Solomon and Lord Drop Anchor
“What aren’t you telling me?” Victoria Lord demanded.
Jeez. Her grand jury tone.
“Nothing to tell,” Steve Solomon said. “I’m going deep-sea fishing.”
“You? The guy who got seasick in a paddle boat at Disney World.”
“That boat was defective. I’m gonna sue.” Steve hauled an Igloo cooler onto the kitchen counter. “You may not know it, but I come from a long line of anglers.”
“A long line of liars, you mean.”
The partners of Solomon amp; Lord, Attorneys-at-Law, stood in the kitchen of Steve’s bungalow on Kumquat Avenue in Coconut Grove. The place was a square stucco pillbox the color of a rotting avocado, but it had withstood hurricanes, termites, and countless keg parties.
Unshaven and hair mussed, wearing cargo shorts and a t-shirt, Steve looked like a beach bum. Lips glossed and cheekbones highlighted, wearing a glen plaid suit with an ivory silk blouse, Victoria looked sexy, smart, and successful.
“C’mon, Steve. What are you really up to?” Her voice drizzled with suspicion like mango glaze over sauteed snapper.
Steve wanted to tell his lover and law partner the truth. Or at least, the partial truth. But he knew how Ms. Propriety would react:
“You can’t do that. It’s unethical.”
And if he told her the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? “You’ll be disbarred! Jailed. Maybe even killed.”
No, he’d have to fly solo. Or swim solo, as the case may be.
Steve pulled two six packs of Heineken out of the refrigerator and tossed them into the cooler. “Okay, it’s really a business meeting.”
Victoria cocked her head and pursed her lips in cross-exam mode. “Which is it, Pinocchio? Fishing or business? Were you lying then or are you lying now?”
For a tall, lanky blonde with a dazzling smile, she could fire accusations the way Dan Marino once threw the football.
“I’m going fishing with Manuel Cruz.”
“What! I thought you were going to sue him.”
“Which is what makes it business. Cruz wants to make an offer before we file suit. I suggested we go fishing, keep it relaxed. He loved the idea and invited me on his boat.”
So far, Steve hadn’t told an outright fib and it was almost 8 a.m. Not quite a personal best, but still, he was proud of himself.
For the last five years, Manuel Cruz worked as controller of Torano Chevrolet in Hialeah where he managed to steal three million dollars before anyone noticed. Teresa Torano, a Cuban exilado in her seventies, was nearly bankrupt, and Steve was determined to get her money back, but it wouldn’t be easy. All the computer records had been erased, leaving no electronic trail. Cruz had no visible assets other than his sportfishing boat. The guy didn’t even own a house. And the juiciest piece of evidence – Cruz fled Cuba years ago after embezzling money from a government food program – wasn’t even admissible.
“Just you and Cruz, alone at sea.” she said. “Sounds dangerous.”
“I’m not afraid of him.”
“It’s not you I’m worried about.”
Victoria punched the RECORD button on her pocket Dictaphone. “Memo to the Torano file. Make certain our malpractice premiums are paid.”
“You and your damned Dictaphone,” Steve complained. “Drives me nuts.”
“I don’t know. It’s so…”
Victoria pulled her Mini-Cooper into the Matheson Hammock marina, swerving to avoid a land-crab, clip-clopping across the asphalt. The sun was already baking the pavement, the air sponge-thick with humidity. Just above a stand of sea lavender trees, a pair of turkey buzzards flew surveillance.
Victoria sneaked a look at Steve as he hauled the cooler out of the car’s tiny trunk. Dark, unruly hair, a slight, sly grin as if he were one joke ahead of the rest of the world. The deep brown eyes, usually filled with mischief, were hidden behind dark Ray Bans.
Dammit, why won’t he level with me?
Why did he always take the serpentine path instead of the expressway? Why did he always treat laws and rules, cases and precedents as mere suggestions?
Because he has more fun making it up as he goes along.
Steve drove her crazy with his courtroom antics and his high-wire ethics. If he believed in a client, there was nothing he wouldn’t do to win. Which was exactly what frightened her now.
Just what would Steve do for Teresa Torano?
They headed toward the dock, the morning sun beating down so ferociously Victoria felt her blouse sticking to her shoulder blades. The only sounds were the groans of boats in their moorings and the caws of gulls overhead. The air smelled of the marshy hammock, salt and iodine and fermenting seaweed. The fronds of thatch palms hung limp in the still air.
“Gimme a kiss. I gotta go,” Steve said, as they stepped onto the concrete dock. In front of them were expensive toys, gleaming white in the morning sun. Rows of powerful sportfishermen, large as houses. Dozens of sleek sailing craft, ketches and sloops and schooners.
“Sure, Mr. Romance.” She kissed him lightly on the lips. Something seemed off-kilter, but what? And what was that pressing against her through his shorts?
Hadn’t last night been enough? Twice before SportsCenter, once after Letterman.
She sneaked a hand into his pocket and came out with a pair of handcuffs. “What’s this, the latest in fishing tackle?”
“Ah. Well. Er…” Gasping like a beached grouper. “You know that store, Only Sexy Things? ” He grabbed the handcuffs and slipped them back into his pocket. “Thought I’d spice up the bedroom.”
“Stick to cinnamon incense. Last chance, lover boy. What’s going on?”
“You’re fucking late, hombre!” Manuel Cruz yelled from the fly bridge of a power boat tied up at the dock. He was a muscular man in his late thirties, wearing canvas shorts and a white shirt with epaulets. A Marlins’ cap was pulled low over his eyes, and his sunglasses hung on a chain.
The boat was a sportfisherman in the sixty-foot range, all polished teak and gleaming chrome. A fly bridge, a glass enclosed salon, and a pair of fighting chairs in the cockpit for serious deep-sea fishing. The name on the stern read: “ Wet Dream. ”
Men, Victoria thought. Men were so one-dimensional.
“ Buenos dias, Ms. Lord.”
She gave him a nod and a tight smile.
“Let’s go, Solomon,” Cruz urged. “Fish are hungry.”
Steve hoisted the cooler onto the deck. “Toss the lines for us, hon?”
She leveled a gaze at him. “Sure, hon. ”
Victoria untied the bow line from its cleat and tossed it aboard. She moved quickly to the stern, untied the line, propped a hand on a piling crusted with bird dung, and leapt aboard.
“Vic! Whadaya think you’re you doing?”
“Get back on the dock.”
She smiled and pointed toward the increasing body of water that separated them from land.
“You’re not dressed for fishing,” Steve told her.
“I’m dressed for your bail hearing.” She kicked off her velvet-toed pumps and peeled off her panty hose, distracting Steve with her muscular calves, honed on the tennis courts of La Gorce Country Club. “Now, what’s with the handcuffs?”
Steve lowered his voice so she could barely hear him above the roaring diesels. “You remember Solomon’s Law number one?”
Oh, that. Steve’s personal code for rule breaking.
“How could I forget? ‘If the law doesn’t work…work the law.’”
“In the matter of Manuel Cruz, the law isn’t working.”
“What’s that?” Cruz asked, eying the cooler on the deck.
“Brought beer and bait,” Steve said.
“What for? I got a case of La Tropical and a hundred pounds of shiners and wiggles.”
All three of them stood on the fly bridge. Twin diesels throbbing, the Wet Dream cruised down Hawk Channel inside the barrier reefs. The water was green felt, smooth as a billiard table, the boat riding on a plane at thirty knots.
Cruz ran a hand over the polished teak steering wheel. “I come to this country with nothing but the clothes on my back and look at me now.”
“Very impressive,” Steve said, thinking it would be even more impressive if Cruz hadn’t stolen the money to buy the damn boat.
Cruz winked at Victoria, his smile more of a leer. “You two want to fool around, I got clean sheets in the master stateroom.”
“Sounds lovely,” Victoria cooed. “Want to fool around, Steve?” Her smile was as sweet as fresh-squeezed guarapo, but Steve caught the sarcastic tone.
“Maybe after we catch something,” he said, pointedly.
“Heads and A/C work, faucets don’t,” Cruz said. “Water tank’s fouled.”
Steve studied the man, standing legs spread at the wheel, a macho pose. A green tattoo of a scorpion crawled up one ankle. On the other ankle, in a leather sheaf, was a foot-long Marine combat knife. It looked like the weapon Sylvester Stallone used in those “Rambo” movies. Out here, it could be used to cut lines or clean fish.
Or gut a lawyer planning to do him harm.
They had just passed Sombrero Light when Cruz said, “So here’s my offer, hombre. The Torano bitch gives me a release with a promise never to sue. And vice versa. I won’t sue her ass.”
“I don’t like the way you talk about my client,” Steve said.
“Tough shit. I don’t like Fidel Castro, but what am I gonna do about it?”
“Your offer stinks like week-old snapper.”
“You sue me, what do you get? A piece of paper you can wipe your ass with. I got nothing in my own name, including the boat.”
Steve looked right and left to get his bearings. Off to port, in the direction of the reef, he spotted the fins of two sharks heading toward strands of yellow sargasso weed, home to countless fish. Red coral just below the surface cast a rusty glow on the shallow water. To the starboard was the archipelago of the Florida Keys. From here, the island chain was strung out like an emerald necklace. “Let Vic take the wheel a minute,” Steve said. “I want you to see something.”
Cruz allowed as how even a woman lawyer could keep a boat on 180 degrees, due south, and followed Steve down the ladder to the cockpit. Just off the stern, the props dug at the water like a plow digging at a field. Steve opened the cooler, reached underneath the ice and pulled out a two foot-long greenish-blue fish, frozen solid. A horse-eyed jack.
“Great bait, huh?” Steve held the fish by its tail and let it swing free. It had a fine heft, like a small sledgehammer.
“Already told you. I got shiners and wiggles.”
“Then I better use this for something else.” Steve swung the frozen fish at Cruz’ head. The man stutter-stepped sideways and the blow glanced off his shoulder and sideswiped an ear. Steve swung again, and Cruz ducked, the fish flying free and shattering the glass door of the salon. Cruz reached for his knife in the ankle sheath and Steve barreled into him, knocking them both to the deck.
On the fly bridge, Victoria screamed. “Stop! Both of you!”
The two men rolled over each other, scraping elbows and knees on the planked deck. Cruz was heavier, and his breath smelled of tobacco. Steve was wiry and quicker, but ended up underneath when they skidded to a stop. Cruz grabbed Steve’s t-shirt at the neck and slammed his head into the deck. Once, twice, three times. Thwomp, thwomp, thwomp.
Steve balled a fist and landed a short right that caught Cruz squarely on the Adam’s apple. The man gagged, clutched his throat, and fell backward. Steve squirmed out from under, but Cruz tripped him. Steve tumbled into the gunwale, smacking his head, sparks flashing behind his eyes. He had the sensation of being dragged across a hard floor. On his back, he opened his eyes and saw something glistening in the sun.
The knife blade!
Cruz was on his knees, knife in hand. “ Pendejo! I oughta make chum out of you.”
“No!” Victoria’s voice, closer than it should have been.
Steve heard the clunk, saw Cruz topple over, felt him bounce off his own chest. Straddling both of them was Victoria, a three-foot steel tarpon gaff in her right hand. “Omigod,” she said. “I didn’t kill him, did I?”
“Not unless a dead man grunts and farts at the same time,” Steve said, listening to sounds coming from both ends of the semi-conscious man.
He shoved Cruz off and stood up, wrapping his arms around Victoria, who was trembling. “You were terrific, Vic. We work great together.”
“Really? What did you do?”
“Come on. Help me get him up the ladder.” Steve pulled the handcuffs from his pocket. “I want him on the bridge.”
“What now? What insanity now?”
“Relax Vic. In a few hours, Cruz will be dying to give back Teresa’s money.”
Steve had played fast and loose with the rules before, Victoria thought, but nothing like this.
This is scary. And in the eyes of the law, she was dirty, too.
This could mean trading the couture outfits and Italian footwear for orange jumpsuits and shower shoes.
With one wrist handcuffed to the rail at the rear of the bridge, Cruz had been berating Steve for the past twenty minutes. “Know what, Solomon? She hits harder than you do.”
“Mr. Cruz,” Victoria said, “if you begin to feel dizzy or nauseous, let me know. Head trauma can be very dangerous.”
“What about my head?” Steve demanded.
“It’s impervious to trauma. Or reason.”
The Wet Dream was planing across the tops of small whitecaps when Steve said: “Take the wheel, Vic. Keep it on two-zero-two.”
“Please,” she said, irritated.
“‘Keep it on two-zero-two, please.’”
“A captain doesn’t say ‘please.’”
“Maybe not Captain Bligh.” Victoria slid behind the wheel, thinking maybe she’d hit the wrong man with the gaff. She still didn’t know where they were headed, and Steve’s behavior was becoming increasingly bizarre. He had the beginning of a lump on his head, and blood trickled from his skinned elbows and knees.
“Kidnaping,” Cruz said. “Assault. Boat theft. You two are gonna be busy little shysters.”
“Shut up,” Steve said. “Under the law of the sea, I’m master of this craft.”
“What law? You stole my fucking boat.”
Once past Key West, they entered the Florida Straits, the water growing deeper, the color turning from light green to aquamarine to cobalt blue. No reefs here, and a five-foot chop slapped at the hull of the boat. The wavecaps sparkled, as if studded with diamonds in the late afternoon sun.
“Gonna tell you a story, Cruz,” Steve said, “and when I’m done, you’re gonna cry and beg forgiveness and give back all the money you stole.’”
“Story starts forty-some years ago in Havana. A beautiful lady named Teresa Torano lost her husband who was brave enough to oppose Fidel Castro.”
“Tough shit,” Cruz said. “Happened to a lot of people.”
“Teresa came to Miami with nothing. Worked minimum wage, mopped floors in a car dealership, ended up owning Torano Chevrolet.”
“My papi always told me hard work pays off,” Cruz said, smirking. “Too bad he never got out of the cane fields.”
“A few years ago, she hires a new controller. A fellow exilado.
This guy’s got a fancy computer system that will revolutionize their books. It also lets him steal three million bucks before anybody knows what hit them. Now, the banks have pulled Teresa’s line of credit, and she could go under.”
“I’m not crying, Solomon.”
“Not done yet. See, this lady is damn important to me. If it hadn’t been for Teresa giving me work my first year out of school, I’d have gone broke.”
"Lo unico que logro la dama fue posponer lo inevitable,” Cruz said. “She only postponed the inevitable.”
Victoria knew there was more to it than just a financial relationship. Teresa had virtually adopted Steve and his nephew Bobby, and the Solomon Boys loved her in return. After Victoria entered the picture, she was added to the extended Torano family. Now, each year at Christmas, they all gathered at Teresa’s estate in Coral Gables for her homemade crema de vie, an anise drink so rich it made eggnog seem like diet soda. All of which meant that Steve would do anything for Teresa. One of Steve’s self-proclaimed laws expressed the principle:
“I won’t break the law, breach legal ethics, or risk jail time…unless it’s for someone I love. ”
Now that Victoria thought about it, the question wasn’t: Just what would Steve do for Teresa Torano? It was: What wouldn’t he do?
“That sleazy accountant,” Steve said. “In Cuba, he kept the books for the student worker program, the students who cut sugar cane. Ran the whole food services division. But he had a nasty habit of cutting the pineapple juice with water and selling the meat off the back of trucks. The kids went hungry and he got fat. When the authorities found out, he stole a boat and got the hell out of the worker’s paradise.”
“Old news, hombre.”
“Vic, still on two-zero-two?” Steve asked.
“I know how to read a compass,” she said, sharply.
“Where you taking me?” Cruz demanded.
“Jeez, how’d you ever get from Havana to Key West?” Steve said.
“Everybody in Havana knows the heading to the States. You want Key West, you keep it at twenty-two degrees.”
“A bit east of due north. So what’s two-zero-two?”
“A little west of due south.”
“Keep going, Cruz. I think you’re catching the drift, no pun intended.”
Steve waited a moment for the bulb to pop on. When it didn’t, he continued, “Two hundred two minus twenty-two is one hundred eighty. What happens when you make a hundred eighty degree turn, philosophically or geographically speaking?”
“Fuck!” Cruz jerked the handcuff so hard the rail shuddered. “We’re going to Havana!”
“Bingo. We’re repatriating you.”
“You crazy? Cuban patrol boats will sink us. You remember that tugboat. Trece de Marzo. Forty people dead. ”
“The Marzo was trying to leave the island. We’re coming in, and we’re bringing a fugitive to justice. They should give us a reward, or at least a bottle of Club Havana rum.”
“They’ll kill me.”
“Not without a trial. A speedy trial. Of course, if you tell us where you’ve stashed Teresa’s money, we’ll turn this tub around.”
“Dammit, Steve,” Victoria said. “We have to talk.”
Steve put the boat on auto – two hundred two degrees – and took Victoria down to the salon.
“You could get us killed,” she said. “Or jailed. Right now, the best case scenario would be disbarment.”
“That’s why I didn’t want you along.”
Steve walked to the galley sink and turned on the faucet, intending to rinse the dried blood from a scraped elbow. The plumbing rattled and thumped, but nothing came out. He opened the ice maker. Empty, too.
“Cruz is a lousy host,” Steve said.
“Are you listening to me? Let’s go back to Miami. I’ll see if we can talk Cruz out of filing charges.”
They both heard the sound, but it took a second to identify it. A scream from the bridge. “Sol-o-mon!”
Followed a second later by machine gun fire.
Steve and Victoria ran back up the ladder to the bridge. Cruz was tugging against the rail, his wrist bleeding where the handcuff sawed into his skin. Three hundred yards off their starboard, a Cuban patrol boat fired a short burst from a machine gun mounted on its bow. Dead ahead, the silhouette of the Cuban island rose from the sea, misty in the late afternoon light.
“Warning shots,” Steve said. “Everybody relax.”
Steve eased back on the throttles, tooted the horn, and waved both arms at the approaching boat. “C’mon Cruz. It’s now or never. When they pull alongside, I’m handing you over.”
“Do what you got to do, asshole.”
“Steve, turn the boat around,” Victoria ordered. “Now!”
The patrol boat slowed. Two men in uniform at the machine gun, a third man holding a bullhorn.
“I’m not fucking with you, Cruz,” Steve said. “You’ve got thirty seconds. Where’s Teresa’s money?”
“ Chingate!” Cruz snarled.
“ Senores del barco de pesca!” The tinny sound of the bullhorn carried across the water.
“Last chance,” Steve said.
“ Se han adentrado en las aguas territoriales de la Republica de Cuba.”
“Steve, we’re in Cuban waters,” Victoria said.
“I know. I passed Spanish 101.”
“ Den la vuelta y salgan inmediatamente de aqui, o los vamos a abordar.”
“They’re going to board us if we don’t turn around,” she said.
“I kind of figured that out, too.” Steve turned to Cruz. “Absolutely, positively last chance, pal. I’m handing you over.”
“I’m betting you don’t,” Cruz said.
The patrol boat was fifty yards away. One of the men in uniform pointed an AK-47 their way.
“Steve…?” Victoria’s voice was a plea.
This wasn’t the way he’d planned it. By this time, Cruz should have been spouting numbers and accounts from banks in the Caymans or Switzerland or the Isle of Man. But the bastard was toughing it out. Calling Steve’s bluff.
Is that what it is? An empty threat.
Steve wanted to hand Cruz over, wanted him to rot in a Cuban prison.
But dammit, I’m a lawyer, not a vigilante.
He wished he could turn his conscience on and off with the flick of a switch. He wished he could end a man’s life with cold calculations and no remorse. But the rats that would gnaw at Cruz at Isla de Pinos would visit the house on Kumquat Avenue in Steve’s nightmares.
“Take the wheel, Vic.” Filled with self-loathing, wishing he could be someone he was not. “Twenty-two degrees. Key West.”
“Say ‘please,’” Cruz laughed, mocking him.
Just before midnight, the lights of Key West off the port, the Wet Dream cruised north through Hawk Channel, headed toward Miami. The sky was clear and sparkled with stars. The wind whipped across the bridge, bringing a night chill. Victoria slipped into her glen-plaid jacket. Hair messed, clothes rumpled, emotionally drained, she was trying to figure out how to salvage the situation.
I came aboard to save Steve from himself and I’m doing a lousy job.
Steve stood at the wheel, draining a La Tropical beer, maybe listening, maybe not, as Cruz berated him.
“You fucking loser,” Cruz said. “Every minute I’m tied up is gonna cost you.” Cruz rubbed his arm where the cuff was biting into his wrist. “I got nerve damage. Gonna add that to my lawsuit. When this is over, you’ll wish the Cubans had taken you prisoner.”
“Steve, I need a moment with you,” Victoria said.
Steve put the boat on auto – Cruz complaining that it was a damn reckless way to cruise at night – then headed down the ladder, joining Victoria in the salon.
“You can’t keep him locked up,” she said.
“I need more time.”
“To think.” He walked to the galley sink and turned the faucet, intending to toss cold water on his face. Same rattle, same thump. “Damn, I forgot. Cruz put all that money into his boat and still can’t get the water to work.”
“A fancy boat like this and you can’t wash your hands.”
“No. What you said before. ‘Cruz put all that money into his boat.’”
“It’s just a figure of speech.”
“Think about it, Steve. He doesn’t own a house. He leases a car. No brokerage accounts, no bank accounts. Everything he has, he puts into his boat. If he ever has to leave town quickly…”
“Like he left Cuba,” Steve said, picking up the beat. “With nothing but the clothes on his back.”
“This time it would be different because…”
“The money’s here! On the boat.”
In sync now, she thought.
A man and a woman running stride for stride.
“Vic, why don’t you go back up to the bridge and make sure we don’t crash into any cruise ships?”
“And what are you doing?”
“I’m gonna fix the plumbing.”
Steve opened the hatch in the salon floor and climbed down a ladder to the engine compartment, wincing at the noise from the twin diesels. He found the black water tank first, tucked up under the bow. Sewage and waste water. Nothing unusual about it, and Cruz wouldn’t want to dirty his hands with that, anyway. Then Steve found the freshwater tank, a custom job built into one of the bulkheads. Made of fiberglass, it looked capable of holding 500 gallons or more. The boat had desalinization equipment, so why did Cruz need such a big tank?
A big tank that wasn’t working.
Steve grabbed a flashlight mounted on a pole and took a closer look. He peered into an inspection port and could see the tank was three quarters full. On top of the tank was a metal plate with a built-in handle. He turned the plate counter-clockwise and removed it. Then he aimed the flashlight into the opening.
Water. Well, what did you expect?
He grabbed a mop that was attached by velcro to a stringer and poked the handle into the tank. The end of the handle clanked off the walls.
Clank. Clank. Clank. Thud.
Thud? What the hell?
Steve pushed the mop handle around the bottom of the tank as if he were stirring a giant vat of paella. It snagged on something soft. He worked the handle under the object and lifted.
Something as long as a man’s body but much thinner.
Thin enough to fit into the opening of the custom-built tank. The object was a transparent, plasticized pouch, and when the end peeked out of the opening, Steve saw Ben Franklin’s tight-lipped face. A hundred dollar bill. Stacked on others. Dozens of stacks. As he pulled the pouch out of the tank, he saw even more. Hundreds of stacks, thousands of bills.
Damn heavy, Steve thought, lugging the pouch up the ladder from the engine compartment. Then he dragged the load out the salon door and into the cockpit. “Now you’ve done it,” Cruz sounded almost mournful. He stood on the bridge, aiming a double-barrel shotgun at Steve. The rail where he had been cuffed hung loose. “I didn’t want this. But it’s your own damn fault.”
“I’m sorry, Steve,” Victoria said. “When I came up here, he’d gotten out.”
“Not your fault,” Steve said. He dragged the pouch to the starboard gunwale.
“Stop right there!” Cruz ordered. “Step away from the money.”
“Nope. Don’t think so.”
Cruz pumped the shotgun, an unmistakable click-clack that Steve felt in the pit of his stomach. “I’ll blow your head off.”
“And leave blood and bone and tissue embedded in the planking? Nah. You may kill us, but you won’t do it on your boat.” Steve hoisted the pouch onto the rail.
“If I can’t take this to Teresa, I’m sure as hell not gonna let you have it. Your treasure, pal, is strictly Sierra Madre.’”
The shotgun blast roared over Steve’s head, and he flinched. The pouch balanced on the rail, halfway between the deck and the deep blue sea.
“Put the money down, asshole.”
“Okay, okay.” Steve shoved the pouch over the rail and it splashed into the water. “It’s down.”
“Asshole!” Cruz grabbed both throttles, slowed the boat, and swung her around. He turned a spotlight on the water.
Nothing but a black sea and foamy whitecaps.
He swung the spotlight left and right. Still nothing, until…the beam picked up the pouch floating with the current. Cruz eased the boat close to the pouch at idle speed, slipped the engine out of gear, then dashed down the ladder. Grabbing a tarpon gaff, he moved quickly to the gunwale. Shotgun in one hand, gaff in the other, he motioned toward Steve. “Back up. All the way to the chair.”
“Do what he says, Steve,” Victoria called from the bridge.
“Only because you said so.” Steve moved toward one of the fighting chairs.
Cruz leaned over the side and snagged the pouch with the gaff. He struggled to lift it with one arm, still aiming the shotgun at Steve.
Suddenly, the boat shot forward, and Cruz tumbled into the water, the shotgun blasting into space as it fell onto the deck. On the bridge, Victoria had one hand on the throttles, the other on the wheel.
“ Cono!” Cruz shouted from the darkness.
“Do sharks feed at night?” Steve leaned over the side. “Or should I just drop some wiggles on your head and find out?”
“Get me out of here!” His voice more fearful than demanding.
“No me jodas!”
“I’m not fucking with you. Just don’t feel like giving you a lift.”
Victoria raced down the ladder and joined Steve in the cockpit. “Testing, testing,” she said, punching a button on her pocket Dictaphone.
“What are you doing?” Steve said.
“Mr. Cruz,” Victoria called out. “We’ll bring you on board once you answer a few questions.”
Cruz was splashing just off the starboard side. “What fucking questions!”
“Do you admit stealing three million dollars from Teresa Torano?” Victoria said.
Pink slivers of sky lit up the horizon and seabirds squawked overhead as Steve steered the boat into the channel at Matheson Hammock. He had one hand on the wheel and one draped on Victoria’s shoulder. A shivering Cruz, his arms and legs bound with quarter-inch line, was laced into a fighting chair in the cockpit. His taped confession would be in the hands of the State Attorney by noon. The pouch of money lay at his feet, taunting him.
“What are you thinking about?” Victoria asked.
“I was just imagining the look on Teresa’s face when we give her the money.”
“She’ll be delighted. But it was never about the money, Steve.”
“When you were a baby lawyer, Teresa believed in you and nobody else did. You needed to prove to her that she was right. And maybe you needed to prove it to yourself, too.”
Steve shrugged. “If you say so.”
She wrapped both arms around his neck. “But remember this, Steve. You never have to prove anything to me.” They kissed, at first softly, and then deeper and slower. The kiss lasted a long time, and when they each opened their eyes, the sun was peeking above the horizon in the eastern sky.
Their bodies pressed together, Victoria felt something digging into her hip. “Are you carrying another pair of handcuffs?”
“Then what…?” She jammed a hand into one of his pockets. “Oh. That.”
Steve smiled. “Like I said, no cuffs.”
“That’s okay, sailor.” She brushed her lips against his cheek. “You won’t need them.”
Preview: TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD
M A Y 1 9 8 0
He would remember the sounds-the wailing sirens, the moans of the injured-and the smells, a smoky ashen stench that clung to hair and clothing. Late the first night, he slipped into the parking lot for some air, and he tasted the sky as the smoke rose above Miami’s inner core. He heard the city scream, the popping of wood and plastic aflame, short bursts of gunfire followed by silence, then the crackle of police radios. Later he would remember slipping in a puddle of blood on the tile floor of the Emergency Room.
He would not leave the hospital for seventy-two hours, and by then, he had treated more gunshot wounds than most doctors see in a lifetime. Blacks against police, whites against blacks, savage violence in a ghetto hopelessly misnamed Liberty City. By the time the shooting stopped and the fires were out, an eerie silence hung over the area, an inner-city battle zone where neither side surrendered, but each put away its weapons and withdrew.
“That’s a real poster ass, huh?”
Roger Salisbury shot a sideways glance at the man next to him. A working guy, heavy boots and a plaid shirt open at the neck. Thick hands, one on a pack of cigarettes, the other on his drink, elbows resting on the scarred bar. “Like to frame that ass, hang it in the den next to Bob Griese.”
“Uh-huh,” Salisbury mumbled. He didn’t come here to talk, didn’t know why he came. Maybe to lose himself in a place crammed with people and noise, to be alone amid clinking glasses, laughter, and the creaminess of women’s bodies. He strained his neck to see her above him on the stage.
“Not that one,” the man said, tapping the bar with a solid index finger. “Over there at the stairs, the on-deck circle. A real poster ass. Never saw a skinny girl with an ass like that. Eat my lunch offa that.”
She wore a black G-string, a red bikini top, and red high-heeled shoes. If not for the outfit and the setting, she could have been a cheerleader with a mom, dad, and grandmom in Kansas. Good bone structure, fair complexion with freckles across a button nose, short wavy reddish-brown hair, wholesome as a wheat field. The face belonged in a high school yearbook; the body launched a thousand fantasies. Her thin waist accentuated a round bottom that arched skyward out of both sides of the tiny G-string. Her breasts were round and full. She was warming up, fastening a prefab smile into place, taking a few practice swings, tapping a sequined shoe in time to Billy Joel, who was turned up way too high:
What’s the mat-ter with the clothes I’m wear-ing?
Can’t you tell that your tie’s too wide?
May-be I should buy some old tab col-lars.
Wel-come back to the age of jive.
The working guy was looking at Salisbury now, sizing him up. Looking at a blow-dry haircut that was a little too precise for a place like this. Clean shaven, skin still glistening like he’d just spanked his face with Aqua Velva at two A.M., as if the girls in a beat-your-meat joint really care. The hair was starting to show some early gray, the features pleasant, if not matinee idol stuff. A professor at Miami-Dade maybe, the working guy figured.
Salisbury knew the guy was looking at him, now at his hands, just as he had done. Funny how hands can tell you so much. Proud of his hands. Broad and strong. They could have swung a pick, except there were no calluses. He had washed off the blood, scrubbing as hard after surgery as he had before the endless night began. Seventy-two hours with only catnaps and stale sandwiches until the hospital cafeteria ran out. But he stood there the whole time, one of the leaders, the chief orthopedics resident, setting broken bones, picking glass and bullet fragments out of wounds, calming hysterical relatives.
After showering at the hospital, he had tossed the soiled lab coat into the trash and grabbed a blue blazer from his locker. Now he was nursing a beer and trying to forget the carnage. He could have gone home. Twenty-seventh Avenue was finally open after the three-day blockade. But too tired to sleep, he wound through unfamiliar streets and was finally lured out of the night by the neon sign of the Tangiers on West Dixie. He would think about it later, many times, why he stopped that night, what drew him to such a strange and threatening place. Pickup trucks and old Chevys jammed the parking lot. Music blared from outdoor loudspeakers, a rhythmic, pulsating beat intended to tempt men inside just as the singing of the Sirens drew Greek sailors onto the rocks. It might have been the flashing sign. The throbbing colors got right to the point -- NUDE GIRLS 24 HOURS… NUDE GIRLS 24 HOURS -- blinking on, blinking off, proof of bare flesh moment after moment after moment.
The working guy was talking to him: “I say let’em burn colored town down to the ground if they want to, no skin offa my nose. I mean, the cops was wrong, killing one of the coloreds, had his hands cuffed behind his back, no need for that. But some of ‘em just looking for excuses to behave like animals. They burned a poor Cuban alive in his car, heard it on the radio.”
“We tried to save him,” Salisbury said quietly.
The guy gave him a look. “Sure! You’re a doctor. Should have known. Jesus, you musta seen it all. Wait a minute, Sweet Jesus, here comes Miss Poster Ass. She’s worth a twenty-dollar dance, or I’m the Prince of Wales.”
Roger Salisbury watched her walk toward them, an inviting smile aimed his way. The other men around the small stage hooted and slapped their thighs. Roger Salisbury lowered his eyes and studied his drink.
“Your first time?” the man asked. Silence. “Yeah, your first time. Loosen up. Here’s the poop. First the girls dance out here on the bar stage. No big deal, they take it all off, you stick a dollar bill in their garter and maybe one’ll kiss you. In the back, where it’s darker, you got your table dances, twenty bucks. That’s one-on-one and I may buy me an up-close-and-personal visit with Miss Poster Ass. Haven’t been able to get here all week what with the jungle bunnies staging their block parties.”
On stage now, grinding to the music, no longer the Kansas cheerleader. Ev-ry-bod-y’s talk-in’ ’bout the new sound. Funny, but it’s still rock and roll to me. In a few moments, the bikini top was off, firm breasts bounding free. The G-string came next, and then she arched her back, bent over, and propped her hands on her knees looking away from the men. The poster ass wiggled clockwise as if on coasters, then stopped and wiggled counterclockwise. Salisbury stared as if hypnotized. The ass quivered once, fluttered twice with contractions that Roger Salisbury felt deep in his own loins, then stopped six inches from his face. His fatigue gone, the swirl of blood and bodies a dreamy fog, Roger Salisbury fantasized that the perfect ass wiggled only for him. He didn’t see the other men, some laughing, some bantering, others conjuring up their own steamy visions. None of the others, though, seemed spellbound by an act as old as the species.
The dance done, the girl smiled at Roger Salisbury, an open interested smile, he thought. And though she smiled at each man, again he thought it was only for him. She sashayed from one end of the small stage to the other, collecting dollar bills in a black garter while propping a red, high-heeled shoe on the rim between the stage and the bar. Other than the gaiter and the shoes, she was naked, but her face showed neither shame nor seduction. She could have been passing the collection plate at the First Lutheran Church of Topeka. Roger Salisbury slipped a five-dollar bill into her garter, removing it from his wallet with two fingers, never taking his eyes off the girl. A neat trick, but he could also tie knots in thread with a thumb and one finger inside a matchbox. Great hands. The strong, steady hands of a surgeon.
Her smile widened as she leaned close to him, her voice a moist whisper on his ear. “I’d like to dance for you. Just you.” And he believed it.
Roger Salisbury believed everything she said that night. That she was a model down on her luck, that her name was Autumn Rain, that all she wanted was a good man and a family. They talked in the smoky shadows of a corner table and she danced for him alone. Twenty dollars and another twenty as a tip. He didn’t lay a hand on her. At nearby tables men grasped tumbling breasts, and the girls stepped gingerly from their perches in four-inch spikes to sit on customers’ laps, writhing on top of them, grinding down with bare asses onto the fully clothed groins of middle-aged men. “Didja come?” the heavy girl at the next table whispered to her customer, already reaching for a tip.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Roger Salisbury said, shaking his head. “It’s half prostitution and half masturbation.” He gestured toward the overweight girl who was gathering her meager outfit and sneaking a peek at the president’s face on the bill she had glommed from a guy in faded jeans. “You don’t do that, do you?” Salisbury asked.
She smiled. Of course not, the look said.
He asked her out.
Against the rules, she said. Some guys, they think if you’re an exotic dancer, it means for fifty bucks you give head or whatever.
But I’m different, Roger Salisbury said.
She cocked her head to one side and studied him. They all thought they were different, but she knew there were only two kinds of men, jerks and jerk-offs. Oh, some made more money and didn’t get their fingernails dirty. She’d seen them, white shirts and yellow ties, slumming it, yukking it up. But either way, grease monkeys or stockbrokers, once those gates opened and the blood rushed in, turning their worms into stick shifts, they were either jerks or jerk-offs. The jerk-offs were mostly young, wise guys without a pot to piss in, spending all their bread on wheels and women, figuring everything in a skirt-or G-string-was a pushover. Jerks were saps, always falling in love and wanting to change you, make an honest woman out of you. Okay, put me in chains, if the price is right. This guy, jerk all the way.
I’m a doctor, he said.
Oh, she said, sounding impressed.
He told her how he had patched and mended those caught in the city’s crossfire, how he wanted to help people and be a great doctor. She listened with wide eyes and nodded as if she knew what he felt deep inside and she smiled with practiced sincerity. A doctor, she figured, made lots of money, not realizing that a resident took home far less than an exotic dancer and got his hands just as dirty.
She looked directly into Roger Salisbury’s eyes and softened her own. He looked into her eyes and thought he saw warmth and beauty of spirit.
Roger Salisbury, it turned out, was better at reading X rays than the looks in women’s eyes.
D E C E M B E R 1 9 8 8
When the witness hesitated, I drummed my pen impatiently against my legal pad. Made a show of it. Not that I was in a hurry. I had all day, all week. The Doctors’ Medical Insurance Trust pays by the hour and not minimum wage. Take your sweet time. The drum roll was only for effect, to remind the jury that the witness didn’t seem too sure of himself. And to make him squirm a bit, to rattle him.
First the pen clop-clop-clopping against the legal pad. Then the slow, purposeful walk toward the witness stand, let him feel me there as he fans through his papers looking for a lost report. Then the stare, the high-voltage Jake Lassiter laser beam stare. Melt him down.
I unbuttoned my dark suitcoat and hooked a thumb into my belt. Then I stood there, 220 pounds of ex-football player, ex-public defender, ex-a-lot-of-things, leaning against the faded walnut rail of the witness stand, home to a million sweaty palms.
Only forty seconds since the question was asked, but I wanted it to seem like hours. Make the jury soak up the silence. The only sounds were the whine of the air conditioning and the paper shuffling of the witness. Young lawyers sometimes make the mistake of filling that black hole, of clarifying the question or rephrasing it, inadvertently breathing life into the dead air that hangs like a shroud over a hostile witness. What folly. The witness is zipped up because he’s worried. He’s thinking, not about his answer, but of the reason for the question, trying to outthink you, trying to anticipate the next question. Let him stew in his own juice.
Another twenty seconds of silence. One juror yawned. Another sighed.
Judge Raymond Leonard looked up from the Daily Racing Form, a startled expression as if he just discovered he was lost. I nodded silently, assuring him there was no objection awaiting the wisdom that got him through night classes at Stetson Law School. The judge was a large man in his fifties, bald and moon-faced and partial to maroon robes instead of traditional black. History would never link him with Justices Marshall or Cardozo, but he was honest and let lawyers try their cases with little interference from the bench.
Earlier, at a sidebar conference, the judge suggested we recess at two-thirty each day. He could study the written motions in the afternoon, he said with a straight face, practically dusting off his binoculars for the last three races at Hialeah. A note on the bench said, “Hot Enough, Rivera up, 5-1, ninth race.” In truth, the judge was better at handicapping the horses than recognizing hearsay.
Another thirty seconds. Then a cleared throat, the sound of a train rumbling through a tunnel, and the white-haired witness spoke. “That depends,” Dr. Harvey Watkins said with a gravity usually reserved for State of the Union messages.
The jurors turned toward me, expectant looks. I widened my eyes, all but shouting, “Bullshit.” Then I worked up a small spider-to-the-fly smile and tried to figure out what the hell to ask next. What I wanted to say was, Three hundred bucks an hour, and the best you can do is “that depends.” One man is dead, my client is charged with malpractice, and you’re giving us the old softshoe, “that depends. ”
What I said was, “Let’s try it this way.” An exasperated tone, like a teacher trying to explain algebra to a chimpanzee. “When a surgeon is performing a laminectomy on the L3-L4 vertebrae, can he see what he’s doing with the rongeur, or does he go by feel?”
“As I said before, that depends,” Dr. Watkins said with excessive dignity. Like most hired guns, he could make a belch sound like a sonnet. White hair swept back, late sixties, retired chief of orthopedics at Orlando Presbyterian, he had been a good bone carpenter in his own right until he lost his nerves to an ice-filled river of Stolichnaya. Lately he talked for pay on the traveling malpractice circuit. Consultants, they call themselves. Whores, other doctors peg them. When I defended criminal cases, I thought my clients could win any lying contest at the county fair. Now I figure doctors run a dead heat with forgers and confidence men.
No use fighting it. Just suck it up and ask, “Depends on what?” Waiting for the worst now, asking an open-ended question on cross-examination.
“Depends on what point you’re talking about. Before you enter the disc space, you can see quite clearly. Then, once you lower the rongeur into it to remove the nucleus pulposus, the view changes. The disc space is very small, so of course, the rongeur is blocking your view.”
“Of course,” I said impatiently, as if I’d been waiting for that answer since Ponce de Leon landed on the coast. “So at that point you’re working blind?”
I wanted a yes. He knew that I wanted a yes. He’d rather face a hip replacement with a case of the shakes than give me a yes.
“I don’t know if I’d characterize it exactly that way…”
“But the surgeon can’t see what he’s doing at that point, can he?” Booming now, trying to force a good old-fashioned one-word answer. Come on, Dr. Harvey Wallbanger, the sooner you get off the stand, the sooner you’ll be in the air-conditioned shadows of Sally Russell’s Lounge across the street, cool clear liquid sliding down the throat to cleanse your godforsaken soul.
“You’re talking about a space maybe half a centimeter,” the doctor responded, letting his basso profundo fill the courtroom, not backing down a bit. “Of course you don’t have a clear view, but you keep your eye on the rongeur, to be aware of how far you insert it into the space. You feel for resistance at the back of the space and, of course, go no farther.”
“My point exactly, doctor. You’re watching the rongeur, you’re feeling inside the disc space for resistance. You’re operating blind, aren’t you? You and Dr. Salisbury and every orthopedic surgeon who’s ever removed a disc…”
“Objection! Argumentative and repetitious.” Dan Cefalo, the plaintiff’s lawyer, was on his feet now, hitching up his pants even as his shirttail flopped out. He fastened his third suitcoat button into the second hole. “Judge, Mr. Lassiter is making speeches again.”
Judge Leonard looked up again, unhappy to have his handicapping interrupted. Three to one he didn’t hear the objection, but a virtual lock that it would be sustained. The last objection was overruled, and Judge Leonard believed in the basic fairness of splitting the baby down the middle. It was easier to keep track if you just alternated your rulings, like a kid guessing on a true-false exam.
“Sustained,” the judge said, nodding toward me and cocking his head with curiosity when he looked at Cefalo, now thoroughly misbuttoned and hunched over the plaintiff’s table, a Quasimodo in plaid polyester. Then the judge handed a note to the court clerk, a young woman who sat poker-faced through tales of multiple homicides, scandalous divorces, and train wrecks. The clerk slipped the note to the bailiff, who left through the rear door that led to the judge’s chambers. There, enveloped in the musty smell of old law books never read much less understood, he would give the note to the judge’s secretary, who would call Blinky Blitstein and lay fifty across the board on Hot Enough.
“Your Honor, I’ll rephrase the question,” I said, as if I had a choice. “Doctor, I think you would agree that the rongeur blocks your view of the disc space, correct?”
A twenty-five-cent word. What does it take to get a yes out of this guy? Dr. Watkins let his tongue dart over his lips. Getting a little dry, are we? Eyes just a bit cloudy and bloodshot. Cefalo put you up at the Sonesta Beach, I bet. Room service probably brought up a bottle of Russia’s best. Maybe one of Finland’s too. A Winter War in a tenth-floor suite overlooking the Atlantic.
I walked to the rear of the courtroom so that the jury was between the witness stand and me. I wanted all eyes on Dr. Watkins as I broke him like a rotten mast in a gale.
“Doctor, isn’t it true that, because of the narrow disc space, any time a surgeon performs this kind of surgery, a known risk is that the rongeur will go too far, will pierce the aorta?”
“A risk? Of course, it’s a risk, but…”
“And that’s what happened here, the occurrence of that risk, that statistically will occur-”
“Objection! Your Honor, Mr. Lassiter refuses to permit the doctor to finish his answer. He’s interrupting.” This time Cefalo banged his knee on the plaintiff’s table as he stood up and his tie flopped out of his misbuttoned coat like the tongue of a thirsty dog. Most days Cefalo dressed as well as the next guy, but in trial he figured he gained sympathy by looking like a vagrant. He’d drop his drawers if it would win one juror’s vote. This day his suit was old and wrinkled and smelled like an overheated horse. But Dan Cefalo knew his stuff. Best to remember that or get blindsided when he transformed from Buddy Hackett to Gregory Peck in closing argument.
“Overruled,” the judge said without looking up.
Thank you, Nathan Detroit.
I took a few giant steps toward the witness stand, feeling my oats. I wanted to finish with a flourish. Dr. Watkins had nailed us hard on direct examination. Now just trying to get even, or close to it. I walked to the clerk’s table and picked up the stainless steel instrument that resembled a small, delicate pair of pliers. The clerk never looked up, leaving me staring into the top of her Afro. She was reading a paperback with a castle and a dark-eyed woman on the cover.
“Now, this rongeur, Plaintiff’s Exhibit Five, is the perfect instrument for removing the herniated disc material, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know if it’s perfect, but that’s what’s used.”
They’ll be examining his liver under a microscope before he’ll give a defense lawyer a yes. I walked to the rear of the courtroom, the doctor’s eyes tracking me, suspicion wrinkling his brow. He wouldn’t trust me with the petty cash.
“But perfect as it is for one job, it poses a real and known danger to the aorta, doesn’t it?”
Dr. Watkins smiled. The eyes seemed to clear. His chin thrust out and he shot a look at the jury, just to make sure they were paying attention.
“The rongeur poses no danger,” he said in deep, senatorial tones. “The surgeon who is too hasty or too rough or loses track of where he is, that’s the danger. A rongeur does not do the damage except in a most elementary way, the same way a gun kills, but it is the man pulling the trigger who is brought to justice. A surgeon who is negligent, that is the danger. It is professional negligence, or as you lawyers like to call it, malpractice, to damage the aorta while doing a laminectomy-”
“Your Honor!” I am much too loud, a wounded boar. “The witness is not being responsive. He is the one who is speech making for the benefit of the party that pays him royally.” Anything to distract the jury from my blood spilling across the floor. One question too many, the classic bozo move on cross.
Judge Leonard swiveled in his cushioned chair. “Is that an objection?”
I toted up the judge’s prior rulings like a blackjack player counting face cards. “Yes, Your Honor, I ask that the jury be instructed to disregard the witness’s self-serving soliloquy.”
“Sustained. The jury will disregard the last statement of the witness.”
Fat chance, the jurors figuring that anything they’re supposed to forget must be worth remembering. How to rescue the moment? I caught sight of Cefalo. If his smile were any wider, his uppers would fall out.
“No further questions are necessary, Your Honor,” I said with more than a touch of bravado. Then I swaggered to my seat, as if I had just vanquished the witness. I doubted the jury bought even a slice of it. Lassiter, why didn’t you shut up when you had the chance?
Ramrod straight, white hair in place, Dr. Watkins strode from the witness stand, pausing to nod graciously at the jury, a general admiring his troops. Then he walked by the plaintiff’s table, bowed toward Dan Cefalo and tenderly patted Mrs. Melanie Corrigan, the young widow, on the arm. As he passed me, he shook his head, ever so slightly, a compassionate look, as if this poor wretch of a mouthpiece couldn’t help it if he was on the wrong side and an incompetent boob to boot. What a pro. The jurors never took their eyes off him.
My eyes closed and behind them were visions of green hills and cool streams, where the courthouses were only for marriage licenses and real estate deeds. Then I wondered if it was too late to coach powder-puff football at a prep school in Vermont.
THE GOOD GUYS
Roger Salisbury was pouring black bean soup over the rice, then carefully layering a row of chopped onions on top, building a little mound. Not a drop of the dark soup spilled. The Cuban crackers, which in my hands crumble into dust, he split down the middle with a thumb and index finger, a clean break like marble under a sculptor’s chisel. Steady hands, the hands of a surgeon. Not hands that would have slipped, letting the rongeur puncture the aorta, leaving Philip Corrigan to die of internal bleeding and Melanie Corrigan to live as a young, beautiful, and very rich widow. Which is why Roger Salisbury was questioning my strategy in cross-examining the white-haired baron of bombast who nearly blew me out of the courtroom this very day.
“If our defense is that I didn’t nick the aorta, why were you trying to get Watkins to admit that a surgeon can’t see what he’s doing in a laminectomy? It sounded like you were trying to excuse me for something I didn’t do.”
When a client thinks that you are letting him sink into the treacherous waters of the justice system, it is best to appear calm and knowledgeable, even when you are floundering about, looking for the nearest lifeboat yourself. This is easier to do when not distracted by two young women who are appraising you with large, luminous, and inviting eyes.
“It’s called alternative pleading,” I said with authority and a polite smile toward our observers, perched on barstools at the counter. When confronted with large, luminous, and inviting eyes, I am polite without fail. “We say to the jury, first, the good doctor didn’t come within a country mile of the damn blood vessel. Second, even if he might have sideswiped it, that’s not negligence. It’s an accepted risk of this kind of surgery because of the small disc space and the proximity of the aorta.”
“I get the feeling you don’t believe me,” Roger Salisbury said. He ladled more soup onto the rice with those sturdy hands, and I watched the steam rise, a pungent aroma enveloping us. One of the women was smiling now. At me, I thought. Or was it at Roger? He was handsome in a nondescript way. Medium height, medium build, medium features. The kind of guy who gives police artists fits. Nothing to work with, no missing teeth, bent nose, or jagged scars, nothing protruding, nothing receding.
I dug into my palomilla, a tough piece of flank steak marinated in oils and spices and likely left on the hood of a ’59 Chevy in the Miami sun. I was talking with my hands, or rather my fork, which had speared a sweet fried plantain.
“It’s a historic legal strategy. In olden times, a plaintiff might sue his neighbor and say, ‘I lent him my kettle, and when he returned it, it was cracked.’ The neighbor answers the lawsuit and says, ‘I never borrowed the kettle, but if I did, it was cracked when he gave it to me.’”
Roger Salisbury shook his head. “Your profession is so uncertain, so full of contradictions. I’ll never understand the law.”
“Nor I, women.” Their eyes were lighting up with magical, come-hither glints. I stayed put and Roger kept talking.
“Jake, I have a lot of faith in you, you know that.”
Oh boy, I got fired once by a client who started off just like that. “Sure, and you should have,” I said, showing the old confidence.
“But I can’t say I’m happy with the way the trial’s going.”
“Listen, Roger. There’s a psychological phenomenon every defendant goes through during the plaintiff’s case. Try to remember it’s still the top of the first inning. We haven’t even been to bat yet. Wait’ll old Charlie Riggs testifies for us. He’s honest and savvy, and he’ll make Wallbanger Watkins look like the whoring sawbones he is.”
“You don’t sound convinced.”
“Riggs is on the verge of senile dementia, if not over it. He speaks Latin half the time. He’s the friggin’ coroner-or was until they retired him-not an orthopedic surgeon.”
“Roger, trust me. We need a canoemaker, not a carpenter. Charlie Riggs is going to tell the jury why Philip Corrigan died. It’s a hole in their case, and I’m going to ride the U.S. Cavalry through it.”
Finally the two women set sail for our table. One looked straight at me from under a pile of auburn hair that reached her shoulders and kept going toward Mexico. She had caramel skin and lustrous ebony eyes. The other had thick, jet black hair that only made her porcelain complexion seem even more delicate. She wore one earring shaped like a golden spermatozoan and another of ivory that could have been a miniature elephant tusk. Both women wore tourniquet-tight slacks, high-heeled open-toed shoes, and oversized cotton sweatshirts, with spangles and shoulders from here to the Orange Bowl.
“May we join you for a moment?” Miss Caramel Skin asked. The you was a chew.
Roger Salisbury looked up and grinned. Even the punitive damage claim hadn’t sent his hormones into hibernation. I could have used the distraction. My social life was as empty as a Miami Beach hotel in July. But I took inventory quickly, knowing I had several hours of work ahead. There is a time for dallying, but the middle of a trial is not such a time. I wanted to finish the postmortem on the day’s events and prepare for tomorrow and the widow’s testimony. Still, an old reflex, maybe eons old, had the mental computer figuring a sort of cost- benefit analysis-how long it would take-the flirting time, make-nice time, bone-jumping time, and call-you-again time. Too long.
They already were sitting down and Caramel Skin was chattering about her ex-boyfriend, a Colombian, and what a scumbag he was. Skoombag. She was Costa Rican, Miss Earrings Honduran.
I shouldn’t have brought Roger to Bay side, a yuppie hangout with shops, restaurants, and bars strung along Biscayne Bay downtown. It was a pickup place, and these two probably assumed we were in the hunt-two decent-looking guys under forty in suits-when all we wanted was solitude and an early dinner. Outside the windows, the young male lawyers, accountants, and bankers headed for the nearby singles bars, suitcoats slung over shoulders, red suspenders holding up Brooks Brothers suit pants. They slouched against open-air bars waiting for their frozen margaritas to ooze out of chrome-plated machines that belong in Dairy Queens, not taverns. Nearby the young women-mirror images in business suits or no-nonsense below-the-knee dresses-their mouths fixed in go-to-hell looks, struggled with the degree of toughness and cool necessary to beat the men at their own game. Altogether, a smug clique of well-dressed boys and girls.
“Carlos had a Cigarette,” Caramel Skin was saying. “Used to go like a son-of-a-bitch.” Sunavabeach. “Liked the Cigarette more than he liked me. Now he’s at FCI.”
Salisbury wore a blank look. I said, “Federal Correctional Institution. Probably used the boat to bring in bags of the white stuff.”
“ Si. Hizo el tonto. He played the fool for others. And, como si esto fuera poco, he used to beat me. Tie me up and spank me with a hairbrush. It was fun at first, but then…”
Roger Salisbury was into it now, asking Caramel Skin whether Carlos the Con used leather or plain old rope. Scientific study or kinky curiosity, I wondered. Miss Earrings was telling me that they were fashion models-aren’t they all?-who really didn’t have work permits. Came here on tourist visas. Which meant they also were following the scent for the Holy Grail, green cards. Bagging American husbands would do the trick.
The earrings dangled near my face. Our knees touched and her voice dropped to a whisper, a ploy to get me to lean closer. Do they teach this stuff or is it in their genes? A long fingernail traced the outline of my right ear. In the right time and place, it could have been erotic. In a brightly lit restaurant with my mind on business, it itched.
“Thick hair, Mister Broad Shoulders,” she said. Theek and Meester. “Some of the Yankees, their hair is like, how they say, telaranas?”
“Cobwebs,” Caramel Skin said.
“ Si, cobwebs. But yours, chico, is thick like canamo. And rubianco.”
“Like hemp and almost blond,” Caramel Skin said, helpfully. Her friend gave a tug on my theek rubianco canamo, which did not help me get a fried plantain into my mouth. “And ojos azules,” she said, giggling, looking into my eyes.
The women excused themselves to go to the restroom, probably to divide up the spoils. Caramel Skin would get the smaller guy with neat, salt-and-pepper hair who was practically smacking his lips over images of sweet bondage. Earrings was stuck with Meester Broad Shoulders, who at least had neither cobwebs nor spiders in his mop but who seemed distracted.
Salisbury lit a cigarette, dragged deeply, and sent a swirl of smoke into the overhead fan. Doctors who smoke puzzle me. You know they know better. Maybe lack of discipline and self-control. I couldn’t imagine a personal injury lawyer riding a motorcycle, not after seeing those eight-by-ten glossies taken by the Highway Patrol. Need a shovel to scrape up body parts.
I wanted to draw Roger away from his Latin American fantasy and talk about tomorrow’s testimony. But he was saying something about a doubleheader that had nothing to do with Yankee Stadium. I shook my head no, and he gave me that puzzled look. I’d seen the same expression the first time he walked into my office about eighteen months earlier.
“You must like representing doctors,” he said that day, after we exchanged hellos.
“Yeah, it’s a great honor.”
He gave me that look and dropped the malpractice complaint on my desk as if it carried the plague. While I read it, he walked around my office, ostensibly admiring the view of the bay, but surreptitiously looking for merit badges on the walls. He couldn’t find any. No diplomas, no awards from the Kiwanis. I hung my Supreme Court admission ticket above the toilet at home. Covers a crack in the plaster. He stopped in front of a photo of my college football team, one of those posed shots with a hundred twenty guys filling the bleachers.
“You played football,” he said. Impressed. He couldn’t be sure I ever graduated from law school, but he was happy I could hit a blocking sled.
“A lead-footed linebacker,” I said. “Better at lawyering than covering the tight end over the middle.”
“Been defending doctors long?”
“Not as long as I played games in the PD’s office, keeping some very bad actors on the street.”
“Why’d you leave?”
“It made me puke.”
“Realizing every client I ever had was guilty. Not always with what they’re charged, but guilty of some crime, sometimes worse than the charge.”
I told him how it felt to see some slimeball go free after a warrantless search, then pimp-roll back into the courtroom for pistol-whipping a sixty-year-old liquor store clerk. Ja-cob, my man, they got no probable cause.
Told him I quit and did plaintiff’s PI. Half my clients were phonies. Phony injuries and phony doctors or real injuries and no insurance.
“So representing doctors is a step up,” Roger Salisbury had said brightly.
“From the gutter to the curb.”
That look again.
“I sold out, joined the high-rise set at rich, old Harman amp; Fox,” I told him. “Ordinarily, the dark-wood-and-deep-carpet types wouldn’t give a guy like me a second look. Afraid I’d spill the soup on my vest, if I owned one. But they woke up one day and figured they didn’t have anybody who could try a case. They could shuffle papers and write memos, but they didn’t know how to tap dance in front of a jury. So I won some cases, a few for very dangerous doctors.”
Now his puzzled look changed to one of concern.
“Bottom line,” I said, using a favorite expression of the corporate gazoonies who ruled the firm. “I’ve spent my entire career looking for the good guys and have yet to find them.”
He was quiet a moment, probably wondering if I was incompetent. Good, we were even. I always assume the worst. Fewer surprises later.
Things improved after that. I checked up on him. His rep was okay. Board certified and no prior lawsuits. He probably checked me out, too. Found out I’ve never been disbarred, committed, or convicted of moral turpitude. And the only time I was arrested it was a case of mistaken identity-I didn’t know the guy I hit was a cop.
So here we were, waiting for dos chicas to powder their noses or inhale something into them, and my mind was stuck on the mundane subject of the pending trial.
“Roger, let’s talk about tomorrow. Cefalo will put the widow on first thing. Today I was watching you out of the corner of my eye and you were staring at her. I know she looks like a million bucks, but if I saw it while I was getting blindsided by Wallbanger Watkins, I’m sure the jurors did, too. It could be mistaken for a look of guilt, like you feel sorry you croaked her old man. That’s worse than having the hots for her.”
“Okay, didn’t know I was doing it. Probably just staring into space.”
“Yeah sure. The point is, she’s likely to be a very good witness. The men in the jury all want in her pants, the women want to mother her.”
“Okay already, I get the point.”
“Good. I don’t want to concern you, but the lovely widow is a real problem for us. She can make the jury forget all our medical mumbo jumbo. That gray silk dress today with the strand of white pearls. Classy but not too flashy.”
Salisbury laughed. “You ought to see her in a strapless cocktail dress.”
Uh-huh is what I say when I don’t know what to say. I would have liked Salisbury to fill me in here, but he didn’t give me any help. After a moment I asked, “Since when are you Mrs. Corrigan’s fashion consultant?”
“Oh that. I probably never told you. When Philip started seeing me for the back and leg pain, we became friendly. I wasn’t dating anybody. They were just married. He started asking me over to their house in Gables Estates. Cocktail parties, dinners, sometimes just the three of us.”
“So you know Mrs. Corrigan?”
“Melanie, is it?”
He looked at me with a what’s-the-big-deal look and I didn’t have an answer so I polished off the palomilla and thought it over. No big deal. I just would have liked to have known about it sometime before trial.
In a moment our new friends cruised back, eyes a thousand watts brighter, ready to roll. I mumbled my apologies to Miss Earrings, who, with no apparent regret, shifted her electrified look to the blandly handsome doctor. I left them there, two women with a buzz on, and the man who had entrusted his career to me, the man who hadn’t told me everything. What else, I wondered, had he left out?
I paused at the door to look back. The restaurant was filled now.
Some of the yuppies were crowding the bar, making too much noise, pushing limes into their Mexican beer, a trendy brand aged about as long as their attention spans. If you have to put lime in your beer, you might as well drink Kool-Aid.
Back at the table, one woman sat on each side of Roger Salisbury. They all laughed. I left the three of them there, the mathematical possibilities of their union crowding Melanie Corrigan’s testimony into a dusty recess of my mind.
“Mrs. Corrigan, do you love your husband?”
“I do.” A pause, a catch in the throat, a quiver, the beginning of a tear, then like a lake swollen by a summer storm, an overflow cascading down sculpted cheekbones. “That is, I did. I loved him very much.”
Blessed timing. They don’t teach that in finishing school. Dan Cefalo continued his questioning. “Do you miss him?”
Another leading question, but only a dunce would incur the jury’s wrath by interrupting the soap opera with a news bulletin.
“Very much. Every day. We shared so much. Sometimes, when a car pulls into the driveway, I forget, and I think, well, maybe it’s Phil.”
And maybe it’s the paperboy. God, could she lay it on thick. She looked toward the jury and then away as if the memory was too much to bear. A lace handkerchief appeared out of a navy leather clutch and the big, brown, wet eyes were dabbed dry. The pain radiated from her, but I was the one who was dying. Every question launched an arrow, and every answer pierced my heart. The widow was majestic, thick russet hair swept straight back to lay bare those chiseled lines, to expose her suffering. All for the glory of justice and a seven-figure award for mental anguish, loss of society, comfort, and consortium.
“Tell us about your husband, your late husband, Mrs. Corrigan. And I know it’s a painful subject, so if you need a recess to gather yourself, please just say so.” Cefalo extended his arms toward the widow and bowed from the waist, as if she were royalty. And she did look regal, white gloves setting off a navy and white double-breasted cardigan that covered a matching skirt. Maybe the gloves hid Racy Red nail polish, already slathered on for a night of romping through Coconut Grove clubs. Maybe on cross-examination I should order her to take off the gloves and bare her claws. Sure, or maybe I should just grab a sword and mutter a hara-kiri chant.
“I don’t know where to begin, there’s so much to say,” she said, obviously knowing exactly where she would begin. I wanted her to say: He was boffing half the stewardesses in town while his first wife lay dying; he made millions bribing county commissioners to grant zoning variances; and if it weren’t for high-placed friends in Washington, he would have been indicted for tax evasion.
What she said was: “Phil was the most giving man I’ve ever known. The way he cared for his first wife when she was terminally ill, if you could have seen that, if you all could have seen it.” Then she turned to the jury, an actress facing her adoring audience. “He never thought he could love again, but I brought something to his life. And to me, he was everything-a lover, a friend, even the father I never had. Then for him to die like this, in his prime.”
Clever. Very clever. So well rehearsed it didn’t look rehearsed. Explaining how a twenty-six-year-old woman marries a fifty-five- year-old man. A father, for crying out loud. No mention that the champagne corks were popping only six weeks after he buried his beloved first wife. And if I bring it out on cross, I’m a cad. It was a virtuoso performance. Even Judge Leonard was listening, practically a first. He had been in a fine mood at motion calendar in the morning, as well he should after Hot Touch paid $10.40, $5.40, and $4.80.
When Dan Cefalo turned to me and said, “Your witness,” he was smiling so broadly I almost didn’t notice that his fly was half undone and he had buttoned his shirt into his suitcoat.
The occasion called for brilliance. Roger Salisbury looked at me as if I were his last friend in the world. I approached the witness stand with a solicitous smile. I still hadn’t made up my mind. Behind those tears I saw a flinty toughness that I would love to bring out. But make a mistake, reduce her to tears or hysterics, and the jury would lynch me and nail enough zeroes on the verdict to buy an aircraft carrier. She looked straight back at me. The full lips lost a bit of their poutiness and set in a firm line. It’s there somewhere, I knew. But my investigators couldn’t find it in six months and my pretrial deposition came up empty. I couldn’t risk it now.
I turned to the judge. “Your Honor,” I said, as if seeking his approval, “I believe it would be unfair for us to keep Mrs. Corrigan on the stand to discuss this painful subject. We have no questions.” Roger Salisbury sank into his chair looking hopeless and abandoned. Men on Death Row have brighter futures.
“Very well,” Judge Leonard said, aiming a small smile in my direction. “Mr. Cefalo, call your next witness.”
“The plaintiff rests,” Dan Cefalo said, his goofy grin still lighting up the room.
“Any motions?” the judge asked. We approached the bench and the judge sent the jurors out to lunch.
“At this time, the defense moves for a directed verdict,” I said without a great deal of conviction.
“On what ground, Mr. Lassiter?” the judge asked.
“On the ground that there’s insufficient evidence of proximate cause, first that the surgery caused the aneurysm, and second that the aneurysm caused the death.”
“Denied,” the judge said before Cefalo even opened his mouth. “The plaintiff’s expert testified to that. Whatsa matter, Jake, it’s a jury question at least.”
I knew that. Somewhere between his Bloody Marys and his White Russians, Dr. Watkins had stuck us on proximate cause, at least sufficiently to beat a directed verdict, but I was giving the judge a little preview of our defense. Oh Dr. Charles W. Riggs, I need you now.
The judge looked over the courtroom, which was emptying, and waved us closer to the bench. With a hand, he signaled the court stenographer to take a hike. “You boys talk settlement?”
A practical enough question. If he could clear us out of the courtroom, he could spend the rest of the week at the track.
“Judge, we offered the policy,” I said apologetically. “A million dollars even, all we’ve got, no excess coverage. They oughta take it and spare the court all this time and effort.”
Cefalo shook his head. “Our liquidated damages alone, lost net accumulations for the estate, are over three million. To say nothing of the widow’s mental anguish and consortium claims.”
The judge laughed. “Danny, your widow lady don’t look like she’ll be without consortium for long.”
Good. I liked hearing that. Maybe the jurors will feel the same. Then we only get hit with three million, enough to wipe out the good doctor several times over.
The judge straightened. “All right, boys. Let’s cut through the bullshit. Danny, how much will you take, bottom line?”
“Two-point-five. Today. No structured settlement. All cash.”
The judge raised his eyebrows and ran a hand over his bald head. “Attaboy. I always figured you to bet the favorites to show, but you’re no ribbon clerk, hey? Jake, whadaya got?”
I turned my pockets inside out and shook my head. “A million, judge, just the policy. Client’s only been in private practice five, six years. Just finished paying off his debts. He’s pulling down big income, but no assets yet. We can’t pay it if we don’t have it. Besides, he’s simply not liable.”
“Okay, Jake, but it’s halftime, and you’re getting your ass kicked from here to Sopchoppy. You see what’s coming, don’t you?”
“Sure judge, but you haven’t heard my halftime speech.”
“Fine, we start with your first witness at one o’clock. Court’s in recess.” With that, he banged the gavel, and the hollow explosion echoed off the high, beamed ceiling. Roger Salisbury slumped onto the defense table as if felled by a rifle shot.
I headed into the corridor, nearly smashing into the lovely widow. She didn’t notice. She was toe-to-toe with another young woman. Each was jawing at the other, faces inflamed, just a few inches apart like Billy Martin and an umpire. I didn’t recognize the other woman. No makeup, short-cropped jet black hair, a turned-up nose and a deep tan, blue jeans and running shoes, maybe the last pretty woman in Miami with thick glasses. Tortoiseshell round frames, giving her a professorial look. Her language, though, was not destined to win tenure. “You’re a conniving slut and a little whore, and when I get to the bottom of this, we’ll see who’s out in the cold!”
The widow’s eyes had narrowed into slits. No tears now. Just sparks and flames. “Get away from me you ingrate, and clear your junk out of the house by six tonight or your ratty clothes will be floating in the bay.”
Dan Cefalo stepped in and separated the two. “Miss Corrigan, I think you best leave.”
Oh, Miss Corrigan. The one with the colorful vocabulary must be Philip Corrigan’s daughter by his first marriage. I followed her down the corridor.
“May I be of assistance?” I asked politely. Trying not to be your typical lawyer scavenging on the perimeter of misfortune.
She lowered the thick glasses and studied me with steaming eyes the color of a strong cup of coffee. The eyes had decided not to make any friends today. She looked me up and down, ending at my black wingtips. I could check for wounds later. Her nostrils flared as if I emitted noxious fumes.
“You’re that doctor’s lawyer, aren’t you?” She made it sound like a capital crime.
“Guilty as charged. I saw you discussing a matter with Mrs. Corrigan and I just wondered if I might help…”
“Why? Are you fucking her or do you just want to?” She slid her glasses back up the slope of the ski-jump nose and headed toward the elevators.
“No and yes,” I called after her.
My desk was covered with little white telephone messages. Office confetti. You think the universe comes to a halt when you are locked into your own little world, but it doesn’t. It goes on whether you’re in trial or at war or under the surgeon’s knife. Or dead. Dead rich like Philip Corrigan laid out on smooth satin in a mahogany box, or dead poor, a wino facedown in the bay.
Greeting me in my bay front office was the clutter of messages that would not be answered-lawyers who wouldn’t be called, clients who wouldn’t be seen, motions that wouldn’t be heard while my world was circumscribed by the four walls of Courtroom 6-1 in the Dade County Courthouse. Next to the phone messages were stacks of pleadings, letters and memos, carefully arranged in order of importance with numbers written on those little yellow squares of paper that have their own stickum on back. What did we do before those sticky doodads were invented? Or before the photocopier? Or the computer, the telecopier, and the car phone? It must have been a slower world. Before lawyers had offices fifty-two stories above Biscayne Bay with white-coated waiters serving afternoon tea, and before surgeons cleared four hundred thousand a year, easy, scraping out gristle from knees and squeezing bad discs out of spines.
Lawyers had become businessmen, leveraging their hourly rates by stacking offices with high-billing associates, forming “teams” for well-heeled clients, and raking in profits on the difference between associates’ salaries and their billing rates. Doctors had become little industries themselves, creating huge pension plans, buying buildings and leasing them back, investing in labs and million-dollar scanning machines, getting depreciation and investment income that far outpaced patient fees.
Maybe doctors were too busy following the stock market to be much good at surgery anymore. Maybe the greed of lawyers and doctors equally contributed to the malpractice crisis. But maybe an occasional slip of the scalpel or a missed melanoma just couldn’t be helped. What was it old Charlie Riggs said the first day he reviewed the charts in Salisbury’s case? Errare humanum est. To err is human. Sure, but a jury seldom forgives.
I grabbed the first message on stack one. Granny Lassiter called. I hoped she hadn’t been arrested again. Granny lived in Islamorada in the Florida Keys and taught me everything I know about fishing and most of what I know about decency and principle. She was one of the first to speak against unrestrained construction in the environmentally fragile Keys. When speaking didn’t work, she got a Key West conch named Virgil Thigpen drunk as an Everglades skunk and commandeered his tank truck. The truck, not coincidentally, had just sucked up the contents of Granny’s septic tank and that of half a dozen neighbors. Granny drove it smack into the champagne and caviar crowd at the grand opening of Pelican Point, a plug-ugly pink condo on salt-eaten concrete stilts that would soon sink into the dredged muck off Key Largo. While the bankers, lawyers, developers, and lobbyists stood gaping, and TV cameras whirred, Granny shouted, “Shit on all of you,” then sloshed twelve hundred gallons of crud onto the canape table.
The judge gave her probation plus a hundred hours of community service, which she fulfilled by donating a good-sized portion of her homemade brew to the Naval Retirement Home in Marathon.
I returned the call. Granny just wanted to pass the time of day and give me a high-tide report. Next message, the unmistakably misshapen handwriting of Cindy, my secretary:
Across the River,
A Voice to Shine,
Doc Speaks at Nine.
What the hell? A headful of tight, burnt orange-brown curls popped through my door. To my eye, Cindy’s hair seemed to clash with the fuchsia eye shadow but clearly matched her lipstick. If the lipstick were any brighter, you could use it for fluorescent highway markers.
“Cindy, what’s this?”
“Haiku, el jefe.”
“What you do?”
“I do haiku,” she said, laughing. “Haiku is three-line Japanese poetry, no breaking hearts, just recording the author’s observations of nature and the human experience.”
“What’s it mean?”
“C’mon boss. Get with it. Crazy old Charlie Riggs is set to testify at nine tomorrow morning. He’ll tell one and all what killed filthy rich Philip Corrigan.”
“Good, he’s our best witness.”
“I don’t know,” Cindy said, twirling a finger through a stiff curl. If a mosquito flew into her hair, it would be knocked cold. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this case. Your Dr. Salisbury has a weird look in his eye.”
“All men look at you that way, Cindy. Try wearing a bra.”
“I never thought you noticed.”
“Hard to miss when the air conditioning turns this place into a meat locker. Now c’mon Cindy, help me out. We have anything on Corrigan’s daughter by his first marriage?”
“Sure, a little.” Cindy was not as ditsy as she looked. She could turn heads with her hyped-up looks, bouncy walk, and easy smile, but underneath were brains and street smarts, an unusual combination.
“Susan Corrigan,” Cindy said, without consulting the file. “About thirty, undergrad work at UF, then a master’s in journalism at Northwestern. Sportswriter at the Herald.”
“You’re amazing,” I said, meaning it.
“In many splendored ways unbeknownst to you.”
I chose not to wade in those crowded waters.
“Wait a second,” I said. “Of course. Susan Corrigan. I know the by-line, the first woman inside the Dolphins’ locker room.” I picked up yesterday’s paper, which had been gathering dust in a wicker basket next to my desk. I found the story stripped across the top of the sports section under the headline, “Dolphin Hex? Injuries Vex Offensive Line.”
By Susan Corrigan
Herald Sports Writer
On a team where the quarterback is king, something wicked keeps happening to the palace guard.
And the palace tackles. And the palace center.
“ It’s scary the things that happened to our offensive line in the last three weeks,” Dolphin Coach Don Shula said yesterday.
“ When injuries hit us, they come in bunches.”
Sure, Susan Corrigan. Made a name for herself playing tennis against Martina, sprinting against Flo-Jo, then writing first-person pieces. I’d read her stuff. Tough and funny. Today I’d seen half of that.
“What’s she have to do with Salisbury’s case?” Cindy asked.
“Don’t know. But there’s more to the second Mrs. Corrigan than tears and white gloves, and Susan knows something.”
“What’s she look like, an Amazon warrior?”
“Hardly. Cute, not beautiful. Long legs, short dark hair like Dorothy Hamill, wears glasses, wholesome as the Great Outdoors. No hint of scandal.”
Cindy laughed. “Doesn’t sound like your type.”
“Did I mention foulmouthed?”
“We’re getting warmer.”
“Cindy, this is all business.”
“Isn’t it always?”
Practice was almost over and only a few players were still on the field. Natural grass warmed by the sun, a clean earthy smell in the late afternoon Florida air. It had been one of those days when it’s a crime to be shackled to an office or courtroom. Winter in the tropics. Clear sky, mid-seventies, a light breeze from the northeast. On the small college campus where the Dolphins practice, the clean air and open spaces were a world away from Miami’s guttersnipes and bottom feeders.
I spotted Susan Corrigan along the sideline. She wore gray cotton sweats and running shoes and seemed to be counting heads, seeing what linemen were still able to walk as they straggled back to the locker room. A reporter’s notepad was jammed into the back of her sweatpants and a ballpoint pen jutted like a torpedo out of her black hair. All business. On the field in front of her only the quarterbacks and wide receivers were still going through their paces, a few more passes before the sun set. On an adjacent practice field, a ballboy shagged kick after kick from a solitary punter.
“Susan,” I called from a few yards away.
She turned with an expectant smile. The sight of me washed it away. I asked if we could talk. She turned back to the field. I asked if she was waiting for somebody. She studied the yard markers. I asked who she liked in the AFC East. She didn’t give me any tips. I just stood there, looking at her profile. It wasn’t hard to take.
She turned toward me again, a studious yet annoyed look through thick glasses, as if an interesting insect had landed in her soup. “Why should I help you?”
“Because you’re not real interested in helping Melanie Corrigan. Because you know things about her that could help an innocent doctor save his career. Because you like the way I comb my hair.”
“You’re dumber than you look,” she hissed.
“Is there a compliment buried in that one?”
I can take being put down. Judges do it all the time. So do important people like a maitre d’ in a Bal Harbour restaurant who insists that diners wear socks. But this was different. I looked at her, a fresh-faced young woman in cotton sweats that could not hide her athletic yet very womanly body. I gave her a hangdog look that sought mercy. She turned back to the field. Dan Marino was firing short outs to Mark Duper and Mark Clayton. Though each pass arrived with ferocious speed, there was no slap of leather onto skin at the receiving end.
“Soft hands,” Susan Corrigan said, mostly to herself.
“These guys are good but Paul Warfield will always be my favorite,” I said. “Had moves like Baryshnikov. Stopping him was like tackling the wind.”
“Sounds like you know more about football than about your own client.”
I gave her my blank look and she kept going. “You still don’t get it. You still don’t know the truth.”
“Get what? Look, I’m defending a man accused of professional malpractice. I don’t know what the truth is. I never know. I just take the facts-or as much of them as I can get from people biased on all sides-and throw them at the jurors. You never know what jurors hear or remember or care about. You never know why they rule the way they do. They can right terrible wrongs or do terrible wrongs. They can shatter lives and destroy careers, and that’s what I’m worried about with Roger Salisbury.”
“Bring out the violins.”
Suddenly a shout from behind us: “Heads up!” I looked up in time to see a brown blur dropping from the sky. Susan Corrigan’s hands shot out and she caught the ball with her fingertips. A cheer went up from the wide receivers, anonymous behind their face masks.
“Soft hands,” I said, “and a lot of quick.” I gave her my best smile. It had been good enough for several generations of University of Miami coeds, their brains fried from working on their tans. It had lowered the minimal resistance of stewardesses from half a dozen failing airlines. It did not dent the armor of Susan Corrigan.
“Sit on this,” she said, lateraling the ball toward my gut.
I felt like popping her one. Instead I took my frustrations out on the funny-shaped ball. Fingertips across the laces, I heaved a hard, tight spiral to the punter half the field away. He took it chest high and nodded with approval. The toss surprised even me.
Susan Corrigan whistled. “You’ve played some ball.”
Her tone had subtly changed. Good, maybe if I went a few rounds with Mike Tyson, she’d give me the time of day.
“A little,” I said. I decided not to tell her my right arm just lost all its feeling except for a prickly sensation where the wires had been frayed.
“No, I decided early I’d rather be the hitter than the hittee. Linebacker with lousy lateral movement. Occasionally I’d hit people returning kickoffs if they came my way. Sometimes filled in when games were already won or lost and I’d smack fullbacks who trudged up the middle. Mostly I polished the pine, which is actually aluminum and can freeze your butt in places like South Bend and Ann Arbor in November. Gave me time to philosophize about cheerleaders’ thighs.”
“You look like you stay in shape.”
“Used to windsurf a lot. Now I just hit the heavy bag a couple times a week and never miss a Wednesday night poker game.”
“I can beat almost any man at almost any sport,” she said. She didn’t sound boastful. If you kin do it, it ain’t braggin’.
“We should play ball sometime,’’ I suggested.
She showed me the first hint of a smile. Her face didn’t break. “Are you being a smartass now?” she asked, almost pleasantly.
“No. I just want to talk to you.”
“I’ll talk if you can beat me in a race.”
“The goal line,” she said, pointing across the empty practice field. “Let’s see who can score.”
Only the punter was still on the field. He took his two-step approach and kicked the ball with a solid thwack. The same motion, time after time, a machine following the path designed for it on the drawing board. Like a surgeon clearing out the disc, the same motion, time after time. But the punter had shanked one off the side of his foot, and even Roger Salisbury could have booted one. There I go again, mind slipping out of gear.
“Yes or no?” she demanded. “I’ve got to interview Shula, and that’s no day at the beach the way the Bills dropped buffalo shit all over them last Sunday.”
“Okay,” I said, taking off my Scotch brogue wing tips. “I suppose you want a head start.” She laughed a wily laugh.
The sun was just dropping over the Everglades to the west and a pink glow spread across the sky, casting Susan Corrigan into soft focus. I stretched my hamstrings and concocted a plan. I’d run stride for stride with her without breathing hard, maybe make a crack or two, then shoot by her, and run backwards the last ten yards. I’d let her jump into my arms at the goal line if she were so inclined. Then, I’d be a gracious winner and take her out for some fresh pompano and a good white wine.
She dropped into sprinter’s stance, shouted “Go,” and flew across the field. I bolted after her, my tie flapping over my shoulder like a pennant at the big game. She was five yards ahead after the first two seconds. Her stride was effortless, her movements smooth. My eyes fixed on her firm, round bottom, now rolling rhythmically with each stride. Halfway there I was still in second place, the greyhound chasing the mechanical rabbit. So I picked it up, still three yards back with only thirty to go. So much for the plan. Chasing pride now. Longer strides, lifting the knees too high, some wasted motion, but letting the energy of each step power the next one. Two steps behind and she shot a quick glance over her shoulder. A mistake, but only ten yards to go, no way to catch her, so I lunged, grabbing at her waist, hand slipping down over a hip, tumbling her into the grass with me rolling on top and her glasses, notepad, and pen whirling this way and that.
We ended up near the goal line, her on the bottom looking up, moist warm breath tickling my nose. A lot of my body was touching a lot of her body, and she wasn’t complaining.
“First and goal from the one,” I whispered.
I looked straight into her eyes from a distance any quarterback could sneak. Was it my imagination or was the glacial ice melting? I was ready for her to get all dewy and there would be some serious sighing going on. But I had come up a yard short. She flipped me off her like a professional wrestler who doesn’t want to be pinned, one of her knees slamming into my groin as she bounced up. She stood there squinting in the dusk, looking for her glasses while I sucked in some oxygen.
“You really don’t know, do you?” she said, standing over me.
“Not only that, but I don’t know what I don’t know.” My voice was pinched.
“Then listen, because you’re only going to hear it once. Your client isn’t guilty of medical malpractice.”
“No. He’s guilty of murder. He killed my father. He planned it along with that slut who ought to get an Academy Award from what I saw in court today. I can’t prove it, but I know it’s true.”
“I don’t believe this.”
“Believe it. Your client’s a murderer. He should be fried or whatever they do these days. So pardon me if I don’t get all choked up over his career problems or insurance rates. He was planking the slut-something that doesn’t exactly put him in an exclusive club-and they planned it together. The malpractice suit is just a cover.”
“I still don’t get it.” I was starting to feel like a sap, something Susan Corrigan seemed to know the moment she met me.
“The lawsuit makes it look like the doctor and the widow are enemies. That’s their cover. And the way I figure it, Lassiter, you’re supposed to lose. Or at least it doesn’t matter. If you lose, the insurance company will pay her, and she’ll probably split the money with him. Or maybe he gets it all. She’ll get more than she needs from the estate. And if she wins more than his insurance coverage, he doesn’t have to worry because she won’t try to collect.”
I sat there with a look as intelligent as a vacant lot. “Murder and insurance fraud. You have no proof of that. And I just can’t believe it.”
“I can see that, now,” she said. “You’re not a bad guy, Lassiter. You’re just not fast enough to be a linebacker, and you don’t know shit from second base.”
Charlie Riggs took the stand with a smile on his face and a plastic model of the spine in his back pocket. I felt better just looking at him. Bushy gray moustache and beard, a brown tweedy jacket more at home in Ivy League libraries than art deco Miami, twinkling eyes full of experience. A trustworthy man. Like having Walter Cronkite on my side.
He’d testified hundreds of times for the state and was comfortable on the witness stand. He crossed his legs, revealing drooping socks and pale calves. He breathed on his eyeglasses and wiped them on his tie. He slipped the glasses onto his small nose that was almost buried by his beard. Then Charlie Riggs nodded. He was ready.
“Please state your name and profession for the jury,” I instructed him.
“Charles W. Riggs, M.D., pathologist by training, medical examiner of Dade County for twenty-eight years, now happily retired.”
“Tell us, Dr. Riggs, what are the duties of a medical examiner.”
“Objection!” Dan Cefalo was on his feet. “Dr. Riggs is retired. He is incompetent to testify as to the current medical examiner’s duties.”
In the realm of petty objections, that one ranked pretty high, but it was the first one of the day, and you could flip a coin on it.
“Sustained,” Judge Leonard said, unfolding the sports section, looking for the racetrack charts.
I had another idea. “Let’s start this way, Dr. Riggs. What is a medical examiner?”
“Well, in merry old England, they were called coroners. You can trace coroners back to at least the year 1194. They were part of the justice system, part judge, part tax collector. The coroner was the custos placitorum coronae, the guardian of the pleas of the Crown. If a man was convicted of a crime, the coroner saw to it that his goods were forfeited to the Crown.”
Cefalo looked bored, the judge was not listening as usual, but the jurors seemed fascinated by the bearded old doctor. It works that way. What’s mundane to lawyers and judges enchants jurors.
“Later the coroner’s duties included determining the cause of death with the help of an inquest. The sheriff would empanel a jury, much as you have here.” He smiled toward the jury box, and in unison, six faces smiled back. They liked him. That was half the battle.
“The jury had to determine whether death was ex visitatione divina, by the visitation of God, or whether man had a hand in it. Even if death was accidental, there was still a sort of criminal penalty. For example, if a cart ran over someone and killed him, the owner had to pay the Crown the equivalent value of the cart. That got to be quite a problem when steamships and trains began doing the killing.”
The jurors nodded, flattered that this wise old man would take the time to give them a history lesson. “Still later, coroners began recording how many deaths were caused by particular diseases. Sometimes I spend my evenings with a glass of brandy and a collection of the Coroner’s Rolls from the 1200s. You’d be surprised how much we can learn. At any rate, Counselor, the job of the coroner, or medical examiner, is to determine cause of death. Our credo is ‘to speak for the dead, to protect the living.’”
“And how does a coroner determine cause of death?” I asked.
Charlie Riggs pushed his glasses back up his nose with a chubby thumb. “By physical and medical examination, various testing devices, gas chromatography, electron microscopes, the study of toxicology, pharmacology, radiology, pathology. Much is learned in the autopsy, of course.”
“May we assume you have determined the cause of death in a number of cases?”
“Thousands. For over twenty years, I performed five hundred or more autopsies a year and supervised many more.”
“Can you tell us about some of your methods, some of your memorable cases?”
A hand smacked the plaintiff’s table and Dan Cefalo was on his feet, one pantleg sticking into the top of his right sock, the other pantleg dragging below the heel of the left shoe where the threads had unraveled from the cuff. “Objection,” he said wearily. “This retired gentleman’s life story is irrelevant here.”
Taking a shot at Riggs’s age. I hoped the two older jurors were listening. “Your Honor, I’m entitled to qualify Dr. Riggs as an expert.”
Cefalo was ready for that. He didn’t want to hear any more than he had to from Charlie Riggs. “We’ll stipulate that Dr. Riggs was the medical examiner for a long time, that he’s done plenty of autopsies, and that he’s qualified to express an opinion on cause of death.”
That should have been enough, but I still wanted Riggs to tell his stories. When you have a great witness, keep him up there. Let the jury absorb his presence.
“Objection overruled,” Judge Leonard said. Good, my turn to win one.
“Dr. Riggs, you were about to tell us of your cases and methods of medical examination of the cause of death.”
So Charlie Riggs unfolded his memories. There was the aging playboy who lived at Turnberry Isle, found dead of a single bullet wound to the forehead. Or so it seemed. The autopsy showed no bullet in the skull, no exit wound, just a round hole right between the eyes, as if from a small caliber shell.
“The police were stumped for a murder weapon,” Charlie Riggs said. “Sometimes it’s best to consider everyday items. I searched the grounds and, in a dumpster near the marina, I found a woman’s red shoe with blood on the metal spiked heel. The blood type matched the playboy’s, the heel matched the wound, and the owner of a French shoe shop at Mayfair identified the woman who bought the six- hundred-dollar shoes two weeks earlier. The woman confessed to doing him in. A lover’s spat, she didn’t want to kill him, just brain him.”
Then there was the mystery of the burned woman. She was sitting there, fully clothed, on her sofa, burned to death. Her clothes were not even singed. There was no smoke or evidence of fire in the apartment. The woman’s boyfriend had found the body. He said she came home drunk, took a shower, and next thing he knew, she was sitting on the sofa dead.
“I took a pair of tweezers and probed the bathtub drain,” Charlie Riggs told the jury. He paused. Several jurors exhaled in unison.
“It was just a hunch. Up came pieces of skin, and I knew the answer.”
Charlie Riggs smiled a knowing smile and stroked his beard, everybody’s favorite professor.
“Both had come home drunk, and she passed out. The boyfriend tried to revive her in the bathtub, but sailing three sheets to the wind, he turned on the hot water and left her there. The scalding water burned her to death. When the boyfriend sobered up, he panicked, so he dried her off, dressed her, put her on the sofa, and called the police.”
The jury sat entranced. There’s nothing like tales of death, well told. Riggs testified about matching tire treads to the marks on a hit-and-run victim’s back, of fitting a defendant’s teeth to bite marks on a rape-murder victim, of finding teeth in a drain under a house, the only proof of the corpus delicti, the body of a man dissolved in sulfuric acid by his roommate.
The litany of crime had its purpose, to shock the jury with deeds of true miscreants, to deliver a subtle message that the justice system should prosecute murderers, not decent surgeons, even if they might make mistakes. Errare humanum est. If that’s what it was, an honest error.
I hadn’t told Charlie Riggs about the conversation with Susan Corrigan. What would I tell him, that a dead man’s daughter, poisoned with grief and hate, thinks my client is a murderer? She had no physical evidence, no proof, no nothing, except the allegation that Roger Salisbury and Melanie Corrigan were getting it on. I would talk to Salisbury about it, but not now.
While Charlie Riggs testified, I watched Roger. He kept shooting sideways glances at Melanie Corrigan’s perfect profile. She watched the witness, oblivious to the attention. She was wearing a simple cotton dress that, to me, looked about two sizes too large, but I supposed was in style. A wide belt gathered it at the waist and it ended demurely below the knee. It was one of those deceiving things women wear, so simple it disguises the name of an Italian designer and a megabucks price tag.
I tried to read the look in Roger Salisbury’s eyes but could not. Was there a chance that it was true? Not just that he might have been diddling his patient’s wife. I didn’t care about that. But that he might have killed Corrigan. That it was all a plot, that the malpractice trial was just a cover, or better yet, a way to pick up another million. If that’s what it was, there’d be plenty of chances for Salisbury to tank it. He was scheduled to testify after Riggs.
I continued my direct examination: “Now Dr. Riggs, have you had an opportunity to examine the medical records compiled by the physicians and the hospital?”
“And based on the records, and your years of experience, do you have an opinion to a reasonable degree of medical probability what caused the death of Philip Corrigan?”
The courtroom was silent except for the omnipresent hum of the air conditioning. Everyone knew the next question.
“And what was the cause of death?”
“A ruptured aorta. Internal bleeding, which in turn caused a lowering of blood pressure. In layman’s terms, the heart, which is the pump in a closed circulatory system, didn’t have enough fluid to pump, so it stopped.”
“And what, sir, caused the aorta to rupture?”
“There is no way to answer that with absolute certainty. We can only exclude certain things.”
“Such as?” Keep the questions short, let the doctor carry the ball.
“Well, Dr. Salisbury here certainly didn’t do it with the rongeur. If he had, the rupture would be on the posterior side of the aorta. But as reported by the surgeon who tried the emergency repair of the aorta, the rupture is on the anterior side, the front. Naturally a surgeon making an incision in a man’s back, working around the spine, is not going to puncture the front of the aorta, the part that faces the abdomen.”
Dan Cefalo turned ashen. There aren’t many surprises in trials anymore. Pretrial discovery eliminates most of that. But Charlie Riggs gave his deposition before studying the report of the second surgery, the chaotic attempt to close the bursting aorta a dozen hours after the laminectomy. When he read the report, bells went off. Nobody else had paid any attention to where the rupture was, only that it existed.
For the next fifteen minutes, it went on like that, Charles W. Riggs, M.D., witness emeritus, showing the jury his plastic model of the spine with the blood vessels attached like strings of licorice. The report of the thoracic surgeon who tried unsuccessfully to save Conigan’s life came into evidence, and the jurors kept looking at Dr. Riggs and nodding.
It was time to slam the door. “If Dr. Salisbury did not puncture the aorta with the rongeur, could not have, as you have testified, what might have caused it to rupture?”
“We call it spontaneous aortic aneurysm. Of course, that’s the effect, not the cause. The causes are many. Various illnesses or severe trauma to the abdomen can cause the aorta to burst. Arteriosclerosis can weaken the aorta and make it susceptible to aneurysm. So can high blood pressure. It could be a breakdown that medicine simply can’t explain, as they said in the Middle Ages, ex visitatione divina.”
I smiled at Dr. Riggs. He smiled back at me. The jury smiled at both of us. One big happy family.
I was nearly through but had one more little surprise for Dan Cefalo. A nail in the coffin. I handed Riggs Plaintiff’s Exhibit Three, a composite of Philip Corrigan’s medical history. “Dr. Riggs, did Philip Corrigan have any prior medical abnormalities?”
Charlie Riggs scanned the document but already knew the answer from our preparation sessions. “Yes, he was previously diagnosed by a cardiologist as having some degree of arteriosclerosis.”
“And the effect of such a disease?”
“Weakening of the arteries, susceptibility to aneurysm. Men in their fifties or beyond commonly show signs of arterial disease. Blame the typical American diet of saturated fats, too much beef and butter. In that condition, Mr. Corrigan could have had an artery blow out at any time.”
“At any time,” I repeated, just in case they missed it.
“Yes, without a trauma, just watching TV, eating dinner, any time.”
“Thank you, Doctor.” I nodded toward the witness stand in deference to the wisdom that had filled the courtroom. Then I turned toward Dan Cefalo, and with the placid assurance of a man who has seen the future and owns a fine chunk of it, I gently advised him, “Your witness, Counselor.”
Cefalo stood up and his suitcoat fell open, revealing a dark stain of red ink under his shirt pocket, the trail of an uncapped marking pen. Or a self-inflicted wound.
His cross-examination fell flat. He scored a meaningless point getting Riggs to admit that he was not an orthopedic surgeon and had never performed a laminectomy. “But I’ve done thousands of autopsies, and that’s how you determine cause of death,” Riggs quickly added.
“You testified that trauma could cause the rupture, did you not?” Cefalo asked.
“Yes, I can’t tell you how many drivers I saw in the morgue in the days before seat belts. In a collision, the steering wheel can hit the chest and abdomen with such force as to rupture the aorta. That, of course, is trauma from the front.”
“But a misguided rongeur could produce the kind of trauma to rupture the aorta?”
Hit me again, Cefalo seemed to plead.
“It could, but not in the front of the blood vessel when the surgeon is coming in from the back,” Riggs said.
Cefalo wouldn’t call it quits. “The thoracic surgeon was working under conditions of extreme emergency trying to do the repair, was he not?”
“I assume so,” Riggs said.
“And in such conditions, he could have made a mistake as to the location of the rupture, could he not?”
Riggs smiled a gentle, fatherly smile. “Every piece of evidence ever adduced in a courtroom could be the product of a mistake. Your witnesses could all be wrong. Mr. Lassiter’s witnesses could all be wrong. But it’s all we’ve got, and there’s nothing to indicate the rupture was anywhere but where the chest buster-excuse me, the thoracic surgeon-said, the anterior of die aorta.”
Fine. Outstanding. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Cefalo sat down without laying a glove on him. It was after one o’clock and we had not yet recessed for lunch. Judge Leonard was fidgeting.
“Noting the lateness of the hour, perhaps this is an opportune time to adjourn for the day,” the judge said. Translation: There’s a stakes race at Hialeah and I’ve got a tip from a jockey who hasn’t paid alimony since his divorce fell into my division last year. “Hearing no objection, court stands adjourned until nine-thirty tomorrow morning.”
Roger Salisbury was beaming. He didn’t look like a man who wanted to lose. It had been a fine morning of lawyering, and I was feeling pretty full of myself. In the back of the courtroom I caught a glimpse of Susan Corrigan wearing a Super Bowl XVI nylon jacket over a T-shirt. She eyed me as if I’d just spit in church.
I told Roger Salisbury I’d treat him to stone crabs, home fries, and cold beer for lunch. Time for a mini-celebration, lime, too, for some questions I needed to ask.
We walked from the dim light and dank air of the old courtroom into the sunshine of December in Miami. A glorious day: Not even the buzzards endlessly circling the wedding cake tiers of the courthouse could darken my mood. Souls of lawyers doing penance, a Cuban spiritualist told me. The huge black birds were as much a part of wintertime Miami as sunburned tourists, drug deals, and crooked cops. The buzzards congregated around the courthouse and on the upper ledges of the Southeast Financial Center, where for fifty dollars a square foot, the lawyers, accountants, and bankers expected a better view than birdshit two feet deep. Building management installed sonar devices that supposedly made unfriendly bird sounds. Instead of being frightened, the buzzards were turned on; they tried mating with the sonar boxes.
The doctor gave me a second look when he got into my canary yellow Olds 442 convertible, vintage 1968. At home was my old Jeep, but it was rusted out from windsurfing gear, and my clients deserve the best. Having already passed through my respectable sedan phase when I temporarily decided to grow up, I had regressed to a simpler time of big engines and Beach Boys’ songs.
We drove to a seafood restaurant in a new shopping arcade that the developer spent a bundle making look like an Italian villa, circa the Renaissance. It’s full of boutiques instead of stores, places with two names that always start with Le, and women who’ll spend a fortune for clothes so they’ll look good shopping for more clothes. Notwithstanding the glitz of the surroundings, there’s a decent fish house tucked away in back.
“The tide turned today, didn’t it?” Salisbury asked.
“Right. We pulled even, which means we’re actually ahead. The plaintiff has the burden of proof. Riggs negated Watkins’s testimony about the rongeur. Back to square one. They’ll have to call Watkins again on rebuttal and attack Riggs. They’re stuck. They can’t bring in a new expert now. Our strategy is to lay low. We don’t want to get fancy, just hold our position.”
“What about my testimony?”
“You’ll do fine. What you say isn’t as important as how you look, how the jury perceives you. If you’re a nice guy and it’s a close battle of the experts, they’ll cut you a break. If you’re arrogant and a prick, they’ll cut off your nuts and hand them to the widow.”
He thought that over and I looked around for some service. We’d been there ten minutes before the waiter shuffled over to take our order. The kid needed a shave and was missing one earring, or is that the way they wear them?
“Whatcha want?” he asked, displaying the personality of a mollusk and half the energy. Service in restaurants now rivals that at gas stations for indifference and sloth.
I ordered for both of us. “Two portions of jumbo stoners, two Caesar salads, and two beers.” Best to keep it simple.
“Kinda beers?” the waiter said. I figured him for a speech communications major at the UM.
“Grolsch. Sixteen-ouncers if you have them.”
“Dunno. Got Bud, Miller, Coors Light, maybe.”
“Any beer’s okay with me,” Salisbury said. Not hard to please. A lot of doctors are that way. They get used to hospital cafeteria food and pretty soon everything tastes alike. Not me. I’ll start drinking American beer when it gets as good as its TV commercials.
The waiter shrugged and disappeared, probably to replenish his chemical stimulants. I was about to extol the glories of the Dutch brewmasters when Roger Salisbury asked, “Do you think I killed him, committed malpractice I mean?”
He wanted me to respect him. With most clients, winning is enough.
“Hey Roger, I checked around town. The med school has nice things to say about you. You’ve never been sued before, which in this town is an upset. Don’t let my general cynicism get you down.”
“Just so you believe me.”
He had thrown me off stride. I wanted to ask questions, not answer them. “Roger, you know how important it is to tell your lawyer everything?”
“Sure thing. Soul mates.”
“Right. Before you testify tomorrow, is there anything you want to tell me? Anything you left out?”
He cradled his chin in his hand. Something flickered behind his eyes but he blinked it away. “No, don’t think so. I told you all about the surgery. No signs of an aneurysm, no drop in blood pressure. I didn’t slip with the rongeur. I didn’t do it.”
“I know. Besides that. Anything personal with you and the Corrigans?”
Oh shit. He wasn’t going to help me out. Sometimes the best way to get through the chop is to trim the sail tight and just go. “Like were you screwing Melanie Corrigan?” At the next table, a couple of spiffed-up fiftyish women with fancy shopping bags exchanged disapproving whispers.
“At what point in time?” Roger asked.
My client, and he talks like Richard Nixon.
“Hey Roger, this is your lawyer here, not a grand jury.” The waiter skulked by, his thumbs buried deep in the Caesar salad bowls. He wiped one hand on his apron, sucked some salad dressing off a thumb and brought us the beer, an anonymous American brand, devoid of calories, color, and taste. At least it was cold.
Roger took a small sip, a thinking-time sip, and said, “We were involved, sure.”
“So why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because it has nothing to do with the case.”
My voice cranked up a few decibels. “How about letting me decide that? If it comes out, Cefalo would claim you had a motive for being a little careless, or worse, having criminal intent.”
“I thought of that,” he said casually, “but Melanie could never use that. It would hurt her case, wouldn’t it, the unfaithful wife trying to profit from her husband’s death.”
“That’s not the way it would play. You’d be the smooth seducer, or a madman obsessed with her, chopping up the husband so she’d be all yours.”
Salisbury’s fork stopped in mid-air. A look of concern crossed his face, but when he caught me studying him, he chased it away with a laugh. “A madman maybe,” he said, smiling, “but when it comes to seduction, she’s in a league by herself. Besides, I knew her before Corrigan did, and well… there’s stuff you lawyers would call extenuating circumstances.”
“I’m not sure it’s any of your business.”
I drained my homogenized beer and tried to signal the brain-dead waiter to bring another. He looked right through me.
“Right now, my business is you, everything about you and the Corrigans,” I said, waiting for him to fill me in.
The stone crabs arrived. Fresh, no black mottled spots, the meat tearing cleanly out of the shell, the mustard sauce tangy. I yelled for the second beer, and the waiter brought iced tea. It tasted like the beer.
I dug into the crabs two at a time, but Salisbury must have lost his appetite. He fidgeted in his chair and his eyes darted from side to side. Finally, he looked me straight on, took a breath and let it go. “Okay, here it is. I met Melanie eight or nine years ago. I was just finishing my residency, hadn’t spent much time with women. You know how it is, premed in college, you bust your balls, then med school, internship, residency. Never any money or time. She was just a kid, mixed up, kind of an exotic dancer, but just for a while.”
“Yeah, after that she probably was Deb of the Year.”
“She wasn’t bad or anything. Called herself Autumn Rain. Just used her body to make a buck. So I sort of fell for her. I started my practice, bought her a car, gave her things. It didn’t last long. I found out other guys were doing the same. One guy paid for her apartment, another guy her clothes, another her trips.”
“Sold shares in herself like IBM.”
“Some guys can handle that. I couldn’t. So I took off.” He looked away. This wasn’t a story he broadcast around town.
“Roger, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s an old story. You meet a pretty young thing who can suck a golf ball through a garden hose. You overlook the fact that she’s collected enough hoses to water Joe Robbie Stadium. You’d be shocked how many guys fall for young hookers. Want to change them. Old male fantasy. Some guys lose their marriages over it. Not many doctors, though. Most are too scientific to get involved.”
“She wasn’t a hooker,” he said indignantly and louder than necessary.
Now the two women were doing their best not to show that our conversation was more interesting than their own. I smiled in their direction. One recoiled as if I had exposed myself.
Roger Salisbury poked the ice in his tea. “Anyway, I hadn’t seen her for probably five years when Philip Corrigan asked me over for dinner. He was seeing me for a cartilage problem in the knee. I scoped it. Then the disc started flaring up. We became friends. I had no idea he was married to Autumn… Melanie.”
“So you started slipping out of the hospital a little early. Sneaking in nooners while old man Corrigan was littering the Keys with ugly condos on stilts.”
He laughed a short, bitter laugh. “Hardly.”
Then he clammed up again. I gave him a c’mon Roger look.
Finally he spoke in a whisper. “This is where it gets a little sticky.”
They didn’t have to sneak around, he told me over the watery tea.
Why not? I asked.
Philip wanted to watch, Roger said. Sometimes to take part, sometimes to videotape. On their boat, a custom Hatteras furnished like a Bal Harbour penthouse, in their mansion on a giant waterbed, in their swimming pool.
So Philip Corrigan was a peeper and an old letch. Probably got to an age where the money bored him, and his engine wouldn’t start without some kinky provocation.
“Then, after doing a few lines of coke, we’d mix it up, menage a trois,” Roger said. He paused and gave me a sheepish look.
If the two women at the next table craned their necks any farther our way, they’d need a chiropractor.
Are you disappointed in me? he asked.
I don’t make moral judgments about clients, I told him, because it interferes with my ability to give good advice.
Just the same I tallied a moral scorecard on the yellow pad of my mind. We all do that. We try to live and let live, but underneath it, we’re left with a smug sense of superiority about ourselves and vague disgust for others who don’t measure up. Roger Salisbury didn’t measure up. He was doing drugs and a group grope like some kind of sleaze. But he was my sleaze, my client, and his bedroom-or swimming pool-activities didn’t make him an incompetent doctor, much less a murderer.
After his mea culpa, I thought his morale could use a boost.
“Here’s how I see it,” I told him. “You got stuck in a little game with a tramp who slithered her way to Gables Estates and a guy who couldn’t get his rocks off in the missionary position. That doesn’t put you in a class with Charles Manson, but if it ever came out in court or the newspapers, that’s all anybody would know about you. You might be donating half your time to charity cases and feeding homeless cats, but the world would know you only as a sex-crazed doctor who aced his girlfriend’s husband. Makes good reading. Now do you see why I have to know about this? If I make an uninformed decision at some point, it could hurt you. Badly. Understand?”
“Is that all there is to it?”
“I guess so. Except that I’m still sort of under her spell.”
“In all these years,” he said, “nobody’s been able to turn me on like her. She knows things, does things. She’s totally uninhibited and free with herself. She’s a pleasure giver. Do you know how hard it is for me to give that up?”
Dr. Ruth, I’m not, but I took a stab at it anyway. “Roger, it sounds to me like Melanie Corrigan is a taker, not a giver, and you better stay the hell out of her hot tub.”
“There is a certain side to her, a kind of danger,” he said. “Maybe that’s part of the appeal, I don’t know.” He just let it hang there, his mind working something over, not letting me in on it.
“Okay then, I’ve got it all, right? You played hide the weenie with the missus while the old man watched, videotaped, and once in a while jumped on the pile.”
“That’s it.” He paused, looked side to side and added, “There is one more thing.”
“There always is.”
“She asked me to kill her husband,” he said.
Live at Five
Look at those legs.
Look at those goddamn floor-to-ceiling million-dollar legs, Michelle thought, then unconsciously sneaked a peek at her own. Short. Stubby little shapeless legs. God, how she hated them.
Shit, now they’re on a two-shot. Look at the monitor. Next to her I look like a double amputee.
Then there was her hair. Thick, auburn hair brushed straight back. And her skin, that patrician paleness so out of place in Miami. Just a subdued line of gloss on full lips… She probably gets dressed and made up in ten minutes.
If Michelle didn’t spend half an hour covering her freckles with pancake, Max Factor Number Two, they’d ship her back to Scranton to handle neighborhood weather from Nanticoke. The legs, nothing you could do about those. But thank God for plastic surgeons and periodontists. A rhinoplasty-the Sandy Duncan model, pert but not prominent-and capped teeth called “Hollywoods.” Thanks to lawyers, too. Two hundred bucks to change Mabel Dombrowsky to Michelle Diamond.
“So, Dr. Metcalf, your book suggests that serial murderers share certain characteristics,” Michelle said.
“Well, we can place them into distinct categories,” Pamela Metcalf replied. “There are the organized murderers, who are above average in intelligence and are socially and sexually competent. They are usually the eldest sons in the family. Ordinarily they know their victims and plan the crime. The crime scene is neat and orderly-”
“Well, neatness counts,” Michelle Diamond chirped. Inside the control booth, the director groaned.
“The disorganized murderer is quite the opposite,” Dr. Metcalf explained, ignoring the interviewer and smiling politely at the camera. “Below average in intelligence, socially inadequate, sexually incompetent. Usually the last or next to last born. His crimes are more spontaneous. The victims are usually strangers, and rather than using conversation, he subdues with sudden outbursts of violence. Often he will perform sexual acts after the death of the victim…”
Oh shit, how do you follow that one up?
“In either case,” Dr. Metcalf said, “the killers have highly active fantasy lives. The fantasies often are of rape, torture, and murder. When they can no longer differentiate fantasy from reality, the two become one.”
And that upper-crust voice. Like Masterpiece Theatre.
Michelle cleared her throat, and the sound man cursed, his earpiece clacking like an enraged rattlesnake. “We seem to have more mass murderers in our country-”
“Serial murderers,” Pamela Metcalf corrected her. “Mass murderers kill many persons at the same time. Serial murderers kill many over time, usually at random.”
Michelle felt her face heat up. “Yes, of course. Is there something uniquely American about these serial killers? Something about our violent society?”
“Goodness no. In Britain we had Jack the Ripper, Germany its Peter Kurten. During the time of Joan of Arc France had the infamous Gilles de Rais, who killed hundreds. There have been serial killers throughout history.”
Damn. Like being lectured by Jane Seymour with a medical degree. Michelle racked her brain for news stories. “Yes, but here we’ve had Ted Bundy, the Hillside Strangler, the Night Stalker"- Michelle strained to keep up the patter- “the Son of Stan…”
“Son of Sam,” Dr. Metcalf helped out. “No doubt America has had its share. My primary interest is in understanding the reasons for these motiveless murders. We know that serial killers frequently cannot separate sex from aggression. We don’t know whether this psychological deficit is caused by genetic, chemical, or hormonal reasons.”
Thank God the director cut to a close-up of the British bitch.
Michelle caught a cue from the floor manager. “We’ll be back with Dr. Pamela Metcalf, author of The Murderer Within Us, right after this…”
The news director’s door was open, so Michelle walked in. Jerry Abrams was devouring a bacon cheeseburger. Late thirties, bushy mustache, disheveled, overweight. He chewed noisily, occasionally burping as he kept his eyes on one of three TV screens in his glass-enclosed cubicle.
“Hey, Michelle, get a load-”
“Okay, Meeee-chelle, get a load of this turkey.”
On the screen a crew-cut blond man with a string tie was reciting baseball scores. The sound was turned low. Jerry Abrams always reviewed audition tapes this way. Watch the way they look, nobody listens anyway, he explained.
“Wanna play?” Jerry Abrams asked.
“I dunno, Jerry.”
He shook his head.
Jerry fished a french fry out of a paper sack. The office smelled of grease and charred meat. “The Wyatt Earp tie’s throwing you off. Smaller market, farther north.”
“North Platte, Nebraska,” she said.
“Good guess. Quad Cities, Iowa. Hayseed wants to come to Gomorrah-by-the-Sea.”
He punched a button on the remote control and grabbed another cassette. More than a hundred were stacked around his desk.
“Jerry, I’d like you to relieve me on the five o’clock. Just for a couple weeks.”
“What? During sweeps? Jesus, no!”
“But I’m working on an investigative piece…”
He stopped in mid-bite. A glob of ketchup clung to his mustache. “What investigative piece? Who assigned you?”
“No one. I’ve been working on my own. A blockbuster I can’t tell you about, yet. I’ve got a confidential source.”
Jerry loosened his tie, which was already at half-mast. He plugged another cassette into the VCR. After the color bars and the countdown, a petite Oriental woman appeared in front of a burning building. She held a microphone and showed a dazzling smile likely used for stories of quintuplet births and plane crashes alike. Michelle noticed that her orange helmet clashed with her green flak jacket. She wondered if the teeth were real.
“Meee-chelle, baby,” Jerry said, “you’re not Bob Friggin’ Woodward. You’re a face, a very good face, and your numbers are catching up with Gilligans Island reruns on Channel Four.”
She tried to give him a tough look she learned from numerous Jane Fonda films. It had the effect of crinkling her collagen-injected lips.
“Now, don’t pout at me,” Jerry said. “Hey, that was a great interview today. What’s a looker like that doing with mass murderers:
“Whatever,” Jerry Abrams said.
The bedroom’s jalousie windows were cranked open, and Michelle could hear nighttime traffic on Ocean Drive. The trendy club and barhopping crowd. Michelle smiled, relieved to be free of the feigned happiness of the South Beach full-time floating-disco-party team, junior varsity, second string. What with chlamydia, herpes, and gonorrhea creeping around, not to mention AIDS. Hadn’t they just done a show on the misery of venereal warts, images of rashes and itches giving her the willies right on the set.
Having one man-even a part-time married man-was better than a bunch of sweaty one-night stands. Even though her man was, more often than not, a thirty-minute slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am stand. Which is why she didn’t consider it cheating to spend an occasional night with a carefully chosen lover in a more leisurely mode.
Michelle stretched a hand across the sheets and touched a warm thigh. She heard the regular, measured breaths of peaceful sleep and smiled again. It had been wonderful for them both, better than she had dared hope for something so new, a warmth that had grown slowly, gently caressing her, building into a flame that had nearly consumed her. Better than with…
There was a stirring next to her and she watched her lover turn to one side. Great body, too. Silently, Michelle climbed out of bed. She had tossed her blue silk dress, specially chosen by her fashion consultant, across a chair. Her matching spike-heeled shoes, her panty hose, and discarded uplift bra formed a trail from living room to bedroom. Naked, Michelle entered the bathroom and closed the door. She removed the tinted contact lenses and scrubbed three layers of makeup from her face. There hadn’t been time before, it had happened so fast. She slipped into a black silk camisole, headed for the tiny kitchen, and grabbed a low-fat vanilla yogurt from the refrigerator. Then she sat down at a desk in a corner of the living room and turned on her computer.
Michelle punched up the directory labeled “INVST-1" and started typing:
When your platoon entered the village of Dak Sut on January 9, 1968, what orders did you give?
“No,” she said to herself. “Too direct.” Christ, this wasn’t like interviewing celebrity authors. She tried to imagine how Geraldo Rivera would do it.
For the next hour she kept typing and retyping questions.
Was there evidence of NVA or VC in the village?
He’s going to say yes. Then what? How do you follow up? This is harder than it looks.
The last time you saw Lieutenant Ferguson alive, was he-
Forget it. She could try again tomorrow. She punched a button and magically transported the questions to her computer’s hard memory. She exited the word-processing program, then hit the keys for the modem, which automatically dialed a local number. After a few seconds the computer tinkled a romantic ballad and the medical symbols for the male and female of the species appeared on the screen, the male’s arrow piercing the female’s circle. The symbols changed shape, becoming the figures of a nude man and woman, until they, too, electronically unwound and formed letters and then a word. “Compu-Mate.”
› DO YOU WISH TO ENTER THE MATING ROOM?
› YOUR HANDLE, PLEASE.
› TV GAL.
She had been meaning to change her handle after several Compu-Mate correspondents asked whether she enjoyed cross dressing. She typed a numerical password, and after a moment the computer purred, and a new message scrolled down the monitor.
› HERE’S WHO’S IN THE MATING ROOM NOW:
A sound came from the bedroom. A sliver of light appeared under the door. Michelle punched into the chat mode and made some connections. Oral Robert told her he’d save her ass and to hell with her soul. Bush Whacker tried to type dirty but couldn’t spell any word over four letters. Biggus Dickus, a nearly normal guy she remembered from last week, asked about her work. Bor-ing! She brushed them off.
› HELLO, TV GAL. LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION-PASSION PRINCE.
A little jolt went through her, as it always did. A new name, a voice in the dark. Maybe this time. She heard the bathroom shower turning on. It wouldn’t be an all-nighter after all.
› HELLO, PASSION PRINCE. WHAT ARE YOU UP TO
› NO GOOD.
Just dancing around and she didn’t have all night.
› TELL ME ABOUT YOURSELF, PP
› EIGHT FEET TALL, GREEN SCALY SKIN, A LONG SNOUT, AND LARGE TEETH …
Christ, a comedian. Why not just a sincere, single, self-sup porting male, thirty-five, gainfully employed, likes dining out, movies, and romantic walks on the beach?
›… AND YOU, TV PERSON?
Might as well give him a cheap thrill.
› FIVE-NINE WITH LONG, LONG LEGS. LARGE ROUND BREASTS, A FLAT, SMOOTH STOMACH, AND FULL HIPS.
She stared at the screen. Nothing. Maybe scared him off. She waited. Outside, an ocean breeze rattled the windows.
› WHAT ABOUT YOUR ASSHOLE?
Oh brother. One of those.
› IS IT NICE AND TIGHT?
She started to hit the escape button but stopped. In the bathroom, the water was turned off, the pipes clanking in the old apartment. The prince of passion was still typing.
› DO YOU LIKE POETRY?
› NOTHING DIRTY, PASSION GUY.
› WHEREOF MY FAME IS LOUD AMONGST MANKIND, CURED LAMENESS, PALSIES, CANCERS. THOU, O GOD, KNOWEST ALONE WHETHER THIS WAS OR NO. HAVE MERCY, MERCY! COVERALL MY SIN!
› THATS POETRY? SOUNDS LIKE FATHER McCORKLE IN WILKES BARRE.
She hoped that would stop him, but the electronic blips kept coming, the words marching across her screen.
› THEN, THAT I MIGHT BE MORE ALONE WITH THEE, THREE YEARS I LIVED UPON A PILLAR, HIGH.
› I BEEN STONED, TOO, BUT THREE YEARS? THATS HEAVY.
› NO, NO TV-GAL. DO YOU KNOW NOTHING OF THE STYLITES?
Jeez, I don’t know what’s worse, Michelle thought, a pervert or a bore. She looked toward the bedroom. The door was open, the light off.
› A MO-TOWN GROUP, RIGHT?
› AH, PERHAPS MUSIC IS MORE TO YOUR TASTE.
Ought to sign off now, Michelle thought, play hostess, offer a good-bye drink and exchange lies about next time. So quiet, the only sound the hum of the computer, the only light the luminous black-and-white display of the monitor. Now what was he typing? Rock ’n’ roll lyrics. What’s with this guy? Can’t he think for himself? Trying to tell me I shake his nerves and rattle his brain. He was rattled long before tonight. And don’t tell me what drives a man insane. But there he goes, hammering out the whole damn song. And he probably can’t even carry a tune. She heard footsteps behind her.
› OK, OK, PRINCE… I BROKE YOUR WILL AND GAVE YOU A SUPER-DUPER THRILL, BUT I REALLY GOT TO GO NOW.
A shadow crossed the screen, then stopped.
She didn’t turn.
She expected a caress, a lover’s hug.
“Hello, darling,” Michelle said.
There was no reply.
She hit the escape button, punching out of the program, and stared into the black background of the screen. The outline of shoulders…
Two hands grabbed Michelle’s neck from behind and yanked her out of the chair. For a moment she thought it was a joke. But it wasn’t funny, and rough sex after tender loving didn’t make sense. She thought of a man who wanted her to choke him just before he came. Oxygen deprivation to enhance the orgasm.
Weird. Now this.
The hands slipped from her neck, then closed again. Michelle clawed at the hands as they pressed harder. She kicked backward and tried to scream, but nothing came out. She gasped for air, fought off the nausea, and sucked in a breath as the hands relaxed again. But she was losing consciousness and her strength was gone.
She barely felt the hands this time, and her last memory would be a tiny sound, a sickening crack like a wishbone snapped in two.
The hands continued to squeeze for a full minute, then dropped her back into the chair. A moment later, they grabbed Mabel Dombrowsky by the hair and roughly jammed her head forward into the monitor, shattering the screen, shards of glass piercing her eyes. From inside the broken screen, an electronic pop and fizzle and a puff of flame.
“Great balls of fire!” sang a voice she never heard.
A Matter of Honor
If Marvin the Maven tells me not to yell in closing argument, I don’t yell. Marvin knows. He’s never tried a case, but he’s seen more trials than most lawyers. Drifting from courtroom to courtroom in search of the best action, he glimpses eight or nine cases a day. Five days a week for the last seventeen years since he closed up his shoe store in Brooklyn and headed south.
Some lawyers don’t listen to Marvin and his friends-Saul the Tailor and Max (Just Plain) Seltzer-and they pay the price. Me, I listen. The courthouse regulars can’t read the fine print on the early-bird menus, but they can spot perjury from the third row of the gallery.
Marvin, Saul, and Max already told me I botched jury selection. Not that lawyers pick jurors anyway. We exclude those we fear, at least until we run out of challenges.
“You’re meshuga, you leave number four on,” Marvin told me on the first day of trial.
“He’s a hardworking butcher,” I said defensively. “Knows the value of a dollar. Won’t give the store away.”
Marvin ran a liver-spotted hand over his toupee, fingering the part. “Lookit his eyes, boychik. Like pissholes in the snow. Plus, I betcha he lays his fat belly on the scale with the lamb chops. I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could spit.”
I told myself Marvin was wrong and that he hadn’t intended to shower me with spittle to make his point.
Some lawyers hire psychologists to help with jury selection. They’ll tell you that people who wear bright colors crave attention and feel for the underdog. Plaintiffs jurors. Dark colors are worn by introverts who don’t care about people. Defendant’s jurors. Hoop earrings and costume jewelry are good for the plaintiff, Rolex watches and three-karat diamonds for the defense. To me, that’s a lot of malarkey. I pick jurors who smile when I smile and don’t fold their bodies into tight balls when I stand close.
No second-guessing now. Closing argument. A time to sing the praises of freedom of the press, of the great newspaper that fulfills the constitutional function of blah-blah-blah. And Marvin said don’t yell. No emotion. The jury don’t care about the Foist Amendment. Besides, Nick Wolf is a great schmoozer, Marvin told me. The jurors love him. Number five, a Cuban receptionist, keeps batting her three-inch eyelashes at him.
And I thought she had trouble with her contacts.
The four men on the jury are your real problem, Marvin said. One black, two Cubans, one Anglo, all men’s men. Nick’s kind of guys.
So what am I, chopped liver?
He gave me that knowing look. Ey, Lassiter, it ain’t your jury; it ain’t your day. And with that, the gang took off, a kidnapping trial down the hall drawing them away.
Nick Wolf’s lawyer, H. T. Patterson, yelled in closing argument. Hell, he sang, chanted, ranted, rocked, and roiled. A spellbinder and a stemwinder, H.T. worked the jurors like a Holy Roller. Which he was at the Liberty City Colored Baptist Church while attending law school at night in the days before Martin Luther King.
“They subjected Nick Wolf, a dedicated public servant, to scorn and ridicule, to calumny, and obloquy,” Patterson now crooned in a seductive singsong. “They lied and distorted. They defamed and defiled. They took his honorable name and soiled it. Besmirched, tainted, and tarnished it! Debased, degraded, and disparaged it! And what should a man do when they stain, sully, and smear his good name?”
Change it, I thought.
“What should a man of honor do when those with pens sharp as daggers poison his reputation, not in whispers but in howls, five hundred three thousand, six hundred seventy-nine times?”
Five hundred three thousand, six hundred seventy-nine being the Sunday circulation of the Miami Journal, and Sunday being the day of choice for fifty-megaton, rock-’em-sock-’em, take-no-prisoners journalism. Which is what the Journal is noted for, though I thought the offending story-STATE ATTORNEY VIOLATED CAMPAIGN LAWS-lacked characteristic punch. Not sharing my opinion was Nicholas G. Wolf, bona fide local high-school football star, decorated Vietnam war hero, former policeman, and currently state attorney for the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit in and for Dade County, Florida. The article accused Wolf of various technical violations of the campaign contributions law plus one unfortunate reference to accepting money from a reputed drug dealer.
“The man should seek redress in a court of law,” Patterson solemnly declared, answering his own question, as lawyers are inclined to do. “He should come before a jury of his peers, citizens of the community. So, my friends and neighbors, ladies and gentlemen of this jury, it is time to pay the piper…”
I didn’t think the metaphor held up to scrutiny, but the jury didn’t seem to notice. The men all nodded, and number five stopped fluttering her eyelashes and now stared mournfully at poor, defamed Nick Wolf.
“It is time to assess damages; it is judgment day, it is time to levy the penalty for these knowing, reckless lies. And I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, is it too much to ask that the Miami Journal, that behemoth on the bay, that monster of malediction, pay ten dollars for each time it lied, yes, ten dollars for each time it sent its message of malice into our midst?”
I never did better than Cs in math, but I know when a lawyer is asking for five million bucks from a jury. Meaning H. T. Patterson hoped for two million, and I was beginning to wonder if taking this case to trial was so damn smart after all.
“A letter of apology, a front-page retraction, and fifty grand might do it,” I told the publisher six months earlier in his bayfront office.
Symington Foote bristled. “We don’t pay extortion. A public official is fair game, and we had a bona fide tip that Wolf was taking dirty money.”
“From a tipster who refuses to come forward and a reporter who won’t even reveal his source,” I reminded the publisher, trying to knock him off the soapbox.
“But we don’t need to prove the story was true, do we, counselor?”
He had me there. As a public official, Nick Wolf could win his libel suit only if he proved that the newspaper knew the story was false or had recklessly disregarded the truth. A nice concept for judges. For jurors, it’s the same as in most lawsuits. If they like the plaintiff’s attitude and appearance more than the defendant’s, the plaintiff wins. Simple as that.
The case had been cleanly tried. A few histrionics from Patterson, but his tricks were mostly subtle. When I stood to make an objection, he would move close, letting me tower above him. He was a bantam rooster in a white linen three-piece suit, and alongside was a bruiser representing the unrestrained power of a billion-dollar company.
So here I was about to deliver my closing argument in the big barn of a courtroom on the sixth floor of the Dade County Courthouse, an aging tower of gray limestone where buzzards of the winged variety soar overhead and the seersuckered birds beat their wings inside. Heavy drapes matted with dust covered the grimy windows. The walnut paneling had darkened over the decades, and an obsolete air-conditioning system rumbled noisily overhead.
Several years ago the electorate was asked to approve many millions of dollars in bonds for capital projects around the county. The voters said yea to a new zoo and nay to a new courthouse, expressing greater regard for the animals of the jungle than for the animals of Flagler Street. And who could blame them?
Now I stood and approached the jury box, all six-two, two-hundred-something pounds of me. I tried not to get too close, avoiding the jurors’ horizontal space. I shot a glance at the familiar sign on the wall above the judge’s bench: WE WHO LABOR HERE ONLY SEEK THE TRUTH. There ought to be a footnote: subject to the truth being misstated by perjurious witnesses, obfuscated by sleazy lawyers, excluded by inept judges, and overlooked by lazy jurors.
Planting myself like an oak in front of the jury, I surveyed the courtroom. Symington Foote sat at the defense table next to the chair I had just abandoned. The publisher fingered his gold cuff links and eyed me skeptically. Behind him in the row of imitation leather chairs just in front of the bar were two representatives of the newspaper’s libel insurance company. Both men wore charcoal-gray three-piece suits. They flew in from Kansas City for the trial and had that corn-fed, pale-faced, short-haired, tight-assed look of insurance adjusters everywhere. I wouldn’t have a drink with either one of them if stroking the client’s pocketbook wasn’t part of my job. In the front row of the gallery sat three senior partners of Harman and Fox, awaiting my performance with anxiety that approached hysteria. They were more nervous than I was, and I’m prone to both nausea and diarrhea just before closing argument. Neither Mr. Harman nor Mr. Fox was there, the former having died of a stroke in a Havana brothel in 1952, the latter living out his golden years in a Palm Beach estate-Chateau Renard-with his sixth wife, a twenty-three-year-old beautician from Barbados. We were an old-line law firm by Miami standards, our forebears having represented the railroads, phosphate manufacturers, citrus growers, and assorted other robber barons and swindlers from Florida’s checkered past. These days we carried the banner of the First Amendment, a load lightened considerably by our enormous retainer and hefty hourly rates.
Much like a railroad, a newspaper is a glorious client because of the destruction it can inflict. Newspaper trucks crush pedestrians in the early-morning darkness; obsolete presses mangle workmen’s limbs; and the news accounts themselves-the paper’s very raison d’etre, as H. T. Patterson had just put it in a lyrical moment-can poison as surely as the deadliest drug. All of it, fodder for the law firm. So the gallery was also filled with an impressive collection of downtown hired guns squirming in their seats with the fond hope that the jury would tack seven digits onto the verdict form and leave The Miami Journal looking for new counsel. When I analyzed it, my only true friend inside the hall of alleged justice was Marvin the Maven, and he couldn’t help me now.
I began the usual way, thanking the jurors, stopping just short of slobbering my gratitude for their rapt attention. I didn’t point out that number two had slept through the second day and that number six was more interested in what he dug out of his nose than the exhibits marked into evidence. Then after the brief commercial for the flag, the judge, and our gosh-darned best-in-the-world legal system, I paused to let them know that the important stuff was coming right up. Summoning the deep voice calculated to keep them still, I began explaining constitutional niceties as six men and women stared back at me with suspicion and enmity.
“Yes, it is true that the Journal did not offer testimony by the main source of its story. And it is true that there can be many explanations for the receipt of cash contributions and many reasons why State Attorney Wolf chose to drop charges against three men considered major drug dealers by the DEA. But Judge Witherspoon will instruct you on the law of libel and the burden of the plaintiff in such a case. And he will tell you that the law gives the Journal the right to be wrong…”
I caught a glimpse of Nick Wolf, giving me that tough-guy smile. He was a smart enough lawyer in his own right to know I had no ammunition and was floundering.
“And as for damages,” I told the jury, “you have just heard some outrageous sums thrown about by Mr. Patterson. In this very courtroom, at that very plaintiff’s table, there have sat persons horribly maimed and disfigured, there have sat others defrauded of huge sums of money, but look at the plaintiff here…”
They did, and he looked back with his politician’s grin. Nick Wolf filled his chair and then some. All chest and shoulders. One of those guys who worked slinging bags of cement or chopping trees as a kid, and with the good genes, the bulk stayed hard and his rahma-bull neck would strain against shirt collars for the rest of his life. On television, with the camera focused on a head shot, all you remembered was that neck.
“Has he been physically injured? No. Has he lost a dime because of this story? No. Has he even lost a moment’s sleep? No. So even if you find the Journal liable…”
H. T. Patterson still had rebuttal, and I wondered if he would use the line from Ecclesiastes about a man’s good name being more valuable than precious ointment or the one from Othello about reputation as the immortal part of self.
He used them both.
Then threw in one from Richard II I’d never heard.
“You could have advised us to settle,” Symington Foote said, standing on the courthouse steps, squinting into the low, vicious late-afternoon sun.
Funny, I thought I had.
“Three hundred twenty-two thousand,” I said. “Could have been worse.”
“Where the hell did that number come from? Where do these jurors get their-”
“Probably a quotient verdict. Someone wanted to give him a million, someone else only a hundred thousand. They put the numbers on slips of paper, add ’em up, and divide by six. They’re not supposed to do it, but it happens.”
Foote sniffed the air, didn’t like what he smelled, and snorted. “Maybe it’s time for a hard look at the jury system. I’ll talk to the editorial writers in the morning.”
He stomped off without telling me how much he looked forward to using my services in the future.
Three’s a Crowd
I was late for dinner with Doc Riggs. But I hadn’t expected to make it at all. With a jury out, you never know.
I spotted Charlie’s unkempt hair and bushy beard, now streaked with gray. He wore a khaki bush jacket and sat at his usual table on the front porch of Tugboat Willie’s, a weather-beaten joint located behind the Marine Stadium on the causeway, halfway between the mainland and Key Biscayne. Charlie had been coming to the old restaurant since his early days as county medical examiner. It was one of the few places where neither the management nor patrons seemed to mind the whiff of formaldehyde. Sometimes Charlie caught his own fish and asked the cook to make it any old way as long as it was fried. Sometimes he ordered from the menu. Willie’s is a great place as long as the wind isn’t out of the northeast. The restaurant sits just southwest of the city sewage plant at Virginia Key. On a tropical island filled with cypress hammocks and white herons-one of the few bayfront spots not auctioned off to rapacious developers-Miami chose to dump its bodily wastes.
The evening was warm and muggy; not a breath of air stirred the queen palms in front of the ramshackle restaurant. Toward the mainland, low feathery clouds reflected an orange glow, not from the setting sun, but from the anticrime mercury-vapor lights of Liberty City.
Charlie was already digging into his fried snapper when I climbed the steps to the porch. Next to him was a woman with long auburn hair and fine porcelain skin. She wore a tailored blue suit that meant business and, best I could tell, no makeup. She didn’t need any. In the gauzy light of dusk she glowed with a look that Hollywood cinematographers crave for the starlet of the year. Her cheekbones were finely carved and high, the eyes green, wide set, and confident.
I slid into an empty chair next to the woman and tried to use my wit. “Charlie, I can’t leave you alone for one evening without your smooth-talking some sweet young woman…”
Then I gave her my best crinkly-eyed, pearly-toothed smile out of a face tanned from many indolent afternoons riding the small waves on a sailboard not far from where we sat. I am broad of shoulder, sandy of hair, and crooked of grin, but the lady’s eyes darted to me and back to Charlie without tarrying.
“I don’t mean to argue with you, Dr. Riggs,” she said in a clipped British accent that sounded like royalty, “but most of these so-called killer profiles are so much rubbish. Just the modern version of detecting criminals by the shape of their noses or the size of their ears.”
Charlie’s fork froze in mid-bite. “But even you have identified characteristics. In your book-”
“Yes, yes. But they’re of little import. What is consequential is that these men are incapable of forming normal relationships. They do not see themselves as separate human beings or recognize the separate humanity of any other being, and we don’t know why. To a Hillside Strangler or a Yorkshire Ripper, a human being is no more animate than a block of wood. We’ll never make any progress until we understand what made them that way.”
I nodded my agreement, hoping Charlie would bring me up to date, or at least introduce me. But the old billy goat was having too good a time to notice.
“This is the classic distinction between our disciplines,” Charlie said, sipping a glass of Saint-Veran white burgundy, while I sat, parched, irked, and apparently invisible. “The medical examiner searches for the clues of who did the crime and how. The forensic psychiatrist yearns for the why.”
“And the lawyer says the devil or his mother or irresistible impulse made the rascal do it,” I offered.
Charlie noticed me then. “Oh, my manners! Dr. Metcalf, this is Jacob Lassiter, a dear friend of mine. When I was the county ME, Jake was a young public defender, and how he made my life miserable. Now he’s a successful civil lawyer, eh, Jake?”
“Some days. How do you do, Dr. Metcalf.”
She nodded and seemed to appraise me with green eyes spiked with flint. The eyes lingered, decided I was an interesting specimen but hardly worth an afternoon tea, and returned to Charlie. I gave Doc my pleading, hang-dog look, which he recognized as acute deprivation of female companionship.
“Jake was quite creative when he was a PD,” Charlie said. His eyes twinkled behind thick glasses held together with a bent fishhook where they had lost a screw. “He’d be defending a Murder One and ask me on cross in very serious tones, ‘Isn’t the fact that the decedent fell from a tenth-floor balcony consistent with suicide?’”
I laughed and said, “And Charlie would look at the jury, scratch his beard, and say, ‘Only if we omit the fact that a second before falling, the decedent was shot in the back by a gun covered with your client’s fingerprints.’”
The English lady nearly smiled, and it didn’t seem to hurt.
“Pamela’s on a book tour,” Charlie told me, “and my old friend Warwick at Broadmoor asked her to look me up.”
“Warwick at Broadmoor?” I asked, with a blank face.
“Dr. Warwick heads the forensic unit at Broadmoor. Hospital for the criminally insane,” Charlie added, as if any dolt should know. “In London. Dr. Metcalf was instrumental in apprehending and then treating the Firebug Murderer.”
I was silent, not willing to admit my ignorance quite so often.
The lady psychiatrist rescued me. “Just a lad, really. The fellow would find lovers parked in their cars, snogging away-”
“Snogging, were they?” I asked, eyebrows raised in mock disapproval.
“Yes, what you would call… oh, Dr. Riggs, help me.”
Charlie coughed and said, “Necking and what have you.”
I nodded, knowingly.
“In any event,” Dr. Metcalf continued, “this poor wretch would seek out lovers, pour petrol over them, and set them alight.”
“Indeed?” I said, in an unintended imitation of her accent.
“Quite,” she replied, giving me a look that said she did not suffer fools, particularly of the American wise-guy variety.
I signaled the waiter for a beer by elegantly pointing a finger down my throat. Then I turned to the lady psychiatrist with practiced sincerity. “Tell me about your work, Dr. Metcalf. How do you treat these firebugs and murderers?”
“I study the psychopath,” she said. “I want to know why he acts the way he does.”
“Or she does,” I added, believing in equality of the sexes in all departments.
“The subject is so complex,” Pamela Metcalf said, ignoring me. “We study the childhood antecedents to murder-”
“Environment,” Charlie Riggs said.
“But we also know that there are neurological, genetic, and biophysiological components, too.”
“The extra Y chromosome in men.” Charlie nodded.
“Yes, we know the XYY abnormality is four times more prevalent among murderers.”
“So are killers made or born?” I asked.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to determine ever since I became fascinated with the Cotswolds Killer.”
I showed her my vague look. It comes naturally.
“You know the section called the Cotswolds?” she asked.
“The Catskills, I know…”
“In Oxfordshire, wonderful hilly sheep country. I grew up there near Chipping Camden. I was still a student when someone began killing farm girls. One near Bourton-on-the-Water, one just outside Upper Slaughter.”
“Upper Slaughter,” Charlie muttered.
“Each of the girls had been strangled. Like so many of them nowadays, each had been sexually active at age fifteen or so, highly active, and their several boyfriends were initially suspected.”
“Any of the boyfriends know both the girls?” Charlie asked, still trying to earn his detective’s shield.
“No. And no strangers were implicated, either. The crimes were never solved, and… well, it just got me started.”
I thought about pretty Miss Metcalf scouring the sylvan English countryside for clues of murder. The thought didn’t last. The waiter brought my beer, and I ordered yellowtail snapper broiled, some fried sweet plantains, and black beans with rice. The pathologist and the psychiatrist were still carrying on, regaling each other with tales of death and derangement.
“Dr. Riggs, I still can’t believe you’ve retired. I’ve so enjoyed your articles.”
Charlie beamed. “Oh, I continue my research. Vita non est vivere sed valere vita est. ‘Life is more than merely staying alive.’”
She reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “For you, no taedium vitae.“
They both laughed, and I managed a weak smile. Maybe when I’m pushing sixty-five, women will fall all over me, too. They kept trading war stories and Latin phrases, and I kept popping the porcelain stoppers on sixteen-ounce Grolsches. I was on my third bottle, letting a soft buzz take the edge off, when I decided to break into the party. Having just been whacked by a jury, scolded by a client, and ignored by a beautiful woman from another continent, I figured there was very little to lose.
“Ah-chem,” I said.
No one seemed to notice my brilliant opening line. Pamela Metcalf was still focused on the old coroner who, until twenty minutes before, was my mentor and best friend.
“I was fascinated by your article on the forensic aspects of strangulation,” Dr. Metcalf gushed.
“It had me all choked up,” I said, then took a hit on the Grolsch.
Dr. Pamela Metcalfs emerald eyes shot me a pitying look, then returned their full concentration to the bearded wizard. “Your method for determining the time of death by assessing the degree of postmortem lividity in a hanging victim was quite helpful to homicide detectives.”
“Yep,” I offered, “the cops were at the end of their rope.”
Charlie Riggs furrowed his brow, and the air seeped further out of my ego. That peculiar macho known to all men ached to haul out the trophies and merit badges, maybe tell her about the days before I wore a blue suit and wingtip shoes. Hey, lady, I once came off the bench to sack Terry Bradshaw on an all-out blitz in a playoff game. Now playing at outside linebacker, from Penn State, number fifty-eight, Jake Las-siter! Maybe Charlie would ask me how the knees were doing, and I could ease right into-
“Mr. Lassiter… Mr. Lassiter.”
The waiter was tapping me on the shoulder. Now what? In fancy places they sometimes toss me out. But tonight I was wearing socks and long pants, and neither was required at Tugboat Willie’s.
“A policeman on the phone, Mr. Lassiter. Says it’s urgent.”
I followed the waiter to an open alcove near the kitchen. The air was pungent with fish and garlic. From behind the swinging metal door, I heard the singsong of Creole mixed with the clatter of dishes. A black cat with yellow eyes was pawing through a garbage can, debating between grouper and dolphin for an entree.
“Detective Alejandro Rodriguez here,” said the unfamiliar voice on the phone. “Hold for State Attorney Wolf.”
Ah, the accouterments of power. Using a policeman-a detective no less-for a secretary. Probably calling to rub it in. Nick Wolf had been so busy dispensing victory statements to the press, he hadn’t even needled me after the verdict. I waited, listening to the faint traffic noises that told me Wolf was calling from his state-owned Chrysler.
“Jake, you did a helluva job for that fish wrapper they call a newspaper,” Nick Wolf boomed.
“Maybe you can tell that to Symington Foote. He thought I should have attacked when I played defense.”
“He’s an asshole. Downtown power-clique country-club asshole. You low-keyed it, kept the damages down. A savvy lawyer knows when to do that.”
I didn’t tell him I get my savvy from Marvin the Maven.
Wolf paused, and so did I. We were out of conversation, or so I thought.
“Jake,” he said finally, “I’d like you to meet me at a homicide scene.”
“Should I have my alibi ready?”
He didn’t laugh. “Three seventy-five Ocean Drive, South Beach, second floor. I need independent counsel to head the investigation.”
From somewhere at his end a police siren wailed. “Because you’re honest and not plugged into any of the political groups. I checked you out. Latin Builders, Save-Our-Guns, English Only… nobody’s heard of you since you used to sit on the bench for the Dolphins. I don’t even know if you’re a Democrat or Republican.”
“My only affiliation. Charlie Riggs and I like to stomp through the Glades and look at the birds. Blue herons, snowy egrets, roseate spoonbills. Makes you believe in a Creator or at least a damn fortuitous Big Bang.”
“Charlie Riggs,” Wolf said, almost wistfully. “Tell that old grave robber to stop in and see me sometime.”
“Tell him yourself. He’s about ten yards yonder, putting away some key lime pie and amusing a British lady psychiatrist with murder and mayhem.”
“Her name Metcalf?”
I looked around for a hidden camera. “You’re getting some pretty good intelligence these days.”
“Lucky guess. I have a man waiting at her hotel. She was one of the last people to see the decedent alive.”
“This decedent have a name?”
“This line’s not secure. I’ll see you in twenty minutes. Bring Riggs and the lady.”
When I returned to the table, Charlie was halfway through the story of the widow whose first two husbands died after eating kidney pie laced with paraquat. The third husband was smart enough to refuse her cooking, but deaf enough not to move when she rode the El Toro mower over the spot where he was sunbathing.
Charlie looked up at me, a dab of whipped cream stuck to his beard.
“Saddle up,” I said. “We been deputized.”
Catch Me If You Can
Retirees still sit on plastic rockers on the front porches of the art-deco hotels. Hookers, fences, dealers, TVs, pimps, chicken hawks, and runaways still stroll Ocean Drive, hustling their wares. But the Yuppies have staked claims to South Beach, spiffing up the old buildings with turquoise and salmon paint, dressing themselves in bright, baggy cottons and silks, and hovering on the perimeter of perpetual trendiness. Over the whine of the window air conditioner is heard the agreeable hum of European engineering as the young lawyers, brokers, accountants, bankers, and journalists steer their Saabs, BMWs, and Volvos into oceanfront parking lots.
Cafes and comedy clubs now occupy once-abandoned storefronts. Stylish restaurants abound, strands of pasta hanging on wooden rods like moss on forest trees. Saloons with etched-glass mirrors and polished brass rails offer exotic tropical drinks at outrageous prices. Fresh tuna is seared ever so slightly on open grills. And for reasons inexplicable, a sushi bar stands on every corner. Raw fish is fine for shipwreck victims, but with all the crud floating in our waters, I prefer my seafood well done.
The apartment building was built in the 1930s, which in Miami Beach qualified as an historic site. The building had been empty for years, before the resurgence of South Beach brought fresh money and fresher hucksters to town. The newspapers coined the term “Tropical Deco" to describe the renovated hotels and apartment buildings. This one was called Flamingo Arms and consisted of a series of curved walls, glass block, and cantilevered sunshades that looked like stucco eyebrows. The paint was the color of a ripe avocado. Two metal flamingos formed a grillwork on the front door, and the same motif was picked up in the lobby with a mural of several of the pink birds high-stepping through a fountain.
The three of us-the coroner, the shrink, and the mouthpiece- were let in by a uniformed cop who recognized Charlie Riggs. We climbed a winding staircase with a looping metal railing to the second floor. It was a corner apartment facing Ocean Drive with just a sliver of a view of the Fifth Street Beach. Nick Wolf stood in a corner of the living room, his face drawn into a tight mask. Whispering in his ear was a cop in plainclothes. Nick Wolf shook his head and didn’t move. The cop came over to us.
“Alex Rodriguez,” he said, shaking my hand, and nodding to Charlie Riggs and Pamela Metcalf. He looked just right for a detective, which is to say he looked like your average forty-two-year-old, middle-class man who sells power tools at Sears. His dark hair was beginning to thin at the crown. He was of average height, average weight, and average demeanor, except for his nose, which, he later told me, had been head-butted one direction by a drugged-out citizen and smashed the other way by his partner’s errant nightstick while quelling a domestic dispute.
“I’m glad you’re here, Dr. Metcalf,” Rodriguez said. “You too, Charlie. Lassiter, give Nick a minute. Then he’ll talk to you. Now…”
He left it hanging there, and we all turned toward a desk in a corner of the room where a young assistant medical examiner was still snapping his photos. The ME nodded toward Charlie but kept at his work. His pale hair was parted high on his head and clipped short on the sides, a style favored by the current crop of young professionals. In rebellion, I keep mine unfashionably long and shaggy, and when in the company of callow youth, I incessantly hum Joan Baez tunes. He wore a white lab coat with a name tag. He didn’t look old enough to be a doctor, but I figured, no matter what, he couldn’t kill the patient. His little kit was open, and he had lined up his sketch pads, gloves, sponges, plastic bags, thermometer, trowel, chalk, and tape recorder.
Charlie walked straight to the body. She wore a black silk camisole and nothing else.
She was sprawled-legs akimbo-in her chair at a desk.
Her head was jammed through a computer monitor. The keyboard was pulled open.
Maybe Charlie Riggs was used to homicide scenes. Maybe it was just another day at the office for him. But not for me. The aftermath of violence chilled me. I didn’t know this woman, didn’t even know her name. I had no sense of loss for a loved one. I would not miss a laugh I had never heard. But I knew someone-a mother, a lover, a friend-would cry out her name. And somewhere, I knew, was someone who didn’t cry for anyone or anything. Someone so foreign to me as to be unfathomable.
My life has been circumscribed by rules. I tried not to hit after the whistle, and I never lied to a judge, though I’ve been tempted to take a poke at one or two. But there are games people play without rules. The hard-eyed cops know the players, stare them down every day. Could I do that? At the moment, filled with a mixture of anger and dread, I didn’t know.
I looked at Pam Metcalf, who seemed to be studying me. “Of course it’s dreadful,” she said, “but scientifically, Mr. Lassiter, it’s quite fascinating, too.”
Charlie Riggs took control. He gently pulled the body back into the chair. “Lividity of the face and lips, engorgement and petechial hemorrhages in the conjunctivae.”
He examined her neck. “No sign of a ligature. Crescentic abrasions on the skin, most likely fingernail marks. Probable cause of death, hypoxia due to throttling.”
Charlie Riggs turned to the assistant ME. “Manual strangulation. Any evidence of sexual battery?”
“Nothing… visible,” he stammered. “No contusions or lacerations other than the head and neck injuries. I swabbed the genitalia. No visible semen. However, vaginal secretions are consistent with… uh… sexual activity in close proximity to death.”
“You’ll check the smear for spermatozoa, of course.”
“Yes, sir. I thought I’d use methylene blue.”
Charlie Riggs shook his head. “You’ll never distinguish sperm cells from artifacts with that stain. Try hematoxylin and eosin for better differentiation.”
“What else, what other tests?”
“Well… I don’t know.”
“What if the fellow’s had a vasectomy, or he’s an alcoholic with cirrhosis? Won’t find any wagging tails there, eh?”
“In that event,” the young doctor recited, as if taking his oral exams, “acid phosphatase determination will reveal the presence of seminal fluid. If the man’s a secreter, we can identify A, B, or H blood types.”
“ Verus,” Charlie said, beaming, a professor whose student had finally caught on. “Be alert to every detail. Don’t believe that old saw Mortui non mordent- ”
“I never did,” I chimed in.
“‘Dead men carry no tales.’ Hah! They can tell us stories horribile dictu, horrible to relate, but essential to our understanding of their deaths.”
The young doctor was nodding his head vigorously.
“Now, what about odor?” Charlie Riggs asked.
“Beg your pardon?”
“Vaginal odor? It’s okay to take your sweet time with the lab tests, but you’ve got one chance to work up the crime scene. Just don’t forget to use the old schnoz.”
“Tell him about the time you opened a stomach and ID’ed the restaurant by smelling the beer in the barbecue sauce,” I prompted Charlie.
“Only one ribs joint in town had sauce like that,” Charlie said. “Wasn’t hard to figure where he had his last supper, then a waiter identified his dining companion, a hired killer.”
The assistant ME bit his lip, shot an embarrassed look toward Pam Metcalf, and sank to his knees. His head disappeared between two pale, slightly chubby thighs.
“Three-to-one the kid says he smells barbecue sauce,” Detective Rodriguez whispered to me. He had been in the department twenty years and had little time for rookies in any field.
A voice without a face came from the general vicinity of the corpse’s pudendum. “What smells should I be… uh… looking for?”
“Anything, son!” Charlie boomed. “The latex of a condom or a surgical glove, maybe soap, talcum, or a douche scented with lily of the valley, even a man’s distinctive cologne. Some men splash it on their privates, you know. Maybe we find a guy who’s crazy for Aqua Velva.”
“Or Listerine,” Rodriguez suggested, “depending on his proclivities.”
There was the sound of a bloodhound sniffing, then the assistant ME picked himself up, looked sheepishly toward Charlie, and said, “Sorry, sir, but… it’s just plain pussy to me.”
“Oh, never mind. You’ll want to do a complete autopsy, of course. Take a good look at the neck. I’d advise elevating the shoulders, eviscerate the body, and remove the brain. If you want a dry field, don’t dissect the neck until the blood has stopped draining. Don’t let the homicide detectives rush you. Take your time.”
The kiddie coroner nodded, then piped up, “I’d say the assailant was right-handed, Dr. Riggs.”
From behind me I heard a snicker. “ Fantastico,” Detective Rodriguez said. “I’ll put out a BOLO for all right-handed guys.”
Doc Riggs was more diplomatic. “And how do you reach that conclusion, Doctor…?”
Charlie squinted at the name tag.
“Whitson,” the alleged doctor proclaimed. “Well, there’s a single abrasion on the right side of the neck and four on the left. So the assailant’s right thumb would have made the single abrasion, the fingers of his right hand the rest.”
“Assuming she was strangled from the front,” Charlie added politely.
“I thought of that, sir. You can tell from the concavity of the crescents that the strangulation occurred from the front.”
Charlie made a little tsk-tsking sound. He didn’t want to lecture the lad in front of spectators, but he had no choice. He examined the neck. “All I can tell is that the nail on the ring finger is jagged. In a couple of days, it will grow back, so the information is of very little use. As for the crescent, the direction of the concavity can be misleading. The crescent will be reversed, as often as not. Here, I’ll show you. Jake, roll up your sleeve.”
“Why me?” I protested. “I haven’t forgotten your electrocution experiment.”
“It was only two hundredths of an amp, Jake, and I turned it off as soon as you went into muscular paralysis. Now be a good scout.”
Everyone was watching, so the good scout rolled up his sleeve. Charlie looked around and spotted Pamela Metcalf, who was intently studying titles of the shelved books in the small apartment.
“Pamela, perhaps you can inflict some pain on Jake for a moment,” Charlie wondered cheerfully.
“Gladly,” she chimed in. She placed a cool hand on my forearm and dug five fingernails deep into my skin.
“I’ll always remember the first time we touched,” I told her, showing my All-Conference smile.
She dug deeper, letting up just before severing the radial artery. I held up my arm, and sure enough, the crescents went the opposite direction of each nail’s shape. Charlie was explaining something about the free edge of the arch of the nail having no purchase and therefore creating the reverse crescent and how fallacious it was to infer much from fingernail marks. I just looked at the little dents in my arm and said to Pamela Metcalf, “I’ll bet you leave a mark on every man you meet.”
“With some,” she replied, “it takes a sledgehammer.”
Having exhausted my store of witty repartee, I stood silently, surveying the scene. The apartment was sparsely furnished in Yuppie Modern-white tile and green plants, a large-screen TV and CD player, a few bookshelves. There was a galley kitchen with a few pots and pans and a cupboard containing bran cereal, microwave popcorn, bottled spaghetti sauce, and spinach pasta from a gourmet market. The oven was practically sterile, indicating either an immaculate cook or no cook at all. The refrigerator had four different flavors of yogurt, none of which had expired, bottled water, an eyemask filled with what looked like antifreeze, and not much else. The bedroom and bathroom were down a hall, but I hadn’t seen them yet.
Young Dr. Whitson picked up his camera and click-clicked through several roles of film, shooting the body, the furniture, and even one or two of me. Charlie puttered around the body for a while, giving more tips to the young pathologist. Pamela Metcalf walked through the little apartment, her green eyes bright, taking everything in, letting nothing out.
Nick Wolf motioned me onto the small balcony where we were alone. I looked him in the eye. I was half a foot taller, but he had impressive width. A stocky fireplug of explosive energy. “Michelle Diamond,” he said. “Ever see her on Live at Five? ”
I shook my head. Usually, Fm still working then. If not, Fm playing volleyball on the beach or fishing with Charlie. Afternoon television is for those in traction. Physical or mental.
“I want you to be a special prosecutor and lead the investigation,” Nick said. “Present a case to the grand jury when you’ve got a suspect.”
“Why can’t your office handle it?”
He didn’t hesitate, just shrugged those big shoulders. “Conflict of interest. I was seeing her. Not heavy-duty. But I’d slip over here in the mornings or she’d come by my place at night. It’s sure to come out in the investigation.
Before I could ask, he said, “I’ve been separated for six months. Irretrievably broken and all that.”
“So the first statement I take is from you,” I said.
He showed the hint of a smile. “Should I have my alibi ready?”
I looked at him hard. His girlfriend’s body was drawing flies and he makes a little joke. A used little joke.
“I don’t show much emotion,” Wolf said, reading my mind. “Not in public, anyway. Maybe tonight I’ll get drunk by myself. Maybe I’ll put my fist through a wall. But that’s none of your business. Your job is to find the slime that did this, get an indictment, and try the case.”
Through the glass I saw Pamela Metcalf talking to Detective Rodriguez. He was nodding and making notes on a little pad. Across the street the ocean breeze rattled the palm fronds. Traffic crept along Ocean Drive, young people cruising at a pace to see and be seen.
I came in and told Rodriguez what I wanted. A computer whiz to print out everything inside the beige box on Michelle Diamond’s desk and the disks in her drawer. All her address books, appointment schedules, credit-card receipts, a list of her friends, relatives, and coworkers, and a chronology of her daily routine. I wanted statements from her gynecologist, her hairdresser, her pharmacist, her landlady, her maid, and her masseuse. I wanted to know every man she dated in the last three years and anyone she met in the last three months. Did any deliverymen bring her groceries or furniture or laundry? Where was she every minute of the last week? Within forty-eight hours, I wanted to know more about Michelle Diamond than her best friend, her mother, or her lover ever did.
It wasn’t asking too much. Anyone who cares to can know everything about us. Somewhere, I am sure, there is a giant computer that stores a thousand megabytes about each of us. What we got in geography and who we took to the senior prom. Where we eat, what we buy, who we call. How much money we make and how much we give away. What airlines we use, where we sleep, how much we spend on clothes, booze, and pills. Traffic tickets, domestic disputes, diplomas, and the books we buy. Modern life is one sweeping, cradle-to-grave invasion of privacy. An encroachment on our ever-narrowing space. Behind us we leave a trail of carbon copies and floppy disks. Fodder for the snoop and the historian alike.
In the twenty-first century, they tell us, our houses will be smaller, our lawns nonexistent. We’ll work at home and recycle our garbage into compost. Our bathroom scale will record our weight, pulse, and blood pressure and transmit the information to the company physician and anyone else with the right seven-digit password. The computer will link us with the office, the grocery store, and each other. The paper trail will be obsolete, but in its place, microscopic chips and laser scanners will transcribe details even the most astute biographer would overlook.
“Lassiter, come take a look back here.”
It was Rodriguez, motioning me through the bedroom and toward the bathroom. I moseyed back there and stood, filling the doorway, peeking over Charlie Riggs’ shoulder. It was old-fashioned but clean, a small porcelain sink, shower stall, and toilet crammed into a room without a window. There were powders and perfumes and white fluffy towels, and on the mirror above the sink was a message scrawled in bloodred lipstick: Catch me if you can, Mr. Lusk.
“We got ourselves a show-off,” I said. “Now, who the hell is Mr. Lusk?”
“Probably some guy she was playing tag with,” Rodriguez said, “and it looks like he caught her.”
In the mirror I saw Charlie’s jaw drop in astonishment. It was not his usual expression. He moved closer, as if the image might disappear at any moment. “Pamela, come here please!”
In a moment Pamela Metcalf joined the party. And there the four of us stood. I hoped somebody knew more than I did.
“Mr. Lusk.” Pamela’s voice trembled.
“Yes, Mr. Lusk,” Charlie said.
“You know the hombre?” Rodriguez asked.
“George Lusk,” Charlie Riggs mumbled, shaking his head in disbelief.
“I’ll bring him in,” Rodriguez said.
Charlie laughed but there was no pleasure in it. “Sorry, detective. Mr. Lusk is quite dead.”
Rodriguez squinted at the mirror. “Then who’s-”
“In the fall of 1888, in the East End of London, the Whitechapel section, there were a series of murders of young women.”
“I get it,” Rodriguez said. “George Lusk was the cop who cracked the case.”
“Not exactly,” Charlie said. “He was a private citizen who formed the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee to patrol the streets and help the police. One day Lusk received a parcel in the mail. It contained a kidney cut from the body of one of the victims and a most grisly note. I can’t remember the contents exactly, but the note concluded-”
“‘Catch me if you can, Mr. Lusk,’” Pamela Metcalf said.
“Hey,” Rodriguez said. “You’re talking about Jack the Ripper.”
Charlie nodded again and looked straight at me.
“And I guess that makes me Mr. Lusk,” I said.
Breaking the Ice
They had already zipped the body into a plastic bag when I made a final pass through the living room. The assistant ME had packed his bag and capped his camera. The cops were growing bored and filing out; there were other bodies in other apartments and the night was young. Charlie Riggs was on the staircase outside with Pamela Metcalf, reminiscing about murders most foul. I looked around and struggled to remember everything the old canoe maker had taught me.
Be alert to every detail. I tried to memorize everything in the room. The computer was an IBM clone, the desk white oak, the telephone a new Panasonic. Michelle Diamond had been sitting at the computer when she was killed. I looked closer at the phone. Two lines, a bunch of buttons. One button was for making conference calls, another put you on hold, a third activated the speaker phone.
Then the last one. “Redial.”
I congratulated myself on how smart I was. Half a dozen cops and nobody thought about it-maybe the last person Michelle Diamond spoke to just a dial tone away. And maybe with some luck, that last person was the guy who squeezed the life out of her. Don’t you dare come over here, Harry, we’re through!
Then again, it could be the weather number, a wrong number, or the public library. Only one way to find out. I picked up the receiver and hit the button. Seven electronic notes played do-re-mi in my ear.
A click and then the whir of a woman’s recorded voice. “Welcome to Compu-Mate, where the person of your dreams awaits you. Dial ROMANCE, 766-2623, on your modem, and we’ll put you in touch. Why not let Compu-Mate find your life mate?”
“Or your death mate,” I answered the mechanical voice, “as the case may be.”
I put the top down on my ancient Olds 442 convertible, deposited Charlie Riggs in the back and Pamela Metcalf in the passenger bucket seat. It’s the Turbo 400, yellow body, black canvas top, black interior, rallye wheels, four-speed stick. An overgrown kid’s toy.
“No sign of a break-in, nothing missing from the apartment,” Charlie yelled over the roar of three hundred sixty-five horsepower. “No apparent motive.”
It was a cloudy June night; the air was humid with a hint of salt. We were approaching the Miami Journal, just on the Miami side of the MacArthur Causeway. The boxy building sat there, lights twinkling against the blackness of the bay, taunting me.
“An organized crime scene,” Pamela Metcalf added.
Above us, on the superstructure, yellow lights flashed and we came to a stop at the drawbridge. When the lights turned red, the traffic gate lowered into place, the tender yanked on a long steel lever, and the bridge started clanking skyward. Below us, a nighttime sailor aimed a sleek Hinckley with a towering mast through the opening.
“Based on a cursory review,” she continued, “I would say you’re looking for a white male in his late twenties or early thirties, probably firstborn, height and weight within norms, higher-than-average intelligence, though an underachiever in school. He probably knew the victim or at least had seen her and followed her. His socioeconomic background is at least average, and he probably had a two-parent household, but he never formed a stable relationship with his father.”
“I suppose the family dog got run over by a truck when he was going through puberty,” I said, with just a hint of sarcasm.
The psychiatrist stared at my profile. The sight did not weaken her knees. “Actually, he probably tortured and killed pets. Slicing open a cat’s belly and pulling out the intestines would be typical.”
That muzzled me for a moment. The bridge dropped back into place, the gate lifted, and we were moving again. I swung onto the 1-95 connector and headed south, tires singing on the concrete thirty feet above the mean streets of Overtown. Then I said, “I’m not sure that shrinks have all the answers they think they do.”
“Don’t sell forensic psychiatry short,” Charlie Riggs shouted from the backseat.
“I don’t. But the data doesn’t do any good. We can’t haul in all the firstborn sons in town.”
“No,” Pamela Metcalf said, “but we can predict this killer’s future behavior based on studies of past serial killers. He has fulfilled the fantasy of murder. He will repeat it, and will add to it his other fantasies he has so far repressed.”
“You’re assuming it’s a motiveless crime. Not a jealous boyfriend or a bumbling robber.”
“Unless you discover a pecuniary motive or an emotional one, you will find the murder quite motiveless, except in the deranged mind of the psychopath who committed it.”
It’s hard to argue with someone so obviously used to being right. We rode in silence as I pulled off the interstate and onto the Rickenbacker Causeway. The moon was coming up over Key Biscayne, spreading a creamy glow across the water. I pulled up in front of Tugboat Willie’s. On the front porch a couple of old salts were debating the merits of rubber jigs-the Zara Spook versus the MirrOlure-for catching jack crevalle. Charlie got out and came around to the driver’s side.
“Why would Nick Wolf appoint you to head the investigation? Why not one of his cronies, someone he could control?”
“Says he wants to do the right thing. Not even an appearance of a conflict of interest.”
“You believe that?” Charlie asked.
I shrugged. “Why shouldn’t I?”
“ Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.”
“That’s what I always say,” I said.
Dr. Metcalf helped me out. “Loosely translated, ‘Beware of an enemy bearing gifts.’”
Charlie nodded, then climbed into his mud-spattered pickup truck for the drive westward to the Glades. Pamela Metcalf had taken a cab from her hotel, so I graciously offered to drive her back. Her eyes shot a look toward Charlie’s truck, as if to ask if I was trustworthy, but he was gone. Either she decided to risk it, or she couldn’t get out of the shoulder harness, because she wordlessly stayed in her seat.
It was a short ride to the Grand Bay Hotel in Coconut Grove, but the doctor made it seem like a transatlantic flight. I mentioned the beauty of the moon and she said, “Umm.” I remarked on the nighttime feeding habits of the turkey vultures, gliding above the sewage plant at Virginia Key, and she said, “Umm.” When she gave me the same reply to the question of how long she’d be in town, I asked if she was practicing her mantra. That drew only silence, so I slipped a Beach Boys tape into the slot, and keeping time with palm slaps on the steering wheel, provided my own off-key praises to California girls, doubtlessly adding to the doctor’s impression of me as a simpleton and rapscallion. To her credit, she never once complained about my singing or the dank evening air. When a few fat drops from a passing shower splattered our windshield, she never once asked me to put up the top. The wind blew her long hair straight back, and like a California girl without the tan-or the smile-she stared ahead into the nighttime breeze.
When I finally pulled under the canopy of the hotel, a teenage valet crept from the darkness and appraised the old yellow chariot.
“No shit, my old man used to talk about his 442,” the kid announced, “but I never seen one.”
I held him off and asked the doctor if she’d like a drink before retiring.
She studied me. “Whatever for?”
That one stumped me. “To… uh… wet the whistle. To talk.”
“Talk? What about?”
“I don’t know,” I said defensively. “I don’t plan that far ahead.”
“I can see that. Then why invite me to share spirits?”
I thought of Jack Nicholson telling Shirley MacLaine that a stiff drink “might kill the bug you got up your ass.” I thought of John Riggins, the great, wild running back of the Redskins, telling Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at a White House dinner to “loosen up, Sandy baby.” But what I said was, “Because we can work together on the Diamond murder.”
She paused long enough for me to toss the keys to the valet, and I escorted her to the glitzy bar on the mezzanine. The usual crowd was there, Colombian cowboys, businessmen delaying the inevitable confrontations at home, a collection of upper-middle-class snorters and pretenders driving leased Porsches, leaning close to young women in sequinned designer knockoffs.
The lady asked for Pimm’s over lemonade, and the barman didn’t bat an eye. He poured some red stuff into 7UP, added a slice of cucumber, and Pamela Metcalf nodded with appreciation after a dainty sip.
“Dr. Riggs is quite fond of you,” the doctor said, as if she couldn’t imagine why.
“And I of him.”
“He said you used to play… rugby?”
“Yes, we have your football on the telly now. Grown men in knickers with all that stuffing inside their clothing. Jumping onto each other with incredible aggression.”
I smiled at her imaginative but entirely accurate definition of pro football.
“Freud conceived of aggression as a derivative of the death instinct,” she added. “Others debate whether aggression is a primary drive itself or just a reaction to frustration.”
“I just liked hitting people. It was fun.”
She opened her eyes a little wider. The green shimmered in the muted lighting. She pursed her full lips and thought a private thought. I expected her to start taking notes, maybe send me a bill later.
“Fun?” she pronounced carefully, as if trying out a new word.
“Sure. The hitting, the contact. Tackling is fun, particularly a good, clean hit that knocks the wind out of the runner. The kind that jolts him, makes the crowd go oooh.
“The sounds of the crowd. Did it represent to you a woman’s sighs, her moans of ecstasy?”
I didn’t like where this was heading. “I think I can distinguish between the two.”
“And this tackling people, did it make you feel bigger, more… manly?”
I laughed and nearly spilled my Grolsch. “Look, if you’re going to tell me the NFL is full of closet queens…”
She ran a hand through her thick auburn hair, now tangled from the wind. “Why are you defensive about your masculinity?”
This was getting me nowhere. “Let me tell you a story,” I said. “When I was a rookie, there was a big tight end on the Jets who was so tough he made Mike Ditka look like a pussycat. He liked to talk trash at the line. So I come in at outside linebacker late in the game, and my uniform is clean and white, and he’s there all muddy and bloody, and yells out, ‘Here comes the cherry.’ Then the QB is calling signals and all I hear is the tight end saying, ‘Hey, cherry, didn’t they teach you how to put on your uniform in college? I can see your dick, and it’s all shriveled up.’ So just like somebody saying your shoes are untied, I look down, the ball is snapped, and the tight end slugs my helmet with a forearm that could ring the bell at Notre Dame.”
She considered my story and stirred her red drink. “And do you attempt to compensate for this humiliation?”
I shook my head. “No, I just don’t look at my dick unless absolutely necessary.”
She tried to see if I was joking, and when she figured I was, gave me a full smile. “Do you really want my help or are you just hoping to charm your way into my room?” she asked.
“I think I have a significantly greater chance at the former.”
“Dr. Riggs was right. You are smarter than you look.”
That was as close to a compliment as I was going to get. A winsome lass on a sailboard-perhaps overcome by sunstroke-once compared my eyes to the azure waters off Bimini. Later, she tossed me over for a scuba instructor.
Pamela Metcalf declined a second drink and we looked at each other a moment, her thoughts imperceptible. She told me she was leaving for New York in the morning, a couple of network appearances, a book signing in the Doubleday store on Fifth Avenue, then back to England. I should call her if I learned anything or if there was another killing.
“Look for messages,” she said.
“Besides ones in lipstick?”
“Frankly, I’m puzzled by the reference to Jack the Ripper. Jack was a disorganized murderer, a slasher who was extremely violent and quite messy. He stalked women he did not know and used force, not persuasion, to subdue them.”
“So the killer’s tossing a curveball?”
“A red herring, a bum steer.”
“Perhaps. But even if the killer is tossing a… bum steer, the message is still meaningful. Whoever wrote it is well read, perhaps an amateur historian, or someone who knows a great deal about classic criminal cases, stories of law enforcement, that sort of thing.”
“Like the honorable state attorney,” I mused, mostly to myself.
“If that were the case, the crime would not be motiveless, would it? If the Diamond girl was his chippy and he killed her, there would have to be a motive. But if it’s a random killing, the work of a serial murderer, you’ll know soon enough.”
“Because there’ll be another one presently, won’t there?”
I hadn’t thought about that before, but now I did. Looking for a little excitement with the gun-and-badge set was one thing, hunting a serial killer was something else again. Serial killers are lifetime obsessions of guys with little offices and big file drawers. It takes forever to nab one. Isn’t that what makes them serial killers, unsolved murders over several years? What had I gotten into?
“I don’t know how to catch those guys,” I admitted.
Dr. Metcalf smiled faintly. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself, Mr. Lassiter. The police are always complaining that serial killers are so difficult to apprehend because there is no connection between victims and no apparent motives. But they do leave clues, and usually they are quite careless. Often they contact the police or stand in the crowd that gathers at the scene.”
“So they want to be caught?”
“No, a common misconception. Part of the thrill is outwitting the police and reliving the crime. There was an ambulance driver who would abduct young women, kill them, call the police, then race back to the hospital so he would get the call to pick up the body.”
While I thought that over she smoothed her skirt in a gesture even my nonpsychoanalytic mind could understand.
Thank you for the ride and the drink, Mr. Lassiter,” she said with British formality, and stood up to leave.
“All my friends call me Jake… Pamela,” I said.
She rewarded me with a second smile and then extended a finely tapered white hand. “Good evening, Jake. And good luck.”
The hand was cool, the shake firm. She didn’t ask me to share the view from her room, so I headed out the front where my 442 was parked in a space of honor next to a Rolls. The hood was still hot, and the gas tank was a nudge lower than an hour earlier.
I looked hard at the valet.
“Your shocks are a little soft on the turns,” he said sheepishly.
I gave him five bucks. “You’re telling me.”
Joining the Club
It was one of those muggy June days with fifteen hours of daylight but hardly any sunshine. A tropical depression hung over the Gulf of Mexico and raised the blood pressure of Miami’s frothy weather guys. Come six and eleven, they show us their color radar and satellite photos, their computerized maps and digital barometers. They blather about wind speeds and waterspouts and reveal what we already know: baby, it’s hot outside.
It wasn’t even eight A.M., but already my little coral-rock pillbox was stifling. The storm in the Gulf had sucked all the wind from the Florida Straits. Ten days of rain and a month of inattention had left my overgrown yard a jungle that could get me fined if the zoning inspectors weren’t busy collecting cash from condo builders who pour rotten slabs.
My house sits in the shade of chinaberry and live-oak trees just off Kumquat in the old part of Coconut Grove. It was built before air-conditioning and has plenty of cross ventilation. But when the wind stops blowing, and the heavy gray sky sags over the bay and the Glades, the old ceiling fans don’t do the trick. One of these days I’m going to break down and put in central air. Sure, and maybe get a rooftop dish, a combination fax and photocopy machine, maybe an outdoor whirlpool and an indoor sauna.
Adios, forty-dollar electricity bills.
Hola, the Grove trendy set.
I wore canvas shorts and nothing else and stood on my rear porch surveying the expanse of my estate-an eighth of an acre, give or take an inch or two. The neighborhood was quiet. The one-story stucco number hidden behind the poinciana trees belonged to Geoffrey Thompson, who wouldn’t be up until noon. He roamed the city streets each night as a free-lance cameraman, shooting videos of drug busts, race riots, and fatal car crashes. A budding entrepreneur, Geoffrey created his own industry when he learned that none of the local TV stations employed photo teams between midnight and eight A.M. When he was drunk enough, Geoffrey would show the outtakes considered too gruesome even for Miami’s bloodthirsty viewers.
Next door there was no sign of life at Phoebe’s place, which was exactly what it was called in an ad in Florida Swingers magazine. Phoebe had bright red hair and occasionally counted on her fingers, as she did the time she appeared at my door and asked if she could borrow three-no, make it four-condoms. Robert and Robert, who lived together and owned Robert’s-what else-Art Gallery, were up and around, hauling out wine bottles and trimming their hibiscus hedge. A regular slice of Americana, that’s my Mia-muh.
I dropped into the crabgrass and did my morning push-ups, fifty regular, then twenty one-armed, first right, then left. I rolled onto my back, brought my knees toward my face, and worked through a hundred stomach crunches. C’mon, Lassiter, Coach Sandusky yelled from some faraway field. Get in shape. The grass tickled my bare back and the sweat rolled down my chest. Overhead, an unseen laughing gull mocked me with its raucous call.
The ringing telephone was an excuse to declare victory in my battle to resurrect semiglories of the past. It was Granny Lassiter calling to tell me a thirty-pound snook was swimming figure-eights under an Islamorada bridge, calling my name. I told her I had a murder to solve but I’d help her eat Mr. Snook if she could catch him. She wasn’t impressed by my work and allowed as how she would catch the fish without me, but wanted to be sporting and land that sucker on eight-pound test line, using live finger mullet for bait.
Granny wasn’t my grandmother, but there was some relationship on my father’s side, great-aunt maybe. She raised me in the very house of Dade County pine and coral rock where I now lived. When Coconut Grove became too chic, she gave me the house and headed for the Keys, where she fishes and fusses and makes a decent home brew, if you’re partial to drinking liquid methane. She’s the only family I have. My father was a shrimper who was killed in a barroom brawl in Marathon when I was five years old. He had handled three bikers with his bare hands before a fourth jammed a push dagger into his jugular. Today, when I think of him, I remember his thick wrists and red, rawboned hands. My earliest memory: dangling from those poleax wrists as he would lift me off the floor.
My mother I don’t remember at all. All Granny told me was that she had bleached her hair almost white and, while waiting tables in Key West, ran off with a curly-haired stranger headed for the Texas oil fields. So I never called anyone Mom, but for as long as I can remember there’s always been a Granny. She taught me how to fish and how to live without doing too much damage along the way.
When I was fifteen-towheaded and suntanned and already two hundred pounds-the hormones were pounding in my ears, and I would shake the little house by jolting the pine-slab walls I considered a make-believe blocking sled. Granny didn’t complain; she just hauled me off to the high-school football field, where a couple of Gainesville-bound seniors whupped me up and down. The next year, I was whupping ’most everybody else, and the recruiters came calling from just about every college in the southeast. I visited a few campuses where the fraternity boys laughed at my cutoff jeans, dilapidated deck shoes, and rawhide necklace with the genuine shark’s tooth. I didn’t have much in common with the players either. They were generally engaged in drunken wrestling matches followed by pissing contests-distance, duration, and accuracy.
One day my senior year in high school, Granny grilled a mess of mangrove snapper with Vidalia onions for a coach with a Brooklyn accent who kept talking about books and classes. I wanted to hear about bowl games and cheerleaders, but he was yammering away in this funny voice about SAT scores and graduation rates. Granny smiled and served him an extra slab of her key lime pie, and I went off to Penn State, where I survived frostbite, aced American Theater 461, and stayed out of jail.
I was a decent enough college player, but the stopwatch doesn’t lie, and the NFL scouts could take a nap while I ran the forty. Since then, I’ve come to figure I must have been the three hundred thirty-seventh best player in the nation my senior year. This bit of mathematical logic stems from the fact that the pros drafted three hundred thirty-six players, none of them named Lassiter. I packed my spikes and gray practice shorts in what was then a not-yet-antique convertible and drove south. I caught on with the hometown Dolphins as a free agent, barely surviving each cut, playing second string, earning my keep by wreaking havoc on kickoffs, and occasionally starting when the star weakside linebacker was in drug rehab. When I realized I wasn’t bound for the Hall of Fame (or even a league pension), I started taking night law classes. I had seen Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch and figured I knew what lawyering was all about. After finally passing the bar exam the third try-the first time coming two days after knee surgery and hefty doses of Darvon, the second after generous rations of Grolsch-I concluded there are no more Atticus Finches. Today’s lawyers are slaves to computerized time sheets, and, rather than fighting for justice, spend their days punching voluminous pleadings out of word processors and sleeping through endless pretrial depositions. But they seldom stand in front of juries and plead for justice, which, if it is kin to the law, is a distant cousin, at best.
I joined the public defender’s office, where I soon discovered that my clients were not necessarily saintly just because they were impoverished. Most of them went to prison, got early release because of overcrowding, and became repeat customers in the Jake Lassiter legal merry-go-round. Then I joined the downtown firm of Harman and Fox, where I became another paper-pushing civil trial lawyer, until Nick Wolf called me back to the criminal-law jungle, this time representing the state.
I showered and put on a seersucker suit, but the sweat continued to flow. I poured some orange juice and grabbed a fresh mango, green and red on the outside, sweeter than a peach inside. The neighborhood is overflowing with mangoes and lichee nuts. Peel the nuts, slice the mango, chop a tart carambola into star-shaped pieces, and you’ve got a fine breakfast. No preservatives, no caffeine.
Inside the ancient Oldsmobile, the cracked leather felt slick and the carpeting smelled of mildew. I put the top down and pretended that the soggy air cooled me. I headed up Miami Avenue under an umbrella of red poinciana trees. I passed the house that once belonged to a client, a doctor who killed, and I was there when he crumbled under the weight of the guilt and the shame.
Charlie Riggs had helped me then, had taught me how to speak for the dead. He had been the county medical examiner for so long, people swore he began his career digging musket balls out of bodies at Bull Run. He still reads the first forensic medicine textbook, Questiones medico legates, in its original Latin. He can determine the time of death by algor mortis, livor mortis, and rigor mortis-the temperature, color, and stiffness of death. When an inexperienced assistant ME found sunflower seeds in the stomach of a dead banker who died with a smile on his face, Charlie knew that death was by horribly painful strychnine poisoning. The smile was risus sardonicus, a sardonic grin produced by contortions of facial muscles. The sunflower seeds were the remnants of rat poison, and a sharp-eyed hardware-store clerk soon identified the grieving widow with the million-dollar insurance policy as the town’s leading pesticide purchaser.
Charlie Riggs knows so much about so many things. I could never figure how a guy who spent his life hollowing out lifeless shells could understand the living so well. There must be lots of canoe makers who know everything about in-shoot wounds and lividity and blood typing. They help the cops figure the when and how of death, and sometimes, piecing together all their clues, they even find the murderer, the who. But if you don’t have bullet fragments and a matching gun, or latent prints and a matching hand, you’d better know the why to figure the who. That’s why I need you, Charlie Riggs. You bearded old wizard, I need you again.
“Jeez, get a load of that suit,” Cindy said, fishing a pen out of her rust-colored, hypercurled hair. “Why’s it all crinkly?”
“It’s cool,” I said.
She shook her head, each concrete curl staying put. “Co-ol, el jefe, it ain’t. You look like a Rotarian.”
Cindy had been my secretary in the PD’s office and came with me downtown. Her shorthand was indecipherable, her typing haphazard, and her filing disorganized. But she was smart and loyal and could sweet-talk a judge’s assistant into an early trial date, and she protected me from the political piranhas in the law firm. She was also a pal.
Cindy’s desk was covered with unfiled pleadings and unanswered memos.
“Any messages?” I asked.
She picked up a handful of while-you-were-out memos. “The newsboys are going bonkers over the Diamond murder. All the local stations called, plus your pals at the Journal, a reporter from Reuters, and somebody from Broadcasting magazine who wants to know if there might be terrorist plots against television personalities.”
I looked at the messages but didn’t plan to return the calls. What could I say? We had no leads, and if we did, we wouldn’t put them on the front page. I couldn’t even disclose why Nick Wolf had appointed me as a special prosecutor. An overworked office, according to the party line. But Cindy was right. The news media would hound us until the case was solved. If it went on too long, they would start wondering about the competence of the ex-football player, ex-public defender, ex-a-lot-of-things appointed to handle the case.
We average a murder a day in Dade County, but few are deemed truly newsworthy. Your average Saturday-night, liquored-up stabbing over a woman or a card game gets you two paragraphs inside the local section, just above the ads for the all-nude body-shampoo parlors in Lauderdale. But this was different. This was one of their own. And judging from the hype on the local stations-a freeze-frame close-up of Michelle Diamond with Verdi’s Requiem in the background-you’d have thought we lost Edward R. Murrow instead of a second-rate interviewer who also read commercials on a five P.M. fluff show.
The Journal played it straight. The Diamond death shared page one of the local section with an expose that revealed that a sizable percentage of our taxicabs are repainted stolen cars.
“Anything else?” I asked Cindy.
“Yeah. The managing partner wants to know why you let yourself get appointed to be Nick Wolf’s flunky.”
“The old man have something against fulfilling my civic duty?”
“No, something against a case that pays only a third of your normal hourly rate. He wants a written response, with copies to the New Business Committee, the Senior Council, and the Allocation Committee.”
Cindy followed me into my office. I opened the vertical blinds and stared at Biscayne Bay three hundred feet below. Plump gray thunderheads hung motionless over Miami Beach. In fifteen knots of easterly, the bay crinkles like aluminum foil. Today, not a ripple.
“I have the poop on Compu-Mate,” she said with a sly smile. She handed me a folder containing some newspaper clippings and a printout from the secretary of state. “But boss, if you’re that horny, I could fix you up.”
“Rather than get hooked up with some loser…”
“What’re you talking about?”
“My girlfriend, Dottie the Disco Queen. She likes big guys who aren’t quite with it.”
“What about her herpes?”
“No problema. In remission.”
“Maybe another time,” I said. “Anything else?”
“Mr. Foot-in-the-Mouth called.”
“Symington? He hasn’t replaced me?”
“No such luck.” She handed me a bunch of newspaper stories on computer paper. “A messenger delivered these a few minutes ago.”
“I’m worried about Carl Hutchinson, all that invective in his column,” Symington Foote said when I returned his call.
“You’re just a little gun-shy right now,” I told the publisher, reassurance coating my voice like honey.
“But these names he’s calling Commissioner Goldberg. She’s very popular with the voters. And voters are jurors.”
He was right about that. Maria Teresa Gonzalez-Goldberg-born in Cuba, schooled in a convent, married to a Jewish cop with an adopted black child-was a formidable politician. She had swept into office two years earlier with eighty-six percent of the vote. She then redecorated her office in teak, chrome, leather, and glass to the tune of one hundred fifty thousand dollars of taxpayers’ money. At a time the county couldn’t afford to repair backed-up toilets in public housing projects.
“Marie Antoinette,” Foote was saying. “He called her Marie Antoinette!”
“Fair comment,” I advised.
“Said she ought to redecorate a cell at Marianna Institution for Women.”
“Rhetorical hyperbole,” I counseled confidently.
“Said the ‘crossover candidate’ became the ‘carnivorous commissioner, feeding on the flesh of the poor.’”
“A bit grisly,” I admitted, “but she’s a public official.”
“Seems I heard that before,” Foote said.
I spent the rest of the morning on the newspaper’s work. I advised the business manager to accept the advertisement from the airport hotel that promised “freedom fighter" discounts to smugglers aiding the Nicaraguan contras. I told the photo editor that the picture of the model wearing a bra with a built-in holster for a Beretta was not an invasion of privacy and accurately portrayed Florida’s new concealed-weapons law. I told the city editor to ignore complaints that property values would be hurt by the local map showing Dade County murders by zip code. Finally, I told the food editor that the grilled alligator recipe omitted cayenne pepper, and then I had lunch.
The Lady and the Jockey
I wanted to get to Compu-Mate before the afternoon storms. In the summer, the rain begins at 3:17 P.M. or thereabouts, every day. For an hour or so, gully washers and palmetto pounders flood the streets. Drops form inside the canvas top of my old convertible, then plop one by one onto my head.
I aimed north on Okeechobee Road, storm clouds gathering, traffic crawling. Our highways have not caught up with our growth and never will. We built a high-speed rail system too late and too small. We are a great urban sprawl, Miami-Lauderdale-Palm Beach, four million people squeezed between the ocean and the Everglades. We are low on water and electricity, but high on asphalt and cement. Our public officials are beholden to predatory developers who ply them with greenbacks and concoct their own vocabulary.
Creeping overpopulation is “growth.”
Building spindly condos on Indian burial grounds is “progress.”
Environmentalists are “doomsayers.”
So we bulldoze trees, fill swamps, drain the aquifer, and then we build on every square inch, erecting a concrete landscape of fast-food palaces, serve-yourself gas stations, and tawdry shopping centers. Their signs beckon us from the blazing pavement. Pizza parlors, video rentals, gun shops, and a thousand other fringe businesses hoping to hang on for another month’s rent.
Compu-Mate was in a renovated warehouse in Hialeah, a city of ticky-tack duplexes and stucco houses with plaster statues of the Virgin Mary planted in front lawns. In the last thirty years, Hialeah has been transformed from a cracker town of Panhandle and Alabama immigrants to a new home for Cuban refugees. Not long ago, a Florida governor named Martinez was forced to suspend an indicted Hialeah mayor named Martinez and replace him with a city councilman named Martinez. None of the men was related. Hispanics now are the majority population group in the cities of Miami and Hialeah and are approaching fifty percent countywide. Within the community, there are old exilados, who dream of returning to a Cuba Libre, Cubanzo rednecks, who drive pickup trucks festooned with American and Cuban flags, and Yubans, Yuppie Cuban professionals downtown. They are, in fact, like every other ethnic group, a diverse lot that has added considerably to the community.
I parked next to an outdoor cafe where men with leathery skin smoked cigars and drank espresso from tiny plastic cups. Next door, three teenagers were making a mess of a transmission, pulled out of a twenty-year-old Chevy propped onto concrete blocks.
I already knew a lot about Compu-Mate. I knew it was the latest way to profit from people’s fears of loneliness. Like-minded consenting adults just a whir and buzz away, courtesy of your personal computer. Talk sweet, talk dirty, titillate your partner, and tickle your fancy until you get a phone number and address. Then cross your fingers, take a deep breath, and wait for the truth. The guy who called himself “Paul Newman look-alike" has the gray hair, all right, but the blue eyes are milky, a paunch hangs over his belt, and he’s three months behind on the alimony. “Buxom blonde looking for fun" means overweight and bleached, a manic-depressive.
I had some background on Max and Roberta Blinderman, president and secretary of Compu-Mate, Inc., a Florida for-profit corporation. Previously, they operated a video dating service that went belly up, and before that, a modeling studio that left a trail of unpaid bills and unfinished portfolios. As far as Cindy’s research showed, Roberta had no criminal record. Max had been a fair-to-middling jockey twenty years ago, once nearly winning the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah before getting suspended in a horse-doping scheme. Lately he had pleaded guilty to bouncing some checks, was put on probation, and made restitution. Two other penny-ante cases: a mail-fraud case was nolle-prossed, and a buying-receiving charge was dropped when the state couldn’t prove the jewelry was stolen. By local standards, he was clean enough to run for mayor.
The office was no-frills, a Formica counter up front, a green metal desk in back. Next to the desk was a decent-sized, freestanding computer that was probably leased month to month. No waiting room, no sofa, no friendly green plants. A man sat at the desk staring into a video display terminal. A woman stood at the counter licking stamps and pasting them onto envelopes-monthly bills to the customers, I figured.
“I’d like to sign up,” I told the woman behind the counter.
“This ain’t the army,” she said, putting down her envelopes and shoving a form in front of my face.
She was six feet tall and seemed to like it. Her dark eyes were spaced wide and the lashes were long, black as sin, and well tended. The complexion, which had that cocoa-butter, coppery-tanned look with a healthy dose of moisturizers, creams, powders, and blushes, was smoothly sanguine. The black hair was layered and purposely messed, a wild look. Her nose was thin and straight and so perfect it might have cost five grand at a clinic in Bal Harbour. Her body was long and lean with some muscle development in the shoulders and small breasts that were uncaged under a white cotton halter top. The top of a denim skirt was visible below her flat, browned tummy, but her legs were hidden behind the counter.
I licked the end of the pencil like Art Carney playing Ed Norton, made a whirling motion with my right arm, and began filling out the form in block letters.
“Most of our clients just punch us up on their modems and do the paperwork by filling out the form on their computer screen,” she said.
“My modem’s in the shop for an oil change.”
If she thought I was funny, she kept it to herself. She just watched my seersuckered self as I filled in the blanks. I wrote my real name and address, chose “Stick Shift" as my handle, used my old jersey number as a secret password, and pretended to struggle with the rest. When I was done, I handed her the form. She scanned it and scowled.
“This ain’t a dining club,” she said.
“Or the army,” I agreed.
“What’s ‘rare steak and cold beer’ supposed to mean?”
“It asked my preferences,” I said, putting some Iowa corn into my voice.
“Sheesh. Your preferences in bed, Gomer. Are you straight, gay, or bi?”
“Straight as an arrow, slim. Wanna see?”
“In your dreams. Hey, next blank you skipped. You go for French or Greek?”
“No habla nothin’ but English.”
“Oh brother! You got any fetishes? B and D, S and M, water sports?”
“I’m a pretty decent windsurfer,” I admitted.
She rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. “Where you been, the friggin’ North Pole?”
“Maui, Aruba, the Baja,” I told her. “North Pole’s too cold, even with a dry suit.”
“Listen, Ricky Retardo, I ain’t got all day. You don’t fill in the blanks, the computer will spit out your application, so you gotta tell me what you like. Now, Greek, that means bum fucking, get it?”
“Even the poor got a right to get laid,” I said. “It’s in the Constitution.”
She narrowed her dark eyes and gave me a sideways look. “You know what French is, right?”
I didn’t say oui, madame. I just gave her my big, dumb-guy look. It isn’t hard to do.
“Like in the poem,” she said, “‘The French, they are a funny race. They fight with their feet and fuck with their face.’ Get it?”
I scrunched my face into its genius-at-thought mode. “I get part of it.”
“Part of it?”
“I mean, fighting with their feet, I get…”
She turned toward the back where the man was now hunched over the keyboard of the computer. “Max! C’mere.”
A little guy, all wires and gristle in black pants, black knit shirt, and white patent-leather loafers. A tattoo of a snake showed green on a veined, browned forearm. A worm of a mustache wriggled under his nose. He squinted at me through suspicious eyes. All he needed was a switchblade to pick his teeth, and he could have been a small-time grifter in Guys and Dolls.
“Yow, Bobbie,” he answered.
“Whyn’t you help Mister…”
“Lassiter,” I announced proudly.
They traded places. Her high heels clackety-clacked as she legged it toward the back. Sleek, fine legs with a comely curve of the calf undulating with each step. As she slinked by Max he said, “Foot Long’s just about got Naughty Nurse’s panties off.”
She sat down at the desk and peered into the monitor. “Nurse’s been putting out for everybody and their cousin,” she called back.
Max took his time examining my application. I wondered if anyone ever failed the entrance exam. “You can listen in?” I asked.
I pointed toward the computer where Bobbie sat, her long, lean body bent toward the screen.
“Someone’s gotta be the sys-op,” he said. “Work the panel in case there’s a glitch on-line. We can tap into any talky-talk, just like Southern Bell.”
“You must hear-or read-it all.”
“Yow. Till after while, it puts you to sleep. Like how many ways can they describe it?”
He returned to the form, moving his lips and tracing each line with a finger. “Say, you were just kidding here, huh?”
“Bobbie don’t have much of a sense of humor. Comes from having a hard life as a kid. You gotta make allowances with a filly like that.” He grinned and showed me two rows of shopping-center dental work. “You’re a straight shooter looking for old-fashioned cooze in the missionary position, yow?”
“Yow,” I answered right back at him.
He gave me a temporary membership card and a book of rules. I gave him a twenty-dollar bill.
“Ever have any trouble with your clients?” I asked.
The word “trouble" made the mustache twitch. “Whaddaya mean?”
“Like any women complain about guys putting the make on ’em, they don’t like what’s being offered?”
His eyes had put up a shield. “No trouble. Woman gets hassled, she can bug out of the call. She invites a guy over or goes out with him, that’s her business. We don’t give no guarantees.”
“You keep records of the calls?”
He sneaked a peek at the wall where his occupational license was taped over a crack. Probably figured me for a city inspector and wondered when I’d show him my palm.
I pointed back to his main computer. “All the calls stored in there?”
“Hell no! I wouldn’t clog up our hard memory with that shit.”
“How many members you have?”
“Three hundred fifty men. Almost two hundred women. Hey, we’re a member of the BBB.”
“So what’s stored in there?”
“It’s programmed to record how many times members call in and how long they talk. After fifty hours, you gotta renew.”
“So it records who they talk to…”
“That’d be an invasion of privacy,” he said with undue formality.
“But it could be done, if you wanted to know who a client spoke with, say, two nights ago?”
“The calls are coded numerically. It could be-”
“What the hell!” Bobbie Blinderman demanded, towering over Max the Jockey. “Just who the hell are you, buster?” In her bare feet now, she was three inches shorter, but no friendlier. She had silently prowled back to the counter from her position as gatekeeper of erotica and her ebony eyes glared at me.
I gave her a daffy grin. “Just a lonely guy-”
“Get your jollies somewhere else!” she ordered, pointing toward the door.
“With a grand-jury subpoena,” I added, pulling a blue-backed paper out of my back pocket and sliding it across the counter. Max stared at it a moment, then picked it up as if afraid to leave prints. Bobbie looked straight at me with those long-lashed eyes, the sanguine complexion a tone redder.
“Flatfoot faggot,” she hissed.
“ Your preference?” I politely inquired.
The silken sky was endless, the stars infinite, the breeze sweet with a thousand promises. On a night like this, the past is forgotten and the future is forever.
Tony Kingston loved flying at night, the huge aircraft slicing through the tar black sky like some tri-masted sailing vessel on a great adventure. Which is what Kingston thought when feeling poetic, when he let the drone of the three massive engines wash over him, playing their serene song.
Other times, burdened with the reality of a discount air carrier in the era of deregulation, he thought he was flying a bus, an over-crowded, undermaintained, ancient clunker of a bus. Now, as he acknowledged instructions from Miami Center and descended to eleven thousand feet he felt the big jet’s power under his hands. It was still a remarkable beast, four hundred thousand pounds of muscle, one million separate parts in all. Looking as if it shouldn’t be able to get off the ground at all, this huge aircraft was a testament to man’s genius, he thought, just as surely as man was a testament to God’s genius.
Hell, the fuselage of the DC-10 looks like one of those fat Cuban cigars-the Robustos-I bring back from Havana.
Tony Kingston looked through the V-shaped windshield and into the night. To the left was the vast darkness of the Atlantic Ocean. Below and to the right were the twinkling lights of Florida’s Gold Coast, Palm Beach merging with Ft. Lauderdale and farther south, Miami Beach. In less than twenty minutes, they should be pulling up at the gate at MIA. Listening to the soothing white noise of the slipstream, he took the measure of his own life, calculating credits and debits, figuring he was solidly in the plus column.
A former combat pilot, Kingston sometimes missed the action, the camaraderie of the flight squadron. But he overly romanticized it, he knew, and flying a fighter was a young man’s game. What he had now was a career: chief pilot for Atlantica Airlines. The title almost sounded military. So why did the job often leave him wanting more?
Because commercial aviation is to flying what elevator music is to Mozart.
But what had he expected? Surely not the same rush he got from his beloved A-6 Intruder rocketing off the deck of a carrier, a load of HARM missiles slung under its wings.
“Miami Center, this is Atlantica six-four-zero at eleven thousand,” said copilot Jim Ryder into the radio.
“Roger, six-four-zero. Maintain eleven thousand,” came the scratchy reply.
In a few moments, they’d be handed off to Miami Approach Control, which would guide them from the ocean to the airport for landing. With a steady easterly sea breeze, they would make a sweeping loop over the Everglades to the west of the city and come back again, landing into the wind. It was routine. Tony would line them up with the radio signals that indicate the descent profile and the runway center line, then ease the big bird to the ground. Copilot Ryder would keep up the chatter with Approach Control, and Larry Dozier, the flight engineer, would scan the myriad gauges, which assured that hundreds of mechanical, electrical, and hydraulic systems were performing as intended. Within minutes, the passengers would be heading to their hotels or homes or cruise ships.
“Atlantica six-four-zero, expect Harvest Three approach for runway nine left,” Kingston heard in his earphones. On his right, Ryder opened the approach chart.
“Confirm intercept altitude at fifteen hundred feet and decision height two hundred,” Kingston told his copilot.
“Roger that,” Ryder said, consulting the chart. “Final approach fix is Oscar.”
Kingston looked forward to the landing. Even with all the computerized help, it still took a warm body to bring the plane home. For all its drawbacks, being a commercial pilot still beat a suburban commute and a nine-to-five job.
So why did he miss the adrenaline jolts he remembered from the Gulf War? He could still feel the G forces on takeoff from the John F. Kennedy that sunny and windy January day, the heightened heartbeat as he approached the target. One of the “Sunday Punchers,” he dropped a missile down the smokestack of the Iraqi cargo ship Almutanabbi, docked at a Kuwaiti port. The American public watched the whole thing on CNN, including an interview afterward with Kingston on the deck of the carrier. He was unshaven, his dark hair tousled by the wind. Behind him, a navy seaman was painting a hash mark in the shape of a ship on the nose of his fighter. Kingston smiled and spoke comfortably into the camera, his crooked grin and pugnacious chin seeming to symbolize American fortitude.
When he watched the grainy, black-and-white videotape of the bombing, Kingston was riveted by something he couldn’t see from his fighter: two men walking on the products jetty alongside the Almutanabbi. They paused and looked up. So strange. They must have heard the jet or the whistling approach of the missile.
One man said something to the other and shrugged. Then they continued walking. Several seconds later, the blast rocked the freighter, and the two men disappeared in a fiery cloud.
Why hadn’t they dived for cover? Why hadn’t they run?
Now Kingston derived a tranquil satisfaction from flying the fat Robusto filled with tourists. With all the computers and automated gear, he knew he was no longer so much a pilot as an operations director, troubleshooter, and systems manager. But in an emergency, he carried the lives of three hundred people on his strong shoulders. He was good at his job and figured he had finally grown up. He no longer needed the rush of a catapult takeoff from the deck of a carrier. He no longer needed the Top Gun macho swagger, the envious looks from men, the adulation from women. He had been a womanizer, a fault common to combat and commercial pilots alike. Now he had a committed relationship with a wonderful, intelligent woman, and if she was also beautiful and twenty years his junior-so what, some things don’t change.
“Atlantica six-four-zero, good evening,” Miami Approach welcomed. “Turn right heading two-two-zero. Descend and maintain eight thousand.”
Ryder acknowledged the message, and Kingston turned the aircraft toward the west. In a few moments, they were over Miami heading toward the Everglades. Both men listened to conversations between Approach Control and other aircraft. At forty-four, Kingston was older than his first officer but in better physical shape. Jim Ryder had grown a paunch from too much hotel room service. Tony Kingston still had a military bearing and rock hard gut.
“Atlantica six-four-zero, you’re number thirteen for approach.”
“Jeez, we’ll be halfway to Naples before they bring us back,” Ryder said. He turned around in his seat to face the flight engineer. “Hey, Larry, you want to hit South Beach tonight?”
“Sure. Berlin Bar, maybe Bash, finish up at Amnesia,” Larry Doziev said. “How about you, Tony?”
“No thanks. I’ve got to finish my report for the union.”
“That’s what happens when you get married,” Ryder said.
Kingston laughed. “I’m not married. You’re married.”
“Yeah, but you’re acting married ever since you and the mystery woman got together. When you gonna show her off?”
“Maybe she’s married,” Dozier said.
Not yet. But I’m going to change that.
He had never before committed to one woman, always thinking the next one was the fantasy creature who would fulfill all his needs. Now, with the passage of time and more women-flight attendants, models, executives with one-night layovers-in his past than he could remember, he finally had someone whose needs he wanted to fill, a woman he loved more than he loved himself.
Lisa. Lisa Fremont.
The girl from down the hill in Bodega Bay who had traveled so far. He’d known her practically all her life, but he had been blind to the hell she had endured at home. Maybe if he hadn’t been stationed so far away, he could have done something. For starters, he would have thrashed Harry Fremont.
Lisa. How have you done it?
Abused child to teen runaway to underage stripper, then with the guidance of an older man-not him, damn it-a new path, summa cum laude at Berkeley and now law school at Stanford. He was awed by her inner strength, her accomplishments, and he loved her dearly.
I’ve found a soul mate, not a cell mate, and I’ll be faithful to her until the day I die.
“C’mon, Tony,” Dozier said. “Just one drink.”
Kingston scanned the airspeed and altimeter readings. “Sorry guys. Like I said, I’ve got work to do. Maintenance laid off another dozen workers last week. We’ve got twenty percent fewer mechanics and thirty percent more planes than we did-”
“I know, I know, but you’re pissing against the wind.”
Behind them, facing the starboard bulkhead, flight engineer Dozier swiveled his chair toward the front of the aircraft. “Hey, Tony, you might as well give up. Max Wanaker’s gonna cut costs till bodies pile up, and then he’ll make changes.”
“Tombstone technology,” Ryder said. “It’s an old story.”
“Or they’ll say the equipment was fine,” Dozier added, “so the accident must have been-”
“Pilot error!” Ryder shouted in mock glee.
“It’s one thing to drop the olive from the salad,” Kingston said, referring to a famous cost-cutting move of another airline several years earlier. “But laying off maintenance people, rushing inspections, and making us fly planes that ought to be in the shop or-”
“Scrapped!” Dozier interrupted, tapping his control panel. “This baby’s older than some of the girls Tony screws.”
“ Used to screw,” Kingston protested. There was so much he couldn’t tell them. Lisa’s relationship with Max Wanaker, president of Atlantica Airlines was one thing.
What could she have ever seen in him? But then, she was still a kid.
“Tony was a helluva lot more fun when he chased women instead of FAA inspectors,” Ryder said, getting in one last shot.
Kingston was thumbing through the flight manual, preparing to call out the landing checklist. “You guys want to land this plane or bust my balls?”
“We just want the old Tony back,” Ryder said.
Cowboys. All pilots begin as thrill-seeking cowboys. Late nights, high speeds, and fast women. I’m damned happy to have matured.
“You know what I want?” Tony asked, then answered his own question. “Joe Drayton. He knows his people have been pencil-whipping inspections they never perform. He’s gonna sign my report.”
Ryder laughed. “No way. Drayton’s three years from a vested pension. If he goes public, he’ll be refueling DC-3’s in Addis Ababa.”
“You’re wrong,” Kingston said. “He’s already slipped me the paperwork.”
Now Dozier was chuckling. “Hey, Tony, you’re the one creating most of the paperwork. Every time an engine coughs, you do an occurrence write-up. Every time we’re hit by a microburst, you write a memo on inadequate training for windshear conditions.”
“I’m just doing my job,” Kingston said. “Three days ago at O’Hare, I spot an oil leak on my walk-around. Some rent-a-temp mechanic comes over and wipes it with a rag. I refuse to fly the ship and I get written up. A couple months ago, they forget to replace the j, O-rings after doing a master chip inspection on an L-1011. The plane t barely gets back to Atlanta after the captain sees the oil pressure gauge light up. Plus they’re covering up their mistakes. Did you read the bulletin on the 757 Tom Ganter flew out of Miami last week, the one where the instruments went haywire?”
“Yeah. It had a wasps’ nest in the static sensors,” Dozier said.
“Bull! That’s the cover story. Ganter took a look at the static ports after he got her back down. They were covered with duct tape for Christ’s sake! The maintenance crew had polished the plane and forgot to strip off the protective tape. I’m telling you guys it’s only a matter of time before we kill a shipload of people.”
It was a recurring nightmare, a plane falling from the sky, the panicked cries from the passenger cabin, the thunderous explosion and raging firestorm that would silence every scream. He was not afraid for himself. Tony Kingston had confidence he could handle any crisis, as long as the ship didn’t fail him.
“Lighten up, Tony,” Dozier said. “Atlantica’s never had a fatality. Not one.”
Jim Ryder took off his headset and turned toward the captain. “Larry’s right. You’re crying wolf so often no one pays attention. No one cares.”
“I care!” Kingston thundered.
Rita Zaslavskaya stood awkwardly to let the man to her right get out of his window seat and open the overhead compartment. He grabbed a weathered brown leather jacket and slipped it on, then crunched her right foot under his wing tips as he slid back into his seat. Rita had a fair complexion, dark, curly hair, and a strong face that was more handsome than beautiful. She was a large-boned woman in her midthirties who stood six feet one and played volleyball with other Russian immigrants on Sundays at a Jewish Community Center in Brooklyn. She’d asked for an aisle seat in an exit row because her bum knee did not take kindly to cramped quarters. One of these days, she’d have it scoped. It was on her list of to-do’s, along with getting contact lenses, having her hair straightened, and finding a husband. The last on the list was inexorably linked to the first two, she thought and would be considerably easier if she would refrain from spiking the ball off the heads of every eligible bachelor in Bensonhurst, including a handsome but frail cantor from Minsk who had flirted with her ten minutes before she deviated his septum with a particularly vicious kill.
Maybe it was for the best. He was such a shmendrick.
“Excuse me,” her seatmate said, lifting his foot from hers. He’d been in and out of the overhead ever since they had left LaGuardia. When he wasn’t popping up and down, he was staring out the window in grim silence.
“No problem,” Rita replied, glancing at the old leather jacket, which the man had zipped all the way up to his Adam’s apple. “Isn’t that a little warm for Miami?”
“I’ll take it off as soon as we’re inside.” He was a small, paunchy man in his thirties with wispy pale hair and wire-rimmed glasses. He wore a wedding band, she noticed out of force of habit.
“Nice-looking jacket,” she allowed. “Good material.”
“It’s an authentic re-creation of the Army Air Force A-2 jacket from the Second World War, right down to the seal brown horsehide, the wool cuffs, and brass zippers,” he said, pointing to the sleeve patch with its winged logo boasting of the 9th Bomb Group. “Steve McQueen wore one in The Great Escape. ”
Rita didn’t know Steve McQueen from Butterfly McQueen, but her sense of logic was offended. “So why put it on now if you’re just going to take it off when you get inside the terminal?”
“The A-2 isn’t just for warmth. It’ll protect you in case of a crash or enemy attack.”
That made her smile. “I live in Brooklyn. Maybe I should get one.”
“I’m talking about fire. The danger is greatest on takeoff and landing, which is why I always bring this along, too.” He bent over and reached into his carry-on bag, drawing out what looked like a SCUBA mask. “My personal smoke hood. It’ll filter out the toxins.”
He pulled the mask down over his face, tested his breathing, then slid it onto his forehead, as if he were about to explore some exotic tropical reef. “Some people might regard my safety consciousness as…”
Meshugeh, she thought. Crazy.
“Excessive,” he said, placing a pillow between his bulging belly and the seat belt, then cinching the buckle hard. “Do you know the correct bracing position in the event of a crash landing?”
Before she could answer, the man bowed forward, as if in prayer.
Tony Kingston guided the aircraft on the downwind leg, occasionally looking out the windshield at the pitch black Everglades, a prehistoric creeping river of sawgrass, alligators, and marshy hammocks. Thethree men in the cockpit reviewed the landing checklist and waited for instructions to turn left and begin looping back to the airport.
Suddenly, an explosion reverberated behind them, a booming rumble accompanied by the discordant shriek of shearing metal.
“Jesus, what was that!” Ryder shouted, instinctively looking back toward the cabin.
Kingston tightened his hands on the yoke as the airframe shuddered. “Larry, what do you see?”
The flight engineer scanned his gauges. “Pressure on engine two has gone to zero. Fuel flow is zero. Shit, we must have blown the aft engine.”
“Perform engine shutdown checklist,” Kingston ordered. As Ryder ran through the items, turning off the fuel to the tail engine, idling the throttle, the aircraft rolled slightly to the right. Kingston fought the yoke to level the plane. “Ailerons not responding.”
Dozier checked the gauges. “Double shit! Hydraulic pressure zero. Hydraulic quantity zero.”
“Can’t be,” Ryder said. “We’ve got three redundant systems. You can’t lose them all just blowing one engine.”
Kingston struggled with the yoke, which trembled under his hands but wouldn’t turn. He locked his hands on the wheel, took a breath, and threw his shoulders into it. Nothing. The aircraft continued to tremble.
Ryder’s fingers danced over half-a-dozen switches as he scanned his gauges. “Elevators, ailerons, and rudder all inoperative,” he said, his voice strained.
“It can’t be,” Dozier repeated. “How the hell are we gonna turn? How are we gonna control our descent?”
We’re not, Kingston thought, rapidly analyzing the situation. Without flight controls, it’ll be virtually impossible to land. He tried to activate the speed brakes. “Spoilers not responding either,” he said after a futile try. He increased thrust on the left engine and the wings leveled off, but the aircraft continued vibrating, and a few seconds later, the nose pitched up and the airframe shuddered.
“We’re gonna stall!” Ryder warned, his voice breaking.
Kingston gave it more power, hitting the right engine harder. The nose came down, but the aircraft rolled slightly left.
“Miami Approach, this is Atlantica six-four-zero,” Kingston said into his mike, while fighting the roll. His voice was calm, but the words were clipped with urgency. “We’ve lost the two engine and all three hydraulic systems. We declare an emergency six-four-zero.”
The voice in his headset was equally composed. “Roger six-four-zero. We’ll vector everyone else out of there. Descend to fifteen hundred. Turn left to two-seven-zero and prepare for final approach.”
“That’s a problem,” Kingston responded. “Gonna have to use asymmetrical thrust from number one and three to try and turn.”
His matter-of-fact tone masked the tension building inside him. Inconceivable as it seemed, they simply had no control over the aircraft.
How the hell are we going to land this big fat bus?
“Copy that, six-four-zero. Advise when you’re ready to turn into final.”
“When and if,” Ryder muttered.
There was a knock at the cabin door, and Larry Dozier opened it. Senior Flight Attendant Marcia Snyder, a divorcee who had just put her third child through college, rushed in and slammed the door. Her face was pale, and her words came rapidly. “I was in the aft galley. The explosion was right over my head.”
“Did you see anything?” Kingston asked.
“No. At first, I thought we’d hit a small plane. There was a puff of smoke, but no fire I could see. I think part of the tail is gone.”
“Prepare the passengers for emergency landing,” Kingston ordered. “Short briefing procedure. We don’t have much time. And get me a souls-on-board count.”
“Already did,” she said. “Two hundred seventy-five passengers, thirteen crew.”
Kingston nodded his thanks. Marcia was already out the door, heading back into the first-class compartment, when Kingston turned to his first officer. “Jim, deploy the ADG. See if we can get some power out of it.”
The copilot yanked a lever, and a small propellor-driven generator dropped a few feet out of the aircraft into the jetstream. Dozier kept his eyes on his control panels. After a moment, he said, “We’re getting power. But without the hydraulics, it’s not going anywhere.”
“We have to do it manually,” Kingston said.
“How?” his copilot asked.
Kingston didn’t know. There was no procedure for this. He’d have to make it up as he went along. “Grab your yoke. We’ll work them together. Larry, get up here and handle the throttles. Let’s try to turn left. Ease off on number one and give some power to number three. Jim and I will pull like hell on our yokes. Let’s go!”
As the pilot and copilot tried turning their two-hundred-ton aircraft with the power in their forearms and wrists, the flight engineer crouched behind them, one hand on each of the working throttles.
The aircraft yawed shakily to the left, and the right wing tilted upward. “Too much!” Kingston warned, his voice rising for the first time. Excessive roll and the plane could flip over. One thing the DC-10 was not was an acrobatic aircraft.
Dozier eased back on the right engine and gave more power to the left. The aircraft rolled in the other direction, leveling off, but the nose pitched upward.
“Miami Control, this is six-four-zero,” Kingston said, forcing himself to calm down. “We can’t control the aircraft. When we correct pitch, we start to roll and vice versa, and we’re yawing like a son of a bitch. Don’t know how we’ll line it up with the runway.”
“Copy that six-four-zero. Got you on radar, forty miles west of the airport. We’ll have equipment waiting.”
Again, the big aircraft yawed to the right, this time the left wing tilting upward.
The controller meant fire-rescue, paramedics, and enough foam to float a battleship. But without the ability to turn, without a way to control the pitching, rolling, and yawing, they would not so much land as cartwheel across the runway. In that case, the only equipment they would need would be hearses.
“We can’t turn your way and we don’t have any brakes,” Kingston replied, “so I don’t know how we’d stop this thing even if we get it there.” He pictured the crammed apartment buildings and condos west of the Palmetto Expressway. “We don’t want to drop it into a neighborhood.” He glanced at his two crewmates and pointed down toward the ground. They both nodded. “We’re going to have to ditch.” He sighed audibly and signed off, “Six-four-zero.”
Below them, in the darkness, was the primordial slough. Kingston hoped for a soft, level spot, not a strand of mahogany or live oak trees. It wasn’t the ideal terrain for ditching but better than the side of a mountain.
Dozier was hurriedly thumbing through the flight manual. “Nothing here. Nothing for loss of all hydraulics.”
“It’s not supposed to happen,” Kingston said softly.
He said his name was Howard Laubach. Rita Zaslavskaya said she was glad to meet him, but she wasn’t glad at all. She had heard the explosion and felt the plane shudder. Now, the right wing kept dipping and the nose of the plane was sliding back and forth. She’d asked a flight attendant what happened, but the woman hurried past her and headed toward the cockpit, the color drained from her face.
“It could have been anything,” Howard Laubach said, a hopeful note in his voice. “A flock of birds could have been sucked into the engine. Heck, that’s brought down planes before. But the captain seems like he has this one under control.”
It didn’t seem under control to Rita. It seemed as if the plane would veer to one side, then overcorrect and swerve to the other side like a wobbly drunk attempting to walk a straight line. Other passengers were chattering nervously or praying or simply grasping their armrests with bloodless hands. Rita felt queasy, as if she’d eaten piroshki made with spoiled meat, and the look on the flight attendant’s face had frightened her. Something was very wrong.
She turned to her seatmate. “You’re pretty calm for someone who brings his own oxygen aboard.” She was annoyed that the man could be so oblivious to the situation.
“It isn’t oxygen,” Laubach said, testily. “I’m just prepared. If there’s a fire, you’d wish you were, too.” He clutched his smoke hood, as if she might steal it.
“What’s that noise?” Rita asked, jerking around in her seat.
“Landing gear,” Laubach said. “He’s setting her down.”
“Where? Here?” She leaned past him and peered out into the blackness. All she could see was the startled face of an insane woman. It took her a moment to figure out that she was staring into her own reflection.
Suddenly, a horn blared on the Ground Proximity Warning System. The nose angled up again, and both pilot and copilot pushed forward on the yoke. Tony Kingston already had given the tower his count: 288 souls on board. It helped the authorities when it was time to count bodies.
“Six-four-zero, please advise,” Miami Control said through the headset.
“We’re about to put the world’s largest tricycle down in the swamp,” Kingston said.
“Roger that, six-four-zero. We’ve got you on radar and we’re dispatching rescue vehicles.”
“Tony, I can’t keep the nose down,” Ryder said. “I’m having a real nose-up moment here.” His voice was cracking.
“More power, Larry.”
Dozier pulled both throttles back. “C’mon baby,” he coaxed her. “Level, level, level.”
The aircraft picked up speed and the nose came down.
“You’re gonna have to back off some more,” Kingston said. “We’re going too fast.”
“Without flaps or slats, I can’t slow it down without stalling,” Dozier said, sounding desperate.
It’s not hopeless, Kingston told himself, but he knew the odds were against them. At over two hundred knots, they’d likely break up on impact.
Dozier eased up on both throttles.
A puff of smoke, a sputter, a cough.
“Oh, shit!” Ryder shouted. “Number one quit.”
They were flying on one engine. Dozier immediately increased the power, but it was too late. The number three engine smoked, choked, and stalled. They coasted in total silence, the huge aircraft a glider.
“Okay, fellows,” Tony Kingston said. “We’re taking her in.”
For several seconds there was nothing but the sweet, sad rush of the slipstream past the windshield. Then the left wing dipped, and the plane rolled hard, the wings virtually perpendicular to the ground. Loose papers flew across the cockpit. Without the lift from the wings, they had only a few seconds before they would plunge nose down into the ground.
Tony Kingston fought the yoke, his cramped arms futilely trying to right the plane. He heard screams from the cabin, just as in his nightmares. Next to him, his copilot whispered a prayer.
Kingston wanted to draw out the last moments, to arrange his thoughts, pull up memories from the recesses of his mind. But there was no time. He saw her then, her face flashing by, beautiful but heartbroken, and for the briefest moment, he felt a stabbing pain, knowing of her anguish when she heard the news. He said it then, knowing the cockpit voice recorder would pick it up, and she would hear him or at least read the words. He told her he loved her.
A few jumbled images raced through his senses: his father, long buried; a cold Minnesota lake where he swam as a child with his sister; and then the black-and-white grainy videotape of the two men walking along the jetty in Kuwait just before the bomb hit.
What did they say to each other? Why didn’t they run?
IN THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE ELEVENTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT IN AND FOR DADE COUNTY, FLORIDA CASE NO: 96-00136 CA 04 (11) GLORIA LAUBACH,
individually and as Personal
Representative of the Estate of HOWARD J. LAUBACH, deceased,
Plaintiff, vs. ATLANTICA AIRLINES, a Delaware corporation,
COMPLAINT FOR DAMAGES FOR WRONGFUL DEATH
Plaintiff GLORIA LAUBACH, individually and as personal representative of the estate of Howard J. Laubach, deceased, sues Defendant ATLANTICA AIRLINES (hereinafter “ATLANTICA”), a Delaware corporation, and alleges:
1. This is an action for wrongful death brought pursuant to the Florida Wrongful Death Act.
2. ATLANTICA is a common carrier engaged in the business of transporting fare-paying passengers on regularly scheduled flights in aircraft owned, leased, operated, man aged, maintained, and/or controlled by ATLANTICA and its agents and/or employees. As a common carrier, ATLANTICA is obliged to provide the highest degree of care to its passengers.
14. At all times material hereto, ATLANTICA was the owner, lessee, and/or operator in control of a certain DC-10 aircraft, a dangerous instrumentality, bearing registration number N1809U, which was used to transport passengers as a common carrier.
15. Plaintiffs decedent was a paying passenger on board the subject aircraft, a flight in domestic transportation between New York City and Miami, Florida, and was one of 288 persons killed when the aircraft crashed in the Florida Everglades on December 27, 1995.
16. ATLANTICA, through its agents and employees, breached the duty of care owed to decedent by negligently failing: a. To furnish an airworthy aircraft; b. To properly navigate and operate the aircraft; c. To properly train its flight crew as to the procedures in the event of loss of flight controls; d. To properly inspect, overhaul, and replace worn-out and unsuitable components; e. To provide sufficient security to prevent the placement of bombs or other explosive devices on the subject aircraft; f. To operate the aircraft in a safe and competent manner, thereby resulting in the fatal crash in question.
27. As a proximate result of the crash, ATLANTICA is liable to PLAINTIFF for damages as follows: a. Pain and suffering of the decedent prior to death; b. Pain and suffering of the survivors, beneficiaries, and heirs; c. Loss of society, companionship, guidance, and services of the decedent; d. Loss of support; e. Lost net accumulations, lost value of life, and funeral expenses.
WHEREFORE, PLAINTIFF demands judgment against ATLANTICA AIRLINES, INC. for compensatory damages, plus interest and costs in an amount in excess of two million dollars ($2,000,000.00), and further demands trial by jury.
Albert M. Goldman, Esquire
“… Nine scorpions in a bottle.”
Study by Day… Strip by Night
On the night before her interview at the Supreme Court of the United States, Lisa Fremont did not know if she could go through with it. She wanted the job all right-what newly minted lawyer wouldn’t?-but then, the thought of corrupting the position, of using it to repay an old debt, was antithetical to everything she thought she had become.
But have I really changed? Am I Lisa Fremont, magna cum laude from Stanford Law or Angel from the Tiki Club in the Tenderloin?
Until today, she thought she could handle it. But that was before she visited the Court to get the feel of the place. What she felt was reverence, a sense of awe, even piety.
I got goose bumps for God’s sake! How do I explain to someone like Max that marble statues and musty law books and the weight of history give me goose bumps? He only gets excited when the Dow Jones jumps.
Using his own key, Max Wanaker had breezed into her apartment just after 6 P.M. He kissed her hello, poured himself a Scotch, and made her a Gibson, heavy on the vodka, light on the vermouth. Then he loosened his tie and tossed his Armani suit coat over a chair. He kicked off his black Italian loafers, polished to a high gloss.
Lisa wore a cropped stretch lace camisole and high-cut briefs, both white with satin trim, under a soft pink chenille bathrobe that made her golden red hair glow a buttery copper under the track lighting. She had put on the robe when Max turned the air-conditioning down to sixty-five. It didn’t matter if it was her apartment or his hotel suite, everything was always done to Max’s specifications. Now, in early autumn in Washington, D.C., there was a manmade cold front settling into the living room.
In more ways than one.
They hadn’t gone out to dinner. Too risky. Not because Max’s wife, Jill, might discover them. Jill was blissfully alone in Miami, well aware of Max’s long-term relationship with Lisa.
No, the risk was bigger now. There could be no connection-no nexus, to use the legal term-between Atlantica Airlines and her. If there were, and it became known, she’d be no use to Max, and his big plans would be blown.
If I can go through with it at all.
For a moment she wondered what Tony would have done, but that was easy. Tony Kingston was the Eagle Scout, the Top Gun navy pilot, a yes ma’am, no ma’am, guy who didn’t jaywalk, litter, or cheat on his taxes. But Tony was gone, and now the plaintiffs’ lawyers said he’d been negligent. Lying bastards! Vultures picking at the flesh of the dead. A part of her wanted to help Max tank the case just to shut them up, but she realized that was irrational, and hadn’t she spent all these years locking her brain into a lawyer’s sense of logic and reason?
After dinner, she told Max she didn’t think she could do it, and they argued until 2 A.M.
“An ethical problem?” Max asked incredulously as he paced around her small living room. “Three years of planning, and now you have an eth-i-cal prob-lem.” He dragged out the words, as if trying a strange new phrase in Tagalog or Punjabi.
“Yes, Max, I realize that’s a foreign concept to you.”
He stopped pacing long enough to absorb the insult, then ignored it. “Are you worried about being disbarred?”
“It would be one of the shortest legal careers in history,” she said, ruefully. “I could go to jail, too.”
“So that’s it! You are afraid.” He laughed, the told-you-so, condescending chuckle he used when the joke was on someone else. “I remember a time when you could walk, buck naked, into a party of drunken investment bankers and show no fear. You could control every man in the place with your wits and your poise, and now you’re afraid of what, being subpoenaed by some two-bit G-twelve assistant attorney general who drives a Chevy?”
Vintage Max, measuring a man by his net worth.
“If he drove a Porsche,” she said, “would he be more worthy of respect?”
Max glared at her, a black-eyed scowl that could terrorize a corporate VP or send a secretary home in tears. In the old days, Lisa was intimidated by him, too. Not anymore.
“What are you going to do, Max, fire me? Too late. I’ve got tenure. I know where the skeletons are buried.”
“Not all of them,” he said with a coldness that sent a shiver up her spine.
They stood looking at each other, Max Wanaker and Lisa Fremont, former lovers and current coconspirators. He was frowning, his gray mustache turning downward. He was handsome and dark-complexioned with salt-and-pepper hair swept back and moussed. A jogger and tennis player in his younger days, Max was starting to put on a little weight around the middle. Too many business dinners, too much booze.
She remembered the way he looked when they first met, ten years ago. Why did it seem like another lifetime? He had been thirty-nine, and she was seventeen.
Jesus, it was another lifetime.
She knew how much she had changed. But what was different about Max? Not. just his graying hair. In those days-before Atlantica-he was on his way up. Big dreams, boundless energy and optimism. He’d scratched and clawed until the dreams came true. So why was he so unhappy now? There was the crash of Flight 640 three years ago and the lawsuit, of course, but she knew there was more, and lately, Max wasn’t talking.
She poured him another Scotch, hoping to mellow him out. “I went to the Court today, just to look around. Jesus, Max, you walk through these giant bronze doors with scenes of ancient Greece and Rome molded into them. Then there are marble statues and busts everywhere. Lady Justice, Moses, Confucius…”
“Confucius?” he said, puzzled.
“I went into the library. All hand-carved wood, giant arches, a quiet, peaceful place. It’s almost holy, like a church or a cathedral.”
“Exactly!” he agreed, smiling now. “That’s what they want you to think. Like all those churches you hauled me to in Italy. Why do you think they built them like that? For the glory of God. Hell, no! They did it to scare the shit out of the peasants. You walk into a church, what’s the first thing you do? You lower your voice, you whisper. Same thing in your fancy Court, right? The judges are the priests- they even dress like priests-and everyone else is a peasant. They want to scare you into thinking you’re on hallowed ground, that they’re doing sacred work. Hypocrites! They don’t want you to know what they’re doing under the robes.”
Lisa walked to the window, looking past her balcony into Dumbarton Oaks Park and the creek beyond. Max had chosen the apartment, but unlike the old days, he wasn’t paying for it. At least not on the books. Two years ago, when she was still in law school, he began erasing the paper trail-the canceled checks, airline passes, credit card receipts-that would link her to him. It was his idea that maybe one day she’d be able to help him in a way no one could know about. It sounded crazy at first, just as crazy as taking a money-losing air-freight forwarder with three aging jet props and turning it into Atlantica Airlines, poster child of deregulation and booming international air carrier… until the disastrous crash of Flight 640.
“You’re very persuasive, Max,” she said, at last. “You should have been a lawyer.”
Max laughed. “No way, baby! That’s why I spent a hundred grand on you.”
“I don’t think I’ll get the job,” she said, softly. “I think Justice Truitt will look at me and see I don’t belong there.”
Or is that what I want? The easy way out, sparing me the hassle of refusing to do Max’s dirty work.
“That’s where you’re wrong. You belong anywhere you want to be. You’re the most powerful woman I’ve ever known.”
“I learned from you,” she said.
“No! You had the power as a seventeen-year-old but didn’t know it. All I did was mark the trail for you. You climbed it all by yourself.” He studied her for a moment, and she averted her eyes, her shyness a childhood trait. He smiled. “Anyway, don’t worry. The judge will take one look at you and want to adopt you.”
“Max, he’s your age.”
“Even better… he’ll want to screw you.” He laughed again, his mood softening, maybe pleased she was confiding her fears. She so seldom showed any insecurity.
“Stop worrying,” he said. “You’re going to get the job. You’re going to be the sexiest smartest law clerk in the history of the Supreme Court.”
“Maybe,” she said.
“You’re being interviewed by a man, and deep inside, we’re all alike.”
No, Max, you’re not. You and Tony were not alike. And I doubt you and Sam Truitt share much in common despite the same configuration of x and y chromosomes.
She’d never told Max that she’d become Tony Kingston’s lover after their break-up her first year in law school. As far as Max knew, Tony was just the navy pilot she’d introduced him to, the hometown hero she said would be a great addition to the Atlantica fleet. Well, she was right, wasn’t she?
“It’s different on the Supreme Court,” Lisa said. “You know what they taught us first year in law school?”
“Probably how to overcharge your clients.”
“ Jus est ars boni et aequi. Law is the art of the good and the just.”
“And the meek shall inherit the earth,” Max responded in the sarcastic tone she knew so well. He walked to the window and wrapped his arms around her from behind. “If the law worked so damn well, O.J. would have sucked gas, Klaus von Bulow would have been stuck full of needles, and”-he paused a moment, as if not sure whether to continue-“and your father would have been hung by his testicles.”
She turned around in his arms to face him. “And the victims of Flight six-forty would have hit Atlantica for several hundred million in verdicts,” she added.
“Sort of proves my point, doesn’t it?”
It did, but his cynicism irritated her. If Max were right, then why had she just spent three years studying law and another year clerking for a federal judge? Just to be another manipulator of the system? But even if he were wrong, how could she turn him down? Max had never denied her anything. He had supported her, nurtured her, helped her grow into an adult. In return, she had been his lover for most of the past decade. He’d been understanding when she left him during law school and comforting when she’d come back after Tony’s death. And now, for the first time, he wanted something more, something that collided head-on with everything she had learned the past four years.
“If justice is such a rare commodity,” she said, “maybe I should work for it. Maybe I should help put criminals in jail or defend the wrongfully accused.”
“You’re too smart for that. That’s sucker talk. I don’t see you in the Justice Department or in some public defender’s office with a metal desk and stale coffee.”
“I remember the first time you told me how smart I was,” she said. “It was endearing then. Now, it sounds like an insult.”
“There’s smart,” he said, “like book learning, which can open some doors but otherwise doesn’t mean shit, and then there’s streetsmart, which you can’t buy with a degree. You got both, which knocks my socks off.”
No one had ever expressed admiration for her intelligence before Max came along. Not her teachers, not her mother, not her father. Especially not her father, whose praise was limited to her physical assets.
Max had told her she could be anything she wanted, and she believed him. He gave her confidence and a chance at a new life. Now that she had that life, she didn’t want to risk losing it.
“Do you remember when you told me I was smarter than you?” she asked.
“Sure. It was the night we met.”
Max Wanaker walked into the Tiki Club and sat down on a bar stool in front of the stage. It had a rusty brass go-go pole, chains hanging from the ceiling, a scratchy sound system, and a number of missing bulbs in the multicolored lighting system. In the back was a darkened lap-dancing lounge with black satin couches. The place smelled like a mixture of stale beer and cheap perfume, moist mildew and industrial strength cleaner.
A connoisseur of strip joints, Max preferred the sophisticated atmosphere of Ten’s in Manhattan, where fifty-five exotic dancers stroll onto the stage in full-length sequined gowns, strobe lights blasting, smoke machine billowing. Tonight, he was slumming. Mainly because he had been bored, he told the limo driver to stop when he saw the flashing neon sign, LIVE GIRLS.
As opposed to what? DEAD GIRLS?
The sign, as effective as the Sirens’ songs that lured sailors onto the rocks, brought Max into the club. Now he approached the small stage, scanning the room. The strippers all looked as if they’d been ridden hard-the meaty redhead slouching on stage, out of step with Aerosmith, already down to her ratty gold panties, oversize tits barely bouncing, the two in lingerie at the bar, cadging drinks-all of them with big hair, six-inch nails, and siliconed melon breasts. He had one watery Scotch and was ready to leave when Lisa came on the stage to the music of Billy Joel.
Jesus, she’s just a kid.
She looked like a cheerleader. Small breasts, sleek reddish blonde hair, clear blue eyes, long legs, a full mouth, little makeup other than painted-on whiskers, something he didn’t get until he realized she was wearing a tight leopard skin dress with little leopard ears. She seemed embarrassed, and he was enchanted.
She could dance. She moved smoothly to the music, closing her eyes, which he knew was a no-no. It occurred to Max that he knew more about her business than she did.
You’re supposed to make eye contact, baby. You’re supposed to make every guy in the joint feel like you’ve got the hots just for him.
She was so young and so obviously new at this that Max felt a stirring. Not just to bag her. Hell, he’d bedded down half his company’s secretaries, more than a few strippers, plus his daughter’s fourth-grade teacher. This one was different. She looked like she didn’t belong here.
What’s a nice girl like you…
The old male rescue fantasy took hold even before he talked to her. What he could do for her!
And vice versa.
The leopard dress was off now, and she was holding on to the brass pole, each leg astride it, grinding her hips in time with the music, humping that lucky pole, her firm ass moving rhythmically in time with his pulse. Her eyes wide open now, she looked at Max and seemed to blush.
Now there’s a first.
Then she smiled shyly at him, swung away from the pole, and drifted up to the edge of the stage. He slipped a twenty-dollar bill into her garter where it joined a number of singles. The garter was all she wore, other than the high-heeled shoes. Her strawberry nipples were erect, her mouth set in an innocent, yet seductive smile. She never said a word. She just turned around and bent over, putting her hands on her knees and arching her back. She wiggled her ass clockwise, as if on coasters, stopped and wiggled counterclockwise. With impressive muscle control, her buttocks quivered in time with the music, and he felt the contractions in his own loins.
Later, when her set was done, back in her slinky leopard dress and little leopard ears, Lisa wobbled up to him on six-inch heels and inquired with her whiskered smile and cat eyes if he’d like to buy her a drink.
“What’s your name?” he had asked, “Jellylorum or Mistoffelees,” for he had just taken his wife to see the musical Cats in London.
“Rumpleteazer,” she said without missing a beat.
“You’ve seen the show,” he said, surprised.
“No way! My boyfriend thinks live theater is watching three lesbians in leather and chains.”
“When I was a kid, I read the Eliot poems. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. ”
“When you were a kid,” he repeated, smiling.
“Yeah. I thought the poems were silly. I think Eliot should have stuck to ‘The Waste Land.’“
“Really? You read a lot?”
“I’m taking classes. That’s all I do. Study by day, strip by night.”
He watched her size him up, noting the manicured, polished nails, the gold cuff links, the dark suit. She wasn’t even subtle about it just taking inventory, probably calculating her tip by the pedigree of his watch. Cocking her head the way the older girls must have shown her, she said, “So you want a private dance or what?”
He laughed. “You really are a rumpleteazer, aren’t you?
“I’m not J. Alfred Prufrock.”
“What’s your name? You never told me.”
“Angel,” she lied.
“Nah. I’m your angel.”
And he was. Max Wanaker, who at that time owned a Miami freight forwarding company and had just beaten back a Teamsters strike, rescued Lisa Fremont teenage runaway. He spirited her out of the Tenderloin and put her in an apartment on Nob Hill. It was there-where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars-that Max made an amazing discovery. Lisa wasn’t like the others, which is to say, she wasn’t after money. This brainy stripper read Dostoevsky in the dressing room between sets, picked up her high school degree in night school, and was about to enroll in community college when Max bulldozed his way into her life and suggested Berkeley instead.
“You’re smarter than I am,” he told her that first night. And then repeated it time and again until she believed it was true.
Lisa poured Max another stiff shot of Glenmorangie, the pricey single-malt Scotch he ordered by the case. He twirled the golden liquid in the glass, sniffed it took a sip. The ritual done, he turned to her. “So what’s the bottom line? Are we on the same page here?”
Speaking in corporate jargon when it’s my life!
“I can’t do it, Max. I can’t prostitute myself.”
Max’s face reddened. He stared at her in disbelief. “What!”
“I would do anything for you, but not this.”
“ This is the only thing I’ve ever asked.”
“I’m sorry. I want to help, but…”
Max had been wonderful. If it weren’t for him, where would she be now? But what he had given her-the education, the belief in herself-had changed her. She didn’t know precisely when she had rejected Max’s way of life, but somewhere between the Tiki Club and the Supreme Court, she had moved on. “You’re asking too much, Max.”
“After all I’ve done for you,” Max said, his voice a razor despite the mellow whiskey, “don’t you think you owe me this?”
He’d never said that before, not even close. Anger boiled up inside her. Her look was lethal, her voice icy. “Why not just total up my bill, and I’ll pay you back with interest. What’s the prime rate these days, Max?”
“It’s not the money and you know it. I just resent this attitude of yours, like you’re looking down at me.”
Lisa padded barefoot to the bar and dumped her drink into the sink. “From the curb to the gutter, Max. It’s not that far.”
Max looked wounded, like it was his blood going down the drain. “You stopped smoking. You’re not drinking. Is there anything else you’re not going to do, anything I ought to know about?”
She didn’t answer, just stood there, stone-faced.
“The new, improved Lisa Fremont,” he said, sarcastically.
“Don’t you like me this way?”
No, Max Wanaker thought. He didn’t like her this way at all. Christ who had she become? Maybe it served him right. He had wanted Lisa to grow, had encouraged her independence, but look what happened. The roses still bloomed, but they’d grown thorns. He liked Lisa the girl, not Lisa Fremont, Esq., the woman, the goddam lawyer. She’s been a tough kid. Hell, she had to be to survive. Now she gets misty eyed looking at statues and books. How long until she learns that her precious oaths and credos are just fade J ink on rotting paper?
Max struggled to control his anger and mask his desperation. He wanted to tell her just how important the case was to him. He wanted to tell her that it wasn’t just about money or even the survival of the company. He wanted to tell her the truth.
If we don’t win, I’m a dead man.
No, if he told her that, she would want to know everything. And if he laid it all out, what would she think of him? If he told her the crash had been his fault, that he had ordered the maintenance records falsified, that he had perjured himself before the NTSB, that blood was on his hands, would she help him? Maybe, if he told her the spot he was in.
Oh, he could rationalize it. Every airline cuts corners. It didn’t take Mary Schiavo, the big-mouth blonde from the Department of Transportation, to tell him that airlines would rather have their insurers pay off wrongful death verdicts than spend the money to fix known dangers. Simple cost-benefit economics, babe.
He just never thought it would happen to him, to his airline. And he never expected the guilt, the nightmares, the pills, the late-night sweats.
No, he could never tell Lisa the truth. He tried a different approach. “Why do you think we’ve been together so long?”
“Inertia, Max. We’re used to each other.”
“No. Because deep down inside, we’re alike,” he said.
“If that’s supposed to be a compliment-”
“We both see things the way they really are. We take the cards we’re dealt, and if it means sliding an extra ace up the sleeve to get what we want, then damn it, we do it. We don’t play by somebody else’s rules.”
“That’s not the way I see myself,” she said, sounding defensive, a measure of doubt creeping into her voice.
“A leopard can’t change her spots,” he said with a smirk.
“I didn’t cheat in college or law school,” she said angrily. “I worked like hell in the appellate clerkship. I’m proud of my accomplishments. I’m proud of who I am.”
“Dean’s list doesn’t mean shit in the real world, Lisa. You got good grades? Big fucking deal. I got MBAs from Harvard making my coffee. Sometimes I wonder where you get off. I mean, Christ, I remember where you came from. I remember the bartender. I remember the bruises.”
She remembered, too. Crockett was the day-shift bouncer and occasional bartender, a ponytailed bodybuilder with a hot temper and delusions that he was the next Arnold Schwarzenegger. She’d moved in with him a week after the one-way journey south from Bodega Bay, and he’d gotten her the phony ID and the job at the Tiki Club. She gave Crockett her tips, but they were never enough to pay for his hash and steroids.
“Some guys I know are having a party tonight,” he told her one day as she was leaving for the club.
“What guys?” she asked.
“Businessmen from out of town. They got a room at the Ramada by the airport.”
“So you want to go?”
“Not me! Ain’t my ass they wanna see.”
“I don’t do private parties. Sheila told me-”
“Sheila don’t know shit. Who’d pay to see her saggy tits? This is four hundred plus tips.”
Lisa was shaking her head when he grabbed her, his huge hands digging into the flesh of her upper arms. She tried to twist away, but he held on, pressing harder, slamming her into the wall but never letting go, using his size and strength just as her father had done to imprison her and break her will.
“I put a roof over your head,” Crockett said. “I get you a job. I protect your ass from guys who’d slice you up and eat you for breakfast. You fucking owe me!”
Thinking back now, here it was again.
Max, Crockett, dear old Dad. How many men do I owe?
She went to the motel that night, carrying a boom box, getting paid up front, then stripping for three drunken salesmen, all the time palming a miniature can of Mace, a trick Sheila had taught her. One of the scumbags, a paunchy forty-five-year-old wearing a wedding band, lunged for her. She sidestepped him, and when the other two tried to tackle her, she sprayed one squarely in his open, dumb mouth and kneed the other in the groin, a direct shot that sent him tumbling to the floor, vomiting.
The first man took a wild swing at her and missed. Lisa turned to run for the door, but he tripped her, then dragged her to the floor, clawing at her thong, drawing blood from her hip with his fingernails. He was about her father’s age, and those memories, so fresh then, came racing back, filling her with fear. She had vowed it would never happen again.
I’d kill a man before I’d let him…
She was on her back with the man above her when she worked an arm free and hit him with a blast of the Mace. He howled and toppled backward, his hands tearing at his eyes. Lisa scrambled to her feet, picked up a table lamp, and bashed it across his forehead, quieting him. Adrenaline pumping, she made it out of the motel room with her backpack and money but left the boom box behind.
“Dumb bitch!” Crockett yelled when she got home, backhanding her across the face, cursing her a second time when he counted the money, discovering the roll of bills was really a single twenty on top with nineteen two-dollar bills underneath. “Stupid jailbait bitch!”
Three nights later, Max Wanaker rode up to the Tiki on his white horse or was it a white limo? Whatever his flaws, Lisa now knew he had rescued her. She had been one step away from the streets. Cocktail waitress, stripper… hooker was not far behind. Max seemed to know everything in those days. He saw right through the Dermablend makeup she used to cover the bruises.
“Who did this to you?” he had asked.
“My boyfriend, but he didn’t mean to hurt me.”
“Where can I find him?” Max asked.
Even now, she could remember his voice. Grim and determined.
Where can I find him?
It would be that simple. No further explanation needed. She knew Max wouldn’t do it himself. The soft hands and manicured nails did not belong to a thug. But he knew people, had dealt with the Teamsters. In Max’s world, everything could be arranged. She saw the bartender only once more. He was trying to get up Russian Hill on crutches.
Yes, Max, I owe you, but maybe that makes me resent you even more.
“Sometimes you really piss me off,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” he said, backing off, sounding sincere. “You know how I feel about you…”
How? Say it!
How many times had he said the three magic words? Twice, she recalled, once after too much champagne and once when he thought he’d lost her.
In fact, you did lose me, Max. I was tired of sneaking in and out of hotels.
She had just started law school and felt like she was getting somewhere. So why was she stuck in this nowhere relationship? She wanted her independence, and Max was surprisingly understanding. He gave her time and space. He was secure enough to let her go, telling her he hoped she would return.
It was the best time of her life. She found Tony Kingston, or rather, he had found her. Discovered the baby-sitter had grown up. Lisa had taken care of Greg, Tony’s son, since she was twelve, helping around the house, admiring the photos of the handsome naval aviator in his spiffy flightsuit. Tony had never been married, and when the child’s mother-Tony’s teenage girlfriend-took off, he was left with a son to raise. Lisa remembered her adolescent excitement when Tony came home on leave, duffel bag slung over a shoulder.
So strong and decent, so unlike my own father.
She learned enough psychology to know Tony was the father she had never had. But he was so much more, too. Tony didn’t rescue her as Max had done; he treated her as an equal, something Max never did. Tony was everything. And then, suddenly, he was gone.
Just as Max had hoped, she came back. He told her she had changed, that he liked the old Lisa better. The old Lisa is dead, she said. He didn’t ask who she had been with, and she never told. The past and the future both remained unspoken.
Now, pacing in the apartment overlooking the park, he said, “I’d leave Jill for you in a second if you’d ask me to…”
She let the bait dangle. Ten years ago, she prayed to hear those words. Now, they left her confused and troubled.
“God, Lisa, I love you. I always have.”
Whoa! What did he say? And why now?
“Do you love me, Max, or do you just need me more?”
“When the case is over, I’m going to ask Jill for a divorce and we can get married.”
“Okay, I won’t pressure you. But you’re right about one thing. I need your help. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t. Hell, I’m begging you. This is even more important than you know.”
“I can’t. Not now.”
She thought about it. Hard as it was for Max to say it, he did love her. She never doubted it. And he had helped her when no one else cared whether she slept under a bridge or went hungry. Now he was asking her to choose between him and some flowery notions of right and wrong.
No one would ever know. It was just one case.
But what about her beliefs? What about the new, improved Lisa Fremont, to use Max’s mocking phrase? Could she put her new ideals on the shelf just this once? And how deeply did she believe them anyway?
The marble statues and bronze doors notwithstanding, justice was an ethereal concept, a divine ideal, which like sainthood was rarely seen on earth. Justice was the pearl in the oyster. Keep on shuckin’ and good luck huntin’. Despite the lofty notions she’d learned from the law books, her views were shaped by her own experiences. Weren’t everyone’s? What was it Justice Cardozo had said? “Try as we might, we can never see with any eyes except our own.”
And what my eyes have seen.
Now, after four years at Berkeley, summa cum laude-thank you very much-three years at Stanford Law, magna cum laude with a prize-winning law review note, and one year clerking for a federal court of appeals judge in the D.C. Circuit, she had all the credentials. So why did she consider herself a fraud?
She wanted to believe, but damnit, Max had pressed the right buttons. She was a priest without faith, a pagan inside the holy tabernacle. To Lisa Fremont, the law was not majestic. The slogan carved into the pediment-equal justice under law-was a benediction for the Kodak-toting tourists. The law was as cold as the marble of its sanctuary.
Disregarding the lofty symbols and images, she thought of the legal system as a dingy factory with leaking boilers, broken sprockets, and rusted cogs. The law was bought and sold, swapped and hocked, bartered and auctioned, just like wheat, widgets… and girls who run away from home.
In the upcoming term, she knew the Court would be asked to consider nearly seven thousand cases but would issue fewer than one hundred rulings. Law clerks, whose first function was to summarize and analyze the petitions seeking review, frequently complained about the workload. No problem, Lisa thought.
If I get the job, I’ll read them all. I’ll plow through the research, draft the justice’s opinions, and make his coffee, if that’s what he wants me to do.
She’d know the legislative history of the statutes and the precedential value of the cases. She’d master the procedure and the substantive law. She’d write pithy footnotes and trace the source of a law back to Hammurabi. She’d prepare incisive pool memos for the judicial conferences and brilliant bench memos for her boss. She’d stay up all night with the death clerk on execution stays, and she’d be at work at 8 A.M. sharp.
She’d be prepared to search for the truth, to do justice.
She’d do all of those things in every case… except one.
The case of Laubach v. Atlantica Airlines, Inc., would be different. She already had read the file. She knew the issues and the arguments on both sides. Even more important, she knew who had to win.
“I’ll do it, Max. I’ll do it for you.”
“Great! I knew you wouldn’t let me down.” The tension drained from him, and he smiled triumphantly. “We make a great team, Lisa.
When your clerkship’s up, you should come into the airline’s legal department. Pete Flaherty’s going to retire in a couple of years. How would you like to be general counsel?”
“Max, please stop planning my life. Let’s just get through this.”
“Whatever you say, darling.”
His smile was still in place. He had done it. And he hadn’t even used his trump card: the truth. If Lisa knew that his life was tethered to such a slender thread, she would have rushed to help him. But this way was better.
She’s doing it for love, not pity.
Max felt invigorated. Oh, there was much more to be done. She had to get the job, and she had to convince her judge-the swing vote, according to Flaherty-to go their way. But he had great confidence in Lisa. He would trust her with anything, a thought that made him smile, for he was doing just that. He was trusting her with his life.
Late that night, lying in bed, staring at the liquid numbers of the digital clock melting into the enveloping darkness, as she listened to Max snoring alongside her, Lisa confronted the stark, bleak truth. Yes, she would do what Max had asked. Not because she loved him, for at this point, she didn’t know what she felt. Not because she owed him, because that was never part of the bargain.
She would do it because her loyalty to Max outweighed her newfound principles. Max had been right all along.
She didn’t believe in the words carved into stone.
Her soul was as barren as his, her heart as icy.
Deep inside, she was just like him.
NTSB FAILS TO FIND CAUSE OF CRASH
WASHINGTON D.C.-(AP) The National Transportation Safety Board announced yesterday that it could not conclusively determine the cause of the crash of Atlantica Airlines Flight 640, which claimed the lives of 288 persons in a fiery crash in the Florida Everglades in December 1995.
Citing contradictory evidence and the failure to recover all the essential parts, the NTSB said in a lengthy report that it could not state with certainty what caused the aircraft to lose its hydraulic systems on approach to Miami International Airport. However, Board Chairman Miles McGrane pointedly stated that there was “substantial evidence” to support the widely held belief that a bomb was detonated inside the tail-mounted engine of the DC-10, causing engine fragments to sever the hydraulic lines.
“ Traces of PETN were recovered from the nacelle of the number two engine, but many of the engine parts, including the stage one rotor fan disk, were not found,” McGrane said. “Presumably, they are buried in the muck of the Everglades and will never be recovered. Without these parts, we cannot perform the metallurgical tests needed to reach a definitive conclusion.”
PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, is a component of plastic explosives. McGrane added that there was no evidence of pilot error or mechanical failure, other than loss of flight controls, which followed the apparent explosion in the number two engine.
Pressed by reporters, McGrane expressed frustration with the months of delays and endless speculation about the cause of the crash. On the day of the accident, armed U.S. Navy jets were conducting flights from the Key West Naval Air Station. He discounted the theory that a ground-to-air missile or an errant heat-seeking missile from a military jet downed the aircraft. None of the jets reported firing a missile.
Two weeks prior to the crash, a Cuban exile group in Miami threatened violent reprisals against Atlantica Airlines which, through a foreign subsidiary, had begun charter flights from Mexico City to Havana. Two members of the group, La Brigada de la Libertad, were arrested for allegedly spraypainting anti-Castro slogans on the fuselage of an Atlantica aircraft after climbing a fence to gain access to a hangar at the Miami airport. The group vigorously denied all responsibility for the crash of the New York-to-Miami flight.
The Junior Justice
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. sat here. Oh, not in this chair. Not even in this building, if we’re being tediously literal about it, Sam Truitt thought.
But Holmes sat here, at the far end of the bench, to the chief justice’s left, when he was the junior justice on the Supreme Court of the United States.
So what the hell am I doing in old Ollie’s chair?
Which was also, at various times, figuratively at least, the chair of Brandeis, Cardozo, Black, Frankfurter, and Brennan. Giants of jurisprudence whose thundering pronouncements were engraved in stone for the ages. Men of soaring intellect and towering integrity.
How will I even begin to measure up?
It was a rare moment of insecurity for Sam Truitt, who frequently was described as egotistical and vain, even by his friends. His enemies called him a left-wing, Ivy League intellectual snob who was out of touch with the real world. But friends and enemies alike agreed that he was brilliant and eloquent. His opponents feared that eventually, with a long enough tenure, he would be worth two or three votes on the Court, using his superior intellect and persuasive skills to sway others.
At the moment, though, Truitt wasn’t capable of persuading cats to chase mice. Deep in a crisis of confidence, drowning in waves of self-doubt, he was an imposter, a graffiti artist in the Louvre, a trespasser in a shrine.
Though he was a broad-shouldered man, over six feet and two hundred pounds, a former athlete still fit at forty-six, at the moment, he felt he was a dwarf in the imposing, marble-columned courtroom.
Sam Truitt still had not recovered from the confirmation process. Looking back now, the stinging vitriol of the personal attacks had caught him by surprise. On CNN and before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Republicans hauled out their hatchet men, and the sound bites dug deep wounds. He remembered his discomfort at being grilled by Senator Thornton Blair of South Carolina, mouthpiece for the right-wing Family Values Foundation.
“So if ah git this right, Per-fessor Truitt,” Blair droned, waving a fistful of Truitt’s Harvard Law Review articles on civil liberties, “you’d hire gay teachers but ban the Bible in our schools. You’d give away condoms to our innocent children and take away guns from our law-abiding citizens. You’d have federal marshals protect baby-killing abortionists but leave the public defenseless against rapists and murderers. Does that about sum it up, Per-fessor?”
“That’s a fallacious representation of my views,” Truitt said, sweating under the lights, sounding uptight and uncool, even to himself.
“Fal-la-cious, is it?” the senator asked rhetorically, making the word sound obscene. “When’s the last time you attended church, Per-fessor?”
“I don’t see the relevance of that,” Truitt said, backpedaling, trying to keep his feet on a rolling log in a treacherous river.
“Didn’t think you would,” Blair said, turning to the committee chairman. “With lawyers as thick as fleas on an old hound, you’d think the president could find one that reads the Good Book on Sunday mornings.”
The hate mail delivered to his Cambridge office had shocked Truitt. Protesters spewed invective and picketed in Harvard Square, calling him a card-carrying ACLU leftist and a pornography worshiper who cared more about spotted owls and snail darters than jobs and families.
Despite the uproar, the Senate had confirmed him, and if the 53-47 vote was not exactly a resounding vote of confidence, it should no longer matter. He was appointed for life, or more precisely, in the words of the Constitution, during “good Behaviour.”
With a capital B.
Sam Truitt intended to lead an exemplary life on the Court. He would do nothing to attract the attention of the Family Values Foundation, which had begun a “Truitt Watch,” promising an impeachment petition at his first lapse. He had a single blemish in his past “Behaviour,” one that attracted the attention of the FBI when he was on the president’s short list for the nomination. Ten years earlier, a law student named Tracey had filed a sexual harassment claim against him after he slept with her, but nonetheless gave her a C in constitutional law. He had remained true to his academic virtue-if not his marital vows-but Tracey believed he had not held up his end of the unstated bargain.
In truth, she had seduced him, but still, he had violated university rules. Stupid.
With a capital S.
In case he didn’t know just how stupid, his wife, Connie, had fixed him with that icy, New England smile and said, “Next time you screw a student, Sam, spare me the humiliation and give her an A.”
Before the misconduct claim could be heard, Tracey dropped out of law school, sparing him an ethical dilemma. Would he have told the truth?
Sure I screwed her, but she wanted it.
Oh, brilliant. Just brilliant. Want some more, Dean? The Veritas , the whole Veritas, and nothing but the Veritas.
While I was grading her paper on the legality of strip searches at border patrol stations, she came into my office and pulled up her skirt. “Want to pat me down, Officer?” She was young and willing and hot, and God help me, I’m just a man.
With a small m.
Or would he have lied?
I never touched her. She is obviously a deeply troubled young woman with an overactive imagination.
That would have violated his principles, but thankfully, he never had to confront the question. Ironic, he thought how his personal life did not live up to his professional standards.
Now, he had taken a vow of monogamy, which in his marriage was akin to a vow of chastity. When he told this to Connie, she laughed and said, “Don’t forget poverty. You’ve taken that vow, too, and dragged me with you.”
Poverty to Connie meaning the inability to afford a summer home in the Hamptons.
But he was serious about living a blameless life. No scandals in or out of Court. No ammunition for the Foundation’s muskets. He wanted a long, productive career, writing cogent opinions that would live forever in our jurisprudence. He wanted to join the thirty-year club with Marshall Story, Holmes, Black, Douglas, and Brennan.
I’ll drive my enemies crazy and then out-live them.
But that morning, Truitt was worried about getting through his first day, not his first decade on the Court. He felt as if he had sneaked into the ornate building. Just after dawn, he’d come up the steps and paused before the giant six-ton bronze doors. Even earlier, he’d sat on a bench on the oval plaza, the Capitol glowing behind him in the rosy early morning light. At the base of the flagpoles, he’d noted the scales of justice, the sword and book, the mask and torch, the pen and mace. He’d gazed up at the two marble figures flanking the steps, seated as if on thrones, Justice on one side, Authority on the other. Above him, sixteen huge marble columns supported a towering pediment with a sculpture of an enthroned Liberty guarded by other symbolic figures. Atop it all was engraved the lofty phrase, EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW.
In a place where the figures were carved from marble, he had feet of clay.
It was a building to be entered triumphantly on the back of an elephant, following a cavalcade of golden trumpets and shimmering banners. Instead, he felt like a thief in the night.
And now, Samuel Adams Truitt-at least the name sounded like he belonged here-sat in Holmes’s chair at the wing-shaped bench of gleaming Honduran mahogany, looking toward the heavens, or at least toward the four-story-high coffered ceiling, when he heard the voice of God.
“Justice Truitt!” the voice boomed.
Chief Justice Clifford P. Whittington both sounded and looked like God, if you pictured the Creator as a sixty-seven-year-old Iowan with a barrel chest, a rugged profile that, like the statues, could be carved from marble, and long, wavy white hair swept back and curling up at the neck.
Startled, Truitt swiveled toward the front of the courtroom. “Chief,” he answered.
The chief justice strode toward the bench. He looked vigorous enough to vault the bronze railing that separated the public section from the lawyers’ gallery.
“Getting a little head start on the rest of us?” the C.J. bellowed, his deep voice resounding in the cavernous chamber. “Or just walking the field before the game?”
The sole point of common ground between the two men, Truitt thought, was that they both had played football in college. Whittington had been a lineman at Yale in the days before face masks-though some liberal academics claimed he played too long without a helmet-then went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. He was a Renaissance man, a throwback, a midwestern farm boy who beat the eastern intellectuals on their turf at their game. He liked to think of himself as a common-sense judge with traditional values. Truitt considered him rigid, small-minded, and mired in the past.
Truitt also knew that the chief had huddled with Senator Blair, feeding him damaging questions for the Judiciary Committee hearings. If there was one man in America that Whittington did not want on the Court, it was the glamour boy from Harvard who appeared on even more news shows than the biggest publicity slut on the Court, Whittington himself.
“It’s customary for the chief justice to chat privately with a new member of the brethren,” Whittington said, somewhat ceremoniously. By this time, Truitt was making his way down from the bench. It didn’t seem proper to have the chief looking up at him.
“Can we still call ourselves brethren when we have two women on the bench?” Truitt asked with a smile.
“I don’t know,” the chief replied with a malicious grin. “I hear you’re the expert on sexual harassment, Professor.”
“I just figured you were doing some field research,” the chief continued, eyes twinkling.
“Actually, I’ve written extensively about sex discrimination,” Truitt said.
“So you have. I read your piece on the male-only military college case. You didn’t much care for my dissent.”
“I just thought it was too late in the day to allow a public college to bar women. The states can no longer discriminate based on gender, race, or sexual preference.”
“‘No longer’? I rather like that term. It implies that the Court has changed, which it damn well has. But the Constitution hasn’t changed, except for those twenty-seven amendments. So, how do you explain it Sam? How did we get so far from the framers’ original intent?”
“We haven’t. They simply weren’t faced with these questions in the context of the current era. If Madison or. Jefferson were alive today, I doubt they’d disagree with giving women the right to vote which took an amendment to their Constitution. I wrote a piece called, ‘Whose Original Intent?’ in which-”
“Read that one, too, and didn’t agree with a damn thing. As for your forays into legal realism, inviting judges to ignore precedent and use the social sciences to shape our lives, well it’s just plain dangerous. Then there’s your essay on legal pragmatism. There are no grand foundational principles, eh Sam.” The chief raised his bushy eyebrows. “Being a legal pragmatist means never having to say you have a theory.”
“That’s a bit of an oversimplification.”
The older man beamed a photogenic, white-toothed grin. He was still tan from a summer at Martha’s Vineyard, where he enjoyed tweaking the noses of Boston’s liberal establishment at clambakes and cocktail parties. Truitt looked directly into the chief justice’s eyes. The two men were the same height, six two, though the chief probably weighed twenty-five pounds more than Truitt.
“You probably think I’m a troglodyte,” the chief said.
“I think you like getting a rise out of people, particularly the junior-most justice.”
“Well, you’re not wrong about that, but I mean what I say. You know what makes me a good judge, Sam… hell, a great judge?”
“Modesty?” Truitt ventured.
Whittington laughed. It was a big man’s laugh, water tumbling over a falls. “Because I don’t have an agenda. I don’t give a rat’s ass if a woman has an abortion. But I object to this Court finding a constitutional right of privacy when the sacred document doesn’t mention the word.”
“Needless to say, I-”
“Save your breath, Sam. I know your position.”
Truitt wondered what the judicial conference would be like, the chief’s thunderous voice shouting down all dissent. He was reminded of Samuel Goldwyn’s famous line to a young screenwriter: “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”
“I’ll tell you something else,” the chief rumbled. “ Miranda is a disgrace. Hell, now the cops have to urge a defendant not to confess. I’d overrule the so-called exclusionary rule, too. If the constable blunders, why should the criminal go free?”
“I suppose you’d like to do away with the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.”
“Not entirely,” Whittington said, without a trace of irony. “But what’s the trial judge required to do when a defendant doesn’t take the stand?”
The old buzzard’s treating me like a first-year law student.
“The judge instructs the jurors that they’re not permitted to draw an adverse inference from the defendant’s failure to testify,” Truitt said, straining to keep the annoyance out of his voice.
“Doesn’t that just fly in the face of common sense? Why shouldn’t the jury consider just why the little weasel didn’t even try to contradict the evidence against him?”
“Because this Court held that such an instruction compelled the defendant to be a witness against himself.”
“A ridiculous decision!” Whittington roared. “I’d overrule it if I had the votes.”
A door opened, and a marshal in a blue blazer-perhaps attracted by the noise, most of which came from the chief-stuck his head inside, saw the two men, and ducked out again.
The chief lowered his voice and moved closer to Truitt, as if ready to share a great secret. “Sam, you know the tobacco case on the docket?”
“I haven’t read the briefs yet, but I know Blue Cross claims the cigarette companies manipulated nicotine levels to keep smokers addicted.”
“That’s the one. Just part of the modern-day trend to blame big business for our personal weaknesses. If people want to smoke, should the law stop them?”
“But that’s not the issue, Chief. Blue Cross wants reimbursement for medical payments based on-”
“Paint it with any brush you want, but it’s just another example of using the Courts to change social policy. You’re not inclined to favor the plaintiff, are you, Sam?”
The question jolted him. “I’m not inclined either way until I read the briefs and listen to oral argument.”
The Chief coughed out a harrumph. “Don’t get so damned self-righteous. We’re all inclined one way or another and on rare occasions can be persuaded to go against our predispositions. I was just hoping to count on you on this one.”
So this is how it’s done. Horse trading like congressmen in the cloakroom. So much for the holiness of the temple.
“You’re not lobbying for my vote, are you, Chief?”
“I’m just trying to see where you stand, but I’m getting the feeling that you and I are going to disagree on damn near everything,” Whittington said. “I can tell from your writings that you’re plaintiff oriented.”
“Only when the law and the facts are on their side,” Truitt said.
“The law is whatever the hell we say it is,” the chief said with a crafty smile, “and the facts can be read any which way we want. Oh, hell, Sam, let’s not get into a fuss yet. I just want to lay my cards on the table.” The chief paused and seemed to appraise the younger man. “I suppose you know I opposed your appointment.”
Truitt chose to stay as quiet as a little weasel invoking the Fifth.
“Well, I did,” the chief said, “and you probably think it was on political grounds, but you’re wrong. The Court is split into too many camps now. It’s hard as hell to put together a consensus. Too many plurality opinions, too many concurring opinions on different grounds, way too many dissents.”
“‘Nine scorpions in a bottle’ was the way Oliver Wendell Holmes described it,” Truitt said.
“On this Court, we’ve got field mice, gnats, and maybe a horse’s ass.”
“Which one are you, Chief?”
Whittington’s face froze for a second, but then he laughed drily, like a log crackling in a fire. “I’m the old lion, the king of the jungle. And who are you, Sam? Tell me why you’re here, and don’t give me any BS about answering your country’s call. I know you hustled like a son of a bitch to get the appointment.”
“I want to make my mark. Fifty or a hundred years from now, I’d like scholars to read my opinions and say, “Damnit, he was right, and he was right before anyone else’”
“Just as I thought, you want to be a star. That makes you dangerous because the quickest way to be noticed is to ignore precedent and strike out on your own.”
“I respect the past, but I’m not irrevocably bound by it. Jurisprudence must recognize that the law changes with society. All the great justices, Holmes included, did just that.”
The chief looked toward the back wall, where a sculpted marble frieze depicted a winged female figure of Divine Inspiration flanked by Wisdom and Truth. “When Teddy Roosevelt finally appointed Holmes to the Court, the Great Dissenter was sixty-one, which is what, fifteen years older than you. He’d been a Civil War soldier, a lawyer, a professor, and a judge in Massachusetts who’d already written a thousand opinions. He was the foremost legal mind in the country. He’d been tempered by experience, and I assure you of this, when he taught at Harvard, he didn’t prance around the stage like some”-the chief justice searched for a phrase-“some vaudeville comedian.”
Vaudeville? This guy probably thinks Bob Hope is a bright new comic.
“John Jay was only forty-three when Washington appointed him the first chief justice,” Truitt said.
Whittington grinned, as if he’d just filled an inside straight. “I knew John Jay. John Jay was a friend of mine. And trust me, Sam, you’re no John Jay… or Oliver Wendell Holmes, either.”
“I get the point,” Truitt said. “You don’t like my style.”
“I don’t give a dog’s dick about your style! All I care about is the Court. This isn’t a classroom or a burlesque hall. Don’t expect to hear applause or be rewarded with adulation. And don’t be impatient about writing opinions. You know I give the assignments.”
“Only when you’re in the majority.”
“When it counts, I make it my business for the majority to be with me. With all the different factions diluting the voice of the Court, we’re weakened as an institution. You’re way out there, and I predict a string of showy one-man dissents aimed at your Harvard Square and New Republic friends.”
“I suppose having eight other justices is a real nuisance,” Truitt said, measuring his words. “It would be a lot more efficient if you could just decide every case, maybe assign the opinions to one of your admirers.”
Whittington barked out a laugh. “Well, you don’t scare easy, I’ll give you that.” He looked around, as if someone might be watching, but the courtroom was deserted. “I like you, Sam. As a man, I like you. Hell, you and Curtis Braxton are the only judges I’ve got who can break walnuts in your fists or chop down a tree with a one-handed axe. Maybe someday you and I should Indian wrestle to decide a vote. Or should I say, ‘Native American wrestle,’ so as not to offend your sensibilities?”
“Chief, just out of curiosity, how long are you planning to bust my chops?”
“Not long, Sam. Ten or fifteen years at most. And in case you’re thinking this old billy goat is going to retire before then, I’ll remind you that Holmes was still on the Court at ninety-one, Bill Douglas they had to push out of here in his wheelchair. I never cared much for Douglas’s seat-of-the-pants jurisprudence, but he was a tough monkey. Christ, after his stroke, he drooled on the briefs, but he was there voting at conference, irritating the hell out of his chief.”
I think I’m auditioning for that part.
“Douglas used to call Warren Burger ‘Dummy’ behind his back,” the Chief continued. “When Douglas was too ill to read the briefs, a clerk asked him how he’d be able to vote. You know what he said?”
“‘I’ll wait to see how the Chief votes and then vote the other way,’” Truitt said, figuring it might be a good strategy for him, too.
“You got it,” Whittington said, nodding.
The conversation had wound down, and the Chief looked as if he was ready to dismiss the younger man. As he turned to leave he said, “Stop by my chambers this afternoon for the formal orientation and a glass of brandy.”
“I’m still interviewing for my final law clerk,” Truitt said.
“My assistant will call you,” the Chief said, as if he hadn’t heard. Or cared. He turned back toward the junior justice. “One other thing, Sam. I read the FBI files on you. It’s all hearsay, double hearsay, and innuendo, of course, but you have a reputation as having an eye for the ladies.”
An eye for the ladies. Vaudeville. Burlesque. Maybe I should crank up my Model T.
“Now, in my younger days,” Whittington said, “I cut a pretty wide path through the hay field, so I understand. I don’t care if you were humping one-legged midgets in Faneuil Hall, but you’re on my Court now. The Court of Jay, Marshall, Taney…”
“I don’t know what you’re getting at Chief, but I think you’re way off base.”
The chief justice ignored him and plowed ahead. “Your father-in-law’s an old friend. I don’t agree with his politics, but he’s a fine poker player. You never would have been appointed without him, and you sure as hell never would have been confirmed.”
“Senator Parham’s retired,” Truitt said.
“He still has friends on both sides of the aisle. So, it seems to me, a young man like you, a man who married into a prominent family, owes something to his wife, Sam.”
Truitt reddened with anger. He fought the urge to grab the chief by the lapels and tell him to mind his own business. “Chief, I’d appreciate it if you and I could confine our conversation to Court business,” he said, grimly.
“This is Court business! Frankfurter once said that the Court had no excuse for its existence unless it is a monastery. Now, he meant that we should be isolated from outside influences, but I think the analogy extends to personal lives, too. Do you follow me, Sam?”
Like a duck behind its mother.
“With all due respect, Chief, I think you’re out of line.”
“Can’t I get a simple yes from you, Justice Truitt?” the chief justice snapped.
“Yes, sir,” Truitt replied, feeling like a noncom responding to a superior officer. “I know how to comport myself, and I don’t need anyone to remind me.”
“Don’t use that tone with me! Can’t you see I’m trying to help you? You’ve got enemies out there, and if you screw up, they’ll ship your ass back to your ivy-covered tower.”
“Then I should thank you for your guidance,” Truitt said, gritting his teeth, getting the message.
If I roll over for the Chief, give him my vote, he’ll toss me a line, drag me out of the deep water. If I don’t, he’ll let sharks like Senator Blair and the Family Values Foundation devour me.
“You’re welcome,” Whittington said. “Good to have you aboard. You have my full support, but if you ever do anything to bring disrespect on this Court…”
The Chief paused, his eyes aflame, his smile menacing. “I’ll have your dick on the chopping block before you can zip up your fly.”
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF FLORIDA
Case No. 96-00148-CIV-Schenkel
GLORIA LAUBACH, individually and as personal representative of the
Estate of Howard J. Laubach, deceased, et al.
Plaintiffs, v. ATLANTICA AIRLINES, INC., a Delaware corporation, Defendant.
ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Defendant Atlantica Airlines, Inc. (“Atlantica”) has moved for summary judgment on two grounds as to the wrongful death claims asserted against it by Plaintiffs in these consolidated actions.
This action arises from the devastating crash of Atlantica Flight 640 in the Florida Everglades in December 1995. Howard J. Laubach was one of the 288 persons on that flight, all of whom died. In January 1996, Mrs. Laubach, acting as personal representative of her husband’s estate, filed this action in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court in and for Dade County, Florida. Atlantica timely removed the action to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1332 and 1337. Numerous other lawsuits involving the same incident were transferred to this District and consolidated with the instant action in accordance with the multi-district provisions of 28 U.S.O. 1407.
Laubach’s widow and personal representative filed this action pursuant to the Florida Wrongful Death Act, sections 768.16-27 of the Florida Statutes. She contends that Atlantica was negligent in several respects, including failing to furnish an airworthy craft, to navigate and operate the plane properly, to train its crew properly, to inspect and maintain the aircraft, and to provide sufficient security to prevent the placement of explosive devices on the airplane. She contends that the Airline’s negligence directly caused her husband’s death, and that she has sustained pain and suffering and economic damages as a result of his premature death. Mrs. Laubach is seeking damages in excess of $2 million from Atlantica. The complaints filed by numerous other plaintiffs have been consolidated herein on the issue of liability.
On December 21, 1995, Flight 640 left New York’s LaGuardia Airport bound for Miami with 275 passengers and 13 crew members aboard. The first two hours of the flight were uneventful. On its approach to Miami International Airport, there was an explosion in the number two engine and a resulting loss of all flight controls due to severed hydraulic lines. The aircraft crashed, killing all on board.
The cause of the Flight 640 disaster has not been determined, and may never be determined, because much of the aircraft is buried in the Everglades and cannot be recovered. The only evidence of record concerning the cause of the crash is that traces of explosive components commonly found in terrorists’ bombs were discovered on engine parts recovered at the crash site.
Standard of Review
In considering Atlantica’s motion for summary judgment, this Court must draw all inferences from the evidence in favor of Plaintiffs, the nonmoving parties. First Union Discount Brokerage Services, Inc. v. Milos, 997 F. 2d 835 (11th Cir. 1993). Summary judgment is appropriate if the record shows “that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). However, in order to demonstrate a “genuine” issue of fact, Plaintiffs “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Rather, they “must come forward with ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.’“ Id. at 587.
First, Atlantica correctly notes that the federal government exclusively regulates matters of air safety and flight operations. This federal regulatory scheme was enacted to ensure the safety of all passengers by centralizing rule-making authority and promulgating uniform federal airline regulations. Atlantica further points out that the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act includes a preemption provision “prohibiting the States from enforcing any law ‘relating to rates, routes, or services’ of any air carrier.” Morales v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 504 U.S. 374 (1992) (finding that this clause preempted state consumer protection law restricting the advertising of airline fares). Atlantica contends that this action involves questions of airline “services,” which are controlled by the federal law and therefore are outside the scope of state law. The Court agrees. Because federal law does not provide a private cause of action, Plaintiffs have no remedy. Although this result may seem harsh, this Court has no authority to create such a cause of action; it is a matter for Congress to consider and address.
Moreover, Plaintiffs’ claims against the Airline fail for the additional reason that they have not presented any evidence of negligence. While not conclusive, the evidence of record is that the crash of Flight 640 appears to have been caused by an explosive device planted by unknown third parties. There has been no showing of any error of commission or omission on the part of Atlantica that contributed to the planting of such a bomb. It is Plaintiffs’ burden to demonstrate such evidence.
Because Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate a genuine issue of fact as to the essential element of negligence, their claim fails on this ground as well.
WHEREFORE, the Court grants Atlantica’s motion for summary judgment as to all claims raised in the complaint.
Norman T. Schenkel, Judge
One Giant Step
Lisa Fremont stirred, crawling through the cobwebs of sleep, grasping at the fragile tendrils of an early morning dream. Through the fog, she saw herself stretched between Max Wanaker and Sam Truitt, who were playing tug-of-war with her.
“I love you,” Max was saying, pulling at one arm.
“But I respect you,” Sam Truitt countered, pulling the other arm.
“I need your help!” Max pleaded.
“But your loyalty is to the law,” Truitt said.
I want it all, she thought, waking up with a ferocious headache.
She had a breakfast of three Tylenol and black coffee. Max was gone, having left early to meet the lawyers for another session at the FAA, contesting a surprise inspection report.
Lisa had slept restlessly, her mind churning at the prospect of the job interview. She awoke several times, and now another dream came back to her. She and Max were in New York at a Broadway show. While in the office, he was a gruff corporate executive snarling at underlings, but take him to Les Miserables, and he’ll burst into tears the first time Fantine sings, “I Dreamed a Dream.”
Maybe that’s why I still care for him. But is it love or a mixture of debt, gratitude, and nostalgia?
Which made her wonder.
If I’m trying to change, if I’m trying to be different from Max, why do this? I want to believe in ethics and fairness and all the flowery words in all those dusty books. Why don’t I? Why can’t I?
She’d gone through so many changes that her life, which had once seemed so simple-should I wear the black fishnet stockings with the see-through toreador’s jacket?-had become incredibly complex. Including the really big questions.
Who am I? What do I believe in?
She didn’t know.
Late last night, they’d ordered Thai takeout and watched a movie. Just like being married. They had made love, but her heart wasn’t in it. It had become a mundane duty. A routine parting of the legs and disengagement of mind from body. Really like being married, she supposed.
Lisa wanted more. She wanted a man she would long for when they were apart, cherish when they were together. Sure, it sounded like soap opera stuff, but she’d had it once, oh so briefly, with Tony.
Lisa proceeded to get dressed, or rather to get dressed and undressed several times. She began with the double-breasted navy blazer. Three of them, actually, spread across her bed. One had natural shoulders and white buttons, the second padded shoulders and gold buttons, both with three-inch lapels, while the third was collarless.
After modeling them all in the bedroom mirror, she chose the one with gold buttons, a nautical flair.
If he hires me, I’ll probably get all the damned admiralty cases. And if he doesn’t, I will have let Max down, something he never did to me.
She stood in front of the mirror, holding the jacket under her chin. The strong, dark color suited her fair complexion and blue eyes. Okay, so they weren’t really blue. They just took on whatever color framed her face. They became emeralds if she was dressed in her Sherwood Forest aerobics outfit, as she called the kelly green tights and leotard. They looked like the shallow, turquoise water off St. Kitts if she wore the light blue silk scarf knotted at her neck. In the mustard business suit she bought on sale at Saks, an instantly regretted purchase, her eyes assumed a hazel cast.
She held up two blouses, both silk and pearly white, one with a mandarin collar, the other a V-neck. She had a good neck, so why not show it. Of course, under that theory, she should also show her ass.
She tossed the clothing onto the bed, the silk blouse sliding to the floor, the blazer joining a jumble of suits, dresses, and jackets already modeled, critiqued, and discarded. Now she was naked, studying herself in the mirror. It had been ten years. Strange, she looked younger now than she had as an underage dancer – “never say stripper, you’re an exotic dancer” -in her black garter belts, matching thong, and that awful red satin bolero jacket. And the makeup! Thick eyeliner on top and bottom lids, smeared upward to give a catlike look of sexual ferocity, her lips painted a deep crimson.
Who was I then? Who am I now?
“I’m Lisa Fremont,” she said to the mirror, extending her right hand to an imaginary interviewer.
“Ah yes, Ms. Fremont,” dropping her voice to a masculine timbre. “I’ve reviewed your curriculum vitae, and I must say, you have an impressive background.”
She laughed. “You don’t know the half of it, Justice Truitt.”
She gave good interview-top of the class, a first-rate law review note on the right of privacy, and street-smarts that her Ivy League competitors couldn’t match-so why was she so nervous? Another interview came back to her. In her last semester at Stanford, she had applied to one of San Francisco’s largest and stuffiest law firms. She’d gone to lunch with the senior partner and two young male associates-all suspenders, cuff links, and pearly California teeth. They were at the Big Four, a mahogany mausoleum honoring four railroad tycoons, a place so masculine that testosterone replaces the vermouth in the martinis. The old coot was rambling on about the glory of representing insurance companies, banks, and manufacturers with an unfortunate predilection-his lawyerly term-for producing exploding tires, collapsing ladders, and toxic pharmaceuticals. She listened politely, ignoring the two boy-toy lawyers whose leers suggested they couldn’t wait to bend her over a stack of Corpus Juris Secundum. She wasn’t halfway through her Dungeness crab cocktail when the boss patted his worsted wool suit pocket and turned to her apologetically. “It appears I’ve left your curriculum vitae in the office. Could you orally refresh me?”
The two associates snorted vichyssoise up their nasal cavities, faces turning the same color as their power burgundy ties.
“No,” Lisa answered, politely, “but I have a couple of girlfriends who’d love to.”
She didn’t want the job, anyway. Or rather, Max didn’t want her to have the job. He was already talking about the court of appeals job, a great stepping stone to clerking for the Supremes.
Lisa Fremont, clerk on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. That had seemed like the top of the world. But now, this…
After a year clerking on the appeals court, she applied for a job with Samuel Adams Truitt, the newest Justice on the Supreme Court, whose vote Max’s lawyers said they needed if they were to win. Neither Max nor his deep-carpet mouthpieces could help her now. To be a law clerk on the Supreme Court of the United States, you had to earn it.
She studied herself in the mirror. She had long legs with more than a hint of muscle in the calves, a legacy of the dancing. Her stomach was flat and her bottom tight, countess squats in the gym compensating for sitting on her ass the last twelve months in the chambers of Judge Mary Alice O’Brien, a sixty-six-year-old Reagan appointee who sipped bourbon during recess.
Still looking in the mirror, Lisa arched her back and stood, hip shot, an old pose from the club. Her firm, high breasts were too small for her prior line of work, Lisa had thought, until Sheila, the mother hen and oldest stripper, told her, “It ain’t what you got, honey, it’s what you do with what you got.”
From the Tiki Club to the Supreme Court. One small step for a woman, one giant leap for a stripper.
Now, she put on her makeup, a light foundation that covered the sprinkling of freckles across her narrow nose. Her cheekbones, already strong, took on new contours with a light dusting of blush. An almost invisible application of mauve eye shadow and a coral lipstick followed. She’d already blow-dried her short, reddish blonde hair that, like her eyes, changed color in different surroundings, taking on golden red highlights at times, becoming a flaming forest fire in direct sunlight. She’d gone through law school and her one-year clerkship with a shoulder-length layered shag. She cut her hair after her visit last spring to Harvard, a week after Professor Sam Truitt’s appointment but before his grueling confirmation hearings. She’d sat in the back of the lecture hall, listening and watching… and learning. Not about natural law versus positive law-she’d already read Truitt’s articles-but about the man.
The hall had been packed. No Socratic inquiry this day. It was a straight lecture, or rather a performance. The tall, handsome, broad-shouldered professor, a youthful, sandy-haired forty-six-as different from his faculty colleagues as she was from her fellow students bounded across the stage, taking the class on a trip, dramatically tracing the history of the law, the entire range of rights and responsibilities from the Code of Hammurabi to modern teenage curfews. Playing several roles, Sam Truitt became Madison and Hamilton tackling federalism, Zola shouting “J’accuse!,” John Marshall Harlan dissenting against segregation, and Clarence Darrow pleading for the lives of Leopold and Loeb: “Why did they kill little Bobby Franks? They killed him because they were made that way, and that calls not for hate but for kindness.”
Affecting a Boston accent, standing ramrod straight, he became Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the magnificent Yankee: “When the people want to do something and I can’t find anything in the Constitution expressly forbidding them, I say, whether I like it or not, Goddamn it let ‘em do it!”
He drew raucous laughter as Dickens’s Mr. Bumble, who, having been told that the law presumes a man to control his wife’s actions, responded, “If the law supposes that, the law is an ass, an idiot!”
Near the end, he became Willy Loman, telling his boss, “I put thirty-four years into this firm, Howard, and now I can’t pay my insurance. You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away.” Then he asked his students to consider the moral and legal issues of Willy’s suicide and whether the life insurance company should pay his widow. Before anyone could think it through, he was George in Of Mice and Men, shooting Lennie to spare him from a lifetime of imprisonment, asking what George should be charged with, and what are the moral differences between his actions and those of Dr. Kevorkian?
Cooking a stew of history and law, morality and philosophy, fact and fiction, Truitt mesmerized the students. Here was a professor who was witty and entertaining, profane and profound, charismatic and charming. It was a breathtaking performance, and afterward, the students stood and applauded for several minutes, whistling their approval, stomping their feet, crowding around him, peppering him with questions. Many of the women-Lisa included-desired him. She had to remind herself that this was a job, that Sam Truitt was her mark, and what she had to sell was herself instead of a seventy-five-dollar bottle of carbonated champagne in the Tiki VIP room.
But he was so damned smart and so damned sexy. What a powerful combination. In the tepid tea of academe, Truitt was a bracing shot of vodka on the rocks. Law professor as rock star.
She allowed herself a small fantasy. She was in the library of the Supreme Court, deep in the tall stacks, searching for some obscure precedent among the dusty volumes. She stood on tiptoes and stretched to pull down a volume, but it was too high. Standing behind her, Sam Truitt reached up and plucked the book from the shelf. Their bodies touched. She turned, and his arms slipped around her waist, pulling her close. She rubbed against him, an affectionate cat, and they kissed, a magical kiss that swept her away. Away from her past, from Max… from reality. She even tried out the name, Lisa Truitt, repeating it silently, then chasing the thought away. How juvenile! Sam Truitt was one of the elite. What would he see in her? Besides, dummy, he’s married.
The day after the lecture, Lisa hung around the student lounge, where several female students were sipping coffee when one gestured toward a tall, short-haired blonde with pouty lips who breezed in, sat down, crossed her long legs, and pulled a cellular phone from her briefcase.
“Guess who’s cutting Truitt’s con law seminar,” said one of the women, the apparent leader of the group.
“Teacher’s pet,” another answered, a plump young woman in round glasses. “God, he likes that Eurotrash, just-back-from-Monaco look. Remember the research assistant last year. Another shorthaired blonde.”
“Why go to class,” the first one said, “if you can get briefed up close and personal?”
“He does like that lean and hungry look,” an Asian woman agreed.
“I’m having fantasies about Sam Bam Truitt,” the first woman said, “and they don’t have anything to do with the due process clause.”
The other women giggled.
She turned toward Lisa. “We’re going to play the desert island game. Are you in?”
“Sure. What are the rules?”
“We determine the world’s sexiest man by the process of elimination. We start with two men, and you have to choose who you’d rather be stranded with on a desert island. We eliminate the other one and keep going. I’ll begin. John F. Kennedy Jr. and Sam Truitt.”
“Ooh, tough one,” the plump one said. “Does Truitt get a bonus for passing the bar the first time?”
“Up to you. It’s your fantasy.”
“I’ll take Sam Truitt,” Lisa broke in. “He reminds me of a cross between Harrison Ford and Jeff Bridges.”
“No, he’s more wicked,” another said. “Like Nick Nolte.”
“Yeah,” the plump one said, “and most of the profs look like Pee-Wee Herman.”
More laughter, and Lisa moved on. The day she returned home from Cambridge, she went to a trendy Georgetown salon, Curl Up and Dye, and had her hair cut into a shorter, layered “Princess Di.” She did it partly to look more professional, like a network television anchor, and partly to appeal to Sam Bam Truitt’s tastes.
If he’s attracted to me, it will be easier.
But she was also attracted to him and wondered if that would make what she had to do even more difficult.
Now Lisa finished dressing, putting on the white silk blouse, then a taupe-colored skirt, a below-the-knee number with four darts that clung to her waist and flattered her shape. She tucked the blouse under the narrow waistband of the skirt, then stepped into closed Ferragamo pumps with three inch-heels, maybe just a touch higher than necessary.
She lifted her chin and draped a double strand of South Sea pearls around her neck-a gift from Max-latching the chain carefully, then put on the matching earrings, a tasteful single pearl on a solid gold post. She slipped into the blazer and placed a silk pocket square in the breast pocket, smoothing it with her hand. She put two extra copies of her curriculum vitae in a soft-sided burgundy briefcase, imagining it stuffed with certiorari petitions, legal pads, and weighty briefs.
“I’m going to get this job,” she sang out, putting a tune to it. She was heading for the door when the phone rang.
“I need a baby-sitter,” said the male voice.
“Just called to wish you luck. Today’s the day, right?”
“In twenty minutes.”
“Go get ‘em. You’re the best.”
In her mind’s eye, she still saw little Greg Kingston in the Giants cap pounding his first baseman’s mitt, asking her for a game of catch because Dad was away, stationed in Germany or Florida or somewhere that sounded a million miles from Bodega Bay. She pictured the white clapboard house up the hill, gray smoke swirling from the chimney, Greg’s grandmother in the kitchen baking fruit pies.
She remembered running out of her own house one night, her drunken father diving for her legs as she flew off the porch, his calloused fisherman’s hands clawing at her. She stumbled and scraped a knee, then scampered up the hill where Greg’s grandmother took her in and dribbled iodine on the wound. For a time, at least, she’d found a haven from fear, a place where she could close her eyes without fear of what she would see upon awakening.
At twelve years old, she was Greg’s baby-sitter but soon became part of the family. Greg’s mother had long since taken off, and Tony was still on active duty, so the skinny eight-year-old boy with the hair falling in his eyes became the little brother she never had. Although he was now a handsome, lanky twenty-three-old with a mischievous grin, he would always be the kid wanting to play catch.
When she was in law school and had broken off with Max, Lisa returned home to visit Greg and found Tony there. He was nineteen years her senior, though still slightly younger than Max. She caught Tony’s look when they said hello.
No, I’m not the baby-sitter anymore.
She could still remember the feeling when their eyes locked. It was intense and immediate. Spontaneous combustion, the moment charged with electricity, and best of all, it was mutual. She recalled that first night, a full moon over the Pacific, wine and cheese on the bay in an old Boston Whaler. Sitting at anchor, the wind rippling across the water, they became lovers, their desire for each other unquenchable. Even now, with eyes closed, she could hear the anchor line stretching tight as a violin string and see the flashing channel buoy, keeping time with her heart.
The physical soon became more, and while the lust quotient never wavered, they grew together until they belonged to each other in a deep, encompassing way that she had never known. What was it about Tony that was so different? His honesty and decency, his capacity for giving more than he took. He loved to have her around, to listen to her, to share his dreams, his hopes, his fears. Their rapport was natural, their bond unbreakable.
My God, I didn’t know such a man existed!
Life, which once had been so bleak and gray, became a kaleidoscope of luscious colors. She had a family.
A man to love, a kid brother, Jesus, even a grandmom baking cherry pies. If only it could have gone on forever.
Now, Tony was gone, but the boy was still a part of her life, and she adored him. Just hearing Greg’s voice, so much like his father’s, sent waves of anguish through her.
“Where are you, Greg?” she said into the phone.
Damn. When’s he going to give it up?
“I thought you were going back to school this semester.”
“I got a job driving a forklift.”
“Atlantica. I’m in the engine shop.”
No! You’re going to foul up everything.
“Greg. When are you going to drop this? It’s been nearly three years. A bomb brought down the plane. Your dad’s dead, and there’s nothing you can do to change it.”
There was a silence on the phone, and she recoiled at the sound of her own words. But it was true, wasn’t it? What difference did it make what caused the crash? Dead was dead.
“I’ve been drinking beer with some of the guys in maintenance,” he said, after a moment, “keeping my mouth shut but listening, picking up dirt. The incompetence around here is pretty amazing.”
“Legally, it’s irrelevant,” Lisa said. “It doesn’t matter if all the mechanics were drunks with two left thumbs-”
“It’s not just them,” he interrupted. “You ought to hear how they talk about Max Wanaker. Dad thought he was a real turd, too.”
She never told Greg that his father might have had other reasons for despising Max. “Greg, I don’t think it’s healthy for you to still be obsessed about the crash.”
“We deal with our loss differently. You can close your eyes to it, but he was my father.”
“I loved him!” Lisa shot back, “and all this does is twist a knife into the wound.”
“I’ve got to find out what really happened.”
She listened while Greg ran through a list of what he’d been investigating the past three years. They’d been through it all before.
Her mind wandered. She didn’t want to acknowledge it, but the kid was right. Ever since the accident, she had repressed it, trying not to think about her loss. She forced herself to forget his face, his smile, the way she felt in his strong arms. God, how she missed him! Her lover, her hero, her pilot.
What she had just said to Greg was the God’s honest truth.
Tony Kingston was the only man I ever loved.
Scoreless in October
Sam Truitt came out of his chambers to greet her. He was wearing a blue oxford cloth buttoned-down shirt with a green tie that he wasn’t sure matched. The tie had little orange patterns shaped like the state of Florida, a gift from the governor to the first Floridian ever to sit on the Supreme Court. Truitt had left his suit coat in his chambers, purposely setting an informal tone, trying to put the young woman at ease. He’d shaken enough sweaty palms the last few weeks to know just how much pressure his young charges were feeling.
Truitt made a mental note to put his suit coat back on when he went out to lunch. A memo from the chief that very morning announced with considerable distress that certain justices had been seen in the corridors in their shirtsleeves. Truitt toyed with the idea of putting on a powdered wig and flowing robe for his promised meeting with His Holiness.
He approached the young woman, who sat demurely in a chair in his outer office. “I’m Sam Truitt.” He smiled and extended his hand, getting his first look at her. Startled by her beauty, he nonetheless maintained a judicial demeanor.
She rose from the chair and gave him a polite, how-are-you smile. “I’m Lisa Fremont” said the stunning woman in the navy double-breasted blazer. Her handshake was firm, dry, and warm. She had a fair complexion, eyes nearly as blue as her blazer, golden red hair, and what appeared to be a great figure underneath the conservative outfit.
No way will I hire her. No fucking way. Too good looking. Way beyond attractive. Connie would kill me.
“I see you’ve met Eloise,” he said, gesturing toward his secretary, a plump woman in her sixties who was perched in front of a word processor, eyeglasses dangling on a rhinestone chain looped around her neck. “Elly was with me in private practice, at legal services, at Harvard, and now here. She keeps track of my appointments, corrects my misspellings, and warns me when I have gravy on my tie.”
“At Harvard, you didn’t wear a tie,” Eloise said, without looking up from her keyboard, her voice disapproving. “Blue jeans and chambray shirts, you looked like a cowboy in a Marlboro ad.”
“Elly remembers when I couldn’t find the courthouse door.”
“His first trial was a pro bono criminal case,” Elly said, momentarily stopping her typing. “His presumably innocent client stuck a firecracker into the ear of a friend.”
“A couple of drunks in a bar,” Truitt explained.
“Boys will be boys,” Lisa said, easily working her way into the story.
“Exactly,” Eloise agreed. “So here’s young Scrap-that was his nickname before he got so high and mighty-dancing around the courtroom like Fred Astaire, cross-examining the victim.” She dropped her voice a couple of octaves and sang out, “Isn’t it true, Mr. Fiore, that you suffered no permanent injuries?”
“And the witness looks at me,” Truitt broke in, “and says-”
“I beg your pardon,” Lisa interrupted, cocking her head and putting a hand to her ear.
Truitt looked at her in astonishment.
“That’s right!” he said, impressed.
The story was meant to loosen up the applicant as well as test for a sense of humor. This was the first time anyone had the courage or intuition to beat him to the punch line. It did not occur to Sam Truitt that Lisa already knew his often-told tale from reading an obscure legal newspaper that had profiled him.
If only you weren’t so distractingly, maddeningly beautiful I could be as chaste as one of the chief’s monks in the monastery, but with my reputation, he’d still think I was shagging you.
Nearly all the 532 resumes Truitt had received were from qualified candidates. Top students from the best law schools, they could all write, research, and analyze. For his three clerks-he was entitled to four but wanted a smaller staff-Truitt sought a team with camaraderie. They’d have to put in long hours, but they should also be able to have a beer together. He admired hard workers, and perhaps because of his own background, appreciated those who did not have a law school education handed to them as a legacy. He also wanted at least one woman, and someone from west of the Mississippi.
So far, he had hired two men. Victor Vazquez came to Florida from Cuba with his parents on the Mariel boatlift, attended Miami High, worked two jobs at Tulane, then earned a free ride at the University of Michigan Law School, where he was editor in chief of the Law Review. Next was Jerry Klein, whose IQ was off the charts and who had dropped out of medical school to enroll at Yale Law because he thought it would be fun. He won the job by telling Truitt that the only difference between the two professions was that lawyers merely rob you while doctors rob you and kill you, too.
“I think W. C. Fields said that,” Truitt responded, testing the chubby young man.
“Actually it was Chekhov.”
“I know,” Truitt told him. “I just wanted to see if you’d correct me. You’re hired.”
Either Klein had chutzpah, or he lacked the natural instincts to be wary of correcting his boss. Either way, Truitt liked him. He sensed that Lisa Fremont had the same self-confidence. Only difference, the obese, pimply Klein looked like a sausage stuffed into an ill-fitting suit. This goddess standing before him looked as if she just stepped off the cover of Cosmopolitan.
Ten years ago, hell five years ago, he would have relished the sexual tension, the flirtatiousness that is a constant companion in the workplace. But there was a difference between a university faculty and the Supreme Court. The chief justice, bless his scurrilous heart, was right about that. The tabloids would love to have another scandal as juicy as the President and the intern.
Truitt was determined to be polite but brief with Ms. Lisa Fremont, then dismiss her and continue the search for the female equivalent of Jerry Klein.
“Let’s go into my office and talk,” he said. “If you’re up for it, Elly makes a potent cafe Cubano. Any that’s left over, we send to Cape Canaveral for the booster rockets.”
“Sissy,” Elly called at him.
“I’d love some,” Lisa said. “I missed my morning coffee.”
It was the first lie she would tell that day, but by no means the last.
Sitting primly with legs crossed in an antique chair more handsome than comfortable, Lisa sized up Sam Truitt’s office. It had that messy, genius-at-work look. Trial transcripts, pleadings binders, the official records of a hundred cases covered the mahogany desk, a brown leather sofa, and portions of the plush blue and gold carpet. Somewhere on that desk or on a wooden cart nearby, Lisa knew, would be the consolidated cases of Laubach et al. v. Atlantica Airlines. There would be copies of the pleadings, the summary judgment dismissing the cases, the one-sentence affirmance in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the plaintiffs’ petition for certiorari, and the Supreme Court’s four-to-four decision-prior to Truitt’s confirmation-to hear the case. Although it would take five of the nine justices to overturn the summary judgment, under the Court’s time-honored Rule of Four, a majority had not been necessary to grant review.
Lisa had already read the file, courtesy of Max’s lawyers. She knew the facts. She knew the law. All she did not know was how to convince anyone-much less the humane and sensitive Sam Truitt-to close the courthouse door to nearly three hundred grieving families. But that would have to come later. First, she had to get the job, and she was beginning to feel the butterflies. She tried to chase a recurring thought-that she didn’t really belong here. That all the higher education, and the fine clothes and the superficial gloss that came from flying first class and staying in penthouse suites couldn’t hide who she really was. Draping a streetwalker in mink didn’t make her a duchess.
All this time, I thought I’d come so far, but have I? Why do I feel like the same scared kid who ran away from home?
She feared that Sam Truitt would see right through the facade, that she would be humiliated and never get the job. For a moment, Lisa felt lightheaded and thought she might faint. Then she sipped the demitasse of Cuban coffee, waiting for the caffeine to surge into her veins. As she half-listened to the justice explain the law clerk’s duties-all of which she knew-she forced herself to calm down and concentrate.
Max is counting on me, and I can’t fail him.
She studied the chambers, looking for clues to Sam Truitt, the man. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves covered one wall. The books contained every decision of every federal court since the founding of the Republic. The latest edition of the United States Code, the federal statutes, were there, too, as were the tens of thousands of regulations of federal agencies. A computer at the desk was linked to databases that could research in seconds what would have taken days or weeks in earlier times. In the corner, half-a-dozen cardboard boxes remained to be unpacked.
A mahogany stand-up reading desk stood against one wall. An American flag with gold fringes was lodged on a pole in the corner. A framed black-and-white photo of a football team, the players and coaches sitting on bleachers, rested on an oak credenza, as did a partially deflated ball. Antique books with cracked golden bindings were displayed behind glass, and a portrait of Chief Justice John Jay hung over the fireplace mantel.
Truitt went on for a while about the pool memos the clerks prepare to help the Court to determine whether to review lower court cases. With little enthusiasm, he mentioned the importance of writing objective bench memos for him, fairly summarizing each party’s position, and listing similar cases that may have been omitted from the briefs. It was a mechanical speech he seemed to have given before.
Omigod! He’s bored. I don’t even have his attention. He’s already dumped me in the reject pile.
“Tell me about yourself,” Truitt said, leaning back in his leather chair and sneaking a quick look at his wristwatch. “Skip all the legal stuff. I’ve already read your transcripts and I’ve spoken to Judge O’Brien, who gives you a glowing recommendation. Tell me about Lisa Fremont, the person.”
He’s just being polite before showing me the door.
Lisa fought the urge to speak quickly, to cram a lifetime-and not an entirely honest one-into a minute. She took a deep breath to relax and began at her own pace. “I grew up in Bodega Bay, California.
He nodded and said, “ The Birds.”
“Right. They made the Hitchcock film there, but that was before I was born. I think of the place more as The Old Man and the Sea. My father was a fisherman.”
She paused, just as she had rehearsed, then watched as he nodded with approval. Tilling common ground, or rather, fishing the same waters, the son and daughter of humble men facing each other in the palatial Courthouse, one block from the Capitol, with the Library of Congress and the Senate offices on either side.
The Justice, the law clerk, and Joe DiMaggio… all children of fishermen.
“He was a shrimper mostly,” she said. “Crabs, too, depending on the season. For a while, he crewed on someone else’s boat, but usually he just worked alone.”
When he worked at all When he wasn’t drunk, sprawled across the convertible sofa with the popped springs, the sofa he hauled onto the front porch to her everlasting shame, the sofa where he lay, unshaven and reeking of sweat and beer and vomit, tossing bottles at passers-by, the sofa where on a dark night when no one heard her screams, he…
“It was a hard life,” she said. “Neither of my parents even graduated from high school. In fact, Mom was in tenth grade when she got pregnant with me. I knew I had to get out of there. I left home for San Francisco and went through a series of minimum wage jobs that convinced me of the need for higher education.”
“I don’t recall those early jobs on your CV.”
Let me orally refresh you.
“Just some waitressing, barmaid work, that sort of thing. One summer, I had a job at Yosemite, clearing trails.”
“Really,” he said, perking up, paying attention. “I spent a summer as a park ranger at Fort Jefferson.”
“Where’s that?” she asked, seemingly with real interest.
He told her that the Civil War fort was in the Dry Tortugas near Key West, but she knew that. She knew Sam grew up in Everglades City, that his father, Charlie, had piloted a stone crab boat and that he died of lung cancer at fifty-seven. She knew that Sam had camped out in Ten Thousand Islands as a young boy and fished off Shark Point. She knew he drew pictures of all the animals he spotted-water moccasins, manatees, ospreys, and alligators-and that he could imitate the caw of a mockingbird and build a fire from two pieces of wood. She knew he skippered a homemade airboat through the Everglades and built his own fishing hideaway in the islands at age sixteen. She knew he had won two hundred dollars in the eleventh grade for an essay about preserving the Glades and was rewarded with a trip to Tallahassee, where his picture was taken with the lieutenant governor.
She knew that the local Rotary Club had taken up a collection to help him buy books for his first semester at Wake Forest, that he worked two jobs and was a walk-on with the football team, which never did give him a scholarship. She knew he took a year after graduation to work with the Peace Corps in Central America, went to law school at the University of Virginia, and afterward spent two years with Legal Services, helping migrant workers in Florida’s sugar cane-fields, before a short stint in private practice and then on to Harvard to pick up an LL.M. degree.
Lisa Fremont knew all these things because she had read the three books and ninety-eight legal articles he had written and seven hundred sixty-seven newspaper and magazine articles that had mentioned his name. Thanks to the very same software that could find every reference to the phrase “capital punishment” in every judicial opinion over the past two hundred years, she could find all published references to Samuel Adams Truitt, including last August’s social columns in a Nantucket weekly where the newly appointed justice and his wife, Constance, enjoyed grilled lobster and sweet corn at Senator Parham’s summer home. For the early material that wasn’t stored on a hard drive, she had dug up copies of his high school and college yearbooks and student newspapers. Lisa Fremont was nothing if not a great researcher.
Now she maintained eye contact as Sam Truitt spun his personal history with the enthusiasm of a man who loves life and doesn’t mind talking about it.
At least I’ve got his attention. Now, be appealing but not seductive, smart but not arrogant.
After telling his abbreviated version of his trip from Everglades City to the Supreme Court, with various stops en route, Truitt said, “I appreciate the fact you’ve had some real jobs. I confess to having a bias against people who were groomed from infancy to become lawyers. It’s a great asset to have some life experiences.”
Does erotic dancing count? You wouldn’t believe what I used to do with my “great asset.”
“Do you have any underlying legal or moral philosophy?” he asked, and she was caught off guard. She knew that he’d written with admiration of the humanism of Jean Calvin, whose teachings provided the bedrock for the protection of individual liberties. She could memorize and take tests and research the law, but…
What do I believe?
It was the same question that plagued her last night. Though she wished it were otherwise, she didn’t believe the slogans on the pediments. At best she had an ideology that came from listening to Max Wanaker’s theory of enlightened self-interest.
Do unto others before they do unto you.
“I’m not sure I have a clear, discernible philosophy,” she said, sounding lame, hating her answer, knowing it disappointed him.
“If you were a judge,” he asked, giving her a second chance, “what moral and ethical framework would you bring to the courtroom?”
She bought time by finishing her Cuban coffee, feeling the caffeine rush. She needed to wing it, to spin bullshit into gold. Wasn’t that a large measure of lawyering? She’d won moot court at Stanford by keeping her poise and cleverly answering the unexpected question, but just now, she lost her concentration. Her mind flashed back to Max and the way he looked last night, how desperate he seemed about the case.
“ This is more important than you know.”
Why? And why wouldn’t he tell her more? Sure, the case was important. Jesus, nearly three hundred people had died. Damage claims could exceed half a billion dollars. But that’s why every airline carries massive amounts of insurance. Other than a quick spurt of adverse publicity from a megabucks verdict if Atlantica lost the case, what was the crisis?
Regaining her focus, Lisa was aware of Justice Truitt staring at her, waiting for her answer. “I’d just call them the way I saw them,” she said, using the sports cliche, falling deeper into the pit she had dug. The look on his face told her he was dissatisfied.
“Let’s try it this way,” he said, patiently. “What’s your view of Calvinism?”
She forced herself to focus. That she could be sitting here, in this majestic building, being asked to judge the work of a sixteenth-century French theologian struck her as both quaint and oddly moving. Sam Truitt, a man whose own words would be studied and critiqued by scholars a century from now, actually sought her opinion.
And I have none.
Oh, she could recite Calvin’s belief in the ultimate power of the moral law. She could ace any test on Aquinas or Aristotle, Bacon or Bentham. She was smart with what Max derisively called “book learning.”
But beneath it, she had no core, no body of beliefs that shaped her. She was an empty vessel, and realizing it, she suddenly felt chilled and frighteningly alone.
The justice waited for her reply. The easiest course would be to agree with his well-known written work. But she knew that he hated bootlickers. She needed to get back on track, back to the job she had promised Max she would do.
Oh Max, what have you gotten me into? I can’t hack it here.
Struggling to control her emotions, she pushed away the anxiety and the dread. “You probably don’t agree,” she said, haltingly, “but I’ve never thought that there is a natural law arising independent of governments. I take the view that all moral obligations are artificially realized, imposed by governments.”
“Aha!” he said, rising to the challenge, and in fact rising out of his chair and beginning to pace in front of the credenza. “You’re with Hobbes! You’re a bloody Royalist.”
“He was more realistic than Calvin,” she said. “Hobbes understood that moral obligations require laws, not the goodwill of men. It’s the sovereign that sets the rules, not our own consciences.”
She gave him a half smile and cocked her head. In another setting, it would have been flirtatious. Here, in the midst of a polemical quarrel that Cromwell and Charles the First might have had, if they spoke at all, it was an intellectual challenge.
“I think you have it backward,” he said. “‘We, the people-’“
“To coin a phrase,” she interrupted, beginning to feel more comfortable in the ebb and flow of a dialectic debate she was prepared to win or lose, as the situation required.
He laughed and continued. “The people give the government its rules, but those rules arise from natural laws. Take the Decalogue of Exodus. Thou shall not kill. Thou shall not bear false witness…”
Thou shall not commit adultery.
Funny how that popped into her head as she watched the judge-her judge-stalk around the perimeter of his chambers, a smaller stage than in Cambridge. He had the enthusiasm of a young boy and the wisdom of philosopher. Not to mention the body of an athlete and the easy grin of a man who finds the world amusing.
A damned intoxicating combination in the person of Samuel Adams Truitt. If only you weren’t married, if only this weren’t a job.
Truitt carried on for a while, attacking Hobbes for his view that government could prescribe an official religion and ban all others, which she admitted was a mistake.
“A mistake this Court unanimously followed in 1892,” he said, shaking his head sadly, “when it held that the government can prohibit the exercise of religions other than Christianity. Four years later, the Court upheld laws prohibiting blacks from riding in the same railroad cars with whites. The decisions were wrong because they violated the natural law, as codified in our Constitution. Under Calvin, citizens can resist immoral laws because the sovereign is beholden to the natural law.”
“But who determines what the natural law encompasses?” she asked. “In the 1870s, the Supreme Court said it was the ‘law of the creator’ that women be barred from becoming lawyers. These days, a lunatic in Florida says God tells him to kill a doctor who performs abortions. Does he have the right to ignore the lesser law of the government?”
“No, because the most basic natural law of all is not to kill.”
And so it went, teacher and student, judge and clerk, man and woman, traveling through the centuries on the magic carpet of their mutual knowledge, Truitt noting that being “endowed with certain rights by their Creator” came from Calvin, Lisa responding that the “pursuit of happiness” came from Hobbes.
She was focused now and ready to impress the justice with her erudition on a number of subjects, all of which interested him, she knew from her research.
I’m rallying. I think he likes me.
Truitt sat down again, and they spoke easily for another forty minutes, Lisa working into the conversation a cross section of popular culture. She mentioned novels that moved her, films that resonated, and rock music she loved, the songs invariably stemming from Truitt’s era. She moved the conversation toward the American musical theater and why didn’t they write shows like Guys and Dolls anymore? He agreed, telling her he had acted, though not very well, in a college production of the show about a thousand years ago.
“You must have been a wonderful Sky Masterson,” she said.
“Actually, I was Big Jule.”
“No!” she said, feigning surprise. She’d already seen the yearbook photo of young Sam, brawny in a gangster’s pinstriped double-breasted suit with exaggerated lapels and enough shoulder padding for an offensive lineman. He was hoisting Sky Masterson up by his somewhat narrower lapels, holding him two feet off the stage floor with one hand. “I really would have thought you’d have the romantic lead.” She blushed, her face seeming as red as her hair. “Oh… I didn’t mean…” The more she stammered, the redder she became, a trick that required holding her breath, or at least not inhaling while she spoke. “I’m sorry, I mean… If I said anything inappropriate…”
“No. That’s all right. I was just the biggest guy in the University Thespians. It was either play the heavy or haul the scenery around.”
She quickly regained the composure she had really never lost. The blushing, stuttering episode had bee i rehearsed in front of a mirror just as Sam Truitt had rehearsed “Luck Be a Lady” so many years ago. It had seemed to her that being too polished, too poised, might come off as artificial and, well… rehearsed. So the momentary slip had the dual purpose of making her seem human and letting him know she found him attractive. I like her, Sam Truitt thought. She’s bright and beautiful, articulate and interesting, but beyond all that… I like her. Obviously, she can do the work. And she’d be fun to have around.
If only she weren’t so damned sexy.
“Is there anything you want to ask me?” Truitt said.
“I was looking at the football you were holding. Did I read somewhere that you were captain of your college team?”
“No, I wasn’t good enough for that. I was captain of the special teams.”
“What made them so special?”
He laughed. At least she wasn’t an expert on everything. “At Wake Forest, nothing, I assure you. I was the long snapper.”
“Sounds like a fish,” she said with a feminine shrug.
“I spent all my playing time looking between my legs, snapping the ball to the punter or field goal kicker. It’s a knack, seeing the world upside down and putting a tight spiral on the ball, getting it to the punter, nose up, in seven-tenths of a second, thigh high, so he can think just about the kick. A good snapper gets the ball to the punter faster than the quarterback can throw it the same distance.”
“Really? I guess it’s much more complicated than most people realize,” she said, encouraging him.
“It sure is. You fire the ball with the right hand, guide it with the left. Before the snap, if you squeeze the ball, or cock your wrist, the defensive linemen will time their rush and get a jump on your linemen. So no hitches, no nerves, and most important, you’ve got to have the perfect stance. You’ve got to keep your ass down.” He laughed and went on, “Which, come to think of it, was the president’s advice when he appointed me to this scorpions’ nest. ‘Keep your ass down until you get the lay of the land.’“
“Sounds smart. You’re here for life. Why be impatient to make your mark?”
“I’ve never been good at laying low,” he said, then walked to the credenza and picked up the partially inflated football. Although he didn’t ask her to, she rose from the chair and joined him there, putting her hands on the cracked leather. It was, in its way, an intimate gesture, each of them touching the other, through an intermediary, the old football. She ran her fingers across the chipped white paint that spelled out, WAKE FOREST 16 – FURMAN 10.
She has beautiful hands. What’s happening? Jesus, Sam, act like a judge, not a schoolboy.
“It was my last game, my only game ball. A reward for playing three years without a bad snap. That and some tackles on the kickoff team. Unfortunately we didn’t kick off much.”
“I know enough about the game to understand that. You didn’t score often, right?”
“Often? The Demon Deacons were scoreless in October.”
‘“Scoreless in October,’“ she repeated with a laugh that trilled like a pine warbler in the Carolina woods. “Sounds like a movie tide.”
“Or a lonely fraternity boy’s lament,” he said, chuckling.
“Or the number of opinions the junior justice writes his first month on the bench,” she said, keeping the ball in the air.
“I’m afraid the C.J. would agree with that,” Truitt said. “It’s going to take me a while to get used to being the new kid on the block. I was playing basketball with Justice Braxton yesterday, and he started calling me ‘Junior’ just to mess up my jump shot. Did you know there’s a basketball court above the courtroom?”
She nodded. “The highest court in the land.”
“Right again. You seem to have a feel for this place.”
And for me. What am I going to do? She’s almost too good to be true.
Lisa watched him squeeze the old football, seemingly lost in a private thought. “You speak very fondly of your football team,” she said, “even though…”
“We were really abysmal,” he said, finishing her sentence.
“But winning wasn’t everything to you, was it?”
“I haven’t thought about it much, but you’re right. We lost ten games in a row before beating Furman. I loved the game and I loved my teammates, even though we were probably the worst team in the history of college football.”
“No,” she said in mock disbelief.
“You can look it up,” he said, but of course she already had.
“In 1974, we were shut out five games in a row by a combined score of two hundred and ten to zero,” Truitt said. “North Carolina, Oklahoma, Penn State, Maryland, Virginia, and Clemson.”
“Wow, is that some kind of record?”
“Maybe. We even lost to William and Mary, and I suspect Mary could have done it all by herself.”
She laughed, knowing he’d used the line many times before. She was turning the tables on him, becoming the interrogator. “What did you learn from all the losses? About life, I mean.”
“No one’s ever asked me that,” he said, seeming to think it over.
C’mon, Sam. Every man I’ve ever known loves to talk about himself.
“The value of hard work, patience, and discipline,” he said after a moment. “That to win you have to sweat and sacrifice and put the team first and even if you do all of those things, you may still lose, but that it’s no disgrace to lose with honor. Most of all, I learned that you’ve got to play the game within the rules, and that surely goes for life, too.”
The rules. Max Wanaker makes his up as he goes along. Sam Truitt follows the ones engraved in the marble.
The phone buzzed just as Truitt was telling how he got the nickname “Scrap” and how the little-used kickoff team was called the “Scrap Pack.”
“The chief says you’re to come to his chambers right away,” Eloise said over the speaker.
“Tell the chief I don’t work for him,” Truitt replied.
“No, sir!” Eloise screeched over the intercom. “We’re not going to start off seeing who’s got the biggest bulge in his briefs. I’ll tell him you’re in conference and will be there the instant you’re free.”
The intercom went dead, and there was a moment of silence as interviewer and interviewee tried to remember exactly where their conversation had ended.
“That’s probably the only time anyone will catch you quoting Justice McReynolds,” Lisa said.
“You picked up on that?” Truitt asked, astonished. “That’s a really arcane bit of Court trivia.”
He looked at her with something approaching awe, and Lisa smiled.
“Back in the 1930s,” she said, “Chief Justice Hughes left a message with McReynolds’s secretary. ‘Tell the justice to come to my chambers at once, and wear his robes.’ McReynolds responded with… well, just what you said. ‘Tell the Chief I don’t work for him/”
“McReynolds was a real misanthrope, a racist, and a bigot,” Truitt said. “But you probably know that, don’t you?”
“I know he wouldn’t appear for the Court photo because he didn’t want to be in a picture with a Hebrew. That’s what he called Brandeis.”
Showing off now. Put a lid on it, Lisa.
“That was him. And you’re right. It’s the only time I’ll quote the bastard.” Truitt glanced at his watch. “Whoa. We’ve been at it for nearly two hours.”
Sensing that was her cue, Lisa said, “I want to thank you so much for your time, Justice Truitt.”
“I’ve enjoyed this. I really have,” Truitt said. He paused a moment, as if she shouldn’t leave just yet.
Sam Truitt couldn’t pinpoint the moment he changed his mind about Lisa Fremont, couldn’t even say exactly why he had. She was smart and savvy, and they seemed to have great synergy, and he was tired of interviewing candidates. There was such a relaxed nature to their conversation, he felt as if he had known her forever. So without ever actually consciously deciding, Truitt reached the conclusion that she’d be perfect. He would hire her despite her great looks, though he didn’t think his wife would buy that for a second.
What is he thinking? Lisa wondered. Am I overstaying my welcome? Should I curtsy and head for the door?
“Once the session begins,” Truitt said, breaking the silence, “I’m afraid there won’t be time for what Elly would call ‘high-falutin’ gabfests.’”
As if I already had the job.
“And from now on,” he continued, “it’s just plain ‘Judge.’ That’s what Vic and Jerry call me. Ask Elly for the forms you’ll need to fill out, then get ready to roll up your sleeves.”
Omigod! What did he say?
“You mean I’m hired?”
“Didn’t I say that? No, I guess I didn’t. I must have thought you could read my mind.”
“That would be a pretty good attribute for a law clerk,” she said, beaming. “I’ll work on it.”
“Along with about a thousand cert petitions.” He stood and extended a hand. “Welcome aboard.”
For the second time that day, Lisa Fremont shook his hand, and their eyes locked. This time his expression seemed to come from a deeper place, and for a moment, she felt he was trying to look deep inside her. At the same time, he clasped both hands over hers. There was nothing inappropriate about it, nothing sexual, overt or otherwise. It seemed to be a gesture of comradeship, a recognition that they were about to spend the next year together embarked on a great adventure.
Wow! I did it. I’m a clerk on the Supreme Court of the United States. Me! Lisa Anne Fremont from Bodega Bay. And Max didn’t do it for me.
She allowed herself just a few seconds of elation. Then the realization set in. She wasn’t just Sam Truitt’s law clerk. She was also working for Max Wanaker and Atlantica Airlines, petitioner in one of the biggest cases of the new term. In legal jargon, she had a major conflict of interest. Her job was to subvert justice, not to achieve it. She tried not to think about the cruel paradox, which threatened to ruin the moment.
She focused a businesslike smile on Sam Truitt. In the past two hours, she thought, they had learned all about each other. Or had they? She’d already known him. And he only thought he knew her. For a moment, looking into his blue-gray eyes, she thought there was a glimmer of recognition, that he saw through the gaps in her resume and in her life, that somehow he glimpsed the abyss that separated who she had been from who she had become. But if he had sensed anything wrong, why had he hired her?
She broke eye contact, and he released her hands. “Thank you, Judge. I’ll try to live up to your expectations.”
“You and me both,” he said, laughing, giving her a warm smile. Then his voice dropped nearly to a whisper and his brow furrowed. “Lisa, we have a chance to do wonderful work here. Not just to resolve individual disputes, but to set the tone for civilization, to draw boundaries for conduct, to define fundamental rights and responsibilities, and to right wrongs. We’re the conscience of society and the buffer between the government and the governed, striking the balance between the state and the individual. We protect against anarchy on the one hand and dictatorship on the other. Our job is to breathe life into that glorious two-hundred-year-old document they keep under glass a few blocks west of here. God help me, I hope we’re both up to the task.”
Lisa stood in stunned silence. What could she say? Oh, I’m sure you’ll combine the wisdom of Solomon with the compassion of Gandhi and the strength of Zeus. And I’ll be right there beside you… corrupting the process, violating everything you believe in.
She had never known anyone like Sam Truitt. He was truly afraid of falling short, of failing to live up to his own standards and those who came before him. Here was a Galahad whose greatest fear was that he could not attain the Holy Grail.
She admired and respected this man who was honest and devoted to principles, not to the accumulation of power and personal wealth. He was everything Max Wanaker wasn’t. What a sad irony that she had to betray Sam Truitt’s trust and tarnish his beloved bronze statues. For a moment, she felt such shame that she could not look him in the eyes.
He guided her toward the door, grabbing his coat for the walk down the corridor to the chief’s chambers. “Wait!” he said at the last moment, and she tensed.
What is it? Has he seen through me? Maybe he’s the mind reader!
“I’ve completely failed to ask what substantive areas of the law interest you,” he said.
With the self-discipline and poise that had brought her so far, she chased away the guilt and the fear. “Aviation law has always fascinated me,” Lisa Fremont said.
IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES GLORIA LAUBACH,
individually and as representative of the
Estate of Howard J. Laubach, deceased, et al.
Petitioners, vs. ATLANTICA AIRLINES, INC.,
ON PETITION FOR A WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT PETITION FOR A WRIT OF CERTIORARI QUESTIONS PRESENTED
Whether the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act bars Petitioner’s claims under the Florida Wrongful Death Act for the death of her husband in the crash of a commercial aircraft, and if there is no such federal remedy, leaves Petitioner without the right to sue for money damages?
Whether Petitioner presented sufficient evidence as to Respondent’s negligence so as to preclude the entry of summary judgment and to permit jury consideration of that issue?
REASON FOR GRANTING THE WRIT
The decision below (a) radically departs from established case law; (b) subverts the intention of Congress; and (c) immunizes the tortfeasor from liability, thus permitting a wrong without a remedy, an abhorrent result in a case involving the deaths of nearly three hundred persons.
Albert M. Goldman, Esq.
Lisa drove around for hours before heading back to the apartment. She passed the Washington Monument, the circle of American flags crackling in the autumn breeze. She drove by the elm trees and the Reflecting Pool, and just as the lights came on, she curled behind the Lincoln Memorial with its distinctive Doric columns resembling the Parthenon. She slowed the car and fought the urge to join the tourists and walk up to old Abe-now dramatically backlit-and soak up all that corn-pone Americana. Thinking about it, she felt like a character in a black-and-white movie, Ms. Fremont Goes to Washington.
What she was feeling now was every bit as hokey as the old Frank Capra tearjerker. A vague disquiet settled over her as she considered notions of justice and honor and the young Scrap Truitt sweating on the football field in a noble but losing effort.
How could I do it? How could I sit there and smile and wow him with my intellect, all the time planning to sabotage his treasured work? How low can I go?
She crossed the Arlington Memorial Bridge and headed to the national cemetery, parking the car and sitting there in the enveloping darkness. Scattershot thoughts raced through her mind, but one kept returning, kept nagging at her.
“ Tell me about Lisa Fremont, the person.”
No. You wouldn’t like Lisa Fremont, the person. But I can change. I want to believe all the flowery phrases about duty and justice and principle. Sam, I want to be like you!
She didn’t want to be like Max. She was angry with him for manipulating her.
“ After all I’ve done for you, don’t you think you owe me this?”
No! Not this.
She believed there was a time in a person’s life when one decision affects everything else. You head down that crooked side road one mile too far, and you’ll never get back on the highway. But it wasn’t too late to play it straight, and this time, there was nothing Max could say that would change her mind. When she got back to the apartment, she’d tell him. Not only wouldn’t she try to sway Justice Truitt’s vote on the Atlantica case, she’d recuse herself from even preparing the bench memo.
Her cellular phone rang, startling her. It was Max, wondering when she’d get home. She told him she’d gotten the job; she left for later the rest of the day’s news.
Max didn’t congratulate her, just mumbled uh-huh, like it was no big deal.
Like every day a poor girl from Bodega Bay, a teenage runaway, an underage stripper with no future, gets to be a law clerk on the Supreme Court of the United States.
Now, she had prospects. Entree into the biggest and best law firms. Before taking the clerking job on the D.C. Circuit, she’d been interviewed by a Chicago firm with offices in London, Paris, Moscow, and Rome. Hadn’t the managing partner told her to keep in touch, to call him when her clerkship was over? Well, a year from now, she could waltz right in there. Law firms fall all over one another competing for young lawyers who have sat at the foot of the throne.
Hey, Max, guess what. A leopard can change her spots.
“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” she said on the cellular. “We have to talk.”
“Yeah, we do,” he said.
Two men in suits were waiting inside Lisa’s apartment. Max Wanaker was sleek in his jet black Armani with a thin pinstripe. Theodore Shakanian wore a baggy charcoal gray Wal-Mart special and brown shoes. A cigarette dangled from his mouth, and Lisa shot him an angry look. She didn’t let Max or anyone else smoke in her apartment. Lisa knew little about Shakanian, other than the fact that his office was adjacent to Max’s in Atlantica’s Miami headquarters and he was an ex-cop from New York. Ever since the crash in the Everglades, the two men seemed to be spending a lot of time together.
Max looked grim, his face drawn. “I think you know Shank,” he said, gesturing toward Atlantica’s head of security, a lanky man with three days of black stubble sprouting from an acne-scarred face.
“I do,” she said. “I just don’t recall inviting him over.”
Max forced a laugh and smiled apologetically at Shank. “Lisa’s always been territorial. Like a cat.”
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Put your briefcase down and relax,” Max said. “Shank will explain it.”
She tossed the briefcase at Max, who caught it just before it clipped him in the forehead. He gently placed it on a sofa of white Haitian cotton.
“Congratulations on getting your new job,” Shank said, his voice gravelly, like tires crunching loose stones.
“Thank you,” she said without enthusiasm. “What’s going on?”
Why the hell was Max spreading the news?
She’d seen Shank several times in the last few years but had never exchanged more than a casual greeting. A sullen, homely man, he stood perhaps an inch above six feet and had a Sergeant Joe Friday flattop that was so out-of-date it had come back into style. He looked to be between forty and fifty, there was no way to tell. Either he owned only one suit, or he had a closet full of the gray ones, which he always wore with a white shirt and a gray and black tie. She had only seen him once without the suit, in Max’s hotel suite in Paris at the annual air show. He was speaking on the phone in a combination of English and what sounded like Japanese and was wearing jeans and a polo shirt. Lisa had been surprised at the size of his arms. In a suit, he looked rangy, even underweight. In the snug, short-sleeve shirt, she could see thick wrists and powerful, cabled forearms. On one forearm was the tattoo of a knife slicing a heart down the middle.
“Right now, you’ve got the most important job of anybody at the airline,” Shank said, exhaling a plume of smoke, “and your enterprise falls under my jurisdiction.”
Lisa wheeled toward Max, the anger building. This was supposed to be between the two of them. Now it was an enterprise. A phrase came back to her from criminal law class: the RICO statute and “racketeering enterprises.” She pictured the FBI, the U.S. attorney task force, and a grand jury all probing into their little enterprise.
“Damnit, Max, I thought I was doing a personal favor for you. Now, it’s a corporate job? Who else knows? Did you put it in the shareholders’ report?”
“Calm down, Lisa,” Max said. “Let me fix you a drink.” He walked to the liquor cabinet and tossed some vodka over ice, pouring in bottled orange juice from the minirefrigerator below the wet bar. Then he poured another for himself, his hands trembling. He wouldn’t look her in the eyes.
“I don’t want a drink,” she said angrily. “I want you out of my apartment.”
Max shrugged, chugged one of the screwdrivers, and appropriated the other, carrying it to the sofa where he sat down, apparently content to sit out the dance.
“ Your apartment is paid for by Atlantica,” Shank said with a sneer, “so I tend to look at it as corporate property and you, Ms. Fremont, as a corporate asset.”
Lisa fought to control her rage. She had worked so hard to be independent, to be free of anyone else’s control, that she felt violated by the man’s presence in her home. “You can’t invade my privacy like this! You can’t take over my life.”
Shank didn’t move. He looked amused, watching her as a fleck of ash fell from his cigarette to the red and gold Persian rug.
Lisa wheeled toward Max, waiting for an explanation, for something that would make sense. After a long pull of the screwdriver, he said, “A matter as sensitive as this, I had to bring in Shank.”
“And who else?”
“The general counsel, but no one else.”
“You told Flaherty! Why not just take an ad in the Post?”
“Flaherty had to know. He’s the one who ran the projections. All the judges’ opinions were run through the computer and stacked up against the facts of our case. The vote came out four-four. Truitt’s new. He’s the swing vote. If we get him, we win. If we don’t, we lose.”
She walked toward the faux fireplace, turning away from both men to gather her thoughts. “Then you’re in a lot of trouble. Has Flaherty read Truitt’s law review articles, his speeches? Does he know Truitt was a card-carrying member of the ACLU when he was a young professor? That he did a stint in the Peace Corps? Does he know that every Thanksgiving he still dishes out sweet potatoes at a homeless shelter? In a dispute between corporate executives and widows and orphans, which way do you think he’ll vote?”
“Everyone has his price!’ Max said.
“Wrong! Everyone you know has his price, but you don’t know Sam Truitt. He really believes the stuff that’s carved into the marble, the basic decency of people, the rule of law. Trust me. He’s not the kind of man you can buy.”
Shank cleared his throat. “That’s exactly why you’re so important, Lisa.”
It was the first time he’d ever called her by her given name, and for a reason she couldn’t articulate, she didn’t like the familiarity.
“We’re counting on you to persuade your boss that Atlantica should win,” Shank said. “Simple as that.”
“When two hundred eighty-eight people die in a plane crash, it’s not so simple.” She was growing even more furious.
“The trial court ruled for us,” Shank said, smirking, “and so did the appeals court. It’s not Atlantica’s fault if some crazy Cubans bombed the plane.”
“Shank’s right,” Max piped up. “The trial judge found we weren’t negligent.”
“Then you have nothing to worry about, do you? You don’t need my help.”
Shank smiled, or at least, he bared his teeth, small and jagged like eroded slivers of rock. “Maybe not, but we like to think we’ve bought some insurance.”
“Sorry, I’m not for sale.”
Shank’s teeth vanished, and little vertical furrows appeared on his sloping forehead. “Max led me to believe you’d already been paid for.”
“Max,” she said, casting him a murderous glance, “is behind the times. Here’s a news flash. I didn’t go to law school to join some conspiracy that could put me in jail. I don’t work for Atlantica, and I don’t work for Max. As of today, I’m an employee of the United States government, and I’m not going to prostitute myself for you or anyone else.”
“What!” Max was staring at her, wide-eyed. “Lisa. Lisa, darling, I thought we had a deal.”
“There are no more deals, and there never will be. Now, you two are conspiring to obstruct justice, and I want you out of here.”
Shank’s laugh crackled like dead leaves underfoot. “Hey, Max. Call a cop. We’re obstructing justice here.”
Looking worried, not laughing at all, Max hurriedly stood and walked toward Lisa, who stiffened and folded her arms across her chest.
“Lisa, just hear Shank out,” Max said, agitated. “Please. For me.”
She’d never seen him this way, so nervous and unsure. There was i a shift of power going on here, but why?
Jesus, Max. You’re his boss. Why are you deferring to this glorified security guard?
“You’ve got five minutes,” she said, “and then the two of you can get out of here.”
Max nodded thankfully and returned to the sofa and his drink.
Shank ground out his cigarette in a crystal bowl on the coffee! table and said, “We need you to use whatever legal mumbo jumbo you can come up with to win the case.”
Mumbo jumbo? Oh, that’s clever. Try to fool the guy who’s maybe the smartest legal mind in America.
“But if you can’t persuade him with the law,” Shank continued, “we have a backup plan.”
“Really? And what would that be?”
His smile was a leer. “Max showed me your bedroom, all frilly and smelling of powders and perfumes.”
“Are you out of your mind?” Lisa exploded. “What do you think I am?”
“I don’t know,” Shank said. “What do you think you are?”
She was so astonished by his tone, by the insinuation, that she was momentarily speechless. Who was this thug to insult the boss’s girlfriend, to throw his weight around with Max standing right there? Jesus, she didn’t have to take this. Incensed, she turned to Max. “Are you going to let him talk to me like that?”
Max looked as if he might have a stroke. “Lisa, please-”
“It’s not enough that you’re planting an agent on the Court you want me to seduce Truitt, too.”
“We’re just counting on you to do what you do best Lisa,” Shank said.
“And what would that be?” she asked, eyes narrowing. “Say it!”
Shank moved closer, drilling her with his dark eyes. His face was just above hers, invading her space, making her skin crawl, as if she’d just walked into a cobweb. She fought the urge to flinch and turn away.
Max, how could you let this lowlife bully me?
When Shank was close enough for Lisa to see every acne crater and smell his sour breath, when he filled her entire range of vision,. when she felt both a distinct revulsion and a palpable fear, he spoke in a snarl, “You’ll fuck him, Lisa. You’ll fuck him real good.”
“Bastard!” She whirled toward Max. “Did you hear that? This has gotten way out of hand. Since when am I taking orders from your rent-a-cop flunky?”
Shank laughed again, the sound of a rottweiler barking. “Is that what you told her, Max, that I’m your flunky?”
“Now see here, Shank…,” Max said, making a jerky gesture with his arm and spilling his drink, his voice trailing off.
Lisa looked at Max in astonishment.
“ Now see here?” Like some effete character in a tux straight out of Noel Fucking Coward.
“Get the hell out of my apartment, both of you!” Lisa shouted.
Seemingly amused again, Shank turned to Max. “How ‘bout it, boss man, should we leave? Should we vacate the premises?”
Max started to say something, but nothing came out. He seemed to be nailed to the sofa and to have lost the power of speech. He meekly turned his palms upward in a gesture of surrender.
“Max is plumb out of ideas,” Shank said, “so I’ll do the talking. In case you missed it the first time, you’ll fuck the judge till he’s blue in the face. You’ll fuck him till he’s cross-eyed. You’ll fuck him till he’s deaf, dumb, and blind. You’ll turn him upside down and inside out and suck him dry. And when he’s so dizzy he doesn’t know his own name, you’ll get his vote because he’ll do any damn thing you ask.”
Stunned, a flood of bitter memories swept over her: her father telling her that she’d always be able to make a living on her back, the guys at the Tiki offering her wads of bills to meet them in the parking lot after closing, Crockett trying to pimp for her, then beating her up when she wouldn’t go through with it. Max had protected her then; now, he was pushing her into it. The realization came to her with sickening clarity. After all these years, Max had become her pimp!
“In short, Lisa,” Shank went on, seeming to enjoy every moment, licking each word with his tongue, “you’ll do the judge just like you did old Max here, though frankly, jailbait pussy was probably sweeter. That so, Max? Was it better in the old days?”
“Now Shank, there’s no need for that,” Max said, standing up but not moving toward the other man. Not leaping across the room and decking the foul-mouthed pig, which is what Lisa imagined Scrap Truitt would have done. She pictured Truitt slugging the swine, breaking his jaw, citing some principle of natural law that empowers a man to defend his woman’s honor.
“Oh, ex-cuse me,” Shank said, dragging out the words, taunting them both. “You two were in love. The horny executive whose wife didn’t understand him and the stripper with the genius IQ who could suck the chrome off a trailer hitch.”
She slapped him, the cr-aack of hand on skin seeming to echo in the apartment. Finally, Max moved, dancing around the coffee table, coming up to Shank, apologizing, begging forgiveness, the girl doesn’t get it yet, it’s not her fault, Jeez Shank, it’ll be okay.
“Shut up, Max,” Shank said with a certainty that his order would be followed.
It suddenly occurred to Lisa that if Max was afraid of Shank, she probably should be, too. Who was he, anyway?
Shank turned back to Lisa and lowered his voice to a frightening whisper. “You’re not fully aware of the situation here, Lisa, and I’m taking that into account. Max has protected you, and I let him. I didn’t want to embarrass him, to cut off his balls in public, so I always walked two steps behind him, like the wife of the Japanese emperor. Except now, I’m a little tired of getting fucked up the ass. It’s important for you to know exactly how it is, to appreciate Max’s position and your own.”
He’s talking about Max as if he weren’t here. But then, he really isn’t.
Shank smiled at her, but it was the smile of the wolf contemplating the hen. Then his right hand shot out, quick as a snake, and seized her by the. wrist. His left hand grabbed her above the right elbow, and he twisted hard, spinning her around, bending the arm painfully until the back of her hand pressed against her shoulder blade. She couldn’t see his face as he spat out the words, “You’re nothing but a little slut who’s forgotten where she belongs. You think you’re smart, but if you were, you would have sized up the situation long ago. You would have shown respect. You would have had fear.”
He cranked her arm higher, and a searing pain shot through her shoulder. She thought of a chicken’s wishbone snapping in two.
He leaned even closer to her, brushing his lips through her hair, exhaling foul breath. “Do you know why they call me Shank?”
“It’s… it’s your name,” she said, confused.
“No! My name is Shakanian. A shank is a blade that cuts fast and deep. I’m a knife, and I’ll cut right to the meat of you. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” But she didn’t understand. It was beyond comprehension.
“What do you know about me, Lisa?”
“Nothing,” she said, her voice barely a whisper.
“So let me tell you. I live alone. I don’t have a wife or a friend or a parakeet. What I’ve got is a lot of time to think. Lately, I’ve been thinking about you and how much you owe Max here, which really means how much you owe Atlantica. Do you follow me, Lisa?”
Wordlessly, fighting the pain, she nodded.
“Good.” He released the pressure on her arm slightly but did not let go. “Do you like the movies, Lisa?”
Whether it was the pain or the fear, or the utter inanity of the question-for a second, she thought he was asking her out-Lisa couldn’t answer.
“I’ll bet you do,” he said. “I’ll bet you like foreign films with subtitles or love stories with sappy endings. Me, I go to the movies by myself, and I like to laugh, forget my troubles. So I see the comedies. Reservoir Dogs, Bad Lieutenant, Natural Born Killers. Ever see any of them?”
“They’re not comedies,” she heard herself say.
“Sure they are. Take the scene in Reservoir Dogs. One of the robbers has a cop tied up. He wants to know who’s the informant in the gang. The cop won’t tell him, so the robber cuts his ear off.”
With his free hand, Shank roughly grabbed Lisa’s ear, twisting it, painfully. “Now, here’s the funny part. I’d already done it. I cut a guy’s ear off maybe ten, twelve years before I saw the movie. So I’m watching it, thinking you don’t get that much blood from an ear. That wasn’t realistic. But the screams. The screams were real.”
He’s a madman, and he’s going to cut me.
She knew a girl from the Tiki whose jealous boyfriend slashed her breasts to keep her from dancing. Lisa was paralyzed with fear. Her eyes searched frantically to see if he was holding a knife.
He let go of her ear and his hand brushed against her neck, seductively, stopping to fondle the single pearl earring. Then he kissed her neck, and unleashing his tongue like a serpent, he licked her. With a repulsive slurping sound, his tongue slithered up the slope of her neck.
I’m going to throw up. Jesus, if he doesn’t stop, I’m going to…
His tongue withdrew and his teeth clenched the pearl earring, holding it there a second, freezing her with terror. Then he wrenched his head downward, ferociously tearing the post through her earlobe, yanking it free with a twist of his head like a pit bull mauling its prey.
She screamed as the pain shot through her, the sensation of her own shredding skin terrifying her.
Max stood, frozen in place.
Shank twisted her arm even higher against her shoulder blade. “Do you have fear now, Lisa? Do you have respect?”
Blinking through tears, she begged him, “Please! Please stop.”
“Say it, bitch!” Again he twisted her arm, until she thought the ligaments would tear loose from the bones.
“I have fear,” she cried, eyes squeezed shut, her shoulder screaming in agony. “I have respect.”
He let her go. Her arm throbbed. Her ear stung. Blood dribbled from her earlobe. She felt faint.
“Good,” Shank said, pocketing the bloody earring like spare change. “I’ve got confidence in you, Lisa. When you’re through with the judge, he’ll vote to revoke the Constitution if you ask him to. You do your job, Lisa, we’ve got no problems.” He flashed a smile as jagged as a cracked eggshell. “You don’t, I’ll take your other earring and the ear, too.”
He said it softly, matter-of-factly, without anger. Max hurried to Lisa’s side and wrapped his arms around her just as her legs buckled.
Still speaking in a hushed voice, Shank said, “Now why don’t you take a little walk so Max can bring you up to speed?”
Silently, Max guided her to the door. She was too shocked, too much in pain, to protest. As she stepped into the corridor, Lisa took one look back inside the apartment. Shank was lighting another cigarette. He took a deep drag, then tossed the match onto her Persian rug.
The Shoe Box
Samuel Adams Truitt may have become a justice of the Supreme Court but at home, he still carried out the trash. And walked the dog, a russet-haired mutt with retriever and shepherd blood named Sopchoppy, Sop for short. And verbally sparred with his wife, Connie, she of the patrician good looks and slashing wit. And on regular cycles, for the past two years, he gave his wife twice daily injections of Pergonal plus a 5 A.M. blood test, all aimed at increasing her egg production so that with the help of a fertility expert, a petri dish, and divine intervention, they could enjoy the benefits of parenthood.
So far, the in vitro fertilization had not worked. All the ultrasounds, all the drugs with their chaotic mood-altering side effects, all the hours in the doctor’s office squeezing her hand while a scope was inserted through her abdomen into the ovaries, all the needles depositing fertilized eggs into the uterus… all for nothing.
For a while, he thought the experience brought them together. It was one of the few remaining areas of common passion or even interest. They laughed over Truitt’s discomfort at walking into the OB-GYN’s waiting room filled with suspicious women, then disappearing into a rest room to masturbate into a plastic cup.
“Was it good for you?” she had asked.
“My hands were too cold,” he replied, “so the nurse helped.”
Connie had shown him endless wallpaper patterns, paint chips, and photos clipped from Architectural Digest as they set about planning the nursery. Sam Truitt didn’t know calico from chintz, and in fact spent several years of bachelorhood with window coverings of old bedsheets, but he took an interest in the mythical nursery for the mythical baby because it made Connie happy.
But lately, after so many misses, after Connie’s headaches and nausea, exuberant hopes followed by deep despair, after more than twenty-thousand dollars in medical bills, there was little talk of babies and bassinets. Connie’s moods had become both extreme and unpredictable. She would burst into tears at the sight of a pregnant woman or laugh hysterically at inopportune times.
Today, Truitt knew, Connie had been to the doctor to see if the latest implant of a fertilized egg or “pre-embryo,” in Dr. Kalstone’s lingo, had taken hold.
God, let her be pregnant.
Sam Truitt wanted to be a father; he wanted Connie to be happy; and he wanted to preserve his marriage. At the moment, all three were in jeopardy.
He had just stuffed a bulging garbage bag into the plastic curbside container. He had walked and pooper-scooped Sop, fed and brushed him, and told him he was sorry there were no game birds to chase in the neighborhood.
Carrying the recycle container to join the garbage at the curb, Truitt opened the gate in the black wrought iron fence to what was laughingly called their front yard. It was a rectangular space of dry brown grass roughly large enough for a single grave. One block away was the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the narrow manmade waterway where tourists now ride in mule-drawn boats and locals hike and jog along a towpath lined with giant sycamores and willows.
The cramped town house was only twenty-seven feet wide-fifteen feet shorter than his snap to the punter-but stood three stories high. It was, Connie told him, a shoe box standing on end.
But it was in Georgetown, which is where she wanted to live. Insisted on it, really. Her family’s second home had been here when she was growing up, when her father was a U.S. senator from Connecticut. That house was three times the size of this one. But property was cheaper then, and her mother’s inheritance fueled not only Daddy’s political career but also a lifestyle far in excess of what an elected official could provide.
Truitt walked up two flights of stairs to the bedroom, eager to hear about Connie’s visit to the doctor but apprehensive at the same time. She sat at her vanity applying makeup, seemingly oblivious to his presence.
If she’s silent, does it mean she’s not pregnant? No, the husband is not permitted to draw an adverse inference from the wife’s failure to testify.
At thirty-eight, Connie was a striking woman whose fine bone structure, manner, and posture spoke of cultured breeding and expensive schooling. Truitt did a fancy sidestep to get around her without banging her elbow. “At home, I had my own sitting room,” she said in greeting, as if reading his mind about the tight confines of the town house.
Home being Waltham, Massachusetts. Home being where they had spent the bulk of their not entirely happy marriage. Home not being where they now lived.
“It’s the nineties,” he replied. “Downsizing is in. I read it in USA Today.”
“Sam, you don’t read USA Today.”
She kept her eyes on the mirror, where she was smoothing a glistening liquid on her lips. Whatever happened to simple lipstick? He could not keep up with women’s fashions. Sam Truitt could tell you what Thomas Paine had for breakfast the day he wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” but he was oblivious to what his wife wore to the Kennedy Center last Saturday night, coincidentally, to see a revival of 1776. Or, for that matter, the names of the two couples-her friends not his-with whom they shared an apres-theater supper, her expression, not his.
He dodged around the bed and opened the door to what the broker had called the walk-in closet but which would not accommodate anyone with shoulders wider than the average coat hanger. Connie’s clothing took up all of her side and most of his. He stripped down to his underwear, straight-armed a number of her cocktail dresses, and hung up his suit. Feeling claustrophobic and not wanting to jitterbug past Connie like Emmitt Smith squeezing through the off-tackle hole, Truitt sat on the edge of the bed with its duvet of roses and hyacinths and looked at his wife in the vanity mirror.
He couldn’t stand it any longer. “How did it go today?”
“I had lunch with Stephanie,” she said, her eyes meeting his in the glass.
Objection! Not responsive. Your Honor, please admonish the witness to answer the question.
“They’re building a gazebo in their backyard,” Connie continued.
Truitt pondered this tidbit of news. Just what does one say to a wife whose sister is building a gazebo in the backyard of her showy two-million-dollar home? That it will be a nice addition to her Jacuzzi, lap pool, and sauna? That it must be nice being married to a lobbyist whose basic claim to fame is being the son-in-law of a former senator-fame enough to make $850,000 a year, more than five times the salary of a Supreme Court justice.
“Gazebos are nice,” he said, prudently.
“She showed me the plans. It has a gas grill, a microwave, dishwasher, full-size refrigerator, plus an ice-cream fountain and a wet bar with two beer taps.”
Why is she dragging it out? Am I going to be a father or not?
“What, no roller coaster?”
“There’s no need to be sarcastic,” she said. “Or a snob.”
“A reverse snob, actually.”
He was stumped. “What does that mean, that I look down on people who are better than I am?”
“No, you look down on people who have attained goals which you think are”-she paused to find the right word, searching the breadth and depth of her Bryn Mawr-Sorbonne vocabulary-“inconsequential or frivolous.”
“I cop a plea,” he said. “Guilty as charged. What are the sentencing guidelines for a repeat offender?”
“Life,” she said, “without parole.”
He smiled with real pleasure. That was the old Connie. In the fencing match that was their life, a parry was usually followed by a thrust. Sometimes he yearned for the early days when they made each other laugh and competed to see who had the sharper wit. Connie usually won.
He watched his wife lift her long, chestnut hair into some impossible upswept pile that she clasped with several silver barrettes. Most of the time, she wore her hair parted in the middle, where it fell, long and swingy, across her shoulders. It made her look like a college coed. Now, with her hair up, she looked regal, Princess of the Capitol, with a long, slender neck and prominent cheekbones, her dark hair set off by flawless porcelain skin.
He pondered the nature of their relationship. Did he love her? Maybe it wasn’t a raging passion, but there was still care and affection and occasionally, warmth.
Sam Truitt had met Constance Parham at her family’s third home, the summer cottage on Nantucket. Truitt was an assistant professor at Harvard Law with no particular interest in politics, but he had a professed animosity toward many of President Reagan’s appointees to the federal bench. Senator Lowell Parham was the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and after reading one of Truitt’s diatribes in The New Republic, he began calling on him to draft questions for judicial appointees considered unqualified.
Truitt was not ordinarily an introspective man, but he thought now of the forces that had brought him to Connie. Constance Parham was eight years his junior, just finishing up a graduate degree in art history when they met. He remembered the instant attraction to this tall, sassy brunette with a quick wit and a lethal tongue. She had the clean WASP features of her mother, a high forehead with a widow’s peak, a wide smile, and the gift of her father’s laughter and intelligence. Connie could hold her martinis, crack wise, and beat most men at tennis.
Looking back now, Truitt thought he fell in love with the family. The senator was a liberal without being a sissy, a Harvard intellectual who liked to hunt, fish, and drink bourbon. His wife was a descendant of Massachusetts Puritans who made several fortunes in New England textile mills and had the foresight to shift their wealth into Arizona real estate just before their businesses succumbed to foreign competition. Alice Parham adored her husband, who returned her love in both public and private displays of affection. Constance Parham grew up with the benefits of status and privilege, boarding school in Europe, a college curriculum that required a commute to Paris, and an endless supply of eligible suitors, some Cabots, some Lodges, some Kennedys. And one Truitt.
“It’ll be nice for the kids,” he said, after a moment.
“The ice cream bar. Maybe the beer taps too, for all I know.”
“What are you implying?” Irritated now.
“Nothing, just that the gazebo will be nice for your sister’s children, our nieces and nephews, the little blond platoon of well-fed Virginia storm troopers.”
Actually, there were only four of them, all in braces, all in private schools, all with their own horses in their own stables. The orthodontics and tuition alone must be astounding, he thought, not to mention the oats and carrots. Harold Bellows, his brother-in-law, had an eighty-acre estate in Virginia. In the basement of the sprawling home was an English pub. A real one, the stained glass and dark wood stripped from a country pub in the Cotswolds. To Truitt, it represented the essence of ugly-American acquisitiveness. Taken from a place enjoyed by an entire village, the old scarred wood bar-ripe with the wet scent of a hundred years of spilled ale-was now used, if at all, by one pudgy, overpaid apologist for sugar growers, oil companies, and heaven help us, handgun manufacturers.
“You’re attacking me,” she said angrily.
“You’re reminding me in a cheap and cowardly way that we don’t have children, that I can’t have children, that my tubes are scarred, but your sperm count is in the top one percent. You’re a first team All-American sperm machine with a wife who can’t complete a pass.”
Oh no. God no.
His heart sank. She had answered the question of the day, the question of the decade, the question of their lives. He walked over to the vanity and put his arms around her. Her shoulders felt like pillars of ice. “Connie, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
She glared at him in the mirror. “If you were truly sorry, you wouldn’t have used Stephanie’s children to disparage me.”
He wondered if every marriage had one wound that would never heal. “I didn’t! Sometimes a gazebo is just a gazebo. I was just making conversation about our spoiled nieces and nephews and a goddamn gazebo that’s probably bigger than our house.”
“Exactly! You were striking out at me because of the gazebo. You thought I was belittling the amount of money you make in comparison to Harold, so you brought up the children to hurt me, to remind me that I’m defective, that I’m not a whole woman.”
“No! I swear-”
“It’s your fault as much as mine,” he fired back. “You’re the bastard who knocked me up back on the island.”
The ferocity of her words startled him, and he backed off, retreating to the bed. His head throbbed. Their arguments were becoming more severe, Connie’s attacks more cutting.
“Connie, what can I say to you? You’re not defective. You’re a bright, witty, breathtaking woman, and I don’t care how much money Harold makes. I don’t care if he moves the Smithsonian into his gazebo and invites the Washington Redskins to play in his backyard. So let’s just forget it.”
In the mirror, he saw her eyes brim with tears. There would be no more playful banter today. She had brought back the memories, which hung over them like the stalled thunderhead of a summer storm. At the time, Connie was just finishing her master’s degree, still writing her thesis on French impressionism. They’d just starting going out, and one August night, after a swim in the cold Atlantic at dusk off Siasconset on Nantucket Island, wrapped in a blanket on the beach, they’d made love. He remembered even now her salty taste, her long wet hair falling into her face, his body grinding into her with the urgency and passion of new lovers.
My God, the heat we brought to each other.
He could still picture the fusion of their bodies, each of them heedless of the scraping sand and incoming tide, seeing only the first stars of evening, the rising moon, and the fire in each other’s eyes. What he wouldn’t give to re-create that with her now. For longer than he cared to admit, their lovemaking had been infrequent and perfunctory.
But then… oh Lord, then the sex had been synchronized with the pounding of the waves. He had sung out her name on the sea breeze, exploding into her with a thunderclap from within, watching bolts of lightning through closed eyes.
He had also exploded into her without protection, an event that just now prompted Connie to refer to her husband not as “Sweetheart” but rather as “the bastard who knocked me up back on the island.” Actually, he had used a condom, but it burst because, in his feverish haste, he had neglected to squeeze out the air pocket in the tip, which then detonated in the midst of their furious coupling. Sam Truitt’s manual dexterity, it seemed, was limited to putting a spiral on the long snap.
Connie became pregnant. Their first crisis, the one that would launch all the others. Just like the chaos theory the physicists introduced to popular culture. The flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can cause a typhoon in the Pacific. And, he supposed, the explosion of a condom on Nantucket can cause an October freeze in Georgetown fifteen years later.
At the time, they handled the situation surprisingly well. He was sensitive, caring, understanding. She was thoughtful, mature, and decisive.
He said it was her choice all the way. He believed, then as a man, and now as a judge, that the woman had all the votes. There was no talk of marriage. After all, they barely knew each other. But if she chose to have the child, he promised to be there for them both. He’d visit, bring birthday presents, pay for everything right up through college. He gave himself an A for his hypothetical parenting skills, which she reminded him, were considerably greater than his actual contraception skills.
The abortion was quick and apparently without incident. Well, not without psychological incident. Connie became depressed. He felt guilty. He’d never heard the term back then, but now he supposed they were snared in a codependent relationship. He wouldn’t leave her, not like that. He was captured in the web of her moodiness, sinking in the quicksand of her unfulfilled needs.
They were married six months later, and the artificiality of the closeness that carried them through the abortion soon evaporated. For reasons neither they nor the doctors could understand, this healthy, athletic, screw-every-damn-night couple could not conceive. Several years later they learned that the abortion had caused an infection, which scarred her Fallopian tubes.
Complicating their lives, hanging over them like an unseen ghost, was the child they never had. They did not even create an illusion, a fantasy child to sustain them like the playwright Albee’s ineffectual George and vicious Martha, locked in a perpetual embrace of psychological cruelty. Their life together had begun with the act of conceiving an unwanted child on the shore of an ocean, and in what Sam’s Southern Baptist relatives would have considered an act of biblical retribution, they cried a sea of tears trying to duplicate the feat.
“Do you know what really angers me?” she asked, finally.
Everything, he thought.
“The fact that you don’t see the connection between your words and the source of your feelings,” she answered herself.
He had to get out of there. The bedroom was growing smaller by the minute. He stood and tried to escape, squeezing between his wife and the bed, banging his shin into an open vanity drawer.
“Damn! Plessy versus Ferguson! ” When he was angry, Truitt tried to confine his profanity to the names of horrific Supreme Court decisions. Sopchoppy responded with a quiet woof.
“I told you this house was too small,” she said as he fled, hopping on one foot.
The Truitts’ two-hundred-year-old farmhouse near Waltham was ten times larger, Connie frequently reminded him. They had eighteen gently rolling acres with a stream on one side of the property and a duck pond on the other. But Connie was unhappy there, too, always complaining that the house was too big, too drafty, too old, too far from Boston.
Washington was going to be their move to the city. Embassy parties, dinner at Citronelle, shopping for antiques.
Sam Truitt cared nothing for black tie dinners or sauteed foie gras with poached figs in port wine sauce. His tastes were simpler, preferring cut-off jeans and a meal of plain grilled snapper and boiled swamp cabbage, a legacy of growing up in Everglades City. It took him thirty years to find out that his momma’s swamp cabbage was called heart of palm when served in fancy restaurants, including The Palm, and an appetizer portion could set you back eight bucks. He used to eat about a pound of the concoction for supper. His mother, a Florida Cracker, would slice open a palm tree with a machete and cook the fibrous meat with sow’s belly or ham hock in a fifty-five-gallon drum on an open fire. They’d eat, year-round, at a picnic table under a live oak tree, zebra butterflies flapping over their heads, causing typhoons in Tonga, he now supposed.
Washington was also going to rejuvenate the marriage, and who knows, maybe lead to a magical fertility that had escaped them farther north. So far, all it had accomplished was to bring them into closer confinement.
Two scorpions in a shoe box.
He preferred the open spaces of the wetlands where he grew up. Connie insisted on referring to the Everglades as “the swamp,” despite his insistence that it was really a slow-moving freshwater river some sixty miles wide. Just after his nomination to the Court last spring, he returned to Florida for “Sam Truitt” day, which the local weekly termed the largest celebration the town had ever seen, if you didn’t count the annual seafood festival. The volunteer fire department led a parade, with the high school band playing off-key Sousa. A chugging John Deere tractor hauled Sam and Connie down Conch Avenue on a float with papier-mache pillars representing the Supreme Court, Connie choking on the diesel fumes that hung in the humid air.
In the sweltering Fishermen’s Hall, Truitt made a speech, tracing his success to values learned in the sloughs and creeks of the Ten Thousand Islands, and Connie stood there in a yellow sundress, fanning herself with a commemorative poster, complaining about the heat, picking over the supper of fried catfish, hush puppies, and key lime pie-washed down with sugar-laden iced tea. Later, manhandling bottles of tequila, Truitt and some of the good ole boys, now leathery fishermen with scarred hands and squinty eyes, swapped lies about their youth and who built the fastest airboat from broken airplane propellers and old Chevy engines.
Truitt hadn’t been home since his mother’s funeral eight years earlier. His father had died three years before that. This time, as he clasped hands and slapped shoulders of old friends and acquaintances, he kept an eye on Connie, studying her discomfort. While he felt at home, she looked afraid of stepping in something squishy and repulsive.
That night in their motel room, as they settled onto opposite sides of the lumpy bed, Connie said, “I didn’t know I’d married Huck Finn.”
“Yes you did,” he replied.
Sam Truitt knew that Connie would have been happier married to a real estate developer who made millions building condos in protected wetlands, or an investment banker who knew the value of the deutsche mark when the markets opened each day-anyone whose net worth equaled her appetite for consumption.
To Truitt, status was achieved by deeds, not dollars. His love of the law was paramount over building a net worth. It also took priority over personal relations, something he acknowledged as a flaw in his character. When they first moved to Washington, he realized that he was more concerned about the needs of migrant workers than those of his newly migrated wife.
He accepted the fact that Connie grew less affectionate each year. Hell, he deserved it. Sam Truitt was, after all, a man who had difficulty expressing his emotions, much less fulfilling the emotional needs of another person. Who could blame Connie if she longed for a man who would pamper his wife instead of illegal aliens?
So Sam Truitt understood half a dozen years earlier when she had her first affair, with the tennis pro at the club, of all the mundane cliches. He responded with an affair of his own, an adoring law student, in violation of university rules and his own ethics. I’ll see your cliche and raise you another. They weathered those storms and stayed together.
At first, Connie had seemed happy when he received the Supreme Court appointment. No more faculty teas with their dreary gossip washed down by watery punch. Life in Washington would be different. But she must have been thinking of her father’s social whirl as a senator, always making the rounds of chic parties and Georgetown dinners. She was not prepared for the more monastic life of a Supreme Court justice. Boredom set in quickly. After not having worked for years, Connie began an interior decorating business. Now, her fondest hope was for the defeat of the Democratic president in the next election, both to punish him for appointing her husband, and to bring wealthy Republicans to town with an insatiable desire to redecorate.
His shin still throbbing, a truce having been declared by his retreat from the bedroom, Truitt was sitting at the small desk in the study when he heard Connie’s voice. “Did you hire the third law clerk, Sam?”
“Yes,” he called back, as he thumbed through the briefs for the first oral argument of the new term. “She’s a real winner. Lisa Premont.”
“Tell me about her.” Connie was moving around in the bedroom. They were talking to each other now separated by the landing at the top of the stairs-and years of missed connections.
“She’s from the West Coast. Berkeley, Stanford, then a year clerking on the D.C. circuit.”
“A California beach bunny?”
“She’s a fisherman’s daughter and smart as hell.”
“I’ll bet she’s pretty.”
He could lie, of course. “She looks like Howard Stern in drag.”
But the first time Connie had the clerks over for dinner, she’d brain him with a lamb chop. “As a matter of fact, she’s quite attractive,” he said.
“I thought you had a bounce in your step when you came home today.”
“I had to pee.”
She walked into his study from the master bedroom. She was wearing a sleeveless black silk cocktail dress, a triple strand of pearls, and matching earrings.
“My God, you’re beautiful,” he said.
“Look at you!” she cried. “You’re not ready.”
“Ready for what?” he asked, even though it occurred to him that she was dressed for a party while he was wearing a twenty-year-old Wake Forest sweatshirt with holes in both Ds of Demon Deacons.
“The reception at the Watergate. It starts at seven. Hurry up. I’ll find your tux.”
“The benefit! The one Stephanie and Harold invited us to, bought our tickets, a thousand dollars each.”
“Not the one sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers,” he said, vaguely recalling having told his brother-in-law thanks but no thanks.
“Who cares who’s sponsoring? It’s for the hospital. It’s nonpolitical, nonsectarian, nonoffensive even to a holier-than-thou associate justice on the Supreme fucking Court.”
“I told Harold we couldn’t go,” he said guiltily, realizing he’d forgotten to tell Connie.
“NAM is amicus curiae in a major case on punitive damages, and they’re involved in another half dozen cases with cert petitions pending. Besides, I can’t accept a gift from a lobbyist.”
“You must be kidding. Do you think you’ll be compromised by eating their goat cheese on endive?”
“No, but my attendance makes it appear they have access to the Court.”
Holding her high-heeled black shoes in one hand, Connie waved her hairbrush at him with the other. “Don’t do this, Sam! Don’t do this to me. I’m going stir crazy in this damn shoe box.”
“I know it seems silly or quaint, or just plain stupid, but a Supreme Court Justice has to live like a monk.” He thought of the chief, who wasn’t right about many things, but on this one, he was. “Some justices won’t even attend the President’s State of the Union address because of separation of powers. Even those who go refuse to applaud.”
“You’re right, Sam. It is stupid. Now, are you getting dressed or not?”
He looked into her eyes, which were ablaze with hostility. All the disappointments and frustrations of a life that didn’t turn out the way she planned seemed to be reflected in her glare, in her bearing, in the way she pointed the hairbrush at him as if it were a Saturday night special manufactured by one of her brother-in-law’s clients.
“I can’t, Connie. I’m sorry, but I can’t”
She threw the hairbrush at him. He slipped his head to the side like a boxer dodging a punch, and the brush clattered against the wall. She hastily pulled on her shoes, smoothed her dress over her flat stomach, and looked at him, her upper lip quivering with anger. “All right, Mr. Supreme Court Justice,” she said, spitting out the words. “Be a monk. Be a bishop or a cardinal or the damn pope for all I care.”
She turned dramatically and left the room, looking like a leading lady playing her big scene in her shimmering black dress. She started down the narrow staircase, two flights to the ground, her stiletto heels clapping against the wooden stairs like rifle shots. “But I’ll tell you this,” she called out, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to be a nun!”