Prompt: Place: on a farm; Character: a court reporter; Object: a can of peas; Time: in the year 1991
by William C. Kiraly
I’m not a big a man, not a tough or scary guy so new roommate day was always an anxious day. My last roommie, Peter, was an annoying putz but at least I wasn’t scared of him. He was an obnoxious little shit who thought Taylor Swift was sending him love notes in her lyrics. Yeah, sure, he kept singing the special lyrics under his breath and talked about her all the time but he was never going to rape me or shiv me because I looked at him wrong.
So, who’s it going to be this time. Somebody like Elephant? Elephant wasn’t such a bad guy except that he took up most of the cell when he stood up and the fucker wanted the top bunk and every night I watched it sag down until it was three inches above my face.
Or maybe it would be one of the mean bastards from the gangs in Milwaukee. One of those guys who make you their bitch from the moment they walk in. I guess that was what I was most scared of.
All day, my thoughts went round and round, thinking of all the bad new cellmates I might get. I did my shift in the kitchen, walked around the yard at exercise, all the time wondering whether my life was gonna be made hell or, well not great, but at least bearable, for the next few years.
So imagine my joy when 3:45 pm came around and in walked Brady Skenendore.
“Brady, man, it is a pleasure to see you again.” I was actually sincere when I said this but he looked at me blankly.
“Do I know you?” he asked, looking into my face.
I laughed. I get this a lot from lawyers and don’t take any offense.
“Sure you do, we’ve been in court 20 or 30 times together but nobody every pays any attention to me.”
He cocked his head, looking at me. “Holy shit, you’re the court reporter, Judge Abbott’s court, if I’m not mistaken.”
“I’m impressed, about half the lawyers don’t even recognize my face after I’ve told them who I am. Tom Dantoin.” I said as I extended my hand.
“Brady Skenendore,” he replied, shaking it heartily. “I’m glad to meet you. I had visions of being put in a cell with one of the bastards I defended as a public defender. That thought scares the crap out of me.”
“You always did okay with the PD work,” I said. “I woulda thought you’d be more worried about being in a cell with one of the Hockers brothers.”
Brady’s eyes narrowed at me. “Why would you say something like that?”
“No big deal, but I know what you did to them with that will. Old Hockers was a real bastard and his grandsons didn’t fall far from the tree. I actually saw one of them when I got sent up to Oakhill for some medical stuff a year or two ago. I don’t remember which one was which, though.”
“What do you mean, you ‘know what I did’. If you’re some kind of prison rat…”
I just laughed at him. “I was the court reporter, I got to hear everything each of the attorneys said, I got to look at every piece of evidence. I’m a smart guy, I know the thing you pulled on them. It’s that same trick Irene Dempsy used to use all the time in probate cases but you were always much better. I hear she ended up in Taycheedah for a couple of years and lost her license and bought a diner in Fond du Lac. So, what are you in for?”
Brady seemed not to like my answer very much but after a second, he relented and spoke. “They claim I recruited people for Workman’s Comp claims who weren’t really injured. I’m the victim here, how would I know they were lying to me? They took away my license and gave me 5 years.”
“Oh, you mean like the Cady case and the Debraske case?” I said, regretting it a second later. I always let my mouth run when I shouldn’t.
Brady glared at me for a long time. I think he wanted to punch me or something but thought better of it. I was younger and not so fat as he was and, well, we did have to bunk together for the foreseeable future.
“Yeah,” he said, “those two and a few more. They all scammed me though. I had no idea they were lying to me.” He started unloading his things and we started divvying up the space. New guy always gets the bottom bunk.
“Okay,” he said after the preliminaries were done, “so we both know a lot of folks in my profession should be here but what in the hell is a court reporter doing here?”
“Second Degree Intentional Homicide,” I said, “20 to life.”
Brady whistled. “What the hell did you do?”
“Trusted a prosecutor and grabbed the wrong can of peas.”
“Okay, so now you gotta explain that”
“No problem,” I said, “I’ve confessed anyway so I got nothing to hide. You remember Sam, the assistant DA?”
“Sure,” he said, “I think any guy who ever walked into the Marshallville County Court remembers Sam.”
“Yep,” I said, “she isn’t beautiful or even particularly well endowed but she knows how to use her stuff. She’s sure not my type, per se. She’s kind ‘ridden hard and put away wet’ if you know what I mean. She works out every morning and chain smokes and drinks whiskey the rest of the day. But she sure can wrap most guys around her little nicotine-stained fingers.
“Me, I usually go for the brainy type, maybe even a little sexy-nerd type like Grace, judge Abbott’s secretary. I always thought that she was really cute. But I was too scared to ask her out.”
“Yeah, she’s sort of cute,” said Brady, pursing his lips thoughtfully. “but Sam is probably more my type, I did sleep with her…”
“…during the Zachary case, yeah, we all knew. She really wanted that conviction.”
“You bastard,” said Brady without a lot of animosity.
“Well, you weren’t exactly subtle.” I said, snorting a bit. “Anyway Sam wasn’t my type and I figured I was immune to her wiles. I thought I could see right through her and figured, as a lowly, invisible court reporter, it wouldn’t be anything I’d ever have to worry about. She seemed to like lawyers and judges and cops.
“Boy, was I wrong. When Sam wants something, Sam gets it. I think Abbott himself is the only guy she couldn’t get into her bed but he’s a true believer.
“And Sam’s really, really good. She started with me a month before the Mancheski brothers’ trial. First, she started visiting me in the cafeteria at lunch. She sat down and told me she liked detective novels and we started talking. I turned her on to Ruth Rendell, my favorite, and she got me reading Stuart M. Kaminsky. Then she said she likes puzzles and we did the Sudukos together. I guess I don’t know why anybody does those, its like playing solitaire, something you do when you’re bored and need something easy.
Sam actually had to write down numbers to solve the problems. Can you believe that?”
“I’m not much of a puzzle guy,” said Brady, “I wouldn’t know.”
“Well, she starts trying to convince me I’m the greatest puzzle guy she’s ever met. Then she gets me to take her out to dinner and eventually we end up at her place.
“I knew, I just knew, that it was all wrong when I got to her place. She had all these games and mystery books in her living room. All the games were out of the plastic wrap but there wasn’t a banged corner or ripped box among them. Again, who has Deluxe Scrabble without a ding on the box. There were a bunch of mystery books and I don’t think she ever even bothered to crack the spines and as far as I know, she read everything on her iPad.
“But by this time, I wanted it so much to be true that I ignored all the signs. I thought maybe she was so attracted to me, she was trying to impress me.”
“You’re a fool, just like the rest of us, eh?”
“I smiled and nodded back. “So when the trial finally starts, I’m sleeping with this bitch and lying to the judge. When she talks in court, I get down every words she says, when its anyone else, my fingers get clumsy because I’m watching her. Fortunately, this is 1991 and we’ve just introduced tape recorders in the court so I usually go back every night and fix up the transcripts.
“I know you’re not from Marshallville, but do you know about the Mancheski brothers?”
“Drug dealers or something, right.”
“Right, they were big dealers in Madison and wanted to expand out west so they moved into Marshallville. Within a month, they took over all the business at the high school and junior college but they made a really big mistake when they beat the crap out of their major competitor who happened to be the assistant chief’s son.
Now these two brothers didn’t look anything like brothers. I don’t know if they were half brothers or one was adopted or what, but one was like 6’6 and built like a brick wall and the other was 5’3, wore skinny rimmed little glasses and looked every inch the accountant. And that’s what they were like in real life. The big one, Francois—Frank, was the enforcer, the muscle, the front man, the guy you’d go to see to buy or sell. But the little one, Evan, was the brains, the strategist, the guy who controlled all the money.
“The cops were pissed and went after them full force but they couldn’t seem to hang the trafficking charges on them. They got Frank on assault charges and eventually got Evan on tax evasion in separate trials and they were able to keep them apart for a long time. By the time Evan’s trial rolled around Frank was already out on parole. Problem was that Evan hid the money they still had when Frank was in jail but the cops got everything from their home, put their old crooked lawyer in jail and monitored every conversation. The court ordered that Frank couldn’t visit or write to Evan while Evan was being held for trial.
“The prosecutors figured they had several million dollars hidden somewhere, probably in cash, but no one knew where. And that’s where Sam started working me like a little finger puppet.
“Tom, she says to me one night in bed—and mind, you, I don’t regret that part at all—Tom, she says, we need your help. I know Evan needs to tell Frank where the money is. This new lawyer is costing them a fortune and Evan knows he’s not going to get out anytime soon. You’re the best detective we’ve got at figuring out these puzzles.
“’I’m sure he’s trying to tell Frank where the money is. Frank can’t see his brother in jail but he can come to the trial so I think Evan will try to tell him in some kind of code. That’s where we need you. Do you think you can figure out when he does this?
“So every day, I go in and watch. If Judge Abbott knew I was aiding the prosecution, I would have been fired on the spot.
“I’ve got one advantage I figure. Old Frankie is not the brightest light bulb in the hallway and Evan knows he’s got to be pretty obvious. I listened for anything and everything out of the ordinary. I watched Evan and tried to pay special attention when he tried to catch his brother’s eye.
“Finally, I noticed that every time he looked at Frank, he tapped his pencil or his finger and he tapped out the same rhythm every time tum-tumtumtumtumtum-tumtumtumtumtumtum-tumtumtum. I asked Sam if the digits 1-5-6-3 meant anything to her and she got very excited. 1563 Hunters Rest is the address of an old farmhouse they owned just outside of Gratoit. She said the cops had searched it twice and not found anything.
“Evan kept doing that for like three days until I finally saw them looking at each other and Frank was nodding vigorously then raising his hands like this.” I demonstrated what Frank had done, raising his hands just a little bit in a sort of hidden query gesture.
“Because of my angle, I couldn’t really see what Evan signaled back but it must have been some kind of wait message.
“Evan took the stand in his own defense. Sam said she was shocked when he did so though, there wasn’t any reason he should but she didn’t think it mattered since she pretty much had an open and shut case against him. He was going to jail for sure.
“He tried to make excuses for everything Sam questioned him about that hey claimed he did and most of these excuses sounded pretty lame. But he kept using this weird expression over and over again. I never heard it but he kept saying it like some kind normal expression. ‘What are you trying to do, pee in a can?’ he asked Sam when she cross examined him. Or ‘that was nothing, I was just trying to pee in a can.’
“It sounded weird to me but I didn’t understand. Sam and I were sleeping together that night at her place. We’re lying in bed when I suddenly sat up and whacked my head on the headboard. She had one of these water beds with lots of shelves. After swearing appropriately, Sam asked me what was up.
“’I asked her if there was a kitchen there with canned food.”
“’Of course’, she said. ‘It was an old farm house. We know they owned it but we never found anything illegal there so we had to leave it alone. There was some guy living there. I suppose he worked for the Mancheskis but we couldn’t prove it’
“I asked her if the food in the farmhouse was still there and she said she supposed it was.
“The money is hidden there in a can of peas.
“She asked me how I knew that and I looked at her for a minute until she finally said ‘Oh shit’ and I saw the light dawn in her eyes.
“’Let’s go get it’, she said, ‘right now’”
“What about the guy who lives there, I asked her.
“’Oh, he’s gone right now, we’ve been keeping tabs on the place since you broke the code. But we gotta go now. You think Old Franky boy is going to wait to pick up his money?’
“Okay, lets call Chief Villain, I said, but you got to leave me out of it. If the judge knew I was sleeping with you, he’d kill me—then he’d fire me.’
“She cackled at that, you know, that wicked-witchy cackle she does when she’s really happy.
“’You know’, she said, ‘they don’t know exactly how much money is in there. There might be $5 million, there might just be three. The forensic accountants say they are only sure that about $2 million is missing. If we go there, we can take anything over $2 million for ourselves and you’ll never have to type another day in your life. You can write that novel you want to write and we can make love on the beach anywhere you want to live.’
“I said ‘We can’t just go steal money like that’ and she reminded me we were stealing from drug dealers. Then she rubbed her breasts against my back and I started picturing beaches and the stupid part of me took over completely.
“Okay, I said. But how do we get in? She opened her nightstand drawer and handed me a key. Then she reached in again and handed me a pistol. ‘Take this, lover’, she said, ‘just in case’
“Dumb part ruled. I put my pants and shirt on, put the gun in my jacket pocket and at 3 a.m., we arrived at the farmhouse just outside of Gratoit. It was at the end of a long driveway just off Hunters Rest which is some numbered state road so its not completely off the beaten path. She pulled in to some trees near the beginning of the driveway. I looked around to make sure no one was coming up the road, then I went up to the door and used the key and walked down the hall into the kitchen. I didn’t turn on any lights, just used a flashlight Sam gave me. I went to the kitchen, started pulling out all the cans in the cupboard. I don’t know whether it was the Mancheskis or the guy who lived there but somebody really like canned peas. There were like 25 cans of them, the really big cans, not the little cans most people usually buy. I finally found eight cans that didn’t seem to slosh like the others and I put them in my bag and carried them outside to Sam’s car.
“She pulled out a can-openers and started opening them up and dumped wads of curled up 1000 dollar bills onto the passenger seat. It was more money than I had ever seen in my life. One of the cans really still had peas in it and she threw that one out the window. She didn’t open the last two cans, she handed them to me and told me to go put them back and she would call the cops and let them know to come check. She said if they found money there, they wouldn’t suspect we took any of it.
“Still dreaming of beaches, I did what she told me. I took the cans back into the kitchen and started trying to put everything back like it was. I heard footsteps behind and the light came on. I started to say something to Sam and turned around and it was Frank Mancheski. He had grabbed the poker from the fireplace and he roared and started coming at me. I shot him three times and ran for the door.
“Then I heard sirens and I figured I better get the hell out of there. I couldn’t imagine why they were coming so fast but I didn’t want to find out so I ran out to Sam’s car.
“The fucking bitch was gone.
“Across the street was my car.
“The fucking bitch had set me up.
“I got into my car and sure, the key was in the ignition and I started driving away but I didn’t get very far. The Lafayette County Deputies are pretty good at stopping runaway Honda Fits. I loved that car too. Did you know that if you wreck your car fleeing the cops, the insurance company doesn’t pay?
“Anyway, they arrested me, found the body, matched the bullets to the gun in my pocket. Hell, I even had two cans of peas in the bag over my shoulder. Turned out to be just about a $1.3 million in hundreds and thousands.
“I told them about Sam but it seems they had phone records that proved she was in her house in Marshallville when she made the call after she figured out about the canned peas. I don’t know if she rigged it up somehow, had someone call for her on her own phone or just slept with one of the forensic guys.
“People saw us together in the cafeteria and she said I had approached her and pumped her for information about the Mancheski case. Since I was a member of the court, she said, she didn’t think too much about it until after I appeared to go crazy.
”You know, the cops love her and would do anything for her and not just the ones who she slept with. All the cops love here because she always treats them well in court and stands behind them.
“God damn,” Brady said, “I knew I liked that girl. Maybe if I hired her, I wouldn’t be here.”
“Dream on,” I replied, “if you hired her, you would have been here years earlier.”
It was call to dinner and I told Brady I would show him the way to the cafeteria and explain Jackson’s special seating nuances.
As we were walking, Brady said to me, “Yeah, you’re probably right about that. She didn’t prosecute me because we worked together on several cases but I did see her at the courthouse and she was looking pretty happy and well dressed.”
“I bet,” I said.
“Nice brand new Jag too,” he added. “I’d love to take a ride in that.”
“Beats a Fit, I suppose.”