Happy Bleeping Birthday, Chapter 7: Selling Him Down the River


“Counselor,” Judge Norcross stated, “you may make your opening statement.”

I stood, easing around the small table and stepping into the semicircle of clear space in front of the judge’s bench. That bench was nothing more than an old desk set at the edge of the stage, but it did the job. My deep blue tie made its presence felt around my neck; I’d not needed to wear one of these blasted hangman’s friends in more than forty years. Few in the room with the exception of the judge would even remember I’d once been a trial lawyer feared throughout most of Colorado plus a few towns in Wyoming and Nebraska, but the thrill of courtroom combat coursed through my veins as always. It really was like riding a bicycle.

Scanning the assemblage, I chose my words with care. Caution in these matters is always advisable, but never more so than when a capital crime is involved. As Prosecuting Attorney, my responsibility was generally seen as a relatively simple thing, do my best to get a conviction every time out, try not to be overly unethical about it, and nail the bad guys or girls.

But it was so much more than that. The Derringer area’s entire future might well rest on the outcome of this trial. A foregone conclusion with all of the heinous acts perpetrated by Quentin T. “Dag” Potter? In a jury trial, there is no such thing. We had roughly two hundred nonparticipants in the courtroom, most but certainly not all of the surviving residents old enough to attend and observe. They would be watching, and despite the tendency of media and political types to believe the worst of the man on the street, these people were not fools. Plus, who knew what might happen in the future? For those of the Derringer Eighteen who were convicted and summarily executed, there would be no appeals–but not all of them would receive the death penalty. Those who did not…well, if the United States of America pulled itself back together, even in some tattered form, every conviction I got would need to be capable of standing up to the appeals process, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

Which would be a tough row to hoe, that one. Were I an appeals attorney, I’d be looking to overturn Derringer results on the basis of the accused not being provided with adequate counsel.

Judge Norcross and I were both keenly sensitive to that aspect of the situation. Without putting anything in writing that could suggest collusion, we would both bend the rules a little in favor of the defendants from time to time. Which should not be a problem; the available evidence against Dag especially should be enough to hang him twenty times over.

Twenty-one times over, actually.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” I began, “the State intends to prove to you here today that the defendant, Quentin T. Potter, aka Dag or Dagger Potter, did in fact personally murder twenty-one men, women, and children between the dates of November 15, 2120, and April 19, 2121.” I paused just long enough to let that sink in a bit. Not a single juror lived in Derringer itself, for obvious reasons. Nine of the twelve came from outlying ranches, the other three from the MJF cooperative. Thankfully, the Mary Jane Farms employees were not potheads; they just made their livings from the stuff. Ten jurors were men, two were women, and all of them claimed they’d not known Dag Potter was running roughshod over the townspeople and whatever ranchers he could bulldoze.

Since none of them lived within easy hiking distance of the town, they might even be telling the truth. Who knew? In any event, it was the best we could do, the closest thing to an unbiased jury we were going to get.

“In addition to the twenty-one counts of murder,” I continued, “the State will likewise prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the defendant raped three different women, two of them multiple times, and that he only failed to do likewise to the third woman because she took her own life with a butcher knife after the first time.”

Again I paused. Timing isn’t everything in a courtroom, but it’s not something a trial lawyer wants to get wrong, either.

“Thirdly, we will present overwhelming evidence that the defendant, Quentin “Dag” Potter, functioned as the head of the organized crime gang known as the DDA, or Derringer Defense Association, from its inception on November 27, 2120, until the arrest of Potter and his closest associates on April 19, 2121.

“Now, there are many more charges that could be brought against Mr. Potter, two hundred and thirty-seven charges to be exact, but as Prosecuting Attorney, I have decided not to prosecute any of those. And why did I choose not to do so?

“Simply this: The twenty-one charges of murder…plus the multiple charges of rape…plus the charge of acting as the head of a violent crime mini-cartel…people, if those aren’t enough to convict Dag Potter and to earn him the death penalty, there’s simply no point to the rest of it.

“Do I believe defendant Potter has the slightest chance, any chance whatsoever, of escaping justice here today?

“No. I do not. When you good people of the jury, you who are giving of your time and attention to serve the Derringer area as jurors, when you see and hear the evidence and the testimony against this man, you will agree with me: Dag Potter is guilty. Dag Potter deserves to die.”

With that, I cut it off, left the message hanging in the still courtroom air. Okay, so most of the time it was the Community Center, but today it was our courtroom. Today it was my courtroom. The judge might believe it was his, but right now I owned it, lock, stock, and barrel.

I sat back down without another word. A few feet shuffled in the audience. A couple of people coughed, and somebody sneezed.

“Counsel for the defense,” Judge Norcross intoned, “your opening statement.”

Counsel for the defense? Dag had found himself a lawyer? There’d been no one sitting with the shackled ex-con, so who–?

I’ll be damned. Technically, Potter’s lawyer should have been sitting at the defense table with his client, but like I said, the judge and I were both inclined to let the defense bend a rule here and there. Besides, if I’d been the one to stand up for the Dictator of Derringer, I’d not have cared to sit next to his slovenly carcass, either.

Cameron Staten rose from where he’d been sitting, close enough to the defense table as to make no never mind. The elder auctioneer, father of the tomfool Teddy Staten, strode with confidence to address the jury and, by extension, the crowd. I’d last seen him less than an hour ago, hauling his leg-stabbed idiot son outside. And now he was back, standing up for the accused?

What the Hell was going on here?

No trial lawyer likes surprises unless he’s the one springing them. Worse, there was something going on here I didn’t understand. Cam Staten had always been an overly permissive father, especially since his wife died about the time Teddy was hitting puberty, but he’d never been known to side with criminal elements or be involved with shady deals. Pillar of the community, he was. Or had been. As the auctioneer petitioned the judge to be allowed to represent Potter and the defendant indicated he did in fact desire to retain Staten as his counsel, I thought furiously.

Did I want to object? I might have grounds. Cam Staten had never practiced law in Colorado that I knew of, nor was he claiming to have done so. But…the issue of adequate representation loomed large in my mind. Cam certainly understood far more about the law than Dag did, and as the old saying goes, the lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.

No. I would not object. On the bench, Walt caught my eye. I nodded imperceptibly. He caught it. Staten was approved, and he began his opening statement.

Dag Potter, seated quietly at the defense table, smirked. I’d have loved to show that smirk to the jurors, but they were mesmerized; Cam had them in thrall. If there’s one thing an experienced auctioneer knows how to do, it’s how to grab and hold the attention of a group of people, and that’s exactly what he did. He talked for forty-seven minutes and nine seconds according to my watch, painting his client as misunderstood, as having the good of the community foremost on his mind at all times. Murders turned into regrettable but necessary incidents of self defense. Rapes became consensual sex. The Derringer Defense Association transmogrified from a crime mini-mob into the protector of area residents against threats both large and small.

There wasn’t a man or woman in the audience who didn’t know the defendant was guilty to his very bones, a homicidal greedy weasel of the first order…and yet, they’d known Cam Staten as a kind of authority figure for more than forty years. He was a spellbinding orator, and he held them in the palm of his hand. His effect on the jury, most of whom had no direct knowledge of Potter’s depredations…it was electric, is what it was. Had that been it, just take my opening statement and Cam’s opening statement and then vote, Dagger Potter would have been acquitted.

It wasn’t my courtroom any more. It was going to be a fight after all. Holly Warburton’s pen was flying, the shorthand passed down from her great grandmother leaping onto the pages of her big spiral notebook. It was no longer simply a matter of putting down a mad dog; this was courtroom combat in its purest, most violent sense.

I found myself grinning fiercely inside, mentally sharpening my knives. Cam finally sat back down, this time joining his client at the defense table. I rose, donning my most thoughtful, serious, dignified expression. Walt looked at his watch; I had to get going, counter some of the glowing images of innocence the auctioneer had put in the jury’s mind before the judge called a break.

“Mr. Staten,” I began, deliberately refusing to refer to him as any kind of attorney, “has painted a beautiful picture. In truth, if I’d known he could paint like that, I’d have commissioned him to do our family portrait years ago!”

Pause. No big response from the jurors, but several members of the audience had to stifle laughter.

The rules of discovery decree that whatever a prosecuting attorney is going to throw at a defendant must be disclosed to that defendant’s counsel…but until Cam got up to address the Court, Dag Potter had been his own counsel. That meant the evidence I intended to present and the list of witnesses I intended to call, copies of all that had been given to Dag. Norman Nestossin had done that for me while I was resting at the Quonset over the weekend; I told him what I wanted and he took care of it. There was always the danger of witness intimidation, but with the Derringer Eighteen in chains, it hadn’t seemed likely. Still, if Cam Staten had managed to snag the discovery documents from Potter in time….

“Now folks, I was going to begin by calling a number of witnesses, but we have some forensic evidence that’s really strong stuff. Let me grab that folder.” I’d eased back by my table. Opening the folder, I leaned down so that Tori–my official assistant–could see what I was looking at, whispering out of the side of my mouth that the jury couldn’t see, “Take your copy of the list of witnesses to the waiting room. Talk to them. Any you think might weasel on the stand, mark them off.”

It had taken mere seconds and looked for all the world like I’d simply been consulting with my assistant to make sure I had the right papers. No one, or at least no one in the jury, even noticed when Tori left to carry out her mission. Cam might be a spellbinder, but I wasn’t any slouch either; the people’s attention was all on me.

True, it might have helped some that every person in the room had a huge stake in the outcome of this trial.

“Your Honor,” I said, approaching the bench, “these photos will be Exhibits One through Forty.”

Norcross took a look. He’d seen them before, of course; the two of us were conspiring together as surely as the Statens were conspiring with Dag Potter.

The jury, however, had not seen the pictures. Photographs were not expected; in recent years, most snapshots had been taken with AirPhones or other hi tech devices that had gone completely kaflooey when the Chinese EMP scrambled their circuits. Trent Bottomly, on the other hand, hadn’t used any such device. The old wildlife photographer owned an amazing number of vintage cameras, did his own print developing, all in color, and knew how to sneak up on a crime scene every bit as well as he knew how to sneak up on a bull elk in full rut or a cranky mama bear with a pair of cubs. He’d tasked himself with recording as much as he could of the atrocities being perpetrated in his home town. Which was quite a bit, considering Dag’s propensity for killing people in public and Trent’s skill at hiding himself and a camera with a lens of staggering focal length.

God bless the zoom lens.

There had been more than 300 photos to choose from. Norman had gone through them all, thinking ahead, realizing I’d be short on time. He’d selected forty shots, the worst of the worst, focusing primarily on images that made it clear Dag Potter was involved in the killings.

Thirteen of them included Potter’s face.

The jurors were, to a person, sick. I wasn’t sure a couple of them weren’t going to throw up. Which would not be good for either the decorum of the courtroom or for the sick person’s psyche. I needed to head that off.

Gathering up the pictures after they finished making the rounds of the jury, I spoke in a conversational tone. “The defendant is clearly identified in these photos. So are the victims, every one of whom was known to everyone in Derringer. This is a small community; there are no strangers here. Frankly, you can’t hide in Derringer like you can in, say, Chicago or some other big city. Now, I can’t tell you who took these photos. The identity of the photographer must be protected.” To the locals, that was a joke; there was only one photographer in town who could produce professional work at that level. On the other hand, we might find ourselves once again part of a larger political entity, in which case officially identifying the man who’d taken the photos could be a very bad idea indeed. “But I can tell you what you already know, which is: Anybody in this room, in this audience, can confirm the identities of both the victims and their killer.”

I went on like that for a while, mostly stalling but looking good while I was doing it. I reminded the jury of Quentin Potter’s extensive prior record in some detail. Cam Staten leaped to his feet, objecting to that. Overruled. It was important, I argued and the judge agreed, to let the members of the jury understand the nature of the man who could perpetrate such horrific crimes. I left out the childhood murder of his own father, of course…only reminding the jury that the defendant’s juvenile record was sealed and could not be used against him.

Cam missed that one entirely, not realizing I’d poisoned the well. The jurors would be wondering now, curious about a fellow whose juvenile record was sealed. A competent attorney would have been on his feet, objecting and pointing out that every juvenile’s record was sealed. But like I said, he missed that one.

At length, Tori returned to her seat as quietly as she’d left. Still talking, I meandered over that way, scanned the witness list, and saw she’d drawn lines through just five of the names. That was good; I’d expected more. Either Staten hadn’t been able to intimidate all that many people or he hadn’t had time to get around to everybody.

I called Finch Roberts to the stand, and the real fun began.

The pictures had provided a solid opening, but they were nothing compared to the gut wrenching stories told by the witnesses. Each witness, a carefully chosen man or woman, identified at least one of the victims in the photos as a friend or a relative or a loved one…and also testified to at least one horrific Dag Potter act of violence observed in person. Witnesses for the prosecution were plentiful; working around the five possibly tainted individuals was no problem.

Cam Staten raised, on average, one objection for every three witnesses. Few of his objections were upheld. His cross examinations were crisp and to the point. He never badgered a witness. Most importantly, despite a few pithy wisecracks here and there that had even the jury box cracking up, he wasn’t damaging our case that I could see.

The judge called lunch break. Most of the people, having nowhere to eat except at their homes, drifted away like fog under a blazing sun. Some few of us, those with horses, repaired to Grady’s Café. Marcus wasn’t cooking; as bailiff, he had to be ready to get back to courtroom work. But he’d readied a whole pile of sandwiches cobbled together from donated Nestossin Ranch supplies, beef and butter on bread baked the day before. All of us legal types except Cam Staten congregated, pulling two of the heavy steel-topped tables together.

Having the judge fraternize with the prosecuting attorney over lunch might not sound all that kosher, but these were extraordinary times. Besides, the former high school Superintendent was enjoying the loan of a roan gelding from the Nestossins. He hadn’t ridden in years, but he clearly knew which end of the critter was which. Little Dan had surprised us all by bringing in a remuda at no charge for the duration of the trials.

“Somebody, most likely Staten, intimidated a number of our witnesses,” I said quietly around a mouthful of the best beef I’d had in a while.

Walt didn’t look surprised. “Teddy or Cam?”

I shrugged. “Teddy likes throwing his weight around. And he wasn’t gimped up till I stuck him this morning.” I hadn’t had a crick in my neck till Teddy had reefed on it, either, but there was no point mentioning that.

Nobody said anything else for a while. What was there to say?

Well…there was one thing. Walt Norcross never had been stupid. “Glad you decided to whittle down the charges to something more or less manageable, Harrison.”

“Only thing that made sense. Besides, we couldn’t have you presiding over a case that involved withholding antibiotics from your sick wife, now could we? You’d have had to recuse yourself, and then where would we be?”

“True,” he nodded. “This way, I can always deny I was ever pissed off about that, innocent ignorant me.”

“Hey, works for me.”

“Not arguing.”

I patted Tori’s knee. She hadn’t eaten but a couple of bites out of her sandwich. “Good work on the witness check, hon.”

It was her turn to shrug. “Most of them weren’t that hard to read. They were either scared or defiant or they had no clue.”

“Still, good work.”

Turning back to my sandwich, I decided it was time to shut up. There wasn’t anybody in the café that I thought would run off at the mouth, but still, no use taking chances. Besides, there was something on my mind. Cam Staten’s effort at lawyering–at least, it was his first such effort as far as any of us knew–was not making sense. If anybody bothered to ask him why he’d try to defend scum like Dag Potter, he’d undoubtedly spout off some nonsense about every American having the right to have an attorney in his corner at a time like this, but it wasn’t that. The auctioneer was ruled by a handful of powerful desires, but protecting a wanton killer and rapist like Potter was not one of those desires. Protecting his image in the community…it could be that. No…probably not. He’d gain more enemies than friends; the whole town wanted Potter dead. Protecting his idiot son…definitely. But how? Did he think to get Potter off scot free, thus making Teddy’s little foolishness in assaulting an officer of the Court look like literally nothing at all? That would be a long shot.

Teddy figured in there somewhere. I’d lay odds on that. I just couldn’t figure out how.

As time passed and witness after witness added strands to the rope that would snuff out Dag Potter’s life, the mystery only deepened. Cam Staten had a good instinct for the jugular. Most of his objections came at logical points in the proceedings, his cross examination of the witnesses was generally to the point without crushing the very people he knew as his neighbors, and his client continued to look smugly confident that the auctioneer who’d won the national Silver Throat Bid Calling Championship in 2103 would somehow magically get him cleared completely.

But something wasn’t adding up.

When the first day of the trial ended, Tori and I saddled up and rode out to the down country house. It was still boarded up, but we’d begun the work of rehabilitating the dwelling; there was a bed, gravity feed running water, enough food for a week or more, and solar power from the backup system Potter’s vandals had missed. With the horses off saddled and turned into the corral out back–hiding them in the garage no longer being necessary, at least for the moment–Tori set about warming up a pot of leftover stew.

I paced.

“Coffee, Master?” Tori asked. She didn’t call me that in public, of course.

“No.” I shook my head. “Our share from Potter’s hoard won’t last long. Besides, I’m too wired to need caffeine right now.”

“Alfalfa tea and honey, then? We’ve plenty of that. Or just water?”

“Tea after supper, how about? Tori, do you have any idea what Cam Staten could be up to?”

“What do you mean?” Her movements were quick and sure without being hurried. Economy of motion, that girl. Poetry in motion, too. Normally, I’d have propped my feet up in the recliner and kicked back, watching her do her domestic thing with hunger in my belly and lust in my heart.

Right now, though, I couldn’t make myself concentrate on any of that fun stuff. “I can’t shake the feeling that he’s really focused on a specific goal during this trial, and that he’s succeeding, but that his target is not what you or I or Judge Norcross or any of the rest of us might think. And that bugs the living crap right out of me.”

“Hmm….” Tori started setting the table. I could have done that of course, but hey, she’s the slave girl, not me. “Is there, I don’t know, any um…pattern to what he’s doing? I didn’t notice anything weird, but then this is my first day in a courtroom, ever, so I get a free pass, right?”

I chuckled. “You definitely get a free pass. Wait. Let me think.” I fell silent. You know. Thinking. A pattern. There was a pattern to Staten’s courtroom behavior. It had been there all the time, nudging my subconscious, driving me nuts, my conscious awareness not quite seizing on it until Tori said the magic word: Pattern.

Unfortunately, the pattern didn’t bring me any closer to understanding the man’s motives. “There is a pattern, Tori. I just realized, it’s subtle, but his questioning of witnesses…it’s…Hell, honey, he’s slowly but surely painting his own client as an even worse monster than he really is, if that’s possible. In his opening statement, he made the guy out a virtual saint. But since then, he’s been…I can’t believe I didn’t see it earlier. One itty bitty turn of phrase at a time, he’s tarnishing the same image he put out there in the first place. Not that Potter needs a whole lot of tarnishing.”

The teenager’s brows knitted, confused. “So…reverse psychology, or what?”

“No.” I shook my head, suddenly excited. It was counter intuitive, but the adrenaline spike fueled by my eye widening realization stopped my pacing cold; I stood stock still in the middle of the kitchen, forcing Tori to work around me. “No, not reverse psychology. I get it now. He’s not trying to get Potter acquitted; he’s trying to give his son an out!”

“Huh? Oh, by the way, soup’s on.”

“Thanks.” I sat down and lifted my spoon but didn’t bother to dip it into the bowl of stew. “What do we know about Cam Staten? Rhetorical question, sweetheart; no need to answer. We know one thing for sure, or at least those of us who’ve watched him operate over the years do. We know that more than anything, he’ll go out of his way to make excuses for Teddy, right?”

“Uh-huh. Even I know that. Daddy Warbucks Staten to the rescue.”

“Exactly. Now, Teddy Staten wasn’t on anybody’s list of Most Rotten Villains that I know of, but he’s the kind who’d be drawn to any little tin King of the Poop Pile like Potter during this past winter, right?”

“Oh yeah.” Tori nodded, her eyes bright. “I remember when Derringer’s football team won State. I was twelve. Big Hoss Jorgensen, you remember him?”

“Sure. Biggest, quickest, strongest fullback ever to come out of Colorado. Or at least that’s how he’s been billed since he went to the pros. Not that pro sports exist any more, but before Hoss was drafted, Teddy was hanging around all the time, sucking up to him.”

“Exactly.” The stew really did smell good; I needed to wrap this up. “Okay, so even if we haven’t heard about it yet, it’s a safe bet Teddy was sucking up to Potter. Most likely, Teddy not being the brightest bulb in the chandelier, Dag didn’t use him for anything too risky. Errands, low level thug work maybe, or even just spying on the people in town, ratting out his friends and stuff like that.”

“Okay. That makes sense. Hiram might know, too; he was in town for a long time before he escaped.”

“Yeah. I’ll have to ask Hiram. But no matter what went on before we busted the Derringer Eighteen, Teddy totally blew his wad today when he tried to choke me out in front of God and everybody. And that made it even more crucial for Cam to do his thing.” I grinned wolfishly, spooning up stew. It was still hot. I’d likely burn my tongue. I didn’t care. “The defense attorney is working to paint his own client as a Force of Evil so powerful that poor widdle Teddy had no chance whatsoever of resisting his diabolical commands. He’s so good at it, I doubt very many people will pick up on what he’s doing. Weirdly enough, it’ll probably even work. He knows as well as anybody that Potter can’t win, so he doesn’t even have to worry about a guilty conscience for selling him down the river. By the time we’re done with the Eighteen, the people of Derringer are going to be more than ready to call it a day, get on with their lives. Teddy’s way down there on the totem pole. Bet you a dollar to a donut hole, we’ll plea bargain that one, decide his leg wound is punishment enough, let him off with a slap on the wrist, and that’ll be that.”

Tori looked across the table at me and cracked up. I must have looked just too delighted for words.

The Universe was being nice to us. We’d finished our stew and were washing the dishes when we heard the sound, so we didn’t have to go hungry.

We were out in the front yard by the time Holly Warburton came roaring into the driveway on Marcus Grady’s ATV, the last rays of sunset throwing long shadows. She almost lost it on the turn, almost slammed into the garage door before she got the machine shut down, and spoke so fast it was almost impossible to understand her.

“He’s in town!” She yelled. “He’s here!”

“Easy, Holly. Easy, now. Who’s here?”

“The real one!” Her eyes were bugged wide. She was hyperventilating.

“The real what?” I made my voice as soothing as possible. The way she was going, her heart might explode if she didn’t slow down.

“The real Sheriff! Sheriff John Penney!”

2 thoughts on “Happy Bleeping Birthday, Chapter 7: Selling Him Down the River

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.