THE CASE BEGAN QUIETLY, on the women's floor of the county jail. I was there to interview a client, a young nurse named Ella Barker who had been arrested on a stolen-property charge. Specifically, she had sold a diamond ring which was part of the loot in a recent burglary; the secondhand dealer who bought it from her reported the' transaction to the police.
Our interview started out inauspiciously. "Why you?" she· wanted to know. "I thought that people in trouble had a right to choose their own lawyer. Especially when they're innocent, like me."
"Innocence or guilt has nothing to do with it, Miss Barker. The judges keep an alphabetical list of all the attorneys in town. We take turns representing defendants without funds. My name happened to be next on the list."
"What did you say your name was?"
"Gunnarson. William Gunnarson."
"It's a funny name," she said, wrinkling her nose.
She wasn’t intending to be rude, but she was suspicious of me. Fear made her stiff and stupid. I wished we had a better place to talk than the visitors' compartment of the jail.
"It's an old Scandinavian name. Barker's an English name, isn't it?"
"I guess so. Does it matter?"
She was trying hard to be blasé, to find some armor she could put on against her surroundings. She looked around the room, at the steel-paneled door with its reinforced-glass peephole, the bars on the windows, the table and chairs bolted to the steel floor. Her dark eyes strained wide, trying to take it all in and realize her predicament. She had been in there one night.
"You want to get out of here, don't you?"
"No, I want to set up housekeeping and live in here the rest of my life. Wouldn't anybody?"
"I was going to suggest that the quickest way out would be to tell the truth. Tell me how you got hold of the diamond ring you sold to Hector Broadman."
"So you can broadcast it allover town?"
"I'm your attorney, Miss Barker. What makes you think I'd break your confidence?"
"I know about lawyers," she said cryptically. "And there's nothing you can do to make me talk, so there."
She looked at me with a kind of bleak pride. In her thin, dark way, she wasn't a bad-looking woman. In decent surroundings, properly groomed, she could be a handsome one—the kind of girl you'd want to give a ring to.
"Who gave you the ring, Miss Barker? I'm certain you didn't steal it. You're not a burglar. Even the police don't think you broke into the Simmons house yourself."
"Then why did they arrest me?"
"You know the answer to that as well as I do. We've had a number of burglaries recently. There's an organized gang at work in this area."
"You think I'm a member of it?"
"I don't. But your refusal to talk leads the police to that conclusion. They know you're covering up for criminals, and as long as you persist in that, it seems to make you one of them. You're doing yourself a grave injustice."
She moistened her dry lips with the tip of her tongue. I thought that she was about to tell me the truth. But her dark gaze flickered down and away.
“I found that ring," she said tonelessly. "I picked it up on the sidewalk on the way home from the hospital. Just like I told the policemen."
"You're lying, Miss Barker. Somebody gave you that ring. If you'll confide in me, and let me handle it, I'm practically certain I can get you probation. But that means making a clean breast of everything."
"All right." She touched her breast. "It was given to me, like an engagement ring."
"Who gave it to you?"
"A man. I met him on my vacation in San Francisco."
She was a poor liar. She spoke in a hushed voice, as if she could somehow avoid hearing herself lying.
"Can you describe him?"
"He was very good-looking, tall, dark, and handsome like they say. Only he wasn't so tall. He was about your size. About your age, too," she concluded lamely.
“What was his name?"
"He didn't tell me his name. I only met him the once."
"But he gave you an engagement ring-a diamond worth four or five hundred dollars."
"He probably didn't know how much it was worth. Anyway, it was love at first sight." She tried to look pleased and proud, to make the fantasy real for herself.
"If you're going to lie, Miss Barker, you might as well stick to the story that you found it on the sidewalk."
She plucked at her skirt with fingernails from which the polish was flaking. "I don't see why you want to give me a bad time. You're worse than Lieutenant Wills. Why don't you leave me be?"
"I will when you tell me the truth."
"Say I do tell—tell you all about that fellow in San Francisco. His name, and everything. What happens then?"
"I think I can get you off. He's here in Buenavista, isn't he? Are you in love with him?"
"Don't make me laugh." But she was far from laughing. "'Say you do get me off. What happens then?"
"To you, nothing. The worst you can expect is a couple of years on probation."
"You think so, eh? I bet I wouldn't last a couple of years."
"Probation isn't so bad."
“I don't mean that. I mean this."
She drew her finger across her throat, and sucked air audibly between tongue and teeth. Her violent gesture surprised me, and disturbed me. It seemed to frighten her more than she was already frightened. The blood rushed to her heart, and left her face sallow.
"Have you been threatened?"
She fingered her lower lip and nodded, very slightly, as if there were spies at the barred windows.
“Who threatened you?"
She was silent, her eyes on my face.
"If it was a member of the burglary gang, you'll be doing us all a favor by naming him. You'll be helping me, the police, yourself. And doing the community a service."
"Sure, and end up in the cemetery. Why don't you go away and leave me alone, Mr. Gunnarson? You just don't understand. I want to help you and all, and get out of here. But I want to go on living, too."
"Who threatened you?"
She shook her head twice, fiercely and stubbornly. She rose and went to the window. Her hospital shoes were quiet on the steel plates. She stood with her back to me, looking out across the courthouse grounds at the tower with its clock.
I sat and glared at the back of her sleek dark head. I couldn't guess what secrets lay coiled inside of it, but I was morally certain that they weren't criminal secrets. Ella lacked the earmarks of the type: the dull-eyed resignation, the wild Hares of rebelliousness, the indescribable feral odor of sex that has grown claws.
The harsh rasp of a turning key cut into my thoughts. The matron who had let me in opened the heavy door. “Lieutenant Wills would like to see you, sir."
The girl at the window started visibly, then got herself under control. She remained staring out through the bars as if she was mesmerized by the clock in the tower. I went out into the corridor.
Detective-Lieutenant Harvey Wills was leaning on the balustrade above the spiral stairwell. He was a man in his fifties with nearly thirty years of law enforcement extending like an uphill road behind him. He had short gray hair, a pugnacious prow of a nose. His coloring and his bearing went with the steel-gray angularities of the jail.
“I don't like this," I said when the matron had closed the door. “It's hard enough questioning a client in these surroundings without the police department horning in."
"That wasn't my intention. Something came up, I thought you'd like to know." Wills added in a mildly questioning tone: "Is she giving you a difficult time?"
"Then why doesn't she break down and give us the facts we need? This is a big case, Bill—seventeen burglaries with a total take in money and property close to forty thousand. I got my first break in five months on it when that little client of yours walked into Broadman's store with Mrs. Simmons's diamond ring."
“She doesn't deny that she sold the ring. But it doesn't prove that she's involved with the burglary gang."
“It does when you put it together with certain other facts. I'll tell you something, because I don't want to see you climbing way out on a limb. There's one outstanding fact linking more than half of these burglaries together. In nine instances, nine out of seventeen, one or more members of the victimized family were in the hospital at the time the burglary occurred. The other members of the family, if any, were visiting the hospital. It's pretty clear that someone inside the hospital tipped off the gang each time that the coast was clear."
"Why blame Ella Barker? There must be two hundred people on the hospital staff."
"Two hundred and forty-seven, we've been checking them out for months. But only one of them sold a diamond ring from the Simmons burglary. Only the one had a platinum watch from the Denton job hid in her bureau drawer."
“What platinum watch are you talking about?"
"This one." With a slight conjurer's flourish, Wills produced an object wrapped in tissue paper. He undid the wrapping and showed me a wafer-thin ladies' watch. “We found it in Ella Barker's apartment this morning. Mrs. Denton has identified it as hers."
I felt an emptiness at my back, as though the room where Ella was waiting had gone down like an elevator. I realized that I had invested fairly heavily in the girl. Perhaps my belief in her innocence was mistaken. Perhaps her unresponsiveness was sullen caginess, her fear a natural fear of what she had coming to her.
“All I want to do," Wills said, "is ask her how she got hold of it. Surely you don't have any objections to that."
“I'll ask her."
But before we could summon the matron, a man called up the stairs: "Lieutenant? You up there?"
Wills leaned over the balustrade. "What is it, Granada?"
"Trouble on Pelly Street."
"What kind of trouble?"
Sergeant Granada thrust his dark, saturnine face up through the curved shadows in the stairwell. "Somebody tried to knock off Hector Broadman."
Excerpted from The Ferguson Affair by Ross MacDonald. Copyright © 2010 by Ross Macdonald. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.