False Accusations by Alan Jacobson

False Accusations

Copyright (c) 1999, 2011 Alan Jacobson. All Rights Reserved.

 

CHAPTER
1

 
THE DARK BLUE car snaked around the curve, its headlights slicing like razors through the dead air. It slithered through the neighborhood, hunting for food, sniffing out its prey. With one punch, the large engine muscled up from thirty-five to sixty in less than three seconds, its hunger for speed ravenous.

The man crossing the street caught a glimpse of the looming vehicle and twisted backward, shoving his companion toward the sidewalk—

But there wasn’t time.

The car’s bone-crushing impact threw the woman onto its hood, then tossed her aside…while the engine yanked the man underneath its front end, swallowing him whole.

The dark vehicle lurched slightly as its tire ran over the fallen prey. It then sped off down the street, hung a sharp left, and slipped into the pitch of night.

 

11:59 P.M.

THE MAN’S TORSO was twisted, his head a bloody mess, with bits of brain tissue scattered around his crushed skull. The woman’s body was much more intact, having slid off the side of the car’s hood after being thrown up into the air by the initial impact. Her legs appeared to be broken and were bent into an unnatural position, the way a rag doll sometimes lands when a child tosses it aside after she has finished playing with it.

Most of the available officers in the City of Sacramento that night had been diverted to the minority neighborhood of Del Morro Heights to contain an escalating battle sparked by a broad crackdown on gang-related activities. When the call came in to investigate the discovery of a possible hit-and-run several blocks away, the two officers who responded anticipated more of the same, an offshoot of the hostilities.

But they were wrong.

 

OFFICER LARRY SANFORD slammed his car door and ran over to the woman, who was lying faceup in the street; the other victim was obviously deceased. Both were black. Sanford pulled a hand out of his leather glove and felt her neck for a pulse. “Shit,” he said, the vapor that emanated from his mouth tailing off into the cold night air. He looked up and down the street, but saw no one. He glanced over to his partner and shook his head.

“Dispatch, this is Unit Nine,” the other officer said.

“We’ve got a Code Twenty on San Domingo Street. Notify homicide. Securing crime scene.”

“Roger, Unit Nine.”

“She’s still warm,” Sanford said. “Let’s get this area roped off.” Using a roll of yellow tape, he established the boundaries of the crime scene while his partner blocked off the street and its adjoining arteries with traffic cones. Although out of the academy only six months, they both knew the routine: quick response, safeguard and preserve. That is, secure the crime scene to protect all materials in the vicinity because everything was considered evidence until proven otherwise. No one—not even another police officer—was to enter the area until the detectives arrived. One of the most significant threats to a homicide investigation was the disruption of physical evidence: nothing was to be disturbed, moved, stepped on, or contaminated in any manner.

With the thermometer at 33 degrees, Sanford rolled up the fur collar on his standard-issue blue nylon jacket and shoved both hands into his pockets. He sucked a mouthful of damp air into his lungs: rain was on the way. He sent his partner back to the gang-related conflict while he stood watch over the crime scene.

 

IN HIS BOXING DAYS, Detective Bill Jennings had a flat, rock hard gut. Some thirty years later, the musculature was stretched thin by the ravages of abuse, resulting in a bulging beer belly. Nevertheless, he carried his weight well and never hesitated to throw it around, both literally and figuratively…sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse.

By the time Jennings arrived at San Domingo Street, his partner, Angela Moreno, was already there surveying the scene. Moreno, thirty-five with short-clipped brown hair, nodded at Jennings as he approached.

“Long time no see,” he said.

“Yeah, what, three hours?”

“What’ve we got here?” he asked as they walked over to the two bodies.

“Looks like a hit-and-run. Got two of ‘em,” she said, kneeling down in front of one of the victims. “And we’ve got some broken glass. A headlight,” she said, turning over a large fragment and looking through it.

“Don’t touch it,” Jennings said, grasping her arm. “Saperstein should be here in a few minutes.”

“You called Saperstein again?”

“He was the one on call.”

“You haven’t even looked over the scene. It’s just a hit-and-run. We don’t need a criminalist poking his nose all over the damn street to tell us what we already know.”

“The man single-handedly saved my career, Angela.”

Moreno waved a hand. “I read the reports, Bill. It was a clean shoot.”

“Of course it was. But a white cop had just shot and killed a black kid. The media had a juicy story and took it for a ride. And with the election and all, I was a fucking political hot potato…people kicked me to the curb like I had the plague or something.” Jennings shook his head. “I was guilty before the body was cold. Everyone bailed on me except Saperstein.”

“I heard all about it. Don’t you think I checked you out before I took this assignment?”

“You checked me out?”

“I vaguely remembered reading something in the paper about it. Then my Vice partner started getting on my case, telling me I should look into it.” She placed the glass fragment back where she had found it. “The comments you’d made back in eighty-seven with Stockton PD didn’t help any.”

“Yeah, well those were taken out of context—”

“You don’t have to explain,” Moreno said. “I checked into it.”

Jennings stood up, his five-nine frame putting him eye-to-eye with his partner. “When Saperstein took the stand and started explaining that the shoot happened the way I said it did, I felt vindicated. He had all these formulas that showed I was standing where I said I was, and that the perp had turned to fire on me.” He pulled a pair of crumpled leather gloves from his pocket and struggled to insert his pudgy fingers. “Without Saperstein’s analysis of the physical evidence, those accusations would still be hanging over my head. So don’t give me shit about using a criminalist. I’m gonna use one anytime I can. And if you’re smart, you will, too.”

“But this just looks like a simple hit-and-run,” Moreno said.

“I don’t care. What it looks like and what it turns out to be may be two different things. I’m not taking any chances.”

With the assistance of several other officers who had just arrived on scene, they quickly canvassed the surrounding blocks to ascertain if anyone had seen or heard anything relative to the murders.

Thirty minutes had passed when a car drove up to the yellow crime scene tape half a block away. Out stepped a man in his mid-forties, his hair an uncombed mess, his suit coat creased and covering a severely wrinkled shirt.

Stuart Saperstein exchanged pleasantries with Jennings and received a cold reception from Moreno, who was apparently silently protesting his need to be there. No doubt sensing the tension, the criminalist excused himself and began the task of documenting the scene by arranging a handful of halogen floodlights a short distance from the bodies.

He opened his field kit and within a couple of minutes was on his hands and knees, examining each of the bodies. He measured distances and calculated angles, dictating his findings into a digital recorder. Steam was rising off the hot floodlights against the cold, damp December air.

Squinting at the ruler through his reading glasses, he motioned for the identification technician who had just arrived to photograph and document the scene. “As soon as I mark this, let’s get a series of shots. When you take the midrange shot, I want to be in it.”

“You’re so vain,” Jennings said, leaning over his shoulder.

“It helps for the jury to see me at the crime scene examining the physical evidence. It gives me an advantage over the defense’s expert—”

“I know. Just giving you shit.”

Moreno shook her head and walked off down the block in the direction of an officer who was approaching with a man at his side.

Saperstein stood up and faced Jennings. He tilted his head back and looked at the detective through his glasses, which were resting on the tip of his bulbous nose. “You look like shit.”

“Thanks. So do you.”

Saperstein smiled. “Yeah, but I always do.” He motioned to Moreno, who was nearing the officer down the block. “She doesn’t like me.”

“Nothing personal. She just didn’t think a criminalist was needed here.”

“New to Homicide?”

“Transferred in from Vice three months ago.”

“Guess I’ll have to prove her wrong. Teach her a lesson.” Saperstein bent down to measure again. He was a perfectionist, and with good cause: when there were no obvious suspects, homicide detectives often relied heavily on the criminalist’s interpretation of the scene. If he could accurately ascertain what had happened, he could then surmise why it happened—which could help determine the sequence and mode of death, the victim’s position at the time of the deadly blow, or how many shots were fired in a gun-related homicide. Often, the physical evidence the criminalist gathered at the crime scene was enough to narrow the field of suspects, help locate the perpetrator, or obtain a confession from him.

Jennings looked up and saw that Moreno was talking to the man the officer had brought over: a witness. As he made his way toward his partner, he rubbed his gloved hands together to bring blood and warmth to his numb fingertips.

“What’s the deal?” he asked as she flipped her notepad closed.

Moreno nodded at the man to her left. “This is Clarence Hollowes. Says he heard a big bang around eleven-thirty, ran out into the street, and saw a car leaving the scene.”

“I don’t want to get involved with no po-leece,” Hollowes said, jawing on a piece of gum. He was dressed in clothing that was even more wrinkled than Saperstein’s. He was unshaven and his hair was peppered with gray.

“Why not?” Jennings asked. “Got something to hide?”

“Po-leece mean trouble. That’s just the way it is. You get involved, you get in trouble.”

“We’re not going to cause you any trouble, are we, detective?” Jennings glanced at Moreno, who frowned at him. More fallout from having called Saperstein. He turned back to his witness. “What can you tell me about the car?”

“Well, as I was telling this lady here, it was dark colored. A fancy one, real shiny, kind of like a Mercedes.”

“Was it like a Mercedes, or was it a Mercedes?”

“I’m not an expert or nothing on fancy cars, but it was a Mercedes. I’m pretty sure.”

“He got a partial plate,” Moreno said.

“Oh. You saw the license plate, sir?”

“Yeah, like I told her, I saw two numbers. A two and a C.”

“Did you get a look at the driver?”

“Looked like a white guy. Wearing a baseball hat.”

“Did you see a logo or anything on the hat?” Jennings asked.

He hesitated a moment. “Maybe there was something on it, I don’t remember.”

“What’d the driver look like?”

“You know, a white guy.”

“Old or young?”

“Neither.”

“Beard?”

“Uh, no beard, I don’t think.”

“Any distinguishing marks? Scars, moles—”

“Just a white guy, ya know? Didn’t see no face. Drove by me real fast.”

“Did you see what color hair he had?”

Hollowes shrugged. “Nah, too dark. Too fast.”

“What about the car? Any dents, broken lights or windows?”

“Man, I don’t know. It happened fast, you see? Bang, boom, I ran over and saw the car leaving. Then I saw them bodies in the street.”

“I’m gonna give you my card,” Jennings said as he pulled a wallet out of his jacket pocket. “Call me if the car comes by here again, or if any of your friends say they saw something, okay?” He looked at Moreno. “You got his address?”

“Ain’t got no address,” Hollowes said.

Jennings had already guessed the man was homeless—which made the detective grateful for the information Hollowes had provided. In his experience, the homeless tried not to get involved, preferring to function outside of society.

“In that case,” Jennings said, “call us collect.”

Hollowes took the card and studied it.

“Oh,” Jennings said. “One last thing. Did you touch the bodies?”

“Touch them?” Hollowes asked, looking down at the ground. “Now why would I do something like that?”

“You know, to get some change, a buck or two for food.”

“I just took the cash, that’s all. Gotta eat, you know?”

“Did you take anything else?” Jennings asked. “It’s important that we know.”

“You see? Talk to the po-leece, get in trouble.”

“No trouble, Mr. Hollowes. We’re not gonna arrest you. It’s just that we have to know if you took a wallet, or anything like that. We’d need the identification to tell us who these people are.”

“No. Just the money. There was eight bucks in his wallet, twelve in hers. They were dead. They ain’t gonna miss it.”

“Did you move the bodies in any way?”

“No. I didn’t touch no dead bodies. Just took their money.”

Jennings nodded. “Thanks again for your help. We’ll be in touch.”

“They good people,” Hollowes said.

“Who are?” Moreno asked.

Hollowes indicated the bodies with the wave of a hand. “Them.”

“You know who they are?”

“Can’t remember their names. They help us get a place to stay on nights like this when the cold go way down to your bones.”

“You mean they did this for the homeless, like it was their job?” Moreno asked.

Hollowes nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Is there anyone who’d want to hurt them?” Jennings asked.

“None of us, that much I can tell you. They been good to us.”

Moreno nodded. “If there’s anything else you think of, please give us a call.”

Hollowes turned to walk away. “Them rich people think they can flash them fancy cars in our neighborhood…” he said as he walked off out of range of the streetlight’s glow and into the shadows of a nearby tree.

“I was wondering the same thing,” Jennings said to Moreno. “What the hell is a white guy doing driving a Mercedes in Del Morro Heights at eleven-thirty at night?”

“Taking a shortcut?”

“A shortcut on life, you mean. The guy’s lucky they didn’t catch him.”

“They?”

“The neighbors,” Jennings said as they walked back toward Saperstein. “It would’ve made our job easier.”

“How so? We’d have three murders to write up.” They exchanged a smile as Jennings fastened the top button of his overcoat.

“You know, this could’ve been personal,” Jennings said. “Something related to their work with the homeless.”

Moreno bobbed her head. “Possibly.”

“Detective,” yelled an officer who was jogging down the street toward them. “We just got a call from someone with a partial plate on the car.”

“Another witness?” Moreno asked.

“Don’t know,” said the man, who was heaving mouthfuls of vapor into the air. “It was an anonymous call. The desk sergeant thinks it was a female voice. She said she saw a dark Mercedes sports sedan,” he said, looking down at his notepad, “with a license of two, C, and O or U. Couldn’t see the driver’s face. Driver was wearing a baseball hat, and was weaving a bit about a block away from where we found the victims.”

“Did she say where she witnessed it from?” Moreno asked.

“No.”

“Have them run a voice print analysis. I want to know more about this caller,” Jennings said. “Anonymous tips are bullshit.”

“Can’t get a voice print.”

“Why the hell not?”

“Call didn’t come in on the 9-1-1 line. She called the division directly. They don’t record incoming calls. She was in a real hurry to get off the line. Didn’t want to get involved.”

They headed back toward the bodies as a light rain began falling.

“So what’s the story?” he asked Saperstein, who was placing a couple of plastic bags filled with specimens into a nylon duffel bag, out of the drizzle.

“Hit-and-run. The car left with a broken left headlight.”

“That’s it? A broken headlight?” Moreno shook her head. “I already knew that.”

Jennings, ignoring Moreno’s comment, reached into the male victim’s coat and removed a wallet. “What about the speed of the car?”

“Judging by the damage to the bodies and the tire marks down the street, the driver must’ve been accelerating. He came off that curve,” Saperstein said, nodding to the area down the street, “and brought it up to, oh, about fifty, maybe sixty, would be my preliminary estimate, at the time of impact.”

Jennings looked over at Moreno, as if to say You wouldn’t have known that.

“What else can you tell us?” Jennings asked, moving over to the woman’s purse and examining its contents. “It doesn’t appear as if the windshield was broken,” Saperstein said. “But I bet there’ll be clothing fibers on the wipers, and probably on the bumper or fender area.” He tipped his head back. “We should be able to get a partial tire print for you off the blood around the male victim.”

“What about the woman?”

“Judging by the position of her body, it appears that she was thrown onto the hood of the car. Probably died from internal hemorrhage.”

“Are there any other tire marks in the street?”

“Aside from the one around the male and the one down the block, none that I’ve seen, but I haven’t had a chance to survey the entire roadway yet. Judging by the bloodstain patterns around the male victim, I’d expect to find some blood on the underside of the suspect’s car, near the left front wheel.”

“So it doesn’t look like the driver made any attempt to avoid them,” Jennings said.

Saperstein removed his glasses. “Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’d say he wasn’t trying to get out of their way. If he had, we’d see tire marks consistent with a swerve or intense braking. No, your driver either never saw these people step off the curb, or—”

“He meant to hit them.”

“Exactly.”

Jennings nodded, thanked him, and asked for his report as soon as possible.

As they walked away, Moreno was the first to speak. “I still don’t see his conclusions helping us much.”

“We’ll see. We know more about what happened now than we did before,” he said. “Maybe the fact that the guy was accelerating and there are no skid marks supports the theory that it wasn’t an accident. Let’s do a background check on the vics. Could be there was someone who had something to gain if either of them wound up dead. Maybe there’s no homeless connection at all. Maybe one of them had a kid in a rival gang. Maybe the driver never did see them until it was too late, and it was just an accident.”

“All right, all right,” she said, followed by a slight pause. “Maybe Saperstein was helpful.”

Jennings walked over to his car and spoke to the desk sergeant via radio, requesting assistance on locating the Mercedes with the partial license plate they had obtained.

“I also need a background check on two people.” He opened the victims’ wallets. “An Otis Silvers, and an Imogene Pringle.” He removed a piece of paper and studied it. “Pringle was carrying around a pay stub for the Homeless Advocate Society. It’s possible Silvers was with them too. See if we’ve got anything on this homeless group while you’re at it.”

“Anything else?”

“Yeah, which judge is on call?”

The sergeant leafed through some papers on a clipboard. “You’re not gonna be happy.”

“Don’t tell me it’s Ferguson.”

“I hear he’s a bear when he gets called in the middle of the night.”

“Just find me the owner of the car and I’ll worry about the damn warrant.”

Jennings hung the mike on its receptacle in his car and turned to Moreno. She threw a hand up to her mouth to stifle a yawn.

“Oh, c’mon, these hours can’t be worse than Vice,” he said.

“No, Vice is worse. A couple all-nighters a week. But I haven’t been on Vice for three months. My body’s not used to it anymore.”

“Better snap out of it. It’s gonna be a long night.”

 

CHAPTER

2

AT 4:12 A.M. ON THE morning of December 2, all was quiet in the pristine pocket of rural Carmichael where long driveways wound their way up to five-thousand-square-foot mansions built out of brick, granite, and cedar. One of the older sections of Sacramento, the area had made a gradual transformation from small one-story ranch houses built on one-acre lots to an affluent person’s dream: rather than erecting a large home on a small plot of virgin dirt, it provided them the opportunity to raze an old structure and replace it with a luxury-filled two or three-story centerpiece on acreage studded with ancient, large-trunked, wide-canopied oaks.

Four speeding police cruisers suddenly appeared, screeching around the gentle curves of the narrow streets. The cruisers’s tires violently kicked up dirt and loose rocks, shattering the serenity of the lush green lawns and intricately shaped shrubbery. Their swirling red-and-white lights threw splashes of color onto the tall hedges and stone walls that lined both sides of the street.

As the cars converged on the home of Dr. Phillip Madison, the officers and deputies exited their vehicles, the chatter of the police radios creating a primitive form of multiple-speaker stereo surround-sound. A few barking dogs could be heard in the distance.

Bill Jennings climbed onto the hood of his Ford and looked over the hedges and beyond the stone wall. After a quick scan of the grounds, he jumped down off the car. “Seaver, take two men and search that semi-detached garage to the west of the house,” he said, pointing off to the left. “I’ll take the others and hit Madison with the warrant. Connor, grab a muzzle in case he’s got a dog.”

Six men ran in tandem toward the house like a small contingent of Marines just landing on shore. A KMRA-12 news helicopter was approaching in the distance, its spotlight trained on the ground below.

Jennings looked up at the approaching chopper. The radio. They heard it over the damned police radio.

Seaver and his two men arrived at the massive five-car garage and blasted open the side door with their shoulders. Against the wall was a large, midnight blue Mercedes S600.

“Engine’s still a little warm,” Seaver said, his left hand hovering in front of the grille.

The other men swarmed around the car. “Left headlight’s busted and there’s a dent on the front fender.” The deputy craned his neck under the car and pointed his flashlight. “There’s some blood, I think…hard to tell.”

Seaver walked over to view the front end of the vehicle and saw the license plate: 2CUTWEL. He smiled. “Looks like we got our man.”
At the house, Jennings was pounding on the door; he had already rung the bell five times in frantic succession. The front porch light snapped on. An eye could be seen peering through the lens in the middle of the large, ornately carved wooden door. It opened six inches and a powerfully large black Labrador poked his snout through, growling, fighting against his owner’s knee to get out.

“Phillip Madison?” Bill Jennings asked.

Their suspect was a shade over six-foot-two with dark, slicked-back hair and broad shoulders. He was dressed in jeans and a UCLA alumni T-shirt. “What’s going on?”

“Police,” Jennings said. “Please get hold of your dog and move aside, sir. We’ve got a warrant to search your premises.”

“A warrant?” Madison slipped his hand under the Labrador’s collar and moved back a step. Jennings entered and Officer Connor, wearing thick leather gloves, grabbed the dog by the nape of the neck and strapped a muzzle on him. The animal bucked and swung his head wildly, slamming into Madison and throwing him against the wall.

“What are you doing? What the hell’s going on here?”

Connor slipped a pronged choke collar over the dog’s head and tied the leash to the iron railing outside the front door. The Labrador yelped and dropped to the ground, writhing while pawing at the restraint secured to his snout.

Three officers followed through the door and fanned out inside the home. “I have a search warrant for your premises,” Jennings repeated amidst the commotion.

“For what?”

“Where were you around eleven-thirty last night?”

“Where was I? Home, in bed, watching TV. Why?”

“Anyone else here? Wife, kids…”

Madison clenched his teeth. “My wife and kids are…away. No one else is here.”

“So you were alone?”

“Yeah. Look, what’s the problem? I don’t—”

“Did you lend your car to anyone today?”

“No. Would you just tell me what’s going on?”

As they spoke, Seaver walked in through the open front door. He nodded to Jennings. “We’ve got him.”

Jennings stepped toward Madison. He spun him around and placed his arms behind his back, shoving him up against the wall. Snapping handcuffs on his wrists, he said, “Phillip Madison, you’re under arrest for the murders of Otis Silvers and Imogene Pringle. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right—”

“This is insane! I want to talk to my attorney.”

“You’ll get your chance. If you can’t afford one, which I doubt judging by the spread you’ve got here, one’ll be appointed for you.”

Jennings escorted Madison out of his house and down the marble steps, where a police car was pulling up.

“Get in the car,” Jennings said as he opened the rear door.

As he placed Madison into the backseat of the cruiser, Seaver took Jennings aside. “We found a busted headlight, a dent in the fender and grille, and probably blood spatter around the left front wheel. Hood’s warm.”

An officer walked into the hallway and presented Jennings with an empty bottle of 1994 Opus One. “Found it on the table in the kitchen.” He was holding it with a handkerchief so as not to smudge the fingerprints.

“Mark it and get it to Saperstein for dusting.” Jennings turned to Seaver. “I want a PAS before you pull away,” he said, referring to the Preliminary Alcohol Screening test. “After this many hours, I’m sure everything’ll be out of his system. But do it anyway, just in case. And get me every pair of shoes the good doctor owns. Even though our witness didn’t see it, he might’ve gotten out of his car at the scene, or even a few blocks away. I want the soles analyzed. If there’s anything on his shoes that’s indigenous to that area, I want to know about it. And see if you can find that baseball hat.”

 

MADISON WATCHED FROM the car as a couple of officers walked into his house with boxes. He overheard “busted headlight,” and “blood.” He couldn’t hear anything else they were saying, but any reasonable person would conclude that he was in deep trouble.

 

CHAPTER

3

THE SACRAMENTO COUNTY JAIL, a curving, eight-story concrete monolith, was designed to make the experience of staying there less than desirable. With gray, echo-inducing walls and fifteen hundred inmates bulging from its claustrophobic six-by-ten cells, it was another California jail stocked beyond capacity.

Phillip Madison had never seen the inside of such a place. Like a scared animal, his eyes darted into every nook of each corridor and room he passed through. The cold, tight handcuffs were squeezing his wrists so hard that his hands were going numb. As if that was not enough, both shoulders ached.

He was taken into the central processing and booking area, where a desk sergeant sat behind a large wire mesh cage. Rusted metal file drawers sat on the worn gray tile floor behind him.

The sergeant handed a manila envelope to Officer Leary, who stood with Madison. “Put your rings in here, along with any other valuables you want to have returned to you or your family.”

Madison hesitated and turned to Leary with a blank look on his face. “What?”

Leary held up the envelope. “Your rings. Take them off and give them to me.”

Madison, still handcuffed, struggled to remove the jewelry.

“Got any other valuables on you?”

“I was fast asleep when you came to my home, for Christ’s sake.”

“Answer the damn question and don’t give me any lip.”

Madison dropped his eyes. “That’s it, officer. Just the rings.”

Leary sealed the envelope and listed the items on the Prisoner Inventory Form. Madison initialed the bottom of the document, and the materials were handed to the desk sergeant for storage.

Madison was handed a pair of orange overalls, the letters CJ, for County Jail, emblazoned across the back in large black letters. His handcuffs were unlocked, and he was given strict orders not to make any unnecessary or sudden moves. He took his new clothes and changed into them under Leary’s guard in a small room off to their left.

Madison was then led to another area where a free-standing taupe-colored Live Scan machine with a built-in computer screen stood against a wall. Leary rolled each of Madison’s fingers over a flat glass surface, much like a photocopier, allowing the machine to record a digitized copy of his prints.

“It’s come a long way since the old ink pad, huh.”

“Been printed before?” Leary asked.

“When I got my medical license, eighteen years ago.” Noting the officer’s inquiring look, Madison said, “Orthopedic surgeon.”

“Oh, yeah? Then let me be the first to officially welcome you to hell, doctor.”

 

THE LAST TIME Phillip Madison had his picture taken it was for the California Medical Society’s Surgeon of the Year Award eight months ago. Standing in the cold room against a wall that was incrementally marked with vertical numbers denoting feet and inches, he realized that posing for mug shots was a far cry from the glamour of Dean Porter Studios.

The placard hung from his neck, his name and number lettered in white against a black background. The camera clicked, he turned, it clicked again, and then again. Pictures that would never find their way into the family album. Photos and memories he would keep from Elliott and Jonah, his young children.

The holding cell was encased with steel bars; blotches of black dirt were permanently ground into the gray cement floor, on which thousands of accused offenders had stood and paced, urinated and spat while awaiting their release or transfer to a shared six-by-ten living space.

Several prisoners sat along metal benches that lined the walls. Some of them smelled of alcohol, a couple of urine. One man had an overgrown beard and an anger in his eyes Madison could tell was deep-seated and dangerous. He’d stay as far away from that one as possible.

The other men no doubt sensed that Madison was not one of them…a criminal of a different sort. Of course, the clear nail polish and well-manicured, callus-free hands were definite indications, but it was more than that. The way he carried himself and held his head distinguished him from the others.

Madison counted sixteen prisoners in the cell, all staring at him, all resenting him because they probably could tell that he possessed the very things that had eluded each and every one of them: money and success.

He wondered if they could sense the fear seeping from his pores.

Half an hour later he was removed from the cell and led down the hallway to a pay phone on the wall. Still in a daze, Madison had difficulty recalling the phone number of his attorney and longtime personal friend, Jeffrey Hellman; he called information after having been assured it would not count as his one call, but the number was unlisted. He paced the floor, trying to clear his mind, trying to focus. A moment later, he flashed on the number and made the call.

The phone rang four times and an answering machine clicked on. “You’ve reached the residence of a famous attorney. If this is business related, call me at the office. If you’re calling for one of the family, leave a message and we’ll call you back if it’s constitutionally required.”
Madison cursed under his breath, then left a message.

“Jeffrey, it’s Phil. I’m in trouble. A lot of trouble. It’s about six in the morning, and I’m at the county jail. No, I’m not making a house call. Please get your butt over here as soon as possible and get me the hell out of this godforsaken place.”

Madison was returned to the cell, where he sat down on the hard metal bench. After an hour of desperately replaying the events of the past three months in his head, he finally succumbed to fatigue and closed his eyes.

“—a visitor. Madison, you hear me?”

Madison sat up abruptly. His eyes found a sheriff’s deputy looking at him through the bars. “You talking to me?”

“Get up. Your attorney’s here.”

 

DOUGLAS JEFFREY HELLMAN was pacing the floor, running his short, stubby fingers across his full head of dark brown hair. He stopped and glanced around at the small visitation area. He’d been here many times before, consulting with countless clients over the years…some guilty as hell, others—a substantial minority—falsely accused. But for some reason, this morning the room stirred the buried feelings of solitude and depression he’d experienced three years ago when his wife passed away. After her death, he had spent a little time with the bottle, a few weeks in psychotherapy, six months swallowing Prozac, and then some more time recovering from all the medication he’d consumed.

Hellman’s lingering thoughts were disturbed by the sudden metallic dick of a steel door opening.

Hellman sat down in his chair and lifted the phone. On the other side of the glass was his friend—and now, apparently, his client—Phillip Madison. “Phil. What the hell happened?”

Madison pressed the phone closer to his ear. “What’s there to tell?”

Hellman examined his friend’s face: it was drawn, his eyes were puffy and red, and his hair was disheveled. He had never seen him like this. “Tell me everything.”

“There’s not much to it. I was fast asleep when all of a sudden these cops were at my door asking me where I was tonight. I mean last night.”

“And…”

“And what?”

‘“What did you tell them?”

“I told them that I was at home watching television.”

Hellman pulled out a small pad and started to make a note. “Were you?”

“Jeffrey—”

He looked up. “Sorry, Phil. I’ve gotta ask these questions. Just answer them and don’t take any of them personally.”

“Fine. Whatever. Yes. I told them the truth.”

“Did they ask you that before they read you your rights?”

Madison hesitated. “Yeah.”

“Okay, back to last night. Did you go out at all?”

“No, I got home around nine, ate dinner, and took a shower. I got into bed, started to watch the news, and fell asleep.”

“That’s it?”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“Did you hear anyone out in the garage? Strange noises around the house? Anything?”

“No. And Scalpel didn’t hear anything either. At least, he didn’t bark or get all worked up.”

“What about while you were in the shower?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Phil, I need to know. Think. Did he bark while you were in the shower?”

“No. I don’t think so. I don’t remember, Jeffrey.”

Hellman sighed.

“Look, even if he was barking, if he was downstairs, I might not have heard him. You know the layout of my house.”

“Yeah, yeah, all right.” Hellman tapped his pen on the pad for a moment. “Did you have anything to drink last night?”

“Some wine with dinner. Why, what’ve they got on me? What’s this all about? I didn’t kill anyone.”

“They’re saying you ran down two people last night, around eleven-thirty. They have a witness who provided a description of your car and a partial license plate—”

“‘My car?”

“Yes. That’s why I was asking.”

“It was obviously stolen,” Madison said. “Did they find it?”

‘‘Yeah. In your garage.”

“Oh, come on. That’s ridiculous.”

“Why?”

“Somebody stole my car, killed two people, and returned the car to my garage? That’s insane.”

“Don’t knock it—that’s our story,” Hellman said.

“Our story?”

“The cops have a different version, and believe me, you’ll like ours a whole lot better.”

“They think I did it?”

“There was an anonymous caller. She said she saw someone in a car of your make and model swerving across the road about a block from the accident scene. She said the driver was wearing a baseball cap.”

“Anonymous tip?”

“Yes.”

“Female?”

“Yes.”

“Jesus, Jeffrey. We both know who that was.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t help us right now.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I don’t like the case they have against you.”

Madison slammed a hand on the table. “But I’m innocent, Jeffrey!”

“I know…but it’s up to us to prove it.”

Madison grasped the handset tighter. “I thought I was innocent until proven guilty.”

“Technically, that’s correct. The burden of proof is on the prosecution.”

“Yeah, so?”

“The evidence is damning. I’d say they could very possibly make a case of it.”

“What evidence?” Madison asked, leaning forward and cocking his head.

“Your car. I don’t have anything official yet, but I hear that the left headlight is broken, there are bloodstains on the front end, the grille is dented, and there are clothing fibers on it. The lab’s running tests on it as we speak, but it doesn’t look good.” He studied Madison’s blank face for a moment. “Can you explain the damage to the front end of your car?”

“No. It wasn’t there when I got home. At least, I don’t think it was.”

“Are you sure?”

“I don’t know, Jeffrey.” He shook his head and leaned back in the hard plastic chair. “I don’t inspect the exterior of my car every time I get in or out of it.”

Hellman sighed. “We need a plan. First of all, I’m going to get you out of here. Second, we need help. I’m going to get a private investigator on this and see what he can dig up.” He flipped his notepad closed.

“Great. Let’s get this thing out of the way. I’ve got enough problems without a hit-and-run hanging over my head.”

“Right now, Phil, this hit-and-run is your problem. All the other things are secondary. This is not a joke, and it’s not to be taken lightly. You’re the prime suspect in a double murder case. We’re talking serious jail time here. And at least for now, the evidence points undeniably to you. You’re in deep shit.”

Madison closed his eyes. His deep sigh was audible through the handset.

“But I haven’t gone to work yet. And you’ve got one of the most important things going for you: you’re innocent. We’ll just have to prove it, that’s all.”

Madison was looking down at the table and did not appear to be listening.

“Phil. Phil, listen to me.”

Madison rolled his eyes upward, toward Hellman. “I’m listening.”

“We’re going to get you cleared, okay?”

“Call Ryan Chandler,” Madison said.

“Who?”

“Ryan Chandler. A former patient of mine. He used to be a cop with the Sacramento Police Department. You won’t find anyone better.”

“Phil, no offense, but this is my area of expertise. Let me handle who we choose as the PI. We need someone good, someone I know I can trust.”

Madison locked eyes with his friend. “Jeffrey, just call him.”

Hellman sighed and opened up his notepad again. “Fine.”

“He’s in New York, you’ll have to get his number.”

Hellman stopped writing and looked up. “New York? You’re kidding, right?”

“No, I’m serious. Trust me. Get him on the case.”

“But Phil—”

“Call him. Do it for me.”

Hellman pondered it a long moment, then said, “I’ll call him. But if he doesn’t measure up, he’s outta here.”

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