Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Bacon's Blood (61)

Ruben Essex was first to speak, breaking the explosive silence that followed Leonard Bacon's introduction. Blow's eyes, moving from face to face as he searched for words, fixed on Ruben with palpable relief at the sound of his resonant, baritone voice. He spoke carefully with intelligent articulation, belying his youthful appearance.

We are quite certain the woman Mr. Bacon...Mr. Bacon's brother--he smiled apologetically at Leonard—is accused of killing was Beth, and we're afraid that was her body the watermen found, that hasn't been identified.”
Blow's eyebrows stretched upward reflexively as again an apt verbal response eluded timely capture from among his jumble of fragmented thoughts. Again, Ruben Essex intervened, beginning a narrative that coincided almost immediately with pressure from a hand on Blow's shoulder. It was Leonard Bacon. He was about to leave the room, which he did, with a silent wave at the couple before he closed the door behind him.

A dart of annoyance pricked Blow at Bacon's abandoning him to the brother and sister, but at the same time he understood the move's strategic importance from a legal standpoint. If the couple needed a lawyer, they surely did not want a potential conflict of interest to poison whatever well they were looking to tap. Blow wondered if they understood the potential for simply the appearance of a conflict would exist just with him, something he would point out if it appeared they were nearing that precipice. By the time he'd settled this in his mind, Ruben was explaining why he and his sister had come to believe “Priscilla Kochburn” had in fact been Bethany Catlett, erstwhile assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia.
When I last spoke with her she was in the last stages of pancreatic cancer. She was in remission at the time, a temporary reprieve, but we both knew she hadn't long to live. She told me she was going to Florida to visit a friend. Didn't say who it was. I didn't ask. Wish now I had. I invited her to come stay with me and Pris in Madison. I said 'visit' but she knew what I meant. I was a third-year med student at Wisconsin. The university hospital is first rate. I live near there and figured maybe being with me, and with Pris, would help, be a comfort maybe.” He stared down at the table a moment, as if building up steam to go on.
Beth had taken leave from her job. Her department head suspected she was terminal, but kept her on the payroll for the insurance. She was popular, with her students and colleagues. She said she'd call me next day when she got to Florida. When she didn't, I called her cell. It was out of service. I dropped my classes then and we flew to Charlottesville. No one knew of anyone she might have been visiting in Florida. Her roommate, in fact, said she was coming to visit us.”
Beth was divorced. A few years back. Caught him fooling around. She moved in with a friend, a faculty friend.”
Beg your pardon?”
I'm sorry. Did your sister and her husband have any children?”
No. They tried, but...she had a couple of miscarries. At one time Beth said they were thinking of adopting, but then the marriage went bad.”
I assume you talked to her husband? Ex-husband?”
By phone. He said he hadn't heard from her. Their divorce was no-fault. No alimony. She just wanted out.”
I see. Have you checked with the medical examiner's office yet?” This question visibly roused Priscilla, who had remained still up to then, dark eyes locked onto Blow's, showing no change from a wary intensity. She'd made no effort to speak. With this question she twisted her upper body to face her brother. He turned toward her, as well, and there seemed a silent communication for several seconds between them. His sister continued staring at him after Ruben broke off and turned back to Blow.
We thought it best to speak with an attorney first.” His tone now carried a note of caution. He added, “We thought this trial might be a complication.”
No shit. Blow held his tongue, but knew the frustration probably showed on his face. As if confirming this, Ruben leaned slightly forward and lowered his voice to imply confidentiality. “We would like to hire you to help us, Mr. Stone, but we need your assurance that anything we might discuss with you here will be held in strict confidence.”
Ruben was staring at him now with an earnestness that Blow sensed might be contrived. It occurred to him he was being played. An extra wariness of his own kicked in, despite his knowing whatever game they were playing almost certainly was theirs to lose. Ordinarily he would welcome the tension. It was what he did, what brought him to life. But man oh man, why now? Coming down from the all-out adrenalin ride of a three-week trial, he was crashing. An especially hard crash at that with the way it was ending. Why this now? He had an urge to shake his head, mumble an excuse, stand up and walk from the room, maybe even flip them off. Maybe snarl one last question: “Could she swim?”
But no. He wouldn't do it. Wouldn't walk out. Curiosity, dammit. Curiosity strikes again. Glowering at them from one to the other in silent weary surrender, he finally nodded, stifling a sigh. “Yes, I'll represent you,” he said softly. “Anything we say here is privileged. What can I do for you?”
Ruben Essex snapped a quick glance at his sister, who had not taken her eyes off him since their little tête-à-tête, then quietly related how he and Priscilla had returned to Wisconsin after finding no leads to their sister's whereabouts. They'd assumed—hoped--at some point she'd get in touch before she became too weak to care for herself.
Ruben kept checking with the roommate, ex-husband and other acquaintances and faculty colleagues, and eventually included calls and emails to police departments. Their first inkling their sister might have met with foul play, he said, was when the roommate emailed him a wire story reporting the incident in Leicester County. No body had yet been found, but Elvin Bacon, “a prominent Richmond attorney,” was charged with murder.
Something about that news story--”
A piercing, furious voice cut him off. “God dammit, Ruben! He's our lawyer! Tell him the Goddam truth!” Priscilla had wheeled her chair back and turned it to so she was facing her brother. Her complexion had instantly reddened and seemed to be pulsing. It brought to Blow's mind the emergency beacon on an ambulance. Ruben's mouth hung open. He stared at his sister, who glared back, eyes black lasers.
Pris, I'm only--”
Oh, shut up, Ruben! He's not stupid.” She whipped her head around, flashed Blow an enigmatic look then turned back to her brother. Her voice came down from the edge, but held its strength. “We have to tell him eventually. He's our lawyer. Stop mewling around.”
Ruben nodded thoughtfully, and started again. “We...we knew it was her. We--”
She crumpled then, sobbing convulsively. It seemed to Blow as if she shrank physically. One moment she was this inflated, howling monster, and then the air went out. She lay sideways against the arm of her wheelchair, head toward her brother. He was kneeling next to her, stroking her hair, murmuring softly.
After a minute or so she apparently dozed off. Ruben took a pillow from behind her and placed it on the arm for her head. Back in his own chair, he addressed his sister's outburst. Priscilla had been assaulted sexually by several men at a fraternity party. The only one she recognized was Elvin Bacon. He was a football star and the center of attention. Her boyfriend was pledging the fraternity and had taken her as his guest. At some point everyone started acting crazy. She believes the drinks had been drugged with something. There were other girls there, but for some reason she thinks she was the only one who was attacked. She got hysterical. Suddenly everybody started leaving. She thinks she passed out. All she remembers after that is waking up in a hospital.
It wasn't a hospital, though. It was a private clinic. A couple of the fraternity officers had the presence of mind to call their fathers. One of the fathers was a prominent physician, another was Bacon's old man. These fathers—three or four of them, I think--hushed everything up, paid off our parents with a significant trust fund. Our parents had to sign an agreement not to press charges or ever reveal what happened.” Ruben's voice was almost inaudible. His face reflected grief and horror. “Turned out Pris wasn't just hysterical. We think what happened to her at that party—the rapes and the drugs--triggered her schizophrenia.
I was still in middle school. I knew something bad had happened, but I didn't understand it. Beth was in high school. It traumatized her almost as bad as it did Pris. Beth needed years of therapy just from what had happened to her sister.” He was shaking his head from side to side. Blow realized with a start he'd been nodding up and down, unconsciously acknowledging he understood what Ruben was telling him.
So you believe Beth staged what happened with Elvin Bacon as way to pay him back?”
Ruben nodded. “We do. We know that's what she did. Pris had gotten a call on her cell from Beth. It was on voicemail. Didn't make sense at first. Just some voices, then some coughing sounds and some yelling. But when she heard her sister shout 'banzai,' and then heard the phone drop. That's when she knew. The 'banzai' was Beth's way of telling her what she was doing.”
Do you think Beth took her own life? I mean, could she swim?”
I don't believe she started out intending to commit suicide. Yes, she swam. She was a good swimmer, and maybe she thought at first she could swim away and leave everyone thinking she'd drowned, that Bacon had pushed her overboard. But she also knew she hadn't long to live anyway. She might have gotten too weak to swim away, or something might have happened under the water. It was cold that day. Same time of year as now. I suppose we'll never know for sure.”
I suppose it's safe to assume you were hoping the jury would find him guilty. Then you wouldn't have to risk breaking your parents' agreement. Are they still alive?”
Ruben shook his head. “That was our plan. He'd get punished, not for what he did but certain poetic justice would be served.”
And then someone pointed out it looked as if the jury might acquit?”
We heard several people saying that. And that's when I approached the Bacon brothers. No one else was in the courtroom.”
How did they react?”
You know, I had never met either of them before. I had Pris's cellphone with me, and I was prepared to play it if Mr. Bacon tried to deny what had happened. But he really surprised me. He was humble. Like he was when you were questioning him on the witness stand. He came back to meet Pris. He just stood there looking at her. Tears started down his face. I know lawyers are supposed to be good actors, and I knew his reputation was that he was one of the best. But I don't think he was acting, Mr. Stone. His voice broke when he tried to apologize to Pris. He told her he didn't want any embarrassment to come to her family, that they had suffered enough. He said he wished he could go back in time and undo what he had done. He told us he would change his plea to guilty, that this was all he could think of to do. He got down on his knees and begged Pris to forgive him.”
How did she take it?”
She just stared at him. That's all. I'm not sure she even recognized him, although she knew who he was. When he went back to be with his brother, up at the front of the courtroom, Pris told me she hoped maybe he would get raped in prison. She said it without emotion. Then she started crying. She said only one more thing then, until just now: 'Let's bring Beth home.'”
[start at ch-1 http://tinyurl.com/of4gfq5]

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