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Memories of Midnight Sidney Sheldon 2022/8/8 15:06:51

Five days before the trial of Constantin Demiris was to begin, the jailor opened up his cell door.

"You have a visitor."

Constantin Demiris looked up. Except for his attorney, he had been permitted no visitors until now. He refused to show any curiosity. The bastards were treating him like a common criminal. But he would not give them the satisfaction of showing any emotion. He followed the jailor down the hall into a small conference room.

Demiris stepped inside and stopped. A crippled old man was hunched over in a wheelchair. His hair was snow white. His face was a ghastly patchwork of red and white burn tissue. His lips were frozen upward in a horrible rictus of a smile. It took a moment for him to realize who his visitor was. His face turned ashen. "My God!"

"I'm not a ghost," Napoleon Chotas said. His voice was a hoarse rasp. "Come in, Costa."

Demiris found his voice. "The fire..."

"I jumped out a window and broke my back. My butler got me away before the firemen arrived. I didn't want you to know I was still alive. I was too tired to fight you any longer."

"But...they found a body."

Demiris sank into a chair. "I...I'm glad you're alive," he said feebly.

"You should be. I'm going to save your life."

Demiris studied him warily. "You are?"

"Yes. I'm going to defend you."

Demiris laughed aloud. "Really, Leon. After all these years, do you take me for a fool? What makes you think I would put my life in your hands?"

"Because I'm the only one who can save you, Costa."

Constantin Demiris rose. "No, thanks." He started toward the door.

"I've talked to Spyros Lambrou. I've persuaded him to testify that he was with you at the time his sister was murdered."

Demiris stopped and turned. "Why would he do that?"

Chotas leaned forward in his wheelchair. "Because I persuaded him that taking your fortune would be a sweeter revenge than taking your life."

"I don't understand."

"I assured Lambrou that if he testifies for you, you'll turn over your entire fortune to him. Your ships, your companies - everything you possess."

"Am I? Think about it, Costa. His testimony can save your life. Is your fortune worth more to you than your life?"

There was a long silence. Demiris sat down again. He studied Chotas warily. "Lambrou is willing to testify that I was with him when Melina was killed?"

"And in return he wants - "

"Everything you have."

Demiris shook his head. "I would have to keep my..."

"Everything. He wants to strip you completely. You see, that's his revenge."

There was something that puzzled Demiris. "And what do you get out of all this, Leon?"

Chotas's lips moved in a parody of a grin. "I get it all."

"I - I don't understand."

"Before you turn the Hellenic Trade Corporation over to Lambrou, you're going to transfer all of its assets into a new company. A company that belongs to me."

Demiris stared at him. "So, Lambrou gets nothing."

Chotas shrugged. "There are winners and there are losers."

"Won't Lambrou suspect something?"

"Not the way I'll handle it."

Demiris said, "If you'd double-cross Lambrou, how do I know you won't double-cross me?"

"It's very simple, my dear Costa. You're protected. We'll have a signed agreement that the new company will belong to me only on the condition that you are acquitted. If you are found guilty, I get nothing."

For the first time, Constantin Demiris found himself becoming interested. He sat there studying the crippled lawyer. Would he throw the trial and lose hundreds of millions of dollars just to get even with me? No. He's not that big a fool. "All right," Demiris said slowly. "I agree."

Chotas said, "Good. You just saved your life, Costa."

I've saved more than that, Demiris thought triumphantly. I have a hundred million dollars hidden away where no one will ever find it.

Chotas's meeting with Spyros Lambrou had been a difficult one. He almost threw Chotas out of his office.

"You want me to testify to save that monster's life? Get the hell out of here."

"You want revenge, don't you?" Chotas had asked.

"Yes. And I'm getting it."

"Are you? You know Costa. His wealth means more to him than his life. If they execute him, his pain will be over in a few minutes, but if you break him and take everything away from him, force him to go through life without any money, you would be giving him a much greater punishment."

There was truth in what the lawyer said. Demiris was the greediest man he had ever met. "You say that he's willing to sign everything he has over to me?"

"Everything. His fleet, his businesses, every company he owns."

It was an enormous temptation. "Let me think about it." Lambrou watched the lawyer wheel himself out of his office. Poor bastard, he thought. What has he got to live for?

At midnight, Spyros Lambrou telephoned Napoleon Chotas. "I've made up my mind. We have a deal."

The press was in a feeding frenzy. Not only was Constantin Demiris being tried for the murder of his wife, but he was being defended by a man who had come back from the dead, the brilliant criminal attorney who had supposedly died in a holocaust.

The trial was being held in the same courtroom where Noelle Page and Larry Douglas had been tried. Constantin Demiris sat at the defendant's table, cloaked in an aura of invisibility. Napoleon Chotas was next to him in his wheelchair. The State was being represented by Special Prosecutor Delma.

Delma was addressing the jury.

"Constantin Demiris is one of the most powerful men in the world. His vast fortune gives him many privileges. But there's one privilege it does not give him. And that's the right to commit cold-blooded murder. No one has that right." He turned to look at Demiris. "The state will prove beyond a doubt that Constantin Demiris is guilty of the brutal murder of a wife who loved him. When you are through hearing the evidence, I'm certain that there's only one verdict you can bring in. Guilty of murder in the first degree." He walked back to his seat.

The Chief Justice turned to Napoleon Chotas. "Is the defense ready to make it's opening statement?"

"We are, Your Honor." Chotas wheeled himself in front of the jury. He could see the look of pity on their faces as they tried to avoid looking at his grotesque face and his crippled body. "Constantin Demiris is not on trial here because he's rich or powerful. Or perhaps it's because of that that he has been dragged into this courtroom. The weak always try to bring down the powerful, don't they? Mr. Demiris may be guilty of being rich and powerful, but one thing I am going to prove with absolute certainty - he is not guilty of murdering his wife."

Prosecutor Delma was questioning Police Lieutenant Theophilos on the stand.

"Would you describe what you saw when you walked into Demiris's beach house, Lieutenant?"

"The chairs and tables were overturned. Everything was all messed up."

"It looked as though a terrible struggle had taken place?"

"Yes, sir. It looked as though the house had been burglarized."

"You found a bloody knife at the scene of the crime, did you not?"

"And there were fingerprints on the knife?"

"Who did they belong to?"

"Constantin Demiris."

The eyes of the jury swung toward Demiris.

"When you searched the house, what else did you find?"

"In back of a closet we found a pair of blood-stained bathing shorts that had Demiris's initials on them."

"Isn't it possible that they had been at the house for a long time?"

"No, sir. They were still wet with sea water."

It was Napoleon Chotas's turn. "Detective Theophilos, you had a chance to talk to the defendant personally, didn't you?"

"How would you describe him physically?"

"Well..." The detective looked over to where Demiris was sitting. "I would say he was a big man."

"Did he look strong? I mean physically strong?"

"Not the sort of man who would have to tear a room apart in order to kill his wife."

Delma was on his feet. "Objection."

"Sustained. The defense attorney will refrain from leading the witness."

"I apologize, Your Honor." Chotas turned to the detective. "In your conversation with Mr. Demiris, would you evaluate him as an intelligent man?"

"Yes, sir. I don't think you become as rich as he is unless you're pretty smart."

"I couldn't agree with you more, Lieutenant. And that leads us to an interesting question. How could a man like Constantin Demiris be stupid enough to commit a murder and leave behind at the scene of the crime a knife with his fingerprints on it, a blood-stained pair of shorts...? Wouldn't you say that was not very intelligent?"

"Well, sometimes in the heat of committing a crime, people do strange things."

"The police found a gold button from a jacket Demiris was supposed to be wearing? Is that correct?"

"And that's an important part of the evidence against Mr. Demiris. The police theory is that his wife tore it off in the struggle when he tried to kill her?"

"So, we have a man who habitually dressed very neatly. A button is ripped off the front of his jacket but he doesn't notice it. He wears the jacket home and he still doesn't notice it. Then he takes it off and hangs it up in his closet - and he still doesn't notice it. That would make the defendant not only stupid, but blind."

Mr. Katelanos was on the stand. The owner of the detective agency was making the most of his moment in the sun. Delma was questioning him.

"You're the owner of a private detective agency?"

"And a few days before Mrs. Demiris was murdered, she came to see you?"

There was a murmur from the spectators.

"So, Mrs. Demiris was very upset?"

"Oh, yes, sir. She certainly was."

"And she engaged your agency to protect her from her husband?"

"That's all, thank you." Delma turned to Chotas. "Your witness."

Chotas wheeled his chair over to the witness stand. "Mr. Katelanos, how long have you been in the detective business?"

"Almost fifteen years."

Chotas was impressed. "Well. That's a long time. You really must be very good at what you do."

"I suppose I am," Katelanos said modestly.

"So, you've had a lot of experience in dealing with people who are in trouble."

"That's why they come to me," Katelanos said smugly.

"And when Mrs. Demiris came to you, did she seem a little bit upset, or..."

"Oh, no. She was very upset. You might say panicky."

"I see. Because she was afraid her husband was about to kill her."

"So, when she left your office, how many of your operatives did you send with her? One? Two?"

"Well, no. I didn't send any with her."

Chotas frowned. "I don't understand. Why not?"

"Well, she said she didn't want us to start until Monday."

Chotas looked at him, baffled. "I'm afraid you're confusing me, Mr. Katelanos. This woman who came to your office terrified that her husband was going to kill her just walked out and said she wouldn't need any protection until Monday?"

"Well, yes. That's right."

Napoleon Chotas said, almost to himself, "It makes one wonder how frightened Mrs. Demiris really was, doesn't it?"

The Demiris maid was on the witness stand. "Now, you actually heard a conversation between Mrs. Demiris and her husband on the telephone?"

"Would you tell us what that conversation was?"

Delma glanced at the jury. "I see." He turned back to the witness. "What else did you hear?"

"He asked her to meet him at the beach house at three o'clock, and to go alone."

"He said that she should come alone?"

"Yes, sir. And she said if she didn't get back by six, I was to call the police."

There was a visible reaction from the jury. They turned to stare at Demiris.

"No more questions." Delma turned to Chotas. "Your witness."

Napoleon Chotas wheeled his chair close to the witness stand. "Your name is Andrea, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir." She tried not to look at the scarred, disfigured face.

"You are under oath, Andrea. That's not what you heard at all."

"Oh, yes, it is, sir."

"How many telephones are there in the room where this conversation took place?"

Napoleon Chotas wheeled his chair closer. "So, you weren't listening to the conversation on another phone?"

"No, sir. I would never do that."

"So, the truth is, you only heard what Mrs. Demiris said. It would have been impossible for you to hear what her husband said."

"Oh. Well, I suppose..."

"In other words, you did not hear Mr. Demiris threaten his wife or ask her to come to the beach house or anything else. You imagined all that because of what Mrs. Demiris was saying."

Andrea was flustered. "Well, I suppose you could put it that way."

"I am putting it that way. Why were you in the room when Mrs. Demiris was on the telephone?"

"She asked me to bring her some tea."

"And you brought it?"

"You set it down on a table."

"Why didn't you leave then?"

"Mrs. Demiris waved for me to stay."

"She wanted you to hear the conversation or what was supposed to be a conversation?"

His voice was a whiplash. "So, you don't know whether she was talking to her husband on the phone or if, in fact, she was talking to anybody." Chotas moved his chair even closer. "Don't you find it strange that in the middle of a personal conversation, Mrs. Demiris asked you to stay there and listen? I know that in my house if we're having a personal discussion we don't ask the staff to eavesdrop. No. I put it to you that that conversation never took place. Mrs. Demiris wasn't speaking to anyone. She was setting up her husband so that on this day in this courtroom he would be put on trial for his life. But Constantin Demiris did not kill his wife. The evidence against him was very carefully planted. It was planted too carefully. No intelligent man would leave a series of obvious clues behind that pointed to himself. And no matter what else he is, Constantin Demiris is an intelligent man."

The trial went on for ten more days with accusations and counteraccusations, and expert testimony from the police and the coroner. The consensus of opinion was that Constantin Demiris was probably guilty.

Napoleon Chotas saved his bombshell until the end. He put Spyros Lambrou on the witness stand. Before the trial started, Demiris had signed a notarized contract deeding the Hellenic Trade Corporation and all its assets to Spyros Lambrou. A day earlier, those assets had been secretly transferred to Napoleon Chotas with the proviso that it would take effect only if Constantin Demiris was acquitted in his trial.

"Mr. Lambrou. You and your brother-in-law, Constantin Demiris, did not get along well, did you?"

"As a matter of fact, would it be a fair statement to say that you hated each other?"

Lambrou looked over at Constantin Demiris. "It might even be an understatement."

"On the day your sister disappeared, Constantin Demiris told the police that he was nowhere near the beach house; that, in fact, at three o'clock, the time established for your sister's death, he was having a meeting with you in Acrocorinth. When the police questioned you about that meeting, you denied it."

Lambrou sat there for a long moment. His voice was filled with anger. "Demiris treated my sister shamefully. He constantly abused and humiliated her. I wanted him punished. He needed me for an alibi. I wouldn't give it to him."

"I can't live with a lie any longer. I feel I have to tell the truth."

"Did you and Constantin Demiris meet at Acrocorinth that afternoon?"

"Yes, the truth is that we did."

There was an uproar in the courtroom. Delma rose to his feet, his face pale. "Your Honor. I object..."

Delma sank back into his seat. Constantin Demiris was leaning forward, his eyes bright.

"Tell us about that meeting. Was it your idea?"

"No. It was Melina's idea. She tricked us both."

"Melina telephoned me and said that her husband wanted to meet me at my lodge up there to discuss a business deal. Then she called Demiris and told him that I had asked for a meeting up there. When we arrived, we found that we had nothing to say to each other."

"And the meeting took place in the middle of the afternoon at the established time of Mrs. Demiris's death?"

"It's a four-hour drive from Acrocorinth to the beach house. I've had it timed." Napoleon Chotas was looking at the jury. "So, there is no way that Constantin Demiris could have been at Acrocorinth at three and been back in Athens before seven." Chotas turned back to Spyros Lambrou. "You are under oath, Mr. Lambrou. Is what you have just told this court the truth?"

"Yes. So help me God."

Napoleon Chotas swiveled his chair toward the jury.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he rasped, "there is only one verdict you can possibly reach." They were straining forward to catch his words. "Not quilty. If the State had claimed that the defendant had hired someone to kill his wife, then there might have been some small measure of doubt. But, on the contrary, their whole case is based upon so-called evidence that the defendant was in that room, that he himself murdered his wife. The learned justices will instruct you that in this trial two essential elements must be proven: motive and opportunity.

"Not motive or opportunity, but motive and opportunity. In law, they are Siamese twins - inseparable. Ladies and gentlemen, the defendant may or may not have had a motive, but this witness has proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the defendant was nowhere near the scene of the crime when it occurred."

The jury was out for four hours. Constantin Demiris watched as they filed back into the courtroom. He looked pale and anxious. Chotas was not looking at the jury. He was looking at Constantin Demiris's face. Demiris's aplomb and arrogance were gone. He was a man facing death.

The Chief Justice asked, "Has the jury reached a verdict?"

"We have, Your Honor." The jury foreman held up a piece of paper.

"Would the bailiff get the verdict, please."

The bailiff walked over to the juror, took the piece of paper, and handed it to the judge. He opened the piece of paper and looked up. "The jury finds the defendant not guilty."

There was pandemonium in the courtroom. People were getting to their feet, some of them applauding, some of them hissing.

The expression on Demiris's face was ecstatic. He took a deep breath, rose, and walked over to Napoleon Chotas. "You did it," he said. "I owe you a lot."

Chotas looked into his eyes. "Not anymore. I'm very rich and you're very poor. Come on. We're going to celebrate."

Constantin Demiris pushed Chotas's wheelchair through the milling crowd, out past the reporters, to the parking lot. Chotas pointed to a sedan parked at the entrance. "My car's over there."

Demiris wheeled him up to the door. "Don't you have a chauffeur?"

"I don't need one. I had this car specially fitted so I could drive it myself. Help me in."

Demiris opened the door and lifted Chotas into the driver's seat. He folded the wheelchair and put it in the backseat. Demiris got into the car next to Chotas.

"You're still the greatest lawyer in the world," Constantin Demiris smiled.

"Yes." Napoleon Chotas put the car in gear and started to drive. "What are you going to do now, Costa?"

Demiris said carefully, "Oh, I'll manage to get by somehow." With a hundred million dollars I can build up my empire again. Demiris chuckled. "Spyros is going to be pretty upset when he finds out how you tricked him."

"There's nothing he can do about it," Chotas assured him. "The contract he signed gives him a company that's worthless."

They were headed toward the mountains. Demiris watched as Chotas moved the levers that controlled the gas pedal and the brake. "You handle this very well."

"You learn to do what you have to," Chotas said. They were climbing up a narrow mountain road.

"Where are we going?"

"I have a little house at the top here. We'll have a glass of champagne and I'll have a taxi take you back to town. You know, Costa, I've been thinking. Everything that's happened...Noelle's death and Larry Douglas's death. And poor Stavros. None of it was about money, was it?" He turned to glance at Demiris. "It was all about hate. Hate and love. You loved Noelle."

"Yes," Demiris said. "I loved Noelle."

"I loved her too," Chotas said. "You didn't know that, did you?"

Demiris looked at him in surprise. "No."

"And yet I helped you murder her. I've never forgiven myself for that. Have you forgiven yourself, Costa?"

"She deserved what she got."

"I think in the end we all deserve what we get. There's something I haven't told you, Costa. That fire - ever since the night of that fire, I've been in excruciating pain. The doctors tried to put me back together again, but it didn't really work. I'm too badly crippled." He pushed a lever that speeded up the car. They were starting to move fast along hairpin curves, climbing higher and higher. The Aegean Sea appeared far below them.

"As a matter of fact," Chotas said hoarsely, "I'm in so much pain that my life really isn't worth living anymore." He pushed the lever again, and the car began to move faster.

"Slow down," Demiris said. "You're going too..."

"I've stayed alive this long for you. I've decided that you and I are going to end it together."

Demiris turned to stare at him, horrified. "What are you talking about? Slow down, man. You'll kill us both."

"That's right," Chotas said. He moved the lever again. The car leaped forward.

"You're crazy!" Demiris said. "You're rich. You don't want to die."

Chotas's scarred lips turned into a horrific imitation of a smile. "No, I'm not rich. You know who's rich? Your friend, Sister Theresa. I've given all your money to the convent at Ioannina."

They were racing toward a blind curve on the steep mountain road.

"Stop the car!" Demiris screamed. He tried to wrest the wheel from Chotas but it was impossible.

"I'll give you anything you want," Demiris yelled. "Stop!"

Chotas said, "I have what I want."

The next moment they were flying over the cliff, down the steep mountainside, the car tumbling end over end in a grotesque pirouette of death, until finally at the bottom it crashed into the sea. There was a tremendous explosion, and then the deep silence of eternity.