The Secret Life of Matthew Smythe


by Mark Painter


(with apologies to James Thurber)


“Incoming!” The Colonel’s voice pierced like shrapnel, but lacked the tone of panic that crept into younger men’s throats in the heat of battle.

His men threw themselves to the concrete floor of the ruined building. None of them had heard the dread whistle of an incoming mortar, but experience had taught them to trust the Old Man’s sixth sense.

The huge explosion swayed the floor and sprayed gouts of flame where men had been standing an instant earlier. The ruined steel girders groaned in protest.

“How did he know?” whispered the new kid. “If we hadn’t dropped when we did—”

“That’s why you listen to the Old Man,” replied Lieutenant Berg. “You want to live to see that pension the Army promised? Then you do what the Old Man tells you.”

The Colonel raised his head. The only effect the blast had had on him was to cock his beret rakishly over one eyebrow. “It’s okay now,” he told the men. “Let’s move out.”

Outside, the rain pelted them and the gloom seemed to sap their spirits—except the Colonel’s. The enemy fire had stopped. They picked their way through the narrow streets of the ruined city, alert to any sign of hostiles, their Special Forces instincts tripwire tight. The circuitous route the Colonel chose took them back to the American sector without exposing them to any more enemy fire.

Back at Headquarters, the master sergeant jumped to his feet at first sight of the Colonel and saluted smartly…

“Empty your pockets into the tray, please.”

Matthew Smythe’s attention snapped back to the Courthouse lobby, the battles of a distant capital fading into the narrow alleyways of his mind. He dropped his car keys into the tray.

“Everything into the tray, please,” the deputy insisted.

“Even my wallet?”

“That would be included under ‘everything.’” The deputy examined the worn nylon wallet and the Honda key ring dubiously. “You an attorney?”

“Yeah,” said Smythe as he stepped through the metal detector.

The deputy said nothing, but the expression on his face as he slid the tray back to Smythe was skeptical.

Smythe collected his things and hurried down the stairs to Arbitration, tucked away in the courthouse basement. On the way, his phone rang. It was his wife. “Did you pick up your prescription yet?”

“I happen to have a hearing to chair,” he replied testily.

“Well, don’t forget. You always forget things.”

“I don’t need that prescription anyway.”

“Now, we’ve already discussed this. That cough of yours isn’t getting any better, and I can’t sleep with you hacking all night. You know, you aren’t a young man anymore.”

Smythe chaired the arbitration panel. They always made him the chair. He supposed that they normally assigned the job to the oldest lawyer on the panel, so it was always Smythe, because all the other lawyers who served on arbitration panels were whippersnappers. Smythe wouldn’t have minded, if only they’d pay the chair a little more than they pay the whippersnappers.

Counsel for plaintiff and defendant got into a shouting match before they’d even finished their opening statements. Smythe opened his mouth to tell them to behave themselves, but one of the whippersnappers jumped in and took care of it before he could say anything. Typical.

It was time for Smythe to swear in the plaintiff. Smythe groped for an appropriate form of oath. How did they do it on TV? “Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” Lawyering always looked so much more interesting on TV…

“Objection!” Matthew Smythe, Esquire, the most famous criminal lawyer in America, rose to his full six-foot-five and glared at the prosecutor. “All the evidence against my client is purely circumstantial.”

“Your honor!” protested the prosecutor. “We all know there’s no legal trick Mr. Smythe won’t stoop to, even though his client is an embezzler, a murderer, a corporate criminal, a drug dealer, and a—”

Smythe cut him off. “I don’t know what country you’re from, Hanson, but here in America, a defendant is innocent until proven guilty!”

“Smythe, you’re right!” said the judge. He banged the gavel. “I find the defendant innocent of all charges!”

“But, but—” sputtered the prosecutor as the courtroom erupted into bedlam.

The bailiff handed the judge a slip of paper. The judge read it, then rapped the gavel again. “I’ve just received word that the Supreme Court has upheld my decision. Therefore, under this new precedent, no innocent person will ever be convicted again!”

Smythe’s client, a nubile blonde, kissed his cheek and handed him a check. “Oh, Matthew, you’re wonderful!” she gushed. “Here’s full payment for every minute of time you spent on this case, at your regular hourly rate. You’re worth every penny…”

The most famous criminal lawyer in America suddenly became aware of an uncomfortable silence in the hearing room. “I beg your pardon?”

The defense counsel looked wary, as if he suspected some sort of trap. “I said, I move for admission of the IME at this time.”

“Very well,” muttered Smythe absently. Counsel handed thick packets to each of the three panelists. Smythe glanced over the medical report. He already knew the gist of it. Examination revealed no physiological basis for plaintiff’s howls of agony.

The doctor’s office address was in Pittsburgh. Is Pittsburgh the one that’s spelled with an “h”? I thought that was Harrisburg.

Doctors. They thought they knew everything…

“How’s the patient’s EEG?” demanded Dr. Matthew Smythe, the country’s top phlebologist, as he barreled through the swinging doors into the scrub room.

Rawlins, the hospital epistemologist, held a negative up to the light as Smythe scrubbed. “Spasmodic infarction of the pulmonary ventricle, Dr. Smythe. Supernumerary.”

“That’s why I’m here,” said Smythe.

An orderly entered, cell phone to his ear. “Dr. Smythe, it’s the Governor. He wants to thank you for your work on the malpractice insurance crisis. The Trial Lawyers Association endorsed your proposal yesterday, and this morning the AMA ratified it by acclamation.”

Smythe nodded. “Excellent.”

The orderly listened to the phone for another moment. “He says now he needs your help on legalizing wine sales over the internet.”

“I’m supposed to work miracles? Tell him we’ll talk tomorrow. Today there’s a life to save.”

Smythe and Rawlins proceeded into the operating room. The O.R. nurse was consulting with the surgeon. “Anispepsia has set in, Dr. Katz.”

Smythe pulled on a rubber glove. “I’ll take over, Raymond…”

The arbitration hearing ended. Smythe began leafing through the plaintiff’s medical packet. One of the whippersnappers said, “Two hours of argument over a traffic accident, and neither side brings in a single photograph.”

“What should we award?” asked the other whippersnapper. “Ten thousand?”

“Was this full or limited tort?” asked Smythe. “I forgot.”

They wrote up the award, shook hands, and left the hearing room. Smythe carried the file back to the administrator’s office. As he handed it back to the clerk, an old magazine on the countertop caught his eye. “Why aren’t you rich yet?” the cover demanded.

On the way back to his car, his phone rang. It was his wife again. “Did you pick up the prescription yet?”

“What prescription?”

Her exasperated sigh came through with 4G clarity. “Don’t tell me you forgot.”

“I have a lot on my mind,” he told her.

Smythe returned to the parking garage. With its skeletal walls and sloping floors, it did look rather like a bombed-out building. Or some incomplete, futuristic structure.

He found his car, drove to the exit gate, and handed over his credit card. “Do you need a receipt?” asked the attendant.

“Yes, please.” Smythe dropped the credit card and the receipt into his cup holder. The gate opened. Smythe put his hand on the Honda’s gearshift…

“Let’s hope that last shot took out the tractor beam, or this is going to be a real short ride!” Captain Smythe pulled the warp lever. The starfighter roared away from the enemy space station and vanished into hyperspace in a shimmer of multicolored light.

(©2016 by Mark Painter. All rights reserved.)