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Главная » Статьи » Это интересно » Baker’s dozen

10. THICKER THAN WATER (1)


THICKER THAN WATER. Henry Slesar.

 

Vernon Wedge didn’t want to see the old man. Olga, his secretary, gave Blesker a sub-zero reception, but he sat on in the attorney’s waiting room. His shoulders were rigid, his crooked fingers interlaced, his chalky face a portrait of stubbornness and determination. Finally, Vernon had to yield.

«Sit down, Mr. Blesker», he said wearily, pointing to the leather chair in his office. «I know why you’re here; my phone’s been ringing all morning. Four newspapers, a youth worker (1), even a settlement house (2). What have you got, anyway, an organization?».

The old man looked befuddled. «Please», he said. «I just come about my boy ...».

«Yes, I read the newspapers. And I suppose you think your kid’s innocent?».

«He is!».

«Naturally. You’re his father. Have you talked to him since it happened?».

«I came from the prison this morning. They’re not treating him good. He looks skinny».

«He’s only been in custody a few days, Mr. Blesker. I doubt if they’re starving him. Look», Vernon said testily, «your boy is accused of knifing another kid in the street. That’s what happened. You know how many witnesses there are? You know the kind of evidence the district attorney has?».

«I know he’s innocent», the old man said. «That’s what I know. Benjy’s a good, serious boy».

«Sure», Vernon frowned. «They’re all good boys, Mr. Blesker, until they start running with a street pack (3). Then they’re something else». He was almost shouting now. «Mr. Blesker, the State will pick an attorney for your son. You don’t need me».

«I have money», Blesker whispered. «The family, we all got together. I run a fuel oil business; I’m selling the big truck. I can pay what you ask, Mr. Wedge».

«It’s not a question of money –».

«Then it’s a question of what?». The old man was suddenly truculent. «Whether he’s guilty or not? You decided that already, Mr. Wedge? From reading the newspapers?».

Vernon couldn’t meet the challenge, it was too close to the truth. He had prejudged the case from the newspaper stories, and knew from the accounts that this was one client he could live without. His record was too good. What was worse, he had lost his last client to Ossining. Every criminal lawyer is allowed a few adverse verdicts; but two in a row?

«Mr. Blesker», he said miserably, «will you tell me why you came here? Why did you pick me?».

«Because I heard you were good».

«Do you know what happened in my last case?».

Obstinate: «I heard you were good, Mr. Wedge».

«You told every reporter in town that you intended hiring me. That puts me in a very compromising position, you know that? And you, too. Know how it’ll look if I turn you down? Like I think your boy is guilty, that the case is hopeless».

«I didn’t mean any harm», the old man said fumblingly. «I just wanted to get the best for Benjy». He was getting teary. «Don’t turn me down, please, Mr. Wedge».

Vernon knew a lost cause when he saw one; perhaps he had known from the start how this interview would end. His voice softened.

«I didn’t say your boy is guilty, Mr. Blesker. All I say is that he’s got a bad case. A very bad case».

Motionless, the old man waited.

«All right», Vernon sighed. «I’ll think it over».

 

The police blotter (4) had Benjy Blesker’s age down as seventeen. He looked younger. The frightened eyes gave him a look of youthful bewilderment. Vernon wasn’t taken in by it; he had seen too many innocent, baby-faced, icy-hearted killers.

The boy’s cell was clean, and Benjy himself bore no marks of ill-treatment. He sat on the edge of the bunk and kneaded his hands. When Vernon walked in, he asked him for a cigarette.

Vernon hesitated, then shrugged and offered the pack. «Why not?», he said. «If you’re old enough to be here ...».

Benjy lit up and dropped a tough mask over his boyish features. «You the lawyer my old man hired?».

«That’s right. My name’s Vernon Wedge».

«When do I get out of here?».

«You don’t, not until the trial. They’ve refused bail».

«When’s the trial?».

«Don’t rush it», Vernon growled. «We need every minute of delay we can get. Don’t think this is going to be easy».

Benjy leaned back, casual. «I didn’t cut that guy», he said evenly. «I didn’t have anything to do with it».

Vernon grunted, and pulled a sheet of handwritten notes out of his pocket.

«You admitted that you knew Kenny Tarcher?».

«Sure I knew him. We went to Manual Trades (5) together».

«They tell me Kenny was a member of a gang called The Aces. You ever run with them?».

«With that bunch?», Benjy sneered, and blew a column of smoke. «I was a Baron. The Barons don’t mix with those bums (6). You know who they take into that gang? A whole lot of –».

«Never mind», Vernon snapped. «We can talk about your social life later. You were a Baron and Kenny was an Ace, so that made you natural enemies. You had a rumble (7) last month, and this Kenny Tarcher beat up on you pretty good. Don’t give me any arguments about this, it’s ancient history».

Benjy’s mouth was quivering. «Look, Mr. Wedge, we don’t have that kind of gang. You know Mr. Knapp –».

«The youth worker? I just came from him».

«He’ll tell you about the Barons, Mr. Wedge. We’re not a bunch of hoods (8). We got a basketball team and everything».

Vernon smothered a smile. «Why do you carry a knife, Benjy?».

«It’s no switchblade, Mr. Wedge. It’s more like a boy scout knife (9); I mean, they sell ’em all over. I use it for whittlin’ and stuff like that».

«Whittling?». It was hard to hide the sneer. The end of Benjy’s cigarette flared, as did his temper.

«Look, whose side are you on. I didn’t stick Kenny, somebody else did! I swear I didn’t kill him!».

«Take it easy. I’m not making accusations, kid; that’s the court’s job. Now sit back and relax. I’m going over the story, from the police side, and then you can tell me where they’re wrong. Every little thing, understand?».

Benjy swallowed hard. Then he nodded.

«It was ten minutes to midnight on June 21», Vernon said, watching him. «You and two other guys were walking down Thurmond Street; you came out of a movie house. Kenny Tarcher came out of а corner apartment building on Thurmond and Avennue C. You bumped into each other, and there was some horseplay (10). The next thing that happens, you and your pals start running down the street. Kenny falls down and tries to crawl to the stoop of his house. There were two people on the steps. They saw you running. They saw Kenny die, right in front of them. He had an eight-inch gash in his stomach ...».

Benjy looked sick.

«Ten minutes later, the cops caught up with you in your old man’s fuel supply store on Chester Street. The knife was still in your pocket». He paused.

«I didn’t cut him», the boy said grimly. «All the rest of that stuff, that’s true. But I don’t know who cut Kenny».

«Who were the other two guys with you?».

«I never saw ’em before. I met ’em in the movies».

«Don’t give me that!».

«What the hell do you want from me?». Benjy bellowed. «I tell you I don’t know those guys! One of them must have done it, I didn’t! When I saw he was hurt, I ran. That’s all it was!».

«You had the knife –».

«I didn’t use it!».

«That knife is Exhibit A», the lawyer said. «You know that, don’t you? The witnesses saw you holding it –».

«Leave me alone! You ain’t here to help me!».

Vernon got up.

«I am, Benjy. The only way you can be helped, kid. I want you to cop a plea (11)».

«What?».

«I want you to plead guilty. Believe me, it’s the only sensible thing to do. You put this case to a jury, I swear you’ll be spending the rest of your life in a cage. Plead guilty, and the worst you’ll get is twenty years. That’s not so bad as it sounds; you’ll be eligible for parole (12) in five.

«I won’t do it!», Benjy screamed. «I’m innocent! I’m not goin’ to jail for something I didn’t do!».

«I’m talking sense, kid, why won’t you listen?».

«I didn’t do it! I didn’t!».

Vernon sighed. The corners of his mouth softened, and he dropped a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

«Listen», he said gently. «I really want to help you, son».

For a moment, Benjy was still. Then he threw off the arm of sympathy, and snarled at the attorney.

«I’m not your son! I got a father!».

Like father, like son, Vernon thought wryly, looking at the mulish mouth and marble eyes of the old man. He was sure Blesker had a softer side. Under other circumstances, he would smile and tell jokes and hum old-country tunes. Now, faced with the lawyer’s blunt advice, he was hard as a rock.

«You’ve got to talk some sense into him», Vernon said. «He doesn’t know what’s good for him. If he pleads guilty to murder in the second degree (13), the judge will be lenient».

«But he goes to prison? For something he didn’t do?».

«You’re his father, Mr. Blesker. You’re ignoring facts».

«The facts are wrong!». Blesker put his fists on his knees and pounded them once. When he looked up again, there was a new mood in his eyes. «You tell me something, Mr. Wedge –».

«Yes?»

«You don’t like to lose cases, am I right? That’s what they say about you».

«Is that bad?».

«If my boy pleads guilty, you don’t lose nothing. You still got your good record, right?».

«Do you think that’s my only reason?».

Blesker shrugged. «I’m only asking, Mr. Wedge. I don’t know nothing about the law».

Unable to refute this accurate estimate of his inner thoughts, Vernon tried to summon up an angry denial and failed. He shrugged his shoulders.

«All right», he said grudgingly. «So we plead Not Guilty; I’ll do everything I can to make it stick».

Blesker examined his face for signs of sincerity. He seemed satisfied.

 

Vernon came to the courtroom on opening day with a heart as heavy as his briefcase. Surprisingly, the first day didn’t go badly. Judge Angus Dwight had been assigned to the bench. In spite of his dour look, Vernon knew him to be scrupulously fair and sneakily sentimental. Wickers, the prosecuting attorney, was a golden-haired Adonis (14) with a theatrical delivery, a keen mind and an appeal for the ladies. Fortunately, the impaneled jurors were men with only two exceptions, and they were women far past the age of coquetry. During the first hour, Wickers’ facetiousness in his opening remarks drew a rebuke from the judge concerning the seriousness of the affair; Vernon’s hopes lifted a notch.

But it was his only good day. On the second afternoon, Wickers called a man named Sol Dankers to the witness chair.

«Mr. Dankers», he said smoothly, «you were present at the time of Kenneth Tarcher’s slaying, isn’t that so?».

«That’s right», Dankers said heavily. He was a hard-breathing, bespectacled man with a red-veined nose. «I was sittin’ on the stoop, when these kids started foolin’ around. Next thing I know, one of ’em’s stumblin’ to the stoop, bleedin’ like a pig. He drops dead right at the feet of me and my Missus. I was an hour gettin’ the bloodstains off my shoes».

«Is that all you saw?».

«No, sir. I seen that boy, the one over there, runnin’ away with a knife in his hand».

Then it was Vernon’s turn.

«Mr. Dankers, is it true your eyesight is impaired?».

«True enough. I’m sixty-two, son, wait ’til you’re my age».

He drew a laugh and a rap of the gavel.

«It was almost midnight on a street not particularly well lit. Yet you saw a knife –», he pointed to the table where Exhibit A rested – «that knife, in Benjamin Blesker’s hand?».

«It was sort of flashin’ in the light, if you know what I mean. But to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have noticed it if Mrs. Dankers hadn’t said, «Look at that boy, he’s got a knife!».

The crowd buzzed, and Vernon frowned at the inadvertent hearsay testimony. The damage was done; he didn’t even bother to voice a complaint.

Mrs. Dankers testified next; there was nothing wrong with her eyes, she said stoutly, and she knew a knife when she saw one. But it was the third witness who did the most harm. He was Marty Knapp, a dedicated youth worker serving the neighbourhood.

«No, Benjy isn’t a bad kid», he said thoughtfully. «But he had a temper. And he never forgave Kenny Tarcher for the beating he gave him».

«Then, in your opinion», Wickers said triumphantly, «this might have been a grudge killing? Not just a sudden scuffle or unplanned assault, but a deliberate, cold-blooded –».

Vernon was on his feet, shouting objections. Judge Dwight took his side at once, but the impression was indelible in the collective mind of the jury. When Vernon sat down again, he felt as forlorn as Benjy Blesker looked.

On the eve of the fourth day, he went to see him.

«What do you say, Benjy?», he said quietly. «You see the way things are going? I’m pulling out the whole bag of tricks, and I’m not fooling anybody».

«Try harder!», Benjy snapped.

«If I knew how to work miracles, I’d work one. Look, this state doesn’t like to hang kids, but it’s happened before –».

«Hang?», the boy said incredulously. «You’re crazy!».

«Even if you got life, know what that means? Even if you got paroled in twenty years, you’ll be thirty-seven years old, almost middle-aged, with a record».

There were tears flooding Benjy’s eyes. It was the first sign of a crumbling defense, and the lawyer moved in swiftly.

«Plead guilty», he said earnestly. «Plead guilty Benjy, it’s not too late».

The boy’s head snapped up.

«No!», he screamed. «I didn’t do it!».

 

The fourth day was the worst of all. Vernon trailed mercilessly at the prosecution witnesses. He called Dankers a weak-eyed boozing (15) liar. He forced Mrs. Dankers to admit that she hated the neighbourhood kids, and the Barons especially. He got Knapp, the youth worker, to recite every detail of Benjy’s good record. But through it all, the jury shifted restlessly, bored, irritated, obviously unimpressed by the «character» testimony, eager only for facts, the bloodier the better.

Wickers gave them what they wanted. Wickers treated them to a blow-by-blow re-enactment of the stabbing. He bled for them. He clutched his stomach. He put the victim’s mother on the stand. He let her cry through ten minutes of pointless testimony, until even Judge Dwight got sick of the spectacle. But it was working. Vernon, jury-smart (16), knew it was working.

The trial was almost over. Wickers, waving the knife under Benjy Blesker’s nose, got him to admit that it was his, admit that he was never without it, admit that he had it in his pocket – maybe even in his hand – the night of the slaying. It was his curtain closer (17). Wickers sat down, the prosecution’s case stated.

One more day, and it would be finished.

 

There was a week-end hiatus before the trial resumed. Vernon Wedge spent the time thinking.

It was the old man’s fault, he thought bitterly. It was old man Blesker who was behind all the trouble, obstinate faith of the fanatic. Even if the boy was guilty, concern for his father would prevent him from admitting the truth.

«The funny thing is», he told Olga, his secretary, «if I was on the jury, I wouldn’t know how to vote».

Olga clucked.

«You don’t look well», she said. «You look anemic. When this is over, you ought to see a doctor».

«A head-shrinker (18), that’s what I ought to see».

«I mean a doctor», Olga said firmly.

It was then that the idea was born. Vernon looked at his secretary queerly, and stood up behind the desk.

«You know, it’s a thought. Maybe I ought to see one. You remember Doc Hagerty?».

«No».

«Sure you remember! On the Hofstraw case, 1958 –».

«But he’s not the kind of doctor I mean. I mean a good all-round G. P. (19)».

«I’m going out», Vernon said suddenly. «I’ll be at the Dugan Hospital if you need me. But don’t bother me unless it’s urgent».

He found Hagerty in the basement laboratory of the hospital. Olga was right: Hagerty was no chest-thumping, tongue-depressing practitioner; he was more biochemist than physician. But he was what Vernon needed.

Hagerty was a white-haired man with shoulders rounded from years of bending over microscopes, and he smelt vaguely of sulphur. He turned out to be ignorant of the trial. Vernon summarized the facts briefly, and then talked about blood.

«You mean there were no benzidine tests made?», Hagerty said quickly. «Of the murder weapon?».

«Yes», Vernon admitted, «and the test proved negative. There weren’t any bloodstains on the knife, you understand, it was clean. The prosecution claims that all traces were wiped or washed off. It’s never been much of an issue up till now. But I once heard you talk about a more sensitive test than benzidine –».

«There is», Hagerty grunted. Benzidine is the standard blood test in this city, but there’s another one. It’s a lot more delicate, in my opinion, and it’s not always employed. It’s called the reduced phenolphthalein test, and, depending on a couple of factors, it might be just what you’re looking for».

«What factors?».

«The quality of the blade material, for one thing. And even if the metal is porous enough to retain microscopic particles of blood, it may be impossible to determine whose. If your boy ever cut his finger, or somebody else –».

«What do we have to do?», Vernon said excitedly.

«Get me the knife».

«That’s impossible. It’s court property at the moment».

«Then get me half a dozen like it».

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