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Hostile Witness Part 15

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"Oh, the antic.i.p.ation," I said slowly.

"It'll be worth your while." He turned back to Veronica and reached into his inside pocket. "Let me give you my card. If you need anything, a will, lunch, anything, give me a call. My home number's on the back."

"I'm sorry Mr...." she glanced at the card. "Whatever. But I don't need any more insurance."

"I don't sell insurance."

"Funny, you strike me as someone who would sell insurance." She ripped his card in half and let the pieces drop to the floor.



"My man Victor," he said, shaking his head. "We really need to talk."

"A friend of yours?" asked Veronica after he had left.

"He used to be, before he deserted us for a big firm paying him lots of money. Stole our best files, too."

"You're better off without him. He's a c.o.c.ky little b.a.s.t.a.r.d."

"I used to think he was charming."

"He still does," she said. "But he's torn up about his wife."

"It seemed like he was taking it pretty well."

"It was in his eyes. I read eyes, you know."

"So you told me."

"His eyes were very sad, very ugly. He's desperate for her."

"For a desperate guy he was coming on to you all right," I said.

"Since I was fourteen I never met a man who didn't."

"Now who's being c.o.c.ky?"

"It's not arrogance, Victor. Every man in this bar would go out with me if he could. Even the gay ones. If I came in alone I wouldn't have had to buy a drink."

"You didn't buy a drink. I bought them all."

"That's true. I never buy drinks."

"Convenient."

"For an alcoholic. The only difference between men is that though they all want me, some think they deserve me. Take your friend Prescott. He thinks he deserves me. Every time he has a second alone with me his hands are all over my body."

"I thought he was happily married."

"He says he can't help himself."

"That's bulls.h.i.+t."

"Or maybe I ask for it."

She laughed and leaned close and languidly rolled the edge of her finger across my mouth and down my neck and then leaned closer until I could smell her sweet, sharp breath.

"Do you think I ask for it?"

"Stop it."

She gave me a fake pout. "Don't you want to kiss me, Victor? Don't you want to bite my lip?"

"You shouldn't be talking like that."

She took hold of my hand and put it on her thigh and I let her. The cool softness of her palm, the textured silkiness of her stocking. My face got hot and I looked around at the bar crowd, deep into the inanities of its conversations, oblivious to us. She rubbed my hand back and forth on her thigh and placed her mouth next to my ear.

"Don't you want to smell the perfume on my neck," she whispered, "and kiss my collarbone and reach into my dress and roll my right nipple between your fingers?"

I took my hand away. "Cut it out." The phone call from Chuckie had left me nervous, too nervous to play her games.

"Anything you want, Victor."

"Just cut out the teasing."

"I'm not teasing." She laughed. "Well, not completely."

"What about Jimmy? Does he think he deserves you, too?"

"No," she said, turning back to the bar and drinking the last of her martini. "Jimmy thinks he earned me and he's right. Finish your drink, we should be going."

On the way out of the bar, as we squeezed through the crowd of suits, an olive-clad arm reached out to grab my shoulder. "Don't forget," said Guthrie. "We have to meet."

Veronica drapped herself around me until she was facing Guthrie and said "Bye-bye Fred."

Guthrie said, "My name's not..." before he realized she was playing with him.

I gave Veronica a signal to let her know I'd be out in a moment and then I grabbed hold of Guthrie's arm. "Let me ask you something," I said. "Last night Lauren was wearing two gold bracelets with runes and diamonds. I was thinking of getting them for somebody."

"The babe out there?"

"Sure. Where did she buy them?"

"You don't get stuff like that at Sears, Vic. They're custom jobs, from a jeweler in Switzerland."

"Is there a catalogue or something?"

"Forget it, they were the only two made. She helped design them, she's into design now, you know. Besides, Vic, they're so out of your league pricewise you might as well be thinking of buying the Eagles."

Outside the bar Veronica clutched at my arm as we walked down 20th, looking for a cab. She leaned her head on my shoulder and I pulled away as I saw an empty Yellow Cab drive toward us. I stepped out into the street and waved. The cab swerved to a violent, Hollywood stop.

"You go to the airport maybe, mister?" said the puffyfaced East Indian driver.

I opened the door before he could get away.

In the back of the cab she sat close and leaned into me. "I think I'm a martini short of where I ought to be."

"I think you've had plenty," I said, s.h.i.+fting away from her until I was leaning against the door. I took her hand off my knee.

"I wasn't teasing you."

"Yes you were."

"But don't you want to kiss me?"

"No."

"Really. Just a kiss?"

"Stop it."

She pursed her lips and leaned her face toward me.

"Just one kiss and I'll stop."

"You'll stop without a kiss."

"If you were Prescott you'd have me stretched out on the back seat already with my legs around your neck."

I didn't relish being compared to Prescott like that, as if he were the better man in everything. I was on the way up, in my ascendance, but still I couldn't stop seeing myself as a second-rater compared to the likes of William Prescott III. I felt a swift flash of anger and I cupped her chin to give her a peck on the cheek, like she was a little girl, tossing her chin away from me when it was over.

She laughed. "See, that wasn't so terrible."

She leaned forward and kissed me quickly and lightly on the lips. And then again, longer this time, pressing her body into mine as she kissed me. Her lips parted and her tongue licked my lips before slipping itself through and rubbing my teeth and then searching like a serpent for my own. By the time the cab stopped she was almost kneeling on the bench seat, pressing her body onto mine like a wrestler struggling for a pin, and my hands were up the back of her dress and down her panties.

"If maybe you finished here now, mister, we're at the place," said the driver. We were in front of a corner restaurant with a brown tiled entrance and a well-lighted sign hanging off the wall that read: DANTE'S & LUIGI'S.

Veronica pulled back from me and, still kneeling on the bench, said through a catlike smile, "See, just an innocent little kiss."

Then she reached for her purse and told the driver to ride around the block, once, so she could straighten her face.

17.

"HOW'S THAT VEAL CHOP, VICTOR?" asked Jimmy Moore. "They make the best veal chop in all of South Philadelphia. The best."

"It's fine."

"Their gravy's not as good as Ralph's, but Dante's and Luigi's veal chop is the thickest in the city. And they marinate it before they broil it. That's the secret."

"It's fine," I said.

It was just five of us in a bare and s.p.a.cious private dining room, with whitewashed plaster walls and a high tin ceiling. The table was covered with crisp linen and the waiters, wearing red jackets and linen ap.r.o.ns, had piled it with pasta, veal, broccoli rabe sauteed in garlic, a large bowl of chopped greens swimming in oil and spiced vinegar. Prescott sat rigid in his chair, ignoring his meal so he could stare at me. Concannon worked carefully on his scaloppine, elbows off the table. Veronica sat next to Moore, who kept his arm possessively in her lap.

"We're glad you were able to come this evening, Victor," said Prescott. "We wanted to make clear exactly the foundation upon which our defense will rest in the upcoming trial."

"Politics in America, Victor," boomed Jimmy Moore. "That's our defense. You've heard the tapes, we can't deny that we were asking for contributions from that lizard Ruffing, and I wouldn't if I could. But everything we did was required by our fine political system. Required. Do you understand?"

"Not exactly," I said.

"What is politics in America all about, Victor?" he asked.

I thought for a moment. "The will of the electorate?"

"Money," he roared. "America is not about power being bestowed by the people, it is about power being grabbed. Grabbed. This country was built with a revolution, created again in a civil war, nothing comes easy or cheap here. American politics is the fairest in the world because the only thing that matters is the money. Hire the consultants, buy the television time, put a b.u.mper sticker on every car, pay off the ward leaders, grab the electorate by its throat with all your money and take the oath of office. That's the system and that's d.a.m.n fine. Any Tom, d.i.c.k, or Hanna can hand in a pet.i.tion, but only the real Joe, can raise the dough. And to stay the real Joe, you better aim every day of your term at getting the contributions for the next election, you better never let down, not for a second. For those who want to support me it is not enough that they clap when I speak, they must give me money when I run. When I was demanding money from Ruffing for my political action committee, for my causes, for my future as a public servant, it was in the great tradition of American politics. All politicians do it, they just cloak it with c.o.c.ktail parties or fancy dinners. But I cloak nothing. I was demanding money from a supporter because the system I love requires me to do it. And if I was asking a little more forcefully than others, it's because I have a greater pa.s.sion for what I'm doing than the others. Do you understand what I'm saying, Victor?"

"Our strategy," said Prescott, with a pursed, mournful face, as if he were a presidential flack on Nightline, "is to turn this trial of these two public servants into a trial of the American political system and then to make sure the system gets acquitted."

"You should be focusing on that strategy," said Moore. "Preparing to build on that foundation. Isn't that right, Chet?"

"That's right," said my client.

"Now we've hired a polling service," said Prescott. "We've studied focus groups, examined the demographics. With the right jurors this strategy will prevail. We're certain."

"Can I get a copy of that study," I asked.

Prescott smiled at me, but not his warm smile. "Of course. The key is to gear everything, the jury selection, the arguments, the testimony, everything to our strategy."

"What about the murder?" I asked.

"Don't worry yourself about it," said Moore, reaching for a basket of toasted garlic bread.

"And the arson?"

"Forget it," said Moore, his mouth now full.

"It's hard to forget about murder and arson."

"How's your makeup doing, Ronnie?" asked Moore.

"Fine, I think," she said.

"Why don't you check it?"

She nodded and rose from the table, leaving the room without glancing at me. I couldn't help but follow her out with my gaze. When I turned back, Moore was staring at me with a frightening ferocity.

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