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"So what're we gonna do about it?"
Barry Dodds didn't want to encourage him. "We're gonna play cards, Arlen—that's what we're gonna do. So play already."
A toothpick darting out from between his teeth, Arlen Matthews tossed out a few chips. "Seems to me this isn't something we should take lying down. Seems to me we ought to do something about it."
Mark Callery called. "Do something? Like what?"
Dodds pressed his hand against Callery's arm. They were about the same age, but Dodds was a captain, and he knew that because of his senior rank, Callery, unlike Matthews, respected his opinion. "Don't encourage him."
"I just wanted to know."
"And I'm saying, don't ask."
"What's the matter with you, Barry?" Matthews asked. "Don't we still have freedom of speech in this country? Let the boy talk."
"No good can come of this discussion." Dodds was a short man with the beer belly that almost seemed like a mandatory stage in almost every police officer's career. "You boys would be better off if you just forgot about it."
"Is that right?" Matthews obviously didn't agree. He addressed himself to the fourth member of the group. "What do you think, Frank?"
Frank didn't respond immediately. He was an extremely large man; down at headquarters, they called him The Hulk. Given his enormous size, his colleagues imagined that it took longer for thoughts to make the trip from his brain to his mouth, sort of like the larger dinosaurs. "Can't say, really."
"That's what I like about you, Frank. You always know exactly where you stand." Matthews obviously wasn't satisfied. "I tell you what I think. I think this was a travesty of justice and I think we ought to do something about it."
"Hasn't this mess caused you enough trouble already?" Dodds was the youngest of the four and the most senior in rank, a fact which he knew caused some trouble, even if it was never directly mentioned. "The courts have spoken. You can't take the law into your own hands. That's not how the system works."
Matthews was not pleased. "Don't lecture me on the system, college boy."
Dodds grimaced. In truth, many of the police officers, and all of the younger ones, had college degrees. But because he had a graduate degree in criminology, because he had been promoted rapidly and he spoke the Queen's English, to Matthews he was always the "college boy."
"I think we should just let it alone."
"You'd feel different if it had been you up there on the witness stand." Matthews threw down his cards—which was no great loss since he was holding a pair of twos. "You'd feel different if that attorney had made you look like a lyin' jackass."
Dodds, the last player still holding his cards, scooped in the pot. "He was just doing his job."
Matthews jumped up on his feet. "Just doing his job? Just doing his job?"
"I didn't say I liked it, okay?" Dodds had been trying to calm Matthews down all night, and frankly, he was getting sick of it. "I just said there's no point in acting like it was some big surprise. You know what's gonna happen when you take the stand. The defense attorney's going to try to make you look like one of the Three Stooges. There's nothing new about it."
"This is different."
"Like hell. This time it was one of our own. It was Joe. My partner. And if you had any loyalty to Joe—"
"Don't you dare lecture me about Joe." Dodds had had it, all he could take. "Joe and I went to school together, all right? I've known him longer than any of you. I would've died for him, understand? Died for him!" He stood up to Matthews and jabbed him in the chest. "So don't you lecture me about loyalty. Don't you dare!"
The room fell quiet. Matthews and Dodds glared at one another, like two jungle beasts waiting to see who would make the first move. No one did.
Eventually, Frank cleared his throat. "So are we gonna play cards here?"
Matthews kept his eyes trained on Dodds. "I'm sick of cards."
"But it was my turn to deal."
"There ain't gonna be any more cards, got it?" Matthews pounded the table. "It's sick. Our buddy is dead, the lyin' whore that killed him is running free, and we're sitting here like a bunch of pansy-assed queers playing cards!"
Callery's voice was quiet, and his eyes were trained on the table. "You know, Arlen, you weren't the only one who was up on the witness stand. I testified, too. I went first. You think I enjoyed it? I didn't. I didn't like that lawyer prying into every little thing. I didn't like him insinuating that we botched the investigation. But it's over now. We have to move on."
Matthews looked away. "It's different for you."
"It isn't, Arlen."
"It is. Goddamn it, can't you see? It is." To his companions' shock and horror, Matthews's small eyes began to well up. "It wasn't your fault, okay? I was the one who screwed up. I was the one who used Judge Bolen's crappy warrants. It's my fault that murdering bitch is still walking the streets."
Dodds gently placed his hand on his colleague's shoulder. "Give yourself a break, Arlen. You couldn't've known."
"I should've known, damn it. It's my job to know. I let Joe down. He was my partner. And I let him down." Tears began to stream down his face.
Even though it was obviously the last thing on earth he wanted to do, Frank broke his silence. "Arlen ... it's none of my business, but ... I think maybe you should get some help. Maybe some counseling. Central Division's got that woman who comes in twice a week—"
Matthews's face swelled up with rage. "I don't want counseling, you idiot! I want the fucking little cunt who killed Joe!"
Another silence followed, this one even longer than the one before. No one knew what to say next.
"It's this simple," Matthews said, his chest heaving. "Are you Joe's friend, or not? 'Cause there's no way any friend of Joe's would let what happened happen and just walk away without doing anything about it." He leaned across the table. "So what about it, Frank? Are you Joe's friend?"
Frank took his usual eternity to reply. "You know I am, Arlen."
"What about you, Mark?"
Callery frowned. "Joe was my first supervisor, my first day on the job. He taught me practically everything I know."
"I'll take that as a yes." He turned toward Dodds. "And what about you? You claim Joe was your oldest friend. You claim you'd of died for him. Was that just talk? Or does it actually mean something? "
Dodds glared back at him, not answering.
It was Callery who broke the silence. "What did you have in mind, Arlen?"
"We're cops, aren't we?"
"We're supposed to catch the bad guys, right?"
"So I say that's what we do."
"But, Arlen, the case is over. Double jeopardy has—"
"There are ways around that."
Dodds stared at Matthews, stunned. "Arlen, stop right there. I don't know what you're thinking, but whatever it is—"
"What's the matter? Haven't got the guts for it, college boy?"
Dodds fell silent, biting back his own anger.
"I want that cheap piece of ass that killed our friend. And I want that cheap lying whore of a lawyer who got her off and made us look like fools."
"We all do," Callery replied. "But how are you gonna do it? There's no way."
"There is a way." Calmly, almost in control of himself now, Matthews fell back into his chair. "I've got three words for you, boys: The Blue Squeeze."CHAPTER 2
Ben stood beside the reception table sampling Dean Belsky's canapés. There were a wide variety of them, but they all seemed to involve cucumbers. Ben hated cucumbers. Actually, it wasn't so much that he hated them as it was that he didn't understand their purpose. After all, they didn't taste like anything. They weren't especially good for you. They didn't quell your appetite. What was the point? And yet, there they were, as far as the eye could see, rows and rows of sliced, diced, warm and wilty cucumbers. All in all, it was about the most unappetizing display of appetizers he'd seen in his life.
"Paula, look! Cucumbers!" Jones, Ben's office manager, surged past him and bellied up to the table; his girlfriend, Paula, trailed in his wake. He slid his plate under half a dozen of the nearest selections. "I was starving." He glanced at Ben. "Aren't you having any?"
"I'd rather eat air. Actually, it's about the same."
"Nonsense. Cucumbers are great. So cool, so refreshing." He took a bite into one of them. The expression on his face rapidly changed. "Unless, of course, they've been out on the table a wee bit too long. When did this reception start?"
"Beats me. Seems like forever."
"Ah, don't be such a party pooper. This is a big day." Jones turned his attention to Paula. "Want some, sugar pie?"
"No thanks. I'll just savor the inside lining of my mouth."
Ben smiled. "A woman after my own heart." Paula was the head research librarian for the Tulsa City-County system. She and Jones had met on the Internet more than a year ago and been inseparable ever since. "Better watch out, Jones. I may steal her away from you."
"As if you stood a chance." He sniffed. "We're soul mates." He clasped her hand. "And hopefully we always will be."
"And I hope we always will be," she corrected. "'Hopefully' is an adverb meaning full of hope."
"That's my cute little librarian gal. You'll always be my sweet thing, won't you, punkin?"
"You know it, huggy bear."
They rubbed noses.
Ben didn't know whether to be enchanted or repulsed. "All right, you two, calm down. We're in a public place, remember?"
Jones pulled away from Paula's face. "I remember, Boss. But it's easy to forget when you're around my hot little love bug."
"Uh-huh. So when are you going to make an honest woman of her?"
A touch of frost settled amongst their little group.
Paula laughed, a bit too heartily, trying to smooth over the awkwardness. "Bad question, Ben. Jones is still in his twenty-first century sensitive male mode."
"And that means?"
She winked and mouthed the words: "Can't commit."
"Anybody seen Christina?" Jones asked. "We're here for her, after all."
"Haven't seen her," Ben answered. "Probably searching for a robe short enough to fit. Haven't seen Loving, either."
"That's odd. He said he would be—" Jones stopped. "Wait—oh, my God! There he is."
"What's the big—" Ben swiveled around.
"Hey ya, Skipper," Loving said, with typical exuberance. "Am I late?"
"No, no," Ben said, trying not to laugh. "You're fine. A good fifteen minutes till the ceremony starts." He turned away, unable to suppress his mirth.
"What?" Loving said. "What is it? Did I do somethin'?"
"No. N-not at all," Jones stammered out. He was doing a considerably less capable job of containing himself. "You certainly look ... dapper this morning."
"What is it? My clothes?" Loving, Ben's investigator, was about the size of a bear and built like a brick wall. But this morning, that admirable girth was encased in an ill-fitting tuxedo. With morning coat. "You told me this was a dress-up thing."
"Yes," Jones said. He was full-out laughing now. "Yes, I did ..."
"And I wanted Christina to know how important I think this is. Wanted to treat her special day with respect." He hooked a thumb under his lapel. "When she sees this, she'll know how much I care about her."
"That," Ben said, "or she'll think you just came from a royal wedding."
"What a bunch of boobs," Paula said. She took Loving's arm and sidled up next to him. "I think you look dashing."
"Really?" Loving beamed. "I wasn't sure, you know?" He lowered his voice a notch. "I haven't actually worn this thing since high school."
"Ah. That would explain the fit."
He twisted his neck in the direction of the voice and saw a familiar red-haired figure blazing a trail through the reception crowd. She was wearing a black gown and had a mortarboard tucked under her arm.
"Ben!" she said, bubbling. "You came! I'm so happy!"
"Well, of course I came," he said, standing there awkwardly. "I couldn't miss seeing my, um, you know, one's legal assistant graduating from law school."
Paula patted his arm. "Nice job, Ben. Very clinical." She gave Christina a hug. "We're so proud of you, Christina. All of us."
"Are you staying for the ceremony? "
Ben opened his mouth, but whatever he was planning to say, he never got the chance. "Of course we are," Paula said quickly. "All of us."
"That's wonderful!" Christina had always been on the exuberant side, but this morning, she was positively effervescent. "Can you believe I'm finally graduating?" She spun around, and the brick wall wearing a tuxedo caught her eye. "Loving, look at you! You look extraordinaire!"
Loving tugged on his bow tie. "Me? Nah ..."
"You do! Very scrummy! If you wear that thing much longer, you're going to have to beat the girls off with a stick."
"Shucks. I wasn't tryin' to look good. I just wanted you to know what a big deal we think today is. And how proud we are of you."
She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. "You're very sweet." She turned back toward Ben. "Don't you think my gown has a certain je ne sais quoi? Don't you like it?"
"Better than most of your wardrobe."
"Wanna see what I have on under it?"
"No." Ben gave her a long look. "You do have something on under it, don't you?"
"Of course." She lifted the hem of the gown and gave him a fast flash of a pink poodle skirt lined with black fake fur, white socks, and saddle oxfords.
"You know," Ben said, "once you're a lawyer, you won't be able to dress so ... eccentrically."
"Which is why I dressed up today. I have the whole rest of my life to be boring." She saw that the other graduates were beginning to file out the rear. "I have to go get in line now." She paused, this time looking at Ben. "See you after the ceremony?"
"Wouldn't miss it."
And then she was gone, like a strawberry-blond poltergeist, three shakes and a cloud of dust.
It was well past time someone reinvented the graduation ceremony model, Ben mused, as he sat on one of the front rows of the First Baptist Church sanctuary, bored to tears. There were too many people crammed into too little space, none of them smiling. Even the graduates looked as if they might drop off at any moment. After "a few opening remarks" from the dean, it was time for the musical entertainment, which was neither.
And then, of course, the dreaded commencement address, delivered by a distinguished state senator. Why were these things so often delivered by politicians? Ben supposed it was because they were always ready to give a speech and didn't require an honorarium. This address went on for more than half an hour, and it seemed to Ben to have a lot more to do with getting the speaker reelected than offering words of wisdom to the graduates. As a part-time adjunct professor, Ben had tried to suggest a few innovative alterations to the dean—like skipping the whole ceremony. But for some strange reason, his proposal hadn't garnered much support.
At long last, it was time to award the diplomas.
"Here it is!" Loving said excitedly, jabbing Ben in the ribs. "It's almost time."
"Almost time? They're still in the A's. Christina is an M."
"She'll be up before ya know it," Loving said, and he was almost right, because Ben managed to take a little eyes-open nap, a trick he had taught himself during Western Oklahoma motion dockets. By the time he knew what was going on again, they were finishing up the L's.
"Steven Edward Lytton, PLA Vice President," the announcer said, and somewhere behind him, Ben heard a booming chorus of shouts and cheers.
"What boobs," Ben muttered, under his breath.
"They're not boobs," Loving said. "They're family. They're proud of him. It's what families do."
"Loving ... you aren't planning ..."
But there was no time. "Christina Ingrid McCall, National Moot Court, Law Review, Order of the Coif."
In the blink of an eye, Jones, Paula, and Loving were on their feet, whooping and hollering at the top of their lungs.
Ben wondered if the dean was watching. "Why are you doing this?" he growled under his breath.
"Don't you get it?" Loving hissed between hoots. "We're her family."
He was right, of course. Ben pushed to his feet and pounded his hands together. He even whooped a little.
After the ceremony, the group gathered at the office at Two Warren Place for a postceremony celebration. Jones had ordered champagne, chilled and ready when they arrived. Paula had made brownies and Loving picked up some exquisite bacon cheeseburgers from Goldie's.
"A toast," Jones said, hoisting his glass in the air.
"Another one?" Ben asked. By his count, they'd already had about three bottles of toasts, and they were all starting to wobble a bit.
Excerpted from Murder One by William Bernhardt. Copyright © 2001 William Bernhardt. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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