Read Wildcat Wine Online

Authors: Claire Matturro

Wildcat Wine (10 page)

Chapter 16

That night,
glad to see my truly suck-ass day nearing its natural end, I parked my car in my carport, walked out to the mailbox on the street, gathered in my daily quota of catalogs and bills, walked up the driveway to my front door, and stopped.

There was a dead fish lying across the stoop in front of my front door, and a rolled sheet of white paper was stuck in its dead-fish mouth. I stared at it. Behind my door, Bearess started barking.

At the barking, my new grandmom popped out of her house and cheerily shouted across her unnaturally green lawn, “Hello, dearie, how are you feeling?”

Grandmom walked on over to where I was still staring at the dead fish, wholly unsure of the proper course of action.

“Did you see who put this here?” I asked her.

“Why no, but isn't it a nice big bass. So glad it's a bass. I never did understand you locals, how you could eat those mullet.”

I glared at her. What good was a neighborhood spy if she missed the essentials, like who left a dead fish on my doorstep?

Grandmom bent over and studied the dead fish. “Looks pretty fresh. The eyes are clear, no fishy smell. We could have fried fish tonight. I'll make the coleslaw if you'll make the hush puppies.”


“Oh, I'll clean it, don't worry. I'm just not good at hush puppies. It's a southern thing.”



“I'm a vegetarian.”

“Or we could bake it, a nice fish like that.”

“I'm a vegetarian.”

“Would you like to come over to my house? Or shall I come over here?”

“I'm a vegetarian,” I shouted, to which Bearess responded with a howl of doggy frustration from behind my front door.

“Well, listen, dear, you better let that dog out. And see who sent that nice fish.” Grandmom pointed at the note.

I pulled the note out of the dead fish's mouth.

“BUTT OUT” had been sprawled in large, childish letters in black highlighter.

Obviously Kenneth's handiwork, I thought, though the language was a bit crude for a man who liked to put on airs. I contemplated calling the police, calculating risk versus benefit, and keenly aware of the law of unintended consequences.

“Maybe garlic bread would be better than hush puppies. But you know, whoever left you that fish really should have iced it.” Grandmom picked up the bass and sniffed it. “It's fine, really. Dinner in an hour? You just come to my house. I don't have dog hair all over everything.” Grandmom started off back to her house, carrying the fish.

“I don't have dog hair over things, and I'm a vegetarian,” I shouted after her.

“I'm Methodist myself, but we're known for our tolerance of other religions,” Grandmom said, and slipped into her own house.

I let Bearess out in the backyard before I punched in 911 and reported a dead fish and a sinister note, to a dispatcher who couldn't care less but transferred my call to a police officer who was so uninterested as to decline my polite invitation to come out and actually investigate. Apparently, you can't pick up fingerprints on a dead bass, even if your neighbor hasn't already skinned and filleted it.

Chapter 17

The next morning
I conducted my new daily ritual and phoned Philip Cohen as soon as I woke up, which, given the bad dream about being beaten with dead fish, was 5:30
. Yeah, sure, that's not generally regarded as a civilized time, but he
said I could call him at any time, and I was perilously behind in my law practice and knew this would be a long, busy day, and that I also had to do something about Kenneth and the money and the dead fish and Bonita, and maybe I should check on Benny too, and calling when I first woke up, predawn or not, seemed to be a very efficient use of my time.

Also, okay so spank me, I wanted to see if that woman answered Philip's phone again.

She didn't.

He was very glad to hear from me in the predawn hours, and once we got past that, I asked per my daily ritual if Dave was still in jail.

He was, but it looked good for his release sometime later this morning. Blah, blah, blah, and I cut Philip off before he billed for another five minutes. After I hung up, I fixed and drank a gallon of coffee and, with the idea of actually working on billable files today, I skipped an early-morning workout at the YMCA and managed to get to my office long before the morning rush hour.

Having managed to beat Bonita to work, which rarely happens, I looked at my calendar, took dull notice of the afternoon's scheduled deposition in a really very stupid car-motorcycle case—a drunk in a car hit a drunk on a motorcycle in the middle of a four-way-stop intersection, both traveling at higher rates of speed than they should have been, and the drunk on the cycle was suing the corner convenience store for putting up a spotlight that he claimed blinded him to the oncoming drunk in the car, and not, like, say, those seven beers and whiskey chasers. Angela should be handling these depos, as I had progressed in my career beyond car wrecks. But in her current state, I didn't wholly trust Angela to use enough words to do a proper examination.

Stumbling over Bonita's boxful of something that looked like Girl Scout cookies—was it that time of year already?—I pulled out the files to review. If I was going to do car-wreck depos all afternoon, I needed to be prepared by knowing every word in the pleadings and the interrogatories so I could get the deposed witnesses to admit to the facts in the light most favorable to my client, the man who owned the store with the spotlight. Trying to get my mind around the fact that I was defending a big, bright light, I trudged back to my desk with volumes of paper.

Having plunked the file on my desk, I had started grinding coffee beans when I heard a tap-tap-tap on my window and saw Gandhi motioning toward the back door. Against my better judgment I let him in.

Once he was standing inside my office, I spoke in official lawyer voice. “Gandhi, I appreciate that we will need to get together and work out a new defense if the appellate court sends your case back for a trial, which, as I've mentioned, is most likely to happen, but let's wait until that remand does, in fact, occur.”

Translation: Leave.

“Keisha is breaking up with me.”

Sigh. I wasn't his counselor, I wasn't his confidante, and though I was his lawyer, I had other cases to work on.

“She says I am not serious enough about things.”

A man in a yellow Nehru jacket who channels lost cats and counsels space-alien kidnap victims. Not serious? Get real.

“She says I'm insincere.”

Well, duh. The fake Indian routine and the dyed hair and fake tan might just possibly, maybe, perhaps, have suggested that notion to Keisha the crystal lady.

“But I love her and I want to marry her.”

Nothing in my training or personal life qualified me to give advice on love relationships. But I thought I'd give it a whirl anyway.

“Okay, go to Brock, my hairdresser, and he can get the dye out of your hair, stay out of the tanning salon, and don't even think about that fake-tan cream, pop out the brown contacts, get a normal T-shirt and a pair of jeans, and at least an antique diamond ring, possibly one with rubies or emeralds, and propose to her at sunset on Island Park.”

Okay, the antique diamond ring with rubies and a proposal at sunset at Island Park were my fantasies, but I figured, hey, there's bound to be a core of universal appeal. “Oh,” I added, “promise a lifetime of serious sincerity.”

And leave my office so I might be able to do some legal work for which I am trained and for which I can bill.

“I will try this. Thank you.” And he walked out, closing the door politely behind him.

But not ten minutes later, my phone rang. I snatched it up and grunted a sort of hello.



“Yes, ma'am. I was hoping you could come down to the jailhouse.”

Oh, yes, my favorite place to hang. “Why?”

“Dave is being released, but before he goes, I have some questions I want to ask him, and he says he won't talk until he sees you. Actually, I've got some questions for you too.”

“Philip Cohen is Dave's attorney. Call him.”

“I need to see you, ask you a few things, and Dave insists upon you being there when I question him. About that man in the swamp. And Earl. I think, maybe, there's some connection.”

“I'm sure I don't know a thing about that.” And Dave better not know anything about any connection between dead swamp man and dead Earl.

“Lilly, just come to the jail, okay? The sooner you get here, the sooner Dave gets out.”

For a man who couldn't stand up to a skinny old lady over some okra plants, Tired certainly managed to project the stern tone of a direct order from a law-enforcement official. One who might hold up Dave's release from jail if I didn't comply.

After I conveyed both my acquiescence and my general displeasure, we said good-bye, and I punched in Philip's private number, got the recording, left a terse message, picked up the Drunk vs. Bright Light file, and walked down the hallway to Angela's office. Since it had been her case to begin with, she probably knew more about it than me, so I dumped it on her desk and said, “See if you can use whole sentences.” And I stomped out to my car.

At the front desk of the jail, a woman who could have set the lowest common denominator for bad hair was scratching a pen over paper, trying to make it write, and muttering, “Damn thing.”

“Hi. I'm here to see Officer Tired Johnson.”

The woman looked up, and suddenly beamed. “T.R. is here?” She smoothed back her drastically overprocessed hair and looked around, as if Tired was hiding in a corner.

“Yes, I'm supposed to meet him here.”

“Business? Or pleasure?” Bleached-hair lady looked suddenly hostile.

“I assure you it's purely business. About an inmate, Dave Baggwell, two gs.”

She smiled again, and I noticed that she actually had a rather sweet face. “I'll page him,” she offered.

While she paged, I fished around in my purse till I found one of Brock's cards. Aside from being my hairdresser and primary therapist, Brock works wonders with makeovers.

“T.R. will be right here, in a minute.” She radiated anticipation.

Twenty-something, sweet face, bad hair, mastery of the paging system if not the ballpoint pen. I wondered how she felt about Redfish.

“Do you like babies?”

The woman didn't even blink to signal that this might be an odd question from a perfect stranger. “Oh, I just love babies. I baby-sit for my cousins' kids all the time.”

Perfect, more or less, I thought. “Look,” I said, offering her Brock's card, “this man is a genius with hair. Especially color. With your, eh, peaches-and-cream complexion, you should be a strawberry blonde. That white-blond look is too”—what, too tacky to show yourself in public?—“old for you. Tell him Lilly sent you, and he'll work you in.”

She took the card, and her expression indicated some confusion as to whether she had been insulted and how she might respond. “Does this Brock do your hair?”

“Yes, he does,” I said.

“Wow, your hair is like totally beautiful.”

Yes it is, and I smiled, and thanked her, and then she smiled and thanked me, and I added good manners to the list of her assets. Definitely, I should mention her to Tired as a prospect.

Tired came bounding out of one of the hallways, holding a cup of coffee in one hand and sticking out the other for me. He didn't even acknowledge Miss Bleached Head, but I bet he would when Brock finished making her over.

After the preliminaries, Tired led me back to a small room that smelled very bad, and I sat down in the offered chair with great reluctance, and made a mental note to be sure to shower and change clothes as soon as I left here. “Where is Dave?”

“Oh, I'll bring him out soon.”

“Is he all right?”

“Oh, he's fine, don't worry. Now, I've got some questions for you.”

“I already told you I don't know anything.”

“A young fellow named Benicio called in a dead man in the Myakka swamp last week. You know anything about that?”

“No. I mean, I know Benicio, Benny. He's my secretary's son.”

“Yeah, I found that out. Thought that was kinda interesting.”


“You don't know anything about him calling 911 on last Saturday night?”


Tired stared at me a long time. I didn't blink or let my eyes wander and I didn't wipe my hands or do anything to give myself away. But still, the lie bubbled there in the air between us.

“You know, the more you tell me about what you know, the better off we'll all be.”

Let me be the judge of that, I thought, but said nothing.

“Okay, did you know that Benny was with Dave when he made the call?” Tired asked.

“I think I might have known that Benny and Dave had gone to Myakka together.”

Tired sighed. “Look . . . oh, hell, all right, here's the deal.”


“That man in the swamp was a man named Mike Daniels. Ring any bells?”

“None. Honest.”

“Michael Andrews Daniels, nickname of Mad.”

“I never heard of him.”

“He did some work for Earl Stallings, you know, the wine guy.”

“Yeah, I know the wine guy.”

“So how exactly do you know the wine guy?”

“We've been over this.”

“So, go over it again.”

“Here is the whole story, everything I know, and once I tell you—again—I want to see Dave, you hear.”

“All right.”

“The night Dave was arrested, some woman came to my door and said Dave and Waylon were in jail and Dave wanted me to get them out. I called Philip Cohen, and you remember, we all met here. Philip explained to me that Earl Stallings was pressing charges for the theft of a warehouse full of organic wine. The next day, Sunday, I went to the winery to try and talk Earl into dropping the charges for the allegedly stolen wine. We met, we talked, and he said he'd think it over.”

“So who was the woman who came to your door?”

“I don't know.”

“What'd she look like?”

“Like 1969, a real hippie, dark hair.”

From the expression on Tired's face, I gleaned that he probably knew who the woman was.

“So who was she?” I asked.

“Continue, please, ma'am, with your story about Earl.”

“So Monday, Earl talked with Philip, but he didn't drop the charges. Tuesday I had to go to court in Lakeland, and I had my client with me, and—”

“That guy in the yellow thing over his pants?”

“Yes, Gandhi Singh.”

“That's not his real name, is it?”

“You'd have to ask him.”

“Okay, go on.”

“So, I swung by the winery to see Earl, to see if I could persuade him to drop the charges. That's all. And Gandhi and I discovered his body, and called 911, and you came out, and that's the end of the story.”

“Not hardly.” Tired glared at me.

I remained silent.

“Ma'am, look at it from my point of view. There's a guy out in the swamp, snakebit to all hell and back, and he worked for Earl. This guy's car had been run off the road, and it looked like he had hopped out and run off into the swamp.”

Uh-oh, that was news to me.

“Then Dave and Benny, both guys you know pretty well, find the body, and Benny calls it in a few hours later, and then Dave and Waylon get arrested. Okay, so then you get mugged in your own front lawn.”

So how'd Tired know about that? That was a matter for the city police.

“Then, you see Earl, and two days later, you find Earl dead, and then somebody puts a dead fish on your front stoop and you call 911 again. Did I leave anything out?”

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