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Authors: Steve Martini

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BOOK: The Judge
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" I'm making a lot of hand gestures, bobs and weaves with my head, all of which add up to "yes."

"Word is, it's the company he keeps," says Leo. "Meaning?"

"Meaning he's gotten in with some bad people." "Mendel and his crowd?" I say.

Leo says nothing, but I can tell by his silence that this is exactly what he means.

"I grant you Mendel," I say, "is not someone I would take home to meet the family. And I'm aware of the allegations, skimming from the pension fund. Still it seems like a bit of overkill," I tell him. "Roll out the canons. Call up the grand jury. Sounds like a little union busting to me."

"If that were all of it," he says.

I take a bead on Leo. He is a bullshitter extraordinaire, but there are moments when you know he is dead serious.

"Jungle drums and smoke signals?" he says.

This means that what is about to follow comes from the office grapevine, rumors that have no confirmation this side of the grave.

"It's my life on the line," he tells me. "You gotta promise it goes no further." I give him three fingers in the air, poking out from my beer can, like some blood oath between brother inebriants. Leo cannot wait to tell me, which, knowing the man, is a good hint that what is to follow is bad news.

"There was a case, maybe six months ago, a cop named Wiley, shot in a raid out by the park, a crack house."

"Killed, as I recall," I tell him. "I remember reading about it. Some controversy."

"He was off duty at the time, which raised a few eyebrows," says Leo. "Part of a rat pack. Hotshots with battering rams in the trunk of their cars like other people carry fishing rods. Their idea of a good time was picking some pusher's nose with the barrel of a Beretta. You know the type," he says.

To Leo this is a mortal sin, a violation of the wages and hours rule that governs all life. Leo has never worked a minute of overtime for which he was not paid.

"They made some kid for the killing. Sixteen. They tried him as an adult," says Leo.

"Sounds like justice to me," I tell him.

"Except for one thing," he says. "The kid denied he did it. Said the gun wasn't his."

"Imagine that," I say. "Novel defense."

"Yeah, very novel," says Leo. "Novel-type story. That's why nobody gave it much credence. They checked the serial number. This is no Saturday-night special, mind you. Smith and Wesson thirty-eight. Well, lo and behold," says Leo, "the piece was stolen. Household burglary. So everybody figures the kid for it. Right?" I give him an expression, the picture of logic.

"Except there's more history to this particular piece. Seems one of the clerks down in Property is going through records doing a little inventory, trying to see how much they lost over the course of the year, cars, planes, hotels, that kinda shit, and what do you think he finds?"

I give him a shrug. One thirty-eight Smith and Wesson--missing." Let me guess. The same serial number."

"Bingo," says Leo. "Theory is somebody, one of the cops, dropped the piece on the kid at the scene."

"What? An accidental shooting? One of them panicked?"

"You're too trusting," says Leo. The only man more cynical than me. "Then why?"

"That's the other shoe," says Leo. "We been hearin' rumblings no complaints, mind you but tom-toms from the street for over a year that some cops have gone into business for themselves, shaking down dealers, taking cash, and when they can, drugs. Nothing too big," says Leo. "A little here, a little there, a grand here, a kilo there. It all adds up.

 

Now, mind you, these guys, the victims, are in no position to file a consumer complaint. So what we hear is just informal." Leo's getting animated, into the story.

"Like, Officer," he says. "See that son of a bitch over there? He took my bag of crack and this month's supply of horse. Yeah, that's right, the one over there, wearing the uniform just like yours."

"I can imagine how it might chill a complaint," I tell him. "You think that's chilling," says Leo. "Try this one. All of the officers on the raid with Wiley that night were part of Mendel's clique. Two of them were officers in the association. On the board," he says. Leo is zeroing in.

"What does that have to do with Tony Arguillo? You're not telling me ... " He starts to nod his head.

"Your man Tony," he says, "was the one who took the gun off the kid." HAPTEB

HAVE BEEN CALLING lenore's APARTMENT ALL evening with no success. Sarah is now asleep in her bedroom and I while away the time going over some files from the office. Ten minutes later I pick up the phone and have one of those extrasensory experiences that occur once in an eon. I go to dial and there is a voice on the other end.

It is Lenore.

"Mental telepathy," I tell her. I look at my watch. It's after ten. "You must be burning the oil," I add.

"Clearing the cobwebs from my life," she tells me. Her voice is thick with a nasal quality. I'm wondering if she has a cold.

"I was calling to find out if you know where Tony Arguillo is. I've been leaving messages on his phone for two days. He isn't returning my calls.

" I don't tell her about my meeting with Phil Mendel, or the icy information from Leo Kems, the reasons I have to talk with Tony. I haven't a clue," she says. "I haven't seen him since our meeting in your office." There follows that awkward kind of silence on the line--the pause that might normally accompany news of a death in the family.

"Your turn," I say.

"I need to talk to somebody," she tells me. "If just a friendly voice. "

"Why? What's the matter?" "I've been fired."

A half hour later there is a quiet knock on my door. When I open it, Lenore is standing on the porch, with hair as disheveled as I can ever imagine hers becoming. There is a slight odor of alcohol as she says,

"Hello." She looks like a smoldering Mount Saint Helens after the main explosion, a great deal of psychic smoke with the fire mostly out.

I usher her in and offer her coffee or a drink.

"What have you got?" In her current state hydrochloric acid is probably too mild. I lead her to the kitchen and throw open the cabinet door so she can take her pick.

"You weren't surprised?" she says. "By the news of my demise?" "A little," I tell her. "But then I figured you and Kline for different management styles." She laughs. "A graceful way to put it. Always the diplomat."

"Now you're going to tell me you didn't see it coming," I say.

"I saw it," she says. "It's just that you're always most surprised by your own obituary." It's the kind of bravado that covers a lot of hurt.

She has a few choice words for her former employer, but most of the invective seems gone, consumed, I suspect, in some earlier heat. I am wondering who among her cadre of friends got most of this, maybe over drinks after leaving the office.

She takes Johnnie Walker by the neck in one hand, and pours half a glass into a large tumbler, talking to me all the while, like "who's measuring." She uses no water or ice to cut this. Lenore doesn't want to remember any of this tomorrow.

 

"So tell me what happened. Another argument?" She shakes her head and sniffles just a little. "Uh-uh. He's too calculating for that. He wanted
to think about it, and plan it. Savor the moment," she says.

"I get back from court in the afternoon, about four-thirty, and my office door is open." She takes a long drink from the glass and coughs a little, like some kid after his first drag on a cigarette.

"This is awful." "You picked it."

"Got any wine?" Lenore is not a serious drinker. She is looking for pain medication, something to add to the buzz she is already feeling.

"You can get just as drunk on that."

"But wine takes longer, and I've got a ten-hanky story," she says.

I rummage through my cupboard and come up with a couple of hotties. "The Gewurtz," she says.

"Remind me never to seduce you with liquor," I tell her.

"If you can't take the time to do it right, you shouldn't do it at all, " she says.

"Anyway, you get back from court and your office door is open." I pick up the point while I look for a corkscrew.

"Yeah. As I was saying. My office door is open. I remember closing it before I left. There's a deputy sheriff parked in a chair outside, reading the paper. I thought maybe he was a witness in a case waiting to be interviewed." I give her a nod. Logical conclusion. I pop the cork and pour her a glass.

"Then before I can get there I hear noises in my office, somebody rummaging around. You know, I'm like, what the hell? Then he stops me."

"Who?"

"The deputy," she says. "He puts his hand out and grabs my arm like he's going to tackle me if I try to enter my own office. He demands identification. So I show him my I.D. The little folder," she says.

 

This is something that looks like a passport, and serves for that purpose at crime scenes, issued with a picture on it by the prosecutor's office to each of its deputies, a ticket to the law enforcement fraternity.

"He looks at it, then puts it in his pocket," she says. I agree with her that there is a message in this.

"Yes, well. I tell him I want it back. He tells me to take a seat. I ask him what the hell's going on, and he doesn't answer.

"Mind you, while this is going on somebody's inside my office going through my desk drawers. I can hear the rustle of papers, voices inside, so I'm arguing with the cop outside in the hallway. And I'm getting pretty pushy." Visions of Lenore, all one hundred twenty pounds, taking on some burly deputy.

"Three guesses," I tell her, "and the first two don't count. Kline's inside with a flashlight and picks working the tumblers on your desk drawer?" I say.

She gives me a nod like "damn right."

"He's got that woman with him. Wendy. The pink slip dispenser. Someone he brought from the outside. They worked together at that association before he was elected." She makes the word association sound like something dirty.

"Anyway, she's standing there taking notes on a little pad, apparently taking inventory of everything in my office. I ask him what the hell's going on." Lenore sips her wine. "This is good."

"I'll break out the cheese and we can do the wine tasting later," I tell her.

She gives me a pain-in-the-ass expression.

"Anyway, he wants to know where all my notes are in the Acosta case. I tell him everything was in the file, that I gave it to him." She tells me that for some reason he doesn't believe this.

"At that point I start getting really pissed. I guess I said some things," she says.

 

She takes a drink, and I am left to use my own imagination to fill in the blanks, what part of her mind she no doubt gave to Kline at this point.

She swallows, then looks at me. "Then he tells me I'm fired." The look on her face imparts only a small measure of the shock she says came with this news.

"I ask him why, and he tells me he's been advised by the County Counsel's office not to state the grounds, that I'll be getting a letter, but that I'm terminated effective at five o'clock today. No explanation," she says. "Can you believe it?" The sorry fact is that I can. It is a measure of job security in the modern workplace. We discuss Lenore's recourse, which takes all of a nanosecond. As part of management she is what is called a "pleasure appointment," exempt from civil service protection. Hired and fired at the pleasure of the elected district attorney. Kline does not even require cause to fire her.

Anything that is not grounded in discrimination will do.

She tells me she has no intention of fighting it, that taking the long view, it is probably for the best. "Time to strike out on my own," she says. I ask her about prospects, clients or money. She has neither.

"I could give you Tony as a client," I tell her.

"Yeah, right. Just what I need." I think perhaps this is a lot of booze talking, that when she considers the sum of her financial obligations around payday, she may have other thoughts.

"Did you ever figure out what Kline wanted from the Acosta file? What it was he thought was missing?" I am thinking maybe this has something to do with her firing.

"With that one, God only knows," she says.

"You said he asked about your notes?" She gives me a face that is a question mark. She doesn't have a clue.

"What happened then?"

"High drama," she says. "He has Wendy hand me a cardboard box filled with personal items they've taken from my office and Kline tells the deputy to escort me from the building. Like I've committed some crime,"

BOOK: The Judge
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