The Darkest Place by Phillip Margolin: Featured Excerpt
By Crime HQMarch 8, 2022
A Note from Phillip Margolin
From 1972 until 1996, I had a law practice that specialized in criminal defense. During that time, I handled a number of cases that featured the testimony of experts on fingerprints, blood spatter, neutron activation analysis and other areas of science. In my opinion, you will usually win your case if you can present uncontested evidence of a scientific nature since most jurors, no matter how intelligent, won’t have the background to know about the subject. But what if an expert vouches for a questionable scientific theory.
In 2019, the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association held a two-day seminar that featured a discussion of the Shaken Baby Syndrome that prosecutors had been using for years to convict defendants when a baby had internal head trauma, but no external evidence of violence. Is this theory valid or is it junk science?
I researched both sides of the issue and decided to have Robin Lockwood defend a woman accused of child abuse based on this theory. I had a lot of fun working up the trial testimony of the experts for the prosecution and defense, while crafting a story that involves hidden gold, murder, violent gangsters and a whole lot more. I hope you enjoy it.
Portland homicide detective Roger Dillon drove down the gravel road past run-down shacks and the occasional double-wide as a soggy January rain spattered the windshield of the unmarked car. His partner, Carrie Anders, scanned the roadside mailboxes and front doors for the house number they were seeking.
Carrie was a large woman who was as strong as some of her male counterparts. She spoke with a slow drawl, leading people who didn’t know her well to form the impression that she wasn’t too bright. That gave the college math major an edge.
Roger Dillon was the opposite of Carrie in every way except IQ. A slender African American with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, Dillon was almost twenty years Carrie’s senior and several inches shorter. He had been one of Portland’s most successful homicide detectives since his promotion over twenty years ago.
The road curved, the houses disappeared, and the detectives found themselves penned in by towering evergreens on a narrow stretch of smooth, freshly paved asphalt. Three minutes later, they rounded another curve.
“What the hell is that?” Dillon asked.
“I’d say that we’ve just discovered the winner of the world’s ugliest house contest,” his partner replied.
Standing on a wide, manicured lawn was a three-story McMansion that was as out of place in rural, economically depressed Profit, Oregon (population: 2,467), as a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud in an Afghan slum.
The driveway circled a grotesque fountain that was an obvious copy of one from a famous Las Vegas casino. Roger parked, and the detectives ran through the rain to the shelter provided by a portico, where they faced an oversized front door decorated with stained glass. Strewn across the multicolored panes by an inept artisan were stags that looked like dogs with horns and trees that could have been the creation of a first grader.
Carrie rang the doorbell. The chimes played the opening notes of the theme from Jaws. The detectives started to laugh. Then they remembered why they were here.
A shadow moved toward them behind the stained glass. Moments later, a tall woman with a trim, athletic build, pale blue eyes and long blond hair secured in a ponytail stared at the odd couple. She was wearing jeans and a dark blue cable-knit sweater.
“Are you Mrs. Joel Loman?” Carrie asked.
“Marjorie Loman, yes.”
The detectives displayed their credentials, and Carrie introduced them. The woman frowned.
“How can I help you?” she asked.
“Can we come in?” Carrie asked.
The woman hesitated. Then she stepped aside, and the detectives entered a massive entryway lorded over by an immense, crystal chandelier.
“Is there somewhere we can talk?” Carrie asked.
The woman led Roger and Carrie into a cavernous living room past a white grand piano to a sofa draped with colorful Mexican blankets. A pair of high-backed armchairs upholstered in burgundy leather sat in front of an enormous fireplace. Mrs. Loman took one of the armchairs and gestured toward the sofa.
“What’s this about?” she asked when the detectives were seated.
“I’m afraid I have some very bad news for you, Mrs. Loman,” Carrie said. “Your husband has passed away.”
Marjorie stared at Carrie for a moment as she processed this information. “Do you mean he’s dead?” she asked.
Loman covered her mouth for a moment. Then she broke out laughing. “That’s the best news I’ve had in months.” The detectives looked at each other. “Did the bastard overdose on cocaine, or did his girlfriend stab him?”
“He was shot,” Carrie said. “A homeless man found the body in back of a Portland restaurant. There are signs that he was tortured.”
“Huh,” Marjorie said without any emotion. “Have you arrested the guy who did it?”
“We’re just starting the investigation,” Carrie answered.
“You don’t seem very broken up,” Roger said.
“You wouldn’t be either if you were married to Joel. We were getting divorced, and it hasn’t been pretty. He looted our accounts and hid the money. I had to change the locks to keep the bastard from sneaking in while I was at work and stealing the furniture. If he had his way, I’d be homeless like the guy who found him, which might not be a bad alternative to living in this monstrosity.”
“You don’t like your house?” Carrie asked.
“You’re joking, right? I hate it. We both grew up in Profit, and Joel had to show the whole town how big he’d made it. Now that he’s dead, I’m going to sell this eyesore, if anyone is stupid enough to buy it.”
“How did Joel make his money?” Carrie asked.
“Good question. I know he worked the stock market and was some kind of investment counselor, but he was always evasive when I asked him for specifics.”
“Did he have enemies?”
“I’d be shocked if he didn’t, but I don’t know anything about his business and very little about his so-called friends.”
“Why did you marry him, if you dislike him so much?” Carrie asked.
Marjorie sobered. She looked down at the Persian carpet and into the past. “We were high school sweethearts, and we married young. We were both pretty wild, and the crazy stuff we did then seemed like fun. Now, not so much.”
When she looked up, Marjorie looked sad. “Everything was okay until Joel started making money and hanging with what passes for the jet set in Portland. That’s when I became old news.”
She shrugged. “I guess he didn’t think I was fun anymore because I didn’t want to snort cocaine or do threesomes or drink all night until I passed out.”
“Can you think of anyone who can help our investigation?”
“Kelly Starrett is his partner, in more ways than one.”
“Pardon?” Carrie said.
“Joel and Starrett ran Emerald Wealth Management, and he was banging her, so she can tell you more about his business and his social life than I can.”
“Are you going to be okay by yourself?” Carrie asked. “Do you want us to call someone, a friend, family?”
Marjorie shook her head. “I’ve got work in an hour. That will keep me busy.”
“What do you do?” Roger asked.
“I do what you do. I’m a cop on the Profit police force.”
The detectives talked to Marjorie Loman for another half hour. When their car was out of sight, Marjorie took out her phone.
“McShane and Freemont,” a receptionist said.
“This is Marjorie Loman. I need to talk to Greg McShane.”
“Hey, Marjorie,” a man said moments later.
“Two detectives were just here. Someone killed Joel. They found his body behind a Portland restaurant.”
“Yeah. They said he was tortured.”
“That’s horrible. Do they have a suspect?”
“They said they don’t. So, look, now that Joel’s dead, can he still hide our money? Because I’m almost tapped out.”
“You’re still Joel’s wife, so it’s all yours, if we can find where he hid it.”
“Can you do that, find the money?”
“I’ll call Kent,” McShane said, mentioning Joel’s attorney. “I’ll see if he knows where Joel hid the assets. Now that Joel is dead, he’ll have no reason to keep it secret.”
Marjorie called the Profit police department and told her sergeant about Joel. He told her to take as much time off as she needed to deal with the funeral and her grief.
As soon as she disconnected, Marjorie went to their well-stocked liquor cabinet and poured herself a glass of Joel’s very expensive single-malt scotch. She was just topping off the glass when McShane called.
“I have good news and bad news.”
“Give me the good news.”
“Joel converted most of your assets to gold bars and stashed them somewhere. The good news is that you can claim the gold because you’re still Joel’s spouse.”
“Did Kent tell you the name of the bank?”
“That’s the bad news. Joel wouldn’t tell him where he hid the gold.”
“Is it in Oregon? Because we can hire someone to ask around.”
“Kent says the gold could be anywhere in the world.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“I wish I were. Has Joel taken any trips lately?”
“I have no idea. He’s been living in Portland since we separated, and I’ve only seen him when it was absolutely necessary. Can you help me find out where that asshole stashed my money?”
“I can put some people on it, but you should go to Joel’s place in Portland and see if you can find some clue to where he hid the gold.”
Copyright © 2022 by Phillip Margolin. All rights reserved.
About The Darkest Place by Phillip Margolin:
Robin Lockwood is an increasingly prominent defense attorney in the Portland community. A Yale graduate and former MMA fighter, she’s becoming known for her string of innovative and successful defense strategies. As a favor to a judge, Robin takes on the pro bono defense of a reprehensible defendant charged with even more reprehensible crimes. But what she doesn’t know – what she can’t know – is how this one decision, this one case, will wreak complete devastation on her life and plans.
As she recovers from those consequences, Robin heads home to her small town of Elk Grove and the bosom of her family. As she tries to recuperate, a unique legal challenge presents itself – Marjorie Loman, a surrogate, is accused of kidnapping the baby she carried for another couple and assaulting that couple in the process. There’s no question that she committed these actions, but that’s not the same as being guilty of the crime. As Robin works to defend her client, she learns that Marjorie Loman has been hiding under a fake identity and is facing a warrant for her arrest for another, even more serious crime. And buried within the truth may once again be unexpected, deadly consequences.