Widowed mainstream attorney Martha Patterson finds herself frustrated by her recent retirement. When a former colleague offers her a volunteer job as a pro bono lawyer for West Brooklyn Legal Services, Martha eagerly looks forward to resuming her career.
On Martha's first day at work, she encounters one of her agency's clients, Wilma Oberfell, a patient with a history of psychiatric problems. Wilma's only words to her are "I don't know whom I can trust."
The next day Martha sees Wilma lurking outside her apartment building, but Wilma disappears before she has a chance to speak to her.
And almost immediately, Martha finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation when she stumbles across a body in the entrance of a deteriorating apartment building.
Martha is haunted by Wilma's words. Her unquenchable curiosity and sense of noblesse oblige lead her on an unexpected search for the truth behind the woman's death, in Gretchen Sprague's Death in Good Company.
About the Author
Gretchen Sprague was a Legal Services attorney in Brooklyn, New York, for eleven years. She is the author of the Edgar-winning young adult novel Signpost to Terror. She died in 2003.
Gretchen Sprague was a legal services lawyer in Brooklyn, New York, for eleven years. She retired to the Hudson Highlands to write the Martha Patterson mysteries. Sprague died in 2003.
Read an Excerpt
Death in Good Company
By Gretchen Sprague
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1997 Gretchen Sprague
All rights reserved.
The young man who burst into the corner office was Latino, handsome, and — judging by the red blotches on the tissues he was pressing to his forehead — bleeding.
Howard Wallace interrupted his third repetition of, "Above all, Martha, avoid the Mother Teresa syndrome," and said instead, "Carlos. What have you done to yourself?"
The young man flicked a glance at Martha.
"You've heard of Martha Patterson," said Howard. "She is now on board. Martha, this is Carlos Quinones, one of our highly valued paralegals, who seems to have damaged himself. What happened?"
Carlos said, "I got mugged."
"Good lord," said Howard. "How did that happen?"
"Three guys with knives."
"Did you get cut?"
"Hey, Howard, I get cut, I'm getting stitched up in the emergency room. I got lucky, just scraped my head." He lifted the wad of tissues, revealing a scrape that extended from his eyebrow into his hairline. A drop of blood welled up.
Martha, having raised a child, was no stranger to bloody scrapes. This one, though doubtless painful, was far from dangerous.
The drop of blood trickled past Carlos's eyebrow toward his cheekbone.
Howard said, "Did you lose consciousness?"
Carlos refolded the tissues, dabbed at the trickle, and pressed the wad to the scrape again. "Not really. I guess I was a little woozy for a minute."
"Where did it happen?"
"In the subway. I was coming back from The Building."
Howard's venerable swivel chair rocked forward an inch. "The building?"
"With the rent strike. I was picking up the rent for Luther. I'm just through the turnstile, a little ways down the platform, and these guys, three guys, they pile in behind me, come up on both sides and one of them behind me, like surrounding me? With these knives."
Howard was very still.
"Like gravity knives? Flick-knives? I'm going to argue with three knives?"
Martha heard Howard draw in a breath. He held it a moment before he let it out.
"Listen," said Carlos. "I don't argue with knives. They march me down to the end, where the catwalk goes down in the tunnel? Shove me up against the wall, that's where I get this." Again he raised the wad of tissues. Another drop of blood welled up. "It's cement, you know? The wall down there? They rip off my wallet, and then they take the rent money. I was bringing it to Luther to deposit in court. In one of those portfolios, you know? With the elastic around it? They grabbed it and took off. I'm going to argue with three knives?"
Howard said, "No." He swiveled to his desk, punched digits into the phone, said, "John, your pro bono is here," and swiveled back. "No, you aren't going to argue with three knives. We're not even going to discuss knives and the proper response thereto." His chair came upright and he planted his hands on his knees. "We're going to back up to before the knives, and you're going to explain to me why the hell you were carrying the rent payments for an entire six-story building in one of those portfolios with an elastic around it"— he turned up the volume a notch — "on the subway."
Carlos's eyes flicked to Martha and back. "My car wouldn't start."
Howard said, "Your car wouldn't start."
"You got it, Howard. Like you turn the key and it goes yur-yur-yur. What you call it is, your car won't start."
Martha tried to imagine a paralegal's addressing the managing partner of her old firm, Reilly, Whitman, in that tone. Her mind refused the task.
But it would not do to smile. The situation was serious and Howard had his limits.
Clearly aware that he was approaching them, Carlos said, "Look, I had to get there some way. Luther deposits the rent in court today. I tried to find somebody in the street to give me a jump."
"The office would pay for a cab."
"You ever try to get a cab to go to that neighborhood? I figured I'd get McInerny to ride back with me, like an escort, you know? But he wasn't home. Look, I didn't think it'd look like I had money in that thing. That's the kind of thing you carry papers or something."
Martha's peripheral vision picked up movement in the doorway. She glanced over.
John had arrived. He caught her glance and raised an eyebrow.
She repressed another smile. John Ainsworth, shortly to become her supervisor, was uncommonly decorative: fair-haired, blue-eyed, slightly built but excellently proportioned, handsomely featured, and possessed of the enviable muscle control to raise a single eyebrow.
And, in his early thirties, less than half her age. This fact would have troubled Martha more if it had seemed to trouble John at all. He stood at ease, urbane in jacket and tie, just inside the doorway.
Howard was saying, "If McInerny wasn't there, who was holding the money?"
"Wilma had it," said Carlos. "That fat old lady hangs out with McInerny? You know the one; Enid's got her case."
"The rent," Howard said. "What form was it in?"
"Money orders, a couple checks. A couple in cash."
"Ah." Howard let out a sigh. "Have you notified the tenants to stop payment?"
"Hey, gimme a break. Luther's in court, waiting for the rent, right? Soon as they took off, I got on the first train and got my ass" — he glanced at Martha, who had noticed nothing amiss until his hesitation — "got over to housing court. Then Luther says get over here and tell you. So I'm here telling you."
"Is Luther notifying the tenants?"
"He's on trial."
"Then you do it. Right away."
"And get me a copy of the police report."
"Hey, if there was a cop to report it to, I wouldn't get mugged in the first place."
"The token clerk has radio contact."
"Yeah, well, I wasn't about to follow those brothers back to the gate. Not with three knives. And then the train came in, and what I thought was get my ass out of there, get over to court and tell Luther."
Howard rocked backward and forward an inch.
Carlos said, "Like I said, I guess maybe I was a little woozy right about then."
"OK. Call it in now."
"What good's that going to do? There wasn't anybody saw what went down except them and me, and those guys are long gone."
"No doubt. But the insurer is going to need a police report, and any tenants that may have to get an emergency grant from welfare will need a police report. Call the precinct over there and make the report. Then, right away, get the tenant list out of the file and call everybody in that building and tell them to stop payment on those checks and money orders. Then write the whole thing up and get it typed and put it in my box before you leave. And get to a doctor and find out if you've got any concussion or other damage, and bring me the doctor's report tomorrow. Got it?"
Carlos opened his mouth, obviously thought better of what he had been about to say, and closed it. He compressed the wad of bloody tissues in his fist and pitched it toward Howard's wastebasket. It hit the rim and landed on the floor. He saluted, said to the space in front of him, "Yes sir, General Wallace, sir," and wheeled toward the doorway.
John stepped aside and said, "Yo, Carlos."
"Yo, John." Carlos vanished.
John picked up the tissue wad with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, dropped it into Howard's wastebasket, turned, and with extended right hand said, "Welcome aboard, Martha."
It was happening.
A ripple of trepidation crosshatched the waning ripples of her amusement. She said, "Thank you," rose from her chair, shook John's hand, and stepped into her role as volunteer attorney for West Brooklyn Legal Services.CHAPTER 2
Alone in John Ainsworth's office, Martha took a legal pad from her briefcase and a pen from her handbag.
Until this moment, working pro bono for West Brooklyn Legal Services, a poverty-law office providing civil legal representation to the indigent, had been largely a concept. More than a notion, certainly, but not quite a concrete reality. Now it was happening.
She had been a trusts and estates lawyer at Reilly, Whitman since 1949. That was the year in which she had received her law degree, married Edwin Patterson, and moved from Lincoln, Nebraska, to New York City, where Edwin had turned his wartime experience in the Air Corps into a promising small airfreight business. Her father, a justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court, had exercised his considerable influence to obtain her an offer from Reilly, Whitman. "I did this much," he said, kissing her good-bye after the wedding. "The rest is up to you."
The rest was now history. The firm had retired her a little over three years ago. Edwin had sold his business at an immense profit and at once suffered a series of disabling heart attacks. Martha acquired a modem and a fax and did freelance legal research out of the apartment — enough, as she put it, to keep the brain from turning to Jell-O. But when Edwin died three years later, the apartment became a prison. Martha found herself with enough money to do much as she pleased, but with little idea what it was she pleased.
She had met Howard Wallace many years before, when he had interned at Reilly, Whitman for a summer. Although their career paths had diverged, they had kept in touch. A few months after Edwin's death, she ran into him at a Bar Association dinner. When she responded honestly to his, "How are you, Martha?" he promptly offered to put her to work as a pro bono lawyer at West Brooklyn.
She said yes. He set up meetings and assigned homework; now it was happening. The office manager had issued her a set of keys, explained the coffee pool, and entered her name in the Christmas-party gift drawing. John had showed her a partly emptied utility closet that was eventually to be her office. "Somebody was supposed to clean it out, but he was interrupted by an emergency," John explained. "Standard Legal Services practice. Emergencies interrupt emergencies." As for today, Howard had left after welcoming Martha and would be out for the balance of the afternoon; Martha could camp out temporarily in his office.
John had then escorted her to his office, to which he would return in a few minutes with the rest of the Government Benefits Unit, who would hand off to her the beginnings of a caseload of her very own.
Her hands were cold. This, however, was not altogether the result of trepidation; the place was noticeably chilly.
West Brooklyn was decorated in keeping with its funding level. Previous visits had somewhat inured Martha to the wood-grain laminate that paneled the walls, the discordant vinyl floor tile, and the mud-colored industrial carpeting in Howard's corner office and in the reception area out front, where the clients waited on the cheapest of fiberglass-and-chrome chairs. But she was not yet inured to the undisguised poverty of those clients. Her trusts-and-estates clients at Reilly, Whitman had come to her in search of hiding places where their excess might grow more excessive. Now, sitting next to John Ainsworth's hand-me-down desk, she thought that the comfort in which she so obviously lived must surely give offense to these new clients whose problems she was about to address.
Howard, however, said not. Howard said, Above all, avoid the Mother Teresa syndrome. The clients needed lawyers, and they wanted their lawyers to talk like lawyers, dress like lawyers, live like lawyers. West Brooklyn Legal Services was undeniably — and comfortingly — a functioning law office: telephones beeped; computer terminals hummed; in the corridor near John's office, secretaries gossiped as they shepherded a collating job through the copy machine.
At that point in Martha's meditations, John reappeared, accompanied by a slight young woman bundled in a large, frayed, faded black sweatshirt. The sleeves were turned back, and flyaway auburn hair escaped around the edge of a hood pulled to her arched eyebrows. He introduced this attractive pixie as Anita Pagan, a paralegal. "Anita taught me all I know," he said. "Ask her the hard questions."
It was evident that paralegals at West Brooklyn Legal Services were held in considerably higher esteem than were the diligent gofers at Reilly, Whitman. Martha said, "How do you do, Anita," and wrote on her legal pad: "Anita Pagan, respected paralegal. Elf."
Anita said, "Hi, Martha," and crossed to perch on the cold radiator, her hands tucked into her armpits. "This is ridiculous," she said to John. "It's three in the afternoon."
"Sixty-two." John turned his chair, sat down with his back to the desk, and said to Martha, "The contract sends them home after half an hour at fifty-five."
"The contract," said Anita, "was negotiated by gringos."
"The super," said John, "insists on turning down the thermostat over the weekend, but the heat's usually up by ten."
Anita said, "I'm going back to San Juan."
John sang, "Everything's fine in A-mer-i-ca," and then the rest of the Government Benefits Unit arrived, dragging chairs and carrying case files.
Determined not to be embarrassed by her long-standing difficulty in remembering names, Martha wrote underneath Anita's name: "Orlando Pierce, paralegal; Gwen Doherty, paralegal, disability specialist; Victory King, lawyer." A lanky black man with a tall haircut; a chunky white woman; a short, round, very young black woman.
Politically incorrect, thought Martha. Victory King should be the unit director, Orlando and Anita senior attorneys, John a highly valued paralegal. But John had introduced Victory as a rookie, just a month past the news that she had passed the New York State bar exam. Her time would surely come. And perhaps Anita and Orlando were attending law school at night. John's position was beyond remedying.
Victory said, "You hear Carlos got mugged?"
"Speed of light," said John to Martha. "Get used to it."
"Got mugged twice," said Orlando.
Gwen said, "What do you mean?"
"Got mugged in the subway and then Howard gave him hell for getting mugged."
"Not for getting mugged," said John. "For carrying the rent on the subway. Not bright."
Anita said, "John, he was hurt and they took his wallet, and all Howard did was yell at him about the rent."
"How much did he lose?" asked John. "Personally?"
"Well, he was carrying most of his money in his sock. But Howard never asked. And he was hurt."
"A scrape on his forehead. Hardly life-threatening. And Howard did tell him to go to the doctor."
"For workers' comp," said Anita. The radiator emitted three bangs and began to hiss. "I don't believe it."
"Oh, ye of little faith. No, you're right. Howard failed to overflow with compassion when he heard the rent was gone. Let's proceed, gang. Martha needs a caseload. What can we offload on her?"
She got four cases for starters. One of them, originally Gwen's, she almost didn't get.
"Tessie Doone," said Gwen. "Wheelchair-bound, says her SSI checks stopped without warning."
John asked, "Where does she live?"
Gwen read off an address.
"Isn't that The Building?"
Martha heard implied capitalization and said, "The building with the rent strike?"
Anita nodded and John said to Gwen, "Listen; first find out if she can travel."
Martha said, "I'll go to her if she can't." Perceiving a hesitation, she said, "Or am I not to make house calls?"
After another little pause, John said, "Sorry. Give her the file, Gwen."
"Thank you," said Martha.
"If you have to go, take a car service."
* * *
And so it came about that late on the afternoon of Monday, the fourth of December, 1995, Martha Patterson sat at the desk of the director of West Brooklyn Legal Services, drew a deep breath, picked up the phone, and punched in Tessie Doone's number.
The ringing tone buzzed five times; then, through an assault of high-volume TV, Martha heard a cracked, "Whozzat?"
She pitched her voice above the game show. "Is that Tessie Doone?"
"Wait a minute, lemme turn it down."
The TV diminished to faint squawks, and after a moment Martha heard again, "Whozzat?"
"This is Martha Patterson, from West Brooklyn —"
"You that lawyer bout my SSI?"
"I don know why they stop my SSI. Vibelle's welfare don mount to nothin — Vibelle, she be my niece — an Roy Rogers don pay enough to keep nobody. If it wasn Kareem working, we all'd be in one of them shelters, and that's the truth."
Excerpted from Death in Good Company by Gretchen Sprague. Copyright © 1997 Gretchen Sprague. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.