Friday Night Book Club: Read an exclusive excerpt from Defending Britta Stein – Ronald H Balson’s thrilling take on a modern day courtroom drama
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend.
Treat yourself to a glass of wine this evening and this exclusive excerpt from Defending Britta Stein – a story of bravery, betrayal, and redemption, from Ronald H Balson, the winner of the National Jewish Book Award.
About the book
Chicago, 2018: Ole Henryks, a popular restauranteur, is set to be honoured by the Danish/American Association for his many civic and charitable contributions. Frequently appearing on local TV, he is well known for his actions in Nazi-occupied Denmark during World War II – most consider him a hero.
Britta Stein, however, does not. The 90-year-old Chicago woman levels public accusations against Henryks by spray-painting ‘Coward’, ‘Traitor’, ‘Collaborator’, and ‘War Criminal’ on the walls of his restaurant. Mrs Stein is ultimately taken into custody and charged with criminal defacement of property. She also becomes the target of a bitter lawsuit filed by Henryks and his son, accusing her of defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Attorney Catherine Lockhart, though hesitant at first, agrees to take up Mrs Stein’s defence. With the help of her investigator husband, Liam Taggart, Lockhart must reach back into wartime Denmark and locate evidence that proves Mrs Stein’s innocence.
Defending Britta Stein is critically acclaimed author Ronald H Balson’s thrilling take on a modern day courtroom drama, and a masterful rendition of Denmark’s wartime heroics.
Read the excerpt:
Judge Obadiah Wilson peers over his reading glasses at the two attorneys who stand before him, and he smiles. His smile is perceived as warm but menacing. It is an up-or-down moment and only one of the lawyers will go away happy. He is about to rule. ‘I must admit,’ he says in his sonorous baritone, ‘that you two have given me quite a bit to read and digest.’ He points to a stack of papers on his bench. Wilson’s pronouncements are carefully crafted, and delivered with a touch of an East Texas accent.
The eminent jurist has served the county judiciary for the better part of his forty professional years. Though age has bowed his solid frame a bit, his majestic bearing remains keen. Now serving as the presiding judge of the Cook County Law Division, he leans forward and says, ‘Do either of you have anything more you wish to add to this considerable record before I deliver my decision?’
Attorney Catherine Lockhart’s hands are clasped before her. She stands poised and confident with just the hint of a smile. The thirty-eight-year-old attorney has appeared before Judge Wilson many times and she knows his routine. His invitation to supplement the record is disingenuous. He does not want further argument; he’s ready to rule. If experience is any guide, he’s already written his opinion. ‘No, your honour,’ she says. ‘Defendant will rest upon the briefs.’
The bony, angular man to Catherine’s right is nervous. He twitches and shifts his weight from one foot to the other. Mustering up a bit of drama, he clears his throat, lifts his chin and says, ‘If your honour would like me to reiterate the considerable flaws in the defendant’s motion, I’d be most happy to comply, but I am satisfied that I have presented our position in a persuasive and compelling manner, and I am confident of the outcome.’ His stilted response broadens the smile on Catherine’s lips. He resembles Ichabod Crane in a three-piece suit.
Judge Wilson stifles a short chuckle. ‘Hmm,’ he says from deep down in his chest. ‘Well, perhaps not as compelling and persuasive as you had hoped, Mr Coggins.’ Wilson shifts his gaze to Catherine. ‘Defendant’s motion is granted, and this case is dismissed. Ms Lockhart, you are given twenty-one days to file your petition for attorney’s fees and costs. Judgment will be entered accordingly. I’ve prepared a written opinion; you can pick it up from my clerk. That will be the order.’ With a smack of his gavel, Judge Wilson rises, steps down from the bench and leaves the courtroom.
As Catherine stands at the counsel table gathering her papers and sliding them into her valise, a familiar voice addresses her from behind. ‘Nice work, Ms Lockhart.’
‘Hello, Walter,’ she replies without turning around. ‘I thought I noticed you sitting in the back of the courtroom. What brings the eminent Walter Jenkins to Wilson’s morning motion call?’
As always, the founding partner of the firm of Jenkins and Fairchild cuts a stylish appearance: custom-tailored suit, monogrammed shirt and designer tie. His shoes are polished to a mirror shine and every styled grey hair lies in place. He is a force in the Chicago legal community. He is also Catherine’s former boss and a close friend.
‘Whenever I happen to be in the courthouse and find myself with a bit of extra time,’ he says, ‘I’ll duck into Obadiah’s domain. You never know what pearls of wisdom will roll off the old man’s tongue. He’s one of a kind, Catherine. A dying breed. Besides, it’s great theatre.’ He tips his head toward the bench and nods. ‘But today, however, I come on a mission. I tried to call you and your office told me you would be here. It’s actually a matter of some urgency to me. Do you have time for a cup of coffee with a tired old litigator?’
‘With you, Walter? Always.’
At a small table in the corner of the first-floor coffee shop, and after an exchange of small talk, Walter sets his cup down and changes his expression. Catherine knows the look. He is troubled. ‘Are you acquainted with an establishment called The Melancholy Dane?’ he says.
Catherine nods. ‘I believe so. If that’s the restaurant and bar up in Andersonville, I’ve been there once or twice. I seem to remember there were drawings and pictures of various Hamlet stage productions pasted all over the walls. It has a Shakespearean theme, in a noisy tavern sort of way.’
‘That’s true. Other than the Hamlet posters, did you happen to notice the old black-and-white photographs of Mr Ole Henryks, the restaurant’s owner? They’re on the wall behind the bar.’
Catherine shrugs. ‘Not that I remember, but I know who he is. I know he’s involved in civic affairs and he frequently appears on local TV. Bushy white hair. A happy-go-lucky personality. I seem to recall he was making cocktails behind the bar when we were there.’
Walter concurs. ‘Right. His son, Nils, runs the business now, but Ole’s still around. He’s getting up in years, but he’ll come in to greet his regulars and shake a martini or two. Anyway, behind the bar are these three black-and-white photographs. They are pictures of Ole Henryks and his family taken seventy-five years ago in Copenhagen during the Nazi occupation. One of them shows Ole and his father standing in the harbour in front of a fishing boat. Ole is only too happy to tell anyone who will listen that in 1943, as a young man, he and his family helped Danish Jews flee to Sweden aboard those fishing boats in order to escape deportation to Nazi concentration camps.’
‘I didn’t know that. So, he’s a certified hero?’
Walter twists his lips. ‘Personally, I can’t say, but that’s been Ole’s repute for many years. In fact, next month, Ole is scheduled to be inducted into the hall of fame of the Danish-American Association of Chicago, not only for his participation in several Chicago charitable and civic causes but in recognition of his heroism during the war. There was a fair amount of press when the honour was announced. The Tribune ran a full-page article complete with photos including that black-and-white of Ole and his father in the harbour.’
Catherine sips her coffee and gives a slight nod. ‘I saw the page in the Trib.’
‘Ole has quite a following. Many people think the world of him.’
Catherine is puzzled. ‘Are you trying to hit me up for a donation?’
A laugh erupts. ‘Goodness no. As I told you, I’m here on a mission. A serious legal matter. Fits right into your book of business. While there are many who laud Ole and sing his praises, there is at least one person who doesn’t think very kindly of him. Quite the contrary. This person has been vilifying him by spray-painting nasty comments right on the outside wall of Ole’s restaurant.’
A slight grin comes to Catherine’s lips. ‘Seriously? Spray-painting insults about a tavern owner?’
‘They’ve been on the news, Catherine. Haven’t you seen them?’
She shakes her head. ‘I’m afraid I missed that. What do they say?’
‘Liar. Traitor. Betrayer. Nazi collaborator.’ Walter taps his finger on the tabletop. ‘You get the idea. They are not humorous in the least. Someone is taking direct aim at Ole’s character. Ole believes that this individual is writing slanderous insults in order to sully his reputation in advance of his induction.’
‘Perhaps it’s an effort to have the association change its mind?’
‘If so, it’s not likely to happen. The association is solidly behind him. The words are cruel, and they are exacting a heavy toll on poor old Ole, or so I hear. He’s in fragile health to begin with. Hell, he’s ninety-five. I saw a TV interview the other day and Ole was clearly out of sorts; red-faced, shaking, jaw quivering.’
‘That’s a shame. Does he have a clue who’s behind this?’
Walter shook his head. ‘I don’t think he does. At least, not yet. Ole told the TV reporter that it was probably some old German soldier trying to get even.’
‘That doesn’t make much sense to me.’
‘I agree. The remarks are always painted in the middle of the night. Ole’s son finds them when he comes to work the next day. He quickly removes them, but by then it’s too late. Someone has tipped off the TV stations and videos are shown on the morning news. The statements are always painted crudely, in a shaky script.’
‘Doesn’t the restaurant have security cameras?’
‘It didn’t. It does now.’
Catherine leans back in her chair with a puzzled expression. ‘Walter, I don’t know anything about Ole, his son or The Melancholy Dane. And I surely have no knowledge of whoever is spray-painting derogatory remarks on his building. Why did you seek me out today? What’s the urgent mission?’
‘Ultimately, the person who’s painting these words will be caught and charged. Likely very soon, now that there are cameras. And it won’t be enough to prosecute her for misdemeanour property damage. No. Ole will want to be vindicated and repair the damage that’s been done to his reputation.’
‘Oh Walter, surely some crackpot spray-painting insults on a building isn’t going to damage Ole’s standing in the community. He’s been a fixture on the North Side for fifty years – a happy, jovial tavern owner.’
Walter shakes his head dismissively. ‘Jovial no more. He’s distraught. Discouraged. He doesn’t even want to come into the tavern.’
‘Well, that’s a shame, but it’s understandable. He’s ninety-five. People that age can be emotionally fragile. Still, Ole must realise that his lifelong reputation is secure. No one is going to believe insults spray-painted on brick walls in the middle of the night.’
‘Don’t be so sure. Because the accusations are so bold, so brash, so outlandish, it’s human nature to permit them some degree of credibility. Why would someone paint these? What’s behind it? People will think maybe there’s something here? Could any of this really be true? Is Ole really a Nazi collaborator? People love to gossip and a story like this spreads like wildfire. Ole thinks so and he doesn’t know how to stop it.’
‘Well, Walter, as you say, this vandal will soon be caught and arrested. A conviction will certainly put an end to this matter.’
Walter pulls on his lower lip. ‘Hmm, I’m not so sure. Neither are Ole or his son. I’ve spoken to Nils. Once the perpetrator has been identified, arrested and charged, Nils will urge his father to file suit to clear his name.’
Catherine nods, finishes her coffee and sets the cup down. ‘Okay. I acknowledge that this is an unfortunate circumstance that has befallen Ole Henryks and that a lawsuit is likely on the horizon. Now, do you want to tell me why you came to see me this morning?’
After a pause, Walter said, ‘Because I’m pretty sure I know the identity of the perpetrator.’
‘And it’s a woman?’
Walter furrows his forehead. ‘How did you know?’
‘A moment ago, you said it wouldn’t be enough to prosecute her.’
A smile creeps across Walter’s face and he claps softly. ‘That’s why you’re such an excellent cross-examiner; you don’t miss a thing. I’ve given you one side of the story, and now I’m going to give you the rest. At my firm, we have a young attorney, Emma Fisher. She’s a brilliant young woman who graduated at the top of her class and has recently passed the bar. We hired her three years ago when she had just begun law school. Talk about self-assured, she made an appointment at that time, sat right down in my office and told me she was about to commence her legal education but knew that there were lessons that could not be learned in a law school. She had researched my firm and decided that Jenkins and Fairchild would be an essential component to her legal development.’
Catherine is amused but impressed. ‘That took some guts.’
‘Indeed, it did. She has that kind of drive. She reminds me of the young Catherine I met years ago. Well, the other day Emma asked to meet with me in private. I had no idea what to expect. Behind closed doors, she told me, in confidence, under the umbrella of attorney-client privilege, that she had reason to believe that her ninety-two-year-old grandmother was the person painting on the walls of The Melancholy Dane.’
Catherine is shocked. ‘A ninety-two-year-old woman? Spray-painting in the middle of the night? Is she sure?’
Walter nods. ‘Fairly certain. Emma thinks it’s only a matter of time until her grandmother gets arrested.’
‘This gets stranger by the minute, Walter. Are you going to represent Emma’s grandmother?’
Walter leans forward and speaks softly. ‘Well now, here’s the rub. I would like to, I really would, but Jenkins and Fairchild has represented Ole Henryks personally and The Melancholy Dane as a corporate entity for years. I told Emma that I was constrained from delving too far into the dispute and I stopped her from giving me all the details, but I heard more than I should. Quite obviously, there could be a conflict.’
‘Could be?’ Catherine says. ‘There most certainly is a conflict. The identity of the perpetrator was revealed to you. Emma’s grandmother is committing criminal and tortious acts against your client. She is defacing Ole’s building with slanderous statements, she is directly attacking his reputation and you know her identity. Don’t you have an obligation to communicate that knowledge to your client?’
‘I’m not sure, because the information was revealed to me in a confidential setting. It was a privileged communication. It’s probably de minimus in any event because Ole will quickly find out on his own, if he hasn’t already. The cameras have been running for a couple of days. But still, you’re right, I possess information crucial to a client.’