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Jimmy told me about the burglary almost exactly a year after it happened. Right after we got thrown out of the pawnshop where Jimmy tried to sell the jewelry.
He had gone into a house one afternoon, Jimmy told me, with a guy everybody called Howie The Dog because he could sniff out excellent burglary sites. A shaded corner house in “a nice doctor and lawyer neighborhood,” as Jimmy put it. Howie and Jimmy felt sure they’d hit big money when they saw the tuxedo and evening gown hanging in the mirrored dressing area, instead of in the closet. They went right to the jewelry case, figuring the wife took her expensive stuff out of the safe for a fancy event.
Two days later Jimmy read the good news in the local paper. The jewelry they boosted was worth maybe $200,000. Small-timers Jimmy and Howie might get only ten cents on the dollar, still a steak-and-hookers payday party for mooks like them.
The two thieves only trusted one fence, the guy in the crappy pawnshop they’d used for years. They agreed they wouldn’t show the jewelry there for a year, too hot to touch. But then Howie caught a prison stretch for a different burglary, one he told Jimmy he didn’t do.
“An assload of CSI science shit and an old lady witness blind as a dead bat,” he’d said to Jimmy. “She sure as hell never seen me, ‘cause I wasn’t there.”
The two burglars struck an honorable deal: Howie’s money from the jewelry heist would be waiting for him when he got out of prison.
The deal fell apart.
Of course, my part in the story didn’t start with Jimmy. It started with a phone call.
“Mysterious Private Investigations,” the perky recorded voice announced. “Our agents are in the field, please leave your name and contact information.”
My answering machine coaxed me from my nap, a light doze on what most people call a couch, but what I call my “office” and the perky recorded voice calls “the field.”
Then a woman’s voice, not perky at all.
“I need help,” she said. “It’s bad.”
She left her name and contact information, just like the perky recorded voice had asked.
We met at a nearby diner. I go there a lot, just for coffee and a place to think. She was tall and fit, with unfussy brown hair. Her generous, angled lips made her mouth look a little lopsided. I liked that.
“Marlana Forsant,” she said.
After I introduced myself, we slipped into a booth and ordered coffee. As always, the coffee the buxom waitress brought smelled burnt and tasted muddy. And, as always, I smiled and drank it anyway.
I asked Marlana for her story. Her little brother landed in prison, she told me, for a burglary he didn’t do. A felony. Now, a year in, he was grappling with a brutal prison gang. She had found evidence that could free him, she hoped, before they killed him.
“Take it to an attorney right away,” I said.
Turns out her little brother had an alibi for the night of the crime, a friend who didn’t want to be found back then and still didn’t. But if I could find him, Marlana felt certain she could persuade him to help. Seven hundred dollars cash, right now, if I said yes.
“Seven hundred now?” I said.
She nodded. And she had a photo of the friend, she said, and a good idea where to start looking for him.
“An alibi from a friend might not free your brother.”
She told me about a study by a government research group, the National Academy of Sciences, showing that faulty forensic evidence, including the same type of CSI test that helped convict her brother, put plenty of innocent people in prison. No doubt about it, she said. And as for the eyewitness against him …
“An eyewitness?” I asked.
She told me about the Innocence Task Force, a non-profit legal group that has freed hundreds of people from prison after new evidence proved them innocent beyond any question. The biggest reason for all those false convictions? Eyewitness mistakes.
“Look it all up,” she said. “I dare you.”
“Marlana, none of those …”
“An alibi and bad evidence. And my brother will die in there.” She stared right through me. “What’s your idea of justice?”
My gaze fell away from her. Three years ago, a drunk driver killed my wife. The cops found the drunk driver slouched behind the steering wheel of his car, unhurt and drooling on himself. A week later, they found him beaten to death with a golf club. The prosecutor said I did it. I said I didn’t and the jury believed me. All the newspapers wrote about it. Since those two deaths my life has never been the same.
“Why me?” I asked.
“I read what happened to you. You know what it’s like. Losing someone. Being accused of something …”
She stopped before saying “… that you didn’t do.” Nobody else says it either.
She began crying. The diner manager walked over, busy and annoyed. “Everything ok?” he asked.
Marlana said yes and I nodded. The manager gave me a look, maybe recognition from all the times I’ve been here.
“I told you before you can’t just get coffee and sit here all day. I’m running a business, not a park bench. Order some food, Mr. Cheap.”
He huffed and went back to running his business. Marlana offered to pay for the coffee, but I waved her off.
“I’m buying,” I told her in my most solemn voice. “And I’ll find your brother’s friend, help you find justice.”
She gave me the photo of the friend, who she knew only as Jimmy, and a local address she said he’d visit in the next few days. And two hundred dollars, not seven hundred. She promised me the rest. She left without saying more.
Back in my conference room, my decrepit computer wheezed. The mattress on my bed was lumpy, which is why I nap in my “office” instead of my “conference room.” The pile of dirty clothes on the floor reminded me to do a laundry load. Soon.
Marlana dared me, so I started by Googling the words national academy of sciences forensic study. I’ll confess I doubted some of her story, but I needed the seven hundred bucks. And I wanted to see her again.
My internet search found over two million hits. I clicked the top links and began scanning.
“A congressionally mandated report … finds serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system and calls for major reforms … with the exception of nuclear DNA analysis … no forensic method has been … able to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual … faulty forensic science has … contributed to the wrongful conviction of innocent persons …”
Damn. Could all those TV shows be wrong?
My next search words: innocence eyewitnesses. Nearly four million hits.
“Eyewitness misidentification is the most common reason for wrongful convictions … eyewitnesses are frequently inaccurate … dozens of research studies confirm … wrongful convictions of innocent people are routinely caused by eyewitness misidentification …”
What was it like, I wondered, not only to waste away in prison for something you didn’t do, but to face being stomped to death, shivved to death, while a gang of caged sociopaths laughed at the suffering they forced on you?
I took the short walk from my conference room to my office. For a nap. The truth is tiring.
The address Marlana gave me matched a crappy pawnshop in a lousy neighborhood. Inside, the place smelled like bad breath. Watches, guitars, wedding rings, cigarette lighters, and a clutter of other forsaken merchandise lay everywhere, glum reminders of stretched paychecks, last hopes, and petty crimes.
The pawnbroker looked at me, not the photo I tried to show him. Ugly as a bottle of poison, he asked if I was a cop. When I said no, he told me to buy something, pawn something, or get the hell out. He was running a business, he said, not a visitors’ information booth.
Undiscouraged, I watched the pawnshop for most of three days and three nights. I thought about Marlana. Maybe she was thinking about me.
The third night, the guy from the photo went inside. Two minutes later, so did I. The guy from the photo, small and jittery in person, was showing the pawnbroker a necklace, two bracelets, and a set of earrings. They looked like big money.
“Way too rich for me,” the pawnbroker said. “Too hot, too.”
“Then who … ” The guy from the photo stopped speaking.
He and the pawnbroker glared at me, suspicious.
“Both of you, out of my store.” The pawnbroker reached under the counter.
My mistake, maybe I should have waited outside. As soon as we reached the sidewalk, I tried to make things right.
“Sorry,” I told the jittery little man, “But I need your help. Marlana needs your help. Her brother … ”
He kept walking, but I stayed with him. “Can you give Marlana’s brother an alibi? He’s your friend.”
He stopped. We’d walked more than a block from the pawnshop. Nothing around but parked cars, empty buildings, and a dark, deserted street.
“Who’s Marlana? What alibi? And who the hell are you?”
I didn’t get to explain because Marlana stepped around the corner with a gun in her hand. She looked comfortable with it. She stood close enough to shoot us both easily, far enough that we couldn’t try to jump her.
“The jewelry,” she said.
“Kristina,” the little man whispered.
“The jewelry,” she repeated. “Put it on the hood of that car, then step back to the same spot where you’re standing now.”
He did. She scooped up the jewelry, her eyes and her gun never leaving us.
“Didn’t know if you’d show up, Jimmy,” she said. “And all by yourself. Guess I won’t need my hired help.” She nodded toward me.
“No golf club tonight?” she asked me. “Thugs like us walk away all the time. Innocent people go to prison and life goes on. Our good luck, eh?”
“You still owe me five hundred,” I said.
She laughed through her lopsided mouth and slipped away. I didn’t follow her. Neither did Jimmy.
That’s when Jimmy told me his story, and I put the rest together. From what Jimmy said, Kristina was a hard case: a thief, a killer, and a consummate liar. She knew all about the jewelry heist and must have been watching the pawnshop, same as I was. She wanted me on the front line, I realized, so she could scope whatever happened and make her move without walking into a surprise.
Kristina’s brother was in prison, but he was the leader of a prison gang known as The Crank Savages, not their victim. Her brother found out about Jimmy and the jewelry from a new prisoner, Howie The Dog, who stupidly told a gang snitch about the burglary.
The Savages grabbed Howie for an unfriendly chat. He gave them the heist and fence details. They gave sister Kristina the job of getting the jewelry. She found Jimmy once before, and offered him a burglary job at a warehouse. But Jimmy turned her down and hid after an anxious phone call from Howie. Jimmy figured if he’d gone to the warehouse, Kristina would have robbed the jewelry from him back then. I figured she took her photo of Jimmy during all this, though he didn’t say. Kristina needed me to make sure Jimmy didn’t run and hide again, so she conned me by twisting Howie’s problems into a boohoo lie about a little brother in prison.
Jimmy wasn’t bitter about The Dog selling out to the Savages. “Howie’s gotta try and survive. Least he warned me,” Jimmy said. “And one more thing, Howie The Dog didn’t do the crime he’s in prison for. Another guy did it. Guess who?”
With that, Jimmy trudged away and I drifted back to my office. For a long nap. Searching for justice is tiring.
“Mysterious Private Investigations,” the perky recorded voice said. “Our agents are in the field, please leave your name and contact information.”
Silence. Until the caller hung up.
Just as well. I needed to leave my office, drop by the conference room, and do a laundry load. I hate napping in dirty clothes. It seems wrong to me.
Peter DiChellis writes short mystery and suspense fiction. His sinister tales appear in several ezines and mystery anthologies, including Plan B Volume III and the Plan B Omnibus. He is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, which sponsors the annual Derringer Awards for the year’s best mystery stories. For more, visit his site Murder and Fries at http://murderandfries.