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Innocence

Innocence

Innocence 13


  The doctors determined that she had been not merely beaten but also tortured, and not once but often, perhaps for half or more of her estimated three years. The authorities were not able to locate her parents. The wide circulation of a pencil portrait of her did not lead to any useful tips from the public, and a photo of her, taken after the bruising on her face faded, likewise brought no leads. They reached the conclusion that she had been imprisoned for most of her short life, hidden away, and in such cases it was with rare exception the mother and father, or one of them, if both were not present in the home, who committed the abuse.

  The girl became a ward of the court during her recuperation. In a month, she healed but didn’t wake. Sixty days after she was found, the prognosis for her recovery from coma was dismal. An advisory committee of doctors arrived at the unanimous opinion that, although the girl might not be technically brain-dead, she would remain in a permanent vegetative state. The current wisdom of medical ethicists held that a person in such a condition could feel no discomfort from being denied food and fluids. The court ordered the removal of the feeding tube by which sustenance was introduced to her stomach and a cessation of all extraordinary attempts to keep her alive, although the order was stayed for fifteen days to allow any patient-advocacy groups time to file an appeal.

  All this Gwyneth told me as we stood on opposite sides of the nameless girl’s bed in the yellow-brick house, while outside snow and cold wind slanted through the city, a quiet reminder to its people that the shapen world had the power to erase their mightiest works, though few of them would see it as such. She surprised me when, part of the way through her story, she reached down to take one of the child’s hands in hers. Other than her beloved father, when he lived, this was the one person whose touch she did not fear.

  Walter worked at the hospital where the girl was given care. He had called Gwyneth to say that the doctors on the advisory panel were certain the judge, who shared their bias against extraordinary care for the comatose, would deny any appeals regardless of their merit and would do so with such timing that the child would be either severely damaged by dehydration or dead before an advocacy group could find a sympathetic judge in a higher court to issue a stay.

  “How did you know Walter?” I asked.

  “My father once spent a few days in the hospital for a bleeding ulcer. Walter’s wife was his day nurse. She was very kind to him. I stayed in touch with her after he was released. When she died so young, two years after Daddy, I convinced my guardian to use some of my inheritance to set up a trust for the education of her and Walter’s children.”

  “And Walter hoped you’d take on the expense of this girl?”

  She shook her head. “He didn’t really know what he wanted when he called me. He just said he didn’t think she was vegetative.”

  “He’s not a doctor.”

  “No. A physician assistant. But he also said there was something special about this girl, he couldn’t define exactly what, but he felt it. He asked me to see her. He sneaked me into her room past midnight when there were few enough people around so I wouldn’t go nuts.”

  “You don’t go nuts.”

  “I have my moments,” she assured me.

  Indicating the child’s limp hand, which Gwyneth held, I said, “Did you touch her that night, too?”

  “Yes. I don’t know why I had the courage, but I did.”

  “And you think she’s special?”

  “Yes.”

  “Why?”

  She bent to kiss the girl’s hand. “I’m not sure what I believe about her. But I’m certain I should protect her until she wakes and tells us her name.”

  “You’re so certain she’ll revive.”

  “I am certain, yes. I’m certain even in spite of this.… ” Gently she pulled the flaxen hair back from the left side of the girl’s face, revealing an indentation where temple curved to brow, the mark of some beast whose signature was made not with a pen but with an object stone-hard and blunt.

  “How did she get here?”

  “I’ll tell you over dinner. I don’t want to inconvenience Walter and his family any longer. Wait for me on the front porch while I have a word with Janet and Cora.”

  I went down to the foyer. Someone had turned off the television. Alone, I stood in the warm silence, in the wide archway to the living room, still nervous about being here but nevertheless taking a moment to enjoy the domestic charm.

  To the left of the archway, on a console, a candle burned in a clear-glass container with a vented lid designed to keep the candle and its flame contained if it should be accidentally knocked to the floor. The luminary served a shrine, brightening a porcelain of the Holy Mother.

  When I stepped into the living room for a closer look at the two framed photographs that flanked the sacred statuette, I saw a woman of whom the camera had captured not only her beauty but also the suggestion of kindness and intelligence. Reflections of the honoring flame unfurled in the chased-silver frames into which the silversmith had worked a pattern of roses.

  I stood on the front porch, at the head of the steps, watching the ghost parade of snow shapes sculpted by the wind, ever changing as they capered through lamplight and shadow. The bare black limbs of the maples knocked and rattled an idiot rhythm, and creaked like the stair treads in an ill-carpentered house.

  After a minute, Gwyneth came out onto the porch, closed the door, and joined me. “You were okay in there. It wasn’t so bad, was it?”

  “It was bad, worse than I expected, but not in the way I thought it would be bad.”

  “Come on. I’m waiting for a couple of calls, but meanwhile we’ll grab dinner.”

  In the Rover, as she started the engine, I said, “Walter’s wife, she was kind to your father.”

  “From what I know of her, she was kind to everyone.”

  I said, “She didn’t just die, she was murdered, wasn’t she?”

  “Yes.”

  “Was her name Claire?”

  “You know the case, then.”

  “There were three of them. They dumped her in the pond in the Commons. They threw her away like she was trash.”

  As heat poured from the vents and the chill relented, we sat together in silence. Not looking. Not touching. But close.

  Then she said, “Ryan Telford has a reputation, respectability, much education, a prestigious position, but under all that, he’s just like those three. He’ll do anything. In the end, for all of their kind, it’s about the same thing—power. Having power over others, to tell you what to do, to take what you have, to use you any way they wish, to demean you and break you and make you obey, and finally to rob you of your faith in truth, make you despair that there’s no hope and never was. Since last night, he’s known I’m a threat to him. That can’t be permitted. He’s on a tear. He isn’t going to stop.”

  “Can he find out about this house?”

  “I don’t think he can. Or the place I’m staying tonight. But with his connections, I can’t be certain about anything. I shouldn’t have asked you to protect the girl. With your limitations, it’s too much to ask.”

  “You did all right for her with your limitations. If it were to come to that, I’d manage somehow. But it won’t come to that. Do you have proof of Telford’s larceny?”

  “The proof took time, but I got it. The proof is the easy part. Who to trust with it is a puzzle with half the pieces missing.”

  “The police,” I said.

  “The police, the district attorney’s office, the courts—you’ll find good people in all those places, Addison. But there’s also deep corruption there, as well. It’s not the city it once was. Everyone talks about justice, but there can be no justice where there is no truth, and these are times when truth is seldom recognized and often despised. It’s a hoglot, money is the mud, a lot of it dirty money or tax money wildly misspent, and more people are wallowing in it than you might think. If I put the proof in the wrong hands, it’ll be fiddled with until it prov
es nothing, and suddenly I’ll have a lot more enemies than one.”

  As she drove away from the curb, snow came down like ashes from a burnt-out sky invisible. In spite of its brightness, the city all around us seemed obscure, its millions of rooms offering no certain safe haven.

  36

  FATHER DIED ON A NIGHT DRAPED WITH HEAVY SNOW. The streets were all but impassable because of a strike of city workers in the Street and Sanitation Department that a cowed mayor would not confront. No plows funneled the powder to the curbs, and no dump trucks stood by to be loaded. Because the storm came rich in snow but without wind, perfectly even layers built up on every horizontal surface, as smooth as buttercream. The tunnel visors on the traffic lights wore white hoods, under which burned cyclops eyes that, when not blind dark, were red or green or yellow. The only vehicles abroad—a couple of four-wheel-drive black-and-white SUVs with police shields on the doors and a winterized ambulance of similar design—ignored those signals and cruised intersections without stopping.

  We had read of the predicted storm in the newspaper, during our after-hours visit to the library, and we had prepared for a night of sightseeing enhanced by the magical quality of a city under a spell of snow. Warmly dressed beneath our fleece-lined raincoats, booted and gloved and wearing ski masks, our hoods up and tied beneath our chins, we came aboveground in high spirits.

  During the first hour of our tour, we saw many marvelous things, one particularly memorable as we entered the block where stood the great Cathedral of St. Saturnius of Toulouse. The church and its associated buildings occupied an entire block at the broad flat top of Cathedral Hill, with steps plateauing up to its three entrances, each with two bronze-clad doors under a cinquefoil arch. The two Gothic towers soared so high into the night that their spires at moments disappeared into the kaleidoscopic snowfall.

  Along the street came a sleigh drawn by a horse nearly as large as a Clydesdale. The snow-muffled clopping of its steel-shod hooves and the ringing of the bells on its harness signified its reality, which otherwise we might have questioned, so fantastic was the animal and the four-passenger cariole that it pulled. A couple occupied the front seat, another couple the back, and they were dressed as if out of Dickens: the women in bonnets and voluminous dresses overlaid with capes, their hands warmed in furry mufflers; the men in greatcoats and top hats, bright scarves around their necks. We thought they must have planned this a long time, as a lark, and it tickled us to think that people would go to such lengths for the sake of frivolity. We waved at them, and they waved at us, and they turned west along the brow of Cathedral Hill.

  Inspired by that sight, Father and I broke into a snowball fight in the middle of the street, half a block past the church. We were thus engaged, plumes of laughter feathering away in the icy air, when the police SUV turned the corner and angled toward us.

  Perhaps the two patrolmen wanted only to warn us not to continue our game in the middle of the street, although traffic was almost as light as it might be after doomsday. Or perhaps they might have been concerned that we would damage one of the vehicles parked at the curb, inadvertently scooping up a chunk of tarred gravel from a fracture in the blacktop, giving one of our snowballs windshield-cracking impact.

  We waved at them to indicate that we understood their concern, and we stepped between two parked cars to the sidewalk, continuing north. But waving and cheerful assent to their authority didn’t satisfy them. They swung the SUV around to follow us and, with a spotlight, brought us center stage in the night.

  Over a loudspeaker, one of them said, “Please stop right there.”

  When my mother had turned me out, my life had rolled down the long hill of change, but I had enjoyed a better and more stable life during the twelve years after Father saved me from burning. What happened in the next few minutes, however, seemed not like a hill of change but like a cliff from which I was pushed into darkness. I will never be able to recount it without pain.

  37

  IN THE LAND ROVER, SURROUNDED BY THE CITY, I thought the falling snow began to seem ominous, as though it might be the same storm in which Father had died, the wind having circled the world uncounted times in those six years, returning now for me.

  As we headed for the haven to which Gwyneth had fled from her apartment near the Commons, she said, “When Walter lost Claire, it changed him. The brutality of her murder followed by the travesty of the not-guilty verdicts radicalized him.”

  Of the three rapists—Orcott, Sabbateau, and Clerkman—the last was the son of the longtime president of the union representing the city’s police and firemen. The press and all responsible authorities agreed that Clerkman’s family connections would in no way affect how the district attorney’s office would build a case and prosecute it.

  In court, the police chain-of-custody records for evidence in the case showed that the nurse’s cap and panties were found with her other garments near the pond. The officer who tagged and bagged those items had since retired and moved out of state; he was too ill to be subpoenaed. For reasons not explained, the prosecution was confident that the evidence records hadn’t been altered, that the cap and panties found in the van were not those of the nurse. Therefore, the defense attorney proposed that the aunt of Orcott, Verbina Orcott, who claimed to have found the garments, had foolishly planted them in the flower-shop van to incriminate her nephew, whom she detested and believed to be a heavy drug user. Wasn’t it true that she thought her husband was naive and far too financially generous with their nephew? Wasn’t it true that they often argued about his generosity? Wasn’t it true that subsequent to her giving this trumped-up so-called evidence to the police, her husband filed for divorce? In sworn testimony, Verbina declared that the cap and panties shown to her in court were not the ones she found under the seat in the van, but when subjected to relentless cross-examination, she at times became befuddled.

  Although initial statements by the police-department spokesman had mentioned mattress-related DNA evidence matching that of the three defendants and the victim, by the time the trial was under way, the prosecution had no match to the victim or to Orcott, and the DNA evidence regarding Clerkman and Sabbateau was inconclusive. Because the nurse had floated for hours in the pond, water had invaded her every orifice. The deputy coroner testified that he could not obtain perpetrator DNA from the cadaver. For some reason unspecified, the chief coroner was not called to testify.

  With such supposedly flimsy evidence, the case might never have been brought to trial, if not for Sabbateau’s confession. In court, the defendant claimed he had made a false confession because the two interrogating detectives threatened and psychologically tortured him, so that he feared for his life. And they had not allowed him to call an attorney. Two psychologists testified that Sabbateau had a below-average IQ and suffered from an inferiority complex; as a consequence he was timid and inclined to be fearful even in ordinary situations. They didn’t go as far as to claim that Orcott and Clerkman hung out with the pathetic Sabbateau solely because of their kind hearts, but such noble intentions were implied.

  The two accused detectives, Hines and Corzo, each other’s best friend, didn’t acquit themselves well on the witness stand. After the jury returned the not-guilty verdicts, the detectives were eventually suspended for a year without pay. In spite of having no income, Hines and Corzo endured no obvious decline in their living standards, and in fact they rented a bachelor’s pad in Las Vegas and spent most of the year enjoying everything that city had to offer, whereafter they returned to their duties, chastened and contrite.

  Now, piloting the Land Rover through the steadily thickening snowfall, Gwyneth said, “When the girl found in the Dumpster wasn’t protected by the court, when Judge Gallagher started the process of having the feeding tube removed, Walter felt the system was failing her as it failed Claire. Without my name ever being used, Gallagher was persuaded to allow an irrevocable trust to be set up to care for the girl. Custody of her was quietly granted to Walter and
to his sister, Janet, so that they could care for her in the house I provided through the trust.”

  Considering the burden of her social phobia and the restrictions that it placed upon her, I marveled that Gwyneth could accomplish so much. I supposed that she had been taught competence and courage by the father of whom she spoke so highly, as I had been by my father.

  “But how could the judge be persuaded to do all that without knowing who funded the trust?”

  “Judge Gallagher’s mother, Rose, has big influence, because he’ll receive a huge inheritance when she dies. The person Rose trusts most in this world isn’t her son, who often defies her, but Teague Hanlon.”

  “Your guardian.”

  “He told her what could be done for the child if the judge allowed it. Rose was sick that the girl might be starved to death. Never mentioning who had advised her, she told her son that if Walter and Janet weren’t given guardianship, a new will would be drawn, granting him a quarter of her estate rather than all of it. The court saw the wisdom of compassion. The wheels of justice turned with expresstrain speed.”

  I said, “So much money and effort for a girl you didn’t know.”

  “What else is money for if not for things like this? Besides, you saw her. She’s special.”

  I remembered the face that inspired in me thoughts of peace and charity and hope. “Special, I think. But how?”

  “Time will show us. Maybe soon.”

  The wind brought the fine dry snow fast along the street, and the heavily trafficked street brought us at a more sedate pace to a long block of theaters and restaurants. Through the streaming flakes, I read the titles of the plays and the names of the actors on the marquees.