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Authors: Steve Martini

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The Judge (53 page)

BOOK: The Judge
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"I don't doubt you," she says.

He releases his grip just a little, his eyes constantly on me. He with draws the knife a few inches.

Lenore stoops. She snatches the shiny gold object from the carpet. "Give it to me," he says.

With her right arm fully extended, grasping the cufflink in her closed fist, she makes a single explosive move.

"Sure." Her sharp elbow thrusts back like the push-rod on a loco motive. It catches Kline full force under the ribs. His cough of pain echoes through the room. In the instant that he doubles over, she is clear of him.

I push her toward the door. She falls on her hands and knees, and I get between them.

"Go! Go! Get out!" As I turn Kline slashes with the knife, catching the sleeve of my coat.

Frayed threads and blood mingle but I have no sense of pain. Then an instant later, a burning sensation races through my forearm, finally reaching my brain.

He draws his arm back for another swipe. I step away, grab a lamp off the desk, and use it to fend off the blow, metal on metal; a third thrust slashes through the lamp shade.

Lenore is still standing there, seemingly in shock, unwilling to leave me here alone. I swing at him with the lamp, catch him on the arm, ripping the lamp's cord from the outlet.

"Get out!" I tell her. By now I am swinging the lamp wildly in a giant arc, windmill fashion, standing between Lenore and Kline, keeping him at bay.

Realizing that with the object in her hand he will lose interest in me, Lenore finally turns and runs. Kline looks away for an instant, distraction.

I send the lamp flying on an arc that catches him high on the cheek. This sends him reeling backward against a chair and the wall.

 

Lenore is through the door. A second later I hear the clatter of her heels on the vinyl floor in the corridor outside as she runs toward the other end of the building, then nothing, as if perhaps she has somehow run onto carpet.

Suddenly I realize that I have the keys. She cannot get into any of the courtrooms along the hallway.

Kline makes a move toward the door, and I cut him off. I am now casting objects from the clerk's desk in his direction, like a kid pitching balls at cans in an amusement park. A heavy stapler catches him in the chest dead center, and he groans. This is followed by a cellophane tape holder that must weigh two pounds.

Now he's angry. He starts returning in kind. He grabs a floor lamp and throws it at me full force. I duck, but a portion of it nails me on the shoulder.

I am just recovering from this, coming out of a crouch, when I see it out of the corner of one eye, a small potted plant sailing through the air like a satellite in orbit. This catches me above the right eye, the last thing I see before I find myself on the carpeted floor. Kline steps on the back of my knee going over me, and then the sound of the door as it opens and closes.

I am dazed, wobbling on hands and knees, with drops of warm blood trickling onto the back of one hand. I reach up and feel slick, smooth wetness on my head above the eye.

Then I think: Lenore.

It takes me a moment to steady myself on my feet, grasping the edge of the desk. I turn and stumble toward the door, into the hallway beyond, and out into the long white corridor. Twenty feet down this hall I discover the reason for Lenore's soundless footfalls, what I thought was carpet. Her heeled shoes discarded, one here, the other ten feet farther down, as if they were flung from her feet as she ran.

Then I hear it, the clatter of the emergency exit at the far end, the door slamming closed. I run, my legs like water, at one point careening off the wall. I make my way down the corridor, around a corner. There, ahead of me, is the double metal door. I push the fire bar and find myself inside a concrete stairwell, the clatter of feet on the metal stairs descending below me. I follow the sound.

 

By the time I reach the third floor I hear a cavernous slam somewhere in the bowels below me, the door to the street closing, hard leather pounding pavement. I can only assume Kline's made an exit, chasing Lenore.

It takes me another thirty seconds to make my way to the ground level. I open the door to the cold, dark night, look one way, then the other.

A block and a half away running diagonally across the street, under the halo of a vapor lamp, I see a feline form, shoeless, running, then turning to look. She stops. Lenore. I scan the sidewalk ahead for Kline but cannot see him; the path is obscured by the shadows of thick-rooted trees, giant elms lining the walkway.

Suddenly Lenore starts to run; something has set her to flight like a frightened doe.

I pick up my feet. Heart pounding, I make it to the corner. There, under a streetlight a block ahead, I see a figure: a masculine form running, a solid stride. He cuts across the sidewalk into the street.

By the time she reaches the mall on K Street, Kline has cut the distance to Lenore by half. I am still more than a block away, running at open throttle.

The mall is a wide boulevard, pedestrians only, with light rail tracks running down the middle for five blocks. Tonight it has its own facade, aglitter with Yuletide color, flickering minilights; white, red, and green adorn the trees. But under them are an assorted legion of winos, homeless, and other vagrants. The downtown at night is abandoned by the working middle class.

A block from K Street, near the Ninth Street Plaza, there's a throng of kids, mostly teenagers vying for space on the portable ice rink that the city erects each year. Lenore suddenly sees this and makes a beeline.

Safety in numbers.

I am hoofing it, my breath forming clouds before me.

Suddenly I realize that I've lost sight of Kline, up ahead. He seems to have dodged somewhere off the street as I was watching Lenore. The hair on my neck rises and I begin to wonder if somehow I have run by him, that he is now behind me. I turn and look: nothing but cold, still darkness.

 

I scan the mall for a cop, anything in uniform, not that this would do much good with Kline. He is silver tongued and no doubt would have Lenore and me jailed in an instant, searched and stripped of the one piece of evidence that does not lie. Cops on a beat don't question an elected D.A., and private security would genuflect in his presence.

I am walking at a good clip by the time I make it under the treed lights of the mall. Lenore has disappeared into the crowd by the rink, the jubilant kids skidding on ice. They are lined three deep along the outside fence waiting their turn, "Jingle Bell Rock" blasting forth from a sound system to wake the dead.

I draw up to a phone booth near one of the light rail stops. For a moment I think I could call for help. But who? I'm a hundred feet from the rink, winos circling for change. Anything at night in a suit is fair game. One of them touches my arm and I shake him off, move away, scanning for Lenore. I see shimmering dark hair and a dark top, her back to me twenty feet away. I look for Kline in the crowd. Nothing.

I close on Lenore and grab her shoulder. She turns, a pimple-faced teen, chomping on gum.

"Hey! Whadda ya doin'?" Some guy standing next to her, matching her pimple for pimple.

"Hey. Jeannie's got some new squeeze," he says. "Hey, dude wants to cop a feel." One of his friends.

"Hey, can we have one?" Some kid behind me, six five, with chin whiskers like Fu Man Chu.

"Sorry. Thought you were somebody else," I tell her. "Yeah. Sure. Get lost," she says.

"Get lost, asshole." Two other girlfriends turn on me, and I melt into the crowd, thankful for the loud music.

I've gone no more than five steps when I see her. Across the rink, looking this way, against the railing: Lenore, wary eyes scanning the crowd.

I wave but she misses me. Then, like a camera focusing for depth, I see a tall figure closing on her from behind. My eyes lock on his like radar. Kline has seen her. He is no more than twenty feet away, pushing his way through bodies like an icebreaker.

I cut and run, nearly knocking over some kid. Out of the crowd, around the rink, I am sprinting, dodging in and out, searching the crowd for her. All around is the blare of music, the clatter of some mindless electronic bell, the hush of wheels on steel.

And then I see them, wrestling in the middle of the street. Lenore, her arm outstretched, fist tight, holding the object, Kline's gold cufflink engraved with his initials and scribed with the incriminating tool marks like fingerprints in metal. Lenore is struggling, trying to pull away.

Kline behind her, grappling, clawing at her outstretched arm. I race.

Out of the corner of my eye I see it, the sleek metallic white and blue, glistening windows, five cars of light rail speeding up Ninth Street toward the tight turn onto the mall. Around the angle the operator cannot see Lenore and Kline wrestling on the tracks.

Then, in an instant, she reaches with one arm, a feeble toss, and the glint of gold in the air, the object of their struggle from here only a blur: Kline's gold cufflink. It travels five feet on a dying arc, bounces twice, and lands in the crevice formed by the track and the street.

I am still twenty feet away.

The train is closing. Through the flat glass the operator finally sees them, but it's too late. Steel grinding on steel, sliding, the physics of speed and momentum.

Kline has her from behind, one arm around her as he struggles to pull them both toward the object in the tracks, toward the oncoming train.

I lower my shoulder. With all the force my body can propel, I slide in front of Kline, nailing Lenore between hip and thigh, my arms closing around her, my legs driving. The impact of my body striking hers peels Lenore from his grasp. The impetus carries us across the tracks, tumbling on the concrete like Jack and jill.

It seems my only functioning faculties at this instant are those receiving sound and vibration: the dead thud of metal hitting flesh and the stone silence of the crowd in the fleeting moment that follows.

 

We lay sprawled on the street, Lenore and I, pain finally filling in the voids.

The train slides for nearly half a block before coming to a stop, the last car finally passing us. Kids clamoring for a look stampede like wildebeests.

There is an effusion of blood, an explosion like a Dali painting on the concrete at the point of impact twelve feet away. A single shoe shot from its owner by the force rests between the rails; like some morbid fashion statement, comets of blood shine across its toe.

Lenore is shaking, stunned, all the symptoms of shock. In a daze I remove my coat and put it around her.

I crawl on my hands and knees, surveying the tracks as I go. The thought that the county's chief prosecutor now lies dead, a spectacle for a horde of teeming youths, and that we have no evidence floats through my brain like a dark cloud. The cufflink is gone.

Lenore comes up behind me.

I wonder aloud at the obsession that could cause a man to take on thirty tons of speeding steel and glass.

"What in the world could have gone through his head?" I ask. "Probably his ass," she says.

As I look up at Lenore quivering in the cold behind me she has an expression that is something between a grimace and a smile. Her cold humor in the face of Kline's death is the final edge of enmity in a bad relationship.

I turn back toward the chore at hand, my search along the gleaming rail. "I can't find it," I tell her. I'm combing the crevice with my fingers, a foot at a time, grease and grime, looking for the missing cufflink. "Are you sure?" she says.

"Yes. It's not here." Panic beginning to set in. What we will tell authorities in the absence of evidence I do not know.

For a moment I feel her presence leaning over my shoulder as she joins in the search. "Damn it," she says. "They were my favorite pair, too."

 

I stop and look up at her shivering form under the tinseled lights.

Standing there, she is holding a single gold earring in the open palm of one hand, and for an instant I don't get it. I study her face, which wears the mask of an enigmatic smile, until she opens the palm of her other hand. In it is Kline's gold cufflink.

It WAS THE FINAL IRONY, THAT IN THE STRUGGLE for their lives, unwilling to part with the evidence of Kline's crime, Lenore had performed her own sleight of hand: an exchange of one of her earrings for his gold cuff link. It was the earring I saw, which she had thrown onto the tracks that night, and that Kline had pursued to his death.

More than a week has passed, and Radovich has declared a mistrial in Acosta's case. The newspapers are now filled each day with new rev relations: the mounting evidence that Kline killed Brittany Hall. From pictures shown to her by police, Kimberly has finally identified Kline as the man she had seen with her mother the night of the murder. It was the reason Kline absented himself during her testimony both times in court: fear that the little girl would identify him.

The attorney general has stepped in, and two days ago announced that based on evidence he now has, charges against Acosta have been dismissed. The judge is a free man.

Armando and Lili came by the office yesterday and we talked. There is still no admission of lili's presence in Hall's apartment that day. Some things are better left unsaid.

This morning Lenore and I are at the house. We are both exhausted, looking for a rest. Harry has agreed to hold down the fort for a week, so we are packing the car, taking the kids, Sarah and Lenore's two girls, into the mountains for a few days to camp. Sarah has loaded the car with her fuzzy stuffed animals so that we may all have to ride on the roof.

"Will we need this?" Lenore is holding up the box containing the camp stove.

"If we want to eat," I tell her.

"I thought we'd just call out for Chinese." I'm getting the idea that tents and sleeping bags are not Lenore's notion of a rest. Still, we will decompress in the clear mountain air with no television or phones, or reporters to hound us.

While there are still questions, Tony Arguillo has filled in some of the blanks, both to investigators who have questioned him, and in private to Lenore.

In pillow talk, Hall told him about her affair with Kline, which by that time had gone sour. She was making noises of sexual harassment.

Some are saying that he refused to give her a job. Lenore thinks it is something more. Woman's intuition.

Lenore says Kline would have given Hall a job in a minute. "With a staff of a hundred, positions in his office were a dime a dozen," she says.

"So what do you think?" I ask.

"My guess? Hall was after the gold ring. She wanted him to leave his wife, but it was his wife's money that fueled his career." Caught between the two jaws of this particular vice, a wife with money and a mistress charging sexual harassment, Kline cracked. In the heat of passion, anger flashed like powder in a pan at her apartment that night. The rest we know.

Lenore is cryptic. She gives me an arched eyebrow, like a woman would know, leaving me with a grain of doubt; perhaps Kline was right.

Had Hall said something to her that day that may have given a clue? Or is this just hindsight? I will never know.

It was only a guess, but I had pieced bits of it in my head following Kimberly's examination on the stand. Why, after going to the trouble of trying a high-profile case, would you turn on your heels and allow a subordinate to examine the most sympathetic witness, the survivor, the little child Kimberly? Unless, that is, you had something to fear. It was Kline's uncertainty as to whether she saw him that night that made him such a reluctant player. And then there was the look on his face from the back of the courtroom that day, mystified, as she fed jelly beans to the little bear, the light in his eyes, as it finally dawned, the final piece to the puzzle: what happened to the missing cufflink.

For a time, I suspect that he thought Lenore had it, that she had found it that night when she left her fingerprint on the door to Hall's apartment. Perhaps he thought she was just one more scheming female, waiting for the right moment to use it, to extract the maximum advantage. There was a great deal that was cryptic in his conversation with me that evening at the fund-raiser: that Lenore knew something, that perhaps she had something.

And then there was Kline's obsession about Lenore's interview with Hall. Why? Unless perhaps he thought Hall had told Lenore something about a relationship that was souring. Hall was a social gadfly and a professional climber. I could not help but notice when the letter K turned up missing from her directory. We still do not know if this was fortuitous, the work of Tony on behalf of another. Or if kline did it himself.

Hall's apartment that night was like Grand Central Station. It was a measure of the woman and her aspirations that nearly everyone involved in the subsequent trial was there, though not at the same moment Lili, and Tony, Lenore and I, and Kline.

In fact the only one not to make a visit that night was Phil Mendel, though he was in her phone book, and is now in jail.

The reason Harry could be so certain that Mendel would return early from his trip was that he never left. Mendel had an appointment at the airport with Customs that he could not anticipate, an anonymous phone call, a tip that he was packing nearly a kilo of cocaine in one of his bags.

After the raid at my home, I'd given this to Harry to dispose of, I assumed down some toilet. Harry's idea of a convenient commode was one of Mendel's unguarded bags in the clerk's office that last day. When I questioned him about this, he called it "recycling": Harry's notion of environmental activism. With Mendel running through the airport clamoring to catch his plane, federal agents shagged him.

All debts are now paid, questions answered, the story full circle poetry in motion.

BOOK: The Judge
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