By Morley Swingle
“Which one is yours?”
The raspy voice was an unwelcome intrusion. Jack Hogan glanced at the man sitting next to him on the bleachers at Star Power Gymnastics. Jack suppressed his irritation. The guy had no way of knowing he had just interrupted the closing argument Jack was rehearsing in his thoughts for next Thursday’s jury trial. His inquisitor was just one more father of a budding gymnast, trying to make conversation while waiting for his daughter’s practice session to end.
“She’s the one in the bright blue leotard,” Jack said, pointing to Amber.
Jack refrained from posing the reciprocal question requesting the man to identify his own daughter. Jack did not want to participate in an extended conversation. He would barely be able to carve out sufficient minutes between now and next Thursday to adequately prepare for the Porterfield jury trial, a particularly tough rape case certain to boil down to a swearing match between the victim and her rapist. At a key point in his closing argument, Jack was going to recite a list of factors showing that the teenage girl should be believed when she says she did not consent to the sexual intercourse. He had come up with seven good reasons so far. He was hoping to add three more. Ten would pack a more Biblical punch for the jury.
As a prosecutor with a heavy caseload, Jack was always in the throes of preparing for one trial or another. He had discovered long ago that if he chose a seat on the bleachers farthest from the gymnasium door, most of the other parents would stay away from him during his daughter’s gymnastics lessons and he could silently practice his opening statements and closing arguments in relative privacy. By necessity, Jack was a master at using his time efficiently.
It had almost worked on this weekday evening. Most of the parents were clustered on the bleachers near the entrance to the cavernous room. Only Jack and the one talkative father sat on this side of the gymnastics academy. A former warehouse, its high ceilings and mat-covered, spacious floor made a serviceable gymnasium.
“She sure knows what she’s doing on that balance beam,” the man said. “She’s impressive.”
“Thanks,” Jack said. He forced himself to refrain from bragging about Amber’s gymnastics talent. She had always been one of the best gymnasts in her age group. She’d been doing perfect round-off cartwheels since she was four years old. She was fearless on the balance beam and the parallel bars. She was naturally graceful on the floor exercise. Jack was proud of her. He enjoyed watching her practice sessions, even if he did use the time to hone his courtroom oratory. He stole a look at the gymnastics instructor, Leesa Beecher, a former national champion. It didn’t hurt that the teacher typically wore a tube top and tight gym shorts during the lessons. She had the best-looking ass he’d ever seen. That’s what twenty years of gymnastics would do for you, he supposed. Since he was happily married, he always tried not to openly gawk. “Happily married” did not mean you did not look. It meant that out of consideration for your wife you tried not to get caught looking.
Jack wondered if Wendy had gotten home yet. After seeing a few patients at the hospital, she had gone to St. Louis for a training seminar for speech pathologists. He looked forward to hearing about her trip. His wife had a knack for turning any episode of her life into an entertaining story. That was one of the things he loved most about her. Maybe the three of them could pick up some Chinese takeout when he and Amber got home from gymnastics.
“What do you do?” the man asked.
Once again, Jack hid his frustration. Apparently, a conversation was going to be unavoidable. So much for the closing argument rehearsal.
“I’m a prosecutor. Jack Hogan, county prosecuting attorney.”
Jack held out his hand. Most likely the guy had heard of him. Jack was frequently in the news.
The man stared at the outstretched hand. For a moment Jack thought he might not shake, but the man eventually clasped his hand. Jack practically winced at the power in the grip.
“Prosecutor, huh?” the man said. “Sounds like an interesting job.”
“It is,” Jack said, examining his hand for broken bones or bruises. “I know it sounds corny, but there’s a lot of job satisfaction in knowing you’re helping make your community a safer place.”
“I’ll bet there is.”
Jack watched Amber as she moved to the parallel bars and began dusting her hands amid a cloud of chalk. The lithe twelve-year-old girl moved with the grace of a seasoned athlete. It gave him tremendous pleasure and pride just to watch his only daughter walk across the mat. It would be interesting to see which sports she chose to play in high school. Unlike her father, she was good at them all. So far, gymnastics was her true love.
“Do you ever worry you might send an innocent man to jail?”
Jack glanced at the man, so determined to engage in chitchat. Alert gray eyes were staring at him a bit too directly. Did he detect a hint of insolence in the tone of voice? Jack was not sure. The man’s face was strong-jawed and clean-shaven. The iron-gray hair was longish, hanging over the ears but not touching the shoulders. The man was slender, but his muscle-bound torso rippled with power. He wore a skintight, black Grateful Dead T-shirt, stiff new blue jeans and a red St. Louis Cardinals warm-up jacket. He had the look of an aging body-builder.
“A prosecutor has an ethical duty not to prosecute an innocent man,” Jack said. “I teach my assistant prosecutors to dismiss a case if they develop a reasonable doubt about a defendant’s guilt. Better to dismiss it than risk the chance that an innocent man might be convicted.”
The man raised his eyebrows.
“Well, I sure didn’t know prosecutors thought that way. I assumed you all just collected scalps and sought convictions at any cost.”
“Real life isn’t like it’s portrayed on TV,” Jack said. “In fact, most prosecutors take to heart the famous quote from Justice George Sutherland that the prosecutor should strike hard blows but fair ones. Our duty is not simply to convict, but to achieve justice.”
Jack had quoted the line so many times it came out of his mouth like a speech. He debated whether to elaborate by discussing the equally famous comment of Justice Robert Jackson that the prosecutor had more control over life, liberty and reputation than any other person in America. By simply filing a charge, a prosecutor could destroy the reputation of any member of his community. If Jack mentioned the quote, though, it might sound like he was bragging about the importance of his job. On the other hand, if he took the time to fully explain his deep sense of responsibility to make sure he did the right thing in every case, his conversation with this man might last a very long time. The gymnastics lesson was only half over. A full hour still remained. He really did not want to spend the entire time talking with this guy. If he could somehow extricate himself from the conversation, he might still be able to hammer out a few more kinks in the Porterfield closing argument. That trial was going to be upon him before he knew it.
He glanced again at the man. The pale gray eyes were fixed on Jack’s face. Didn’t the guy know it was rude to stare?
“Do you ever worry that someone you sent to prison might get out and come after you?”
This guy was asking all the typical cocktail-party questions thrown at a prosecutor. Jack decided to give his standard answer. It happened to be the truth.
“I suppose that’s a risk of my job. I’ve had a couple of threats over the years. But very few of the people I prosecute are truly evil. Most committed their crimes because of temporary weakness, greed or lust, or because they were drugged out or mentally imbalanced at the time. Once they’re caught and get their heads screwed on straight, they realize they did wrong and deserve some punishment. They don’t hold it against the prosecutor.”
“You ever prosecuted a truly evil man?”
“Oh, sure. I get a few sociopaths every year: the sexual predators, the murderers who stalk their victims. They usually get such long sentences you don’t have to worry about them getting out.”
They sat in silence for a full minute, watching the gymnasts. Jack was beginning to think he might be able to get back to his closing-argument rehearsal, but the next question drove away all thoughts of the impending Porterfield trial.
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
Jack’s attention ratcheted up to red alert. He turned and studied the man’s face with renewed interest. He was supposed to know this guy? What was he, about fifty years old? Six feet tall? Maybe one hundred and seventy pounds? He was fit, with a torso that seemed almost too big for the rest of his slender frame. His hair was the boring gray color of a steel frying pan. His nose clearly had been broken once upon a time.
“Have we met?” Jack asked.
The man laughed. It was an unpleasant sound, loud and jarring. Jack glanced at the other parents on the far side of the room, but no one was paying any attention to them.
“Have we met! That’s funny, Mr. Prosecutor. Look at me again. Closer. Surely you recognize me.”
Although the man had laughed, he was not smiling. His gray eyes glittered with something, either excitement or rage. A faded old scar ran from the left eyebrow up a jagged course across the man’s forehead and disappeared into his hairline at the left temple. Nothing sparked a memory for Jack. For all he knew, this man was a complete stranger.
“I’m sorry, but as far as I can tell, I’ve never seen you before in my life,” Jack said. “Keep in mind, I meet lots of people in my job – witnesses, defendants, cops, lawyers, judges, jurors. I’m just not remembering you.”
The gray eyes were cold and shiny, glittering like a metal railing sheathed in winter ice.
“I sure remember you, counselor. For fourteen years I’ve thought about you every single night. I’d lie in that prison bed, remembering the way spittle flew from your mouth during your closing argument, and especially that smug, self-satisfied look on your face when the judge read the jury’s guilty verdict out loud. I’d recognize you anywhere, anytime, Jack Hogan.”
Jack felt his heart pounding. Okay, the flight-or-fight adrenaline jolt had apparently kicked in. Well, he wasn’t going to run away. He’d just have to deal with whatever this guy had in mind. He was glad there were witnesses.
“You really don’t remember me, do you?”
The voice was rough and gravelly. Its tone was incredulous.
“No, I don’t. But you have to remember, my office prosecutes twenty-five hundred cases a year, divided among six prosecutors. Maybe it’s a good thing your prosecutor doesn’t remember you. The really bad ones tend to stand out.”
Jack offered a half-hearted smile.
The man laughed again, a mirthless, harsh sound.
“Surely you remember your murder cases.”
Murder? Well, that significantly narrowed down the list of former defendants. Still, he did not recognize the man.
“I’ve had sixty-six homicide cases,” Jack said. “Are you saying I prosecuted you for murder?”
“Look at me!” the man hissed. “You not only prosecuted me, you convicted me. You sent an innocent man to prison!”
Jack stared hard at the angry face. A glimmering of recognitiontugged at his memory. Make the hair dark brown, but much thicker. Unbreak the nose. Take away the scar. Thin down the face and restore its lost youth. Yes, the man looked familiar, especially the eyes. But still, Jack could not place the guy.
“This is freaking unbelievable,” the man said. “I’ve been looking forward to this moment for fourteen years and you don’t even remember me! I have to tell you, it takes a bit of the fun out of it. It makes me hate you even more, seeing how little ruining my life meant to you.”
“I didn’t ruin your life,” Jack said. “You made your choices. If I prosecuted you for murder, it’s because you killed somebody. Don’t blame me for doing my job.”
“Doing your job? You just told me your job is to strike fair blows, to only convict the guilty. You sent me to prison for shooting a man in self-defense. You knew it was self-defense but you filed the charge, anyway. You railroaded me, mister. You were like an evangelical preacher exhorting the jury to ship me off to prison to send a message to other would-be killers. Send a message! You must have said it ten times. Now do you remember me?”
Jack flipped through his mental Rolodex of murder defendants, especially those who had raised the affirmative defense of self-defense. This wasn’t Pete Flamingo. Nor was it Barry Seltzer. This guy was definitely not Tom Barkley.
“You know,” Jack said, “I use that send-a-message closing argument a lot. You haven’t really narrowed it down too much for me.”
The man’s eyes narrowed.
“I’ve got this vivid image of you, Hogan. You’re telling the jury that the chain of justice is only as strong as its weakest link. You’re claiming the chain is composed of witnesses who report the crime and have the courage to testify in court, policemen who investigate the case, prosecutors who present the evidence, jurors who use their common sense to reach the right result, and the judge who rules on evidentiary issues and imposes an appropriate sentence. You urged the jury to use its common sense to send me to prison. You begged the jurors not to be the weak link in the chain. Now tell me you don’t remember who I am!”
Jack raised his hands apologetically.
“Sorry. I use that chain-of-justice analogy in most of my closing arguments. Actually, I stole it from Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor of Charles Manson. I picked it up from one of his books. I figured if it worked for him it would work for me.”
For the first time, Jack noticed the man’s right hand resting inside the side pocket of his St. Louis Cardinals jacket. It occurred to Jack that the man might well have a gun in his hand. This was bad. Jack never carried a gun. He was unarmed. He owned a six-shot Smith & Wesson revolver, but he always kept it in a drawer in the nightstand next to his bed.
“What’s your favorite movie, Hogan?”
“Your favorite movie. I figure you for a chick flick kind of guy. What is it, Sleepless in Seattle?”
Jack felt a twinge of optimism. Maybe if they talked movies, this encounter would end more pleasantly than he expected. Perhaps this convicted murderer just wanted to air his grievances and tongue-lash Jack with insults.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” Jack answered. “Gregory Peck plays a lawyer who represents an accused rapist. I’d have to say it’s my favorite.”
“What a coincidence, counselor. Gregory Peck stars in my favorite movie, too. Maybe you’ve seen it – Cape Fear. I’ve watched it at least twenty times. It’s about a guy who gets out of prison. The ex-con is played by Robert Mitchum. He stalks a lawyer who was a key witness against him in his rape trial. He blames him for landing him behind bars. It’s an old black-and-white movie. The lawyer, Gregory Peck, is a condescending, arrogant type, sort of like you. He thinks he’s a real big shot. I’ll tell you, though, he gets plenty scared when the ex-con starts sniffing around his daughter.”
Jack felt alarm bells ringing in his head as the man’s gaze shifted to Amber. She was doing a handstand on the parallel bars. A boiling rage began churning Jack’s gut.
“They did a remake of Cape Fear in 1991,” the man continued. “Robert De Niro played the convict. Nick Nolte was the guy he was after. Nolte was De Niro’s former lawyer, who’d screwed up De Niro’s case. De Niro was a real badass, man, absolutely covered with tattoos. One said, Vengeance is mine. Seen those movies, Hogan?”
“You should’ve, Mr. Prosecutor, what with your job and all. As good as the movies are, though, the book was even better. That’s usually the case, don’t you think, the book is better than the movie?”
Jack did not respond. He was trying to decide what this man would do if he simply stood up and started walking away. Did he really have a gun in his pocket?
“Yeah,” the man said, “the book was better. John D. MacDonald wrote it. It was called The Executioners when it came out in 1957. In the book the guy getting out of prison is seeking revenge against that key witness whose testimony put him in prison. He’s coming after the witness and his family, not his own defense lawyer. You read the book?”
“No,” Jack said.
“To me,” the man continued, “both the movies and the book would be more realistic if the ex-con was after the prosecutor. What do you think, Hogan?”
Jack stared into the cold eyes. “In my experience, the defendants are usually madder at the judge and the cops than they are at the prosecutor. They seem to realize the prosecutor is just doing his job.”
“Wishful thinking, Hogan. I don’t care how mad a man might be at his lawyer or the judge, he’s always gonna be madder at the prosecutor. The prosecutor’s the one who filed the charge, who could’ve dismissed it at any time, who could’ve plea-bargained it to something that didn’t involve prison time, who gave the impassioned closing argument urging the jury to send the guy to prison. No, the prosecutor’s always going to be number one on my hit list.”
“I told you, I was just doing my job.”
“Yeah, I heard you say that. But sending an innocent man to prison, that wasn’t in your job description, was it?”
Jack glanced again at the side pocket of the Cardinals jacket. A gun barrel or a finger was poking against the fabric, pointing directly at Jack’s side. To Jack, it looked more like a gun barrel than a finger. He groped for something to say.
“Which one’s your daughter?”
It was the question he’d thought about asking at the very beginning of the encounter, the one he would have asked had he been interested in making polite conversation.
“My daughter? She’s dead. She came down with leukemia while I was in prison. I didn’t even get to go to her funeral.”
“Yeah, you’re sorry, Hogan. You’re a sorry piece of shit.”
“Look,” Jack began.
“No, you look! Not only did my little girl die, but my wife divorced me while I was doing my time – the time you gave me. She remarried a factory foreman. They’ve got five kids now. Five kids! He must bang her every night. Now she won’t even return my phone calls. Last time I talked to her, she said she’d get a restraining order if I ever tried to call her again.”
“That’s a shame,” Jack said.
“Ain’t it, though? Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. I got gang-raped behind the wall by a bunch of Blood Stone Villains who thought I was a snitch. I was innocent of that charge, too, by the way. I’m no snitch. Never have been. I keep my mouth shut. But it happened just the same. That’s something else I blame you for, Hogan. In fact, it’s hard to put in words just how much I hate your guts.”
“What do you propose to do about it?”
The gray eyes shifted again to take in the beauty of young Amber Hogan.
“For starters, there’s your daughter.”
“If you touch her . . .”
“If I touch her, what! What are you gonna do, Hogan, lock me up? Call me nasty names? Ask a jury to send a message for what I do to her? It’s gonna be worth it, Hogan. I mean, just look at her. She must be your pride and joy.”
The unmistakable click of a revolver being cocked came from the depths of the Cardinals jacket.
“I’ve got a message for you, Mr. Prosecutor. I’m gonna kill your daughter, right here today. I lost mine. It’s only fair that you lose yours. I brought a gun and a knife with me. Only question left is whether I’m gonna shoot her or carve her up with the blade. Truth is, I haven’t decided yet.”
Jack glanced again at the gun barrel pressed against the jacket. If he lunged at the guy, he was sure to be shot. If he were shot, could he still protect Amber? Would the man kill her, anyway, with Jack already dead? He tried to decide what to do, how to stop this man. What would be best for Amber?
The convict smiled. Jack felt a chill shoot up his spine, cold dancing fingers of death.
“After I kill your daughter, if I get out of this gym alive, my next stop will be your home. I’m gonna kill your wife, Wendy. You two still live on Oak Street, don’t you? That big house, the yellow brick job with the wrought-iron railing and the three-car garage? Of course you do, what am I saying? I was there this morning, watching your wife leave for work. She was wearing that nice, conservative, black pantsuit. I noticed she switched to a white coat once she got to the hospital.”
“You followed my wife?”
“I’ve been out of prison for over a month now, Hogan. I’ve devoted myself to learning all I can about your family. Your daughter, for instance. She doesn’t ride the bus, even though it comes right by your house. Her daddy drives her to school every morning. Same exact route. Same exact time. Like clockwork.”
Jack glanced at the pocket containing the gun. The barrel was pointed right at Jack’s chest.
“Once I kill your wife,” the man continued, “I’m gonna see if I can find four guys who could stomach the thought of raping the sanctimonious Jack Hogan, and you’ll get a taste of everything I went through these past fourteen years because of you. Everything except the bankruptcy. You know, I went from being a successful businessman to being a broke ex-con because I spent all my money on lawyers to fight the bogus charge you brought against me. I had to sell my dry-cleaning business to pay off my legal bills when I went to prison.”
“Bingo. You remembered. I’m flattered, what with those thousands of cases you’ve prosecuted. How could I expect you to remember a simple case where a business owner shot an irate husband of a female employee and claimed it was self-defense? I’m old news, aren’t I? Water under the bridge. A flyspeck of a case. Boy, you sure nailed me in cross-examination, didn’t you? How many times did you ask me if I shot him in the back?”
“Yeah, and I admitted it every time. I shot him in the back, damn right I did. The prick came to my office, accusing me of having an affair with his wife. He was yelling and screaming. He threatened to kill me. When he spun away from me toward my credenza, I thought he was going for a gun. I pulled my Beretta from my desk drawer and shot him. I was telling the truth. I honestly thought I was protecting myself. I didn’t know he was unarmed. But did you care? No!”
“The jury didn’t believe you.”
“You were leading them around by the nose, counselor. I have to tell you, enlarging that photo of the dead man’s back with the entrance wound right between his shoulder blades, that was a good stroke. So was your stunt of making a poster of the medical examiner’s diagram. You were relentless in the way you drove home the point I shot the guy in the back.”
Jack said nothing.
“You were impressive in closing argument, too,” Bart Thompson continued. “I can see you now, pointing at me, thundering, ‘Send a message to the community, send a message to Bart Thompson, send a message to would-be killers out there – it is never justified self-defense to shoot a man in the back, to gun him down in cold blood.’ That’s what you said, Hogan, isn’t it?”
“Sounds pretty close.”
Jack remembered that particular closing argument well. He had spent countless hours working on it, honing it to perfection. The location of the bullet wound had been the strongest piece of evidence against Bart Thompson. The killer had shot his victim right in the middle of the back. Jack remembered heaping scornful ridicule on the defendant during summation: “What was the victim doing? Running away or backing toward his shooter? Either way it was not self-defense. Shooting a man in the back is a cowardly and criminal act. Don’t let Bart Thompson get away with murder!”
Bart Thompson’s case had been Jack’s tenth murder trial. Since he spent most of the trial focusing upon the witnesses and the jurors, it was understandable that he did not recognize the defendant many years later. Besides, Bart Thompson had aged. Man, had he aged. Prison would do that to you.
“You took everything from me,” Thompson said. “All by refusing to believe me when I told the truth that I really thought that wild-ass cuckold was trying to kill me. Hell, I wasn’t even sleeping with his wife.”
“I was fair to you,” Jack said. “You told your version to the jury. You had your chance to convince them. They found you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“Hard blows, but fair ones, I get it,” Thompson sneered. “Charge them all and let God sort them out. Is that how it works?”
“No. Not at all. The prosecutor can exercise discretion. I never want to prosecute an innocent man. I just didn’t believe you.”
“I guess that was my misfortune, wasn’t it? The great Jack Hogan didn’t believe me.” Bart Thompson stared at Jack silently for several long seconds. Jack glanced across the room at the other parents. It was mind-boggling that not one of them had noticed the heated conversation. Where were the busybodies and gossips when you needed them?
“Well, I’ve made up my mind,” Thompson said, his voice low, barely above a whisper. “Shooting’s too quick. I’m gonna gut her with the knife. I won’t be needing this.”
Bart Thompson withdrew a large revolver from his pocket and placed it on the bleachers between them. It was already cocked. Thompson stood up and smiled wickedly at Jack.
“The knife is a switchblade, in case you’re interested. I figure to open up her belly first.”
Grinning, the convicted murderer instantly broke into a run, heading directly toward Amber, his right hand snaking back inside his jacket pocket. It was all happening so fast. With horror, Jack realized he had only seconds to save his daughter.
He grabbed the gun and rose quickly to his feet. Instinctively, he assumed the stance he had practiced so often at the firing range. He knew he had to shoot fast, before Thompson got any closer to the gymnasts and put the girls in the line of fire. He brought up the gun and trained it on Thompson.
The earsplitting explosion of the Smith & Wesson produced an instant ringing in Jack’s ears. He fired just one shot. He was oblivious to everything but the sight of Bart Thompson running toward his daughter. The instant Jack fired the gun, Thompson staggered and pitched forward onto the mat, crumpling like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
Jack heard screaming, probably the voices of the gymnasts. He heard yelling, probably the adults. He heard oaths being shouted at Bart Thompson, probably coming out of his own mouth.
Carefully pointing the gun at Thompson, almost daring him to make another move, Jack advanced toward him slowly. Thompson lay facedown on the light gray mat, his right hand thrust into his jacket pocket. He was still breathing.
Pointing the gun at Thompson with his right hand, Jack used his left to pull Thompson’s hand from his pocket. The hand was empty. Jack slipped his own hand into the pocket. No knife. Jack patted the other pockets, finding nothing.
“Roll me over, Hogan,” Bart Thompson rasped. “I want to see your face.”
Jack took a moment to glance around the gym. The girls huddled on the floor between the balance beam and the vaulting horse. Tears streaked frightened faces. Parents crouched on and around the bleachers on the other side of the room, all eyeing Jack warily. Leesa Beecher, the instructor, was frantically talking on a cell phone, undoubtedly answering the questions of a 911 operator.
Jack reached down, grabbed the shoulder of the Cardinals jacket, and rolled Bart Thompson over. A growing pool of red blood already a yard wide covered the mat underneath the body.
Bart Thompson was smiling. It was the first time his grin had seemed genuine all evening.
“You recognize the gun, Counselor?”
Jack glanced at the gun in his hand, puzzled. It was a Smith & Wesson revolver, just like his own. Wait a minute. Surely it wasn’t.
“Yeah, it’s yours,” Thompson said. “I stole it this morning. Don’t worry, I didn’t mess up your house. No fingerprints, no DNA, no signs of forced entry. No one will be able to tell I was ever there.”
The gray eyes were flashing with triumph.
“That’s right, Mr. Prosecutor. You just shot an unarmed man with your own gun in front of more than thirty witnesses, including your own daughter. And you shot him in the back as he was running away from you. In the back, Jack!”
The eyes began to grow dull, life ebbing away, but the dying man was still smiling.
“Good luck in court, Counselor. You’re going to need it.”