Impasse by Royce Scott Buckingham is a thriller about a recently-fired prosecutor who heads into the Alaskan wilderness to find himself, only to be left for dead (available March 3, 2015).
Forty and facing a mid-life crisis, Stu Stark has lost his mojo. He simply gave up after being fired from his prestigious job as a prosecuting attorney for losing the biggest case of his career. So when Stu's best friend gifts him a one-week trip into the Alaskan wilderness to rediscover his manhood, Stu thinks it just might do him some good. But after a horrible week, Stu is crushed when he realizes that no one is coming back for him. Dying, Stu is found by a grizzled old hunter who informs that winter has set in, and they're not going anywhere for a while.
So begins Stu's training to become the man he never was…and to get revenge on those who betrayed him.
“No body, no case,” Stuart Stark’s fellow attorneys at the Bristol County, Massachusetts, DA’s Office had warned him. He’d tried the Butz murder anyway. But as he lay dying in a ramshackle cabin in the middle of the Alaska interior wondering if he could fit the business end of the borrowed Browning .30-06 in his mouth and still reach the trigger, he wished he had listened to them.
When Marti Taylor remarried to become the second Mrs. Raymond Butz, her decision had been bad for a number of reasons besides the obvious downgrade in surname. One of those reasons was Ray’s anger problem. Marti struggled with a scrapbooking addiction, and on March seventeenth at five thirty in the evening, after a Visa bill containing three hundred dollars in charges from the Scrap-a-Doodle store arrived in the mail at their subsidized low-income apartment in northern New Bedford, Ray had strangled her to death with a ligature—probably his belt; he worked construction and didn’t own a tie. It was a clean killing that left no blood at the home, the presumptive murder site. The blood came later, on Bolt Construction’s private fishing boat, the Iron Maiden, where Butz worked as a deckhand when construction was slow, and where he cut his wife into pieces with a blue Ryobi reciprocating saw. Marti and the Ryobi then went over the side, never to be seen again.
Over the three years taken to investigate the case, Butz was interviewed a total of six times. The first five times he was not in custody when questioned, and so his Miranda rights were neither required nor given. He provided bits of incriminating information each time. On the final occasion, he was arrested, Mirandized, and he quickly exercised his right to have an attorney present, effectively ending the interview. Thirteen days later, in the local jail while awaiting trial, he gave his cell mate a full description of what he’d done, not realizing that such information could be used by his questionable confidant as currency to secure a plea bargain in his own drug offense. Between Butz’s six interviews and blathering in jail, Raymond fully admitted the crime and twenty separate corroborating details. Enough for up-and-coming Assistant District Attorney Stuart Stark to convict him at the highest profile trial in New Bedford history since Lizzie Borden.
The news crews were camped out at the courthouse—a true-crime author was including the case in a book—and America’s Unsolved followed Stu around with cameras during the trial, putting his confidence and legal prowess on display for the entire world, or at least the true-crime and reality TV–watching world.
After the verdict, Stu played modest, crediting his sharp lead detective, Randy “Rusty” Baker, for obtaining the confessions. It was always good for a prosecutor to give the investigating officers credit—they earned it, and it earned Stu Rusty’s undying friendship. Stu told his adoring public that he was satisfied with the outcome, but that it was unseemly for an assistant DA to publicly celebrate the condemnation of a man. Then he returned to his office, closed the door, and called his greatest cheerleader—his wife, Katherine—who celebrated for him.
“I can’t wait to tell everyone I’m married to the most famous lawyer in Massachusetts!” She whooped into the phone.
Nine months later Butz walked out a free man.
It was “unfortunate,” in the opinion of the Court of Appeals, a quirk in the law, they said, but dictated by precedent.
The corpus delicti rule in a no-body homicide required proof that (1) the person was dead, and (2) that a criminal act caused the death. Simple enough. But the cause of death had to be established by other evidence before the suspect’s own statements could be admitted. Otherwise, a crazy person could confess to crimes that might never have happened, the Court said. The prosecution had to prove there was a murder before anyone could confess to it.
Regrettably, in this particular no-body homicide, a missing woman was not enough to establish murder as the cause of death. The fact that Butz wore a belt didn’t prove anything without his confession to his cell mate that he’d used it to choke the life out of his compulsively scrapbooking spouse. The missing Ryobi? The absence of evidence was less compelling than the useless presence of the belt. And the blood that might have indicated a death by criminal means? On the deck of a fishing boat regularly awash with fish guts, the forensics produced little more than conflicting results and a lot of hydrogen peroxide.
Without Butz’s full confession, there was simply no evidence to establish that Marti had been murdered. The Court had no choice, the justices lamented, but to suppress everything Butz had said. They sent the case back for retrial, disallowing the confession, knowing full well that, without it, refiling the case against Raymond Butz would be impossible.
“Unfortunate,” the Court declared in its unanimous written opinion.
The opinion was unfortunate enough that the young assistant DA and star of America’s Unsolved, who had boldly volunteered to handle the case and become a media sensation, was fired. The elected DA of Bristol County, Robert Malloy, couldn’t weather being blamed for having a confessed murderer walk free on his watch, not in an election year. Instead of being his boss’s presumptive successor, Stuart Stark became the most famous lawyer in Massachusetts ever to lose a case and his job in the same week.
And so, after placing his law enforcement badge in Malloy’s in-box, Stu returned to his office, closed his door, kicked his government-issue metal desk once as hard as he could, swore quietly to himself, and limped away from criminal law forever.
Stu circled the block to find street parking. He could usually get a spot by the curb in front of the firm, and he finally squeezed his aging Ford Taurus between a beat-to-hell Chevy Silverado and the orange Prius with a white skull on its hood, owned by the tattoo artist down the block. He slid coins into the meter for the maximum two-hour period. He would hustle downstairs to feed it again three more times that day at ten, during lunch, and at two in the afternoon. Parking enforcement knocked off at three thirty. It worked out to a monthly amount that was less than a parking garage, even if he included the inevitable ten-dollar ticket he received on occasion.
The two-man firm’s office was a low-rent second-floor space in the five-story Bluestone Building in Clark’s Cove. A relic of New Bedford’s textile industry past, the Bluestone was almost devoid of tenants. It also wasn’t as close to the courthouse as he would have liked. Nor was it blue or stone or particularly attractive. But after shelling out good money for their online research service and a full-time secretary, they couldn’t afford much more. They had, however, invested several thousand dollars they couldn’t afford in the huge BUCHANAN, STARK & ASSOCIATES sign, which lorded over the postage stamp patch of grass out front. Stu fertilized the lawn himself early every fall and mowed it each week. There were no true associates in the firm, but they did partner with other local attorneys when cases were outside their expertise, and they had a recent graduate working ten hours per week doing cheap research for them while she studied for the bar exam.
BUCHANAN, STARK & ASSOCIATES
Stu took a moment to hate the gaudy sign. His partner was Clayton Buchanan, the handsome face of the tiny firm who jokingly called himself the Drizzle Maker. It was a modest nickname; Clay was as gregarious as Stuart was cautious. As a result, Clay brought in the work, and Stu did it. Stu had become the quiet workhorse, something Katherine lamented. Wooing clients was a game for the bold, the risk-takers. Not him. Not anymore. Clay, on the other hand, could backslap a local politician, swap profane limericks with a dockworker, and pick up a virgin in a church pew. Clay had once gotten them a client by taking a smoke break with a guy, despite the fact that Clay didn’t smoke. He’d grabbed a dirty butt from the cat-litter-filled ashtray atop the public garbage can, stuffed it in his mouth without hesitation, and joined the man in the Plexiglas shelter. After ten minutes of empathy puffs, he walked away with 33 percent of a solid L&I claim. In this, and other creative ways, Clay found clients, while Stu buried himself in cases and codes. It was satisfactory to Stu. And besides, Clay hated doing work.
Stu hiked up the worn concrete rear stairwell to the second floor—the landlord no longer maintained the elevator in the foyer. He still marveled at how he’d fallen in with Clay, who was not from New England originally. They’d gone to the same law school, the University of Oregon; that was the root of their association. Stu had impulsively gone west because his college sweetheart had told him he had “no sense of adventure” when she broke up with him just before going to Europe her junior year. He still wasn’t sure why Clay had landed at U of O.
So they were both Fighting Ducks. But Stu had been in the class a year ahead of Clay, and they hadn’t spoken more than a few words to each other in the two years they’d overlapped. Stu had noticed Clay’s arrival at Oregon. Everyone had. The guy had shown up a neatly dressed kid with an undergraduate record cobbled together from several obscure colleges, and he strutted into the law school’s huge main hallway looking far too comfortable for a recent undergrad stepping into the pressure cooker, already joking with the back-row guys, and with his hand on the hip of Sophia Baron, a shockingly pretty second-year gal from Portland, Oregon, who Stu hadn’t even had the courage to speak to his entire first year.
The only class Stu and Clay had taken together was Civil Procedure II in Stu’s third year, Clay’s second. Clay sat mostly in the back, but one day he’d plopped himself down next to Stu with nothing but a pencil and a single sheet of paper, whereupon they’d had their most memorable, and longest, exchange of law school. The professor was already lecturing when Clay sat down, leaned over, and whispered to Stu in an overly familiar manner, as though they were already in on a secret together.
“You’ve got the best seat if someone comes in and shoots the place up. Is that why you picked it?”
“The brick half-wall will protect you. All you need to do is drop down behind it. Anyone bursting in here would come through that right-hand door. Your exit is down here at the end of the row on the left. If it happens, you’re golden. My seat’s next best.”
That was the extent of the conversation. Stu had turned his attention back to the lecture. By the end of the period he had scribbled seven pages of notes. He glanced over at Clay’s paper. The only writing was a diagram of the room with arrows pointing to the two exits and Xs through a dozen seats nearest the right-hand door.
The Bluestone’s rear stairwell was dim and echoed, and Stu’s footfalls were fifteen pounds heavier than they’d been when he’d left the DA’s office with his tail between his legs. The stairway rail was loose and rattled as he used it to pull himself up the steps.
I need to work out more.
He thought the same thing every day, but he never did work out more. He wasn’t unhealthy, and his wife liked him “fine” the way he was. Katherine had said so just that morning as she wished him a happy fortieth birthday.
“Forty.” He said it aloud to see what it sounded like. It sounded old, and as he trudged up the back stairs of the low-rent office building in a cheap brown suit, it echoed through the stairwell like the voice of a ghostly harbinger of ominous tidings.
After law school Stu had sought his first job at the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office. His grades were good—top 10 percent—and his criminal coursework and internships had prepared him for precisely such work. He wrote his résumé to fit the position exactly, and he’d prepared night and day for the nerve-rattling mock trial they’d put him through at the end of the four-day interview and callback process, practicing his arguments in the mirror, the shower, the car, and one final time outside the courthouse before he went in. The entire office full of experienced assistant district attorneys sat in a jury box staring at him while two senior attorneys put him through his paces, objecting during his faux direct examination of the fake witnesses, and moving to dismiss his entire case at the close of his case in chief. Worst of all, Malloy, the elected prosecutor, acted as judge.
He’d made a titanic effort and, somewhat to his surprise, he’d won the job over nineteen other impressive men and women. Soon he was standing in front of juries trying misdemeanors—driving under the influence and minor domestic assaults mostly—and it didn’t take him long to earn a solid reputation as a well-prepared and confident trial attorney.
A year later Clay arrived like a couch-surfing fraternity pal. Only, Stuart had hardly known him then. He showed up in the lobby, unannounced, wearing a sweatshirt and asking the receptionist for “Stu, a good friend of mine from law school.”
“Hey, Stu,” he said when Stuart stuck his head out through the security door to see who was asking for him. “Good to see you! Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
Clay said he was in New England for a few days. He’d remembered Stu from law school and had heard he was practicing in the area. “And what a coincidence,” Clay explained, because he was looking to work in a DA’s office too, and he was just starting to send out resumes. Could he speak to Stu’s boss while he was in town? Clay talked fast, and somehow they’d ended up in Malloy’s office, yucking it up with him about Oregon football and NCAA sanctions. Before he knew it, Stu was explaining to Clay about the mock trial, which Malloy had said they could throw together for the next day. It was a surprise, and with one day to prepare, Stu was certain it would be a disaster, but Clay insisted that he could interview immediately.
“Stuart can help me,” he joked. “And loan me a suit.”
Clay took Stu out for Thai food that night and paid even though he had student loans. He joked that it was his “thirty-dollar bribe.”
Stu offered advice. “You’ll want to research the areas of search and seiz—”
Clay leaned forward over his green curry. “Cut the crap, Stu. What are the answers?”
When Stu hesitated, Clay pressed him.
“You said yourself it’s impossible to prepare in one day, and I know you wouldn’t leave a classmate standing there with his dick hanging out, would you?”
Stu wasn’t sure exactly what Clay meant, but he certainly didn’t want it to happen.
The objections were standard—hearsay, relevance, and a demand for an offer of proof—all basic evidentiary rules easily dealt with if a guy knew they were coming, and Stu knew exactly which ones were coming. The motion to dismiss was trickier—failure to establish jurisdiction. This was handled more subtly, through a request that the judge take judicial notice of the location of the road upon which the fictitious officer had stopped the fictitious car. Most new lawyers wouldn’t think of it. Nor would Clay, had Stu not warned him, but he did.
With one day’s prep and Stu’s help, Clay got the same offer for which Stu had prepared his entire law school career. The fact that Clay’s grades were mediocre didn’t matter. His transcript didn’t even arrive until after the paperwork was signed with personnel and he was already screwing one of the secretaries. It didn’t matter that he’d only taken one criminal course, or that he had no internships involving crime. He’d simply buddied up to the boss and then impressed the entire office with his ability to think on his feet—with a little help from Stu, or, more accurately, a little cheating. It was a well-spent thirty dollars.
Six years later, when the Butz disaster happened, Stu had nowhere to go. About that time, Clay unexpectedly turned in his resignation. “I just need a change,” he said. “Five years under the fucking microscope is enough for me.” With a good bit of prodding and cajoling, Clay convinced Stu not to give up on life or law and to start over in private practice with him. Katherine lamented Stu’s demotion as much or more than he did. His rise in the DA’s office had been steady, and the social status they were beginning to attain about town was considerable. They were invited to political events and charity auctions, where Katherine remembered everyone’s name and distributed polite hugs like candy. Everyone had agreed that he would have the top spot one day, and Katherine had talked him up the most.
Instead he’d slunk off in shame, hung out his shingle, and had his name engraved on Clay’s ridiculous lawn sign. He’d only had the energy to demand one deal-breaker stipulation: the firm would do no criminal defense work. None. Zero. Period. And with that they’d begun their struggle in private practice without government medical benefits, pensions, or paid vacations.
Stu blinked and realized he’d been standing on the cement landing outside his office for several minutes. Just standing. Thinking. Remembering. Wondering what might have been, while in front of him stood the worn, ill-fitting, painted-over door to what was. He reached out and jiggled the handle until it opened.
“Can we get that fixed?” he asked their all-in-one receptionist, secretary, and paralegal, Pauline. She was a plain woman from across the New Bedford-Fairhaven Bridge in Fairhaven and dressed in a loud fuchsia dress. Her body was lumpy, and the edges of her shapeless face were defined only by the white base makeup she caked on like a mime’s mask; otherwise, her face would have melted directly into her neck. She’d been married since high school. Three kids. Good at her job. She knew how to do some legal research. More important, she had previously worked at the courthouse. Ergo, she knew the judge’s clerks and their labyrinthine system of document formatting and filing.
“I think there’s a screwdriver in the miscellaneous drawer,” Pauline replied, tilting her head toward a bank of aging cabinets without looking up.
“Can’t you call Sitzman?”
“We get one hundred dollars off our rent if we don’t call the landlord for thirty days, and we’re on day twenty-four.”
Stu put down his car keys, loosened his tie, and headed for the cabinet. He fished around inside and came up with the screwdriver, an extra from his own home that he’d donated to the cause.
“Clay’s in his office,” Pauline mentioned as Stu passed her on his way back to the broken door.
Stu glanced at the clock: ten minutes after eight. Clay was never in his office before nine. “What’s the occasion?”
“I don’t know.” She paused dramatically. “Maybe it’s the letter we received from Shubert, Garvin and Ross.”
The Molson case! Stu thought. Their best chance yet at breaking out of their scrape-and-hustle private practice funk. Two weeks earlier Stu had sent a demand letter outlining the reasons that Shubert, Garvin and Ross should settle for an amount that might just fix their broken elevator and door. If things go right, it could buy us an entirely new elevator, and perhaps a new building to go around it.
He’d been checking the mail every day for a response and, apparently, Clay was sitting in his office casually mulling it over with his morning coffee.
Pauline gave him a coy shrug.
Copyright © 2015 Royce Scott Buckingham.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Royce Scott Buckingham is an American author with a degree in English from Whitman College and a Juris Doctor in Law from the University of Oregon. Buckingham is the international bestselling author of Demonkeeper. His first young adult thriller for the U.S., The Terminals, was published in 2014. Buckingham lives with his wife and their two sons in Bellingham, WA, where he works at the Prosecuting Attorney's Office.