Command Performance is the first Ben Stone story we've presented in apocrypha and it does something we're always hoping stories will do: take you back, make you wonder just what happened before Ben Stone was the Executive Assistant District Attorney he is today. Says author Claire, "This storyline had been floating around in my mind for quite some time, and I always thought it would make a great episode plot. As a Ben Brigadier, I find it unfortunate that his departure preceeded the intrusion of personal life details into the episodes, and it is truly sad that Ben was not the recipient of the first on-screen kiss."
The case of the murdered barmaid at the Zodiac Club was a piece of cake for Len Briscoe and Mike Logan. The fingerprints and DNA were an on-the-money match with a rejected suitor/patron who was emerging as a suspect in three unsolved homicides also involving cocktail waitresses. Yet this cut-and-dried situation made at least one member of the law and order team hot and bothered.
In the course of the investigation, Briscoe and Logan interviewed the featured entertainer at the club -- Toni Angel. Yes, the Toni Angel, who had a fistful of Top 40 hits in the early sixties before the British Invasion put her out of business. Unlike her contemporaries, who were content to work the golden oldies circuit, Toni had the foresight to reinvent herself, and became quite a respected jazz singer/pianist, trading in Goffin and King for Rodgers and Hart. She packed them in everywhere. And her recordings did well on the Billboard Jazz Charts.
While her repertoire had evolved over time, her deep blue eyes retained the hypnotic quality that made her rock album covers a pleasure to look at, and her shapely, tastefully top-heavy figure transcended the temporal. This was not at all lost on the pair of drooling detectives.
"I like to establish professional intimacy with my audience," she told them as she sat, while they stood, in her cramped, photo-filled dressing room after the last show of the night. "I cruise the tables as I sing, just like the great cabaret performers of the forties and fifties did." Looking at the photograph they presented, she continued. "I'd seen this guy before at a few performances. For sure he was drinking too much, who doesn't in here? -- but I thought he was just an obnoxious boor. I didn't think he had it in him to do this, or the other crimes. Will I have to testify?"
"With all the evidence we have, I doubt it," offered Briscoe.
"Well, then, if you'll excuse me, it's way past my bedtime."
"Do you mind if we take a look at these photos? We normally don't get up close and personal to a celebrity, and if we do, they're rarely as charming as you," said Logan, thinking about that slimy rock star's rape trial of a few years back.
"You flatter me, Detective. But go ahead, if you wish. I'm heading home. And I do hope both of you get a chance to catch my act. Let me know your favorite song -- I do requests, you know."
"We'll try. Good night, Ms. Angel," said Briscoe with a twinkle rarely seen in the seasoned detective's eyes.
"Good night, and it's Toni." With that, she walked out of the dressing room, leaving more than a trace of New West perfume in the air.
Briscoe and Logan looked at each other, unable to suppress their Cheshire-cat smiles.
"Were you a fan of hers?," Logan asked his older partner.
"Are you kidding?," Briscoe responded. "I'm from the era of the original Frankies--Laine and Sinatra. I thought these rock and rollers killed popular music. But I reserve the right to a change of heart." He could be described as smitten, but he had reservations about getting involved with a woman who worked in liquor-laden venues.
"I was just a kid when she was popular," said Logan. "But I always thought she'd make a great big sister."
"A really built big sister," Briscoe quipped as the two took in the gallery of photographs of Toni posing with various show biz names.
One picture made Logan take another look. "Well, she may have been too old for me and too young for you. But there's someone we know for whom she would have been just right. And damn it if this isn't a picture of him."
Briscoe came over to see. The woman was smiling straight into the camera as the picture was snapped; the man was tilted toward her, with a look of wistful covetousness.
Logan was first to speak: "How long ago was this taken? Check out Toni with the big hair."
"Check out Ben Stone, with hair," Briscoe countered.
"Should we tell him about this?" Logan asked, with that cat-stole-canary smile returning.
"Ah, why not?" was Briscoe's response. "I doubt if she'd mind--she's got the photo on display. And as for Ben, it wouldn't hurt, and it might help -- I'll bet he hasn't been laid in at least two years."
The defense was pleading insanity -- the mental weight of romantic rejection.
"We'll have Olivet interview him, and we'll call some bar patrons as demeanor witnesses," said Ben Stone.
"A bunch of inebriated lounge lizards--I see a credibility problem," observed Paul Robinette.
"They weren't all drunk. We've got one witness who was sober, and is guaranteed to charm the pants off the jury," offered Briscoe, who poked Logan as the younger detective added "among others" to the sentence out of Stone's earshot.
"Who?" asked Stone anxiously.
"The featured singer at the club this month -- maybe you've heard of her -- Toni Angel."
The normally unfazed, poker-faced Ben froze for a moment. "Toni Angel?"
Briscoe persisted. "You must know her. Apparently she knows you."
Logan chimed in. "In her dressing room, wedged in there between photos at Grammy Award and Gold Record ceremonies is one of you and her at what looks like the senior prom. Anyway, if you want us to question her again, let us know. Or maybe you'd like to handle it yourself." And with that, the detectives departed.
Robinette remained. "You know Toni Angel? She's a terrific performer."
Ben took a seat in his swivel chair. "Toni Angel. Claudia Angelina Guglielmo. We go back a long time."
Ben and CeeGee. CeeGee and Ben. They were inseparable through high school. They co-starred in all the spring musicals. She was Sarah Brown to his Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, and Sharon to his Woody in Finian's Rainbow. That old devil moon, illuminating the back seat of his car, blinded them both with love.
They went their separate ways in college. She chose City University because the music program was great and she didn't want to estrange herself from the artistic dynamism of New York. Ben did not want to shatter his parents' dreams of an Ivy Leaguer son, and so he went to Dartmouth for pre-law. CeeGee did make it up to Dartmouth for all four of the Winter Carnival Weekends, but she could feel Ben growing away from her with each passing year. By the time he was an upper classman, he spent less time in New York during the summer. When they did get together, he sounded like a born New Englander, dropping the pronunciation tics that were emblematic of a Queens upbringing. He also had picked up a reserve and inhibition that wasn't there before; he ceased to be a fan of tactile public displays. It was as if he took a vow of seriousness, and he saw her as having taken one of frivolity, not realizing that she had to work twice as hard as he did to achieve her goals in her chosen field. When graduation rolled around, Claudia got her break in the music business and Ben went on to law school. By now, the 250 miles that separated them might as well have been 250 galaxies.
That photo. Ben kept a copy of it too, inside the credenza upon which the pictures of him with his daughter and at the black tie ABA Banquet were visible to visitors. It was taken at a law convention during the '70s, where she was the featured entertainer. She was an accomplished, respected vocalist at that point. And he was on the fast track in the New York DA's office. It was the first time he'd seen her in years, although they kept in touch by mail, telegram, and sometimes telephone. In her made-to-order pastel chiffon gown, perfect for doing those new disco dances, she looked radiant in anticipation of seeing Ben for the first time in too long a while.
In the meantime she'd met lots of men, and maybe had gotten excited once or twice, but she never fell as hard as she did the first time. Maybe she had too much faith in the lyrics of her hit records, that predicted happy endings for those who surrender to first love. But she never got over the feeling that Ben Stone was the one. Unlike the men who came after, Ben was attracted to her before she was famous. And they had so much in common. They both liked music, baseball, dogs, cats, and going to the races. They both hated liver and sloppiness. Neither would wear white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. And she was sure that his return to New York had melted the layer of ice he grew in New England.
That photo was snapped at their first exchange of words that night, before he introduced her to his wife.
Ben faced many fearsome adversaries in court, but none of those had made his palms sweat like they did at the prospect of seeing Claudia again.
Toni was working on a great jazz number, "The Late, Late Show," when she noticed a tall trench coat enter the club out of the corner of her eye. When she recognized the trench coat's contents, she got that hot-under-the-collar feeling many people get when they lose control of a situation. She retained enough composure to finish -- she cursed her luck that he walked in on that song; its description of semi-innocent romance was far too reminiscent of what she and Ben had. Ben's determined steps toward the combo platform served as a broom for the musicians, who retreated to a ten-minute break.
"Well, if it isn't Ben Stone, the District Attorney," said Toni. "I saw that you were prosecuting the case." She wanted to keep things aloof and businesslike.
"CeeGee. Claudia. Or is it Toni now?" Ben's voice had a surprising softness to it.
"Take your pick. What can I do for you?"
"About the murder." Ben picked up on Toni's relative frostiness; he considered it best to stick to business, although he wouldn't have minded a nice-to-see-you peck on the cheek.
"I didn't do it. And I've got witnesses. Now if you will excuse me, I've got a set to rehearse." With that she turned her back on him and began to round up the musicians.
Ben interrupted her. "Damn it -- I know you didn't do it! I just want to verify a few details about the way the accused acted the night of the murder."
She pivoted to face him. "I said all I plan to say to the detectives. Now if you will excuse me -- I'm have no more time or energy to waste on..."
"You stand still and listen to me." said Ben, as he turned her to face him. "A serial killer may walk with a lesser charge. I'm not dealing on this one. I want Murder One. I want him put away forever, before he preys on any more unsuspecting women. We may need some corroborating testimony. Suppose his next obsession is cabaret singers." This observation brought a stop to her resistance. "Now can we talk this over -- over lunch?", Ben offered in a gentle voice she hadn't heard in a long time.
Ben and Toni also shared a liking for Chinese food. Their reactions to it matched as well -- it tranquilized them both. By the time the conversation turned to matters personal, Ben and Toni were totally relaxed and thawed, respectively. The plum wine got Toni talking first. She regaled Ben with stories of her life in "the business," and for the first time Ben saw her as a shrewd businesswoman as well as a songbird. She did mention her inability to carve out a meaningful personal life when trying to forge a musical career. There was truth in this, but Toni brought this up out of pride as well. She didn't want Ben to think she'd been pining for him all this time.
"Oh, I didn't live in a convent all these years. Ten years ago I almost got married. My engagement to actor Nick Payne merited a mention on the Passages page of People, which you probably didn't see. He never got his name above the title in a movie, but his death in that plane crash out of Chicago's O'Hare made headlines." Toni felt sadness begin to envelope her. To avoid a tearful episode, and before Ben could offer belated condolences, she quickly shifted gears. "Enough about me. Tell me, Ben, was it everything you hoped it would be? You know, being a New York legal eagle, living on the North Shore, marrying a socialite?"
"Two out of three worked out fine. But I've been divorced for five years."
"Oh Ben, I am sorry." It was not in her nature to wish this kind of ill on Ben. Not really.
"Don't be. Carol and I had a lot in common when we met. As the years went by and I plunged into my work, we ran out of things to talk about."
"Were there any children?" Had Toni been completely sober, she probably wouldn't have asked this question. The idea of Ben fathering children with anyone else but her had the potential to cut like a knife.
"We had one daughter whose in high school now. She's been great about it. And Carol and I were civilized about custody and visitations."
"You and Carol must have had a whirlwind courtship. You were still writing to me just a few months before the convention where you introduced me to the brand new Mrs. Stone. As I recall, it wasn't the prose of a man married to somebody else. Did she sweep you off your feet when I wasn't looking?" Toni giggled this last question, making it sound more like a flirtatious inquiry than a search for the facts.
Ben began to get uncomfortable, as if he were in the confessional telling his wrongs to a priest. "You might say that. I don't know if I was swept off as much as carried off. Her parents approved, my parents approved ..."
"I can imagine how your parents approved -- your dad wasn't going to settle for a daughter-in-law whose ancestors didn't step off the Mayflower. I know he suspected all Italians of being in organized crime." Toni would have liked to have these words back. Why did she have to let on how much she cared?
"With my dad, it was most often the liquor talking. And with the life you were having, I couldn't imagine you wanting to settle in the suburbs with a civil servant."
"Ben, you never asked me how I felt." With that, Toni left Ben with mouth agape as she returned to the comfort of the cashew shrimp. Had he turned his head slightly to the left, he would have seen Defense Attorney Danielle Melnick being led to her table. She sure noticed them.
The prosecutorial projections of what kind of witness Toni would make were right on target -- she looked nonthreateningly sexy and highly competent in a Chanel suit with matching hat -- something for both the male and female jurors. With her flair for the dramatic, she adopted a tasteful nineties noir look that really appealed to Briscoe, who was seated alongside Logan in the courtroom. Ben yielded to his theatrical instincts, too. Keeping things formal, he called her Ms. Angel. Any under-the-surface passion (and the notion that Toni might still care for him made that a distinct possibility) remained hidden under his gray-suited, suspendered professionalism. While her testimony wasn't make-or-break for the case, her presence was an asset -- much as Ted Kennedy was for William Kennedy Smith. When Ben had no further questions, Danielle Melnick took over. Usually the sharpest dresser in any courtroom she frequented, Danielle was definitely outclassed by Toni.
"Ms. Angel, where did you have lunch the afternoon of October 5?"
"Objection! Irrelevant!" Ben was quick out of his seat to shout.
"It goes to the objectivity of this witness, Your Honor," Danielle countered.
"I'll allow it," were the definitive words of Judge Rebecca Stein, who was somewhat starstruck at the presence of a celebrity in her courtroom. "But get where you're going quickly, Ms. Melnick."
Toni looked at Ben, who gave her a momentary reassuring glance before he looked down at his desk "I don't remember the name of the place. Some Chinese place on 57th and 3rd."
"And with whom were you dining?"
"With Mr. Stone, Ms. Melnick."
"Was he coaching you as to what to say on the stand?"
Ben got up at this point. "Your honor," he said in a frustrated, exhausted tone that was quite effective with judges.
"Objection sustained." Judge Stein said sternly.
"So I suppose he was whispering sweet nothings in your ear, Ms. Angel" Danielle managed to say. Before Ben and the Judge had a chance to protest, opposing counsel was scampering back to her table. "Nothing further." As Toni stepped down from the witness box, she avoided Ben's eyes. This was Ben's stage, and this was the professional thing to do.
Angel's presence in the filled courtroom as the verdict was about to be read was a surprise to all involved. But she wanted this defendant off the streets, and she wanted Ben to win. When the guilty decision was official, Ben gave that quick nod of the head in satisfaction that was habitual with every conviction. He nodded again to Robinette, and both started to leave the courtroom amidst the overflow of spectators and reporters. Both men trailed Toni, whose stiletto heels clicked away two minutes earlier, ahead of the crowd.
On the courthouse steps, Ben turned around at the "Hey Stone!" of Len Briscoe. "That's one terrific doll over there trying to hail a cab. If you don't do something about it, I will." Both looked down the steps at Toni, who was successful in getting a taxi to slow down in front of her.
Ben smiled at Briscoe and dashed down the remaining steps, catching up with Toni and telling the cab to go on without her.
Briscoe joined Robinette where Stone had left him. "I didn't think Ben had it in him to move that fast," observed Robinette.
"You got that right," added Briscoe, as he and the Assistant DA watched Ben and Toni share a long, deep kiss in the New York sunshine.