ELLERY CRAMER knew his tie was perfect, but he checked it anyway as he got off the elevator on the fourth floor. Pfeist, Langdon, Harrelson & Cooper was one of the best criminal defense firms in Sacramento, and it didn’t get that way because its employees neglected details.
And Ellery wanted his name on that list of partners so bad.
When he’d first gotten his degree, he’d dreamed of opening his own practice, but no. His sister had run numbers on that—she was an actuary—and had determined that his best chance for financial success lay with hooking up as a junior associate and working his way up to partner.
Six years after signing on with Pfeist, Langdon, Harrelson & Cooper, he was one of their most trusted trial lawyers, and he was conscious of the honor.
He was also conscious of his suit.
Today he wore the silver pinstripe, which, although it didn’t complement his dark hair and eyes at all, did make him look severe and imposing, and he was all for that. He’d spent two hours cross-examining a witness that day and had enjoyed making the guy—a police officer, no less—crumble like a cookie.
Ellery did so enjoy his petty torments.
But as much as he enjoyed destroying police officers on the stand, he wouldn’t ever mess with Leonard Pfeist’s secretary. Nope—Ellery was very good at knowing who to toady, and the secretary was the heart of the firm.
“Good afternoon, Jade,” he said pleasantly and was greeted with a heavy-eyed scowl in return. Ellery gaped at her, uncertain of how to respond. Granted, he and the firm’s legal secretary weren’t close. Jade was a little too rough around the edges for Ellery to really warm up to. He got that Leonard Pfeist, the most junior of the partners, did the hiring, and he seemed to rely on Jade’s street-smart, tart-mouthed presence, but Ellery had been brought up conservatively. Between Jade’s unapologetically vibrant appearance and the female sexuality that rolled off her like perfume, her whole presence made him very uneasy.
But he’d never seen her look like she could rip someone’s head off with her bare hands, and that was the way she was looking at him now.
“Took you long enough,” she snapped. “Did or did your schedule not say you were supposed to be in the office an hour ago?”
“I was in court!” Ellery objected. “It went—”
“I know when it went to. And I know you stopped for coffee and probably to schmooze that judge you’re always trying to flirt with. What you needed to do was to be here because you’ve got someone here who needs your fucking help!”
Ellery stared at her, his mouth opening and closing in surprise. Smart-mouthed, yes, but never insubordinate—never rude. “Uh—”
“Take it easy on him, J—he didn’t know.”
Oh great. Him.
Ellery stared at Jackson Rivers with a distaste that had nothing to do with the man’s looks. Dark blond hair, green eyes, and a square jaw—if the remains of an adolescent acne problem hadn’t roughened his skin, he’d look like a movie star. As it was, he appeared weathered and capable—stringy, no-bullshit muscle and an uncompromising glare. Jackson was the law firm’s head PI, and while the job was not supposed to be as glamorous as television made it look, Ellery had always wondered if maybe Jackson Rivers didn’t break a few rules to be so goddamned good at what he did.
Need a witness background? Yeah, sure, he was there. But he was there with the dirt—the stuff that made the witness unreliable, the stuff that Ellery could use to keep a client out of prison.
But it was just not fair that he was so goddamned beautiful. That broke a rule or two that Ellery really loathed. Jackson was good-looking and personable. He and Jade had history and kinship; they seemed to speak a different language sometimes. Jackson would swagger into the office and shake hands with Leonard Pfeist and flirt with the other secretaries and face the clients, confident and unafraid….
It made Ellery feel like he had in school. Exceptionally singular, unexceptionally alone.
“He don’t know and he wouldn’t care if the problem didn’t end up on his lap,” Jade snarled, making Ellery wince. Well, he’d always thought she harbored sort of a dislike for him, and she certainly wasn’t bothering to hide it now. “Are you sure this is the guy we want?”
Jackson’s gaze raked Ellery up and down, and Ellery had to remind himself that Jackson was a PI—he had no say in how the firm was run or who got which cases. Leonard Pfeist might think he walked on water, but there were three other partners who had a say in things, and Ellery was in good standing with all of them too.
“He’s not afraid of the cops,” Jackson said, pinning Ellery hard with a green-eyed glare. “Everyone else worked at the DA’s for a few years—they’ve got ties. This guy doesn’t give a fuck about anything but winning.”
“Yeah, for himself.”
Jackson’s shrug rankled. He apparently thought that was fair.
“J, does it matter why he wants to win as long as he wins for K?”
“Yeah,” she muttered. “Unless he thinks it’s better to cut and run. He’d better not bail on my brother—he needs us, Jacky!”
Jackson’s jaw tightened and his glare intensified. Ellery’s hands were sweating, and he hated himself desperately for wanting this man’s approval. He drew himself to his full six foot two and pulled his lips back in disdain. “Whatever your little family matter is,” he sneered, “I’m sure you can deal without me. What makes you think I even want this case?”
Jackson snorted and rolled his eyes. “Don’t stress yourself, Pinstripes. If you’ve got the guts for it, you’re going to want it. No self-respecting shark would turn this one down.”
“Let me be the judge of that. Do I even get an explanation?”
“I’ll tell you on the way to the jail.”
ELLERY’S FAMILY considered themselves liberal, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t have pressed the locks on their doors for reassurance if a man who looked like Kaden Cameron had approached their car.
Easily six foot five with skin of darkest brown and a head shaved bald, Kaden dominated the small bare conference room of the county jail. The bandage taped behind his ear didn’t make him look the slightest bit vulnerable either. He had craggy, ageless features, a scowl that could shake mountains, and shoulders that looked like they wouldn’t fit through a door. He appeared to be every inch a badass, from his Lakers sweatshirt to his black Converse, but his file told another story.
That didn’t mean Ellery’s hand didn’t shake as he took a quick sip of water and set his cup back down on the plain steel table.
“So you can put your house down for collateral,” he said, because the first order of business was always making bail.
“My house,” Jackson said promptly. “Not his. It’s a duplex. I have a renter on the other side—”
“That racist asshole still live next door?” Kaden interrupted, but the look Jackson shot him wasn’t annoyed.
“He’s not racist, K, just old.”
“Yeah, he’s an old racist,” Kaden grumbled. “Seriously, Jacky, did you hear him arguing against Kobe Bryant being one of the greatest ever?”
“It was at my house over Thanksgiving, dumbass,” Jackson said, rolling his eyes. “You two had to be threatened with a potato gun—and your own wife did the threatening. You remember that?”
Kaden flashed a nostalgic smile. “Heh. Yeah. Rhonda was pissed.”
“She should have been. You were all up in his face when he was trying hard to be your friend. He was playing with your children—he won’t even talk to his own kids. Just because he doesn’t like your pick of basketball players doesn’t make him a racist. And you have a daughter, K—do you really want Kobe Bryant to be a hero? Mike’s a good guy.”
“He’s not going to be so good when he gets evicted because you gambled his home on me,” Kaden said, and Ellery made a quick reassessment.
He’d assumed that Kaden had gotten distracted because—like a lot of Ellery’s clients—he was in denial of how much trouble he was in, but that wasn’t the case at all.
“Not a gamble, K, ’cause you’re not going to run. And you know what? Even if you did run, I’d rather get an apartment than know Rhonda and the kids were out on the street.”
The man who looked Jackson Rivers in the eyes was obviously capable of meeting reality. “They’re going to be on the street anyway,” he said. “If I can’t work during this bullshit, we can’t make payments.”
Ellery didn’t blurt out “Pro bono?”—but he wanted to. He must have made some sort of noise, though, because Jackson sent him a glare that was probably meant to shrivel Ellery’s manhood, root, stalk, and berries. Ha! Little did the man know he put on Kevlar undershorts in the morning.
Figuratively, of course.
“Your sister’s moving in,” Jackson said, pulling Ellery back from the shoring up of his self-esteem. “She’ll help Rhonda with the payments until you can. Don’t worry, K, your people gotchu.” Jackson glanced back at Ellery. “You got anything else to say?” he demanded.
Ellery glared at him. “You know I do. The bail hearing is tomorrow, first thing in the morning. I need something to give the judge besides just who’s going to help with the payments.”
“I’m not going to run,” Kaden said. “I’ve got a wife and two kids and a fuckin’ dog who thinks I invented the morning crap. I own a house and part of a business. I’ve lived my whole life in this city. I’m not a flight risk, and I didn’t kill no fucking cop!”
Ellery sucked air in through his teeth and looked at the anemic file, which featured the single crime-scene photo. That alone was weird, because there shouldn’t have been a photo in the file at this juncture anyway. Even if he normally did have photos at this point, the fact that there was only one bothered the crap out of Ellery. Jesus, a hundred CSIs in Sacramento, and they get one lousy photo and some even blurrier pics of fingerprints? Something horribly wrong was going on here.
But the image bothered him more than the lack of evidence. The image was of Kaden slouched down against the counter of the gas station franchise he owned a piece of. His eyes were closed, and a trickle of blood leaked from under the black stocking cap he’d been wearing.
A SIG Sauer P229 handgun lay near his outstretched hand, pointed in the direction of the police officer who lay sprawled dead with a hole the size of Texas in his chest. A blood pool spread luridly over the floor.
“Now see,” Ellery said delicately, “we may be able to get you out on bail, but I think it’s that last part that we’re going to have trouble with.”
When he looked up from the brief, it was not Kaden’s hard look of resignation that punched him with the most grit. No—it was Jackson Rivers’s blistering look of accusatory fury that made him think that Kevlar undies just weren’t going to be enough.
“I think maybe you need to tell me what happened,” he said deliberately. “And don’t leave anything out.”
Kaden Cameron met his gaze straight on, and Ellery wasn’t imagining the hostility there. “There isn’t much to leave out,” he said, voice flat. “Because I don’t remember crap.”
Yeah. And if that was true, that was going to make things so much more difficult.
“Well.” Ellery resisted the urge to shove his chair back and fidget. “This is going to be a real short meeting.”
From the twin looks of disgust he got, he figured that was the wrong thing to say.