Parlor Games A Novel
Author:Maryka Biaggio




As the judge settled into his seat, I gazed across the aisle at Frank and offered a friendly nod and smile. You see, animosity is not my style. But I would have preferred an actual tête-à-tête with her: “Frank, dear, I spotted a few strands of gray hair this week—the result, no doubt, of strain from the trial.” Then I would tinkle out a laugh and add, “It can’t be easy on you, either.”

Poor Frank. I should have known she’d take our parting as poorly as any male admirer. Frank is a hardy woman: She freely gives herself over to life’s pleasures; she adores fishing and hunting; and she can jest and josh with the best of them. I certainly wouldn’t have engaged her services if she weren’t a first-rate attorney. And I always admired her fresh, self-assured charm, a little like the bluster of a confident young man or a lady testing the lure of her beauty. Not that Frank has anything close to beauty. She’s thick of trunk, with matronly bosoms that she secures under double-breasted suits. But when she smiles, her broad cheeks crinkle into plump mounds of delight, and her jolly, deep-from-the-belly laughter never fails to enliven a gathering.

“Please be seated,” the judge boomed, drawing his robe aside and planting himself on his high-backed chair. “We are here for the civil case of Miss Frank Gray Shaver versus Baroness May de Vries. Counselor Sawyer, would you like to make your opening statement?”

The sallow-complexioned Alvah Sawyer rose to face the men sitting motionless in the jury box. Clasping his delicate hands together in prayerful pose, he began, “Gentlemen of the jury, I will show you, beyond any kind of doubt, that Baroness de Vries, as she insists on being called, cooked up an elaborate plan to defraud my client of more than a hundred thousand dollars.”

As soon as Sawyer rattled off that sentence, my attorney, George Powers, sprang to his feet. “Objection. Her legal name is Baroness de Vries.” (I had warned him they would try to diminish me and my title. Honestly, it’s not as if I manufactured my marriage to the Baron.)

The judge planted a hand on his jaw and shook his head. “Oh, for Pete’s sake, Mr. Powers, it’s his opening statement. And, Mr. Sawyer, a title is a title. At least grant her that courtesy.”

Sawyer tugged at his vest and puffed out his chest. “As I was saying, the Baroness defrauded my client of over a hundred thousand dollars. With her brothers, Paul and Gene Dugas, and assistant, Miss Belle Emmett, she conspired to steal from Miss Frank Shaver all the money and property Miss Shaver inherited from her father.

“How did she manage this? My head spins trying to keep track of her conniving ways. She persuaded Miss Shaver to borrow forty thousand dollars from her family and then ate her way through it like a hungry wolf. She even convinced my client to invest nine thousand dollars in remodeling her mother’s home right here in town, over on Stephenson Avenue.” Sawyer jerked his head to the side, as if we might actually glimpse my family’s house through the brick wall.

“The Baroness’s actions were bold as could be. Just three months ago, she tried to cash in one hundred and sixty shares of Westinghouse stock rightfully belonging to Miss Shaver. And in 1913, during the illness of the Baroness’s mother, she played on Miss Shaver’s kind sympathies and talked her into paying for the medical specialist brought in to tend her own mother, claiming she’d repay the debt. The Baroness even went so far as to trick Miss Shaver into making a will bequeathing the sum of eighty thousand dollars to her, promising she’d do the same.”

Sawyer paused and swept his gaze over each juror, as if preparing to serve up some shocking revelation. “Did she repay the forty-thousand-dollar loan? Did she settle up the medical expenses for her mother? Did she write the promised will with Miss Shaver as beneficiary? No, no, and no.”

Mutters erupted from the spectators. The judge thumped his gavel. “This is a court of law, not a playhouse. I will not allow such outbursts.”

Sawyer settled back into his tirade, and the onlookers stifled themselves as he harangued on and on. I scanned the faces of my twelve-man jury—twelve Menominee men whose wives have no doubt repeated all manner of titillating rumors about me. Do they think I know nothing of their dirty laundry—with my two brothers living in this town for the last three decades and rubbing elbows with the lot of them?

There’s jury foreman Arthur Wheaton, a butcher widowed last year, after thirty-some years of marriage to Opal. That Opal could talk circles around an auctioneer. I’ll wager Mr. Wheaton is pleased to report for jury duty. The poor man’s probably been as bored as a tree stump without Opal’s company. Personally, I have no objections to Mr. Wheaton. He’s a quiet sort, with doleful eyes, and not much of a backbone. They probably elected him foreman out of deference to his age and state of mourning. Still, he’ll just follow the crowd.

Peter Stocklin is the one I worry about. One might think a superintendent at Crawford Manufacturing would beg off jury duty. But not in Menominee, and certainly not for this trial. Such a sight he is—as stiff and proper as a country preacher, with a sinewy ostrich neck. He’s prepared to do his duty, by God: I’m sure that’s how he sees it. He’ll pass judgment just as he pleases, regardless of people’s foibles or the mysteries of human intercourse. Mean and ruthless—that’s his type. I learned long ago never to trust a man who waxes his mustache into unnatural contortions.

The first day of the trial did not shine a flattering light on me. Mr. Sawyer took plenty of time droning on about my “deliberate scheming,” as if I’d planned every single step, right up to this very moment. But if I’m as devious as he implies, why would I behave in such a way as to open myself up to this circus of allegations? These lawyers always try to have it both ways.

Am I surprised that Frank is dragging me to court? Not at all. Frank may be a woman, but she’s no different from the many jilted men I’ve dealt with over the years. She couldn’t win my heart with money, so, being a lawyer, she naturally turned to the law.

I can guess what you’re thinking, dear reader: What have I gotten myself into? Is my new friend May some unsavory character I’ll regret taking up with? I hate to disappoint you, but it’s not that simple. I will tell you right now: I never took anything from Frank without giving something in return. I did not set out to ruin her, either in love or in fortune.

But I believe you’ll find my story speaks for itself.