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SUCKER PUNCHED

Title: Sucker Punched

Series: The Boxer Series Mysteries, Book 2

Author: Deni Starr

ISBN: 978-1-60975-199-9

Product Code: BK0138

Format: Trade Paperback

Pages: 328

Release Date: November 2017

Cover Price: $19.95

Our Price: $19.95

 

 

 

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Book Jacket

 

Cindy is assigned as the investigator to what would appear to be an open and shut case of wife-beater killing his wife, but she and the public defender lawyer assigned to it, Janet Bowers, find odd facts that point to their client being framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Since their client is a retired professional boxer, they ask Sean to look into his past to see if there is anything in it which would point to someone with a motive for framing their client for murder.

 

Looking into the past, Sean discovers several boxers had the odd ill fate that their client has had, and they all had one thing in common, they beat a boxer named Cade Fulmer many years ago, whose current presentations as a motivational speaker indicate a psychotic level of grandiosity. Sean is able to trap Fulmer into making admissions and freeing their client from the false charges. Working together, Cindy and Sean become romantically attracted to each other.

 


 

Book Excerpt

 

 

ONE

THE MURDER OF BELINDA JOHNSON

  

“I’m meeting with you to be courteous. If you think you can use me as a character witness for Donny Johnson, you can think again,” I said.

I was sitting in the office of Janet Bowers. Neither she nor her office was what I expected at the Public Defenders. In contrast to the no-frills building, her office was elegant and expensive. An original Robert Vavra photograph of a running horse hung behind her mahogany partner desk. She had a beautiful carved cherrywood wine table placed against one wall, plants in brass hangers, an Ansel Adams print and two wing-backed Queen Anne chairs. Otherwise, the place looked busy. Papers, files, and books were piled everywhere, including most of the available floor space. One wall was entirely taken up with calendars, nearly every date with an entry, most having multiple entries in different colors.

Janet Bowers, Esquire, was also not my idea of what a public defender would look like. I was thinking something along the lines of young and male. Janet was in her mid-fifties and had styled iron gray hair, and strong, sculptured features. She was handsome but formidable—like Glenn Close with a Lauren Bacall edge. She had accented an obviously tailored three-piece suit with gold jewelry, which spoke of elegance, experience, success.

This was out of sync with what I’d seen of the Inner-City Public Defender’s office. The drama in the reception room had lasted only a few minutes before I was handed some bad coffee and ushered into Bower’s office, but the outer areas did not speak of taste, elegance, or maturity.

It took me twenty minutes of driving around this two-story building with absolutely no ambience to find a parking space—parking in the lot was strictly forbidden, the empty spaces all being reserved. The exterior of the building had all the charm of a warehouse. The interior reception area had limited seating options, blandly beige wall paint, and an oddly contrasting industrial burnt orange carpet.

I looked at the chairs available on the right side. There were two. One was already occupied by an African-American gentleman who looked as if he weighed over five hundred pounds. He sported a shaved pate and was decorated all up his arms and across the shoulders with tattoos. Setting off the look was a four-inch metal spike through his nose. I looked to the left. Here were more chairs and a settee with a gaggle of girls who, judging by their dress, makeup, brightly dyed hair, and tattoos, I guessed to be, as the Victorians said, “sisters of the abyss.” I looked at them, looked back to the bouncer, and decided to go sit with the abysmal sisters.

Since I still had a stiff back from a car accident I did not sit long, but after a few minutes, wandered around the reception area to look at the various postings on the walls visible over the counter that divided the space.

On one wall was a picture cut out of a newspaper of a local judge that had been given a beard and turban and labeled “Osama Bin Martin.” There was no accompanying text. Written on a piece of tablet paper was the notice “A.J. Alaband just won her first trial congratulations!” On another piece of Xerox paper was the notice: To whomever ordered the Martian red T-shirt extra small, we do not accept payment in Reece’s Pieces.” Stuck up on the wall with tacks was a bumper sticker that read Guns Don’t Kill People, Postal Workers Do,” and another that read “I just haven’t been the same since that house landed on my sister.” It was also announced that T-shirts could be purchased in four sizes and three colors for $10 each—used T-shirts could also be purchased at varying prices depending on who had worn them last. The shirt had a picture of the statue of liberty behind bars and the legend, “Justice for All, Bar None.”

I had just finished reading these when a door slammed open and a young white man in jeans and a T-shirt stomped out, turned around to talk to the person on the other side of the door, and screamed, “It's just shit! It's all a lot of shit! This is what I think of this bullshit!” He tore up some papers he had been carrying into small pieces and threw them back through the doorway. I wondered what he had been arrested for. Given his temper, I was hoping it was a traffic infraction and not something more serious like, say, murder. Actually, I would hope that accused killers were not allowed to roam the city, but with today’s crowded jails and budget cuts, who knew? Just at that moment a secretary came into the reception room, handed me a plastic funnel cup with incredibly bad coffee and indicated that Janet Bowers was available to see me now.

“I’m not asking you to be a character witness—Mr. Johnson does not intend to plead guilty. I have entered a not guilty plea on his behalf and the matter is going to be set for trial,” Bowers told me.

“Are you going to get him off on some sort of technicality?” I asked, sipping from the funnel cup.

“That happens in Dirty Harry movies a lot more often than it does in real life, Mr. O'Connor. Mr. Johnson has entered a not guilty plea because he says he didn’t do it.”

“And you believe him?” I asked, not able to keep the doubt out of my voice.

“It's not my place, most of the time, to believe or disbelieve my clients, Mr. O'Connor. I present their point of view. I don’t judge it. But in this particular instance, I do believe him,” she continued in her quiet, low voice. It had a deep resonance that I thought would go over well with jurors.

“You’re kidding me.”

“Let me tell you something about myself, Mr. O'Conner. Before I became a lawyer, I worked as an advocate at a battered women’s shelter. I am very familiar with wife-beaters, and I don’t like them. Mr. Johnson is without question a wife-beater. He has three convictions. Since most women don’t press charges until the beatings get very out of hand, that tells me that he must have a long history of violence to have acquired three convictions.

“Believe me, Mr. O'Connor, I don’t have any illusions about my client. He is a spoiled, self-indulgent, self-pitying, violent, ill-tempered, uneducated, arrogant, macho shithead. But I don’t think he’s guilty of murder.”

“Why not?”

“Donny Johnson is exactly the type of asshole who would beat a woman to death, stab her if there was a knife around, or strangle her with his hands, but he would do it in a fit of temper, without premeditation, and on the spur of the moment,” she explained.

“I thought that’s what he did,” I said, remembering what I’d read about the murder in the newspapers.

“That’s what appears to have happened, but there’s more to it. There are a number of circumstances in the fact pattern that can only be explained if this murder was premeditated and intelligently planned.”

“That doesn’t sound like Donny Johnson,” I admitted, finishing the last of the shockingly bad coffee.

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” she said.

I was puzzled. I had not been surprised to read Donny Johnson had been arrested for killing his wife, found bludgeoned to death in their home. Donny had been one of Bruce and my failed reclamation projects.

Johnson had been a professional boxer with modest success until convicted of manslaughter for killing his passenger when he was driving while drunk. He had served time in prison and, when he got out, had approached my friend, Bruce Ferrell, about a job working in Bruce’s boxing gym. He’d been working as a mechanic, but as an ex-con, he’d been having trouble keeping a job. Bruce had known one of Johnson’s promoters, so Bruce agreed to help him out and set him up with me for extra work. I ran a landscaping business back then, and often took on some of Bruce’s boxers as seasonal workers.

Since Johnson was in his mid-sixties, I didn’t have any illusions about him being able to do much in the way of hard work, but he couldn’t meet even my very low expectations. He proved to be a lousy worker. He was often late or absent, did little work when he actually showed up, and what work he did, he did badly. He wasn’t much more help at the gym. He spent more time bragging about his exploits to the young men than he did training them.

Bruce and I were trying hard to cut him some slack when we found out that he had applied for disability benefits based on injures he claimed he had suffered in the car accident. These “injuries” didn’t stop him from working out in the gym, or hauling shrubs for me, but apparently he didn’t tell the folks at Social Security he was working. Bruce and I decided we would not employ him given that he was perpetrating a fraud on the government. I hadn’t seen him in at least two years.

Bowers gave me a brief outline of the evidence and why it looked as if someone else had killed Belinda Johnson with the aim of framing Donny.

The murder weapon had been found with his fingerprints on it, and a shirt covered with her blood had been found in his bedroom, but there hadn’t been any blood on Donny when the cops arrested him, still intoxicated from the night before. No bloody clothing but the one shirt was found in the house. There were bloody footprints on the carpet in the room where Belinda had been killed, footprints that were not hers, but no bloody shoes had been found in the house. There were no bloody towels used to clean off the killer, and no blood in any of the drains of the house. Given the nature of the murder, there must have been blood on the killer, his clothes and his shoes, but it had oddly disappeared, indicating that someone had coldly and deliberately removed it from the scene. And yet the weapon with Donny’s prints on it had been left next to the body. Janet thought someone else had killed Belinda and was using Johnson as a fall guy.

But I had no idea who would want to kill his wife and pin it on him.

“So if you aren’t expecting me to be a character witness for Donny, just what did you want to see me about?” I asked.

“Our best clue to who the real killer is would be motive,” Janet explained, weaving her fingers together and resting her chin on them as she talked to me in a professorial tone of voice.

“Cindy is looking at Belinda’s background to see if there is anyone in her past who would have a motive to kill her. But Donny’s past needs to be investigated as well. Brian, our other investigator, will look into the prison angle. If the motive is due to something that happened while Donny was in prison, Brian is the best person to find it.

“Before Donny was in prison, he was a boxer, as you know. Someone connected with his boxing experiences may be the person we are looking for,” she concluded.

“Doesn’t Donny know who would hate them this much?” I asked.

“He says that he doesn’t.”

“And you believe him?” I asked for the second time.

“Yes. Donny impresses me as the type of person who is always pointing fingers at other people, and the only reason he is not pointing fingers at anyone now is because he honestly cannot think of anyone to point a finger at,” she said.

I nodded. That sounded like Donny.

“I need someone to look into his past as a boxer, someone who knows what questions to ask about boxing, managers, fights, purses, whatever, and who knows enough about the sport to know who to ask,” she told me.

“And you thought of me?”

“Cindy thought of you.”

I had met Cindy Matasar about a year ago, after my car accident. My lawyer hired her to investigate my case, explaining to me that she worked for the public defender’s office and free-lanced for private attorneys on the side. When a friend asked me to look into a gym that was training her grandson, I had gotten in touch with Cindy again and asked her to give me some ideas on how to go about doing an investigation. She’d proven to be very helpful.

“So you want me to talk to some trainers and promoters and maybe some old sparring partners and see what I can dig up?” I asked.

“Exactly. And it won’t be something obvious because if there was anything in his past that had generated a lot of animosity, Donny would remember,” she pointed out.

I nodded. That made sense.

“As I’m sure you know, Donny does not have any private funds for investigation, but I’ve gotten the court to authorize five hundred dollars to pay you. I don’t know what you are used to making, but investigators on court-appointed criminal cases usually charge twenty-five dollars an hour,” she informed me.

“So you are expecting me to do twenty hours on this?” I asked, wanting confirmation of her expectations.

“I don’t know. The first person you talk to might tell us what we need to know. On the other hand, if you spent five hundred hours talking to people, you might not turn up anything, so I can’t tell you what I expect. I can only tell you that the court would expect you to put in twenty hours if you want to bill for the entire five hundred dollars.”

“Okay. I think I can talk to a fair number of people in twenty hours,” I agreed.

She reached into a drawer, pulled out a manila folder, and took out three pieces of paper, which she passed over to me.

“This is a contract for services, and it mentions our policies regarding confidentiality. We will need you to sign this before your place on the team is official.”

Then she handed me a thick stack of papers. Here is a dossier on the case. Cindy said she can give you the background details. We will meet once a weekyou, me, Cindy, and Brianto swap notes. Call me if you have questions. And thanks for doing this for us.” As I stood, Janet walked around the desk and gave me a very firm, dry handshake.

I left the Public Defender’s office feeling almost giddy with excitement. I was going to be able to play detective again, one of my favorite games. It didn’t occur to me right then to be worried about having agreed to this. After all, what I was being asked to do was within my capabilities. I assumed I would ask the people in Donny’s past about his background and look for someone who had a motive to get him in serious trouble. And I was getting paid for this.

Money wasn’t really an issue. I settled my car accident case for enough money to live off the dividends of my investments. But being paid made my work real.

When I got back home to my “snug urban bungalow,” as the ad had described it when I bought it, in the Sellwood neighborhood, I checked my phone messages and found that Cindy had called from the field—wherever that was—and suggested we meet later that evening to go over the case, and to call her if I had to cancel. I would not have to cancel. I made myself a pot of coffee and took a cup outside to the deck to read through the materials that Bowers had given me.

I was rereading Donny’s career history at the Pale Horse Pub while I waited for Cindy to join me for some Black and Tans. The Pale Horse was an Irish pub on my side of town that I patronized regularly to support my Irish compatriots and my Irish heritage. I also patronized it because it was just about the only place in town where you could order a Black and Tan, which is a dark beer poured through a lighter beer. I also loved their shepherd’s pie and banger sausages.

The place was cozily dark, had a real fire burning real wood in a real stone fireplace, served good food, and was quiet. I stopped as I came in and admired the large picture hung in the entryway depicting a pale horse ridden by a skeleton rider across a bleak landscape.

And Hell followed after, I thought, remembering the quotation from Revelations. Little did I know all hell was about to break loose.

According to the information I had been given, Donny Johnson started with the golden glove program as a juvenile and won a regional championship when he was seventeen. He tried for the Olympic team, but didn’t make the first cut. He turned pro when he was eighteen, training with a man named Tommy Hall in L.A. He had done pretty well when he was younger: he'd had eleven fights while being trained by Hall, winning nine, eight by knock out.

He had tried to move up to bigger fights and bigger money by switching to a Chicago gym and working for Rashide Mohammed, but couldn’t cut it. He’d had eight more fights, winning four and losing four. He switched gyms and promoters several times after that. He had five more fights for five different promoters, and lost three. That was the end.

This surprised me. I’d gotten the impression from what Donny had said that he was still boxing when he’d had the drunk driving accident. According to this, he’d stopped fighting years before. I also found out he’d been in prison for only three years. From what he’d said, I got the impression he had been in prison for over a decade.

I pulled out a pen and small notebook and began listing things to do. The first thing would be to call my friend Bruce Ferrell and see if he knew of any of these gyms or trainers by reputation. Bruce had been in boxing for over forty years now, and he knew just about everybody. He had trained me when I was a teenager.

Next, I could call another friend, Tom Hamilton. He had been a pro at the same time as me and now wrote about boxing for newspapers and magazines.

I could call the regulatory commissions to get official dope on these gyms, but that wouldn’t tell me much. Many gyms, organizations, and promoters who ran crooked games did so discretely enough to stay on the good side of licensing agencies.

After that I would run these three trainers down to earth, and ask them about Donny. If these guys weren’t still listed in a phone book somewhere, Cindy would know how to find them. I presumed that they were still alive—Donny Johnson’s career was now about forty years old.

I had just finished making a list of the trainers when Cindy joined me.

Cindy was an unusually attractive biracial woman from the East Coast with a flair for fashion. Her clothes always looked very New York to me.

“Sorry I’m late. I was in court today on a drunk-drive and it took forever. You know how lawyers are. They never shut up.” Cindy sat across from me where her Black and Tan was already waiting for her. She looked tired, harried, and very pretty. She was wearing a tailored white shirt, multi-colored African vest, black leather tie, faded jeans, and cowboy boots. She had that milk chocolate complexion common with biracial people, almond shaped brown eyes, long dark lashes, a button nose, wide sensuous mouth, and soft Afro hair style. Halle Berry had nothing on Cindy Matasar.

“Thanks for the drink,” she said, taking a sip. “I’m so glad you decided to go in on this with us. Nobody at the PD’s office has any background in boxing.”

“Do you really think this has anything to do with boxing?” I asked.

“At first I thought it was a real long shot, but now it's looking more probable. I’ve looked at Belinda’s background and can’t find anything promising, and Brian says as far as anyone knows Donny didn’t do anything interesting in prison. He wasn’t in the big pen, just at OSCI with the other minor criminals,” she said, signaling to the server that she wanted to order.

“Tell me what you found out about Belinda,” I asked.

“Nothing to indicate that anyone would want to kill her. She was a nurse. That’s how she met Donny—in the hospital after his accident.”

“The one where he killed someone?” I asked, after Cindy and I informed the server that we would go with the Irish stew.

“Yeah. He was driving drunk and wrapped his car around a tree. Trevor Kendrick, his passenger, died and Donny injured his spine pretty badly.”

“It seems to me that Kendrick's family would have a motive to get back at Donny,” I said.

“He didn’t have any family to speak of. He was an old alcoholic whose family had disowned him ten years before. The only thing that he and Donny had in common was their drinking. The state buried him, and nobody showed up at Donny’s sentencing on behalf of the victim. I talked to the DA who prosecuted Donny and he tried desperately to get someone to show up at sentencing, but the ex-wife and her three children did not want anything to do with it. It seems that, as far as the surviving family members were concerned, it was good riddance. Kendrick was our most obvious starting place, but that has washed out,” Cindy said.

“So its back to Belinda,” I said.

“She was married when they first met. They hit it off. Donny can be pretty charming when he wants. They flirted with each other for a while and then off he went to prison. When he got out, he landed a job as a mechanic through the prison training program, dated some women who didn’t work out, and finally started hanging out at Belinda’s church. He looks okay on paper, you know. He was a professional boxeractually made it to the pros—but he got into trouble with his drinking. He went through alcohol treatment while in prison, got his GED, got interested in church, successfully completed a training program, and was making good money as a mechanic.”

“Does he have much of a criminal background?”

“Three convictions for domestic violence, all misdemeanors. Only the last one involved Belinda. He had a girlfriend when he went in to prison, but they broke up a few weeks after he got out because he beat her up. He dated another woman briefly after that—she pressed charges after he shoved her down a flight of stairs—and then he got involved with Belinda.” Cindy took a sip of her drink and went on. “He had two DUI’s before the manslaughter case, but that's it.”

“So what happened to all this promise?” I asked.

“He got laid off from his first job—business slowed down. He got fired from his second job. Some money and tools went missing and he got blamed since he’d done time, but there wasn’t really any reason to think he did it. He hoped to put his boxing to work for him, hoping he could get a good paying job with Bruce, but you know how that went.”

I nodded. Very few people can make any money as trainers or promoters. Bruce had worked for decades to build a business that paid him only the most modest income. I knew he could not have afforded to pay much for an assistant trainer, and he had one of the best known, most stable gyms in town.

“So he applied for disability on claims for his back injury. After he was awarded disability, he got a back payment that was over $17,000. He and Belinda had been married for about three months by then. They went on a honeymoon, he bought a decent used car and a little house, and then he settled down to do nothing but drink and get angry.”

“What happened to Belinda’s first husband?” I asked, crumbling crackers into the hot stew that the waitress had just set down.

“He divorced her and married a white woman,” Cindy said, taking a sip of her stew.

“Any hard feelings?” I asked.

“Not on his part, as far as her family knows. He hadn’t seen her in years. They don’t have any kids together.”

“So she doesn’t have any kids?”

“Yeah, she does. She got pregnant when she was fourteen and the doctor sterilized her as a welfare case after he delivered the baby. That’s illegal now, but it used to be pretty common. Her daughter is twenty and has been in the Navy for the last two years. She’s in Guam now.”

“So she’s not involved,” I said, as more of a statement than a question.

“I don’t see how she could be and I can’t imagine why she might be,” Cindy said.

“What about her father?”

“Hasn’t been on the scene in twenty years and never knew he’d gotten his girlfriend pregnant.”

“So no boyfriends in Belinda’s past who might turn ugly?”

“According to her mother, no.”

“What about somebody short-term? What if she’d had one date with some guy who got obsessive?” I suggested.

“If that happened, nobody knows about it. Donny doesn’t know of any such incident and neither does anyone in Belinda’s family.”

“What about a neighbor?”

“I’m still looking into that. Nothing looks promising.”

“What’s our timeline on this?”

“Donny’s in jail on a no-bail hold, which means that the state has to try him in sixty days or let him post bail. So right now, we are playing chicken with the DA’s office. Of course, there is no way that we can be prepared to go to trial in sixty days. If we ask for more time, then Donny sits in jail without hope of getting bailed out. If we sit tight and the DA has to ask for a set-over, they have to agree to let him be bailed out.”

“What are the chances of that happening?”

“Just about zip. They have all the evidence they need already. They could go to trial tomorrow. They do not want to let him out on bail. There may not be a judge available to handle a murder case in the next two months and the DA assigned to this case may not have time in his trial schedule.

 “So, the most likely thing to happen is that we ask for a postponement and the case goes to trial in nine months to a year,” Cindy concluded.

So I had nine months to spend twenty hours talking to a few people. That sounded doable. I showed Cindy my list of things to do and she nodded with approval.

“What could he have done as a boxer to cause someone to frame him for the murder of his wife years later?” Cindy asked.

“The most obvious thing would be if he had been paid to take a dive by interests who had money on a fight and then not do it. But you piss someone off to that extent, you remember it. And I doubt that anyone who would pay a fighter to take a dive would wait this long to remember it.”

“Unless he were in jail,” Cindy said, taking a sip of her stew.

“That’s possible. But surely Donny would remember something like that,” I said, finishing mine and starting in on the fresh molasses bread.

“But what if he wasn’t paid? What if he was such an underdog that someone put a great deal of money on a fight and Donny cost him a fortune?” Cindy asked.

“It's possible, but it would take a hell of a sore loser to kill a man’s wife in revenge,” I said.

“Is there any way to find out if something like that happened?”

“Oh yeah. My friend Tom Hamilton knows a lot of bookies. He could ask around and see what the odds were on Donny’s fights and if there was any rumor of a big bet.”

“So how are you otherwise?” Cindy asked.

I grimaced. “My brother Peter called me.

“I don’t think that I’ve ever heard you talk about a brother named Peter.”

“I keep trying to forget that I have one,” I explained.

“Black sheep of the family?” Cindy asked with some slight irony in her voice, probably from the use of the word “black” in that context.

“Something like that. He was the youngest,” I said, noncommittally.

“Spoiled baby?” Cindy pursued.

“Somewhat. My mother wasn’t one to spare the rod or indulge anyone, but the rest of us did, my siblings and extended family. The grandparents all doted on Peter. But I don’t think that it was just because he was the youngest. There is something else wrong with him,” I said, shaking my head.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because he’s worthless. Peter is very good looking. In fact, he worked as a model for a while. Mostly he lives off women. We think he’s lived off men too.”

“Is he bisexual?”

“Probably not. I think he’s just opportunistic. If he can get a gay man to give him money, buy him drugs, give him gifts, he’ll lead the guy on. Peter is exploitative, amoral, and generally heartless. He never keeps a job for very long, though he’s well educated, and he’s had some good paying jobs. He’s only in a relationship long enough for his girlfriend to figure out she’s being used. He travels constantly and moves at least once a year. He has many beautiful, expensive things, but never any money.

“He’s always calling someone in the family to hit us up for money, or a recommendation for a job, or a place to stay for a few weeks, or help moving his things, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera,” I said, unable to keep the disgust out of my voice.

“Sounds like he might be sociopathic,” Cindy said.

“I suppose. I don’t know enough about that type of thing to tell,” I said with a shrug.

“So he called you today?”

“Yes. He wanted money, of course. He said he’s gone in with two other men on a restaurant, very posh, in Chicago, and they’ve put it all together but he needs just five hundred dollars more for some type of license, and would I loan it to him.”

“Is that true?”

“I have no idea. It might be. He might be living in a flop house without a dime and wanting to score more drugs.”

“Is he an addict?”

“I don’t think so. I know he has used cocaine, but I think he’s just a social user. I don’t know.”

“Did you send him any money?”

“No. He was very upset. He knows I got all this money in that car accident and I do have a lot of investments. I certainly could have afforded to send him the five hundred, I just wasn’t going to. I think I’ve donated enough to that particular charity.”

“And he was very upset?”

“I couldn’t believe what he told me. He must think he’s special. He said, well, if I would not loan him the five hundred he thought that he didn’t need to speak to me again for, shall we say, six months? Like that was some sort of punishment. Like I want him to call and hit me up for favors.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I said, how about I don’t loan you a grand and you don’t call me for a year?”

Cindy laughed. “Very clever of you, Sean.”

“Not so clever. I’m going to catch hell from the rest of my family.” I drained the rest of my glass. “I’d better go home and face the music. I’ll check in with you later this week and tell you if I’ve turned up anything on Donny.”

I did indeed hear from my family that evening. My mother had left a message expressing concern in conservative terms, and no fewer than five of my siblings left messages expressing themselves much less conservatively.

“How could you say to that poor boy that you’d pay a thousand dollars to not have him talk to you for a year?” my sister, Mary, demanded to know.

“That is not what I told him. Well, not exactly,” I said trying to defend myself.

“And why, in heavens name, Sean O'Connor, could you not loan your brother, your own baby brother, a wee bit of money for his restaurant, and him being so good as to put this together with his own money, having sold everything he owned for this?” Mary said. She had been raised by our grandparents and had a brogue from the Old Country.

“Have you seen the place?”

“I have. I just got back from Chicago.”

“Is there really a restaurant?”

“Yes, there is really a restaurant. I think ye need to be making it up to your

brother, Sean.”

“All right, I'll do something to make it up to him.” Little did I know that the problem of my brother Peter would provide such a vital clue to the murder of Belinda Johnson.


 

 

TWO

CONFLUENCE

   

It was our first team meeting. I was in the Public Defenders' break room, which smelled pungently of burnt coffee, with Cindy, Brian, and Jan, as I now called Janet Bowers.

This was the first time I’d met Brian. He was a young man in his late twenties. He had the coloring typical of the “Black Irish”: very dark—almost black—hair, fair skin, and blue eyes. He was tall and, though young, going to fat around the middle. He obviously spent a lot of time sitting. He had a pleasant demeanor and greeted me with a nice smile when Cindy introduced us. I felt a few hackles rise at the back of my neck, thinking that this man had the privilege of working closely with Cindy all the time. I don’t think of myself as a jealous person, and even though Cindy and I had never gone past being friends, I was certainly interested in getting past the “friend” stage and was not too thrilled about any male who spent so much time in her company. He offered me a cup of coffee in a plastic funnel cup in a plastic holder. I declined.

Cindy had already told me a lot about the case, but now the others filled in the gaps. I had already sent Jan a copy of the history I’d put together of Donny’s trainers, managers, gyms, and fights, culled from a call to Tom Hamilton and a check with the World Boxing Association. That was all that had been expected of me so far. Jan started the meeting by going over the facts as we knew them up to that point.

About a week ago, a carpenter let himself into the Johnson residence at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning and went into the den where he was supposed to be putting in some shelves. He saw Belinda lying face down on the carpet in a pool of blood, obviously dead. He called 911 and let the police into the house when a patrol officer arrived three minutes later. He had stayed outside the house until the officer had arrived.

The patrol officer, Michelle Stayton, made a quick check of the house and found our client, Donny Johnson, asleep in the bedroom. She woke him up and noted that he smelled heavily of alcohol and, in her opinion, was hung-over and perhaps not entirely detoxified.

She took him outside the house, explaining there had been an apparent burglary and she would need to detain him until others arrived and processed the crime scene. She took him outside to sit on the curb just as more officers arrived. According to her report, “I asked Mr. Johnson if he knew where his wife was and he indicated that he did not. He indicated he assumed she was visiting with her mother or her sister, who both live in the neighborhood. I asked him when he had gotten home last evening and he indicated he thought it was about 3 a.m. I asked him where he had been and he indicated he was at the Black Cat until closing, and then spent time with a friend before coming home. I asked him if he was sure that it was 3 a.m. when he arrived and he indicated that he was not sure, and that it might have been later. I asked him how he had gotten into the house and he indicated he came in the back door, to which he had a key. I asked him if it was locked and he indicated it had been. I asked him where his wife was when he came in. He indicated he had supposed that she had gone visiting. I asked him when was the last time he saw her and he indicated that they had had dinner together the night before, and he had left the home about 7 p.m. last night. Mr. Johnson was not under arrest at this time and was not considered a suspect.”

While he was giving this statement to Officer Stayton, more patrol officers arrived with the homicide detective, Roger Wade, followed by the press corps and an ambulance.

By now, it must have dawned on Donny more was going on here than a break-in, but there were no police reports that told us when or how the news was broken to him about his wife being dead, or how he reacted to it. The only report we had that discussed his conduct was Wade’s, which was written after Johnson had been taken down to the police station for questioning. There was very little to the report. It indicated that he was asked whether he knew of any break-in to his home and he indicated he had no idea why anyone would break in, or who might want to murder his wife. He denied any involvement. He was asked if the red shirt found in his bedroom was his and, according to the report, “Mr. Johnson initially indicated that the shirt in question was his, but upon seeing that it had bloodstains on it, he changed his statement and denied ownership.”

Jan and Cindy were of the opinion that the report was so short because Johnson denied that he had killed his wife, and they did not want to push it for fear of having to read him his rights before they got any helpful information. Apparently they were waiting for a report on the fingerprints, since they had recovered the murder weapon from the scene and it had prints on it. Since Donny had a long history of arrests, they already had his prints on file. The “questioning” was mostly to keep him downtown until they could see if they had a match on the prints.

The prints matched. Donny was formally placed under arrest and read his rights. Other than denying that he had killed his wife, he refused to say anything other than he wanted a lawyer.

In addition to the report by Officer Stayton and Detective Wade, there were a number of lab and technical reports and an autopsy. A blood sample had been taken from our client shortly after he had been arrested. He still had alcohol in his blood at 11 a.m., which meant that he must have been very drunk when he came home sometime after 3 a.m. that morning. A toxicology screen on the victim indicated that she had not had any alcohol or drugs in her system at the time she died. The time of death had been placed between midnight and 4 a.m. Much of that depended on when they had dinner the night before. Johnson said it was around six, which would place time of death around 2 a.m., before he got home, but this depended solely on his statement about the time of the meal. If it had been later, then she could have been killed later, closer to when he said he had come home. The autopsy report stated she died of blunt force trauma to the skull. She had no other injuries and had not been sexually assaulted. The murder weapon was recovered from the scene and we obtained pictures of it. It appeared to be a hollow steel rod about eight inches long. It was now severely dented where it had been used to crush Belinda’s skull.

“What did our client say about telling the cops that the shirt was his?” Brian asked Jan.

“I asked him about that. He said the cops came out of the house with the shirt all bunched up and told him that they had found it in the closet in his bedroom and was it his. He said he said yeah, because he has a number of red T-shirts, but then asked them to spread it out so he could see it better. It has a Coors Beer silver bullet on the front. He said that when he saw the logo he was able to tell that it wasn’t his shirt, and that’s what he told the cops. He said it had some stains on it, but they were brown and he didn’t know that they were blood stains,” Jan answered.

While this discussion was going on, I was looking at the pictures. I looked at the picture of the murder weapon and tried to visualize what it looked like in three dimensions.

“Any idea what that is, Sean?” Jan asked me, politely trying to include me in the conversation.

“You know what this looks like to me? It looks like part of a dumbbell that someone has taken off the end weights.”

“What makes you think so?” Jan asked.

“Well, the length, for one thing. It looks like it’s just right for a hand to grip if it had two weights on the end. It has that ribbed steel that they use to help you keep your grip after your perspiration makes it slick, and it has a heavy metal liner to keep it from bending,” I pointed out.

“If you saw the object instead of just a picture, would you be able to tell what it was?” Brian asked.

“Maybe. But if this is from his weight set, there will be two. Does Donny have a set? We could compare this against the one that’s still there if he does,” I suggested.

“We don’t know if he has one or not,” Jan said.

“Oh!” Cindy exclaimed, as if someone had just jerked her light bulb chain. “I’ve just thought of something.” The rest of us looked at her attentively.

“If our client is not guilty, then someone else must have bludgeoned Belinda, but they could not have used this as the weapon because they would have left their own prints, or if they wore gloves, it would have eradicated Donny’s prints. But if there are two of these rods and they are identical, and Donny uses them to lift weights, then his prints will be on them. The killer could have taken both rods, and hit this one on something heavy to bend it. That way it would be bent, but the prints would not have been eradicated. Then he takes the other one, kills Belinda with it, gets this one bloody at one end, leaves it at the scene and takes the other one away,” Cindy suggested.

We sat in silence and digested her idea. It seemed far-fetched, but as a theory, it hung together. If someone had wanted to frame Donny for the murder, what better way to do so than by leaving a “weapon” with his prints on it? But if Belinda had not been killed with this, then she’d have had to be killed with something similar to fool the pathologist. If this was from a weight set, then that would be simple. There were two identical rods with the set and, of course, they would have Donny’s prints on them.

“That’s certainly possible. We’ll have to check and see if Donny has a weight set and if it’s missing two short rods,” Jan said, making a note on her list of things to do.

“Have we had any luck canvassing the neighbors?” Jan asked. Cindy had explained to me that the police did not bother to canvass the neighbors since they matched the prints so soon after discovering the crime. Normally they do this, but given their theory of the crime, it would have been pointless. But since Jan had a different theory, Cindy and Brian had spent a long Saturday knocking on doors and talking to the neighbors.

“I didn’t get anything helpful,” Brian said. “Donny wasn’t very popular with his neighbors. They all liked Belinda, and they knew Donny knocked her around. They were willing to talk about that, but not about anything that might help us.”

“I got pretty much the same thing,” Cindy said. “Except for one little oddity. One of the neighbors, an elderly woman, said that she was woken up that night around 2 a.m. because the stereo from the Johnson house was playing very loud, but just briefly, like less than two minutes, and then it was turned off.”

“Maybe Belinda got up, turned on the stereo, then realizing how late it was, she turned it off again,” Brian suggested.

“Maybe her killer turned it on so the neighbors wouldn’t hear her scream when he hit her,” Cindy offered.

“Maybe he turned it on to get Belinda into the den,” I said. “He didn’t want to kill her in the living room or bedroom because then Donny would have noticed when he came home, but he wasn’t likely to go into the den that late at night. So the killer gets into the house, goes into the den, turns the stereo on very loud to get Belinda up and out of bed to go turn it off, and he whacks her when she walks in.”

We sat in silence and considered this scenario. Our theory of the case, as it developed, was indicating a very calculated, cold-blooded slaughter that was sending chills up my spine. If our theory was correct, someone had broken into the house, taken the end weights off the barbells, and carefully dented one to make it look like a weapon—probably at a time when no one was home. Or he had taken it away with him and dented it somewhere else, all the while being careful to leave Donny’s prints on it.

Then he came back into the house around two in the morning, after the bars had closed so Donny would not have an alibi. He lay in wait for Belinda in the den, turned up the stereo, and killed her, probably just to frame Donny. If this is what happened, then we were dealing with a serious psycho. And we still had no idea what the motive for this had been.

“If this was a set-up, what do we think happened?” Jan asked.

“Wait a sec,” Brian interrupted. “Just one thing before we get into that. Does anyone have an address for that carpenter who called in the cops? I don’t have it in my stuff.”

The others sorted through their papers and came up with a negative response.

“I’ll call the DA’s office tomorrow and get it. They must have left out one of their initial response reports,” Jan said. “Now, back to the question. If our client was set up, where are we going to find evidence of that?”

With all of us brainstorming, we came up with a list:

1. Determine the murder weapon. Was it part of a barbell set?

2. Check to see if there are any unmatched prints in the house picked up by the techs.

3. Check for a point of entry.

4. Match the bloody shoe print with a shoe type. Does Donny have that type?

5. Ask neighbors about seeing strange cars in the area. Did anyone else hear the stereo go on?

6. Get a statement from the carpenter about points of entry. Was one of the doors or windows unlocked?

7. Find a motive!!!!

I got the feeling the last item on the list was going to fall on my shoulders. No one else had turned up anything. These people were experts. They dealt with murder every day. They were used to investigation, getting witness statements, examining crime scenes, putting together evidence. They knew what science could and could not tell them about guilt and depravity.

On the other hand, I was a boxer-turned-landscaper-turned-invalid now flirting with investigation. I felt inadequate to the task, and intimidated by these people. They were all easily putting in eighty hours a week on this, leaving no stone unturned, and all that would be wasted if I couldn’t do my job. Their brilliant, dedicated commitment to this task would be for nothing if I didn’t do my part.

Worse, not only might an innocent man, however much of a jerk he was, spend his life in prison, but the person who really did this—who bludgeoned a nurse to death—would continue to walk around free.

It suddenly dawned on me that this job really was a matter of life and death. I was in over my head and I knew it. And the consequences of that would be that a killer was at liberty to kill someone else. It wasn’t a game to me anymore.

I left the meeting contemplating resigning from my task. I wasn’t up to it. I didn’t have any training at this, and it was far too important for me to use this case to play Sherlock Holmes, however much I wanted to. I would go over to Bruce’s gym tomorrow and ask him if he could suggest someone with a boxing background who had the training to do this, so I could bow out with grace. I was not going to risk anyone’s life on my amateurism.

I thought about asking Cindy out for a beer after the meeting, but we didn’t finish until nearly midnight and by then I was so tired that I just wanted to go home. I suspected that Cindy felt the same, so I let the opportunity pass.

Saturday I got up late, took my dog, Kelly, out for a short run, and then made myself a breakfast of muesli and berries. I ruined all this healthiness by pouring myself a cup of coffee to use for dunking some mini-doughnuts. I was thinking about what I would tell Cindy. I needed to pull out from this, but wasn’t sure how to do so. Since she had suggested that Jan hire me, I should talk to her about it first. I wondered how this would make her look to the rest of her team, if the person she had recommended quit on her, but I couldn’t play around with people’s lives like this.

My thoughts were interrupted by someone knocking firmly on the front door.

Without any hesitation, I answered it. I need to stop doing that. I really do need to think about getting a butler to answer my door for me. Every time I do it, it’s someone I don’t want to see. It was a process server. I was handed legal papers.

I couldn’t make out all the legalese, but I got the point. I was being stopped from working on Donny’s case as an investigator because I wasn’t licensed. The deputy district attorney did not want me to help on this case. If only he knew how little I was contributing, he wouldn’t have bothered. I put in a call to Cindy, and she promised to come over immediately to look at the papers and see what was going on. Oh good. Cindy on a Saturday.

Cindy arrived a little after one looking cool and charming in a pair of pastel green shorts and a white, low-cut blouse. I’m sure it must take a lot of effort to look that good, but she never looked like she made any effort. Since it was a rare sunny day in late March, I invited her out back to sit on the patio and read over the papers.

“So, Cindy, tell me what’s going on,” I said, handing her a beer.

“I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that this is because Roger Wade is the detective on this case,” she said, looking over the papers as she sipped her beer.

Roger Wade was a local homicide cop who had lost several teeth after he made a very inappropriate remark about Cindy within my hearing. He and I had not gotten on too well after that.

“How did he even know I was involved?” I asked.

“Jan has to submit papers to the court to get funding to pay you. The DA gets a copy. He probably sent a copy to Wade, and Wade has decided to make a stink about it,” Cindy explained.

“Can I do this without a license?” I asked, sitting next to her, a beer in my hand.

“The rules state that only investigators who have been approved by a certified process are allowed to do work on cases that are paid for by the state. Investigators who work for our office are exempt from that since we are on salary. It applies to private investigators who do work for private lawyers who have contracts to handle indigent criminal cases. Investigators have to be licensed, but technical advisors do not. I suppose it depends on whether you are an investigator or a technical advisor.”

“How do we figure that out?” I asked.

“Ask the judge for a ruling. This is pretty petty on their part. It doesn’t change anything. We can get the help we want whether they do this or not. It just drags us into court, takes up time, and fucks up our teamwork. This is harassment more than anything else. I don’t know what they think they are going to accomplish other than give us a headache.”

“Why don’t you and Jan just hire someone who is a licensed investigator who can look into the boxing angle?” I suggested.

“Because we haven’t found anyone with those credentials. Believe me, we looked. I hate to tell you that you weren’t our first choice, but we looked for a licensed investigator with a boxing background and the best we could do was a guy who was so-so as an investigator who was a golden glove fighter when he was a teenager—no professional experience whatsoever.

“Sean, we don’t need an investigator. We have two investigators. What we need is a technical assistant who knows boxing. Brian and I can help you with the investigative aspect of things, go over lists of questions for you to ask, what to look for, stuff like that. But what we can’t do is figure out when something doesn’t make sense in Donny’s background. You can do that. Don’t worry about this legal stuff. Jan will take care of it.”

“But supposing she can’t? What could happen?” I pursued.

“The very worst thing that could happen would be that the judge would refuse to allow the indigent defense fund to pay you.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“So if I were to volunteer to do this, they couldn’t stop me?”

“True, but don’t throw in the towel yet on the money angle. It’s important to us to win this in court, if we can.”

“Well, I’d certainly like Wade to lose one in court. But what do I do about this until we get a hearing?” I asked.

“What had you planned to do?”

“Go down to Bruce’s gym and use his records to check out Donny’s history, get a list of his opponents, and whatever else I can find out about his fights.”

“Go do that then. I’m meeting with Jan later today. Why don’t you give me these papers and I’ll give them to her.”

“Great. I’ll get down to the gym and see what I can find out.”

 

***

 

An old friend of Bruce Ferrell’s died a few months back and left Bruce his library on boxing, probably one of the most extensive collections of boxing information in the world. Bruce had moved it into an empty room at his gym.

I arrived at the gym shortly after Cindy left my house. The gym was out on the far east side of town in a run-down neighborhood where rent was cheap. The apartments next to it were known to the local police as “felony flats.” The gym was located on the second floor of a warehouse, and took up the entire space.

There were always a lot of people there on Saturdays. Two fighters were in the ring. Ten more were working on the heavy bags and another ten were doing drills with one of the younger trainers. I’d talked to Bruce about this earlier, so I just went into the back office and helped myself to the books.

I looked up Donny Johnson and made a list of all his fights, noting the opponent, the organization sponsoring the fight, and the trainers and promoters involved. I then looked up the other fighters, as well as all their promoters and trainers to get some background on them.

Donny’s history as a fighter was a story of almost-made-it. He started as a pro when he was eighteen, with a good winning record while training with Tommy Hall. What was remarkable about that record was the fact that his four losses were his first four fights. Most people would have hung it up after that, and most trainers would have thrown in the towel. Hall must have had a lot of faith in Donny, and Donny must have had a lot of faith in himself. He then won nine fights in a row. He had not changed his weight class, so he must have simply figured out what he had been doing wrong. While these were all legitimate wins, they weren’t all that big a deal. None of the fights had much of a purse, and none of his opponents ever went on to anything impressive. These were typical small-time fights. It was unlikely that anyone had bet on them other than the fighters and their friends.

He had tried to move up to bigger fights and bigger money by switching to a Chicago gym and working with Rashide Mohammed. He lost his first fight with a significant purse. This was not much of a disgrace, as his opponent went on to the big time and ended up with a shot at a world championship. Then Donny won some fights against nobodies and got set up with a real opponent. But then Donny lost his next several fights, so he switched gyms again.

His first fight with his new trainer was against “The Great White Dope,” as Donny put it. I’d heard Donny talk about this fight. He put everything on the line for this one. Cade Fulmer was up and coming. Sports writers waxed eloquent over his career, using glowing terms in all descriptions of him. He was clearly a favorite. There was a great deal of speculation as to when he would be getting set up with a championship fight. He just had a tiny little bump in the road to get over by the name of Donny Johnson.

Donny had moved up a weight class for this fight, putting on a few extra pounds that barely qualified him for the class and gave Fulmer a considerable advantage. The press had all but written Donny’s obituary when Donny got a knockdown in the third round.

That pretty much proved to be the end of Fulmer’s career. He got a win after that against a fighter with little pro experience, but then lost the next fight and washed out of the business.

Donny didn’t do much better. His win had been something of a fluke. In my opinion, Fulmer had been overrated. His win-loss record before his fight with Donny had not been all that impressive, and his later fights proved he never was that great of a fighter. Donny had also been lucky to win. Possibly driven by desperation, he had pulled it out against all expectations.

But he couldn’t keep up the momentum. He lost his next fight, won the next three by moving down a weight class, and lost the next one after moving back up a weight class. It seemed he was just stuck at this level; able to beat mediocre fighters, but not good ones. At the age of twenty-seven, he had hung it up.

My conclusion, after five hours with the books, was that Donny had been a mediocre fighter—much like me—who had been just lucky enough with a few fights to have made a living at this for has long as he had. But he might have had other problems—booze, or just basic health issues. Injuries or illness may have interfered with his training at critical times.

Nothing jumped out at me as a motive. True, the press had given Fulmer a big advantage over Donny, but the Vegas bookies had not. It had been a setback for Fulmer, but he had more opportunities to get his career back on track, and those later fights had been more important to his career than his fight against Donny.

I wondered if Donny had killed someone in the ring. That doesn't happen often, but it happens. That is what I had come up with as a potential motive. I had envisioned the son of a man Donny killed waiting until he reached adulthood before seeking his revenge. It sounded very far-fetched, but everything about this case was far-fetched.

Of course, if Donny had killed someone, I would have expected him to brag about it. I doubted that he was the type who would have the decency to feel so badly as not to talk about it. Donny didn’t impress me as the sensitive type.

But it was possible that a fighter had died afterward, or had been badly hurt. I had written down the names of five men Donny fought who had never fought again. The first was Jimmy Brown. He beat Donny in Donny’s third professional fight. His record at that time had been 39-3-0. Most likely he had simply retired. Donny beat Daymon Parks in his sixth fight, when Donny was training in L.A. Parks, was twenty-three years old, and had a fight record of 5-1, a young fighter. He was much more likely than Brown. The third was Ronnie Mass, the first man Donny fought after moving to Chicago. Donny lost. Mass was twenty-six years old, and had a record of 15-6. Old enough to retire, but twenty-one fights weren’t all that many.

The fourth man was the most intriguing. Terry Coleman beat Donny right after Donny beat Fulmer, and then Coleman beat Fulmer and was considered very up and coming after that. But that was his last fight. Coleman disappeared from the record books. The fifth man was a fighter in the bush leagues, one Donny probably picked because he had a good chance of winning. Charles Hoffman was thirty-eight years old with a record of 23-17. He most likely retired but, like Brown, I kept him on the list.

I had been looking at books for over five hours now, and had a list of five names as possibilities, in addition to my lengthy list of promoters, trainers, and fighters. These people had all fought a generation before me, so none of their names rang a bell. I didn’t feel that I had accomplished much, but it was all I could think of to do.

I went back home after stopping at KFC to pick up dinner. I’m not that into health food. Besides, chicken is health food, isn’t it? It’s white meat. As soon as I was home, I checked my answering machine. There were five messages from various family members chewing me out some more for my “heartless” treatment of Peter, all of which I ignored, and one message from Cindy.

“Hi honey, it’s Cindy. Guess what? Brian talked to Donny and he does have a weight set at home. Jan spent all afternoon on the phone, and I made a quick call to my friend Thornton Meyers of homicide, as you may remember, and we have police and DA permission to go into Donny’s house tomorrow and look at the weight set. You’re invited. We’re going in at 9 a.m. Join us. See you then. Don’t bother trying to call me tonight. I’m canvassing the neighbors again to check out the stereo going on at 2 a.m. and I won’t be home till late. Bye.”

This was great. My idea about the murder weapon might turn out to be correct. Good. I was contributing to the process. Still pursuing my work, I called Tom Hamilton, my writer friend in Vegas who used to be a boxer and who now covered boxing for the media. Oddly enough, he was in on a Saturday night.

“Tom, do you remember a fighter named Terry Coleman? A couple decades ago, he beat some fighters named Cade Fulmer and Donny Johnson. He looked like he was on his way up when he dropped out of sight.”

“Yeah, I remember him. I’m surprised that you don’t. He was really on his way up. In fact, his people were talking about setting him up with Sugar Ray Robinson.”

“So what happened to him?”

“He was murdered.”

“Really? By whom?” I asked, shocked.

“They never found out.”

“People must have had some theories,” I pursued.

“The police wrote it off as a gang thing or random robbery. His promoter, J.R. Redman, took it pretty hard. He thought he’d found a gold mine in Coleman.”

“And they were setting him up with Robinson?” I was amazed.

“I don't know if that’s true. Redman said so after Coleman was killed but Robinson’s people wouldn’t confirm.”

I thought about that. Robinson was big time. Really big time. It meant a world title.

“I’m sure that I’ve got some articles on the killing. Want me to send them to you?” Tom offered.

“Yeah. That would be great.”

“Will do, then,” he said, ringing off.

I could not think of any way that Coleman’s murder could possibly be related to

Belinda’s, but it was interesting. I might as well check it out. It could be related. I just had no idea how.

 

***

 

Nine o’clock the next morning found me outside Donny’s house in the North East. I was the first of the defense team to arrive. I didn’t spend much time in this part of Portland. When I was a teenager, this part was definitely the black part of town and, being originally from Boston, I knew better than to go into the black part of town. Actually, it wasn’t much different from the rest of Portland. Donny’s house was a modest, two-story affair built back in the ‘20s with a neat bed of flowers in the front and along the walkway, some hanging plants, and a lawn in reasonably good shape considering how long its owner had been in jail. I assumed Belinda had been doing most of the up-keep. The house next to them was a modern duplex with no yard, but the other houses on the block were all older, modest, well-kept homes with only one having a slightly neglected yard. The only exception was the house I was parked in front of, not quite right across from the Johnsons’, which looked decrepit and had all its windows boarded up, but which showed signs of recent attempts at rejuvenation, almost exclusively in front on the more unimportant parts, mostly the steps. Probably just to create the impression of work, I thought. I’d had similar experiences when I had my bathroom remodeled. Contractors. Honestly.

There was already an unmarked police car and patrol car parked outside. I assumed that they must be our escorts, to make sure we didn’t plant any evidence or something like that. Jan and Cindy arrived a minute later in Jan’s Subaru. I got out when they did, and the three of us walked toward the house. Just as we got abreast of the police cars, Wade stepped out and stood in front of Jan.

“What the hell is he doing here?” Wade demanded, jerking his thumb in my direction.

I tried to see if he was still missing teeth, but he kept his lips pursed tightly together. He stood slightly hunched over, not a complimentary posture with him since he already had rounded shoulders and wasn’t any too tall. His arms were crossed in front of him and his head was bent forward, his chin thrust out. As a boxer, I couldn’t help but think his chin made a tempting target, but I put my hands in my pockets and resolved to keep them there.

“Mr. O'Connor is part of our team,” Jan replied evenly.

“Not anymore he’s not. He’s been served with a court order. He’s off the case,” Wade said, pointing an accusing finger at me. With his thin lips and weak chin, I thought he looked a lot like Frank Burns from M*A*S*H. But his hair was shorter.

“The state indigent defense fund has been temporarily enjoined from issuing any funds to him. He is not off the case,” Jan corrected, taking a step toward the house. Wade blocked her path.

“As far as I’m concerned, he’s off the case.”

“Detective Wade, the police department does not determine who defends the accused. I do. Now get out of our way,” Jan said coolly.

“You want in, lady, you’d better get a court order. I’m not letting any amateur fuck up a crime scene.”

“This crime scene has already been processed. Are you suggesting that your people overlooked something?” Jan demanded, stepping forward again so that she was about three inches away from Wade’s face.

“He ain’t goin’ in,” Wade said, spreading his feet apart farther and putting his hands on his hips to block the house.

“Jan, let’s talk about this,” I suggested.

Jan glared at Wade, but stepped back and the three of us huddled in a private conference just out of earshot of the cops.

“Hey, you guys have a ton of stuff to do. It doesn’t make sense to waste time arguing over me. You don’t need me. You two know what you’re looking for. I’ll stay in the car,” I offered.

Jan looked skeptical. My guess was that while she didn’t want to back down in front of Wade, she did not want to waste any valuable time having to go to court to get an order, and then come back and do this again.

“Sean, this guy is way out of line,” she said.

“I think everybody here knows he’s an asshole,” I agreed, “but we’ve got a job to do and I’m just in the way.”

Jan nodded. “Thanks for being a good sport about this.”

“No problem. I’ll just go wait in the car. I brought a book. I’ll catch up on my reading.”

I retreated to the car and watched as Jan, Cindy, Wade, and two uniformed officers went into the house. I had brought a book, but wasn’t up to reading it. I was too absorbed in the morning’s events. I was cramped and bored an hour and a half later, so I got out of the car to stretch my legs. I paced back and forth outside the house. Fifteen minutes later, they all trooped back out, Jan and Cindy in the lead, the cops a few paces behind. I raised my eyebrows inquiringly.

“Meet us at the coffee shop at the corner,” Jan said.

I nodded, and took a step in the direction of my car when I heard Wade whisper, “Nigger-lover.”

I spun around, ready to sock the guy and saw he was standing just in front of the two large, uniformed officers. I wouldn’t mind taking on all three of them, but wasn’t interested in spending the rest of the weekend in jail. I unclenched my fist. Wade smirked. Asshole. I turned around and got back in my car.

“What’d you find?” I asked, joining Jan and Cindy at a booth, sliding in next to Cindy. They had already ordered me a cup of coffee.

“Looks as if you were right,” Cindy said. “We found weights in the weight set that had no handle. As far as we can tell, the middle section, the pipe section, of both the barbells has been removed.”

“So what do we do next?” I asked.

“We get an order to let us look at the actual murder weapon. We’d have done that anyway, but thanks to your suggestion, we now have a much better idea of what we’re looking for,” Jan explained.

I was very pleased. I had helped.

“Did you learn anything at Bruce’s yesterday?” Cindy asked. I shrugged and said I wasn’t sure, and then went on to outline my theory that Donny had killed or hurt someone whose son or other relative was now seeking revenge.

“That’s pretty far-fetched,” Cindy said skeptically.

“This whole case is far-fetched,” Jan pointed out.

“So did Donny kill anyone?” Cindy asked.

“Not in the ring, but five of the men he fought never fought again after fighting him. They might have died afterward. Two of them were old fighters who probably just retired, one was murdered, and the other two I don’t know anything about.”

“Who was killed?” Jan asked, sounding excited.

I explained about Terry Coleman, and also what Tom had told me. “Tom said he would send me some newspaper clippings on it.”

“Good. I can’t see what this has to do with Donny, but it’s odd that a man he fought was murdered and now he’s up on murder charges,” Jan said.

“This is a guy who beat Donny. You don’t think that there is any chance that Donny killed him, do you?” I asked. “I mean, would he tell you guys?”

“If he did, it would be protected by the attorney-client privilege. But that doesn’t mean he would tell us. If he did kill the guy, he may not want to tell us because he thinks that would convince us that he is guilty of killing Belinda. But of course, we have not directly asked him about having killed anyone in the past, much less have we asked him specifically if he killed this man he fought. I’ll have Brian talk to him and see if he gets a feel for Donny’s response,” Jan said.

I was rapidly getting the impression that Brian, the only male member of the defense team besides me, got on better with Donny than the other members of the team. At our last team meeting, the idea of having Donny meet with me was brought up. There were some logistical difficulties with it because I did not have a permit to get into the county jail. I could still get in, but it was harder to arrange. I pointed out that when Donny worked for me, we had not gotten along—I had not liked him and I had fired him. He displayed no enthusiasm at the idea of my working on the defense team when Jan had told him, so we decided to pass on the idea until we had a specific reason for me to meet with him.

“How did last night go?” I asked Cindy.

She rolled her eyes. “I spent six hours knocking on doors, but I did find one neighbor who did hear the stereo go on very, very late. She didn’t know what time it was, but she said she thought it was the middle of the night. She said it was only on for about two minutes. That’s confirmation of sorts. We now know from two witnesses that the stereo in the murder house went on very late at night, or every early in the morning but only for a very short time,” Cindy said.

“What are you going to do next, Sean?” Jan asked.

“What I’d like to do is fly down to L.A. and talk with Tommy Hall. He launched Donny on his pro career and was his trainer for fifteen fights. He probably knows Donny better than anyone else, and he trained one of the other fighters who dropped out of sight after Donny beat him, a guy named Brown. Hall may know what happened to him.”

Jan shook her head. I felt completely deflated. Apparently she thought my plan was a bad one.

 “You’ll have to just call him on the phone. There is no way I could talk the court into coming up with money for you to go to L.A.,” she said. Oh good. This was about money.

“Don’t sweat it. I have family down there that I have to visit anyway,” I said.

“Well, if you’re going anyway, that would be great. I’ve got to get back to the office and draft some motions. Did you need to come to the office, Cindy, or should I drop you off at your place?” Jan asked.

“Don’t worry about it. Sean can take me home,” Cindy said.

“All right then. I’ll see you both later,” Jan said, getting up.

We followed her out, and Cindy got into the passenger side of my Benz Go-Devil, which I had bought with the settlement money I had gotten out of my accident.

“So what did Wade say to you?” Cindy asked, as I started up the engine. I looked at her, surprised. I didn’t think she’d seen that.

“He called me a nigger-lover,” I said. Cindy burst into laughter.

“A nigger-lover? You’re making that up.”

“I am not. He called me that. Those were his exact words, 'nigger-lover,’” I said indignantly.

Cindy laughed some more. “I can’t believe it. That is so passé. Nobody says that anymore. People in the South don’t even say that anymore. That man’s brain is permanently stuck in the ‘50s.” Cindy reached over and put her hand on my thigh.

“I’m glad that you didn’t hit him again, Sean. I’m sure that he can’t afford to lose any more teeth,” she said, suppressing more laughter.

“Hey, I wasn’t too keen on spending the weekend in jail,” I explained. “I wasn’t worried about his teeth.”

“Well, don’t hit cops in front of witnesses, or you’ll be seeing more of Donny than you want to—you’ll be sharing jail food with him.” She kept her hand on my thigh for the rest of the ride.

“I’d invite you up, but I have a ton of work to do. I have all my interview notes to type up by Monday,” Cindy said, when I pulled up in front of her condo complex.

“When do you think you’ll be heading for L.A?” she asked.

“Soon as I can get a flight. I don’t have anything else on my schedule.”

“I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too.”

Cindy gave me a quick kiss on the mouth and jumped out of the car. She waved, and dashed up to her apartment. I sighed. I wondered if she would ever find much time for me in her life. I wondered about how much time she would be spending with Brian while I was in L.A.

 


 

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