Big Trouble

Episode 8

Arilin Thorferra

It was quarter past four in the morning and I was still awake, lying in bed staring drowsily at a crack in the ceiling. It wasn’t for lack of trying to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, something else popped into my head and my eyes opened again.

Cross had lied about no longer being able to keep me on retainer, but little lies kept life civil. We’d parted ways because as he moved from law into politics, the jobs he wanted me to work on moved from helping win cases to going after political enemies, something I had no taste for. If Lambert had gotten himself a different lawyer, maybe I’d have been able to talk my way into doing some work for them, but no way that would happen with somebody from Cross and Baker.

So my services weren’t just no longer required, they were no longer being paid for. Case closed.

If Edgar hadn’t killed Elsa, though, who had? And why? If Joey and his partner thought Elsa was onto them, they might have bumped her off, but it’d be a hell of a risk. Edgar could finger Joey and the bunny girl, at the least, and as humiliated as he might be by coming clean on the extortion, it might save him from hanging for a murder he didn’t commit.

Beyond that, her being killed the same day I told her about the blackmail just couldn’t be a coincidence. Maybe she hadn’t confronted Edgar, but she’d confronted somebody, and she’d been killed for it. Again, why? Did she know something I didn’t know she knew? I hadn’t given her any names, but she’d said she’d do what she could to find who was involved. What had she meant? Was somebody afraid she’d find out something?

Abruptly, I sat up in bed, eyes wide. Was somebody afraid I’d find out something?

Elsa knew I’d had other leads. Woodley knew I was trying to connect him, Joey Knives, and his dad’s import business. Sydney had tried to wave me off from poking around that company, too. Even if he was right and it was somebody’s side hustle, that was also a risk—a risk that, say, a nosy shamus looking into that side hustle might stumble onto what East-West’s real business was. So it was starting to feel like somebody really didn’t want me looking too deeply at that import company.

But would somebody murder my client just to kneecap me?

The worst of it was, it would work. I couldn’t afford to follow up on a case just to satisfy my curiosity. I didn’t want to see Lambert take the fall for his wife, but he hadn’t been charged with anything yet, he might not be charged at all, and if he were, he’d have an excellent lawyer.

I lay back in bed, but didn’t have any more luck falling asleep.

I got another small job that Friday, one the next week, and nothing the week after that, nabbing just three days of pay. I’d had worse months, but I’d had a lot better, too. I’d tell you they were glamorous cases, but I’d be lying. One was another insurance case—companies always hoped their customers were trying to scam them, because then they could deny their claims. They only rang up an investigator when there was something fishy, though, so four out of five times when I looked into it, it really was a scam. It was soul-killing work.

As much as I tried, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Lamberts. Whether I’d inadvertently put Elsa in danger. What would happen to her sap of a widower. Whether there was something bigger here, or it was just my paranoia. I had left too many loose ends.

But I resisted tugging any of them, even during that down week, until I caught the headline at the magazine stand on my walk to the office: LAMBERT ARRESTED IN WIFE’S KILLING. I hurried inside and slid a nickel to the clerk, grabbed the paper, and stomped down the sidewalk as I read. The cops didn’t come out and admit they had no evidence, they just didn’t mention any evidence they had. Everything was circumstantial, but still ugly—no alibi, no other suspects, all the money he’d inherit, rumors of unfaithfulness.

I frowned as I walked in my office. Rumors from where? Not from either Edgar or his blackmailers, you could bet. The cops, to get the word out that they’d got their man, case closed, stop looking? More likely. Waters and Norwich never wanted to do any legwork that didn’t end at a donut shop. I couldn’t rule out the possibility Edgar had been having an actual affair, not just a one-time adventure, of course. But I’d developed a pretty good sense for that over the years, and I’d have bet a day’s pay he was on the up and up.

I set down the paper and rang up Sydney. I got the firm’s receptionist, a mouse named Millie. “Law Offices of Cross and Baker, how may I direct your call?”

“I’d like to speak to Sydney Harman.”

“May I ask who’s calling?”

“Nora Mallory.”

“Ah. Yes. Mr. Harman isn’t in, but if you leave—”

“That’s fine, Millie, I’ll just come down to the office and wait for him. Want me to pick up anything for you on the way?”

I could hear her teeth clench. After a moment, she spoke with forced cheer. “You’re in luck, Miss Mallory. He’s just coming in now. Hold, please.”

A few clicks, thunks, and buzzes sounded, followed by Sydney picking up. “Good morning, Nora.” He sounded politely irritated.

“What’s Lambert’s defense?”

“The man was only charged yesterday, so I doubt that’s been worked out in great detail. Not that I would be at liberty to share it with you unless you were working for us. Which you are not.”

“Then hire me. I can prove he’s innocent. I think.”

“If you have information, I can pass it along to his counsel.”

“There are leads from his case—his wife’s case—I’d need time to follow up on.”

The possum’s sigh made the line crackle. When he spoke again, he lowered his voice. “If, hypothetically, there were embarrassing details of Mr. Lambert’s private life that he would rather not have come out in a trial, then again, hypothetically, his lawyer might strongly advise him to take a plea deal to avoid said trial.”

“What?” My voice rose. “Sydney, the man didn’t do it!”

“You think. Which means you don’t know.”

“I don’t know know, but—”

His voice became an urgent, hissed whisper. “For God’s sake, Nora, take the hint and leave this alone.”

My ears lowered. I didn’t say anything.

Sydney’s voice returned to normal. “Nice chatting with you. I have to be on my way, but let’s do lunch again sometime soon, hmm?” He hung up before I could answer.