Silent Bite by David Rosenfelt: Featured Excerpt
By Crime HQAugust 27, 2020
“This is Terry Banner asking you to remember that you heard it here first.”
The red light went off, telling Banner with certainty that he was no longer on the air. He took out his earpiece, removed his microphone, opened his shirt collar, and removed his tie. He hated ties; if the inventor of the tie were still alive, Banner would wish him a miserable death. Strangulation would represent a delicious irony.
“Way to go, Terry. You really nailed it tonight.”
Banner accepted the compliment from the cameraman with a nod and a brief “Thanks.” The truth was that he had no idea if he had nailed it or not; the cameraman said some version of the same thing after every broadcast. The other truth was that by a half-hour after the time he would get to the bar, he’d forget what it was that he had talked about.
Banner was the opinion reporter for a local Scranton, Pennsylvania, station, and each night’s opinion was basically a recitation of some series of events that he claimed should leave viewers feeling outraged. Since people never tired of feeling outraged, Banner was the closest thing Scranton had to a media star.
Banner’s career had already taken an unusual path. He started out at a small Toledo station, then got noticed by a New York news executive visiting his grandmother in a Toledo suburb. The next thing he knew he was working for Channel 5 in New York.
That’s where he started his daily outrages spiel, and he thought he was doing pretty well. Then one day the target of his outrage was the local teachers’ union, which turned out to be an unfortunate choice, since the incoming head of the news division turned out to have a sister who was the president of that same union. Banner was gone soon after.
Actually, Banner didn’t realize that his ill-fated choice of targets was only a secondary reason for his firing. What was really going on was that the station had information that Banner was involved in unsavory and possibly illegal activities in his life away from the studio. The station preferred to keep that quiet and let people assume that it was the station manager’s anger and defense of his sister that led to Banner’s termination.
The next thing Banner knew he was back in Scranton. And even though no one would ever accuse him of being an upbeat person, he soon learned that exile wasn’t so bad. He became a Scranton celebrity and found out that he liked being the big fish in the small pond.
He brought his outrage shtick with him, and people all over the Scranton area were soon tuning in to find out what they should be pissed off about. So even though when he first left New York he was determined to get back, pretty soon he wasn’t thinking about that at all. The cost of living was much less, the women were just as nice and liked him far more than New York women did, and the alcohol went down just the same.
There was another aspect of life in Scranton that represented a pleasant surprise for Banner. In the New York area, he had developed a lucrative sideline of selling opioids. A contact had been easy to make, and quite a few people, including some colleagues, were eager buyers.
It didn’t take long to set up a similar operation in Scranton; he didn’t even have to change suppliers. He believed he was smart enough to stay under any law enforcement radar, and if the police had noticed him, they hadn’t come forward. Before long Banner’s unofficial career was earning him more than his on-air work.
On that particular night Banner went to his favorite bar, Shanahan’s, in downtown Scranton. For weeks he’d sat in the same seat at the right end of the bar, but then started to feel like Norm from Cheers, so he moved to a small table in the far corner. More than occasionally Banner wound up leaving with a female patron, but no such luck on that night.
He arrived at seven o’clock and left at nine forty-five. Towns in this part of Pennsylvania generally closed up early, at least by New York standards, and Scranton was no exception. His blood-alcohol level was certainly over the legal limit, and there was never a time that he wouldn’t have at least traces of drugs in his body, but he never worried about that. He was conscious of his impairment and drove carefully, and it’s not like there was ever traffic at that hour.
Banner’s drive home was without incident, and twenty minutes after he left the bar he pulled into his garage. Eighteen seconds after that the .38-caliber bullet entered the back of his head, killing him instantly.
My first cruise is almost over.
Truth be told, I didn’t want to do this. I was more than willing to go through life cruiseless. But Laurie and Ricky wanted to go on one, so as we often do, we had a family vote. It would not have taken Gallup to predict that the final tabulation would be two votes in favor of going, and one opposed. I asked for the jury to be polled, but that didn’t change the final count.
We boarded one week ago tomorrow. The first thing we did was go to our cabin, which is a two-bedroom suite. The two bedrooms plus the living room combined are the size of a large coffee table. But it would be fine, Laurie assured me, because we would rarely be in the room. There was too much fun to be had on the ship, and I, Andy Carpenter, am nothing if not fun-loving.
Almost immediately we were directed to find our life jackets and make it to our assigned stations, which were listed on the door. I’m not a big fan of needing life jackets because by definition they imply danger to life. That’s why, for example, we don’t keep life jackets in our den at home.
I could barely figure out the various straps to get mine on, so Ricky helped me. And of course I was under no stress during this drill; the chance that I would be able to manage it while on the deck of a sinking ship is infinitesimal.
We did as instructed and made it to our station. Once there we stood with maybe two hundred other life-jacketed passengers and responded when our names were called. One of the crew assured us that if a passenger was not there to answer to his or her name, another crew member would be sent to their stateroom to get them. This was a mandatory drill.
After the roll call, we were told that in an emergency we were to do what we had just practiced: grab our life jackets and come to these stations. Lifeboats would then be lowered automatically from high up on the ship down to us, and we would get in. The plan, I suppose, was to then happily row away to the sounds of Celine Dion coming from the sinking ship’s audio system.
Almost immediately I recognized a problem. I think I read somewhere that some of the Titanic lifeboats never even got used, and they didn’t have to come down on elevators. They were just sitting there on the side of the ship. So in our case, the ship would be sinking rapidly, but all the lifeboat elevators would work perfectly? Unlikely at best.
I was thinking maybe two-thirds of them would make it down. Doing the math, that meant that one-third wouldn’t, leaving a lot of people floating around, boatless. I do not envision my final resting place to be at the bottom of the ocean, surrounded by rusting buffet tables.
It wasn’t mentioned, but my guess was that the crew still clung to the antiquated notion that women and children have priority. That is so yesterday.
I’m fine with Laurie and Ricky getting special status, but it shouldn’t be a blanket policy. It represents sexism and ageism; two isms that I am firmly opposed to. Sinkism and drownism are two more.
So I could see I was going to be left having to fend for myself against the other men on board. Some of them were really old, so I figured I could outrun or even outfight them. But others looked in good shape, so I’d have to outthink them. I hadn’t come up with a strategy, but putting on one of Laurie’s dresses and lipstick was a possibility.
Laurie could tell that I wasn’t approaching this with the right attitude, so she starting telling me about the glorious diversions the ship offered: “Andy, there are an amazing amount of things to do. There are restaurants, bars, a bowling alley, bingo games, shows, movies, a casino, arcades, a library, computers, amusement rides, swimming pools, and, best of all, a close-up view of the ocean.”
“That’s great,” I said. “But you know what else has all of those things? New Jersey. And you can’t slip and fall off New Jersey. You can stand on a street corner in Paterson for ten years and never get seasick or need a lifeboat.”
The truth is that the week has been relaxing and bearable. We’ve made stops at five Caribbean islands. They were all exactly the same; I’m pretty sure that we really went to the same island five times. They just called it by different names, and they cleverly changed the T-shirts in the stores, but I saw through the ruse.
Thanksgiving was last week, but the ship is in Christmas mode. Decorations are everywhere, Santas are there to “Ho, ho, ho” at every kid that walks by, and Christmas music is piped throughout.
I can usually stand Christmas music for about an hour, and then I want to scream when it’s played. Of course, Laurie thinks the Christmas season lasts for four months, so I’ve been hearing it since Halloween. It doesn’t take me long to get sick of Bing Crosby telling me that Santa knows when I’ve been sleeping and when I’m awake.
The island shops were also decorated for Christmas, which seemed completely incongruous. It felt like 145 degrees outside, and all the windows were decorated with fake snow, candy canes, and tinsel.
Time on the ship itself has been reasonably enjoyable; Ricky has had plenty to do, while Laurie and I have been resting and reading. We’ve also been doing our fair share of drinking, though it’s embarrassing that every drink I order comes with a little umbrella in it.
Laurie and Ricky wanted to play bingo yesterday. I agreed because I am an agreeable guy, but I had one condition: if I won, either she or Ricky had to be the one to yell “Bingo!” I won the first game, and Ricky, who does not share my fear of humiliation, happily screamed it out.
We did have one disaster happen. On Sunday, I went into the bar area to watch pro football, but the only sports station that the ship gets is ESPN. There are no afternoon football games on ESPN, so instead I watched bass fishing, just so I could see the updated NFL scores scrolling across the bottom of the screen. A guy next to me at the bar tried to engage me in bass-fishing talk. It was not my finest moment.
Right now we’re close to pulling into port on the West Side of Manhattan, so I turn on my cell phone, and I see that I have six messages, all from Willie Miller, and all in the last four hours.
Each message is almost identical: “Andy, it’s Willie. Tara and Sebastian are good, but I need to talk to you about something else. It’s important. But Tara and Sebastian are really good.”
Tara is my golden retriever, best friend, and greatest living creature on the face of the earth, or any other planet known or still to be discovered. Sebastian is our basset hound, also a great dog, but, candidly, not in Tara’s class. There is nothing and no one else in Tara’s class.
I’m a defense attorney, and Willie is my friend and former client. He and his wife, Sondra, are my partners in the Tara Foundation, our dog-rescue operation. They are also taking care of Tara and Sebastian while we are away, and Willie is smart enough to realize that if he left an urgent message without assuring me of their good health, I would freak out.
As soon as I have enough bars on my phone, I call him.
“Andy, are you back?” he asks, in lieu of “Hello.”
“Almost. Tara and Sebastian are okay?” I know he said they were, but I seem to need further reassurance.
“They’re good. Can you meet me at the Passaic County jail in an hour?”
“You’re in jail?”
“No . . . I’m home.” Then, “I’ve got a better idea. How about if I meet you in front of your house and we can go down there together? In an hour?”
“I can’t get there that fast, Willie. I’m still on the ship.”
“Then make it two hours. Thanks, Andy.”
He’s hung up before I have a chance to ask why he wants me to go down to the jail, which means I have two hours of blissful ignorance to savor.
There is no way this can be good,” I say, once we’re in the car.
“I hope he didn’t lose his temper with a potential adopter,” Laurie says.
Willie can be volatile, and he has no patience for anyone who comes in to adopt a dog but then demonstrates a lack of respect for it. If he doesn’t think they would represent a good home for one of our dogs, he can be rather confrontational and blunt about it.
People don’t like to be told that they aren’t worthy of adopting a dog, but most of them have the good sense not to argue with Willie. A few have tried to, and that’s when it can get ugly.
Christmas is a particularly dangerous time in this regard, since people are inclined to get dogs as gifts, like a tennis racquet, or a toaster oven. People should be looking for a member of the family, not something that they can unwrap and return. Willie is keenly aware of this, and protective of the dogs in our care.
“I don’t think so,” I say. “He was in control of when he was going to go to the jail; he wasn’t being dragged there by the police.”
“Maybe someone he knows is there.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.” I don’t have to explain what I mean; I’ve been trying to avoid taking on clients for a long time, but it never seems to work out. Willie calling me down to the jail has raised my anti-client alert system to DEFCON 1.
“What does Uncle Willie want, Dad?” Ricky asks from the backseat.
“I don’t know, Rick. Maybe a favor of some kind.”
“He’s your friend, right?”
“And he does favors for you, right?”
I turn to Laurie. “Do you have a sock or something you can put in his mouth?”
Instead, she says, “Yes, Rick. Uncle Willie does many favors for Dad. They are good friends.”
We get to our house on Forty-second Street in Paterson, New Jersey. I’ve lived here almost my whole life, and it always feels great to come back home when I’ve been away. The Christmas tree in the living room is visible from the street, and the decorative lights on it are turned on. Laurie somehow knows how to do that from her phone; I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how.
Willie is waiting out in front, holding Tara and Sebastian on leashes. Laurie, Ricky, and I get out of the car and spend the next few minutes petting and rolling on the ground with the two of them. Actually, Sebastian doesn’t roll, but a couple of times he almost tips over. It’s good that he doesn’t because it would take a crane to get him up.
It is amazingly good to see them, and judging by the speed at which their tails are wagging, they are more than a little glad to see us. I would like this reunion to last forever, mainly so I won’t have to talk to Willie about the favor involving the jail. But it’s cold out here, so we need to move this along.
I delay the conversation with Willie further by carrying the bags in, but once that’s done, Willie asks, “Andy, remember my friend Tony Birch?”
“You remember, Tony Birch,” he coaxes. “Tony? Tony Birch?”
“I don’t, Willie. So why don’t you just tell—”
He interrupts, not giving up. “Anthony. Anthony Birch. We call him Tony.”
“You mean Tony Birch?” I ask, changing tactics.
“Yeah, that’s him.”
“I don’t remember him, Willie. But why are we talking about him?”
“We were cellmates for a while. Great guy; I know I mentioned him to you.”
“Is he still in jail?” I ask.
“He got out years ago, but he just got arrested again. They said he murdered a guy.”
“So you want me to find him a lawyer?” I ask, on the off chance that if you say something out loud, even something stupid, that might make it come true.
“I want you to be his lawyer. He needs you, Andy. He would never hurt anybody.”
“You said he was your cellmate. What was he in for back then?”
“This is the guy who would never hurt anybody?” I ask, as gently as I can.
“He didn’t do it, Andy.”
“Didn’t do which? The manslaughter or the murder?”
Ricky’s words are ricocheting around inside my skull. He’s your friend, right? And he does favors for you, right?
When I get Ricky alone, I’m going to scream really loudly at him, but the undeniable truth is that he’s right. Willie has always been there for me, and I’ve called on him many times. He has even saved my life while risking his own life.
“When was he arrested?” I ask.
“And he doesn’t have a lawyer yet?”
“They gave him a public defender.”
“The public defenders are terrific.”
“Not as good as you. Tony wants you. He knows we’re friends.”
I have nowhere to go with this. I’m trapped. “Okay, let’s go. I’ll talk to Tony Birch.”
“He’s a great guy.”
“I’m not committing to anything right now other than talking to him. Okay?”
“Got it,” Willie says, though I know he paid no attention to what I said. “You’ll like him. You won’t be sorry.”
I’m already sorry is what I think but don’t say. The other thing I think as we head for the jail is that I’d rather be playing bingo.
The only positive thing about visiting the jail is that they’re not piping in Christmas music. But it is a relentlessly depressing place to be, regardless of the season. I know, because I have spent more time in this place than most convicted felons.
“My man Willie came through.”
Those are the first words that Tony Birch says when he’s brought into the lawyer’s visiting room. He doesn’t look much more than thirty years old; he has jet black hair and is built like a tight end for the Giants. Although I can’t ever remember seeing a Giants tight end in handcuffs, even though some of them occasionally play like it.
“You seem surprised,” I say.
“I’m always surprised when somebody does what they say they’re going to do. Although in Willie’s case, not so much. That’s why I called him.”
“I told him I would talk with you. No commitments beyond that.”
“Fair enough; I appreciate the opportunity. Let’s talk.”
“Okay. I’ve just gotten back from a vacation to nowhere, so I don’t know anything about your situation. Tell me whatever you think is relevant.”
He nods. “Three days ago a guy, Frankie Zimmer, was found dead on Bergen Street in Paterson. I’m told he was shot in the back of the head. Yesterday they arrested me.”
“Did you know the victim?”
He nods. “We grew up together. We . . . hung out . . . on the same streets downtown.”
Something about the way Tony says “hung out” strikes me. “What does ‘hung out’ mean? You sang on the street corner together? You were on the same bowling team?”
“We were in a gang. We called ourselves the Fulton Street Boyz. Boyz with a z.”
“Why the z?”
He shrugs. “I never figured that out.”
“So let me guess. You lived on Fulton Street.”
“Actually no. But a bunch of the guys did. Anyway, we did some stupid stuff.”
“When did you get out of prison?”
“Three years ago. I had a five-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter; got paroled in three.”
“What have you been doing since then?”
“I’m a mechanic. I worked for a guy for two years and then bought the shop when he retired. I’ve been doing okay.”
“The involuntary manslaughter conviction; what were the circumstances?”
“I got in a street fight; a guy attacked me. I defended myself and threw a punch. It knocked the guy back into the street and he got killed by a car.”
Tony nods. “Yeah. But a couple of guys saw it differently, and they testified against me. Guys that I thought were my friends.” He pauses for a moment before dropping the bomb. “One of those guys was Frankie Zimmer.”
“Frankie Zimmer testified against you?” I don’t know what evidence the police have, but they obviously won’t have a problem with motive.
“And he was lying?”
“So the police think you got out, waited three years, and then got your revenge?”
Tony shrugs. “I guess so.”
“I assume you don’t have an alibi to show you were somewhere else at the time and place of the murder?”
“I don’t even know when he was killed, or where. They haven’t told me anything, and my lawyer said I shouldn’t talk to them.”
“Excellent advice. Who’s your lawyer?”
“Hopefully you. But right now it’s a public defender . . . Ellen Richter. She seemed nice enough.”
I know Ellen; she’s a dedicated and talented attorney. “She’s a good lawyer.”
“She’s not you.”
“How do you know so much about me?”
“Willie talks about you a lot, and I got a rescued dog from you guys. Zoey . . . she’s the greatest dog ever. I miss her already.”
I don’t have a mirror with me, but I think my ears literally perk up at the mention of this dog, though I don’t remember her.
“What kind of dog?”
He smiles. “I’m embarrassed to say, but she’s a Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever.”
He nods. “Yeah. I had no idea what she was, so I did one of those DNA tests and sent it in. Go figure . . . a Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever in Paterson, New Jersey. There must be a story behind that.”
“Where is Zoey now?”
“Willie has her.”
“Good. He’ll take good care of her.”
“Will you take the case?”
“I haven’t decided, but I’ll look into it and let you know what I decide. For now Ellen is more than capable of taking you through the arraignment.”
“I don’t have much money, and my business isn’t worth a whole lot without me there to run it. I only have one other employee.”
This gets better and better. “I understand. My decision will have nothing to do with money, that much I can assure you.”
“So what will you base your decision on?”
“What I learn about your case, and about you. And . . .”
I shouldn’t say it, but I go ahead and tell him the truth anyway. “Whether or not I can bring myself to say no to Willie.”
Copyright © 2020 by David Rosenfelt.
About Silent Bite by David Rosenfelt:
Lawyer Andy Carpenter can finally take a breath; he’s back on dry land after a family Caribbean cruise forced on him by his wife, Laurie, to get into the Christmas spirit. Of course the family’s first stop is to the Tara Foundation, the dog rescue organization that has always been Andy’s true passion.
But when Andy arrives, his partner, Willie Miller, needs his help. Willie’s old cellmate, Glenn Anson, has been arrested for murder. Andy doesn’t necessarily believe in Glenn, but Willie does. And Andy believes in Willie, which is why Andy decides to take the case.
Once again David Rosenfelt puts readers in the Christmas spirit in a tale that is equal parts mystery and holiday cheer.