Authors: Joel Goldman
Tags: #An Alex Stone Short Story
Knife Fight tells the story of a public defender who administers her own kind of justice to the clients she's afraid won't get what's coming to them. It's a perfect answer to one of my favorite questions: What happens when things go wrong, especially when you think no one is looking?
Knife Fight was first published in 2009 in the Mystery Writers of America anthology titled The Prosecution Rests and was included in The Top Suspense Group’s 2012 anthology, Favorite Kills. By then I had decided that I liked the public defender’s character so much that I wanted to write a series based on her. But I wasn’t wild about her name. So, in Favorite Kills, I changed her name from Elizabeth Rosenthal to Alex Stone. The first novel in the Alex Stone Thriller series, Stone Cold, will be released in December 2012.
By Joel Goldman
Every day is a knife fight. That’s what I tell my lawyer first time I meet her.
“Travis,” she say to me, “what am I supposed to do with that?”
“Shit, girl, you my lawyer. You figure it out.”
We in a room at the jail where prisoners meet with they lawyers, a guard watchin’ through a window make sure I don’t climb inside her pants and escape. Hard floor, hard chairs, hard everything.
Her name Alex Stone, Public Defender. She don’t look like much. Hit me ‘bout at my shoulders. Black hair cut short and tight. Got on black pants, black shirt and one of them six-pointed stars around her neck I seen Jews wear. She skinny and flat like she work out all the time. Got muscles ‘stead of tits. Girl gotta be on the down low.
“You a lesbian?”
She cross her arms. “Yeah.”
“Two for two.”
“So I got a Jew dyke for a lawyer. This shit is fucked up, man.”
“Yeah, well don’t feel bad. Looks like I’ve got a black client who hates Jews and gays. I guess we’re both fucked.”
I look at her, girl smilin’, maybe playin’ wit me. “You sayin’ you hate blacks?”
She shake her head. “I’m saying that we are what we are. I don’t have a problem with it but if you do, get over it. Johnny Cochrane is dead.” She shove a paper across the table. “Take a look at this.”
Court paper say I killed this dude Diego Hernandez. Call it capital murder and say they wanna give me the needle. I read my name. Travis Runnels. I like the way it look, big heavy black letters.
“Way it is,” I say.
“For now. We’ll see what the jury says.”
“What about a deal?”
She shake her head, not askin’ how come I want a deal if I’m innocent. “No way,” she say. “The D.A. is running for re-election.”
I seen his ads on TV. Kevin Watts. He say vote for me cause I lock the niggas up. And the man a brother.
“What if I’m convicted?”
“You appeal. If you get the death penalty, the appeals can last ten to twelve years. Even if you lose, at least you win for awhile.”
“Can I win an appeal?”
“Depends on what happens at trial. If the judge screws up or I screw up, you might get a new trial.”
“Whuju mean, if you screw up?”
“The Constitution guarantees you the right to effective assistance of counsel. I don’t have to be perfect or the best. I can make mistakes but I have to be just good enough that you get a fair trial.”
“What’s your track record?”
She take a deep breath, look at me hard. “I lose most of the time.”
“Most of my clients are guilty.”
“Of course you are.”
She don’t smile or nuthin. Girl’s a fuckin’ puzzle.
“Ain’t you afraid you get me off, I go out and do it again? If I done it in the first place.”
“I have nightmares about that,” she say, sittin’ across from me, lookin’ at my file. She put the papers down. “On the other hand, if you go to prison, you might kill someone inside just because he looks at you the wrong way. Or, you might get shanked in the shower because you’re not in love with someone who’s in love with you. There’s a lot that can happen in your life I can’t do a damn thing about but this case isn’t one of them.”
She say all the right shit but that don’t mean she can get it done. “You jus a PD. What chance I got with you?”
“Your only chance. The State has a witness that will testify you threatened to kill Diego Hernandez before he was found carved up like a Christmas goose. The cops found a knife and Diego’s blood in your car when they picked you up at your mother’s house. Plus, you’ve already done time for armed robbery and manslaughter that was pled down from murder two.”
I lean back in my chair, lift the front legs off the floor, rock back and forth like that shit don’t mean nuthin. “I hear all that. You got a job to do. You jus wanna know how hard it gonna be.”
She puts her hands on the table, gets in my face, her eyes on fire. “That’s right, Travis. I want to know how hard it’s going to be to save your life.”
I put my chair down. Stand so she lookin’ up at me. “Like I tole you. Every day is a knife fight.”
I meet with Alex the night before the trial. She give me a hundred dollar suit to wear so I don’t look like I’m guilty wearin’ prison clothes.
Then she say the first thing gonna happen tomorrow is the lawyers pick the jury. She say she gonna tell the jury she only want people who can be fair but she tell me she only wants jurors who don’t trust cops and will feel sorry for a brother that was abused when he was a kid and never caught a break. Most of all, she say, she want jurors who don’t like the death penalty.
“So you gonna lie to the jury.”
She wearin’ honey colored glasses half way down her nose, make her face soft. She take ‘em off. Her eyes are dark gray and she got bags under ‘em color of wet newspaper.
“It’s not a lie,” she say. “It’s how I define fair.”
I put my hands up. “You gotta lie, I can respect that.”
She don’t argue, jus act like she don’t hear me.
“The jury wants to know what happened,” she say. “If I can create reasonable doubt in the their mind about the D.A.’s version, you’ve got a chance.”
“How you gonna do that?”
“You say you were at your mother’s when Diego was killed. She backs you up. It’s a lousy alibi because everyone knows a mother will lie to save her child. But, if the jury likes your mother, they might buy it.”
I think about what she say.
“My momma a good woman even if she like her wine too much. Can’t nobody not like her.”
“Well, then, I’ll have to talk with her and make certain she hasn’t been liking her wine too much when she testifies.”
Alex lean over to me after the judge swear in the jury, so close I can smell her. Soap. No perfume. She say the jury okay but she say it the way I say
good evening officer, nice to see you
. Seven women, five men. Four black, six white. Two Mexican. I look at them. They look away.
Kevin Watts, the D.A., make his opening statement to the jury. Brother talks whiter than Jay Leno. Wears a suit cost ten times the one I’m wearin’. Calls me a drug dealer. Says I cut Diego on account he don’t pay me for some crack I sell him. Says I didn’t jus cut him. Says I tortured him, cut out his eyes and cut off his nuts. That’s why he say I deserve the needle. Makes me a bad motherfucker if I done it, that’s for damn sure. I ain’t sayin’ I did or I didn’t, but man don’t pay, man gets cut. Way it is.
Alex, she tell the jury the D.A. got no proof I done nuthin. She say everything circumstantial and I got an alibi. My momma gonna testify I was watchin’ TV at her house when Diego got hisself murdered. She don’t talk as long as Watts and she don’t get worked up like he did neither. I was on the jury, I ain’t believing her. Girl sure as hell not perfect or the best.
The Judge a white guy, no chin and no hair, tell the jury what the lawyers say ain’t evidence. Then why he let them tell the jury anything? Don’t make no sense.
The courtroom’s cold. I rub my hands keep ‘em warm. Alex whisper at me to stop, say it make me look nervous. The judge say he keep it cold so nobody fall asleep. The jury laughs like it’d be funny they fall asleep tryin’ to decide if I get the needle. He tells them bring a sweater. I’m shiverin’ in my suit. I look at the jury. They see me shake. Alex puts her hand on my arm. I’m still cold but I quit shiverin’. That’s all that happens the first day. I go back to my cell but I don’t sleep.
Next day, Alex make me stand when the jury and the judge come in the courtroom. Them jurors tuggin’ on their sweaters makin’ sure the judge notice, all of them smilin’ and laughin’ like they havin’ a party.
Alex say we stand out of respect whenever the judge and the jury come or go. I ain’t got no fuckin’ respect for people what gonna decide if I live or die and all they care about is what they wearin’. Ain’t none of them fuckin’ know who I am or what I’m about. They got the power and Alex she got to play their game but that don’t mean I got to respect they shit.
Fred Barton be the detective on the case. He a fat fuck, his collar squeezin’ his head till it swoll up like a thumb somebody done hit with a hammer. Him and the D.A. got they shit together playin’ patty cake with the questions. Barton he all about how Diego all cut up, the D.A. showin’ the jury pictures of the holes in Diego’s head where his eyes used to be and another close up of the man’s junk all bloody. Alex she object like it her junk the jury lookin’ at but the Judge tell her overruled and take a seat.
I watch the jury. Couple them white guys getting red, the women swallowin’ hard like they gonna puke. I already seen the pictures. They bad but I seen worse.
Barton go on sayin’ how Diego was under investigation for sellin’ drugs, mostly crack, and that I was the one what was sellin’ the shit to Diego. Alex, she take a piece out of Barton, walkin’ around the courtroom like she own it, askin’ him questions.
“Detective Barton, did you find any drugs on Mr. Hernandez’s body?”
“Yes, ma’am, we did. Several rocks of crack cocaine.”
“Whose label was on them?”
Barton, he look at her like she crazy. “Street drugs don’t have labels on them,” he say.
“Well, then,” Alex say, “was anybody’s name on those drugs?”
“How about a receipt? Did you find a receipt or a cancelled check or a credit card record showing who paid for those drugs?”
“No. That’s not the way these things work.”
“Of course they don’t detective. Drug dealers don’t operate like Wal-Mart. Everyone knows that. So you must have found some other physical evidence that proved my client sold those drugs or any drugs to Mr. Hernandez.”
Barton took a deep breath, looked over at the D.A. “No, ma’am. We didn’t.”
“What? No photographs? No wiretaps? No fingerprints?”
“But you testified that the defendant sold drugs to Mr. Hernandez and that my client murdered him when Mr. Hernandez didn’t pay for the drugs, isn’t that right?”
“That was my testimony.”
“And you told the jury that you relied on a paid informer who was part of Mr. Hernandez’s drug ring who told you that story about my client?”
Another deep breath. Motherfucker keep suckin’ air he gonna blow up like a goddamn birthday balloon. “That’s correct.”
“And that paid informer, who previously did time in prison for assault with a deadly weapon and who the District Attorney gave a get-out-of-jail-free card in return for his testimony is the only source of evidence you have that Travis Runnels sold drugs to Mr. Hernandez. Isn’t that correct?”
“And that paid informer is also the only witness who told you that my client threatened to kill Mr. Hernandez. True?”
“True,” Barton say, lettin’ the air out like he an old grandpa can’t breathe.
“And if that paid informer hadn’t made such a sweet deal with the District Attorney, he’d be on trial for selling drugs. True?”
“I don’t know. I don’t make those decisions.”
“No you don’t, Detective. You just ignored his crimes and arrested my client instead. Nothing further.”
Alex sit back down. “How’d you like that knife fight,” she say out of the corner of her mouth.
“That’s what I’m talkin’ about,” I say, sittin’ high and feelin’ fine. My girl kills.
Luis Pillco testify next. Pillco be the rat, a skinny dude got greased back hair, no meat on him, jumpy like he lookin’ to get fixed up. The D.A. take him through his paces. I don’t look at him. Alex, she eye Luis like he her next meal, squirmin’ around in her chair, ready to jump his ass soon as Watts let go.
“Mr. Pillco, can you identify the man you heard threaten to kill Diego Hernandez?” Watts ask Luis.
“Let the record show that the witness is pointing at the defendant Travis Runnels,” Watts say. “Had you met the defendant at some point prior to when he made that threat?”