Authors: J. F. Freedman
Above the Law
To Georgia Rose Freedman
Your arrival into this world changed my life forever
HE TELEPHONE RANG. RIVA
answered it. “Luke,” she called. “It’s for you.”
“You the fella looking t’buy a vintage Triumph motorcycle in decent to excellent running condition?” It was a man’s voice, old-sounding, rheumy, wheezy. Decades of cigarettes and cheap whiskey had gone into fine-tuning that voice, which had a mocking tone on the “decent to excellent” part.
I felt a quick heartbeat skip, but I didn’t want to get too worked up—I’d drilled this well a couple times already, but the holes had been dry.
My old ride had been trashed a few years back by someone who didn’t like what I was doing, which was defending a very unpopular man on a murder charge. That my client ultimately wasn’t guilty of the crime for which he was charged didn’t bring my bike back to life. But what with getting married and having my son and all, I hadn’t done anything about replacing it. Now, with my life settled into a comfortably predictable existence, I wanted to straddle two wheels again, if only on the weekends. I live in Santa Barbara, but nothing available here turned me on. So last week I placed ads in the
L.A. Times, Long Beach Telegram,
San Fernando Valley Daily News:
Wanted: Vintage Triumph Bonneville motorcycle. In decent to excellent running condition, or capable of being restored at a reasonable price.
I had some responses the first couple of days the ad ran, but either the price was too high or the motorcycles needed too much work. What I’d thought would be an easy transaction was becoming increasingly frustrating.
“Yes, that’s me,” I answered, probably too eagerly. The price just went up a couple hundred, I thought, but what the hell.
“Ain’t got one.” A kind of chuckle-wheeze-phlegmy cough. The connection wasn’t great, so it was most likely not as bad as it sounded, but this was not a well man.
Ah, well. Life’s full of little jokes.
“Thanks for calling,” I told the prankster. Maybe he was an old shut-in, this could have been the high point of his day. Maybe even his week. I started to hang up.
“Got a Vincent.”
The receiver was halfway to its cradle, but I heard that.
“Black Shadow, ’53. She runs smooth, I ain’t jerking yer chain.”
I brought the receiver back to my ear. I didn’t immediately reply, because now I was discombobulated. I was actually tingling, as if I’d stuck my finger in a light socket. Except for an ancient Harley I’d had as a kid, which threatened to snap my ankle every time I kick-started it, I’ve always owned British motorcycles, mostly Triumphs. It’s the feel, I can’t explain it. Like preferring blondes over brunettes, strawberry over butter pecan.
I’d been looking for a replacement for my old Triumph, a great old motorcycle for its time, but not the stuff of legends. This guy was talking about a legend. In its day this was the fastest, meanest, coolest motorcycle in the world, the motorcycle of every James Dean wanna-be’s dreams. They were the most expensive bikes of their time, and there hadn’t been many of them made, which made each one valuable and special.
I had only seen a few Black Shadows in my lifetime, in motorcycle museums. Now here’s some old guy telling he’s got one that runs, and he’s willing to sell it?
“You still there?”
“Yes,” I answered hurriedly, before he hung up. I had no phone number for this character, nothing. If I lost this connection, it could be lost forever.
“So you want to look at ’er, or what?” Spoken with an edge, a throwing down of the gauntlet: Are you man enough for a machine of this magnitude, both physically and spiritually?
I hitched a rental trailer to my old truck and headed southeast. End of September, early autumn, the beginning of the best time of year in California. Balmy, dry days, cool nights. When the weather’s this good, it’s hard to roust myself out of bed and go to the office in the morning; I want to lie on the beach with my wife, Riva, and Bucky, our two-year-old, hike up Figueroa Mountain, cruise the bookstores, in the shank of a twilight evening sit outside on the patio of one of the beachfront restaurants, drink margaritas with like-minded friends, and watch the melting sun die into the ocean.
Occasionally I’ll take half a day off, jump on the golf course (my game is pathetic), or play with Riva and Bucky in the waves off Butterfly Beach. Once or twice a month, that’s about all I’ll allow myself. I can work as much or as little as I want, I’m a lawyer practicing solo, I answer to no one as far as my business is concerned; but I’m a lifer workaholic. Except for a brief hiatus when I left Santa Barbara under a cloud of immense funk and fucked off in the northern California forests, smoking weed, drinking good wine, and making love with the woman who would later grace me by becoming my wife, I’ve gone into the office and done the job. I’m reliable, you can set your watch by me. Everyone who knows me or knows of me (which is just about everyone in Santa Barbara who’s in the loop), both from the years when I was the district attorney here, to now, as a lawyer specializing in criminal defense, knows they can count on me. Which can be a burden sometimes, but it’s my burden, so I bear it. Generally with decent enough goodwill.
Over the last year and a half, though, pushing that metaphorical rock up the mountain’s gotten harder. I’ve been losing passion. Not for the big picture—life’s better than it’s ever been. For my work. It’s been a gradual thing, an erosion of faith in the law as it’s happening in America today. It’s not the people I represent. They’re criminals, of course, almost all of them—that’s a given. You don’t hire a defense attorney and pay him good money unless you’re in trouble, and if you’re in trouble, it’s usually because you’ve done something wrong. There aren’t a lot of innocent people in jail, forget all those country-western songs. And I am a diamond-hard believer that a good defense for all is one of the best things about this country. But the line is becoming too blurred between what’s right and what’s wrong, to the point where almost nothing is “right” or “wrong.” Things have become so “situational”—one of those words modern psychologists love to use—that people convince not only themselves, but plenty of others, that virtually anything is justifiable, up to and including murder.
What started my feeling this way was a notorious incident that occurred here in Santa Barbara, three years ago. I defended a man accused of kidnapping and murdering the fourteen-year-old daughter of a prominent local family. I got the case by default; no decent criminal lawyer in the city would take it, because of the awfulness of it, and because the girl’s parents were big movers and shakers and no one wanted to offend them or bring them any more pain. I was dragooned down from my retreat up north and talked into looking into this morass, then finally, with great reluctance, signed on, more because of personal demons I needed to exorcise than the specifics of the case, which were truly terrible.
The trial was sensational, a classic Roman circus. At one point all three major network anchormen, as well as senior reporters from CNN, CNBC, and Court TV, were in Santa Barbara, reporting on it live. One of those media mosh pits that wind up being more important than the trials themselves. It took a lot of focusing and discipline not to get sucked into the giddy maelstrom in which everyone involved—defendant, lawyers, family members—became an instant celebrity and lost all sense of proportion and reality. I managed to restrain my baser instincts in that regard; most of the time. Riva, a practical and forceful woman, is good about stopping me from stepping in my own shit.
It was touch and go until the end, but I got my client off. Since he was innocent of the crime of which he’d been accused, that was a good thing. But that was all he was innocent of; he’d done so many bad things around the periphery, that had made the young girl’s death almost inevitable, that he was almost an accomplice. Morally and ethically he was; by my sense of morality, anyway. I’m old-fashioned that way. I’m forty-seven years old and in some ways I’m from another time. It’s inconvenient for a lot of people, but it’s a quality I hope I never lose.
The upshot was, I’ve been drifting away from straight criminal law, which had been my life’s work on both sides of the aisle. Riva and I had long discussions about it. What did I really believe in, what did I want to do, where did I see my future heading? Where did I want to be in five years?
I didn’t know those answers. I knew I needed to do something different, but not so different that I was throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Fortunately, I was in good shape financially. The father of the murdered girl had sent me a huge check when the trial was over—he had offered a reward for finding out who had killed his daughter, and in defending my own client I had discovered who that was. I had qualms about taking his money, but he’d been so ugly in his conduct toward me before the truth was ultimately revealed that in the end I accepted the reward, as compensation for the grief he’d caused me. I’m no psychiatrist, but I think that my taking his money absolved him of some of his own guilt, in that his ex-wife, his child’s mother, had turned out to be the murderer.
My compromise regarding my work was to branch out into less stressful areas—environmental law, personal injury, class action, things that came across my desk that seemed reasonable, not boilerplate boring, and covered my nut. Still good cases, but the kind you can leave on your desk at the end of the day. Because of my new notoriety, a fair amount of work was coming from out of town, L.A. and San Francisco. Those cases pay really good money, so finances weren’t an issue. But practicing law wasn’t my life anymore. It was part of my life, but it wasn’t my life.
Which is the long and short of why I was going to the desert to buy another motorcycle.
The owner of the Vincent lived in the high desert outside of Joshua Tree, half a day’s drive from Santa Barbara. He’d sent me a Polaroid; it looked okay, but who could tell for sure? The picture could be ten years old. But it was good enough to send me out on the road.
I cruised down Highway 101, the ocean on my right, surfers out in force at Rincon and around the piers south of Mussel Shoals When I’d first come back to this area, I’d surf those spots as well as up north at Hollister Ranch, a real surfing mecca, but during that trial I mentioned, someone tried to kill me while I was out on the water. It was scary, the most frightened I’ve ever been in my life—the closest to dying. You don’t forget something like that, it’s indelible in the deepest levels of your unconscious, even though rationally you know it will never happen again. But rationality and what’s in your gut are two different things, entirely.
What happened that night turned me off surfing, which is too bad, it’s one of the greatest pleasures in the world, but the painful memories got in the way. I tried it once, some months afterward. I stood at the water’s edge, and I couldn’t go out. I was anchored to the shore, no wind in my sails. So I had to let it go. Now I swim inside the buoys, with my boy.
At Ventura I cut inland, through Santa Paula, Fillmore, Piru, at Valencia dropping down on Interstate 5 past Magic Mountain for a short run, then east again, Highway 14 to Highway 18, the signposts along the way flashing by through my grimy windshield, then it was dry, open country, cactus and sagebrush, the two-lane blacktop leading me into the shimmering distance, my companions on the road eighteen-wheelers, Highway Patrol Dodges, locals making their way from one small town to another, Canadian snowbirds in their blocky motor homes coming south for the winter. About the time the sun peaked, it was beginning to blow hard, a hot, dry wind, swirling dust against my windows and tumbleweeds into my bumper and radiator. The Santa Ana season had started the week before all over southern and central California, hot, strong gusts coming at forty or more miles an hour out of the northeast. Fire season. At home we’d had two bad fires already this summer, and the prediction was for several more weeks of the same risky situation. Out here, there’s nothing to burn, so it’s more an irritation than a life-threatening situation. I drove through it, the windows in the truck rolled up tight, the aftermarket air conditioner I’d installed huffing and puffing like an asthmatic.