A Radical Departure was nominated for the mystery genre's two top prizes, the Edgar
Allan Poe Award and the Anthony Award. It is available now in the Kindle Store, the iTunes Store, and the Nook
Willa Jansson (Where
Lawyers Fear to Tread) has graduated from law school and taken the job of
her left-wing dreams. She is working for the renowned firm of an old family
friend, famous activist Julian Warneke.
Julian once defended Willa after a protest march got her arrested
and hauled off to jail. The charge should have disappeared after a quick plea
deal. But thanks to Julian's grandstanding, Willa spent two traumatic months
When Julian is killed, a Who's Who of radicals flock to San Francisco to pay their
respects to the grand old man of progressive politics. With the police half a step behind her, Willa discovers that
her militant mother is entangled in conspiracies both old and new, and that her
father lied about where he spent the week of Julian's murder. And only one
person is offering to help Willa find out the truth: Her despised ex is back in
town and on the case as a private eye.
Find out why Robert
B. Parker described A Radical Departure
as, "Funny, cleared-eyed and strong," and the San Jose Mercury News said it has "almost everything a good
mystery needs, a complex plot, social commentary, loads of atmosphere and a
cast of unusual characters."
A Radical Departure
1988 Lia Matera
ebook may not be re-sold, reproduced, copied or distributed for commercial or
Bantam Books Edition 1988
Ballantine Books Edition 1991
characters, law firms, and union locals depicted in this book are imaginary.
Any resemblance they bear to actual people or institutions is coincidental.
A Radical Departure
Julian Warneke rubbed the rim of
his demitasse cup with a sliver of orange rind. The law partners on either side
of him followed his example. We were in a pink-tablecloth, silver-wine-bucket
kind of restaurant called René's. I'm sure everyone but me knew the purpose of
the orange-rind maneuver.
Julian was a white-haired man with
a disparaging mouth, a nose that curved like a small banana, and creamy skin
that sagged instead of wrinkled. He always looked crisp and unhurried, and he
was ludicrously solicitous toward our two secretaries while working me and the
low-ranking law partners like serfs.
Julian had been famous since the
sixties, when he brought lawsuit after lawsuit to desegregate public schools
from North Carolina to Louisiana. He had the distinction of having been in
every southern state's jail at one time or another. Since then he'd shifted
gradually from criminal defense of Yippies, draft resisters, and Black Panthers
to copyright protection of their memoirs, fitness books, and meditations on
I worked for Julian. I did the
dull bread-and-butter lawyering—the divorces, the landlord-tenant and
drunk-driving defenses. The partners in the firm—a radical investment and
business lawyer, a revered labor lawyer with a stereotypically cigar-chomping
clientele, and another who spent most of his time entertaining Democratic
assemblymen at his Napa Valley vineyard—weren't about to give the new
girl their interesting cases. They weren't all that liberal.
Not that I was complaining. The
credentialed lefties of Warneke Kerrey Lieberman & Flish would, under
ordinary circumstances, have hired someone with a résumé to shame Joe Hill. I
was just a (seemingly) cutesy little blonde fresh out of law school. But my
parents had been walking Clement Kerrey's picket lines and baking banana breads
for Julian's incarcerated clients for decades.
When I told my mother I'd never
have gotten the job without "connections," she nearly swooned with
"Willa, how can you say that?
When you did so well in law school. Editor of your law review." My mother
had a veiny foot in the kitchen sink. She was rinsing it after a Walk for
Hunger. "Not that Julian is accomplishment oriented, when so few young
people have the opportunity to develop their—"
"Mother, Julian won't interview
anyone who isn't in the top ten percent of a law school class. I've never heard
him wonder if the other ninety percent had the opportunity to—"
"Well, but Baby, he needs the
very best lawyers. You know he defends the unfortunate who—"
a famous activist—"is getting a hundred grand to consult on a
videocassette about networking. Julian just negotiated the contract."
My mother frowned at a knobby and
inflamed toe. "Aaron was such a good speaker. It's too bad." She
crossed herself. This was a habit she'd acquired of late, when speaking of
fallen liberals. (It was too late to save the souls of conservatives,
"Julian pays his lawyers a
third less than other firms here, did you know that?"
"But maybe that's
"—he can get away with
it, which is exactly why any capitalist would—"
"—so much of his work
is pro bono. Your father and I only paid what we could afford when
"Hey, I worked two jobs to
pay off Julian after you smashed the nose cone of that missile."
"But you shouldn't have. We'd
have been happy to go with the Weillars and—"
"Oh, great. Rob a bank for
She slid her foot out of the sink
and let it drop to the floor, rubbing her hip. "That reminds me, I should
bake them a banana bread before visiting day." Unhunched, she looked
slimmer than most women her age, though she was decidedly pear shaped and
rearranged by gravity. She pushed flyaway yellow-gray hair off her face.
"Anyway, Julian could
certainly afford to pay me a living wage. Our 'working lunches' must cost five
hundred bucks a pop."
Which is why I now felt a trifle
irritated watching Julian moisten the rim of his demitasse with a curlicue of
No casual observer would have
guessed any of us were Democrats, much less out-of-the-closet socialists.
On the other hand, I'd just spent
a month in Lawton, Oklahoma, and I was glad to be back in civilization, if you
can call San Francisco civilized. After a twenty-six-day argument with someone
whose politics dated back to the sweatshop era of unfeeling exploitation, it
felt good to be comfortably surrounded by compromised lefties again. And if my
lunch was inappropriately expensive, well, at least I wasn't paying for it, not
directly anyway, and the cannoli was terrific. (Oklahoma's idea of a foreign
food is chain restaurant pizza.)
So when Julian began offering me
advice about a jury trial I was preparing, I swallowed my sarcasm along with my
pastry cream. Julian's trial technique favored political grandstanding over
stick-to-the-point argument, which is fine if your client appreciates guerrilla
theater and likes prison food.
The waiter came with more coffee,
recognized Clement Kerrey as his union's lawyer, and launched into a bitter
diatribe about his boss.
Clement dabbed his tidy gray beard
with a linen napkin. "Your union has a grievance procedure," he
observed coolly. Clement represented unions, not employees.
The waiter grew redder of face,
muttered a few unkind words about his union, and hinted darkly that the waiters
Clement, an emaciated and reserved
man with glittery black eyes, was clearly alarmed. God forbid they picket his
Julian cut in with a peremptory,
The waiter correctly interpreted
this as a dismissal. He stalked off, leaving me holding out my empty coffee
Brian Lieberman leaned forward,
glanced over his shoulder, and said confidentially, "That reminds me, we
should decide about Mae."
Brian was a quintessentially San
Franciscan male. He was as natty as anyone's stereotype of a gay man (and was
proud to be mistaken for one). He always looked freshly shaved and massaged,
and his dimpled face was as golden as a Napa Valley apricot. He could tell you
sad stories about how great a given restaurant had been before it had been—horrors—discovered.
He could reveal the real reason the symphony pushed out its conductor. And he
always knew where to find the cheapest Beamer on the peninsula.
Clement shook his head sadly.
"We'll have to let Mae go."
"What?" I choked on the
dregs of my coffee. "Are you talking about Mae Siegel?"
Mae was one of the firm's two
secretaries. In theory, I shared her with Felix Flish. Felix, the firm's
computer whiz and de facto office manager, was constantly foisting new software
on Mae, so she rarely had time to do anything but curse at her terminal. The
other secretary, Maria, ended up doing most of my work.
Felix, a very tall man with a
thin, horsey face and a big, bridgeless nose, faked an upper-crust British
accent. "We cahn't have the hired help behaving sluttishly."
Clement shifted to allow the
waiter to offer Julian the check. "Not at all. You know we love Mae. It's
a matter of—"
Julian cut in deftly. "We'll
shelve this till the partners' meeting, I think." He frowned at the check,
calculated an inflated tip, and signed for the lunch.
Felix, slouching sloppily between
Julian and Brian, smiled at me. Of the firm's five attorneys, only I was not
yet a partner.
Apparently Julian thought I'd come
down on the side of sluttishness in the workplace.
I never got a chance to find out
what he thought. Julian fished the garnish out of his half-eaten mousse,
something he invariably did. The garnish looked like a piece of glazed apple or
pear, cut into a rosette. I glanced at Julian as he popped it into his mouth.
He made a face as if it were bitter, but he was too polite to spit the thing
By evening, the grand old man of
left-wing politics was in the hospital with hemlock poisoning, the restaurant
was swearing it didn't garnish its desserts with poisonous roots, the police
were knocking at my apartment door with a search warrant, and reporters were
chortling with glee to discover I'd been a suspect in the so-called "law
"Isn't it kind of tacky for
you to be at the funeral?"
procedure," Homicide Lieutenant Don Surgelato said. "I'm not
questioning anyone, Ms. Jansson, just observing."
I checked the top buttons of my
blouse, as that seemed to be what he was observing. "You're questioning
Don Surgelato used to be some kind
of football star. He'd made a fortune, I gathered, on top of his family money.
(His grandfather used to be mayor.) His name never got mentioned without
someone burying me in football jargon. He still had that jock look—shiny
suit, tight shirt, tie with an outsized knot (is there such a thing as a Double
Windsor?). To complete the picture, he had a low face-traversing brow, a
bullish head-forward way of standing, and a Big Man smile, which he now
displayed for me.
"Not questioning," he
said. "Besides, we're old friends."
Old friends. Over a six-month
period, Surgelato had repeatedly interrogated me about the murders of my fellow
law review editors. That was two years ago. I can't say I missed him.
"Gee, sorry I forgot your
birthday, Lieutenant." I stepped aside to let a group of Teamsters with
Elvis Presley haircuts into the "chapel."
We were on one of San Francisco's
windiest corners, on a street that roared with traffic. We were outside a
wood-floored funeral parlor that had recently been a Ukrainian lodge and still
smelled faintly of piroshkies. The place lacked elegance, but it was a good
union shop, so at least Julian wasn't spinning in his coffin.
"You going down to L.A. next
"Yes." The "law
school murders" trial was finally set to begin, and venue had been changed
to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, I knew the murderer well—well enough to be
the prosecution's main witness.
"This muddies the
water." Surgelato squinted into the wind, eyes on a black limo disgorging
a man in a dramatically chic suit.
"What do you mean?"
"We never got a confession in
that case. And you were a suspect. Now you're a suspect again."
"But this is completely
"Defense counsel will say
you're the relationship. And much as I hate to say it, Laura Di Palma's a hell
of a lawyer."
"So everyone keeps telling
me." It didn't bode well that she'd pled her client not guilty.
"Maybe Julian wasn't— I
mean, maybe the restaurant made an honest mistake."
"What do you know about
hemlock, Ms. Jansson?"
"Socrates drank some."
His karma for inventing the Socratic method, now used to torture law students.
"It's a weed. Looks like a
big carrot plant. A cubic inch of the root will kill you. Takes three or four
hours. Mouth and tongue swell up. Malaise but no nausea." He inclined his
head, watching me. "But you took botany at Stanford. I don't have to tell
"All we did in Botany 101 was
"Point is, you gotta go find
hemlock. Disturbed ground near wetlands or woods. You don't just pick it up at
the supermarket. Doesn't get mixed in with a restaurant's parsley and lemon
I could hear Brian Lieberman in
the lobby of the chapel, discussing power bicycling with an attorney from the
National Labor Relations Board. The stylish man from the limousine sauntered
toward us. I turned my back on him.
"Heard you had a little
trouble getting certified," the lieutenant observed.
"The bar association took its
time investigating my background, if that's what you mean."
"Ah, yes, convicted
"Resisting arrest." I
smiled. "Those were the days."
"Warneke represented you,
didn't he? Seems to me from looking at the arrest report, he could have plea
bargained you down to—"
''Willa.'' It was the man in the
excellent suit. He laid a shiny-nailed hand on my arm. "Long time. Nice
cut." He nodded at my hair. It was side-parted but otherwise exactly the
same as ever. When I didn't reply, he persisted. "Don't you recognize
If I hadn't, I wouldn't have
turned my back on him.
Aaron Bancroft, who'd once led
thousands of us in a march on Washington, now handed me his business card.
Under his name it read, Elliott Wave
Theorist. The next line added, Market
Forecast and Analysis, Commodities Valuation. I felt like throwing up.
Aaron's freckled, boy-next-door
face had once seemed ironically incongruous with his radical views and wild
hair. Now, with his trendy threads and Manhattan glasses, he looked like...
well, an Elliott Wave Theorist.
Luckily he spotted some other
acquaintances and flitted off to give them
his business card.
"Networking at a
funeral." I left it at that.
"You want my opinion?" I
didn't, but I could see the question wasn't rhetorical. "He's more useful
to society this way than throwing Molotov cocktails at banks."
"Julian got him acquitted of
The lieutenant assumed an
expression of mock ingenuousness. "Then he must have been innocent."
Felix Flish ran up the mortuary
steps, stopping short when he saw us. He extended his hand to Surgelato.
Surgelato's eyes were lost in the
shadow of a jutting brow-bone, so I couldn't read his expression. "Glad
you remember me from our talk the other night, Mr. Flish. But didn't I mention
I'm a lieutenant?"
The wind whipped Felix's hair into
something resembling a Kirlian aura. "Guess sergeant's my default for police."
Judging from the Surgelato's face,
he was dying to reveal his default for lawyers.
Felix noticed me but failed to
greet me, which was like him. He glanced into the chapel and added a sigh to
his oddly nostalgic smile. At the first notes of organ music, I followed him
Julian's casket was surrounded by
birds of paradise in stark Japanese arrangements. Before it, a group of women
knelt sobbing. One of them was Bess Warneke, Julian's first wife. Another was
Mae Siegel, the secretary Julian would have fired without compunction. The
third was my mother.
Waddling down the aisle toward
them was Silvio Bernstein, our congressman.
I couldn't believe my eyes.
I pushed through the crowd,
intercepted Silvio, and pulled him into a dark corner behind the organ. A man
in a neatly pressed work shirt was playing "The Preacher and the
Slave," while a few people sang, "There'll be pie in the sky when we
die (that's a lie!)."
I had to put my lips to Silvio's
fleshy ear to be heard. "What are you doing here?"
Silvio, a portly, perennially
flushed man with a few wisps of comb-over, intoned, "Julian Warneke was a
deeply committed, highly responsible—"
"Yes. But you're supposed to
"No." Silvio shook his
head. "Didn't your father tell you? We postponed it until September."
"But he…" I glanced
anxiously at my mother. She and Bess were in a crying frenzy, knee deep in damp
Kleenex. "He packed up and went with—said he was going with you. Mother thinks…"
Silvio's eyes widened. "I'll
be." Then he frowned. "This isn't like Willy at all."
We looked at each other for a
while, as if that would help us understand why my father had lied about going
off to Nicaragua for two weeks.
My parents met at a Ban the Bomb
meeting and conceived me shortly thereafter. This was probably the last thing
they ever did that was unpreceded by moral debate. Getting married, they
concluded, would be too bourgeois. And so my father was deprived of the
hardship exemption that would have kept him from being drafted. Being much
enamored of the passive-resistance philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi, he allowed
himself to be trundled overseas, but he refused to bear arms once he got there.
He spent two years in a military stockade.
My mother, meanwhile, shocked her
very respectable family by running off to Mexico to have her love child. She
had a vague notion, I think, that this would make me bilingual.
By the time my father was
dishonorably discharged, his parents, a Minnesota farm couple, had died and
left him a vintage Bel Air. I have a picture of myself sitting on the hood like
a scraggly ornament. In the background are the badlands of Utah. My parents
were On the Road.
When they, like others of their
generation, got too old for the inconveniences of transiency, they settled in
San Francisco, in what would later be called the Haight-Ashbury district. They
enrolled me in a school that was actually the upstairs flat of a candle artist
who smelled of incense and spoke in Zen koans. (A sign over the front door
read, "I do not see myself as outside. Why enter?" That was my
feeling, most days.)
My parents worked with mentally
disabled adults, which, I suppose, helped them cope with the endless political
meetings they attended.
To my delight, our neighborhood
become a counterculture Mecca. I loved the drugs and free love. The
"flower children" thing was an embarrassment for us political
activists, but every street has its bad element, I guess.
My mother's parents visited us
only once. They couldn't quite get over my mother running off with a nobody to
raise a drug addict hippie. But as least they opposed the war. In gratitude for
that small favor, my parents got married to please the grouchy pair. I missed
most of the ceremony. It was half was in English, half in Spanish. Ten people
read what sounded like political tracts written by high school students who
fell off turnip trucks. ("Oh, Baby," Mother chided me afterward, at a
reception at the Tassajara Bakery. "You're so young to be so harsh. Can't
you dial it back?" Which allowed me to quote my candle-artist teacher:
"Fallen flowers never go back to the old branches.")
My grandparents returned the favor
by leaving my mother a lot of money, most of which she donated to local soup
kitchens. My parents were soon broke again, but as my father observed, they
could count on a hot meal at Saint Anthony's.
When liberalism reached (what I
then thought was) its nadir, my parents rebelled by joining the Peace Corps.
Name a country that had a violent insurrection that year, and my parents had to
flee it at the last minute. I might as well have been the daughter of
mercenaries. Every time I read about a bloodbath, I knew where the folks were.
The only other Americans in such
places at such times were Catholic missionaries, and my mother was soon converted.
This meant, among other things, a second, Catholic wedding (less politics, more
Latin), and a sudden proliferation of icons among the NO MORE VIETNAMS posters
in the living room. My mother also confided that she'd stopped using birth
control, but as she was in the middle of menopause, the action was symbolic.
("And I'm still pro-choice, of course.")
My father, a short slender man
with a receding hairline, great cheekbones, and dimples (which I inherited), is
still handsome, for a man his age. But in my own prejudiced opinion, he is too
committed to my mother and their bleeding-heart causes to have the time or the
inclination to begin philandering so late in life.
So when he told us his boyhood
chum, now Congressman Silvio Bernstein, was taking him along on a fact-finding
junket to Nicaragua, we believed him. My mother said, rather wistfully, that
she supposed she could stand her own cooking for two weeks. But aside from a
few tears and a severe warning not to let Silvio co-opt him (she had yet to
forgive the congressman for supporting a death penalty bill), Mother showed no
anxiety when he left.
And though he'd made his usual
fuss about not letting us go with him to the airport, he certainly hadn't acted
nervous or guilty.
So where the hell was he?
After the funeral we caravanned to
Brian Lieberman's vineyard. BMWs followed ancient psychedelic vans and Teamster
tractors. I rode with Felix Flish, pulling up the rear in his black Saab. He
made no effort to converse. Instead, he put on a Rolling Stones tape and kept
time by cracking his big toe. It took me fifteen minutes to figure out the
sound came from his French-bread-sized shoe, and another fifteen to talk myself
out of stomping on his foot.
When the tape ended, I jumped into
the breach, hoping to stave off side two. "Why do you guys want to fire
"Don't put that turd in my pocket. I don't want to fire her.''
"Well, why does
"Mae's sleeping with Jim
Jim Zissner was running for
Teamsters Local 16's highest office, secretary-treasurer. Local 16, Clement's
biggest client, was known for the acrimony of its elections. This year's was
particularly savage, with Zissner's Teamsters for a Democratic Union accusing
the current secretary-treasurer, Semi Sawyer, of everything but vampirism.
Clement had little regard for the TDU. I'd once heard him sneer, "If they
want democracy, they should try negotiating individual contracts."
"And you know what a paranoid
Sawyer is," Felix continued. "He's saying Zissner has a spy in our office."
Though our office ostensibly
represented all members of Local 16, the local's will was finally and immutably
expressed by its secretary-treasurer. Semi Sawyer alone decided which
grievances our firm filed and which we ignored. Many of his other executive
decisions—to strike, to tacitly approve anti-scab "incidents,"
and to honor other unions' picket lines, for example—also generated legal
complications. That's why Sawyer authorized payment of a yearly retainer to our
firm. In return, he expected his consultations with us to remain confidential,
even—perhaps especially—from his fellow Teamsters.
"Mae wouldn't pass on
"Try telling Semi—it's
like talking to Krakatoa. And Clement's throwing around phrases like
'appearance of impropriety' and 'conflict of interest.'"
"Clement should be defending
Felix grinned wryly.
"Felix, it's feudal. Clement
has no right to tell the secretaries who they can and can't sleep with. If Semi
"You gonna explain the rules
of evidence to Semi? Or tell Mr. Labor Law who he's entitled to fire?"
Felix flipped over the Stones tape
and snapped it back into the tape deck, killing further conversation with
"Stupid Girl." Between the classic rock and the toe cracking, I felt
like I was rolling to Brian's vineyard in a barrel.
The vineyard was a cultivated
little hillside with a boxy structure at the foot and a huge Victorian
farmhouse at the top. The house, which Brian called Timely Manor, had a covered
veranda along three sides. On it were several mauve-clothed tables. Young men
in matadorlike catering uniforms threaded through the crowd with trays of
sushi, spring rolls, and fruit skewers.
Uphill from me, potbellied
Teamsters emitted clouds of cigar smoke and passed around a bottle of Jack
Daniels, which they poured into emptied wine glasses. As I came closer, I could
hear them discussing the indictment of Teamsters International's latest
president. It was generally agreed that Wall Street was the safest place in the
world for a grifter, while any good union man could end up in prison for
jaywalking. Abruptly, the conversation stopped. Teamster dissident Jim Zissner
had joined them.
Into this tinderbox waltzed a
young matador, saying, "Brandy plums in white chocolate?"
Semi Sawyer, looking uncomfortably
large in his cheap suit, stepped back as if he'd been offered used condoms.
Zissner, a lanky man with a
sundial of a nose, smiled wolfishly. "'Fraid to try something new,
"If it looks like sugarcoated
dog shit, I am." Semi's supporters hooted with laughter.
"Calling it dog shit doesn't
make it less delicious." Zissner took one off the tray and popped it into
"Whatever it is, it ain't my
style.'' Sawyer turned around and noticed me behind him. I'd represented Local
16 on a number of minor matters, but he didn't acknowledge my presence. The
fact that a new hire could get his local off the hook and save it money didn't
count for much. I'd put up with a lot of Childrens Crusade jokes, dumb blonde
jokes, and jokes about what I was short enough to do standing up. I suppose I
should have minded but I didn't.
I walked uphill toward the house
and noticed Felix talking to Aaron Bancroft. A matador suddenly blocked my
path, thrusting a tray of wineglasses in my face. I took one, slipped past him,
and almost collided with Aaron, who'd stepped hastily away from Felix. Bancroft
blinked at me, looking equal parts perplexed and irritated. Without speaking,
he continued downhill, toward the parked cars.
"What was that about?"
Felix watched Aaron flee. He
looked pleased, the corners of his mouth curling with dreamy satisfaction.
"Nothing, really." He took my arm, and we moved toward the house.
"Wonder how our precious Brian affords this place."
The house gleamed with waxed
hardwoods and filtered light from latticed windows. Mustachioed men stood
behind a polished oak bar pouring Little Red Songbook (Brian's label) wine.
Flowery signs urged us to visit the wine cellar and pointed us toward the
stairs. Felix was about to precede me down when Matthilde Warneke, Julian's
latest wife, came dashing up them. She saw Felix but she didn't see me,
trailing behind him. She gasped, "Oh, Feeelix," and hurled herself
into his arms.
Felix said something like,
"My condolences," but the real message was in his brief but sensual
Matthilde stepped back, saw me,
and quickly looked down, her thick lashes like visors over her eyes. She slowly
shrugged the folds of her black cape-dress back into place. Matthilde and I had
gone to law school together. We hadn't liked each other then, and we didn't
like each other now.
She was model-thin with long black
hair, hollow cheeks, huge brown eyes and a voice I'd heard described as smokey.
She began fingering a tiny upside-down gold cross pinned over her heart. In our
second year of law school, Matthilde had embraced witchcraft because it
represented an ancient tradition of worshiping female deities. (I'd just as
soon blame things on a male one, myself.)
"How are you, Willa?"
The cross apparently provided the necessary comfort. Her tone was calm.
"And how is— What was his name? From school?"
"Oh. He didn't really seem
like your type."
For a second, I thought she'd
developed a gift for comedic understatement. But she was mostly just sneaking
glances at Felix. I excused myself and went down the stairs.
Brian Lieberman stood at the foot, greeting new arrivals. He
wore a tuxedo as casually as most men wear baseball jerseys. He touched his
cheek to mine and, with a wave of the arm, indicated the people assembled in
his cathedrallike cellar. "Quite a tribute to Julian, isn't it? All these
different kinds of people. Working men and women, politicians, pacifists,
lawyers from all around the state." He spoke with the satisfaction of a
man saying, "Great party." Then he turned his back on me to say the
same thing to someone else.
I looked around the vast, spotless
cavern. Bottles were stacked along a brick wall as far as possible from stained
glass daylight windows. Golden rays of light hit a long polished table with
measures and instruments on one end. I noticed my mother trying to steer Bess
Warneke to a bench there.
I joined them, kissing Mother's
teary cheek and extending my hand to Bess. She was a plump woman with
extraordinarily blue eyes. Her makeup was understated, her gray hair was
smoothed to a sleek helmet, and her black knit suit was complemented by
matching burgundy pumps, handbag, and scarf. (Looking at her, Felix had once
corrupted the old union slogan, "Don't mourn, organize," into
"Don't mourn, accessorize.") As far as anyone knew, the only thing
wrong with Bess's marriage to Julian was that Bess was—and
I was expressing my condolences
when I noticed Mother gaping at someone on the stair. I glanced over my
shoulder then reeled forward, accidentally stomping Mother's sore toes. It
elicited a pained squeal. And that made the newcomer turn toward us.
For a moment Edward Hershey looked
as surprised as I was. Then a smile spread over his face. I'd have liked to
wipe it off with the heel of my shoe.
He tucked his hands into his
jacket pockets and stood there watching me. My mother was saying something, but
I didn't quite catch it. I was looking at the last man on earth I wanted to
Hershey was tall, maybe six-one,
big through the chest, small in the hips, very long legged. He wore a corduroy
sport jacket over a polo shirt. His blue jeans weren't faded. With Frye boots,
the ensemble was casual but not too scruffy for a funeral. The same was true of
his messed-curl haircut.
He looked older—fifteen
years will do that. He'd always had a rough face, jaw too square, eyes squinty,
nose crooked, five o'clock shadow. But the bastard didn't need good looks, he
Two women I didn't know, one a
snooty-looking redhead and the other an all-business brunette, fluttered toward
And my mother, in a voice that
could have shattered glass, finally succeeded in getting my attention.
"Baby. It's that boy from Boston who gave you the her—"
She clapped her hands to her
mouth. Then, noticing Bess Warneke's shocked expression, she giggled.
I'm sure it was clear to Bess what
Edward Hershey had given me.
A moment later, I felt his hand on
"Look at you, all grown
up," he said. "In a manner of speaking."
Still with the short jokes. I
jerked free. "What are you doing here?"
"Julian kept me out of jail,
remember?" He extended a hand to Bess. "Mrs. Warneke, what can I say?
He kept me out of hell, that's how I feel about him."
A stirring tribute, considering
Julian had counseled the usual theatrical jury trial and Hershey had instead
insisted on plea bargaining.
I didn't hear what Bess said. I
was looking at Edward goddam Hershey and not so discreetly pushing Mother away.
She made some disgruntled noises, but finally took the hint, joining a nearby
folksinger and her defrocked priest husband. I heard them thank her for the
Edward was saying, "Santa
Cruz. Been there for two years now. Here's my number, just in case you ever
need… you know." He handed Bess a business card. Apparently networking at
funerals was the done thing.
Bess looked put off—until he
deployed his pheromone grin, the bastard. Then she smiled back. "Well, I
don't think so. I don't suppose I'd need…" Abruptly, she turned away,
leaving us alone.
Hershey caught my arm before I could
take off. "Come on, Willa. Can't we let bygones—?"
"Not a fricking chance."
Being face to face (well, more
like face to collar) with Hershey was like getting sucked into a time warp.
Young Willa in love. It ended with an explosion that made my recent break-up
"Aw," he tried again.
"Haven't you ever been tempted to skip the spiel? When you were sure it
"Sure, my ass."
I noticed Clement Kerrey standing
behind Edward, frowning at me. His lips were so pinched they disappeared behind
his mustache. He turned back to the state senator with whom he'd been chatting.
I knocked Edward's hand off my arm
and left the cellar, bumping into Bess at the top of the stairs.
She was studying Edward's card.
When I got back from Los Angeles
eight days later, my mother was in a twitter.
"Oh, Baby. You'll never
I pushed past her into the flat,
which smelled of take-out pizza. "That's a safe bet."
"It's his will."
I glanced at a large icon, beside
a poster NICARAGUA FOR THE NICARAGUANS. It showed a stylized and very swarthy
"No, no. It's Julian's will."
"Oh, that kind of will. What
did it say?" I assumed it funded prison projects and Teamsters widows
funds. But he had children and grandkids, and maybe he'd had his moments of
traditional thinking. "Any surprises?"
"It left me the house.''
"What house? Why would Julian
leave you guys—?"
"Just me." My mother
blushed and turned away. "I can't imagine."
Had it not been for the blush, I
couldn't have imagined either. I looked at my saggy, unkempt mother and
wondered if anyone but my father could possibly find her sexy.
"Julian left you a house? An
actual house? Where?''
She kept her back to me, stooping
to gather up a stack of paperbacks. "His house."
"As in, the house his wife lives
in? The one his kids probably expect to sell and divide the proceeds of? That
house? Are you joking?" But Mother never joked.
She dumped her armload of books
into a box at the foot of the bookcase. (Daddy insists on shelving them
himself, as Mother organizes them by height of spine.)
"You never liked
Julian." Her tone had a disturbing
why-can't-you-get-along-with-your-stepfather quality. "You never let him
be a real friend to you."
"That's not fair." I
wasn't a tears-in-public kind of person, but I'd known Julian as long as I
could remember. His letter of recommendation helped me get into law school. And
contrary to what Lieutenant Surgelato implied, I hadn't held it against Julian
when his theatrics goaded Judge Rondi into giving me two months for making an
obscene suggestion (figurative, of course) to a military cop. "Julian
was... older. Not to mention, my boss."
A few noble tears (Mother's
specialty) trickled down her cheeks.
"Besides, you're avoiding the
issue. Why would Julian leave you his house?"
"I couldn't say." Her
tone was noncommittal. And believe me, noncommittal is not a place she visits
often. "I've known him a long time."
"So have his children. Were
I was relieved to see her look
"What then? Did he owe you money?"
"You're always so suspicious.
Remember how you accused those nice Osbournes of being after our money? And at
"Well, have you heard another
word about the Fund for Starving Debutantes, or whatever the hell—"
"Now, you see. That's exactly
what I mean. It was an educational program, for children of the
"You're changing the
"—to help them develop
a social conscience." Her cheeks glowed with indignation.
"Julian has three sons. And a
bunch of bratty grandchildren he complains about. Complained about. An ex-wife
he lived with for twenty-some years and another wife still under warranty. Why
would he leave his house to a casual friend?''
"Maybe he wanted to be sure
it would be used for the good of—"
"The masses? I don't know how
to break this to you, Mother, but Julian was as effete as—"
"I can't think how you turned
"Now that really is enough,
Willa!" She stalked out of the room, pausing at the door to glance at me