Authors: Steve Martini
"Why would they do that?" I ask her. I wonder if maybe Tony has told her something he hasn't told me.
"How well do you know this guy Mendel?" she says.
"Just from the stories," I tell her. "I've never met him, and from what I hear I'm not missing much." Phil Mendel is the head of the Police Association. He is a man with an immense ego and terminal ambition like a growing cancer. Since taking over the union four years ago, he has extended creeping tendrils of power into every nook and cranny of the county, like a tumor growing out your rectum. When it comes to charges of police misconduct, he has paralyzed whole agencies of government. The command structure of the department has now become a collaborative exercise. The chief does not move without consulting Mendel.
His reputation is that he takes care of his people, the keynote to survival, the path to power in labor. If you're a cop and want to dive on a flimsy disability claim, talk to Phil. There are guys in their thirties, now retired, drawing down top pay while doing back flips behind their ski boats on the river, all of whom owe their good fortune to Phil and his cronies on the Civil Service Commission.
And all of Mendel's good works are not performed through the deft manipulation of the strings of politics. It is reputed that a news columnist who regularly vilified him in print has had to relocate to another state because of death threats. According to Phil, he refused to be responsible for the rash acts of loyal subordinates inflamed by the repeated slanders.
Such is the dark shadow that Phil Mendel casts over the image of law enforcement in this community.
"Are you saying that Mendel has threatened my client?"
"If there's anything to it, the missing money, Mendel would cover himself," says Lenore. "He's not the kind to take a fall gracefully.
It's not his style," she says.
"You think he'd take steps to keep Tony quiet?" She makes a face, like my best guess.
My DAUGHTER IS A LOVER, A HUGGER, ONE OF THOSE CHILDREN WHO will for no stated reason come to me, silent and wistful, seeking a hug as other children might ask for candy. I will peck her on the forehead or cheek, a reassurance of love, that I will not leave her as her mother did last year through death.
I am now both father and mother to our daughter, a task that is no mean feat. Nikki was not only the disciplinarian of our family, but the Tooth Fairy. Last week that mythic dispenser of pocket change blew a visit, forgetting to leave her deposit under my daughter's pillow. The next morning Sarah came to me in tears. Not only was her mother gone, but the Tooth Fairy had now neglected to make a stop. In her mind, I am sure she was wondering whether she would soon be stricken from the appointed rounds by Santa.
I spent the next evening reducing my hand to writer's cramp as I penned an apology in Fairyese, tiny block letters, some homily about an emergency involving another ill elf and my need to be with her. An excuse I prayed Sarah would understand.
When chastised by her mother for some errant act, Sarah at an early age often came to me, sensing a lenient court of appeal. Children have a sixth sense. They can smell the chemistry of parental resolve in the air.
She knew that I, the stone idol of a father, was the one to remit her sentence.
We both learned quickly the terror that was Nikki when I was countermanded in matters pertaining to child rearing. My wife was an authority not to be crossed, not so much angry as stern, a firm believer that children should never be allowed to manipulate parents, to divide and conquer, that consistency was the correct path to the holy grail of raising our daughter.
Sarah is an inveterate and natural peacemaker. She will avoid conflict at all cost. For Sarah it was more painful to witness conflict between Nikki and me over decisions of discipline than it was to hunker down and accept her fate. By the age of five she would no longer come to me with entreaties. And on those few occasions when, after hearing angry words from her mother, I would, in the stillness of another room, ask Sarah what was wrong, she would cheerfully look up and with a smile say,
"Nothing." I have now learned the sorry and thankless task that falls on the voice of responsibility in a child's life. The hardest task of my day is to steel myself and tell my daughter, "No." Tonight I attempt to do this with reason.
"We've talked about this before," I tell her. "What have I told you?"
"D-A-D-D-Y." She can draw the word out to five syllables at moments like this.
"Daddy nothing. I told you that if you wanted to stay over at Amber's house you had to clean your room. That's the rule," I tell her.
"Remember?" At this moment I'm afraid there's more pleading than conviction in my voice. "Didn't we agree that was the rule?" I try for consensus.
"But, Daddy. Amber didn't pick up and she made most of the mess." She tries equity, while Amber and her mother wait in the hall down stairs.
Sarah is twirling a lock of hair as she stands, knees akimbo by the foot other bed, and looks at me with plaintive brown eyes.
The daughter of a lawyer, she has learned to negotiate. "Amber isn't my daughter," I tell her.
She gives me a look like she wishes her little girlfriend were just that, a surrogate whipping post at this moment. There are dolls in various stages of undress strewn about the floor other room, some with missing arms or eyeballs, more bodies than on the field at Gettysburg.
For reasons of self-preservation I have stopped buying my daughter toys with little parts. I have stepped on these in bare feet on several occasions and have the scars to prove it.
"But what about Amber? She's waiting," she tells me. There's a lot of moping around with this, swinging by one hand around the corner pole of her bed.
"Clean up. Now," I tell her. The emphasis on the N-word.
She gives me a look of mortal resignation and starts to toss raggedy bodies into the plastic basket that is their home.
I turn back toward the stairs and amble down to find Becky Saunders, Amber's mother, standing near our front door. I make Sarah's amends for her.
"I don't think tonight is a good night," I tell her. "Maybe some other time. Sarah has some things to do." Amber gives me a look, something the munchkins reserved for the Wicked Witch.
"Sure. We understand," says her mom. "Kids," she says.
Amber's pulling on her pant leg: "But, Mom." The universal plea. "Some other time," she tells her daughter.
"It must be tough without Nikki." She's looking down the hall at the mess that is our kitchen, the kid still hanging on her, pleading. Becky does her best to ignore her. Nikki and Becky knew each other. At times they operated a shared taxi service delivering the children to various events.
"There are times it is very difficult," I tell her.
"Have you tried Parents Without Partners?" Visions of matchmaking, I shake my head.
"You're a lawyer, aren't you?" she says. My suspicious mind tells me she is doing some quick calculations in her head. What I might bring on the matrimonial auction block. "I can get the number if you'd like.
There're a lot of professional women ..." Her voice trails off.
With one hand out like a traffic cop, I'm shaking my head. "No. No. That's okay. You're busy."
"Not at all," she says. "It must be very interesting being a lawyer." She is distracted now, making a note on the back of a card that she drops into her purse. I see my name and the letters P&P. That is the problem with being a single man in a sea of housewives. They all want to take care of you. "It's just awful." She is gazing absently past my shoulder, and I think for a moment she is talking about Nikki's passing. "You think you can trust people like that." I have suffered my own bouts of anger in the months after Nikki's death, but I have never attributed it to an issue of trust. "Like what?" I ask.
"Like that judge." "What judge?"
"The one they arrested tonight," she says. She is pointing behind me to the muted television, flickering in the living room.
I turn to look, but the station has cut to a commercial.
"You didn't hear? They arrested some judge tonight. Prostitution.
Can you believe it? You trust people like that. Makes you wonder what's happening out there." By my look she can tell she now has my attention.
"Oh, yeah. Early this evening, at some big hotel downtown. He was arrested with a call girl. Just awful," she says.
"Who was it?" "Hmm?"
"The judge's name?"
"Oh, I don't know. What was it?" She snaps her fingers two or three times, looking up at the ceiling. "Locata? Armada? Some Spanish last name."
"Acosta?" I say.
"That's it." Becky Saunders looks at me, wondering, I am sure, why with this dark news my face should be ablaze with a broad smile. She must think me crazy, but I don't care. All is well with the world. There is indeed a God in Heaven.
I'M READING SKETCHY DETAILS IN THE MORNING paper, a picture of the Coconut, a file shot a column wide below the fold. Under the photo a cut-line: "Judge Arrested in Prostitution Sting." Just what the doctor ordered come election time. Toting my briefcase in the other hand, I emerge from the elevator on the fourth floor of the D.A.'s office, situated in one of those modern metal-and-glass buildings, no frills.
This particular one sits catty-corner to the courthouse at the edge of a slum only partially reclaimed before the collapse of urban renewal. The D.A. shares space with the County Registrar's office and some other paper-pushing bureaucracies that take up the ground floor.
A receptionist sitting behind two inches of bulletproof glass calls Lenore, and a few seconds later buzzes me through. I am down the corridor, past a dozen cubicles, the government equivalent of private offices.
There are lawyers, some on phones, others laboring in silence like monks in an ancient scriptorium, bent over desks piled high with papers. Some of these offices are stacked with case files climbing halfway up the walls, all active and pending matters.
As a repository of your tax dollars, the public prosecutor's office of any large metropolitan area of this country is likely to be the one place where you get your money's worth. Here there are young overworked lawyers putting in the equivalent of most people's average workweek on any single day. Some, the Future Moralists of America, are careerists out to cleanse corruption and decay from our times, law-and-order zealots who view every issue in monochrome, black or white. Others, more pragmatic, are simply paying their dues, cutting their teeth in court before selling out to one of the high-toned silk-stocking firms where crime wears a white collar and is often perpetrated over lunch in some private club.
Lenore has one of the larger offices near the corner inhabited by His Eminence, Coleman Kline. Here there is a second reception area, a couple of secretaries jealously guarding Kline's office. I can hear his voice on the phone inside behind closed doors. The interior walls of this place have all the tensile strength of Kleenex. Someone sneezes, and everyone down the hall goes "Gesundheit." I tap on the glass panel, the translucent sidelight beside Lenore's door.
"Come in." She has one hand over the mouthpiece other phone as she waves me in and points to one of the client chairs on the other side other desk.
There's a woman in the other chair, young, maybe early twenties, with honey blond hair down to the shoulders, startling blue eyes as she looks up at me. It is one of those faces college boys dote on. Clear complexion and soft chiseled cheekbones, she has the look of a girl bred on the sands at Santa Monica. A miniskirt only partially covers her tanned thighs. There is just enough muscle tone here to be sexy, so that you can't tell where robust ends and sultry begins. I wonder if this is Lenore's secretary, though she does not have the look, or a notepad or pen.
"Be with you in a minute," says Lenore.
"No. No. That's not the deal. He cops a plea to counts one and two and we drop the rest. He does a minimum of one year with probation.
"Who said straight probation?" A pause while she listens on the phone. "That's not what Mr. Kline told me.
"No, I have talked to him." A lot of gestures with the hand as she tries to get a word in on its edge.
"Listen, that's the deal. Anything else, and you can tell your client to forget it. No, there's only one deputy handling this case, and you're talking to her." She listens.
"Well, I'm not responsible for what you promised your client. That's the final word. You got it from the horse's mouth," she says. Another pause.
"Well, if you were a licensed veterinarian I'd be more concerned with your references to equine anatomy. As it is, you're getting the talking part right now. If you want what comes out of the other end we can go to trial." I can now hear the guy coming over Lenore's receiver six feet away, loud and clear. I think I recognize his voice. If she can reduce him to this on the phone I'm left to wonder what she might do in court.
"Fine. You go ahead and talk to him. I already have, and he's approved the offer. Just say the word and it's off the table." The litigator's cocked pistol.
There's a lot of shouting on the phone, more haggling, Lenore holding firm.
"Take it or leave it," she says, and finally hangs up, then utters some mild profanity under her breath.
"Can't blame him for shopping til he drops," I tell her.
"Yeah, he's trying it in the bargain basement." She nods a little toward the membrane that is the office wall she shares with Kline. The woman seated next to me doesn't catch this, or it goes over her head. I can't tell which.
I start to talk, edging toward the article in today's paper, but Lenore cuts me off.
"Paul Madriani, I'd like to introduce Brittany Hall. Paul is a friend. He's come by to take me to coffee," she says.
This is news to me. But clearly whatever Lenore has to say she does not want to say in the office. I play along.
"You work here?" I'm looking at the woman called Brittany, trying not to ogle.