25 November 2013

Scratch Esquire: Chapter 5

I was in the middle of preparing for an embezzlement trial when I was interrupted by a summons to the Chief Deputy’s office. Qasim Jackson was sitting behind his desk and a middle aged, bespectacled guy in a brown tweed suit was sitting in a chair in front of it.

“Mike,” Qasim waved me to a chair as he started speaking in warm tones, “Sam here tells me that you have a grand jury issuing subpoenas to a bunch of his clients. He wants to know what’s going on. They’re calling him and he doesn’t know what to tell them.”

I gave the man sitting a couple feet from me a close look. His suit was worn and a little rumpled. The gray tie didn’t match his brown suit and his hair looked like it was supposed to be parted on the left side, but since it obviously hadn’t seen a comb all day it was hard to tell. Topping off the effect were large, circular wire rimmed glasses. All-in-all, he looked like a slightly befuddled English professor.

The man held out his hand and spoke in a soft, cultured voice. “Hello, the name is Sam Scratch. We’ve not met previously, but I’ve watched you in court a couple times.”

I shook the hand and glanced at Qasim. The bastard knew exactly what position he was putting me in and he clearly expected me to violate the law and fill Scratch in about the grand jury. Everyone knew Qasim planned to challenge for the top job in next year’s elections and doing this for Scratch must be one of the favors he was trading like a madman in order to get support and position himself for his run. He also held grudges and if I didn’t play ball today he would look for a way to punish me. Still, there are some lines you don’t cross.

“Good to meet you. I’m Mike Benedict. Unfortunately, as I’m sure Qasim has explained to you, I’m forbidden from disclosing anything any grand jury might be doing. So, I doubt I’m going to be much help to you.”

“That’s okay Mike.” Qasim leaned back in his chair. “We’re all legal professionals here. We can discuss cases in order to bring them to a mutually satisfactory conclusion.”

“No, we can’t.” I said. “I’m not sure I can talk about any grand jury without permission from the grand jury or judge and I definitely won’t unless Leon tells me to.”

Qasim leaned forward again. “Look, we talk about cases all the time without running them past him. The office couldn’t function if the Commonwealth Attorney himself had to deal with every charge - or even every grand jury. I’m telling you . . .”

“One second, Qasim.” We both turned as Scratch spoke. “If the man is uncomfortable discussing this matter we should not press it upon him. The grand jury clearly exists or he would not have reacted as he did and everyone in this room knows whom the grand jury is targeting. I shall deal with the situation as I have in the past.”

With that he stood, thanked us for meeting with him, and left me alone in the room with Qasim.

“Close the door.”

He waited until the door was closed and I’d sat back down.

“Sam may know what you and Leon are doing, but I don’t and you need to understand something Mike. That’s a friend of mine. Don’t ever be rude like that to him again.”

“Qasim . . .”

He waved his hand at me. “Don’t want to hear your excuses. Go on back to what you were doing. Just don’t let it happen again.”


Back in my office, I sat staring at my computer screen. In two days I had a major jury trial on an embezzlement from GrantBank and I couldn’t concentrate because of all the stupid politics I’d gotten drawn into. The boss was unhappy with me; the grand jury was out of control; Qasim was mad because I wasn’t helping him increase his chances at knocking the boss out of office next year. There were times that I absolutely hated working in a political office and this one probably ranked at the top of the list. All I wanted to do was be a competent, professional prosecutor and politics kept dragging me through the mud.

A loud buzz filled the air and interrupted my thoughts. I looked up at the clock on my wall. 1:35 p.m. The afternoon docket had started and someone had just told his client that she was going to jail. In turn, she got the bright idea to pull the fire alarm, because nobody could be sentenced to jail if court wasn’t in session. It happened often enough that I, and everyone else in the office, just ignored the buzzing alarm and kept right on working.

“Out! Out! Out!” The new receptionist (Shabarbra?) was almost running through the hall and a deputy was walking behind her looking stern. Someone in the office past mine asked what was happening and the breathless secretary kept moving and yelled something about a bomb threat. The deputy stopped for a second. “Someone said a bomb’s in the Commonwealth Attorney’s office. We have to treat it seriously because he described several things inside the office. Things you can’t see from outside. You need to clear the area.”

Within ten minutes everyone was standing on the sidewalk outside the courthouse. Then a couple deputies came out and herded us all across the street to the parking lot. We settled in and most of us were standing around chatting or texting when the explosions went off.

They weren’t even large explosions, It was just a series of pops. Behind us. In the back section of the parking lot where our cars were parked. I didn't realize what was happening and I barely turned in time to see a little dust in the air. There wasn’t even any smoke. Some people started to walk toward the cars, but deputies ran past yelling at us to stay back and police showed up within a couple minutes to back them up. We couldn't get within fifty feet our cars.

An hour later, I was sitting in a conference room at the police building next to the courthouse, along with my boss and a couple other senior members of the prosecutor’s office. The chief of police and several of Ridland’s senior police officers were there as well. Lieutenant Charley Tyler, head of the bomb squad, stood at the front end of the table wearing a navy blue tactical uniform and a kevlar vest. A black helmet was tucked under his left arm.

“There is no bomb in the office and we found no further bombs in the parking lot. We’re not sure exactly what kind of explosive devices were used. However, they were small and they were placed at the base of each car’s front windshield. They do not appear to have been directional and actually only broke completely through the windshields in about forty percent of the cars, although each windshield had massive cracking.”

One of the police officers raised his hand and asked if the bombs were meant to kill someone while he was driving. Lieutenant Tyler shook his head.

“No way. These things were taped on with duct tape. Anyone getting into his car would have to be blind to miss ‘em. And I don’t think they were meant to cause anyone removing them harm either. Nothing indicates they were rigged to blow on contact or to be blown remotely. They appear to have all been wired to this.”

He held up a plastic evidence bag with something green inside it. He looked back at the attorneys. “For those of us who have no military experience, this is a clacker. It’s what is used to fire claymore mines. A wire ran from this through each of the bombs and when he pushed down on the handle it set them all off.”

Something about that sounded wrong. I’d been out of the Army for about ten years, but I thought there had to be a power source for a clacker to work. Still, it wasn’t my job to figure out the forensics. That was for the bomb squad and the state lab. I decided not to ask a dumb question. Of course, that didn’t keep another attorney from asking an even dumber one.

“Are you telling us that someone set off mines on our cars?” There were several swallowed chuckles around the table as the woman who was head of Juvenile Prosecutions spoke. She looked embarrassed and the Lieutenant looked like he was searching for a way to answer without telling her she was an idiot.

I spoke first. “Fay, if those had been mines they would have at least torn the top of the cars off.”

Tyler nodded and addressed his comment to me. “Yes sir. It would have done more than that. At that range it would have shredded the entire car.”

The Chief looked over at me and then back at his officer. “Get back on point Charley. Leon and I have a press conference in less than an hour.”

“Yes sir. Moving on, there was only one casualty. Qasim Jackson was less than twenty feet from his car when the bombs went off. He got glass in his eyes. We don't know what his status currently is, but his injuries were not life threatening."

"Charley," the Chief interrupted, "you know the first question they're going to ask me is who did it. What can I tell them?"

"No one credible has claimed responsibility at this time. A couple militia groups and a few other whackos have called in, but they're just the normal morons this kind of thing draws. The only anomaly we have is that every single car of every single person working in the Commonwealth Attorney's office was attacked except Mr. Benedict's."

Most of the people in the room turned to look at me, but the Chief stayed focused on the Lieutenant. "Do we know why?"

"No idea, sir. His car was parked I'm his reserved slot, between two other cars which were bombed. The bomber just bypassed it."

Now it was my turn. The Chief of Police looked at my boss and Leon pointed at me. The Chief looked me over and asked the obvious question. "Well, Mr. Benedict, is there any reason you know that our bomber would choose to spare your car?"

"Not that I can think of Chief. I prosecute frauds and embezzlement. I don't usually have much to do with the types who blow up cars. Lieutenant Tyler and I are going to go through my cases and see if we can discover anything, but I doubt we'll find much."

The Chief grunted and turned back to Lieutenant Tyler. "Okay, Charley tell me about the people who are trying to take responsibility.”

"Yes sir. The first call came from Tennessee . . ."

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