By William Lashner
Published by William Morrow
May 2003; 0-060-50816-7; 448 pages
Guy Forrest was sitting on the cement steps outside the house when I arrived. His head was hidden in his hands. Rain fell in streams from his shoulders, his knees, tumbled off the roof of his brow. He was slumped naked in the rain, and beside his feet lay the gun.
From his nakedness and the diagonal despair of his posture, I suspected the worst.
"What did you do?" I shouted at him over the thrumming rain.
He didn't answer, he didn't move.
I prodded him with my foot. He collapsed onto his side.
"Guy, you bastard. What the hell did you do?"
His voice rose from the tangled limbs like the whimperings of a beaten dog. "I loved her. I loved her. I loved her."
Then I no longer suspected, then I knew.
I leaned over and lifted the gun by the trigger guard. No telling what more damage he could do with it. Careful to leave no prints, I placed it in my outside raincoat pocket. The door to the house was thrown open. I slipped around his heaving body and stepped inside. Later on, in the press, the house would be described as a Main Line love nest, but that raises images of a Stanford White-inspired palace of debauchery-red silk sheets and velvet wallpaper, a satin swing hanging from the rafters-but nothing could be further from the truth. It was a modest old stone house in a crowded Philadelphia suburb, just over City Line Avenue. The walls were bare, the furnishings sparse. A cheap table stood in the dining room to the left of the entrance, a television lay quiet before a threadbare couch in the living room to the right. There was a Jacuzzi in the bathroom, true, but in the furnishings there was a sense of biding time, of making do until real life with real furniture began. In the bedroom, up the stairs, I knew there to be a single bureau bought at some discount build-it-yourself place, a desk with stacks of bills, a fold-up chair, a mattress on the floor.
A mattress on the floor.
Well, maybe the press had it right after all, maybe it was a love nest, and maybe the mattress on the floor was the giveaway. For what would true lovers need with fine furnishings and fancy wallpaper? What would true lovers need with upholstered divans, with Klimts on the wall, with a grand piano in the formal living room? What would true lovers need with a hand-carved mahogany bed supporting a canopy of blue silk hanging over all like the surface of the heavens? Such luxury is only for those needing more in their lives than love. True lovers would require only a mattress on the floor to cast their spells one upon the other and enjoin the world to slip away. Until the world refused.
The mattress on the floor. That's where I would find her.
Rain dripped off my coat like tears as I climbed the stairway. My hand crept along the smooth banister. Around the landing, up another half flight. As I rose ever closer, my step slowed. A complex scent pressed itself upon me like a smothering pillow. I could detect the sharpness of cordite and something sweet beneath that, a memory scent from my college days touched now with jasmine, and then something else, something lower than the cordite and the sweetness, something coppery and sour, something desolate. A few steps higher and then to the left, to the master bedroom.
The door was open, the bedroom light was on, the mattress on the floor was visible from the hallway outside. And on it she lay, her frail, pale body twisted strangely among the clotted sheets.
There was no need to check a pulse or place a mirror over her mouth. I had seen dead before and she qualified. Her legs were covered by the dark blue comforter, but it was pulled down far enough to reveal her cream silk teddy, shamelessly raised above her naked belly. Crimson spotted the blanched white of her skin. The teddy was stained red at the heart.
I stood there for longer than I now can remember. The sight of her unnatural posture, the colliding scents of gunpowder and pot, of blood and jasmine, the brutal mark of violence on her chest, all of it, the very configuration of her death overwhelmed me. I was lost in the vision, swallowed whole by time. I can't tell you exactly what was flailing through my mind because it is lost to me now, just as I was lost to the moment, but when I recovered enough to function a decision had been made. A decision had been made. I'm not sure how, but I know why, I surely know why. A decision had been made, a decision I have never regretted, an implacable decision, yet pure and right, a decision had been made, and for the rest of my involvement in that death and its grisly aftermath that decision guided my every step, my every step, starting with the first.
I took a deep breath and entered the bedroom. I squatted, leaned over the mattress, touched her jaw. It was still slightly warm, but the joint now was not perfectly slack. The skin at the bottom of her arm had turned a purplish red. I pressed a finger into the skin; it whitened for an instant before the color returned. It had been about an hour, I calculated. Still squatting, I leaned farther forward and stared closely at her face.
Her name was Hailey Prouix. Black hair, blue eyes, long-necked and pale-skinned, she was thirty years old and lovely as a siren. While still alive she had peered out at the world with a wary detachment. She had seen too much to take anything at face value, her manner said as clear as words, she had been hurt too much to expect anything other than blows. She wore sharp, dark-rimmed glasses that were all business, but her mouth curved so achingly you couldn't look at it without wanting to take it in your own. And her stare, her stare, containing as it did both warning and dare, could weaken knees.
"Lust will make a fool of any man, but it is only love that can truly ruin him." So says Victor Carl, the ethically adventurous Philadelphia lawyer who usually ends up doing the right thing, but, as his law partner says, often for all the wrong reasons.
Late one night Victor gets a panicked phone call from an old law school classmate. Guy Forrest claims he has just found the body of his fiancée lying murdered in the house they shared. The victim is Hailey Prouix, for whose love Guy had abandoned his children, his job, his wife, his life. Hailey had mesmerized every man she ever met -- including, unbeknownst to Guy, Victor Carl. Convinced that Guy is Hailey's killer, Victor agrees to represent him, all the while secretly vowing to see justice done, whatever the cost.
But when Victor's certainty begins to crack, he embarks on a quest that will take him from Philadelphia to Las Vegas to the valleys of West Virginia and back again. He digs further and further into Hailey Prouix's past and discovers that nothing is as simple as it had seemed, especially the woman he thought he loved.
Who was Hailey Prouix? Behind the answer lurks a killer. As Guy's murder trial heads toward its shattering conclusion, Victor must find the brutal truth before the mechanism of retribution he himself has set into motion falls like a hatchet, smack on his client's head.(back to top)
William Lasher, a former Philadelphia lawyer, is a graduate of New York University Law School and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. He has served as trial attorney in the Criminal Division of the United States Justice Department. He lives with his family outside of Philadelphia.