United States District Court Judge Andrew Silverspoon Moonie glared down his bulbous pink nose at a handsome convicted killer. Between incessant soft ticks from an ornate courtroom wall clock, golden silence briefly glistened like doomed summer dew.
“This is your lucky day, you worthless scumbag,” the crazed judge trumpeted, trampling the tenuous tranquility. “Liberal laws may prevent me from having you publicly skinned alive with hot pliers, but…” he paused to shift a Skoal Bandit pouch to the opposite cheek, then spat a looping string of brown slime into a brass pencil holder atop his bulletproof desk, “…upon this otherwise glorious tenth morning of April, nineteen hundred and eighty-three, this U.S. Federal Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky at Lexington hereby imposes the maximum sentence of…”
A volcanic belch erupted from the prosecution table.
“Sorry, Your Highness,” the Assistant United States Attorney apologized. “I had some buttermilk for breakfast. Please let the record reflect that my responding outburst was involuntary.”
The stiff-backed court stenographer looked up abruptly from her shorthand keyboard and primly rebuked, “We need not concern ourselves with the record. No such key even exists for that sound effect, involuntary or not.”
Doubly upstaged during his big climactic denouncement, the feisty judge rose to his full height of five feet, one inch, and slammed down an oversized wooden gavel. Its thin stem shattered, catapulting the hammerhead off into the jury box. Oliver Dweeble, former carnival hawker and current jury foreman, was struck in the open mouth, dislodging his tobacco-stained dentures onto the lap of fellow juror, Miss Belinda Smythe, awakening her from a smiling slumber.
“I am thorry, Mith Thmythe,” toothless Oliver slobbered out. “That red-nothe midget clown in the gown tried to ring my carnie bell and win a three-hole, Kewpie doll thex toy.”
“Sex toy?” she questioned vacantly.
“Yeth,” Oliver confirmed, “thex toy.”
Belinda nodded dazed understanding as she dug a purple pill out of her bleached designer jeans, swallowed it dry and slumped back into blissful repose.
“After three hard decades on the bench,” the irate judge managed to squeeze in, “with nothing to show for it other than Frankenstein-size hemorrhoids, at last I have finally heard it all. Therefore, I order everybody to shut up! Counselor, your useless effort to clear the record, if not the air, is noted. Perhaps we may now bring this demolition derby to its finish line if everyone has run out of gas.”
Judge Moonie paused once more to shoot another brown slimy streamer into the pencil holder.
“Good thot,” Oliver slobbered out from the jury box, one connoisseur to another.
Moonie acknowledged the praise with a wink before returning to the subject of his ire. “Defendant Kevin Thomas Toler,” he addressed the murderer, “you are hereby condemned to spend the remainder of your miserable life in prison with absolutely no possibility of parole. Ever! Accordingly, you shall be forever remanded into the custody of the Attorney General and thereby transported by the U.S. Marshals to the escape-proof federal penitentiary in Bacon, Illinois.
“Good riddance, Toler, you loathsome maggot. Court stands thankfully adjourned,” he concluded with a soundless swipe of the headless gavel.
The judge commenced a triumphant exit across the
expansive courtroom with both elevator wing tip shoes
swooshing through the plush green carpet nap. Except for the
snoozing Miss Smythe, everyone else began preparing to leave.
The public defender was stuffing legal notes into a faux alligator briefcase while babbling. “Don’t sweat a little life sentence, Kevin. You’re young and now have plenty of time to work on your appeal,” he joked with a grin. “Just a tiny touch of gallows humor there, son. Last year at law school I learned that levity lightens loads,” he exhaled, releasing a pungent cloud. The reeking stench of fried garlic, poorly veiled beneath a candied breath mint, shook Kevin from encroaching lethargy. As the practiced spiel droned on, Kevin’s eyes were drawn to the lawyer’s bobbing Adam’s apple.
“First, we appeal to the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati,” the toxic whine wheezed, “but they won’t even read our brief. Two of those ancient appellate judges have dementia and the other one just sits there frowning. Rumor has it that he is actually dead.”
The attorney continued gabbing while unsuccessfully trying to buckle the lid on his bulging briefcase. “Then right on up to the senile Supreme Court, who will only laugh. They just reverse tax evasion cases on Wall Street execs. The rest of their time is spent turning down frivolous lawsuits filed
by the ACLU which has not won a case since Castro had the Kennedy brothers whacked.”
Kevin peripherally registered a half-dozen marshals manning the exits as the odious attorney set the uncooperative case down on his chair seat and sat down on its lid.
“Next we rebound back here to District Court with a motion to reduce your sentence to fifty years,” continued the mouthpiece nonstop. “By that time you will have already served half of it. At least the spotlight will be off your case and hopefully the mangy newshounds will be chasing a fresher bone.”
The lawyer bounced up and down on the case lid without missing a beat in his verbal rhythm. “When all else falls, there is always hope for a Presidential Pardon if you come up with the required seven-figure campaign contribution. Old age and declining health should mitigate favorably if prison food has not killed you or…”
The lawyer’s eyes bugged and his cheeks ballooned as the candied mint rocketed from his puckered lips. The heel of Kevin’s right hand had chopped into the public defender’s neck, cutting off the oral noise and launching a wintergreen UFO on a rancid contrail of garlicky exhaust spray.
Kevin vaulted the defense table and sprinted for the door of the judge’s chamber, the only exit not manned by marshals. Judge Moonie arrived at that same door and opened it just as the chaos began. He turned back with a scowl to see a charging killer flanked by six marshals aiming guns in his direction. A toppled lawyer beneath a cascade of fluttering papers completed the picture which was captured by an alert newspaper reporter with a blinding snapshot.
Gunfire boomed and the soaring tacky breath mint struck and stuck to the judge’s forehead. He promptly fainted, spewing tobacco juice while sprawling haplessly across the threshold of his inner sanctum. His collapse brought about a momentary cease-fire, granting the defendant two life-saving ticks of the clock.
Juror Smythe, upon being jolted back into reality, had the presence of mind to retrieve and consume two more pills before screaming into the ear of foreman Dweeble. The toothless carnival showman spat out encouragement
to both sides of the courtroom drama: “Thomebody thoot that crook! Run, boy, run!”
Two bullets were already in flight when Kevin dived across the prostrate body of the judge. The first slug passed between his extended upper left arm and ribs, ripping holes in his windbreaker and shirt without causing bodily harm. The other bullet, however, slashed the side of his head, scalping off a gory strip of hair and skin. Both slugs embedded in the door
The would-be escape artist plunged through the partially opened doorway as more .45 caliber bullets whizzed overhead. He rolled back into the door and sat up with his shoulder to the thick barrier, dug in his heels and slammed it shut before jumping back up to slam home a hefty dead bolt.
Curious crunching arose from the base of the door. Four plump and purpling fingers were firmly trapped in the small gap between the door bottom and the dark green carpeting like stuffed sausages on a bed of spinach.
All residual bedlam from the courtroom was easily drowned out by the human siren wailing against the door like the sinful squall of a politician on Judgment Day. His Honor had awakened.
Chief Ronald Milner, Special Agent-In-Charge, grunted. The status report on his desk began with a reasonable portrayal of facts but soon soared into fanciful speculation.
The lengthy document purported that at 8:26 this morning, criminal defendant, Kevin Thomas Toler, a twenty-six year-old Caucasian, had fled the twelfth floor of the Federal Building after being convicted of first degree murder. The victim had been none other than Raymond Milner, a local Gman legend and the Chief’s first cousin.
When diving into the judge’s chamber, the report claimed that escapee Toler most likely sustained two serious gunshot wounds: one to the shoulder area and the other to the head. Bleeding was profuse.
FBI agents on the ground floor of the building had been alerted at 8:28 and emerged onto the street at 8:29. Six federal marshals had accessed the chamber room through a secondary door and freed a howling District Court Judge who was somehow stuck under the door connecting the public courtroom with the judge’s private chamber room into which Toler had fled. The half-dozen federal marshals progressed through a broken window of the chamber room in expectant pursuit of the absconding defendant, also at precisely 8:29.
A baggy-eyed Chief Milner looked up wearily from the fat file to speak to its skinny author.
“Special Agent Walter Wahler, am I to believe that eight hours ago, at eight-thirty this morning, six federal marshals were pointing weapons down from the fire escape platform on the twelfth floor while seven of my own FBI agents were looking up from Third Avenue and pointing their weapons at the marshals. The only thing missing from this Mexican standoff seems to be the Mexican. Your detailed report indicates that inmate Toler had magically vanished.”
“First of all,” Agent Wahler explained, “we were not on Third Avenue. We were on the sidewalk. Secondly, inmate Toler is a regular American born in Bardstown, Kentucky.
Thirdly, he could not have magically vanished, of course. Try not to be silly, sir. It’s been a long day.”
“V-a-n-i-s-h-e-d,” Chief Milner quoted painstakingly from the paper. Through clenched jaws he further clarified, “My Mexican standoff was an analogy.”
“I am a Practical Lutheran and we do not use anal words,” Wahler protested. “As for the vanishing act, I was going to type disappeared but did not know if it was spelled with one pee or two pees.”
Milner tapped his fingertip rhythmically on the desk in soothingly ordered strokes, “…eight, nine, ten…deep breath…hold…exhale slowly.”
“Chief, you look pallid or possibly even pickled, as my Aunt Millie would say. The color of pigs’ feet in a jar. Whenever Uncle Abner suffered his ugly, complexion-sapping asthma attacks, Aunt Millie would…”
“Shut your stinking garbage hole. We will stick to the report which reveals that Toler did indeed somehow evade this baker’s dozen posse, and a thorough search of the area yielded nothing except a torn jacket and a pair of cheap shoes.”
Wahler asked, “What is a baker’s dozen posse?”
“In this scenario I refer to the thirteen clueless federal agents who nearly shot each other. In fact, one of the marshals on the fire escape reported the sound of gunfire coming from your position on Third Avenue. Explain.”
“I fired a shot, sir.”
“Then why did you not fill out a Discharge of Weapon form?”
“I left it out.”
“I know that, moron. I just said that. Now I want to know why. Why did you fire your weapon and why did you fail to fill out the appropriate form?”
“Sir, if you really must know, I stumbled in the rush to get out there, and my gun sort of went off all by itself. It is only the second time I ever fired it in the line of duty. I did fill out a Discharge of Weapon form once before and you tore it up and called it super stupid. So I did not fill out another form this time.”
“That is certainly interesting, Agent Wahler. But since I cannot remember that incident, please refresh me.”
“When Uncle Abner suffered memory lapses, my Aunt Millie would tie a piece of purple yarn around his penis. I do not know why.”
“Fine, but since I am fresh out of purple yarn, please remind me about the time you fired your weapon the first time in the line of duty and I tore up the form.”
“At the annual department Dog Days Picnic three years ago. I was the official starter for the potato sack race.”
“And you filled out a Discharge of Weapon form?”
“Correct. I just said that. Congratulations on your short term recall.”
“Is it remotely possible,” Milner growled, “that we skip back to this morning’s fiasco? Please enlighten me with your best theory on how our prisoner eluded thirteen of Uncle Sam’s Finest who were all on the scene within minutes? You report that Toler did not reenter the building because our security windows do not open from the outside. You further note that he did not have time to make it twelve floors down to street level or eight floors up to the roof.”
The diminutive agent began, “As reported in my report, we know that Toler bashed out the chamber room outside window with Judge Moonie’s swivel chair which we found on the fire escape platform. We assume Toler descended past the tenth floor where we located his jacket. In all actuality, it was not really his, but rather the one issued by the jail for inmate court appearances. Now that I think about it some more, I should not call it a jacket at all since it more closely resembles one of those windbreakers. It was sky-blue.”
“Special Agent Wahler, stick to the important facts.”
“I am. The windbreaker is critical for this discussion. It had a bullet hole through the armpit and Toler left it hanging on the tenth floor railing. I presume it snagged and instead of wasting time freeing the thing, he simply slipped out of it and left it flapping in the wind like a North Carolina Tarheel school pennant. I now refer to that college only because of the specific color of sky-blue, same as the jacket in question, not because of the school’s athletic teams being named Tarheels. I don’t even know what a Tarheel is, much less what color it is, but darker than sky-blue, one would think.”
Milner massaged his temples. “Why me?”
Wahler hiked up his pants to expose checkered socks, then resumed, “Then there’s the shoes which were on the sidewalk. Property Officer Romanski, whom we questioned over at the jail, remembered that Toler had complained about the shoes being too narrow. Romanski reminded inmate Toler that he was going to prison, not the prom.
“Anyway,” Wahler summed up, “Toler must have kicked off the shoes after landing, so he could run faster.”
“Yes, boss. This afternoon I sealed off the judge’s chamber with Crime Scene tape and had Agent Swag stand guard at the door. Then I spent a couple of hours on the fire escape with a stopwatch. As you noted, Toler could not
possibly have made it all the way down before our arrival, so he must have jumped from one of the lower floors.”
“Not the man, you little brainiac idiot. The floor! What floor did Toler jump from to satisfy your time frame?”
“As closely as I could determine, he must have leaped from the fourth or fifth floor.”
“Onto concrete?” the Chief asked incredulously. “Then kicked off tight shoes and sprinted out of sight like Jesse Owens on amphetamines? Not to mention that none of the pedestrians you subsequently questioned mentioned catching a glimpse of a mortally wounded Olympian careening barefoot down a crowded sidewalk at ninety miles an hour, trailing blood like a broken bottle of red wine!” screamed the big man.
Wahler stammered, “Y-yessir. I m-mean n-nosir. I mean Toler was hyped up with lots of adrenaline pumping. He was desperately empowered like that tabloid lesbian who lifted a bus off her girlfriend’s toe. Under stress, a body can accomplish amazing physical feats.”
Milner stacked the loose pages of the file on his desktop and ripped them in half with his meaty hands. “Wahler, this report is an amazing mess. It is now dead. Dead as a catfish in the desert. Do you follow that homespun analogy?”
“Yes. Bleached bones, but you are turning pale again.”
“When I want your anatomical opinion, I will screw off your head and read your twisted mind. Now observe closely.”
Milner opened the top desk drawer and extracted a deck of poker cards. After settling himself down by adroitly shuffling the cards with stubby fingers, he fanned them out facedown on the desktop and instructed, “Pick a card. Any card at all.”
Wahler picked a random card and peeked at it without letting the Chief see the face of the card.
“Nine of clubs,” Chief Milner announced correctly. “Now tell me how I knew which card you picked.”
Wahler glanced behind him for a mirror and seeing none, reasoned, “The cards must be marked.”
Milner clapped softly. “Brilliant. Now to back up yourastute deduction, tell me how you would go about establishing proof that the cards are marked. Walk me through the entire investigative process and estimate how long it would take.”
“Sir, I would scan the backs of the cards with a magnifying lens looking for odd scratches. The requisite manhours involved would depend on the-size and possibly the cleverness of the concealed marks.”
“Is it fair to conclude,” Milner sought, “that you would not give up until locating those marks, being the usual thorough investigator that you always are?”
“So we may conclude that since these cards are not marked, you would be hunched over them forever while our beloved escapee is hightailing it to Acapulco in time for an afternoon, cocoa butter rubdown.”
“You lost me, Chief.”
“And it was simple. Just ask Toler. He lost you in a matter of seconds!” the big man yelled, halfway rising to the crouch-attack position of a Chicago Bears middle linebacker, eyes ablaze with human growth hormone. “So shock me grayheaded by informing me that you recognize the similarity in stooping over unmarked cards and stooping down on an unstained fire escape with your ridiculous stopwatch.”
“Did your report mention any spatters of blood on the fire escape? Did all that blood also magically vanish?” “I will check again, sir.”
“You must always seek out the simplest explanations first. Don’t let Toler lead you down a yellow brick road.”
“You are losing me again, boss. Are we still in Acapulco or the Land of Oz?”
“We are in downtown Lexington and inmate Toler probably is not. Tomorrow morning, start over. Check windows for reentry signs. Find out if any windows were already open. Search heating and air-conditioning ducts. Get the building blueprints and isolate any location large enough to conceal a person. Check the fire escape, roof, and sidewalk for blood. Quiz all employees.
“Any questions, Agent Wahler?”
“One. How did you do the card trick?”
“I am psychic and I see you standing in line tomorrow morning at the local Unemployment Office if you waste any more of the government’s overtime budget today.”
After Agent Wahler briskly departed, Chief Milner flipped over all the cards face up. Every card was a nine of clubs.
“I will get you, Toler,” the big lawman vowed, “because I never presume my opponent is playing with a full deck.”