"Diss Iss what salsa is all about, baby!" Rauls words were swallowed up by the lilt of the wild descarga of Maluna Loca, a riff on a classic son montuno that got everybody on the floor eager to shake their fanny.
Like always when they play LA., the Makina had packed the Rumba Room with Chicanos, salvadorenos, peruanos, cubanos, all kinds of Latinos as well as the Latino wannabes, the ladies with their skirts up to here and the guys with their clingy shirts open to the breastbone. If only they had some hair on those chests, pobrecitos! But I'll say this for those white guys, they sure keep trying, don't they?
Of course I should talk. Sometimes I'm the only white girl in a room full of sweating papacitos and mamacitas, all shimmying and shaking and swaying to that beat. In fact if it weren't for salsa I wouldn't have learned the little Spanish that I know. I wouldn't have met Raul either, but that's a different story. The point is, after the wild descarga, after the crazy jam session ended and the floor cleared, I went back to our table while Raul excused himself to the men's room. The waitress was having trouble navigating the crowd-and believe me, there's nothing worse than a bunch of thirsty patrons wanting their drink right now, if you please, I should know, that's how I put myself through law school--so I decided to get my own at the bar. I waded through the mass of sweating bodies and had just put in my order when he finally approached me.
"Can I buy you a drink?" he asked, using those words like nobody else had said them before.
He was a tall white guy about six feet or so-which is gigantic for a little bit like me who's five one in her pantyhose. He had deep hazel eyes and a full head of gray hair, very nice even features, almost like a model's, except for a scar right under his left eye socket I would have pegged him for one of those wannabes that hit on you by asking if you dance on the two or the three in salsa but he was way better dressed than that, wearing a smart black Donna Karan suit and a discreet gray shirt, a Piaget watch, and shoes that did not look like the duck's feet everyone was wearing that year. Besides, I could tell by his expression that he wasn't really interested m my musical opinions. This was a man after bigger prey.
"No, thank you, I don't drink alcohol," I said, turning away from him.
I certainly didn't want to start a conversation with some stranger at the Rumba Room. The last time I'd done that I'd met Raul and I was not in the market for a substitute. But this guy at my elbow was not so easily discouraged.
"I've been watching you on the floor," he went on, in a nicely modulated voice that carried a slight twang. Where was this guy from? Georgia? Mississippi? New Orleans? Somewhere down South.
"You're a fabulous dancer," he added.
"Thank you," I said, looking around for the bartender to bring my order.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the bar mirror, looking like a floozy with my mass of curls falling all over my shoulders, so I proceeded to quickly put them up. I could have walked away right then but there was something about this stranger that was ringing all kinds of alarm, not all of them unpleasant. So I stayed in place, I guess unconsciously waiting for his next overture.
"You're Rita Carr, aren't you? The public defender?
Oh God, that's it, another former client.
"Ex-public defender, please. I started my own firm last year."
The man gave me a full, very pleasing smile, basking in the knowledge he was about to share. "That's what I heard. And that's what I want to talk to you about. My name is Charlie. Charlie Morell."
Well, duh! No wonder he looked so familiar. This guy had just managed to turn upside down all the usual conventions of law and legal practice in Los Angeles, thrown the District Attorney's office into a million conniptions, and made himself the most controversial defendant in Southern California since OJ. Simpson.
I turned around to face him head-on, no more hiding behind girlish moves like fixing my hair-which has a mind of its own, anyhow-or looking for another drink. This was serious. This was business. I hoped.
"Mr. Morell, what a pleasure," I said, putting on the kind of smile I usually display behind closed doors in chambers when the judge is supposedly deciding whether to appoint me 987- that's court appointed counsel-but is really just checking out how high my skirt will ride when I sit down.
"I've read all about you. How's your case going? I asked.
He shrugged and I swear that for a moment there I thought he looked just like that actor I'd seen in one of those French New Wave movies of the 1960s my ex-husband, Greg, used to drag me to.
"I'm in Department 100 next month," said Morel1 "I get a feeling Judge Strummer is going to send me to Norwalk to face the music."
"God, that's terrible! Norwalk, you mean like in no deal, no walk, go straight to jail?"
"That's about the gist of it. He denied my change of venue.
They're all in on this. They know they'll get reamed if I win. From Wheeler to Perez to Polonsky, a lot of people are fixing to put me away for life. It's a conspiracy."
"I see. But you're still walking. I don't know of too many murder suspects out on their own recognizance."
A sparkle went off in his eyes, which for a moment changed from hazel to brilliant green.
"I'm glad to see you're so well informed."
"Like I said, I've read practically everything about your case. I mean, the Daily Journal has been going to town on you," I blustered, then I stopped, to gauge his reaction. He didn2 seem to mind the Manolo sticking out of my mouth.
"That's great. So why don't we talk about it tomorrow in your office at ten-thirty You're still at that place in West Hollywood?"
"How do you know? I just moved from downtown."
Once again the smile-charming, debonair, a roue, a man of the world. A total act, I suddenly realized. The man is terrified and he doesn't care to show it.
"Let's just say I've done my due diligence. Good night."
He started to walk away when I grabbed him by the arm-I felt well-defined muscles under the soft fabric of the jacket sleeve.
"Before you go, what is it that you want to talk about? I have my clients to take care of."
He looked down, pressed my hand, then bent and whispered in my ear the words that forever changed my life, even as an old La Soli song came over the sound system: "I want you to represent me."
"Co-counsel?" I snapped back.
"No, no. Sole counsel. Top banana. You're in the driver's seat, I'm riding." He smiled again. "I know you know from hot rides. Good night."
And with that he slipped out of my grasp and blended so quickly into the crowd that I lost all sight of him, as though I had imagined him and his proposition. That's when I recalled who he reminded me of-Belmondo in that movie where he falls in love with the American chick in Paris. What was it? Breathless.
That's funny, I thought. He doesn't look like Belmondo, but he still gives off that air. I wonder what that means. Needless to say Raul was not amused by my encounter. He sidled up to the bar just as Charlie was vanishing in the crowd like a guy used to pulling disappearing acts when it suited hm.
"Who was that you was talkin' to?" snapped Raul, his little pug nose up in the air, a wire terrier smelling out a brawl.
"A new client." I sipped the San Pellegrino the bartender finally plopped on the counter.
"Uhml" snapped back Raul with the utmost eloquence. He was about to give me another lecture on on socializing with strangers - the kind my dad used to give me when I was an overheated fourteen-year-old - when I yanked Raul back to the dance floor.
"C'mon, baby, let's dance. I've got to think."
I'll say this for Raul-he is a fabulous dancer. He's so good he grows when he's on the floor He's no longer five five in three inch Cuban heels with arms as thick as my thighs, he's Gene Kelly rhapsodizing with a chair, he's Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling, he's a demigod flying low over the dance floor.
And dancing was just what I needed right then. I wanted to keep my body in motion as long as I could so my mind could concentrate on the offer Morel1 had just proposed. See, some people go pump iron at Gold's, others go for five-mile runs around Lake Hollywood. Me, I put on Tito Puente and I swing my hips and lift my arms and step and spin and everything is as clear as could be-salsa as a road to enlightenment. What a slogan, huh? Not exactly what a Mexican-Irish girl like myself would be expected to like but there it is.
Only that night, it wasn't.
My brain was not connecting, the switches were off and all I accomplished with my dancing was to work up a sweat. Even when we went home and Raul and I made baby happy, I still1 wasn't all there, my mind worried but yet refusing to concentrate on the problem, as though some barrier were holding me back. It was a very unsettling sensation.
Even Raul, who ordinarily just rolls over after making love with the excuse that his security guard schedule has screwed up his sleeping patterns, even he noticed something was wrong.
"You worry too much, baby," he said, brushing his teeth vigorously, standing at the door to the bathroom, wearing the Joe Boxer shorts with the red hearts I'd bought him for Valentine's Day that year.
"You should try and get into another king of practice that don't get you wrapped up tight like that." "Like what?" I asked, staring at the ceiling above our bed, noticing how the crack in it looked like a rabbit's head.
"You should think about bankruptcy law. There's a ton of money to be made in that. My cousin Jaime, he just filed for BK the other day? He had to pay seventeen hundred dollars to some fool in Tarzana just to fill out some papers. And the fool's waiting room was packed with people. That's easy money, baby, not this sweating bullets stuff of yours all the time."
I patted the pillow next to mine.
"Raul, honey, please shut up and come to bed."
He looked at me for a moment, shrugged.
"Okay," he said, then returned to the bathroom to rinse. He was snoring within five minutes.
I tried my best to join him in the land of nod but sleep would not come. So after tossing and turning for a half hour, I got up, went to my desk, and turned on the computer. As I waited for the screen to come on I glanced out my window at the reflection of the full moon on the reservoir.
I live in a two-bedroom Spanish bungalow in the hills of Silverlake. The house needed a ton of sweat equity when I bought it and the yard is no bigger than a postage stamp but the view of the water and the backdrop of the hazy San Gabriel Mountains at times make me feel like I'm in Europe, Como or Lugano or Zurich or somewhere where it's always spring and there's always another thing of beauty just around the corner. Then the smog rolls in and I'm reminded once more that I'm still in my hometown, Los Angeles, where you can see the air and chew the water.
I wouldn't have it any other way
Just then my Windows 98 kicked on and I connected to the Internet. I typed in on Alta Vista, "Find Charlie Morell - and within seconds I had enough information to keep me up all night. And that was without dipping into the Lexis legal files.
The upshot was that when Raul finally rolled out of bed, around eight in a warm autumn morning, I was still going at the computer, reading, downloading, and plotting. I gave him a kiss, fixed him his coffee, then sent him on his way as I took a shower, put on a Richard Tyler lilac dress and Chanel slingbacks, and drove out to my office in West Hollywood to meet the rest of my life.
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