Patting his tender new hair plugs, the judge glared down at the defendant. Nicholas, Nicky, aka "Space," Lucci, DOB 07/12/76, stared back vacantly from under a scalp shaved slick as Formica. The kid slouched like an amoeba at the table between his lawyer and his investigator. Streeter, the investigator, looked at Lucci and then up at the bench. He recalled how bald the judge had been at the preliminary hearing just a few months earlier. Then he flashed on the Rogaine that he himself had bought recently. Actually, it wasn't Rogaine but, rather, the Walgreens house brand of minoxidil. Same basic product, same basic purpose.
"Exact identical ingredients but at about half the price of your normal Rogaine," the saleswoman/child had pointed out. "With theirs, you're just paying more for the packaging and advertising. Bells and whistles, like they call it." She nodded with a wisdom beyond her years. Streeter had avoided eye contact with her and instead pretended to be studying the package. When he finally laid out his money, he felt like a sixteen-year-old buying his first box of condoms. He took the stuff home and shoved it, unopened, under his bathroom sink. Since then he'd debated daily with himself whether he really needed the hair restorer. A little middle-aged thinning up there hardly labeled him as balding. Still, why not take the precaution? If Neville Chamberlain had stood up to Hitler back in 1938, he might have avoided the Big War and saved everyone a lot of grief.
Adams County District Judge Steve Griggs shifted his weight on the bench without taking his eyes off young Lucci. His Honor thought of how he'd spent a weekend in bed two months earlier, blurred by pain pills and bourbon that still couldn't take away the intense burning on his scalp. It felt like they'd transplanted a few dozen rows of baby asparagus up there. Paid nearly ten grand for the privilege of suffering like that. The results were decent enough, although no one confused him with Howard Stern. Plus, he knew that half the courthouse had been making Q-ball jokes about him behind his back ever since. Screw them, Griggs thought. He'd recently gotten divorced, and at fifty-seven he had no intention of hitting the cruel dating world looking any older than he had to. If that meant dark plugs and a premium dye job, Judge Griggs was willing to pay the price.
And just look at that stupid little pecker, he now thought as he studied Lucci waiting for the jury to return with its verdict. Eight felony counts stemming from a pair of convenience-store robberies that netted someone a staggering $112 and three small sacks of honey-roasted peanuts. Nicky Lucci had been a serious crystal-meth addict and alcoholic for the better part of five years now. With his head shaved, and his skin pale and blotchy from a fast-food-and-sugar diet, he reminded the judge of an extra from Schindler's List. Griggs could almost understand and forgive the drugs and robbery. That was about pleasure and money. But shaving your head? Utterly senseless. Why? the judge thought as he glanced over at the closed door to the jury room. What the hell gets into these kids nowadays? They call that fashion? Goatees and shaved heads. Ass backward, he thought. The hair belongs on top.
Streeter sat up. The sudden motion kicked off a dull ripple of nausea through his stomach and up to his pounding temples. One big-league hangover. He leaned into the defense table, put a hand to his face, and held the bridge of his nose between his thumb and a forefinger. His eyes slid closed as his mouth eased open. A fringe of sweat was forming over his eyebrows. The big investigator tried to remember what-all he'd drunk the night before. But that might be too taxing. All that mattered now was getting through the verdict and going home to rest.
Slowly opening his eyes, Streeter turned to his left and studied Lucci's profile. The guy was all of twenty-one years old and already his life was twisted practically beyond repair. A high-school dropout, a drug addict and alcoholic with a long juvie arrest record and a growing adult rap sheet, no job skills, an IQ most kindly described as resoundingly modest, and an illegitimate daughter he had produced with a teenage nymphomaniac on speed and welfare. Hence his nickname: Space as in Spaced Out. Even in the idiotic crowd of Generation X slackers he hung with, Nicholas Lucci stood out. Shaved head topped with an elaborate red dragon tattoo and black lightning bolts on each temple. Pale-green eyes that registered little besides degrees of confusion and periodic anger, and thin lips surrounded by a goatee the texture of a poorly trimmed paintbrush.
Despite all that, Streeter liked the kid. First of all, he was utterly honest. Of course, with Nicholas, it could be that he was just too lazy to lie. But, still, he was without guile, and Streeter found that refreshing in his line of work. Most of his criminal clients were surly, mean-spirited, and pathological in avoiding the truth. Second, the kid was genuinely nice. Unwaveringly polite. He always asked how Streeter was doing, how his partner, bail bondsman Frank Dazzler, was, and he usually managed to remember something from their last conversation. Things like "You get those shocks fixed?" or "How's that cavity, Mr. Streeter?" Misguided, clueless, and poly-addicted, true, but Nicky Lucci was not a bad boy at heart. And as with many of his crowd, he aimed most of his destructive behavior squarely at himself.
But most of all Streeter warmed to Lucci because he was innocent of the robberies. In Streeter's practice, that was about as rare as a Nigerian professional ice-hockey player. Now, Nicky wasn't innocent of all charges in all jurisdictions. He was still looking at a fall for auto theft in Boulder County that would certainly keep him in prison into the next millennium. But this armed-robbery stuff in Adams County, just north of Denver, was bogus. Lucci was being framed by one of his "friends," and the more Streeter dug into the case, the more enthused he got. As a bounty hunter with Dazzler Bail Bonds, he also doubled as a private investigator for a few select attorneys, like Don Knight here. Streeter had been in the business about thirteen years, and over that time he'd worked on close to two hundred criminal cases. Nicholas Lucci was maybe his third innocent client. And he wasn't even positive about the other two.
"I don't really know nothing about guns and I was nowhere near those places that got robbed that night," Lucci had told Streeter when he first met him in jail five months earlier. The kid spent a week behind bars before his mother and grandfather made bail. As he looked up at his investigator back then, Nicky's mouth was parted in perpetual bewilderment. He shook his head.
"I was in my room tweaking all night," he'd said, "tweaking" being the street euphemism for mainlining crystal meth. "Why don't they believe me? When they asked about that stolen Porsche up near Louisville, I copped to it on the spot. So why would I bullshit them about those convenience-store holdups?"
Naïve but true. Within a span of a few days, Lucci had been nailed in two separate jurisdictions. Once for suspicion of the store robberies and, in an unrelated matter, for the theft of a new 911. Not only did he admit to stealing the Porsche, he had bragged to everyone he knew about it. But when Streeter interviewed those same people, they all said that Space told them he knew nothing about the robberies. Not to mention that the kid was never known to tote a weapon of any type.
And then there was the state's star witness: Kenny Cobin, with the street name of K-Dog. Kenny had what Streeter discovered to be the ultimate motive for framing Lucci: Kenny was the actual perp. K-Dog was known to pack the same kind of .45 Ruger that was used, and although he was normally penniless, he was seen flashing tens and twenties in the days immediately following the robberies. As Streeter dug into the matter, he found two mutual friends of both Lucci and Cobin who said that K-Dog had all but admitted doing the stores. But Cobin was the first one to the cops, so Lucci got the rap. Luckily, Cobin was a terrible witness on the stand and only one of the convenience-store clerks made even a tentative ID of Lucci from the photo lineup. Attorney Knight had no problem discrediting either in court. It left Streeter wondering why the DA had even bothered going to trial. But prosecutors hate to back off a case — no matter how weak — once they've gone beyond the preliminary hearing.
As they now waited for the verdict, Streeter thought of how his young client had adamantly refused to let his hair grow out enough at least to cover his cranial tattoos. With his natural red locks, the kid would have come across in court like a befuddled Opie. A better look and decent jury appeal. But no. Space clung to the thuggish street look that made him and his friends as indistinguishable from each other as eggs in a carton. Speaking of looks, the bounty hunter was growing more concerned about his own. Having just turned forty-five, Streeter was noticing the signs of middle age. Thinning hair, fading eyesight, thickening waistline, more pronounced laugh lines, and a hint of jowls. None of it extreme, but to an ex-college football player who always prided himself on his physical condition, it was no fun. Especially now that he had just broken up with yet another girlfriend. Single and not getting any younger. Sitting there, he pondered his hangover. There definitely are good reasons why married men outlive single men, he thought.
Just then, the members of the jury started filing into the courtroom and moving to their seats off to the right of the bench. Knight and Streeter stood up, as did the prosecutor and his investigator at their table. Nicholas Lucci glanced over at the jury box but at first didn't budge. Judge Griggs ordered him to rise. Slowly Nicky obliged. Then Griggs turned to the jury. They'd been out for nearly six hours.
"Madam Foreman, have you reached your verdict?" he asked the intense young Asian woman.
"We have, Your Honor," she responded, glancing at Lucci, who by now had struggled to his feet and stood between his defense team in what might charitably be called a fully upright position.
A good sign, Streeter thought. Juries generally avoid all eye contact with the defendant when they're about to give him bad news. Griggs leaned forward and asked for the verdict. When the first "not guilty" was uttered, Streeter knew they'd get all they were after. If the jury didn't buy Cobin for one count, they wouldn't believe him all the way down the line. Five more times the woman uttered "not guilty." Conspiracy, the whole bit. When she was finished, Streeter glanced to his left. Don Knight was smiling and nodding to no one in particular. Young Lucci was actually yawning while staring at the tabletop in front of him. The bounty hunter leaned over and offered his hand in congratulations.
"Good going, Nicholas," he said. Lucci didn't much like "Nick" or "Nicky" and Streeter refused to honor his street name.
The kid turned slowly toward his investigator and they shook hands. Then he nodded once and said flatly, "I told you I wasn't lying. Why would they come back guilty?"
Streeter didn't know if Lucci was high or really that naive, so he just nodded back.
From behind them, Nicky's grandparents approached. His grandmother, Maria, reached them first. The boy turned around and looked at her. At all of five feet two in her thick beige heels, Maria Lucci had a round peasant face framed by hair that was surprisingly thick and dark for her seventy-one years. But she had never been pretty, and several wisps of alternately white and black hair now formed a scrawny mustache above her upper lip. Her dark eyes seemed perpetually worried and judgmental. She stared hard at her grandson for a moment and then drew him tightly to a chunky body crowded into a navy-blue dress that covered her from the middle of her throat to her ankles.
"Nicky, my little Nicky," she said into his left shoulder, where her ancient face was buried. The two stood frozen like that for about a minute, until Maria pulled back, her eyes even more concerned. "Our prayers were answered." She nodded solemnly. "But you look terrible, Nicky. We've got to get some food in you." That said, she just kept staring at the boy, one hand clutching each of his bony shoulders.
Nicholas frowned mildly but said nothing. Just then, his grandfather slid between the two, moving Maria's arms down and away with his own small hands. Alphonse Lucci stood only an inch taller than his wife and had the same squat, androgynous body type and pale skin. He squinted up at his grandson through a pair of horn-rimmed glasses with lenses thicker than the windshield on a Brink's truck. Slowly, he shook his head, his thin lips parting in both relief and anger. Then his right hand shot up to the boy's face as Alphonse delivered a flat-handed slap to the cheek.
"What I tell you about those goofwad friends a yours?" the old man asked in a voice deeper and more gravelly than his stature would indicate. "Those little skinhead shits got trouble written all over them." Alphonse nodded quickly for emphasis. He was wearing a black single-breasted suit that looked dated but expensive, a white cotton shirt yellowed slightly from repeated washings, and a plain red tie. "You dodged a bullet on this one, Nicky, but they got that confession for stealing the car. Keep listening to those friends a yours, you'll spend most a your life doing time." He leaned in and craned his head up toward his grandson's face. "You think I'm full of it?"
For his part, Nicholas just stood there perplexed as usual. One hand moved gradually to the cheek his grandfather had struck, but he didn't seem to be in any pain. The old man glanced to his left, to where Streeter and Knight were standing a couple feet away watching. He grabbed Nicholas by his left elbow and moved him out of earshot of the defense team. Maria followed. The three Luccis then drew closer together, the old man talking in hushed tones that Streeter could not make out.
"Now, he should talk about friends," Knight said to Streeter. "Did I ever tell you about little Alphonse Lucci?"
Streeter faced the attorney. Don Knight was a few years younger than he was, but with a full head of prematurely white hair and an obvious if low-key cockiness, he seemed older. The bounty hunter shrugged. "Not much. You said he owns a restaurant or something like that and he has sort of a colorful past. I was working on the kid's case, so it didn't matter to me what Grandpa was about. As long as he kept paying us, at least."
Knight smiled and glanced back at the Luccis for a second. "Colorful is right. Even if only half of his BS is true, Al Lucci has had some very weird life experiences. He comes from an old West Denver Italian family. They run a few small pizza parlors and they do some catering. Heavy on the Italian food, obviously. That's how he got his nickname: the Cheese Man. The Mexicans in his neighborhood gave it to him and he likes it. Thinks it makes him sound like a hood or something. See, Al has a bad case of Godfatheritis. He likes to think of himself as a power-broker Don-type. Talks about his friends and how he's connected and how he can get things 'done.'" Knight's smile widened. "If you know what I mean. Mostly it's just hot garlic air. If he's even remotely connected to the Mafia, I'm the head of the Aryan Nation. About the only thing old Al can get 'done' is dinner.
"That's not to say his hands are completely clean. He does go in for a little gambling. Sets up card games with his buddies and he's been known to make book on occasion. And from what I hear, he even used to do a little harmless bootlegging. Cigarettes, designer-watch knockoffs, or what have you." The attorney glanced back at the old man. "But he's not nearly what he lets on to be."
Streeter looked over for a second himself. "Frank probably knows him. Or at least about him." Frank Dazzler was a retired sheriff's deputy and had been a bail bondsman in Denver's Lower Downtown — LoDo — for the past twenty-seven years. He seemed to know personally everyone in town, and he almost certainly knew about anyone who ran a chance of ever needing his services. Nicholas had gotten bail through another bondsman, so the old man's name had never come up before with Frank.