Leader of the Pack

An Andy Carpenter Novel (Volume 10)

David Rosenfelt

Minotaur Books

By the time Peyton Manning threw the pass, Richard Solarno was dead.

When Richard got up to answer the doorbell, Manning was directing the Colts in the no-huddle offense. Consistent with his style of play, Manning surveyed the defense while at the line of scrimmage, calling audibles based on what he saw before him.

As was often the case, Manning could do this for at least twenty-five or thirty seconds, until the play clock was about to run out.

Since Solarno had bet a lot of money on the Colts, and they were down by four on the Patriots’ eighteen-yard line with thirty seconds to play, he wasn’t happy about leaving the television at all. Chances are it was just a deliveryman, and he could deal with it and be back without missing a play. At least that’s what he hoped.

That’s not how it worked out. He opened the door, and managed to get out the words “what are you” before the bullet hit him in the chest, sending him falling backward.

There was a silencer on the gun, so the killer knew that no neighbors were calling 911. Solarno was technically still alive when he hit the floor, but likely dead by the time Manning threw the interception, effectively costing the Colts the game. But that was no longer Solarno’s problem; he wouldn’t be paying bookmakers ever again.

The killer heard a noise from the top of the stairs, so he entered the house, closing the door behind him. He then headed straight up the stairs, and within three minutes ended the life of Richard’s wife, Karen, as well.

That had not been part of the plan, but it had to be done.

“So, what’s on tap for today?”

Laurie’s question, while seemingly innocuous, represents something of a problem, because my “tap” for today is not something she is likely to approve of.

“Well, I’m going to take Tara for a walk. Then I’m going to run over to the market for some beer, be back here by noon for the NFL pregame shows. I’ll call my bookie, Jimmy Rollins, at twelve thirty to bet the games; then I’ll order a pizza. At one I’ll watch the Giants-Redskins game, switching to other games during time-outs.

“Then, at four, it’ll be mostly San Diego against the Jets, again switching where necessary. That takes me to seven, when I’m hoping you’ll have dinner ready. From eight thirty to eleven thirty tonight is Dallas-Philadelphia on NBC; then, if I’m lucky, you’ll be in the mood for some sexual frolicking from eleven thirty until midnight.”

That is what I would say if I had any semblance of courage or honesty, but since I don’t, I opt for, “I haven’t really done a tap check for today yet, but I’m sure I’ll come up with something productive. Every day is a chance for a new adventure.”

“Then let me guess,” she says. “You’re going to take Tara for a walk, get some beer, place some bets, order a pizza, and watch football all day.”

“You make it sound really appealing,” I say. “How did you come up with all that?”

“It’s exactly what you did yesterday.”

I snap my fingers. “I knew it sounded familiar. But yesterday was college football, today is pro. Apples and oranges.”

“You’re incorrigible.”

“Actually, I’m partially corrigible. I’m not watching football tomorrow at all during the day.”

“What about Monday-night football?”

“That’s not during the day; it’s at night. Hence the name. Oh, and I’m making the prison rounds Tuesday and Wednesday.” Laurie knows what that means; I visit former clients of mine who were found guilty at trial and are in prison. I don’t want them to think they’ve been forgotten.

“So what do you have on tap for today?” I ask, trying to pull the old switcheroo.

“I’m going running, then a spinning class, then Pilates, and then this afternoon I’m volunteering at the hospital.”

“You know, I can’t decide which of those things sounds the most awful.”

“I’ve got an idea, Andy.”

Uh, oh. Laurie’s ideas often involve my expending energy by actually doing things, and today I really just want to plant myself in front of the large-screen TV in the den. I’m so looking forward to total relaxation that I bought a bag of already-popped popcorn so I don’t have to deal with the microwave.

“I hope it’s a long-range, down-the-road, futuristic kind of idea, because we’re talking Giants-Redskins,” I say.

“Well, it might be a way for you to really do something productive, something that you would also enjoy.” She quickly adds, “But definitely not today; I understand we’re talking Giants-Redskins.”

My name, Andy Carpenter, is listed under “Attorneys” in the phone book, assuming phone books still exist. But since my desire to work is really low, and my bank account is really high, I haven’t taken on any clients in almost six months, so I’m a little leery about what Laurie might be driving at. “As long as what you’re going to suggest doesn’t include judges, courthouses, depositions, or briefs, and if I can bring Tara, I’m all ears,” I say.

“It doesn’t include any of those things, and Tara’s actually the key to it.”

I relax the cringe I’ve been doing since the conversation began. Tara is my best friend, right up there with Laurie. She is also a golden retriever, the greatest one on Earth. My interest is officially piqued.

She continues, “I think you should take Tara to the hospital as a therapy dog.”

This could be worse, but it ain’t great. I know a little bit about the therapy dog process, and while I think it’s a great thing to do, it’s especially great for other people to do, with other people’s dogs.

I can’t speak, or bark, for Tara, but I’m not anxious to start spending time in hospitals.

“Doesn’t Tara need some special training for that?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “Not this one; I’ve checked it out. All they require is a mellow disposition and friendliness on the part of the dog, plus human compassion. Tara is mellow and friendly, and she has enough of the human compassion part for both of you.”

“Sounds great. But there must be a huge waiting list for something like that. I don’t want to cut in line.”

Laurie shakes her head. “Nope.”

“And I suppose you’ve already talked about it with Tara?”

She nods. “She was quite enthusiastic about it.”

I look over at Tara, who does in fact seem fine with everything, and doesn’t appear surprised. This has all the earmarks of a setup.

I’m not going to win this, so I might as well try to make it pay off. “How is this going to impact my life sexually?” I ask.

Laurie smiles. “I find the prospect of you doing this to be very erotic.”

I return the smile. “My cup of human compassion runneth over.”

If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it.

I’ve been in the hospital room occupied by the very frail Mrs. Harriet Marshall for thirty-five minutes.

When I got here, she seemed barely awake, and her mumbling speech was impossible to understand.

I told her who I was, and she showed no reaction whatsoever. I could have told her the room was on fire and I wouldn’t have gotten a response. She was depressed, numbed, and mostly lifeless, sort of how I felt after the Redskins beat the Giants yesterday.

She had absolutely no interest in me, had nothing to say to me, and barely acknowledged my existence. In terms of dealing with females, it felt like I was back in high school.

Then Tara walked over to her, and everything changed. It took three or four minutes, during which Tara sniffed her and put her nose against her arm.

Harriet resisted, until Tara pulled out the big move … the combination “lean-against nuzzle, with a slight lick and an adoring glance.” In dog-land the move has a degree of difficulty of nine point seven, and as far as I know, there is no known defense against it.

So within five minutes Harriet was petting Tara with both hands. She was using a “reverse pet,” which means she would stroke her head from front to back, and then from back to front. I know from personal experience that Tara is not a huge fan of that, but she was graciously allowing Harriet to do it.

The transformation has been amazing. Harriet went from silent and sullen to outgoing and borderline gregarious. In fact, I don’t think I could shut her up if I wanted to, which I don’t.

First, all she wanted to talk about was Tara, asking where I got her and whether she was always this sweet. I told her that I got her from an animal shelter seven years ago when she was two years old.
“So she’s only nine now?” she asked.

Unfortunately, “only” is not the appropriate word. Nine years is starting to get up there for a golden. “Yes,” I said, “though in dog years that’s fifty-two,” I said. Many people think that each year a dog lives counts as seven, but that’s not the correct way to figure it. The first year counts as twenty-one, and each one thereafter counts as four.

The entire concept would be depressing if not for the fact that Tara is going to live forever.

“Fifty-two? I’ve got stockings older than that.” Then she laughed, and I was immediately glad that I let Laurie talk me into doing this.

She went on to tell me everything about every one of her relatives, and she has about thirty thousand of them. Her granddaughter Cynthia just won a regional spelling bee, but the region was in Seattle, so Harriet was bummed that she didn’t get to go.

“Do you have family around here?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Do they come to visit?”

She shrugged. “They want to, but I don’t let them. I’m too busy feeling sorry for myself.”

“Because you’re sick?” I didn’t know what was wrong with her, so it was a question I probably shouldn’t have asked.

“Because I’m old, and because things in my body don’t work like they should anymore.” She smiled. “I’m not afraid of death, but dying is going to be a pain in the ass.”

We’ve talked for over an hour, and I really don’t want to leave, but she’s clearly getting tired, so I put Tara’s leash on her to lead her out.

“Will you come back to see me?” Harriet asks.

“Definitely.”

“And you’ll bring Tara?”

“She’ll bring me.”

“I had a dog when I was growing up,” she says. “Her name was Sarah. I remember everything about her.” She laughs. “I can’t remember a single boyfriend; hell, I can’t remember what I had for breakfast today. But I remember everything about Sarah.”

“Dogs are the best,” I say.

She nods and pets Tara’s head for the thousandth time. “And Tara’s the best of the best. Just like Sarah.”

I nod. “Exactly like Sarah.”

The prison up in Rahway is maybe my least favorite place on Earth, with the possible exception of Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Actually, the two places remind me of each other. For starters, they’re both enormous, often overcrowded, and serve mediocre food.

Rahway houses murderers and thieves, the lowest of the low, worthy of society’s scorn and revenge. The stadium in Philadelphia houses the Philadelphia Eagles.

Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

I’m heading for the prison, as I promised Laurie, but keeping that promise is not my motivation. I have friends here, friends that rely on me. Unfortunately, relying on me is part of the reason they’re here in the first place.

I’ve had a very successful legal career; you can count the number of cases I’ve lost on one hand. Well, actually it’s more like two or three hands, and a couple of feet. But I know defense attorneys who can’t remember the last time they won a case, and I’m actually on a winning streak.

But the losses bug me, especially in cases where I truly felt the client was innocent.

I’m financially independent now, and therefore able to pick and choose from prospective clients. Mostly I choose not to work at all, but if I do, it’s only because I consider the person innocent of the crime they’re charged with. In my older, poorer days, I didn’t have that luxury, so sometimes I’d wind up with guilty clients, and, more often than not, the jury sealed the deal.

But Joey Desimone was different. He stood accused of the cold-blooded murder of a husband and wife in Montclair. The evidence was clearly against him, and I understood the jury’s finding him guilty, but every instinct I had said he didn’t do it.

Weighing heavily in the jurors’ minds, though they would never admit it and the judge specifically told them not to consider it, was the fact that Joey is the son of Carmine Desimone, the head of an organized crime family in Central Jersey.

Joey was widely thought to have distanced himself from his family’s “occupation,” and I believed then, and still do, that he had nothing to do with the criminal enterprise. But it was a mark against him, as was the fact that Joey was having an affair with the woman who died in the attack, Karen Solarno.

Public outrage at the crime was widespread; I was even castigated for representing him. The jury climbed on the anti-Joey bandwagon and gave him life without the possibility of parole. They would have given him the death penalty, but New Jersey doesn’t have one. Joey’s continuing to live actually became an issue in the next gubernatorial campaign, with one of the candidates pointing to it as a prime reason for a reinstatement of the ultimate punishment.

That candidate lost, and retreated to his previous post on Wall Street. Joey, in the meantime, spends twenty-three of every twenty-four hours sitting in a seven-by-ten-foot cell.

So I visit him. Not that often, maybe three or four times a year, and not for any reason other than to let him know he’s not forgotten. Early on I could see the look of hope on his face that I was bringing him some news that might help get him out of prison, and then the disappointment when that obviously wasn’t the case.

Now we just have easy conversations, friends talking about whatever. He’s managed to keep up to date on the news of the day, especially sports, so the conversation flows smoothly.

I don’t bother asking him how things are in the prison anymore. The answer is always a shrug and “getting by.” I know that he doesn’t get hassled by other inmates, for a few reasons. First of all, he minds his own business. Second, he’s a former Marine who can handle himself as well as anyone in the place.
Third, and by far the most important, everyone knows who his father is. Joey has often told me how distressed his father is that his son is behind bars, and that he was unable to prevent it. He is, however, more than powerful enough to have effectively put the word out that Joey is not to be messed with.
Joey is a football Giants fan, another mark in his favor, but he takes it to a level well past me. I know who the starters are, and am generally aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Joey knows everyone on the roster, including the practice squad, and he can talk at length about any one of them. Which is fine, because when it comes to football talk, I can listen at length.

I mention my experience with Tara, the Therapy Dog, and Joey finds it hilarious. “So you bring a dog right into the hospital? Isn’t that unsanitary or something?”

“Unsanitary? Tara?” I ask. “You start talking trash about Tara and it won’t do you any good to smile when you say it.”

He laughs, apparently not cowed by my threat. “Sorry, but I can’t picture it. The world has changed a lot since I’ve been in here.”

He probably doesn’t know how true that is, but I decide that his comment is not banter material, so I don’t try it. “I doubted it myself, but the first person I did it with, Tara really made her feel better. It’s like she came alive.”

His eyes light up with an idea. “Hey, does the person have to be in a hospital?”

“No, I don’t think so. Could be an old-age home, even in someone’s house. Wherever.”

“Would you try it with my uncle Nick?”

There’s pretty much no favor I wouldn’t grant Joey, but bringing Tara to visit Nick Desimone is pushing it. “Nicky Fats,” as he has been known to the tabloids, his family, his friends, police, and probably most of the people he has killed, has been Carmine Desimone’s right-hand man since Carmine assumed control of the family.

Carmine has been known to be ruthless in stamping out his enemies, a throwback to the days when the accepted mode of operation was to shoot, stab, and club first, and ask questions later. According to the lore, Nicky Fats makes Carmine look like Mary Poppins, and apparently moves with a deadly dexterity that belies his three-hundred-fifty-pound girth.

“You want me to do dog therapy with your uncle Nick?” I try to make my voice sound as incredulous as possible, but I can’t get it to the level that I really feel.

“You don’t want to?” he asks.

“What if Tara sheds on him?”

He laughs again. “What … you think he’ll kill you if she sheds on him?”

“Not necessarily kill, but ‘maim’ and ‘torture’ briefly entered my mind.”

“Don’t worry about it. Shedding would be fine; just don’t have Tara pull a knife on him. But seriously, Andy, he used to call me all the time. Now I talk to him maybe once a month, and he’s not like himself. Really down, you know? And not so sharp anymore. He forgets stuff; sometimes doesn’t make sense. And it’s getting worse.”

In a courtroom, even under tremendous pressure, I can think on my feet and verbally and strategically react to anything that might happen. But in this case, talking about taking a dog to visit an old fat man, I freeze up like a Fudgsicle.

“Sure. Happy to do it,” I say. In terms of level of truthfulness, that statement would rank with something like, “Damn, I’m going to be traveling to Saturn that day to go giraffe hunting.”

“Great. I’ll set it up.”



Copyright © 2012 by David Rosenfelt