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The Simple Truth, Page 3

David Baldacci

  Williams said disdainfully.

  “Well, Mr. Williams, this motion is a little unusual,” Judge Walters said. In the Richmond criminal courts, motions were heard before or during trial. And there weren’t lengthy briefs attached to them. The sad truth was, most issues of criminal law were well settled. Only in the unusual case in which the judge was unsure of a ruling after he had heard the lawyers’oral arguments would he ask for written briefs to review before making his decision. Thus, Judge Walters was a little bewildered by the unsolicited and lengthy brief filed by the commonwealth.

  “I know, Your Honor,” said Williams. “However, as I stated, this is an unusual situation.”

  “Unusual?” Fiske said. “Try nuts, Paulie.”

  Judge Walters impatiently broke in. “Mr. Fiske, I have admonished you before regarding your unorthodox behavior in my courtroom, and I will not hesitate to find you in contempt if your future actions warrant it. Get on with your response.”

  Williams returned to his seat and Fiske stepped to the lectern. “Your Honor, in spite of the fact that the commonwealth’s ‘emergency’motion was faxed to my office in the middle of the night and I haven’t had time to prepare a truly proper response, I believe that if you would refer to each of the second paragraphs on pages four, six and nine of the commonwealth’s memorandum, you will conclude that the facts relied upon therein, particularly with regard to the defendant’s prior criminal record, the statements of the arresting officers and the two eyewitness accounts at the location of the crime allegedly committed by my client, are unsustainable with the established record in this case. Further, the principal precedent cited by the commonwealth on page ten was very recently overturned by a decision of the Virginia Supreme Court. I’ve attached the pertinent materials to my response and highlighted the discrepancies for your ease of review.”

  As Judge Walters examined the file in front of him, Fiske leaned over to Williams and said, “See what happens when you draft this shit in the middle of the night?” Fiske dropped his reply brief in front of Williams. “Since I only had about five minutes to read your brief, I thought I’d return the favor. You can read along with the judge.”

  Walters finished reviewing the file and gave Williams a stare that chilled even the most casual observer in the courtroom.

  “I hope the commonwealth has an appropriate response to this, Mr. Williams, although I’m at a loss as to what it could possibly be.”

  Williams rose from his chair. As he tried to speak, he suddenly discovered that his voice, along with his hubris, had deserted him.

  “Well?” Judge Walters said expectantly. “Please say something or I’ve a mind to grant Mr. Fiske’s motion for sanctions before I’ve even heard it.”

  When Fiske glanced over at Williams, his expression softened somewhat. You never knew when you might need a favor. “Your Honor, I’m certain the factual and legal errors in the commonwealth’s motion are due to the overworked lawyers there rather than anything intentional. I’ll even cut my settlement offer to five hundred dollars, but I’d like a personal apology from the commonwealth on the record. I really could’ve used some sleep last night.” That last comment brought laughter from around the courtroom.

  Suddenly a voice boomed out from the back of the courtroom. “Judge Walters, if I may intercede, the commonwealth will accept that offer.”

  Everyone looked at the source of the announcement, a short, almost bald, thick-bodied man dressed in a seersucker suit, his hairy neck pinched by his starchy collar. “We’ll take the offer,” the man said again in a gravelly voice laced with both the pleasing drawl of a lifelong Virginian and the rasp of a lifelong smoker. “And we do apologize to the court for taking up its valuable time.”

  “I’m glad you happened by when you did, Mr. Graham,” Judge Walters said.

  Bobby Graham, commonwealth attorney for the city of Richmond, nodded curtly before leaving through the double glass doors. He had offered no apology to Fiske; however, the defense lawyer chose not to push it. In a court of law, you rarely got everything you asked for.

  Judge Walters said, “Commonwealth’s motion is dismissed with prejudice.” He looked at Williams. “Mr. Williams, I think you should go have that beer with Mr. Fiske, only I think you should be the one doing the buying, son.”

  As the next motion was called, Fiske snapped shut his briefcase and walked out of the courtroom, Williams right next to him.

  “Should’ve taken my first offer, Paulie.”

  “I won’t forget this, Fiske,” Williams said angrily.


  “We’re still going to put Jerome Hicks away,” Williams sneered. “Don’t think we’re not.”

  For Paulie Williams and most of the other assistant commonwealth attorneys Fiske faced, Fiske knew his clients were like their personal, lifelong enemies, undeserving of anything other than the harshest of punishments. In some cases, Fiske knew, they were right. But not in all.

  “You know what I’m thinking?” Fiske asked Williams. “I’m thinking how fast ten thousand years can go by.”

  As Fiske left the third-floor courtroom, he passed police officers he had worked with when he was a Richmond cop. One of them smiled, nodded a hello, but the others refused to look at him. To them he was a traitor to the ranks, suit and briefcase traded for badge and gun. Mouthpiece for the other side. Rot in hell, Brother Fiske.

  Fiske looked at one group of young black men, crewcuts so severe they looked bald, pants pushed down to the crotch, boxers showing, puffy gang jackets, bulky tennies with no laces. Their open defiance of the criminal justice system was clear; they were imperiously sulky in their sameness.

  These young men crowded around their attorney, a white guy, office-chunky, sweaty, expensive pinstripe soiled at the cuffs, slick-skinned loafers on his feet, horn-rim glasses twisting a little as he hammered home a point to his scout troop. He banged his fist into his meaty palm as the young black men, abdominals racked under their silk drug-trove shirts, listened intently, the only time they figured they would need this man, would bother to even look at him other than with contempt, or through a gun sight. Until the next time they needed him. And they would. In this building, he was magic. Here Michael Jordan could not touch this white man. They were Lewis and Clark. He was their Sacajewea. Shout the mystical words, Sac. Don’t let them do us.

  Fiske knew what the suit was saying, knew it as if he could read the man’s lips. The man specialized in defending gang members on any crime they cared to commit. The best strategy: stone silence. Seen nothing, heard nothing, remembered nothing. Gunshots? Car backfire, most likely. Remember this, boys: Thou Shalt not kill; but if thou Shalt kill, thou Shalt not rat on each other about it. He smacked his palm against his briefcase for added emphasis. The huddle broke and the game commenced.

  Along another part of the hallway, sitting on the boxy gray-carpeted seating built into the wall, were three hookers, working teens of the night. A variety pack: one black, one Asian, one white, they waited their turn before justice. The Asian looked nervous, probably needing a calming smoke or the sting of a needle. The others were vets, Fiske knew. They strolled, sat, showed some thigh, the jiggle of breast occasionally when some good old boys or young turks prowled by. Why miss some business over a little court thing? This was America, after all.

  Fiske took the elevator down and was just passing by the metal detector and X-ray machine, standard equipment in virtually every courthouse these days, when Bobby Graham approached him, an unlit cigarette in his hand. Fiske liked the man neither personally nor professionally. Graham selected cases for prosecution based on the size of the headlines they would garner for him. And he never took on a case he would have to work real hard to win. The public doesn’t like prosecutors who lose.

  “Just a little pretrial motion in a dime-a-dozen case. The big man has better things to do with his time, don’t you, Bobby?” said Fiske.

  “Maybe I had an inkling that you were going to chew up and spi
t out one of my baby lawyers. It wouldn’t have been so easy if you’d been up against a real attorney.”

  “Who, like you?”

  With a wry smile, Graham put the unlit cigarette in his mouth. “Here we are, living in arguably the damned tobacco capital of the world, the biggest cigarette manufacturing facility on the planet just a spit on down the road, and one can’t even smoke in the halls of justice.” He chewed on the end of his unfiltered Pall Mall, noisily sucking in the nicotine. Actually there were still designated smoking areas in the Richmond court building, only not where Graham happened to be standing.

  The prosecutor let slip a triumphant grin. “Oh, by the way, Jerome Hicks was picked up this morning on suspicion of murdering a guy over on Southside. Black on black, drugs involved. Wow, what a surprise. Apparently he wanted to increase his inventory of coke and didn’t want to go through the normal acquisition channels. Only your guy didn’t know we had his target staked out.”

  Fiske wearily leaned up against the wall. Court victories were often empty, particularly when your client couldn’t keep a lid on his felonious impulses. “Really? That’s the first I’ve heard about it.”

  “I was coming down here anyway for a pretrial conference, thought I’d fill you in. Professional courtesy.”

  “Right,” Fiske said dryly. “If that’s the case, why did you let Paulie’s motion go forward?” When Graham didn’t respond, Fiske answered his own question. “Just making me jump through the hoops?”

  “A man’s got to have some fun with his work.”

  Fiske balled up a fist, and then just as quickly he uncurled it. Graham wasn’t worth it. “Well, as a professional courtesy, were there any eyewitnesses?”

  “Oh, about a half dozen, murder weapon found in Jerome’s car, along with Jerome. He almost ran down two policemen trying to get away. We’ve got blood, the drugs, the whole candy store, really. Guy shouldn’t have been granted bail in the first place. Anyway, I’ve a mind to drop this rinky-dink distribution charge you’re representing him on and just focus on this new development. Got to maximize my scarce resources. Hicks is a bad one, John. I think we’re gonna have to seek a capital murder indictment on this one.”

  “Capital case? Come on, Bobby.”

  “The willful, deliberate and premeditated killing of any person in the commission of a robbery equals capital murder equals death penalty. At least that’s what my Virginia statute book says.”

  “I don’t give a shit what the law says, he’s only eighteen years old.”

  Graham’s face tensed. “Funny talk coming from a lawyer, an officer of the court.”

  “The law’s a sieve I have to slip my facts through, because my facts always suck.”

  “They’re scum. Come out of the womb looking to hurt people. We oughta start building baby prisons before the sonsofbitches can really hurt anybody.”

  “Jerome Hicks’s entire life can be summed up — ”

  “Right, blame it on his piss-poor childhood,”Graham interrupted. “Same old story.”

  “That’s right, same old story.”

  Graham smiled and shook his head. “Look, I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth, okay? Wanta know my secret? I worked my ass off. If I can do it, they damn well can too. Case closed.”

  Fiske started to walk off and then looked back. “Let me take a look at the arrest report and I’ll call you.”

  “We got nothing to talk about.”

  “Killing him won’t get you the AG slot, Bobby, you know that. Aim higher.” Fiske turned and walked away.

  Graham twisted the cigarette between his fingers. “Try getting a real job, Fiske.”

  * * *

  A half hour later, John Fiske was at a suburban county jail meeting with one of his clients. His practice often took him outside of Richmond, to the counties of Henrico, Chesterfield ,Hanover, even Goochland. His ever-expanding pool of work was not something he was particularly pleased about, but it was like the sun rising. It would continue until the day it stopped for good.

  “I’ve got a plea to talk to you about, Derek.”

  Derek Brown — or DB1, as he was known on the street — was a light-skinned black, with tattoos of hate, obscenity and poetry running down his arms. He spent enough time in jail to be buffed; wormy veins split his biceps. Fiske had once seen Derek playing basketball in the jail’s recreation yard, shirt off, well muscled, more tattoos on his back and shoulders. It looked like a damn musical score from a distance. Rising from the air like a jet on takeoff, gliding smooth, held up by something Fiske couldn’t see, the guards and other cons turning to look in admiration, the young man slammed the ball home, finishing with high-fives all around. Never good enough, though, to play college ball, much less NBA. So here they were looking at each other in the county lockup.

  “ACA’s offered malicious wounding, Class Three felony.”

  “Why not Class Six?”

  Fiske stared at him. These guys were in and out of the criminal system so often they knew the criminal code better than most lawyers.

  “Class Six is heat of the moment. Your heat came the next day.”

  “He had a gun. I ain’t going up against Pack when he got his shooter and I ain’t got mine. What, you stupid?”

  Fiske wanted to reach across and wipe the man’s attitude right off his face. “Sorry, the Commonwealth isn’t budging from Class Three.”

  “How much time?” Derek said stonily. His ears were pierced, by Fiske’s count twelve times.

  “Five, with time already served.”

  “Bullshit. Five years for cutting somebody a little with a damn pocketknife?”

  “Stiletto, six-inch blade. And you stabbed him ten damn times. In front of witnesses.”

  “Shit, he was feeling up my bitch. Ain’t that a defense?”

  “You’re lucky you’re not looking at murder in the first, Derek. The docs said it was a miracle the guy didn’t bleed to death right there on the street. And if Pack weren’t such a dangerous slimeball you wouldn’t just be looking at malicious wounding either. You could’ve been looking at aggravated malicious wounding. That’s twenty to life. You know that.”

  “Messing with my bitch.” Derek leaned forward and popped his bony knuckles to emphasize the absolute logic of both his legal and moral positions.

  Derek had a good-paying job, Fiske knew, albeit an illegal one. He was a first lieutenant for the number two drug distribution ring in Richmond, hence his street name of DB1. Turbo was the boss, all of twenty-four years old. His empire was well organized, discipline enforced, and included the facade of legality with dry-cleaning operations, a café, a pawnshop, and a stable of accountants and lawyers to deal with the drug funds after they had been laundered. Turbo was a very smart young man, good head for numbers and business. Fiske had always wanted to ask him why he didn’t try running a Fortune 500 company. The pay was almost as good, and the mortality rate was considerably lower.

  Normally, Turbo would have one of his three-hundred-dollar-an-hour Main or Franklin Street lawyers take care of Derek. But Derek’s offense was unrelated to Turbo’s business, so that accommodation had not been made. Sloughing him off to someone like Fiske was a form of punishment for Derek doing something as stupid as losing his head over a female. Turbo had no reason to fear Derek’s turning snitch. The prosecutor hadn’t even made any noises along those lines, knowing it was futile. You talk, you die — in or out of prison, it made no difference.

  Derek had grown up in a nice middle-class neighborhood, with nice middle-class parents, before he decided to drop out of high school and take the easy route of drug dealing over actually working for a living. He had every advantage, could have done anything with his life. There were just enough Derek Browns around to make the world largely apathetic to the horrific lives of the kids who turned to the sugar-elixir provided by people like Turbo. Which made Fiske want to take Derek out to an alley late at night with a baseball bat in hand and teach the young man some good old-fashi
oned values.

  “The ACA doesn’t give a damn about what he was doing to your girlfriend that night.”

  “I can’t believe this shit. Buddy of mine cut up somebody last year and he got two years, half that suspended. Out in three months with time served. And I’m looking at five damn years? What kinda shitty lawyer are you?”

  “Did your buddy have a prior felony conviction?” Was your good old buddy one of the top men for one of Richmond’s worst diseases? Fiske wanted to ask, and he would have but it would be wasted breath. “I tell you what — I’ll go back with three and time served.”

  Now Derek looked interested. “You think you can get that?”

  Fiske stood up. “Don’t know. I’m just a shitty lawyer.”

  On the way out, Fiske looked out the barred window and watched as a new shipment of inmates climbed from the prison van, grouped close, shackles beating a chant on the asphalt. Most were young blacks or Latinos, already sizing each other up. Slave to master. Who gets cut or scored first. The few whites looked as though they might drop and die from sheer panic before they even got to their cells. Some of these young men were probably the sons of men Patrolman John Fiske had arrested ten years ago. They would have been just kids then, maybe dreaming of something other than the public dole, no daddy at home, mother struggling through a horror of a life with no end in sight. Then again, maybe not. Reality had a way of punishing one’s subconscious. Dreams weren’t a reprieve, merely a continuation of the real-life nightmare.

  As a cop, the dialogue he had had with many arrestees tended to repeat itself.

  “Kill you, man. Kill your whole damn family,” some would scream at him, drug-faced, as he put the cuffs on.

  “Uh-huh. You have the right to remain silent. Think about using it.”

  “Come on, man, ain’t my fault. My buddy done it. Screwed me.”

  “Where would that buddy be? And the blood on your hands? The gun in your pants? The coke still in your nostrils? Buddy do all that? Some buddy.”

  Then they might eye the dead body and lose it, blubbering. “Holy shit! Sweet Jesus! My momma, where’s my momma? You call her.