Right To Die - Jeremiah Healy (10 page)

BOOK: Right To Die - Jeremiah Healy
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"But your letter-writing scumbags, now, they're
different. All's you got is the handwriting and the postmark and
maybe, just maybe, the saliva or cum juice or whatever the fuck other
fluid they leave on the envelope, right? Only there's got to be
enough of that for some other kind of test that even 1010 don't do
but has to farm out. So, you see what I'm saying here?"

"Even with better physical evidence, not much
chance of actually tracing the sender."

"Right, right. And not only that. What does your
client really want?"

"Want?"

"Yeah. She want the scumbag to just stop or she
want him hung by the balls too?"

"Probably both."

"Yeah, well, probably the best you're gonna be
able to do for her is scare him off. Even if you catch the guy in the
act somehow, what's a judge gonna do with him? Twenty days down to
Bridgewater for observation in the rooms with the cushy walls? Shit,
we're letting real bad dudes walk now, there ain't enough cells in
all the slams to hold 'em."

"Good point."

"Yeah. Hey, look, I don't wanna come across like
some lug, got no feelings. Jesus, I was the one getting these notes,
especially the one by hand in the mailbox there, I'd be jumpy as a
pregnant nun too. It's just, even if you do the best you can here, it
ain't gonna be that much."

"Listen, Neely, I appreciate your being so open
with me on all this."

"Don't mention it." He seemed to sniff
something in the air. "Say, you pressed or we got time for
dessert?"
 

=8=

WHEN WE FINALLY LEFT VICTORIA STATION, I ASKED NEELY
TO drop me off in South Boston. The weather was bell clear, and I
hadn't made a visit since Thanksgiving.

I bent over stiffly, laying the bunched poinsettias
lengthwise to her.

You getting old on me?

"No."

John, you're creaking.

"Finally decided to try the marathon, Beth."

What, the Ironman Triathalon was already booked
up?

"You're supposed to be supportive of a poor
widower rising to a cha1lenge."

Even when he's being stupid?

I looked down at the shoreline, the chop smacking
against the foot of her hillside. Half a mile out, a Coast Guard
cutter was knifing its way toward the harbor. During every season,
the cod boats have to be watched over and the drug smugglers watched
for.

Something besides the marathon's on your mind.

"Tommy Kramer approached me to help a professor
who's getting threatened."

And?

"The professor is a woman who pushes for the
right to die."

A pause.
Why does she bother
you?

"I don't know."

I half expected Beth to say, "That's not an
acceptable answer, Mr. Cuddy."

John?

"I guess because when her husband was dying, in
a lot of pain and frustration, she helped him to die."

Another pause.
And that makes
you feel . . . ?

"Uncomfortable."

Why?

"I suppose because it makes me think back. To
your being in the hospital."

John, we talked about . . . ending things then.

I stood up. "No, we didn't. We talked around
it."

And why do you suppose that was?

"Because I saw it as helping the cancer take you
away from me."

Instead of helping me get away from the cancer.

"Right."

J
ohn, what we decided to do,
or not to do, shouldn't cloud you on other people's views.

"Of course it should."

Another pause.
There's
something else, too, isn't there?

I kicked at a gum wrapper that somebody should have
picked up.

"Nancy."

Trouble?

"It's the holiday business."

In what way?

I told her about Nancy's dad and the blow-up over the
tree-lighting.

You remember our first Christmas?

"Yes. You insisted we have a real tree, even
though we couldn't afford a stand for it."

So you took that glass jug that held — what was
it?

"Grape juice."

So you took that jug and filled it with water and
put the tree in it.

"Right."

And what happened?

"I left the window open, and the water froze
solid, cracking the glass."

Remember the row we had over your lack of holiday
spirit?

I remembered.

"But that's the point, Beth. While the holidays
didn't ever mean all that much to me, at least I remember them, even
the tree and the argument and all, as real life, something I was part
of."

What about the holidays since?

"Empty. I don't know, maybe like a foreigner
watching a baseball game."

And now?

"Now?"

With Nancy?

I thought about it. "Not completely a stranger,
but not completely a participant either."

An invited guest?

"Who's maybe a little afraid to join in."

Given her family situation, don't you think that's
what Nancy really needs? Someone to join in with her?

"Maybe."

John, you want to give it a chance with Nancy,
don't you?

"Yes."

Then to give it a chance, you might have to take a
chance too.

The other pieces of stone
and I watched the Coast Guard cutter pass a point of land and snug
back into the harbor.

* * *

After a purchase at the Christmas Shop on Tremont, I
got to the Suffolk County courthouse about four P.M. , going through
the metal detector on the first floor. In the district attorney's
office the receptionist told me where to find Nancy.

I walked into a courtroom on the ninth floor. High
ceilings, nondescript carpeting, failing sunlight fuzzing the large
windows. There were a few people standing around, but no judge, no
jury, and no Nancy.

I saw a court officer I'd met before and went over to
him.

"Carmine."

"John, how're you doing?"

"Fine, thanks. Where is everybody?"

"Judge excused the jury for the day."
Carmine inclined his head toward a door near the bench. "He
wanted to see counsel in chambers. Little talking to before the
defense starts his case-in-chief."

The defendant, a sullen white male in his thirties,
sat at a table, a court officer on each side of the chair. The
defendant noticed me eyeing him and tried a hard-con stare. Couldn't
quite pull it off.

I said to Carmine, "How's Nancy doing?"

A smile, the head this time inclining toward the
defendant. "Lemme put it this way. Our boy was Bob Hope, his
theme song'd be 'Walpole by Wednesday'. "

"He'd better work on that look before he hits
the yard."

"Or put a case of
Vaseline in his letter to Santa."

* * *

". . . and then the judge says to my opponent,
'You're going to have your man take the stand. then?' and the defense
attorney, who acted like he was on his first heavy case says, 'Yes,
Your Honor.' So then the judge turns to me — a twinkle in his eye,
but the court reporter can't dictate that into her machine — and he
says, 'Ms. Meagher, if I were fairly certain that perjury had been
committed in my courtroom, what do you think I should do?' And I can
see the defense attorney losing what little color he has left in his
cheeks, and I say, 'Why, inform our office, Your Honor, regarding the
perpetrator and accomplices, if any.' And the judge says, like he'd
never thought about it before, 'Accomplices? Accomplices, yes, yes.
Oh, my, yes.' And the defense attorney coughs and says, 'Uh, Your
Honor, might I have a . . . uh . . .' and the judge says, 'A moment
to confer with your client?' and the kid says 'Yessir.' So we go back
to the courtroom, and the kid pleads the guy out ten minutes later."

"And so here we are."

Nancy and I were finishing dinner at The Last Hurrah,
a restaurant in the Omni Parker House on School Street, halfway
between the courthouse and the subway. Wearing a soft gray suit and a
pearl blouse, she'd been doing most of the talking, embellishing a
relatively small victory to fill the air. It felt as though Nancy
still wasn't over Saturday night either.

I reached into my coat pocket and said, "Hold
out your hand."

She did, and I dropped the two-inch-by-six-inch
ribboned package into it.

"What's this?"

"Open it."

Nancy tore off the gift wrap and pried open the box.
Lifting the Angel Gabriel from enveloping cotton, she hefted him in
her palm.

"Kind of light for a paperweight."

"Look under the wings."

"Poor Gabe! He's been disemboweled."

"By design, Ms. Meagher. He's going to be on top
of our tree."

Nancy canted her head, the table light dancing 0n her
eyes like sunshine on a lake. "Our tree?"

"Our Christmas tree." I reached over and
covered the hand that wasn't hefting the angel.
 

=9=

THE POSTER AT THE DOORS SAID THE DEBATE WOULD BEGIN
promptly at eight P.M. with a book signing to follow at Plato's
Bookshop. Two Boston cops routinely assessed me as I walked past
them. One black and one white, both male and big. You can specify
size if you're expecting trouble.

The Rabb Lecture Hall itself, carved out beneath the
new wing of the Boston Public Library, would remind you of a
particularly well-kept school auditorium. I wanted to be early enough
to see most of the folks as they filed in. The metal chairs,
upholstered with black cushions, were bolted onto a steep slope. All
the seats faced the stage, someone having sashed off a section of the
bottom rows. I sat on the aisle near the back right corner to give me
the best scope for faces.

The stage was spartan. A podium under a baby
spotlight. To the left of the podium, a grand piano that probably was
easier to ignore than to move. Behind the podium, one chair,
positioned subserviently in shadow. To the right of the podium, a
longish table in medium light with three chairs. On the table, a
paper cloth, a pitcher of water, and three glasses.

The hall began to fill up. A lot of academics and
professionals. More black faces than you usually see outside the
predominantly black neighborhoods. A smattering of students, some
vaguely familiar from the class at Mass Bay that morning, others too
young to be in law school yet. Concerned women with rosaries, their
husbands in poorly tailored sport jackets, index fingers between
collars and necks, trying to expand a sixteen to a sixteen and a
half. The rest of the crowd looked like the sort of people you
wouldn't stop to ask for directions.

I'd just spotted Walter Strock confiding in a
cornsilk blonde who had "Kimberly" written all over her
when I felt a strong hand on my shoulder.

I looked up the sleeve into the face of Alec Bacall,
a slim black man hovering behind him.

"John! Glad you could make it. May we join you?"

"Sure."

I stood to let them go by me, communion style. Bacall
was wearing double-pleated trousers again. They billowed as he
shuffled his feet. Bacall sat himself between his companion and me,
saying, "John Cuddy, Del Wonsley."

Wonsley leaned across Bacall, extending his hand. His
complexion was deep black, looking almost spit-shined under the
strong house lights. The nose was aquiline, a pencil mustache under
it and a mushroom haircut above it. Wonsley wore a red sweater with
maize horizontal stripes over a knit shirt, collar turned up. His
slacks were cavalry twills, the creases sharp.

Bacall said, "We could sit closer if you'd like,
John. The first few rows are reserved for family and friends."

"Better view from up here."

"Oh. Yes, of course."

Wonsley said, "Alec told me about you. Can you
believe the turnout for this?"

He had a flat Chicago A in his voice.

I said, "Do we know who else is on the program?"

Bacall said, "A doctor from Mass General and a
minister from a Protestant church."

Wonsley waved to a middle-aged black man in a lower
row, who from the expression on his face curdled cream for a living.

Wonsley said, "Oooo — ooh, the look he gave
me. For sitting up here in Sodom and Gomorrah country instead of down
there with the Children of God."

Bacall patted Wonsley's forearm. "The best is
yet to come, Del. The Hitler Youth make their grand entrance."

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