and Editor & Publisher of Kindle Nation Daily
(a Jake Lassiter mystery)
By Paul Levine
Copyright 2010 by Paul Levine and reprinted here with his permission.
Thy Client's Wife
ON A STIFLING AUGUST DAY OF BECALMED WIND AND SWELTERING humidity, the Coast Guard plucked seven Haitians from a sinking raft in the Gulf Stream, the grand jury indicted three judges for extorting kickbacks from court-appointed lawyers, and the Miami City Commission renamed Twenty-second Avenue General Maximo Gomez Boulevard.
And Peter Tupton froze to death.
Tupton was wearing a European-style bikini swimsuit and a terry cloth beach jacket. Two empty bottles of Roederer Cristal champagne 1982 lay at his feet. His very blue feet. Two thousand six hundred forty-four other bottles-reds and whites, ports and sauternes, champagnes and Chardonnays, Cabernets and cordials-were stacked neatly in their little wooden bins.
A high-tech air-conditioning system kept the wine cellar at an even 56 degrees and 70 percent humidity. Hardly life-threatening, unless you wandered in from the pool deck sopping wet, guzzled two liters of bubbly, and passed out.
Cause of death: exposure due to hypothermia. Which didn't keep the Miami Journal from seizing on a sexier headline:
ON YEAR'S HOTTEST DAY,
FREEZES TO DEATH
FREEZES TO DEATH
The medical examiner reported that Tupton's blood contained 0.32 percent alcohol. If he'd been driving, he could have been arrested three times. But he'd been swimming, then sipping mimosas on the pool deck. When he stumbled into the wine cellar, he must have kept drinking, this time leaving out the orange juice.
"He was a most disagreeable man," Gina Florio said, dismissing the notion of the late Peter Tupton with a wave of the hand. It was a practiced gesture, a movement so slight as to suggest the insignificance of the subject. When the hand returned, it settled on my bare chest. I lay on my back in a bed that had a bullet hole in the headboard. The bed had been Exhibit A in a case involving a jealous husband and a .357 Magnum, and I picked it up cheap at a police auction of old evidence.
I stared at the ceiling fan, listening to its whompety-whomp while Gina traced figure eights with a blood-red fingernail across my pectorals. A crumpled bed sheet covered me from the waist down. Her clothing was simpler; there wasn't any. She reclined on her side, propped on an elbow, the smooth slope of a bare hip distracting me from the hypnotizing effect of the fan. Outside the jalousie windows, the wind was picking up, the palm fronds swatting the sides of my coral-rock house.
A most disagreeable man. In earlier times, she would have called him a dickbrain.
Or if there were clergy on the premises, simply a birdturd.
But Gina was a sponge that absorbed the particulars of her surroundings, the good, the bad, and the pretentious. Lately, she'd been hanging out with the matrons of the Coral Gables Women's Club. Finger sandwiches at the Biltmore, charity balls at the Fontainebleau, tennis at the club. Discussions of many disagreeable men. Mostly husbands, I'd bet.
"A swine, really," Gina said. "A short, bald, lumpy swine who mashed out his cigarettes in my long-stemmed Iittala glasses."
"Iittala, is it?"
"Don't mock me, Jake. Finnish, top of the line. Nicky likes the best of everything."
"That's why he married you," I said, without a trace of sarcasm.
"You're still mocking me, you prick."
Prick. Now, that was better. You can take the girl out of the chorus line, but ...
"Not at all, Gina. You Ye a name brand. Just like Nicky's Rolex, his Bentley, and ... his Iittala."
"What's wrong with my name, anyway?"
Defensive now. She could play society wife with the white-shoe crowd at Riviera Country Club, but I'd known her too long.
"Nothing," I said. "I've liked all your names. Each suited the occasion."
"Even Maureen? Rhymes with latrine."
"I didn't know you then. You were Star when I met you."
She made the little hand-wave again, and her butterscotched hair spilled across my chest, tickling me. Her movements hadn't always been so subtle. When her name was Star Hampton, she jumped and squealed with the rest of the Dolphin Dolls at the Orange Bowl. She had long legs and a wide smile, but so did the others. What distinguished her was a quick mind and overriding ambition. Which hardly explained why she chose me-a second-string linebacker with a bum knee and slow feet-over a host of suitors that included two first-round draft choices with no-cut contracts and a sports agent who flew his own Lear. Then again, maybe it explained why she left me.
We were together two years, or about half my less-than-illustrious football career, and then she drifted away, leaving her name-and me-behind. When the gods finally determined that my absence from the Dolphins' roster would affect neither season ticket sales nor the trade deficit with Japan, I enrolled in night law school. By then, Star had sailed to Grand Cayman with a gold-bullion salesman, the first of three or four husbands, depending if you counted a marriage performed by a ship's captain on the high seas.
I hadn't heard from her for a few years when she called my secretary, asking to set up an appointment with Mr. Jacob Lassiter, Esq. She wanted her latest marriage annulled after discovering the groom wasn't an Arab sheikh, just a glib commodities broker from Libya who needed a green card. We became reacquainted, and Gina-though that wasn't her name vet-kept drifting in and out of my life with the tide.
Sometimes, it was platonic. She'd complain about one man or another. The doctor was selfish; the bodybuilder dull; the TV newsman uncommunicative. I'd listen and give advice. Yeah, me, a guy without a wife, a live-in lover, or a parakeet.
Sometimes, it was romantic. In between her multiple marriages and my semirelationships, there would be long walks on the beach and warm nights under the paddle fan. One Sunday morning, I was making omelets-onions, capers, and cheese-when she came up behind me and gave me a dandy hug. "If I didn't like you so much, Jake," she whispered, "I'd marry you."
And sometimes, it was business. There were small-claims suits over a botched modeling portfolio, an apartment with a leaking roof, and a dispute with a roommate over who was the recipient of a diamond necklace bequeathed by a grateful thief who had enjoyed their joint company during a rainy Labor Day weekend. And, of course, the name changes. She had been born Maureen Corcoran on a farm somewhere in the Midwest. A mutt name and a mutt place, she said long ago. So she changed her name and place whenever she deemed either unsuitable. She called herself Holly Holiday during one Christmas season, Tanya Galaxy when she became infatuated with an astronaut at Cape Canaveral, and Star Hampton when she dreamed of a Hollywood career.
Finally, she asked me to make it official: Maureen would become Gina.
"It goes well with Florio, don't you think?" she had asked. "And Nicky likes it."
What was he doing today? Making money, I supposed. Wondering whether he was going to get sued by the estate of one Peter Tupton. Maybe worrying about his wife, too. Had Gina said she was going to see her lawyer?
Their lawyer, now. I could see Gina cocking her head, asking Nicky if it wouldn't be sweet to hire Jake Lassiter. You remember Jake, don't you, darling?
Sure, he remembered.
* * *
Before he was filthy rich, Nicky Florio used to hang around the practice field. He was hawking someone else's condos then, and he'd deliver an autographed football at each closing. If he couldn't get Griese, Csonka, Kiick, Warfield, or Buoniconti, I'd sign my name. And theirs.
Nicky was a great salesman. He pretended to love football, always looking for the inside dope on the team. Injuries, mostly. How had practice gone? What was Shula's mood? I'd give him a tip now and then, knowing what he was up to, but I never bet on games. Well, seldom. And I never bet against us.
* * *
Nicky probably balked when she mentioned me. I need another lawyer like I need another asshole. Besides, your old boyfriend's just an ex-jock with a briefcase.
He was right. I don't look like a lawyer, and I don't act like a lawyer. I have a bent nose, and I tip the scales at a solid 223. My hair is too long and my tie either too wide or too narrow, too loud or too plain, depending on the fashion of the times. I've hit more blocking sleds than law books, and I live by my own rules, which is why I'll never be president of the Bar Association or Rotary's Man of the Year. I eat lunch in shirtsleeves at a fish joint on the Miami River, not in a tony club in a skyscraper. I laugh at feeble lawyer jokes:
How can you tell if a lawyer is lying?
His lips are moving.
His lips are moving.
And I do the best I can to inflict the least harm as I bob and weave through life. Which made me wonder just what the hell I was doing with Gina yet again.
If Nicky had said no, Gina would have waited, then tried again. When the neighbor sued over the property line, Give Jake a chance. I picture Nicky Florio running a hand through his black hair, slicked straight back with polisher. He'd squint, as if in deep thought, his dark eyes hooded. He'd shrug his thick shoulders: Sure, why not, he can't screw it up too bad.Putting me down, building himself up. Hire the wife's old boyfriend, something to gloat about at the club, tell the boys how he tacks a bonus onto the bill, like tossing crumbs to a pigeon.
To Nicky, I was a worker bee he could lease by the hour. He could buy anything, he was telling me, including Gina.
Well, who's got her today, Nicky?
Was that it, I wondered, my infantile way of striking back? Hey, Lassiter, old buddy, what are you doing in bed with Maureen, Holly, Star, Gina? Don't you have enough problems, what with the Florida Bar on your back? What would the ethics committee say about bedding down a client's wife?
With all the single women available, what are you doing with a married one? South Beach is chock-full of unattached women, leggy models from New York, Paris, and Rome.
Downtown is wall-to-wall professionals in their business-lady pumps, charcoal suits, and silk blouses. The gym has an aerobics instructor plus a divorcee or two who brighten up when you do your curls. So what's with this destructive, nowhere relationship mired in the past?
"Jake, what are you thinking about?" Gina asked.
"Star Hampton," I answered, truthfully. I rearranged myself on the bed to look straight into her eyes. "Do you remember the time you hit me?"
"Was it only once?"
"Yeah. You were leaving me for some cowboy. A rodeo star named Tex or Slim."
"It was Jim. Just Jim."
"No, Jim was the Indy driver."
"That was James," she corrected me. "Or was he the tennis pro?"
"You hit me because I didn't beg you to stay."
"I don't remember," she said.
But I did.
* * *
We'd been living together in my apartment on Miami Beach. She stepped out of the shower, her hair smelling like a freshly mowed field. She kissed me, soft and slow, then said she was leaving. I told her I'd miss the wet towels balled up on the bathroom floor. She let fly a roundhouse right, bouncing it off my forehead, cursing as she broke a lacquered nail.
Good kiss, no hit.
She dressed quickly and tossed her belongings into a couple of gym bags. Then she said it to me, a parting line I was to hear time and again. "Maybe I'll see you later," she said, heading out the door. "And maybe I won't."
* * *
"Slugged anybody lately?" I asked.
She laughed. It was the old laugh. Hearty instead of refined. "Gawd, I was so young then. Did you know I turned thirty last April? You think I need a boob job? Am I starting to sag?"
She sat up, stretched her long legs across the bed, and hefted her bare breasts, one at a time, her chin pressed into her chest. The streaked blond hair hung straight over her eyes. Outside, the wind was crackling the palm fronds. Only three o'clock, but it had gotten dark inside the bedroom. I peered out the porthole-sized window. Gray clouds obscured the sun as a summer squall approached from the west.
"Jake! You're ignoring me."
So was Nicky, I thought. Maybe that was why she was here. Or was it just for old times' sake?
"Can we be friends again?" she had asked when she showed up at my office for a lunch appointment.
"Friends who screw," she explained.
Which, come to think of it, is what we had been from the beginning. After all these years, I was still dazzled by her beauty, the granite cheekbones, the wide-set deep blue eyes rimmed with black, the body sculpted by daily workouts with a personal trainer. Attention must be paid to such a woman, I thought.
She dropped her breasts, which, as she well knew, sagged not a whit. "Jake?"
"Tell me more about Tupton," I said.
"Ugh! No more talk about business."
"I thought that's what this was about."
"Come on, Jake. That was an excuse. I missed you."
She rolled on top of me and grabbed a handful of my sunbleached hair. "You get better-looking every year. I don't know why I talked Nicky into hiring you. You're too tall and too tanned and too damn sexy"
"That's why you talked him into hiring me. And here I was hoping it was for my legal acumen."
"It's for your amorous acumen." She let go of my hair and began nuzzling my neck.
"Look, Gina, you're just bored. It's an occupational hazard of the haut monde wife."
Her teeth were leaving little marks on my earlobes. She whispered in my ear. "If you think I don't know what that means, you're trés trompé. My second husband took me to Paris. Or was it my third?"
"C'mon, let's do some work-unless you want me to charge you two hundred fifty dollars an hour for-"
"A bargain at twice the price."
"Gina. I'm serious."
"I know you are. You're suffering from postcoital guilt."
"I've had therapy," she said proudly. "My next-to-last ex-husband was a big believer in self-growth."
"C'mon now, tell me more about Tupton."
She sighed and rolled off me, her hair trailing across my chest. Her back toward me, I admired the twin dimples at the base of her spine. Then she turned to face me, her full lips pouting. "We invited him to the pool party to soften him up. Nicky's bright idea. Why fight the guy, waste thousands on legal fees-"
"What better use for your money?"
"... when maybe we could reason with him, show him the good life, serve him some grilled pompano-"
"And chilled champagne."
"Jake, stop it! If you don't want to fool around anymore, treat me like a client."
"You want me to pad the bill?"
"No, I want you to screw me."
"Okay, okay. Fire away."
"So you invited Tupton to a pool party."
"Along with a bunch of stuffed shirts, Friends of the Philharmonic, the opera and ballet groups. I haven't seen so many bobbed noses and tummy tucks since the Mount Sinai Founders Ball."
"A society crowd."
"Business, too. With Nicky, a party can't just be a party. We had some of the big growers plus a Micanopy chief or two. Nicky always says if you want to do business in the Everglades, you've got to make friends with the Indians and the sugar barons. And, of course, we invited Tupton, the turd."
Dropping all Gables Estates pretenses now. More like Star Hampton, who once shared a two-bedroom Miami Springs apartment with five stewardesses, none of whom could scrub a pot.
"I've seen his name in the paper," I said. "What did they call him, an 'environmental activist'?"
"The Journal said he was executive director of the Everglades Society. A pretty nice obituary."
"I assume he wasn't fond of real estate developers the likes of Nicholas Florio," I said.
She placed a hand on my stomach. "All Nicky did was send some surveyors onto the Micanopy Reservation. He's been doing business with the Indians for years."
"The reservation's in the Big Cypress Swamp, so Tupton was probably concerned that-
"Who cares! I mean, the Indians have something like seventy thousand acres out there. It's all mucky. Yuk! Who would want it?"
"Nicky, I guess. He's probably going to improve the environment by draining the groundwater, chasing out the birds and alligators, and building ticky-tacky condos on rotten pilings."
"Jake, that's not fair. He's got a planned community on the drawing board. Something that would enhance the environment. That's what the brochures say."
"Maybe the buildings would even last until the first hurricane."
"Don't let your feelings about Nicky interfere with your good judgment, Jake." She let her fingers do the walking, or maybe it was a slow dance under the sheet, a soft stroking of me farther south. "Anyway, Tupton files a suit against Nicky's company for not having all the right permits. But Nicky wasn't dredging or anything, just surveying, for crying out loud! I gotta tell you, Jake, these bird-watchers and gator-loving econuts are real wackos. They've protested against the oil companies for making seismic tests and the airboat tours for disturbing the tadpoles. And Tupton, talk about holier than thou, he comes to our house wearing jeans and a chambray shirt with the sleeves rolled up, like some urban fucking cowboy. I'll bet the dipshit makes thirty-five K a year, tops."
"Made," I said. "He's not cashing any more checks. And I remember when you shook your booty for fifteen bucks a game at the Orange Bowl."
She withdrew her hand and studied me. "You disapprove of me, don't you, Jake? You never say it, but I disappoint you."
I listened to fat raindrops plopping against the window. The wind whistled through gaps in the barrel-tile roof. "Nothing and nobody ever turns out the way you think."
She turned away from me, either to express her displeasure or to show off her profile. "And what did you think, Jake, that I'd be doing brain surgery now? I just count my blessings that I'm not dancing tabletops in one of those dives near the airport."
In the distance, a police siren sang against the wind. "Maybe I'm just jealous that you're with Nicky, and this is the way I show it."
"You? Jealous?" She laughed a throaty laugh, her breasts bouncing. "Since when? You never cared. You never once said you loved me, not even when it was just the two of us. We were close, Jake, or don't you remember?"
"I remember everything," I said. "The Germans wore gray. You wore blue, and I missed the boat."
"The one to Grand Cayman-others too, I imagine. I never could keep up with you."
She turned back to me and brought an elbow down into my stomach. Not hard, but not soft either. I let out a whoosh. "Jeez, what's that for?"
"You jerk! You big, dumb jock jerk! You never asked me to stay. You think I wouldn't have stayed? You never cared!"
"Who says I didn't care?"
"Me! I say it. You didn't care."
"I cared," I said softly.
"Then you're a double dumb jerk for never saying so."
* * *
Gina sat on the edge of the bed, craning her long neck and blowing cigarette smoke into the air. She'd been quitting smoking ever since we met, probably longer. Self-discipline was not her strong suit. It took her another half hour to tell me the rest of the story.
She had put on what she called her sweet face and served Peter Tupton a pitcher of mimosas to loosen him up. Nicky lent him a swimsuit, and before you knew it, there he was frolicking in the pool with a couple of Junior Leaguers from Old Cutler Road.
"Is there a Mrs. Tupton?" I asked. Without a wife and kids, the value of the wrongful-death case would plummet.
"There is, but he didn't bring her," Gina told me.
"Why not? Were they separated?" An impending marital split could limit the damages, too.
"Tupton said something about Sunday being her day to spend at Mercy hospital. She's a volunteer with child cancer patients."
Oh shit. When the surviving spouse is an angel, tack another digit onto the verdict form.
"Any little Tuptettes?"
"No. They'd been married a couple of years. No kids yet."
Be thankful for small blessings.
"How'd he get into the wine cellar?"
She exhaled a puff into the draft of the ceiling fan. "Beats me. When he first arrived, Nicky gave him a tour of the house, including the cellar, which isn't a cellar at all or it'd be under five feet of water. It's a custom-built room off the kitchen. Lots of insulation, custom wood shelving, a couple thousand bottles. He must have come back into the house from the pool. Maybe the jerkoff wanted to steal a Château Pétrus 1961. Or maybe he was looking for a place to pee."
I was trying to figure it out, but it made no sense. There was plenty to drink outside, where it was also warm, and tummy-tucked women in bikinis lounged poolside. "Why would he wander into a freezing room soaking wet, settle down, and drink two bottles of champagne? Did he lock himself in?"
"Impossible," she answered, tossing me the hand again. "The bolt slides open from the inside. Apparently, he didn't want to leave."
Or couldn't, I thought.
The rain had stopped, and the wind had died. Outside the window, the late-afternoon sun peeked from behind the clouds, slanting shadows of a palm frond across the room. In the chinaberry tree, a mockingbird with white wing patches was yawking and cackling. Mimus polyglottos, Doc Charlie Riggs called him, using the bird's Latin name. Mimic of many tongues. My mocker is a bachelor. They're the ones who sing the songs. Maybe that's what I was doing, too.
"Who was the last person to see Tupton alive?" I asked.
Gina looked around my bedroom for an ashtray. She seemed to consider the question before answering. "Nicky, I think." She appeared lost in thought. There being neither an ashtray nor Iittala glassware on the premises, Gina dropped the cigarette butt into the mouth of an empty beer bottle. Her eyes brightened. "Sure, they were both sitting in the kiddie pool drinking the mimosas, Nicky trying to charm him. I remember thinking that Nicky must be making progress, maybe getting through to him. Then they walked toward the house together, going into the kitchen. That's the last I saw him. You'll have to ask Nicky what happened next."
I intended to do just that. As Nicky's lawyer, I had to be ready for anything. I had to "zealously" defend my client. It's in the Canons of Ethics, you can look it up. Just now, the lawyer inside me-the guy who sees evil and deception, artifice and mendacity-had a lot of questions to ask. And so would the state attorney, I was willing to bet.
The death of Peter Tupton was just a bit too bizarre. Words like "inquest" and "autopsy" and "grand jury" were popping into my head. And motive, too. What was it Doc Riggs always said? When there's no explanation for the death, always ask, cui bono, who stands to gain.
Hey, Nicky Florio, this may be more trouble for you than just a wrongful-death suit that's probably insurance-covered anyway. You could be up to your ass in alligators.
Gina was up and getting dressed. She wriggled into her ultratight jeans and shot me a look. "Jake, why are you smiling?"
"Didn't know I was."
"You were. Your blue eyes were crinkling at the corners, and you had that crooked grin you used to sweep me off my feet."
"So that's what did it. I thought it was my witty repartee aided by ample quantities of Jack Daniel's."
She was looking around the room for her bra. "No. It was your smile. That and shoulders I could lean on."
"Since then, one's been separated, the other dislocated, and I've torn a rotator cuff."
She found the bra, red and frilly, in a tangle of bed sheets. "Just now, you were almost laughing. What were you thinking about?"
"The Canons of Ethics."
She gave me a shove. "No, really."
"Okay, then. The Ten Commandments, or at least one of them."
"Something about thy client's wife," I said.
"HOW LONG HAVE YOU KNOWN MR. LASSITER?" ASKED WILBERT FAIRCLOTH.
"Since he was a pup," Doc Charlie Riggs answered.
"May we assume that constitutes many years?"
"We may," Charlie said, wiping his eyeglasses on his khaki shirt. His old brown eyes twinkled at me. "When I was chief M.E., Jake was a young assistant public defender. Well, not as young as the others, since he'd spent a few years playing ball, though heaven knows why. He wasn't very good, and he blew out his anterior cruciate ligaments." Charlie scratched his beard and shot me a sidelong glance. "Anyway, when he began practicing-law, not football-we were on opposite sides of the fence. I'd testify for the state as to cause of death, the matching of bullets to weapons, that sort of thing, and Jake would cross-examine on behalf of his destitute and very guilty clients. He always did so vigorously, if I may say so."
"No one is questioning Mr. Lassiter's competence," Faircloth said.
Good. Not that it was always that way. New clients, particularly, are suspicious. They want to see your merit badges-diplomas from prestigious universities, photos with important judges, newspaper clippings laminated onto walnut plaques. I don't have any. No letters from the Kiwanis praising my good works. I don't have a family, so no pictures of the kiddies clutter my desk. If anyone wants to examine my diploma from night law school, they can visit my house between Poinciana and Kumquat in Coconut Grove. The sheepskin isn't framed, so the edges are yellowed and torn, but it serves a purpose, covering a crack in the bathroom wall just above the commode. I like it there, a symbolic reminder of the glory of higher education, first thing every morning.
I don't give clients a curriculum vitae or a slick brochure extolling my virtues. I just tell them I've never been disbarred, committed, or convicted of moral turpitude, and the only time I was arrested, it was a case of mistaken identity-I didn't know the guy I hit was a cop.
I keep my office walls bare except for a couple of team pictures and a black-and-white AP wirephoto from some forgotten game. The sideline photographer caught me moving laterally, trying to keep up with the tight end going across the middle. The shutter must have clicked a split second after my cleats stuck in the turf. My right leg was bent at the knee in a direction God never intended. Nobody had hit me. It's one of those rare football photos where the lighting is perfect and you can see right through the face mask.
My eyes are wide, mouth open.
Startled. No pain yet, just complete astonishment.
The agony came later. It always does.
What had been perfectly fine ligaments were shredded into strands of spaghetti. Doc Riggs gave me the photo on the day I retired, which is a polite way of saying I was placed on waivers and twenty-seven other teams somehow failed to notice. Because he always has a reason for everything, I asked Charlie why he went to the trouble of having the photo blown up and framed.
"Why do you think?" he asked right back. Sometimes, his Socratic approach can be downright irritating.
"You want me to remember the pain so I don't miss the game so much."
"No, you'll do that without any prompting. As Cicero said, Cui placet obliviscitur, cui olet meminit. We forget our pleasures, we remember our sufferings."
"Okay, so why-"
"Most of the pain we suffer we inflict on ourselves," he said.
I still didn't understand. "You want me to be cautious? Doesn't sound like you, Charlie."
"I want you to examine the consequences of your actions before you act. Respice finem. You have a tendency to ..."
"Break the china."
"Precisely. And usually your own."
I knew I'd never be a great lawyer. I lost most of my cases as a public defender. The clients-I didn't start calling them "customers" until they could pay-either pleaded guilty, or a jury did it for them. Occasionally, the state would violate the speedy-trial rule, or witnesses wouldn't show, or the evidence would get lost, and someone would walk free, at least for a while.
I can still remember my first jury trial. State of Florida v. Monroe Shackleford, Jr. Armed robbery of a liquor store. Abe Socolow was the prosecutor. More hair then, but same old Abe. Dour face, sour disposition. Lean, mean Abe in his black suit and silver handcuffs tie. "Can you identify the man with the gun?" he asked.
"He's sitting right over there," the store clerk answered, pointing directly at Shackleford.
Outraged, my saintly client leaped to his feet and shouted, "You motherfucker, I should have blown your head off!"
I grabbed Shackleford by an elbow and yanked him into his chair. Sheepishly, he looked toward the jury and said, "I mean, if I'd been the one you seen."
* * *
Wilbert Faircloth appeared to be studying his notes. "Dr. Riggs, did there come a time when you and Mr. Lassiter became friends?"
Charlie fidgeted in the witness chair. He'd been in enough courtrooms to know that Faircloth was attempting to discredit Charlie's favorable testimony by showing bias. It's the oldest trick in the cross-examination book.
"I took the lad under my wing, showed him around the morgue," Charlie admitted. "He watched me perform a number of autopsies, didn't toss his lunch even once. It took a while, but Jake learned the basics of serology, toxicology, and forensic medicine."
"The question, Dr. Riggs, was whether the two of you became friends."
Charlie turned his bowling-ball body toward me. He had a mess of unkempt graying hair, a bushy brown beard streaked with gray, and eyeglasses mended with a fishhook where they had tossed a screw. He wore brown ankle-high walking boots, faded chinos, a string tie, and a sport coat with suede elbow patches. He gave the appearance of a bearded sixty-five-year-old cherub. Charlie never lied under oath or anywhere else, and he wasn't going to start now. "Yes, I'm proud to be his friend, and as far as I know, Jake's never done anything unethical."
"Ah so," Faircloth said, mostly to himself, smiling a barracuda's smile. Wilbert Faircloth was in his mid-forties and razor thin, even in a suit with padded shoulders. He had a narrow black mustache that belonged in Ronald Colman movies and an unctuous manner of referring to the judge as "this learned Court." After a mediocre career defending fender benders for a now-bankrupt insurance company, he became staff counsel of the state bar.
Now Faircloth was making a show of thumbing through his yellow legal pad. He rested the pad on the railing of the witness stand and fiddled at his mustache with the eraser of his pencil. "Would grave robbery be ethical to you, Dr. Riggs?"
"Objection!" I was on my feet. "Your Honor, that's beyond the scope of the bar complaint. It's ancient history, and no charges were ever filed."
Faircloth looked pleased as he approached the bench, cutting off my view of the judge. "The witness opened the door, and as this learned Court knows, I may walk through it if I please. In addition, I will demonstrate a pattern of misconduct."
Judge Herman Gold peered into the courtroom, empty now except for my old buddy Charlie, the slippery Wilbert Faircloth, and little old grave-robber me. Judge Gold had retired years ago, but you couldn't keep him off the bench. He accepted appointments to hear disciplinary cases against wayward lawyers, bringing as much of the law as he could remember to the deserted courthouse after hours. It was past 9:00 P.M. now, the grimy windows dark, and little traffic sloshed through the rain below us on Flagler Street. With its ceiling of ribbed beams and portraits of judges long since deceased, the huge courtroom was cold and barren as the old air-conditioning wheezed and cranked out dehumidified air.
"Overruled," Judge Gold pronounced, squinting toward the clock on the rear wall. He had missed the opening of jai alai at the fronton on Thirty-sixth Street and was not in a pleasant mood. "Past actions are relevant in aggravation or mitigation of the present transgression."
"Alleged transgression," I piped up.
Judge Gold ignored me and gestured toward Charlie Riggs to answer the question. I sank into my chair, armed with the knowledge that I had a fool for a client.
"What was the question?" Charlie asked.
"I'll happily rephrase," Faircloth offered. "To your knowledge, did Mr. Lassiter ever commit the crimes of trespassing, grave robbery, and malicious destruction of property?"
"It wasn't malicious," Charlie answered, somewhat defensively. "And it was my idea. I was his partner in crime... ."
Great, Charlie, but they can't disbar you.
"And besides, it was for a good cause," Charlie Riggs continued. "By exhuming Philip Corrigan's body, we were able to ascertain the identity of his killer."
"But Mr. Lassiter didn't obtain court permission for this so-called exhumation, correct?"
"Just as he didn't obtain court permission for the blatantly illegal surreptitious tape recording in this case, correct?"
"I'm not familiar with this case, Counselor."
"Ah so," Faircloth said, as if he had elicited a devastating admission.
On his way out of the courtroom, Charlie patted me on the shoulder and whispered, "Vincit Veritas. Truth wins out."
Damn, I thought. Truth was, I committed a crime.
We took a brief recess so the judge could call his bookie. When we resumed, my backside hadn't even warmed up the witness chair when Wilbert Faircloth announced, "Mr. Lassiter, you have the right to counsel at this hearing. So that the record is clear, do you waive that right?"
"Do you do so freely, knowingly, and voluntarily?" Faircloth asked in the typical lawyer's fashion of using three words when one will suffice.
"Affirmative, yessir, and friggin' A," I answered. One of these days my sarcasm was going to get me in trouble. Maybe this was the day.
Faircloth seemed to puff out his bony chest. "The hour is growing late, so I suggest we cut to the chase without further ado."
"I'm all for skipping the ado," I agreed. Judge Gold gave me a pained look, or maybe he just had stomach gas.
"Now, sir," Faircloth continued, "did you or did you not surreptitiously tape-record your own client, one Guillermo Diaz, on or about February 12, 1993?"
* * *
I remembered the day. It was cool and breezy. I should have gone windsurfing. The black vultures soared effortlessly around the windows of my bayfront office, lazing in the updrafts. Thirty-two stories below, the predators in double-breasted suits were toting their briefcases to the courthouse. Birds of a feather.
Guillermo Diaz was chunky and round-faced with a nose somebody hadn't liked. He wore loafers with elevator heels, a short sleeve knit shirt that was stretched taut against his belly. He had soft white hands and hard black eyes. He was harmless-looking, which made him better at his job. His job was killing people.
Diaz worked with a brute named Rafael Ramos who was twice as big but only half as tough. Together they were hired to shake down a horse trainer in Ocala who borrowed sixty thousand dollars from their boss at 5 percent interest. A week.
The trainer figured he'd pay it back quickly out of winnings, but his nags had an annoying habit of either finishing fourth, tossing their riders, or suffering heart attacks in the backstretch. With interest accumulating at three thousand a week, before compounding, the debt soon reached a hundred grand. When the trainer couldn't pay, Diaz and Ramos headed north on the Turnpike in a blue-black Lincoln Town Car.
Diaz joked that they should lop off the head of Ernie's Folly, a three-year-old filly, and leave it in the trainer's bed. "Just like in the movie."
Ramos was puzzled. "What movie?"
"Jesus, with Pacino and Brando. 'I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse.'"
Ramos stared blankly at him.
"You know, you gotta get out more," Diaz said.
Guillermo Diaz hated working with someone so stupid. He had to do all the thinking himself. What can you talk about with someone like Rafael Ramos, who sits there cleaning his fingernails with an eight-inch shiv? Playing Julio Iglesias tapes all the way up the turnpike. Jesús Cristo! Julio Iglesias.
Make him an offer he can't refuse. Though it started as a joke, riding through dreary central Florida past the orange groves and into the scrubby pine country, the idea sounded better all the time. Outside of Okahumpka, Diaz aimed the Lincoln toward the exit ramp. Ramos didn't even notice. He was humming along to "Abrázame." Diaz found a hardware store in a strip shopping center and bought a chain saw from a pimply clerk who tried to sell him tree fertilizer plus fifty pounds of mulch on sale.
Back in the car, Ramos asked, "Fuck we need a chain saw for?"
Diaz explained again, and Ramos started whining about his new white linen guayabera, and what a mess it would be. Diaz was so tired of the bellyaching, he agreed to forget about the horse-they'd just use the saw to scare the guy. The noise alone would make him shit his pants.
"No need to chop him into pieces," Diaz said. "Not like in that movie with Pacino and the guy in the shower."
"The movie with the horse?"
"No, different movie. Pacino's a Marielito in this one. More Cuban than you. Smarter, too."
They stopped at a service station, and Diaz filled the small tank on the chain saw, dribbling gasoline onto his patent-leather loafers. At the horse farm, they found the trainer in a barn made of telephone poles set in concrete. A light rain was falling, pinging off the barn's tin roof.
The trainer was a gray-haired man in his fifties, lean and wiry, with the blue-veined nose of the drinker. They backed him into a corner, where he stumbled over a pile of Seminole feed bags and nearly impaled himself on a pitchfork. The two enforcers felt out of place here, nearly intoxicated from the ripe, earthy smells of the barn, the distinctive tang of horse sweat, the sweetness of molasses from the feed mixing with the aroma of manure and urine, sawdust and creosote.
It took Diaz half a dozen pulls to get the new, warranty-covered Black & Decker chugging. He threatened to cut off the man's head if he didn't pay up. Diaz yelled this, because sure enough, the little machine made a hell of a racket. The trainer was crying, begging for more time to pay. All the while, two golden palominos and a paint were kicking and snorting in their stalls. Ramos cursed and lifted his left foot, a moist glob of excrement sticking to his tasseled loafer. Flies buzzed around Diaz's ears. Not little houseflies. Big, blue-winged monsters that looked like they could suck blood. By the quart.
Diaz felt ill. He would rather be in Miami, banging a guy's head against the asphalt in a back alley. He lived in a two-story stucco apartment building just off Jose Marti Avenue in Little Havana. The smells there were of cooking pork and steaming espresso. There were no horses with ugly square teeth and jackhammer hooves pounding the sideboards. He wanted to do the job and get the hell out of there.
While the trainer was pleading for another twenty-four hours, Diaz decided to send him a message. Take a little chunk out of the man's shoulder, just as a warning. Maybe get the guy to find a safe with some cash in it underneath the manure piles. In a movie, he saw the bad guys chop off someone's little finger. He couldn't remember if it made the man talk.
Diaz lifted the chain saw with both hands. "No!" the trainer shrieked, his eyes filling with tears.
"Ay, be thankful it's not your pinga," Diaz yelled over the roar.
The saw was bucking, and the man was screaming, and the horses were kicking the place down, and Ramos was saying something he couldn't hear. Diaz tried to gently tap the wailing machine against the trainer's shoulder, but he missed. The churning blade came to rest against the man's neck, where it bit through his carotid artery, splattering Ramos's white linen guayabera a rich scarlet and spraying the two palominos, turning them into pintos.
* * *
A week later, on that cool and breezy day, Guillermo Diaz sat in my office. "Grand jury meets this afternoon," I told him.
"Big fucking deal. They got no witnesses."
"Ramos turned state's evidence, testified yesterday. You're going to be indicted for Murder One."
"That's bullshit. Where is the chickenshit cobarde? Where's he now?"
"In protective custody.
"How should I know? And what difference does it make? You think you can get him to change his mind?"
"No, I think I can kill him."
Outside the windows, a buzzard landed on the ledge, spreading its six-foot wings, then folding them in that familiar hunched shoulder look. The ugly birds fly south each winter and perch outside the windows of high-rise lawyers, reminding us of our ethical standards.
"You're not kidding, are you Guillermo?"
"You get to take his statement, ¿verdad?"
"Right, a pre-trial deposition."
"You tell me when and where, it's over real quick."
He stood up and paced to the window. Spooked, the buzzard spread its wings and soared away. I leaned back in my chair, put my feet up on the credenza, and flicked the button on the Dictaphone. A little red light blinked on. "Let me get this straight, Guillermo. You're asking me to set up Rafael Ramos, so you can kill him."
"Ay, Counselor, I do it with or without your help. What other choice I got?"
* * *
"Yes," I told Wilbert Faircloth. "I recorded my conversation with Mr. Diaz."
Faircloth let his voice pick up some volume. "And did you have a court order permitting you to conduct this recording?"
"I did not."
"Was the recording made in the course and scope of a bona fide law-enforcement investigation?"
"No, I did it on my own."
"And, as a lawyer, you are familiar with Chapter 934 of the Florida Statutes, are you not?"
"I know the gist of it."
"The gist of it," Faircloth repeated with some distaste. He paused, apparently considering whether to press me on the particulars of the law. "Do you know, sir, that the statute forbids tape recording a conversation unless all parties to that conversation have consented?"
"Did you know that on February twelfth, 1993?"
What would be better, I wondered, denying knowledge of the statute and therefore admitting incompetence, or conceding I knew my conduct was felonious? Probably the former, but damn, it would be a lie. They couldn't prove it, of course. No perjury charge. Still, one of Lassiter's Rules is not to lie to the court.
"Yes, I knew the law at the time."
"May we assume you obtained your client's permission?"
"You may assume it, but it wouldn't be true."
"So then, you did not have Mr. Diaz's consent to tape-record his conversation?"
I can't stand it when lawyers posture. "You expect me to ask permission to record his threats to kill a witness?"
"No, Mr. Lassiter. I expect you to follow the law."
"Look, my plan was to record Diaz, withdraw from his case, and warn him that the tape would be turned over to the state attorney if anything happened to Rafael Ramos. The idea was to force him not to kill a man."
"But you were his attorney, Mr. Lassiter. You owed Mr. Diaz the duty of unyielding loyalty. The conversation was privileged. What gave you the right to act as his conscience?"
"My conscience," I answered. "Besides, once he disclosed the plan to commit a crime in the future, I believed the privilege was lost."
"Did you seek an advisory opinion from the bar to confirm your so-called belief?"
"No. There wasn't time."
"So you proceeded to knowingly violate Chapter 934 and to also breach the privilege by contacting the state attorney?"
"Yes. Diaz fired me when I wouldn't agree to set up a murder. I contacted Abe Socolow after Ramos was found with three bullets in his skull."
"Do you have any regrets about your conduct?"
"Yeah. I regret not calling Abe before Diaz killed Ramos."
"Now, isn't it true that Mr. Diaz was never convicted of that crime?"
"Right. There was a profound lack of witnesses."
"And you have no proof that Mr. Diaz committed this crime, do you, Mr. Lassiter?"
"No. I mean, yes, I have no proof." I hate questions phrased in the negative.
"And do you have an explanation for your behavior?"
"It seemed the right thing to do at the time," I said.
Faircloth couldn't suppress a snicker. "It seemed the right thing to do." He shot a look at the judge, trying to figure if he was scoring points. When he turned back to me, his smirk announced he was three touchdowns up with a minute to play. "Is that how you live your life, Mr. Lassiter, doing what seems right at the time?"
I didn't have to think about the answer. It was just there, the simple, stark truth. "As a matter of fact, that's exactly what I do."
Goblins in the Night
CHARLIE RIGGS WAS WATCHING A LITHE YOUNG WOMAN IN BLACK Lycra shorts and a bikini top whirl through a pirouette on her Rollerblades, smack in the middle of Ocean Drive. No drivers yelled. No horns honked. A white stretch limo politely pulled around her. Four bearded guys gunned their black Harleys in an admiring salute as they gave her room. Two Miami Beach cops in khaki shorts weaved in and out of traffic on their bicycles, looking tanned, fit, and friendly, despite the Sig-Sauer nine-millimeters on their hips.
"Fascinating," Charlie said, as the young woman sped down the center line.
"Her abdominals, or the aerodynamics of the sport?" I asked.
"Dying of hypothermia in Miami in August," he answered, dipping a piece of pita bread into a bowl of pureed eggplant with garlic. We were sitting at a sidewalk table of the News Cafe, gathering spot for artists, actors, models, and assorted junior-varsity wannabes. A light breeze from the ocean, a few hundred yards to the east, cut the midday heat to manageable levels. To the west, storm clouds gathered over the Everglades. In the summer, lunch is followed by midafternoon thunderstorms nine days out of ten. I was wearing jeans, running shoes, dark glasses, and a Hawaiian shirt festooned with orchids. Charlie had on baggy pants that he must have worn while painting his house, a green surgical smock, and a fisherman's vest with various hooks and flies attached. He wore a shapeless canvas hat to keep the sun out of his eyes. To the casual observer, he was either the hippest guy on trendy South Beach or a demented professor.
Charlie took a sip of his lemonade and said, "A few years ago, a body turned up in Bayfront Park. It was July. A lad in his late teens, frozen stiff as a board and banged up a bit. Nobody could figure out what the deuce had happened. We checked the local meat lockers, ice plants, that sort of thing. I did the autopsy. Cause of death was asphyxia. Checked the inventory of his pockets. No wallet, no ID, no nothing except an Eastern Air Lines schedule and a hundred colons in Costa Rican currency. Of course, that solved the mystery." "It did?"
"The poor wretch had no visa and no money for a ticket, so he crawled into the wheel well of a jet at the airport in San Jose. There's space up there that a man-well, not someone your size, but this fellow-could fit into. The wheel well isn't pressurized, and if the lack of oxygen hadn't killed him, the temperature would have."
"The fall probably didn't do him any good, either," I speculated.
A group of Hare Krishnas chanted and bangled their way along the sidewalk, sweat glistening on their shaved heads. I took a bite of my cheeseburger. South Beach overflows with chichi cafes where the pasta is al dente and the tuna rare, but I'm still a burger-and-brew guy. I'm as health-conscious as the next guy, as long as the next guy is sitting on a barstool, but there are limits. It doesn't bother me if someone waxes poetic about the joys of bean sprouts. If a scrawny woman feasts on grapefruit and lettuce, fine. If a guy is a vegetarian jogger, that's great, too, though most look as if they couldn't buck a force-three wind. I don't tell other people how to live, and I appreciate reciprocity.
Once when I was chomping a cheeseburger with a side of fries at an outdoor cafe in Coconut Grove, a fragile-looking guy in a gold velour warmup suit and white bicycling helmet stopped short at my table. "I'd hate to see the inside of your arteries," he said somberly.
"Fine," I responded, taking a long swallow of my chocolate shake. "I'll tear your heart out, and we'll look at yours."
He blinked and took a step backward. "Eat yourself to death, if you want. All that animal fat leads to cardiac arrest, and the excess protein causes kidney failure."
"So does a good left hook," I advised him.
I don't believe in being judgmental. You eat your tofu, I'll eat my T-bone. Today, though, it was a rare burger with purple onions, ripe tomato slices, and tangy mustard on a fresh-baked roll. A nice slab of melted Jarlsberg cheese to keep the juices in the meat. With all the pasta and sushi places, it isn't easy to find a good burger anymore, so it's a real quiniela if the same place also serves Grolsch, the Dutch beer.
"You say Mr. Tupton had been drinking?" Charlie asked.
"And the room temperature was in the fifties?"
"Fifty-six, right on the button, and Tupton was soaking wet."
In the street, several young men carried a banner protesting discrimination against AIDS victims. The Miami Beach bicycle cops patiently directed traffic around the demonstrators. Charlie smoothed his beard with the back of his hand. "That could do it. Once in a while, in the winter down here, with the ambient temperature in the fifties, we'll see a homeless person die of hypothermia. If there's been excessive alcohol intake, vasodilation is the killer. The blood vessels dilate, body temperature plummets. All kinds of complications can result, metabolic acidosis, elevations in serum amylase, and pancreatitis." A shirtless man walked by, a bright green mynah perched on his shoulder. Hardly anyone turned to stare. "How long was Tupton in there?"
"Twelve, fourteen hours. The maid discovered him in the morning. When the paramedics arrived, his body temperature was seventy-seven degrees. No respiration, no heartbeat."
"Ventricular fibrillation was the likely terminal event. Seems like he died of natural causes, so what's the problem, Jake?"
I shrugged. I didn't know. It was just this vague uneasiness. I took a bite of the burger and drained the beer.
"Any surprises in the autopsy?" asked the man who had performed twenty thousand before retiring to a life of fishing and reading medical texts in their original Latin.
"M.F. says no. Nothing unusual in the system other than the elevated blood alcohol. No signs of a struggle, no toxins, no puncture wounds ..."
That made us both pause. I can't read minds, but Charlie Riggs had to be thinking about a twenty-gauge hypodermic track in the buttocks of rich old Philip Corrigan. Dead old Philip Corrigan, but that's another story.
"The report confirms what you said, Charlie. Ventricular fibrillation caused by hypothermia."
"So all you're dealing with is a wrongful-death suit. Just another dispute about money."
"Right. Social-host liability."
Charlie seemed to be studying the man-made sand dunes on the beach across Ocean Drive. "Who's the plaintiff's lawyer?"
"Henry Thackery Patterson."
"H.T.'s good, though a trifle flamboyant for my tastes," Charlie observed.
"He's already filed a boilerplate complaint. Simple negligence for serving alcohol to an intoxicated guest. I'll file an answer with the usual affirmative defenses, comparative negligence and assumption of the risk."
"Blame it on the victim, eh?"
"Sure. The old defense gambit. The plaintiff caused his own harm, so don't point the finger at the party hosts who had to keep the hors d'oevres moving."
Charlie shook his head. "Whatever happened to the concept 'de mortuis nihil nisi bonum'?"
"Damned if I know."
"Speak kindly of the dead," Charlie translated.
"Why? They're the only ones who can't sue for slander."
Charlie tut-tut-tutted and finished cleaning his plate of the eggplant goo with a swipe of his pita. "I still don't know what's troubling you. Talk to me, Jake."
"Too many questions don't have answers. Didn't they miss Tupton at the party? Didn't anybody see him go in there or see his car parked all night in the street in front of the house? How about his clothes, still hanging in a closet in a guest room?"
Charlie wrinkled his forehead. "You're talking like a prosecutor now. You've been retained to defend a simple civil suit. Just do your job."
Charlie was right. I should file my pleadings, take my depos, make my motions, and eventually settle the case before trial. The usual old soft-shoe. I was trying to treat this like any other case. I really was. But my mind was buzzing with other thoughts. Gina. Nicky. Tupton.
"Is there coverage?" Charlie asked.
"A million in homeowner's, another five-million umbrella policy."
"So, you have no downside. Win, you're a hero. Lose, the insurance company pays. Why go looking for goblins in the night?"
"Hey, you're the guy who taught me not to accept things at face value. 'Things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream.' That was you talking, Charlie. And how about this little ditty, 'Seek the truth,' or however the hell you say it."
"Quaere verum," he instructed me. "And you're the lad who told me that isn't the lawyer's job."
"It isn't," I said. "My job's to take the facts handed to me and present the best case I can. I'm not supposed to dig for stuff that'll hurt my client."
"Like in Philip Corrigan's grave."
"Thanks for reminding me. Can you believe that's coming back to haunt me now?" I mimicked Wilbert Faircloth's weasel voice: "'Would grave robbery be ethical to you, Dr. Riggs?' Jeez, Charlie, I'm in for a public reprimand, maybe even a six-month suspension."
"Precisely my point. Why go looking for trouble now?"
"Why should now be different? Look, Charlie, I never liked Nicky Florio, and I never trusted him."
Charlie Riggs harrumphed and rearranged his bulky body in his chair. "You never liked him because he married Star Hampton." He paused, and a light flickered in his deep brown eyes. "Jake, you're not seeing her again, are you?"
"Her name's Gina now."
"Your answer was not responsive, Counselor. Haven't you got enough trouble with the Bar as it is ? Talk about conflicts of interest." Charlie stared toward the ocean, screwing his face into thought. The clouds from the west were nearly overhead now, and the temperature was beginning to drop. Intermittent gusts tugged at the cafe's umbrellas. "I never thought that girl was for you. She combines dependency on a man with an ability to manipulate him. She's a user, Jake. I know the effect she had on you, and I only hope it's over. You've got this flaw, you know. ..."
"Where women are concerned, you're attracted to the birds with the broken wings. You want to mend them, make them whole. But Star, or Gina, or whoever, is a predator, a hawk, not a hummingbird. Let the Nicky Florios of the world deal with her kind."
I always listen to Charlie, but sometimes I don't follow his advice. This time, I kept quiet.
Charlie leaned back in his chair and eyeballed me from under his canvas hat. "You can't represent Nicky if you're seeing his wife. You understand that, don't you?"
I stayed buttoned up. The Fifth Amendment was always dear to me.
"Are you listening, Jake? A meretricious relationship affects your judgment. You should be planning Nicky's defenses, and instead you sit here implying that maybe this accident was really ..."
"Say it, Charlie. That Peter Tupton was aced, offed, zapped, rubbed out."
I had raised my voice without knowing it, and Charlie's bushy eyebrows were arched as he appraised me. "You've been under a lot of stress, Jake. Maybe you should let one of your partners handle the suit, take some time off. From what you tell me, there's no indication of a homicide."
I signaled the waiter for another beer. "Motive, Charlie. It's what you taught me to focus on. Tupton could cause Nicky a lot of trouble, cost him a lot of money and time fighting lawsuits instead of building his plug-ugly condos. Nicky invites the guy to a party, tries to soften him up, but it doesn't work. ..."
Charlie scowled and harrumphed in disbelief. "So he gets Tupton drunk and drops him in a chilly room. Really, Jake, if you're going to the trouble to kill someone, you'd use a method that'd be sure to be lethal, and you probably wouldn't do it in your home."
Just then, Charlie's beeper went off. He extracted it from his belt and squinted at the digital readout. "State attorney's number." Charlie balled up his napkin, stood, and headed inside the restaurant, looking for a pay phone.
While I waited, I mulled it over. The old sawbones was right. If Nicky wanted to kill Tupton, he wouldn't do it himself, and he wouldn't use a method that might just give the guy a cold. In this town, there are semipros who'll ace somebody for a new outboard motor or a three-day pass to Disney World. And Florio could afford the best. But then, if everyone who committed a crime was so smart, nobody would ever be caught.
I was still thinking about it when Charlie toddled back to the table, his brow furrowed, one hand absentmindedly stroking a cork attached to his fishing vest by a 3/0 hook. "Abe Socolow," he announced, gravely, "asked if I'd take an appointment to assist the M.E. in a suspected homicide."
"I told him I have a potential conflict of interest."
Charlie hadn't told me, but I knew. The state attorney was looking into the death of one Peter Tupton, a guy who didn't fall out of a wheel well of a jet but still froze to death in Miami.
"Where's your conflict?" I asked. "I haven't retained you as an expert."
"The conflict is that I'm your friend, but if you don't have a problem with it, neither does Abe."
"Why does he want you?"
"Metro Crime Scene tried to lift prints off the corpse with the plate-glass method. See if somebody carried Tupton into the wine cellar. They came up with something on the wrists, but they're not good enough to match up, though they seem to exclude the paramedics. Socolow wants me to oversee a methyl-methacrylate test."
Charlie was too modest to say it, but he's the old coot who invented it. Getting latent prints from the body of a corpse was tricky stuff. Moisture, the breakdown of tissues, and the surface of the skin itself were major problems. Sometimes, prints would show up by rolling a piece of glass across the body, but usually it didn't work. Charlie came up with the Super Glue method. Convert the glue into fumes and tent the body. The sticky stuff settles on the skin, and voilà, if someone manhandled the body, prints appear in the glue as the fumes condense on the skin.
"I don't mind, Charlie. Take the job."
"I don't need the money," he said.
"C'mon, take it. I'd rather have you on the other side than some yahoo who doesn't know what he's doing. Remember, I'm supposed to be seeking the truth."
"No, you're not, Jake. You're supposed to be representing Nicky Florio."
"JUST WHAT IS YOUR NET WORTH, MR. FLORIO." H. T. PATTERSON ASKED.
"Objection," I called out, slapping the table with a palm. "The defendant's financial resources are irrelevant."
"Irrelevant!" Patterson boomed, as if there were a judge and jury to appreciate his righteous indignation. "Dare you say irrelevant?"
"I dare. And while I'm at it, I dare say immaterial, inadmissible, and just plain none of your business."
Patterson feigned outrage and turned to the court reporter. "Has the stenographer recorded every word of this obloquial colloquy? When we bring this before the Court, I shall seek sanctions."
The reporter, a heavyset young woman, nodded silently. Patterson was decked out in a white linen three-piece suit, which was set off nicely by his cocoa-colored skin. He was short and trim, a native of the Bahamas and a former fundamentalist preacher at the Liberty City Baptist Church. After law school, he continued his Holy Rolling, only in the courtroom.
Five of us sat around the conference table in Patterson's law office-Nicky and Gina Florio, the court reporter, Patterson, and a big lug who used to wear number 58 in the aqua and orange and was now squeezed into an off-the-rack, 46-long seersucker suit.
* * *
Before we started the deposition, I sat in H. T. Patterson's office as he slid a videotape into a VCR. The television screen flickered to life, a helicopter shot of the Miami skyline. Then the music came up, a strident beat stolen from Miami Vice. Finally, two men appeared on the screen, a beaming interviewer and a super-serious Peter Tupton. They sat in straight-backed chairs on a carpeted riser. Between them was a coffee table on which sat an artificial rhododendron, and behind them a logo, ¿QUÉ PASA, MIAMI? One of those Sunday morning public-affairs shows you watch when the hangover is so bad you can't bend over to pick up the remote control.
The tape was marked Plaintiff's Exhibit Seven, and Patterson intended to introduce it at the trial. Under the rules of discovery, I could see it first.
"What's the relevance of this?" I asked, as the interviewer was telling us Tupton's background.
"Two weeks before his tragic death, Peter Tupton gave this interview. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, we can show the jury that this was a man. Yea, more than a man, a towering figure of vision, courage, and honor."
"I'd like to listen to your client before you canonize him," I said.
I watched for a few minutes. The towering figure appeared to be a short, overweight man in his late thirties with receding pale hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and thin, grim lips. He wore a safari jacket over a blue chambray shirt. The pants were khaki, and when he crossed his legs, I could see one hiking boot stained with mud. I quickly learned that Tupton had studied petroleum engineering at a university out West, that his first job had been with an oil company, and after an explosion and fire on an offshore rig, he had been so shocked by the ecological destruction that he had quit. Tupton didn't say anything about the men who had been killed, but the loss of fish and birds really seemed to frost his buns. He went back to school, picked up a master's degree, and became involved in environmental protection, first with the government, later with the Everglades Society.
The interviewer asked about the history of the Everglades, and Tupton used its Indian name, Pa-hay-okee, grassy water, a reference to the tooth-edged saw grass in the shallow, vast stream. He talked about the diversity of the Glades, the shallow sloughs and gator holes, shell-filled beaches and tangled mangroves. He decried development, claiming it had caused the drought, turning parts of the Glades into a prairie. He talked about the ecosystems, pine rocklands, mangrove swamps, hardwood hammocks, bayheads, and cypress heads. He bemoaned the sugarcane fields, sucking up nutrients from the saw-grass peat that accumulated over thousands of years. He criticized the man-made irrigation channels that artificially restrict the natural cycle of dry winters and flooded summers.
On the screen, a file videotape showed a variety of animals in their natural habitat, and Tupton gave a voice-over narration in a calm, measured voice. He described the endangered species in the Glades, and we looked at crocodiles and turtles, manatees and panthers, a bald eagle, a wood stork, a pair of snail kites, and a peregrine falcon.
"We must keep ever vigilant," Peter Tupton said. He radiated sincerity, seriousness of purpose. "When there are threats to the environment, we must respond with protests, lawsuits, political pressure, every tool at our disposal."
The interviewer asked, "Aren't people much more aware of the environment these days?"
Tupton nodded. "Twenty-five years ago, some so-called regional planners proposed building a huge jetport in the Big Cypress Swamp smack in the Glades. They publicly announced that entire cities would be built around the jetport, as if that was something to be proud of. Before anyone knew what was going on, they dredged and even built a trial runway. That's how close it came before the public rose up and shut it all down. Now there's a local developer who wants to build a town out there."
Next to me H. T. Patterson chuckled. I listened some more.
In the space of thirty minutes, interspersed with public-service spots and commercials for every Jim Nabors record ever made, Tupton told everything I wanted to know about the Everglades, and then some. I concluded that the judge would allow the tape into evidence and that the jury would like Peter Tupton.
Maybe not like so much as respect. Patterson knew what he was doing. Wrongful-death cases with a surviving widow involve two kinds of plaintiffs. The regular guy-No, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this was not a special man. This was not an extraordinary man. This man was not an Eagle Scout or a high public official. He packed bags at the Piggly Wiggly, but he was someone special to his wife, because this was the one man in the world who had fallen in love with her, who had spent his life with her, who had shared her joys and her sorrows all these many years... .
That kind of case was tough enough to defend, but Patterson was going after something else. The special person-Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this was a special man, a man who made a difference in our lives. While we went about our daily chores, oblivious to our surroundings, he was there fighting the good fight to assure we have water to drink, to bathe our children, to wash our cars. He fought to make sure our grandchildren can enjoy the majesty of the southern bald eagle. This was a man who was our keeper of the lighthouse. He kept a watch out for us all. He was a special man... .
Oh, my, how H. T. Patterson could play this one.
* * *
Now, barely ten minutes into the deposition, we were hung up on the issue of the plaintiff's right to details of the defendant's financial condition. "If you persist in your mulish intractability," Patterson announced, "we shall forthwith and with due dispatch move to amend the complaint and add a claim for punitive damages. Thereupon, the issue of the defendant's net worth is relevant, admissible, and if I may say so, quite instructive to the jury in assessing damages."
He was doing his best to intimidate Nicky, trying to convince him that the discovery process would be so burdensome and invasive of his privacy that he should settle the case. Trouble was, Nicky Florio didn't intimidate easily.
I was about to make my objection when Florio spoke up: "You guys can keep on yapping and running up the bills, if you want. I don't give a shit. I'm not gonna answer questions about my finances to you, the judge, or even my beautiful wife."
Across the conference table, Gina giggled.
I put my hand on Florio's arm to hush him up. Refusing to answer questions sometimes backfires. Once, in a divorce case, I asked a flagrantly unfaithful wife if she had stayed with a particular gentleman at a hotel in New York.
"I refuse to answer that question," she responded.
"Did you stay with the man in Los Angeles?"
"I refuse to answer that question."
"Did you stay with the man in Miami?"
"No," she answered proudly.
Florio quieted down, and I turned my attention to Patterson. "This isn't a case for punies, and you know it, H.T., so until I see your motion, and until the judge grants it-which should be the same time Tampa Bay wins the Super Bowl-you can forget about prying into financial resources."
Patterson kept blathering as if he hadn't heard me. "Your client is guilty of gross and glaring negligence, willful and wanton misconduct, egregious and intentional deviation from the standard of care imposed on social hosts. Thus, we are entitled to what is euphemistically called smart money in an amount sufficient to make the defendant smart, i.e., feel pain. Hence, your objection is obdurate and obstinate, ornery and obstreperous. Your conduct is predictably perverse and consistently contumacious. You ..."
When H.T. lapses into his seductive singsong, even I stop and listen, usually tapping my toe on the floor, keeping time with the rhythm until he runs out of steam.
"... thwart justice by defending actions that are depraved and degenerate. If you continue this iniquitous and unscrupulous stonewalling, we shall have no recourse but to take this matter before the judge and apply for sanctions."
"H.T., chill out."
His eyes lit up. "That's just what your client's tortious misconduct caused to occur. The terminal chilling-out of a dedicated citizen, a man who put civic duty above financial reward, a man who spent his all-too-brief life fighting the robber barons and the well-connected. A man who walked through the valley of greed and gluttony, cupidity and corruption, and sought the straight-and-narrow path.
"Save it for the jury, H.T."
"A man cannot indiscriminately let flow a river of demon rum to his guest," H.T. continued, impervious, "then abdicate his responsibility. No, he must be made to pay, and pay till it hurts."
Nicky Florio's olive complexion was beginning to color. He drummed his well-manicured nails on the tabletop. His black hair was slicked straight back, his dark eyes blazing at H. T. Patterson. Florio wore a jet-black suit, a white-on-white shirt, and one of those expensive Italian silk ties that looks like a bouquet of flowers and costs more than most small appliances. He leaned toward me and whispered, "Do I have to listen to this shit? Jesus, let's get it over with. I got a business to run."
I calmed him with a hand on his shoulder and turned to my opponent. "H.T., you're wasting a lot of valuable time and paper. I'd swear you were getting paid by the word instead of your usual forty percent."
"Blasphemer! I have promised a percentage of my fee to the Everglades Society, so that Mr. Tupton's grand works can continue after his untimely passing."
"How thoughtful. I don't suppose the group is returning the favor by helping you with the lawsuit, is it? And what percentage are you contributing, Henry Thackery? A tiny morsel, a single digit, no doubt? It'll be good for a tax deduction and a mention of your generosity in the newspapers, probably at the time we're picking a jury."
"Counselor, you vex me."
"Good. We're even."
I yawned and decided to keep quiet. Maybe if I ignored Patterson's diversions, he'd get back on track. I stretched my legs, locked my hands behind my neck, and cracked my knuckles.
Something touched my left leg.
At first I thought that Nicky, seated to my left, had bumped into me under the table. He hadn't. I glanced at Gina, sitting directly across from me. She wore a sleeveless red leather minidress. Too hot for Miami in the summer, but it covered so little, maybe it didn't matter. A gold zipper ran diagonally from the hem to the neck. It was unzipped to the middle of her breasts.
Something touched my leg again and moved upward.
Unless you were watching, you wouldn't notice her slipping slightly lower into her chair as her foot inched upward along my leg. A small smile played at her lips.
They were all the same to her. Sex was enhanced if she was bouncing on the deck of a pitching boat during a gale. Preferably with a man who was not her spouse. She drove too fast, drank too much, partied too long. She liked men who risked their bodies and their bankrolls. She skied on slopes too steep and dived in waters too deep. She jumped off bridges attached to a bungee cord and told me it was her second-favorite sport. And now, with her husband two feet away, her toes crept toward my crotch.
"Just how much did you serve Mr. Tupton to drink?" Patterson asked.
"I didn't serve him anything," Nicky replied. "We have servants for that."
"Servants!" Patterson sang out. "As it is written in Matthew, 'The dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table.'"
I knew where he was going. This wasn't a lawsuit but a class war.
"How convenient you have servants," Patterson continued sarcastically. "Pity they're not slaves."
"Objection!" I yelled. "Move to stri-eeek!"
The ball of Gina's foot had found a part of me that was totally unconcerned with the rules of evidence. Patterson was looking at me, puzzled for once.
"That is, move to stroke, ah-chem, strike the provocative and inflamed, I mean ... inflammatory comment of counsel."
I felt my face redden. Nicky Florio shot me a sideways look that seemed to ask whether I was competent. At the moment, I was not.
"You intended to get Mr. Tupton intoxicated, did you not?" Patterson asked.
"No," Florio answered flatly.
"Did you ask him to come to the party without his wife?"
"No, that was his choice."
"Isn't it true you provided him with female companionship?"
"There were single women at the party, if that's what you mean."
Patterson thumbed through his notes. "Do you know a Ms. Amber Lane and a Ms. Marcia Middleton?"
Gina's foot had miraculously withdrawn from my crotch.
"The ladies work for me. They take reservation deposits on new condos at Rolling Hills Estates."
I knew the place. Located on a former marsh about six feet above sea level, the only hills were made of swampy landfill, and the estates were town houses crammed sixteen to the acre.
"Were the ladies wearing those very skimpy bikinis," Patterson asked with obvious distaste, "the ones designed by Satan himself, the ones called-"
"Tongas," Gina piped up, with a lascivious grin.
"Hush!" I told her.
From across the table, Gina winked at me.
"It was a pool party," Nicky Florio said. "All the women were in appropriate attire. As I recall, a few were sunbathing topless near the seawall."
"No!" thundered Patterson. "You violated Coral Gables ordinances, to say nothing of the law of the I.ord. As Peter observed, 'Thou shalt abstain from fleshly lusts-'"
"C'mon, H.T.," I implored. "Keep to the point."
"And was it the job of Ms. Lane and Ms. Middleton to spend the day entertaining Mr. Tupton?"
"All the employees are encouraged to socialize," Florio said.
"Socialize," Patterson repeated, as if the word turned his stomach. "Did that include playing"-again he consulted his notes-"pool tag? Where the person who's 'it' must tag the next person, regardless of sex, exactly where he or she has been tagged."
"There were games going on in the pool," Florio said. "Nobody seemed to be complaining, and I didn't keep track of what everyone was doing."
"Just as you didn't keep track of how much Mr. Tupton drank."
"Look, fellow. There were a hundred people at my house. I'm not a nursemaid. I'm a businessman. These were all consenting adults, if you know what I mean. If somebody slips into the cabana with someone not his wife, it's no business of mine. If a guy chooses to get sloshed, that's his prerogative. During a party, I'm working. I've got to entertain county commissioners, tribal leaders, sugar growers, zoning lawyers, subcontractors, plus the usual Ocean Club crowd. I'm sorry about Peter Tupton. I really am. But he drank himself into a stupor and wandered into the wine cellar. It's his own damn fault, and that's all there is to it."
Not a bad speech. We could clean it up a little, make it seem not so harsh, a little more sympathetic to the deceased, then use it at trial. With enough rehearsal, it would seem appropriately spontaneous.
Patterson pretended not to have heard a word. He had taken mental notes, I knew, sizing up the opposition, figuring just what kind of witness he had to deal with, and then he went back to work. "Now concerning your business, you lease several thousand acres in the Everglades from the Micanopy tribe, do you not?"
"Yeah, it's a matter of public record."
"And you run the Micanopy bingo games, correct?"
"Right. My associate handles that."
"Your associate being Rick Gondolier?"
I had seen Gondolier's picture in the newspaper lots of times. Handsome, mid-thirties, he was usually wearing a tux, his arm around a woman in an evening gown at one of Miami's endless social events. Gondolier came from Las Vegas, where he had managed a couple of hotel casinos. There'd been a scandal, skimming cash, bribing local officials. Some indictments, an immunized witness who disappeared, no convictions. Gondolier made a splash when he bought into Nicky Florio's businesses. A few major charitable contributions and membership in the right clubs brought contacts and society-page publicity. In Miami, a shady past doesn't hamper careers. Hereabouts, the only sin is being poor.
"And what are your business relationships with Mr. Gondolier?" Patterson asked.
"Objection to the form of the question," I said. "Vague, overbroad."
The court reporter noted my objection, and Patterson thought about it. "I'll rephrase. Are the two of you partners?"
Patterson gave me his patronizing look. "If they're partners and this pool party was a business event," he lectured, "then Mr. Gondolier is equally liable for the negligence of Mr. Florio. Jake, didn't you did take Business Organizations in law school?"
"Twice," I told him. I turned to Florio. "Go ahead and answer."
"We're not partners. All the relationships are corporate. We each own fifty percent of the stock in Micanopy Management Company. That's the subsidiary that runs the bingo business. Gondolier's got a minority position in the parent company, Florio Enterprises, which develops our real estate interests. He's got an option to purchase up to half the stock. I'm the president and CEO of each company. He's the chief operating officer of the bingo business. Anything else you want to know?"
"Was Gondolier at the party?"
"Yeah, and so was the archbishop. Want to sue him, too?"
Patterson ignored the crack. He was good at it. "Now, concerning the several thousand acres you lease from the Micanopy tribe, you and Mr. Gondolier plan to build apartments and town houses on the environmentally sensitive land, do you not?"
"So what? It's perfectly legal. I've been this route before. I've got the best lawyers, the best consultants, the best lobbyists."
I remembered what Gina said about her husband. Nicky likes the best of everything.
Patterson leaned over the table, closer to Nicky Florio. "You knew that Mr. Tupton's group opposed your plans?"
"Sure, he told us. A hundred times. He told the newspapers. He wrote letters to the governor and the cabinet. His fax machine must have blown a gasket over this thing. Gondolier and I talked about it. We were searching for areas of common ground with Tupton."
"Such as a bribe?"
Oh shit. What was this all about?
"Objection!" I sang out. "Argumentative and irrelevant." Buying time now.
"Jake, Jake, Jake." Patterson's tone was condescending. "You know that objection is preserved for trial. As for the present, there's a question pending." Patterson turned back to Nicky. "Now, Mr. Florio, did you offer Peter Tupton a bribe to drop his opposition to your plans?"
"Don't answer," I instructed my client. "Time-out, H.T. I need to confer with my client."
"Confer or coach, Jake?" Patterson stood up, smiling.
He left the room, bouncing on his toes, a satisfied look on his face. The court reporter stood, opened her purse, grabbed a pack of cigarettes, and went into the hallway. I was left with Nicky and Gina.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"Tupton must have told his wife," Nicky said.
"Told her what?"
"But there's nothing in writing."
"Told her what?" I repeated.
"I could say he solicited a bribe, and I turned him down. Who would know?"
"I would," I said.
His look was razor-sharp. "Don't start playing Boy Scout with me over a harmless little talk I had with that self-important sack of shit. I know about you. I know all about you."
Gina cleared her throat. "If you boys are going to play, I think I'll go take a pee. Excuse me ... powder my nose." She wriggled back into her shoes-one or two wriggles more than seemed necessary-stood up, and left the conference room.
Nicky Florio and I just sat there staring at each other. What had he meant? All about me. Professional, personal, or both? The grievance proceeding, or Gina, or a guy I once decked in a bar? I didn't know. All right, so maybe I'm the bull in the china shop when it comes to tact and subtlety, but basically, I like to think I'm considered almost respectable by my peers. Unfortunately, there are no sophisticated electronic devices to measure character, and all of us see ourselves differently than those around us. Our reputation is created out of earshot.
I try to go through each day wreaking as little havoc as possible. I am unfailingly polite to bone-weary waitresses who deliver my potatoes fried instead of mashed. I never park in the handicapped space or toss gum wrappers on the sidewalk. I don't shoot little furry animals or curse at telephone solicitors. I help old ladies across the street, feed stray cats, and recycle beer bottles. For the past several years, I worked the cafeteria line at a homeless shelter on Thanksgiving, scooping out the gravy to haggard men and women, thanking the powers of the universe for the cosmic luck that gave me a sound body and semisound mind.
In the practice of law, a sea inhabited by sharks and other carnivores, my ethics are simple. I won't lie to a judge, steal from a client, or bribe a cop. Until recently, I wouldn't sleep with a client's wife, but since I knew Gina before she married Nicky, I figured I was grandfathered in, if I figured anything at all.
Other than that, I believe in drawing blood from the opposition, but not by going for the knees. Hit 'em straight on, jawbone-to-jawbone. Which is why I didn't like the slippery scruples of Nicky Florio, who sat there glaring at me with his dark, piercing eyes.
"Okay," I said. "Forget about my principles. I sometimes do. Think about this. Maybe Tupton was wired when you talked."
"That'd be illegal, wouldn't it?"
Now it was getting too close to home. "Not if it was part of a law-enforcement investigation. Or maybe he did an affidavit after the conversation or told it to the newspapers. Maybe the grand jury is looking into it."
"Abe Socolow runs the grand jury, doesn't he?"
"Yeah, he's the prosecutor in charge of corruption probes."
"He was at the party. He's all right."
"He's better than all right. Abe's tough and honest, and he could eat your canapés all night and subpoena you the next morning."
Florio smiled. "Don't worry. He's on our team."
"What does that mean?"
"He's running for state attorney, right? I'm helping him out with his finances."
"Look, Nicky, I've known Abe since he was prosecuting DUIs and I was defending shoplifters. You can't buy him. Now, what the hell was going on between you and Tupton?"
If Nicky had to think about the answer, he was a quick study. "It was no big deal. I offered him stock in Micanopy Management Company at a special rate, that's all."
"A special rate?"
"Yeah, like for free."
"The company's a gold mine. We've got the management contract for the Micanopy bingo hall. You ever see the place?"
I shook my head.
"Out on the fringe of the Glades. You could play the Super Bowl in there, and it's a real cash machine. Gondolier does a great job. We bring in the retirees by the busload from all over. St. Pete, Naples, Lehigh Acres, Cape Coral, Sunrise Lakes, Bonita Springs. Jeez, we gotta have a cardiologist on the premises, we get a couple tickers stopping during the hundred-grand game on Saturday nights. Now we've got the video pull-tab games, French bingo, do-it-yourself bingo."
"What's it got to do with Tupton?"
"Nothing, until, as a friendly gesture, I offered him the stock, that's all. Plus a seat on the board. He could pick up some spare change in director's fees."
"This is bullshit, and you know it. You were trying to bribe him."
"Hold on, Jake. He wasn't a public official. There was nothing illegal about it. Okay, so I wanted some cooperation. But I never said he had to do anything for me in return. That's not a bribe, right?"
"Right, there's no bribe unless there's a quid pro quo." I haven't hung around Doc Riggs all these years without learning something.
Florio smiled, thinking about it. I wouldn't want him smiling at me like that. "'Course, if he took the quid and didn't give me the quo, I'd have killed the son of a bitch."
"But Tupton didn't take it, did he?"
"No, he refused."
"So how come the son of a bitch is dead?" I asked.
* * *
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