Authors: Joel Goldman
Tags: #An Alex Stone Short Story
“Yeah. Him and Diego and me, we was all in prison together. He was dealin’ back then too, inside the joint.”
Alex shoot out of her chair so fast I thought she gonna land in the judge’s lap. She come down in front of the bench, the judge coverin’ his microphone with his hand while the lawyers whispered, veins in Alex’s neck poppin’ out her skin, Watts all silky. Alex walk back to our table, her chin up, her hard eyes givin’ me a beat down.
“Objection overruled,” the Judge say.
“What do you mean, Mr. Pillco,” Watts say to the rat, “that the defendant was dealing?”
“He was the man to see you needed to get fixed up. Pills mostly.”
“Did the defendant tell you why he was in prison?”
“Yeah. Some dude stiffed him so Travis say he cut him. Dude died. Travis made a real point of tellin’ that story. Said man don’t pay, man get cut. Way it is.”
I feel the jurors’ eyes on me, drillin’ holes in my back. Alex, she go stiff, makin’ notes on her legal pad, keep from lookin’ at me. There’s a seal on the wall behind the judge’s chair, a picture of an eagle, wings spread and arrows in its claws. I jus stare at that big bird, wonder what it be like to swoop down from the sky and rip a rat to shreds.
“That’s it for today,” the judge say. “We’ll reconvene tomorrow morning at nine.”
Alex come see me before court start. We in a witness room. A couple of chairs. No windows. Smell like old flop. She don’t sit so I don’t sit.
“Travis,” she say, “have you seen anyone in the courtroom you recognize, not counting your old prison buddy Luis Pillco?”
“I ain’t seen nobody.”
“What about your father?”
“Shit, I never met him. Wouldn’t know if he was there or not.”
“Sisters or brothers?”
“Sister live in St. Louis. My brother got hisself killed ten years ago.”
I shake my head. Don’t have to tell her I ain’t got any, none what would stand by me unless they was gettin’ well doin’ it.
“Your mother is a witness so the judge won’t let her in the courtroom until she testifies. Which means that I’m the only one in there who gives a rat’s ass what happens to you. Luis Pillco kicked us in the nuts yesterday and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it because you didn’t tell me that you’d been in prison with him. Now the jury knows you were connected to Diego Hernandez, that you are a drug dealer and you cut people who don’t pay you. If you want this to be a knife fight, you can’t take the knife out of my hand and let the D.A. stick one in your back at the same time. If there’s anything else I need to know, this would be the time to tell me.”
“What Luis say in court stay between me and Luis. We work it out another time.”
“That’s it.” Then it hit me. “How come you didn’t know what Luis gonna say? You tole me the D.A. has to give you a list of witnesses and that you gonna talk to all of ‘em.”
Girl goes all red on me. “I’ve got a lot of cases. Wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The judge was going to let him testify.”
She leave me there waitin’ for the sheriff’s deputy to take me into the courtroom, wonderin’ how close to jus good enough she gonna be.
Brenda Rudner in charge of the police crime lab. She say the cops found a knife hidden under the seat in my car. Say it had the kind of blade used to cut Diego. Say she trace the knife to the manufacturer who tell her they sold it to a sporting goods store in my neighborhood but the store got no record who they sold it to. Then she show pictures of blood stains they found in my car and hold up charts showing the blood come from Diego.
Alex take her time gettin’ out of her chair, shufflin’ her papers like she lookin’ for somethin’ ‘cept I can tell it all for show ‘cause her eyes on me and not them papers.
“Ms. Rudner,” she say, “whose fingerprints did you find on the knife that was recovered from my client’s car?”
“We were unable to identify any prints.”
“Are you telling the jury you found fingerprints on the knife but you couldn’t tell whose they were?”
Rudner clear her throat like she know her foot in it. “Not exactly.”
“Unfortunately, we need exactly. You see the state wants to kill my client. So exactly would be very helpful. Did you exactly find any fingerprints on the knife?”
“No, we didn’t.”
“No smudges, swirls, partials or latents?”
“How do explain that?”
“Someone wiped off any fingerprints that were there.”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you find any blood, tissue or DNA material on that knife?”
“Do you have any proof that my client ever touched that knife?”
“Did you examine the clothing my client was wearing when he was arrested?”
“Did you find any blood, tissue or DNA belonging to the decedent?”
“What about the rest of his clothes. Did you examine them?”
“Yes. We didn’t find anything that linked his clothing to this crime.”
“Did you find any blood, tissue or DNA belonging to my client on the decedent?”
“Given the bloody nature of this crime, do you find that unusual?”
“Not if the decedent didn’t struggle.”
“Are you telling the jury that the decedent did not struggle? That he offered no resistance while someone was stabbing and mutilating him?”
She crossed her arms, puttin’ up her own fight. “It’s reasonable to assume he struggled, at least at first.”
“And even if he didn’t struggle, the killer had to have made contact with the decedent’s skin when he gouged out the decedent’s eyes and castrated him. True?”
“And yet you found no physical evidence that Travis Runnels had any contact with the decedent’s body. Isn’t that also true?”
“You inspected my client’s car?”
Rudner lean back in the witness stand, glad to be talkin’ about something else. “I did.”
“Inside and out?”
“Well, I didn’t take it for a drive, if that’s what you mean, counselor.”
“How about the door locks? Did you try them?”
Rudner squinted her eyes. She thumbed through her file. “No, I didn’t. There was no need. The car was unlocked.”
“Precisely. When the police found the car it was unlocked.” Alex give her a paper. “I’m handing you what has been admitted into evidence as People’s Exhibit 6. This is a copy of Detective Barton’s report. I direct your attention to the third page of the report. Please read the portion I have highlighted.”
Investigating officer asked Mr. Runnels for permission to search his car. Mr. Runnels consented to the search. Investigating officer asked Mr. Runnels for the keys. Mr. Runnels advised that the car was unlocked because the locks were broken. Investigating officer proceeded with search and confirmed that locks did not work
. What’s your point, counselor?”
“Well, for starters, my client cooperated fully with the investigation which seems a bit unusual if he knew that the murder weapon and the decedent’s blood were in his car. But the real point is, the killer could have planted the knife and the decedent’s bloodstains in the car because it was always unlocked. Isn’t that true?”
“I don’t know.”
“But that scenario is entirely consistent with the physical evidence, true?”
“Thank you. You answered my question. And it’s also correct that there is nothing in the physical evidence that makes your scenario more likely than my scenario. True?”
“You’re asking me to speculate. I won’t do that.”
“I agree. You shouldn’t do that when a man’s life is at stake.”
The coroner, Dr. Kirk Semple, testify next. He tell the jury how he figured out whoever cut Diego was right-handed, how Diego standin’ up when he got cut the first time and how the one what did it was taller than Diego. I’m right-handed, taller than Diego and I ain’t stupid. Dude hurtin’ me.
Alex don’t get out of her chair. “How tall is Luis Pillco?” she ask Dr. Semple.
The doctor’s chin dropped. “I have no idea,” he say.
“Fair enough. Is Luis Pillco right-handed or left-handed?”
“No one provided me with that information. I couldn’t tell you.”
“So neither the police or the district attorney provided you with the information you would need to rule out Mr. Pillco as a suspect even though he was a known criminal associate of the decedent and had served time in prison for assault with a deadly weapon. True?”
“True,” he say.
I look at the jury. They lookin’ at Dr. Semple, shakin’ they heads. Makes me hard.
Fourth day. My suit already wearin’ thin. Before court start, I ask Alex she think Luis killed Diego.
“I’ve got no idea.”
“Don’t you know if he right-handed and taller than Diego?”
“Couldn’t tell you. I wasn’t paying attention. I’m betting the jury wasn’t either. If he isn’t, Watts has to bring him back so the jurors can see with their own eyes. If Watts doesn’t bring him back, you can bet he’s right-handed and taller. Hopefully, that’s the way it will break and I’ll have something else to talk about in my closing argument.”
Watts bring Luis back to testify he left-handed and shorter than Diego. My stomach get cold and my dick get limp. Then Watts say the People rests. The judge look at Alex.
“Ms. Stone,” he say.
Alex stand, squarin’ her shoulders, looking taller.
“The defense calls Shaila Dewan.”
Alex walk to the back of the courtroom, open the door and my momma come in wearin’ her Easter dress even though it October. She a big woman, her hips swayin’. She slow down when she get to where I’m sittin’. She reach out, takes my hand, squeezin’ it tight. Her eyes are red and wet and she smells like wine.
Momma get on the stand and tell her story. Alex thank her. Watts stare at momma till she can’t look at him.
“You love your son?” he ask her.
“Course I do.”
“Enough to lie to save his life?”
“I ain’t lyin’. He was with me.”
“That’s not what I asked you,” Watts say. “Would you lie to save your son’s life?”
“He’s my son.”
“Do you know what will happen to your son if the jury finds him guilty of capital murder?”
“He’ll be sentenced to death and executed. Do you want that to happen to your son?”
Momma, she hold her head up. “No mother wants that.”
“Any mother would try to prevent that, don’t you think, even if she had to lie?”
“Any mother what loved her baby.”
“Because it’s a mother’s job to take care of her child.”
“That’s right,” momma say.
“Raise him right. To know the difference between right and wrong.”
“I done my best. Travis he never had no father. I took him to church but one of them priests done him wrong. After that, he wouldn’t go back. That’s when he started getting in trouble. It wasn’t his fault.”
“But the incident with the priest happened years ago and you never told the church, the police, the district attorney or anyone else about it until after your son was arrested for murder, did you?”
“I didn’t want to embarrass him.”
Watts look through some papers on his table. Must be what lawyers do when they want the jury to know they gettin’ ready for somethin’ important. Alex done the same thing. Watchin’ him do it makes me have to pee.
“Your son is thirty-five. How old are you?”
Momma get her back up. “I’m fifty-one.”
“How old was Travis when he moved out of your house?”
“He come and go a lot.”
“I’m sure he does. How old was he when he was pretty much living on his own?”
Momma roll her eyes, countin’ in her head. “Seventeen.”
Watts nod. “You still cook for him when he comes over?”
“I do. He likes my meatloaf.”
“How about his laundry. Is he like my kids, always bringing their dirty clothes with them when they come home?”
The jurors laugh. They all got kids. “I’m his momma. He ain’t too old for me to do his wash.”
Alex studyin’ her legal pad, not writin’ a word. I start prayin’ but I don’t think God gonna listen.
“And you did his wash the day of the murder, didn’t you ma’am?” Watts ask, all smile and teeth. Momma don’t answer. “You’re not going to lie about a simple thing like doing the wash, are you ma’am?”
“I done his wash,” momma say, her hand going to her throat to catch the words before they got out, the wine slowin’ her down till it too late.
I grip the edge of the table. Alex slide her hand over and ease mine back in my lap.
Watts walk over to the witness stand, puttin’ his hands on the rail between him and momma. He a big man. Momma can’t see past him. She lean over, look at me. Her eyes wide, flutterin’.
“He asked you to wash his clothes that day, didn’t he?”
Momma’s head down. She don’t answer till the judge tell her she has to say somethin’. Then her voice so quiet the judge tell her to speak up.
“Yes,” she say. “He did.”
“Why did he ask you to wash his clothes?”
She wipe her eyes, keep her head down. “They was a mess.”
“A mess,” Watts say. “What did he have on his clothes that made them such a mess?” Momma look at me again. “You don’t need to look at your son. He can’t tell you what to say. Not now. Not in front of the judge and the jury. Now there’s only one thing you can do. Tell us the truth.”
Momma turn toward the jury, then back at me, then she stare down at the floor. “His clothes was all bloody.”
“But you couldn’t get the blood out, could you?” Momma shake her head. “So you went to Travis’ apartment and got him clean clothes, the clothes he was wearing when the police arrested him at your house. On the way back, you probably threw his bloody clothes in a dumpster. Am I right?”
Momma cryin’ now, snot runnin’ out her nose. “He’s all I got. He’s my baby.”
Goddamn momma and her wine.
It take two hours for the jury to find me guilty of capital murder. Only reason it take so long, the bailiff tole me, was on account of the jury wantin’ to stay long enough so the county had to pay for they lunch.