Chapter Nine – Moribund
“Is there anyone in this courtroom whom you recognize?” Fryssen resumed her stride.
Verna looked out over all of us, her mouth pulled down at the corners, her eyes anxious, as if suddenly fearful of saying the wrong thing. Did she think it was a trick like the one played on Joan of Arc when they hid her sovereign in the audience? I felt her eyes linger over me as if I were in a lineup. Because Oz was in front of me I couldn’t see his expression, but I could imagine what it was. Sardonic. Removed.
“That man, there,” she said, pointing. “The defendant.” She got it right.
“Let the record show that the witness has identified Osmond White-Hawke,” said Fryssen. “Was there ever a time when you and the defendant were friends?”
I heard Oz growling in a protest.
“Yes,” said the witness. “Between 1985-1990. In Bouclem, Tunisia.”
“Tell us how you came to know the defendant.”
“My husband at that time worked for the Franciscan College there, and so did the defendant’s wife. We were a small group of Americans in a foreign place; everyone knew everybody. I had a little business looking after the children of faculty members in my home, and so I watched his sons. Then I got to know Mary Elizabeth Barringer — a literature professor — because she was expecting. She was so excited.” Her eyes strayed out over me and she smiled.
It was creepy. She knew who I was, probably recognized my hair. The fourth wall collapsed, I felt all of them looking at me and I recoiled against Trevor in my loss of invisibility. I was beginning to see why my mother dyed her hair.
“Did you and Mrs. Barringer become good friends?”
“Oh,” said the witness enthusiastically, “We were great friends. She was a wonderful person. I looked after both her girls as soon as they were born.”
“Can you tell us about her?”
Craig lumbered to his feet. “Let’s not go a-wandering, your Honor,” he said wearily.
“If the witness could just sum up,” said the judge, making wrapping motions with his hands.
The witness said, “She was a very nice person. Shy. A real straight-arrow. She was totally against gossip so some people thought she was difficult to talk to. She agonized over ethical choices that didn’t seem to bother most people. She always said if you ever had a complaint, you should take it right to the person involved, and that’s what the Bible says. But on the subject of ideas she was very well informed.”
I admit I was fascinated. This was my mother she was talking about. It was like uncovering an album of unseen photographs. I stole a glance at Shelley, but her expression was stoic. She has a tendency to chew on the side of her right thumb, usually ragged from texting. Not that there was anyone to text, anymore. Even Twitter had fallen silent. She may not have been listening.
“Can you tell us specifically about the morning of March 12, 1992?”
Was that the day my mother left the world?
“I was expecting Brontë and Shelley at eight am as usual and they never showed up. I called over to Mary Elizabeth’s house but no one picked up the phone. Then I phoned over to Mike Zwilling. He was her faculty supervisor – and I asked him if she had come to work. He said she hadn’t. So I thought–”
“Irrelevant what she thought, your honor,” said Craig, his eyes closed as mentally elsewhere.
“Confine your remarks to what you actually did,” said the judge.
“I went over there,” said Verna. “To her house.”
A photo of a house flashed up on the screen. A cute little sand-colored stucco house with a gate and blown-glass windows. The house I was born in. I didn’t remember it at all. Nothing.
“Is this the house you went to that morning?”
“Yes. That was Mary Elizabeth Barringer’s house.”
“Was it locked?”
“No.” She gasped, hyperventilating a little. “In fact, the front door was part way open. I went in –”
“Did anything in the house seem disarranged?”
“No. She was an immaculate housekeeper. I called for her. I searched everywhere for her but she wasn’t there. The children were sleeping in their beds.” She looked at us, distressed. Shelley stared back, thumb dropped, mouth open. “They were always particularly heavy sleepers.”
“Did you try to wake them?”
“No. I phoned over to Oz’s house.”
A map of lines and boxes flashed up on the screen.
“Would you situate us on this map?”
Verna took the laser pointer.
“Here’s the college. My husband and I had rooms over the car block. Here’s Mary Elizabeth’s house. She had a private residence because she got a bit of money after she was widowed.”
“Approach, your honor.” Craig threw his papers aside so explosively they slid to the floor. Spike rose to pick them up. Mina and Craig and Buford and Fryssen all approached the bench and there was a heated argument none of which we could hear.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Well, Fryssen asked her about buildings and she introduced money,” suggested Trevor.
Were they trying to introduce motive, I wondered? Verna seemed so sketchy. Was she a cockroach? Hard to credit the prosecution following any subtle game plan starring her.
“…last remark be stricken,” said the judge.
Ridiculous, right? I mean the jury heard it.
The dancers resumed their places. The laser pointer’s pink dot wavered over the box.
“So this is Mary Elizabeth’s house…” wandered three boxes, “And this is where Oz lived.” The dot quivered over a long rectangle. “He was known as Oz White in those days. And this is the swimming pool.”
“Why did you phone over to Oz White’s house?”
“I knew Mary Elizabeth had dinner there the night before. She told me she was going.”
“What did Mr. White say when you spoke to him?”
The witness’ lower lip trembled. “He said he’d be right over. But he didn’t show up. I felt I had to stay with the children.”
“How did you find out what had happened?”
“Not from Mr. White,” said the witness. “I heard from someone else. They found her in the swimming pool.”
There was a gasp in court, just as if everybody didn’t already know.
“Did you visit the crime scene at any time that day?”
“YOUR HONOR!” Craig shouted. “This was officially ruled an accident! It was AN ACCIDENT SCENE.”
“Everything in its proper order, Ms. Fryssen,” said the judge indulgently. He was looking at Fryssen as if he thought she was edible. How come we had only Mina, and not a sex goddess? Craig missed a bet there.
“Boy, I bet he has the hots for her,” whispered Jake, stating the obvious.
“Did you visit the site where the incident had occurred?” Fryssen recovered smoothly.
“I did. After a couple of hours my partner replaced me so that I could go. I was giving the children breakfast and Jane came over. She told me about…the swimming pool.”
It was funny to hear myself talked about and not remember a thing. I tried to picture the baby I had been – the redheaded, red-faced, red-fisted baby from the photographs – sitting in a high chair and being ministered to by this woman. Eager for breakfast, like usual. Not knowing Mom was dead.
“I went right to the pool. There were a lot of people there from the college, and Oz – Mr. White was talking to the local police.”
“Did you understand what was said?”
“No. Because he spoke Arabic and the rest of us did not. He kept touching his head. I was afraid he was making the “she’s crazy” gesture. I asked him what he meant by that. He told me just that it was late and they’d been celebrating her announcement that she was moving to the States. She didn’t drink, she wasn’t accustomed to booze – but she did drink champagne and they’d had rather a lot – he said she was unsteady on her legs. I asked him why he hadn’t accompanied her home if that was the case. He answered that she was very independent and liked being on her own. But that’s not accurate at all. She –”
“Did you look into the pool?”
“Can you describe what it was like?”
The witness shook her whole body from side to side as she said, “There was a lot of blood. Too much blood for someone just falling into the deep end and banging their head.” She closed her eyes and her whole body throbbed as she remembered, “There were bloody handprints on the walls. My best friend’s blood.” The witness wept.
A group shiver, sort of like the wave they do at football games, ran through the crowd. Fryssen rushed forward with tissues.
“Do you know, of your own knowledge, why the pool was emptied?”
“The college was in some kind of quarrel with the town. The town said there wasn’t enough water to fill a big pool. The college administrator told me what there wasn’t enough of was baksheesh.”
“Wasn’t there some kind of fencing around the pool?”
“There was a chain link fence, but it was in disrepair.”
“Did you voice your sense of disturbance to Mr. White?”
“Yes. I said, “What happened?” He said, “She fell in and I guess she couldn’t get out.” He said she’d been complaining of headaches and she had a history of strokes in her family so she wanted to see a doctor but she was going to wait until she got back to the States.”
“Had Mrs. Barringer ever mentioned anything about headaches to you?”
“No. Her usual complaint was sleeplessness, but that hadn’t been bothering her lately. She was happier than usual, I thought. She told me she had recently made a decision to be more proactive –”
“Objection! Beyond admissible hearsay, your Honor!”
The judge looked over at the prosecutor.
“Your rationale, Mr. Buford?”
“Pattern of conduct, Your Honor.”
With a gesture of irritation the judge summoned his players forward.
“Welcome to the Gulag,” muttered Craig as he rose to comply.
There was a lengthy bench conference about exceptions to the hearsay rule. We must have lost because when the lawyers backed away Fryssen pursued the subject.
“Will you tell us exactly what Mrs. Barringer told you about Mr. White?”
“She said he was getting too bossy and acting like it was his money. She said she’d realized that if she wanted her girls raised her way she was going to have to do it herself.”
“That’s all I remember specifically. I tried to state it word for word,” said the witness with nervous virtue.
“Did Mr. White ever inform you of the ultimate medical ruling on Ms. Barringer’s death?”
“That she died of an aneurysm. So I assumed they’d done an autopsy, or how would they know? I know there was pressure to embalm her body right away to ship it back to the states.”
“Were any photos taken of the accident site, to your knowledge?”
“I didn’t see anyone with a camera there. It was just the local police; they didn’t have crime technologists. Afterwards the pool was filled in with rubble. The college officials said no one would want to swim there. That was within a day or two, I would say.”
“Did you have a conversation subsequently with Mr. White’s wife, Renée? Specifically a conversation about the night of the accident?”
“I saw her at the pool that morning, when everyone was there and milling around. I said, “Why didn’t your husband insist on escorting her home?” And she said, “He did. They left together.” But later on her story changed. “
“When was that?”
“The college gave Mary Elizabeth a memorial mass. Renée came up to me and said she wanted to explain, that she was afraid she’d given me the wrong idea. She said they left together that night, but Mr. White said Mary Elizabeth only allowed him to escort her part way home.”
Ms. Fryssen studied the map.
“The swimming pool isn’t really on a direct route from Mr. White’s house to Ms. Barringer’s house, is it?”
“No. She would have had to go quite out of her way.”
“Did Ms. White say anything more to you at the service?”
“She said Oz was leaving for the States because he was the executor and Mary Elizabeth wanted the girls raised there, but Renée didn’t want to go back. She said—“
Craig shot up like a gamebird. “Your honor, for the record I would like to re-state our absolute objection to this entire line of questioning. Poring over seventeen year old gossip in an uncharged incident is the most outrageous violation of my client’s rights!”
“Your objection has been noted, Mr. Axelrod. I have ruled on the matter. You’ll be able to cross examine the witness about it,” said the judge mildly. “Do you have corroboration, Ms. Fryssen?”
“Your Honor, both the State and the defense have issued subpoenas for Mrs. Renée White to testify. She hasn’t responded to our subpoenas, but perhaps the defense will have better luck,” said Buford smarmily.
“If I can’t cross-examine the person who made the statements, I request this entire line of questioning be stricken,” snapped Craig.
Oz whispered to Mina. From the way his head was shaking back and forth I think he was probably saying his ex-wife would never willingly return.
“Would she be for us or against us?” I whispered to Trevor. The fact that Oz had no communication with his ex-wife for seventeen years suggested bad feeling.
Trevor gave me the wild eyebrow. “Of course she’d say anything to help, but she isn’t coming. We don’t need her.”
How could he possibly know what she would say? Did they have communication I didn’t know about? I didn’t like to think there were things about Trevor that I didn’t know.
Fryssen returned to her gossip. “Did Mrs. White give a reason for her husband’s sudden decision to leave?”
“She said he was suing the college on behalf of Mary Elizabeth’s estate, so it would hardly be comfortable to stick around. He was guardian of the minor children and she wanted them educated in the States, but she didn’t leave much of an estate so that was the only way he could think to swing it financially.”
“Were you surprised by that?”
“I was. She always seemed so well off…I thought her husband left her lots of money.”
“Objection, your Honor, no foundation. This is not the proper way to introduce financial information! If they have documents, let’s see them.”
“I offer it not for the truth of the matter but to explicate the witness’ state of mind,” said Fryssen.
Even Verna looked startled by this suggestion that she had a mind.
“Then I think you’ve gone far enough with that line of questioning,” said the judge.
But Fryssen was a dog with a bone. “So what happened subsequently?”
“Mr. White took the children back to the States. Mrs. White stayed on, and later I heard they were got a divorce.”
“Thank you. Your witness.”
Craig rose, flapping his tie. I knew this was something he did when he was upset. He paced in front of the witness who watched him with tired eyes.
“Ms. Verna, this accident scene that you saw, this shocking scene. You were suspicious, I think you said. You found it upsetting?”
The witness relaxed her guard. “Very much so.”
“Accident scenes can certainly be upsetting, can’t they? Did you report your suspicions to the authorities?”
The witness’ jaw hung down. “The police were there.”
“I mean afterwards. Did you report it to the American police? The embassy? Consulate? Anybody?”
“Well, no,” said Verna fecklessly. “They called it an accident.”
“Yes. It was, wasn’t it? Did you contact Mrs. Barringer’s family?”
“You must have gossiped about it. To somebody.”
“I don’t gossip,” said the witness stiffly.
“That accident happened fifteen years ago, didn’t it? Fifteen years went by and you were so troubled by the suspicious death of your friend that you did exactly nothing about it, is that right?”
“Well, there was nothing to do,” said the witness.
“Until now, isn’t that right? When the state asked you to take a plane and a hotel room and to smile for the cameras?”
The judge spoke over Buford’s objection. “Point made, counselor,” he said. “Move along.”
Craig put his hand on the wooden surround of the witness box. The witness leaned back as far as she could, blinking like a deer in the headlights. As if they were two buddies having coffee down at Starbucks he asked her,
“Ms. Verna, did you like Mr. White?”
The witness glanced at Oz briefly, as if seeking a clue. “I liked him… at first.”
Craig stopped directly in front of her. “Why?”
The witness jumped as if jabbed with electrodes.
“Why did you like him at first?”
“He was very ingratiating. He made an effort to be charming.”
“And there wasn’t a lot of that in your life?” Craig inquired with crocodilian sweetness. “You and your husband also divorced within the year, isn’t that true?”
“That’s true, but it didn’t have anything to do with my knowing Mr. White, or even anything that happened at the school,” said the witness hotly.
To my surprise, although he seemed to have her on the run, Craig didn’t pursue it.
“So what did appeal to you about Mr. White?”
Verna considered, seeming to make a great effort to be fair and honest.
“I’d never met anyone like him. He knew everything. He had been everywhere. He was so entertaining and well-educated. He had all these opinions about historical and political things. He knew all kinds of inside information. He was always correcting people, but not in a mean way, just giving us the benefit of reading and experience.”
“Can you give us an example?” Craig queried mildly. The witness pulled her brows together in fierce contemplation.
“One thing that stuck in my mind all these years was his statement at one of his dinner parties that the popular idea that Aristotle’s fatal flaw was “hubris” was just a vulgar error, an incorrect translation. The fatal flaw wasn’t “pride” but too much “animal energy”. Not separating the animal from the human. Failing to take one’s place as the crown of creation. Something like that.”
The witness had relaxed, seemed animated, but I saw disturbance signals rippling between Fryssen and Buford. Probably they’d warned her about cruelty, attacks, humiliation. They hadn’t warned her about interested politeness.
“I understand he and his wife gave legendary dinner parties. You must have been a guest at these dinners?”
The witness glanced downward, as if she had written the answer on her cuff. Flushed beet-red.
“So the remark you quoted was not addressed to you.”
The witness nodded.
“Could you say yes, please, just for the record?”
“Let it be noted that the witness answered in the affirmative. How then did you overhear this comment you’ve just quoted?”
“I was helping out. Renée asked me to help out.”
“What form did this helping take?”
She gaped at him. She was certainly making it easy for him.
“You know. Serving and cleaning up and such.”
“Were you paid for this contribution?”
“I think they gave me something,” said the witness uneasily.
“And you were certainly paid to look after his sons.”
“So when you realized that Mr. White thought of you more as an employee than as a friend, is that when you stopped liking him?”
“No. That wasn’t it at all,” the witness burst out. “He was so inappropriate.”
“Ah.” Craig put his arms behind his back like a magician hiding his hands. Buford and Fryssen conferred, but they evidently couldn’t come up with an objection that wouldn’t make things worse.
“Can you give the court an example?”
“He sexualized everything,” said the witness. “I’ve been reading about it and –”
Craig turned a sorrowful face to the judge.
“Your Honor, will someone please explain the boundaries of testimony to this witness?”
Buford rose threateningly. “I don’t like that tone,” he began but the judge waved him back to his seat.
“Miss Verna, please don’t introduce anything that happened after the time in question,” said the judge.
“On second thought,” said Craig, as if suddenly inspired, “Perhaps it would do the jury good to hear how this witness has been shaping her testimony through contemporary research.”
“No, it would not,” said the judge. “Move along.”
“Your Honor, I object!” said Buford.
“Are you objecting to your own witness?” questioned Craig, outrage gone. It was as if nothing could astonish him anymore. “That’s a first.”
“I’m objecting to what you just said. I object to counsel slandering my client. He’s testifying himself when he puts out ideas in open court that are not subject to cross-examination or the rules of evidence.”
“Somebody has encouraged this witness to think anything that drifts through her head is important,” retorted Craig. “You just don’t like it when it goes against you.”
“Gentlemen, approach!” roared the judge.
“I’ll leave it alone,” said Craig, showing his palms. Our side looked all-exultant, but they had all been to private school. I knew making fun of the witness might be dangerous.
“I believe we were discussing sexualization,” said Craig, bowing to the witness. “Inappropriate sexualization. If you could favor us with an example?”
The witness shifted nervously in her chair. Buford and Fryssen looked nervous too. Finally Verna said,
“He talked about sex all the time. He made sex jokes.”
Craig spat out a sudden question, “Ms. Verna, why did you leave Franciscan College?”
He had startled her. After long consideration, she said uneasily, “There was that divorce we spoke of. I wanted to come home.”
“Weren’t you asked to leave?”
“Well, they didn’t like divorce.”
“Come, that wasn’t the reason, was it? The divorce came afterwards.” “It was time for me to make some life changes,” said Ms. Verna helplessly.
“One of which was to partner romantically with a woman, wasn’t it? And you’re still together, aren’t you?”
Buford, clearly not a man who liked to get up once he had made himself comfortable, rose. “Your Honor, this is just a mud-throwing fest,” he objected.
“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” barked Craig, hitching his pants angrily. “This woman has been offered to the jury as some sort of a gossip clearinghouse. Reference has been made to her “state of mind”. I think it’s only fair that the jury see she may have had ulterior motives.”
“I’m allowing it,” said the judge.
“It’s true that I have made a life commitment to a woman I met at Franciscan College,” Ms. Verna said, trying to lift her chin and keep it steady. Her voice wobbled up and down the scale.
“I think you described yourself as Ms. Barringer’s best friend,” said Craig smoothly. “Ever hope the relationship could be more than that?”
A series of micro-expressions cycled rapidly over Ms. Verna’s face. For a moment it almost looked as if she was going to agree with him.
“No,” she said finally, but I thought the jury knew different. Trevor squeezed my hand excitedly in Morse code communication I didn’t bother to interpret. I had other things to think about.
“Perhaps you were the one who sexualized everything,” suggested Craig. “Eyes of the beholder, eh?”
“No, no, no,” insisted the witness. “He came on to everybody. He was a swinger.”
“Ms. Verna, you’re on oath, I remind you. Are you saying the defendant came on to you?”
The witness hesitated pathetically. Trapped, she summoned up her dignity.
“I didn’t let it get that far,” she insisted.
“Ms. Verna, you’re the gossip expert. Wasn’t there gossip about the relationship between Ms. Barringer and Mr. White?”
“There was a lot of gossip,” said the witness unwarily, eager to change subjects. “Mary Elizabeth never would have had an illicit affair with anyone, ever. She respected Renėe White. He’s the one who wanted more. He wanted everybody. After Mary Elizabeth’s husband died he just injected himself into her affairs. Started acting like they had an arrangement.”
“He was acknowledged to be a clever investor, was he not? Didn’t Mary Elizabeth invite him to manage her affairs?”
The witness backpedaled, waffling.
“She was bereft. Alone. She needed somebody.”
“Ms. Verna, when somebody becomes an executor, a guardian, a financial manager, there are legal papers involved. Didn’t Ms. Barringer consult an attorney?”
“All I know is she thought Oz was getting pushy,” Verna said mutinously. “She told me she didn’t like it.”
Craig pressed his advantage. “Sounds like you jealous of their relationship.”
“Certainly not,” said Verna in a high, thin voice. I felt sorry for her. She sounded jealous to everybody.
Craig paused to let this interchange sink in. In the silence the witness seemed to get even more flustered, as if that were possible, tossing her hair and rocking her bony behind in her seat. I felt sorry for her.
Finally Craig smiled. He was her buddy again, friendly Mr. Crocodile. He checked his notes as if he had any need for them and asked her,
“I believe you described yourself as a spiritual healer?”
You could see the flutter of panic ripple across the prosecution table.
Fryssen and Buford poked each other back and forth like children initiating a dare. He lost.
“Your honor, I fail to see the point of this.”
“Is that an objection, Mr. Buford?” asked the judge. “On what ground?”
“Relevance?” Buford waved a hand in the air as if picking a cherry off an invisible tree.
“I would like to show a general framework of bias on the part of this witness,” said Craig smoothly. “She has a philosophical commitment to destroying my client that I would like to expose.”
“I’ve been a spiritual healer since 1998,” said the witness in a loud, firm voice, as if she just discovering solid ground.
“Why don’t you wait for a question,” suggested Craig.
“Your honor, what she was waiting for was a ruling,” said Buford. “Don’t let him badger this witness, your honor. She came a long distance to render this state a service.”
“Bet she gives readings on the steps of the courthouse,” snickered Trevor sotto voce.
“We’ve established you’ve been a “spiritual healer” since 1998,” said Craig. You could hear the quotation marks. “Is that regulated by any licensure?”
“I’m a member of the American Association of Spiritual Practitioners,” said the witness.
“That doesn’t sound like a license to me,” said Craig. “I take it you’re unregulated. You charge money for your services?”
“On a sliding scale. Sometimes I don’t charge at all.”
“And what is it you actually do when you heal, spiritually?”
“Your time is up, Mr. Axelrod,” said the judge. “I’m pulling the plug on this.”
“Just one more question, your honor. I think you’ll agree with me that it’s relevant. Did you ever “heal” Mary Elizabeth Barringer?”
The judge was seduced, in spite of himself. We all wanted to know the answer to this question. The judge waved a hand and his amanuensis typed something on her machine.
“Sometimes I was successful at helping her sleep.”
“So she invited you over in the evening?” Craig pounced.
“I dropped by a couple of times. I felt…I felt she might need me.”
“Anything sexual take place on these evenings?”
The witness turned bright red. “Absolutely not. I massaged her temples until she could sleep. Then I tiptoed away.”
Funny hearing that my mom, too, was plagued by insomnia. Those devilish genes.
“How many times would you say this occurred?”
The witness shrugged her shoulders helplessly. “Twice? Three times?”
“Don’t ask me,” said Craig. “I wasn’t there.”
The audience tittered. The witness rallied.
“It wasn’t often, at any rate.”
“How about Mr. White? Ever extend any healing to him?”
The witness covered her face with her hands and began to sob.
“We’ll take that as an answer,” said Craig. “The witness is dismissed.”
Jake clapped Craig enthusiastically on the back as the defense attorney sat down. Too publicly, alas. This crew would never learn.
“Re-direct!” shouted Buford, quivering. “We aren’t in the business of leaving the jury with misimpressions. Apparently the defense is.”
“That’s uncalled for,” said the judge as Craig rose.
“Then I apologize,” said the prosecutor stiffly without looking at Craig. He walked up to Verna.
“Why are you crying, Ms. Verna?”
“This is all just so upsetting,” she gasped. “I guess I’m too sensitive.”
“What is your answer to the defense attorney’s question? Did you offer healing to the defendant?”
“He made fun of what I did,” gasped the witness. “He referred to it as “dowsing”. There wasn’t any point offering because—healing is never successful with a person like that.”
A ripple of amusement shook Oz’s shoulders.
“Thank you! Now the witness is dismissed!”