A Mystery Novel, written by Carl Schmidt
First Chapter of Redbone
By the time she arrived in my office, the tears had dried under Juanita Redbone's eyes. Either she had allowed them to evaporate undisturbed on her cheeks to honor her son’s memory, or she had been drained of any urgency to wipe them away. Now her face was lined with a residue of mourning, while rage flashed unmistakably behind her grim expression.
“If they had waited twelve more days, it wouldn’t have been a crime at all. Then, everything would have been different,” she blurted out.
“Mrs. Redbone…please…have a seat,” I replied, while removing my slicker from the back of the chair. “I’ll pour you a cup of tea, and you can start at the beginning.”
All I knew about Juanita Redbone was what I had read in the paper. Her son, Julio, had either committed suicide or been murdered six days earlier, just a month after his prison sentence was commuted.
Julio Redbone had served eight years for statutory rape at the Maine State Prison in Warren. Technically, the crime he committed is called “Gross Sexual Assault,” though Hannah Cummings had not actually been assaulted in the traditional sense of that word. The sex had been consensual. On the evening they first consummated their teenage urges, he was fourteen-and-a-half, and she was two weeks shy of her fourteenth birthday.
Any lawyer worth his salt could have made a cogent, though fruitless, argument that the real crime was not that one pubescent teenager had sex with another slightly younger one; the real crime was the confluence of sick and misguided political decisions by three countries leading to our first war in Iraq. When Julio was three years old, Juanita’s husband, Chayton Redbone, was killed in Operation Desert Storm. Without a father to guide him into manhood, Julio stumbled forward into life, experimenting with this and that until he crossed paths once too often with Hannah’s father, Gaylord Cummings. When the legal axe fell on Julio’s head, it severed the roots of hope he had nurtured for a productive and exciting life.
“Where should I begin, Mr. Thorpe?”
“Tell me about Hannah Cummings,” I replied.
“Hannah Brewer,” she corrected. “She married Randolph Brewer two years ago.”
Juanita closed her eyes to recollect a happier time and then opened them as she spoke.
“Hannah was a darling. I think it’s fair to say that she and Julio fell in love when they were nine years old. For her tenth birthday, the Cummings put on a lavish party. They invited forty or fifty children and all their parents. It was quite an affair.
“Hannah was born on July 4th. Gaylord Cummings took great pleasure in that fact; he’s very patriotic. After we all sang ‘Happy Birthday,’ he insisted that we listen to Ray Charles sing ‘America the Beautiful’ and then set off some fireworks before cutting the cake. They had a little trouble with the sound system, so it took ten or fifteen minutes for the song to play, followed by the rockets’ red glare. The sun had gone down, but it was still very warm. The ice cream had been set out before we sang, so by the time they scooped it from the cartons, it ran all over the cake like a river of strawberry milk. The kids made a royal mess of it.
“Hannah and Julio were giddy and inseparable at the party,” she went on, and then asked me, “Do you believe in soulmates, Mr. Thorpe?”
Juanita apparently did, and I wasn’t going to rain on her parade.
“Sure,” I replied.
“That’s what they were. Soulmates. I could see it in their eyes. Dozens of children jacked up on sugar were having a ball, running around the estate, playing and screaming, and those two only saw each other.”
I had no idea how relevant this could be, but Juanita painted a bright and amusing portrait of Hannah and Julio, not to mention Gaylord Cummings. She reveled in her memories and smiled for a brief moment before settling back into grief.
“When Julio was ten, Gaylord and his wife, Francis, thought he was adorable. By the time he became a teenager, they saw my son as a threat to their daughter’s future. This dark-skinned boy was no longer welcome in the Cummings’ home.”
“Julio was arrested when he was eighteen years old,” I noted. “Why did it take three-and-a-half years for him to be charged with a crime?”
“During those years, I had no idea what had happened. It all came out in the trial. Otherwise, I might never have known.
“Hannah became pregnant just before her fourteenth birthday and had an abortion in her first trimester. Her father arranged for that and kept it out of the public eye. He secreted her away on a ‘vacation’ in September. All I knew at the time was that she missed a little school, and Julio stopped seeing her when she came back. I asked him about Hannah several times that fall, but he’d just shrug and say things like, ‘I’m not interested in her anymore.’ I knew there was more to it than that, but he was too ashamed to tell me what had really happened.
“During his last year in high school, Julio was a star player on the basketball team, and he was awarded a full athletic scholarship to Boston University. Julio was thrilled and excited about going to college. His grades were good too. It wasn’t that he could just throw a ball through a hoop. I was so proud of him.
“During that spring, he started seeing Hannah again.”
She paused, and I could see the fire returning to her eyes.
“Gaylord Cummings had the gall to phone and tell me that Julio must stop seeing his daughter, or there’d be trouble. ‘Big trouble,’ he said.”
“Did he tell you about the abortion?”
“No. He never did. He kept that information private for almost four years. I can understand that a parent wants to protect his daughter. But when he had Julio arrested, he was no longer operating out of love for Hannah; he hated Julio and wanted him out of their family’s life—permanently. All that time he had proof of Julio’s guilt, but he kept it secretly to himself. If he had explained to him exactly what he was holding, Julio would have backed away from Hannah for sure. Instead, he sprung it on us at the trial. He’s a son-of-a-bitch, Mr. Thorpe,” she said, without the slightest reservation.
“Are you familiar with the legal rules called ‘Discovery,’ Mrs. Redbone? The defense is entitled to know all the evidence available to the prosecution.”
“Yes, I know about ‘Discovery.’ Our lawyer, Noah Osgood, knew that Gaylord was going to testify that his daughter had an abortion, but he had heard nothing about the DNA analysis. The prosecution claimed they didn’t know about it either. Mr. Osgood interviewed Gaylord two times before the trial began, but he never mentioned it. In fact, what he said was, ‘I can only guess that Julio was the father.’ That, of course, was a lie.
“The prosecuting attorney, Max Steadman, had offered a plea agreement that summer. He would recommend to the judge that if Julio pleaded guilty to the charge, he’d receive three years probation but no time in jail.”
“Why didn’t Julio take the deal?” I asked, ignoring the urge to scratch the top of my head.
“There were two reasons. First, the judge refused to say what sentence he would impose. He wouldn’t guarantee the prosecution’s offer for no jail time, and he was unwilling to give any estimate for what the sentence would be if Julio were convicted in a trial. In retrospect, it seems that he was eager to hear the case in court…and even more eager to put Julio away for a long time. If you ask me, Judge Winslow Kelly is a callous man with a vile disposition. He left Julio with a difficult choice to make. Ultimately, however, a second, more personal, reason persuaded Julio to reject the plea agreement. That’s what sealed his fate.
“Julio played high school basketball for three years. His coach, James Moody, was like a father for him. He invited us both over to his home for supper with his family on numerous occasions. James loved Julio as if he were his own son.
“James had played basketball for Boston University, and he stayed in touch with his former coach for years. James sent him videos of Julio and wrote a glowing letter of recommendation. Without his help, Julio would never have been offered the scholarship. On the day before the arraignment, Julio and Coach Moody spent an hour talking with Noah Osgood in his office discussing whether or not to accept the plea agreement.
“Julio asked me to stay away from the meeting. He didn’t want me to hear any of the shameful details. I think he was also afraid that I might try to influence his decision.
“The prosecution had obtained a court order barring Julio from seeing Hannah, ostensibly to prevent him from influencing her testimony. But she had already told Julio that she would never identify him as her sexual partner.
“A number of Julio and Hannah’s friends were going to testify that the two of them were close, but no one had any firsthand knowledge of their sexual activity.
“The evidence against Julio presented to the Grand Jury was pretty thin. It seemed remarkable that they handed down an indictment, but Osgood was confident that as long as Hannah didn’t name him as her sexual partner in court, there was no way Julio could be convicted.
“During the meeting with attorney Osgood, James told Julio that he would lose his scholarship if he pleaded guilty, even if he was only given probation. Gross sexual assault is a Class A felony, Mr. Thorpe. He wouldn’t be playing basketball at BU, and there was no way I could afford to send him there or any other college for that matter. Given what we all knew at the time, rejecting the plea agreement seemed to be the right decision. The next day, Julio rolled the dice and pleaded not guilty.
“I gazed across the courtroom just after Julio made his plea, and I stared at Gaylord Cummings. A malicious smile spread across his face, Mr. Thorpe. Immediately, my stomach seized, and I nearly fainted. James Moody took my arm and walked me out of the courtroom, even before Judge Kelly had set the trial date.”
Juanita stared into her cup, now drained of its tea. There were no leaves to read, but there was no future left for her son anyway.
Probably, the most remarkable thing about Juanita Redbone was how well she spoke. I guess I had been predisposed to assume that middle-aged Hispanic women would speak English awkwardly and without polish. She was as eloquent as a professor of English literature.
I gave her a minute of silence before saying, “So Gaylord Cummings had a DNA analysis done from a tissue or blood sample taken from the fetus?”
Juanita looked up slowly, stared through me and said, “Yes.”
After she regained her composure, she continued, “During Gaylord’s testimony, Max Steadman asked him a number of questions leading up to the abortion. He testified that he had never witnessed any sexual contact between Julio and Hannah. In fact, he had not once seen them so much as kiss. Furthermore, Hannah had refused to tell him the identity of her sexual partner.
“Gaylord then spoke about his trip with Hannah to Boston where the abortion was performed. He and his wife decided to have it done out of state, hoping that no one in Maine would ever know about it. When attorney Steadman asked him if he believed Julio was the father of the aborted child, he responded, ‘I am certain of it.’ He then stared across the courtroom at Julio and added, ‘and I can prove it.’
“Max Steadman appeared genuinely surprised. But when it comes to lawyers, who can say what is genuine and what is not?”
I nodded my agreement.
“After the courtroom quieted down, Steadman asked him how he could possibly prove it. Cummings said that before leaving Maine, he had obtained a court order that entitled him to have DNA testing done on tissue samples of the fetus. Gaylord Cummings then reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the report.
“Everyone in the courtroom gasped. Even Hannah had not known about the test. For three-and-a-half years, Gaylord Cummings kept that as his ace in the hole.
“Attorney Osgood objected. He said that he had no prior knowledge that such a report existed. Steadman countered and insisted that he, too, had not known about it before that moment. The judge overruled the objection, and Osgood immediately asked for a recess so that the two attorneys could discuss the matter in chambers with the judge. Judge Kelly granted the recess, and the three men talked privately for over an hour. When they were finished, Osgood said that he wanted some extra time to confer with Julio to see if he would like to change his plea, and Kelly allowed it.
“Noah Osgood, Julio and I got together, and Julio admitted to me—for the first time—that he was the father. Julio then decided to plead guilty and cut his losses. But when we returned to the courtroom, and Osgood requested that Julio be allowed to change his plea, Judge Kelly would not permit it. He said, ‘We’ve come this far on the state’s money; the people have a right to see this through to its natural conclusion.’
“Both Julio and Hannah were escorted to a DNA testing facility, and a week later the results came back. Julio’s DNA has several rare markers; he’s half Hispanic and half Native American, Mr. Thorpe. There was absolutely no doubt about the paternity of the parents. A specialist from the testing facility testified that the probability that Julio was the father was so close to 100% that there was no reasonable doubt about it. The prosecution rested its case, and there was nothing that Noah Osgood could do. Hannah Cummings was never called to testify.”
“Fifteen years,” I said slowly. “How could Judge Kelly sentence him to fifteen years?”
Juanita never answered that question, and I never asked it again…at least, not to her.
“Let’s call it a day,” I suggested.
It was four-thirty in Portland, and it had been a gut-wrenching afternoon for both of us. But Juanita wanted to confirm something.
“Will you find out who killed Julio?” she asked. “The police have very little interest in the case and had the nerve to suggest that Julio probably committed suicide. They are going through the motions, but it seems that the murder of a convicted sex offender is not worth much of their time. They spoke with me for all of ten minutes and then said, ‘We’ll see what we can find out.’ It sounded more like, ‘We have bigger fish to fry.’ And what would that be, Mr. Thorpe? Interrogating jay-walkers?”
“I’ll be happy to take the case, Mrs. Redbone,” I said, but what I really meant was, “I’m eager to take the case.” There would be nothing “happy” about it, even if I managed to find the killer.
“I have very little money, Mr. Thorpe,” she replied nervously. “I’ll have to pay you over time.”
I thought for a minute and then said, “Mrs. Redbone, I’ve had a number of successes over the past year that have been very profitable for me. I’ll take your case pro bono. It’s time for me to give back. And, please, from now on, call me ‘Jesse.’”
She began to cry but held back her tears. She stood up, came around the desk and gave me a warm hug. “Thank you, Jesse. And, please, call me ‘Juanita.’”
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