Excerpt from “A Nation of Ruins”


copyright 2011 Robert John Burke.


The door opened with a screech, jarring William Fitzgerald from dreaming of bygone days. The fellow who sat down on the opposite side of the glass didn't look like much of a threat, cuffed hands and traffic-cone coveralls aside. His big brown eyes stood out from a long face like planets orbiting his crooked nose. He probably weighed a buck-fifty soaking wet; he kept so little meat on his frame, Fitz feared the fellow's joints might pop out of his skin with any sudden movement. Even the way he shivered in the barely-heated chamber seemed like a threat to his skeletal structure.

Fortunately, it was difficult to imagine him making any sudden movements; he wasn't languid so much as listless, didn't look at Fitz so much as through him. From the circles that made those huge eyes look even bigger, he might have been catching up on lost sleep somewhere deep inside himself, obeying the directions of the jowly prison guard who hovered over him the way a marionette obeyed its puppeteer.

Fitz turned his attention to the guard; however skilled he was at pulling strings, the overstuffed personage of Bryce-McClintock Corporate Reeducation would have made a strange-ass ventriloquist. His lips didn't move, even to the extent of a cursory smile. He loomed behind his prisoner with arms akimbo, attempting to wither Fitz with his fish-eyed glare. He wasn't the first CRE man to resent William Fitzgerald for the amount of time he spent on his side of the glass, bringing the silk-gloved hand of law to the enemy. Fitz smiled back and resisted the temptation to wave. He also shifted in his seat, allowing the bulge of his holster to show.

Come on over to this side of the glass if we've got a problem that really must be dealt with.

The guard curled his lip and turned away. He wasn't that serious. Fitz shrugged and wondered when he'd stopped holding his breath in situations like that. He'd once possessed a highly-developed sense of guilt, but nowadays he just couldn't afford it. He was as likely to meet people who hated his guts at the supermarket as at Bryce-McClintock. A man had to breathe sometime.

Fitz leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table in front of the glass. He had a lot to rest; he'd been lean and awkward like the prisoner once, but since he'd cleared sixty he'd begun to approach the bulky guard's proportions. The hands he folded in front of his face were lined, weathered, not to say shriveled. He made contact with deep brown eyes that studied him as suspiciously as the guard's had, if more cautiously.

Tell me why I should defend you.”

The prisoner, named Stephen Cooper, fidgeted in his chair. His whole face puckered up when he frowned. “You shouldn't, I guess. I don't expect you to; I can get a public defender.”

There are a dozen left in New York, and they're staggering under thousands of cases. You could apply; most likely you'd be forced to waive under the Thirty-Sixth Amendment.”

Cooper shrugged. “I'm sure some lawyer will come along. Someone will be hungry for publicity.”

And probably end up with heartburn, like Pontius Pilate,” Fitz murmured. He unfolded his hands. “You don't sound optimistic that anyone would take your case on its merits. I must tell you, you have no cause for optimism. None whatsoever.”

I know that.” Cooper peered at him again, dark eyes unexpectedly shrewd. “So why did you come?”

Because I knew your mother. We went to Berkeley together, back when it meant something. That's worth a visit.”

Cooper looked away, suddenly ashamed. “I didn't know she'd call you. I haven't spoken to her in a while.”

She doesn't blame you.”

Well, she's a mother.”

Yes.”

Fitz placed his briefcase on the table and fished out a manilla folder, overstuffed with reports and printed-out articles. Cooper's face betrayed surprise at the anachronistic file; almost anyone else would have called it up on their mobile link, but Fitz couldn't stand the things. He opened to the first clipping, the large-font headline: Peace Vigilante Arrested.

I remember that one,” Cooper said with the closest thing to a smile Fitz had seen him attempt. “The boldness of leading with an oxymoron impresses me, but it struggles for prose to match the headline. For pure sensationalism, I prefer the one that framed me as the 'Bad Samaritan.'”

Fitz closed the file. “If you're amused by all this, I can leave.”

Wait!” Cooper said as he started to rise. “I'm sorry, I'm going a little crazy these days. I'm not amused. I didn't mean any disrespect, honestly.”

He seemed sincere. Fitz resumed his seat with a deliberate harrumph. “Shall we review the facts of the case, then? I'd like to hear your version of what happened.”

The thin man shrugged, rattling his handcuffs. “The official version isn't in dispute. Anyone who can read knows what happened.”

Still, I'd like it from your perspective.” Fitz drew a paper from the file and scanned it. “According to the police report, this man-- Henri Bellamy-- twenty-four year old black male--”

Was he really twenty-four?” Cooper shook his head. “He seemed younger. He seemed... frightened, I recall.”

He should have been.” Fitz made a note in the folder. “If anyone else had been in your position, he'd be dead.”

Not anyone else.”

Any decent person,” Fitz said. He eyed his prospective client, but Cooper only shrugged, more matter-of-fact than defensive, still mired in a pessimistic haze. Fitz cleared his throat and continued, “Henri Bellamy entered your home around seven o'clock in the evening, while you were at work. You're a transit dispatcher, correct?”

Yes,” Cooper said. “My wife got home at six; I promised to pick up Chinese food for dinner, but I got stuck in traffic and was running late.”

Fitz scanned the next few lines. “Yes, your wife Erica was at home, along with two children: Sarah, age fifteen, and Thomas, age eight...”

Tommy was seven. He just turned eight.”

Fitz re-checked the date and nodded. “Seven, then. Also at home was your father-in-law, a Rodney Wilkins, age seventy-one. He lived with you, is that correct?”

Yes. He had cancer. We were taking care of him.”

Right. Noted.” Fitz reached the next paragraph and winced. “Bellamy, a Haitian residing in this country illegally-- oh, that's excellent. For a moment I was afraid we'd have trouble eliciting sympathy, but there's nothing a jury loves more than illegals.”

That must have gotten through the haze, because Cooper leaned forward until his nose nearly touched the glass. “You're using that we a little prematurely. So far you're no different than any of the others who've come by to rattle my cage. If I so disgust you, leave.”

Fitz held up his hands for peace, but his tone remained deadly serious. “I'm trying to impress upon you, Mr. Cooper, not my personal disgust, but the fact that you disgust everyone. You have no friends in this country-- none-- and your overseas friends can't help you.”

Cooper snorted. “I knew that, thanks, but I never tire of hearing it.”

He leaned back in his chair. Fitz read from the ever-more-depressing paper.

Bellamy, an illegal on the run from Immigration, entered your Brooklyn home by force, through the kitchen door. He began by demanding money. When your wife denied him, he threatened her. While they were arguing, your father-in-law-- a notably brave man, a veteran of the North Atlantic campaign-- entered the kitchen carrying a semi-automatic rifle.”

His pride and joy,” Cooper noted. The haze seemed to have returned, though only enough to dull the edge in his voice, not to cover it completely. “I must have heard the story about how he hid it from the government men during the war five hundred times, if once. The forces of darkness got a little more overwhelming with each retelling...”

Shut up,” Fitz said. “The man was a veteran, he's dead, and you're a punk. Shut up.”

Cooper inclined his head and obeyed. Fitz took a deep breath.

Bellamy fired first, hitting your father-in-law three times in abdomen, chest, and neck. He fell; when your wife attempted to gain control of her father's rifle, Bellamy pistol-whipped her to the ground.” A plaintive sound escaped Cooper's lips at that; Fitz pressed harder, hopeful he was getting through. “We're not done. Your daughter Sarah saw what happened to her mother and entered the room in a rage; Bellamy knocked her down and kicked her in the stomach, a blow that ruptured her diaphragm and left her hospitalized. Bellamy then dragged your eight... excuse me, your seven-year-old son into the room and held a gun to his head, threatening to, quote, 'blow his fucking head off' if your wife refused his orders.” Fitz looked Stephen Cooper in the eye. “Up to this point, I'd say Mr. Bellamy has conducted himself as a very bad man, wouldn't you, Mr. Cooper?” Receiving the nod he expected, Fitz finished, “It's at this point that you came home. Why don't you tell me what happened next?”

Cooper waited an extra second to make certain the lawyer was finished talking before he said, “You've got it there.”

I told you, I want it from you. What happened? You came in the front door?”

Yes.”

You heard the commotion?”

Yes, I did.”

Were you armed?”

Cooper glared at him. “Of course. Who isn't?”

What did you do?”

The thin man cleared his throat. “I drew my gun--”

A .32 caliber, slim-profile semi-automatic, yes?”

Cooper frowned. “I don't know. I don't know guns. I bought whatever the man at the store recommended.”

Fitz peered at him, politely suspicious. When Cooper didn't change his story, he shuffled the papers and coughed. “That was the gun, for the record. A Bronx Armory model, very popular, though I prefer a .44 myself. I like to make a statement.”

I don't care,” Cooper said.

You'd better, Mr. Cooper. What happened after you drew your weapon?”

I entered the kitchen. I saw... him, Bellamy, with my son. His back was to me, so I aimed at him and told him to step away.”

You didn't shoot?” Fitz waited for the prisoner to shake his head. “Suppose he'd fired first and hit your son?”

Suppose I'd missed and hit my son?”

Fitz picked out another paper. “Yes, I have your transcripts. I see your marksmanship scores are very low. You don't think much of your civic duty, do you, Cooper?”

The thin man shrugged. “I wasn't worried about duty; I was worried about my family. I told Bellamy to step away. I think I surprised him.”

And he stepped away?”

Yes.”

Fitz pulled several papers out of the folder, but kept them to himself. He eyed Cooper. “And then, like any responsible citizen, you shot him?”

Cooper took a deep breath, hissed it out.

No.”

No.” Fitz repeated. He held the pictures up to the glass so Cooper could see them: Scans of Rodney Wilkins' body, of Erica Cooper's bruised and swollen face, of Sarah Cooper in a wheelchair, struggling for breath. “A man did this, and you didn't shoot him?”

I did not.”

Did you want to shoot him?”

Maybe. I don't know. I thought about it. I couldn't.”

Fitz frowned at the other, confused. “Why not, Mr. Cooper?”

Cooper folded his hands as Fitz had earlier. He spoke very slowly, his voice changing timber, rich with an inflection Fitz couldn't quite define.

He asked me that, too. He seemed perplexed.”

I imagine he was. What did you tell him?”

I asked him if he'd ever read the Bible; he said he had. I asked him if he'd read the book of Micah; he said he didn't remember it. So I quoted chapter six, verses seven and eight. 'Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the--'”

Fitz waved him off. “Yes, I know the verses. That's your reason, then?”

That's my reason. People aren't sacrifices, Mr. Fitzgerald.”

So you pointed him to the door and said, 'Go and do likewise.' Breaking every Good Samaritan law on the books, violating your duty to your family and your neighbors, and incidentally leaving a dangerous, desperate man at large in your community. He still hasn't been found, you know. They only identified him from security footage and Immigration mugshots. He could be anywhere by now.”

Cooper studied the floor. It couldn't have been much to look at; the floor on Fitz's side of the glass certainly wasn't.

I hope he's found refuge,” the prisoner said. “I hope he'll change.”

Fitz grunted. “I've been at this a long time, Mr. Cooper. Men don't change.”

I guess we'll never know.”

You'd better pray we don't,” Fitz told him. “Anything he does from now on will be on your head. That's how a jury will see it. That's how a judge will see it.”

The dark eyes pulled Fitz in. “Is that how you see it?”

Fitz drummed his fingers on the glass, a nervous habit. He studied Stephen Cooper for signs of cowardice or wheedling. He saw only a tired man, a man who'd lost everything.

Two verses from Micah?” he said. “That's really why you did it? Are you sure you weren't afraid? Just plain, simple scared out of your wits?”

No,” said Cooper. “I'm not sure of that at all.”

Fitz stood from his chair; the creaks and pops of his skeleton reminded him he hadn't been Stephen Cooper's age in a long time. When he smiled, he appeared the younger of the two.

For such an answer, I'll take your case,” he told Cooper. “If nothing else, you're honest, and an honest man deserves a chance. I repeat that I do not expect to win.”

I don't expect you to, either, but thank you for trying.” Cooper stood. The door screeched again, and the burly guard reappeared. “I've always wondered how well you knew my mother at Berkeley.”

Quite well,” Fitz said, “but mine isn't the story you've got to worry about. The State's bringing in Benjamin Grove to prosecute, and he will break you to pieces.”

Cooper grinned over his shoulder as the guard manhandled him toward the door. “My story is easy to remember, since it's true. Making it sound good, that's my brilliant lawyer's job.”

Fitz wracked his rapidly-whitening skull and tried to decide if he was that brilliant; doubting it, he went out and got drunk, which improved his opinion of his own skills considerably.

He still didn't think he was that brilliant, but he came much closer.


If you enjoyed this excerpt, A Nation of Ruins by Robert John Burke can be purchased in Amazon Kindle or paperback formats.