| Before I Sleep |
By Rachel Lee
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"You just don't get it," Sam from Clearwater said.
Carissa Stover smothered a sigh and leaned back a little from the microphone. Outside, the night was dark, and on the windowpane beside her she could see the silvery shimmer of rain. She was getting very tired of this particular discussion on her show.
"No," she said to the caller, "you don't get it. You can't buy an acquittal in the criminal-justice system. No way."
The caller wasn't going to surrender that easily. "But a ten-million-dollar defense"
"A ten-million-dollar defense comes close to buying a level playing field," she said forcefully. "So what if the defendant had five lawyers and six investigators working for him. The state had the entire city police force, the state police, the state crime lab, a whole staff of state-paid prosecutorsand a lot more than ten million dollars to spend on the prosecution. In fact, the state outspent the defense in this case by two to one."
"No," Carissa said flatly. "Jonas Bellows did not buy an acquittal. He bought a level playing field." She punched the button that cut off that caller and continued to speak into the microphone. "Come on, folks, we've beaten this horse to death every night since the verdict came down. Let's talk about something new before I go home.
"You're listening to the Talk of the Coast, 990 WCST, Tampa Bay's number one talk radio station. This is Carey Justice, and our subject tonight, and every night, is the law. How does it affect you and me? When does it screw up? When does it do right? If you've got a story to tell, we want to hear it. Our phones are open right now, and taking calls at 555-9900 in Hillsborough, 559-9900 in Pinellas, and toll-free at 1-800-555-9990."
She punched the next blinking green button as she read from the screen in front of her. "Sarah from Largo, you're on the air."
"Carey?" a woman's voice said uncertainly.
"Yes, this is Carey. "You're on the air, Sarah."
"Oh. Well, I saw in the paper that that twelve-year-old boy who skinned that dog alive is going to get probation. Why can't they just send him to jail?"
"They could, actually. For maybe five years. And I kind of agree with you, Sarah. This kid sounds like a serial killer in the making to me."
"Yes. Yes, he does! And how anyone could do that to a poor little dog. . . ."
"But he's still a kid, Sarah. A juvenile. We like to believe that kids are still young enough to learn from their mistakes. We like to give them second chances to get their act together and grow up. Don't your kids ever make mistakes, Sarah?"
"Well, of course they do, Carey. But nothing like this!"
"I agree this kid's a monster. But I don't see how sending him to prison is going to make him any better. Do you?"
"It might scare him into behaving."
"If he's scarable, this conviction and probation ought to do the job." She cut Sarah off and continued on a subject that was sure to light up her phone lines.
"Think about it, folks. It's easier to do prison than probation and community control. You think not? Try it sometime. See how long you can go without being able to run out to the store to get ice cream or a six-pack. See how long you can behave if you're allowed to go out of the house only to go to work, and if you detour for fifteen minutes on the way home to get gas and milk . . . the next thing you know your probation officer is charging you with a violation and dragging you back into court.
"I'm telling you, probation and community control are set up to make people fail. And when they fail they go straight to prison. Caller, you're on the air."
A few minutes later she cut to the news and commercials, which gave her a much-needed breather. She leaned back in her chair and stared at her reflection in the dark, silver-streaked glass of the window.
She saw the shadowy face of a pretty enough woman with dark hair and hazel eyes. The face of a woman who was as disillusioned as it was possible to be.
Rising from the chair, she took off her headphones and allowed herself a full-body stretch that made her spine pop. Then she went to hunt up a can of soda. Caffeine. She needed caffeine if she was going to make it through the next hour.
She pushed change into the vending machine down the hall from her studio and opened the drink, downing half of it in one thirsty gulp. When she was on the air, she drank bottled water, but right now she wanted to get hyped on caffeine and sugar. It meant that when she went home in an hour she probably wouldn't be able to sleep, but what the hell. There was no reason to get up early in the morning.
The newsroom intern joined her. Dale Jennings was a pretty young woman of about twenty-four, with blond hair and blue eyes big enough to sail a destroyer in. She seemed to live and breathe radio the way Carissa had once lived and breathed law.
"The phones are hot tonight," Dale remarked. "Everyone seems to want to talk about Bellows, though."
Carissa shook her head. "A half million listeners, and every one of 'em wants to put in their two cents about that case. It wouldn't be so bad if they weren't all saying the same thing."
"They believe Bellows is guilty."
"Too bad. The jury said he's not."
"I know." She was holding a piece of paper, and now she passed it with shy eagerness to Carissa. "Here's something that just came in on the news wire. I figured you could use it to shift the topic to something else."
"Thanks." Carissa took the paper and scanned it quickly. Then she froze. Her heart slammed, then seemed to stop beating altogether.
The governor had signed the death warrant for John William Otis.
Those were the words that always came into Seamus Rourke's head when he heard the low, smooth voice of Carey Justice coming out of his radio.
And he heard it every weeknight, unless he was working. Tonight he walked through his front door, ditched his shield and his gun on the coffee table, then yanked his tie off with one hand while he turned on the radio with the other.
"You're listening to the Talk of the Coast, 990 WCST, Tampa Bay's number one talk radio station. . . ."
Sometimes he heard those words in his sleep. Sometimes he heard Carey's voice in a silent, empty room in the dead of night. Even after five years, she still haunted his dreams.
Listening to the radio with only one ear, not really caring what she said, or what her callers said, just wanting to hear the soft, sweet honey of her voice, he walked into the kitchen and pulled a bottle of water out of the fridge. It used to be beer, but he hadn't touched alcohol since the accident.
He jerked his thoughts back sharply from that precipice, knowing how steep the fall was on the other side. There was a whole area of his memory staked out with a warning sign: There be dragons. He skated around it as often as he could, sometimes teetering right over the brink. Tonight he couldn't face it. Tonight he refused to let his past poison his present.
Not that it was much of a present. He could almost have laughed at himself, a thirty-eight-year-old police detective whose entire life consisted of work and an evening radio talk show. It wasn't always that way. There'd been a time when he'd actually had a whole goddamn life.
He looked at the bottle of water in his hand and figured the only thing missing from this dramatic, self-pitying self-image was a beer or a shot of whiskey.
Carey had gone to commercials and the news, so he turned the radio down to cut out the blabber and annoying jingles. Nor did he want to hear the news. He saw entirely too much news on the street, when it was happening or had just happened.
The doorbell rang. Seamus stared at it in disbelief. His doorbell almost never rang anymore. Figuring it had to be some kid trying to sell him the local paper, he flung the door open with as pleasant a smile as he could muster.
The smile died when he saw his father standing on the threshold.
"Seamus," said Danny Rourke.
"Dad," Seamus said, his eyes traveling from the old man's face to the duffel bag he held in one hand. "What's this?"
Danny regarded him from bloodshot eyes. "The IRS took my boat, boy. They took my boat and every damn nickel I had. I got no place else to go."
Seamus probably should have been more surprised than he was. Mostly all he felt was a sense of inevitability. Life had a way of rubbing your nose in the very things you most wanted to avoid. "It's the drinking, Dad."
Danny sighed. "I know. I know. Believe me, if there's any place else I could go . . ."
"Fuck it. Get in here. But if you want to stay, you're by God going to go to AA."
"Yeah, yeah," said his father, dropping his duffel on the floor beside the door.
Seamus closed the door behind him and locked it. Danny smelled like a brewery, which was hardly surprising. He'd probably spent whatever money he'd had left in his pocket in some bar while he tried to figure out how to avoid turning to his son for help.
"I was just going to make dinner," Seamus said when the silence seemed to grow too long. WCST was still reading the news, and rather than chance hearing it, he reached over and turned off the radio. The silence took on depth and breadth, filling the room until he felt he almost couldn't breathe.
"I could do with a bite," Danny said finally. "I'll help."
"Why'd the IRS seize your boat?"
Danny shrugged. "I don't know for sure. I maybe forgot to file a return? All I know is they sent me a bill a few months back. I ain't been making money the way I used to, boy."
Of course not, Seamus thought. Not when two beers in the evening had turned into an endless all-day drinking binge. Danny shook his head. "They say I owe 'em damn near thirty thousand dollars in taxes and then there's penalties. No way I got that kind of money. So, they took the boat."
"The boat's worth a lot more than that."
"I don't reckon they care."
"Well, go put your stuff in the guest room and take a shower while I make dinner. You know where everything is."
There'd been a time when his father had been an honored guest in his home. No more. He'd be more willing to pull a wino off the street and invite him in. At least the wino wouldn't have a history he couldn't forget.
Danny shuffled down the hall, looking shrunken and weak compared to the big, burly man Seamus remembered from his childhood. He ought to feel some sympathy, but he couldn't. He couldn't feel anything at all except the one fleeting, angry thought that Edgar Allen Poe must be writing the script for his life.
He cast a glance toward the radio, but left it turned off. No more hot honey tonight. Christ, when had he become such a masochist?
The thought seemed to clear his head, and he marched into the kitchen to pull some chops out of the fridge.
One of these days, he told himself, he had to find a way to get his head out of his ass.
Carissa stepped out the station door into the parking lot and felt the heat and humidity hit her like a fist. It was eighty-six, drizzling, and as utterly miserable as Florida could get.
She always wore jeans and sweaters to work because the station was air-conditioned to iciness, probably on the theory that people would stay more alert. Or maybe it was just that Bill Hayes, the station manager, liked it cold. Either way, the contrast always hit her hard.
Her sweater was plastered to her skin in moments, from sweat more than rain, and it prickled like a hair shirt. She could hardly wait to get home and rip it off. Usually she wore a T-shirt beneath, so she could shed the sweater when she left, but tonight she'd been late leaving for work and had forgotten it.
She climbed into her car, a bright red Jeep, turned on the ignition, and put the air-conditioning on high. The rain beat a steady, lonely tattoo on the canvas top. The radio was on, as always, tuned to WCST. Tonight, she reached over and switched it off.
The show following hers was run by Ted Sanders, a right-wing Rush Limbaugh wanna-be, and she didn't want to hear Ted spouting about the joys of the death penalty and how Old Sparky was the first line of defense against evil in society. Carissa wasn't dead set against the death penalty, but she figured electrocution was about as enlightened as burning at the stake.
She hadn't mentioned John Otis on her show. When she'd walked back into the station after her break, she had planned to, but the words wouldn't come out of her mouth. Instead she'd spent the last hour talking about lawsuits.
Everybody had an opinion on the law, and everybody thought they understood how things really worked. And when it came to lawsuits, everybody wanted tort reformuntil their own ox was gored. It had turned out to be a pretty lively discussion, thank God.
But now she was alone, and John Otis might as well have been sitting in the seat beside her. She didn't want to think about her role in putting him on death row, but she had a feeling she wasn't going to be able to avoid it.
Instead of going home, she headed for a club where some of her friends hung out. Maybe she wouldn't go home at all tonight. Almost anything seemed better than being alone with her thoughts. She had a moment of sanity, a moment of pure clarity when she realized she was going to have to face the Otis thing all over again, whether she did it tonight or she postponed it for twenty years. What she really ought to do was drive around the darkened streets and let memory pummel her until sleepiness caught up with her. It was going to pummel her anyway, and she might get deadened to the pain if she just let it have its way.
She turned around, intending to circle the bay. Crossing the Howard Frankland Bridge to Tampa and coming back by way of the Courtney Campbell Causeway was always a calming drive at this time of night, as long as motorcycles weren't drag racing on the Causeway. Or maybe she could head south, over the Sunshine Skyway, and for a few minutes be several hundred feet above it all on the soaring bridge that looked as if it leapt aloft on golden sails.
But the Jeep seemed to have a mind of its own. It took her to Roof's Place anyway, and pulled into a parking slot before she'd even made up her mind about which way to go.
"Traitor," she said to the steering wheel.
But she hadn't eaten all day. One thing or another seemed to have gotten in her way since she awoke that morning. Her stomach rumbled, reminding her that while John William Otis might be on death row, she was very much alive, and Roof's made great club sandwiches and chicken wings.
Giving in, she turned off the ignition, climbed out into the suffocating mugginess of the night, and went inside.
The music and noise was deafening after the quiet of the night outside. The jukebox was playing a country tune about some guy whose wife had left, taking the dog and the pickup truck. Apparently the singer was missing the dog and truck more than the woman.
She wasn't happy to see Kel Murchison and some of the others from the station. Talk radio in America these days was a right-wing occupation in which Carissa stood out like a sore thumb, being slightly left of middle.
There was no way to escape them, though, without being rude. She made her way to their table and exchanged greetings. Kel had the afternoon drive-time show, just before hers every weekday evening. Ed Ulrich, who went on air with the name of Ed Rich, was the news anchor. The station's two biggest guns. With them were lesser lights, a couple of producers.
Ed had a radio voice and a radio face. In other words, his voice was great but his face looked like the backside of a mule. Too many years sitting in front of a microphone had given him a potbelly. Kel, on the other hand, was built like a greyhound, with a long face and lantern jaw. He ate constantly and burned it all off on weekend bicycle trips. The joke around the station was that anytime Kel wasn't talking, he had food in his mouth.
"Join us," Kel said.
Carissa looked at the two of them and saw something in their expressions that reminded her of birds of prey. They were going to beard her on the Otis thing, and if they did, she was probably going to spend the night in jail for battery. She was that close to the edge.
Then she spied another friend sitting alone at the table in the corner. "Thanks," she said, "but I'm meeting a friend."
She started to move away, but Kel stopped her. "You going to do Otis on your show?"
She looked down at him, hating him. "I'll think about it."
"It'd be a great topic for you," he said. "Ed and I were just discussing it. You have the inside story."
"I'll think about it."
"If you don't, I will."
She nodded, leaving it at that, and walked as fast as she could over to Barney Willis's table.
She knew Barney from Legal Aid, where she donated ten hours every week helping the poor deal with their legal wrangles. In a society where nearly everything was controlled by the law, there were an awful lot of people who couldn't afford help for even the simplest thing, like a divorce.
Barney was a lawyer, too, a man with twenty years of experience under his belt, and a thriving law practice. Like most lawyers, he was one of the beautiful people, attractive and fit. Carissa had first noticed that in law school years ago. She couldn't remember more than one or two homely people in her entire class.
Barney had been volunteering at Legal Aid for nearly two decades, and from things he'd absently let drop from time to time, she gathered he did a lot of pro bono work in his private practice, too. Barney was one of those attorneys who just couldn't let an injustice go by without taking up his sword to straighten things out. Carissa didn't know whether she admired him or thought he was a fool. In her experience, most people who had legal troubles were at least partly responsible for them.
But she did like him."Can I join you?" she asked.
"Anytime," he replied with a smile. His teeth were perfect, professionally whitened.
She pulled out a chair and sat. "Angie still hasn't come back, I take it."
He shrugged, but the hurt was visible in his dark eyes. "I'm a workaholic. I can't blame her."
"So, she should have gotten a job. Then she'd have had a life, too."
"Things aren't always so black and white, Carey."
"Actually, I see things in shades of dingy gray." She looked up at the waiter who'd just arrived, pad at ready. "Club sandwich, please. Light on the mayo." She hesitated, then thought, what the hell. "And a beer. Whatever's on tap." She turned back to Barney. "Speaking of shades of gray, aren't you seeing it all in black and white when you take the blame?"
"I recognize my faults. Working sixty or seventy hours a week isn't exactly good for family life."
"Show me a lawyer who doesn't work sixty hours a week."
"There are a few." He sipped his drink. "Most of them do wills and trusts."
She had to smile at that. "Dead people are easy. They don't call in the middle of the night."
"The only good client is a dead client, is that it?"
Wrong subject. She felt the fist squeeze her heart again and looked away. Where was that beer? She wanted it.
"You look . . . out of sorts tonight, Carey."
She shrugged and dragged her thoughts away from the mire. "Long day."
"Me too." He sighed and leaned back in his chair, looking around the room.
People moved continuously in swirling splotches of color, voices were raised to be heard over the music pouring through speakers around the room. There was a lot of laughter, but most of it sounded off-key to Carissa.
Great, she thought, looking at Barney again. This is a wonderful time to get depressed.
The beer took the edge off her nerves, so she had another one. By the time she finished her sandwich, she was on her fourth. She wasn't used to drinking, though, and she was definitely beginning to feel rubbery.
Barney said something about a case he was working on, but she couldn't concentrate on it. Freed by the alcohol, her mind was determined to go in only one direction.
Finally she pushed back from the table. "I have to make a call."
Barney nodded, then called the waitress to bring more wings. Crossing the room seemed harder than usual, but Carissa didn't care. She found the pay phone near the rest rooms and punched in a number she hadn't dialed in five years.
Seamus was standing with his hands in dishwater when the phone rang. He reached for the dish towel immediately, figuring something important had come up in one of his cases. His beeper was on his belt, but turned off since he wasn't supposed to be on call tonight.
When he got to the living room, his dad was putting the receiver down beside the phone on the end table.
"For you," Danny said.
Of course it was for him, Seamus thought. It was his phone. He shook himself as he reached for the receiver, trying to lose his irritable mood. Having Danny in the house wasn't helping.
"Rourke," he said into the phone.
"Who was that who answered?"
He recognized the voice. How could he not? But what he didn't expect was the sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach and the way shock made him grip the phone until his fingers ached. It shouldn't rattle him like this, he thought. He listened to her every night on the radio. It shouldn't affect him at all to hear the voice. "My dad," he said finally. "Hello, Carissa."
"I didn't know you had a dad."
"Most of us do." He waited, wondering why the hell she would call him, but not wanting to ask. He didn't want to give her even that much.
"Yeah," she said. "I guess most of us do."
He picked up on her tone, on the slight slurring of her words.
"Have you been drinking?" She never drank. That was one of the things that had attracted him to her in the first place.
"Just a . . . just a couple of beers."
He heard noise in the background, figured she was out somewhere. "Don't drive yourself home," he cautioned. "Call a cab."
"I'll do what I damn well please."
She cut him off. "I'm not your problem anymore, Rourke."
He felt the bite of an old impatience. "So why'd you call?"
She was silent for a long time. In the background, he could hear voices laughing and talking, and some sad country song wailing. "Carey?" he said finally. "Why'd you call?"
"Did you hear?"
"The governor . . . the governor signed the death warrant for John Otis today."
He let her words echo for a minute. They'd argued over this one until it had become the last straw in their relationship. The last straw among a hundred other straws they hadn't been able to weave together. "So?" he asked, forcing himself to be brutal. "That's not news. It was coming sooner or later."
"Yeah." She paused, and he could hear her draw a long shaky breath. "Yeah. We knew it was coming. So how does it feel, Seamus?"
"How does what feel?"
"How does it feel to know you're responsible for a man's death?"
Christ! If he could have gotten his hands on her just then, he might have shaken her until her teeth rattled. No, he wouldn't have. He never would have touched her. But, by God, he wanted to.
"I did my job," he said flatly. "So did you."
"Yeah." She gave a strangled laugh. "Yeah, I did my job."
"He killed his foster parents! He slashed them to death with a razor. He's getting exactly what he deserves."
Her voice grew quiet. "Maybe. Maybe not. But I'll tell you one thing for sure, Seamus Rourke. It might as well be you and me flipping the switch on him in three weeks. So how does it feel to be an executioner?"
He closed his eyes, angry and not wanting to be angry. Hurting for her and not wanting to hurt. It should have been dead and buried by now, but her call was raising a zombie from the grave. "Look, Carey," he said finally, "the system did what the system does. You didn't hand down that death penalty. The jury did."
"Carey, you need to get someone to drive you home." He was more worried about her driving drunk than anything else, he realized. In this mood . . . "Carey?"
"Just mind your own damn business!" She snapped, and slammed the phone down.
He stood a minute listening to the dial tone, then hit the automatic callback code. A man's voice answered.
"Where's that phone located?" he asked.
"Um, Roof's Place, man. You need to talk to somebody?"
He hung up and looked at his dad, who was watching a late-night movie. "I need to go give a ride to a friend," he said. "I don't know when I'll be back."
Danny looked at him and nodded. "Sure, son. Sure." Then his bleary eyes jumped back to the TV set.
Seamus wanted to smash the set. He wanted to throw his father out. He wanted most of all not to see Carissa Stover again. So he picked up his gun and badge and headed out. He wouldn't need the gun, but he was a cop. He never went anywhere without it. Besides, much as he hated his dad, he didn't want to have to deal with his suicide. One had been more than enough. Two would probably kill him.
And right now, he didn't trust any of the people in his life not to do something stupid.
Excerpted from Before I Sleep , by Rachel Lee . Copyright (c) 1999 by Rachel Lee . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top