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NOT ONE OF
A woman, a dog,
and a hickory tree.
The more you beat them,
the better they be.
—SIXTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLISH PROVERB
Monday, Spring 1976
I was late.
It was because of my dark, naturally curly hair. The alarm at my bedside had gone off at six a.m. and I'd thrown on a pair of running shorts, a tie-dyed T-shirt, and done a three-mile jog, returning in plenty of time to get to work at the Westchester County Courthouse. But when I'd looked into the mirror while cooling down, I'd seen the face of Janis Joplin staring back at me after one of her whiskey-and-drug-fueled concerts. I'd been a sweaty disaster with an out-of-control mane. A shower and wash had only made it worse. I'd been forced to flop my head on my ironing board and iron my locks to get them under control.
I'd only run one red light—in my opinion it was set too long between changes anyway—before reaching the courthouse's parking lot at 8:10 a.m., where I slipped into a row of spaces reserved for courthouse workers.
My name is Dani Fox and I've been an assistant district attorney for about a year. At age twenty-five, I'm young for the job. But that is not unusual for me. I'd come into this world in a rush and had no intention of slowing down. I'm currently the only female assistant district attorney in Westchester County. One hundred ten male lawyers and me.
Westchester County was America's first real suburb. It's just north of New York City and the Long Island Sound. Many of our residents commute to work in Manhattan each day. They used to live in the city but they moved here to start families. What many of them didn't leave behind was their New York attitudes. Our county is the second richest in the state. Only Manhattan's got more money. And our wealthier and more sophisticated residents aren't shy about letting you know that if you're a public servant, you work for them. Because of our county's close ties to Manhattan, there are challenges here that are a bit different from those that a prosecutor in Topeka faces. I'm not saying the district attorney in Kansas doesn't feel the same pressures as Carlton Whitaker III, our district attorney, whenever he's prosecuting a headline-breaking case.
But to quote The Great Gatsby's Nick Carraway, "The rich are different from you and me."
Mostly, because they have more money.
And with their money, they can hire fleets of Manhattan's finest lawyers to make the forty-five-minute drive along the Henry Hudson Parkway north to White Plains in a cavalcade of black limos to rescue them.
There's another side to Westchester County as well. The landscape is dotted with lower-income neighborhoods where blue-collar workers struggle to pay bills and kids grow up on mean streets. In these areas a drug called cocaine is exerting a deadly grip.
Justice in Westchester County is dispensed to the rich and the poor alike in our new nineteen-story courthouse, one of the tallest buildings in White Plains. It was the first project in a massive urban renewal program approved in the 1960s that has pretty much destroyed the original village-like character of our community. It's fitting that the stark design of our courthouse is called Brutalist architecture. That refers to the building's concrete-and-stucco exterior and its strikingly repetitive angular design with rows of identical windows. But I also think that tag describes how some of the masses who flow through its doors are treated. We call it the Criminal Justice System, giving the creeps top billing. I think it should be the Victims' Justice System. If I sound a bit touchy about all of this, it's because I am. Only, I prefer to call it passion. I don't like it when the meek are preyed upon. The Bible may say the meek are going to inherit the earth, but until God reaches down and signs over the deed, it's my job as a prosecutor to protect them.
I've never wanted to be anything other than a prosecutor. Even as a kid when I was watching Perry Mason on television, I'd root for Mason's district attorney rival, Hamilton Burger, hoping that he would win at least one case. After a while, you had to wonder how Burger kept getting reelected, given that every time Mason defended a client, it turned out that the D.A.'s office had been bamboozled and was trying to convict the wrong guy. I especially enjoyed how the guilty leaped up in court and confessed. That doesn't happen in real courtrooms—particularly if there is a defense attorney within reach.
Even though I am an assistant D.A., I haven't officially been given a chance to try any bad guys in court. That's because I'm assigned to our office's equivalent of Siberia. All the male lawyers who were hired at the same time as I was were immediately sent to the criminal courts division to prosecute cases. But D.A. Carlton Whitaker III, in his infinite wisdom, assigned me to the appeals bureau. He doesn't believe a woman has the killer, go-for-the-jugular instinct that you need to win in court. One day I am going to prove him wrong.
Whitaker, my boss, can actually be a pretty decent guy. He's just part of an old boys' network that thinks a woman's place is in the kitchen or the bedroom but certainly not trying cases in the hallowed halls of justice. When he hired me, he said he really didn't have a choice. He had to meet a quota; or, as he put it, "I was forced to find a girl lawyer somewhere." So much for being magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and on Law Review at Albany Law.
I spend my days reading court transcripts of trials that some male attorney prosecuted. Once convicted, the guilty of course have the right to appeal, and it's up to me to review what happened during their trials and explain to an appellate court why the guilty got exactly what they had coming to them.
What I do is important, but I want to get into a courtroom to try a case so badly I can barely stand it.
As I hurried across the parking lot on this bright sunny morning, up the sidewalk toward the courthouse's door, I spotted Westchester County judge Michael Morano a few steps ahead of me. I actually didn't see his face. Rather it was the back of his head that gave him away. A tall, thin man, Judge Morano had bushy salt-and-pepper hair divided equally on either side of his head with a bald streak down the center that reminded me of a bowling alley. I'd encountered him many times in the courthouse hallways but we'd never been formally introduced. At age sixty-three, he was one of our county's most senior judges and was known for his crackerjack legal mind and disagreeable temperament. He wasn't a happy man. Behind his robe, everyone called him "Miserable Morano" or "Misery" for short. In addition to his distinctive hair, he had massive bushy eyebrows that moved when he spoke, making it appear as if he had two woolly caterpillars doing push-ups on his forehead.
I entered the courthouse behind him and by chance stepped into the same elevator. There we were, just the two of us, with him looking straight ahead. I decided I wasn't going to let his gruff reputation intimidate me.
"Good morning, Judge Morano," I said cheerfully.
He gave me a puzzled look. "Young lady, do I know you?"
"I'm Dani Fox, an assistant district attorney."
He replied with an ambiguous grunt.
As the door opened to his floor, I said, "I hope someday to prosecute a case in your courtroom."
He glanced at me with contempt and said, "It's unlikely, my dear. I handle serious matters."
As soon as the elevator door closed, I made a sour face and repeated in a snickering voice: "It's unlikely, my dear. I handle serious matters." What an arrogant jerk, I thought.
I don't deal regularly with police detectives, which is why I was surprised when I arrived at my cubicle and found White Plains police detective Tommy O'Brien sitting in my chair, talking on my phone with his feet propped up and his well-worn shoes resting on my desk.
Just as I hadn't been properly introduced to Judge Morano, I'd never been introduced to O'Brien. But I'd read transcripts of testimony in the appellate division that he'd given in dozens of high-profile criminal cases and seen him in the halls. He was a street-smart cop who—how should I put this—didn't have a high opinion of lawyers. Or to be blunt, the guy was an "old school" Irish cop.
He certainly looked the part. Although only in his early fifties, O'Brien looked older. Tired. Twice divorced, he had a watermelon belly that draped over the two-inch-wide brown belt that kept his J. C. Penney black slacks in place. He was wearing a shabby navy blazer, a white shirt with its frayed collar unbuttoned, and an ugly maroon tie that he'd undoubtedly gotten as a Christmas present in an office exchange. There was a bald spot inching its way forward from the back of his huge skull and his once-bright red hair was now specked with gray. He had a toothpick protruding from the corner of his lips. He was one of those men who could use the term "doll" or "honey" or "gal" and not realize how archaic it sounded.
When I'd first arrived at Albany Law School, the female students used the term "FEK" when they talked about men who were like Detective O'Brien. When I finally asked what the acronym meant, they said it was not a compliment. It referred to these men's Neanderthal outlook. Whenever they encountered something new, they tried to fuck it, eat it, or kill it.
The only male figure in my life of that generation was my father, Leo, and he wasn't anything like that. Dad was kind, humble, and he loved to laugh. But the older women warned me that I would be encountering a lot of FEKs once I became a lawyer, regardless of whether I went to work in a high-priced law firm or chose the public route.
O'Brien showed no sign of removing his ample posterior from my office chair, but he did lift his feet from my desk and leaned forward, jabbing a manila envelope at me as if it were a knife—all the while continuing the conversation that he was having on my phone.
Placing my leather briefcase, a gift from my mother, on the industrial-grade white tile floor, I accepted his packet and shot him a glare that was meant to say: "Okay, Detective, I'll look inside your envelope, but get your butt the hell out of my chair."
O'Brien either didn't get my social cue or didn't care. From his comments into the phone, it sounded as if he was speaking to a woman.
Still waiting in front of my own desk, I slipped open the envelope and removed a handful of eight-by-ten glossy, color photographs. The pictures showed a woman's face. Her eyes were swollen shut, her nose seemed broken, her lips were puffed out, her jaw was askew, and her cheeks were varying shades of black and blue. From the photographs, I estimated she was in her twenties, although her appearance had been so brutalized that I couldn't be certain. Several more photographs showed there were no visible marks on the rest of her body, which meant her attacker had focused exclusively on her face. Whoever did this wanted to make her ugly and remind her every day when she looked into her mirror that he'd done it. This was a crime of emotion. Why would a stranger beat her so savagely? This attack must have been personal. Someone she knew had done this to her.
Having finally finished his conversation, O'Brien put down the phone receiver and nodded toward the packet of photos. "He worked her over good this time," he announced, without identifying who "he" was, but implying that "he" had delivered this sort of beating before.
Nor did O'Brien vacate my chair.
I asked: "Who's 'he'?"
"Her husband, Rudy Hitchins," O'Brien replied. "She's Mary Margaret Hitchins, age twenty-four. Tends bar, or did until yesterday, at O'Toole's, down on Mamaroneck Avenue."
O'Toole's was a favorite watering hole for cops but I'd never been there. I'd never been invited.
O'Brien said, "Rudy's a raging asshole—a jealous prick and he don't like cops. Mary Margaret, well, she is—or was—a real looker before he decided to rearrange her face."
I slipped the photographs back into the envelope and pointed out the obvious: "Detective, you're sitting in my chair."
O'Brien gave me a look-over, running his eyes from my knees to my face, all the while twirling the toothpick in his mouth with his right thumb and forefinger. He didn't say anything and I thought this practiced scrutiny was probably an intimidation tool that he used whenever he was interviewing a suspect or a witness. Reluctantly, he rose from my chair.
I edged by him and sat down. I noticed that in addition to using my phone, chair, and desk, he'd eaten all the candy in a bowl near the phone. Sweets are one of my vices. Thankfully, I have a metabolism that lets me satisfy my taste for chocolate yet weigh in at 105 pounds at five feet four inches.
Now he was the one standing at the side of my desk. "A few of the regulars at O'Toole's wanted to deal with Rudy on our own. But the prick would only take it out on her later if he got what he deserved and he's the sort of asshole who'd hire a lawyer and go after our badges if we taught him a lesson. Besides, he's not really the type who can be educated." He paused and then added, "There's a few other complications, too."
"Mary Margaret is knocked up and rumor is it's not his kid. That's what pissed him off."
"So who's the real father?"
O'Brien shrugged, indicating that it wasn't really important. But I was quiet for a moment and that awkward silence apparently loosened his tongue. "I guess the father could be a cop. Mary Margaret, well, she's a flirt at the bar, makes lots of tips that way."
"A cop got her pregnant?"
"I'm not saying that. The kid's probably Hitchins's, okay? But, like I said, she's a popular girl at the bar—if you catch my drift. And if the kid is a cop's and the cop is married …" His voice trailed off.
"Why are you showing me these photographs?"
"Because you're the only gal who works here. We figure this is a female thing."
"No," I said firmly. "It's not a female thing, Detective. It's an assault thing. Rudy Hitchins should be put in jail for what he did to her. But he hasn't broken any laws here because it's not against the law in New York for a man to beat his wife—we both know that. Especially if he accuses her of cheating on him and getting pregnant by another man."
O'Brien said, "Hold on, Counselor. No one is talking about filing criminal charges here. Me and the boys, we just thought maybe you could go talk to her in the hospital and tell her to leave town, maybe start over someplace new. Just get away from Rudy because of her situation with the baby and all."
"What?" I said incredulously. "You want her to leave town because he beat her?"
"Hey, let's get real here. It's not like she's got a lot of options. You're from the D.A.'s office so she might listen to you, especially if you told her it'd just be better for everyone if she left White Plains and had her baby."
I hesitated, not certain I should ask the next question, but since he wanted my help, I needed to know what I was getting into. "Detective, why do you know so much about Rudy and Mary Margaret Hitchins? This baby, it isn't yours, is it?"
A look of anger washed over O'Brien's face. I'd clearly hit a nerve.
"No," he snapped. "I didn't fuck this broad. I know Rudy because I've busted his ass a half-dozen times. And I've talked to her at the bar. She's a sweet kid. That's it."
"Okay, so tell me about Hitchins."
During the next several minutes, O'Brien described how Hitchins had grown up poor in a White Plains neighborhood and moved quickly through juvenile correctional facilities into adult ones. At age thirty, Hitchins's most recent arrest was for an afternoon robbery at a White Plains jewelry store on Mamaroneck Avenue. Along with three thugs, Hitchins had burst into the store in broad daylight. Three of the robbers had smashed the glass display cases with hammers, scooping up diamond rings, precious jewels, and watches. The fourth had held the owner and clerks at gunpoint. For some bizarre macho reason, three of the robbers had not been wearing masks. But the fourth had concealed his face. Detectives had identified and arrested the three without masks. But the masked gunman—who they were certain was Hitchins—had slipped through their hands.
"Hitchins is a murderer waiting to strike—if he hasn't already done one," O'Brien said casually. "The punk can't stay out of trouble. Meanwhile, Mary Margaret needs to get out of town. She might not be so lucky next time."
Lucky? I thought. He nearly beat her to death and she's lucky?
O'Brien said, "She's over at White Plains Hospital in Intensive Care if you want to pay her a visit. Me and the guys, well, we'd appreciate it."
He started to leave.
"Wait," I said, holding up the envelope with the grisly photos.
Removing his toothpick, O'Brien glanced over his shoulder at me and said, "Keep 'em. Tell Mary Margaret when you see her—the guys down at the bar are thinking of her."
Although no one in my office had given me permission to get involved, I made up an excuse, ducked out the door, and headed to the White Plains Hospital at 41 East Post Road. I drive a British green Triumph TR6 sports car. It was my first splurge after I got hired and had a regular paycheck. On such a beautiful morning, I would have been tempted to put the top down, but after being forced to iron my hair that morning, there was no way I was going to take that chance.
I'd bought my car at an English import dealership but it had taken me two trips to find the right one—not the car, but the right salesman. The first one tried to steer me toward a white MGB, explaining that Triumphs were considered masculine because the TR6 came with a six-cylinder engine, as opposed to the standard four in an MGB. The boxy shape of the Triumph screamed male, he warned, especially when compared to the soft curves of the MGB. Hearing that had ended our discussion. I actually drove thirty miles over the Tappan Zee Bridge to a different dealership to buy my Triumph. I hate when men pigeonhole women.
You can blame my father for my taste in sports cars. Leo was a salesman by trade and a car buff by choice. He especially admired sleek European race cars. Dad died of cancer not long after I was hired as an assistant district attorney and one of my deepest regrets is that he never got a chance to watch me prosecute a defendant in court.
As I was walking to the hospital entrance, a car came to a screeching stop, nearly hitting me. I looked, assuming someone in it was injured. But the driver stepped nonchalantly from one of the ugliest vehicles that I'd ever seen. He'd clearly customized his 1973 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Half of its roof was covered with white vinyl and the car's body had been spray painted a brilliant gold and then flecked with silver. The wheels were chrome. You might have expected to see it on a seedy Times Square side street being driven by a pimp, but not here in White Plains.
The car's owner seemed equally out of place. Recent issues of movie magazines had published photographs of John Travolta's upcoming release called Saturday Night Fever and the driver was clearly mimicking the actor's disco-dancing character. The top buttons of his black silk shirt were undone, exposing his dark chest hair. He was wearing a white three-piece suit, white leather shoes, and had a half-dozen gold chains dangling from his neck. As he shut the door, he leaned down to speak through the open window to a woman with bottle-blond hair.
"If the cops bug you, tell 'em I'm coming right out," he said as he left the Monte Carlo parked next to a No Parking sign. He began walking toward me and the hospital's entrance, but something caught his eye. It was a nearby trash can that contained a ditched bouquet of spring flowers. Snatching up the drooping flowers, he plucked off a few dead petals and headed inside.
I followed and walked to the receptionist's desk while Disco Man and his bouquet marched to an elevator.
"Can you tell me if Mary Margaret Hitchins is still in ICU?" I asked the receptionist, a fresh-faced candy striper.
She said, "Mrs. Hitchins was moved into a private room last night. It's on the fifth floor, room five-o-five."
The elevator doors announced my arrival on the fifth floor with a loud ding. I stepped onto a gray tile floor with pink and green specks and was immediately hit with the strong smell of antiseptic. A plastic sign attached to a pale green wall pointed me to the nurses' station, where a uniformed woman wearing a name tag that read Susan RN was working. When she glanced up from a medical chart, I said, "Hi, I'm from the district attorney's office and need to speak to Mary Margaret Hitchins—if she's up to seeing visitors."
Before Susan RN could reply, an angry male voice yelled: "Go to hell! Both of you!" It was followed by the sound of cracking glass.
Nurse Susan darted down the corridor with me in pursuit. As we reached the doorway to Room 505, Disco Man burst out into the hallway, almost smacking into Nurse Susan. Red-faced, he stomped to the elevator without acknowledging us.
We rushed into the room.
An older woman was hovering near a hospital bed where a young woman was lying. The patient's face was a mask of bandages. An IV bag hung next to her left arm and an electronic monitor tracked her vital signs with flashing yellow, green, and blue lights. I guessed this was Mary Margaret Hitchins and noticed that her swollen eyes, visible through a slit in the white gauze covering her face, were closed. She was either asleep or unconscious.
Addressing Nurse Susan, the older woman said, "I don't want that animal allowed in here again! He's got no right after what he did to my baby girl."
I put the woman at about forty-two, a real beanpole, standing at least five feet ten in flats. Only she seemed even taller because she'd teased her dyed black hair into a B-52 beehive—a popular hairdo fifteen years ago. Although she wasn't that old, her face was a road map of wrinkles and her husky voice suggested she was at least a two-pack-a-day smoker. This, I assumed, was Mary Margaret's mother.
Judging from the yelling, profanity, and shattered water glass on the room's floor, I further assumed that Disco Man's visit had gone poorly. The discarded bouquet that he'd so lovingly plucked from the trash can was scattered on the tiles, too.
Two plus two told me that Disco Man was Rudy Hitchins.
Nurse Susan said, "I'll get someone to come clean this mess," as she stepped gingerly over the broken glass after quickly checking the IV and vital-signs monitor connected to Mary Margaret. Satisfied, she slipped by me out the door. The older woman noticed me and asked: "Who are you?"
"My name is Dani Fox. I'm an assistant district attorney from the Westchester County district attorney's office. I've come to speak to Mary Margaret."
The woman replied, "She can't speak to no one right now because of what that bastard done to her face. He broke her jaw."
I asked, "And you are?"
"I'm Rebecca Finn. Her mother."
I looked again at Mary Margaret's eyes. She seemed oblivious.
Mrs. Finn said, "They drugged her up with painkillers. She's out of it. Thank God! He busted her nose this time and then he has the nerve to come in here with flowers like he cares about her. I ain't stupid." She hesitated and then asked, "My daughter's not in any trouble, is she?"
"Oh no," I replied.
"Then why are you here? Do you know my daughter?"
I explained that Mary Margaret was well liked at O'Toole's pub, especially by the police. "A detective asked me to look in on her."
Mrs. Finn said, "She's pregnant, you know."
I faked a surprised look. "This isn't the first time that he's beat her, is it?"
A flash of suspicion appeared in Mrs. Finn's eyes. I couldn't tell if she wanted to be cautious because she was speaking to a prosecutor or if she was afraid she might say something that might anger Rudy Hitchins. Hoping to reassure her, I said, "I don't think Rudy Hitchins should get away with this. He should be in jail. But we don't have laws in New York yet that protect women from this sort of brutality."
"Damn shame," she replied.
"I came to speak to your daughter about her plans, after she's discharged. There are women's shelters here and in Manhattan especially for battered women, or maybe she could go somewhere on the Jersey shore where it's peaceful so she could have her baby and escape her problems for a while."
"She's only got one problem—that prick who hit her!"
"Do you have relatives living out of town where she could stay?"
- On Sale
- Jul 17, 2012
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Hachette Books