The gavel impacted with imperative finality. The buzz in the courtroom continued; only those in the seating closest to the judge heeding her warning. Two more detonations of wood against wood followed in quick succession. This time a reluctant silence enveloped the room.
“I know this has been a tiring trial; it’s been a long trial for all of us.” She paused, glancing at the defence counsel to her right, then at the jury on the opposite side of the room. “I WILL have order in my court. Leave your outbursts, comments and protestations for the appropriate channels.”
Now she was looking squarely at the Prosecutor’s table. Its occupants stared back defiantly. Neither was happy at the verdict; both, however, realized the fault was their own. The case, at best, had been circumstantial, but, they were talking premeditated mass murder here. The man and woman looked at each other; they felt cheated.
The judge banged her gavel once more, unnecessarily, in the quiet that saturated the stuffy air in the packed room.
She twisted in her chair, facing the accused again.
“As I was saying…” another furtive peek at the District Attorney’s people, “Robert Polanski, you have been acquitted of multiple charges of murder by a jury of your peers and I hereby instruct…”
* * * * *
Polanski walked alongside his legal representative, his head on a swivel. They had exited the courthouse by the rear doors, hoping to avoid the expectant questions of the media. Polanski had been through two trials in the last few months; the legal one, fought in the halls of the large building behind them and bound by laws and procedures, and the popular one, disputed in the Press, on TV and on the Internet where no such constraints applied. Legally he had been found not guilty; in the Public Eye, he was a guilty as Hell! And he was; in the dark corners of his mind he was well aware of how he had escaped from what should have been a stay on Death Row prior to a well-deserved execution as retribution for the acts he had committed.
He turned to the chubby figure at his side.
“Did you bring that package I had delivered to you last week?” His tone was neutral; there was nothing between the lawyer and his defendant other than a strictly professional relationship upheld by force of cash.
The lawyer nodded, then raised a large, floral handkerchief to mop his brow.
“Let’s grab a coffee and…”
“No. We are going back to my office. You have some papers to sign and I’ll give you the package there. After that, I don’t want to see or hear from you ever again. Am I clear on that, Polanski?”
The shorter man looked over at the speaker. It was more than evident curtailing their connection as quickly as possible was uppermost in the lawyer’s mind.
“If you hate me so much, why didn’t you recuse yourself?”
“You know damned well why. But I’ve done my job now and don’t have to spend another day in your company.”
“Three million dollars doesn’t buy much loyalty these days, eh?”
“You’re free, although you shouldn’t be, as we both know, so it bought you that.”
The lawyer paused.
“I know I’m going to regret this, but, just how did you kill all those people?”
“Still Client-Attorney privilege?”
“One of the most abused concepts in American law, but yes; nothing you tell me goes any further.”
“I just manipulated their futures. It was all about the planning...”
You manipulated the futures of 217 people?”
“Yes; over the last twenty-three years.” Polanski halted his steps, turning to face the lawyer. “And just remember, I got away with that, so don’t get any ideas about talking out of turn.”
“I have no wish to become your victim number 218…”
“Oh, the real number’s a little higher. Those were just the cases the DA thought they could prove. The total’s nearer to four hundred.”
The lawyer elected not to answer, glancing at his wristwatch and mentally counting the minutes he still needed to share with this client.
The man with the deep sunburnt face in the third row of seats stood and ambled out of the courtroom along with the rest of the packed crowd. As he crossed the vast steel and glass atrium, he scanned ahead and spotted the huge knot of TV and Press people expectantly watching the main doors, undoubtedly seeking a juicy comment or two from Polanski or his lawyer.
He made a rapid decision and turned toward one of the armed security guards near the x-ray machine on his right. Held low so as not to be seen by unwanted eyes, he flashed his badge and spoke quietly. The man nodded and pointed to a doorway behind him, nestling under a red-lettered ‘Authorized Personnel Only’ sign. The agent thanked the security guard and stepped past, pushing open the heavy steel door. Ahead, an empty, cool passageway stretched toward the back of the building. His footfalls echoed off the hardwood floor as his brisk steps carried him by several darkened office spaces and finally to another heavy metal door adorned with a panic-bar. He assumed the exit was alarmed and looked up to see the camera’s eye tracking his progress. He raised his ID badge again, holding it for an instant so the watchers could clearly see its authority, then he put his weight against the bar and pushed.
Glaring daylight assaulted his eyes as he stepped through. Squinting, he scanned the area, gaining his bearings, as he waited for the return spring to close the door at his back. To his right was the court employee parking area, with a section reserved for the ‘school’ bus, except here it was a slightly more modern affair; more a Greyhound long-distance coach than the typical salvaged children carrier now fitted with less child-friendly armour. Just below the tinted windows that ran its length the words ‘Arizona Department of Corrections’ was stencilled in white against a blue background. To their left was a solid outline of the state, also in white, sited just behind where the driver would sit. Currently that seat was empty. Nearby he spotted a couple of uniformed DOC officials, cowering from the midday heat in the deep shadow afforded by a short cement overhang above another door. Both were smoking and looking nervously at their watches. He knew Polanski would not be using that transport again, not after the verdict he had just heard.
He looked over to his right, toward the front corner of the building, pondering what Polanski would do when he departed the courthouse. The agent had little time to come to a decision as the door behind him opened; his person of interest, and his mouthpiece, exited quickly. They had been talking, but both rapidly silenced their words on seeing him standing there in the bright sunlight. As they walked quickly past, the agent reached into his jacket and withdrew a pair of shades, his eyes gratefully acknowledging their protection as he walked toward his hire car.
He squirmed on the burning faux-leather seat as he fired up the engine and flipped the air-conditioning into overdrive. All the time his eyes never left the two men boarding the lawyer’s luxury sedan some fifty feet away. He reached into his inside pocket, extracting his cellphone. It took a few seconds to boot up, time spent watching as the lawyer cracked the window of his vehicle to let out some of the heat trapped within. They were too far away for him to hear but he assumed the attorney’s first actions had mirrored his own. Polanski just sat in the front passenger seat, waiting, smiling.
The call was answered on the first ring.
“Verdict as expected. They’ve left the courthouse together in the lawyer’s car. Any change in orders?”
He listened to the brief reply then rung off without speaking again.
The high-gloss, black hood of the luxury sedan nosed by his car as it sped toward the exit.
‘Who the hell chooses a black paint job in this heat?’ he thought as he selected drive and followed.
Polanski pulled out the chair and flopped into its hard contours. At least it was cool in the coffee shop; the air con was winning the battle against the relentless rays. He had ordered as he entered; a double slice of apple pie with all the trimmings and a large black coffee, Tanzanian Peaberry, the most expensive on the menu. On his first day of freedom after two years, those simple pleasures were all he needed.
While he waited for his food to arrive, Polanski extracted from his jacket pockets the items he had brought from his lawyer’s office. He placed the padded envelope to one side, glancing at the address handwritten in thick, black ink. A thought crept into his mind and he flipped the envelope to ensure no return address sticker had been added. Good; when sent, this would be a one-way trip for the contents.
Next, a single sheet of white paper taken from the feed drawer of his lawyer’s inkjet printer. This he had carefully folded into quarters and run his fingernail along the creases to further define the shape. Then he extracted a single sheet of three-ply toilet paper, also purloined from his lawyer’s office. He glanced up, seeing the waitress approaching with his coffee and pie. He slipped the paper-pulp sheet under the envelope; it was an odd object to be seen on a cafeteria table, so it would be remembered. Attention to detail had been his watchword during his professional life, and now, on the verge of a long and tranquil retirement, was not the time to get sloppy.
He waited until his hot apple pie, topped with vanilla ice cream and a shading of powdered cinnamon, was placed before him. He smiled at the waitress, then leaned forward to inhale deeply, savouring the smell of the thick slice and the equally enticing aroma of the fresh brew in the large mug nearby. He watched, mesmerised, taking sensuous pleasure as the ice cream turned to rivulets and dripped down to the dish to pool in inviting chaos.
Food first, then business, he thought.
As the pie portion steadily diminished, his thoughts went to the two documents he had to write. The first was easy; he had drafted the text mentally hundreds of times since he had made his decision three weeks ago. It was essential to strike the right balance; to appeal to the recipient’s curiosity as a means to overcome initial rejection. Then the decision would be out of his hands and back where it truly belonged. He smiled at this thought, pleased with its deeper meanings.
The second document was another matter. He had much experience in writing similar missives, yet he felt this needed to be given special consideration; it was, after all, to be his last. He mused on the mechanics as he sipped the remaining dark liquid in his mug.
The waitress approached, enquiring if he wanted more coffee or anything else. He requested another mug of the blend, then, just as the waitress turned to take his empty pie dish and cup back to the kitchen…
“Do you have a pen I could borrow for a minute?”
“This do?” The waitress proffered a ubiquitous blue-ink disposable.
“That would be perfect.” He took the pen, smiled again, and turned his attention to the folded sheet of white paper.
The agent used the top of the passenger seat to steady the Helios monocular. He was using it on the maximum setting of twenty-five power magnification and even the slightest tremor made the image wobble. He was only half a block from the cafeteria with a clear view of Polanski seated inside, yet the potent zoom offered by the black, rubberized cylinder was necessary to observe the details.
“He’s just ordered another coffee.”
He spoke for the benefit of the people listening on the speaker at the other end of the phone call.
“Just sitting there?” The voice carried agitation, impatience, fear; all mixed into a flat echo by the cellphone’s speaker.
“He’s slightly turned away, both hands on the table…”
“Can you see the device? Is he using it? Describe it!”
“I can’t tell from here.” The agent paused, taking his eye from the single lens and scanning the street. “I could try to get closer but there’s not much cover. It’s so hot, the street is practically empty and I’m sure to be spotted.”
“No, no, we can’t risk that. Stay where you are. Try to see if he’s using it.”
He chose not to reply; monitoring the use of the device was, after all, one of the prime objectives of Phase Two of the mission. Phase One’s goal had been identifying it and they had failed miserably at that. Polanski’s detention, for the two years the trial had taken, had not helped. The guy was smart; he’d not been caught in over twenty years. As soon as he suspected they were going to move in, he had hidden the device, left it with someone, whatever. Covert searches of his hotel suite, his lawyer’s office and any of the other twenty or thirty places he had frequented in the days leading to the arrest had turned up nothing. Did he have it again? Had the attorney collected it for him? They should have executed another search there a couple of days ago as he had suggested.
Polanski looked toward the street.
The agent placed his eye against the monocular again.
It was almost as though his target was staring directly at him.
Polanski raised his right hand; he held something, used it to salute his observer across the intervening distance. The agent twisted the zoom ring on the scope, but it was already wound up to the max. The man held a disposable pen. He had been writing something. He knew the agent was watching; not really a surprise, more something to be expected given the situation. Still, he’d been made. He called it in, not anticipating any change in his orders. Stay put. Watch. Observe. Call if you see the device. SWAT was staged two blocks over; ETA sixty seconds if needed.
The agent saw Polanski’s hand drop back down to the table, watched as his body turned a little more to adopted a more comfortable posture as he continued his writing.
He was completely unaware the circumstances had just changed drastically.
* * * * *