1 A Brew and Burger Guy
Eight days earlier . . .
When the hot brunette in the tight black skirt waltzed into the courtroom, I was cross-examining a stubborn cop who wouldn't agree to "good morning."
"Isn't it true my client passed the field sobriety test?" I asked him.
"No, sir. He couldn't walk a straight line."
"Just how wide is that line, Officer?"
The cop shrugged, bunching the muscles of his neck. "Never measured it."
He smirked at me. "It's imaginary."
"Really?" Pretending to be surprised. "And how long's that imaginary line of yours? Six feet? A mile? What?"
"I guess you could say it's infinite."
The brunette shimmied into a front-row seat, tugged the hem of her skirt, then fixed me with a look as friendly as an indictment.
"So, my client stepped off an imaginary line, which has an infinite length and an indefinite width. An invisible line. Is that your testimony?"
"Not at all. I can see it."
"You can see imaginary lines." I paused. "So you're delusional?"
The cop's eyes flicked toward the prosecutor. Help. But he didn't get any.
"Officer . . . ?" I prompted him.
"I'm trained and experienced. I've arrested hundreds of drunk drivers in the last-"
"I'm sure you have," I interrupted. "Now, what other imaginary objects do you see?"
"None I can think of."
"No, sir," he said, through gritted teeth.
"Not even a chupacabra crawling out of the Everglades?"
"Objection!" Harold Flagler III, the young pup of a prosecutor, belatedly hopped to his feet.
"Grounds?" Judge Wallace Philbrick asked.
"Mr. Lassiter is badgering the witness."
"It's my job to badger the witness," I fired back.
"Judge Philbrick," Flagler whined.
"I get paid to badger the witness."
"Your Honor, please admonish-"
"C'mon, Flagler. Didn't they teach you trial tactics at Yale?"
"Mr. Lassiter!" Judge Philbrick wagged a bony finger at me. "Address your remarks to the court, not opposing counsel."
"I apologize, Your Honor." Sounding so sincere I nearly believed myself.
I swung around, as if pondering my next question. In truth, I wanted a good look at the woman in the gallery. Slender with military school posture, an angular jawline, and a somber expression. Tucked into her pencil skirt was a silk blouse, red as blood, with those big, puffy sleeves, as if she might be hiding an Ace of Hearts, or maybe a derringer. Chin tilted up, she stared me down.
I gave her a quick, crinkly grin and looked for any hint of interest. No inviting eyes or playful smile. Nada. Maybe if I wowed her in closing argument, she'd lighten up and slip me her phone number.
Occasionally, I get a groupie or two. Women attracted to a big lug with a craggy profile, a broken nose, and hair the color of sawgrass after a drought. Two hundred thirty-five pounds of ex-linebacker crammed into an off-the-rack, wrinkled brown suit. A brew-and-burger guy in a Chardonnay-and-paté world. I wrapped up my cross-exam, while sneaking peeks at our visitor. She pulled something out of her purse. I walked toward the rail and saw it was a photo, but I couldn't make out any details.
Flagler stood, fondled his Phi Beta Kappa key, and announced the great State of Florida rested its case.
My turn. No way would I let the presumably innocent Pepito Dominguez testify. He was a twenty-year-old smart-ass with a diamond earring and a barbed-wire tattoo circling his neck. With no witnesses, I rested, too.
The bailiff tucked the jurors into their windowless room where they could surf for porn on their PDAs, and the judge turned to me. "Mr. Lassiter, Ah assume you got some legal mumbo jumbo for the record." His Honor came from a family of gentleman farmers in Homestead by way of Kentucky, and his voice rippled with bourbon and branch water.
"Motion to exclude the breathalyzer test," I began, going through the motions of making my motions.
"No evidence the operator was properly trained, the equipment properly maintained, and the test properly administered."
Boilerplate stuff. No chance.
"Motion to exclude my client's statements to the arresting officer."
I checked the gallery. Mystery Woman was still there, eyes drilling me.
Who the hell are you?
I'd had multiple concussions on the football field. Still, I thought I remembered all my disgruntled ex-clients and infuriated ex- girlfriends. Maybe she was a Florida Bar investigator, building a case against me for yet another insult to the dignity of the court. Or maybe just one of those women with bloodlust. You see them at boxing matches and bullfights and murder trials. Not usually a rinky-dink DUI.
At the next break, I intended to plop down beside her. If she didn't serve me with a subpoena, I might ask her out for a drink.
"Motion for directed verdict. Do you want to hear argument, Judge?"
"About as much as Ah want to hit Dixie Highway during rush hour."
"For the record, I'd like to state my grounds."
"You can pour syrup on a turd, but that don't make it a pancake. Got any more motions you want denied, Mr. Lassiter?"
"I'm plumb out." Adopting a Southern accent of my own. Judge Philbrick peered at me over his spectacles, wondering if I was mocking him.
At the prosecution table, Flagler gave me his Ivy League snicker. If I wanted, I could dangle him out the window by his ankles. But then, I'd been picking up penalties for late hits while he was singing tenor with the Whiffenpoofs. Okay, so I'm not Yale Law Review, but I'm proud of my diploma. University of Miami. Night division. Top half of the bottom third of my class.
"You two want to talk a minute before Ah bring the jury in for closing?" Judge Philbrick picked up a cell phone and wheeled around in his chair to give us some privacy.
Flagler sidled up to me and said, "Perhaps it is a propitious time to discuss a deal."
"If my client wanted to plead guilty, he wouldn't need me."
"We could recess, have a latte downstairs, and work it out."
"I don't drink latte, with or without a hint of nutmeg."
"If I win, I'm asking for jail time."
Shaking his head, Flagler returned to the prosecution table and picked up his neatly printed note cards. The jurors filed back in, and Judge Philbrick ordered them to listen carefully to closing arguments, but to rely on their own memories, not those of the lying shysters. Actually, he said "learned counsel," but everybody knew what he meant.
I glanced toward the gallery. Yep, the woman was still there in the front row. I gave her a neighborly nod. She took it and gave nothing back.
Flagler bowed obsequiously to the judge and thanked the jury for leaving their fascinating jobs and coming to the courthouse in the service of justice.
Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.
After twenty minutes, he sat down and I stood up. "How did my client blow a point-six when stopped by the police officer but only a point- zero-nine at the station?"
Judging from their blank looks, math was not the jurors' favorite subject.
"I'll tell you how," I continued. "There's no way! At point-six, my client's breath could have ignited charcoal in a hibachi."
Fearing he'd belch beer into the cop's face, my too-damn-clever client had squirted enough Listerine into his mouth to disinfect a knife wound. The mouthwash vaulted the kid's mouth alcohol off the charts, while the blood alcohol test accurately pinned the number at a notch above the lawful limit.
Oftentimes, complete dickwads are undeservedly lucky, while the good get crapped on by life's endless shit storm. So it was with Pepito Dominguez, who inadvertently, but fortuitously, screwed up the alcohol tests.
"If the tests don't fit, you must acquit!" I boomed.
Rest in peace, Johnnie Cochran.
After some more double talk and sleight of hand, I thanked the good citizens for not falling asleep and sat down. The judge recited his instructions, and the bailiff returned the jurors to their little dungeon to deliberate.
I spun through the swinging gate and plopped down next to Mystery Woman. Up close, she had full lips and a flawless complexion, without the hint of foundation, blush, or war paint. Her eyes were green with a touch of a golden sunset, her dark hair pulled straight back and held by a squiggly elastic band. Late twenties or early thirties.
"Hey there." I gave her a lopsided grin that has been known to charm a number of barmaids.
"Hello, Mr. Lassiter." No smile. No warmth. No nothing.
"Have we met before?"
"My name is Amy Larkin."
She waited a moment, as if the name might provoke a reaction. It didn't.
"So what brings you to the courthouse, Amy Larkin?"
"You do, Mr. Lassiter. I need to ask you some questions."
Something in the way she said "questions" convinced me we weren't going to be chatting over Happy Hour.
"Fire away," I said.
She handed me the photo she had been holding. A small cocktail table in front of a stage. Pole dancer in the background. Front and center, two young women in string bikinis were draped over a thick-necked guy with shaggy hair and a bushy mustache the color of beach sand. The Sundance Kid with a shit-eating grin. Young. Cocky. Stupid.
I should know. The guy was me.
Embarrassing to look at now. I was a glassy-eyed drunk in a Dolphins jersey. Number 58. Not even traveling incognito. A red scab ran horizontally across the bridge of my nose. If you make enough helmet- first tackles, your face mask will take divots out of your flesh.
"Long time ago. Birthday party my teammates threw for me," I said. "Where'd you get the picture?"
She ignored my question and shot back her own. "Do you know the girls?"
One of them, a big-boned blonde, had her arms locked around my neck, her enhanced breasts squashed against my chest. The other one was younger. Slender. Auburn hair. Girl-next-door looks. She was kissing my cheek.
"The one with coconut boobs was a stripper. Sonia Something-or-other. She hung around with one of my teammates. I don't know the younger one's name."
I flipped the photo over. On the back, someone had scrawled, "The Whore of Babylon."
"Okay. The girl's name is Krista. We're in a picture together. So what?"
She gave me a look hard enough to leave bruises. "She was my sister."
"Gone meaning dead?"
"Disappeared and presumed dead."
Except for the two of us, the courtroom was empty now and silent as a mausoleum.
"I'm sorry. I'm very sorry to hear that." She studied me through hard, cold eyes. "But what's all this have to do with me?"
"I think you know, Mr. Lassiter."
"No, I don't. So why not stop dancing around and just tell me?"
"You seem agitated, Mr. Lassiter. Why is that?"
"Because you're playing me and you're not very good at it. Where'd you learn your interrogation technique, Law & Order?"
"Why would I need to interrogate you? Have you committed a crime?"
I stood up. "Cut the crap. If you're not going to tell me what's going on-"
"It's quite simple, Mr. Lassiter." Her eyes locked on mine, daring me to leave. "You're the last person who saw Krista alive."
2 Jake the Fixer
I long-legged it down the corridor, Amy Larkin in pursuit. The Justice Building was emptying now, just a few straggling girlfriends and wives of defendants who show up at hearings, some blowing kisses, others hurling insults about unpaid child support and broken promises.
"So you're not going to talk to me, is that it?" Amy raised her voice to my back.
"I don't know anything about your sister's disappearance. Got nothing more to say."
"What happened that night? You can tell me that."
"It was my birthday party. There were some girls. There always were."
I stepped onto the down escalator, Amy right behind.
"It was a long time ago. I don't remember one night from another, one girl from another, okay?"
I hopped off the escalator and turned the corner, coming alongside Joseph Gillespie, proprietor of Let'em Go Joe Bail Bonds. He tipped his Florida Marlins cap and let me pass, so I could hit the next escalator in full stride. Amy Larkin was a step behind. Three more floors, then the lobby, then the parking lot. She was going to be on my tail for a while.
"So you're not interested in clearing your name?" she called after me.
"I don't know what happened to your sister. Hell, I don't even remember her."
"I don't believe you."
"I don't care!"
"Was she just another easy fuck for you?"
Three steps ahead, on the escalator, a young female probation officer turned around and glared at me.
"Did you hurt her?" Amy demanded.
I kept quiet.
"Did you kill her?"
Most people would say, "Hell, no!" But having spent fifteen years asking questions under oath and having read thousands of transcripts, I knew the questions wouldn't end with my simple denial.
Who else was there?
What happened in the strip club that night?
Did you ever see my sister again?
It would be endless, and there would be questions I wouldn't want to answer. Not truthfully, anyway. It was all so long ago. That guy in the picture. It was me, but a different me. Today, I would behave differently. I would be a better man. Or would I?
"Did you know how old Krista was?" Amy pressed me.
Again, I forced myself to keep quiet. It's the same advice I give my clients. Even the innocent ones? Yeah. Because no one is a hundred percent innocent. I wasn't. Not that night.
Amy was still jabbering when we hit the deserted ground floor. The lobby lawyers, guys who scrounge for clients near the elevator bank, had given up for the day.
She grabbed me by the sleeve of my suit coat. "If you had a shred of decency, you'd tell me everything you know." Her voice tight, her pain palpable.
She had that right. A shred of decency was about my ration.
"Walk with me," I said, figuring she wouldn't let up. "But stop pecking at me."
We exited the building on the 12th Street side and crossed into the parking lot. My old Biarritz Eldo was resting under a skinny palm tree at the far end of the lot, by the Miami River. A rust bucket freighter, its top deck covered with used bicycles, was steaming east, toward the ocean, and a distant port in the islands.
"I'm truly sorry about your sister," I said. "And for your pain."
She waited. I wasn't about to tell her everything I knew. But, ignoring my own counsel, I planned to tell her enough to get her off my ass.
"I do remember her." Hell, yes, I thought. Krista would be hard to forget.
Still, Amy waited.
I took a deep breath. I looked Amy Larkin in the eyes. Then I told her the story.
It had been Rusty's idea. Throw his pal a birthday party at Bozo's, a strip club on LeJeune Road near the airport. Not that I objected. I was a free agent, one year out of Penn State, busting my ass to hang on to the Dolphins' roster. Rusty MacLean was a flashy wide receiver with deceptive speed, best known for slanting hard across the middle, his long red hair flapping out of his helmet like flames trailing an engine. He was a bad boy and, of course, women loved him.
Rusty knew the guy who owned Bozo's. Hell, he knew all the guys who owned strip clubs, massage parlors, and peep shows. Rusty paid for the booze and half a dozen strippers. Lap dances included. Anything in the Champagne Room in back was between the stripper and the partygoer. Tips not included.
Rusty had been seeing Sonia What's-her-name for a couple months. He called her his favorite, but that's like Tiger Woods calling a seven- iron his favorite club or his wife his favorite woman. There were plenty more in the bag, when the need arose.
On that night long ago, I remember Rusty swooping down on the table where I sat with Sonia and the new girl. Sonia was all plastic boobs and hair extensions. The kid, Krista, had a sprinkling of freckles and a wide, innocent toothpaste commercial smile. Even toasted, I realized she didn't belong here with a bunch of degenerates like Rusty, my teammates . . . and me.
The offensive line sat at the bar, looking like giant beer kegs on a loading dock. Models of teamwork, the guys maintained their usual positions, the center in the middle of the group, flanked by both guards, and then the tackles. The tight end must have been taking a piss. One of our defensive backs-a showboater, but aren't they all?- was demonstrating his karaoke prowess, with a soulful rendition of "Midnight Train to Georgia." Half a dozen strippers were offering companionship in exchange for tips.
I had just won a drinking game called "Who Shit?" Yeah, I know, very mature. In those days, fueled by testosterone and tequila, I often engaged in clever activities, such as pounding holes in plasterboard with my forehead.
Rusty staggered over, grabbed Krista by the shoulders, and hoisted her out of her chair. "Wanna ride the wild stallion?"
Her body stiffened.
"How old are you, kid?" I asked, realizing she wanted no part of Rusty's rodeo.
"Right. And I'm gonna make All-Pro. Rusty, why not pick on someone old enough to vote. Or at least old enough to drive?"
"Stay out of this, benchwarmer." Rusty slung her onto his back and gave her a horsey ride to the Champagne Room, a dark place separated from the VIP Room by a beaded curtain.
I gave Sonia a look, but she just shrugged.
Rusty will be Rusty.
We left it at that. Rusty was a star, and I was a free agent linebacker, specializing in kamikaze tackles on the kickoff team. My deepest concerns involved running faster and hitting harder. I read the sports pages and the Dolphins' playbook and little else. I was not given to profound thoughts.
A few moments later, I heard a scream from the back.
A man's scream. Rusty yelping, then cursing. The words starting with "motherfucking" and ending with a word that rhymes with "punt." I tore through the beaded curtain and flicked on the lights.
"Bitch stabbed me, Jake!"
Rusty was sprawled naked on the floor. A knife handle protruded from his right buttock, blood seeping around the blade.
"She had a fucking knife in her boot!" Rusty was gasping for air, and I was afraid he was going into shock.
"Calm down, cowboy. We'll get you to Jackson."
"No hospitals, Jake. No police. That doc in Hialeah. Get me there."
The girl was curled in the fetal position in a corner of the sofa. Sobbing. Nude except for one white patent leather boot. She had a bloody lip and her neck was ringed with red marks. Four fingers and a thumb had pressed into her flesh. I could even make out the imprint of Rusty's Super Bowl ring.
"Jesus, Rusty, what the hell did you do to her?"
"I paid for it rough." He hacked up a wet cough. "She knew what she was getting into."
By now, three of our larger teammates had crowded through the doorway. They debated who would take Rusty to Dr. Toraño in Hialeah, finally deciding all of them would go. Offensive linemen believe in teamwork. My job was to take care of the girl, or more accurately, make sure the girl caused no problems for Rusty or the team.
I stripped off my jersey and handed it to her. She put it on, sniffled, and wiped her nose with her arm. "You're not gonna call the cops on me, are you?"
"Why the hell would I do that?"
"I stabbed your friend."
"Knowing Rusty, he deserved it."
She gave me a look, somewhere between relief and disbelief.
"Some women I know would give you a medal," I said. "And trust me, the cops would be worse for Rusty than for you." I opened my wallet and pulled out several twenties.
Jake the Fixer.
I jammed the bills into her hand. Years before I became a night-school lawyer, I was already massaging the justice system. "Everything's gonna be okay."
She touched her neck with one hand, feeling where she had been choked.
"Let's get you cleaned up." I dabbed the blood from her lip with a napkin. Our faces were just inches apart, her green-gold eyes staring into mine.
"I need to get out of here," she said.
"Good idea. Do you have a car?"
"Out of Miami. Out of this . . ." Her gesture took in the stained vinyl sofa, the cheesy nude prints, the entire mildewed, sleaziness of the place. "Can you help me?"
"I'm not a social worker. Come on."
"You're kind of cute. Do you have a girlfriend?"
"Dozens. Now, where do you live? I'm gonna get you a cab."
"Let's go to your place."
"Nope. Too many sharp objects in the kitchen."
"Just for the night."
"And then tomorrow, what?"
"I never worry about tomorrow."
"Poetic. Where do you live?"
"Please. I'll do anything you want." In case I didn't get the point, her tongue darted between painted lips. When I didn't respond, she grabbed my hand and slipped it under the jersey and onto a warm, natural, silken breast. She took my other hand, raised it to her face, and stuck my thumb into her mouth. She sucked it. Hard and with plenty of tongue and slurping sound effects. Subtlety was not the girl's strong suit.
I was tempted. Who the hell wouldn't have been? But I was still thinking about Rusty and cops and curfews and Coach Shula. A human cold shower.
"Not gonna happen, kid," I said.
She pushed my hand out from under the jersey and spit my thumb out of her mouth. "Asshole!"
"Right. Okay, where do you live?"
"Miami Springs, but I don't want to go back there. There's this guy. . . ."
"There usually is," I said. Figuring she lived with some punk. A drug dealer or a pimp.
"An old guy," she continued. "Like almost forty. He pays my rent and wants me to do these gross movies, and-"
"No time for life stories. I'm paying for a cab. You decide where to go."
She looked at me then, her eyes empty and defeated. Another man letting her down. I imagined a father or a stepfather, a creep who did things that pushed her out the door and into a seedy place like this.
But I can't save the world. I can't even save one lost girl.
We didn't exchange another word, and after I tucked her into the cab, I never saw her again.
Excerpted from LASSITER © Copyright 2011 by Paul Levine. Reprinted with permission by Bantam. All rights reserved.