Read Wildcat Wine Online

Authors: Claire Matturro

Wildcat Wine (3 page)

Chapter 3

Henry Platt,
liability-insurance claims adjuster mediocre and malleable guardian of most of my malpractice expense accounts and legal fees, and still my friend despite the fact that I had briefly thought he had killed one of my clients last year, persisted in his courtship of Bonita.

Neither Bonita nor her children had made up their minds about the chubby, pink-faced man with the soft hands and the scared-bunny expression, though Bonita was definitely more inclined toward him than her children were. But there he was in a navy blue suit in his brand-new spruce green Sienna van, loaded down with four of Bonita's five kids, ready to pick up Bonita and take her and her kids to six o'clock Mass.

But first, we all had to stop everything, though I was the only one actually trying to accomplish anything anymore, and clean up Armando's bloody arm.

“How did you cut it?” Bonita asked, pulling one of my crisp, clean linen towels from the kitchen drawer, and then pulling her son's arm over my sink.

Well, that was going to take some Clorox to clean up, I thought, watching blood flow into my sink and into my formerly fine linen towel.

“On a CD case,” Henry explained. “Is it deep? Does he need stitches?”

Bonita peered at the cut. I peered at the mess in my sink and thought, A CD case? “How do you cut yourself on that?”

“It stuck, and he was . . . ah, he was . . . prying it open,” Henry bleated, then blushed, and I suspected a cover-up. Bonita's children were not warming to the thought of Henry as a permanent figure in their lives, and though he kept plugging away at winning their affections, there were multiple acts of sabotage from the kids. I envisioned Armando trying to rip the upholstery in Henry's new van with the jagged edge of something sharp. But whatever the real story, Henry would keep it between him and Armando, and I hoped Armando would appreciate that.

“No stitches,” Bonita said, and gathered Armando in her arms, looked him in the eyes, and smiled. “Just a big Band-Aid and we can still make Mass.” Armando struggled like a wild coyote to escape her arms.

“Hey, Armando,” I finally said, once he was free of his mom. “What's happening?”

“Nothing,” he said, and shifted his stance to morose-early-teen mode. Javy, Armando's twin brother, who looks and acts nothing like him, took a good look at his arm. “Cool,” he said, after examining the wound.

“Hey, Javy,” I said. “What's happening?”

Lilly, I ran second in a track meet at the district,” he said, and beamed.

“Good for you. That's great,” I said, noticing the glower Armando directed first at Javy and then at me. Of course, Bonita had already told me Javy won second place, but it was still cool news. Javy was a thin, wiry boy with a runner's body and sharp features, while Armando had flat cheeks and a flat nose and a squat wrestler's body.

After studying the contrast between the twins, I turned to the other two kids. “Hey, Carmen, hey, Felipe. You guys cool?”

Carmen, the only girl and just six, hugged me and promptly launched into a story in half Spanish, half English that I couldn't quite follow, but seemed to have a winged horse at its center. Felipe, named for his father, tried to get a few words in, and I just patted his head. At ten, he was still young enough to let me do this.

While her youngest child entertained me, Bonita, who kept a virtual first-aid kit in her purse, got the requisite Band-Aid and fixed up Armando. Then, in a whisk and a wink, they were all out of my house.

Silence. Blessed silence.

Now I could really get some work done.

Bearess pranced over to the still-unplugged phone and started barking.

I had Cloroxed down my kitchen and bathroom and wiped down the front door and perfected the order of the piles of paper on my floor and ground more coffee beans by the time Bearess turned from barking at the phone and barked at the door.

I opened it before the bell rang and there was Benny, apparently safe, though appearances can certainly lie. He wouldn't look me in the eye.

Uh-oh, I thought, watching as he walked inside, not even trying his casual-cool saunter or banter on me.

“What's wrong?” I asked, but my own voice was drowned out by Farmer Dave.

“Where's my wine?” he shouted at me, getting entirely too much in my face.

“Waylon came and got it. He said you sent him for it.”

“Waylon? Huh? Must be a change of plan. Hard work, transporting that wine. Must be, eh, a . . . change in the market.”

Farmer Dave did not specialize in plans, honest or dishonest, and he certainly didn't specialize in honest labor on the open market, and I'd had to ride roughshod over him as my caretaker not to do something illegal at my orchard and get my 180 acres stolen by the federal government under its generous confiscation statutes. But I decided to pass on quizzing him on any deep, hidden meaning because I was worried about Benny, who had disappeared into my bathroom.

“I'll just have to go after Waylon, see what I can see,” Dave said. “Hey, man, Ben, you wanna come? Drive me over to Waylon's house in that fine Ford truck of yours?”

“No, I don't think Benny should go with you.” Firm, I said it, firm.

“Okay, Lilly Belle, then you'll have to drive me over to Waylon's. He took my truck, you know.”

Oh. I didn't want to get caught driving Dave around on a mission to find his wine. I wanted to continue to memorize legal nuances. And Benny was already out of the bathroom and nodding his head up and down like an eager bubblehead.

Still, a tired caution light in my brain tried to flag me down. “Maybe you should stay with me,” I said to Benny. “Just let Dave borrow your truck.”

Yeah, right. Like any fifteen-year-old boy would let his first truck out of his sight so he could hang inside waiting for his momma to come back from Mass if instead he could drive a long-haired felon on a quest to find the mysterious Waylon and the probably stolen wine.

“Naw, he's a good kid, let 'im drive me.” Dave smiled at Benny.

“No violence,” I said, reducing my concerns to the primary one.

“Hey, I'm a radical pacifist,” Dave said, and grinned at me. But then he frowned and asked, “Belle, where's my backpack?”

“Guest room.” I pointed down the hallway.

When Dave came out, he had the backpack slung over his arm. Okay, I thought, that meant he was armed again with the sturdy little .38. But how much trouble could they get in over wine? I naively thought. Besides, I was enormously tired and still had to do, during the evening, all the work I hadn't done during the day. I didn't have the time to chauffeur Dave around, and if Benny loaned Dave his truck there was a fair chance he'd never get it back.

So I gave in, but repeated Bonita's instructions to Benny not to drink or smoke anything.

They were out the door before I thought to add, don't call the police from Waylon's house, use a pay phone, and don't give your name.

Chapter 4

The criminal-justice system
functions wholly outside my sphere of expertise and operates with its own mysteries and tricks and tactics, about which I know very little. Though I am a defense attorney, I am strictly a civil attorney.

Like the federal income tax system, the criminal-justice system is not something I intended to mess with. You got a tax problem, I told my clients, get a tax attorney or a CPA. You get busted for DWI or bank robbery, get a criminal-defense attorney. You get sued for malpractice by a client, and you have money or good liability insurance,
you come to me.

So it was later that night, when I learned Waylon and Dave were in jail and needed to get out, I knew I wasn't the one to help. This news came to me with a bang and a thud at my door. While Bearess snuffled beside me, I peered out my peephole and saw what appeared to be the same woman in the red scarf who had driven off behind Waylon. Having made a career of reading jurors' and judges' faces, I saw she was not a happy woman.

But counting on Bearess to protect me if she turned out to be a contemporary Charles Manson girl, I cracked the door.

“You Lilly Cleary, the lawyer?”

“Yes, though I much prefer that people make appointments through my secretary during business hours.”

“Look,” she said, “Dave and Waylon are in the county jail for stealing a truckload of wine and they need you to go down and bail them out. Right now. Use this for bail. Here.” With that, Unhappy Hippie Girl thrust a brown paper bag at me. I took the bag, and when I looked inside, she turned and skittered off down my driveway.

The bag, an ordinary, though crumpled, grocery store bag from Winn-Dixie, was full of money. Cash. Bills. Green paper.

I riffled through the bag to see if there was anything else in it, and when I saw that the entire bag was full of money, I looked up after Hippie Girl and shouted, “Hey, wait a minute.”

She got in a pickup, slammed the door, and drove off.

Well, now what?

For starters, I took the sack of money and went back inside and shut and locked the door.

Then I thought about Farmer Dave's impressive list of old felony warrants. Oh,
, I said, and wondered if there was some kind of statute of limitations on old warrants.

I didn't have a clue as to how to get people out of jail. There's something about a bond, a bailsman, and maybe a hearing, and you have a right to remain silent, and that's about the sum total of what I knew about criminal justice in any kind of practical sense. In other words, even with my law degree and my closetful of tailored gray suits, I knew what the average television viewer knew.

In short, I needed a criminal-defense attorney. Mentally, I ran down the list of the ones I knew from the Sarasota Bar Association functions, and then remembered how my now very much ex-boyfriend Sam Santuri, a homicide detective and seriously humorless man, had ranted when this Philip Cohen guy had shredded him on a cross-examination. Cohen had gotten a decidedly guilty man off scot-free, at least according to Sam. That was the attorney for Dave, I thought, dragging out my phone book. Naturally there was no home listing for Cohen, and no emergency, after-hours number. I yanked out my Sarasota Bar Association yearbook, took a quick look at Cohen's photo, assessed him in the grainy mug shot as a standard-looking attorney in glasses and dark suit, noted his law degree was from Notre Dame and his undergraduate degree was from UCLA, and threw down the yearbook in disgust at its lack of a home number.

On a mission now, and not giving a rat's ass that it was getting pretty late to be calling people on a Saturday night, I punched in the number for Jackson Smith, alias Stonewall. Aside from being my mentor and the object of my fantasies, Jackson is also Mr. Bar Association and knows just about everything anybody needs to know. If he ever sold his list of secret phone numbers, the peace and privacy of most of the professional denizens of the greater Sarasota Bay area would be shot to hell and back.

Jackson answered the phone with a snarl. After my necessary apology for calling this late, and calling period, I asked if he had Philip Cohen's home number.

“Did you get arrested?” he shouted.

“No,” I snapped, making sure I was emphatically indignant-sounding. “It's for a—” Okay, just how did I describe Farmer Dave to my mentor, the man who kept trying to mold me into a sophisticated trial lawyer? What was Dave to me? Friend? Employee? First love? The man who took Delvon and me in when we came back from a frolic in Florida as teenagers and found our mother had sold our bedroom furniture and clothes? Dave was all of those things. As well as a long-haired career criminal.

“—acquaintance of my brother.” I chose the safe and the neutral.

“Not that crazy brother, one who thinks he's John the Baptist?” This, from a man who thought he was the reincarnation of Stonewall Jackson, struck me as just a tad sanctimonious.

“No, not Delvon. This is Dan's friend. Dan's the normal one.” Of course Dan might have nodded at Dave if they'd passed close enough to each other, but it was Delvon and Dave who were fully bonded blood brothers. However, Jackson disapproved of Delvon.

“Cohen, huh? Yeah, he's good. Wait a minute,” Jackson bellowed, and I heard the phone go clunk against something. A moment later, he came back on the line and repeated a number.

“Unlisted,” he thundered. “Don't tell him you got it from me.”

“Deal,” I said, “and thanks,” and then I hung up without saying good-bye and punched in the numbers Jackson had recited.

A woman answered, sounding peeved.

“May I please speak with Mr. Cohen?” I asked, making myself sound as professional and polite as I could.

“Call his office on Monday,” she said, and hung up.

I called right back.

This time a man answered. “How'd you get this number?”

Despite his bad phone manners, I assumed this was Cohen. The anger in his voice suggested that a direct answer was the quickest way for me to get to my real point. But I wasn't ratting out Jackson for giving me Cohen's private number, and, besides, I was still mad at Sam for dumping me with scant explanation. So I told Cohen that Detective Sam Santuri had given me his home number and hoped it was remotely possible that Sam could have had it.

In the pause that followed, I braced for a hang-up.

“Who are you and why would Sam give you my private number?”

“Sam investigated the murder of one of my clients recently.” A doctor killed by a toxic marijuana cigarette. “We became . . . friends. I'm a partner at Smith, O'Leary, and Stanley, and—”

“That'd make you Lilly Cleary, then.”

I was immediately flattered.

“I know you,” he said, the tone suddenly flirtatious. “Black hair worn like Lauren Bacall, you always wear gray suits, and you pummeled that Miami attorney in that brain-damaged infant case last year.”

Pearl gray, I corrected to myself, and sometimes midnight blue suits.

“Yes,” I said, notching my voice down to low and sexy. “Jackson Smith tells me you are absolutely brilliant. The best criminal-defense attorney anywhere.” Well, okay, that was close enough to what Stonewall had said for lawyer-to-lawyer communications.

“Any chance this could wait until Monday?” The flirt was over.

“If it could have waited until Monday, I would have waited until Monday. But a friend of mine and one of his buddies got arrested. I'm not sure yet exactly what the charges are, but I suspect they've been arrested for stealing a truck full of organic wine and I need to get them out of jail tonight.”

“And just how am I supposed to do that?”

“If I knew, I wouldn't be calling you.” Yes, the flirt was definitely over.

“A truckload of stolen wine? That's probably a first- or second-degree felony. You think I just go down there, sign some papers, post the bail, and they walk?”

Well, I had hoped it was something like that, but his tone suggested otherwise, so I took a wild guess, and said, “No, of course, I know it's not that simple, but, please, could you just meet me at the jail and speak to Dave? His name is Dave Asa Baggwell.”

I could hear the woman in the background. The sound became muffled, and I suspected Cohen had put his hand over the phone. In a couple of seconds, he came back on, and said, “I'll meet you there in half an hour. Bring a checkbook.”

He hung up before I could ask if he minded cash in a sack.

For a few minutes, I pondered the proper attire to wear to jail, then opted for basic black jeans and a dainty, white peasant blouse. I did a light makeup, fluffed out my half a yard of black hair, and was slipping on my kicky little red sling backs and considering whether White Linen was a good perfume for jail when my phone rang.

When I picked it up, Bonita spoke before I could say hello. “Benicio needs to see you. He is very upset, and he won't tell me a thing. But it must be about that . . . that man with the pigtails.”

Oh, yes, please, cosmic forces, I needed something else to go wrong tonight. I mean, it wasn't midnight yet, I could probably fit in at least two or three more crises before it was technically Sunday.

But this was Benny. After all, he had gone off with Farmer Dave not once but twice with my blessings, so I had doubled the odds that something would happen, and I told Bonita to put him on the phone.

“He's locked in his room. You need to come over here.”

“I'll be right there.”

Before I left, I grabbed up the grocery bag full of cash, fully expecting to use the bills to either pay to get Dave out of jail or to put down a retainer on Philip's services. Then I sped off to Benny.

Bonita lived six streets over, in another vintage Southgate house built in the late sixties in a developed orange grove. The basic concrete block, Florida ranch. I was in her driveway before the radio even played a song. Yak, yak, yak, even WMNF, the alt station for cool people, is way too much yak. My car is too old for a CD player, and the cassette player bit the dust years ago, and for the $500 or so it would take to replace it, I'd opted for the radio and humming.

The porch light was on, and Bonita opened the door before I knocked. Pausing only to say “Don't worry,” I headed straight to Benny's bedroom.

Benny was curled up on his bed, wearing headphones, and the only light was from inside the closet. I turned on the overhead light, and he flinched.

“Benny, what's wrong?”

He turned up the volume on his Walkman so loud I could hear the sound of some dreadful rap crap escaping from the headphones.

“Look, Benny, I'm supposed to be at the county jail right now getting Dave out, and I'm sorry you're upset, but you need to tell me what is going on, right now and real quick.”

Bonita is always telling me children need firm limits, and though I'd yet to see her actually use any, I thought I'd give it a whirl.

“I've never seen a dead man before,” he said, jolting me. I had figured this was Catholic guilt over smoking a cigarette, marijuana at the worst, not a corpse scenario.

“You saw a dead body?”

“In that swamp. With Dave. He'd been snakebit. A couple of times, maybe more. It was so . . . so gross. I thought I'd puke.”

“How'd you find it?”

“We were looking for jaguarundi tracks, and just stumbled on it.”

Yeah, that would about be Farmer Dave's karma.

“And that's not all,” Benny said, with a faint hint of a sniffle sound. “There was a suitcase and it was full of money. Cash money. Lots of it.”

“Where's the money now?” Okay, I know, I know, but I'm a civil litigator and we're trained to follow the money. Plus, I had a sudden suspicion about the cash in the grocery sack.

“Dave took the suitcase and told me to keep my mouth shut. He kept telling me that accidents happen, with the snake, you know, and I shouldn't go off in the woods by myself, and not to call the police. But I wanted to call the police. About the body.”

“Then what? I mean, was this before you came back to my house? Or after?”

“He had the suitcase with the money in my pickup when we got to your house. And he was going to, you know, leave me, but then his wine truck was gone. So we had to ask you where the wine was, and then we went to look for Waylon.”

“What happened after you and Dave left, looking for Waylon?”

“We went to his house, Waylon's, I mean, and they got into some kinda talk, and they seemed upset, and told me to wait in the kitchen, and there was a phone in the kitchen.”

Benny stopped talking and studied his big feet as if the answers to the mysteries of life were engraved there in gold.

“Benny, did you call the police on the body? From Waylon's kitchen phone?”

“Dave said not to. Dave said it wasn't a good idea to call the police.”

Sure, I thought, that would be Farmer Dave's point of view. But Benny was Bonita's son, raised right on the fear of God and a blind trust in the American justice system. Not a fifty-year-old man with pigtails and a list of felony warrants dating back to Woodstock.

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