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Ben Kincaid stared blankly at the woman in the black robe, not quite certain he had heard her correctly.
Judge Sarah L. Hart cleared her throat. "I repeat: What else would she be doing with a frozen fish?"
"Oh," Ben murmured. "That's what I thought you said."
The judge smiled. "Can't you help me out here?"
Of course, Ben mused silently, if he could have, he would have. Some time ago. Judge Hart had an unerring knack for cutting to the heart of the matter. That, he knew, was why she was one of the best judges in Tulsa County. Of course there were times when you didn't necessarily want the best judge in Tulsa County ...
"Your honor," Ben said, coughing into his hand, "the fish was not actually frozen. It was ... preserved."
"I'm not sure I understand the difference."
"These are freshwater fish. Bass. Trout. They're kept in a freshwater tank."
"Ah. How ignorant of me. Why didn't they cover this in judge school?" She removed her eyeglasses and massaged the brim of her nose.
"Ben?" He felt a tugging at his jacket. It was his client, Fannie Fenneman, the fisherwoman under discussion. Ben tried to ignore her.
She tugged harder. "Ben. Psst, Ben!"
"Still here, Fannie." Realizing it was futile, he asked the judge for a moment to confer with his client. "What's the problem?"
She leaned close to his ear. "I don't think this is going so well."
"Really. What was your first clue?"
Fannie tugged uncomfortably at the dress Ben had made her wear rather than her customary overalls and waders. "The judge seems very confused."
"Wouldn't you be?"
"Mr. Kincaid," Judge Hart said, "if I might have your attention again ..."
"Yes, your honor. Of course, your honor."
"I thought perhaps you could help me sort this all out."
"I'd be delighted to try."
"Good. Let me pose a few questions."
Ben was mentally posing a few questions of his own. Such as: Why am I here? Why do I always get these cases? Why did I go to law school?
"Your client has obtained some renown as a ... er ... fisherperson. Is that correct?"
"World-famous," Fannie said emphatically.
"World-famous," the judge echoed. "In fishing circles, presumably. Your client has won numerous tournaments during the past several years, right?"
"All of them," Fannie answered.
"Ms. Fenneman," Judge Hart said, "are you sure you need counsel? You seem so able to defend yourself, your counsel can barely get a word in edgewise."
Fannie lowered her eyes and buttoned her lip.
"Now," the judge continued, "the tournament officials say Ms. Fenneman cheated, and they've brought criminal charges. Am I still on track?"
The assistant district attorney, Martin Edwards, rose to his feet. "That's right, your honor. She's wrongfully taken over six thousand dollars in tournament prize money. It's fraud. Deceit."
"I see. And so you decided to crack down on this dangerous ... fish faker. Stop her before she fishes again. Is that it?"
Edwards adjusted his tie. "I ... probably wouldn't have used exactly those words."
"I suppose all the triple homicides and depraved sex crimes on your docket pale in comparison with this fish fraud?"
"Your honor, a crime is a crime."
"Of course, of course," Judge Hart said, holding up her hands. "We can't be making exceptions." She shuffled a few papers. "Next thing you know, we'll have people telling fish stories all over the place. Why, the very phrase fish story could come to mean a tale that is exaggerated and not to be believed."
"Your honor, we have this woman dead to rights. We found a freshwater tank in the back of her truck. The scheme was, she would wait until after the tournament began and the other anglers had shipped out, then sneak back to her car, pull a fish she bought beforehand out of the tank, and claim she caught it."
Fannie leaped to her feet. "That's a filthy rotten lie! I never saw that tank before in my life!"
Ben pushed her back into her chair. "It's not our turn."
"But he said—"
Fannie grudgingly obeyed.
Edwards continued. "Realistically, your honor, how could the same woman win all these tournaments year after year? I mean, it's not as if there's a lot of strategy involved. You sit in a boat and wait for a fish."
"Says you," Fannie muttered.
"Perhaps," Judge Hart speculated, "the secret lies in her wrist action as she casts the line."
"Right," Edwards replied. "Or maybe she charms them with her good looks."
Fannie could contain herself no longer. "It's the bait."
All heads in the courtroom turned to Fannie.
"I beg your pardon?" Judge Hart said, peering down through her glasses.
"Bait," Fannie repeated. "I make my own. The fish can't resist it."
"Well, there you have it," Judge Hart said, falling back into her chair. "I'm convinced."
Fannie folded her arms angrily across her chest. "I don't like this judge," she whispered to Ben. "I think she's trying to be sarcastic."
Trying? Ben thought.
Ben listened carefully as the prosecution brought forth a series of experts from the glamorous world of professional fishing. The court learned about sonar fish detection, fiberglass rods, and chemically enhanced aphrodisiacal bait. All the experts agreed, however, that an unbroken string of tournament successes such as Fannie's was unprecedented and rather unlikely. On cross, Ben dutifully required each witness to admit that winning forty-seven consecutive tournaments was not, strictly speaking, totally and utterly impossible. Somehow, though, he doubted this "admission" was helping her case much.
For their final witness, the prosecution called a man named Ernest Samson Hemingway. ("No relation," he said as he was sworn in.) Mr. Hemingway was a frequent tournament participant and the organizer of the last competition in which Fannie participated. He was also the man who disqualified her and restricted her from further league competitions. He had instigated the investigation against her and ultimately found the chief piece of evidence being used to establish Fannie's guilt.
Edwards conducted the direct examination, delivering every question in somber tones suggesting the matter at hand was as momentous as the quest for world peace. "Mr. Hemingway, what did you do after the tournament began?"
"I followed the defendant. Miss Fenneman."
"Ms. Fenneman," Fannie muttered.
"And why would you do that?"
"Well, me and the boys've been suspicious of her for some time."
"Well, you know, her winning all those tournaments, one right after another. T'ain't natural. Hell, I've been fishin' all my life, and I ain't never come up with a fish like the ones she showed up with every dadburned time."
"You couldn't catch a fish in an aquarium," Fannie whispered. Ben jabbed her in the side.
"So," Edwards asked, "you suspected skulduggery?"
Hemingway straightened his shoulders. "I suspected she was cheatin', if that's what you mean."
"Indeed it is." Edwards turned a page in his outline. "So what did you see when you followed her?"
"Well, you hafta understand, we was in the water, each in our own boat, and I hadta keep a distance so's she wouldn't know she was bein' watched. Still, I managed to keep an eye on her. Got me a souped-up pair of binoculars. Canon 540s."
"And what did you see?"
"At first she sailed out with everyone else. She found her spot, tossed in her line—all natural-like."
"And then what happened?"
"Well, I hadta wait about thirty, forty minutes, while she did nothin' in particular but sit there and fish."
"Yes. And then?"
"Well, I saw her pull in her reel and look all around to make sure no one was watchin', real suspicious-like. Then she revs up the boat and heads for shore. But not fast, you see. She goes real slow and quiet, so's not to make any noise. Then she gets out of her boat and disappears."
"Well, she went onshore."
"Did you see where she went?"
"Naw. I couldn't get close enough."
Edwards began to look a bit worried. "So ... you don't know what she did next?"
"I know this. Ten minutes later she was back in her boat. And thirty minutes after that she sailed back to port with the biggest blamed rainbow trout I've seen in my life."
"So what do you think she did onshore?"
"Objection," Ben said, rising to his feet. "Calls for speculation."
Judge Hart nodded. "Let's limit the testimony to what he saw and heard, Mr. Edwards. Trust me, the story is riveting enough without supplementing it with conjecture."
Edwards smiled thinly. "Mr. Hemingway, what did you do after the defendant returned to port with this large fish?"
"Well, I hopped into my truck and drove out to the spot where I saw her get out of the car.
And what do you suppose I found?"
"Uh ... traditionally, I ask the questions and the witness gives the answers."
"So what did you find, sir?"
Hemingway leaned forward. "Not a hundred feet from where she got out of the boat, parked behind a tree, I found Fannie's flame-red Ford pickup truck. Mag wheels and nylon gate."
"Did you search the truck?"
"I most certainly did."
"What did you find?"
"Objection," Ben said. "No probable cause to search."
"Nice try," Judge Hart said. "But Mr. Hemingway isn't a member of the law enforcement community, is he? His activities do not constitute state action."
"But his testimony is being used by the government."
"Yes, so it is. Tough how these things work out sometimes, isn't it? Overruled." She nodded toward Edwards. "Please proceed."
"Mr. Hemingway, what did you find inside the truck?"
He leaned back, obviously pleased with himself. "That's when I found the freshwater tank."
Edwards introduced the State's Exhibit A, an oversized portable freshwater tank. Just right for a jumbo trout.
"What did you do after you found the tank?" Edwards asked.
"Well, at that point, it was obvious she'd been cheatin'. What else could I do? I disqualified her and told her to return all the prize money. When she refused, I went and had me a little talk with the assistant DA."
His brother-in-law, Ben recalled.
"Thank you," Edwards said. "No more questions."
Judge Hart swiveled to face the defendant's table. "Any cross-examination, Mr. Kincaid?"
"Uh, yes." Ben scrambled to his feet.
Fannie gave him a little shove. "Go get 'em, tiger."
Ben tried to restrain his enthusiasm. "Mr. Hemingway, my name is Ben Kincaid, and I represent Ms. Fenneman. I'd like to ask you a few questions."
Hemingway dipped his chin. "Shoot."
"Mr. Hemingway, the fact is you didn't actually see Ms. Fenneman take anything out of that tank, did you?"
"You didn't see what she did after she got out of the boat?"
"Would you be surprised to learn that she went onshore just to ... well ..." Ben's face flushed. "... to relieve herself?"
A slow grin crept across Hemingway's face. "Well, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that she said that."
"Just answer the questions, sir." Ben's eyes darted around the courtroom. He knew he was just covering the obvious material; nobody appeared particularly impressed, and rightly so.
Ben heard the hissing behind him, but resisted getting dragged into another expression of Fannie's outrage. "Mr. Hemingway, isn't it true—"
Ben plowed dutifully ahead. "Isn't it true that you never—"
"Excuse me." This time the voice came from the foreground. It was Judge Hart. "Counsel, I believe your legal assistant is attempting to get your attention."
Ben turned to face Christina McCall, who was leaning across the railing that separated the gallery from the court. Her hand was outstretched and she was clutching a scrap of paper. Ben snatched the paper and opened it.
Judge Hart peered down curiously from the bench. "Fan mail from some flounder?"
"Uh ... not exactly." Ben stared at the note, which contained two words: HE'S LYING.
"Your honor, might I confer for a moment—?"
"Will it speed the trial along?"
"I'm sure it will."
"Then by all means."
Ben walked to the back of the courtroom. Christina was in her pan-European phase; she was wearing a red-and-blue-checked French-schoolgirl dress tucked into black leggings, which Ben supposed was intended to make her look as leggy as a woman barely five-feetone was ever likely to look. "Christina, I think you're becoming more eccentric and mysterious every day."
She smiled. "Did you read my note?"
"Yes. What does it mean?"
"Just what it says." She tossed her head back, making her vivid red hair, which was tied in a ponytail, swish between her shoulder blades. "He's lying. Vis-à-vis the tank. It's a frame."
"A fish frame. How?"
"I don't know how."
"Then how do you know he's lying?"
"Because I am a femme du monde—or a femme, at any rate."
"Stifle the French and tell me your theory. I find this very hard to believe."
"That's because you've been assuming your client is guilty."
Ben avoided her eyes. "Well, her success record is pretty amazing."
"Right. No woman could ever be that good."
"I didn't mean that."
"You didn't. But look at the guy in the stand." Ben glanced back toward the front at Hemingway, in his flannel shirt, his jeans, his palm-sized belt buckle, and his baseball cap advertising Shakespeare fishing gear. Hmmm.
"So you think he didn't like losing forty-seven times in a row?"
"I think he didn't like losing to a competitor with no chest hair."
Ben continued staring at the man in the witness stand. If he had learned nothing else in the years since he'd been out of law school, he'd learned to trust Christina's instincts. She was a far better judge of people than he would ever be.
"Ready to proceed?" Judge Hart asked.
"Yes. Thank you, your honor." Ben folded up his prepared outline. He was going to have to wing this one. "Mr. Hemingway. You've been a participant in some of these tournaments yourself, haven't you?"
"I like to cast a line every now and again."
"You probably didn't much care for losing all those tournaments to my client, did you?"
"Objection." Edwards was on his feet. "This is not relevant."
"Your honor," Ben interjected. "I'm trying to establish—"
Judge Hart cut him off. "No windy speeches, counsel. I know where you're going. Overruled."
Ben turned back to the witness. "Answer the question."
"Well, I'd prob'ly rather win than lose, if that's what you mean. I don't much cotton to losin'."
"Especially to a woman, right?"
Hemingway's eyes darted away. "I don't know what in the Sam Hill that's got to do with anything."
Ben took a few steps toward the witness. "Mr. Hemingway, you put that freshwater tank in Fannie's truck, didn't you?"
His voice swelled. "I sure as—" He glanced at the judge, then checked himself. "I mean, I certainly did not."
"You're under oath."
"I'm aware of that."
"And you're stating under oath that you did not put that tank in Fannie's truck?"
"You got it, shyster. Hell, I've never had one of those tanks in my life. Never even seen one till I found Exhibit A in her truck."
"And you wouldn't want to damage Fannie's reputation as a fisherwoman?"
"Couldn't care less about that."
"Hmm." Ben took a step back. "Mr. Hemingway, when was the last time you actually won a fishing tournament?"
"It's been ..." His eyes floated to the tops of their sockets. "Well, it's been a while."
"A while ... meaning years?"
"How many years?"
"I don't rightly recall."
"You must have some idea."
"Five years, eight months, and thirteen days, okay?" He was leaning slightly forward now, balancing on his fingertips.
"What tournament was that? That you won, I mean. Five years ago."
"That was the Beaver Invitational, for your information. Damn tough tournament, too."
"I see." The neurons were firing in Ben's brain, but he hadn't yet pieced everything together. Beaver. Beaver. That place rang a bell, and not just because it was the cow-chip-throwing capital of the world. There was something he had read in the witness files ...
He glanced to the back of the courtroom and saw a red ponytail bouncing above the pews. Christina was already digging in the files, way ahead of him.
A few moments later, she returned with a newspaper article they had obtained during discovery from the prosecution. The accompanying photo showed Hemingway holding an impressive bass. The sun was setting in the background, casting a rosy hue over the lake.
Ben handed the article to Hemingway. "Is this the tournament?"
Hemingway glanced at the picture. A smile of recollected pride crossed his lips. "Yes. I won that tournament. That was before she hit the circuit."
"Nice-looking fish you caught there."
"Aw, she was a beauty."
"Nice gloss. Good color."
"Thing is ... don't fish start to get kind of ... well, groady, after they've been out in the sun for a while?" Ben was hardly an expert, but once Christina had dragged him out on a fishing expedition in Arkansas.
Excerpted from Naked Justice by William Bernhardt. Copyright © 1997 William Bernhardt. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted October 16, 2013
Posted December 24, 2012
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