Authors: Steve Martini
He ignores the fact that he has been letting pimps and prostitutes go for years. With Acosta it was either professional courtesy or a deposit on the lay-away plan. You could never be sure. Either way, the cops on Vice didn't like it. It was cause for some rancor among the rank and file, and no doubt a major factor in their decision to back another horse.
"Sounds like you have a conflict. Maybe you should step down on this one," I tell him.
"Nice try," he says. "But your client didn't give my opponent any money. Just the union. And they have no standing in the question of whether he testifies." Legally he is right, though as a practical matter it is the brotherhood of cops and their union that are the focal points of this entire exercise. And Acosta knows it.
"We know damn well that your client heard things," he says.
"Who's this we'? I didn't know judging had become a collective activity. " I raise an eyebrow.
Acosta knows he has overstepped the bounds.
"Just being helpful," he says. "As your client could be by testifying. If he didn't do anything wrong he has nothing to worry about."
"Yeah, right. Like this star chamber of yours is going to make fine distinctions," I tell him.
"The county's grand jury is no star chamber," he says.
Right. No counsel, nothing that could charitably pass for rules of evidence, a prosecutor who owns the process, and my only recourse by way of judicial intervention rests with the Latino equivalent of the Lord of the Flies. I could argue the matter, but what's the point?
The panel of judges who run the Capital County court system are derogatorily known as the "Curia" by the lawyers who must cope regularly with their arbitrary administrative edicts. Their latest act of whimsy has been to place Acosta in charge of the county's grand jury. This is like putting a pedophile in charge of a day-care center. All of the Coconut's enemies now have puckering assholes.
For a moment I consider playing the ethnic card. After all, Arguillo is Hispanic. At least I think he is. I consider this for a moment--that the Coconut might cut a little slack for one of his own. Then I think
Acosta is interested in things ethnic in-the same way a parasite is interested in its host.
"And if my client takes the Fifth?" I tell him. "He can't, if the D.A. grants immunity."
"The D.A. hasn't," I say.
"The D.A. will," says Acosta.
The judge whose role in this is supposed to be purely administrative has waded in and talked to the prosecutor.
"You ought to be prosecuting the case. Maybe you should have run against Kline." He smiles at this, as if perhaps he thought about the prospect.
Coleman Kline, the county's new D.A., is a former lobbyist for a statewide law-and-order group. He weighed in on every issue: drunk driving, domestic violence, victims' rights, the topic-of-the-hour club.
Kline parlayed this into a run for office in a bitter special election four months ago. With the support of some right-to-life groups and a family-values coalition that believes that all of society has been headed downhill since Noah exited the ark, he narrowly edged out the leading contender for the spot, one of the career prosecutors in the office. Kline has spent the last two months consolidating his power, rewarding assistant D.A.'s who supported him and muscling out those who did not.
"Kline is new," he tells me. "The court believes in extending a little courtesy."
"It's just that I'd like to avoid having my client ground up in the gears of judicial courtesy."
"This is getting tiresome," he says. "Tell your man his options are simple. He cooperates or gets run over." Our meeting is finished.
"I'll talk to him," I say.
"That should take two minutes," he tells me.
I tell him my client is not in the courthouse. A precaution I have taken.
"I'll expect an answer by tomorrow. Two o'clock, here, and bring Arguillo--with his toothbrush," he says. "Or else you'd better bring your own."
When I get back to my office the place looks like a convention, everything but party hats. My partner. Harry Hinds, is picking through candy from a dish on the receptionist's desk, the remnants of Christmas leftovers he has fingered and passed over for half a year. By the rules of some Darwinian law of sweets, these have suddenly become edible.
Sitting with one cheek on the other corner of the desk is Tony Arguillo, waiting for news of his fate. He is engaged in animated conversation with Lenore, who is splitting her attention between Tony and some papers from her open briefcase as she sits with legs crossed on the sofa. She looks up as I close the door behind me. "As we speak," says Harry.
"How did it go?" It is Lenore who asks this. The very face of anxiety.
More worry than I see from Tony; an observer might think it is she who is headed for the bucket.
"What I expected. His Eminence will cut no slack. He says Tony talks or " I give them a little shoulder shrug. "Or what?" says Tony.
"Or it's jail time." This does not seem to faze Arguillo.
Lenore on the other hand is brimming with theories of legal defense, to quash the subpoena, to attack the jury probe as a violation of the labor laws. By my silence Tony knows these are stratagems bereft of any real hope.
When Tony fell into this particular pit, I could not refuse Lenore. But taking his case was against my better judgment. I do not represent many cops; if it wasn't for Lenore, I wouldn't be representing this one.
Finally he does the natural cop's thing when cornered, a lot of bravado.
"Well, Acosta can kiss my ass," he says. He leaves the desk and begins to pace the room. "Pissing up the wrong rope if he thinks this one is gonna rat on friends. A sorry excuse for a judge," he calls him.
There's a lot of musing. Tony to himself, profanities under his breath, what men do when they are frightened or concerned.
I've heard about Acosta's extracurricular activities," says Arguillo. "The man treats Vice like it's his private referral service. The morals of an alley cat," he says.
"A slander on the cat world," says Harry, who is all ears and waiting to see if any specifics will follow.
I have heard this charge for years, that part of the terms of probation if the woman is good looking -may be a date with the Coconut.
His idea of community service. I have never seen evidence of it, and consequently had long ago discounted it.
"Maybe the prosecutors won't push it," says Tony. A cop's attitude. Judges are corrupt, but the D.A. sits on that little milking stool just to the right hand of God, where he can reach all the tits and tubes of the justice system. The ultimate good guy. One of their own.
"I wouldn't hold out too much hope on that one," says Harry. "Lenore's been telling me what a fine time she's having in that particular viper pit." Harry's talking about the D.A.'s office. He has, in my absence, no doubt been trying to turn Lenore to the honest side of the law, the growth industry based in crime and its perpetrators.
Lenore is looking anxious, as if she would like Harry to leave, so we could talk openly about Tony's plight. Hinds is no doubt relishing the moment. A cop facing jail is Harry's idea of social justice. I could ask them into my inner office, but knowing Harry, he would just follow.
Besides, I may need him on this.
"I thought you'd be at your office," I tell her. "There was no need to come with him. Tony's a big boy." With a hot head. I can see the look in her eye, though the thought is unstated.
"Just giving a little moral support," she says. Lenore mothers Tony. I think it is what happened to their relationship. She needed a man, and with Tony she was Mom. They are close in age, but she is twenty years older, if you know what I mean.
"Besides," she says, "these days it's any opportunity to get out of that place. I checked out to the law library," she tells me.
"So it's not going well over there?"
"Hanging on." She makes a gesture with the fingers of both hands, like claws. Whether she means by the fingernails or that she has mauled Kline's ass is anybody's guess. With Lenore you never know.
"Maybe you can talk to your boss. Get him to back off. Withdraw the subpoena," says Tony. "Leave Acosta dangling."
"Right. Like he'd listen to me," she says. "But at least you know him," says Tony.
"Like Moses knew God. We're not exactly on a first-name basis," she tells him. "He calls me Ms. Goya. "I take off my shoes before entering his office. Sacred ground," she tells us. "The man is into formalities.
The etiquette of power." If Kline knew Lenore was here, or for that matter that she had referred Arguillo to counsel, he would no doubt draw and quarter her.
So far she has managed to stay out of his sights. Fortunately for Lenore, she was too new to the office to take sides in the election.
Kline is balding, thirty-eight, and married to money. I am told his wife is the heir to some fortune grounded in the land: almonds and rice.
We are not talking pocket change, but something to launch a political career into the stratosphere.
Anyone, including Kline's mother, who thinks they know what is going on in that calculating mind at any time of the day is dreaming. He smiles only on command, and then just when speaking before groups of more than one hundred. I am told that since he attained the age of reason, his every move has been measured precisely for political effect, that he is a man with his eyes on the political heavens. Lenore could do worse than tie her star to his wagon. But for reasons unstated, she does not seem to trust him. It may be a difference in management styles, or the fact that she views him as a religious fanatic that makes her uncomfortable.
"Maybe you should hang a shingle," I tell her. "Private practice may have fewer occupational hazards."
"I'd only end up doing what you're doing." She gives me a sheepish grin. She means Tony's case, which I am for the moment doing pro bono, without compensation, because Arguillo is tapped out. Child support and alimony; at the moment the man is heavily invested in a former wife.
"What do we do?" Like powdered cream in hot coffee, Tony's machochismo is beginning to dissolve. Images of an iron cell door swinging shut.
"Not a lot of options," I tell him.
We do the self-incrimination thing. Lenore and I talk about Tony's Fifth Amendment rights. Immunity punches a quick hole in this balloon. Kline, if he is interested, will simply offer immunity to Tony for his testimony and force him to talk. Acosta has threatened as much. It comes down to how much Tony really knows, which to date he has not shared with me. While lawyer-client confidences are sacred, that privilege has all the effects of water on pitch when it comes to officers of the law and their ultimate loyalties. "To serve and protect" may be the inscription lettered on the door panel of every patrol car in this country.
But on the inside, branded into the leatherette of the upholstery, is law enforcement's true and highest credo, the ultimate rule of survival on the street: Never give up a fellow cop. As to what he knows, and whom he can finger, Tony Arguillo has kept me in the dark.
"Maybe it's time we had a chat," I tell him.
"Yeah. Right," he says. He looks at the ceiling, wrings his hands. A glance to Lenore, who at this moment can offer him nothing but a supportive smile.
"Not a chance," he says. "I'm not going behind closed doors with any grand jury and I'm not talking. Acosta's barking up the wrong tree.
He can't make me roll over on good cops. Why? So that fucker can make a name for himself, climb over a few more bodies, maybe get himself on the appellate court?" I can sense a palpable shudder from Harry with that thought.
"He's talking general lockup," I tell him. Acosta is probably hunting at this very moment to find a few thugs Tony has collared as prospective bunk mates.
But Arguillo's now on a roll. I don't think this has even seeped in. It does not slow him down.
"He doesn't understand rank and file," he says. "We stand together.
We know how to take care of our own," he tells me. "He screws with us, he'll need night goggles to figure out just how far up his ass his head's been jammed." He gets more colorful as he goes, his male anatomy seeming to swell in size as he pumps himself up, adrenaline and testosterone both tipping the scale. Then, just as suddenly, he stops, looks at me.
"I gotta go," he says. "Where?"
"Call of nature," he tells me.
I think maybe he's worked himself up to a fit where he is now ill, his face flushed, his hands shaking.
Tony heads out the door toward the men's room down the hall. For a brief moment the three of us Harry, Lenore, and I sit silent, looking at each other.
"He won't talk, you know." Lenore says this matter-of-factly, a maxim like the force of gravity.
"Loyalty? Cop's tenet of faith?" I say. "That, and the rules of survival."
"His life," she says.
"Now you're being dramatic. Nobody's threatened him." I don't dwell on the Coconut's plans for cohabitation in the county jail.
"It doesn't take much to put an officer on the street in jeopardy." Her mind is more subtle. "A violent domestic call without adequate backup a street robbery and Dispatch forgets to tell you that your suspect is armed. A million ways to kill you and all of them look like accidents," she says.