He met Burt Webber, his brother-in-law’s lawyer, outside the court room.
“How are you doing, Russ?” Webber asked.
There was no missing the concern in Webber’s expression and tone. The lawyer had reason to be solicitous. Russ used to carry his six foot two frame at a solid one eighty-five, but now he was sporting a protruding gut and deep bags hung under his eyes. The new friends―Johnnie Walker, Jim Beam and Jack Daniel―he’d cavorted with since his wife had died a year ago made working out a challenge.
Russ massaged his temples in a feeble attempt to beat back a headache. “I’m getting by.”
Most days he didn’t stumble out of bed until around noon. Getting to the courthouse by nine-thirty for his brother-in-law’s arraignment had been an astronomical feat. It was the first time he had set the alarm in months, and its shrill buzz was still screaming in his head.
“I knew your wife for fifty years, since we were kids. I was a little older than her, but our parents were friends and business associates. She was a wonderful person. I’m so sorry. If there’s anything you need, please call me.”
He opened the courtroom door for Webber to wheel through. The lawyer had been in a wheel chair from the time Russ had met him. When Webber was twenty-five he was racing his cigar boat, hit a wake from another boat and was tossed out of his seat. He came down on the gunwale, cracking his spine just above his butt.
Inside the courtroom, Webber scanned the crowd. “Looks like the hyenas have come to pounce on the carcass.”
“Fill me in.”
The lawyer pointed to the right with his chin. “The bald guy is Mayor Langford. The lady in the print dress two rows behind him is Ellen Franklin. She heads up a committee to recall the mayor and the council.”
“You have something I can write on?” Russ asked.
“I need to make some notes.”
“So I can remember the names.”
“What are you going to do, Russ?”
“Try to help Morty.”
“How? You’re not a detective.”
“I don’t know, but if Mary were alive she’d demand I do something to help her brother. In her memory I have to try.”
Webber nodded, opened his briefcase and ripped a piece of yellow paper from a legal pad.
“I need a pen.”
“Right.” Webber handed him a ballpoint.
Writing down the names, Russ asked, “What do these people have to do with Morty’s case?”
“The council has proposed a law forbidding rooming houses from having permanent guests.”
“Sounds reasonable considering what the state dumped in them.”
“Except, there’s no one else to fill the beds. Without permanent guests rooming house owners like Franklin go broke.”
“I see that, but why is Franklin mad at Morty?”
“He promised he’d support the rooming house association when they went before the town council to protest, but he never showed up. Franklin had backed Morty into a corner until he said he would help, but he knew he couldn’t go against the mayor and the council. Every project he was working on would have been stalled for months, maybe years.”
Russ knew all about Sea Gate’s demise, he lived through it. Sea Gate had once been a jewel on the Jersey Shore, attracting up to fifty thousand visitors on a summer weekend. Then a race riot chased the visitors away. At the same time the tourists abandoned the city, the state was emptying the mental hospitals of non-violent patients. With no one else to rent their rooms, the rooming house owners took the state’s money and the dispossessed, which added to the city’s demise. Those troubled people wandered the streets, frightening off any straggling tourists who hadn’t been frightened off by the riot. No one wanted to bring their family to a town where people pissed in the street and yelled at lamp posts.
Morty’s grandfather had been one of the original developers of Sea Gate. Morty owned many of the commercial buildings and two or three shuttered arcades along the boardwalk. His pipe dream was that he could revive the city. As it was in every town, despite the fact that a developer, or in Morty’s case re-developer, owned property, he still needed the approval of the planning board whose members were appointed by the town council.
Russ snapped out of his thoughts when Webber grabbed his sleeve and pulled him closer.
“See that black man over there? The one in the khaki work shirt?”
“Dwayne Cromwell. He’s a contractor. Morty doesn’t have any black sub-contractors working on his development projects. Cromwell’s been calling Morty to task on it.”
Russ wrote Cromwell’s name.
“Then there’s Hal Edwards over there.” Webber pointed. “The guy in the denim jumpsuit.”
“What’s his beef?”
“He and Morty used to be close.”
“Used to be?”
Webber was about to answer but was cut off when the bailiff announced, “All rise.”
Everyone in the courtroom came to their feet as the judge entered and took his position behind the raised bench. He looked every bit the distinguished jurist with his gray hair meticulously combed, and his white collar and dark tie peeking out from the V in his black robe.
The judge banged his gavel. “Be seated. Call the first case.”
“John Parks,” the bailiff announced.
A man dressed in a navy pin-striped suit with a bold floral print tie rose from the gallery. The leather heels on his tasseled loafers clicked on the linoleum as he walked down the aisle and passed through the swinging gate in the railing separating the working part of the courtroom from the spectators.
Webber said, “There’s Morty’s children down front. Go.”
Russ hurried down the aisle and slid in next to his twin niece and nephew. Leaning over, he took Caroline’s and Michael’s hands. “Everything’s going to be fine. Don’t worry.” Not seeing Beth, he asked, “Where’s your mother?”
“She couldn’t make it,” Caroline said.
The crack of the judge’s gavel snapped their heads toward the bench.
“You visitors keep quiet or I’ll clear the courtroom.”
Russ squeezed Caroline’s and Michael’s hands and let go. He knew Morty and Beth were having marital problems, but he’d been out of touch for the past year. He hadn’t realized it had gotten to the point where Beth would desert Morty in his time of need.
Looking up from his papers, the judge scowled, “What is this Mr. Parks? You’re pleading not guilty to a twenty dollar parking ticket?”
Standing at attention as if in front of a drill sergeant, the defendant said, “Your Honor, the meter was jammed.”
“So you figured you get free parking?”
Parks didn’t respond.
“I find you guilty and order you to pay the twenty dollar parking fine plus fifty dollars court costs for wasting this court’s time on this trivial matter. See the clerk.”
“Fifty dollars!” Parks exclaimed.
The judge smacked his gavel. “Now it’s seventy-five. One more outburst and it will be two days in jail for contempt.”
Parks slinked off like a kicked dog.
Webber had wheeled up next to Russ. He leaned over. “There goes a man who took half a day off work to appear in court on principal. What he didn’t know was, there isn’t any to be found in this town.”
The air conditioning clicked on with an audible gust and a rattling of the vents and ducts. Russ raised his gaze to the drop ceiling and wondered how much of the money the state had allocated to build this municipal complex had been grafted away on substandard materials. With its high school in such distress and the state threatening to take over the education department, wouldn’t the twenty-million tax dollars pumped into this glass and concrete monstrosity of a building have been better spent on the education of Sea Gate’s youth, so maybe, some of them could climb out of poverty’s grasp?
Never happen, he scoffed to himself. A politician couldn’t point to an intangible as an educated youth and say, “I built that.” But he could to a building with his name carved on the granite slab over the door. It was a lasting testament to his ability to get money appropriated for the community and for his sticky fingered pals in city hall.
Raising his voice to be heard above the metallic clanging, the judge bellowed, “Next case.”
“Morton Sinclair,” the bailiff called.
The side door opened and two policemen escorted their prisoner into the courtroom. Dressed in an orange jumpsuit, his feet shackled and his wrists handcuffed and attached to a leather belt around his waist, Morty’s chains jangled as he shuffled across the floor.
“Are those restraints really necessary?” Russ asked Webber.
“Of course not, but they want to demean him. Morty’s been having some heated battles with the town powers about his redevelopment plans.”
Russ stood with Caroline and Michael. When Morty got close to the rail his children touched their father’s arm.
Russ said, “Hang in there, buddy. We’ll get you out of this.”
Morty gazed at his children and brother-in-law through vacant eyes. Russ stared back finding it hard to believe this was Mary’s brother. Morty usually looked like he’d stopped aging in his mid-thirties. Today he looked closer to eighty than fifty. His black hair flopped in all directions instead of the way he usually wore it, slicked back with mouse. His face had sunk into a morass of hanging jowls and sagging skin under his eyes.
“Wish me luck,” Webber said. He propelled his wheelchair forward, using it as a battering ram to open the swinging door. Maneuvering behind the defendant’s table he glanced at the judge. “Bertrum Webber for Morton Sinclair.”
“To the charge of second degree murder, how does the defendant plead?” the judge asked.
“Not guilty,” Webber said.
The rustling of papers across the aisle distracted Russ. He looked over and saw men and women with press badges pinned to their clothes writing furiously.
“Very well, now to bail.”
The prosecutor said, “We request remand, Your Honor.”
Webber countered, “Your Honor, Mr. Sinclair is a pillar of this community. The risk of flight is negligible. His entire life is tied to this city. He is admired by many people.”
“And loathed by many others.”
“I object, Your Honor.”
“Object all you want, Mr. Webber. Bail is set at five million dollars.”
A gasp from Caroline echoed through the courtroom.
“Your Honor, that’s punitive!”
“No arguments, Mr. Webber…Five million dollars cash, no ten percent.”
Webber stared into his open briefcase. “Son of a bitch.”
The bailiff froze. The stenographic machine stopped clicking, the stenographer’s fingers hovering over the keys. The reporters pens hung in mid-air over their spiral notebooks.
“What did you say, Mr. Webber?”
“Nothing, Your Honor.”
“I want to hear what you had to say.”
“Just talking to myself.”
“Well, it it’s interesting to you I think we should all hear it.”
“I said, it’s going to be difficult to raise that much cash.”
“Oh, I thought I heard something like, son of a bitch.”
Webber looked straight at the judge. “I would never say anything like that in such an honorable court as this, Your Honor.”
Murmurs rumbled through the room.
The judge smacked his gavel so hard the water pitcher and glass rattled on the silver tray.
“Take the prisoner away. Ten minute recess.”
Morty’s kids again reached out and rubbed their father’s arm. They watched until he was out the door.
Russ moved into the aisle and held open the gate for Webber. He and his niece and nephew followed the lawyer up the aisle. In the hallway reporters crowded around Webber, barking questions.
“Did you really say son of a bitch?”
“Can Mr. Sinclair raise the bail?”
“Will you be defending Mr. Sinclair in his trial?”
“If Mr. Sinclair is not guilty, who killed Mr. Billings?”
“How much did Mr. Sinclair pay the victim in bribes?”
Russ listened as Webber fielded the inane questions with evasive answers until the reporters got bored and went off to write their stories.
“I thought he was going to nail you,” Russ said.
Webber wheeled off to a corner away from the exiting spectators.
“Not if he wants to stay a judge. I know where he hides his dirty laundry.”
“You couldn’t use that to get Morty reasonable bail?”
“The judge has his orders. He wouldn’t defy them even at the risk of upsetting me.”
“Who’s pulling the strings?”
Webber said, “We can’t talk about this here. Too many big ears. Come back to my office.”
Russ took a quick detour to put a few more quarters in the meter then hurried to catch up to Webber.
Webber’s office was across from the municipal complex on the corner of Main Street and Sinclair Avenue. Although Morty’s grandfather created Sinclair Avenue, he had only built six buildings near his Castle Amusements. He had sold off the other lots along the Avenue to developers, one of whom was Burt Webber’s grandfather.
Sinclair Avenue had turned into the most fashionable shopping street in the county with all upscale stores, and the four-story Thomas A. Webber building, built in 1932, was the pride of the city. The main floor was retail space, but where a furrier, jeweler and exclusive men’s store used to be were now a tattoo parlor, a liquor store, a thrift shop, a fried chicken joint and two for-rent signs in dirt-streaked windows.
Four men slouched in front of the liquor store sharing the contents of a bottle wrapped in a brown bag. Seeing the stores and their customers, the revelation as to why the state put up the money to build the municipal complex hit Russ. Look at all the thriving businesses and quality career opportunities those tax dollars created.
In the elevator lobby, Webber pushed the call button. Chains clanked sounding like something out of the haunted house at Disney World, aggravating Russ’ throbbing headache. The elevator stopped with a thud and the door slowly slid open. Webber rolled in and pressed 2. The machine shuddered. Instinctively, Russ grabbed the tarnished brass hand rail.
“It’s okay,” Webber said. “It gets inspected four times a year.”
The second floor was as dreary as the lobby. Although swept clean, the linoleum tiles were worn thin and in some places missing, leaving black squares of hardened paste. Bulbs were burned out in half the lights. Based on the lack of illumination behind the frosted-glass doors, only two of the offices seemed occupied.
As he followed Webber into his office, a blast of cold air hit Russ, chilling his shirt, damp from perspiration on the walk from the parking lot on this hot and humid August day. He was a bit surprised to see a young girl behind the reception desk. His mind had been set for the gray-haired lady he had seen on previous visits.
When the girl rose to open the connecting door to Webber’s office, Russ’ watched her swaying backside. Lately every tight body crossing his path had conjured up thoughts of sex, adding to his torment, but he remained celibate. Mary had been gone barely a year. He was still in mourning.
“Russell Gerrard, meet my granddaughter, Jenna,” Webber said with a smile. “She’s starting college in the fall and thinks she might want to be a lawyer. To see what it’s like she’s helping me out for a couple of weeks while Hannah is on vacation.”
Jenna extended her hand and Russ shook it with a forced smile, embarrassed by his lewd thoughts.
“Nice to meet you, Jenna.”
“Nice to meet you too, Mr. Gerrard.”
He followed Webber into his private office. The lawyer rolled behind his desk and Russ plopped into a wooden captain’s chair, its seat and arms worn smooth from years of use. He didn’t know where to begin, with how Morty got mixed up with the mob or what the judge had said.
He’d been married to Morty’s sister for thirty-five years. Morty had always seemed so jovial, so likable, always ready with a slap on the back and a new joke. Regardless of what Webber said about those people in the courtroom and what the judge said, it was hard to believe anyone would hold a grudge against Morty for long.
“What did the judge mean about Morty being loathed? I thought people in town were happy he was trying to bring it back to life.”
“Morty put the carousel up for sale.”
“Whoa is right.”
Russ felt as if a knife had been thrust into his heart. His wife had loved that carousel. Their kids were always begging for one more ride. They’d have spent all day on it if they could.
When Morty’s and Mary’s grandfather came to Sea Gate it was just a dot in the sand. His vision had helped build it into a great resort. In 1915 he commissioned William Dentzel to build the carousel. In those days the horses, animals and other figures were hand carved. Today it was a valuable antique.
When the old man died at the age of ninety-five he had left the carousel to Morty. Mary was crushed. Her father eventually told her why her grandfather had done that. Right after Barbara, their first child, was born Mary insisted they move farther north. Russ was commuting by train to his job in New York City, a two-hour door to door trip from Sea Gate. She wanted to reduce his commuting time so he could be with his daughter before she went to sleep. But that wasn’t the only reason she wanted to get away from Sea Gate.
Mary and Morty had grown up working in the family concessions on the boardwalk. She wanted a different environment for her kids, away from the hucksters and con games. Her grandfather felt Mary had abandoned his city by not wanting to live there and that the carousel should be owned by someone who lived in the city to keep a watchful eye on his gem.
Webber said, “Although they don’t have any legal right to the carousel, many people in this town feel it belongs to the city.”
“Is anybody mad enough to frame Morty for murder?”
“I understand there was a loud row between the mayor and Morty about the sale.” “What’s the mayor’s position?”
“The mayor like many others, believe the carousel is the last vestige of the way Sea Gate used to be. He insists that Morty’s grandfather gave the carousel to the city as a gift. But my father made out the old man’s will and there’s nothing in writing to verify that. I heard that the fight ended when the mayor said he was going to get the carousel declared a landmark.”
“Can he do that?”
“Maybe the building it’s in because it’s a hundred years old and was built especially for the carousel, but the machine itself is a long shot.”
“Anybody else have a row with Morty over the sale?”
“Hal Edwards, the guy in the courtroom I told you used to be best friends with Morty. They worked side by side trying to fight the corruption in town.”
“And Morty putting the carousel up for sale broke them up?”
Webber nodded. “Edwards is a carousel buff. Even makes and sells carousel horses. He and Morty almost came to blows when Morty told him he was going to sell the merry-go-round.”
Russ took out his piece of paper with the names he had written down and made some notes next to Edwards’ name. He looked up at Webber.
“How much is the carousel worth?”
“At least a million in one piece. Maybe more if broken up and sold piece-meal to antique dealers. Two months ago the kids―” Webber grinned. “I don’t know why I keep calling Caroline and Michael kids, they’re in their twenties.”
“Our children are still kids to us old folks.”
Webber let out a quick laugh. “Anyway, after a big argument―”
“Argument with whom?”
“Michael. Michael didn’t want it sold either. He watched his father throw his and Caroline’s entire inheritance down the sewer.”
“Regardless of how low this city sank, the property was worth something. The type of businesses in town may have changed, but business goes on. Most of Morty’s properties had no mortgages and were rented even if the rents aren’t what they used to be.”
Like the ones you rent to now.
“Morty mortgaged and second mortgaged every building and sank the money into his rebuilding project, which has been a total bust so far. The carousel was the only unencumbered asset the family had. This is a horrible thing to say, but if their father goes to jail, Caroline and Michael will be able to take over the carousel and sell it themselves.”
“Wouldn’t Morty’s other creditors come after it?”
“They could try but they don’t have any legal standing. We rearranged his assets so that each piece of property he borrowed against was a separate corporation. The mortgages are specific to each corporation with no personal guarantees from Morty.”
“He was able to find lenders who agreed to that?”
“Five, six years ago when money was easy, the banks were loaning to anyone who showed up with any piece of property as collateral.”
Webber broke eye contact and began shuffling papers on his desk.
“There’s something else. What is it?”
“Well…Beth filed for divorce.”
“What? I knew she and Morty were having problems but I didn’t know it had gone that far.”
“Morty immediately changed his will to cut her out, but in this state the court can award alimony pendente lite.”
“What’s that mean?”
“While the divorce is pending, Beth can ask the court for temporary support.”
“But why frame him for murder?”
“Morty doesn’t have much to pay Beth alimony, temporary or not. By the time the divorce is settled, Morty will have sold the carousel and pumped the money into his development projects which are worthless right now as are his other encumbered assets. There’d be nothing left.”
“Couldn’t her lawyer put a lien on the money from the sale until the divorce is settled?”
“Maybe, maybe not. The divorce is in the preliminary stages. But with Morty accused of murder and the possibly of going to prison, Beth’s lawyer would have a better chance of getting Morty’s assets frozen until her divorce is finalized.”
And I bet Beth’s lawyer explained all this to her.
“As Morty’s attorney, I’m sure I’ll be served papers soon. I’ll argue that being accused is not being convicted and that the sale should go through. Do you know how an auction of this size works?”
“Appraisals have to be made, color brochures printed and distributed. Advertisements have to be placed. Thousands of dollars have already been spent by the auction company. They’re going to want their money back if the sale is cancelled. I’m hoping the judge will let the sale proceed, but use a portion of the money to pay Beth’s temporary alimony and have the rest put in escrow until Morty’s trial is over.”
“It looks like a lot of people would benefit with Morty out of the way.”
“The whole thing’s a mess. The lawyers are going to have a field day. All the money from the sale of the carousel could end up in the lawyer’s pockets”
Including yours. The condition of the once magnificent building, made Russ wonder how much debt Webber had. His law practice doesn’t look to be a thriving enterprise. Maintenance and taxes to keep the building open must drain every dollar he takes in from rent, and then some.