A hotshot L.A. lawyer takes on a corporation with a long history of discriminating against women. While she simply wants justice for her clients, the corporation’s hired gun wants to win . . . and she doesn’t care how.
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“Girlfriend, you need to relax.” Olivia Jackson gave her co-worker’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “We won’t be able to get through this if you don’t. You want me to pray for you?”
Judi Irving inhaled and pretended to busy herself inside her battered locker. Prayer was her co-worker’s answer to everything.
“Uh, that’s okay,” Judi mumbled, mostly to herself. “I’m fine.”
She stripped off her purple Big Buy blazer and stuffed it inside the locker. The second she’d entered the room, the pain swelling her feet went from uncomfortable to unbearable. Her body’s way of rebelling against another twelve-hour shift.
Olivia took a step closer to Judi, as her eyes crisscrossed the empty locker room. “Did you bring the documents?” she asked.
“Not here!” Judi whispered, her voice tinged with panic. She had told Olivia a thousand times. It wasn’t safe to talk about their lawsuit at work.
Judi was a fit, strawberry blonde, who usually masked her worries with a pleasant smile. Today she felt anxious and frayed. She stared up at the ceiling. She wouldn’t put it past Big Buy to have listening devices or even video cameras hidden in the locker room.
“You worry too much,” Olivia said, raising her right hand as if preparing to take an oath. “Not a soul can be against us because Jesus is for us.”
At only 33, Olivia spoke with the confidence and zeal of a Baptist minister. She had skin the color of slightly burnt straw and a body stacked with curves. Her tell-it-like-it-is personality significantly heightened her five-two frame.
“Ida can’t meet us tonight,” Judi said. “So you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to see them.”
It baffled Judi how Olivia could be so fearless in the face of what they’d just done. Two weeks ago, they’d filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against Big Buy, the largest discount chain in the state of California. Fed up with seeing women repeatedly passed over for promotions and subjected to crude, sexist jokes, Judi and her two co-workers decided to do something about it. The only way to make change, they’d agreed, was to shove it down the company’s throat.
The Big Buy documents Judi now possessed—documents Olivia was dying to see—should have emboldened her. Instead, they only heightened her fears.
Olivia’s face flushed with exasperation. “You’re way too paranoid, girlfriend. I’m praying for you whether you want me to or not.” She took both of Judi’s hands in hers, closed her eyes and bowed her head. “Father God, please protect and strengthen Judi for the battle we—”
Judi eased her hands from Olivia’s grasp and stepped past her, never meeting her eyes.
“That’s okay…I, uh…I gotta go.”
It was close to ten by the time Judi pulled her black Camry into the driveway of her modest rental house in Mar Vista. Unfortunately, being home did nothing to lift her spirits.
A year-long divorce battle that was still in full swing had left her emotionally drained. And now, her starving-actor boyfriend was exhibiting the same evasiveness her husband had displayed right before he'd dumped her for a big-breasted beautician. At 42, Judi was still picking losers.
She made her way inside and headed straight for the bedroom, longing for a hot shower and some deep sleep.
Phillip walked out of the attached bathroom, bare-chested and beautiful, his coal-black hair slicked back with a shiny gel. His grayish-green eyes matched the tint of his silk boxers.
Phillip barely looked at her. "Hey."
"Hey," Judi said back.
That had been the extent of their communications lately.
In the beginning, her affair with a 28-year-old she'd picked up in a bar had been nothing short of a thrill ride. At the time, a young lover was the boost her self-esteem needed. Now, it was simply a whopping mistake in judgment.
Judi undressed, while Phillip returned to the bathroom. It was close to five minutes before another word passed between them.
"You still going through with the lawsuit?" Phillip called out.
Judi snorted. "Why wouldn't I?"
"Because it's a stupid thing to do."
Judi smiled. She relished this newfound power over her live-in lover. As the TV pitchman for Big Buy stores, Phillip feared her lawsuit might ruin his career—if you could call a few commercials, three plays and a B movie a career. He'd been constantly badgering her to drop it.
"Whoever sent me those documents doesn't think my lawsuit's stupid," Judi shot back.
The thick package had arrived in the mail only three days earlier. With Phillip peering over her shoulder, Judi opened it to find several dozen documents and a typed note: "Good luck with your lawsuit against Big Buy. These documents should help."
"You don't even know what they are," Phillip pressed.
True. They had both skimmed several pages and could see that they were financial records. Beyond that, they might as well have been written in Russian.
Judi had immediately left an excited voicemail message for her attorney. At the moment, Vernetta Henderson was defending a football player in a civil sexual assault case. As soon as that trial ended, their lawsuit against Big Buy would receive Vernetta's full attention. For now, the documents were in a safe place. Not even Phillip knew where she had stashed them.
"They're probably stolen," Phillip said, refusing to drop the subject. "What happens if you get fired?"
If I get fired, then you'll have to get a real job.
Judi should have kicked him out weeks ago, but she had a long history of letting men trounce all over her. Maybe that was why the Big Buy lawsuit meant so much to her. She was finally standing up for herself.
Having been out of the job market for most of her eight-year marriage, returning to retail had been her easiest option. She had expected a quick promotion, but soon realized the fast track at Big Buy was reserved for men.
"Can I borrow a few bucks?" Phillip asked from the bathroom.
"What's a few bucks?"
"I don't have it."
Phillip strode out of the bathroom. He had changed into jeans and a body-hugging sweater that showcased his muscular arms. "Stop being a bitch."
Judi charged up to him. "I told you not to talk to me like that. And where the hell do you think you're going?"
"I have a meeting with Harold."
"It's almost ten o'clock. Since when do you schedule meetings with your agent this late at night?"
"I have no reason to lie."
Those were certainly words she'd heard before. "Who're you screwing, Phillip?"
He threw up his hands. "I don't have time for this nonsense. Get out of my face." Phillip shoved her so hard, she stumbled to the floor.
Judi laid there totally stunned. Their arguments had intensified in recent weeks, but Phillip had never put his hands on her. The rage began to build as she slowly got to her feet.
"We're done. Pack your stuff and get out!" Judi shouted.
Phillip turned back around to face her. An ugly smirk marred his face. "I'll leave when I'm ready to leave."
Judi charged at him and gouged her fingernails deep into the left side of his face.
For several long seconds they both seemed stricken with paralysis.
Phillip finally pressed three fingers to his cheek. His eyes expanded as he stared at the specks of blood on his fingertips. Phillip's precious face was his bread and butter.
"You bitch!" he sputtered. "You scarred my face!"
He snatched Judi by the upper arms, lifting her high enough for her feet to dangle in the air.
Judi tried to wrestle free, but Phillip only squeezed harder. Sharp stabs of pain rocketed down her arms. "Let me go! You're hurting me!"
Phillip hurled her onto the bed, then bolted over to the dresser to inspect his face in the mirror. Three short, red gashes lined the left side of his face. He turned back to Judi, who lay coiled in the middle of the bed, sobbing.
"If you ever touch my face again," he seethed, "I'll kill you."
Snatching his keys from the dresser, Phillip stormed out of the room.
The sound of movement coming from the kitchen woke Judi from her sleep. She was still curled up in the same spot where Phillip had discarded her. She checked the clock on the nightstand and was shocked to see that it read 3:27 a.m.
"A meeting with your agent my ass!"
She scrambled out of bed. Enough was enough. Phillip had to go. Now. Right now.
Striding into the hallway, she flicked on the light switch. No illumination appeared, but that did not halt her journey.
"Phillip! We need to talk!"
She stepped into the kitchen and pounded her fist against the light switch just inside the doorway. This time, when the light that should have flooded the room didn't, her body constricted with fear.
"Phillip, is that you?" Her voice was smaller now and had lost most of its bravado.
Judi sensed the presence of someone nearby and whirled around.
"Who's in here?" She could hear a loud, steady thud, but wasn't sure if it was her heartbeat or someone else's. "Phillip, is that you?"
She darted into the living room, each step compelled by an innate instinct to flee. Terror, however, had distorted her sense of direction. She was uncertain now whether the front door was to her left or right, north or south. She plowed clumsily through the room, arms extended like a mummy.
"Ow!" Judi yelped as her knee collided into the corner of a coffee table. She ignored the fierce pain and continued to hobble across the room.
When she finally made contact with a wall, she slapped the surface like a mime palming an imaginary window. Her hand found the doorknob and she fumbled with the lock before finally tugging it open.
Judi whimpered in relief as the cold morning air stroked her face.
Just as she was about to cross the threshold to safety, a hand gripped her shoulder and snatched her back into the living room. The door slammed shut as something hard and heavy careened into the back of her head. She crashed face-first into the wall. Blood gushed from her nose with the force of a geyser.
"Help! Somebody help me!" Judi screamed.
The intruder pinned her right shoulder against the wall and pounded her in the back of the head a second time. A heavy fog enveloped her senses, but Judi fought hard against her body's desire to give in. She flailed at her attacker, raising her left hand up and over her shoulder. When she felt skin, she grabbed and pinched and scratched. But her efforts did nothing to free her from her attacker's grasp.
Another hard blow to Judi's head sapped any remaining strength. She began to drift toward unconsciousness as her co-worker's earlier request flickered in her mind.
If only Olivia could pray for her now.
Show no fear.
That had been my mantra for the past eight days, which was exactly how long I'd been sitting at the defense table in Department 26 of the Los Angeles Superior Court.
At the moment, every eye in this media-infested tinderbox was riveted on my opponent, Girlie Cortez, who was winding down her closing argument.
A salacious mix of Filipino and Caucasian, she was a junior partner at the litigation firm, Donaldson, Watson and Barkley. Petite and slender with dark, ominous eyes, her shiny black hair spilled down her back like a curtain of silk. Born Lourdes Amelia Cortez, Girlie had legally adopted her childhood nickname and wore it like her personal marquee.
Any opponent who judged Girlie based on her feminine appearance would live to regret it. A tigress of a lawyer, she had a reputation for doing whatever it took to win—no matter how unscrupulous, unethical or just plain scandalous. I learned that from personal experience.
The Honorable Rafael Pedrano nodded in my direction as Girlie returned to her seat at the plaintiff's table. "Ms. Henderson, you may address the jury."
I slowly stood up, my eyes bright and focused, my stance relaxed.
Show no fear.
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen," I began with a respectful smile. "As you know, I'm Vernetta Henderson and I represent Lamarr 'The Hero' Harrison, the Los Angeles Legends' star wide receiver."
At five-eight, I was a great height for commanding attention in a courtroom. My shoulder-length hair was parted on the side and conservatively swept back behind my right ear. My navy blue, pinstriped suit conveyed both confidence and power.
"I'd like to commend Ms. Cortez for that spectacular story she just told you. But this is a court of law. Stories are of no value here. To carry her burden of proof, Ms. Cortez must present you with credible evidence. She hasn't done that because she doesn't have any."
I took a moment to make eye contact with a few of the faces in the jury box. Juror number six, a dental assistant with perfect teeth, gave me an encouraging nod. I was already counting on her vote since I'd caught her giving Lamarr a seductive smile that bordered on flirting.
"There were only two people in that hotel suite on the morning of June twenty-fifth when the plaintiff alleges that my client sexually assaulted her. So only two people—Lamarr and the plaintiff—know what really happened."
Using her name would make her human. Human was not what I wanted her to be.
"When you head back to the jury room to begin your deliberations, I'd like you to ask yourself one question: Who's the real player here?"
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that Lamarr was sitting up straight, just as I had instructed, his hands clasped on the table in front of him. He was 26 years old, ten years my junior, with a boyish face and deep-set dimples. A tall, sturdy 230 pounds, Lamarr traversed the football field with the speed and grace of a prized race horse.
"My client plays games for a living," I told the jury. "That's his job. The plaintiff plays games too. The one game she plays best is manipulation. She manipulated my client and she's been trying to manipulate all of you by walking into this courtroom day after day with her conservative suits, her mousy demeanor and her crocodile tears. But let me remind you who she really is."
I took four short steps over to the defense table and pressed a button on my laptop. A life-size picture of Tonisha filled the screen to the right of the witness box. She was wearing purple eye shadow, ruby red lipstick, and a thick auburn wig that fanned out across her shoulders. Her long legs were shamelessly snaked around a shiny brass pole. She was also butt naked.
Extending my arm, I pointed up at the screen like it was my smoking gun. "That's the real player in this courtroom."
Although the jurors had seen this photograph when I cross-examined Tonisha, they still seemed jarred by it. Juror number nine, the computer geek, leaned forward and blushed. Juror number two, the Lutheran minister, averted his eyes.
"The plaintiff," I continued, "is an admitted sports groupie who was on a mission to hook up with a professional football player—any football player. But Girlie Cortez wants you to believe that the plaintiff only accompanied Lamarr to his suite at the W Hotel so they could talk and get to know each other."
I dramatically rolled my eyes.
"She wanted to talk? At two-fifteen in the morning? We all know the real reason we're in this courtroom."
I raised my left hand and slowly rubbed my thumb back and forth across my fingertips. "So that the plaintiff can collect."
Point by point, I meticulously reviewed the evidence, then reminded the jury that the plaintiff changed her story so many times, that the L.A. District Attorney's Office elected not to file criminal charges against Lamarr. By the time I finished recounting my version of the facts, I hadn't exactly come out and called Tonisha a dishonest, opportunistic skank who didn't deserve a dime, but the jury got my drift.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm not here to convince you that Lamarr Harris is a choir boy. He's not. But he's also not a rapist. His only mistake on June twenty-fifth was failing to recognize that he was being played by the plaintiff."
I pressed my lips together and paused for three long beats. "Please don't let her play you too."
Even before I was settled in my seat, Lamarr leaned over to whisper words of praise. "That was tight, counselor!"
It felt great to have such a satisfied client. I just hoped he still felt that way after the jury's verdict.
Girlie Cortez took to the floor again and was about to begin her rebuttal. She abruptly stopped and turned to the judge. "Your Honor, could you ask Ms. Henderson to please remove her exhibit?"
I tried not to smirk as I took my time fiddling with my computer. I'd watch other opponents complete their entire rebuttal with a damaging photograph or document looming in the background. I didn't think Girlie would be that sloppy, but it was worth a try.
Recognizing that the jury was antsy, Girlie didn't speak long. "Ladies and gentlemen, I won't waste your time rehashing facts you already know. I just want you to remember that the defendant is a handsome, wealthy young man who's used to getting what he wants, whenever he wants it, no matter what the consequences. And Lamarr The Hero Harrison wanted Tonisha."
She made a show of gazing over her shoulder at Lamarr, which drew the jury's attention his way.
"My client is a naive young woman who was infatuated with a celebrity football player she'd just met. Please—"
Girlie's voice cracked and her eyes started to water. It was an act I'd witnessed before.
"Please don't punish her. Punish the man who raped her and make him pay for his brutal crime."
When I saw Lamarr's hands curl into tight fists, I firmly tapped my foot against his and his thick fingers instantly sprang loose. I'd repeatedly warned him not to show any sign of aggression in front of the jury.
In just over an hour, the judge finished the instructions to the jury and dismissed them to begin deliberating. Lamarr walked toward his friends huddled in the back of the courtroom while I stuffed papers into my satchel.
"Nice closing," Girlie said, breezing past me. "Maybe the third time'll be the charm for you."
I didn't bother to respond. I'd lost my last two cases against Girlie and it still smarted. The fact that we were both minority women in a profession dominated by white males should have created some level of camaraderie between us. But Girlie wasn't the collegial type.
As I closed my satchel, I felt a hollowness deep in my gut that had nothing to do with my disdain for my catty adversary. I'd done a good job, but the verdict, I knew, could go either way. And even though I'd love a win against Girlie, I wasn't sure my client deserved one.
When you spend close to a year prepping a case for trial, you see sides of your client that no one else ever will. Not their wives or girlfriends, not their parents, not even their life-long homies. And the man I'd come to know wasn't the stand-up guy I'd just presented to the jury.
Despite his celebrated nickname, as far as I was concerned, Lamarr Harris was nobody's hero.
Detective Dean Mankowski stepped across the threshold of the two-bedroom home where Judi Irving had been viciously attacked. He grimaced as his eyes took in the chaos. Overturned chairs, ripped cushions, a cracked coffee table, and a bucket of blood spatter on the door and wall.
“I think my gut’s already got a line on this one,” he announced to his partner.
Mankowski was tall and solidly built. A committed bachelor in his mid-40’s, his wavy, dirty-blond hair and TV cop’s swagger enhanced his raw good looks.
Detective Mitchell Thomas scratched his head, then exhaled. “Okay, let’s hear it. What’s your gut saying this time?”
Mankowski smiled. “It’s the boyfriend.”
Upon their arrival almost thirty minutes earlier, the two detectives received a quick recap from the first officer on the scene, then briefly spoke to Phillip Peterman. Mankowski’s dislike for Peterman was instantaneous. One, the guy didn’t have a real job. Two, he was an actor. And three, he waxed his eyebrows.
“Man, you go with your gut way too much,” Thomas complained. “We haven’t even interrogated him yet.”
A few inches shorter than his partner, Thomas had skin the color of almonds, an angular nose and pencil-thin lips. He was a married father of three with a salesman’s demeanor.
Mankowski took a step back to allow an officer carrying two large plastic bags to walk by. A female crime scene tech hovered near the front door, snapping pictures of the blood spatter. A man on his knees dusted the coffee table for prints.
An hour earlier, paramedics rushed Judi Irving to St. John’s Medical Center in Santa Monica. A hysterical housekeeper discovered Judi bleeding and unconscious on the living room floor.
“I just hope the woman makes it,” Mankowski said. “Then she can tell you how right I am.”
His gut wasn’t always on the money, but it had racked up enough hits for him to still confidently rely on it.
Thomas let out half of a chuckle. “Here we go again. We’ll probably spend the next three months going after the boyfriend only to find out it was a burglary gone bad. Look at this place.”
Mankowski shook his head in disagreement. “This is a staged scene. Somebody just wanted us to think this was a burglary. And that somebody is Phillip Peterman.”
“Maybe,” Thomas said, rubbing his dimpled chin, “maybe not. A back window was jimmied open. Somebody also went to the breaker box out back and shut off the electricity. Sounds like a burglary to me.”
Mankowski grinned like a proud papa. Thomas had only a fraction of his partner’s two decades of chasing down criminals, but he was on his way to becoming a solid detective.
When they’d first been paired up, everyone expected friction because Mankowski was a cowboy and proud of it. But Thomas had learned how and when to rein him in, so it worked out well. Mankowski also liked having an easy-going black guy for a partner. Most of the youngsters coming out of the Academy were too headstrong to appreciate the importance of listening to their elders.
“Nice analysis,” Mankowski said, “but this is overkill.” He stopped and surveyed the room. “Every piece of furniture in here was turned over, even the coffee table. Every cabinet opened, every drawer pulled out. What burglar takes the time to search the linen closet? This is a sloppy setup by somebody who wanted us to think his intent was to rob the place.”
“Maybe the burglar was searching for something,” Thomas said, resisting his partner’s theory. “Let’s wait to hear what Peterman has to say when we take him downtown.”
Mankowski exhaled. Interrogations at the station had to be videotaped. “I’d rather talk to Actor Boy here first.”
Thomas grunted, then followed his partner outside.
They found Peterman standing near a patrol car. He jumped to attention when he saw them approaching.
“Can I go now?” The words rushed out of him. “I need to get to the hospital to find out how Judi’s doing.”
Mankowski gave Phillip a quick once-over. His hair was uncombed, his sweater wrinkled, his eyes were swollen and bloodshot. Definitely booze, Mankowski thought. Not grief.
“We need you to tell us what happened,” Mankowski said.
“I already told you that.” Phillip’s voice was a smidgen short of surly. “I don’t know what happened. I have to get to the hospital. I don’t even know if Judi’s still alive.”
Mankowski zeroed in on what appeared to be scratches on the side of Phillip’s face. He’d done a piss-poor job of trying to cover them up with makeup.
“We won’t keep you long,” Mankowski said. “We’d appreciate your cooperation.”
Mankowski hated having to be polite. He missed the good old days when you could slug a suspect and get away with it. Rodney King and camera phones screwed up everything. People actually thought they had rights.
Phillip perched himself on the hood of the patrol car.
“So how did you learn about the attack on your girlfriend?” Mankowski asked.
“I got a call from Imelda, our housekeeper.” Phillip rubbed his forehead. “We can only afford to have her clean once a month. I’m just glad this was her day to come.”
“When did she call you?”
“Just after eight this morning.”
Mankowski and Thomas had already questioned the distraught housekeeper, who was of little help.
“So what kept you out all night?”
Phillip stared down at his laced fingers. “I…uh…I had a meeting with my agent in the Valley. I left home around ten. We didn’t finish talking business until after midnight, so I stayed at his place instead of driving home.”
Mankowski nodded. The guy didn’t look gay, but you could never tell these days. “Do you spend the night at your agent’s house very often?”
“Every now and then,” Phillip sniffed.
“How’d you get those scratches on your face?”
Phillip’s hand absently flew to his cheek. “I…uh…I was doing some yard work a couple of days ago and got swiped by a tree branch.”
“Which tree?” Thomas asked.
“The one out back.”
“I only saw one tree in your backyard,” Thomas pressed. “It didn’t have any branches?”
“The gardener trimmed it.”
“I thought you just said you did the yard work,” Mankowski said.
“I do. Sometimes.” Phillip’s eyes darted left, then right. “But we have a gardener too. What’s this got to do with anything?”
“Those scratches on your face look pretty fresh to me,” Mankowski continued. “You sure it wasn’t your girlfriend who scratched you?”
Phillip jumped to his feet, his nose inches from Mankowski’s. “This is ridiculous. Why are you treating me like a suspect? I don’t have to take this.”
“Yes, you do.” Mankowski pressed his palm flat against Phillip’s chest and pushed him back against the car.
“You can’t treat me like this,” Phillip protested. “I know my rights.”
“Rights? You don’t have any rights.”
Detective Thomas stepped between them. Thomas rarely thought it was a good idea to piss off a person of interest. It made it harder to get what you wanted. But Mankowski preferred to lay it on with a heavy hand.
“Mr. Peterman, let me apologize for my partner.” Thomas emitted a friendly smile. “He’s a little worked up this morning because he really wants to find out who attacked your girlfriend.”
“I don’t care how worked up he is. He can’t talk to me like this.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Thomas agreed.
“I’m leaving.” Phillip tried to brush past Detective Thomas, who took a step sideways, blocking his path.
A smile eased across Mankowski’s lips when he saw his mild-mannered partner’s jawline go taut. Thomas was always Mr. Congeniality. Until a perp pissed him off.
“Yep, you are leaving,” Thomas said. “And you’re coming to the station with us for further questioning.”