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The defender
Mesce, Bill Jr.
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Publication Information:
New York : Bantam Books, [2003]

Physical Description:
277 pages ; 22 cm
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X Adult Fiction Open Shelf
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In the critically acclaimed novels The Advocate and Officer of the Court , Bill Mesce Jr. introduced readers to a new hero in the world of military suspense. The Defender is the electrifying tale of Major Harry Voss's most riveting case yet: a wartime court-martial that could cost an innocent man his life--and cover up another innocent man's murder.


The case against Lieutenant Dominick Sisto is overwhelming. It's so overwhelming that Major Harry Voss hasn't been called in to prove him innocent--but to fight for a less severe sentence when the guilty verdict is read. Charged with disobeying a direct order from a commander, Sisto is accused of fleeing in the face of the enemy at a place called the Huertgen Forest. But the more Harry looks into the case, the more he suspects the official story is far from the real one. As Voss is raced to a secluded castle in Wiltz to defend Sisto, the war in Europe escalates and the Allied forces mount an offensive against the Nazis that will reach a climax in the Battle of the Bulge. Summoned personally by an old friend who will preside over the trial, Voss has a personal connection with the accused going back to the neighborhood where he watched the young lieutenant grow up. Still, determined as he is, Voss isn't sure he's the right man for the job. He hasn't defended a criminal case in years and he's up against an ambitious hotshot JAG prosecutor chosen by the brass to win at any cost.

And that cost may well be justice, truth, and the lives of innocent men. For as Voss unravels what really happened on Hill 399, he discovers that Sisto was a hero, not a traitor, and that the one man who can prove it vanished in the blood and chaos of war. As the trial builds to a shattering climax, Harry is driven to visit the Belgian site where the drama unfolded--and it's there he must find evidence that he's not just walking the hallowed ground of a battlefield...but the scene of a crime.

Evocative, tense, and relentlessly paced, The Defender is a superior military thriller that takes us to a place where loyalty turns into betrayal, allies turn into enemies, and comrades in arms can become cold-blooded killers.

Author Notes

BILL MESCE JR. is the author of two previous novels featuring Harry Voss. He lives in New Jersey.



CHAPTER ONE Before the war, Glyditch had been a small, nondescript hamlet, a few rows of walk-ups and shops hugging the southern shore of the firth midway between Edinburgh and North Berwick. Unprepossessing as it had been, it had managed a lovely, serene stillness, a calming view of the water, and comfortable enough accommodations to meet the needs of some of Edinburgh's posh crowd looking for a bit of quiet and rest-up for the weekend. But what had been nondescript yet quaint before the war had now taken on the qualities of disuse. Glyditch wore the same wartime drabness that much of Britain had taken on as its uniform in those days. And certainly, the chill winds off the North Sea and the whipping winter rains did little to dispel the air of Glyditch being a forgotten, dying place, and the notion that Glyditch was a place to pass through, not stay. Among the weather-beaten establishments overlooking the firth was a narrow five-story, the flats long abandoned by tenants who could no longer survive the faltering economy of Glyditch. In their place a small cadre of American officers and their support staff had installed a warren of cramped, paper-filled offices and tended to some of the more innocuous elements of the great war against the Hun. Lieutenant Colonel Harry Voss occupied one of those little cubbies. Sitting at his desk, poring over plat books and land leases, his reading spectacles parked far down the bulb of his nose, a cigarette dangling from thoughtfully pursed lips, huddled inside a heavy sweater and scarf of fine Scottish wool, he seemed less a military officer than a figure from "Bartleby the Scrivener." There was a knock at his door which he did not answer. The visitor was obviously experienced; he didn't wait for a response and immediately entered. Harry glanced up from the plat books and over his reading spectacles just long enough to identify the intruder as one of the staff orderlies, a young private whose child-like form was lost in the folds of his Government Issue uniform. He was pushing a serving cart ahead of him, navigating the cramped confines of the office unsuccessfully, avoiding a collision with the desk by clanging into one of the overstuffed file cabinets. "Happy Thanksgiving, Colonel!" the orderly chirped in some Great Plains drawl. "They all missed ya down in the mess! Yore missin' out on a helluva party!" Harry resettled his spectacles on his nose. "I'll muddle through." The orderly awkwardly piloted past reefs of piled files until he docked the cart alongside Harry's desk. He made a show of lifting each of the plate covers and declaring the scrumptiousness of the food with a loud sniff. "Mmmmm-mph! The cooks did a right good job, Colonel! Tried to make it just like home! Even got cranberry sauce! It's that glop comes out a can, but it's still cranberry sauce. Got some-- Well, I don't rightly know what it is, some local sheep thing. A 'joint operation' 'tween us 'n' the Scots, ya might say! Don't look like much but smells yummy. Well, kinda. You should get inta some o' this while it's hot, Colonel." "Thanks." Without looking up, Harry could sense the youngster's disappointment, and his puzzlement that such a mouthwatering invitation could be so dispassionately rebuffed. "They didn't really have 'nuff turkey for ever'body," the orderly confessed, attentively recovering the plates. "The junior officers got a lot of chickens mixed in. Turkey don't seem to be so big over here." The young man seemed to be looking for an excuse to maintain a conversation. He leaned over the studious Harry, peering out the office's one narrow window. A gust of wind sent the pelting rain against the pane sounding like thrown gravel. "Funny how quiet it is ever'place else. I mean, it's a helluva wing-ding they got goin' downstairs! 'N' out there--" "It's just Thursday to them." "I guess." "A rainy Thursday." "Yeah." "A cold, miserable, rainy Thursday." "Hey, maybe it'll catch on." Harry turned to study the orderly's earnest, open face over the rims of his lenses. "Catch on?" "You know, like they celebrate Christmas. Why not Thanksgiving?" Harry sighed and returned to his paperwork. "They've been celebrating Christmas a lot longer than we have." The orderly was not so naifish as to miss Harry's dismissive air: he began to back out of the office. "Well, enjoy yore dinner, Colonel." Harry nodded a thanks and sighed pleasurably when he heard the door shut. But only a few minutes passed before he heard footsteps again creaking along the hardwood hallway floor toward his office. "You forget something, Private?" Harry growled impatiently. No response. Harry sat up curiously. "Is somebody out there?" Then, in an unreservedly artificial basso that echoed up and down the empty corridor: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!" Of all the people on earth with whom Harry Voss was acquainted, only Joe Ryan would have refined the ability to balance himself on the doorknob, allowing his upper body to swing into the room while his feet remained in the doorway, and only Joe Ryan would have believed the hours spent in refining such a flourish were a worthwhile investment. "My God! Joe!" Harry tossed his glasses on the desk and shot to his feet, his face opening in a welcoming smile as he grasped the hand of Colonel Joseph P. Ryan, Judge Advocate's Bureau. "Harry-boy!" Ryan clasped Harry's hand warmly in both his own. He stood back a moment, his bright green eyes squinting in study at the shorter, thicker officer in front of him. "That's a rounder shadow than I thought Lamont Cranston would have." "Drop dead. What are you doing here? Are you AWOL?" It was a dashing smile of perfect white teeth that Ryan flashed, a smile befitting the looks that made him look several years younger than the man across from him, though they were of the same forty-odd years. "Colonels do not go AWOL." Ryan emphasized the point with a leather-gloved finger. "Colonels conduct operations at their own discretion." "Sit down, you dirty so-and-so!" Ryan glanced about the cluttered cubby, glared at the one visitor's chair bristling with files. "No mean feat, Harry-boy." Like a contrite housekeeper, Harry hastily made room. "Who'd you piss off to end up in this rat hole?" Ryan pretended to dust the seat with his gloves before setting himself and his trimly tailored Royal Navy-styled bridge coat down. "I like this rat hole," Harry retorted, returning to his own chair. "I think it's cozy." "You think anything that reminds you of home is cozy." Ryan leaned toward the serving cart, peeked under a cover. "Need I remind you that you lived in a tenement? Oof!" Then, in a horrible imitation of an Irish brogue, "Would this be our loverly Army cooks be havin' a try at proper holiday victuals?" "I hate when you do that." As Ryan opened his coat, Harry noted the steam-pipe fit of the colonel's Eisenhower jacket. "Did you lose weight?" "Living in the field makes you hard, Harry." "I thought you wrote me you were living in a hotel in Liege." "That's close enough to the field for me. C'mon, let's go." "Go where?" "You've got to show me some sights." "What sights? Have you seen this town? There are no sights." The room was close enough that Ryan could lean back, snag Harry's coatrack with a finger, and pull it near enough to where he could bob Harry's cap free of its hook. "Let me put it to you another way." He tossed Harry's cap onto the desk. "Let's get out of here." With a sigh, Harry scooped up his cap and reached for his jacket. "I don't know what you think you're going to see. It's raining. And there's a blackout. Did I mention the rain?" "You can be such a killjoy, Harry-boy--a wet-blanket-sourpuss-pain-in-the-ass killjoy!" In the doorway, Harry frowned and nodded toward the serving cart. "What about that?" Joe Ryan smiled and made an inviting gesture of his arm. "Little mice, little mice, wherever you are . . . bon appetit." There had been a small establishment--a cafe of sorts--overlooking the beach where the tourists--in those days when there had been tourists--could purchase some refreshment and lounge about on the roofed patio, watching the waters of the firth roll into shore. Like the rest of Glyditch, it had not been much to look at, but along with lemonade and assorted snacks, there had been a modest stock of champagne and brandies, Swiss chocolates, tins of caviar, and other unexpected delicacies. But years of abandonment, the untreated damages of one winter after another, had left the place derelict, decaying, picked over by scavengers. It had been but a walk of a few minutes from Harry's office to the seaside cafe, but even in that short time, wrestling their umbrellas against the muscular wind, they found their trouser legs sopping by the time they reached the shelter of the patio. They folded their brollies and left them on the barren serving counter, shook the drops from their shoes and cuffs, huddled together against the wind to nurse a flaming match against a pair of cigarettes. Ryan took a deep draft of his cigarette, then squinted against the wind, looking out toward the firth, watching the wind stir the wave tops to a white froth under the last feeble light of the day. He turned, looked at the dreary facades of the buildings along the waterfront. "What the hell're you doing here, Harry?" "We compile information on land availability, negotiate access and use for estate lands by the military--" "Harry, what the hell're you doing here? You should've said something to me when they assigned you. I might've been able to get you out of it." "I didn't want to get out of it." "Is everything OK at home?" Ryan asked, sincerely concerned. "I hope so." Harry shrugged off Ryan's worry. "It's quiet. I like that." "All those years of law school and now you're a goddamn real estate broker. Hardly seems lawyerly to me." "I like it." "Nobody bothers you." "Nobody bothers me." "Oh, so little Harry's learned his lesson." "He's learned his lesson." "Keep your head down, your mouth shut, blend in with the walls." "That's the ticket." "You are so full of shit . . ." "Flattery was never your strong suit." "Not true. You better than anybody else know that I am the all-time heavyweight title-holding ass-kisser in the Judge Advocate's. But one kisses ass up the chain of command, not down." "Pile it on. I still have a shred of dignity left." "Harry . . ." Ryan paced a restless little circle. The wind picked up a few knots and the rotting timbers of the cafe moaned under the abuse. "If you want to keep abusing me, could you do it someplace that's warm and dry?" "No. Harry, what would it take to get you to fight one more fight you couldn't win?" "What kind of fight?" "Dominick Sisto needs your help." "Dominick? He get caught breaking into another wine cellar? That cost him his sergeant's stripes, you know, back when his outfit--" "Was still in Italy, I know. This is . . . bigger than that. And, by the way, he's a lieutenant now." "Dominick? A lieutenant? I'll be damned! Where is he? We were still in touch when they transferred his division to England for a re-fit. I kept meaning to get down there. I haven't heard from him in a while. I assumed they were sent into France." "Belgium," Ryan said glumly. "A placed called the Huertgen Forest on the border with Germany. Not that far from where I am in Liege. That's how I know about this. My office is handling the case." Still not expecting anything more serious than a charge of drunk and disorderly, Harry asked, "How much trouble is he in?" Ryan took a last puff and stamped his cigarette out with finality. He looked out toward the firth with a sigh. "Worst case? Tie-him-to-a-post-with-a-black-sack-over-his-head kind of trouble." For a moment, Harry thought--hoped--this was a poor jest of Ryan's. But the other man turned to look at Harry with a sad, helpless confirming nod. "Dominick?" Harry shook his head, denying, disbelieving. "Desertion under fire," Ryan explained, "disobeying a direct order--and don't say Dominick again. Yes, Dominick. Making a mutiny. They're throwing a load of other Mickey Mouse stuff on his head as icing." "I know the drill." Harry leaned against the counter. Again, they were quiet. Again, the strange moan of the wind through the rafters of the cafe. "You said this is up in your neighborhood. You couldn't do anything?" "Can't. I'm going to be sitting on the trial as law officer. He asked for you, Harry." Harry shook his head. "Defense Counsel shouldn't come from the Judge Advocate's staff." "That's the recommendation, but it's not ironclad. You're not a part of my Judge Advocate's staff. Right now you're not part of anybody's Judge Advocate staff. Hell, Harry, you haven't even done any trial work since you transferred here." "If the Defense Counsel comes from the Judge Advocate, it risks the appearance of impropriety and unfairness. Even if I'm not attached at the moment--" Ryan laughed caustically. "Harry, we're way past the appearance of impropriety! I'm so far out on a limb . . . I'm not even here officially! I have to be on a plane back to Liege in a couple of hours so I'm back for reveille. If it gets out that Dominick's judge snuck over here to draft Dominick's Defense Counsel . . . All three of us wind up in the crapper." "Does anybody there know how well you know the kid?" "They know I know him, but they don't know I know him. If they did, I'd be pressured to recuse myself." "Who's prosecuting? Anybody I know from the London days?" "Trial counsel's a new guy, captain named Courie, came on with me in September, just before we shipped out from London. Word was he was some kind of hotshot ADA in Cleveland--Cleveland for Chrissakes--before the war. You know, one of those young up-and-coming types. I don't know what that means in Cleveland! For all I know, a major crime there is kicking someone's dog. I think he's thinking of something better when he gets home than being an ADA in Cleveland." "He's trying to run up a score over here?" Ryan nodded. "Since I've known him. He's hungry, Harry, and he's a smoothie. Except in the courtroom. Then the gloves come off and there he's a tiger. A maneater! You come out of the courtroom after a tussle with Courie, you'd better count your fingers to make sure you still have 'em all. "He pushed himself into this, that's how hungry he is. With his pedigree, it would've looked funny if I'd tried to block him. Let me warn you: Courie's sharp, he'll smell something if I don't play this perfectly straight, so don't look for me to do anything more than sympathize once we're at trial." Excerpted from The Defender by Bill Mesce All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.