THE VULNERABLE MOMENT - AL TUCHER
“Approach the bench, Your Honor?”
Diana tried to suppress her grin, but it won and spread over her face. Here she was playing Law and Order in a real courtroom. She had no choice, so she might as well enjoy it.
She glanced over at the defendant, who whispered urgently into his lawyer’s ear. If Diana didn’t move now, the lawyer might blurt her secret to everyone.
The judge gave her an irritated look. When she didn’t flinch, he motioned her to leave the jury box and come to him. She felt all eyes on her as she crossed in front of the prosecutor’s table. The two lawyers flanked her in front of the bench. The court reporter brought her machine and stood to the prosecutor’s right. The judge looked like the kind of man who still had a problem with seeing four women in front of him.
“So you know the defendant,” he said. “It happens. What’s the big deal?”
“Your Honor, it’s going to come out how I know him. I think it’s prejudicial.”
She stopped. It didn’t amuse him when she played lawyer.
She took a breath. There was no way to avoid saying it, but she still hated the idea.
“Mr. Hedlund is a client.”
The judge glanced down at his notes. “You’re a personal trainer.”
“He’s a different kind of client. He buys, uh, dates from me.”
The judged looked at her differently now. She had become the only women in the room. It made her hooker’s radar ping.
“Why haven’t I seen you before?”
“Okay,” he said, “but I’m afraid you have to say it for the record.”
“I’m a personal trainer, but I’m also a ... prostitute. Mr. Hedlund didn’t come to me for workouts.”
He continued his scrutiny, and she returned it. He had reddish hair going gracelessly white and a face that had probably been handsome a few hundred prime ribs ago.
“In that case, you’re excused.”
Diana nodded and turned to go. The lawyers started arguing about something. She didn’t care. Bickering was their job. Soon she had left their heated whispering behind.
Directly across from the courtroom doors was the elevator that took her down to the jurors’ waiting room. She sat for half an hour, until she and the others were dismissed for the day. She drove home to Driscoll and waited. The story wasn’t over.
When she heard an engine out front, she went to the door and looked. A beefy man in his fifties climbed out of a five-year-old Impala parked at the curb. She didn’t know him, but he plodded like a cop. He rang the bell, and she opened.
“My name is Nemeth.”
He started to show her some kind of ID, but she waved it away.
“You’re an investigator for the defense.”
“Tillotson said you’re sharp.”
She turned and led him to her living room. She took her single armchair and let him have the aging sofa. He needed half of it.
“Where did you do your time?” she asked.
“Morristown. Twenty years and out. We cooperated with Lakeview a lot, so I got to know Tillotson pretty well.”
Diana waited for more.
“How long have you known Hedlund?”
“Years,“ she said. “Five, maybe.”
“When did you see him last?”
“More than a year ago. I figured he was going to somebody else.”
“What’s your impression of him?”
“I don’t think he killed her.”
“It’s just not like him. I mean, how many people has the Pillsbury Doughboy killed?”
“Too bad your instincts aren’t evidence.”
“Speaking of evidence, what do they have? The gun?”
“No, they decided to go to trial without the murder weapon. It’s about the only break we got.”
“Well, you know what I think. They didn’t find the gun because somebody else has it.”
“Did you know the victim?”
“We crossed paths once a few years ago. I just knew her as Tiana, though.”
“She didn’t tell you her real name?”
“We weren’t exactly having a conversation. I got in her face about snaking clients. The whole thing took about five minutes. I recognized her picture in the paper, though.”
“Well, lately she could have walked right past you, and you might not have known her. Here.”
Nemeth reached into his breast pocket and came out with a photograph. She took it and looked.
The caption read, “Christina Sejeski,‘ but the face belonged to Tiana. Death had smoothed and flattened the features, but Diana still recognized the woman she had lectured about her business ethics.
The dramatic black hair was gone. Tiana had let it go mousy brown and, she wore it in a pixie cut. Diana handed the photo back.
“That settles it. Who was managing her?”
“You mean pimping? Nobody that we know of.”
“I think somebody was, and he makes a better suspect.”
“I like it,” said Nemeth. “Thanks for your time.”
After he had gone, she went to the kitchen and rummaged half-heartedly in her refrigerator. It was hard to concentrate on eating when she didn’t feel finished with this situation. The cops might be satisfied with Hedlund, but there was someone else to worry about.
For now she could only wait.
It took a whole week. On the following Monday she read in the Star Ledger that the prosecutor had dismissed charges against Joseph J. Hedlund, while another man had become a person of interest. The new suspect’s name meant nothing to her. He was a self-employed consultant whose business sounded vague and whose clients were lying low.
He sounded like a middle-class pimp to her.
Diana dressed in her spandex personal training outfit and drove to Fanelli’s Gym. The new day manager, a young man whose name she still couldn’t remember, told her that the next walk-in client would be hers. She didn’t have to wait long. She recognized the man right away, even without his robes. His sweat suit was baggy, but not enough to hide his excess bulk.
“Good morning, Judge.”
“Ms. Andrews, you inspired me the other day.”
I’ll bet, she thought.
“I need to get into shape. Are you free to give me some discipline?”
Long practice helped keep her smile bright.
She waited while he handled business at the desk and then led him toward the circle of stationary bicycles.
“Let’s warm up first.”
She would have to resist the temptation to give him a heart attack. He was so unfit that it would be easy to overtax him. Instead she decided to pedal along next to him. She had an idea of what he wanted to discuss, and she wanted to get it over with.
In less than a minute he started puffing.
“I heard about your input into the Sejeski case,” he said with difficulty.
“How did you know?”
“The new hairdo. Clients like long hair. They don’t want anything short and practical, because that’s too much like a wife.”
The judge made a face. “I take your point.”
“I’ve seen it before. A girl leaves the business, and she cuts her hair short. It’s her way of telling herself she’s really done with the old life.”
“So, who would kill over short hair? Somebody who stood to lose money when she quit. In other words, a pimp. I couldn’t be sure, but it made more sense than Hedlund killing her.”
“You’d make quite an investigator,” he said.
Here it comes, she thought.
“The problem is, you also cost me a very satisfying arrangement. The gentleman who is now indisposed was providing me with some valuable services.”
Diana pedaled harder, and he tried to match her pace. Men were so predictable. At least it shut his mouth for a while.
But it wasn’t going to solve her problem.
“That’s enough of a warm up. Let’s start you on a weight routine.”
She climbed off the bike and waited for him. His face had turned an even brighter red, and he breathed loudly though his mouth.
They started walking toward the exercise floor. He looked hopefully at the machines, but she went past them to the free weight area.
“Back to our discussion,“ he said. “I think you could replace his services very nicely.”
“I assume you’re not talking about paying my usual rates.”
“My position has certain perks.”
“What’s in it for me?”
“Should you ever have legal problems, you’ll be glad to have me as a friend.”
“So far I’ve done okay without you.”
“The police could make a project of you.”
The manager walked by and gave her a meaningful look. He had seen too much talk and not enough workout. Fanelli’s prided itself on being a serious place.
She gave the judge her professional smile and pointed at the bench press. He sat on the lower end of it, but he was so paunchy and stiff that she had to let him hang onto her wrists as he eased himself down on his back. She removed plates from the barbell until it held a hundred pounds. It was more weight than she would normally have given a man of his age and fitness level.
She knew the male of the species. He would struggle rather than admit that he couldn’t handle the weight.
She took her position at the head of the bench. His face looked even more unpleasant upside down.This wasn’t the way he had expected the discussion to go, but that was his problem. He was the one who had chosen such a public place. He did two reps, and then an effortful third. As he started his fourth, she laid two fingers on the bar between his fists. It was enough to kill his momentum. His arms started to tremble.
She let him think about dropping the bar on his exposed throat. Then she became the helpful spotter again. After he had racked the bar, she bent over him and spoke into his ear.
“Here’s the thing about hookers. We can wait for the vulnerable moment, because it always comes. Always. Tiana probably rushed things with her pimp, but I never make that kind of mistake. You understand what I’m saying?”
His hectic color refused to fade. She started to wonder whether she had pushed him too far.
“Maybe we should just forget the whole thing,” he said.
“Works for me.”
BIO: Albert Tucher is the author of over twenty published stories and four unpublished novels about prostitute Diana Andrews. Like most authors of hardboiled crime fiction, he is a librarian in his day job.