THE JUSTICE WE DREAM OF Copyright 2012 by Peter A. Teeuwissen. All rights reserved.
In the basement the air was still and holding steady at about 68 degrees. Running down the ceiling of the long corridor the flat plastic fluorescent fixtures were aligned like big white double blank dominoes. The finer internal architectural features of the courthouse were confined to the huge open atrium and the individual courtrooms on the floors above. Here it was all subterranean functionality. Ned thought he could smell lunch being warmed up behind one of the closed windowless steel doors. Macaroni and cheese or something. On the left, where the hall dead-ended, was the entrance to the old file room.
The room itself wasn’t old; it was the files. Anything that had been opened more than about ten years ago, and was now closed, was put down here for permanent storage. The active case files were kept in a fireproof vault up in the clerk’s office, for months and even years if necessary, until the cases had officially ended and any appeals had been exhausted. Then the files were stripped of extraneous things—duplicate forms, scribbled clerk’s notes on yellow stickies, unrelated scraps of paper accidentally parked between pages—and in their more or less irreducible versions, with pleadings, schedules, and dispositions, they were interred in this final resting place, but not before first lying in state for a few years in the closed file section of the upstairs vault. Some files down here went back to the early decades of the 20th century. There would have been older ones than that--hundreds of years older in fact--but a fire in 1914 had destroyed most of the ancient stuff, proceedings that in the earliest days of the state, and before that of the colony, would have been recorded by scriveners in elaborate handwriting onto folio-sized ledgers, using quills and later fountain pens.
Ned fished the key out of his pocket and opened the door, then walked across an antechamber filled with boxes stacked from floor to ceiling. Miscellaneous unidentified crap. He didn’t know what. The files were behind a floor-to-ceiling iron mesh cage, also locked. He opened it with a special oversized key, separate from the one for the outer door. What lay in front of him was an area twenty feet wide. Facing him were the ends of about a dozen two-sided shelving units, extending about fifteen feet back to a cinder block wall. Each unit was about two-and-a-half feet wide, with files packed onto six tiers of shelves on both sides. Side by side at the front ends little cards were inserted into metal slots, telling the number sequence of the files in the row that faced left, and in the row that faced right. Most of the shelves were jammed together, butting right up to one another, with no space to walk between them. They were what are known as compressible movable-aisle shelving units—and deluxe ones at that. It was a storage system which allowed the rows of shelves to be pushed together or moved apart by means of crank handles at the front of each unit. The handles resembled the steering wheels of ships, except that they were made of stainless steel. The movable shelves traveled slowly and evenly with the aid of wheels on the bottoms that fit into tracks in the floor. When someone came to look for a file, he would find which shelf row it was in based on its case number, then move apart the shelves next to that unit by means of their crank handles until there was room to walk down the row to find the file. By this means twice as many rows of shelves could fit into this twenty-foot-wide room than if the units were stationary and bolted to the floor with enough space between each for someone to move around.
Here among the closed files there was rarely any need to look for more than one file at a time, and sometimes no one came down for days at a time, so the compressed shelving system was perfect. Rarely did anyone get in anyone else’s way. Up in the space in front of all the shelves, just inside the door of the heavy wire-mesh cage, there were a couple of chairs and one steel stepladder of the kind that rolled but stayed put as soon as you began climbing on it. This was for retrieving the files on the top. Between the shelves and the ceiling there were about two feet of space for lights and sprinkler pipes.
Occasionally Ned or some other clerk would be sent down here to retrieve an old file. Maybe someone wanted to check out the terms of their parents’ divorce back in the 1950s, because mom was now dead or dying, and there was a question as to disposition of property. Maybe someone wanted to see if a house had been foreclosed on in the distant past, or what had happened when a business had been sued twenty years ago. The stuff of civil court proceedings, seldom of interest to anyone but the parties themselves. And gradually closed files were added, one or two at a time.
Today Ned had no errand to run, except for his own benefit. It was around noon. After locking the outer door behind him and locking himself inside the cage with the legions of dead files, he pulled one at random from the front of one of the shelves, where there was just enough room for his arm to reach in. It was always a good idea to have a file in your hands no matter where you were in this building, just on general principles. It made you appear to have a purpose, and to belong. The file he happened to grab was an old divorce case from 1940. The plaintiff husband was represented by an Old Saybrook law firm called Bohonnon & Bohonnon, an outfit still in existence that Ned knew represented owners of large yachts, often in disputes over sales and property taxes. The name of the wife’s firm wasn’t familiar to him, but also had an Old Saybrook address. He flipped quickly through the pleadings, barely scanning them. It appeared that one of the issues involved the custody of a child, someone with the improbable name of Jock. Those rich preppies and their nicknames, Ned thought. Chip, Muffy, Trey, Jock. But this appeared to be the real name of the poor kid. Oh well, he mused, thinking of a line from Kipling, “White man’s burden.”
With file in hand, Ned cranked open a space on the far left end of the room, out of sight of anyone coming in the door and just wide enough to fit the two chairs he took with him. He set one with its back against the wall and the other facing it. There, between the row of files numbered CV-0000001 through CV-0002538 (under the “new” numbering system begun after the fire of 1914, where “CV” stood for civil), he sat and put his feet up on the other chair, facing the front of the cage. He took his book from the outer pocket of his blazer and hung the jacket on the back of the chair he was using as a foot rest and set the divorce file on the floor. With the book open on his lap and facing down, he closed and rubbed his eyes, pushing away the yellow lightning bolts under his eyelids. He crossed his arms in front of him, and listening to the hum of the neon lights, drifted slowly into sleep.
The Middlesex Superior Court building sits uphill from Route 9 and across the highway from the Connecticut River. Its broad, slightly rounded face resembles the poop deck and windowed stern of an ancient cargo ship such as the ones that must have plied the watercourse below two or three centuries ago. This particular ship of state seems to be sailing, improbably, away from the river, uphill toward downtown Middletown, filled with busy immigrants plying various trades, and also with shuffling mental patients recently turned out of the old state asylum on the edge of town and into halfway houses or simply onto the street. Atop a rise beyond the courthouse and the city sprawls the campus containing the more fortunate population of the august Wesleyan University.
This is the new courthouse, built in the 1990s. It is a fair example of a large public building of that decade, with panes of energy-saving green glass surrounded by red brickwork, but with white coin courses hinting at the institutionally solid edifices of the old federal style. To future students of architecture it will say late 20th century as unmistakably as the masculine, geometric ornamentation of the Art Deco style bespeaks the 1920s and 30s.
Inside, the courthouse is laid out around a large atrium, with the courtrooms facing toward the center, away from the exterior of the building. Around the very outer perimeter of each floor is a labyrinthine arrangement of windowed hallways, connecting anterooms with judges’ chambers and providing access to the courtrooms from the rear. Because the courtrooms vary in size and number from floor to floor, there is no set pattern for these back corridors, and navigating through them successfully depends on being familiar with which of the six floors you’re on. The only public floor on which there are no courtrooms is the second, where the clerk’s office and the law library take up most of the space. Below ground is a full basement, housing a warren of tiny offices, closets, the record storage cage, and reserved underground parking for the judges.
Ned Matthews walked in the front door, in the middle of his third week of work as a courtroom clerk. The building was guarded by what had once been sheriff’s deputies, and were now officially known as State Courthouse Officers. Connecticut was still divided into eight counties, and each county, including Middlesex, had at least one Superior Court building. But these counties were only vestigial geographic areas. The powers of the office of county sheriff as an arm of law enforcement had been practically eliminated in the 1960s, reducing the sheriffs to guarding the courthouses, transporting prisoners to and from city lockups, and process serving. Then in the 1990s the office of sheriff had been done away with altogether, due mainly to the institutionally corrupt habits of all eight of the elected High Sheriffs, who routinely abused patronage and took tribute and kickbacks from their deputies in a manner that would have caused the most jaded Chicago alderman to blush. When there were no more sheriffs, some of the deputies had retired, some had been cashiered, and some had neatly shifted to jobs as State Courthouse Officers, changing only the patches on their khaki-colored uniform shirts. From long habit, everyone still called them deputies.
At the security checkpoint Ned got in line and began emptying his pockets into a plastic tray, but one of the deputies recognized him and waved him around the outside of the checkpoint, past the metal detectors through which the public was filing slowly as the cops made them take off their belts and empty their pockets and scrutinized them, subjecting them to humiliation in more or less direct proportion to the duskiness of their skin. He saw the deputies wave a couple of well-known private attorneys around, too. Idly he wondered what the chances were that an attorney would bring in a gun and go berserk some day. He wondered what made anyone think that lawyers were less prone to becoming unhinged than their clients were. The lawyers were, after all, in the court far more often than laymen and hence more likely to get worn down by the slowly grinding wheels of justice. Perhaps the ulterior motive behind giving them a free pass around the metal detectors was prophylactic--to help them to start their day with a bit more cheer and a bit less stress.
Ned got on the elevator with a couple of the other clerks and rode to the second floor. Most of them were law school graduates, thus possessing the degree of Juris Doctor. They had gotten into the habit of greeting one another on the elevator with the title "Doctor." One would nod to another and say "Doctor," and the other would reciprocate in kind. After a round of a half dozen "Doctors" accompanied by smirks, like a scene from a silly movie, they reached the second floor. A swipe of Ned's security badge let him in a back door. It was a little before starting time and almost everyone was there already. He hung up his coat and headed for the coffee pot, then looked at the schedule for the day. Later that morning, at 10 o’clock, he had public duty for two hours, which meant that he would have to wait on people at the front desk and answer the phones. Now it was 8:58, and in a couple of minutes they’d open the front door to the clerk’s office and people would come in and start asking for forms, files, and advice. Most of the forms were free for the taking; files were public records and could be examined by anyone, although they were the property of the court and always had to be returned by the clerks to the vault in the center of the office. As for advice, no one was supposed to give that out. Not legal advice, anyway. “Information, but not advice,” that was the mantra. If someone wondered what form he needed in order to accomplish a certain task, you could tell him, and indeed give him the form. That was in the nature of information. But if he wanted to know how to fill out the form or whether he had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting anywhere with that form—well sorry, that was legal advice and could not be dispensed. Even if the person giving the advice was a lawyer. In fact, especially if he was a lawyer. It would be like a doctor (a real doctor) giving a free medical opinion to a passerby in a hospital—simply not done. Call a number. Make an appointment. Above all, pay for it.
Here was the deal about working at the clerk’s office. Except for the low-level comparatively-uneducated clerical types, of which there were always several milling around, all the people who were clerks were, as noted, also lawyers, or at least law school graduates. Most were known as Temporary Assistant Clerks or per diem clerks or TACs, and they got paid for every day they showed up, but with no benefits. If they hadn’t passed the bar exam yet, they got a certain amount per day. If they had, they got a bit more. In neither case was it enough to live on, at least for most people. There were also a few salaried, permanent clerks, including the Chief Clerk and his three assistants, who were lawyers. These latter four were the bosses, all career civil servants. Most of the per diem clerks were fresh out of law school and desperately looking for their first real jobs. They were parking here briefly before hitting the broad legal highway they imagined stretched out before them. A couple had hung out shingles and were trying like hell to make money, but not succeeding well enough to give up the security of the clerk pay, as meager as it was. A few, like Ned, were retired and just there for a little extra income and something to do. And one guy, old Bob Weaver, was that rarest of birds, a lifetime Temporary Assistant Clerk. The man was about sixty-five and had worked as a TAC in this office and in other Superior Courts for the past forty years--lending a new shade of meaning to the word “temporary,” to be sure. He’d never been able to get a real job as a lawyer. Word had it that for the first few years after law school he had applied to all kinds of firms, but eventually he’d given up and hunkered down and accepted his lot in life.
Bob Weaver knew more about being a Temporary Assistant Clerk than anyone had a right to know. He would have been the perfect go-to guy for the rest of the clerks, except that almost everything he knew was from years ago, and had gradually become obsolete and useless. Besides, he hated to tell anybody anything. Depressed would be too bright a word to describe Bob’s demeanor. On his face, and in the hunched skinny shoulders under his old suits, showed the horrible acceptance of an eternity of unacceptable sameness such as you might expect from an inhabitant of one of the outer circles of Dante’s inferno. Most of the time he sat sideways at a desk in the back corner of the big open room called the public area with his legs crossed, hunched over a bit, and coughed a deep, wet cough and minded his own business. As often as he could, he went downstairs and outside to the front steps to smoke, standing apart from and yet among the unwashed masses--the petty criminals and litigants and other lost souls who invariably tend to smoke in greater numbers than those who spent their lives steering clear of courtrooms. Bob Weaver had achieved one singular, if unintentional, bit of usefulness in the unforgiving utilitarian world of the legal profession, however. He had come to function as a sort of warning to the fledgling attorneys—a living Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come— lest they flag in their job searches.
The younger clerks comprised a motley crew at their various stages of early attainment in the profession. There were the Ryan twins, Kevin and Sean, who had graduated from law school two years earlier, and were attempting to scrounge a living from private practice based on real estate closings and quick telephone settlements of routine insurance lawsuits. The Chief Clerk, who was an affable and flexible guy a few years younger than Ned, and possessed within his own small realm a good deal of discretion, allowed the Ryan twins to occupy a single position between them, so on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays one of them would be in, and on Thursdays and Fridays the other. Or maybe not. No one quite knew, because they were pretty close to identical, and even shared their clothing. They needed both the extra income and the contacts they might gain from one of them being at the court all day. Then there was Rita Santiago, a fast-talking, hip woman of about twenty-four, of Puerto Rican and Italian heritage. She had finished law school and was studying to take the bar exam for the second time, having failed in her first attempt. In the jargon of newly-minted lawyers, people who flunk the bar exam are said to dwell among the Legion of the Living Dead, doomed to walk the earth in the perpetual study of abstruse and ultimately irrelevant legal principles, in dire fear of failing again and again and again. In spite of the rigors of the bar examining process, people who don’t succeed the first time through are looked on with private derision by those who have been more fortunate. Though during the several months between the taking of the test and the publication of the results most who take the bar exam fear they won't pass, and indeed become temporarily convinced of it beyond a reasonable doubt, only non-lawyers believe it is really acceptable to fail the bar exam, even once. Rita Santiago always carried a large paperbound book from one of the major bar exam preparatory courses, and occasionally consulted it when she wasn’t talking on her cell phone to friends and family members in her staccato New York accent.
Ned’s favorite fellow-clerk was John Kempner, a slightly older law school graduate of about thirty-five, who had quit a career as a cameraman and production assistant at a TV station to go into law, where he imagined the big money and prestige lay. Now, after nine months as a Temporary Assistant Clerk, having found no job, he was beginning to soberly reassess his earlier reassessment of where he was heading in life. But he was still pretty good-humored about it, and loved more than anything to talk about rock music. He had worked as a DJ at his college radio station, and possessed a near-encyclopedic knowledge of all types of popular music. His favorite was heavy metal, and above all he revered Ozzie Osbourne. Although Ned was hardly a metal head, he and John had plenty to talk about on the subject of music, since John's knowledge encompassed the music of the 60s and 70s, about which Ned remembered more than a little from his youth. John was currently managing a local metal tribute band called Fück Yoü to Deth, and also played drums part time with a more contemporary bar band named Bacon Spider. When he and Ned would pass one another, they’d usually flash the two-fingered devil-horn metal sign with a mock-solemn air of solidarity.
Ned Matthews had worked as a Temporary Assistant Clerk twenty-five years earlier, right out of law school, when the current Chief Clerk of the Middlesex Superior Court was a young assistant on the way up the fairly short ladder of civil service. Now, after a career as a tax lawyer for the state and an early retirement deal, Ned was back again to kill a few months while he waited for his house to sell so he could move to another state. Being a lawyer for the state had been a decent career, but the bug had never really bitten him. Some people saw themselves as lawyers; Ned saw the law as a convenient way to make money without working too hard or getting his hands dirty. He had gone to law school fairly late in life, in his thirties like John Kempner, had come out and done three years in private practice, then landed the state job, with adequate pay, good hours, and very good benefits. After he’d retired and put the house on the market he’d given the Chief Clerk a call to angle for a per diem job. Somewhat to Ned’s surprise, the Chief Clerk remembered him from a quarter century before. He probably also remembered his political affiliation and maybe a few good things about his work as a clerk, and he hired him back immediately. It was that kind of job, where you could benefit from a little low-level patronage. So now, at the tail end of an undistinguished career in public service, Ned found himself with one more opportunity to serve that selfsame public, as it streamed through this hallowed temple of the law. Ned liked to call them Seekers of Justice as he watched them stand in line and slink through the metal detectors and shuffle diffidently into the courtrooms to await the lawyers and judges who would decide their fates. They were dope dealers and dope buyers; landlords and tenants; the negligent and their victims; debtors and foreclosing bankers; beleaguered mothers and shiftless fathers; husbands and wives seeking to salvage a victory in divorce after losing years of their lives in a bad marriage.
It was a case of the latter type—a divorce—that seemed to occupy the attention of most of the clerical staff on this particular morning. The buzz was about a new judge who was coming to preside over this one particular matter. In Connecticut as in every other state, the vast majority of Dissolutions of Marriage, as they are officially termed, are of the no-fault variety, meaning that neither spouse is suing the other on any of the old traditional grounds for divorce that were once the norm—adultery, mental or physical cruelty, abandonment, desertion. Instead, the basis for no-fault dissolutions is that the marriage has broken down irretrievably and that all reasonable efforts at reconciliation have been unsuccessful. To be sure, finger pointing and posturing by the spouses and their lawyers was still the norm, but the average case was considered “uncontested,” meaning that neither side necessarily disagreed, or could afford to disagree, that the marriage was simply fucked up beyond all repair.
The divorce in question this morning, however, was of that rare breed known as the Contested Dissolution, a real War of the Roses affair such as came along only once a year or so out of the hundreds of dissolutions the court routinely handled. It was a wealthy couple named Dumont, from one of the yacht-club communities down on Long Island Sound, at the southern end of the county. The wife’s suit alleged adultery and mental and physical cruelty, and the husband had counter-sued on the same grounds. There were three young children involved, and each spouse wanted full custody with virtually no visitation allowed to the other. There were accusations of sexual and physical abuse flying from both tables. And of course there was property involved—lots of it, including houses and boats and cars and plenty of money. This case had already been pending for almost a year, and involved a cast as large and freakish as that of a production of Cirque du Soleil. Of course there were the lawyers for the two principal parties, but in addition there was a court-appointed lawyer for the children (called a guardian ad litem), a team of social workers, a court-appointed psychologist, two other competing psychologists, a lawyer for the paternal grandfather (who had been accused of molesting one of the children), and a prosecutor on standby, in case any of the nastier shit that was being flung ever stuck to the walls. Finally, there was a Spanish-speaking housekeeper, complete with her own court-appointed translator, to testify on behalf of the wife, or maybe the husband, no one quite knew which.
The case was becoming a war of attrition, and had even taken its toll, after a fashion, on the bench. After the months it took the matter to come to trial in the first place, the assigned judge had had to recuse himself when it came out that as a private attorney he had done some work for one of the husband’s businesses. The second judge had become ill after about three fruitless months on the job. Now, finally, a third judge was about to enter upon the scene, to take a hand at reeling this leviathan onto the deck of the ship of state so that all concerned could sail off into the sunset, sadder and somewhat poorer, but wiser.
The new judge who was about to arrive was Julius J. Krenwinkle, who was no less than a former justice of the state Supreme Court. As opposed to many other states, where judges are elected, Connecticut adheres exclusively to the federal model, and the governor makes all appointments to the bench, with the advice and consent of a bipartisan legislative committee. Judges therefore have no fixed terms of office, although they come up for legislative review every eight years. This procedure is the same for both the lower courts and the Appellate and Supreme Courts. But even exemplary judges do not serve forever, because in Connecticut, unlike in the federal courts, there is a mandatory retirement age of seventy years. Of course everyone knows that a person’s usefulness to society is not necessarily exhausted at seventy. Perhaps more often than not, a judge is more competent to administer justice at that age than ever before in his life. Indeed, he might just be hitting his stride, finding his groove, like a veteran baseball player in late July after a hundred games. Which is not to say that having a mandatory retirement age is a completely frivolous idea. For one thing, it increases the turnover in the judiciary, allowing more young judges to churn upwards through the system, edging their way toward senior status or better yet, appointment to one of the higher courts. In a state like Connecticut with no judicial elections, the mandatory retirement age acts as a kind of term limit.
So as not to completely cast aside the considerable talents and accumulated sagacity of retired judges, however, the state allows them to continue to work as something called State Trial Referees, or STRs. In addition to their state pensions, STRs are paid a certain amount per diem (just as the Temporary Assistant Clerks are, but about twice as much). They function exactly like any other Superior Court judge does, except that they aren’t allowed to preside over criminal cases or any jury trials without the express consent of the parties to such matters. Of course everyone calls them “your honor” or “judge,” and generally kisses their asses just as if they had never retired. Indeed, most litigants don’t even know their case is in the hands of a retired judge unless someone tells them. Judges are, after all, expected to look old. The only practical difference is that when they issue orders and hand down decisions State Trial Referees append the initials “STR” after their signatures, rather than, as they did before they turned seventy, the single letter “J,” which stands for “Judge,” similar to the “R” the Queen of England puts after her name, which stands for “Regina,” or the little sign of the cross a Roman Catholic bishop affixes at the beginning of his signature to signify that he is a prince of the Church.
The right to reject an STR by either side in criminal cases and jury trials ostensibly is so that the parties are not forced to place their fate in the hands of someone so old and doddering that he might mishandle the matter. In principle, this is a good failsafe measure and might indeed be used freely by members of the bar. In practice, however, it is risky for a lawyer to refuse to have his case heard by a specific STR. It is seen as bad form, and if he exercises the veto he risks pissing off the Presiding Judge, who has made the assignment, and maybe also the next judge down the line who might have to come in and take the case off the hands of the STR. Clients come and go, and seldom see the inside of a courtroom more than once in a lifetime, but their lawyers are there all the time, plying their trade from week to week in front of the same lineup of judges. Unless they are extremely good (and most lawyers are simply journeymen—able, but not brilliant), they are convinced that they must use every little advantage that comes their way and avoid pissing off the judiciary.
Justice Krenwinkle (protocol dictates that he will always have the honor of being addressed by the highest title he attained) had been retired for close to fifteen years. He was a tall, gaunt, white-haired gentleman nearing his eighty-fifth year. He was the scion of a well-off family from Groton, his father having been a physician and his mother an heiress to an old fortune from the days, more than a century ago, when the textile industry thrived in New England. Her family name, were it mentioned, would be recognized by women everywhere as one of the brands of thread and other notions found in every home sewing box, even to this day. Like many of his forbears, young Julius Krenwinkle had attended prep schools, followed by Yale College and then its law school. A few years after entering the legal profession had served as an ensign in the Navy at the tail end of World War II. He’d been appointed to the bench back in ’72, after an honest twenty-five-year postwar career handling mostly trusts and estates. He possessed quite naturally the judicial temperament and semi-aristocratic bearing that suit a judge well. After assuming the bench he quickly picked up knowledge of the aspects of the law that his practice had not encompassed. In 1980 Governor Ella Grasso had elevated him to the Supreme Court, even though he was known to be a Republican, and thus not of the governor’s party. The governor no doubt did this as part of some political quid pro quo about which few knew at the time and everyone has since forgotten. On the Connecticut Supreme Court, Justice Krenwinkle proved to be moderate to progressive on social issues, lining up with the liberals more often than not, but reliably middle-of-the-road in matters involving commerce. After eight good years on the high court, on his seventieth birthday, he had graciously bowed to the inevitable.
Justice Krenwinkle had no ties to either of the Dumonts, the bitter litigants in the case he was assigned to hear, but he knew well the milieu from which their marriage and their disputes arose—the wealth and privilege of the Connecticut shore—and so he was as apt a choice to preside over their divorce as anyone else. Of late, he had not been working too hard, taking advantage of his right to make himself available for STR work for only a few months a year, and spending more and more time in Florida and at his Connecticut home in Ivoryton, and sometimes on his sailboat, which he docked at his local marina. Krenwinkle’s practice had not made him a fortune, nor had his income as a Superior Court judge and later Supreme Court justice been as much as that of many private lawyers. However, his own family’s money, in addition to what he earned, had allowed him to live a life of comfort and of seamless transitions from one phase to the next.
Only a week or so after Ned Matthews started, he became the clerk for the Presiding Judge of the Middlesex Superior Court, not because of any talent or ambition on his part, but because that judge’s previous clerk, a young woman in her late twenties, had quit to become the associate of a prominent divorce attorney in town. In doing so she had followed the hoped-for trajectory of most clerks, starting at the court right after law school, sending out dozens of applications, trying to get noticed by the attorneys who frequented the courtrooms she worked in, and looking for a little luck.
Clerking for the Presiding Judge carried no extra prestige, and earned Ned the same pay as every other clerk—$105 per day, or $15 an hour for a seven-hour day. Excellent money if you’re in the fast food industry and not too shabby if you’re a nonunion laborer, but chump change for a lawyer. Ned didn’t care that much about the money; his pension paid him a good bit more than what he made as a Temporary Assistant Clerk. Per diem clerks hadn’t had a raise from the state in over ten years, but nobody seemed to care enough to do anything about it. After all, the low pay served as a strong incentive to the younger ones not to get too comfortable, just as the spectral example of old Bob Weaver did.
The Presiding Judge of the Middlesex Superior Court was Jennifer B. Falconetti, a good-looking woman of about fifty who was generally thought to be difficult to work for and seemed to intimidate most of the staff. Ned had no problem getting along with her, maybe because she was close to his age, and in fact a bit younger. He figured that her need to be taken seriously as the female boss of an otherwise male-dominated courthouse (a position she had only recently been given) made her a little less friendly and collegial than some other judges had the luxury of being. Judge Falconetti handed out all the courtroom assignments to the other judges, oversaw the jury selection office, and was also technically the operational head of the entire building, although in practice her administrative duties as they related to areas other than the courtrooms were only titular. The clerk’s office, the prosecutor’s office, the State Courtroom Officers, and the building maintenance crew ran pretty smoothly along their own tracks and answered to their own bosses, irrespective of which judge was nominally in charge, and few Presiding Judges ever had the spare time or temerity to venture into these remote recesses of their prerogative. Nevertheless, on the rare occasions when Judge Falconetti happened to walk into the clerk's office, everyone more or less came to attention, or at least raised their heads and acknowledged her presence with due respect.
Ned’s duties with Judge Falconetti included organizing and clerking at her weekly foreclosure calendar, Connecticut being one of those states that require lending institutions to go through full open judicial process before taking someone’s house away. He also clerked in any trials she might assign to herself, and was generally available if she needed to find out something in a hurry or have a case file brought up to her. By 9:15 almost every morning she was phoning him at his desk about something. Ned’s desk was crammed together in the back room of the clerk’s office with six other desks, some separated by short partitions and others by just wastebaskets and coat racks. The way the judge called him made him think of her as a wealthy matron using the intercom to ask for her faithful butler, and he dutifully acted this part, responding to her summonses with dignity and punctuality, and anticipating her needs whenever possible. Judge Falconetti would have preferred to have another bright young female lawyer as her clerk, and Ned knew this, so he tried to compensate by at least offering the maturity that some other clerks might not possess in as full a measure as he did. He would smile to himself as he thought of this comparative maturity, especially when he was flashing the two-fingered heavy metal horns to John Kempner.
This particular morning, at about 9:30, Ned stood in Judge Falconettti’s spacious chambers in front of her desk as she quickly read through an order she was about to sign in connection with the appointment of a foreclosure committee. A “foreclosure committee” is one of those weird, anachronistic terms with which the law is replete. The committee is, in fact, a single person assigned by the court to oversee the process of the foreclosure of real estate by a bank or mortgage company. The committee’s job is to hire an appraiser, put up signs in front of the property announcing the sale date, run ads in the newspapers, coordinate with the attorneys for the bank and the debtors (if the debtors even have an attorney), and preside over the sale of the real estate on the rare occasions when it comes to that. Local attorneys volunteer to be appointed as a foreclosure committee, because it pays a guaranteed (if small) fee for not much work, and lots of lawyers need every penny they can get. Besides, it’s considered good manners to volunteer, and being a committee is a way to get into court and be part of the action.
Ned looked past the judge to the windows behind her, and beyond them to the glittering water of the Connecticut River, dotted with sails as it curved to the southwest on its stately progress to the sea. Her office was on the sixth and top floor, high up in the poop deck of this steady ship of state, as the stateroom of a captain should be. Then he looked down at her head, bent in efficient concentration. She had thick auburn hair, cut and styled smartly an inch or two above her shoulders. Ned figured it was dyed, but that it had been about that color not too long ago. Her nose was slightly aquiline and her lips were full. She’d been almost beautiful in her day and was still striking. On previous visits to her chambers Ned had scanned the diplomas and certificates on the wall and ascertained that her maiden name had been Jennifer Bernstein and that she’d gone to Cornell before attending Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York City. It answered a question that Ned had had when he’d first met her, and helped to reinforce a stereotype he’d found to be pretty much accurate—that a woman as well educated, well spoken, and tastefully groomed as Judge Falconetti was probably not Italian, despite her name. Her husband, he’d learned, was Joseph Falconetti, a builder and real estate developer from a large local family with its fingers in many pies and rumored connections with the mafia in the past. But Joey Falconetti had lived his life with cautious rectitude, despite where his family’s power and influence might have originated. Besides, Connecticut, with its large Italian population, was so thoroughly mobbed-up in general that no one necessarily held that against a person, so long as he didn't wear it on his sleeve. Without a doubt Joey Falconetti’s political connections had been of help to his wife in terms of positioning her to become a judge eleven years earlier, at the tender age of 39, when Governor Lowell Weicker had been committed to increasing the presence of women on the bench.
Judge Falconetti signed the committee appointment order, and handed it up to him with her head still bent. Then she seemed to remember her manners, and looked up at Ned with something that probably passed for a smile for her. “How are things in the clerk’s office this morning?” she asked. Impersonal, but cordial.
“Fine, judge. I should have the rest of the foreclosure orders from Tuesday by this afternoon. Will you be in?” There was some minor issue of protocol involving whether or not one called a judge "your honor" when she wasn't on the bench in her robes, or whether just "judge" would do. Ned wasn't sure, after all these years, but his essentially anti-authoritarian bent told him not to kiss any judge's ass too much wherever the judge was situated at the moment, and "judge" was always a safe bet in any event.
“I'll be here until 2:30 or so. Then I have a meeting in Hartford.” She looked down again and reached for another file. There were files all over her large desk and piles of them on the floor behind her. She might have been well-organized, but it didn’t particularly show. “Oh, by the way,” she added, “I’ve got Justice Krenwinkle coming in today to start on the Dumont case. He’ll be using Judge Wayland’s chambers and the case will be in the small courtroom on the fourth floor. I’m pretty sure the files are in Wayland's chambers already, but make sure. And make sure Barbara Link knows what courtroom he’ll be using.” She hadn’t said so yet, but Ned was ready for the next bit. “I’d like you to clerk for him on Dumont. I had Donna working on it before they took their recess last month.” Donna was the clerk for Judge Falconetti who had preceded Ned.
“Okay. Is there anything else this morning, then?”
“No, I think that’s it. Bring me the foreclosure files as soon as you can.” At this, Ned began to back away from the judge’s desk, suddenly conscious that he was making his exit the way a servant might do. When he got close to the door he turned his back to her and walked out.
He made his way through the hallways that ran around the outer edge of the building and out to the elevator. When he got in, he first pushed “2” for the clerk’s office then remembered about Barbara Link and the files and pushed “4.” When he got out he tried the door next to the elevator and found it locked. Every floor was different when it came to accessing the back hallways. Rear entrances were of course necessary for the judges, and usually that was the way the clerks entered, too. And for jury trials the juries entered and exited out the back of the courtroom and into little rooms where they wouldn’t come into contact with any of the parties to the case they were deciding.
The chambers Justice Krenwinkle was to be using were down at the far end of the hallway, past both of the fourth floor courtrooms, the large one and the smaller one that the Dumonts would use. Ned checked the office and saw that the door was locked, so there was no way he could check on the files, if they were in there. This was as it should have been, but it was typical of Judge Falconetti not to have thought of that when she gave him her instructions. So he decided he’d go down and at least make sure the files weren’t somewhere in the clerk’s office, which is really where they should have remained during the month or so while the case was between judges. When Judge Falconetti had said “files,” she had been referring to the fact that the Dumont case had gone on so long and the file had become so fat—with motions, cross motions, interrogatories, deposition transcripts, psychologist’s reports, and bullshit of all kinds—that it had become necessary to start a second binder. Rarely did case files grow to more than an inch or two in thickness, but this one was a monster. Each file binder was capable of holding about three inches of papers, and this one had filled four such binders, held in two large red accordion folders. So when he went downstairs he would be looking for an unusually large file, consisting of two fat pieces held together, no doubt, with the oversized red rubber bands that were in ubiquitous use throughout the courthouse.
Barbara Link’s office was also on the fourth floor. This was a visit he wasn’t looking forward to. There was something about Barbara Link that simply rubbed Ned the wrong way, and he knew he had the same effect on her. Nobody he knew actually liked Barbara Link, but he liked her even less than most. Barbara Link was about forty-five years old. She dressed neatly, and was prim and unattractive in a studied way. She struck Ned as a cross between a librarian and a church organist. She never had a word of greeting or thanks or encouragement for anyone, and the only time her face betrayed any emotion was when she was witnessing a fuckup of some kind, when she would allow herself a compressed, knowing smile. As far as anyone knew she had no husband, no family, no personal life whatsoever. No one ever saw her come and go from the courthouse. The other thing about Barbara Link was that although people addressed her as Barbara to her face, absolutely everyone referred to her outside her presence as Barbara Link, as if the two names were indivisible. If there had been another Barbara anywhere around, Ned could have understood this, but she was the only one. Barbara Link’s title was Case Flow Coordinator, which meant that she was in charge of assigning courtrooms and making sure everyone knew every day exactly where all the trials and hearings were being held. It was a cardinal rule that when you were clerking at a trial and it ended for the day, you, the clerk, were responsible for telling Barbara Link whether the case would begin again the next day or on another day, and if so, at what time. This information usually came out of the mouth of the judge when court adjourned for the day. If possible, you were to go and give Barbara Link the information in person, and tell her, as well, whether you thought the trial was going to go on all day the next day. She would then make up a courtroom use schedule for the next day. Barbara Link’s duties didn’t appear to Ned to amount to much more than that.
Probably because of his special antipathy for her, Ned routinely forgot to report to Barbara Link at the end of a day of trial. This would mean that the next morning when he arrived at 9:00, Jonathon Park, one of the Assistant Chief Clerks who came in at 8:30 along with the rest of the permanent staff, would come and tell him that Barbara Link had complained that Ned hadn’t come to see her after court the previous day, and she had therefore not been able to make up the courtroom schedule properly. Ned would smirk and apologize, and Jonathon Park would put his hands in his pants pockets and roll up on the balls of his feet and turn his eyes heavenward, as if to say, “I have enough to do around here already without having Barbara Link breathing down my fucking neck first thing in the morning.” Nonverbal reproofs like this from Jonathon were routine, and not particularly serious.
In fact, this had happened just this morning, in connection with a case that had ended the day before. Ned took a long look at Jonathon as he bobbed up and down, his glance falling to the wide shoulders of the man’s jacket. He was a graying middle-aged guy of about average height with short curly hair, whose suits were several sizes too large due to the fact that he’d recently lost about seventy-five pounds. He’d gotten a virus, he said, that had caused him to lose his sense of taste for about six months. “Couldn’t eat. Had no interest in food. The pounds just melted away. Then slowly I began to taste things again. It started one morning with my coffee.” Jonathon had needed to lose the weight anyway, so the virus had been, in his words, “a Godsend.” Now he was left with a wardrobe of overly large suits. Replacing or altering such a wardrobe is an expensive proposition for a state civil servant, lawyer or not, so he continued to wear the old clothes, most of which looked a little like zoot suits on him. Ned figured that in addition to maybe not being able to afford to buy new suits or have all of them altered, after years of being fat Jonathon was still grooving on the fact that things were hanging loose on him instead of being too tight.
As a member of the legal profession, albeit in a somewhat ancillary role, Jonathon Park wanted to be collegial with all the other lawyers who churned through the clerk’s office, in case they ever became powerful forces, or maybe even judges, in his courthouse. This was the law of legal karma. Barbara Link was not a lawyer, and her origins and background in her job were as mysterious the rest of her life, personal and professional. But for some reason she was not to be denied, and not to be trifled with. No one knew what hold she had on the Chief Clerk and his assistants, and indeed on many of the judges, but it certainly seemed that she had them all by the short and curlies, because everyone deferred to her and overlooked her unpleasant demeanor, usually saying vaguely, to smooth the feathers of any newcomer she might have treated poorly (which was most of them), “Barbara Link has a very important job to do.” Ned couldn’t see it; as far as he could tell all she did was keep track of which case was being held where. But he didn’t completely rule out the possibility that there were nuances to her job he didn’t understand.
On the fourth floor, Barbara Link’s door was shut when Ned got there. It was always shut, whether she was in or not. He knocked, then opened it without being invited. Simultaneously, a voice said, “Yes?” He saw Barbara Link sitting behind a computer monitor at the far end of her narrow office, at a small school teacher’s desk, probably built of solid oak. When he’d first seen that desk, Ned had been struck by the fact that it was obviously much older than the building, and was neither of the steel variety of most of the clerk’s desks, nor covered with the more opulent mahogany or cherry veneers that the judge’s desks featured. Probably Barbara Link had insisted it be moved here from the old courthouse, just for her.
“Hey, Barb,” he said. Ned was the only person who called her Barb, and not Barbara, and he knew it pissed her off. “Judge Falconetti wanted me to tell you that Justice Krenwinkle, the State Trial Referee, will be reconvening the Dumont case in the small courtroom here on the fourth floor this afternoon.”
Barbara Link looked at him and then quickly away with her usual disdain, as if he had just farted loudly. “Do you know what time?”
“Right after lunch, I guess. She didn’t say. Probably 2 o’clock.” Lunch at the courthouse was invariably from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. The only exceptions, in or out of court, were two non-lawyer clerks who took their lunches early to be there for the public during lunch hour, and of course a few deputies.
“Well, someone might have given me some warning.” She said it more to herself than to Ned. She was indignant, but that was par for the course.
Ned smiled. “You can call Judge Falconetti and complain, Barb. I’m sure she’s not too busy to talk to you.” He loved it when he was just passing on information over which he had no control. And he especially loved to see Barbara Link get upset for any of the obscure reasons that made that happen.
“I’ll call Glen and have him unlock the door to the courtroom,” she sighed, as if this extra bit of responsibility had pushed her workload to the point of utter impossibility. Glen was one of the deputies. Barbara Link looked back down at her computer monitor and began typing again. He was dismissed.
“Thanks, Barb.” Ned smiled again as he pulled the door shut, then opened it again. “And have him unlock Judge Wayland’s chambers, too. The justice will be using them while he’s here.”
When Ned got back to his grey metal desk in the clerk’s office, his phone was ringing. It was Judge Falconetti. “Uh… Ned?” She remembered his name only about half the time. “I just noticed that I have the Dumont files up here. You can come up and get them any time.” She hung up. That was pure Judge Falconetti. She’d make you look all over for a file when she had it on the floor next to her, under a pile of other shit. Well at least this time he hadn’t yet started on a wild goose chase through the vault and everybody else’s desks and offices.
Down in the cage Ned’s leg twitched under the book, face down just above his knee, causing it to fall to the floor with a dull clop. It was an old, inexpensive prewar hardback edition of The High Window, by Raymond Chandler. It was Ned’s favorite Philip Marlowe mystery, and he was rereading it for at least the third time. The Brasher doubloon, Eddie Mars, old Mrs. Murdock sweltering in the dark with her port wine. The pages were yellow and brittle around the edges. Ned leaned down to pick up the book, and that’s when he heard the outer door scrape as it opened. Oh shit, he thought. This wasn’t supposed to happen, because the only key he knew of to the closed files was in his pocket. He imagined there must be others, maybe in the possession of the maintenance staff, but he was pretty sure there wasn’t another one in the clerk’s office. People just didn’t come down here that often. You could lock someone in the cage at the beginning of a long holiday weekend and they might starve to death before anyone found them.
He heard the door close again. Then he heard footsteps, light, like from a woman’s low-heeled shoes. He held his breath. No one could see him from where he was unless they opened the cage and went all the way down to the left past the first shelving unit. Maybe he could just stay still. Or maybe it was better to grab the old divorce file and pretend to be looking at it. But then, how would he explain why he had locked himself in? As a rule, when you came down here you left the cage door open. There was no reason not to. He began to curse himself for thinking he could get away with this. But lately his insomnia had been bad, and he couldn’t get more than one or two hours of sleep at night. A few cups of coffee would keep him going throughout the morning, but at around noon he was fighting the strong urge to close his eyes. He could sleep at his desk during the lunch hour, but he needed to sleep now, in the quiet, for a couple of hours before 2 o’clock, or he was afraid he would nod off during the Dumont trial. That would be bad form.
The clack clack of low heels came closer. He heard the cage door open, but didn’t hear a key in the lock. Maybe he’d left it unlocked after all. That was good. He opened the divorce file. The pages were all typed out, with uneven letters and spacing. Some of the pages were carbon copies on onionskin paper. The case caption read, “James Wilkinson, plaintiff, versus Marguerite Wilkinson, defendant.” The first item in the file was the complaint—the original paper filed by a plaintiff to initiate any lawsuit. It began with the standard old leadoff, with its ornate and archaic phrasing, “Comes now James Wilkinson, the plaintiff in the instant matter, and complains and says,” New paragraphs, numbered. When and where the parties were married, etc. He turned the page and this caught his eye: “6. That Marguerite Wilkinson, the defendant in the instant matter, has, at divers times and in divers places, consorted freely and lewdly with men outside the bonds of matrimony and has committed adultery in violation of the covenants of marriage and the statutes of this state, to wit,” New paragraph.
The footsteps rounded the corner of the last shelf, and Ned saw the leg first, with its thickish ankle and Naturalizer shoe below a knee-length tweed skirt, then looked up to see, walking down the narrow aisle toward him, none other than Barbara Link.
There was nothing to be done, and nothing to be said. The file he was holding seemed to disappear. Barbara Link didn’t say anything, merely approached him, with that grim accusing half-smile of hers. When she got in front of him she stopped and looked down at him. He was caught. No way to explain this that would make her think anything other than the obvious. Well, fuck her. She looked around, her cold eyes taking in the chair he had been resting his feet on, which he had now pushed sideways as he sat straight up, trying to look as awake and serious as he could. The air hung still and quiet. From somewhere there came the light scent of roses, a little like candy. He guessed that it wasn’t from the century-old ink-filled files that spread on down the rows to the other end of the cage.
Barbara Link stood facing him. Then she did a most unexpected thing. She reached down and unzipped his pants, slipping her hand in to find the elastic top of his shorts and pull it down. Ned felt himself getting aroused as she started pulling him out of the confines of his clothing. With her other hand she hiked up her skirt. She seemed to be wearing no underwear. The smell of roses came on stronger, mixed with moist heat. She had his full attention. She squatted a bit and straddled him, her hand guiding him into her, face to face, all the time looking down at him with that grim, unforgiving smile. Ned was having a hard time believing this, with the emphasis on hard, but obligingly he reached around and under the tweed skirt and grabbed two smooth fleshy handfuls of her buttocks.
It was about ten minutes past two. The small courtroom on the fourth floor was nearly full of participants in the Dumont case. There were two lawyers each for the plaintiff and the defendant, the guardian ad litem, several other parties who hadn’t yet identified themselves, and Mr. and Mrs. Dumont themselves, in addition to Ned and a deputy who functioned as the bailiff, a tall thin uniformed woman in her early sixties named Marcie, who happened to be the wife of George Zeeb, the former, and as it turned out the last, High Sheriff of Middlesex County. Whenever Ned thought about the title High Sheriff, still in use here on the east coast as a holdover from colonial times, he thought of Robin Hood and his merry men outwitting the Sheriff of Nottingham, especially in the British serial version of the story he’d grown up on in the 1950s. But old George Zeeb, whom Ned had known years ago during his first go-round as a temporary assistant clerk in Middletown, appeared to be the very antithesis of the conniving, goateed sheriff in the televised legend of Robin Hood. Instead, he was a fat, affable, red-faced guy who looked more like Little John, or maybe a German sausage maker, than he did an English nobleman. Each summer Zeeb, like most of his fellow High Sheriffs in the other seven Connecticut counties, would hold a picnic for his own benefit, attendance at which was virtually mandatory for all his deputies—his merry men, if you will. The cost to each deputy and his family was about a hundred dollars, but higher offers were never turned down. In exchange for and in direct proportion to the size of these emoluments, which ostensibly went to the re-election campaign of the High Sheriff but in fact went directly into his pocket, the deputies would be given the choicest assignments and the opportunity to make plenty of extra money over and above their salaries by serving subpoenas and other items of legal process, which typically netted the server between thirty and fifty dollars each. The assignment of all subpoenas and other such documents requiring service in person was one the prerogatives of the High Sheriff, who could dole them out at will. When the shit finally hit the fan and the people of the state tardily rose up in high dudgeon to deal with the excesses of the High Sheriffs, two of his fellow-lawmen had been prosecuted, but old George Zeeb, by no means the most criminal among his kind, had been allowed to retire on a pension after the obliteration of his job.
In the courtroom, briefcases were sitting open on the two tables facing the bench, and underneath the tables stout boxy litigation cases contained heavy sheaves of paperwork. At one of the tables sat Wendell Camp, chief counsel for the husband, Alex Dumont. His expensive chalk-striped suit coat covered a blue shirt with a white collar and white French cuffs held together with enormous cufflinks. Ned thought they might be reproductions of twenty-dollar gold pieces. On his feet, which Ned could see under the table, he wore a pair of gleaming new black tooled capped oxfords, probably English and hand made. Nice shoes, Ned thought. Stylish but understated, and expensive as hell. Wendell’s assistant, a plump young woman in a skirt and blazer named Naomi Fundiller-Zweig, was busy unloading stacks of papers from the stolid briefcases.
The official Dumont court file was sitting in front of Ned, both volumes of it. The judge’s chambers were still locked, and he’d looked around in some of the other rooms, but so far he hadn’t seen anyone who might be old enough to be Justice Krenwinkle. The lawyer for Mrs. Dumont approached his desk, which was next to the judge’s bench but a foot or two lower, on the opposite side from the witness box. “Any sign of the justice?” he asked nervously. This was Jason Wellner. He had some preliminary matters he wanted to discuss in chambers, with just the attorneys present. He was a short young man of maybe thirty, not quite as exquisitely dressed as his opponent, and about half his age, but Brooks Brothers all the way. His assistant was a mild-looking guy of Asian ancestry. Ned glanced at the pleadings and saw that his name was Franklin Lu.
“You’ll be the first to know,” Ned assured Wellner. Ned took a few seconds to look at the two bitter adversaries in this pitched legal battle. Alex Dumont was tall and a little stout, nearing forty-five, with streaked gray hair combed straight back and curled over his collar in a style that would have been considered unfashionably long and shaggy, except for the fact that he was impeccably attired, though in a more flashy way than his chief counsel. He wore a double-breasted two-button suit of a muted beige plaid over an olive-colored shirt and a wild print silk necktie. The knot in his tie was cinched with a gold collar pin, and he had an olive pocket square stuffed into his breast pocket. On his large feet were a pair of mahogany-colored tasseled pumps over thick-and-thin silk socks. His camel-colored cashmere overcoat still hung on his shoulders, cape-like. He looked as if he meant business, even more than his attorneys did. There was about him an air of the predator, as he paced to and fro, speaking now to Naomi the assistant and now to some other person Ned had yet to identify.
On the opposite side of the small courtroom, as far as she could get from her husband, sat Melanie Dumont, a petite woman perhaps ten years younger than Alex. She was as attractive as decent breeding and expensive grooming could make her, with honey-brown hair bobbed at the neck, a slightly turned-up nose, even teeth, and precisely-applied makeup. She looked less confident than her husband did, and a little harried. It appeared that the weight of this war of wills was taking a heavier toll on her than on her energetic, leonine spouse, who perhaps spent his days fighting for the upper hand in boardrooms or on golf courses and squash courts. Like Alex Dumont, she was dressed with the utmost care, wearing (probably on the advice of her lawyers) a trim burgundy business suit, gathered at her slim waist. It was in the current style that had no blouse underneath, and the top button of the jacket closed it respectably, just above the opening of her cleavage. As was also the current fashion, her neck and upper chest were naked of ornamentation except that which nature had given her, which in her case was a patch of freckles earned in sunnier places than Connecticut. On her earlobes, and on several of her fingers, she wore diamonds, and if diamonds ever can be said to be understated, these were. Her skirt was tight and came to slightly below the knees, but with a three-inch slit up the outside of the left leg. Her shapely calves were compressed as she sat with her knees together. Ned didn’t know much about women’s shoes, but he assumed that hers were named after some gay designer and not from Filene’s Basement.
After another five minutes, during which everybody in the room kept glancing up to the bench every few seconds as if by looking they could make the justice materialize, Ned cleared his throat and said he was going back to check again. He slipped out the door just behind his desk and into the hallway. The afternoon sun of early winter was shining thinly through the windows from the southwest. Ned turned left and went down to the corner where the chambers were still locked. He knocked, just in case. No sound from within. Next door to the chambers was an empty conference room with a phone at one end of the table. He called down to the clerk’s office and asked to speak to Jonathon, the Assistant Chief Clerk.
“Jonathon, this is Ned. Has Justice Krenwinkle come in yet?”
“He arrived here an hour ago. We gave him a temporary access card and sent him up to the fourth floor. He’s not there?” Jonathon was easily excited, and Ned could tell this was beginning to excite him, and not in a good way.
“No sign of him. Everybody from the case is in the courtroom, waiting.”
“Oh, damn. Well, maybe he went to the wrong floor, although I did tell him myself where to go. He’s a bit, uh,” Jonathon was searching for words, “a bit old. I’ll get Jerry to check on the third floor and call up to the fifth and sixth and see if anyone has seen him. You stay with the people in the courtroom. Where’s the file?” Jonathon didn’t have any control over Justice Krenwinkle at the moment, so he wanted to make sure the file, the one thing that was absolutely within his purview, was safe.
“Uh, it’s waiting for the justice, up on the bench. Don’t worry, Marcie’s in there. She won’t let anyone touch it.” That was a white lie, because the Dumont files were on Ned’s desk down from the judge’s bench, a little less sacrosanct, but still safe, Ned thought. Although court files were available for viewing by the parties and their attorneys, it wasn’t a good idea to leave adversaries alone with them during such a contentious case. Things could get removed or lost. What was supposed to be in there was all on a computerized list somewhere, but God help the person who tried to reconstruct a lost file from electronic information that had been inputted over months or years by dozens of people. Anyway, the assembled papers in a file were the record, in its original form, from which appeals might be taken, and it was all carefully assembled, in order, with each thing in it given a number. Eventually, if one side or the other decided to appeal the lower court decision (and with the Dumonts this was almost a foregone conclusion—these people were in this for the long haul and would spend as much time and money as necessary), some unfortunate son of a bitch in the clerk’s office would have to disassemble the files, copy them page by page in exact order, and send several copies to the Appellate Court in Hartford. Ned figured that wouldn’t happen until he was long gone so he wouldn’t have to do it. But it would happen.
Ned added to Jonathon, “I’ll finish walking around here and then go back into the courtroom.” He hung up the phone and walked out in the hallway around the perimeter of the building, behind the courtroom. That’s when he saw, all the way down at the other end of the building, a tall white-haired man, slightly stooped at the shoulders, heading away from him. Ned walked quickly in the direction of the man, who was ambling along, trying doorknobs and knocking on doors. As Ned approached him from the back, he called out to him. “May I help you? Justice Krenwinkle?”
The old man turned when he heard his name. He had a sharp patrician nose and a fairly solid head of snow-white hair over bushy gray eyebrows and pale blue eyes. Here and there on his otherwise clean-shaven face were wisps of white stubble which his razor evidently had missed. Tufts of hair jutted out of his ears. Across the shoulders of his expensive blue blazer dandruff lay scattered like Parmesan cheese.
“Are you Justice Krenwinkle?”
“Yes. Thank you. I’m supposed to be on the fourth floor, but this must be another floor. There’s nothing here.” As if to prove this, he wiggled the doorknob of the door he was standing next to. It happened to be Barbara Link’s office, but evidently she wasn’t there.
“This is the right floor. My name’s Ned Matthews, and I’m going to be your clerk. The chambers you’ll be using are down this way.” Ned shook the justice’s hand and gently turned him around. “Someone forgot to unlock your door.” He couldn’t wait to tell Barbara Link of this omission, clearly her responsibility. As they passed the back door to the small courtroom, Ned stuck his head inside and called to Marcie to come over. He told her that he had Justice Krenwinkle and was taking him to his chambers. He asked her to call down and tell Jonathon that he’d found him. He didn’t need to tell Marcie to tell everybody else. They’d find out.
Then he remembered about the door to chambers being locked. He deposited the justice at the door, told him to wait right there, and quickly walked back to see if Marcie had the key. She did, and went back to unlock it. Ned grabbed the file off the clerk’s desk. When he got back to the chambers Marcie was chatting amiably with the old man, who was looking at her blankly, his nearly lashless pink-rimmed eyes blinking rapidly. By way of explanation and with a note of regret in her voice, on her way out she said to Ned, “I knew him way back when he was a judge here, in the ‘70s. But I don’t think he remembers me.”
Ned put the file on the desk in Justice Krenwinkle’s chambers. The justice had already sat down behind it, and was swiveling around in a quarter turn, his hands folded in his lap. Trying to be helpful, Ned said, “This is the Dumont file—the file for the case. Everybody’s already here, but I think the attorneys want to talk to you first in private. Shall I tell them to come back here?”
“Yes, yes, by all means.” His face lit up for a second and he laid a bony bluish hand on the twin red folders, but didn’t look inside. “You’re the attorney for the husband, then?”
“No, your honor, I’m the clerk.” Ned figured he probably looked too old to be a clerk. “The attorneys are in the courtroom. Do you want me to call them in now?”
Justice Krenwinkle suddenly looked uncertain. “What did you say your name was, young man?”
“Ned Matthews.” Ned had a surge of good feeling for the old guy. Since he’d hit fifty he’d come to relish every occasion on which somebody called him a young man. “Look, I’m sure they want to discuss some preliminary matters and bring you up to speed on things. Not to mention try to make as favorable an impression on you as they can.” Ned didn’t know why he’d added this last part, but with this guy he somehow felt rather uninhibited, and he didn’t think it would hurt to try a little humor.
The justice caught his drift, and looked straight at him. “They all try to do that, don’t they?” He smiled and shook his head. No one knew this better than the old man did, Ned figured, having served on the bench for so many years. Justice Krenwinkle suddenly seemed focused for the first time. “Give me about ten minutes with this file, then I’ll come out and call them back here.”
When Ned awoke in the cage he was alone. He was drooling a little, and his undershirt was drenched with sweat under his dress shirt and tie. He also had an erection. He looked down at his pants, but they were zipped, and everything felt dry. He looked around for the file he’d been reading, the divorce from 1940, but there were no files, except on the shelves.
The Raymond Chandler book, The High Window, was still on the floor. It was open, the yellow pages showing brown around the edges. He picked it up. What page had he been on? Was this it? He looked at the left-hand side and caught this line from the first paragraph:
“The night was all around, soft and quiet. The white moonlight was cold and clear, like the justice we dream of but don’t find.”
He flipped back a dozen pages or so and found the spot where he’d left off. Suddenly it occurred to him to check the time. It was 1:50, and he was due in court in ten minutes. He closed the book and stood up and put on his jacket and walked out of the cage.
He had to ride the elevator from the basement to the second floor, get the Dumont files from his desk in the clerk’s office, then go up to the fourth floor where the trial was set to begin. On the way the car stopped at the first floor. The door opened and Barbara Link got in. She was wearing the tweed skirt and the Naturalizers, all right. She looked at him with her usual indifference tinged with mild hostility. His face felt hot. He stared back for some sign, some hint of recognition. Nothing. What had happened? He glanced down at his pants, double checking that everything was in order, then stood up a little taller and smoothed out the lapels on his jacket. What the hell was going on?
He got out on “2” while Barbara Link went on up. As he slipped into the back door of the clerk’s office to get the Dumont files it occurred to him that the mind is a strange, weak, and imprecise instrument. His was, anyway. He wasn’t so sure about Barbara Link’s mind. That might be a bit more formidable than he’d led himself to believe.
When he got up to the fourth floor it was 2:05 and everyone was there except for Justice Krenwinkle.
After leaving the justice at his desk in chambers, Ned went back into the courtroom and got the attention of Mrs. Dumont’s lawyer, Jason Wellner, who was pacing and looking at his watch nervously, as if he had somewhere else to be that paid better than this, which was very unlikely. Wellner came over and then Wendell Camp spotted him and came over too, not wanting to miss anything.
“He said he needs about ten minutes alone with the files and then you guys can go back there,” Ned told them. Both lawyers went to their tables and busied themselves with papers and began whispering to their clients and colleagues, looking over their shoulders at their adversaries as if they feared being overheard telling them the same thing the other lawyer was saying.
Ned sat at his desk on the left-hand side of the judge’s bench and busied himself with some other files he’d brought up just in case he had a little extra time. There were always orders to write and other things to do with the files and most clerks carried a few around in case they had a spare moment. He knew from experience that ten minutes could turn into a lot longer, and that once the lawyers started talking to the justice the conference could stretch out well into the afternoon. Settlements were always possible, even in seemingly intractable cases, and arguments were inevitable. In fact, Ned figured the odds were only 50-50 that court would even open this afternoon by the time they got the justice up to speed and chewed his ear.
Another half hour went by. The lawyers continued to whisper to each other and to their clients. People went out into the hallway to make calls on their cell phones. Serious conversations among the lawyers were punctuated with random bursts of laughter. Mr. and Mrs. Dumont occasionally made eye contact and when they did their faces showed regret, pain, and pure hatred, in approximately equal measure.
Finally at about 2:45 Franklin Lu sidled up to Ned at his desk and asked him if it might be time to go in and see His Honor. Ned tried to remain patient when talking to lawyers, who were, after all, his professional colleagues, though this lawyer had no way of really knowing that. He’d been in this one’s position a few times himself, waiting for the unknown. “Well, he said he’d come out after he’s done reviewing the files, and that could take some time. I mean, you guys have made them about a foot thick.” He didn’t really mean the remark to be a reproof. He was just trying to buy the justice some time. And what the hell, Ned thought, these people were all getting paid no matter what, for trial time to boot, which usually was about double the hourly rate for regular office time. Well, he guessed, this guy had to make it look like he was doing something for his five hundred an hour.
Three o’clock came and went. People were pacing, looking at the large multifunctional faces of their expensive wristwatches. More phone calls were being made. Naomi Fundiller-Zweig was out in the hall again, probably rescheduling appointments and calling the office for messages. Ned figured it might be about time to go back and check on the justice. At this point once the lawyers met with him there wouldn’t be much time for court to open this afternoon. The sun was well over the yardarm, and when five o’clock came, everything would come to a halt and the deputies would run everyone out and lock the courtroom doors. One or two would remain at the front door until the last straggler exited, then lock that one, too. There was no such thing as overtime at the Middlesex Superior Court. If you were a judge maybe you took files home, but as far as everyone else was concerned the day was over at five, period. Ned had heard occasional stories about overweening judges who insisted on keeping court going past that witching hour. They usually got reported to the Presiding Judge, who was under her own strict instructions, within the framework of the byzantine overlapping sets of bureaucracies and chains of command that ran the justice system and its facilities, to admonish such showboaters not to try a stunt like that again. And in addition to that, a judge who made people stay past closing time risked incurring the passive-aggressive enmity of the deputies, who had a few ways of their own to slow things down or foul things up. Many of them, being Middletown locals, carried the unforgiving blood of the Sicilian immigrants who still made up a good portion of the population of the town, and all of them, regardless of their ancestry, wanted to go home on time. Having a court staff that liked and respected you made life easier in numerous little ways, and was at least as important to a judge as the power to slap someone with a fat fine or send them to prison. The message to all was clear, and really not so hard to accept if you looked at it reasonably: when the clock strikes five, just go home and relax. Justice will wait another day.
This time when he left the courtroom Ned didn’t have to guard the files, since Justice Krenwinkle had them. Quietly he slipped out the door behind him, took a left turn, and walked down to the justice’s chambers, where he expected to see him up to his neck in Dumont pleadings. Instead when he opened the door he was facing an empty desk. The files were still in their fat red accordion folders just about where he’d put them when he’d handed them over. Okay, Ned thought, maybe he’s in the can. Each chambers had a small private rest room. He tiptoed to the closed door and stopped about a foot short, listening for sounds—zippers, pocket change, throat clearing, farts, running water. Nothing. He looked down to see no light from within. He opened the door. Empty.
Pulling the door to chambers shut behind him Ned walked back out into the hall. From where he stood he could see most of the length of the west side of the building, except for the little jog to the right the hallway took near Barbara Link’s office. In the other perpendicular direction from chambers there were a series of 90 degree turns every ten feet or so. He decided to walk that way, peering into rooms and lightly tapping on doors as he went by. Everything was locked and no sounds came from within. The courtroom on the fourth floor where the Dumont case was being heard was the only one in use today. When he reached the end of this little maze he retraced his steps, and passing Krenwinkle’s chambers again, walked down the west side corridor, past Barbara Link’s office, and up to the north end of the building. Nothing there, either, except for the locked door to the open area with the elevators.
Ned took a few seconds to reflect on things. Shit, the old man could be anywhere. He might have gone out and gotten on the elevator. That would be like losing a little kid in a downtown department store. He weighed his options, and also his obligations, under the circumstances. Was he supposed to be Justice Krenwinkle’s babysitter? The guy was obviously not all there, at least not today, but whose responsibility was that? Hell, he’d just call Jonathon and let him worry about it. Then he had a thought. He remembered that the justice had been jiggling the door to Barbara Link’s office when he’d first found him. Ned walked back to the little dogleg by the entrance to her narrow inner sanctum. Barbara Link’s office was nothing really but a long closet, perhaps six feet wide and twenty feet long, at the northwest corner of the building, where the hallway took its interior detour. It had one window, up at the north end, where she kept that small wooden desk and a couple of chairs. The rest of the room was lined with boxes and files and papers.
Ned knocked on Barbara Link’s door and tried the handle. It was locked. He knocked again louder and waited a few seconds. Then as he was turning to go back to the courtroom to call Jonathon, he caught a muffled sound coming from inside, from the far end. Voices? He turned around and knocked even harder, then spoke loudly as well. “Barb? Are you in there? I can’t find Justice Krenwinkle.”
“Come in,” Barbara’s voice came back finally, faintly.
“Can’t,” Ned almost shouted. “It’s locked.”
“Just a minute.” He could also hear a man’s voice in there, speaking in a low monotone and not stopping. After what seemed like five minutes the door opened. Barbara Link stood there, prim and neat in the tweed skirt and Naturalizers. For some reason she was patting down her short hair. She cleared her throat. “I didn’t realize the door was locked.” Ned looked in and saw Justice Krenwinkle sitting in a chair in front of Barbara Link’s desk. His thin legs were crossed and below the cuffs of his grey wool slacks Ned could see argyle socks and a pair of scuffed black loafers. For the first time Ned noticed that the old man's fly wasn't zipped all the way. He was talking, and never stopped, even while Barbara was at the door.
“Barb,” Ned said in a low voice, “I left Justice Krenwinkle in his chambers reviewing the Dumont files over an hour ago. The parties are all waiting for him and the lawyers want to talk to him in private. What’s he doing here?”
When Krenwinkle turned around and saw him at the doorway he waved and smiled and called out more or less in his direction. “Oh, there’s that young man I was telling you about, the attorney. Have you two met?” He was speaking to Barbara Link, who gave Ned a sort of dazed look, lacking the usual mixture of malice and indifference she saved, he thought, especially for him. The justice went on, “I’ve just been talking to my daughter here. . . uh . . . Betty. She works right in this building!” He said it as if he’d just found this out, by pure fortuitous coincidence. Slowly he unfolded his thin frame and got on his feet. Ned looked at Barbara Link again. She shook her head slowly and emphatically, as if wishing to make it clear that she most decidedly was not related to this man. Had Charles Manson been sitting in front of her little wooden desk she couldn’t have been any more at pains to set Ned straight on the matter.
“You represent the wife, don't you?” the justice went on. “Where are the rest of them? I waited, and then my daughter came by and we got to talking. Good thing, too. I don’t know what happened to the clerk.” He paused, seeming to lose his train of thought. “But I’m sure everything will work out. This is a divorce case, isn’t it? Are there children? These things can be so hard on the children. I remember when I was in private practice, before the war, we handled a case for a husband who was trying to get custody of the family dog, of all things, and the wife wouldn’t give it up for anything.” The justice’s memory was getting sharper as he recalled this event from the remote past. It seemed to energize him. “They spent thousands of dollars fighting over that dog, and the whole time the dog stayed in the city pound in Old Saybrook because neither of them would allow the other to have it until the judge decided which of them would get it. Judge Wellesby, if I recall correctly. Elliott Wellesby. Went on to serve on the Appellate Court for years. Good man. Harvard man, but you can’t really hold that against him.” At this he chuckled. He was now walking toward the door, and Ned, and Barbara Link. “By the way, have you met my daughter Betsy? I’m sorry, young man, but I’ve forgotten your name.” He looked back and forth between Barbara Link and Ned as if he might be trying to get them interested in one another.
Nervously, Ned tried to change the subject. “What finally happened to the dog?” he asked.
Justice Krenwinkle narrowed his eyes and looked at Ned as if he were crazy, or perhaps had asked him a trick question. “Dog? What in blazes are you talking about?”
“The dog in the divorce case you handled,” Ned persisted. “You were just talking about it. You said you represented the husband. . . .”
Suddenly the justice’s face brightened. “Oh, the dog!” He seemed pleased to have picked up the thread of the conversation. Then he got serious, and shook his head. “Damndest thing,” he said, and looked rather guiltily in Barbara Link’s direction. “Sorry Betsy, still don’t always watch my language the way I should.” He winked at her. “Well, I wish I could tell you otherwise, but that dog died in the pound before the case was resolved. Nobody got it. Little black thing it was. A Scottish terrier, I think. Can’t remember its name, off hand.” Ned thought he knew.
Ned could tell that Krenwinkle liked him, whoever he thought he was. He continued out the door, putting his lanky arm around Ned’s shoulders. Briefly Ned considered telling the justice about his zipper, but decided it didn't matter. “Come on, young man; let’s see what we can do. You tell the attorney for the other side to come back here and we’ll get this show on the road.” Ned walked him back to his chambers and got him seated at his desk. Then he closed the door and nearly ran back to the courtroom. He got Marcie’s attention and called her over to the back door. “Go back to the justice’s chambers and watch him, will you? He wandered down to Barbara Link’s office and started shooting the shit with her. He thinks she’s his daughter, and, well, Christ knows what else. I’ve got to call Jonathon right now.”
Marcie laughed out loud at this. Like most courthouse employees she couldn’t imagine that Barbara Link had even been born on this planet, much less had a father, and she enjoyed seeing Jonathon in a tizzy. All very amusing and a nice bit of punctuation to another long day. But she quickly caught the urgency in Ned's voice, and assured him she’d keep the old man where he was. He would probably call her “young lady,” and she'd be glad to spend a few minutes basking in that.
Next Ned went into the courtroom and called down to Jonathon. “Jonathon, we’ve got a major problem here. Justice Krenwinkle doesn’t know his ass from second base, and he thinks Barbara Link is his daughter. She isn’t, is she?” He waited for Jonathon to answer, but all he heard was a groan. “Anyway, he hasn’t even looked at the files, and I don’t think there’s any point in him bothering. The man is out to lunch, at least today. Meanwhile the whole Dumont circus is on hold here in the courtroom, and the natives are way beyond restless.”
Jonathon reacted the way Ned thought he would. He had a judge—a retired Supreme Court justice no less—whose ass he was duty bound to kiss, but who was obviously not competent to walk from one end of the building to the other, much less preside over a case. Solving this dilemma was well above Jonathon’s pay grade. After some sputtering, he said he’d be right up.
In about two minutes a breathless Jonathon Park burst through the front doors of the courtroom and immediately slowed down, standing up straight and trying to look dignified in his suit that was three sizes too large. He walked across to Ned, who was sitting at his clerk’s desk. “Do you want to go back and take a look?” Ned asked. Jonathon almost trotted through the back door.
In about two more minutes Jonathon came back in and ascended to the judge’s bench. This must have given him a moment of exhilaration, Ned thought. But he didn’t sit down. Instead he cleared his throat and announced to all and sundry that Justice Krenwinkle had suddenly become ill, that there would be no hearing today, and that he was very sorry to have taken up so much of everyone’s time. Ill, yes, Ned thought; suddenly, no. Immediately the lawyers started asking questions. Would the case be continued to tomorrow, or next week, or what? Would the justice be back? Somewhere along the line it occurred to one of the second-tier lawyers to express some concern about the justice’s illness. Jonathon said it was unlikely that Justice Krenwinkle would be able to stay on the case, and then he assured everyone that his office would arrange for a new judge, and that counsel for Mr. and Mrs. Dumont should call him some time after noon the next day. Grumbling, the whole lot of them filed out of the courtroom and over toward the elevators, Mrs. Dumont’s party going into one elevator and Mr. Dumont’s into the other one.
Ned looked up at the clock above the main door. It was about 4:30. He offered to go with Jonathon back to Justice Krenwinkle’s chambers, but Jonathon told him just to get the files and take them back downstairs. The files, after all, were the most important thing. Judges come and go, but files live on.
Ned’s first stop after picking up the files was at Barbara Link’s office to do his duty. He knocked again, and this time the door was unlocked, so he stuck his head in. “Barb,” he said cheerily, “just wanted to let you know the Dumont case won’t be happening tomorrow.”
Barbara Link glared back from behind her desk. “I know that,” she said between clenched teeth.
“Okay then, just wanted to be sure. Got my orders. By the way, I didn’t realize you were Justice Krenwinkle’s daughter!”
“I do not know that man.” She almost spat out the words.
“Oh, well, he sure seemed to know you.” Ned smiled again, from ear to ear. He bade her good night and closed the door. Then a thought hit him, and he opened it again, just enough to stick his head in. “Barb, I was wondering. Why was the door to your office locked when Justice Krenwinkle was in here?” Barbara Link said nothing, but Ned thought he saw her face redden a little. She stared at him and did that thing with her hair she’d done before, when she first opened the locked door. Just patting it a little, as if freshening up. Ned waited a few more seconds for an answer, and receiving none, finally decided to retreat. “No problem, just curious.” Barbara Link’s final look at him would have contained an extra measure of her usual malice, if he’d bothered to look.
There’s an old saying, so often repeated over the years that most people think it’s true. It has therefore become what is known as a truism. The truism in question is the one that would have us believe that “justice delayed is justice denied.” To all the world this has become virtually a fact, so taken for granted that few stop to consider its full implications. Still, not everyone believes it. Many a fierce group of peasants, holed up in the mountains with nothing to think about but the past—the Sicilians, for instance—would laugh out loud at such an idea. For them, the passage even of generations is not too long to wait for justice to be done. It’s a game of years, not of hours and days, and the wait only sweetens the justice when it finally arrives. While they are waiting, they often dream of that sweetness, and if they don’t achieve it themselves, they pass the dream on to their children like a delectable, imperishable heirloom.
Ned stood at the window in the corridor outside Barbara Link’s office, a fat red accordion file, along with a few others, under each arm. He felt like when he’d been a kid in high school, carrying a bunch of books from one class to the next, long before students had started using backpacks. He had waited around for a bit longer to see whether there was anything else to be done. The last he’d seen, Marcie was chatting amiably with Justice Julius J. Krenwinkle, walking him through the courtroom and out to the elevators. It was just a few minutes before five. The weak pre-winter sun was gone from the southwestern sky and night had fallen. A full moon was rising. Tiny dots of light from street lamps stood out between the leafless branches of mature trees. Off to the left, up on the hill above the bend in the Connecticut River, he knew, stood the ancient state insane asylum, mostly empty now, practically all of its inmates turned out onto the streets and into halfway houses, the employees retired or laid off, leaving only vacant gothic skeletons of huge red 19th century buildings. In most of them the state kept a few dim bulbs burning, to ward off vandals. Lights on, but no one home, Ned thought.
The Dumonts and their attorneys had gone back to their offices to regroup, to fight another day. Or maybe they’d just gone to the bar to try to wash today out of their minds. This particular battle had been stillborn, but the war between the spouses was alive and well. Down on the second floor the clerks were putting on their coats and packing up for the night. Ned needed to get going. If he’d had more time he might have thought about a lot more things. About dreaming and waking, and whether there was anything in between. But he had to hurry out before they locked the doors.
Barbara Link was probably on her way down in the elevator, no doubt still shaking her head in disgust. Justice Krenwinkle was gone, too. Ned didn’t know where, or how. He hoped the man wasn’t driving himself back down to the shore, but ultimately that was none of his business. He knew he’d never see that justice again.
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