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The Body in Question
Excerpt

Excerpted from Part One
"When that door opens, sign out. Say you’re taking a ciga­rette break,” he says.
“I don’t smoke,” she says.
“You don’t have to smoke, just sign out. If they call your number, ignore them.”
Neither notices the door open.
“A friend of mine got out just by saying he couldn’t sit under the words ‘In God We Trust,’ ” she says.
Her number is called, C-2.
“You have another angle?” she asks.
“If one of the lawyers asks if you’ve ever been involved with an attorney, tell him he picked you up in a bar five years ago.”
“You’re assuming the lawyer will be a man,” she says.
“Tell her she picked you up in a Lowe’s five years ago. She had the power sander, you had the tool belt.”
The second time her number is called, she rises reluctantly.
“Hey,” he calls after her as she makes her way between the uneven rows of folding chairs. “Good luck.”
C-2 is surprised to find the courtroom already in session. Everyone but the defendant, a girl in her late teens, looks up as C-2 takes the only empty chair in the jury box. The other five chairs are occupied by women of varying ages. Three sport flip-flops. One is dressed as if for a hot date. One wears church clothes.
The judge, an older African American woman with a no-nonsense haircut, asks the defendant to turn around in her chair and face the prospective jurors. The defendant’s head revolves so slowly that C-2 can’t discern whether the sluggishness is deliberate, to arrest the court’s attention, or if the teenager in the ill-fitting but very expensive clothes has something physically or mentally wrong with her. Her most striking feature is her hair: the bottom six inches are dyed shoe-polish black, the top six inches are Barbie blond.
C-2 has studied her share of faces. She started her career as a por­trait photographer for Rolling Stone and Interview magazine until it finally sank in: she wasn’t interested in people. As individuals. She was interested in them as a species.
The defendant’s features are the kind found in how-to-draw books—sketchy and basic. If C-2 were to close her eyes, she doubts she would remember what is inside the blank oval a second later.
If C-2 had to wager a guess as to the teenager’s crime, she would bet shoplifting, or selling her grandmother’s Percocets to her class­mates, or both. A one- or two-day trial at most.
The judge asks, “Do any of you recognize the defendant?”
Two hands shoot up.
“I saw her on TV,” says one of the flip-flop set.
“On Court TV,” says the woman who has removed her lip and nose rings out of respect for court.
The defendant’s counsel, a full-figured woman in her early thir­ties, and the jury consultant, a gray-haired gentleman in Armani, confer: the two women are dismissed. Two more potential jurors enter the court and take the vacated chairs: a woman who looks pregnant but is too old to be pregnant, and the young man with whom C-2 had been mildly flirting in the holding area—in his early forties, whereas C-2 is fifty-two—the one who had all the clever answers on how to get out of jury duty. He catches her attention and shrugs self-mockingly. His eyes are a blue that seems too crys­talline to belong to his face, which is pitted with acne scars. Other than the church lady, he is the only one dressed appropriately for court; khakis, white shirt, closed shoes. C-2 is wearing cutoffs and a T-shirt. It is 95 degrees outside.
“This is a murder trial,” the judge says.
The defendant slides her eyes sideways in her expressionless face. C-2 follows the stare. It lands on a middle-aged woman seated in the front row of the gallery, her face an illustration of anguish. A blond replica of the defendant comforts the woman, but this version is prettier. Her face is vibrant, as if each feature were an individual puppet and she were the puppet master. If C-2 closed her eyes, she would remember that face.
“The trial may take up to three weeks,” the judge explains, “and may involve sequestration. Is there anyone who believes themselves incapable of fulfilling such an obligation?”
C-2’s standby excuse, that she couldn’t sit under “In God We Trust,” seems flippant, almost reprehensible to use given that the middle-aged woman is shuddering and imploding in the gallery. C-2 could tell the judge that her husband is eighty-six, the truth, and that she is his sole caretaker, her fear.
The woman too old to be pregnant and the man with the lucent blue eyes raise their hands.
“F-17,” the man introduces himself to the judge. “I’m a professor at the medical school. My Gross Anatomy course begins next week. I have twenty-one cadavers waiting for me.”
“Aren’t they already dead?” the judge asks.
Again that self-mocking shrug. “Yes,” he says.
“They can wait.”
The woman’s hand is still up. “J-12. I’m going in for tests next week,” she says.
The judge waits a beat for anyone else to speak up.
C-2 could still raise her hand. Though her husband retains his impressive, curious mind, he loses things daily—keys, words, height, mass, the ability to hear conversations, his peripheral vision (though he insists on still driving), the subtlety of taste, and the assault of smell. And most alarming, the loss of the sixth sense, proprioception, the ability to know the position of one’s body parts. Her husband isn’t always sure where his hands and feet are without having to look for them. It takes him a wooden moment to reach for things, to make those measurements one unconsciously calculates each time one dips under a low beam, or eats popcorn in the dark. He can still navigate the day’s obstacles, but for how much longer? C-2 is becoming his copilot. Her senses must work double-time shepherding two separate bodies through space, but to refuse the job—not to point out the broken step, not to repeat the punch line he couldn’t hear—will mean abandoning him in the woolly, dim, mute isolation of old age.
She met her husband when she was twenty-four and he was fifty-seven. He was a Pulitzer-winning journalist and she had just given up portraiture for something more dangerous. He had asked her to be his photographer on an assignment in El Salvador—civil war had broken out yet again. He had flown first-class, and she had flown economy. Not once during the seven-hour flight did he venture back into steerage to see how she was faring. That had cinched it for her: her attraction for him was an unreciprocated crush; he had only been interested in her photography.
At the San Salvador airport, they hitched a prearranged ride in a bus chartered by Hollywood’s radical chic, a director of conspiracy thrillers, an earnest actress, and her producer husband. The actress had come to interview the charming mustachioed general of the rebels. The van had to cross the mountains before nightfall and curfew. The road was a stretch of graveled ascent, bracketed with makeshift checkpoints manned by ragged boys with rifles.
The producer broke out a bottle of Valium and handed the pills around. C-2 noted that the war correspondent didn’t take one, so she didn’t either, even though she wanted one very badly.
She could tell she had passed some sort of test with him, and that having passed the test, the power had shifted between them. That night at the hotel, she was aware of him staring at her as she opened her door. The stare was electric. She had only recently accepted that her desire had less to do with whom she was attracted to, and everything to do with whom she wanted to attract.
She played her hand riskily, bet the house. She walked into his room while he was transcribing his notes, unbuttoned her blouse. He took over from there, for which she was thankful.
She didn’t—doesn’t—consider herself especially attractive. She makes a handsome first impression—a fit figure, a wedge of auburn hair, a long neck—but on second look, her left eyelid droops slightly, and the asymmetry cancels out her best feature, her wild eyebrows, which she grooms weekly. Just before she met her husband, the lid miraculously found its way open, lending her face an astonished look, and, unbeknownst to her, she became extremely beautiful. The lid sank again a year later, but by then she had already met her husband. More important, she had been given a tease of the charmed life she might have lived had her left eyelid been two millimeters higher.
The first time her husband introduced her to his mother, eighty-seven years old and living in a Jewish retirement home in Buffalo, the old woman took one glance at C-2, at the apex of her beauty, then looked at her middle-aged son and asked a question that C-2, at twenty-four, hadn’t yet thought to ask herself: Who is going to take care of him in his old age?
If C-2 is sequestered, she will only have to take care of herself—a much-needed respite justified by civic duty. If something should happen—the dreaded fall—there is always the alternate to take her place.
The judge is still waiting.
C-2 doesn’t raise her hand.
 
***
 
The jury box is now full, five women including C-2, and two men, F-17 and the twitchy alternate with the hectic buzz cut who doesn’t pay attention when the judge explains what a voir dire is. The alter­nate is too busy admiring the defense counsel, the woman in her early thirties with the disruptively full figure. C-2 notes a shimmer when the young woman crosses her legs under the table. She is wear­ing nylons in August in Central Florida.
To C-2’s left, the woman in her mid-sixties who had identified herself as a homemaker and member of the First Calvary Baptist congregation raises her hand. “Where’s our other half?” she asks the judge. “Aren’t there supposed to be twelve of us?”
“Florida only requires a six-person jury in all but capital cases,” the judge explains.
The prosecutor, rotund, places both hands flat on the table and jacks himself up. He struggles to button his suit, gives up, and then flashes the jury an aw-shucks grin to let them know he is a local boy, not someone hired from South Florida. He rifles through the questionnaires the jury had filled out earlier that day, with all their stats—profession, married or single, children, felonies—and asks if anyone has concerns about being able to wait until they’ve heard all the evidence before making up their minds.
C-2 has never had the patience to listen to someone else’s story and not try to guess the ending. But guessing the ending is different than calcifying into certitude. She would be willing to switch sides if persuaded, but that wouldn’t stop her from speculating. Who honestly imagines themselves to be that neutral and fair?
She glances around at the other potential jurors. They are all nodding affirmatively, certain of their neutrality and fairness, except F-17.
He raises his hand. “Isn’t the belief that you won’t rush to judg­ment proof that you will?” he says.
C-2 can see that he hopes his syllogism will get him dismissed.
But the prosecutor looks away, as if a new idea has just occurred to him. “Do you read the newspaper?” he asks the woman seated directly in front of C-2. The chairs in the back row sit on a riser. C-2 can see the woman’s scalp through her cornrows. The woman is white and the stalks blond. The ruts in between are sunburned.
“H-8,” the woman says. “I use the newspaper for my parrot’s droppings.”
“Let’s talk about doubt,” the prosecutor says. “Reasonable doubt versus an abiding conviction of doubt.”
The church lady raises her hand. “What does ‘abiding’ mean?”
“The court isn’t allowed to define terms,” the judge intervenes. “And you can’t look up the word on your smartphone tonight. You aren’t allowed to consider any information, including the definition of a word, outside this court. I dismissed a juror last year for looking up ‘prudent.’”
The prosecutor studies his polished shoes until the judge finishes. “Let’s talk about common sense,” he says, walking over to the church lady. “How did you decide what to eat for breakfast?”
“I looked in my fridge.”
“So you accepted the evidence before you and made a decision.”
“I had scrambled eggs.”
“Okay, let’s take a more important decision, one that you had to think hard about.” He looks over at F-17. “Are you married?”
“No,” F-17 says.
“You?” the prosecutor asks C-2.
“Yes.”
“How did you decide to marry your husband?”
“Our accountant told us we would save money on taxes,” she says.
They’d been living together for over five years. They loved each other. The money could be spent on a vacation, something they had never allowed themselves. They had traveled extensively on assign­ment, but only to places where the tourists had fled. This time they decided to go somewhere exotic where there wasn’t a war. But without a war, they almost killed each other.
“So you would say your decision making is more swayed by facts than emotion?” asks the prosecutor.
“Yes,” C-2 says.
A hand goes up, the twitchy alternate’s. “Why are you asking us all these questions? Why don’t they have professional jurors?”

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Booking In

Booking In

A Crang Mystery
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Excerpt

Chapter One

Fletcher Marshall’s phone call woke me at seven o’clock on a July Monday morning that already felt sultry.
“This hour of the day, Fletcher,” I said, “whatever you got, it better be good.”
“A little patience, please, Crang. Just let me tell you about the grief I’m enduring down here.”
“At your store?”
“Of course at my store. Where else?”
Fletcher was a guy with the smarts to run one of the last remaining antiquarian bookstores in the city, but he wasn’t someone whose personality I warmed to. On the other hand, a few weeks earlier, he’d arranged a very large favour for Annie B. Cooke, the woman in my life. Given the favour, Annie asked if I could please find it in my heart to end the animosity toward Fletcher, or at least mute it. I was trying but not always succeeding.
“If my call disturbed Annie’s sleep,” Fletcher said, “tell her I apologize.”
“The lovely Ms. C is away doing an interview for the book job you put her onto.”
“Oh my, yes,” Fletcher said. “The recommendation I gave Annie will mean more money from one writing assignment than she’ll ever see in the rest of her working life.”
“This is noble of you, Fletcher. But if we don’t get to the part about your grief in a hurry, I’m going to hang up and see about falling back to sleep.”
“I need you to come to the store,” Fletcher said, his delivery more brisk. “Right away.”
“Seven o’clock in the morning isn’t my prime time.”
“And bring that burglar friend of yours.”
“Maury Samuels?” I said. “Maury’s retired from the B and E profession. Keep that in mind.”
“For the fix I’m in, it’s the man’s past years of expertise I require.”
“Why don’t you and I try dealing with this fix you’re complaining about while we’re on the phone?”
“Somebody broke into my safe at the store,” Fletcher said. “They cracked the combination and took the entire contents. This is a practically brand-new safe, I might add.”
“Fletcher, I’m a lawyer,” I said. “It’s the cops you should be summoning.”
“I don’t want word of this to get out in any form,” Fletcher said. “No police, no media, none of that right now.”
I fought back the feeling that I was putting way too much effort into a conversation so early in the day.
“Let’s go through this one more time, Fletcher,” I said. “Why is it, in the wide world of lawbreakers and enforcers, you chose to ring me?”
“Frankly, Crang, you’re the first person I thought of who might have the contacts to help me.”
“You’re giving me the real goods when you say you haven’t notified the police about the break-in?”
“I thought I made that clear.”
“And you don’t have one of those electronic gizmos that rings simultaneously at your own house and the nearest cop division when somebody makes an illicit entry into your place of business?”
“Call me old-world.”
“Like your store is.”
“Precisely.”
“For one reason or another, largely dealing with insurance,” I said, “you’ll need to contact the law sooner rather than later.”
“Not before you and your burglar friend inspect the scene of the crime.”
“Maybe I’m beginning to understand your strategy, Fletcher,” I said. “But how do you plan to account for the delay in talking to the cops when they realize they were the last people you invited to the party?”
“Very easy, Crang,” Fletcher said. “We’re closed on Mondays. I’ll tell the police I didn’t discover the break-in until I stopped by the store later in the day.”
I took a few seconds to process everything Fletcher had told me.
“If you have no alarm,” I said, “then I take it you didn’t discover the break-in until you got to the store a few minutes ago.”
“Wrong,” Fletcher said with more than a touch of asperity. “I’ve been here since 3:30 a.m.”
“I’m guessing the predawn arrival isn’t your normal business practice.”
“Hardly normal, for god’s sake, Crang. I was alerted to the break-in by the architect who rents the office over the store. He’s been sleeping on a couch in his waiting room the last couple of weeks because he’s got marital troubles at home. In the middle of last night, he heard loud bangs in my place. He decided the noise was suspicious and rang me at my apartment.”
“Is your secret secure with this architect?”
“He agreed to hold back from the police the part about him waking me up to report the break-in, if that’s what you mean.”
“It buys you time.”
“Much of which you’re wasting,” Fletcher said. “All I’m asking of you and your burglar colleague is professional advice.”
Fletcher was right. I was stalling on any agreement to give him a hand with his break-in, which had trouble written all over it. But I knew my answer was inevitable. It was the big favour he’d done Annie that was the difference-maker. A friend of Fletcher’s, a woman named Meg Grantham, wanted somebody to ghost her memoirs. She had asked Fletcher to recommend a woman writer from among the contacts he’d made in the Toronto journalism community through his bookstore. Fletcher chose Annie, and when he brought Annie and Meg together, the two women hit it off like gangbusters. Meg wanted the book to tell the story of how she got to be so rich, worth in the neighbourhood of three billion bucks. According to Canadian Business magazine, she ranked in the top five wealthiest women in Canada, number one if you counted only self-made Canadian woman success stories. Right off the bat, Meg paid Annie fifty grand just to get started on the memoirs.
“I’ll see you at ten,” I said to Fletcher. “It’ll take me until then to get Maury in gear. Or if you’ll settle for just me, I can be there in a half hour.”
“I envision it as a team concept,” Fletcher said. “You and the burglar.”
“You’ll have to pay Maury,” I said. “These days he’s billing himself as a consultant.”
Fletcher didn’t hesitate. “I’ll expect you people not a minute past ten,” he said.
Then he hung up.

 

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Deathbed Dimes

Deathbed Dimes

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