A blog where Stephanie M. Belser test-drives her fictional stories.
Expect the occasional
"stall, spin, crash & burn".

Monday, October 28, 2013

Project the Next

While Aluminum Rain is offline for a few hours (Amazon's processing a corrected copy), this is the first chapter in the next work.
Chapter 1

Lena Smirnova didn’t wake up in a cold sweat during the night. That was a good thing.  The counselor that she saw had mentioned something about her suffering from “post traumatic stress”.  She had thought that the word “disorder” was part of it, but he had explained that for a lot of things that people had experienced, post traumatic stress was a normal reaction. They were more worried about the people who didn’t have a reaction to it than those that did. Or so they told her.

She felt lucky on two counts. First, PTS was taken seriously these days. Her older cousins and uncles who had served in the Vietnam War, not to mention the previous generation who had fought in World War Two and Korea, hadn’t been so lucky. They had gutted it out or self-medicated, if they were lucky. There wasn’t any sort of services to help them and if they sought help, they were deemed to be crazy. Second, her treatment was being paid by a grateful government.

“Grateful” might not be the right word for it. They had a serious interest in ensuring that Lena was being treated right. She had participated in the sort of black operation that nobody was permitted to talk about, ever. She had a suspicion that in earlier times, people who saw and did what she did would have been rewarded with an unmarked grave deep in some forest.

There was little point in dwelling about any of this. Of her many skills, Lena was a pilot. She had been flying since she was fifteen. Flying taught her that mulling over what had happened was a waste of time. Besides that, Bucko, her nineteen-pound tuxedo cat, knew that she was awake. He communicated that by jumping onto her bed and lying down on her torso so that his face was about three inches from hers. She opened her eyes and saw his yellow eyes regarding her.

“Owp,” he said.

From under the covers and next to Lena came this comment: “Honey, the cat wants to be fed.”

“All right, dammit,” Lena groused. She pushed Bucko to the side, peeled off the covers and got out of bed. She put on a robe and slippers, picked up the pistol sitting on her night stand and went downstairs.  In the moonlight, the ground outside shone white. Great, she thought, first snow of the season and it was only mid-October. It looked like little more than a dusting and it’d be gone by noon. But there would be much more snow, soon enough.

She had a little LCD display in her kitchen that gave the time and temperature, both indoors and outside. Outside, it was 33 degrees F, indoors, it was 63. Lena overrode the electronic thermostat and bumped it up to 66. Several seconds later, she heard the furnace start. Next, she opened a small can of food for Bucko, put it into a dish, stirred it up with a fork to break up the mass from the can, and put it down on the floor for him. As he dived into his breakfast, she added some kibble to his dry-food dish and then started brewing some coffee.

That done, she scooped the catbox and went upstairs. After the morning visit to the bathroom, she quickly got dressed in a black suit, the skirt of which brushed the hem of her low-heeled boots. The skirt had belt loops, Lena added a black belt with a matching  holster. Some earrings and a watch completed the normal accessorizing. The holster held a 9mm Sig-Sauer P226. A spare magazine rode on the other side of her waist.

Lena bent over the bed and kissed the lump in the bed. “Don’t forget to set the alarm,” she reminded the lump.

“Mmmm have a good day,” the lump said and rolled over.

“You, too.  Coffee’s brewing.”


Lena went downstairs, scratched Bucko for a minute or so (he was lying on the couch), put on her coat, picked up her purse, went into the garage and got into her car. She beeped the door open with the remote control, started her car, backed out, and beeped the door closed.

There was maybe a half-an-inch of snow on the ground. It probably wasn’t enough for the idiots who forgot each year how to drive in snow to get into accidents. That might have to wait for another couple of weeks. Lena didn’t do traffic accident litigation, so as long as they didn’t crash into her or hinder her progress, it mattered not to her.

Ten minutes later, she was at the diner. She bought a copy of the twice-weekly local paper from the vending box by the door, then she went inside and sat at the counter. The waitress poured a cup of coffee and asked if she wanted “the usual”.  Lena nodded, the waitress wrote up a ticket. Every nerve in her body was screaming at her to go sit in one of the back booths where nobody could approach her unseen. She didn’t give into that. She had been sitting at the counter for breakfast in the diner for a few times a week for a very long time. Dammit, she wasn’t going to stop now. She opened the paper and began to read.

The waitress soon slid a plate next to her paper. The plate held one egg, fried over easy, and two slices of whole-wheat toast. She also put the check down. Lena had a habit of just putting some cash down when she was ready to go without waiting for the check. The three waitresses who worked at the diner knew that.

She picked up the check, glanced at it, and put it down. It didn’t have an amount or food description. It had said: “Call after 2PM” along with a telephone number. She took out her cell phone, scrolled to the notepad function, and typed in the number. It had a 307 area code, which wasn’t local. With cell phones, it didn’t matter, the person taking the call could be down the street or in Limestone, Maine. Only the NSA would know for sure.

Whoever wanted to talk to her, it had to wait. She had her breakfast to finish up, then she had to go to court for a hearing. The County Public Guardian had filed a petition to become appointed the guardian of an elderly man in one of the nursing homes near the hospital. Lena had been appointed by the court to represent the man. She had visited him last week and he had been delighted to see her. But that was because he thought that she was his sister, Patsy. Lena had tried to read him his rights under the statute for guardianships, he got kind of agitated and thought that Patsy was going to arrest him. The doctor’s statement said that the patient had dementia; there was nothing in the medical records to indicate otherwise.

There was a parking space right next to the side of the courthouse. Lena parked, took her briefcase from the trunk of her Subaru, and walked into the courthouse. She stopped to shmooze with the women in the court clerk’s office, then she went up the stairs to the courtroom. Bill Frampton, the County Public Guardian, was already there. Although Lena didn’t plan to contest the petition, Bill still had to put on some witnesses and make a record to justify the judge’s ruling that he should become the old man’s guardian.

And so it went. After a lot of waiting for the case to be called, the hearing was held, the ruling was made and Lena was awarded $300 in fees for her time. Which is how most of those cases proceeded. It was, in a way, sad work, for the people who needed to have a guardian appointed were the ones who had no living family close by or they had never signed a durable power-of-attorney. But it was part of the duty to serve. Lena was one of the few lawyers who didn’t complain about appointed cases. So the judges seemed to go out of their way to ensure that she got a good share of the cases that paid.  Not all of them did, some were straight pro bono.

Lena left the courthouse and looked at her cell phone, there was a text from Pamela Sullivan. She was the lump under the covers. Pam was a charter captain, flying Cessna Citations for an on-demand service. If Pam had a charter that came in nearby, Pam would borrow or rent a car and drive over to Petersburg, or Lena would pick her up with her Cessna. The charter company had also established a service and maintenance operation at the Edgartown airport, she routinely bid on ferry flights to the base. When Lena and Pam could get together they did. Still, it was pretty much a “space available” relationship.  And that suited Lena.

The text said that Pam had to go back to work.  Which meant that lunch was off.  Lena texted back that she was sorry to hear that.  She planned to just pick up something from Foo King Chinese Kitchen and get some paperwork done.

A little after 2 PM, Lena called the number that she was given at the diner.  A woman asked if she was free right now, Lena said she was.  The woman said that she’d be right up.  Lena turned around in her chair and looked down on the parking lot behind the building.  There was a black SUV with what appeared to be Wyoming tags, which would fit the area code of the number Lena had dialed.  A woman got out of the driver’s side door and entered Lena’s building through the back door.  A minute later, the outer door to her office opened.  She stood up and went to the inner door and opened it.

The woman standing before Lena was about five-four and a little too thin, given that Lena guessed her age to be in her fifties.  She had blonde hair, which Lena suggested was a high-end dye job, as no grey was visible.  “I’m Lena Smirnova,” Lena said and held out her hand.

“Mira Jovanovic.”   Jovanovic had a reasonably firm handshake.

Lena showed her into her office and got her seated in a client chair.  Lena took her seat behind her desk.  “So, Ms. Jovanovic.  What brings you to Petersburg?”

“I want you to help free my cousin.  He’s in prison for a crime he didn’t commit,” Jovanovic said.

Inwardly, Lena cringed.  If the state let everyone out who said that he was wrongfully convicted, there might be six guys left behind bars.  “Who is your cousin?”

“Kelsey McMullen.”

Lena began making notes.  “Did he marry into your family?”

“What makes you ask that?”

Lena sat back in her chair.  “Correct me if I am wrong, but Jovanovic is a Serbian name.  Mira isn’t an Irish name, so you’re likely not of Scottish descent.”

Jovanovic smiled, slightly.  “His father married my father’s sister.  We’re first cousins.  His family lived three miles from mine.  He might as well be my brother, for Uncle Harry drank a lot and Kelsey, we called him Kelly, spent a lot of time at our house.  He had his own room there.”

“OK, so what was he charged with?”

“I think, as you lawyers say, embezzlement was the top count.  They also added in fraud, because they weren’t sure that embezzlement would fit.  He was convicted on all counts.”

“What was the amount?”

“Three point seven million.”

Lena looked up from her notepad.  “That’s a lot of money.  How did they allege he stole it?”

“Wire transfers to an offshore account in the Caymans.”

“How’d they say he got his hands on the money?”

“He was, like you, a lawyer,” Jovanovic said, “he had that in his trust account.  The money vanished.”

Lena frowned a little in concentration.  “What sort of law did he practice and where?”

“Real estate in Grover City.  He had an office in Los Angeles, he worked on a lot of deals with Californians coming here and buying hobby ranches.”  Jovanovic used a term coined by real ranchers to describe the places that people with money bought, people who weren’t concerned with making a profit.

“And when did all of this happen?”

“The money was stolen in `07.  Kelly was convicted in `09 and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.”

Lena thought a little.  “I don’t do criminal law, but that seems a bit harsh for fraud and embezzlement.”

Jovanovic shook her head.  “Not for wire fraud, he was convicted in Federal court.”

Lena suppressed a sigh.  In Toktina state courts, sentences of that length pretty much required killing someone.  A fraud/embezzlement sentence might be ten years and if restitution was made, the convict would be eligible for parole after two and a half years.  In the Federal system, convicts had to serve 85% of their time to be eligible for parole.  McMullen wasn’t getting out until 2030 and he’d likely have to go the full 25 years.  If McMullen was Jovanovic’s age, chances are that he’d die before then.  “Where is he doing his time?”

“Brazerman, at the Federal prison there.  I’m told they say it’s one of the ones known as Club Fed.”

Lena knew of that place, though she had never been there.  It was a minimum-security prison, it didn’t even have a fence around the place.  It had a zero escape rate, for everyone incarcerated there knew that walking away was a sure route to a maximum-security prison and a short life of being gang-raped by the Aryan Brotherhood.  Brazerman was in the “Banana Belt”, the southernmost counties of the state, where they only got three or four feet of snow a year.  More to her interest, she could get there with some ease.  It’d be a different situation if he was down in the Pensacola prison camp.

“All right,” Lena said.  “What do you want me to do?”

Jovanovic had a firm set to her features.  “I want you to find out where the money went.  The Feds didn’t seem to give a shit what happened to the money.  Find the money, you find the people who profited from taking it.”  She opened her purse, took out a thumb drive and put it on Lena’s desk. “That has every bit of documentation from Kelly’s case, including the stuff the Feds didn’t care about.  I want you to go down to the prison and talk to Kelly.”

Lena didn’t pick up the flash drive.  “You understand that this is probably going to be expensive?  I charge $150 an hour for my time, plus expenses, and that includes travel time.  It’s not going to be cheap for me to even go down there and talk to your cousin.  And I’ll want to do that before I even decide whether or not to take this matter on.”

Jovanovic didn’t turn a hair.  She opened her purse again and took out two #10 letter envelopes.  One was thin and one was fat.  She put them on the desk next to the flash drive.

Lena picked up the fat one and slit it open. It was fat, all right, it had a wad of $100 bills.  She counted them, there were thirty bills.  The other envelope held a bank check, payable to her, in the amount of $10,000.

“The three thousand is for your time to go talk to Kelly.  I know cash is unusual, but I don’t want you to wait for a check to clear.  I’ve dealt with lawyers before, no offense.”

“None taken,” Lena said.  And Jovanovic was right, Lena would have waited for the check to clear.  Even bank checks can be faked these days.

“If you want to take the case, then send me your retainer agreement.”  Jovanovic produced a business card and laid it on Lena’s desk.  “Feel free to email it to me.  If you don’t want to take the case, just send the check back.”

Lena thought for a minute.  She had the time free to take a run to the Banana Belt.  “All right, I’ll agree to go talk to your cousin.”  She pulled out a receipt book and wrote out a cash receipt, which she handed to Jovanovic.

Jovanovic took it and smiled for the first time since she had walked into Lena’s office.  “Thank you,” she said.

“You’re welcome.  I’ll contact you after I get back from Brazerman.”

Jovanovic stood up.  “I’ll look forward to hearing from you.”

Lena saw Jovanovic to the door, then walked back into her office.  She wrote out a deposit ticket for the money and then walked down the street to her bank, where she deposited the cash into her office trust account. She’d draw from that for her time and expenses.

But before she made the trip, she had some research to do and a client to vet.

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