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Depraved Heart: a crime novel

Chapter Twelve — Mendacity

Morning found us all back in our own little circle of hell; like chum cast upon the haters.
Fawna was in fine form decked in navy blue and white, hair sharply cut and curled. She smiled at the jury and they smiled back. Our guy, Craig, looked like an unmade bed.

“The state calls Shea Moira Shortall.”

A woman I recognized as my aunt rose to her feet and moved with the forward lope of someone unused to high heels. I regarded her with a well-nourished hostility. This was our sworn enemy, the woman whose letter to the prosecution had opened my mother’s grave. She was having more peace there than she could ever have again. Artists competed now to sketch her wounds for the public in all their ghoulish glory.

Aunt Shea wore one of those mass-produced, vaguely African-themed outfits favored by big women –identifying with hippos, I guess, or elephants. She had a mess of what looked like zebras running across her back. Alone among my mother’s happily married sisters she was the anomaly, the single one, the “artistic” one. She had no children. When she was at art school there had been some kind of abortive attempt at a fake green card marriage that soon collapsed; Oz called her as “the dyke”.
She sent me art kits every birthday and Christmas; origami sets suitable for a five year old received on my fifteenth birthday. If I ever had talent, we’ll never know now; she must claim responsibility for my loathing of the graphic arts.

Her hair looked a bit more presentable today than yesterday; less of a bird’s nest. It was twirled up artfully and secured with jeweled combs. Maybe they had a salon at the hotel to pass the time, while Oz read Spinoza and I ate beef. She might have even been wearing makeup. She stared at the jury, bright-eyed, and they looked back at her with interest.

Like a big animal trainer, Fryssen marched her witness through her paces.

“My name is Shea Moira Shortall,” said the witness, touching the Bible like she knew her way around it.

There was one lie, anyway. I happen to know that when she was born those names were reversed. She was Moira Shea Shortall.

“I live in Prairie Nouveau, Nevada, and I am a retired teacher of art.”

“Did you once have a sister named Mary Elizabeth?”

“I did. She was a year and a half my junior.”

“Can you recall the circumstances in which you learned of her death?”

“I received a transatlantic phone call in the middle of the night from a man calling himself Oz White. He told me my sister had passed away and I should inform the rest of the family.”
“Did you know who he was?”

“I thought he had something to do with the school where she worked. I asked him if we should hop on a plane and come over but he said instability in Algeria rendered air travel uncertain and he promised he would personally escort the body and the children to wherever we wanted them to go.”

“And what did you say?”

“I was very upset, but to the best of my ability I thanked him. I said I’d have to speak to my sisters to find out whether they wanted her in the family plot in California or out in Arizona where we all lived. I took down his numbers and asked how she died.”

“So what did he tell you?”

“He said the doctor described it as an aneurysm. He said they need to embalm bodies very fast in the hot countries and asked if we wanted her embalmed or cremated.”

“What did you say?”

“I said in our religion, cremation was a sin. We needed the body whole. For the resurrection.”
Little did she know what resurrection lay in store! I shuddered and Trevor moved his shoulders comfortingly against me.

“Tell us what he said.”

“He made some flippant remark… I don’t remember exactly what it was, but it certainly disparaged our beliefs. I thought it was very inappropriate, bordering on cruel. That’s when I realized he was just a friend of Mary Elizabeth’s and not in the employment of the Franciscans. They would have known better.”

“What was the next thing you recall happening?”

“I rang off. I guess I was in shock. I woke my sisters with a conference call and we all agreed on the family plot. I called him back in the morning to give him the details and spoke to his wife.”

“Renée White?”

“That’s correct. She seemed a thoughtful person. She said he was unavailable, so I gave her the information.”

“Did he at any time mention that he was the executor of your sister’s estate?”
“Not then.”

“Did he mention he was the administrator of her dead husband’s estate?”

“He did not.”

Jake jerked at Mina’s collar and demanded to know why Craig didn’t object. Mina hissed that it was better not to prolong this testimony.

“Did Mr. White or the girls actually attend the funeral?” Fryssen had a way of standing alongside the witness box with her back to the jury and staring at Oz as she spoke. Then they all stared at him, like he was a captured alien.

Shea had been awaiting this question. She spat out her indignation as if it was a poisoned tooth.
“They did not. He called me from his new home in Washington to say he had thought about it and decided it wouldn’t be good for the girls. That’s when he mentioned that Mary Elizabeth had appointed him guardian before her death. Of course we had assumed they would come to us and had made our preparations in that regard. Mr. White – he wasn’t remarried at that time – described funerals – especially open casket services – as barbaric and unnecessarily traumatizing.”

“How did you respond?”

“I was incredulous…I barely understood. I told him there wouldn’t be an open casket service because our funeral director described the body as “excessively embalmed”– beyond repair. I really think his objection was to any service whatsoever. He seemed to think “out of sight-out of mind” – about their own mother – would be better for the children!”

Her voice quivered with outrage and set to vibrating the various scarves and necklaces strewn about her person.

“What disturbed you most about this phone call?”

“This awful fact about guardianship…I couldn’t believe it. None of us had daughters. We were so looking forward to welcoming them, to telling them about their mother. About their family. Mr. White told me he would be sending copies of the documentation.”

“Did you ask him anything further?”

“I did. I had got the death certificate interpreted; it said “aneurysm subsequent to a fall.” That was the first I ever heard about the swimming pool. So I asked him about that.”
“What did he tell you?”

“That she had been out walking late one night and fallen into a disused swimming pool. That there was no one around to hear her cries or help her to get out. Apparently she succumbed to her injuries. Alone.”

Fawna swiveled her hips to check the jury out and make sure they were getting all this. She then changed course, resting her elbow on the side of the witness box as if leaning into a friend’s car to chat.

“Let’s switch to this recent case. When did you come to hear about the death of Mr. White-Hawke’s current wife Colleen?”

“My sister Gemma clipped her obituary from the Post. I think that was in July. I went on the Web and looked up the stories about this so-called-accident. I thought” —

“Never mind what you thought, what did you do?”

Unchewed words fell from her lips like crumbs of disappointment.

“I wrote a letter.”

“Addressed to whom?”

“I didn’t have a name so I addressed it to the Head Prosecutor whom I have come to understand is Mr. Buford. I pointed out the similarities between my sister’s death and Mrs. White-Hawke’s.”
“Thank you,” said Fawna. “No further questions.”

Craig rose and simply looked at Shea for quite awhile, as if she was a particularly interesting specimen. I knew he was feeling aggressive because he played with his tie.

After a moment he shook his shoulders and said,

“Permission to treat as a hostile witness.” He had figured out how to use this judge’s thirst for speed to his own advantage.

“Granted,” said his Honor, crisply.

Craig continued to gaze at the witness for a moment, arms akimbo. Then he said,
“How many legal actions have you and your sisters brought against Mr. White-Hawke?” Emphasizing Colleen’s name.

Shea sat up as straight in the witness box as a pointer dog and said, “Two.” Sharply.

“Describe these actions. What were their dispositions?”

“The first was to contest Mr. White’s guardianship of the children.” That one was dismissed, to our sorrow. The second was directly for custody of the children. We dropped that in 2003 because the case ran on too long – he did everything to block it and the children were getting too old.”

“Too old for you to love?” Craig mocked her.

“Too old to have guardians.”

“You really mean too old to be compelled to do something they don’t want to do, don’t you?”

“Objection!” shouted Buford, “Argumentative.”

“Hostile witness, counselor,” the judge chastened, “not hostile attorney.”

I saw Mina write that down.

“Move on.”

“The first suit was really about depriving Mr. White of his position managing Ms. Barringer’s estate, was it not?”

“She didn’t leave him any money personally. It was all for the children’s benefit. He was just a trustee. We would have liked to see an accounting.”

“Wasn’t the money primary and the issue of the children secondary?” Craig asked silkily. “I have a copy of your suit if you’d like to refresh your memory.”

She was wearing makeup; I could see it now, standing out in patches against her reddening skin. Third witness in a row to testify in blood. Craig did have a way of getting to people. Her voice rose to a squeak.

“We wanted the children to have what had been their mother’s! We were trying to have the entire will set aside!” As an aside she muttered, “We realized too late”—and stopped herself. Too late.
“What did you realize?”

“We didn’t care if he kept Mary Elizabeth’s things. We just wanted the children. That was the burden of the second suit. Certain facts about his character were emerging…it had come to our attention…”

“Or your private investigator’s attention”—Craig interjected.

“That Mr. White’s behavior was questionable as a role model. And then there was the way they lived—“ “Please don’t just ramble, Miss Shortall. Answer the questions that I ask. Why did you drop the case?”

“We had some communication with the children before the suits, but afterwards…that stopped. It just seemed…self-defeating.”

Was that a tear in her voice? I was beginning to be enough of an old hand to realize that trials bring out the actor in everyone.

Craig said sonorously, “I put it to you that you dropped the case after the judge interviewed Miss Brontë White-Hawke and she said she did not wish to change families.”
“I believe I heard something of the sort.”

Aunt Shea looked at me for the first time and I braced myself for a death-to-the-enemy-shot from my tongue ring but her eyes flickered over me gently. Trevor put a hand on one of my wrists and Jake covered the other. Seems they thought I might vault the defense table.

“Of course she was loving and loyal to the family in which she was raised.” Her voice softened. “It was a characteristic of my dear sister.”

She wasn’t going to give Oz any credit at all, if she could help it.

“Did Mr. White ever express to you his own love for these girls?” Craig was going to get her to admit it.

“Many times. I take their absolute lovability as a given. Anyone would love them.”

“Didn’t he tell you that he had to spend their entire estate fighting the case, that he was supporting them with his own funds, but that he didn’t care because he would never give them up?”
“Hardly,” said Shea coldly. “He offered us Shelley.”

There was a stunned silence.

Then pandemonium broke out. I thought I’d heard wrong. I think Shelley stood up, then staggered forward. I thought she was going to fall. Trevor and Jake grabbed for her but they were too late because they’d been concentrating on restraining me. They found themselves wrestling with an empty coat. She was gone. Spike shot out after her.

“Objection!” cried Craig. “Your Honor, this is a setup!”

“You opened the door, Mr. Axelrod. Now you’ll have to walk through it.”

The angry defense attorney said coldly to his witness, “I put it to you that this is a lie engineered to divide the family.”

“It is not! He wrote it in a letter!”

Buford lifted a paper above his head. “Your Honor, we would like to offer this letter as –”
“Mistrial!” shouted Craig. “The defense has not seen this purported document. I understand surprise witnesses are de rigueur in the glorious state of Virginia but surely surprise documents are too “star chamber” even for this great commonwealth. If not offered during discovery it should be irrelevant.”

Mina disappeared after Spike and Shelley. Oz put his head in his hands but when Trevor touched his shoulder, he whispered, “Go after Shelley.” Jake rose obediently. Trevor and I were alone.

“The prosecution concealed something – who knows what – to spring upon us at this moment in order to further upset this family and violate this defendant’s rights. This is clear ground for a mistrial.”

Buford stepped into the center of the room wringing his hands in a palliative fashion.
“Ms. Shortall moved recently and she only just recovered the letter, bringing it East with her. There was no bad faith here. I have a copy for the defense. The state—“

“Mistrial, your Honor! I demand a ruling. We were deliberately blindsided.”

The judge tossed his gavel around in a nearsighted manner.

“Mistrial motion denied,” he said.

“Then I ask that this letter not be admitted and the witness’ words stricken.”

The judge spoke. “Mr. Axelrod, I don’t see how the defense is encumbered by this little matter. It concerns a subject entirely ancillary to the case at hand.”

“This entire testimony is ancillary to the case at hand,” Craig insisted doggedly.

“Court is dismissed until nine a.m. tomorrow pending my ruling,” said the judge.

And this is the judge so in love with speeding these things along! Trevor steepled his brows in my direction.

There was Jake hovering outside the ladies room, and Shelley inside, crying her eyes out. When I hugged her, I could feel her heart hammering away.

“He always loved you best,” she wept.

That’s bullshit,” I insisted. “Trevor says every kid always thinks that about the other kids.”
It was too claustrophobic in the toilet stall and was she was holding me too close for comfort. I don’t like feeling small; it feels like I’m going to disappear. Anger at Oz made me want to thrash and flail, but there was no room and in any case Shelley wouldn’t let me go.

“You know when they finish with Oz, they’ll be coming after us,” she gasped, her mouth quivering. “We’ll have to change our names and run away.” She dried her eyes with toilet paper. “I always wanted to live in Paris.”

Did she mean the prosecution or the Shortalls? In just a couple of days I’d been offered Georgetown and Paris. I wondered if I could talk Trevor into going to the Sorbonne. We needed to survive this first.

“I’m afraid to go back to college!” she wailed. “Remember that seventeenth century Scottish cannibal family? The law killed them all, even the children.”

I had always wondered why she seemed so taken with that grisly tale of a family of highwaymen who not only robbed travelers, but ate them.

“That’s just a nightmare,” I said. “Long ago and far away. Not going to happen. Come on. The judge is letting us out of here. Let’s go to the mall. Besides, Jake is waiting for you.” I laughed as I kissed her. “You know he always loved you best.”

She blew her nose but refused to be comforted. “Take my advice, Brontë. Never love a guy who’s prettier than you.”

“Don’t worry,” I told her. I like the Bad Boys.

Spike had been keeping everyone at bay, re-directing them to the first-floor john. As soon as Shelley emerged Jake pounced, gabble at the ready, grabbing the back of her neck to guide her to the conference room.

“Oz explained it. He was playing for time. It was just a legal ploy to slow down the case. You were almost of age, so it didn’t matter. He knew you wouldn’t agree… He suggested everything he could think of… things he never would have actually done…”

In the conference room Shelley threw herself into Oz’s arms.

“I’m sorry I made a scene,” she gasped. “It’s been so hard. We’ve all been on edge.”
Shelley was apologizing to Oz for disrupting his murder trial! Now that’s what I call perfect manners.

He patted her back.

“Don’t even think about it. It was just something my lawyers suggested…”
He hugged her, then pulled me in too for one of those disappearing-act embraces that I loathe so much. “You girls are my heart,” he said as he knocked our heads together. “I was there when both of you were born.”

We had heard that story already, many times before. Oz was our mother’s labor coach and attended both our births, cut the cord because our own father wasn’t there. Oz hadn’t been allowed to attend his own sons’ births because his wife didn’t want him seeing her like that. In my opinion that squeamishness really backfired on her, the way squeamishness often does. Without all the mud and the blood, what do we really have of each other? Nothing.

Craig ordered lunch and we had a family picnic that would have seemed almost normal if it hadn’t been for the gunslinging deputies guarding the door. Oz regaled us with his contemporary version of scenes from The Life of Sir Walter Raleigh in the Tower.

Before court reconvened he made a point of pulling me aside.

“I’ve never seen Trevor looking so happy,” he told me, eyes bright. “I didn’t think he even had the happiness gene.”

I was thinking Oz always knew exactly what to say when he tightened his grip on me and whispered, “The two of you would make such a fantastic kid. Are you using protection? Don’t.”

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