Pacific Coast of Mexico
The memory of each victim pushed me toward the cliff’s edge.
The flashlight I’d purchased from la tienda flickered, then faltered. I cursed the cheap product and tucked it into my backpack, then set it behind the lush ferns carpeting the forest floor. My eyes adjusted to the darkness, and I took note of my location. No longer pitch-black, the sky grew deep blue above the palms and tropical trees. The color of the sky matched my destination, the ocean depths.
Time was running out. I dropped to the ground and continued by crawling, feeling my way. Small, sharp stones dug disciplinary cuts into my knees and palms. Payback. It was an intellectual thrill to defend gangsters and murderers. Criminal law is my specialty, and it gave me a huge rush to plead someone’s case, knowing what’s at stake for that defendant. What I didn’t sign up for was the guilt, a side effect of my growing, successful career. Innocent people, the victims, should have been my responsibility.
Though it was winter, heat radiated off the hard-packed Mexican terrain. The cool ocean breeze rustled the leaves overhead. A frond rustled as a small animal darted away. Where crickets and green tree frogs had chirped an hour ago, the forest was now still behind me. Ahead, ocean waves lapped against stone. I loved this moment alone with the elements. It was why I chose the quiet, predawn for my jump.
After arriving in Acapulco, I avoided most touristy places that advertised cliff-diving shows. At a small beach bar near La Quebrada cliffs, however, I shared drinks with a cute local diver. I bought him a shot of tequila, and he was glad to discuss his skills with an American woman. He told me stories about his diving exploits and pointed out the seventy-five-foot stone wall jutting up from the ocean. With no public access, gates to the top remained locked and guarded to keep crazy people out. Crazy people like me. From that height, an amateur diver could kill herself.
I was no amateur.
After a couple shots of tequila, the diver told me about a secret cliff three miles north of La Quebrada where he practiced his dives. A cliff—he promised—that was sixty feet above the ocean in some places. He didn’t give me directions, but Google Maps did. I had parked the rental car and begun my trek through the tropical jungle to the cliff.
The warning cry of a single bird announced the coming of daylight. As I neared the cliff’s edge, the familiar rush of adrenaline flooded my bloodstream. The brightening sky increased my visibility. Down below, the dark and fathomless water filled me with anticipation. My heart thumped, filling my veins with encouragement. Here, I could finally let go of my guilt.
Like diving, standing in front of a jury in the courtroom was a performance. The accused killers and rapists I’d defended had been acquitted and my choice to help them affected families.. Plenty of reasonable doubt led jurors to not-guilty verdicts. I’d punched so many holes in the prosecution’s cases that my clients were set free to do it again if they chose. I made that possible for them. I would live with the guilt—the evil I’d released back into society—for the rest of my life.
In the homes of those many victims, the name Wilhelmina Mary Green had become associated with injustice and cruelty. While standing on the cliff’s edge, I thought about the casualties and the abused, the innocent and the injured, and I asked for forgiveness. I looked out to the horizon where water met sky and said their names out loud in apology.
I removed the cheap flip-flops I’d purchased—throwaways—and let my toes curl over the edge of the stony cliff. Fear and euphoria mixed a cocktail of my personal brand of escapism. When the sun rose above the trees behind me it threw a long dark shadow on the ocean’s surface. Far away, the waves caught the light and glistened. Below, black water splashed and churned. Waves promised to wash away my sins. The time had arrived.
A twig snapped behind me. Someone approached.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. Arms prepared, I bent my knees in readiness.
Propelling myself outward with all my strength, I became airborne, flying toward atonement.
“A toast to Wilhelmina Green!”
Jim Milton, senior partner of the law firm Milton, Wallace, and Edwards, stood at the far end of the bar with his glass lifted as whooping and applause erupted in the room. Twenty or so colleagues raised their glasses.
“Thanks, again,” I said. That was enough praise for one night, or even for a lifetime. I never chose to be Senator Phil Peterson’s lawyer. My boss, Jim Milton Sr., had assigned him to me because of my track record. For me, winning the trial was bittersweet.
Troy Milton, son of the senior partner, raised his glass to me. “To you, Wil.” When I didn’t lift mine, he clicked his sweating glass against mine and downed the last of his drink. He stood too close. His slicked-back light brown hair and perfect manicure gave an incomplete picture of a man who tried too hard to fit in with his colleagues. He said, “Senator Peterson had a rock-solid alibi, didn’t he?”
“Yes, he did,” I said.
Due to attorney-client confidentiality, I would take the knowledge of Peterson’s guilt to my grave, that he had, indeed, tied his intern Gail to the bed and raped her.
Christina, my paralegal, sat on my left. She sipped a fruity cocktail and watched me out of the corner of her eye. She seemed to pick up on my discomfort and quietly asked, “Did the Senator rape her?”
Seeming too eager for me to reveal something scandalous, Troy asked, “Did he?”
With words memorized for the courtroom, I replied softly, hoping the clamor in the bar would muffle my voice. “The evidence didn’t add up. If Phil Peterson had raped Gail, she’d have hospital records to prove it.”
That was true enough. She should have gone to the authorities right away. She didn’t. At some level, I think she enjoyed their secret meetings. Their affair had lasted almost a year. She’d filed suit right after he brought out the whips and handcuffs. But I didn’t mention that.
Christina and Troy leaned in for more. As if I’d tell the senator’s story truthfully.
“The senator was nowhere near his office on the night in question. He was in session in Washington. Besides, Phil had been injured during their previous encounters.”
She was fighting back, I thought.
“Once she crushed a metatarsal in his right foot with her high heel. He was barefoot at the time, so you can imagine. He wore a boot on that foot for almost. . . .” I stopped myself.
I didn’t want anyone to pity him anymore. I had shown medical evidence to the jury to paint a different picture of their relationship than the truth. I brought in witnesses who saw Gail lure the senator with implied promises. She had teased and flirted with him. She needed money and thrived on the prestige she gained from the relationship. I told the jury that she had planned to sue him all along. They bought it, but there was no consoling my horror over the verdict.
The highly sensationalized trial had tantalized millions. The indignant look on Gail’s face and the women in the courtroom would be etched in my mind forever. Men like Peterson were the reason the #metoo movement existed. As a woman, I stood on the same side of the battleground. But as a lawyer who defended those men, I’d become a pariah.
Troy put his hand on the back of my stool. “How did you find out about Gail’s boyfriend?” Troy asked. “You pulled that trick out of your pocket like magic.”
Troy had received his law degree from an unapproved online college. His father hired him because he was trying to be a good dad, not because Troy had the skills necessary to work at this prestigious firm.
“The boyfriend, Martin, was an obvious redirect,” I explained. “Gail flaunted him in Senator Peterson’s face to make him jealous.” I visited the senator’s office one day and overheard Gail’s sisters talking about Martin. She’d said Gail was drawn to abusive men. “I had our detective, Gary Underwood, investigate him. It turned out that Martin had been charged with sexual assault down in Louisiana.”
Investigators had found an array of sexual torture devices he used on his victims too. Beyond handcuffs, Martin had collected locking ankle separators, ball gags, and X-racks. The images had stuck in my mind.
“Wow.” Christina’s lips tightened with thinly concealed jealousy. Her gaze darted from me to Troy, and for the first time, I noticed that she liked him.
Her gaze softened on Troy when he asked, “And how long was the jury out? Five minutes?”
“Oh, almost an hour!”
Troy’s sarcasm didn’t get past me. I shook my head.
“So how many wins is this for you?” Competitive, Troy kept score.
“Twelve,” I told him.
“Twelve wins? No shit? Twelve in a row? You’re not even thirty yet. No wonder CNBC wants to interview you.”
I sat back and sipped my wine. Emotionally and physically exhausted from the three-month trial, I let my mind focus on my next diving adventure. The soaring cliffs in Kimberley, Australia, were remote and far away from this life. I couldn’t wait to plan the trip. There was a freedom in falling through the air, a freedom that couldn’t be found anywhere else. For that one moment, fear and hope swallowed up every part of me. When I hit the water, the punishing blow felt like forgiveness. I needed that now.
I imagined arriving at the dive site around dawn—when no one else was there—to watch the sun rising. Like in Acapulco, I’d look down at my toes hanging over the edge of the cliff and stare into the dark blue water below. If the angle of entry was off by a millimeter, or one limb was out of place, the impact could break me.
The risk thrilled me. There was a reason the sport was called tombstoning. Many amateurs had died when they hit rocks hidden beneath the surface.
My ringtone, an obscure hard metal song called “Stains,” shook me out of my reverie. I took the call outside with the excuse that it was too loud in the bar to hear anything. The truth was I wanted to get away from my colleagues.
Outside, in the warm June night, it had just started to rain. A crack of thunder shook the ground and drowned out my voice as I answered.
“Hello, is this Wilhelmina Green?”
“Who’s calling?” I shouted above the downpour.
“This is Jon—”
I stepped back against the wall of the building to get out of the rain. “Sorry, what’s that?” Did he say Jonathon Thomas Heun?
“I’m looking for someone with your tal. . . I need—” The rain beating on the pavement overruled his low voice.
“Yes, I can’t really hear you.”
I thought he wanted to call back later. “I’ll be in the office tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Ms. Green. I’ll be in touch.”
“This is my cell phone, my personal number. How did you . . .?”
He’d hung up. And now I was drenched.
Back inside, Troy sauntered up and put his arm around me. “Raining out?”
“Leave it to you to detect the obvious, Troy.” I patted water off my phone with a bar napkin.
“Let me get you another drink.” Troy turned toward the bar without waiting for my reply.
I grabbed his arm. “No. I’m going home.”
“Why? Who called?”
“I don’t know. I couldn’t hear him,” I said. “I think it was someone trying to hire me, but I don’t know how he got my unlisted number.”
“Hey, that’s great! Just get done winning one case and potentials are calling you already.” Troy stared at my damp chest while I ran fingers through my wet hair.
My black bra showed through the white blouse. I turned my back to him and tugged the clinging fabric away from my body. “The Peterson trial has been all over the news tonight, Troy. I’m bound to get a few calls. It was probably some psycho, like all the rest.”
“Did you get his name?”
Unsuccessful at drying my shirt with a napkin, I patted my face instead. “I thought he said Jonathon Thomas Heun, but I can’t be sure. I couldn’t hear him over the rain and thunder.”
“He’s one of the wealthiest men in Chicago,” Troy said. His brown eyes opened wide.
Was that the name he’d said on the phone? “I don’t know. Heun’s local, right?”
“Why would Huen need a criminal defense lawyer?”
“I have no idea, Troy, but I’m going to do my homework in case he calls back.”
“Have another drink. Besides, you look great in your wet blouse.”
“Seriously, Troy? I thought you were paying attention to current women’s issues.”
“Oh, come on. Celebrate with me for once.” Troy actually whined.
I picked up my purse and dropped my phone inside. Whiners are not on my short list of preferred companions. “See you bright and early.
I stepped into the foyer of my deluxe Lincoln Park loft and dropped my purse on a stack of boxes near the door. Four months earlier, just before the Peterson trial, I’d bought this secure apartment with its vaulted ceilings in a decent part of the city. It was out of my budget, but I wanted the added security provided to residents. The expense would chain me to my job for many years to come. I’d moved right after the trip to Acapulco and only had time to unpack essentials. Boxes lined the hallway and the living room. Pictures I’d been meaning to hang leaned against the walls in various places.
Because I didn’t want to look at the mess, I left the lights off and kicked my navy blue stilettos into a corner. In the bedroom, I pulled my long mouse-brown hair into an updo and wound a hair band around the still-wet tresses. I changed out of the wet shirt, threw on a tank top and loose pair of shorts before opening the bedroom window and letting in the wet smell of rain-soaked concrete mixed with freshwater lake breezes.
After scrubbing my face and applying moisturizer, I curled up in bed with my laptop. The name Jonathon Thomas Heun stuck in my mind. Determined to follow my intuition, I scrolled through the first dozen images of Mr. Heun, a local celebrity-businessman.
“Not bad,” I murmured with a crooked smile.
Heun was cofounder and chief sales executive of Prevail Pharmaceutical Software, and photos of this CEO were making my heart tick faster. One taken during a charity tennis tournament showed off Heun’s long legs and muscular physique as he exploded into the air for an overhead shot. In the next picture, he grinned at the camera, showing off his perfect white teeth, curly black hair, and intense blue eyes. This man was way beyond good-looking; he was fucking hot.
Been way too long since you had a man, Wil.
I reset my focus. J. T. Heun graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a degree in biochemistry. Afterward, he received an MBA in operations and technology management. It was during this time that he came up with the idea of combining a cutting-edge software platform with a state-of-the-art pharmaceutical distribution system. Less than a year after graduating, he and his partners, Jack Barnes, and Darren Ward, launched Prevail Pharmaceutical Software, or PPS.
The company grew quickly. In a few years it went public with a wildly successful IPO. Then Prevail moved its corporate headquarters, as well as the sales and marketing divisions, from Madison to Chicago.
Going back through the search results, I tried to figure out why Jonathon Thomas Heun needed a criminal lawyer. A small article published two days ago in the Chicago Tribune mentioned Heun in conjunction with a twenty-five-year-old missing person, a woman named Kymani Zhao. Zhao, Heun’s top personal assistant, had disappeared. Foul play was suspected but the police weren’t releasing any further details. The list of persons of interest was short—J. T. Heun was the list. Zhao had traveled everywhere with him. Many articles about Prevail included photos of Heun and Ms. Zhao together.
I continued my research, now switching to his assistant. Born in San Francisco to Chinese parents, she attended UCLA for business. She moved to Chicago after W. W. Grainger’s top executive hired her. She was introduced to Mr. Heun at a social gathering, where he hired her on the spot.
Because of the Peterson trial, my train of thought traveled to sex. Who had used whom? Zhao was quite attractive, with flawless skin and silky black hair. I wondered what Heun had learned about her skill set and what kind of relationship they had. Was it purely professional? Or was it more than that? What if she put all her cards on the table? And her panties, too. Or perhaps the encounter went in a different direction. Could the police really think that J. T. Heun, CEO of a multi-million-dollar enterprise, had something to do with Kymani Zhao’s disappearance? They had yet to arrest him. I looked at a close-up photo of his stormy eyes and imagined Heun taking Zhao to a hotel room and stripping her naked.
A shiver trilled through my back ribs, and I got up to close the window. The rain had started up again. I was unsure if he’d been the caller, and yet I was drawn into the story and its characters. If Jonathon Heun needed a lawyer, then I wanted to represent him no matter what.
Can I trust my gut?