|Chapter 1 of Criminal Intent. ©2002 Sheldon M. Siegel, Inc.|
Richard "Big Dick" MacArthur was once a promising young director. Now he churns out B-movies on his best days and soft-core flicks on his worst. For those of us who remember his early work, it's a sad waste of an extraordinary talent.
Film Critic Rex Lucas. San Francisco Chronicle. Friday, June 4.
"He's dead, Mike," the familiar voice says without the slightest hint of emotion. Even in the middle of the night, Rosita Carmela Fernandez, my ex-wife and current law partner, exudes calm professionalism. If we had demonstrated such reserve in our personal dealings a few years ago, we might still be married.
My eyes strain to adjust to the darkness in the unfamiliar bedroom as I fumble my cell phone. A moment later, I'm able to focus on the green numerals on the clock radio. Four-fifteen a.m. It's June fifth and I'm freezing. Another glorious San Francisco summer. I ask, "Who's dead, Rosie?" I'm not much for guessing games before dawn.
Three decades ago, Richard "Big Dick" MacArthur was heralded as the second coming of Stanley Kubrick. He made his first movie, The Master, when he was only twenty-five. It was nominated for best picture and he won the Oscar for screenplay. Then he formed his own production company to make what he liked to call "high quality art films." Some of his movies were more artistic than others, but all were over budget. He hit the skids a couple of years later when he depleted his bank accounts to cover the monumental cost overruns on his films. His lavish spending habits eventually pushed him to the brink of bankruptcy. In recent years, he's kept his creditors at bay by churning out formula action movies and soft-core flicks. If you believe the papers, the debts of MacArthur Films rival those of some third world countries.
Notwithstanding his spotty track record, Big Dick still had a knack for convincing the major studios to pony up big bucks for a mainstream film every few years. The results have been mixed. His baseball film, The Leadoff Man, grossed over a hundred million dollars. The ill-fated sequel, Extra Innings, seemed longer than the seventeen inning game it portrayed. Most of his spare cash has gone to pay alimony to his two ex-wives and to maintain his winery in Napa, where his Cabernets are on a par with his B-movies. His new film, The Return of the Master, is scheduled for release next week. It's being touted as yet another attempt to return to mainstream respectability. We'll see. The early buzz has been lukewarm.
My brain shifts into second gear. I sit up in bed and reach for the lamp. For most people, a call before the sun comes up means serious trouble. When you make your living as a criminal defense attorney, it comes with the territory. Most of my clients don't have the common courtesy to get themselves arrested during normal business hours. I turn on the light and glance at the elegant four-poster bed and the sleek oak dresser. I look out the picture window that frames Alcatraz Island, but all I can see is a layer of thick fog. I remind myself that this fashionable condo on Telegraph Hill isn't exactly the working class neighborhood in the outer Sunset where I grew up. Then again, this isn't exactly my condo.
I ask Rosie, "Where did they find him?"
"Baker Beach. Sounds like he may have fallen off the deck of his house."
Whether it was movies, divorces or houses, Big Dick did everything on a scale that was larger than life. His mansion is perched at the top of a rocky precipice in the exclusive Sea Cliff neighborhood just west of the Presidio and has a panoramic view of the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge. It's an exclusive corner of town. The Chronicle magazine reported that he took out a three million dollar mortgage when he bought the house.
I fight to clear the cobwebs and ask, "Are they sure it's Big Dick?"
A pregnant pause. "Oh, it's Big Dick," she says. "He's definitely dead."
Rosie. She's one of the best criminal defense attorneys in Northern California. We met when we were working at the San Francisco Public Defender's office and got married after a whirlwind romance. She liked the idea of being married to an ex-priest. I liked the idea of being married. We called it off three years later on account of irreconcilable living habits. That was nine years ago. Unfortunately, we have an uncanny ability to push each other's buttons. Shortly after we split up, Rosie left the PD's office and opened her own shop and I went to work for the white shoe Simpson and Gates law firm at the top of the Bank of America building. We were reunited three years ago when the firm showed me the door because I didn't bring in enough high-paying clients. Rosie took me in and we've been law partners ever since. It isn't an ideal arrangement, but we've always been better at working together than living with each other.
"Angel left the message," she says. "The police picked her up in the parking lot at the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge."
Uh-oh. This is going to hit close to home. Angelina Chavez is MacArthur's third wife. He's old enough to be her father and she's starring in his new film. She's also Rosie's niece, but there's a lot more to that story. Rosie isn't just Angel's aunt. She's her surrogate mother. Rosie's younger sister, Theresa, got married when she was eighteen and had two children. Angel's younger brother died of lymphoma when he was five and her father left home a short time later. Theresa became addicted to anti-depressants and alcohol while Angel was still in high school. She's been in AA for a couple of years. Angel spent a lot of time at our apartment when Rosie and I were married. Notwithstanding her family issues, she was a good student and got a scholarship to study drama at UCLA. She did some part-time modeling work and summer theater in college. This led to a recurring role on All My Children.
Angel met Big Dick at a party. He took an immediate liking to her and gave her a couple of small parts in his movies. They got married about a year ago, much to the dismay of the Fernandez clan, Rosie and Theresa included. Angel's starring role in The Return of the Master is her big break. She used her first advance check to buy her mother a small condo in the Mission District, not far from the house where Rosie grew up. Theresa has filled her modest apartment with photos and other memorabilia of her daughter.
I ask, "What was she doing at the bridge at this hour?"
"She didn't say."
This is uncharacteristic. Angel has a level head for a young woman who now travels in limos. Notwithstanding the temptations, she's managed to keep her feet on the ground and stay out of trouble. I ask, "Where is she?"
"The Hall of Justice."
"Why didn't they take her home?"
"I don't know." She has few details. We talk for a couple of minutes. I can hear the tension in her voice when she says, "I can't leave Grace by herself. And you know how she feels about Angel. She's going to be very upset."
Grace is our ten year-old daughter. She lives with Rosie, but she stays with me every other weekend. Her bedroom walls are covered with her cousin's photos from InStyle, Elle and Vanity Fair.
Rosie adds, "I sure as hell don't want to take her to the Hall at this hour."
A highly commendable parental decision.
"Can you go down? I'll take Grace to my mother's, then come find you."
"I'm on my way, Rosie." I pause and ask, "Are you going to be okay?"
There's a hesitation before she says, "Yeah." She stops for an instant and adds, "Mike?"
# # #
A voice from behind me asks, "Rosie?"
I turn around. "Who else?"
"Naturally." Although Leslie Shapiro's delicate features and dark brown hair suggest she's in her mid-thirties, the crow's feet at the corners of her intense eyes reveal a woman who celebrated her forty-eighth birthday last September. She's a year younger than I am.
She asks, "Why does your ex-wife always call when we're together?"
The room still smells of the aromatic candles that were burning a couple of hours earlier. Leslie has a taste for the exotic.
"It just seems that way," I say.
We've been seeing each other for about six months. She asked me out for a drink after a bar association dinner, and one thing led to another. In a perfect world, judges and defense attorneys wouldn't sleep together-it creates certain inherent conflicts of interest-but it isn't a perfect world. It's still hard for me to refer to a sitting California Superior Court judge as my girlfriend. It's even tougher for the daughter of a California Supreme Court Justice and a member of a prominent Jewish family to admit she's sleeping with an Irish Catholic criminal defense attorney who used to be a public defender and a priest.
For the time being, we're keeping our relationship to ourselves. At least we think it's a secret. Rosie knows about it, of course, but the rest of the San Francisco legal community is in the dark. For the moment, so is Judge Shapiro's family. We're reaching the point where we must consider a more permanent arrangement. This will get complicated. She's on the short list for the next opening on the Federal District Court, and mercifully, I haven't appeared in her courtroom since we started dating, but that could change at any moment. I guess you could say the practice of law makes for some strange bed partners.
"Just business," I say.
"It had better be." She's wearing only a UC Berkeley t-shirt, and she stands and pulls my face close to hers. Her eyes never leave mine as she kisses me and then lets go. "I sleep with only one man at a time," she says. "I expect the same from you."
We've covered this territory. "Not a problem," I say. "My relationship with Rosie is purely professional these days."
This hasn't always been the case. We used to spend a fair amount of time rolling around together even after we got divorced. Old habits. The recreational aspects of our relationship came to a halt about a year ago when Rosie started going out with an attorney from the DA's office. They broke up earlier this year. Rosie was seeing him when Leslie asked me out.
Leslie gives me a softer look. "How is Rosie feeling?"
"Not bad, all things considered." Rosie was diagnosed with breast cancer last fall. She had no apparent symptoms, she was very good about doing self-exams and she had a mammogram every year. You never know. Her doctor called it Stage II infiltrating ductal carcinoma, or IDC, the most common type. It starts in a milk passage, or duct, then breaks through the wall and invades the fatty tissue. If untreated, it can spread to other parts of the body. I learned quickly that the severity of the disease is classified into four stages. The higher the stage, the more serious the cancer. Thankfully, they caught it early. She had a lumpectomy in January and six weeks of radiation, and the early tests suggested the treatment was successful. I'm hopeful. True to form, she's fighting with stoic intensity. She went in for her regular tests last week.
"What's the story with Richard MacArthur?" she asks.
"He's dead. His wife was picked up at the Golden Gate Bridge a little while ago."
"What was she doing there?"
She gives me a skeptical look. "I've read about her."
"She's only twenty-five." I tell her about her modeling career and soap opera roles. Then I give her an abbreviated version of her relationship with her husband.
"Do you think she had anything to do with his death?"
"It's too soon to tell. She's talented and ambitious. He's an egomaniac." If you believe the tabloids, they've been sniping at each other on the set for six months. She asks where they found the body.
"Baker Beach. They think he fell off the deck of his house. It's about a ten-story drop."
She cringes. "Accidentally?"
I shrug. "It could have been an accident. Or a suicide." I leave any other possibilities unspoken.
She reflects for a moment and adds, "Forgive me for asking, but doesn't it seem a little odd to you that Angelina Chavez called you and Rosie for legal advice?"
It's a fair question. For the most part, Rosie and I practice criminal defense law by the seat of our pants from the second floor of a tired three-story brick building at 84 First Street, a block from the Transbay bus terminal. We run a low-margin operation just above the El Faro Mexican restaurant in a suite that once housed Madame Lena, a tarot card reader who assured us that we would have good luck if we took over her lease. Our new space is actually a slight improvement over our old offices in a defunct martial arts studio around the corner on Mission Street, next door to the Lucky Corner Chinese restaurant. We moved last month when our old building was torn down to make way for a new high rise. The Lucky Corner was also a casualty of urban renewal. The San Francisco culinary landscape will never be quite the same. We pay our bills by cutting deals on drunk driving cases and representing small-time hoodlums and an occasional drug dealer. At least the drug dealers usually have some money to pay us. On a really good day, some poor corporate executive who has been charged with securities fraud will call us. Lately, there haven't been many good days. Rosie's illness has required her to cut back her practice. We get calls from people in Sea Cliff about once a decade.
Despite our modest surroundings, Rosie and I have had our share of high-profile cases. Three years ago, we represented an attorney from my old firm who was accused of gunning down two of our former colleagues. It was a media circus. A year later, Rosie and I defended the San Francisco District Attorney when he was charged with murdering a young male prostitute in a room at the Fairmont Hotel. We got a lot of attention for that one, too. Although it's fun to see yourself on the news every night, those cases are the exception to our day-to-day existence.
"There's a perfectly logical explanation," I say.
"And that would be?"
"She's Rosie's niece."
Leslie considers this news for a moment and says, "You never mentioned it. You've been withholding evidence from me, counselor."
I give her a quick grin and a glib answer. "You didn't ask."
This elicits a grin. "Have you withheld any other material information from me?"
"No, Your Honor."
Her grin disappears. The Honorable Leslie Shapiro gives me a judicial nod and says, "The conventional wisdom says you shouldn't represent family members. It gets too personal."
"You can't always follow the conventional wisdom."
"This is going to get messy, isn't it?"