Authors: Steve Martini
Tags: #Trials (Murder), #Mystery & Detective, #Legal, #General, #Psychological, #Suspense, #Large type books, #Fiction
Barbara offers me a seat in the reception area and me that she will inform Florence that I have arrived. In the far comer of the reception area are two deep‐c sofas that spread like twin dark clouds across the broad e of wall. Here the visitor feels the need to check his brief favor of a machete and pith helmet. The furnishings are jungle of ficus, philodendrons, ferns, and rubber plants, an in hip‐high planter boxes. A faint odor of moist earth the area. I decline a seat on the sofa and instead muse a spacious reception room, examining the rich wall hang'
two modem ceramics set on pedestals near the center of th They are new, since I left P&S, the usual symbols of co affluence used to set the stage for what routinely follows private inner chambers of any large firm. They aare e like some artistic emetic to lubricate and ease the disgor substantial fees by clients who at times might wouder if receiving full value for their money. As I stand gazing out of the window at the panorama city spread before me, there's a rippled reflection in the Someone has walked up behind me. I turn. "Hi," she says. Talia has a small box in her arms filled with books and rabilia. I recognize the marble pen set from Ben's desk. of my most turgid fantasies of Talia, this is one role I co have conjured‐the widow performing the wifely duty, Ben's personal items from the office.
"Hello." My voice is flat, empty. "Just a moment." She walks back to the reception station, places the box on the counter, and issues instructions to Barbara. There are more boxes in Ben's office. They are too heavy. She will need help. I make no effort to move away. Finally she turns and looks directly at me standing there, lost in a philodendron. For an instant we simply look at each other. It's like ice cracking around our feet on a frozen pond. Each waits for the other to make the first move. I win the contest. She comes closer again. "How have you been?" she says. "Good."
Her hands are clasped neatly together just below the waistband of her very tight, brightly colored skirt. With Talia, at least in private, there will be no pretense of mourning. This woman who bedded me for the better part of a year under the nose of her husband is now the picture of polite reserve. We stand here eye to eye, staring in silence at each other. Barbara, the epitome of clerical servitude, appears oblivious to the tension that fills the room. "Here for a visit?" she asks. "To see Tony."
"How are you holding upt' It's all I can think of to say, the obligatory caring question. She makes a face. "Making out," she says. "It's difficult." I nod. "The police just allowed us back into Ben's office yesterday. I pess it takes a long time for them to finish whatever it is they do after something like this."
"A lot of unanswered questions," she says. I suppose we'll never fully understand it," I flex an eyebrow in inquiry. "Why he did it? Den had so much to live for." With anyone else I would be surprised, but knowing Talia as I do, I have no doubt that she will be the last to hear that her husband's death is in fact now the subject of a homicide investigation. I do not shatter the illusion. I suppose," I say. "I've turned it over a million times in my mind. A Mend who I(St her son to suicide a year ago keeps telling me to stop asking Ox same question over and over again: "Why?' She says it gets worse every time you ask it. I think she's right." It's a true measure of the difference in how each of us five that before I was told that Ben's death was imvil another person, I had asked the same question of myself, once, and had had little difficulty arriving at a single and 1 sailable answer: This was no suicide. As she speaks, I listen. There's not a hint of reticenc .Le marmer, though her eyes wander, taking in nothing; in This is the Talia I know, standing here in a public place, unbridled with a former lover, her partner in adultery, 1w:1, muster even a single theory as to why her husband os%*ttaken his own life. Talia has a gift for viewing reai‐_
torpid haze,.Iike a film shot through gauze. We stand, she speaking and I forming a listless face from the past approaches in the hallway behind [email protected] seen this face but can't place it. A, "I need your help with some papers in the desk. A s 77 on what to do with ..."
He cuts it off in mid‐sentence sees me. Talia turns. ‐41 "Oh, Tod." Her voice becomes brighter. "I want you i an old friend. Paul Madriani, Tod Hamilton. You lqjont" told you about Paul."
He extends a hand. I give it a quick shake. There are glances exchanged between the two. A kind of invades the conversation as Hamilton looks for iowii 1 1‐," with his hands. It's clear that at some point I've been ke" conversation between the two. I sense that perhaps extolled my virtues. Tod, it seems, is my wo"11F77 M‐# Then I remember. The cleft chin, Wong's. Tod was at' the night I talked to Ben. "Tod's been helping me go through some of Ben's Is t been a lifesaver, my rock to lean on during this hot‐pink mourning atfire and the fact that she is here for latest flame speak to Talia's total lack of concern constraints that rule other, less self‐possessed souls. "I see." She looks back at him, over her shoulder, and i %I I'm, confident grin. The kind that says I'm no competition. T took of lust in Talia's eyes confirms his assessment.
111 explain it, this hurts. I carry no torch for Talia, middle‐aged ego is crushed. Seeing the two of 1, there, virtually oblivious to my presence, lost in this glow of routual infatuation, somehow feeds a primeval yearning within roe. I stand here mired in this quicksand of social discomfort. Silence spawns a crusade for small talk‐Talia's latest real estate venture, Tod's tennis exploits. Talia has pushed the conversation to the domestic side, asking about Sarah. She chides me twfil I reach for my wallet and pictures. I'm saved by Florence, Tony's secretary, who has come to retrieve me for the meeting. Florence Thom is a tall, stately woman on whom social pleasantries appear a lost ad.
She's all business. "Mr. Madriani, if you'll follow me. They're waiting for you."
The acid begins to churn in my stomach when I hear the plural pronoun.
Skarpellos is ganging up on me. Tod looks at me and smiles. "Nice to have met you." For a)) of his looks there is a disarming sincerity, a kind of country honesty under the polished virility. Talia could have dow worse, I conclude.. Tony's secretary sets a brisk pace down'the hall. We turn the comer and there‐it hits me like an iced dagger. For a moment I beak stride, stating in silence at the walnut‐paneled double doors kading to Ben's office. One of them is open. Police tape, a'single bond of canary yellow with busy black lettering, clings to the pneling near the door frame. The secretarial station across from Ben's office is vacant and 4Wk. Jo Ann, Ben's secretary, is not in. And then it strikes me. Sk was not at the funeral either. For as long as I had known, Ben, was a fixture, always at his elbow. "Where's Jo Ann?" I ask. "Oh‐Mrs.
Campanelli is no longer with us." She offers nothmore than a pleasant smile. That's it‐fifteen years with the and Jo Ann's epitaph is covered in four words, "no longer us. nee taps lightly on the rich black walnut.
"Me door to the ous comer office is opened from the inside. Tony Skarpellos from behind an immense Pedestal desk, its base formed from redwood burl. Tony's waste basket is the hollowed foot elephant. A seamless horn of ivory is mounted on the wall the window. In this, as in so many other ways, the Greek is ss. To Tony social disfavor is a badge of honor. He would Bambi to the wall if Disney would sell him rights.
come in," he says. "Please come in."
"Tony." I greet him, not warmly, merely a statement of The surface of his desk is a slab of polished black picks up the reflection of Tony's mendacious ste‐ Th., I traverse yards of carpeted expanse, taupe in c lor, d sand on a dry beach. He extends his hand. I give it a quick shake. Then hear the catch on the door as it closes. I turn to find Ron re standi4 there‐playing doorman. This is not a [email protected] retony clears his throat. Left with no recourse, he Ou honors. "Ron, I think you know Paul [email protected] Brown glides across the room like a purebred Arabi skimming the sand. "Sure. Paul and I are old friends. It to see you again." He thrusts his hand in my direction spring‐1oaded and pumps my arm like the handle n all jack. Brown excels in such settings. Tods s p, a) enthusiastic corporate lackey‐all teeth, beaming from a meager pencil mustache. On first blush, Ronald Simpson Brown is a difficult dislike.
He's personable and outwardly affable. Like metal, his oppressive insecurity doesn't become ap stress is applied. During my stint at Potter, Skarpellos,11 and I discovered out mutual coefficient of friction at stage. From that point we maintained our distance. "I've asked Ron to join us here this afternoon. Please.,' seat."
Tony smiles and gives a broad gesture ton [email protected] thclient chairs situated in front of the vast rock ol aps. I cushioned nothingness and wait for the reve ation I've been summoned. "Some coffee, Paul?"
"No, thanks:' The empty cup situated at the edge of desk in front of Brown indicates that whatever Skarpe say will come as no surprise to Brown. The two have for some time before my arrival, Brown bpens his leather n6tebook and removes the re ia ar Is of bla'.c from his fountain pen‐three hundred ddliars of blac and gold filigree with a twenty‐four‐carat writing nib a spear. He sits poised with this baton on his fingers, about to sign a treaty ending world poverty. WWHEN first started appearing in the hands of young law‐yers year ago, Harry dubbed them "spear‐chuckers."
Skarpellos opens a gold cigar box on the desk aand direction. I shake my head. "You don't mind if I do?"
"It's your office." He offers one to Brown, who declines. These are not big stogies, but smaller and black, twisted and shapeless corkscrews, things that Skarpellos discovered on a trip through Italy two years earlier. By the old Italians who smoke them, men whose few remaining teeth are brown as the snow Oled along the edge of highways, I am told, there cigars are known simply as toscanelli. Ben swore they were pieces of dog shit. Several seconds in, with thick clouds of dark smoke wafting about Tony's head, I wonder whether Potter's euphemism was grounded so much on their appearance as the odor they emit. It's the latest affectation, like the ginseng tea following his whirlwind tour of China, and the array of bottled mineral waters on his return frorn Eastern European spas. As with the frog in The Wind in The Willows, in time each went the way of the Greek's last fad. One co only hope that his fling with toscanelli will soon follow the same course. The accoutrements of wealth and tastelessness now in place, Skarpellos and Brown are ready to begin business. "We all appreciate your coming by today." He turns his head to the side and spits out little bits of tobacco, stripping the end of his tongue with his teeth and lips to comb off the last few Oeces.
"The partners, that is. I know that Ben's death affected you deeply, as it did all of us." He's still spitting in between ,syllables. "Whatever caused you to leave the fun well, that's aft water under the bridge‐as far as I'm concerned. I want you to know that."
Tony pauses. Like the village pastor, he's giving me an opporowty to make a confession. "I appreciate that, Tony."
He's fingering a single piece of paper centered On the desk in front of him, lines printed in large type so Tony read them without his glasses.
He's searching for his place on script. In all of this smoke, his eyes are beginning to water. There's been a lot of confusion around here. I guess you can .the.11 .1 nod, He leans back, having mastered the subject once more. "Me have really been working the place over. We hear rumors, es, nothing specific." He looks at me for signs of interest. And then with typical finesse: "Have you heard anythin Skarpellos is not a man of small talk‐‐or for that ma thoughts‐but for those in a hurry he possesses the directness. "About what?"
"Just what I've read."
"Thought you might have heard something from your in the DA's office.
Your pipeline is probably better th& something like this."
"What are you hearing?" I ask. It's clear ‐that Tony's not been left standing at the suffers under no illusion that his partner took his own a moment I think that Skarpellos has called me here to for information on Ben's death. He swallows a little saliva, considering his response.
"Things," he says. "Yes?"
"Just rumors. You know, the kind of stuff you probab hear when somebody prominent takes his own life. about foul play. Lotta, speculation."
"I suppose. I hadn't heard."
"Sure," he says. "Well, down to business." Digging Ben's death has been only Tony's hors d'oeuvre. "I guess we should get right to it. I'm sure there's n say this, but so there's no misunderstanding later what O.fi to tell you must be treated in the strictest c 4en e. I have your assurance on that?" Skarpellos looks dir Brown knows his job serves as collateral for his [email protected] I nod my assent. "There is a client who, for the moment, sball remain Suffice it to say this is a man of some prominence " of posturing here. Skarpellos weighs what he's a @out a brief instant. The judicious hesitation is mostly for It's followed quickly by a show of candor: "Me man is official." That narrows it to half a thousand people in thig seems He's gotten himself caught up in what's !bout to very embarrassing‐and messy‐‐criminal case. A longm pause follows as Skarpellos prepares me for the sole charges. "Me guy's accused of multiple counts of bribery." eyebrows droop. He takes a slow draw on the cigar an irregular smoke ring toward the ceiling. "With some sexual overtones."
I make a face‐novel, but I'm not convinced that it represents a new low in the ethos of our public servants. Skarpellos gets the point and his dour expression turns light. He laughs. "Yeah‐the guy's a bit of an asshole. Problem is, as they say, he's our asshole." 'qbe firm has taken the case?" I ask. "in a manner of speaking. Actually we're only advising him at this point." The firm is merely brokering the case. I wonder what prize is in it for P&S or, perhaps more to the point, for Tony Skarpellos. I begin to anticipate the drift of our conversation. Like a rug merchant, Tony studies my expression for signs of interest. At this point Skarpellos begins to run out of steam. I wonder why it is that he can't get to the punch line. The rules of evidence may often elude, him, but bullshit is Tony's special gift. "As you know, thig firm is not well schooled in criminal law, though Ben helped to navigate some of our business clients through those stormy waters from time to time."