Never Look Back

By: Linda Lael Miller

It still did something for me, seeing them so prominently displayed. I'd earned my sheepskin the hard way, waiting tables at a Tucson bar by the ridiculous name of Nipples, hitting the books on every break, sleeping a maximum of four hours a night. After graduation, I put in five years of indentured servitude with Harvey Kredd—a.k.a. "Krudd," in police circles. Harvey specialized in setting the guilty free, and he was the shyster's shyster.

Believe me, I paid my dues.

Beneath my name, in smaller letters, was the proviso: Qualified Clients Defended at No Charge.

By "qualified," I meant innocent—as I defined the word. Much to Sonterra's annoyance, not to mention that of the prosecutor's office, I see shades of gray, and I make allowances for extenuating circumstances. In the three days since I'd signed the lease on the storefront—a former lawnmower-repair shop— wedged between Dr. Thomlinson's clinic and a thrift store, I'd already turned away half a dozen prospective clients, and I wasn't even open for business yet. I'd accepted two others: Barbara Jenkins, a woman accused of conking her abusive husband over the head and rolling him into the fishpond in their backyard, where he subsequently drowned, and a slightly nerdy and very overweight young man named David Valardi. David was a computer whiz, allegedly the creator of the insidious Barabbas virus.

Now, paint-smudged, tired, and ravenously hungry, I was ready to call it a night. I stepped down a rung, and in one seemingly eternal moment, my front window splintered with a horrendous crash. A barrage of bullets slammed into the wall, inches above my head.

I dived for the floor and scrambled under the desk, where the dog, a Yorkshire terrier called Bernice, had pressed herself into a corner, whimpering and shivering. I groped for her, checked her for wounds, then gave myself a hasty once-over. Fortunately, neither of us had sprung a leak.

It's the neighborhood, I thought, with that odd detachment that comes of abject fear, remembering Sonterra's admonition. "Counselor," he'd said, just before our last big fight, "in Phoenix, nobody in their right mind sets up shop on a street named after a president."

I waited, braced for another round of artillery fire. My heart was beating so hard that for a few moments I couldn't hear anything but the blood roaring in my ears, and I was definitely hyperventilating. Clutching the dog to my chest with one arm, I used my free hand to ferret through the bottom drawer of the desk for my purse, and the .38 and cell phone inside.

I had barely connected with the 911 operator when I heard the sound of sirens and screeching tires in the near distance.

I gave the dispatcher my location.

"Officers are en route," she told me calmly. "Are you injured? Is the assailant on the premises?"

I closed my eyes, breathing deeply and slowly, trying to regain my equilibrium. "I have no idea where the assailant is," I answered after a few more desperate slurps, of oxygen. "I don't think I'm hurt, but I'm scared." Shitless, clarified the voice in my mind, which always wants to put in its two cents.

More squealing of tires. A hard rap on the street door, apparently still intact. A shout of "Police!"

Still holding the dog, which had just peed down the front of my T-shirt, a violation I could well identify with, given the circumstances, I crawled to the side of the desk and looked around the far edge. After all, anybody can lay rubber, knock on a door, and say they're the law.

There, where the inside and outside light met in a blurry pool, I saw two cops, guns drawn. One was scanning the street, the other squinting between the bars on the door.

"That was fast," I told the dispatcher.

"Let them in," she prompted.

Duh, I thought. "Now there's an idea," I replied aloud, getting to my feet, dog, soggy T-shirt, and all. "Thanks."

The dispatcher chuckled good-naturedly, and I imagined what she was thinking. Shots fired? All in a night's work, and not uncommon here in Presidentsville. "Stay on the line, please. I need to confirm a few things with the officers. By the way, what's your name?"

"Clare Westbrook," I answered shakily. I was on a cell phone, rather than a landline, which meant the pertinent information wouldn't necessarily pop up on her computer screen.

My legs were like noodles. I swayed on my feet, took a firmer grip on the dog, "and braced the cell between my ear and shoulder. Somehow, I got across the room, worked the dead bolts, and admitted the cops.

"Are you all right, ma'am?" asked the one on the left, who had been covering the street. His gaze dropped to the dog.

"Yes," I answered, surprised at the steadiness in my voice, and introduced myself. My internal organs had turned to jelly, but I'm resilient by nature. In a crisis, I slip into my inner phone booth and become Super-Lawyer, saving the hysteria for later. "The dispatcher wants to speak with one of you."

The other officer accepted the cell phone, thrust at him by me, while his partner took me lightly by the arm and squired me to the nearest chair.

"What happened?" he asked, words that could be carved on my tombstone, I've heard them so often. Crouching in front of me, with a creak of his leather service belt, he took one of my hands and simultaneously patted Bernice's furry little head.