memories of midnight-Page 8

The Arsakion Courthouse in downtown Athens is a large, gray stone building that takes up the entire square block at University Street and Strada. Of the thirty courtrooms in the building, only three rooms are reserved for criminal trials: rooms 21, 30, and 33.

Because of the enormous interest generated by the murder trial of Anastasia Savalas, it was being held in Room 33. The courtroom was forty feet wide and three hundred feet long, and the seats were divided into three blocks, six feet apart, with nine wooden benches to each row. At the front of the courtroom was a raised dais behind a six-foot mahogany partition, with high-backed chairs for the three presiding judges.

In front of the dais was a witness stand, a small raised platform on which was fixed a reading lectern, and against the far wall was a jury box, filled now with its ten jurors. In front of the defendant's box was the lawyers' table.

The murder trial was spectacular enough in itself, but the piece de resistance was the fact that the defense was being conducted by Napoleon Chotas, one of the preeminent criminal lawyers in the world. Chotas tried only murder cases, and he had a remarkable record of success. His fees were rumored to be in the millions of dollars. Napoleon Chotas was a thin, emaciated-looking man with the large, sad eyes of a bloodhound in a corrugated face. He dressed badly, and his physical appearance did nothing to inspire confidence. But behind his vaguely baffled manner was hidden a brilliant, trenchant mind.

The press had speculated furiously about why Napoleon Chotas had agreed to defend the woman on trial. There was no way he could possibly win the case. Wagers were being made that it would be Chotas's first defeat.

Peter Demonides, the prosecuting attorney, had come up against Chotas before, and - though he would never admit it, even to himself - he was in awe of Chotas's skill. This time, however, Demonides felt that he had little to worry about. If ever there was a classic open-and-shut murder case, the Anastasia Savalas trial was it.

The facts were simple: Anastasia Savalas was a beautiful young woman married to a wealthy man named George Savalas, who was thirty years her senior. Anastasia had been having an affair with their young chauffeur, Josef Pappas, and, according to witnesses, her husband had threatened to divorce Anastasia and write her out of his will. On the night of the murder, she had dismissed the servants and prepared dinner for her husband. George Savalas had had a cold. During dinner, he had suffered a coughing spell. His wife had brought him his bottle of cough medicine. Savalas had taken one swallow and dropped dead.

An open-and-shut case.

Room 33 was crowded with spectators on this early morning. Anastasia Savalas was seated at the defendant's table dressed in a simple black skirt and blouse, with no jewelry and very little makeup. She was stunningly beautiful.

The prosecutor, Peter Demonides, was addressing the jury.

"Ladies and gentlemen. Sometimes, in a murder case, a trial takes up to three or four months. But I don't think any of you are going to have to worry about being here for that length of time. When you hear the facts in this case, I'm sure you will agree without question that there is only one possible verdict - murder in the first degree. The state will prove that the defendant willfully murdered her husband because he threatened to divorce her when he found out she was having an affair with the family chauffeur. We will prove that the defendant had the motive, the opportunity, and the means to carry out her cold-blooded scheme. Thank you." He returned to his seat.

The Chief Justice turned toward Chotas: "Is the counsel for the defense prepared to make his opening statement?"

Napoleon Chotas rose slowly to his feet. "Yes, Your Honor." He moved toward the jury box in an uncertain, shuffling gait. He stood there blinking at them, and when he spoke it was almost as though he were speaking to himself. "I've lived a long time, and I've learned that no man or woman can hide an evil nature. It always shows. A poet once said that the eyes are the windows of the soul. I believe that's true. I want you ladies and gentlemen to look into the eyes of the defendant. There is no way she could have found it in her heart to murder anyone." Napoleon Chotas stood there a moment as though trying to think of something else to say, then shuffled back to his seat.

Peter Demonides was filled with a sudden sense of triumph. Jesus Christ. That's the weakest opening I have ever heard in my life! The old man's lost it.

"Is the prosecuting attorney prepared to call his first witness?"

"Yes, Your Honor. I would like to call Rosa Lykourgos."

A middle-aged heavyset woman rose from the spectators' bench and sailed determinedly toward the front of the courtroom. She was sworn in.

"Mrs. Lykourgos, what is your occupation?"

"I am the housekeeper..." Her voiced choked up. "I was the housekeeper to Mr. Savalas."

"Mr. George Savalas?"

"Yes, sir."

"And would you tell us how long you were employed by Mr. Savalas?"

"Twenty-five years."

"My, that's a long time. Were you fond of your employer?"

"He was a saint."

"Were you employed by Mr. Savalas during his first marriage?"

"Yes, sir. I was at the graveside with him when his wife was buried."

"Would it be fair to say that they had a good relationship?"

"They were madly in love with each other."

Peter Demonides looked over at Napoleon Chotas, waiting for his objection to the line of questioning. But Chotas remained in his seat, apparently lost in thought.

Peter Demonides went on. "And were you in Mr. Savalas's employ during his second marriage, to Anastasia Savalas?"

"Oh, yes, sir. I certainly was." She spat the words out.

"Would you say that it was a happy marriage?" Again he glanced at Napoleon Chotas, but there was no reaction.

"Happy? No, sir. They fought like cats and dogs."

"Did you witness any of these fights?"

"A person couldn't help it. You could hear them all over the house - and it's a big house."

"I take it these fights were verbal, rather than physical? That is, Mr. Savalas never struck his wife?"

"Oh, it was physical all right. But it was the other way around, it was the madam who struck him. Mr. Savalas was getting on in years, and the poor man had become frail."

"You actually saw Mrs. Savalas strike her husband?"

"More than once." The witness looked over at Anastasia Savalas, and there was grim satisfaction in her voice.

"Mrs. Lykourgos, on the night Mr. Savalas died, which members of the staff were working in the house?"

"None of us."

Peter Demonides let his voice register surprise. "You mean in a house that you say was so large, not one member of the staff was there? Didn't Mr. Savalas employ a cook, or a maid...a butler...?"

"Oh, yes, sir. We had all of those. But the madam told everyone to take that night off. She said she wanted to cook dinner for her husband herself. It was going to be a second honeymoon." The last remark was said with a snort.

"So Mrs. Savalas got rid of everybody?"

This time it was the Chief Justice who looked over at Napoleon Chotas, waiting for him to object. But the attorney sat there, preoccupied.

The Chief Justice turned to Demonides. "The prosecutor will stop leading the witness."

"I apologize, Your Honor. I'll rephrase the question."

Demonides moved closer to Mrs. Lykourgos. "What you are saying is that on a night when members of the staff ordinarily would be in the house, Mrs. Savalas ordered everyone to leave so that she could be alone with her husband?"

"Yes, sir. And the poor man was suffering from a terrible cold."

"Did Mrs. Savalas often cook dinner for her husband?"

Mrs. Lykourgos sniffed. "Her? No, sir. Not her. She never lifted a finger around the house."

And Napoleon Chotas sat there, listening as though he were merely a spectator.

"Thank you, Mrs. Lykourgos. You've been very helpful."

Peter Demonides turned to Chotas, trying to conceal his satisfaction. Mrs. Lykourgos's testimony had had a perceptible effect on the jury. They were casting disapproving glances at the defendant. Let's see the old man try to get around that. "Your witness."

Napoleon Chotas glanced up. "What? Oh, no questions."

The Chief Justice looked at him in surprise. "Mr. Chotas...you don't wish to cross-examine this witness?"

Napoleon Chotas rose to his feet. "No, Your Honor. She seems like a perfectly honest woman." He sat down again.

Peter Demonides could not believe his good fortune. My God, he thought, he's not even putting up a fight. The old man's finished. Demonides was already savoring his victory.

The Chief Justice turned to the prosecuting attorney. "You may call your next witness."

"The state would like to call Josef Pappas."

A tall, good-looking, dark-haired young man rose from the spectators' bench and walked toward the witness box. He was sworn in.

Peter Demonides began. "Mr. Pappas, would you please tell the court your occupation?"

"I'm a chauffeur."

"Are you employed at the moment?"

"No."

"But you were employed until recently. That is, you were employed until the death of George Savalas."

"That's right."

"How long were you employed by the Savalas family?"

"A little over a year."

"Was it a pleasant job?"

Josef Pappas had one eye on Chotas, waiting for him to come to his rescue. There was only silence.

"Was it a pleasant job, Mr. Pappas?"

"It was okay, I guess."

"Did you get a good salary?"

"Yes."

"Then wouldn't you say the job was more than okay? I mean, weren't there some extras that went along with it? Weren't you going to bed regularly with Mrs. Savalas?"

Josef Pappas looked toward Napoleon Chotas for help. But there was none.

"I...Yes, sir. I guess I was."

Peter Demonides was withering in his scorn. "You guess you were? You're under oath. You either had an affair with her or you didn't. Which is it?"

Pappas was squirming in his seat. "We had an affair."

"Even though you were working for her husband - being paid generously by him, and living under his roof?"

"Yes, sir."

"It didn't bother you, to take Mr. Savalas's money week after week while you were having an affair with his wife?"

"It wasn't just an affair."

Peter Demonides baited the trap carefully. "It wasn't just an affair? What do you mean by that? I'm afraid I don't understand."

"I mean - me and Anastasia were planning to get married."

There was a surprised murmur from the courtroom. The jurors were staring at the defendant.

"Was the marriage your idea, or Mrs. Savalas's?"

"Well, we both wanted to."

"Who suggested it?"

"I guess she did." He looked over toward where Anastasia Savalas was seated. She returned his look without flinching.

"Frankly, Mr. Pappas, I'm puzzled. How did you expect to get married? Mrs. Savalas already had a husband, hadn't she? Did you plan to wait for him to die of old age? Or have a fatal accident of some kind? What exactly did you have in mind?"

The questions were so inflammatory that the prosecutor and the three judges looked toward Napoleon Chotas, waiting for him to thunder an objection. But the defense lawyer was busily doodling, paying no attention. Anastasia Savalas too was beginning to look concerned.

Peter Demonides pressed his advantage. "You haven't answered my question, Mr. Pappas."

Josef Pappas shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "I don't know, exactly."

Peter Demonides's voice was a whiplash. "Then let me tell you, exactly. Mrs. Savalas planned to murder her husband to get him out of the way. She knew that her husband was going to divorce her and cut her out of his will, and that she would be left with nothing. She..."

"Objection!" It came not from Napoleon Chotas but from the Chief Justice. "You're asking the witness to speculate." He looked over at Napoleon Chotas, surprised at the silence of the lawyer. The old man was sitting back on the bench, his eyes half-closed.

"Sorry, Your Honor." But he knew he had made his point. Peter Demonides turned to Chotas. "Your witness."

Napoleon Chotas rose. "Thank you, Mr. Demonides. No questions."

The three justices turned to look at one another, puzzled. One of them spoke up: "Mr. Chotas, you are aware that this will be your only opportunity to cross-examine this witness?"

Napoleon Chotas blinked. "Yes, Your Honor."

"In view of his testimony, you don't wish to ask him any questions?"

Napoleon Chotas waved a hand in the air and said, vaguely, "No, Your Honor."

The judge sighed. "Very well. The prosecutor may call his next witness."

The next witness was Mihalis Haritonides, a burly man in his sixties.

When Haritonides was sworn in, the prosecutor asked: "Would you tell the court your occupation, please?"

"Yes, sir. I manage a hotel."

"Would you tell us the name of the hotel?".

"The Argos."

"And this hotel is located where?"

"In Corfu."

"I'm going to ask you, Mr. Haritonides, whether any of the people in this room have ever stayed at your hotel."

Haritonides looked around and said, "Yes, sir. Him and her."

"Let the record show that the witness is pointing to Josef Pappas and Anastasia Savalas." He turned back to the witness. "Did they stay at your hotel more than once?"

"Oh, yes, sir. They were there half a dozen times, at least."

"And they spent the night there, together, in the same room?"

"Yes, sir. They usually came for the weekend."

"Thank you, Mr. Haritonides." He looked at Napoleon Chotas. "Your witness."

"No questions."

The Chief Justice turned to the other two justices, and they whispered among themselves for a moment.

The Chief Justice looked toward Napoleon Chotas. "You have no questions for this witness, Mr. Chotas?"

"No, Your Honor. I believe his testimony. It's a nice hotel. I've stayed there myself."

The Chief Justice stared at Napoleon Chotas for a long moment. Then he turned to the prosecutor. "The state may call its next witness."

"The state would like to call Dr. Vassilis Frangescos."

A tall, distinguished-looking man rose and moved toward the witness box. He was sworn in.

"Dr. Frangescos, would you be good enough to tell the court what kind of medicine you practice?"

"I'm a general practitioner."

"Is that equivalent to a family doctor?"

"It's another way of putting it, yes."

"How long have you been in practice, doctor?"

"Almost thirty years."

"And you are licensed by the state, of course."

"Of course."

"Dr. Frangescos, was George Savalas a patient of yours?"

"Yes, he was."

"For what period of time?"

"A little more than ten years."

"And were you treating Mr. Savalas for any specific problem?"

"Well, the first time I saw him, he came to me because he had high blood pressure."

"And you treated him for that."

"Yes."

"But you saw him after that?"

"Oh, yes. He would come to see me from time to time, when he had bronchitis, or a liver ailment - nothing serious."

"When was the last time you saw Mr. Savalas?"

"In December of last year."

"That was shortly before he died."

"That's right."

"Did he come to your office, doctor?"

"No. I went to see him at his home."

"Do you usually make house calls?"

"Not usually, no."

"But in this case you made an exception."

"Yes."

"Why?"

The doctor hesitated. "Well, he wasn't in any shape to come to the office."

"What shape was he in?"

"He had lacerations, some bruised ribs, and a concussion."

"Was he in some kind of accident?"

Dr. Frangescos hesitated. "No. He told me he had been beaten by his wife."

There was an audible gasp from the courtroom.

The Chief Justice said, angrily, "Mr. Chotas, aren't you going to object to putting hearsay testimony into the record?"

Napoleon Chotas looked up and said mildly, "Oh, thank you, Your Honor. Yes, I object."

But, of course, the damage had already been done. The jurors were now looking at the defendant with overt hostility.

"Thank you, Dr. Frangescos. No more questions." Peter Demonides turned to Chotas and said smugly, "Your witness."

"No questions."

There followed a steady flow of witnesses: a maid who testified that she had seen Mrs. Savalas going into the chauffeur's quarters on several occasions...a butler who testified that he had heard George Savalas threaten to divorce his wife and change his will...neighbors who had heard the noisy arguments between the Savalases.

And still Napoleon Chotas had no questions for any of the witnesses.

The net was fast closing in on Anastasia Savalas.

Peter Demonides could already feel the glow of victory. In his mind's eye he could see the headlines in the newspapers. This trial was going to be the fastest murder trial in history. This trial could even end today, he thought. The great Napoleon Chotas is a beaten man.

"I would like to call Mr. Niko Mentakis to the stand."

Mentakis was a thin, earnest young man, with a slow and careful manner of speech.

"Mr. Mentakis, would you tell the court your occupation, please?"

"Yes, sir. I work at a nursery."

"You take care of children?"

"Oh, no, sir. It's not that kind of nursery. We have trees and flowers, and all kinds of plants."

"Oh, I see. So you are an expert on growing things."

"I should be. I've been at it for a long time."

"And I presume that a part of your job is to make sure that the plants you have for sale stay healthy?"

"Oh, yes, sir. We take very good care of them. We wouldn't sell any ailing plants to our customers. Most of them are regulars."

"By that, you mean the same customers keep coming back to you?"

"Yes, sir." His voice was proud. "We give good service."

"Tell me, Mr. Mentakis, was Mrs. Savalas one of your regular customers?"

"Oh, yes, sir. Mrs. Savalas loves plants and flowers."

The Chief Justice said impatiently, "Mr. Demonides, the court does not feel that this line of questioning is pertinent. Would you move on to something else, or..."

"If the court will let me finish, Your Honor, this witness has a very important bearing on the case."

The Chief Justice looked toward Napoleon Chotas. "Mr. Chotas, do you have any objection to this line of questioning?"

Napoleon Chotas looked up and blinked. "What? No, Your Honor."

The Chief Justice stared at him in frustration, and then turned to Peter Demonides. "Very well. You may proceed."

"Mr. Mentakis, did Mrs. Savalas come to you one day in December and tell you that she was having problems with some of her plants?"

"Yes, sir. She did."

"In fact, didn't she say that there was an infestation of insects that was destroying her plants?"

"Yes, sir."

"And didn't she ask you for something to get rid of them?"

"Yes, sir."

"Would you tell the court what it was?"

"I sold her some antimony."

"And would you tell the court exactly what that is?"

"It's a poison, like arsenic."

There was an uproar from the courtroom.

The Chief Justice slammed down his gavel. "If there's another outburst, I'm going to order the bailiff to clear this court." He turned to Peter Demonides. "You may continue the questioning."

"So you sold her a quantity of antimony."

"Yes, sir."

"And would you say it's a deadly poison? You compared it to arsenic."

"Oh, yes, sir. It's deadly, all right."

"And you entered the sale in your record book, as you are required to do by law when you sell any poison?"

"Yes, sir."

"And did you bring those records with you, Mr. Mentakis?"

"I did." He handed Peter Demonides a ledger.

The prosecuting attorney walked over to the judges. "Your Honors, I would like this to be labeled 'Exhibit A.'" He turned to the witness. "I have no more questions." He looked over at Napoleon Chotas.

Napoleon Chotas looked up and shook his head. "No questions."

Peter Demonides took a deep breath. It was time for his bombshell. "I would like to introduce Exhibit B." He turned toward the back of the room, and said to a bailiff standing near the door, "Would you bring it in now, please?"

The bailiff hurried out, and a few moments later he returned carrying a bottle of cough syrup on a tray. There was a noticeable amount missing. The spectators watched, fascinated, as the bailiff handed the bottle to the prosecutor. Peter Demonides placed it on a table in front of the jurors.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you are looking at the murder weapon. This is the weapon that killed George Savalas. This is the cough syrup that Mrs. Savalas administered to her husband on the night he died. It is loaded with antimony. As you can see, the victim swallowed some - and twenty minutes later he was dead."

Napoleon Chotas rose to his feet and said mildly, "Objection. There is no way the prosecuting attorney has of knowing that it was from that particular bottle that the deceased was medicated."

And Peter Demonides slammed the trap shut. "With all due respect to my learned colleague, Mrs. Savalas has admitted that she gave her husband this syrup during a coughing spell on the night he died. It has been kept under lock and key by the police until it was brought into this court a few minutes ago. The coroner has testified that George Savalas died of antimony poisoning. This cough syrup is loaded with antimony." He looked at Napoleon Chotas challengingly.

Napoleon Chotas shook his head in defeat. "Then I guess there's no doubt."

Peter Demonides said triumphantly, "None at all. Thank you, Mr. Chotas. The prosecution rests its case."

The Chief Justice turned to Napoleon Chotas. "Is the defense ready for its summation?"

Napoleon Chotas rose. "Yes, Your Honor." He stood there for a long moment. Then he slowly ambled forward. He stood in front of the jury box, scratching his head as though trying to figure out what he was going to say. When he finally began, he spoke slowly, searching for words.

"I suppose some of you must be wondering why I haven't cross-examined any of the witnesses. Well, to tell you the truth, I thought Mr. Demonides here did such a fine job that it wasn't necessary for me to ask them any questions."

The fool is pleading my case for me, Peter Demonides thought gleefully.

Napoleon Chotas turned to look at the bottle of cough syrup for a moment, then turned back to the jurors. "All the witnesses seemed very honest. But they didn't really prove anything, did they? What I mean is..." He shook his head. "Well, when you add everything up that those witnesses said, it comes down to just one thing: A pretty young girl is married to an old man who probably couldn't satisfy her sexually." He nodded toward Josef Pappas. "So she found a young man who could. But we all knew that much from the newspapers, didn't we? There's nothing secret about their affair. The whole world knew about it. It's been written up in every trashy magazine in the world. Now, you and I might not approve of her behavior, ladies and gentlemen, but Anastasia Savalas is not on trial here for adultery. She's not in this court because she has normal sexual urges that any young woman might have. No, she's being tried in this court for murder."

He turned to look at the bottle again, as though fascinated by it.

Let the old man rave on, Peter Demonides thought. He glanced up at the clock on the courtroom wall. It was five minutes to twelve. The judges always called a recess at noon. The old fool won't be able to finish his summation. He wasn't even smart enough to wait until court was recessed again. Why was I ever afraid of him? Peter Demonides wondered.

Napoleon Chotas was rambling on. "Let's examine the evidence together, shall we? Some plants of Mrs. Savalas's were ailing and she cared enough about them to want to save them. She went to Mr. Mentakis, a plant expert, who advised her to use antimony. So she followed his advice. Do you call that murder? I certainly don't. And then there's the testimony of the housekeeper, who said that Mrs. Savalas sent all the servants away so she could have a honeymoon dinner with her husband that she was going to prepare for him. Well, I think the truth is that the housekeeper was probably half in love with Mr. Savalas herself. You don't work for a man for twenty-five years unless you have pretty deep feelings for him. She resented Anastasia Savalas. Couldn't you tell that from her tone?" Chotas coughed slightly and cleared his throat. "So, let us assume that the defendant, deep in her heart, really loved her husband, and she was trying desperately to make the marriage work. How does any woman show love for a man? Well, one of the most basic ways, I guess, is to cook for him. Isn't that a form of love? I think it is." He turned to look at the bottle again. "And isn't another to tend to him when he's ill - in sickness and in health?"

The clock on the wall showed one minute to twelve.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I told you when this trial began to look into the face of this woman. That's not the face of a murderess. Those aren't the eyes of a killer."

Peter Demonides watched the jurors as they stared at the defendant. He had never seen such open hostility. He had the jury in his pocket.

"The law is very clear, ladies and gentlemen. As you will be informed by our honorable judges, in order to return a verdict of guilty, you must have no doubt at all about the guilt of the defendant. None."

As Napoleon Chotas talked, he coughed again, drawing a handkerchief from his pocket to cover his mouth. He walked over to the bottle of syrup on the table in front of the jury.

"When you come right down to it, the prosecutor hasn't proved anything, really, has he? Except that this is the bottle Mrs. Savalas handed to her husband. The truth is, the state has no case at all." As he finished the sentence, he had a coughing spell. Unconsciously, he reached for the bottle of cough medicine, unscrewed the cap, raised the bottle to his lips, and took a large swallow. Everyone in the courtroom stared, mesmerized, and there was a gasp of horror.

The courtroom was in an uproar.

The Chief Justice said in alarm, "Mr. Chotas..."

Napoleon Chotas took another swallow. "Your Honor, the prosecutor's case is a mockery of justice. George Savalas did not die at the hands of this woman. The defense rests its case."

The clock struck twelve. A bailiff hurried up to the Chief Justice and whispered.

The Chief Justice pounded his gavel. "Order! Order! We are going to recess. The jury will retire and try to reach a verdict. Court will reconvene at two o'clock."

Peter Demonides was standing there, transfixed. Someone had switched bottles! But no, that was impossible. The evidence had been guarded every moment. Could the pathologist have been that wrong? Demonides turned to speak to his assistant, and when he looked around for Napoleon Chotas, he had disappeared.

At two o'clock, when the court reconvened, the jury slowly filed into the courtroom and took their seats. Napoleon Chotas was missing.

The son of a bitch is dead, Peter Demonides thought.

And even as he was thinking it, Napoleon Chotas walked through the door, looking perfectly healthy. Everyone in the courtroom turned around to stare at him as he walked to his seat.

The Chief Justice said, "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?"

The foreman of the jury stood up. "We have, Your Honor. We find the defendant not guilty."

There was a spontaneous burst of applause from the spectators.

Peter Demonides felt the blood drain from his face. The bastard has done it to me again, he thought. He glanced up and Napoleon Chotas was watching him, grinning.