THE ORPHAN’S GUILT

- A Joe Gunther Novel -

ARCHER MAYOR



CHAPTER ONE

Searching Out the Weak Spot


Sally Kravitz liked Scott Jezek. A runner, a reader, a family man, he was the kind of lawyer who made lawyer jokes ring hollow. He was a small-time operator, owner of a one-man practice in Brattleboro, Vermont, a town that, since the 1970s, had earned an eccentric, politicized, left-wing reputation that allowed unusual types like Jezek to fit right in.

His most winning feature for Sally was his soft spot for the underdog. Having cut his legal teeth for two decades in Boston, Jezek had amassed a small fortune and was yearning for a simpler life, if still within the practice of law. He’d chosen Brattleboro for this, and opened what he referred to as a “boutique firm,” where he could pick and choose his clients based on whether he believed in their cause over their ability to pay, often charging just enough to settle his bills and, for the most part, rejecting the very people who could easily afford his high-octane background and credentials.

This made Sally and Scott kindred spirits, since, though wildly different in nature, their backgrounds had sculpted in each a sympathy for the downtrodden. A homegrown Brattleboro girl, Sally had been reared by a father devoted to experiencing and learning from the hardscrabble lives of society’s lower rungs. He had moved her around the town like a nomad for years, camping out in other people’s apartments and trailers and homes, exchanging labor and gifts for shelter, while absorbing a culture from which most middleclass residents only dreamed of escaping.

But just as Scott Jezek no longer depended on money to function as a lawyer, Dan Kravitz, Sally’s father, hadn’t lived among the disadvantaged through fate or misfortune. It had been a choice. In fact, he had money. Quite a bit, not that anyone knew it. He’d developed a covert career as an information thief, and a good one, complete with a rigid and moral standard of operations, who broke into high-end homes to bug people’s electronic devices and thus follow—and benefit from— their activities, whether legal or not. As a result, once he felt that his daughter had learned what she could on society’s ground floor, he’d put her into a prestigious prep school so she could study the flip side.

Now, at last an adult, Sally had chosen a profession that helped her again to peer into how and why people function as they do, as a private investigator.

And like Scott Jezek, she selected many jobs despite a lower income. Differing from most of her colleagues, she tried to avoid domestic work—the euphemism for spousal cheating cases—and weighted her business toward defense mitigation. Lawyers like Scott hired her to discover good things about their clients, for use in tempering the prejudice of prosecutors or judges or both, since their grasp of a defendant’s entire personality was often based solely on the charges against them.

That explained Sally’s being here now. Scott had phoned earlier that morning to ask if “an unusual DUI” might be of interest.

Sally didn’t drink alcohol. At all. Never had. It was one of her personal details that, despite the influences that had formed her, she had created for herself an unreachable behavioral niche, where she remained safe like an eagle high on a cliff.

That being said, she understood addiction and the various forces leading to it. She didn’t necessarily disagree that some drunks were self-indulgent boors, too inconsiderate of others to merit much slack. But Sally’s own view was more charitable, having found that most addicts were caught up in emotions exceeding their ability to control them.

Jezek’s office matched his profile. Housed in an old Victorian mansion, now home to a preponderance of psychology practices—of which Brattleboro had an impressive number—it consisted of a single room flooded with light from a large bay window and appointed with hardwood floors, wood paneling, and a coffered ceiling. Lining the ancient mantelpiece above an inoperative fireplace was a parade of some of Jezek’s collection of antique Christmas cards, lined up like a colorful if faded paper train.

The lawyer himself, dressed casually in jeans and an open-necked, button-down shirt, rose from his chair upon her entrance and fairly raced around his desk to greet her.

“Sally,” he said, smiling broadly, shaking her hand, and waving her into one of two guest chairs. “You came. I am delighted.”

He took the chair catty-corner to hers as she replied, “Sure. You thought I wouldn’t?”

“I didn’t know if this met your principles. I know you’re pretty selective.”

“If you took a case,” she told him, “it’s a fair bet I would too. You’re a good gatekeeper.”

He laughed before saying, “All right, enough, before we both overdo the compliments.”

“What’ve you got?” she asked.

He reached over to his desk and removed a file, which he opened on his lap. “John Rust. Pulled over by the VSP—Trooper Tyler Brennan—a couple of days ago in Putney for weaving, in what appears to be a righteous stop. Blew way over the legal limit at roadside, did the same on the Datamaster at the barracks, and was released on a citation, even though this is his fourth DUI.”

“That’s unusual,” Sally observed.

“True,” Scott agreed, “but it’s largely officer discretion, and I guess the two of them hit it off. John’s a nice guy, he was heading back to his home in Westminster—was almost there, in fact. Maybe that played a role.”

“He is in a world of hurt, though,” Sally said. “It’s beyond officer discretion from here on out. He’s gotta be looking at jail time, and definitely a suspended license. What’s his problem, that he keeps circling the same hydrant?”

Scott held up a finger in emphasis. “That is precisely why we’re meeting. What doesn’t surface in this—” He tapped the file. “—is that John had sole custody of and responsibility for a handicapped younger brother who died on the same day as the DUI. According to John, Peter Rust was diagnosed with some form of hydrocephalus at birth and gradually became a vegetable. When he died at twenty-eight, he weighed sixty pounds.”

“And John took care of him all on his own?” Sally asked. “How could he do that? He independently wealthy?”

“Hardly. He works as a freelance web designer. But you’re right in implying Peter’s need for full-time care. I think John came up with that job in large part so he could stay at home and still make a living. From what I gather, finances have sometimes been tight. Nevertheless, I spoke with Peter’s physician on the phone, and he told me he never had a vegetative patient so well cared for. He called John a saint, and stressed that wasn’t a word he used often.”

“But he drinks,” Sally suggested.

Jezek agreed. “He does. He was twelve when Pete was born, eighteen when he took over his care, his father having walked out on his birthday, saying, ‘Welcome to adulthood. Good luck. You’ll need it,’ or something similar. John’s mom had already died of an overdose.”

Sally was shaking her head in sympathy. “The implication being that John was probably already doing most of the caregiving, even before he turned eighteen.”

“A reasonable assumption,” Scott agreed. “Can you see why I called you?”

“I can,” she said. “Did Rust phone you from the barracks? Take a blood test? Admit to driving under the influence?”

“He did not phone, to answer the first question. I think because he was in shock. He told me later that through it all, he was in a daze, what with Pete’s death, and that it was only toward the end that he began thinking he wanted to fight what he’d first seen as inevitable. In the past, whenever he was busted, he had Pete’s care to think about. This time, he said, he felt he had nothing to live for.”

“But he changed his mind.”

Scott looked thoughtful. “Yeah. I’m not sure what that’s about, exactly. He wouldn’t tell me. He just said it was important that he not be put behind bars for this.”

“You have anything you’d like me to start with?” Sally asked him. “Or are you letting me off the leash?”

“Well,” the lawyer said, “I know and trust how you work, so you’re mostly on your own.” He searched the file and extracted a DVD. “This is a substantial recording of John’s arrest and processing that I’d appreciate your looking at. That’ll most likely answer some other questions, too. From what John told me, it seems the trooper did everything right, but you never know, and I would love to find something to blunt the state’s attorney’s zeal.”

“The SA’s already talked to you about this?” Sally asked, surprised.

“Not specifically,” Jezek said. “But it’s an election year, he’s facing opposition for the first time in a while, and he’s not the most popular man around. Coming down on drunk driving has become one of his key talking points. I want to be as armed as I can be, going in, and I know for a fact that he and his staff are too swamped to check out the contents of this—” He waved the DVD. “—before we all have to show up for the arraignment.”

Sally took the recording from him. “Got it.” She rose to leave, adding, “You have a problem with my talking to John, if the need arises?”

Scott escorted her to the door, handing her the file. “None. Be my guest.”

***

Investigations require a lot of sitting—in cars, behind surveillance cameras, in court, writing reports, and, as Sally was doing now, studying DUI-processing footage. This last was perhaps her least favorite. The viewpoint was static—usually from high in a room’s corner—as was the subject matter, an arrested subject sitting in a chair as the officer comes and goes over a period of hours.

Felony interrogations demand focus. They consist of two people verbally parrying as one pursues the truth while the other evades admitting it, and they entail a reasonable amount of drama.

DUIs are mostly waiting, however. There’s the occasional back-and-forth, the conversation as the officer fills out the relevant multipage form, maybe a fight or a shouting match if the subject is uncooperative. But otherwise, it boils down to one person waiting out the hours until they’re either taken to jail or released on a citation.

It therefore made Sally sit up and take notice when Trooper Brennan appeared in the corner of the screen and informed Rust that he had to leave for a domestic, being the only cop in the barracks at this hour, and that Rust would have to sit tight until he returned to finish the booking process.

“I’ll be damned,” Sally said to herself, and noted the time stamp at the bottom of the image.

***

Several long hours later, she phoned Scott Jezek.

“What d’ya got?” he asked.

“I think you’ll like it,” she reported. “My butt grew numb watching that recording you gave me, but it turns out Rust did request a blood test to corroborate the Datamaster findings at the barracks.”

“What?” Jezek responded, clearly surprised. “I don’t have the results of that. Where did he get it done?”

“He didn’t,” she said. “You know how, when they’re going through the form, they get to the part where it says, ‘Since you are being released, if you wish an additional blood test, to be paid for at your expense, you will have to make your own arrangements. Do you intend to obtain an additional test, yes or no?’ Well, your client said he would. It’s on tape. The trooper even explains that because he’s being let go after processing—as against being detained—the responsibility for getting the blood test is on him, and the cop won’t supply transportation.”

“I’m still not following,” Jezek said. “What happened?”

“That’s the point,” she replied. “Nothing. Next thing you know—after the paperwork but before the mug shot and fingerprinting—the trooper comes in and tells Rust he has to go out on an emergency call and that Rust has to wait for him in a holding cell until he gets back to wrap things up.”

“You’re pulling my leg,” the lawyer said, his excitement audible. “They did detain him?”

“For over four hours. Then the trooper shows up again, they go through the printing and mug shot portion, the trooper offers to drive Rust home since he lives so close by, and that’s it.”

“No mention of the blood test.”

“Not a word. I think they both forgot. Like you said, Rust was distracted, not to mention drunk, and the trooper had other things on his mind, being fresh back from that call, and probably hankering to go home after a long shift. By the way,” Sally threw in, “you ought to know that John aced his roadside dexterity tests—the walk-a-single-line, stand-on-one-foot, and the rest. Being an Olympic-level drunk has its advantages—what he had in his system may have been twice the legal limit, but it doesn’t look like it had the slightest effect on him physically. That’ll help you in court, too, I would guess.”

“This is textbook,” Jezek said. “If an accused says he wants a blood test but is being released, then you are absolutely right. It’s up to him to get the test at a hospital of his choosing, and in a timely manner. But that emergency call means John wasn’t released. And the law is crystal clear. If you are being detained, but you asked for that test, you have to be escorted by an officer to a hospital or wherever for the blood draw to occur. God, I love it. So, since they both forgot about it, the trooper’s oversight’s gonna mean that the Datamaster results’ll have to be thrown out. Them’s the rules. Jesus. The SA’s going to flip out. Nice work, Sally.”

“You’re welcome,” she replied, smiling at his enthusiasm. “You remember that this only kills half the case against him, right? The civil charge will no doubt be tossed, but the criminal charge alongside it still has meat on it.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” the lawyer said dismissively. “I know that. But it gets weakened. One supports the other, or not, thanks to you.”

“Not me,” Sally corrected him. “Sadly, we have poor Trooper Brennan to thank, not that he could’ve done anything else. He had to go on that call, and after he got back, too much time had passed

for the blood draw to count, anyway. Talk about a rock and a hard place. I hope to hell they don’t jam him up.”

Jezek wasn’t sympathetic. “If they do,” he said, “you can volunteer as a character witness.”

“Okay, then,” Sally said, sensing the conversation ending. “Well, if that’s enough to do the trick, I can send you my bill and we’ll part ways, unless you want more.”

“I do,” he countered. “I’ve spoken to John since you came to my office, and his resolve to get out from under this has only grown. I’m therefore thinking you could dig in to the whole Peter thing, maybe create a chronology, interview a few people, and find whatever you can that’ll cast John in a favorable light.”

He paused before continuing, “I’d love to double-tag the SA on this one—combine a technical legal glitch with a legitimate sob story. But not to just score points. I have no problem with holding John’s feet to the fire. He’s a drunk and he needs to straighten up. I’m just saying he’s gotta have help to do that, not punishment, and I don’t want election rhetoric chewing him up.”

Once more, Sally was hearing why she liked working with this man. “I got it, Scott. You’re preaching to the choir.”

He laughed at that. “Okay, okay. You got me all wound up. I’ll shut up and you go find me a suitably sentimental story.”

“Will do.”


Copyright 2020 by Archer Mayor. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. This excerpt is reprinted by permission of the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, NY, NY


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