When I viewed Natalie Stevens through the small window of reinforced glass, she was sitting in the middle of a bench that was bolted to one wall, her shoulders slumped, her clasped hands between her knees. She was wearing faded jeans and a flannel shirt, and her light brown hair was pulled back in a long ponytail.
“That your client?” asked the deputy sheriff who had walked me in.
“I guess so.” I’d been told Natalie was a college student just home for Christmas break, and this girl looked the part.
The deputy opened the door for me. The cell had a cement floor and cinderblock walls painted the color of pond scum. As I entered, Natalie looked up at me, then down at the floor again. She had a pretty face with a complexion that was flawless but for a dusting of pinpoint freckles on her cheekbones and across the bridge of her nose. I was encouraged. Probably the case would never go to a jury—this might be the case where I learned to negotiate a plea bargain—but I had to believe that good looks were not a bad attribute for a client accused of a felony.
As the door thumped shut behind me, I went and sat on the bench next to her, setting my briefcase on the floor by my feet and, next to it, the drawstring bag containing the sneakers I had worn to walk across downtown Richmond, draping my coat over both. Natalie’s jeans had a hole in one leg, and I was wearing a wool-blend dress, so I could see three of our four knees.
“I’m Robin Starling,” I said, turning my head to look at her. “Your lawyer, if you want me.”
She nodded, mouth pursing slightly, but her eyes stayed on the floor. “They said they would appoint one for me.”
“You’re Natalie Stevens, I take it.”
She took a breath, nodded. “You got that right.” She gave the floor a smile that showed a dimple in the cheek nearest me, but a tear dropped from her face to spot the floor.
“I’m not court appointed though.”
Her head whipped toward me, her eyes lighting. “Daddy’s back? He hired you?”
“No. Your stepmother. Chloe.”
She deflated, her eyes losing their focus as she turned her head away. “Chloe,” she said.
“She gave me a ten thousand dollar retainer, said to spare no expense.”
“To do what? Make sure I get the chair?”
“You’re charged with manslaughter, not first degree murder.”
“Besides which, in Virginia the default option is death by lethal injection. A person has to choose the electric chair.”
“Well, I’ll try to find something to be glad about there.”
“You’ve read Pollyanna.”
She looked startled. “I guess I have. It was on my grandmother’s shelves when I was growing up.”
“Actually, my understanding is that I’m supposed to represent you to the best of my ability,” I said.
“Ah. The best of your ability.”
“It’s what I’ve got.”
“Yes. It is.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
“Chloe hired you. There had to be a kicker.”
“She was acting for your father, or so she said.”
“I haven’t been able to get hold of him. Not that I’ve had a lot of opportunity.”
“He’s lost his cell phone. That’s what Chloe said, anyway.”
“You want to tell me about it?”
“Would it help if I told you something about myself?”
“I went to law school at the University of Virginia,” I said. “Graduated in the top ten percent of my class. Before that I was an English major at Washington & Lee, where I played basketball. My senior year we went to the Final Four.”
She looked at me with what I took to be a spark of interest. “I’m a freshman at Longwood. I play soccer.”
“That’s Division I, isn’t it? You JV?”
“Very impressive, especially for a freshman. How’d you do this season?”
“Second round of the playoffs.”
“Well, that’s not bad.”
For a while, neither of us said anything.
“If it helps, I didn’t like your stepmom much,” I said.
“It’s because you’re not a man.”
“That’s probably true. With her in the room, a lot of the men I know would have trouble keeping the slobber off their chins.”
It earned me a snort, so I pressed my advantage: “I on the other hand, while I had to acknowledge that she was the most attractive woman in the room, was able to keep my salivary glands under control.”
One side of her mouth quirked upward, which I thought was a major achievement on my part given that she was sitting in a jail cell. Her eyes cut toward me and away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re stunning,” she told the floor. She glanced at me again, and I cocked an eyebrow at her. “Okay, striking,” she said.
“Yes, you are that.” She sighed.
“When was it the police told you they were getting you a lawyer?”
“The first time was right there in the house. They asked my name, if that was my Lexus in the garage, if I’d been driving it last night.”
“What did you tell them?”
“Natalie Stevens. Yes, it was my Lexus. Why did they want to know?”
“What did they tell you?”
“That I had the right to remain silent, I had the right to an attorney, all that stuff.”
“And then what?”
“They asked me if I understood those rights. I said yes. Then they asked me again if I’d been driving the Lexus.”
“And you said…”
She shook her head. “I didn’t have anything to say that would do me any good, so I remained silent.”
She looked at me with eyes that were suddenly bloodshot. “It is?”
“You look like a pampered little coed who spends her evenings reading romance novels by the fire, but you play Division I soccer and you can keep your mouth shut in police custody. That makes you one in a million.”
Tears welled in her eyes, and she turned them back to the floor. I could hear her breathing.
“They say I killed some man down on the Southside sometime after midnight yesterday,” she said in a low voice. “That I ran right over him and left him for…dead.” Her voice hitched on the last word, and she broke off.
“But you didn’t,” I said.
“Would you believe me if I said I didn’t?”
“I wouldn’t disbelieve you.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’d take your statement under advisement: Natalie is accused of felony hit-and-run, but she denies it. I need to get more facts.”
“They showed me a picture. The police. His head was crushed, and most of his face…”
“It’s all right,” I said when it became clear she wasn’t going to finish the sentence, though of course it wasn’t all right. “Was this supposed to have happened last night, sometime this morning?”
“How did you happen to be driving around the Southside in the middle of the night? Can you tell me?”
She raised her shoulders slowly, then dropped them. “I wouldn’t have said I was. I would have said I was home in bed before midnight, that I’d been at a party, but I was feeling sick.”
“Why not say it?”
“Somebody saw me, evidently.”
“Somebody who knew you?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so, but they got the license number of my car.”
“And you don’t remember any of it.” She took a breath, blew it out through pursed lips.
“I was at a party, like I said. I had a couple of drinks.”
Uh oh, I thought. “Two drinks?”
“Maybe one-and-a-half. I didn’t finish the second one.”
“What were you drinking? Mason jars of white lightning?”
“Beer. They had a keg, red plastic cups.”
She was eighteen or nineteen and couldn’t have bought the beer herself.
“The police give you a breathalyzer?”
“They took a blood sample.”
“When did you stop drinking last night?”
She shrugged. “Ten, ten-thirty? Before eleven.”
“That’ll be all right then.”
“Like I said, I started feeling sick.”
“Weird, disconnected. I’d be in one room talking to someone, then I’d be in another room talking to someone else, and I couldn’t remember anything in between. It was like I was hopping from one point in time to another, not living in the moments in between.”
“‘Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time,’” I said, making a literary allusion of my own.
“It’s a novel. Kurt Vonnegut.”
“Oh.” Evidently, she hadn’t read Vonnegut. Her Eleanor Porter reference was a fluke.
“Where was this party?” I asked.
“An apartment out in Short Pump. A couple of guy friends from high school live there.”
I frowned. Short Pump was in the far West End. I wondered where on the Southside this accident had occurred. “What high school?” I asked.
“I thought that was an all-girl school.”
“The guys went to St. Christopher’s. Both schools are Episcopal and have a lot of combined classes once you get to high school.”
“Do you remember driving home from the party?”
“I think so. I remember being sick, that strange, disconnected feeling, and wanting to go home. I remember…” Her voice faded until it was barely audible. “…being in the car, a traffic light turning yellow, then red, as I jerked to a stop. I remember some street signs. I know shouldn’t have been driving, but I don’t remember hitting anyone.”
“And don’t remember crossing the James River to the Southside.”
She shook her head.
“You were just kind of bouncing along the timeline all the way home.”
“The only thing I remember after I got home was brushing my teeth. When all the pounding on the door woke me up, I was in my clothes, kind of rolled up in the comforter on top of the bed. Evidently, I didn’t even crawl in.”
“Who were these guys who were hosting the party?”
“I told you. A couple of guys from…”
“Their names,” I said.
“Oh.” She gave them to me. I got out a legal pad and jotted them down, along with the name of the apartment complex and the name of the street it was on.
“How long did you sleep after you got home?” I asked.
“Till nearly one o’clock this afternoon. That’s when the police showed up.”
I’d appeared with a defendant before a magistrate once before, and the appearance on that occasion had been conducted in her office, her sitting behind her desk and looking up at us. This time a deputy sheriff led us to a little courtroom and stood facing us at the corner of the bench, right hand over his left, looking ready to leap to the defense of the magistrate should we rush the bench.
“Is this Natalie Stevens?” the woman sitting above us asked. She wore glasses with square, black plastic frames.
“Yes, your honor,” I said. “I’m Robin Starling. I’ll be representing her.”
“Is that right, Ms. Stevens?”
Natalie cleared her throat. “Yes, ma’am.”
The magistrate looked as if she would say something about the honorific, but she let it go. “You’ve seen the complaint?” she asked me.
“No, your honor.”
She held up some papers. As I went forward to take them from her, the deputy sheriff stiffened, but didn’t try to repel me. As I returned to my place beside my client, the magistrate said, “She’s charged with felony hit-and run.”
I glanced through the complaint as she read it to us. Someone named Kim Beecher had called 911 to report a hit-and-run at 1:34 a.m. Monday morning and had given police a license plate number. The number had led them to a residence in Wyndham, where they had found a Lexus CT 200 parked in an open garage. It had the license plate they were looking for. The left headlight was broken and a substance that appeared to be blood was on one of the remaining lens fragments and on the bumper below it. A woman who identified herself as Natalie Stevens opened the door in response to their knock. She had admitted to owning the Lexus in the garage.
The magistrate finished reading the complaint and asked Natalie if she would like to enter a plea.
I could barely hear her from where I stood beside her, but the magistrate seemed satisfied.
“I’m going to admit you to bail.”
“Your honor,” I said. “Given that Natalie is an A-student at Longwood College and has no criminal history, it might be more appropriate to release her on her own recognizance.”
She eyed me over the tops of her glasses. “You think so.”
“Her father owns a business here in town.” Mark Stevens and his brother were partners in Stevens Imports, something I’d picked up from Natalie’s stepmother when she hired me. “There’s no chance she’ll fail to appear.”
“No, chance at all, you think?”
“Well, there’s a chance she’ll be hit by a meteor and all this will be moot, but it’s not a chance we need to worry about.”
Her mouth twitched. I think I almost persuaded her, but when she spoke finally, she said, “I’ll set bail at seventy-five thousand dollars. We’ll all sleep better.” She picked up her gavel and cracked it on the bench, and the hearing was over.
They put us in a room with a long plastic folding table and two metal chairs. “I’ll get a matron,” the deputy sheriff said as he left us. Neither of us sat down.
“What happens now?” Natalie asked me.
“I think they’re going to bring you an orange jumpsuit and transport you to the city jail. I need to get hold of your stepmother to talk about making bail.”
“She’ll be delighted at the thought of me in jailhouse orange.”
“There’s not a lot of love lost between the two of you, is there?”
“Not a lot, no.”
“I really didn’t notice any animosity on her part this morning,” I said in Chloe’s defense. “She did overdo the sweetness a bit.”
“She always does. It’s to cover up the underlying animosity.”
“She wrote me a ten-thousand-dollar check. If we can keep her overdoing the sweetness thing, we should have you home before the end of the day. Tomorrow at the latest.”
She crossed to one of the metal folding chairs and dropped into it, causing the legs to scrape back along the floor. “I’ll survive.”
“Sure you will. You’re a tough girl.”
Her lip curled at me.
“I guess we’ll see.”