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Lucille Lettermore had a reputation for blindsiding prosecutors in court. She’d memorized the Michigan Penal Code and sprang up through loopholes to lash out at them unexpectedly in a kind of reverse Whack- a-Mole game.
Although she took on all sorts of clients, she preferred the unpopu lar ones: Communists, terrorists, Demo crats, and other enemies of the social order. She’d spent more time behind bars on contempt charges than Koko the Giant Gorilla and had had her life threatened by people from every walk of society, including a Jesuit priest.
They called her Lefty Lucy.
I thought she was okay, but then I have a higher than average tolerance for lawyers. They account for 60 percent of my business.
We were in her of.ce. “You look like a cable preacher,” she said. “Your other suits are the kind I put on homeless clients to get them past the bailiff.”
I thumbed a smooth gray lapel. I couldn’t stop fondling the soft material. It was like trying to keep from running your hand over your .rst crew cut. “I lost three on my last job. I pooled the price and bought this one out of expenses. Something’s bound to happen to it.”
“Getting fatalistic in our extremity, are we?” But she wasn’t really listening. Fashion meant nothing to her apart from what effect it might have on a jury. She wore her gray hair in bangs straight across the eyebrows and the rest to her collar, where she chopped it off like a broom. A pumpkin- colored blazer covered her linebacker’s shoulders. People usually mistook her for a realtor.
“Anything on the platter at the moment?” she asked. “I include sleeper retainers, anything that might pull you off what you’re working on.”
“I committed to a bird feeder recently, but they can go to the park when I’m not home to .ll it.”
“Good, I need you exclusive. The homework alone on this one could take weeks.”
“Who’s the bankroll, William Clay Ford?”
“Joseph Michael Ballista. Know the name?”
“That was the old man. Try thinking more modern than the wartime black market. The Combination called him Joey Ballistic, partly because of his bad temper but mostly because he liked to blow things up. Allegedly,” she added.
“ ‘The Combination.’ ” I grinned. “Now who’s living in the past?”
“The Ma.a, La Cosa Nostra, Radio Shack, the fucking Syndicate. Let’s stay on topic. I’m burning off a deuce a minute in billable hours.”
She never joked about that. She’d cleared all the law books off the shelves behind her and sold them to an interior decorator to make room for several dozen clocks, analog and digital, placed in her clients’ direct line of sight to remind them that time was expensive and for Christ’s sake get to the point. The decorator had had labels made with Shakespeare’s titles embossed in gold to paste over the legal titles on the spines and stock the libraries of illiterate movie stars.
I said, “Sure, I remember Joey. I heard he died in the in.rmary in Marion.”
“You heard wrong. The Illinois quacks said he had cancer of the urinary tract and gave him six weeks to live. Then he passed a kidney stone and got better. The rich food they dish up in the federal system has made enough of those to build a new facility. He’s back in Michigan now.”
She shook her head. “He’s out, sort of; rattling around his father’s old barn in Bloomingham with an electronic tether on his ankle. I swung that, courtesy of the shitty .nancial situation in Lansing. Prisoners are high- maintenance, and old- fashioned gangsters seem cuddly since Nine- Eleven. He poses no threat.”
Bloomingham is Detroitspeak for the tony communities of Birmingham, West Bloom.eld, and Bloom.eld Village, where they cut the grass with Norelcos and hand out gold American Express cards at Halloween. Once they started letting in retired county executives it had been only a matter of time before the underworld set up house keeping there.
“He wasn’t always harmless,” I said.
“Water over the dam. This time they’re trying him for uttering and publishing. A bad- check rap after all those years on J. Edgar’s hit parade.”
“They got Capone on tax evasion.”
“You’re regressing further. With his priors it’s a life sentence. The man’s paid his debt.”
“Probably with a bum check.”
“It’s a frame. Somebody else in the Com— the orga ni za tion signed someone else’s name using his penmanship, a double forgery. Joey was on parole, so back he goes to serve out the rest of his original sentence on a conviction for illegal possession of a blackjack. Hell’s sake, if he didn’t pick up the habit in stir he’d never have survived his .rst incarceration.”
“Representing a hoodlum is almost respectable for you.”
We were in her of.ce in the old National Bank Building .ve stories above the demented carousel of automobiles, pedestrians, and traf.c barricades that is Cadillac Square. The walls were painted an eye- watering apple green and hung with photographs in transparent frames of Lucille at various ages and dress sizes, taking up space with Bobby Seale, Father Charles Coughlin, Jane Fonda, Michael Moore or Meatloaf, and Roman Polanski. Judging by collar types and the breadth of Polanski’s necktie, they’d posed for that one about the time he .ed the U.S. to avoid standing trial for statutory rape. That complaint was long past the age of consent, but he was still making movies in Eu rope and the bailbondsman Lucille had recommended was still blackening her name all over the Internet. The FBI had leased an outside storage unit to contain her .le.
She shifted her impressive weight around in her orange leather chair and crossed a pair of plump ankles under the sheet of plate glass she used for a desk. “The state attorney general’s people know it’s a frame, that goes without saying. I stop short of suggesting they arranged it, but I’m entitled to my suspicions. The last A.G. didn’t stay long enough to warm the seat before hopping into the governor’s mansion. Considering how well that turned out, this one needs a boost.”
“Isn’t it unethical for one member of your profession to bad- mouth another outside court?”
“Ethics is a loser’s word.”
“So get him off.”
“I wouldn’t know where to start. You can stir up all kinds of shit when you’re standing in it; I wrote the book on that. But I’ve never represented a client I thought wasn’t guilty.
“It’s an interesting moral dilemma,” she .nished.
I felt like smoking over that one. I showed her the pack, brows lifted.
“The building’s gone nonsmoking. Open the window.” When I hesitated she said, “I put in some time on the tobacco companies’ legal team.”
“Wasn’t that antiproletariat?”
“I turned in my party card under Jimmy Carter. The tobacco settlement paid pennies to the victims and billions to the slush fund. It was all about money from the start, just like everything else.”
I’d have expected a lawyer to have known that, but the most idealistic man I’d ever met had served ninety days for procurement. He never got over being arrested after the cop had told him point blank he wasn’t a cop. I got up and tugged open the window, releasing into the room a puff of fetid air, carrying that molasses- and- urine stink of midday downtown baking in the sun. A city bus carrying more advertising than passengers waddled through the intersection and sighed against the curb, trading one customer on a walker for another.
I threw a match into the column of heat and trailed smoke back to my chair. “Make a deal. Joey probably overheard them setting up the Bugsy Siegel hit when he was in the womb.”
“The A.G.’s people offered one, with a fed chaser: immunity in return for his testimony against some of his old friends. Parole restrictions lifted and witness protection, the same old horse shit in the same old sack. I said no dice.”
“Run it past your client?”
“The American Bar Association insists upon it.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“You worry about your ticket, I’ll worry about mine.” She changed the subject. “I don’t usually explain myself, but you and I have clocked a lot of miles, and I gave up keeping score on who steered more business whose way. The truth is I got mad when RICO passed, with its provisions for setting aside the Bill of Rights to put racketeers behind bars. It was an admission of failure on the good guys’ part, that the law couldn’t punish lawbreakers without breaking the law itself. I’ve won some and I’ve lost more, but never by default.”
I tapped ash into a pants cuff and listened. I’d had to .ght the tailor to have it.
“Those blow- dried neo- Stalinists in the Justice Department expect me to play by their rules, even when they don’t,” she said. “I won’t. I’m going to swipe Joey right out from under their noses. They moved into my weight class when they made him an underdog.”
“One with millions in unreported income. Nice doggie.”
“I soak ’em when they got it. How about you?”
“I got third- degree burns out of the last.”
She uncrossed her ankles and laid a pair of Popeye forearms on the desk. From three feet away I could smell the coffee on her breath; I think she chewed the grounds when the water was too slow. “Anyway,” she said, “what chance does a character like him stand hiding out in some corn.eld in Kansas? He’d be as inconspicuous as a pinky ring at a tent revival.”
“What’s your game plan?”
“So glad you asked.” She counted on her .ngers. “That blackjack conviction’s a joke; if I’d been his attorney then I’d have made the case for a plant, and I can get that decision reversed by sweating the right people. The federal takedown came from lying to the FBI; apart from the fact that no one gives a shit, Justice’s star witness tainted his testimony when he got slapped with community ser vice for perjuring himself on one point during cross, and I can land Joey a new trial on that alone. My guess is they’ll drop the charge to avoid embarrassment, but if they’re pigheaded enough to go through with it I’ll wipe my ass with their case in court. See where I’m headed?”
“I’d rather not, but you draw too clear a picture.”
Actually I’d begun to understand. I went over to the window and watched what was left of my cigarette trace spirals down to the sidewalk, then turned my back on it and stuck my hands in my pockets. “Didn’t he bribe an of.cial to put him on a work- release program back in Jackson? He got another sentence for that and the of.cial drew unemployment.”
“I’m shedding big fat greasy tears for the of.cial, inside. I’ll squeeze them back out if he decides to sue and retains me. Right now we’re talking about Joey. If he shouldn’t have been in jail in the .rst place, the circumstances are extenuating. New trial: See above.”
“He’s just Snow White, isn’t he? Only he isn’t. The judge sent him to Jackson for attempted murder. He wired a bundle of dynamite to the ignition of some chump’s car and blew off the chump’s leg.”
“That’s the keystone of my strategy. If I can swing a Mulligan and win him an acquittal, the bribery case goes away. With the other two bits expunged, I’ll plead no contest on the bad- check charge and petition the judge to sentence him as a .rst offender. He’ll be released for time served.” She sat back beaming. Lucille Lettermore wearing a smile was like a Great White picking its teeth.
“Congratulations. A born- again virgin’s a tough sell, but if it can be sold you’re the girl.”
“Not without help. You’ve been a detective almost as long as Joey’s been in trouble. I have to assume you’ve learned a thing or two in all that time. I want you to .nd the evidence that will set aside that .rst conviction and help put an innocent man back on the street.”
“Why, because he’s a thug?”
“I’ve spent enough time with them to catch sports- shirt poisoning, but there’s a cure for that. I’m not as good as you think.”
“Bullshit. Shit of the bull.” She had a fecal fetish. “What’s eating you, really?”
I lit another, as long as I was standing next to the ashtray. There was nothing for it but to pin my heart on my new worsted sleeve. “That chump Joey blew up in his car? He’s my only friend.”
Excerpted from The Left-Handed Dollar by Loren D. Estleman.
Copyright © 2010 by Loren D. Estleman.
Published in April 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and
reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in
any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.