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Putting Lipstick on a Pig
By Michael Bowen
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2006 Michael Bowen
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Chapter OneDecember 2003 Indianapolis, Indiana
The instinct for justice is rooted so deeply in the human soul that even the finest law schools can't eradicate it entirely. Not quite two years after MacKenzie Stewart's phone call, Rep Pennyworth would find that noble truth highly inconvenient.
"Reppert, I'm calling with bad news," was how the call started. "Vance Hayes is dead."
"What's the bad news?"
This wasn't a joke and Stewart didn't laugh.
"He tabbed you for the eulogy," Stewart explained in his chiseled voice with patrician gravitas. "Last time we updated his estate plan, after the diabetes hit."
"That bastard," Rep muttered.
"In re: Hayes, 'bastard' has already been done. Try to come up with something a bit fresher for the eulogy. In causa mortis and all that."
In causa mortis—in contemplation of death. Requests made with the River Styx lapping at your wingtips and Charon's barge looming into view command special deference.
"They must have caught the diabetes very late," Rep said. "I didn't think it was terminal as long as you took care of it."
"The diabetes didn't kill him," Stewart said. "He took a small hours snowmobile ride over something called Lake Delton in Wisconsin Dells. Three sheets to the wind, left the snowmobile, hit a weak spot in the ice, and plunged through. It took them two full days just to fish his body out."
* * *
"I don't suppose you could say no?" Melissa Seton Pennyworth frowned when her husband gave her the news. "Considering that Hayes tried to destroy your legal career and everything?"
"Some Indiana lawyer has to give the eulogy, and Hayes did something nasty to every attorney who crossed his path."
"You're a saint," she said, kissing him on the forehead.
"Or a wimp."
"I exclude wimp a priori, without consideration of any evidence."
"Your dogmatism is charming."
"I know Ken Stewart has sent you some nice trademark work, but I'll bet a lot of lawyers would have refused anyway."
"Stewart is the one who saved my bacon on the complaint Hayes filed against me with the bar disciplinary committee. That was before Hayes took his trust and estate work to Stewart, so he didn't have to recuse himself."
"I didn't think it was that close a question," Melissa said. "All you did was take a deposition when Hayes didn't show up. It wasn't your fault that he didn't bother to open his mail and read the deposition notice."
"Hayes denied ever getting the notice, although our file said it was properly served," Rep said. "They could have spun it Hayes' way if they'd wanted to. The gentlemanly thing for me to do when Hayes didn't appear and didn't answer my phone call would have been to postpone the deposition. But law firms pay second-year associates for zeal, not manners."
"And Stewart was the one who precluded the unpleasantness and expense of a full-scale inquiry?"
"The way the story came to me, staff counsel summarized Hayes' complaint for the disciplinary committee. Everyone waited for Stewart's comment, because he was the senior member. His reaction was what the New York Times bashfully calls a 'barnyard obscenity.'"
"Two earthy syllables that combine rustic elegance with Midwestern resonance?" Melissa guessed.
"An ear-witness told me that Stewart said it with that genteel, old-money, Groton-Yale-Virginia Law School éclat that no one does better than MacKenzie (please call me Ken) Stewart. Sort of like the Upstairs half of a Masterpiece Theatre presentation. 'Bulllllshit,' with the voice going up a bit flippantly on the second syllable. Someone said, 'Second the motion,' and that was all she wrote."
"I see the impossibility of your position," Melissa said. "But can you come up with anything nicer than 'bullshit' to say about Hayes?"
"That will be a challenge. I've called Polly Allbright, the secretary who worked for Hayes for over thirty years."
"Hated his guts. I asked her if there was anything warm or human or decent he had done that I could talk about. She thought for about ten seconds, sighing audibly. Then she said, 'He let me smoke at my desk.'"
"Not terribly promising," Melissa said.
"On her thirty-fifth birthday he gave her a Piaget lighter, because he said he wanted her to be thinking of him sometime when she was happy."
"Well," Melissa sighed, "that's a start."
* * *
The game effort Rep made during the ten days it took to get Hayes' body back and finalize arrangements didn't improve very much on that lame beginning. Former Hayes clients whom he managed to track down described the deceased as a soulless legal machine. Hayes' closest living relative told Rep that she had spoken to Cousin Vance once in the past nineteen years. An attorney who had litigated against Hayes said that if he thought there was the slightest risk of meeting Hayes in hell, he'd step up his church attendance.
Hayes' brother had died in Vietnam, and Rep thought he might use that to soften the edges of the caricature. But hundreds of thousands of Americans had lost loved ones in the Vietnam War without turning into bastards. In a sense, Rep had lost his own mother to the conflict.
Nine days later Rep was still poring through three manila folders worth of Hayes files. His legal pad held only thirty-seven words, none of them promising. Rep leafed again through the top folder. A bullying letter to a local bookstore threatening a class action unless he were given the Loyal Patron Discount despite his paltry actual purchases. Pamphlets from anti-tax organizations. Travel agency billing records. Three pages of—
Whoa. He turned back to the billing records. In the last twenty-two months of his life Hayes had made seven trips to Singapore, Hong Kong, and Bangkok—not obvious off-season destinations for an Indianapolis attorney with a bread-and-butter litigation practice. A tiny gleam of hope briefly flickered. Something interesting? A late-blooming fascination with Eastern religion? An unsuspected taste for Southeast Asian art?
The phone rang and Rep grabbed it.
"Hank Llewyellen, returning your call," the voice said briskly.
"Thanks for calling back." Rep recognized the name of a lawyer who years before had managed to last eight months as Hayes' associate. "I'm looking for something decent I can say about Vance Hayes for his eulogy."
"Good luck. Can't help. Goodbye."
The next day, Rep fell flat on his face before the eighty members of the Indiana bar who bothered to appear in one of the courtrooms where Hayes had browbeaten scores of witnesses. After twelve minutes of thudding and leaden banalities he abandoned the lectern to damn-with-faint-praise applause, wondering if Hayes himself wouldn't have preferred that Rep offer instead several examples of the small-minded pettifoggery and mean-spirited malice that had studded his career.
"I'm surprised you didn't mention the Leopold order," Allbright said, to Rep's mystification, when she bumped into him on the way out. "But I guess you can't put lipstick on a pig."
Rep found little consolation in the well-meant (if baffling) comment, and still less in the reassurance Stewart offered him on the way to the cemetery.
"No one could have surpassed the presentation you gave," Stewart said as his Chrysler Imperial joined the funeral procession.
"That's the most elegant D-plus I've ever gotten."
"You have to play the cards you're dealt." Stewart shrugged. "Your task would have been challenging under any circumstances, but the existential absurdity of the way he died made it impossible. A plunge through thin ice during a midnight joy ride, with Jim Beam as accessory before the fact. It was as if Hitler had been run over by a bus. You were like a Greek chorus pushed on-stage during a French farce."
"You're right. He died in Nunn Bush dress shoes and a Brooks Brothers sport coat, with a shoehorn in one pocket and nine thousand soggy dollars in another. As accidents go, it was absurd."
"And suicides aren't terribly useful eulogy material."
"Suicide?" Rep asked in surprise. "Drowning yourself in icy water seems like a pretty complicated and unpleasant way to take your own life."
"Not conscious suicide, maybe," Stewart said. "Hayes hated the idea of living with diabetes while he played out his string. The police report computed his blood-alcohol level that night at point-oh-nine—legally drunk. In that condition he sometimes tended to pull off-the-wall stunts, death defying in the literal sense—challenging Death to come dance with him if it dared."
"The wrong guy gave this eulogy," Rep said. "That was better than anything I managed."
Rep didn't buy "legally drunk." He remembered Hayes at half-a-dozen Judges' Night receptions and State Bar Convention cocktail parties. Hulking, leather-skinned, owl-eyed, all but bald, two hundred thirty pounds of muscle, bluster, and bad manners, downing a Jack Daniels neat, immediately ordering another, and telling the bartender to have a "traveler" ready for when the chimes summoned everyone to dinner. In a Wisconsin police report, Vance Hayes with a point-oh-nine blood-alcohol level was legally drunk because a statute said so. But in real life Vance Hayes at point-oh-nine was stone cold sober and meaner than a New Orleans madam on the first Friday of Lent.
Twenty-five minutes later, Rep watched as Hayes' mortal remains were consigned to the dreamless dust. Watched junior ROTC cadets present arms and expertly fold the flag that had draped the coffin. Heard "Taps" played on a boombox, buglers being hard to come by these days. Watched the funeral party straggle uncertainly away.
Nagging at the back of his brain was a pesky whisper that something was wrong, some detail a bit off. But he brusquely expelled the notion from his disciplined mind. Not because the cold or the emotion of the day distracted him. He just didn't care. He'd failed and he wished he hadn't, but now it was over and he just didn't care.
Chapter TwoOctober 2005 Milwaukee, Wisconsin
"The thing is, I've never smoked a cigarette in my life," Sue Key told Rep, adding after a minute's pause, "You look skeptical."
"I'm a lawyer. I woke up this morning looking skeptical."
"Cross my heart," the young woman said, a grin splitting her almond face as she gave the pie-crust curls of her black hair a little shake. "Not even the experimental puffs in eighth grade that everyone supposedly has to see what it's like. I took a hit on a boyfriend's cigar once to be a good sport, but never a cigarette. Even when I tried pot I used a little pipe thingy."
Rep flipped back to the cover of the calendar that Key had brought him. Pretty Girls Smoking Cigarettes waltzed in friendly blue and white letters across the shiny, eleven-by-fourteen-inch sheet. Full-page, four-color photographs above each page of dates inside delivered twelve months of posed variations on that theme. Comely ski bunnies contentedly sharing menthols in front of a snow-frosted chalet window for January 2004. Sultry, pouting debutantes in evening gowns smoking languidly on the terrace of some generic country club for April. A radiant bride beaming as she and her bridesmaids relaxed with filter-tips for June. Cute coeds puffing Ultra Light 100s amid their textbooks in a coffeehouse for September. All the way to smiling chums in Santa hats smoking under the mistletoe for December. People had apparently been willing to pay—what? Rep checked the back—nine-ninety-five for this.
He turned back to July. Three women who looked like they were in their early twenties sat at a weathered picnic table, implausibly ignoring a spectacular fireworks display bursting across the night sky behind them. Like most of the others, they shared the artless prettiness of youth, but with some un-model-like meat on their bones and makeup well short of perfect.
The blonde on the right side of the picture, a cigarette dangling insouciantly from the center of her lips, leaned across the table to offer a light to a chestnut-haired table-mate on the left side. Between them sat a woman whose jet black, piecrust-curled hair framed an almond-colored face with Asian features. Leaning back as she laughed at something, resting her right elbow on the table, she held a cigarette in her right hand, near her cheekbone.
"This certainly looks like you," Rep said to Key.
"It is. The picture was taken in broad daylight in Cathedral Square. They must have put the background in later."
"Do you know who took it?"
"I don't know the photographer's name." She handed him a twice-folded sheet of photocopier paper. "The check came from a company called Cold Coast Productions. This guy just came over and said he was doing pictures of Milwaukee scenes and that if it was published we'd get twenty-five dollars each. He asked us to fill out what he called a release with our names and addresses and then sign it."
"Sure. It seemed like a lark. I mean I was thinking, like, Milwaukee Magazine or North Shore Lifestyle or something local like that."
"Okay," said Rep. "You knew the picture might be published, you gave written permission for it to be published, and you accepted payment for publication. What you didn't know was that they'd alter the picture to make it look like you were smoking."
"And you object to that?"
"Well, sort of, I guess. It kind of bothers me."
"I can certainly understand it bothering you," Rep said, trying to draw Key out without actually coaching her. "Smoking is stigmatized as a loser habit these days."
"No, that isn't quite it." Another ingenuous smile. "I mean, I don't think like, Lindsay Lohan and Katie Holmes are losers. Or Wanda and Sharon, the two other women in the picture. To me it's just a personal preference type thing. But it's sort of like the gay episode that time on Seinfeld, you know, the 'not-that-there's-any-problem-with-that' one? I don't have any problem with smoking, but I don't happen to smoke. And then there's my mother."
"Ah. Childhood taboos."
"My mother came here from Vietnam before I was born," Key said, shaking her head. "I visit her at home for tea almost every Sunday. She's an assistant liturgical director—you know?"
Rep shook his head.
"Someone who helps organize the services at a Catholic church. Conservative Catholics call them 'weapons of Mass destruction.' Anyway, she always has a cigarette, and if she thought I smoked she'd expect me to have one with her. So she'd be hurt that I don't."
At this point a resonant if not melodic baritone penetrated the wall separating Rep's office from the reception area:
"Will everyone here Kindly step to the rear And let a winner lead the way? Here's where we separate the men from the boys, the news from the noise, the ... the the the the.... Nuts."
Determined steps shook the floorboards, and three seconds later Rep's door opened. The head that burst through was male and thinly provided with gallant tufts of once blond and now graying hair.
"Counselor, what comes after 'news from the noise'?"
"'Rose from the poison ivy,'" Rep said.
Here's where we separate the men from the boys, the news from the noise, the rose from the poison ivy."
"The hearing went well, I take it?" Rep said.
"Motion granted in full. Costs to abide the event, but that's the way it is in the Milwaukee County Circuit Court. No one's rice bowl gets broken—not even insurance defense lawyers."
The singer came all the way into the office and extended his hand to Key.
"I'm Walt Kuchinski," he said, towering over the young woman who, at five-six, was only three inches shorter than Rep. "You'd be Sue Key, I'm guessing. Reppert here treating you right?"
Guessing? Rep thought. You referred her to me, remember?
Key confirmed her name and the high quality of Rep's services, although as far as Rep could see he had so far accomplished roughly nothing.
"Well, he's the man for this picture stuff you told me about on the phone. Anyone ever accuses me of knowing anything about intellectual property law, I'm gonna plead not guilty. 'Til I met Rep here I always thought IP lawyers were guys who wore bowties and drank Lite beer."
"Please imagine a little circle-r registered trademark symbol after 'Lite' in that last sentence," Rep said, adjusting his bowtie.
"But Reppert here can tell Leinenkugel from Miller Genuine Draft blindfolded, and he knows more obscure Broadway show tunes than any straight guy I've ever met. He'll get it done for you."
Exit Kuchinski, who waited until he'd closed the door behind him before he started singing, "Weeee are the CHAMPions, my friend."
"Is he, like, your partner?" Key asked in a vaguely overwhelmed voice.
"More like my landlord," Rep said. "I'm with a law firm in Indianapolis. It's thinking about opening an office here in Milwaukee. Mr. Kuchinski has been kind enough to let me share office space with him while I look into it."
Excerpted from Putting Lipstick on a Pig by Michael Bowen Copyright © 2006 by Michael Bowen. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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