Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Serial Imposter and a Novelist
Credit: John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe / Getty Images

These memories struck me as absurd now, a ridiculous, disgraceful capitulation. I'd bowed to a tinfoil prince. I'd kissed his ring, and the irony was that the true ring was on my hand. The only Ivy Leaguer there was me. The only Lotos Club type was sitting in my chair. I'd had it all backwards, upside down, reversed. I, the fawning aspirant, should have been the one conferring status – and I suppose I was, in some sick way. Clark must have loved it, watching me degrade myself. Worse, though, I was degrading my vocation. My grant of literary immunity to the strangest creature I'd ever met violated my storyteller's oath. Writers exist to exploit such figures, not to save them. Our duty is to the page, not the person.

The trial was my chance to right all this, to call off a deal I shouldn't have agreed to and hadn't been asked to agree to, come to think of it. I'd made the deal unilaterally, with myself, hoping that he'd reward my generosity. No more of that. The trial meant Clark's story was reaching a conclusion; if I hoped to catch up with it and make sense of it by exploring its intersections with mine, the time was now, the place was here. Two basic outcomes were possible, and two morals. If Clark were found guilty, Abe Lincoln would be proved right – you can't fool all the people all the time – and I would be present to savor his comeuppance and participate in my own redemption. If he were found innocent, however, the tale would end on a warped, postmodern note, and Clark might well emerge as a celebrity, proving the world was a bigger dupe than me. I felt prepared for both contingencies, but I feared that the second, limbo, was more likely.

The name of the case seemed to foreordain a muddle: "The People of the State of California, Plaintiff, vs. Christian K. Gerhartsreiter, aka Christopher Chichester, aka Christopher Crowe, aka C. Crowe Mountbatten, aka Clark Rockefeller, aka Charles ‘Chip' Smith." The nature of the jury concerned me too. Its members would be drawn from the same neighborhoods that supplied the bumbling O. J. Simpson jury. The word from the old hands around the courthouse was that downtown LA jurors shared a reflexive suspicion of authority and a frank dislike for the police. I'd also heard rumors of their scorn for circumstantial evidence, which TV crime shows supposedly had taught them was inferior to smoking-gun stuff such as trace DNA and microscopic fibers. If indeed this prejudice existed, it would favor the defense; I happened to know from pretrial publicity that circumstantial evidence – really just an incriminating story about Clark's peculiar behavior before the murder and his evasive behavior afterward – was almost all the prosecution had.

The process of choosing this jury went on all day. Waiting in the hallway outside the courtroom, the pool of a few dozen prospects blended well with the associates of local gang lords whose trials were taking place in the same building. Not one of the candidates resembled Clark or someone he might have relaxed with at the Lotos Club, but many of them had the class and ethnic markers of "service people," the folks he'd probably engaged as cleaners and gardeners. The euphemism that sprang to mind was "urban." One middle-aged Latino man with a lordly stomach, a curled, waxed mustache with twisted points, and a sizable tattoo partially visible above his collarline, wore his straw hat and dark shades into the courtroom when the bailiff called his name. "Clark's defense will definitely want that guy," whispered Frank Girardot, the editor of the Pasadena Star-News and a veteran trial reporter who'd covered the Simpson case. Girardot was right; the big fellow made the cut.

Judge George Lomeli worked his way through the long procession of candidates, many of whom spoke halting English, while others seemed past their prime as alert, analytic intellects. Lomeli appeared well-suited for the case, a handsome man with a sharp but genial manner that combined authority and wit and even a hint of debonair Old Hollywood. He looked good in his robe, which matched his hair and mustache, and he appealed to the candidates' sporting sides by promising an "interesting" trial. Lots of folks tried to beg off anyway, citing work conflicts, family difficulties, and religious holidays. Of those who seemed most inclined to do their duty, some appeared to have little else going on. This bothered me. If I, the Princeton and Oxford graduate, had fallen for Clark's ingenious stratagems, how would these people penetrate the veil? With some jurors, I feared a culture clash. I'd seen a list of the prosecution's witnesses, among whom were several white-shoe finance types who'd known Clark in his late-1980s guise as Christopher Crowe, a hungry Wall Street bond guy. The working-class jurors might find these smoothies baffling, or loathe them on sight. Would it matter? No idea. I'd never attended a murder trial before. I'd certainly never had a stake in one.

My stake in this one was hard to formulate. The harm Clark had caused me wasn't grave enough to instill a lust for vengeance, but I hardly wished him well. The murder aside, he had a lot to answer for, and the trial was likely to offer him many rebukes, even if it spared him the ultimate one. Gratifying and fascinating viewing. I hoped my time here would educate me, toughen me. Having been beguiled by his magic show, I would now be able to go backstage and see the tricks he'd played explained. "That Walter Kirn is one shrewd judge of character"–this had never been said of me. Maybe the trial would wake me up.

As the potential jurors faced the judge, Clark turned around and watched them from his chair. Now and then he'd offer them sad smiles, affecting sympathy for their complaints, but mostly he wore the detached, attentive look of an anthropologist in the field. Who were all these people, so many of them so brown? What was this ritual unfolding around him? I'd never seen a German look as German as Clark did when he assessed his likely assessors. His eyes were like small blue coins behind his glasses. One sockless foot tapped away beneath his chair. In his right hand he held a pencil stub poised above a yellow legal pad. I'd heard he'd been writing a novel while in prison, a multipart epic of European politics that began at the close of World War One and ended in the 1960s. It was competent but dull, I'd heard, well researched but inert.

That Clark was guilty I had little doubt. Twenty-eight years ago, here in California, he'd killed his landlady's adopted son and his life ever since had been a masquerade. The trial would permit the prosecution to color in and substantiate this story, but I already knew it in outline and found it credible. What I didn't find credible anymore was me. When I'd learned that Clark might be a murderer and instinctively found the notion plausible, the effect on me was Galilean. It humbled me. It reoriented everything. It revealed to me the size and power of my ignorance and vanity.

About two hours into jury selection, while scrutinizing another would-be juror, Clark glanced to the side and saw me sitting there. I nodded at him. I thought he might nod back. I was, after all, a face from better days. He sneered at me instead, arching his eyebrows, wrinkling his nose, and twisting up his lips into a horrible, prissy little knot. The look was vicious and contemptuous and indicated that he viewed my presence as a betrayal of our relationship, as conduct unbecoming a gentleman. I viewed things differently, of course. To me our relationship was the betrayal. Nor did I care anymore to be a gentleman.

For the rest of his trial, until we met again, he pretended that I wasn't there.