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Good morning. I'm Lily Nelson, and this is Boston Trial Television Headline News. Our two lead stories this morning are the weather, as Boston braces for what old-timers call a nor'easter, and the court hearing for mass murderer Felix Zrbny. The big storm moving slowly up the coast has meteorologists reminiscing about the blizzard of seventy-eight. The judge in the Zrbny case has cloistered the proceeding. There will be no media coverage inside the court-room, but we will be going live to the court-house steps where, I am told, it is already snowing....
That January morning I should have been stretched on the sofa in front of my wood-stove, the most recent George V. Higgins novel in my left hand, a cup of steaming coffee on the table to my right, with Max the cat ensconced on the top of the sofa reading over my shoulder, and both of us listening to Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Instead, against my will and against my very nature, I sat squeezed into a seat on a Boeing 737 descending six miles through a killer snowstorm to land at Boston's Logan Airport.
"I must be fucking nuts," I muttered.
I stuffed Higgins into my duffel bag. As much as I enjoyed his depictions of Beantown, my home for fifty years, I could not concentrate. Thoughts of meeting the Big Guy in the Sky distracted me.
I hated being pried out of my retreat in Lake Albert, Michigan. It is miles from anywhere significant. In winter, those miles seem like light-years, which is exactly what I prefer.
The woodshed was full; I had stocked the house with books from the village bookseller, CDs from the village music shop. There was enough food to last us Max, me, and our wintering friends, the birds three months if necessary (and a bit longer if Max devoured any of our guests).
My only concession to human contact was a promise to Buck Semple, our village police chief, that I would meet him for lunch once a month at the Lake Albert Diner. The food was deep fried and artery clogging. John Prine, Kinky Friedman, and Waylon Jennings took turns ricocheting off the aluminum and Formica surfaces. Locals crowded in at noon and added to the dull roar, exchanging stories about their ice-fishing exploits.
While others, Buck included, complained of cabin fever or the more fashionable "seasonal affective disorder," I relished my solitude.
It was Ray Bolton my oldest friend, my daughter Lane's godfather, and the Boston police detective who had handed me my first homicide case twenty-five years earlier who persuaded me to board the plane to Boston. He sent a fax asking me to attend a court hearing. The district attorney's office would pay my fee and expenses, he wrote. All I had to do was observe and advise.
I fired back a fax: "Observe who?"
Bolton responded: "Felix Zrbny."
The name meant nothing to me. I assumed that Zrbny was a bad actor, wondered briefly if I should recognize the name, then made arrangements to head east.
Nine years earlier, I had closed my Beacon Street practice in forensic psychiatry, retired from the business of reconstructing murders and developing personality profiles from the traces of self that killers invariably leave at crime scenes, and had run for the woods. I had not been in Boston since, although my retirement ended abruptly after five years in hiding when Lane, a homicide detective with the New York City Police Department, dumped a case in my lap. I pissed and moaned about it, but quickly realized that I had not lost my taste for the chase.
Since then, I have been selective about the cases I work, refusing even to consider a dozen or more requests a year, but occasionally getting hooked when a particularly challenging series of homicides washes ashore at Lake Albert.
I have never refused a request from Ray Bolton, and he has always been there when I need a favor. He respected my privacy, and knew that when winter settled on Michigan, I made like a bear and lived off my fat. For him to drag me from my cave in January meant that he had serious concerns about the gentleman with the vowel-deficient last name.
As the plane descended in its final approach to Logan, I glanced out the window. I hoped that our pilot had better visibility than the whiteout that greeted me. I stared down, expecting to catch a glimpse of black water or the airport's infamous seawall. I saw neither. The plane touched down, skidded a few times, then made its turn to the terminal. I still could not see a damn thing.
My sensory deprivation ended when I stepped into the waiting area and surveyed the milling crowd. Those with destinations forged ahead. A small army of greeters craned necks in search of relatives and friends. Bolton stood to one side, a nattily attired, six-foot, gray-haired African-American. Behind Bolton a dozen uniformed cops restrained a surging gaggle of media representatives wielding minicams and microphones.
"I didn't see any famous faces on the plane," I told Bolton as we shook hands.
"There was a leak," he said. "We're going out through a downstairs corridor. A couple of airport cops will escort us."
"What's the big deal?"
"No legal proceeding in years has received the media attention this one's getting. They can't get into the courtroom, so they're hanging everywhere else. Wendy Pouldice had a reporter banging on my door at ten last night."
"The talking face-lift? I remember her well."
"Pouldice doesn't talk much anymore. Occasionally she'll do an exclusive interview, but she owns Boston Trial Television. They're a tabloid imitation of Court TV. BTT is her baby. She also owns controlling interest in a couple of radio stations and a magazine. She knew you were arriving this morning."
I scanned the crowd. "Ms. Pouldice didn't join the horde to greet me."
"See the big guy with muscles on his muscles?"
"Looks like Jesse Ventura."
"Donald Braverman. He works for Pouldice."
"Why didn't she send him to bang on your door?"
"She knows better."
"Mean-looking prick," I muttered.
"He's got a rap sheet. Did a year in Concord on a weapons charge."
I watched Braverman head for the ramp that led out of the gate area. "Why don't I remember Felix Zrbny?"
Before Bolton could respond, two airport police officers arrived and directed us to a stairwell, then led us through a corridor that ended in a maintenance area. We waited as one of the officers listened to the chatter on a handheld radio.
After several minutes, the cop pushed open a door. "To the left," he said.
We stepped into the blowing snow and walked to a waiting unmarked cruiser. The driver wore a Massachusetts State Police uniform.
"All the agencies in on this one?" I asked as I slipped into the back seat.
"We've never had to deal with a situation like this," Bolton said, sliding in beside the trooper. "Fifteen years ago Felix Zrbny went on a killing spree. He was a kid, fourteen years old. The laws were different then. The case remained in juvenile court. Zrbny ended up in a mental health facility. At age twenty-one he was eligible to apply for release. He never did. At age twenty-five, according to the original court order, the Commonwealth surrendered legal custody, but the case had fallen through the cracks and Zrbny never complained. That was four years ago. Now he wants out."
"And nobody wants him out," I said.
Bolton nodded. "Zrbny's therapist will testify that his patient considers the last fifteen years an interruption and is a high risk to kill again. Zrbny also intends to become a celebrity. He's the one who is keeping the media pot stirred."
"He said all this?"
"To his shrink. Zrbny has talked with Wendy Pouldice, but we'll never know what that was about."
"If I remember right, the only way you can keep him locked up now is to prove that he represents an imminent threat to himself or others. The criteria are the same as those in a civil commitment procedure with the Commonwealth as complainant."
"Our representative from the attorney general's office is May Langston. She's convinced that Zrbny is a threat to kill again. She doesn't think she can persuade the court of that. The judge is David Devaine."
I turned my attention to the East Boston traffic speeding toward Sumner Tunnel, undeterred by the snow. Another half inch of the white stuff and they would pay for their haste.
I had testified in Judge Devaine's courtroom in the 1970s. For Devaine, an unpleasant little man with a hooked nose, the disposition of a pit bull terrier, and a high appellate reversal rate, the legal forum was not the Commonwealth's. It was his own personal turf.
On a summer morning twenty years earlier, I sat at the rear of the courtroom reading The Boston Globe. Devaine entered from a side door, scurried to his elevated seat, shuffled papers, then peered over his half glasses.
"Commonwealth v. Hastings," the prosecutor said.
"I know what case it is," Devaine snapped, then pointed at me. "Is he going to testify?"
"Your honor, this is Dr. Lucas Frank "
"I know who he is. Do you intend to call him during this proceeding?"
"We asked Dr. Frank "
His finger still aimed at me, Devaine said, "Sit outside until you are called."
I folded my newspaper, stood, and hesitated as the prosecutor explained my presence. "The Commonwealth has asked Dr. Frank to observe Mr. Hastings's testimony."
"Get out of my courtroom," Devaine told me.
I made my exit, followed in five minutes by a deputy prosecutor. "The judge ruled that Hastings's testimony would influence yours," she said.
I chuckled. "That was the idea, that part of my assessment of Hastings would be based on his demeanor here."
"Devaine's in a rotten mood."
"Not enough bran this morning," I said. "It's immaterial to me whether I get paid to read the Globe out here or in there. You, however, may be losing significant testimony."
"Devaine doesn't like female prosecutors," she said.
I wondered how many of a judge's rulings were influenced by her or his idiosyncracies.
Now, as we entered the tunnel, I warned Bolton, "Zrbny will walk."
"Because of Devaine?"
"He won't help. Who else will testify?"
Bolton gave me a file folder. I skimmed a witness list, then flipped to a police summary dated August 1984.
"First cop on the scene was named Waycross," I said. "There was a victim with that name."
Bolton sighed. "Neville Waycross was a young homicide detective, one of my people. The victim was his wife. They'd been married six months."
"He found his wife?"
Bolton nodded. "Zrbny had cut her throat."
"Jesus," I muttered, and gazed at the tunnel's beige walls.
Waycross struggled with alcoholism for two years, Bolton told me, landed in detox, and eventually joined the Brotherhood of the Earth in Christ, an inner-city monastic group dedicated to the Bible and good works in the community.
"Ray, I'm going to need some time to study this."
"You don't have it. We're already late. Your hotel room is stocked with a complete set of the case files. I figured you'd want to go over them tonight."
I considered what Bolton had said, wondering why Zrbny would wait eight years before making noise about getting out.
"Why the fascination with the media?"
"His shrink says it started with the Simpson trial. Zrbny's quite an expert on the case. Claims one person could not have committed the crime."
"I'm inclined to agree with him."
Bolton shot me a glance. "Later, over beers," he said. "Zrbny followed the Woodward au pair case here, and the tabloid TV shows on the JonBenet Ramsey case. He wants that kind of prime-time notoriety. Says he has a message to deliver."
"Fifteen minutes of fame doesn't cut it anymore," I said. "Why now?"
"He has incentive now," Bolton said. "A year ago, no one remembered his name."
"Suppose I agree that Zrbny shouldn't be let out. Then what? He's probably gonna walk anyway."
I looked at the back of Bolton's head and waited. My old friend watched the traffic as we made the climb from the tunnel's deepest point.
"He'll make us come after him," Bolton finally said.
I gazed out the window as we emerged from the tunnel at the expressway's north ramp and waited for a break in traffic. Despite the snow, the streets bustled with activity.
"So, we're a few days away from somebody being murdered," I said. "Maybe that woman with the Macy's bag, or the girl in the Celtics jacket. She doesn't know it yet. Maybe she won't have to know it, but she'll still be dead."
"Too existential for me," he said.
"Does Devaine hold forth in the old courthouse?"
"He refuses to give up his view of the Charles River," Bolton said as his cell phone beeped. "It's a pain for security."
The state trooper drove north, then turned onto Storrow Drive, speeding west beside the river.
When I departed Boston, I couldn't get away fast enough. At Lake Albert, I read Bolton's fax and felt an immediate rush of ambivalence laced with mild nausea. Now I watched the city of my birth a blur of gray walls, black windows, and white streaks. I had lived most of my life here, and committed most of my sins in the city's innards. I hated the place with a passion.
Bolton switched off his phone and turned sideways in his seat. "There's a delay in transporting Zrbny. Probably the weather. How do you feel about coming home, Lucas?"
I considered his question, seeking an appropriate analogy. "Remember when we took the kids to see the circus at Boston Garden?" I asked. "You usually had complimentary tickets."
He smiled, probably remembering the jugglers, aerial artists, clowns, and acrobats.
"The circus was a chaos of crowds and foul smells shoehorned into the old Boston Garden," I said. "Your tickets invariably seated me where the elephants could shit under my nose. That's how I feel."