DON’T WANT MUCH
by Thomas Elson
This story happened over forty years ago, and reforms have eliminated its recurrence. The media would expose it. No one would tolerate it. We are in a new era of transparency and integrity.
And if you believe that, …
There was never any doubt they’d blame him. The natives are quite content in their ignorance. They live here because their great-great grandfathers settled here, and possess a lack of curiosity that ends immediately after they ask, “Where ya from?” They don’t want much, and there’s plenty of that for everybody.
This one, however, scared the hell out of me. It was the first one to come to trial. Luckily, it was in my home county, and they would believe a native-born son over an outsider. I was born here. Seán Tyler wasn’t. Where did he come from? No one really knew, but it wasn’t in Ninnescah County, and that settled that.
Ninnescah County is ranching country, but without the spreads seen on television. Absent are the freshly swept porches and arid land with contented grazing bovine. Ninnescah County ranches feature weathered porches, a roughness associated with parched earth, and six generations of land ownership firm in the belief of primogeniture.
Two narrow lanes constitute the county seat’s only paved road which passes through the center of town. Past Meyer’s Tack and Hardware, Bummy’s IGA, Cottonwood Cattle Company, Verdigris State Bank, Wagon Wheel restaurant, and Hole-in-the-Wall tavern.
These businesses are frequented in the morning by men in scuffed boots and sweat-stained knock-off Stetsons, which, if removed, expose white skulls atop sour red faces with weathered eyes that look as if slit by a knife. Their backs are stiff, not from age, but from life in the saddle. In the afternoon they are replaced by women in cotton prints, white socks, and heavy work boots. Their broad shoulders display experience in calving, branding, and all the other hard work of ranch life.
Local directions consist of family names. “Just turn left at the Mushrush place and drive for a while until you get to where the old Miller ranch used to be. Then bear right. You can’t miss it.”
Other than the few strangers passing through for a piece of pie at the Wagon Wheel Restaurant, the county remains passed by. Highway 50 passed it by. The state turnpike passed it by. I-70 passed it by. School unification passed it by. Cable T.V passed it by. Even Wal-Mart passed it by. However, the one thing that did not pass it by was reported in the Berdan Tribune. Shirley Tyler was missing. This was a mere six days after I was in the Ninnescah Hotel Restaurant parking lot with Shirley after her husband, Seán, abruptly walked out of their dinner. She and I were to go camping that weekend – our euphemism for trips into Kansas City.
The speed with which the report appeared stunned me. There was nothing to do but follow the plans laid out after returning home from my late-night with Shirley.
First on my list was the County Attorney, Bill Narth, a simple-minded runty guy whom I viewed as a failure in his profession. He was just like his father who had loaned me the money to go to law school and cancelled the debt upon my graduation. Bill’s political radiance was severely dimmed by photographs that caught him leaving a Joplin motel room accompanied by a busty, dark-haired woman with a proclivity for exposed skin.
“Bill, this is Dan Bierley. I knew your father.” I read about the Tyler case.” Then, in my most sincere voice,
“He helped me out a lot in law school. Never would have made it without him.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Bierley, we’ve met. My dad spoke highly of you.”
“He was a good man. How ya doin’ with-”
It took no further prompting. “Terrible. Never prosecuted a murder case before. We’re a small county, and I’ve got no support in this forgotten one-man office. And-”
Having no interest in his whining, I interrupted, “Bill, let me help. We could work together on your opening statement and cataloging the relevant evidence.”
“It’s best we keep this sub rosa. I’m not running for office, just tryin’ to repay a debt.”
A couple of more calls ought to do it. I looked at my notes.
Next was Sheriff Hatzenbueller. We had gone to school together – same grade school, same high school, even the same church – and one of the biggest fools in the county. He touted his nine years of law enforcement experience. My view was he had one year of experience repeated nine times. I never thought he’d make anything of himself, and I was right.
“Sheriff. Dan Bierley. Sorry to bother you-”
“Danny, good morning.”
“Sheriff. It’s about the Tyler missing person report.”
“Yep. Somethin’ fishy about the husband’s story.
Too damn tight. We-”
I asked about a couple of other reports, placed my mouth against the phone, and said, “I … camping … brief assignation … left a message on her machine.”
“I understand, Danny.” My grade school friend said. “Not a word. Never happened.” After a second, “Anyway, we got our guy. Arrested the husband last night.”
“Who’s his lawyer.”
“Garry Mattox. Court-appointed. Tyler’s got no money. And Mattox’s damn-near starving.”
As soon as my phone hit the cradle, I knew there needed to be more questions, like “What was her husband arrested for?” A smarter Sheriff would have caught that, but, hell, I already knew more about the case than he ever would.
Later that morning, I sifted through my active case files. “Great, the Johnston case. Perfect. This’ll do it.”
A few weeks earlier, my secretary had walked into my office “Dan, your client, Mr. Johnston, is here.” Herb Johnston had been my client since his contested divorce when he was granted custody of his son. “He was telling me about his boy’s accident yesterday. Hit by a county truck. Sent to E.R. It’s really bad. I brought you these.”
She handed me a partially completed case summary sheet and my standard contingency fee contract with the requisite portions highlighted – signatures, forty percent of any amounts recovered, expenses deducted after the client’s portion.
A sixteen-year-old high school boy with good grades and on the track team, hit broadside by a county road maintenance truck. A young man with broken bones in an intensive care unit of the largest hospital in the state, fed intravenously and readied for brain surgery the next morning, screamed big injuries. Big injuries equal big damages, which equal big recoveries, which equal big attorney fees, which meant I had options.
I placed the file inside a leather briefcase, and carried it into the office of Garry Mattox.
Garry Mattox officed in the back of the Cottonwood Cattle Company, had not been able to build a full-time practice. I walked in, turned, damned near ran into a pile of feed sacks, veered left, made a sharp right, opened the door, and there Mattox stood inside a space no larger than my reception area. He had crammed in a large beige metal desk, three chairs, two bookcases. There were no wall hangings other than his law school diploma and certificate of admission to the state bar. It had the smell of a wet barn.
We sat across from each other, I began without looking up, “I’ve seen you in court, and you do a good job.” Pure hyperbole. “I represent Herb Johnston in a personal injury case, but with its county government implications, it might present a conflict of interest. Can’t take any chances.” I smiled, looked directly at him, and said, “Consequently, I want to refer this case to you.”
I watched his pupils widen. “Garry, the lawsuit is against the county – deep pockets. You could make some money. No more court-appointed cases. And get the hell out of this feed lot.”
I told him the timeline. Depositions scheduled for next week. Meet with Johnston’s high school principal and teachers two days later. Their depositions scheduled for the following Monday. Then take depositions of surgeons and emergency room people.
His neck muscles tightened. He looked light-headed, almost dizzy. Suddenly he inhaled deeply, almost a gasp, placed his left hand on his desk, then waved his right hand over an uncluttered desk, said, “I think I can manage it.”
“Here you go, this is yours.” I handed him the black leather briefcase containing the Johnston file.
“You might want to review it before we meet with your client tomorrow. I’ll call Johnston to schedule a meeting with you and me tomorrow in my offices. I’ll advise him then that I’m handing this case to you. You can use my offices east of town as a temporary satellite location.”
He nodded. Easier than I thought. By tomorrow Mattox would be wedged between two time-consuming jury trials bearing down on him like a tsunami.
We shook hands and I left his office well-pleased – the kid had been maneuvered with a dream of well-paying clients who did not reside in a jailhouse. Mattox would begin and end each day gasping for air.
Weeks and multiple rehearsals later, the Tyler criminal trial began. The local custom was for attorneys to gather in Judge Wycliff’s chambers prior to court, and I needed to be seated near the door before Mattox arrived.
The courthouse at the south end of town is a three-story wooden building with a red French roof, no elevators, lady’s restroom on the first floor, men’s on the second. Half of the third floor holds the courtroom and on the other half is the Sheriff Hatzenbueller’s residence, and the one-cell jail next to the kitchen. Each floor has one window air conditioner and one cast iron radiator per room.
Three flights up the ornate staircase, a right turn onto the hallway, through the door toward a narrower hallway, then into the special province of lawyers – the judge’s chambers. Once past the bailiff’s desk, I nodded to the court reporter, then strode into the judge’s chambers, waved to Judge Wycliff. Judge Francis Wycliff, a modest man with much to be modest about, had flunked the bar twice, but still managed to become a judge.
A few moments after positioning myself near the door, Mattox walked in with two briefcases – the one I gave him, and a green one, headed straight to the judge’s desk and stood with his back to me. He avoided the group of lawyers, who continued talking: Settlement … Hope you made as much money as I did … Hell, I’m going broke representing that guy … Just file a motion, that’ll delay it a month … You’d better file something and toll that statute, or they’ll walk all over you…
In a few seconds, Mattox turned. I nodded, stood, walked into the courtroom and sat in the front row of the spectators’ gallery.
When Mattox entered the courtroom, his shirt collar looked glued to his neck. Bill Narth, a block of granite set atop two thin legs, trudged toward the counsel’s table. Judge Wycliff entered, and the bailiff called the case, State vs. Seán Tyler.
After a few remarks by the judge, Narth stood behind the podium to begin his opening statement. “This defendant is charged with murdering his wife.” He moved his head as if unable to comprehend the enormity of the act, drew in air, exhaled his disgust, then, exactly as we rehearsed, continued, “Murder-in-the-first degree. The woman Seán Tyler killed has a name. Shirley Tyler. Shirley is not the decedent. Shirley is not the vic.” His voice rose. “Her name is Shirley Tyler. And her husband, sitting over there looking at you, killed her. Killed his wife, Shirley Tyler.” Voice projected. Full stops. Just as he was coached.
Narth looked at the floor, hands folded in a bishop’s repose. It was a lot of work to get him to master that. “This specific charge of murder is the killing,” his fist pressed against the table, “the killing of one human by another – with malice aforethought. He planned to kill her.” A bit of improv, but not bad.
“That man planned and intended,” he pointed at Tyler, his hand heavy with accusation, “intended to kill his wife. Intended to kill her with a pistol.” In a moment filled with drama, his voice slowed to an almost Faulknerian drawl. I loved it.
His eyes upon the jury, and, after a well-rehearsed pause, he turned, glared momentarily at the defendant. “He killed Shirley Tyler, his wife, after they finished dinner at the Ninnescah Hotel Restaurant. Killed Shirley with a pistol. Not just one shot. Not two shots. Not three. But four. Four bullets penetrated Shirley’s skull and neck.”
Narth slowly pointed to his head and neck indicating where each of the bullets entered. Just the way I showed him.
“Then he abandoned her. Left her. No, hid her.” He finally remembered the right word, pointed toward the east, and said, “He secreted Shirley in a grove of trees just a couple of miles east of this courthouse.”
Back erect and with unbroken eye contact, Narth concluded, “I ask you to deliver a verdict of-” His right palm deliberately struck the podium. “A verdict of guilty. Guilty of murdering his wife, Shirley Tyler. Guilty of murder in the first degree.”
He sat down, head lowered, eyes open but unblinking, reached for his snow-white handkerchief, and with a slow gesture, touched his right cheekbone. That was a bit much.
Judge Wycliffe, his full-sized glasses near the tip of his nose, said, “Mr. Mattox, do you wish to give your opening statement?”
Mattox faced the judge’s bench, and with an unsteady voice, “Yes, your honor. My client did not commit the crime. He pled not guilty.” The judge motioned for Mattox to face the jury. Judas, was a dope.
Mattox began again, “He did not do it. He did not kill her. He is innocent. I ask that you listen to the evidence and remember that the state,” he pointed to Narth, “has the burden of proving my client did it. The defendant is not required to prove he did not do it. Not in this country.”
With palsied hands and shirt collar dark with perspiration, Mattox continued, “My client is innocent. Do not be persuaded by photographs. They do not prove anything other than she was killed. Not that my client did it. I ask you to return a verdict of not guilty.”
Mattox slowly turned toward the judge as if requesting permission to return to his seat. The judge nodded, Mattox sat, emitted a low whistle, and I felt the energy dissipate from the courtroom.
Narth introduced the State’s exhibits through the officer who took the photographs of Shirley Tyler’s body. They showed four bullet holes puncturing head and neck. Exactly the photos I chose.
No objection, or cross-examination by Mattox.
The second witness, the road worker who found the body, walked toward the witness stand as if approaching a proctology procedure. Once positioned, he relayed the location of body. His final bit of testimony established the three photographs were of the body he had found.
Mattox sat in silence.
Tyler leaned toward Mattox, who, just as I suggested, slid a yellow legal pad and uncapped ballpoint toward him. Tyler began to write.
A detective from the State Bureau of Investigation testified about a journal Shirley kept. It was the volume I selected. The others remained, uncatalogued, at my shed.
No objection by Mattox.
The detective continued, “Shirley Tyler wrote-”
Narth interrupted, “The lady whose photographs we just saw?”
The detective continued. “Yes.” He lowered his voice. “She wrote, ‘I do not know how to relate to your outbursts. …you intimidate me when you are angry, and sometimes scare me… I feel … very insecure at these times.’” Shirley was not the only woman who had said words like that to me.
Mattox belatedly objected to the reading of the journal as a violation of the hearsay rule. Judge Wycliff overruled the objection. “I am going to admit it, since it was used to establish a course of conduct between husband and wife.” So far so good.
No one mentioned Shirley’s camper friend. Not a word about a voice message. Chief Hatzenbueller handled that.
Mattox rose and said, “Your honor, the defense has no witnesses.”
The next day the jury rendered its verdict. Mattox presented the obligatory post-trial motions which were overruled. The judge thanked, then dismissed the jury. Sentencing was set for one week after receipt of the pre-sentencing report. Irrespective of the report, Tyler’s sentence was going to be life imprisonment. His post-trial hearing was only a formality.
“What’s next?” Tyler asked, but Mattox walked away carrying the black briefcase I gave him. He stopped, returned to the counsel table, grabbed the legal pad and pen, reached for his green leather brief case, and said, “I’ll be in touch later.”
Mattox turned, nodded at me, cocked his head, and whispered, “One of our depositions is later today. Gotta prep for it.” I’d take the case back from him tomorrow. We had only shaken hands.
When the courtroom emptied, I walked down the back steps, and drove a few miles east of the courthouse.
Amid bare trees and weathered grass, as if in an instant, time stopped, shifted, suddenly reversed. On my right was the faint image of Shirley flat on the ground inside that grove of trees. It was exactly as I remembered it.
When Shirley’s body disappeared, I drove away.
There may still be one unanswered question – to which the answer is “No. Not once. Not even in my most solitary moments.”
About the Author:
Thomas Elson lives in Northern California. He writes of lives that fall with neither safe person nor safe net to catch them. His short stories have appeared, or are scheduled to appear, inter alia, in the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Red City Literary Review, Oracle Fine Arts Review, Avalon Literary Review, Perceptions Magazine, and A New Ulster.