His Lordship’s Arsenal


ISBN 974-86694-7-5
Trade paperback 5" – 7 3/4"
1999, 213 pages
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Excerpt

Chapter 1

The pictures from the scene of death were gruesome. Two dead men inside a burned out room in the Delrose Hotel. One, an elderly man, had been tied to a cross. The flames from the fire had eaten away his clothes; his flesh dried and cracked, peeling in strips, failing away in clusters from his hands and face. His lips were blistered and puffed; and a large scar on the right side of his face looked like an open mine, the flesh tufted along the edges in little ridges. The naked man on the bed was less horribly burned. He was curled up like a child, his hands wrapped around his knees. His legs and arms and sides were scorched by the flames. Next to the bed were two tribunal masks. They bore the image of a lion-no, lioness.

The police report was unable to identify the two men. They were recorded as transients, homosexuals who'd been involved in a strange ritual of drugs and fire. The police theory was an ugly one of torture and masochism. The gay community in Vancouver complained when one local newspaper published a photograph of the death scene and described the two men as homosexuals driven to sexual frenzy. There were no arrests. The police closed the file. All that was left was to try the civil action between the hotel owner and the insurance company. There had been a question as to whether the policy was in force at the time of the fire. Slum hotel owners often neglect paying their bills on time, and in this case, their default stood to cost them a lot of money. The Chief justice assigned me to hear the case. He thought I should have more experience in commercial cases. Before, my cases had tended to be crime, family law, and contracts.

Each time I started to work on the case, I thought of the two lioness masks. Throughout the trial they sat on the table with the other exhibits with the empty eyeholes staring up at me. With the short golden mane, they vaguely reminded me of an Egyptian goddess mask. They looked too small for the heads of the dead men. The police said that they fit their heads; but that didn't take into account the shrinkage of the skulls from the fire.

Twenty-four hours after reserving judgment I'd written one sentence, stopped, torn up the paper, and tossed it towards the wastebasket. Thirty-three crumpled paper balls lay in and near the basket. The room took on the appearance of a basketball camp for handicapped boys. On each piece I'd written exactly the same sentence.

Flames were seen rising from the rooftop of the Delrose Hotel at four o'clock Sunday morning, the nineteenth of November.

The evidence revealed that much. Beyond this one fact. I did not share the views of the witnesses as to why or how this rest home on the doorstep of Stanley Park burned to the ground.

I was stuck. Mid afternoon in my oak-paneled study, trial exhibits scattered across my desk, I rose and walked to the' window.. Arms stretched out, I closed my eyes. What was behind the one sentence? The three shareholders of Warnell Enterprises, the owner of the Delrose, sought to collect three million dollars In Insurance proceeds against the Federal United Insurance Company. One million dollars each. Federal United, said the shareholders burned down tile Delrose. Someone burned down the Delrose. but the shareholders said it wasn't them.... Buildings don't just burn themselves down. No one disputed that flames were seen rising from the rooftop of the Delrose Hotel at four o'clock Sunday morning, the nineteenth of November. That makes thirty-four times I've repeated the sentence; like a Buddha Marooned on a koan and no vocabulary to pass around it.

Under the pleadings, exhibits, and briefs was my lunch. The case seemed to consume my food. Somewhere there were cream cheese bagels. The insurance policy balanced on a half empty glass of wine. Soon everything would be stuck together with food. If the case went on appeal, I'd be reversed on the basis of bad diet. So what could I infer from the evidence? I was the judge. judges infer things; but I could not. As I stared out the window I caught a glimpse of Dr. Hershey Rosen who lives to my west on Marine Drive. Dr. Rosen, wearing a Sony headset, pedalled an exercise bike on his swimming pool deck. He had a pulse meter strapped to his wrist. A psychiatrist who became a property developer, he had gotten very rich in five years. We had two things in common: we were both forty-three and divorced. Although I didn't know Hershey well, our age and marital persecutions formed a bond between us: like war veterans who had survived their wounds to fight another day.

I had great faith in the healing powers of doctors. Edgar had been a doctor. A gynecologist who worked twelve-hour days. Most of the time with his hands fishing around in dark, wet places; checking the ecology of the marsh. His father and uncle had been doctors. Seeking medical advice was as easy as giving a urine sample in my family. I include these facts as support for my decision to cross the lawn and stand at the end of Hershey's pool deck after writing the same opening sentence thirty-three times. I needed a doctor's point of view.

Hershey was sweating and singing along on his exercise bike. I watched him for nearly five minutes before lie saw me. He removed the headset and slowed his pedaling to a crawl.

"Hey, Matt," lie said. "How goes it?"

That was the moment of truth. Judges lead secluded lives on a pedestal so they can't be compromised. Secular monks

with the power of the Pope. Not really monks, more like surgeons-Edgar would like that better-who remained perscrubbed and sterile. Anyone who wasn't a judge was a potential germ-carrying fatal infection. But coming from a family of doctors I immediately trusted Hershey.

"You all right?" Hershey asked.

"I've written the same sentence thirty-three times," I replied after a moment.

"You should get a word processor."

"Without a mistake," I interjected.

Hershey puffed out his upper lip and stared at me for several seconds. I knew the look well. From my years on the bench, it wasn't uncommon to see some prisoner in the dock slobbering out stories of his genealogical horrors transmitted down the family tree- branches missing, and standing before me was the bitter pulp. I was about to mention this to Hershey when he pulled a cordless phone from his belt and rang for two glasses of dry white wine. Within several minutes, Nancy, his daughter, clad in a tiny white and blue bikini, came onto the deck carrying a tray, two glasses and a bottle of champagne. She had her own idea of dry white wine. She placed the tray on the deck table and adjusted the umbrella canopy, delicate, tanned hands working the lever. I watched her disappear back through the sliding glass door, where she lingered for a moment. Flames were seen rising ... I watched Nancy's young, slender figure from the distance as she lingered framed in the door. Then she was gone.

"Bet you've not seen one of these," said Hershey, showing me his mini-push button, auto radial, computerized cordless telephone. A little antenna rose from the top. He had that Secret Service man's The-President's-safe, look, as he put it to his mouth. He'd phoned a computerized weather service. He turned up the volume so I could listen.

"Handy for the pool" I said as he gestured for me to take a glass of champagne.

"Twenty-sic Celsius. No rain in the forecast," said the announcer.

"Only two hundred dollars. Picked it up in Seattle last week," he said. "You can't get them here yet. Want me to pick one up for you on my next trip""

Dr. Rosen didn't think smuggling was a real crime. Like low-grade tax fraud, this type of misconduct was as morally neutral as the weather report. I hadn't come to provide legal lectures on smuggling to Hershey; so I let the question hang in the air.

"I really need some professional advice, Hershey''

He leaned back in the chair, his feet crossed near the edge of the pool. He swirled the champagne around the inside of his glass. A smile started and aborted. He saw that I was serious. A critical expression passed across his face; a little crinkling of skin gathered between his eyes. I thought how exceptionally young Hershey looked. Lean, relaxed, a non-aggressive manner. He looked at women and they returned his attention. Nancy could be mistaken for his second or third wife.

"Matthew, it'll pass on its own."

"What will?"

"This writer's block. Most writers suffer from it at some stage in their career."

"But I'm a judge, Hershey. I don't sit around writing telescripts. "

I guess I protested too much. Hershey smiled as he filled our glasses again.

"That's all judges do—write stories about people who have problems. You wear a robe. Hemingway wore a hunting shirt. He got a Nobel Prize. David Mamet wrote 'Fuck you. Fuck your mother. Fuck your boss.' And he got a Pulitzer Prize. You, Matt. Well-you'll get a nice pension."

"Have you ever read a judgment?"

"I've been sued now and again. The judge decides who's the good guy and who's the bad guy. Then he writes a story about them. Between a slum hotel owner and insurance company that was a hard distinction to make. It felt hotter than 26 degrees Celsius. I touched the ice-chilled glass to my check, and unbuttoned my shirt. A drop of sweat ran down my dolphin-white stomach. Hershey had a valid argument. So I wrote little melodramas: sex, violence, drugs, death, greed, stupidity, and stings were the central plots and subplots. What I call the Wongness of human existence. Judges became drunks, senile, or lazy but they always wrote their stories. But I was blocked and lazy but sweating Oil Hershey's pool deck. The sort of weather that makes you prefer Mai-net to Hemingway.

"You're a special kind of artist, Matthew.

That was the second time he'd called me Matthew. I'd ceased to be Matt. The automatic professional touches kicked in like overdrive in his sports car. I'd become Hershey's patient.

"It's not a stigma," he continued, choosing his words with more care. "Nothing to be ashamed about. just an unavoidable occupational hazard. "

"I can't go fishing for six months. I've got to decide this case. At the moment I can't decide any case." I'd overreacted. Even to myself, I began to sound slightly crazy. I filled my own glass, and leaned forward with my elbows on the table, head resting oil my hands.

Hershey played with the antenna of his cordless phone. "It's simple then-write. Write something like The plaintiff wins. Or substitute defendant or Crown or accused for plaintiff. Just leave out the story." fie was sounding like Stew, the Chief justice, a father figure to me, who decided hard cases with the flip of a quarter that lie kept hidden away inside his office desk.

That wasn't the way I decided cases. Each decision needed a plausible story line to justify the result. The Court of Appeal wants to read these stories. Like editors, their very job depended oil telling a good story from a bad one. Not that anyone expected a lyrical, richly-textured, moving tale; not even pub- a narrative so that everyone knew from all the lies the judge has decided were facts. And there was the great power and authority: to impose your story as fact and dismiss all the others as fiction. Only this time the story wouldn't come from the conflicting testimony and evidence. Like the lioness masks in the photographs, the case had a mystery at the core. Only fragments stood out. The Delrose Hotel had suffered damages oil the second floor. Two people, one old and one young, both male, had died—one from fire and one from drug overdose. This wasn't a complex case, no uncertain legal principles were involved, and nothing was at stake but the insurance money. A perfectly unoriginal, straightforward little incident that even the gay community had forgotten.

When Nancy returned to the pool deck she was wearing sunglasses; the kind in which you can see your own reflection, like a two-way mirror. She put down the tray with a jar of salmon mousse and a baguette. On the side were cutlery and a chilled champagne glass for herself. Smiling shyly, she poured champagne. The suntan lotion glistened on her shoulders and arms. I felt her brush against my leg with her arm. She paused. I saw myself in her glasses; the sweat-streaked face looked tired.

"Take a swim, Nance," said Hershey.

"Can't. Just have time for a short commune. Then two appointments. "

As she sauntered into her father's fourteen-room house, I wondered with whom she was about to commune. A few moments later Nancy reappeared framed in the sliding glass door. Ten or more high-strung, exotic birds clung to her arms, shoulders and flair. I glanced at Hershey, who faced me as he spooned salmon mousse onto a baguette. Curiosity drew my attention back to the door. Nancy had peeled off her bikini top, stretched out her hands, palms up, and tilted back her head exposing her throat.

The flames of red, yellow, green and blue feathers spread down to her fingers. Her body shook slightly then was very still. At that moment, she looked like a child who stepped from a jungle, all innocent who occupied a space outside of the place and time shared around the pool by Hershey and me. All air-conditioned jungle with carpets and stereo equipment. A calm, reflective expression crossed her face as if the feathers were brightly colored flames that had cleansed her body and soul.

"Of course this will be kept strictly confidential," Hershey said, biting into the baguette.

"Yes, of course." I used my stern judge's voice to mask my preoccupation with Nancy's ritual. The libretto of confusion and irony, polished and sharpened by the sexual fantasy, dissolved. She crashed through layers of perception and thought, smashed through emotional levels cluttered with computers, tennis rackets, television sets, heated swimming pools, and cordless phones, and walked out on a plateau heavy with animal sounds, amongst cloisters of rock, earth and caves splashed in light and fire. She traversed a subconscious slope, climbed to the top, unfrightened, alone, and experienced emotions long lost to the shopping mall world of liquor stores, tax returns, divorce, traffic accidents, and lawsuits.

"Strictly confidential," Hershey repeated, slowly drinking his champagne. "Nothing goes beyond here." Had he seen Nancy in her commune mode? Was this some weird father and daughter stroke patient routine? Maybe this was part of Hershey's cure for blocked writers.

"I merely want some insight," I said, as if I were talking to a lawyer standing below me in front of the bench. A flicker of a smile wove across his face. "As to your fee," I began, but Hershey waved his hand midway through. Even the way he lifted his hand reminded me of the Chief Justice. As I looked back at the door, Nancy had disappeared . . . vanished.

Hershey had a difficult task. One could reform the law but one couldn't reform a judge who no longer knew the cause of flames. working that lattice of truth and fiction, good and evil, fact and opinion caused warps and bends and the entire fragile edifice threatened to collapse. Perhaps Nancy had never been in the door; perhaps it was the heat splitting my psyche into atoms, showering the pieces like shards of crystal through a wind tunnel of forgotten traumas and passions. The voice inside my head sounded like a tiny far-off echo bouncing from the debris. I sat and listened, trying to tune in a clear, strong signal, as if the door was a television screen that had lost its picture. An empty, remote screen on the other side of the deck. This had happened before. The reception faded and nothing but static came through.

I plowed through the remembered images of Nancy, making my best guess about the kind of birds; exaggerating the intensity of her shudder, playing a stop-action rerun over and over again inside my mind. All my faith, trust and integrity hung delicately in the balance as I examined the sliding glass door. Like in the Delrose Hotel case there could only be one right answer.

"I've got an idea," said Hershey. "You must write." I watched him spread the salmon mousse on a piece of baguette.

"But I am writing. The same sentence. Over and over again.

He took a bite, then sipped his champagne. "But that's the point. To clear the block you have to write ' about something

else. Another kind of story. Maybe a little sex." He winked.

The ploy was clear. Challenge my ability to write: anything at all. Put my pride on the line. Of course, I could write. My judgments are widely reported in the law reports, the subject of scholarly articles, cited in other courts, quoted in textbooks, taught in law schools. As judges went, I knew the tech well, and had refined my own voice. I even had what one colleague called "a real flare" for writing. I enjoyed writing; no, I loved writing, putting the facts together, describing the events in detail with elegance and style. "Flames were seen rising . . ." was a dramatic touch. A one-sentence drama in the making. A story waiting to rise from the ashes. But this time there wasn't even a possibility of reaching the second sentence.

"I don't know where to begin," I said.

"That's definitely not healthy." Hershey was sounding more and more like a doctor. It was possible that property developers said this sort of tiling about deals over salmon mousse and champagne.

Right now I feel like I'll never finish another decision.

"You will, Matthew. But one stage at a time."

Obiter. That's the Latin term that flashed through my mind. It means to lawyers and judges a personal or incidental remark that Is unimportant to the main decision. Since law school I've had an obession with obiter. judges aren't supposed to use it. It's like flying off the handle about all things that are wrong in life-all the Wongness in the world-when you're only concerned about one concrete dispute. When I Hershey trotted out the old chestnut about one stage at a time, I found myself muttering, "Obiter."

"Matthew, you'll have to bear with me," he replied, no doubt thinking I'd lapsed into foreign tongues, when I only dream about people speaking in foreign languages. "Writer's block is a mental attitude. One you can detach from. Trust me. Pretend we're taking that little fishing trip you mentioned. Not for six months. just for a couple of days. A little pleasure trip away from all the pressures and anxieties of the job."

Hershey climbed back on his exercise bike. I watched his legs pumping up and down on the pedals. Working off the champagne and salmon mousse before he'd digested it. The secret to a fit and lean body. My bleached white stomach, swelled from the drink and food, rose and fell, spilling sweat down my side. I remembered now why I had avoided Hershey. Any young woman in my presence would never be confused for a wife. He made me feel like I'd gone to seed; like other writers who spend their days and nights at a typewriter, smoking and drinking, I was the worse for wear. I was coming apart.

"What do you suggest?" I asked Hershey as lie ticked off thirty kilometers an hour on the bike.

"An autobiographical sketch," lie said. "Everyone can write about themselves. Tell your own story. Throw in a little sex and violence."

"With only one sentence?" I felt the toxins build tip. I tried sticking in my stomach; it looked like a badly terraced Peruvian moutainside. What sex was there to write about? And why did shrinks always want to know about sex?

"Start at the beginning. With your parents. School. University Women. You can write about that stuff." He placed the headset back over his ears. He gave me the thumbs up. Back at thirty-five kilometers, his eyes closed. Our session had ended.

I didn't speak or write French well, though I should. I was married to a French Canadian for nearly twenty years. Some things float back on occasion. Walking back from Dr. Hershey Rosen's pool, I recalled one phrase Danielle sometimes used: auto-da-fe. It came from the medieval times when heretics were put to the torch. As my one-sentence judgment indicates, I have developed an enormous sensitivity to fire.

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