by Barry Allen Herzog
During late afternoons in November the sun would glide across the metal-coated building behind Howard Abrams’ office and cast a smear of copper on the wall opposite his desk. The smear would slide up slowly, melting, until it met the ceiling, bent and oozed inexorably in his direction.
The sun always set before it reached him.
By then the secretaries outside his door would be ending the tasks they had worked on since lunch and would be straightening their desk tops for tomorrow. Pleadings would whir through copy machines to be collated, stapled, affixed to blue construction paper and attached to forms directing the messenger service where they should be filed the next day in court.
Abrams heard Martha take out her purse and remove the top of her lipstick with the little popping noise it always made. He pictured her sliding the red gloss carefully along her upper lip while he stared at piles of manila folders scattered on the floor, file cabinets and chairs around him.
The intercom on his desk phone buzzed, insistent and shrill. He touched the ‘receive’ button.
The voice of the new receptionist came out metallic, thin. “Your five o’clock is here.”
“Right,” he said, released the button, rolled down his shirt sleeves, buttoned the top button of his shirt, and waited for Mr. Harrison to be led from the reception area, down the corridors lined with offices like his, through the steno area to his door. He debated whether to rise and look eager or sit in his chair looking competent, imperial, secure. He decided to sit.
The doorway filled with the outline of a young woman whose name he’d forgotten, and as quickly emptied as she held out a gesturing arm and receded.
David Harrison appeared, paused, then crossed the office to stand at the corner of the desk Abrams had purchased twenty years before from a patent lawyer who had finally won The Big One and moved to Ohio.
Harrison was medium height, around thirty. He had thin blond hair, a narrow chest, grayish eyes. He wore a charcoal sports coat, wool slacks and a blue and white striped shirt. He bent toward Abrams, hand held out.
They shook. “Please,” Abrams said, nodding to the high backed leather chair reserved for paying customers.
Harrison settled in. Abrams noticed the thin leather briefcase that zipped on the top he clenched under one arm.
Harrison unzipped the briefcase and pulled out an inch-thick packet of hundred dollar bills tied with the original band of paper furnished by the bank.
He counted out twenty of the bills, patted them into a neat pile and slid them toward Abrams.
“I know you’re a busy man,” he said.
Abrams looked at the money without changing expression.
“What can I do for you?” he asked.
Harrison’s hand rested on the remaining stack of bills sitting at the edge of the desk.
“I need a consultation,” he said.
Abrams nodded. “So your message indicated. On what subject?”
“On the subject of life and death, Mr. Abrams.” He leaned back in the chair. “May I call you Howard?”
* * *
Traffic was easing in the street below by the time all the other lawyers had left for the night. The janitor had come and gone and now only a ceiling light lit the deserted corridors running through the suite.
Harrison smoked thin cigarettes with brown paper and silver filters, holding them between a thumb and forefinger and flicking the ash into a large glass ash tray Abrams kept at his clients’ disposal.
Abrams didn’t smoke. He rarely drank more than an occasional glass of wine. Besides muscle relaxants and headache pills, his exposure to intoxicants of any kind dated back to his law school days. Even then he rarely gained more than incidental pleasure from pastimes so zealously advocated as ‘outlaw’ by his classmates. He preferred erotic films and an occasional glass of ice cold grappa for his spasmodic spurts of fancy.
Abrams had filled six pages of legal pad with notes before Harrison paused long enough for him to notice that two and a half hours had passed since the interview began. Abrams’ wrist had developed a throb and two of his fingers were growing numb.
“I get the point,” he finally said, putting down his pen. “You had a chaotic childhood. Your family moved around a lot. Your father was in pharmaceuticals, your mother doted on your brother. You’ve had bouts of episodic depression, highlighted by two voluntary stays in mental health facilities and your sister is autistic. You love classical music, Kabuki theater and the history of lead crystal manufacture. You find steady work boring but manage to support yourself writing freelance articles for industrial magazines. You spend fifty hours a week in public libraries. You prefer scallops to shrimp, stewed meat to grilled. You describe yourself as politically centrist although you are a registered Libertarian.”
Harrison nodded along as Abrams spoke.
“Excellent, counselor. You keep copious, precise notes. I like that. It proves you’re logical, thorough. Analytic.”
“I’m glad you’re pleased, but when do we get to the punch line?”
“When? I’m surprised at your impatience.”
“Call me dense, Mr. Harrison,…”
“…but I don’t see where hearing out your life history minute by minute qualifies as legal help. All I’ve done tonight is listen to you talk.” He looked down at his watch. “For over two hours now.”
Harrison frowned and glanced down at his own wrist. A wafer thin Toussot watch glimmered just below a cuff of dense Egyptian cotton, white with thin blue Oxford stripes.
“You’re right, of course. I tend to lose my path amongst the minutia of a seemingly prosaic life.”
He peeled twenty more bills from his pad of money, leaned forward and counted them out, one at a time, over Abrams’ desk blotter.
“…eighteen, nineteen, twenty. You must forgive me for prattling on. I relish a captive audience.”
He smiled apologetically. I’ll get down to it.”
“No problem,” said Abrams, “Just tell me when the legal part of this ‘consultation’ starts.”
Harrison looked surprised. “But it has.”
Abrams had already slid the first wad of bills into the side drawer of his desk. The second wad was beckoning and yet he felt unease at taking it. Something akin to the dropping of the second shoe.
He pushed it back toward Harrison.
“Keep the rest of the money. I don’t need to…”
“I killed them, Howard. My parents, that is.”
Abrams’ hand paused on top of the money. Then he resumed pushing it toward Harrison.
“With poison, mostly. You’d be surprised how many benign medications, properly combined, not only produce lethal outcomes but precisely imitate natural organic pathologies. Properly researched and annotated, I see a very impressive doctoral thesis here.”
“Or a hyper-active imagination.”
“That’s possible, of course. I wouldn’t expect you to take what I say on face value, Howard. That wouldn’t be professional at all.”
He took a set of news articles, police reports and autopsy photographs out of his briefcase. All had been carefully encased in plastic slip covers with three-ring binder holes along the left margin.
“I’ll leave these, if you like. I have extra copies in a safe deposit box, along with various ‘recipes’, as you will, culled from my little sorties into inorganic chemistry.”
He paused. “You do understand I couldn’t bring the formulas here with me tonight. There are copyright considerations to think of, at the very least.”
“At the least,” said Abrams.
Harrison sat back and folded his hands on his lap.
“I didn’t want you to think I lack confidence in you. Do you see now why I need legal input?”
“I’m still cloudy on that part, Dave. From what you’re saying, you’ve perpetrated multiple homicides here. Patricide, matricide, the works. Have I got it straight so far?”
“Right on the head.”
“The question is, why do you need a lawyer? The deeds have been done, I gather you’ve gotten off scott free?”
Harrison nodded. “So far, so good.”
“Since my practice rarely involves advice on fine tuning homicidal technique….”
“Don’t patronize me, Howard. I don’t find it that amusing.”
“Then stop wasting my time bragging about your fantasy life of crime. I’ve got legitimate clients to represent, briefs that are due, a trial I’m preparing for. Why not take back your little wad of hundreds and we’ll both call it a night.”
“I did my father first, you know.”
Abrams pushed his chair back from the desk and debated whether to call security or handle it himself.
“It isn’t what you think,” Harrison said. “Not one of those tragic tales of child abuse, the whipping paddle, the years of sexual intrusion.
I killed because I wanted to. Because it was merited, yes, but it didn’t have to be.”
Abrams took a deep breath, rocked forward and started to rise.
“Sit down when I’m talking to you, Howie. Mr. Harvard Law Degree Glib Honeycoated Jew Tongued Mr. Hotshot Prosecutor-Turned-Defender Abrams. Sit down!”
Harrison was pointing a nasty looking snub nose thirty-two revolver at Abrams’ forehead. His eyes glinted in the lights shining into the office from a topless dance club above the Sushi bar Abrams ate at twice a week.
Abrams lowered himself into his seat, his eyes bound to Harrison’s. Harrison pulled back the hammer on the gun, then released it slowly and lowered the gun onto the desk beside the pack of money.
“This retainer fee,” he said, “is nonrefundable.”
* * *
Abrams had never married. He had no children and seldom saw his family. He was tall and wiry, had black, brooding eyes that wandered from place to place, olive skin and the long, thin fingers of a pianist.
Things had gotten serious once, with Rebecca, an architecture student who volunteered with rape victim support when Abrams was a Deputy D.A. They had dated, spoken regularly by phone, had even made love once on a mountain hike, beside a stream, atop a blanket spread out on a bed of decomposing Aspen leaves.
But when push came to shove, they had agreed the timing wasn’t right, that their relationship lacked stability, that perhaps when things got smoother they would meet, talk again and see if more would come of it.
Neither had called the other since.
Now, instead of feeling fear, Abrams badly had to pee. Harrison agreed and let him lead him to the men’s room down the corridor. They stood together at adjoining urinals, relieved themselves in silence, then walked back to the office.
“Sorry about the outburst, Howard,” Harrison said. “Sometimes I get mad when people just won’t listen.”
“No, I was wrong.”
Back inside the office, Harrison’s mood brightened. Abrams saw it when he turned; Harrison expression was of a happy little boy.
“Would you mind if I sat in your seat? I’ve never been in a lawyer’s chair before.”
Harrison approached the chair in measured paces, a best man walking down the aisle. He touched the leather reverently, running his hands over its buttons and folds, eased down slowly, grinning, then spun from side to side, his legs out straight in front.
“This is great,” he said, hands folded behind his head.
Abrams found it pathetic.
“I could have been a lawyer, you know. My grades were always near the top.”
“There’s a lot of stress to deal with,” Abrams said.
“Yes,” said Harrison. “And deadlines, political agendas, ulterior motives. I’m not cut out for law; I’m way too independent to fit in corporate systems. You know, like courts?”
He spun again. “I sure do like this chair, though.”
Abrams wanted to jam a two-foot molten crowbar straight up Harrison’s ass.
“As I was saying, Howard, Dad was first. I used some of his own company’s ingredients on him. I tend to irony.”
Anyway, it was good to watch him suffer. Took the better part of five days ‘til he sank into a coma.”
Abrams tried not to yawn. He couldn’t stop wondering why the small, neat hole at the end of Harrison’s gun had bored him.
“I reviewed his medical history, of course, got access to his chart, saw he’d been on anti-coagulants for fifteen years. It was pretty much a cake walk after that.”
“I don’t mean to pry,” Abrams interjected.
“Pry on, counselor.”
“Was the timing of your father’s death coincidence, or did you chose him as a target first?”
“’There are no coincidences,’” Harrison said. “Kurusawa, I believe.
No, Howard, I didn’t simply stumble onto dear old Dad then set out on a random killing spree. You obviously have no inkling of the enormity of planning, the days, months, the years it takes to convert concept into reality. I would never kill at random. It insults me you would ask.”
“Don’t take it personally, Dave. I just wondered.”
Abrams noticed the bulge in Harrison’s right jacket pocket where the thirty-two was parked.
“Mother deserved to go first, I concede that. She was my ultimate intention.”
“For doting on your brother?”
“Oh, no. I didn’t slaughter Mother for playing favorites. She was an equal opportunity lunatic.”
Harrison formed his fingers into a little bridge, which he tucked under his chin.
“Mom was manic, prone to fits, tottering on the brink most days. She could switch from laugh to scream like a record changing speeds. One minute all hugs and kisses, the next charging at you with a tablespoon and a frothing can of Draino. Like with Gerald.”
“I take it you found life….unpredictable?”
“I found the unpredictable predictable, Howard. Mom would meet me at elementary school on the sidewalk, sitting on a bike, nude to the waist. She played piano. Every hear the ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ pounded out, fortissimo, over and done in forty seconds flat?”
“Sounds like killing her could qualify as justifiable homicide. Or a Nobel peace prize.”
“Yes, but killing dad came first. I was too young to simply polish off the one person who starred, stage center, every hour of my day. I wasn’t Superman, you know. You don’t just up and bump off God.
So I socked it to dear ol’ Dad instead. He avoided us mostly. That left us kids with Mommie Weirdest for days on end and qualified Dad as parental Enemy Number One. Mom wasn’t responsible for what she was. Dad was.”
“Why?” Abrams asked.
“He was a coward. A deserter in time of war.”
Abrams pictured his own father’s face superimposed on Harrison’s. Old, jowly, smiling secrets he shared only with silent emissaries from distant lands.
“What about your brother?”
“Gerald? One day Mother stopped doting and announced that it was his fault she had to be committed. After that, he pretty well stopped talking.”
“How was it his fault?”
“I was only five at the time; Gerald ten. To hear Mother tell it, she had a pretty rough pregnancy with him. You know, long periods laid out in bed, spotting?
After the delivery, she claimed she sank into a pretty deep depression. They didn’t know what to call it then, but she started seeing spiders in the corners, gargled kitchen bleach, sawed her wrists one morning with a nail file, ended up hospitalized and on a dozen different meds. They even shocked her some.
Mother didn’t like shock one small bit. When we’d visit she’d glare at Gerald. After she got home she made him wait for lunch after me and Karen. She’d yell a lot, complain about stomach aches.
She finally came out and said that carrying him around inside her had pretty much destroyed her life.”
Harrison began rummaging in the drawer where Abrams kept his staple remover, paper clips, post-it notes and deposit slips.
“Two weeks later,” he continued, “Gerald got up on the roof, spread his arms out like an eagle and dove onto this metal fence that ran along our yard. It had these pointy posts every three feet or so? He impaled himself on one of them.”
“You saw it?”
“Oh yes. We all did. He called us out there first.”
Abrams sat quietly while Harrison strung different sizes of paper clips into a necklace.
“I still don’t get it,” Abrams finally said. “Why kill your father when she was doing all the damage?”
“Like I said, Mother couldn’t help herself. She was obviously deranged. Father, on the other hand, was rational. When Gerald skewered himself, Father just called the paramedics and headed off to Dallas. He didn’t lift a finger.”
“Who got your mother hospitalized?”
“The neighbors. They’d heard her chanting verses from the gospels. She’d alternate them with lyrics from Led Zeppelin songs.”
* * *
It was after midnight. Abrams’ neck was stiff, his eyes reddish, and Harrison showed no sign of winding up.
In fact, he was on the prowl. As he journeyed along the bookcases of Abrams’ office, scanning titles and murmuring, “Read it; out of date; lousy research base,” Abrams contemplated options.
Harrison’s gun held seven shots. It probably had the safety on. Abrams had no gun himself. There was the ash tray, heavy glass, the clump of sharpened pencils in the metal cup beside his typewriter, the letter opener laying by the blotter.
College hadn’t been much of a challenge for Abrams. When the Vietnam war broke out he was in his junior year, majoring in pre-law, on the Dean’s List.
After midterms, he walked across campus to the army recruiting station, enlisted, declined an offer to enroll in officer candidate school and was transferred overseas after eight weeks of training at Ford Ord.
* * *
Abrams had to get Harrison in front of him.
Harrison was holding a framed photograph of Abrams shaking hands with the head D.A. on the courthouse steps just after the Stevenson verdict.
“I remember this,” he said. It made The Tribune.”
“The State V. Ricky Leon Stevenson. A serial murder case, brilliantly prosecuted.”
“That’s why I chose you, Howard. How you analyzed the killer’s motives, sliced cleanly through his convoluted reasoning, exposed his obtuse thought process right there on the witness stand. A masterful performance. Inspired.”
“Can I have my chair back now?”
Harrison left the book case to stand behind him. Abrams felt eyes on his neck, cold electric shivers buzzing at the bottom of his skull.
“It’s your office.”
Abrams went to his chair and sat. Harrison sat in the client’s chair, glanced at the remaining packet of bills sitting on the desk, then at the photographs and reports on Abrams’ blotter.
“You don’t believe me, do you Howard?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sure you do. You’re just afraid what might happen if you tell me.”
“I’d be just as worried if I didn’t.”
“I’m a big boy, Howard. Nothing you say would push me off the edge.”
Abrams placed his hands side by side, palms down, in front of him. He wanted Harrison to see them, see that they were empty, that he had voluntarily immobilized himself.
Abrams hadn’t killed in nineteen years, and that was more an accident. A lucky shot in pouring rain, at the far edge of the range of his M-16, through flapping palm fronds and hibiscus leaves. The Viet Cong sniper had folded forward and sunk down from his perch in a clump of brush beside the trail Abrams’ platoon was approaching on.
He had gone over to look. The bullet had entered the sniper’s eye, ricocheted inside his skull and exited below his ear. The remaining eye was open and staring, as if disapproving the bizarre misfortune that had aborted his carefully set-up ambush.
Abrams slowly sneered at Harrison. “I think you’re crazy, Dave. Like your mother.”
“You’re nuts,” Abrams continued. “As in bonkers, over the top, way out in the stratosphere. But you haven’t killed a soul.”
Harrison played with a smile.
Abrams pointed to the police reports and photographs, careful not to move anything but his index finger.
“You collected those from other cases, maybe faked a few. I don’t think you killed your parents, or that your brother took a dive. I’m not even sure you have a brother, or a sister who spends her hours rocking. I think you made the whole thing up.”
“I buy one thing, though,” said Abrams. “You do love a captive audience.”
Harrison laughed. “Four thousand dollars worth?”
“Oh, yes. You’d blow your entire wad just to tell your story to a real, live, breathing lawyer.”
Harrison thought a moment, then shrugged. “You don’t even think I have a sister?”
“You could,” Abrams said. “Who cares?”
“I might,” said Harrison, his voice soft.
Abrams lowered his finger.
“No offense,” he said.
“None taken,” Harrison replied. “So I’m not a killer.”
Harrison slowly nodded.
“You should know.”
Abrams stiffened. “What?”
Humor flickered in Harrison’s eyes. “You being a prosecutor and all. Relax, Howard, it was just an observation.”
Abrams forced his hands to stay on the desk.
“You’re penny ante, Dave. You may want to kill. I’d even grant you’ve read some books, bought some weed spray, maybe stewed some joy juice up from papa’s little box of samples. Hell, you could even have tried some out on a kitty cat or two.”
“Thanks, counselor. I’d hate to think you found me unambitious.”
Harrison reached forward, picked up his documents and slid them into his briefcase.
“You know the trouble with clergy men?” he asked. “Their price tag for confession.”
He zipped his briefcase shut.
“Your priestly cast demands penance. You must be contrite, you must regret, you must swear to make amends. Who needs forgiveness? I want understanding. Now you, Howard. You empathize. I’m not sure why, it’s just a hunch. But I think you’ve been there; walked the walk. Which sort of makes us brethren.”
“Fuck you, Dave,” said Abrams.
Harrison’s face glowed with beneficence. He could have been the Dalai Lama.
“Temper. You’re wrong about me, Howard, but I think you know that. And it is important you see me as I am. As we both are.”
Harrison looked satisfied. “I’ve chosen well. You are the perfect audience. An eclectic mix of judgment, mercy, vengeance and regret. The perfect man to hear my heartfelt, unapologetic saga.”
He tapped the money.
“And you were right about this, too.”
“Keep it,” Abrams said.
“Please, take it. It’s well earned.”
Abrams shook his head ‘no’.
Harrison slid his hand into his jacket pocket, pulled out the thirty-two and slowly raised the barrel until it pointed at Abrams’ face.
Abrams didn’t break his gaze, didn’t move a finger.
“Pretty please?” Harrison said, and pulled the trigger.
Abrams heard a quiet ‘click’ and saw a small flame pop up in at the back.
“See?” said Harrison. “Just a cigarette lighter. Realistic, but harmless. And after I go, you can’t even call the law and have me cited for assault. I looked it up before I came.”
* * *
Abrams ached with a burning rooted in his groin. He hadn’t felt a killing rage since gazing downward through the rain at a fourteen-year-old sniper with a bullet in his eye on a muddy trail five thousand miles to the east.
He heard the door to his office suite click open far off down the corridor, heard the ‘whoosh’ of the elevator as the door swung shut. He pictured Harrison stepping in, pushing a button, gliding effortlessly toward the lobby.
He looked at the money, then at his hands. They were bony hands, the knuckles prominent, the small hairs on the back pointed all in one direction, like seaweed in an undertow. They trembled slightly, which annoyed him.
Harrison was at the glass door of the lobby now, stepping into the balmy, autumn night. Abrams pictured him looking for a taxicab, then deciding to stroll a bit, taking in the brisk and leafy air. Perhaps he’d stand in silence in a doorway, briefcase under his arm, and smile at a couple walking toward their car.
Abrams picked up the phone and dialed. He looked at his watch; it was two a.m.
“Rebecca?” he said when someone answered. “Sorry for the time. It’s Howard.”