Copyright© 2014 by Jay Cantrell
Lucy Barrett was in the office when I got back and I was able to add an additional unhappy look in my direction.
"You really thought it was a good idea to chew out Judge Valasik in public?" she asked.
"It was not perhaps the best idea I've ever had," I agreed. "However, the timing seemed appropriate. I don't know if she thought I would back down if she confronted me in the hallway or if she just has no concept of propriety. Either way, when she braced me, I fired back."
"She started it," Lucy said, shaking her head. "That's your defense?"
"Well, she did!" I said in my best whiny child voice. Lucy didn't find it funny but I got a chuckle from Michelle and Jenny. It was only then that I saw there was a fifth person in our office – Mark Strickland, our computer guru, and budding attorney in training.
"Hey, Mark," I said, offering a wave.
"Ben," he replied with a wink. He was sitting only a foot from Jenny Wilkes and I wondered about that development for a moment. They were about the same age but their temperaments were completely different. He broke me from my thoughts. "I want to break down the videos frame by frame to see if I can enhance them."
I glanced at Lucy but she was still frowning.
"Mark, I appreciate it but we're sort of off that case right now," I told him.
"No shit," he said, glancing at Jenny – who giggled – and shaking his head. "That doesn't mean someone didn't kill that bastard. Don't you think it would go a long way toward pulling your wife out of the fire if she could actually point to that guy?"
I pondered his question. Personally, I didn't see anything that could pull Elizabeth out of the fire. That was mostly because she seemed so intent upon staying in the flames.
"Just let me take a look," Mark pressed. "I already signed the non-disclosure form for you. What will it hurt?"
"The thing was not set up for actual surveillance," I noted. "I'm sure it was only on the premises to lower the insurance costs. You can't see anything but the tops of people's heads."
"That's not the one I want to see," Mark told me. "Look, I've done security for places like that. I know that they don't want their clientele on a video. Well, that's probably a lie. Their clientele doesn't want to be on video. The motel could give a shit. I want to see the video from behind the counter. That is the one that might give us an answer."
I looked at Lucy, who thankfully looked as dumbfounded as I did.
"I don't think there was a camera behind the counter," I told him.
"I know for a fact there is," Mark countered. That earned him a funny look from Michelle. He simply laughed it off. "I'm a freak. What can I say?"
I rolled my eyes but Mark kept talking.
"I hacked their network last night," he admitted. "There are two camera feeds. One from somewhere a mile overhead and one behind the counter. The insurance companies insist on an interior camera for places like that. First off, the pay-by-the-hour joints don't really cater to the credit card crowd. No one wants the Palmetto Court on his statement. It is a cash business and that makes it a target for robberies."
"Hmm," I said, never considering the premise. I had visited the Palmetto Court early in the investigation so I would have a frame of reference for some of the forensic findings but I hadn't paid any attention to anything but the room where Biff Wells bit it.
"Secondly, the employees of those sorts of places aren't exactly Hotel Management graduates from the University," Mark added. "That means the ownership wants to be able to see exactly who had his hand in the till and when. There is a camera inside the lobby."
Again I looked at Lucy. She still appeared befuddled.
"Have we seen the lobby video?" I wondered.
"We only have the one," she said. I knew we only had the one DVD but I hadn't watched it front to back. Lucy had taken on that task.
"Was it at the end?" I tried.
"They are separate systems," Mark cut in. I think he could see I was about to lose my cool once more. "They would have been burned onto separate discs."
"Give me a minute," I said before I went into my office and dialed Jane's extension. She answered on the first ring and I dove right in.
"I want the other DVD," I stated in a voice not unlike the one I'd used when talking to Judge Valasik an hour earlier.
Jane didn't answer so I repeated my demand.
"I don't know what DVD you're talking about," she told me.
"Cut the bullshit," I said. "We both know that motel has dual security. One camera is on the roof and the other is behind the front desk."
"Seriously?" she asked.
It dawned on me that she hadn't seen the surveillance feed either.
"I'm sorry, Jane," I told her. "I assumed you were trying to save me from myself again."
"I'm through with fighting that losing battle," she said.
"Yeah, well, I can relate to that," I replied, reflecting on the battle I was having with my wife at the moment. "Anyway, my security guy tells me that he is positive the motel has a camera behind the front desk. I'm pretty sure he's the one who put in the system or at least he has been given the task of testing it a time or two."
I heard the air explode from Jane's lungs.
"That would show everyone who even walked down the drive," she said.
"Really?" I asked.
"Have you been out there?" she wondered.
"Yeah, once," I told her. "The crime scene was my focus. I visited the room where it happened just so I could have an idea of the scope on the forensics. I didn't pay any attention to the lobby but thinking back, I can see you're right. Of course, if it is the same quality of the one we have, it won't matter. But I think we need to get it."
"Ben, this really isn't my case anymore," Jane reminded me. "I mean, yeah, the charges are still pending but we all know it's a formality. I'm not sure it's right for me to use any more of the county's funds on the investigation."
"The Huntley case is done," I told her. "The murder investigation is not. Someone killed Biff Wells. Ordinarily, I wouldn't give a shit but with Elizabeth under the microscope, I think I need to do something."
Jane appeared to be pondering my request.
"I'll have one of my investigators talk to the detective who secured the scene," she said after a pause.
"I'll send someone out to the motel to see if they have a copy," I offered.
Jane again went silent for a moment.
"I don't think this is going to end well, Ben," she told me before she hung up.
I sent Mark and Lucy out to Paradise Court and I told Jenny and Michelle it was OK to head home early. Once they left the office, I returned to my desk and dialed my wife's extension. It went straight to voicemail so I exited out the system and punched the zero button. That directed the call to the gargoyle's desk. She answered promptly, perhaps seeing the extension I was using started with "8" and thinking it was a judge.
"I need to talk to my wife," I said after giving my name.
"She is in a conference," the voice replied.
"Listen to me," I said in a low voice. "If I have to come down there, you God damned idiots are going to regret it all the way to the unemployment line. Now go get Elizabeth and put her on the phone. Do you understand me?"
The woman had heard the loud voices in the conference room earlier. I could tell that from her demeanor when I departed. I could actually hear her gulp before she put me on hold.
Thirty seconds later, I heard Elizabeth's voice.
"Ben?" she asked warily.
"I need the names of all your Task Force members, past and present," I told her without preamble.
"Those are confidential," she answered. "I can't give them out."
I took a deep breath to quell my temper. It didn't appear to work.
"Elizabeth, I need those names," I tried.
"I can't give them to you," she told me. Anything resembling calm flew out the window.
"You have a group of cops ass deep in conspiracy to frame people!" I said in a loud voice. "You need to get something through your thick skull. The Task Force is history! Your career is very likely gone! The only shot I have to keep you out of prison is to figure out who in the hell is behind this. It was bad enough when you were playing secret games with the warrants. Elizabeth, you have moved on from simple misconduct to tampering with evidence to official oppression to conspiracy to commit murder."
"I think you're overstating things," Elizabeth told me.
"Your cops framed Huntley and you pushed for the death penalty," I said in clipped tones. "What do you think that constitutes? If you wonder, have one of your clerks look it up."
Elizabeth didn't answer so I plowed onward.
"You have five minutes to get me the list of names," I said. "After that, I will go to Judge Castille and get a subpoena for them and you will give them to me then. I will lay out every act that you people have committed and he will have no choice but to blow the lid off this."
"Ben, be reasonable," Elizabeth pleaded.
"This is as reasonable as I'm going to be," I told her. "I thought you'd make the right call but I can see that your loyalties lie elsewhere. You won't make the right decision so I will make it for you. You have four minutes and twenty-two seconds to get me that list. I'll wait by the fax for that long."
I hung up and wiped my own tears from my eyes.
The fax machine in the office rang as I was gathering up my briefcase. As I read over the list, my office line rang.
"You have the list," Elizabeth said flatly.
"I see that," I replied. We each listened to the other breath for a few seconds.
"I think I'm going to stay with Mom and Dad for a few days," she told me.
"I think that is a good idea," I replied. "You need to think about what has happened and what is going to happen next. You can't do that with me pressuring you to do something you obviously don't want to do. I hope you'll use the time wisely."
"Paul thinks this will blow over," Elizabeth told me.
"Paul hopes this will blow over," I countered. "But he's wrong. It might have been something you could explain away before they set Huntley up for the needle. I wasn't joking about what Judge Valasik is going to do. She is going to call in a special prosecutor to investigate the way this case was handled. It's all going to come out in the open."
"Why would she do that?" Elizabeth asked plaintively.
"Believe it or not, she actually believes in the rule of law," I said, shaking my head. "She doesn't believe that the ends justify the means – as you obviously do. Besides that, she is going to have a personal stake."
"A personal stake?" Elizabeth wondered. "Because she brought you aboard?"
"No," I said. "Look, maybe I'm some naïve amateur at criminal law but I think that gives me a better perspective of how this will look to the public. You and Scarborough aren't the only ones who will find themselves on the hot seat. The judge who signed off on this cockamamie scheme is also going to face expulsion from the bench if not criminal charges. Just like you might not have known they were falsifying documents, The Pickle is going to catch heat for not supervising her people properly. This is a case of shit rolling up hill. Face it, Elizabeth, you lost control of that group. I saw your righteous indignation when Baker went off the reservation. I thought it was because you respected the law and its rules. Now it turns out that you were just upset because he was pissing in the corner you'd already claimed."
"That is not it!" Elizabeth said angrily.
"Then tell me," I said, "how is what he and Dwyer did is any different than what you and Scarborough do?"
Elizabeth started to speak but I cut her off.
"Don't try to justify it to me," I told her. "It isn't going to work. Take the time to talk to your Dad and get his perspective on it. He was a cop and he knows the job. You need to understand that you're in this fix because they were too lazy to do their job and you were too ambitious to make them do it. Check with your Dad and see if I'm not right. I know you respect his opinion."
"I respect your opinion, too," Elizabeth said.
"Right now, I find that very difficult to believe," I replied. "You've always respected my opinion when it corresponded with what you wanted to do. If it differed, you went ahead and did things your way. Don't forget to call Lauren tonight before she goes to bed. I don't want this to affect her any more than it has to."
I hung up before my wife could reply.
My night at the house was remarkably normal. It wasn't unusual for Elizabeth or me to be away for the evening so Lauren was her usual bubbly self. We spent the evening watching a Disney movie while snuggling on the couch.