Michael A. Kahn
|Publisher:||Penguin Group (USA)|
|Product dimensions:||4.28(w) x 6.74(h) x 0.82(d)|
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Pamela and Mary O'Shaughnessy are sisters who write under the pen name Perri. Their series of legal thrillers features sole practitioner Nina Reilly, a single mom with a law office in Lake Tahoe. Pamela is a former criminal lawyer, while Mary worked as a writer and editor on multimedia projects. In addition to their successful collaboration on the Nina Reilly books, they publish eclectic short stories on the World Wide Web.
From the Hindi jagannath. A large, overpowering, destructive force or objectan idol of Krishna that is drawn on a huge cart during an annual parade, under whose wheels devotees throw themselves to be crushed ...
The first accident gave Neal the idea for the second accident.
He had spent the evening of the first crash pouring coins down the throat of the silver beast ... his name for his favorite slot machine at Harrah's Tahoe. As usual, when he was about to give up, eager, in fact, to watch the cherries, plums, and jackpot signs line up, signifying nothing, three bars kachunged into place and seventy-five dollars in tokens pinged into the bin. It was not a big win, considering his investment that evening, but it was enough to keep him going until his eyes were bloodshot and the free drinks from earlier in the evening had invaded his bloodstream and slithered over his brain stem. Now he felt tired. Exhausted. Oh, how he could not wait for bed.
His car was hard to find because he had not parked intheusual spot, so he floundered around the lot looking for it under stars bright as burning spear points, shivering. Up here in the Sierra, November always came as a rude shock. October blew through like fire, all reds and oranges and gusting wind. Winter chased right behind it like a hound from some bone-biting, cold hell.
Finally, he found the Toyota crouched in the far end of the lot, almost touching the dark forest beyond. He wished he were drunk, but no such luck. The abysmal state of his stomach had kept him prudent, along with the hot cups of coffee there toward the end of the session.
Too bad, because a clear head brought him around to thoughts of Juliette, who would be waiting at home, mad because once againonce again, she would say, in that new and strident tone he hatedshe had to spend the evening alone. Of course, she wouldn't say that at first; she would stand at the kitchen counter watching him with her mouth sullen, refusing to talk, refusing to respond.
As he started the engine, he drifted into a pleasant fantasy. She would decide for once to treat him right. He would come through the door and find her sleeping in a pretty pink negligée like the one she wore when they were first married. He would crawl into bed. Her fragrant arms would rise to pull him down beneath the cool white sheets. Not a word would be spoken; no guilt would be heaped on him.
Checking his rearview mirror for oblivious drunks, he backed out slowly, drove through the valet parking area and out toward the street, where he stopped to wait for a break in traffic before entering. It was while he was there, mentally with Juliette, imagining what they would do in bed, that a stretch limo roared up behind him, screeched its brakes, skated into a skid, and slammed into him with the force of a locomotive.
* * *
The next day he awoke in the hospital, loaded up on Darvon. He had been thrown forward, almost through the windshield, he was told. Luckily, car traffic along the highway had been light, so no other car had been involved. Aside from a moment of paralyzing fear as he saw the car sliding along the ice toward him in his rearview mirror, he remembered almost nothing of the accident.
He was shook up, that was all. The doctor and the chiropractor he found later legitimized the exaggerated backache and the TMJ. His lawyer settled for twenty-five thousand from the limo company, and with another twenty-five hundred thrown in by the casino for nuisance value, he had enough for bills and gambling money until February.
To add to his good fortune, there had been that moment when Juliette arrived at the hospital, gorgeous and young, her blond hair shimmering down her shoulders like the falls near Emerald Bay. He basked in the envy of his fellow patients and for just a few moments there at the beginning when she thought he was really badly hurt, he basked in the glow of her concern.
"Your hands?" she had asked first thing and for a second, he couldn't think why she would care. Then he remembered. He played the piano in the bar at the casino, didn't he? When he had a job, which she thought he did.
"The doctor says no permanent damage," he told her.
She pulled his hands to her chest and left them there to feel the pulsing beat underneath her sweater. Five years of her, and he would never get enough.
The windfall caused problems. Soon after he got home from the hospital the fights with Juliette resumed. She wanted the money, wanted to put him on an allowance, wanted his paychecks, wanted to save for a future, and yammer yammer yammer. He never could hold his own in an argument with her. Her words pounded on him like a club, so he hurt her back the only way he knew how, with the back of his hand and sometimes when she just would not shut up, with his fists. He always regretted it, always begged for her forgiveness, and she always came through after a day or two.
If she ever left him ... but he would not allow her to leave. She knew that. He would hunt her down and bring her back. He had done it before, and she knew he would do it again. Marriage made two people one. He would no more let her go than he would let his left leg walk off without him.
Nothing meant more to him than Juliette. She was his biggest score, the one he would hold on to.
One day, a few months after the first accident, Neal went shopping at the jewelry store at the outlet center for a little present for her. He wanted something that would tell her exactly how bad he felt about a minor fracas of the night before. The saleslady pulled out a display of glamorous-looking gold necklaces. All the glitter in one place made him nervoushe turned his back briefly to count his money.
He had spent most of the insurance settlement, so he counted out his singles. When he was satisfied he could just swing the thinnest gold chain and was about to say so, the saleslady said, "Let me show you some other necklaces I think you'll love!" Sweeping the expensive chains back underneath the counter, she came up with another display that looked identical to him. Leaning in conspiratorially, she had said, "Vermeil. All precious metal, of course."
"Gold?" he had asked.
"Sterling silver with a fine layer of gold on top. Better because it's just as beautiful and has the same intrinsic worth, but is more reasonably priced."
"I'll take it," he said, selecting a thick, flashy one he knew Juliette would love. He would tell her it was solid gold. She would never know the difference.
While the woman stooped under the counter finding paper to wrap it up, he happened to look out the store window. Out on the highway, a Caddy was hanging a left in front of a beat-up white Pontiac coming down the opposite side of the highway.
Only the Pontiac couldn't stop, not with the icy sleet coating the road. There was that same eerie moment of screeching brakes and watching a quarter-ton of metal sliding forward on pure inertia. Then crrrunch!
The Pontiac driver got out, rubbing his neck. Lucky break for him.
That moment, an idea that he had nursed like a seed since November sprouted into full foliage. Here was real money, ready for the taking. Risky, but a much better bet than the slots. A way to bring peace back home, enough to please Juliette, enough to get him out of hock, enough for a few more games, any one of them a potential big winner.
All he had to do was make sure whoever hit him next time was massively insured. And make sure he didn't get killed.
And he knew just the man to help him out.
The saleslady handed him a small package wrapped in metallic paper. "She's going to love it."
"She will," he said. "You are so right."
* * *
That afternoon, after he gave Juliette the necklace and collected his thanks from her, he said casually, "Why not call Leo and Carol? Invite them for dinner tonight. They haven't been by in quite a while."
They were sitting together on the couch in the living room. A rare fire burned, and Juliette's cheeks glowed orange as persimmons in the light. She had been studying for a test at the kitchen table. A sophomore at the community college, she wanted to better herself, she always said. Still holding the chain, she turned to look at him. "But you hate Leo."
"Correction," he said. "Your big brother hates me. Always getting on me about the way I treat you." He had a lock of her hair between his thumb and forefinger. His hand slipped along like it used to slide over the ivory keys a long time ago when music seemed to have a direct line from his imagination to his fingers. He laughed, although he didn't feel funny. "He had you all lined up to marry some straight little civil engineer, some meatloaf who would agree with everything he said, yessir, that's right, Leo, uh-huh, you are so smart ..."
He waited for her to say she was glad she'd married him but she was silent, looking into the fire.
"Old Leo doesn't get it," he went on, annoyed, but aware this was not a good time to pick a fight. "How close we are. How well we fit."
"No, he's never understood it," she agreed, and her hand tugged on the new necklace.
The words grated, and the feeling behind the words grated more. Was there the tiniest suggestion that she, too, didn't understand it? He made his voice calm. "But hey, he's family. We should see them more."
She had turned back to him. He put a lot into the smile he gave her. She smiled back tentatively, then jumped up to make the call. She thought this was a peace offering like the necklace, another part of the "I'm sorry" game. Fine. Whatever it took.
He hoped she would cook something tasty, something to take his mind off those dark, glowering eyes of Leo's, and Carol's jittery chat.
They arrived about seven, stomping the snow off their shoes in the entryway on a thick rug Juliette put there for that purpose.
"Sonofabitchin' cold night," Neal said, holding the door, giving them a big smile.
As usual, the wrong thing to say. A thought policeman, Leo was already glaring at Neal. Leo thought he was better than Neal, better educated, more intelligent, classier ... Just thinking about it made Neal angry, but he kept his smile locked in place.
Fortunately, Carol and Juliette smoothed things over, making those female sounds that reminded Neal of spicy smells, permeating the air with promise but ultimately just amounting to a lot of warm air breezing through the room. They made it through dinner with just one really bad moment, when Leo mentioned that he had spent some time down at Harrah's one night with some out-of-town associates ... only reason he'd ever go into one of those nasty places ... and was so disappointed that Neal was not, as advertised within the family, playing in the piano bar. "Asked the bartender," Leo had said, shoveling in a mouthful of cacciatore. "Told me they hadn't seen you in months."
That made Juliette send Neal a visual promise that said Later, honey, you will make me believe he is mistaken or this lovely evening that started out so well will be spoiled. "That guy must be new, Leo," was all she said. "Neal's been working steady, haven't you Neal?"
"You betcha." Below the table, he had her hand in his and had to repress a sudden desire to crush her knuckles until they cracked. She had married a musician, an artist, for Chrissake, not some poor slob with a routine job. She needed reminding. His fingers were strong. No doubt one hard squeeze would take care of anything further she might care to remark if he wanted to stop her.
But Carol interrupted his thoughts with a surprisingly welcome suggestion. "How about a movie? There's one at the Y I'd love to see."
Juliette brightened, withdrew her hand from his, and ran for the newspaper to check for times. Leo continued to separate items on his plate, prissy and offended-looking at the green spreading of the spinach. "I'll pass," he said when Carol returned.
"Aw, Leo," Carol said. "Live a little."
"Go without me. I have some paperwork."
Leo worked for an insurance company, strictly a nine-to-five job that involved no late nights and no overtime. He just said things like this to make himself sound like a mover and shaker to others, the phony ass.
"Nothing that won't wait," Carol said to her husband.
See, now, this was exactly the kind of thing a man could not let pass. This was direct confrontation. Leo was pussywhipped, the dry little shit, and he didn't even know it.
"You girls will have a better time without us," Neal said. "Go salivate over Brad Pitt. I'll give Leo a lift home. Then I'll put in some practice time."
Token protests, but eventually the girls drove off in Leo's car. Leo finished his dessert and coffee, eating methodically, not saying a word, then got up. "Gotta go," he said.
"Stay for a drink," Neal said, pouring Leo's favorite poison into two small glasses. "Cheers."
"Yeah," Leo said, lifting his glass and draining it.
"You're driving," he said.
"Oh, thanks for reminding me," Neal said. "But don't let that stop you. Have a drink for both of us."
Neal managed to get three more stiff ones down Leo and got him talking about his work. And over the course of the next hour, by prodding and pushing, he extracted the names of several prominent Tahoe people who carried especially good policies, Leo's best clients.
"See, here's the thing," Neal told him then. Leo's normal reticence had relaxed as he related exciting tales of his exploits in the insurance business. He was stretched out on the couch, glazed and receptive, just like Neal needed him to be. "Here's the thing, Leo. I'm really glad you stayed tonight, because I've got some bad news and I didn't want to talk about it in front of the girls."
"I knew it," Leo said. "You had to be up to something. Well, I don't have any money to lend you right now. You can forget it. I'm scraping by myself, if you want to know."
"Oh, Leo. Man, I don't want your money. No. It'sit's a medical thing." Neal explained about the carpal tunnel syndrome the doctors had diagnosed in the hospital that would make it impossible for him to use his hands in the future, and watched Leo's mediocre mind attempt to take it in. That's right, Leo, put it together, he thought. Musician, hands, carpal tunnel. Ah!
"But this is terrible," Leo said, the light finally penetrating his thick skull. "You won't be able to support Juliette."
Well, he didn't really anyway, hadn't for a long time, but Leo didn't need to know about that. He didn't need to know how the music left Neal one day, never to return, and somehow even the most lowdown drunk at the bar noticed when he played now. The music had gone. He couldn't even hold his own in a lobby at a Nordstrom's these days. His reputation in this little town was right down there with the dirtiest rat in a Dumpster.
Leo didn't need to know that Juliette was clerking in a real estate office part-time mornings to pay their rent. Juliette wouldn't tell him.
Neal laid it on thick, so thick, he had his wife and himself living out on the streets within the next month.
"Then you'll live with us," Leo said, horrified. "I'm not going to let my sister go down, Neal. Never. If you can't be a man and take care of her ..."
"That's a very kind offer, Leo," Neal had said hurriedly, striving for a whipped-puppy effect in his voice. "But you know how proud Juliette is."
Leo knew. How Juliette bragged about her husband the artist. She lorded it over her brother in this one regard, and it was the one thing that Neal felt kept her by his side and protected from criticism sometimes, his mystique as an artist. She really respected Neal's talent. And now that talent would be gone, laid waste by a devilish medical fluke! Leo was eating it up.
"This will kill her," Leo said, sounding truly miserable. "She'll have to quit school. Neal, I don't have to tell you how disappointed I am. You promised our mother and father, bless them both, that ... You must have some fallback!"
"I have thought of something. It'san unusual opportunity. Only it involves you. You've got a lot of guts, Leo, and I know you're going to pitch in to help us so we don't lose our home."
"Anything for Juliette. Count me in," Leo said, relieved. To seal the deal, he offered his glass up for an unheard-of fifth snort.
But the details of Neal's plan shocked him. It took the rest of the evening and some careful manipulations before Neal eventually wore down his resistance. At first, Leo agreed only to help with research. He refused to play an active role in the accident. He would help Neal with the setup because his sister needed help so desperately, but he did so only under the most indignant moral protest. There, his involvement must end. They went back and forth. Neal needed him to get in the game. Otherwise, the authorities might suspect. Leo couldn't see why Neal wouldn't simply apply his brakes, get rear-ended, and collect without Leo's involvement.
"Got to make it look good, Leo. Gotta make 'em believe."
"You're good at that," Leo said then.
"What do you mean by that?"
"You got my sister, didn't you?"
Neal laughed, even though inside he was fuming. He hadn't acted to get Juliette. She loved him for who he was, not who he pretended to be. All the smoldering fireworks between the two men flared up at that point, and it took Neal's return to a cold, logical analysis to convince Leo that, in fact, his way was the only way.
"It's dangerous, Neal. You realize you could be badly hurt."
"I won't let that happen."
"You won't be able to control it!" Leo yelled.
"Quit worrying. That's my problem. And whatever happens, Juliette will be set for life."
Those words worked like magic. Leo didn't give a damn what happened to Neal except as it related to Juliette.
Still, Leo didn't give in easily, although after that point, he had most definitely stepped on board the bus. Before he settled down he asked a million questions: Couldn't Neal just slam on his brakes in front of someone and leave it at that? Why did Leo have to cut him off? Wouldn't it look suspicious? Would Neal wear a seatbelt? Did it matter if the accident happened in California or should they go over the state line and into Nevada to maximize how well they would do in a settlement?
"Leo, take it easy. I'm the one going to get hurt, not you and not Juliette, remember?"
Leo broke out in a cold sweat at that, so Neal had to soothe him yet again, patiently breaking through his objections, pouring the liquor, painting comforting word pictures for Leo, keeping things at his level. "Two things are absolutely all you have to do, Leo. Cut me off, so people see I stopped for a reason. And find me a juicy mark. Has to be a drinker," Neal said. "I talked with my lawyer this morning and asked him a few things ..."
"You didn't tell him!"
"No, no. Just got him talking generally about my old case. He said if the limo driver had been drinking, well that would have opened up a whole new pocketbook."
"Punitive damages, my man."
Three weeks later, they were set. Leo had chosen a client with two DUI arrests in her background, who had just bought a big, heavy Mercedes and played roulette at Caesars every Friday night with two of her lady friends, but always drove home alone.
They had worked out every detail. Once in, Leo was a meticulous planner. He drew up careful diagrams on paper they burned in the fireplace afterward, listed time frames, pulled out charts that gave some information on what speeds were most likely to cause lethal collisions, and bogged them both down in trivial issues until Neal was bored silly.
"We'll have your car serviced the day before," Leo had said, "so there's no confusion about some mechanical failure."
"I've got a great mechanic. Let me make sure it gets done."
"Fine, Leo." Anything to shut him up.
They waited on the highway side of the club in the whizzing traffic. The mark, who Leo said was a widow, always used valet parking and always made a left out of the lot, then drove two miles before turning off the highway. That gave them plenty of time to get the game in place.
Neal had parked two blocks up, Leo three. When Neal saw the bronze Mercedes pulling out of the lot, he swung out ahead of the mark, motioning to Leo as he passed.
Traffic was perfect, busy but moving well, and there were nice long stretches on the road where you could get going pretty fast. Leo would have no trouble moving into position when the time came. Neal felt like his nerves had moved to the surface of his skin, he felt so electric, so alive. To keep his mind off the pain to follow, he flashed to the penthouse suite at Harrah's he and Juliette would rent for a month or two, about the new car he would buy, about all the hands of poker he could play without gut-tearing fear ... He'd never humiliate himself at a piano again, never put up with some slobbering lonely heart who wanted to hear him play the same old song again and again until he thought his fingers would crack into pieces ... Who knew crashing could be such a high?
She was weaving, he noted with satisfaction, glancing into his rearview mirror. She had the visor down, so he couldn't make out the face, but her arms were slim. She looked young. For a moment he wondered about her, about what he'd be doing to her. He slowed, and behind him she slowed. He sped up and she sped up. They were dancing together, and she never even noticed the choreography. Like an automaton, she followed his lead until he knew he had her. All so smooth, so perfect ... and then suddenly, bursting ahead like a true maniac, all his timidity apparently left behind when he got behind the wheel, good old Leo blew out in front to cut him off. As planned.
And Neal jammed his foot on the brake.