Sometimes it’s not what you do, but what you fail to do. An oversight that seems insignificant at the time can mean the difference between life and death. It is easy to look back with the clarity of years or the wisdom of new-fangled technology and hold us in contempt, but in truth it was a human error that sent James Lee Parker to the penitentiary where he would die before the state could carry out his execution. I swore on a Bible and gave my testimony, and would have gone to my own grave believing the man was guilty. But as with the boards of a home, time and the elements have a way of cracking and peeling away the whitewash.
It was the summer I quit drinking that the public defender who had done his best to keep James Lee Parker from prison called me out of the blue to discuss his client’s fate. It wasn’t by choice that I had hopped on the water wagon, as they say. My wife, Celia, had delivered her ultimatum, the final in a series of attempted negotiations. Quit the bottle or she was gone, is what it amounted to. I guess I didn’t answer quickly enough.
“You honestly need time to think about this?” she snapped.
“Just give me a minute,” I said, eyes clenched in a blinding headache. I needed time to think. Hangovers always made me feel like I was under water, the real world glimmering up there at the surface.
I knew my boss, Lieutenant Gracy, had filed paperwork to put me on a medical leave. I was supposed to check into one of those drying-out clinics that were springing up. He had been patient and tough with me, having tried everything to make his point, from busting me back down to patrol for a month, to cooling my engines on a desk over in Administrative Services. But a major crime would always save me, some drunken husband knifing his wife or the other way around, and Lt. Gracy would pull me from exile.
“I’ll do better than a minute,” Celia said. “Just don’t waste any more of my time.”
I went to a little clinic up in Modesto for thirty days and came back to the job and an empty house. It was strange at first, working the major crime squad clear-headed and without the idea of a drink waiting for me at the end of a shift like a carrot on a stick. I felt as though I had been picked up and set down in some country where I didn’t speak the language. I had to learn how to do everything all over again.
The weeks turned into months and I guess you’d say I found my legs. And then one day, as though a storm cloud had passed over me and the sky was suddenly clear, I started to remember things I had done or not done on the job. I would be driving to work or standing in the shower and an image would come to me, a line of thinking. It was stronger than that feeling you get when you wonder if you left the stove on, and a few times I wrote down notes and followed up in my old case files. Sure enough I found places where I had been sloppy and, I’m ashamed to admit, guilty of stretching circumstance in order to set a man in the right place at the wrong time. In these instances the men in question were life-long criminals, robbers and grifters and the like, and they had already served their short time and been released. There was nothing I could do to make things right, except maybe to stay sober and be a better cop.
What I’m getting at is James Lee Parker was to me just another poor man sitting in a cell on Death Row down at San Quentin when his public defender called me. Keller Graham was young and noble and still believing in his oath as a public defender in those days. Graham had said all along and again in court that Parker’s girlfriend, the dead woman, had been seeing a man on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Lincoln Arms Hotel. Etta Williams worked at the hotel as a chamber maid, but there wasn’t a single employee who would corroborate Graham’s version of things, from the hotel manager down to the other chamber maids and bell boys. It was no surprise that many of the staff were illegal, and we were used to them clamming up when we showed our badge.
I remembered how I hadn’t been to bed yet when Lt. Gracy’s call came in. It was going on five, that in-between time when you feel so alone, stuck between last night and tomorrow. I had been out to a little bar in the south end where nobody knew I was a cop. There was a waitress there I liked, a black-haired girl with a crooked smile. When I got home after three, Celia and I went twelve rounds. I was drinking my third cup of sober-up coffee at the kitchen table when Lt. Gracy called about a woman found dead in a room up at the Lincoln Arms. A cleaning lady, he said.
Keller Graham’s call came a year after James Lee Parker had been sentenced to life in the penitentiary. He said he wanted to know if I was sleeping at night.
“Like a baby,” I said, though it wasn’t true.
“You’ve got an innocent man sitting up there, Ray,” he said.
“What do you want, Keller?” I said.
“I heard you were dry,” he said. “You were a better cop than most of your colleagues even when you were half cut. I figured if you were all the way sober it was worth a shot.”
“So shoot,” I said.
And he told me again how Etta Williams had been seeing a man Tuesdays and Thursdays in a room at the hotel. The same room twice a week – Room 27, where her lifeless body was found sprawled on the floor, strangled. James Lee Parker had begun to suspect her of this treason and so he had waited in his car after dropping her off at the hotel for her night shift. He sat there fuming, drinking from a pint of Four Roses.
“We’ve been over all of this a hundred times,” I said. “Parker walked up to the front desk just before eleven and asked where his woman was. He was agitated and smelled like a distillery. He had two prior convictions for assault and battery.”
“And the night manager told him Etta was working laundry detail, down in the basement. So how did her body end up in Room 27, Ray? Parker couldn’t have killed her in the laundry room and moved her body because there were too many people working down there. She wasn’t in the laundry room. She was in Room 27 the whole time. Who was she with, that’s the question.”
I told Graham he should pace himself in his line of work or he’d end up burned out and divorced by forty. But I have to admit his conversation kept at me like the words to a song you can’t quite remember. By the end of the week I was down in archives pulling the boxes of files. I started going through them on my lunch and I took them home with me. I made notes where there seemed to be holes or inconsistencies in statements and follow-ups. But life has a way of happening, as they say, and the months became another year. Keller Graham called me a couple of times here and there just to ask me how I was sleeping.
“Don’t you find it strange the hotel manager moved to New Orleans right after Parker was convicted?” Graham said in one of his now regular calls. “I hear he’s the night auditor of a big resort down there.”
“People move on,” I said. “What’s strange is staying stuck in a rut.”
“Did you ever ask the manager who blocked Room 27 every Tuesday and Thursday week in and week out? Or more importantly, how come the room register got lost between the time you bozos showed up and Parker ended up in court?”
He had me there. It was an oversight. I closed my eyes and attempted to piece together that first morning on the scene, the days that followed, and I tried to imagine myself with that room register in my hands. I kept coming up empty. And when you have a jealous boyfriend placed at the murder scene a few hours before his girlfriend’s body turns up, the cops and the district attorney both figure on an easy home run. It’s important to remember this was the mid-1960s and the world was a different place. The machinery of the justice system was not open to scrutiny the way it is today.
But in court Graham pressed on and asked the manager on the stand if the room where the dead woman was found was reserved every Tuesday and Thursday. The manager shrugged and said it was not unusual in the hotel business for an executive or high-profile person to block rooms in the anticipation of being somewhere on unplanned business. In fact, he said he knew of one case where a Hollywood producer perpetually had a room reserved in hotels on both coasts, and anyway it was all theoretical since the room register for the month of the murder was missing.
“Who reserved that particular room?” Graham had asked.
“We had no idea,” the manager said. “It was third party, confidential. Reserved and paid for whether it was occupied or not. That’s all I know.”
Keller Graham went in circles trying to get someone, anyone, to confirm who the mysterious hotel guest might be, but it came across as a far stretch in court. I have to admit it was entertaining theatre watching Graham work himself into a fever, how good he was with words, how his hair would fall in long strands and he’d take on the appearance of one of those preachers whose eyes roll back in their head. If the man didn’t believe his client was innocent, well, he was one hell of an actor. The judge, Herbert Wheeler, was insufficiently moved, however, and he cut Graham short more than once. He seemed to think the whole trial was a waste of his time and tax dollars.
“This court has had enough of your fantasies,” a stern-faced Wheeler said. “We’ll do fine to stick to the hard evidence at hand, sir. I believe you were on your way to explaining how it was your client happened to be at the Lincoln Arms Hotel some few hours before the lifeless body of his lover was found …”
James Lee Parker celebrated his fiftieth birthday in his cell at San Quentin. Lt. Gracy retired and I was promoted on his recommendation. It was odd to sit at Lt. Gracy’s desk, to see the squad room and the whole world from his vantage point. I was sitting back with my feet on that desk one afternoon when Keller Graham called. He was in New Orleans, he said. On his holidays. He was divorced by now and on a leave from the county. He had all the time in the world.
“The manager of the Lincoln Arms, you remember he left town right after the conviction,” Graham said. I could hear street noise in the background. People talking and cars moving. “He got on as a night manager at a swanky joint called The Fleur de Lis out here.”
“I’m listening,” I said.
“I found him, Ray. He told me he was sick of living with this weight on his chest every day,” Graham said. I heard a dog barking and then a man yelling for it to shut up. “He said he was almost glad somebody had found him, like he’s been waiting all these years … ”
I knew it was going to be bad, but I asked him for it anyway.
“He said it was a cop,” Graham said, “who took the room register from him.”
When I hung up I leaned back in the chair and stared at the ceiling fan going around in slow circles. And then I made a few calls to the company that owned the Fleur de Lis, and I got an old skip tracer named Harlan Moody to make a few more calls on top of that. When I saw clearly what I had been looking at without seeing for all these years, well, it got me thinking. Back to that early morning, my hangover making me sweat as the sun was crawling up, the sight of that poor woman twisted on the floor of the hotel room. Lt. Gracy had named me lead investigator. And then he had handed me a pack of Big Red chewing gum.
“Chew the whole pack,” he’d said. “You’re sweating Jack Daniels.”
It was a week or so after Keller Graham’s call from New Orleans that I got word about James Lee Parker’s heart attack. He was found in the showers, fifty-one years old. He had escaped the gas chamber. Graham called me that very night and I swear his voice broke. He coughed a little, and he said none of his work was worth a damn and he hoped I would keep on sleeping like a baby. I can tell you I didn’t sleep at all that night, I just stared at the shadows on the ceiling, thinking about what I would do the next day.
Lt. Gracy was only in his late sixties, but he had smoked heavily and his lungs were ruined. I went to where he was living now, a little place out in the Salinas Valley. The countryside there is yellow and brown and the air is cleaner and cooler than in the city. Gracy spent his days on the porch, a metal oxygen machine at his side.
“Parker’s dead now,” he said, and hauled some air through a mask. I could hear his chest wheezing. “Best just to let sleeping dogs rest.”
“The room register. It didn’t go missing. You took it.”
He looked at me with rheumy eyes. This man I’d looked up to, hell, I’d even feared. He was small now.
“I was doing my job,” he said.
“You were a cop,” I said. “Your job was to protect the evidence.”
“It’s a wonder you remember much at all, Ray. You were drinking like it was a full-time job back in those days,” Gracy said, but he couldn’t look at me.
I was used to people reminding me of that. Seven years without a drink and a whole lot of people were still holding their breath, waiting for that other shoe to drop. There was nothing I could do about that.
“Who’s name was in that book?” I said.
Lt. Gracy took some oxygen. He looked off at the yellow grass swaying in the breeze like rolling waves. The sky was swept clean of clouds.
“You’d need to go way up the pay scale on this one, kid,” he said.
I felt then the terrible loss a boy feels when he has seen behind the curtain at a magic show. I knew what we were dealing with here, and it wasn’t the first or the last time that an innocent man would be tangled up in something beyond his understanding. I looked over at Lt. Gracy and I understood we were too old now to pretend.
“You know who owns that fancy hotel where the manager ended up,” I said.
He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to.
“Judge Wheeler’s brother-in-law,” I said. “Parker was right to be jealous. It was the judge that Etta Williams was seeing Tuesdays and Thursdays. And it must have been the judge who lost his temper and strangled that girl until the breath was gone from her. And there was poor old James Lee Parker with his bad temper and the liquor on his breath.”
“Judge Wheeler had a stroke just this winter,” Gracy said. “That man was elected six times on his record. He put away a lot of bad guys in his day. It comes down to a question of the greater good.”
I watched the long grass sway as though it were a single body, and beyond it, the shadow of the Gabilan Mountains to the east.
“I thought for a long time it was me who lost that register,” I said.
“What do you think you’ll do now, Ray?” Gracy said in a quiet voice.
I stood up and stretched. I had a long ride back to the city.
“Tell the truth, I guess.”
“You’ll be mixed up in all of this, being lead investigator and all. It could cost you your pension,” he said. “Think you’re the first cop to drag a load of bones into his retirement?”
I walked down the stairs and slid behind the wheel of the unmarked cruiser. I turned the big Ford around in his long driveway and gave a nod before I hit the black top. I glanced in the rear-view and saw Lt. Gracy sitting on his porch, the oxygen machine at his side. It was the last time I saw the man alive. A few miles down the highway I pulled off at a diner that’s been there since the days when my father would take me fishing out of Monterey Bay. I put a dime in the payphone and I called Keller Graham.
“Let’s grab a drink,” he said, and sighed. “I could use a stiff one.”
I said, “How about a coffee.”
(Originally published in the Sept. 2013 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine)
© C.B. Forrest 2017