Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  "What? To give up without even trying? You said--"

  "I said I'd give you the best defense I can," Jordan interrupted. "There's already probable cause to believe that you committed a crime, since there are hundreds of witnesses claiming to have seen you shooting in the school that day. The issue isn't whether or not you did it, Peter, it's why you did it. Having a probable cause hearing today means they score a lot of points, and we score none--it would just be a way for the prosecution to release evidence to the media and the public before they get a chance to hear our side of the story." He thrust the paper at Peter again. "Sign it."

  Peter met his gaze, fuming. Then he took the paper from Jordan, and a pen. "This sucks," he said as he scrawled his signature.

  "It would suck more if we did the probable cause hearing." Jordan took the paper and left the cell, heading out of the sheriff's office to give the waiver to the clerk. "I'll see you in there."

  By the time he reached the courtroom, it was packed to the rafters. The media that had been allowed in stood in the back row, their cameras ready. Jordan sought out Selena--she was juggling Sam in the middle of the third row behind the prosecution's table. So? she asked, a shorthand lift of her brows.

  Jordan nodded the slightest bit. Done.

  The judge presiding was inconsequential to him: someone who would rubber-stamp this process and turn it over to the court where Jordan would have to put on his dog-and-pony show. The Honorable David Iannucci: what Jordan remembered about him was that he had hair plugs, and when you appeared before him you had to do your absolute best to keep your eyes trained on his ferret-face instead of on the seeded line of his scalp.

  The clerk called Peter's case, and two bailiffs led him through a doorway. The gallery, which had been buzzing with quiet conversation, fell silent. Peter didn't look up as he entered; he continued to stare at the ground even as he was shuttled into place beside Jordan.

  Judge Iannucci scanned the paper that had been set in front of him. "I see, Mr. Houghton, that you wish to waive your probable cause hearing."

  At this news--as Jordan had expected--there was a collective sigh from the media, all of whom had been hoping for a spectacle.

  "Do you understand that I would have had the obligation today to find whether or not there was probable cause to believe that you committed the acts for which you are charged, and that by waiving the probable cause hearing, you are not requiring me to find that probable cause; you will now be bound over to the grand jury, and I will bind this case over to the superior court?"

  Peter turned to Jordan. "Was that English?"

  "Say yes," Jordan answered.

  "Yes," Peter repeated.

  Judge Iannucci stared at him. "Yes, Your Honor," he corrected.

  "Yes, Your Honor." Peter turned to Jordan again and, under his breath, muttered, "This still sucks."

  "You're excused," the judge said, and the bailiffs hefted Peter out of his seat again.

  Jordan stood, giving way to the next defense attorney for the next case. He approached Diana Leven at the prosecutor's table, still organizing the files she never had a chance to use. "Well," she said, not bothering to look up at him. "I can't say that was a surprise."

  "When are you going to send me discovery?" Jordan asked.

  "I don't remember getting your letter requesting it yet." She pushed past him, hurrying up the aisle. Jordan made a mental note to get Selena to type something up and send it off to the prosecutor's office, a formality, but one that he knew Diana would uphold. In a case this big, the DA followed every rule to the letter, so that if the case ever went up on appeal, procedure would not be the downfall of the original verdict.

  Just outside the double doors of the courtroom, he was waylaid by the Houghtons. "What the hell was that?" Lewis demanded. "Aren't we paying you to work in court?"

  Jordan counted to five under his breath. "I spoke about this with my client, Peter. He gave me permission to waive the hearing."

  "But you didn't say anything," Lacy argued. "You didn't even give him a chance."

  "Today's hearing wouldn't have benefited Peter. It would, however, have put your family under the microscope of every camera outside the courthouse today. That's going to happen anyway. Did you really want it to be sooner rather than later?" He looked from Lacy Houghton to her husband, and then back again. "I did you a favor," Jordan said, and he left them holding the truth between them, a stone that got heavier with every passing moment.

  *

  Patrick had been heading to the probable cause hearing for Peter Houghton when he received a cell phone call that sent him screaming in the opposite direction, to Smyth's Gun Shop in Plainfield. The owner of the store, a round little man with a tobacco-stained beard, was sitting outside on the curb, sobbing, when Patrick arrived. Beside him was a patrol officer, who jerked his chin in the direction of the open door.

  Patrick sat down beside the owner. "I'm Detective Ducharme," he said. "Can you tell me what happened?"

  The man shook his head. "It was so fast. She asked to see a pistol, a Smith and Wesson. Said she wanted to keep it in the house, for protection. She asked if I had any literature on that model, and when I turned my back to find some . . . she . . ." He shook his head and went silent.

  "Where did she get the bullets?" Patrick asked.

  "I didn't sell them to her," the owner said. "She must have had them in her purse."

  Patrick nodded. "You stay here with Officer Rodriguez. I might have some more questions."

  Inside the gun shop, there was a spray of blood and brain matter on the right-hand wall. The medical examiner, Guenther Frankenstein, was already bent over the body, lying sideways on the floor. "How the hell did you get here so fast?" Patrick asked.

  Guenther shrugged. "I was in town at a baseball card collectors' show."

  Patrick squatted beside him. "You collect baseball cards?"

  "Well, I can't very well collect livers, can I?" He glanced at Patrick. "We really have to stop meeting like this."

  "I wish."

  "Pretty self-explanatory," Guenther said. "She stuck the gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger."

  Patrick noticed the purse on the glass counter. He rifled through it, finding a box of ammunition and the Wal-Mart receipt for them. Then he opened the woman's wallet to find her ID, just at the same time Guenther rolled the body over.

  Even with the gunshot residue blackening her features, Patrick recognized her before he saw her name. He'd spoken to Yvette Harvey; he'd been the one to tell her that her only child--a daughter with Down syndrome--had not survived the shooting at Sterling High.

  Indirectly, Patrick realized, Peter Houghton's casualty count was still rising.

  *

  "Just because someone collects guns doesn't mean they intend to use them," Peter said, scowling.

  It was unseasonably warm for late March--a freakish eighty-five degrees--and the air-conditioning at the jail was broken. The inmates were walking around in their boxers; the guards were all on edge. The HVAC patrol, which had been called in on the pretense of humane incarceration, was working so slowly that Jordan figured they'd master their trade just in time for the snow to start falling again outside. He'd been sitting in a sweatbox of a conference room with Peter for over two hours now, and felt as if he'd soaked through every last fiber of his suit.

  He wanted to quit. He wanted to go home and tell Selena that he never should have taken this case, and then he wanted to drive with his family to the eighteen stingy miles of beach that New Hampshire was blessed with and jump fully clothed into the frigid Atlantic. Dying of hypothermia couldn't be any worse than the slow kill Diana Leven and the DA's office had in store for him in court.

  Whatever small hope Jordan had kindled by discovering a valid defense--albeit one that had never been used before a judge--had been steadily eroded in the weeks following the hearing by the discovery that had arrived from the DA's office: stacks of paperwork, photos, and evidence. Given all this informatio
n, it was hard to imagine a jury caring why Peter had killed ten people--just that he had.

  Jordan pinched the bridge of his nose. "You were collecting guns," he repeated. "I suppose you just happened to be storing them under your bed until you could get a nice glass display case."

  "Don't you believe me?"

  "People who collect guns do not hide them. People who collect guns do not have hit lists with photos circled."

  Perspiration beaded on Peter's forehead, around the collar of his prison uniform, and his mouth tightened.

  Jordan leaned forward. "Who's the girl that got erased?"

  "What girl?"

  "In the photos. You circled her, and then you wrote LET LIVE."

  Peter looked away. "She's just someone I used to know."

  "What's her name?"

  "Josie Cormier." Peter hesitated, then faced Jordan again. "She's okay, right?"

  Cormier, Jordan thought. The only Cormier he knew was the judge sitting on Peter's case.

  It couldn't be.

  "Why?" he asked. "Did you hurt her?"

  Peter shook his head. "That's a loaded question."

  Had something happened here that Jordan didn't know about?

  "Was she your girlfriend?"

  Peter smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "No."

  Jordan had been in Judge Cormier's district court a few times. He liked her. She was tough, but she was fair. In fact, she was the best judge Peter could have drawn for his case--the alternative superior court justice was Judge Wagner, who was a very old, prosecution-biased judge. Josie Cormier had not been a victim of the shooting, but that wasn't the only scenario that would compromise Judge Cormier as the justice for the trial. Suddenly Jordan was thinking of witness tampering, of the hundred things that could go wrong. He was wondering how he could find out what Josie Cormier knew about the shooting, without anyone else learning that he'd been looking into it.

  He was wondering what she knew that might help Peter's case.

  "Have you talked to her since you've been in here?" Jordan said.

  "If I'd talked to her, would I be asking you if she was okay?"

  "Well, don't talk to her," Jordan instructed. "Don't talk to anyone except me."

  "That's like talking to a brick wall," Peter muttered.

  "You know, I could rattle off a thousand things I'd rather be doing than sitting with you in a conference room that's as hot as hell."

  Peter narrowed his eyes. "Then why don't you go do some of them? You don't listen to a word I say, anyway."

  "I listen to every word, Peter. I listen to it, and then I think about the boxes of evidence the DA dropped at my door, all of which make you look like a cold-blooded killer. I hear you tell me you were collecting guns, like you're some kind of Civil War buff."

  Peter flinched. "Fine. You want to know if I was going to use the guns? Yeah, I was. I planned it. I ran through the whole thing in my head. I worked out the details, down to the last second. I was going to kill the person I hated the most. But then I didn't get to do it."

  "Those ten people--"

  "Just got in the way," Peter said.

  "Then who were you trying to kill?"

  On the opposite side of the room, the air conditioner suddenly choked to life. Peter turned away. "Me," he said.

  One Year Before

  I still don't think this is a good idea," Lewis said as he opened the back door of the van. The dog, Dozer, was lying on his side, fighting to breathe.

  "You heard the vet," Lacy said, stroking the retriever's head. Good dog. They'd gotten him when Peter was three; now, at twelve, his kidneys had shut down. Keeping him alive with medications was only for their benefit, not his: it was too hard to imagine their house without the dog padding through its halls.

  "I wasn't talking about putting him down," Lewis clarified. "I was talking about bringing everyone along."

  The boys fell out of the back of the van like heavy stones. They squinted in the sunlight, hunched their shoulders. Their broad backs made Lacy think of oak trees that tapered to the ground; they both had the same habit of turning in their left foot when they walked. She wished they could have seen how very alike they were.

  "I can't believe you dragged us here," Joey said.

  Peter kicked at the gravel in the parking lot. "This sucks."

  "Language," Lacy warned. "And as for all of us being here, I cannot believe you'd be selfish enough to not want to say good-bye to a member of the family."

  "We could have said good-bye at home," Joey muttered.

  Lacy put her hands on her hips. "Death is a part of life. I'd want to be surrounded by people I love when it's my time, too." She waited for Lewis to haul Dozer into his arms, then closed the hatch of the door.

  Lacy had requested the last appointment of the day, so that the doctor wouldn't be rushed. They sat alone in the waiting room, the dog draped like a blanket over Lewis's legs. Joey picked up a Sports Illustrated magazine from three years ago and started to read. Peter folded his arms and stared up at the ceiling.

  "Let's all talk about our best Dozer memory," Lacy said.

  Lewis sighed. "For God's sake . . ."

  "This is lame," Joey added.

  "For me," Lacy said, as if they hadn't even spoken, "it was when Dozer was a puppy, and I found him on the dining room table with his head stuck inside the turkey." She stroked the dog's head. "That was the year we had soup for Thanksgiving."

  Joey slapped the magazine back on the end table and sighed.

  Marcia, the vet's assistant, was a woman with a long braid that reached past her hips. Lacy had delivered her twin sons five years ago. "Hi, Lacy," she said, and she came right up and folded her in her arms. "You okay?"

  The thing about death, Lacy knew, was that it robbed you of your vocabulary for comfort.

  Marcia walked up to Dozer and rubbed him behind the ears. "Did you want to wait out here?"

  "Yes," Joey mouthed toward Peter.

  "We're all coming in," Lacy said firmly.

  They followed Marcia into one of the treatment rooms and settled Dozer on the examination table. He scrabbled for purchase, his claws clicking against the metal. "That's a good boy," Marcia said.

  Lewis and the boys filed into the room, standing against the wall like a police lineup. When the vet walked in, bearing his hypodermic, they shrank back even further. "Would you like to help hold him?" the vet asked.

  Lacy moved forward, nodding, and settled her arms around Marcia's.

  "Well, Dozer, you put up a fine fight," the vet said. He turned to the boys. "He won't feel this."

  "What is it?" Lewis asked, staring at the needle.

  "A combination of chemicals that relax the muscles and terminate nerve transmission. And without nerve transmission, there's no thought, no feeling, no movement. It's a bit like drifting off to sleep." He felt around for a vein in the dog's leg, while Marcia kept Dozer steady. He injected the solution and rubbed Dozer's head.

  The dog took a deeper breath, and then stopped moving. Marcia stepped away, leaving Dozer in Lacy's arms. "We'll give you a minute," she said, and she and the vet left the room.

  Lacy was used to holding new life in her hands, not feeling it pass from the body in her arms. It was just another transition--pregnancy to birth, child to adult, life to death--but there was something about letting go of the family pet that was even more difficult, as if it were silly to have feelings this strong for something that wasn't human. As if admitting that you loved a dog--one that was always underfoot and scratching the leather and tracking mud into the house--as much as you loved your biological children were foolish.

  And yet.

  This was the dog who had stoically and silently allowed three-year-old Peter to ride him like a horse around the yard. This was the dog who had barked the house down when Joey had fallen asleep on the couch while his dinner was cooking, until the entire oven was on fire. This was the dog who sat beneath the desk on Lacy's feet in the dead of winter as she answ
ered email, sharing the heat of his pale, pinkened belly.

  She bent over the dog's body and began to weep--quietly, at first, and then with loud sobs that made Joey turn away and Lewis wince.

  "Do something," she heard Joey say, his voice thick and ropy.

  She felt a hand on her shoulder and assumed it was Lewis, but then Peter began to speak. "When he was a puppy," Peter said. "The time we went to pick him out from the litter. All his brothers and sisters were trying to climb over the pen, and he was on the top of the stairs, and he looked at us and tripped and fell down them." Lacy raised her face and stared at him. "That's my best memory," Peter said.

  Lacy had always considered herself lucky to have somehow received a child who was not the cookie-cutter American boy, one who was sensitive and emotional and so in tune with what others felt and thought. She let go of her fist-grip on the dog's fur and opened her arms so that Peter could move into them. Unlike Joey, who was already taller than her and more muscular than Lewis, Peter still fit into her embrace. Even that square span of his shoulder blades--so expansive underneath a cotton shirt--seemed more delicate underneath her hands. Unfinished and rough-hewn, a man still waiting to happen.

  If only you could keep them that way: cast in amber, never growing up.

  *

  At every school concert and play in Josie's life, she'd had only one parent in the audience. Her mother--to her credit--had rearranged court dates so that she could watch Josie be plaque in the school dental hygiene play, or hear her five-note solo in the Christmas chorale. There were other kids who also had single parents--the ones who came from divorced families, for example--but Josie was the only person in the school who had never met her father. When she was little and her second-grade class was making necktie cards for Father's Day, she was relegated to sitting in the corner with the girl whose dad had died prematurely at age forty-two of cancer.

  Like any curious kid, she'd asked her mother about this when she was growing up. Josie wanted to know why her parents weren't married anymore; she hadn't expected to hear that they were never married. "He wasn't the marrying type," she'd told Josie, and Josie hadn't understood why that also meant he wasn't the type to send a present for his daughter's birthday, or to invite her to his home for a week during the summer, or to even call to hear her voice.

 
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