Not too long ago I asked you guys to challenge me. My mom was the first to respond, giving me a name, setting, object and emotion to write a story about. This is what I came up with. If you still want to play along, just leave your ideas in the comments and I'll be glad to give it a shot! To those who have already played, thanks! Your stories are forthcoming. This one's for you, Mom!
On the night in question, Alex had been standing in the same dark alley as the defendant and his victim. He didn't make it a habit to loiter in dark alleys, but on that night, he was desperate for a cigarette. Before he was halfway through that smoke break, he wished he had resisted the nicotine craving.
Because of that need to feed his addiction, he became an eyewitness to a brutal murder. Now he was on the stand in a large courtroom and all eyes were on him. The judge, several attorneys, twelve jurors, many spectators and Devon J. Burnette, the murderer, all stared at him.
Alex knew that Burnette was, technically, supposed to be referred to as the "alleged" murderer. But he had a hard time using that term, especially when he had replayed the horrible scene every time he closed his eyes for the last nine months.
Yes, it was dark, and the defense would attempt to use that lack of light to discredit Alex's testimony. But he saw everything as clearly as if it had been day.
"Please state your name for the court," said the prosecutor as he approached the witness stand.
"And what do you do for a living, Mr. Wheat?"
"I'm the assistant copy editor for the Times," said Alex. Mr. Hawk, the prosecutor, was asking the same questions they had rehearsed several times during the previous weeks. As the only eyewitness to the crime, Alex was Hawk's star witness.
"Is that your only job?" asked Hawk.
"It is now. But up until two weeks ago I also waited tables part time at Marco's."
Hawk turned to face the jury, his motions in the courtroom were carefully choreographed. "Really great eggplant parm at Marco's."
Alex smirked, "Yes, sir."
"How long did you hold your part time position at the restaurant?" the prosecutor asked, still facing the jury.
"A little more than two years."
"And were you working a shift on the night of January 14 of this year?"
"Yes, sir," Alex answered, growing nervous. Yes, they had rehearsed this back and forth, but it had been in private. Now he was giving these answers in front of everyone; in front of Burnette. Fear was beginning to settle into Alex's gut.
Mr. Hawk turned back to the witness stand and took two deliberate steps toward Alex. "Tell us about that night, if you don't mind."
"Well, I wasn't supposed to work that night. But the restaurant was short handed, so the manager called me up to ask if I'd be willing to pick up a shift. She said in return I'd get to pick my weekends for February. That was enough to get me in. I'd have done anything to guarantee I would work Valentine's weekend," Alex could tell he was starting to ramble.
"So you went into work that evening," the prosecutor stated, getting Alex back on track.
"Right, sorry. So I got to Marco's around 7 and clocked in," Alex continued. He tried to imagine that no one else was in the courtroom. He imagined that he was back in Hawk's office, just him and the prosecuting team. "Right away, I was assigned my usual section. And my first customers were real pains in the a-- ah, I mean, neck."
Alex's near slip caused some stifled laughter in the courtroom. He cleared his throat and continued, "It's not important how awful they were or how little they tipped me. But the stress of dealing with that quartet of customers led to my craving a cigarette. I had quit smoking as a New Year's resolution, so I hadn't had a cigarette since New Year's Eve. I know two weeks wasn't a very long time, but for a guy that had been smoking a pack a day for five years, it felt like an eternity. Especially when I got stressed out."
"Did you take a smoke break, Mr. Wheat?" asked Mr. Hawk.
"Not right away. It wasn't until around 8:30 that I got a chance to bum a cigarette off the hostess and sneak out the back."
The prosecutor paced a bit. "You say you sneaked out back. What's behind Marco's?"
"It's just an alley. Not much to speak of back there. A dumpster that we share with the tenants living upstairs and the pawn shop next door. I sat on a box next to the dumpster and lit my cigarette."
"Were you alone in the alley, Mr. Wheat?"
Alex took a deep breath. "I was at first," he said as his eyes darted around the courtroom. He noticed Burnette staring directly at him, like just about everyone else. But Burnette's stare bothered him. It scared the hell out of him. It wasn't Devon Burnette that really scared him. This was an open and shut case. Burnette would be in prison serving 25 to life. But he had violent friends who weren't afraid to do him some favors, even if he was going down for 1st degree murder.
Burnette knew that Alex had been in that alley back in January. Oh, he hadn't known about Alex being there that night. If he had, Alex was sure he'd have been killed too. Just like that poor girl. No, the killer found out later. After all, someone had to have called the police. Someone had to have identified him in a line up. It was only a matter of time before Burnette's friends figured out who squealed.
A month after Devon's arrest, Alex received a few visitors at Marco's. At first they were no different than any other customers. Then they started mentioning rumors about the murder in the alley behind the restaurant. They mentioned Burnette by name. Then they mentioned a few small details about Alex's personal life. Their sudden threats made Alex's blood run like ice water. They scared him.
But that was months ago. Since then, the prosecutors had assured Alex that none of Burnette's men would be able to touch him. They let him know that he would be safe. They said all these things because they needed his testimony. Or did they?
Alex had seen the evidence. They had enough physical evidence to put Burnette away twice over. Alex's testimony should just be icing on the cake.
"I was taking my time while I smoked. It was cold out, but not so cold that I couldn't handle taking a few minutes away from people. I just sat there, looking down at my feet. Then I heard a loud bang. I stood up slowly and peeked over the dumpster. I saw two people coming out of the pawn shop's back door. A guy and a girl... the girl was being pushed, kind of violently, out the door."
The prosecutor walked toward Alex again. "Just take your time, Mr. Wheat."
Alex glanced at Burnette again. "The guy was yelling at the girl. He said, 'You don't get to leave me until I say you leave...' I saw him hit her with the back of his hand. She fell against the wall. She was crying and screaming that she was sorry. I couldn't stand seeing this guy hitting her. I couldn't imagine that she could have done anything to possibly deserve to be treated like that. I stood up and got ready to run over. I wasn't trying to be a hero, but I figured if the guy knew that someone else was there, he wouldn't be so brave about beating up a woman. But that's when I saw the knife."
Hawk walked to the table holding all the evidence and picked up exhibit A. "Is this the knife you saw that night?"
"Yes, sir," Alex said, looking at the knife. The image of the weapon had been etched into his mind since January 14. There was no chance he would ever forget what it looked like.
"As soon as I saw him pull the knife out of his jacket, I ducked back down. I guess he didn't notice me moving since I was in a darker part of the alley. They were closer to the... to the street light," Alex began to falter. He didn't doubt his story. He was just becoming emotional. It wasn't easy for him to think about what happened that night, even though it was all he could think about. Talking about it made it real again. Watching that poor girl die. Knowing that he didn't do a thing to stop it.
He took another breath and continued, "It all happened so fast. He stabbed her over and over again. There was so much blood. I was frozen... I just couldn't move. I didn't know what to do."
"What happened next, Mr. Wheat?"
"I kept watching. I couldn't look away, you know?" Alex looked away from Hawk. He looked directly at Burnette. "I just couldn't understand how someone could do something like that. He stood over the girl's body for what seemed like forever. Though I know it was just a few minutes. He pulled out his cell phone and called someone. He talked quietly. I couldn't hear what he was saying. While he was still on the phone, he walked back into the pawn shop. That's when I took off. I went back into the restaurant and called the police."
Alex knew what happened next, but he didn't need to testify about it. The police showed up and investigated the crime scene. No one was in the pawn shop. But Alex gave the description of the murderer to a sketch artist. The detectives did their jobs fairly quickly and picked Burnette up the next day.
"Can you identify the man from the alley?" asked Hawk.
"Yes, sir. The man in the alley was the defendant, Devon Burnette."
Alex noticed some murmuring in the courtroom. He couldn't figure out why people would murmur about that tiny revelation. It should not have come as a shock to anyone that Burnette would be identified as the killer. But the whispering became so distracting that the judge needed to bang his gavel and ask for order.
"Thank you, Mr. Wheat," said Mr. Hawk. He looked at the judge, "No further questions."
Burnette's attorney stood as Hawk took his seat. "Your honor, the defense requests a short recess before cross examining the witness."
The judge looked at his watch. "Very well, we'll break for lunch. Court is adjourned for one hour."
The bailiff called, "All rise!" It all seemed so far away to Alex.
He remembered hearing the judge saying something about lunch, but he had no appetite. The easy part was over. After the break, Alex would have to face the defense attorney. That realization just made his fear set in all over again.