Short Fiction by B.W. Mathews
They might as well have been the only two guys in the bar, two thick blocky white men who looked like exactly what they were: a couple of working stiffs who’d gotten off jury duty early and weren’t planning on heading back to work.
The bar was called the Alcove, a hole-in-the wall place just a couple of blocks from the new courthouse. It was quiet, the long bar backed by an equally long mirror. They could look in the mirror and talk to one another, never have to turn their heads.
“I’ll have an old fashioned,” the first one said to the bartender, who didn’t say anything. He lifted an eyebrow at the second one.
“That sounds good,” he said. “Make it two.”
The bartender went away to make the drinks, and the two men did what anyone who’s ever served jury duty do—they talked about the case.
“Hell of a thing,” the first one said. He was a little older, his hair receding and gray. His teeth were long, and not very white, but they were still his.
The second one nodded. He was a few years younger, sandy hair turning silver. His teeth were even and white, suggesting some sort of dental intervention in the past. “Not our responsibility anymore.”
The drinks came, and they put credit cards on the bar. The first one waved a hand in a dismissing gesture.
“Put that away,” he said. “I’m buying. Least I could do.”
“Start a tab?” The bartender said, and the two men looked at each other.
“Why not?” The first one said. I don’t got nothing else to do today. You?”
“I don’t think so.”
They drank, the rye whiskey made more more palatable by the simple syrup and muddled fruit. There was a subtle relaxation once the first drink was down, the dregs of fruit and ice in their glasses like the lonely survivors of a shipwreck. The first guy ordered two more.
“I never got your name,” he said to the mirror.
“Ralph,” the second one said, and then after a second’s hesitation, “Ralph Simmons.” He put out a hand, and the first one took it, a firm quick handshake, two pumps and release.
“I’m Stan Anderson. Easier to say than Juror Number Six, ain’t it?”
Ralph nodded his head and took a big gulp of his new drink. Ice clicked against his teeth. He plopped the lowball glass onto the bar, ignoring the cardboard coaster in front of him. Stan was a little slower, a little more careful with his glass. When he put his drink down, it was squarely in the middle of his coaster.
“Mistrial,” Ralph said. “Goddamn.”
Stan didn’t say anything for time, his thoughts imprisoned in his own brain. In truth, he didn’t know what to say. The mistrial was his fault—his and no one else’s. He took another swallow of his cocktail and breathed out slowly. The rye was working into his system, loosening him up a little.
“I don’t know what we coulda done different,” he said. “I just didn’t think he did it.”
“I know. Hell, you convinced me, didn’t you?”
This time Stan didn’t bother looking in the mirror. He stared at the man on the stool beside him.
“You really don’t think he did it? You’re not just sayin’ that.”
“Like I said, you convinced me.”
There was a late afternoon ball game on the flat-screen TV above the bar. They watched it in silence for a few minutes, the Astros and the Cubs, neither a contender in that year or any other.
“I wish I coulda convinced some of the others,” Stan said. His big square hands trembled where they lay against the lacquered bar top.
The case seemed open and shut. A young, beautiful housewife found stabbed to death in her home, a convicted sex offender and burglar standing above her. But the case was largely circumstantial. There was no DNA, no blood spatter evidence. The defendant agreed that he’d broken into the apartment—well, crept in, really. He maintained that he found the door already open and just had to look around. The fifteen hundred dollars cash in one pocket and the victim’s jewelry in another were simple misunderstandings.
The big thing was the knife. It was missing, and the defendant hadn’t had time to dispose of it by the time the cops got there. Stan Anderson clung to that missing knife like a drowning victim clinging to a life raft. He couldn’t see a way around it. If the defendant was guilty, where the hell was the knife?
When the jury foreman called for a non-binding vote to get the deliberations started, Stan was the only one who voted not guilty. He kept thinking about the missing knife. Where was it? If the defendant hadn’t had time to get rid of the damn thing, where could he have put it? The cops tore the crime scene to bits to try to find the murder weapon, but they found nothing. And then the prosecutors couldn’t get the cops to agree on what kind of weapon was used. Was it a knife? A straight razor? Something else? No one could say for sure. All they knew was that the defendant had no weapon on his person. So Stan continued to vote not guilty through eight days of deliberations, the lone holdout until Ralph joined him. Two days later, the judge had no recourse but to declare a mistrial.
Now, in the bar after being released, Stan wasn’t so sure anymore.
“What if I’m wrong? What if that guy does it again? We coulda stopped him.”
“Relax,” Ralph said. “I think you were right about the weapon. What could he have done with it?”
“I don’t know. I just wish I knew we did the right thing.”
Ralph didn’t have an answer for that one. Instead he finished his drink and reached for his wallet, easing his hip up from the wooden barstool in order to get to his hip pocket. Before he could put his hand on the billfold, Stan put a hand on his arm.
“Hey, I said I got this.”
Ralph shook his head.
“You feel like shit because you did the right thing. Let me buy you a round this time.”
Stan took his hand away. The bartender took their glasses and returned with new ones, filled to the rim. Stan picked his up and raised it in the air where the refracted light from the long mirror made the liquid gleam in the dim bar.
“It’s a pretty drink,” he said. “I remember drinking these with my old man. He loved ‘em. I just don’t know about today. I mean, ten people thought he was the one. Ten to two, and they have to let him go. Doesn’t seem right.”
“It’s not a baseball game. They’ll try him again, come back harder at him. Maybe they’ll have their ducks in a row this time. Nothing to feel guilty about.”
“You don’t think so?”
“Why would there be?” Ralph drank some more of his old fashioned and put it down hard on the bar. “We did our jobs, man. We followed the rules. You gotta vote your conscience, and ours said ‘Not Guilty.’ End of story.”
“What if he does it again?”
Ralph snorted. “The man would have to be a fool. The mistrial was a goddamn gift. If he’s got half a brain, he’ll know the cops are gonna be looking at him extra careful from now on. If he even did it, which we don’t think he did. Remember?”
Stan flapped his hands in front of him, a ‘go on’ gesture, and said “I know, I know. You just—you know, you trust the cops to get it right. You trust the prosecutors to get it right. You get a guy up there at the defendant’s table and you’re already halfway to a conviction.”
“There’s just no way he could have done it,” Ralph said. “You know it and I know it. The cops were on the scene so quick he didn’t have any goddamn time.”
“What an unlucky sonofabitch.”
“Yeah, you remember how mad Juror Number Four was? She thought you wanted to replay the scene from 12 Angry Men. You didn’t, though, did you?”
“No,” Stan said. He thought about it a minute. Juror Number Four. “What a set of tits on her, huh?”
“Jesus. You ain’t kidding.”
Night was coming on and the bar got darker. They were in their cups now, leaning heavily on the bar, shoulders nearly touching. As the alcohol worked on them, they began looking at one another more frequently, rather than staring at their reflections. Just a couple of guys having drinks in a bar. The stress and strain of the last ten days was dissipating like a morning fog, and they were nearly giddy with relief. Eventually other patrons began to gather, and the place got louder and louder. They cashed out, over-tipped the bartender, and wobbled toward the door.
“Hey,” Ralph said, “you OK to drive?”
Stan put his hand against the door jamb. “I think so.”
“Come on, I’ll walk you to your car.”
It wasn’t far. The courthouse was a little less than two years old, and the parking deck behind it was newer than that. The sodium arc lights were on and the dark night sky misted slightly. It was a pleasant early June evening, and they walked a little slower than they had to. The cocktails were still working their way through their systems, and neither man was in a hurry to get a DUI. By the time they headed up to the top level and found Stan’s car—the only one left on that level—they were barely even buzzed.
“I’m down on three,” Ralph said as they approached the late-model Buick. “You’re sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine,” Stan said. He beeped the fob on his keychain and the Buick’s lights flicked on and off. He got in, pulling the seat belt snug around himself and clicking it home. He closed his door, then powered down the driver’s side window to say good night.
“Good to know you, Stan,” Ralph said. “I appreciate the drinks.” He started to turn away, then looked back, bending at the waist to look at something in the back seat of the Buick. “Hey, what is that?”
Stan cranked his head around, peering into the back seat. He didn’t even feel the blade of the razor sink in—didn’t feel the pain until the blade touched his esophagus. His lap was full of blood. Some of it had gushed onto the dashboard. He tried to scream, but couldn’t. He could barely turn his head—the razor had sliced through some of the supporting tendons like a surgeon’s scalpel. Finally, Stan brought his awful, dying gaze around to Ralph, who was shaking blood from the razor and smiling.
“You should have left it alone,” Ralph said. “You should have voted guilty. You wouldn’t be where you are right now. But you had to be the holdout. Had to make a stand. I hope it was worth it, you sanctimonious son of a bitch.”
He might have said more, but Stan didn’t hear it. Stan’s eyes closed and he heard the song of distant shores. When he died, his bladder let go and his sphincter loosened. Ralph could smell it. He gagged and forced himself to keep from vomiting. He’d been lucky—so lucky—all the way through. First the burglar stumbles on the girl and gets arrested, and then Ralph got called for jury duty for a murder he had committed. When it was evident that the jury was going to be hung, he’d switched sides, buddied up to Stan. And now Stan was taken care of, too.
Ralph shook his head. He’d liked Stan. Oh well. He’d liked the girl, too. Ralph went down to the third level, found his car, and drove away.