Apr 27 2012 12:00pm
An excerpt from Hush Money, a legal thriller by Chuck Greaves (available May 8, 2012).
A newly minted member of Henley & Hargrove, Pasadena’s oldest and snobbiest law firm, Jack MacTaggart is assigned to handle an insurance claim on behalf of socialite Sydney Everett. Hush Puppy, Sydney’s champion show horse, has died unexpectedly, and attending veterinarian George Wells confides to Jack that the great horse’s death was anything but natural.
Jack’s investigation leads him into the high-stakes world of professional show jumping and down a path to romance, intrigue, and an old blackmail scheme that further implicates his client. After Jack reports his findings, another body is discovered. And this one is human.
Framed for the murder, with his job on the line and with the police leading a rush to judgment, Jack’s only hope for exoneration is to catch the killer himself. And with the help of an unlikely confederation of allies and enemies, victims and suspects, Jack races toward a final showdown where all the scores, both old and new, are finally settled.
It was a Thursday afternoon, almost five o’clock, and I was typing feverishly in the knowledge that by 5:01, Bernadette would be long gone. Reliability is a rare quality in a legal secretary, and when it came to quitting time, Bernie Catalano was a regular Old Faithful.
I was drafting a letter to the local claims manager of the Hartford Allied Insurance Company, which had issued a policy of health insurance to my client, Victor Tazerian. Victor was a fifty-four-year-old Armenian trash hauler whose leukemia was temporarily in remission. Hartford Allied, to the bewilderment of the Tazerian family, was refusing to pay for a new but promising medical procedure that involved harvesting and freezing Victor’s own bone marrow while he was healthy, so that it later could be transplanted back into his body when the cancer made its inevitable return.
Hartford Allied reasoned that as long as the cancer was in remission, no surgery was warranted. In other words, they wouldn’t pay for the procedure until Victor got sick again, and of course, once he got sick again, the procedure would be useless.
In the vernacular of my profession, this was called insurance bad faith—a state of affairs to which, in its many and varied forms, I was no stranger. As I’d tried to explain to Victor’s sobbing wife Lina, the insurance industry operates in strict accordance with the three rules of American capitalism: invest someone else’s money, make a profit, and try to keep both.
And so Victor Tazerian lay in a pre-op ward at the City of Hope National Medical Center awaiting a surgical procedure that costs more than he’ll earn in a lifetime, while Hartford Allied’s regional claims manager stood by his fax machine in Thousand Oaks waiting for a demand letter from me that we both knew he had no intention of honoring. Lina, meanwhile, sat by her telephone in Glendale wearing out her worry beads, while Bernadette, bless her heart, was eyeing the digital clock on her desk next to her car keys.
And that’s the precise moment that Russ Dinsmoor chose to burst into my office and announce that Hush Puppy was dead.
I shot him a side glance and kept on typing.
“Shouldn’t Buster Brown be notified?”
“Hush Puppy is a horse, you philistine. A very valuable horse belonging to Mrs. Everett, who, need I remind you, is a very valuable client of the firm.”
None of which concerned me in the least, and so I ignored him, in the faint hope that he’d simply go away.
“I need you over at Fieldstone right away,” he persisted. “Jared’s out of town, and Sydney is beside herself with grief.”
Sydney Everett, I knew by reputation, was one of the wealthiest old dowagers in Pasadena, a city positively freighted with women of a certain age who’d made their fortunes the old-fashioned way. Which is to say, by outliving their husbands. I also knew that a felicitously large percentage of these women happened to be clients of the city’s oldest and snobbiest law firm, Henley & Hargrove, under whose yoke I presently toiled.
Jared would be Jared Henley, who, although not the brightest bulb in the Henley & Hargrove chandelier, was the only grandson of the firm’s founder and, I surmised, the partner currently assigned to wipe when Mrs. Everett’s nose started to run. Characteristically, however, Jared was vacationing in Cancún, or Bimini, or wherever it was that slow-witted grandchildren with trust funds went to mate with others of their kind.
“Why me?” I finally asked, glancing up from my screen. “I don’t know a fetlock from a half nelson.”
“Because there are two insurance adjusters out there as we speak, and we don’t want there to be any trouble.”
Deftly, painlessly, Russ Dinsmoor had sunk the hook.
“Trouble? Why would there be trouble?”
“I’ll fill you in on the details later, Mac. For now, we must let slip the dogs of war!” He threw his hands skyward, then joined them together in prayer. “Please, big fella? For me?”
I caught a faint whiff of horse manure right there in my office, but I could see that Russ was genuinely concerned.
“All right already, I’m slipping. Just get out of here and let me finish this.”
When I finally brought the letter out to Bernie, at exactly 4:59 p.m., she was sitting with her long legs crossed, filing her fingernails.
“Isn’t that a little cliché?” I asked.
“No,” she said, frowning at the clock. “It’s a friggin’ emery board.”
It was a ten-minute drive from Pasadena to the nearby suburb of Flintridge, a bucolic burg best known, where known at all, as the home of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. That’s where they design and build all nature of moon rockets, Mars probes, and other esoteric space projects whose only societal benefit, as near as I could tell, was to keep Caltech graduates from defaulting on their student loans.
A quiet enclave of broad lawns and stately mansions, Flintridge had a reputation as one of the more affluent cities in the sprawling megalopolis of Southern California, a part of the world in which affluence, like Kardashians, seemed to be everywhere.
It was almost five thirty when I rolled the Wrangler up to the gate house of the Fieldstone Riding Club, and was there greeted by a wizened old codger with a clipboard. He wore what looked like the Gilbert and Sullivan interpretation of a military dress uniform, and I stifled an impulse to salute.
“Jack MacTaggart,” I announced, “to see Sydney Everett.”
He cast a dubious eye on the Jeep as he flipped through his list of authorized guests.
“Look, I’m probably not on there, but I’m Mrs. Everett’s lawyer. From Henley and Hargrove.”
I must have spoken the magic words, because he nodded and waved me through, pointing me past an emphatic members only sign and up a macadam driveway where the air seemed cooler somehow, laden as it was with the vaguely menthol scent of eucalyptus. The sun was low, the shadows were long, and the light filtering through the treetops was a glass-blown kind of opalescent amber.
I parked in an otherwise empty lot beside what looked like a sprawling hacienda, its walls of whitewashed plaster quaintly moldering under a mission tile roof. The clubhouse, like the rolling grounds it commanded, looked eerily deserted. I cut the engine, surveyed the surroundings, and did some quick arithmetic.
Even in a down real estate market, I figured that an unimproved half-acre lot in Flintridge, if you could find such a thing, went for a million bucks or so, depending on the location. This place looked to be over a hundred acres, and it sat in one of the tonier neighborhoods, bordered on the east by JPL and the parklands of the Arroyo Seco, and on the north by the lilac-colored foothills of the Angeles National Forest.
I didn’t know how many members they had here, or the buy-in cost of a membership, but the breakup value of this place had to be enough to launch a couple of those satellites from across the road.
I shrugged into my suit jacket and set off on foot, following a dirt path that wended northward toward the hills. Songbirds were trilling in the massive oaks, and a red-tail hawk hung silently overhead. Not a bad place, I told myself, to spend your idle hours chasing foxes, or Democrats, or whatever they did around here for sport.
And then, as if a soundtrack to that reverie, I heard the rhythmic drum of hoofbeats, and I turned to see a young woman astride a gleaming black horse that grew in its approach to the approximate size of a mastodon. I stepped to one side, but she halted the thundering beast on a dime without so much as a tug on the reins. It was a pretty neat trick.
“You look lost,” she informed me, flashing a smile from on high.
“Were the wing tips a giveaway?”
“They’re not very practical around here, I’m afraid.”
She had the wholesome good looks of a J.Crew catalog model, all dark eyebrows and high cheekbones. She wore a dirty polo shirt and khaki riding breeches that disappeared, just at the knee, into tall black boots. She was slender and tanned, and her hair spilled like a gusher of sweet crude from the back of a faded baseball cap. I edged closer and reached up a hand.
“I’m Jack MacTaggart.”
“Faith and begorra!” she laughed in a comic brogue as she leaned over to shake. “I’m Tara Flynn. And this”—she patted the big horse on its neck—“is Escalator.”
I stepped back to regard the horse, which was ignoring us both and cropping at a strip of grass by the path. It was the largest living thing I’d seen outside of a zoo.
“Let me guess. Shetland pony?”
She smiled again.
“He’s a Hanoverian, actually. But sweet like a pony.”
“That’s good,” I said, “because if he ever gets testy, we’ll have to call out the National Guard.”
“Oh, he can be plenty testy. But a carrot usually does the trick.”
The horse raised its head long enough to deposit some greenish slime on my pant leg. I scratched him lightly between the ears.
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen a couple of beady-eyed weasels in business suits skulking about the place, have you?”
Her smile faded.
“Are you here about Hush Puppy?”
“That’s right. I’m one of Mrs. Everett’s lawyers.”
She considered that for a moment, then gathered up the reins and turned the big horse ninety degrees to port. She pointed with her chin to some buildings off in the distance.
“If you head that way and look for Doc Wells’s truck—it’s a big white pickup—you’ll find them all there.” Then she added wistfully, “What a nightmare.”
“I guess Mrs. Everett’s pretty broken up about it?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t count on that,” she said, wheeling the horse around. “It was nice to meet you, Jack. I hope you’re a good lawyer.”
In the courtyard central to the four barns sat a white pickup truck, its tailgate down, alongside a silver Chevy compact and a burgundy Jaguar. Arrayed on the pickup’s tailgate were what looked like instruments of persuasion from the Spanish Inquisition—tongs and calipers, blades and files, hooks and giant syringes. I heard the low murmur of voices emanating from the westernmost barn, so I headed in that direction, fishing a couple of business cards from my wallet as I walked.
They were gathered in the barn aisle beneath a neatly lettered sign that read hush puppy. There were five of them in all: the two suits, a kid in white coveralls I assumed was a groom, the veterinarian crouched in the doorway to the stall, and, by process of elimination, Sydney Everett, who was speaking into a small tape recorder held by the bigger of the suits.
I snatched it from his hand and toggled the Off button.
“Hey!” he barked. “What do you think you’re doing?”
I popped the microcassette and slipped it into my pocket.
“I’m saving us both a lot of paperwork,” I said, tossing the device to his startled sidekick. “And now I’m having a private word with my client.”
I steered her by the elbow, out of the barn and into the courtyard, where even in the fading sunlight I could see that my preconception of Sydney Everett—that of a blue-rinse biddy with her eyeglasses on a chain—could not have been further off mark.
Although I made her for around sixty, she could have passed for forty-five by candlelight. She had sleek black hair, a full mouth, and rich olive skin that gave her an exotic, almost Mediterranean appearance. She too was dressed in riding attire—gleaming high boots with little silver spurs, tight black breeches, and a white cotton blouse that stretched to contain breasts of a shape and size not ordinarily found in nature.
She had the look of a woman who’d been around the block a few times, and who’d ended up buying the neighborhood.
“I admire a man of action,” she informed me in a whiskey voice poured straight from the French Quarter.
“I’m Jack MacTaggart,” I said, handing her a card as we walked. “Man of action.”
She stopped to examine the card, and to give me the full head to toe.
“I was expecting Jared Henley,” she said. “But I can’t say I’m disappointed.”
“I believe Jared’s in Akron, for the big Star Trek convention. Russ Dinsmoor asked me to pinch hit.”
She slipped the card into her breast pocket. It was a tight squeeze.
“Russell is just so thoughtful,” she purred. “Was I being dreadfully foolish, giving a statement like that?”
“Did you tell them you were waiting for your lawyer?”
“Why of course. They were right there when I called Russell from my car.”
“That figures. I would have had to go to court for an order excluding the statement.”
“Oh, my. That wasn’t very sporting of them.”
“Look, Mrs. Everett—”
“Sydney. Those men in there are not your friends, okay? Their only purpose in coming out here was to find some way to avoid paying your claim. You need to understand that right up front.”
She nodded earnestly. “If you say so, Jack.”
“Now look, we’ve only got a couple of minutes. Tell me everything you know about . . . what happened.”
She cocked her hip and touched a manicured finger to her lips, a fleeting convergence of acrylic and collagen.
“Let’s see. Enrique found Hush Puppy this morning, at feeding time. Enrique is the young man inside.”
“Who was the last person to see the horse alive?”
She thought about that.
“I don’t really know. I’d imagine it was Tara. Tara Flynn. She’s the stable manager here at Fieldstone. She checks on the horses at night.”
Lucky horses. “And when does she usually do that?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Around six o’clock.”
“And what time did Enrique find him this morning?”
“Around seven thirty. At least, that’s what he said.”
Which left a window of more than thirteen hours for the horse to turn belly-up.
“Had Hush Puppy been ill or . . . out of sorts in any way?”
She considered this for a moment, then shook her head.
“Not that I’m aware of, no. Of course, you’d have to ask Barbara.”
Of course. “And who’s Barbara?”
“Why, Barbara Hauser. Barbara campaigned Hush Puppy.”
I crossed to the pickup’s tailgate. In addition to the stuff laid out on display, there were clear plastic drawers with gauze and swabs and, in one of the compartments, a .45 caliber revolver. Doc Wells, it seemed, was not averse to a little old-school euthanasia.
Sydney followed me, positioning herself so that her outsized ordinance targeted the general vicinity of my nose. It was like staring into the grille of a ’54 Buick.
“Look, Mrs. . . . ah, Sydney. I have to confess that I don’t know a whole lot about horses, or what exactly one does with them at a place like Fieldstone. I assumed that you rode Hush Puppy because you owned him.”
She thought this was amusing, the idea of a woman riding her own horse.
“No, I’ve never even sat on Hush Puppy, and I’ve had him for nearly four years. You see, Hush Puppy was a grand prix level show jumper. He and Barbara were working toward the Olympic trials in March.”
“And where is Barbara now?”
“I think she’s in San Juan Capistrano this week. Or is it Del Mar? You can check in the barn office. They’ll have her schedule.”
I knew that the suits would be getting antsy by now, and that I could get the details from Sydney later.
“Two more questions before we head on back. First, how large is the policy on Hush Puppy’s life?”
“Oh, let’s see,” she said, her eyes rolling skyward. “I believe that it’s two million dollars.”
I nearly fell off the tailgate.
“What’s your other question, Jack?”
“Forgive me for asking, but where were you between six o’clock last night and seven thirty this morning?”
Now a question like that can elicit any number of reactions from a client, ranging from surprise to mild annoyance to righteous indignation. Sydney Everett exhibited none of these.
“I had dinner at the Valley Hunt Club at seven, with friends from the Children’s Hospital Guild. Plenty of witnesses there. Then several of us attended a concert at Descanso Gardens. The Pasadena Pops. They perform alfresco. If you haven’t been, you should go. They’re fabulous. That ended close to midnight. And then I went home. Alone. Tara called me at eight o’clock this morning, just as I was preparing to come for a hack. And that’s it, I guess.”
“And what about last night between six and seven?”
She thought for a moment.
“I believe I was bathing. Also alone.”
Most people are uncomfortable looking you straight in the eye, even when telling the truth. They’ll glance away, or study their shoes, or flick some lint from their shoulder. But not Sydney Everett. She delivered her alibi right to my face, her Bible-black eyes never once breaking contact. If she was lying as to her whereabouts, she was a natural. Or else she’d had plenty of practice.
“C’mon,” I said, rising to my feet. “Let’s get this over with.”
As we reentered the darkening barn, I noted that the groom, Enrique, was gone. The veterinarian, Dr. Wells, had just gotten to his feet and was brushing sawdust from the knees of his khakis. I was surprised to see that the good doctor was not much older than me.
The bigger of the two suits stepped forward to remonstrate, but I ignored him and offered a hand to the vet.
“Dr. Wells? I’m Jack MacTaggart. I’m Mrs. Everett’s lawyer.”
He shook my hand, showing no sign of the enmity that doctors will sometimes exhibit toward lawyers. He had a good face—clean-cut, lantern jaw, all-American handsome—and the crushing grip of a man with Popeye’s forearms.
“Nice to meet you,” he said. “I’m George Wells.”
As he turned his attention to my client, placing a hand on her shoulder, I could see through the open door of the stall the lifeless body of a huge white horse.
“Sydney, I’m terribly sorry about the Pup,” he said gently. “These things can happen, even to the healthiest of horses.”
She lowered her eyes and nodded, disconsolate. Wells then addressed the rest of us, trading his warm bedside manner for the cold deportment of a clinician.
“All right, gentlemen. There are no signs of trauma, and we can safely rule out colic. I’ve taken blood, urine, fecal, and tissue samples. Pending the test results, I’m going to list the preliminary cause of death as cardiac failure of unknown etiology.”
He regarded the suits.
“You can make transportation arrangements at the barn office. You’ll have my final report when the lab work comes back, in around a week.”
Wells then turned and slipped his arm around my client’s shoulder— definitely a man of action—and together they walked into the courtyard, leaving me alone at last with my new best friends.
The younger of the two looked to be around twenty. He was pale and skinny, and he wore the kind of cheap suit that I associate with claims adjusters, car salesmen, and assistant managers at Sears. His boss was maybe thirty years older, and thought low fat was a village in Cambodia.
“Say, either of you boys ever heard of a composer named Al Fresco?”
“Gimme back my tape,” growled Porky, extending a meaty hand.
“I don’t think so,” I told him, patting my pocket. “But I’ll tell you what. If you want, we could call the insurance commissioner’s office and tell ’em you tried to take my client’s recorded statement when you knew I was on my way over to meet with her. Got your cell phone handy?”
He scowled and scratched at his ear, thinking that one over.
“Okay, all right, forget it. Keep the goddamn tape. But we’re still gonna need a statement.”
“Yeah.” The kid smirked. “We need to find out what she plans to do with those balloons she’s smuggling.”
Hardy har har. I handed the fat man my card. “You have any questions, you can call me. You want a statement, call your bank.”
I left them with the carcass and headed outside, where a wine-colored twilight had descended on the Fieldstone Riding Club.
Wells was packing up his truck, while Mrs. Everett sat in her car with the engine idling, talking on the phone. As I approached, she put the Jag into gear and roared off, shouting, “Call me, sugar!” across the front seat. Through the swirling dust cloud, I could see that her vanity plate read hrs play.
I was brushing off my jacket when Wells slammed the tailgate, hesitated, then started in my direction.
“I guess there’s something you ought to know,” he offered.
“After all these years,” I said, “you’d think so.”
“Never mind. What should I know?”
“Well, I have a pretty good guess at what killed Sydney’s horse.”
He had my undivided attention.
“Yeah.” He lowered his voice as he glanced toward the barn. “Don’t hold me to it, but I’m pretty sure Hush Puppy was poisoned.”
Russell Hale Dinsmoor was a product of the old school, a time and a place in which every lawyer in town knew just about every other lawyer in town.
In that bygone era, a lawyer’s word was his bond, because his reputation was his most valued asset. Mendacity or incivility among lawyers was unheard of, because the chances were good that you’d be facing the same courtroom adversaries before the same judges over and over again, and because you probably belonged to the same clubs, or sat on the same boards, or drank in the same bars.
Nowadays, however, with a quarter-million attorneys in California alone, the practice of law has become all but anonymous, and this anonymity has spawned a pandemic of churlish behavior by and among lawyers the likes of which is rarely seen outside the preschool sandbox. Enamored of the sharp-practicing barristers of film and television, today’s clients expect their attorneys—whom they’re paying up to a thousand dollars an hour— to yield no quarter in pursuit of victory. As a result, even those lawyers unwilling to cross legal or ethical lines often have chalk on their shoes.
And so it was that my first encounter with Russell Dinsmoor, a scant two years ago, had been doubly noteworthy.
Dinsmoor had been retained as local counsel by a British insurance syndicate that had the misfortune of issuing a policy of health insurance to my client, an out-of-work longshoreman from Long Beach, one week before he’d had the misfortune of being diagnosed with stage three liver cancer. The syndicate was refusing to honor the policy, of course, but on the novel ground that my client had failed to disclose on his application for coverage a bout of adolescent bed-wetting.
I was on my own at the time, renting space in an office suite out on Wilshire in one of L.A.’s less glamorous neighborhoods. By then I was six years out of the night program at Loyola Law School, four of which I’d spent representing all nature of addled, addicted, and otherwise reprobate Angelinos as a Deputy Public Defender for the County of Los Angeles.
At the PD’s office the hours were long, the supervising attorneys were indifferent, and the pay was a joke. But I got to try more than twenty criminal jury trials to verdict—the kind of courtroom mileage that the Yale and Harvard boys up in the glass towers on Bunker Hill could only dream about.
Then, when circumstances had required a hasty departure from the PD’s office, I’d hung out a civil shingle on Wilshire. In contrast to criminal law, where life and liberty hang in the balance, civil lawyers fight over money. If nothing else, I told myself, it would be good training for married life.
I’d started with slip-and-falls and fender benders, and I’d soon worked my way up the legal food chain. And along the way I’d acquired a reputation for actually trying cases, rather than dancing the bluff-and-settle fandango that was the vocational norm.
In our longshoreman’s case, I anticipated from the renowned Russell H. Dinsmoor the kinds of hardball tactics I’d come to expect of all insurance lawyers. Things like papers personally served on the Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend, obstreperous coaching of witnesses during depositions, and the need to file motions with the court to compel even the most basic pretrial discovery.
To my surprise, however, Dinsmoor was a horse of a different color. When a hearing in the case conflicted with my calendar, he stipulated to a continuance with no questions asked. When I needed additional time to respond to discovery, he not only agreed, but asked nothing in return. And yet, when an important substantive issue was in dispute, the old man proved tougher than a three-dollar steak.
Then, around six months into the case, a temp secretary sent Dinsmoor a fax that was supposed to go to my client. It was a long letter summarizing the deposition of the insurance company’s urologist, in which I had critiqued the doctor’s testimony, summarized the strengths and weaknesses of our case in general, and made suggestions for possible settlement strategies.
I had no idea that the fax had gone awry until it arrived in my mailbox three days later, along with a cover letter from Dinsmoor’s secretary.
Dear Mr. MacTaggart:
The enclosed arrived by fax on Tuesday afternoon. Mr. Dinsmoor, as you know, is in Memphis this week attending the annual meeting of the American College of Trial Lawyers. Upon receipt of your fax, I immediately recognized that a mistake had been made, and I telephoned Mr. Dinsmoor. He instructed me to return the fax to you, which I now do, and to assure you that nobody from this office has read or copied its contents. He also instructed me to tell you that you owe him dinner for two at the restaurant of his choice, payable at the conclusion of the case.
Sincerely, Veronica Daley Secretary to Russell H. Dinsmoor
The case never did settle, and the trial was held in March, before the Honorable Marshall T. Farnsworth at the old county courthouse on Hill Street.
My longshoreman, a nice-enough guy named Ted Burlingame, was a solid witness, testifying with obvious sincerity that he’d had no inkling of any health problems when he’d completed the insurance application. Although he’d admitted to telling a white lie elsewhere on the form—denying any prior medical history—he testified that he’d done so both because he was embarrassed, and because he’d figured that a brief episode of teenage bed-wetting had no bearing whatsoever on the issue of his adult health.
At least one juror was moved to tears when Ted described receiving the insurance syndicate’s letter denying his transplant surgery, and how Ted and his wife had sat together at their kitchen table making plans for her future life without him.
I rested the plaintiff’s case that afternoon, with that poignant image etched in the minds of the jury. Dinsmoor, to my surprise, rested his case a day later after first declining to cross-examine Ted, and then conducting only a perfunctory examination of his oncologist. I figured the old man had thrown in the towel in the face of my courtroom brilliance.
The next day, I delivered one of my better closing arguments, challenging the jury to send a message across the Atlantic to the syndicate bigwigs in London. I held the blank verdict form aloft and called it a memo to corporate headquarters. I said that if the syndicate wanted to do business in these United States of America, it had by God better learn basic American values of fair play and decency. Exhorting the jurors to act as the conscience of the entire nation, I concluded by asking for damages sufficient to pay for the belated transplant, plus another million dollars to compensate Ted and his family for the emotional suffering they’d been forced to endure.
You could have heard a pin drop in the courtroom when Dinsmoor walked to the lectern to give his closing argument. His mood was somber, as though he was distracted by some sad and distant memory.
“You know,” he began, cleaning his eyeglasses with the end of his necktie, “my father loved beef stew. Just loved it. And I remember one time, when I was around fifteen years old, my folks took me and my sister to Dad’s favorite restaurant for his birthday. This was his favorite restaurant, mind you, because they had the best beef stew in town, and my father, as I said, loved his beef stew.”
Dinsmoor put on the glasses, stuffed his hands into his pockets and started pacing in front of the jury box, seemingly lost in a pointless childhood reverie. I thought maybe he’d lost his marbles.
“And when the waitress came around to take our orders, sure enough, even though Dad asked her about the pot pie and asked her about the pork chops, he finally ordered the stew, just as we all knew he would. I remember that Dad was in rare form that night, excited like a kid on Christmas Eve. Not just because it was his birthday, mind you, but because he couldn’t wait to dig into that beef stew, his favorite dish in the whole world, prepared by his favorite restaurant in the whole world.”
Dinsmoor returned to the lectern.
“And when the waitress finally came back with our food, we all sort of watched Dad out of the corners of our eyes, because his excitement was infectious, and we all wanted to see the look on his face when he finally dipped his spoon into that great big, steaming bowl of stew. And it looked good too, brimming with potatoes and carrots and great big hunks of beef in a thick, hot gravy. Dad, he was practically trembling with anticipation when he scooped up a big, juicy piece of beef, eased it into his mouth . . . then spit it onto the table in disgust.”
The jurors at this point were literally on the edges of their seats, as was old Judge Farnsworth, and I began to have a sinking feeling in my stomach.
Russ Dinsmoor had taken command of the courtroom.
“‘Waitress!’ my father shouted. ‘This meat is rancid! Take it back!’ Well, the waitress just gave my father an insolent sort of look and she said, ‘Well, sir, maybe that piece was rancid, but what about the rest of it? It looks perfectly good to me.’”
He slapped his palm on the lectern, and the jurors all jumped.
“And that, ladies and gentlemen, pretty much sums up the way I feel about the testimony of Mr. Burlingame in this lawsuit. Young Mr. MacTaggart here, like that waitress, expects you to swallow the rest of his client’s story, despite the fact that by his own admission, Mr. Burlingame lied under penalty of perjury on his insurance application. Well, what about that? Are we going to overlook one bald-faced lie and accept the rest of this man’s story? Is it our job to pick and choose what’s true and good from what’s false and rancid? Or are we entitled, like my father was entitled on the night of his birthday, to just send the whole thing back to where it came from?”
Although the trial had lasted a week, it took less than an hour for the jurors to return a defense verdict. It was the first, last, and only civil trial I’d ever lost, and I was devastated.
Two weeks later and still in a dark funk, I joined Dinsmoor for dinner at the Arroyo Chop House in Pasadena, where somewhere between his thirty-dollar filet mignon and his Grand Marnier soufflé, he all but knocked me out of my chair by offering me a job at Henley & Hargrove. He explained that the firm had been searching for a young trial lawyer to fill his shoes upon retirement, and that he thought I had the tools they’d been looking for.
The only thing more surprising to me than his offer was my acceptance. While I’d never aspired to partnership at a major law firm, with all its attendant bureaucracies, the reputation of Henley & Hargrove was not easily ignored. More important, the chance to work closely, even for a short while, with a trial lawyer of Russ Dinsmoor’s stature presents itself but once in a lifetime.
We shook on it right then and there, whereupon Dinsmoor, draining the last of his vintage Bordeaux, handed me the biggest restaurant bill I’d ever seen in my life.
“Look at the bright side,” he’d said cheerfully, dabbing his lips with a napkin. “At least I didn’t order the beef stew.”
And so it was that I found myself studying Russ’s back as he stared out the windows of his corner office, lost in thought, his slender torso framed by the distant majesty of the San Gabriel Mountains. Russ’s office was a lot like his mind, which is to say, orderly but eccentric. His desk, as usual, was devoid of files or papers of any kind. His walls, in contrast, were a riot of diplomas and awards and photos of him grinning and gripping with assorted politicians and celebrity clients. He had an antique slot machine by the door, and a life-sized skeleton named Slim that served as a hat rack for Russ’s gray fedora when not earning its keep as a courtroom exhibit.
Finally, after a full minute of silent rumination, he turned from the window and seemed startled to find that I was still sitting on his couch, awaiting his reaction to my report of last night’s events at the Fieldstone Riding Club.
“Well,” he said, “I don’t see as though we have a problem yet, but the possibility of an ethical conflict certainly looms.”
“More than a possibility, wouldn’t you say? If Wells is right, we might have a duty to turn her in, or risk complicity in a crime.”
Russ raised a cautionary finger. “Until this fellow Wells reaches a definitive conclusion as to cause of death, we’ve no grounds for suspecting Sydney of anything. She’s innocent until proven otherwise.”
“Many adjectives spring to mind in describing Sydney Everett,” I told him, “but innocent isn’t one of them.”
He smiled. “Nevertheless, there’s no ethical impediment as yet to assisting in the prosecution of her claim.”
“And if Wells does conclude that Hush Puppy was greased?”
He winced at my word choice.
“Then if—and only if— there’s evidence of her complicity, we could no longer represent her in the matter.” He sighed. “That goes without saying.”
I could see that Russ was pained by the thought of turning down work from Mrs. Everett. But I knew he’d find it more painful to be charged, at this stage of his career, with aiding and abetting a fraudulent insurance claim.
“Forgive me for stating the obvious, boss, but who else besides Sydney would have a motive to poison a million-dollar show horse?”
“If I were a younger man,” he replied, slumping into his chair and extracting his pipe from a desk drawer, “that’s a question I’d spend some time investigating.”
Old Pasadena, the city’s historic downtown, is widely known and frequently imitated as a model of urban renewal through historic preservation. Beginning in the 1980s, a group of visionary developers quietly bought up whole blocks of what was then the city’s skid row. They evicted the junkies, sandblasted graffiti off the hundred-year-old brick, and voilà, a tourist mecca was born.
Where free-range winos once roamed darkened alleys drinking Thunderbird from brown paper bags, yuppies now sipped Chardonnay at sidewalk cafés. Out went the adult bookstores, the pawn shops, and the shot-and-a-beer taverns, and in came the multiscreen theaters and a parade of ubiquitous retailers like Banana Republic and Crate & Barrel and Victoria’s Secret.
Ironically enough, there are more panhandlers, purse snatchers, and police in Old Pasadena today than before this so-called gentrification began. Plus you can’t park your car downtown without tipping a valet or pumping half your paycheck into a meter. There are some who’d call this progress, but I’m not one of them.
So it was with a certain diffidence that I acceded to Tara Flynn’s proposal that we meet at Cheval Blanc for dinner. The ersatz French bistro in the heart of Old Pasadena was a paean to all things trendy; a place where film agents and stock traders sipped single-malt Scotches while strutting for the attentions of waifish secretaries with shoulder tattoos.
I valeted the Jeep, waded through the Friday-night crowd, and found her perched on a stool at the bar, in a little black dress and pumps, nursing a margarita.
She was even more petite on a bar stool than she’d appeared on horse back and somehow, impossibly, more beautiful. Her crossed legs were slender and tanned and her hair, save for a few fugitive strands, was piled atop her head in a complicated sort of twisting maneuver. She was at once both cuddly and breathtaking—a sort of Gen Y Holly Golightly.
“I am, for your information,” I announced over the din, wedging a bar stool into the narrow space beside hers, earning looks from the circling pack.
“You are what?” she asked, unleashing that killer smile.
“A good lawyer. Just like you’d hoped.”
Her face went blank, and then she remembered.
“Oh, right. Well, good for Sydney. Here’s to her.”
She lifted her glass and sipped.
“What is it, exactly, that you have against my client?”
“Well, let’s see,” she said, leaning in to be heard. “How do I explain this? In the horse world, there are basically two kinds of people. The first are people who genuinely love horses, and who ride for the sheer joy of it, all the time in awe of the fact that these huge, beautiful creatures trust you enough to let you just climb onto their backs and guide them around, asking nothing in return.”
“That would be you, I presume.”
“Very astute. And then there are people who like the idea of horseback riding, or the image I guess, but have no empathy or sense of wonder about the bond between horse and rider. To them, riding is just something that looked chic in a magazine. They have no interest in learning to communicate with their horse, and no interest whatsoever in their horse’s feelings or well-being.”
“And that would be Sydney?”
“No, I’m afraid not. Sydney Everett is in another category altogether. She’s in it strictly for the money, which makes her toe-jam in my book.”
She toasted again, and sipped.
“Is there money in horses?”
She thought that was funny.
“I know a woman who made a million dollars in show jumping. Know how?”
“By starting with two million. And owning a Hush Puppy or a Creole is even worse, what with all the training and special care and travel. The prize money doesn’t begin to cover the overhead.”
“What’s a Creole?”
She set her glass down hard, splashing the bar. “You’re joking, right?”
I showed her my palms. “Take pity. I’m new to all this.”
She leaned in closer. “Creole was one of the best show jumpers the West Coast ever produced. Michael Martin won bronze at the Pan American Games on Creole in 2003, then Tamara Zwart rode him to a team silver at the 2004 Olympics. Then, around five years ago, just at the height of his career, Creole bowed a tendon at Indio, which would have put him out of competition for around a year or two at most.” She licked the salt on her glass. “Except that he was found dead in his stall three weeks later.”
I saw it coming then, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.
“That’s right,” she said, her dark eyes blazing. “Rumor has it that Sydney collected a cool million on that one.”
I managed a weak smile. “Anything else you know about my client that I should, but obviously don’t?”
“As a matter of fact,” she said, lowering her voice to a whisper. “Last week she canceled an appointment with her doctor, and Dow Corning stock fell five points.”
I ordered the rib eye, a decision of which Tara clearly did not approve.
“If animals aren’t meant to be eaten,” I asked her, “then why are they made of meat?”
She ordered an arugula and watercress salad, of which even Escalator would have approved, and we proceeded to make the kind of small talk that, under ordinary circumstances, I try to avoid during a witness interview. I learned, for example, that she’d grown up in Marin County, north of San Francisco, where she and her late sister had ridden horses before they could walk, and where Tara had competed on her high school equestrian team.
I told her that my high school equestrian team was four guys shooting horse in the parking lot.
I also learned that she’d matriculated at Cal, but had dropped out to devote herself full time to riding. She’d trained in the Bay Area with a German guy whose name I was supposed to recognize, and then she’d made the move to L.A. five years ago, purchasing Escalator as a kind of reclamation project with money she’d earned giving lessons.
She’d been the stable manager at Fieldstone for almost four years now. While the pay was only so-so, she had full use of the club’s facilities, plus she and Escalator got free room and board—he in a stall, and she in a dilapidated bungalow somewhere on the Fieldstone grounds.
“So, what does the stable manager do at a place like Fieldstone?” I asked, scanning the dessert menu.
“I order the hay and shavings. I schedule the manure removal . . .”
“Funny, that’s the exact opposite of what I do.”
She punched my arm. We were both a little drunk.
“I schedule the grooms, I coordinate each horse’s feeding and medications, I make sure that each horse is tacked up and ready to ride when the owner wants to, and I make sure that each horse gets at least an hour of daily turnout.”
“And you compete. Professionally?”
She nodded. “Last year I moved up to grand prix. That’s the highest level in show jumping. The West Coast circuit is one of the best in the country. For years only Barbara Hauser represented Fieldstone in grand prix competition. Now, we sort of both do, although I’m the poor stepchild in the family.”
“Meaning that the board of directors hasn’t seen fit to sponsor me the way they do Barbara.”
“That’s a good question. Ask your client.”
She sounded more perplexed than bitter.
“Do you still give lessons? I might need a new hobby.”
“I’m afraid you’re out of luck. Barbara is the head riding instructor at Fieldstone. All of the other instructors report to her. I don’t report to her.”
She said this in a way that suggested she didn’t want to report anything to Barbara Hauser, except maybe that Barbara’s house was on fire.
The waitress returned, and I ordered an Irish coffee, in honor of my lovely dinner companion. She ordered chamomile tea, apropos of nothing.
“I take it Barbara competed on Hush Puppy.”
She nodded. “At the major events she did.”
“So what’ll she do now?”
“I don’t know. Learn to ride, I suppose.”
She’d been twisting a loose strand of hair with her finger, but now she stopped.
“Actually, Barbara has plenty of other horses she can ride, but none is in the same league as the Pup.”
“Will Barbara be around Fieldstone this weekend?”
“I think so. I’m pretty sure she’s got lessons tomorrow. Why do you ask?”
“Because I’m a man of action. And I have an inquisitive nature.”
She gave me an apprising look. “You’ll like Barbara. Most men do. She’s glamorous, she’s beautiful, and she’s got scads of money.”
“Nope. Doesn’t sound like my type.”
She giggled. I liked making her giggle.
“I thought you said there was no money in horses.”
“Not in horses, no. Barbara gets these, like, residual checks every month. She used to be on television.”
“Unless she was on Monday Night Football, I probably missed her.”
She smiled, tracing a circle on the tablecloth with her finger.
“She was on a daytime soap called After Yesterday. She played the slutty little blonde.”
“Let me guess. It wasn’t a stretch.”
“Well,” she said. “The blond part, maybe.”
The drinks finally arrived. We cradled our cups, blowing steam into the empty space between us.
“Sydney says that you were the last person to see Hush Puppy alive.”
She shrugged. “I walk the barns before dinner. There’s a night groom, but he’s usually busy cleaning tack.”
“Did the horse seem all right to you?”
She thought about that. “There was nothing about his appearance or behavior that seemed out of the ordinary. If there was, I’d have called George.”
“You did call George,” I reminded her.
“When Enrique told me that Hush Puppy was down, I called his exchange. But by then, he was already dead.”
“What happened next?”
“I called Sydney. Then, I assume, she called the insurance people. She probably has them on speed dial.”
I set the cup down and folded my arms. “Do you really think my client’s a horse killer?”
She studied me a long time before shaking her head.
“I don’t know. But let me put it this way. I think she’s capable of killing a horse. And that’s the worst thing you’ll hear me say about anybody.”
We stood in line at the little valet stand on the sidewalk. The night had turned chill and I draped my jacket over her shoulders. She shivered and leaned her head into my chest, quietly humming along with the tinny music that played on the valet attendant’s radio. It was a Mexican ranchera number, and she seemed to know the tune.
While the sidewalk teemed with strolling shoppers and the valets ferried a succession of Beemers and Benzes to the departing diners, we were like a tranquil little island in a rushing river of people and cars, horns and lights.
I reminded myself that this wasn’t supposed to be a date. More like an interrogation, really, but it had somehow ended up here on the sidewalk, where I found my arm around her shoulders and my heartbeat in her ear, both of us in no hurry for the cars to arrive and the evening to end.
Then the Wrangler pulled to the curb, and the spell was broken. She handed back my jacket, and before I could speak she stepped quickly from the sidewalk and into the driver’s seat, and the attendant slammed the little door behind her.
“Hey, wait a minute!” I protested, and she rolled down the window.
Then a second Wrangler—also black—pulled up from behind. She read the look on my face, and turned, and then we both laughed. And then with the grinding of gears and the roar of her engine, she was gone. But her smile seemed to hang for a moment, disembodied in the night air like a Lewis Carroll apparition.
And then I blinked, and it too was gone.
Copyright © 2012 by Chuck Greaves
Chuck Greaves was born in Levittown, New York. He is an honors graduate of both the University of Southern California and Boston College Law School and spent twenty-five years as a trial lawyer in Los Angeles. Hush Money, his first novel, was named by SouthWest Writers as the Best Mystery/Suspense/Thriller/Adventure Novel of 2010, and won SWW’s Storyteller Award. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.