I. The snitch
The voice on the other end of the phone was sweaty. This is the kind of tremor that makes me want to hang up, curl among some smelly blankets, and dose off. I like skeletal tones, dry, brittle, decisively fatalistic. People who get straight to the point, my point, their point, our point. I gazed at the grimy receiver.
"Detective Escher?" - he sounded muffled, as though speaking through a coat.
I waited. He will come around.
"They say you are the best". This guy is positively dangerous.
"Can we meet?" I thought he'd never ask.
"The Valencia" - I said - "Eight o'clock. Be sharp. I won't wait around".
"Oh, I understand, I will be ...". I hung up on him and wiped my fingers in a used napkin. The "Valencia" was across the street. They served decent sandwiches and tolerable tea in worn silver mugs. I liked the place, it decomposed gracefully. It was a crisp evening, good for a walk. So, I walked.
By the time I got to the Valencia it was half past eight. I couldn't care less. I almost wished I had missed him, but had no such luck. He was there, fat fingers and all. Beady eyes glared at me accusingly, rolling in an avalanche of corpulence. His body looked disorganized, like an afterthought. He got up, throttled by the effort and extended a fleshy hand which I ignored.
If he had shoulders, he would have shrugged them. Instead, he deflated into the protesting mock-leather love seat and said: "I never did this before. It is my first time". He startled me. His voice was as smothered face to face as it had been through the phone. I couldn't force myself to soothe him.
I rolled a cigarette and ordered beer and a corn beef sandwich. It was almost gone before my client revived and pushed a brand new envelope across the crooked Formica.
"It's all here" - he mumbled, shifting uneasily, spraying my food with perspiration - "The girl ..." - he left it hanging.
I scooped the envelope and lodged it in the inner pocket of my shabby coat. I could tell he wasn't too impressed. I gulped down some beer and came up for air. He said: "When do you plan on ...". He had this unnerving habit of dangling aborted sentences in mid-air.
I got up, nodded peremptorily, and walked away. He didn't follow me but I could feel his eyes spearing my back and I could sense his panic that, maybe, just maybe, he was had been wrong. It must have happened to him a lot, this pendular self-doubting.
2. The Judge
The envelope contained only a neatly folded piece of paper with a name scrawled across it with a blunt pencil. I almost turned around and shoved it back in his cascading face but then I remembered his stench and gave up.
Instead, I leaned against a lamppost and scrutinized the toppling letters. Then I stuffed the envelope in my back pocket and, for some reason felt like whistling. A new lede was like infatuation. Spurts of adrenaline, colors sprouting, weightlessness, even the cacophony of the streets is music. In my mind, I kept rehearsing not to forget to get a warrant. I had the inclination to overlook red tape and constitutional niceties.
I glanced at my watch. It was too late for Jack and too early to return home. But I decided that an angry Jack is preferable to an empty tenement. I headed north, along the river. Jack lived uphill and I had to climb the winding road that led to his brass gate. Distant barks, rustling leaves, lights turned on and off in accelerating succession and there was Jack, holding the door ajar and glaring at me balefully.
"What do you want, Escher?"
"At this time of night?"
I grinned: "The Law never rests."
He sighed and restrained his canine companion.
"Come in," - he muttered - "and tell me all about it."
3. The Girl
Jack escorted me, like in the good old days, when we were partners, before he went to night law school, before he became an attorney, then a judge, before he married one of his former clients, a fabulously wealthy, plastically-enhanced widow. The warrant, signed, was tucked safely in an inside compartment of his angora wool jacket. Jack was flabby, bloated, out of shape, an occluded front of grey under his suntanned skin betraying his fatigue. Up one knoll we climbed and up another until even I ran short of breath.
Her abode was well-worth the effort, though: a greenhouse dome, besieged by savage shrubbery, casting lances of aquamarine light at the purple sky.
Jack whistled and then coughed convulsively.
"Quite a sight" - I concurred.
But Jack's social nous far exceeded his aesthetic predilection. The occupant was on his mind, not the residence's optical diversions.
"Do you know who lives here?" - he enquired awhisper - "This is George Ashdown, the defense lawyer! I thought her name rang familiar!". He wouldn't want to infringe on the turf of a potential contributor to his campaign war chest, I assumed.
I shrugged and pressed the electric buzzer long and hard. The door opened almost instantaneously and a feminine silhouette emerged from the penumbral innards of the establishment.
"Can I help you?"
"I am Detective Escher," - I volunteered - "and this is Judge Bayou. Can we have a word with ..."
I fumbled in my pockets and straightened the crumpled note:
"Ashdown, Edna Ashdown."
"That would be me." - She eyed us warily: "What is it all about?"
"Police business." - I tried to sound minacious and, judging by Jack's recoil, made a splendid job of it. But, the girl was imperturbable:
"Can I see your badge, please?"
Having dispensed with the police procedural formalities, she ushered us in and offered us "something to drink." I declined and so did Jack as we took in her figure: emaciated, brittle, faded, and way younger than we thought. At her explicit invitation we sat down.
"Miss Ashdown," - I said - "is it true that you have witnessed a murder recently?"
She averted her eyes, but there was no alarm in them, only an overwhelming embarrassment at having been caught out acting real naughty: "Who says?"
Jack moved uneasily in his seat. I procrastinated. She maintained her sang-froid.
"An informant. Says you told him so."
She smiled and looked straight at me:
"I told many people, Detective Escher. It wasn't easy to succeed to make your acquaintance, you know."
I stared at her, befuddled. "I think I will have that drink now, ma'am. Orange juice, if it is no bother." - I finally offered - "If you were trying to attract the attention of the Law, why not simply stroll into the nearest police station and be done with it?"
"Oh, but I did!" - The whole thing appeared to amuse her beyond measure - "I did, but no one would listen to me, let alone believe me. They said that in the absence of a victim, there is no crime." - She giggled and then made a visible effort to control her mirth.
"Without a victim?" - It was Jack's turn to sound dumbfounded.
"A corpse, you know." - She elucidated patiently - "There's no corpse."
4. The Crime
"Why don't we start from the beginning." - I felt exasperated: "Who murdered whom?"
"My father killed my mother."
Jack shifted his position, subtly signaling me. I ignored him.
"Why? Why did he do that?"
The girl grinned incongruously: "He was double-timing her. He had an affair. With me."
Jack sounded as though he were choking on his ice cubes.
"When was it?"
She thought back: "Oh, two, three days ago. I haven't exited the house since then, you know."
"How did he kill her?"
"Detective Escher!" - Jack's voice was stern and reprimanding - "That's enough!". He turned towards my interlocutor and advised her avuncularly: "You will probably end up being a suspect in this case. Everything you say may be held against you in a court of law. I strongly advise you to have a lawyer present during this interrogation."
"Is this an interrogation?" - She sounded more mischievous than surprised. She fixed me with her gaze.
"An informal one." - I struggled to remain truthful.
She laughed, tilting her head and eyeing me, evidently entertained:
"You have a way with words, Detective Escher. Anyhow," - turning to Jack now - "I don't need, nor do I want a lawyer present. I know what I saw. I am here to help the Law, not to obstruct it. I want justice for my late mother."
Jack nodded helplessly, shrugged his padded shoulders, and sprawled on the chaise, his body language broadcasting defeat.
I took it from there:
"Back to basics. Where did he dump the body?"
"How did he kill her? Where did he bury her?" - I repeated, after a moment of unproductive silence.
She sighed and rose from her chair reluctantly:
"Come, I will show you."
"I thought you said there's no corpse!" - Jack interjected.
"There is none," - she responded off-handedly - "but my father is here, upstairs. He will confess. He will tell you everything."
Her father didn't confess. On the contrary, he vehemently denied having committed any kind of infraction, let alone the alleged murder of his wife. He lashed out at his daughter, calling her a liar and accusing her of deliberate confabulation, all with the intention of framing him up.
"Why would she want to do that?" - Enquired Jack. He sat at the massive oak desk, facing the suspect: a diminutive, wizened, but charismatically imposing figure, clad in a silk gown that overflowed at his slippered feet. Bright blue eyes peered out from an etched network of suntanned wrinkles. a mane of striking white hair, brushed, Hitler-style, to one side.
"Because she hates me!".
Jack continued apace:
"Does she has a special reason to hate you to the point of potentially seeing you dead, if you are convicted of the murder of your wife?"
A decisive "Yes!" was followed by the unlikely tale that his wife is not dead, she left him many years ago and he doesn't know her whereabouts.
His daughter sniggered:
"You murdered her! I saw you do it!"
The father rose half way from his seat, his face contorted, but then thought better of it and subsided, emitting a rending sigh.
"Sir," - said Jack, his voice smooth and solicitous - "your daughter accuses her of having had a sexual liaison with her. Now, you don't have to answer any of our inquiries. You have not been arraigned for questioning, but you still may wish to have a lawyer present ..."
The father waived this caution away impatiently:
"Lies. Damn lies. She has been a liar ever since she could speak, my viper daughter."
He cast a curious glance her way and lowered his eyes, almost abashedly. His daughter grinned fiercely, tautly and then burst into tears. Amidst this awkward moment, her father whispered, almost inaudibly:
"I guess you have to take me in."
"Yes, we do, Sir," - muttered Jack and furtively looked my way.
The father pushed his ornamented chair back and stood up:
"Allow me just to change into something more suitable."
Jack left the room with the daughter in tow and, the father's shriveled body now clad in an impeccably ironed three piece suit, I produced the requisite paraphernalia, handcuffs and all. He handed both hands, wrists upturned, and waited patiently as I clasped them.
"She is lying, you know. You would do well to ignore her."
I manhandled him towards the door:
"Not my job. Why don't we let the DA, judge, and jury decide that? George Ashdown, I arrest you for the first degree murder of your wife, Rachel Ashdown, nee Fortnam." I read him the Miranda warning.
He trembled and went quite as we descended the spiral staircase and joined Jack and the daughter, now attired in a hideous purple overcoat.
"Let's go!" - Said Jack and so we did.
6. The Trial
I will never forget that day, the time of her testimony, when my career ended. The morning was sleety and smoggy. The fluorescent-lit courtroom flickered eerily. The obese, perspiring judge, the restless jury, the stout bailiff gloomily shuffled feet and folded and unfolded arms. I sat at the prosecution table, having already testified at the early stage of this surrealistic spectacle.
"Your honor, can we approach the bench?"
The judge motioned them regally and both lead prosecutor and defense attorney rushed to the counter. A susurrous session ensued, at the end of which, the judge nodded his head gravely and wrote something laboriously. The attorneys hesitated and then departed reluctantly. The judge summoned the bailiff in hushed tones and consorted with him conspiratorially.
"What's going on?" - I leaned towards the lead prosecutor. He glared at me: "You will soon find out, Detective Escher. You should have conducted your investigation more thoroughly, I am afraid."
"The mother? Is it the mother? Is she alive?"
"Far worse," - was his mysterious riposte.
The bailiff nodded enthusiastically, descended from the podium and began to drag the witness lectern to the farthest corner of the room. Panting, he rolled up his sleeves and placed two wooden chairs on the path between the two rows of spectators. He then concluded this manifestation of interior re-design by urging the prosecution and the defense team to switch their positions. The judge instructed one of the junior lawyers on the defense team to leave the room and wait for his re-entry in the damp and drafty corridor.
The judge exhausted his gavel trying to quell the inevitable murmurs:
"Quiet! Order in the courtroom! We will now conduct an experiment. Throughout it, I expect everyone in this courtroom, except myself, to remain absolutely silent, especially so the defense, the prosecution, and the audience. Bailiff, are we ready to commence?"
The bailiff nodded and opened the hall's wide doors, bellowing as he did so:
A petite figure emerged from the gloomy recesses of the witness waiting room. She hesitated on the threshold and then, head held high, eyes unflinchingly affixed upon the judge, she entered, confidently striding forward, until she bumped into the first chair. Baffled, she stopped and extended her hand in the general direction of this seemingly unexpected impediment.
Everyone held his breath as she negotiated a tortuous path around the first chair only to overturn the second. Thunderstruck, she froze, her chest fluttering with shallow breath, her hands twitching nervously as she plucked at a white kerchief.
"Go on," - the judge encouraged her - "we haven't got all day!"
Awaking from her stupor, she again resumed a self-assured gait and headed straight towards the empty space vacated by the now removed witness stand.
"It is no longer there." - Commented the judge softly - "You may wish to consult your defense attorney as to its whereabouts."
She turned around and faced the prosecution:
"Mr. Benoit," - she called - "what's going on? Why have you moved all the furniture around?"
When her plea remained unanswered, her anxiety grew discernibly:
"Mr. Benoit? Mr. Whitmore?"
"Bailiff," - sonorated the judge - "will you please ask Mr. Whitmore to join us?"
Startled, Edna Ashdown took a step forward and then collapsed, unconscious.
There he was, on the reinstated witness stand, fat fingers and all, my snitch. Beady eyes rolling in an avalanche of corpulence, fleshy hand waving as he strove to make a point or disprove one.
"Medically, she is completely cortically blind. She fractured her skull when she was six and the fragments caused severe bilateral occipital damage."
"She can't see a thing?"
"Not a thing."
"Then she has been lying to the detectives and the prosecution here?"
"Oh, no!" - Protested my erstwhile snitch - "She is convinced that she can see as well as any of us in this courtroom. She is not aware that she has become blind. As far as she is concerned, her visual faculties are intact. She vigorously rejects any evidence to the contrary. She is suffering from the Anton-Babinsky Syndrome."
The prosecutor lost patience:
"Doctor, can you please make it simple for us poor laymen? Did she or didn't she witness her mother's murder?"
"Of course she didn't!" - The witness leaned forward, perspiring profusely - "She can't see, I am telling you!"
"Then why would she invent something like this about her own father?"
"You have to ask a psychologist! I am not qualified to answer your question." - He looked strangely triumphant.
"Speculate!" - Urged him the prosecutor. The defense objected, but the judge allowed it.
The witness took off his horn-rimmed glasses and polished them with a dainty cloth he produced from a velvet case:
"Anton-Babinsky patients confabulate."
"You mean lie?"
"No, I don't mean lie! These patients are not aware that they are not telling the truth. Their brain compensates for their lack of vision by embroidering plots and concocting stories, by seeing objects and people where there are none. This is their way of rendering their shattered world predictable, plausible, comprehensible, and safe again."
The prosecutor looked thunderstruck:
"Are you telling us that these so-called patients can deceive any number of people into believing that they are actually not blind and then conjure and propagate intricate lies, implicating innocent people - and all the time they don't know what they are doing?"
"You got that right." - Nodded the witness.
A brief silence and then: "Why did you contact Detective Escher with the information that led to the arrest of George Ashdown?"
My snitch smiled ruefully:
"Edna Ashdown is my patient. It is not easy to raise a child afflicted with Anton-Babinsky. You never know where reality ends and fantasy intrudes. You never know what and whom to believe. As she grew older, her denial of her condition grew fierce. To avoid having to confront new objects and new people, she simply never left home. In that familiar environment, she could go on pretending that she still had her sight. Her father gave in to her. It was a kind of shared psychosis, the two of them, a folie-a-deux. He would never move furniture around, for instance, always careful to restore everything to its proper place. They never had guests. Together, they maintained the pretence that she was normal, that nothing has changed."
He gulped down some water, avoided my searing stare and continued:
"In the last few years, though, there has been a fundamental transformation in her behavior. She became increasingly more delusional and paranoid. She believed that her father was ... molesting her ... forcing her to participate in orgies with his friends. Then she went on to accuse him of murdering his wife, her mother ..."
"Where by the way is her mother?" - Enquired the prosecutor. Defense objection overruled.
"She left, I guess. One day she was there, the next day she was gone. No one has heard from her since."
"So, George Ashdown might well have murdered her?"
This time the defense objection stuck.
"If he did murder her, Edna definitely could not have witnessed it!" - Retorted the doctor, his voice rising above the tumult.
When the storm calmed down:
"I contacted Detective Escher because I wanted it all out in the open before it escalates dangerously. I wanted it to be established beyond a doubt and in a court of law that George Ashdown is innocent and that his daughter is blind. I knew that, ensconced in her own cocoon, she would be able fool the Detective into believing her and, consequently, into arresting George Ashdown."
"You sure did a good job, wasting the taxpayer's money, doctor. Was George Ashdown in on it with you?"
"It was completely my initiative!" - Exclaimed my snitch, his multiple chins reverberating - "Mr. Ashdown had nothing to do with it!"
It was a lost cause. Having wasted another hour on failed attempts to poke holes in the good doctor's credibility and version of the events, the prosecution dropped the charges. It was only a formality. The judge dismissed the case and declared George Ashdown free. I trundled towards the precinct and was assigned a desk job that very afternoon. My career as a detective was over and done with. Edna saw to it. Edna and my snitch.
The body of Rachel Ashdown was discovered two years later. It formed part of a concrete rampart that surrounded the Ashdown estate. Edna married the doctor and he moved to live with her and with her father. The neighbors have been complaining of lewd behavior ever since, some even darkly hinting of an incestuous connection between the three occupants.
Although the new evidence was compelling, George Ashdown could not be apprehended and tried for the murder of his wife. He stood protected by the inviolable legal principle of double jeopardy: having been acquitted of it once, he could not be tried again for the same crime.
I still ride a desk in Vice. From time to time, I take a patrol car and swing by the Ashdown residence. Just to let them know that the Law never rests, that we are keeping our eyes peeled, just in case. Once I saw Edna, standing by the window, dark glasses on her eyes, her slender figure encircled by a corpulent and flabby forearm on one side and by a wrinkled, suntanned hand on the other. She was smiling, radiant and content. Then she withdrew inside and let down the curtain. I drove on.