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Conflict of Interest
by Nancy Taylor Rosenberg
Hyperion, 2002

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Thursday, February 8, 2001, 7:45 A.M.

Eli Connors gazed up at the morning sky, watching as a flock of seagulls soared over his head. At forty-eight, he was a quiet, introspective man. With the exception of those who paid for his services, he didn't have much use for people.

The Nightwatch was anchored a short distance offshore, midway between the California cities of Ventura and Santa Barbara. Clasping a steaming mug of hot coffee in one hand, Eli took a sip, then lowered his head to the telescope mounted on the bow of the seventy-two-foot fishing vessel. The ship thrashed about in the choppy water, the waves pounding against the hull. A strong easterly wind had developed during the night, the primary reason the fog had lifted. The telescope was bobbing up and down, yet Eli had no trouble maintaining his balance. He stood six-foot-six and weighed three hundred pounds. Dressed in a white cotton T-shirt and drawstring flannel shorts, his feet encased in size seventeen deck shoes, his ebony skin glistened in the morning sunlight. The cold air didn't bother him. Eli had always been oblivious to temperature. Weather, however, was something he couldn't afford to ignore. For the past seven years, the sea had been his home.

Seacliff Point, the enclave where his subject resided, presented extensive surveillance problems as the houses were nestled among mature trees. With the Celestron Nexstar 8, an automated positioning telescope with pinpoint computer control and high-speed photo capability, he could track and record the movements of just about anything. He could not, however, track something the telescope could not see.

Eli's adrenaline surged as he caught a glimpse of the woman. She was frantically darting from one house to the other. A young girl he recognized as her daughter was standing next to a white Lexus, shouting and flailing her arms around. As he attempted to zoom in on the woman's face, she disappeared behind a large tree. "Damn," he said, knocking over his coffee mug as he spun the telescope around and started snapping pictures of the girl.

Had it not been for corrupt politicians, Eli Connors would be a high-ranking agent within the CIA. But that was the past, and the past couldn't be changed. To some degree, he relished the fact that he was no longer with the agency. Before he'd joined the CIA, he'd been a captain in the navy. He'd grown tired of taking orders, having people look over his shoulder, dealing with the inherent problems of government bureaucracies. His only regret was not bailing out sooner. In the private sector, Eli's skills were highly marketable.

With one hand resting on the telescope, he used his free hand to depress a button on what had once housed a refrigerated storage container, the type commercial fishermen used to store their bait and catch. Just as the storage container was not what it appeared to be, the Nightwatch was not really a fishing vessel. On the main deck, the boat was outfitted as a commercial ship, allowing movement from port to port without drawing unwanted attention. Below was enough sophisticated equipment to run a small country.

Even though he wasn't certain what was unfolding, Eli prepared to take action. In his line of work, there was no margin for error.

The electronic mechanism moved the fake cover on the storage container to one side. A metallic cranking sound was emitted as the Mk 45, a lightweight .54 caliber automatic weapon, rose and locked into place.


Thursday, February 8, 2001, 9:29 A.M.

For two years Joanne Kuhlman had gone to bed each night not knowing whether her children were dead or alive. That morning, Leah, her fifteen-year-old daughter, had made her so angry that Joanne had felt like shipping her back to her father. Even if she'd been serious, the man was currently in jail and would more than likely be sentenced to prison.

Exiting her white Lexus, Joanne jogged toward the main entrance to the Ventura County courthouse, She wondered how many people in her office knew about the situation with her ex-husband. Worrying about gossip, she told herself, should be the least of her concerns. Her prayers had been answered -- Leah and Mike had been located and returned. The fact that Doug's first trial would be held in Los Angeles was another reason she should be grateful. At least the divorce was final now. The papers had come through the previous month. Joanne had filed over a year ago, yet with Doug's whereabouts unknown, the proceedings could not be finalized.

At thirty-nine, Joanne was a petite and youthful-looking woman, with shoulder-length chestnut-brown hair, pronounced cheekbones, and large hazel eyes. Naturally slender, she self-consciously tugged on the hem of her jacket. In less than three months, she had gained ten pounds. People said she looked great. She didn't mind having a curvaceous body, but she couldn't afford to buy a new wardrobe.

Pushing her way through the heavy oak doors, Joanne leaned against the back wall to catch her breath. Leah was shifting from one behavioral problem to the next. The night before, she'd decided to go joyriding, then failed to turn the headlights off once she returned home. The battery on the Lexus had been dead that morning. With the help of their neighbor, Emily, Joanne had scrounged up a pair of jumper cables in the cluttered garage and managed to get the car started. The court hearing had been scheduled for nine, however, and it was already nine-thirty. Joanne was not only late, but she had a run in her nylons and a grease stain on the front of her turquoise blazer. Thrusting her shoulders back, she shook her hands to release the pent up tension, then strode briskly down the aisle to speak to the bailiff.

"Did Judge Spencer get my message?" Joanne asked, glancing over her shoulder at the defense attorney and his three clients. "My car . . ."

Officer John Shaw was a stone-faced redhead in his late twenties. He tapped his watch with his finger, his voice as flat as his personality. "The longer he waits . . ."

"Right," Joanne answered, feeling idiotic for offering an excuse, particularly to a bailiff. Unless something unexpected occurred, Shaw's job consisted of saying a few words and then standing around like a statue.

Shaw plucked a piece of chewing gum out of his mouth, wrapped it in a scrap of paper, then tossed it across the room into the trash can. "Are we ready?"

Joanne was leaning over, yanking her paperwork out of her green nylon backpack. Her co-workers made fun of her, telling her she looked more like a camper than an attorney. Compartmentalized to hold file folders as well as her laptop computer, the backpack had been a birthday present from her father. For years, she had lugged around heavy litigation cases or costly briefcases. Next month would mark her ten-year anniversary as a prosecutor. Image no longer mattered. All she cared about was distributing the weight evenly on her back. "No, John, she said facetiously. "I thought we'd just sit around and shoot the breeze for the next hour."

The bailiff 's jaw dropped, but he knew to keep his mouth shut. Joanne Kuhlman might be slightly frazzled today, but she was a major player in the Ventura County judicial system. Although she'd declined for personal reasons, she'd been offered a judgeship the previous year. Everyone knew she was renting judge Spencer's beach house, and had even become friends with the presiding judge's wife who lived next door.

Anne McKenzie, the court clerk, was a pretty blonde with dove-gray eyes and a pleasant disposition. Dressed neatly in a white shirt and black sweater, she took over for the bailiff. "Are you serious, Ms. Kuhlman? Should I buzz judge Spencer or do you want us to wait for you to get organized? I've already called the jury room."

Picking up her pen and jotting down a few notes to herself, Joanne answered without raising her head. "I assumed you notified Spencer as soon as I got here." When she discovered her pen had run out of ink, she threw it aside and grabbed another one.

"I just thought . . ."

A muscle in Joanne's face twitched. She stared at the clock mounted on the wall over the clerk's console, the minutes clicking off inside her head. "I appreciate your consideration, Anne," she said, attempting to smile. "We should begin immediately, though, don't you think?"

Excerpted from Conflict of Interest by Nancy Taylor Rosenberg. Copyright © 2002 by Nancy Taylor Rosenberg. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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