EXCERPTS FROM THE FURTHEST CITY LIGHT
Edith Piaf famously sang, “Je ne regrette rien.” Lucky her. Although it’s hard to believe anyone could sail into middle age without regretting something. Perhaps when she sang it was true, but later when she was alone again without an audience, without her makeup, it was only partly true and partly defiant wishful thinking. Which I applaud. Nothing wrong with defiant wishful thinking. Criminal defense lawyers, like myself, have won many difficult cases by engaging in exactly that kind of thinking. It’s what gives us confidence when the facts are lined up against us, drives our rhetoric across the finish line when, without it, we’d sputter to a stop halfway through the trial at the time an acquittal seems hopelessly far away, a moth-sized beacon in a raging storm. No, nothing wrong with defiant wishful thinking unless it begins to dominate more than just your career.
Now that I’ve landed here in Mexico where I intend to rest and recover, I’m alone again, without an audience, without my makeup. There’s no one to sing to here, except myself. I’m standing on a bright pink balcony overlooking the water. I’ve managed to find the same studio apartment that my partner Vickie and I rented a few years ago. Back when we were a stable twosome, the American dream, a doctor and a lawyer. At the time, though, just a pair of grateful snowbirds from Colorado looking to land on a warm sandy beach and take a couple of breaths before returning to our busy lives. Our friends, of course, thought we had it all. Actually, so did we. Had it all: what a ridiculous sounding cliché. Makes you want to grab a nice sharp pin, stick it in, and hear that satisfying pop. Which I suppose is what I did, in retrospect a terrible mistake. And not even the only one.
How could I have been so careless, stepping out like that without looking to see what was coming? A year ago, I was cohabiting with my partner and just about to meet a new client, someone who would become my friend, an innocent woman accused of murder. It’s a burden and a privilege to defend an innocent person. It’s every defense lawyer’s dream. Makes you go all out, and then it would make sense to stop and rest but you can’t remember how, and besides, where’s the thrill in that? Might as well keep on going until you finally run out of gas. So I headed south, bypassing Mexico, and went to Nicaragua, a small car accident of a country, mired in a bloody civil war. And, in a convoluted way, the perfect destination, the trip I may never stop paying for. Vickie warned me, but I didn’t listen. Vickie was always warning me.
Vickie Ferraro. Who told me love was the last refuge we have against the world and all its sorrows. Who I may have lost along the route, the only belonging that mattered.
But it’s late now. Time to go inside, unpack my duffel, turn on the ceiling fan, and make myself at home. Catch my breath. Sleep. As I start to turn away, though, the view begins to change. I can’t move. I’d forgotten the spectacular sunsets here, the beauty that is sometimes possible. I feel mesmerized. No, I feel awe. Suddenly, I realize there was no way I could have gotten here except the way I came. Maybe that’s what Edith meant. If so, je ne regrette rien.
From Chapter One
A preliminary hearing is just that, a hearing to determine preliminarily whether there’s probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and that the defendant committed it. A few days before Emily’s hearing, Jeff Taylor, the prosecutor, called me.
“What do you need on this one, Rachel?” he asked. Jeff had been a prosecutor in the Boulder County District Attorney’s office for as long as I’d been a public defender, almost twelve years. We’d actually gone to law school together and even went out a few times during our first year when I was still dating men. We had a good working relationship and generally trusted each other.
“I need you to dismiss it,” I said.
“Right,” he laughed. “It’s fine if you need to do the prelim. I understand. Let me know when you want to talk. This case could be a little sticky, though, because the victim was an ex-cop. His buddies have been calling every week. They want me to hang tough.”
“He was an abusive bastard,” I said.
“Can you prove it?”
I hesitated. So far, Donald had located a few hospital records that established Emily had sought medical attention for a broken arm, a dislocated shoulder, and a torn ligament in her knee. These were significant injuries, but she’d always lied about how they happened. None of the neighbors were helpful. Hal’s mother wouldn’t rat on her son (she’d seen a number of bruises on her daughter-in-law, but claimed not to know where they’d come from), and none of Emily’s acquaintances had suspected a thing. My client’s best friend had moved to New York about eight years earlier and had visited only twice. For years, she’d wondered if Hal was an abuser, but Emily would never confirm it.
“There wasn’t a scratch on her when she was arrested,” Jeff reminded me.
“So what?” I said, a shoo-in for Miss Bravado of 1985. “It doesn’t mean she wasn’t acting in self-defense.”
“You’re a great lawyer, Rachel, but I don’t think even you can pull this one off. Anyway, you know I’ll eventually offer second-degree murder. Maybe we’ll find a number she can live with.”
“That’s not good enough.”
“It’s the best I can do. See you on Wednesday.” Then he hung up.
I stared out the window at a bluebird roosting in the branches of a naked tree. The wind was blowing steadily, ruffling his short feathers. He looked cold, but resolute. The rest of his clan had long since headed south. I tapped hard on the windowpane and wondered for a moment if he’d frozen to death, but then saw his head move slightly in my direction.
“Hey,” I shouted, “it’s almost winter, you idiot. Get the hell out of here.”
On Wednesday, I let Donald sit with Emily and me at the preliminary hearing. At trial, however, I would try to hide him in the audience. Donald didn’t clean up well, even when he tried. The last time he’d testified at a trial for me, he’d worn a pair of brand new polyester pants that were at least two sizes too small, the same shirt he always wore, and a brown wrinkled tie with hula girls on it.
At two o’clock, Jeff was calling his last witness, the lead detective on the case. By two-thirty, Judge Thomas would find probable cause and bind the case over for trial on first-degree murder. After quizzing the detective about Emily’s statements to the police, Jeff looked up from his notes and addressed the court.
“Your Honor, I’d like to ask the detective a few questions about a search of the defendant’s house that was conducted early this morning. The defense hasn’t been given notice of this because I just found out about it myself.”
Judge Thomas said, “Ms. Stein, do you object?”
I thought for a moment. “No, your Honor.” Since the case would be bound over regardless, there was no reason not to learn as much as possible.
“Detective Moorehouse,” Jeff began, “could you tell the court what you found at the defendant’s home early this morning?”
The detective turned to the judge. “We found some papers in the back of a kitchen drawer. One of them pertained to an insurance policy on the deceased’s life.”
Oh oh, I thought, here comes a little surprise. God, I hate surprises.
“How much money was the deceased insured for?” Jeff continued.
The detective spoke in a careful monotone. “The deceased was insured for a quarter of a million dollars.”
“And who was the beneficiary on the policy?”
“Detective Moorehouse, were you able to determine who had taken out the policy on the deceased’s life?”
I heard Emily make a small distressed mewing sound.
“Yes,” the detective answered, “we called the insurance company. They informed us the defendant had taken out the policy three weeks before her husband died.”
“That ain’t good,” Donald muttered.
“No, it ain’t,” I agreed.
We both looked at Emily.
“You probably won’t believe this,” she whispered. “I mean I can hardly believe it myself, but until now it never occurred to me it was even relevant. That’s pretty naive, isn’t it?”
“I’ll say,” Donald muttered.
I gave Donald a dirty look and then turned to Emily. “It’s okay, I believe you, but in order for us to help you, you have to start thinking— ”
“I understand,” she interrupted. “If I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in prison, I have to start thinking like a criminal.”
Donald and I considered this and then nodded our heads. “Exactly,” we said.
From Chapter Ten
I found Liz on the bus and sat down across from her. “Is there anyone in this country who isn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome?” I asked.
“I doubt it,” she answered. “Oh, by the way, the talk tonight on land reform has been changed from seven to seven-thirty. There’s no bus available. A bunch of us are meeting at the community center at seven. If there’s enough of us, we might take a taxi.”
“Okay,” I said, staring out the window.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“I’m fine, but if I’m not there at seven, don’t wait for me. I’ll find another way to go.” I was feeling guilty because I had no intention of sweltering through a two-hour lecture on land reform. On the way home from the supermercado the day before, I’d noticed the Altamira cinema, and Sonia had told me it was one of the few places in Managua that was air-conditioned.
As the sun set over the flattened city, I was standing in line waiting to enter the theater. Eventually, a Nicaraguan woman in a bright orange dress showed up holding a roll of tickets and began selling them. When I reached the head of the line, I asked what was playing, although I really didn’t care as long as it was cool inside.
“It’s a North American movie,” she told me. “Los Nerds En Vacaciones.”
“Oh.” I paused, imagining a moment in the future when someone in the States questioned me about land reform under the Sandinistas and I would have to admit that instead of attending a lecture on this crucial topic, I’d gone to see a movie entitled “Nerds On Vacation.” Fortunately, the door opened just then and I felt a cold blast of air on my face and arms.
“One ticket, please,” I said.
The film was about rival gangs of rich fraternity boys screeching around Palm Springs in their red convertibles, each gang trying to bed as many women as possible. The movie had been dubbed into Spanish, but unfortunately had English subtitles that I couldn’t help reading. For a while, I amused myself wondering what the Nicaraguans in the audience could possibly be thinking. Did the film alarm them? Did they think, My God, there’s no point trying to reason with people like this? Or did they wonder, Why do these North Americans even care if the Sandinistas are running our country?
But of course most of the Nicaraguans were sitting there for the same reason I was and would have happily watched a movie about Mongolians learning the hokey-pokey as long as the theater’s heroic air-conditioner continued to crank out cool air. It would be a sad day in Managua when it finally rattled to a halt.
After an hour, however, I’d pretty much had it. When a few of the fraternity boys, dressed in togas, began barfing over the balcony onto the heads of innocent pedestrians, I stood up to leave.
“Is that you, Rachel?” I heard Allen whisper.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“A few rows back.”
“How did you know it was me?” I asked.
“I heard you groaning. Is the seat next to you empty?”
“I’ll come and join you.”
The theater was a big hall with a single door that opened to the street. It was dark inside except when anyone entered or left, which happened every three or four minutes. For a couple of seconds until the door closed again, the picture was obscured. Ordinarily, it would have been extremely annoying.
After Allen sat down, he whispered, “I saw Lenny and Veronica in the back row.”
“Really?” I was feeling better already.
“I’ve sat through some real losers,” Allen whispered, “but this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen. I’m hoping that maybe the communists made it on purpose to discredit us.”
“You’re too hopeful,” I said. “But you’re young.”
Allen put his head on my shoulder. “Rachel, I’m not sure I can ever go home.”
After a few minutes, I said, “I know what you mean.”