ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK?
The New Novel
In downtown Manhattan, in courtroom thirty-seven of the Supreme Court Criminal Term building at 180 Centre Street, the trial of Anthony (Tony) Altieri was in session. The large, venerable courtroom was filled to capacity with press and spectators.
At the defendant's table sat Anthony Altieri, slouched in a wheelchair, looking like a pale, fat frog folding in on itself. Only his eyes were alive, and every time he looked at Diane Stevens in the witness chair, she could literally feel the pulse of his hatred.
Next to Altieri sat Jake Rubenstein, Altieri's defense attorney. Rubenstein was famous for two things: his high-profile clientele, consisting mostly of mobsters, and the fact that nearly all of his clients were acquitted.
Rubenstein was a small, dapper man with a quick mind and a vivid imagination. He was never the same in his courtroom appearances. Courtroom histrionics were his stock-in-trade, and he was highly skilled. He was brilliant at sizing up his opponents, with a feral instinct for finding their weaknesses. Sometimes Rubenstein imagined he was a lion, slowly closing in on his unsuspecting prey, ready to pounce ... or a cunning spider, spinning a web that would eventually entrap them and leave them helpless ... Sometimes he was a patient fisherman, gently tossing a line into the water and slowly moving it back and forth until the gullible witness took the bait.
The lawyer was carefully studying the witness on the stand. Diane Stevens was in her early thirties. An aura of elegance. Patrician features. Soft, flowing blonde hair. Green eyes. Lovely figure. A girlnext- door kind of wholesomeness. She was dressed in a chic, tailored black suit. Jake Rubenstein knew that the day before she had made a favorable impression on the jury. He had to be careful how he handled her. Fisherman, he decided.
Rubenstein took his time approaching the witness box, and when he spoke, his voice was gentle. "Mrs. Stevens, yesterday you testified that on the date in question, October fourteenth, you were driving south on the Henry Hudson Parkway when you got a flat tire and pulled off the highway at the One Hundred and Fifty-eighth Street exit, onto a service road into Fort Washington Park?"
"Yes." Her voice was soft and cultured.
"What made you stop at that particular place?"
"Because of the flat tire, I knew I had to get off the main road and I could see the roof of a cabin through the trees. I thought there might be someone there who could help me. I didn't have a spare."
"Do you belong to an auto club?"
"And do you have a phone in your car?"
"Then why didn't you call the auto club?"
"I thought that might have taken too long."
Rubenstein said sympathetically, "Of course. And the cabin was right there."
"So, you approached the cabin to get help?"
"Was it still light outside?"
"Yes. It was about five o'clock in the afternoon."
"And so, you could see clearly?"
"What did you see, Mrs. Stevens?"
"I saw Anthony Altieri -- "
"Oh. You had met him before?"
"What made you sure it was Anthony Altieri?"
"I had seen his picture in the newspaper and -- "
"So, you had seen pictures that resembled the defendant?"
"Well, it -- "
"What did you see in that cabin?"
Diane Stevens took a shuddering breath. She spoke slowly, visualizing the scene in her mind. "There were four men in the room. One of them was in a chair, tied up. Mr. Altieri seemed to be questioning him while the two other men stood next to him." Her voice shook. "Mr. Altieri pulled out a gun, yelled something, and -- and shot the man in the back of the head."
Jake Rubenstein cast a sidelong glance at the jury. They were absorbed in her testimony.
"What did you do then, Mrs. Stevens?"
"I ran back to my car and dialed 911 on my cell phone."
"I drove away."
"With a flat tire?"
Time for a little ripple in the water. "Why didn't you wait for the police?"
Diane glanced toward the defense table. Altieri was watching her with naked malevolence.
She looked away. "I couldn't stay there because I -- I was afraid that the men might come out of the cabin and see me."
"That's very understandable." Rubenstein's voice hardened. "What is not understandable is that when the police responded to your 911 call, they went into the cabin, and not only was no one there, Mrs. Stevens, but they could find no sign that anyone had been there, let alone been murdered there."
"I can't help that. I -- "
"You're an artist, aren't you?"
She was taken aback by the question. "Yes, I -- "
"Are you successful?"
"I suppose so, but what does -- ?"
It was time to yank the hook.
"A little extra publicity never hurts, does it? The whole country watches you on the nightly news report on television, and on the front pages of -- "
Diane looked at him, furious. "I didn't do this for publicity. I would never send an innocent man to -- "
"The key word is innocent, Mrs. Stevens. And I will prove to you and the ladies and gentlemen of the jury that Mr. Altieri is innocent. Thank you. You're finished."
Diane Stevens ignored the double entendre. When she stepped down to return to her seat, she was seething. She whispered to the prosecuting attorney, "Am I free to go?"
"Yes. I'll send someone with you."
"That won't be necessary. Thank you."
She headed for the door and walked out to the parking garage, the words of the defense attorney ringing in her ears.
You're an artist, aren't you? ... A little extra publicity never hurts, does it? It was degrading. Still, all in all, she was satisfied with the way her testimony had gone. She had told the jury exactly what she had seen, and they had no reason to doubt her. Anthony Altieri was going to be convicted and sent to prison for the rest of his life. Yet Diane could not help thinking of the venomous looks he had given her, and she felt a little shiver.
She handed the parking attendant her ticket and he went to get her car.
Two minutes later, Diane was driving onto the street, heading north, on her way home.
Copyright © 2004 by the Sidney Sheldon Family Limited Partnership
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