Rough Justice - Chapter 1

By Lisa Scottoline

It started with a slip of the tongue. At first, Marta Richter thought she'd misunderstood him. She couldn't always hear her client through the thick bulletproof window and felt exhausted after the two-month murder trial. "You mean you struggled in his grasp," Marta corrected.

Steere didn't reply, but brushed dirt from his chair on the defendant's side of the window. In his charcoal Brioni suit and a white shirt with a cutaway collar, he looked incongruous but not uncomfortable in the jailhouse setting. The businessman's cool was almost preternatural, in fact. On the night Steere had been arrested for murder, he'd demanded only one phone call. To his stockbroker. "That's what I said," Steere answered after a moment. "I struggled in his grasp."

"No, you said he struggled in your grasp. It was self-defense, not murder. You were struggling, not him."

An amused smile flickered across Steere's strong mouth. He had a finely boned nose, flat brown eyes, and suspiciously few crows' feet for a real estate speculator. In tabloid photos he looked attractive, but the fluorescent lights of the interview room hollowed his cheeks and dulled his sandy hair. "What's the point? The trial's over. The jury's out. It doesn't matter anymore who was struggling with who. Whom."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Marta didn't want to play word games, she wanted to revel in her brilliant defense. It was the case of her career and Steere's acquittal was in the bag. "Of course it matters."

"Why? What if it wasn't self-defense? What if I murdered him like the D.A. said? So what?"

Marta blinked, irritated. "But that's not the way it happened. He was trying to hijack your car. He attacked you with a knife. He threatened to kill you. You shot him in self-defense."

"In the back of the head?"

"There was a struggle. You had your gun and you fired." Without realizing it, she was repeating her closing argument. The jury had adjourned to deliberate only minutes ago. "You panicked, in fear of your life."

"In 'fear of my life.' You bought that?" Steere crossed one long leg over the other. A triangle of tailored pant flopped over with a fine, pressed crease. "I stole that line from a cop show, the one where everybody smokes. You know the show?"

"What is this, a joke?" Marta mouth went suddenly dry. She didn't watch TV even when she was on, another television lawyer with wide-set blue eyes and chin-length hair highlighted blonde. A hardness around her eye and a softness under her chin told the viewers she wasn't thirty anymore. Still Marta looked good on the tube and knew how to handle herself; explain the defense in a sound bite and bicker with a prosecutor. Wrap it up with some wit. Smile for the beauty shot. "What's TV have to do with anything?"

"Everything. Rich white guy carjacked by poor black guy. White guy has registered Glock for protection. Black guy has Exacto knife. Not a good match." Steere eased back into his chair. "My story, my defense, was fiction. The jury bought it because it was what they expected, what they see on TV."

Marta's lips parted in disbelief. The news struck like an assault, stunning and violent. Her mind reeled. Her face felt hot. She braced her manicured fingers against the cold aluminum ledge and fought for her bearings. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying I'm guilty as sin, dear." Steere's gaze was point-blank and his voice tinny as it passed through a thin metal grate under the bulletproof window. The cinderblock walls of the interview room, lacquered calcium-white, seemed suddenly to be closing in on Marta.

"But he slashed your cheek with the knife," she said, uncomprehending.

"He was dead at the time. I held his hand, with the knife in it."

"They found fibers from your tux on his hands and clothes."

"There was a struggle. He put up a fight. Mostly begging, though. Boo-hooing like a little girl."

Marta's stomach turned over. "Tell me the whole story. The truth."

"What's to tell? He came at me when I stopped at the light. He was waving the knife, drunk, screaming I should give up the car. Like I would. A new SL 600 convertible. Wet dream of a car." Steere shook his head in momentary admiration. "So I grabbed my gun, got out of the car, and shot him in the head. I called the cops from the cell phone."

Marta crossed her arms across her chest. You could call it a hug but that wasn't how she thought of it. She'd heard confessions from other clients, and though Steere didn't look like them, he sounded like them. They all had the urge to brag; to prove how smart they were and what they could get away with. Marta had known knew Steere was tough-minded, but she never guessed he was inhuman. "You're a murderer," she said.

"No, I'm a problem-solver. I saw some garbage and took it out. The man was a derelict, worthless. He didn't work, he didn't produce. He didn't own anything. Fuck, he didn't even live anywhere. This time he picked the wrong guy. End of story."

"Just like that."

"Come on, Marta. The man was useless. He didn't even know how to use the fucking knife." Steere chuckled. "You handled it better during the demonstration, when you held it under your chin. Did you see the jury? I thought the front row was going to faint."

Marta felt a twinge as she flashed on the jurors, their faces upturned like kindergartners. She'd hired the requisite raft of jury consultants but relied on her own instincts and experience to pick the panel, ending up with a solid reasonable-doubt jury. She'd stood in front of them every day of the trial, memorizing their features, their reactions, their quirks. Fifteen years as a top-tier criminal lawyer had taught Marta one thing; the jurors were the only real people in any courtroom. Even the ones with book deals.

"They're suckers," Steere said. "Twelve suckers. The biggest loser was your friend, The Marlboro Man. Better watch out, Marta. He had the look of love. He may be fixin' to get hisself a filly."

Marta winced. Steere meant Christopher Graham, a blacksmith from Old Bustleton in Northeast Philadelphia. Marta had learned that Graham had recently separated from his wife, so she worked him the whole trial, locking eyes with him during her cross of the medical examiner and letting her fingertips stray to her silk collar when she felt his lonely gaze on her. Still, manipulation was one thing, and prevarication quite another. "Everything you told me was a lie."

"It worked, didn't it? You shot the shit out of their case. The bailiff thinks the jury will be back by noon tomorrow. That's only four, five hours of actual deliberation." Steere smiled and recrossed his legs. "I hear the reporters have a pool going. The smart money's on you, twenty to one. There's even action that they acquit me before there's three feet of snow on the ground."

Marta's mind reeled. The media, more lies. She'd told the reporters Steere was innocent and declined to speculate on how long the jury would be out. I just win, boys. I leave the details to you, she'd said with a laugh. She wasn't laughing now.

"It's almost three o'clock," Steere said, checking a Patek Phillippe with a band like liquid gold. "You've never had a jury out longer than two days, if memory serves."

Marta flipped back through her cases. She was undefeated in capital cases and she'd win this one, too. No tough questions of physical evidence to explain away, just a disagreement over the way it had gone down, with the Commonwealth claiming Steere had intended to kill the homeless man. It took balls to prosecute a case that thin, but it was an election year and the Mayor wanted to crucify the wealthiest slumlord in Philadelphia. Marta understood all that, but she didn't understand the most important thing. "Why did you lie?" she snapped.

"Since when are you so high and mighty? Did you ask if I was guilty?"

"I don't ask my clients that question."

"Then what's the difference if they lie to you? What's the difference whether I'm guilty or innocent? You would have defended me either way."

Marta had no immediate response except to grit her teeth. "So you made up this cock-and-bull story."

"You never doubted it? One of the best criminal lawyers in the country and you can't smell shit?"

Not this time, because she had let her guard down. Because she'd been attracted to him, though she wouldn't admit it, even to herself. "Your story made absolute sense. We went over it and over it. You told it the same way every time."

"I lied from the door."

"Even to the cops? The statement you gave them. It was recorded. It was all consistent."

"I'm excellent at what I do."

"Lie?"

"Sell."

"You used me, you asshole."

"Come off it, dear." Steere's smile twisted into a sneer. "You got paid, didn't you? Almost two hundred grand this quarter, including your expenses. Hotel, phone, even dry cleaning. Every cent paid in full. Twenty-five grand left on the retainer."

"That's not the point. "

Steere's laughter echoed off the hard cinderblock walls. "Easy for you to say, you're not paying it. For that much money, using you should be included. Christ, for that much money, fucking you should be included."

"Fuck you!" Marta shot to her feet, seething. She felt the urge to pace, to move, to run, but the interview room was cramped as a phone booth. She was trapped. By Steere, by herself. How could she have been so naive? She still couldn't bring herself to accept it. "So you killed Darnton. Even though you'd be questioned, maybe charged."

Steere shrugged. "It was a risk, but I run risks everyday. I figured the D.A. would make a stink because of who I was, but that's okay. Any ink is good ink. I knew I'd hire the best and get away with it, and I will. Because of you."

Because of you. The words burned into Marta's brain. Steere had written the story and she had sold it, better than she'd ever sold anything in her professional life. Pitched it to the jury in the daytime and the satellites at night. And she didn't do it for the money or the facetime, not this time.

She did it for Steere.

In the split-second she realized it, Marta's fury became unreasoning. She could have sworn he wanted her, he'd given every signal. He'd lean too close at counsel table, look too long at her legs. Once he'd touched her knee, bending over to retrieve his fountain pen, and her response was so immediate it surprised even her. The memory made her feel crazy, unhinged. Unleashed. "I'm going to Judge Rudolph with this," she said.

"No, you're not. This is a privileged conversation between attorney and client. Disclose it and you're disbarred. Ruined." Steere laced his long, nimble fingers together and leaned forward on his side of the metal ledge. "Of course, I'd deny this conversation ever took place. You'd look like a fool."

"Then I quit. I'm not your lawyer anymore. I'm withdrawing from the representation." Marta snatched her bag and briefcase from the tile floor.

"The judge won't let you withdraw, not now while the jury's out. It's too late in the game. It's prejudicial to me, infringes my constitutional rights."

"You're not getting away with this," Marta shot back, though she knew he was right about her withdrawal. "I suborned perjury."

"Suborn perjury, my my. You can talk the talk, can't you?" Steere smiled tightly. "So can I. You didn't suborn perjury because I didn't testify in my own defense. The most you can do is make some noise after the trial is over, but by then it'll be too late. They can't retry me for the same crime."

"It's a fraud on the court - "

"Enough." Steere cut her off with an airy wave. "The verdict comes in by noon and I go free. I hold a press conference where I tell the world that the mayor is a smacked ass, the jury system is a blessing, and you're the best whore money can buy."

Marta froze. Rage constricted her chest. Her fingers squeezed the handle of her briefcase. Steere had played her and she hated him to the bone for it. She couldn't let him win, not by a long shot.

"Then we'll go to the Swann Fountain for the victory celebration," he was saying. "We'll play footsies, just like old times. After that I'm booked to St. Bart's on a Learjet that'll take off from Atlantic City if Philly is snowed in.

I love the beach, don't you? Hate the water, but love the beach. Want to come?"

"Can't. I have work to do." Marta reached for the door of the interview room.

"What work? You just proved me innocent."

"Right. Now I'm going to prove you guilty."

Steere chuckled behind tented fingers. "There's no evidence."

"There must be."

"The police couldn't find any."

"They didn't have the incentive I do."

"And you'll find this evidence before the jury comes back? By noon tomorrow?"

"What makes you think they'll be out that long?" Marta said. She yanked the door open to the sound of Steere's laughter, but as furious as she was, she knew it didn't matter who was laughing first. Only who was laughing last.

2009© by Lisa Scottoline. All rights reserved.

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