The goose egg made by the initial blow was tinged a virulent pink and a deep gash contorted the teenager’s strawberry blond eyebrow. His left eye had hemorrhaged, the white turned a crimson red, and that side of his face was mottled from bruise and trauma. Luckily, the skin on his forehead wasn’t split, so I guessed the weapon was a billyclub, not a service revolver. Somebody on the force must have liked young Bill Kleeb.
The judge had sent the case to me, since Kleeb and his girlfriend, Eileen Jennings, had filed complaints of police brutality, my expertise. Philadelphia had coughed up $20 million in lawsuits for police misconduct in the past two years, and most of the money went to clients of mine. My cases ran the gamut from police assault, excessive force, and false arrest to the officially “mistaken shooting,” like the grad student who was shot by an off-duty cop because the student was wearing a knit Eagles cap, the same as a robber seen fleeing in the area. The cop, who had been drinking, temporarily forgot that everybody in Philly wears Eagles caps, especially when the team’s in the playoffs.
That case had made headlines, as had the complaints I filed against the 39th District, where a cadre of Philly’s finest confessed to fencing stolen goods and falsifying evidence in drug cases, thereby sending over one hundred people, including a sixty-year-old tailor, to prison for twelve years. No matter that the tailor was innocent. He won two mil from the city, for which he paid my nominal fee and made me a custom suit. I liked my work, it had a purpose. The way I figured it, my hometown didn’t need me to tell it we had a problem in the department, it just needed me to remind it once in a while. For this I charged only a nuisance fee. My fee to be a nuisance.
“Now tell me again, Bill. Why didn’t you ask the cops for a doctor?” I took inane notes during the interview so I wouldn’t stare at his battered face, a part of the job I never got used to. I scribbled on my legal pad,DOCTOR, DOCTOR, GIMME THE NEWS.
“I said I didn’t need no doctor. They put ice. It was good enough.” His hair was a greasy blond, and splotchy freckles spread across his small nose and onto a swollen upper lip. Bill had the kind of teeth only poor kids have anymore, irregularly sized and spaced. Amazingly, none had been knocked out during the melee.
“You should have gotten it checked. Anytime you lose consciousness.”
“I’ll remember that.”
I wrote,I GOT A BAD CASE OF LOVIN ’YOU. “How’s your ribs? They all right?”
“Does it hurt to breathe?”
“Nuh. See?” He blew a cone of cigarette smoke into the air.
“Impressive. No kicks to the stomach? No feet, clubs, anything?”
“I’m fine,” he said crankily, and I began to feel ticked off. Maybe it was the way the morning had gone so far.
“If you’re so fine, Bill, why did you allege the police used excessive force against you? And why do you want to plead not guilty when we have an offer that gets you out of jail free?”
“It’s Eileen, my girl.” He shifted position in his blue prison jumpsuit. “She… uh… wants us to do the same complaint… Together, like.”
“But it doesn’t make sense for you to plead not guilty. Eileen’s the one who started the trouble, she’s the one with the record.” For smalltime prostitution, but I didn’t need to drive home that point.
“She wants us to be, like, a united front.”
“Well, you’re not. You’re two different people, you have two different situations. That’s why you have separate lawyers. Eileen’s in more trouble than you. She had the weapon.”
“It was only a taser gun.”
“Electricity applied to the chest of an arresting officer. You think that doesn’t count?”
He ran his tongue over his swollen lip. “Eileen, she’s got quite a temper. She’ll be pissed if I don’t go along.”
“So what? Who wears the nose rings in this family?”
Bill winced as he dragged on his Salem. Cigarette smoke and cheap disinfectant thickened the air in the interrogation room. The lattice cage over the door window was furry with dust, and a chewed-up Styrofoam cup lay on its side on the filthy table. I’ve seen this same Styrofoam cup in every precinct in Philly. I think they move it around.
“Take the deal, Bill. If you plead guilty, you walk. If you plead not guilty, you go directly to jail. It’s one of the fine ironies of our criminal justice system.”
He still wouldn’t meet my eye.
“Okay, let’s get off that subject for a minute. Give me some background. You were demonstrating for animal rights when they arrested you. You don’t think Furstmann Dunn should test its vaccine on monkeys, is that the story?”
“They got no right. We got no right. We don’t own them, we’re just bigger.”
“Got it.” Some of us, anyway. I couldn’t help noticing my latest revolutionary was a tad on the short side. “Are you a member of PETA or any other animal rights groups?”
“I don’t need no authority over me.” He sucked on his Salem, holding it down like a lollipop.
“I take it that’s a no.” I wrote,NO. “So it’s you and Eileen. Are you two married?”
“We don’t need no authority-”
“Another no,” I said, making a note.NO 2. “So it’s you and Eileen against the world. Romantic.” I had felt that way with Mark, when I was younger and entirely delusional.
“I guess,” he said lazily, the “I” sounding like “Ah.” I couldn’t place his accent even though I know every Philly accent there is.
“Where you from, Bill? Not from here.”
“Out western PA, out past Altoona. The boonies. I was raised on a farm, that’s how I come to know animals. It was the 4-H ruined me.” He laughed, emitting a residual puff of smoke.
“Did you graduate high school?”
“Yup. Then I booked it to York and worked at the Harley Davidson factory for a while. That’s where I met Eileen. She was workin’ in the lab, Furstmann Dunn’s lab. That’s where they were testing the vaccine. She took pictures of them torturin’ the monkeys. She saw the way they treated ’em. Theyabused ’em.”
It didn’t sound like a word that came naturally to him. “Eileen tell you this?”
“They use electrodes, you know.”
“On the monkeys?”
“On minks. For mink coats. Stoles and whatnot.”
“Minks? Why are we talking about minks?”
“I don’t know. It was you brought it up.”
I wrote downNOT MINKS. Was he just dumb, or was a conversation with an anarchist necessarily confusing?
“It’s all part of the same thing,” he added. “It’s all wrong.”
“Bill, can I give you some advice?” I try to run the lives of all of my clients, to redeem the job I’m doing with my own. “If I were going to protest animal experimentation, I wouldn’t pick on Furstmann Dunn, because they’re working on an AIDS vaccine. People want to cure AIDS, even if it takes a few chimps to do it. Why don’t you go after the fur companies instead? Then people can get behind you, agree with you.”
He shook his head. “Eileen, she don’t care if people agree with us or not. She wants to put a stop to it. It was her idea to call the TV stations and the radio.”
“You did make quite a commotion, didn’t you?” I said, feeling an unaccountable tingle of pride. They’d had everybody there, even the national TV news. Part of the fussing was a spontaneous counterdemonstration by a group of gay men. A tough issue, but I was undefeated in not judging my clients’ politics. I didn’t defend what they said, just their right to say it without a nightstick to the noggin.
“Got a whole lotta press, too. Eileen liked that.” Bill took another drag on his cigarette.
“You shouldn’t have resisted arrest. They had a whole squad there, and it was just two of you. You don’t strike me as fighter.” I glanced at Bill’s arms; white, thin, flabby.
“Nuh, I’m a lover, not a fighter.” He smiled crookedly.
I bet he wasn’t much of either, but I found myself liking him. I flipped through the file in front of me, which was almost empty. Bill had no priors, even in the counties, which was why the D.A. had offered me such a sweet deal. The poor kid had thrown one punch his whole life, and it had landed him here. “I don’t get it,” I said, closing the file folder. “Why did you hit the cop?”
“Because he was beatin’ on Eileen. I was tryin’ to get him off her. He twisted her arm, so she’d go down, like.” His eyes flared. “All she did was holler on him.”
“Except for the taser, remember? She threatened the cop with it, and the CEO of the company. She trapped the man in his Mercedes.”
“Okay, so she was trying to give him a dose of his own medicine. It coulda been worse. She wanted to blow him up in that fancy car of his.”
“Blow who up? The CEO of Furstmann?” My chest tightened. I’d never gotten used to murder cases, even when my legal argument was sound, so I gave that work up a long time ago. “Bill, did Eileen say she wanted to kill the CEO of Furstmann? Did she mean it?”
“She’s tough, Eileen is.” He looked down at his cigarette. “That’s why she don’t want to plead guilty to the charges. Make ’em prove we done wrong. Go to jail, like a protest. Maybe do a hunger strike.”
I set down my ballpoint. “Bill, answer me. Did you talk about killing the CEO with Eileen?”
He looked away, avoiding my eye. “She said she wanted to, and I told her not to. She said she wouldn’t do nuthin’ ’less we talked about it first.”
“Would she tell her lawyer she wanted to kill the CEO?”
I leaned across the table. “Not good enough, Bill. The murder of a CEO, with you as an accomplice, you could get the death penalty. The D.A. here asks for death in every murder case, she wants to prove her manhood. You understand what I’m saying?”
He stabbed his cigarette into the logjam in the tin ashtray.
“Killing that CEO wouldn’t solve anything, no matter what your girlfriend says. There are twenty other suits waiting to take his place. They got the same cars, they got the same degrees. They line ’em up, they call ’em vice presidents. You’re smart enough to know that, right, Bill?”
He nodded, stubbing out the smoldering butt.
“I want you to promise you won’t do anything that stupid, not on my watch. Look at me, Bill. Tell me you’re not that stupid.”
His good eye met mine. “I’m not.”
“No. Say it after me, ‘I’m not that stupid.’”
“I’m not that stupid.” He half smiled and a yellow eyetooth peeked out.
“Excellent. Now you’re going into that courtroom this morning and you’re going to plead guilty, you with me? I got you the best deal going, and you’re gonna take it.”
“I can’t. Eileen-”
“Forget about Eileen. You’d be a fool to do what she wants. She’ll take you both down, not just her, and you’re my lookout. You’re the one I’m worried about.”
He shook his head and sighed. “You got kids, lady?”
“Yeah, I got kids, Bill. You.”