Kevin Egan on Shaping “The Harbinger”

Fifteen of my sixteen stories that have appeared in AHMM are set in the New York state court system, and nine of these feature Foxx, a court officer who is assigned to Manhattan Supreme Court and who doubles as an undercover agent for the Inspector General. Having worked in that same courthouse for over 30 years, I have drawn ideas for these stories from various sources. A story may be suggested by a character (real or imagined), a case I may have encountered (with the names changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty), or some weird internal design feature within the hexagonally shaped building.

For “The Harbinger,” my inspiration was an instructional pamphlet with an intriguing title: “The Sovereign Citizen Movement and Its Impact on New York State Courts.”

The pamphlet was written in 2013 to instruct judges on how to handle the disruptive tactics of an organized group of pro se litigants. (Pro se is the Latin term for someone who represents himself or herself in court.) It briefly described the Sovereign Citizen ideology and its core belief that no legitimate form of government exists above the county level. Since the federal and state governments are, by definition, illegitimate, Sovereign Citizens firmly believe they are not subject to federal and state laws or to the jurisdiction of federal or state courts. Therefore, suing or prosecuting a Sovereign Citizen in state court is problematic at best.

I came across the pamphlet in 2018 and immediately saw the possibility of a story. I had experience with pro se litigants as a law clerk. Most of them either could not afford a lawyer or wanted to pursue a case no lawyer would touch. They may have been ignorant of the law or misguided in their legal tactics, but they usually were respectful of the court and the judges. The Sovereign Citizens described in the pamphlet were a different breed of pro se litigants. Their sophisticated tactics included voluminous paper filings, absurd discovery demands, exhaustively redundant oral arguments, and personal lawsuits filed against the judges presiding over their cases.

Tactics like these could bring a relatively small, rural courthouse to a standstill. I wanted to explore how these tactics would affect the busiest trial courthouse in the country. But the idea of injecting a Sovereign Citizen into the New York County Courthouse merely created a circumstance, not a story plot. And so, after several false starts trying to tease a workable story out of the pamphlet, I needed to ask myself some questions.  

            —What would the Inspector General ask Foxx to do?

            —How would Foxx handle this assignment?

            —What would Foxx think of the person he is asked to pursue?

            The answers to these questions helped shape “The Harbinger.”

Robert;Young, a man ostensibly employing all the legal tactics of the Sovereign Citizens, is defending himself in a routine case involving a credit card default. (According to the pamphlet, Sovereign Citizens use punctuation marks in between their names.) The Inspector General instructs Foxx to befriend Young and learn whether he is an advance representative (i.e., a harbinger) of a group intending to move their anti-government operations downstate. Foxx, posing as a pro se litigant himself, engages Young in conversation while the two men pass long hours waiting outside the courtroom for the judge to rule on their cases.

Foxx quickly sees that Young does not resemble the stereotypical pro se litigant. First, he seems almost too comfortable in the courthouse setting. Second, although Young peppers his conversation with anti-government rhetoric, Foxx detects as an underlying personal animosity toward the judge, whose name is Thomas Dalton. That evening, Foxx reports his suspicion to the Inspector General. The next morning, Young is found stabbed to death in a courthouse lavatory.

Foxx’s investigation reveals that Young had been living as a squatter in the disused courthouse library while awaiting the judge’s ruling. Among Young’s meager possessions are newspaper articles about a scandal that occurred in the 1990s and involved a high-profile law firm filing hundreds of fraudulent personal injury claims against the City. All of the lawyers in the firm were prosecuted, even those who denied any knowledge of the scheme. Several, including the innocent lawyer who later became Robert;Young, went to prison. Meanwhile, Thomas Dalton, the lawyer who masterminded the scheme, not only avoided prison but also went on to become a judge. Though Young may have joined the anti-government group while in prison, his presence in the New York County Courthouse was unrelated to any of the group’s intentions. He was simply a guy with a vendetta—revenge against the man who ruined his career and his reputation. Unfortunately, that plan did not work out so well.

1 Comment

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One response to “Kevin Egan on Shaping “The Harbinger”

  1. Frank M

    One author’s great example of where mystery story ideas come from. I am just meeting the character, Foxx, in Kevin’s novel, A Shattered Circle. Great read.

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