Final Acts: A Novel

Overview

With the return of Cuban-American lawyer Charlie Morell, New York Times notable author Alex Abella once again takes readers into the dark, insidious underworld of cult killings, corrupt politicians, and the tortured heart of Morell's native Cuba.

When the decapitated bodies of young women appear along the California coast, Morell, hero of The Killing of the Saints and Dead of Night, returns to investigate what appear to be cult-related murders. After working for years as one of ...

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Overview

With the return of Cuban-American lawyer Charlie Morell, New York Times notable author Alex Abella once again takes readers into the dark, insidious underworld of cult killings, corrupt politicians, and the tortured heart of Morell's native Cuba.

When the decapitated bodies of young women appear along the California coast, Morell, hero of The Killing of the Saints and Dead of Night, returns to investigate what appear to be cult-related murders. After working for years as one of Los Angeles's supreme and most controversial criminal defenders, Morell suddenly finds himself sitting in the defendant's chair, and only Mexican-American lawyer Rita Carr %151; a feisty addition to the ranks of female sleuths %151; can help prove his innocence.

Battling her own demons, past and present, Rita must jeopardize all she holds dear before she can get Morell off the hook and bring the real killer to justice.

Spinning the narrative from both perspectives, Morell and Rita keep their deepest secrets hidden from each other until the final terrifying end. Final Acts, Abella's latest tale of murder, mystery, and the occult, is sure to make any reader an instant fan.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The rites and rituals of Santeria as seen through a thriller lens lay a gory groundwork in Abella's (The Killing of the Saints; Dead of Night) latest, once again starring lawyer/ author/private investigator Charlie Morell. Picking up where Dead of Night left off, when Morell's own Santeria beliefs result in his arrest for two brutal cult murders in Los Angeles and Alameda, this novel begins as Morell turns to Latina lawyer Rita Carr to mount his defense. Carr is skeptical when her client claims to be the victim of a massive conspiracy involving the L.A. County prosecutor's office, but the theory gains credence when Carr and Morell learn that prosecuting DA Phil Fuentes was indeed part of a coverup surrounding the supposed suicide of state senator Tom Decker. Abella employs an awkward technique, alternating Carr's Philip Marlowesque first-person narrative with the story Morell is writing of his own case as events ensue. He does little to flesh out a very thin plot, jumping into the murder scene without providing sufficient background on either Morell or the Santeria cult. The role of the cult remains largely undeveloped through most of the narrative, but Morell is given numerous opportunities to spout a peculiar spiritual psychobabble that slows down the plot and adds little to the story. Carr's engaging character is never fleshed out, and the appearance of a demonic cat burglar in her apartment provides a slapdash resolution to the book, which should satisfy the author's fans but won't do much to broaden his reader base. Agent, Joseph Regal, Russell & Volkening. (Dec.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Abella rounds out his murder-and-legal-intrigue-cum-santería-horror trilogy (The Killing of the Saints, 1991; Dead of Night, 1998) with more, much more, of the same. When last spotted, Cuban-American lawyer Carlos Morell was bravely quaking as his vindictive half-brother Ricardo Díaz vowed revenge for Charlie's part in bringing him and his santería cult down. Now Díaz is six feet under, but it's not deep enough to save Charlie, who's under indictment for a series of ritual killings he'd swear have Díaz's signature on them. While cops in Oakland and L.A. dicker about who's going to get the honor of locking him up, Charlie hires Mexican-Irish ex-public defender Rita Carr to conduct his defense. The West Hollywood lawyer, who loves salsa dancing and her father the judge, is such a transparent figure of fantasy that she fits right in with Charlie's crazy alternative universe—a universe Abella can't resist revisiting one more time by providing generous excerpts from the "novel" Charlie's writing about his most recent woes, especially his trip to Cuba to haul back the real perp, untouchable record-company executive Max Prado. Even if Prado admitted his guilt, though, there's no way to extradite him back to the Bay Area, where Charlie's son Julian is waiting, only too eager to denounce his dad to the police and testify as a prosecution witness against him. Rita's determination to tie the killings in to the suicide of a former state senator and a long-extinct sacrificial sect sets the stage for a surprisingly tense courtroom duel, followed by a climax that makes the rest of this wild, wooly tale look positively decorous. It's hard to imagine who thetargetaudience for this farrago is—sensationalists who don't have enough time to make separate trips to the supernatural horror and courtroom drama shelves?—but Abella pours on enough satanic conspiracy theories to sate them all. Ballantine, David CHALK'S WOMAN Forge (288 pp.) Dec. 2000
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684859897
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 12/1/2000
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.45 (h) x 0.90 (d)

First Chapter

Chapter One

"Diss iss what salsa is all about, baby!"

Raúl's words were swallowed up by the lilt of the wild descarga of Makina Loca, a riff on a classic son montuno that got everybody on the floor eager to shake their fanny.

Like always when they play L.A., the Makina had packed the Rumba Room with Chicanos, salvadoreños, peruanos, cubanos, all kinds of Latinos as well as the Latino wannabes, the ladies with their skirts up to here and the guys with their clingy shirts open to the breastbone. If only they had some hair on those chests, pobrecitos! But I'll say this for those white guys, they sure keep trying, don't they?

Of course I should talk. Sometimes I'm the only white girl in a room full of sweating papacitos and mamacitas, all shimmying and shaking and swaying to that beat. In fact if it weren't for salsa I wouldn't have learned the little Spanish that I know. I wouldn't have met Raúl either, but that's a different story. The point is, after the wild descarga, after the crazy jam session ended and the floor cleared, I went back to our table while Raúl excused himself to the men's room. The waitress was having trouble navigating the crowd %151; and believe me, there's nothing worse than a bunch of thirsty patrons wanting their drink right now, if you please, I should know, that's how I put myself through law school %151; so I decided to get my own at the bar. I waded through the mass of sweating bodies and had just put in my order when he finally approached me.

"Can I buy you a drink?" he asked, using those words like nobody else had said them before.

He was a tall white guy, about six feet or so %151; which is gigantic for a little bit like me who's five one in her pantyhose. He had deep hazel eyes and a full head of gray hair, very nice even features, almost like a model's, except for a scar right under his left eye socket. I would have pegged him for one of those wannabes that hit on you by asking if you dance on the two or the three in salsa but he was way better dressed than that, wearing a smart black Donna Karan suit and a discreet gray shirt, a Piaget watch, and shoes that did not look like the duck's feet everyone was wearing that year. Besides, I could tell by his expression that he wasn't really interested in my musical opinions. This was a man after bigger prey.

"No, thank you, I don't drink alcohol," I said, turning away from him.

I certainly didn't want to start a conversation with some stranger at the Rumba Room. The last time I'd done that I'd met Raúl and I was not in the market for a substitute. But this guy at my elbow was not so easily discouraged.

"I've been watching you on the floor," he went on, in a nicely modulated voice that carried a slight twang. Where was this guy from? Georgia? Mississippi? New Orleans? Somewhere down South.

"You're a fabulous dancer," he added.

"Thank you," I said, looking around for the bartender to bring my order.

I caught a glimpse of myself in the bar mirror, looking like a floozy with my mass of curls falling all over my shoulders, so I proceeded to quickly put them up. I could have walked away right then but there was something about this stranger that was ringing all kinds of alarm, not all of them unpleasant. So I stayed in place, I guess unconsciously waiting for his next overture.

"You're Rita Carr, aren't you? The public defender?"

Oh God, that's it, another former client.

"Ex-public defender, please. I started my own firm last year."

The man gave me a full, very pleasing smile, basking in the knowledge he was about to share.

"That's what I heard. And that's what I want to talk to you about. My name is Charlie. Charlie Morell."

Well, duh! No wonder he looked so familiar. This guy had just managed to turn upside down all the usual conventions of law and legal practice in Los Angeles, thrown the District Attorney's office into a million conniptions, and made himself the most controversial defendant in Southern California since O.J. Simpson.

I turned around to face him head-on, no more hiding behind girlish moves like fixing my hair %151; which has a mind of its own, anyhow %151; or looking for another drink. This was serious. This was business. I hoped.

"Mr. Morell, what a pleasure," I said, putting on the kind of smile I usually display behind closed doors in chambers when the judge is supposedly deciding whether to appoint me 987 %151; that's court appointed counsel %151; but is really just checking out how high my skirt will ride when I sit down.

"I've read all about you. How's your case going? I asked.

He shrugged and I swear that for a moment there I thought he looked just like that actor I'd seen in one of those French New Wave movies of the 1960s my ex-husband, Greg, used to drag me to.

"I'm in Department 100 next month," said Morell. "I get a feeling Judge Strummer is going to send me to Norwalk to face the music."

"God, that's terrible! Norwalk, you mean like in no deal, no walk, go straight to jail?"

"That's about the gist of it. He denied my change of venue. They're all in on this. They know they'll get reamed if I win. From Wheeler to Pérez to Polonsky, a lot of people are fixing to put me away for life. It's a conspiracy."

"I see. But you're still walking. I don't know of too many murder suspects out on their own recognizance."

A sparkle went off in his eyes, which for a moment changed from hazel to brilliant green.

"I'm glad to see you're so well informed."

"Like I said, I've read practically everything about your case. I mean, the Daily Journal has been going to town on you," I blustered, then I stopped, to gauge his reaction. He didn't seem to mind the Manolo sticking out of my mouth.

"That's great. So why don't we talk about it tomorrow in your office at ten-thirty. You're still at that place in West Hollywood?"

"How do you know? I just moved from downtown."

Once again the smile %151; charming, debonair, a roué, a man of the world. A total act, I suddenly realized. The man is terrified and he doesn't care to show it.

"Let's just say I've done my due diligence. Good night."

He started to walk away when I grabbed him by the arm %151; I felt well-defined muscles under the soft fabric of the jacket sleeve.

"Before you go, what is it that you want to talk about? I have my clients to take care of."

He looked down, pressed my hand, then bent and whispered in my ear the words that forever changed my life, even as an old La Soli song came over the sound system: "I want you to represent me."

"Co-counsel?" I snapped back.

"No, no. Sole counsel. Top banana. You're in the driver's seat, I'm riding." He smiled again. "I know you know from hot rides. Good night."

And with that he slipped out of my grasp and blended so quickly into the crowd that I lost all sight of him, as though I had imagined him and his proposition. That's when I recalled who he reminded me of %151; Belmondo in that movie where he falls in love with the American chick in Paris. What was it? Breathless.

That's funny, I thought. He doesn't look like Belmondo, but he still gives off that air. I wonder what that means.

Needless to say Raúl was not amused by my encounter. He sidled up to the bar just as Charlie was vanishing in the crowd like a guy used to pulling disappearing acts when it suited him.

"Who was that you was talkin' to?" snapped Raúl, his little pug nose up in the air, a wire terrier smelling out a brawl.

"A new client." I sipped the San Pellegrino the bartender finally plopped on the counter.

"Uhm!" snapped back Raúl with the utmost eloquence. He was about to give me another lecture on socializing with strangers %151; the kind my dad used to give me when I was an overheated fourteen-year-old %151; when I yanked Raúl back to the dance floor.

"C'mon, baby, let's dance. I've got to think."

I'll say this for Raúl %151; he is a fabulous dancer. He's so good he grows when he's on the floor. He's no longer five five in three-inch Cuban heels with arms as thick as my thighs, he's Gene Kelly rhapsodizing with a chair, he's Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling, he's a demigod flying low over the dance floor.

And dancing was just what I needed right then. I wanted to keep my body in motion as long as I could so my mind could concentrate on the offer Morell had just proposed. See, some people go pump iron at Gold's, others go for five-mile runs around Lake Hollywood. Me, I put on Tito Puente and I swing my hips and lift my arms and step and spin and everything is as clear as could be %151; salsa as a road to enlightenment. What a slogan, huh? Not exactly what a Mexican-Irish girl like myself would be expected to like but there it is.

Only that night, it wasn't.

My brain was not connecting, the switches were off and all I accomplished with my dancing was to work up a sweat. Even when we went home and Raúl and I made baby happy, I still wasn't all there, my mind worried but yet refusing to concentrate on the problem, as though some barrier were holding me back. It was a very unsettling sensation.

Even Raúl, who ordinarily just rolls over after making love with the excuse that his security guard schedule has screwed up his sleeping patterns, even he noticed something was wrong.

"You worry too much, baby," he said, brushing his teeth vigorously, standing at the door to the bathroom, wearing the Joe Boxer shorts with the red hearts I'd bought him for Valentine's Day that year.

"You should try and get into another kind of practice that don't get you wrapped up tight like that."

"Like what?" I asked, staring at the ceiling above our bed, noticing how the crack in it looked like a rabbit's head.

"You should think about bankruptcy law. There's a ton of money to be made in that. My cousin Jaime, he just filed for BK the other day? He had to pay seventeen hundred dollars to some fool in Tarzana just to fill out some papers. And the fool's waiting room was packed with people. That's easy money, baby, not this sweating bullets stuff of yours all the time."

I patted the pillow next to mine.

"Raúl, honey, please shut up and come to bed."

He looked at me for a moment, shrugged.

"Okay," he said, then returned to the bathroom to rinse. He was snoring within five minutes.

I tried my best to join him in the land of nod but sleep would not come. So after tossing and turning for a half hour, I got up, went to my desk, and turned on the computer. As I waited for the screen to come on I glanced out my window at the reflection of the full moon on the reservoir.

I live in a two-bedroom Spanish bungalow in the hills of Silverlake. The house needed a ton of sweat equity when I bought it and the yard is no bigger than a postage stamp but the view of the water and the backdrop of the hazy San Gabriel Mountains at times make me feel like I'm in Europe, Como or Lugano or Zurich or somewhere where it's always spring and there's always another thing of beauty just around the corner. Then the smog rolls in and I'm reminded once more that I'm still in my hometown, Los Angeles, where you can see the air and chew the water.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

Just then my Windows 98 kicked on and I connected to the Internet. I typed in on Alta Vista, "Find Charlie Morell" %151; and within seconds I had enough information to keep me up all night. And that was without dipping into the Lexis legal files.

The upshot was that when Raúl finally rolled out of bed, around eight in a warm autumn morning, I was still going at the computer, reading, downloading, and plotting. I gave him a kiss, fixed him his coffee, then sent him on his way as I took a shower, put on a Richard Tyler lilac dress and Chanel slingbacks, and drove out to my office in West Hollywood to meet the rest of my life.


My office is on the second floor of a strip mall off La Cienega, just up the hill from Yamushi's, the hottest sushi place in L.A. right now, where you can court death by eating $300-a-pop orders of blowfish. I'm also two blocks from the official start of Boys Town, the heart of the gay ghetto on Santa Monica Boulevard. For a while, right after I left the Public Defender's, I shared an office downtown with three other ex-champions of the public innocence, but between the late rent payments (theirs) and the compulsive need to tidy up messes (mine), I realized I was not primo partner material. So when this little office became available, I moved all my files, my Herman Miller desk and Eames chair and John Baldessari prints. Unlike downtown, here I don't have to worry about being pounced on by the perverts or the homeless when I work late; the boys on the street give me plenty of company without competition, which is fabulous (although sometimes I'm a little sad when I see all the wasted talent). And then there's that incredible rent payment %151; none. My aunt Flora owns the mall and she gladly leases me the office in exchange for keeping her legal affairs in order. Besides, on a clear day you can see all the way to paradise from the railing outside my door %151; or at least all the way down to Palos Verdes, which is a damn close second.

I parked in the basement garage, then hustled up the stairs to the Dietrich's on the first floor to pick up a tall latte. My assistant, Jon, was on vacation down in Cabo so the office was still closed and I wanted to make sure I looked like I had a thriving practice instead of the usual one-person billing agony.

I should have asked myself why I was trying to make a good impression on Charlie Morell. I mean, I'd just had the best year of my professional career, won three murder cases in a row and negotiated great pleas for all the others. I was making twice as much as I'd ever brought home from the county and was calling my own shots. In short, I had accomplished everything I'd set out to do. I had no need to impress anybody. Yet here I was, hustling like some law school intern trying to impress the deputy in charge.

I was ten minutes early but Charlie had beat me to it. He was idly leaning on the railing, dressed as though for court, in a smart dark blue pinstripe suit with a crisp white shirt and a gold tie and gleaming wingtips. Très GQ.

"Nice view up here," he said good-naturedly.

"I'm glad you enjoy it," I said, a little peeved at getting caught off guard. "Please come in."

I fiddled with the lock until the sliding glass door opened.

"I hope you don't mind I'm early. I didn't sleep much last night."

"You should stay away from dance clubs then, Mr. Morell," I said. "Loud music is not conducive to sound sleep."

"I wish it were that easy. Was that you in the yellow Alfa Spyder? You came blasting in."

"That it was," I said, placing my briefcase on the desk. "She's my pride and joy."

"They don't make them anymore, do they?" he said, sitting down, crossing the dangerously creased legs of his suit pants.

Churchill & Churchill shoes, I noticed, and some fine hose with little clocks stitched on. A very fancy dresser, Charlie Morell. But why is he so careful about his appearance?

"That's right, it's out of production. I got the last new one a couple of years ago at Alfa Motors. She's as temperamental as a diva but she makes a beautiful noise. I can give you all the specs, if you want. I tune her myself. Or we can talk about why you want to hire me."

Charlie wiped the smile off his face, tugged at the French cuffs of his shirt.

"Okay, fine. Let's talk turkey."

He leaned over, placed his big boxy leather lawyer's case on my desk, took out two three-ring binders and several folders held together by blue rubber bands and frayed string.

"As you know, the District Attorney's office rushed the preliminary hearing. I'm out on OR because I agreed to return voluntarily to the country, since there's no extradition treaty between Cuba and the U.S.

"Now, we'll be going to Department 100 the 14th next month, that gives us approximately three weeks. I've been representing myself so here's a copy of the murder book, copies of the discovery motions, and all the rest, as well as appropriate newspaper clippings and material that might impact on the investigation."

He shoved the pile toward me with great relief, one fewer millstone around his lean, elegant neck. I flipped quickly through the files as he spoke, fiddling with his onyx and gold cuff links, looking like a man who could use a cigarette but would never allow himself the weakness.

"Excuse me, let me get this straight. You're telling me that you want me to be your attorney and that I'm going to have three weeks to read, digest, interpret, and research all the material covering the murders and still be ready to announce ready for trial when we show up in Department 100?"

He smiled again, amused, no, charmed by my vexation. He was beginning to get on my nerves and I hadn't even agreed to take on the case yet.

"That's the long and the short of it. I was told if anybody could handle it you could."

"Who?"

"Friends. Colleagues. Dale Rubin. Roger Rosen. Chuck Lindner."

"I know those guys. They're solid. Why not any of them?"

"I need a woman. You know what this case is about. The jury might think I'm some kind of monster unless there's a pretty lady like you in their face telling them hey, this guy's human, how can you think that. I also need somebody like me out there, someone who can really understand the case. I'm ready to hire Jo-Ellen Dimitrius as our jury consultant."

"The lady from the O.J. trial?"

He nodded. "She's a friend too. She's already started preparing the prospective juror's questionnaire to weed out the ones that %151; "

I raised my hand and stopped him in mid-sentence.

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves, all right?"

I took out a yellow legal pad, wrote his name in capital letters at the top of the first page.

"I don't know how much money you have tucked away but this is not going to be low-cost. It might not look like it but I have a lot of overhead %151; my investigator, the time I'll be spending away from other cases, not to mention the psychic toll the trial will take on me personally. Because, you know, I will have to be living, breathing, and sleeping this case for the next three weeks if you hope to stand any chance of victory. Because when I take on a case I give it my one hundred ten percent. Because I'll have to reassign everything...what is this?"

He pushed a pale ivory linen envelope across the desk. I opened it. Inside was a cashier's check in my name for one hundred thousand dollars.

"That's your retainer. The publicity I've gotten lately has done wonders for my standing in Hollywood, so I've been able to re-option my books. Are you all right with that figure?"

I glanced down, felt myself blushing with greed.

"For the next three weeks? I can live with it."

"Good."

I couldn't help myself, it came out almost automatic.

"There will be expenses."

"That's all right. I'll pick those up. I wouldn't want Judge Carr's daughter to go begging."

"So you know about my dad."

"Who doesn't?"

"Is that the reason you're hiring me, because he's at the Court of Appeal? If so, you better take this back because he always recuses himself."

"Please, Rita, if my only hope of getting out of this is by winning it on appeal, I am in so deep I'll never get out."

"You are in deep. What else would you call it? You are facing two counts of murder with special circs, one here and another in Alameda. And if I'm not mistaken, the L.A. District Attorney's office will be alleging the death penalty %151; no L-wop for you."

"El wop?" he repeated, his expression like that of a man listening to a celestial whisper in his ear.

"You know, life without parole. Have you been out of the practice so long that you've forgotten?"

"No, no," he blustered, "I was just thinking how much that sounds like el guapo."

"Sorry. I don't speak Spanish. Dad never spoke it at home."

"Guapo usually means handsome in Spanish but in Cuba it's sort of like, the tough guy, the bully. Like in that Ray Barretto song from 1963, 'El Watusi,' you know? Ahí viene el guapo del barrio, yo no le tengo miedo a nadie, Watusi!"

"Which means?"

"Here comes the neighborhood bully, I'm not afraid of anybody, Watusi!"

"That's nice but I'm sure I don't have a clue."

Of course I did but I wasn't about to admit I'd been dancing to a song for years without knowing what it meant.

"Let's get back to your case, all right?" I pressed on. "If I take this case I'm going to want you to waive time so I can prepare."

He shook his head emphatically.

"No. That's the only condition I'm asking. I'm not waiving any time. This has to be resolved right away. Don't even try to argue 'cause I won't do it."

I stared at him for a beat, noticed the jaw set firmly, the crossed arms, all his body language screaming forget it, lady. I decided it was best to save that battle for later. I pulled out a double folder full of computer printouts.

"Fine then. Look, I have tons of information about you, your books, your family, this case, previous cases. But I still haven't been able to figure out what you're going to do about this case."

Something resembling grief, or a very deep loss, came over his features, his lips turning down at the corners, his eyes clouding dark and sinking deep into their sockets.

"If you've read all about me, then you know I was involved in a real bloody case a few years ago..."

"The Ricardo Díaz cult murders?"

"That's right. Some things were left unresolved from that case."

"Such as?"

"Such as the death of a state senator named Tom Decker. His daughter, Miranda, was involved with Díaz's cult. I think that would be a good point of departure for looking into this one."

"What makes you think that?"

"I asked Miranda. I went and interviewed her at Vacaville. She didn't tell me much, just that a lot of people were still gunning for me. People who had been running around with Díaz."

"What kind of people?"

"Well-placed people. Powerful people."

"Great. I love a good fight. So we'll start with her. I can send my investigator %151; "

"You needn't bother."

"Why not?"

"She was stabbed to death by her cellmate the day after I talked to her. Look."

He leaned over, extracted a box of typing paper with the title "Acts of Mercy." He threw it upon the table.

"I wrote down an account of what has happened to me over the last few months. It's sort of a first draft for a novel. I want you to read it. And finish it."

"What do you mean?"

"Whatever happens to me, that will be the end of the story."

"And if the jury finds you guilty and gives you the lethal injection?"

He stood, breathed in deeply.

"Then I guess we'll have a problem selling the film rights, won't we? Let's talk soon. My number's on the envelope."

He shook my hand and then exited quickly, as though afraid I would open his manuscript right then and start reading something that was not meant for other people's eyes %151; or for daytime consideration.

What kind of trip have I signed on for here? I wondered.

Copyright © 2000 by Alex Abella

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