Synopsis: News of a nearby prison break sends a retired judge down memory lane. Haunted by his final trial, he takes a harrowing walk to the corner drug store.
The honorable Justice Frank A.R. Anderson, retired from the bench some 15 years, was out of sorts. He’d been dozing in his shabby recliner all afternoon before turning on the 5 o’clock news. The local networks were all covering the prison break over in Tennessee Colony, just 100 short miles from the judge’s home in Dallas: Three inmates including one Harrold Jebediah Simmons, a convicted murderer, had managed to flee the confines of the Texas State prison where they’d been serving time.
What the networks didn’t mention, but what Frank knew all-too-well, was that good-old Harrold had been sent there in 2003 by one now-retired Judge Frank A.R. Anderson. In fact, the Simmons trial had been his last before he set down his gavel and hung up his robe for good.
Simmons. Harrold Simmons. Frank had mostly succeeded in forgetting about the man and his trial over the years; he didn’t much appreciate this new reminder. Had Simmons been guilty of murder? Publicly, Frank would defend every case he’d decided. Privately, in his own mind? Well, that was another story.
He shut off the TV but found the silence somehow worse. He knew the creaking was nothing more than his house settling. Still, it was decidedly unsettling tonight, he thought without a trace of humor. He wanted a cigarette more than anything, although it had been more than ten years since he’d quit. Not much of a drinker anymore, Frank decided an exception might be in order today. Yessir, just a taste. His wrinkled hands shook more than usual as he poured himself a shot of the whiskey he kept in the back cupboard. He had a second shot when the first failed to calm his nerves.
Soon after, he started to feel a comfortable haze. With it, however, came familiar pains in his chest; ‘angina’, his doctor had called it. Getting old was for the birds, but Frank supposed it beat the alternative. It was only when he reached for his bottle of heart pills that he remembered the pharmacist’s boy was supposed to bring a refill that afternoon. Daylight had long since disappeared though and the delivery window had come and gone.
Frank tried calling the drug store but only got a recording saying it closed at nine. It was, what… six blocks? Yessir, that sounded right. No need to risk innocent lives by drinking and driving. His old legs could still carry him that far, he reckoned. Why, he needed some fresh air anyway (perhaps more whiskey too, a little voice whispered), so he set out for the corner drug on foot.
Shuffling down the litter-strewn sidewalk with his cane for balance, he grumbled inwardly about how the neighborhood had gone downhill in recent years. It had been overrun by foreigners, illegals mostly, Frank thought, coming over the southern border.
Harrold Simmons hadn’t been a foreigner. No, sir. He’d still been bad news though. Frank supposed Simmons and his fellow escapees were halfway to Mexico. Hoped they were halfway to Mexico, anyway. Surely Simmons wouldn’t come looking for revenge, would he? Dallying on that thought made Frank want more whiskey, which would have to wait until he returned home.
Frank’s joints ached and he regretted the decision to walk before he reached the end of the first block, but he needed those pills. The street lights did little to dispel the gloom of this chilly November night. Misty droplets of rain dampened his skin; he hunched inside his overcoat in an unsuccessful attempt to escape the wind. Sirens blared in the distance, warbling and waning as they drew further away.
Try as he might, Frank couldn’t keep his mind from returning to the Simmons trial. Someone had convinced the man to waive his right to a jury. That had meant that the decision – and the sentencing – had fallen on Frank. Now, Frank had always trusted his instincts about accused murderers, rapists and the like. His instincts had told him that Simmons was bad news, as bad as the sky is blue.
Of course, Frank couldn’t rightly say if Simmons was guilty of that particular murder, but he was a criminal. Frank had seen it in Simmons’ sneer, had heard it in his raspy voice. If he hadn’t killed the young lady in question, it’d be someone else. Frank had been charged with meting out justice, and that’s what he’d done.
Five more blocks to the drug store. By God, he was going to have some words with the pharmacist when he arrived. Why, a person ought to treat a judge with more respect. When he’d been on the bench, he’d gotten the respect he deserved.
The night the defense rested in the Simmons trial, the DA, a young up-and-comer eyeing a run for Governor, had visited Frank’s chambers. He needed a win, he’d wheedled; the great Lone Star State needed a win. “Do the right thing, your honor,” he’d drawled, handing Frank a thick envelope and a bottle of bourbon. It hadn’t been the first envelope or bottle, not from this DA nor those before him. Frank hadn’t thought of those envelopes or the libations that accompanied them as bribes so much as some well-deserved extra compensation.
With the Simmons trial, the evidence wasn’t as compelling as Frank would have liked. Still, he’d done his duty. Truth be told, after 30 years of presiding over criminal matters, Frank had been exhausted. When he’d first become a lawyer, he’d had grand visions of making the world a better place. By the time “State of Texas v. Harrold Simmons” appeared on his docket, he’d been drinking to escape the horrors he heard and the decisions he had to make day-in and day-out. Had he been drinking too much? Yessir, he was man enough to admit that he probably imbibed a bit too much. But, he was sure anyone in his position would do the same.
A sharp howl brought him back to the present. He stopped to look over his shoulder and steadied himself with his cane; his balance wasn’t what it used to be. Probably nothing but a cat, but he quickened his pace as much as an 83-year old could.
Four blocks to go. Halfway down the block and across the street, a figure stood in a doorway, cigarette glowing faintly in the dark. Frank shivered. Had Simmons been a smoker? Frank shook the thought away, not sure why the sight made him uneasy.
Lost in memories again a few minutes later, Frank nearly tripped over the curb crossing the street; he caught the pavement with his cane in the nick of time. Three blocks to the drug store. His heart pounded and his chest tightened painfully. He supposed a close call would do that to a man. He reached into his coat pocket out of habit before remembering the empty pill bottle there was the reason he was out for this little stroll in the first place. Deciding the halfway point was as good a place as any to rest, he leaned against the post under a flickering street light. He tried to concentrate on his breathing.
Behind him, too close for comfort, a man cleared his throat. That was followed by low laughter. Frank turned, holding his cane in both hands. He wouldn’t be mugged tonight. No, sir. Let the bastards try. Maybe his mind was playing tricks on him; nothing seemed to be moving in the dark. The sooner he could get to the store, the better. He would have the clerk call him a cab to get home; that’s what he should have done in the first place. He set out again, aching joints protesting.
Two blocks away, the drug store’s neon sign shone like a beacon and the headlights from sporadic traffic cast looming shadows. The thought that he would soon reach his destination should have calmed Frank. Instead, his heart beat wildly, squeezing his chest. It had been seven years since his heart attack and subsequent surgery; he felt the first tendrils of fear wondering if he was experiencing an encore.
He focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Almost there. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as he became aware of a new noise. Were those uneven footsteps on the wet pavement?
Simmons had walked with a limp, Frank recalled as goosebumps rose on his arms. That had been part of his defense in the murder trial; something about how it couldn’t have been him. Frank couldn’t remember the details. No matter; it hadn’t swayed his decision. The DA’s envelope had done that on its own.
He squinted, eyes making out a vague shape moving in the darkness.
“Y’all best leave me alone!” Frank meant to yell this menacingly, but the words came out as little more than breathy gasps. He leaned on his cane, feeling suddenly light-headed. When he looked up again, he didn’t see the shape anywhere but the air around him reeked of nicotine.
Frank decided not to think about that. Instead, he took measured breaths, realizing with dismay that he was wheezing. One more block to the drug store. The pharmacist would help. The tightness in his chest hadn’t gotten any worse, but it hadn’t gotten any better either. One foot in front of the other. Left, then right.
He was nearly there. Through the windows, he could see the brightly-lit aisles and the counter. Frank was just a few steps from the door when his vision grayed. Then, there was pressure on his back and the pavement came up to meet his face. His glasses shattered, but he sensed the shape of a man leaning over him.
The answering voice was gritty, but all-too familiar. The words came in an exhalation of smoke.
“When you sent me away, old man, you said I was getting the punishment I deserved. This time, you’ll get what’s coming to you.”
The honorable Justice Frank A.R. Anderson, retired from the bench for 15 years, felt agonizing pain for a moment before his world faded to black.
“Did you see anyone else?”
“No, only Mr. Anderson coming down the sidewalk before he collapsed. I tried CPR when I got out here, but he was already gone.” The pharmacist wiped his brow. It had been a long day; the teen who made deliveries for him hadn’t shown up for work. “Do you need anything else from me at this point?”
The police officer glanced at the paramedics. They’d finished loading the body in the ambulance.
“Looks like a heart attack, but the morgue will tell us for sure. Guy’s coat smelled like he was a heavy smoker. Those cancer sticks’ll getcha every time. I think we’ve got what we need. Call the precinct if you think of anything else.”
The pharmacist’s brow crinkled. Had Mr. Anderson been a smoker? He supposed it was possible. He spent a moment thinking that it was a shame the old man had gone that way, right in front of the store.
Tidying up for the night, he paused when he came across the bottle of Mr. Anderson’s undelivered nitroglycerin pills before setting them aside for restocking.
The 9 o’clock news kept him company as he swept and mopped the floors. The top story was about the short-lived prison break in Tennessee Colony: Two of the escaped prisoners had been recaptured trying to cross the border into Mexico. The third, Simmons, was still on the loose but was presumably headed for Mexico too.
The pharmacist didn’t give it another thought as he locked the door and lowered the security shutters. He suppressed a shiver and turned his collar up against the rain as he made his way toward home. Unaware he was doing so, he walked around the spot on the sidewalk where the late justice Anderson so recently met his end.
Author’s note: This was my entry for round two of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. I had 72 hours to write a story using the following prompts:
Character: A Judge
I fear this may not garner many points with the judges as it’s not terribly suspenseful and I took a literal interpretation of the prompts. Still, it was fun. I’ll find out what the judges thought on May 9. Thanks for reading, and wish me luck!