Authors: Steve Martini
She speaks in a clipped staccato, syllables rolling from the tongue in the trill of a Romance language, making me think that English is not native to her.
"Has your husband made any statement to the police?" asks Lenore. "No." She shakes her head. "He has said nothing to anyone. He does not even want to discuss it with me. He's been very depressed," she says. "I am worried about him."
"You think he might harm himself?" says Lenore.
Lili gives an expression of concession, as though this may be possible. "You would not tell him I said this?" she says.
Lenore shakes her head, like never.
"Maybe we should start at the beginning." I sit here, the proverbial man from Mars, wondering whether we are talking ax murder, or someone accused of fondling little girls. The lofty calling of the criminal law.
"It might be best if we wait until he gets here," says Lenore. "So we don't have to go over it twice." I shrug my shoulders. It's her party.
"Has your husband talked to another lawyer?" she asks.
"I don't think he has considered it," says Lili. "When he found out that you were available. And that you were about to join Mr. Madriani, he wanted you immediately."
"How nice of him," says Lenore. Now I am intrigued.
Lili tells her that the police have said nothing, though they have come twice to the house to look for evidence.
"Did they have search warrants?"
"Yes." Lili nods. There is no fudging on this. The woman seems to know search warrants from shopping lists.
"The first time they took away his car. They had it towed somewhere," she says. "We have not seen it since." I hear movement in the outer office, the door, and voices: the receptionist's, and another, a familiar deep baritone.
"I think they're expecting me," I hear the man say.
It is a voice that imparts dark premonitions, like an advancing tidal wave in the blackness of night. An instant before the door to my office opens I get a glimpse of Lenore. She is studying me for effect, one eye covered by tousled hair, the other filled with sheepish apprehension, an expression like the Mona Lisa's.
Mahogany swings wide, and there in the open frame of my door stands Armando Acosta.
It is an image like something on celluloid, strange encounters, the form of a man I would not envision in my most demented dreams darkening my portal. Our eyes lock only for a brief instant, until he breaks this gaze.
Lili does the honors with Lenore, making introductions as the two shake hands.
"My husband, Judge Acosta. Ms. Goya," she says. She ignores the fact that he is no longer on the bench, having been suspended pending disposition on the prostitution charge, which is now compounded by the death of the state's only witness.
"You may call me Armando," he tells her.
I can think of a dozen other names, each one profane, but more appropriate than that selected by his parents on the dark day of his christening.
"Lenore," she says.
For a moment I chink maybe he is going to kiss her hand. But he merely bends at the waist, and takes her limp wrist. This turns into something more courtly than I might have imagined.
Stunned, I am still planted in my chair behind the desk when he turns on me. I am afraid that if I try to rise, my legs may fail me.
"Counselor." Acosta is restrained as he looks at me, an expression that is not quite a smile. It is more intuitive, as though he can read my mind and knows that there is nothing residing in it at this moment that I would dare utter in mixed company.
So I say nothing, but nod.
"Mr. Madriani and I have known each other for many years," he tells his wife.
I could show her the scars to prove it.
"Good to see you," he lies, and extends a hand. This lingers in suspension above the blotter on my desk like a silent and odious passing of wind. He leaves it there for several counts, so that if he takes it back all eyes will be on me.
There follows a socially awkward pause, as if he is willing to wait for the proverbial freeze in hell. Finally I take his hand and give it an obligatory shake.
It must be the expression on my face as I do this, because when I look up to see Lenore, she is laughing at me, openly, so that Lili asks her if she has somehow missed something. By this time Acosta himself is chuckling.
"My relationship with Mr. Madriani has not always been--how should I put it?--so cordial," he says. "I will tell you all about it later." He has an arm about his wife's shoulder. He leads her to the small couch that is catty-corner to my desk, where they take up positions like bookends. Lenore takes one of the client chairs directly across from me.
We sit here for the moment studying one another.
I have not seen Acosta in more than a month, but he has aged two years in that time. An effusion of gray now spirals from the balding spot high on his head. Lines of stress streak from the corners of his eyes like rays from a setting sun. Flesh hangs from his jowls like those of some predatory animal that has lost its edge in the hunt.
"Well. Now that we're all assembled," he says, "where do we begin?" He looks first to me, and then to Lenore, until he realizes that we are waiting on him.
Despite his gaunt appearance, there are a few mannered gestures left. He lets go of his wife long enough to toy with the cuff of one shirt sleeve under his coat, then feathers the hair at gray temples with his fingers to smooth some muss. Ever the preener.
Left to the awkward silence, Acosta clears his throat. "Very well," he says. "I have come to retain counsel. The death of Brittany Hall," he says. It is clearly not easy for him to be in this position, the supplicant in need. As he speaks, he doesn't look at either Lenore or me directly, but at some middle distance between us.
"Normally I wouldn't ask," I tell him, "but perhaps we should start by inquiring as to whether you did the deed?" He gives me a subtle look of confusion, uncertain as to whether even I could be this abrupt or tactless.
"Did you kill Brittany Hall?" I remove all doubt. "Don't answer that," says Lenore.
I get looks from Lili to die. "How could you ..."
"That's a little blunt, don't you think?" It is a cardinal rule: Don't ask.
You may not like the answer. There is enough time for truth telling later, after she has waltzed him through some theories of defense, and the facts are better fixed by discovery.
"Calm down," says Acosta. He is not looking at me, but at the two women as he says this. He seems the only one not offended by my question. His wife, who by this time is up from the couch, purse in hand, seems ready to leave.
"We did not come here to be insulted," she says. She is no doubt feeling violated, having shared pictures of her grandchildren with the likes of me.
"Mr. Madriani has a right to ask," says Acosta. Whether I have a right to the truth he does not say.
It takes some effort and several seconds' persuasion to get Lili seated again. She wants to leave. It seems that any lawyer who cannot take her husband on blind faith does not have her confidence. She may have trouble finding other counsel.
He manages to get her back down.
"You have an uncanny knack for chaos, Mr. Madriani," says Acosta.
'There are times when it serves its purpose," I tell him. I give him a cold stare that is as good as the one I get. "I am sure," he says.
When we're settled in again, I remind him that I've yet to hear an answer to my question.
"And I've advised the judge not to answer it," says Lenore. "It's neither the time nor the place," she says.
"Such advice assumes that we have a relationship," says Acosta. "Attorney-client?" He arches an eyebrow.
The man may be depressed, keeper of the emotional dump, but he has not lost his lawyer's wits.
"You can't expect me to answer such a question unless ..."
"Consider yourself represented." Before I can say a word, Lenore takes the bait, hook to the gills.
This draws the flash of a smile from the Coconut: even white teeth against a dark complexion, visions of what a swimmer might see if taken by a shark from below.
He showers this grin on me, as if to say that he himself often partakes of the fruits of chaos. My calculated frontal assault has produced the wrong result, pushing Lenore over the edge.
"You should take your time to consider." I try to pull her back. "There is a lot you don't know."
"Call it intuition." Lenore gives me a look, all the anger she can muster, focused in a lethal gaze, as if to say that if I can do foolish things, so can she. It is a game of chicken only the Coconut can win.
"Right," I say.
"How about you, Counselor?" Acosta turns his attention to me. "How about it?" says Lenore.
"How are you being paid?" I ask her.
"I'll write you a check right now," says Acosta. "You want a retainer?
How much?" At this moment, pen in hand, hunched with his checkbook open at the corner of my desk, he conjures, with his dark looks, nothing so much as tortured images from Faust, my own deal with the devil.
"A retainer of seventy-five thousand," I tell him, "in trust. To be billed at two hundred fifty dollars an hour, three-fifty for time in court.
Each," I say.
Lili actually winces. Lenore's eyes go wide.
Acosta doesn't miss a beat. "Done," he says.
Deeper pockets than I could have dreamed. He starts to write out the check at the edge of my desk.
Having pushed Lenore in, I am now compelled to follow.
"With the understanding that Ms. Goya is lead counsel." I give her a look, as if to say, "Try them apples."
"And one other caveat," I say. I would add a thousand more if I could think faster. "If I ever discover we are not being told the truth, we are out of here," I say.
More stirrings from Lili on the couch, but Acosta now has a firm hold on her arm.
"Now, answer my question," I tell him.
The expression on his face suddenly goes stone cold. He is a body at rest. All idle movement stops, a denning moment of psychic gravity.
You could lose a continent in the depth of his penetrating brown eyes, a gaze like the lock of a missile on its target.
"No. I did not kill her." As a rendition of what might be seen in court, should this get that far, it is not bad. I might hope for a little quaking of the voice for sympathy, but as for conviction, it is all there.
"Now that that's out of the way," he says, "what do we do next?" It is suddenly clear to me that he actually has no clue. A man who has spent twenty years in the law, a good part of it on the bench, he has not the slightest hint of a defense.
Lenore discusses first the question of an alibi, some good citizen who could vouch for Acosta's whereabouts at the time of the murder. This is a problem, as the police have not as yet indicated their best guess as to when Hall was killed. Acosta compounds this, telling us that he was alone much of the day and that evening. Depressed, he'd parked his car at a turnout on the highway near the river. What he was contemplating while doing this he does not say, though the look in his wife's eye, the glance she sends to Lenore, conveys volumes.
"No one saw you?" says Lenore. "You didn't talk to anyone?"
"At the time I would have been poor company," he says. "I wanted to be alone. I was upset." According to him, he had bottomed out, having been removed from the bench by order of the supreme court the week before. In a fit of frustration he had fired his lawyer on the prostitution charge that morning.
"I understand," she tells him. "Still, during that entire period, the day she was killed and that evening, you didn't talk to anybody, by phone?
Call a friend? Go anywhere where someone would have seen you?" He shakes his head. n sieve Mmm "Did you purchase anything? Food, gasoline?
Perhaps a merchant who might remember you around the time that she died? " More head shaking.
"What time did you get home that night?" I ask.
"I didn't. I didn't return home until the following afternoon. Sometime around two," he says.
His wife confirms this sorry fact, that she was worried sick during this period.
We question Acosta as to any statements he may have made to the police following the murder. Unfortunately we don't have the details of his precise words. He tells us that he made some equivocal comments concerning a note with his name on Hall's calendar. Lenore and I exchange glances when he mentions this. It is the note she had seen that night.
According to Acosta, based on his confused statements, the police are now contending that he knew about this note, and that he was there the evening of the murder.
It is the rule of nature on the order of gravity that the desire to talk when in trouble is always a mistake.
"Is it possible that they have another suspect?" This happy thought is injected by Lenore.
"I don't think so," says Acosta.
"How can you be so sure?" she says.
"Because they have convened a grand jury to take evidence, and I have not been called to testify." Lenore looks at him slack-jawed. He doesn't tell us where this information comes from, and we do not ask.
The Capital County courthouse has more leaks than a litter of dogs with bad kidneys, and Acosta would of course know where each of these lifts its leg.
"A number of acquaintances have been called as witnesses," he tells us. "Mind you, I don't know what they were asked, or what they might have said under oath."
"Give us a guess," I say. Cat and mouse.
He gives a little shrug, a tilt of the head, best guess.
"If a prosecutor were to ask the right question, of the right witness." He makes a dried prune of his face, all wrinkles around the mouth, conjuring the possible. "One of them," he says, "might mention certain rash statements. Some intemperate remarks made in a moment of anger."
I let my silent stare ask the obvious.
"I was upset," he says. "And I said some things." "Like what?"
"I can't remember the exact words. I might have said something, called her a liar, maybe something worse."