THE FIRST TIME I WALKED into an autopsy room I tried to convince myself that my sweaty palms were due to the rubber surgical gloves I was required to wear rather than an irrational fear that death could float across the room like an airborne virus and infect me. Five years ago, still in my twenties, I was not yet immune to the disease of death.
The only bodies I'd ever seen had been waked in Italian funeral homes, where the dead had been preserved, prettied, and then gift—packed like keepsake dolls in silk—lined caskets. Death at the morgue was different. Still warm and pulsating, these freshly bodies had been scooped off the streets only hours before and dropped, rude and bloody, on stainless steel tables. Back then I still believed in souls, resisting the scientific proposition that after a person's last breath his humanity disappeared into thin air like the smoke trailing a cigarette. So I used to think that if I kept still and silent I could tune into those frequencies used by the transitionally dead to communicate. But before long I was asking myself: What would the recently departed, assuming an afterlife, really want to say to us? Greetings, Attorney Melone. Telegram from the hereafter: The transition process was a bit messy but death turned out to be no sweat. Really enjoying myself here. Life on earth is just a —two—minute test drive for the real thing. See you soon!
Right. And postcard to follow.
A Manhattan kindergartner could have told me I was fooling myself. I had to face it. If death was communicating, I wasn't on its mailing list. And after a few years of seeing corpses unzipped from plastic bags and sliced open, their innards scooped out and dissected, reality hit. The dead strangers on those metal tables were only shells ready to be cracked open, cleaned out, then either flame—charred or canned for underground storage.
So there I was, nicely calloused, in my fifth year as an assistant attorney general in Rhode Island, when three of my colleagues and I agreed to meet for an apreswork dinner at the Red Fez. The Fez was number five on a list of ten "Do Not Visit" establishments that RI assistant attorney generals were forbidden to patronize because of the restaurants' alleged "ties to organized crime." And precisely because of its off—limits status to AAGs, the Fez had briskly evolved into our de facto secret clubhouse. With its Middle Eastern fare and Iranian owners, the Fez must have seemed the perfect underworld hangout for dumb Rhode Island mobsters trying to keep a low profile by avoiding all restaurants with capellini on the menu. The "organized crime" prohibition notwithstanding, my friends and I agreed to meet there at 11 p.m. At that hour midweek we were certain no one in our social or work circles would see us.
The Fez was decorated more or less like Hell—a windowless cave, carpeted, wallpapered, and furnished in deep reds, ominously lit from below by table candles and from above by twenty-five-watt pendant bulbs shrouded in burgundy faux—silk shades that hovered like dire crimson vultures in wait. Our male colleagues at the AG's office—those who were aware of our clandestine Sabbats—not so affectionately referred to the Fez as our "little red whorehouse."
The Fez was quartered in a seedy back alley of downtown Providence, a threatening locale even on a bustling workday. Under a moonless, starless, asphalt black sky I headed over the river walk. Halfway there I saw the girls standing at the corner of Pine Street, ready to cross into the alley. The gang. My brethren. Laurie Stein, Shannon Lynch, Beth Earles, and me, Assistant Attorney General Marianna Melone. Beth ran up to kiss me hello on the cheek, walking me back to Laurie and Shannon, neither of whom bothered to turn around. Working together for the past five years, we had long ago settled into sibling-like familiarity. Our hellos consisted of grunts and a few obscenities as I fell into perfect marching order and we continued down the block.
Gun-shy about advertising our patronage of the shady, off—limits dive, we took a circuitous safari around the back of a closed package store named Hanratty's, where we lined up in front of a badly weather—beaten neon display whose bloodred tubes immediately began taunting us, flickering on and off with a grating buzz.
"A smoke before we go in?" Shannon said, leaning her six-foot frame against Hanratty's filthy glass window in front of a glowing Budweiser sign. "These insidious no-smoking laws are going to drive me to drugs. At least heroin I can do inside the bar."
"As if anyone at the Fez ever stops us from smoking," Laurie remarked.
"AAGs," I added. "Membership has its benefits."
Camel filtereds were passed back and forth in the deep brown murk of night, and we smoked them piggishly like floozies on a break. Only Beth, the sole nonlawyer among us, abstained from the nicotine orgy, rattling on about work and whether or not she should chuck the paralegal nonsense and bite the law school bullet.
Laurie counseled Beth. "No brainer, you little pigeon. With all that research under your belt, you've already forgotten more law than you'll ever need to try a case. You might as well be charming jurors with those baby blues and commanding the same dough as us."
"Forget the money," I sputtered halfway through a particularly ferocious drag. "Being able to tell Piganno off is worth the three years' toil at an accredited law school." I was referring disparagingly to our boss, Attorney General Vincent Piganno. "Until you have a JD after your name"—I tapped ash onto the pavement—"you can only give him the finger behind his back."
"Let's eat," Shannon said, tossing her cigarette.
I took a healthy drag of mine and added my butt to hers in the street. We trod half a block farther into the alley and descended the stairs to the Fez, walking straight to the back to set up our usual spot at the bar. Joe, the omnipresent bartender (indeed, he looked as if he never slept), immediately dealt us four sticky coasters and waited, with that embalmed look on his face, for our order.
"Same all around," ordered Shannon, whereupon Joe promptly snapped the tops off four Heinekens and set the bottles onto the soggy coasters.
None of us felt compelled to make idle conversation, or, for that matter, any conversation, especially at eleven o'clock at night after a hard day's work. More often than not I was the one sparking the banter—turning the group's attention to something inanely philosophical, always searching for the deeper meaning of things, trying to get a rise out of my friends, to provoke them or, at the very least, to make them laugh.
"Jurisprudence," I said into the smoke—filled room. "What is it?"
Three pairs of eyes stared into the darkness. The pair shrouded in men's metal—Ray—Bans belonged to Shannon. She leaned away from the bar and whipped off the glasses, pointing them at me like a loaded pistol. "Who gives a crap?"
But I forged ahead. "Four educated women in the legal profession, and not one of us has a clue about the meaning of jurisprudence."
Shannon threw the sunglasses down on the bar and narrowed her bloodshot blue eyes. "Lasso your thongs, girls. Saint Mari is going AWOL again."
"Well, does anyone know?" I insisted.
"I do." Beth lectured, "Jurisprudence is the science of positive laws and their relationship to legal ethics. I had to take a course in it for my paralegal degree. It's the set of principles upon which legal rules are based."
"Wow," I said in a flash of crystalline cognizance. "Maybe subconsciously I'm questioning my ethical qualifications to practice law. Come to think of it, maybe the process is completely conscious. All this death and gore we deal with daily could be turning me inside out psychologically, slaughtering my soul, as it were."
"Oh, Mari," Beth said. "You just need a vacation."
Shannon retrieved her all-season sunglasses from the bar and hooked them into her terrycloth short hair, which was bleached to within an inch of its protein-deficient life. She grunted. "Here's the thing, girls. Mari is ill. Her compulsive morgue visits have rotted out her weak mind and her Paxil prescription ran out last week. No one cares what jurisfuckingprudence means, and Mari just thinks she cares because she's in drug withdrawal."
"But in fact, Shannon," I said, "I'm not taking antidepressants; whether or not I should be is another question altogether. And as you very well know, I visit morgues pretrial only so I can fire up the jury's rage quotient—"
"Oh, shut up," Shannon said. "You're a necro-freak with those damn morgue visits of yours. If you aren't on drugs, you should be. Keep the beers coming, Joe," she said to the bartender, who had returned just in time for this specious diatribe of mine regarding the general illiteracy of most lawyers. "On second thought," Shannon said, "get me a double Vox, straight up with olives."
It was shaping up to be a typical night.
An hour later we were all smashed on various forms of alcoholic refreshment, and we hadn't even ordered dinner yet.
"It's your fault. You started the switch from beer to vodka," Beth croaked at Shannon. "We need some food."
At the mention of calories, I reached for Shannon's pack of Camels to assuage a vociferous oral fixation.
Beth looked primly at me, then turned quickly away. She admonished me from behind the fall of her shoulder—length blonde mane. "And you, with the cigarettes. I'm the only clean one here."
"You're becoming an old maid, Beth."
Back her eyes shot, granting each of us a quick—zoom—view of their intense violet-blue. "I don't see wedding bands on any of your fingers either."
"Hey, did you hear that one about WASP vitamins?" Shannon said. "Sherry and a Dunhill after each meal."
"Yeah, and Beth never gets drunk because she was suckled on WASP breast milk that has the alcoholic content of a dry martini," cracked Laurie. "Jews, on the other hand, don't drink that much."
"What are you then, Miss Stein?" Beth said. "Adopted?"
Laurie huffed a tough laugh as she pulled her hair out from behind her ears to cover the scar running down her right cheek, a souvenir from a defendant who'd smuggled a knife into court in the days before the security system was upgraded. She was sensitive to the—five—inch scar only when she was on trial or in public. Back at the office she'd pull her shoulder—length hair into a ponytail and never wear a smidgen of makeup. Secure, she had no interest in plaudits or lip gloss.
The four of us comprised an elite female menagerie at the AG's office. No, we weren't gay—weren't white charmed witches in a sex coven—but we were perhaps as close as you could get to that sort of place without blushing. Though we'd been coming to the Fez for five years, I now looked around the greasy downtown dive as if seeing it for the first time. It was damp. It smelled like a bus station urinal with essence of sweet onion flatulence. The cooks had hairy hands, sweaty chests, and foreheads creased with cystic acne. I loved the place: its relentless drawing of strangers into the fold; that mysterious way its clientele fell into the role of —long—lost relatives at a family reunion.
Shannon zeroed in on the bartender with bull's—eye intensity, harnessing her tits. "Okay, Joe, wipe your drool off the bar and score me a couple of olives for this watered—down Popov you're passing off as Vox!"
"I think I'm hanging around with you shiksas too much," Laurie complained. "Next thing you know I'll be sneaking into church to sip wine at communion."
"Amen," said Shannon. She raised her glass for our communal toast.
We drank. We ordered. We ate. We drank more. I wondered silently whether Paxil might not indeed improve my graver moods. And but for a brief follow—on to the continuing disputation between Laurie and Shannon as to which one of them would try in court the double rape/mutilation of three unfortunate twelve-year-old boys, we ate dinner in relative silence. It had been one of those long, dark days where each of us had been buried up to our necks in murder cases and the less aberrant criminally negligent homicides. We were tired, hungry, burnt out.
Shannon was the first to suggest we call it a night. Mouthing an unlit Camel cigarette as if it were an appendage of her latest boyfriend, she signaled to Joe to add up the damage to our cash tab. "I'm going for fresh air and a smoke. I'm beat. I'm toast."
Laurie dropped a fifty on the bar and ambled to the exit. In tacit agreement the rest of us made our cash deposits, rose noisily, and followed her out, sowing in our wake the dissonant smell of various perfumes, the clacking of three pairs of high heels, and a chorus of Vera Wang bangle bracelets.
We trekked down the street in a row, Laurie leading, and Shannon lighting up as soon as she hit the night air. It was now an hour after last call at the downtown bars and accordingly the alley off Pine Street was deserted. Too tired to disobey a traffic light, we waited at the curb of the empty street for the light to change. We watched the light change to red as one car whizzed past us, then as we began to cross, a second vehicle sped into sight, ran the red light, and then deliberately slowed in front of us. Beth backpedaled to the curb and I tensed involuntarily, ready for some youthful Comanche to roll down his window and begin hurling context—appropriate degradation along the lines of which of us would oblige him with the cheapest blow job, when to everyone's surprise the front passenger door swung open and the thunder of an electric guitar from the car's bass speakers boomed and rattled our attention away from the driver. Beth was the first to scream.
I jerked my head in her direction and felt Laurie's arm strike my chest.
"Stop!" Laurie ordered someone. "Stop!"
I turned in slow motion back to the car and watched it peel away as a nauseating bundled mass rolled ponderously into the alley.
But I did not really see that car. I could not for the life of me have identified its color or model or provided a single character on its plate. In fact I did not know precisely what I was witnessing yet, nor could I have appended a name to the thing that had galumphed out of the car's cockpit onto the pavement and was now commanding all our attention.
Excerpted from Defenseless by Celeste Marsella. Copyright © 2008 by Celeste Marsella. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.