Maestro Keys — Chapter 34
Over the last fifty years the biggest criminal in Berkeley had committed murder, discriminated against minorities, evaded local, state, and federal taxes, busted unions, blighted neighborhoods, and trafficked in nuclear weapons. The death penalty was too good a punishment. But inasmuch as the villain was the University of California, even the toughest judges handed down little more than wrist slaps and light fines. No wonder UC was a habitual offender.
So ran the radical critique of Arnold’s alma mater. Arnold hadn’t been a radical when it was age-appropriate and was hardly about to become one now. But as he reviewed the Sterling Nesta case in preparation for trial he was appalled by how blatantly the U came down on the wrong side of the law. Perhaps it considered itself too big and powerful to lose. If so, the radicals had a point.
It figured. Everything else in Arnold’s life had topsy-turvied, why not his view of the university? He was fighting to take away a house he once fought to regain. He was settling a landlord case on losing terms despite having the most favorable legal and political climate in years. His dorkish son had nearly killed someone, and to defend him Arnold had hired counsel who once said the only thing Mao did right was kill landlords. His wife, who used to awe him with her energy and optimism, spent days in the darkened living room with a handkerchief balled in her hand to wipe away tears. And for good measure he was living the dream of his life only to discover he wasn’t equal to it.
Arnold might have borne everything else — not cheerfully, but nevertheless—so long as he was nourished by that secret dream. Lurking in the back of his mind had been the notion that this engagement with the City Symphony would be the first of many. He’d impress the visiting president of a smaller orchestra, who would invite him to guest-conduct a full program. That too would be a success and would lead to a contract to guest-conduct two weeks a year. He would become a phenomenon — the people’s maestro who never spent a day in conservatory — and land more guest spots. Eventually one of the orchestras he worked with would lose its conductor and ask him to become its permanent director. From there, who knew? If the pay was sufficient he’d stick around. If not he’d have his agent secure him guest spots with the next tier of orchestras, ones with a national reputation. And then something would break for him on that level . . .
He knew now that it was vain and idle, all of it. He’d put months into learning a relatively short piece but still couldn’t master it. How could he expect to succeed with full programs? Especially with orchestras that lacked the skill to cover for him the way the City Symphony did? There was no denying it: unless he kept his job and mitigated financial liability for Rudy’s accident, in which case he might be able to bid for the City Symphony again in twenty years, this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The knowledge of himself as a dilettante hurt so profoundly it shamed him. Not that he would quit; he wasn’t that ashamed. But he didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of the world, and right now he believed that was exactly what he’d do.
He was in the sort of mood where nothing could make him feel worse. The perfect mood, in other words, to work on Nesta’s case. Re-reading the relevant documents, statutes, and case law confirmed his initial take: the university and prosecutor didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. He would move for a dismissal, and if there was any justice the case wouldn’t just be thrown out of court, it would be blasted out from a bazooka.
The morning of the trial he drove to the Alameda County Administration Building and met Nesta on the plaza. Months ago, when Nesta first came to Arnold, he was able to look Arnold fiercely in the eye. Now he was so anxious the best he could give Arnold was a fleeting, wary side glance. Arnold guided him to a deserted corner of the plaza. “Have you eaten this morning?” he asked.
“Yeah. Had some coffee and a muffin.”
“And you slept okay last night?”
“I had a roof over my head.”
“Then why are you so shaky? Depending on how fast jury selection goes, you may be called on to testify today. You’ve got to go in there feeling like an innocent man who’s been wronged.”
“Yeah, well, the man don’t care if you feel wronged. If he feel wronged, you get put inside ’til you crazy. And you never get your life back after that. Never.”
Arnold’s phone rang. He ignored it. “We can’t win if you won’t help yourself. I need the Sterling Nesta who stood in front of the judge and said, ‘give me liberty or give me death, not guilty!’”
The phone rang again and Arnold again ignored it, although this time he wondered who it could be. Not Rudy or Linda, unless there was an emergency at home. Oh God, what if there was an emergency at home? Rudy might have slit his wrists — or someone else’s.
He reached into his breastpocket to see who called. It was an unfamiliar number, although in the 510 area code. Probably a spammer spoofing as a local.
He and Nesta went through security. The courtroom was on the third floor and they wordlessly rode the elevator up. When they arrived they were surprised to find the courtroom empty and its door locked.
“Maybe the bailiff is having an extra cup of coffee,” Arnold speculated, gesturing for them to sit on a graffiti-etched oaken bench across from the elevator bank.
The phone rang again. It was the spam number one more time. Spammers didn’t usually call three times. Just in case, Arnold decided to answer.
“What?” he barked irritably.
A flustered female voice stammered, “Is this Arnold Keys, counsel for defendant Sterling Nesta?”
Oh. Probably one of Nesta’s student supporters asking that the trial be delayed until she and her friends could arrive — as if the judge would ever entertain such a request. “Speaking,” he said tersely.
“I’m so glad I caught you. We’ve been trying all morning at your office and this number. I’m Jane from the district attorney’s office. The DA has agreed to dismiss the charges against your client.”
“Wait. What?” He pressed the phone closer to his ear and motioned for Nesta to stay quiet.
“Long story short, the University of California decided some time ago to drop the charges, but as you may have seen in the news, their chief counsel was killed in a hit-and-run accident. His associates have been scrambling to catch up on everything he was working on. It took them a while to get to this matter, and when they saw his notes about dropping the charges they called our office to confirm whether that decision had been conveyed to us. It hadn’t. Someone from our office should be arriving soon with the motion to dismiss.”
“Thank you for calling. I look forward to receiving a copy of the motion.”
“I can send you the electronic version.”
“Please do,” Arnold said, and hung up.
He leaned his head against the wall, removed his glasses, and rubbed his eyes, feeling as if he could fall asleep. “You’re a free man, Sterling,” he said. “The prosecutor is dropping the charges.”
“No shit. And may I remind you that loudly uttering obscenities in a courthouse is extremely inappropriate.”
Eventually the bailiff unlocked the courtroom and they sat on the hard wooden chairs at the defense table. Too long after that — Arnold was used to plenty of down time in court, but this was ridiculous — an assistant district attorney arrived and provided Arnold with an endorsed copy of the motion to dismiss. The clerk and reporter took their places, the former peering at her monitor and typing constantly, neither of them speaking except to josh with the bailiff. After yet another long wait, the judge finally took the bench.
Nesta still seemed jumpy. Arnold put a hand on his shoulder to calm him. The judge skimmed over the motion to dismiss and asked why the prosecutor hadn’t filed it sooner. She got the same explanation Arnold did. The judge then asked Arnold whether he or his client had any questions or concerns. Arnold said no. “Motion granted,” gaveled the judge, and it was over.
The proceeding took less than five minutes.
“Can I give you a ride back to campus?” Arnold asked a relieved Nesta.
“I ain’t goin’ back to campus,” he answered. “This experience changed me. Berkeley needs me. It’s not the town it used to be. Or should be. But I can make more difference someplace else. Like Excremento. Or better yet, Washington DC. That place even more fucked up than when I left.” He laughed and returned the shoulder pat Arnold had given him earlier. “See? I knew you were the man for the job. I don’t wanna hear you sayin’ you don’t know nothin’ about that kind of law. You worked it out fine.”
Arnold smiled faintly. The case had been a gimme. Anything more complicated and he would have screwed it up the way he screwed up everything.
“Are you really leaving town?” he asked as they strolled toward his car.
“Yeah. I’m leavin’ Berserkeley on top.”
Arnold extended a hand. “I wish you the best of luck. I have to admit, when we first met I never imagined we’d work well together.”
Nesta slapped and punched and squeezed Arnold’s hand in a ritual Arnold didn’t understand. “We made some beautiful music, didn’t we? Dissonance into harmony.”
“You could put it that way,” Arnold allowed.
“Art redeems us all, my brother.”
“I suppose it does.”
“Oh, and hey, I was just wonderin’.”
“Spare me fifty dollars for the bus?”
Arnold hesitated, but not nearly as long as he would have months before. He pulled out his wallet and handed Sterling Nesta all his cash.
© 2023 Andrew Goldblatt. All rights reserved. This work may not be used in part or in whole for any purpose without the author’s prior written consent.