Slugger, a courtroom thriller

“His defense of a client charged with assault leads into a complicated and dangerous mess involving the Mafia and dirty public officials. We also see how an innocent man can go to prison when pleading out a charge becomes not only the cheapest but the safest path. Also, a defense attorney can be legally trapped into defending a case he doesn’t want. Real life!”   From Amazon Reviews

Rod Cavanaugh didn’t lie to Emery. He’d never met Rod Slugger. After checking on Natalie,   he’d returned to his office and tried to clean up a few things while Brooke was on a courthouse run. Soon, he’d get to the bottom of this Slugger thing. He may have made an embarrassing error. The question was how brusque he needed to be with Brooke.

“I’m back,” Brooke called cheerily through the open door, wiggling her fingers in a salute, still in her heavy coat. A moment later, she walked coatless into his office in a tight gray wool skirt and sweater. The phone rang in the background at her station. She looked over her shoulder; then a second phone line started ringing. She placed her coffee down and ran out again.

Rod leaned back with his hands behind his head and was grateful again he found this place to practice his trade. From the start, he felt at home in this building. Here he didn’t dwell on his soon-to-be ex-wife or daughters; other, less momentous worries filled his days.

The converted old house was built a hundred and fifty years ago on lot one, block one, First Salem Addition, and located two blocks from downtown Salem proper. The building was the first residential structure within the city core and five blocks from the courthouse. There were better addresses he could have chosen, along Liberty Street where the doctors had new, opulent offices, or in one of the high-rise towers over one of the banks, where the business and transactional attorneys worked. His client base, most of whom barely clung to solvency, would be ill at ease in such settings.

The old Victorian carried an atmosphere apart from the workaday office world. It was large without being grand, tasteful but personable. The informality engendered trust, allowing guilty minds to face the unblemished truth. Light streamed from tall, narrow windows onto a well-worn fir floor. The rugs were old, the woodwork marred. The building reflected the scars of age, not unlike his clients, and wisdom earned over time.

He converted the parlor into his office and put the secretarial space in the old dining room. In the main room, the one with the antique cast-iron face over the fireplace, he placed his red-leather couch. Then he set a simple, oval table in the center of the room, what became the conference room, creating a cozy, masculine setting for interviews and depositions. Two sets of double-wide sliding doors separated the conference room from his private office, and from the secretarial area, and both door sets were left open to maintain informality unless clients were present.

“I turned the phones over to the message machine.”

Rod was jarred back to the moment as Brooke hustled in and sat down across from him. She warmed her hands on a coffee mug decorated with purple hearts pierced by arrows. Then she set the cup on his desk and pulled at the sides of her sweater. She smoothed her skirt over her thighs and behind the curve of her rump. Sitting like Little Bo Peep, she looked up.

“You wanted to talk?” she said.

“Brooke, who have you given a copy of your book Slugger to? Take your time to think.”

“No one.” Blue eyes blinked beneath pale lashes. She flipped blonde strands away from her eyes and focused just over his shoulder.

“Your book’s out, Brooke. Being read locally. That’s why Charlotte Emery wanted to talk to me.”

She looked down at her lap, finding more wrinkles to smooth, her palms pressing fabric. “Rod, look . . . trust me,” she looked up and said, an assurance he now doubted. He was becoming annoyed. She placed her right hand over her heart, Girl Scout cute.

“I know how sensitive this could be. I haven’t discussed the book with anyone. Last week, I looked at the numbers. My sales are increasing, but it still won’t amount to much. And even if someone in town read it, they wouldn’t know it’s us.”

That statement was unsettling. Damn, he thought, she’s actually selling the thing.

“There is no us, Brooke, not as it concerns your book.” Her use of the pronoun was disconcerting. “This is your project, not ours. It’s just a dime novel, isn’t it? In the universe of books on Amazon, what chance is there that someone from around here would order it and recognize the players?”

“Not much of a chance,” she answered, focusing on her nails.

“The fact is, someone has made the connection. Something in your story has apparently aroused people’s curiosity. What do you think that might be? Our clients, they aren’t mentioned by name, are they?”

“We talked about this when I asked for permission. I changed all the names and stuff.”

“OK. But obviously, something wasn’t masked very well. Can you get access to the sales figures? You said you can do that, right?”

“Yes. But it may take a few days to get an accurate picture of how it’s selling.”

“And we need to know if you’ve sold any in the Salem area.”

“I’m not sure they can tell us where they shipped the books.”

“Well, find out, dammit. We have to figure this out. And stop the presses until I review it. You can do that, right?”

“Yes. I’ll just suspend online sales.”

“Good. The way Emery is acting, I need to read it. I assume you agree?” He tried to be civil.

“Yes. I guess.” She squirmed in her chair, bit the bottom of her lip. “My class editor did go over it, you know.”

“Christ, that tells me nothing . . .” This time his voice rose unintentionally. “So get me a copy, will you?. No, bring me three. I’ll put the guys on this. In the meantime, call Amazon and see if they can tell us where the books are being sent.”

“I’m not sure that’s possible.”

“Try. Let me know what you find out.”

Little Bo Peep left the room with her head down.

 

After his separation, it was Mr. Glenlivet who braced his courage and loosened his tongue, or his pen, to be precise. He began purging frustrations by writing in a journal, memorializing the fabrications of Julianne, chronicling the half-truths and outright lies she told the girls. He shouldn’t have been surprised by her vitriol. To foment strife, she’d say the most god-awful things.

“Dad, how could you . . .?” Kera would begin. Or, “I know what you did!” His alleged misfeasance would then pour out: of drunkenness, of infidelity, of leaving Julianne destitute and threatening her with force. His daughters were wracked with angst over sins he did not commit. He told them the truth, and then felt soiled by the sound of his own voice, the high notes of self-defensiveness, an innocent man radiating guilt under the hot lights of interrogation. To compensate, he took up the pen.

It wasn’t long before he included other frustrations—anecdotes about his cases and the players, highlighting the arrogance of colleagues and their biases, so entrenched that justice was often distorted. He scribed descriptions of groveling lawyers and the greedy one, the paranoid prosecutors, and the sophists who would represent the devil if the price was right. He was wound up tight and the more he wrote the tighter he become, spewing his own vitriol. But the writing assuaged his anger. Double shots of Glenlivet enlivened the script.

It was a period when he thought he was losing it. His family was shredded. Julianne had found another guy before winter arrived.

“Natalie wants nothing to do with her dad,” Jules told the counselor. His child followed her mother’s lead, escaping into a cocoon of grief over the divorce. Then he took over an ailing lawyer friend’s mental commitment and juvenile court caseload, and suffered a rapid series of losses before the trial court in cases where there was no right to a jury: fighting the social workers, the cops, and the psychologists—the pseudoscientists—those who joined the judge in condemning poor souls who were never believed over the men in blue and those in white smocks. The poor and wrongly accused were gripped by the tentacles of an authoritative bureaucracy, and families were torn apart. Justice, when it was accomplished, occurred no more predictable than the outcome of flipping a coin, and even then was arbitrarily executed. He had practiced long enough to recognize the systemic failure in that part of the justice system.

He wrote it all down, page after page, as Mr. Glenlivet warmed his entrails and became his best friend. Judges made judgments constricted by the paradigms of their class, never personally experiencing the trauma that visits average people’s lives, those with limited choices. Upper-class attitudes perverted the system. There was a cruel hypocrisy practiced by the men and women of the bar and bench. His trial losses, in nonjury hearings, became deeply etched as synapses fired with each failure—justice denied—and his booze-laden blood raced through disappointed veins. He wrote it all down.

After months of nightly expurgation, his frustration at work and marital problems leveled off, reaching a stasis where he could function. Rod tore out the part about his family and handed the journal to Brooke. He wanted a catalog of his insights about his colleagues for future reference, reminders of who to trust and who to watch closely.

“This is to be kept confidential, Brooke,” he told her.

Then one day, Brooke had an idea.

“Mr. Cavanaugh, can I have a minute?” She stood in the open double doors between their offices.

“Sure.”

Girlish arms reached wide to pull the heavy doors together. Usually, it was a pay raise, or an extra day off, when she wanted a closed-door meeting and started with the “Mr.” bit. She was going to get neither.

“I wanted to talk to you about your journal notes.” She took a seat in one of the two client chairs. “I’ve got it typed and organized by attorney name. I was wondering, are you going to share it with your friends?”

“Jesus, no. I was just spouting off. It helped get me through a bad time. I doubt that it has any value now.”

“Oh, I just assumed you intended to use it for extortion.”

They both laughed.

“Yeah, and get run out of town in the process.”

“Anyway, there is sooo much material in your journal . . . so I included some of your ideas, personality types, you know, in this novelette I’ve been working on for Advanced English Lit.”

He was amused.

“It’s mystery story. I hope you don’t mind . . . you know, for character development and stuff?”

“That may not be a good idea, Brooke. Your teacher may know some of these people?”

“Oh, no, it’s not at the college. It’s an online course through the University of Maryland. And the names have been changed. For the descriptions, I’ve used composites. No one will ever see it.”

“If that’s the case, I guess it’s OK.”

“And I’ve used a couple of our cases for plot lines.”

He thought a moment about repercussions. “That’s in the public domain, so that part is fine. Just be sure to stay away from confidential client communications. Your project is a school paper, right?”

“Yes.” She dropped her head, looking up at him demurely, and then she flipped her hair back.

“Let’s get back to work,” he said, breaking whatever spell she was in.

Four months later, after he’d forgotten their earlier conversation, she approached him again in the break room. He was hovering over the coffee machine, watching it percolate and spit into the pot.

“I got an A on my story,” she said.

“Well, congratulations.”

“My professor thinks I should self-publish. Can you believe that?”

“Good job, Brooke. Wow, an A?”

“Yep. And I think maybe I can sell it online for Kindle readers. For paperback orders, it’s on demand, so the customer pays for printing. It’s no cost to me.”

“Good for you.”

The pot was nearing the eight cup mark. He turned the heat off. If the hot plate stayed on, the coffee would soon taste like burnt rubber. She took a step toward him from the side, looking up, commanding his full attention.

“Rod, you know, it wouldn’t be right for me to take all the credit. If it sells, you know . . . the money and all.” Her blue eyes birdlike, lids flapping breezily.

“I don’t see why not. It’s your story.”

Her forehead creased. “Yes, but . . . you know, I got some of my best ideas from your journal and stuff.”

He took a step to the side and reached into the cupboard for a clean cup. “Yeah, well, as long as you didn’t just paraphrase.”

“Oh yeah, I was careful with that, but the protagonist in the story is based on you.”

He laughed. “Me?”

She frowned. “Seriously. This is a project we can do together. I listed you as joint author with Amazon although only my name is on the jacket; so, if it’s successful, we can edit it together for a second edition, and maybe write another.” She beamed and leaned into him, her breast against his side, and then she pushed off playfully.

Rod shrugged off a smile. “Brooke, I’d prefer my name not be mentioned. Writing isn’t on my list of things to do. Listen, do I need to read this thing? You changed the names right?”

“All the characters are made up.” Brooke headed for the door, then bounced back in. “You know what’s really working out well? I made it a fictionalized memoir, so readers will wonder which part of it is real. What do you think of that? I’m calling the book Slugger.”

And that was the only time he heard the name until it came out of Charlotte Emery’s mouth.

The Court Martial of Darren Sweet:  published in Sixfold, winter 2018
Escape from Waycross:  published in Beckoning,  NSW, Calif. Writers Club,  Spring 2018

 

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