Donnally glared down at the Alameda County prosecutor.
“Are you telling me that the crook who murdered Anna Keenan hasn’t been examined for competency in twenty years?”
“That nut was never going be competent to stand trial. Charles Brown was crazy and retarded.” Chief Assistant District Attorney Thomas Blaine tossed his pen on his desk and grinned. “Sorry, mentally ill and developmentally disabled.” His grin faded and his face hardened. “It was a waste of taxpayers’ money to keep bringing him back to court.”
Donnally hadn’t bothered to sit down. He’d marched from the Criminal Clerk’s Office into the elevator, then ridden up the nine floors to the Office of the District Attorney. Blaine, who’d been the prosecutor in the case, had agreed to see him because twelve years earlier they’d served together on a Bay Area gang task force.
Looking at Blaine now, from a distance of years and experience, Donnally saw that the prosecutor’s ambition had so melded with his duty that his aging frat-boy face had come to display the same cunning and self-righteous rectitude as the preachers who ran the annual tent revivals in Mount Shasta.
“So he got away with it?” Donnally said.
Blaine shrugged. “If you want to put it that way.”
“Can you think of another way?”
“I don’t make the laws,” Blaine said. “Anyway, things have to come to an end someday.”
An image of Mauricio’s now maggot-ridden body flashed in Donnally’s mind. He shook it off.
“Where’s Brown now?” Donnally asked.
Blaine shrugged again. “How should I know? Napa State Hospital. Atascadero. Some loony bin where-”
“Where he can prey on women just a little bit crazier than he is because nobody ever bothered to bring him back to court and send him to prison where he belongs?”
The prosecutor’s face went sunburn red. “I mean… I assume
… Look. We’ve had thousands of murders in this county since then. We can’t track every-”
Donnally’s gesture of disgust cut the prosecutor short.
Blaine reached for the telephone resting on the desk that had been used by Earl Warren during the 1920s when he was the Alameda County district attorney. Donnally remembered once looking at it during their task force years and imagining a Senator Lloyd Bentsen-type figure telling Blaine, a Dan Quayle stand-in: “I knew Earl Warren. Earl Warren was a friend of mine. Blaine, you’re no Earl Warren.”
“Send an inspector up here,” Blaine said into the telephone. “I don’t care which one. Anybody who’s sitting there with his thumb up his ass and nothing to do.”
Donnally cringed. Blaine hadn’t changed, and he was sure that the rest of the pretty-boy prosecutors in the office hadn’t either. They all still thought that jousting with defense lawyers in court was fighting the real war and that cops and DA inspectors were just stable boys.
Blaine set the phone into its cradle. “We’ll know where he’s at in a couple of hours.” He then leaned back in his chair, a satisfied look of command on his face. “Why the interest in a decades-old murder?”
“I’m not sure that has anything to do with why you let this guy get away with it.”
“Don’t go Lone Ranger on me, Harlan. Everybody’s got an angle. Even you.”
B laine walked Donnally to the kitchen after the inspector came by to receive his assignment.
“I guess I shouldn’t have sounded so cavalier about it,” Blaine said, pouring Donnally a cup of coffee. “I sure as hell didn’t feel that way at the time. That’s why I still remember Brown after all these years.”
Blaine paused with the pot still in his hand. His eyes went blank for a moment as though he was trying to stare into the past.
“Berkeley was a swamp back then,” Blaine finally said. “One lunatic after another coming through the court system. We didn’t know what to do with them. There wasn’t enough room in the locked wards, so unless the defendant started beating on the bailiff right in the courtroom, we just kicked them back out on the street. The whole city was littered with them. One more or less didn’t seem to make a difference, it was like just another drop of water in the bay.”
Blaine pointed down the hallway toward his office, then led the way.
“What about Brown?” Donnally asked, dropping into one of the two wooden chairs facing Blaine’s desk.
“He came through half a dozen times during the first year I was assigned to Berkeley. They kept sending him over to the county hospital on forty-eight-hour psych holds. But they never kept him. The diagnosis was always the same: crazy and retarded. We didn’t bother sending him back after that. The judge just told him to go see his shrink at the city mental health clinic and to take his meds.”
Blaine paused for a moment. “I mean, it wasn’t like he was committing serious crimes. We may have charged him with burglaries a couple of times, but they were just aggravated trespassing. Breaking into businesses, usually corner markets, for a place to sleep and something to eat. County jail was no deterrent to loonies like him. And he’d get violent if he was locked up, like a caged animal. The Sheriff’s Department couldn’t protect him or protect other inmates from him, so the court kept putting him on probation. Then, when he stopped taking his meds and started acting out again, the cops up on Telegraph Avenue or at People’s Park would tie him up and haul him to the county shrink in Oakland to get dosed. It would take him a couple of days to find his way back to Berkeley.”
Donnally followed Blaine’s eyes as he gazed out of his window toward Lake Merritt on the north side of the courthouse, grayed by winter fog, its surface ruffled by the gusting wind, the broad boulevard encircling it crowded with soundless traffic.
“Damn.” Blaine sighed. “Anna Keenan was a sweetheart. Not one of those tie-died Berkeley do-gooders. She was something special. The kind of teacher every parent wants their kid to have.” Blaine’s eyes went blank for a moment. “And to die like that, looking up into the face of the maniac who killed her.” He looked back at Donnally. “It was the first homicide I ever got called out on. I swaggered in like an old pro, then about cried when I saw who it was.” He paused, reliving the moment. “You remember Eddie Washington?”
“Got killed executing a search warrant in nineteen-ninetysomething.”
“Ninety-eight. He was in homicide back when Brown murdered Anna. Eddie’s daughter was in her third grade class. He used to drop her by Anna’s house on Saturday mornings for tutoring. She wouldn’t take any money for it. Not a nickel. Once she let him change the oil in her car, but that’s all she ever let him do.” Blaine closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “You should’ve seen Washington’s face when he looked at her body. Hurt and fury like I’d never seen on a man before or since.”
“So he went on a mission.”
Blaine looked back at Donnally and nodded. “Like a linebacker. And it only took him an hour to link the homicide to Brown. Anna had let him sleep in her shed so he wouldn’t keep getting arrested. He’d been there a few months, off and on. He’d help her in the garden and in her greenhouse. Neighbors heard some kind of yelp or scream, then saw Brown escaping over her back fence. We found his fingerprints on the sill of the window where he climbed out and let himself down into the backyard. His hand size matched the bruises on her neck. We snagged him four days later hiding out in an encampment by the marina. He’d slipped into some hippie girl’s tent and she shrieked like hell. A bunch of Dead Heads corralled him.”
“Did he make a statement about killing Anna? I didn’t see one in the court file.”
“Unintelligible. He acted like he was caught by his parents after killing the family cat. And by the time the hospital got him on his meds, the public defender was representing him so we couldn’t talk to him anymore.”
The court file had told Donnally how it ended. “Then he was found incompetent to stand trial.”
Blaine shrugged. “We fought like hell. We had an informant in the county jail telling us that Brown was faking and that he had a fantasy that Anna wanted him to come into her bedroom to have sex with her. He strangled her when she refused.”
“That would’ve made it a capital case.”
Blaine smirked. “Not in California and not in Alameda County. No way a jury here would sentence a lunatic to death. Anyway, there wasn’t any forensic evidence of an attempted rape, no semen, no vaginal bruising.”
“Maybe Brown just didn’t get very far before she started resisting.”
“That was our theory. If he’d gone to trial we probably could’ve gotten the attempted rape in through the informant, but that didn’t happen. We lost the competency hearing. Brown came back three years later with reports that he was still incompetent so he got transferred into the civil commitment system-”
“And no one ever bothered to evaluate him again.”
Blaine reddened again. “That’s the way the system works.”
“That’s the way the system doesn’t work.”
Donnally set his coffee cup on the desk, then rose and walked to the window. He looked out over Oakland, from the hills to the bay, and north toward Berkeley.
“And how many are there out there?” Donnally said without turning around. “Commit a murder, get declared incompetent, get sent off to some institution and forgotten.” He turned back toward Blaine. “What’s your guess? How many?”
Blaine swallowed hard. “I… I don’t have the slightest idea.” He reached again for his telephone and punched in two numbers. “Is he in?… I need to see him.” Blaine looked at Donnally. “You want to come with me to see the boss?”
Donnally shook his head. “Just call me when you find out where Brown is.” He then turned and walked from the office.
As he rode the elevator down, Donnally was overcome with an amorphous rage that tried to focus on Brown, then on Blaine, and then on the court system itself. Instead it locked on a thought: if only-and painted crosshairs on Mauricio’s face.
If only Mauricio hadn’t taken Anna to Berkeley, if only he hadn’t left her at New Sky, if only he’d gone back to get her… she’d still be alive.
The chain of causes and effects snapped tight.
And Mauricio’s “I had no choice” just wasn’t good enough.
But as Donnally started down the steps of the courthouse, a wind whipped his face and ripped at the web of blame his mind had constructed.
Mauricio had been a fifteen-year-old kid who’d done the best he could, but had not only been too young to decide to take a life, but too young to take his own and his sister’s lives into his hands. And that single act had dispossessed him of his family, tormented his heart, and deprived him of the good death he deserved.
Donnally stopped on the sidewalk and stared at the lake. He tried to imagine what Anna must have looked like as Mauricio walked her past their dead father’s body and out the door and toward the highway heading north. He struggled to force his mind to compose a picture of a tiny girl with brown skin and round cheeks and black hair and dark eyes, but all that appeared was the mournful face of his own older brother, fair and angular and framed by his marine dress blue tunic and cover, who’d been killed in Vietnam when Donnally was eight years old.
And surging outward from that image came the molten terror of his childhood, of loss and helplessness in a world spun out of control.
A n hour later, Donnally’s cell phone rang as he pulled into the driveway of his ex-fiancee’s house in San Francisco.
“I need your promise you won’t go to the media with this,” Blaine said.
“I need to hear you say the words.”
“Okay. No press.”
“Sorry, man. Brown’s out.”