Authors: Michael A Kahn
Oh, Benny,” I groaned, “how did I
let you talk me into this case?”
“Talk you into it?” he asked, incredulous. “Talk you into it? My God, Rachel, you should be sending flowers to my office, planting trees in my honor in Israel. When are you ever going to find a case like this again?”
It was late in the afternoon and we were heading east on Highway 70 toward St. Louis. The Warrenton exit was fifteen miles ahead. Benny had directions from there to the ranch, where we were going to meet my newest clients, Maggie Lane and Sara Freed. Sara's younger brother Paul was a first-year law student in Benny's contracts class. One day after class last week Paul told Benny about a lawsuit involving his sisterâa truly preposterous case, and thus one that immediately appealed to Benny, who'd driven right over to my office to enlist my help.
Had he been any other law school professor in the United States, I would have said no. But of course he wasn't any other law school professor. He was Benny Goldberg, unique by any standard: vulgar, fat, gluttonous, and obnoxious. But also ferociously loyal, wonderfully funny, andâmost importantâmy very best friend in the whole world. I loved him like the brother I never had, although he bore as much resemblance to my fantasy brother as, appropriately enough, an ostrich does to an eagle.
Benny Goldberg and I met as junior associates in the Chicago offices of Abbott & Windsor. A few years later, we both escaped that LaSalle Street sweatshopâBenny to teach law at De Paul, me to go solo as Rachel Gold, Attorney-at-Law. Different reasons brought us to St. Louis. For Benny, it was an offer he couldn't refuse from Washington University. For me, it was a yearning to live closer to my mother after my father died.
“Come on, woman,” Benny said. “We gotta focus on the big picture here.”
“Focus me, Professor.”
“Do ostriches have dicks?”
I turned toward him with raised eyebrows. “Pardon?”
here, and if the answer is yes, then we're not talking ordinary bird
. We're talking big swinging ones. So that's the issue, woman. Do ostriches have them?”
“I have no idea.”
“Then we better find out pronto, eh? I mean, what's going on down there between Big Bird's legs? We talking Ken doll or we talking Burger King?”
I gave him a dubious look. “Burger King?”
He winked. “Home of the Whopper.”
I sighed and shook my head. “I can't believe this.”
“Come on, Rachel, this is a great case. These women pay ten grand for a genetically superior stud and instead they get the Slobodan Milosevic of the ostrich world.”
I glanced over and shrugged. “I have no idea.”
“I just assumed that birds had them.”
“Not so, O provincial one. Ducks do, but most don't. Canaries and parakeets definitely don't.”
“Benny, how in the world do you know this?”
“I worked in a pet store in high school.”
“If they don't have penises, how do theyâyou know?”
“Ah,” he said, segueing into his impression of the narrator in a cheesy documentary. “Join me on a voyage into the strange and wondrous world of ornithological amour, to that magic moment that experts call the âcloacal kiss.'”
“Basically,” he said, switching back to his standard New Jersey, “they press their butts together.”
“I'm serious. The male's sex organs are inside his butt, and the female's are inside hers. When birds get some booty, we're talking booty squared.”
“Are you making this up, Benny?”
“Would I make something like that up?”
The sign ahead read Warrenton Next Exit.
I mulled over his question, recalling some of the material I'd downloaded from the Internet in preparation for today's meeting.
“Those birds are humongous,” I said. “They can weigh three hundred and fifty pounds. Penis or not, that's a lot of ostrich to fight off.”
We drove in silence for a while.
I shook my head in disbelief. “Could this case possibly be any stranger?”
“Actually,” he said, pausing.
I shot him a look. “What?”
He gave me an awkward grin. “Your clientsâthe two women.”
“What about them?”
“Well, they'reâyou know.”
“Daughters of Sappho.”
“Whose daughters?” I asked, pulling ahead of a truck and into the right lane.
“Sappho. Sappho? Good grief, Rachel,” he said in exasperation, “you may have showgirl legs, but don't ever try to win Ben Stein's money.”
“Your clients are lesbians.”
“So? You think I'd have a problem with that?”
don't. I'm not talking about you.”
I looked over with a frown. “What do you mean?”
“Charlie Blackwell. He's the breeder who sold them the ostrich. That's his explanation.”
“What are you talking about?”
“After the ostrich killed one of their hens, the women demanded their money back. Blackwell refused. Wait until you see his lawsuit. He claims that up until his breeding cock arrived at their ranch it was perfectly normalâpresumably a caring, tender, romantic, sensitive lover. He claims the two women messed him up. He accuses them of incompetence and inexperience, and he also blames their lesbianism.”
I turned to him, flabbergasted. “Are you serious?”
“There's more. He claims he's suffering mental anguish over the damage to his bird. That's why he's seeking punitive damages.”
I could feel my litigator's pulse quicken. “That is absolutely outrageous.”
Benny chuckled. “You go, girl.”
I took the Warrenton exit and followed Benny's instructions down Highway 47. He had, by now, switched topics to one far dearer to his heart: barbecue.
“I don't care how long they smoke them,” I said with a shudder. “I'm not eating noses.”
“Not noses, you Philistine. Snouts. Actually, we pig proboscis aficionados call them âsnoots.' Believe me, woman, you ain't done St. Louis barbecue till you scarf down a bucket of hickory-smoked snoots at C and K Restaurant bathed in their sweetâ¦” His voice trailed off.
I turned to him with a curious look.
“Rachel,” he said, a hint of concern in his voice, “you really shouldn't get so hung up on Angela Green's criminal case.”
I leaned back in the driver's seat. “You're probably right.”
When I had picked him up from the law school on my return from the prisonâlong before Benny had changed the subject to ostrich genitaliaâI'd filled him in on my meeting with Angela and my growing doubts about the original conviction.
“What's done is done,” he said. “She's been convicted, the court of appeals affirmed the conviction. That's the past. The Son of Sam claim is more than enough for you to deal with, especially with those assholes from New York and L.A.”
Angela's publisher had retained Braun, Proctor & Silverberg and the motion picture studio had retained Corcoran Fox.
“I've dealt with Braun, Proctor before,” Benny continued, “and believe me, those five-hundred-dollar-an-hour yahoos could fuck up a wet dream. Forget about the criminal conviction. You'll have plenty to worry about with those douche bags.”
“I know, I know. It's just that all those loose ends bother me, Benny.”
“There aren't that many, Rachel, especially compared to that mountain of evidence against her, starting with the fact that she was physically in his room that night. There's no other explanation.”
I mulled that over. He was probably right, I conceded. You couldn't overlook the damning fact that Angela had been in his bedroom the night of the murder.
“Rachel,” Benny said, “we've both had cases that are weak and others that are slam dunks. With which ones do you spend more time on pretrial preparations? The weak ones, right? It's the same here. This case was a slam dunk for the prosecution. Their main worry was the battered-wife crap, and that's what they spent their time on, and that's why you've got some of these looseâlooseâSweet Jesus! Check that out.”
I slowed the car. “Wow.”
It was an astounding sight, made even more so by being here in the middle of the middle of America. We'd been driving past typical farmland vistas: grazing cattle, red barns, fields of soybean, metal silos, green rows of corn stretching to the horizon. And then suddenly we came upon a pasture with a flock of ostriches running parallel to our car. The adults were enormous, all easily over seven feet tall, loping along on long, skinny legs that thickened near the top to massive drumsticks. Their black-feathered torsos were balanced above their pumping legs while their little white wings flapped absurdly, as if they were a garden party of maiden aunts escaping a sudden shower. Their tiny beaked heads were perched on long, reddish necks that undulated in synch with their gait. Scampering behind were about twenty chicks, some the size of adult geese, others the size of third-graders, all looking even more prehistoric than the parents, with their ridged heads and protruding black eyes and juvenile feathers that resembled spiky bristles.
“Whoa,” Benny said, peering out the window, “welcome to Jurassic Park.”
Maggie Lane and Sara Freed were seated together on the porch swing, each sipping a glass of lemonade, as we pulled up to their snug farmhouse. They came down to greet us.
. That's what I felt the moment I met them. Maggie was in her late fortiesâa tall, slender brunette with the strong, elegant face, wise eyes, and wavy hair of a British stage actress. Her last name could have been Redgrave. Sara was in her late twenties, stood maybe an inch over five feet, and had a sturdy build. She was a perky all-American type: blond hair, blue eyes, lots of freckles, cheerful smile. Both women wore jeans, work shirts, and boots.
We joined them on the porch, where there were chairs for us and a big pitcher of fresh-squeezed lemonade. They filled me in on the background of the lawsuit, starting with the strange world of ostrich ranches. Maggie explained that ostriches had been bred and raised in captivity for more than a century. Originally marketed for their feathers and leather, they were increasingly valued as food. Indeed, the recent boom in ostrich ranching had been fueled by the belief that ostrich steaksâan excellent source of low-fat, low-cholesterol proteinâwould be the health meat of the twenty-first century. Newborn chicks weighed two pounds and stood ten inches tall. They grew fast and reached processing size in a little over a year.
“Luckily,” Maggie said, “we're in the middle of breeding season.”
“Luckily?” I asked.
She nodded. “You're likely to see one of our pairs mate. It'll give you something to compare to Rush.”
“Rush?” Benny perked up. “That's his name?”
“We changed it,” Sara said. “The breeder named him Big Red. We liked Rush better.”
Benny chuckled. “As in football?”
“As in Limbaugh,” Sara said, wrinkling her nose in disgust.
“What?” Benny said, offended. Unfortunately, Benny's politics were somewhere to the right of Vlad the Impaler.
“Shush,” I hissed, grabbing him by the arm. “Behave yourself.”
I went over the lawsuit basics with Maggie and Sara, explaining that I'd be able to tell them more once I'd had a chance to review the court papers. Sara had given her only copy of the petition to her younger brother Paul, the one in Benny's law school class. She said she'd call Paul that night and have him send me a copy of the papers.
Time for the tour. We started in the barn, where a portion of the interior had been turned into a hatchery. There were two incubators, each resembling a double-sized white refrigerator, sitting side by side on an immaculate cement floor. Maggie pulled open one of the double doors to reveal dozens of huge eggs in rows in seven stainless steel bins.
“Here,” she said, reaching into one of the bins and carefully lifting out an egg with both hands. She placed it into my hands. The egg was smooth and warm and weighed almost five pounds. I could feel a slight movement inside of it.
“Wow,” I said, cradling the egg in my hands as I gave it back to Maggie.
From the hatchery we moved to the nursery, which took up part of the barn and extended into a fenced-off pen outside. Milling around were about a dozen brown and black baby chicks and a little white goat. The chicks resembled furry, prehistoric ducks.
“Goats are like nannies,” Sara explained as she kneeled down by the fence. “This one's Rita. The chicks learn to eat and drink and avoid the rain by following her around.” The little goat trotted over on stiff, pigeon-toed legs. She was adorableâlittle brown horns, loppy ears, a short, upturned tail, and a streak of black fur running down the middle of her back. Sara put her hand through the fence to nuzzle it against the goat's neck.
We moved on to what Maggie called the “breeding colony,” which presently consisted of ten adult hens, two adult cocks, and about two dozen chicks. They lived in a fenced-off area about three times the size of a football field. They were milling around and pecking at the grass as we approached.
Maggie scanned the pasture. “Oh, there's Tracy.” She turned to us. “Let's go say hi. She's a doll.”
We followed Maggie and Sara across the pasture. As we approached, the bird turned to face us.
“Jesus,” Benny said under his breath, “look at the size of that chicken.”
Tracy was immense, standing every bit of eight feet tall, her tiny head perched atop a long, rubbery neck. From a distance her long legs had merely looked skinny, but up close I could see the outlines of thick tendons and muscles beneath her rough skinâmuscles and tendons powerful enough to propel three hundred and fifty pounds of ostrich at speeds of up to forty miles per hour. I stared down at her feet. They were thin and callusedâalmost human, but with two toes instead of five. One of the toes was huge, with what looked like a sharpened toenail. It reminded me of another thing I'd read in the material: ostriches used their feet as weapons.