by Lisa Scottoline
Published by HarperCollins
320 pages, 2002
In Courting Trouble, New York Times bestselling author Lisa Scottoline is back with another fast-paced thriller, which sends a young woman lawyer racing to find out who's trying to kill her -- after she's wrongly been reported murdered.
Anne Murphy is smart, gorgeous, and young, the redheaded rookie at the Philadelphia law firm of Rosato & Associates. She leaves town for the Fourth of July weekend to prepare for a high-profile trial, but when she buys her morning newspaper, her own photo is plastered all over the front page. And the headline -- LAWYER MURDERED -- supposedly refers to her. Anne sets out to find her killer, playing dead in order to stay alive.
She tries to go it alone but quickly realizes that she'll have to trust people she barely knows -- colleagues who hate her guts, a homicide squad that wants her out of the crime-fighting business, and a new love who inconveniently happens to be opposing counsel. The investigation takes all of Anne's boldness and ingenuity -- plus a pair of red satin hot pants. But her knack for courting trouble makes it almost impossible for Anne to play well with others, defend the lawsuit, and fight her urge to sleep with the enemy. Then an unexpected event places her in lethal jeopardy and leaves her with everything to lose -- including her life.
Anne Murphy barreled through the bustling lobby of the William Green Federal Courthouse, her long, auburn hair flying. She was about to do something crazy in court and couldn't wait to get upstairs. If she won, she'd be a hero. If she lost, she'd go to jail. Anne didn't think twice about the if-she-lost part. She was a redhead, which is a blonde with poor impulse control.
"Ms. Murphy, Ms. Murphy, just one question!" a reporter shouted, dogging her heels, but Anne charged ahead, trying to ditch him in the crowd.
Federal employees, lawyers, and jurors crisscrossed the lobby to the exits, hurrying home to start the Fourth of July weekend, but heads turned at the sight of the stunning young woman. Anne had wide-set eyes of willow-green, a straight nose dusted with freckles, and a largish mouth, glossy with an artful swipe of raisiny lipstick. Very female curves filled out a suit of cream-colored silk, and her long, lean legs tapered to finely boned ankles, ending in impractical Manolo Blahnik heels. Anne looked like a model, but given her past, didn't even think of herself as pretty. None of us outgrows the kid in the bathroom mirror.
"Oh, oh, here comes trouble!" called one of the court security officers, as Anne approached the group of dark polyester blazers clustered around the metal detectors. Manning the machines were five older guards, all retired Philly cops, flashing appreciative grins. The guard calling to Anne was the most talkative, a still-trim figure with improbably black hair, bifocals, and a nameplate that read Officer Salvatore Bonanno. "Gang way, fellas! It's Red, and she's loaded for bear!"
"Right again, Sal." Anne tossed her leather briefcase and a Kate Spade messenger bag onto the conveyor belt. "Wish me luck."
"What's cookin', good lookin'?"
"The usual. Striking another blow for justice. Paying way too much for shoes." Anne strode through the security portal as her bags glided through the X-ray machine. "You gentlemen got plans for the holiday weekend?"
"I'm takin' you dancin'," Officer Bonnano answered, with a dentured smile, and the other guards burst into guffaws made gravelly by cigarette breaks at the loading dock off of Seventh Street. Bonnano ignored them cheerfully. "I'm gonna teach you to jitterbug, ain't I, Red?"
"Ha!" Officer Sean Feeney broke in, grinning. "You and the lovely Miss Murphy, Sal? In your dreams!" Feeney was a ruddy-faced, heavy-set sixty-five-year-old, with eyebrows as furry as caterpillars. "She's an Irish girl and she's savin' herself for me." He turned to Anne. "Your people from County Galway, right, Annie? You got pretty skin, like the girls in Galway."
"Galway, that near Glendale?" Anne asked, and they laughed. She never knew what to say when someone remarked her looks. The X-ray machine surrendered her belongings, and she reached for them as two reporters caught up with her, threw their bags onto the conveyor belt, and started firing questions.
"Ms. Murphy, any comment on the trial next week?" "Why won't your client settle this case?" "Isn't this ruining Chipster's chance to go public?" They kept interrupting each other. "Anne, what's this motion about today?" "Why do you want to keep this evidence from the jury?"
"No comment, please." Anne broke free, grabbed her bags, and bolted from the press, but it turned out she didn't have to. Officer Bonnano was confronting the reporters, hard-eyed behind his bifocals.
"Yo, people!" he bellowed, Philly style. "You know the rules! None o' that in the courthouse! Why you gotta give the young lady a hard time?"
Officer Feeney frowned at the first reporter and motioned him over. "Come 'ere a minute, sir. I think you need a full-body scan." He reached under the security counter and emerged with a hand-held metal detector. "Come on, in fact, both of youse." He waved the wand at the second reporter, and the other security guards lined up behind him like an aged phalanx.
"But I'm the press!" the reporter protested. "This is my beat! You see me everyday. I'm Allen Collins, I have ID." Behind him, his canvas briefcase stalled suddenly in the X-ray machine, and the guard watching the monitor was already confiscating it. The reporter turned back, puzzled. "Hey, wait a minute!"
Officer Bonnano dismissed Anne to the elevators with a newly officious air. "Go on up, Miss!"
"Thanks, Officer," Anne said, suppressing a smile as she grabbed the open elevator and hit the button for the ninth floor. She hadn't asked for the assist and felt vaguely guilty accepting it. But only vaguely.
Minutes later, Anne reached the ninth floor and entered the spacious, modern courtroom, which was packed. The Chipster case, for sexual harassment against Gil Martin, Philadelphia's best-known Internet millionaire, had attracted press attention since the day it was filed, and reporters, sketch artists, and the public filled the sleek modern pews of dark wood. Their faces swiveled almost as one towards Anne as she strode down the carpeted center aisle.
Bailiffs in blue blazers stopped conferring over the docket sheets, law clerks straightened new ties, and a female court reporter shot daggers over her blue steno machine, on its spindly metal legs. Anne had grown accustomed to the reaction; men adored her, women hated her. She had nevertheless joined the all-woman law firm of Rosato & Associates, which was turning out to be a very redheaded career move, but that was another story.
She reached counsel table and set down her briefcase and purse, then looked back. A young man dressed in a light trenchcoat was sitting, as planned, on the aisle in the front row behind her. Anne acknowledged him discreetly, then took her seat, opened her briefcase, and took out a copy of her motion papers. The motion and the young man on the aisle had been Anne's latest idea. Chipster.com was her first big client at Rosato, and Gil Martin had hired her because they'd known each other at law school. She had never tried a case of this magnitude and in the beginning wondered if she had bitten off more than she could chew. Then she decided that she had, and stopped wondering.
"Happy Fourth!" whispered a voice at her ear, and she looked up.
Matt Booker was a year older than Anne's twenty-eight, and he stood over her, with dark wavy hair, light blue eyes, and eyelashes too thick too be wasted on a man. She would have been wildly attracted to him if he hadn't been opposing counsel, but that was an alternate reality. Matt represented the plaintiffs in this case, a female programmer named Beth Dietz and her husband Bill, who had filed a derivative claim against Chipster. Though Anne hadn't dated anyone for the year she'd been in Philly, Matt Booker was the first time she'd been tempted. Really tempted, but opposing counsel was about as forbidden as fruit gets.
"Go away," she said, but Matt leaned closer.
"I just want you to know that I'm not asking you out today." His whisper smelled like Crest toothpaste. "You've turned me down 329 times, and I'm detecting a pattern. Stop me before I ask again."
Anne blushed. "Matt, has it occurred to you that you are sexually harassing me, in a sexual harassment lawsuit?"
"Come on, my advances are welcome, aren't they? Sort of?"
Anne didn't answer. She was deciding. It had been so long since she'd let herself trust anyone. But she had known Matt for almost a year, since the complaint in this case was filed, and he was an overconfident pain in the ass, which she liked in a man.
"A little? Slim to none?" Matt was asking, bracing a hand on the polished counsel table, and she took a chance.
"Okay. After the trial is over, I will go out with you. But only after."
"Really?" Matt's voice cracked, which Anne found cute. He was always such a wiseass, it was as if his veneer had cracked, too. He looked astounded, his jaw dropping unselfconsciously. "Anne, are you on crack?"
"Will you sign an affidavit to that effect?"
"Go away." Anne studied her brief. "I'm preparing to kick your ass."
"What if I win this case?"
"Not possible. You're in the wrong, and you're against me."
"I won the last evidentiary motion, remember?"
"That was a battle, not the war." Anne eyed the bailiffs over her papers. "Now go away. Everyone knows you're flirting."
"You're flirting back."
"I don't flirt with opposing counsel."
"I'm not opposing, you are." Matt snorted, then stepped away and crossed to plaintiff's counsel table. Beyond it lay the jury box, a polished mahogany rail cordoning off fourteen empty chairs in various states of swivelhood. They made an interesting backdrop, and Anne wondered if Matt would still want to see her after the verdict came back. She thought of the young man sitting behind her and suppressed a guilty twinge. That made a total of two guilty twinges she'd had in her whole life, and Anne wasn't good at suppressing them, on account of such sporadic practice.
"All rise!" the bailiff cried, from beyond the bar of the court. The golden seal of the United States Courts rose like the sun on the paneled wall, behind a huge mahogany dais of contemporary design. Gilt-framed portraits of past judges hung on the walls, the thick oil paint glistening darkly in the recessed lights. The bailiff stood near one, his chest puffed out as if it bore medals. "All rise! Court is now in session! The Honorable Albert D. Hoffmeier, presiding."
"Good afternoon, everybody," Judge Hoffmeier called out, emerging from the paneled pocket door, carrying a thick accordion case file. The gallery greeted the stocky little judge in return, and he bustled into the courtroom, the hem of his shiny black robes brushing the carpet as he chugged past the American flag and onto the large, wooden dais, then plopped the file onto the cluttered desktop, seated himself in his chair, and pushed up his tortoiseshell glasses.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Murphy." Judge Hoffmeier smiled down at her, his eyes bright. His wiry hair was flecked salt-and-pepper, and he wore a stars-and-stripes bow tie that evidenced a sense of humor legendary on the district court bench. "What is it you're troubling us with, young lady? My favorite holiday is almost upon us, and we should all be out buying hot dogs and sunblock." The gallery chuckled, as did the judge. "Yes, I like sunblock on my hot dogs."
The gallery laughed again, and Anne rose and took her brief to the lectern. "Sorry to keep you, Your Honor, but I do have this pesky evidentiary motion. As you know, I represent Chipster.com, the defendant company in this matter, and I am asking the Court to exclude the testimony of Susan Feldman, whom plaintiff intends to call as a witness at trial next week."
"You don't think the jury should meet Ms. Feldman, counsel?" If Judge Hoffmeier appreciated Anne's beauty he hid it well, and she didn't kid herself that he'd let it influence him. It took more than a pretty face to win in a federal forum. Usually.
"Not at all, Your Honor. I think Ms. Feldman and her testimony should be excluded under Federal Rule of Evidence 401 because it is irrelevant. Ms. Feldman alleges that one of Chipster's programmers, named Phillip Leaver, sexually harassed her, in a rather bizarre incident." The judge's already-twinkling eye told Anne he knew the underlying facts. "Neither Ms. Feldman nor Mr. Leaver have anything to do with this case or either of the parties at issue. The incident concerning Ms. Feldman occurred in a different department, at a different time, between different people."
"I read your motion papers." Judge Hoffmeier patted the accordion file. "Am I correct that defendant company concedes that the incident involving Ms. Feldman is true?"
"Correct, Your Honor." Anne took a deep, preparatory breath. "We concede that this incident took place, but we do not concede that it constitutes sexual harassment. The incident was a prank, and even though Mr. Leaver's conduct wasn't actionable, Chipster found it inappropriate and terminated him that very day."
"Oh really? A prank?" Judge Hoffmeier peered in amusement over the top of his glasses. "Let's talk turkey, Ms. Murphy. Mr. Leaver came out of his cubicle at work - and he was naked as a jaybird!"
"True." Anne suppressed her smile, and the gallery reacted with muffled laughter. "But it was a joke, Your Honor. And just for the record, Mr. Leaver was wearing ankle bands, with little wings. They were made out of Reynolds Wrap."
"Ankle bands with wings, of course. A fan of Hermes, or Pan, perhaps, eh?" Judge Hoffmeier chuckled, and the gallery with him, since they'd been given judicial permission. "Why wings, counsel?"
"Why not, Your Honor? Though I doubt Mr. Leaver studies mythology. He's a twenty-three-year-old and watches way too much 'Jackass.'"
"It's a show on MTV. Young men skateboard naked or dressed like gorillas." Anne loved the show, but wasn't eager to reveal as much to a sixty-year-old judge with Article III powers. "In any event, Mr. Leaver came out of his cubicle and stood for a moment in front of Ms. Feldman, but said nothing inappropriate and made no lewd gesture. He merely flapped his arms and pretended to fly, which I admit is silly and tasteless, but is not yet a violation of federal law."
Judge Hoffmeier burst into laughter. "This is why NASDAC's in the crapper! This is the Internet revolution we hear so much about! The nation's economy is run by children wearing kitchen supplies!"
Anne waited until the laughter in the gallery had subsided. The holiday mood had already started, and she hoped it would flow in her favor, five minutes hence. "It is funny, Your Honor, and in fact, Ms. Feldman clearly took Mr. Leaver's actions as a joke. When he started flapping, she laughed until she fell off her chair. Mr. Leaver was so embarrassed, he ran into the men's room and refused to come out until the close of business."
The gallery laughed louder, and Judge Hoffmeier let it spend itself, then turned serious. "Well. This is a unique fact situation, to be sure. Your client, Chipster.com, doesn't want Ms. Feldman to tell the story about the tin-foil wings at trial?"
"No. Her story, her evidence, is irrelevant. The upcoming trial, Dietz v. Chipster, is a quid pro quo case of sexual harassment. In it, plaintiff alleges that Gil Martin, the company's CEO, forced Beth Dietz, a female programmer, to have sex with him in his office on a number of occasions, in order to keep her job. What happened between Mr. Martin and Ms. Dietz is a credibility question for the jury, and we will prove that plaintiff's allegations are false. But whether Mr. Leaver streaked, flapped, or struck a pose for Ms. Feldman doesn't make it any more or less likely that Gil Martin harassed Beth Dietz."
"Standard relevance analysis, eh, Ms. Murphy?"
"Exactly, with one addition." Anne rechecked her brief. "While that evidence may be admissible in a 'hostile environment' theory, in which the number and pervasiveness of alleged other incidents are relevant, it is clearly inadmissible as irrelevant in this, a quid pro quo case."
"So, you rest on the difference between a hostile environment theory and a quid pro quo theory of sexual harassment." Judge Hoffmeier frowned in thought. "It's quite a technical argument."
"Think of it as precise, Your Honor." To Anne, precision mattered in the law, brain surgery, and lipliner. Otherwise it was no fun at all. "The distinction makes a difference because of the impact the evidence will have. Plaintiff will be using this incident involving Mr. Leaver to bootstrap his meager proofs regarding Mr. Martin."
Judge Hoffmeier rubbed his chin, clean shaven even at this hour. "Any guidance from upstairs, Ms. Murphy? I've found no appellate cases on point."
"Frankly, no, Your Honor. I briefed Becker v. Arco, which supports my position, but it's not precisely on point. It does emphasize the danger in admitting evidence of this kind, in that it enables the plaintiff to prove the defendant's liability only in the loosest and most illogical fashion, like guilt by association."
"Thank you. I have your argument, Ms. Murphy." Judge Hoffmeier nodded and turned to plaintiff's counsel table. "You want in, Mr. Booker?"
"Sure do, Your Honor." Matt went to the lectern as Anne stepped back. "Your Honor, I like a joke as much as the next guy, and I agree this incident may sound funny to us, now. But contrary to defense counsel's assertion, Ms. Feldman did not think this supposed prank was funny. Mr. Leaver's conduct constitutes indecent exposure in this and most jurisdictions."
Judge Hoffmeier mouth's flattened to a politically correct line of disapproval. Anne wondered if she could rescind her flirting.
"Your Honor, we think Ms. Feldman's testimony is admissible," Matt continued. "This is proof positive of the type of 'locker room' conduct that is encouraged at Chipster.com and at an increasing number of Internet companies. Sexual harassment suits are on the rise in the Internet companies because computer programming is so male-dominated. In fact, ninety-five percent of Chipster's programmers are male, between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five, and none of the company's fifteen supervisors are women. This creates the raucous 'boys only' pattern of conduct which permits conduct like Mr. Leaver's and Mr. Martin's to flourish."
"What about Ms. Murphy's point that this is a quid pro quo case and not a hostile environment case?"
"I agree with Your Honor, that that is a hypertechnical argument. Sexual harassment is sexual harassment. And Becker v. ARCO notwithstanding, the law in the Third Circuit is not settled on whether evidence proving a hostile environment case can be admitted in a quid pro quo case."
Judge Hoffmeier rested his chin on his hand. "It does seem to probative to me, especially considering that it is undisputed."
"I agree, Your Honor, and it is for the jury - not for any of us - to decide whether the corporate culture at Chipster is one in which sexual harassment is permitted. The defendant in the present case is the very CEO of the company, Gilbert Martin."
"Thank you for your argument, counsel," Judge Hoffmeier said with finality, and Anne couldn't tell which way he would rule. She couldn't take a chance on losing. The evidence would kill her case. Time for Plan B.
"Your Honor, if I may, I have rebuttal," Anne said, and Judge Hoffmeier smiled.
"The fighting Irish. Okay, counsel, but keep it short."
"Your Honor, in the alternative, defendant argues that even if the Court thinks the evidence is relevant, it should be excluded under Federal Rule 403 because of the danger of unfair prejudice. Imagine how distracted the jury would be if this evidence came in. Your Honor, we're talking here about a naked man."
On cue, the young man sitting behind Anne in the gallery stood up, stepped into the aisle, then unbuttoned his raincoat and let it drop at in a heap at his feet. The man was sandy-haired, handsome - and buck naked. The gallery let out a collective gasp, the court reporter covered her mouth, and the bailiff reached for his handcuffs, but Anne continued her legal argument:
"The image of a naked man commands instant and total attention. It is a riveting, galvanizing image, especially in a courtroom. If it's permitted, the jury will be so distracted - "
"What is this?" Judge Hoffmeier exploded. He was craning his neck and fumbling for his gavel. Crak! Crak! "Order! Order! My God in heaven! Get dressed, young man! Put your clothes on!"
Matt sprang to his feet, pounding the table. "Your Honor, we object! This is an outrage!"
Pandemonium broke out in the gallery as the naked man took off, flapping his arms and sprinting down the center aisle and out of the courtroom doors, with the bailiff in hot pursuit. The gallery burst into spontaneous applause, and Anne decided on the spot to pay him a bonus.
Crak! Crak! "Order! I will have order in my courtroom! Settle down, everybody! Settle down!" Judge Hoffmeier stopped banging the gavel, and the redness ebbed from his face. He straightened his glasses and glared down at Anne. "Ms. Murphy, I cannot believe my own eyes! Did you arrange that ridiculous stunt?"
"Think of it as a demonstration, Your Honor. It proves my point that if a naked man enters the courtroom, all else stops - "
"Was that man Mr. Leaver?" Judge Hoffmeier's hooded eyes widened.
"No, he works for Strippergram. He sings, too, but the case didn't call for it."
"I object, Your Honor!" Matt was yelling, but Judge Hoffmeier waved him into his seat, never taking his stern gaze from Anne.
"Ms. Murphy, are you telling me you paid for a stripper to come here today?"
"Who else would get naked for money?"
"Ms. Murphy! I could cite you for contempt for this sort of thing! Send you to jail! My courtroom is not a peep show!"
"I'm sorry, Your Honor, but I couldn't think of any other way to show you. I mean, look around." Anne gestured at the gallery, now in complete disarray. People were half-standing and half-seated, laughing and talking among themselves, unable to get back in order. "See? The naked man is gone, but everybody was completely distracted by him. I was making a valid legal argument when he dropped his coat, but everybody stopped listening, including you."
Judge Hoffmeier bristled, but Anne went on.
"With all due respect, Your Honor, what just happened proves my point. If a naked man is on the jury's mind, they won't be able to focus on Mr. Martin, and he's the one on trial. They'll go into that jury room to deliberate, and that's the first thing they'll talk about. That's exactly what Federal Rule 403 was designed to prevent."
Judge Hoffmeier went speechless, and Matt simmered. The courtroom fell suddenly silent as everyone gazed stunned at Anne. She remained uncharacteristically mute, wondering if she could post bail with a VISA card. After a minute, Judge Hoffmeier sighed, nudged his glasses needlessly into place, and met Anne's eye.
"Ms. Murphy, I will not sanction this sort of foolishness in my courtroom. I maintain a relaxed atmosphere here, but you have evidently gotten the wrong message." The judge squared his shoulders in the voluminous robes. "I am therefore citing you for contempt, to the tune of $500. Thank your lucky stars I'm not locking you up for the weekend. But as I said, the Fourth of July is my favorite national holiday, and every American should celebrate our individual freedoms. Even Americans as absurdly free as you."
"Thank you, Your Honor," Anne said. As for the $500, she'd have to take it out of her personal savings, which would leave $17.45. She couldn't very well charge the client for keeping the lawyer out of jail. She was pretty sure it was supposed to be the other way around.
"And Ms. Murphy, you're on notice." Judge Hoffmeier wagged his finger. "I will not tolerate another such display in my courtroom next week, or any week thereafter. Next 'demonstration' like this, you go directly to jail."
"Understood, Your Honor."
"Fine." Judge Hoffmeier paused. "Now. Well. As for defendant's motion to exclude evidence, I hereby grant the motion, albeit reluctantly. I am loathe to reward Ms. Murphy's misconduct, but I cannot penalize the defendant company for its lawyer's hare-brained schemes. I therefore rule that Ms. Feldman will not be permitted to testify at the trial of this matter, and that there will be no naked men in evidence next week, either in word or deed. So ordered!" Judge Hoffmeier banged the gavel, shaking his head.
"Thank you, Your Honor." Anne wanted to cheer, but didn't. She won. She won!
Matt rose briefly, with a scowl. "Thank you, Your Honor."
"Now, Mrs. Murphy, get out of my courtroom before I return to my senses." Judge Hoffmeier got up and left the dais. "Have a good holiday, everybody."
Anne stood up as soon as the judge had left, felt a soft caress on her back, and turned. Two lawyers in fancy suits stood behind her. They were hot, successful, and evidently patronized the same custom tailor.
"That was amazing, Anne!" the one said, touching her again, though she didn't know him at all. He wore a practiced smile and a wedding band.
The other lawyer stepped closer. "Cool move! Where'd you get that idea? And didn't we meet at - "
"Thanks," Anne said politely, but she didn't want to get picked up in federal court unless it was by Matt Booker. She peered past their padded shoulders at Matt, who was hunching over his briefcase, shoving papers inside. She waved, trying to get his attention, but his forehead was knitted with anger and he wouldn't look up. Then her view was blocked by the lawyers.
"How did you get the guts to do that?" the married lawyer asked, but Anne stepped around him.
"Matt!" she called, but he'd grabbed his briefcase, hurried down the center aisle, and left through the double doors. Anne didn't go after him. She couldn't apologize for representing her client. She couldn't say she was sorry she'd won. She stood there, suddenly aware that two suits were hovering over her, an entire gallery was gawking at her, and several reporters were rushing at her with notebooks drawn.
"Anne," the married lawyer said, in low tones. "I was wondering if you were busy tonight. I'd love to take you out to celebrate."
A reporter elbowed him out of the way, shouting questions in Anne's face. "Ms. Murphy, that was great! What a trick! What was the stripper's name?" The press glommed suddenly around her, like bees to a Pulitzer. "Did you think you'd go to jail?" "What did your client think about that stunt?" "Did you model as a child?" "Would you consider a photo shoot this week, for our 'up-and-coming' feature?"
Anne shoved her way back to counsel table for her briefcase and bag, answering none of the questions and ignoring all of the stares. She screened out the world around her, which left her feeling the way it always did, a little dead inside. But at least she'd won the motion, and she'd deserved to win. Even without any case precedent, Anne knew in her heart she was right on the law.
Mental note: Only a beautiful woman can understand the true power of a naked man. | August 2002
Copyright © 2002 Lisa Scottoline. All rights reserved.
Lisa Scottoline is a New York Times bestselling author and former trial lawyer. She has won the Edgar Award, the highest prize in suspense fiction, and the Distinguished Author Award from the Weinberg Library of the University of Scranton. She has served as the Leo Goodwin Senior Professor of Law and Popular Culture at Nova Southeastern Law School, and her novels are used by bar associations for the ethical issues they present. Her books are published in more than 20 languages. She lives with her family in the Philadelphia area.