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The One-Eyed Judge
By Michael Ponsor
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2017 Michael Ponsor
All rights reserved.
Elizabeth Spencer was halfway through her report when someone knocked sharply on the front door. Professor Cranmer jumped up from his chair by the coffee table, where Elizabeth had spread out her file. He shuffled across the room to see who the intruder was, muttering under his breath.
At least he's not still in his pajamas this time, Elizabeth thought. She would later testify about how hot it was that May afternoon — so warm that, with the blinds drawn and the AC turned up, they could hear almost nothing from the outside.
Elizabeth had been Cranmer's intern since the start of the semester in January, and for the first couple months, things had gone more or less fine. She'd begun to like him, sort of, and had even gotten interested in the research he had her doing. He'd hinted that he was concocting the work-study project to help her out, and she appreciated the supplement to her grant. In addition to doing a good job, her payback to the professor, she knew, was to make sure she looked good when they got together. She could tell he liked her smart and pretty.
Professor Cranmer was an odd, mousy man, shorter than Elizabeth, sometimes bad tempered, but very smart, and in their first weeks, often very funny. He was in his late sixties, and he'd been at Amherst College forever, teaching nineteenth-century English literature and the modern novel. He had two cats, Mick and Keith, but no wife, and he was a hard grader. Elizabeth's boyfriend, Ryan, thought Cranmer was a pretentious old fossil, but if you got an A from him, which Elizabeth had, it meant something.
In the beginning, she usually met Professor Cranmer at his office on campus, though occasionally he'd had her drop by his small Cape-style house on a side street off the quad, where he lived with his mother, Doreen. Elizabeth only saw Doreen once. On her first visit to the house, Professor Cranmer had taken Elizabeth to the doorway of the TV room for introductions. She had a glimpse of a very old, very fat woman sprawled in a recliner, with an ashtray and an iced drink on the table next to her. A soap opera was on. When Professor Cranmer called out, Doreen shoved herself up and twisted around to have a look back.
"Well, hello there." Doreen's voice was scratchy. "Aren't you a cutie though."
Those were the only words Elizabeth ever heard from Doreen. She died two weeks later, quite suddenly, which was when Professor Cranmer had his meltdown, and Elizabeth's internship took its weird turn.
The loud rap on the door that afternoon turned out to be another delivery. For weeks since his mother's death, the professor had been ordering all sorts of miscellaneous junk off the Internet. Stacks of cardboard boxes crowded the corners of his living room. The exchange Elizabeth overheard between Professor Cranmer and the UPS guy did not seem unusual at the time.
"You Professor Sidney Cranmer?"
"Expecting a package?"
"Wouldn't surprise me."
Then the UPS guy said, "Sign here." Professor Cranmer signed and took the package, and that was how it went down.
The item this time was a square DVD mailer. Professor Cranmer held it up to his nose, sniffed, and looked at it, either pleased or puzzled. He made some kind of noise, like Hmmp, walked over to his rolltop desk, and picked up a pair of scissors.
"Just a sec."
He was wearing wrinkled khaki shorts, a purple Amherst College T-shirt, and flip-flops. The sight of his hairless, old-man's legs was always gross, and Elizabeth looked away. Still, he was a lot better than he had been. His hands had stopped shaking, he shaved most days, and he wasn't wearing his disgusting brown bathrobe all the time. In the weeks following Doreen's funeral, Elizabeth sometimes came to his house an hour early on class days to make his coffee, bug him to get dressed, and check to be sure he'd zipped his fly, brushed his teeth, and used deodorant to cover up the smell of the booze. Most mornings, he'd have been up all night watching old movies or surfing the Internet. The house, except for the day after the cleaner came, was always a disaster.
Besides herself and the cleaner, the only other visitor Elizabeth noticed over the months was a tattooed handyman, who was gutting Doreen's old bedroom, replacing the windows and installing custom bookcases. The lingering smell of his mother was too much, Professor Cranmer said, and the aroma of sawdust and wood glue helped.
Despite the professor's personal problems, Elizabeth was enjoying the research project, which focused on the writer who'd made Sidney Cranmer famous. Early in his career, he had written an authoritative biography of Charles L. Dodgson, the Oxford mathematics professor who had published Alice's Adventures in Wonderland under the nom de plume Lewis Carroll in 1865. Apart from mathematics and writing, Dodgson's passion had been photography, something new at that time. What made his hobby controversial was that many of Dodgson's photographs were of very young girls in seductive poses, partially dressed or entirely naked.
Speculation persisted that Dodgson was a pedophile. A British journalist had uncovered Dodgson's bank records, which showed regular, substantial withdrawals that could not be accounted for. These mysterious transfers, the journalist hinted, might signify payments to a blackmailer. Professor Cranmer thought this was preposterous. He assigned Elizabeth to go through the thousands of pages of old bank documents, track down every expenditure she could, and prepare summaries for the professor to use in the article he was working on.
As Professor Cranmer was standing by his desk, clipping the end off the cardboard mailer, a tremendous thumping and shouting burst out at the front door, so raucous and abrupt that it startled Elizabeth badly. Professor Cranmer quickly stuffed the mailer into a drawer and trotted back across the room, calling out, "I'm coming. I'm coming."
When he opened the door, things suddenly got very frightening. Several large people, including at least one woman, pushed right past him and fanned out into the house, moving fast. A black man in a sports jacket stepped inside and put his hand in the middle of Professor Cranmer's chest, pushing him backward — not rough but very firm. Elizabeth was so shocked, she leaped up, wondering if she ought to run.
The black guy, who was holding out some kind of metal badge, spoke aggressively. "FBI. We have a warrant for your residence." He lifted his head and shouted, "Clear the second floor." Then he looked down at Professor Cranmer. "Are you Professor Sidney Cranmer?"
"Yes, of course I'm ..."
"Sit down, Professor. I need to talk to you." He kept nudging Professor Cranmer farther into the living room. Elizabeth noticed that the agent seemed to have a limp.
"Take a seat on the sofa, please." When Professor Cranmer didn't immediately move, the man nodded into the room and said more distinctly, pointing, "Professor? I need you to have a seat on that sofa. Please." Then, softening his tone a little: "Just while we check out a couple things. Help me out here, okay?"
More people were entering now. Elizabeth lost count of exactly how many in the burst of voices and the thumping of feet. When one of the men lifted his hand to point upstairs, she saw a gun bulging out from under his shirttail.
At this point, the black FBI agent noticed Elizabeth and nodded at her. "Who's that?"
"That's my intern." Professor Cranmer dropped onto the sofa. "What the hell is going on here?"
The FBI agent looked like Colin Powell. He had a touch of silver on his temples, and he wore rectangular black glasses.
"Hang on." He limped over to the bottom of the stairs and called up. "Ginnie! Would you come here for a minute, please?" He turned to Elizabeth and gestured toward the far end of the living room, where the professor had his dining table and sideboard. "Have a seat over there, would you please, miss? At that table?"
Elizabeth walked three or four steps to the dining table and sat. The FBI agent lowered himself into the wingback chair facing the sofa and began talking to Professor Cranmer, still louder than necessary.
"Couple quickies first. Anyone else on the premises? Any weapons, firearms of any sort?"
Professor Cranmer looked over his shoulder as more people entered the house. "No one here but me and Ms. Spencer. And, yes, an automatic in the nightstand, a .45. What the Christ is going on?" He sounded nervous, but also irritated.
"Of course. What's the point otherwise?"
"Got a permit?"
"Oh, for heaven's sake." The edge in the professor's voice got sharper. "It's right in the drawer. Is that what this is about?"
A woman in khaki chinos and a forest-green polo came down to the foot of the stairs. Her auburn hair was in a ponytail. The black FBI agent pointed at Elizabeth.
"Take care of the young lady, would you please, Ginnie?" Then he yelled up the stairwell again. "Loaded .45 in the nightstand." A man's voice called back, "Got it. Clip's out. It's secure."
The female agent walked over and stood in front of Elizabeth, smiling. "Hi, I'm Ginnie O'Brien. I work for the postal inspector. Who are you?"
From her seat at the dining table, Elizabeth could see the black agent placing a sheaf of papers on the coffee table. She heard him talking.
"My name is Mike Patterson," he was saying. "I'm a special agent with the FBI." He poked his chin toward the second floor. "The folks with me are federal law enforcement agents, okay? Working with the postal inspector." He shoved the papers closer to Professor Cranmer. "This is a search warrant for your house issued yesterday by the federal court in Springfield."
Agent O'Brien poked Elizabeth lightly in the arm to get her attention. "Hello?" She was still smiling, but she was looking at Elizabeth carefully. "I'm Ginnie O'Brien," she said again. "Who are you?"
"Sorry. I'm Elizabeth Spencer."
"Spencer with an S or with a C, Elizabeth?" "It's a C."
"What are you doing here, Elizabeth Spencer?" O'Brien smiled again.
A stocky white man in a purple-and-gold rugby shirt came through the kitchen and stood in the entry to the living room. He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his face.
"Basement and upstairs are clear."
"I'm Professor Cranmer's student intern. We were going over some work I'm doing for him."
"Uh-huh. That's nice," O'Brien said.
"Good," Agent Patterson said. "Tell Jack to bring the video cam. Subject says there's no one else here — and no other weapons." He nodded down at Professor Cranmer. "Correct?"
"Yes, yes. I told you."
Agent O'Brien stepped a little closer. "Would you do me a favor, Elizabeth? Would you stand up and hold your arms straight out like this?" She stuck her arms out. "I just need to give you a quick patdown." She shrugged apologetically. "Standard procedure."
Elizabeth stood and held her arms out.
Agent O'Brien continued talking while she was patting her down. "You're at Amherst College here?"
"Live on campus?" She was feeling around Elizabeth's waist.
"During the year. I have a sublet for the summer."
"Great. What are you studying?"
Patterson spoke to the agent in the rugby shirt. He pointed at the desk. "Start with that. I saw him through the window standing over there." Then he leaned back in the chair and looked at Professor Cranmer with a sour expression, as though he were disgusted with him for some reason. The agent in the rugby shirt walked over to the desk and began rummaging through the drawers.
"What are you studying?" O'Brien asked again. "Thanks. You can sit down."
"I'm a bio major." Elizabeth took a seat.
"Med school someday?"
"Good for you. How long have you been working for Professor Cranmer?"
"Just about five months."
"Uh-huh. Since the start of the year?"
"I see. Nice."
Elizabeth's eyes kept drifting back to the coffee table and Professor Cranmer. He was twitching around, and she was worried he might blow his stack. Despite her confusion, she registered that the FBI agent, Patterson, was better dressed than the others, in buff pants, a yellow shirt, and a tan tweed jacket. Polished shoes instead of the high-tops and khakis or jeans the other agents had on.
She heard Professor Cranmer ask Patterson, "You were limping. Did you ...?"
"Never mind that."
O'Brien leaned toward Elizabeth. "Would you do me another favor, Elizabeth, and stay right here for a minute?"
"I'll be right back."
Another man appeared halfway down on the stair landing, leaned over the railing, and spoke out to Patterson. "Save a lot of time if your pal would give us the computer passwords."
"Just a sec, Jimmie." Patterson took a wallet from his inside jacket pocket and pulled out a card.
"Bingo!" the agent by the desk called out. "Little prick had it open already." He was holding the cardboard DVD box with a small pair of pliers. "Hey, Professor, does this belong to you?"
Professor Cranmer waved at it without looking. "Of course. It just arrived."
Patterson spoke. "Professor Cranmer? You have certain rights, and I want to be sure you understand them." He began reading from the card. "You have the right to remain silent." He glanced up. "Do you understand?"
Professor Cranmer didn't say anything. He was looking at the front door, where two more people were entering as if they owned the place. Something fell over upstairs with a thud that made the chandelier over the dining table jingle. Mick and Keith would be cowering under Doreen's old bed.
"Anything you say may be used against you in a court of law. You have a right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to represent you. If you begin to make a statement, you have a right to stop at any time. Do you understand these rights as I have read them to you?"
"Yes. I suppose." From the side, Elizabeth saw Professor Cranmer give his nervous little smile. "Sounds like TV, so it must be true."
"Having understood these rights, do you wish to speak to me at this time?"
"Mr. Patterson, I really ... What in the hell is all this? Can you ..."
"Jesus!" The man over by the rolltop desk was drawing the DVD out of the mailer. "Oh, Christ!"
Patterson repeated, "Having understood your rights, do you wish to speak to me at this time?"
The man walked over and held the DVD out. His mouth was pinched down. "This yours?"
"Give us a minute here," Patterson said.
Professor Cranmer, dangerously annoyed again, measured out his words. "Yes. As I told you a minute ago, it just arrived, okay?"
"Having understood your rights, Professor," Patterson repeated again. "Do you now wish to speak to me?"
"What am I supposed to say?"
The heavy man in the rugby shirt broke in. "How about starting with this?"
Using the pliers, he placed the DVD on the coffee table. Professor Cranmer glanced down at it and quickly turned his face away. "Oh my God!"
O'Brien leaned over Patterson's shoulder and said something that Elizabeth couldn't hear. Patterson nodded.
O'Brien waved from across the room. "You're all set, Elizabeth. You can take off now."
Elizabeth got up and walked across the room past the coffee table, heading toward the front door. Patterson had folded his arms and was staring at Professor Cranmer, frowning. Professor Cranmer was turned to the side, looking down at the rug and away from the DVD.
She couldn't see the professor's face, but as she went past, Elizabeth got a good look at the color photo on the front of the plastic DVD sleeve. It showed a small blond girl, about four years old, naked, tied to a table with her legs spread apart. Above her, the lower half of a man in an open lab coat was visible, both hands grasping his erect penis. The girl's eyes were wide with terror, and her mouth was open. It looked as though she was screaming.
Excerpted from The One-Eyed Judge by Michael Ponsor. Copyright © 2017 Michael Ponsor. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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