First Chapters: Death On a High Floor by Chuck Rosenberg
Pump Up Your Book is proud to bring you the first chapters of fantastic books from magnificently talented authors. Not only does this give you a chance to see the author’s writing style, but it also helps in your book buying decisions. Today’s first chapter is from Chuck Rosenberg’s legal thriller, Death on a High Floor.
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Death On a High Floor
By Chuck Rosenberg
Sliding Hill Press (August 12, 2011)
© Copyright Charles Rosenberg 2011 All Rights Reserved
I am a lifer. Came here at twenty-four in seventy-four. So that’s sixty years on the planet, thirty-six years here. Of course, it’s not like being a lifer at, say, Wal-Mart. Last year I made six hundred fifty thousand dollars. Not a lot these days by some standards, I know. Not a million or more, like some of my more ambitious colleagues with a weekend place in Santa Barbara and two kids at Yale. But then again, I don’t work all that hard. I billed maybe eighteen hundred hours last year. Nothing like what they make the kids do these days. Twenty-two hundred hours required, twenty-five hundred for a real shot at partner.
After thirty-six years, you know a place. You know who drinks too much. You know who screws too much. You know who hates too much. You even mostly know who it is they hate. So it didn’t immediately strike me as surprising that someone had buried a knife between Simon Rafer’s shoulder blades. There were a lot of people with motive enough. Simon, at forty-eight, is—well, was—the firm’s biggest business getter, and he had been on the warpath, clearing out dead wood, as he called the poor schmucks. Guys who’d been here, some of them, twenty, even thirty years. Nice people, good lawyers, but not the kind of folks who could rope in a Fortune 500 company.
“Old Mules,” he had labeled them at one Executive Committee meeting. Lowering our profits per partner. Not people who were going to move the firm ahead. Whatever that meant. Two thousand lawyers in twelve countries, instead of a mere thousand in six, like now?
A lot of associates with a motive, too. Simon was a screamer. I’d heard him screaming at them. Even at Jenna. Simon could make or break your shot at partner.
I wish I had not been the one to find him. God’s punishment for getting in at 6:00 a.m. every day, I guess. Usually, no one else is on the eighty-fifth floor when I get in. Usually, it is dark. Usually, the big double doors into reception are locked. Usually, there are no bodies face down on the floor.
I shouldn’t have touched him I know. Maybe I wanted to see if he was really dead. He was. Cold as ice. But then it had been a cold night, even for Los Angeles in December, and the firm’s energy task force had decreed that the heat would go off at eleven each night, no matter what.
I called 911 on my cell phone and they came. First the cops, three of them. Then the coroner, four of them. Then two more cops. Then the crime scene guys, five of them. So by 7:00 a.m. there were fourteen of them, one of me, and Simon.
A few minutes after seven, the early bird lawyers started stepping smartly off the elevator, Starbucks in hand, ready for the day. Taken aback. Barred from entering by the yellow tape across the doors. Cops telling them to leave. Most staying.
Who wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t want to get on a Blackberry and tell the other nine hundred ninety-nine lawyers, scattered across four continents, that they had personally seen that consummate asshole Simon Rafer face down in his own blood with an ornate dagger buried to its hilt in his back? Not to mention the nice touch that all the blood had nearly obliterated the special weave that had—at a cost of God knew how much— emblazoned MARBURY MARFAN in a deep red across the width of the cream carpet. The whole thing would no doubt have to be replaced.
I didn’t see Jenna get off the elevator, but suddenly she was beside me. Despite our almost thirty year age difference, we have a joshing relationship.
“Did you have to ruin the carpet, Jenna?”
“Robert, I had every good reason to off him, but I would have put the knife very precisely lower down.”
“You’re not sad he’s dead, then?”
“Are you sure he’s dead?”
“I touched him. He’s ice cold.”
“You found him?”
“So you’re a suspect.”
“Guess so. Technically, anyway.”
“Well, I’m not. And I’m out of here. I can work at home.” With that, she turned crisply on her little black Mary Janes and was gone.
A guy in a baggy suit stepped up and flashed his badge at me. I had only seen that in the movies. Never been personally flashed before.
“Are you the guy who found him?”
“Yes, I am.”
“You’re Robert Tarza?”
“You’re a partner here?”
“I’m Detective Spritz. Homicide. Is there somewhere we can talk?”
“My office would work. But we’d have to cross the yellow tape.”
“Can’t do that.”
“Okay, let’s use the conference room on eighty-four.”
Spritz followed me down the elevator and into the main conference room on eighty-four. It used to be called 84-A, but the year before the firm had given all of its conference rooms names. There was even a naming contest and a formal Naming Committee. Big law firms have lots of mindless committees designed to make the people on them feel important. I submitted Cochise for this one, since so many of my fellow litigators like to think of themselves as members of the warrior class. But Cochise wasn’t picked. 84-A is now called da Vinci.
Da Vinci was designed to impress. Its floor-to-ceiling windows look northwest into the hills, with the Pacific as distant backdrop. The decor is understated Italian contemporary, although what that look has to do with Leonardo is beyond me.
I sat down on the side of the table that faces away from the windows, so that Spritz would have to face the view. I did it on purpose.
Although I had of late come to feel much more like a tenant farmer at Marbury Marfan than a true partner-owner of the place, thirty-six years at the firm had not left me immune to the nuances of status. Making the other person face the view leaves them to admire the wealth and power that can afford to have the view. Particularly someone like Spritz. Perhaps I imagined it, but he seemed a tad ill at ease. I didn’t think he was accustomed to investigating the murders of managing partners at elite international law firms.
Spritz took out a notebook. “Mind if I take some notes?”
“Not at all, Detective.”
“I gather that the deceased was a rather big cheese around here.”
“He was the managing partner of the firm.”
“What does that mean, exactly, Mr. Tarza?”
“Hmm. Well, it means he was the biggest cheese. Sort of the CEO of the firm. But without the kind of power a CEO has. For the most part, a managing partner can’t tell people what to do. He can only punish them if they don’t do it.”
“Yeah, like cut their compensation. Or redo the floor their office is on, so they have to go live in a temporary closet for a year. Or discover that they are the perfect candidate to open the firm’s new office in Bangladesh. That kind of thing.”
“Did Mr. Rafer have any enemies that you know of?”
“No.” Now some might think that I lied about that. But after years of advising clients to answer questions asked in depositions literally, I can honestly say that Spritz asked the wrong question. Simon had no announced enemies that I knew of. Just a lot of people with a potential motive to kill him. I thought to myself that I could teach Spritz a thing or two about how to ask questions.
“Was there anyone with a potential motive to kill him?”
Shit. “Hundreds of people, really. Every lawyer whose compensation got cut last year. Every associate who didn’t make partner last year because Simon dinged them. Every mail-room clerk he screamed at. The list is endless, Detective.”
“Want to name the top five on the endless list?”
I hesitated. It was tempting. It was easy to think of five people whose day I would have liked to ruin.
“You paused, sir. Does your ‘no’ mean can’t or won’t?”
“Can’t. I really don’t have a clue who did it.”
“Would you be in the top five yourself, Mr. Tarza?”
“You always suspect the one who found him?”
“I doubt I’m a candidate. You see, Detective, I got to Marbury Marfan before Simon Rafer. In fact, I hired him when I was a young partner. Just before his graduation from Stanford. But mean as this place is, there is a certain well, call it an ethic, that the young don’t mess with those who brung ‘em, even years later. So however unproductive I might be, Simon never messed with me. I have no motive.”
“Let’s just say that I am not the picture of what everyone is looking for these days in a senior partner. I pay my way, but I don’t make rain.”
“What about Mr. Marbury and Mr. Marfan? Would they have a motive?”
I laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it. “Marbury and Marfan have been dead for almost a hundred years.”
“I knew that. It was a joke.”
I didn’t think it was a joke, but it didn’t seem wise to press the matter. “Of course, Detective. I knew you knew. Who in this town doesn’t? Anyway, is there more you need from me? I have some work I need to get done.”
“There is something more. We’ll need to take your suit jacket, tie and shirt. Just to make sure they don’t have blood on them. We don’t want to end up looking like those idiots in the O. J. Simpson investigation.” He seemed to be staring at the right-hand sleeve of my suit jacket.
I followed his gaze. There, just at the cuff line, was a dark brownish-red spot, about the size of a postage stamp. It was easily visible against the blue fabric.
“I touched him,” I said. “To see if he was dead.”
“Uh huh.” He said it in a short explosion of breath through the lips, somewhere between a grunt and sigh. I took it to mean he didn’t believe me.
“No, really. It must have come from my touching him.”
“Sure, sure,” Spritz said.
“Okay,” I said, trying to keep my aplomb from thudding to the floor. “You can have the shirt, tie and jacket. I’ve got spares in my office.”
“I’m afraid we’ve got your office taped off. The criminalists have to swab it down. Same reason. You won’t have access till tonight.”
“So I have to go home in my undershirt?”
“No, we’ll give you a windbreaker.”
So much for the view and the power. Half an hour later, I was on my way down the elevator wearing sharply creased, pin-striped suit pants, black shoes and a pink windbreaker that said DUNKIN DONUTS on it. I made a mental note to ask Spritz someday if it was SOP or just getting even for, let’s face it, my snotty non-cooperation.
On the way down the elevator, it really hit me. Simon Rafer was dead. Not by heart attack or car accident, or other things that sometimes befall forty-eight-year-old men. But by murder. By a dagger in his back.
It also hit me that I was a suspect. A serious one, maybe. After all, I found him, I had no alibi, and I apparently had blood on my sleeve. Although I couldn’t fathom what anyone would think my motive might be.