On A Very Somber Note

Hungarian Arrow CrossOne of the most popular questions to ask a writer is, “where do you get your ideas?” Frankly, I have no clue as to where some of my ideas come from. I will frequently re-read something I wrote a while ago and wonder, “Where did that come from?” This is the case regarding a character in my book, Saved by the Bell, the fourth book in the boxer series. That particular character was a member of the Hungarian Arrow Cross when he was a young man. I have no idea why. But, having assigned that background to this character, I decided that it would be a good idea if I did some research on the subject of the Hungarian Arrow Cross both to be a credible writer and out of respect for history. At the local library I found (and read) The Gold Train; The Destruction of the Jews and the Looting of Hungary by Ronald Sweig and The Seige of Budapest; One Hundred Days in World War II by Krisztian Ungvary.

siege of BudapestI am now utterly appalled. In the battle for Hungary’s capitol of Budapest, there were the German troops with their coerced ally, the Hungarians, and on the other side, Soviet troops with Romanians and their Hungarian supporters. While there were nearly twice as many attackers as defenders, the defenders had the advantage of being dug in, creating massive casualties on both sides. That’s an understatement. In the city, the mustered local men, who were to maintain order, were the Arrow Cross. Were these people organizing hospitals and medical assistance? Distributing food to a starving population? Creating fire brigades to put out fires? No. With the city encircled and defeat merely a matter of time, the Arrow cross was hunting down, rounding up, torturing and murdering all the Jews and Romas they could find. They were also known to rob Hungarian soldiers and kill those who resisted, including their officers. Deeply hated, the Hungarian partisans in the city focused their attention on killing as many Arrow Cross as they could. Caught between four armies and two battling paramilitary groups were over one million Hungarian civilians.

There is no question but that the Jews and Roma got the worst of it but there was massive suffering all around. Most Soviet soldiers were conscripts and ordered to charge into the teeth of the German’s defense, resulting in massive casualties. Those who surrendered to the Germans explained that if they had attempted to retreat, they would have been deliberately cut down by their own artillery.

Retreat was not an option for foot soldier.

The German command in Budapest kept asking Hitler for permission for the remaining troops to break out of the encirclement and retreat to territory farther west that was still held by the Germans. Hitler refused, insisting that all soldiers fight to the last bullet and the last man. Finally, the German commanders in Budapest radioed Berlin and announced they were breaking out, then destroyed their radio equipment so if Hitler again ordered them to stay, they could not get the order. It was estimated that of the 28,000 German soldiers who tried to break through the Soviet line and reach German held territory, only 800 made it. The rest were killed or captured.

When the Soviets took over, the first thing they did was kill all the wounded German soldiers. In one building, wounded German soldiers were dumped on straw and left with no one to feed them, change their bandages, or render basic hygiene assistance. The few people trying to assist spent three days just dragging out the dead. On the fourth day, the Soviets showed up and set the place on fire so that 800 wounded German soldiers were burned alive. Some locals managed to drag out some of the wounded, but with nowhere to put them, they froze to death.  The Soviets then looted everything they could get their hands on, shot anyone who spoke Russian on the assumption that person was a deserter, rounded up thousand of able-bodied men to be used for forced labor or sent to prison camps where they starved, and raped every woman they could find, usually many times. In the meantime, many more civilians died of the diseases that come with no functional utilities and no medical care, or starved to death.

  •             Final Toll of the Dead:
  •             Civilians, 38,000
  •             Hungarian-German soldiers, 48,000
  •             Soviet-Romanian soldiers     70,000

These are all conservative estimates and don’t include people who died later in POW camps. It was estimated that 60,000 Germans and Hungarians (mostly Hungarians since the Soviet Troops tended to execute Germans) were captured so their total dead might exceed the number of Soviet-Romanians killed.

And what was gained?

Hitler was trying to stave off defeat by keeping the Russians at bay, but Soviet tanks were only 60 kilometers from Berlin when he issued his last “defend at all cost” order, having coming in from Poland, not to mention he was losing the war on the Western front as well. Stalin wanted to capture Budapest in order to make the diplomatic argument that Russian should be able to occupy Hungary as a satellite state, which none of the Western powers had any intention of contesting, anyway. So, frankly, neither side gained anything by this battle.

If you look at the number of tanks, planes, trucks, transports, ammunition light arms, and salaries that went into just this one battle, the amount of money on it must have been staggering. That alone should have been incentive enough to cause humanity to pause about using war as a solution to conflict. In addition, there was the widespread destruction. Hundreds of historic buildings were bombed into rubble, all the bridges in the city were blown up, and just about everything else was looted and burned.

The cost of rebuilding the city must have been staggering.

That doesn’t even take into consideration the amount of human suffering which is beyond calculation. It is hard to imagine how humans could have possible been anymore inhumane to one another than they were in this one city.

To me, the only possible response to all of this would be to determine that war would never happen again that any form of conflict resolution (absent defending against an aggressive invader which is pure self-defense) is preferable to war. And yet, the response of those countries involved in the two great European wars, was to plan for the next war.  Our government supports four institutions of higher learning that teach war. We have none that teach peace. We spend more money on our war department than the rest of the world combined. War is the favorite theme in our video games. Since WWII, we sent troops to Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq as well as participated in proxy wars all over the planet, and we’re not alone. War is still the accepted methodology of resolving conflict, controlling resources, going down in history as a great leader, expanding territory and promoting “values.”

You’d think we’d know better than that by now.

The next character I will have to research will be a retired bakery owner. This will no doubt involve a great deal of investigation of pastries.

Adventures in Serving

Bertie Lou

capturedOne of my more interesting assignments back when I was process serving involved ambushing a weenie wagger on his way to church. I’m not making this up.

The situation was this; a not very gentlemanly gentleman was wagging his weenie at a local woman in a small Oregon town.  After a certain number of provocations, the recipient of this behavior reported it to the police. The offender’s wife explained this behavior on the part of her husband as secondary to having been rejected as a lover by the recipient of the conduct who promptly sued for slander and everything else her lawyer could think of. By “promptly” I mean after the criminal charges had resulted in a guilty plea so liability had been established.

The problem for the lawyer bringing this suit was that the defendant was not cooperating in being served. Every time the process server knocked on the door, no one would answered it. The lawyer assumed his process server had been “made”. Rather than just continue this plan at considerable expense since the small town in question was a fair drive from just about everywhere else in the state, the lawyer decided to try someone else, which is how I got involved.  The lawyer decided the defendant might answer the door to a different person so he hired me.  The lawyer also suggested that since as far as could be determined, the defendant did not regularly leave the house for any specific activity except church, that I might be successful if I were to make my attempt as the man was on his way to services.

Now, I don’t normally interfere with people’s worship–not without extra pay–except for the time I ambushed a rabbi on his way to services, but hey we’re talking about a convicted weenie wagger not a merely allegedly weenie wagger.

So, off I went at the crack of dawn to a little town halfway between Portland and the Coast, papers in hand. The location of the man’s house was proof, yet again, that GPS won’t get you everywhere you need to be. The problem in this particular instance was that the house in question was on what they call a “flagpole” lot meaning it had a long driveway going back off the road and in fact, it was in back of another house and could not be seen from the road.  Also, since the man’s conduct and subsequent convictions had made the local paper, he had taken his house numbers down.

doberman pinscherAfter driving back and forth long enough to be convinced that the house had to be somewhere in the immediate vicinity, I turned down a driveway which appeared to be closest to where this house number was, if it actually existed which my GPS said it did. After finding a house in back of a house I decided this must be the place although I couldn’t find a house number. But, this is where it would have to be if it existed,  this house right past the large sign that said, “beware of dog” with a picture of a Doberman on it.

Still seated in the car, I looked around carefully, no dog. I got out of the car and slammed the door loudly in the hopes of stirring any sleeping dog, and then quickly re-opened the door in case I needed to get in again. No dog. I shut the car door again. No dog. I found that to get to a door, I had to climb up a very long steep stairway. I got to the top of the stairway, now cut off from my car. No dog. Also, no lights. It was just eight o’clock in the morning, unlikely that my quarry was already off to church. Knocking produced nothing. I retreated back to the car. No dog.

Bertie LouNot wanting to admit failure or have to make a return trip out here, I went back into town and found a restaurant open for business and got one of the largest and best hash and eggs breakfasts I’d ever had which came with biscuits and a very good sausage gravy. After breakfast and my usual ten cups of coffee, I packed up the two-thirds of my remaining food (quality and quantity:  the place is now out of business or I’d mention it by name) and headed back out to the house.

I got out of the car, started walking towards the stairs and guess what, a large dog. In fact, large not friendly looking Doberman. Oops. I froze. Fortunately, right behind the dog came the owner who perchance to be the man I was looking for, who accepted the papers and I was able to get back in the car without injury and zip-off mission accomplished.  I spotted a doe and two fawns on my way back, got some good photos and gave my client the five dollar deer discount.

revolverHere’s a tip about pricing process serving work. If the first question you get asked by the client is “do you own a gun?” charge more. I always do. By the way there are two questions I never answer; do I own a gun and do I carry a gun. I think it better to let people get the answer as a surprise. I will admit to not having shot anyone, yet. The last time I was asked that by a lawyer who wanted me to serve papers, I inquired as to why this was being asked, and was told that the person being sued had broken his tenant’s jaw with a crowbar-hence the lawsuit. I did agree to do the serve, and luckily for me, was able to serve the assailant’s teenage daughter who didn’t try to hurt me, but just took the papers. Yes. I got extra for that one anyway.

This lawyer was considerate enough to let me know that this serve might be trouble; meaning I might end up being severely assaulted with a blunt instrument. I appreciate getting a heads up in cases of this kind. Not everyone does that.

For example, Nationwide asked me to serve papers on a man in Beaverton and told me that this guy was probably the only seven-foot tall black man in Beaverton not a member of the Portland Trailblazers, so if he denied who he was, I should drop serve him. I was also told he might evade as he had warrants out for his arrest.

So, off I went to find this dude. I was curious as to why he might have warrants out for his arrest, so I thought I’d read the documents I was to serve on him in case they shed light on this issue, which was unlikely. He was probably getting sued for failure to pay his electric bill. No so. He was being sued for civil damages for being an accessory to a murder by torture.  I’m not making this stuff up.

stolen toolsAccording to the lawsuit, this man’s dubious friends suspected an acquaintance of stealing some tools so they tortured him to get him to tell them what he had done with the tools, which didn’t produce any tools, but the victim died, and the man I was supposed to be serving with papers had helped hide the crime and apparently locate the tools which had not been stolen. Since he was not charged with committing the murders, but only helping his murderous friends, he had been released on bail, which he had skipped out on hence the warrant for his arrest. I could picture him not wanting to be arrested, and not responding well to a knock on the door.

Just in case he had a gun as well as an attitude, when I located his apartment, I made sure to stand well to the side of the door before knocking. I knocked and jerked out-of-the-way, half expecting a shotgun blast through the door. Fortunately, for me, he was not home.

I never did find him home, and eventually returned the papers for re-billing. I have no idea how that story–thank God.

Another person I never found home was the dentist. This was one of two residences that in all my years of work I refused to return to. It was a beautiful home, right down on the Willamette River under a stand of ancient evergreens. Whomever had built the place had seemingly robbed a church to do as the place had numerous stained glass windows with religious themes. A little odd, but very beautiful. Standing on the doorstep, waiting for someone to answer, I glanced down at the papers and saw the basis of complaint was assault. I read on a bit further. He was being civilly sued for assaulting his wife, breaking numerous bones. There was also a description of him on the field sheet–six-foot six inches tall, heavy-set. Oddly enough, that was not what spooked me off this serve. After I got in the car, I had a mental picture of the man sitting at his kitchen table, his head blown off with a shot-gun a self-inflicted wound. I have no idea why that image came to me. I turned the papers in and never came back.

Sometimes I get some interesting serve notes on the field sheet, like the one that said “he lives in the woods with a bunch of heavily armed Neo-Nazis so try to serve him at work.” I do have more dog stories, and some gun stories, but those are tales for another time.  Here’s a hint, though. If you’re out in the boondocks where your cell doesn’t work and there aren’t any other houses in the area and no one knows where you are and you get a gun in the face–do try to be polite.  I’m not making this up.

The Crazoids

paranoid people see cameras everywhereWhen I had a website up for investigation work, I got calls I did not expect–people with affective mental health disorders who wanted help “proving” people were out to get them. Some of these people had absolute textbook paranoia; “they” were out to get the person, usually “they” were the government but sometimes not even that specific, the proof was odd random incidents such as a car parked up the street with the giveaway plate “Watching”, the persecution was often related to sex or sexuality, and had no specified purpose.

I had been offered quite a lot of money on occasions by paranoid people and I could have easily financially exploit their illness, but of course I always turned down these requests. I’m pretty sure that these desperate people did find someone in the investigative community willing to take their money to tell them they were crazy paranoid.

This proved to be very awkward when one such request came from a woman I knew from my social activities. We’d seen each other regularly at meetings, but then she’d drifted off as rumor has it that she was becoming less and less reliable. In her defense, I will say that I have met her husband and that man was enough to drive anyone nuts in five minutes, and she’d managed several decades of mostly sober sanity married to him.

being followed makes one paranoidShe called me up after I hadn’t seen her in years and said she was going through a divorce and needed my help. I explained to her that I was no longer practicing law and could not help her. She didn’t need a lawyer, she explained. She had one of those. In fact, she had several. But, she said, she needed help because, “I’m being followed. I’m sure “HE’s” behind it, and its been going on for days now.” She wanted me to spend several days following the follower. Since I was sure no such person existed, I told her that I currently had other obligations and would not be able to take her money.

woman contesting divorce settlementMonths later, she did get a divorce with the worst instances of arithmetic I’ve ever seen. The judge decided, correctly, that since this was a long term marriage, she should get half, so he divided six hundred thousand dollars for her share and came up with two hundred thousands. And they say women are bad at math. But what really struck me when I was reading the transcripts of her appeal was the testimony of her husband which was:

“Your honor, my wife was trying to ruin our business. She was going around to all of my customers.”

“And how do you know that, Mr. Brown.”

“Because I followed her. For days.”

Which just goes to prove that just because you are paranoid does NOT mean they aren’t out to get you. In law school, incidentally, I was taught that paranoia is just a higher form of awareness. I was taught this in my legal ethics class, an edict I mention in “The Evil that Men Do.” That was a true story. I don’t make this shit up.


dead fly

Here’s an experiment that you can try at home. Find a corpse. Put it in your basement. Leave it there for two weeks. Observe the results. Spoiler alert, this tends to produce a lot of flies.  (I discovered this once when a rat died in my basement and I didn’t notice it for a while.  This served as the basis for my short story, “The Rat” (rats are also featured in “The Evil That Men Do”) and gave me some very bad dreams after a peculiar adventure I had serving papers.

old apt buildingI was serving the usual small claims summons and complaint on someone in an old apartment complex and as I passed the first apartment in the complex, I noticed an unusually large number of flies in the window, whose curtain was drawn. There were many dead flies on the window sill, and even more buzzing against the glass. Hmmm. Weird. The person I was attempting to serve was not there, so about a week later, I returned. I noted that there were still a lot of flies in the window of the first apartment whose curtains were still drawn, many more dead ones, but still dozens of live ones. Hmmm. Weird.

lots of flies
“Find a corpse. Put it in your basement. Leave it there for two weeks. Observe the results.”

After a month of serve attempts, this person never was home and I returned the papers for re-billing, I got very curious about the flies. What would explain that many flies in the window? I assumed the apartment must be empty. I can’t see living with that many flies and never cleaning off the sill of the dead ones. Perhaps when someone had moved out, they had left a large amount of food garbage behind. That would explain a lot of flies the first time I went by, but I would think the landlord would hardly leave the place unattended for a month after someone had moved out. I also didn’t think it likely that food garbage would sustain a colony of flies that large for a month.

What else could explain the presence of a large number of flies over such a long period of time in a presumably empty apartment? That’s when I remembered the rat. What would allow large numbers of flies to hatch over a significant period of time? A dead body. That would do it. There must be a dead body rotting in the apartment. That would explain the peculiar smell. Someone had possibly paid their rent for the month, and then died–that’s why the landlord hadn’t been by to check on the place. Or someone had left the corpse of someone they had killed. Having reached that conclusion, I did what every normal responsible citizen would do; I freaked out and had bad dreams about it. Then, very shortly after my last visit there, I coincidentally ran into a police officer in a hardware store where she was oddly not buying any hardware and asked her about the situation. She told me to report it on the non-emergency line, which I did. Good citizen that I am.

crazy cat ladyThe police kindly called me back and told me what they had found a crazy cat lady with a totally inadequate supply of kitty litter. They called human services and she and the cats are now much better off. It is good to be a responsible citizen.


— Deni Starr

The Severed Head

Severed heads is why I gave up handling real estate disclosure matters. Seriously. I don’t t make this shit up, you know. It was quite some ways into my practice. In fact, I had been in practice so long that I was thinking that spending my life immersed in divorce and crime might not be the best choice for a happy frame of mind. I had determined to move my practice in another direction, so I was elated when I had a former divorce client call me up with a real estate sale disclosure question. I figured, what could be more mundane that that?  Incest, arson, and mayhem possibly.

severed head

This was her question. She was selling her home and her real estate agent told her that she was required by law to disclose any major defects of which she was aware, so she wanted me to tell her if that included the fact that a man had recently been murdered in her home. And his severed head was still missing.  I told her that I didn’t know the answer to that question off the top of my head I could go research it, but doubted that there was much precedent on point here. I told her to just not mention it and presumed it was highly unlikely she would ever be sued for that. Would you sue someone who leaves a severed head in their wake? I did use this event in one of my books. I put the head in “Below the Belt” and you’ll l never guess where I hid it.

double chocolate chipThe nice lady who asked me this question (and she was a very nice person) came by my office with a check for my advice and some home-made cookies. I thought twice about eating them. Tell me that you wouldn’t t think twice about eating food prepared by someone who woke up in bed next to a headless, handless corpse and claims she slept through all of that. But hey, they were double chocolate, chocolate chip. What’s a girl to do? I ate the cookies. I don’t do real estate sales disclosure questions anymore.

— Deni Starr

The Scissor Stabbing

scissor stabbingToday I was on a mission for a lawyer to the quaint Oregon town of Estacada. It is up towards the mountain from Portland on the banks of the Clackamas River and its previous claim to fame was the Safari Club which is now defunct. There is no McDonald’s in town, or Burger King or Wendy’s but they do have an A & W drive-in. While there, I picked up a coke at the grocery market where, on Mother’s Day of this year, a man walked into the store and attacked an employee at knife-point while carrying his recently murdered mother’s now decapitated head.  It’s the city’s new claim to fame.

evening newsI remember thinking as I watched this on the evening national news (that’s how you get a crime to go national, tie it to a holiday), that I’d like to be this man’s comp attorney.  I’ve done enough worker’s compensation law in Oregon to know that you get more money for an unscheduled (non-specific) injury than a scheduled one.  For your information, something like a severed finger is scheduled- there is a specific amount of money that everyone gets for losing a finger. More nebulous injuries, such as back-injuries, are unscheduled. I’m fairly certain there is no schedule in Oregon’s worker’s compensation law for going to work only to be stabbed multiple times by a man swinging around his dead mother’s head on Mother’s Day, no less. I’m guessing the emotional trauma on that one is worth a few extra bucks.

As an odd coincidence, my first job involving investigation of worker’s compensation claims, which long predated doing that work for Norma Bates (See- “The Evil that Men Do”) was for a man who was later stabbed to death by his step-son. Weird. That was not a comp injury. That’s how we lawyers think. That’s why when I go to events where some but not all the attendees are lawyers, I ask the guests I don’t know if they are lawyers or normal people. The normal people aren’t always sure why I would ask a question like that, but the lawyers get it.

— Deni Starr