About This Novel; Chapter 1Chapter 2; Chapter 3Chapter 4; Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7; Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10Chapter 11
“Come on, we’re late.”
Two journalists, Jim Easton and Marvin Rosenbush, ascended the steps of the Muskogee County courthouse.
Marvin, a recent transplant from New York City, wore bell-bottom blue jeans and a yellow t-shirt emblazoned with a photo of the rock group Kiss. He wore glasses and his long, scraggly red hair draped over the wire rims. At 24 years old, he had recently been named the youngest senior editor in the history of the local bi-weekly newspaper, The Jackson City Sentinel.
“What’s this guy’s name again?” he asked his tour guide.
“William Baxter,” said Jim, “but everyone just calls him the Reverend.”
Jim Easton, 22, was a recent graduate of the University of Alabama’s School of Journalism. His hair was cut short, and he wore regular blue jeans and a red and white striped collared shirt, untucked.
“Were you at the first trial?” Marvin asked.
“No,” Jim said. “I was at school, but I heard about it.” He opened the main door and held it for his elder.
“What about the last one?” Marvin asked as he slipped into the air conditioned building.
“The second one didn’t go to trial. It went before a grand jury. They failed to indict.”
“How could they fail to indict?” Marvin asked.
“Not enough evidence,” Jim said.
“So, basically the man has gotten away with murder twice?”
“It looks like it.”
They walked down a marble pathway toward the courtroom.
“And now the insurance company doesn’t want to pay out?” Marvin asked.
“The first wife was murdered and the second wife dies mysteriously under similar circumstances. I wouldn’t want to pay for that either.” They paused in front of the door to the main courtroom. “So what are we here for today?” Marvin asked.
Jim grasped the door handle. He looked at the armed guard sitting on a bench by the doorway. “The Reverend is scheduled to testify.”
The guard gave a motion, and they entered the courtroom.
Several heads turned to see who was coming in, but Marvin focused on the one sitting in the witness chair.
The Reverend looked to be in his early forties. He wore a black suit several shades darker than his skin with a white button-up shirt underneath and a black string tie.
Marvin froze under his gaze. The man seemed to be appraising him, judging him, and Marvin suddenly felt self-conscious for the way he dressed.
He felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to Jim, who was motioning him to an open spot on the bench near the back of the courtroom.
The lawyer standing before the Reverend paused, as if thinking of the right words to ask his next question. The man was in his mid fifties, balding, and wore large square bifocals.
Marvin looked at Jim.
“The lawyer for the insurance company,” Jim whispered.
Marvin nodded. “He looks like a lawyer for an insurance company.”
The lawyer took a few steps toward the jury box, away from the Reverend. “Mr. Baxter,” he asked without looking at him. “How did your first wife die?”
Melvin Little stood up like a shot. “Objection, Your Honor! That has no bearing on this case.”
“The objection is sustained.”
“I’ll rephrase, Your Honor,” said the attorney for the insurance company. “Mr. Baxter, you are aware of the similarities…”
“Objection!” Melvin cried. “Your Honor, may I speak with you in a side bar?”
“Come on, then,” the judge said.
The two lawyers huddled before the judge. Melvin was making a series of chopping motions with his hands, while his counterpart from the insurance company had his palms turned into the air in the universal expression of, “Who me?”
Marvin looked at Jim, who was shaking his head.
The huddle broke. Melvin wore a smug grin. He strolled back to his chair like a peacock on display.
Mr. Barrett, the insurance man, shook his head. “No further questions for this witness,” he said.
Melvin casually spun toward his client. “Reverend Baxter…” His expression softened. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” he said.
The Reverend nodded his head and offered a thin smile of appreciation.
“I hate to even ask about this,” Melvin said. “I know this must be difficult for you, but could you please describe the health of your wife in the months before she died?”
“She appeared to be in good health,” said the Reverend.
“She was never diagnosed with any kind of pulmonary disease or asthma?” Melvin asked.
“She may have had a cold a few days before she died, but she was never diagnosed with anything, no.”
“Thank you, Reverend. Thank you for taking the time to be with us today. No further questions, Your Honor.”
The judge excused the Reverend, and a new witness was brought forward and sworn in by the bailiff. Dr. Henry Poole, the pathologist who performed Calpurnia Baxter’s autopsy, took the low seat beside the judge.
Mr. Barrett’s next round of questions combined dry legalese with medical jargon, so much so that it caused Marvin to sink down in his pew and forced down his eyelids under the weight of their dullness.
The aim of the questions, he gathered, was to establish that Calpurnia Murphy died of natural causes, whereby the insurance company would be under no obligation to pay out on an accidental death policy.
Melvin Little’s turn brought little relief to Marvin’s boredom.
“Now, doctor, I am going to ask you to assume that Mrs. Maxwell showed no symptoms of lung disease, bronchial infections, and so forth, no pneumonia, or respiratory problems or even coughing…”[i]
“Objection to the hypothetical,” Mr. Barrett said without much enthusiasm.
“This follows the evidence, Your Honor,” Melvin said. “I’m just trying to establish the cause of death here.”
“I’ll allow it,” said the judge.
“And Dr. Poole,” Melvin continued, “let’s further assume that Mrs. Baxter was an educated woman who would recognize whether she was sick or not, and that on the date of her death she went about her normal duties: cooking and cleaning and so forth, and that she then left home by automobile and collided with a tree. Based on this hypothetical question, can you tell me the cause of death?”[ii]
Marvin looked over at Jim, who mimed the act of smothering someone with a pillow.
“All right,” Dr. Poole said. Based on that, I’d say the cause of death was traumatic. That trauma aggravated an underlying condition that might have otherwise remained dormant.”
Melvin’s eyes lit up. “So, you’re saying Calpurnia Baxter would not have died if not for the accident.”
“I don’t believe so. No.”
Marvin tilted his head toward the door. Jim followed him out.
“I feel like I just traveled through the looking glass,” Marvin said.
“I know what you mean,” Jim said. “Everyone’s pretending it wasn’t a murder. What the hell is going on?”
“The man is getting paid to commit murder,” Marvin said, “And the justice system is helping him do it. It’s a great story. The only problem is we can’t write a story about it.”
“What are you talking about?” Jim asked, anger entering his voice. “You just said it was a great story.”
“No one wants to read about the ins and outs of an insurance policy,” Marvin said.
“And if we say he’s a murderer, his lawyer will sue us for everything we’ve got. The Sentinel doesn’t have the money to take that kind of hit. We’ll have to lead with something else. Didn’t you say there was a fair in town?”
Jim lowered his shoulders in defeat. “Yeah,” he said as he followed his young boss out of the courthouse and into the afternoon sun. “Let’s go to the fair.”