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Opening Argument: The Prosecution
Lost hope conceals a rapier in its gown, Sandrine wrote in the margins of her copy of Julius Caesar. Strange, but of all the things she'd said or written, this was the line I most wrenchingly recalled on the last day of my trial. Life should fill our ears with warning, I thought as I remembered how she'd penned this little piece of marginalia alongside one of Cassius's melancholy speeches, but it falls silent at our infant cry.
Such was my conclusion as the jury foreman rose to render a verdict in my case, thus the moment when I would either hear, or not hear, the creak of a gallows floor. To some extent, their decision hardly mattered anymore. I knew what I'd done, and how I'd done it, and by what means I had tried to get away with it. Regardless of the verdict, my trial had exposed everything, and from it I'd learned that it is one thing to glance in a mirror, quite another to see what's truly there.
On the first day of my trial, however, I'd been quite beyond so naked an understanding of murder, or of anything else, for that matter. All great revelations are hard won, Sandrine once told me, perhaps as a warning. But until the ordeal of my trial, all my revelations had been small, and none of them had been hard won.
In fact, only one truth had seemed certain to me on the day my trial began: Harold Singleton, the prosecuting attorney, was out to get me.
"You're the proverbial ham sandwich any public prosecutor can indict, Sam," my lawyer, Mordecai "Morty" Salberg, had told me on the day I was charged with Sandrine's murder. Despite certain admittedly incriminating evidence, we'd both been surprised by my indictment, and for a moment, as I'd sat in his paneled office, I'd recalled a moment, weeks before, when Detective Alabrandi had leaned forward, his dark eyes as menacing as his voice, and said to me, You're not going to get away with this.
The result of this grim recollection had been a blinding streak of panic that had actually caused my hands to tremble.
Morty had seen this, and in order to calm me down he'd casually leaned back in his leather chair. "It's a completely circumstantial case, Sam," he said. "And in terms of the so-called physical evidence, there's not one thing the prosecution has uncovered that can't be explained by your wife's suicide."
"But I could have made it look like a suicide," I replied cautiously. "Isn't that what Singleton will try to make the jury believe?"
Morty waved his hand as if to dismiss the entire case against me. "You need to understand one thing, Sam," he said. "This prosecution is not being driven forward by the weight of the evidence."
"By what then?" I asked.
"By Harold Singleton's personal conviction that you killed your wife," Morty said. "He truly believes that you carefully planned the whole thing." He smiled. "He thinks you're one cold fish, Sam," he added. "And I got to tell you, you do come off that way, so before you get before a jury, you should work on your charm skills a little."
At that instant, with my hands now clammy, I'd thought of a moment many months before, the way Sandrine had glanced up from the book she was reading, a study of Iago, of all people, and peered at me quite intently before she'd finally spoken. "Cynics make good murderers," she'd said. I'd thought this remark was about Iago, but later I'd not been so sure. Had Sandrine, in that piercing way of hers, seen that her death was on my mind?
"The real shocker is that Singleton is going for the death penalty," Morty added. "That's the sort of prosecutorial overreaching that can come back to bite you in the ass. Of course he probably threatened you with that in order to pressure you into a confession. Then, once he made the threat, and you didn't confess, he had to go through with it. It's sort of a pissing game, you know, but believe me I can shoot my stream way farther than Harold Singleton." He shrugged as if to dismiss the need for any further discussion. "It'll be a short trial, that's for damn sure," he told me.
Then he rose and escorted me to the door.
"Don't worry, Sam," he said with the iron-clad assurance of his many years of defending with equal skill and success both the innocent and the guilty. "All you need is a good defense, and you've got the smartest Jew lawyer in Coburn County."
Perhaps so, but along with my unfortunate, seal-the-deal novella, there were fingerprints on the glass and emails to April and odd elements in Sandrine's blood, disturbing Internet searches and jarring responses to various questions, a less than sturdy prosecutorial net in which to catch me, as I knew, but a net nonetheless. And there was that coldness, too, of course. I'd need to work on that.
Still it was the location of my trial that had most concerned me as I'd departed Morty's office that day. Coburn County was the problem, it seemed to me, a college town only seventy miles south of Atlanta, a quiet place whose privacy had been violated by the media coverage of Sandrine's death, the subsequent investigation, and, still later, my arrest. Every step in the process had further served to turn the town against me, so that as I'd driven back through Coburn after leaving Morty's office, I'd genuinely feared that no matter what the evidence — or lack of it — its stalwart citizens might well find me guilty at the end of my trial. Sandrine had once said that when she thought of hell, it was as an eternal walk through a shadowy alley. By the time of my trial, I'd come to imagine it as a never-ending fall through a gallows floor.
As the yearlong investigation into Sandrine's death had continued, I'd learned one thing for certain: my initial error had been to underestimate the extent to which little things could trip me up. For example, I'd never expected that first uniformed officer to notice a yellow piece of paper beside my wife's deathbed, ask me about it, then write my response into her notebook. Later I'd realized that she had seen a dead woman lying in a bed, half naked and with no visible marks upon her face or body, and had quite naturally asked herself:How did this woman die? That is to say, she had cared about this death more than I'd expected and had almost immediately begun to look about the room more closely, a focused observation that had eventually settled her eyes on, among other things, that yellow piece of paper.
Thus had the investigation begun, one that had steadily grown darker and more dramatic, first with the coroner's inquiry, then with the pathologist's report, and after that — and with murder in mind — Detective Alabrandi's meticulous combing of phone and medical records, the seizing of computers, the questioning of friends, associates, neighbors, all of which had finally culminated in a grand jury indictment, which in turn had led, at last, to this first day of my trial, myself seated at the defense table with the best "Jew lawyer" in Coburn County beside me, both of us now watching silently as Mr. Singleton made his way to the lectern, glanced at his notes, then began.
"Your Honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury," Mr. Singleton said, "from this first day onward, and step by step, we will prove to your complete satisfaction that Sandrine Allegra Madison did not take her own life."
He wore a dark blue suit that first day. It fit him poorly, so there was a slight rise, like a small snake, across the back of his neck. I could see this round bulge quite clearly because his back was to me when he faced the jury. He was short and very thin, with wire-rimmed glasses that added a sense of physical weakness, perhaps even ill health.
"Singleton always looks like he's going to sneeze on you," Morty whispered with a quick smile he was careful to conceal from the jury.
This was true, I thought, but the prosecutor's physical problems didn't end there. For one thing, he was nearly bald, and he often swabbed his pink head with a white handkerchief. Many months before, when he'd asked me to come to his office for a "preliminary discussion," I'd noticed that his teeth were badly crooked, like rows of tilted tombstones in a desecrated cemetery. At that time, I wondered if he'd perhaps been a poor boy whose parents had not been able to afford braces, or whether he was simply the sort of man whose priorities did not include close attention to his looks. At any rate, the jagged configuration of his teeth had given him the half-starved countenance of a primitive creature, its every aspect adapted for survival in a mean environment.
By then I'd come to realize that I was the target of his investigation, the one man in Sandrine's life who, according to his discoveries, had had a reason to kill her — perhaps more than one reason — along with the moral benightedness required to do it.
Watching him now, I recalled that first visit quite well, particularly how self-assured he'd seemed as he'd said, "Professor Madison, I'd like to acquaint you with a few facts."
He thinks I'm soft, I'd told myself at that moment. He thinks he can bully me because I'm a weak, ivory tower intellectual, a poodle to his bulldog. For that reason, I'd hidden my fear of these "facts," put on a mask of complete confidence in my innocence of any charge he might level against me, replied, "I'm eager to hear them," then casually leaned back in the chair, folded my arms over my chest, and waited for his next move as casually as a clubman anticipating his afternoon martini.
For the next few minutes, Singleton had laid out his case against me, always in a grave voice, like a Spanish inquisitor enumerating all my many sins and heresies. There was the matter of this (antihistamines in Sandrine's bloodstream) linked to that (a sinister research history on my computer). There'd also been correspondence that, as he'd discovered by then, I'd attempted to delete. Other grave issues had followed one after the other like the blows of a hammer, and as I'd listened to this recitation it had become clear to me that if I did not crack, perhaps hint at a plea bargain, Mr. Singleton would not rest until I dangled from a noose. That had scared me, and it was then, and far too late, that I'd finally gone to Morty and told him everything I'd heard in the prosecutor's office.
Morty had quickly assured me that the case against me was absurdly weak, Singleton's recitation a bluff, and so I'd been genuinely surprised when Detective Alabrandi subsequently showed up at my door, this time with a man I'd never seen, large, surly even when silent, with a thick neck, and looking very much like a sports bar bouncer.
"You're under arrest, Mr. Madison," Alabrandi said politely, but with his gaze fixed in an icy glare.
There are moments when you feel something shift and know — not just sense but know — that some great wheel has begun to crush you. One morning, somewhere within that netherworld of middle age, you look in the mirror and see that time is doing to you what it has done to everyone before you. Or you suddenly feel a squeezing sensation in your chest and realize that, although it is probably just heartburn, there is a chance, a genuine chance now, that it is something worse.
You are under arrest.
It was at that moment that I'd first begun to experience one of life's deepest lessons: you are the most alive when you feel the most vulnerable, not when the arrow is still in the quiver but when it has been released by the string and is flying toward you. The inexorable gears of modest little Coburn's justice system have begun to grind, I'd thought at that instant, and you, my dear fellow, so perfectly insulated before now, aloof and professorial, armored by advanced degrees and unknowable depths of arcane information, you, Dr. Samuel Joseph Madison, tenured professor of English and American literature, are the perfect grist for its mill.
"We will prove it was that man," Mr. Singleton said as he turned and pointed toward me, "that man, seated there, who took the life of Sandrine Allegra Madison and made her his victim."
I'd known her in her youth. I'd known her as a lover, a wife, the mother of our now grown daughter. I'd known her as a student and as a teacher. At no point in my life had I ever imagined her as a victim of anything. And yet it was as a victim that a great many others had come to view her by the first day of my trial, and thus to view me as a man who had much to explain, much to confess, much to repent, and much — very, very much — for which he should be punished.
"Sandrine Allegra Madison was the victim of a cold and vicious plot," Mr. Singleton said. "She was the victim of a murder that was premeditated for weeks, as we will show, and carried out by a man with many motives to take her life."
He'd used her full name throughout his initial remarks to the jury, but Morty had earlier that morning alerted me to the fact that Mr. Singleton would probably begin calling her "Sandrine" as the trial proceeded, and perhaps even "Sandy" during his closing argument, a diminutive I knew she would have hated. For Sandrine was no Sandy. She'd been studying ancient history when I met her, and it was history she'd addressed in the opening words of her last written statement: I often think of Cleopatra in desert exile at twenty-one, surrounded by those blistering sands, she whose feet had walked on onyx.
Morty had also advised me that, at some point during the trial, Mr. Singleton would certainly read this last note or letter or essay or whatever it was to the jury, and that he would do this in order to support his contention that Sandrine hadn't killed herself. Although it had remained unsaid, I'd learned enough about courtroom strategies by then to know that Morty's hope was that the last words Sandrine had committed to paper would make her look pretentious, writing about Cleopatra in her final moments when she should have been penning a loving — or at least explanatory — letter to her husband or her daughter. Unfair though the idea might be — and this Morty had said to me directly — it would work to my advantage if the jury came to think of Sandrine as an egghead. From this I'd gathered that it is easier to find a man accused of murdering his wife not guilty if his victim, during her last moments, was thinking of Cleopatra.
Yet was Sandrine's last bit of writing pretentious? I hadn't thought so when I read it. It was simply how Sandrine wrote, always in a tone that was slightly old-fashioned, but which was also graceful and carefully measured. She had used such connectives as "into whose" and "by which" and "according to whom" in order to string thoughts together, and she had taught her students to do the same. For her, the task of writing was to relate insights to information, or vice versa. "Sentences must join like the fingers of a hand," she'd said to me one evening in New York, when we'd both still been young and the wine bottle two-thirds full, "otherwise, they can't hold water."
Water, by which she'd meant wisdom, the collected fruit of those hard-won truths, all of which inevitably led to what she called "the bottom line," and by which she meant the irreducible and unavoidable facts of life.
One thing was certain. Sandrine had loved language the way others love food, and so, understandably, no doubt it had been the loss of that command of language she'd most dreaded in the end, the terrible fact that eventually she would begin to slur, not to mention drool and blubber.
"We will prove that a miserable charade was concocted by that man," Mr. Singleton continued. "It was a veil he hoped to conceal a murder."
It was a veil behind which he hoped to conceal a murder, I corrected Mr. Singleton in exactly the way Sandrine would doubtless have corrected him.
"That man," Mr. Singleton all but shouted.
That man, of course, was me, Samuel Joseph Madison, husband to the late Sandrine and father to our daughter, Alexandria, who sat behind me that first day, dressed entirely in black, with close-cropped hair, a daughter nowhere near as physically beautiful or intellectually gifted as her mother. Because of that, I'd found myself wondering if Sandrine's death had removed a competitor from the field. After all, with her dazzling mother dead, Alexandria would never be unfavorably compared to her again, and surely that would bring her a certain, unmistakable relief. There is nothing quite so painful as invidious comparison, after all, and for that reason I'd sometimes wondered if Sandrine's death might not have been altogether unwelcomed by her only daughter.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sandrine's Case"
Copyright © 2013 Thomas H. Cook.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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