The Way Things Had Been

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DOUBLE JEOPARDY

Of course, when my assignment blew up, I should have gone­ straight back to the office. But it was the first day of the­ murder trial. And what a murder trial! As in any big town we have­ our share of murders - but this one was special. With all the­ trimmings.

Naturally Peter Maas, our senior reporter, was covering the­ trial. And, being the bastard that he was, he would have been­ delighted to inform the News Editor if he spotted me pushing my­ nose into the Court-house. Therefore said nose would have to be­ pushed in very surreptitiously. But man, I just had to get a look­ at Watkins.

“David Mens Watkins, you are charged that on the night of­ January 12th, 1993, you wilfully and with malice aforethought,­ did murder Thomas Royce Meyer. How do you plead?”

“Not guilty.”

That was Watkins! The crime king of Reikstad! I felt­ cheated. He was a thin, almost wispy sort of a man. With a face­ nearly as long as it was wide. Eyes close together and shifty.­ Mean of mouth.

But then, he hadn’t really been the Crime King. More the­ male consort of the king. Thomas Meyer. Now there was a real king­ type. I had seen him once - at a night club. Very briefly. Nearly­ two metres of rugby front ranker. With an assortment of women­ hugging at his arms and a fleet of bodyguards looking meaner than­ Peter Maas and as deadly as any mother-in-law.

Between the two of them, Meyer and Watkins, they just about­ ran all crime in town. Meyer supplied the brawn, Watkins the brain. We all knew it. Even the police knew it. But, as crowned­ crime, they were secure behind their wall of lawyers and flunkeys. As safe as beef on a vegetarian’s plate - except for­ one thing.

Greed.

Watkins, or maybe it was Meyer, began to take a bigger rake­-off than that to which he was entitled. And to run too many­ individual capers on his own. When partner discovered this, Reikstad had a war on its hands. Their crime corporation was too­ involved and profitable to split up. The very building from which­ they operated was jointly owned. They even had offices on the­ same floor. Gravely nodded to each other when they met as they­ did frequently. Then did their damned best to knock each other off every way they could.

They hijacked each others shipments so often that suppliers­ began getting cagey about making deliveries. Minor hoodlums began­ to turn up very dead as each partner tried harder. Business­ suffered. A number of independent gangs moved in, and even their­ own thugs helped themselves. Profits suffered.

And there were even attempts on their lives!

Being businessmen by nature and only crooks from choice, the­ two crowned crime heads soon realised that something had to be­ done. Either to arrive at some workable arrangement.........

Or one of them had to go.

Permanently.

Neither of the gentlemen volunteered.

That was about as much as I or anyone else knew. Nor could I­ stay around to learn any more without the danger of bumping into­ blubber mouth Maas. So, regretfully, I decided to leave, just as­ things settled down to get interesting. I wandered out into the­ corridor and bumped into the back end of Captain Venter who was trying to make the corridor machine spew out a cup of the brew­ that it supplied instead of coffee. I took a look at his face and­ blinked.

“For a man who has just delivered up one crime king into the­ dock for the murder of the other, you don’t look happy at all.­ Isn’t the glory good enough?”

He scowled at me. “Glory? Just how much glory do you think­ will be going when that little squirt walks out of the Court­ smelling sweeter than a rose and laughing all the way?”

“Walks out!” I squealed. “You don’t mean it.”

“He’ll get off. With the army of lawyers he has and the big­ hole in the case the trial won’t last the day. And I know he did­ it.”

Captain Venter was not renowned for his love of journalists­ in general. He also appeared to be very touchy. But I was hooked.

“There is a hole in the case?”

“The one in Kimberley is a non starter in comparison.”

He mooched off down the corridor gingerly holding the­ plastic cup of liquid that wasn’t coffee - but was hot. I got­ myself a sample of the same as an excuse and followed down behind him - at a safe distance.

“Would you like to tell me about it?”

He twisted his neck until his black eyes could rake me. “Why­ should I?”

I gulped and tried sticking my sweet innocent look on my­ face. “Because I asked nicely?”

“You can hear it all in Court. Why aren’t you there now?”

“Not my story. Ace reporter Peter Maas is in residence.”

“Peter Maas,” grunted Venter with venom. “That rat.” He­ considered things a little more. “Why are you here anyway?”

“Come to cover a robbery thing in one of the Lower Courts.­ But it was chucked out. The charge read breaking and entering at­ 164, Doort Street - should have been 146, Doone Street. I just­ have to wait till they formulate a new charge and re-arrest the­ blokes.”

Venter gave a mirthless grin. “If they can be found. Chances­ are they are leaving town in a cloud of fine dust. I just don’t­ know who the hell prepares these indictments but they are making­ a real muck up of things. It happens time and time again. We­ arrest them, then, someone makes a cock up, and they get off on a­ technicality.” He hesitated. “Come along. Maybe it will sound­ better if I rehearse it with you.”

I followed him into an empty office. I could always justify­ my late return to the office with an interview story. And maybe­ score a point of Peter Maas who I loved like a Debt Collector. We sprawled in a couple of chairs. Putting our feet up on the tables­ like T.V. cops.

“Why charge him if you couldn’t make it stick?”

His scowl grew blacker than before. “Even a junior reporter­ should know that cops don’t bring charges. That’s the prosecutor’s­ baby. Makes me sick. When we get an open and shut case, someone­ won’t take it to Court because of ‘implications’ or ‘sensitivities’. Other times, you ask for a delay and the next­ thing you know is you are sitting in Court - waiting to get egg­ on your face.”

I tried to keep the grin off my face and oozed sympathy.­ “Why?”

“Be your age. Someone thought they had a chance to make a­ name for themselves and that the hole would be plugged in time.­ It’s a wonder they don’t get the cops and villains confused at­ times.”

“It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes,” I said -­remembering a few occasions when.... I saw the look on his face­ and also remembered that he was both bigger and stronger than I­ was. Also it was his story. “Only a joke.”

He thought about it. “I don’t like jokes of that sort.”

“Sorry Oom,” I said contritely. Putting on my sincerely­ sorry look. “I am surprised that Mr Steyn would have pulled­ something like that. He’s good.” Steyn was the prosecutor.

“Steyn didn’t. It was dumped into his lap by the original­ cookie when the hole wouldn’t go away - and the Judge refused to­ postpone the hearing.”

“Oh-oh. So you’re both for the high jump.”

Venter took a gulp of his drink and pulled a face. It was­ justified. I had already tried mine. “What do you know about the­ case ?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “Not much. I have been away for­ some time now at the express invitation of the Government.”

“Army ?”

“Ja.”

“Doesn’t seem to have done you much good.”

“You should see the army.” I decided not to push it in case­ he was sensitive about the army too. “So, what happened?”

“You do know about the trouble between the two of them?”

“As does most people.”

“Well, according to Watkins, he and Meyer decided to come­ together to discuss business problems. He did not go into­ details.”

“Naturally.”

“In fact he left out rather a lot of crucial points.­ However, with our investigations, we got a pretty good idea of­ what took place there.”

***********************

It all came together on January 12th which was a Tuesday.­ Meyer and Watkins agreed to have a meeting as it looked as if­ someone was making a determined bid to muscle in on the divided­ crime patch. That couldn’t be allowed. So they met in Watkin’s trophy room.

The room had certain security advantages and, as a­ concession to the mutual distrust of both parties, it was agreed­ that both the room and the two men were to be searched beforehand. There were two representatives of both camps on hand for­ this purpose.

I saw the room later so I can describe it. It was on the­ fifth floor of their seven story building. The only entry was­ through the main door which opened into a sort of sitting room.­This was where the search party spent their time during the­ meeting.

The only windows in the room were several small, ceiling high­ openings filled with glass louver’s which were always in the­ fully open position. No fire escape. The room itself had a number­ of easy chairs with three occasional tables scattered around. A small bookshelf stood on one wall with an assortment of books on­ fishing piled on the floor.

Normally, of course, the books were neatly arranged on the­ shelves. On the night of January 12th four hoodlums had taken­ them all out and checked to see if they were real and did not conceal any weapon. They were then rather untidy. After a bunch­ of police bods had done the same thing they were in a real mess.­ The rest of the room decorations consisted of the trophies.

Fish.

Game fish. Watkins, that shrimp of a man, liked the big­ ones. And, having caught them, there was no thought of trying to­ eat them. He had them stuffed or whatever and mounted on stands,­ on wooden wall mounts. Each trophy had to be checked to see that no weapon had been tucked behind it. It took time.

So, by the time that Watkins and Meyer were ready to start­ their meeting, it was nearly midnight. Which posed a problem for­ Meyer. He had arranged with a friend to blow the whistle if he­ had not checked in by midnight. A sort of additional insurance.­ Now, if he called, he nullified his insurance. If he didn’t call­, the friend could cause a lot of problems for both of them.

The way we figured it out - he knew the room had been­ searched and there was no weapon there. He also must have­ reckoned that, in a rough-house, he could take on Watkins with­ one hand tied behind his back. And he had two men in the outer­ room.

So he decided to call in and tell his friend to forget it.

Tough.

It was one hell of a mistake.

Meyer was never one given to thinking - but he should have­ guessed that the line would be tapped and the name and location­ of the friend known pretty soon. It must have been - because one­ of his lawyers turned up very dead the next morning. With an open, empty safe.

In any event it was about ten minutes past twelve when the­ two men went into the trophy room armed only with a bottle of­ whisky, a couple of glasses and a soda siphon. The body guards, also armed with a couple of bottles and a pack of cards in­ addition to their normal armaments, settled down for what was­ expected to be a long wait. There were a lot of problems to be­ sorted out.

But at half past one there was a muffled shout heard from­ inside the room. Followed by two shots from a heavy calibre gun.­The door leading into the room was still locked and had to be­ broken open. Inside.......

Watkins was found crouched behind one of the armchairs.­ Meyer was on the floor with a large part of his head blown away.­ Watkins pointed to the louver window and shouted that a man,­ hanging on a rope, had fired at them. Missing him (Watkins) but making sure of Meyer who had his back turned.

Leaving one man from each camp with Watkins the other two­ ran to the roof where they found a winch with a rope around it.

*************************

“And that’s the way we found things when we got there.­ Watkins still under guard while the other two, augmented by every­ other available hood, were searching the building for the­ mythical marksman.”

“Mythical?”

“Very. When the winch had been moved into place no one had­ thought to check to see if it worked or not. We found that the­ gears were so rusted that even two miracles would not have got it­ operating.”

“So Watkins must have shot him.”

“Right. With a gun - bang.”

“So, what’s your problem?”

“No gun.”

“No gun?”

“You’ve got it. Shooting people requires a gun. And there­ was no gun in that room.”

I was so intrigued I took a gulp of the brew in the cup, and­ nearly choked. Recovering - “Couldn’t Watkins have worked­ something with the thugs acting as guards?”

Venter shook his head regretfully. “No way. The two bods who­ were guarding Watkins were the Donelly brothers. They would as­ soon as betray Meyer as kiss me.”

“There were two shots?”

“You listen real good. One went into Meyer’s head. One went­ into the chair which shielded Watkins. He was through all right.”

“Could he have thrown the gun out of the window ?”

“Do me a favour. I suppose that it may be possible to throw­ a gun out of one of the windows. Although neither I nor any of my­ men could do it and we broke two louvers trying. We also searched­ the place all around - for miles.” He glared at me. ” But even if­ it was possible how did he get it there in the first place? Have­ someone throw it in the window from five floors down? Come off­ it.”

Just then a cop pushed his head into the room. “They’re ­calling for you, Captain.”

Venter groaned and stood up. “Hail, Caesar. We who are about­ to die, salute you.” He walked to the door. Turned to me. “Are­ you coming to the execution ?”

I went. There was no way that even Peter Maas was going to­ keep me from that Court-room now. Me, I’m no lover of cops. But­ Venter wasn’t a bad type. And man, what they did to him shouldn’t­ happen to a human being. By the time he came off the stand he was­ a very old and shattered man.

Taking my life in my hands I followed him back to the dingy­ room. He slumped in a chair. Without thinking he picked up the­ plastic cup and took a swallow. By that time it wasn’t even warm.­ Venter spat it out in a brown stream of disgust.

He wiped himself off. “It’s all over. He’ll walk before tea­ this afternoon. Free as a bird. There just isn’t a case to­ answer.” He rubbed his face furiously with his hands. “It all ­hinges on that gun.”

“But if there was one there you would have found it.”

“It’s there. It has to be there. I’ll lay my head on a block­ about it. Somewhere in that room.”

I shook my head. “I’m sorry. I don’t buy that. If it is....”

Venter climbed wearily to his feet. “You reporters are all­ the same. You always know better than us poor dumb cops. Well, do­ you want to come along and show me where the gun is?”

I got mad. “Bull. I never said that the gun is there -­that’s your obsession. I just figure that, if it’s there, your­ men should have found it. If you can’t find it - it isn’t there.­ Someone else did the killing.”

He moved to the door. “No one else did the killing. It was­ Watkins. And, if he did it, the gun must still be in that room. ­Coming?”

I hesitated. He was in a damn funny mood and I was a born­ coward. I had no more yen for egg on my face than he did. But I­ did want to have a look at that room. It might be the way of saving my job. I got to my feet. “I’m with you.”

“Good. That saves me having to drag you there by the scruff­ of your neck.” And damn it - he wasn’t joking. I hurriedly joined­ him at the door. Smiled, to make it look as if we were friends.

That is how I got to see that trophy room. There was just no­ place a gun could be hidden. Once the obvious places had been­ searched there was no where else. And there were only obvious­ places.

They had been searched. Several times. Many of the trophies­ had been removed from the walls. Others had been put back any old­ how, and the room gave the impression of a mad fish dance frozen­ at its insane peak. Armchairs had been stripped of cushions and­ some were even upside down.

Venter prowled around the room in a caged tiger sort of a­way. I wandered about just for something to do. All the fish were­ of the monstrous sort that never ended up on the slabs of the local supermarket. Great masses of flesh that could have fed a­ family for a month or more. All of them - except one.

“What’s that thing doing there?” My amazement caused me to­ speak without thinking. But Venter merely turned a head and a­ twist of a grin came to his mouth.

“Check it out,” he advised.

I did. It was a tiddler compared to the others in the room­ and looked completely out of place among the giants. It was­ hardly up to the size needed to fill my pan. It was mounted on a­ wooden wall mount and fixed to the wall beside an ornate­ armchair. Each fish had a photograph and a typed sheet giving all­ the gruesome details of the fish and of the resulting kill - the­ stuff so beloved by fishermen but unintelligible to normal folk.­ The tiddler had the same thing. There was a photograph showing a­ very young, skinny, down at heel Watkins holding up a fish. The­ typed statement had a simple legend.

“MY FIRST CATCH”

That and the date was all.

“Well I be damned.” I rubbed my neck. “Who would have­ thought that a bloke like Watkins would be sentimental enough to­ keep that.”

“They’re all alike,” growled Venter. “As cold as ice with a­ streak of sentimentality a yard wide about their mothers; or a­ cripple kid on the block, or the first fish they caught.”

“Doesn’t the story go that Watkins came from a very poor­ family and never had more than a few cents to his name until he­ took up crime?”

“That’s not the official version according to Watkins but it­ is the truth. Why? Do you think they would have eaten the fish­ he caught? The photo was taken by a friend.”

“Eaten it - yes. But there is more to it.” I bent down and­ examined the mounting. “Where the hell did he get the money to­ pay for a job like this? It must have cost a fortune.”

Venter shrugged impatient shoulders. “Who cares - probably­ robbed a bank. But forget that. You were going to show me where­ the gun is hidden, Mr Reporter.”

I didn’t feel that I would gain much by repeating my old­ arguments. Instead I gazed vaguely around the room. Measured the­ angle from the high up window to the chalked outline on the floor. It was a damn acute angle. And impossible angle.

“Convinced ?” Venter’s voice sounded smugly behind me from­ where he was watching. “That shot could not have been fired from­ outside. It had to come from this room.”

I threw my hands into the air, like the charismatic folk do­ in church. No matter what his temper he had to face facts. “Look,­there is no gun here. And, without a gun, Watkins could not have­ shot Meyer. No way. Therefore there must be another explanation -you are on the wrong track.”

He carefully picked up a cushion from the floor and equally­ carefully, placed it in a chair. Then sat himself down. His face­ was frozen in sullen conviction. “Tell me what other track you­ have in mind.”

My mind was on what story I was going to try and cook up to­ explain my long absence to my boss. Solving murders was a long­ way away. I didn’t have a clue. So I wandered back to the tiddler­ on the wall and bent to examine it again.

“Hey,” I said excitedly. "It’s not even the same fish. The­ one in the photograph has a brown mark along its back and this­ one hasn’t. He probably did eat the fish he caught then and got­ another one to put here.” I ran my fingers over the tiddler. It was a damn good job - and must have cost a mint. It was.....

Venter slammed his fist down on an occasional table with all­ the force those meaty shoulders could muster. “I don’t give a­ damn about that bloody fish - do you hear?”

Hear! I nearly had a heart attack. I jumped a foot into the­ air. The cuff of my jacket hooked around the raised head of the­ tiddler. There was a savage jerk that meant that either my sleeve­ or the fish had parted with something. I hoped that it was my sleeve.

It wasn’t. It was the fish. The favourite trophy of the new­ crime boss in town had been partly ripped off its mounting and­ was waving in the breeze. The prickle of ice began to run down my­ spine. I didn’t think that he would be pleased and crime bosses had a way of making their displeasure felt.

I gave a sick glare at Venter. “Damn it, look what you’ve­ made me do.”

Wearily Venter got to his feet. “Is it badly broken ?”

I had a good look at the thing. The head structure had been­ cleanly pulled away from the mount although the tail part was­ still firmly anchored. The front end just swung easily back and­ forth.

Swung easily back and forth!

In fact the bloody thing was hinged! That trophy was­ nothing more than a cunningly conceived cupboard. Just big enough­ to hold.....

“It’s not the end of the world, y’know.” Venter came up­ behind me. ” I can say that it was damaged during the search.”

I put out a finger and pushed the body of the fish. It swung­ wider. Wide enough to let Venter see inside.

“Suffering Saints,” whispered Venter. He pulled out a­ handkerchief from his pocket and gingerly took the gun from the­ retaining clips. “I knew it. I knew it.” He carefully folded the handkerchief over the gun. “Come on. Back to the Court.”

We went back - fast. Siren. Flashing red light - the works.­ It just wasn’t fast enough.

As we pulled up at the curb we saw them coming out of the­ Court. Watkins, surrounded by his lawyers and a mob of pressmen­ with popping flares. I was happy to see that Peter Maas had­ failed to get his way to the front. Steyn, the prosecutor,­followed at the back with a sour expression on his face. Venter­ slowly got out of the car.

Watkins saw us - and what Venter was carrying. He stopped in­ mid-stride. Stiffened. A momentary look of panic flashed on his­ face. Then he shrugged his shoulders and a sneer twisted his lips. We met them on the pavement.

“Oh, Captain Venter. I hope you didn’t damage my fish.”

Steyn thrust his way forward. “What have you got there ?” he­ demanded.

“The murder weapon.”

Steyn let his shoulders slump. “It’s too late.”

“What do you mean? This is the clincher.”

“Sorry, old man,” sniggered Watkins. “I have just been found­ not guilty - ten minutes ago. You can’t touch me.”

“He’s right.” Steyn’s voice was a rasp. “You know the law­ about double jeopardy. “He’s been tried and found not guilty.”

Watkins waved an airy hand as, still flanked by his retinue,­ he got into one of the fleet of cars waiting. “I’m having a­ champagne party tonight, Captain,” he called back. “At Markhams.­ Feel free to join us.”

We watched him drive off. A languid white hand fluttering­ from the back window.

Steyn and Venter went back into the Court. I tagged along.­ Peter Maas had seen me and I figured that I might as well be hung­ for the sum total of all my crimes - not just a few. I knew that­ his malicious tongue was crammed with comments for the News­ Editor that would cost me my job. Unless I could come up with a­ lot more than I had at the moment.

As the other two made no objection the three of us sat in a­ room like mourners at the death of an uncle who had left all his­ money to the dogs and cats home. I sat looking blankly at the­ ceiling. It had just not been my day. All because of a­ technicality that had robbed me....

Something was bugging me. Then the light shone. I tried to­ keep my voice from trembling. “This double jeopardy thing. It­ means that you can’t be tried twice for the same crime, doesn’t­ it?”

Steyn lifted his eyes briefly and nodded. “That’s right.”

“I was in the lower courts today and the case I was covering­ was thrown out because a wrong address was quoted in the­ charge.”

A bitter smile twisted Steyn’s lips. “No crime had taken­ place there - so - you can’t be tried for a crime that did not take place.”

“And the same rules hold in the Supreme Court as well?”

Two sets of eyes were fixed on me now. Steyn nodded.

“Sorry about all these questions - but say that the two­ blokes had been put on trial and then found not guilty of the­ robbery at the wrong address. Could they then be tried again for­ the robbery at the right address.”

Steyn and Venter were watching me as if they expected a rain­ of Kruger coins to pour out of me. Steyn nodded again. “Yes, they­ could be. Only one robbery took place but, when they were accused­ of the crime at the wrong address, they were being accused of a­ crime that had not taken place. Any conviction couldn’t stand. That has nothing to do with the actual crime that had taken­ place.”

“And what about time ? If they were accused of committing a­ crime at the right address but at a different time. What then?”

“The same thing applies. Whether it is wrong place or wrong­ time it was a crime that had not taken place and had nothing to­ do with the actual crime that had taken place.”

I took a deep breath. “When I arrived at Court this morning­ I heard the charge being read out. Watkins was accused of­ murdering Meyer on the night of January 12th. But, according to­ what I heard there is evidence to show that Meyer was alive at midnight. So no crime had been committed on the night of January­ the 12th.”

Steyn ripped the contents of his briefcase out and dumped it­ on the table. Pawed through the mess until he found the­ document he was looking for. He read it.

“He’s right,” whispered Steyn. “He’s bloody well right.”

“Meyer was actually killed on the morning of January 13th,“­ I said through the silence.

Venter was rubbing his jaw and there was a wild hope in his­eyes. “Spell it out for me - now.”

Steyn grinned. ” It means that Watkins has been found not­ guilty for a crime that had not taken place. Now we charge him­ with the crime that did take place. The murder on the 13th.”

Venter’s hands were shaking. “You mean it’s legal?”

“It sure as hell is - a technicality - on our side for a­ change.”

The man that got to his feet bore little resemblance to the­ broken ’tec called Venter who had entered the room. “He invited­ me to join him at a party tonight. I think I’ll go.” He looked at­me. “I don’t like reporters very much. But you are an exception.­ I owe you.”

I swallowed hard. “Does that mean you will keep this under­ your hat and let me join you - at the party - with a camera?”

He grinned. “Hell - I’ll even pick you up.”

Like I said - what a wonderful day.

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