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
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?».
«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
«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
Obstinate: «I heard you were good,
«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
«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
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
«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
«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
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
«He’ll tell you about the Barons,
Mr. Wedge. We’re not a bunch of hoods (8). We got a basketball team and
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».
was hard to hide the sneer. The end of Benjy’s cigarette flared, as did his
«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)».
«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 –».
«You don’t like to lose cases, am I right? That’s what they say about
«Is that bad?».
«If my boy pleads guilty, you don’t lose nothing. You still got your good
«Do you think that’s my only reason?».
Blesker shrugged. «I’m only asking, Mr. Wedge. I don’t know nothing about
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
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
«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
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».
«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
«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?».
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».
«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
«Get me the knife».
«That’s impossible. It’s court property at the moment».
«Then get me half a dozen like it».