“You have a visitor,” announced a robust woman in black polyester pants, a silk floral blouse, and too much makeup.
“What?” replied her boss, distracted by his phone.
“You have a visitor,” she repeated.
“Did you open my Christmas gift?”
“I did, Mr. Chalmers. Thank you very much.” Her boss’s gifts were always reminders of her faults. Last year, he had given her a gym membership, and an Atkins cookbook the year before that. This year, it was a workout watch. “A Mr. Benjamin Stern is here. Counsel for Monte Turcot.”
“Is he on my calendar?”
The district attorney, all six foot four, two hundred sixty pounds of him, reclined behind his mahogany desk, wrapped in a bulging ecru and pinstriped shirt with an ivory collar and cuffs, gold cuff links with cubic zirconium studs, suspenders, a loosened paisley tie, gray Slate slacks, and burgundy penny loafers. This was Tommy Chalmers, the DA of Calumet County.
Chalmers’s office was decorated with pictures of himself. He’d posed with two presidents at Pebble Beach, both ex-presidents at the time of the photos , which diminished their value in his mind. Chalmers so longed to golf with a sitting president one day. Another shot had Chalmers shaking hands with Justice Roberts, and next to that hung a photo of him with Mike Tyson – ex-boxer Mike, with his trademark facial tattoo. On one wall, there was also a framed motivational poster of interlinked skydivers with “Success” emblazoned across the bottom. At the other end of the office was a picture of Rocky Balboa. It was not autographed by the Italian Stallion; it was just a picture of the celluloid champion draped in Old Glory. Next to Rocky hung Robert Duvall portraying the shirtless, yellow-scarfed Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now with the caption, “It smells like VICTORY”. Below that, a black and white Don Corleone. “Make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
DA Chalmers was a man utterly devoted to the religion of popular culture. He derived an entire belief system from the snippets of late twentieth-century pop icons: Balboa, Kilgore, Corleone, Tony Montana, Gordon Gekko, Dirty Harry, Ronald Reagan, and the like. From the words of these men, or more accurately, from the words of their image-crafters, Chalmers assembled his complete philosophical framework. And it had worked well for him. Invoking “Say hello to my little friend” or “When you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat” made an impression on the American mind far more than the prose of, say, Friedrich Nietzsche. Had Chalmers attempted to impress and inspire men with: “Many never become sweet; they rot even in the summer. It is cowardice that holds them fast to their branches”, he would have gotten nowhere in life. Chalmers aspired toward greatness, albeit limited greatness. To be the biggest fish in a pond was his benchmark for success, and he had found his pond in Calumet County. “A man’s got to know his limitations,” as Harry Callahan would say.
“Send him in, honey,” Chalmers ordered, sounding annoyed at the interruption of his reading of Maxim on his iPhone. He gestured dismissively at her, and she nodded dutifully and disappeared.
Monte Turcot had spent four weeks in county lockup with only one visitor during that time: his court-appointed lawyer Benjamin Stern. Ben was born and raised in Long Island. His father, Bernie, was a proctologist with a successful practice, and his mother, Dorothy, was a housewife, neighborhood socialite, and volunteer for the PTA. They raised little Ben without siblings in a sheltered, overbearing fashion. Ben was always diminutive in stature, un-athletic, and afflicted by the myriad of juvenile illnesses often associated with Munchausen by proxy. His spacious childhood home, set on a wooded half acre, afforded him many indoor and outdoor places to escape to, whereupon he developed his voraciously independent mind. Ben was enrolled in an esteemed private school, and received one of the best establishment indoctrinations money could buy. The boy was thoroughly primed for adult success in the gear works of any hierarchical, bureaucratic system.
Due to having no siblings, no pets, and no significant childhood confidants, Ben lacked a personable demeanor. He was always direct, frequently rude, and often aloof. Because of his perceived lack of empathy, his parents thought he would make an excellent physician, and they attempted to steer him towards the medical profession. But what his parents mistook for petty sociopathy was merely introversion. In truth, Benjamin was an extremely perceptive, sensitive, creative, and highly intelligent child. He had no interest in probing people or pushing pharmaceuticals or golf, so he resisted becoming a doctor.
Ben’s childhood hero was Bobby Kennedy. Born more than a decade after the end of Kennedy’s foreshortened life, he nevertheless idolized and loved the man. It was because of his idol’s position as an attorney general that Ben aspired towards the law profession. He did well in law school, despite his streak of virulent idealism, and was assured by his mentors that if he could tame it, and manage to make some sort of a name for himself as a trial attorney, he would make judge by forty.
Similar to the master plan of Tommy Chalmers, Stern assessed his odds and decided that the best way for him to begin making a name for himself was to sharpen his formidable talents in Somewhereville, USA. But the key difference between Chalmers and Stern was that Ben’s small pond was merely a harbor on his journey into the big, deep, and dangerous ocean, where fame and fortune awaited the bold. He originally wanted to go to Aspen because he loved skiing, but he soon discovered that it was already bursting with pedigreed, coastal, legal talent. The next closest geographical locale with an opening was Calumet County, just a morning’s drive away. He was offered the job of public defender, and embraced it as merely the continuation of his law school.
While Chalmers played golf and banged barmaids, Stern studied Sun Tzu. He adopted the axiom that “all battles are won or lost before they are even fought.” He studied the DA. He sat quietly in the back of court and soaked up his style and method. Chalmers was no lout, but he was arrogant and haughty, a weakness that could be exploited with patience, perseverance, and a trap baited with self-deprecation.
“Come in,” Chalmers ordered.
Stern entered meekly, his posture slumped and his eyes evading contact with the DA.
“Sit,” said Chalmers, looking as cocksure as J.R. Ewing on Dallas. A picture of Larry Hagman even hung somewhere on his wall. As Stern took a seat, Chalmers remained reclining with his feet up on his own desk. “What can I do for you?”
Stern cleared his throat, making fleeting eye contact. “Is that your Corvette out there?”
Chalmers grinned like a big Cheshire Cat in suspenders. “Why yes, as a matter of fact it is.”
” That’s quite a machine you’ve got.”
“I like it.”
“How fast have you gotten it?”
“Oh…” Chalmers’s eyes rolled as he leaned further back in his chair and conjured memories of his muscle car adventures. “I think I’ve gotten it up to a hundred and thirty.”
“That’s all?” asked Stern, surprised.
Insulted, Chalmers put his feet on the floor and sat upright in his chair.
“Oh,” Stern responded, “I didn’t mean that your car didn’t have more than that. I meant that I heard those Corvettes could do a hundred and fifty, easy.”
“Well, she certainly can.”
“No doubt at all. Now what can I do for you, Mr. Stern?”
Stern fumbled around ineptly with his briefcase. “I don’t want to waste your time, sir. This is all a new experience for me – this public defender thing. It’s quite different than what I thought it would be when I was in law school. Did you have the same experience?”
“Frankly, it was about what I expected.”
“Well, in any case…” Stern pulled out a legal pad, closed his briefcase, and set it in his lap. He flipped the lined yellow pages over, scanning his chicken scratch. “I think I need to find out what you are intending to charge my client with. Yes. What do you intend to charge my client with?”
“Your client is Montgomery Turcot?”
Stern flipped another page in his notes. “Yes, that’s correct.”
Chalmers reclined in his chair again and tossed his feet back up onto his desk. “Monte Turcot. Hmm. Monte Turcot, the cop killer…”
“Yes. Monte Turcot,” Stern answered. “Honestly, this is my first big case. I must say that when I came out here, I didn’t expect to be cutting my teeth, as they say, on a murder trial. I mean, how many murders are there in a rural setting like this? I’m not trying to be insulting. I think it’s just beautiful here, but when I came out, I didn’t think I’d be thrown to the wolves like this. Going up against a seasoned DA like you, I just know that this is going to be a tough but very educational experience. I hope you don’t beat me down too much.”
Chalmers’s nostrils flared like a predator catching the scent of blood on the wind. His face filled with a smug grin as he placed both hands behind his head. “Kissing my ass isn’t going to elicit any mercy.”
“Excuse me, sir,” Stern coughed uncomfortably.
“Was I not clear?” Chalmers asked.
“No. I heard you. I meant to ask if those are Salvatore Ferragamo loafers?”
“What, my shoes?” Chalmers asked coyly, unable to conceal the pride he felt from his expensive footwear. “Why, yes they are.”
“Well, it looks like there’s cow shit on them,” Stern observed.
Chalmers’s smile evaporated. He yanked his feet off the desk and sat upright again. “No. It certainly isn’t cow shit. I haven’t been within a hundred yards of any cow.”
“I believe you, but you don’t have to be around cows to step in their shit.”
Chalmers resisted the urge to examine his sole. “It ain’t cow shit,” he declared.
“Dog shit, then?”
“It ain’t any kind of shit,” Chalmers huffed.
During his research on the DA, Stern had deduced that Chalmers, being elected by rural folk but detesting their rural grit, might reveal some vulnerability if tested. Chalmers was molded from Plasticine, not earth. The notion of shit on his shoes repulsed him so much that his reaction would have estranged him from a rural jury, had one been present. The DA projected an image of a rhinestone cowboy, a Texas-sized legal ranger, litigating for truth and justice. In reality, he was the son of a suburban Denver tire magnate. The first time he had ridden a horse was when they propped him up on one in order to shoot ads for his campaign. It took him a week to recover from a chafed crotch.
“Monte Turcot is a cop killer,” declared Chalmers, quickly segueing into an attack on Stern’s client. “He’s a murderer. A real–”
“You’ll have to prove that, of course,” Stern interrupted meekly.
“It ain’t gonna be any trouble proving that. Your client is a dead man.”
The attorney laughed nervously. “Well, I’m going to do my best.”
“Save your energy for another case,” sneered Chalmers. “We’re going to get Turcot. We’re going to make an example out of him.”
“What’s so funny?” Chalmers asked, visibly irritated.
Stern flipped over his yellow notepad pages, as if the answer to Chalmers’s question might have been written there. “Oh, nothing. I’m not laughing at you. I was laughing at myself. This is going to be a tough case.”
“Of course it’s going to be tough. How many murder trials have you worked? You have no idea.”
“You’re right. I haven’t had any here. And you’ve obviously got motive. The victim killed my client’s wife.”
“Well, it was his bullet.”
“Sniggs was exonerated by a grand jury.”
“Appointed by you, correct?”
Chalmers glared at Stern. “Are you questioning my integrity?”
“Absolutely not. I’m just doing my job.”
“Kevin Sniggs, rest in peace, was exonerated.”
“You said that already. But a pregnant woman is dead, and no one was held accountable.”
“That doesn’t justify vigilante murder. I don’t have time to get into an argument with you today. Save it for the trial.”
“From the looks of it, it isn’t going to be much of a trial,” Stern countered. “You’ve got motive, and you’ve got a witness who can place Turcot at the scene.” He thumbed through his notepad pages. “A Miss Wendy White…”
“But my notes say there were no DEA agents who could pick my client out of a lineup?”
“Not exactly,” Chalmers replied.
“So, manslaughter? Murder two?”
“Turcot’s going down for murder one.”
“First degree? Now hold on just a minute, Mr. Chalmers. You’re taking advantage of my lack of experience. I came here with my hat in hand. I came here to talk about a deal.”
Chalmers let loose a boisterous belly laugh that nearly burst the buttons at his midriff. “I’ve heard some pathetic stuff in my day, but that one has to take the cake. You came here ‘hat in hand’? We’re talking about a guy who killed a federal agent. You think I even have the option to offer you a deal? Not that I would, but come on, a federal agent? The only measure of success for me, in the eyes of the feds, is for Monte Turcot to get a lethal injection at the end of all this.”
“You can’t get the death penalty. Not in this case.”
“Oh, really?” Chalmers said tauntingly. “Who do you think you’re up against? You think this is just some hick town cabaret act? You think I’m some dumb redneck that you’re going to outsmart with your Jewboy wit and your Ivy League degree?”
“That sort of talk is really not necessary,” murmured Stern.
“You’re in over your head, Shtern.”
“I’ve acknowledged that, already.”
“The feds, they don’t like their boys getting murdered. They want…they expect justice. You think I’m going let them down? They’re giving me everything I ask for – an unlimited budget and expert testimony. You’ve got nothing.”
“I just think you should consider the possibility that this was a crime of passion. That’s a real wild card, here.” Stern allowed his eyes to drift across the posters that lined the room. “You should really consider making an offer my client can’t refuse.”
“We’re going to trial, and your boy Turcot is getting the needle,” finished Chalmers, ignoring the Godfather reference. This is a slam dunk, and it’s high profile with your client being a former hero and all. I knew there was something crooked with him when I read how he shot that Rolfe kid in the head. After this is over, I can punch my ticket. This’ll get me to District Court, and I’ll be the biggest fish in five counties. I’m sorry, my friend, but I’m going to wipe the floor with you.”
“So murder one it is, then. I got it.” Stern stuffed his notepad back into his briefcase and stood up. “Please understand that I’m just trying to do my job.”
“I suppose you want to waive your right to a speedy trial and give yourself more time to prepare?” Chalmers asked. “I could help you out with that, I suppose.”
“No, I don’t think so. Why prolong the inevitable?”
“Suit yourself,” Chalmers sneered. “Don’t worry, Stern. No one expects you to win. But don’t whine when it hurts. It’s like the first grade, Stern. Nobody likes a crybaby.”
“That’s Gordon Gekko, right?” asked Stern. “Great quote. I saw that on the wall there just as I came in.” He paused. “Just one more thing. You said you think this will get you to District if you win, but have you considered what it would get you if you lose?”
Chalmers laughed. “I ain’t going to lose. How could that possibly happen?”
“You’re right. I appreciate your time today.” Without another word, Stern left the DA’s office, passed Chalmers’s receptionist – who was playing solitaire on her PC – and got into his Subaru wagon. Chalmers, on the other hand, spent the next ten minutes scraping shit off the sole of his loafer with a letter opener.
Stern looked around to make sure no one was eavesdropping, then dialed his client at the county jail. It took fifteen minutes to get him out of his cell and to the phone, but at last Monte Turcot’s voice came through.
“How are you, Monte?” Stern asked, envisioning Turcot in his orange jumpsuit. “Are you being mistreated in any way?”
“No,” Monte answered.
“I have some good news and some other good news. What do you want first?”
“The good news.”
“We are going to trial, probably next month.”
“That’s good news?”
“It is, Monte. The fact that the trial is happening so soon means we’re getting closer to getting you out of there.”
“You really think so?”
Stern adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses, then turned his head to get better cell phone reception. “Yes. I think we stand a good chance.”
“So what’s the plan?”
Stern grinned. He loved being a lawyer, even if he understood the law for what it was: a voluminous list of highly specific and contradictory edicts promoted to create an illusion of justice, but written by the rich so that those who could afford counsel could always escape punishment by exploiting technicalities. In his mind, Stern was a crusader, and he was superbly confident for a thirty-year-old man. “You, my friend, did everything right. You are an attorney’s wet dream.”
“Because you exercised your right to remain silent.”
“Are you saying I got something to confess?”
“I don’t take confessions,” Stern joked, not expecting Monte to get it. “But ninety percent of police work is getting people to confess to things whether they did them or not. They get suspects in that small, stuffy room, that uncomfortable chair. They play that ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine and get suspects bargaining. They play their mind games – all that ‘off the record’ stuff. There’s nothing off the record, Monte. They get their confession, and then they’ve got their conviction. That’s all they do, unless they get desperate, which is when they start fabricating or suppressing.”
“Should we be worried about that?”
“They missed their chance. We’re almost finished with the discovery process. You can relax. They’ve got nothing on you except circumstantial evidence and one shaky witness. I’ll rip that to shreds in front of a local jury. Your peers love you, and they’re not feeling a lot of sympathy for the DEA right now.”
“But the waitress will testify she saw me there.”
“It seems her recollection of events is still evolving.”
“What does that mean?”
“At first, she said she saw you there right before the shooting. Then she said she wasn’t sure. I’m going to interview her again. The DA thinks he’s so good that he can build an entire case upon her placing you at the scene. We, on the other hand, have a jury of your peers and the hurdle of reasonable doubt.”
“So what’s the other good news?”
“Burden of proof.” Stern adjusted his glasses again and looked around, nervous that he would be overheard. He stared down at his briefcase containing his yellow notepad. “Did you hear that? Monte, are you there?”
Stern grinned. “First degree, Monte. They’re charging you with capital murder. They’re going for it.”
“How is that supposed to be good news?”
“Trust me, it is. The bar is too high. Not only do they have to prove that you killed Sniggs, which they can’t, they have to also prove that it was willful. They have to prove that you went into that diner with the intent to shoot Kevin Sniggs. They can’t do it. They’re reaching too far.”
“Why are they reaching?”
Stern searched the lot for Chalmers’s red Corvette. “Arrogance, Monte. You ever read Sun Tzu?”
“Art of War?”
“That’s it. ‘Use humility to make them haughty’. It worked like a charm.” Stern’s voice dropped down to a whisper. “Chalmers doesn’t respect me, Monte, and he doesn’t know me, either. I made myself out to be a real idiot. He thinks I’m an amateur with no clue, as if I didn’t put in my time working for the public defender in Philly for five years. He thinks I just rolled into town straight from some New Jersey traffic court.”
“Is this about you or me, Ben?”
“You. Of course it’s about you, Monte. It’s all about you. But you’ve got to trust me. There’s a method, here. We’re going to get you out of there. Now don’t say a word of this to anyone. Keep it to yourself. Assert your innocence to everyone, and nothing more. Assume everyone is an informant.”