The Brass Verdict Excerpt
Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The victims lie.
A trial is a contest of lies. And everybody in the courtroom knows this. The judge knows this. Even the jury knows this. They come into the building knowing they will be lied to. They take their seats in the box and agree to be lied to.
The trick if you are sitting at the defense table is to be patient. To wait. Not for any lie. But for the one you can grab onto and forge like hot iron into a sharpened blade. You then use that blade to rip the case open and spill its guts out on the floor.
That’s my job, to forge the blade. To sharpen it. To use it without mercy or conscience. To be the truth in a place where everybody lies.
I was in my Lincoln driving toward Jerry Vincent’s office when I thought of something and called Lorna Taylor back. When she didn’t answer I called her cell and caught her in her car.
“I’m going to need an investigator. How would you feel if I called Cisco?”
There was a hesitation before she answered. Cisco was Dennis Wojciechowski, her significant other as of the last year. I was the one who had introduced them when I had used him on a case. Last I heard, they were now living together.
“Well, I have no problem working with Cisco. But I wish you would tell me what this is all about.”
Lorna knew Jerry Vincent as a voice on the phone. It was she who would take his calls when he was checking to see if I could stand in on a sentence or baby-sit a client through an arraignment. I couldn’t remember if they had ever met in person. I had wanted to tell her the news in person but things were moving too quickly for that.
“Jerry Vincent is dead.”
“He was murdered last night and I’m getting first shot at all of his cases. Including Walter Elliot.”
She was silent for a long moment before responding.
“My God . . . how? He was such a nice man.”
“I couldn’t remember if you had ever met him.”
Lorna worked out of her condo in West Hollywood. All my calls and billing went through her. If there was a brick and mortar office for the law firm of Michael Haller and Associates then her place was it. But there weren’t any associates and when I worked, my office was the back seat of my car. This left few occasions for Lorna to meet face to face with any of the people I represented or associated with.
“He came to our wedding, don’t you remember?”
“That’s right. I forgot.”
“I can’t believe this. What happened?”
“I don’t know. Holder said he was shot in the garage at his office. Maybe I’ll find out something when I get there.”
“Did he have a family?”
“I think he was divorced but I don’t know if there were kids or what. I don’t think so.”
Lorna didn’t say anything. We both had our own thoughts occupying us.
“Let me go so I can call Cisco,” I finally said. “Do you know what he’s doing today?”
“No, he didn’t say.”
“All right, I’ll see.”
“What kind of sandwich do you want?”
“Which way you coming?”
“Stop at Dusty’s and get me one of those turkey sandwiches with cranberry sauce. It’s been almost a year since I’ve had one of those.”
“You got it.”
“And get something for Cisco in case he’s hungry.”
I hung up and looked up the number for Dennis Wojciechowski in the address book I keep in the center console compartment. I had his cell phone. When he answered I heard a mixture of wind and exhaust blast in the phone. He was on his bike and even though I knew his helmet was set up with an earpiece and mike attached to his cell, I had to yell.
“It’s Mickey Haller. Pull over.”
I waited and heard him cut the engine on his ’63 pan head.
“What’s up, Mick?” he asked when it finally got quiet. “Haven’t heard from you in a long time.”
“You gotta put the baffles back in your pipes, man. Or you’ll be deaf before you’re forty and then you won’t be hearing from anybody.”
“I’m already past forty and I hear you just fine. What’s going on?”
Wojciechowski was a freelance defense investigator I had used on a few cases before. That was how he had met Lorna, collecting his pay. But I had known him for more than ten years before that because of his association with the Road Saints motorcycle club, a group for which I served as a de facto house counsel for several years. Dennis never flew RSMC colors but was considered an associate member. The group even bestowed a nickname on him, largely because there was already a Dennis in the membership – known, of course, as Dennis the Menace – and his last name Wojciechowski was intolerably difficult to pronounce. Riffing off his dark looks and mustache they christened him the Cisco Kid. It didn’t matter that he was one hundred percent Polish out of the south side of Milwaukee.
Cisco was a big, imposing man but he kept his nose clean while riding with the Saints. He never caught an arrest record and that paid off when he later applied to the state for his private investigator’s license. Now, many years later, the long hair was gone and the mustache was trimmed and going gray. But the name Cisco and the penchant for riding classic Harleys built in his hometown had stuck for life.
Cisco was a thorough and thoughtful investigator. And he had another value as well. He was big and strong and could be physically intimidating when necessary. That was an attribute that could be highly useful when tracking down and dealing with people who fluttered around the edges of a criminal case.
“First of all, where are you?” I asked.
“You on a case?”
“No, just a ride. Why, you got something for me? You taking on a case finally?”
“A lot of cases. And I’m going to need an investigator.”
I gave him the address of Vincent’s office and told him to meet me there as soon as he could. I knew that Vincent would have used either a stable of investigators or just one in particular, and that there might be a loss of time as Cisco got up to speed on the cases, but all of that was okay with me. I wanted an investigator I could trust and already had a working relationship with. I was also going to need Cisco to immediately start work by running down the locations of my new clients. My experience with criminal defendants is that they are not always found at the addresses they put down on the client info sheet when they first sign up for legal representation.
After closing the phone I realized I had driven right by the building where Vincent’s office was located. It was on Broadway near Third Street and it was too crowded with cars and pedestrians to attempt a U-turn. I wasted ten minutes working my way back to it, catching red lights at every corner. By the time I got to the right place I was so frustrated that I had resolved to hire a driver again as soon as possible so that I could concentrate on cases instead of addresses.
Vincent’s office was in a six-story structure simply called The Legal Center. Being so close to the main downtown courthouses – both criminal and civil – meant it was a building full of trial lawyers. Just the kind of place most cops and doctors probably wished would implode every time there was an earthquake. I saw the opening for the parking garage next door and pulled in.
As I was taking the ticket out of the machine a uniformed police officer approached my car. He was carrying a clipboard.
“Sir? Do you have business in the building here?”
“That’s why I’m parking here.”
“Sir, could you state your business?”
“What business is it of yours, Officer?”
“Sir, we are conducting a crime scene investigation in the garage and I need to know your business before I can allow you in.”
“My office is in the building,” I said. “Will that do?”
It wasn’t exactly a lie. I had Judge Holder’s court order in my coat pocket. That gave me an office in the building.
The answer seemed to work. The cop asked to see my ID and I could’ve argued that he had no right to request my identification but decided that there was no need to make a federal case out of it. I pulled my wallet, gave him the ID and he wrote my name and driver’s license number down on his clipboard. Then he let me through.
“At the moment there’s no parking on the second level,” he said. “They haven’t cleared the scene.”
I waved and headed up the ramp. When I reached the second floor I saw that it was empty of vehicles except for two patrol cars and a black BMW coupe that was being hauled onto the bed of a truck from the police garage. Jerry Vincent’s car, I assumed. Two other uniformed cops were just beginning to pull down the yellow crime scene tape that had been used to cordon off the parking level. One of them signaled for me to keep going. I saw no detectives around but the police weren’t giving up the murder scene just yet.
I kept going up and didn’t find a space I could fit the Lincoln into until I got to the fifth floor. One more reason I needed to get a driver again.
The office I was looking for was on the second floor at the front of the building. The opaque glass door was closed but not locked. I entered a reception room with an empty sitting area and a nearby counter behind which sat a woman whose eyes were red from crying. She was on the phone but when she saw me she put it down on the counter without so much as a “hold on” to whomever she was talking to.
“Are you with the police?” she asked.
“No, I’m not,” I replied.
“Then I’m sorry, the office is closed today.”
I approached the counter, pulling the court order from Judge Holder out of the inside pocket of my suit coat.
“Not for me,” I said as I handed it to her.
She unfolded the document and stared at it but didn’t seem to be reading it. I noticed that in one of her hands she clutched a wad of tissues.
“What is this?” she asked.
“That’s a court order,” I said. “My name is Michael Haller and Judge Holder has appointed me replacement counsel in regard to Jerry Vincent’s clients. That means we’ll be working together. You can call me Mickey.”
She shook her head as if warding off some invisible threat. My name usually didn’t carry that sort of power.
“You can’t do this. Mr. Vincent wouldn’t want this.”
I took the court papers out of her hand and refolded them. I started putting the document back into my pocket.
“Actually, I can. The chief judge of Los Angeles Superior Court has directed me to do this. And if you look closely at the contracts of representation that Mr. Vincent had his clients sign you will find my name already on them listed as associate counsel. So, what you think Mr. Vincent would have wanted is immaterial at this point because he did in fact file the papers that named me his replacement should he become incapacitated or . . . dead.”
The woman had a dazed look on her face. Her mascara was heavy and running beneath one eye. It gave her an uneven, almost comical look. For some reason a vision of Liza Minelli jumped up in my mind.
“If you want you can call Judge Holder’s clerk and talk about it with her,” I said. “Meantime, I really need to get started here. I know this has been a very difficult day for you. It’s been difficult for me – I knew Jerry going back to his days at the DA. So you have my sympathy.”
I nodded and looked at her and waited for a response but still wasn’t getting one. I pressed on.
“I’m going to need some things to get started here. First of all, his calendar. I want to put together a list of all the active cases Jerry was handling. Then I’m going to need you to pull the files for those – ”
“It’s gone,” she said abruptly.
“His laptop. The police told me whoever did this took his briefcase out of the car. He kept everything on his laptop.”
“You mean his calendar? He didn’t keep a hard copy?”
“That’s gone, too. They took his portfolio. That was in the briefcase.”
Her eyes were staring blankly ahead. I tapped the top of the computer screen on her desk.
“What about this computer?” I asked. “Didn’t he back up his calendar anywhere?”
She didn’t say anything so I asked again.
“Did Jerry back up his calendar anywhere else? Is there any way to access it?”
She finally looked up at me and seemed to take pleasure in responding.
“I didn’t keep the calendar. He did. He kept it all on his laptop and he kept a hard copy in the old portfolio he carried. But they’re both gone. The police made me look everywhere in here but they’re gone.”
I nodded. The missing calendar was going to be a problem but it wasn’t insurmountable.
“What about files? Did he have any in the briefcase?”
“I don’t think so. He kept all the files here.”
“Okay, good. What we’re going to have to do is pull all the active cases and rebuild the calendar from the files. I’ll also need to see any ledgers or checkbooks pertaining to the trust and operating accounts.”
She looked up at me sharply.
“You’re not going to take his money.”
“It’s not –”
I stopped, took a deep breath, and then started again in a calm but direct tone.
“First of all, I apologize. I did this backwards. I don’t even know your name. Let’s start over. What is your name?”
“Wren? Wren what?”
“Okay, Wren, let me explain something. It’s not his money. It’s his clients’ money and until they say otherwise, his clients are now my clients. Do you understand? Now I have told you that I am aware of the emotional upheaval of the day and the shock you are experiencing. I’m experiencing some of it myself. But you need to decide right now if you are with me or against me, Wren. Because if you are with me, I need you to get me the things I asked for. And I’m going to need you to work with my case manager when she gets here. If you are against me, then I need you just to go home right now.”
She slowly shook her head.
“The detectives told me I had to stay until they were finished.”
“What detectives? There were only a couple uniforms left out there when I drove in.”
“The detectives in Mr. Vincent’s office.”
“You let – ”
I didn’t finish. I stepped around the counter and headed toward two separate doors on the back wall. I picked the one on the left and opened it.
I walked into Jerry Vincent’s office. It was large and opulent and empty. I turned in a full circle until I found myself staring into the bugged eyes of a large fish mounted on the wall over a dark wood credenza next to the door I had come through. The fish was a beautiful green with a white underbelly. Its body was arched as if it had frozen solid just at the moment it had jumped out of the water. Its mouth was open so wide I could have put my fist in it.
Mounted on the wall beneath the fish was a brass plate. It said:
If I’d Kept My Mouth Shut I Wouldn’t Be Here
Words to live by, I thought. Most criminal defendants talk their way into prison. Few talk their way out. The best single piece of advice I have ever given a client is to just keep your mouth shut. Talk to no one about your case, not even your own wife. You keep close counsel with yourself. You take the nickel and you live to fight another day.
The unmistakable sound of a metal drawer being rolled and then banged closed spun me back around. On the other side of the room were two more doors. Both were open about a foot and through one I could see a darkened bathroom. Through the other I could see light.
I approached the lighted room quickly and pushed the door all the way open. It was the file room, a large, windowless walk-in closet with rows of steel filing cabinets going down both sides. There was a small work table set up against the back wall.
There were two men sitting at the work table. One old, one young. Probably one to teach and one to learn. They had their jackets off and draped over the chairs. I saw their guns and holsters and their badges clipped to their belts.
“What are you doing?” I asked gruffly.
The men looked up from their reading. I saw a stack of files on the table between them. The older detective’s eyes momentarily widened in surprise when he saw me.
“LAPD,” he said. “And I guess I should ask you the same question.”
“Those are my files and you’re going to have to put them down right now.”
The older man stood up and came toward me. I started pulling the court order from my jacket again.
“My name is – ”
“I know who you are,” the detective said. “But I still don’t know what you’re doing here.”
I handed him the court order.
“Then this should explain it. I’ve been appointed by the chief judge of the Superior Court as replacement counsel to Jerry Vincent’s clients. That means his cases are now my cases. And you have no right to be in here looking through files. That is a clear violation of my clients’ rights to protection against unlawful search and seizure. These files contain privileged attorney-client communications and information.”
The detective didn’t bother looking at the paperwork. He quickly flipped through it to the signature and seal on the last page. He didn’t seem all that impressed.
“Vincent’s been murdered,” he said. “The motive could be sitting in one of these files. The identity of the killer could be in one of them. We have to – ”
“No, you don’t. What you have to do is get out of this file room right now.”
The detective didn’t move a muscle.
“I consider this part of a crime scene,” he said. “It’s you who has to leave.”
“Read the order, Detective. I’m not going anywhere. Your crime scene is out in the garage and no judge in L.A. would let you extend it to this office and these files. It’s time for you to leave and for me to take care of my clients.”
He made no move to read the court order or to vacate the premises.
“If I leave,” he said, “I’m going to shut this place down and seal it.”
I hated getting into pissing matches with cops but sometimes there was no choice.
“You do that and I’ll have it unsealed in an hour. And you’ll be standing in front of the chief judge of the superior court explaining how you trampled on the rights of every one of Vincent’s clients. You know, depending on how many clients we’re talking about, that might be a record – even for the LAPD.”
The detective smiled at me like he was mildly amused by my threats. He held up the court order.
“You say this gives you all of these cases?”
“That’s right, for now.”
“The entire law practice?”
“Yes, but each client will decide whether to stick with me or find someone else.”
“Well, I guess that puts you on our list.”
“Our suspect list.”
“That’s ridiculous. Why would I be on it?”
“You just told us why. You inherited all of the victim’s clients. That’s got to amount to some sort of a financial windfall, doesn’t it? He’s dead and you get the whole business. Think that’s enough motivation for murder? Care to tell us where you were last night between eight and midnight?”
He grinned at me again without any warmth, giving me that practiced cop’s smile of judgment. His brown eyes were so dark I couldn’t see the line between iris and pupil. Like shark eyes, they didn’t seem to carry or reflect any light.
“I’m not even going to begin to explain how ludicrous that is,” I said. “But for starters you can check with the judge and you’ll find out that I didn’t even know I was in line for this.”
“So you say. But don’t worry, we’ll be checking you out completely.”
“Good. Now please leave this room or I make the call to the judge.”
The detective stepped back to the table and took his jacket off the chair. He carried it rather than put it on. He picked a file up off the table and brought it toward me. He shoved it into my chest until I took it from him.
“Here’s one of your new files back, Counselor. Don’t choke on it.”
He stepped through the door and his partner followed him. I followed them out into the office and decided to take a shot at reducing the tension. I had a feeling it wouldn’t be the last time I saw them.
“Look, detectives, I’m sorry it’s like this. I try to have a good relationship with the police and I am sure we can work something out. But at the moment my obligation is to the clients. I don’t even know what I have here. Give me some time to – ”
“We don’t have time,” the older man said. “We lose momentum and we lose the case. Do you understand what you’re getting yourself into here, Counselor?”
I looked at him for a moment, trying to understand the meaning behind his question.
“I think so, Detective. I’ve only been working cases for about eighteen years but– ”
“I’m not talking about your experience. I’m talking about what happened in that garage. Whoever killed Vincent was waiting for him out there. They knew where he was and just how to get to him. He was ambushed.”
I nodded like I understood.
“If I were you,” the detective said, “I’d watch myself with those new clients of yours. Jerry Vincent knew his killer.”
“What about when he was a prosecutor? He put people in prison. Maybe one of– ”
“We’ll check into it. But that was a long time ago. I think the person we’re looking for is in those files.”
With that he and his partner started moving toward the door.
“Wait,” I said. “You have a card? Give me a card.”
The detectives stopped and turned back. The older one pulled a card out of his pocket and gave it to me.
“That’s got all my numbers.”
“Let me just get the lay of the land here and then I’ll call and set something up. There’s got to be a way for us to cooperate and still not trample on anybody’s rights.”
“Whatever you say, you’re the lawyer.”
I nodded and looked down at the name on the card. Harry Bosch. I was sure I had never met the man before, yet he had started the confrontation by saying he knew who I was.
“Look, Detective Bosch,” I said. “Jerry Vincent was a colleague. We weren’t that close but we were friends.”
“And good luck, you know? With the case. I hope you crack it.”
Bosch nodded and there was something familiar about the physical gesture. Maybe we did know each other.
He turned to follow his partner out of the office.
Bosch once more turned back to me.
“Did we ever cross paths on a case before? I think I recognize you.”
Bosch smiled glibly and shook his head.
“No,” he said. “If we’d been on a case, you’d remember me.”