Authors: Lachlan Smith
Fox Is Framed
Also by Lachlan Smith
Bear Is Broken
Lion Plays Rough
Fox Is Framed
A Leo Maxwell Mystery
The Mysterious Press
an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Copyright Â© 2015 by Lachlan Smith
Jacket Design and artwork by Carlos BeltrÃ¡n
Author photograph Â© Sarah Moody
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Published simultaneously in Canada
Printed in the United States of America
The Mysterious Press
an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
154 West 14th Street
New York, NY 10011
Distributed by Publishers Group West
To My Parents
Fox Is Framed
The night before I drive out to San Quentin, I have the dream again.
It's the same dream that used to wake me every night when I was young. Now, in my thirties, it's begun to afflict me once more.
In it, I'm a child again coming home alone from school to our second-floor apartment in Potrero Hill. In the shabby hall, our once-familiar door looms over me, either because I'm small or because of what's behind it. I know what the child's going to find when he opens that door, but I'm powerless to turn his steps.
What he saw, I see. My mother's body lies on the floorboards, naked under her robe. The shattered bones of her skull pierce her ruined skin, so that her face looks inside out. And this part is added: standing over her, his hair wet as if from the shower, my father holds a paper sack of what I assume must be clothing in one hand.
Lawrence steps past me and goes out. There's nothing to speak, no lines either of us may utter. No touch passes between us. Sometimes he isn't there, and my dreaming self understands that he's already fled. Sometimes he's still wearing the bloody clothes. Then I know that the crime is fresh.
~ ~ ~
Two-plus decades inside had marked Lawrence as indelibly as a cellie with a Bic pen and a paperclip. He had a look I'd noticed in other longtime prisoners, a ghost of youth lingering beneath the ravaged surface of old age. His arms, sticking out from the rolled sleeves of his CDC denim, were sinew and bones, I saw as the officer led him into the attorney consult room at San Quentin.
“Don't tell me you didn't bring pictures of the baby.”
My brother, Teddy, and his wife had just had their baby, and Tamara and the baby were still in the hospital, or Teddy would have been here with me today. Only after Teddy'd been shot five years ago did I learn he and our father had maintained a close relationship, and that Teddy had been working to reverse my father's conviction. These revelations left me dumbfounded. I'd spent my young adulthood blaming my father for the hole at the center of my life and for the lousy job Teddy had done in filling it, and I'd found it tough giving up the habit.
“There's even bigger news. It's about your case.” My voice was perfectly even, delivering the most stunning news he'd ever received in his life. Except, perhaps, the news that my mother, Caroline, had been murdered and he was the only suspect. “The judge granted your habeas
He sagged, his hands trembling on his scrawny thighs. “Jesus.”
I had a copy of the order and slid it across the table. He touched it gingerly. I'd helped Teddy with the brief, but it'd basically been complete when he dropped it on my desk. I suspected that Lawrence, who had been an attorney before his incarceration and, more recently, one of California's most sought-after jailhouse lawyers, had had a hand in it. (As a backdrop for his own claims of innocence, he'd succeeded in obtaining freedom for a number of other men.) The legal issues weren't complicated; what was crucial was the legwork Teddy and his investigator had completed five years ago.
“So why am I still here?”
“It's either here or in County. That's where they put pretrial detainees. Wouldn't you rather be in low security in a place where you've spent the last twenty-one years, instead of San Bruno jail with a bunch of psychopaths?”
For an instant his eyes seemed to film. “They can't retry me.”
“The physical evidence from the crime scene has been lost. There aren't any witnesses left. I would think it would be nearly impossible to get a conviction. That said, the state can do whatever it wants until the judge tells them otherwise.”
“And you think there's a chance they might try to put me through hell all over again.”
“They may try to leverage you into a plea. I figured you wouldn't want that.”
He stammered. “I want my law license back. I want my livelihood. I want what they took from me twenty-one years ago. They should compensate me, not try me again.”
“I agree. That's what I'll tell the DA when I talk to her.”
He wouldn't look me in the eye. I could tell he wanted Teddy. With each year of his life that passed behind bars, the thought of this moment must have seemed more and more like a dream.
When his outrage had finally passed, he took a deep, shuddering breath, and looked up. “I've kept something from you. You deserved to know. I guess I was afraid of what you might think.”
“What is it?”
In his face I glimpsed the effect my lack of faith must have had on him, like the remnant of illness. “What were you expecting, a confession? Don't worry. It's just that I got engaged to a woman ten years ago. That's the big secret.”
I was astonished. Of course I knew that womenâcertain womenâformed connections with men behind bars, and sometimes even married them. “Who is she?”
“Her name is Dot. Short for Dorothy. She lives in San Rafael. Don't look at me that way.”
“I'm just surprised. That's all.”
He was getting angry. “You're thinking what the hell is wrong with this person, that she would chain herself to me? The truth is there's nothing wrong with her. Or me.”
“Why are you telling me all this now?”
His anger seemed to boil away. “Because I've sheltered her from certain things. The possibility of me getting out of here, for one thing. See, the deal was we'd get married if and when I made parole. I've led her to believe that there wasn't a chance, that the visitors' room is the only kind of life we could ever have together. She took me on those terms. Now it seems the game may be changing. I don't want her to feel . . .”
“Obligated.” His Adam's apple lurched. “Or tricked. I'd ask Teddy to do this, but she and Teddy haven't ever gotten along. You know how your brother used to be. He looked down on her. Dot's not the kind of woman who'll stand for that.”
“What do you mean you'd ask Teddy to do this? Do what?”
“Someone has to tell her what's happening. I want you to let her know that she doesn't have to go through with it, that if she doesn't want me now that I'm out of prison, if me being in here is part of the deal for her, then I won't force the issue. I'll make it easy for her, if that's what she needs. She doesn't have to marry me.”
“Dad.” The word was strange on my lips, and I realized I'd never called him that in my adult life. His shame and fear were nakedly displayed in his face, kindling a long-dormant spark of loyalty in me. “I'd like to meet her, but I'm not going to say anything about your engagement, and I'm not going to give her this news. You'll have to tell her yourself. What's she going to think if she hears it for the first time from me?”
He agreed and wrote down her name, Dorothy Cooper, and her phone number, along with an address and apartment number. At last, to our mutual relief, I left him with a copy of the judge's order with its heading, Petition Granted, the legal deliverance he'd always dreamed of but in which he'd never quite dared to believe.
Tamara and Teddy had a bungalow in Berkeley with persimmons and lemons in the backyard, guarded by a fat Labrador who slept twenty-two hours a day. They'd met in the same brain-injury rehab group, Teddy suffering from the bullet that had almost killed him as a consequence of his digging into our father's case, Tamara from a virus that made it hard for her brain to form short-term memories. Like him, she'd learned to cope with her impairments, which in her case meant living her life from one scribbled reminder to the next. They'd both been told they might never live on their own, might never be able to earn an income. A promising artist before her illness, she'd resumed painting and illustrating after their marriage, and a few months ago her first children's book had been released.
She was strikingly beautiful, African American, only twenty-six to Teddy's forty-five. Talking with her, you'd never know anything was wrong with her. She was bright, friendly, and engaging. Still, those of us who knew her had learned to wait and draw back when we saw the flash of confusion and panic cross her face, a look that meant the slate of her mind had just been wiped clean.
Teddy's ex-wife, Jeanie, was visiting when I arrived, two days after Tamara and the baby had come home from the hospital. In the kitchen they were giving Carly a bath, Jeanie stooping over the sink, her blond-brown hair falling around her freckled face while Tamara supported Carly's head, smiling and making cooing noises as she tenderly washed her. Teddy was unshaven, his bearlike bulk draped in a white guayabera. He'd begun to affect a straw sombrero with enough brim to hide the craterlike dimple in his brow, the scar left by the bullet that should have killed him. His pants sagged and the cuffs trailed over the heels of his thin-soled shoes.
Carly's face was a pinched, pinkish purple. She began to scream as Jeanie diapered her, wrapped her in a towel, then handed her to Teddy. “Here you go, Papa,” she said with a funny look, as if she hadn't quite gotten used to the idea of her former husband fathering a child.
In her father's arms the baby quieted. “Look at you,” I said, watching from the living room, having just walked in. “The family man.”
Tamara was jotting a note in her baby log, a special notebook where they recorded the daily details of life with Carly. It covered feedings, diapers, naps, baths, and was not just for their own reference but also for when Tamara's former mother-in-law, Debra Walker, Jeanie, or I checked in. She took the gift I'd brought and pecked my cheek. “Hey there, Uncle Leo. What's this, a set of bike tools?”
“I wish. Is she almost ready for her first day out with the boys?”
Teddy winked at me. “The racetrack?”
“Two-dollar beers . . .” I said.
“Which of you guys is the bad influence again?” Tamara asked.
“That would be Leo,” Teddy said. “He doesn't know the first thing about babies.”
“Well, you're the expert now,” I conceded.
“We're all learning together.” This from Jeanie.
Holding his child, gazing down at her, my brother looked strikingly whole.
“I'm not sure I've ever seen you this happy before,” Jeanie said, noticing what I had. Tamara shot her a quick glance.
Teddy looked up, blinking, shy. “Was I unhappy?”
“It never occurred to me. You were just . . .
Teddy handed Carly to Tamara, catching her eye. A silent message passed between them, Teddy assuring her that Jeanie was no threat, that his regrets were ancient history. I touched his arm and tilted my head toward his desk in the living room, adorned with Post-its, and mouthed the word “talk.”
“Jeanie doesn't mind listening to a little shop talk, do you, hon?” Teddy said. “She's just dying for a chance to congratulate me on the big win.”
Jeanie shrugged. I poured myself a glass of lemonade, and the three of us walked outside while Tamara went to the rocker to feed Carly. The threat posed by Jeanie was now gone from her attention, either because Teddy's look had comforted her or because she'd had another of her cognitive breaks. It was a fine day in the first week of March, sunny and warm, the hills green from the winter rains. The magnolia by the fence was in bloom. Jeanie and I sat around the glass-topped patio table while Teddy sprawled on the chaise.
“You pulled it off!” Jeanie said. “You really did. Especially considering what you've been through, you ought to be so pleased.” It was Jeanie who'd once told me that my father was a master manipulator, ensnaring Teddy in a web of lies. None of us believed that anymore. Even I'd come to feel that he'd been wronged. Of course, coming to believe that I'd been wrong about him didn't mean that I knew how to feel about him possibly getting out of prison. My guilt over the way I'd rejected him made it all the harder for me to come to terms with this change.
“It's been a long road,” Teddy agreed. It was hard to read his expression. In the old days, he'd have worn a look of catlike satisfaction, like he'd pulled something over on the world, but the new Teddy just looked tired, like he was aware that even this great success couldn't make up for all he'd lost. I hoped he didn't see it that way.
“I had a call from Angela Crowder this morning,” I told them.
In response to my brother's blank look, Jeanie, annoyed, said, “You tried about two dozen felony cases against her. You thought she was arrogant and underprepared. She was on the Santorez case. She was the one who reported you to the bar afterward, tried to get you in trouble for suborning witnesses.”
“Still doesn't ring a bell. Some things, I don't mind forgetting.”
Jeanie had little patience with his impairments. She expected him to have the same quickness and sting he'd always had.
“They're going to retry Lawrence?” Jeanie asked. “Is that what her call means?”
“They're investigating, she says. She was trying to feel me out, seeing if I thought he'd accept a plea.”
“No way, I told her. Dismiss the charges.”
“The city's trying to avoid a lawsuit,” Jeanie said.
“What do you know about cold case prosecutions?”
“More than I used to. Usually they've got DNA. When they do, it's damned if you do, though, damned if you don't. The DNA matches, so it must be true. Juries don't want to understand the science, the way the statistics can be manipulated to make it sound more conclusive than it is, especially in large populations. Unless you get someone with a good science background on your jury, it's usually lights out for the state.”
I'd worked for Jeanie for three years after Teddy was shot. She'd recently left private practice and gone back to her job in the Contra Costa public defender's office. By then, I'd already hung out my shingle. I missed our conversations, afternoons spent in each other's office, one of us propped on the edge of a desk or leaning against the wall, bouncing ideas, time that to outsiders might seem wasted.
I'd meant to speak with Teddy about Dot, but with Jeanie there I held my tongue. I knew what her opinion would be of a woman who could fall in love with a man who, like Lawrence Maxwell, was in prison for life.
Teddy let out a snore. “This is a big step,” Jeanie said, watching him.
“It's a big step for anyone,” I told her, instinctively defending him, though her tone seemed to echo my own fears as Teddy and Tamara sailed into the unknown.
“Two years ago they could hardly take care of themselves. And now they have an infant. Have you talked to him about getting some help with it all?”
“What do you mean, like social services? Big Brother watching for an excuse to take Carly away?”
“Private help, then. Or, Little Brother.”
I winced at her implicit rebuke that I wasn't doing enough to support my brother since he'd moved out from my condo when he and Tamara bought the house together. “Debra has been helping. And I'm here often. Nothing's stopping you from coming by, right?”
“Tam doesn't want me here,” Jeanie said. “The last thing any woman wants is her husband's ex-wife looking over her shoulder. Sooner or later she'd tell me to back off, and I wouldn't blame her. I'd like to avoid that conflict.”
I didn't argue with her. I'd seen the look on Tamara's face and knew Jeanie was right. “It's a different world for both of them compared with two years ago,” I said. “I worry about them, but Tam's going to be fine. Maybe she even has a certain advantage. She has the luxury of not getting frustrated because she already put Carly to sleep five times.”
“Well, Teddy, then.”
“He knows how to ask for help when he needs it. Not like before.”
I hadn't meant this comment to sting Jeanie, but I saw that it did. He'd never wanted kids when they were married. He'd never believed in days off or downtime, other than the rare occasions when he decided to get high or drunk. And he never recognized such weaknesses in others, including Jeanie, who'd been both his spouse and his law partner for over a decade.
“Teddy deserves this,” she said. “All of it. And they're much better than they were. But I still think we need to get them some help. A professional, a person who's being paid to be here, not just us checking in whenever we have the time.” She sighed, then changed the subject. “I just hope he's right about your father.”
“Keith Locke was the real killer.” Just as my brother had been preparing the habeas corpus petition summarizing the discoveries he'd made in his own personal investigation into my father's case, he'd been shot in the head by the son of the man who'd been my mother's lover. Having discovered the existence of the affair, Keith, then a teenager, had gone to confront my mother. Probably he hadn't known what he wanted from that encounter until he saw her. In a blind fury of rage and shame and lust, he'd raped her and beaten her to death, leaving her for me to find. My father had been convicted of the crime, and I'd accepted his guilt.
Teddy, however, had not. But instead of trying to convince me of my father's innocence he'd hid his loyalty to him, in the mistaken belief that he was somehow sheltering me from knowledge that would torment a more loyal son than I was. A few years ago, feeling that Teddy was getting too close to the truth, Keith Locke once again had turned to violence.
“I still can't make up my mind. All I've seen is the evidence Teddy submitted, and the judge's order. It doesn't say that your dad's innocent, only that evidence was withheld showing she'd been with another man. What the order doesn't point out is how that withheld evidence possibly could strengthen the prosecution's case. If your mother
been with another man, and your father caught her at it . . .” She glanced at my face, then looked away. “All I'm saying is that if there's a deal on the table, he might want to take it,” she finished.
I looked away, suddenly annoyed with her for her unsolicited advice, and with myself for feeling that she might be right.