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The Legacy
by D. W. Buffa
Warner Books, 2002

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When they finally divorced, my mother told me that she had married my father only because she had been pregnant with me. My mother made this remark as if it were something she was sure I knew already. She seemed to have assumed that I must have understood—from the beginning, as it were—that she had never loved him and had lived with him all those years only so that I could be raised in the proper way. I was not nearly so intelligent, and nothing as insightful, as she wanted to imagine. It had never occurred to me that there was anything wrong, anything unusual in the way we lived. If my mother and I went away every summer, it was only because my father was a doctor who had to stay close to his patients.

Every year, a few days after the school year ended, he would see us off at the station when we started the overnight train trip to The City. That is what my mother always called it, the place where she had been born and raised, the place where she had met my father when he was still a student. The City. Everyone who ever lived there, everyone who lives there now, calls it that and looks at you like there is something a little wrong with you if you do not immediately understand they are talking about San Francisco.

We went there every summer. We stayed with my aunt-my mother's sister, made a widow by the war—and, without anyplace to play outside, I spent most of my time indoors. The only fun I had was when my cousin Bobby, three years older, took pity on me and let me go somewhere with him. Sometimes, after my mother, all dressed up, tucked me in and said good night and then went somewhere with my aunt, Bobby and I would sneak down the back stairs and wander around the streets, watching through windows at what went on in the neighborhood bars. Once we followed two sailors and the two women they had picked up to their car and waited until the windows started to steam up. That's when we were supposed to bang on the car door and then run as fast as we could. We crouched down, just below the passenger-side window. Bobby raised his head just enough to see inside. He turned away, an angry, frightened look on his face, grabbed me by the shoulder, and, pulling me behind him, ran up the street. He never told me what he had seen, and he thought I was still too young to guess.

We kept going there, to the city, my mother and I, summer after summer, and sometimes Christmas as well, until I started high school. My mother still visited her sister, but for only a few weeks at a time, whether because she missed me or was afraid of what other people might think, I'm not sure even she could have said. Not truthfully, anyway. My mother was never one to flaunt convention, not when she was so good at deception. It is one of the things I inherited from her, this talent for appearances, this need to believe that all my transgressions are forgivable because they are somehow always the fault of someone else.

She had done what she had to and had done it as long as she could. I was finished with school and had become a lawyer. She would have preferred that I had become a doctor, but if I could not do that for her, at least I could have joined a Wall Street firm. Night school lawyers became sole practitioners willing to take any criminal case they could get, but not graduates of Harvard Law School.

She was telling me all this while she packed her things, getting ready to leave for the last time, measuring her martyrdom by the almost willful defiance with which I had disappointed her expectations. Without the advantages of a Harvard education, she reminded me with no little irritation, my cousin had become a junior partner in one of the most prestigious firms in San Francisco. It was the last thing I wanted to talk about and the only thing she had on her mind. Everything was Bobby, and how well he had done, and how she had always known I could do even better. It was only because of the example of my father, she insisted, that I had never developed the right kind of ambition.

She was talking out loud, and I was standing right there in front of her, but she was really talking to herself, and the more she did, the more worked up she became. She had told me without any apparent regret she had married my father because she was pregnant with me; now, wondering why she had done it at all, she told me she should have waited until my real father was divorced and married him instead.

It seems strange when I think about it now, but at the moment she said it, I did not care if it was true or not; I only cared that my father, the only father I had ever known, did not know. When she said that she had not told him and never would, I was almost grateful that she had chosen to tell me instead.

We never spoke again about what had been said the day she left. If she made some passing reference to my father in the years that followed, I never detected even a hint of irony in the way she used the word. It would have been like her to have forgotten that she had ever said anything to me about my own illegitimacy. She had a remarkable capacity for putting out of mind things she found unpleasant.

If she had any purpose in what she said to me the day she left, I suppose it might have been to convince me that my lack of ambition was not an inherited trait beyond my power to change. It was astonishing how little she knew me: I had more ambition than she imagined, though not for the kind of things she prized. I certainly had no desire to end up like my cousin, a lawyer who made his living advising the wealthy how to take advantage of every legal loophole in the tax code, a lawyer who had never tried a case and never would. Yet I could not blame her for thinking what she did. When we were growing up, he was everything I thought I wanted to be and was afraid I could never become. Bobby was an all-league running back on one of the best high school football teams in California; I was last string on the freshman team at a high school no one outside Portland had ever heard of. The year he became an All-American at the University of California, I finally made the high school varsity. Bobby was always surrounded by people who wanted to be his friend and girls who wanted to go out with him; I was uncomfortable around people I did not know very well and even at that age far too intense, and far too secretive, to devote any time to making any friends of my own.

We seldom saw each other after my mother stopped taking me to San Francisco for the summer, but from a distance I followed at least the major events of his life. He invited me to his wedding when he got married his senior year at Cal, but I was still a freshman at the University of Michigan and it was much too far to go. I had not seen him for almost twenty years when his wife died of cancer and I flew down for the funeral. A few weeks later, he sent me a handwritten note thanking me for coming and expressing the hope that we would see each other more often. A year later we had dinner together in San Francisco while I was in the city trying a case in federal district court. That was nearly two years ago. I did not hear from him again until he called and asked me if I might be willing to talk to his partner about taking a case. It was a case that every defense attorney in the country would have given anything to get.

Since the night it happened, the murder of Jeremy Fullerton in a parked car on a San Francisco street had been the only case anyone could talk about. The murder of a United States senator was bound to be news, but Fullerton had also been the Democratic candidate for governor of California. What made it even more interesting, Fullerton, according to all the stories now being written, had only been running for governor because he thought it was his best chance to become president.

Bobby explained to me that the police had made an arrest but that his partner, Albert Craven, seemed convinced they must have made a mistake. Even if they were not mistaken, Craven had known the mother of the suspect for a long time. He had promised to do everything he could to find a lawyer who could help.

"That shouldn't be difficult," I remarked. "This is the kind of case that can make a career. It's once-in-a-lifetime. Lawyers will be lining up to take this case, begging to take it."

"Nobody in the city will touch it," replied Bobby. It made no sense. Whoever took this case would be famous. Something was not right.

"Albert promised her he'd get her son one of the best."

I remembered the way I had looked up to him when we were kids, and how I had wanted to be just like him. I wondered if he had thought about that when he called and if he knew that just by saying he thought I was one of the best I would like him even more. I listened to him tell me that there were probably half a dozen lawyers in the city who could do it but that they were all afraid of the possible repercussions.

"Repercussions?" I asked automatically when he paused. It did not matter to me what they might be.

The following Monday morning I watched out the window as the plane from Portland began its descent into San Francisco. They were right to call it The City. It had always drawn everything toward it. Before the bridges were built, before the Golden Gate connected the north shore and the Bay Bridge connected the east, millions of people were ferried back and forth every year. After the bridges were built, millions more came by car and by bus and by train. Everyone wanted to be here, but the city, rising up at the end of the narrow peninsula that jutted out between the ocean and the bay, could never become larger than it was. The great light-blocking buildings of Manhattan could never be built where at any moment a slight shift in the fault that ran miles below the surface could lay the whole city in ruins, the way it had once before. That earthquake, the one that happened in l906, the one that seemed to destroy everything, had saved it from a more permanent form of destruction.

Other cities kept growing, outward, upward, each new monotonous glass building crushing out everything that was individual and unique in a relentless march toward an amorphous gray efficiency. San Francisco, no matter how long you had been away, no matter how much you might have changed, was still the place you had always dreamed about, still the place that was just the way it had been the last time you were here, even if you had never been here before in your life. But the city, at least the part you saw with your eyes, had begun to change. With the same unstoppable ingenuity that threw bridges over miles of open, treacherous water, skyscrapers were brought to the city, built on enormous steel coils to absorb the shocks that would otherwise bring them down. When the next big earthquake hit, the skyscrapers swayed from side to side, but the buildings that were destroyed were the old ones built of wood and cement. Searching the skyline, down the hillside to the water's edge, buried behind blocks of glass and steel, I caught a glimpse of the clock tower on the Ferry Building. It did not seem that long ago that it was the tallest building in town.

Bobby was there when I landed, an eager smile stretched across his mouth as he waited off to the side of the crowd. There was something about the way he held himself, the way his shoulders hunched slightly forward, the way he kept his feet spread apart, the way his blue eyes were in constant movement, seeing everything around him, alert, ready for whatever came next, that made him seem like he was already in motion before he had taken a step. It was only when he was in motion that he did not seem to be moving at all.

He insisted on carrying my bag. When we stepped outside the terminal into the balmy California air, he raised his head, looked around for a moment, then waved his hand. I thought he was signaling for a cab; instead, a limousine, which had been waiting a half block away, pulled up to the curb.

I settled into the back seat, across from Bobby. He looked different now, older, with the first touch of gray in his hair and the first telltale lines at the corners of his eyes. The smile still flashed, quick and alert, but it was a little dimmer, like a light that almost imperceptibly had begun to fade.

"It was good of you to come," he remarked as he turned away from the driver, to whom he had just given instructions. "I know it's an imposition, and I appreciate it."

His voice was as clear as ever, but he spoke a little more slowly than the way I had remembered.

"It's not an imposition at all," I told him. "Whether or not I take the case, I'm glad you thought of me."

He shook his head emphatically, as if it were for some reason important that I understand I was wrong about that.

"No, this wasn't my idea. Albert Craven asked me to call you. He's done a lot for me, and he never asks me for anything. That's the only reason I did it: because I couldn't think of a decent way to say no. But I made it clear to him that while I was willing to ask you to talk to him, I wouldn't ask you to take the case. It's up to you whether you do it or not. And if you decide not to, that's all right. You don't owe Albert anything; and you don't me anything, either. Okay?"

Suddenly it was right there in front of us, gleaming in the golden light, sweeping down across the hills toward the bay. The City.

Bobby saw the look in my eye. "Ever think about living here?"

I shook my head. "I think I'd miss the rain," I said with a lying smile.

Leaving the freeway, the limousine began to crawl through the city streets.

"You said something on the phone about repercussions. You said none of the lawyers here were willing to take the case. And now you've just finished telling me in no uncertain terms that you're not asking me to take the case. What's the reason no one wants to be involved in this? Is it because Fullerton was a United States senator who wanted to be president, and, from what I hear, had a pretty good chance of doing it?"

It was not the reaction I expected. Bobby laughed, and then he sighed.

"It doesn't have anything to do with Fullerton—not directly, anyway. You won't find many people—people who actually knew him—who are all that upset that he's dead." We pulled up in front of a dark gray stone facade in the heart of the financial district, where the firm of Craven, Morris and Hall had established their offices long before any of the new skyscrapers had been built. The firm had grown with the city. Many of the small banks and businesses that had retained its services in the beginning had become major financial institutions and international corporations. Fees, which had been barely large enough to cover the monthly overhead, had gradually become enormous, and the original three partners, nearly destitute when they first started, had become wealthier than they had ever dared dream.

Morris and Hall had largely withdrawn from the active practice of law and only dropped by the office to provide occasional, and seldom more than cursory, supervision over the dozens of junior partners who all worked like slaves in the hope of one day becoming as rich and leisured as their masters. It was the way of the world, or at least that part of it made up of lawyers who started out wanting to conquer the world and ended up settling for a place in Palm Springs.

Albert Craven was something of an exception. Palm Springs, he insisted, was too hot and golf too boring. It did not matter that he actually believed both these things to be true; he would have said them had he thought they were false. It was the kind of facile remark he liked to make, especially when it gave him a way to avoid a direct response to the question of why he kept working as hard as he did. After all these years, he was still the first in the office in the morning and the last to leave at night. He dismissed any suggestion that for a man his age this was rather singular behavior with the observation that he had to make up for the two- and sometimes three-hour lunches he regularly took with some one or the other of his socially prominent friends.

He would have done nothing differently had he had no friends. After four miserable marriages, the practice of law was one of the few remaining things for which he permitted himself any serious enthusiasm. Carrying a caseload that would have exhausted the energies and taxed the talents of a lawyer half his age, Albert Craven worked relentlessly. Others might use a standard form or, if they were a bit more creative, devise a form of their own and then use it over and over again; Craven still drafted from scratch every document he needed. In a none-too-veiled allusion to the slipshod habits rampant in the profession, he claimed he owed it to his clients to think the whole thing through from beginning to end. Craven practiced what in the trade was called office law. In his entire career he had appeared in court only twice, and on both occasions had become physically ill. Bobby was sure I would like him; I was not at all certain that I would.

I stepped out of the cushioned silence of the limousine into the shrill, heart-pounding sounds of the city. Pedestrians crowded the sidewalks; cars honked their horns; somewhere around the corner a cable car clanked its bell. All the noise, all that raucous music of daily life shut behind us the moment we entered the thick-carpeted third-floor chambers of the firm. The receptionist greeted Bobby, or rather Mr. Medlin, as she called him, in the same hushed whisper with which I had just heard her answer the telephone. A bud vase on the counter held a single red rose, new that morning and, I was sure, every morning.

There were dozens of people who worked there, but it could not have been quieter had you found yourself completely alone. We walked down a long hallway, every door we passed closed, until we came to the private office at the end. The door opened before we could knock, and Albert Craven, his oval pink face beaming, extended a small soft hand. He introduced himself, thanked me for coming, and, slipping aside, invited us into a room more elaborately furnished than all but a handful of homes I had ever been inside.

On one side of the long rectangular cream-colored room, above the mantel of a gray marble fireplace that looked as if it were fully serviceable, hung an oil painting of San Francisco in flames, the immediate aftermath of the earthquake of l906. On either side of the fireplace, other paintings, depicting in their immense variety other scenes from the city's past, filled up the wall. At the far end of the room, below a window in the corner farthest from the fireplace, was Craven's desk, an enormous reddish black Victorian creation quite unlike anything I had ever seen. Four thick bulging bow legs supported a tabletop with intricate filigree around the sides and an inlaid chocolate brown writing surface in the middle. It was incredibly ugly, so ugly that any question about it—where it had come from or how long he had had it—would have seemed utterly tactless. It was like dealing with the unfortunate disfigurement of a relative: There was just not too much you could think to say. All you could do was try not to notice too much.

Craven was dressed in a dark blue suit, light blue silk shirt, and pale yellow silk tie. Sitting behind his massive desk in an overstuffed pearl-gray chair, he looked at me over a pair of small rimless glasses perched at the end of his pudgy nose. He was about to say something when Bobby, who was directly to my left in one of two matching beige brocaded chairs, asked, "Isn't this the ugliest piece of furniture you've ever seen in your life?"

Resting his smooth, perfectly manicured fingers just below his chest, Craven allowed a subtle smile to edge its way across his cherubic face.

"I admit it isn't terribly attractive, but I'm not sure I would go quite so far as that." The smile grew broader. "What Robert really wants me to do is tell you how I happen to have it. For some reason the story seems to amuse him, though I really can't think why. It's more a tragedy than a comedy. You see, Mr. Antonelli —"

"Joseph," I insisted.

"You see, Joseph," he went on, acknowledging with a slight nod the abandonment of strict formality, "Agatha, my second wife..." He hesitated, a perplexed expression clouding his brow. "Or was she my third?" he asked, glancing toward Bobby. "Well," he said with a shrug, "she was one of them, and she bought it for me. It was a gift; more than that," he added, frowning, "it was a wedding gift."

He caught my reaction before I was conscious that I had one. "Yes, yes, I know," he said, rolling his eyes at the ceiling. "It was doomed from the start. But, you have to understand, Agatha thought it was a treasure. Not because of the way it looked," he quickly added. "She didn't care anything about that! No, she had to have it as soon as she discovered it had originally been owned by J. Pierpont Morgan. She bought it at an auction at Sotheby's in New York, made arrangements to have it shipped here, and had it installed while we were away on our honeymoon." Bright with mischief, Craven's eyes bounced from one side of the ceiling to the other. "You can imagine my surprise when I found it here," he said with a grin. "I hadn't thought the honeymoon had gone that badly!"

"That explains how you got it," said Bobby. "It doesn't explain why you still have it."

Dropping his eyes, Craven folded his arms and retreated into his chair. His mouth pulled back into a grimace, his nostrils flared, and he slowly shook his head. Then he lifted his gaze and explained, "She insisted upon it as part of the divorce." He sprang forward and sat up straight, resting his elbows on the solid surface of the article neither party to their divorce wanted to have.

"It isn't what you think," he went on, a sparkle in his eye. "It wasn't because she hated me. It wasn't that at all. Agatha thought I would be devastated and thought that leaving me this was the least she could do to alleviate the pain."

With his bare knuckles he rapped the hard finish twice. "What could I say? That the only pain I felt was the prospect of having to look at this damn thing every day?"

The smile lingered on his mouth, but his eyes grew serious. He raised his chin and sniffed and the smile faded away. "You didn't come all this way to hear the history of my furniture. You of course know about the murder of Senator Fullerton. A young man has been charged with the crime. I want to retain you to represent him."

"You want to retain me?" I asked.

"The young man they have accused," he replied without hesitation, "doesn't have any money, and neither does his mother. I've known her for years, and while I've never met her son, I can't imagine he could have had anything to do with this. Though I have to admit, it doesn't look very good," he added with a sigh. "In any event, I want him to have the best defense attorney available, and that's why I'm asking you to do it."

It did not feel right, and I still could not believe that there was not someone here he could get to do it.

"There are a lot of attorneys in San Francisco," I replied. "I can even recommend one or two."

"No," said Craven quite firmly. "Only someone from the outside can do this. I've spent my whole life in San Francisco. It isn't like other places. Everybody here knows everybody else, and Jeremy Fullerton knew something about all of them: the people who run this city, the people who own it. None of them are all that eager to have what he knew spread across the front pages of the morning paper. And by the way," he added almost as an aside, "I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if one of them was behind his murder."

Excerpted from The Legacy by D. W. Buffa. Copyright © 2002 by D. W. Buffa. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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