In this brooding, atmospheric mystery, John DeCure once again brings the seemingly disparate worlds of law and surfing together with engaging results. For J. Shepard, prosecuting attorney with the California State Bar Association, only one thing in his life keeps him centered: riding waves. When the surf is rising, J. has never had a problem coming up with an excuse to cut out of work.
But with a new fiancée and a troubling internal audit beginning at work, J. has little time these days to hit the sand. When a legal mentor from his distant past washes up in his office stinking of alcohol and hoping for a second chance at life, J. drops everything, including his surfboard. But will he be able to help? The man is in deep trouble, and J. will have to use every tool at his disposal, both in the courtroom and on the beach, to get him out of it. A wrenching, suspenseful follow-up to John DeCure's critically acclaimed Reef Dance, Bluebird Rising is a taut novel sure to please established fans and new readers alike.
About the Author
John DeCure was a deputy trial counsel with the State Bar of California from 1993-1998. He lives and surfs in Southern California, where he was born and raised.
John DeCure was a deputy trial counsel with the State Bar of California from 1993-1998. He is the author of Bluebird Rising and Reef Dance. He lives and surfs in Southern California, where he was born and raised.
Read an Excerpt
By John DeCure
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 John DeCure
All rights reserved.
The lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.
This old saying is something of a proverb for the state bar prosecutors in my office, we attorneys who make a living cracking down on our own fallen brethren for their acts of professional misconduct. It has to do with ego, when you're talking about those who defend themselves on their very own, a kind of arrogance you develop from being so close to the problem for such a long time that you no longer realize that you are the goddamned problem. Now, a few of these do-it-yourselfers I run up against are just hardluck broke and have no choice but to go it alone. Another small contingent is of the pragmatic skinflint variety, the guy trying to save a few grand on a trip down the regulatory rapids that he just knows is going to result in a good soaking anyway — and if you think about this for a minute, it makes some sense, especially if, like me, you're the prosecutor sending the poor bastard over the falls headfirst. But the saying best fits the swell-headed fool who simply thinks he knows better than anyone else how to lawyer a case because, hell, he is a lawyer.
I believed I was looking upon just such a fool.
His name was Eugene Podette, and it was Thursday afternoon. February 1994. The city of Los Angeles was still recovering from the big Northridge shaker that had hit in January. As everyone knows by now, earthquakes are a part of life here, something you learn to deal with, or at least tolerate, over time, like the seasons of drought and canyon wildfires, the crime, and the constant influx of new arrivals to California, all of them hungry for a piece of something that may no longer even exist. But this quake had been a bad one even by L.A. standards, flattening freeway overpasses and tossing homes off their foundations like a bored kid swiping at his toys. What with the riots — I mean, the social unrest — of '92 still fresh in the city's collective consciousness, these days folks were not just talking about packing up and getting out, as some invariably do after every major disaster. People were actually leaving.
But bailing never crossed my mind — Southern California is home to me.
On that particular Thursday afternoon I was standing before Judge Herbert Renaldo in state bar court, just finished with my closing argument. Thanking the judge, I stepped away from the wooden podium as my red-faced opponent shuffled in, eyes bulging, probably wondering what he would have to say to convince the judge that the state bar had entirely the wrong picture of him. That he was not, as the bar's young prosecutor alleged, a Bible-thumping law boy who'd bilked his congregation out of close to four hundred thousand bucks in a phony fund-raising scam for the guarantee of a heavenly new church he had no intention of ever building. Eugene Podette glanced behind him to the gallery, where his wife, Trixie, sat alone. Trixie was wrapped in a soft pink sweater, her lip quivering under a pile of permed curls, but she held her chin up like a prizefighter at a weigh-in, showing the judge that her solidarity with Eugene could never be in doubt. Eugene gave Trixie the nod, but he lingered and seemed to study the space behind her, a row of vacant gallery seats. I saw in his sweaty white face a look of longing as he stared into that emptiness, too, the look of an astronaut floating helplessly into deep space when his lifeline has been cut. He was probably wishing he had a string section back there right now, I figured, anything to help him as he made his final plea for leniency in the Matter of the State Bar of California versus Eugene Vern Podette, Respondent. But he was on his own.
With some cases, you just don't know how the judge is going to call it, but this one felt solid. The trial had glided along swimmingly thus far. I'd offered into evidence the forged title documents for the proposed building site, the letter of intent from a make-believe millionaire donor pledging to match dollar for dollar every last greenback raised for the project, and the bank records showing Podette's methodical embezzlement by way of sizable "project expense" withdrawals at carefully timed intervals. Three hundred and ninety grand of the half million raised, all gone. My handwriting expert had nailed all the document issues shut — thank you, no further questions.
And how about the testimony of the Reverend Jimmy Joe Kavner, the good preacher who'd had the guts to finally start asking questions about Eugene's scam? In a word: sweet. My best move, perhaps, for Reverend Jimmy Joe, in his shiny green suit a size too small but plenty big in the lapels, had dusted the short brown bangs off his short, worry-rutted forehead and offered a teary-eyed display that put a human face on Podette's misdeeds. Nobody's fool, Jimmy Joe had queried Eugene about the shrinking bank balance and inexplicable delays in starting the construction. The Lord works in mysterious ways, Eugene told him. "Well, c'mon, he's not that mysterious," Jimmy Joe had retorted. Renaldo clucked appreciatively at that one, and I could've kissed the good reverend for leveling the judge with a stink-eye that said, What, you think this is funny?
I sat down and poured myself an ice water from the beaded pitcher on the table like I was pouring it straight into my veins, enjoying a tingly, self-satisfied little minirush. On the bench, the old judge ran his hand across his mouth to conceal an escaping yawn, but hell, he wasn't going to worry me with an absent gesture or two. Judge Renaldo had gotten the message. Eugene Podette had earned himself a permanent vacation from the practice of law.
The podium stood directly between the two tables for the opposing lawyers, so I had to look straight left to see my adversary. I usually don't give them the satisfaction when they're talking, and Eugene was no exception, but the skin at the base of my neck prickled the way it does when something inside me senses an encroachment. So I risked giving the bastard the satisfaction and turned my head. Podette's meaty lips were parted in hungry anticipation, as if he knew what he was about to say would get a rise out of me. But his cue-ball dome and witless frown reminded me of Curly from the Three Stooges. If this was a stab at intimidation, it had fallen short. Should have got yourself a lawyer, Eugene, I wanted to tell him. You might have had a chance.
Then Eugene Podette straightened his tie a little, cleared his throat, and made his move. "Your Honor," he said in that droopy fashion of his that mirrors his posture, "beggin' your pardon, but I've got a ... rather special request." The judge nodded. "As you know, I'm here representing myself. Well, I'm doing my best and all, and it hasn't been easy, to say the very least. Mr. Shepard here, he is a worthy adversary" — a nice hand gesture floated my way — "but, Your Honor, I am a humble man, and I am finding it harder and harder to discuss the case, you know ... this whole ... terrible misunderstanding, without getting all ..." He sniffled like he was holding back the flood.
"Go on," the judge told him more gravely than I would have liked. "Unless you would like to take a break."
A break — from that transparent act? I wanted to say, Christ, Judge, give me a flipping break.
No thanks, Podette told Renaldo, he would boldly shoulder on. "But I do have one request, Your Honor. I would like for my wife to have the honor and privilege of addressing the court, that is, on my behalf." He sighed with deep feeling. I felt like I was locked in a B movie.
"Very well," Judge Renaldo quickly agreed. I didn't like that he had not even asked me if the bar had an objection. Typically, only the lawyer of record may speak, which in this case was Eugene alone. But, I wondered, what was the harm? Renaldo knew he would be giving this guy his walking papers soon enough. Maybe the judge was just humoring him in the meantime. Under the circumstances, this was not so unreasonable. I eased back in my chair and sipped my ice water, for lack of anything better to do, then made a mental note that sometimes I have to remind myself to be a more gracious winner.
Trixie Podette, Eugene's wife, rose and took her husband's place at the podium, but before she began, the courtroom door moaned and cracked open and a tall, slightly disheveled-looking man in a rumpled suit stepped in. The man shared a brief, puzzled glance with me, the way an old, unfriendly acquaintance will look at you with surprise and regret at the same time if your paths should cross by happenstance. Then he took a seat near the door.
"Good afternoon," Judge Renaldo said with some anticipation. "Are you related?" Eugene Podette craned toward the back with what-the-hell befuddlement.
"No, Your Honor," the disheveled man said. "I'm here to ..." He stopped as if to rethink what he was saying. "I'm just watching."
"I see," Renaldo said. "The public is always welcome to view our proceedings." He flashed his big, crooked yellow teeth in a big, crooked smile. "Welcome, sir, welcome."
I wanted to laugh, what with the judge acting like a millionaire showing off his private art collection to the little people. Must be the Jurist of the Year Award, I thought, the one Renaldo got last fall from a dubious so-called legal ethics foundation run by a well-known congressional swindler, an outfit that handed out awards to earnest types like Renaldo to help bolster its credibility and had got some unwanted attention last month from the IRS for misusing its nonprofit status. Christ, the Times had had its fun marveling at the irony of that unfolding saga. But that damn award, it must have gone straight to the old judge's head.
I recognized the man in the gallery, and he looked like he'd gone to hell and back since the last time I'd seen him, ten years ago by now. His name was Dale Bleeker. He was a former deputy district attorney, a once brilliant trial lawyer whose courtroom skills had made a huge impression on me at precisely the time when my life lacked any sort of a game plan for the future. Subtly I watched him as he hunched his lanky frame over and eased into a seat in the gallery like a guy who'd slept on a hard floor or maybe a park bench the night before, and it struck me that the man had done more than just influence my decision to follow the path of the Law. No, he hadn't just made me want to be a lawyer. He'd made me want to be a lawyer like him.
Dale Bleeker was a legal role model to me — even though we'd never actually met. I'd been stunned when I heard he had recently been convicted on a one-count misdemeanor for lewd and lascivious conduct, a wienie-wagging incident that had landed him a low-level discipline from the bar with a year of probation. Something had obviously gone wrong in the man's life. I wanted to find out what it was, so last week I'd volunteered with the Probation Unit to be his monitor.
Lawyers on probation with the bar are supposed to get a monitor, another attorney who can help keep them in line for the length of the term. For years, the Probation Unit passed out lots of continuing-legal-education credits to lawyers who volunteered to monitor, and since easy credits are tough to come by, plenty answered the call of duty. The monitoring program worked well, so well that by the early nineties, probation violations had dropped to a historic low. Then some bar gadfly with nothing but time on his hands — and a lawyer at that — criticized the program for being unfair to other lawyers who had to study legal course work to earn their lousy credits, and the bar had to drop its CLE offer. The endless supply of opportunistic legal altruists dried up overnight, and the volunteer monitor program withered and died. When I offered to monitor Dale Bleeker's probation, the probation supervisor said fine, but her eyebrows pricked, and she also wanted to know, rather cynically, what was in it for me. I pricked my eyebrows back at her and said I wanted to make sure the man got through probation okay and left it at that. The super sighed like a punctured inner tube, rolled her eyes back, and said okay, fine, then sent Bleeker an appointment notice for later today in my office. Bleeker was way early, which I didn't like because it signified that he probably had all day. For lawyers on disciplinary probation, having hours to kill isn't much of a positive. It just means there's more time to backslide. I fixed my eyes on the judge again. He must be early, I thought and turned back to the bench.
The case at hand was still to be decided. Trixie Podette made a point of holding her composure together just enough to say, "Good afternoon to you, Your Honor." Then she wept and blew into her hankie and slowly but assuredly invited the judge to wallow in the melodrama of her husband's predicament, confiding in the court, beseeching the good judge to show mercy.
"Your Honor, my Eugene — I mean, Mr. Podette — he is indeed a man with his share of failings." Trixie paused to cast a loving glance toward her chastened mate. "He is a man whose deep love of the Lord is true, I know. Yes, sir, Your Honor, it is a love so profound as to ... temporarily blind him to the fact that he just isn't much of a businessman." She tittered at the notion of her bumbling hubby, a false little laugh that rattled the air and died a quick, deserved death. "And that's a fact," she went on. "But that is all there is to this" — looking right at me when she said that. "My husband did not intend to cause any misunderstandings."
Christ, there was that word again. I stared right back at the respondent's unflappable woman, getting a taste now for the thing that had probably made them a pair in the first place. Trixie Podette was putting an accomplished spin on the facts, doing as good a job as her husband could have managed. No, probably better. I felt myself sliding lower in my chair, as if sucked down by the force of my own foolish complacency.
"He just harbored a deep desire to build a special place of worship," Trixie said, "a church like no other for the good folks of the Henefer Church of Christ. Yes, mistakes were certainly made, Your Honor, serious miscalculations that the good Lord himself will surely scrutinize on Judgment Day, we can all rest assured. But my Eugene, he is a fine man, a devoted husband and the father of three fine children, Winnie, Paul, and little Davey."
Trixie paused, gripping the podium like she was expecting an aftershock from the Northridge rumbler. Eugene sniffled at the counsel table opposite me, his shiny head bowed penitently. I checked Renaldo for a response to all this, hoping to see him hiding another yawn. What I saw I did not like.
"Please continue, Mrs. Podette."
Fuck me, the voice in my head said, he's buying it.
Trixie held up a finger, inciting a wordless pause to the proceedings. Then she slid back to the courtroom door and opened it. "Children?" she called into the hallway exactly like Maria Von Trapp does in The Sound of Music.
My heart nearly gave out at the sight of Winnie, Paul, and little Davey Podette, three of the cutest school-age mopheads I'd ever laid eyes on. Renaldo was biting, and hard at that, his eyes misting up and his ruddy nose twitching as the kids draped their adorable little selves all over dear old Dad.
A fool for a client? Yeah, right. I just sat there, grinding my teeth as I pondered the utter uselessness of overused sayings.
Standing stiff-legged in my office window, framed by the downtown L.A. skyline, Dale Bleeker looked nothing like the confident deputy district attorney who had so impressed me ten years ago. His dark suit looked dusty, the jacket a decent fit for his tall frame but badly creased in back and rumpled at the elbows. Somehow, the pinstripes had been robbed of their power, making Bleeker appear more like an overdressed hick or a second-rate mortician than an experienced litigator. He shifted his weight so he could see his reflection better, tightening the knot of his tie, an out-offashion foulard in an electric teal with a grease spot shaped like the Big Island of Hawaii. His black wing tips were standard-issue patent leather but had needed a shine sometime around last summer. He seemed to have dropped some pounds over the years, but his face and cheeks looked veined and swollen. The slicked brown hair of the assured counselor had given way to strands of gray comb-over that kept falling onto his spotted forehead.
Excerpted from Bluebird Rising by John DeCure. Copyright © 2003 John DeCure. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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