PUT A SOCK IN IT
By Jean Majury
Court reporters write down truckloads of words dumped into courtrooms. Sometimes the loads are so heavy, reporters explode. That’s what happened to me in Judge Cathy Howard’s courtroom where a slip of my tongue tied me to her murder.
Judge Hayward’s court reporter, Jack Dillon, was on medical leave. With my assigned judge on vacation, I became Jack’s substitute. Judge Hayward’s endless stream of words wore out my mind and fingers that day. Worse, she demanded a transcript of them by seven that night. That order sent me over the edge. “She should put a sock in it,” I muttered to her clerk, “or I will.”
Later that night I found out someone had taken my advice. Breaking television news revealed Judge Hayward had been strangled and her overactive mouth silenced by a sock.
The clerk’s recollection of my “put a sock in it” comment brought Homicide to my courthouse office the next day. “I was frustrated,” I told a detective named Norton. “The judge never shut up.”
“But wasn’t part of her job to talk?” he asked.
His babe-in-the-woods expression made me realize I better have a good comeback. “Sure, it’s her job. But usually,” I said, aiming for tact, “judges don’t talk every second of every minute of every hour.”
“Oh, come on, ma’am, don’t exaggerate.”
“I’m not,” I snapped. “She was a Chatty Cathy.”
“Well, even if she was a talking machine, that’s no reason to kill her.”
“Detective, I did not kill her.”
Norton’s disbelieving eyes locked with mine. Eventually he got tired of our stare-down and asked me a question. “Fill me in on where you were from the time you left your office the night of the murder until you arrived home.”
“The judge wanted a transcript of pretrial motions by 7 PM that night,” I spat out. “I dropped it off on her bailiff’s desk five minutes ahead of time.”
“Why did you leave the murder scene?” Norton asked.
“What murder scene?” I asked. “Nobody was in the courtroom when I entered or left it.”
Although I provided further details, Norton remained skeptical of my story. “I’ll get back to you,” he said as he left my office.
I didn’t wait for Norton to get back to me with a possible murder charge. Instead, I hired Bob Kraft, the best criminal lawyer around, to defend me. His exceptional legal skills were only exceeded by his fees.
Bob persuaded Homicide there was no probable cause to arrest me. Unfortunately, I remained a person of interest in the case. That status put me on administrative leave. Suddenly, I was a courthouse liability.
Fear kept me awake at nights. I visualized myself on death row morphing into a Judge Hayward. Instead of instructing jurors and arguing with lawyers as she had, I would forever be protesting my innocence.
In a follow-up meeting, Bob urged me to park my worries.
“That’s impossible,” I said.
“You’re a courthouse insider,” he reminded me. “Why not snoop around and find another suspect?”
Immediately I thought of the Judge Wagner, my assigned judge. A month earlier I had returned to his empty courtroom to retrieve a file. A few of his judicial buddies were talking with him back in his chambers. An open door permitted Judge Wagner’s angry voice to penetrate the courtroom. “Hayward’s a liability to the court system.”
“And a liability to us,” someone piped up.
Judge Wagner continued. “She’s clogging up the court calendar. Dare I suggest we hire a plumbing company to flush her out of here?”
Laughter erupted before the judge added, “Gentlemen, I’m not joking.”
My eavesdropping ended when the judge shut the door.
At the time I, too, had chuckled over the plumber remark. I knew exactly what Judge Wagner meant when he spoke about “clogging up the system.” Justice is never cheap, but a modicum of efficiency is expected. Judge Hayward took three times longer than other judges to try a case. This impacted the court calendar. Trials got backed up, attorneys complained, and the press featured articles suggesting judicial reform.
Did Judge Hayward’s constant running off at the mouth warrant murder by a judicial hit man? Judge Wagner’s name became the first on my suspect list. But I got no further than his.
Instead, Jack Dillon intruded on my thoughts. He had been Judge Hayward’s court reporter for eight years. Surely he would know her enemies. I dug out his phone number. My suggestion of a morning visit that upcoming Saturday met with his approval.
Before our meeting, I wondered how Jack was taking Judge Hayward’s death. He had never criticized her. In fact, he had been surprisingly silent about her Chatty-Cathy qualities. Was it because his transcript income from her court was triple that of other court reporters. Words, in reporters’ jargon, produce transcript pages. And reporters get paid by the page. So, the more words, the more pages, the more money reporters make. And if a judge never stops talking, well, go figure.
My visit with Jack that Saturday morning began at his Georgian-style townhouse located in an exclusive neighborhood. A rap on the lion’s head knocker brought Jack to the door. “Step right into my little abode,” he said.
Once inside, I remarked, “Your so-called ‘little abode’ is gorgeous.”
“It should be,” Jack said. “How many transcript pages do you think I churned out for the down payment?”
“Based on the exterior alone, I’d say thousands.”
“Many thousands,” he said.
I followed Jack past the foyer where a massive Italian vase resided. He nudged its glossy surface and said, “The Carlson transcript bought that beauty.”
We moved into the living room. Its interior spelled dollar signs. So did the art, mostly colorful landscapes, which crammed the walls. Every time I admired a specific item, Jack named a transcript he had produced which paid for it.
“What a wonderful home,” I complimented.
“It is, isn’t it? But I’ve still got a hefty mortgage to pay off.”
Jack’s “hefty mortgage” explained why he had never complained about Judge Hayward’s river of words. Payment for the multiple-page transcripts from her prolonged court proceedings must have bankrolled his home and the fabulous possessions inside.
Jack led me into his study where a six-foot-long desk held a computer, monitor and printer. “Make yourself comfortable,” he invited. I plunked down into a leather club chair.
Up to that point, Jack’s home had captured my attention more than he had. Now, as he sat across from me, I focused on the splints fastened by Velcro extending down his wrists. “What’s wrong with your hands, Jack?”
“Well, it’s, hush-hush, carpal tunnel.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, commiserating. “I knew you took a medical leave, not why.” Court reporters over the years had suffered from carpal tunnel. The cause was almost always over-use.
“It’s not that bad,” Jack said. “My hands just need rest.”
“I bet they do. Judge Hayward probably wore them out.”
“Oh, the attorneys talked as much as she did.”
I wanted to say, “Tell me another story.” Instead I offered, “So sorry about her dreadful death.”
Jack bowed his head and said nothing.
I waited a tactful amount of time before steering the conversation in my direction. “Do you think I killed the judge?”
Jack leaned back in his chair, eyes half closed. “No. You had no reason to.”
“You worked for the judge a long time. Can you think of anyone who wanted her dead?”
“No, I can’t.” Jack’s voice was Arctic cold. He abruptly stood up and motioned me out of his study.
My question must have cemented her death in his mind.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you,” I said.
Jack patted my arm. “You’ve done nothing wrong. You just needed someone to turn to.”
He steered me to the front door. I paused, glancing down at his splinted wrists and hands. “Jack, I’d be glad to proof any outstanding transcripts for you,” I said. “No charge, of course.”
“You’re too kind, Diane, but Nancy proofs them for me.”
“Well, call if you change your mind,” I offered as I left.
Jack dominated my thoughts on the drive home. He had slaved for his luxurious home and the furnishings inside it. What would he do now that Judge Hayward was dead? No other judge could provide him with the transcript income her mouth had generated. Yet when I expressed sympathy over the judge’s death, he had displayed no grief.
The following Monday I met with Bob again. “Any suspects yet?” he asked.
“Just one possibility.” I recited what I had overheard Judge Wagner say.
Bob chuckled. “Judges complain about their peers, particularly when they fit Judge Hayward’s profile. Anyone else?”
“Not really. Except I visited Jack Dillon, Judge Hayward’s court reporter, this past Saturday. He couldn’t think of anyone who hated the judge enough to kill her.”
“Tell me more about your visit,” Bob urged.
I began with a brief description of Jack’s townhouse.
“What’s your estimate of its market price, Diane?”
“What’s the interior like?”
“Straight out of Architectural Digest.”
“What did you and Jack talk about?”
As I repeated the conversation, Bob scribbled notes down on his yellow legal pad. “Let me mull this over,” he said when I finished. “Come back around four today.”
The courthouse law library was two blocks from Bob’s office. I thought what better time to check out legal spelling and cites for a transcript I was working on. Minutes later, as I scanned law books, a familiar voice said, “Diane, so sorry to hear about your situation.” It was Nancy, who Jack had said proofed his transcripts.
“I’m sorry, too.” Before she asked for details, I moved on to another subject. “You must be swamped proofing Jack’s transcripts.”
Nancy’s mouth dropped. “Huh? The guy hires me about once a year. He proofs almost all of his own stuff.”
I returned to Bob’s office at four o’clock and mentioned what Nancy had told me. Instead of pursuing that news, he opened a huge reference book and flipped to a marked section. He pointed to the page and said, “This says splints relieve carpal tunnel symptoms. A splint immobilizes and rests the wrist, but the hand and fingers can usually do some normal activity.” Bob thumped the section with his knuckles as if he had opened a lava pit.
“Jack took medical leave,” I said. “So what if splints allow him to work on transcripts?”
“Because he said Nancy was proofing them. Because this section shows he could have used those hands to kill the judge.”
I burst into laughter. “Jack would never kill his cash cow.”
“Never rule out a possible suspect, Diane. I’ll do more digging. You should, too.”
My digging continued with Linda, Judge Hayward’s bailiff. She expressed doubts over my person-of-interest status and agreed to have lunch with me. In between enormous bites of a tuna-fish sandwich, she said, “Jack and the judge were like this.” She twisted her chubby fingers together.
“I’m not surprised. Jack is such a superb court reporter.”
“True.” Linda licked a scrap of the tuna fish off of her thumb. “But there was Jack’s latest worker’s comp stuff. You know, supposedly on-the-job injury, the carpal tunnel.”
I seized the opening. “Did that bother the judge?”
“Didn’t seem to, except—”
“She asked me to check my calendar for the number of sick days Jack took off. Lately, it was a lot.”
“I never thought Jack took much time off.” I dangled the comment, hoping Linda would snatch onto it.
“All I know is the judge wanted to talk to him about it. Probably wasn’t that big a deal.”
Afterwards I called Bob. When I repeated the conversation, he thought it was a big deal. “I’m going to run all this information by Homicide. They’ve got the authority to hunt down details we don’t. I’ll call you once I know something.”
That night I realized how much my life had changed in a mere three weeks. I was a person of interest in a murder case. I was bad publicity for the court. Now, what I had discovered might be used against Jack Dillon. Or would it? The notion of Jack strangling anyone with splinted hands seemed ridiculous. Homicide detectives probably would do laughter gigs if Bob spun his Jack-the-killer theory on them.
A doorbell buzzer interrupted my thoughts. Was it Bob, ridicule stinging his ears, ready to admit how off course he had been? I opened the door not to Bob, but Jack.
“I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d drop by,” he said.
“Come on in.”
Jack trailed me into my living room, an amalgam of odd pieces of furniture, with theater posters adorning the walls.
“Now you know my secret,” I said, “I’ll never be an interior designer.”
Jack didn’t smile. He just eased into a rocking chair my grandmother had given me.
“Would you like something to drink, some wine?” I played hostess, but inwardly I felt a storm blowing my way.
“No thanks. I stopped by because of Linda.”
“Linda?” I visualized her chubby fingers clutching the tuna-fish sandwich.
“Yes. I telephoned her this afternoon about something. She said you had lunch together.”
I sat down on the sofa across from him. “We did. This very day.”
“Linda said you asked about the judge and me.”
“Actually, I commented about what a superb reporter you are.”
Jack rocked back and forth in the chair. “I appreciate that. But why did you ask Linda about us?”
“It was in response to what she said.”
“Which was?” Jack halted his rocking.
“Something about your sick leave and the carpal tunnel.”
“What else did Linda say?”
“Just that the judge wanted to know how many sick days you took off. Linda didn’t think it was any big deal. But was it, Jack? Was the judge making a fuss about it?”
Jack’s left thumb and forefinger fumbled with the Velcro on his right wrist and hand.
“What are you doing, Jack?”
“Releasing the splint. My hand is a bit stiff.” He shrugged off the Velcro attachment like it was a wet towel before doing the same thing with his left. After he finished, he resumed his rocking.
“Diane, I told the judge I loved being her court reporter, but sometimes I needed a little time off to rest my hands.”
Before I could follow up on his statement, Jack said, “I’d like that glass of wine now, please.”
I moved into the kitchen and chose a pinot noir. I twisted the cap off. Before I could pour it into the glass, a pair of hands encircled my neck.
“Stop it,” I managed to screech. The powerful hands tightened around my neck. Until I remembered I had hands, too. My right one still gripped the wine bottle. I jerked it up and behind me before smashing it down on Jack’s skull.
His hands loosened and I whipped around to face him. Wine mixed with blood streamed down his face. He turned away from me and staggered back to the rocking chair and sat down. He began picking bits of cut glass off his head and face.
“Don’t try anything else,” I said, grabbing the cell phone from my pocket. “I’m calling 911.”
Jack raised his head and stared at me. “I didn’t want to harm you, Diane,” he said, his voice trembling, “but you were interfering.”
“Interfering with what?” I demanded.
“My dream.” Jack started rocking back and forth in the chair again.
“What dream, Jack?”
“Judge Hayward told me if I didn’t retract my worker’s comp claim, she’d get rid of me. She said she’d tell the other judges I was unreliable.”
“That’s dreadful,” I said.
“You bet it was.” Resentment clung to Jack’s words.
“But what does that have to do with your dream and me interfering with it?” I asked.
“Without a job, I couldn’t pay for my dream, my beautiful home and possessions. I couldn’t let the judge or you, with your snooping, destroy that dream.”
Jack’s hands clasped an imaginary sock. They remained in that position until the police arrived.
Jean Majury’s mysteries have been published in Woman’s World and received mention several times in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine’s write-a-plot type monthly contests.
Her short story “Watchdog” appeared in omdb! in December, 2012.
Copyright © 2018 Jean Majury. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!