Hostile Witness by Rebecca Forster
A prominent judge is dead. Hannah Sheraton, a troubled sixteen year-old-girl, is accused. When the legal community turns its back, and the judiciary decides to make an example of her and try her as an adult, only Josie Bates will defend her. Flawed and brilliant, Josie is committed to saving the girl, but the deeper she digs the more she realizes that politics and family history are a combustible and dangerous combination. When the truth is uncovered, it will either save Hannah or destroy them both.
Targeted Age Group:: all audiences
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 2 – PG
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
My husband presided over one of the first trials where a juvenile was tried as an adult.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Josie Bates is based on a real judge. Hannah is a compilation of a number of girls who went to high school with my children. And Archer was inspired by my husband of 45 years; a man who always stands beside me, always tells me the truth, and is loyal beyond measure.
Hannah kept her eyes forward, trained on two rows of rusted shower heads stuck in facing walls. Sixteen in all. The room was paved with white tile, chipped and discolored by age and use. Ceiling. Floor. Walls. All sluiced with disinfectant. Soiled twice a day by filth and fear. The fluorescent lights cast a yellow shadow over everything. The air was wet. The shower room smelled of mold and misery. It echoed with the cries of lost souls.
Hannah had come in with a bus full of women. She had a name, now she was a number. The others were taking off their clothes. Their bodies were ugly, their faces worn. They flaunted their ugliness as if it were a cruel joke, not on them but on those who watched. Hannah was everything they were not. Beautiful. Young. She wouldn't stand naked in this room with these women. She blinked and wrapped her arms around herself. Her breath came short. A step back and she fooled herself that it was possible to turn and leave. Behind her Hannah thought she heard the guard laugh.
"Take it off, Sheraton, or I'll do it for you."
Hannah tensed, hating to be ordered. She kept her eyes forward. She had already learned to do that.
"There's a man back there. I saw him," she said.
"We're an equal opportunity employer, sweetie," the woman drawled. "If women can guard male prisoners then men can guard the women. Now, who's it going to be? Me or him?"
The guard touched her. Hannah shrank away. Her head went up and down, the slightest movement, the only way she could control her dread. She counted the number of times her chin went up. Ten counts. Her shirt was off. Her chin went down. Ten more counts and she dropped the jeans that had cost a fortune.
"All of it, baby cakes," the guard prodded.
Hannah closed her eyes. The thong. White lace. That was the last. Quickly she stepped under a showerhead and closed her eyes. A tear seeped from beneath her lashes only to be washed away by a sudden, hard, stinging spray of water. Her head jerked back as if she'd been slapped then Hannah lost herself in the wet and warm. She turned her face up, kept her arms closed over her breasts, pretended the sheet of water hid her like a cloak. As suddenly as it had been turned on the water went off. She had hidden from nothing. The ugly women were looking back, looking her over. Hannah went from focus to fade, drying off with the small towel, pulling on the too-big jumpsuit. She was drowning in it, tripping over it. Her clothes – her beautiful clothes – were gone. She didn't ask where.
The other women talked and moved as if they had been in this place so often it felt like home. Hannah was cut from the pack and herded down the hall, hurried past big rooms with glass walls and cots lined up military style. She slid her eyes toward them. Each was occupied. Some women slept under blankets, oblivious to their surroundings. Others were shadows that rose up like specters, propping themselves on an elbow, silently watching Hannah pass.
Clutching her bedding, Hannah put one foot in front of the other, eyes down, counting her steps so she wouldn't be tempted to look at all those women. There were too many steps. Hannah lost track and began again. One. Two. . .
A word stopped her. The guard rounded wide to the right as if Hannah was dangerous. That was a joke. She couldn't hurt anyone – not really. The woman pushed open a door. The cock of her head said this was Hannah's place. A room, six by eight. A metal-framed bed and stained mattress. A metal toilet without a lid. A metal sink. No mirror. Hannah hugged her bedding tighter and twirled around just as the woman put her hands on the door to close it.
"Wait! You have to let me call my mom. Take me to a phone right now so I can check on her."
Hannah talked in staccato. A water droplet fell from her hair and hit her chest. It coursed down her bare skin and made her shiver. It was so cold. This was all so cold and so awful. The guard was unmoved.
"Bed down, Sheraton," she said flatly.
Hannah took another step. "I told you I just want to check on her. Just let me check on her. I won't talk long."
"And I told you to bed down." The guard stepped out. The door was closing. Hannah was about to call again when the woman in blue with the thick wooden club on her belt decided to give her a piece of advice. "I wouldn't count on any favors, Sheraton. Judge Rayburn was one of us, if you get my meaning. It won't matter if you're here or anywhere else. Everyone will know who you are. Now make your bed up."
The door closed. Hannah hiccoughed a sob as she spread her sheet on the thin mattress. She tucked it under only to pull it out over and over again. Finally satisfied she put the blanket on, lay down and listened. The sound of slow footsteps echoed through the complex. Someone was crying. Another woman shouted. She shouted again and then she screamed. Hannah stayed quiet, barely breathing. They had taken away her clothes. They had touched her where no one had ever touched her before. They had moved her, stopped her, pointed and ordered her, but at this point Hannah couldn't remember who had done any of those things. Everyone who wasn't dressed in orange was dressed in blue. The blue people had guns and belts filled with bullets and clubs that they caressed as if they were treasured pets. These people seemed at once bored with their duty and thrilled with their power. They hated Hannah and she didn't even know their names.
Hannah wanted her mother. She wanted to be in her room. She wanted to be anywhere but here. Hannah even wished Fritz wouldn't be dead if that would get her home. She was going crazy. Maybe she was there already.
Hannah got up. She looked at the floor and made a plan. She would ask to call her mother again. She would ask politely because the way she said it before didn't get her anything. Hannah went to the door of her – cell. A hard enough word to think, she doubted she could ever say it. She went to the door and put her hands against it. It was cold, too. Metal. There was a window in the center. Flat white light slid through it. Hannah raised her fist and tapped the glass. Once, twice, three, ten times. Someone would hear. Fifteen. Twenty. Someone would come and she would tell them she didn't just want to check on her mother; she would tell them she needed to do that. This time she would say please.
Suddenly something hit up against the glass. Hannah fell back. Stumbling over the cot, she landed near the toilet in the corner. This wasn't her room in the Palisades. This was a small, cramped place. Hannah clutched at the rough blanket and pulled it off the bed as she sank to the floor. Her heart beat wildly. Huddled in the dark corner, she could almost feel her eyes glowing like some nocturnal animal. She was transfixed by what she saw. A man was looking in, staring at her as if she were nothing. Oh God, he could see her even in the dark. Hannah pulled her knees up to her chest and peeked from behind them at the man who watched.
His skin was pasty, his eyes plain. A red birthmark spilled across his right temple and half his eyelid until it seeped into the corner of his nose. He raised his stick, black and blunt, and tapped on the glass. He pointed toward the bed. She would do what he wanted. Hannah opened her mouth to scream at him. Instead, she crawled up on to the cot. Her feet were still on the floor. The blanket was pulled over her chest and up into her chin. The guard looked at her – all of her. He didn't see many like this. So young. So pretty. He stared at Hannah as if he owned her. Voices were raised somewhere else. The man didn't seem to notice. He just looked at Hannah until she yelled 'go away' and threw the small, hard pillow at him.
He didn't even laugh at that ridiculous gesture. He just disappeared. When Hannah was sure he was gone she began to pace. Holding her right hand in her left she walked up and down her cell and counted the minutes until her mother would come to get her.
Counting. Counting. Counting again.
* * *
Behind the darkened windows of the Lexus, the woman checked her rearview mirror. Damn freeways. It was nine-friggin'-o'clock at night and she still had to slalom around a steady stream of cars. She stepped on the gas – half out of her mind with worry.
Hannah should be with her.
One hundred and ten.
Hannah must be terrified.
The Lexus shimmied under the strain of the speed.
She let up and dropped to ninety five.
They wouldn't even let her see her daughter. She didn't have a chance to tell Hannah not to talk to anyone. But Hannah was smart. She'd wait for help. Wouldn't she be smart? Oh, God, Hannah. Please, please be smart.
Ahead a pod of cars pooled as they approached Martin Luther King Boulevard. Crazily she thought they looked like a pin setup at the bowling alley. Not that she visited bowling alleys anymore but she made the connection. It would be so easy to end it all right here – just keep going like a bowling ball and take 'em all down in one fabulous strike. It sure as hell would solve all her problems. Maybe even Hannah would be better off. Then again, the people in those cars might not want to end theirs so definitely.
Never one to like collateral damage if she could avoid it, the woman went for the gutter, swinging onto the shoulder of the freeway, narrowly missing the concrete divider that kept her from veering into oncoming traffic. She was clear again, leaving terror in her wake, flying toward her destination.
The Lexus transitioned to the 105. It was clear sailing all the way to Imperial Highway where the freeway came to an abrupt end, spitting her out onto a wide intersection before she was ready. The tires squealed amid the acrid smell of burning rubber. The Lexus shivered, the rear end fishtailing as she fought for control. Finally, the car came to a stop, angled across two lanes.
The woman breathed hard. She sniffled and blinked and listened to her heartbeat. She hadn't realized how fast she'd been going until just this minute. Her head whipped around. No traffic. A dead spot in the maze of LA freeways, surface streets, transitions and exits. Her hands were fused to the steering wheel. Thank God. No cops. Cops were the last thing she wanted to see tonight; the last people she ever wanted to see.
Suddenly her phone rang. She jumped and scrambled, forgetting where she had put it. Her purse? The console? The console. She ripped it open and punched the button to stop the happy little song that usually signaled a call from her hairdresser, an invitation to lunch.
"This is Lexus Link checking to see if you need assistance."
"Are you all right, ma'am? Our tracking service indicated that you had been in an accident."
Her head fell onto the steering wheel; the phone was still at her ear. She almost laughed. Some minimum wage idiot was worried about her.
"No, I'm fine. Everything's fine," she whispered and turned off the phone. Her arm fell to her side. The phone fell to the floor. A few minutes later she sat up and pushed back her hair. She'd been through tough times before. Everything would be fine if she just kept her wits about her and got where she was going. Taking a deep breath she put both hands back on the wheel. She'd damn well finish what she started the way she always did. As long as Hannah was smart they'd all be okay.
Easing her foot off the brake she pulled the Lexus around until she was in the right lane and started to drive. She had the address, now all she had to do was to find friggin' Hermosa Beach.
* * *
"For God's sake, Josie, he's a weenie-wagger and that's all there is to it. I don't know why you keep coming in here with the same old crap for a defense. Want some?"
Judge Crawford pushed the pizza box her way. It was almost nine o'clock and they had managed to work out the details on the judge's sponsorship at the Surf Festival, discuss a moot court for which they had volunteered, polish off most of a large pizza, and now Josie was trying to take advantage of the situation by putting in a pitch for leniency for one of her clients.
She passed on the pizza offer. Judge Crawford took another piece. He was a good guy, a casual guy, a local who never strayed from his beach town roots in his thirty-year legal career. His robes were tossed on the couch behind them. His desk served as a workstation and dining table. In the corner was his first surfboard. New attorneys called to chambers endured forty-five minutes of the judge reliving his moments of glory as one of the best long boarders on the coast. Three years ago, when Josie landed in Hermosa Beach, she got the full two-hour treatment but only because she knew a thing or two about surfing from her days in Hawaii. She'd spent the extra hour with Judge Crawford because he knew a thing or two about volleyball.
Josie Baylor-Bates had been big at USC but when she hit the sand circuit she'd become legendary. Everyone wanted to beat the woman who stood six feet if she was an inch, played like a professional, and won like a champion. Few did, but they started trying the minute the summer nets went up. Of course USC and Judge Crawford's surfing days were both more than a few years ago, but still their beach history tied them together, made them friendly colleagues, and gave them license to be a little more informal about certain protocols – including the judge speaking his mind about Josie's current client, Billy Zuni: the surfing-teenage-beach bum with a mischievous smile and penchant for relieving himself in city owned bushes.
"That's a gross term," Josie scoffed as if she'd never heard of a weenie-wagger before. "And it is not appropriate in this instance. I've got documentation from their family doctor that Billy has a physical problem. He's tried to use the bathrooms in the shops off the Strand, but nobody will let him in."
"That's because Billy seems to forget he's supposed to lower his cutoffs after he gets into the bathroom, not before," the judge reminded her. "Nope, this time he's got to stay in the pokey. Hey, it's Hermosa Beach's pokey. Five cells and they're all empty. Billy will have the whole place to himself. It's not going to kill him, and it may do him some good. I'm tired of that damn kid's file coming across my desk every three months."
"Your Honor, it's obvious you are prejudiced against my client," Josie objected, pushing aside the pizza box.
"Cool your jets, Josie. What are you going to do, bring me up on charges for name calling?" Judge Crawford laughed heartily. His little belly shook. It was hard to imagine him on a long board or any other kind of board for that matter. "Listen. I understand that kid's got problems. You're in here like clockwork swearing he'll be supervised. I know you check up on him. Everyone at the beach knows that, but you can't do what his own mother can't."
"That's exactly the point. Jail time won't mean a thing. What if I can find someone who'll take him for a week? Will you consider house arrest?"
"With you?" The judge raised a brow.
"Archer," Josie answered without reservation.
Judge Crawford chuckled. "Not a bad idea. Sort of like setting up boot camp in paradise. That would make Billy sit up and take notice. I don't know anybody who wouldn't toe the line just to get Archer off their back."
Josie touched her lips to hide a smile. Judge Crawford steered clear of Archer after a vigorous debate on the unfortunate constitutions of judges facing re-election. As Josie recalled, words such as wimps and sell-outs had been bandied about freely. It wasn't that Archer was wrong, it was just that the opinion was coming from a retired cop who wasn't afraid of anything, who got better looking with age, and could still sit a board while the judge. . . Well, suffice it to say the judge had been sitting the bench a little too long.
"Archer might do Billy some good," Josie pushed for her plan.
"Or scar him for life." Crawford shook his head and pushed off the desk. "Sorry, Josie. It's going to be forty-eight hours this time and community service. Best I can do."
"I'll appeal. There are a hundred surfers down on the beach changing from their wet suits into dry clothes every morning. Half of them don't even bother to drape a towel over their butts. The only reason you catch Billy is because he's stupid. He thinks everybody ought to just kick back – including the cops."
Crawford stood up, put the rest of the pizza in his little refrigerator, and plucked his windbreaker with the reflective patches off the door hook as he talked.
"That's cute. You still think you're playing with the big boys downtown? Josie, Josie," he chuckled. "What's it been? Three years and you still can't get it through your head that Billy Zuni and his little wooden monkey wouldn't rate the paperwork for an appeal. Let him be. They'll feed him good in Hermosa."
"Okay, so I can't put the fear of God into you." Josie shrugged and got to her feet.
"Only if you're on the other side of volleyball net, Ms. Bates. Only then." Judge Crawford ushered Josie outside with a quick gesture. She waited on the wooden walkway as he locked up.
The Redondo Courts were made up of low-slung, whitewashed, Cape Cod style buildings with marine blue trim. All the beach cities did business here. It was a far cry from downtown's imposing courthouses and city smells. Redondo Beach Court was perched on the outskirts of King Harbor Pier where the air smelled like salt and sun. Downtown attorneys fought holy wars, and life and death battles, while standing on marble floors inside wood paneled courtrooms. Here, court felt like hitting the town barbershop for a chaw with the mayor. Sometimes Josie missed being a crusader. The thought of one more local problem, and one more local client, made her long for what she once had been: a headline grabber, a tough cookie, a lawyer whose ambition and future knew no bounds. But that was just sometimes. Mostly, Josie Baylor-Bates was grateful that she no longer spoke for anyone who had enough money to pay her fee. She had learned that evil had the fattest wallet and most chaste face of all. Josie could not be seduced by either any more.
"You walking?" Judge Crawford called to her from the end of the walk.
"No." Josie ambled toward him.
"Want me to walk you to your car?" the judge offered.
"Don't worry about it. This isn't exactly a tough town, and if another Billy Zuni is hanging around I'll sign him up as a client."
"Okay. Let me know if you and Faye are in on that sponsorship for the Surf Festival."
"Will do," Josie answered and started to walk toward the parking lot. The judge stopped her.
"Hey, Josie, I forgot. Congratulations are in order. It's great that you're signing on as Faye's rainmaker."
Josie laughed, "We're going to be partners, Judge. I don't think there's a lot of rain to be made around here."
"Well, glad to hear it anyway. Baxter & Bates has a nice ring, and Faye's a good woman."
"Don't I know it," Josie said.
Faye Baxter was more than friend or peer; she was a champion, a confessor, a sweetheart who partnered with her husband until his death. Josie was honored that now Faye wanted her, and Josie was going to be the best damn partner she could be.
Waving to the judge, Josie crossed the deserted plaza, took the steps down to the lower level parking and tossed her things in the back of the Jeep. She was about to swing in when she caught the scent of cooking crab, the cacophony of arcade noise, the Friday night frantic fun of Redondo's King Harbor Pier and decided to take a minute. Wandering across the covered parking lot she exited onto the lower level of the two-storied pier complex.
The sun had been down for hours but it was still blister-hot. To her right the picnic tables in the open-air restaurants were filled. People whacked crabs with little silver hammers, sucked the meat from the shells, and made monumental messes. On the left, bells and whistles, and screams of laughter from the arcade. Out of nowhere three kids ran past, jabbering in Spanish, giggling in the universal language. Josie stepped forward but not far enough. A beehive of blue cotton candy caught her hip. She brushed it away and walked on, drawn, not to the noise, but to the boats below the pier.
These were working craft that took sightseers into the harbor, pulled up the fish late at night; they had seen better days and were named after women and wishes. The boats were tethered to slips that creaked with the water's whim and bobbed above rocks puckered with barnacles. Josie loved the sense of silence, the feeling that each vessel held secrets, the dignity of even the smallest of them. The ropes that held these boats tight could just as easily break in an unexpected storm. They would drift away like people did if there was nothing to tie them down or hold them steady.
Josie leaned on the weather worn railing and lost her thoughts to the heat and the sounds and the look of that cool, dark water. At peace, she wasn't ready when something kicked up – a breeze, a bump of a hull – something familiar that threw her back in time. Emily Baylor-Bates was suddenly there. A vision in the water. The Lady of the Lake. Yet instead of the sacred sword, the image of Josie's mother held out sharp-edged memories. Josie should have walked away, but she never did when Emily came to call.
Even after all these years she could see her mother's face clearly in that water. Emily's eyes were like Josie's but bluer, wider, and clearer. They shared the square-jaw and high cheekbones, but the whole of Emily's face was breathtakingly beautiful, where her daughter's was strikingly handsome. Her mother's hair was black-brown with streaks of red and gold. Josie's was chestnut. Her expression was determined like Josie's but…but what?
What was her mother determined to do? What had been more important than a husband and a daughter A good daughter, damn it. What made her mother – even now after all these years she could barely think the word – abandon her? Why would a woman cast off a fourteen year old without a word, or a touch? There one night, gone the next morning.
Suddenly the water was disturbed. Emily Baylor-Bates' face disappeared in the rings of ever widening concentric circles. Startled, Josie stood up straight. Above her a group of teenagers hung over the railing dropping things into the water. They laughed cruelly thinking they had frightened Josie, unaware that she was grateful to them. The water was mesmerizing, the memories as dangerous as an undertow. Emily had been gone for twenty-six years. Twenty-six years, Josie reminded herself as she strode to the parking lot, swung into her Jeep, turned the key, and backed out. The wheels squealed on the slick concrete. She knew a hundred years wouldn't make her care less. Time wouldn't dull the pain or keep her from wanting to call her mother back. On her deathbed, Josie would still be wondering where her mother was, why she had gone, whether she was dead, or just didn't give a shit about her daughter. But tonight, in the eleven minutes it took to drive from Redondo Beach to Hermosa Beach, Josie put those questions back into that box deep inside her mind. By the time she tossed her keys on the table and ruffled Max-The-Dog's beautiful old face, that box was locked up tight.
The dog rewarded Josie with a sniff and a lick against her cheek. It took five minutes to finish the routine: working clothes gone, sweats and t-shirt on, and her mail checked. Faye had dropped off the partnership papers before leaving for San Diego and a visit with her new grandson. The tile man had piled a ton of Spanish pavers near the backdoor for Josie to lay at her leisure. The house of her dreams – a California bungalow on the Strand – was being renovated at a snail's pace, but Josie was determined to do the work herself. She would make her own home; a place where no one invited in would ever want to leave.
In the kitchen, Josie checked out a nearly empty fridge as she dialed Archer. It was late, but if he were home it wouldn't take much to convince him that he needed to feed her. Josie was punching the final digits of Archer's number when Max rubbed up against her leg, wuffing and pointing his graying snout toward the front door. Josie looked over her shoulder and patted his head, but Max woofed again. She was just about to murmur her assurances when the house seemed to rock. Snarling, Max fell back on his haunches. Josie let out a shout. Someone had thrown themselves against the front door, and whoever was out there wanted in bad. The new door was solid, the deadbolt impossible to break, but the sound scared the shit out of her. The doorknob jiggled frantically for a second before everything fell quiet – everything except Josie's heart and Max's guttural growl.
Bending down, Josie buried one hand in the fur and folds of his head. With the other she picked up the claw hammer from the tool pile. Standing, she smiled at Max. His eyebrows undulated, silently asking if everything was all right now. For an instant Josie thought it might be, until whoever was out there flew at the door with both fists.
"Damn." Josie jumped. Max fell back again, snapping and barking.
Clutching the hammer, Josie sidestepped to the door. She slipped two fingers under the curtain covering the narrow side-window and pulled the fabric back a half an inch. A woman twirled near the hedge. Her head whipped from side to side as she looked for a way into the house. Her white slacks fit like a second skin, and her chiffon blouse crisscrossed over an impressive chest. A butter colored belt draped over her slim hips. Her come-fuck-me sandals had crepe-thin soles and heels as high as a wedding cake. This wasn't a Hermosa Beach babe and Josie had two choices: call the cops or find out what kind of trouble this woman was in. No contest. Josie flipped the lock and threw open the door.
The woman froze; trembling as if surprised to find someone had actually answered. She started forward and raised her hand, took a misstep and crumpled. Instinctively, Josie reached for her. The hammer fell to the floor as the woman clutched at Josie's arm.
"You're here," she breathed.
Close up now, Josie saw her more clearly. The dark hair was longer than she remembered. The heart-shaped face was still perfect save for the tiny scar on the corner of her wide lips. Those long-fingered hands that held Josie were as strong as they'd always been. But it was the high arch of the woman's eyebrows and her small, exquisitely green eyes that did more than prick Josie's memory; they shot an arrow clear through it. It had been almost twenty years since Josie had seen those eyes, and the face that looked like a heroine from some Russian revolutionary film.
"Linda? Linda Sheraton?"
"Oh, God, Josie, please help me."
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