Excerpt: Someone to Believe In
Book 1: The O'Neil Family
“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN of the jury. Have you reached a verdict?”
“Yes, Your Honor, we have.” His face somber, the foreman handed a paper to the bailiff.
As the court officer brought the findings to the judge, District Attorney Clayton Wainwright scanned the courtroom. It was like a morgue. And he just didn’t get it. He’d proven his case, and he was sure the perpetrator would be convicted. So why was Sandra Jones, the judge, glaring at him, the jury looking as if it were about to sentence Christ to crucifixion, and even his own assistant acting like Clay had betrayed God?
He stole a glance at the defendant. Hell, she looked about sixteen, not twenty-five. Long dark hair, porcelain skin. Even a few freckles if you got up close. Her appearance just didn’t fit with the image of the worldly anti–youth gang specialist that she’d made a name as. Maybe that was why, right from the start, this case had put a sour taste in everybody’s mouth. Truthfully, Clay had had some moments of self-doubt himself. But it was his job to prosecute her, and was in keeping with his tough-on-crime, particularly juvenile crime, stance.
Her face blank, the judge handed the verdict back to the bailiff who returned it to the foreman. He read aloud, “The jury finds Bailey O’Neil guilty of Accessory After the Fact.”
Clayton was far from elated, but she deserved the outcome. She was guilty as hell of harboring a criminal, in this case a teenager, knowing he’d committed murder.
He heard a gasp, and saw O’Neil grab on to her lawyer, her complexion ashen. A hush came over the courtroom.
Then the foreman spoke up. “The members of the jury have a statement I’d like to read, Judge Jones, if that’s all right.”
“I object,” Clay said, bolting out of his chair. “This is clearly out of order.”
“Objection overruled. Sit down, Mr. Wainwright. You got what you wanted.” The judge turned her attention to the juror. “Go ahead, Mr. Foreman.”
He read, “While we recognize the error committed by Ms. O’Neil, and acknowledge that the evidence is substantial, we strongly recommend a light sentence. Ms. O’Neil has kept kids out of gangs, as shown by the defense presented, and she’s saved lives doing it. We applaud the good she’s done, and believe she can do even more to stop youth gangs, given the chance. The requisite fine is acceptable, but the two-to-five-year imprisonment is not. We recommend a suspended sentence. “
Clay was on his feet again, but before he could open his mouth, the judge held up her hand, palm out. “Mr. District Attorney. Do not object. I’ve heard your arguments. I will take the jury’s wishes under consideration. The defendant is to remain in custody until Monday of next week, when I’ll render the sentence. Court is adjourned.” The slap of the gavel echoed like a gunshot in the too-silent courtroom.
What the hell was going on here? If the defendant received a suspended sentence, it would send the wrong message to people in general, and kids especially. To them, it would say, “Adults will protect you when you break the law.” Clay snapped his briefcase shut. He noticed no one congratulated him, not even his assistant. He looked over to the defense table; O’Neil’s attorney held her in his arms. She cried softly. Clay felt an unwarranted spurt of guilt.
But what else was he supposed to do? A young man had been murdered, and this newly convicted woman had harbored the killer. When the punk had been caught and questioned, it had slipped out that he’d hidden in the office of his “guardian angel,” who was Bailey O’Neil, and that he’d told her what he’d done. Still, she’d lied to the police when they questioned her about his whereabouts. The boy later contended the murder was committed in self-defense, but that was yet to be determined.
As soon as Clay left the building, he was surrounded by reporters sticking microphones in his face and flashing cameras at him. Backdropped by busy traffic sounds on the street, a crowd had gathered on the courthouse steps. “Mr. Wainwright, does this case affect your throwing your hat into the ring for the Senate race this year?” one reporter asked.
Straightening his tie, Clay cleared his throat and swallowed his doubts. “Why would it?”
“It’s no secret Bailey O’Neil has the sympathy of people in this town.”
“The jury found her guilty. I did my part in upholding the law, which she broke. As you know, I’m running for the senate on a zero-tolerance-for-crime platform, in concert with the Republican Party’s stance, particularly for teenagers. I believe the voters want a safer city, state, nation.”
“Don’t you think this is a little like Goliath attacking David?” another reporter shouted.
“No, I don’t.” And he didn’t. He fully believed he was doing the right thing, even if watching Bailey O’Neil had been tough to take. In some ways, he bought the defense’s theory that hers was a do-gooder’s knee-jerk reaction to protect a kid. Her lawyer had called her a “street angel” in his closing statements.
Well, the Street Angel was going to be caged, he guessed. It was the right thing to do. He just hoped this case didn’t haunt him the rest of his career.
ELEVEN YEARS LATER
CLAY WAINWRIGHT SLAPPED the morning’s New York Sun down onto his desk after reading the inflammatory letter to the editor. “What the hell does that woman want from me?”
“Calm down, Senator.” Usually as patient as Job, his press secretary, Mica Proust, sighed with weary exasperation.
“I’ll calm down when our little Street Angel has her wings clipped once and for all.” Hell, Bailey O’Neil was still using the name she’d gotten during the trial more than a decade ago when he’d prosecuted, and won, a case against her.
“Thorn’s coming right up.”
“Yeah, well, he won’t like this one.” Loosening his tie, Clay unbuttoned the collar of his light blue shirt. He’d already shed his suit coat; his temper had heated his body and caused his blood pressure to skyrocket.
Mica gave Clay an indulgent look, like the ones his string of nannies used to bestow on him. He didn’t particularly appreciate the comparison. “I’m continually amazed at the effect that woman has on you. You face the Senate Majority Leader down without a qualm, and I’ve seen you handle angry constituents without breaking into a sweat. But her…”
He gave the older woman a self-effacing grin. “I know. She turns me into a raving maniac. Maybe because she got off practically scot-free for Accessory After the Fact.”
“A year behind bars is not scot-free.” Slick and tidy, Jack Thornton, his chief of staff, entered Clay’s office, which was housed in the Russell Building on Capitol Hill. Thorn took a seat on one of the two leather couches in the mahogany-paneled room, propped his ankle on his knee, and shook his head. “The Street Angel’s at it again, I take it.”
While Mica filled Thorn in, Clay pushed back his chair, stood, and began to pace. He ran a frustrated hand through his thick crop of hair as he covered the carpet. When Mica finished, Clay started to rant again. “I have not lost my edge. I have not caved to politics. Who the hell does she think is, suggesting I should retire to a country home and play golf, for God’s sake?”
“More than likely she’s pissed at you now for blocking the funding for Guardian House in the Appropriations Committee. “ Thorn’s voice was neutral as he studied his notes. “And for writing those memos to the governor and her local senators about that interactive network she’s got up and running at ESCAPE.”
“ESCAPE!” Her anti–youth gang operation. “I’d close it down completely if I could”
“And she knows you’d do that.”
“It’s a menace to society. The police should deal with gang intervention. Not a social agency that coddles young criminals.”
This was an old debate, one they were all well-versed in.
Thorn said, “What happened eleven years ago also remains between you.”
“That woman’s only gotten worse in the last decade. Guardian needs to be stopped. The last thing we should be funding is a shelter for gang kids. The money from Stewart’s new bill should go to poor, underprivileged kids who didn’t choose a life of crime.”
“Hey,” Mica put in, “you’re preaching to the choir here.”
His press secretary glanced at his chief of staff. Thorn added, “I just found out she’s throwing her weight behind Lawson.”
“Publicly. She told the Sun she’d be volunteering for the young councilman’s campaign bid for the Democratic primary for senator next year so he can run against you in the November election.”
“Oh, this is just great.” Clay scowled. “Get the governor on the phone.”
“Clay.” Mica spoke gently from where she’d gone to stand by the window that overlooked Delaware Avenue. “You can’t afford to antagonize him again about this. He likes Bailey O’Neil.”
“The only reason that woman has his ear is because she helped his niece when the girl was being lured into that gang.”
Clay saw Mica and Thorn exchange frowns this time.
“Okay, okay, I know. She’s done some good. She’s saved some kids. But she broke the law to do it once that we know about, and God knows how many times she’s broken it since then. She should be brought up on negative misprision.” Not reporting a crime when a person knows one has been committed was illegal.
“You already sent her to jail once.” This from Thorn.
“I don’t like your semantics. I didn’t send her to jail. She went to prison for Accessory After the Fact. For a crime against the United States of America.” He cocked his head. “If I’d needed vindication, which I don’t think I did, the kid she harbored was found guilty of the murder.”
“The whole thing only made her a martyr. Groups fought to get her out early. Even the former governor was torn.” Thorn paused. “Look Clay, you’ve got to get a handle on this public feud with O’Neil. We can’t let that old case endanger your chances of reelection. And of being considered for the vice presidential nomination.”
“That’s over a year away.”
“Close enough to watch everything you do now. In any case, your feud with O’Neil was negative publicity eleven years ago, which you overcame by concentrating on what you’d done to stop youth gangs as well as other juvenile crimes as a D.A. Then we effectively buried it in the last election. You can’t let the case resurface and get out of hand for the next one. You’ve got to make peace with Bailey O’Neil now.”
“Hell, it’d be easier to sell her the Brooklyn Bridge.”
“I think we should set up a meeting with her. Better, you should call her. Ask nicely for one.”
He struggled to be rational. “When am I due back in New York?”
Whipping out his Palm Pilot, Thorn clicked into Clay’s schedule. “Thursday. You have a late meeting with Homeland Security on Wednesday afternoon so you can fly out at dinnertime.” He fiddled with some buttons. “You have a window of time that morning before you do the ribbon cutting for the women’s shelter. I could have Bob set up a breakfast.”
Taking in a deep breath, Clay shook his head. “No, I’ll call her, like you said. And ask nicely.”
His phone buzzed. Mica crossed to his desk and pressed the speaker button. “The senator’s son is on line one.”
Clay’s steps halted. Jon rarely phoned him. And almost never at the office. He felt the familiar prick of loss shift through him. “We done? I’d like to take this in private.”
Thorn nodded. “Sure. “
His staff left and Clay tried to calm his escalated heartbeat. Fine commentary on your life, Wainwright, when a simple call from your son affects you like this. Dropping down in his chair, he caught sight of the picture that sat on his desk of him and Jon, taken last year when Jon went off to college. Same dark blond hair. Same light brown eyes. Same broad shoulders. But they were as different as night and day. At least now they were.
Clay picked up the phone. “Hello, Jon. “
“Dad.” The ice was still in the kid’s voice, though a bit thawed. “How are you?” Pleasantries at least. Better than the accusations the last time they’d talked…
You know, I may not even vote for you. That bill you cosponsored shortchanged the environment across the board.
That bill provided needed funds for shelters for battered women.
Yeah, the token bone, tacked on to get guys like you to vote for it.
Pushing away the bad memories, Clay asked, “How are you, son?”
“Uh-huh. I’m in charge of the fund-raiser for our Earth Environment Group.” Jon attended Bard College as an environmental engineer major. He’d gone up to school in mid-July with some other students to plan the year’s activities for their organization. Jon coughed as if he was about to do something unpleasant. “The dean asked if you could come to the event we’re sponsoring to kick off our fund drive. He thought maybe you could give a talk to the students who’ll be here for orientation and community members who would jump at the chance to hear their senator speak.”
Ah, so the kid wanted something from him. “If I can. When is it?”
Jon named a date and time. “I already checked with Bob, to see if you were free. Congress will be on recess.”
So you didn’t have to ask a favor for nothing. “Well, then, let’s set it up. Can we do something together, just you and me, while I’m there?”
A long pause, which cut to the quick. “Like what?”
“Go into the city. Have dinner. See a show.”
At one time, Jon issued the invitations…Let’s catch that Knicks game…I want you there, Dad, at my debate… I need to talk about a girl…
When on earth had they lost that? During the long campaigns when Clay wasn’t home much? After all the school events and baseball games he’d missed? In the midst of the messy divorce from Jon’s mother, who, Clay suspected, badmouthed him on a regular basis?
Because he wanted badly to mend their fences, he said with enthusiasm, “Okay, then, we’re on. I’m looking forward to it.”
“Yeah, me, too. It’ll be a great fund-raiser.”
Not what he meant, and his son knew it. Clay wondered if Jon distanced him on purpose. Angered by the thought, he tapped a pencil on his desk, and let the frost creep into his own voice. “I’ll talk to you before then. “
He put down the phone, thinking of a time when conversations had ended with I love you. Because the fact that they no longer automatically said those words hurt, he tried to focus on something else. Absently, he picked up the paper and stared again at the editorial page. Now Bailey O’Neil was aligning herself with the man who was after Clay’s seat in Congress.
Hell, he didn’t want to lock horns with her again. Grabbing his phone again, he said to his assistant, “Joanie, get me Bailey O’Neil in New York, would you? I think we have her work phone on file.” Gripping the receiver before the call was punched through, he said aloud, “Okay, sweetheart, time for another round.”
SO, WHO ARE you? The words scrolled across the screen of Bailey’s computer, like so many others, typed casually.
You know who I am or you wouldn’t have come to my site, TazDevil2. Bailey was unfamiliar with the screen name.
So she typed, I’m the Street Angel. And I can help you.
Why don’t you tell me why you came to my site. It’s just us two. She grinned in the empty office. And I won’t tell anybody else. No matter what the good senator from New York does to me.
Chill out a minute.
Bailey waited. Kids needed time to take this big step. As she drummed her fingers on the table, she scanned her messy office. ESCAPE, her organization, which helped kids find a way out of gang life, needed more space. They’d grown so much they had to rent three offices on this floor, and still she shared hers with a coworker. But she’d rather direct the funds to programs instead of spending it on overhead. When they moved, as they did every few years to maintain their anonymity—much like shelters for battered women—their space probably wouldn’t be much larger.
Her private phone shrilled into the silence, making her startle. She wondered if she should answer it while the newest visitor to her interactive website garnered his or her courage. Or got interrupted. Bailey winced. Once, she’d been on the phone hotline with a boy and he cut off abruptly. Bailey later suspected he’d been caught and killed. A body had turned up with earmarks of the teen she’d been talking to. Don’t think about the loss. To avoid it, she picked up the phone. “Bailey O’Neil.”
“Ms. O’Neil, this is Clayton Wainwright.”
Oh, shit. “Senator, this is a surprise.”
Ah, he had seen the letter in the Sun. “Hmm.”
“I was wondering if you’d make some time for me on Thursday of next week. I’ll be in New York.” His voice was deeper, huskier than she remembered.
“Um, I’m pretty busy.”
“You have to eat. How about breakfast?”
Okay, enough dancing. Not only did they have a history together, but she despised his politics and the damage he’d done to social agencies like hers. No way was she going to see him in person. “Look, Senator, we don’t have much to say to each other. You disagree with how I choose to help kids, and I think you’re conservative and backward and that you’ve copped out on the potential you showed early in your career. We’re never going to see eye to eye.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I’m afraid I have to insist.”
“Are you for real?”
“What does that mean?”
“That you can insist all you want. It has no effect on me.” Time to take the gloves off. “I’m furious with you for your two latest tricks.”
“Blocking my funding for Guardian at the federal level. At least so far. And then for writing memos to the state officials about ESCAPE.”
The instant message chimed, indicating someone had posted. “Look, I’ve got to go. Thanks for the invitation, but no.” She hung up before he could respond, and read the message.
TazDevi12 was back on. Maybe I’m thinkin’ this is jackshit.
You don’t have to be tough with me. Tell me about your situation.
A pause. I got me a set. The Good Girls.
Bailey froze. The Good Girls had been the worst girl gang in New York City in the eighties. Swallowing her reaction, she typed, That gang doesn’t exist anymore.
Yeah, dude, they do. We been calling ourselves that for a few months. Used to be the Shags. Decided to reincarnate that other gang ’cuz they was so tough.
Uncomfortable, Bailey toyed with the picture of Rory on her desk. I know.
I was close to somebody in the GGs.
Hey, you got the tag right.
Who was it?
My sister. She was one of the original members.
Fucking A! You kiddin’ me?
I wish I was. I saw firsthand what the GGs did to girls.
How old are you?
How old were you when you got in?
The same age as Moira. Beautiful, troubled Moira, whom Bailey had loved unconditionally, despite the problems her half-sister had caused in her family.
That her name?
Yeah. Did you jump or train in?
Jumped. I ain’t no boy’s slave. Bailey knew that “training” into a gang—fucking several guys fast and in a row like train cars—was the preferred method of gang initiation over “jumping” in, which consisted of being brutally beaten by the members. Except if you trained in, you were treated like scum afterward.
What happened to her?
Moira? She died.
Again, Bailey glanced at the phone. Moira had died in prison, where a young D.A., much like Clayton Wainwright, had put her. Bailey herself had been partly responsible, too.
You sad about it still?
Every day of my life.
You got more family?
I do. Four brothers. Me, my mom, and dad.
How come she join a gang if she got family like you?
Because Dad slipped up, and had a kid with another woman. Long story. Since the girl seemed to want to talk, she asked, What’s your name?
Tazmania. I go by Taz.
Tell me about yourself.
A pause. Maybe later. Gotta jet now, Angel. Ciao.
Ciao. And then Bailey added, Stay in touch. Please. I’m on tomorrow night.
For a moment, Bailey just watched the blank computer screen. Sighing, she leaned back in her rickety chair, eased off her scuffed loafers, and propped her feet up on the desk. Idly, she noted that her jeans were threadbare and almost white at the knees. She plucked at the frayed cuffs of the oxford cloth blouse she wore. Geez, she needed new clothes. But hell, who had the time or inclination for shopping?
Shutting her eyes and linking her hands behind her neck, she tried to center herself. She became aware of the quiet. It had gotten late, and the day-shift workers had left the office. The hotline and website night crew would be in soon. But for now she was alone with her memories of Moira. With the pain that twisted her heart like an emotional vise whenever she thought about her half-sister. The pain had dulled, but never really gone away. She was alone with her now-rabid zeal to save kids, which she knew was obsessive. That quest had taken over her life until her son, Rory, came along. And it was still too important to her. But she couldn’t help it. She was going to make a difference.
She thought of Clayton Wainwright—her nemesis since his district attorney days. Though she didn’t blame him for prosecuting her—she had been guilty, after all, of harboring the kid when he’d told her he’d committed a crime—she did hold Wainwright in contempt for his continual vigilance over her organization, and his attempts to keep her funding at bay. Her efforts had been stalled considerably, more than once, just because of him. Now, however, a new battle would ensue; there was money available from the government in a bill initiated by a senator from Massachusetts and passed by Congress for both social agencies and law enforcement. Bailey wanted some of the funds. Wainwright was just as determined not to give them to her.
If he only knew what was really what. But he lived in an ivory tower, with a silver spoon in his mouth, so he could never conceive of what street life was like for kids. Because of that he was dangerous. Best to keep her guard up. With a man like him, you needed your guns poised and your belt full of ammunition; she couldn’t hand him any bullets to stop her with no matter how nicely he asked.
“Beware, Senator Wainwright,” she said glaring at the phone. “I’m gonna win this round. The Street Angel is not giving up.”
TAZ TURNED UP the volume of the latest Marilyn Manson song, which already blasted from her computer, and crossed to the mirror above a dresser in her dingy bedroom. Carefully, she streaked three fingertips over her face. The Vaseline went on smooth and thick. It made her deep brown eyes glisten like the stars. Better yet, it’d protect her skin from knife cuts.
Tonight she was after some hard beef with her girls. Mazie Lennon’s boyfriend had been spotted with a member of Anthrax, and Mazie had called out her home girls to teach the broad a lesson. It was payback time. Taz didn’t think any guy was worth the trouble, but when your home girls wanted help, you went. Her opinion of the male species as lowlifes was why she hadn’t trained in.
Did you jump or train in?
Smart girls knew it was better to jump in; training in made you boys’ slaves. But most chola weren’t tough enough to do it. Taz had been tough. She fingered her ribcage remembering that night. The older girls had cracked two ribs with the billy club they’d jacked from a cop and used in Taz’s initiation. They’d blackened and bloodied one eye and it had stayed shut for a week. They’d given her killer shin kicks; her hair had been pulled so hard she’d felt her fucking eyes bulge. But she’d stuck it out longer than any chick on record, and even some of the guys in the neighboring gangs, who did jump in. Scared the shit out of all of them. Problem was she was so tough, she was always having to prove it. Which was why she went online tonight.
You don’t have to be tough with me.
Done with her own special brand of a facial, Taz braided her hair so it was close to her scalp and couldn’t be pulled; she tied an orange bandana, the GG’s flag, around her head. Then she switched off the small lamp on her dresser. In the dim light from an outdoor streetlight, she slugged back on a forty—forty ounces of malt—and crossed to a makeshift desk. Picking up the laptop she’d stolen from the school—and slept with a computer geek to get bootleg Internet connection—she stuffed the machine in her closet in a locked box. If the old man found it, he’d sell it for booze.
He’d already tried to sell her.
How come she join a gang if she got family like you?
Christ, why the hell had she gone to the Street Angel’s website? Taz guzzled some more beer, found her blade, and tested its sharpness in three shallow slits on her forearm; she smiled as she tasted the coppery blood. Every GG carried the same blade. She looked down at the tattoo ringing her belly button, visible under her crop top. It was a pitchfork. Hurt like hell the night they all got one.
When she heard the front door open, she spat out, “Fuck,” grabbed her GG’s jacket and hustled to the window. Jimmying it, she slipped out just as she heard the pounding. And the swearing. And the foul names he called her.
Her steel-toed boots clanged on the fire escape as she took the steps two at a time, clutching the forty and the blade close to her chest. In minutes, she was away from him, headed toward her real family.
Fingering her knife, she smiled. The dumb-ass cunt who had moved on Mazie’s man was gonna regret her flirting all right. By the time Taz got to the rendezvous point, she’d chugged more malt and had convinced herself she couldn’t wait for the games to begin.