"Are you familiar with the Palermo case?" Judge Hawkins asked me after I was seated in front of his desk.
I frowned hard, wondering what the old boy was up to. There can't be more than a dozen people in the whole state of Nevada who haven't heard of Matt Palermo. About two months ago a young couple broke into Palermo's home and butchered his wife. Fingerprints found at the scene were identified as belonging to Allen Crosby, twenty-five, and Mary Argalis, twenty-two. A highway patrolman picked up the pair outside of town trying to hitch a ride to Salt Lake City a week after the crime. The district attorney indicted the two for burglary, citing insufficient evidence for a murder charge. In short order, a soft-hearted judge granted bail and let them walk free awaiting trial.
That's when Palermo decided to take justice into his own hands. He waited until the couple went to sleep one night and then broke into their apartment and literally punched them full of holes with a screwdriver.
A few days later, a hiker spotted the remains near a dirt road southwest of Las Vegas where Palermo had dumped the bodies. The hiker was a real talker. "The skin was stripped clean off their foreheads," he told reporters. "The sun had cooked all the exposed flesh until it looked like a skillet full of well-done hamburger meat."
It was the kind of event that newspeople dream about, and the public waited eagerly for every new tidbit of information to come its way.
"Tobias," the judge said after I nodded, "Palermo may have killed those two, but I can't say as how I blame him much if he did. I'd appreciate it if you'd do what you can for him."
I mostly retired from my law practice when my wife passed away some time back, but I owed the judge a favor, so I agreed to go talk to Mr. Palermo.
Palermo and I seemed to be at odds with each other from the first moment we met. He glared at me defiantly from across a table in a small, airless room at the county jail. All the while, he fondled two pieces of what appeared to be strips of dark brown leather, repeatedly stretching them as if they were heavy rubber bands. At first I figured he was doing some sort of penance for taking the lives of two fellow human beings, but I soon gave up that thought. If he was sorry for what he'd done he certainly didn't let me in on it.
I sat stiffly, staring at a spot between Palermo's eyes, and took stock of him while I waited to find out if he intended to confide in me or not. A deep wrinkle slanted downward from each corner of his mouth. Dark bags sagged underneath his pale blue eyes. A bald spot showed at the top of his gray-flecked brown hair every time he lowered his head. It would be easy to see him every day for a month and never remember what he looked like. But it was apparent that he had loved his wife--still loved her, I corrected myself--and that was the one thing that kept me from walking out on him.
His voice quivered so much when he told me why he'd killed Crosby and Argalis that I had to lean closer to make out his words. He stared at the floor the whole time while he recounted the details, then he looked up at me with tears in his eyes. His lips were pressed together and his face was swollen and red, as if he'd been out in the desert sun too long. "After Betty was already dead, those bastards stabbed her fifteen or twenty times with a screwdriver," he spat out.
A lot of things can bring the hate out of a man, but the kind of hate coming out of Matt Palermo was something I'd never seen before. He stopped talking and wiped his eyes with a shirt sleeve. That's when I saw the blood on his palms where he'd squeezed his fingernails into them. "They didn't have to do that," he finished, his voice trailing off until his words came out as a whisper.
"What makes you think I should hire you to represent me?" Palermo asked after he'd taken a handkerchief out of his pocket and pressed it between his hands.
My jaw muscles tightened. Regret at being there made me as testy as a gambler on a week's losing streak. I sympathized with the man, but who in the hell did he think he was, anyway?
"Mr. Palermo, all anyone can do for you is to make sure you get a fair shake and maybe end up spending a minimum amount of time in prison. Unless you can tell me something I don't already know, there's not much more I can promise you." I left him sitting there and went to see the district attorney.
Sam Flanton wasn't a happy man. "Tobias," he said, "I'm just as anxious to get this thing cleared up as anybody. You wouldn't believe the flak I've taken since we put that man in jail." He seemed to shudder a little. "The reporters are having a field day with this, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it." He gazed at me as if he thought maybe I'd come up with something to help ease his pain. He was dead wrong. The look was still on his face when I said goodbye.
The trial took place in July. I felt like a petrified dummy sitting there next to Palermo during the whole proceeding, but that's the only way he would have it. The jury found him guilty of a reduced charge of second degree murder, and the judge sentenced him to prison for five to fifteen years.
Three years passed before I heard anything more about Matt Palermo. Then Jonathan Smyth, a local private investigator, called to ask if he could talk to me. I invited him over to my house.
Smyth turned out to be a little roly-poly man with short red hair. I'd never met him before, but I knew him by reputation. He was like a hungry fox chasing after a jack rabbit, if my information was correct. Send him off to do a job and he'd stay with it until he either got fired, or found what he was looking for.
"A while back I took a trip to Carson City," he said after he'd settled down in my big easy chair.
I raised my eyebrows and waited.
"Matt Palermo sent me a check and asked if I'd come to see him," he said. "You know what he wanted?"
I couldn't imagine, so I waited some more.
"He wanted to hire me to find Mary Argalis and Allen Crosby for him."
I stared at him so hard my eyes hurt. "You didn't take him seriously, did you?" I finally stammered.
"Not at first, but the man paid me so I had to go through the motions," Smyth said. He squirmed around as if he had an itch he couldn't reach. "I got some pictures from the Review Journal and showed them around."
I pursed my lips in a vain attempt to keep from anticipating what he was going to say next.
His words rambled around in my head like a desert sand storm for a few long seconds before their meaning became clear. I swallowed a couple of times before I asked, "You did what?"
"You heard me right. I located Crosby working at a gas station in Henderson. Later, I followed him to a bar where Argalis had a job as a waitress."
I sat with my mouth hanging open. When I finally managed to speak, all I could say was, "You have to be kidding."
Smyth shook his head and sighed as if he regretted ever having heard of Palermo. "I wish I was," he said. "I don't know who the other two were, but they sure weren't Crosby and Argalis."
"Did you tell Palermo?"
"Of course. I took the man's money, didn't I?" Smyth said, sounding offended that I would even ask such a question. "Palermo gets out on parole tomorrow. I don't know what he has in mind, but whatever it is I can't go to the cops with it."
"What are you going to do now?"
He stuck his hands out, palms up. "Not a thing. I just thought I'd let you know because you're his lawyer."
Was his lawyer! I wanted to shout, but instead I played the good host and saw him to the door.
I tossed around on my bed for most of the night trying to make sense out of the things Smyth had told me. By the time the first sign of light seeped through the curtains, I'd decided that the little man was full of hot air. I turned over and went to sleep.
After I got back home from a day's fishing at Lake Mead on Thursday, there was a message on my answering machine for me to get in touch with Sam Flanton. When I called, the D.A. told me he wanted to see me as soon as possible. He sounded concerned, so I drove downtown to find out what he had on his mind.
"He turned himself in around ten this morning and informed the sheriff that he'd just murdered Allen Crosby and Mary Argalis."
I shook my head and stared at him, wondering if I'd heard him right. Even after what Smyth had told me, I wasn't ready to believe in something I knew to be pure foolishness.
"Sheriff McCoy found two bodies hanging from the rafters of an old shack near the Needles turnoff on Boulder Highway, right where Palermo said they'd be," Flanton said. He cleared his throat.
"The skin had been ripped off their foreheads the same way as the first two, and Palermo refused to even discuss what it meant." He made an ugly face by moving his jaw muscles around. "The sheriff and I agreed to put out the word that two unidentified corpses had been found in the desert, and not elaborate any further. That way, there'd be no reason for the news people to pick up on it." He gazed at me as if he expected me to understand his predicament.
"I'm telling you all this because Palermo wants to talk to you," he continued. Then he sighed deeply and wiped his bald spot with a hand. "I guess you know why it's important that we keep this quiet for the time being."
I went to see Matt Palermo. We sat at the same table in the same small room where we'd first met. All the hate I'd seen in the man before seemed to have changed to a serene acceptance of things as they were. He didn't talk about his troubles. Rather, he wanted to thank me for my past help, and to let me know he wouldn't be needing my services this time. While he talked, he kept stretching two strips of something between his thumbs and forefingers the same way he had at our earlier meeting. Only now I had a pretty good idea of what it was that he found so fascinating.
"Let me see what you have there," I said, hoping he wouldn't go crazy on me.
He hesitated briefly, then handed me one of the pieces. I shook my head, amazed at what I was thinking. It sure looked to me like a strip of human skin that had turned dark and pliable from a lot of handling. After a brief inspection, I tossed it back to him before it burned a hole in my hand.
"How'd you get that stuff in here, Matt?"
Matt grinned sheepishly, then stuffed the strips into his mouth and swallowed. After his Adam's apple pulsed a couple of times he withdrew the two pieces and held them out to me. I made a quick exit out of there while my stomach was still in fairly good shape.
The D.A. wasn't overjoyed at seeing me again when I stopped in his office on my way out. After he'd directed me to a chair, I asked, "Have you identified the two people who got Palermo sent to prison in the first place?"
Flanton breathed hard a few times while he studied his clasped hands resting on top of the desk.
"I saw those two corpses, and positive identification was made," he said, grimacing. "And there was more than just the fingerprints. Crosby had a tattoo on his chest, and Argalis had a strawberry birthmark on the upper part of her left breast. Everything checked out."
"And the remains found today?"
Flanton slammed a hand against his desk top. "Dammit, they were Crosby and Argalis, no doubt about it." He sighed heavily. "Looking back, I guess we were just too anxious to get the whole mess over with. That's the only way I can figure it." He frowned, and sighed again. "But for the life of me, I don't know how that could be."
I resisted the urge to tell him that he hadn't made a mistake at all, mostly because I didn't want him to question my sanity. I shook my head. How in the world could a man bring two people back from the grave so he could wreak vengeance on them a second time? Even a person with half a mind couldn't believe such a thing was possible. Still, I'd seen the hatred in Matt's eyes when he told me how his wife had been stabbed over an over again with a screwdriver after she was already dead. And I'd held a piece of skin that I was convinced came from one of her killers. A chill crept up my spine and my mouth felt dry just thinking about it. The D.A. was still staring into space when I left.
Matt Palermo won't be prosecuted a second time for the murder of Crosby and Argalis. Even if the doctors hadn't declared him incompetent to stand trial, there was the problem of double jeopardy. I went to see him at the psychiatric hospital out on Tropicana Boulevard where he had taken up temporary residence. The only way the doctor would allow me to see him was through a little glass window about eye level high in the door to his room. Matt sat on the edge of his bunk with a blank look on his face.
"He talks to his dead wife occasionally," the doctor told me, "but other than that he just stares at the wall in front of him."
"How'd he get those?" I asked, motioning to two pieces of what looked like dark, pliable leather strips Matt kept stretching between his thumbs and forefingers.
"He had them with him when he was brought here," the doctor said. "Mr. Palermo became highly agitated when an attendant tried to take them away from him." He nudged me to the side and looked through the small window. "I didn't see how it could do any harm, so I let him keep them."
I nudged the doctor back and took another look inside. Matt turned his head and gazed at me, and then he winked and gave me a little grin.
My whole body went cold. I jumped back and almost knocked the doctor off his feet. Not again, I thought. You’re not going to do the whole thing all over again, are you?
I shook my head and told the doctor goodbye, then I walked down the hall and into the outside world. If I hurried, maybe I could still get a hook in the water before noon.
x x x
If revenge is a dish best eaten cold, Matt Palermo must like his as icy leftovers. Mr Combs has come up with neat concept and--if not comletely original--rare enough to make an interesting read. What say you, AR readers?