High above the rest of the Houston, Texas courtroom, draped in his black robe, the handsome and distinguished Judge Maxwell Silver sat peering out over his dark-framed reading glasses at the defendant. He always liked to look the defendant straight in the eyes as he passed sentence, especially when it was a death sentence. To the observer in the courtroom, it appeared that the silver-streaked, dark-haired gentleman was focused in on his duty as a District Court Judge, but Judge Silver knew the truth: he wanted to see if the convicted perp showed any fear as he was sentenced to death. The good judge had always felt that the bastards thought themselves so brave when they were gunning down their victims, but almost always there was that glint of cowardly fear in their eyes at this moment.
Just once he would like to see a defendant scream out, “Yes, I did it, you son of a bitch! And I’d do it again!” But instead they either said nothing or protested their innocence. What a pathetic bunch of losers they all were. He had no qualms. He felt they all deserved to die.
Putting on his Godlike, booming voice, he spoke down to the assemblage, never taking his eyes from the defendant. “John Simon, you have been found guilty of capital murder by a jury of your peers. Do you have anything to say before I pass sentence on you?” Go ahead and say something, you sorry piece of shit, the judge pleaded in his head. Say anything. You have nothing left to lose, you pathetic pile of garbage. Say how the DA didn’t really make his case or how your lousy, greenhorn, court-appointed lawyer didn’t put up any defense. It won’t do you any good, but you might as well have your say.
The fresh-faced attorney he had appointed spoke up: “The defendant has nothing to say, Your Honor.”
“I would like to hear it from the defendant himself, if you don’t mind, Counselor.” He glared at the scruffy defendant in his orange jailhouse overalls—no jury to impress at this stage of the proceedings.
The young white man squirmed under the assault of the penetrating ice-blue eyes of the judge. He just wanted this to be over, but the judge seemed to want to hear him speak about his fate. He wanted to scream his innocence to the heavens. He wanted to protest the fact that the triggerman got five years for turning state’s evidence and pleading guilty, leaving him to take the rap for the death of the store clerk, when all he had done was wait out in the car. It didn’t seem right. Yeah, he had known there was a stickup going on inside the convenience store, but nobody was supposed to get hurt. He wouldn’t have shot the guy. He would have just run away if the guy reached for the gun he kept under the counter. Yet here he was, about to be sentenced to death for killing someone he had never even laid eyes on. The judge’s eyes seemed to bore into his soul, demanding a statement. He knew it wouldn’t make any difference.
Travis Houston, Assistant District Attorney—an uncanny younger version of Maxwell Silver—sat at his table looking at the defendant, knowing he had done his job. After all, it was an election year and the Republicans needed some high-profile capital murder trials. The DA wasn’t up for re-election, but Judge Silver was, as were a number of other Republicans from the county, to the state capital, to the nation’s capital, all running on law and order and family values.
The high crime rate in Houston was a gift that kept on giving to the politicians. Stupid drug addicts robbing gas stations and all-night markets to get their fix kept the wheels of politics turning. What if it all stopped? It would be like when the Berlin Wall came down and Bill Clinton won the Presidency. George Senior may have gotten credit for ending the Cold War, but it had backfired on the Republicans. They had nothing to scare people with. And so what if he didn’t even give the guy a chance to plead out? So what if he used the creepy triggerman to get the conviction? This guy was slime and deserved what he was getting. Yeah, go ahead, little man, say something stupid for the judge. It will give us all something to remember about you, because tomorrow there’ll be another one just like you standing right there. Yeah, say something memorable so that people will remember this case and remember me, Travis Houston said to himself. The young assistant DA was fully aware of the fact that Judge Silver used to stand right where he was standing now and had climbed to the bench due to the publicity he had received prosecuting a high-profile capital murder case. That’s how politics worked.
The silence was beginning to hang too heavily in the courtroom, and Judge Silver was losing patience with the defendant. “So, do you have anything to say, Mr. Simon? This is your last chance to be heard.”
The defendant could feel the saliva filling his mouth and knew he needed to swallow before he began to drool in fear, so he gulped down his own spit, horrified at the loudness of the swallow as it echoed through his head. His mouth opened. He at least wanted to proclaim his innocence, but instead, “I have nothing to say, Your Honor,” was all that escaped his now dry mouth. The judge’s steely stare felt like a stream of needles stabbing through his eyes into his brain. He could feel the contents of his stomach churning and threatening to move up toward his mouth. He swallowed hard again and dropped his eyes to the tabletop in front of him.
“Look at me, Mr. Simon,” the judge commanded. Another coward, he thought, just another little worm of a man who hasn’t got the guts to look me in the eyes.
Feeling sick inside, the defendant raised his eyes, back into contact with those of the judge.
“John Simon, in accordance with the laws of the State of Texas, you are hereby remanded to the Sheriff of Harris County, who will release you to the custody of the Texas Department of Corrections, where you will be executed by lethal injection.” Judge Silver could see the naked fear that lay behind the empty eyes of the defendant. And uncontrollably, that old Beatles’ song played in his head: “Bang, bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer came down on his head. Bang, bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer made sure that he was dead.” No remorse. No regrets. It was his job, and in doing it, he assured his re-election, because this would be all over the evening news and in the morning paper.
He made a mental note to call Beverly, Mrs. Judge Silver, and let her know that he would be staying in town tonight. She would not be surprised, but she did like to be informed. Staying at his condo in the city after sentencing hearings was his regular routine. He needed to unwind in his own space and in his own way on those evenings. The perfect wife for him in every way, Beverly understood.
The silence of the courtroom made its way into the judge’s head, snapping him from his brief reverie. The defendant and his counsel were still standing, as though they were frozen in time. “Court adjourned,” he announced, rising from his large, throne-like leather chair.
“All rise!” the bailiff shouted. Judge Maxwell Silver exited through the door behind his chair and the courtroom erupted into a frenzy of reporters rushing toward the exit doors as the defendant was led away by the sheriff’s deputies. The man’s mother, a plain woman wearing no makeup and clothed in her cheap, frumpy print dress—her Sunday best—graying hair piled on top of her head in a church lady’s knot, looked longingly after her son as he disappeared through the side door, back to jail. She would visit him tomorrow to let him know that she still loved him, and she would pray to God for his immortal soul. How could this be happening to her boy? It only seemed like yesterday that he was a helpless baby in her arms. Her heart ached, but she proudly stood up with her head held high and walked toward the back of the courtroom. She would run the gauntlet of the reporters in the hallway, as she had every day since this nightmare began, her eyes forward, her mind and heart fixed on Jesus. After all, He had saved the thief on the cross next to Him, and she prayed He would save her son. It was all she had left to cling to.
In fact, the reporters had lost interest in the boring little woman, and let her pass unnoticed as they hurried their way toward the front of the courthouse, where the cameras were pointed and poised to capture their on-the-spot reports of the sentence, as though there had been any doubt. But their job was as much the creation of drama as it was reporting the news. Housewives would have their soap operas interrupted with “breaking news” bulletins on the sentencing, as if they really cared or even knew anything about the trial. Most would sigh with dismay as they missed the exposure of a secret that they had invested months of loyal viewing in anticipation of, just to have it obliterated by a dramatic-voiced young woman talking about a man whose name didn’t seem familiar. Infuriating them further came the encroachment into their show by the assistant district attorney, Travis Houston, patting himself on the back for getting the conviction and inviting questions from the press about the case.
By the time the media was through milking everything they could out of the spectacle of another death sentence in the “Death Sentence Capital of America,” the show was over and the four o’clock news came on, replaying the videotape of the interruption. Oh, well, soon they would go to the weather segment and life would return to normal. And tomorrow the slow-moving soap opera would reveal the missing piece of information by ricocheting it through the other storylines. All was not lost after all.
The shiny, black luxury sedan cruised its way east on Hyde Park like a dark ghost gliding through the sticky, humid night air, catching the reflections of the street lights on its hood, top, and trunk, while the porch lights of houses reflected dimly in its fenders, doors, and dark tinted windows. It was like a stealth bomber making its way toward a target. At Whitney it made a right and rolled to a stop in front of a neat, white wood-frame house. The passenger window lowered to the sound of its gently whirring motor. Peering inside was the face of a young black man. The automatic door lock clicked, and the driver’s voice said, “Get in.” Ducking his tall frame through the door into the cool, air-conditioned space of the passenger’s seat, the young man stretched his legs forward until his large feet came to rest on the floorboard under the dash.
After pushing the buttons to lock the door and raise the window, the driver drove on through the residential neighborhood to Pacific Street, made a left, then another, making the block. The two sat in silence as the car moved slowly north across Fairview and through the neighborhood of neatly restored old arts and crafts bungalows, until it reached West Gray. Making a right and heading toward downtown, the car rolled quietly through the better-lit street for a few blocks until it ducked left into a very different neighborhood, one where the brave were encroaching with their luxury townhouses into Freedmen’s Town, where small clapboard shotgun houses crowded up toward the sidewalks, allowing just a small bare-dirt yard for the black children from within to play. The urban pioneers were betting that those small houses would go the way of the ones that used to stand where their new, fancy brick residences now crowded into the neighborhood, nestled in the shadows of downtown Houston.
Once past the new townhouses, the sleek black shark plunged into the depths of the old neighborhood. Teenaged boys and kids came running from every direction, surrounding the car as it made its way slowly through the narrow streets. It was like a scene from a third-world ghetto where beggar children run after the cars of Westerners, hoping for a handout. The driver handed a twenty-dollar bill to the young black man in the passenger seat as he hit the button that lowered the right-front window. Clutching the twenty tightly but exposing it to the young men running alongside, the passenger stuck his right hand out the window. A black hand clutched the passenger’s extended fist and, without missing a beat, pushed a hard lump into the tightly clenched palm, which released its grip on the twenty while clasping the rock. The driver raised the window as the young black passenger drew his hand back inside.
The shiny black ghost made its way north to West Dallas Street, turning right onto the well-lit avenue, making its way past the new police station that coexisted within two blocks of one of the city’s most active crack-dealing neighborhoods. It was as if the Houston Police Department had no idea that across the street and around the corner the war on drugs was being waged and won by the drug dealers. No one seemed to care.
At Bagby Street, in the glowing light of the skyscrapers that soared from the center of the city, the car made another right turn and headed south alongside the service road of I-45, back toward West Gray. One block short of the busy intersection, the car pulled over to the curb. “You know what to do,” the driver said, punching the door lock button. The locks clicked open and, unfolding his massive frame, the young man silently stepped out onto the sidewalk, disappearing into the night.
Pedro “Pete” Escobar sat in the little office right inside the lobby entrance of Midtowne Tower, a great green glass monstrosity that soared above the intersection of West Gray and Bagby Streets, right at the curve to the Pierce Elevated, which marked the change of name of I-45 from the North Freeway coming into the city from Dallas to the Gulf Freeway, which ran south all the way to Galveston and the Gulf of Mexico. He was doing his night job: security guard to the exclusive condo building. His day job was as an officer with the Houston Police Department. Ten years he had busted his balls for the HPD, and still he needed to hold down a second job to make ends meet. With three little girls, two in Catholic school, not to mention another baby on the way, making ends meet was never easy. Pete hoped this one would be a boy. It would have helped for his wife to work and bring in another check, but who would take care of the kids? His mom had stayed home and raised him and his brothers and sisters, and that’s what he wanted for his own children.
So he came seven nights a week to Midtowne Tower, where he sat in this little office, watching the security monitors and making hourly rounds through the hallways of the luxury high-rise to keep an eye on things. The tenants were well-heeled, mainly male, and mostly gay. After all, it was not only within walking distance of downtown, it was just at the edge of the Montrose area, the center of Houston’s gay life. It was all right; he didn’t mind. Everyone greeted him with a smile, and at Christmas-time the gifts were plentiful and of excellent quality: everything from food baskets to the kind of shirts and sweaters that he couldn’t afford for himself.
The security for the building was high-tech and of the latest design, but still a live security guard was needed; no matter how much you tried to educate people, they were constantly careless about letting strangers through the security doors. You know, just being polite and holding the door for whomever was coming up behind them. That’s why he would make the rounds on every floor, just to make sure that nobody was roaming the halls, looking for an easy mark: an unlocked door or a person not paying attention to their surroundings as they walked between their front door and the building’s entrances, front and garage. He took pride in the fact that nothing bad had happened since he had been working there. Vigilance was his policy, constant vigilance. He swept through the monitors often and stayed off the phone so that people could get through if they needed to.
He noticed the front door open as a tenant buzzed a guest in, and it reminded him to check the time. He looked at his gold wristwatch, the one the condo board had given him last month for his thirtieth birthday, another nice gift: 9:50 p.m. He needed to start a walk-through in ten minutes.
Glancing at his watch, Pete Escobar stepped out of the elevator onto the fifth floor. 10:15 p.m. exactly, not a minute earlier or later; he was right on time. He walked slowly down the hallway, looking from side to side, then straight ahead. When he came to number 504, he noticed the door was ajar, and he could hear what sounded like strangled screams of pain coming from within the residence. Drawing the gun from its holster and quietly pushing the door open, he entered the narrow hallway that ran from the condo’s entrance to the two-story living room beyond. The sounds of distress were more pronounced once he was on the other side of the muffling influence of the front door. He made his way forward, past the closed bathroom door to the doorway into the galley kitchen on the right. He pulled up short and peered around the corner into the kitchen. It was empty. Then he heard a man’s voice. “Shut up, you old fuck, and take my dick before I slit your throat.”
Officer Escobar edged forward down the narrow hallway, the soaring two-story wall of windows coming more and more into view around the corner at the end of the hall. The view was a spectacular display of skyscrapers lit up in the night, so close that it seemed you could reach out and touch them. The security guard refocused on the sounds of pain coming from just beyond the hallway, from somewhere inside the living room. As he carefully cleared the end of the hall and the entire living room came into view, he could see the source of the cries. There, in front of the awe-inspiring skyline view, was a couch facing toward the windows, and juxtaposed against the back of the couch was the sight of a well-muscled, gyrating, naked black ass atop a long pair of muscular black legs, rising out of a pushed-down pair of blue jeans. Framing those dark legs were two pale white legs with a pair of dark slacks stretched from ankle to ankle. Both men were bent forward over the back of the couch so that neither of their torsos showed. As Pete Escobar came up close behind the two men, neither seemed aware of his presence. In fact, by the time he was squarely behind the two, the pulsating black butt had reached a crescendo of violent thrusting. Just as the officer raised his gun into position, a guttural sound of pleasured pain came from the black man as he slammed his hips forward and began to shake spasmodically.
“Hold it right there,” Escobar commanded loudly.
Springing upright to his full height of six feet six inches, the black man towered before the five-foot eight-inch Escobar. The black man raised his hands high above his head, clutching a switchblade knife in his right hand.
The room went deadly quiet just before a sound like thunder tore through the silence. In the slow motion that accompanied the shock of the moment, the neck of the black man stretched slowly as his head snapped forward and upward, presaging the eruption from his face of dark red fluid mixed with jagged chunks, like lava from an angry volcano. The sounds of the hurling pieces splattering against the towering, picturesque windows punctuated the end of the violent percussive bang of the .45. As if the scene were not gruesome enough, the head of the young black man fell forward, hanging only by the skin at the front of the throat. As it pulled the torso with it, the faceless skull hit Judge Maxwell Silver’s back, where what remained of its contents oozed out.
And time stood still. It seemed that the universe would not restart itself. Both the judge and the cop questioned in their own minds whether they wanted it to. Neither was sure what was ahead, and both were afraid to find out.
Thirty minutes later the condo was swarming with policemen, plainclothes and uniformed. There were crime scene investigators going over every square inch of the place, upstairs and down. The loft bedroom above the kitchen and toward the back had the appearance of being ransacked, as did its adjoining bathroom. The same was the case downstairs in the living room; however, the kitchen seemed untouched. A jagged scar in the doorjamb indicated that the front door had been forced open.
The obviously shaken owner of the condo, Judge Maxwell Silver, reported that he had returned home sometime after ten o’clock p.m. to find a burglar in his residence. He added that the startled intruder had held him at gunpoint, using the judge’s own firearm, which the perp had found. And just as the man was about to shoot him, despite the judge’s assurance that he wouldn’t identify him if he spared his life, Officer Escobar came to the rescue, rushing in behind the intruder and shooting him.
Pete Escobar’s account corroborated that of the judge, and had it not been for the fact that there had been a homicide involving a police officer, off duty or not, the matter would have been dropped right there. In fact, other than the report to Internal Affairs and the obligatory presentation to the Harris County Grand Jury, the investigation pretty much stopped right at that point. To the cops on the scene, it seemed pretty cut and dried. Burglar gets surprised by homeowner and cop and gets shot and killed: end of story. No one there put much effort into critically examining the crime scene. No one seemed to notice that the story given by the victim and the officer didn’t seem to fit the physical evidence. The judge didn’t have one drop of blood or tissue debris on his face or on the front of his body, yet both the cop and the judge reported that the judge had been standing between the perp and the windows across from the officer. The splatter pattern was massive, disturbingly so, and still the judge escaped unmarked. Yet no one seemed to notice, and no one questioned it. It was as though everyone arrived with a fact sheet in hand, making no effort to question the preset story.
The next day on all the early-morning local news shows there was a report about the shooting of an unidentified armed robber at the condominium of Judge Maxwell Silver. An officer from the Public Affairs Division of the HPD appeared before the cameras, assuring the citizens of Houston that their police department had once again saved the day. Judge Silver was unavailable for comment, it was reported, because he was understandably shaken by the event.
Four weeks later, Internal Affairs ruled the discharge of Officer Escobar’s weapon on the night in question justified, and the Assistant DA who handled such matters went before a grand jury and got the necessary “No Bill” to close the case.
The report was given a thirty-second spot on the local evening newscasts, because, frankly, most people had already forgotten the incident. It was old news.
A week after that, the Condominium Board for Midtowne Tower gave a special award to Officer Pedro Escobar for “service over and beyond” in connection with his brilliant and timely rescue of Judge Maxwell Silver. The judge himself presented the plaque, and a special bonus check for $10,000.
And just like that the story went away, forgotten by everyone except those personally involved. A city of four million people doesn’t hold onto things very long because there are always other events coming along and grabbing the headlines.