Copyright© 2014 by Jay Cantrell
I found Elizabeth and Lauren sitting at the kitchen table with coloring books and crayons when I got home. I was hours earlier than normal and my daughter, who I hadn't seen awake and alert in three weeks, jumped off the chair and raced to give me a hug.
I scooped her up and kissed her on the end of her nose – which wrinkled in the most adorable manner – and tucked her on my hip as I turned to Elizabeth.
My wife greeted me with a warm smile and a wink. I did my best to return the smile but I wasn't certain I succeeded. She gave me a questioning look but I shook my head briefly before joining my family at the table.
The night was amazing normal. We colored for an hour or so before putting Lauren to bed. It was only then that I reheated my supper and opened a beer.
"What's wrong?" Elizabeth asked as she sat down beside me at the table.
"So many things," I answered.
"Does this have to do with the IT department shakeup?" she wondered.
"Partially," I replied. "Uh, look, I need to talk to you about some things."
"Sure," Elizabeth said instantly.
"When is the last time you saw Desmond Huntley in person?" I began.
"In person?" Elizabeth asked as she thought about her answer. "I guess it was when I tried him on possession with intent deliver charges about ... it was before Lauren arrived. I think I was pregnant with her. So let's say about four years ago."
"How would you describe him?" I asked.
"A drug-dealing, murdering piece of shit," Elizabeth answered. This time there was no hesitation.
"I was speaking about a physical description," I said.
Again, my wife took her time before answering.
"Large," she decided. "I mean, he must be six-three or six-four. I know he has several distinguishing tattoos and scars. He has a teardrop tattoo on his face and a row of crosses on his ... left, I think ... his left forearm. He is black and, although I know he is almost 40, I would put his age at late 20s or early 30s. At least I would have put it there the last time I saw him. What is this about?"
"What about his weight?" I asked instead of answering.
"Heavy," Elizabeth answered. "I mean, he's a big guy."
"Would you say he weighed more than or less than 250 pounds the last time you saw him?" I asked.
"Oh, Christ," Elizabeth said, rolling her eyes. "I would estimate his weight at closer to 350 pounds when I last saw him, maybe closer to 400."
"He weighed 377 pounds when he was arrested in the case you've described," I said as I studied the lasagna on my plate. "He is six-foot-four and he had all the marks and tattoos you mentioned."
"OK," Elizabeth offered with a shrug. "So you know I'd make a good eyewitness. I'll ask again, what is this about?"
"I need to ask you some questions and it's not going to be pretty," I said. "But I need you to be completely honest with me."
"I have always been honest with you," Elizabeth declared. "I would hope the same is true for you. Well, except for telling you I liked that red scarf you got me for Valentine's Day last year. That was lie. I wore it once and then gave it to Goodwill."
"This is a little more important than my shitty taste in female clothing," I noted.
"Go ahead then," Elizabeth agreed. The tone of my voice had left a worried look on her face.
"When did you become involve in the Huntley case?" I inquired.
"I was involved from the beginning," Elizabeth answered. "Up to the point when you were appointed defense counsel."
"I need you to be more specific," I pressed. "When did you become aware that Desmond Huntley was a person of interest in the death of Leonidas Wells?"
"This is started to sound like a direct examination," Elizabeth pointed out. "Do I need an attorney present?"
"Probably not now but you might at some point," I said. Elizabeth's eyes narrowed at my statement.
"What does that mean?" she asked.
"Just let's get through this and I think you'll understand," I said. "Could you tell me when you first knew that Dez was suspected of killing Biff Wells?"
"I suspected it the moment I heard that son of a bitch was dead," Elizabeth answered. My evasiveness had pushed her temper to the boiling point.
"Ellie," I said, looking hard at her, "this isn't the time for bullshit. I need to know when you were alerted that Tiny Huntley was on the radar for Wells' murder. Can you answer that simple fucking question, please?"
This time it was my wife who sat back hard in her chair. I was very rarely short with her and it caught her by surprise when I cursed at her, I think.
"I'll have to think for a moment," she said. The anger was gone from her voice. "I heard about Wells' death a day or two after he was found. It was a lowlife in a dive motel so the TV stations and the newspapers didn't mention it. The corpse had started to decay because it had been a few days between his death and when housekeeping found him so it was another day or two to identify him. I think it was a member of the drug task force that called me. Yeah, it was. Paul Scarborough called me to let me know. He knew of my participation in Lauren Senior's defense so he called to let me know when the coroner made the ID. That's the first I heard of Wells' death. As I said, I immediately suspected Desmond Huntley. Well, that's only partially true. At first, I wondered if you had something to do with it. Once a preliminary time of death was determined, I knew you were with me and the kids – Lauren and Pam were still in town or had just left – so you were off the hook.
"That made me wonder if your client had a hand in the murder."
"Did you act on that thought?" I asked.
"No," Elizabeth answered. "Look, I know you don't really know how my office works so I'll give you an overview. I'm not a cop. I don't investigate crimes."
"Do you sit in on the Task Force meetings?" I cut in.
"I used to when I was an assistant," Elizabeth answered with a nod. "Since I'm in the big office I've passed those duties onto someone else."
"You have not worked with the Task Force since you were promoted?" I asked.
"Well, yeah," Elizabeth answered. "I mean, I set up the raid of Huntley's house with them but I don't interact with them on a daily basis as I used to."
"Did you interact with them prior to a warrant being issued for Huntley's arrest?" I tried.
"I'm sure I did," Elizabeth said with a shrug. "Look, you remember how that week was. I was closing out old cases and old investigations. I met with Scarborough once or twice a day that week so we could discuss what cases to move forward and which ones to put on the back burner. I'm sure Huntley's name came up more than once during that week."
I could only nod.
"Ben, if you'll tell me what this is about I can answer your questions more clearly," Elizabeth pointed out.
I considered for a moment before getting up and grabbing my briefcase. I had hoped I could get the answers I needed without delving too deeply into the case. After all, the trial was still scheduled and The Pickle had ordered Elizabeth to have no connection with the case. Still, we had bigger issues if Jane's suspicions were correct.
"The ID was completely bogus," I said as I pulled the video out and popping it into my laptop. The image was grainy and without color. It showed the parking lot entrance from a height of 15 feet. A person's mother couldn't definitively identify anyone.
Elizabeth watched for a moment and then shrugged.
"Yeah, that's crap," she agreed. "Still, there was a clerk who positively ID'ed Huntley. Don't tell me that's garbage, too."
"It's garbage," I answered. "Look, it's more about the chain of evidence. The first detectives on the scene secured the video. It was logged into evidence by Detective Lee Abrams the day Wells was found."
"Sounds right," Elizabeth said.
"They used the video as the means to ID Tiny Huntley," I said. "Then they put Huntley's photo in an array – but I'll get to that in a minute. This video was how they connected Huntley to the scene."
A light bulb went off over Elizabeth's head.
"And there is no way Abrams got anything from that video," she said.
"Not Abrams," I said. "He got booted off the case as soon as the corpse was identified."
"She," Elizabeth corrected. It was obvious to her that I didn't follow so Elizabeth clarified. "Lee is short for Lee Anne. Detective Abrams is a woman."
"Sure, whatever," I said, shrugging. I didn't care if she were a Martian. "The point is that as soon as the ID on the corpse came back, the Task Force swooped in. There is no indication in the records that Abrams even saw the video. That all came from the Task Force boys."
Again, I saw recognition dawn in Elizabeth's eyes.
"My boys," she said.
"Your boys," I agreed.
My wife stared at me.
"The investigation would have led back to Huntley without the video," she said after the silence stretched to a full minute or more.
"No," I said simply. "It wouldn't have. Ellie, I have to know how deeply you're involved in this."
"Involved in what?" she asked. The anger was back in full force.
"The scheme to frame Huntley," I answered.
"Oh, bull-fucking-shit," she hissed. I knew she was doing her best to keep her voice low enough that Lauren wouldn't awaken. "There is no scheme to frame your poor, little misunderstood drug-dealing, whore-pimping, witness-murdering client."
"I resent the implication that my client deals with prostitutes," I said, smiling in a vain attempt to quash Elizabeth's ire. It didn't work so I moved forward. "The description you gave me of Desmond Huntley fits the profile of what your detectives told the motel clerk to say."
"First," she spat, "they are not 'my detectives.' Second, of course it did."
I carried on as though she hadn't interrupted me.
"The description the motel clerk gave fits the photo array the police used for positive identification," I continued. "The state's case starts to fall apart with the video. The county's IT fuckup only adds to your problems."
"I am not prosecuting this case," Elizabeth said, each syllable delivered staccato.
I looked at her for a moment.
"But you were still in charge when the criminal conspiracy began," I said softly. "That means this is going to fall in your lap."
"Criminal conspiracy, my ass," Elizabeth spat. I didn't answer. Instead I put the mug shot Judge Valasik had provided the prosecution earlier in the day on the table and slid it across to her.
"Who's this?" she asked before she flipped it over to read the name on the back. She blinked twice and turned the photo back over and stared at it.
"I don't understand," she said.
"Ellie, Dez Huntley is still 6-foot-4," I answered. "But he weighs less than 220 pounds. He dropped 250 pounds from the time you last saw him and the time he was arrested for Wells' murder. He no longer has the tattoos on his face or his arms. He had those lasered off almost two years ago. The man the task force – your task force – set up for the arrest looks nothing like the photos they showed the clerk. He looks nothing like the 'large African-American male' the clerk claims he saw. He looks nothing like the description your task force spoon fed him so they could arrest Huntley. Do you understand what I'm saying now?"