After the DarknessSidney Sheldon / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime
NEW YORK, DECEMBER 15, 2009
THE DAY OF RECKONING HAD ARRIVED.
The gods had demanded a sacrifice. A human sacrifice. In ancient Roman times, when the city was at war, captured enemy leaders would have been ritually strangled on the battlefield in front of a statue of Mars, the war god. Crowds of soldiers would have cheered, screaming not for justice but for vengeance. For blood.
This was not ancient Rome. It was modern-day New York, the beating heart of civilized America. But New York was also a city at war. It was a city full of suffering, angry people who needed somebody to blame for their pain. Today's human sacrifice would be offered up in the clinical, ordered surroundings of the Manhattan Criminal Courts Building. But it would be none the less bloody for that.
Normally, the TV crews and hordes of ghoulish spectators showed up only for murder trials. Today's defendant, Grace Brookstein, had not murdered anybody. Not directly anyway. Yet there were plenty of New Yorkers who would have rejoiced to see Grace Brookstein sent to the electric chair. Her son-of-a-bitch husband had cheated them. Worse, he had cheated justice. Lenny Brookstein - may he rot in hell - had laughed in the face of the gods. Well, now the gods must be appeased.
The man responsible for appeasing them - District Attorney Angelo Michele, representative of the people - looked across the courtroom at his intended victim. The woman sitting at the defendant's table, hands clasped calmly in front of her, did not look like a criminal. A slight, attractive blonde in her early twenties, Grace Brookstein had the sweet, angelic features of a child. A competitive gymnast in her teens, she still carried herself with a dancer's poise, back ramrod straight, hand gestures measured and fluid. Grace Brookstein was fragile. Delicate. Beautiful. She was the sort of woman whom men instinctively wanted to protect. Or rather she would have been, had she not stolen $75 billion in the largest, most catastrophic fraud in U. S. history.
The collapse of Quorum, the hedge fund founded by Lenny Brookstein and co-owned by his young wife, had dealt a fatal blow to the already crippled American economy. Between them, the Brooksteins had ruined families, destroyed entire industries, and brought the once great financial center of New York to its knees. They had stolen more than Madoff, but that wasn't what hurt the most. Unlike Madoff, the Brooksteins had stolen not from the rich, but from the poor. Their victims were ordinary people: the elderly, small charities, hardworking, blue-collar families already struggling to get by. At least one young father made destitute by Quorum had shot himself, unable to bear the shame of seeing his children turned out on the streets. Not once had Grace Brookstein displayed so much as a shred of remorse.
Of course, there were those who argued that Grace Brookstein was not guilty of the crimes that had brought her to this courtroom. That it was Lenny Brookstein, not his wife, who had masterminded the Quorum fraud. District Attorney Angelo Michele loathed such people. Bleeding-heart liberals. Fools! You think the wife didn't know what was going on? She knew. She knew everything. She just didn't care. She spent your pension funds, your life savings, your kids' college money. . . Just look at her now! Is she dressed like a woman who gives a shit that you lost your home?
Over the course of the trial, the press had made much of Grace Brookstein's courtroom attire. Today, for the verdict, she had chosen a white Chanel shift ($7,600), matching boucle jacket ($5,200), Louis Vuitton pumps ($1,200) and purse ($18,600), and an exquisite floor-length mink handmade for her in Paris, an anniversary present from her husband. The New York Post early edition was already on newsstands. Above a full-length shot of Grace Brookstein arriving at Court 14, the front-page headline screamed: LET THEM EAT CAKE!
District Attorney Angelo Michele intended to make sure that Grace Brookstein's cake-eating days were over. Enjoy those furs, lady. This'll be the last day you get to wear 'em.
Angelo Michele was a tall, lean man in his midforties. He wore a plain Brooks Brothers suit and his thick black hair slicked back till it gleamed on top of his head like a shiny black helmet. Angelo Michele was an ambitious man and a fearsome boss - all the junior D. A. s were terrified of him - but he was a good son. Angelo's parents ran a pizza parlor in Brooklyn. Or they had run one until Lenny Brookstein "lost" their life savings and forced them into bankruptcy. Thank God Angelo earned good money. Without his income the Micheles would have been out on the streets in their old age, destitute like so many other hardworking Americans. As far as Angelo Michele was concerned, prison was too good for Grace Brookstein. But it was a start. And he was going to be the man who put her there.
Sitting next to Grace at the defendant's table was the man whose job it was to stop him. Francis Hammond III, "Big Frank" as he was known in the New York legal community, was the shortest man in the room. At five foot four, he was barely taller than his tiny client. But Frank Hammond's intellect towered over his opponents like a behemoth. A brilliant defense attorney with the mind of a chess grand master and the morals of a gutter fighter, Frank Hammond was Grace Brookstein's Great White Hope. His specialty was playing juries, uncovering fears and desires and prejudices that people didn't even know they had and turning them to his clients' advantage. In the past year alone, Frank Hammond had been responsible for the acquittals of two murdering Mafia bosses and a child-molesting actor. His cases were always high profile, and his clients always began their trials as underdogs. Grace Brookstein had originally hired another lawyer to represent her, but her friend and confidant John Merrivale had insisted she fire him and go with Big Frank.
"You're innocent, Grace. We know that. But the rest of the world doesn't. The m-m-media wants you hanged, drawn and quartered. Frank Hammond's the only guy who can turn that around. He's a genius. "
No one could understand why Big Frank had allowed Grace Brookstein to show up to court every day in such inflammatory outfits. Her clothes seemed designed to enrage the press still further, not to mention the jury. Surely a titanic mistake?
But Frank Hammond did not make mistakes. Angelo Michele knew that better than anyone.
There's a method in his madness. There has to be. I just wish I knew what it was.
Still, it didn't really matter. Today was the last day of the trial and Angelo Michele was convinced he had built an airtight case. Grace Brookstein was going down. First to jail. And then to hell.
GRACE BROOKSTEIN HAD WOKEN UP THAT morning in the Merrivales' guest bedroom suffused with a deep sense of peace. She'd had a dream about Lenny. They were at their estate in Nantucket, always Grace's favorite of their many multimillion-dollar homes. They were walking in the rose garden. Lenny was holding her hand. Grace could feel the warmth of his skin, the familiar roughness of his palms.
"It will be okay, my darling. Have faith, Gracie. It will all be okay. "
Walking into court this morning, arm in arm with her attorney, Grace Brookstein had felt the crowd's hatred, hundreds of pairs of eyes burning a hole in her back. She had heard the catcalls. Bitch. Liar. Thief. But she held on to her inner peace, to Lenny's voice inside her head.
It will all be okay.
John Merrivale had said the same thing on the phone last night. Thank God for John! Without him, Grace would have been completely lost. Everyone else had deserted her in her hour of need, her friends, even her own sisters. Rats on a sinking ship. It was John Merrivale who had forced Grace to hire Frank Hammond. And now Frank Hammond was going to save her.
Grace watched him summing up now, this fiery little man, strutting back and forth in front of the jury like a farmyard rooster. She understood only a fragment of what Hammond was saying. The legal arguments were way over her head. But she knew with certainty that her attorney would get her an acquittal. Then, and only then, would her real work begin.
Walking free from court is just the start. I still have to clear my name. And Lenny's. God, I miss him. I miss him so much. Why did God have to take him away from me? Why did any of this have to happen?
Frank Hammond finished speaking. Now it was Angelo Michele's turn.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. Over the last five days you have heard a lot of complex legal arguments, some of them from me, and some of them from Mr. Hammond. Unfortunately it had to be that way. The scale of the fraud at Quorum: seventy-five billion dollars. . . "
Angelo Michele paused to let the impact of the number sink in. Even after so many months of repetition, the sheer size of the Brooksteins' theft never failed to shock.
". . . means that, by its very nature, this case is complicated. The fact that the bulk of that money is still missing makes it even more complicated. Lenny Brookstein was a wicked man. But he was not a stupid man. Nor is his wife, Grace Brookstein, a stupid woman. The paper trail they left behind them at Quorum is so complicated, so impenetrable, that the truth is, we may never recover that money. Or what's left of it. "
Angelo Michele looked at Grace with naked loathing. At least two female jurors did the same.
"But let me tell you what's not complicated about this case. Greed. "
"Lenny and Grace Brookstein believed they were above the law. Like so many of their kind, the rich bankers on Wall Street who have raped and pillaged this great country of ours, who have taken taxpayers' money, your money, and squandered it with such shameless abandon, the Brooksteins don't believe that the rules of the Little People apply to them. Take a good look at Mrs. Brookstein, ladies and gentlemen. Do you see a woman who understands what ordinary people in this country are suffering? Do you see a woman who cares? Because I don't. I see a woman born into wealth, a woman married into wealth, a woman who considers wealth - obscene wealth - to be her God-given right. "
Up in the gallery, John Merrivale whispered to his wife.
"This isn't a l-legal argument. It's a witch hunt. "
The district attorney went on.
"Grace Brookstein was a partner in Quorum. An equal equity partner. She was not only legally responsible for the fund's actions. She was morally responsible for them. Make no mistake. Grace Brookstein knew what her husband was doing. And she supported and encouraged him every step of the way.
"Don't let the complexity of this case fool you, ladies and gentlemen. Underneath all the jargon and paperwork, all the offshore bank accounts and derivative transactions, what happened here is really very simple. Grace Brookstein stole. She stole because she was greedy. She stole because she thought she could get away with it. "
He looked at Grace one last time.
"She still thinks she can get away with it. It's up to you to prove her wrong. "
Grace Brookstein watched District Attorney Angelo Michele sit down. He'd given a bravura performance, far more eloquent than Frank Hammond's. The jury looked as if they wanted to burst into spontaneous applause.
If he weren't trying to destroy me, I'd feel sorry for him. Poor man, he's tried so hard. And such passion! Perhaps, if we'd met in other circumstances, we'd have been friends?
The general consensus in the media was that the jury would take at least a day to deliberate. The mountain of evidence in the case was so enormous that it was hard to see how they could review it any quicker. But in fact, they came back to Court 14 in less than an hour. Just like Frank Hammond said they would.
The judge spoke solemnly. "Have you reached your verdict?"
The foreman, a black man in his fifties, nodded. "We have, Your Honor. "
"And how do you find the defendant? Guilty, or not guilty?"
The foreman looked directly at Grace Brookstein.