1. SOMETHING WEIRD
There is something weird with the dude next door to me,” I tell Rik. Across the conference room table, his small, weary eyes rise reluctantly from the file he’s reviewing. His brain seems to chase after my words for a second, then he hits me with a sneaky little grin.
“Oh, I get it,” I say. “‘Look who’s talking,’ right? But he’s weird. Maybe not me-weird, but he’s strange.”
“You mean he doesn’t have a nail through his nose?”
“Ha,” I answer. It isn’t even in today. And it isn’t even real, just old Goth jewelry I bought used, the head and blunted point of a framing nail worn as separate studs on each side. It’s been kind of my trademark look for years now. But Rik says I might as well hang one of those road signs around my neck that warns, ‘Sharp Curve Ahead.’ Before I started here two years ago as the investigator in his law office, I promised to ghost the nail when I’m doing interviews or meeting clients. In fact, because Rik is so stressed about this case, I’ve put on one of my three dresses, a shapeless blue sheath whose long sleeves hide some of my most outrageous ink.
“You can mock me,” I say, “but something’s up with this guy. He moved in like a month ago and he doesn’t talk to anybody. He has no visitors. He doesn’t go to work. The inside walls in that building are like those Japanese screens, but it’s been weeks since I heard anything from next door. It’s like he’s one of those silent monks—no voices, no phone, no music. He doesn’t own a car, as far as I can see. And he’s never even cleaned out his mailbox from the prior tenant. The post lady has to dump his mail on the floor, and he walks right over it. Just a very weird dude.”
Rik says, “He sounds like a guy who wants to be left alone.
Which means you should leave him alone.”
“I have a creepy feeling about him,” I answer. Rik holds up a soft hand.
“Pinky, please,” he says. “We’ve got ten minutes before our first real meeting with this client. Let’s make a good impression.”
The case has been breaking the Internet—days of headlines in various papers and even a few national hits on the gossipy TV shows. Our client, the chief of police here in Highland Isle, has been accused by three officers of demanding sex in exchange for promotions on the force—‘sextortion’ as a couple grocery-store tabloids have labeled it. A complaint before the local Police and Fire Commission, ‘P&F’ as it’s called, is asking for Chief Gomez to be fired. Worse, the United States Attorney has launched a federal grand jury investigation, which could even mean jail time. The Chief is in deep.
As Rik is rereading the file, I say, “I just can’t figure this dude. I mean, he goes out once every day around noon with his gym bag. And he grabs some carryout at dinner. Seven days a week, same same. So what’s his deal? Is he stalking somebody? Is he in witness protection?”
Glancing up again, Rik clearly can’t even remember what I’m talking about. You might call Rik and me family, depending on how you’re counting. His dear dead mom, Helen, married Pops, my grandfather Sandy Stern, not long after I was born. As I re- member Rik from my childhood, he was this uber-nerdy chubby college student, still super messed-up after his parents’ divorce, who managed to flunk out of Easton College by not attending a single class for forty-nine straight days. Even when he got it together enough to go back, he drifted through college and barely made it into law school.
Now, about twenty-five years later, he’s got the shape of an autumn gourd. His little remaining mouse-colored hair looks like dirty soapsuds that will blow away any second. Still, I sometimes think it would be okay to end up like him, a person who learned from his troubles back in the day and, as a result, is kind to everyone.
After playing rewind in his head, Rik is frowning about me going off again about my neighbor.
“Pinky, your imagination must be one of the most interesting places on earth. It’s like living in 4-D. All this stuff that never could happen, and you’re running it as the feature attraction.”
“Hey, I have great instincts, right? Don’t you say like some- times I have ESP?”
“Sometimes ESP,” he says. “And sometimes PES.” I take a second. “PES?”
“Piles of Erroneous Shit.” Teasing me is one of Rik’s favorite office pastimes. Since I was little, being the object of a joke starts a near-riot close to my heart, but with Rik I can mostly ride with it. He is the best boss ever and gets his biggest chuckles at his own expense (like how in high school he decided to drop the c in ‘Rick,’ actually hoping that axing one little letter would make him cool). Plus him and Helen always seemed to like me better than most people in my own family.
“Let’s stay on task,” he says. “I don’t want the Chief changing her mind. You know what this case could do around here.”
Rik doesn’t do much legal work that attracts big attention. I was a paralegal in my grandfather’s law office before Pops closed shop. He and my aunt represented all the richest crooks in the Tri-Cities, and our space had the quiet atmosphere and heavy furnishings of a bank lobby. With Rik, I’m kind of in the working class of the legal world. Our office, in a recovering part of High- land Isle, is cramped, with the same cheap paneled walls people put up in their basements. We do a lot of workman’s comp and quick-hitting personal injury cases to keep the electricity flowing in the sockets. Rik would love to handle headline defenses like Pops, but most of the criminal cases that come through the door here are rumdum misdemeanors—bar fights and first-time DUIs and drunken stunts by teenagers. At fifty-two, Rik thinks Chief Gomez’s case might help him finally step up.
“I thought you’d been retained,” I say.
“We had a get-together at a coffee shop for about ten minutes before the Chief went on vacation. But Mr. Green has not arrived.” He’s referring to a retainer. In criminal, you have to get paid up front, since clients don’t send many checks from prison. “Supposedly, we’ll see it today.”
His attention returns for a second to the P&F complaint, then he suddenly stops cold and squints at me.
“How’s he look?” Rik says. “Who?”
“Your wacky neighbor. You’ve been keeping quite an eye on him. What’s he look like?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Asian.”
“He’s going to the gym two hours a day, so he must be in good shape, right?”
The man is definitely lean and fit, but what’s most striking is his skin, a rich shade I’ve never seen before, close to what was called ‘ochre’ in my crayon box but with a more lustrous undertone. He’s tall too, around six foot three.
“Point?” I ask.
“Point is maybe you’re a little hot for him.”
“Nah,” I say. “This guy’s maybe forty-five. You know my story, Rik—older women, younger men.”
“Pinky,” he says, “it’s none of my business, but your story seems to be anybody born human.”
“Ha,” I say again, although he’s probably right. Nomi, Rik’s assistant, peeks around the door. “Chief Gomez is here,” Nomi says.
Not the kind to wait, Lucia Gomez-Barrera sweeps in with a burst of positive energy that fills the room. She immediately opens her arms to Rik for a hug.
2. THE CHIEF
As Rik tells it, the Chief and him were tight in high school. She was one of those superhot chicks who left a lot of the guys in heat just by walking down the hall, and Rik was her assigned lab partner in Bio who was basically no threat. (Besides, he had already pretty much bonded for life with Marnie, his wife, a fact that, frankly, makes my head explode. At thirty-three, I still regard one person forever as impossible, let alone coupling up
before you’re old enough to drive.)
Rik introduces me as his ‘ace investigator’ and the Chief offers her hand. Even today, many police brass have no taste for people like me, inked from neck to ankle and with a magenta Mohawk (and a blue undercut on one side). But Chief Gomez comes on warm as a kindergarten teacher, with a smile that’s 100,000 lumens of pure light, and—get this—dimples. A police chief with dimples!
I have a kinda/sorta ex who never unfriended me and was on the job in HI last I checked. Just to give myself some cred, I ask about her, Tonya Eo.
“Tonya’s the Real Police,” the Chief says, which is top praise. “Just made detective sergeant. Friend?”
“We were cadets in the Kindle County Academy together.” “Back more than a decade? Did you get sworn?”
“No, I fucked up,” I say. I flamed out on a drug test, the last week. “Story of my life.”
I receive a sweet, sympathetic smile. I’m getting a positive feel about Chief Gomez, which is kind of a surprise. I don’t really like most people to start, and they definitely don’t like me. I tend to get up in their grills almost as soon as we say hello. It took me a while—and a therapist or two—to realize I’m still basically a kid, scared of strangers.
First thing, she slides an envelope over to Rik.
“I took a second on my house, Ricky. I hope you’re worth it, man.”
The Chief is in her dress uniform in Highland Isle’s puke-worthy shade of blue green, which I would call Sick Teal. The long jacket, which is probably covering her weapon, has gold braiding on each shoulder and double-breasted rows of brass buttons, and her actual police star, also gold, over the left breast. The light in here is not what they would choose at the beauty counter: harsh fluorescents and no windows. Even so, in the flesh, Lucia Gomez is prettier than she appears on TV, although, just saying, there is a fair amount of flesh. I make her as five two and maybe 150 pounds. She has a round face with movie-star cheekbones, huge dark eyes and great skin, ‘Warm Beige,’ as they call the shade at Sephora.
Just to get rolling, Rik starts by going over her biographical details. After high school, they pretty much lost touch, and even once they found each other again here in Highland Isle, their contacts have generally been limited to lunch every now and then. Still, given what most cops think of defense lawyers, Rik isn’t surprised that in the current crisis she’s turned to someone she’s known forever.
As for her background, the Chief grew up in Highland Isle, with six brothers and sisters in a three-bedroom bungalow with one bath. Dad was a welder, Ecuadorian, Mom Mexican, and both are gone now. The Chief enlisted in the Army a month after high school graduation, because she figured the GI Bill was the only way she’d get to college. After surviving Desert Storm, she enrolled at Greenwood County JC, which was where she heard about the veterans’ preference on law-enforcement hiring. The Kindle County Unified Police Force offered her space in the academy.
“I never made you for a cop,” Rik says.
“Me neither. But I loved it from the start—except riding with the Ritz, who was my first training officer. But I felt like this is what I was meant to do, something where you could make a difference every day. I took the time to listen to everyone—the victims, the witnesses, even the dude in cuffs.”
She kept going to school at night, got a BA in criminology, then a master’s, and made detective in Kindle County in less than six years.
“They were looking for women by then.” She offers a humble shrug.
She married another detective, but the fact that she was moving up faster than Danny created issues. Hoping to save things, she left Kindle for Highland Isle, where the marriage cratered anyway, while her career continued to boom. She reached commander, number two in the department, in record time.
When the old chief, Stanley Sicilino, got the boot twelve years ago from Highland Isle’s first reform mayor, Amity DeFranco Nieves, the Chief became the consensus choice to replace him. Latinx. Raised in HI. Strong educational credentials. By now, she says, she’s made her share of enemies, but that’s how it goes.
With that soft start, Rik turns to the real business, the P&F complaint. Pops used to tell me that clients come in two flavors: the ones who can’t talk about their cases enough and the others who will do anything to avoid the subject. You might think the talkers are innocent and outraged, but Pops said a lot of bad guys think the next best thing to not having done the crime is to make somebody else believe that. By contrast, the wrongly accused—a smaller group, frankly—are often struggling to get a grip.
The Chief definitely has not been looking forward to this conversation. Once she hired Rik, she took off two weeks for her older daughter’s wedding and promised not to think about any of this, and clearly meant it. Rik says he had to call her four times to get her to come in.
For me, though, it’s easy to see why she’d be having a hard time dealing with the charges, which have seemed totally sketchy to me since Rik first explained them.
‘Why’s that a crime?’ I asked him. ‘Hooking up? What’s the US Attorney investigating?’
‘Because she’s a public official,’ Rik said.
‘Because she’s a woman, Boss. Men still hate it when a female does what she wants with her body. These dudes’ stories make no sense. Yeah, okay, men can get raped or assaulted, but not usually when they’re carrying a .38. Not to mention the basics: If winky-dink doesn’t want to come out to play, there’s no game. So how’d she force them?’
‘They say they didn’t want to.’ Rik shrugged.
At that point—the day Rik met the Chief for coffee a month ago—all we knew were the few details that had been leaked to the Tribune. Even so, it was clear that somebody canny about election-year politics was involved. The P&F complaint, which
was filed a few days later, was clearly timed to put maximum pressure on Mayor Nieves, who’s running again, to fire the Chief. Instead, the mayor, who’s learned how to swerve after twelve years in office, said she would leave it all up to the Police and Fire Commission. Rather than give in, the Chief declined to take a leave.
“This is all horse hockey,” the Chief says now. “I wanna see those jokers up there testifying to this crap, that I supposedly said, ‘Sex or else.’ This is just typical police department baloney. Cops think the worst of everybody, especially half the officers they work with, and are always making up shit about them.”
“Okay,” says Rik. “Okay.” He nods several times, clearly trying to determine how safe it is to probe. “But all three of these guys got promoted, right?”
“Sure. And I signed off. But there was a good reason in each case.”
Rik asks her for a thumbnail on the three men accusing her, ‘the allegators’ as Rik calls them in the typical grim humor of the world of criminal defense.
“Well, two of them,” she says, “Primo DeGrassi and Walter Cornish, were in Narcotics together for years, until I moved them out. Cornish retired last year, and DeGrassi left about twelve months before. I can tell you right now, if you dig around”—she points straight at me—“they’re both connected to the Ritz. He’s behind this.”
That’s the second time she’s said ‘the Ritz.’ Part of what freaks me out about other people is how often I can’t follow them or make the connections everybody else sees as obvious. I can remember watching TV when I was a kid and being so baffled about what was happening with the characters that I’d ask my younger brother, Johnny, to explain. ‘Why did she just say she hates him? I thought she liked him.’ ‘She does like him. That’s why she said she hates him. Because she’s real dis- appointed.’ Even now, I often find myself feeling lost and a little panicked.
“The Ritz?” I ask, although Rik prefers I just listen. “Like the hotel?”
She smiles, nicely. “It’s a nickname for a really bad guy.”
Rik lifts a hand so he can continue to direct the conversation. He wants her to tell us first about the third officer in the complaint.
“Blanco?” she asks. “We call him Frito around the station. He’s the big mystery. Former altar boy and Eagle Scout. Bronze Star in Afghanistan. Quiet. Never gets excited. A coppers’ cop. And I been so good to him. I got no idea why he’s making up this shit.”
Rik jots another note and then says, “Okay, I’m with Pinky.
Who’s the Ritz?”
The Chief responds with a bitter laugh.
“Everybody around here knows who the Ritz is. Moritz Vojczek?” Voy-check.
“The property guy?” I ask, proving her point. Vojczek’s name is all over. His company seems to manage every apartment build- ing in town, including mine. He owns the biggest real estate brokerage in Highland Isle and is clearly the busiest developer. If you see a hole in the ground in HI, odds are there’s a sign in front that says ‘Vojczek.’ Definitely a local power.
“I read in the Trib last year,” says the Chief, “that the Ritz is worth about 300 million dollars. And he owes it all to me.”
“To you?” Rik asks.
“Cause I fired his ass from the police force as soon as I became Chief. Well, not fired. Suggested he resign.”
“Didn’t you say you rode with the Ritz in Kindle County?” I’m still confused.
“Right,” she says. “We both started out there. I could take all afternoon telling you stories about the two of us, but the long short is simple: He’ll spit on the ground I’ve walked on because I canned him. Not to mention that I still have my eye on all the dirty shit he’s got going around here.”
“What kind of dirty shit does a real estate mogul have going?” Rik asks.
“A lot. When the Ritz was in Narcotics, everybody knew he was dealing himself. He’s better insulated now, but he’s not changing his spots. Fentanyl’s the money drug right now, so he’s probably got some angle there. I mean, I’d be happy to testify about all the bad blood between us.”
Rik spends some time shaking his head.
“Lucy,” he says, “you’re not going anywhere near a witness stand for a while.”
Rik details the odd procedural footing of the P&F case. Because of the political heat, the city attorney, who acts as the prosecutor, has agreed to convene the hearing so the three accusers can tell their stories in public. But because of the Fifth Amendment, the Chief won’t present a defense until the US Attorney has cleared her.
“Which is the best of both worlds for us,” says Rik. “We chew holes in these guys’ stories, using all the great stuff Pinky is developing.” He shoots me a smile, and I know better than to gulp. “Once the Feds decline to prosecute, if the City hasn’t dis- missed the case already, then you get on the stand and say, ‘This is all bull-pucky, I never had sex with any of these guys.’ ”
The Chief takes a long time, but the dimples are gone.
“Well, maybe that’s not exactly what I’d say,” she finally answers.
“Oh,” says Rik eventually.
The Chief studies her watch and says, “Let’s put a pin in this.” Rik asks me to walk her out. He’s still at the conference room table, massaging his temples, when I return. His eyes rise to me.
“Clients,” he says.