I wish I could say Pam's arrest and the sealed indictment on Wallace Mann was the end of the story. In a nicer world, maybe it would have been.
But we don't live in a nicer world. The world of jurisprudence is filled with violence, hubris and greed. All three were a part of Biff Wells' sad legacy.
I had made arrangements with Lucy Barrett to handle Pam's plea deal. We didn't know who the prosecutor in the case would be but Judge Valasik promised that she would apply pressure on Elizabeth's successor to accept the agreement.
Elizabeth's final act as county prosecutor would be the dismissal of all charges against Desmond "Tiny" Huntley in the death of Leonidas "Biff" Wells.
Judge Castille called the hearing to order a few minutes after eight on a Friday morning, 10 days before Christmas – and a full hour before the courts usually started. Dez was led in, not dressed in prison garb but instead in a blue suit. His blue and red tie contrasted nicely with his crisp white shirt.
"Your Honor," Elizabeth said as she arose from her table. She had no assistant sitting with her. There was no investigator at her table. She was alone. "The state has a motion to dismiss all charges against Mr. Huntley, with prejudice. I would like to add my personal apology for filing the charges against him."
"Duly noted," Judge Castille said. "Mr. Wallace, do you have anything?"
"No, Your Honor," I said. In reality, Dez was owed compensation from the county. If he pushed, he would probably get quite a settlement. Dez had insisted that he wanted nothing from the county but his freedom. He and his family planned to move to Galveston, Texas, and the moving vans were already packed.
Judge Castille stifled a look of surprise but he nodded. The reality of Desmond Huntley's life had settled on Alberto Castille and Judge Lisa Valasik. He was a bad man but he wasn't the monster that he had been painted to be. Even my wife had reluctantly agreed that Mr. Huntley's portrayal by her Task Force compatriots had been skewed. I knew it still bothered her that Huntley was going to get away. A part of her still believed everything that Paul Scarborough and his cadre of corrupt policemen had fed her. I knew it would take it some to time to come to grips with the reality of how her career had fizzled out.
I had informed Elizabeth that Dez had no plans to sue the county or her personally for vengeful prosecution. It was a relief to me – mostly because after the first of the year, I would be the only one with a job. Elizabeth had offered a curt nod but had said nothing more. Her apology had surprised me but I knew it was genuine.
"Mr. Huntley, I hereby dismiss all charges related to the death of Leonidas Wells with prejudice," Judge Castille said. "You are released from custody with the state's apology. Court is adjourned."
The courtroom held no reporters or TV crews. The entire proceeding was done in secret to avoid tipping the county's hand on what was coming next. The state attorney general had agreed to wait until the new year to begin her investigation into police corruption and malfeasance. Dez and his family would be in Texas and Elizabeth would be out of her office.
Elizabeth's resignation had been publicized. It was a personnel decision and had to be accepted in open session. She cited "burn out and the desire to spend more time with her family" as the reasons for her departure. Several prominent attorneys had thrown their hats into the ring but no front-runner had emerged.
Dez turned and hugged his girlfriend and his children before moving to his sister and his brother-in-law. He shook my hand and pulled me into a hug.
"Thank you, Ben," he said in a choked voice. "Man, when they dropped the hammer on me, I thought I was done. You busted your ass for me and I can't tell you how much appreciate it. Thanks doesn't seem like enough."
"Just take care of that family of yours," I said. "That's all I need."
He nodded and moved to shake hands with the rest of my crew. Lucinda Barrett stood beside me beaming at the outcome. She had played a vital role and I made sure everyone knew it. She was already in the running for a job at one of the state's biggest criminal firms where she would specialize in death penalty cases. She had made a name for herself and, for some reason, she had given me a lot of credit for her ascension.
Jenny Wilkes was staying in the city. I suspected that once Mark Strickland took the bar, she would be his assistant. Even Michelle Stanton, who to my knowledge had never been inside of a courtroom in her life, had shown up an hour before her day normally began.
While Dez thanked my staff, his girlfriend and sister descended on me. Both women wrapped their arms around me in firm hugs. Dez's brother-in-law patted me on the back.
"You have about $60,000 of your retainer left," I informed Evylin Gordon when I managed to extricate myself. "I will send that back to you as soon as I get the final accounting."
"Keep it," she said. "I told you at the outset, money doesn't matter. He's free. We're all free. You deserve the money."
"I can't ethically keep it," I explained.
"Then give it to your staff," Evylin stated. "They can keep it and I know they all worked tirelessly to make sure this day came."
I pondered and nodded. Lucy was in the same boat as me. She couldn't ethically keep the money. But Mark, Jenny and Michelle could. I knew Mark had more money than that he could spend in a lifetime. He had made a bundle in his teens by developing video games. I had helped him gain emancipation before his parents could squander it. Despite being a few months from his 21st birthday, he was the wealthiest person on our staff.
Still, it would give Jenny a start on a career and it would provide Michelle the means to finally attend law school. I would miss her but I knew she would be great.
I looked around the room and saw that my wife was the only person not smiling. Even Judge Valasik had a grin on her stern face. Dez noticed and stepped across the aisle, his hand extended toward Elizabeth. I shifted to see how Elizabeth would react. She looked at the hand for a moment and then shook it.
I moved closer and heard Dez speak to her.
"I know you were just doing your job," he said in a soft voice. "Ben told me how things went down and I'm sorry that you got involved. I always respected you, Ms. Vargas-Wallace. I heard you might land in some stuff and I want you to know that I'll help you if I can. I already gave Ben a statement and he filmed a deposition. If you need me more, you call me in Galveston and I'll come back – even if it means I face more charges here."
I was listening for Elizabeth's answer when the door to the courtroom banged open.
"Hey, you can't be in here!" Judge Castille's bailiff yelled. He was stationed close to the door but the man was past him before he could react. The man coming through the door wore the uniform of a county police agent. I noticed he still wore his service weapon and that his holster was unsnapped. I vaulted the barrier that separated the onlookers from the lawyers as he drew his gun and aimed. I hit him around the waist just as the bailiff dove at the man's legs.
Paul Scarborough hit the ground and his head bounced off the marble flooring but I didn't care. I straddled his chest and started punching. I felt his nose break. I heard his jaw shatter. I saw teeth and blood fly from his mouth. I hit him until someone dragged me off of him. It was only then I smelled the distinct odor of a fired weapon and recognized that I couldn't hear from my left ear. He had fired at least one shot before I got to him. I spun to where he was aiming and I saw my wife on the floor.
Her gray suit was covered in blood ... but it wasn't hers. She was on her knees beside Dez Huntley, with her hand pressed tightly to the man's chest. I shrugged off the people who had pulled me off Scarborough and moved to her as fast as I could.
Carmen Alvarez was crouched at Desmond's head, crying hysterically. Evylin Gordon was on her knees next to her brother. I looked down at him. His chest was a mass of blood and even Elizabeth's fingers in the gaping hole couldn't stop the blood from spurting out and soaking her clothing.
"Ben," he said in a weak voice. I knelt down next to him and put my hand on his shoulder. "Promise me something, Ben. Promise me that you will look after my babies. Tell them that I wasn't always a low-life thug."
"It's going to be fine, Dez," I lied. "They'll see it for themselves."
"Promise me," Dez told me, his voice noticeably weaker than only a moment earlier.
"We promise, Dez," Elizabeth said through her tears. "We give you our word that your children will be looked after and they will know about the man you truly are."
Dez turned his gaze toward my wife. He told his girlfriend and sister he loved them. Then he nodded and smiled ... and died.
We tried valiantly but it was no use. Elizabeth kept her fingers in the wound while Mark Strickland and I did chest compressions until the EMTs arrived and took over. We filed out the courtroom behind the stretcher in a procession.
I kicked Paul Scarborough in the face as we passed. He was handcuffed and seated on the floor but I didn't care. His head snapped back and connected with the bench behind him with a sickly crunch before he slumped over onto the marble again.
Mark wrapped his arms around my waist and dragged me out of the courtroom with Elizabeth tugging on my arm urgently.
"He's not worth it," she said loudly. I appreciated the sentiment but I was pretty certain that Scarborough was unconscious at that point.
Those were the last words Elizabeth spoke until we were almost at the hospital.
"He saved my life," she said in a small voice. "When Paul charged into the room, I saw you jump over the railing. You knew he was coming for me and you went to stop him, just like I think I always knew you would. Then Desmond pulled me behind him to shield me. He knew Paul had come to kill me, too. He knew it. He could have stepped away from me and left me to my fate. I saw the bullet hit him, Ben. I heard the explosion and I saw it hit him. He jerked like a puppet and then just fell backward. There was so much blood. It was just pumping out of him every time his heart would beat. I did the only I could. I put my fingers inside his chest and tried to plug the hole. It was just too big."
I nodded but had no words to share. I was kicking myself for not being faster over the railing. I had hesitated for only a second but if I had been quicker ... I also felt guilty that I didn't insist on a hearing in chambers. I could have and I'm sure the judge would have agreed. But I wanted Dez's family around him when he walked free. So instead of meeting them in the hallway afterward, his children got to watch him die in front of their eyes.
The hospital staff rushed to us as soon as we walked in. I didn't understand what was happening until one tried to put me in a wheelchair. We were both soaked in blood. Elizabeth's face was a mask even though she had tried to wash it off. All she had managed to do was smear it around. Her suit coat and skirt had gone from gray to red. My black suit hid Scarborough's blood well enough but my white shirt was ruined.
"We're not injured," I asserted. "We were at the scene of a shooting."
A nurse was looking at my hand. I had felt at least one and probably two knuckles dislocate when I punched Scarborough. It was one of the reasons that I had kicked him as we walked past. I had ignored my pain as I performed CPR on Dez but it had become noticeable once I'd stopped. I finally understood why Pam always threw punches with her off hand. She wrote, ate and threw a ball with her right hand. She threw punches with her left. It made sense to me now and I shook my head at the fact such a stupid thought had crossed my mind.
"Your hand is broken," the nurse informed me. I nodded as Elizabeth's head snapped toward my face and then down at my right hand.
"Oh, Ben," she said, fresh tears in her eyes. "I'm so sorry."
"It's fine," I said.
"We can take you to X-ray and get it set," the nurse said, trying to guide me away from the gathering crowd. It occurred to me that part of the reason they wanted me out of the way was so they could examine Elizabeth. They needed to assure that the blood on her hadn't come when I had delivered a savage beating. Domestic violence was alive and well in our county and the hospital emergency room saw far too much of its evidence.
"I'll move over there so you can talk to her privately," I said. "But I want to wait until I get word on Mr. Huntley before I get this taken care of."
The nurse frowned but agreed when I moved across the room. Her frown deepened when she saw Carmen Alvarez and her two children cling to me as soon as they noticed me.
"What is your relationship to that man?" I heard her ask Elizabeth in a loud voice. I didn't hear anything else because Carmen's sobbing drowned it out. Whatever Elizabeth said must have worked because Elizabeth joined us a moment later.
We stood in the waiting room for what seemed like forever but in reality it was for less than 40 minutes. Desmond "Tiny" Huntley was pronounced dead at 9:17 a.m. He was 13 days from his 39th birthday.
Christmas was a somber affair. The elder Lauren's mother was still housed in a county jail far to the north and that tempered her happiness at seeing the temperature reach 68 degrees on Christmas Day. Before I departed southward with her daughter, I had set up an inmate phone account that permitted Pam to call during hours approved by the jail. She called Lauren and spoke to her for 15 or 20 minutes each Sunday morning.
We always gave Lauren privacy for the chats and she was usually sullen for a while after she got off the phone. I hoped Pam wasn't burdening her daughter with stories of how miserable her life was now. After all, I was responsible for that daughter.
I understood that Pam's life was harder than it had been since her teenage years. I had tried to set up an account so Pam could purchase items from the commissary – the in-house store run by most penal institutions that permits the inmates to purchase "luxury" items, such as better food, softer tampons and stationery for writing letters. Because Pam was housed on a detainer, she couldn't have an account – nor was she permitted the other privileges afforded county inmates, such as access to an email account.
I could only imagine what the first two weeks of a possible 10-year incarceration would be like but had seen clients deteriorate physically and emotionally in only a couple of days. I had asked Lauren to keep up correspondence with her mother through the U.S. Mail System. For a young woman of Lauren's age, the concept of writing a letter and mailing it was foreign. She said the last letter she could remember writing was her list to Santa when she was six. In fact, writing at all was foreign to Lauren. As I watched the girl struggle with penmanship and spelling, I decided that Little Lauren would be taught those skills at home if the school system decided they were unnecessary skills in a digital world.
As I boxed up Pam's belongings, I found a wrapped gift with Lauren's name on it and I brought it along so she would at least have a final present from her mother beneath the tree. When Lauren opened the box, I wished I had given it to Goodwill along with the rest of the stuff I found in Pam's closet. The box contained a bikini and an underwear set from a lingerie store famous for its racy merchandise.