Read Mortal Lock Online

Authors: Andrew Vachss

Tags: #Collections & Anthologies, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #General

Mortal Lock (9 page)

“I adore a love story,” Leonard said.

“So anyway, I wasn’t exactly shocked when Veil put the pistol away, stuck a little flashlight in his teeth, worked the locks on the guy’s van like he had a key. We both climbed in, being real quiet. In the back, under a pile of equipment, we found the … pictures.”

“Guy was a blackmailer?” Leonard asked, a little interested now.

“They were pictures of kids,” I told him. Quiet, so’s he’d know what kind of pictures I meant.

Leonard’s face changed. I knew then he was thinking about what kind of pictures they were and not liking having to think about it.

“I’d never seen anything like that before, and didn’t know that
sort of thing existed. Oh, I guess, in theory, but not in reality. And the times then, lot of folks were thinking free love and sex was okay for anyone, grown-ups, kids. People who didn’t really know anything about life and what this sort of thing was all about, but one look at those pictures and I was educated, and it was an education I didn’t want. I’ve never got over it.

“So he,” I said, nodding my head over at Veil, “asks me, where does the guy with the van sleep? Where inside the house, I mean. I tried to explain to him what a crash pad was. I couldn’t be sure where he was, or even who he might be with, you understand? Anyway, Veil just looks at me, says it would be a real mess if they found this guy in the house. A mess for us, you know? So he asks me, how about if I go inside, tell the guy it looks like someone tried to break into his van?

“I won’t kid you. I hesitated. Not because I felt any sympathy for that sonofabitch, but because it’s not my nature to walk someone off a plank. I was trying to sort of think my way out of it when Veil here told me to take a look at the pictures again. A good look.”

“The guy’s toast,” Leonard said. “Fucker like that, he’s toast. I know you, Hap. He’s toast.”

I nodded at Leonard. “Yeah,” I said. “I went inside. Brought the guy out with me. He opens the door to the van, climbs in the front seat. And there’s Veil, in the passenger seat. Veil and that pistol. I went back in the house, watched from the window. I heard the van start up, saw it pull out. I never saw the photographer again. And to tell you the truth, I’ve never lost a minute’s sleep over it. I don’t know what that says about me, but I haven’t felt a moment of regret.”

“It says you have good character,” Veil said.

“What I want to know,” Leonard said, looking at Veil, “is what did you do with the body?”

Veil didn’t say anything.

Leonard tried again. “You was a hit man? Is that what Hap here’s trying to tell me?”

“It was a long time ago,” Veil told him. “It doesn’t matter, does it? What matters is: You want to talk to me now?”

3

The judge looked like nothing so much as a turkey buzzard: tiny head on a long, wrinkled neck and cold little eyes. Everybody stood up when he entered the courtroom. Lester Rommerly—the local lawyer I went and hired like Veil said to—he told the judge that Veil would be representing Leonard. The judge looked down at Veil.

“Where are you admitted to practice, sir?”

“In New York State, your honor. And in the Federal District Courts of New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, California, and Massachusetts.”

“Get around a bit, do you?”

“On occasion,” Veil replied.

“Well, sir, you can represent this defendant here. Nothing against the law about that, as you apparently know. I can’t help wondering, I must say, how you managed to find yourself way down here.”

Veil didn’t say anything. And it was obvious after a minute that he wasn’t going to. He and the judge just kind of watched each other.

Then the trial started.

The first few witnesses were all government. The fire department guy testified about “the presence of an accelerant” being the tip-off that this was arson, not some accidental fire. Veil got up slowly, started to walk over to the witness box, then stopped. His voice was low, but it carried right through the courtroom.

“Officer, you have any experience with alcoholics?”

“Objection!” the DA shouted.

“Sustained,” the judge said, not even looking at Veil.

“Officer,” Veil went on like nothing had happened, “you have any experience with dope fiends?”

“Objection!” the DA was on his feet, red-faced.

“Counsel, you are to desist from this line of questioning,” the judge said. “The witness is a fireman, not a psychologist.”

“Oh, excuse me, Your Honor,” Veil said sweetly. “I mis-phrased my inquiry. Let me try again: Officer,” he said, turning his attention back to the witness, “by ‘accelerant,’ you mean something like gasoline or kerosene, isn’t that correct?”

“Yes,” the witness said, cautious in spite of Veil’s mild tone.

“Hmmm,” Veil said. “Be pretty stupid to keep a can of gasoline right in the house, wouldn’t it?”

“Your Honor …,” the DA pleaded.

“Well, I believe he can answer that one,” the judge said.

“Yeah, it would,” the fire marshal said. “But some folks do keep kerosene inside. You know, for heating and all.”

“Thank you, Officer,” Veil said, like the witness had just given him this great gift. “And it’d be even stupider to smoke cigarettes in the same house where you kept gasoline … or kerosene for that matter, wouldn’t it?”

“Well, sure. I mean, if—”

“Objection!” the DA yelled. “There is no evidence to show that anyone was smoking cigarettes in the house!”

“Ah, my apologies,” Veil said, bowing slightly. “Please consider the question withdrawn. Officer: Be pretty stupid to smoke crack in a house with gasoline or kerosene in it, right?”

“Your Honor!” the DA cut in. “This is nothing but trickery. This man is trying to tell the jury there was gasoline in the house. And this officer has clearly testified that—”

“—that there was either gasoline or kerosene in the house at the time the fire started,” Veil interrupted.

“Not in a damn can,” the DA said again.

“Your Honor,” Veil said, his voice the soul of reasonableness, “the witness testified that he found a charred can of gasoline in the house. Now it was his expert opinion that someone had poured gasoline all over the floor and the walls and then dropped a match. I am merely inquiring if there couldn’t be some other way the fire had started.”

The judge, obviously irritated, said, “Then why don’t you just ask him that?”

“Well, Judge, I kind of was doing that. I mean, if one of the crackheads living there had maybe fallen asleep after he got high, you know, nodded out the way they do … and the crack pipe fell to the ground, and there was a can of kerosene lying around and—”

“That is enough!” the judge cut in. “You are well aware, sir, that when the fire trucks arrived, the house was empty.”

“But the trucks weren’t there when the fire
started
, Judge. Maybe the dope fiend felt the flames and ran for his life. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. And I thought the jury—”

“The jury will disregard your entire line of questioning, sir. And unless you have
another
line of questioning for this witness, he is excused.”

Veil bowed.

4

At the lunch break, I asked him, “What the hell are you doing? Leonard already told the police it was him who burned down the crack house.”

“Sure. You just said the magic words:
crack house
. I want to make sure the jury hears that enough times, that’s all.”

“You think they’re gonna let him off just because—?”

“We’re just getting started,” Veil told me.

5

“Now, Officer, prior to placing the defendant under arrest, did you issue the appropriate Miranda warnings?” the DA asked the sheriff’s deputy.

“Yes, sir, I did.”

“And did the defendant agree to speak with you?”

“Well … he didn’t exactly ‘agree.’ I mean, this ain’t old Leonard’s first rodeo. We knowed it was him, living right across the road and all. So when we went over there to arrest him, he was just sitting on the porch.”

“But he did tell you that he was responsible for the arson, isn’t that correct, Officer?”

“Oh yeah. Leonard said he burned it down. Said he’d do it again if those—well, I don’t want to use the language he used here—he’d just burn it down again.”

“No further questions,” the DA said, turning away in triumph.

“Did the defendant resist arrest?” Veil asked on cross-examination.

“Not at all,” the deputy said. “Matter of fact, you could see he was waiting on us.”

“But if he wanted to resist arrest, he could have, couldn’t he?”

“I don’t get your meaning,” the deputy said.

“The man means I could kick your ass without breaking a sweat,” Leonard volunteered from the defendant’s table.

The judge pounded his gavel a few times. Leonard shrugged, like he’d just been trying to be helpful.

“Deputy, were you familiar with the location of the fire? You had been there before? In your professional capacity, I mean,” Veil asked him.

“Sure enough,” the deputy answered.

“Fair to say the place was a crack house?” Veil asked.

“No question about that. We probably made a couple of dozen arrests there during the past year alone.”

“You made any since the house burned down?”

“You mean … at that same address? Of course not.”

“Thank you, Officer,” Veil said.

6

“Doctor, you were on duty on the night of the thirteenth, is that correct?”

“That is correct,” the doctor said, eyeing Veil like a man waiting for the doctor to grease up and begin his proctology exam.

“And your specialty is emergency medicine, is that also correct?”

“It is.”

“And when you say ‘on duty,’ you mean you’re in the ER, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“In fact, you’re in charge of the ER, aren’t you?”

“I am the physician in charge, if that is what you’re asking me, sir. I have nothing to do with administration, so …”

“I understand,” Veil said in a voice sweet as a preacher explaining scripture. “Now, Doctor, have you ever treated patients with burns?”

“Of course,” the doctor snapped at him.

“And those range, don’t they? I mean, from first-degree to third-degree burns. Which are the worst?”

“Third-degree.”

“Hmmm … I wonder if that’s where they got the term, ‘Give him the third degree’ …?”

“Your Honor …,” the DA protested again.

“Mr. Veil, where are you going with this?” the judge asked.

“To the heart of the truth, Your Honor. And if you’ll permit me …”

The judge waved a disgusted hand in Veil’s direction. Veil kind of waved back. The big diamond glinted on his hand, catching
the sun’s rays through the high courthouse windows. “Doctor, you treat anybody with third-degree burns the night of the thirteenth?”

“I did not.”

“Second-degree burns?”

“No.”

“Even
first
-degree burns?”

“You know quite well I did not, sir. This isn’t the first time you have asked me these questions.”

“Sure, I know the answers. But you’re telling the jury, Doctor, not me. Now you’ve seen the photographs of the house that was burnt to the ground. Could anyone have been inside that house and
not
been burned?”

“I don’t see how,” the doctor snapped. “But that doesn’t mean—”

“We’ll let the jury decide what it means,” Veil cut him off. “Am I right, Judge?”

The judge knew when he was being jerked off, but, having told Veil those exact same words a couple of dozen times during the trial already, he was smart enough to keep his lipless mouth shut.

“All right, Doctor. Now we’re coming to the heart of your testimony. See, the reason we have expert testimony is that experts, well, they know stuff the average person doesn’t. And they get to explain it to us so we can understand things that happen.”

“Your Honor, he’s making a speech!” the DA complained, for maybe the two hundredth time.

But Veil rolled on like he hadn’t heard a word. “Doctor, can you explain what causes the plague?”

One of the elderly ladies on the jury gasped when Veil said “the plague,” but the doctor went right on: “Well, actually, it is caused by fleas, which are the primary carriers.”

“Fleas? And here all along I thought it was carried by rats,” Veil replied, turning to the jury as if embracing them all in his viewpoint.

“Yes, fleas,” the doctor said. “They are, in fact, fleas especially common to rodents, but wild rodents—prairie dogs, chipmunks, and the like.”

“Not squirrels?”

“Only ground squirrels,” the doctor answered.

“So, in other words, you mean varmints, right, Doctor?”

“I do.”

“The kind of varmints folks go shooting just for sport?”

“Well, some do. But mostly it’s farmers who kill them. And that’s not for sport—that’s to protect their stored-up harvests,” the doctor said, self-righteously, looking to the jury for support.

“Uh, isn’t it a fact, Doctor, that if you kill enough varmints, the fleas just jump over to rats.”

“Well, that’s true.…”

“That’s what happened a long time ago, wasn’t it, Doctor? The Black Death in Europe, that was bubonic plague, right? Caused by rats with these fleas you talked about? And it killed, what? Twenty-five million people?”

“Yes. That’s true. But today, we have certain antibiotics that can—”

“Sure. But plague is still a danger, isn’t it? I mean, if it got loose, it could still kill a whole bunch of innocent folks before they knew what hit them, right?”

“Yes, that is true.”

“Doctor, just a couple more questions and we’ll be done. Before there was these special antibiotics, how did folks deal with rat infestation? You know, to protect themselves against plague? What would they do if there was a bunch of these rats in a house?”

“They’d burn it down,” the doctor answered. “Fire is the only—”

“Objection! Relevancy!” the DA shouted.

“Approach the bench!” the judge roared.

Veil didn’t move. “Judge, is he saying that crack
isn’t
a plague?
Because it’s my understanding—and I know others share that understanding—that the Lord is testing us with this new plague. It’s killing our children, Your Honor. And it’s sweeping across the—”

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