A tale from the House of Ashimbabbar -- An Incident at the Lost Cause Bar & Grill
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Uncle Roy came in shortly before closing. Instead of heading directly for the Raccoon Corner as usual he sat at the bar and held up three fingers. He never even had a double, so I looked closely as I poured the triple, neat, from the bottle I keep just for him. Under a sheen of sweat, his face was pale as – as whatever cliché you prefer. Roy is normally a sipper, but he picked up his Glenfiddich with both shaky hands and downed half of it in one gulp. He gasped, then said, “Soon as you can close up, lock the doors, and come back to the corner – I’ve gotta talk to somebody.” Then he picked up his glass – and his bottle – and headed for the storytelling nook.
Technically, Roy isn’t my uncle because he and my Mother’s sister weren’t yet married when she was badly injured in a car versus tractor-trailer accident. She lingered in a coma for almost three years before she died. The company that owned the truck that hit her claimed she was drunk and denied responsibility. Although my grandfolks held it off for several years, the medical expenses finally put their farm in foreclosure. Roy had switched his college major to pre-law, then went to law school and passed the bar first try. His first case: he sued the trucking company, digging up evidence that the maintenance records for the truck were forged and an intern at the hospital had been bribed to contaminate my aunt’s blood sample. The settlement bought the farm out of foreclosure and then some. So there’ll always be a private bottle of his favorite single malt behind my bar and Roy’s money is no good here.
Besides the three raconteurs already in the Corner there were only a couple of customers and they took the hint when I began wiping tables and stacking chairs. As soon as they cleared out I locked the doors and doused the outside gas lights, then turned off the jukebox, put Uncle Roy’s favorite Glen Miller 78’s on the Victrola turned low, got a bottle of Moxie from the ice box, and joined the others.
Jimbo Parker was in the middle of his Mom’s latest confrontation, this time with some Traveler dumb enough to try to pull the ‘Motor Oil on the Driveway’ scam on a retired sheriff’s deputy – I swear, if she dies we’ll have heard Jimbo’s last story and the laugh content of the bar will be halved.
Roy’s complexion hadn’t improved much when we stopped laughing. He held up one finger, walked over and turned on the black and white TV, saying, “I’ve gotta tell you guys about this, but seriously, you can’t say a word to anyone, ever: agreed?” as he switched from channel to channel until he found a late-night news program.
We all agreed. Fortunately, Cheap Willie wasn’t there ‘cause everybody knew you could have anything he knew for a short one.
Ignoring the others, Uncle asked me, "I've never discussed my most infamous case with you, have I?"
"You mean the only major case you ever lost?" I replied, amazed he had actually broached the longstanding taboo himself.
"No," he replied, "The case everybody thinks I lost."
"But... but... your client was... executed!" I stuttered.
"Yes," he nodded sadly, then after another long swallow, "Yes, indeed!"
Just then the news changed to a helicopter shot of the smoldering remains of a burned-out building. “There,” Roy said, indicating the TV, “That’s what this is about.” He waited a minute or so until we had all watched, then turned off the set and resumed his seat.
I couldn't imagine any response to his denial and simply stared in disbelief, unwilling to accept either that my Uncle's legendary ego could so blatantly distort history as to disown his single failure in a capital case or that he had gone senile while barely sixty.
He grinned at me with a brave hint of his usual ebullience, "Now, hear me out before you start calling for straitjackets and nursing homes. You should understand that a lawyer's highest duty is to serve his client's interests, as expressed by a competent client."
It took me a minute to interpret that, then I blurted, "You're saying Jamie Styles wanted to be executed!? He told you that?"
"Insisted on it, as a matter of fact; made it the prerequisite condition of my representing him."
"Well," I replied triumphantly, "then you've violated your own criteria. You said a competent client. Any client who wants to be executed, especially before even being convicted, is by definition incompetent."
Uncle Roy chuckled tolerantly. "You're sure about that, are you, boy? Well, suppose you listen to the whole story before you make up your mind. Matter of fact, you might want to cultivate that as a habit.”
I shrugged and grabbed another Moxie: if Uncle Roy intended to expound, I certainly wanted to start off fully stocked.
He settled back with an inward look and contemplated for a few moments before he began talking slowly, his normal confident, pedantic tone conspicuous by its absence:
Uncle Roy’s Story
I'd gone to school with Barton Styles, Jamie's father. He moved away after college and we lost track for some years, except for a congratulatory note whenever one or the other of us won a significant case. He returned when Jamie was about five. He and his wife Myra bought a big old house that was half falling down: they fixed up the front half and closed off the rest until they got around to restoring it as well, which they never did.
Jamie had been born with severe birth defects and had already undergone a dozen operations, but now seemed like any healthy, active five year old, only brighter than most. In fact, until I saw him in a bathing suit that first summer, I had no idea what he must have gone through, poor little tyke. One side of his body was practically a solid mass of scar tissue. The operations had been amazingly successful except for the extensive scars, and subsequent skin grafts and the extraordinary healing capacity of youth eventually reduced them to little more than a few patches that never tanned.
Myra had suffered as much as the boy, maybe more. She blamed herself for Jamie's problems, believing they resulted from some real or imagined indiscretion of hers while pregnant; they never said precisely what and I never asked. She kept pretty much to herself, seldom leaving her back room "studio" that was off-limits to everyone including Jamie, and just sitting around with a faraway look whenever she did. I was in Europe a few years later when she died. Horrible thing: some psycho broke into their house and slaughtered her, her secretary, and Jamie's nanny; quite literally cut them to pieces. Bart came home from work to find Jamie sitting beside Myra's bloody corpse, trying to wake her up. They never did catch the killer.
Well, Bart fell apart. For a while, I thought for sure he'd end up in an institution, but he imported a team of attendants instead. I had never married and I kind of adopted Jamie. Even after his father pulled himself together, he spent more time at my house than his own until he went off to college. I was ‘Uncle Roy’ to him, too.
Three years later, near the end of his junior year, I got called at 2:34 in the morning: Jamie had been arrested for murdering three co-eds.
When I walked into the conference room, Jamie sat there with such a peaceful look on his face, I knew it all had to be some terrible mixup that would get straightened out forthwith. He smiled at me with that boyish smile I knew so well, sheepishly indicating the chains shackling him to the metal chair as explanation for not jumping up to hug me. Outraged, I started to call the guard to demand the chains be removed. Jamie stopped me, "It's OK, Uncle Roy. Don't worry about them – they don't hurt or anything. Sit down. How's Dad? Does he understand that I can’t have him represent me?" When I said Bart, a corporate attorney, understood and was holding up as well as could be expected, worrying about his son, Jamie looked sad for a moment, then asked, "Uncle Roy, does a lawyer have to do whatever his client wants?"
I nodded, puzzled, qualifying, "As long as the client's competent and what he wants is legal."
"Good," he replied, "Then I want you to make sure I get executed."
Stunned, I couldn't say anything, and he continued, "I know you'll find it hard to believe, but I did everything they say I did – plus a lot more they haven't tied to me yet. If I ever get out, I'll do worse."
I can't remember if I actually said anything or not, but he continued as if I had, "I don't know why. Someone starts to talk inside my head, and he gets louder and louder. I realize that's a symptom of mental illness, but that doesn't help when his voice screeches and screams.”
He looked away for a moment, then shook his head decisively and continued, "Sometimes he gets so loud I can't think about anything except what he wants, and what he wants is for me to do terrible things. I didn’t used to have real memories of the bad things – just what seemed like fragments of nightmares – but now I remember everything. You mustn't try to get me off by claiming I'm insane because if you do, the voice will just leave me alone until the doctors think I'm cured and let me out, and then he'll come back and make me do horrible things all over again. He told me so. I've even tried to kill myself, making it look like an accident to spare you and Dad – but he stopped me every time." He chuckled a sad little chuckle, "He isn't worried about me getting caught now because he thinks worst case I'll get off on an insanity plea – but please, Please! don't let that happen!"
Over the next few days, Jamie told me enough that I finally accepted that he was right. Or, at least, that he understood well enough to make his own decision. He realized that the voice was only another aspect of his own mind, a second personality he'd always lived with – ‘bad Jim’ as he termed him – but that didn't help to resist those terrible demands.
In order to convince me, he told me things going back to his childhood, things that still wake me sweating and freezing in the hours before dawn. I checked enough to satisfy myself they were true. The sweet, gentle boy I thought of as my son shared his body with a monster. Worse, the monster had control whenever it wanted. And even if that monster could somehow, magically be excised like the demon it was, Jamie could never live with the memory of what he had done. The look I had first seen on his face was in fact triumph: he believed he had finally found a way to defeat his demon in the only way possible.
Soon, the monster suspected that as well and made Jamie retract his instructions. But I convinced it that acquittal was a real possibility, practically a sure thing. So we went to trial pleading not guilty. And I put up a valiant defense against overwhelming evidence, the best defense of my career, so that when we lost, no appeal on grounds of inadequate counsel stood a chance.
I'm not sure if Jamie finally gained the strength to exert control over his nemesis or if the monster simply gave up, but the insistence on endless appeals I expected never came. I filed only the mandatory ones, all quickly disposed of. Jamie seemed truly at peace the last time I saw him, the day before... He didn't want me to witness his execution; asked me instead to be with his father when it happened, and I was.
Bart and I used to get together every month or so at that big old house he hung onto even though he only lived in a quarter of it then, that same house the news showed burned down tonight. Sometimes we played chess, sometimes we talked; mostly we sat and remembered.
The last time I saw him – two... no, must be nearly three years ago now – he'd just gotten a case of fine old scotch from a client. We both imbibed a bit more enthusiastically than usual and Bart started rambling in a way unlike him. It was near the anniversary of Jamie's execution, which inevitably steered the conversation. "You remember how scarred Jamie was when you first saw him? From all those operations? Well, those birth defects, they were from where they separated them. Jamie was born a twin; a conjoined twin."
"What?" I demanded, "What happened to the other one?"
Bart sat quietly for so long I thought he'd dozed off, "There weren't really two whole babies, not even one and a half: one set of everything almost normal and one set withered, distorted; two good arms and two twigs; two legs and two... flippers. And one good heart wearing itself ragged doing its own work plus picking up the slack for its wretched little two-chambered twin. They were both going to die if they weren't separated. Trouble was, there wasn't enough there to make two viable bodies. The only parts with two good copies were the heads: identical, both of them as alive and alert as babies months older. In fact, the ID bands that are usually put on babies' wrists were around their necks, because each head had some control over all the limbs and, even with X-Rays and CT scans, it was difficult to tell for sure which head went better with which arms and legs.
"In order not to create a controversy, everybody pretended that there might be a way to save them both. Everybody pretended except Myra: she couldn't accept that one of them had to die so one could live. When we saw them just before the operation, somebody had removed the ID band from the right neck – so I knew which one wouldn't make it. Almost seemed like he knew, too: his eyes stared at Myra and twisted little claws latched onto her thumb and wouldn't let go, even after the anesthetic put them to sleep. I had to hold her while a nurse pried those tiny claws loose, one by one."
I tried to imagine the anguish of having to make such a decision, of watching your two sons wheeled out so one would die to save the other. I tried, and though I couldn't come close to the pain they must have felt, it still wrenched my soul. "My God," I exclaimed, "That's the most terrible decision I ever heard of! Nobody should have to make that kind of choice. I'm surprised it didn't drive you both insane."
"It did," Bart replied. "If you'd known Myra before, you would have recognized the change in her. I just managed to hide it better. We decided we'd never tell Jamie about any of this, not even that he'd ever had a brother. That's partly why we moved back here, to eliminate any possibility of running into somebody who knew. Didn't want him to feel guilty his twin had been sacrificed. But I guess somehow, subconsciously, he knew – maybe that's where that 'bad Jim' idea of his came from."
"Bart, I'm so sorry. For all of you. That must be the absolute worst thing that can happen to parents. Maybe even worse than what happened to Myra – and to Jamie."
"No," he said, shaking his head, "That's not the worst." He paused for a long sigh, then continued, "We kept telling ourselves there had been no choice. The doctors assured us the organs couldn't keep both of them alive much longer connected, and it was obvious to everyone that the pitiful collection of remnants left over after they separated Jamie couldn't possibly survive on its own." He sighed again and glanced toward the back of the house. "But we were all wrong."