Two little boys with blond bowl cuts were playing in the yard. Over and over, one tore across the lawn, holding a football overhead like the skull of an enemy, and then dove into a pile of dead leaves. The second kid piled on and they rolled around in the leaf pile, fighting like wild dogs over the football; then the victor would pick up the ball and take off for another running dive into a new pile. I remembered doing pretty much the same thing twenty years earlier in a different small town with my brother.
Some things are eternal. Young or old, rich or poor, human beings love to beat the hell out of each other.
I sat down on the brick front steps across from a pretty blonde woman, balanced a plate of food on my knee, and watched. She smiled, and I motioned at the kids. "Are they yours?"
She shook her head. "No. I think they're Sara's." I didn't know Sara, so I arranged some turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce on a fork and put it in my mouth. She said, "Looks like they're having fun."
I smiled and nodded and chewed.
"Relative or friend?"
I looked at her. "Of?"
She laughed. "Sorry. Of our hosts."
She kept looking at me with her eyebrows raised, as though I wasn't through talking.
As a general rule, I try not to fill in conversational blanks. At worst, it can get you in trouble. At best, well, it's just babbling. But it was Thanksgiving. And
, I thought, what difference does it make
? "The woman I would have been with today just moved back to the Midwest, and my elderly parents are on a holiday Caribbean cruise for elderly parents." I pointed my empty fork at the sky. "So, here I am."
She took a sip from a mug of coffee. "Oh, I know who you are. You're Tom McIntosh, aren't you?"
"Close. I'm Tom McInnes."
"Oh, sorry. Nice to meet you. I'm Sheri Baneberry. Our hostess, B.J., said I should talk to you."
Sheri had really large, spectacularly white teeth. Other than that, she was a perfect compilation of mediums--medium nose, medium build, medium-length hair. The overall impression was of a pretty, twentysomething woman completely devoid of sexuality--sort of a universal, upper-middle-class mom-in-waiting. Of course, I realized it was entirely possible that I wasn't turning her crank, either. Anyway, that's what I was thinking when a bloodcurdling scream pierced the crisp fall air, and I spilled gravy on my pants.
The slightly smaller bowl cut was wailing and cupping a tiny hand under a nose streaming blood from each nostril. I started to stand, but the hurt little boy didn't wait for help. He sprinted up the bricks between me and my dinner companion, holding his nose and crying and screaming for his mother. The bigger kid froze for two beats and then hightailed it around the back of the house.
I blotted at the gravy on my pants with one of those hand-embroidered linen napkins that pressure guests to struggle through the meal without actually having to wipe their mouths. I nodded in the direction of the little boy who had just galloped up the steps between Sheri Baneberry and me. "Dinner theater."
She smiled. "Which one were you?"
I stopped to think about what she meant. "I guess I was the nose breaker, since I was older. But my little brother wouldn't have run for Mom. He'd have gone to find a baseball bat."
She laughed. "Do you two still have the same loving relationship?"
More than a year after his death, I still missed a beat before saying, "His name was Hall. He died last year."
"Thanks. Me too."
Sheri Baneberry turned sideways on the steps and pointed her knees at me. "But in a way it brings me to the thing I wanted to talk to you about. My mother passed away, well, it'll be two weeks ago this Saturday."
I told her I was sorry for her loss.
She just nodded and went on. "It was some kind of food poisoning. She was just forty-six, which surprises people. But she had me when she was twenty-one, which is younger than most people have kids nowadays, and she was pretty young-looking. So . . . anyway, Mom checked into Bayside on a Saturday afternoon. She'd been sick all morning with the kind of stomach and intestinal problems you get with food poisoning. And the short version is that something went wrong and she died that night."
I set my plate on the bricks between my feet and folded my thirty-dollar napkin to hide the gravy smear. "I'm sorry, Sheri, but I don't do malpractice, if that's where you're heading. I do go to court--I'm not a green-visor, transactions kind of lawyer--but I tend to represent clients who're involved in business disputes. An argument over a contract, something like that."
She flashed those big teeth, but it didn't seem friendly. "So you're not a slimy plaintiff's lawyer?"
"No, that's not what I'm saying. There are some bad doctors out there, just like there are bad lawyers and bad Indian chiefs, I guess. And there are good lawyers who do that sort of thing. It's just not what I want to do. So I don't."
"And B.J. tells me that if you don't want to do something, you just don't do it."
I looked into her medium-brown eyes. "Sounds almost unflattering when you say it."
She forced a small laugh. "Sorry, I guess I'm not at my best. It's just that I need someone I can trust to look into what happened to Mom. I was talking to B.J. inside, and she says that even though you can be kind of . . ." Sheri hesitated, and a rose blush crept up either side of her neck.
"The last time I checked, B.J. was a friend of mine. So it couldn't be that bad."
"Well, she just said you're kind of headstrong. Maybe a little difficult sometimes. It was nothing much worse than that. But she also said, quote, 'Tom McInnes is as trustworthy as a Boy Scout.' "
I didn't really know what to say to that, since I wasn't sure it was true, so I just looked at her.
"She also says you're supposed to be . . . well, 'smarter than God' is the way she put it."
I smiled. "That's what I keep telling people."
"Anyway, my father's on the warpath. You know. He wants to sue everybody and their uncle, and I don't want a lawyer who'll look at him and see dollar signs."
"Are you asking me to talk your father out of something? Because I can't do that."
"No. Definitely not. I'm looking for someone I can trust to take a look at what happened to my mother and give us an honest report." Sheri took a sip of coffee from her mug as her eyes darted around our Thanksgiving hosts' front yard. "I guess it's obvious I don't think Dad needs to sue anyone. Just putting the whole thing behind us is what I'd like to do. But if one of the doctors or the hospital did something god-awful, then, you know, I guess we need to know that."
Across the lawn, what had been a series of neatly raked and rounded piles were now jagged circles of brown and red and yellow leaves. I turned back to examine my new client's face. "Okay, Sheri. As long as you know what you're getting and what you're not getting. At this point, all I feel comfortable agreeing to do is analyze what's there and give you a report, but the way we're talking about doing this won't be cheap. A regular plaintiff's lawyer would take it on contingency, which means he or she would only charge if you win. I don't work that way, especially since I wouldn't be investigating with the goal of collecting a big verdict at trial. What I do is charge two hundred an hour, which is not unreasonable around Mobile. My investigator gets seventy-five. And this could take a while."
Sheri turned to look out at the yard and slowly, almost imperceptibly, nodded her head.
"And," I said, "as I already explained, if this thing goes to trial at some point, I would not want to handle it. You and I would both be happier if I handed it off to someone who tries cases like this every week."
Sheri Baneberry smiled her pretty smile again. "Lawyers usually get a retainer or something, don't they?"
"Is five thousand okay? That's what B.J. suggested."
Now I smiled. "Five thousand's fine. But let me talk to your father first. It may be the kind of thing that only takes a few phone calls. If it looks more complicated than that, you can give me the check. I'll put it in a trust account and bill time and expenses against it."
I looked down at my plate of cold turkey and dressing smeared with congealed gravy. "Sheri, do you happen to know where Bill and B.J. keep the scotch?"
The Monday morning after Thanksgiving, I sat watching silver raindrops explode and collect into rivulets on the panes of my window. My office was in the Oswyn Israel Building in Mobile--an old place where plaster is plaster and not Sheetrock and the windows actually have panes. Down the short hallway, I could hear the soft patter of a computer keyboard as my secretary, Kelly, typed something.
I was watching the late-November rain and thinking a little about reasons the INS should allow one of my clients to stay in the country, when the phone rang. I picked up the receiver and said hello.
"Is this Tom McInnes?"
I said it was.
"This is Jim Baneberry. You talked to my little girl, Sheri, on Thanksgiving about handling a lawsuit for us."
"No. Not exactly. I agreed to look into things for the family. To more or less analyze the case and report back to you and your daughter."
"Well, we don't need you."
"That's fine. You mind if I ask why?"
"I got a real
law firm to take it. Not some guy out on his own. And they didn't try to hold me up for a five-thousand-dollar retainer."
I took a breath and reminded myself that the man had just lost his wife. I'd always heard that there are stages of grieving. Apparently, I'd caught Sheri's father dead center in the anger stage. "That's not what happened, Mr. Baneberry."
"I know what happened. I wasn't born yesterday. Somebody's mother dies and you come swooping around like a . . . I won't say it. But you aren't gonna pull that on my family. Like I said, I've got a major law firm on this now. And if you bother me or my daughter again, I'll tell them to come after you, too."
I took a couple of breaths and turned back to gaze at raindrops puddling like lines of mercury along the bottom of each windowpane. In the distance, the rippled lead of Mobile Bay stretched out beneath fog and rain. As evenly as possible, I said, "Mr. Baneberry? Which 'major firm' did you hire?"
And he hung up on me.
I fished out a business card Sheri Baneberry had given me and punched in the number. She answered her own phone.
"Yes. Is this Tom?"
"Yeah. I just got a call from your father."
"I was afraid of that." Her voice sounded tight and hoarse. "I talked myself red in the face last night trying to get him to understand why I hired you. I don't guess it did much good."
"Are you still going to help me?"
"Dad's going to gum things up, though."
"It looks that way, Sheri. After the doctors and the hospital get a load of your father and his trial lawyers, well, they're not going to be in a very cooperative mood, to say the least. So, considering all that, what we need to do is move fast and find out as much as possible before they start gumming up the works."
"I'll call Mom's doctor and see if she'll talk to you. I've known her forever, and I think she'll be normal about it." She sighed. "I guess your job just got complicated." Some of the stress had sifted out of her voice. "I'll go ahead and send you the check, you know, the retainer we talked about."
I told her I'd send over a runner that afternoon with a contract of representation. "By the way, Sheri, which law firm did
your father hire?"
"Just a minute." I heard scuffing sounds, and she came back on the line. "Here it is. I don't have the lawyer's name, but the firm is called Russell and Wagler."
A second passed before Sheri said, "That bad, huh?"
"Depends on which side you're on."
Lush landscapes streamed by in shades of charcoal, stripped of color by heavy clouds and pouring rain. I was just north of Daphne, headed south from Mobile. The gray-tone groves and rolling pastures grew more manicured, the houses backed farther away from the highway, and suddenly I was in town. I turned off Highway 98 and headed east.
A blinding flood of fat raindrops swamped the windshield. I reached down to flip the wipers on high and switch from low beams to fog lamps. I could now see lower, if not better. But I kept the halogen bulbs burning. They were highlighting gusts of rain and throwing shimmering zigzags across wet pavement.
Inside the Jeep, the heater puffed hot air on my feet as Dean Martin sang "Silver Bells." December was still two days away. I switched off the radio and listened to the pulsing whisper of wind billowing across the blacktop, making the Jeep sway a little as it went, and to the soft steady swoosh of water passing beneath my tires and washing over the windows.
When I had spoken with Dr. Laurel Adderson by phone, she had been subdued yet concerned--maintaining a perfectly measured professional distance. Yes, she had been Mrs. Baneberry's longtime physician. Yes, it was a terrible loss and most unexpected. And no, of course she wouldn't mind meeting with me if it would help ease the family's pain.
She had asked me to meet her just outside Daphne, which almost made sense. It was, after all, the town where Dr. Adderson lived and practiced medicine; and it was where Kate Baneberry had lived and died. So it would have been the perfect meeting place if only Dr. Adderson hadn't insisted we meet at the Mandrake Club. She knew that in her offices I might have been tempted to ask to see medical records. I tried suggesting that we meet at the hospital. But that was where the treatment and death records were stored. So, without arguing, Dr. Adderson had simply said, "No."
Excerpted from A Clean Kill by Mike Stewart. Copyright © 2006 by Mike Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Dell, 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.