The Burning Man - 1996
"Margolin specializes in characters who make your skin crawl."
-- Chicago Tribune
"Margolin's perfectly crafted plot provides plenty of chills"
-- San Francisco Chronicle
"[Margolin] weaves disparate subplots and surprise twists into a terrific whodunit."
-- Publishers Weekly
"Intricate plotting and warp-speed suspense. The man knows how to write a legal thriller."
From bestselling author Phillip Margolin, a fast-paced legal thriller packed with page-turning suspense.
Peter Hale is a young attorney struggling to make his own mark in his father's venerable law firm when he is presented with the opportunity of a lifetime.
During the trial of a multimillion-dollar case, Peter's father, the lead counsel, suffers a heart attack and asks Peter to move for a mistrial until he's feeling better. Peter decides this is his only chance to prove to his father that he is the terrific lawyer he knows himself to be, and he chooses to carry on with the case against his father's wishes. In his zeal to prove himself, Peter neglects his client and ends up losing everything--the case, his job, and his father.
Unemployed and disinherited, Peter takes the only job he is offered--that of a public defender in a small Oregon town. He hopes that if he can make good there, he can reinstate himself in his father's good graces. But his ambition again gets the best of him when he takes on a death-penalty case, representing a mentally retarded man accused of the brutal hatchet murder of a college coed. He's in way over his head, and it's only when Peter realizes that his greed and his ego may end up killing his client that he begins to understand what it really takes to be a good lawyer--and to become a man.
The Chicago Tribune said "It takes a really crafty storyteller to put people on the edge of their seats and keep them there. But Phillip Margolin does just that." In The Burning Man, with its intricate plotting, legal intrigue, and many twists and surprises, Phillip Margolin has done it again.
This is sure to be his biggest bestseller yet.
Excerpt from The Burning Man:
On the day the gods chose for his destruction, Peter Hale ate his breakfast on the terrace of his condominium. The sun was just beginning its ascent above the city of Portland and a blood-red aura surrounded the flat, black silhouette of Mount Hood. The dark metropolis looked like an ink-black carpet crisscrossed by Christmas lights. A poet would have savored the sunrise for its beauty, but Peter enjoyed the advent of day for another reason. He believed that Galileo was wrong when he imagined an Earth that revolved around the sun. In his heart of hearts, Peter knew that the sun that was slowly rising over his city revolved around him.
A crumb from his bran muffin fell onto the leg of Peters gray Armani trousers. He flicked it off, then took a sip of the café latte he had brewed in the espresso machine that graced the marble counter of his designer kitchen. Peter lived in the condo, drove a fire-engine-red Porsche and pulled in a high five-figure salary as a fourth-year associate at Hale, Greaves, Strobridge, Marquand and Bartlett. The salary did not cover all his expenses and Peter was a bit overextended right now, but he never had any trouble obtaining mortgages, car loans or things of that sort since everyone knew he was the son of Richard Hale, one of the firm's founding partners and a past president of the Oregon State Bar. With all this, Peter was not a happy camper.
The living room drapes moved. Peter looked over his shoulder. Priscilla padded across the terrace wearing only an oversized Trailblazer tee shirt. She was a flight attendant with United. Peter had dated her on and off for a few months. Most men would have killed for such a lover, but Priscilla was talking about "commitment" with increasing frequency and Peter was finding it more and more difficult to avoid discussions of the dreaded "C" word.
Priscilla bent down and kissed Peter on the cheek. Peter's head moved slightly and she sensed the rebuff.
"Boy, are you a grouch this morning," Priscilla said, straining to keep the hurt out of her voice.
"Yeah, well, I've got to get to court," he answered brusquely.
"How is the case going?"
"Great for Sir Richard. Not so good for me."
Priscilla sat across from Peter. "What's wrong?" she asked.
"The same damn thing that's been wrong since I made the mistake of going to work for my father."
Peter did not try to disguise his bitterness. It felt good to vent his anger.
"Last night, right after court, Sir Richard informed me that he would be cross-examining all of the defendant's important witnesses and giving the closing argument."
"Your father has let you try some part of the case, hasn't he?"
"He's let me examine a few insignificant witnesses. That's about it."
"Oh, Peter. I'm so sorry. I know how much you've been counting on being lead counsel."
"Yeah, well," Peter shrugged, "I should have known better. My father just has to hog the glory."
Peter looked out toward the sunrise, but his thoughts were turned inward. When his father asked him if he wanted to work at Hale, Greaves, Peter had imagined serving a brief apprenticeship followed quickly by a succession of major cases in which he would act as lead counsel, winning multimillion-dollar verdicts and establishing his credentials in the legal community, it had taken four years serving as Richard Hale's vassal to bring him to his senses. He had worked on Elliot v. Northwest Maritime from day one and he knew more about the case than his father ever would. If his Father would not let him be lead counsel in Elliot, he had little hope of being lead counsel in a major case in the near future. He had to get out from under his father's influence. If necessary, even leave Hale, Greaves. A new start with a new firm might be the answer. He would seriously consider a move when the Elliot case was over.
The senior partners in Hale, Greaves, Strobridge, Marquand and Bartlett looked out from corner offices on the fortieth floor of the Continental Trust Building at the rivers, towering mountains and lush green hills that made Portland, Oregon, so unique. Though the skyscraper was new, the firm's quarters were decorated with heavy, dark woods, polished brass fittings and fine old antiques, giving the place an air of timeless quality.
At precisely 7:30 A.M., Peter entered a small, windowless conference room where he and his father met before court every morning to review the witnesses who would testify that day and to discuss any legal issues that might arise. Peter's father still had the same massive build that helped him win second team All-American honors in football and an NCAA wrestling championship at Oregon State in 1956. He owned a full head of white hair and his craggy face was outfitted with a broken nose and a cauliflower ear. Richard Hale practiced law the way he played Sports, full steam ahead and take no prisoners. This morning, Peter's father was striding hack and forth in front of a low credenza in his shirtsleeves, a phone receiver plastered to his ear, muttering Jesus Christ!" at increasing decibel levels each time he made a turn.
Peter took off his suit jacket and hung it behind the door on a hanger. He noted with distaste that his father had flung his jacket onto a corner of the long conference table where it lay crumpled in a heap. Richard loved playing the humble, hulking man to the people in front of juries and he thought that the disheveled clothes helped his image. Peter could not imagine wearing a suit that had not been freshly pressed.
"When will you know?" his father barked, as Peter took several flies from his attaché case and arranged them in a neat pile.
'No, goddamn it, that wont do. We're in the middle of the goddamn trial. We've been in court for two weeks."
Richard paused. His features softened. "I know it couldn't be helped, but you don't know Judge Pruitt."
He paused again, listening intently. Then, his face turned scarlet with anger.
"Look, Bill, this isn't that difficult. I told you I needed the goddamn things two weeks ago. This is what happens when you wait until the last minute.
"Well, you better," Richard threatened, ending the conversation by slamming down the phone.
"What's up?" Peter asked.
"Ned Schuster was in a car wreck," Richard answered distractedly, running his fingers through his hair. "He's in the hospital."
"Schuster. He's supposed to testify today. Now, Bill Ebling says they can't get the papers to court because Schuster had the only copy."
Peter had no idea what his father was talking about. He glanced down at his files. There was OflC for each witness and none was for a Ned Schuster. When he looked up, his father was leaning against the wall. His face was as pale as chalk and he was rubbing both sides of his jaw vigorously.
"Dad?" Peter asked, frightened by his father's ashen pallor and the heads of sweat that suddenly bathed his face. Instead of answering, Richard grimaced in pain and began rubbing his breast with a clenched fist. Peter froze.
"Heart attack," Richard gasped.
Peter snapped out of his trance and raced around the conference table.
"I need to lie down," Richard managed, as his knees sagged. Peter caught him before he hit the floor.
"Help!" Peter screamed. A young woman stuck her head in the door. Her eves widened.
Call 911, fast! My father is having a heart attack."
When Peter looked down, Richard's teeth were clenched and his eyes were squeezed tight. He continued to rub his chest vigorously as if trying to erase his pain.
Hold on, Dad," Peter begged. The medics are coming."
Richard's body jerked. His eyes glazed over. The two men were sprawled on the floor. Peter held his father's head in his lap. He was concentrating so hard on his father that he didn't notice the room filling with people.
Suddenly, Richard's eyes opened and he gasped, "Mistrial."
"Get... mistrial... Must..."
"Don't talk. Please, Dad. Save your strength."
Richard grabbed Peter's wrist and squeezed so hard his fingers left raw, red impressions.
"Must . . . Mistrial," he managed again.
"Yes, I will," Peter promised, just as someone called, "Let me through." Peter looked toward the doorway. He recognized the older woman who was pushing through the crowd as a nurse the firm had hired to assist in working up personal injury cases. A moment later, Peter was standing on the far side of the conference table as the nurse tried to save his father's life.
The idea of Richard Hale dying sucked the air right out of Peter. He slumped onto a chair just as two medics rushed into the room with oxygen, a stretcher and a portable IV. Peter's mother had died several years ago after a long illness and her death had been expected, but Peter saw his father as a mountain that would last forever. When he looked up he could not see his father through the crush of medical personnel who surrounded him. What if Richard didn't pull through? he asked himself. Peter's heart beat so rapidly he had to will himself to calm down. The anxiety attack passed. He opened his eyes and saw his briefcase and his files. The trial! Peter looked at his watch. It was almost time to go to court. Suddenly, the people in front of the door were backing away and the medics were rushing out of the room with a stretcher that supported his father. Peter wanted to follow them to the hospital, but someone had to tell Mrs. Elliot what had happened and ask Judge Pruitt for a mistrial. There was no way he could see his father now anyway. Peter knew' he would probably have to stay in the hospital waiting room for hours before the doctors could tell him anything.
Peter stepped out of the conference room into the hall. It was empty. Everyone had followed the medics to the elevator. Peter walked away from the crowd and left the offices by a back door that opened near the men's room. He was trembling and flushed. He went to the rest room sink and splashed cold water on his face. Then, he leaned forward and looked at himself in the mirror. His brown, blow-dried hair was a mess, his shirt was rumpled and his tie had been wrenched to one side. Peter took out a pocket comb and wet it. When his hair looked presentable, he tucked in his shirt and straightened his tie.
Peter examined himself again. He saw a man whose genetic inheritance from his mother had softened the sharp features his father had contributed. Peter had his father's intense blue eyes, but he also had his mother's smooth, high cheekbones. His nose was straight instead of craggy and his lips were thinner than Richard Hale's. At five feet ten, one hundred and sixty pounds, he was slender and wiry with none of the bulk or height of his father.
Peter straightened up. He felt back in control of himself and the situation. There was nothing he could do for his father now. Richard would be unconscious or drugged for hours. Peter decided that he would quickly explain what happened to the judge before going to the hospital. Certainly, Pruitt would grant a mistrial under the circumstances. No judge would require the trial to go on when the lead counsel had been stricken with a heart attack.
Peter took the elevator to the lobby. The courthouse was only a few blocks away. As he rushed toward it, an unsettling thought suddenly occurred to him. Mrs. Elliot was suffering terribly. He could see how hard it was for her to sit through her trial, both physically and emotionally. If a mistrial was declared, Mrs. Elliot would have to suffer through a second trial. In a second trial, the defense would have transcripts of Mrs. Elliot's witnesses and would know all of their strategy. Delay always helped the defendant when the plaintiff had a strong case. And the plaintiff's case was almost finished. Only two short witnesses remained.
Peter paused inside the courthouse doors. Lawyers, litigants, policemen and clerks swirled around him, the noise from dozens of conversations formed a constant din, but he was oblivious to the crowd. Was his father thinking clearly when he told Peter to ask for a mistrial? He had been in unbearable pain. Did his father really want to abort the case when it was going so well? Would Richard even remember his order when he recovered from the trauma of his coronary? Peter was certain that following his father's wishes was not in Mrs. Elliot's best interest, but the thought of disobeying Richard Hale's command terrified him.
Peter realized that he was trembling. He took a deep breath and willed himself to calm down. A lawyer's first duty was to his client. Why, then, had his father told him to ask for a mistrial? It took a moment for the answer to dawn on Peter. Richard Hale had no confidence in Peter's ability to take over the case.
Peter's fear gave way to a sense of outrage. He squared his shoulders and strode across the lobby toward the elevators. By the time the elevator doors opened, Peter was ready to go to court. He would show his father just how good he was. He would win Elliot. Then, he would place the multimillion-dollar judgment in front of Richard Hale, irrefutable proof that he was ready, willing and able to step up to the big time.
Alvin Pruitt was a cadaverous jurist with a military crew cut, beady, bloodshot eyes and sunken cheeks that always seemed to be covered by gray stubble. He was foul-tempered and ran his courtroom like a Marine barracks. By the time Peter walked into court, he was ten minutes late and the judge was furious.
"I hope you have a good explanation for your tardiness, Mr. Hale."
"I do, sir. There's been an emergency. May I approach the bench?"
Pruitt frowned and searched the room beyond Peter.
"Where is your father?"
"That's what I want to tell you," Peter answered, as he pushed through the low gate that separated the spectators from the area before the bench.
Pruitt beckoned Peter forward, then addressed the attorney representing Northwest Maritime and their driver.
"Mr. Compton, you'd better get up here."
Peter paused at the plaintiff's table to say hello to his client. Nellie Elliot was a washed-out woman who had been worn down by poverty, the untimely death of her husband and the grueling task of raising five young children when life added a final insult by putting her in the path of a Northwest Maritime truck. Now, Mrs. Elliot was a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic and her lawsuit was worth millions.
"What's wrong?" Mrs. Elliot asked. Since the accident, she could move only her head, which bobbed toward her left shoulder as she spoke in the halting, slurred speech that was another product of the defendant's negligence.
"I'll fill you in after I confer with the judge," Peter answered with a reassuring smile.
"Well?" Judge Pruitt asked impatiently.
Peter spoke quietly, so his voice would not reach his client.
"Your Honor, my father had a heart attack just as we were leaving for court."
Lyle Compton looked stricken and the judge's hard-bitten demeanor disappeared. Both men had known Richard Hale for more than twenty years. Though Judge Pruitt was brusque with all who appeared before him, he had the highest regard for Richard. Richard and Lyle Compton had been friendly adversaries in countless courtroom battles.
"Is he going to be all right?" Pruitt asked with genuine concern.
"I don't know."
"Well, I'll adjourn court and we'll reconvene tomorrow so you can bring us up to date," the judge said.
Peter had been afraid the judge might try to stop the trial on his own. "There's no reason to adjourn, he said, hoping he did not sound as anxious as he felt. "I won't be able to see my father for hours."
Judge Pruitt's brow furrowed. He looked at Peter as if he was certain he had misunderstood him.
"You don't plan on continuing the trial, do you?" the judge asked.
"Oh, certainly. After all, our case is almost over and there's Mrs. Elliot to consider. It would be awfully hard for her to go through a second trial."
"Yes, well that may be, but your father is lead counsel," the judge said.
Lyle Compton was short, bald and rotund. He usually had a disarming smile on his face. He represented insurance companies for a living, but he was sympathetic to plaintiffs and was fair and charmingly nonadversarial until he was forced into the courtroom.
"Peter, it wouldn't be right to make you continue this case," Compton said with sincerity. "Mrs. Elliot has a right to be represented by the best. If you move for a continuance or a mistrial, I'm not going to object."
Peter kept control of his facial expression, but he was seething. He believed Compton was trying to sucker him into moving for a mistrial so he could save his case. And that crack about Mrs. Elliot deserving the best . . . Peter's heart hardened. He would show Compton what it was like to really go up against the best.
"I appreciate your concern, Mr. Compton, but I'm prepared to continue.
"Do you feel that you're ready to do that, Mr. Hale?" the judge asked. 'You've never been lead counsel in a case this complex, have you?"
"No, Your Honor, but I worked on this case from the beginning. I prepared the witnesses, wrote the pleadings and the legal memos. In all modesty, I believe I know the ins and outs of Mrs. Elliot's lawsuit as well, if not better, than my father."
"Is this what your client wants?" the judge asked.
"I haven't had an opportunity to confer with her. She doesn't know what happened."
Judge Pruitt looked troubled. "Well, why don't you take a few minutes to confer with Mrs. Elliot. But before you do, I have to tell you that I think you're making a big mistake if you go ahead. You should be with your father in the hospital. I know you're thinking of your client's interests, which is commendable, but I can't imagine how you're going to be able to focus on this case without knowing that your father has pulled through."
Peter felt a brief flash of elation. The trial was going to continue and he was going to try it by himself. Then, as Peter walked over to his client, a moment of self-doubt assailed him. Aside from his mistrust of Peter's abilities, was there some other reason why his father had ordered Peter to ask for a mistrial? Peter remembered how upset his father had been just before his heart attack. What had that been about? Some witness and some papers. As Peter sat down next to Mrs. Elliot, he tried to review everything he knew about the case. He could think of no witness who needed to testify other than the two who were scheduled for this morning and no papers that had to he introduced,
Before he could consider the matter further, Mrs. Elliot swung her wheelchair so she could face Peter.
"Where's Mr. Hale?" she asked fearfully.
Peter promptly forgot about the mystery witness and said, 'Mrs. Elliot, I want you to stay calm. I have
some news for you that may he a bit disturbing."
"Plaintiff rests," Peter declared in a voice that conveyed to the jury the confidence he felt in his case. His last two witnesses had been terrific and Peter could not conceive of a juror who was not convinced that Nellie Elliot should be awarded millions to compensate her for the negligence of Northwest Maritime's driver.
"May I confer with Mr. Hale for a moment?" Lyle Compton asked Judge Pruitt.
Why don't I send the jury out for lunch, Mr. Compton. As soon as you're finished talking to Mr. Hale, you can make any motions you may have. We'll start the defense case after lunch."
That would he fine, Your Honor."
When the jurors were gone, Compton motioned Peter to join him out of earshot of Mrs. Elliot. Peter felt he was on top of the world as he crossed the courtroom. During a phone call to the hospital, he had been assured that his father would make a full recovery, and he was on the brink of winning his first million-dollar verdict.
"Peter," Compton said in a low voice, "I'm prepared to recommend a settlement of 1.5 million. I think that's a fair offer."
Peter's chest swelled. Compton was on the ropes and he knew it. The offer was a last-ditch attempt to save his client the several million dollars more Peter was confident the jury would award.
"Sorry, Lyle, but I don't think that's enough."
Compton seemed uneasy. "Look, Peter, I feel very uncomfortable about the way this case is proceeding. You shouldn't have continued to try this matter. You're too inexperienced.'
"Oh," Peter replied, fighting hard not to smirk. "Why don't we let the jury decide that.'
Compton looked down. He took a deep breath and exhaled.
"I probably shouldn't do this, but I don't want to take advantage of you. I respect your father tremendously and, because of that, I feel compelled to tell you that you have problems with your case. Under the circumstances, this is a very good offer."
Peter wanted to laugh in Compton's face. Problems with his case, indeed. Did Compton think he would fall for this transparent attempt to prey on the insecurities of a young lawyer trying his first big case. He felt great seeing one of the best insurance defense attorneys in the state squirming like a worm on a hook.
Lyle, I appreciate your concern, but it's no go.
Compton looked distraught. "All right. I tried, Peter, but I have a client, too."
As soon as the lawyers were back at their respective tables, Mrs. Elliot asked. "What happens now?"
"Mr. Compton will probably move for a directed verdict. It's nothing to worry about. It's routine. The defense always does that after the plaintiff rests. He's going to argue that we haven't introduced enough evidence to let the case go to the jury. He has to make his record.
"He won't win?" she asked anxiously.
"Of course not," Peter answered with a confident smile. "To rule against us, the judge would have to find that there is no reasonable interpretation of the evidence that could support our position. It's an almost impossible burden to meet."
"I have a motion for the court," Compton said, sounding almost apologetic.
"What is the basis for your motion, Mr. Compton?" Judge Pruitt asked.
"Your Honor, plaintiff's complaint alleges that Northwest Maritime is a corporation registered in the state of Oregon. It is in paragraph one of the complaint."
Peter looked down at the pleading that had been filed a year and a half before to formally put the case before the court. Mrs. Elliot's complaint alleged that Northwest Maritime was a corporation doing business in Oregon, that a truck driven by one of its agents had caused her injury and that the driver was negligent in the way he drove. It was a simple, straightforward court document.
"Our answer denied each and every allegation in the complaint," Compton went on. "When a defendant does that, it becomes plaintiff's duty to prove each and every allegation in the complaint. I kept track of the evidence and I submit that Mrs. Elliot has failed to prove the existence of the corporation."
Peter did not hear anything else Compton said. It was as if the engines on a plane in which he was flying stopped suddenly and the plane began plummeting downward at a dizzying speed. Peter had assumed that his father had entered the corporate documents on one of the occasions he had been in the law library researching legal issues. Now, it looked as if the evidence had never been produced.
Suddenly, Peter remembered Ned Schuster, the mystery witness who had been in the accident. The man who was bringing the documents his Father was so upset about, right before he'd had his coronary. They must have been the documents that would prove that Northwest Maritime was a corporation. That's why Richard had implored Peter to move for a mistrial.
" . . . to dismiss the case against Northwest Maritime and grant a directed verdict for my client," Compton concluded.
Judge Pruitt looked very upset. He turned toward Peter, who was rereading the complaint as if, somehow, he could will the words to change. This point that Compton had raised was such a little thing. A technicality. Everyone knew Northwest Maritime was a corporation. It owned huge buildings and declared its existence from immense signs with fat red letters. The missing document was so small. A notarized paper that took up no space at all.
"Mr. Hale," the judge stated quietly, "I've been expecting this. The answer does deny the existence of the corporation. That does put the burden on you to prove your allegation regarding the corporation. This morning, I looked up the case law in anticipation of this motion."
"The ... the driver. Mr. Hardestv. I believe he said…"
Judge Pruitt shook his head. "No, sir. The question was never put to him."
"But Mrs. Elliot? What about her?" Peter asked pathetically. "If you dismiss the case against Northwest Maritime, only the driver will be left and he doesn't have the money to pay for Mrs. Elliot's bills. She's paralyzed. You know Northwest Maritime is liable."
Peter stopped. The judge could not look him in the eye and Lyle Compton looked sick, like a child who has played a successful practical joke and now feels guilty about it.
"Mr. Hale," judge Pruitt said, "there is nothing I can do in this case. You did not prove that Northwest Maritime is a corporation. No reasonable jury could conclude it was from the facts in evidence and the jurors may not go outside the evidence produced in court. If I deny Mr. Compton's motion, he will appeal and the court of appeals will reverse me. They have upheld motions of this sort in seven reported cases I have found. My hands are tied."
Judge Pruitt turned toward Lyle Compton and Peter sank onto his seat. His head was spinning. He had no idea what he should do. He thought he might be sick.
"I'm granting your motion, Mr. Compton. A verdict will be directed for Northwest Maritime. The case against Mr. Hardesty will proceed."
Peter felt the wheels of Mrs. Elliot's wheelchair bumping against his chair.
What is it? What is it?" she asked, her slurred voice trembling with panic and fear. With each repetition, Mrs. Elliot grew louder and more strident and everyone in the courtroom looked at Peter to hear the answer he would give to this poor, crippled woman who would not receive one cent for the anguish and horror she had been through. Peter wanted to answer her, but he could not speak. He could only sit, eyes staring straight ahead, as his world went up in flames.