A short story from LITTLE GEMS, my book of short stories available on Amazon
Professor Devereux looked pleased with himself, and not without good cause. The interview went well and tomorrow’s papers would carry the story. The abolition of capital punishment was a long way off but still gathering momentum. His views were well-known nationally, and after several months of hard investigative work, he had achieved the near impossible. He was instrumental in proving that the State of Alabama wrongly executed a man convicted on circumstantial evidence of murder. Devereux was a cause celebre.
Unfortunately, he attracted many enemies along the way including police officers who openly threatened him. Hate mail filled his post box daily. Several times on T.V. the D.A’s office ridiculed him and dismissed him as a crank. He was used to that. The more they threw at him, the more he liked it. They were on the defensive.
Devereux had held center stage at the interview. With overwhelming evidence showing incompetence on the part of the prosecution, the District Attorney admitted that his office got it wrong.
Making his way back to his dressing room, Devereux reflected on his success. The only regret was that Chantelle, his wife, was not with him to share in his triumph. She was a lifelong supporter of abolition, but just as recognition started to come his way, she died, sadly, of cancer, just eight months after diagnosis. It was sudden and a great shock to him. Heartbroken, he retired from his law practice and became reclusive.
It was three years later that some of his old friends insisted he take up lecturing again on the university circuit. His knowledge of the law and the criminal mind made him one of the most respected authorities in his field. After deliberating for a month, he decided to start campaigning again and was soon being quoted throughout mass media.
He sat in a chair in front of the mirror in his dressing room while the makeup assistant, Dana, attended to his face for a few minutes, cleaning off the cream and powder.
“You ought to get a good night’s sleep,” she said, her big brown eyes studying him in the mirror. “Those lines under your eyes are ugly.”
Devereux picked up a comb and held it out for her. “I know, but at least I do not have to look after my good looks, do I?”
She laughed. “Well, I don’t know. You look very distinguished to me.”
“That’s another way of saying I’m going bald and gray.”
They laughed as he got up from the chair.
“Here’s your coat, professor. I think you’re gonna need it tonight. The weather forecast warned of rain.”
After saying goodnight, Devereux made his way downstairs to the reception area. He stood for a moment at the main entrance before deciding to walk home through the park. The exercise would do him good, and in any case, the T.V station was not far from where he lived.
Walking down the steps outside the studio, Devereux felt several light spots of rain on his head. Opening his umbrella and then his stick, he stepped to the edge of the sidewalk and paused, listening for traffic.
Born blind, he was used to getting around the city he had been brought up in. Always preferring the little folding stick to a guide dog, he could travel around Birmingham as quickly as anyone else. The rain increased.
Passing traffic hissed in the downfall. Devereux walked across the road carefully. The Town Hall clock chimed the hour, eleven o’clock. Thinking that he might be in time to catch the eleven-forty newscast, he hurried to be in time to listen to it.
Reaching the park gates, he turned into the pathway that led through some trees to the playground and beyond. The wind blew in gusts, pushing the swings back and forth. They squeaked noisily above the rustle of the leafy trees that surrounded the playground.
A dog somewhere in the distance barked. An impatient driver amongst the night-time traffic on the other side of the park hooted a horn.
Birds rose and flapped out of a tree in front of him, startling Devereux. He stopped and listened intently. Then he heard it. Clearly audible above the blustery wind there came a muffled cough followed by the flip top clack of a Zippo lighter being snapped shut.
Devereux started to walk again and passing the trees at the end of the play area, he smelled smoke. Curious, he wondered why someone would want to stop and smoke in such inclement weather. Perhaps, he thought, it was just a kid.
After another fifty yards, the path sloped gently downward and evened out as it reached the edge of a small lake. Many years before, when Chantelle first brought him to the lake after their engagement, they walked every pathway while she described the beauty of the trees, the flowers, rockeries, and lakes. They sat by the lake many times during the years that followed, eating lunch and relaxing. Now, during Spring and Summer mainly, he sat in their seat by the lake, remembering.
Devereux’s thoughts were ended abruptly. Someone was following. He could not mistake the sound of heavy footsteps on the gravel a short way behind. Whoever it was seemed to be keeping pace with him. He felt a little uneasy and slowed to allow the stranger to catch up and pass. He listened, aware that his heart was beating faster. The follower had stopped. The only sound above the wind was the rustling leaves.
Since childhood, one thing always frightened him. Being followed. Standing quite still, he heard someone cough. Worried in case he was being followed by a mugger, he walked on quickly, tapping his stick from side to side more urgently.
Footsteps crunched on the ground behind him again. He felt like shouting out but thought better of it. If he shouted, he might be attacked before he reached safety. There again he might make a fool of himself. It could be some kid playing around.
Trying hard not to act scared, he hurried on to the park exit opposite the all-night shopping mall. If he could make an exit, he would be safe among the shoppers and late night diners. By now his heart was pounding against his chest, and despite the cold wind, his shirt was becoming damp.
His stick touched the bin near the end of the path. He breathed with relief. A few yards more and he would be at the exit. Relieved at the moment and lost in his anxiety to reach safety, he forgot the protruding stone base of the drinking fountain the other side of the bin. His foot caught the base, and he fell heavily. Grabbing for his stick, he felt the umbrella fly away, captured by a gust of wind. There was a loud cough. He froze, panic welling up inside him.
“What do you want?” Devereux sobbed.
There was no reply. He sat sobbing for a few seconds and then picked himself up. Soaking wet, he rose unsteadily to his feet and made his way through the exit to the safety of the sidewalk. No-one followed him.
Across the street, the mall was busy, mostly with people using the precinct as a shortcut and shelter from the rain. Devereux decided this was the safest thing for him to do. The mall was well illuminated, and once through to the far end, he would be just two blocks from his apartment. From the far end, he could hail a cab.
Breathing heavily, he crossed the street. His clothes were wet with mud and sweat was running down his forehead. Some grazed skin on his hands stung. He stopped just inside the mall entrance and felt a little safer. He brushed his coat and wiped his face with the back of a hand while trying to compose himself.
The thick aroma of burgers filled his nostrils. McDonalds was open and by the sounds of things, very busy. He remembered something and smiled. There were some telephones just inside the restaurant. He would call the Sheriff’s department and get them to send a patrolman to see him home. There was sure to be a squad car nearby.
Devereux felt better for having a plan of action, and walked into the restaurant to find the telephones. He picked up a receiver and called the Sheriff’s department. After explaining his predicament to an understanding and sympathetic officer, he was asked to give his name and address.
There was a pause. Then, “Excuse me, sir, did you say, Devereux, Professor Paul Devereux?”
“Yes, that’s me. I’m on my way home from the T.V. studios.”
The line went silent for a while. Devereux hoped they would send a car.
Moments later the officer was back online. “Professor, I’m very sorry, but unless the person or persons who may or may not be following you actually abuse you in any way, either physically or verbally, there is not a lot we can do.”
Devereux lost his temper, attracting attention from the diners. “Listen, you idiot, I’ve been followed. My life may be in danger. For God’s sake, can’t you do anything?”
“I’m sorry, professor, but our officers are busy right now.” The voice was polite but firm.
“If I were someone else you’d be here in a couple of minutes, you bastard!”
Devereux started to shout. “You don’t like the truth. You don’t like it when you’re shown up on T.V. You wait and see. I’ll make you pay for this.”
There was a click, and the line went dead. Devereux slammed the receiver down and was aware that the diners had gone quiet. Embarrassed, he turned to walk out and collided with someone coming through the door. Customers started to laugh. He was making a fool of himself.
“Sorry,” said a man, “allow me.”
The door opened, and Devereux was guided out into the mall. As the door closed, the man coughed. It was an unmistakable cough. Devereux flushed hot and cold. His hands shook. He had to get away. With stick flailing from side to side, he almost ran down the mall, bumping into people along the way.
At the end of the mall, he turned left and stopped, out of breath. He knew that a covered cab rank which stood a few yards away closed at midnight. His index finger urgently touched the face of his wristwatch. It was eleven twenty-five. Wearily climbing into the back of a cab, he gave his address to the driver. He closed his eyes and silently cursed his decision to walk.
Several minutes later the cab pulled up outside the apartment block. Devereux, by now a little calmer, paid the driver and climbed the steps to the main door of the block.
Once inside his apartment, he made straight for the shower. He ached all over and was shivering with the cold. The exertions of the last hour had exhausted him completely. While he was undressing, he decided to write to the Police Commissioner in the morning and complain about the treatment he had received. He stood under the shower and let the hot water soothe his aching limbs.
The sidewalk glistened under the street lights. Rain continued to fall. A cigarette dropped into the gutter with a hiss. From under one of the trees that lined the side of the boulevard came a muffled cough. Brad Miller had been standing there sheltering from the rain ever since a cab dropped him off. He looked up at the block and decided to wait a little longer. A crumpled pack of Camels was poking out of his top jacket pocket. He leaned against the tree, took a cigarette from the pack and lit it with the Zippo.
This would be the third mark in a week and the easiest. No need to follow and then return to break in when the victim was out. The old man was different. Miller did not know how he was going to break in, but it was a challenge that would give him a buzz just for the hell of it. Even if the man did wake up, so what? He could not see anyone so he could not finger anyone. He’d played cat and mouse with the blind man all night and scared him a couple of times, especially at McDonalds. He liked to scare people. It was fun.
Fifteen minutes later he slipped across the boulevard to the apartment block and bounded silently up the entrance steps two at a time. He pulled a thin piece of mica board from his jeans and opened the door in seconds. He crept into the lobby. After feeling along the line of post boxes on the wall, he found what he wanted and smiled. There was a brass plate on one box with the apartment number indented on it. Miller climbed the stairs carefully.
Up on the third floor, all was still. The only noise came from the rain beating persistently on the window panes at the end of the corridor. To one side of the window sat an old wooden chair, placed in the corner. Miller picked it up and positioned it up against the door of apartment 117.
Climbing onto the chair, he reached up to the small oblong window above the door frame. The window was open a couple of inches. Expert hands pushed the window inward and up. With a little piece of cardboard taken from his pocket, Miller folded it into a wedge. This he then put into place on one side between the window and the frame. A gap of eighteen inches was enough to give him access into the apartment.
Holding onto the bottom of the frame, he pulled himself up until he was able to grab a sprinkler pipe that ran along the length of the ceiling. With both hands gripping the pipe, he swung himself up and slid both feet through the gap until his body was halfway into the apartment. With ease, he twisted himself around until his stomach rested on the window frame. The wedge was then removed, and the window returned to its original position as he dropped silently to the floor inside the apartment.
Miller carefully opened the door, picked up the chair, and replaced it to the landing corner. Preoccupied with his work, he did not notice a figure hiding in the shadows of the stairway as he returned to 117. A hand grabbed him from behind. Instinctively, Miller turned and punched his would-be captor hard in the face.
“You son of a bitch!” came a gruff voice.
They grappled with each other, punching and kicking until Miller broke loose. He swung wildly at the other man who, trying to avoid a punch, slumped back against the apartment door. Miller, coughing loudly, kicked the man in the ribs and made good his escape.
Devereux woke with a start. A loud crash was followed by someone coughing. His worst nightmare was coming true. He began to shake, his stomach churning. With short, shallow breaths, he sat upright in bed and reached for the bedside table drawer. His hand fumbled frantically inside. His fingers finally felt metal, and he withdrew a long thin-bladed letter knife that he kept there for emergencies.
He slid out of bed and moved to one side of the bedroom door where he could hide if it opened. Trembling, he stood with heart racing, waiting. It was quiet.
Then he heard them.
Footsteps were coming toward him—slow, deliberate footsteps. The door handle squeaked. Devereux tensed, his nerves at breaking point. Terrified, he felt a cold draft of air as the door slowly opened. It was too much for him. He lunged forward with the paper knife.
“There, you bastard,” he screamed hysterically, “take that!”
They both fell to the floor, Devereux plunging the knife again and again. Anger and violence poured from him. Exhausted, he finally lay on top of the body, crying, unable to move. When the moment of initial shock receded, he picked himself up and stumbled into the living room to call the Sheriff’s department.
He remembered his last call to the Sheriff’s office, regretting that they had not been more helpful. If they had, things would have not gone so far. He dropped the knife on the carpet and reached for the phone.
It was ten minutes later that Detectives found Devereux slumped in an armchair. He was covered in blood. The paper knife was laying on the carpet by his feet.
They listened to his story that he was followed home by the intruder. After he had finished, Devereux had to go over his story again to make sure no detail had been overlooked.
Several hours later, downtown, during his interview, Devereux was played a recording of his earlier abusive and threatening call to the Sheriff’s Department, which he’d made because they refused to help him after he reported being followed by a suspected mugger.
As far as the detectives were concerned, there was no sign of forced entry to the apartment block or Devereux’s apartment. As for the intruder laying on Devereux’s floor; after being called by the Sheriff and asked to do a favor, retired deputy, Marvin Tucks, living on the ground floor had looked in to see if the professor was alright.
The detectives surmised that Devereux, annoyed at Tucks disturbing his sleep and thinking the Sheriff’s Department was harassing him, had viciously attacked and slain the deputy in a rage. No other intruder figured in the incident. Devereux, they suggested, was too clever for his own good. Devereux was charged with murder.
Brad Miller sat on a bar stool and looked up at the T.V. lunchtime news. A picture of Devereux flashed up on the screen. It was announced that the professor was executed at midnight the day before at Oaksville Penitentiary.