The Ethics of SCABness
by Phil Geusz
Author's Note: I wish to acknowledge my slightly modified theft of one
of the greatest story titles in SF history. The original was "The Ethics
of Madness", by Larry Niven. Read it! :)
Most police work is routine dull, boring, and corrosive to the soul. I learned this at the very beginning of my career.
"Bronski!" Detective Cooke bellowed across the crowded station floor. He was a veteran of many years on the streets, and knew how to make his voice carry. "Bronski! Where the hell are you?"
"Coming!" I gulped out, trying to sink into the woodwork as a thousand hardened stares seemed to slice into me. Cops live hard lives, and their eyes show it. "I was just getting another copy of form 1053 for our report from last Thursday. The clerk said your writing was illegible."
Cooke rolled his eyes. "Rookies! Why in the name of god do I keep getting stuck with all the rookies? Let the clerks earn their keep, son. You and I are supposed to be catching killers, capiche?"
"No 'buts', Kenny-boy." He took me by the shoulders gently, as one would a small boy. "Listen to me. Rule number one. The bad guys are on the streets. The clerks are at the station. Who are the taxpayers paying us to bust?"
He was starting to get me mad. I was a veteran of one of the toughest security units in the US Military and all of twenty-four, not some dumb kid. Even though I had to admit I was a bit baby-faced. "The bad guys, of course. But the paperwork--"
"Gets taken care of by the paper-pushers, Kenny." "Chef" Cooke grinned and tousled my hair, making me feel about twelve years old. "The clerks will have you running for your whole thirty years if you let them. My report was just fine; I oughta know. I've been filling them out since before your father got out of school. The clerk just wants an excuse to get out of here early. He'll claim my report didn't get filed until too late for him to get done today- you do realize that it would have to be time-stamped all over again, don't you?"
Suddenly I understood the malicious gleam in the clerk's eye as he had upbraided me for sloppy work. And my anger doubled. Then trebled. "That dirty, low-down sack of..."
"Now, now, now!" The big detective grinned merrily. "Don't go talking about your fellow law-enforcement professionals that way -- after all, we belong to the same union in this town. Tell you what, though. You might take notice of how sloppy my handwriting is from day to day, depending on who's working in the back. And then you'll know exactly who you might have to take stern measures with. And, for starters, how."
I couldn't help myself, so I grinned from ear to ear. It was only my second day on The Job, and already I loved working with Detective Cooke, loved the life of a Homicide detective. And, I later came to realize, Cooke was becoming fond of me pretty quickly too. He usually spent his time, as he had said, breaking in rookies. But we became close and he pulled enough strings to keep us working together for the remaining four years of his career. He'd hand-picked me right out of the Academy for Homicide, more on intuition than test scores. I'd been the only rookie chosen for the honor. Sure, I had a strong background in security-type work. And my college and Academy grades had been top notch. But somehow, Cooke had just known that I was cut out for the Stiff Squad.
"Anyway, we've got to go see a canary," he went on, grabbing the keys to his unmarked unit out of his desk drawer. "I hear he's going to sing real pretty for us."
"A ... canary?" I asked. SCABS was dominating the headlines in those last few days of normalcy just before the big epidemic broke. "You mean..."
"Come on, Bronski, you think I'm gonna drive all the friggin' way across town to check out a pet shop? A canary, fer chrissakes! A stoolpigeon. A rat. A fink. Someone with a tale to tell. What kinda cop are you, anyway?"
I sighed and lowered my head as we strode hurriedly across the office floor. Sometimes life just wasn't fair.
The City Jail is not all that far from "the office", as old-timers like Cooke invariably called the central police station. We had to check our guns on the way in, but otherwise we proceeded directly to a little interviewing room far off in the back. Along the way we passed dozens of inmates, mostly trustees performing the plethora of little housekeeping tasks that kept the prison running. My partner and I were in plain clothing, but to a man they looked down at the floor as we came through. And immediately afterwards I could feel the hatred in the stares they directed at our backs as we passed them by. Somehow they all knew we were cops, each and every one of them. I've rarely felt so naked.
This was my first canary, of course. Just outside the interview room, Cooke cautioned me "keep my trap shut and my brain open so that just maybe I might learn something and not screw things up." And then without knocking we stepped in.
The room was bare and sparsely furnished. The floor and walls were made of plain cement, the table of cheap imitation wood, and the chairs were of the familiar metal folding type. But our canary wasn't using a chair, of course.
He was perched at the head of the table. Yellow feathers and all. An oversized canary.
My mouth dropped open, I fear. SCABs were still very rare things in those days, and this was the first result of the Martian Flu I had ever actually met in person. Then Cooke grinned wide and made introductions. "Hi, everyone," he began. "This is my latest rookie partner, Ken Bronski. It's his second day as a cop, but he's doing really well. It's almost three o'clock, and he hasn't shot anyone yet." Then he turned to me, and winked where no one else could see it so as to take the sting out. "Kenny, meet Christa Baltimore. She's an assistant DA."
"Pleased, I'm sure," she interjected.
"And Paulie MacLaughlin of the Public Defender's office. He's been on the job about twice as long as you have, son. With all that experience, you ought to listen respectfully to anything he has to say."
"Please!" Paul replied. "Can we skip the insults and get down to business? My client has the right to have confidence in his public defender."
"Even if he is so brand new and tight that he squeaks?" Christa asked with wide-eyed innocence.
Paulie blushed, and suddenly I realized that my own case of baby-face was not the worst in the world. "Look," he begged. "Can we just get this over with?"
"Sure thing," Christa replied, now all business. "Your client claims to have knowledge of a murder. He further claims that he can give the perp to us on a platter. He says that he is doing this because his recent brush with SCABS has given him a new outlook on life, and that he wants to start his new life fresh. Is this correct?"
"Yes," Paul replied flatly.
"Then why is he asking for immunity on a possible murder one as well as having us drop a sure conviction on him for four counts of illegal possession of a weapon and a whole slew of drug charges? Not to mention the armed robbery of three liquor stores?"
Paulie sighed. "Look at my client. Hasn't he suffered enough punishment? And he's clearly no further threat to society. He weighs what, three pounds tops?"
"Three pounds, two ounces," the canary interjected in a trilling falsetto. "I only weigh three pounds, two ounces. Do you have any idea what it's like, copper? I weighed more than twice that when I was born!"
"Can you still use a gun?" Christa asked him bluntly.
"Look!" the perp replied, spreading his wings. "No fingers! What am I going to do, threaten to poop on someone? A gun is heavier than I am, fer chrissakes! Give me a break!"
Christa pursed her lips. "What can you tell me about the murder, pre-deal?"
"Not a damned thing," Paul replied hotly. "We're not giving up anything."
But the perp- I suddenly realized that no one had spoken his name yet, almost as if he wasn't entitled to be addressed as a human- apparently had more legal experience than his lawyer. "This guy is evil," he replied, looking up at Cooke with beady black eyes. "He's done more than one, I think. Honest to God, I never meant for anyone to get iced. And I didn't pull the trigger. I want to give him to you."
Strangely enough, I believed him. As did Cooke, apparently. Almost invisibly, he nodded to Christa.
She glared back fiercely at first, then gave in. "All right, Mr. Henderson," she said, addressing the canary. "Let's deal. You give us the shooter, no rap on that whole scene. We drop the drug charges, the weapons stuff, everything except the armed robbery charges. You do the minimum on them."
"Wait just..." Paul began, but the perp interrupted. Clearly, he considered himself the superior negotiator, Bar Association membership notwithstanding.
"All right. I do the minimum. But instead of jail, I go to a SCABS institution. Can you picture me trying to survive in the joint like this, for God's sake?"
The assistant DA pressed her lips into a thin line. She had a sense of justice, it seemed. "Agreed."
"And I need room to fly sometimes. I'm going nuts in here with no room to fly!"
"I can't speak for the SCABS institution," Christa replied carefully. "But I can put a recommendation in your folder."
"Done," the canary said firmly. Then he tried to extend a wingtip to shake on the deal and seal it. But it unfolded the wrong way, making for a very awkward moment. "Uh..."
"Consider your hand shaken, Henderson." Cooke's harsh voice filled the awkward silence. "Now, you've got your deal. Give me my killer."
Within two hours we were on our way to make the bust, SWAT team in tow. Our canary had been right; we wanted this one and we wanted him bad. And he'd not only provided a name- George Herman- and story that matched everything we knew about a certain carjacking, he even gave us a current address out in the suburban part of town. He also told us that he was pretty sure the shooter had committed several other carjackings ending in murder. Which made sense- for the last several months there had been a rash of them. The killer's MO seemed to involve picking out a wealthy female from a shopping mall parking lot with the presumed motive of robbery. But no stolen goods had ever turned up. Our informant had been paid a pre-arranged fee in cash to serve as a spotter at one of the 'jackings, and had then learned later that the victim, an elderly woman, was missing.
He'd been assured there would be no killing. Or so he claimed.
There are two good approaches to arresting a truly dangerous suspect. One is to sneak up on them and make the arrest before they know what's hit them. The second is to display (and if necessary be prepared to use) massive amounts of force. Due to the fact that the alleged perp lived with his parents in an isolated older home located far down a long gravel road, only the second option was viable in our case. Our unit and the two accompanying vans raced down the gravel road, code two. The road ran along the river, and I suggested to Cooke that we should search underwater for the missing vehicles. Despite our speed, he turned to face me and rolled his eyes.
"Duh," he said.
And then we were on the scene. It all went down very, very quickly. The SWAT unit poured out of their van in a disciplined mass and charged the little building while Cooke and I stayed back out of their way, as standard procedure dictated. The door succumbed quickly to the battering ram and flak-jacketed men and women made a quick, professional entry. In no time at all, it seemed, their work was done and their commander was waving us in.
"You ready, kid?" Cooke asked.
I answered with a nod, and followed my mentor towards the old white-painted house.
Before we even hit the door, we knew we'd come to the right place. The smell of rot hung over everything. But even more revealing was the interior décor. Rough inverted crosses were painted in red everywhere, and evil-looking glyphs and runes seemed to dot every surface. "666" seemed to be the number of the house, for it was to be found scrawled all over everything as well.
And this was just the living room!
Mr. Herman, a scraggly-headed man of my own age with cold and malevolent eyes, was being held down by three SWAT men in a back bedroom. "I want a lawyer!" he snapped once he saw our suits.
"Read him his rights," my mentor snapped. "And then get that piece of trash the hell out of my sight."
The basement held our prize, grisly as it was. The missing women's heads sat in a row, along with that of a man off on one end. The latter was the perp's father, we later discovered. Each neck had been neatly severed, and the stolen valuables laid neatly in front of a black-candled altar as offerings. Masses of flies crawled all over the dead faces and buzzed busily about the room. Tabloid newspapers predicting the end of the world due to SCABS littered the place, their covers alive with photos of the bizarre things they promised the new virus was going to do to us all. I looked at some of them and shivered. It was amazing; this virus-thing was so frightening that it could give me the willies though being in a room with eight severed heads on a Satanist altar had left me relatively unmoved.
And for the first time I began to get really scared about what might happen to society if the disease ever became widespread.
Cooke and I had a lot of work to do, of course. We had photos to take, evidence to be bag, heads to examine. Before long we had the basement to ourselves. The older man was showing me how the same type of cutting stroke had been used on all eight vics when I caught a sudden movement out of the corner of my eye.
It was pure instinct, drilled into me over and over and over by the Air Force and then again at the Academy. All I had picked up was the gleam of a rising knife blade with a dark mass of some sort below it. But young as I was, it was all I needed. In one fluid motion I turned and drew, physically shoving the old-fashioned revolver I preferred to carry literally into the gut of Cooke's assailant before pulling the trigger spasmodically once, twice, three times. And with each shot the hot gasses of the exploding .357 Magnum powder charge were channeled right into the bullet wound, blowing enormous seared holes in her torso. When used like this, the muzzle blast of a Magnum-type handgun is almost as lethal as the bullet itself. The tactic is brutal, effective, and very, very deadly.
Blood exploded from the knife-wielder's mouth, and she fell in a heap. The blade never struck home, of course. And our perp's sister and accomplice was dead before she hit the ground. She'd been hiding out, we later decided, waiting for a chance to strike a blow. Somehow the SWAT guys had missed her. We never did figure out exactly where she'd been all that time.
Things got a bit confused for me after that, as you might well imagine. It's not common for a cop to have to kill someone only two days into their first assignment. Once the adrenaline rush passed me by I sat sick and cold from clammy sweat in the back of the SWAT van, covered with blood and waiting to be interrogated. In the distance I could hear Cooke saying over and over to anyone who would listen that "The shooting was righteous, I tell ya! The goddamn kid saved my life!" And that helped some. As did the parade of uniformed cops who came by and took turns soundlessly sitting at my elbow, respecting my need for silence.
They pulled my shield and gun, of course, and set me to doing paperwork right beside my favorite clerk. I was supposed to face a mandatory Board of inquiry, which was very scary even though everyone kept telling me that I had done the right thing. But of course, I never did. The Collapse took care of that.
It was only three days into the emergency that they gave me my gear back and told me I was a cop again; with the City burning in a hundred places and lynch-gangs wandering the streets there wasn't much time for by-the-book niceties. Every single one of us was desperately needed. I was part of the scratch team that kept the mobs away from the SCAB treatment center at the Hotel Hadesson for over three weeks without relief. It wasn't detective work, but it was police work of which I remain very proud.
During the fight a big yellow canary several times overflew the crowds at great risk to himself carrying important messages for us after all the walkie-talkie batteries had died. He stopped and said "Howdy" once while I was getting a fractured finger splinted. So maybe our canary did have a change of heart once he grew feathers. And he seemed so happy once he was free to fly. Made me wish I would end up a bird myself, if I ever had to face SCABS.
By the time it was all over and civilized life was ready to recommence, an awful lot of cops, frankly, had shot an awful lot of people. So I never did face that Board. Though I know in my heart that it was indeed a righteous shooting, I often wish late at night that I had an official document saying so. It would help make the doubts go away at 3AM.
And I thought that I would never hear of George Herman again, once we got him tried and convicted. But things are not so simple these days, now that SCABS has entered the picture and made so much of what was once plain and clear into a fuzzy and vague mess.
MANY YEARS LATER...
"Follow the money," Lestermann was explaining to Dan-Man as I looked on approvingly. We were killing time in the broad aisles of the County Courthouse, waiting to testify in different cases. "Follow the money and you will find the dirty cop. Works every time." Dan was still in his early twenties, and as a result tends to receive frequent lectures from we grizzled veterans of the Force. It must get old for him but he never loses patience with us. We do mean well, after all. Dan is clearly one of the future's brightest stars.
"But what if the motive isn't money?" my partner asked perceptively. "What if the motive is love, perhaps, or blackmail?"
"Sometimes it starts out that way," Lestermann acknowledged, "But that phase never seems to last long. Once a cop takes that first step over the brink, it seems to be a law of nature that he'll eventually line his pockets. God knows I've seen it often enough." Ron's face grew hard as he spoke. Thirty years in Internal Affairs could make a cynic out of a saint. "Ever considered a transfer, Dan-Man?"
I stepped forward then, just to make sure things didn't get out of hand. "He's mine," I said clearly and distinctly. "I found him, and I get to keep him."
Dan blushed and Ron grinned. I would have grinned too, were I not equipped with a beak these days. "Yeah, Ken, I know. And I won't argue the point. He's in good hands."
The conversation lapsed for a few seconds after that, and then before it could resume a bailiff appeared at Ron's elbow. "They're calling for you, Detective," he said quietly.
"Right, Bill." We know all the bailiffs by name, of course. No one testifies in court more often than a cop. "Gentlemen, I expect you'll be gone by the time I'm done."
"I sure hope so," I replied for us both. "Tell Juan hello for me."
"Will do. I'm sure he'd want me to invite you both to dinner."
We set a date, and then the bailiff led our grey-haired friend away to give his testimony. Which left Dan and I at loose ends again. We had been scheduled to take the stand an hour before, but complex legal maneuverings had thrown everything out of kilter. As usual.
"Let's grab a bench," I suggested. My feet never hurt anymore, but I figured Dan was probably getting tired. It's not always easy for him to work with a SCAB partner, and I try to go out of my way to remember that his body and its needs are different from those of my own. He returns the favor of course, from time to time. "Around on the other side of the building it'll be less crowded." The halls on this end were packed with reporters covering a highly publicized death-penalty hearing. It was a case I had an interest in; my first bust, in fact. But my dealings with George Herman were long over. It was all up to the judges and the Governor now.
"Right," Dan agreed, the relief evident in his voice. I privately chastised myself for having made him stand up for so long as we began to work our way through the crowd. Usually my unusual appearance and seven-foot height is enough to make a crowd part like the Red Sea, but these reporters knew me.
"Detective Bronski!" one of them shouted, a young lady. "Are you here in connection with the Herman case?"
I sighed and shook my head as camera flashes began to erupt around me. I used to hate those things even while still human; now that I was an ostrich they bothered me more worse than ever. "No," I explained, raising my voice. "Mr. Herman has been convicted and my testimony is no longer an issue. We're here for the Durgan case in Trial Room Seven."
Heads nodded and the flashes ceased. No one cared much about the Durgan case- like most homicides it had never climbed above page five. Drug dealers killing each other rarely make much news unless there are special circumstances involved.
But the lady journalist was persistent. "How do you feel about the proposed execution, Detective? Would you care to make any comment?"
I sighed, loudly. "No, Ma'am. I never comment about sentences. They are the business of the judge and jury."
"But you yourself are a SCAB, Detective," she continued. "Surely you have an opinion?"
That was it. Dan's feet hurt, and I'd been polite long enough. "As a matter of fact I do have an opinion I'd like to share."
Her face brightened, and the infernal flashing started up again. "Yes?" she asked hopefully.
"My opinion is that the Department has a policy against speaking to the media about cases still pending in court, and I think that it is a very wise policy indeed. Now, if you will excuse us..."
With that I began to push forward through the mass of media. Most of them took my comments good-naturedly; even the pushy one gave me a wry smile as we passed. And then we were through the crowd and around the corner.
Sure enough, the back corridor was seemingly deserted. It was a dead-end, due to a decades-past remodeling, and only regulars like us cops even knew it was there. Dan sank gratefully into the very first bench we came to, and so as to be sociable I decided to settle down on the floor next to him. It was only then that I realized we were not alone after all. A very familiar pair of ears was sticking out of a disposable public litter box down at the very end of the hall.
"Phil!" I cried out, rising once again to my feet. "Phil! Is that you?"
"Ken? Ken? God am I glad you're here!" And with that the lapine left his cover and came bounding down the aisle towards me. "Clover had to work today, and Ben had to leave, and, and..."
"...and you've been waiting here all alone," Dan finished for him.
"Yeah," he replied shyly. Phil is a strange mixture of lapine fears and human shame. But he gets through life the best he can, which is all that can be asked of anyone.
"What are you doing here?" I asked. This part of the Courthouse dealt strictly with criminal cases.
"I'm not sure I'm supposed to tell you," he replied seriously.
"Are you a juror?" Dan asked. It would be just like Phil to serve a turn on jury duty, even though his condition would easily get him out of it.
"No," he replied. "An expert witness."
"On what?" I inquired.
"Lapines, of course."
And then it all came together for Dan and I both. He whistled under his breath and I waggled my head in amazement. "The Herman case, then?"
"Yes, of course." The lapiform SCAB looked away again. "I'm hiding from the reporters. If they get a good look at me, they're liable to figure out why I'm here and mob me."
"Right," I replied. It made sense. After all, I was hiding from them too. "Tell you what, Phil. How about you climb back into that litter box- is it OK for you in there?"
"Yeah. They brought out a fresh one just for me."
"Great. You climb back in there so as to be out of sight if any reporters should wander past. And the two of us will come back and sit with you. Dan and I are both going to have to testify today, but it will only be one of us at a time. The other can stand guard until you are through for the day. And then Dan can drive us all home. OK?"
Phil was visibly relieved. "Ken, Dan, I..."
"Think nothing of it. But I agree -- you shouldn't talk to us about the Herman case." Not that I ever wanted to talk about it again -- it was filled with bad memories.
And so we sat in silence for a time after that, until the bailiff came and called for me.
My testimony was routine and tedious. I had to cover this and that about the integrity of the crime scene, explain standard evidence procedures to the jury, state for the record that the "x"'s marking some of the sealed bags were in fact my mark, me being unable to sign them normally due to SCABs. The defense attorney and I had crossed swords often enough before- he knew me well and realized that with my record and level of experience I could be his worst nightmare on the stand.
"No questions, Your Honor," were his welcome words when the prosecutors had finished with me, and on the way out I assured Bethany, the bailiff in this courtroom, that I would send Dan-Man in immediately. He was to be the next witness.
When I got back to our little hidey-hole, the ears were gone from the litterbox. "He's testifying" was all Dan said as he got up and headed back the way I had come.
Dan returned long before Phil did. We had to wait over an hour for him, in fact. And when he came back out he was nervous and skittish. In fact. I'd never seen him so looking so drained, save perhaps at a funeral once.
"Curse all electronic flashes!" was all he would say. "Why can't they just use faster film and do without the damned things?"
"Because they get paid based on the quality of their photos," Dan explained reasonably. He was about to go on about graininess or something when Phil growled, cutting him off cold. My partner looked startled; lots of folks don't seem to be aware of the fact that rabbits can indeed growl when upset, and quite savagely at that.
Phil's home was very near to the Blind Pig, and clearly he needed a drink or three to unwind. I offered to buy them, and he accepted immediately. Which was in and of itself unusual, I knew. Usually he was a stickler about buying his own.
Once we got to the bar, Phil sniffed around for Clover a bit. But he didn't find her, so we three sat down at a table together and ordered drinks. Edwina obliged, and before we knew it we were solemnly staring into our favorite poisons.
"Well," Phil finally said. "Here's to justice in America. Long may it stagger along blindly!" And with that he lifted "Hare Restorer" and drained it in a single gulp.
Dan and I drank the toast, but more moderately. Then Phil was calling Edwina for a refill, and Donnie was looking our way from the bar, clearly concerned. I caught his eye and nodded; yes, Phil was upset about something. But when the big bovine started over our way himself, I gave him a headshake and he stopped. In the end Phil's problem was pretty similar to the kind of situations we cops had to deal with every day, and I knew deep in my heart that Dan and I would be better able to help him through it than anyone else there. Maybe even better than Clover.
Though I wished of course that she had been there to hold his forepaw. Anyone who ever saw them together as a couple knew they were made for each other.
Then Phil was starting on his second drink, and I knew that if I was to get him talking before he became insensible, now was the time. "It's OK for us to talk about the Harvey case now, you know," I said. "You're done testifying."
"I don't want to discuss it, really," Phil replied politely. "But thank you for offering. I know that talking shop is the last thing you want to do."
"Actually," Dan interjected, "Herman was Bronski's very first bust. And it was a toughie, too." Dan didn't explain why, and I was grateful to him. He'd only heard to the story to help console him after he'd been forced himself to kill in the line of duty. "I'm sure he still takes an interest in the legal goings-on."
Phil looked over at me. "You busted Herman?"
"Me and my first partner, a tough old bird called "The Chef". He taught me most of what I know."
"Really?" Phil rocked his ears just a little, the first sign of relaxation I'd seen out of him all day. The alcohol must have been starting to take effect. "Well..."
"Come on, Phil," I encouraged him. "I really would like to know what's going on."
Just then someone turned the TV up, and I saw that the screen was displaying a typical artist's courtroom sketch of Phil on the stand. And everyone was staring at us. Phil's eyes went wide, and he began to tremble. He must have been close to withdrawal. Which was the last thing he needed after the day he'd had. Fortunately, our barkeep was no fool. Frantically Donnie signaled to Jack, who stared blankly for just a second before catching on. And then he tore into an old ragtime number that must have drowned out every conversation in the place. All the eyes turned towards the equine, trying to figure out what was going on. Which left Phil free to drop down and hide under the table for a bit to regain his composure.
When he finally came back up for air about half an hour later, the second drink was gone and he was becoming distinctly fuzzy in more than the literal sense. "Damn, Donnie's got himself a great shipment of carrot juice this time around!" he said as if nothing had happened. "It's got a lot of bite."
Dan and I nodded solemnly, as if we agreed. Not that either of us would willingly touch the stuff, of course. Especially not with vodka mixed into it.
Then Phil picked up where we left off. "Tell me something, Ken. Are you really certain that Herman's guilty?"
"Yes," I replied evenly. "As sure as I have ever been. He wasn't caught in the act, but the evidence was overwhelming."
"Shit" was Phil's unexpected reply. "Shit, shit, shit." He paused for a few seconds, and then went on. "Been to see him lately?"
"Nope. No reason for me to, frankly. What's he like?"
"Warm. Personable. Friendly. His scent is clean and his fur is very long and soft. And he's so healthy he that glows."
"What about his mind?" Dan asked gently.
"I wish I could say it's utterly gone," our lapine friend responded. "But I cannot. He can speak a few words, mostly those of deep interest to a rabbit. Like 'snug', for example. And 'Phil'. He learns the names of other lapines fairly easily. But he's clearly no longer legally competent. Not by any stretch. They can't execute him like he is. As much as he may have deserved it while human."
"It took you that long just to say that on the stand?" Dan inquired. Clearly, he was not familiar with the huge legal morass that the Herman case had become.
"No," Phil replied wearily. "Of course not. It doesn't take a fellow lapine to see that there isn't any justice or even any sense in executing Herman in his present state. The State would as soon execute an infant. That's not what this hearing was all about. Not at all."
"Then what was it about?" Dan was clearly confused.
"It was to determine whether or not Herman could be treated, could be made well enough to be executed. I was subpoenaed to give an expert opinion on that."
"You mean," Dan asked incredulously, "that the State wants to make him better so that they can legally kill him?"
"Exactly," Phil replied, motioning for another drink. "You got it in one."
Conversation lagged until Edwina brought Phil his third Strafford, the most alcohol I had ever seen him take on in one night. But at least this time he sipped instead of gulping. And presently he began talking again, the typical vocal hesitation of the seriously buzzed clear in his speech.
"And he is treatable, of course. That's the kicker here. I'm not the only one with field experience that thinks so. We could have him talking in whole sentences in a month or two, and probably reading and writing soon after. No problem at all. But, what doctor who ever took the Hippocratic Oath is ever going to treat a patient knowing that doing so will result most certainly in said patient's death? Herman will die of old age as long as he is basically kept a dumb rabbit. He's a pretty miserable bunny, of course. I think he has a vague idea that he used to be something more. Knowing this pains him terribly. Sometimes he cries for hours, I'm told, and rips out his own fur by the mouthful. But I won't touch the case, even though I'm not really a doctor. In fact, the lawyers and judge are probably burning the midnight oil right now trying to decide if I'm legally a 'medical professional' or not. I've never earned a certificate for anything but career counseling, and that only lately. But many, many professionals treat me as a colleague. They consider my lapiform SCABS and experience to be sufficient qualifications. On the one hand, I'm a nobody. On the other, I'm fairly successful at what I do, and have been recognized as such by leading authorities. There were lots and lots of objections and counter-objections about that."
Dan asked the question before I could. "Why would it matter?"
"Because if I am not a medical professional and thus shielded by their professional code of ethics, it is very possible that I could receive a court order requiring me to treat Herman," Phil replied evenly.
Even I, familiar with the case as I was, had not foreseen THAT one. "My God!" I gasped. "They can't make you..."
"They may think they can," Phil replied his voice still very cold. "But they cannot make me succeed. In which case I might find myself facing contempt-of-court charges. The whole damned situation is crazy."
"I'll say it is," Dan seconded, sipping his beer. "Jesus. I'll say it is."
"The whole problem," Phil observed, "is that the law sees George Herman the lapiform SCAB as being the same person as George Herman the mass-murderer. When in fact any such comparison is utterly invalid, of course. I know that I am certainly a different person than I once was, so different that I am literally incapable of comprehending some of my human memories."
Dan looked stricken. "Phil, I've met you many times now. I know what they say about lapiform SCABs, and sure, you get sort of high-strung sometimes and lose it for a bit. But you've got things so very much together in so many ways..."
"More than you know," I interjected. "Hell, you saved my career with your counseling. And I damned well know it."
Phil sighed then, the sound seemingly as soft as his rich white fur. "Look, guys... I mean, thanks. Really. But at one time I was a union rep. You know that, right?"
We both nodded.
"I could never do that job now. The whole thing centered around power games, you see. When you got right down to it, you were able to do only as much for your people as your level of personal power allowed. Who you were and to what extent you could dominate or otherwise influence others was far more important that what job you held. The lowest could push around the highest, given enough skill and experience. Sure, lapines have dominance instincts too, and I even still have some residual human skills. But can you picture me screaming into a foreman's face today, in this body, promising him most sincerely that by tomorrow at noon he would either see things my way or I would have his barbecued ass for dinner that night?"
I pulled back my head, startled to hear such confrontational words coming from Phil's mouth in even a theoretical sense. "Did you used to do that?" I asked.
"That was almost a direct quote, in fact. But the words and the feelings behind them came from a different 'me', Ken. Can't you see that? I remember the event, even remember speaking the syllables. But the person who actually did the talking is dead and buried. Utterly gone. I can't even begin to capture the essence of that moment. The emotions are alien to me now. And a bit repulsive."
Dan nodded slowly. "So you're saying that executing George Herman in his current state, or even in a recovered state, would be wrong. And letting him continue to live on as a near-animal when he could easily be helped is also equally wrong. Am I correct?"
Phil nodded vigorously. "I support the death penalty, mind you, for cases where it is appropriate. In some ways it is equally morally wrong to let Herman live when we've executed others for committing far lesser crimes, no questions asked. But the way things are with Georgie..." Phil's face fell, and then he went on. "I've done some research, you know. There was once a case in Arkansas a lot like this one. But pre-SCABS."
"How could there be a case even remotely resembling this one, pre-SCABS?" Dan asked. I wondered myself.
"Simple. A guy killed a cop in a shootout. Or maybe it was two- I forget. Anyway, during the gunfight the cop-killer himself was shot in the head. But his wound did not prove lethal."
Phil sighed, and gulped at his drink again. "The 'perp', as I think you refer to such individuals, was brain-damaged. He was guilty as sin, caught in the act even. And there was no question that he was legally competent at the time he was doing the killing. But the head wound changed him. His IQ dropped enough to guarantee him a disability pension had he not been a felon, and he became sweet-natured and personable, according to what I can find out. There were huge legal wars fought over whether or not it was right to execute him, whether or not he was too brain-damaged to understand what he had done, what was going to happen to him, and why.
"They fought for years and years while shrink after shrink tested him. And in the end they decided to fry him."
"You've read a lot about this case, haven't you Phil?" I asked gently.
The rabbit nodded, a tear forming in one oversized eye. "Or enough, at least."
"And you think they did the wrong thing?"
Phil sighed again and laid his head down on his forepaws. He was getting to be pretty drunk. "The case was very, very borderline. Men of good faith argued both sides, but how can you know what someone does and does not understand? But in the end the truth came out. As part of the traditional last meal, the young man requested his favorite dessert, cherry cobbler. And then he left it untouched, explaining to the guards that he was saving it for after the execution."
"My God!" Dan-Man whispered.
"The guards, hardened professionals all, broke down and cried almost to the last man. It was terrible. But yes, they fried him."
We sat silent for a long, long time after that, me thinking of a canary I'd once known. "You're rather fond of 'Georgie' as he now is, aren't you Phil?" I finally asked in a soft voice.
"Yes," Phil replied between the sobs that were now wracking him.
"Hmm. Well, The last time I saw him he was spitting at his judge and screaming that the wrath of Satan was going to strike us all down someday."
The rabbit nodded without lifting his head. "I believe you, you know. Really I do."
"And I believe you when you say that he is a fundamentally different being now."
"So what is justice?" Dan-Man asked. "What is right and wrong here? What is the morally correct thing to do?"
Phil looked up then, and stared Dan full in the face with alcohol-bleary eyes. "God, but you're young!" was his straight-faced reply. And with that he doubled over and began rocking his ears violently in merriment.
My very young partner looked over to me for guidance, but by then I was busting a gut myself, doubled over with head wagging in my own laughter-analog. Somehow it seemed to me to be the funniest thing I'd ever heard. We met on the floor, Phil and I. Where we rolled and laughed and drank until one or both of us threw up. I don't remember who did what when, after a certain point.
Clover showed up eventually and took responsibility for getting my lapine drinking buddy home, while Dan took on the much heavier task of dealing with me. Phil becomes docile when he drinks, and only weighs a hundred pounds, after all. He's not so hard to deal with.
But me, I get rowdy and violent and full of piss and vinegar as I rage and strike out at the unfairness and perversity of the Universe. Dan-Man had his hands absolutely full just getting me out of the Pig without anything or anyone getting damaged, not to mention the task of squishing me into our unit for the short ride home to my apartment. That's the difference between us, I guess. Phil cries and I rage. But both of us know the pain, the terrible pain hidden behind all the laughter and all the pretty facades of life. It takes years and years to get to really know the pain, you see. To learn the false fronts for the lies they are and to know the gaping, huge difference between what is and what should be. To eat completely away the naiveté and the innocence and with it so much of the joy.
That's why the kids like Dan, try though they might, can't seem to really understand people like Phil or me I suppose. Or any of the other grizzled veterans of life's continual brushfire wars. It's a gap across which mere humans simply cannot seem to communicate, try though we might. And that's also perhaps why Phil and I, unlikely pair that we are, seem to be rapidly becoming the best of friends.
Author's Note: The bit about the Arkansas execution is, to the best of
my recollection, true. This event and another case in Arizona (in which
a man went insane AFTER being convicted and sentenced to death -- he is
still insane today, and untreated despite the fact that he could be easily cured)
inspired this story.
Thank you for reading this far!
* * *
Copyright 1999 by Phil Geusz. If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask the author for permission first. Thank you.
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