Trials can be moments of truth―subtle, unexpected, even magical.

Tiger . Drawing by  Frank X. Tolbert2

Tiger. Drawing by Frank X. Tolbert2


Like the sudden stillness of songbirds
or animal tracks filling with water
or a name called from a dream.
All at once a meaning comes to light,
if you're paying attention.
If you're not so taken up in the action
you miss it,
a revelation that flares
and blows out.

Wrongful Death, p. 1.

 The Djinni

   Disinterment is the most gentle of occupations. The beaten, shot, and bulldozed dead are treated with meticulous tenderness. The women dealt with the brutally slain with such precision and delicacy that a measure of dignity was restored. Minouche fitting pieces of flesh in place, Wylene easing limbs onto a stretcher, Quierin cradling a young man's skull—they seemed more acts of love than crime-scene investigation. The dead were honored so they might tell their tales.
   The idea is to reverse-engineer a human life. Feel your way with probes and picks until you touch body parts. From the feet, carefully expose the corpse with rakes, trowels, and brushes. Record every finding by grid number on microcassette and continuous video. Zip the body and its clothes in a bag and stretcher it to the refrigerator truck for the morgue in Zagreb, where Leitner's pathologists would conduct the identifications.
    We wound up with the best positive ID of any site in Bosnia and Croatia. Having the disappeareds' hospital records made it a relative piece of cake. Some even wore name bracelets. With more than 95 percent certainty, 198 men and 2 women were identified by name and residence. All had been patients in Vukovar Hospital. Most had gunshot wounds to the back of the head. The manner of death of each was homicide.

The idea is to reverse-engineer a human life. Feel your way with probes and picks until you touch body parts.

    The dig had been the hard part. As Quierin's team methodically worked their way through a huge pyramid of contorted remains, it got increasingly grueling, especially in the heart of the pile, where bodies had not yet decomposed and skeletonized.
    Leitner and I helped around the edges when work bogged down, pulling on rubber gloves and surgical masks, carting off wheelbarrows of lime-caked earth. It took a few days to get past what Leitner called the yuck factor. I never got used to the smell.
    "Just don't smell it," Quierin suggested with a shrug. "Taphonomist trick. Olfactory is trainable nerve."
    Not mine. I hung back, playing Watson to Leitner's Holmes, gauging his sense of the investigation's needs and venturing off to explore them. In a corner of the pink-taped area was a low point not yet dug through, covered only lightly. At one spot methane gas bubbled in standing black water, signifying decomposition. I parked a wheelbarrow and set in bailing with a bucket. After a while a figure began vaguely taking shape in the black pool, a skeleton with a belt and boots, like a Muslim djinni―genie―the Bosnian spirit of the unquiet earth, approximating, for good or ill, a human form. Bearing for us a message.
    Wylene called over, "Don't go chunking into those guys yet." I waved an okay sign. I began carefully but blindly probing the bubbling water around the corpse with a trowel. "Hey." Leitner was at my arm. "Don't move," he said. I glanced back at him. "Don't move," he bellowed. "Everybody back away. Get away from us―now."

Read the rest of this excerpt from Wrongful Death.

Idealism Is True To The Earth

    DIA is twenty minutes farther than Stapleton, and everything else takes longer too. Parking, bag check, the train, the walk to the gate. Fares jumped the day it opened. Services shut down at 11 P.M. and are pathetic to start with. Bush-league food, books, and Bronco and Rockies memorabilia. A $5 billion-plus replacement of a perfectly serviceable airport. Monument to the egos of politicians already mostly forgotten. Like Ozymandias' colossal wreck on the lone and level sands.
    Were the casually attired arrivers and departers rolling their bags across gleaming floors under the canopied vault ranting in private the way I did every time I came to DIA? Probably not, so I ranted in private about them for a while. Casual attire was too kind. Some of them were slobs. A few, in sleeveless T-shirts, shorts, sweats, yelling into cell phones, would have drawn looks at a Little League picnic. Bring back the grace and courtesy, I silently ranted, of the days when flight was sacramental—a rapture from the earth—and we dressed as though for church. What would the saints of aviation—Lindbergh, Earhart, Saint-Exupéry—think of the death of the glamour and romance of travel by air?
    And what will she be wearing? A T-shirt, it turned out.
    I was at DIA on March 26, 1999, because two days earlier marked perhaps the most heroic moment in the history of international human rights, Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark's announcement of the air campaign to halt Yugoslavia's forcible expulsion beyond its borders of more than a million citizens and the brutal cleansing of an entire semiautonomous province. For the first time ever, full-scale war by a multinational force was begun in the cause of human rights. Quierin's work for the tribunal was suspended for the duration of the war. There would be much for her to do when it ended.

Get the Bad Guys (Street Demon).  Painting by  Frank X. Tolbert2

Get the Bad Guys (Street Demon). Painting by Frank X. Tolbert2

    On the driverless train the recorded voice of a onetime S&L TV pitchman belabored the obvious: "This train is going to Concourses A, B, and C." This train don't carry no gamblers, I thought, observing the travelers in shorts. No crapshooters, no midnight ramblers. Rant warming to song.
    We shot down a subway buzzing with thousands of blue pinwheel wall ornaments excited by the crush of train-driven air. From the platform I escalated to the gates and the mediocre concessions of Concourse A. A quick stop at the best of them, Rocky Mountain Chocolates, and I was loping up the moving sidewalk to A26. British Airways 1443 was just then easing to the gate. An attendant released a door and fastened it open. Nobody in the pipeline. Then a few first-class types, well-heeled midnight ramblers. And soon enough, my girl, three guys trying to keep up with her in the Jetway.
    We met, embraced, kissed as a stream of plane mates parted around us. A thirties-movie moment, modernity momentarily swept away in a cloud of Shalimar.
    Quierin's friends shook my hand, waved, hit the trail for baggage claim. She stepped theatrically back, smiling broadly, and threw out her arms. "I love America. I love Madeleine! I love Wesley Clark! And look at this—airport! I love this airport!"
    How could Ingrid have ever crossed my mind?
    Quierin was wearing signature black: black jeans, black leather jacket. She spread both arms as far as they went, index fingers pointing. A singular and commanding stance, enough so the stream of plane mates slowed and several stopped. Silently, she freed her jacket from one shoulder, then the other, black eyes locked on mine like a stripper, Mona Lisa smile curling. She slipped out one arm, another, let the jacket fall to the buffed floor, then drove her fists ceilingward in triumph, slowly turning a full circle before the audience she'd sensed had assembled, T-shirt drawing a smattering of applause.

Read the rest of this excerpt from Wrongful Death.

 Blow That Whistle

    In that part of Homestead on Friday night, with my white face in a new white Subaru, I felt more than conspicuous. I felt showcased, like a casserole turning in a microwave.
    It had at one time been a neighborhood of starter homes. Now maybe half were ender homes, overgrown and graffitied, boarded up or burned out. Trikes in yards, junkers at curbs, random piles of trash and busted furniture. Here and there just a concrete pad remained of a place torched by arsonists or razed by the city. Here and there was a tidy brick bungalow with garden art and trimmed grass, a steel front door and burglar bars.
    I can do this, I thought, as I began a hapless shuffle from a block away. A front door opened. A figure watched. A raked Grand Am rolled past, drive-by style, Dr. Dre on deep bass. The door slammed. I readied to pivot and push on the ball of a foot.
    Of course I could do this. I'd walked the korso full of young Serbs, ex-soldiers, war criminals certainly among them, all of whom I knew I was a prosecutor from The Hague. I went alone at 2 A.M. into gutted public housing looking for witnesses to testify against their countrymen. I had a Motorola handset then and the Czech HQ of NATO SFOR six miles away, motor pool full of tanks. Now I had a cell phone. I could call 911 and the Denver PD. I preferred SFOR tanks.
    Though partly boarded up, 212 Albion looked possibly inhabited, a faint glow at one uncurtained window. I knocked, turned the knob, and stepped into what may have been intended, in starter days, as a living room. I found the light and spoke Rico's name. I thought I heard movement.
    Nothing on the walls but large Roman numerals, XIV, VIII, in black spray paint. No furniture except a Salvation Army veneer coffee table, a metal chair, and two low-slung loungers. A rabbit-eared TV on the floor. Soil, excrement, something smeared in the starter carpet. A litter of clothes and odds and ends. A frying pan with old food in it sitting on the carpet. A half-gone bag of Doritos spilling out. Dozens of charred wooden matches. Occluded, asthmatic air, heavy with ammonia, though everything was filthy. A bedroom door ajar, from which the faint glow and sound of movement had come.
    And now a guy at the bedroom door. Not Rico. Way not Rico.
    A jolt of panic—I'd walked into the wrong house—but I froze, running muscles paralyzed.
    The guy was NFL lineman size, wobbly, muttering something. He came my way then turned, careened in a slow motion, swaying stagger, Rockies cap sideways on his head. He turned back again and retraced the same staggering arc, back and forth, muttering over and over, shoulders rolling, and chopping air with the blade of a hand:

Never believe dat cliché
Dat crime don pay
I's bon dis way

     He didn't register me at all. It occurred that I could just leave. I looked at my feet, New Balance-clad, rather than at the lineman a few feet away. Took a breath. Raised my eyes to his chest level.
    "Rico around?" I said.
    His head snapped. "Siddown."
    I chose the metal chair by the front door. I sat with right leg back and cocked.
    The rap and stagger resumed. Maybe it was dancing. Same lines again and again. I's bon this way
    Now a second bedroom door cracked. A half face. New beard. No pigtail. "Watash." We knocked knuckles, exchanged greetings. The rap kept coming around.
    "Tha's Bow Wow," Rico said. "He's by brother."
    "He doesn't look like your brother."
    I's bon dis way
    "Comrade in arms, is what I'm saying. Desert Storm. He got the syndrome."
    "He smoke the crack," I whispered.
    "Tha's mostly an act."
    "He's my ears and ears," Rico said, settling in a lounger. "Trouble come round, he's on it like a duck on a bug."
    I nodded. "That's—good. We can talk?" I indicated the lineman.
    "Don' mind Bow Wow."
    "Why'd you call me?"
    "I need an esquire. I'm tired of hiding, man. I can't live this safe-house life no more."
    Safe house? Crack house.
    "Look at this," Rico said, whipping out an arm. "Think about here, man. Here, there. One place, 'nother place. I am trained in hygiene, man. I am sick of this shit."
    "Why me?"
    "I want―what's that whistle? Blow that whistle, but I need protection. …"

                                                                                                                               Wrongful Death, pp. 248-250.

 The Red Herring

     Paige and Kirwan were each highly accomplished jury-selection stylists with vastly different styles. One was Oprah, the other Hans Christian Andersen. Paige projected deeply serious concern. Voir dire noir. The panel opened up to her, bonded, soon volunteering inner feelings on domestic violence, offering their own moving stories, of a friend who had barely escaped June's fate, a relative in a coma.
    Kirwan followed. His message seemed to be, let's have fun, implicitly trivializing the plaintiff's oh-so-serious claims. He knew all fourteen potential jurors' names without referring to his list. His first objective was to demonstrate that feat by stepping away from his notes and saying a little something to each by name. He wanted them to know this was a performance. His performance, mnemonic tricks and fairy tales, and little else. Not crime and justice, surely.
    Next, the jaunty man with the wrinkled face danced to his easel and began a weird, complicated tale, illustrated by pages of sweeping Magic Marker drawings, supposedly about the etymology of the term red herring. An English fox-hunting ploy of some kind, with a signpost of a dangling fish, and elaborate cross routes through the woods that he mapped on butcher paper for the curious venire. Throughout, he was hyperanimated, arms spread in elaboration, finger thrust here and there, spinning on toe and heel. At the easel, pages filled and flipped. Cartoons appeared of foxes, dogs, horses, and fish, a Mr. Rogers show-and-tell. When he wasn't drawing in flourishes, he was prancing, parading almost girlishly before them. It was his stage, not the judge's, certainly not ours.

"He does want jurors to feel comfortable denying victims' claims. To have fun as he takes them there."

    Kirwan finished and we broke for ten before choosing eight of the fourteen. April went for the ladies'.
    "Jesus, Paige." I'd not seen a Kirwan voir dire before. "He didn't ask questions. I couldn't follow what the hell his idiotic story meant. He didn't learn anything about any of them. He's―nuts?"
    "It's intentional," she said. "Kirwan has this idea you never learn who'll go your way by getting a panel to talk. 'I pick buttercups,' he says." The children's game of holding flowers to chins to find out who likes you.
    "Kirwan is interested in just one thing, jurors who are captivated by him. He tells an incomprehensible story in voir dire with the same mannerisms he'll use with witnesses. Swooping around, making his loops. He doesn't ask questions, but he constantly watches their eyes. He looks for a particular sparkle. Those he knows he can engage and distract throughout trial, who'll come each morning looking forward not to evidence but to Kirwan performances, and who'll do what he tells them at the end.
    "He's picked hundreds of juries. He can spot his sparklers, and, you know, he never loses."
    "So I hear."
    "You watch," Paige said. "He'll do all he can to make jurors focus on him so either they don't notice or they actually enjoy his high-spirited trashing of April."
    "The greatest evil," I quoted Hans, "is the evil that can pass for good."
    "He does want jurors to feel comfortable denying victims' claims. To have fun as he takes them there."

                                                                                                                                  Wrongful Death, pp. 266-267.

A Forbidden Enterprise

    For deep cover, running togs can’t be beat, especially in Boulder. Runners go anywhere and no one thinks twice. To clear my head, put things in perspective, I trotted across the creek, through Eben Fine Park, and onto the Flagstaff trail.
    There were hours of light left this ninth-longest day of the year. Lots of time to try to unvex the question of motive.
    Mountain bluebirds sailed from my path like flying fish. Yucca spikes hedged the trail. A bull snake vanished in the buffalo grass. I stood aside for a coed in coordinated spandex, hurtling downhill, ponytail tossing, a husky panting behind her. A senior rested on a hump of granite, walking sticks x’ed at his feet. The tallgrass meadow was shoulder high. Boulderers free-climbed Monkey Crag. Wild iris speckled the chokecherry flat. From the summit the city could be seen entire, cupped in open space like the green hands of God.
    As I ordered and reordered the facts, they made more and more sense, except for why. I retraced the route down the mountain, kicked left at an overlook, and shaped a way through the woods. An easy bushwhack on the needled floor, ducking boughs, until the glass slider winked through the trees. I listened. Nothing but the chitter of a squirrel. Creeping now around the perimeter, I saw movement and shrank down. A tuft of needles swaying in the foreground had made the background seem to jump. No cars, no light from inside. Seven-thirty on Friday evening. A golden opportunity to risk my law license in the hunt for motive.

In that instant every detail fell into place like a kaleidoscope twist that sorted scrambled fragments into the jeweled geometry of motive.

    The slider lock looked just as frail, the fishhook clasp in the door barely grabbing the bent staple catch in the frame. The door had a quarter inch of play. I wiggled it violently to rattle off the clasp. It held. I cocked the heel of my hand on the handle and put my shoulder into it. The door went nowhere. I pried up a two-foot flag of thin sandstone from the walk and wedged it between the frame and the handle. I gave the flag a full-body, two-handed sumo shove. The clasp pinged and the door popped open, shivering in its tracks. I jumped inside and drew the curtain to.
    Such a forbidden enterprise, how could I possibly defend it? I drifted through the gloomy talking office without conscious intention. A period still life in Rothko purples and Munch blues. I had no idea what I’d do when I got to where I was afraid to think I was going. I murmured to myself words of explanation. It’s not to win the case. There were others to protect. As though some moral oversoul demanded answers: What the hell are you doing in here? Uncontrollable curiosity is all. Being nosy. Following my nose. The nose knows. The nose gets it. Right on the nose.
    Right under my nose.
    Each step I worried less about the laws I was violating. I became a more committed criminal.
    In the shrine of self-regard his screen saver was off. Computer shut down for the weekend. A comforting sign. He had a three-in-one fax, photocopier, printer. I idly raised the cover. Empty glass. I sat in his high-backed chair, swiveled among his trophies and testimonials, tried to imagine myself him. Look through his eyes. The bookcase had some provocative titles. The Disposition of Toxic Chemicals in Man. But he was a forensic scientist, founder of the academy, and the title belonged. Forget the computer; I wouldn’t know the password. The beautiful blond cabinets beckoned. Twelve deep, sliding drawers.
    I stood and tested a pull—unlocked. I ran it out and scanned the neat headings in a hand not his. Ellen’s or Christina’s. Four inches of HHS that might include his Colfax inquiry. FDA. VA. Clippings, which I skimmed, with subfiles labeled DHR, Kosovo, Bosnia, Malpractice, Tort Reform. I slid another drawer out. Journal articles, all of it, as well as two others. Two or three feet of Pathology. The same of Forensic Medicine. Then Organic, Psychotic, Personality. A half foot of PTSD, another of Psycho-Pharmacology. Three drawers of patient charts in alphabetical order. Near the back of the last, under S, was Stillwell, Dale. Two drawers of Legal. Criminal was divided into Domestic and International. Civil contained Depositions and Case Reviews, organized by law firm. A drawer of Research. A drawer of Committees and DHR. A drawer of financial papers, taxes, billings, collections, investments, insurance.
    I sat back down with the unhelpful thought of how outraged I’d be if someone did this to me. Then hairs began to prickle. Then hairs began to prickle. I could care less. I weighed his mouse in my palm like a relic. I spread fingertips above the desktop as though to attract an electrostatic pulse of insight, a gathering imagined glow of almost biblical enlightenment—
    Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies
    In that instant every detail fell into place like a kaleidoscope twist that sorted scrambled fragments into the jeweled geometry of motive. I felt simultaneously stupid and brilliant, for not seeing and then for seeing it. I felt as if I’d awakened, both woozy and refreshed, from a long, confused sleep, a coma of misunderstanding.
    I didn’t even need to read it. I knew what was there, four feet away. Other sensations intruded. A car engine rumbling. Rumbling stopping. The melodramatic sound of a car door closing. The fump of an expensive sedan.
    I fancied I could hear his footsteps. I considered changing seats. I stayed in his.
    "Hello. It's time to come to Jesus."

                                                                                                                                      Wrongful Death, pp. 298-301.

Smoke A Cigar.  Drawing by  Frank X. Tolbert2

Smoke A Cigar. Drawing by Frank X. Tolbert2