Angel of the Dark by Sidney Sheldon

This might have had something to do with the lawyer for the prosecution, William Boyce. A tall, angularly built man in his early fifties with close-cropped gray hair and a fondness for cheap charcoal-gray suits, Boyce, who was known for his even, measured delivery, was the antithesis of the hotshot attorney one expected to find in such a high-profile case. He was the proverbial “safe pair of hands,” competent, professional and painfully ordinary to such a degree that it was often said that the only remarkable thing about William Boyce was how very unremarkable he was. Why the state had chosen Boyce to prosecute such a case was almost as much of a mystery as the homicides themselves. Perhaps the powers that be had decided, in the face of such overwhelming evidence, that a monkey could have succeeded in condemning both the Azrael killers to death row…and William Boyce was the closest thing they could find to a monkey.

In any event, it was quite an achievement to be able to bore a jury with a case as sensational as this one, but over the past two weeks William Boyce had managed to do just that, reciting the facts pertaining to the four murders in a monotone that had effectively blunted their emotional impact. He’d spent an entire day getting bogged down in the complex international legal agreement whereby the British, French, and Hong Kong Chinese authorities had consented to the evidence being heard jointly in California. His witnesses had livened things up a bit. Andrew Jakes’s Spanish housekeeper, in particular, gasped and sobbed her way through hideously graphic testimony that had made the front pages of all the tabloids the next morning. But all in all, Judge Muñoz could see how the prosecution had earned Frankie Mancini’s contempt. Like everyone else in courtroom 306, and those following the trial around the world, he was looking forward to hearing the defense’s case. Today, at last, that time had come.

Because each defendant claimed to have been coerced by the other, they had chosen separate representation. Frankie’s attorney, Alvin Dubray, was a short, fat man with a permanently untucked shirt and mad-scientist hair. Dubray arrived at courtroom 306 dropping papers from the pile under his arm, looking for all the world like a muddled old grandfather who’d gotten lost on his way to the library. In reality, as Judge Muñoz knew well, Dubray’s mind was so sharp and his memory so prodigious that he had no need of notes of any kind. But the bumbling-old-buffoon act had been endearing him to juries for over twenty years and he wasn’t about to abandon his shtick now. With a client as cold and unsympathetic as Frankie Mancini, Alvin Dubray would need to endear the hell out of today’s crowd.

In that regard, the “Angel of Death’s” attorney had the easier job. Ellen Watts was young and relatively inexperienced. This was only her second murder trial. But she had already made a name for herself on the Superior Court circuit as an insightful and talented trial lawyer, manipulating evidence with the artistry and ease of a potter molding clay on the wheel. With her bobbed blond hair and elfin features, Ellen Watts was usually considered a beauty. Next to her client, however, she faded away like a camera flash aimed at the sun.

“All rise.”

For the last two weeks, Judge Federico Muñoz had banished the media from his courtroom. (It wouldn’t do to be seen as too camera-hungry, and William Boyce was so deathly dull he’d be a turnoff for viewers anyway.) Today, however, he had relented, allowing a select group of news organizations some spots in the gallery. Their cameras, like the eyes of the rest of the room, flitted between the defendants and the three men sitting side by side in the front row. By now, they were all household names in America.

Danny McGuire, the LAPD detective turned Interpol hero who’d spent two-thirds of his career pursuing the Azrael killers and who had helped orchestrate the Indian sting that finally caught them.

David Ishag, the swoon-worthy Indian tycoon who’d been slated as Azrael’s next victim till McGuire and his men plucked him from the jaws of certain death.

And at the end of the row, in a wheelchair, the tragic figure of Matthew Daley.

Daley was a writer, the son of Azrael’s first victim, Andrew Jakes, and at one time a key Interpol informant. He too had been present the night of the defendants’ arrest and was lucky to have survived the bullet from Mancini’s gun, which had lodged in the base of his spine. Despite this, Matt Daley had refused to testify against the female defendant, a woman he still referred to as “Lisa.” The rumor was that the poor man had been driven to the point of madness with love for her. Watching him gazing at her now, a hollow-eyed, sunken version of his former vivacious self, it was easy to believe.

“Ms. Watts.” Judge Federico Muñoz paused just long enough to make sure that all eyes—and cameras—were trained on him. “I understand you are to open the case for the defense.”

“That’s correct, Your Honor.”

Ellen Watts and Alvin Dubray had agreed between them that Ellen would go first. The plan was to get the character assassination of each other’s client out of the way early so that they could close in on areas of common ground: weaknesses and inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case, and the abuse suffered by both the accused as children. If they could sow enough reasonable doubt in the jury’s mind as to who had corrupted whom, and paint both defendants as mentally disturbed, they stood a chance of keeping them both from death by lethal injection. Realistically it was the best they could hope for.

Ellen Watts approached the jury, looking each of the group of twelve men and women in the eye.

“Over the past two weeks,” she began, “the prosecution has presented you with some pretty horrific evidence. Mr. Boyce has eloquently familiarized you with the facts surrounding four brutal murders. And I use that word advisedly—facts—because there are facts in this case, terrible facts, facts that neither I nor my client seek to deny. Andrew Jakes, Sir Piers Henley, Didier Anjou and Miles Baring all lost their lives in violent, bloody, terrifying circumstances. Some of those men have family and friends here today, in this courtroom. They too have had to sit through Mr. Boyce’s evidence, and I know there isn’t one of us whose heart does not go out to them.”

Ellen Watts turned for effect and bestowed her best, most sympathetic nod of respect toward the two of Didier’s ex-wives who’d flown over for the trial, as well as to the stooped but dignified figure of Sir Piers Henley’s eighty-year-old half brother, Maximilian. Behind him, two women in their late fifties, old girlfriends of Miles Baring’s who’d kept in touch after his marriage, glared at Ellen Watts with loathing, but the attorney’s concerned expression never faltered.

“I am not here to debate the facts, ladies and gentlemen. To do so would be foolish, not to mention an act of grave disrespect to the victims and their families.”

“Hear, hear!” shouted one of Miles Baring’s girlfriends from the gallery, earning herself a sharp look from Judge Federico Muñoz and a murmured ripple of approval from everyone else.

“My job is to stick to the facts. To put an end to the wild speculation and rumor surrounding my client, and to present to you the truth. The truth about what she did and what she did not do. The truth about her relationship with her codefendant, Frankie Mancini. And the truth about who she really is.” Ellen Watts approached the defendants’ table, inviting the jury to follow her with their eyes, to look at the woman whose life they held in their hands. “She’s been called the Angel of Death. A princess. A witch. A monster. None of these epithets is the truth. Her name is Sofia Basta. She’s a human being, a flesh-and-blood woman whose life has been one long catalog of abuse and suffering.” Ellen Watts inhaled deeply. “I intend to show that Ms. Basta was as much a victim in these crimes as the men who lost their lives.”

Most of the jury frowned in disapproval. Cries of “shame” rose up from around the courtroom, prompting Judge Muñoz to call for silence.

Ellen Watts continued. “The truth may not be palatable, ladies and gentlemen. It may not be pleasant and it may not be what we want to hear. But revealing the truth is my business in this courtroom, and in the coming days I will show it to you in all its ugliness.” Roused and passionate, she turned and pointed accusingly at Frankie Mancini. “It is this man, not my client, who orchestrated, planned and, indeed, carried out these murders. Knowing that Sofia was vulnerable, that she was mentally unstable, that she was lonely, Frankie Mancini cynically manipulated her, turning her into a weapon that he could use to further his own hateful ends. Convicting Sofia Basta of murder makes no more sense than convicting the knife or the gun or the rope.

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Categories: Sidney Sheldon