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Anatomy of a Murder
Before the Trial
The mine whistles were tooting midnight as I drove down Main Street hill. It was a warm moonlit Sunday night in mid-August and I was arriving home from a long weekend of trout fishing in the Oxbow Lake district with my old hermit friend Danny McGinnis, who lives there all year round. I swung over on Hematite Street to look at my mother's housethe same gaunt white frame house on the corner where I was born. As my car turned the corner the headlights swept the rows of tall drooping elms planted by my father when he was a young manmuch younger than Iand gleamed bluely on the darkened windows. My mother Belle was still away visiting my married sister and she had enjoined me to keep an eye on the place. Well, I had looked and lo! like the flag, the old house was still there.
I swung around downtown and slowed down to miss a solitary drunk emerging blindly from the Tripoli Bar and out upon the street, in a sort of gangling somnambulistic trot, pursued on his way by the hollow roar of a juke box from the garishly lit and empty bar. "Sunstroke," I murmured absently. "Simply a crazed victim of the midnight sun." As I parked my mud-spattered coupe alongside the Miners' State Bank, across from my office over the dime store, I reflected that there were few more forlorn and lonely sounds in the world than the midnight wail of a juke box in a deserted small town, those raucous proclamations of joy and fun where, instead, there dwelt only fatigue and hangover and boredom. To me the wavering hoot of an owl sounds utterly gay by comparison.
I unlocked the car trunk and took out my packsack and two aluminum-cased fly rods and a handbag and rested them on the curb. I shouldered the packsack and grabbed up the other stuff and started across the echoing empty street.
"How was fishing, Polly?" someone said, emerging from the darkened alley alongside the dime store. It was old Jack Tregembo, tall and lean and weather-beaten as a beardless Uncle Sam. Jack had been a night cop on the Chippewa police force as long as I could remember.
"Fine, fine, Jack," I said, rubbing my unshaven neck. "I ate so many trout the past few days I suspect I'm developing gill slits."
"S'pose you heard about the big murder?" Jack said, moving closer, plainly hoping that I hadn't. "We even made the city papers."
"No, Jack," I said, pricking up my ears. "Just got inas you see. No newspapers, radios or phones, thank God, up in the big Oxbowbush. Talkative Old Danny could never stand the competition. Trust you caught the villain and got him all hogtied, purged, and confessed for Mitch."
. Jack shrugged. "Tain't our headache, Polly. Happened 'way up in Thunder Bay. Friday night. Some soldier stationed up there blew his top and drilled Barney Quill five times with a .38. This Barney ran the hotel and bar there. Claims Barney'd raped his wife. The state police have this baby, thank goodness."
"He ... ." I said, the legal gears beginning involuntarily to turn.
Just then a car wheeled around the corner on two wheels, dog tails flying fore and aft, the car awash with shouting juveniles, brakes and tires squealing like neighing stallions. It narrowly missed piling into the rear of my parked car and then roared away down the street. Seconds later two police cars followed in hot pursuit, sirens away, the last one pausing long enough to pick up Jack, who leapt in like a boy. The scene was invested with a curious quality of Keystone comedy and I thought wistfully of the brooding calm that must prevail at this moment over my favorite trout waters up in the Oxbow bush. Creeping mist, a coyote wailing on the ridge, the cackle of a loon, the plash of a rising trout. I stood looking up over the Miners' State Bank as the big waning yellow moon swam out from behind a jagged dark cliff of cloud. "My heart will always ble-e-e-e-e-d for you," the juke box wailed, "out of my crying ne-e-e-,e-d for you ... ."
"Crime," I reflected tritely, as I trudged up the creaking wooden stairs, "crime marches on."
I heard the monotonously insistent robot ringing of a telephone before I reached the top of the stairs. The waspish buzzing continued. I did not hurry; after all, it could be for the chiropractor, the beauty operator, the dentist, or even the young newlyweds down the hall. It could have been, but I was certain it wasn't. For with one of those swift premonitions one cannot define I knew it was for me; it would be, I was sure, my invitation to the waltzmy bid to accept the retainer in Iron Cliffs County's latest murder. I lowered my duffel and fumbled for the key to my private office. My phone had ceased ringing.
read the sign on the frosted-glass door. Underneath was a horizontal black arrow pointing toward Maida's door, accompanied by thewords, "Entrance next door." It was surprising how few people ever learned to follow the arrow and instead stood there gripped by a sort of dumb enchantment, pounding stupidly on my private door.
The Chippewa branch store of a national dime store chain embraced the entire main floor of the two-story brownstone building built by my German brewer grandfather in the 1870's. For many years before they died he and Grandma used to live upstairs, and my combined law offices and bachelor's quarters now occupied their old parlor, sitting room and dining room.
Law is one of the last citadels of wavering conservatism in an untidy world and the offices of most lawyers reflect it. My office did not fit the common mold. In fact my mother Belle reprovingly claimed it looked like anything but a law office. Indeed, one of my former opponents for prosecutor had told people that for me it was a perfect place in which to tell, if not make, fortunes ... . The combined waiting room and place where Maida did her typingthe old dining roomlooked more like the reception room of, not a club, but a comfortably old and rather down-at-the-heel fraternal lodge. There was an old black leather rocking-chair and an even older brown leather davenport to accommodate the overflow. Maida had a new desk, it was true, but it was the kind that was designed to look more like a library table than a desk, and completely swallowed her typewriter except when it was in use. There were no magazines, not even Newsweek, and no pictures on the walls save an enlarged framed snapshot of Maida's favorite saddle horse, Balsam. Most of the legal files and cabinets and office supplies were kept stashed away out of sight in Grandma Biegler's roomy old pantry. There boxes of carbon paper, ruled legal pads and brown manila envelopes and all the rest had taken the place of Grandma's steaming platters of pig hocks and sauerkraut.
My own officeGrandma's old sitting roomwas even more informal than Maida's. The Michigan supreme court reports and all my other law books stood on narrow shelves against an entire wall, completely hidden by drawn monk-cloth drapeslargely, I suspect, because it made me nervous to contemplate so many religiously unread books. My library table was Grandma's old long wooden dining-room table, kept as bare and shining as an ad for spar varnish. Over against one wall was a black leather couchnot a davenport, not a settee, but simply a battered old leather couch. I was determined that the psychiatrists couldn't hog all the comfort. My waggishIrish lawyer friend Parnell McCarthy occasionally teased me that here was where I tested the virtue of my lady divorce clients.
In one corner was an overstuffed black leather rocker with a matching footstool, flanked by a floor lamp and a revolving book-stand for my nonlegal magazines and books. Beyond it was a Franklin stove with an unabashed black stovepipe rising up to Grandma's old chimney outlet near the high ceiling. On the walls were some small color prints and photographs of trout and still others of menmostly of a tall, thin, balding, prow-nosed character called Paul Biegler, exhibiting or fishing for trout. In the opposite corner stood a combination radio and phonograph and alongside it a television set.
Ostensibly I lived at my mother's house on Hematite Street, but by tacit agreement I usually slept at my officein Grandma's old parlorand used my old quarters in the family homestead mostly for storing my fishing gear in the winter and my guns and snowshoes and skis in summer. So my mother Belle dwelt alone in her big empty house like a dowager queen, re-reading her Hardy and Dickens and fussing with her water colors and listening to endless soap operas. It did not seem to bother her that I practically lived at my office. She had always felt strongly that growing boys should have a certain amount of freedom before finally settling down. After all, there was no rush; boys would surely be boys; and to her mind I was, in my early forties, still little more than a fumbling adolescent.
Belle had equally firm views on the seriousness of matrimony. The contract was a long one and sensible people did not marry in haste and repent at leisure. One day, and all in good time, I would doubtless marry and move my lucky bride in among all the clanking curios and relics in the old house on Hematite Street. She had it all planned, even to giving me her rusty old wooden icebox, the kind that used pond ice and drained into a pan on the floor. As for myself I had never married for the simple reason that I had never yet in my travels encountered a woman in whose company I cared to remain more than a few hours at a time, whether day or night. Well, maybe there had been one but she, sensible girl, had instead married a wholesale drug salesman and had presented him with two sets of twins before I lost count.
The telephone began to drone again and I answered it largely because it was the only way I knew to make the damned thing stop. My fishing trip, I saw, was officially over.
"Hello," I said into the telephone. "This is Paul Biegler."
"This is Laura Manion," a woman said. "Mrs. Laura Manion. I'm sorry to be calling you so late, but I've been trying to get you all weekend. I finally reached your secretary and she said she thought you might be back tonight."
"Yes, Mrs. Manion?" I said.
"My husband, Lieutenant Frederic Manion, is in the county jail here at Iron Bay," she went on. "He's being held for murder. He wants you to be his lawyer." Her voice broke a little and then she went on. "You've been highly recommended to us. Can you take his case?"
"I don't know, Mrs. Manion," I answered truthfully. "I'll naturally have to talk with him and look into the situation before I can decide. Then there is always the matter of making mutually agreeable financial arrangements."
It was funny, the fine suave marshmallow phrases a lawyer learned to spin to let a prospective client gently know he must be prepared to fork over some heavy dough. Mrs. Manion was an alert student of marshmallow phrases.
"Yes, of course, Mr. Biegler. When can you see him? He's awfully anxious to see you."
I surveyed the clutter of mail, mostly junk and routine stuff, that had accumulated during my absence. "I'll go see him around eleven in the morning. Will you plan to be there?"
"I'm sorry, but I have to go to the doctor's. I don't know if you've heard the details, but II had quite an experience. I'm sure I can see you Tuesday, thoughthat is, if you can take the case."
"I'll plan to see you Tuesday, then," I said, "if I enter the case."
"Thank you, Mr. Biegler."
"Good night, Mrs. Manion," I said. Then I switched out the lights and sat in the darkness watching the reflection of the changing traffic lights below dancing on the opposite wall. The room was stuffy so I opened the window and sat looking down upon the silent and empty city square, watching my smoke drift lazily out the window, brooding sleepily about the tangled past and future.
Copyright © 1958 by Robert Traver.