Absence of malice
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One: My brilliant career

The day began like any other day for Joey Potter. Rising before her alarm had a chance to go off, she slipped barefoot into her bathroom and revived herself properly by splashing cold water on her face. She straightened up and looked at herself in the small cabinet mirror, the water still dripping from her nose and chin. Every day she looked for some change in her visage, however inconsequential, but she was yet to see one. The habitual self scrutiny would last less than a minute, and then she went about her morning routine.

Pulling the blinds back that kept her bedroom in perpetual darkness if she so desired, Joey looked out over the creek and sighed plaintively. It was no wonder she never changed, she mused, neither did Capeside. The view was exactly the same — she had seen it almost every day of her life. Her years at college in Boston were the only reprieve from life in Capeside that she had been fortunate enough to experience. Somehow, despite best laid plans and intentions, Joey found herself still living in her sister’s house in the small bay side town. She found it hard to believe herself some days.

Still, Joey liked to think of it as her house now. Bessie had long since moved away with Alexander, and Joey had taken up residence in the small abode beside the creek. And it had been her decision to come back to Capeside, no one had forced her. But some mornings, Joey couldn’t help but feel disappointed that things had not turned out differently. She'd had dreams and aspirations of living anywhere but Capeside. During her teenage years it was the one thing that kept her motivated to study hard and do well at school. She had escaped to Boston University with no plans to ever come back, yet here she was — nearly 28 years old and this was where she had ended up.

Giving herself a sardonic look in the mirror as she passed, Joey pulled a suitably drab colored suit from her wardrobe to match her mood. There was no real need for a formal business suit of course, she was hardly likely to impress the locals by dressing up for work. But nevertheless Joey selected an elegant shirt and pair of shoes to match. She still remembered buying the outfit in Boston, and how proud she had felt when she first wore it to law school. They’d begun conducting mock trials as part of their studies, and for the first time Joey began to feel like a lawyer. Power suits came with the territory, and she had scrimped and saved to buy herself a small wardrobe of appropriate attire while finishing off her degree.

She was supposed to find a job in one of the high powered Boston law firms, where suits and personal assistants and BMWs were all part of the package. It was what she had worked for and aspired to, everything that Joey envisioned for herself. So it was no wonder that she faced each day slightly disenchanted with the way things had turned out.

Joey collected her brief case from under a pile of papers on her dining room table and poured herself a cup of coffee to take with her. It was barely light outside but she continued to go into work early for some peace and quiet. She sipped the bitter black coffee as she drove along the deserted streets of Capeside, while the sun rose reluctantly in the gray sky. It was a short drive, no more than five minutes, and Joey was pulling into a parking spot outside the small office in the centre of town. Glancing up at the sign above the door, Joey received one of the only satisfying sights in her life now.

Josephine Potter & Pacey Witter,

If Capeside was the last place she had ever seen herself ending up, Pacey Witter was the last person she ever saw herself going into practice with. Joey sometimes found it hard to believe that he could have possibly made it through law school, as nonchalant about his studies as Pacey had always been in highschool. He'd hardly been a model law student, staying out late and arriving to class hung over and unprepared, and yet semester after semester he managed to get through finals not quite at the bottom of their class. Joey had to admire his ability to pull that off at the very least.

Still, Pacey was never the kind of person she imagined starting a law firm with. To make matters worse, they hadn't even started it together, it had once been Pacey’s solo affair. After surviving BU and passing the Bar, he had hightailed it back to Capeside, much to Joey’s bewilderment. Pacey had always enjoyed himself in Boston and she thought he hated Capeside as much as she did. But when they started discussing with a group of their classmates which law firms they hoped to interview with, Pacey surprised them all by announcing he was leaving the city behind and going home.

He had decided he wasn’t cut out for the corporate law scene after experiencing it during several internships. Pacey had only really fallen into law as a career anyway, after having no idea what he wanted to do after graduating. He had certainly had plenty of practice debating with Joey and flat out arguing with his father and brother. Law couldn't be too different from that, Pacey concluded. When flipping through some of Joey’s college literature, it had seemed like a viable option. Joey sometimes thought he’d only applied to law school in order to stir her, and she expected the novelty to wear off after a few months. Pacey proved her wrong.

Capeside had only ever had one real lawyer before. A native New Yorker called Sydney Bornstein had a nervous breakdown on his fortieth birthday and left a lucrative partnership to start his own practice in Capeside. He wanted to experience life at a slower pace, and he came to the right place. But less than two years later, Sydney Bornstein returned to New York as quickly as he had fled. Capeside turned out to be a little too slow.

Capeside’s loss was Pacey’s gain. He moved back home and rented out the lawyer’s old office, even appropriating a handsome set of law books the New Yorker had left behind in his haste. Within a month of leaving Boston, Pacey had set himself up with a grumbling part time secretary and the business of most of the locals. The work was mainly wills and divorce settlements and the occasional misdemeanor if there was ever a wild night in Capeside. They were not the most stimulating of cases, but Pacey couldn’t have been happier.

Joey, in the meantime, was finding things hard going in Boston. The old saying proved to be true — there were more law students than practicing lawyers in the entire world. Joey sometimes got the impression they had all graduated at the same time, descended en masse upon the Massachusetts capital and were interviewing with the same law firms she was. Week after week she sat before panels of stern-looking partners in dark suits, trying to distinguish herself from the hundreds of other applicants they were seeing. Her academic records were impressive, she knew this, but Joey was discovering that the good firms were looking for more than that. She was getting to the stage where she was willing to sell her soul for a position, her despondency crippling at times.

Pacey had been bugging her to come visit him in Capeside for the weekend, and with a heavy heart Joey agreed. She had had enough of pounding the Boston pavement for one lifetime, and a couple of days in a town the polar opposite of the busy city was the perfect remedy for her woes. Joey arrived to find a contented Pacey wading through disorganized files, the office in complete disarray. She took in the setup with a critical eye, wondering how on earth he managed to get anything done with no apparent filing system and an assistant who would soon as kill someone as look at them. Joey began making suggestions and physically pulling everything from the bookshelves so she could reorganize things properly. Pacey had jokingly suggested she leave Boston and go into partnership with him if it bothered her so much, and so that's what Joey did.

She didn’t deny now that she had been running away from her failure in Boston, even though she never would have admitted it at the time. It made perfect sense — Pacey obviously needed some help setting up a proper practice, and six months in a small town firm could provide her with good experience. Joey had every intention of tackling the large Boston law firms again, but a break in Capeside might be just the thing she needed to refocus her energies.

That had been over a year ago. What had started out as a short term arrangement had developed a sense of permanency about it that worried Joey sometimes. Less than a month after she and Pacey had joined forces, they’d received a large heavy box in the mail. Postmarked California, they knew it had to be from Dawson. He sent them an old fashioned shingle to hang above their door, the same one that adorned their office now. Joey had secretly been so proud when she first saw her name carved into the wood. She still experienced the same feeling whenever she arrived at work — for an instant she felt like she had made it. She and Pacey had their own practice, and they managed to earn enough from the small Capeside population to keep them in business. But there was always that nagging thought in her mind that she should be in Boston. That was where careers were made.

Joey let herself into the office, and leaned against the door after she shut it again. At least everything was orderly now, with matching desks in front of a wall of books and proper filing cabinets. They had a new secretary, someone a less likely to scare off prospective clients, and had managed to clear out an old storage space to use as a tiny conference room. It looked like an law office now, and Joey could be satisfied that her hard work as practice manager had paid off. There were some rewards, even if they didn't amount to much most of the time. Joey flicked on the lamp on her desk and settled in to go over the monthly accounts. It was not yet 7.30am.

* * *

Pacey strolled into the office just after nine o’clock. After greeting their middle-aged assistant with a charming smile, he turned his attention to Joey who still sat poring over a stack of bills and invoices.

"Good morning, Josephine. Sleep here again?" he crowed, dumping his coat and flopping into his chair.

"One of us has to do some work around here," replied Joey, not looking up from her paperwork. "Unless you’d like to go back to working in a video store, that is."

Pacey sighed and flicked on his laptop. "Joey, this was supposed to be fun, remember? Our own practice, coming in late, going home early, no suits, no hassle…"

"No money, eviction, unemployment, welfare… Welcome to the real world, Pacey." Joey glanced up and took in his casual appearance. Pacey only condescended to wear a tie when he had to appear in court, an event that happened all too infrequently for her liking. More often than not their working days were confined to the small office, and Pacey saw that as no reason to dress formally.

"We see too much of the real world as it is. Life is supposed to be for living." Pacey leaned back in his chair and cast his eye over his scheduled appointments for the day. "Speaking of which, did you hear about Lewis Coleman?"

"No, what?" Joey asked, not really interested. Pacey was as bad as an old woman when it came to gossip, and he often had the latest dirt on one of the locals when he came into work. He had managed to sweet-talk every restaurant, bar and gas station attendant in Capeside — the men accepted him as one of the guys and he was lusted after by the women. Pacey’s network extended all over town. "Tell me, what has our local pharmacist been up to?"

"Not much. He died in his sleep last night."

"You’re kidding?" replied Joey, paying attention now. She was surprised by the news, having known Lewis Coleman all her life. He could not have been much older than sixty, and had always seemed in good health. She was immediately concerned for his wife, Nora, the woman who had been a babysitter for both Pacey and Joey, and just about every other child in Capeside over the years.

"I saw the police at their house on my run this morning, and Dave gave me the lowdown… At least he went peacefully, I guess."

"Poor Nora, she must be devastated," Joey mused. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like losing a husband after over forty years of marriage. "I should go over and see her."

"Yeah," Pacey echoed, and Joey knew that he had a soft spot for the woman too. Nora had always been like the grandmother the two of them had never had. She had been particularly supportive when Joey’s mother died, and Nora had always held a special place in Joey’s heart because of it. "Maybe you could take some flowers from the both of us. I’m going to be tied up with depositions in Yarmouth all day."

"I’ll go over this afternoon." Joey went back to her accounts, this time more distractedly.

* * *

It was nearly dusk when Joey finally left the office. Nora and Lewis Coleman lived in a large house not far from the Leery’s old residence, and she decided to walk rather than take the car. Joey strolled along the familiar path that snaked its way beside the creek, looking up at what used to be Dawson’s bedroom. She did so out of instinct every time she passed, smiling to herself and always feeling a twinge of sadness that the ladder was no longer there. Of course the Leerys hadn't been there for nearly ten years either, but she still liked to reminisce.

There were several cars parked in the Coleman’s driveway and Joey guessed the church contingent had already descended upon Nora to pay their respects. She did not intend to stay long, knowing the last thing Nora needed right then was a house full of well-meaning busybodies. She would just drop off her flowers and leave.

Joey found Nora Coleman surrounded by several doting ladies who were plying her with cups of tea and assorted cakes that been assembled on the coffee table. Joey remembered when her mother died — she never understood why people insisted on bringing food when someone dies, when the last thing a grieving person wants is to eat. She looked down at the bouquet in her hands and guessed flowers were just as meaningless. But just like everyone else, Joey just felt she couldn’t come empty handed.

Nora looked up gratefully upon her arrival and crossed the room to give Joey a sincere hug.

"Joey, dear, thank you for coming," she said, the normally elegant woman looking worn out. Joey guessed it had more to with her present company than anything. She noticed Evelyn Ryan was there and remembered how trying Jen’s grandmother could be when she was attempting to console someone. Joey guessed Nora didn’t want to hear about the will of God and her husband being in a better place.

"I’m so sorry, Nora, I couldn’t believe it when I heard," said Joey respectfully.

"That makes two of us." Nora smiled sadly, tears springing to her eyes.

Joey felt helpless and handed her the large bunch of flowers. "These are from Pacey and me."

"That's very sweet of you both, thank you."

"Is there anything we can do for you, any arrangements we can take care of?"

"I hadn't really thought about any of that yet," said Nora, rather distracted. "I’m not even sure what needs to be done, legally I mean."

"We’ll see to all that, don’t you worry."

"Thank you, Joey, you were always such a good girl." Nora patted her cheek affectionately. "I remember thinking when you were just a girl that you’d turn out with a kind heart."

Joey smiled sadly and took her hand. "I won’t stay long, I didn’t want to intrude…"

"Oh, would you mind staying?" Nora asked quickly, glancing around at her other guests sitting in the living room. She lowered her voice to a whisper. "I’ll never get rid of this lot otherwise."

Joey nodded slightly and Nora looked relieved. Linking her arm in Joey’s, she led her towards the others.

"Ladies, if you don’t mind, Joey is here to help me with some legal matters," Nora stated calmly. "I’d like to thank you all for coming today to show your support…"

She was hushed by more sympathetic murmurings from the church women, and they quickly gathered their things and filed out past Nora, each stopping to console her once more.

"My prayers are with you," Mrs Ryan said solemnly, her pious face warmed by a gentle smile.

"Thank you, Evelyn."

After they had all gone, Nora let out an exhausted sigh and Joey helped her over to the couch.

"I thought I’d never see the back of them, they’ve been here since this morning." Nora rubbed her temple, her eyes shut tightly. "I never imagined being a widow could be so tiring."

"They mean well," Joey said.

"Oh, I know, but best intentions aside, I just need some peace and quiet." Nora was staring off into space now, and Joey did not want to interrupt. She waited in the silence that followed, wondering if Nora really did want to talk about her husband’s will or if it was too soon to bring up such matters.

"I still can’t believe he’s gone," Nora murmured almost to herself. "I keep expecting him to come home from the drugstore, complaining about work. It’s hard to imagine a day going by without that."

"Is someone taking care of things at the pharmacy?"

"Zachary’s offered to keep things running until I decide what’s to be done… To be honest I have no idea what to do about the business."

"Don’t worry about that now, we can explore your options later," Joey reassured her. "The important thing is to make sure you’re all right."

"I’ll be fine, dear." Nora squeezed Joey’s hand, but she was still staring across the coffee table at the sofa opposite. "That’s where it happened, you know."

"What?" asked Joey, puzzled. She followed Nora’s line of vision to the couch. "You mean Lewis…"

"Monday night football. He always fell asleep on the couch after Monday night football."

Joey tried to think of something else to say. Nora seemed content to sit in silence, but Joey was uncomfortable. She had never been able to deal with death very well.

"Is there anything I can get you? Anything at all?"

Nora opened her mouth to reply, but was stopped by the sound of the doorbell ringing. She looked at Joey with a pained expression, groaning, "Not more tea and sympathy."

"Let me get it. I’ll just tell whoever it is that you’re not able to see them tonight."

Nora nodded gratefully and remained seated on the couch while Joey went to answer the door. She opened it to reveal Doug Witter standing on the front stoop, dressed sedately in a dark suit. He was shadowed by a couple of uniformed officers.

"Doug, what are you doing here?" Joey frowned. It seemed odd that Pacey's brother would come to check on Nora in the company of other police officers. That he was here was less surprising, as Nora had also cared for him as a child.

"I could say the same about you, Joey," Doug replied, and she did not miss the suspicion in his voice.

"Nora really isn’t up to seeing anyone at the moment, she’s exhausted and needs to rest."

"She’ll see me. I’m not paying a social call, I’m here on official police business." Doug pushed past her into the house, the two officers following close behind.

"Detective Witter, I really don’t think this is appropriate," Joey said with mounting anger as she trailed them into the living room where Nora was still sitting. The older woman rose from the sofa, unsure what was going on.

"I'm sorry, Nora, I need to ask you a few questions," Doug addressed her, purposely ignoring Joey.

"What is this about?" Joey demanded in her best litigious tone.

"It’s about the death of Lewis Coleman." Doug pulled some papers from his jacket. "I have a warrant to search these premises…"

"What are you talking about? Let me see that." Joey snatched the official document from him and moved to stand beside Nora.

"Joey, what’s going on?" she asked timidly.

"I don’t know," Joey replied distractedly as she scanned the warrant. The uniformed officers had already split up to search the living room.

"What are they doing?" Nora sounded panicked now as the policemen started going through her cabinets and drawers.

"Based on new evidence, Mr Coleman’s death is no longer being attributed to natural causes," Doug informed her, all business now.

"What?" Nora gasped.

"What new evidence?" snapped Joey.

"The Coroner found him pumped full of morphine, Ms Potter, and the death is now being treated as suspicious."

"Morphine?" Nora echoed, truly shocked.

"Mrs Coleman, I’d like to ask you a few questions."

"Don’t say anything, Nora," Joey butted in.

"What is going on?" the woman uttered in disbelief.

"Why don’t we take a look upstairs?" Doug said calmly, waiting for Joey and Nora to take the lead. Joey leveled him with a dark stare and led Nora up to the second floor of the house.

"What is it you’re looking for exactly, Detective?" she asked icily once they had entered the master bedroom.

"Evidence," replied Doug curtly. He pulled open the wardrobe and started rooting through shoe boxes and the other contents. The other two officers continued their methodical search, one of them upending the double mattress on the bed.

"Uh, Detective?"

Doug turned around to see the officer holding up a plastic shopping bag. Snapping on a pair of latex gloves, Doug took it from him. He inspected the contents carefully as Joey and Nora looked on. Both of them were horrified when he withdrew an empty syringe and several ampoules from the bag. Doug caught Joey’s eye.

"Looks like we found what we were looking for."

Nora was trying to stammer something, obviously upset over what she was seeing. She turned to Joey for some kind of explanation but she had none. Nora didn’t have time to question her anyway, because Doug was moving towards her.

"I think we should continue this down at the station, Mrs Coleman. There are a few things we need to clear up."

"Are you accusing me of something, Douglas?" Nora asked quietly, her steel blue eyes boring into his.

Doug looked away, distinctly uncomfortable.

"Just doing things by the book, Nora," he muttered in reply. "I have a job to do."

"And if I refuse?"

"I'd have no choice but to arrest you on suspicion of murder."

Nora looked startled, unable to comprehend what Doug was saying. Joey stepped in behind her and placed a gentle hand on her arm.

"Let's go and sort this out, Nora," Joey intervened gently, while turning her venomous stare on Doug. "Obviously there is some reasonable explanation for this."

"I have never seen those before, I don't know who put them there," Nora stammered, as one of the officers sealed the shopping bag into an official evidence pouch.

"Mrs Coleman…" Doug said without bravado.

Nora’s eyes were wide with fright, bewilderment in her expression.

"I assume you’ll be coming too?" he asked Joey.

"You bet I will," Joey answered bitterly. "Nora, don’t worry about anything, we’ll get to the bottom of this."

Nora only nodded meekly as Doug ushered her from the room. Joey pushed past the two officers so she was right behind her, frantically digging in her purse for her cell phone. While Doug was placing Nora in the back of the police cruiser, Joey punched in Pacey’s number.

"Pacey Witter."

"Pacey, it’s me. Where are you?" Joey said abruptly.

"Just finished the depos and I’m on my way back. How’s Nora?"

"Not great. Your brother's bringing her in for questioning."


"We’re going down to the station now. Meet us there as soon as you can." Joey hung up before Pacey could say anything else. Doug was holding open the back door of the car for her, but she pushed him away perfunctorily and took her seat beside Nora. The older woman was sitting abjectly against the car door, her hands clasped in her lap.

"Nora, listen to me, everything’s going to be okay. I don't know what evidence Doug thinks he's got, but try not to worry. I’m here."

Nora nodded in affirmation but she was trying hard not to cry. Doug climbed into the driver’s seat and checked they were both in securely. He was going to say something but then Joey stared daggers at him through the grill. Doug sighed and turned around, then started the engine. They drove to the police station in complete silence.


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