head came back up. Graham said no. He'd clerked for Harold Draper, another federal judge with the Ninth Circuit.
"I guess what I'm asking," Hardy continued, "is whether you and Giotti--him being your dad's old pal and all--developed any kind of relationship while you were clerking."
Graham took a moment, then shook his head. "No. Giotti came by once after I got hired to say congratulations. But these judges don't have a life. I didn't even see him in the halls."
"And how long did you work there?"
Hardy slid from the desk and crossed to his window. "Let me be sure I've got it right," he said. "Draper hired you to become a clerk for the Ninth? How many clerks does he have?"
"For a year each?"
"Right. That's the term."
Hardy thought so. He went on. "When I was getting into practice right after the Civil War, a federal clerkship was considered the plum job of all time right out of law school. Is that still the case?"
This brought a small smile. "Everybody seems to think so."
"But you quit after six months so you could try out as a replacement player during the baseball strike?"
Graham sat back finally, unclenched his hands, spread them out. "Arrogant, ungrateful wretch that I am."
"So now everybody in the legal community thinks you're either disloyal or brain dead."
"No, those are my friends." Graham took a beat. "Draper, for example, hates my guts. So do his wife, kids, dogs, the other two clerks, the secretaries--they all really really hate me personally. Everybody else just wishes I'd die soon, as slowly and painfully as possible. Both."
Hardy nodded. "So Giotti didn't call you when he found your dad?"
Graham shook his head. "I'd be the last person he'd call. You walk out on one of these guys, you're a traitor to the whole tribe. That's why I came to you--you're a lawyer who'll talk to me. I think you're the last one who will."
"And you're worried about the police?"
A shrug. "Not really. I don't know. I don't know what they're thinking."
"I doubt they're thinking anything, Graham. They just like to be thorough and ask a lot of questions, which tends to make people nervous. This other stuff with your background might have made the rounds, so they might shake your tree a little harder, see if something falls out."
"Nothing's going to fall out. My dad killed himself."