MURDER BY THE INNOCENT
The good-looking man with the badge, the blow-dry hair and the gun he wore as a fashion accessory was charming the press. Damage control was all the man was good for, but at that, he was very, very good. He brought his tanning-booth tan back into the building and accepted a frosted bottle of Dasani from an adoring press assistant in a tight navy mini-skirt. Then he walked to where Liz was standing with the A.D.A. on one side and the Chief Trial Deputy on the other.“You owe me,” he said smugly. Liz was heading for him, getting ready to knee him in the groin, when her Chief grabbed her by the arm and brought her back to grim reality.
“Let it go, Liz. It’s not as if he isn’t dealing with a major fuck up.”
Her stomach spewed bile into her mouth, but she swallowed it, breathing slowly, in and out, searching for an inner calm.
“Scott, you are such as asshole!”she yelled after the sheriff’s press secretary as he retreated, taking his pompadour with him for the ride. Neither her boss nor her boss’s boss thought she was being funny.
“Very professional,” the A.D.A. commented.
“What’s next?” she asked.
A genius in risk management, the Assistant District Attorney’s answer was as bland and predictable as he was.
“You’ll have to self-report,” he said, referring to the rule that required a prosecutor to file a statement with the state bar whenever a case was reversed for prosecutorial misconduct.
The Chief was less condemning. He had still been trying cases while the ADA was occupied shaking hands with people who were friends of the Governor. Not Arnie but the guy before him.
“I think we should look at it first --get Grover’s appellate people on it. It’s not as if that were the only grounds for the reversal. There was judicial error in instructions and that bum ruling on the Marsden Motion. I don‘t know that we can say that anything Liz did reached the beyond-reasonable-doubt standard that requires her to fall on her sword.”
“Dwayne, she called the guy a chicken-hawk!”
Both men looked at their star prosecutor, avenger of abused children, fallen angel.
“So? Braxton is a chicken-hawk. Besides, I don’t remember saying it. What I was asking is: what happens to the case, not what happens to me.”
“Not our call,” her Chief informed her. “That one is for the guy who makes the really big bucks.”
“Being, of course, the same guy who is currently spending the really big bucks on a contested election? The one whose name is on my D.A. coffee mug? ”
“The very same. Go home, Ms. Johns," the ADA pronounced. "Let it rest for a couple of days. Don’t go poking around until Monday. Maybe Tuesday”
“Am I suspended?”
“I believe we call it Comp Time. You’ll get your full paycheck,” the A.D.A. promised, as if that were among her worries. She shrugged and walked out of the building to her old Ford LTD, about the only thing in her life that she felt was dependable enough to trust.
It had been two years since the meeting in the molded plastic back booth at the Yucca Valley Mac Donald’s, still decorated with crinkle ribbon, strings dangling from the corpses of balloons left over from some little kid’s birthday party. It was where she and her case agent Rick Peterson usually met with Jeremy. It was a way to get some calories into him, and at off-hours offered more privacy than her small office or the cubicle that Rick, a cop from what residents of the high desert called “down below”, had snatched from one of the locals in Detective Division, which was a euphemism for the portable building that someone had bought at auction from the Marine Corps Communications and Electronics School in nearby '29'.
' The first meetings with Jeremy had been at his house in Wonder Valley. It was marked by a plywood signed that read Wonder Valley Rancho, and was propped against a stack of body parts only some of which appeared to have come from vehicles. Wonder Valley Rancho --another euphemism, since the only wonder in the place was how the mixture of plywood, clapboard and dog feces kept standing. The people there resembled left-over extras from a l950’s vintage low budget B-movie. Maybe not even a B.
Jeremy’s mother was a self-proclaimed white witch, and her serial boyfriends were all Warlocks, not from the horror flicks, but from the motorcycle gang. The only tracks of tires with tread came from the little Child Protective Services Ford Focus driven out to the ranch on a weekly basis by whomever in the agency had drawn the short straw. At least in the fast food haven, there was an illusion that times were goods, kids were happy, and that the future of the world was in hands of Ronald MacDonald instead of Jeffrey Dahmler’s ghost.
On that day in 2006 the trio had been one Big Mac away from normalcy, when Liz asked the fatal question.
“I know it is unlikely, Jere, but what will you and the other guys do if the jury doesn’t send Oliver to prison?” It was one of those bottomless pit questions a prosecutor had to ask. The answer she got was not the one she expected. What was worse, it came too quickly, too easily to be spontaneous, as if it had been openly discussed and decided in some other forum she didn’t want to know about.
“Then we’ll just have to kill him,”he said. His eyes had narrowed and he looked down at the freedom fries he was drowning in the catsup pool. There was no remorse for either Oliver or the potatoes. It sent a chill.
“Just kidding, Guys,” Jere had said, breaking into a catsup- outlined grin that gave him the appearance of a Halloween Dracula. He had wadded up his biodegradable burger wrapper and sent it sailing into Petersen’s non-biodegradable coffee cup. Jere had become a normal kid again.
It was as if it had all happened yesterday.“Shit, shit. Shit,” Liz said to Mr. Nobody, the black adopted cat with whom she shared her pueblo-style ranch house in south Joshua Tree, near the National Park.
She found the old data base she had fortunately printed out before her most recent computer crash, and started punching numbers into her touch tone landline phone. Her cell was reserved for days when she didn’t care if she got a temporal glioma. Today she was obsessed with unfinished business. She didn’t have time for a brain tumor.
She thought she had missed him, but Petey picked up at the same time as the answering machine. “We have to have a meet,” she said to both voices on the other end of the phone connection. One or the other of them shut up, and the remaining listener responded with the single inquiry, “When?” It must have been Petey and not the computer-generated imitation of James Earl Jones, because the response came from a voice with a raspy cough.
“Tonight. Jerry’s. That way Mr. Nobody won’t be able to listen in.”
“Give me till eight. I have to see if my car still runs.” Petey said. “Grab a booth.”
“I know the drill,” she said. It was Thursday. Thursday at Jerry’s was prime rib night. She could pretend to be hungry.
To kill time along with her appetite, Liz Johns drove the short distance to the D.A.’s office, a part of the deserted courthouse complex, and used her electronic key to access the suite. It was empty, as she was certain it would be. She was the only local working in the office. All of the others were younger, thirty-somethings, and lived in Palm Springs where there were amenities such as night clubs, cocktail lounges, restrooms with toilet paper and locks that latched, multiplex theaters, Outback, T.G.I. Fridays, Zeldaz --the promise of a Life before Death. The Morongo Basin where she lived had one Starbucks and an Applebee’s. The social center of the basin was the Wal-Mart. It was just perfect for a forty-something divorcee with two absentee you adult kids who hated but tried to keep it a secret until their student loans were paid off. The only other thing besides Mr.Nobody that qualified as family was a mother living on Maui who sent her Kona coffee at Christmas, and resembled the image on the old Jane Fonda VHS exercise tapes.
Her office was the largest, because she was the supervising deputy. Her nearest overseer was the Chief who fortunately was more than an hour away, in Smogville. The case file would not be available. It would have been transported to the Attorney General’s office following the denial of the motion for new trial. But she had not sent everything. Her trial notes, extra copies of reports, contact addresses, argument notes and partial transcripts were in her own office, stashed in an Expando folder labeled Budget Reports 2004-2006 where her treasures were safely labeled as documents that even an intruding defense investigator would decline to read.
When she left the office with the folder tucked under her arm, she had an odd sensation of being watched. Guilty conscience. She had promised the A.D.A. she would stay away for a few days, maybe hang out at home with her cat and a good Chardonnay. Wallow. Wait for them to reassign her to Needles. Nevertheless, she scoped the parking lot before she walked to her car. Maybe next time she would think about locking it, she decided.
There is nothing tougher for a kid who has been a victim of child sexual assault than having to cope with the parents of a kid who has been a victim of child sexual assault. That was Jeremy Vance’s read on the situation. He and his little brother and most of his friends had been living happily with the independence that comes with chronic parental neglect, and then, the axe fell. Up until then, in a city, he would have been called a street kid, or a latch key kid, but in his world there were no streets and most of the latches were used on the outbuildings of meth labs. His next door neighbor had blown himself up using a propane torch to loosen some floor tiles in his kitchen without checking first to see what his brother-in-law had been doing with the glassware in the bathroom.
The kids with bucks had it a little better at first. The Stone twins had been taken on three trips to Magic Mountain in a single summer, throwing up on nine different roller coasters named after snakes and monsters. Jacob Drew’s cousin worked at the Knott’s water park in Palm Springs and his aunt took him there so often he got jungle rot in his outer ear and was forbidden to swim without earplugs. At least there were a couple of times when he was allowed to bring friends along. Jere had thought all the different pools and slides were pretty cool. That was in the summer before Jere’s little brother Nealy lost his leg at the knee, the last of the best.
That was before they took Paul away in the ambulance. The First Time.
After the trial and sentencing, the surveillance relaxed a little bit. The parents let Detective Petersen throw a party for the boys and the families at Luckie Park, hot dogs, buns, relish and drinks all provided by the Crimes Against Children’s detail of the Sheriff’s Specialized Detective Division. No booze so no Momma’s Boyfriend. It had been a good day--the first time Petersen had taken real snapshots. Whenever they had met before, the group shots were taken with the boys all standing straight and looking serious. Mrs. Johns had explained that they were growth charts, to be used as evidence if the boys grew a lot between Oliver’s arrest and the trial. They looked a lot like police line-ups, but Jere had begged a copy anyway and glued it to his mirror. Still, the Luckie Park shots were better.
There were days between Paul’s admissions to the Funny Farm when his Mom let him take Neal with him to visit at Paul’s grandmother’s house, which was in Yucca Valley near the west end of the national park by the horse camp, about half- a-planet removed from Wonder Valley. There was a new pueblo there with stables that people said belonged to a movie producer. They watched a blonde lady dressed western ride a white Arab. A movie star.
Then it all went bad.
The day that Oliver Braxton got his conviction overturned, the Stone twins got put on what their mother called restriction, as if they had done something wrong. Even Mickey-the-Crip who had no rules, got some. Life was getting worse again. Jere’s little brother Neal wet the bed . Nealy blamed it on asparagus that a neighbor gave to their mom from the four acre farm up the road, but Jere didn’t think so. And Lorraine Stone called Mom to report that an ambulance had come up Godwin Road to Paul’s house and taken Paul back to the Loony Bin.
The boys had never been a band of brothers, the kind of friends who cut their index fingers and traded blood. In the beginning, they were just a bunch of kids who rode the same school bus to and from Twenty-nine Palms El. What had brought them together was the Club. And the Club brought Oliver.
It was time for them to meet. It would be tougher without Paul. Paul was the smartest. But Paul had gone Loony Tunes again, leaving it to Jeremy.
Time to cut fingers and share blood. Time to kill the beast. Time to make a plan.
Maybe I will finish this. I promised the real person I call
Jeremy that I would write it.