Leslie Dancroft waited in her boss’s office, anticipating another apathetic lecture on the county’s depleted budget and the unofficial mandate to sell her clients on a plea bargain deal in lieu of a costly trial.
George would coach her on the scales of justice and flatter her with platitudes about a job well done. He would stress the issue of pressing workloads on his overburdened staff and deliver his condescending sermon about the mission of the public defender’s office—how every indigent defendant had the right to a trial by his peers and why the funding wasn’t there to make it happen.
She would gripe about her clients’ needs, and George would counter with his convoluted spiel about accountability, perseverance, and how life’s not always fair. In the end, she would find herself with more work than humanly possible and leave the office in a state of indignation.
Experience taught her the same lessons over and over in the legal salt mine where she squandered more energy on half-baked deals than preparing for a day in court. What one prosecutor thought fair and reasonable, another would throw back in her face. She would counteroffer. The prosecution would accept or reject, and so on and so forth, all in the name of judicial efficiency.
“Don’t start,” Leslie said before George finished writing a note in his daily planner. “I’ve been here since four this morning.” She blew her nose in a moisturized tissue, resigned to the fact her allergies weren’t at fault, and how she suffered from a full-blown cold.
“I need you to do me a favor,” said George.
George closed his planner and glanced up at Leslie with his lazy eye pointed at the ceiling. “I want you to take some vacation. At least a week. Two if you need it.”
“Who says I need a vacation?”
“You look like you swallowed a hand-grenade.”
Leslie honked her nose again. “Yesterday I couldn’t tunnel my way out of here. Now you want me on a plane?”
“A plane, a bus, a train… whatever works for you.”
“Wasn’t that a comedy with John Candy?”
“John Candy’s dead.”
“So is your sense of humor,” said Leslie.
George kept a straight face. “How many hours have you logged this month?”
“My point exactly,” said George. “Take some down time. Get healthy. Go to the spa or whatever it is you do when you’re not here.”
Leslie waited for the dream to end, anticipating the obnoxious beep from her alarm clock and the sober realization her one-night stand with George Clooney never happened. “What about my case load?”
“I’ve already reassigned your work,” said George.
“Without telling me?”
“What do you think I’m doing now?”
“I have a dozen cases pending,” said Leslie. Her voice cracked from her dry throat. “I can’t just disappear on vacation at a time like this.”
George motioned with his hands when he talked. “There’s never a right time. Yesterday you threatened to strangle me if I didn’t let you go. Now I can’t get you out of my hair.”
“I’m a woman, George. I’m prone to change my mind. Tell me your wife doesn’t do the same.”
George grabbed his office phone on the second ring and covered the microphone with his hand. “Only when I beg for sex.” He motioned for Leslie to leave. “Get some rest. You look like you need it.”
“What about Manny Morallen?”
“The defendant you dropped in my lap, George. I’ve already signed on to represent him.”
“Steinman can take over for you.”
“Steinman couldn’t find his ass with both hands. I think this case deserves more attention before we lob it over the fence.”
George pointed to the door. “I need to take this call. Pass the Morallen case to Steinman. He’ll give it the attention it deserves.”
Leslie stormed back to her office and unlocked her file cabinet. It wasn’t the elephant in the room that bothered her; it was the dung it left behind.
She thumbed through the folders under “M” and pulled the Morallen file for Steinman, a boy in a cheap suit with a year on the job and a law degree from an online college. She needed the Morallen case like she needed a dose of herpes. She had enough on her plate to put her sanity at risk without adding another career criminal to her roster.
George was right. She deserved a vacation, someplace far away with less humidity and smaller bugs. She needed some downtime and a chance to rekindle her private life, preferably with a man, any man with a decent smile, a good job, and a tight package. But something about Manny Morallen’s case struck a chord in her and dismissed any notion she had about taking a vacation.
She opened the Morallen file to review the police report signed by Sheriff Blanchart himself. If she’d learned anything from her time in the trenches, she’d learned to trust her instincts. And her instincts told her to keep digging.
Nothing about Morallen’s recidivist pedigree stood out from the other career criminals she represented. A resident of the California legal system for most of his adult life, Morallen served time for everything from petty theft to armed robbery and aggravated assault. He had every reason to lie. Yet innocent or guilty, he deserved a good defense like any other client she represented. She owed him that. Morallen owed her the truth.
She reviewed her notes between sneezes. In his statement, Morallen confessed to the firearm possession but vehemently denied his involvement in the deputy’s shooting.
Were his statements specious? Morallen had the opportunity and the means to kill Deputy Carter. But what about motive? If Morallen hid in the attic while Hugo shot himself, why come out of hiding to shoot a cop in the face? And where was Blanchart when it happened? If Blanchart witnessed the shooting of his own deputy, how could he be so sloppy as to let Morallen get away?
The facts were obvious but inconclusive at the same time. There were gaping holes in Morallen’s story, his shades of innocence obscured by too many contradictions of fact.
She combed through Sheriff Blanchart’s report, highlighting any facet of his statement she deemed questionable. With the sheriff’s personal record beyond reproach, she had to stand on her head to look for dirt where it didn’t show.
She read on.
Deputy Carter responded to a burglary at 1220 Lipscomb Street. He was first on the scene. Blanchart arrived seven minutes later. Both men witnessed an armed perpetrator enter the house wearing a gas mask of some sort. Both men identified themselves as law enforcement officers and exchanged gunfire with the masked suspect, Hugo Sanchez, who was holding a shotgun. Deputy Carter shot and killed Hugo while Manny Morallen and a third suspect exited the house.
She went back and read the last paragraph again. She was sick but not senile. In her interview notes, Morallen claimed Hugo killed himself with the shotgun before Deputy Carter could make an arrest. Morallen also failed to mention a third person in the house.
But you know Morallen’s a liar. He’s a convicted felon. A repeat offender with no moral obligation to do anything aside from trying to save his own ass. Lying comes natural to him.
The report continued to the next page.
Sheriff Blanchart began a foot pursuit for the suspects who fled the house on Lipscomb Street and left Carter on site to wait for back-up. When Blanchart heard a second shot, he broke off his foot pursuit and returned to the crime scene to witness Morallen shoot Carter in the face and disappear out the back. Blanchart radioed another call for help and stayed with Carter until the paramedics arrived.
The lab found both Hugo Sanchez’ and Manny Morallen’s prints on the shotgun used to kill Deputy Carter. The same shotgun Morallen claimed Hugo shot himself with. A latent print recovered from a door handle came back to a felon named Leeland Marks, a mid-level drug dealer wanted for questioning two years ago in a Los Angeles homicide investigation.
Blanchart’s story seemed to fit. Too neatly, perhaps, for a chaotic confrontation that lasted less than three minutes and left two men dead, including a cop and a suspect who pulled a Kurt Cobain.
Leslie gathered her interview notes. Morallen claimed to be hiding in the attic when he witnessed Blanchart pull the trigger on his own man. Yet Blanchart claimed he saw Morallen commit the murder. The stories didn’t jive.
Leslie squeezed the bridge of her nose, desperate to ease the pressure on her swollen sinuses. You’re wasting your time. Morallen’s playing you like a cheap harmonica. His prints are on the weapon. He has a rap sheet with a history of violence. His credibility is nil. He resisted arrest and killed a cop in the process. But why would Morallen run out of the house and then go back to shoot Deputy Carter?
She skimmed the sheriff’s report again, comparing Blanchart’s statements against her interview notes. She flipped the page and remembered Morallen’s comment about the product he stashed in the attic. The sheriff’s report cited confiscated items from the makeshift lab, including hazardous chemicals, drug paraphernalia, and fifty thousand dollars in cash—but no mention of any drugs seized from the attic.
And what about Leeland Marks? Was he a witness or a perpetrator in Carter’s murder? Why did Morallen fail to mention Leeland Marks in his statement?
At best, Morallen was lying. At worst, he was telling the truth. Either way, she needed more evidence to corroborate or contradict Morallen’s account of events, starting with a closer look at Sheriff Blanchart himself.