In my opinion, it had been a tough year for the neighborhood Boston calls "Back Bay." Our only family drugstore, a fixture opposite the Lenox Hotel for decades, closed after three discount giants bunched around it like Davy Crockett's shot pattern. A candy store on Newbury Street also left, thereby eliminating the irony of the diet center occupying the retail space directly beneath it. And the Exeter Street Theatre building had suffered a devastating fire, nearly destroying one of the city's most upscale landmarks.
Concepts like "upscale" and "landmark" struck me all the more that Tuesday morning as I climbed the stairs of Steven Rothenberg's building, the elevator broken again. You couldn't call the structure that contained his law office anything but a dump, especially with one of its neighbors already torn down, leaving a gap like a punched-out tooth in that block of Boylston Street.
I'd first met Rothenberg a few years back, when he represented an African-American college student named William Daniels. The student was accused of killing his white girlfriend, and I was helping out as a favor for a black lieutenant the Boston Homicide Unit. Since then, Rothenberg had hired me to do the private investigator work on a number of criminal matters. This time around, he'd left a message with my answering service the afternoon before, asking me to drop by the next day.
I reached Rothenberg's floor and, after a turn, the office suite he shared with half a dozen other sole practitioners. The lawyers' names were done individually on horizontal slats of wood stacked vertically to the side of the doorjamb. Each slat had been lettered by a different engraver on differently grained wood, a xylophone designed by committee. I thought a few of the names might have changed since the last time I'd been there, but Steve's was still in the same place.
Inside the front door, a young female receptionist with orangeade hair cut in a shingled pattern typed on a desktop computer. Angled away from me, she wore little earphones, the wire running down out of sight. She might have been listening to an old dictation machine or a new Walkman. Given the way she was rocking her head, I put my money on the latter.
Coming up on her blind side, I said, "Excuse me?"
She twisted around and, in a practiced way, used her left index finger to flick the earphone behind her ear for a moment. Even from four feet away, I could hear techno-rock music.
"John Cuddy to see Steve Rothenberg."
She held up the index finger in a "Wait one" way and tapped a couple of buttons on the telephone console before saying, "Steve, a John..." She looked up at me.
"Right. A John...Oh, okay." She put the earphone back in place. "Third door."
Steve Rothenberg appeared at his office threshold, which meant he was more anxious to see me than I was to begin running the meter. Inside, his furniture was still kind of shabby, the upholstered seats on the client chairs looking like somebody had shined them. Rothenberg let the coat-tree handle his suit jacket, the dress shirt he wore rolled twice to the elbows, the tie tugged down from an unbuttoned collar, even at nine-thirty on a cool October day. His beard looked trimmed, but what was left of the salt-and-pepper hair had grown a little shaggy.
"Your barber out of town, Steve?"
"Maybe you should try somebody else."
"No." Rothenberg waved me to one of the client chairs before sinking into his own behind a cluttered desk, some veneer peeling at the corners. "No, I'd rather have it be long for a couple of weeks than wrong for a couple of months."
"Makes sense." Sitting down, though, I though this haircutting schedule pretty much matched the office decor. "How can I help you?"
Rothenberg picked up a pencil, fiddling with it. "Are you still dating that A.D.A.?"
Nancy Meagher, an assistant district attorney for Suffolk County and the first woman I'd felt anything for since my wife, Beth, had died of cancer. "I'm still seeing Nancy, Steve. So if she's your direct opponent in whatever -- "
"She's not, but..." Rothenberg looked at his window, a pie-wedge of the Boston Common showing through the pane. "You were out of town last week, right?"
"Out of state, actually." Rothenberg was being oblique, and oblique never made anything easier. "Steve, can we maybe cut to the car chase here?"
He tossed his pencil onto the desk. "John, I've got Alan Spaeth."
The name rang a bell. "Who is...?"
"The defendant in the Woodrow Gant case."
I felt a tightening in my chest. Even from three hundred miles away, I knew that the shooting of the prosecutor-cum-divorce-attorney had rocked Boston the prior week. The police arrested the husband of a woman Gant had been representing. After returning to the city, I'd gently asked Nancy if she'd known Gant. She said that though he'd prosecuted for another county, she'd met him once, then changed the subject.
Understandably, I'd thought. Some things are harder to think about than others.
Rothenberg said, "John?"
I started to rise. "Good luck with Mr. Spaeth."
"Wait, please. Alan needs an investigator."
"Steve -- "
"John, hear me out?"
I stayed standing. "The victim's a former A.D.A. and -- what, the third divorce attorney in two years shot by -- "
" -- allegedly shot by -- "
" -- an enraged husband."
"You don't have to tell me." Rothenberg lowered his voice. "But please, John. Spot me ten minutes, then you can leave, you still want to."
Given Nancy's job, and sensibilities, I didn't see him convincing me. On the other hand, he'd sent a good deal of business my way over the years, and loyalty entitled Rothenberg to the chance.
I sat back down. "Ten minutes, and counting."
"You didn't recognize my client's name, you don't know that I was already representing him against his wife."
Rothenberg was right. "I thought you did strictly criminal?"
"Mostly, but I don't want to do it forever." A weak smile. "And besides, this economic climate, you have to diversify."
Under the circumstances, not funny. "Nine minutes, Steve."
The weak smile disappeared. "Okay. The bad news first. A couple of months ago, Gant was taking Alan's deposition in the divorce case when my client went ballistic. Screamed and yelled in Gant's conference room and all the way out the door."
"Did Spaeth threaten him?"
"Expressly. In the hearing of half a dozen witnesses and using the 'N'-word."
I remembered Gant had been African-American. "How about the murder weapon?"
"Left at the crime scene."
"Not on the revolver itself, but yes on the shells in the cylinder."
I felt like standing up again. "Spaeth's prints were on the shells?"
"Afraid so. Probably his gun, too."
"Alan says he filed the serial numbers off one of his firearms, but it was stolen."
One of his firearms. "So, Spaeth stole the gun, then -- "
"No, no. Alan claims he bought the thing years ago on a trip -- to one of those states where you don't have to show much? -- then he wiped the numbers, and thereafter it was stolen from his room."
"At the boardinghouse he'd been living in."
"Stolen how long ago?"
"Four weeks before the murder."
Rothenberg read something in my face. "John, Alan says that's the reason he moved out of the rooming house, because he thought the owner of the place had stolen his piece."
"Moved to where?"
"An apartment, three or four blocks away." Rothenberg paused. "Part of the good news is that Alan's alibi will also confirm the business about somebody stealing the gun."
"Spaeth has an alibi witness?"
"Yeah, one of the other men who lived in the boardinghouse."
"Steve, I don't remember hearing about that on the news."
Spreading his fingertips, Rothenberg combed the beard with his nails. "He hasn't come forward yet."
I closed my eyes. "Meaning neither you nor the police know where the guy is."
"John, I won't lie to you. Our alibi witness is a drinking buddy of Alan's. He could be anywhere, but we need to find him."
I opened my eyes. "You need to find him, Steve."
Rothenberg clasped his hands on the desk. "I said I wouldn't lie to you, John. I won't try to kid you, either. Alan Spaeth was a miserable son of a bitch through most of the divorce case. But we pretty much had it settled -- house to the wife, my client to absorb their son's future college costs, if any. We even distributed some of the money from the marital estate to both spouses."
I thought about it. "Kind of reduces Spaeth's motive to kill Gant."
"Exactly. In fact, I thought Alan'd finally adjusted to the situation, had 'let go of his wife,' as I've heard the shrinks call it. He used some of the money to move roan apartment, start looking for a new job -- "
"He'd been laid off, before the marriage broke up. One of the reasons it did." Rothenberg changed his tone. "John, my client's been made to look like a pariah, especially given our rash of divorce-attorney killings. And because this one was done execution-style, I have to show the jury a somebody else who might have wanted to shoot Gant. Now the man had an exwife himself, plus a real questionable brother. And he even prosecuted gang members once upon a time."
"Steve -- "
Rothenberg raised his right hand, palm toward me. "All I'm saying is that if we can bring forward Alan'sb alibi witness, my version of the story becomes a lot more salable."
"It's my client's version, too."
"That a 'somebody else' set him up with his own gun?"
"Do me a favor, John?"
"Talk to Alan before you make up your mind about taking the case."
I gave it a beat. "Why should I, Steve?"
Rothenberg stared down at his desk. "Because he's convinced me."
The old Suffolk County jail had been called simply "Charles Street," a brown-and-yellow stone monstrosity erected when Americans wearing blue and gray uniforms were still killing each other. Inside, the architecture would have reminded you of a five-story birdcage with the decibel level of a nineteenth-century asylum.
The new jail -- on Nashua Street -- was a soaring seven stories of brick on a about two acres of land, with razor wire around the parking lot. The sheriff who finally got the county to build it had to go through a couple of Supreme Court appeals before receiving permission to double-bunk the inmates, but he also included things like a weight room on the second floor and an open-air recreation deck for basketball on the fourth, with wire mesh enclosing the court to prevent the loss of both bouncing balls and footloose players.
Inside the main entrance, the lobby held three rows of black wire chairs for visitors and a bank of orange, hexagonal lockers for their belongings. Steve Rothenberg had called ahead, and after a deputy in a powder-blue shirt stamped the back of my hand with invisible ink, a sergeant took me up in the elevator, making small talk about the fine weather and the New England Patriots and how he wished the architect for Nashua Street hadn't included so many different colors for the building's walls because six years later it was a bitch to keep track of all the paints for touch-up work. No mention of any angry husbands killing their wives' divorce lawyers, which was fine with me.
Exiting the elevator, the sergeant led me along a corridor to an attorney-client consulting room. Its interior was maybe eight feet square, with a butcher-block table and caned chairs on each side, a distinct improvement over the wire jobs in the lobby downstairs.
"Your guy will come through the trap there," the sergeant said, gesturing toward the door on the other side of the desk. "I have to tell you not to pass him anything?"
The sergeant pointed to what looked like a light switch. "This here's a confidentiality switch. You push it over, our audio-surveillance of the room stops."
He pointed again. "Panic button, in case the guy gives you any trouble."
"He been any trouble?"
The Sergeant gave me a deadpan expression. "Not since he showered yesterday."
I sat down as the trap to the corridor closed behind me, wondering if I'd know what that was supposed to mean.
One look at Alan Spaeth, and I knew what it meant.
He said, "You're the investigator Steve Rothenberg called me about, right?"
"Right." We shook hands. "John Cuddy."
rd"And you're wondering where I got this, too."
Spaeth put an index finger to his left eye, the purple-and-ocher blotch of a shiner not quite closing it, the knuckles on both hands bruised and scabbed. Standing, Spaeth was about six feet in plastic shoes, maybe a hundred-ninety under the one-piece jumpsuit with no pockets. Only late thirties, his unshaven cheeks were already jowls and sagging a little loosely, as though jail chow wasn't agreeing with him. He had a wide, greedy mouth, and a nose that showed more nostrils than bridge. His hair was black and curly to the point of clotted, despite yesterday's "shower."
I said, "What happened?"
Spaeth grinned cruelly, though he must have hurt the eye area some to do it. "End of the housing unit, we got five showers. Five for all fifty of us in there. When it was my mm yesterday, one nigger thought he was tough decided to whale on me account of he heard I killed this nigger lawyer." A grunt. "He found out I was tougher."
"Three's the charm, Spaeth."
A confused expression. "What?"
"You've used the 'N'-word twice. I hear it a third "You've used the time, and you'll be sitting by yourself."
"Hey, sport, who the fuck's paying the tab here?"
"Steve Rothenberg, if I decide to help him with this case."
Spaeth chewed on that. Literally, from the way his jowls worked. Then his chin dropped to his chest. "Look, this thing's got me all screwed up. I don't like what I'm learning about 'jailing' here, and so I'm showing off, trying not to act...scared. But I am." Spaeth's head came back up. "Christ, I'm scared shitless."
A little twinge in my gut. "Okay. Here's the deal. I'm talking to you because Steve asked me to. You tell me your side of things, and I go back to him with whether or not I'm on board. Clear?"
Alan Spaeth straightened some in his chair, the bruised hands folding themselves on the butcher block. "Clear."
"Where do we start?"
"How about with, I didn't kill the bastard."
"I heard you threatened to."
"What, at his law firm?"
"If that was the only time."
Spaeth raked a hand through his hair. "Look, you're talking August, all right? Over two months ago. I was going through a tough time. I mean, Gant's representing Nicole -- my wife?"
"And he got this 'vacate the marital home' order against me. Well, the company had laid me off from my marketing job like three weeks before, so I had to go live in a boardinghouse. Try to imagine that, sport. One day I'm coming home to this nice place in West Roxbury I sweated blood to carry, and the next I'm sleeping with the fucking derelicts in Southie."
South Boston. "I grew up there."
Spaeth put the hand to his face this time. "Christ, I'm not doing such a good job of getting you on my side."
Truth to tell, he wasn't. And yet..."That day at his law firm, did you threaten to kill Woodrow Gant?"
A nod before letting his hand fall back to the table. "In front of like, I don't know, six, seven people. I really made my fucking point." Spaeth looked up at me. "But you gotta understand, he was fucking me over the coals, and he was fucking..." Spaeth trailed off, shaking his head. "Fucking me every way from Sunday. Poisoning Terry against me, too."
"Terry's your son?"
"Yeah, Terence, actually, after Nicole's father. She got custody -- so Terry could stay in the house and keep with the same school Not the school where she teaches, that's not...That's not important. What is important is that Gant tells Terry, 'Look, your father has visitation rights, but thai doesn't mean yon have to see him.' The kid's fourteen, so the judge leaves it up to him, but meanwhile Gant's poisoning my own son against me."
Sounded like more motive, not less. "Back to that day at the law firm. What exactly happened?"
Spaeth blew out a breath. "I go in, because Rothenberg tells me they can take my 'deposition,' ask me a lot of questions under oath. So we're sitting around this table in a conference room -- like where we are here, only a lot bigger and nicer, view of the harbor and all. And Gant's needling me, really tucking it under the saddle with his questions."
"Oh, I don't mean the words themselves. Hell, a couple weeks later, Steve gave me this copy of the thing -- a 'transcript'?"
"Okay, so I read the transcript, and from Gant's words, you don't get what he was doing. He was too fucking smooth. No, it was more his...like facial expressions, and -- what's the word? 'Inflection,' yeah. The inflection of his voice. Gant was needling me, and I blew my stack. I said the only good lawyer, like the only good..." Spaeth stopped.
"That word I've heard enough of."
"Yeah." A sniff, almost a good-natured laugh. "Yeah, I called him that and more, storming out of the conference room yelling...yelling I don't remember exactly what. But I know I said if he kept it up, I was gonna kilt him."
"Kept what up?"
Spaeth stopped. "Fucking me over."
Something didn't feel right. "But Steve told me things settled pretty soon after that."
"They did. That's what I mean about not killing the bastard. The divorce was basically over with. And lawyers are a dime a dozen. Even if I did shoot Gant, Nicole would've just gotten herself another one."
Thinking about what kind of witness this defendant would make, I shook my head.
"What's the matter?"
"Nothing," I said. "Let's go back to the murder weapon. Your gun?"
Spaeth started to say something, then just, "I don't know."
"You don't know?"
"Look, I haven't seen it, all right? The revolver the cops say got used. I do know I had one just like it, a Taurus 85. I bought the thing on a business trip in the South, filed the serial number off it."
"Why the hell did you do that?"
"I read in the paper about the 'Castle Law' we got here -- where the state lets you off if you kill a guy coming into your house? Only the newspaper said the gay would have to be trying to kill you, so I figured, anybody ever broke in and I shot him with one of the guns I bought up here, it'd be nice to have a throw-away piece for the cops to find on the guy."
Alan Spaeth kept getting better and better. "How many other firearms do you have?"
"When I was living in the 'marital home,' three more handguns and two rifles. I used to take Terry deer hunting until all this shit hit the fan."
"Where are these other weapons now?"
"Locked away in storage, along with most of my stuff from the West Roxbury place."
"But you kept the throwaway piece?"
"Brought it to the boardinghouse, yeah. For protection, understand? Only the Taurus got stolen from my room. One of the reasons I moved out. Fucking owner of the place had a thing against guns, and I figured Dufresne was the one who took it."
"Dufresne being the owner."
"Yeah. 'Vincennes Dufresne,' the little frog fuck."
I let that one pass. "Whether it was your weapon or not, the shells in the cylinder had your prints on them."
"Steve told me my prints weren't on the Taurus itself, though. You think I'm stupid enough to wipe my prints off the gun and not off the bullets?"
"Happens all the time."
"And then leave the thing by Gant's car?"
Stupider still, granted. "How would somebody get shells with your prints on them if it wasn't your gun?"
Spaeth looked at me hard with the good eye. "That's why I think it was my Taurus, sport. And my shells in it. Somebody set me up."
A stop. "No, that doesn't make sense."
I felt the twinge again. "Who, then?"
"If I knew that, I wouldn't need you, right?"
There was something about Spaeth, down past all the obnoxious bluff and bluster, that rang true. And it bothered me.
"Okay," I said. "Steve told me you had an alibi witness."
"Damn straight. Mickey, guy I met at Dufresne's."
"You know his last name?"
"Of course I do. We were drinking buddies the whole time I was staying there. Had to have something for social life, once Gant got me kicked out of my house."
"And Mickey's last name?"
Spaeth paused. "Actually, his real first name's 'Michael,' middle initial 'A.'"
"Michael A. what?"
Spaeth chewed a moment. "Mantle."
"I saw his birth certificate, he carries it with him everywhere, win drinks off guys in the bars. He calls himself 'Mickey Mantle,' and he can prove he's entitled to it."
"Just like he can prove you're innocent."
"Damned right. We got shitfaced together in my apartment the night Gant was shot."
"I used the money Steve sprung from the divorce to put a security deposit on a real place."
"Why would you use some of your tight money to rent an apartment instead of staying at Dufresne's till you were employed again?"
"Hey, sport, you ever tried to get a job -- a good job -- with no private phone and a boardinghouse for an address? Plus, like I told you, the guy running the place probably stole my gun."
"So you move to an apartment, and this Mantle comes over to drink."
"Why not go out drinking with him?"
"Cheaper this way."
Spaeth could tell I wasn't buying. "And besides, you live in a little room at a boardinghouse long enough, even a small apartment is a nice place to spend some time." Spaeth looked behind him, into the unit. "Believe me. Here I got a cell may be half the size of my room at Dufresne's."
"Aside from Mantle, can anybody else vouch for where you were the night Woodrow Gant was killed?"
"No." Spaeth raked his hand through the hair again. "No, like I said, we got shitfaced together. The Mick must have left sometime after I fell asleep, because the first thing I remember is a couple of homicide cops banging on my door after they couldn't find me at the rooming house."
"And they can't find Mantle, either."
"Which just means they haven't really looked for him. I mean, he's this little, scraggly guy. Reddish hair, reddish beard. Probably hasn't gone more than five miles from Dufresne's in the last year without somebody to drive him."
"So he should have turned up by now."
"Unless he's in a drunk tank somewhere, or..." Spaeth ran out of gas. "Look, I'll level with you, sport. I listen to my story as I'm telling it to you, and I don't believe it myself. All I know is, I didn't kill that bastard lawyer Gant. It doesn't make any fucking sense to me, either, but somebody must have set me up to take the fall, and if you can't find Mickey, I'm gonna spend the rest of my fucking life with guys ten times worse than the one busted me in the shower. And I don't think I can...can take..."
At which point Alan Spaeth began to cry from both the good eye and the bad one, and I felt that twinge in my gut a third time.
When I walked through the door of Steve Rothenberg's office suite, he was just turning away from the disco receptionist and she was just readjusting her earphones. Rothenberg looked at my face, frowned, and beckoned me back to his own office.
Once inside, he moved around his desk and dropped into the chair while I took one of the worn seats in front of him. Then Rothenberg began combing his beard with his fingers again. "You saw Alan Spaeth?"
"Your client's a jerk."
For some reason, Rothenberg seemed to take heart from that. "Most of my clients are."
"A racist jerk, Steve."
The frown again. "I was afraid that might show through."
"It'll 'show through' wherever he happens to be, especially the witness stand."
Rothenberg swung in his chair a little. "There are three decisions I have to leave to the client in every case, John. The first is whether to plead out or go to trial."
"The D.A.'s office likely to offer much for a plea?"
"Zip, without that alibi witness."
"Named 'Mickey Mantle.'"
Rothenberg winced. "If it's to be a trial, then the second decision I leave to the client is whether to have the judge or a jury as the decider of fact."
"Won't matter here, will it?"
Rothenberg chose not to answer. "What I was building to is the third decision, whether the accused takes the stand in his own defense."
"Spaeth testifies, even a rookie prosecutor would draw him out on cross, and either a judge or a jury would crucify him."
I watched Rothenberg as he watched me. "You mean for the murder of Woodrow Gant?"
"That's what I mean."
We watched each other some more.
"No," I said finally.
Rothenberg let out a breath I hadn't realized he was holding. The fingers went back to grooming his beard. "So, you joining the team?"
"Who's got the file at Homicide?"
The black lieutenant I'd helped on the William Daniels case. "And you're sure Nancy Meagher's not connected with this prosecution?"
Rothenberg reeled off the names of two A.D.A.'s. I'd never heard Nancy mention either one, not so surprising when you consider Suffolk County employs over a hundred of them.
Then Rothenberg came forward in his chair, palms flat on the desktop. "Look, John. For what it's worth, here's my view. Somebody killed one of my brothers at the bar in cold blood on a deserted road. Shot the poor devil three times from like ten feet away. I picture that, and I can't let the somebody get away with it, all right? But I'm not a cop or a prosecutor, so I can't go after the real killer. I'm just the lawyer who's trying to show the system that they need to keep looking because the defendant they've settled on is the wrong one. And with your help, I just might be able to do that. Now, what do you say?"
Rothenberg might have a shaky practice and a shabby office, but he had that guild loyalty I'd sensed in the people around me during my one year of law school many years ago. And he'd also been loyal to me.
I sat back and told Steve Rothenberg what I was going to do.
Copyright © 1998 by Jeremiah Healy
The Only Good Lawyer
An attorney friend of Boston P.l. John Cuddy has called in a favor, looking into the case of Alan Spaeth. Spaeth is one sorry piece of work -- a down-and-out divorce squeeze, a racist, a misogynist, and from all appearances, a cold-blooded killer. Frankly wishing the whole mess would disappear, Cuddy can't let it. It pains him, but he's convinced of Spaeth's innocence, and he isn't the kind of P.l. who can watch even a guy like Spaeth fry for someone else's crime.
As much as Cuddy is repulsed by the accused, he's intrigued by the victim, Woodrow Wilson Gant, the African-American lawyer who had been representing Spaeth's wife in a very nasty divorce. But before Cuddy's investigation is done, there will be plenty of nastiness to go around. On the surface, Gant led a charmed and successful life as a rising star in the glittering firmament of Massachusetts law. But three quick bullets at a deserted roadside knocked Gant out of the Boston skyline for good, and now Cuddy's discovered the attorney was also a man of strange desires and deep secrets?secrets that could prove lethal to the touch....
Ricocheting from Gant's law offices, Cuddy picks up the trail of a woman who fled the scene of the murder. Rousted by a couple of loan sharks and conned by Gant's avaricious brother, Cuddy stumbles on a more personal question. The mere mention of Gant's name puts a cold, hard kink in his relationship with Assistant D.A. Nancy Meagher, and Cuddy's Iosing sleep wondering why.
Greed. Revenge. Jealousy. There is any number of motives for murder, and Cuddy can take his pick as he investigates the high-profile homicide of Woodrow Wilson Gant, exploring the raw passion -- and touching every nerve -- of the edge.