Lifeline
Chapter 19

Breakfast was a strained affair. For the second night in a row – and the second night of our marriage – Elizabeth and I slept apart. I bedded down in a guest room while she returned to our bedroom.

I had begun to wonder if Elizabeth's professional life was more important to her than the life we'd built at home. I would never have to ask myself that question. I would gladly give up my career if it brought an end to the sort of tension that the past few days had delivered. It seemed that Elizabeth had never really considered the prospect. I suspected her visit to The Pickle the day before, resignation papers in hand, was a ploy – and a ploy that obviously worked.

Elizabeth offered to take Lauren to preschool and I took her up on it. I arrived at the courthouse and took the elevator to the 12th floor, where my office lay. I ran into Jane's investigator as I exited the elevator.

"Hey, thanks for making a run at those photos," I said. He nodded as he toted a box forward to catch the car before the door closed. "Do you need a hand with that?"

"No, it's good," he said. "This is all I brought in. The rest of the shit stays, I guess."

"Stays?" I wondered. The man frowned but stepped outside of the elevator and watched the door close behind him.

"I guess you didn't hear," he said. "Jane quit last night. I'm not sure what happened but she went on a rampage yesterday. Last night, she wrote out her resignation and said to hell with it. I guess once you found out who the real killer is, she decided there was no reason for us to stay."

"Damn," I muttered. I had hoped to utilize Jane's investigators to link Pam and Mann. There was no way Mark had the skills or connections to get it done and I didn't think Elizabeth would bother. She understood that any aspersions cast toward the Task Force would hurt her career.

I came to a decision.

"Are you heading out immediately?" I asked.

The guy shrugged.

"I don't have to," he said. "I'm private now. I was a homicide detective up north for 10 years and worked with Jane a few times. When she needed someone for this job, she called me. I could stay – but I can't do it for free."

"No, I understand that," I said. "I wouldn't ask you to do it for nothing. Let me talk to Judge Valasik. I'll see if I can keep you on for a few more days."

"Let me know," the man said as the elevator opened again. "The judge has my contact number."

I didn't wait for the elevator to return. Instead I headed straight down to The Pickle Jar. The judge's assistant looked up and then buzzed me into the office without a word.

"You could have put down your coffee before you came down this time," Judge Valasik said with a sad smile.

I looked down and noticed I still carried my briefcase and coffee mug.

"Uh, sorry, Your Honor," I said. "I was unaware that you had summoned me. I just heard about Jane's resignation."

"Yes," a new voice said. I found Al Castille sitting near the judge's private chamber. "That certainly has created a problem for us. We will have to appoint a new prosecutor before we can even hear a motion for dismissal."

I will admit that I hadn't considered that aspect but I knew he was correct. I hadn't even thought of how things would affect Dez and his release. I decided to press ahead with the things I could affect.

"I would like your permission to keep on Jane's investigator for a couple of more weeks," I said. The two judges exchanged glances before Judge Valasik spoke for them both.

"Why?" she wondered. I let out a long breath and gestured to a chair, asking to sit down. She nodded and I opened my briefcase on my lap. I pulled out the picture of Pam I'd captured from the video. It was grainy but Mark had cleaned it up enough that she was recognizable – if you knew her. I added the photo of her in the vehicle with Wallace Mann.

"What are these?" The Pickle asked.

"It is Biff Wells' killer and her accomplice," I stated without emotion.

Judge Valasik's eyes went wide.

"Who is it?" she asked.

I motioned for her to give the photos to Judge Castille. He looked at them and then at me.

"That is the young girl's mother," he said. "And that man testified at the hearing. Are you certain of this?"

"I'm positive," I said. "It's the only thing that makes sense. The man is Wallace Mann. He is the man who drove Pam Wells to the hospital after the altercation in your courtroom."

"That's right," Judge Valasik said. "That's where I've seen her. It was from the video I'd seen of the fight. You say that this man was at the hearing, too."

"He's the one I told you about," Castille said. "The cop that Elizabeth Vargas-Wallace absolutely destroyed. It was horrible."

Another piece of the puzzle clicked in my head but I didn't say anything.

"As I said, he is a city policeman who was a member of the Combined Drug Task Force," I said. "That means we can't use the city police to pull things together and we can't use the county police either. That means we're going to need an outside agency to investigate the Task Force and an outside prosecutor to handle the case. I need someone to help me pull things together right now. I need someone to check fingerprints to put her in the room. I need someone to pull cell phone records of both people to make a connection."

"Ben, that's not your job," Judge Valasik said with sympathy.

"And who else is going to do it?" I asked angrily.

"I suspect that job would fall to your wife," Judge Castille cut in.

I shook my head sadly.

"I suspect she would prefer to protect her reputation and the integrity of the Task Force," I said. "She has no incentive to investigate this. The Huntley dismissal is going to put egg on her face. Having someone bring down the Task Force will ruin her career. I don't think she will permit that. I have come to understand that her career is the most important thing in her life."

I know a hint of sadness had crept into my voice because I saw a look of sympathy cross Judge Valasik's face.

"It's not going to matter what she wants," Judge Castille said. I detected a hint of sympathy in his voice, too. "This is going to come out. The only hope that she has is to put her faith in you. Either way, I don't believe that her career will survive if everything you say is true."

"What if it isn't," Judge Valasik cut in. "I mean, what if some of what he has put together is false? First of all, I do not believe you are correct in your assessment of Ms. Vargas-Wallace's priorities. Secondly, the Huntley case would be a feather in her cap. Mr. Mann has no reason to give her that. In fact, after she destroyed him at the hearing, I would suspect he would prefer to ruin her career."

The final piece clicked in my head and I looked up sharply.

"You're right," I said slowly. "I see it now. The murder was one of opportunity. Mann and Pam Wells were in the same vehicle as he took her to the hospital. She wanted to kill him and Mann knew where he was. Then the opportunity arose to put Huntley in the crosshairs. He knew Elizabeth wouldn't be able to resist. The fact that it turned into a capital case was a bonus. I suspect, once Huntley was sentenced to death, he would leak the news that the Task Force had framed him. That would spell the end of not only Elizabeth but also the Task Force. I just recalled that she said last night that he is no longer a part of it. I will assume the fiasco with Lauren Wells had ended his involvement – and probably ended his hope of any advancement in the police force."

"It's speculation but I think you have it close," Judge Castille admitted. "This is a convoluted mess. We're bound by duty to let a monster out to roam the streets again and stick a woman who killed a monster in prison for the rest of her life."

"I'm not sure it will make you feel better about putting Pam in prison but I doubt she'll do more than five or six years," I said with a shrug.

"It was murder with special circumstance on Mr. Huntley," Judge Valasik pointed out. "I don't see how they can charge Ms. Wells with anything less than first degree."

"Maybe," I said. "I'm the first to say that I am horribly naïve about how the prosecutor's office actually works. But I can sew up reasonable doubt if they go for first-degree in a heartbeat. There was no premeditation; I could argue diminished capacity; I could argue heat of the moment. No, I'm pretty sure that if Pam will agree to testify against Mann, any prosecutor would sign off on a six-to-10 year sentence. She'll do four-and-half with good behavior – never a given when it comes to Pam."

"Diminished capacity?" Judge Castille wondered. "I didn't get the impression she was impaired. Her fists certainly weren't."

"Which is where I'd get diminished capacity," I replied. "I'm sure she was given some pretty hefty pain killers when they set her hand. She committed the crime less than 12 hours later. If I really put my mind to it, I could probably get her acquitted by suggesting Mann played on her emotions while she was hopped on Vicodin."

"You're not seriously thinking about representing this woman, are you?" Judge Valasik asked incredulously.

"Not on your life," I said. "I was just pointing out why she won't do life without parole. If I have my way, I'll never touch another criminal case. Leave me to handle the kids."

"Which begs the question: What happens to the little girl?" Judge Castille asked with genuine concern. "Is there other family that can take her in?"

"God no!" I said I explained about Pam's abused adolescence and Biff's screwed-up history. "About the only hope that I can see is Pam's brother. Donnie is a good guy but he did some time when he almost killed their father as a teen. He caught the old man doing things to Pam that no man should do to a child and took a baseball bat to the guy's skull. It got him locked up until he was 21. I doubt any court would let him have custody unless Pam agreed. I can see Pam using Lauren as leverage to get a better deal and I'm not sure Donnie would take her. When they were here last year, Lauren said he is working on an oil pipeline in the Middle East. That question is one of the main reasons I was hesitant to bring any of this forward. If Mann wasn't involved I might not have. But what is going on with the Task Force has to be stopped and this gives you the power to investigate it thoroughly."

"Are you suggesting Mr. Huntley was not an isolated incident?" Judge Valasik inquired. I knew Elizabeth had assured her a day earlier that the Huntley case was the anomaly but that was before I had produced Lucy's statistical analysis of Dez's neighborhood.

"I'm pretty sure that Dez Huntley has been a scapegoat for the Task Force since he rose to prominence," I said as I pulled a map of the county out of my briefcase. I put it down on Judge Valasik's desk and Alberto Castille stood to peer at it. "Take a look at this."

The first map showed the crime statistics for the area. The section where Dez Huntley lived in the inner city had a lower crime than the neighborhood that I called home.

"The Task Force would tell you that the people in that neighborhood are too afraid of Dez to report a crime," I said with a sigh. "I am almost positive the crime rates are so low because Dez makes sure the area is safe for the people who live there."

I got a pair of incredulous looks from the room's other occupants but I plowed ahead. I took a map that tracked teenage pregnancies across the region. Again, one inner-city neighborhood had a significant lower rate than any of the others. The same was true for the maps that showed single-parent households and truancy rates. The other maps I displayed showed that Dez's neighborhood had a higher-than-average rate of home ownership and scholastic performance.

"The numbers don't lie," I said. "Look at the crime stats. Those are compiled by the county. Look at your own neighborhoods. You find burglaries, felonious assaults, domestic violence. My neighborhood has the same things. We even had a homicide last year about three blocks from where I live. It scared the crap out of me. Now look at the area below 88th Street. You find what cops consider lower-impact crimes. That's the politically correct euphemism for non-violent crime. You have a few DUIs but less than you see in the higher-end neighborhoods. You see a couple of simple assaults – fistfights in the parking lot of a local bar. You don't see strong-armed muggings like you have downtown. You don't see sexual assaults like you find near the university. You don't have drive-by shootings like you hear about other places. And you know what else you don't see?"

I saw Judge Castille studying the key codes for what each color represented. He looked up at me in surprise.

"Drug arrests," he stated in confusion.

"This does not correspond to the man I've heard so much about," Judge Valasik said. "What about the deaths of potential witnesses? Your wife was very clear about why she suggested that idiotic program for secret warrants. It was to protect witnesses from harm."

"In her defense, I believe she thought she was doing just that," I said. "But the truth is, she was protecting other people. The witnesses who were killed, if I had to bet, were tangentially connected to Desmond Huntley or they were connected on the word of the Task Force. I haven't had time to dig into it but it seems to fit a pattern."

"What pattern is that?" Judge Castille asked. He was clearly interested in the pictures the statistics painted.

"The Task Force is covering up for other people or organizations involved in the drug trade," I said with resignation.

"Do you mean to suggest that Mr. Huntley is not a drug dealer?" Judge Valasik wondered.

"I do not mean to imply that at all," I said. "I have no doubt that Dez is heavily involved in the drug trade. What I am suggesting is that he is not the biggest player in the area."

I let out a long breath, unhappy about where the conversation had led. I truly did not want to be involved with anyone who could subvert the police department into providing protection. But the two judges were looking like a pair of Rottweilers ready to pounce on a bone. I had no doubt they would pounce on me if I tried to evade their question.

"The research we have compiled suggests that there are at least two and possibly three other organizations with a bigger hand in organized criminal activity in our area," I said. "It also suggests that, sometime between five and eight years ago, they settled on Desmond Huntley as their bogeyman. After the 88s were put out of commission, Dez rose through the ranks pretty quickly. I will be the first to tell you that one of the main reasons he rose to the top was because of his penchant for mayhem. He is – or at least he was – a very nasty guy. If you remember, the 88s ran almost the entire county. They ran heroin; they ran crack; they ran meth; they ran weed; they ran hookers; they ran the dice games; they ran the loan-sharking. Can we agree upon that?"

I got dual nods so I pressed forward before I lost my nerve.

"The breakup left a void in almost every dark corner where organized crime breeds," I continued. "Dez grabbed a small segment of the drug trade. He ran with the Upper Deuce Homeboys. Upper Deuce is the housing project on 99th Street and Second Avenue where Dez grew up. The Homeboys were a subset of the 88s, thought to be so minor that they didn't get rolled up when the 88s were arrested, or so the story goes. From what I've learned, the Homeboys were the couriers used by the 88s to bring product into the city. They knew all the suppliers and all routes from Mexico. I remember the Task Force commander crowing about how their arrests had helped to take down a major Colombian cartel. I think that was another setup. The drugs were already coming through Mexico at that point and I think someone used the Task Force to take down a rival."

"My God," Judge Castille muttered.

"You will notice that the flow of drugs didn't slow any," I noted. "If anything, it picked up after the 88s were gone. Those guys were ruthless but they were stupid. They honestly believed they were too big to bring down and it cost them. When they fell, others stepped in. I'm not sure she meant to, but Jane included a list of people convicted of drug crimes with confirmed ties to Huntley's organization. That's what got this line of thought moving forward. The fact is, two-thirds of the names were complete crap. The people the Task Force was touting as having come from Huntley's crew had never been south of 70th Street in their lives. They were trying to link ethnic Ukrainians and pretty boy college kids to Huntley. It just didn't make sense. Once we actually started to dig, we found the reality to be far different than the perception. We found that crimes that the Task Force was linking to Huntley were way out in left field. It seemed that any crime – from possession of a small amount found by the university police to a meth explosion in Grand Meadow – was pinned on Desmond Huntley.

"First off, it's ludicrous to think that someone from Central Europe would work for a black man. I grew up in the middle of Bohunk country. It ain't happenin'. The arrests that were legitimately from Huntley's group never involved anything but weed and rock. That's marijuana and crack cocaine."

I was looking at Judge Valasik and she rolled her eyes.

"Yes, Mr. Wallace, I am an idiot," she said sarcastically. "Thank you for your explanation. Carry on."

"We found no legitimate arrests for meth or for powder cocaine or for pills or for heroin," I said. "I called a guy at the DEA I used to know. He told me that almost all the heroin in this area originates in the 'Stans – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Dagestan, Uzbekistan – the countries that have traditionally grown poppies for centuries. I will confess that I do not perceive a link between Mr. Huntley and the poppy trade. Since we found no legitimate arrests tied to that drug, it was pushed aside. The same is true with the meth trade and the prescription drug trade. Still, I think what we found was pretty compelling."

"I agree," Judge Castille said. "Do you have any ideas as to who might be controlling those areas?"

I shook my head.

"This is where I pulled my folks back," I admitted. "Look, the people doing this make Dez Huntley look like a pussycat. They are the ones with no qualms about killing witnesses. They are the ones who participate in human trafficking and prostitution. I didn't want any of them to get a whiff of my presence in their enterprises. It is not my responsibility to do that anymore."

"This is yeoman's work, Mr. Wallace!" Judge Valasik exclaimed. "How you managed to do all of this while preparing a defense is beyond me."

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