Read Clifford Irving's Legal Novels - 02 - FINAL ARGUMENT - a Legal Thriller Online

Authors: Clifford Irving

Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Murder, #Crime Fiction, #Thrillers, #Legal

Clifford Irving's Legal Novels - 02 - FINAL ARGUMENT - a Legal Thriller (3 page)

Connie Zide, surrounded by a group of men, passed by and thanked Toba and me for coming. At a party, Connie’s attraction worked collectively. She seemed to hum silently, like a nuclear-powered reactor. No matter where she moved on the grounds of the estate, the center of the party shifted with her. When she excused herself to go to the powder room, people relaxed and felt more at ease. Other women seemed to become more attractive; men’s laughs became more natural. Tonight she was wearing a necklace of pearls and emeralds and a diamond ring with a center pearl so large it gleamed like a small, iridescent ice cream cone. I knew that the jewels were fake.

Until just two months ago this woman had held me in thrall. On the edge of this very lawn, in the cloaking darkness of a September evening, we had copulated like dogs in heat until I fell away from her with sore knees and weak loins and the fear that I had lost my mind. I was her prisoner then, but now I was free. At least, paroled.

Toba squeezed my arm. “Are you having fun?”

“Because I’m with you.” I meant it; no one in my life has ever seemed as comfortable to be with as my wife.

“So what’s the secret, Ted? Why are we here?”

I smiled as if I were about to tell my kids a particularly thrilling bedtime story.

“Some of Solly Zide’s pals in Sarasota want me in their law firm. They need a litigating partner. Therefore, in the sense that I didn’t say no to the party invitation, I’m kissing Solly Zide’s ass. Is this the beginning of the end of my integrity?”

“Sarasota? Tell me more!”

In our view, Sarasota—halfway down the opposite coast of Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico—was where people tended to migrate in order to live the good life. No serious crime, no pollution, no hassle, and not much hustle. And usually no jobs. We were northern Floridians. Toba was from Daytona Beach; we had met at Gainesville when I was in my second year of law school. Neither of our families came from the old Sephardic stock that had emigrated south from the Carolinas during the early nineteenth century, but neither were they arrivistes in red golf pants or ash-blond coiffures and harlequin sunglasses with sparkle frames. They were business folk. They settled and worked and bred.

I slipped an arm around Toba’s waist. “Did you think you’d always be a prosecutor’s wife? That you’d never travel on the Concorde?” When the puzzled look didn’t quite fade from her eyes, I said, “Something happened on the beach last Sunday.”

I had been jogging, I told her, wearing a T-shirt that advertised in gold letters the Duval County State Attorneys Athletic Association. I played shortstop for the prosecutorial nine in the Merchants Softball League. “Good field no hit” had always been my label, but this year in the annual game against the defense attorneys I had singled in the winning run with the bases loaded, and the
Times-Union
had run my photograph with the caption: Ted Jaffe Comes Through. I wasn’t an athlete, so no accolade could be sweeter; I’d framed it and hung it on the wall next to my law diploma.

But that Sunday on the sand, two skinny black teenagers passed by and glanced at the logo on my sweaty chest. One boy said, “Fuck you, man.”

I kept on jogging.

Who had I convicted? A brother? His father? The boy himself? Unknown faces tend to blend into other faces, and when they were of another hue they blended much more easily. I knew that a black sixteen-year-old could hate a honkie assistant state attorney as much as he could hate a white cop. He could hate both because both possessed the power and the potential to harm him, and probably would.

Toba listened to the story, then shook her head wisely. “That wouldn’t make you turn tail. You get rid of scum, Ted. You feel good about it.”

Bugs grated against the immense screen covering the pool. The scent of jasmine drifted through the air, and several people passed by, laughing. I drank my second glass of champagne.

“I guess I’m just a little bit tired of putting people in jail,” I said. “Even scum.”

“You want to keep them
out
of jail?”

Once I had, yes. In the early sixties I’d been a history major at FSU in Tallahassee, where the last Confederate victory of the Civil War had taken place. I led protest marches for civil rights. One night in my final year of law school I was helping the other editors on the
Law Review
finish off a case of iced Chihuahua beer. My friend Kenny Buckram, another Jacksonville boy, threw out a question to the gang.

“What’s your deepest ambition?”

Those were wonderful years: questions had simple answers. “To argue a case successfully before the Supreme Court,” I said. “And to save an innocent man’s life. If possible, at one and the same time.”

Most of our little group wound up in civil law, where the money was. A few, like Kenny, joined the public defender’s office, but he had a private income from a doting grandmother. And I, for the sake of courtroom experience, joined a clinic program offered by the state attorney’s office. I took four misdemeanor cases to trial before six- person juries in Gainesville, winning all four. I loved winning. It was a kind of aphrodisiac.

Shortly afterward, Beldon Ruth, chief assistant state attorney in the Fourth Circuit, invited me up to Jacksonville for lunch. Beldon was in his late thirties at the time. Immaculately dressed in a navy blazer, with yellow polka-dot tie and elephant-hide boots, he was “not fat,” as he explained when I knew him better, “just a little short for my weight.” A black man in power: unusual enough in the late seventies, even rarer then, in the sixties. He had been a police sergeant down in Dade, then completed a law degree at Florida Atlantic. A few years later some good ole boy who went up against him on a capital murder case in Jacksonville said, “That nigger could pick your pocket with his tongue.”

Beldon Ruth and I ate conch fritters and catfish at The Jury Room, a private club in the Blackstone Building, across the street from the courthouse. I explained to him that I had always pictured myself as a defense attorney.

“You want to help people who are guilty?”

“Why was I under the impression,” I fired back, “that under American law they’re considered innocent until proved otherwise?”

“You can consider them whatever you fucking well like,” he said, slathering hot jalapeño sauce on his catfish, “but if we indict them, you can bet your ass they’re guilty. In my bailiwick, a prosecutor doesn’t go to trial unless he has the facts—but a defense attorney goes in there because he has to eat. And before he eats, he has to cozy up to the slimy bugs who rape our sisters and sell smack to our twelve-year-old kids. A prosecutor gets to put those people where they can’t do any more harm. And that dog’ll hunt.”

We were southerners and spoke the same language. This was not a visiting lecturer in jurisprudence but a man in the trenches. Suddenly I wanted to be there with him, under fire. I shook Beldon Ruth’s hard hand, and I took the job he offered me. When I passed the bar exam I married Toba, and we moved into an apartment on Neptune Beach, forty minutes from the courthouse in downtown Jacksonville.

Five years later, in a panic to ensure his getting the black vote in the next election, the governor over in Tallahassee called Beldon and asked him if he wanted to be state attorney for Duval County and the Fourth District: that was Jacksonville. The current incumbent had been elected to the state senate.

Beldon replied—so the legend went—”Governor, would a two- ton hog make a lot of bacon?”

He considered me his brightest young prosecutor and appointed me to take his place as chief assistant. And that’s who I was on the night my wife and I strolled the moonlit lawn at the Zides’ party and I told her I had a better offer from a Sarasota firm.

“This firm,” I said, “represents a string of Solly Zide’s luxury condos over on the Gulf. The litigating partner accepted a judgeship. They need an experienced trial lawyer. Someone really good.”

I wasn’t modest about my skills; when I went to trial I had a ninety-eight-percent conviction rate. My peers had named me Florida Prosecutor of the Year in 1970 and for two years in a row after that kept me as president of the statewide association.

“Sarasota’s lovely,” Toba said. “But it ain’t cheap, my lad.”

“The firm’s offered me a draw of eighty-five grand a year against fifteen percent of the profit.”

Toba’s eyes widened, just as mine had; that was more than double my current salary. But my wife wasn’t an impetuous woman. “You think it would be good for the kids?”

Alan was eight, a dreamy boy who had trouble paying attention in class. Cathy was ten, a straight-A student. Sometimes it seemed that there weren’t enough books in the Jacksonville library system or local bookstores to satisfy Cathy’s lust to read.

Toba plucked a fresh glass of champagne from a silver tray. She answered her own question. “Well, maybe. God knows there’s no decent safe high school here in Jacksonville. Not even out at the Beach. You know just what I mean.”

“Too black is what you mean,” I said.

“I hate to say things like that. Or even think them. But yes, that’s what I mean. Black means more violence. More drugs.”

“It would definitely be whiter and safer in Sarasota.”

We heard the musicians warming up beneath the peppermint- striped tent: first the French horn, then the deep moan of the bassoon, like the wail of a stricken mythical beast.

“Ted, what do
you
want to do?”

I hadn’t lost all my youthful idealism; I still wanted to be involved, to be proud of what I did. But beyond that, I wanted wines smoother to the palate than Gallo. I wanted a little sailboat of my own, and a car for my wife that didn’t break down every other season. I wanted my kids to go to a decent college without my having to pinch pennies and give up the trip to the Soviet Union and the East African safari that Toba and I had talked about for years.

However mundane all that seemed, I was tired of making small sacrifices. I wanted to be comfortable—maybe quite a bit more than comfortable.

When I told all that to Toba, she smiled. Her dark eyes were luminous from the wine, and perhaps also because prospects of more gracious living had opened to her.

“It’s no crime, darling. You say it as if you’re ashamed of it. That’s what everyone wants.”

“I used to think I wasn’t like everyone else,” I admitted. “That seems to have turned out to be an illusion.”

“I love you, Ted,” she said.

I fingered her thick black hair. “So let’s think about it, although not for too long. They need an answer by Christmas.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw Connie Zide dancing on the grass to the beat of a steel drum. I thought of her naked, of how her heels beat a wild tattoo on that September night when she’d come underneath me on this immaculate lawn, right there by the swimming pool. I dropped my hand to my wife’s hip and said, “Let’s go into the bushes.”

Toba’s eyes picked up an even deeper sparkle. She flushed a little. “What’s got into you?”

Oh, Toba, if only you knew.

If she knew, if she ever found out, would she be able to handle it? Please God, let me never know the answer to that question.

“It’s your tits, Toba,” I said seriously. “I love the way they slide around under silk. They bounce like little kittens. Come on.”

“You’re serious?”

“Who’ll miss us?” And there was a spot I knew, not twenty yards away in a grove of banana trees, where no one could see us.

Her flush deepened. “If they knew downtown what you were really like, Ted, they might not let you practice law. Not even in Sarasota.”

Toba and I excused ourselves from the party a little after ten o’clock. Much of what happened I learned later. I was trained at asking questions and listening for significant details. I snoop. I have a good memory when it suits me.

JSO, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, determined that the last guests left the Zide estate by eleven-twenty. The caterers and other staff finished cleaning up around one o’clock in the morning. All the cigarette butts, giant shrimp heads, dirty napkins, and broken champagne glasses were swept up, bagged, pitched into a truck, driven off to the dump.

And then a silence settled over the Atlantic coast, a silence that was barely touched by the distant rumble of the surf. White tendrils of lightning crackled on the horizon. An occasional night bird flew by, croaking its melancholy song of alarm.

Some days later, on December 10, 1978, in Room 208 of Baptist Medical Center, Connie Zide made the following tape-recorded statement to Detectives Floyd J. Nickerson and Carmen M. Tanagra of the Homicide Division of JSO:

…We went to bed as soon as the caterers left, because that musicale, our party, had been tiring. But I couldn’t sleep, and Solomon, my husband, is—was—a real night owl. He’d read in bed sometimes half the night, so around one-thirty in the morning I got up to make him a cup of camomile tea. And he followed me downstairs to the kitchen. We wound up playing backgammon—that was in the yellow drawing room. Then Neil, our son, came home from a party and sat down with us. It was probably 2:00 A.M., perhaps a little later. Right after that we all heard a sound from the patio, as if an urn had tipped over and crashed. Our electronic security is state-of-the-art. There’s an armed night watchman at the gate—Terence is not young anymore, but he’s a former Orlando police officer—and Paco, the Doberman, poor thing, was supposed to be down at the beach cabanas. So none of us was particularly alarmed by this crash. We didn’t think of burglars at the time. It was late, we were tired. My husband just said, “I’ll go look.” He got up from the backgammon table and went off to do just that. I followed him, sort of trailed behind at a distance, not really concentrating, talking over my shoulder to Neil. Then I heard shots. Three, four, five in a row, I couldn’t tell—I still don’t remember. I went nuts, ran outside. Solomon was lying there on the terrace with blood all around him. Two men were standing there on the grass. One had a gun—a young black man, looking very frightened. I recognized him as one of our employees, although at the time I couldn’t put a name to the face. I was in no state to think. And then the other man, who I believe was closer to me, yelled something and raised his hand and slashed at me with something. I imagine it was a knife, but I never saw it. I must have fallen down … and I hardly remember anything else until I woke up here in the hospital. I assume I went into shock… .

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