Running From The Law - Chapter 1

By Lisa Scottoline

Any good poker player will tell you the secret to a winning bluff is believing it yourself. I know this, so by the time I cross-examined the last witness, I believed. I was in deep, albeit fraudulent, mourning. Now all I had to was convince the jury.

"Would you examine this document for me, sir?" I said, my voice hoarse with fake grief. I did the bereavement shuffle to the witness stand and handed an exhibit to Frankie Costello, a lump of a plant manager with a pencil-thin mustache.

"You want I should read it?" Costello asked.

No, I want you should make a paper airplane. "Yes, read it please."Ê

Costello bent over the document, and I snuck a glance at the jury through my imaginary black veil. A few returned my gaze with mounting sympathy. The trial had been postponed last week because of the death of counsel's mother, but the jury wasn't told which lawyer's mother had died. It was defense counsel's mother who'd just passed on, not mine, but don't split hairs, okay? You hand me an ace, I'm gonna use it.

"I'm done," Costello said, after the first page.

"Please examine the attachments, sir."

"Attachments?" he asked, cranky as a student on the vocational track.

"Yes, sir." I leaned heavily on the burled edge of the witness stand and looked down with a mournful sigh. I was wearing black all over: black suit, black pumps, black hair pulled back with a black grosgrain ribbon. My eyes were raccoony, too, but from weeks of lost sleep over this trial, which had been slipping through my manicured fingers until somebody choked on her last chicken bone.

"Give me a minute," Costello said, tracing a graph with a stubby finger.

"Take all the time you need, sir."

He labored over the chart as the courtroom fell silent. The only sound was the death rattle of an ancient air conditioner that proved no match for a Philadelphia summer. It strained to cool the large Victorian courtroom, one of the most ornate in City Hall. The courtroom was surrounded by rose marble wainscoting and its high ceiling was painted robin's-egg blue with gold crown molding. A mahogany rail contained the jury, and I stole another glance at them. The old woman and the pregnant mother in the front row were with me all the way. But I couldn't read the grim-faced engineer who'd been peering at me all morning. Was he sympathetic or suspicious?

"I'm done," Costello said, and thrust the exhibit at me in a Speedy Gonzales fit of pique. We don't need no steenking badges.

"Thank you," I said, meaning it. It was a mistake not to keep the exhibit. You'll see why. "Mr. Costello, have you had an adequate opportunity to read Joint Exhibit 121?"

"Yeh."

"This isn't the first time you've seen these documents, is it, sir?" My voice echoed in the empty courtroom. There were no spectators in the pews, not even the homeless. The Free Library was cooler, and this trial was boring even me until today.

"Nah," Costello said. "I seen it before."

"You prepared the memorandum yourself, didn't you?"

"Yeh." Costello shifted in the direction of his lawyer, George W. Vandivoort IV, the stiff-necked fellow at the defense table. Vandivoort wore a pin-striped suit, horn-rimmed glasses, and a bright-eyed expression. He manifested none of the grief of a man who had buried his own mother only days ago, which was fine with me. I had rehearsed enough grief for both of us.

"Mr. Costello, did you send Exhibit 121 to Bob Brown, director of operations at Northfolk Paper, with a copy to Mr. Saltzman?"

Costello paused, at a loss without the memo in front of him. Who can remember what they just read? Nobody. Who would ask for the memo back? Everybody except an Italian male. "I think so," he said slowly.

"And you sent Mr. Rizzo a blind copy, isn't that correct, sir?"

He tried to remember. "Yeh."

"Just so I'm clear on this, a blind copy is when you send a memo or letter to someone, but the memo doesn't show that you did, isn't that right?" A point with no legal significance, but juries hate blind copies.

"Yeh. It's standard procedure to Mr. Rizzo, Mr. Dell'Orefice, and Mr. Facelli."

Even better, it sounded like the Mafia. I glanced at one of the black jurors, who was frowning deeply. He lived in Southeast Philly on the ragged fringe of the Italian neighborhood, and had undoubtedly taken his share of abuse. His frown meant I had collected six jurors so far. But what about the engineer? I tried to look sadder.

Suddenly an authoritative cough issued from the direction of the judge's paneled dais. "Ms. Morrone, I don't appreciate what you're doing," snapped the Honorable Gordon H. Kroungold, a sharp Democrat who was elevated to the bench from an estates practice, where nobody would ever dream of exploiting someone's death. At least not in open court. "I don't appreciate what you're doing at all."

"I'm proceeding as quickly as I can, Your Honor," I said, looking innocently up at the dais. It towered above my head, having been built in a time when we thought judges belonged on pedestals.

"That's not what I meant, Ms. Morrone." Judge Kroungold smoothed down a triangle of frizzy hair with an open hand. He wetted his hair down with water every morning, but after the second witness it would reattain its loft. "It's your demeanor I'm having a problem with, counsel."

Stay calm. Your mother's not even cold, poor baby. "I'm afraid I don't understand, Your Honor."

Judge Kroungold's dark eyes glowered. "Approach the bench, Ms. Morrone. You, too, Mr. Vandivoort."

"Of course, Your Honor," Vandivoort said, jumping up and hustling over. His mother's death had put such a spring into his step that he almost beat me to the dais. An inheritance, no doubt.

"Ms. Morrone, what the hell do you think you're doing?" Judge Kroungold asked, stretching down over his desk. "Is this some kind of stunt?"

Gulp. "I beg your pardon?"

"Don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about."

"Your Honor?"

"Please." Judge Kroungold looked around for his court reporter and waved him over irritably. "Wesley, I want this on the record."

The court reporter, an older black man with oddly grayish skin, picked up the stenography machine by its steel tripod and huddled with us at the front of the dais. A sidebar conversation is out of the jury's hearing, but not the appellate court's. The word disbarment flitted across my mind, but I shooed it away.

"Ms. Morrone," Judge Kroungold said, "please tell me, on the record, that I'm not seeing what I think I'm seeing."

"I don't understand what you mean, Your Honor. What is it you're seeing?"

"No, Ms. Morrone. No, no, no. Nuh-uh. You tell me exactly what you're doing." Judge Kroungold leaned so far over that I experienced a fine spray of judicial saliva. "You tell me. Right now."

"I'm conducting my cross-examination of this final witness, Your Honor."

The judge's liver-colored lips set in a determined line. "So it would appear. But let me state for the record that you seem very tired today, Ms. Morrone. Very lethargic. One would even say that you seem depressed."

I didn't know he cared. "Your Honor, I am tired. It's been a long trial and I've worked this case myself. I don't have the associates Mr. Vandivoort does, from Webster & Dunne," I said loud enough for the jury to hear.

Judge Kroungold's eyes slipped toward the jury, then bored down into me. "Lower your voice, counsel. Now."

Win some, lose some. "Yes, sir."

"I never would have expected to see something like this in my courtroom. For God's sake, you're even wearing a black suit!"

"I noticed that, too," Vandivoort added, as it began to dawn on him.

"Your Honor," I said, "I've worn this suit to court many times."

"Not in this trial you haven't," the judge spat back. Literally. "And no makeup. Last week you had on lipstick, but not today. What happened to that pink lipstick? Too bright?"

Time to raise him. "Your Honor, why are we discussing my clothing and makeup in court? Do you make comments of this sort to the male attorneys who appear before you?"

Judge Kroungold blinked, then his eyes narrowed. "You know damn well I wasn't making...comments."

"With all due respect, Your Honor, I find your comments inappropriate. I object to them and to the tenor of this entire sidebar as an unfortunate example of gender bias."

His mouth fell so far open I could see his bridgework. "What? I'm not biased against you. In fact, I took great pains in my instruction not to tell the jury whose mother had died, in order to avoid undue sympathy for the defense. You, Ms. Morrone, are giving the jury the distinct and entirely false impression that it was your mother who died and not Mr. Vandivoort's."

"What?" I said, sounding as shocked as possible. At the same nanosecond, a quart of adrenaline dumped into my bloodstream and a familiar rush surged into my nerves, setting them tingling, jangling, and twanging like the strings of an electric guitar. Believe. "Your Honor, I would never do such a thing! I couldn't even begin to do such a thing. Who can divine what a jury is thinking, much less attempt to control it?"

Judge Kroungold's eyes glittered. "Oh, really. Then you won't mind if I suggest to the jury that the death was in Mr. Vandivoort's family, not yours."

Shit. Was he bluffing, too? This game could cost me my license to play cards - I mean, practice law. "On the contrary, Your Honor. I would object to any attempt to gain the jury's sympathy for male counsel, who you are clearly favoring. In fact, I move that you recuse yourself immediately on the grounds that you are partial to defense counsel, sir."

Judge Kroungold reddened. "Recuse myself? Step down? On the last day of the trial?"

Up the ante. "Yes, sir. I wasn't sure until today, but now you've made your sexism quite clear."

"My sexism?" He practically choked on the word, since he fancied himself a liberal with a true respect for women. Like Bill Clinton.

"Are you denying my motion, Your Honor?"

"I most certainly am! It's absurd. Frivolous! You'd lose on appeal," Judge Kroungold shot back, but he twitched the tiniest bit.

It was my opening and I drove for it. I had a straight flush and a dead mother. I believed. "With all due respect, Your Honor, I disagree. This sidebar is interrupting my cross-examination of a critical witness. Every minute I stand here prejudices my client's case. If I could proceed, perhaps I could put this ugly incident behind me. Mr. Vandivoort didn't object to my questioning, after all."

Kroungold snapped his head in Vandivoort's direction. "Mr. Vandivoort, don't you have an objection?"

I looked at Vandivoort, dead-on. "Can you really believe I would do such a terrible thing, George?" The pot is yours if you can call me a liar to my face. In open court on the record.

Vandivoort looked at Judge Kroungold, then at me, and back again. "Uh...I have no objection," he said, folding even easier than my Uncle Sal. Vandivoort was too much of a gentleman, that was his problem. Biology is destiny. It's in the cards.

"Then may I proceed, Your Honor?"

"Wait a minute, I'm not done with you, Ms. Morrone. Stay here." Judge Kroungold scowled at Vandivoort. "Mr. Vandivoort, take your seat."

What was this? Not according to Hoyle, surely.

Judge Kroungold signaled to Wesley as soon as Vandivoort bounced away, and Wesley got the convenient urge to stop typing and crack his knuckles.

What gives?

Judge Kroungold leaned over the dais. "I've been reading about you in the newspapers, Ms. Morrone, so I can't say I'm surprised by your showmanship. But I warn you. Play all the tricks you want. It might work in this case, but it won't work in Sullivan. You're in over your head in Sullivan.

It gave me a start, like he was jinxing me, but I couldn't think about Sullivan now. 'Then may I proceed, sir?"

"Of course, Ms. Morrone," Judge Kroungold said loudly. "Ladies first." He leaned back and waved to Wesley to go back on the record.

"Thank you, Your Honor," I said, and turned to face my jury. But not before I remembered my bereavement and brushed an ersatz tear from my eye.

Which is when I caught a glistening behind the engineer's glasses.

Winner take all.

1995© by Lisa Scottoline. All rights reserved.

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