Alicia Maldonado exited the Monterey County District Attorney’s office into the high-ceilinged, red-tiled entry hall of the courthouse, nearly empty on a Saturday afternoon.  Her arms full of case documents, she let the D.A. office’s heavy glass door slam shut behind her and strode toward the stairs that would carry her to the third floor and the Superior Courts, where prosecutors like her spun tales of true crime to persuade juries to render just punishment.  Which worked most of the time, but as Alicia knew all too well, not always.

Three in the afternoon and outside the courthouse it was chilly and overcast, December wind whipping down the streets carrying with it the unmistakable whiff of manure that indicated farm work was close at hand.  To the east rose the Gabilan Mountains, the Santa Lucias to the west, two formidable ranges that stood sentry over California’s Salinas Valley, trapping heat in summer and cold in winter and farm smells year round.  Sometimes the Valley was a beautiful place, Alicia knew, especially in spring when the rich soil gave birth to endless fields of blue-white lupins and wildly cheerful orange and gold California poppies.  But Salinas itself, the county’s little capital seat, wasn’t exactly picture postcard.  It was too dull, too dusty and flat, too much a throwback to the 1940s.  And as a street-corner Salvation Army Santa tolled his bell trying in vain to improve his take, it was too poor to do much about it.

Inside the courthouse, Alicia mounted the last flight of stairs and hit the third-floor landing, where a Charlie Brown Christmas tree strung with multicolored lights held rather pathetic pride of place.  She met the eyes of Lionel Watkins, a burly black janitor who was as much a courthouse fixture as she was and had been for so long he was nearing retirement.  He paused in his mopping to shake his head when he saw her.  “You at it again?  And on a Saturday?”

“Will you let me in?”

“Honey, don’t I always?  Even against my better judgment.”  He leaned his mop handle against a lime-green wall, a discount color found only in county buildings and V.A. hospitals, and without further instruction made for Superior Court Three, Alicia’s good-luck courtroom.  “You always win,” he said without looking back at the woman trailing him.  “I don’t get why you bother to practice.”

“I win because I practice.”

“You win because you’s good.”  They arrived at the courtroom door.  On the opposite wall hung a hand-lettered sign: ONLY FOUR MORE SHOPLIFTING DAYS UNTIL CHRISTMAS.  Apparently the sign had been hung on Tuesday, since numbers eight through five were crossed out.  Lionel selected a key from a massive ring and poked it at the lock.  “At least Judge Perkins is long gone on his Christmas vacation.”  He swung the door open and gave her a quizzical look.  “So when you gonna run for judge again?  Third time’s the charm, they say.”

Annoyance flashed through her, cold and fast.  “I have no idea,” she snapped and pushed past him into the darkened courtroom.  He raised the overhead lights, chasing the shadows from the jury box, which even empty seemed strangely watchful.  Alicia turned back around and forced her voice to soften.  “Thanks, Lionel.  What’ll I do when you get your pension?”

He chuckled.  “Find some other soft touch,” then he was gone, the tall oak door clicking softly shut behind him.

Alicia dumped the file for case number 02-F987 on the prosecution table, then loosed her dark wavy hair from its plastic butterfly clip and gathered it up again to return it to its perch atop her head, a neatening ritual she went through the dozen times a day she stopped one task and began another.  She shed the black jacket she wore over her jeans and white turtleneck, the jacket getting that telltale shiny veneer that came from too many dry cleanings.  That was a worry.  Clothes were expensive and her budget beyond shot.

She chuckled without humor.  She could barely afford to maintain a decent wardrobe.  How was she supposed to pay for a campaign?  Especially now, when nobody would put up a dime for a woman considered damaged goods?

Oh, she’d had her Golden Girl period, when some of the top people in her party thought she was the next great Latina hope.  She knew how they spoke of her: well-spoken, beautiful, star prosecutor, pulled herself up by her bootstraps, desperate to win political office to do a good turn for the forgotten many who, like her, came from the wrong side of the tracks.  It was P.C. to the max and a great story, or at least it had been until she lost.  Twice.  Then the bloom was off the rose.  And off her.

She threw back her head and gazed at the huge wall-mounted medallion of the Great State of California.  It baffled her no end how she’d managed to go from promising to stalled in the blink of an eye.  Now she was a thirty-five year old shopworn specimen with a dead-end career and no man in sight, at least none she wanted.  That was sure a prescription for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Enough already!  Get over yourself and practice the damn opening statement.  “You’re right,” she muttered.  Before long it would be Monday, nine in the morning, and she’d have to go to work persuading the jury to convict.  She dug into her pile of papers for the yellow legal pad on which she’d scrawled her notes.  But it wasn’t there.

Damn, she must’ve left it on her desk.  She’d have to go back and get it.  She made tracks out of the courtroom and back down to the D.A.’s office, where she punched in the numbers on the code-pad door to buzz herself in.

She was partway down the narrow cubicle-lined corridor to her office when she realized that the main phone line kept ringing.  It would ring, get picked up by voicemail, and ring again.  Over and over.  Somebody wanted to reach somebody, badly.

She marched back to the receptionist’s desk and picked up the line.  “Monterey County District Attorney.”

“It’s Bucky Sheridan.”  One of Carmel P.D.’s veteran beat cops but not the brightest bulb.  “Who’s this?”

“Alicia.  What’s up?”

“I gotta talk to Penrose.”

She had to laugh.  As if D.A. Kip Penrose were ever in the office on a Saturday.  He was barely there on weekdays.  “Bucky, you’re not going to find Penrose here.  Try him on his cell.”

“I have.  All I get is his voicemail.”

“Well, he’s probably got it turned off.”  That was standard procedure, too.  “Anyway, what’s so desperate?  What do you need?”

Silence.  Then, “We got a situation here, Alicia.”

She frowned.  It was at that moment she realized Bucky didn’t sound like his usual pot-bellied, aw-shucks self.  “What do you mean, a situation?”

“I’m at Daniel Gaines’ house.  On Scenic, in Carmel.”

The Daniel Gaines?”  Something niggled uncomfortably in her gut.  “The Daniel Gaines who just announced he’s running for governor?”

“He’s not running for anything anymore.”  By now Bucky was panting.  “He’s dead.”


“A minute back from commercial.”

From his perch at the anchor desk, Milo Pappas nodded at the warning from the floor manager who stood half-hidden in the shadows in the cavernous Manhattan studio where the WBS Evening News was taped every evening at six-thirty.  This being a Saturday, it was the flagship broadcast’s less illustrious weekend edition.  But it was Evening all the same and hence a new feather appeared in Milo’s journalistic cap every time he broke from his Newsline correspondent duties to fill in as anchor.

Milo skimmed the lead-in to the last piece, all he had left to read save the promo for the Sunday morning interview show and the good-bye.  He was proud of himself.  Despite his initial nervousness he hadn’t bobbled a single word, managing to project the approachable yet authoritative demeanor WBS sought in its male anchors.  Millions of Americans from Kennebunkport to San Diego were watching but Milo was far more aware of the handful of top WBS management scrutinizing his performance from their weekend homes on Long Island and in the Hamptons.

Suddenly he heard the director yammer in his earpiece.  “We got an urgent bulletin, Milo, we’re killing the last piece.  You need to ad-lib it.  Ninety seconds max.  We’re getting hard copy out to you …” - and indeed just as the stage manager gave the thirty-second warning, a young female production assistant ran into the studio bearing wire copy - “… so go to the goodbye whenever you’re ready and we’ll close out with a bump shot.  You know the Daniel Gaines story, right?”

Milo’s heart thumped against his rib cage.  He certainly did know it, though truth be told he was far more intimately acquainted with Daniel Gaines’ wife than with the man himself.

“Fifteen,” the stage manager announced.

Milo grabbed the wire copy and struggled to grasp what he couldn’t believe he was reading.  The Dewey Beats Truman headline notwithstanding, urgent bulletins seldom got anything this big completely wrong.

He raised his eyes to the lens, addressing Evening’s director in the control booth.  “You’ve got confirmation?”

“From the police department in Carmel, California, where the guy lives.”  The director paused, then, “You’re sure you can handle the ad lib, Milo?”

He felt a stab of irritation.  “Watch me.”

Then, “Ten,” the stage manager intoned, “five, four, three … we’re on the wide shot …”

Two seconds before the director shifted to him straight up on Camera One, Milo raised his gaze to the lens, willed himself to keep his composure, and began speaking.

“We have an urgent bulletin tonight out of Carmel, California.  Police there have confirmed that Daniel Gaines, who just last month announced his bid for governor of California, today was found dead in his home, the victim of an apparent homicide.”

Milo surprised himself with how calm he sounded, as if to him this were no more than just a shocking news event, as if he didn’t have years of personal history with the people involved.

“Gaines was a newcomer to politics,” he went on, “but he gained a national reputation as chief executive of Headwaters Resources, a timber company that’s won praise for preserving the so-called old-growth forest.  Political insiders say Gaines also profited from his tie with the California-based Hudson family.  Two and a half years ago …” – Milo would never forget the date, it was seared in his memory – “… he married Joan Hudson, the only child of late California governor and U.S. Senator Web Hudson.”

And, Milo added silently, allowing himself one beat to look down from the lens and take a single sustaining breath, the only woman who ever kissed me off and never looked back.


Joan Hudson Gaines veered toward the stairs that would carry her to the second floor, away from the cops who had invaded her home, her slight body pitched forward as if that would get her there faster.  Once inside the master bathroom she slammed shut the door and flipped on the light switch.  Then she saw her face in the mirror.  Mottled skin, too shiny eyes, blond Medusa hair.  Off.  She collapsed onto the mausoleum-cold porcelain of the jacuzzi tub, rubbing her temples, trying to make her head not spin.

She must control herself.  It was a mistake to let the cops see her so upset.  She did the right thing to escape upstairs, away from their prying eyes.  She should have done it earlier.

What a horrific day!  If her father were here, he’d fix it.  He’d make those cops stop tromping through her house as if they owned it.  But he was dead, too, he couldn’t help.  And her mother had chosen this exact weekend to go to Santa Barbara.

Why were the cops so slow to collect their evidence?  A petrifying notion shot through her, the same thought that wouldn’t leave her alone.  What if they considered her a suspect?  All those questions they asked!  Why had she been in Santa Cruz last night?  Why had she gone without her husband, only a few days before Christmas?  Had she called him?  Why not?

She raised her chin defiantly, though her pouty lower lip trembled.  She’d told them only what she wanted to and not a word more.  Why in the world should she?  She was a Hudson.

Joan’s bravado fled as quickly as it had risen.  She rocked back and forth, cold, so cold, her body a foreign thing that trembled uncontrollably.  There was so much blood!  How could one man have so much blood?  It seemed big as a lake on the library’s hardwood floor, Daniel lying in the middle of it like a marooned ship.  She wished she’d never seen it in the clear light of day because now that she had, she would never forget it.  That was how she would remember Daniel.

Daniel, her husband.  Her husband Daniel.  Dead.

Snippets of memory careened unbidden into her frazzled brain.  Meeting him at the Café d’Orsay in New York, stunned into silence by the tall, blond Adonis across the proverbial crowded room.  Falling into a canopied bed at the Hotel Pierre the first time they made love, a bed over which he had strewn the petals of a dozen red roses.  Their June wedding on the lawn of her parents’ Pebble Beach estate, five hundred people bearing witness, the Pacific surf a crashing counterpoint to their vows.  Back then he had made her feel like his entire world revolved around her.  Before it all changed, before the cosmos tipped on its side and he started expecting her to revolve around him.  

That was over.  Now he was dead.  Gone.  Daniel was dead.

A widow.  Daniel made me a widow.  Joan shuddered.  That made her feel ancient.  Ancient and used up.  But she was young, only thirty, and had all of life ahead of her.  That was one thing Daniel couldn’t take away.

Her back stiffened.  In fact, Daniel couldn’t take anything away from her anymore.  That whole mess with Headwaters and her father’s living trust?  That would clear up now.

There was another good thing, too.  The campaign was over.  She wouldn’t have to play the adoring political wife for the next eight years.  And it would have been eight years, because Daniel would’ve won this election and then he would’ve won the next.

And you know why? she asked her dead husband silently.  Because of Daddy.  And me.

Maybe now with Daniel gone, she’d get credit for all she’d accomplished.  People would seek her out, ask for her advice.  Maybe at long last she’d be a dinner party’s star attraction.

She certainly deserved to be, far more than Daniel had.  He only basked in the Hudson family light.  She cast it.
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