Wild Justice (Chapter One)
by Richard C. Smith
Down on the Farm
It was a hot Sunday in August and we traveled down Route 15 at
sixty miles per hour with the windows wide open and Bob Dylan in the tape
deck. The wind and music muffled conversation, so I focused on the countryside
of second-growth timber and thought about other trips I'd made to Maine, starting
thirty years back when I was a five-year-old with two doting parents in a
'55 Dodge touring car.
Route 15 is a broad two-lane highway cutting southeasterly
over wooded hills, eventually running to the tip of Deer Isle on Penobscot
Bay, We passed an occasional small town beside a lake, white clapboard
houses and churches, then the road flattened out and followed the Piscataquis
River through Guilford and Sangerville, our destination. It was five-thirty,
when we pulled into the driveway at the farmhouse, where my '69 Rambler station
wagon sat in the shade of two sugar maples, looking dusty, neglected and disreputable.
My name is Mallory, James Maxwell Mallory. I have
been a private detective for about ten years now. In that time I have
accumulated neither great wealth nor many possessions. Old friends,
when I feel the need for luxury, are willing to share with me. A woman
I know tells me it's because I am large--six feet two, one hundred ninety-five
pounds--and almost a cop, and I don't covet their wealth, so people feel safe
The farmhouse belonged to two old friends, Samantha and
Jay Franklin. They'd acquired it--along with one hundred acres of hay
fields, a fifty acre woodlot, thirty-six Jersey cows, two tractors, a manure
spreader, and the services of a hired hand named Hank--back in February.
Before that they'd lived in a three bedroom co-op on Manhattan's Upper West
Side, overlooking Central Park.
We were returning from seven days of sailing on Moosehead,
a big lake that cuts thirty-five miles into the wilderness territories owned,
maintained, and protected by Scott Paper Company. There are landlocked
salmon in the lake that spawn in the rivers filling it, and an abundance of
moose, black bear, otters, and mosquitoes. We'd brought along a good
stock of exotic supplies, caught a fair number of fish, and each night--on
the chosen island, after an evening swim--Jay had improvised a gourmet meal
on the two-burner Coleman, while Sam and I gathered driftwood for the fire
that was necessary in the cool August evenings. After dinner we talked
until the fire burned down, then I'd crawl off to my sleeping bag on the padded
deck of the nineteen-foot Silhouette, leaving Sam and Jay to the privacy
of a pup tent pitched on shore.
It hadn't bothered me to sleep alone with the stars and
mosquitoes that lazy summer week. Just before heading north I'd finished
tracking down a pair of swindlers who'd snatched half a million dollars from
my client. One of the pair had died in an ugly way, and the other was
now in jail. The dead one had been a woman, and I was trying to decide
whether her dying had been worth the hefty fee the client paid with such enthusiasm.
It probably wasn't, but she was gone, and I didn't plan to return the fee.
Now I'd had my week of soul-searching, fresh air, and sunlight, and I felt
fit and reasonably at peace with my conscience.
We were back in Sangerville in time for the evening milking.
Jay went out to the barn while Sam and I unloaded supplies from the Jeep 4x4.
That finished, I went to Jay's office at the front of the house, with its
mahogany partner's desk and matching leather chairs, blue Oriental rug, and
the gold-framed portrait of Judge Rupert B. Franklin, Jay's paternal grandfather.
Nine months earlier the same furniture had filled an office fifty stories
above Wall Street, with a view of the planet that would have made Zeus envious.
Zeus notwithstanding, I have never envied Jay his beautiful
offices, since he has to practice law in them. Occasionally I test my
feelings on that subject--it's important, because if I'd stayed in law school,
I'd have been guaranteed similar accommodations by the unwritten part of the
Harvard diploma--but I always come up pure. I prefer my own place, on
the third floor of an aging health club at the edge of Boston's dwindling
red-light district, the Combat Zone.
Sitting in the outsized chair behind the desk where old
Judge Franklin had written a thousand opinions of law, I used my credit card
to call Boston, activated the device that plays back the messages on my machine,
and listened to three recorded dial tones. The machine has limited success
snaring new clients, most of whom have problems they'd prefer not to divulge
to a tape recorder.
Then Michael Garrison's voice came over the line.
Michael's a partner at a large Boston law firm similar to the large Wall Street
firm Jay had forsaken. Michael has the odd notion that holding a telephone
to his mouth is undignified, so he pushes a button on his conference speakers
instead and talks through the voice activated microphone. It gives his
messages an echoing, prophetic quality.
The voice said, "Jimmy, remember Mary Wyman? You
tracked down her niece six years ago. Mary's been threatened and badly
beaten by unknown parties. Give me a call when you get back."
Then three more recorded dial tones, and that was it.
I tried to think of all the people I knew in Boston who were mean enough to
beat up a seventy-year-old woman, all the reasons they might have for doing
so. I'd have to wait for details. On a Sunday afternoon in August
Michael would be out on the manicured playing fields of the Bombay Hunt Club,
waving a long-handled polo mallet at seven fellow Anglophiles on horseback.
Back in the kitchen Sam sat at the big yellow table.
Her blond hair was lit by the last of the sunlight coming in through the screen
door behind her, putting her face in shadow. She looked cool and contented,
and smiled as I came into the room. There was a cold bottle of Geary's
ale opened for me, and I sat across from her with the sun in my eyes and drank
half of it in one long swallow. It tasted like good beers I'd had in
Ireland, the kind that never get imported to the States.
"Can you stay a few days more," Sam said, "or must you
return to the land of discord?"
She talks that way because she writes romantic novels and
can't always turn it off. And she's from Ireland herself, so she said
it with a lilt.
"Duty calls," I told her.
"More's the pity. Jay's out with the cows and Hank.
Our hired hand is stewing over our gall at taking holidays."
"Probably because he's never had one," I said. I
knew the real reason for Hank's attitude was Ben Chapman, an old bachelor
who owned half the town of Sangerville, the man who'd sold the farm to the
Franklins. Apparently Ben had long ago promised to will the place to
Hank. So Hank harbored a grudge against the new owners, which manifested
itself in subtle ways, like bitching about their vacations and leaving tractors
running under bedroom windows at five in the morning. He had the added
charm of despising me as another interloper from the big city. But he
kept working for the Franklins--jobs are scarce in northern Maine--and they
weren't mean enough to fire him.
I'd met Ben Chapman back in February, when he tried to
sell the Franklins a manure pile. The pile was on their land at the
time, but as Ben pointed out, it hadn't been listed in the purchase and sale
agreement. Jay asked him, in that case, to please remove it.
It struck me at the time that Ben looked like a man who'd
just stepped out of a manure pile, which was not unusual in those parts, except
that Ben's brother was a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
and had taught at Harvard when Jay and I were first-year law students.
Jay had been Judge Chapman's law clerk after graduation.
"Hank's gotten worse in the last few weeks," Sam said.
"Frankly, I'd like to sell the cows, shut down the dairy and be done with
him. But then I think about Abby and the five girls."
I finished the Geary's and stood up. "Maybe I'll
go out and help placate him."
"Be forewarned--Jay'll put you to work at the milking."
"It's been tried before." I let the screen door slam
behind me and stepped out into the sunlight. The lawn and gardens in
back of the house were enclosed by a short picket fence on two sides and by
the long wall of the barn on the third. Beyond the fence a hay field
ran uphill to woods, which were in shadow. The hillside itself was lit
by the hot sun, the recently cut hay raked into lines that followed its contours.
It looked like a Currier & Ives print of a summer evening in the country.
I walked to the barn and stepped into the cool air of the milking room, where
the thirty-six Jersey cows fed at two rows of stanchions under a low ceiling
that was the floor of the big hayloft above.
It took a moment to adjust to the dim light. Hank
was nowhere in sight, but Jay knelt on the cement floor beside a brown cow.
Jay has a broad, sculpted face that reminds me of Picasso's portrait of Gertrude
Stein, except when he smiles and looks like Chevy Chase. At that moment
he frowned, trying to get the suction cups of an electric milker over the
teats of the cow. The milking machine made a lot of noise and looked
like a nursing extraterrestrial.
He spotted me and shouted, "Ready for work?"
"I'm just a cow observer," I shouted back. "I never
He didn't smile, but went back to the suction cups while
I observed. With their brown hides and soulful eyes, Jerseys look a
lot like deer. That's what I was thinking when ninety pounds of tightly
baled hay dropped out of the ceiling directly above my head. I jerked
back so it hit me on the shoulder instead of breaking my neck, but the impact
knocked me onto the cement floor. Hank appeared at the edge of the trapdoor
in the ceiling.
"You idiot!" he shouted.
I almost laughed at him. He jumped from the loft
and landed a few paces away as I got to my feet. I brushed sawdust from
my jeans, then glanced up and recognized the look in his eyes--the look of
a man who wants to bust heads and doesn't need much provocation to start.
He was a giant, at least five inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than
I. I barely had time to wonder what the hell was wrong with the guy
when he drew back his right fist for a barroom punch, I stepped into it, took
it back farther than he'd intended, twisting the arm in one quick motion,
then walking him up against the wall. He hit hard enough to shake dust
out of the loft overhead. Jay switched off the electric pump and shouted,
I think it was the sudden silence of the pump that stopped
him. I felt his muscles relax and I let him loose, taking two quick
steps back. He turned and glared at me, said "Shit," and hauled off
and kicked the fallen bale of hay. Then he pushed past and stalked to
the open door in back and went on out. I rubbed my neck and looked at
"A little unresolved hostility, or was I standing where
only a city slicker would stand?"
"You were standing just fine. You okay?"
I brushed off more sawdust and said, "I'm dirty."
We looked at each other and suddenly both laughed.
"Reminds me of that night at the Dugout when the big Irishman got mad at you
for playing Frank Sinatra on the jukebox," Jay said. Then he frowned,
losing his Chevy Chase look. "It's because of Ben Chapman. Ben
got himself killed this afternoon, cutting wood. Pulled a tree on his
head with a tractor."
"Sounds stupid, doesn't it? Hank heard about it on
the CB scanner, got real upset, and I told him to go home to his family.
But Hank has never gone home in the middle of milking, so he stayed.
I'm sorry, Jimmy. We'd better finish here and go in and tell Sam.
This could be the last straw as far as Hank's working here."
"No pun intended, I hope." He smiled again, and I
volunteered to help--I'd had some rudimentary instruction on milking machines
during my visit in February. Working together it took us only about
twice as long as it should have to finish milking and then clean the equipment.
On the way back to the house I smelled coals burning in the barbecue, a nice
summer smell. In the kitchen we found Hank's wife, Abby, at the table
"Abby just told me what happened," Sam said.
"I came to apologized for Hank," she said with a gruff
voice, keeping her eyes on Jay. "Are you hurt, Mr. Mallory?"
"I'm fine. It was an accident."
"Getting mad was no accident, but he's terrible upset about
old Ben. That's no excuse, but maybe it's enough so you'll turn a blind
eye this once, Jay. If Hank lost his job, it'd kill him."
"Never mind, Abby. It's all right."
"I just wanted to apologize," she said again. Having
got what she came for, she stood up from the table and went to the front door,
her head bowed.
Jay met her at the door and put his hand on her shoulder.
"It's okay," he said. She smiled up at him, then back at Sam and me,
and went out.
Jay closed the door and said, "Shit."
Sam shook her head sadly, "Poor Ben.: Then she looked
at me and said, "You're a mess."
So I went upstairs to wash, and stopped in the guest room
to change into a clean pair of jeans and a fresh T-shirt. Back downstairs
half an hour later Sam was a lone again in the kitchen, at the counter opening
the three Styrofoam packs of porterhouse steak we'd picked up before leaving
I can't believe Hank attacked you like that, " she said
as soon as I came into the room.
I went to the counter and pulled the cork from a bottle
of red wine Sam had set out beside the sink. "People are funny," I told
her. "He needed a target, and I was available. Why do you think
he took Ben's death so hard?"
"Ben was like a father to Hank, or used to be before they
fought. You father dies when you're still angry, with him, you feel
a lot of guilt. I know about that."
"Ben didn't strike me as the fatherly type."
She shrugged, putting the last of the steaks on the platter.
I got wineglasses out and poured us each a glass. We stood looking out
the window over the sink, thinking about Hank's behavior. It didn't
make any sense to me, but I decided not to worry about it. I was on
vacation. Sam turned on the tap and washed her hands, then looked up
at me and said, "I'd better take a look at the garden--it's probably overrun
with killer vegetables after a week without attentions. Jay's upstairs
changing. Would you throw the steaks on the grill?"
She took a wicker basket along with her. I got the
steaks and my glass of wine and took everything out to the grill. The
coals had burned down nicely, and I stood with my wine and the view of the
hay fields and waited for the meat to char while the light faded and dew settled
in the grass. Sam came from the garden with half a dozen yellow squash
and gave me a rueful smile going past. "Full of weeds."
Jay came out to join me, bringing the bottle of wine.
He sat on the steps and looked up at the hay field and the beginning of the
sunset. "Nice to be in the country," he said. I swatted an imaginary
mosquito and he smiled. When the steaks were done, we brought them in
on the platter. Sam had set the table with blue cloth napkins, blue
china, and the good silver. "Tonight we eat civilized," she said.
But what had been meant as a party turned out to be a wake
for Ben Chapman. They told me stories about him, like the time a cagey
tourist offered to a buy "a hundred dollars worth of land," and Ben brought
him a wheelbarrow full of dirt. And the time Ben clobbered a hunter
up from Boston who'd shot Ben's goat, thinking it was a deer, and the story
got into The New York Times. Sam said, "We should call the Judge."
He's probably on his way up," Jay said. "We'll see
him at the funeral."
I took a bite of steak and finished a glass of wine.
The sun had gone down and it was getting dark in the the room. "Do you
think Ben might have left Hank a few acres after all?" I said.
"I'm pretty sure he died intestate," Jay answered me.
"He once asked me to draft a will, then changed his mind when I told him what
my fee would be. Since the Judge is his only family, he didn't really
"This isn't much of a send-off for you, James," Sam said.
"Did he tell you, Jay, he has to leave tomorrow?"
"Urgent business in Boston."
"If you stay," Sam said, "we could go back up to the lake
for another week." She said it with such a wistful note I was tempted
to say I would stay. I thought a bit about the sail we'd just finished.
The wind had been light out of the northwest most of the day, and we'd flown
the blue spinnaker from the old spa at Kineo all the way down to Greenville,
almost twenty miles. The sun had been hot, the trees lit up green, the
sky blue and marked only by the high vapor trails of jets heading back from
Europe to New York and Boston.
That's when the front door burst open and Judy, Hank's
fifteen-year-old, ran into the kitchen sobbing.
It took us a few minutes to calm her down and learn the
fact she'd come to communicate. The police had arrested Hank.
They were charging him with Ben Chapman's murder.
Richard C. Smith, a graduate of Dartmouth College and Boston University Law School, was a corprate attorney in Boston for several years. He now lives and practices in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A Secret Singing is his first novel.