I am delighted to welcome Paul Levine to the blog! He comes bearing gifts: a chapter from his latest Jake Lassiter novel, Cheater’s Game!
Kip has been working with millionaire Max Ringle in a shady scheme to help rich, spoiled kids gain admission to elite universities. Ringle, the mastermind of the fraud, cops a plea and shifts the blame to Kip.
Dr. Melissa Gold, Lassiter’s fiancée, tries to keep the ailing lawyer strong enough for a grueling trial, even as his symptoms of brain damage grow worse. As a fiery showdown with Ringle brings the courtroom to a fever pitch, Lassiter risks everything – including his own life – to fight for his nephew’s freedom.
“CHEATER’S GAME is a top-notch tale from Paul Levine, and his Lassiter is my kind of lawyer!” – Michael Connelly, author of “The Lincoln Lawyer”
NOTE: All the Lassiter novels are stand-alones that may be enjoyed in any order.
In “Cheater’s Game,” Miami lawyer Jake Lassiter tackles the true-to-life college admissions scandal. The drama begins when the car his nephew Kip is driving plunges into an Everglades canal. Kip has been tutoring high school students prepping for their S.A.T. exams. But visiting Kip in the hospital leaves Lassiter with more questions than answers.
Launching the Child Like a Sailboat
“Good morning,” he lied.
That’s what popped into my head midway into our colloquy. I have cross-examined professional perjurers for twenty-five years. Kip reminded me of a witness I once questioned, a guy who fabricated every answer, even to the polite request, “Please state your name for the record.”
It started well enough. Kip grinned and said, “Fire away.”
“What were you doing in the Glades?”
“Collecting money Jimmy Tiger owed me for tutoring his dumb ass. He was staying at his family’s fishing cabin.”
“Who’s Jimmy Tiger?”
Kip pushed a button on a remote, and the hospital bed groaned and propped him upright. “Jimmy was a year behind me at Tuttle.”
Meaning Biscayne-Tuttle. Kip’s fancy-pants private high school that sits regally on the shoreline of Biscayne Bay in Coconut Grove. Mediocre football program, but the sailing and chess teams, top-notch.
Kip continued, “Jimmy used to come over to the house. Don’t you remember?”
I shook my head. The name neither rang a bell nor set off alarms. “How much did he owe you?”
Silence. I could have run the 40-yard dash while he decided what to say, and I was never fast. Surely he knew the amount, so why the delay?
“Eight hundred bucks,” he said, finally.
“I guess that explains the $987 in your wallet.”
Another pause. “I guess.”
Kip might be able to get a perfect score on the SAT, but he was a real dunce at prevarication.
“Why didn’t Jimmy send you a check?” I asked. “Or . . . what’s that system you use?”
“PayPal.” He shrugged. “Jimmy likes cash.”
“So do a lot of my clients. I send them birthday cards every year. Raiford, Avon Park, Dade Correctional.”
“Chill, Jake. This isn’t illegal.”
I chilled by finishing the icy Blizzard shake. The nurse returned and left a menu for Kip. He was hungry, and I wasn’t, probably because I had just inhaled a zillion calories.
When she was gone, I shifted gears. “What’s with your trips to Grand Cayman?”
Instead of answering, Kip took the oxygen clips out of his nose. “I gotta pee.”
Maybe he did or maybe he just wanted to concoct an answer. He swung his feet out from under the sheets, and I grabbed his skinny left arm.
“I don’t need help, Jake. Just push the cart for me, will you?”
I didn’t protest that he was wobbly. If he stumbled, I could catch him with one paw. I pushed the cart that held his IV bag and opened the door to the restroom.
“I go to Cayman for business,” Kip said, once inside.
I heard a tinkling. At least he wasn’t lying about that.
“Dr. Ringle has a vacation house on the beach,” Kip continued. “It’s where we have our marketing meetings.”
“Hold on. Who’s Dr. Ringle?”
“Max Ringle. He’s got a Ph.D. You remember Shari Ringle, right?”
“Another student at Tuttle?” I ventured.
“Boarding school at Saint Andrew’s in Boca Raton.” Kip walked unsteadily back into the room, and we retraced our steps. After he slid under the sheets, he continued, “The Ringles live in California, but they have houses in Palm Beach and Grand Cayman. I tutored Shari for the SAT, and now she’s at U.S.C.”
“Go Trojans. Is she your girlfriend?”
“I wish. Anyhow, that’s how I met her dad, who’s really brilliant. He runs Quest Educational Development. You know the Latin abbreviation, right? Q.E.D.”
“No, but I’m sure you do.”
“Quod erat demonstrandum. ‘Thus, it has been demonstrated.’ Mathematicians use it to signify the accuracy of their proofs.”
“So it’s a math tutoring company?”
Kip gave me a pitying look that teachers reserve for their dimmest students. “You’re being too literal. Philosophers use Q.E.D. with their propositions. You could even end a closing argument with it.”
“Speak Latin? My jurors have trouble with bus schedules.”
“Q.E.D. helps wealthy families get their kids into elite universities,” Kip went on. “Résumé enhancement, SAT and ACT prep, even psychologists to help with test anxiety.”
“’Résumé enhancement’ leaves an unsavory taste. Sounds like hired hands putting a spit shine on the shoddy work of rich dullards.”
“Max says we’re just showing students in their best possible light.”
“When you cut through the marketing bullshit, aren’t rich parents just paving the road for their kids to get into fancy colleges? Meanwhile, poor parents scrape by, hoping for loans and scholarships.”
“How’s that different from a rich defendant hiring a top lawyer and posting bail while a poor guy stays in jail and gets the public defender?”
“Point taken.” Kip had been a star on the Biscayne-Tuttle debate team and seldom lost an argument with anyone, including me.
“Somehow,” I said, “I thought higher education should be a meritocracy, even when so much of society is not.”
“Wake up, Jake! Survival of the fittest. Capitalism at work. And it does work. Max pays me very well, as my Tesla ought to prove.”
“I’ve never heard you talk about money and material things like this, Kip. It’s so . . .”
He regarded me quizzically. “We’ve talked about Q.E.D. before. Don’t you remember?”
“I worked for Max Ringle as a freelancer before I went to Philly, then I started full-time when I came home.”
“Went to Philly.” “Came home.” Sounds so much better than getting his ass kicked out of college.
“My business cards say ‘Senior Vice President, Standardized Testing.’”
“Impressive. Let’s do lunch. Have your girl call my girl.”
He rolled his eyes. “When I got back to Miami, do you remember my saying how I was upgrading my clients and making a lot more cheddar?”
“Can’t say that I do.”
“Max Ringle was the first guy to call me. He said I could make a ton of money with him and I didn’t need a college degree. Bill Gates dropped out of college. So did Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.”
“Don’t forget Jeffrey Epstein and Ted Bundy.”
“I knew you’d say something like that.”
“I’m just surprised that your boss peddles such bullshit. And, frankly, this is all news to me.”
He paused long enough to measure his words. The P.A. speakers informed us that Dr. Kornspan’s presence was requested in the maternity ward.
“I’m worried about you, Jake.”
“Right back at you.”
“I bet you wish you’d never played football.”
“No, but I wish I hadn’t blocked that punt with my face mask.” That was true, given my grade-three concussion to go along with two minutes of unconsciousness. True, too, that organized football has become organized brain damage.
“You met Jimmy Tiger at the house a couple years ago,” Kip said. “Okay, so maybe you forgot him. But I told you about working with Max Ringle. Do you remember my asking your opinion about the Tesla before I bought it?”
I pointed a finger at him, as if aiming a dagger. “I’d remember the Tesla if we’d talked about it, and I don’t.”
“You better take some memory tests the next time you’re at the concussion center.”
“I don’t have drain bamage,” I said, repeating an old joke between the two of us.
Sure, I’ve been forgetful. So are lots of people my age. In conversations, the name of an actor or a movie or an old teammate slips away. I used to watch Jeopardy with Kip when he was a little kid. The game show places a premium not just on knowledge, but on how quickly you can retrieve that knowledge. Back in the day, my brain synapses fired at Usain Bolt speed. Now, the answer—What is Liechtenstein?—may come to me next Tuesday.
I can’t say whether my memory lapses are the result of brain disease or the ailment we call life. Either way, I’m not as sharp. Still, there are some things I’m sure I would remember, and I had the distinct impression that Kip was gaming me.
“What about those trips to Grand Cayman?” I asked. “Did you tell me about them?”
“I’m a grown man. I don’t need you to baby-sit me.”
Grown man sounded so discordant.
I looked him dead on. “Did you get your probation officer’s permission to leave the country?”
“In the practice of law, do you ever break the rules?”
“Only the little ones.”
“When you were in private practice, you’d get guilty people off, but you’re lecturing me about my legal responsibilities.”
“I didn’t get anybody off, Kip. I just forced the state to prove its case.”
He laughed. “What a rationalization. And I mean the psychological defense mechanism of making excuses. Not the mathematical process of removing the square root from the denominator of a fraction.”
“You win, Kip. You’re the smartest guy in the room, and likely the smartest guy in any penitentiary.”
“Relax, the probation department loves me. I made restitution ahead of schedule.”
“A hundred thirty thousand? How?”
“I got an advance from Max.”
“So, you owe your boss. Is he charging you vig?”
Kip laughed and buried his face in both hands. “Vig?” he said with utter delight. “You’ve been representing lowlifes too long, Jake. I’m practically Max’s partner. We’re businessmen.”
This businessman still seemed like a naive waif to me.
“Sometimes, Kippers,” I said, “you exhaust me.”
We were both quiet a moment. If the battle had been with bare knuckles instead of words, this is where we would be stuffing cotton up our bloody noses. I listened to the squeak of rubber soles on the tile floor outside the room. On the P.A. system, a Dr. Emery was required in the ICU. Outside the window, the sun was shining, and a breeze ruffled the fronds on a trio of queen palms.
“I’m worried about you, Kip. Or did I already say that? ’Cause I’m such a senile old bastard, maybe I forgot.”
“I’m good, Jake. Really.”
We had come to an impasse. He’d kept secrets from me, and I’d called him on it. He felt I was invading his personhood, and there was no way to convince him my good intentions outweighed his need for autonomy. So I gave up . . . for now.
I told Kip to call me whenever he was ready to be discharged. I’d pick him up. He said he would, and I didn’t know whether to believe that, either.
You raise your child the best you can. You send the child into the world, like launching a toy sailboat in a pond. Except the world is not a placid pond. More often, it is a raging sea, and life a perfect storm of the unexpected crashing head-on into the unbearable. There is no way to prepare the child for such a world because your own personal crises, traumas, and failures are just that, your own. Your child, as you will belatedly learn, is not you.