I walked over to my office window and peered through the blinds. Outside, a sudden gust of wind swayed the trees along the sidewalk and snatched off dozens of brown and red leaves. I turned toward Sally Wade, who was seated in the chair in front of my desk.
“The wife?” I asked. “Closer to ex-wife.”
I groaned. “I didn’t realize it was a divorce case. I’m sorry, Sally, but I took a blood oath after the last one. I’m never handling another divorce.”
Sally smiled. “That’s not why I’m here. Everyone has divorce lawyers, and the dissolution papers are already on file.”
“Whew,” I said with relief. I came back to my desk and sat down. “So who is she?”
I paused, trying to mask my surprise. “You’re…her?” She nodded grimly. “I’m her.”
When Sally Wade had called that morning to schedule an appointment, I assumed it involved a new lawsuit. After all, Sally was a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer with a growing practice in the state courts of St. Louis and southern Illinois. Although we had never before met, it’s not unusual for the younger women attorneys in town, especially the solo practitioners among us, to refer cases back and forth—sort of the young girl version of the old boy network.
Sally Wade did indeed have a new plaintiff’s lawsuit for me. I just hadn’t expected that she was the plaintiff. Nor had I sus- pected that the defendant was her (almost) ex-husband. After three years of marriage to Neville McBride, managing partner of the silk-stocking law firm of Tully, Crane & Leonard, Sally had filed for divorce last month—an event sufficiently noteworthy to find its way into the people column of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
And now she wanted to sue him for assault.
I pointed toward her upper lip, which was bruised and swol- len. “Did he do that?”
She nodded. “And this,” she said as she lowered her designer sunglasses to reveal a blackened right eye.
I winced. “Oh, God.”
She put her oversized sunglasses back in position. “There’s more.” She stood, slipped off her peacock-blue cashmere blazer, and hung it carefully on the back of her chair. Pulling down the collar of her black turtleneck, she leaned toward me so that I could see the scratches and dark bruises on the left side of her neck and upper chest.
I felt a surge of anger so fierce it made me dizzy. “That’s outrageous.”
Without a word, she straightened her turtleneck and sat back down facing me. She crossed her arms over her chest.
I waited for my blood pressure to drop a few notches. “This happened last night?” I asked.
“Around midnight.” “Where?”
“In the house.” Her cashmere skirt matched the peacock-blue blazer hanging from the back of her chair, and her black stockings matched her turtleneck.
“Did you let him in?”
She snorted. “Are you nuts? I was sound asleep. I didn’t realize the son of a bitch still had a key. He barged into the bedroom, flipped on the light, and started hollering.” Her southern-Illinois twang became more pronounced as her ire rose.
“Was he drunk?”
“As a skunk.” She shuddered in disgust. “He’s an animal. A miserable animal. First he called me names and then he started screaming that I was fucking his partners and fucking the judges and fucking the pool man and everyone else. He went berserk. He slapped me and punched me and then—” She paused, lowering her sunglasses to stare at me, the black eye making her squint. “—and then he tried to rape me.” She readjusted her sunglasses and leaned back.
She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Fortunately, he was too drunk to get it up.”
“I’m so sorry, Sally,” I said gently.
She gave me a curt nod. “He’s the one who’ll be sorry.” “What did the police do?”
“I haven’t told the police.”
I sat back, puzzled. “Why not?”
She studied me from behind her sunglasses. “I don’t want to put him in jail, Rachel. I want to put him in the poorhouse.”
“I’m not following you.”
She leaned forward, her voice low but intense. “I want to sue the bastard. I want to sue him for assault and I want to sue him for battery. I want to sue him for compensatory damages and I want to sue him for punitive damages. I want a jury of my peers to make that cowardly, blue-blooded piece of shit pay through his high-society nose. He’s worth millions of dollars, Rachel, and I want every last penny of it.” She leaned back with a frosty smile. “Less your one-third, of course.”
I studied my newest client. Sally Wade (briefly, Sally Wade- McBride) was born and raised near Centralia, Illinois. She was in her mid-thirties and had shoulder-length auburn hair cut in bangs over her forehead. She was slender and appeared to be attractive, although it was hard to tell with the sunglasses and swollen lip. As Anthony Trollope once wrote of another attorney, Sally had a face you might see and forget, and see again and forget again; and yet when you looked at it feature by feature, you found it was a fairly good face, showing intelligence in the forehead and strength around the mouth.
It was also a face that matched her reputation. Sally was known as a shrewd adversary and a fearless trial lawyer. She was the type of woman that certain male opponents referred to as “a ballbreaking cunt,” usually under their breath in the courthouse hallway after a stinging loss.
Sally had earned her reputation the old-fashioned way. After law school, she went to work for Abraham Grozny, one of the more notorious bottom-fishers in the St. Louis legal community, a five-and-dime shyster who bore a striking resemblance to the actor Lou Jacobi. She started off lugging Grozny’s massive brief- case up and down the corridors of the traffic courts on both sides of the Mississippi River as her boss trolled for clients. Sally’s job back then was to get the new client to sign the attorney-client agreement right there in the courthouse hallway and take his statement. Over the years, however, her willingness to try cases (no matter how bad the facts, sleazy the client, or small the claim) and her exceptional organizational skills (essential for a litigator with a constantly changing inventory of hundreds of small cases) made her so indispensable that Grozny, the archetypal solo practitioner, offered her a full partnership on her twenty-ninth birthday. She declined, however, and shortly thereafter left to open the law offices of Sally Wade & Associates. Her timing was exquisite. Ten months later, a federal grand jury indicted Abraham Grozny on eighteen counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, bribery, and corruption of justice—a collection of charges that suggested an explanation other than brilliant lawyering for the extraordinary results Grozny routinely obtained before certain judges, all of whom were also indicted. Last winter, midway through the third year of his seven-year prison term, Grozny had died of a cerebral hemorrhage while playing horseshoes in the prison yard.
“Here.” Sally reached down and opened her briefcase. “I’ve already drafted the petition.” Completely businesslike, she pulled out a file folder and handed it to me.
I placed the folder on my desk, struck by her transformation from avenging victim to cool professional. It was an impressive performance, albeit just a little creepy.
“It’s a working draft,” she said casually. “I know you’re good, Rachel, but you don’t do much personal injury work. This draft will give you language to work with. Feel free to change whatever you want.” She smiled. “I realize that I’m the client on this one, not the lawyer. I just don’t want to waste any time. I’d love to file it by the end of the week.”
I opened the folder and glanced through the allegations as I tried to sort out my own reactions. I looked up and asked, “Was this the first time?”
She frowned. “First time?” “That he ever struck you?”
She paused, stroking her chin. When she answered, she chose her words carefully. “This was the first time that he struck me without consent.”
I repeated her answer to myself. “I’m not following you.” She turned toward my office window, her face impassive.
“Neville is a man who has a strong need for control.” She spoke slowly, deliberately. “Sexually, that is. It’s what turns him on. He likes certain, uh, scenarios.”
“Scenarios?” I asked, knowing I needed to hear the specifics but not eager to.
She nodded, still gazing out the window. “Variations on a rape scene.” She turned to me with an expression that was almost detached. “Simulated, of course. The pirate and the maiden, the prison guard and the prisoner, the Arab sheik and the harem girl, that sort of thing. Sometimes English.”
“Bondage. He liked to tie me up. Blindfolds, gags, that sort of thing.”
“And you?” I asked after a moment. “Me?”
“You let him do those things?” The thought of Sally Wade playing the passive role in a fantasy rape game seemed so incongruous.
“Occasionally,” she answered coolly, not averting her eyes.
Then again, I acknowledged, I had come across behavior in some of my divorce cases far more incongruous than a tough female trial lawyer who got her jollies playing damsel in distress to a man old enough to be her father.
“But,” she continued, leaning forward for emphasis, “we never did anything like what he pulled last night.”
“Not even close?”
“Not even close. Whatever he and I did in the past never left a bruise. It was pure fantasy. Last night was no fantasy. It was a nightmare.”
“Nevertheless,” I said, frowning pensively, “you know what he may try to claim in his defense.”
“Don’t worry about that, Rachel. First of all, it’d be total bullshit. Simple as that. The guy beat me up and tried to rape me. I never consented to any of it. Second, he’d be too embarrassed to even try to claim that there was anything consensual about what he did. Remember, this is not some lowlife scumbag pervert. We’re talking about the distinguished Neville McBride, managing partner of Tully, Crane & Leonard. His reputation is his most precious asset. You think Mr. Wonderful wants to sit up there on the witness stand and tell the world that the only way he can get his rocks off these days is to tie up a woman facedown on her bed and jerk off onto her butt?” She shook her head. “No way, José. Which is why he’ll try to settle the lawsuit early on.”
I let it sink in.
“Still,” I said, “you should have gone to the police.”
She laughed. “Come on. You think the police are going to do anything to one of the St. Louis McBrides? Especially when the McBride in question happens to be a member of the St. Louis Police Board? Get real.”
“Sally, the man committed a crime.”
“Exactly,” she said with an angry sneer, “and we’re going to make him pay for it.”
“That’s not the point, Sally. If he did it to you, he might do it to some other woman, too.”
She laughed. “You’re the one missing the point, Rachel. This is the best way to make sure he never does it again.”
I gave her a puzzled look. “Why do you say that?”
“Come on, Rachel.” She shook her head in disbelief. “You know what’ll happen if I report it to the police? Zilch, that’s what.” Sally stood up and walked over to the window. “Zilch.” She turned to face me. “Look at O. J. Simpson. There’s a certified wife-beater. How many times did Nicole report him to the police? And what did they do to him? Nothing. Same here. Neville will bring in some heavyweight lawyer and have one of his powerful buddies talk to the prosecutor or the judge, and the next thing you know the case will be dismissed and the file sealed.”
She walked over behind her chair and rested her hands on the top of it. “Believe me, my way is far better. For everyone. Society wants punishment and deterrence. I want revenge and money. This way everyone gets what they want.”
“Won’t you get plenty of money anyway?” “How so?”
“In the divorce.”
She gave me a sardonic smile. “Don’t be naive, Rachel. When you marry a man with that kind of net worth, especially when you’re not his first wife, you exchange more than wedding vows.”
“A prenuptial agreement?”
She nodded darkly. “And it’s airtight, according to my divorce lawyer. I’m entitled to a lump-sum payment of fifty thousand dollars.”
“Who’s your divorce lawyer?”
She moved around to the front of her chair and sat down. “Sammy Soule.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Exactly,” she said. “If that shark says the prenuptial agreement is valid, you can be sure it is. Sammy says there’s no way I can get any more money out of him.” She leaned back and crossed her arms over her chest. “Until last night, that is.” Her lips curled with satisfaction. “Last night Neville McBride handed over the key to the family gold mine.”
I studied her. “You still need to go to the police.” “Oh, come on, Rachel. Don’t be such a Girl Scout.”
“I’m not, Sally. Look down the road. Your case won’t come to trial for at least a year. What if Neville denies the whole incident on the witness stand? What if he says it’s all a ruse by you to get around the prenuptial agreement? Without a police report, it’ll be just your word against his.”
She thought it over. “Good point.”
“You’ll need photographs, too. Preferably in color. A police photographer would be best. If there isn’t one available, go to a pro with a solid reputation.”
“I know one.” “Good.”
She stood up. “I’ll call you tomorrow.” She handed me the signed attorney-client agreement. “Don’t try to call me at the office. I don’t want my assistant to know about this. I want an airtight lid on this until we file suit. Okay?”
“Sure,” I said. “One more thing.” “What’s that?”
“Go see your doctor.”
“Excellent point. He’d be a good witness.”
I gazed at my gritty, vindictive client and sighed. “Sally, forget about the lawsuit for just a moment. The reason you should go see a doctor is that you’re bruised and banged up. You should go see a doctor to make sure you’re okay. Do it today.”
She grinned and saluted. “Yes, ma’am.” I gave her a stern look. “Today.”
“Right after you see the police.” She saluted. “Yes, ma’am.”
I winked. “Good.”