The Life of Johnston

Tag: fish and game

Steady Backward Progress

28 April 2015

Dear Max,

I wrote a new Chapter One for my fish mystery, probably to avoid figuring out what happens after Chapter Four.

Chapter One: Conspiracy

“Crime’s up,” said Jill, without looking up from the Bee.


We were sitting at the little table in the kitchen at the office. It was a perfect spring day, and all the windows were open, allergies be damned. I was doing some billing on my laptop. Jill read for a few more minutes and then said, “Oh. White collar’s up. Violent crime is still down.”

“What about petty crime? That’s the only kind I seem to get.”

“The article didn’t say.”

“I think I’ve been blacklisted. The panel hasn’t given me a single murder since Merrick. And that one didn’t even start out as a murder.” The panel was the Sacramento County Indigent Defense Panel, which doled out criminal cases to private attorneys when the public defender couldn’t take them. It paid–poorly and eventually–but it was better than not getting paid at all. And of course getting paid poorly by lawyer standards is making total bank by human standards. “Look at all these tiny cases I’m billing. One court appearance, and they settle. And they all have good defenses, but no one wants to sit in jail and wait for trial if the DA’s offer gets them out today.”

“Can you blame them? Besides, maybe they know they’re guilty.”

“That’s not the point.”

Jill was still half-reading the Bee, and now she was on the obits, which meant she was almost done. She scanned them quickly and then set the paper aside. “I’m just saying, they might know that after I investigate, they’re not going to look so innocent.”

“I didn’t say they looked innocent. I said they had a good defense.”

“Okay, they might not have such a good defense after all the facts come out.”

“So we bury your investigation and take the offer.”

“Which might be off the table. While you’re preparing for trial and I’m investigating, the cops usually are too.”

“Not on these cases. They’re too tiny.”

“So what are these great defenses?” Before Jill became an investigator she’d been a lawyer, which made her an annoyingly effective devil’s advocate.

I looked down at my billing spreadsheet, “Okay, homeless guy with a meth pipe, settled for drug diversion. But the cops had no business going through his shopping cart. We should at least have run the search motion.”

“How’d it go down?”

It felt strange that Jill didn’t know all my cases by heart, even the tiny ones. But ever since she’d become a foster parent, she didn’t live and breath work anymore, and she only knew the cases she’d actually worked on.

“The bike cops gave him a ticket for jay-walking—”

“Okay, legit stop, if somewhat chickenshit. Then what?”

“He had all this recycling, and the cops thought he was stealing cans and bottles from people’s trash—“

“—reasonable, under the circumstances—”

“Yeah. So anyway, they start to search his cart for more cans and bottles and find the pipe.”

“It’s a loser. The cans and bottles were in plain view.”

“But the pipe wasn’t.”

Jill shook her head: “Once the cops had a reasonable suspicion that the cans and bottles were stolen, they could search his cart for more cans and bottles. That’s what they did, and they found the pipe.”

“That’s only if you think of his shopping cart as a vehicle. But that was his home. He was carrying everything he owned with him. They needed a warrant.”

“Well, it would be fun to run the motion,” said Jill, “But in the meantime he has to sit in jail. It was a diversion offer.”

“And everyone fails drug diversion. Especially homeless people.”

“So, what else do you have?”

I looked at my spreadsheet, “Okay, schizophrenic woman stealing lip gloss at Rite Aid, and the DA dumped it.”

“Good. A win.”

“Yeah, but kind of unlucrative.”

“Do you need money?”

“Um, I don’t think so.”

“Well don’t worry about the rent.”

“Oh my God, I totally forgot.”

“Seriously. Let’s just wait till business picks up.” Jill owned the building, a small high-water Victorian with a great location: we could see the DA’s office from the back porch, and most evenings we sat out there and drank wine and occasionally shouted across the DA parking lot at the lit-up windows, “Go home! Stop working so hard!” Because however hard the DA works, you have to work harder. But that was before Jill got Josh. Now she went home early, and I drank wine by myself and read and sometimes worked on cases. I never yelled at the DA’s office when I was alone. It seemed too crazy.

“So, what else?”

I clicked to the next bill. “Okay, this guy lost his IT tech job, and he started printing twenty dollar bills—but he only printed one side! That’s not counterfeiting, that’s fantasizing about counterfeiting.”

“So what’d he plead to?”

“Sixty days on the work project. And I couldn’t even get it down to an attempt. And now I’ll never get to make the world’s shortest closing argument.”

“Which was?” I could tell she was humoring me, but it felt good to be humored. I held up my index finger and said nothing. I looked at my finger, then back at Jill. She looked puzzled and then, “Oh! I get it. One!”

“Exactly! Even monopoly money is printed on both sides. I told him to go to trial, and he looked all scared and goes, ‘But what do I say?’!”

“Dear God,” said Jill, “Do they teach them nothing in high school?”

“I know. I told him all he has to do is sit down, shut up and look innocent—it’s in the Constitution. And he just looked so doubtful.”

“Poor thing.”

I thought back to my one conversation with the guy—a twenty-year-old boy, smart enough in his own techy way but walking proof that the male brain matures in its mid-twenties. It was downstairs in the jail tanks, and I was trying to persuade him to reject the offer and stay in jail and fight it: he had no job, no kids—what difference did it make? He just hung his head and said he wanted it to be over. And I knew from recent experience that being in jail is a lot harder than it looks, especially when you’re not used to it.

“I shouldn’t have pled him. I should have stopped it.”

“How? It’s his decision.” Jill was trying to comfort me, but I knew that if it had been her, she would have found some way to delay. She would have been called away on some emergency, insisted on a psych eval, or practically gone down on her knees to get him OR’d to his parents’ custody, even though he wasn’t a minor, at least chronologically.

“Now he’ll have a felony record that’ll ruin the rest of his life.”

“Maybe he can get it expunged. And that money stuff can always go Federal. Kind of puts the pressure on.”

“Would the Feds seriously touch this? It was plain white paper, not to mention—” and I held up my finger again.

“Probably not,” said Jill, smiling, “But anyway, I thought you got assigned to a new case.”

“Yeah, I’m going to pick up the file when I drop off these bills.”

“What is it?”

“Fish & Game, that’s all I know.”


“I know. We’re not even in the Penal Code anymore. Talk about Siberia.”


I came back with a fatter file than I’d expected. The copier that we’d leased on spectacularly unfavorable terms was next to the little kitchen, and I made three copies while Jill sat at the table working on some inscrutable knitting project. She held it up, looked puzzled for a moment then did some unraveling.

“What’s that?” I hadn’t seen her doing any knitting or quilting since she got Josh. I knew she missed it, and I missed her doing it.

“I think it’s supposed to be a horse. Or maybe a goat.” Which meant it was Josh’s homework. He went to a public Waldorf school where they taught knitting. It had something to do with fine motor skills and grit: the character-building benefits of having to unravel days’ worth of work and then keep going.

“I thought knitting was supposed to be about powering through the hard parts,” I said.

“He’s powered through enough hard parts, okay? I just want to fix one thing.” I handed her a stack of paper, warm from the copier. “Hang on one second.” She knitted for a few minutes while I gathered the tools of our trade: legal pads, Post-Its, highlighters. I also printed up a blank investigation request for Jill to fill out. As the attorney, I was supposed to write this request, saying what I needed an investigator to do so that the county would pay Jill to do it, but usually Jill wrote the request herself. I just billed for writing it.

Jill stuck her needles through the horse or pig, “There. He won’t even know I fixed it.” She set it aside and started right in reading. Her white hair was pulled back in a rough ponytail, and she was wearing a sweatshirt, jeans and running shoes. Before she got Josh, I’d always thought that her version of biker chic elegance was natural, effortless—the privilege of the thin. Now the elegance was getting pretty rough around the edges. She was incapable of looking dowdy, but she did look a bit scruffy—like a mom, a very very old mom.

Already, her concentration was complete: reading, planning, taking notes, marking a page with a Post-it—that marvelous, intimidating competence. It was partly her long, varied life as a lawyer, which still came in handy now that she’d retired and become an investigator. But mostly, she was just a natural. She had the kind of quick, skeptical mind that could seize a mass of material and shake the problems out. And she’d somehow stayed curious about people.

“I thought this was supposed to be a misdemeanor,” said Jill, without looking up. She was reading the Complaint, which went on for a long time.

“It’s a felony?” I said, brightening.

“For Oblonskaya it is. She’s ours, right?


“Looks like she’s the heavy.”

“It’s Fish & Game, how heavy can she be?” Jill just shrugged and made a quick note. I glanced at the caption to see who the players were. The first five defendants were Thao, Vang, Lor, another Thao, and Cheng. The last was Oblonskaya. A six Co-D case probably wouldn’t settle right away. The DA’s offer was usually a package: everyone takes the deal or no one can, and usually not everyone wanted the deal, at least not right away. I thought of the long billable hours in court waiting for all the lawyers to show up, and my heart warmed to the case.

“Conspiracy?” said Jill, still reading, “Oh, please.”

“Conspiracy?” It sounded almost like a real crime. I opened a new bill on my laptop, glanced at the clock, and started reading.

If anyone wants to compare and contrast, here’s the old Chapter One, though I can’t imagine why anyone would want to go through this with me:

Operation Delta Beluga

16 December 2014

Dear Max,

I finished my book and sent sample pages to an agent along with a query letter. I’m tempted to include the letter here as an example of how to grovel and boast at the same time. I spent a lot of time talking about my limitations as a person and a writer: how I hate plot and the one in this book isn’t very interesting and may not even make sense. Then I compared myself to Simenon.

Also, “finished” is a pretty generous way of putting it. Probably, I should read the book. And then write it again. Instead, to keep myself from getting too depressed, I started the next one.

The nice thing about law is the plots come ready made. This time it’s very loosely based on a case I worked on over ten years ago. My client and several other Hmong were accused of catching sturgeon and selling the roe to this Russian guy whose mom made caviar and sold it to other Russians. The Russians also bought some whole sturgeon (not from my client!) and some over-size sturgeon (not from my client!) and sold it to a Russian market in town. It seemed a little hard on my guy that he did almost every single thing within the law—he had a license, he caught a legal-size fish, under the bag limit, and he kept it to eat—except, instead of throwing away the roe, he (allegedly!) got some money for it.

Anyway, it was a huge investigation: Operation Delta Beluga. The feds were involved because the Russians took the caviar across state lines. The cops (or game wardens) had round the clock surveillance, a wired-up undercover agent, two surveillance aircraft, at least one confidential informant and vehicle tracking devices left and right.

The fishermen and the Russians were charged with conspiracy and sale of sport-caught fish. The scary thing about conspiracy is that your client can be charged with every crime committed in furtherance of the conspiracy, even crimes he didn’t know about, committed by people he never met. The DA didn’t do that in our case, but it was hanging over our heads.

In the book there’s the narrator/lawyer/me who just wants to bring the case to some kind of respectable conclusion, get paid and go home—who thinks, Conspiracy? It’s a fish for fuck’s sake! And there’s the author/me who has some sense of why it’s a big deal. I don’t know how to write about this part without sounding awfully grand, but anyway, something about the fact that these fish are ancient and precious and strange; that they’ve been around since the time of the dinosaurs and they look it, with their strange scale-less bodies and pearly-metallic scutes; that they give us a sense of geologic time (or evolutionary time); that we upstart primates are late-comers and soon-goers, and after we’re gone, they might still be here the same as they ever were, swimming along the bottom of this big brown river that won’t even have a name anymore. It would be really great not to blow it for them.

Mind you, I haven’t written any of this. These are plans, and the best part of the plan is that in the book I’m going to represent the owner of the Russian market, which means that this weekend I’m going to go there and eat my head off and take a bunch of notes.

I should probably be writing a non-fiction book about all this. But that sounds like a lot of work: interviews, research, things I don’t know how to do. Just getting myself out to the Russian market will take up half my Saturday because it’s way out in Citrus Heights. If I write a made-up story, I can pull most of it out of my ass, which is at least conveniently located.

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