Fiction

Discerning Friends

By Thomas Elson

Photo by Rémi Walle on Unsplash

Bierley knew …

Monday morning at the tail end of the worst storm of 1982, and Daniel J. Bierley III, sole surviving family member of a third-generation law firm founded by his grandfather in 1913, rushed past the usual flock of courthouse waddlers, ran up the two flights, through the open double oak doors, and into the courtroom – the docket that morning was set-aside for criminal pleas.

When he saw the judge was not in the courtroom, he leaned against the back wall, misjudged the distance, hit his head. He suppressed the epithets he normally uttered and forced a self-deprecating smile.

There were no windows in the courtroom. Retrofitted and exposed heating and air conditioning duct work roamed across the twenty-foot high ceiling. In one corner was the long-unused, Franklin stove Bierley’s grandfather had installed while still at Fairmount College. Chandelier lights cast shadows onto the wooden floors.

Bierley knew the facts of the first case. A husband who worked out of town – on the eastern side of the state – at home on alternate weekends. He knew the defendant’s wife was planning to leave him. He knew about their Sunday dinner out of town. The gunshot wounds in the back of her head. Four spent .22 casings on the ground. The recovered pistol. He also knew the unseen presence in the courtroom – the murdered woman. She had been, among other things, his grandfather’s paralegal.

Bierley knew the men soon to be on the working side of the courtroom. The assistant state Attorney-General, Birch Weltz in his tailored dark gray suit – a heavy block of a man set atop two thin legs, – skilled and comfortable with his authority. The County Attorney, Bill Narth, a modest man with much to be modest about – as a four-term county attorney in a small county, he was considered, in the words of a former county clerk, “a failure in his profession.” The young defense attorney, Garry Mattox, in his limp polyester blazer, who had proven himself at the preliminary hearing a few weeks earlier. The newly elected High Sheriff, Dennis Hatzenbueller, Bierley’s next door neighbor since the second grade. And the Honorable Paul Williams, recently appointed district court judge. All but one born in Ninnescah county, all but one attended the same grade school or law school, and all married in one of the churches within six blocks of the courthouse.

Bierley even knew the private phone number of the state Attorney General, Kyle Snell. Friends since law school, when, in the days before photo I.D., they slugged down bourbon and coke on Friday nights at the O-Club then made fools of themselves in the backrooms near Ft. Riley.

As soon as the six-foot four-inch bailiff entered, the courtroom grew quiet.

#

“It’s set in stone, Danny. It’s the common law of Ninnescah county.” His grandfather would pause, raise his white eyebrows as if addressing a jury, “It’s not just who you know, but how long you’ve known ‘em, and whether your great-grandfathers came here from the same country. Better still, on the same damn ship.” He would look at the young boy, click his dentures, and continue. “And, Danny, it’s your duty to preserve all this.”

“But how, granddad?”

“Well, everyone says the world is changing, but it ain’t,” he continued with his rare colloquial lapse. “Human nature don’t change, so you’ll figure a way.”

“Why?”

“Because you have to.” He placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Protect your heritage, Danny. It’s all you got. Your father sure as hell couldn’t do it – and you, my boy, are the last of the line.”

Bierley was raised in a house that stood as a shrine to his family’s history. Maple tables with inlaid marble in the family since the seventeenth century, bedroom furniture six generations old, framed family portraits from the end of the Civil War. His life charted as though driving through a tunnel unable to veer left or right but compelled to move straight ahead.

#

Late one afternoon during Bierley’s final year of law school his grandfather called. “Meet me at The Rowhouse Restaurant at seven.”

“Yes, sir.”

That evening as Bierley approached the restaurant table, he saw his grandfather hand the menu back to the waiter, then reach for one of the two double-walled scotch glasses. “I ordered for the both of us,” he looked at his grandson. “I found the woman for you to marry, Danny. Her grandfather was the founder of a nine-man law firm in the capital. It’ll be a good merger.” He corrected himself just before he sipped his scotch. “I mean match- marriage.”

“Who is it?”

“Judy McPherson. You’ll like her. She’s a blond. I’ve set-up a meeting this weekend.” He sipped slowly, set the glass down, looked at the young man, “Don’t worry. Your great-grandfather did the same to me. It works out.”

Bierley’s grandfather was the best man at the August wedding which begat not children but a silence that spawned rancor, and, over the years, gave rise to multiple and mutual assignations.

#

Years later, a few months before his grandfather died, Bierley and the paralegal collided. For weeks he relived the warmth of her hand on his chest, the way she didn’t flinch when he reached for her waist to steady himself, then moved slightly forward. He watched her movements gliding down the office hallway. Her clothes draped differently – more finished – complete. A style distinct from the locals who dressed as though they had just thrown something on after feeding the chickens.

A week after his grandfather’s funeral, he visited the paralegal’s desk – just to ask about a case. Then he called her in the evening – only for an update. A few brief weekday lunches – much easier to discuss clients, led to longer lunches – she handles complicated cases, which grew into early evening drinks – just some last-minute stuff, then late evening dinners – trial coming up, and, after one night that didn’t end, their first weekend in Kansas City – might as well drive together to the seminar.

Bierley relished her guidance as he traveled from his wife’s claustrophobic bedroom rules into the paralegal’s long evenings, frequent couplings, and casual, even welcoming, approach to infidelity. Their recurrent evenings in motels along I-70 escalated his feelings from lust to passion and into a possessiveness which, triggered by her recent coolness, a reluctance toward exclusivity, and her recurring hints about moving to Kansas City, morphed into an escalating jealousy. One afternoon, after she told him she was leaving that weekend, he found himself in a jewelry story buying a diamond ring.

That evening, Bierley telephoned her at home. No answer. He drove by her house, did not see her husband’s car, circled the block, parked. In the living room he stepped around half-filled boxes. “Why are you leaving?”

She ignored his question, moved from one room to another.

“Slow down a minute.”
“Can’t. I told you. I’m leaving Sunday night.”

He followed her into the bedroom. Suitcases opened. Clothes scattered across the bed. A .22 pistol on the opposite nightstand.

“Whose pistol?”
“My husband’s.”

“Where the hell did he get it?”

“He and his brother got it in Garden City.”

“Registered?”

“Are you serious? Never would’a crossed his mind. Liked to use it during sex,” she said and rolled her eyes.

“Loaded?”

“Never asked.” She smiled. “Since you’re so interested, take it with you when you leave. And you do need to leave.” She maneuvered around his outstretched hand and walked to the kitchen leaving Bierley stranded.

In the kitchen, he leaned against the counter, shifted his feet, placed his right hand in his coat pocket. “I’m leaving my wife.”

No answer.

He added, “I bought you a ring.”

“Why would you do that?” She said and walked toward the back door.

As if her question failed to answer any future inquiry, he said, “I’m asking you to marry me.”

“Marriage? You’re married. And I’ve been- I am married. Not for much longer though. And never again.”

Silence.

His once besotted eyes changed into a stare that demanded answers. She remained silent, opened the back door, gestured for him to exit.

“Meet me Sunday night,” he said.

“Can’t. Too busy. Anyway, I’m meeting my husband over in Brookvale for dinner then. Gonna take my car, eat, say goodbye.” She shook her head and added, “After that I’ll listen to him whine, and drive outa here.”

#

Wednesday. December 1, 1982. Berdan Daily Tribune. The Ninnescah

County Sheriff’s Department reported finding a female body near

a ditch seven miles from Berdan near Brookvale. The police report

listed gunshot wounds as cause of death. A pistol was recovered.

The husband has been arrested on charges of first-degree murder,

kidnapping, assault and battery, possession of an illegal firearm, and

interfering with a police investigation. Garry Mattox is the court-appointed

attorney. The preliminary hearing is scheduled for December thirteenth.

The county attorney, Bill Narth, approached the preliminary hearing as though its outcome were pre-ordained, and presented evidence in the scattered and incomplete manner of a second-year law student. Garry Mattox, the young defense attorney, caught Narth off guard with a robust cross examination that mitigated or excluded most of the state’s evidence, and resulted in Judge Williams dismissing all charges, except one – he reduced first-degree murder to manslaughter. The trial was scheduled in two weeks. “We’ll take care of it right after Christmas,” said the judge.

After the preliminary hearing, Bierley, angry as hell, tromped into the limestone building his grandfather built in 1918, and stepped around melted snow puddles on the terrazzo floor of the lobby leading to the waiting room. He blew past the receptionist, past the associates’ cubicles and his father’s vacant office. He slowed as he approached the paralegal’s empty desk and briskly smoothed his hand across its surface.

Moments later, alone in his office, he crouched in his grandfather’s red leather chair, searched his case log: Real estate cases. Wills and trusts. Bankruptcies. I need something time-consuming.

Minutes later. This’s it. This’ll take care of it. Divorce cases with demanding clients, high fees, extended financial discovery, multiple pre-trial motions, and complicated evidentiary hearings scheduled around the time of the trial.

Bierley smiled, stood, then walked into a newly hired associate’s office. “You know Garry Mattox, right?”

After a brief explanation, he told the young man, “Call Mattox. No. Go over to his office and deliver these divorce files. Just tell him- Hell, the guy’s starving. Just say I was impressed by his cross-examination this morning and wanted to help him out. Make sure he knows all the fees are his. And tell him he needs to be here tomorrow so we can do the client hand-off.”

Next, Bierley placed two calls. His first was to his neighbor, Sheriff Hatzenbueller.

“Sorry to bother you, Sheriff. How’s the case with…” His voice trailed off. Am I going to cry? He swallowed. “….about my dad’s paralegal?”

“Dan, there’s a-” Hatzenbueller hesitated, tried again. “Dan, I was going to call you. Sorry, but I gotta ask. About her phone records. I’m guessing they were-”

“After my granddad’s heart attack, I called to reassure her about her job and ask about some of his old cases.” Bierley thought the phone would slip out of his perspiration-soaked hand. “Just a second, Sheriff.” He held the receiver away from his face, wiped his hand on his pants, then exhaled every bit of breath he had held in for the past few weeks. He inhaled deeply again – just in case – and waited for the inevitable question. It didn’t come.

Before his next call, Bierley grabbed his Visine, and, without looking in a mirror, plunked two drops in each burning eye, blinked, then dialed the Attorney-General’s private phone line. “Kyle, this is Dan. I just got back from the preliminary hearing on the murder of my granddad’s paralegal. The judge dismissed most of the charges, but reduced murder to manslaughter. Our county attorney presented such a weak case that you need to send-”

“Dan, I can’t intervene. I know Narth’s below average, but he is the county attorney down there, and-”

Bierley started to talk, heard his voice crack. “Kyle, just call Narth and offer some assistance. Trial prep, investigation, help with witnesses. Tell him it’s a high-profile case, and it’ll help his re-election. He’ll be damn glad to get it.”

Snell delayed his response, then said, “Well, I’ve got a fundraiser in your part of the state next month. How about Birch Weltz, my first assistant, coming down after that?”

“Kyle, how about I come to the fundraiser at a higher level than usual, and Weltz drives down today?”

Within three hours Weltz was on his way to Berdan.

When Weltz arrived at the Ninnescah county courthouse, he met with Narth and Judge Williams. With his authority to summon state agents and resources to assist in the investigation of other cases, Weltz rapidly ingratiated himself into the sheriff’s office and smoothed his way past Narth. That evening he and Bierley talked for over three hours.

The following afternoon, Weltz walked unannounced into Mattox’s cramped office – no secretary, two metal folding chairs, one neglected office plant, and a newly-minted law degree. “Garry, I think we can help each other.” He eased into a metal char. “I don’t want to be in Berdan, and from what I heard, you have the beginnings of a thriving practice. Plus, your client’s broke and sitting in jail. No matter what the outcome, he can’t afford to sit there much longer.” Weltz leaned toward the desk. “Let’s just take care of this low-fee, court-appointed case you got stuck with so you can start making some money.”

Mattox was exhausted after a series of sixteen-hour days juggling frightened, angry divorce clients, depositions, marital motions, and interminable negotiations. He had a deposition in a couple of hours and needed additional time to prepare. Nevertheless, for over an hour, Weltz slow walked Mattox through each step, including his client’s waiver of a jury trial and what needed to be said in court. “Tell your client we’ll plead down to negligent homicide. Avoid a jury trial. Ask for a suspended sentence.”

Weltz said he’d notify Judge Williams of the agreement so the pre-sentencing investigation could begin. “I’ll meet with the judge. More likely than not, he won’t make any changes. We can get this done quickly.”

#

“All rise.” The bailiff’s voice quieted the courtroom.

A deputy sheriff closed the two oak doors, clasped his hands behind his back. Two uniformed jailers entered and sat in the front row behind the defendant.

Bierley remained at the back of the courtroom. His stomach dripped acid that rose in his throat then flooded his mouth. At that point he had no options. Swallow the rancid liquid and deal with the consequences later.

Bierley watched Judge Williams stride into the courtroom. In a gentle voice, loud enough so all could hear, but not one decibel higher, he said with a smile, “It’s two degrees colder than hell in here. Let’s warm it up for the folks.” He grinned and nodded to the bailiff who promptly adjusted the thermostat.

The judge looked at the defendant, adjusted his glasses, then called the case. “Does the defendant wish to enter a plea?”

“He does, your honor,” said Mattox.

“Would the court reporter swear in the defendant?”

Moments later. “How do you plead?”

“Guilty.”

“Are you pleading guilty because you are guilty, or because you were offered something of value in return for your guilty plea?” Judge Williams did not break eye contact with the defendant.

The well-coached defendant responded, “Because I am guilty.”

“And you’ve waived your right to a jury trial?”

“I have.”

The judge continued, “You’ve pled guilty. But tell me, what are you guilty of- of doing?”

“Of the death of my wife.”

“Guilty of the death of your wife. Could you be more specific?”

“I don’t understand,” the defendant said and looked at Mattox.

“What actions did you perform that constitute this offense? Tell me in your own words what you did.” The judge watched Mattox rise. “You may confer with your client.”

Moments later the defendant spoke. “I shot my wife with a pistol.”

“Did you plan to shoot her?”

“Yes.”

“Did you think about shooting her before you did it?”

“Yes.”

“Did anyone force you to shoot her?”

“No, sir.”

The judge nodded at Mattox. “Anything else?”

“No, your honor.”

“Then, if there’s nothing else,” the judge leaned back, glanced at his legal pad, “I accept the defendant’s guilty plea. And I accept as facts the defendant’s statements made under oath.” The judge lowered his head slightly.

The judge looked around the courtroom. “The pre-sentencing investigation has been completed, and I am ready render judgement.”

He leaned forward, reached for his legal pad, found where he left off. “Under oath, the defendant admitted to a planned, deliberate, intentional killing of his wife.” He paused.

“I find the defendant guilty of first-degree murder and order him to serve a sentence of life imprisonment. He is hereby remanded to the state Department of Corrections.” After Judge Williams overruled the pro forma motions, he handed the file to the court reporter, and returned to his chambers.

Bruce Weltz was walking down the courthouse stairway before the two jailers had positioned themselves on either side of the defendant, shackled his wrists to the chain around his waist, then rushed him into a holding cell.

Garry Mattox stuffed files and legal pads into his briefcase, headed out of the courtroom. Near the doorway, he heard, “Nice job, Garry.”

Mattox barely turned his head. “Thanks, Dan. I have my first divorce trial later today. Gotta run.” He hurried toward the stairs. “You know how it is.”

Bierley knew…

THE END –

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Categories: Fiction

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