CONGRATULATIONS! read the banner, but Mary DiNunzio still couldn't believe she'd made partner, even at her own party. She felt stunned, happy, and hopeful, ready to leave behind her doubts, insecurities, and guilt. Okay, maybe not her guilt. Guilt was like her handbag, occasionally heavy, but something she just felt better carrying around. Same with her insecurities, with which she had grown secure. As for her doubts, she remained doubtful. On second thought, it remained to be seen whether becoming a partner would change Mary DiNunzio at all.
Everyone she loved stood around her smiling, filling the small conference room at Rosato & Associates, and Mary smiled back, trying to find her emotional footing now that she was no longer on the terra firma of associatehood. Bennie Rosato, the superlawyer who was her former boss, had just become her alleged equal, and if that wasn't confusing enough, her friends Judy Carrier, Anne Murphy, and Marshall Trow also worked at the firm. Mary didn't know how she'd morph her friends into her employees, or if she could double their salary.
Her boyfriend, Anthony Rotunno, was standing to the right, the proverbial tall, dark, and academic, with thick wavy hair, a gorgeous smile, and eyes the dark brown of a double shot. He was a history professor who had just moved in with her, and they were still working out the closet situation and those little hairs he left in the bathroom sink. He had his arms around her parents, Mariano "Matty" and Vita DiNunzio, who had grown shorter and rounder, resting on either side of him like meatballs on a plate of spaghetti.
Mary's father was bald and chubby in his white short-sleeved shirt and Bermuda-shorts-with-black-socks-and-sandals combination, dressed-down as usual, since the DiNunzios reserved fancy clothes for weddings or funerals. Her mother was in her best flowery housedress, with her white hair freshly teased into a cumulus cloud meant to hide her growing bald spot. Still her eyes retained their warm brown hue, doubtless the color of fertile Abruzzese soil, and the gray rimming her irises didn't obscure the love in her gaze. Beside them stood The Three Tonys — her father's friends "Pigeon" Tony Lucia, Tony "From-Down-The-Block" LoMonaco, and Tony "Two Feet" Pensiera — a trifecta of octogenarians who served as traveling uncles for Mary, occasionally helping on cases and generally clinging to her like cigar smoke.
"DiNunzio?" Bennie frowned, her eyes a concerned blue. She was six feet tall, of Amazonian strength and proportions, and had only gotten fitter since she was rowing again. Her unruly blonde hair was up in its topknot, and she had on her trademark khaki suit, so retro it had become hipster. "You don't look happy."
"I am, no, really, very happy." Mary was still afraid of Bennie, but she expected that would change, in twenty years. "It's just so overwhelming. I mean, thanks, all of you."
"Awww," Judy, Anne, and Marshall said, smiling in unison. The phone started ringing at the reception desk, and Marshall scooted out to pick it up.
"We love you, Mary!" Anthony winked at her.
"Maria, ti amo." Her mother's eyes misted behind her thick glasses, and her father sniffled, wrinkling his largish nose. It was the DiNunzio nose, which guaranteed its wearer more oxygen than anybody in the room.
"MARE, YOU DESERVE IT!" her father hollered, speaking in capital letters by habit, though his hearing aid sat behind his ear, more an earplug than a help. "WE'RE SO PROUD A YOU!"
The Tonys nodded, being good-natured in general, especially when the cannolis were free.
Bennie raised a styrofoam cup of champagne. "Then let's toast to DiNunzio. I mean, Mary. And we have to change our letterhead. Here's to Rosato & DiNunzio."
"Wait, call me DiNunzio," Mary blurted out. "I'm used to it, and let's hold off on the letterhead, for now. I'm not ready yet. Let it sink in."
"Mare, that's silly." Judy looked at her like she was nuts. She had superintelligent blue eyes in a round face, framed by yellow-blonde hair cut short and raggedy, so she looked like the beaming sun in a crayoned picture.
"Mary, really?" Anne frowned in a meaningful way. She was a model-pretty redhead in a dress that fit like Spanx. "Don't give away your power. Remember your affirmations."
Mary tried not to laugh. She didn't have any power to give away, and she always skipped her morning affirmations, since I DESERVE ALL MY SUCCESS AND HAPPINESS made her late for the bus. "Let's stick with DiNunzio and the old letterhead for now, okay?"
"Congratulations, DiNunzio!" Bennie grinned, and everybody raised their cups and took a sip, then hugged and kissed her, each one in turn, an aromatic blend of flowery perfume, CVS aftershave, and mothballs.
Marshall returned, leaning in the doorway, her face flushed with excitement. "Bennie, the desk just called from downstairs. Allegra Gardner is on the way up, and she's looking for representation."
"A Gardner, from the Gardner family?" Bennie's face lit up, and nobody had to tell Mary the party was over. She was a partner now and knew that money trumped fun. The firm could use new business, and the Gardners were a wealthy family, like the Kennedys with a Philadelphia accent.
"Which one's Allegra?" Mary asked, setting down her cup.
"I don't know, she didn't say, but she's a real Gardner." Marshall nodded, excited. "She just interviewed Morgan Lewis, but isn't hiring them. She wants to see us about a new matter."
"Great!" Bennie turned to Mary. "DiNunzio, we'd love to get business from that family. Do you mind if we cut your party short?"
"No, I agree," Mary said, making her first partner-y decision. She wanted to start on the right foot, and agreeing was always good. Even partners sucked up, this being America.
"Good." Bennie turned back to Marshall. "Set up the big conference room. Make sure there's laptops, fresh pads, and pencils."
Anne blinked her lovely green eyes. "I know the Gardners are super-rich, but how did they make their money?"
"It's so old they forget," Mary answered. "It's just there, like oxygen. Or carbohydrates."
Judy lifted an eyebrow. "Balzac said behind every fortune is a great crime."
Bennie scoffed. "Balzac didn't have a payroll to meet, and let's not prejudge our clients. The Gardner family interests are run by three brothers, and they own banks, reinsurance concerns, and real estate development companies." She turned to Mary's parents, Anthony, and The Tonys. "Folks, please excuse us. I know you're having dinner with Mary tonight, and you're welcome to stay here until the meeting's over. It won't take more than an hour."
"Alla good, Benedetta. We know you gotta work, we wait." Mary's mother waddled over and gave Bennie a big hug, except that Bennie was six feet tall and Vita DiNunzio was a foot shorter, so her face landed between Bennie's breasts. When Bennie released her, she looked vaguely asphyxiated. "Benedetta, take cookies, cannol', sflogiatelle."
"SHE'S RIGHT, BENNIE, TAKE THE COOKIES AND PASTRY TO THE MEETING. WE'LL SIT AND HAVE ANOTHER CUPPA COFFEE." Her father gestured at Pigeon Tony, who was already pouring another round of black. Tony-From-Down-The-Block was settling down with the sports page, and Feet was tugging over a chair to put up his feet, which, oddly, had nothing to do with his nickname.
"Thanks." Bennie turned to Judy and Anne. "Ladies, we need as many people on our side of the table as she has on hers. Everybody to the big conference room for a dog-and-pony show."
Judy set down her cake. "I'll be the dog."
Anne set down her Diet Coke. "I'll be the pony."
"I'll be the partner." Mary brought up the rear, because she had to hug and kiss everybody good-bye, as was customary in South Philly, where hugs and kisses were like passports, required for all comings and goings. She hurried to the big conference room, which had one wall completely of glass, with an impressive view of the metallic ziggurat of One Liberty Place, the sharp spike of the Mellon Center, and the quaint figure of William Penn in his Quaker hat, atop City Hall. They all got busy setting up laptops, pads, and coffee, then Mary, Judy, and Anne arranged themselves on one side of the table with Bennie at the head, because it went without saying that she would run the meeting. She wasn't the only partner anymore, but she was still the Office Mom.
Which, as it turned out, was exactly what Allegra Gardner needed, because Allegra Gardner was only thirteen years old.CHAPTER 2
Allegra Gardner was a slight young girl, only five feet tall, with bright blue eyes behind round plastic glasses. She had a small, straight nose, fair skin, and thin lips pressed over major orthodonture. Her hair was a nondescript brown, gathered in a loose double ponytail under a white cap that read, APIARIST. Mary didn't know the word but she gathered it had something to do with bees, since Allegra also had on a white hoodie with a smiling bumblebee that said BEE HAPPY, which she wore with baggy jeans and low-profile Converse sneakers. Allegra had arrived alone, carrying a blue backpack on her narrow shoulders, apparently unfazed by the fact that she was outnumbered by legal firepower as well as estrogen levels.
Everybody took her seat after Bennie made the introductions, and Mary grabbed a legal pad to write notes to Judy. She was pretty sure that even partners wrote notes to each other, especially when they took meetings with children. It was confusing, and Mary couldn't fight the feeling that Allegra needed a babysitter, not a lawyer.
Bennie smiled at Allegra, in an official way. "Before we start, are your parents coming?"
"No, but they know I'm here." Allegra's voice was as firm as a tweener's could be, which was not at all. "I'm on my own."
Mary wrote to Judy, ISN'T ALLEGRA SO CUTE? I DON'T KNOW WHETHER TO REPRESENT HER OR BREASTFEED HER.
Judy wrote back, TOTALLY, BUT WHAT'S WITH THE BEES?
Bennie frowned, slightly. "How did you get here, Allegra?"
"I took the train."
"Sure. I do it, all the time."
Mary's heart went out to Allegra, but then again, her heart went out to everybody. She was more surprised when it stayed in her chest. She wrote, TIME FOR THE BIG GIRL PANTIES!
Judy wrote back, DON'T BEE SILLY!
Bennie paused. "Allegra, how old are you?"
"Thirteen, yesterday, June tenth."
"Happy Belated Birthday!" Mary smiled at Allegra, seeing in her face the baby that Allegra used to be, as well as the woman she would become. She was a pretty young girl under her goofy hat, but gave the impression that she didn't care about how she looked, which would make her the only teen on the planet who felt that way, or maybe an alien.
"Yes, Happy Belated Birthday," Judy and Anne said in cheery unison.
"Thank you." Allegra smiled, showing braces with pink rubber bands.
Bennie cleared her throat. "Yes, well, to stay on track, tell me, Allegra, who are your parents?"
"Does that really matter?" Allegra's eyes flickered, a suddenly sharp blue. "I'm here, they're not."
"Understood, but you're a minor. If you're looking for legal representation, you're not of the age of contract."
"Then we won't make a contract. Would that work?"
Mary admired Allegra for not being intimidated by Bennie. She wrote, WHEN I GROW UP, I WANT TO BE ALLEGRA.
Judy wrote back, NO, BEE YOURSELF.
Bennie blinked. "Let's set it aside for now."
"Ms. Rosato, if you're worried about whether I can pay you, I can and I will, I have my own money now. I've been planning this since I found out I get a distribution from my grandfather's trust at thirteen."
"It's not about money. It's common courtesy. We don't get a lot of walk-ins, and we like to know with whom we're meeting."
"Okay, my parents are John and Jane Gardner." Allegra reached for her backpack and slid out a silvery MacBook Pro, which sported a yellow bumper sticker that read, MIND YOUR OWN BEESWAX. "They live in West Whiteland, and my dad is the oldest of the three brothers who run the family businesses. My parents won't stop me from hiring a lawyer. They know what I'm doing, I told them. If they try to stop me, I told them I'll file to be declared legally emancipated."
Bennie frowned. "Do you get along with your parents?"
"Yes," Allegra answered matter-of-factly, opening the laptop.
"Then legal emancipation would be odd. It's like divorcing your parents."
Mary wrote, I WOULD NEVER DIVORCE MY PARENTS. IN FACT, I WISH I COULD MARRY THEM. THEY DON'T LEAVE LITTLE HAIRS IN THE SINK.
Judy wrote, DON'T BEE GROSS.
Allegra hit a key on her laptop. "I don't think emancipation will be necessary. My parents said they won't help me, but they won't oppose me."
"Where do you go to school?"
"I board at Milton Academy in Massachusetts, but I'm going to register in the public school for ninth grade. I want to be here during this case, not out of state."
"Where will you live?"
"At home. I interviewed several of the big law firms, but I didn't like them, so I thought I'd come see you. I researched you and the firm."
Mary couldn't believe how serious-minded Allegra was. She thought back to what she'd been doing at thirteen, which was lightening her hair with bottled lemon juice and picking a confirmation name, even though Theresa was a shoe-in. She loved St. Theresa, one of the few saints who had the mojo to go up against Mary, the biggest brand name in the religion.
Bennie nodded. "So tell us, Allegra, what's the case? Why do you need a lawyer?"
"I'm here about my sister." Allegra's face fell. "Her name was Fiona, and she was murdered six years ago, at a party at my father's new offices."
"Our condolences. I seem to recall reading about the case."
Mary set down her pen, having lost her sense of humor. The murder case was coming back to her, too. She'd seen it in the news, a girl stabbed to death, at sixteen years old. Suddenly Mary realized why she felt for Allegra in the first place. Despite her funny decals and bumper stickers, Allegra Gardner was a sad girl, and it seemed to travel with her, like a backpack.
"Thanks," Allegra said quietly. "The thing is, I believe they sent the wrong man to jail. His name is Lonnie Stall and he's in Graterford Prison. I think he's innocent. He said he was at trial, and I believe him. I want to find out who really murdered my sister and punish him. I need somebody to look at the case and start over."
Bennie frowned. "Wait a minute. I seem to remember that the defendant in that case pleaded guilty."
"I know he did, right before the jury came back, but I'm sure he didn't do it."
Bennie paused. "What makes you say he's innocent, even though he pled guilty?"
"I don't want to go into it now. I'm not sure if I'm hiring your firm."
"Fair enough." Bennie eased back in the chair. "So we're clear, you'd want us to evaluate the evidence and record to see if the decision was correct or incorrect?"
"No, I want you to solve my sister's murder." Allegra's request had a weight of its own, hanging in the air.
"So you want an investigation after the fact."
"We're not investigators, we're lawyers."
"That never stopped you before. I saw online. And you have a firm investigator, right? Lou Jacobs. His photo is on the website."
"Yes, but he's on vacation. He's not back until next week."
"Okay, so add him in, whatever it takes, I can pay. I want this to be done right. I want to know the truth." Allegra pressed her lips together again. "I was there when Fiona was murdered, at this big office party. It was supposed to be a grand opening, and well, it was so, so horrible."
Mary shuddered, but said nothing. Her biggest nightmare was something terrible happening to her twin sister Angie, a former nun who was in Tanzania on yet another mission, saving a world that refused to be saved.
Allegra frowned deeply under her little cap. "I kept thinking and talking about Fiona, and what happened to her, and my parents worried I was getting obsessed. They sent me to a therapist, then to boarding school, but I wasn't obsessed or depressed, and I'm still not."
Bennie leaned over to Allegra. "So your parents believe Stall is guilty?"
"Because of the evidence at the trial and because he pleaded guilty himself, in the end. They want the case to be over, but I want it to be right."
"Allegra, you have to be realistic. It's harder to find out what happened now than it was then." Bennie opened her palms in appeal. "The case is six years old. Evidence may be lost or thrown away, and memories have faded."
Excerpted from Accused by Lisa Scottoline. Copyright © 2013 Smart Blonde, LLC. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.