Authors: Claire Matturro
To the Peace River, struggling, like the Florida panther, for survival.
The Peace River was eighth on a list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers, released in 2004—the reason: proposed expansions in phosphate-mining operations in and near the river’s watershed, which have already both depleted and polluted the water in the river.
is also dedicated to the people, organizations, and politicians who fight the good fight trying to save Florida from the phosphate miners, including, though by no means limited to: the late Gloria Raines; Manasota-88, its leader, Glenn Compton, and its members; to the
for its decades-long coverage of phosphate issues, and staffers, editors, and writers such as Tom Tryon, Waldo Proffitt, Tom Bayles, Victor Hull, Allen Horton, John Hamner, and all those others who do not let us forget what phosphate mining does to Florida; the people and board of county commissioners of Charlotte County, Florida, who fought so long, so hard, and at such an economic cost to try to save the Peace River (the source for Charlotte County’s drinking water) from expanding phosphate mining in its watershed; and to friend and inspiration, the tireless Becky Ayech.
The practice of law is best performed by lunatics. That…
The judge was rubbing his eyes and stifling a yawn…
Olivia was crouched over Bonita’s desk, where they appeared to…
Oh, great, now what?
Not sure whether I had just broken off my alleged…
Nobody bothered to tell me they were not taking me…
Something close by had just blown up in megadecibels that…
My head hurt like a son of a bitch, and…
Even with my sharp sense of direction, I had a…
Competing law clerks Jack Russell and Whitney Houston were perched…
At my front-door stoop, Dolly and a man with long,…
Sherilyn Moody, the good widow of the man who had…
The number one suspect in the murder of Angus John…
If I had my childhood to do over, I’d make…
Where to hide my gun and what to wear took…
As it turns out, you do need a picture ID…
Still no Jimmie the next morning.
As the cosmic forces had obviously decreed that this was…
The amazing thing was that when I finally got home…
It might not sound like it’s that hard to do,…
Philip was sitting behind me on his king-size bed, his…
My brother Dan, the normal one, likes to say that…
A diamondback will rattle before it bites you.
Rain, in a kind of pre-hurricane fierceness, stung my face…
Two black crickets were sitting on top of my coffee…
A cricket landed on my face and chirped. As I…
Someone threw a quilt over my head.
Now that it seemed it was about to end, I…
I bunched my muscles for flight, pulled out my kitchen…
From Boogie Bog to Morgan Johnson Road in Manatee County…
If Olivia and I and Miguel and Josey had ever…
Jimmie likes to quote a poem by a woman who…
Olivia and I watched Josey’s grim face.
When the gyp sludge hit Tampa Bay and the big…
The practice of
law is best performed by lunatics. That way, they don’t mind that much of the law is lunacy.
For example, in Florida, insulting an orange can land you in court.
One may be sued for defaming a little, round fruit. Sued and required to pay money. If not to the orange grower suing you, then certainly to the lawyer defending you.
I, Lillian Belle Rose Cleary, defense lawyer, sat in my office at Smith, O’Leary, and Stanley in Sarasota, with the Florida statutes book opened to section 865.065, titled “Disparagement of perishable agricultural food products,” and tried to absorb the concept of fruit libel. As I read, my putative new client, Angus John Cartright, a rough-and-ready young man wearing jeans and cowboy boots, sat across from me whistling what sounded like a slow version of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
Because I didn’t like what I was reading in the statutes, I put down the law book and picked up a copy of the complaint filed against Angus John, a legal document that said he had willfully and wantonly and maliciously given speeches in which he claimed certain, specific oranges “glowed in the dark” and were unsafe to eat.
“Is this true?” I asked, holding up the complaint. “I mean, that you said all this about these oranges being too dangerous to eat?”
“Yes.” He had stopped whistling and stared at me with big, hazel eyes.
“The complaint also alleges you did so without having any reliable evidence to support your claims. Did you have any scientific studies to back up your statements?”
“It’s a matter of common sense.”
Oh, so, okay, in other words, no. Well, as much as Angus John’s admission of the key facts in the complaint against him might simplify drafting an answer and pursuing discovery, it didn’t make his case too enticing to defend. I mean, where’s the fun in litigation if the did/did-not spat wasn’t there at the get-go to run up thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees arguing about who said or didn’t say what, not to mention revving up
dog and pony show before a jury.
“The plaintiff is suing you because you publicly said its oranges were—”
“I have an absolute First Amendment right to speak my mind,” Angus John said, and then grinned big, as if he’d just told me a small joke, which, in a way, I guess he had. “They can’t sue me.”
Okay, so spank me, I’m no constitutional scholar or anything, but I’ve been a lawyer for over a decade and one of the lessons I’ve learned is that there are no absolute rights. Especially absolute First Amendment rights.
Just as I was fortifying myself to explain the underlying basic premise of the American litigation system to Angus, that being that anyone with the $250 filing fee can sue anybody else, I heard an insistent tapping of fingernails on glass. Angus and I both turned to stare out my office window, which looks out on our back parking lot since my office is on the first floor, in the back corner, right by the exit.
A thin, older man grinned through the glass panes.
I sighed. Jimmie Rodgers, my handyman, the man who had single-handedly and largely on his hands and knees restored my home’s terrazzo floors to their former glory, rebuilt my back porch after one of those hurricanes, and done countless other home projects, all working roughly at an inch of progress and two bottles of wine an hour. He liked to quote poetry of all kinds to me, and had slipped me small paperbacks of poets I’d never heard of who wrote stuff I didn’t understand. Then Jimmie would explain it all to me over a couple of bottles of wine. He was, of late, particularly fond of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, and could recite long poems about suicide by either or both of them at length and by memory. This explained why he was erratically employed. The man does good work, but don’t hire him if you’re in a hurry, or a hard-shell Baptist, or don’t like poetry.
Jimmie tapped and grinned and I made my face form a kind of smile back. On top of being my handyman, he was also my client in what I considered the stupidest case of my entire career.
Ignoring my orange-defaming potential client, I jumped from my chair and aimed myself for the back door to let Jimmie in.
When Jimmie came into my office, he smelled a bit gamey, but before I could say much to him about washing up before his court appearances, he beamed, hugged me, said a quick, “Hey, Lady,” then took center stage in my office. Spreading his arms wide, he said in a singsongy voice: “‘I danced through the shards with no visible wound. The night I risked tequila and Seconal to stop you both, I woke.’”
Great, another suicidal poet.
“That’s from this book”—Jimmie pulled a beat-up chapbook from a pocket in his baggy painter’s pants—“I found at Brant’s Used Books on Brown Avenue. Only paid a quarter for it.”
Angus John made a production of standing up and grinning and offering his hand.
But Jimmie, caught up as he was with poetry and gift giving, didn’t fully focus on Angus and thrust the book at me. “It’s for you, Lady.”
Politeness required me to take the used book, but I tried to hold it with my fingernails as if it were hot, and I made a quick memo to my internal file to disinfect my hands as soon as possible and to put the book somewhere safe, like a trash can.
Angus, having been ignored by both Jimmie and me, cleared his throat. I was too busy trying not to actually touch the book I was now holding to acknowledge Angus, and Jimmie apparently hadn’t yet realized someone else was already in my office.
“I know I didn’t have an appointment,” Angus said in a tone that suggested this was a grievous breach on my part, “but I did hope to at least have your attention.”
“Mr. Cartright,” I began in the tone I take with the rude and idiotic. “Olivia O’Leary brought you in here not ten minutes ago and asked me to look over the complaint with an eye toward possibly defending you. I was not expecting you.” And I would not have even remotely entertained the notion of allowing him in the door under such circumstances but for the fact that Olivia, also known as the Scrub Jay Lady, was the wife of named partner number two and a close friend of mine despite the fact I once thought she had murdered one of my clients.
“Normally I schedule an appointment,” I explained, “so we won’t be interrupted and so that I might review the law and the complaint well before an initial meeting, so you see that you are a rare exception”—that being lawyerese for rude interruption—“to my standard practice.”
Before I could continue with my lesson in office protocol, my secretary supreme and secondary therapist, Bonita, stuck her head in the half-opened door and said,
“¿Como esta, señor?”
Jimmie said, and grinned like a fool at her while I flinched at his Spanish. Though he is more than twice her age, Jimmie is sweet on Bonita. But then, most men are.
Bonita finished greeting Jimmie and then flitted her eyes toward Angus John, and I said, “Olivia snuck Mr. Cartright in while you were in bookkeeping. And Jimmie came in the back door.”
Bonita started to make gracious noises toward Angus John, but my phone intercom came alive with our receptionist’s prim little voice. “Lilly, please pick up the phone.”
I did. “There’s a woman sheriff ’s deputy out front, demanding to see you. Something about M. David Moody. She says that they found him dead. Pulled him out of one of those…excuse me a minute, Lilly…a what?”
In the background I could hear a woman talk, but I couldn’t make out the words.
The receptionist came back on the line. “A phosphogypsum stack. That’s like a big lake full of toxic waste, behind a seventy-foot wall. Least, that’s what the detective says. You got me. Anyway, Mr. Moody was floating in one, dead, up at Bougainvillea Bayou in Manatee County. Shall I send her back?”
M. David was dead?
Drowned in a lake of phosphogypsum in Manatee, our neighboring county to the north, at the defunct phosphate-processing plant the locals had dubbed Boogie Bog?
Pushing aside the wholly uncharitable idea that sometimes karma works itself out in one lifetime and didn’t require reincarnation as a roach, I flashed for a moment on M. David Moody before he was a newly dead man. M. David the ardently elegant, M. David the brilliant, M. David the perpetual chair of some well-publicized charity-fund drive, M. David who had enriched himself on underground rocks in the phosphate-rich region of Florida known as bone valley, leaving in his wake a slew of radioactive sludge.
So the son of a bitch was dead.
Maybe that made us even.
But why would a deputy want to talk to me about M. David? I hadn’t spoken to the man in ten years, and had, in fact, gone pointedly out of my way to avoid doing so.
“Lilly? You there?” our receptionist asked. “Shall I send this deputy woman back?”
Back to my office, where the ignored Angus John was glowering, Jimmie had started his old-man flirting, and Bonita was trying to gain order.
“I better come up front,” I said.
“I’ll go with you,” Angus John said.
No doubt he was trying to escape Jimmie and get a few moments of undivided attention from me. But my mind was already hopscotching around the newly introduced topic of M. David.
As I walked down the hallway toward our reception area, Angus kept pace beside me. “There’s some other people who are being sued under that stupid food-libel law,” he said. “Do you think you should put together a class action to help them?”
“A class action is only for plaintiffs. That is, people who want to sue others. Defendants, that is, people like you who are being sued, can’t form a class action.”
“Neither the federal nor the Florida rules of civil procedure allow it.”
“Have you ever tried it?” Angus asked.
“No, because it can’t be done.”
“Trust me, okay? I’m a lawyer. I know these things.”
“But have you actually ever tried to form a class action for defendants?”
I sighed. It was Friday afternoon. I had to be at the courthouse for Jimmie’s stupid car-case hearing in half an hour. I’d skipped lunch. With all the city concrete, it was hot as blue blazes and still only late May. And I had absolutely no interest in spending time discussing with some woman from the sheriff ’s office the illustrative history of M. David Moody and my diminutive but unpleasant part in it, though I had much curiosity about how the man came to be dead. But mostly I didn’t want to give a discourse to a cowboy zealot on the mysterious ways of the Florida civil-litigation system.
“Angus, I apologize.” Smile, smile. “I am sorry, but you’ve caught me at a bad time. Please let me make you an appointment. We’ll talk,” I said, applying one of the cardinal rules of client relationships—procrastinate politely.
So spoken, I pushed at the door separating the hallway from the firm’s lobby, but Angus rushed out in front of me and held the door open for me. On the other side, a tall blond woman stood waiting.
She held out a perfectly manicured hand, French tips and all, with a sapphire-and-diamond ring that reflected the artificial light of the reception area in a small dazzle. “I’m Manatee County Sheriff ’s Office Investigator First Class Josey Henry Farmer.”
I took the perfect hand and looked up, and up, into her eyes, which were a bright blue. “Lillian Cleary, attorney first class. Pleased to meet you, Officer Henry-Farmer.”
“Pleased to meet you, Farmer.”
“Investigator,” she said. “Investigator Farmer.”
Title clarifications aside, I was taking in her height. Next to her, Angus looked like a puppy. I fared better, but was still about eye high to her nose. Feeling reduced, I tried to stretch my back and neck but couldn’t approach her tallness.
In any crowd of women, I’m always the tallest. No question. It’s been that way since I hit my full growth back in tenth grade and I liked it. So therefore I didn’t like it at all that Investigator Josey Henry Farmer beat me out.
“I’m six feet,” I said.
“I’m taller,” she said. Then she glared at Angus. I couldn’t read her expression, though it appeared to me to be something between irritation and suspicion.
When nobody spoke, I glanced at Angus, who was looking back at Josey with a similarly weird expression.
So, okay, what gives? I thought, then realized I didn’t really care. Quickest way through this was to introduce them, and ask Angus to leave.
“Officer Investigator First Class Josey Henry Farmer,” I said, “please meet Angus John Cartright.”
Angus John grinned and stuck out a hand, which Investigator Just-Farmer took, flashing the ring again.
“Fine. Now, go away, Mr. Cartright,” Officer Josey said.
As Angus ducked around the corner, toward the conference room, I began the usual professional introductory chitchat stuff, but Investigator Farmer interrupted and asked, “Did you know M. David Moody?”
“He was a prominent member of the business community.”
“Did you know him?”
“I knew him. He was a prominent member of the business community,” I repeated, already edgy.
“Did you know him?
“What, like biblically?” I retorted. “I knew him, okay?”
“How did you know him?”
“I told you, he was a prominent member of the business community.”
“Were you his lawyer?”
“No, I’m not a business lawyer per se. I specialize in defending people who’ve been sued, civil suits, not criminal, defending them usually in the tort field, like malpractice and—”
“Were you close to Mr. Moody?”
Close to M. David? Not hardly. I doubted, frankly, that anyone had been close to him. “No, ma’am,” I said.
“You don’t need to ma’am me. Any reason why Mr. Moody would have a file on you?”
“No reason I can think of.”
“Any reason he would have your firm brochure with a note on it to make an appointment with you?”
“Any reason you know of that he would have told his secretary to make an appointment with you as soon as possible, but ended up facedown in a phosphate gyp stack at Boogie Bog instead?”
Uh-oh. I definitely didn’t like the sound of any of this.