Here’s what Dapper Donny saw when I walked into his bar: a guy a few birthday cakes north of forty, with thinning hair, a slight limp in his left leg, and a suit straight out of a Motel 6 lost and found.
His nod and my request for a scotch were perfunctory, as I heaved myself onto a stool with a weary sigh. The line of sight between my seating choice and the wall-mounted security camera in the corner above the end of the bar was direct and unimpeded. Hey, if I’m doing a screen test, I want the video to capture every detail, from the spare tire straining my worn shirt’s buttons to the fine veins road mapping the mushrooming tip of a drinker’s nose.
Strictly transactional, the dealings between Donny and me that first night three weeks ago, though when I laid down a twenty for a pair of four-buck pops and eased off the stool to indicate I wasn’t looking for change, Donny tacked on a quick thank-you smile to his good-night nod.
Memory of the hefty tip triggered a more welcoming greeting the next evening, when I returned wearing the same shabby suit and a fresh, threadbare shirt.
“Scotch neat, right?” he asked, as I parked my can on the stool I’d claimed the night before.
“Yeah, and don’t let it die of loneliness.”
He poured heavy, a liquid bet that the previous tip hadn’t been a fluke, although I could almost hear his brain cogs grinding as he weighed my down-on-his-luck look against the size of the gratuity. Maybe he thought I had mistaken a twenty for a ten last night, but he owned the place and could pour lavish or stingy, his call.
You can only truly begin working a mark when he believes he’s working you, so I waited patiently for Donny to push out a pawn. As he slid a cardboard coaster in front of me and set the squat glass on it, he didn’t disappoint.
“I’ve had better,” I said. “But then, I’ve also had worse.”
“I hear you, brother.”
Clichés being the optimum bedrock on which to build a superficial connection, I stuck to the tried and true by design. Donny, I suspected, spoke fluent bullshit because his IQ was roughly the overnight low at the Phoenix airport in August.
His full name was Donald Tucker Raffin, and once upon a time he’d been a basketball star at a high school almost three thousand miles west of the Baltimore dive in which I methodically downed a scotch many tiers below Glenfiddich, the aged-in-Caribbean-rum-casks single malt I prefer. Dapper Donny’s house pour had more likely been aged in the hubcap of a Kia.
I knew all there was to know about my host, including the origin of his long-ago nickname. When he wasn’t putting points on the board, eighteen-year-old Donald Raffin had dressed like a GQ model and swaggered through Jackson County High as though each corridor were a runway. He had all the markers for success—rich parents, only child, special skill set—but like many a blazing, teen comet, Don’s adult iteration had fizzled into obscurity.
He blamed a run-in with the law his senior year for the short-circuiting of his basketball future, which, in his imagination, included a scholarship to a prestige university, a brilliant pro career, and million-dollar endorsement deals. That “run-in” was the murder of Tina Kemp, a crime for which Donny had been the prime suspect.
I’ve screened the game tapes and, truth be told, his basketball skills were only good enough to wow a hometown crowd and maybe get him a full ride at a middling college where he would have performed yeoman’s work on a capable team, but that LeBron-level fantasy was never destined to happen. The fact that he had killed a sixteen-year-old cheerleader and gotten away with it had little to do with the crash and burn of Donny’s hoop dreams.
The Raffins—père and mère—poured a fortune into their golden boy’s defense, hiring high-profile attorneys to employ obscure legal techniques, exploit iffy loopholes, and passionately interpret each fact in the light most favorable to Donny’s case, while the overworked, underpaid assistant DA dogpaddled frantically to keep his head above water.
For those reasons and the silence of my client, Donald Raffin was found not guilty, and in the twelve years since the crime, no other credible suspect had been put forward.
As Donny set a Smurf-blue cocktail in front of the barfly a couple stools down from me, I signaled for a refill.