A Grain of Truth (excerpt)

Excerpt from A Grain of Truth by Zygmunt Miłoszewski translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Photo  by kamshots
Photo by kamshots

Chapter 2

Thursday, 16 April 2009

For Jews in the diaspora it is the solemnly observed final day of Passover, for Christians it is the fifth day of the Easter Week and for Poles it is the final day of national mourning following the tragic hotel fire. The Polish Army is celebrating Sapper’s Day, actress Alina Janowska her 86th birthday and the Warsaw stock exchange its 18th. In Włocławek the municipal guard picked up a priest and his altar boy, in their vestments, both roaring drunk and aggressive. They turned out to be laymen who had pinched the outfits from one of their mothers, a seamstress. A British firm has found enormous deposits of gas under Poznań, and according to the British press, the piece of music most often played at funerals is Frank Sinatra singing My Way; also high on the list is Highway to Hell by AC/DC. In the second leg of the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup the winners are Dynamo Kiev, Shakhtar Donetsk, Werder Bremen and Hamburg, who face fratricidal encounters in the semi-finals. Sandomierz is outraged by the relocation of its vegetable market, which must vacate its site to make way for a car park serving the new stadium. Whatever their views on this matter, all the citizens have another cold day. The temperature does not rise above 14 degrees, but at least it is sunny, with no rain.

[private]Prosecutor Teodor Szacki did not like cold weather, stupid cases, incom­petent lawyers or provincial courts. That morning he got a triple dose of all of them. He glanced at the calendar: spring. He looked out of the window: spring. He put on his suit and coat, threw his gown over his shoulder and decided to take an invigorating walk to the courthouse. By the time he reached Sokolnicki Street, where he slipped on the frosted cobblestones, he knew it was a bad idea. Somewhere near the Opatowska Gate his ears went numb, at the water tower he had no feeling in his fingers, and when at last he turned into Kościuszko Street and entered the dirty-green courthouse, he had to spend a few minutes recovering, blowing on his frozen hands. It was like the North Pole in this bloody, windswept dump—damn the place, he thought.

The courthouse was ugly. Its solid bulk may have looked modern when it was built in the 1990s, but now it looked like a gypsy palace converted into a public service building. Its steps, chrome railings, green stone and irregular surfaces didn’t suit the surrounding architecture, or even the build­ing itself; there was something apologetic about its green colour, as if it were trying to hide its own ugliness against the cemetery trees. The court­room consistently followed the style of the rest of the block, and the most eye-catching item in this space, which looked like the conference room at a second-rate corporation, were the green, hospital-style vertical blinds.

Scowling and disgusted, Szacki was still mentally bemoaning his surroundings, when he had put on his gown and sat down in the seat reserved for the prosecution. On the other side he had the defendant and his counsel. Hubert Huby was a nice old fellow of 70. He had thick, still-greying hair, horn-rimmed spectacles and a charming, modest smile. The defence counsel, probably a public service lawyer, was the picture of misery and despair. His gown was not done up, his hair was unwashed, his shoes weren’t polished and his moustache hadn’t been trimmed—he prompted the suspicion that he probably smelled bad. Just like the whole case, thought Szacki with rising irritation, but finishing off all his predecessor’s cases had been a condition for getting the job in Sandomierz.

Finally the judge appeared. She was a young lass who looked as if she’d only just graduated from high school, but at least the trial was underway.

“Prosecutor?” said the judge, giving him a nice smile after completing the formalities; no judge in Warsaw ever smiled, or if he did it was out of malice, when he caught someone in ignorance of the regulations. Teodor Szacki stood up and automatically adjusted his gown.

“Your Honour, the prosecution upholds the arguments proposed in the indictment, the defendant has confessed to all the charges, and there is no doubt about his guilt in the light of his own statements and those of the injured parties. I do not wish to prolong the case, I am filing for acknowledgement that the defendant is guilty, that by means of deceit he repeatedly led other individuals to submit to various sexual acts, which covers all the characteristics of the crime described in article 197 paragraph two of the Penal Code, and I am filing for the court to impose a punishment of six months’ imprisonment which, I stress, is the bottom limit of the punishment stipulated by the legislator.”

Szacki sat down. It was an open-and-shut case, and he just wanted to get it over and done with. He had deliberately demanded the lowest possible sentence and had no wish to discuss it. In his thoughts he was endlessly composing a plan for his interrogation of Budnik, juggling topics and questions, changing their order and trying to envisage scenarios for the conversation, to be ready for every possible version. He already knew Budnik was lying about the final evening he had spent with his wife. But then everyone tells lies—it doesn’t make them into murderers. Perhaps he had a lover, maybe they’d had an argument, maybe they’d had a quiet few days, or maybe he’d been drinking with his mates. Back a bit—he should cross out the lover, because if Sobieraj and Wilczur were telling the truth, he was the most infatuated husband on earth. Back again—he couldn’t cross anything out, in case it was a small-town, thick-as-thieves conspiracy, God knows who, why and for what reason he should be told anything. Wilczur did not inspire trust, and Sobieraj was a friend of the family.

“Prosecutor,” the judge’s strident voice shook him out of his lethargy, and he realized he had only heard every third word of the defence counsel’s speech.

He stood up.

“Yes, Your Honour?”

“Could you take a stance on the position of the defence?”

Bloody hell, he hadn’t the slightest idea what the position of the defence was. In Warsaw, apart from exceptional circumstances, the judge never asked for an opinion, he just got bored listening to both sides, withdrew, passed sentence, job done, next please.

Here in Sandomierz the judge was merciful.

“To change the classification of the crime to article 217, paragraph one?”

The content of the article flashed before Szacki’s eyes. He looked at the defence counsel as if he were a madman.

“I take the position that this has to be a joke. The counsel for the defence should familiarize himself with the basic interpretations and jurisdiction. Article 217 concerns assault and battery, and is properly only applied to minor fights, or when one politician slaps another one in the face. Of course I understand the defence’s intentions—assault and battery is a privately prosecuted indictment, subject to a punishment of one year at most. There is no comparison with sexual abuse, for which the penalty is from six to eight months. But that is the crime your client has committed, sir.”

The defence counsel stood up. He gave the judge an enquiring look, and she nodded.

“I would also like to remind the court that as a result of mediation almost all the injured parties have forgiven my client, which should result in a remission of the sentence.”

Szacki did not wait for permission.

“Once again I say: please read the Code, sir,” he growled. “Firstly, ‘almost’ makes a big difference, and secondly, remission as a result of mediation only applies to crimes subject to up to three years’ imprisonment. The most you can petition for is extraordinary commutation of the sentence, which in any case is ridiculously low, considering your client’s exploits.”

The lawyer smiled and spread his hands in a gesture of surprise. Too many films, too little professional reading, Szacki thought to himself.

“But has anyone been harmed? Did anyone suffer any unpleasantness? Human affairs, involving adults…”

A red curtain fell before Szacki’s eyes. He silently counted to three to calm himself down. He took a deep breath, stood up straight and looked at the judge. She nodded, her curiosity aroused.

“Counsel for the defence, the prosecution is amazed both at your ignorance of the law and of civilized behaviour. I would remind you that for many months the defendant Huby went about houses in Sandomierz county kitted out with a white gown and a medical bag, passing himself off as a doctor. That in itself is a felony. He passed himself off as a specialist in, I quote: ‘palpation mammography’, and suggested prophylactic examination, with the aim of making the women bare their chests and give him access to their charms. Which comes under the definition of rape. And I would also like to remind you that he assured most of his ‘patients’ that their bosoms were in good health, which might not have been true and could have led them to abandon their plans for prophylactic tests, and thus to serious health problems. In any case, that is the main reason why one of the injured parties refused to agree to mediation.”

“But in two of the ladies he felt a lump and prompted them to get treat­ment, which as a consequence saved their lives,” retorted the defence counsel emphatically.

“Then let those ladies fund a reward for him and send parcels. What con­cerns us here is that the defendant committed an illegal act and must bear the consequences, because it is against the law to go about the houses tell­ing lies and fondling women. Just as it is against the law to go about the streets knocking out people’s teeth in the hope that later on at the dentist’s some more serious problems will be discovered and treated.”

He could see that the judge was having to stop herself from snorting with laughter.

“And the case has led to a serious discussion within the province about preventive action and the need for mammograms,” said the relentless defence lawyer.

“But is this a formal motion?” Szacki felt weary.

“These are circumstances that should be taken into consideration.”

“Your Honour?” Szacki looked enquiringly at the amused judge.

“The session is closed. The sentence will be announced on Monday at 10. Mr Prosecutor, would you please come to my office for a moment?”

The judge, whose name, as he discovered from the case list, was Maria Tatarska, had an office as ugly as the rest of the building, equally nas­tily decorated in dirty-green colours, but at least it was spacious. Szacki knocked and was invited to enter just as Judge Tatarska was taking off her gown. An electric kettle was already burbling away on a cabinet.

“Coffee?” she asked, hanging up her court uniform.

As Szacki was on the point of replying yes please, one spoonful, no sugar, lots of milk, Judge Tatarska turned to face him, and he had to concen­trate on making sure no signs of his emotions appeared on his face. And on trying not to swallow his saliva in a theatrical way. Under her gown, Judge Tatarska was a regular sex bomb, with the body of a girl from a cen­trefold, and the amount of cleavage revealed by her purple blouse would have been thought daring in a night club.

“Yes please, one spoonful, no sugar, lots of milk.”

They chatted for a time about the case, while she made them both cof­fee. Small talk, nothing interesting. He imagined she had brought him in here for some purpose. Other than the pleasure of communing with his professional coolness, gaunt figure and ashen face of a guy due to turn forty in a few months’ time, who had spent the winter feeling depressed and neglecting his physical fitness. He knew he looked like a state official. Usually he couldn’t care less, but right now he would have liked to look better. He also would have liked her to get to the point, as he had to leave in the next five minutes.

“I’ve heard a few things about you, about your cases—my colleagues in the capital have told me.” She was looking at him closely. Szacki didn’t answer, but waited for her to continue. What was he supposed to say? That he knew of her by hearsay too? “I won’t say we made any special enquiries when the rumour went round that you were staying on here. You must have realized by now that personnel changes are not an everyday event in the provinces. From your perspective it can’t have been obvious, but in our little world it was a minor sensation.”

He still didn’t know what he was meant to say.

“I also looked in the press, I read about your cases—some of them are first-class crime stories, well known ones. I was intrigued by the murder that happened during Hellinger’s Constellation Therapy.”

Szacki shrugged. Hellinger, devil take it, if not for that case, if not for the affair, if not for the old secret police stories, right now he’d probably be eating boiled eggs in tartare sauce on Solidarność Avenue, and arranging with Weronika for one of them to pick up the child from school. If it weren’t for Hellinger, he’d still have a life now.

“In my time I’ve been very interested in Hellinger. I even went to Kielce for a constellation, but they cancelled it and I didn’t feel like going a second time. You know how it is, a single woman, long evenings, too much thinking. Thinking there might be something wrong with her, maybe she needs therapy. Stupid thoughts.”

Szacki couldn’t believe his own ears. She was trying to pick him up. This sex bomb with legal training was trying to pick him up. He braced himself, the old habit of a married man. He braced himself at the thought of the flirting, the rendezvous, the lying, the text messages sent on the sly, the phone set to silent, and the office hours wasted on meeting up in town.

And he realized the married man’s habit was just that—a habit, second nature, but only that. He was free, he was single, he had a flat with a view of the Vistula. He could make a date with a girl from the provinces and roger her standing up in the kitchen. Simple as that. Without any pangs of conscience, without any scheming, subterfuge, or pussyfooting about innocent friendship.

He had to fly. But he made a date for the evening. Hellinger, of course, that was quite a case, he’d be happy to tell her about it.

Except that he’d have to stand Klara up.[/private]

Zygmunt Miłoszewski

About Zygmunt Miłoszewski

Zygmunt Miłoszewski, born in Warsaw in 1976, is a journalist and a rising star of Polish fiction. His first novel, The Intercom, was published in 2005 to high acclaim. In 2006 he published a novel for young readers, The Adder Mountains, and in 2007 the crime novel Entanglement. The latter received the High Calibre Award for best Polish crime novel of the year and was made into a feature film. A Grain of Truth, the sequel to Entanglement, also featuring State Prosecutor Teodor Szacki, was published in 2011 in Poland. In 2012 it was published in English by Bitter Lemon Press.

Zygmunt Miłoszewski, born in Warsaw in 1976, is a journalist and a rising star of Polish fiction. His first novel, The Intercom, was published in 2005 to high acclaim. In 2006 he published a novel for young readers, The Adder Mountains, and in 2007 the crime novel Entanglement. The latter received the High Calibre Award for best Polish crime novel of the year and was made into a feature film. A Grain of Truth, the sequel to Entanglement, also featuring State Prosecutor Teodor Szacki, was published in 2011 in Poland. In 2012 it was published in English by Bitter Lemon Press.

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