Key Witness

Key Witness

3.3 3
by J. F. Freedman

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To reclaim his integrity, a corporate lawyer takes on an unwinnable case

After years at the top of his game, Wyatt Matthews has hit rock bottom. Though his bank account is bursting and his law practice is thriving, Wyatt takes no joy in his work. Seeking meaning, he volunteers for six months as a public defender, where he finds that the legal systemSee more details below


To reclaim his integrity, a corporate lawyer takes on an unwinnable case

After years at the top of his game, Wyatt Matthews has hit rock bottom. Though his bank account is bursting and his law practice is thriving, Wyatt takes no joy in his work. Seeking meaning, he volunteers for six months as a public defender, where he finds that the legal system is an ugly place for those who can’t afford top-notch help. In one of his first cases, he arranges bail for a would-be gangster arrested for armed robbery. At first, Marvin White is just another file. But soon, his case will become a crusade.
Not long after his release, Marvin is charged with murder. Seven women have been abducted, raped, and murdered by the “Alley Slasher,” and Marvin is found near the scene of the latest atrocity. Though Wyatt got in this business to better his own life, he will stop at nothing to save Marvin’s.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Unlike many thriller writers, Freedman is willing to experiment. He followed his debut crime blockbuster, Against the Wind, with a coming-of-age drama, The Obstacle Course, and the mystery melodrama House of Smoke. Now he's written a legal thriller. But while his big talent keeps him from ever turning out a mediocre novel, sometimes he misses the targetincluding here, despite a crafty setup that sees Wyatt Matthews, 48, a top corporate attorney in an unnamed city that's probably Boston, dealing with midlife crisis by volunteering for six months as a public defender. Wyatt's sharp lawyering gets probation for 18-year-old Marvin White, who's black and rightly charged with armed robbery, but immediately Marvin is re-arrested and accused of being the serial killer known as the Alley Slasher. Readers know that Marvin is innocent of the killings and that the hardened con who's implicating him in exchange for reduced time is lying. The novel's suspense, which is only moderate, hinges on Wyatt figuring out how the con is working his scam and successfully defending Marvin at trial. Freedman enriches the novel considerably by depicting how Wyatt's foray from privilege into Marvin's world of urban despair strains the lawyer's family, pushing his trophy wife into hysteria and him into an affair. While the novel sizzles as a sociologic document, it fizzles as legal drama. Wyatt scores one triumph after another at the trial, with his only serious setback due to a shooting that Freedman pulls out of a hat. Arbitrary complications in a similar vein stud the novel, giving it a cobbled-up feel that does ill service to its strong prose, characters and insights. Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club and Mystery Guild selections. (July)
Library Journal
Wyatt Matthews, a wealthy corporate lawyer, quits his job and signs on as a public defender in this latest from Freedman, whose House of Smoke (LJ 12/95) was a best seller.
Kirkus Reviews
Superior, improbable, but gripping postO.J. legal procedural that fearlessly plays well-worn race, sex, and psychokiller cards, and still wins the game.

Wyatt Matthews, a middle-aged seven-figure-salaried rainmaker lawyer, is burned out from too much easy money. In an attempt to recapture the illusion of integrity that once seemed so necessary, he signs up for six months of pro bono labor in the Public Defender's Office, where he gets a stack of color-coded felony files and advice to plea-bargain as many of his charges as possible. When one of them, an incompetent holdup homeboy named Marvin White, is connected to a series of sickening rape-slasher killings, Matthews finds his crusade and decides to defend White with all the tricks of the trade. It isn't going to be easy: White is an 18-year-old semiliterate black male, and the state has what would appear to be incontrovertible lab evidence showing his guilt. Freedman (House of Smoke, 1996, etc.) piles it on a little thick with some of the villains—one has a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling tattooed on his back, with the Devil sticking his finger out to Adam—but he invests the other familiar summer-stock players with charming eccentricities and puts them in extravagantly over-the-top settings. Despite a manipulatory plot that demands one too many contrivances to keep the suspense churning, Freedman delivers a powerfully absorbing tale of justice gone almost, but not quite, out of control. What we imagine to be a rigid, hidebound legal system is, it seems, a clash of personalities in which, every once in a while, the good guys win.

An intensely accomplished, smoothly written, character-driven page-turner that, for all its flaws, manages to push the right buttons while sustaining a high level of suspense and interest.

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Key Witness

By J. F. Freedman


Copyright © 1997 J. F. Freedman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-2396-1


Early dark, time suspended between sunset and true night, the barest sliver of dying sunlight fading on the western horizon, flickering dull yellow-vermilion patches visible through the thick clusters of trees that bracket the narrow two-lane road.

Wyatt Matthews was running. Five strides to a breath, deep inhale, then out, resisting the urge, late in the run, to breathe more quickly. T-shirt soaked across the chest and under the armpits, feeling a slickness on his forearms, forehead, neck. Driving himself, sweating out all the crap.

He had been running almost forty minutes, just under five miles. He was forty-eight years old, a tick under six feet tall, and his weight—173 pounds—was the same it had been the day he'd graduated law school. No matter how far he ran—three miles or ten or any distance in between—he ran the last mile with the same cadence, the same timing as the first. His daily run was almost as fast as it had been ten, even twenty years earlier.

Wyatt ran for exercise; more important he ran for the high it gave him. Running, sweating, feeling his heart beating faster, was commonsense good health; on a deeper, more important level, running helped clear his head.

Tonight, though, the fatigue, the sweating, the physical depletion, couldn't blow the shit out. The more he tried not to think, the more a crazy-quilt jumble of ideas, images, and scenarios flashed across his mind. Stuff from the firm, especially residual stuff from his last case, which he had worked on for over three years and had finally concluded a month ago in triumph.

More than anything, what Wyatt was thinking about, what he had been agonizing over almost from when the trial was over, was why he didn't feel better about it. Part of it was the normal letdown after such a long, arduous struggle. That always happened, he knew that, he knew the size and shape of it and how to deal with it.

This was something different. Something deeper, heavier. This was ambivalence and life-crisis chaos on a major scale. In runner's terms, he had hit the wall. The problem was, he didn't know what the wall was. How big, what it was made of. Anything.

His run was almost over. Another third of a mile to go and he'd be at the entrance to his driveway, and then it was the last hundred yards to the front of his house.

Wyatt's home was like all the houses in this section of the township—large, expensive, exclusive. The lots were an acre or more, each secluded from view by thick stands of old-growth maple, ash, and hickory. Rich people's houses—people who had made it. Privacy and security were valued—if you didn't live here, or weren't visiting someone who did, you had no reason to be in the area. Gardeners, maids, day workers, they came and went, but they didn't leave lasting footprints.

Except for the sounds of his footsteps and breathing, the only noise Wyatt had been conscious of was the wind in the trees; but now, suddenly, rising out of the darkness, he heard the shrill scream of a siren, and then it was two sirens he was hearing, and as he turned, startled, and looked back over his shoulder, he saw flashing lights, the vehicles coming up loud and fast behind him.

The road was dark. There were no streetlights. He moved far enough off the asphalt onto the shoulder to make sure he was well clear of the approaching vehicles, because wherever they were going, they weren't watching for runners.

A police car sped past him. Right behind it was an ambulance.

There weren't many houses up ahead—just his and a couple others.

He panicked—what were cops and ambulances doing here? Had something happened at his house while he'd been running? When he'd gone out the front door, his wife had been starting to dress for dinner, and his daughter had been doing homework. Had something turned wrong in that short a space of time?

Instant adrenaline rush kicked in, he was sprinting for home.

It wasn't his house. It was his neighbor's, the closest house to his own, the two properties separated by a large shared lawn bisected by a natural fence line of elms.

Wyatt stopped, catching his breath in deep gulps, grateful that it wasn't his house, it wasn't his family. He could see the police car and the ambulance parked in front, the lights still flashing. Outside floodlights had been turned on—the front of the house was as bright as daytime.

The cops and paramedics were out of their vehicles, talking to the Spragues, his neighbors. They were in their mid-sixties—Ted Sprague had been president of Radmill, one of the largest auto-parts companies in the country. He'd retired last year. The Spragues were supposed to be out of the country until this weekend, vacationing in Paris.

Wyatt jogged up the driveway. "Ted," he called out as he approached, "are you all right? What's going on?"

"We've been robbed, that's what's been going on. Enid was shot."

Wyatt rushed over. He put a comforting hand on the other's forearm. "Jesus!" he exclaimed. "Is she ..."

"I'm all right." He heard a woman's shaky voice.

Enid Sprague was lying awkwardly on the front steps. A female paramedic was cutting off part of her dress around her waist. The dress was soaked with blood.

"What are you ...?" Wyatt turned to the paramedic who was tending to Mrs. Sprague's wound. "Is she all right? What happened?"

The paramedic, wearing latex gloves, finished cutting away the bloody dress, revealing the wound underneath. A red, ugly blotch along the rib line, blood oozing out. She wiped away the blood so she could see the wound.

"Didn't hit any arteries or vital organs," the paramedic told Enid Sprague in a practiced, reassuring voice. She swiveled around to look at the husband. "I'm sure she's going to be all right."

The man staggered next to his wife.

Wyatt hovered over him. "Ted. What happened?"

Sprague shook his head. "We walked into the house," he said, his voice full of astonishment, "the lights were all out, which was logical since we weren't home, and all the curtains were drawn—we'd sealed the house up before we'd left. It was black as a tomb in there, believe me. We're about to turn the front lights on, and we see a beam of light coming from under the study door, at the rear of the house. Like a flashlight." He took his wife's hand in his. "How do you feel? Are you all right?"

"It feels like somebody took a tooth out without Novocain," she told him, "all of them at the same time. Try not to worry," she said, her voice coming in a gasp.

"How can I not worry?"

Enid Sprague looked up at Wyatt. "We walked right in on the bastards," she told him, her voice indignant even through the pain, "surprised the hell out of them. We could see they were robbing us—silverware, my jewelry, they must have known we weren't in town. They had everything they were going to take in neat piles on the floor, we could see it from their flashlights."

"We got back a day earlier than we were supposed to," Ted interjected.

"I asked them what the hell they were doing," Enid said.

Wyatt smiled. Enid was a tough cookie; nobody screwed her around.

"So they shot her," Ted said, shuddering.

"They shot you," one of the policemen echoed. "Did they both have guns? Or just the one who shot you?"

Ted Sprague looked away.

"Did you notice if the other one had a gun as well?" the young officer asked again. He was being polite. These people were old enough to be his parents, almost old enough to be his grandparents.

Ted Sprague shook his head. "The other one didn't have a gun." He hesitated. "Neither one of them had a gun. That we could see," he added.

Enid flinched as the paramedic applied antiseptic to her side, placed a gauze pad over the injured area, and began bandaging it. "We're going to the hospital now," she said. "Do you feel steady enough to stand up and walk over to the ambulance? We can put you on the gurney if you'd rather."

"I think I'm okay," Enid stated. "Help me up."

Each paramedic took an arm and helped Enid to her feet. Ted hovered at her side.

"I'll ride in with you," he said. "Can I do that?" he asked.

"Certainly," the paramedic told him.

"The gun," the policeman said a third time. "I misunderstood you. You said neither one ... or which ..."

"It was my gun." Enid turned to the policeman. "He used my gun to shoot me."

"He was stealing your gun as well?" the officer asked. "Where in the house did you keep it?"

She shook her head. Her husband put a protective arm around her shoulder, the side that hadn't been shot. "He took it away from her," Ted said flatly, avoiding the officer's question.

"You got your pistol out from somewhere in the house, where you kept it for emergencies, and you brought it into the room with you," the policeman said, putting it together. "Which you assumed would give you some protection, but it didn't because he took it away from you. I see the picture now," he concluded.

"He was walking at me," she said. The color was rapidly draining from her face, her voice coming out in airy, wheeling gasps, like she'd had a tracheotomy. She shook her head. "I couldn't pull the trigger. He took it right out of my hand."

"And then shot you with it," the policeman confirmed.

"I tried to take it back away from him once he'd taken it. That's when it went off."

You're lucky it didn't go off in your chest, Wyatt thought. Two inches to the left and we wouldn't be standing here talking like this.

"At least they didn't get anything," Enid added defiantly, almost gloating. "As soon as that gun went off they ran like scared rabbits."

A woman suddenly materialized, running up the driveway. "What happened?" Moira, Wyatt's wife, asked. "Oh!" she gasped, seeing the blood seeping through the bandage on Enid Sprague's rib cage.

"Burglars," Wyatt explained. "Enid tried to stop them and they took the gun away from her, and it went off in the struggle."

"Oh, my God! You poor thing! What can we do?" Moira was wearing a black cocktail dress, but she had no shoes on and no makeup.

"I need to go to the hospital," Enid said.

"Of course." Moira was chagrined.

The paramedics lifted Enid into the ambulance.

"Before you go, sir," the officer asked Ted Sprague, "can you give me a description of them? Did you get a decent look at them? Either of them, or both?" He had his notepad out.

"Well, it was dark, like I said," Ted began. "Pitch-black, except for their flashlights. All we could really see were silhouettes."

"They had stocking caps pulled down low over their faces," Enid interrupted from the back of the ambulance. "And they were wearing gloves." She pointed at the paramedic's hands. "Like hers." She lay down inside, on the gurney.

"They were black," Ted told the cops. "They were black men, both of them."

The lead cop, who was white, cocked his head quizzically. "If it was pitch-black, how could you tell?" he asked.

Ted Sprague turned from helping his wife into the ambulance to face the cop. "I didn't fall out of the tree this morning, son. It could've been black as the inside of hell in there, but I can tell a black man when I hear his voice. I heard them both talk, and they were both black men. Of that I am certain."

"All right, then." The officer made some notes. "Did they seem young or old, or in between?"

"Young." Ted was as firm as concrete. "From gangs, I'd bet my life on it."

"We're going to check the house over," the officer told Ted, "and we'll leave someone here until you get back. These people won't be back," he said, looking at Wyatt and Moira as well as the Spragues. "They're likely a dozen miles away from here by now, but you might want to let your security service know what happened. They'll send someone out to keep an eye on things."

The ambulance took off down the driveway, disappearing into the street. The cops went into the house to assess the damage further.

It was quiet again, only the sounds of night in the country, but Wyatt felt like he was standing in a war zone. He put an arm around Moira's waist. She was shaking.

"Let's go home," he said comfortingly. "It's over here."

She looked up at him. "I never thought something like that could happen here. Nothing's safe anymore," she stated, her voice flat.

"That's not true," he countered.

"Of course it is. You just saw it."

He shook his head. "This was a professional, planned burglary. The men who did this knew the Spragues were out of town. It was dumb bad luck for everyone that they came back early."

"You don't know that," Moira said. "And they shot Enid."

"They didn't have guns." He wanted her to understand the truth of the situation so she could put it in its proper perspective. "It was her gun. It went off by accident. People get robbed, honey. It doesn't mean gangbangers are coming out here and threatening us."

She thought about that for a moment. "It's the world. Nothing is safe anymore," she proclaimed a second time with a shudder.



Normal, everyday purchase, nothing suspicious.

The owner, a squat statue behind the counter, barely looked at him, singsong: "Regular or filters? Kings or lights?" One sideways glance then away, the black narrow eyes opaque marbles. Like he was a dog turd stinking up the pavement.

The gun hung heavy in the right-hand pocket of his jacket. A compact automatic, like the hit men use. He didn't know any hit men, he'd heard that from his homie, who swore he'd stolen it from some Italian guy's house.

He could kill this motherfucker and sleep like a baby afterward. Take the gun out and shoot this prick right in his face.

"Change that—make it Marlboros," he managed to respond as the short man, almost as wide as he was tall, was reaching up on his tiptoes for the pack of smokes high on the shelf behind the counter. You asshole, you're so dumb you don't keep the cigarettes someplace where you can reach them easy, you deserve having to stretch your short fat arm up there—the owner's shirt coming out from where he'd neatly tucked it into his pants, which were belted halfway up his chest.

Then he noticed that there were packs closer down, easier to reach. Son of a bitch was trying to foist a stale pack off on him. Save the fresh ones for his regular customers.

You're on my list, he thought to himself, eyes burning at the owner's back.

He hated when people pulled shit like that. Like he was some fool back in school, didn't know the answer, teacher trying to ridicule him. Fumbling, tongue-tied. "Yeah, Marlboros," he said again. "Hard box." It threw him, being asked a dumb-ass question like that. And trying to sell him stale goods, that really burned his ass.

Not that it actually mattered. He didn't smoke tobacco. One brand was the same as the other, far as he was concerned. Camels had been the first brand that had popped into his mind, because of that Joe Camel character you saw everywhere, on the billboards and in the subways, a takeoff of an ultracool dude, shooting pool and scoring the bitches.

Tobacco was a plot: evil, enslaving, you saw that message plastered on the signs in the buses, the billboards all through the south side—sometimes plastered right over that Joe Camel's jive-ass face: a picture of a skeleton handing a lit cigarette to an innocent little black kid. Little girl in pigtails, face all clean and shiny. Big shit-eating grin on the death-head's skull-face.

Pass on tobacco. Smoke weed, or he would mix up some crack with Valium that was part of the contents of some old bitch's purse he'd grabbed off the seat of her car where she had left it while she was putting coins in a parking meter. Deserve the bitch right, leave her purse on the seat with the window wide open.

Doing drugs on a regular basis was expensive, too much for him, especially where he was at these days. The only good thing about not having money he could think of.

He wasn't going to have a habit—ever. Habits were for losers. Like they say on the street, if you have a regular habit that's all you have. You deal shit, you don't use it, unless you're dealing it and taking a taste for yourself. Preferably you sell it to white people, 'cause they paid top dollar. They want to score and get the fuck out of his neighborhood, scared shitless, you could smell the fear on them.

Score dope and cheap pussy, blow jobs in their expensive cars, that's all they came down to his neighborhood for.


Excerpted from Key Witness by J. F. Freedman. Copyright © 1997 J. F. Freedman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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