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Devil on the Line
by Andrew Vachss

The outside of Flood's studio was deserted, no action in the halls. I rang for the freight elevator and went to the stairs when I heard it start to move. Checked the elevator entrance, nobody around. The Plymouth was sitting untouched where I'd left it. I didn't expect anything else—any fool who tried to take off the tires would have to be wearing razor-proof gloves, for openers.

I got back to the office just as the sun was breaking over the Hudson. A few solitary men were standing on the piers with fishing tackle, setting up for the day. The fish in the Hudson aren't much to look at, never grow too big or have bright colors. But the guys who fish down there tell me they put up a hell of a fight. I figured that any fish who could survive the Hudson River would have to be tough, like a dog raised in the pound. Or a kid raised by the State.

I put the car away, making a mental note to do some cosmetic surgery on it before this case with Flood made it too visible. Went upstairs, deactivated everything, and let myself in. Pansy gave me a halfhearted growl just to let me know she was on the job, then charged over, wagging her stump of a tail. Even without the security systems I knew there hadn't been any visitors. Pansy was cut from the same cloth as my old Doberman, Devil, and nobody would get in here without war breaking loose.

That had happened once, and it gave Blumberg his big chance to act like a real lawyer. I was hiding a certain gentleman in my old apartment. He told me people were looking for him, but said nothing about those people wearing blue coats and badges instead of business suits. Anyway, while I was out trying to square some other beef, the cops arrived and decided to serve a Smith and Wesson warrant on my premises. They smashed in the door, and Devil met them head on. My client had more than enough time to leave by the back window, and Devil nailed two of the cops before they got smart and retreated until the ASPCA arrived. Those clowns blasted my dog with a load of tranquilizers and carted her off to the pound. By the time I found out what went down, she was already behind bars waiting for adoption or execution, whichever came first. Just like a lot of kids in orphanages.

The ASPCA wouldn't return her to me at first, saying the Major Case Squad wanted her held for evidence. The jerks—I knew she'd never talk. Anyway, by the time I proved the Doberman was really my dog, they told me she was being held for adoption. I figured they might have been sincere about that, since she was too fine an animal to just stuff into the gas chamber, but I wasn't ready to give her up that easily. So I went to see Blumberg.

Fortunately, it was already late afternoon by then and night court would soon be in session. I explained the matter to Blumberg and he opened with his usual sensitive probing, "Burke, you got the money, kid?"

"How much, Blumberg?"

"Well, this is a major case, my boy. I know of no legal precedent which covers the issue. We'll have to make law, take this all the way to the appellate courts, maybe even to the southern district. You and your fine dog have constitutional rights, and there are no rights without remedies. And, as you know, remedies are not cheap."

"Blumberg, I've got a flat yard, period. Not a nickel more. And I want a guarantee I get my dog back."

"Are you crazy? No guarantees—that's a rule of the profession. Why, I could be disbarred for even mentioning such a thing."

"You mean you're not?"

"That's not funny, Burke. That matter was dismissed. All the baseless allegations of misconduct on my part have been expunged from the record."

"What about the allegations that weren't baseless?"

"Burke, if you're going to have a negative attitude about this, we simply cannot do business."

"Sam, come on, I'm serious. I know you're the best in the business when you want to be. This isn't some skell who's going to Riker's island for a year. My dog didn't do anything—and those bastards at the ASPCA are liable to gas her if I don't get her out."

"Oh, a death penalty case, is it? Well, normally I charge seven and a half for capital cases, but seeing as it's you, I'll take the case for the five hundred you offered. You got it on you?"

"Sam, I said a yard, not five. I'll make it a deuce—that's the best I can do. Half in front, half when it's over."

"Are you completely insane, my boy? Be reasonable. Where would I be if I allowed my clients to withhold half of the fee until they were satisfied?"

"You'd be working on fifty per cent of your usual gross."

"I'm going to ignore that comment in view of the fact that you are obviously grief-stricken over the potential loss of your beloved pet. And, my boy, it just so happens you're in luck. Justice Seymour is sitting in criminal court tonight because of the crowded calendar. Since he's a judge of the supreme court, we won't have to wait until morning to bring on your Application for Relief."

And it went just like Blumberg said. He was too slick to try and put the case on the calendar since night court is only for arraignments, so he waited until he was in front of the judge on a shoplifting case. Before the poor defendant even knew who his lawyer was, Blumberg, the D.A., and the judge had swiftly converted the case to Disorderly Conduct. The defendant was hit with a $50 fine and a conditional discharge and was led over to the clerk's bench while still trying to thank Blumberg for saving him from the ten years in prison the fat man had assured him was a distinct possibility. Then Blumberg pulled his vest down over a bulging stomach, cleared his throat with such authority that the entire court quieted down, and addressed the judge in a resonant baritone:

"Your Honor, at this time, I have an extraordinary application to make on behalf of my client, who is, at this very moment, incarcerated and awaiting execution."

The judge looked staggered. His cronies over at the supreme court had told him anything could happen at night arraignments, but nothing he had heard prepared him for this. He looked up sharply at Blumberg, and in a voice designed to display a mixture of pure contempt laced with intimidation, said, "Counselor, surely you realize that this court is not the appropriate forum to bring such a matter."

Blumberg was not deterred. "Your Honor, if the court please. Your Honor is a supreme court justice and, might I add, a most eminent legal scholar. Indeed, I know from personal knowledge that Your Honor's landmark legal opinions have been required reading for students of the law for many years. As a sitting supreme court justice, Your Honor has jurisdiction over properly presented extraordinary writs, and Your Honor should be aware that this matter is one of the most dire urgency, threatening, as it surely does, the very life of my client."

The judge attempted to intercede, saying, "Counselor, if you please," but he might as well have been trying to keep a hungry rat away from cheese. Blumberg brushed aside the judge's feeble attempts to halt the lava-flow of his rhetoric, simultaneously firing his masterstroke.

"Your Honor, if the court please. A life is a sacred thing—it is not to be trampled upon or trifled with. The public's faith in the criminal justice system must be ever vigilantly protected, and who is better cast in the role of protector than a justice of our supreme court? Your Honor, my client faces death—a vicious and ignominious death at the hands of agents of the State. My client has done no wrong, and yet my client may die this very night if Your Honor does not hear my plea. The members of the press"— here Blumberg indicated by a sweep of his hand the single Daily News stringer as if the poor kid were an entire gallery of eager scribes—"questioned me about this matter before I entered this august courtroom, and even such hardened men as they wondered how such a thing as summary execution without trial could actually take place in these United States. Your Honor, this is America, not Iran!" At this, the ragged collection of lames, losers, and lumpen proletariat began to stir, their mumbled snarling energizing Blumberg like a blood transfusion. "Even the lowliest cur is entitled to due process—even the poorest among us is entitled to his day in court. If Your Honor will only permit me to expound upon the facts in this case, I am certain Your Honor will see fit—"

"Counselor. Counselor, please. I have yet to understand what you are talking about and, as you well know, our docket is quite crowded this evening. But in the interests of justice, and upon your representation that you will be brief, I will hear your application."

Blumberg ran his hand through what was left of his mangy hair, took a deep breath, paused to be certain every eye and ear was focused on him, and then shot ahead. "Your Honor, last night the premises in which my client was working were invaded by armed police officers. These officers were not armed with warrants; they were not armed with probable cause; they were not armed with justification for their acts. But they were armed with deadly weapons, Your Honor. The door was kicked in—my client was forcibly and physically attacked—and when he valiantly sought to resist an illegal arrest, the police called in additional agents and brutally shot my client with a so-called tranquilizer gun, rendering him insensible and unable to resist. My client was then dragged down the stairs and into a cage, and is now being held against his will. I am told that my client will be summarily executed, perhaps even this very night, unless this court intervenes to prevent a tragedy."

"Mr. Blumberg, this is a shocking accusation you make. I know of no such event. What is your client's name?"

"My client's name is ... uh, my client's name is Doberman, Your Honor."

"Doberman, Doberman. What kind of ... what is your client's first name, if you please?"

"Well, Your Honor, I am not actually aware of my client's full name at this time. However, my client's owner is present in court," gesturing over to me, "and will provide that information."

"Your client's owner? Counselor, if this is your idea of a joke—"

"I assure you it is no joke, Your Honor. Perhaps you have read about this case in the late papers?"

Suddenly, the light dawned. "Counselor, are you by any chance referring to the police attempt to apprehend a fugitive from justice early this evening on the Lower East Side?"

"Exactly and precisely, Your Honor."

"But the fugitive escaped, I read."

"Yes, Your Honor, the fugitive escaped—but my client did not. And my client is being held at the ASPCA, through no fault of his own, and will be executed unless he can be returned to his rightful owner."

"Mr. Blumberg! Are you saying that your client is a dog? You invade my courtroom with a writ of habeus corpus for a dog?"

"Your Honor, with all due respect, I prefer to refer to this extraordinary application as a writ of habeus canine, in view of the unique nature of my client herein."

"Habeus canine. Counselor, this court does not sit as a monument to an individual attorney's perverted sense of humor. Do you understand that?"

"Your Honor, with all due respect, I understand it fully. But were I to proceed along the conventional civil channels, I have no doubt but that my client would be deceased before I could even get on the calendar. Your Honor, no matter what we call a court, be it criminal court, supreme court, surrogate's court, or family court, they are all courts of law and of equity. They are forums through which we the people exercise our right to justice. My client may be a dog—and I can say freely that I have personally represented individuals so characterized by this very court even when they possessed both first and last names—but my client is still a living creature. Is not life itself sacred and holy? Can an attorney asked to protect the life of a beloved pet refuse on the ground that some procedural nicety stands in the way?"

By now, Blumberg was riding the groundswell from the packed courthouse—humans who normally wouldn't blink at accounts of babies tossed into incinerators were outraged at the tale of animal abuse. In the rare position of representing a popular cause, the fat lawyer pounded ahead. "Your Honor, I say to you at this time, I would rather be a dog in America than a so-called citizen of countries that do not enjoy our freedoms and our liberties. My client herein is not the first client I have represented who does not understand the procedures of this court and he will not be the last. My client did his job. He gave his all for his owner—must he also give his life? My client is young, Your Honor. If he made a mistake, the mistake was an honest one. How was he to know the people battering down his master's door were lawful agents of the police? Perhaps he thought they were burglars, or armed robbers, or dope-crazed lunatics. Surely there are enough of those people in our fair city. Your Honor, I beg you, spare my client's life. Let him go forth once more to frolic in the sunshine, to work at his chosen profession, perhaps to sire offspring that will carry on the proud name of Doberman. A life is sacred, Your Honor, and no man should tamper with another's. That, Your Honor, I respectfully submit, is the work of the Almighty, and His alone. I beg this court, let my client go!"

Blumberg was actually weeping by then, and the watching crowd was clearly on his side—even the court officers' ever-present sneers were replaced with looks of compassion for a young life threatened with extinction.

The judge tried once more, knowing he was doomed to failure. "Counselor, can you cite one single legal precedent in support of your arguments?"

"Your Honor," Blumberg rang out, "every dog must have his day!" And he got perhaps the first standing ovation ever given in New York City night court.

The judge called me up to the bench, satisfied himself that I was the dog's owner, and took us all back into chambers. He made a quick call to the ASPCA, informing a thoroughly cowed attendant of the potential liability they were facing if they killed my dog. Just to make sure, I typed a release order on engraved stationery from the secretary's desk while the judge was being congratulated by Blumberg on his judicial wisdom. I picked up my dog and took him to the Mole at the junkyard, where he could join the pack. Nobody knows the name on the Mole's birth certificate, but he lives under the ground and he's reliable as death. I heard later that Blumberg picked up half a dozen cases from the gallery while I was gone. Most guys don't even have the guts to reach back into themselves when they have to, but Blumberg actually had something there when he did.

While the Doberman's successor prowled her rooftop, I set about making preparations for the coming hunt.

© 1998 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.

Excerpted from the novel Flood by Andrew Vachss.


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