What’s the one thing you want to do before you die?
That question was printed in neon green chalk at the top of a blackboard hanging just inside Niche’s Women’s Room. I hadn’t noticed it when I walked in, but now I studied the chalkboard as I washed my hands. Ten numbered white chalk lines underneath provided spaces for restaurant patrons to write answers. It was early in the evening, and only one diner had filled in an answer. She wanted to visit the Galapagos Islands.
Despite all the death around me since before I was born, it was a question I never thought about.
“Take a trip to Paris?” Ty said when I rejoined him at our small, square table and told him about it.
“Maybe next summer,” I said.
“Or you could set a goal of dodging better in your training sessions.” He grinned at me.
“You noticed.” My hand rose to my jawline. I had layered on extra foundation and carefully styled my long hair into waves to cover the bruising. Early in the summer I started training with a retired police academy instructor. A City of Chicago detective who owed me a favor had referred me to him to help me learn to better defend myself and avoid danger. “First day we finally get to fighting. I was supposed to be ducking. Obviously, I’m not a natural.”
Ty sipped the last of his wine. “The heavy makeup layer gave it away. Not exactly your usual look. Other than in those old publicity shots your Gram showed me.”
I was a stage actress as a child and teenager. Spending so much time in makeup and costumes, and being stared at, left me leaning toward a fairly simple look in real life. I use enough foundation to even my olive skin tone. If I’m going to court – now I’m a lawyer – or out for an evening I add some mascara and lip gloss and I’m done.
“I thought maybe the dress would distract you.”
I wore a bright red sundress with spaghetti straps, perfect for the heat that day. Most of my clothes double for work and going out, but this did not.
“Oh, it’s definitely distracting. Which I appreciate.”
“You think Eric will notice the bruise?” I said.
Without asking any questions, Ty had agreed to drive forty-five minutes west of downtown Chicago for dinner so I could meet Eric Ruggirello afterwards. Eric was the son of a man I had been involved with two years before. That man’s death led to my meeting the police detective who later suggested some defense training for me. And it led to a friendship with Eric.
“Probably not,” Ty said. “He didn’t say what he wanted to talk to you about?”
“He’s fourteen. He didn’t say. He texted. But he did give me a little background.” My phone showed seven-twenty-five. “We should go.”
Ty slid his chair back. “I just hope it’s not about another murder.”
“Well –” I said.
* * *
It’s a far west suburb of Chicago, but Geneva looks more like one of those quaint antique towns that tourists frequent. Not unlike Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, which people sometimes confuse it with if they don’t live in the area. Geneva draws people from all over the Chicago area for its seasonal festivals, and during the winter holidays you feel like you’re walking through a festive snow globe.
Small restaurants and boutiques with specialty items like candles, gourmet olive oil, or unique jewelry line its downtown streets.
It also has plenty of free parking, another wonder of suburbia. Ty had easily found a spot on the street midway between the restaurant and the chocolate bar where we planned to meet Eric.
During our short walk, I told Ty that Eric had a friend whose mother died a month ago, at the end of July. Today, her dad had been arrested.
“That’s why she’s staying out here. With her aunt and uncle,” I said.
“So she needs a defense attorney.”
“Probably. But I already offered a referral. Eric asked if he could talk to me in person.”
I handle only civil matters. Which means money is at stake, not anyone’s liberty or life. But I share office space with a criminal defense attorney. Eric had met Danielle once or twice and already knew I thought highly of her skills. So it must be something more.
Eric sat at a table near the windows, not far from a five-foot-tall dark chocolate sculpture of a peacock. A girl who must be his friend Alexis sat opposite him, her spine flattened against the back of the booth. He hadn’t told me she would be with him.
Her blue-streaked blond hair had been gelled and sculpted to stand straight up from her head. Her eyebrows slashed dark lines over her eyes. Like me, she had olive-tinged skin. Tonight, the areas under her eyes looked almost bruised. Some of her makeup foundation had worn away, showing a rash of acne on her left cheek.
Eric stood when he saw us. It used to make my heart hurt when I saw him. He looks so much like a slimmer teenaged version of his dad. But it had been long enough since Marco’s death that now Eric reminded me more of happy memories.
He looked taller than when I last saw him, though it had only been a month ago. And his dark curly hair, so much like his dad’s, looked shorter, with no flyaway ends. A few curls hung over his forehead.
He hugged me and introduced Alexis. I adjusted the spaghetti straps of my red sundress, which had slipped partway down my shoulders during the hug, wishing I’d opted for my usual way of dressing. I favor neutrals and clothes that I can mix and match for business or going out. The red dress didn’t feel appropriate to talk to a girl in Alexis’ circumstances. I told myself she likely didn’t care.
Eric and Ty shook hands.
Ty left to get us drinks. Eric slid into the booth next to Alexis, and I sat across from them.
“I’m so sorry to hear about your mom’s death,” I said to Alexis. “And now about your dad.”
“It’s just –” She clutched a half-full mug of some sort of frothy drink and stared down into it. “When my uncle picked me up from school today, I kept telling him he had to do something, but he won’t. He won’t do anything.”
“Is there something specific you want him to do?” I said.
“Tell them. The police. Tell them they’re wrong.” She inhaled through her mouth, a sharp, quick breath that made her chest heave. “Stupid, right? It’s not like it would change their minds.”
“Probably not. Did he say why the police focused on your dad?” I said.
“Just they always think the spouse did it.” Alexis fixed her eyes on me. “Is that true? Eric said you know about criminal stuff.”
In the two years of sharing space with Danielle, I picked up a lot. She once told me that fifty-five percent of the time if a woman is murdered, her husband or boyfriend did it. A statistic that wouldn’t make Alexis feel any better.
“The police typically look first at a spouse,” I said. “But to make an arrest, there must be more than that.”
Eric pushed aside his milkshake. “They’re saying it was poison. That Ivy – that’s Alexis’ mom – was poisoned.”
Ty slipped into the booth next to me with two glasses of ice water plus a root beer for him and a dark hot cocoa for me. I love hot cocoa no matter the weather, and I love that he doesn’t find that weird.
“And is that what the police told you right away?” I said.
Alexis shook her head. “No. Everyone thought complications from stomach flu or something. My mom had a lot of digestive problems.”
Not everyone or there wouldn’t have been an investigation. “So what changed?”
“I don’t know.”
“Seems like not many people die from stomach flu,” Ty said.
Alexis cleared her throat. “Yeah, probably not. But my mom has – had – a weak stomach. So we all kind of thought it was something like that.”
I supposed some type of digestive issues could be fatal, but it sounded to me more like something a detective might have mentioned to give everyone involved the false impression that murder wasn’t suspected.
Eric hit a few keys on his phone. “Do you know this lawyer? Is he any good?” He passed the phone across the table to me. It was open to a solo lawyer’s law firm website.
“My uncle recommended him,” Alexis said.
“I don’t.” The name was unfamiliar to me, but that didn’t mean anything. Through Danielle I knew some of the Chicago area defense attorneys’ names, but definitely not all of them. I scrolled through the single-page website. “Wrongful death, contract cases, criminal defense. I can’t tell how much of the practice is criminal.”
“I compared it to Danielle’s,” Eric said. “Hers is all criminal defense info. And she has all these links to news articles about her trials.”
I sipped the hot chocolate. Not bad, but still a bit too sweet for me. I like bitter dark.
“Well, you know Danielle’s who I’d choose if I were ever in trouble. But this attorney might just not be very good at creating a website.”
I fired off a text to Danielle asking about the attorney.
She was a prosecutor before she became a defense attorney, and a cop before that – one of the first Black women on the force. She knew most lawyers who practiced criminal law in Chicago. At least she did if they appeared in court very much.
“My uncle says any private lawyer’s better than a public defender,” Alexis said.
I felt unsure how much information to provide if it might unsettle her more. But I always tried to be up front with Eric. I doubted he would have contacted me if he wanted someone to sugarcoat things. Though it wasn’t clear yet what exactly he wanted me to do here.
“That’s not always so,” I said. “I’m a private attorney. You could hire me to represent your dad, but it would be a bad idea. My eight years of practice have all been civil.” Alexis looked at me blankly. “Cases about money. A first-year public defender knows more than I do about criminal procedure. And an experienced one knows all about sentencing and which judges are more likely to grant certain types of motions. And what sorts of things a jury might think about.”
Danielle had horror stories about clients who came to her after a friend who was a real estate attorney or corporate lawyer represented them. Or one who handled minor criminal matters but had never tried a case and got hired to defend a murder charge. Unfortunately, most of the bad advice couldn’t be fixed after the fact.
Alexis squared her shoulders. “But Eric told me you investigated crimes before. Like his dad’s death.”
“And for your friend Caleb,” Eric said. “And that other time.”
“That didn’t turn out so well for Caleb,” I said. “I think he ended up being sorry he got me involved.”
“He nearly got killed,” Ty said. “And so did Quille.”
I shot him a look. When talking with Eric I downplayed any close calls I had. He’d already lost his dad. He didn’t need to worry about something happening to another adult in his life.
“You didn’t tell me that,” Eric said.
“Ty’s exaggerating,” I said.
Eric’s eyebrows rose.
“Okay, not by much. Which is why I’m doing that training I told you about. So I can protect myself better.”
Eric slouched. “Now I feel like I shouldn’t have asked you to come here.”
“Because?” I said, though I had a guess as to what might be coming. Eric wouldn’t have asked me to meet in person just for background on a defense lawyer.
Alexis and Eric glanced at each other. She spoke. “We want you to help us figure out who really killed my mom.”
The Troubled Man is now available! Learn more.