Istopped by my mother’s apartment early the next morning and stood at the door, briefcase in hand, as if it were a typical day and I still had a law firm to run. Hattie was rinsing the coffeepot at the sink, dressed but still in her rollers. Later she would press her hair with an old curling iron, and the acrid smell would fill the apartment, upsetting my mother and costing me two boxes of Kleenex. I always teased her about it, but I wouldn’t this morning.
“Hattie, I’ve been thinking about what you said. I decided you’re right about Mom. You want me to call the doctor?”
“No, I’ll call him.” She was rinsing out the pot again and again, her back to me. Her shirt saidI ’M A WINNER! and red dice were sequined on her scapula. “I got the time.”
“No, that’s all right.”
“You’re the one who’s busy. You got your apartment to fix up.”
“I cleaned up last night.”
“All of it? I heard the music, but I fell asleep.”
“It’s all taken care of.”
“I’ll call about your momma. I want to do it.”
“You sure now?”
We weren’t talking about the call, we were making up. Or at least trying to, as easy as that was without saying the words or even meeting each other’s eye. “If the appointments are early morning, how will you do it? You’ll have to get up early.”
“I’m up anyway. Makes no never mind.”
“I’ll help you get her up.”
“I can do that, too. I did it for the hospital, I can do it for the electroshock,” she said, finally twisting off the water and placing the glass pot in the coffeemaker. Her back was still to me, and I wanted to go before she turned around. I didn’t want to face her, because I was choking now, finding I couldn’t say what needed to be said. But she turned suddenly, her eyes dark and sorrowful, and said to me, “You have a good day, now.”
Thank you for smacking me last night, Hattie. I’ve never been smacked before. No one noticed how stupid I can be, or how careless my words.
“You too, Hattie,” I said, and left.
I started the day at Groan amp; Waste, so early that the receptionist on Sam’s floor wasn’t in yet. I powered past the secretaries’ empty workstations, ignoring the associates who were in at daybreak and walking around conspicuously enough to get credit for it. I never would’ve made it at Grun. When I get in early, I like to work. So does Sam, who was going full steam ahead when I walked into his office, his custom English suit bent over financial printouts.
“Bennie!Where have you been? How are you?” He leapt up when he saw me and came around to give me a hug.
“Sam,” I said, embracing him. His hug was a comfort, even though he was so fashionably thin.
“I didn’t sleep all night,” he said softly, giving me a final squeeze. Close up, his eyes were red-rimmed and his skin pale. He looked distraught, unhealthy. “Can you believe that Mark is dead?”
“Why didn’t you call me back? I was so worried. I stayed in, waiting.”
“I’m sorry, I had to clean.”
“What? You? Siddown and tell me what’s going on.” He pressed me into the sling chair across from his desk, taking the one next to it himself. “You want me to get you some coffee?” He waved at a Sylvester the Cat mug.
“No, thanks.” Grun coffee was even worse than mine.
“I can’t believe it.” Sam kept shaking his neat head. “Mark murdered, and you a suspect. But don’t worry, I have it all planned. I’m going to stop work at noon today, then take off for a few days. I canceled all my appointments, everything. I want to help.”
“Thanks.” Sam would be there for me, he always had been. Sometimes I thought we were all we had, a friendship of outsiders.
“Don’t thank me. Now, listen, I already talked to somebody about representing you.”
“I have a lawyer, Sam. I’m gonna use Grady Wells.”
He blinked. “Do I know that name?”
“He’s one of our associates. The Supreme Court clerk.”
“The blonde on TV with you? He’s cute, but is he a good criminal lawyer?”
“Yes, and forget about how cute he is. He has a girlfriend, at least he used to.”
“Figures. All the good ones are either married or straight.”
“Behave yourself.” I smiled despite my mood, and he smiled, too.
“What can I do? Can I help with your caseload? I can still write a brief, I think.” He raked his feathery haircut with a small hand, but there wasn’t enough hair to mess up.
“There is no caseload. My clients don’t want a murderer for a lawyer, they’re so conventional. I’m out of business.”
“What?” Sam looked appalled. “No R amp; B?”
“You got it.”
He shook his head, disbelieving. “And what about Mark’s funeral? What’s happening with it?”
“I don’t think I can do much, given my position. You may have to plan it, if Eve hasn’t already. I thought about it last night.”
“I’ll do it, don’t worry. A nice memorial service. Believe me, I can plan a memorial service.” He smiled sadly, his shoulders slumping. “Have you thought about who… did it?”
“I’m starting to.” I remembered my purpose in coming here. “The cops think it’s me because of Mark’s will. Why didn’t you tell me he had a will, Sam?”
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t. It was privileged.” He swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple moving visibly in a slender neck. “Besides, I thought Mark would tell you. It was his place.”
“Why did you draft Mark’s will?”
“He asked me to.” Sam edged back onto his chair. “When R amp; B grew, Mark started to think ahead. Right after his parents died, he said he needed a will. He told me the size of the estate and asked me if I knew any good estates lawyers at Grun. I told him I could do it for him.”
“I didn’t know you did estates work, especially for such big estates.”
“Sure I do. Estates, some tax, even some corporate. I like to keep my billings up, and estates that big don’t come along everyday. I wasn’t about to refer it. What am I, stupid?”
I remembered Grady’s suspicions. “But did you really need the business, Sam? I thought you had plenty of clients.”
“I do, but I could always use more. I’ve developed my own practice group. A firm-within-the-firm, a small business practice. Take them from incorporation to bankruptcy-cradle to grave-and do estates work for the principals.”
“Is it profitable?”
“Sure as shootin’. ‘I’m the roughest, toughest, he-manest hombre as ever crossed the Rio Grande-and I ain’t no namby pamby.’ ‘Bugs Bunny Rides Again,’ 1948.”
“Did you know Mark would make you executor?”
His smile faded. “Tarnation, Bennie. We’re friends, so I’m going to keep my temper and ask you what you’re suggesting. Are we hunting wabbits or what?”
“I’m not suggesting anything. I’m just asking.”
“Are you accusing me of murder, despite the fact that we’ve been buds for God knows how long?”
I felt a stab of guilt. “Of course I’m not accusing you, Sam. But I have to talk to you about it.”
“Grady suspects you. He was going to call, but I wanted to be the one to do it.”
Sam’s face reddened and his mouth twisted bitterly. “Grady thinks I killed one of my dearest, oldest friends? What, are they taking anybody on that Court now? Who the fuck did he clerk for? Clarence Thomas?”
“He’s smart, Sam, and he’s trying to help.”
“He’s not that smart. Why would I kill Mark, for God’s sake?”
“For the executor’s fee? The billings?” I felt like a jerk for even explaining, Sam looked so nonplussed.
“Come on, girlfriend! I need billings as much as the next lawyer, but I wouldn’tkill Mark for them. I wouldn’t killanybody for them.”
“Grady says there’s a trustee’s fee, too. It adds up to a million dollars.”
“So what? Are you asking me for real?” His eyes narrowed, but I told myself to stay the course.
“Let’s just get it over with, Sam. If we’re friends, we can talk about anything.”
“We’re friends, so you can insult me? Bennie, listen, I don’t need the money, I have plenty of money. ‘I’m rich! I’m wealthy! I’m comfortably well off,’ as Daffy would say. I don’t need to kill my friend for a fee.”
“I thought so,” I said, backing off, but he leaned toward me, angered.
“You want details, I’ll give you details. I own my condo at the Manchester. My firstborn, the Porsche Carrera, is one year old next week and I bought him with cash. I take only one vacation a year, to South Beach, and I don’t have any dependents except for that Cuban waiter at The Harvest. I was with him on the night in question, by the way. If you want to check it, I’ll give you his number.”
“No, I don’t mean to get personal-”
“As for my assets, which Ramon tells me is my best feature, I’m taking almost four hundred thousand this year, not including the bonus from the First Federal bankruptcy. It’s in eleven mutual funds and some very frisky tech stocks.”
“Okay, Sam. I get the picture.”
“However, I do have a confession to make.” He held up a palm. “I confess, I’m too heavily into Microsoft, but I want Bill Gates so much I can taste him. Can you blame me?”
“Except for that hair. If he washed it from time to time, I’d be in Redmond in a heartbeat.”
“Look, I’m sorry. I really am. Enough already. Sue me. Shoot me.”
“Apology accepted,” he said curtly. He slouched back into his chair, but he didn’t look like himself. Or maybe he wasn’t looking at me the way he always did.
I wondered if he ever would again.