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By William J. Coughlin
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1997 Ruth Coughlin
All rights reserved.
The jury came in just after four o'clock. It was Halloween, and they wanted to get home before dark. There wasn't anyone in Detroit who didn't want to get home before dark.
It hadn't been much of a trial, just one day, although the charge of armed robbery was serious even in Detroit's Recorder's Court, where murder sometimes is considered small change. My man looked guilty, although there had been some question about identification. But the jury wasn't about to sit around and waste a whole lot of time arguing about it. They gave him the benefit of the doubt, under the circumstances, and acquitted him so they could leave early.
Everyone told me I had done a good job, but they knew it was the clock that had really swung things in my client's favor.
I walked to the nearly empty parking garage and retrieved my car. There was a chill in the damp air. My footsteps echoed in the concrete silence of the place, and even traffic sounds outside the garage seemed muted, as though the entire city were creeping on cats' feet.
It was an hour's drive back to Pickeral Point, the little city forty miles north of Detroit where I have my home and office, my private sanctuary on the banks of the St. Clair River. Detroit had once been my home, but that was before my own troubles had nearly ended my legal career. Troubles that had forced a quiet exile to a quiet place.
In other American cities this was a special night, a magical one, a night for children and harmless mischief. Halloween. Armies of costumed kids carrying candy bags would assault lighted porches screeching the challenge, trick or treat.
But in Detroit, All Hallow's Eve had reverted to the Celtic horror that inspired the death masks and mystic rituals of the ancient Druids and now echoed in those kids' costumes. In the city, it had become a malevolent night for mindless burning. Porch lights were on, as well as back-alley lights. Detroiters waited, armed usually, behind curtains, watching for the silent figures who might emerge from the darkness and try to burn them out.
The situation had improved since the days when hundreds upon hundreds of houses went up in flames on Devil's Night and Halloween, when television crews from all over the world came to film the blazing phenomenon. Still, it had been dry all day, so the shadowy figures would come, they always did. Fires, both large and small, would be set.
Everyone wanted to get home early. Hoses and guns would be at the ready. Here, trick or treat carried a more ominous meaning.
I was glad to get on the expressway headed north.
A fender bender plugged up traffic and it gradually became dark as all of us waited to move. Eventually, cars slowly rolled forward, locked together like prisoners on an endless march.
Finally, at the city limit, things began to loosen up, and by the time. I reached Mt. Clemens, just twenty miles out of the city, we were all traveling at well over the speed limit, and I was filled with a sense of release and escape.
The freeway after Mt. Clemens cuts mostly through farmland. Empty fields in autumn. A few spectral trees outlined against the dark clouds lent a real Halloween aura to the chilly night.
I was listening to Detroit's classical music station, which was playing appropriately macabre music.
It first began as a light mist. I flipped on the windshield wipers, hoping that Detroit would catch some of the developing rain. It would help keep down the fires.
I was almost to the Pickeral Point turnoff when the flakes started. In lower Michigan, the rule of thumb is snow flurries approximately by Halloween and real snow by Thanksgiving.
It was the first snow of the season. Just a few wet flakes initially and then a quick and fierce whiteout. I slowed, adjusting to the new road conditions, and drove through.
The streaky pattern of the swirling white snow reminded me of skeleton hands, hands with long and bony fingers clawing at the windshield as if to seize the soul within.
Halloween thoughts. I was beginning to spook myself big time. I switched the radio to a jazz station, but it didn't help much. Those ghostly snow fingers still relentlessly slapped against the windshield like a silent warning. I reminded myself that it was only snow.
Mrs. Fenton, my secretary, came quickly into my office midmorning next day. She, who generally was almost expressionless, looked like her eyes were about to pop. Dear Mrs. Fenton, efficient and organized and about as humorless as a dead mackerel. Plain and simple, her appearance was completely unremarkable. You could set your clock by Mildred, the name I never dared call her. She's always on time and leaves each night at five. It's a never-varying routine, but sometimes we cling to routine because it offers small comfort in a chaotic world. You don't get to chat a lot with Mrs. Fenton because she disapproves of small talk. Sometimes I think she disapproves of me, too, but I don't dwell on it too much.
"There's a bishop on the phone, a real bishop," she now said, "and he wants to talk to you."
Titles meant so much to her. I don't know why, but they did. I hoped for the sake of her health that the pope or the president would never have occasion to call the office, since I found the prospect of maybe having to administer CPR to Mrs. Fenton distasteful.
"Does this bishop have a name?" I asked.
"Bishop Solar," she said. "He's a Catholic bishop." Her tone implied she would have preferred a Protestant denomination, but a bishop was still a bishop.
"I'll take the call," I said. I waited until she left the office. I wondered what was up. It was still very early in the morning, even for a bishop.
"Charles Sloan," I said, thinking I would be talking to one of his assistants.
"Formal, aren't we?" It was the bishop himself.
"Always. How are you, Joe?"
"Fine, Charley. This is a Holy Day of Obligation, All Saints' Day. I trust you were able to get to Mass?"
"Would it make you feel better if I lied and said yes?"
He laughed. "Not really. Just testing. We're going to get you back one of these days."
"Anything's possible, but I wouldn't bet your retirement fund on it," I said. "Now, besides my immortal soul, what else do you want?"
I could talk like that to him. We both belonged to the same organization. Even bishops could become alcoholics. Joe Solar, like me, was a member of AA. We had first become acquainted at a meeting, and a kind of loose friendship followed. He was a compact man, fiftyish, who had the hard look of a corporate executive, even when in his full bishop's regalia.
I did a little legal work for him and the church once in a while. He ran a newly formed diocese that comprised most of Michigan's Thumb area. It was a comedown from his former position as a big-city bishop marked for better things. Like myself, the booze hadn't exactly enhanced his career. He had been on his way to a cardinal's red hat. But now that would never be. Still, if he regretted it, it didn't show.
"I have a priest who's in a spot of trouble and I think he could use some legal advice," the bishop said.
"What kind of trouble?"
"A young man has accused him of molesting him."
"Has the priest been charged?"
"I'm informed there will be no charges."
"Are they giving licenses to the clergy now for that sort of thing?"
He laughed for the sake of politeness, but the tone reflected a flat lack of amusement. "The lad who made the charge withdrew it, then changed his mind. He has a history of mental problems. Also, the priest isn't the first person he's made this kind of charge against."
"From the sound of it, then, your man doesn't have much to worry about."
"Not as far as the police are concerned. But the parents have called and threatened civil suit. I wonder if you might look into it, Charley. I think he could use some help."
"And who do I look to for my fee, the Holy Ghost?"
"If you had true faith, you would. However, the diocese will pay reasonable legal fees. This sort of thing can rip up a parish, just the hint of it, not to mention the reputation of the priest involved. And the Church. If you could get the matter quietly taken care of, I would be most grateful."
"I'm not big on child-molester cases."
"This isn't one of those things, Charley. As far as I know, the priest is quite innocent. Frankly, he's a bit of an eccentric, but he's a good priest. The people love him. You'd be doing an act of Christian charity if you undertook helping him out."
"I'll do what I can. What's his name?"
"Father Charles Albertus. Everyone calls him Father Chuck. That's the name he goes by unless he's writing checks. Maybe even then, as far as I know."
In my mind I formed a picture of a rail-thin priest in a sackcloth shirt, with long hair and a wispy beard, smoking a cigarette held in the European fashion. And sandals, Roman style.
"Does he know you're contacting me?"
"I told him I would. He'll be expecting your call. He serves as pastor of a small parish in Hub City, and also he's the priest for a half dozen rural missions, small churches spread out all over the Thumb. We used to have priests for all those places, but there's a shortage, as you probably know."
"Give me the number," I said, with a slight touch of annoyance and resignation in my voice.
I sighed to myself. No longer was I a church-going Catholic, but there was still a strong pull, an echo, I suppose, of boyhood loyalty and a nod to how I was brought up. Confession every Saturday; early Mass on Sunday morning and Holy Communion; the almost reverential respect my parents taught me to have for our parish priest.
Perhaps because of all that, I never charged Bishop Solar my full fee. Sometimes I didn't charge him at all.
Which is probably one of the main reasons the good bishop thought of me in the first place.
I was about to dial the priest, but before I had a chance, Mrs. Fenton popped in again.
"Do you know a Mark Conroy? He says he's a police chief."
I nodded. "He's Detroit's deputy chief. Why?"
She raised a disapproving eyebrow. In Mrs. Fenton's mind you were either what you said you were or you were a rank pretender. By her expression, I knew that she did not approve of deputy chiefs running around claiming they were the big cheeses.
"In Detroit, the deputy chief is called chief. Like a lieutenant colonel is called colonel in the army. Besides, Conroy is the real chief. He runs the Detroit Police Department," I said. "The other chief you read about is a political front man for the mayor. I know Conroy. Why do you ask?"
Her deepening frown indicated she wasn't completely satisfied despite my explanation. "He's on the phone. He wants to speak to you."
It wouldn't be like hearing from an old friend. I dislike very few people, but Mark Conroy years ago made it to my short list. The feeling, as far as I knew, was mutual.
"He's on line two," she said as she left.
I picked up the phone and punched the button.
"Sloan here. What do you want?"
"It's a personal matter." The voice was as I remembered it, smooth but with an underlying hint of authority, perhaps even menace.
There was a pause. "Yes."
"Look, Conroy, you and I have never really been friends. I think you'd be better off seeing another attorney."
"Are you afraid to talk to me?"
"Of course not."
"I'm busy this afternoon. Tomorrow I can see you at three o'clock. All right?"
"How about right now?"
"It's an hour's drive up here. I have an appointment in an hour."
I didn't, but I didn't want to admit it, not to Conroy. I wanted him to think I was so successful, I didn't have a free minute in the day.
"I'm in your parking lot," he said, a humorless chuckle in his voice. "All I need is an hour of your time, probably less."
"All right, if you insist. Come up."
"Up that outside stairway I see?"
"It's the only way up. It may not look it, but it's safe enough."
The top cops of the Detroit department wear uniforms that a South American dictator might envy. Their hats have enough gold braid to supply the British navy. And medals! I never knew what they were for, but each top cop has row after colorful row on his uniform chest. The official police badge, set above the ribbons, looks almost dowdy by comparison. They like white gloves, and anything leather on their bodies is always polished to mirror quality.
Mark Conroy came dressed in civilian clothes. It was almost a disappointment.
He was a handsome man, the product of a multitude of bloodlines. Thick chested, wide shoulders, and an inch shy of six feet. Officially, he was black, but he could have been anything—Italian, Greek, South American—with a slightly tanned skin, by genes rather than by sun and strong features topped by black, close-cut, curly hair.
It was his olive-black eyes everyone always remembered. Hard eyes, knowing. Eyes that seemed to search other faces like two probing lasers. Friendly one minute, frightening the next.
I didn't get up. He took a chair across from me and looked around at my office.
"Who's your decorator, Charles Dickens?"
A half smile, an expression closer to a sneer, played on his full lips.
"You don't like it?" I asked.
The sneering smile broadened. "I love it. It looks like something out of the last century. Cracked leather and musty books. It has its own special atmosphere, but then so does a morgue. Where the hell did you get this stuff?"
"Most of it was here when I moved in a few years ago. It belonged to a very old lawyer who died."
"You should have buried all this with him."
I studied him for a moment. His slate gray suit didn't look like it came off the rack. His shoes appeared handmade,as did the monogrammed shirt and silk tie. Conroy was forty-five but looked younger. He had made his reputation as a gutsy cop who worked undercover and feared nothing. Combining brains with nerve, he rocketed through the ranks to chief of detectives before the age of forty, a first in the department's history. The mayor appointed him as deputy chief when he appointed the new chief. The new chief was smart politically, but had proved himself a stupid cop. Conroy got the second top job to keep the department running and out of trouble. "You still hate me because of the Mickleberg case, don't you?" he asked, those black eyes fixed on mine.
"You lied on the stand and you sent an innocent man to prison for life for a crime he didn't commit."
"Innocent?" This time the sneer was definitely a sneer. "The problem with lawyers is you people treat crime like a game of tennis, little rules for everything. Clay court or law court, it's the same thing to you. You have to stand in a certain place, do certain things, and you can't step over certain lines. Justice for you people is just a game for gentlemen."
"Nice speech. Give it often?"
Those eyes hardened even more. "Harry Mickleberg was going up and down Gratiot Avenue, killing and robbing the owners of small stores. He was good at it. That's how he got your fee, by the way, from one of those robberies. We knew it was him who was doing the killing, from informers and other information, but none of it good enough to make a case, at least under your rules. Mickleberg grew up in reform school and spent more time in prison than he did out. He had nice hobbies like sodomizing his sister. Did you know that? If you were making a list of undesirables, you'd have to put Harry pretty high up there."
Those damn eyes of his had an almost hypnotic effect. He continued in his command voice. Crisp, professional, no nonsense.
"We caught him with a gun that had been used in a murder. It wasn't his gun, and he hadn't done the killing, but we took the bastard down anyway. I took him down. I was the homicide detective in charge, as you recall. I told a few small white lies on the stand, as we both know. Even you couldn't shake me, which is the real reason why you don't like me. I beat you. But from my point of view, I took that prick off the streets for life and saved a few lives in the process. I didn't play by your neat little rules, but justice got done anyway."
I could feel anger rising and I knew my face was reddening.
He looked past me at my view of the river. "I don't need you to like me, Sloan. But I do need a good lawyer. An honest one."
"I don't want the case."
"You don't even know what it is. Don't your rules call for some measure of fairness?"
"Yes, unlike yours. Mine are called professional ethics."
"You still off the stuff?" he asked.
"Booze, you mean?"
My problem had often been headlined in the newspapers, and not so long ago. It was all a matter of public record, though I resented the question. But I answered him, to show, I think, that it didn't bother me.
Excerpted from The Judgment by William J. Coughlin. Copyright © 1997 Ruth Coughlin. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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