Judgment Call

Judgement Call

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The long goodbye. That’s what Raymond Chandler called it. The big “it,” to be precise.

Like everything Ray ever wrote, it has a sweetly melancholic ring of truth. Dad’s jarring voice on the answering machine two weeks after the funeral. The grocery list Aunt Dorothy left on the fridge minutes before taking a header down the basement stairs. The shoebox full of cash and Polaroids found on the top shelf of the senator’s closet a year after he’s lowered into the sod with twenty-one guns blazing.

When we go gently into that good night, more often than not we leave a few breadcrumbs along the way, a few nasty surprises for the rest of us to dirty our shoes on. Wave bye-bye, shed a few tears, and box everything up for the Salvation Army. Chances are, Dad or Aunt Dotty or the Honorable Senator will pop back for a few more posthumous curtain calls sooner or later.

I’d had more than my share of long goodbyes lately, which is ironic considering the ghost of Chandler brought me to L.A. in the first place. Turned out he’d vacated the place, or at least wasn’t offering any new tips for aspiring young writers. I’d had to create my own ghosts.

“Fear and Self-Loathing in Los Angeles,” Charlie mused as I looked out over the moonlit Pacific. Some kids had lit a fire up ahead, using God knows what and, probably, smoking the same.

“Gonna have to quit taking you to counseling with me,” I muttered.

“Nice trick, you can pull it off. But I think Samantha expects you to bring your subconscious.”

“Couldn’t have dementia without it, right?”

“Hoo boy, here we go,” Charlie said, playing an invisible violin. I suppose I could’ve imagined a real one for him, maybe a Stradivarius, but he didn’t seem to take to props.

I jumped as an electronic melody pierced the cool California night. I glanced at Charlie.

“Must be yours’,” my dead partner grinned. “You know it ain’t mine.”

**

“I pray to God the press doesn’t get hold of this crime photo,” The Honorable Judge Rina Getchel breathed, staring disgustedly at the body on the rug. Judge Getchel’s vintage Sarouk rug. Her body, too, actually.

I ignored her, glancing anxiously around the judge’s chambers at the clutch of uniforms, techs, and fellow detectives. Judge Getchel (the one on the floor) had died horribly (if there was any other way), her judicial robe snarled around her thighs, her face contorted in agony. Poison, I ventured.

I looked back at Judge Getchel (the one still standing), who merely shrugged. Like the others, she was a product of my literarily deficient imagination. Except now, I was thinking metaphorically, like some bad independent movie. My Judge Getchel was swathed in blood-red robes, and her face was pinched and lined, unlike the supremely self-confident, unflappable magistrate I’d testified before dozens of times. What was I thinking? Had something been worrying the judge? Had Getchel been into something illegal, gotten a little blood on her robes, on her hands?

“Ha,” Judge Getchel barked. “Little Miss Decorum?”

I frowned up at her. Usually, if my victims deprecated anybody, it was me, not themselves. I looked back at the body, at the scenario.

“Nice legs for a middle-aged broad, huh?” Getchel inquired. “Why don’t you take a picture?”

“Shh,” I admonished, a finger to my lips.

“I didn’t even say anything. Detective Raines?”

I jumped, then swiveled toward the man behind me. Pleasant-looking guy, crooked grin. Staring at where I’d just been staring, at Getchel the Figment.

“Hey,” I smiled, climbing to my feet and taking his outstretched hand. “Sorry. Like a nice, quiet crime scene, you know?”

“Doesn’t everybody?” He flashed an ID. FBI.

“Terrific badge flipping technique, Agent, uh, Mulder. Very Jack Webb. Say, you guys move awful fast.”

Mulder shrugged. “The judge had just been nominated for the federal bench. She was controversial — I understand she got a bag of hate mail every day. Judge Judy’s the Little Mermaid by comparison.”

“Nice,” Judge Getchel snorted.

“Hey, hey, Agent Mulder,” I hastened, trying to drown out my own imagination. “What say we grab a cup of joe and a couple high-fiber muffins down the street?”

Mulder’s eyes narrowed, and he nodded slowly. “Sure.”

**

“You’re not from the L.A. field office,” I ventured, waggling a finger at Mulder’s watch. “The time seemed to be flying by so delightfully, I checked your watch. Either you’re in from the Right Coast or you like to be reeeally early for your appointments.”

“D.C.,” the agent grinned, sipping his macchiato. “My A.D. asked me to check out the judge’s murder. Out here for a conference.”

“Homeland security, forensics?”

“Satanic Ritualism and its Correlation to Rural Serial Fetishism.”

“Yeah, yeah, right. Read about it in the Times. Shatner’s the keynoter, right? Just what do you do for the Bureau, Agent?”

Mulder explained in no small detail.

“Ah, paranormal phenomena. Good stuff – had a cousin go into that.” I wondered if Dr. Kohl would give me a referral discount if I brought a buddy to our next session.

“The man’s certifiable,” Getchel the Red-Robed Adjudicator sighed from across the table. “Ask to see his badge again.”

I shot a dagger or two her direction. When I turned back, Mulder again was staring curiously at where my adjudicating avatar had materialized. “So, honestly, you really think some crazed con or aggravated activist offed our judge?”

“Verry cold,” Getchel murmured.

“Your CSU guy tells me there was no food or beverages in chambers, and her clerk said she’d been working solid since 8 this morning and was planning to grab some dinner on her way home. How’d anybody slip her the deadly dose?”

“Who was she planning to dine with – with whom was she planning to dine? She’d just heard about her nomination, right? Was she going to celebrate with someone special?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Getchel studying my muffin.

“I’m sure you knew she was getting a divorce.”

I nodded. “Bigshot celebrity lawyer. Bitter divorce, real Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner stuff.”

Mulder frowned. “Jewel of the Nile?”

“War of the Roses. They’d been separated for months – in fact, she got a TRO on him after he drove his Hummer over her front lawn. He couldn’t get less than 100 feet from her.”

“Pigs,” Judge Getchel hissed. I held up a finger, then swatted a similarly imaginary fly. Mulder smiled, an eyebrow raised. My chair squeaked on the tile floor as my cell phone shrilled.

“Raines. You need to haul ass back here.”

“Officer Boyer? You sound out of breath. You really ought to try inhaling through your nose.”

“Yeah, right. I been dumpster diving.”

“You should’ve said something. I could’ve brought you a piece of carrot cake.”

“I think maybe we found the murder weapon. Her flunkie, the clerk, whatever, said she went down the hall just long enough to throw something away just before he left for the day, and I figured – well, Lance and I figured –”

“Shut up, shut up,” I interrupted. “You had me at ‘murder weapon.’ What is it?”

“Jeez, I don’t know. Clerk didn’t see what it was. I just bagged everything up, like a little Christmas gift just for you.”

“Gee, and all I got you was, well, you’ll probably find it in your wheel well in a few weeks.” I flipped the phone shut. “Agent, you ready to roll?”

Mulder stood. “Let me hit the boy’s first.” He headed toward the back of the nearly empty coffeehouse.

“He thinks you’re insane, too,” Judge Getchel suggested.

“Shh.” I leaned back, shutting my eyes. “What did you throw away? And why down the hall? You have to have a wastebasket in your office. Maybe, maybe you didn’t want your clerk to see what it was…”

“Little Miss Decorum,” Judge Getchel sighed.

“Yeah, yeah. It wasn’t just the clerk – you didn’t want the night crew to find it in your trash, in your chamber.”

I opened my eyes. Agent Mulder was smiling down at me, our bill in hand.

“Well, hi,” I smiled back. “You got some little cat feet, don’t you?”

**

It took three bags before I found it nestled amongst the remains of the day. With gloved hand, I lifted it by the neck and deposited it on the lab table before Officers Lance and Boyer and my new friend the crazy fed.

“Wow,” Boyer grunted. “Now tell me who’s gonna win the fifth race at Hollywood Park.”

“Judge Getchel was a stickler for decorum, a regular doyenne of decorum,” I began. “She’d just found out she was up for a federal judgeship, so a bit of the bubbly was in order.” I smacked Boyer’s paw as he reached for the nearly depleted Dom Perignon bottle. “But champagne in chambers, that was out of order.”

“So why’d she have it there in the first place?” Lance asked, pursing her lips. “The judge was going out to celebrate. Why’d she pop the cork at the office? And why alone? Wouldn’t she want to share the moment?”

“Like Raines said,” Boyer snorted. “She didn’t wanna be seen getting a snoot full.”

“1970 Dom Perignon’s an awfully pricey ‘snoot full,’” Mulder pointed out. “But Officer Lance’s point remains. Why drink a celebratory toast alone? And an apparently illicit one at that?”

“I think the question is who tainted the toast,” I suggested. “Boyer, bag the bottle and tell the lab to express it. Lance, check any recent deliveries to the courthouse. Go. Scat.”

“Now what?” Mulder asked.

“Got a disgruntled widower cooling off upstairs,” I offered. “Wanna play good cop, weird cop?”

**

“Guys, I didn’t care enough to kill her,” Jason Getchel sighed, hooking an arm over the back of his chair. “I was getting out, and none too soon. Another week, and I’d’ve been a free agent.”

I nodded as the entertainment lawyer granted me his best “Don’t sweat it” grin. “Ah, but without all that lovely California community property, right? Nothing says lovin’ like a warm pre-nup? Shrewd gal, the judge. You weren’t going to get squat in the divorce. But she apparently didn’t factor in premature death, and the agreement doesn’t preclude your inheriting the house in Bel Aire or the family stock portfolio.

The grin vanished into a flash of snarling crowns. “She was a fucking ice queen, OK? Wouldn’t talk to her own sister, even after she offered her an olive branch? Rina didn’t even bother to go to her funeral last year. Her own sister.”

“Pigs,” Judge Getchel spat from behind her widowed spouse’s shoulder. A tear rolled down her cheek into the folds of the red robe. I frowned. Where was I coming up with this stuff?

“Hello?”

I blinked.

“Detective Raines?” Mulder asked.

“Yeah, yeah,” I mumbled, heading for the interview room door. “Just don’t leave town.”

I didn’t actually think he would. It’d always just sounded kind of cool on TV, and I couldn’t think of a better exit line.

**

Nothing sounded good on TV that night – even the Food Network seemed hackneyed and clichéd – so I poured myself a couple of fingers and sat down at the dining room table for a chat with Her Honor.

Getchel’d changed into her black robe for the cocktail hour, and she was now the same cool, patrician judge I’d quaked quietly before on many an occasion.

“You’d been waiting years for the federal bench,” I frowned. “You should’ve been celebrating your brains out. Instead, you’re drinking alone in chambers.”

The judge grimaced, crossing her leg and smoothing her robe over her knee. “You make it sound so pathetic, like I was a closet lush. I may have been an ‘ice queen’ at home — wouldn’t you be one if you were married to Jason? — but I had many friends on the bench and at City Hall.”

“Sorry. So why drink alone?”

“Who says I was?” Judge Getchel posed with a haughty hitch of her brow.

“Don’t talk in riddles.”

“It’s you talking in riddles, actually. Maybe you shouldn’t have had that third drink.”

“Touché,” I murmured, raising my glass to the dead judge. It stopped in mid-air, and amber liquid sloshed over the lip. That was it. Or a big part of it.

The doorbell rang, and my drink made it over the lip and onto the table. I left the mess and fumbled with the door.

“The sister,” Mulder stated.

“Yeah, I know.” I stepped aside. “It’s who Judge Getchel was sharing her toast with. Her dead sister. It’s why she was drinking alone. Oh, I’m sorry. You want a drink?”

“I’m good,” Mulder said, landing on the couch. “Rina and Geraldine Carroll had a falling out more than 35 years ago — I talked to a cousin in Bakersfield who thought it was over a guy. The upshot is, they haven’t communicated since the ‘70s. Geraldine became an interior decorator, Rina a lawyer. Even when their parents died in the ‘80s, they both stayed away from the funerals to avoid each other.”

I nodded, excited. “The champagne, it must’ve been a peace offering from the sister — the olive branch Jason Getchel was talking about. That’s why Judge Getchel was drinking it in chambers after hearing about her nomination. She was toasting her late sister. But wait — that’s right. Geraldine’s dead.”

“Hit by a drunk driver as she was coming out of church, of all places,” Mulder confirmed.

“So when did she send Judge Getchel the Dom Perignon? Would had to have been a special occasion. Getchel was named to the county bench in 1986.”

Mulder leaned back. “I’m betting it was in 1977, when Rina graduated law school. She was still angry with her sister, so she kept Geraldine’s gift without opening it. Whatever came between them must have been powerful, ‘cause she didn’t open it in ’86, either.”

“What makes you think it was in ’77?”

“Because their parents died in ’84,” Mulder said simply. He looked to me for a response. It took a second or five.

“Of course, of course. The family had money, and there was no love lost between the sisters. Geraldine sent Rina a spiked bottle of champagne under the guise of a peace offering. It was like a time bomb that didn’t go off until yesterday. And all for nothing — the estate was split 20 years ago, and Geraldine was dead.”

“Only thing is…” Mulder started.

“What?”

The agent leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “Why don’t we come clean, Detective Raines? How long have you been seeing them?”

“Them?” Good God, how did he know? “What, did you talk to my captain, Boyer? It’s really nothing, Agent Mulder — just an investigative technique. It helps me identify with the victims.”

“So in Judge Getchel’s chambers, at the coffee shop, that was supposedly just you talking to yourself?”

I flopped into a chair with a sheepish grin. “Thought you caught that. Here’s a secret, agent.” I leaned closer to Mulder. “I don’t see dead people. They’re figments of a probably fevered imagination.”

Mulder fell silent. “OK, then. I just have one question, Detective. How come I saw your ‘figment,’ too?”

I stared at him, then laughed. “You had me for a second, you really did.”

“Red robe, thought you were scoping the judge’s legs, ‘Little Miss Decorum’?”

I opened my mouth, shut it again. “God. You saw the judge, too?”

Mulder shook his head. “That wasn’t Judge Getchel you saw. Didn’t you think she was dressed a little funny?”

“Well, I wondered why her robe was red. Figured it was probably some kind of metaphorical symbolism, blood, death…”

“Rina and Geraldine were twins,” Mulder informed me. “Geraldine was killed coming back from her church choral practice, wearing her choir robe. Her red choir robe.”

“But, but I didn’t know anything about that case,” I protested. “I didn’t even know the judge had a sister until her ex told us.”

Mulder shrugged. “Your coworkers tell me you’re an extremely empathetic, compassionate detective. Geraldine probably honed in on that. And I’m…”

“Insane?”

“More receptive to the paranormal,” the agent clarified. “One of the tipoffs to an apparitional encounter is that the spirit rarely interacts verbally with the live subject. Geraldine commented on the crime scene, on Jason Getchel’s behavior, but at no time did she respond directly to a comment or question from you. Wow, you must’ve thought I thought you were nuts when I caught you talking to her. And I assumed you’d had previous experiences with, well, you know…”

“Ghosts,” I whispered. “Great. Now I’m Jennifer Love Hewitt without the bad hairstyle.”

“I wouldn’t be too worried. This was probably a one-time thing. I’ve only talked to four or five myself.”

“Very reassuring. So what, Geraldine was trying to point me to the fact she’d killed her sister so, what, her soul could move on, into the light?”

“Now you’re just being ridiculous. No, I think there’s more to it than that, or she wouldn’t have come on so directly to you. In cases of violent death, apparitions often are seeking vengeance, retribution, or to correct an injustice.”

“But she gave Judge Getchel the champagne — she must’ve. It’s open-and-shut, if I can figure out a way to tell the D.A. without being put on mental disability.”

“Geraldine Carroll was married briefly in the late ‘70s to a Lewis Braeburn. They divorced in 1985, shortly after her father died. Braeburn’s a used car dealer with a few near-scrapes with the law. Petty larceny, attempted credit fraud, that kind of thing. Maybe he had his eye on the family fortune and talked Geraldine into doing something rash.”

“Wow,” I marveled. “Dr. Phil could’ve helped those two with their ‘Guy-Qs.’ They knew how to pick ‘em.” Then it bubbled to the surface of my cerebrum. “Pigs.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Pigs. She said ‘pigs.’ Plural. Holy crap. I think I know what Casper the Friendly Sibling wanted to tell us. C’mon, I want to round up a pair of piggies.”

**

“You ever read The Long Goodbye?” I asked.

“Elliott Gould? Robert Altman?” Jason Getchel ventured.

“The what?” Lewis Braeburn sputtered. The paunchy, combed-over car merchant looked to his attorney, who looked to Getchel’s attorney. Getchel’s lawyer looked to Agent Mulder, who nodded back to me. I could feel Boyer’s brain cells straining beyond the interview room’s one-way mirror.

“The Long Goodbye. Raymond Chandler, Philip Marlowe. Possibly, the greatest work of American fiction ever. It’s a story about friendship and loyalty. Marlowe the detective gets mixed up with Terry Lennox, kind of a lost soul, who has Marlowe drive him to the airport in the middle of the night so he can hop a plane for Mexico. Turns out his wife had her brains beaten in, and the law thinks Lennox did it. Marlowe doesn’t, and winds up going through all kinds of fun and hijinks trying to prove it. Long story short–”

“Thank God,” Braeburn muttered. I waggled a finger.

“Long story short, Lennox tries to offer Marlowe some moola to help him lam, but Marlowe won’t hear of it. So instead, Lennox slips a $5,000 bill into Marlowe’s coffee can. Marlowe doesn’t feel he can spend it, but he holds onto the bill to remember this lost soul who got him in such deep doo-doo. Because they had a connection.

I turned to Braeburn. “Now, your ex-beloved sent her sister, Judge Getchel, a bottle of 1970 Don Perignon. That had to put a crimp in the newlyweds’ budget, huh?”

“Her idea,” Braeburn grunted. “Wanted to bury the hatchet with Rina, some such shit. I told her it was too expensive, especially after the way her sister treated her. I didn’t want anything to do with it.”

“Yes.” I pulled out the plastic bag with the note I’d found in the bottom of Getchel’s locked bottom desk drawer. “‘To let you know I’m proud of you. If you can find it in your heart, raise a glass in celebration and forgiveness. GB.’ Judge Getchel couldn’t bring herself to open it, but like Marlowe’s $5,000 bill, she couldn’t part with it, either. Oh, and look — Judge Getchel saved the envelope that came with the champagne. Bottle was wiped clean — just the judge’s prints. Same with the note. But, oh, oh, look.”

I slipped the yellowed gift envelope from the bag, and lifted the flap. “Look at that. That’s what we call a partial print, actually a pretty good partial. Wow, that adhesive really picked it up good. You know what, Lewis? I bet if we went back into your old arrest file, we’d find a match for this.”

Braeburn’s eyes shifted around the room, but he clamped his jaw shut.

I nodded. “Yeah, we’ll get back to you.” I turned. “Hey, Jason, buddy.”

“What am I doing here?” Getchel demanded. “You got your killers. I didn’t even know Rina ‘way back then. Can I get outta here? I got a lunch client.”

“After Judge Getchel survived your sister-in-law’s congratulations gift, Geraldine figured she’d thrown the champagne in the garbage,” Mulder said. “But about a year or so ago, Geraldine had a spiritual reawakening. Her minister told me she’d regretted the hatred she’d borne for her sister, sins she wouldn’t discuss in detail. Then she began to worry that, maybe, Rina had kept the Dom Perignon, that it was sitting on a shelf like some kind of time bomb. She had to warn her sister, no matter what the personal risk.”

“But Geraldine couldn’t face Rina, could she?” I suggested. “Not after what she’d tried to do to her. She knew Rina would never forgive her. So she called you. Right, Jason? She asked you to retrieve the bottle. Your rocky marital status has been all over the papers — your sister-in-law thought you’d understand what drove her to attempted murder. You assured her you’d defuse the bomb, but then you saw your way out, with a share of the judge’s loot. All you had to do was shut your mouth: Judge Getchel got a bagful of hate mail every day, and sooner or later, either out of judicial stress or success, she’d crack that bottle open.”

“That’s just nuts,” Getchel sneered, shaking off his lawyer’s hand.

“The question is whether you decided to get rid of the only potential monkey wrench in your plan. We’re checking the mechanic who coddles your Lamborghini to see if he did any unusual body work around the time Geraldine met up with her hit-and-run driver.”

“Hey, good luck with that,” Getchel laughed, shoving his chair back. I pulled the second bag from my jacket and dropped it before Getchel’s attorney. The lawyer glanced at the letterhead on the enclosed document and seized Getchel’s sleeve.

“Yeah,” I smiled. “Figured that would get your attention. See that line there, the one I circled? That’s the call from Geraldine Carroll to your home. Twenty-one minutes. Three days before Geraldine caught the Roadkill Express. And that date? Your beloved was at a conference on constitutional law in Chicago. Gee, that’s sad, isn’t it? They had so much to catch up on.”

A red-robed Geraldine Carroll caught my eye as I stood. I glanced at Agent Mulder, who blinked, scanned the room, and look confused. I sighed with relief as my self-manufactured “apparition” smirked down at her brother-in-law.

“Looks like he’s seen a ghost, doesn’t he?” “Geraldine” chuckled.

*end

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