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Excerpt

Excerpt

The Judgment

One

I have spent years defending some of the worst people who ever
lived, but the most evil man I ever knew was never once accused of
a crime. Nothing, not even curiosity, could have made me attend his
funeral had he died in his sleep or been killed in an accident, but
Calvin Jeffries had been murdered, and I felt an obligation as
someone who practiced in the criminal courts to attend the services
of the only trial judge to become the victim of a homicide.

Surrounded by strangers, I sat in the crowded church and listened
to the eulogy of someone I had never met. There were words about
justice and public service and dedication and honor and goodwill,
words about family and friends and how much the honorable Judge
Jeffries would be missed, words which made everyone feel better
because the lie is so much more comfortable than the truth.

At the end, when there was nothing left to say, the widow of Calvin
Jeffries placed a rose on top of his flag-draped coffin, waited
until the pallbearers were ready, and then, turning around, walked
at the head of the procession as it moved down the aisle. Even the
light that streamed through the stained glass windows failed to
penetrate the heavy black veil that covered her face, and
I.wondered as she passed by me what emotions were masked behind
it.

Outside, under a harsh blue sky, the mourners watched while the
coffin was lifted into the back of a sleek, shiny hearse. The
judge's widow was helped into the first of a half dozen waiting
limousines and, moments later, with two police motorcycles leading
the way, the cortege began the long slow journey to the
cemetery.

The bitter March wind stung the side of my face and watered my
eyes. I pulled my topcoat close around my throat and began to
jostle my way down the church steps. I was in a hurry to get away.
Now that it was over, I wanted to forget all about the late
lamented Calvin Jeffries.

As I turned up the sidewalk, I almost ran into Harper Bryce.

"Any comment you'd care to make, Mr. Antonelli?" he asked. Bryce,
who had covered the courthouse as a newspaper reporter longer than
I had practiced law, was standing in front of me. His tie flapped
outside his buttoned jacket and his eyes squinted into the wind,
each gust stronger than the one before. I made no reply other than
to shake my head, and we trudged up the street without exchanging a
word until he asked me if I wanted to stop somewhere for a
drink.

"It's a little early, isn't it?"

On the next block, in one of the old buildings with the date of its
construction embedded in stone above the entrance, a bar and grill
was just opening its doors. We ordered at the empty bar and carried
our drinks to a wooden table next to a dusty brick wall covered
with the autographed pictures of people once famous or important
and now long forgotten.

With a slow, heavy breath, Harper drew the chair as close as his
expansive stomach would allow, hunched his sloping shoulders
forward, and rested his arms on the edge of the table.

"Here's to Judge Jeffries," he said as he lifted his glass. When he
finished, he cocked his head, waiting for me to explain why I had
not joined him. "Most people liked him," he reminded me.

I nodded and then took a drink, wincing as it burned its way down
my throat.

"Whatever you thought of him, you have to give him credit," Harper
went on. The words came a few at a time, punctuated by the wheezing
sound of his breath as his chest heaved up and down like a bellows.
"He wrote most of the law-most of the procedural law-in this state.
He had a brilliant legal mind. You have to give him that."

The liquor had reached my stomach, and I remembered I had not had
anything to eat.

"You have to give him that," Harper was still insisting as I got up
from the table. At the bar, I exchanged the drink for a cup of
coffee and ordered bacon and eggs.

"I'm having breakfast," I told him as I sat down. "You want
something?"

He started to shake his head, then changed his mind. "I'll have the
same thing," he yelled across the empty room.

"Don't you think he had a brilliant legal mind?" Harper asked,
curious why I seemed so reluctant to agree.

"You want me to tell you about the first time I ever met
him?"

I asked, surprised at how clearly I remembered what until that
moment I had not thought about in years. "That isn't exactly
right," I corrected myself. "I didn't really meet him. I appeared
in front of him, in a trial—not even a real trial—a
trial on stipulated facts."

It had happened years ago, at the beginning of my career, and it
was as if I had just walked out of that courtroom. Harper gave me a
quizzical look as I laughed at how angry it still made me.

"You know what a stipulated facts trial is? It's a plea bargain
that allows the defendant to appeal a legal issue that is in
dispute. That's what we were doing. I had not been practicing more
than six months, and I had this kid charged with stealing a car. I
tried to get his confession thrown out, but I lost on that. The
deputy D.A. was one of the good ones. He thought it was a close
call, and that an appellate court should decide."

Harper never forgot he was a reporter. "Was Jeffries the judge who
denied your motion?"

"No, another judge had done that. Jeffries wasn't the one who might
get overturned on appeal. He didn't have any stake in what happened
one way or the other. At least not that way," I added.

I lifted the cup with both hands and sipped the black coffee,
remembering the way Jeffries had looked that day, his pug-fingered
hands folded in front of him, waiting for me to begin. He was still
in his thirties, but his wavy hair, which ran in a straight line
from his brow, was already silver smooth.

"McDonald—that was the name of the deputy D.A.—recited
the facts of the case. The defendant—I've forgotten his
name— was standing right next to me, his hands cuffed in
front of him. He had broken into the home of his former girlfriend,
taken her keys, and stolen her car. It was simple, straightforward,
nothing to it. McDonald finished, and Jeffries turned to me. 'Does
the defendant agree with this rendition of the facts?' he asked.
The kid nodded and I said yes out loud for the record. It was the
first stipulated facts trial I had done, but McDonald had done
dozens of them. It was all routine.

"Jeffries drew himself up and looked right at McDonald. 'Very well.
Based on these facts, I find the defendant not guilty.'

"Not guilty! It was impossible. But there it was. Jeffries kept
looking at McDonald, daring him to open his mouth."

I raised my eyes until I met Harper's gaze. "So far as I know, I'm
the only defense lawyer who ever won a stipulated facts trial, and
I only won it because Jeffries was so utterly corrupt."

"Your client bought him off?"

"My client didn't have anything to do with it. It was worse than
bribery. It was power. Earlier that same week, McDonald had been
late for a court appearance. Jeffries, who was never on time
himself, was in a rage. He told him no one was ever late to his
courtroom. And he meant it."

The bartender brought breakfast, and Harper began to cut the eggs
with his knife and fork. "Everyone always said he ran a tight
courtroom," he remarked as he lifted the fork to his mouth.

"And everyone said Captain Bligh ran a tight ship," I replied as I
started to eat. The eggs were runny and the bacon was
charred.

After a couple of bites I shoved the plate aside and forgot about
food. My mind was filling with images of things that had happened,
the oldest of them crowding out the others, as if clarity came only
after a memory had been buried for years.

"The next time I saw Jeffries was about a month later. I had a case
that had to be set for trial. Jeffries liked to do these things in
chambers. When he got to my case, he leaned back in his chair, a
big smile on his face, and said, 'Tell your client if he pleads
guilty, he'll get probation, but if he goes to trial, he goes to
prison.'"

I looked at Harper as I cradled the warm coffee mug in my hands. "I
was young, new, more interested in saying something smart than
doing something wise. I couldn't let it go. 'Even if he's
acquitted?' God, you should have been there. The room was full of
lawyers. Everyone was laughing, everyone but Jeffries. He stared at
me with cold-eyed suspicion, and then, without a word, went on to
the next case."

Harper mopped up a liquid yellow yolk with a piece of toast and
stuffed it into his mouth. With a paper napkin he wiped his lips,
and asked, "What did Jeffries do to get even?"

"Even?" I replied with a rueful laugh. "That was never good enough
for Jeffries, not by half."

The door opened and I shuddered as a gust of cold air struck the
back of my neck. An old man in a tweed jacket and a woman bent over
a cane took a table on the other side of the room.

"A few weeks later I had a case on the criminal docket, and
Jeffries was on the bench. My client was in custody and all we are
going to do is enter a not guilty plea. It isn't going to take more
than two minutes. All the in-custody arraignments were set for
eight-thirty. I was there at eight twenty-five. Jeffries was ten
minutes late. He's late so often he doesn't bother to apologize.
Court begins when he gets there; lawyers can wait.

"Usually the deputy D.A. calls the cases on the docket, but not in
Jeffries's courtroom, not that day. Jeffries called them himself,
called them alphabetically, all except my client. When he came to
him, he skipped to the next name on the list and took everyone
after that in order, all the way through until he had finished with
them all. I had sat there for three and a half hours, and it was
now five minutes before noon and my client was the only one left.
Jeffries got up from the bench and went to lunch."

Harper seemed amused by it. If it had happened to someone else, or
if it had been the only time it had happened to me, I might have
found something humorous in it as well.

"So he made you wait until after lunch?"

"He came back in the afternoon, and without so much as a glance in
my direction announced that because the civil calendar was
unusually crowded, any criminal matters left over from the morning
would be taken up the next day."

"Judicial discretion," Harper remarked with a wry expression. His
eyes grew distant, as if he was starting to remember other
occasions on which he had witnessed other judges inflicting injury
on lawyers they did not like. "It was a long time ago," he said,
coming back to himself. "Why does it still bother you so
much?"

"It probably wouldn't, if it had been the end of things," I
explained.

"But it was just the beginning."

Another blast of cold air hit the back of my neck. A slightly built
middle-aged man with slick black hair held the door while a taller,
broad-shouldered man with snow white hair and wintry blue eyes
passed in front of him. As soon as they saw us, they headed for our
table.

"Hello, Joseph," the old man said softly as I stood up. Nearly
seventy, Asa Bartram still practiced law. He came in late every
morning and left early every afternoon, but he never missed a day.
The other attorneys in the firm he had started before most of them
were born parked in the underground garage, but Asa, who owned the
building, parked his Cadillac on the street in front, directly
under a NO PARKING sign that always kept his space vacant.

"You know Jonah," he said to me as he turned and shook hands with
Harper. Small, dark-eyed, with a nervous twitch that locked his
left eye into a permanent squint, Jonah Micronitis paid no
attention to me. He pulled out a chair for the older man and waited
until he sat down. "How are you," he said finally, with a quick,
cursory nod as he moved to the other side of the table and took the
fourth chair for himself.

Harper and I exchanged a brief glance as Micronitis leaned across
and asked Asa what he wanted. Rubbing his large raw-boned hands
together, the old man thought about it for a moment.

"Just coffee." Micronitis nodded once, and lifted up his head. His
eyes darted toward the bartender. "Coffee," he called out in a
peremptory tone.

"Were you at the funeral?" Asa asked.

"Yes, I was."

He was a large man, with a high forehead and prominent cheek-bones,
who despite his age held himself rigid and alert. He looked at me,
his white bushy eyebrows drawn together, his blue eyes sparkling,
enjoying a private joke. "It's always good to outlive your
enemies," he said finally.

Too impatient to wait, Micronitis went to the bar to get the coffee
himself. He brought back two cups and set one in front of
Asa.

I tried to be diplomatic. "I didn't view Jeffries as an enemy. We
just never quite got along."

There was nothing hostile in the way he looked at me. His eyes
remained friendly, if a little distant, but my answer had plainly
amused him. "Jonah," he said without moving his eyes, "how would
you describe the way Judge Jeffries felt about Antonelli?"

Slipping back into his chair, Micronitis glanced first at me, then
at Bartram. A smirk shot across his small, tight-lipped
mouth.

"Hatred, pure and simple." His voice, a flat, slightly nasal
monotone, carried no more emotion than if he had been asked for the
time.

This reply seemed to add to the old man's amusement. "It's rather
more of a challenge not to speak ill of the dead when it turns out
the dead speak so ill of the living, isn't it?"

I shrugged it off and tried to turn the conversation in a different
direction. "As I say, for some reason we just never got along. But
you were quite good friends with him, weren't you?" He took his
eyes off me and stirred the cup of coffee on the table in front of
him. He put the spoon down on the saucer, lifted the cup to his
mouth, and, out of habit, blew on it before he drank. The loose,
mottled skin on his throat throbbed as he swallowed.

"We went to law school together. The class of...." His voice
trailed off, and at the first sign of uncertainty, Micronitis,
always waiting to help, supplied the year. "Calvin didn't want to
go to law school," Bartram continued, glancing at Harper, then at
me, certain we would find this not only surprising but interesting
as well. "Calvin wanted to be a doctor. He applied to medical
school, and they were eager to have him. As well they might. Calvin
had a brilliant mind. But when he told them that he had to work
part-time while he was going to school-he had to help support his
mother—they wouldn't let him in. They told him medical school
was too difficult, that no one could get through if they were
working at a job, even one that was part-time...."

"You never wanted to be the defense attorney in a medical
malpractice case in his courtroom," Micronitis interjected. His
eyes glistening, he slowly drew his index finger across his
throat.

"Hated doctors."

Bartram, his mind focused on what he wanted to say, had not stopped
talking. "We started out together, opened our own office. We almost
starved to death. Not that Calvin would have noticed. He never
cared anything for the business side of the law. Always left all of
that to me. He was too busy, reading cases, sitting in court
listening to other lawyers make their arguments. He used to get in
his car and drive down to Salem just so he could watch oral
arguments in front of the Oregon Supreme Court." Grasping the
handle of the cup between his thumb and the gnarled knuckle of his
forefinger, Bartram lifted it to his mouth, staring straight ahead
as he drank.

"He should never have been a lawyer. He didn't have the temperament
for it. You have to treat people with respect. You have to at least
pretend that a client might have something to say worth listening
to. You have to defer, with a show of good grace, to anything a
judge decides to say. Calvin couldn't do it." As soon as he said
it, he took it back. "No, that's not true. He could do it—and
he did it—at least with judges, but he hated it, every minute
of it. He thought it was all too demeaning."

He paused, a blank look on his face, as if he had lost the thread
of his thought.

"All too demeaning," Micronitis reminded him.

The thin film of vague ambiguity dissolved, and Bartram's eyes came
back into focus. "Calvin Jeffries," he said like someone recalling
the name of a long-lost friend, "was blessed—or perhaps I
should say cursed—with a really remarkable capacity to take
in both sides of a question almost simultaneously." A shrewd glint
entered his pale eyes. "I suppose I should have said 'to see the
flaws' in both sides of an argument. He had the most analytical
mind I ever saw."

He hesitated, just for a moment, and Micronitis opened his mouth.
With a shake of his head that was more like a quick shudder, the
old man cut him off. "There was something quite destructive about
it, this way he had of demolishing every argument he heard. It
became an obsession with him. He was so intent on showing everyone
that they did not measure up, that he sometimes completely lost
sight of the difference between better and worse. With that
restless mind of his, everything was reduced to the absolute
equality of imperfection."

This moment of lucidity seemed to exhaust his critical faculties.
His head sagged down and as he fumbled with his coffee cup his hand
trembled for a moment before he was able to bring it back under
control.

"Well," he said, looking around the table, "for someone who wasn't
interested in money, he did all right." His eyes landed on
Micronitis. "Thanks to us, he was pretty well off, wasn't
he."

You could almost see the electrons racing around the agile brain of
Jonah Micronitis as he calculated, no doubt to the last dollar and
cent, the net worth of Asa Bartram's deceased friend. "Quite a
wealthy man." He caught the meaning of the look that passed between
Harper and myself. "It all started years ago," he explained.

"Before I joined the firm. Asa always had an eye for investments.
He put the judge into some things—real estate,
mainly—that didn't cost that much at the time."

With a grim laugh, the old man interjected: "But whoever killed him
didn't get any of it. One thing you could always count on about
Calvin-he never had enough money on him to pick up a check."

"The killer was probably after the car," Harper suggested. "That's
where he was stabbed, right next to his car in the courthouse
parking structure."

Wincing, Asa dropped his eyes. "Terrible thing, terrible thing," he
muttered. "Just left there to die like that, and then somehow
managed to drag himself back to his office. Must have crawled part
of the way."

Micronitis checked his watch. "We better get going," he said. Asa
gave no sign he had heard. Instead, he raised his head and grinned
at me. "Jonah was right. Calvin really hated you." Laying my hand
on his forearm, I looked into his aging eyes.

"And do you hate me, too, Asa?" I asked gently.

He was startled at first, but then he realized I was not asking him
about me at all. "No, of course not," he replied, patting my hand.
"Calvin hated everybody." A shudder seemed to pass through him, and
his mouth twisted into a grimace. He stared down at the table,
shaking his head. Then he stopped, placed both hands on the arms of
his chair, and drew himself up to his full height. "He was the most
brilliant man and the meanest son of a bitch I ever knew. I made
him rich, and he made me feel like he was doing me a favor by
letting me do it."

"Then why did you?" Harper asked.

Asa did not understand. "Why did I what?"

Harper never had a chance to answer. Before the second word was out
of the old man's mouth, Micronitis had already begun to explain.
"Why did you make him rich if he treated you like that?" With a
toss of his head, Asa snorted. "Wish I knew. I just did it, that's
all." He paused, his dim eyes twinkling with a thought that had
just come to him. "It was like a marriage. After a while you settle
into a kind of routine, and later on you can't remember why. I
handled the business end of things when we started out together. It
became one of the things I did, and I kept doing it after he went
on the bench."

With his elbows on the table, he wrapped one hand over the other
and rested his chin on top. His eyelids were closed into narrow
slits and a shrewd smile played at the corners of his wide
mouth.

"Once you did something for Calvin Jeffries, it stopped being a
favor and became an expectation. He never thanked me, not once in
all those years." Folding his arms across his chest, he sank back
in his chair. "I don't think he even liked me," he said, pressing
his lips together as he pondered the meaning of what he had
received for all his trouble. Brightening, he turned his head until
his eyes met mine. "He didn't like me, but he hated you."
Micronitis could hardly contain himself. "Yes, he really hated
you," he said, his voice a cheerful echo.

I turned away from Asa and looked at Micronitis. "Do you know why
he hated me?" I asked, irritated.

His eyes darted from mine to Asa and back again. He fidgeted around
in his chair. The side of his mouth began to twitch. "No," he
finally admitted. "I just know that he did." Finished with his
breakfast, Harper set his empty plate to the side. "Do you know
why?" he asked, looking right at me.

"It was the Larkin case," Asa explained. Harper turned his head,
waiting to hear more. "The Larkin case made our friend here
famous," he said, nodding toward me. "Every lawyer who ever became
famous became famous because of one case. The Larkin case was
yours, wasn't it?"

Harper's eyes flashed. "I remember now. It was years ago. I
couldn't cover it. I'd already been assigned to a murder trial that
was scheduled at the same time." Harper thought of something.

"Wasn't that the case the judge threw you in jail for
contempt?"

Then he realized what had happened. "Ah," he said, suddenly
subdued, "Jeffries."

For a moment, no one said anything. Then, turning to Asa, Harper
asked, "What was it about the case that made him hate Antonelli so
much?"

Furrowing his brow, he tried to remember. Finally, he shook his
head. "I don't really know. I never paid much attention to what
went on in the courthouse. All I know," he said, repeating himself,
"is that it was the Larkin case." He smiled apologetically at
Harper and looked at me. "Tell us what happened, Joe. The Larkin
trial."

Micronitis started to object. He tapped his fingernail on the glass
crystal of his wristwatch, trying to remind Asa that there was
somewhere he was supposed to be.

"Go ahead, Joe," Asa insisted. "I've always wanted to hear about
it."

Harper endorsed the suggestion. "I've always wanted to hear about
it, too." He stole a quick, sideways glance at Micronitis, then
added, "And take your time. Don't leave anything out."

Excerpted from THE JUDGMENT © Copyright 2002 by D. W.
Buffa. Reprinted with permission by Time Warner Bookmark. All
rights reserved.

The Judgment
by by D. W. Buffa

  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense
  • Mass Market Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Vision
  • ISBN-10: 0446611247
  • ISBN-13: 9780446611244