Release Date: June 1st 2004
An unabashed animal lover, Andy Carpenter has established a fast reputation as that rare lawyer who saves both dogs and humans from Death Row. Lately, with his newfound fortune, he has given up his home in the fashionable suburbs and returned to the house in which he grew up in the asphalt heart of Paterson. These days his office is eerily quite, except for the scraping pen of his secretary, Edna, as she navigates across and down the New York Times crossword puzzle. Though his wallet isn’t hurting, Andy’s soul hungers for a case to sink his legal teeth into.
He’s about to get his wish. And it’ll be a first degree kick in the head.
It begins with the discovery of a once dirty, now decapitated cop. Then not one but three prime suspects emerge. The first is fingered by the police. The second walks unannounced into Andy’s office to confess to the crime. But most uncannily of all, the third is none other than Laurie Collins, Andy’s lead investigator…and the love of his life. Now to clear Laurie, Andy must spring a brilliant yet desperate courtroom trap — before it snaps them both in its steely, lethal jaws.
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First Degree: Excerpt…
First Degree by David RosenfeltOPENING DAY.
Said separately, they’re just two ordinary words. “Opening” and “day.” No big deal. But put them together, liberally sprinkle some thirty-year-old memories, and they take on a meaning that can simultaneously bring a rush of excitement and a threat of tears. At least to me.
“Opening day.” My mind’s eye conjures up men in pin-stripes racing onto a lush green field as the public address announcer booms, “Ladies and gentlemen, the New York Yankees!” That field is a clean spring slate; none of those players have yet made an error, or hit into a double play, or thrown a bat in disgust. Nor have they plans to.
The feeling I have on opening day is one I shared with my father and one he shared with his father before that. Today it takes on an added significance, because I’m going to continue that legacy. The experience won’t be quite identical, but we in the Carpenter family are nothing if not adaptable.
I should mention the differences, subtle though they are. First of all, since I don’t have any children, the offspring I am passing the sacred tradition on to is my golden retriever, Tara. Also, with the baseball season a good month away, we won’t be going to Yankee Stadium, and we won’t be seeing a base-ball game. The particular opening that we are attending is that of Paterson, New Jersey’s first-ever dog park.
I’ve never actually been to a dog park; I’m not even sure what one is. Tara hasn’t been to one either, unless it was during the first two years of her life, before I knew her. If she has, I suspect the experience was less than thrilling, since I told her yesterday that we’d be going, and she was not awake all night in eager anticipation.
This dog park is supposed to be a pretty big deal. It was even a campaign issue in the recent election for mayor. Every candidate promised to have one, so I guess Paterson must have a lot of people like me, concerned citizens who vote the straight dog ticket.
As Tara and I drive over, I’m not getting the feeling that she’s into the swing of things. She sits on the front seat, munches on a rawhide chewy, and doesn’t show the least bit of interest in where we might be headed. Even when we get close, and we can hear the barking, she doesn’t bother to look up and just keeps chomping away. Now I know why my father never gave me chewies on the way to Yankee games.
The park itself is nothing more than a very large dirt area, maybe the size of a football field, fenced on all sides. There must be a hundred dogs running around, getting to know each other, stopping to drink at numerous and well-positioned water fountains. Sort of a canine singles bar. There are maybe half as many humans, almost exclusively women, standing off to one side, talking and occasionally throwing a tennis ball, which sends the dogs into an absolute frenzy.
As we near the entrance gate, Tara seems to watch this scene with some measure of horror, much as I would approach a mosh pit. But she’s a good sport; she checks her dignity at the door and enters with me. I walk toward the humans, and so does Tara. She’ll do this for my sake, but she’s not about to go fighting for a tennis ball like some animal.
The conversation, as might be expected, pretty much centers around all things canine. The dog park, the dogs, dog food, dog toys…it all seems fascinating, except as a male I’m not included. Tara keeps leaning against my leg, in a subtle suggestion that we bail out of here. I am preparing to do just that when a woman deigns to speak to me. “Your dog seems a little antisocial.” She’s talking about Tara, and if she hadn’t said it with a smile on her face, we’d be duking it out right now.
I decide to go with glib. “This isn’t really her scene. She’s an intellectual. Bring her to a poetry reading, and she’s the life of the party.”
The woman, nice-looking despite her “yuppie puppie” headband, for some reason decides this could be a conversation worth continuing. “I have a friend looking for a golden retriever puppy. What breeder did you get her from?” I shake my head. “I didn’t. She was in the animal shelter.” She is amazed by this, as I was, as would be any normal human being. “You mean somebody abandoned this dog? And she could have been. . .”
She doesn’t want to say “killed” or “put to sleep,” so I take her off the hook with a nod. “She was on her last day when I got her.”
The horrified woman calls some of her friends over to tell them this story, and before I know it I’m holding court in the middle of maybe twenty women, all of them gushing over my sensitivity for having rescued this dog. The dog in question, Tara, stands dutifully by my side, enduring the embarrassment and apparently willing to let me take the credit, even though she was the one stuck in that shelter.
After a few minutes of embellishing the story about the animal shelter, which I am now referring to as “death row,” I move smoothly into light banter. This is interrupted by a woman standing toward the back.
“Hey, aren’t you that lawyer who won that big case? I saw you on television. Andy Carpenter, right?” I nod as modestly as I can manage. She is talking about the Willie Miller case, in which I proved Willie’s innocence in a retrial after he had spent seven years facing the death penalty. The women connect the dots and realize that I am that rare person who saves both dogs and people from death rows everywhere, and the group attitude quickly moves toward hero worship. It’s daunting, but that’s the price I pay for being heroic.
Suddenly, there is a sign of life and interest from Tara, as she moves quickly toward a woman approaching our group. The newcomer, to my surprise, is Laurie Collins, the chief (and only) investigator for my law practice, and the chief (and only) woman that I am in love with. She would not have been my first choice to interrupt this meeting of my all-female sensitivity class, but she looks so good that I don’t really mind. As Laurie comes closer, I can see that she doesn’t only look good, she looks intense. She doesn’t even lean over to pet Tara, an uncharacteristic oversight which surprises me and positively shocks Tara. Laurie comes right over to me, and my devoted fans part slightly and grudgingly to let her through. “Alex Dorsey is dead,” she says.
“What?” It’s a reflex question. I wasn’t asking it to get more information in the moment, but that’s exactly what I get. “Somebody decapitated him, then poured gasoline on his body and set it on fire.”
If you ever want to get rid of twenty adoring women, I know a line you can use. My fans leave so fast you’d think there was a “70% off” sale at Petco. Based on the gleam in Laurie’s eye, that’s exactly what she expected. Within moments it is just Laurie, Tara, and myself.
“Sorry to interrupt, Andy,” she says. “At first I wasn’t sure it was you. I thought it might be a rock star.” I put on my most wistful look. “For a moment there, I was.” “You up for breakfast at Charlie’s? Because I’d like to talk to you about Dorsey.”
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll meet you there.” She nods and walks to her car. I’m going to drop Tara off at home and then go to Charlie’s, which is just five minutes from my house.
On the way there, I reflect on Dorsey’s death and what it might mean to me. The answer is that it means absolutely nothing at all to me, except for the impact it will have on Laurie. But that will be considerable.
Alex Dorsey was a lieutenant in the Paterson Police Department when Laurie was making detective, and she was assigned to his command at the time of her promotion. It didn’t take long for her to realize that whatever he once had been, he had ceased to be a very good cop. If there was an easy way out, Dorsey would find an even easier one. He was a walking billboard for the twenty-year retirement rule, although obviously he had chosen to take his retirement while still on the job.
It took a while longer for Laurie to realize that laziness was not Alex Dorsey’s biggest vice. Like most of her colleagues, she had heard the rumors that Dorsey was on the take, but she came to believe that the truth was something even worse. Dorsey was playing both sides; he was partners in business with the criminals he was supposed to be investigating. And he was such a tough, resourceful son of a bitch that he had been getting away with it for a long time.
Laurie agonized about what to do but emotionally didn’t really have a choice. Her father and uncle had been cops, good cops, and she learned from a very early age that what Dorsey was doing was the worst kind of public betrayal. Laurie developed some evidence against him, circumstantial but a compelling start, and presented it to Internal Affairs. It was not her job to prove the case, and besides, she knew that they could take it from there. Conclusive evidence would not be difficult to uncover, and it wouldn’t be long before Dorsey paid for his sins.
But the first sign that Dorsey was not going down easily was the almost immediate public knowledge that Laurie was the person who had turned him in. That leak was a violation of department policy, which guarantees anonymity to those who turn over evidence implicating an officer in a crime. Laurie’s action was also considered by some a violation by her of the ridiculous code of silence, which says that cops don’t turn on other cops, no matter how slimy those other cops might be. The controversy brought chaos and bitterness to the department. Dorsey had developed quite a power base over the years, and he was aware of skeletons in closets where most people didn’t even know there were closets. The rank and file, and probably the department leadership, were drawn to one side or the other, and it became perceived as Alex Dorsey versus Laurie Collins. His supporters viewed her as the enemy, or worse, as a traitor.
It became apparent to Laurie that the investigation, mired in departmental and even mayoral politics, was going to be neither complete nor fruitful. So when the word finally came out that Dorsey was merely reprimanded for “improprieties,” rather than dismissed and charged with felonies, Laurie’s disenchantment and disgust were complete, and she left the department. She opened her own investigative agency, and I became one of her clients. Happily, I became much more later on. A week ago, word got out that new information had surfaced and that Dorsey was facing imminent arrest. Unfortunately, that word must have also gotten to Dorsey, who proceeded to disappear. Laurie openly admitted to feeling vindicated by the turn of events, which was the last we had heard of Dorsey until today’s grisly discovery.
I drop Tara off, give her a biscuit, and head over to Charlie’s. It is basically a sports bar/restaurant, but it has recently added a terrific breakfast menu. One of the many things I love about Laurie is that she likes Charlie’s as much as I do, which is about as much as is possible to like a restaurant. Even on Sunday mornings, when there are no games on the ten television screens, it’s a great place to be.
I order some fresh fruit, hash browns, and black coffee, then sit back and prepare to listen. I know Laurie well enough to realize that in this case, when she says she needs to talk to me, that isn’t exactly what she means. What she needs to do right now is talk period, and she feels a little silly if there’s nobody around to hear it. So I am the designated listener.
Laurie starts a five-minute soliloquy about Dorsey, rehashing some of their history together. It’s nothing I don’t already know, and nothing she doesn’t know I already know. She wraps it up with, “He was a bad guy. A really bad guy. You know that.”
Recognizing that it is my turn to speak, I nod. “Yes, I do. He was a bad guy. Absolutely. A bad guy.” Laurie is silent for a few moments, then says softly, “The thing that bothers me, Andy, is that I’m glad he’s dead. When I heard about it, I was glad.” This is a major admission from someone who, when she catches a fly, takes it outside and turns it loose. “That’s normal,” I say.
She shakes her head, unwilling to be let off the hook. “Not for me.” “He was a dirty cop who had it coming.” I twirl my imaginary mustache and inject some humor. “Said the liberal to the conservative.”
She seems completely unamused, which I have to assume reflects her emotional state rather than the quality of the joke. I try again, continuing with the same theme. “At today’s performance, the role of tough law-and-order advocate will be played by Andy Carpenter, and the role of defender of the indefensible will be played by Laurie Collins.”
She ignores this one as well; I should be writing them down to use on more appreciative audiences. The fact is, I can’t get that exercised about Dorsey’s death; the planet is a healthier place for his being gone. He represented a terribly unpleasant chapter in Laurie’s life, an emotional toothache, and I’m hoping she can now put it behind her. But she’s not letting it drop, so I decide to steer the conversation toward the nuts and bolts of today’s news. “Do they have any suspects?” I ask.
“Doesn’t seem like it. Pete’s theory is that his mob friends turned on him once he was no longer of any value to them.” “Pete” is Lieutenant Pete Stanton, my closest, and only, friend on the police force, and one of the few officers who openly supported Laurie during the tough times. I’m not surprised that he would be the one to provide her with informa-tion about Dorsey’s death. “Where was he found?” I ask.
“In a warehouse on McLean Boulevard. Kids called in an alarm when they saw smoke. Turned out it was Dorsey that was on fire.”
She takes a deep breath and continues. “They think his head was sliced off, maybe with a machete. Whoever did it must have kept it as a souvenir. And the body was burned beyond recognition. They only ID’d him based on some unusual kind of ring he was wearing.” My antennae go up. “That’s all?”
She nods. “But they’re running a DNA test to be sure.” I’m glad to hear that. I wouldn’t put it past Dorsey to murder someone else and fake the whole thing. People on both sides of the law have a tendency to stop chasing you when they think you’re dead.
We talk about the Dorsey situation some more, until there’s nothing left to say about it. “Are you going into the office tomorrow?” she asks. I nod. “Probably late morning. I’m meeting with Holbrook on the Danny Rollins case at nine-thirty.” “Wow. Practice is really taking off, huh?”
Laurie is gently mocking both the fact that I’m representing Danny Rollins, who happens to be my bookmaker, and the fact that I’ve got absolutely nothing else to do. I haven’t taken on a significant client in the six months since the Willie Miller case. And it’s not that I haven’t had the opportunities. The way the trial ended, with Willie getting off and the real killers exposed, I became a media darling and Paterson’s answer to Perry Mason. I’ve been at the top of every felon’s wish list ever since. But I’ve rejected them all. Each turndown had its own rationale.
Either the potential client seemed guilty and therefore unworthy, or the case wasn’t challenging, or interesting, or significant. Down deep it feels like I’ve been inventing reasons to decline these cases, but I truly don’t know why I would. I think I have lawyer’s block.