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Depraved Heart: a crime novel

Chapter Ten – Meretricious

“The state calls Ira McWhiggin,” said Buford triumphantly, as if he’d won something. He gleefully wrenched control of the state’s jalopy from Fawna and was riding high and proud. Probably gave her the “less important” witnesses, giving us a handy key to the proceedings.

Ira McWhiggin was shorter than me. He really was a dwarf. He had a gingery crust of hair surrounding a bald spot, and he walked with a strange hitch in his gait suggesting a painful series of increasingly unlucky medical interventions. In spite of all that he was fussily dressed in a suit whose ice cream candy color seemed a little too summery for Virginia in December and definitely too festive for a murder trial. His collar was white, his shirt striped – a combination Oz particularly loathes – and he wore a tie of brocade so shiny it resembled leather and displayed a pocket square of the same nauseating material. Oz would describe such a man as a “poseur”. The witness looked markedly away from us as he passed the defense table.

When offered a Bible, he said, “I prefer to affirm.”

“See?” hissed Trevor. “That’s what liars do.”

The witness carefully spelled out his name, described his residence as “Lucerne Switzerland” and his current employment as “tutor in the private household of Prince Lubingen” and then Buford was off to the races.

“You recognize the defendant?”

“I do.”

“Can you describe to the jury where and when you met the defendant?’
Was that a tattoo on his neck or a bulging vein? Colleen had a beautiful mother-of-pearl set of opera glasses in its own sequined bag but I was pretty sure Trevor wouldn’t allow me to bring them to court. Anyway they were Skylar’s, now.

“It was the end of August, 1987, in Tunisia, at Franciscan International. I was a mathematics professor, just starting my first term, as a matter of fact, and his wife was a professor of history. I got the impression that he – Mr. White – was attached to the State Department in some way; some government service anyway. We met at a reception for new faculty.”
“What was your impression of the defendant?”

McWhiggin looked at Oz for the first time. “I thought he was a breath of fresh air,” he said. Buford waited, and so he went on, “He was amusing and had so many clever stories. He was iconoclastic and irreverent, a rare combination in that locale. He made particular fun of the college and the faculty, but really no one was spared. I had just emerged from a repressive background and I found his attitude refreshing. He could make anyone laugh even under the dourest circumstances. He had such a glow about him.

That particular evening I recall he held forth about an occasion when the military required him to investigate some supernatural incident and he just kept manufacturing outlandish miracles of his own and reveling in the consequent excitement.”

McWhiggin had a glow himself describing Oz. That alone told me plenty; I’d met people like him before. I couldn’t say if the jury was as observant. Buford, though, wanted to rub everything in.
“You saw a lot of Mr. White and Renée White, his wife at that time?”

“I did. They had the most wonderful elaborate dinner parties. His wife was an impressively capable gourmet cook who cleverly combined classic French with the local cuisine. Fusion, I suppose you would say. They made such fun of all the people who weren’t there you daren’t stay away…it was like a little club.”

I pictured Vinca Verna, holding a serving dish, hovering on the edge of the laughter. Could she muster up a contact high, or was resentment growing?

“Mary Elizabeth Barringer attended those parties also?”

“She did. She was often present. Renée swore by an equal division of the sexes to maintain the right spark and I was odd man out because I wasn’t married, and she was odd woman out because her husband was posted elsewhere. So we were often invited together.”

“What was your opinion of Mrs. Barringer?”

“She was a lovely woman, very intelligent. Sweet in a quaint, old-fashioned way. She was the perfect foil for Oz – Mr. White’s type of humor. If she had a fault, it was perhaps her naïveté…I recall Mr. White challenging her one evening that no great work of literature had a happy ending and she countered with Jane Austen. She specialized in just those nineteenth-century novels ending with a marriage and it limited her worldview. I recall Oz taking her literary education rather aggressively in hand, trying to upgrade her to some of the moderns. Ferlinghetti, Henry Miller – just the basics, really. She could just about stomach Virginia Woolf and Dubliners but she bailed at D.H. Lawrence and Finnegan’s Wake. I don’t think she really cared for the twentieth century. She was the only faculty member without a computer and it was quite inconvenient sometimes, as I recall.

She certainly was brave about stating her views even when we all disagreed with her. I remember her arguing against the findings of depth psychology that our group accepted as gospel. She seemed to think everything could be cured with long walks, fresh air, and thinking hard about something else. She was also quite religious in a rather sweet way…self-perfection, the efficacy of prayer, and all that. Reading Thomas á Kempis each night before bed, that sort of thing. Oz called her a throwback. He used to say – right to her face – that he despaired of her, but he was never as cruel to her as he could be to others.”

“Do you think she liked him?”

The witness’s face lost the expression of animation that had fueled his memories. It was almost as if he had suddenly remembered where he was. He said sadly,
“I think it would be fair to say that she loved him, but I very much doubt she realized it herself. I think she was a romantic woman who was terribly lonely – she only saw her husband twice a year — and Oz was quite a meteor in his own way. She appreciated his uniqueness. He talked a lot about his years in the service, what it felt like to confront physical danger, and how to manage not just one’s own responses, but other people’s. I think she saw him as the kind of nineteenth century hero that’s died out, you know, Byronic…and I think he knew that and played to it.

“She failed to realize he represented in fact quite an earlier era… I think it’s safe to say she admired him and delighted in him. We all did. None of us had ever met a person like him before. She adhered adamantly to the most stringent concepts of marital fidelity so she wouldn’t have taken it further…we all saw their interchanges played out most entertainingly, right in public for all of us to see. They obviously both enjoyed their spirited arguments, even though he usually bested her. I’ve heard that women secretly yearn to be dominated, so perhaps that was it…

He was so easily bored that any attention from him was a compliment. In a way they had a lot in common. He liked to pose as a modern thinker but in fact was something more antique; an aristocratic elitist. We were all a bit shocked by his “après moi, le deluge” kind of approach to the problems of the universe. He shocked her – in a way he shocked all of us – by being very anti-meritocracy, even anti-professionalism. He had a particular thing about manliness — in fact, he said that it was being ruined by the modern world. We basked in his energy.

He demanded love really. He wasn’t a man you could just like. You either loved him or hated him.”
The sourness with which he spat these words into the absolutely silent courtroom told me all I needed to know about Ira McWhiggin. Ira McWhiggin had been burned. I’ve seen his like before. I know exactly what he must have looked like to Oz, this talky little dwarf; an exotic pet with a high portability. When Spike says of someone, “I can take him,” he means one thing. Oz uses the same expression to mean something else. Oz loves teasing people in an almost scientific way, poking them gently to discover what they’d respond to, carefully fanning resulting sparks into a blaze for his own amusement.

“So when her husband died, nobody was surprised that she chose Mr. White to manage his estate?”

“I’m not sure she even chose him so much as he made himself constantly helpful…he wasn’t employed at that time – he was on some sort of leave of absence. Most academics are paycheck to paycheck but he had been born to wealth and he was comfortable with the full range of international investing. Currencies, futures, that sort of thing. Referred to them as “instruments”. He said people were poor by choice. We were all impressed. He took it for granted that the ultimate goal was the personal freedom of never having to satisfy the standards of others again, but rather spending your time honing your gifts and following your own pursuits. It sounded ideal to all of us.”

“You didn’t suspect him of nefarious intentions?” Buford asked, head cocked to one side as if expecting an objection from the other side of the room. Craig, Mina and Oz were dead silent, staring at the witness as if at a riveting spectacle. I thought of Craig’s previous statement that given enough rope prejudiced witnesses lasso themselves. I was glad he didn’t object; my mother had taken life in the courtroom and hovered there before us, however insubstantially; a fascinating combination of Shelley and me.

“I certainly didn’t suspect him then,” said McWhiggin carefully.
The defense table rallied. The specter vanished.

“Your honor, your honor, your honor…” begged Craig, rolling his eyes and rocking helplessly, a sorely abused tourist in a country whose natives are robbing him blind.

“I offer it not for the truth of the matter but for the state of mind of the dead woman who is not here to testify,” Buford repeated his mantra virtuously. “This witness corroborates the previous witness’ testimony that Ms. Barringer“ – he called her “Miz Barringer” as if her family came from down the street – “was becoming disenchanted with Mr. White’s financial management.”

“Mistrial!” shouted Craig. “He has not testified to any such thing. It is the prosecutor who is testifying here and it’s an absolute abuse of this defendant’s rights.”

“Well, he’s about to testify,” said Buford.

The judge barked, “There’s no mistrial here, but keep it short, Mr. Buford. I don’t want to send this jury out. It’s a great waste of the court’s time to hear everything twice.”

“Your honor, may I remind you, we cannot take too much care,” said Craig. “We have a man on trial here for his life.”

“You don’t need to remind me, counsel,” said the judge acidly, as if death cases were two a penny in his region. Probably they were. “Proceed.”

Trevor and I squeezed hands. I passed my palm over his gray-suited thigh without touching it, feeling the power of his electrical field; knowing the very hairs on his leg turned towards me like sunflowers.

“Did you and Miz Barringer ever have occasion to converse privately about Mr. White?”
“We did. It was shortly before her death.”

“Will you repeat what was said?”

“She said she’d discovered that he really didn’t like women. She said he didn’t seem to have much respect for her mind. She told me she had figured out that his philosophy was dangerously self-serving. She called him “an anarchist.”

“An anarchist?” The word sounded idiotic in Buford’s cornpone accent.

“She compared him to Lord Byron’s Corsair, “a man of one virtue and a thousand crimes.” I recall the quote clearly. She said he used words differently from other people. She said his whole philosophy was nothing more than a rationalization allowing him to do whatever he wanted. She said such a program while promising to perfect the will in fact vitiated it to the point of slavery. She told me she wanted to take the girls back to the States and put them in school and she said she was afraid he would do something to stop it.”

“Those were her exact words? That she was afraid?”

“Her exact words,” said the witness solemnly.

Was it true? Wasn’t it true? Craig had told us about the scientific studies that prove people can honestly “remember” things that never happened. Emotion is memory. Trevor adheres to the Freudian theory of “screen memory”; people remember what didn’t happen precisely so they won’t have to think about what really happened. We artists have the universe as our palette. Our memories are the engine of the living dreams we seek to create.

I was not that surprised to hear someone express fear of Oz. Oz likes people to be afraid of him. He just likes getting what he wants; nothing “anarchic” about that at all. If he managed my mother’s estate then she was his source of income; in his view any manly man would fight to keep that from slipping away.

“Did you attend the Whites’ dinner party the evening before her death?”

“No, and no one else did. It was just her and the Whites, discussing their situation. Making plans for the future. Oz told me all about it later.”

So he was the confidant at that time. Entitled to see the wizard behind the curtain.
“What did he say?”

“She’d misinterpreted things erotically, he told me. He said he had to achieve an understanding with her, in the presence of Renée.”

“What did you take that to mean?”

Craig vaulted high.

“Objection! The prosecutor can’t back this up. This is hearsay and the rankest speculation!”
Apparently the prosecutor couldn’t back it up. He said,

“I’ll withdraw. Tell me about the morning you learned of Miz Barringer’s death.”

“I was teaching a class, and the provost came to my door to tell me.”
“What did you do?”

“I couldn’t believe it. I went straight to the swimming pool.”

“What did you see?”

“A lot of our friends…people in shock. Crying. The body was covered with a tarpaulin, but I could see the blood. Oz was there, speaking in Arabic to the officials. I could see him making drinking motions…He told me later she’d had too much to drink, but she rejected his assistance, because she felt rejected by him. He told her she needed the help of a psychiatrist and she took it amiss. He described it as a thoroughly bad evening.”
A bad evening celebrated with champagne?

“What did you make of the crime scene?”

“Well, it looked like she’d been attacked. There was so much blood… I asked Oz if any of her clothing was missing or disarranged… I thought she must have been assaulted. Local men didn’t often come on campus, but there was nothing really to prevent them. We knew that they thought all Western women were loose. Available.”

“Did you mention your theory to Mr. White?”

“I did. He said Arab men really aren’t interested in women except for procreation.”
“Did you believe him?”

“Well, clearly he can’t speak for all Arab men. I asked if there would be a rape test. He said, “Her family won’t want that.” I realized he was probably right. It would only make it harder for her girls. In Arab countries, rape is more of a crime against the family than the victim herself or even the state. Imagine her children waiting around while the police try and then fail to find some anonymous rapist. They were decades behind on every kind of technology, and of course there’s the language barrier. I agreed it was better for them to go straight home and start a new life. They were fortunate in a way, being so young. They wouldn’t remember any of it. They wouldn’t even miss her.”

Miss her? I must have. Without language, who can recall such things?
Buford turned and faced us with a satisfied expression.

“Thank you. Your witness, counselor.”

Craig rose and stood for a moment with his hands in his pockets, looking down at the little man.
“So Mrs. Barringer compared my client to Lord Byron, did she?” he asked with a genial chuckle.
“I believe she compared him to the Corsair,” said McWhiggin pedantically, “A character of Lord Byron’s.”

“That’s right. You compared him to Byron,” agreed Craig affably. “A corsair is a pirate, isn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t know,” sniffed McWhiggin. “I am not personally familiar with the poem.”

“The late, lamented Mrs. Barringer was a very imaginative lady, was she not?” Craig’s voice rippled smooth and folksy.

“I wouldn’t say so,” returned his witness, refusing to give an inch. “She said she wished she could write, but she lacked talent. She was, however, very well read.”

“In a rather narrow range, as I believe you pointed out yourself,” said Craig, jingling the change in his pockets.


The witness wasn’t going to call himself a liar.

“She preferred tales of high romance? Pure young heroines at the mercy of dastardly, villainous aristocrats? Heathcliff, Lord Rochester, that sort of thing?”

McWhiggin’s brow furrowed as he scented trouble ahead.
“I believe the genre is not utterly lacking in moral ambiguity,” he returned.

Buford vulcanized. “Your honor, what is the relevance of this? Is Mr. Axelrod implying that this jury needs lessons in nineteenth century literature to understand this case?”

“I’m not implying anything,” said Craig. “You’re the one dragging in people’s “states of mind” fifteen years and gone!”

“You’re making fun of the process of justice in this courthouse,” barked Buford.

“Well, if the process of justice has become sufficiently perverted to allow my client to be accused to piracy by a dead woman, then I reserve the right to make fun of it.”

The judge played right into his hands by banging tempestuously away on his gavel like a tyrannical three-year old.

“You may not, Mr. Axelrod!” he roared. “Do anything of the sort in my courtroom and find yourself in contempt! Change the subject!”

Craig bowed. I have heard him say that if he isn’t threatened with contempt of court at least three times during a trial he isn’t doing his job, so I assume he was satisfied. Nobody was prepared for what he did next. He changed the subject, all right. He approached the witness and inquired conversationally,
“You and Oz White-Hawke had a sexual relationship, did you not?”

The courtroom erupted, doors bursting outwards from the change in pressure. Trevor raised a quizzical “here it comes” brow at me. Buford crossed his arms at the defense table and leaned back in his chair.

“Why doesn’t he object?’ Jake asked Trevor.
“He probably doesn’t care what the jury hears at this point,” said Trevor told him. “From his point of view the more mud the better.”

Well, I was surprised. Oz’s taste these days runs to hard bodied centerfolds on hot military stud dot com. How could he ever forge a sexual relationship in this odd little being? He did favor experimentation. Variety? Bragging rights? Oz’s version of Ecclesiastes’ “there is a season” means “try anything once”.

McWhiggin’s face cycled through a hot series of Disney sunsets. Blood came and went in waves. Maybe he thought they couldn’t ask this; he didn’t look prepared. Oz says you have to feel around in people for what he calls “the ignition point”. Well, he had found it, long ago, on this guy, and Craig was in there again. McWhiggin never got over it.

“Let the record reflect the time it’s taking for the witness to answer the question,” said Craig sonorously.

“I’m trying to be accurate,” the witness admitted in a low voice. “I thought I was having a relationship. God only knows what he was having.” He couldn’t look at Oz who was sitting ramrod-straight and attentive.

“Who initiated the relationship?” Craig softened a bit. Possibly he had thought McWhiggin would deny the whole thing. He would if he was smart.

“He did.”

The air in the courtroom seemed to thicken. From press to jury everyone leaned forward as if determined not to miss a thing. I felt sorry for the dwarf. Most people live and die without ever having to explain themselves in court.

We would all look bad, every one of us; if you are old enough to talk, you are not innocent. I like to consider truth my business. Can truth be reached this way? Or will brains get sprained from swinging our necks back and forth? Craig says juries are monsters because people’s tastes have become degraded by the thirst for celebrity laundry; Trevor would say they never had any taste to lose. Oz would say – well, Oz would answer the question as he often did; with a quote. What is truth?

Craig was going to feed the monster.
“How did it happen exactly?”

The witness puckered his face as if he could turn it monkey-like inside out.
“About two weeks after we met he asked if I realized I was gay.”
“What did you answer?”

“I told him the truth…I didn’t know what I was. I’d had no opportunities. I had been forbidden to think of myself in a sexual sense and apparently nobody else thought of me in that way. My upbringing said masturbation would send me to hell. I was resigned myself to a lonely life.”
“And then what?”

“He told me I was probably gay and there was an easy way to tell. He…offered himself….as my instructor.”

The jury appeared rapt and self-forgetful, as if the drama unfolding before them flickered on their private TV screens. Two sat with their mouths completely open. Catching flies.

I couldn’t see Oz’s face but his body was relaxed in his chair. He probably enjoyed himself more than the witness, who glanced longingly at the prosecution table for protection, while perspiring enough to make use of his pocket square. Buford and Fryssen exchanged smug expressions: here was the homo stuff getting in and they hadn’t even had to fight for it.

Probably they cared nothing for this poor little queen. Throw him to the wolves.
“And…?” prompted Craig.

“Well, as you said. We became lovers.”

It seemed in the end he was going to cheat us, forgive the expression, of our blow-by-blow description.

“Was he correct about your sexuality?”

The witness squirmed. The judge looked over at the prosecution table and began shuffling papers in an annoyed fashion.

“He was correct,” the witness affirmed. “I even recalled some childhood instances I’d forgotten.”
Trevor looked at me significantly.

“Did he ever offer any explanation for his apparent bisexuality?”

“He said all the recreational sex on offer in Arab countries was homoerotic. He said it was just like the military, or prison. He told me wives are grateful because men can absorb more…raw carnality, and women are only really jealous of other women.”

Craig turned and waved a hand at the witness as if unveiling a work of art. He was too self-satisfied. If he thought he had just defused one of the prosecution’s most powerful explosives I was afraid he’d misjudged this jury. It’s a neat trick to make a prosecution witness testify for the defense but in my opinion only lawyers could appreciate the subtle suggestion that Oz was too uxorious a husband to risk entrusting his excess sexuality to potential home-wreckers. Around here a popular bumper sticker is, “Kill ‘Em All And Let God Sort ‘Em Out”. Maybe this was Spike’s fault for not educating our side better; nobody listened to me when I said anything. You know what they say in chess, don’t surround yourself with yourself. Not if you want to win.

“Who broke off the relationship?”

“We both did. On numerous occasions.”

Craig shook his head, smiling seductively. The witness’ eyes followed this trajectory with a kind of hopelessness, a rabbit dancing with a cobra.

“Now, that’s just not true, is it,” corrected Craig. “Didn’t you ask the defendant to leave his wife and come away with you?”

“People say a lot of things,” said McWhiggin desperately. “If I did, I didn’t mean it. It would never have worked. He could be physically…very cruel. He liked to pretend I was a child!”
Craig skated away from the court pandemonium and the judge’s stirring outrage with a fresh line of questioning.

“I believe you testified that Mrs. Barringer told you she was fearful Mr. White might raise some sort of objection to educating her daughters in the States?” “That’s right,” said the witness. His party handkerchief was dead; he had strangled it. Now it lay limply in his hands.

“After her death, do you know where he took them?”
“To the States. But that was –”

“Thank you!” barked Craig. “Answer only the questions that I ask you, please!”

He found a way to effectively shut the witness up; advancing towards him. Was it his diminutive size that made McWhiggin such a timid little man? Did he think Craig Axelrod would reach into the witness box and drag him out by the scruff of the neck? I saw McWhiggin looking at the clock with the exact same expression he must have seen on so many of his students’ faces. Now he knew what it was like to yearn for lunchtime rescue.

“When did you leave your employment at Franciscan International?”

“Later that spring. Right after Oz left, in fact.” He gathered up his courage and his dignity and flung them at his tormentor. “I was dismissed, if you want to know.”

“I think the jury needs to know. And why were you dismissed?”

“Someone gossiping about my sexual orientation. I always thought it might have been Oz. He could be vengeful. He liked leaving people worse off than he found them.” The witness looked at Oz, his lips pouting, “Why?”

“If you thought so, it must have made you angry,” suggested Craig.

“Actually it was a relief to start over, to lead a more authentic life,” said the witness. But the expression of hurt anger did not leave his face.

“So perhaps he left you better than he found you,” said Craig, smoothly. “Thank you for coming to court and testifying today.”

The judge gaveled for recess, even as we all — except McWhiggin — wanted more. Oz would say some appetites respond to feeding and some awaken only to deprivation. Inconsiderate of our personal hungers the marshals summarily ejected all of us out into the surprising sunlight.

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