I woke up spitting sand. Someone was kicking me in the ribs.
“You alive, pal?”
I lifted my head and shielded my eyes against the molten fireball rising from the ocean. Squinting into the sun, I saw a tanned young guy standing over me. Khaki shorts, white shirt with epaulets and a badge. His utility belt held a crackling radio. Beach Patrol. Glorified lifeguards with Tasers.
The guy dug a sneaker into my gut. “C’mon, get up.”
“Knock it off or I’ll break your leg.” I licked my parched lips and tasted blood.
What the hell happened last night?
I’d been with Pamela. My lover and, conveniently enough, my banker at Great Southern. It should have been a night of drinks, dinner, and sex. We’d done the drinking, but then came the accusations and denials. A shadowy memory crept up, like fog over the shoreline.
“What are you hiding, Pam?”
“Screw you, Jake! You’re not gonna pin this on me.”
“You’re the one moving the money.”
I remembered her raking me across the cheek with a handful of manicured nails. Now, touching my face, I felt tracks of dried blood. Then what happened? How’d I get here, face down on the beach? Hadn’t I rented a suite at the Fontainebleau? Until the blow-up, weren’t Pam and I celebrating the best fiscal report in the history of the Law Offices of Jacob Lassiter. Esq.? Weren’t we in love? At least, I thought we were.
“Unless you fell out of a boat, you’re breaking the law.” Mr. Beach Patrol again. “City Code section three-seventy-two, subsection B-1. No overnight camping on the beach.”
I let my head fall back to the sand. “Camping? Does it look like I’m toasting marshmallows?”
Sea birds pecked at the wet sand near my head. Breakfast time. I felt chilled. The incoming tide splashed my bare left foot. There was a brown suede shoe on my right foot. No sign of the left shoe. I wore taupe dress slacks and an unbuttoned blue silk shirt. My belt was missing. Had I been stripping for a nighttime swim when I passed out?
“On your feet, pal. Last time I’m gonna tell you.” He nudged me again with a sneaker.
“Go pound sand.” I laughed at my little joke and hacked up what tasted like the syrupy remnants of several margaritas.
“I’m responsible for Tenth Street Beach, and I’m giving you a direct order.”
Meaning I’d walked 30 blocks from the Fontainebleau before taking a snooze at the high tide line.
“Lemme alone,” I said.
“You want to get run-over? A half-track will be clearing seaweed in about five minutes.”
He drew his foot back to kick me again. I grabbed his other ankle and jerked hard. He tumbled backward, arms wheeling, fell to the ground.
I got to one knee, but my head was filled with bowling balls, and I never made it to my feet. Flat on his back, Mr. Beach Patrol snaked the Taser from its holster and nailed me. I spasmed and toppled sideways, a buffalo hit by lightning. The pain rattled my teeth, and my brain blazed with a light brighter than the rising sun.
* * *
Ten minutes later, I was handcuffed and sitting cross-legged on the beach when a cop tricycle – okay, a three-wheel all-terrain vehicle pulled up – spraying me with sand. The Beach Patrol biker, an older guy with sergeant stripes, whispered to the young guy who’d microwaved me.
I couldn’t make out much. The words “Lassiter” and “cops” and “Fontainebleau” were being tossed around.
“You guys want to give me a ticket and get this over with?” I said.
They kept whispering.
“How ‘bout cutting me a break and go piss on some tourists with jellyfish stings?”
The young guy let out a long, low whistle, then glanced at me. The sergeant clapped him on the back and said, “Well done,” as if he’d just busted John Dillinger or maybe cleaned all the bird poop from the beach.
“Mr. Lassiter, this is more serious than a ticket,” the sergeant said.
“C’mon, I was just sleeping off some tequila.”
“Somebody back at the Fontainebleau wants to talk to you.”
“Detective Barrios, you know him?”
“Yeah. Why’s he want to see me?”
The sergeant and his pals exchanged get-a-load-of-this-guy looks. “Why do you think, Mr. Lassiter?”
“Not a clue.”
George Barrios was chief of Miami Beach Homicide.
What the hell could he want with me?
The Sorrento Penthouse
Two Miami Beach cops escorted me into the penthouse suite. Pamela Baylins lay on the floor, her eyes open and protruding, her legs splayed from beneath her black sequined mini, the same dress she wore to dinner last night. A tall, strong woman in life, she suddenly looked small and frail. A discarded and broken doll.
I felt the rush of my heart, blood pounding through my veins. I felt as if I were falling down a mine shaft, narrow and deep. My knees buckled, and a uniformed cop propped me up by grabbing the handcuffs behind my back. I gasped, tried to say something – I’m not sure what – but my throat was filled with cotton. I tore against the handcuffs. Again, I don’t know why, the movement was involuntary. Like a rodeo bull cinched with a leather strap, I felt as if my torso was constricted, taking my breath away. Shock mixed with sorrow and my vision blurred with tears.
I’d been at murder scenes and I’d watched autopsies performed. But none involved someone I loved. Now, I was as motionless as a man stuck in a nightmare.
“You wanna sit down, Mr. Lassiter?” one of the cops said.
“Let him stand,” said another.
I scanned the cops’ hard, cold faces, then looked back at Pamela. Pink spots dotted her cheeks and her eyelids. Her tongue jutted out the side of her mouth, and bloody mucus dangled from both nostrils. A man’s black leather belt was cinched around her neck.
Instinctively, I lifted my cuffed hands and felt for my own belt, even though I already knew the answer. The cops watched as I found nothing but empty loops.
I’d defended enough murder trials to know where this was going. I tried to put off all notions of grief and loss in order to concentrate. I needed to clear my mind and take it all in. If I didn’t, I could do a lifetime of mourning in a prison cell.
We were in the living room of the suite. There were no overturned chairs or broken glassware. The welcome basket of fruit and wine was still wrapped in plastic on a cocktail table. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the Atlantic. Blue skies and sun-dappled turquoise waters outside. Blood and ugliness inside.
Pamela’s long, frosted hair was tangled beneath her head. Hair that she used to toss with a feminine shake of the head. First the big laugh, then the shake, her hair flying as if riding in a convertible down Collins Avenue on a Spring day.
In life, Pamela’s features were in constant motion. Woman of a thousand smiles. Eyes that brightened when she spoke. A rare bird who could talk business or baseball or sex and could play at all three.
I was vaguely aware of movement around me. The quiet, hushed efficiency of a crime scene. Techs combed the carpet. A photographer clicked off dozens of shots. A young Hispanic man in a polo shirt with the logo of the Medical Examiner’s office peered into Pamela’s eyes. Looking for a cloudy film. A preliminary method of establishing time of death. Jamming a thermometer into her liver for a more precise determination would wait until the body was back at the morgue.
Uniformed cops roamed the two-story suite, whistling at the extravagance of the place. We were on the main level. Three thousand square feet, wide open from the fully equipped kitchen – as if anyone came here to cook – to the oceanfront windows.
“Got a swimming pool on the patio,” one cop was saying.
“You mean a Jacuzzi,” another said.
“Yeah, that, too. But a real pool.”
A crime scene tech trotted down the stairs from the bedroom level. Pamela and I had planned to spend the night in the master bedroom upstairs. Drinking champagne and making love and getting silly over the whole damn luxuriousness of the place. Now, she was dead, and cops were watching me with cynical eyes, judging the sincerity of my grief and confusion.
Did I go pale? Did my face register shock or horror or grief?
I couldn’t tell. I just stood there. Numb and dumb. Gaping. Aching. Stunned into an empty silence. A creeping sense of self-loathing and regret. If we hadn’t argued, if I hadn’t left the suite, this never could have happened.
A plain clothes detective whispered something to the photographer who then aimed the camera at my face and snapped off half a dozen pictures. He asked me to turn so he could catch my profile. A better angle for the scratches on my cheek.
I did as I was told.
A female tech in cargo pants and a CMB cop t-shirt knelt in front of me and turned my cuffs inside out, collecting sand in a plastic bag. Another tech in surgical gloves, armed with cotton swabs, said, “Would you please open wide, sir?” She swiped the inside of my gums.
The man in the M.E. polo shirt was scraping residue from under Pamela’s fingernails. I caught sight of myself in a wall mirror, saw the dried blood on my face where she had scraped me, knew just how the test would turn out. My DNA would be found under Pamela’s nails.
“Want to talk about it, Jake?”
I turned and saw George Barrios. He was close to 60, with a shiny bald head and burly forearms tanned the color of polished chestnuts. He’d been with the Sheriff’s Department back in the cocaine cowboy days of the 1980's. Marielitos with machine guns. Colombians chopping up enemies with machetes. Bodies stacked in a Burger King truck when the old morgue ran out of space.
Barrios was closing out his career as chief homicide detective of Miami Beach. When there’s a killing at the Fontainebleau – the victim a prominent young downtown banker like Pamela – well, you call in Barrios. I’d cross-examined him a number of times over the years and never caught him in a lie. He was tenacious and patient and thorough. His eyes had a concerned look, as if he’d like to help me. Oh, Barrios was damn good at cop work.
“I didn’t do it, George.”
“Didn’t ask if you did. The suite is registered to you. Just wanted you to I.D. her, give us any leads to find the killer.”
Right, I thought. And Javert just wanted to find who stole the loaf of bread.
“Pamela Baylins,” I said. “But you already know that.”
“Want to tell me what happened?”
My head throbbed. Pamela was dead.
Two nights ago, we’d romped the night away in her condo, then talked about a Fall cruise through the Greek islands. It had been her idea, and I’d said yes. We’d already taken a Spring trip I’d planned. A baseball tour along the East Coast, catching games in Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, and New York. Pamela didn’t like baseball, but went in all the way, buying Orioles and Nationals jerseys, before deciding that the red and white Phillies uniform complemented her complexion. By the time we hit Yankee Stadium, she was spitting sunflower seeds like a veteran catcher in the bullpen.
Then last night...
The weekend was to be a romantic getaway without even leaving town. A client I’d once walked on a marijuana possession-with-intent-to-distribute charge worked in P.R. for the Fontainebleau and got us the Sorrento Penthouse gratis. We’d had dinner at Prime 112, the steakhouse favored by NBA teams and hotshot lawyers. In between the first martini and the $30 shrimp cocktail, I’d gotten a call from Barry Samchick, my accountant. He’d been doing my tax returns for 11 years but had never before called on a Saturday night.
“Your trust accounts are screwed up, Jake.”
I felt a burning ingot the pit of my gut. It’s news every lawyer dreads. Trust accounts hold customers’ money...excuse me, clients’ money. The Florida Bar will punch your ticket for messing around with dough that doesn’t belong to you, even if you’ve just “borrowed” it for a few days to pay your secretary or your bookie.
“Screwed up how, Barry? You saying money’s missing?”
“Just the opposite. One account has too much. Carlos Castillo’s. Not a lot, but everything’s got to balance to the penny.”
I was breathing easier. “Zero it out and transfer the excess to my operating account.”
“That’s what I thought until I looked at the other accounts.”
“Shit. They’re out of balance, too?”
“No, but when I downloaded the backup documents from Great Southern Bank, I saw lots of electronic transfers back-and-forth to banks in the Caymans. Do you maintain accounts there?”
“Who do you think I am, Mitt Romney? Of course not.”
“The amounts shipped out and sent back were identical. They all balanced, except for the one where too much money came back in.”
It had made no sense. I was the only one with the password for electronic transfers. The only other person who even dealt with my trust accounts was my personal banker. Personal with a capital “P.” As in Pamela. The woman I had been wining dining, and banging. And maybe even adoring. The woman now dead on the floor.
“Would you like a glass of water?” Barrios asked.
“Uncuff him,” Barrios ordered a uniformed cop.
When my hands were free, I massaged my wrists and drained the glass of water Barrios handed me. “Am I under arrest?”
“Like my marital life, it’s complicated, Jake. Beach Patrol might book you for resisting arrest. But for the homicide, no.”
“Not yet,” I thought, trying to read his mind.
“So I can leave?”
“Why not help yourself out first and talk about what happened here?”
Screw that. He hadn’t answered my question. If the law were a frozen pond, Barrios stood on a thin patch of ice. If I’d been under arrest, he would have read my rights before interrogating me. But he had skated past the question, implying I could leave, but maybe I should just stick around a chat a while to help myself out.
I always tell my clients to clam up. There’s a poster on my office wall that reproduces a couple lines from Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American.”
“I never like giving information to the police. It saves them trouble.”
Cops are not your friends, I tell my clients. They are trained to trap you, so don’t answer their questions, no matter how politely they ask. Anything you say can and will be used against you. Here’s a wrinkle in the law that’s reason enough to keep your mouth shut. Incriminating statements are admissible. But anything helpful you tell the cops is hearsay and won’t be repeated in court.
Then there’s the problem of the blabbermouth client. Sometimes an innocent client will often stretch the truth or tell innocuous lies to make the story better. In court, the prosecutor will haul out the sledgehammer.
“If the defendant lied about what color Jockeys he was wearing, how can you trust him about anything?”
So, after due consideration, despite knowing all this from more than 20 years dealing with cops and prosecutors, I turned to the veteran homicide detective and said, “Sure, George. What do you want to know?”
The Nine Steps of Convicting Yourself
Detective Barrios escorted me onto a balcony the size of a basketball court. The balcony overlooked the Atlantic on one side and the Intercoastal on the other. Sixteen hours earlier, Pamela and I had kissed at the railing, the ocean breeze warm and salty.
Barrios and I hadn’t even sat down when the door opened and a woman in a short turquoise tennis dress and matching headband joined us. Emilia Vazquez was Chief of Major Crimes in the State Attorney’s office. Probably the best prosecutor between Miami and Orlando. Tall and leggy, she had a sculpted jawline that looked damn good in profile in front of the jury box. I’d tried several cases against her, winning a couple and losing several more. I’d also played tennis against her and had never won a set. A decade ago, I’d also dated her for several months. It ended without shouts or tears; it just ended.
Today, I figured she got a call while rushing the net down at Flamingo Park, at 13th and Michigan, ruining her Sunday morning doubles match.
“Emilia, I’m glad to see you,” I said.
“Are you?” She tucked a stray strand of hair under the headband and studied me through dark eyes, as hard as obsidian.
“I want you to find whoever did this.”
“I’m sure you do.”
I didn’t like the way she said it. Her tone wasn’t sarcastic so much as flat and mechanical.
“She had a guy stalking her. An ex-boyfriend.”
“Crowder. We know all about him and we’re checking him out.”
“Well, that’s a start.”
“Now, let’s see how much you can help us, Jake.”
Emilia tried to maneuver me into a seat at a glass breakfast table, so that I would be looking into the morning sun. I stutter-stepped and settled into a chair looking south along the beach with a slice of the Intercoastal on the far side of Collins Avenue. Barrios sat directly across from me, which meant he would start the interrogation. Emilia sat at a 90-degree angle to my right so that my eyes would have to swing back and forth, never being able to see them both simultaneously.
That unnerves some people. Not me. As a trial lawyer, I’m an actor on a stage in-the-round, so I’m not bothered by folks staring into my ears or at my butt, should they be so inclined. But this was different. These weren’t spectators judging my performance. These were suspicious bloodhounds.
“You and the decedent checked in yesterday at 4:25 p.m.,” Barrios began, without consulting his notes. “You got yourself comped on a two thousand dollar a night suite.”
“That a crime?” I was staring at the digital recorder Barrios had placed on the table, thinking I ought to go light on the sarcasm. What I really should do was shut up. No one has ever talked a cop into believing he is innocent.
“You asked the concierge to book an 8 o’clock reservation at Prime 112. Then you called room service and ordered a bottle of Cristal and stone crab appetizers for two. The waiter set up the order on the balcony off the second floor master bedroom. The decedent drank the champagne. You had two beers from the refrigerator.”
“You sure it wasn’t the other way around?”
“Only if those lipstick stains on the champagne glass were yours.”
While the techs had been swabbing and dusting and clicking photos, Detective Barrios had been doing his homework, and I had been sweating.
“You used the Jacuzzi,” he continued. “Had sex. Showered, dressed and caught a cab in front of the hotel at 7:42 p.m. The decedent was wearing the same outfit as when she was killed.”
I was supposed to be impressed, but it wasn’t working. There were security cameras at the valet parking kiosk that would have picked us up getting into the cab. The tapes would show the time and what Pamela was wearing.
As for the Jacuzzi, those were just assumptions, probably from the wet towels. Except it had just been me. Pamela declined, saying she didn’t want to ruin her hair. But there’d been no sex, despite my hopes for romps both before and after dinner. As it turned out, we didn’t have time before going to Prime 112. After dinner, there was plenty of time, but we’d been squabbling instead of canoodling. So, Lieutenant Columbo just screwed the pooch on that one. Had he just been guessing?
“This sex we had,” I said to the detective. “Was it good for me?”
He looked at me with tired eyes. “That’s pretty flippant for someone whose girlfriend was just murdered.”
“Lover. Pam was my lover. I’m too old for girlfriends.”
Emilia leaned forward and exhaled a little puff of air. I’d almost forgotten she was there. “You don’t seem overly upset by her death.” She sounded personally offended.
“You have no idea how I feel, Emilia. But I know where you two are coming from.”
“Step one of the nine steps of interrogation. Positive Confrontation. You’re showing me you already have all this stuff, and I’m supposed to wonder what else you have.”
“What do you think we have?” Barrios said, resuming control. He probably preferred the prosecutor to keep quiet. Her turn would come in court.
“Credit card records from the restaurant,” I said. “You’ll know what we ate and drank and how big a tip I left. You probably already woke up the maître d’ who told you that we argued at the table.”
“As did your server and the couple next to you who ordered Kobe beefsteak for two.”
Showing off again, I thought.
“You continued arguing in the cab on the way back to the hotel and right through the front door into the lobby.”
And all this time I thought doormen were supposed to be discreet.
“The security camera at the front door picked up your body language, and it doesn’t take a lip reader to de-code what the decedent said to you.”
“Millions of couples argue every day, but damn few kill each other.”
“‘Fuck you, Jake.’ That’s what she said as you came into the hotel.”
“If I killed every woman who told me the same thing, I’d be in the books with Jack the Ripper.”
“Do you frequently compare yourself to a serial killer who preyed on women?” Emilia broke in.
“I was making a joke.”
“As usual, an inappropriate one.”
“Is this gonna get personal? Between you and me, I mean?”
Emilia gritted her teeth. Or maybe her jaw muscles just danced like that whenever she was in her tough prosecutor mold. “Your girlfriend. Excuse me, your lover has just been murdered, and you’re cracking jokes.”
“It’s a defense mechanism, okay? It’s the way I deal with loss.”
“C’mon, Jake. I know you. You have a hard bark, and if you have any heart, it’s packed in concrete.”
“Absolutely untrue. And pretty damn offensive, too.”
In truth, I was forcing myself not to think about Pam. Trying to postpone the pain in order to concentrate. If I allowed myself to think about her, feel the heat of her breath, hear the chimes of her laugh, I could not fend off the cross-examining detective. An even deeper truth was that I cared for her. Deeply and more all the time. The relationship was going somewhere. I respected Pam’s intelligence and accomplishments. What made our argument last night so painful was the feeling of betrayal. I had trusted her with my clients’ money. What had she done? Then there was my own guilt for the failure to protect her. A wave of conflicting emotions.
“Jake, tell us what you and Ms. Baylins argued about,” Barrios said. Double-teaming me.
“Why don’t you ask the cab driver? Or the maître ‘de. Or that couple eating the Kobe steak.”
“We know it had to do with your bank accounts. You accused Ms. Baylins of mishandling your accounts. She accused you of stealing from clients. Is that about it?”
“I’ve never stolen from a client.”
“So you must have been indignant at the allegation?”
“I’d be furious.”
I smiled at that. We’d just moved to step two. Theme Development. It’s where the cop looks through the eyes of the suspect and tries to establish a common bond. The cop empathizes and gains the suspect’s trust. Maybe he even says something stripping away all blame from the suspect: “Hell, who could blame a man for killing a woman who did that?”
“I don’t steal from my clients. And I don’t kill my lovers, okay George?”
“But you have a temper, Jake. You can’t deny that.”
Wow. That was fast. Step three. Stopping Denials. In cop school, they teach them to interrupt all denials. They don’t want the suspect to become wedded to his story, because that will make it harder to get to step nine of the solid gold interrogation: The Confession.
“I don’t have a temper,” I said.
Emilia barked out a little laugh. “I remember bar fights. Jeez, one was poolside of the Hyatt at the Bar convention.”
“That’s three times, Emilia.”
“Your personal attacks. First, I have an inappropriate sense of humor. Next, no heart so I can’t feel pain. Now, you’re practically testifying about my alleged violence.”
“Facts are facts.”
“C’mon, let’s get it out on the table!” I snapped.
She fiddled with a turquoise wristband. Terry cloth to catch the sweat in a heated tennis match. But just now, I was the one sweating. “Get what out, Jake?”
“Ah jeez. You and me. Our past.”
“Go on.” Gesturing toward the tape recorder. “Say what you have to say.”
“We were...how shall I put this? Involved?”
She shook her head. “Overstates the case.”
“Such a quaint term, Jake. Images of ice cream sundaes and Saturday afternoon movies.”
Barrios leaned back in his chair. No way he wanted a piece of this.
“Okay, we weren’t involved,” I said. We weren’t even dating. We were...?”
“Fucking, Jake. We fucked off and on.”
Call me old-fashioned, but I recoil when a smart, olive-skinned beauty with a dozen years of parochial school and a law degree from Georgetown–a place crawling with Jesuits–drops the F-bomb.
“Whatever you call it, Emilia, you can’t be objective about me.”
“It was ten years ago, Jake. The statute of limitations has expired.”
Next she’d be saying she didn’t remember it. But I did. And she was downplaying the relationship. There were some blissful days and steamy nights. So why didn’t it amount to more? Emilia was so damn competitive. And truth be told, so was I. She didn’t try to mold herself to my needs, nor I to hers. Compromise was not in either of our vocabularies. We each liked to win, not to tie.
Pamela Baylins was the opposite. She folded herself into my life, easy and acquiescent. Restaurants, movies, trips. “Whatever you want to do, Jake.”
With Pamela, you got what she figured you wanted her to be. Which meant, now that her apparent thievery came to light, I really didn’t know her at all. She was so unlike Emilia, who was combative and challenging, the living embodiment of a Helen Reddy song.
“I am Woman, hear me roar.”
Like any good trial lawyer, Emilia loved to argue. But unlike some, she couldn’t leave it in the courthouse.
“Our brief time together is legally irrelevant,” Emilia said now. “Hell, it was irrelevant at the time.”
“Not to me,” I said, honestly. “And that means you shouldn’t be interrogating me.”
“Who’s interrogating? You’re giving a voluntary statement and you’re free to go at any time. Do you want to go, Jake? Do you want a lawyer? A beer? Anything?”
“Face it. You have a conflict of interest, Emilia.”
“Why? I thought you were just a witness. Are you saying you’re a suspect?”
“You and your damn lawyer games. This is why we didn’t get along.”
“We got along fine, Jake as long as all we did was fuck after Happy Hour.”
That word again, coming from those full, seductive lips. The Trevi Fountain, spouting piss.
“I didn’t realize it until now, but you’re steamed because I stopped seeing you.”
“So I want to frame you for murder?”
“For the record, you didn’t stop seeing me. I dropped you when I met that English professor from Boca.”
“The cross dresser?”
She slammed her hand down on the table and the recorder toppled over. “He was playing ‘Tootsie’ in Regional Theater.”
I turned to Detective Barrios. “Is this what you two cooked up? Good cop, insane cop?”
He gave me a little smile as if he’d just solved a Brinks’ hijacking. “You ask me, you two are made for each other.”
“Oh, please, detective.” Emilia shot Barrios a look that could leave bruises.
“I mean it. The scent of arousal is in the air.”
“I’m not gonna answer any more questions with her here,” I said.
Emilia stood and threw her hands up in surrender. “In order to make Mr. Lassiter comfortable, I’ll leave.”
Good. I’d rather face one inquisitor than two.
She nodded to Barrios and started for the balcony door. Little turquoise balls were fastened to the top of her tennis socks and bounced over the back of her sneakers.
When she reached the door, she turned to me. “I can re-assign the case to Abe Socolow, Jake.”
“Great. I’ve kicked his ass in court so many times, he brings a pillow to court.”
“Or how about Abby Press? She’s new to major crimes, but she’s fair and honest.”
“You know damn well I dated Abby for a year.”
“Ended badly, didn’t it? Problem is, Jake, you’ve left a trail of damage wherever you go.”
“Pick whoever you want, Emilia. The best you’ve got, because I didn’t do this.”
“Did you love her?”
“Pamela, you idiot!”
“Is that a personal or professional question?”
“Screw you, Jake!”
“I cared for her. She was my lady. We had potential together. I didn’t kill her, and I damn well want you to nail the bastard who did.”
“I promise to do exactly that, Jake,” Emilia said. “Nail the bastard. Even if it’s you.”
When the balcony door closed behind Emilia Vazquez, George Barrios gave me a half-smile and a little shrug.
Ah, women, he seemed to be saying.
Now, it was just the two of us guys. But the savvy detective simply picked up where my ex-whatever-she-was left off.
“Emilia’s right about that temper of yours,” he said, evenly.
“No way, George.”
“C’mon, Jake. You have a propensity for violence.”
“A propensity, is it?”
“I remember when you got arrested for slugging a cop.”
“A case of mistaken identity,” I said.
“Bullshit. That was you.”
“Yeah, but when I hit him, I didn’t know he was a cop.”
“As a lawyer, your reputation is pretty rough.”
“You’re a killer in the courtroom.”
“Hey George, they don’t call us sharks for our ability to swim.”
Barrios made a notation in his little notebook. Maybe I’d said something inculpatory. Or maybe he was reminding himself to buy a gallon of milk on the way home.
“Last night, you got back to the hotel just after 10 p.m. Did you go straight to your suite?”
“Pam wasn’t in the mood for the Boom Boom Room.”
“Boom Boom’s been closed for decades, Jake.”
“Why wasn’t I informed? I was hoping to see Sinatra.”
“Later, you left the suite.”
“Obviously. The kid who thinks he’s Michael Phelps found me on the beach.”
“What time did you leave the hotel?”
That was true. I’d had too much to drink and had argued too long with Pam. But even if I knew the time, my answer would have been the same. I was in dangerous territory, treading carefully. If the M.E. established time of death earlier than my departure from the suite, I’d be screwed. And I had as much faith in those T.O.D. calculations as I do in a two-week weather forecast.
“C’mon, Jake,” Barrios prompted me. “You must have some idea. How long were you back in the room before you left?”
He really wanted to pin me down, and I wanted to squirm away. “No idea, George.”
“Why’d you leave in the middle of the night?”
“I didn’t say it was the middle of the night.”
“Okay. Whenever you left, why? Were you still arguing?”
I could deny it, but the scratches on my face would reveal that lie. For all I know, guests in the adjoining suite might have heard us, too.
“We had words,” I admitted.
“Care to share some of those words?”
“Same stuff you’ve already heard. The trust accounts.”
“But why’d you leave?” Barrios hammered again.
“I’d been drinking. A lot. We both had. Best I recall, I wanted to walk on the beach, clear my head.”
“Were you afraid of what you might do to Pam?”
“As I recall, Pam suggested I take off for a while, get some air.”
“So was she afraid what you’d do if you stayed in the suite?”
“Aw, jeez, George. You gotta know better than that.”
“What about your belt? Why’d you leave that in the room?”
“I don’t remember taking it off. Maybe I was getting ready for bed, then decided to leave for a while.”
“Did you strike Pam with the belt?”
“Of course not.”
“Wrap it around her throat?”
“Way too early for that question. You haven’t even softened me up yet.”
“Maybe you didn’t intend to kill her. Scare her a bit is all. Convince her to keep her mouth shut about your bank accounts.”
“Where’d you learn your interrogation skills, George? Law & Order?”
“How’d you get those marks on your face?” he fired right back.
“Pam slapped me.”
“A combo slap and scratch. The way a cat swipes with its paws.”
“Had you hit her first?”
“My Granny taught me a long time ago that only a low-life scumsucker hits a woman.”
“So that’s a no?”
“A hell no!”
The book tells them to try and overcome my denials, after which the cop would become my pal and help me out. Then I would be expected to lose my resolve, which I’d show by dropping my head into my hands, maybe even crying. Barrios would pat me on the back and offer alternative motives, one of which would be understandable and maybe even socially acceptable, the other one morally repugnant. I would be expected to choose the acceptable motive – he wouldn’t care as long as I admitted the killing – and he could sharpen his pencil for a signed confession. I sure as hell wasn’t going that route.
“Did you push or shove her?” Barrios demanded.
“Grab her hard?”
“I never touched her.”
“Then you must have said something to provoke her to scratch you like that.”
“I’m sure I did.”
“What did you say?”
I dug up the memory. Back in the suite after dinner. Drinking, arguing.
“Dammit, Pam. What games are you playing with the money?”
“It wasn’t me!”
"First thing in the morning, we’re going over the accounts with Barry Samchick, and you better have some damn good explanations.”
“I’ll find the State Attorney on the first tee at Riviera and get your ass fired.”
“Try it. And first thing Monday, I’ll sue your ass for slander.”
I wouldn’t repeat that to Barrios. The argument with Pamela gave me two motives for murder. If Pamela was the thief: rage. If I was thief: avoiding detection. Heads, I’m guilty. Tails, I’m screwed and tattooed. I’d already said too much and felt as tense as a man juggling hand grenades.
“I’m gonna exercise my right to remain silent from here on out.” I looked toward the Intercoastal, where a shiny white sport fisherman in the 50-foot range was heading toward open water. I wanted to be on board.
Barrios stayed quiet. I hadn’t asked for a lawyer, so there was no legal requirement to stop pestering me. We sat, feeling the breeze and the listening to the caw of sea birds.
“Jake, let’s try again,” Barrios said, after a moment. “Back in the suite, you were arguing and--”
”Forget it, George. I’m done. Either arrest me or let me go home.” I stood and he didn’t tell me to sit back down. “And in case you don’t know it, you were wrong about something. I didn’t have sex with Pam yesterday.”
For the first time, Barrios looked confused. What the hell had I hit on?
“Sex with Pam was pretty damn memorable, so yeah George, I’m sure.”
“Are you a jealous man, Jake?”
“No, I don’t think so. Why?”
“Maybe I’ve been wrong about motive.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“When’s the last time you had sex with Ms. Baylins?”
It was suddenly clear. The Medical Examiner had already performed a preliminary physical examination. I said, “You thought we had sex because the M.E. found semen in her vagina, didn’t he?”
“He thinks so. It has to be tested in the lab.”
“Well, it isn’t mine.”
“Okay, let’s assume that’s true.”
“Isn’t it obvious then?” I said, excitedly. “You’ve got a rapist murderer!”
“Nothing disturbed in the room. No forced entry. No bruising or abrasions or defensive wounds. No evidence of any struggle. No signs of trauma on the victim, other than the strangulation itself. Almost certainly, it was consensual sex.”
“Obviously, I assumed it was you,” Barrios said. “But if it wasn’t, and if you found out she was having sex with someone else...”
"With that temper of yours, well, that could be your motive for murder.”