THE INNOCENT HOURS

 

            “SMALL-TIME HOOD ARRESTED IN FREDRICKSON MURDER.”  The headline seemed to shout from the Batcave’s main computer screen.

            Bruce Wayne reread the accompanying article from the Gotham Globe’s online archive, though it really wasn’t necessary.  To him, the crime seemed almost as fresh as the day it occurred ten years earlier.

            As Alfred walked up, he couldn’t help but see the bold block letters.  “Your evening tea, sir.  Having another stroll down unpleasant memory lane?”

            Bruce took a sip of the hot beverage.  “Yeah.”

            “I heard his final appeal was denied and the execution is on for tomorrow night.”

            “You heard right.”

            The butler picked up his tray.  “Well, I for one won’t be shedding any tears when Sammy ‘The Pig’ Pagani meets his Maker.  After what he did to that family, it’s been a long time coming.”

            “I’m sure Karl would agree, if he were still here.”

            “What about you, Master Bruce?  You seem a trifle dispassionate, considering Karl was one of your closest business associates.  Surely you must feel some satisfaction that the man who destroyed your friend’s life is receiving his comeuppance?”

            “You would think so.”  Bruce finished off his drink.  “Half an hour ago, the warden at Blackgate released a final request from Pagani.  The guy reiterated his innocence and pleaded for a meeting with Batman.”

            “And people in Hades plead for water,” Alfred said.  “Why on earth would he want to talk to you?  The Dark Knight had nothing to do with his case.”

“There’s only one way to find out,” Bruce said as he walked to the Batsuit vault.  “If Warden Hopkins thought enough of Pagani’s message to release it, isn’t it worth ten minutes of the Batman’s time to hear him out?”

            “I suppose.  But I’m glad it’s your ten minutes and not mine.”

 

            Blackgate Penitentiary sat alone on an island at the southern tip of Gotham City.  Batman seldom went there and hated the place only a bit less than he did Arkham Asylum.  After getting clearance to keep his utility belt on, he was escorted down to Death Row by two armed guards and let into Pagani’s eight-by-ten cell.

            “You got lucky, Sammy,” one guard said.  “Batman does make house calls.”

            Pagani rolled over in his bed and looked at the black shadow in front of him.  A faint smile appeared on his forlorn face, and he sat upright.  “You came!”

            “It was a slow night.”  Batman studied the bald, slightly pudgy man in his early forties.  He saw a mixture of hope and fear in his gimlet eyes.  But it wasn’t fear of him.  His presence actually seemed to relieve Pagani.  Nevertheless, he had no intention of cutting the felon any slack.  “You have ten minutes.  Talk.”

            Pagani took a deep breath.  He met Batman’s granite gaze and spoke from his heart.  “Guess you heard the Supreme Court denied my appeal.  Barring a miracle, I’m gonna die in that gas chamber twenty-four hours from now.”

            “And…?”

            “Batman, I swear to you by all that’s holy, I didn’t shoot Emma Fredrickson.  I didn’t do it!  They’re executing an innocent man.”

            “That’s the best you could come up with?” Batman sneered.

            “Please, you gotta believe me.  I was at the house, yes.  I took part in the robbery, yes.  I got no problem doing time for that.  It was my gun, yes.  My prints were on it, duh!  But Sal Grasso pulled the trigger.”

            “Funny that none of his prints were on it.”

            “Like I’ve said over and over, he was wearing gloves.  Anyway, I’m sure you’ve seen my rap sheet.”

            Batman crossed his arms.  “It’s longer than my cape.”

            “But it’s all little stuff.  I never hurt nobody.  Not with a knife, not with a gun.  They convicted me because I’m a three time loser.  The biggest mistake I ever made was going along with Sal that night.  We were hittin’ a rich neighborhood.  Big score, he promised.  Jewelry, antiques.”

            “A jury of twelve men and women heard the evidence and convicted you.”

            “Not to sound like I’m making excuses, but my lawyer was a public defender lush who died from cirrhosis seven months later.  And the cops killed Sal in a shootout before the trial.”

            “It happens.”

            “Batman, think of the big picture here.  I’m down to my last twenty-four on Earth.  I got no hope.  Outta nowhere, I make a one-chance-in-a-million request for the Dark Knight himself to come see little nobody me.  How many guilty men would have the balls to seek you out, much less go toe to toe?  Why would I do that?”

            “You tell me.”

            “Because you’re my last chance at justice.  They call you the World’s Greatest Detective.”  Pagani got down on his knees.  “Please, I beg you.  Prove me innocent before it’s too late.”

            “Is there one other credible person in Gotham who believes you?”

            “Only Josh Fredrickson, that I know of.”

            “Emma’s brother?  He practically ripped you a new one at the sentencing.”

            Pagani shrugged.  “He was fourteen, what do you expect?  We started talking about three years ago.  At first he was like you—I’m a lying rat, child killer, responsible for his father’s suicide, blah, blah.  I told him I wanted to do something—anything—to atone for my part in the crime, and the chaplain here kinda worked as a go-between.  Little by little, he got to know me, I explained what really happened that night…he admitted he didn’t see who fired the gun because it was so dark.  He was blaming me ‘cause that’s what all the adults were doing.”

            Batman pondered the totality of the situation.  He had once intervened to save the Joker from being executed for a crime he didn’t commit.  If there was even a microscopic chance Pagani was innocent, the principles of justice would not allow him to walk away.

            “I know I’m not the most credible source.  Talk to Josh.  Hear his reasons for believing in me.”

            “I intend to.  But first, I want you to tell me every single detail about that night.  Put me at the crime scene.  Leave nothing out, no matter how unimportant it may seem.  If you are innocent, something somewhere in the evidence will exonerate you.”

 

            Nearly an hour later, Batman left Blackgate on a mission.  He had exactly twenty-two hours and fifty minutes to complete it.  “Alfred,” he radioed from the Batmobile, “I need you to pull up and print out the entire transcript of Pagani’s trial, including all exhibits entered as evidence.  I may have to stop an execution.”

 

            Before heading home, he went to Josh Fredrickson’s apartment near downtown.  Because of his friendship with Josh’s father, Bruce Wayne had given him a full scholarship to MIT and a job at Wayne Enterprises upon graduation.  The young man worked in R&D and was a self-described “techno-geek.” 

            Josh sat busily working in front of his computer and casually glanced at his smartphone.  “Hello, Batman.”

            The Dark Knight emerged from behind the drapes.  “I’m impressed.”

            Still looking at his computer, Josh said, “When you approached the window, my motion-sensor robot camera sent a hi-res picture to my phone.  Like you, I value my privacy.  So, why am I visited by the Caped Crusader?”

            “Sammy Pagani.  He said you don’t think he’s guilty.”

            “I don’t.”  Josh finally turned to look at Batman.  “But I can’t prove it, even with all the technology at my disposal.”

            “Technology has limits.  It’s no substitute for investigation and deductive reasoning.”

            “That’s your forte, I hear.”

            “Pagani has until nine p.m. tomorrow to live.  He’s asked me to prove his innocence.  I need to know what changed your mind about him.”

            Fredrickson rolled his chair away from the computer.  “I’m probably the last person you’d expect to be in Sammy’s corner.  A dead sister…a grief-stricken father who killed himself… mother in the psych ward.  I was probably headed down that road.  Thanks to Mr. Wayne, it didn’t happen.

            “When I finally got past my anger and bloodlust, I listened to Sammy.  Really listened.  And I read a lot about the trial.  The number one thing that struck me was his consistency.  His story didn’t change.  He never contradicted himself.  Let’s be honest—he isn’t Einstein.  I don’t think he was capable of concocting a story without loose ends.  I actually looked at his police record.  Page after page of stupidity and poor decisions.  Then there was his lawyer.  Put it this way—I’ve seen better performances on TV.”

            Batman began pacing.  “What do you think was the most damning evidence against him?”

            “No question--his fingerprints on the gun.  In a case with so much left to interpretation, I’m sure the jury was all over that fact like dogs on a steak.”

            “Tell me everything you remember from that night.”

            Josh closed his eyes.  “Emma and I went to bed around 9:30.  Her bedroom was closest to the stairs, and mine was next to hers.  Mom was already asleep in her room at the end of the hall.  Dad still hadn’t come in from work.  I think he was finishing up some big proposal.

“About 9:45, we heard noise on the first floor.  We thought it might be Dad getting home.  Emma left her room and ran downstairs.  I heard more noise, then what sounded like Emma arguing with somebody, so I got up and was almost to the stairs when I saw the muzzle flash and heard the gunshot.  I couldn’t say who was who in the dark, I just knew the one closest to Emma fired the shot.

“I flipped on the light and charged down the stairs screaming like a warrior.  By that time, Mom was awake and rushing to see what was going on.  I guess the lights spooked them, because they made a beeline for the patio door.  I tried to help Emma while Mom called 9-1-1.  She started freaking out, and everything was a blur after that.”

 “The prosecutor pretty much convinced the jury you were confused about what you saw.”

Josh looked down.  “I let him get to me.  With all the pressure and the tragedy, I wasn’t confident enough to assert myself.  Even if I had, my story would’ve been drowned out by all the ‘expert’ witnesses, with their ballistic tests and clinical mumbo jumbo.”

“What convinced you Sammy wasn’t the one?”

“Basically, putting his story together with what I saw.  They meshed.  Like, I thought the guy who shot Emma was taller than the other.  But I wasn’t going to swear to it, especially when the prosecutor dismissed almost everything I said.  And you have to understand, it was all over in about five seconds.  It took me longer to describe than it did to happen.”

Batman adjusted his gloves.  “Your story agrees with what Sammy just told me tonight.  I’m going to review every bit of evidence from the trial.  I’ll do what I can to exonerate him.  No promises.”

“I understand.  Time is the enemy.  Thanks for doing this.  If you don’t mind, could you—”

The wind rustled the curtains, and Batman was gone.

“—leave through the front door?”  Josh sighed.  “Tell me he didn’t trample my window box bonsai.”

 

It was 11:30 when Bruce began dissecting the records and evidence from Pagani’s trial.  The hundreds of pages of testimony, procedural exchanges, and summation made for dry and not very helpful reading.

Alfred came down around midnight with a pot of coffee.  “Extra strong.  I thought you might need it.”

“I will.  Is Dick home?”

“Yes.  He’s about to turn in, as am I.”

“Tell him he’s ‘on call’ for anything—and I mean anything—that comes up before tomorrow night at nine.”

“What about you, sir?”

Bruce hoisted a stack of the papers.  “I don’t think I’ll be sleeping anytime soon.”

 

It became clear to him right away that Pagani had been badly served by his attorney.  The lawyer never mounted much of a defense against the largely circumstantial evidence and had no answer for the prosecution’s centerpiece, Pagani’s fingerprints on the murder weapon.  Instead, he relied on Pagani’s blame-the-other-guy testimony and offered no evidence to support him or counter his lack of credibility.

The prosecutor, in contrast, covered all bases.  Besides offering up the fingerprints, he demolished Josh Fredrickson’s testimony by portraying him as a sincere but mistaken teen caught up in a “fog of war” situation.  Shoeprint evidence which might have favored Pagani was dismissed as either tainted or irrelevant.  And Grasso’s absence by death made his task all the easier.

Reading between the lines, Bruce picked up a subtle attitude by the prosecutor that Pagani was going to pay for Emma Fredrickson’s murder no matter if it was he or Grasso who fired the fatal shot.  They were equally guilty, it seemed.  With little help during the trial and even less on appeal, Pagani stood no chance of avoiding Death Row.

And therein lay the challenge for the World’s Greatest Detective.

 

By daybreak he had digested all the transcript and discouragingly concluded it was of no value in overturning Pagani’s conviction.  With a little more than twelve hours to go, he turned his focus to the evidence, examining it for errors or facts overlooked.

The prosecutor had built a circumstantial case topped with the fingerprint evidence.  Before noon, Bruce had found within the same exhibits plenty to build his own case for Pagani.

The angle the bullet entered Emma’s body was inconsistent with Pagani being the shooter.  He would’ve had to be standing almost where Grasso was.  Josh saw both men from the railing, and if Pagani had been where Grasso was, the boy could not have seen them both because the bedroom wall would’ve blocked his view.  Also, there were no shoeprints matching Pagani’s Doc Martens in the area where Grasso stood.

“Any progress?” Alfred inquired when he brought Bruce a ham sandwich and bottle of mineral water for lunch.

“No.  If I was Pagani’s trial lawyer, I’ve got a pretty strong ‘reasonable doubt’ defense to keep him off Death Row.”

“That’s not a good thing?”

“Not when you’re looking for concrete proof of his innocence,” Bruce said.  “The appellate judge needs something undeniable to overturn or issue a stay.  Unless I can explain away Pagani’s prints on the gun, I’m wasting my time.”

 

The hours slipped by as he studied and re-studied details of the evidence and its accompanying reports.  Pagani never denied it was his prints or his gun, so there was no point in pursuing that angle.  Nor were there anyone else’s prints on the weapon.

“How can you prove you handled a gun but didn’t fire it?” Bruce asked.  He closed his eyes and began recalling Pagani’s words from the night before.

“When we got to the house, it looked quiet and dark.  We didn’t see any sign of a security system, which really surprised us.  I took the crowbar and smashed a big window by the kitchen.  No alarm.  Nada.  So we came in and started casing the living room.

“Sal heard something and asked for my gun.  I took it out of my jacket and handed it to him.  Somebody started coming down the stairs, and he moved closer.  I got a tighter grip on the crowbar in case there was gonna be a fight.

“Instead, it was this little girl.  She said, ‘Daddy?  Is that you?’  Then she saw us and asked, ‘Who are you?’  Sal told her to be quiet and sit down there at the bottom of the stairs.  She said, ‘You’re bad men!  I’m telling Mommy!’  Sal yelled at her to sit down.  She shouted back, ‘No!’ and turned to run upstairs.

“Then…he just shot her.  Twice.  I was shocked.  I can still see her falling like a rag doll.  ‘Sal, what the hell…?’  By that time, her brother was coming after us, the lights were on, and I started running toward the patio door.  I hit it with the crowbar and ran right through the flying glass.  I turned and Sal was behind me.  He dropped the gun somewhere on his way out, so I knew it only a matter of time until the cops caught up with me.”

 

Bruce woke up with a jolt and realized he’d dozed off.  While the unplanned nap gave his mind a welcome break, it also cost him valuable time.  Pagani had barely four hours to live.

He felt he had a good grasp of the murder scene—where everyone was, how events occurred.  He had been to the Fredrickson house numerous times, so he knew the setting well.  And yet…something was lacking.  He could not make it come alive in his mind.  He wasn’t able to put himself in Pagani’s shoes and physically feel the scene unfold.  So he decided to recreate it.

He set a training dummy against one wall of the Batcave to act as Emma.  Alfred served as Sal Grasso while he took the part of Pagani.  He put on a windbreaker and stuck his grappling gun in the left pocket to substitute for the murder weapon.  A ruler in his left hand acted as Pagani’s crowbar.

“It’s been many a year since I did stage work,” Alfred said.  “Do be gentle with your directions.”

“Walk over there.  You’re in the lead.  Now you just heard something.  Stop.  Ask me for my gun.”

“Your pistol, please.”

Bruce hesitated.  “Hmm.  I’m left handed, but I’m holding a crowbar.  That means I’ve got to reach for the gun…with my right hand!”  He pulled out the grapple launcher as though he were going to fire it.  “That’s it!”

He put everything down and rushed over to the trial transcript.  Flipping through several pages of the fingerprint evidence report, he found the one he wanted.  “This proves he didn’t do it.  His prints were found on the left side of the handgrip.”

“Oh,” Alfred said, more than a bit puzzled.

“Don’t you see?  Pagani’s left handed.  If he had fired the gun, his prints would’ve been on the right side of the grip.  They were on the left because he gave the gun to Grasso with his right hand.”

Alfred made a gun with each hand and quickly understood.  “Brilliant, sir!  Now, how do you stop the execution?”

“I take this to Judge Winkler and persuade him to issue a stay,” Batman said as he finished suiting up.

“Are you sure that will be enough?”

“No.  The man’s extremely hard-nosed about criminals.”  He slipped a small envelope into the gauntlet of his glove.  “So I’ve got some evidence of my own.”

“Is there anything I can do?” Alfred asked.

“Yes.  Call Lee Murray and tell him he’s Pagani’s new attorney.  I’ll pay him double what he’s getting from Wayne Enterprises.”

 

The burnt orange sunset cast its glow from underneath a gray cloud bank as Batman arrived at the District Courts building.  Through his binoculars, he could see the lights were still on in Judge Winkler’s third floor office.  He fired a grapple line to the roof and began climbing.

Judge Warren “Whipsaw” Winkler had served in the appellate court for more than five years.  He was respected among his judicial colleagues and despised by criminal defense attorneys, whom he tended to view as only slightly less guilty than their clients.  He acquired the nickname from his tendency to cut off such lawyers “like a whipsaw.”

Batman easily removed the lock on the bulletproof window and slipped inside the judge’s room.  He waited a few seconds to see if he’d been noticed before moving into view.  “Permission to approach the bench.”

Winkler nearly jumped out of his skin.  “Good God!”  He reflexively grabbed a concealed Derringer and pointed it at the stranger looming over his right shoulder.  “Batman?” he asked, mystified.

The Dark Knight quietly folded his arms.  “I need a few minutes of your time on a matter literally of life and death.”

Warily, Winkler lowered the gun.  “People who scare the crap out of me and then ask for favors usually don’t get very far.”

“It’s not for me.  I need you to issue a thirty-day stay of execution for Sammy Pagani.”

Frowning, Winkler asked, “Because?”

Batman tossed a folder onto the judge’s desk.  “He’s innocent.”

Winkler chortled.  “Really?  And just how did you reach that conclusion three hours and change before the man is supposed to die?”

Pointing to the folder, Batman said, “It’s all in the original trial record, if anyone had bothered to look.  His attorney was incompetent.”

Opening the folder, the jurist said, “No argument there.  Let’s look at what you have.  You know, of course, that his fingerprints were on the murder weapon.  Says right here, prints were taken from the left side of the handgrip.  And Pagani’s a southpaw.  I see nothing to exonerate him.  Quite the opposite, in fact.”

“You made the same mistake everybody else did.  Logically, it fits—left hand, left side.  But pick up your pistol again.”

“Why?”

“Just do it,” Batman said in irritation.

Winkler grudgingly complied.  He was right handed and noticed his fingers were touching the left side.  “Now that’s interesting.”

“Pagani had a crowbar in his left hand, so he passed the gun to Sal Grasso with his right.  Which means he never had it in his shooting hand, which means—”

“He was telling the truth.  He didn’t kill Emma Fredrickson.”  Winkler looked up at Batman.  “Damn good detective work.”

“So you’ll issue the stay?”

“No.  Someone has to file a petition with the court.”

“Pagani’s new lawyer should be working on it.”

“He’d better move fast,” Winkler cautioned.

Batman activated the communicator in his cowl.  “Any word from the attorney?”

“No, sir,” Alfred replied.  “Mr. Murray is out with his wife for the evening, and his phone rolls over to voicemail.”

“Thank you.”  To Winkler, Batman said, “Unfortunately, he’s out of contact at the moment.  He’ll file the necessary paperwork tomorrow morning, but given the situation, surely you can issue a twenty-four hour stay.”

“I just explained, we have to follow procedure.”

“Pagani is about to die for something he didn’t do, and all you can think about is procedure?”

“The rule of law,” Winkler said.  “Surely a familiar concept, though you routinely disregard it,” he added with a smile.  “You’re quite a daring man, I’ll give you that much.  First you take down criminals outside the law.  Now you act as an attorney without a license.”

“It’s all done in the name of justice,” Batman reminded him.  “One could say that you’re also daring, Judge Winkler.”

“How’s that?”

Batman took the envelope out of his gauntlet and removed three photographs, which he handed to Winkler.  “It’s pretty daring to tell your wife you’re playing poker with ‘the guys’ every Friday night when you’re really with the girls at Madame de Sade’s S&M club.”

The judge went pale as he stared at the pictures.  “How—how in the world did you find out?”

“My work takes me to some strange places.”

Winkler gave back the pictures.  “There’s nothing at all illegal about going to that club.”

“True,” Batman said.  “But wouldn’t it be embarrassing if the Gotham Globe told its readers their appellate judge has a thing for bondage and whips?”

“You wouldn’t.”

Batman got in Winkler’s face.  “I’ve dangled criminal scum by their ankles from the rooftops of this city!  Giving you a lot of explaining to do is nothing.”

“That’s blackmail!”

“Is it really?  It’s not against the law to take pictures in a public alley or to publish them.  I’m not demanding money, and I wouldn’t personally benefit from your cooperation.”  Batman handed him the phone.  “Now that we’ve settled that, make the call and issue a stay!”

His head bowed, Winkler dialed Blackgate Prison, then signed a document making the thirty-day stay official.

 

The officer in charge of the Death Row guards raked his baton across the bars of Pagani’s cell.  “Sammy, you’re one lucky SOB.  Appeals court just issued you a stay.”

Pagani instantly went from gloom to gladness.  “For real?”

“For real.  They just faxed it over.  Somebody up there really likes you.”

A tear came to Sammy’s eye.  “Thank you, God!  Thank you, Batman!”  He guessed some angels just had black wings.

 

Winkler couldn’t bring himself to make eye contact with Batman.  “Satisfied?”

“Yes.  See, it’s easy to do the right thing.  You should try it more often.”  Batman ripped up the photos and tossed the pieces to him.

“I suppose I should expect a petition for a new trial?”

“More like an offer to plead guilty to a lesser charge of accessory to murder,” Batman said.  “With the sentence he’s already served plus time off for good behavior, he could be out in less than four years.”

“Whoever you are, you’d make one hell of a poker player.”

“Who says I’m not?”  Batman leaped out the window, grabbed his grapple line, and disappeared in the darkness.