A short story where the worlds of a vulnerable young girl, a compassionate war veteran, and an idealistic lawyer tremendously collide…
by: Bruce J. Berger
Trigger Warning: This story contains content that some may find disturbing, particularly those sensitive to stories concerning sexual assault.
Everyone in Albany knew about Bill Solomon’s killing. “Man Gunned Down By Neighbor!” screamed the Herald. It’s hard to believe now that more than thirty years have passed.
I’d picked up the afternoon edition on my way back to my office from lunch. Ray Lansing, a Civil War veteran in his eighties, had blasted a hole through the unarmed Solomon’s chest. It was messy, as shotgun holes from two feet are likely to be. There were no eyewitnesses other than Lansing himself. Within a week, D.A. Stephen Richards’s grand jury charged Lansing with second-degree murder. This wasn’t a surprise to anyone, Richards, running for governor, was always after headlines.
Everyone in our small legal community knew that Lansing couldn’t afford a lawyer. He barely made a living fixing furniture. Judge McAndrew could’ve allowed the case to go forward anyway, because in 1912 defense lawyers weren’t required by the constitution. Yet, McAndrew tried for weeks to get a decent attorney — someone a great deal senior to me — for Lansing. None wanted in. Solomon had been a bank official, and none of my brethren of the bar wanted to tangle with the bank and lose its business. But I didn’t have any bank business to lose. Finally, as I’d hoped, McAndrew ordered me into the case to defend Lansing. I could barely suppress my smile as I left McAndrew’s chambers.
Soon after I arrived at the jail, though, my smile disappeared. The sheriff told me that Lansing didn’t want a lawyer and didn’t even want to meet me. The sheriff had to force him, this eighty-something-year-old man, handcuffed in front, into the drab room where I waited. Lansing looked like he’d slept in his clothes for days. He appeared worn-out, a man too tired to fight.
“I’m here only ‘cause he’s making me,” he griped.
“I can see that. Please sit. I’m Herman Brown, Mr. Lansing, but people call me Hank.” I pointed to one of the two chairs at the small table, but he remained standing as the sheriff left.
“Don’t need no lawyer, Hank, but thanks for coming.” His gruff voice matched the impression created by his clothes, that of a man who had little occasion for conversation. When he spoke, though, he conveyed authority. He knew what he wanted, and he wanted me out of his sight.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Lansing, but you do need a lawyer, according to the judge.” I shrugged my shoulders, trying to keep my tone light.
“All respect, Hank, you don’t look old enough to be outta high school. Anyway, I ain’t having a defense. I done it. I shot that asshole and I’m happy I done it, too. Plead me guilty.”
“Mr. Lansing, I want to explain some things that could be important.”
I took my time before answering, leaving him to reflect that he didn’t know squat about the law and leaving me time to wonder about his sanity. “Like what it’d mean if you plead guilty or a jury convicted you. Like how you might defend yourself, despite what you think you did. Like how you could get home and take care of your wife again.” I was just trying to find a way to get him talking. At the mention of his wife, his heavy brows furrowed.
“You keep Lena outta this. She ain’t done nothing.”
“Well, now, Mr. Lansing…”
“Call me Ray.” He finally sat, as did I. He stared at me with clear blue, intelligent eyes that looked much younger than his age. If I was going to get my day in court – and his – then Ray had to believe in his case. But at that instant I had no idea how I might defend him.
“I can’t try to keep your wife out of this unless I represent you.”
“Hank, don’t play no games. If I plead guilty, Lena doesn’t come to court, doesn’t testify.”
“If you plead guilty or you’re convicted, you could get twenty years in Sing Sing. Prison would make this jail look like the Garden of Eden.” I looked around at the grey paint peeling off the walls. “Even if you got just ten years, those are years when Mrs. Lansing…”
“When Lena has to get on by herself. Have you worked out how she’s going to do that? You got children around to look after her?”
“No.” Concern shadowed his face.
I frowned and made a check on a blank page in my notebook. “Well, that’s too bad. Does Lena have a brother or sister who can take care of her?”
“No,” he barked bitterly.
Another frown, another check. “She’s not independently wealthy, is she?” He glared at me. I could imagine his anger building up as he pointed a shotgun at his neighbor. “So, even if you are guilty, don’t you have to fight?”
A tear rolled down his cheek, then more tears. I waited, ill at ease. Sensing that Ray needed to get it out of his system, I stopped myself from trying to comfort him. After a minute, I gave him my handkerchief to wipe his face.
“I hurt Lena, bless her. Last thing I want now is to make it worse. All right, Hank. T.R. says speak softly but carry a big stick. I hope you got one.”
“Good. Now tell me what happened. Take your time.”
There’d been bad blood between these next-door neighbors, but when I heard Ray’s story I was shocked and dismayed. Shocked, because I was naïve. Dismayed, because I doubted a jury would believe him. I hardly believed him.
Ray had concluded that Bill Solomon was molesting his daughter, Louise. He explained how Louise had one day come to him — for help he thought — when he’d been in his backyard painting a chair. Had Louise accused her father of touching her inappropriately? No, Ray couldn’t say that she’d done so on that visit. In fact, Ray couldn’t recall any specifics, other than Louise looking disturbed, making small talk in a way like she had something else to say, as if she wanted to confide, until something scared her away.
“Ray, you can’t kill your neighbor because his daughter looks disturbed.”
“You ain’t heard the whole story yet. You want to wait a minute before flapping your tongue?” His blue eyes sparkled. He probably wavered then between wanting to tell the rest of the story and wanting to throw me out.
“Sorry. Go ahead.”
“We knew which room was hers; it faced our house.” He sighed, then closed his eyes, tilting his head toward the ceiling. “One night I glanced up and saw her at the window, looking across to us. Bill comes up behind her, pulls her away, puts the blinds down.”
“Did you see him clearly?”
He opened his eyes and faced me again. “It was Bill. Ain’t you listening?”
“And that’s it?”
“That night, yes. Now, all ‘long, Lena and I hear these fights between Bill and Harriet.” He lifted his cuffed hands, thrusting them wildly from side to side. “Horrendous sounds, too. Screams. Banging, like chairs thrown. It made us sick to hear it.”
“You do anything about that?”
“Ha,” he spit out. “I come down here and the sheriff tells me ain’t nothing to be done, mind my own business. Just think! I fought to keep this country together and ain’t nothing I can do when a neighbor beats his wife.”
“How do you know it wasn’t the other way around, Ray? A wife can scream at nothing, I imagine, and throw a plate or knock over a chair.”
“I knew them. Harriet is a pitiful quiet woman, looks like a fly would knock her over. Bill is…was a jackass. Always nasty, thinking he’s better’n us. Lena says that’s ‘cause he was a Jew, but I tell her no, he’s just mean to the bone.”
“I’m Jewish, you know.”
“Never would’ve guessed. Anyway, he’s screaming at her, she’s screaming in fear.”
“You didn’t see any of these fights?”
“No. I heard ‘em.”
“You don’t know for a fact they involved Louise, do you?”
I hoped we were getting closer to the shooting. As much as I wanted to help Ray, I also needed to do some lawyering for money, like the real estate closing scheduled for that afternoon, something I was better prepared for. I’d copied deeds, with their endless covenants, and studied the rule against perpetuities for long years of training. Real estate bored me to tears. “Well, go on. Tell me about the night you shot him.”
“That night, Louise came to our door, begging in. She’s crying to beat all, gasping for air. Ain’t never seen a little girl so upset. We try to find out what’s wrong, but all Louise says is ‘Don’t let him touch me no more.’ Says it two or three times. That’s when I grabbed my shotgun.”
“Let’s take this slowly, Ray. We don’t want to make any mistakes.”
“Can’t make a mistake if I stick to the truth, can I?”
My thirty-plus years of telling juries what the evidence means has convinced me that defendants who think like that usually end up going to prison for a long time. I might’ve been new to criminal work when I took Ray’s case, but I knew there’s never one truth in court. What a person claims is a fact might not be how a jury sees it. If the jury thinks you’re lying, you hang, literally or figuratively.
“One step at a time, Ray. Did Louise say her father was touching her or just say ‘him’?”
“Hank, you ain’t quite picking up on things. No other guy lived there. Who else?”
“I’m just trying to be thorough. Did you see any marks on her?”
“She looked like a mess. Tears streamed down her face. Wore just a thin nightshirt. But, no, I ain’t seen no marks.”
“What happened next?”
“I get my shotgun, go to Bill’s backyard, and yell for him to come out.” A large sense of pride inflected Ray’s voice, and he seemed to grow in stature as he sat before me. “He came out, we argue. He walks past me, going to my house, he says, to get Louise. I don’t want that. I shout at him to keep his shitty hands off his daughter and he turns and now he’s coming at me and so I shoot.”
“You thought he was armed?” A tiny suggestion couldn’t hurt.
“No, didn’t think that. Knew he was mean, though.”
“You feared for your life, right?”
“Too angry to be afraid. Don’t forget, I was in the big war, made it through with nary a scratch, but not for fear of dying. And I had the shotgun.”
“You were afraid he’d go into your house and hurt Lena, right?”
“Can’t say right to that neither. Lena would’ve given up Louise without struggle. She’s not a fighter, not like me. I just thought about Louise. Bill was gonna beat the living crap out of her.”
“But when you shot him…he’d turned toward you, walking away from your house and away from both Lena and Louise, right?” I’d drawn a rough diagram with stick figures and arrows, trying to keep everything straight in my mind.
Ray looked at what I’d drawn. “This ain’t to scale, Hank. You’d never fit two pieces of wood together. But you got the idea. When I shot him, he’s walking away from my house.”
I had to ask one more question. “So he wasn’t threatening Lena or Louise at that exact time, was he?”
“No. Never said he was. Are you listening to me?”
I tried to see it as I wanted a jury to. “He’s coming at you, a big guy, angry. You’ve accused him of a horrible crime, he’s insane with rage and wants to hurt you. No time to think before you have to shoot. If he grabs your shotgun, you’re dead.”
Ray thought for a long time. He kept those clear blue eyes on me, as if trying to see how my brain worked, whether the gears were well oiled. After a bit, he asked me to repeat what I’d said, which I did, almost verbatim.
“Yep, Hank. Good. I’ll go with that.”
Selling our theory would be harder than cooking it up. Solomon was a respected citizen. Many people around town, our likely jurors, knew him from the bank and thought of him as reliable.
Ray, on the other hand, was thought of as an oddball, always bragging about the war, and many of his friends at the VFW thought he embellished his stories to make himself look heroic. Although Ray’s story told me that Bill probably deserved what he got, although it might contain the kernel of a defense — something along the lines of “Solomon needed killing” — I had no corroboration. More than anything, I feared going to trial on a theory I couldn’t support. I’d watched careless lawyers lose cases they should’ve won when a witness changed his expected testimony on the stand.
The only one who could help Ray was Louise, so I tried to talk to her, first, by going through Harriet, Bill’s wife, now widow. She slammed her door in my face. Unsurprisingly, as my client had killed her husband. Plus, if Ray was right, Harriet would’ve wanted to keep hidden Bill’s abuse of Louise; she would’ve been complicit in the abuse by letting it happen. I then tried to catch Louise at the mill where she worked, only to find that she’d quit right after the shooting.
So I had to see the prosecutor. Richards sat behind his big oak desk, not bothering to shake my hand. He was known to intimidate everyone in a courtroom, including judges. He stroked his sideburns, played with a pile of papers in front of him, did all he could to ignore me. Maybe he wanted to see if I’d march out like I’d marched in. I held my ground, however, and he finally offered me a chair.
“Well, Brown, is Ray ready to plead?” He smiled as he spoke, apparently expecting that I’d come to him in an effort to swing a deal.
“Not why I’m here, Richards.”
“Then why are you wasting my time?”
“I want to talk to Louise. Harriet won’t let me near her.”
“Louise didn’t see what happened, Brown. So talking to her ain’t gonna do you crap.”
“Bill was molesting Louise. Ray knew it. Why do you think Louise was at his house that evening? She begged Ray and Lena for help.”
“One, that’s bullshit. What Ray thought Bill was doing isn’t a defense to murder. Two, Ray can’t testify as to what Louise told him. Pure hearsay. You try to put that on, McAndrew will slap you down so hard you won’t know what hit you.”
“We’ll worry about trial when we get there, if I put her on. You need to tell Harriet today to let Louise talk to me. I want to find out what Louise would say if she’s on the stand.”
“No way in hell.” He laughed. “It ain’t a defense to murder that the victim was a creep. It ain’t a defense to murder that the victim was buggering his daughter, but if Louise’s been hurt once, you want to hurt her again by making her talk about it? Why would I want to help you build your case, anyway?”
“You might be interested in the truth. I’ll file my motion tomorrow.”
I stormed out of his office, hearing him laugh again as I tried to slam his door. His secretary came in just then and caught the door before it could make the loud bang I’d aimed for.
The next afternoon, Richards and I sat in McAndrew’s chambers. He was a tall man with a florid face; everyone knew he drank constantly. He’d call recess in the middle of trial to go into his chamber for another swig. McAndrew was amused by my motion, which asked him to order Louise to be made available for an interview by me. He’d never heard of such a thing, he told us jovially, and Richards played along, arguing I should be held in contempt.
“Let’s see here, Mr. Brown. Tell me again why I should order this,” McAndrew said, smiling broadly. His clerk, sitting next to his desk, grinned too. I was their afternoon’s entertainment.
“It’s like this, Judge. Ray not only killed in self-defense, he shot a man who’d been abusing his daughter. Louise told the Lansings about this moments before the shooting. We think Louise will corroborate Ray and — ”
“Hold it.” McAndrew’s smile faded. “First, you don’t have a right to compel witnesses to talk to you before trial on Ray’s behalf. Second, you’ve no idea Louise would testify that her father took advantage of her, even if it happened, which I doubt. And third, what Louise says about her father doing anything to her isn’t relevant. Bill wasn’t doing it when your guy poured a load of birdshot through his chest.”
“Did I say you could talk? I’m not finished. Fourth…?” He looked at his clerk, who held up four fingers. “Fourth, Mr. Richards’s duty is to the State. He has no duty to Ray or to you. His job is to use the evidence that’s most incriminating. Your motion is bullshit.” I winced, and he repeated the profanity more loudly. “Bullshit. Got that? I asked you to defend Ray, not invent procedural gimmicks, not try to make an ass of this court.”
Richards kept quiet, seeing McAndrew on his side. The judge finally gestured for me to continue. Of course I had more to say.
“Judge, when a child who’s raped cries for help, a good man like Ray picks up his gun and protects her. Deadly force can be used to protect the innocent. So what if Bill wasn’t molesting the girl that instant? He’d touched her before and damn well would’ve done it again in minutes if not for Ray. If you hide what was going on in the Solomon house…”
I stopped. I’d been about to say that McAndrew was no better than Solomon, but decided I didn’t want to spend the night in jail. Judges can be sensitive. Better just to let McAndrew imagine where I was going.
“No one’s hiding anything,” said Richards.
“In the interests of justice and truth, Your Honor, you can order what I’ve asked for. What Louise told Ray goes to Ray’s state of mind. I mean, let’s just suppose that some ex-con you sent to Sing Sing has been released and swears he’s gonna kill you, and a friend tells you he’s heard the threat, and you see that ex-con coming up the street toward you, and —”
“This is outrageous, Judge,” said Richards.
“Let him finish.” McAndrew reached into his drawer for his silver flask and took a sip.
“Whether or not the guy really threatened to kill you, that’s what you heard and you believed it. You’d be justified in pulling your gun and shooting to kill.”
“So it’s obvious that what Louise said to Ray is critical. Is he confronting a law-abiding citizen or a deranged beast who violates the trust and innocence of his young daughter?”
“Very creative. But the way we do trials here is just subpoena Louise. She’ll have to come to court. Then you can see what she says.”
“Your Honor, the problem…” I paused here to let the word sink in. “The problem’s that I need to know what Louise will say before I put her on the stand. I can’t just talk to her for the first time in front of a jury. If she’s going to deny it, it drives a nail into Ray’s coffin. The only way to give him a fair shot is to let me talk to her in advance. Privately, so she’s not intimidated.”
McAndrew motioned toward his clerk, who approached to hear his boss’s whispers. The clerk shook his head. There were more whispers. I could see that the clerk was confused. Good.
“Here’s what I’m going to do. Richards, have Louise and Harriet here at nine tomorrow. We’ll take Louise’s sworn statement, in Ray’s presence, of course. You’ll both question her. I might allow use of the transcript at trial if I decide Louise shouldn’t testify live. Is that clear?”
Richards muttered something. He couldn’t argue that McAndrew’s plan was unfair. Louise would be equally available to both sides. Or would she?
“One more thing, Judge,” I said, standing up. “With all respect, your order should direct the parties not to talk to either Harriet or Louise until we’re here tomorrow. In other words, no woodshedding.”
“Judge, that violates the First Amendment,” blurted Richards, also standing. “I can talk to anyone I damn well please and —”
“Enough.” McAndrew turned to me. “Good point, Brown. So ordered. Richards, you’re not to talk to them. We’ll hear Louise’s story tomorrow, together, without coaching. Got it?”
“Got it, Judge,” we said simultaneously.
I explained to Ray that evening what I’d done, and he wasn’t happy. He didn’t want Louise put through the embarrassment of testifying about her father’s behavior.
“Look, Ray. You know what Louise said. But if you tell that to the jury without Louise backing you up, they’ll think your story’s a load of bull, that you’d say anything to avoid prison. Same reaction if Lena —”
“Lena’s not testifying.”
“Fine. But if Louise explains what she said that night, that’s different. The jury can hear what you heard and understand what you felt. They’ll sympathize. You tried to protect Louise. The jury would’ve wanted to protect her too.”
“Too risky, Hank. She could deny it, she could say I misunderstood her, she —”
“It’s done, Ray.”
In fact, I could’ve called the whole thing off, but I aimed to win. Yes, Ray had made a good point. Louise could deny the abuse, and I’d look foolish, but if I was going to look foolish, I couldn’t let it happen in front of a jury. If Louise didn’t come through, I could go back to Richards and try to cut a deal. If Ray still wanted to give up, that is.
“Then leave me out of it.” He shut his eyes tight for a second and shook his head ever so slightly, probably wishing that I’d disappear.
“You’re a prisoner, Ray. You have to go where they tell you to go. And your presence there is critical. Louise was once willing to tell you the truth. God knows why, but she might do so again.”
“What kind of damn fool lawyer did they stick me with?”
“The kind who wants to keep his client from dying in prison.”
“Well I’ll be jiggered. I always thought lawyers do what their clients ask.”
I needed to calm him. “Here’s how it’ll be. When you see Louise, smile politely, but don’t stare at her, and don’t say anything. I’ll question her first. Listen closely. If something comes to mind we haven’t discussed, just lean over and whisper to me. If she lies, don’t react. Keep your expressions neutral. Can you do all that?”
He stood abruptly and yelled for the sheriff.
McAndrew seated us in the windowless jury room. He sat at one end of the conference table, not wearing his robe. Behind him sat his clerk. The chairs to McAndrew’s right were for Louise and Harriet. The stenographer sat to his left. Then came me and Ray, still handcuffed, still wearing the same clothes. It was warm and stuffy in the room, and I could detect a distinctly sour odor emanating from my client. Finally, Richards sat opposite McAndrew.
Harriet and Louise were the last to enter. Louise was tall for her age and slender, but developing into a woman. It was hard to imagine her own father looking at her as such, but that’s what’d happened. She wore a grey wool dress that dropped shapelessly below her knees. Her black hair looked as if it hadn’t been washed in weeks; her face was angular, her eyes, guarded by heavy black eyebrows, dark. She kept her head down. No one could blame her if she didn’t want to be there.
As McAndrew explained the rules, I took the opportunity to focus on Harriet. She wore a black muslin dress with long sleeves and a black cloche hat, a mourning outfit. She looked as if she hadn’t slept, and I saw a tremor as she put a hand on Louise’s arm.
“You may begin, Mr. Brown. Keep it short.”
“Louise, my name’s Hank Brown. You know Ray…Mr. Lansing?” We all waited for what seemed forever, wondering if she’d muster the courage to speak. At last, she looked at Ray and nodded. “Louise, you need to answer out loud. This man over there has to write it down.”
“Yes, I know Mr. Lansing.” Her voice was uncertain, but loud enough to hear.
“How do you know him?”
“He’s…our neighbor.” For a second, I thought — or imagined — she smiled at Ray.
“Very good, Louise. Is he someone you talk to from time to time?”
“Leading!” Richards’s stupid objection didn’t surprise me, and McAndrew, after setting up this procedure, wasn’t buying it.
“Overruled. Shut up, Mr. Richards. Let her talk. Louise, you can answer.”
“Yes, I talked to Mr. Lansing.” She looked at me expectantly. I knew then that she understood exactly where I was going.
“Do you remember things you talked to him about?” Louise glanced at her mother, who stared at the table, looking as if about to cry. Louise then turned toward Ray again.
“Yes, I do.”
“Do you remember the night that your father died?”
“Yes.” Her voice grew louder. I paused, wanting to give Louise the time she needed to draw the mental picture of that evening. I was focused completely on Louise, but I heard McAndrew clear his throat. I had to keep it moving.
“Did you talk to Mr. and Mrs. Lansing that night?”
“Objection.” Richards couldn’t help himself, but his voice lacked his usual bombast.
“Overruled. Go ahead, Louise.”
“Yes. I talked to them…at their house.”
“Please tell us, from when you knocked on their door, exactly what happened.” There was no response. We’d come to the crux, and Ray’s defense depended upon her testimony. “Can you please tell us, Louise?”
She took a deep breath and began. “Yes.”
“How were you feeling?”
“So you’re at Mr. Lansing’s back door. Crying. What did you do?”
“I banged on the door.” As I expected she might, she began crying as she’d done that night. “I yelled for them to open it. They did, and I ran in.” She looked toward Harriet, who still stared at the table, then back at me, ready for the next question.
“What did the Lansings do?”
“They asked me…what’s wrong, Louise? And I told…I begged…” Her voice drifted lower, almost inaudible.
“Speak up, please!” Richards interjected. Louise turned to face him with a look of disgust, about to say something nasty that couldn’t help Ray. I needed her attention.
“You begged what, Louise?” I put my hand on Ray’s shoulder. “Please, look at Mr. Lansing here, your neighbor, and repeat now what you told him and Mrs. Lansing.”
She turned to Ray, tears running down her face, and cleared her throat. “Please, please don’t let him touch me no more.”
“Who were you talking about?”
“Overruled. Go ‘head and answer, Louise.”
She once more glanced at her mother, who shook her head ever so slightly. We waited ten long seconds before we heard Louise’s answer.
Harriet jolted upright, scraping her chair harshly on the floor, and left the room. So much for trying to protect Louise. Every head, including Louise’s, turned to watch her run out, then turned back. Louise looked at me again, waiting.
“So you feared your father?”
“And you let Ray and Lena — Mr. and Mrs. Lansing — know that?”
“Yes, sir. Yes, Hank.”
“What would your father have done that night if he’d taken you back to your house?”
“Objection!” Richards leapt to his feet. “Speculation, Your Honor.”
“Sustained. Come on, Mr. Brown.”
“Nothing further for now. Louise, Mr. Richards down there at the end of the table will ask you questions. Please tell him the truth, just like you did for me.”
We turned toward Richards. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I thought I could detect a sneer in Louise’s face. She was angry for his having objected while she told her story.
“Miss Solomon, you believe in Santa Claus, don’t you?” I had to restrain myself from punching Richards’s fat face.
“No, sir. I’m Jewish.”
“You never finished school, didn’t get beyond the fifth grade, did you?”
“No, sir. I worked in the mill.”
“So you’re uneducated and Jewish.” In front of a jury, I would’ve objected, but I counted on McAndrew not giving any weight to the posturing.
The preliminaries over, Richards raised his voice. “Now, tell us exactly why you said something so vile about your father, a good man, an upstanding member of the community.”
Louise looked at the judge. “Do I have to answer?”
“Yes, indeed, Louise.”
She stared at Richards for what seemed forever. Then she turned her face toward Ray, sitting quietly at my side. I could only imagine what Louise was thinking, but I hoped she felt again what she’d felt when she’d gone banging on their door that night. Louise wiped tears from her face, turned back toward Richards, and answered. “He put his hands on me all the time. He touched —”
“Now, you don’t expect any of us —”
My first good opportunity to object. “Your Honor, she didn’t finish her answer.”
“Quite so, Mr. Brown. Mr. Richards, you asked a question. We have to hear the entire answer. Louise, please finish your answer.”
“He touched me here…” Louise put her hand up to the modest mound of her chest.
“Let the record show that the witness indicates her breast,” announced McAndrew solemnly. “Continue.”
“He touched me here…” She stood and placed her hand on her dress between her legs, pressing slightly.
“Let the record reflect that the witness indicates her privates. Continue.”
“Every night. He used his…” Her voice faltered.
“His what?” McAndrew asked exactly the question I wanted asked.
“Your Honor, I object.” Richards said, feigning disgust. “This witness is hysterical, deranged. Move to strike the entire testimony.”
“Overruled. Motion denied. Any more questions, Mr. Richards?”
“Yes. Miss Solomon, you know Sally Taft?” It was a name I’d never heard.
“She works at the mill.”
“You talk to her at work?” Richards picked up papers, flipped a page.
“You remember telling Sally that an angel had come one night and sat on your bed?”
“Yes, sir. I told her ‘bout the angel.”
Richards smiled for the first time that morning. “An angel! Male or female? What did it look like? Did it talk to you?” He looked again at his paper. “Well?”
Louise bit her lip. “I don’t know as male or female. It was white and cloudy, almost like mist. Many nights the angel told me how sorry God was that I suffered so, that my father —”
“No, Mr. Richards, she’s going to finish her answer.” McAndrew wasn’t going to let the jerk get his way. “You seem to want to ask questions and not get answers. Please go ahead, Louise, tell everyone what the angel said.”
“God was sorry my father hurt me, did bad things to me. I asked why, but couldn’t get no answer. The angel told me one night to ask help from Mr. Lansing. So I did.”
“Did the angel have wings, Miss Solomon?” continued Richards.
“I don’t recall wings.”
“Did the angel have three eyes?”
“No, sir. Two, just like you and me.”
“Nothing further, Your Honor.”
I received the transcript the next morning and was reading it out loud to Ray, trying to impress upon him my tactics at each stage, when we were interrupted by the sheriff. Lena urgently needed to see us. Seconds later, Lena came in, trembling. I gave her my chair, into which she fell rather than seated herself. She faced Ray and tried to speak, but at first could only manage a babble.
“Calm yourself, Mother,” urged Ray. “Take it slow. What are you trying to say?”
With great effort, she finally managed real words. “It’s Harriet. She hung herself.”
“Oh dear Jesus.”
“From our elm. And Louise found her early this morning.”
I put my hand gently on Lena’s shoulder as they both sobbed. She didn’t seem to feel the slight pressure. After a minute, I asked “Where’s Louise?”
“Our house, ‘course. I give her tea and put her in bed. Tell her I’d be back soon.”
“What now, Hank? See what you done? If you ain’t forced Louise through all that, she’d still have a mother.”
“Ray,” I said, trying to keep calm. “Harriet had to know what Bill was doing. She could’ve killed herself from guilt whether or not Louise told the truth. Don’t forget how much stronger Louise’s testimony makes our defense.”
“Sure, Hank. But I told you I ain’t want her questioned. Now that poor girl’s an orphan.” Ray shook his head slowly.
Lena turned to look up at me. “Mr. Brown, sir, may I please talk to Ray alone?”
I stepped out. A few minutes later Lena came out to tell me that they had an idea, and it was my charge to see if it would work. I told her I’d be back as soon as I could. I marched over to Richards’s office, explained what my client wanted, and told him I’d talk to McAndrew about it, with or without him, so he’d better come along. On the way, we reached agreement. Good thing Richards loved headlines. Minutes later we stood in McAndrew’s chambers and brought him up to date.
“Killed herself? A shame. But if Louise’s story was true, there was something already wrong with Harriet. So what do you want me to do about it?”
Richards spoke first. “Your Honor, in the circumstances, the State wishes to dismiss the charges against Ray, with the condition he surrender his shotgun.”
“What’s got into you? Don’t you still want that big trophy conviction?” McAndrew winked at me.
“Well, let’s just say that Louise’s testimony —”
“Which I’ll allow if the case goes to trial.”
“Yes, Judge, you’ve made that clear…so maybe Bill wasn’t the upstanding citizen we thought he was.”
McAndrew sighed. “Hank, you’re lucky. There’s something weird about Louise, and you know it. Angels on her bed. If she can imagine that, she can imagine anything.”
“Yes, Judge,” I said. “Or maybe Bill actually molested her and the abuse made her conjure an imaginary friend. The point is that Stephen —”
“I’ll speak for myself, Hank. I think a jury might believe her, and I don’t feel like losing. If we get the damn gun out of Ray’s hands, we’re satisfied.”
“Acceptable to the defendant?”
I hadn’t talked to Ray about Richards’s condition, but assumed it would be acceptable and told the judge so.
“Yes, Judge” I said. “The Lansings want an order that they may act as foster parents of Louise until she reaches majority.”
“Any objection from the State?”
“No, Judge. But…” He cleared his throat. “Can your order read that I asked for this placement?” Richards wanted a story in the Herald suggesting that, underneath the fierce prosecutor, there was compassion. I couldn’t imagine my clients would care.
“So it shall.”
A year later, Ray and Lena invited me to Christmas dinner. I was happy to see them. For my own family, Christmas was just another day at the farm.
Louise was there, of course, grown a few inches. She’d returned to school. Her unlovely face looked more withdrawn than outgoing, more sullen than happy. Violated by her father, unprotected by her mother, confronted with suicide, all insults that could never be undone, Louise had found refuge with the Lansings, but I knew ghosts would haunt her forever.
As I was about to leave, Louise handed me my coat. Then, she said, in a voice barely above a whisper, “I don’t see that angel no more, Hank.”
She might have emphasized the word “that.” I didn’t have the courage to ask whether she’d talked to any other celestial beings.
After a 40-year career as an attorney, Bruce J. Berger received his MFA in Creative Writing from American University in Washington, DC, and now teaches writing there. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife, Laurie. He is the author of two award-winning novels: The Flight of the Veil and The Music Stalker, both published by Black Rose Writing.