Jeff Sherratt’s DETOUR TO MURDER is featured in today’s FREE KINDLE NATION SHORTS excerpt

Long before there was LA Noire,  
there was LA Noir.
Al Roberts is up for parole, and Jimmy O’Brien, LA lawyer to the dregs of society, is picking up some walking-around money by handling the parole hearing.   
In today’s gritty 11,000-word excerpt, witness the overwhelming evidence against Roberts.  Then you’ll begin to learn what really happened in Jeff Sherratt’s LA Noir novel DETOUR TO MURDER as O’Brien goes up against the system to uncover a crime that reaches to the underground power players in the city.
by Jeff Sherratt  
4.7 out of 5 stars   10 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled 
Here’s the set-up:    
   

In 1945, the semi-nude body of a woman is found in a two-bit Hollywood motel, a telephone cord wrapped around her throat; face frozen in a grimace of horror. The stolen car of a murdered motorist is parked in the motel parking lot, the owner lying broken and dead on the side of an Arizona highway.

Al Roberts confesses and has spent the last 29 years in prison. Now, nearly three decades after meekly confessing, the aged Roberts swears his innocence.

Jimmy O’Brien, defense attorney to the dregs of the criminal world, must find out why. Why did Roberts give a false confession? And why has he waited 29 years to tell the truth? O’Brien digs into the past, igniting a powder-keg that threatens to expose the long-held secrets behind Detour, the iconic Hollywood film documenting Roberts’ story. Secrets that could destroy the underground aristocracy that has held power in Los Angeles, city of broken dreams, for years.

Jimmy’s ordeal takes him from the bleakness of Roberts’ prison cell to the seedy streets of Hollywood, frantically searching to find out who took this DETOUR TO MURDER.

An Excerpt from    
DETOUR
 TO MURDER
Chapter One
1974
The California Institution for Men at Chino was forty miles from my office in Downey, almost an hour away. But today, a fender bender on the Pomona Freeway had traffic snarled, causing me to be late. Southern California was in the mist of one of the periodic droughts that plagued the basin since the beginning of time. Less than normal winter snowfall in the High Sierras to the north meant for a parched summer and autumn in the south. Couple that with a hot Santa Ana wind that blew in from the desert and about ten million normally compliant people turned into mad demons who drove their cars on the battlefield of L.A.’s freeways like raging predators seeking to devour their prey. 
On days like today dire conservation warnings flooded the airways, restaurants quit serving a glass of water with your meal, and you could be arrested for watering your lawn. Don’t even think about washing your car, you’d be shot on sight. 
I arrived ten minutes past my scheduled appointment. Damn. I glanced at my watch; should’ve left earlier. Why hadn’t Mabel, my office manager, given me the high sign while I was on the phone haggling with my car insurance guy?  No use thinking about that now. And anyway my client, one Alexander Roberts, wasn’t going anywhere. He’d been convicted of homicide in 1945 and had been in prison for twenty-nine years now. What the hell, he’s been rotting in his cell at Chino all that time and I was fairly certain my tardiness was the least of his worries. Still, I hated being late all the time. Someone said that being late is sloppy; shows one had sloppy habits, could be true.
Maybe I should’ve shined my shoes this morning.
Back in ’45 Roberts had been sentenced to life with a minimum eligibility for parole set at thirty years. Inmates serving life automatically become eligible for parole hearings one year before their MEP date, and now Roberts counted on me to get him a fair shake at his hearing. 
Because of the perennial manpower shortage in the public defender’s office, I’d been assigned by the Board of Parole Hearings-recommended by a friendly judge-to represent him before the panel. It wasn’t my legal brilliance and razor-sharp mind that got me the job, I must admit. I heard later that Judge Balford said to a board member, “Jimmy O’Brien is a lawyer of hopeless causes and he works cheap.” It pays to be noticed. 
It’s true, state-appointed cases like this didn’t pay well, but they added a steady stream of revenue to the uneven flow generated by my regular work: defending poor saps unlucky enough to be caught up in the criminal justice system. With no discovery requests, interrogatories, and countless forms and red tape, parole hearings didn’t tie up a lot of my time. Scan the report, interview the prisoner, be on time at the hearing, and do my best for the convict-that was about it. Then I’d head back to the office to sit and stare at the walls until the next call came.
This morning, before I left Downey to drive to Chino, Rita Flores, my associate, and I had shared coffee and a couple of glazed. She’d brought the donuts to the office, placed the bag of sugary delights on my desk, and sat and crossed her legs, exposing a bit of thigh. My mind drifted from the legal matters at hand and focused on her. How could she remain so lissome and appealing when she had donuts with me here in the office almost every morning? Amazing. 
Rita had been with me in our two-lawyer firm for almost two years now. She’d started as my secretary at the same time that I’d opened the office. Back then, she’d just graduated from law school, waiting for her bar results when she happened to walk by my storefront as I was hanging out my shingle. I took one look at the raven-haired Latina and hired her on the spot. When her bar results came in, I’d elevated her to associate status and prayed-with her new salary-that we’d have sufficient cash flow to stay in business.
But just because Rita was single, attractive, and smart, and I’d been divorced for years, didn’t mean there was any kind of office hanky-panky going on. She was young, twenty-seven, and at thirty-five I felt I was way too old for her. And anyway, she looked up to me as sort of a mentor; I guess you could call it that. How would it look, a mentor romancing his associate? But, I didn’t dwell on that thought, either. We had business to take care of.
We had spent almost an hour going over the Roberts case. According to the report supplied by the BPH, Al Roberts had been arrested and charged with Section 187, murder in the first. It seems that, back in 1945, he’d brutally strangled a woman. Her semi-nude body was found in a two-bit Hollywood motel room draped across a bed with a telephone cord twisted tightly around her neck. Her trachea had been crushed, her eyes bulged, and her face was frozen in a grimace of horror. There were traces of semen in her vagina, but there was no sign of rape, no bruising of the genital area. The physical evidence gathered at the scene was overwhelming. And it all pointed to the man who committed the crime: Al Roberts. But the jury never saw the mountain of evidence. There was no trial. He had confessed.  
More bad news: the report also stated that he killed a man in cold blood a few days before he murdered the girl. The authorities surmised that the victim gave Roberts a lift when he’d been hitchhiking across the country en route from New York to Los Angeles. The man’s body was found off the side of a road somewhere on the outskirts of Yuma, Arizona. There was a deep gash on the side of the victim’s forehead, indicating foul play. The man had been dead for a few days when an Arizona Highway patrolman spotted the partially decomposed corpse lying behind a small outcropping of brush. 
A warrant for Roberts’ arrest had been issued in 1945 by a Yuma County judge, but the Los Angeles DA charged him with the woman’s murder before he could be extradited to stand trial for the murder of the man who gave him a lift.
“Look at this, Jimmy.” Rita pointed to a notation in the report. “The police found the dead man’s Lincoln convertible parked in the lot at the same motel where the woman had been strangled.”
“Yeah,” I said. “And later, when they picked Roberts up on a vagrancy charge, he had on the dead man’s clothes. Christ, he even had Haskell’s wallet in his pocket.”
“A parole wouldn’t do him any good,” Rita said. “There must be a warrant outstanding in Arizona for murdering the guy who owned the car. If California turns him loose, they’ll snatch him and try him for first degree murder down there.”
“No statute of limitations on murder.”
“I know that.” Rita stood and turned and gave me a wink over her shoulder. “I’m a woman and maybe I’m not the hotshot, Jimmy O’Brien, but I’m a lawyer too, you know.” She moved smoothly to the door.
Rita adjourned to her office to meet with a client, a drunk named Geoff with a duce hanging over his head, and I set the report aside.
No use digging further into the technical details described in the appendix, I figured. The report supported their conclusions. I couldn’t use anything in it to mitigate his crimes. The guy killed two people in cold blood, and after spending almost thirty years locked up in a cage, it appeared that Roberts would still spend the rest of his days as a guest of the State. With what I had just read, the parole board would never cut him loose. Still, I was being paid to plead his case and I’d do the best I could for him. 
I arrived at 14901 Central Avenue, a mile or so south of Chino’s downtown district, and turned onto a side road leading to the main gate. The penitentiary was huge, a few thousand acres surrounded by a double chain link fence with three feet of coiled razor wire topping it. Through the fence, I could see row after row of buildings. Looking deeper into the complex, I saw a smokestack spewing a steady stream of white vapor. Probably steam coming from the massive boilers that would be needed to keep this small city functioning.
The entrance to the administration building was outside the fence. I wheeled into the parking lot, walked along a short path and entered the structure. After signing in with the litigation coordinator on duty, I was told to wait until the guards brought Roberts over from general population to the visitor center.  
While waiting, I jotted a few notes on a yellow tablet, questions I would ask Roberts. But I figured, after being locked up in such a cruel environment for so long he wouldn’t be forthcoming with the answers. To survive in prison, convicts had to grow tough and callous, tougher than they’d been on the streets, and over the years they all developed a belligerent attitude and a code of silence. 
The hearing was scheduled for tomorrow, and even though there was practically no possibility of his release, if he had a shred of a chance at freedom, then I’d have to get him to show remorse and humility. But I knew any reverence, awe, or passion he once held would’ve slowly leached out of his pores and evaporated like so much sweat during his twenty-nine years in this hard place. With very little time available to thoroughly prep him on how to react to the board’s interrogation, or how to exhibit sorrow without showing hostility, I had to move fast. If Roberts were anything like other inmates I’d interviewed for past hearings, then he’d naturally resent members of a board passing judgment on him. He’d see them as establishment figures, well-off people who had advantages in life that he never did. As the hearing progressed, he’d fume inside and build up resentment. By the time they got around to asking him for a mea culpa he’d want to bash their heads in. 
“O’Brien, the prisoner is now in the interview room. Follow me.”
I put the yellow pad in my briefcase and stood. The correctional officer, a sergeant, wore a CDC forest-green jumpsuit. The nametag over his right breast pocket identified him as J. Marsh. The patch on his sleeve had letters arching above the State seal, which read “California Department of Corrections.” He had a baton hanging from a ring on his John Brown belt, but no gun. 
I stepped along with him as we left the waiting area and walked the length of a long hallway. We stopped at a door made of steel bars, and from a black leather pouch on his belt he pulled a long metal chain with a large brass key at the end of it.
Inserting the key and unlocking the door, he turned to me and said, “I saw you when you were out here a few months ago, O’Brien. Security has tightened since then. We lost one of our men. Happened three weeks ago. Stabbed with a jagged edged shank.” He paused a moment, then leaned into the door, pushing it open. “I’ll be staying in the room with you.”
“Fine by me, “I said. “Sorry to hear about the guard.”
“Happens.” He shook his head. “And to think they used to call this freak house an honor farm.” We entered a sallyport with another set of steel bars in front of us. When the door behind me shut with a decisive bang, Marsh called out to someone unseen, “Free man coming through.” We walked along a corridor to one of the rooms cut into it. Marsh opened the door, glanced inside, and nodded back at me. I followed him into the 15’x15′ cubicle. He moved to a corner and stood at parade rest.  
A rectangular stainless steel table stood in the center, bolted to the cement floor. A man whom I presumed to be Roberts sat slumped in one of the four chairs pulled up to the table. He wore the standard blue denim prison garb and even though I knew from the report that he had turned sixty this year, he still had a full head of dark hair. His hands were folded on the table and shackled at the wrists. “You the lawyer?” he said, looking up at me. 
I didn’t answer him right away, still thinking about how to handle the interview. Should I try the soft approach, plead with him to give me a reason, any excuse for why he’d killed those two people? Maybe get some contrition of sorts, anything I could offer the board. 
Or should I shock him, pull no punches, and try to break him down? Get the hostility out in the open and let him rant at me, let the pent-up anger explode and vent like a pressure cooker with too much heat. Maybe set him up so that regardless of what the board members threw at him, he’d be able to take it.
I sat down, placed my briefcase on the table, and took out his file. I looked at him across the table. He could’ve been a big man at one time with a solid physique, but now sitting with his shoulders hunched he looked weak and venerable.
“Roberts, it says here you murdered two people. Killed them in cold blood. Murdered a woman with your bare hands.” I stared into his eyes. “What kind of animal are you?”
   
Chapter Two
I realized from the moment I looked into his cold, dark eyes that if there were any chance at all of getting through to him I’d have to work him over hard, not physically but verbally.
With a murder conviction staring the board in the face, not to mention the DA’s glaring statement alleging that Roberts had killed another guy in Arizona, I figured, in all probability, that the members of the board would keep him locked away until the next ice age. The hearing would be an exercise in futility.  
But notes from the hearing along with the results would be added to his file. California law stated that lifers with indeterminate sentences were entitled to a parole hearing at least once every five years. If the board set him free, I doubted that Arizona would try him now. After thirty years no witnesses would be available. It would be a tough case to prosecute. And I didn’t want him to screw up his chance of freedom at the next hearing by being belligerent at this one.
I went to work on him, earning my fee. I stood and walked around the table, circling him like a predatory animal assessing its prey. “Tell me about the woman you murdered. Was she hot in bed?”
Roberts raised his head and turned so he could see me. “You’re sick.”
“Did you kiss her before you strangled her?” I snapped.
“I didn’t-“
“Didn’t what? Sleep with her, or kill her?”
“What are you handing me? You sound like a cop.”
“How about Haskell, the guy who picked you up on the road in Arizona? Did you kiss him, too? Kiss him with a tire iron, maybe?”
“I didn’t do a goddamn thing!”
If Roberts kept insisting on his innocence to the board, showing no remorse, and adamantly denying that he hadn’t cold-bloodedly murdered those two people back in 1945, we’d both get tossed out of the hearing on our cans.
“Why’d you kill the woman?”
Roberts remained silent.
“Hey, lover boy, I asked you a question.”
“Wasn’t worth an answer.”
“Did you strangle her when she wouldn’t give you any?”
“I only slept with her once. I was drunk-“
“Oh, so you did have sex with her. You admit that. Now admit that you killed her too.” Christ, the guy made love to her, then murdered her with his bare hands. We wouldn’t mention that fact to the board. “Maybe you were drunk at the time you crushed her windpipe. Was that how it went, Roberts?”
“Get off my back, asshole.”
“Hey, Roberts, did you sleep with her before or after you killed her?”
He raised his arms and pounded the table with his hands balled into fists.  “Goddamn it, back off!” He bolted from his chair.
Marsh, the guard, moved fast and shoved Roberts back down. “You wanna call it a day, O’Brien?” he asked, glancing at me.
 “No, not yet.” I looked at Roberts, who now had his head down on the table with his arms stretched out in front as far as they would go. I could almost feel the heat building inside him. But he fell silent, not responding at all. “Was she pretty, Roberts? Did she turn you on? I’ll bet she wanted nothing to do with you, so what the heck, you killed her. Isn’t that right, Roberts?”
He didn’t say a word. The silence in the concrete room grew deafening.
“I’m here to help you, Roberts. Goddamn it,” I said. “Talk to me!”
He stared at his shoes, shaking his head in voiceless anger.
 “C’mon, man. You pleaded guilty to the woman’s murder back in ’45 when you were arrested,” I said. “Show some remorse, for chrissakes.”
“That’d be hard to do,” he whispered.
“What?”
“I said I can’t do that.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I didn’t kill her.”
“For chrissake, Roberts. It’s all here in black and white.” I thumbed the report, quickly reviewing a few details. Roberts’s first victim, the guy who gave him a lift, was named Charles Haskell, Jr. The woman Roberts had picked up on the road after killing Haskell and stealing his car had not been identified by the authorities. No one came forward to claim her body and after waiting the time prescribed by law she had been buried at the expense of the City. I slammed the report on the table. “Says here you killed them both. You’re lying to me, Roberts.” 
“No!”
“Then why did you say you murdered the woman in the first place?”
I paused and he remained silent. We both knew the answer: the plea bargain. “It’s not smart to lie to your lawyer, Roberts. Are you that goddamn stupid? “
His face turned red, his breathing irregular, beads of sweat dotted his forehead. I felt at any moment he’d bust loose. Then after he got the anger out of his system, I’d do what I came here to do: show Roberts how he’d have to present himself at tomorrow’s hearing. The board wouldn’t tolerate his claims of innocence. That would blow the whole thing right out of the gate. He’d have to admit his guilt and he’d have to appear to be a man of humility with sorrow and remorse in his soul for what he had done all those years ago. He’d have to show them how, after twenty-nine years languishing in this “correctional” facility, he’d changed and had achieved a state bordering on veneration.
I pounded the table with my fist. “Why’d you confess if you’re so goddamn innocent?” I didn’t wait for an answer. “I’ll tell you why. You took the easy way out, Roberts. Couldn’t take the pressure. You copped a plea to the woman’s murder. They didn’t charge you with Haskell’s death, no sir. But they used his murder as a wedge, pressuring you to admit that you strangled the blonde.” I got up and paced the room. “Isn’t that right, Roberts?”
He kept quiet, but the veins on his neck pulsed and his jaw muscles tensed. His insides had to be burning as he continued to struggle to maintain control. Damn, I said to myself, let loose, Al. C’mon, man, let it out. Show some emotion.    
I turned back to him. “The prosecutor played the old shell game, didn’t he, Roberts? Take your pick. The little pea under the walnut hull is a six by eight cell in San Quentin. Or, hey, maybe it’s a trip to Yuma. They have a nice little room down there filled with cyanide perfume just waiting for you.’ Is that what he said?” 
He slowly shook his head.
I walked around behind him. “And you fell for it,” I said to his back. “You were a fool.”
He still didn’t respond, but I saw his fists tighten, the knuckles turning white. I was getting close. Any moment, he’d blow. And in anger, he’d admit to what he had done.
I darted to the table, leaned forward, and stabbed the report repeatedly with my finger. “It says here you strangled the girl with a telephone cord until she couldn’t breathe. Then you snapped her neck with your bare hands.” 
“I wasn’t even there when she was killed,” he muttered.
“What about the guy, Haskell, you killed a couple days earlier?”
“I didn’t kill him either, understand?”
“Okay, you didn’t go to trial on that one. We’ll forget about it for a while. But tell me more about the dead girl. The girl you didn’t kill. The one you had sex with. The one who grated your nerves, the girl you were cooped up with all alone at that motel.”   
“It wasn’t like that. Somewhere in the middle of the goddamn desert Haskell gave me a lift. After a while, he got tired and I drove. Then he died. He fell out of the passenger seat; hit his head on a rock. But I had to get to L.A. So, naturally, I took the car. I-“
“Then you, naturally, stole his clothes and money. Then you, naturally, picked up the girl on the road while driving the dead guy’s car the rest of the way to Los Angeles. Then you, naturally, killed her too.”
“No, goddamn it-I mean yes, I picked her up, but… She wanted money. I gave her everything, all the money I took from Haskell’s body, but she wanted more.”
“Strong motive.”
“After we had been in L.A. a few days I left the motel room, went to sell Haskell’s car, but without papers nobody would touch it. I went back, was gonna tell her. When I got there she was dead. But I couldn’t prove that I didn’t do it. My prints were all over the place. I’d been there with her for three days.”
 “I’m not buying it, Roberts. You confessed? I’ll say it again. You’re a goddamn liar.”
He turned his head slowly. The look in his eyes told me I’d be a dead man if he wasn’t cuffed and Marsh wasn’t in the room.
“Don’t call me a liar! I’m not a goddamn liar.” He paused for a beat. “You hear me?” His words bounced off the walls, echoing in the small room.
Marsh walked over to him. “Keep your voice under control or this meeting is over,” he told Roberts, jabbing a finger in the prisoner’s chest. “Do you understand me?”
Roberts stared at Marsh, wide eyed. Then he looked at me again, despair on his face. I felt some sorrow, surely not for him. After all, he did kill two people. Still, nobody was on his side, then or now. I’d worked him over as hard as I could and he didn’t crack. Could there be a possibility that he’s telling the truth? No, and that issue had been decided long ago.
But the State said he had a right to parole. After all this time maybe he changed, became a different person. Maybe he wasn’t the same monster who’d walked in through those barbwire prison gates back in ’45.
 “Why, Al? How’d you get in this mess if you’re innocent?”
“They were gonna kill me,” he said softly.
I pulled out a chair and sat next to him. “You wanna tell me about it?” 
“The D.A. gave me a chance to stay alive and I took their deal. Nothing I could do.”
“Your lawyer went along with it? Advised you to take the deal, is that it?” I asked.
“A trial costs big dough.”
“And of course, you had no money.” 
“After I was arrested my lawyer sold my story to some guy, got five hundred bucks. They made a movie, wasn’t much, and they mostly got it wrong. But anyway, once the five hundred was used up my lawyer wanted to cut and run.” 
“What was the name of the movie?”
Detour.”
“Never heard of it,” I said. “Who’s in it?”
“Nobody.”
I got up and walked around the room again.
“Do you want out of here, or not?” I asked, staring at the back of Roberts’s lowered head.
 “It’s not fair.”
“You know how it is with the law, Roberts. What do you expect, put a quarter in the slot and out pops justice?”
“The parole board’s gonna give me a down letter. Hell, even if they gave me parole, they’d send me to Arizona. I’m in for the long ride. You’re wasting your time.”
“Forget about Arizona,” I said. “You’re here because you murdered the woman. This isn’t about the dead guy on the road. Now tell me the truth. Why did you kill her? You must’ve had a reason.”
“I already told you I didn’t kill either one of them, Haskell or Vera in the motel. That was her name, you know, Vera. Didn’t catch her last name.”
“Smith, Jones, MacGillicuddy, take your pick. The police never got a positive I.D. All they knew was that she had track marks on her arm. If it’s true what you said when you were arrested, she came from somewhere in the South.”
“She had an accent.”
“That’s not all she had. She had narcotics, barbiturates in her purse.”
“Yeah, I know…” His voice trailed off.
We didn’t say anything for a couple of moments. Roberts remained slumped in his chair while I gazed at the ceiling. I could smell the anguish permeating the walls of this warehouse of human atrophy. “Look, Roberts, we have a few minutes left, why don’t you tell me your side.”
He looked up. “You want to hear my story? You won’t believe me.”
“Suppose you try me.”
“I guess you can say I couldn’t believe she was in love with me.”
“They always start that way, don’t they, stories like this?” I said.
“Yeah, guess so.”
“You talking about Vera, the dead girl?”
“No, not that bitch, gimme a break. It started long before that. In New York. Her name was Sue, Sue Harvey.” He rested his head in his hands, with his elbows on the table, and after gathering his thoughts, continued. “She was the songbird in a club where I played piano with a jazz trio. Sue had those dark green eyes and a waist so slender, every time she bent over you’d expect something to break. We were engaged, but she wanted to be a movie star, took off for the Coast.”
“Is that why you were heading to L.A. when all this started? You were chasing some skirt named Sue?”
Roberts raised his head and looked up at me. “I keep trying to forget what happened and wonder what my life might have been like if that car of Haskell’s hadn’t stopped.”
I listened for almost twenty minutes. He told the forbidding tale of a common man whose life had spiraled and tanked as he made one tragic decision after another while hitching rides across the country, heading to the land of broken dreams, chasing a dream of his own: a singer named Sue. At the end of his story, Roberts froze for a moment, then turned to me and continued in a chilling, calm voice: “I didn’t kill him. ButHaskell was dead. It was an accident.”
“Then you stole his car,” I said.
“Yeah.”
“And then you picked up the woman named Vera, bumming a ride, and continued on toward L.A.”
“Yeah.”
“What about your girlfriend, Sue?”
“Never saw her again, never spoke to her. Leave her outta this.”
I looked down at that pitiful creature, balled into a heap, and said under my breath, “What about Vera, dead in the motel room? When you twisted the cord around her neck and strangled her with your bare hands, was that an accident too?”
 
Highway 54, Arizona, July 1945
The asphalt road ran straight and went on for miles. It came out of the mountains in the far distance, bottomed out, then gradually climbed across the desert floor, heading up into the small rocky hills ahead. At the base of the slope, looking back from where he had just come, Al Roberts kept an eye on the car as it shimmered, almost floated in the vaporous heat currents, growing larger, moving closer in the afternoon glare.
He continued to walk along the sandy edge of the road, heading west. But he stuck out his arm, his hand slightly closed with his thumb pointed in the direction he was moving.
Roberts hadn’t seen another car in hours and the last one had zoomed by without slowing down, kicking up small dirt devils at his feet. The sun hung high in the colorless sky, and his lips were parched and raw from lack of moisture. He was bone-weary and he hadn’t had a meal in two days. Not a bite of food since that trucker staked him to a hamburger at a diner on the outskirts of Tucumcari, New Mexico. But then, after riding with him for a couple hundred miles, the trucker had to head back to Detroit and after stopping to pick up a load of cantaloupes, he dropped Roberts off just inside the Arizona border. He’d been hoofing ever since.
Roberts had been on the road for almost three months, traveling from New York, riding buses for part of the trip but mostly hitching rides. Down to his last ten dollars, he knew there’d be few meals and no more bus tickets, but he was determined to get to Los Angeles even if he had to walk the rest of the way. 
He glanced back; the approaching automobile started to slow. Maybe this one would stop and the guy driving it would give him a lift.
Roberts lowered his battered suitcase to the asphalt, and with the back of his hand wiped the sweat from his brow and swore an oath to himself. When he arrived at his destination, he’d marry her. He wouldn’t let her slip away; by God, not this time. Roberts wouldn’t let her walk out on him again. He’d die first.
The car, a fancy convertible, pulled up next to him. The man, alone behind the wheel, nodded. Roberts heaved his suitcase into the backseat and climbed in.
***
Roberts, now driving, pulled to the side of the road and quickly glanced around. It was dark, raining hard, and he spotted no other cars traveling on this deserted stretch of highway. They had left Yuma just fifteen minutes ago. The man had flashed a roll while paying for their dinner at some roadhouse café, then asked him to drive when they climbed back into the convertible. They’d cruised silently through the early evening. Storm clouds gathered in the distance while the man slept.
And now the man was dead, tumbled out of the car and banged his head on a rock when Roberts opened the passenger door to put up the convertible top.
***
Roberts peered at the harsh, barren wasteland out beyond the highway, then back at the girl standing there. Her legs were nice, long sculptured calves that went on forever. The rest of the package wasn’t bad either. He shook his head; her figure would improve any landscape.
He knew how it was, alone on the road bumming rides from strangers. It had to be worse for a woman, especially a dish like her. He screwed the radiator cap down tight, slammed the hood and took another look at the woman, not twenty feet away. “Hey you,” Roberts shouted. “C’mon, if you want a ride.”
She gave him the quick once-over, then walked with a brassy saunter to the convertible, opened the door and climbed in. She stowed her small suitcase in the backseat.
He cranked the motor to life and pulled away from the pump island. He drove slowly forward to where the gas station’s pavement met the road, accelerated, and headed west.
After a few minutes, cruising along the highway with neither of them saying anything, Roberts tried to get a little conversation going, nothing deep or personal, just something to break the ice. But she didn’t respond. Oh, she nodded or shook her head once or twice to his direct yes-or-no questions, but that was it. He told her his new name, Charles Haskell-the name on the dead guy’s driver’s license, the name he’d use until he arrived in L.A., where he could dump the car and walk away. When he asked the girl what her name was she answered him in a curt manner: “Vera.” She didn’t embellish. 
Roberts couldn’t put his finger on it, but there was something creepy about her. The way she sat, stiff as a board, just staring at the road ahead. And that look on her face, like she could eat a rat and spit out the bones without thinking twice. 
And her eyes: hard, angry, like her guts were on fire. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-four, twenty-five, and yet she had the look of someone who had seen life through a broken mirror, all distorted with hard angles and sharp edges. But she had pretty features and if she were cleaned up, she’d turn every head in the joint.
Sneaking another glimpse at his passenger, he wondered what a girl like her was doing out here alone in the desert, a million miles from nowhere. And he began to wonder if it was such a good idea picking her up. He looked at her again, but now she sat with her head tilted back, resting it in the V where the seat met the door. She slept, peaceful and calm. He thought she must be in terrible trouble, maybe only finding a reprieve or comfort in sleep.
Telephone poles and yucca trees flashed by as Roberts made good time, hauling west on Highway 78. He wasn’t far from Brawley. He needed gas again and figured that the town would be a good place to stop and fill the tank while grabbing a bite. He’d buy the girl-what was her name, oh yeah, Vera-a meal just as Haskell had done for him. Money would not be a problem now, not with the seven hundred sixty-eight bucks he found in the guy’s wallet. He felt a little guilty taking Haskell’s money, but he knew he’d have to buy gas, and besides, dead men didn’t need money.
He decided to let Vera sleep until they pulled into the gas station, where she could use the restroom to fix herself up. He wanted her to look clean and fresh when they entered the cafe, just another normal couple on the road. He didn’t want to draw any attention. Not with a dead body about a hundred miles back. Yeah, he’d let her sleep for a few more miles.
But Roberts didn’t have to wake Vera. She awoke by herself, and when she did, she turned and snapped at him, “Where did you leave his body?”
***
Useless. Vera had him nailed. Before Roberts had offered her a lift, she’d ridden all the way from Louisiana with Haskell. He picked her up at a roadside tavern outside of Shreveport, but dumped her in Arizona when she refused to “cooperate.” Haskell had the scratches on his arm to prove she’d meant business.   
As Roberts drove, he contemplated how fate had tripped him up again. Of all the broads in the world, why did she have to be the one standing there at the side of the road looking the way she did?  
He’d already given Vera all the money. Now, he hoped she would keep her word and not squeal to the cops about Haskell rotting in a ditch with him wearing the dead man’s clothes and cruising along the highway in his fine convertible. 
Another two hours of silence passed as he drove across the California desert, frantically ransacking his mind-creating, and then finding the obvious flaws, demolishing countless plans of how to get rid of the woman who called herself Vera. 
But after they drove through the Banning Pass and approached the outskirts of San Bernardino, she said, “I wanna stop in town. I wanna get some things before we hit L.A.”
“Okay, we’ll find a store. I’ll drop you off and circle the block.”  Sometimes unexpectedly an opportunity appears…
“Nothin’ doing, buster. From now on we’re stickin’ together. We’re gonna be like Siamese twins.” 
…And disappears.
***
It was twelve minutes past noon when he slipped into number 2 at the motor court bungalow. Pausing, he glanced around the room and, noticing no one, tucked the gun back in his jacket pocket. He stepped lightly across to the bedroom door. Pressing his ear to the painted wood, he heard someone breathing heavily, snoring in the other room. Had to be her. This was going to be easier than he thought. He reached down and twisted the knob. It wasn’t locked.
He pushed though the door and saw her sprawled on the bed wearing a short, flimsy nightgown, her ample breasts clearly visible through the sheer material. Her head lolled to one side and the sound of her heavy breathing competed for his attention with the stench of bad booze that filled the room. Several empty whisky bottles littered the floor. A telephone with a long cord lay next to her on top of the thin cotton bedspread, the receiver off the hook. 
He flexed the fingers of his gloved hands, feeling the comfort of the soft leather as it stretched across his knuckles. He moved closer. Leaning forward, he gently turned her head so that her closed eyes were facing up at him. He formed his hands into claws and encircled her long neck with ridged fingers, pressed his thumbs into her larynx.
The muscles of his jaw tightened as he applied strong constant pressure. A sense of euphoria came over him as he felt his thumbs digging deeper into her flesh, meeting only momentary resistance before cracking the stiff cartilage of her windpipe.
Vera’s eyes snapped open.
She kicked and struggled violently.
Her face warped into a mask of terror. With his substantial mass, he leveraged his body and pressed harder. She tried to scream but no sound came out. He’d crushed her voice box and now he broke her neck. Her eyeballs rolled upward and the capillaries in the whites burst, splintering into tiny red webs. Blood filled her mouth. Her legs jerked twice. She went limp.  It was over. 
 
 
Chapter Three
The lower slope of the San Gabriel Mountains formed a spectacular backdrop for the Inland Empire as I barreled along Central Avenue heading back to Downey. I wanted to rush to my office and review the Roberts file again, preferably while sipping magnificent coffee brewed by our office manager, Mabel.
Perhaps the file contained something I overlooked, something of a mitigating nature, something I could use at the hearing. Under my intense questioning he’d maintained his innocence, but without any evidence in Roberts’s favor I realized the guy had to be guilty. He had murdered the woman in the motel room. And what about that line he dished out, the bit about Haskell. An accident. Who’d believe a pile of crap like that? He killed the guy and stole his clothes, wallet and cash. He took his car and left him for dead along the side of the road, lying in the brush somewhere in the middle of the Mojave Desert. In any case, his guilt or innocence wasn’t the issue now. My job was to convince the board he was no longer a threat to society.  
Sure, Roberts deserved to do his time. But it boiled down to a question of dogma. I was there to satisfy the State’s guiding principle that proclaimed everyone was entitled to representation in all phases of their legal entanglements. It said so in the United States Constitution, and who was I to argue with that? Besides, it was a job and-what the hell, I’d do what I could for him.
As I drove, my curiosity about the dead man, Charles Haskell, began to build. Although Roberts wasn’t tried for his murder, the circumstances surrounding Haskell’s death would certainly weight heavily on the board’s collective minds. Roberts said that Haskell’s death had been an accident. It won’t hurt to check. I made a mental note to scan the Yuma County DA’s reports. Might be something there I could use to shed doubt about the murder allegation. But I knew I was being optimistic. Like the famous psychologist, what’s his name, once said, “Optimism flourishes in a lunatic asylum.”  
I wheeled into the office parking lot and slid out of my Vette, clutching the file.
Mabel looked up from her reception desk when I entered. “Where you been?”
“Chino. Interviewing our new client, you knew that.”
Mabel, our firm’s office manager, receptionist, and resident nag looked down at her bright red fingernails, which didn’t match her dyed carrot-colored hair. “Four hours to interview one guy?”
“Two hours driving.”
“The state’s only paying us for one and a half hours driving time and one hour for the interview.” She leaned forward. “I’m sorry, Jimmy, but someone has to watch the time sheets. We have bills, you know. I don’t think you and Rita realize the expenses involved in running the office.”
 “Do we have any coffee?”
“You know how much coffee cost these days? A buck and a quarter a pound. You drink too much coffee, anyway.”
“Mabel!”
“You’re the boss. But, I’m not making a fresh pot.”
Even a few hours old, Mabel’s coffee tasted better than any freshly brewed stuff served in restaurants around Downey. If we didn’t make it in the law biz, we could always open a coffee place, just serve coffee, nothing else, people would flock. Yeah, right. I took a sip, smiled, sat at my desk and opened the Roberts file. Carefully, I flipped through the pages, now yellowed with age. I continued turning the pages until I came to the coroner’s reports.
Pausing briefly, I glanced at the grotesque black and white glossies. Then I set the report relating to the strangled woman aside and picked up the Haskell autopsy file. Other than the deep gash on his forehead there was nothing to indicate he had been in a struggle before he died. He had an ancient scar on his forearm and a few minor scratches on his wrist. The scratches, which could’ve been made by a cat or an animal with claws, had been there for a few days prior to his death. But that was all. Other than the wound on the forehead, there were no new bruises or other lacerations.
I found something interesting, but it wouldn’t help. The official cause of Haskell’s death was listed as a heart attack. But the D.A.’s addendum alleged that Roberts had beat Haskell on the head with a blunt object and then he had the coronary, and the latter was the direct result of the savage blow administered by Roberts. Could’ve happened that way, I thought, and if it did, then it was murder.  
My eyes started to glaze over; detailed autopsy reports will do that. When I reached the page on serology, I set the papers down and walked around my desk and glanced out the window at the traffic jammed on Lakewood Boulevard. Cars were lined up trying to get into Stonewood Shopping Center. A street sweeper had stalled while making a U-turn, blocking the entrance to the parking lot. Horns honked in anger and frustration, the populace ready to riot. Women were frantic. There was a big sale going on at the Broadway. 
Returning to my desk, I wiped my hands across my face and picked up the report again.
When I turned the page a sentence caught my eye: “Creatine phosphokinase was present in blood traces located on the decedent’s left anterior fronto-occipital in near proximity to the laceration.” Wait a minute. I read the sentence again, slowly, focusing on each word. I knew from a forensics seminar I’d taken that creatine phosphokinase, an enzyme, is only in the blood after a heart attack had occurred. I rapidly flipped through more pages. Maybe I was on to something. I found another vital sentence buried on page sixteen. It said that when the body was discovered there was no evidence of blood flow from the head injury.
Leaning back, I took another sip of coffee and let my mind mull over what I’d just read. Blood flow from the head wound should’ve been substantial. Digging deeper into the autopsy report, I found that there was no subdural bleeding either. The only blood found anywhere on the body were the few traces that had surrounded the wound, the blood with the enzyme in it, which had trickled out after he had died. 
I sat there flabbergasted, staring at the words on the report. No blood flow meant Haskell’s heart had stopped before he was struck. The guy had died before the beating took place.
I wondered why Roberts would whack a guy who was already dead. He wouldn’t. Nobody would. In a robbery what would be the point of beating up a guy after he died?
But what if Haskell had the fatal heart attack and then fell out of the car, banging his head when he did? Yeah, that would explain the wound and the blood traces with the enzyme. That would mean Roberts hadn’t struck him. It would mean he wasn’t lying. It would mean, in spite of everything else, that Roberts hadn’t murdered Haskell.
The addendum had been signed by the district attorney holding office at the time, Frank Byron. That’s odd. The DA himself handled the case. But anyway, he’d stated that Roberts had beat Haskell with a blunt instrument, which resulted in his death. Then, according to Byron, Roberts killed the woman to keep her from squealing about Haskell’s murder. How could that be? The DA had to know that Haskell was dead before he received the gash on his head. I looked up, stared at the wall, thinking. 
Quickly, I turned back to the interrogation report. There was no mention of a heart attack in his plea negotiations with Roberts.
The district attorney had lied. He lied to the courts, lied to Roberts, and with this document the deceit was still very much alive. To put it pure and simple, it was all bullshit and with his lies and threats, Frank Byron had bluffed Roberts into confessing to a murder.
I knew now that the authorities in Yuma County in Arizona could not have issued a murder warrant charging Roberts. The only thing they could’ve charged him with back in 1945 would’ve been grand theft auto, hardly a capital crime, which by now would’ve been dismissed. Thestatute of limitations wouldn’t apply, he left the jurisdiction, but who in their right mind would try a class D felony, thirty years old? 
I stared at Byron’s signature, a hasty scrawl. Why would he, the head honcho, put his name on a report that on its surface was a lie? Could it have been a cover-up? If so, what was he concealing? Maybe he didn’t want his office to take the case to trial for some reason. And by coercing Roberts to confess to Vera’s murder there would be no trial, no witnesses, no evidence, and nothing in the public record. The documents and other ugly details-such as the autopsy report-would be buried away in the tombs of the City Hall basement, where they wouldn’t see the light of day for almost thirty years-until now.
But then why would Byron want to sweep Vera’s death under the rug? Big shots like Byron wouldn’t have messed with a small-time murder rap. And Vera was definitely small-time, just a wayward girl, like a million others who flocked to the City of Fallen Angels. Unlike a movie studio mogul, politician, or a powerful mob boss, Vera’s death would’ve been an inconspicuous pinpoint on anyone’s radar.
Byron left the DA’s office in 1946, less than a year after Roberts’s conviction and after an unsuccessful run for governor went into private practice somewhere in California, but that’s all I knew. I didn’t even know if he was still alive, but I knew if he were, I’d want to have a little chat with him.
I set the file down and propped my feet on the desk. What kind of shyster handled Roberts’s case back in 1945? He could not have studied the reports, or he would have seen the same things I did. The guy wasn’t much of a lawyer. He sounded more like a movie agent, selling the rights to his story, and vanishing with the cash. It would’ve been obvious to a decent attorney, or for that matter, anyone who looked, or cared: If Roberts hadn’t killed Haskell, then he had no motive to murder the girl. Reasonable doubt; if the case had gone to trial back then, a first-year law student could have handled it. Might have even gotten Al Roberts acquitted.
 
Chapter Four
The next morning, I skipped breakfast and headed out, driving directly to the prison.
“You’re late,” the guard, Marsh, said. “The prisoner is already in the hearing room.”
“Yeah, the traffic, bumper to bumper.”
“Forget it. I get enough jive from the inmates. C’mon, follow me, O’Brien.”
I followed Marsh into the parole hearing room connected to the main dormitory.  He moved to the back of the windowless room, where he stood again with his feet spread and his hands clasped behind his back. A rectangular conference table sat at the front of the room. Three unoccupied high-back leather chairs rested behind the table. Rows of hard steel folding chairs faced the table, filling the remainder of the room.
Roberts sat slumped in the front row. I deposited myself next to him and set my briefcase on the floor.
“We haven’t much time,” I said. “So I’ll be brief, Al.”
He didn’t acknowledge me, just kept staring at the floor.
“Listen up. I’ve found out something. May help.”
 “I didn’t do it. I didn’t kill either of them. I got railroaded. My fuckin’ lawyer split. I was on my own.”
Yeah, they’re all innocent, and it’s always about the lawyers who screw up. Maybe Shakespeare was right. Maybe they should kill all the lawyers. But in this case he was innocent, at least of Haskell’s murder.
The door banged open. A man of about sixty marched in. “This is the hearing room. No talking until I say so.”
I ignored him and continued speaking to Roberts, “Goddammit, Al, hear me out. I have important information about your case.”
“Yeah, what?” Roberts asked.
The man at the front of the room shouted, “I said, no talking!”
I glanced up at the guy. He wore a loud checkered jacket, blue pants, and his wavy hair was all fluffed up with the sides sweeping back like glossy, silver wings.  He swaggered around, acting like a peacock in heat. 
“Don’t get your feathers ruffled.” I stood.  “I’ll talk to my client if I feel like it. Who the hell are you, anyway?”   
“I’m Deputy Commissioner Schlereth. I’m in charge of the hearings.”
“Oh, yeah. Well, I’m Jimmy O’Brien, representing Alexander Roberts. Just conferring with my client while we wait. “
He placed a stack of papers on the table. “We have a busy schedule today, Mr. O’Brien, several hearings.” He sat at the table, adjusted his chair and glared at me. “We’re late getting started.”
“So, start.”
“The other commissioners haven’t arrived yet.”
Turning back to Roberts, I started to say something about the autopsy report, but paused. I didn’t want to hurt Roberts’s chance by pissing off the commissioner before the proceedings even began. So I kept quiet. Roberts would find out what I’d discovered when I dropped the bomb on the commissioners. He looked at me, concern-or was it hope?-etched on his face. I put my finger to my lips, nodded slightly, and sat there, twiddling my thumbs.
Finally, two more people, a man in his early forties, and a middle-aged woman of obvious means wearing a fur coat-the other commissioners, I assumed-strolled into the room, talking and laughing. They took a seat on either side of Schlereth and at 9:40 the hearing started.
The deputy commissioner held up his hand. “All right, everyone’s now present.” He glanced at the wealthy woman. “Let’s call this hearing to order.” She gave a shrug and nodded. He looked down and fingered a file resting on the table. “Today’s date is October 15, 1974. The time is now 0942 hours and we are at the California Institution for Men at Chino. This hearing is being taped.” He reached out and adjusted the reel-to-reel Magnavox in front of him. “Participants in today’s hearing are Commissioners, Mrs. Thornton, Mr. Goodwin, and I’m Deputy Commissioner Schlereth.” He looked again at Mrs. Thornton who, while examining her outstretched fingers, adjusted a lavish diamond ring. He continued reciting the names of those in attendance: “the inmate, Mr. Alexander Roberts, CDC number V-34560. And representing the inmate is the attorney, James O’Brien.”
He paused a moment. “Wait a minute, a private attorney?” He looked up at me. “What are you doing here? Attorneys get paid, don’t they? The prisoner is indigent.” He turned to Miss Rich Bitch. “Mrs. Thornton,” the deputy commissioner said, wiggling his fingers in a ‘gimme’ manner.  The woman pulled a document from her alligator attaché case and slid it across the table. “Oh, yes. Here it is,” Schlereth said. “Your application to represent Inmate Roberts. Appointed by a judge. Hmm, one of those government handouts. He eyed me curiously. “Not much money. You must be inexperienced.” 
I stood and felt as if I should curtsy. That’s me, Jimmy O’Brien junior lawyer from Downey. Maybe I should show him my Cub Scout merit badge. “Commissioner Schlereth, I’m just here to serve the cause of justice.” I sat down.
“Mr. O’Brien, your lack of experience in these matters will be no excuse for improper behavior. Remember, this is not a trial and I lay down the rules.”
I got to my feet again. “Commissioner Schlereth, I hope your opinion of my ability won’t interfere with my client receiving a fair hearing. But anyway, let me get to the point.  I’ve uncovered evidence that will have a bearing on the inmate’s parole-“
“You work cheap, don’t you?”
“My fee is of no consequence and does not relate to the matter before us.” I paused for a short beat. “Now, Commissioner Schlereth, I’d like to make a statement-”  
 “There’ll be time for that later,” he said, interrupting me for the second time.
“Listen to me, please.” I placed my hand on Roberts’s shoulder. “I have new evidence and I feel once you hear of my discovery, you’ll-“
Schlereth continued to ignore me and kept rattling on, leaning into the microphone. “And representing the people of the County of Los Angeles is deputy district attorney, Stephen Marshall. There are no other persons present here today.” 
The deputy DA, a young guy, probably in diapers when Roberts had been convicted, sat in the last row of chairs, tilted back against the wall. He wore glasses with dark heavy frames and had on khaki pants with a blue blazer and a tie that his kid-if he had a kid-must have given him. It had pictures of little Mickey Mouses running around on it.
“Why don’t you move a little closer, Mr. Marshall? This is being taped and we’ll want to get your every word recorded for posterity,” Schlereth said.
The commissioner wasn’t going to listen to what I had to say, at least not now. So, I sat down reluctantly and waited. I tapped my fingers on the edge of the chair while Schlereth read into the record laws governing parole hearings, section numbers, codes that referenced the authority granted the panel by statute, that sort of thing. He included the count of the indictment: “… for violation of penal code, section 187, first degree murder, one count, Los Angeles County, case number 45-67862.”
He read the report prepared for the parole board that outlined the circumstances surrounding Roberts’s incarceration, the brutality of the crime, how he was arrested, and how he confessed to his crime after reaching an agreement with the district attorney. Then he read the sentence handed down by Judge Alfred Nevins: life in prison with eligibility for parole in thirty years.
Schlereth continued in his droll manner, reciting the prosecuting attorney’s reasons for the plea agreement. But when he came to the paragraph that explained how Charles Haskell, Jr. had been struck with a blunt object and had died as a result of the blow to his head, I bolted from my chair. “Objection!” I yelled. “The inmate was not convicted of Haskell’s so-called murder, and besides-“
Without looking up Schlereth said, “Sit down, Mr. O’Brien. This is not a court of law. You can’t object.”  
“Haskell died of natural causes!” I almost shouted. “And I object to any reference in this hearing on or off the record that indicates or implies Haskell was murdered.”
I glanced at my client. His jaw dropped and the blood ran from his ashen face. Roberts, finally, after all those years in prison, realized what I was saying. The DA had set him up.
Schlereth looked up and gave me a quick once-over. “I said sit down. This is a parole hearing.We have procedures and we follow them. I’m going to read the material as provided to the board. When I’m finished we’ll have closing arguments. First the district attorney will have his turn. Then you and your client will be allowed to speak.”
I dropped into my chair and Schlereth started in again. Looking down his nose through the lens of his half-glasses, he read the DA Byron’s statement regarding Haskell made at the time of Roberts’s plea agreement: “On or about July 8th, 1945, the prisoner, Alexander Roberts, with malice aforethought did willfully strike one white male, aged thirty-two, to wit, Charles Haskell Jr. Shortly after being struck about the head by the aforementioned Roberts, the victim suffered a fatal heart attack. The decedent’s heart attack was the direct result of the trauma administered by the accused-“
“That’s bullshit. I didn’t hit Mr. Haskell.”
Schlereth’s head snapped up. “Attorney O’Brien, tell your client to please keep quiet until it’s time for him to speak.”
I stood again. “Your honor, I mean, Commissioner. He didn’t strike Haskell. I have proof.”
“I said sit down!” Schlereth didn’t have a gavel, so he knocked the table with the tape recorder mike. Mrs. Thornton jumped when the amplified bang resounded in the room. “Sit down, now!”
“Besides,” I said, ignoring Schlereth’s demands, “this isn’t about Haskell. It’s about a mysterious woman named Vera. An evil woman, who manipulated my client.”
Schlereth rose out of his chair. “Mr. O’Brien, you’re disrupting the proceedings. I demand that you sit down and keep quiet.”   
“Larry, wait a minute,” Mrs. Thornton said to Schlereth in a small voice. “Although the inmate wasn’t extradited to Arizona back in 1945 to stand trial for Haskell’s murder, from what I understand it was a factor in his plea agreement involving the woman’s homicide. Now, I’d like him to tell us why-if he didn’t hit the man over head-why was he implicated at all in Haskell’s death back then. And why his death would be a factor in his plea agreement.” Without waiting for Schlereth to reply, she said, “Go ahead, Mr. Roberts, would you please tell us what this is all about?”   
We all turned to Roberts, who lumbered out of his chair. Staring straight ahead, not seeming to look at anyone in particular, he said,Mr. Haskell was asleep, probably dead already, I dunno. When I stopped the car and opened his door he fell out. His head hit a rock.My idea was to hide the body, not to rob him, but then I remembered I’d need money for gas. Besides, it was stupid to leave all that money on a dead man. What else could I do?“He hung his head and sat down.
Money? Gas? I’m sorry, Mr. Roberts. I don’t understand.”
I jumped in. “That’s just it. He didn’t kill Haskell, but the DA had him over a barrel. The district attorney lied. He knew Haskell wasn’t hit on the head. He knew the guy had died of natural causes, a heart attack. Haskell’s wound was a result of his body rolling out of the car and then his head hit something, a rock maybe, after he died. There’s not even a warrant outstanding in Arizona, never was. I checked.”  I hadn’t checked, but they wouldn’t have known that.
I looked down at my client, sitting there. Roberts knew now that the DA had lied to him, convinced him that he’d be sent to Arizona to stand trial for Haskell’s murder, conned him into believing he’d be convicted and die in the gas chamber. But if he confessed to murdering Vera he’d get an indeterminate life sentence here in California. The deal, he thought, saved him from death row. Without a lawyer, and without a reasonable defense, he had no choice. But the DA was bluffing. The authorities in Arizona must’ve known Haskell died of a heart attack and the gash on his head was postmortem. He now knew what I’d figured out yesterday: the DA’s office in Yuma had no intention of putting him on trial for murder. Roberts sat at the table, his face buried in his hands.
I turned back to the board. “The district attorney at the time, a guy named Byron, lied and played Roberts for a fool. I have evidence, proof.”
“Okay, that’s enough,” Schlereth banged the mike again. “As I said earlier, Mr. O’Brien, this is not a court of law. If you have any exculpatory evidence, file a motion with the proper authorities.”  Fingering his glasses, he pulled them down a millimeter on the bridge of his nose and glared at me. “Tell them about you so-called proof. Ask them for a new trial.”
Yeah sure, I thought, a new trial almost thirty years after a guy pleads guilty to murder. “I’m going to do exactly that!” I announced, and sat down.
Schlereth glared at me, anger building, but didn’t add anything. He obviously wasn’t used to being challenged in the hearings, his fiefdom. 
Everything went downhill from there, not that I was having much luck before then. When his turn came, Stephen Marshall, the deputy DA from Los Angeles, got to his feet and reminded the board of their legal obligation to consider only the facts existing at the time of sentencing and disregard any claims of new evidence. Then he spoke eloquently about the need to punish murderers. “To allow heinous criminals back into society would violate the sense of right and wrong of a just people.” He mentioned the Supreme Court, how they had recently banned the use of the death penalty and now the only protection society had against murderers and other vicious predators was the ability of the State to keep them locked away forever. Especially double murderers like Roberts. I objected when the young assistant DA used that term.
When Marshall finally sat down, I got to my feet and spoke for a few minutes. I told the board about Roberts’s excellent prison record. “Not only that, he’s a gifted pianist. He performs in the prison band, entertaining the inmates, and has even played for the warden a time or two.”
But once I started delving into the facts concerning Roberts’s ill-gotten confession, Commissioner Goodwin, who’d been quiet up to that moment, dusted me off with a wave of his hand. He then leaned forward and peered at Roberts. He asked him if there was remorse in his heart, sorrow for murdering the woman.
Roberts didn’t answer. He stood there steadfast, staring at Goodwin, remaining stoically silent. Schlereth adjourned the hearing. The guards moved in to take Roberts away.
As they approached him he turned to me and said in a low voice, “I thought Haskell might’ve been dead when he rolled outta the car, but I figured it would look like I clobbered him for his dough. The DA, that son-of-a-bitch! He knew.” Roberts pounded the air with his balled fists. “Goddammit, he knew I had nothing to do with it. I wasn’t gonna be sent Arizona, after all.”
“Maybe it was for the better,” I said. 
“Man, what are you saying?”
“If you went to trial here in L.A. County over Vera’s death, with the lawyer you had at the time, you would’ve lost. You would’ve drawn the death penalty.”
“I didn’t kill her, either. I swear.”
The guards cuffed Roberts’s wrists, securing them to a chain lashed around his middle. Then they started to lead him away. He looked back at me over his shoulder. “Can I get a new trial, or were you just blowing smoke?” Without waiting for my answer, he turned and hobbled toward the door.
I stood there and watched Roberts as the prison guards frog-marched him across the room. He’d been railroaded by the DA back in 1945, which might be grounds for a new trial, but the courts wouldn’t go along with it unless I had new evidence to offer. Not evidence about Haskell’s death, but evidence that exonerated Roberts regarding Vera’s murder. And even if he were innocent and the evidence existed and the courts allowed me to proceed with a new trial, what about the money? The cost would be substantial and I figured Roberts had nothing. I’d have to be Merlin the Magician to pull that rabbit out of a hat, not an inexperienced lawyer with a Cub Scout merit badge.
… continued …
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