Good Intentions by J. D. Trafford
My life began to unravel the same day I found my mentor dead. I had planned on meeting Judge Harry Meyer early in the morning for coffee at the Tin Cup Diner, a local hangout for judges and lawyers that was close to Oakland’s courthouse on Twelfth. A newspaper reporter had called me with a vague message about one of the first child abuse cases I had handled, and I needed Harry’s advice.
She didn’t give me any specifics, but I knew which case she wanted to talk about. Because I’m a new judge, you’d think I hadn’t yet done anything that would merit media attention, but you’d be wrong.
When Harry didn’t show at the Tin Cup, didn’t return my phone calls, and didn’t come to work, I got worried.
“Anything I need to do right now?”
My new law clerk, Karen Fields, shook her head. “Nothing until this afternoon, Judge.”
“This my mail?” I pointed to a stack on the edge of Karen’s desk.
“Yes, Judge.” She nodded. “Didn’t look like anything important.”
I picked up the stack, which included the new issue of the California State Bar Association’s monthly magazine, and put it all in my briefcase. Then I grabbed my black wool trench coat and went to the elevators. As I rode down to the main floor, I put the coat on.
I was glad I did, because a stiff, cold wind came off Lake Merritt the moment I stepped outside. I buttoned up the coat higher, took a step forward, and braced myself for another blow. The tall trees lining the lakeshore park bent as darker clouds rolled over the redwood hills in the distance. It wouldn’t be too much longer until the sun disappeared for the winter, sending the Pacific coast under a blanket of clouds.
I walked to a parking garage about a block away, got into my Range Rover, and drove out of Oakland toward Harry’s house in Berkeley’s Rockridge neighborhood. Even though it was less than seven miles away, there wasn’t a quick route because nothing was quick in Oakland.
I had been to Harry’s restored Craftsman so many times, it was practically my own boyhood home. He and my father had been law partners together, and, after my father died of a heart attack, Judge Meyer stepped up as my mother fell apart, met a new man, and eventually moved to Florida. It was Harry who had taught me how to throw a baseball and pitch a tent, and his wife, Mary Pat, kept me fed.
It took twenty minutes to cross town. I drove down Broadway, turned left on College, and then up into a leafy residential area. Harry’s house was in the middle of the block. The neighborhood was calm, but an uneasy feeling grew as I approached the house.
Then I saw it.
The front door was wide open. The wooden storm door swung in the breeze. It creaked and banged as I walked up the steps. I noticed when I reached the top that the screen was torn, pushed out from the inside. Then I saw Harry.
He died in the entryway.
A gun lay discarded a few feet away. Harry’s body was twisted: legs bent, one hand above his head reaching toward nothing, the other hand—stained dark red—wrapped tight to his stomach. Blood had pooled underneath him.
The air was heavy and caught in my lungs. It was thick and raw.
I couldn’t move my feet as I stared at him. I knew Harry was gone. I didn’t need to check. The ends of my fingers went numb, then my hands. Sickness rolled up from my stomach, and that’s what forced me to move. I turned around, went back outside, and threw up in the bushes next to the house.
I don’t know how long it took for the paramedics and the police to arrive. I can’t tell you who got there first. I don’t even remember much of the call itself—what I said or how I said it, whether I was crying and screaming or whether I was methodical and calm. I only remember the lack of feeling in my hands as they shook, and how hard it was to unlock my phone and dial 911. Tapping that stupid code had been damn near impossible.
I must have, at some point, walked down the driveway and sat on the curb, because that’s where I was when the officer approached me.
“You Judge Thompson?” The officer spoke with hesitation. He had a baby face and was probably twenty-three.
“Yes.” I nodded my head. “I called it in.”
“Any reason you were here?”
“I was worried.” Then I told the officer about the morning. I told him about our plans to meet for coffee, and how Harry didn’t show up or return my calls. “He lives alone now. His wife’s in a memory unit—Alzheimer’s—and Harry’s not young. Thought it could be his health . . . Didn’t imagine it was this.”
“Anybody who I can call to confirm?” The officer was all business, trying to play it cool, pretending he handled murder investigations all the time.
I didn’t take offense. Most murders weren’t great mysteries. They were simple. It was usually the person standing next to the dead body with the bloody knife. Case closed. By focusing on the only person around, which was me, the cop was just playing the odds.
“You can call my law clerk.” I searched my phone’s contact list for Karen’s number. My hand still shook, but not as badly. “She can fill you in. Folks at the Tin Cup also know who I am. They can confirm I was there this morning.”
The officer nodded, unsure of whether to treat my candor with thanks or skepticism.
I didn’t really care. My thoughts were elsewhere.