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Authors: Carolyn Wheat

Dead Man's Thoughts

BOOK: Dead Man's Thoughts
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Dead Man's Thoughts

A Cass Jameson Mystery

Carolyn Wheat

For Carl, who knew the sound of one hand clapping

The lawyers know a dead man's thoughts too well.

Carl Sandburg,

“The Lawyers Know Too Much”

O
NE

T
here were eighty bodies in the system; eighty defendants, here or at Central Booking, on the treadmill that led from arrest to arraignment. Half were charged with family assaults. Definitely a full moon.

I scrawled my name on another notice of appearance, stood up, and put my card case in my pocket. I was dressed for action—old pants, comfortable shoes, and stud earrings. You never knew whether some nut in the back would go berserk and rip a hoop earring right off your pierced ear.

Other than the full moon, it was a typical night court. Started slow, no bodies produced, then picked up right before the dinner break. Now Nathan Wasserstein and I were taking turns in front of the judge. His cases had been called, so he sat at the Legal Aid table, his Ben Franklin reading glasses tilted on his nose, doing the
Times
crossword puzzle.

Nathan loved night court. He enjoyed the game, the give and take of plea bargaining. Me, I didn't love it. I just did it.

“May we approach, Your Honor?” I asked. The deferential part of lawyering no longer bothered me; it was as ritualized as mumbling your way through the Our Father in Sunday school.

“Certainly,
Ms
. Jameson. Come on up.” Di Anci was one of the few judges who called me Ms. But he gave it a slight ironic twist; he didn't say it as if he meant it.

I scooped up my file and stepped between my client and the court officer. I got to the bench before the assistant district attorney, who was hampered by her tight skirt and high-heeled shoes. She could afford to dress. She didn't have to go into the pens and interview a defendant who'd just puked on the floor.

“Judge, this is a case involving—” I began.

“Good evening, Miss Hagerty.” Di Anci interrupted, not even looking at me. “Did you enjoy your vacation?” The district attorney, a tiny woman whose sharp features were softened by a cloud of artificially blonde hair, looked up at him and said, “Oh, yes, Judge, just fabulous. My—ah—friend and I went to the restaurant you recommended and had a great meal. Thank you so much for mentioning it.”

“A pleasure, Miss Hagerty.” Di Anci beamed. “And did you tell Rocco I sent you?” She nodded, smiling a secret smile.

“What are you looking for in this case, Miss Hagerty?” All at once Di Anci was Mr. Business. I was used to his sudden shifts in mood, so I was surprised when the D.A. colored and fumbled open her file.

“Ah, Judge, she was caught with a leather coat worth one hundred fifty dollars. She has an extensive record—”

“Are you kidding?” I broke in. “Extensive record? Three priors—one dismissal, one conditional discharge, and she just finished one year's probation. If you think that's an extensive record, honey, you're in for a disillusioning night.”

The D.A. was stubborn. “Judge, I think it's time she had a taste of jail.”

“Oh, you do, do you?” I retorted. “And what about her kids? I don't say what she did was right, but put her in jail and the Bureau of Child Welfare will have her kids in a foster home before she's done five days. Is that the penalty for shoplifting these days—losing your kids?”

“She should have thought of that before she took the coat.”

“Have you ever been poor, Miss D.A.?”

“Ladies, ladies.” Di Anci was avuncular, amused by a cat-fight between two women lawyers. “I'm sure we can settle this amicably. Ms. Jameson, you don't want your client in jail. What do you suggest?”

“Three years' probation, Judge. She successfully completed one year; I think all she needs is supervision.”

“Sounds fair to me,” Di Anci agreed, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

But the D.A. was a sore loser. “Judge, I can't go along with that. My policy is to get jail time on shoplifters.”

Oh, God, I groaned inwardly, how many assistant D.A.'s do I have to break in? Any damn fool could have told this kid Di Anci's mind was made up.

But she got on her high horse, telling Di Anci the sentence “wasn't fair.” Telling him he couldn't let this woman escape the consequences of her crime just because she had children.

Well, of course my client, Roberta, wasn't escaping anything. If she blew probation, she'd do a year in the slammer, but more to the point, the little D.A. had lost Di Anci completely. Nobody told him what he could or couldn't do. His plump, pinkish face clouded with anger.

“Let me remind you, Counselor,” he told her, “that I am the judge in this part, not you. Ms. Jameson's client is pleading to the entire information, so sentence is entirely within my province. Step down, please.”

We stepped down. I had a hasty conference with Roberta and then said the magic words, “My client authorizes me to enter a plea of guilty to violating Section 155.25 of the Penal Law in satisfaction of the only count of this information.” Then I scrawled P/G 155.25
promise prob
. on the file and tuned out while the D.A. questioned Roberta. I didn't have to listen. I'd heard it a hundred times before. This week.

So I did what photographers call dry shooting. I roved the courtroom with my camera eye, searching for images. The motto above the bench—
IN GO WE RUST
—a perfect symbol of deteriorating justice? No, too trite. Maybe a shot of the court reporter, slumped over his machine, himself becoming a machine as he reduced justice to tiny symbols on long, thin strips of paper? Not bad. Shot from below—just the hands, carefully blurred to show movement, with the rest of the courtroom out of focus in the background. Photo-realism.
Life
magazine stuff.

“Ms
. Jameson, are you still with us?” Di Anci's light, sarcastic voice brought me back to reality.

“Yes, Judge,” I lied. Dick, the court officer, kindly clued me in to what we were doing. “Date for sentence, Counselor?” I flipped through my diary. It was March twenty-first now … they need six weeks for a probation report.… “May fourth, Your Honor?” I asked. May fourth. Kent State Day.

“May fourth it is, Ms. Jameson.” Di Anci looked straight at Roberta and spoke in a deliberately menacing tone. “And let me tell you, Missy, you've been lucky this time. If you fail to appear on the adjourned date, or fail to keep your appointment with the probation department, or if you are rearrested on another charge, all bets are off and I can and will sentence you to one year in jail. Is that understood?”

Roberta nodded. I translated. “All you have to do is go to probation, come back on this date, and stay cool. No more five-finger discounts. Okay?”

She smiled, a wan, weary smile, but probably the first since she'd been busted. “Thanks for everything,” she said.

“Good luck, Roberta,” I answered. I hoped to hell she'd be back for sentencing—and not before.

The next case was three guys busted in a stolen car. No big deal usually, but this time the car had been taken at gunpoint, so it was Rob One. Two had no records; I was hoping to get them released on their own recognizance. The third guy had a long sheet, so what I had to do was concentrate on the other two and hope he'd go along for the ride.

The D.A. started the ball rolling by announcing, “This is a red dye case, Your Honor. No possible disposition.”

That panicked the troops. “What does she mean?” “Can't I get probation?” “I gotta get outa here, miss. I'm gettin' married this Saturday.”

“Shut up, guys,” I hissed. “‘Red dye' doesn't mean shit. Just that the case is going straight to the Grand Jury. So just stay cool and let me do my job.”

The D.A., meanwhile, was halfway through her bail pitch. Or, rather, her no-bail pitch, since she wanted bail set high enough that none of them could make it.

“Judge, these three men are charged with a serious crime,” she said. “If convicted, they face up to twenty-five years in jail. I note that one, Colin Dennehy, has a long record, including two prior felonies.” She proceeded to ask for bail in the amount of $25,000 while Dennehy clutched at my sleeve.

“I can't stay here, miss,” he pleaded urgently. “I'm gonna have a baby.” It took me a minute to realize that he was the one who'd said he was getting married Saturday. Better late than never. I considered laying it on Di Anci, in the hope that it would engage his sense of humor. It was about the only chance Dennehy had of becoming a husband before he became a father.

The D.A. finished her pitch, and Di Anci looked at me expectantly. It didn't matter that I hadn't heard the litany on the other two. I could guess. No jobs. Unverified community ties. But no records. The one and only thing to be said for them. So I said it. Several times.

Di Anci decided he'd heard enough. “You mean they've never been caught before,” he said. The sting was taken out of the words by a slight smile on the pudgy face. Di Anci one, Jameson nothing.

I tried again. “Judge, Mr. Vinci is scheduled to begin a job training program next week.”

“Why is it, Ms. Jameson, that so many unfortunates are arrested immediately
before
they are to start work?” Di Anci asked, his voice sweet with exaggerated innocence. Di Anci two, Jameson zip.

Desperate measures were needed. The boys were named Vinci and Paculo; the judge Di Anci. It couldn't hurt. I turned to the front row, where an anxious-looking woman sat, leaning forward, straining to hear every word. Her hair was elaborately styled, a throwback to the fifties.

I gave it a try. “Your Honor,” I said, after a quick consultation with my clients, “Mr. Vinci's mother is in the courtroom. Would it be possible for her to address the court on her son's behalf?”

BOOK: Dead Man's Thoughts
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