Defense attorney Paul Madriani was on the rise with the California law firm of Potter, Skarpellos—until a short-lived affair with Potter's wife, Talia, cost him his job. A year later, when Talia is accused of Potter’s murder Paul is thrust back into the big time—and he soon uncovers secrets that may end his career...and his life.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:February 28, 1946
Place of Birth:San Francisco, California
Education:B.A., University of California, Santa Cruz, 1968; J.D., University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, 1974
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THE SIMEON CHAMBER
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Titles by Steve Martini
THE SIMEON CHAMBER
If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as ‘unsold and destroyed’ to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this ‘stripped book.
This is a work of fiction. The characters and events described in this book are imaginary, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
To Leah, whose love and inspiration guided the writing of this book
In the writing of this work, I received the assistance and encouragement of many, without whose support it would never have been possible. I owe much thanks and deep gratitude first to my wife, Leah, who during the long months of writing was ever at my side, listening with a critical ear and reading with a deft eye the story that became this novel.
To Marc Berg, a former prosecutor and skilled defense attorney in Auburn, California, for his keen lawyer’s eye and insight into the dynamics of criminal law.
To Robert E. Garbutt and Ken Mack, criminalists with the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Crime Lab, for their incisive advice and expertise in the labyrinth that is criminal forensics.
To Sergeant Kent Armbright, warden’s administrative assistant, San Quentin State Prison, for a chilling and up-close glimpse of the state’s death house, and his perceptive insights into the uncertain and confined cosmos of daily life in an overcrowded and understaffed prison.
To Providence, for the good fortune of placing me with a publisher of the quality and repute of Putnam.
To Phyllis Grann, my publisher, for her enthusiastic support and unflagging optimism.
To George Coleman, my editor, and one of the inveterate ‘rainmakers’ of the publishing world, for his encouragement during difficult times.
To John Hawkins, my agent, whose skill in negotiations and adroit sense of business guided me through perilous waters on repeated occasions.
To Jeff Marschner, a former California prosecutor, supervisor, and coworker as a state attorney, for his advice and encouragement.
To the state attorneys and staff in the legal office of the California Department of Consumer Affairs, for their interest and support in the progress of this story.
To Rita Martini, Betty Arnold, Keith and Jo Arnold, and Dave Krizman, for their critical eye and unvarnished honesty in the early reading of manuscripts.
To all of these and to others whom I may have omitted to mention here, I owe grateful thanks for advice and insights that have allowed me to craft a work of seeming truth. For any failings that a reader may find in this regard, I am solely responsible.
This is the first of punishments, that no guilty man is acquitted if judged by himself.
—JUVENAL, ROMAN POET
FROM somewhere behind the scenes the lights in the chamber are turned on.
Dreyers nudges me. ‘Looks like the $64,000 Challenge,” he says. This is low, directed to me, but others hear it. A little comic relief. There’s a titter of laughter from behind us, up on the risers. Johnston and the other guard don’t laugh.
Dreyers whispers, lower now, under his breath, to me only. “Pretty soon they’ll pop the question.”
I look at him.
“For $64,000—how long can you hold your breath?’ He gives me a little sideways wink. I can hear some giggling on the other side of Dreyers. Another cop, one of his buddies.
Bad taste, I think. But as I study the scene, he’s right. Now this room with its cupola-like top, lit on the inside like some Macy’s store window, does not resemble anything so much as one of the glittering, cheesy booths from a sixties TV quiz show.
A lone guard enters the room through a door on the other side of the chamber. Muffled cries, intonations of a desperate low moan are clearly audible as the door is closed.
Now each calculated procedure is a step closer to death for the man waiting on the other side of that door. In quick, measured movements the guard lowers two sets of green venetian blinds, covering windows on the other side of the chamber. These will mask the execution team as they open the valves and throw the lever to release the lethal gas.
Then I see them, the size of two softballs. Granules of sodium cyanide, like fine baking powder, a pound each, have been tied and molded into a round form. They are held in two pieces of cheesecloth and fastened to a device over the vat under each chair. These deadly chemical balls hang tenuously by wire from two curved metal arms. When the lever is thrown these arms will drop, the cyanide falling into the pots of sulfuric acid and water. For safety the two vats are now empty.
Sally Ryan’s father is here, a decade older, grayer, the lines of his face more deeply etched than I remember. He stands apart from the rest of us, as if he’s on a different mission, some ancient and sacred vendetta bred of human instinct. The memory of a defiled and murdered child is long.
I asked Ryan about the parents of the other girl, Linda Maldinado. “Divorced,” he said, as if this explained their absence. What he meant was, destroyed—ravaged by a grieving they could not conclude while this thing remained open, incomplete. It’s the first I’ve seen of either family since the trial, when Ryan and the more aggressive Mrs. Maldinado hovered with me in hallways, demanding assurance that justice wouldn’t be stillborn. Ryan eyes me now with a cynicism that is palpable, an abiding bitterness that the journey has taken this long.
My own presence here is as a favor to Sam Jennings, the DA now out of office with whom I prosecuted Danley. Jennings is sick, too ill to make this appointment, perhaps too close to death himself to stare it squarely in the eye.
Gale Haight is here. I nodded to him as we boarded the van. He didn’t return the gesture. A normally affable man two years my senior in law school, Haight cannot bring himself to even a grudging greeting on this day. He carries a heavy burden, having defended Danley at trial.
There are a few cops here, represented because the law says they must be. The others, ten men and two women, I suspect are political favorites of the governor or the director of corrections, official guests for this grim task.
I stand next to Jim Dreyers, now retired from the sheriff’s department. Dreyers had tracked Brian Danley to a girlfriend’s apartment after the killings. Backed up by the SWAT team, he’d made the arrest and led Danley, with hands cuffed behind his back, to a squad car. The suspect spat at cameras all the way there; a large green lugi caught in mid-flight centered the frame of one of the shots. It made the cover of Newsweek, a special crime edition.
Since the conviction, Danley’s been handled by skilled appellate attorneys, people who’ve delayed this date six times in seven years. Whenever cameras are made available now, Danley is the picture of polite reserve. A bleeding-heart piece in the bar association’s house organ a year ago pictured him the circumspect image of justice denied. He is, if the story is to be believed, the pitiable victim of fetal-alcohol syndrome. An army of shrinks is now assembled to attest to this malady. It’s the latest in an endless series of social ills raised to excuse his crime, or at a minimum to avoid its punishment. These news articles are well placed for maximum effect. They don’t play in the magazines “for inquiring minds.” Instead Danley’s lawyers shoot for a more lofty readership, fed into publications an appellate judge might read in an idle hour.
The chamber door, something from a vintage submarine, is open facing the other side.
Three people were already in the room when we arrived, an older woman and two clergymen. One of them comforts the woman, an arm around her shoulder. She, I assume, is family.
Confronting him daily through four months of trial seven years ago, I wonder whether Danley will show the same sand now. Then, he’d been hard. Unremitting.
He was his own lawyer’s worst nightmare. Through weeks of trial endless versions of a smug expression occupied his face. He smiled through half-a-day of horrors—testimony by the medical examiner that caused one juror to lose her breakfast. Against the advice of his own attorney he took the stand, denying all association with the crime, this in utter contradiction to a sea of physical evidence that included his own fingerprints at the scene. Danley was at some loss to explain how they’d become superimposed in the blood of his two victims.
After conviction, in the penalty phase, to an astonished jury which was only a little less dazed than his own lawyer, Danley admitted that he’d done it. His version of throwing himself on the mercy of the jury, it seems, was a public survey of the crimes in mind-wrenching detail.
I remember the vivid photos of Sally Ryan and the Maldinado girl after they had been raped and sodomized. These shots were dominated by the grotesque rust hues of congealed blood—their throats sliced with the precision of a scalpel. Danley used the razor-sharp hooked blade of a linoleum knife. “A tool of the trade,” he called it. This particular knife hadn’t seen linoleum in years. He kept it for special occasions. It was once used to carve a deep letter “A,” to the bone, in his wife’s right cheek. Danley, after a little too much to drink, found himself fantasizing about marital infidelities on the part of his common-law wife, a woman he hadn’t seen in a year. Some bar-babbling luminary, it seems, had given him a more lurid than literal review of The Scarlet Letter. I steel myself with the thought that Brian Danley is a creature the world is well rid of.
I check my watch. It’s now one minute past the appointed hour. There are noises on the other side of the chamber. The agonized wailing of a man, his words, except for one, unintelligible. The repetition of a single syllable grows louder: “No-o-o-o…”
Two stone-faced guards enter from the other side. Behind them, struggling feebly, Brian Trevor Danley is unrecognizable to me. Forty pounds lighter than at any time during the trial, he is a ghost. The swagger and bravado are gone. His knees are bent, feet dragging. He’s carried under each arm by two guards, bulls who could snap him like a twig should he resist. Danley’s hands are manacled in front. His eyes are wild, haunted, searching as if to devour every image left to them in the seconds that remain. He searches the faces beyond the glass without apparent recognition as his stockinged feet are dragged over the threshold into the chamber. As he’s turned and pushed down into the chair, he sees her. His eyes light up.
He’s imploring the woman with the two clergymen. Her arms are extended, as if she could reach out and grab him.
I nudge Dreyers and motion with my head toward the woman.
“His aunt. Bampa’s the name he gave her as a kid.” Dreyers shrugs his shoulders as if to say “Don’t blame me.”
Danley’s wearing a pressed blue work shirt, the kind made here by inmates, open at the neck, and prison denim pants. The fact that he’s shoeless says reams about this journey. From the front of his shirt protrudes a small black tube. This is part of the stethoscope which will be connected to a device in the wall. From this a physician will determine the instant of death.
In quick, efficient motions, three of the officers strap him into the metal chair. Two-inch web straps, two around each arm, two around the chest and abdomen, hold him erect and still. The other guard straps his legs tightly to the chair. They are finished in less than a minute. Three of the guards leave. The last hooks up the stethoscope, then gives Danley a quick pat on the knee and says something to him. I can’t hear the words, but I read his lips. “When you hear the gas, breathe deeply.”
Now Danley is terror-stricken, beyond comprehension, his head whipping wildly from side to side. His moan is constant, a low groan from the tiny room, a tortured mantra.
The last guard ducks backward out of the chamber, and the door is closed and sealed from the outside. The cries of agony inside are now muted. He turns his head and looks back at us. “Somebody …” His words trail off and I can’t make out the rest. But this is some form of plea. He’s begging for someone to intervene.
At two minutes past the hour, the condemned is alone in the sealed chamber.
Suddenly his head slumps forward, and I think that perhaps it’s begun. Then he slowly lifts his eyes and I can see that he’s breathing without distress, looking about himself at the windows of the chamber. He casts a glance to his right at the woman he calls Bampa. She’s turned away, grief giving over to resignation. One of the clergymen gives Danley an encouraging nod. In his miasma of fear Danley finds a fleeting instant of sanity, for I think that he returns this kindness with a slight motion of his head and the flickering of heavy lids over haunted eyes, almost imperceptible. His lips are parched, his tongue constantly at them, trying to impart what little moisture he can summon in these, his final seconds of life.
Now there are noises from beyond the blinds at the other side of the chamber, and Danley’s head darts to look. Fluid is running into the vats under the chair.
“No, no, no.” Like he’s stuttering. His voice rises an octave. “Not yet.” He braces himself as if he’s about to be propelled along with the chair into space.
The roar of a loud fan drowns out the last sounds from within the chamber. Powerful, like the rumbling of a ship’s engine, it rattles the metal floor of the chamber, vibrates through the concrete beneath our feet as it gains speed. Somewhere from the other side, a guard closes the air vent under the chamber. Danley turns his head toward us. His eyes are filled with terror—bulging. It is as if no one has told him what to expect. The fan has created a two-pound vacuum inside the chamber. It’s beginning to suck the air from his lungs, creating a void to be filled by new and unexpected horror. We hear nothing but the drone of the fan. Suddenly the twin arms holding their deadly cargo under the chairs drop. The two balls of cyanide disappear. Bubbling caldrons produce invisible gas that displaces the air sucked by the vacuum.
It takes a second, maybe two. Danley’s chest is racked by violent spasms, writhing convulsions. These produce a series of massive dry heaves. His head is thrown back and then forward in a futile effort to escape the unseen vapors that wash up from beneath the chair.
Then his motions slow, as if a sudden calm has come over him. He turns his head slightly in our direction. I can see his eyes. They are white blanks. His pupils have rolled up behind the lids under his forehead like the wheels on a slot machine.
Now there are only pained puffs of breath from his mouth, like dry coughs, a series of these. They are autonomic, I think, for I do not believe that with the dose of gas, he can in any way be termed conscious. His fingers are rigid, like white steel. They form intractable claws on the metal arms of the chair. It’s approaching a minute by my watch when his head finally slumps forward, motionless, long locks of straight black hair hanging in disarray about his face. At a minute and fifteen seconds there is one final effort to roll his head to the side, unknowing, a muscle spasm, I’m certain. The form in the chamber is now utterly still, chin centered on his chest, from which there is no rise of respiration. I was prepared for the cherry red of carbon monoxide or the cyanotic blue of a coronary. Instead his skin has the pallor of ashen gray. This is fused in my mind, a visual corollary to the taste of bitter almond, the manifestation of cyanide.
Several seconds pass in stillness. A viscous fluid runs through the constellation of holes in the metal seat of the chair. This last coming from Danley. Some of this mixes with the deadly broth in the vat. I avert my eyes, having seen all that duty requires me to see. I can, with certainty, attest to the death of this man. I can fix my signature to the return of the death warrant as required by law.
It’s been called a ‘formalized minuet—a ritual of death’ by one writer who’s observed what I have now seen. There is, in this cold, clinical exercise of the state, a calculated revulsion that, to be sure, breeds at least a spark of pity in any rational soul. It is, I think, a severe irony that I should feel this, as I consider what the future might have held for Sally Ryan and Linda Maldinado.CHAPTER
THE call came in the early afternoon. Ben Potter asked me to meet him at Wong’s this evening. It was the first time we had spoken in nearly a year, since the day I left the firm. There’s something that he wants to discuss, but won’t talk about it on the phone. I haven’t slept in two nights, since the Danley execution. At the prison, a shrink warned us of this. Now Ben wants to talk. While I dread this, I am unable to find a way to say no.
Harry’s craning his neck like some four-year-old, gawking up at the cavernous ceiling while he turns in a slow spiral approaching the maître d’ station. Wong’s is definitely a cut above his usual nightiy haunts. Harry Hinds has come with me this evening for a little moral support. He has become my shadow of late. The aging voice of wisdom, Harry is a generation older than I, another lawyer eternally on the make for a good case. To Harry a good case is any fee-paying client. He has the little office down the hall from my own. In recent months, it seems, Harry Hinds and I have become soulmates. To look at Harry and his career, where he has been and where he is going, this does not bode well for me.
“Mr. Madriani, it’s good to see you again.” Jay Wong’s voice carries, even in the din from the crowded bar.
He nods politely, hesitates for a moment, then reaches around me for Harry. He taps him lightly on the shoulder and Harry turns.
“Sir, there’s no smoking in the restaurant.” Wong points to a neatly stenciled sign on the rostrum where reservations are taken. “City ordinance,” he says.
Harry’s dangling a half-spent cigarette from his lips. A thin dusting of ash covers the lapels of his dark blue suit coat.
“Oh, sure.” He takes the butt from his lips and for an instant looks absently down at the deep pile carpet. Wong produces an ashtray before he can act, and Harry dutifully crushes the thing in the dish as it disappears behind the rostrum.
Wong turns to me again.
“We haven’t seen you for some time,” he says.
“A few months.” I lie. I’ve not been in the place since leaving P&S. I’d been a regular at Wong’s for lunch at least twice a week for the three years I was with the firm—authorized to sign the Potter, Skarpellos tab when entertaining clients. I can believe that Jay Wong has missed me.
I look good, he says. I’ve lost some weight, he notes. Then a raw nerve. “How’s your lovely wife?”
I’d forgotten. Nikki and I dined at Wong’s on one occasion, in celebration, the night I was invited to join Potter’s firm. I’m amazed that, with the procession of traffic through these doors, Wong can remember her. But then that is his special talent.
“Oh she’s fine—fine.” I say it with conviction, omitting the details—that we are no longer living together, and that I have, for several months, and despite my efforts to restore my wrecked marriage, been anticipating the service of divorce papers.
Then I see him moving from a table in the dining room toward the bar. Ben Potter. Tall, well over six feet, though I doubt he’s ever been accurately measured. He has one of those frames, the shoulders rounded and hunched forward a little, the gait just slightly lumbering. He wears his usual dark vested sweater under his suit coat. Together with his bearing, this wrinkled bulk projects the image of some mighty bear aimlessly foraging for meat tied in a tree. He has managed to exploit this awkward posture, coin it as his own, so that a generation of law students who have studied under him in the evenings at the university now mimic this style when addressing juries. It’s an attitude that on Ben is not tired or aging, but stately, deliberative.
He stops at a table to chat with friends like some frumpish pope passing out dispensations. I hear hearty laughter from across the room. Then a quiet retort by Ben. They laugh again.
Wong says something, but I’ve missed it.
“Hmm?’ I look back at him. He’s tracked on my line of sight like radar.
“How about that Ben Potter,” he says. ‘Word is, he’s on his way to Washington, uh?’
From Wong, such rumors take on credence.
I’ve been considering this subject for days, anticipating phone calls from the press. Ben Potter now heads a dwindling list of candidates to fill a vacancy on the nation’s high court, a position to which he has aspired his entire professional life. It’s now within his grasp, the result of careful political alliances he’s cultivated for two decades, and the considerate if sudden death of one of the “brethren.” The FBI’s already hit me for a background check, digging for dirt. For the first couple of minutes with two agents planted in my office, I thought they’d gotten scuttlebutt about Talia and me. I was satisfied by the time they left that they had nothing on that score.
“Can I get you gentlemen a table?’ Wong is back to us.
“Just gonna have a drink at the bar for now.” With Harry I’ve decided it’s best to take it slow. If we’re careful, he can avoid the social bends. He’s a good lawyer, but when it comes to entertainment his comfort zone is limited to wide spots on country roads, where red neon buzzes “Miller” or “Bud.” Like his practice, Harry’s learned to dodge challenges in the afterhours.
We negotiate the maze of small cocktail tables near the bar. I’m followed closely by Harry, like Bwana on safari. I scan the bar for any vacant stools, an open space to park our bodies, to recede from public view until I can find a quiet corner to talk alone with Ben.
The bartender, clad in starched white linen to the cuffs, cruises up and slips a cocktail napkin on the bar before me, all efficiency.
I look to Harry. He orders a beer.
“Scotch over with a twist.”
“Quite a place,” he says. But I can tell he’s uncomfortable.
“Lotta deals cut here,” I say.
“I’ll bet. Looks like they all have fleas.”
I look at him, a question mark.
“Lotsa back-scratchin’ goin’ down.” This is not the kind of commerce Harry’s used to. I can tell from his tone that he prefers the straightforward pitch of honest crime.
The starched bartender returns with Harry’s beer and my scotch. I leave an open tab. To pay by the drink isn’t done; that’s the sign of a tourist out for a look at the high rollers.
The place is peopled with the usual crowd of political hustlers, mostly lobbyists plying their trade. Few lawyers except for the upper-crust corporate set venture here. The freight is too steep.
The heating trays are being readied for hors d’oeuvres—oyster beef. It was one of the inducements for Harry. “Oysters put lead in your pencil,” he says.
I take a sip of scotch, turn my head—and I see her. She is dark, a tawny perpetual tan, lustrous in blue silk with pearl earrings and necklace. Talia is thirty yards away at a table with a group, Ben’s empty chair beside her. Conversation floats about her like an ether. She is oblivious. She sits silent, detached, a serene cameo surrounded by animation at the table.
There’s another, younger man, all dapper in an expensive suit, dark hair slicked down in the style of a Madison Avenue ad, just a hint of five-o’clock shadow gracing sallow cheeks. He sits across from Talia, his cool matching hers. The guy turns his face slightly toward me. I can’t believe it. It’s as if the great giver of all genes had landed one dead-center with a meat cleaver on his chin, the cleft of distinction. Talia’s eyes fall on him. They smile, and for an instant I wonder.
“Water under the bridge,” says Harry.
He nods toward the table. Harry knows about Talia; he’s the only person I’ve told.
“More like my career over the falls,” I say.
“What’s that I smell?’ He sniffs the air. ‘Is it the aroma of regret?’
“You bet. Like burnt toast. What can I say? I was stupid.”
“You’re too hard on yourself.” He’s making a careful physical appraisal of Talia, taking it all in—the meets and bounds.
“She is spectacular,” he says.
“I’m so glad she meets with your approval.” Talia Potter’s good looks are undeniable, like the theorems and postulates of geometry. Her beauty is the kind that causes both men and women to stop and stare. Along with this, she exudes a sexual magnetism that can’t be ignored. This she has learned how to use to full advantage.
“Won’t argue with your analysis, though. There is,” he says, ‘a certain degree of dementia involved in shtuppin’ the boss’s wife.” He delivers this in a heavy German accent, a little Freud in his analysis.
That’s Harry. No sugar coating.
“But you’ll be happy to know it’s not terminal.”
“Is that right?”
“Oh yes. Eight out of ten doctors will tell you it’s just a passing condition. Comes and goes with the cycles of the moon. Sure,” he says. “People in the Middle Ages knew it as Unicorn’s Disease.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“Today, the scientific literature refers to it as severe distended horniness. But there’s one problem.” He touches the side of his nose with a finger, about to deliver the final prognosis. “I believe it may be contagious.”
As we talk, he’s been eyeing Talia’s table. He gestures with his head in her direction. Harry’s intercepted one of her ‘come hither’ looks wafted across the table like mustard gas.
“The guy with the chipped chin, one of the firm’s associates?’ he asks.
“That’d be my guess.”
“Well, the poor man’s suffering from chronic, dissociative, dysfunctional dangling-dick syndrome. She’ll no doubt cure him shortly. Then he’ll be looking for a new job. I think we’re witnessing the outbreak of an epidemic.”
Harry doesn’t have a high opinion of Talia. To him my fall from the firm was a simple case of seduction. For me it was much more complex. She is, at least from my perspective, not the harlot he supposes.
“Aside from humping your patron’s wife, what did you do at the firm?’ he asks.
“You want delicate, you talk to your priest. You come to a friend, you get candor. Tell me about the cases.”
“A smorgasbord. Mostly business stuff, some crimes, a little contracts work—sometimes the two were the same.”
He looks quizzically at me over his shoulder.,
“In business all the perpetrators wear business suits and suspenders. They steal from investors with convoluted option clauses and murky definitions of net profit.”
“Ah.” He says it with relish, as if he’s finally found someone in the world of corporate law he recognizes.
I tell Harry about Potter’s formative years. Ben had cut his teeth as U.S. attorney in the early sixties. He prosecuted some primitive early white-collar scams—a crude Ponzi scheme that ended in bankruptcy. When political fortunes found him out of office he turned to the defense and started the firm. Now the clients are more sophisticated and well-heeled, the business machinations more complicated, some of them even legitimate.
“Bet it pays well,” says Harry.
“In a heavy case, defending a corporation or its officers, it’s common that you get a six-figure retainer.”
“It’s what the polite criminal defense bar calls ‘business law,’ ” I say. ‘And there’s no stigma. If you work it right, it tucks neatly into the folds between the firm’s other more respectable clients.”
Harry has some difficulty comprehending this. In the last decade the criminal defense bar has taken it politically on the chin in this state. They are painted with the same brush as the clients they defend, passed over for judicial appointments, and generally excluded from polite society and its upper-crust functions.
Harry catches the bartender going by and orders another drink. ‘V.O. and water,” he says. “A double.” He’s getting serious now.
Ben always had a saying—“In corrupt commerce confusion is king.” It was the first rule of white-collar defense. If the jury can’t understand it, it can’t convict. The art of defending a confidence scheme was usually projected from a kaleidoscope of confusion, all masking the only common ingredient present in every case. Errors of accounting, the mistakes in payment were never in the other guy’s favor. One of the immutable laws of white-collar gravity. The chips always fall on your client’s side of the table.
“Tell me,” says Harry, “how does one break into this field—business law?”
“By being reputable.” He looks at me. We both laugh.
“Now tell me the truth,” he says. “Did Potter fire ya?”
“If you mean did he say it, not in so many words. But between his hurt pride and my own guilt there was a gulf large enough to float the Love Boat. He knew Talia was playing around.”
For a moment I think to myself. It plays like a silent reel in my brain. Ben had talked to me one day over lunch—confided to me as a friend that his wife was having an affair with another man. He was sick to death about it, looking for advice, the counsel of someone he trusted. I sat silent and listened, commiserating, making the right noises, asking the delicate questions. Satisfying myself that he had no details, that he was in the dark concerning the identity of this other man. To my eternal discredit I could not muster the courage to reveal that I was Talia’s lover.
“What stung him more,” I tell Harry, “was the fact that she was doing it with someone he trusted, under his nose. When he found out, Ben called me in, did a lot of shouting. When he’d vented his spleen, I left, went back to my office, and started packing boxes.” I take a drink. “In the end, I guess you could say I fell on my own sword.”
I look at him and catch the unintended pun.
“No doubt about it,” he says. “Should’ve kept it sheathed.”
“Next time I’ll put a knot in it.”
“Don’t look now, but it’s time for penance.” Harry’s looking up into the beveled glass mirror over the bar. Ben’s emerged from Wong’s office across the room. Suddenly there’s a knot in my stomach. Potter’s surveying the bar. He sees me, hesitates long enough to tug a little, remove a few of the wrinkles from his sweater vest, then heads our way. The familiar stride, shoulders rounded, knees and elbows akimbo, head down, like he’s leading a marching band across the floor. One of the summer interns coined the classic description of Ben’s expression—“Jewish cool,” the kid called it. Though Potter is as Gentile as Pontius Pilate, the description fit. His look, wrinkles around the jaw and neck, head perpetually cocked to the side, is a strange mixture seeming to verge on and vary between annoyance and boredom. There was a lot of Walter Matthau in the face and manner, a certain curmudgeonly charisma.
“This may be a little unpleasant,” I warn Harry.
“I just hope he ain’t packin’,” Harry slips a hand into his coat pocket, makes like a pistol, and winks at me. “It’s OK,” he says. “I’ll be all right. I have a rule. Never come between old friends.” Harry leans palpably, away from me. He’s amused by this.
“Paul.” My name is spoken softly. Ben has a deep, slow cadence to his voice. I let it break over my back like a wave before I turn. It’s all very casual, like a surprise.
“Ben.” I smile and extend a hand. I am almost stunned when he takes it. Potter’s expression is an enigma. The sort of smile an insect might expect when examined under a microscope. There’s more curiosity here than warmth.
I finish the social chores, introductions between Harry and Ben. There’s a quick shake, and Harry’s dismissed as Potter returns his attentions to me. There are a dozen sets of eyes on us from nearby tables. I feel them like lasers probing my skin.
“Been a while,” he says. ‘After all the years we’ve known each other, thought it was time we talked. Your departure was”—he searches for the right choice of words—“a little abrupt.” Ben is notoriously understated, in his attire and in this case his description of my wholesale flight from the firm. He smiles.
“Can I get you a drink?” I ask him.
“Thought we might do that in Jay’s office while we talk.” Potter turns again to Harry. “You don’t mind if I take Paul away for a few minutes?”
“Oh no. No. Keep him as long as you like.” There’s a knavish grin on Harry’s face, like he’s warning me—telling me to watch Potter’s hands. I grab my glass. Ben turns toward the office. I begin to follow, do a quick pirouette and give a “what-ya-gonna-do” kind of shrug in Harry’s direction. As I turn, Harry’s holding up a slip of paper. Suddenly I comprehend the expression on his face. While I’m cloistered with Ben in Wong’s office, Harry will be drinking on my open bar tab.
Wong’s office, it seems, is an appropriate setting for my meeting with Ben. It has the hushed earthy tones, the muted indirect light of a tony funeral parlor. An imposing bronze Buddha, larger than life, sits in an alcove behind Wong’s antique desk. Illuminated from the floor, it casts an ominous shadow across the ceiling like some corpulent genie awaiting the order of its liberator.
Ben leads me to another area of the room, toward two small sofas facing each other, separated by a clear glass pedestal coffee table. He takes a seat on one sofa and gestures toward the other.
“Sit down.” His tone has lost the veneer of polite finish now that we’re alone.
He looks at me silently, soulfully, his lips drawn tight, a mail slot to his inner thoughts. I sink into the sofa and wait for his words to bury me, in wisdom—or wrath.
“Before I forget,” he says, ‘what do you want to drink?’ He picks up a phone on a sofa-side table.
“Oh, the same. Scotch over,” I say. “This one’s on me.”
“Nonsense. This is my party;” He says it without humor or much grace, then places the order. Ben’s not drinking tonight. This is no social outing.
We pass several seconds in idle chatter. He talks about changes at the firm since I left. He asks me how I like the solo practice. He’s killing time, getting my drink, the final interruption out of the way.
I tell him honestly that it’s a challenge. He admits that he made a mistake in hiring me. I can’t tell whether he intends an insult by this. He hesitates for a moment, then explains himself—that born leaders don’t fit the corporate mold, that I was destined for bigger things than hitching my wagon to someone else’s star.
It’s awkward, I conclude, being patronized by someone I admire.
The waiter comes in with my drink, and Potter tells him to put it on his tab.
There’s a glaze of light off the flat horn-rim lenses Ben is wearing. These are new. I can’t see his eyes clearly. The familiar half-frame cheaters for reading are in his sweater pocket. I can see them sticking out.
“I’ve done a lot of thinking during the past several months,” he says.
“That’s two of us. What can I …”
He holds up a hand, cuts me off. Ben’s not looking for confessions.
“What’s done is done,” he says. ‘We can’t change it. We can only diminish ourselves by wallowing in past mistakes. I think I know you well enough,” he says. “I think I know how you feel.”
He leaves no opening for me to respond but rises from the sofa and walks toward the desk.
“In the end the ancients—the Greeks—always said it best. There really is no witness so terrible, no accuser so powerful as the conscience that dwells in each of us.”
He’s speaking now almost to himself, his back to me as he puts distance between us, as if absolution is to be my own private, solitary affair.
I sit silent on the couch, my gaze cast down at the ice floating in my drink.
“What’s said here, tonight, between us, is an end of it,” he says. “We have an understanding?”
“Sure,” I say. An easy concession. I have no desire to stoke these coals. What is happening here is necessary if I am ever to be able to look Ben in the eye again.
“We will never speak of this thing again, then.”
I nod. He’s not looking at me.
Then, as he turns slowly in my direction, graceful in his gestures, I notice anew that Ben Potter is an imposing presence—a counterpoint to Buddha.
“I can’t begin to describe the pain,” he says, “the hurt that the two of you have caused me.” His voice is not raised in anger. It is as if he’s reasoning, striving to spread the understanding of this thing that has come between us, that has caused his anguish.
He doesn’t understand this faithlessness, from Talia or from me. He begins to move away from the desk, back toward me. He speaks of his contentment during the first years of marriage, the gratification bred of illusions that youth is a state of mind, that love and fidelity are not rooted in passion. This is the Ben Potter I know. The words tripping off his tongue. The consummate advocate making a case for damages. “I stand here tonight,”’ he says, “stripped of such fantasies.” He is suddenly silent, a pause for effect. “This thing has taught me that much. Maybe I should be grateful.”
He’s silent again. Absorbed in thought.
I sit clinking the ice in my glass and take a drink.
“I want to ask you one question,” he says, ‘and I’d like a truthful answer. Tell me. Who made the first move? You or her?”
I’m nonplussed by the sudden frontal assault. I nearly soil Wong’s couch with scotch.
I flood my face with sincerity. “No,” I say. ‘Something like this—what happened between us wasn’t planned, Ben. This wasn’t some conspiracy. We didn’t sit down and plot who would initiate the first act. It just happened. We found ourselves together. One thing led to another and it happened.” I begin to sound like an echo, but it’s all I can say. “To our—to my everlasting discredit—it just happened.”
He smiles and nods, a gesture of concession.
“The diplomat,” he says. “A gentleman’s response. It’s what I would expect.” He says it like he’s already formed an opinion on the subject, that my response has confirmed some previously held suspicion on the question of who was most at fault. It’s a disease that afflicts us from law school, the lawyer’s penchant to fix blame, like confession and absolution.
“I tell you, Ben, honestly, as truthfully as I can, it happened—it just happened.” I prime my tone with sincerity. For me at least, a valued relationship hangs in the balance.
“If I could, you must believe, I would go back and undo it, remove the hurt, remove myself from the temptation.” For a moment I weigh whether to reveal that it was his own deed, Ben’s own assignment of my services to the legal spadework on Talia’s real estate ventures that provided the opportunity. Motive was, in the final analysis, a matter of carnal chemistry. But I keep this thought to myself.
“I know you would,” he says, “go back and change it if you could.” He smiles. It is, at last, a measure of forgiveness.
He’s weary and showing it. “Enough,” he says. “There isn’t any sense beating it. We won’t speak of it again.”
He lifts the telephone receiver and orders a drink.
It’s over as quickly as that. My sigh is almost palpable, like the perspiration on my forehead. As Ben looks away, I use my cocktail napkin to wipe it. I cannot believe that it is over, that in the brief time in this room with him, with the few words that have passed between us, I am now back on speaking terms with this man who had been my mentor. Perhaps Ben is in a better mood than I had guessed.
He sets the receiver in the cradle and drops one cheek of his buttocks on the corner of the desk, stretching his arms over his head he sucks his lungs full of air. “Life’s a juggernaut,” he says. “No time to think. Lately, it’s like I’m caught in a time warp.”
He wants to talk, it seems, of happier thoughts.
“The nomination?” I ask.
“Uh-huh.” He furrows his forehead and smiles. It’s clearly pleasant to be fatigued in pursuit of such a cause.
He winks at me, a little secret. “I took the ‘red eye’ to Washington two nights ago,” he says. “The final cut.” He’s talking about the last round of contenders for the high court. From their ranks will come the next Supreme Court justice of the United States. He leaves me hanging, waiting for the final word, and instead regales me with descriptions of the White House, the Lincoln Study, “intimate—impressive,” he says. His gaze turns crystalline, distant. He’s using his hands to gesture now. “I found myself standing next to the desk where Lincoln freed a million slaves.” He shakes his head. “I swear,” he says, “you could feel his presence in that place, his spirit move.”
In this vignette I find that there is something that truly moves Ben Potter—the sense of occupying space once held by the Emancipator. To gravitate perceptibly closer to the circle of history, the thought that he himself may one day belong, at least in some measure, to the ages. These are notions too lofty, dream-inspired like so much pixie dust, they have never entered my own mind.
“I take it it went well?”
He makes a face, like “Read my mind.”
For me, knowing Ben as I do, it’s not hard. I know in that instant, in the twinkle of his eye, that this city is about to lose one lawyer. “Congratulations, Ben.” I raise my glass.
Struggle as he does, Potter can’t contain his smile. “Thank you.” His tone is hushed, almost reverent. “Of course, you’ll keep it to yourself.”
‘It wouldn’t do to have it splashed all over the wires before the President can make the announcement. They didn’t want me to return home—wanted to make the announcement from Washington while I was there. I knew what would happen,” he says. ‘I’d never leave the trail of reporters behind. Senate investigators looking for dirt in the confirmation hearings, the press.” He shakes his head vigorously. “Told them I had some business to complete before telling the world. A few personal things. Getting out of there was like pulling teeth.”
I wonder whether this business, these “personal things,” involve Talia.
“The price of fame.” I commiserate with him.
“The world has a penchant for leaks,” he says. “They gave me forty-eight hours and swore me to a blood oath of silence. I take the “red eye’ back tomorrow night.”
As the waiter comes in with his drink, my mind is lost in thought. It’s a measure of Ben’s tolerance, his liberal spirit, that in this my hour of forgiveness he has seen fit to share the security of his future with me. The waiter leaves.
Potter makes small talk. He’s not finished. There’s something more he wants to discuss, but he’s taking his time getting there.
He jokes, about the pending senate confirmation hearings, about all the rumors—stories of a political litmus test for the court.
“It’s all crap,” he says. ‘Don’t you believe any of it. You go back there, the President shakes your hand, they give you some-tiling to drink, and while you’re standing on this chair being sized for your robe, the tailor asks you if life begins with conception.”
We laugh. Like much of Ben’s humor, I can never be certain how large the kernel of truth is in this story.
The smile fades from his face. “There is one more thing,” he says.
“A favor,” he says. “Something you can do for me.”
This is Ben at his best, wheeling and dealing, something that he wants from me at a time when he knows I cannot say no.
“It’s the law school, something that I started before all of this came up, before I went back to Washington.” There’s a lot of gesturing with his hands here, posturing and waving his drink in little circles.
“It’s nothing much,” he says. “A trust fund that requires a new administrator.”
I look at him, like ‘What does this have to do with me?’
“It’s set up in the name of Sharon Cooper,” he says.
Suddenly I understand.
Sharon Cooper was twenty-six when she died, killed in an automobile accident this summer. A second-year law student, she was working with the firm at the time, after I’d left. I had landed her a part-time job with P&S when I was still in favor. This was a courtesy to her father. George Cooper is the county’s medical examiner. We’ve been thick, Coop and I, since my days with the DA.
“The trust fund was something to remember Sharon,” he says. “Friends set it up at the law school and asked me if I would administer it. At the time it sounded good. But with all of this …” Ben shrugs his shoulders and I realize his dilemma. From three thousand miles away and with a full plate of cases on the high court, the last thing he needs are the minutiae of a trust fund.
Coop brought Sharon’s personal papers to my office the day after her death. He busied himself in the details of arranging her affairs, her funeral, her estate, anything that would serve to avoid the inevitable grieving. When he finally fell into that pit, George Cooper disappeared from the world of normal men for more than a month.
But on the day after Sharon died he sat across from me at my desk, entirely composed, a stack of documents carefully sorted and paper-clipped—insurance, taxes, stocks, a considerable portfolio for a young single woman. These were inherited from Sharon’s mother, who had died of cancer the year before. Within twenty-four months Coop had lost both wife and child. In his state of grief, to George Cooper a lawyer was a lawyer, equally adept in administering the property of the dead as in fending off a long term in the joint. So he came to a friend.
Unable to say no, I took Coop’s papers, opened a file, and blundered into the probate courts.
Ben looks at me from across the room in a kind of reverie now. “An endowment, a trust, has been established at the law school in Sharon’s name. A number of people who knew her have contributed,” he says. “It’s a sizable trust, but we need a trustee. I thought of you.”
This has become an avocation with Ben. A multitude of scholarships and private grants have been spawned under his guiding hand in the last few years, two for deceased partners of the firm, several others for departed wheels in the community. With Ben, it is any excuse to raise money for the law school, his favorite charity. This does not diminish Sharon Cooper, in his eyes or mine, but, his motivations are clear. He will make something positive, even out of the tragic death of this young woman.
“I’d do it myself,” he says. Ben’s talking about being trustee. “But Washington’s pretty far away. They need someone closer, to confer with the dean on expenditures, to administer the funds in a way she would have approved. You’re the natural,” he says. “Besides, I think her father would want you to do it.” The last is the linchpin of his pitch.
“What can I say?”
“You can say yes.”
I shrug a little gratitude toward Ben for the thought, the confidence that accompanies this offer.
“Yes.” I sense that a slight wrinkle of embarrassment has crept across my face. “Why not,” I say, like a giddy adolescent being given a prize he never expected.
“Good!” He smiles broadly. “We should talk again before I leave town, to the up some of the loose ends on this thing. Do you have plans for tomorrow night?”
“Nothing I can’t rearrange.”
“Then we’ll meet for a late dinner at The Broiler. What do you say, nine o’clock? We can talk and maybe you can give me a lift out to the airport when we’re finished.”
“Good,” I say.
Ben lifts himself off the edge of the desk. Our meeting is over. I rise, and we meet in the center of the room. His expression brightens like a lantern. He reaches out with his arm like a swinging gate and slaps a huge hand around the nape of my neck, a little male bonding, like a father cuffing his son for some errant but minor mischief. And as we head for me door, drinks in hand, my concerns turn to matters more economic—to Harry Hinds and my open bar tab.CHAPTER
TO get to my office I use an elevator from before the time of Moses, a contraption with a flexing metal gate that slams, emitting the fury of a sonic boom. It’s like hell’s portal closing on its new arrivals. Clients who’ve done time always take the stairs.
This lift empties its cargo into a small lobby on the second floor, the first being occupied by a bank with roots in the Gold Rush. The building itself dates to the last century, but has been well maintained. It has touches of elegance in the moldings and fixtures. The pressed-tin tiles set into the ceiling, original with my office, are again in demand, used to authenticate the metal-fabricated, high-toned restaurants of Fashion Square.
I share a two-room suite down a common hall with Dee, my secretary and receptionist, a hire I made on the recommendation of a friend to whom I no longer speak.
I have learned in my time with Dee to become master of all things electronic: answering machines, copiers, the fax, Mr. Coffee—and most of all the small personal computer which I moved from her desk to my office when I found her using its dark screen like some mystic high-tech looking glass, to comb her hair and apply makeup. I spend my evenings, before the usual rounds with Harry, typing my own correspondence and dreaming of some blameless way to fire Dee.
My secretary is not unattractive, in her early twenties, assertive, bright-eyed, and eager. But on an intellectual plane she is heavily into hairstyles and panty hose. She excels at clerical foreplay. All of the typing paper is stacked in neat piles. The plastic cylinders holding various sizes of paper clips are perpetually fondled like Buddhist prayer wheels, and the desk is endlessly combed for any object that might be out of place. I have learned by painful experience that anything beyond sealing an envelope or licking a stamp severely taxes her secretarial skills. She sports acrylic fingernails longer than claws on a saber-tooth tiger; from one of them dangles a minuscule gold chain stretching from the tip to a tiny star embedded in the half-moon, above the cuticle—almost as attractive as a bone through the nose. She wears these like a declaration of independence—it reads: “You really don’t expect me to type.”
As I enter the office she greets me enthusiastically. “Good morning, boss”—this latter to ensure that we both know who’s in charge. The tasks we each perform during the day have tended to muddy these distinctions. In the inner reaches of my brain, I issue a psychic growl like some snarling hound.
I respond with a flat, indifferent “Hello.” In recent days I’ve become increasingly abrupt in my manner toward her, a sort of cryptic message that she might look elsewhere for employment. But each day when I arrive for work she’s there, panting by the door like some warm puppy, to greet me. The thought that I must pull the trigger myself on this coup de grace is not pleasant, and so it waits.
“Do me a favor,” I say.
“Call Susan Hawley and remind her we have a court appearance tomorrow.” I reach into my briefcase and pull out the Hawley file. “Then find the points and authorities that I did the other day and put them in the file. When you’re done,” I say, “put it in my briefcase.” I drop the file onto the center of her desk like some ponderous plane belly-flopping on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Before it can bounce she has it in her hands and is turning to place it in one of the file drawers behind her chair.
“Done,” she says.
“Sure,” I say as I watch the thing disappear into the dark hole of Calcutta. I make a mental note to retrieve it when she leaves for lunch.
As I enter my office I’m surprised at this hour to see Harry, comfortably reclining in my swivel chair with his feet propped on my desk, reading a newspaper. Harry is bow ties and pinstripes, silk gauze socks and wing tips, a bulbous nose and broad grin. At sixty, his career behind him and no signs of retirement on the horizon, he has a give-a-damn attitude that one in my circumstances can find refreshing. It is perhaps that since my fall from grace, when I look at Harry I see myself in twenty years.
“Lost?” I ask.
He looks at me over the top of the paper. “Clients needed a little privacy to talk; figured you wouldn’t mind.” He starts to get up.
“Stay there,” I say.
Harry and I have become increasingly close in the months following my banishment from Potter, Skarpellos. Hopelessly out of date, a different bow tie for each day of the week, we seem to tread the same route to court each morning.
Twenty years ago Harry was one of the foremost criminal defense attorneys in town. Tried no more than four cases a year, all front-page felonies. That was before he found courage and stamina in a bottle. Now his days are filled trying to keep other drunks from the clutches of the DA and the angry machinations of MADD. For variety, his life is punctuated by the occasional assault-and-battery.
I hang up my coat and open my briefcase on the couch, then sort through a couple of files I took home.
“Fuckin’ Congress,” says Harry. He’s finished reading the article. “First they allow their friends to steal all me money from the S&Ls, then they want us to pay it all back.” He follows this with a deep sigh as if conceding that it is something over which Harry has no control.
“Every time I vote, I have the same feeling,” he says. “Like somebody put a bag of dogshit on my doorstep and set it on fire. I don’t know whether to just stand there and hold my nose, or try to stamp it out.”
The mental picture drawn by this little vignette leads me to conclude that Harry has probably seen these images, up close and personal, at some youthful point in his life from behind a wicked snicker at the edge of some poor soul’s front porch.
“Can’t trust government,” he says.
“I know,” I say. “I used to work for “em.”
Harry’s office is half the size of my own. He’s taken to camping here when clients and family need a private conference—a hit to get the money for his fees, or to square the details of an alibi before the story is locked in stone with their lawyer. They don’t know how flexible and creative Harry can be.
Silhouetted by the soles of his shoes, the surface of my desk is organized confusion. I’ve taken to hoarding the most important case files in my own office, a defense against Dee-saster.
There are a score of files piled here, marshaled in a system that only its maker can fathom—two approaching trials, cases that may settle, but only on the courthouse steps; and a criminal appeal with seven volumes of transcripts, referred to me by the district court as part of the indigent-appellate panel—an economic hedge I’d taken before clients became thick. Propagating like the poor is a stack of files requiring motions and correspondence, a chore that would involve a good afternoon’s work dictating to a competent secretary, but which I will no doubt spend endless evenings stroking out on my own keyboard.
I paw through my mail, which Dee has stacked on the edge of my desk—a few bills, letters in a couple of cases, a probation report in a sentencing matter, and an announcement that Jerome Feinberg will speak at the next meeting of the Capitol City Lawyers Association: “Probate and You—The Lawyer’s Tollgate to the Hereafter.”
I flip the announcement to Harry.
“Tasteful,” he says, “You and I said it, we’d be disbarred.”
“Half the judges in the county will be there to laugh. I’ll be there to take notes,” I add.
I tap a thick file that sits looming on the center of my desk, alone, solitary, like some ancient tome written in Sanskrit that waits to be deciphered.
“Probate file,” I say. “Only one I have. Only one I’ll ever take.”
Harry looks at the tab on the file jacket and then says but a single word: “Oh.”
With all of his warts, Harry Hinds at times displays the tact of a French diplomat. He has heard about Sharon Cooper.
This file is one of those objects in life, the sight of which churns acid in my stomach. Sharon’s probate produces in me sensations of creeping, escalating uneasiness. I have moved the file a dozen times, to the credenza, the floor, and back to the desk again. It lies there, a testament to my ignorance of probate and my inability to say no to a friend, in this case George Cooper.
I have spent hours poring through the loose-leaf binders of lawyers’ self-help books, that forest of publications with perennial subscriptions and annual pocket parts, each with its own transactional checklist of things to be done. It is, I have concluded, unfathomable. The probate lawyers have found the magic pellet that kills competition. They have constructed processes and crafted terminology that can be translated only by the high priests of their own cloistered sect. I read Dee’s secretarial handbook, which, like the computer I’ve bought for her, she has never used. I held hopes that maybe this would be my Rosetta stone, the key to the mysteries of probate. It was not. The probate secretaries, it seems, have their own guild. As might be expected, Dee is without a union card.
What had begun with a simple one-page petition a year ago is now a morass to inspire Dickens’s most Draconian tale of lawyers and judges, of a court system constipated by endless and unintelligible forms. Probate reform, it seems, has gone the way of tax simplification.
I am beaten. Defeated. I concede. I am ready to consult, and if necessary to take a ride, to pay the freight on the Feinberg express to the la-la land of the surrogate courts. I stare at the file and the announcement in Harry’s hands. The ultimate cop-out—I will hire another lawyer to service my client.
“How’d it go last night?” he asks.
Tight as a choirboy’s bum. That was Harry last night after my meeting with Ben. With him in his snockered condition, I didn’t waste my time giving him the details. Now he’s catching up on dirt.
“Good. Friendly. It was,” I say, “cordial.”
“Which was it?” he says. “Friendly or cordial? With the one it merely means he isn’t gonna kill ya. The other means you may get to go back for more nooky.”
I ignore him.
“I’m surprised,” he says. Harry talks about fire and dragons. The fact that I was porkin’ another man’s wife and Ben didn’t even give me a lecture on alienation of affections. “The man’s very civilized,” he says. “Times have changed since my day.”
“I’m surprised you can remember back that far.”
He looks at me from the corner of his eye.
“Going back, are you?” he asks.
“No,” I say sarcastically. “Ben and I discussed the matter, but we decided it wouldn’t be a good idea—for me to go back for seconds.”
“No, asshole.” There’s irritation in his tone. “Are you goin’ back to the firm?”
“It wasn’t that friendly,” I say.
“Ah. The wife’s one thing; a partnership’s somethin’ else.” He laughs.
I ignore him, though with Ben I know there’s some truth to what Harry says.
“Why would I want to go back?”
“Money, prestige,” he hesitates for a second. “A good secretary.”
Dee has become an item of conversation between us marked by a good deal of profanity and laughter—my profanity and Harry’s laughter.
“I’m not going back.”
“Good,” he says. “I’m proud of you.” Harry appears relieved, like he’s been considering this scenario, my return to the firm, for some time. “You know I’d miss you,” he says. There’s just a hint of sentiment to his tone.
“You make it sound like going to Potter, Skarpellos is the same as dying,” I say.
He raises a hand, rotating it back and forth at the wrist, as if it’s one of those pendulous points in life that could go either way.
“Tell me, Harry, why do you do it? Why do you do criminal law?”
He makes a face. Like he’s never considered this before.
“The money’s good,” he says.
I laugh. “Sure. I’ve seen the palatial digs you call home. No, really, why do you do it?”
“It’s in the blood, I guess. Besides, I like the people.”
What Harry means is, he has a taste for “felonious voyeurism.” It happens. Lawyers, judges, cops, and jurors all find themselves titillated from time to time by the stories of violence, drugs, and sex. The criminal side of the law provides a window on the dark side of life that exists nowhere else.
But there is, in my mind, something more than this to Harry’s quest. Harry Hinds, I think, is a closet guardian of the underdog. There’s a compelling psychic identification with the losers of society here, gratification in squaring off against the state to save some poor fool from a long stretch in the joint. To Harry, this is sweet music. Whether or not one agrees with his work, Harry’s motives have social redemption. He’s a man moved by the view that prisons are filled with those who are the victims of their environment, child abusers who were themselves abused, druggies weened on the stuff by parents caught in their own chemical cycle.
As Harry rises to leave, to rejoin his clients, I realize that even with all of his foibles I am a little envious of this man. Harry Hinds has a clear vision of purpose to his life, a focus that at this moment, in the vortex of forces pulling upon me, I do not possess.CHAPTER
I am early for my meeting with Ben. The Broiler is more subdued than Wong’s. The decor is Early Naugahyde, but it is quiet, a good place for talking, to discuss Sharon’s trust and Ben’s future. I belly to the bar and order a drink.
“Paul—Paul Madriani.” My only recognition of this voice is that it is someone unpleasant. Someone I would rather not be seen with, not here, not now.
I turn from the bar just in time to receive a back-slapping hand on my shoulder. Eli Walker is dean of the outcast press. Bellicose, usually three sheets to the wind, in his late sixties, Walker regularly traverses that nether-land between what he calls journalism, and political flackery for paying clients.
“Haven’t seen ya in here in a while.” He licks his lips as if he’s just stepped from the parched sands of the Sahara.
“Haven’t been around,” I say. The bartender returns with my drink and I swallow a quick shot. I offer nothing that Walker can latch onto, turn into conversation. He’s one of those clinging souls who as a result of some fleeting commercial contact fancy themselves your friends. In my case I had the misfortune of writing a single letter to unravel a title problem on his house, a favor I did at the request of one of the partners while I was with the firm.
He’s not moving on. Seconds pass in light banter, Eli doing most of the talking, the two of us weaving in the light traffic around the bar. Walker’s eyeing me like a thirsty dog. In between assignments and clients, he’s drooling for a drink. His hand is still on my shoulder, tugging on it like a ship trying to berth.
“How’s the solo practice goin’?” An odoriferous blast of alcohol is emitted with each spoken word. In the lore of the courthouse it has been said of Eli Walker that any cremation after death will result in the ultimate perpetual flame.
“Fine, keeps me busy.”
I begin to turn back toward the bar, a not so subtle signal that this conversation is at an end. I finally break his grip.
Walker doesn’t take the hint. He muscles his way in alongside me. The woman on the stool beside me gives Walker a dirty look, then scoots her stool a few inches away, giving him room to square his body to the bar.
Standing next to Walker I feel like a man in the company of a leper. I sense that I have suddenly declined in the esteem of a dozen drunks surrounding the bar.
“I’ll have what he’s having.” Walker looks at the bartender, who in turn looks at me. Reluctantly I nod. In his own inimitable way Eli Walker has found his way onto my bar tab. It is in moments like this that I regret lacking the sand to muster overt rudeness.
“Why’d ya leave Potter’s firm?” The question is asked with breathtaking subtlety.
“Oh, I don’t know. Guess it was time to strike out on my own.”
“Sorta like Custer against all them fuckin’ Indians, huh?” He chuckles to himself.
The least he could do if he’s going to hustle drinks from me, I think, is quietly accept my bullshit. He drops the subject of my career and launches into a lecture on his latest journalistic coup, a scandal featuring pork-barrel politics and the state water project. I tune him out.
I check my watch. Ben’s running late. I consider ways to dump Walker. I think about the restroom, but somehow I know he’ll just follow me—stand at the urinal and check my bladder. The bar is mostly empty and Walker is desperate, in search of a drinking companion.
The bartender has spied my empty glass. “Another?” he asks. I nod and notice that I’m now one drink up on Walker. I’ve got to slow my pace. I’ll smell like Eli by the time Ben arrives.
There’s the sound of sirens outside on the street, a fast-moving patrol car followed seconds later by the lumbering echo and diesel drone—a fire pumper. An emergency medical team headed to the scene of some fire or accident.
Eli tilts his glass toward the sound in the street, a salute, then downs the last gulp.
‘Too bad,” he says. “A tragedy,” he says.
“You haven’t heard?”
“Heard what?” I wait for the latest bit of unconfirmed gossip. The stuff of which most of Walker’s columns are composed.
“Ben Potter,” he says.
Walker, I suspect, is brokering information on the high court nomination. Probably third-hand hearsay, which he’s spreading faster than typhoid from a cesspool.
“He passed on,” says Walker.
“What are you talking about?”
“I mean he’s dead—muerto—mort—fish food,” he says.
The words push me perceptibly back from the bar. I turn my head and stare at this old man in stony silence.
“Heard it on the police scanner in my car. They were callin’ in the EMTs, the paramedics.” He looks at his watch. “Can you believe it? Over ten minutes ago now. Get a coronary in this town, you’d better call a taxi,” he says.
Suddenly I catch his meaning, the sirens in the street. Walker thinks they’re responding to some tragedy involving Potter.
This conversation is surreal. I want to tell him that Ben’s going to come walking through the door behind us any second. I look again at my watch. He’s just late.
I compose myself. Walker’s pulling some scam, trying to flesh out information on why I left the firm. Feed me some crap about Potter’s death to see if I’ll defame the dead. It’s the kind of dirt that Walker would slip into a column.
“What did you hear, exactly?”
“Dead at the scene,” he says.
Try as I do, there’s some psychic staggering here. There’s no hesitation in his responses. Even Eli Walker would have a hard time confusing the manifest line between life and death.
“An accident?” I ask.
He shakes his head.
Walker slaps his glass on the bar, a satisfied grin on his face. He finally has my undivided attention.
It’s clear, Walker’s not talking until he has another drink. I call the bartender. Having humored me with scotch, Walker now orders a double bourbon. I ask for the tab and pass the bartender two twenties.
“Gunshot,” he says. “His office.”
Shock and disbelief are registered by the fire I feel all the way to the tips of my ears. He reads disbelief in my eyes.
“It’s true,” he says. “I swear.” He holds up a loose victory sign, like a confused Boy Scout.
“What happened?” I ask.
He shrugs his shoulders. “They don’t give out news bulletins over the police bands.”
This is Eli’s idea of dogged journalism. Hustling drinks at a bar with tidbits of information. I wonder what part of the police transmission he didn’t hear or failed to interpret.
“Do you have a press pass?” I ask.
“Where we goin’? Our drinks haven’t come yet.”
My hand grips his elbow like a vise, pushing him along ahead of me.
“Haven’t you heard, Eli? Alcohol keeps.”
All the way there, Walker’s making like an echo in the seat next to me as I drive. He’s babbling some nonsense about having to meet a source back at the bar.
“Sure, Eli, what’s the guy’s name? Johnnie Walker?”
“No, really, I’ve got a meeting back there.”
“I’m sure he’ll wait for you. I’ll take you back later. Just relax. All you have to do is get me past the police lines.” Assuming there are any.
Hope finds refuge in the improbable crackling transmissions of a police-band radio as interpreted by Eli Walker. But my expectations sag as I pull to the curb on the mall in front of the Emerald Tower.
Minicam crews from channel five and eight are already assembled outside the entrance, jockeying for film advantage. The vans, sprouting microwave dishes and the small spiraled antennae of cellular telephones, are parked at the curb like prodigious wheeled insects in search of carrion on which to feast. Two patrol cars have driven to the fountain on the cobblestone plaza in front of the building. The driver’s door on one is still open, and the light-bars of the units flash amber, red, and blue, the reflections glinting off the emerald glass of the structure in a surreal symphonic light show. The cops are stringing yellow tape across the building’s entrance.
There’s a third vehicle—navy blue in color and lower than the minicam vans—nesded between the two bigger vans. Its flashing emergency lights flicker against the dark azure of a Spielberg sky. On the side the words COUNTY CORONER are printed in bold white letters. I begin to have a new respect for Eli Walker.
We scurry up the broad cement concourse toward the towering green glass edifice. I’m pushing Walker all the way. This is a reporter who’s never been to a fire. The only heat he’s ever felt is booze in the belly.
“Give me your pass, Eli.”
He fumbles with his wallet and drops it on the concrete. I pick it up and riffle through it and quickly find the pass. I look at the laminated plastic card. There’s no picture. I’m in luck.
“I’ll do the talking. Just keep quiet.”
We reach the door and a uniformed cop, young, part of the traffic division I’m sure, challenges us. I lay on a flurry of the working press in a hurry, flashing the press card under his nose. He waves us through. Television crews are assembled here in the building’s lobby. Another cop is stationed at the entrance to the elevators. I’ve run out my string with Walker’s press pass.
Walker and I huddle.
“Know any of these guys?” I nod toward the media moguls wandering about the lobby.
He takes a quick glance around, then shakes his head. Walker’s well connected.
I walk over and cozy up to one of the cameramen, who’s checking out the jungle of tropical plants near the indoor fountain.
The guy’s chewing gum, a huge wad. He looks at me.
“Ugh du no.” This erudite response is accompanied by a shrug of his shoulders as the gum snaps in his mouth. He nods toward a better-dressed colleague standing a few feet away.
“Some guy bought it,” he says.
“Beats me. Cops won’t give us anything.”
“How did you find out?”
He looks at me like I’m crazy, then touches the pager strapped to his belt. “How do I find out about anything?”
I’m back to Walker. He’s getting bored. Wants to leave. I’m hearing more about his meeting back at The Broiler.
There’s the single tone of a bell, one of the elevator cars reaching the lobby. Klieg lights zero in on the elevator door like antiaircraft in the London blitz. The doors slide open. A solitary figure stands in the center of the elevator car blinded by the lights and inundated by a stream of concurrent, incoherent questions.
Elbows go up to shade the light. “You’ll have to get that from the police. I’ve got nothing to say.” The cop at the elevator eases several of the cameras back away from the door. “Get that damn light out of my eyes.” In a grudging sequence, the lights go dim and the crowd at the elevator begins to dissipate, wandering back to the corners of the lobby.
He’s halfway across the lobby headed for the door when he sees me. George Cooper’s eyes are still adjusting from the media bombardment. He carries a small black satchel containing the instruments of his dark calling.
“Coop.” My voice echoes just a little in the cavernous lobby.
There are rings of unrequited sleep under his eyes, and an almost bemused smile under a salt-and-pepper mustache.
“Paul.” There’s a momentary hesitation, then the apocalyptic question. “How did you find out?”
Coop’s words beat like a drum in my brain. It is the confirmation that I dreaded. Ben Potter is dead. I struggle to absorb the finality of it—my first real attempt to assess the personal dimensions of this loss.
Cooper is standing next to me now, waiting for an answer.
“Eli told me,” I say.
There’s a clumsy introduction. Walker educates Coop on the benefits of scanning the police bands.
“Ahh,” says Coop.
“What happened?” I say.
The guy with the pager is eyeing me with renewed interest. He’s grabbed the gumhead, and the two of them are moving toward us.
“Let’s walk and talk?” says Coop. “They’ll be comin’ down with the body in a minute. Got to get the van ready.”
We head toward the door. Coop and I are arm to arm, Walker trailing along behind.
“Too early to know much. If I had to guess,” he says, his voice dropping an octave and several decibels in volume as he eyes an approaching camera crew wearily, “maybe suicide.”
I’m silent but shake my head. Coop knows what I’m saying. I don’t believe it.
“Single blast, twelve-gauge shotgun in the mouth.” No sugar coating from George Cooper. “Janitor found him about an hour ago. Can’t be sure of anything “til forensics is done goin’ over the place.” As we walk outside, Coop’s Southern accent is thick on the night air.
For the first time since Walker broke this nightmare to me, there is confidence in my voice, for there is one thing of which I am certain. “Potter wouldn’t commit suicide.”
“Nobody’s immune to depression.”
Coming from Coop, this is a truism.