Although best known as an author of westerns and espionage fiction, Brian Garfield is at heart an observer of human behavior. While traveling, he sometimes writes short fiction, usually setting the story in whatever city or country he just left. The eight stories in this slim volume are fine examples of Garfield’s keen eye. Mostly tales of crime and criminals, they star men like Deke Allen, a long-haired building contractor arrested after a rat-shoot for driving with his father’s shotgun on the seat. There are women like Vicky, a desperate con artist who engineers one of history’s most outlandish scams. But running throughout these suspenseful stories is the sensibility of a writer fascinated by the characters behind the crimes.
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About the Author
Garfield served as president of the Mystery Writers of America and the Western Writers of America, the only author to have held both offices. Nineteen of his novels have been made into films, including Death Wish (1972), The Last Hard Men (1976), and Hopscotch (1975), for which he wrote the screenplay. To date, his novels have sold over twenty million copies worldwide.
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By Brian Garfield
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2011 MysteriousPress.com /Open Road Integrated Media
All rights reserved.
THE GUN LAW
"The Gun Law" is a narrative reconstruction of an actual incident. The main character was an acquaintance of ours, and we shared the suspense and fears of his arrest and incarceration. The case was decided in court just as is represented here. Occasionally real life does make serviceable fiction.
Deke Allen was arrested Friday afternoon on his way home from his uncle's house in Yorktown Heights.
He'd had a call that morning from his father. Mostly just to ask how Deke was doing, how was business, how's that girl what's-her-name, the one you live with, pretty little thing. So forth. But during the call his father mentioned that Uncle Bill was having a problem with rats in his basement. Deke's father said, "If you happen to be heading up that way you can drop by and pick up my shotgun. Take it on up to Bill's and see if you can take care of those rats for him."
Uncle Bill didn't like to put down poison because he had a houseful of dogs. He adopted stray dogs; it was his avocation. The place — a four-acre farmstead near the Croton Reservoir — was fenced in to contain the cacophony of orphaned dogs. Deke liked Bill and had nothing better to do that Friday. His next job wasn't scheduled to start till Monday. So he went by his father's house in Ossining and picked up the pump-action sixteen-gauge and a boxful of shells for it, and drove out along Baptist Church Road to his uncle's dog farm.
Deke Allen tended to carry just about anything a human being might need in his Microbus. It was his factory, craft-shop, tool-warehouse, and repair center. Deke, in his anachronistic two-bit way, was a building contractor. He specialized in restorations of old houses, preferably pre-Revolutionary houses; there were plenty of them in the Putnam County area and he had a good deal of work, especially from young New York City couples who'd made themselves a little money and moved to the country and bought "handyman special" antique houses for low prices, hoping to meet the challenge. Most of them learned that it was harder work than they'd thought; most of them had city jobs to which they had to commute and they simply didn't have enough time to repair their old houses. So when an old cellar sprang a leak or an old beam needed shoring up or an old wall crumbled with dry-rot, Deke Allen would arrive in his Microbus with his assortment of tools. Most of them were handmade tools and some of them actually dated back to Colonial times. He was especially proud of a set of old wooden planes. He'd had to make new blades for them, of course, but the wooden housings were the originals — iron-hard and beautifully smooth and straight. And he carried buckets filled with old squarehead nails and other bits and pieces of hardware he'd retrieved from condemned buildings and sheriff's auctions and the Ossining city dump.
He kept all his toolboxes and hardware in the Microbus; he'd built the compartments in. He even had a little pull-down desk in the back where he could do his paperwork — measurements, billings, random calculations, the occasional poem he wrote. He kept an ice cooler in the back for soft drinks and beer and the yogurt he habitually consumed for lunch. Deke was a health-food nut. The only thing he never carried in the truck was marijuana; he knew better than that. Show a state cop a psychedelically painted Micro-bus driven by a young-looking 25-year-old with scraggly blond hair down to his shoulder blades and a wispy yellow beard and mustache and a brass ring in his left ear — show a state cop all that and you were showing him a natural reefer repository. So the grass never went into the Microbus. And he was always careful to carry only unopened beer cans in the ice cooler. It was legal so long as it was unopened. Deke got rousted about once every three weeks by a state cop on some highway or other. It was an inconvenience, that was all. You had to put up with it or get a haircut and change your lifestyle. Deke wasn't tired of his lifestyle yet, not by a long shot. He liked living in the tent with Shirley all summer long. Winters they'd spring the rent for an apartment. This was March; they were almost ready to move out of the furnished room-and-a-half; but they were still living indoors and that was why his father had been able to reach him on the boarding-house phone.
This particular Friday he went on up to Uncle Bill's dog farm and went inside with the shotgun. They took a lantern down into the dank basement and they sat down until the light attracted the rats. They'd put earplugs in; it was the only way to stand the noise in the confined space. When Uncle Bill judged that all the rats were in sight, Deke handed him the shotgun and Bill did the shooting. Deke didn't like guns, didn't know how to shoot them, and didn't want anything to do with them. He was lucky he'd been 4-F or he'd probably have dodged the draft or deserted to Canada. It was one moral decision that hadn't been forced upon him, however, and he was just as happy he hadn't had to face it. He was half deaf, it seemed, the result of too much teenage exposure to hard rock music at too many decibels. Deafness qualified you for a 4-F draft status. It also made life fairly miserable sometimes; he wasn't altogether deaf, not by a wide margin, but there were sounds above a certain register that he couldn't hear at all and he generally had to listen carefully to hear things that normal people could hear without paying any attention. Conversation, for example. If he looked at TV — which wasn't often, since he and Shirley didn't own one — he had to sit close to the set and turn the sound up to a level that was uncomfortably loud for most other people in the room.
But he could hear it all right when Shirley whispered in his ear that she loved him.
When Bill got finished shooting the rats he handed the gun back to Deke and went down across the basement floor with a burlap sack to pick up the corpses so they wouldn't make maggots and house-flies or stink up the house. They left the basement — it was then about two in the afternoon — and had a couple of sodas out of Deke's ice cooler. They talked some, mostly about the dogs that kept jumping up and trying to lick Deke's beard. Finally Deke slid the shotgun carelessly across onto the passenger seat, got in, and drove out of the yard. Behind him Uncle Bill carefully closed the six-foot-high gate to keep the dogs in.
A few miles down the road a state cop pulled Deke over because one of the bolts had fallen out of the rear license plate and the plate was hanging askew by one bolt, its corner scraping the pavement and throwing the occasional spark. Deke because of his hearing problem hadn't heard the noise it had been making. The cop had to use the siren and the flashers arid get right up on top of the Microbus before Deke knew he was there. Deke hadn't been speeding or anything. He figured it for another tiresome marijuana shake-down. He was glad he didn't have beer on his breath; they'd had sodas back at Bill's, not beers.
He pulled over against the trees and got out, reaching for his wallet. The cop was walking forward; behind him the lights on top of the cruiser were still flashing, hurting Deke's eyes so Deke looked away and waited for the cop to come up.
"Your license plate's hanging crooked," the cop said. "A lot of sparks. Could hit the gas tank. You want to fix it."
Deke was relieved. "Say, thanks." He opened up the back of the Microbus and the cop saw all the tools and hardware in there. Deke got out a screwdriver and found himself a nut and bolt in one of the compartmentalized toolboxes. He fixed the license plate back in place. Meanwhile, the cop was hanging around. One of those beefy guys with a Texas Ranger hat and his belly hanging out over his Sam Browne belt. He wasn't searching the truck exactly — he was just hanging around — but when Deke went to get back in, the cop saw the shotgun on the passenger seat.
The cop's face turned cold. "All right. Get out slow."
Deke stood to one side and the cop slowly removed the shot-gun from the seat. He worked the pump-action and a loaded cartridge flipped out of the breech. The cop stooped down to pick it up. "Loaded and chambered. Ready to fire. What bank you fixin' to rob, boy?"
After that it was inevitable. The cop handcuffed Deke and locked him in the cruiser's back-seat cage and drove him into the Croton barracks. There he was handed over to two other police types. They ran him on into Ossining and he was booked.
"Booked? For what?"
"Possession," the sergeant said.
Deke still didn't think much of it. He was a hippie type. They harassed hippie types on principle, these cops. They'd throw him in the tank overnight and tomorrow he'd have to hitch a ride back to pick up his truck.
Only it didn't work out that way.
Stanley Dern figured himself a pretty good country lawyer. He'd known Harv Allen for several years, not well but as a lawyer knows a casual client: he'd drawn Harv's will for him, done a few minor legal chores for him from time to time. When Harv called him about his son, Stanley Dern at first tried to put him off. "I'm not really a criminal lawyer, Harv."
"Nor is my son a criminal," Harv replied. He had an old-fashioned New England way of talking; the family — and Harv — was from New Hampshire.
"Well, I'll be glad to go down there and talk with him. Have they set bail?"
"Twenty-five thousand dollars."
Stanley Dern whistled through his teeth. "What's he charged with?"
"I can't remember the exact words. Possession of a deadly weapon, in substance."
"I'll see what I can do."
Stanley Dern had practiced in Ossining for thirty of his fifty-four years; he knew everybody in the district attorney's office and he knew most of the cops in town. Criminal court activity in Ossining had always been more intense than in other cities of comparable size because Ossining was the home of Sing Sing, the old New York State penitentiary.
Stanley Dern went to the Criminal Part Clerk and found out that the prosecution had been assigned to a young assistant D.A. named Dan Ellenburgh. Stanley didn't know this one; Ellenburgh was new.
He was also large, as Stanley found out when he entered the office. Ellenburgh was half-bald, small-eyed, and at least a hundred pounds overweight — a shame in such a young man, Stanley thought.
"Now it's a Sullivan Law violation," Ellenburgh said after he'd pulled out Deke Allen's file and looked into it to remind himself which case they were talking about. "Possession of a deadly weapon. He had it on the car seat right beside him. Armed and charged. Ready to fire."
"Now come on, Mr. Ellenburgh. That's a ten-year rap. The kid could get ten years."
"That's right," Ellenburgh said blandly. "Of course you'll probably cop a plea and he'll end up serving one-to-three and he'll be out in nine or ten months on good behavior."
"Nine or ten months out of the kid's life just because he helped his uncle shoot some rats?"
Ellenburgh put on a pair of granny glasses — Ben Franklins. They made him look ludicrous; they were far too small for the fleshy massiveness of his face. "Do you think we should just let any hippie kid ride around with a loaded gun on his car seat, counselor? What do you suppose we have gun laws for?"
"Mr. Ellenburgh, this young man isn't a dangerous felon. He's never been convicted of anything worse than a traffic violation. He runs his own business in this community. He's well regarded by the people he's worked for. He may not cut his hair the way you might prefer but he's certainly not a menace. The facts in the case are clear enough, it seems to me."
"The facts in the case — it seems to me — are that the man was caught red-handed with a loaded gun on his car seat. That's in clear violation of the law. It's a felony law, counselor, and a loaded cocked shotgun is nothing if not dangerous. Therefore I've got to disagree with you. I'd classify this case as a dangerous felon."
"Come off it," Stanley Dern said.
"You think I'm playing some sort of game with you, counselor? Well, you come to court and see whether I am." And Ellenburgh got up and turned his back rudely, replacing the file in his steel cabinet, indicating plainly that the interview was ended.
Stanley Dern went down to the jail to see Deke Allen. He asked Deke if he wanted him to be Deke's lawyer. Deke said, "I'd love it, Mr. Dern, but all I've got is about forty dollars to my name right now. If you'll put me on the cuff I can pay you off in installments. Assuming it doesn't cost too much."
Stanley Dern didn't have any remote idea whether it would cost forty dollars or forty thousand to defend Deke Allen in this case. He said, "Never mind the fee, Deke. Whatever it is, I'll bill you not more than you can afford to pay. This idiot prosecutor's got me mad and when they get Stanley Dern mad they'd better hunker down and watch out."
Then Stanley Dern arranged with a bondsman to put up Deke's bail; it cost Deke's father $2,500 but there was no question of his not paying it — Deke's father was a retired baker of no particular importance in the community and certainly no wealth, but he was a decent man and he loved his son even if he didn't understand his son's so-called lifestyle.
And finally Stanley Dern went into the law library at the firm where he worked and began to read up on the gun law.
The law stated quite clearly that it was illegal to carry a loaded weapon on one's person or in one's car except on one's own premises — home or place of business. For the benefit of hunters a loophole had been built into the law whereby you could carry a "non-concealable weapon"— that is, a shotgun or rifle — on your person or in your car so long as it was unloaded and broken down in such a way as to be not easily assembled and fired. The wording of the loophole was quite strict and specific. There was no way to get around it: the weapon, in order to escape the provisions of the gun law, had to beunloaded and dismantled. Clearly Deke Allen's case didn't meet those criteria. Technically he was guilty. Or so it appeared.
Stanley's instinct was to wait and see which judge's docket the trial would be set for. A reasonable and sympathetic judge would either throw the case out or, at the worst, administer a slap on the wrist to Deke.
But Stanley's heart fell when he saw the court calendar for that May 17th. State of New York us. Allen 5/1 7 CC Pt. III. Criminal Court Part Three. That was Judge Elizabeth Berlin. Of them all she was the most hard-nosed, the least tolerant of youthful offenders, the judge most inclined to mete out the harshest possible sentence.
Of course he could shoot for a jury trial, he supposed, but there wasn't much point in that; a jury could only determine the facts of a case, not the law that pertained to it, and the facts of the case were such that in terms of a jury Deke couldn't help being held guilty as hell. And while a jury could recommend a lenient sentence it couldn't require one. It would still rest in the hands of Elizabeth "Lucrezia Borgia" Berlin.
Three years' minimum, Stanley thought dismally. Not to mention the permanent loss of citizenship rights: a felon, once convicted, could never again vote or hold public office or hold any number of jobs. Because he'd done his father and his uncle a harmless favor and been ignorant of the fine print of the state gun law, Deke Allen could have the rest of his life ruined.
It wasn't good enough.
Stanley went back to his law books. There had to be an answer.
Court day. Stanley and Deke waited silently in the courtroom while Judge Berlin dispensed several cases ahead of them. She was formidable in her gray suit, a white-haired woman with a humorous but ungiving face. Stanley had practiced before her for many years; he knew her quite well. She was not a nasty person, merely a sternly tough one: she was honest and, in terms of her own standards, fair — in that she dealt equally harshly with all guilty parties and equally sympathetically with innocent ones. (That is to say, those whose guilt was not proved. Trials do not establish innocence. They only establish whether or not the prosecution has proved its case.) She had, much to her credit, a fine shrewd sense of humor and she was not reluctant to laugh at herself when the situation called for it. It was her saving grace; trials in Part III often were highly entertaining because of the witty repartee between Ms. Berlin on the bench and the lawyers on the arena floor.
Excerpted from Suspended Sentences by Brian Garfield. Copyright © 2011 MysteriousPress.com /Open Road Integrated Media. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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Table of Contents
The Gun Law,
Ends and Means,
The Chalk Outline,
The Shopping List,