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Authors: Michael A Kahn

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BOOK: Trophy Widow
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We had plenty of important issues to cover that morning—strategy questions ranging from a challenge to the constitutionality of Missouri's Son of Sam law to the various possible defenses to the “equitable adoption” theory. Instead, I spent two hours watching the alpha dogs take turns marking their territory as their entourages looked on approvingly. Harvey Silverberg staked out the First Amendment high ground, subjecting us to an eye-glazing summary of the three “seminal decisions” in the field, all of which, coincidentally enough, featured Hefty Harvey as lead counsel for the victors. Next came Nelson Liberman, who lifted his hind leg and sprayed us with a discourse on the importance of burying the other side in a blizzard of motions and discovery requests. Then it was Hammerin' Hank's turn. He sniffed around the perimeter and spouted a lengthy reenactment of his cross-examination in a bribery case from the 1980s, the relevance of which completely eluded me but apparently galvanized the others into a decision to focus their efforts on a constitutional challenge to the Son of Sam law. I didn't even bother to dissent, having already concluded that this high-priced wrecking crew was as likely to demolish its own clients as the other side. Instead, I would chart my own course and keep a lookout in the courtroom for errant spurts from the big dogs.

As the meeting drew to a close, Hammerin' Hank's first lieutenant, a severe junior partner named Catherine Hart, turned to me with a rigid smile. “Rachel, can you give us some local flavor?”

“Local flavor?” I asked sweetly, ignoring the condescension in her tone.

“A feel for the things down there. For example, have you had any experience before Judge Byrne?”

“Actually, I have.”

“Oh, really? And what kind would that be?”

“A trial and two preliminary injunction hearings.”

Catherine Hart drew back.

I couldn't resist. “First chair,” I added.

As a junior partner in the litigation department of a large Chicago law firm, Catherine Hart probably had yet to first-chair a single trial.

“I see,” she said, quickly regaining her patronizing air. “Would you have any helpful suggestions for our constitutional challenge?”

I shrugged. “It doesn't really matter how you pitch it.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because he's going to deny it anyway.”

She gave me a perplexed look. “Why would you say that?”

“Judge Byrne ducks tough decisions. That's his style. If there's a way he can pass the buck to the jury, he'll do it. If not, he'll sidestep it and let the court of appeals decide. You should raise the constitutional issue—if for no other reason than to preserve it for appeal. But don't view it as a substitute for trial preparations, because”—I paused to look around the table—“sooner than you realize we're going to be sitting together at counsel's table picking a St. Louis jury.”

***

“Have you met her?”

I shook my head. “Not yet.”

“You're going to be surprised.”

“Why do you say that?”

“The press demonized her. They completely missed the mark. She's, well”—his eyes seemed to go out of focus—“she's lovely.” He took a sip of his martini and stared down at the green olive. “My father would have been a very lucky man.”

Michael Green Jr. and I were in a hotel bar along Michigan Avenue. He'd initially refused to meet, but after three phone calls from St. Louis he agreed to give me a few minutes between the end of my defense counsel meeting and my ride to O'Hare.

Unlike his sister, who'd inherited the worst of each of her parents' features, Michael junior was, in the words of my niece, a “hotty.” He had chiseled good looks, light brown skin, clear green eyes, and the lean build of a professional tennis player. As he had strolled through the bar area to my booth in his investment banker pinstripes, I'd noticed several female heads turning to follow him. The waitress giggled and flirted when she took his order, but he hadn't responded.

“How did you get to know her?” I asked.

“I met her when they got engaged. The three of us—Sam, my father, and I—used to go out to dinner whenever I came to town.”

“Did you ever see your father around her son?”

“Once or twice. He was good with Trent. Very affectionate. He told me he was looking forward to raising another son.”

“What about after your father died?”

His green eyes narrowed. “What about what?”

“Did you still see her?”

He took a sip of his martini and watched the olive shift in the clear liquid. “The rest of her so-called friends abandoned her. The media camped outside her apartment. It was a bad time for her. She was very much in love with my father, and suddenly she was all alone—just her and her son.” He paused. “I tried to be helpful.”

“What about now? Are you still in touch?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“She's suing your father's estate. If she wins, you lose.”

He shrugged. “So? She could use the money. I don't need it. Neither does my sister.”

“What about your mother?”

He chuckled. “My mother? Are you kidding? She'll have Oprah and the rest of those ridiculous women fawning over her the rest of her life. People used to insult Sam by saying she'd be nothing more than a trophy wife for my father, but look at what's happened to my mother. My God, the woman has become everyone's trophy widow.”

“Maybe now,” I said, “but that won't last. Nothing changes faster than a celebrity's favorite cause or the media's latest darling. Five years from now her fans will have a new pet.”

“So? Forgive me here, Miss Gold, but I'm having trouble working up a lot of sympathy for the person that killed my father.”

“Let's get back to Sam.”

“What about her?”

“Are you still in touch?”

He frowned. “Haven't you already asked me that?”

“I did. You didn't answer.”

“Why do you care?”

“I'm defending your mother, Michael. Sam's on the other side. I'm trying to learn about her.”

“That's between you and her, then. I'm neutral.”

“Are you?”

He stared at me, a vein pulsing at his temple. “Yes,” he finally said. He checked his watch. “I'm also late.” He removed a money clip from his pocket, peeled off a twenty-dollar bill, dropped it on the table, and stood up. “Goodbye, Miss Gold.”

Chapter Eight

I didn't expect much help from Beverly Toft, and I didn't get it. Not because she didn't want to help. Far from it. She kept apologizing. It was just that Michael Green had drawn a shroud over his personal life when he started his affair with Samantha Cummings, having correctly assumed that Beverly Toft would side with Angela. Although Beverly had been his secretary for more than a decade, she'd also grown close to Angela. In addition, she had her own reason for empathizing with Angela's situation. Beverly's marriage had ended a few years before Angela's did, and under similar circumstances. Her husband Earl left her for a thirty-three-year-old waitress named Tammy who worked at the Denny's restaurant where Earl and Beverly had been having Sunday dinner for years. Tammy had often been their waitress—a fact that irked and mortified Beverly to this day, especially when she thought back to the huge tips that her tightwad husband used to leave that chippie, who'd wiggled her tight little heinie at him from that very first dinner.

I'd met Beverly for lunch at Café Napoli's in suburban Clayton, where she now worked for a small accounting firm. Although she was about my mother's age, she seemed a full decade older in her 1950s hairdo and bifocals.

“Oh, I knew Mr. Green was up to some hanky-panky,” Beverly told me, her penciled eyebrows arching disapprovingly. “A wife might miss it—I certainly did with Earl, that creep. But believe you me, honey, a secretary knows the moment her boss becomes a tomcat. We're talking about long lunches that weren't on his appointment calendar, the bottle of men's cologne that suddenly appeared in his office, those sneaky phone calls, the bills from the florist and the jewelry store and the motels. I kept hoping for poor Angela's sake that it was just a fling, one of those midlife-male-crisis things that fizzle out.” She shook her head, her lips pursed with censure.

Although Michael had invited her to the wedding and she had reluctantly planned to attend, her relationship with her boss had long since cooled into a strictly professional one. She'd met Samantha, of course. Once the divorce proceedings started and Michael's affair became public, Samantha used to call the office and occasionally drop by, either at lunch or the end of the day.

“I admit she was a friendly little thing,” Beverly sniffed. “You know the type—very perky, very sweet, very young.”

“But you never met her son?”

“No.”

“Or saw Michael around him?”

She sighed. “I wish I could help you, honey. I really do. But he never even talked to me about the boy. He must have known how disappointed I was in him. I typed the draft of the new will, of course. Mr. Green dictated it himself. But he never said anything about it to me. The will was just one of several documents on a dictation tape in my in box.”

“What about Samantha? Did she ever ask you about the will?”

Beverly thought about it and shook her head. “No.”

“When she came around, what did you two talk about?”

“Sometimes her son—how he was doing in nursery school, that sort of thing. Sometimes her art gallery. Mr. Green did some legal work for the gallery, you know.” She paused. “Come to think of it, you should talk to Stanley Brod.”

Stanley Brod was a partner in the small accounting firm where Beverly now worked. I remembered from the police file that he'd been Michael Green's personal accountant.

“Why Stanley Brod?” I asked.

“Mr. Green had him do the accounting for her art gallery. Stanley's people spent a lot of time with her. His firm continued handling her books and records until the gallery closed down. I can talk to Stanley when I get back to the office. He's a very sweet man. I'm sure he'll meet with you.”

The waiter brought our meals. We made small talk for a while as I tried to find the best way to broach the other subject I wanted to discuss. I finally decided that the best way was the direct way.

“During the murder investigation,” I said, “did the police ask you about other possible suspects?”

Beverly frowned. “What do you mean?”

“When a lawyer gets killed,” I explained, “any list of suspects ought to include his disgruntled clients.”

Beverly leaned back in the booth, her eyebrows arched. “Interesting. They never even asked.”

“What if they had?”

She gave me a knowing look. “Oh, I'd have told them a few things.”

“Such as?”

Beverly studied me. “Why do you want to know this? What does it have to do with your case?”

I shrugged. “Maybe nothing. According to the criminal file, Angela became the sole suspect by the end of the second day. No one bothered with other possible suspects, including any enemies Michael Green might have had.” I paused and shook my head. “I just can't believe she did it.”

She nodded. “Neither can I.”

“If they hadn't arrested Angela, would you have suspected any client?”

“Sure.”

Beverly told me that from the moment she learned of the murder she'd had her own list of suspects. Number one on that list was Billy Berger, the founder, chairman, and majority shareholder of Gateway Trust Company and a notoriously slick wheeler-dealer. Michael had thousands of trust accounts at Gateway Trust Company, one for each of the children he'd represented in a personal-injury class action against a pharmaceutical company. As such, Michael was not merely an important customer but a force within the trust company through his control of a significant percentage of the assets under management. Three weeks before his death, Michael announced his intention to move the trust accounts to Guaranty Trust. According to Beverly, the two men got into a shouting match in Michael's office three days before the murder.

“I don't think he'd be the one to pull the trigger, of course,” Beverly said. “But Mr. Berger would certainly know how to hire one. He was that type.”

“What did they argue about?”

“I don't know, and Mr. Green refused to tell me. He said it wasn't any of my business. But they were angry, believe you me. You should have heard the words they called each other.” She fanned herself with her hand. “Such language.”

Number two on Beverly's list was Millie Robinson, ex-wife of former St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Larry Robinson. Millie was a recovering cocaine addict who'd lost custody of her children in a postdivorce battle in which Michael had represented her ex-husband. When the court awarded full custody to Larry Robinson, he promptly moved to Detroit with the children. That was one month before Michael died.

“Millie called Mr. Green day and night, screaming obscenities and death threats. I was the one who answered the daytime calls.” Beverly shuddered. “It was awful.”

“Did you report her to the police?”

“Mr. Green said not to. He said she'd get over it.”

“Did she?”

“I don't know. The calls tapered off. I didn't receive one from her that last week.”

“How about Michael? Was he still getting calls at home?”

“He didn't mention it.”

Number three was Jerry Feckler.

“You're kidding. The Dingdong Man?” I was grinning.

Beverly gave me a weary smile. “The very same.”

“Good grief, I'd forgotten Michael represented him.”

Jerry Feckler, aka the Dingdong Man, became Michael Green's client about a year after undergoing an experimental surgical procedure on his penis. The poor man was hoping that longer and thicker would equal more and better luck with women. Alas, more equaled less and worse. Although he did gain approximately an inch in length, the fat liposuctioned from his love handles and injected into his penis for added girth gradually migrated south, leaving him with a weird appendage about as useful in bed as a bell clapper, which it happened to resemble. Unfortunately for Jerry, a nationally syndicated columnist got wind of the lawsuit, flew down for the medical malpractice trial, and wrote a funny column that got wide distribution during a slow news week. The headline said it all: LONG DONG DREAM BECOMES DINGDONG NIGHTMARE.

When his medical malpractice suit ended in a defense verdict, Jerry's odds of getting laid got a whole lot longer. He blamed it all on his lawyer, whom he then sued for legal malpractice. Two months before Michael Green died, the judge dismissed Feckler's malpractice case against him, inspiring the
Post-Dispatch's
headline writer once again: JUDGE RINGS FINAL BELL FOR DINGDONG MAN; RULES FECKLER'S CLAIM FECKLESS.

Feckler's final communication with Michael was a enraged message left the next night on the office phone-mail warning Michael that “misery loves company, especially miserable dicks, you sleazy bastard.”

***

Visions of malformed penises were dancing in my head, though not quite like sugar plums, when I returned to the office and discovered that the afternoon's mail had brought me the petition in
Blackwell Breeders LLC and Charlie Blackwell
v.
Maggie Lane and Sara Freed
.

The crazy ostrich case.

I read the petition with a skeptic's eye. Charlie Blackwell alleged that my clients “acquired sole custody and control of said ostrich at an especially sensitive stage in its development.” He claimed that “if said ostrich has any alleged defect, then the proximate cause of said defect is the negligent animal husbandry procedures, general incompetence, and degenerate lifestyles of said defendants.”

But he saved the best—or rather, the worst—for last. When I reached the final page, I stared at the signature block: “MackReynold Armour, Attorney for Plaintiffs.”

“Oh, great,” I groaned aloud.

Mack Armour, aka Mack the Knife, was the kind of litigator who made opponents consider career changes—that is, when they weren't considering ethics complaints and contract hits. Although I'd never faced him before, I knew his reputation. He was belligerent, devious, and brazen—and to top it off, an unabashed male chauvinist pig. He was always looking for the sly angle in his lawsuits, and this case was a perfect example. Blackwell Breeders should have been the defendant in the case, but Armour jumped the starting gun and filed first, seeking a declaratory judgment that his client didn't have to refund a penny. As an added bargaining chip, he tacked on Charlie Blackwell's ludicrous claim for mental anguish. His goal: scare off my clients.

They didn't scare.

“We're not backing down,” Maggie told me over the phone after I'd described Mack the Knife.

“He'll drag your personal lives into it, Maggie. He'll try to turn the case into a freak show.”

“We understand,” she said calmly. “This is a matter of principle, Rachel. Mr. Blackwell cheated us. When he learned of the problem we had with his ostrich, he should have done the right thing on his own, but he refused. So now we'll ask a judge to make him do it. We're not looking for sympathy, Rachel, and we're not looking for favors. We're looking for justice.”

“You won't always find it in a courtroom.”

“We understand that. If we lose, we lose. We can deal with it, Rachel. We're big girls. Just get us our day in court.”

***

Beverly called around five to tell me that Stanley Brod could meet me tomorrow morning at nine. I'd planned on spending the morning getting ready for a deposition that afternoon in a copyright case, but I thanked Beverly and told her to let Stanley know I'd be at his office at nine. Then I canceled my dinner plans, called Domino's Pizza, and settled down to do tomorrow's deposition preparation tonight. I didn't get home until almost ten o'clock. I was feeling crabby and antsy and tired. I knew the cure.

“Hey, Oz,” I said, kneeling next to the greatest golden retriever in the universe. “Wanna go for a jog?”

Ozzie wagged his tail and padded off to the kitchen, returning a moment later with his leash in his mouth.

“Let me change first, cutie.” I patted him on the head. “I can't run in these heels.”

He followed me to my bedroom, where I slipped off my attorney clothes and put on my jogging outfit. As I tied my Nikes, he sat on the rug at the foot of my bed, the leash on the rug between his front paws. He listened attentively as I filled him in on my day.

“So I'll meet with his accountant tomorrow morning,” I told him as I stood up. “We'll see what he can tell me.” Ozzie seemed to think that was a good idea, since he wagged his tail, barked once, and picked up the leash.

We took the five-mile route. I spent most of the run trying to figure out what I was doing and where I was going with Angela's case. I supposed that Stanley Brod might be able to shed some light on the equitable adoption issue in the lawsuit, and he'd eventually get to repeat it under oath when the clown patrol representing the other defendants fired up their discovery juggernaut. But I knew that my real interest in Stanley, like my real interest in Beverly Toft, was the possibility of finding a new angle on the crime at the heart of the Son of Sam case. I could rationalize it as part of the defense—after all, the Son of Sam claim would vanish if Angela were exonerated—but that was nothing more than a rationalization. I hadn't been retained to clear her of the murder charge.

Angela had seemed intrigued during our prison meeting when I pointed out the holes in the homicide investigation, but she'd by no means evinced a determination to clear herself of the criminal conviction. Perhaps she'd become reconciled to what she deemed to be immutable. And perhaps there was something more subtle afoot. Seeing what had happened to her since the murder trial, I could understand if she felt a tinge of ambivalence at the prospect of reopening the criminal case. She'd truly become, in the words of her estranged son, a trophy widow. Her role as celebrity martyr for various women's and minority organizations depended upon her image as the abused and spurned first wife who'd finally turned on her tormentor. Her life behind bars had invested her with an esteem and dignity that had eluded her during marriage. Within the controlled and cloistered world of a women's prison, Angela had become a saint—adored by the inmates that she tutored and counseled, honored by the prison administrators who bragged about her at national conventions, and fawned over by visiting members of the press. If it turned out she'd been innocent from the start, that she'd been framed, a mere pawn in someone else's deadly game, how much of her new persona would she lose?

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