Archive for the ‘Book Excerpt’ Category
The rules of the New Haven Youth League required that each kid play at least ten minutes in each game. Exceptions were allowed for players who had upset their coaches by skipping practice or violating other rules. In such cases, a coach could file a report before the game and inform the scorekeeper that so-and-so wouldn’t play much, if at all, because of some infraction.
This was frowned on by the league; it was, after all, much more recreational than competitive.
With four minutes left in the game, Coach Kyle looked down the bench, nodded at a somber and pouting little boy named Marquis, and said, “Do you want to play?” Without responding, Marquis walked to the scorers’ table and waited for a whistle. His violations were numerous—skipping practice, skipping school, bad grades, losing his uniform, foul language. In fact, after ten weeks and fifteen games, Marquis had broken every one of the few rules his coach tried to enforce.
Coach Kyle had long since realized that any new rule would be immediately violated by his star, and for that reason he trimmed his list and fought the temptation to add new regulations. It wasn’t working. Trying to control ten inner- city kids with a soft touch had put the Red Knights in last place in the 12 and Under division of the winter league.
Marquis was only eleven, but clearly the best player on the court. He preferred shooting and scoring over passing and defending, and within two minutes he’d slashed through the lane, around and through and over much larger players, and scored six points. His average was fourteen, and if allowed to play more than half a game, he could probably score thirty. In his own young opinion, he really didn’t need to practice.
In spite of the one-man show, the game was out of reach. Kyle McAvoy sat quietly on the bench, watching the game and waiting for the clock to wind down. One game to go and the season would be over, his last as a basketball coach. In two years he’d won a dozen, lost two dozen, and asked himself how any person in his right mind would willingly coach at any level. He was doing it for the kids, he’d said to himself a thousand times, kids with no fathers, kids from bad homes, kids in need of a positive male influence. And he still believed it, but after two years of babysitting, and arguing with parents when they bothered to show up, and hassling with other coaches who were not above cheating, and trying to ignore teenage referees who didn’t know a block from a charge, he was fed up. He’d done his community service, in this town anyway.
He watched the game and waited, yelling occasionally because that’s what coaches are supposed to do. He looked around the empty gym, an old brick building in downtown New Haven, home to the youth league for fifty years. A handful of parents were scattered through the bleachers, all waiting for the final horn. Marquis scored again. No one applauded. The Red Knights were down by twelve with two minutes to go.
At the far end of the court, just under the ancient scoreboard, a man in a dark suit walked through the door and leaned against the retractable bleachers. He was noticeable because he was white. There were no white players on either team. He stood out because he wore a suit that was either black or navy, with a white shirt and a burgundy tie, all under a trench coat that announced the presence of an agent or a cop of some variety.
Coach Kyle happened to see the man when he entered the gym, and he thought to himself that the guy was out of place. Probably a detective of some sort, maybe a narc looking for a dealer.
It would not be the first arrest in or around the gym.
After the agent/cop leaned against the bleachers, he cast a long suspicious look at the Red Knights’ bench, and his eyes seemed to settle on Coach Kyle, who returned the stare for a second before it became uncomfortable. Marquis let one fly from near mid- court, air ball, and Coach Kyle jumped to his feet, spread his hands wide, shook his head as if to ask, “Why?”
Marquis ignored him as he loafed back on defense. A dumb foul stopped the clock and prolonged the misery. While looking at the free-throw shooter, Kyle glanced beyond him, and in the background was the agent/cop, still staring, not at the action but at the coach.
For a twenty-five-year-old law student with no criminal record and no illegal habits or proclivities, the presence and the attention of a man who gave all indications of being employed by some branch of law enforcement should have caused no concern whatsoever. But it never worked that way with Kyle McAvoy. Street cops and state troopers didn’t particularly bother him. They were paid to simply react. But the guys in dark suits, the investigators and agents, the ones trained to dig deep and discover secrets—those types still unnerved him.
Thirty seconds to go and Marquis was arguing with a referee. He’d thrown an F-bomb at a ref two weeks earlier and was suspended for a game. Coach Kyle yelled at his star, who never listened. He quickly scanned the gym to see if agent/cop No. 1 was alone or was now accompanied by agent/cop No. 2. No, he was not.
Another dumb foul, and Kyle yelled at the referee to just let it slide. He sat down and ran his finger over the side of his neck, then flicked off the perspiration. It was early February, and the gym was, as always, quite chilly.
Why was he sweating?
The agent/cop hadn’t moved an inch; in fact he seemed to enjoy staring at Kyle.
The decrepit old horn finally squawked. The game was mercifully over. One team cheered, and one team really didn’t care. Both lined up for the obligatory high fives and “Good game, good game,” as meaningless to twelve- year- olds as it is to college players. As Kyle congratulated the opposing coach, he glanced down the court. The white man was gone.
What were the odds he was waiting outside? Of course it was paranoia, but paranoia had settled into Kyle’s life so long ago that he now simply acknowledged it, coped with it, and moved on.
The Red Knights regrouped in the visitors’ locker room, a cramped little space under the sagging and permanent stands on the home side. There Coach Kyle said all the right things—nice effort, good hustle, our game is improving in certain areas, let’s finish on a high note this Saturday. The boys were changing clothes and hardly listening. They were tired of basketball because they were tired of losing, and of course all blame was heaped upon the coach. He was too young, too white, too much of an Ivy Leaguer.
The few parents who were there waited outside the locker room, and it was those tense moments when the team came out that Kyle hated most about his community service. There would be the usual complaints about playing time. Marquis had an uncle, a twenty-two year-old former all-state player with a big mouth and a fondness for bitching about Coach Kyle’s unfair treatment of the “best player in the league.”
From the locker room, there was another door that led to a dark narrow hallway that ran behind the home stands and finally gave way to an outside door that opened into an alley. Kyle was not the first coach to discover this escape route, and on this night he wanted to avoid not only the families and their complaints but also the agent/ cop. He said a quick goodbye to his boys, and as they fled the locker room, he made his escape. In a matter of seconds he was outside, in the alley, then walking quickly along a frozen sidewalk. Heavy snow had been plowed, and the sidewalk was icy and barely passable. The temperature was somewhere far below freezing. It was 8:30 on a Wednesday, and he was headed for the law journal offices at the Yale Law School, where he would work until midnight at least.
He didn’t make it.
The agent was leaning against the fender of a red Jeep Cherokee that was parked parallel on the street. The vehicle was titled to one John McAvoy of York, Pennsylvania, but for the past six years it had been the reliable companion of his son, Kyle, the true owner.
Though his feet suddenly felt like bricks and his knees were weak, Kyle managed to trudge on as if nothing were wrong. Not only did they find me, he said to himself as he tried to think clearly, but they’ve done their homework and found my Jeep. Not exactly high-level research. I have done nothing wrong, he said again and again.
“Tough game, Coach,” the agent said when Kyle was ten feet away and slowing down.
Kyle stopped and took in the thick young man with red cheeks and red bangs who’d been watching him in the gym. “Can I help you?” he said, and immediately saw the shadow of No. 2 dart across the street. They always worked in pairs.
No. 1 reached into a pocket, and as he said “That’s exactly what you can do,” he pulled out a leather wallet and flipped it open. “Bob Plant, FBI.”
“A real pleasure,” Kyle said as all the blood left his brain and he couldn’t help but flinch.
No. 2 wedged himself into the frame. He was much thinner and ten years older with gray around the temples. He, too, had a pocketful, and he performed the well- rehearsed badge presentation with ease. “Nelson Ginyard, FBI,” he said.
Bob and Nelson. Both Irish. Both northeastern.
“Anybody else?” Kyle asked.
“No. Got a minute to talk?”
“You might want to,” Ginyard said. “It could be very productive.”
“I doubt that.”
“If you leave, we’ll just follow,” Plant said as he stood from his slouch position and took a step closer. “You don’t want us on campus, do you?”
“Are you threatening me?” Kyle asked. The sweat was back, now in the pits of his arms, and despite the arctic air a bead or two ran down his ribs.
“Not yet,” Plant said with a smirk.
“Look, let’s spend ten minutes together, over coffee,” Ginyard was saying. “There’s a sandwich shop just around the corner. I’m sure it’s warmer there.”
“Do I need a lawyer?”
“That’s what you always say. My father is a lawyer and I grew up in his office. I know your tricks.”
“No tricks, Kyle, I swear,” Ginyard said, and he at least sounded genuine. “Just give us ten minutes. I promise you won’t regret it.”
“What’s on the agenda?”
“Ten minutes. That’s all we ask.”
“Give me a clue or the answer is no.”
Bob and Nelson looked at each other. Both shrugged. Why not? We’ll have to tell him sooner or later. Ginyard turned and looked down the street and spoke into the wind. “Duquesne University.
Five years ago. Drunk frat boys and a girl.”
Kyle’s body and mind had different reactions. His body conceded— a quick slump of the shoulders, a slight gasp, a noticeable jerk in the legs. But his mind fought back instantly. “That’s bullshit!” he said, then spat on the sidewalk. “I’ve already been through this. Nothing happened and you know it.”
There was a long pause as Ginyard continued to stare down the street while Plant watched their subject’s every move. Kyle’s mind was spinning. Why was the FBI involved in an alleged state crime? In second-year Criminal Procedure they had studied the new laws regarding FBI interrogation. It was now an indictable offense to simply lie to an agent in this very situation. Should he shut up? Should he call his father? No, under no circumstances would he call his father.
Ginyard turned, took three steps closer, clenched his jaw like a bad actor, and tried to hiss his tough- guy words. “Let’s cut to the chase, Mr. McAvoy, because I’m freezing. There’s an indictment out of Pittsburgh, okay. Rape. If you want to play the hard-ass smart-ass brilliant law student and run get a lawyer, or even call your old man, then the indictment comes down tomorrow and the life you have planned is pretty much shot to shit. However, if you give us ten minutes of your valuable time, right now, in the sandwich shop around the corner, then the indictment will be put on hold, if not forgotten altogether.”
“You can walk away from it,” Plant said from the side. “Without a word.”
“Why should I trust you?” Kyle managed to say with a very dry mouth.
“You got a tape recorder?”
“I want it on the table, okay? I want every word recorded because I don’t trust you.”
They jammed their hands deep into the pockets of their matching trench coats and stomped away. Kyle unlocked his Jeep and got inside. He started the engine, turned the heat on high, and thought about driving away.
Excerpted from THE ASSOCIATE by John Grisham
Published by Doubleday
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
Copyright © 2009 by Belfry Holdings, Inc.
BILLY RAY COBB was the younger and smaller of the two rednecks. At twenty-three he was already a three-year veteran of the state penitentiary at Parchman. Possession, with intent to sell. He was a lean, tough little punk who had survived prison by somehow maintaining a ready supply of drugs that he sold and sometimes gave to the blacks and the guards for protection. In the year since his release he had continued to prosper, and his small-time narcotics business had elevated him to the position of one of the more affluent rednecks in Ford County. He was a businessman, with employees, obligations, deals, everything but taxes. Down at the Ford place in Clanton he was known as the last man in recent history to pay cash for a new pickup truck. Sixteen thousand cash, for a custom-built, four-wheel drive, canary yellow, luxury Ford pickup. The fancy chrome wheels and mudgrip racing tires had been received in a business deal. The rebel flag hanging across the rear window had been stolen by Cobb from a drunken fratern
ity boy at an Ole Miss football game. The pickup was Billy Ray’s most prized possession. He sat on the tailgate drinking a beer, smoking a joint, watching his friend Willard take his turn with the black girl.
Willard was four years older and a dozen years slower. He was generally a harmless sort who had never been in serious trouble and had never been seriously employed. Maybe an occasional fight with a night in jail, but nothing that would distinguish him. He called himself a pulpwood cutter, but a bad back customarily kept him out of the woods. He had hurt his back working on an offshore rig somewhere in the Gulf, and the oil company paid him a nice settlement, which he lost when his ex-wife cleaned him out. His primary vocation was that of a part-time employee of Billy Ray Cobb, who didn’t pay much but was liberal with his dope. For the first time in years Willard could always get his hands on something. And he always needed something. He’d been that way since he hurt his back.
She was ten, and small for her age. She lay on her elbows, which were stuck and bound together with yellow nylon rope. Her legs were spread grotesquely with the right foot tied tight to an oak sapling and the left to a rotting, leaning post of a long-neglected fence. The ski rope had cut into her ankles and the blood ran down her legs. Her face was bloody and swollen, with one eye bulging and closed and the other eye half open so she could see the other white man sitting on the truck. She did not look at the man on top of her. He was breathing hard and sweating and cursing. He was hurting her.
When he finished, he slapped her and laughed, and the other man laughed in return, then they laughed harder and rolled around the grass by the truck like two crazy men, screaming and laughing. She turned away from them and cried softly, careful to keep herself quiet. She had been slapped earlier for crying and screaming. They promised to kill her if she didn’t keep quiet.
They grew tired of laughing and pulled themselves onto the tailgate, where Willard cleaned himself with the little nigger’s shirt, which by now was soaked with blood and sweat. Cobb handed him a cold beer from the cooler and commented on the humidity. They watched her as she sobbed and made strange, quiet sounds, then became still. Cobb’s beer was half empty, and it was not cold anymore. He threw it at the girl. It hit her in the stomach, splashing white foam, and it rolled off in the dirt near some other cans, all of which had originated from the same cooler. For two six-packs now they had thrown their half-empty cans at her and laughed. Willard had trouble with the target, but Cobb was fairly accurate. They were not ones to waste beer, but the heavier cans could be felt better and it was great fun to watch the foam shoot everywhere.
The warm beer mixed with the dark blood and ran down her face and neck into a puddle behind her head. She did not move.
Willard asked Cobb if he thought she was dead. Cobb opened another beer and explained that she was not dead because niggers generally could not be killed by kicking and beating and raping. It took much more, something like a knife or a gun or a rope to dispose of a nigger. Although he had never taken part in such a killing, he had lived with a bunch of niggers in prison and knew all about them. They were always killing each other, and they always used a weapon of some sort. Those who were just beaten and raped never died. Some of the whites were beaten and raped, and some of them died. But none of the niggers. Their heads were harder. Willard seemed satisfied.
Willard asked what he planned to do now that they were through with her. Cobb sucked on his joint, chased it with beer, and said he wasn’t through. He bounced from the tailgate and staggered across the small clearing to where she was tied. He cursed her and screamed at her to wake up, then he poured cold beer in her face, laughing like a crazy man.
She watched him as he walked around the tree on her right side, and she stared at him as he stared between her legs. When he lowered his pants she turned to the left and closed her eyes. He was hurting her again.
She looked out through the woods and saw something–a man running wildly through the vines and underbrush. It was her daddy, yelling and pointing at her and coming desperately to save her. She cried out for him, and he disappeared. She fell asleep.
When she awoke one of the men was lying under the tailgate, the other under a tree. They were asleep. Her arms and legs were numb. The blood and beer and urine had mixed with the dirt underneath her to form a sticky paste that glued her small body to the ground and crackled when she moved and wiggled. Escape, she thought, but her mightiest efforts moved her only a few inches to the right. Her feet were tied so high her buttocks barely touched the ground. Her legs and arms were so deadened they refused to move.
She searched the woods for her daddy and quietly called his name. She waited, then slept again.
When she awoke the second time they were up and moving around. The tall one staggered to her with a small knife. He grabbed her left ankle and sawed furiously on the rope until it gave way. Then he freed the right leg, and she curled into a fetal position with her back to them.
Cobb strung a length of quarter-inch ski rope over a limb and tied a loop in one end with a slip knot. He grabbed her and put the noose around her head, then walked across the clearing with the other end of the rope and sat on the tailgate, where Willard was smoking a fresh joint and grinning at Cobb for what he was about to do. Cobb pulled the rope tight, then gave a vicious yank, bouncing the little nude body along the ground and stopping it directly under the limb. She gagged and coughed, so he kindly loosened the rope to spare her a few more minutes. He tied the rope to the bumper and opened another beer.
They sat on the tailgate drinking, smoking, and staring at her. They had been at the lake most of the day, where Cobb had a friend with a boat and some extra girls who were supposed to be easy but turned out to be untouchable. Cobb had been generous with his drugs and beer, but the girls did not reciprocate. Frustrated, they left the lake and were driving to no place in particular when they happened across the girl. She was walking along a gravel road with a sack of groceries when Willard nailed her in the back of the head with a beer can.
“You gonna do it?” asked Willard, his eyes red and glazed.
Cobb hesitated. “Naw, I’ll let you do it. It was your idea.”
Willard took a drag on his joint, then spit and said, “Wasn’t my idea. You’re the expert on killin’ niggers. Do it.”
Cobb untied the rope from the bumper and pulled it tight. It peeled bark from the limb and sprinkled fine bits of elm around the girl, who was watching them carefully now. She coughed.
Suddenly, she heard something–like a car with loud pipes. The two men turned quickly and looked down the dirt road to the highway in the distance. They cursed and scrambled around, one slamming the tailgate and the other running toward her. He tripped and landed near her. They cursed each other while they grabbed her, removed the rope from her neck, dragged her to the pickup and threw her over the tailgate into the bed of the truck. Cobb slapped her and threatened to kill her if she did not lie still and keep quiet. He said he would take her home if she stayed down and did as told; otherwise, they would kill her. They slammed the doors and sped onto the dirt road. She was going home. She passed out.
Cobb and Willard waved at the Firebird with the loud pipes as it passed them on the narrow dirt road. Willard checked the back to make sure the little nigger was lying down. Cobb turned onto the highway and raced away.
“What now?” Willard asked nervously.
“Don’t know,” Cobb answered nervously. “But we gotta do something fast before she gets blood all over my truck. Look at her back there, she’s bleedin’ all over the place.”
Willard thought for a minute while he finished a beer. “Let’s throw her off a bridge,” he said proudly.
“Good idea. Damned good idea.” Cobb slammed on the brakes. “Gimme a beer,” he ordered Willard, who stumbled out of the truck and fetched two beers from the back.
“She’s even got blood on the cooler,” he reported as they raced off again.
Gwen Hailey sensed something horrible. Normally she would have sent one of the three boys to the store, but they were being punished by their father and had been sentenced to weed-pulling in the garden. Tonya had been to the store before by herself–it was only a mile away–and had proven reliable. But after two hours Gwen sent the boys to look for their little sister. They figured she was down at the Pounders’ house playing with the many Pounders kids, or maybe she had ventured past the store to visit her best friend, Bessie Pierson.
Mr. Bates at the store said she had come and gone an hour earlier. Jarvis, the middle boy, found a sack of groceries beside the road.
Gwen called her husband at the paper mill, then loaded Carl Lee, Jr., into the car and began driving the gravel roads around the store. They drove to a settlement of ancient shotgun houses on Graham Plantation to check with an aunt. They stopped at Broadway’s store a mile from Bates Grocery and were told by a group of old black men that she had not been seen. They crisscrossed the gravel roads and dusty field roads for three square miles around their house.
Cobb could not find a bridge unoccupied by niggers with fishing poles. Every bridge they approached had four or five niggers hanging off the sides with large straw hats and cane poles, and under every bridge on the banks there would be another group sitting on buckets with the same straw hats and cane poles, motionless except for an occasional swat at a fly or a slap at a mosquito.
He was scared now. Willard had passed out and was of no help, and he was left alone to dispose of the girl in such a way that she could never tell. Willard snored as he frantically drove the gravel roads and county roads in search of a bridge or ramp on some river where he could stop and toss her without being seen by half a dozen niggers with straw hats. He looked in the mirror and saw her trying to stand. He slammed his brakes, and she crashed into the front of the bed, just under the window. Willard ricocheted off the dash into the floorboard, where he continued to snore. Cobb cursed them both equally.
Lake Chatulla was nothing more than a huge, shallow, man-made mudhole with a grass-covered dam running exactly one mile along one end. It sat in the far southwest corner of Ford County, with a few acres in Van Buren County. In the spring it would hold the distinction of being the largest body of water in Mississippi. But by late summer the rains were long gone, and the sun would cook the shallow water until the lake would dehydrate. Its once ambitious shorelines would retreat and move much closer together, creating a depthless basin of reddish brown water. It was fed from all directions by innumerable streams, creeks, sloughs, and a couple of currents large enough to be named rivers. The existence of all these tributaries necessarily gave rise to a good number of bridges near the lake.
It was over these bridges the yellow pickup flew in an all-out effort to find a suitable place to unload an unwanted passenger. Cobb was desperate. He knew of one other bridge, a narrow wooden one over Foggy Creek. As he approached, he saw niggers with cane poles, so he turned off a side road and stopped the truck. He lowered the tailgate, dragged her out, and threw her in a small ravine lined with kudzu.
Carl Lee Hailey did not hurry home. Gwen was easily excited, and she had called the mill numerous times when she thought the children had been kidnapped. He punched out at quitting time, and made the thirty-minute drive home in thirty minutes. Anxiety hit him when he turned onto his gravel drive and saw the patrol car parked next to the front porch. Other cars belonging to Gwen’s family were scattered along the long drive and in the yard, and there was one car he didn’t recognize. It had cane poles sticking out the side windows, and there were at least seven straw hats sitting in it.
Where were Tonya and the boys?
As he opened the front door he heard Gwen crying. To his right in the small living room he found a crowd huddled above a small figure lying on the couch. The child was covered with wet towels and surrounded by crying relatives. As he moved to the couch the crying stopped and the crowd backed away. Only Gwen stayed by the girl. She softly stroked her hair. He knelt beside the couch and touched the girl’s shoulder. He spoke to his daughter, and she tried to smile. Her face was bloody pulp covered with knots and lacerations. Both eyes were swollen shut and bleeding. His eyes watered as he looked at her tiny body, completely wrapped in towels and bleeding from ankles to forehead.
Carl Lee asked Gwen what happened. She began shaking and wailing, and was led to the kitchen by her brother. Carl Lee stood and turned to the crowd and demanded to know what happened.
He asked for the third time. The deputy, Willie Hastings, one of Gwen’s cousins, stepped forward and told Carl Lee that some people were fishing down by Foggy Creek when they saw Tonya lying in the middle of the road. She told them her daddy’s name, and they brought her home.
Hastings shut up and stared at his feet.
Carl Lee stared at him and waited. Everyone else stopped breathing and watched the floor.
“What happened, Willie?” Carl Lee yelled as he stared at the deputy.
Hastings spoke slowly, and while staring out the window repeated what Tonya had told her mother about the white men and their pickup, and the rope and the trees, and being hurt when they got on her. Hastings stopped when he heard the siren from the ambulance.
The crowd filed solemnly through the front door and waited on the porch, where they watched the crew unload a stretcher and head for the house.
The paramedics stopped in the yard when the front door opened and Carl Lee walked out with his daughter in his arms. He whispered gently to her as huge tears dripped from his chin. He walked to the rear of the ambulance and stepped inside. The paramedics closed the door and carefully removed her from his embrace.
THE SENIOR PARTNER studied the résumé for the hundredth time and again found nothing he disliked about Mitchell Y. McDeere, at least not on paper. He had the brains, the ambition, the good looks. And he was hungry; with his background, he had to be. He was married, and that was mandatory. The firm had never hired an unmarried lawyer, and it frowned heavily on divorce, as well as womanizing and drinking. Drug testing was in the contract. He had a degree in accounting, passed the CPA exam the first time he took it and wanted to be a tax lawyer, which of course was a requirement with a tax firm. He was white, and the firm had never hired a black. They managed this by being secretive and clubbish and never soliciting job applications. Other firms solicited, and hired blacks. This firm recruited, and remained lily white. Plus, the firm was in Memphis, of all places, and the top blacks wanted New York or Washington or Chicago. McDeere was a male, and there were no women in the firm. That mistake had b
een made in the mid-seventies when they recruited the number one grad from Harvard, who happened to be a she and a wizard at taxation. She lasted four turbulent years and was killed in a car wreck.
He looked good, on paper. He was their top choice. In fact, for this year there were no other prospects. The list was very short. It was McDeere or no one.
The managing partner, Royce McKnight, studied a dossier labeled “Mitchell Y. McDeere–Harvard.” An inch thick with small print and a few photographs, it had been prepared by some ex-CIA agents in a private intelligence outfit in Bethesda. They were clients of the firm and each year did the investigating for no fee. It was easy work, they said, checking out unsuspecting law students. They learned, for instance, that he preferred to leave the Northeast, that he was holding three job offers, two in New York and one in Chicago, and that the highest offer was $76,000 and the lowest was $68,000. He was in demand. He had been given the opportunity to cheat on a securities exam during his second year. He declined, and made the highest grade in the class. Two months ago he had been offered cocaine at a law school party. He said no and left when everyone began snorting. He drank an occasional beer, but drinking was expensive and he had no money. He owed close to $23,000 in student loans. He was hungry.
Royce McKnight flipped through the dossier and smiled. McDeere was their man.
Lamar Quin was thirty-two and not yet a partner. He had been brought along to look young and act young and project a youthful image for Bendini, Lambert & Locke, which in fact was a young firm, since most of the partners retired in their late forties or early fifties with money to burn. He would make partner in this firm. With a six-figure income guaranteed for the rest of his life, Lamar could enjoy the twelve-hundred-dollar tailored suits that hung so comfortably from his tall, athletic frame. He strolled nonchalantly across the thousand-dollar-a-day suite and poured another cup of decaf. He checked his watch. He glanced at the two partners sitting at the small conference table near the windows.
Precisely at two-thirty someone knocked on the door. Lamar looked at the partners, who slid the résumé and dossier into an open briefcase. All three reached for their jackets. Lamar buttoned his top button and opened the door.
“Mitchell McDeere?” he asked with a huge smile and a hand thrust forward.
“Yes.” They shook hands violently.
“Nice to meet you, Mitchell. I’m Lamar Quin.”
“My pleasure. Please call me Mitch.” He stepped inside and quickly surveyed the spacious room.
“Sure, Mitch.” Lamar grabbed his shoulder and led him across the suite, where the partners introduced themselves. They were exceedingly warm and cordial. They offered him coffee, then water. They sat around a shiny mahogany conference table and exchanged pleasantries. McDeere unbuttoned his coat and crossed his legs. He was now a seasoned veteran in the search of employment, and he knew they wanted him. He relaxed. With three job offers from three of the most prestigious firms in the country, he did not need this interview, this firm. He could afford to be a little overconfident now. He was there out of curiosity. And he longed for warmer weather.
Oliver Lambert, the senior partner, leaned forward on his elbows and took control of the preliminary chitchat. He was glib and engaging with a mellow, almost professional baritone. At sixty-one, he was the grandfather of the firm and spent most of his time administering and balancing the enormous egos of some of the richest lawyers in the country. He was the counselor, the one the younger associates went to with their troubles. Mr. Lambert also handled the recruiting, and it was his mission to sign Mitchell Y. McDeere.
“Are you tired of interviewing?” asked Oliver Lambert.
“Not really. It’s part of it.”
Yes, yes, they all agreed. Seemed like yesterday they were interviewing and submitting résumés and scared to death they wouldn’t find a job and three years of sweat and torture would be down the drain. They knew what he was going through, all right.
“May I ask a question?” Mitch asked.
“Why are we interviewing in this hotel room? The other firms interview on campus through the placement office.”
“Good question.” They all nodded and looked at each other and agreed it was a good question.
“Perhaps I can answer that, Mitch,” said Royce McKnight, the managing partner. “You must understand our firm. We are different, and we take pride in that. We have forty-one lawyers, so we are small compared with other firms. We don’t hire too many people; about one every other year. We offer the highest salary and fringes in the country, and I’m not exaggerating. So we are very selective. We selected you. The letter you received last month was sent after we screened over two thousand third-year law students at the best schools. Only one letter was sent. We don’t advertise openings and we don’t solicit applications. We keep a low profile, and we do things differently. That’s our explanation.”
“Fair enough. What kind of firm is it?”
“Tax. Some securities, real estate and banking, but eighty percent is tax work. That’s why we wanted to meet you, Mitch. You have an incredibly strong tax background.”
“Why’d you go to Western Kentucky?” asked Oliver Lambert.
“Simple. They offered me a full scholarship to play football. Had it not been for that, college would’ve been impossible.”
“Tell us about your family.”
“Why is that important?”
“It’s very important to us, Mitch,” Royce McKnight said warmly.
They all say that, thought McDeere. “Okay, my father was killed in the coal mines when I was seven years old. My mother remarried and lives in Florida. I had two brothers. Rusty was killed in Vietnam. I have a brother named Ray McDeere.”
“Where is he?”
“I’m afraid that’s none of your business.” He stared at Royce McKnight and exposed a mammoth chip on his shoulder. The dossier said little about Ray.
“I’m sorry,” the managing partner said softly.
“Mitch, our firm is in Memphis,” Lamar said. “Does that bother you?”
“Not at all. I’m not fond of cold weather.”
“Have you ever been to Memphis?”
“We’ll have you down soon. You’ll love it.”
Mitch smiled and nodded and played along. Were these guys serious? How could he consider such a small firm in such a small town when Wall Street was waiting?
“How are you ranked in your class?” Mr. Lambert asked.
“Top five.” Not top five percent, but top five. That was enough of an answer for all of them. Top five out of three hundred. He could have said number three, a fraction away from number two, and within striking distance of number one. But he didn’t. They came from inferior schools–Chicago, Columbia and Vanderbilt, as he recalled from a cursory examination of Martindale-Hubbell’s Legal Directory. He knew they would not dwell on academics.
“Why did you select Harvard?”
“Actually, Harvard selected me. I applied at several schools and was accepted everywhere. Harvard offered more financial assistance. I thought it was the best school. Still do.”
“You’ve done quite well here, Mitch,” Mr. Lambert said, admiring the résumé. The dossier was in the briefcase, under the table.
“Thank you. I’ve worked hard.”
“You made extremely high grades in your tax and securities courses.”
“That’s where my interest lies.”
“We’ve reviewed your writing sample, and it’s quite impressive.”
“Thank you. I enjoy research.”
They nodded and acknowledged this obvious lie. It was part of the ritual. No law student or lawyer in his right mind enjoyed research, yet, without fail, every prospective associate professed a deep love for the library.
“Tell us about your wife,” Royce McKnight said, almost meekly. They braced for another reprimand. But it was a standard, nonsacred area explored by every firm.
“Her name is Abby. She has a degree in elementary education from Western Kentucky. We graduated one week and got married the next. For the past three years she’s taught at a private kindergarten near Boston College.”
“And is the marriage–”
“We’re very happy. We’ve known each other since high school.”
“What position did you play?” asked Lamar, in the direction of less sensitive matters.
“Quarterback. I was heavily recruited until I messed up a knee in my last high school game. Everyone disappeared except Western Kentucky. I played off and on for four years, even started some as a junior, but the knee would never hold up.”
“How’d you make straight A’s and play football?”
“I put the books first.”
“I don’t imagine Western Kentucky is much of an academic school,” Lamar blurted with a stupid grin, and immediately wished he could take it back. Lambert and McKnight frowned and acknowledged the mistake.
“Sort of like Kansas State,” Mitch replied. They froze, all of them froze, and for a few seconds stared incredulously at each other. This guy McDeere knew Lamar Quin went to Kansas State. He had never met Lamar Quin and had no idea who would appear on behalf of the firm and conduct the interview. Yet, he knew. He had gone to Martindale-Hubbell’s and checked them out. He had read the biographical sketches of all of the forty-one lawyers in the firm, and in a split second he had recalled that Lamar Quin, just one of the forty-one, had gone to Kansas State. Damn, they were impressed.
“I guess that came out wrong,” Lamar apologized.
“No problem.” Mitch smiled warmly. It was forgotten.
Oliver Lambert cleared his throat and decided to get personal again. “Mitch, our firm frowns on drinking and chasing women. We’re not a bunch of Holy Rollers, but we put business ahead of everything. We keep low profiles and we work very hard. And we make plenty of money.”
“I can live with all that.”
“We reserve the right to test any member of the firm for drug use.”
“I don’t use drugs.”
“Good. What’s your religious affiliation?”
“Good. You’ll find a wide variety in our firm. Catholics, Baptists, Episcopalians. It’s really none of our business, but we like to know. We want stable families. Happy lawyers are productive lawyers. That’s why we ask these questions.”
Mitch smiled and nodded. He’d heard this before.
The three looked at each other, then at Mitch. This meant they had reached the point in the interview where the interviewee was supposed to ask one or two intelligent questions. Mitch recrossed his legs. Money, that was the big question, particularly how it compared to his other offers. If it isn’t enough, thought Mitch, then it was nice to meet you fellas. If the pay is attractive, then we can discuss families and marriages and football and churches. But, he knew, like all the other firms they had to shadowbox around the issue until things got awkward and it was apparent they had discussed everything in the world but money. So, hit them with a soft question first.
“What type of work will I do initially?”
They nodded and approved of the question. Lambert and McKnight looked at Lamar. This answer was his.
“We have something similar to a two-year apprenticeship, although we don’t call it that. We’ll send you all over the country to tax seminars. Your education is far from over. You’ll spend two weeks next winter in Washington at the American Tax Institute. We take great pride in our technical expertise, and the training is continual, for all of us. If you want to pursue a master’s in taxation, we’ll pay for it. As far as practicing law, it won’t be very exciting for the first two years. You’ll do a lot of research and generally boring stuff. But you’ll be paid handsomely.”
Lamar looked at Royce McKnight, who eyed Mitch and said, “We’ll discuss the compensation and other benefits when you come to Memphis.”
“I want a ballpark figure or I may not come to Memphis.” He smiled, arrogant but cordial. He spoke like a man with three job offers.
The partners smiled at each other, and Mr. Lambert spoke first. “Okay. A base salary of eighty thousand the first year, plus bonuses. Eighty-five the second year, plus bonuses. A low-interest mortgage so you can buy a home. Two country club memberships. And a new BMW. You pick the color, of course.”
They focused on his lips, and waited for the wrinkles to form on his cheeks and the teeth to break through. He tried to conceal a smile, but it was impossible. He chuckled.
“That’s incredible,” he mumbled. Eighty thousand in Memphis equaled a hundred and twenty thousand in New York. Did the man say BMW! His Mazda hatchback had a million miles on it and for the moment had to be jump-started while he saved for a rebuilt starter.
“Plus a few more fringes we’ll be glad to discuss in Memphis.”
Suddenly he had a strong desire to visit Memphis. Wasn’t it by the river?
The smile vanished and he regained his composure. He looked sternly, importantly at Oliver Lambert and said, as if he’d forgotten about the money and the home and the BMW, “Tell me about your firm.”
“Forty-one lawyers. Last year we earned more per lawyer than any firm our size or larger. That includes every big firm in the country. We take only rich clients–corporations, banks and wealthy people who pay our healthy fees and never complain. We’ve developed a specialty in international taxation, and it’s both exciting and very profitable. We deal only with people who can pay.”
“How long does it take to make partner?”
“On the average, ten years, and it’s a hard ten years. It’s not unusual for our partners to earn half a million a year, and most retire before they’re fifty. You’ve got to pay your dues, put in eighty-hour weeks, but it’s worth it when you make partner.”
Lamar leaned forward. “You don’t have to be a partner to earn six figures. I’ve been with the firm seven years, and went over a hundred thousand four years ago.”
Mitch thought about this for a second and figured by the time he was thirty he could be well over a hundred thousand, maybe close to two hundred thousand. At the age of thirty!
They watched him carefully and knew exactly what he was calculating.
“What’s an international tax firm doing in Memphis?” he asked.
That brought smiles. Mr. Lambert removed his reading glasses and twirled them. “Now that’s a good question. Mr. Bendini founded the firm in 1944. He had been a tax lawyer in Philadelphia and had picked up some wealthy clients in the South. He got a wild hair and landed in Memphis. For twenty-five years he hired nothing but tax lawyers, and the firm prospered nicely down there. None of us are from Memphis, but we have grown to love it. It’s a very pleasant old Southern town. By the way, Mr. Bendini died in 1970.”
“How many partners in the firm?”
“Twenty, active. We try to keep a ratio of one partner for each associate. That’s high for the industry, but we like it. Again, we do things differently.”
“All of our partners are multimillionaires by the age of forty-five,” Royce McKnight said.
“All of them?”
“Yes, sir. We don’t guarantee it, but if you join our firm, put in ten hard years, make partner and put in ten more years, and you’re not a millionaire at the age of forty-five, you’ll be the first in twenty years.”
“That’s an impressive statistic.”
“It’s an impressive firm, Mitch,” Oliver Lambert said, “and we’re very proud of it. We’re a close-knit fraternity. We’re small and we take care of each other. We don’t have the cutthroat competition the big firms are famous for. We’re very careful whom we hire, and our goal is for each new associate to become a partner as soon as possible. Toward that end we invest an enormous amount of time and money in ourselves, especially our new people. It is a rare, extremely rare occasion when a lawyer leaves our firm. It is simply unheard of. We go the extra mile to keep careers on track. We want our people happy. We think it is the most profitable way to operate.”
“I have another impressive statistic,” Mr. McKnight added. “Last year, for firms our size or larger, the average turnover rate among associates was twenty-eight percent. At Bendini, Lambert & Locke, it was zero. Year before, zero. It’s been a long time since a lawyer left our firm.”
They watched him carefully to make sure all of this sank in. Each term and each condition of the employment was important, but the permanence, the finality of his acceptance overshadowed all other items on the checklist. They explained as best they could, for now. Further explanation would come later.
Of course, they knew much more than they could talk about. For instance, his mother lived in a cheap trailer park in Panama City Beach, remarried to a retired truck driver with a violent drinking problem. They knew she had received $41,000 from the mine explosion, squandered most of it, then went crazy after her oldest son was killed in Vietnam. They knew he had been neglected, raised in poverty by his brother Ray (whom they could not find) and some sympathetic relatives. The poverty hurt, and they assumed, correctly, it had bred the intense desire to succeed. He had worked thirty hours a week at an all-night convenience store while playing football and making perfect grades. They knew he seldom slept. They knew he was hungry. He was their man.
“Would you like to come visit us?” asked Oliver Lambert.
“When?” asked Mitch, dreaming of a black 318i with a sunroof.
The ancient Mazda hatchback with three hubcaps and a badly cracked windshield hung in the gutter with its front wheels sideways, aiming at the curb, preventing a roll down the hill. Abby grabbed the door handle on the inside, yanked twice and opened the door. She inserted the key, pressed the clutch and turned the wheel. The Mazda began a slow roll. As it gained speed, she held her breath, released the clutch and bit her lip until the unmuffled rotary engine began whining.
With three job offers on the table, a new car was four months away. She could last. For three years they had endured poverty in a two-room student apartment on a campus covered with Porsches and little Mercedes convertibles. For the most part they had ignored the snubs from the classmates and coworkers in this bastion of East Coast snobbery. They were hillbillies from Kentucky, with few friends. But they had endured and succeeded quite nicely all to themselves.
She preferred Chicago to New York, even for a lower salary, largely because it was farther from Boston and closer to Kentucky. But Mitch remained noncommittal, characteristically weighing it all carefully and keeping most of it to himself. She had not been invited to visit New York and Chicago with her husband. And she was tired of guessing. She wanted an answer.
She parked illegally on the hill nearest the apartment and walked two blocks. Their unit was one of thirty in a two-story red-brick rectangle. Abby stood outside her door and fumbled through the purse looking for keys. Suddenly, the door jerked open. He grabbed her, yanked her inside the tiny apartment, threw her on the sofa and attacked her neck with his lips. She yelled and giggled as arms and legs thrashed about. They kissed, one of those long, wet, ten-minute embraces with groping and fondling and moaning, the kind they had enjoyed as teenagers when kissing was fun and mysterious and the ultimate.
“My goodness,” she said when they finished. “What’s the occasion?”
“Do you smell anything?” Mitch asked.
She looked away and sniffed. “Well, yes. What is it?”
“Chicken chow mein and egg foo yung. From Wong Boys.”
“Okay, what’s the occasion?”
“Plus an expensive bottle of Chablis. It’s even got a cork.”
“What have you done, Mitch?”
“Follow me.” On the small, painted kitchen table, among the legal pads and casebooks, sat a large bottle of wine and a sack of Chinese food. They shoved the law school paraphernalia aside and spread the food. Mitch opened the wine and filled two plastic wineglasses.
“I had a great interview today,” he said.
“Remember that firm in Memphis I received a letter from last month?”
“Yes. You weren’t too impressed.”
“That’s the one. I’m very impressed. It’s all tax work and the money looks good.”
He ceremoniously dipped chow mein from the container onto both plates, then ripped open the tiny packages of soy sauce. She waited for an answer. He opened another container and began dividing the egg foo yung. He sipped his wine and smacked his lips.
“How much?” she repeated.
“More than Chicago. More than Wall Street.”
She took a long, deliberate drink of wine and eyed him suspiciously. Her brown eyes narrowed and glowed. The eyebrows lowered and the forehead wrinkled. She waited.
“Eighty thousand, first year, plus bonuses. Eighty-five, second year, plus bonuses.” He said this nonchalantly while studying the celery bits in the chow mein.
“Eighty thousand,” she repeated.
“Eighty thousand, babe. Eighty thousand bucks in Memphis, Tennessee, is about the same as a hundred and twenty thousand bucks in New York.”
“Who wants New York?” she asked.
“Plus a low-interest mortgage loan.”
That word–mortgage–had not been uttered in the apartment in a long time. In fact, she could not, at the moment, recall the last discussion about a home or anything related to one. For months now it had been accepted that they would rent some place until some distant, unimaginable point in the future when they achieved affluence and would then qualify for a large mortgage.
She sat her glass of wine on the table and said matter-of-factly, “I didn’t hear that.”
“A low-interest mortgage loan. The firm loans enough money to buy a house. It’s very important to these guys that their associates look prosperous, so they give us the money at a much lower rate.”
“You mean as in a home, with grass around it and shrubs?”
“Yep. Not some overpriced apartment in Manhattan, but a three-bedroom house in the suburbs with a driveway and a two-car garage where we can park the BMW.”
The reaction was delayed by a second or two, but she finally said, “BMW? Whose BMW?”
“Ours, babe. Our BMW. The firm leases a new one and gives us the keys. It’s sort of like a signing bonus for a first-round draft pick. It’s worth another five thousand a year. We pick the color, of course. I think black would be nice. What do you think?”
“No more clunkers. No more leftovers. No more hand-me-downs,” she said as she slowly shook her head.
He crunched on a mouthful of noodles and smiled at her. She was dreaming, he could tell, probably of furniture, and wallpaper, and perhaps a pool before too long. And babies, little dark-eyed children with light brown hair.
“And there are some other benefits to be discussed later.”
“I don’t understand, Mitch. Why are they so generous?”
“I asked that question. They’re very selective, and they take a lot of pride in paying top dollar. They go for the best and don’t mind shelling out the bucks. Their turnover rate is zero. Plus, I think it costs more to entice the top people to Memphis.”
“It would be closer to home,” she said without looking at him.
“I don’t have a home. It would be closer to your parents, and that worries me.”
She deflected this, as she did most of his comments about her family. “You’d be closer to Ray.”
He nodded, bit into an egg roll and imagined her parents’ first visit, that sweet moment when they pulled into the driveway in their well-used Cadillac and stared in shock at the new French colonial with two new cars in the garage. They would burn with envy and wonder how the poor kid with no family and no status could afford all this at twenty-five and fresh out of law school. They would force painful smiles and comment on how nice everything was, and before long Mr. Sutherland would break down and ask how much the house cost and Mitch would tell him to mind his own business, and it would drive the old man crazy. They’d leave after a short visit and return to Kentucky, where all their friends would hear how great the daughter and the son-in-law were doing down in Memphis. Abby would be sorry they couldn’t get along but wouldn’t say much. From the start they had treated him like a leper. He was so unworthy they had boycotted the small wedding.
“Have you ever been to Memphis?” he asked.
“Once when I was a little girl. Some kind of convention for the church. All I remember is the river.”
“They want us to visit.”
“Us! You mean I’m invited?”
“Yes. They insist on you coming.”
“Couple of weeks. They’ll fly us down Thursday afternoon for the weekend.”
“I like this firm already.”
HE SEEMED INCAPABLE of creating such chaos, but much of what he saw below could be blamed on him. And that was fine. He was ninety-one, paralyzed, strapped in a wheelchair and hooked to oxygen. His second stroke seven years ago had almost finished him off, but Abraham Rosenberg was still alive and even with tubes in his nose his legal stick was bigger than the other eight. He was the only legend remaining on the Court, and the fact that he was still breathing irritated most of the mob below.
He sat in a small wheelchair in an office on the main floor of the Supreme Court Building. His feet touched the edge of the window, and he strained forward as the noise increased. He hated cops, but the sight of them standing in thick, neat lines was somewhat comforting. They stood straight and held ground as the mob of at least fifty thousand screamed for blood.
“Biggest crowd ever!” Rosenberg yelled at the window. He was almost deaf. Jason Kline, his senior law clerk, stood behind him. It was the first Monday in October, the opening day of the new term, and this had become a traditional celebration of the First Amendment. A glorious celebration. Rosenberg was thrilled. To him, freedom of speech meant freedom to riot.
“Are the Indians out there?” he asked loudly.
Jason Kline leaned closer to his right ear. “Yes!”
“With war paint?”
“Yes! In full battle dress.”
“Are they dancing?”
The Indians, the blacks, whites, browns, women, gays, tree lovers, Christians, abortion activists, Aryans, Nazis, atheists, hunters, animal lovers, white supremacists, black supremacists, tax protestors, loggers, farmers–it was a massive sea of protest. And the riot police gripped their black sticks.
“The Indians should love me!”
“I’m sure they do.” Kline nodded and smiled at the frail little man with clenched fists. His ideology was simple; government over business, the individual over government, the environment over everything. And the Indians, give them whatever they want.
The heckling, praying, singing, chanting, and screaming grew louder, and the riot police inched closer together. The crowd was larger and rowdier than in recent years. Things were more tense. Violence had become common. Abortion clinics had been bombed. Doctors had been attacked and beaten. One was killed in Pensacola, gagged and bound into the fetal position and burned with acid. Street fights were weekly events. Churches and priests had been abused by militant gays. White supremacists operated from a dozen known, shadowy, paramilitary organizations, and had become bolder in their attacks on blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. Hatred was now America’s favorite pastime.
And the Court, of course, was an easy target. Threats, serious ones, against the justices had increased tenfold since 1990. The Supreme Court police had tripled in size. At least two FBI agents were assigned to guard each justice, and another fifty were kept busy investigating threats.
“They hate me, don’t they?” he said loudly, staring out the window.
“Yes, some of them do,” Kline answered with amusement.
Rosenberg liked to hear that. He smiled and inhaled deeply. Eighty percent of the death threats were aimed at him.
“See any of those signs?” he asked. He was nearly blind.
“Quite a few.”
“What do they say?”
“The usual. Death to Rosenberg. Retire Rosenberg. Cut Off the Oxygen.”
“They’ve been waving those same damned signs for years. Why don’t they get some new ones?”
The clerk did not answer. Abe should’ve retired years ago, but they would carry him out one day on a stretcher. His three law clerks did most of the research, but Rosenberg insisted on writing his own opinions. He did so with a heavy felt-tip marker and his words were scrawled across a white legal pad, much like a first-grader learning to write. Slow work, but with a lifetime appointment, who cared about time? The clerks proofed his opinions, and rarely found mistakes.
Rosenberg chuckled. “We oughta feed Runyan to the Indians.” The Chief Justice was John Runyan, a tough conservative appointed by a Republican and hated by the Indians and most other minorities. Seven of the nine had been appointed by Republican Presidents. For fifteen years Rosenberg had been waiting for a Democrat in the White House. He wanted to quit, needed to quit, but he could not stomach the idea of a right-wing Runyan type taking his beloved seat.
He could wait. He could sit here in his wheelchair and breathe oxygen and protect the Indians, the blacks, the women, the poor, the handicapped, and the environment until he was a hundred and five. And not a single person in the world could do a damned thing about it, unless they killed him. And that wouldn’t be such a bad idea either.
The great man’s head nodded, then wobbled and rested on his shoulder. He was asleep again. Kline quietly stepped away, and returned to his research in the library. He would return in half an hour to check the oxygen and give Abe his pills.
THE OFFICE of the Chief Justice is on the main floor, and is larger and more ornate than the other eight. The outer office is used for small receptions and formal gatherings, and the inner office is where the Chief works.
The door to the inner office was closed, and the room was filled with the Chief, his three law clerks, the captain of the Supreme Court police, three FBI agents, and K. O. Lewis, deputy director, FBI. The mood was serious, and a serious effort was under way to ignore the noise from the streets below. It was difficult. The Chief and Lewis discussed the latest series of death threats, and everyone else just listened. The clerks took notes.
In the past sixty days, the Bureau had logged over two hundred threats, a new record. There was the usual assortment of “Bomb the Court!” threats, but many came with specifics–like names, cases, and issues.
Runyan made no effort to hide his anxiety. Working from a confidential FBI summary, he read the names of individuals and groups suspected of threats. The Klan, the Aryans, the Nazis, the Palestinians, the black separatists, the pro-lifers, the homophobics. Even the IRA. Everyone, it seemed, but the Rotarians and the Boy Scouts. A Middle East group backed by the Iranians had threatened blood on American soil in retaliation for the deaths of two justice ministers in Tehran. There was absolutely no evidence the murders were linked to the U.S. A new domestic terrorist unit of recent fame known as the Underground Army had killed a federal trial judge in Texas with a car bomb. No arrests had been made, but the UA claimed responsibility. It was also the prime suspect in a dozen bombings of ACLU offices, but its work was very clean.
“What about these Puerto Rican terrorists?” Runyan asked without looking up.
“Lightweights. We’re not worried,” K. O. Lewis answered casually. “They’ve been threatening for twenty years.”
“Well, maybe it’s time they did something. The climate is right, don’t you think?”
“Forget the Puerto Ricans, Chief.” Runyan liked to be called Chief. Not Chief Justice, nor Mr. Chief Justice. Just Chief. “They’re just threatening because everyone else is.”
“Very funny,” the Chief said without smiling. “Very funny. I’d hate for some group to be left out.” Runyan threw the summary on his desk and rubbed his temples. “Let’s talk about security.” He closed his eyes.
K. O. Lewis laid his copy of the summary on the Chief’s desk. “Well, the Director thinks we should place four agents with each Justice, at least for the next ninety days. We’ll use limousines with escorts to and from work, and the Supreme Court police will provide backup and secure this building.”
“What about travel?”
“It’s not a good idea, at least for now. The Director thinks the justices should remain in the D.C. area until the end of the year.”
“Are you crazy? Is he crazy? If I asked my brethren to follow that request they would all leave town tonight and travel for the next month. That’s absurd.” Runyan frowned at his law clerks, who shook their heads in disgust. Truly absurd.
Lewis was unmoved. This was expected. “As you wish. Just a suggestion.”
“A foolish suggestion.”
“The Director did not expect your cooperation on that one. He would, however, expect to be notified in advance of all travel plans so that we can arrange security.”
“You mean, you plan to escort each Justice each time he leaves the city?”
“Yes, Chief. That’s our plan.”
“Won’t work. These people are not accustomed to being baby-sat.”
“Yes sir. And they’re not accustomed to being stalked either. We’re just trying to protect you and your honorable brethren, sir. Of course, no one says we have to do anything. I think, sir, that you called us. We can leave, if you wish.”
Runyan rocked forward in his chair and attacked a paper clip, prying the curves out of it and trying to make it perfectly straight. “What about around here?”
Lewis sighed and almost smiled. “We’re not worried about this building, Chief. It’s an easy place to secure. We don’t expect trouble here.”
Lewis nodded at a window. The noise was louder. “Out there somewhere. The streets are full of idiots and maniacs and zealots.”
“And they all hate us.”
“Evidently. Listen, Chief, we’re very concerned about Justice Rosenberg. He still refuses to allow our men inside his home; makes them sit in a car in the street all night. He will allow his favorite Supreme Court officer–what’s his name? Ferguson–to sit by the back door, outside, but only from 10 P.M. to 6 A.M. No one gets in the house but Justice Rosenberg and his male nurse. The place is not secure.”
Runyan picked his fingernails with the paper clip and smiled slightly to himself. Rosenberg’s death, by any means or method, would be a relief. No, it would be a glorious occasion. The Chief would have to wear black and give a eulogy, but behind locked doors he would chuckle with his law clerks. Runyan liked this thought.
“What do you suggest?” he asked.
“Can you talk to him?”
“I’ve tried. I’ve explained to him that he is probably the most hated man in America, that millions of people curse him every day, that most folks would like to see him dead, that he receives four times the hate mail as the rest of us combined, and that he would be a perfect and easy target for assassination.”
Lewis waited. “And?”
“Told me to kiss his ass, then fell asleep.”
The law clerks giggled properly, then the FBI agents realized humor was permitted and joined in for a quick laugh.
“So what do we do?” asked Lewis, unamused.
“You protect him as best you can, put it in writing, and don’t worry about it. He fears nothing, including death, and if he’s not sweating it, why should you?”
“The Director is sweating, so I’m sweating, Chief. It’s very simple. If one of you guys gets hurt, the Bureau looks bad.”
The Chief rocked quickly in his chair. The racket from outside was unnerving. This meeting had dragged on long enough. “Forget Rosenberg. Maybe he’ll die in his sleep. I’m more concerned over Jensen.”
“Jensen’s a problem,” Lewis said, flipping pages.
“I know he’s a problem,” Runyan said slowly. “He’s an embarrassment. Now he thinks he’s a liberal. Votes like Rosenberg half the time. Next month, he’ll be a white supremacist and support segregated schools. Then he’ll fall in love with the Indians and want to give them Montana. It’s like having a retarded child.”
“He’s being treated for depression, you know.”
“I know, I know. He tells me about it. I’m his father figure. What drug?”
The Chief dug under his fingernails. “What about that aerobics instructor he was seeing? She still around?”
“Not really, Chief. I don’t think he cares for women.” Lewis was smug. He knew more. He glanced at one of his agents and confirmed this juicy little tidbit.
Runyan ignored it, didn’t want to hear it. “Is he cooperating?”
“Of course not. In many ways he’s worse than Rosenberg. He allows us to escort him to his apartment building, then makes us sit in the parking lot all night. He’s seven floors up, remember. We can’t even sit in the lobby. Might upset his neighbors, he says. So we sit in the car. There are ten ways in and out of the building, and it’s impossible to protect him. He likes to play hide-and-seek with us. He sneaks around all the time, so we never know if he’s in the building or not. At least with Rosenberg we know where he is all night. Jensen’s impossible.”
“Great. If you can’t follow him, how could an assassin?”
Lewis hadn’t thought of this. He missed the humor. “The Director is very concerned with Justice Jensen’s safety.”
“He doesn’t receive that many threats.”
“Number six on the list, just a few less than you, your honor.”
“Oh. So I’m in fifth place.”
“Yes. Just behind Justice Manning. He’s cooperating, by the way. Fully.”
“He’s afraid of his shadow,” the Chief said, then hesitated. “I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry.”
Lewis ignored it. “In fact, the cooperation has been reasonably good, except for Rosenberg and Jensen. Justice Stone bitches a lot, but he listens to us.”
“He bitches at everyone, so don’t take it personally. Where do you suppose Jensen sneaks off to?”
Lewis glanced at one of his agents. “We have no idea.”
A large section of the mob suddenly came together in one unrestrained chorus, and everyone on the streets seemed to join in. The Chief could not ignore it. The windows vibrated. He stood and called an end to this meeting.
JUSTICE GLENN JENSEN’S OFFICE was on the second floor, away from the streets and the noise. It was a spacious room, yet the smallest of the nine. Jensen was the youngest of the nine, and he was lucky to have an office. When nominated six years earlier at the age of forty-two, he was thought to be a strict constructionist with deep conservative beliefs, much like the man who nominated him. His Senate confirmation had been a slugfest. Before the Judiciary Committee, Jensen performed poorly. On sensitive issues he straddled the fence, and got kicked from both sides. The Republicans were embarrassed. The Democrats smelled blood. The President twisted arms until they broke, and Jensen was confirmed by one very reluctant vote.
But he made it, for life. In his six years, he had pleased no one. Hurt deeply by his confirmation hearings, he vowed to find compassion and rule with it. This had angered Republicans. They felt betrayed, especially when he discovered a latent passion for the rights of criminals. With scarce ideological strain, he quickly left the right, moved to the center, then to the left. Then, with legal scholars scratching their little goatees, Jensen would bolt back to the right and join Justice Sloan in one of his obnoxious antiwomen dissents. Jensen was not fond of women. He was neutral on prayer, skeptical of free speech, sympathetic to tax protestors, indifferent to Indians, afraid of blacks, tough on pornographers, soft on criminals, and fairly consistent in his protection of the environment. And, to the further dismay of the Republicans who shed blood to get him confirmed, Jensen had shown a troubling sympathy for the rights of homosexuals.
At his request, a nasty case called Dumond had been assigned to him. Ronald Dumond had lived with his male lover for eight years. They were a happy couple, totally devoted to each other, and quite content to share life’s experiences. They wanted to marry, but Ohio laws prohibited such a union. Then the lover caught AIDS, and died a horrible death. Ronald knew exactly how to bury him, but then the lover’s family intervened and excluded Ronald from the funeral and burial. Distraught, Ronald sued the family, claiming emotional and psychological damage. The case had bounced around the lower courts for six years, and now had suddenly found itself sitting on Jensen’s desk.
At issue was the rights of “spouses” of gays. Dumond had become a battle cry for gay activists. The mere mention of Dumond had caused street fights.
And Jensen had the case. The door to his smaller office was closed. Jensen and his three clerks sat around the conference table. They had spent two hours on Dumond, and gone nowhere. They were tired of arguing. One clerk, a liberal from Cornell, wanted a broad pronouncement granting sweeping rights to gay partners. Jensen wanted this too, but was not ready to admit it. The other two clerks were skeptical. They knew, as did Jensen, that a majority of five would be impossible.
Talk turned to other matters.
“The Chief’s ticked off at you, Glenn,” said the clerk from Duke. They called him by his first name in chambers. “Justice” was such an awkward title.
Glenn rubbed his eyes. “What else is new?”
“One of his clerks wanted me to know that the Chief and the FBI are worried about your safety. Says you’re not cooperating, and the Chief’s rather disturbed. He wanted me to pass it along.” Everything was passed along through the clerks’ network. Everything.
“He’s supposed to be worried. That’s his job.”
“He wants to assign two more Fibbies as bodyguards, and they want access to your apartment. And the FBI wants to drive you to and from work. And they want to restrict your travel.”
“I’ve already heard this.”
“Yeah, we know. But the Chief’s clerk said the Chief wants us to prevail upon you to cooperate with the FBI so that they can save your life.”
“And so we’re just prevailing upon you.”
“Thanks. Go back to the network and tell the Chief’s clerk that you not only prevailed upon me but you raised all sorts of hell with me and that I appreciated all of your prevailing and hell-raising, but it went in one ear and out the other. Tell them Glenn considers himself a big boy.”
“Sure, Glenn. You’re not afraid, are you?”
“Not in the least.”
MARK WAS ELEVEN and had been smoking off and on for two years, never trying to quit but being careful not to get hooked. He preferred Kools, his ex-father’s brand, but his mother smoked Virginia Slims at the rate of two packs a day, and he could in an average week pilfer ten or twelve from her. She was a busy woman with many problems, perhaps a little naive when it came to her boys, and she never dreamed her eldest would be smoking at the age of eleven.
Occasionally Kevin, the delinquent two streets over, would sell Mark a pack of stolen Marlboros for a dollar. But for the most part he had to rely on his mother’s skinny cigarettes.
He had four of them in his pocket this afternoon as he led his brother Ricky, age eight, down the path into the woods behind their trailer park. Ricky was nervous about this, his first smoke. He had caught Mark hiding the cigarettes in a shoe box under his bed yesterday, and threatened to tell all if his big brother didn’t show him how to do it. They sneaked along the wooded trail, headed for one of Mark’s secret spots where he’d spent many solitary hours trying to inhale and blow smoke rings.
Most of the other kids in the neighborhood were into beer and pot, two vices Mark was determined to avoid. Their ex-father was an alcoholic who’d beaten both boys and their mother, and the beatings always followed his nasty bouts with beer. Mark had seen and felt the effects of alcohol. He was also afraid of drugs.
“Are you lost?” Ricky asked, just like a little brother, as they left the trail and waded through chest-high weeds.
“Just shut up,” Mark said without slowing. The only time their father had spent at home was to drink and sleep and abuse them. He was gone now, thank heavens. For five years Mark had been in charge of Ricky. He felt like an eleven-year-old father. He’d taught him how to throw a football and ride a bike. He’d explained what he knew about sex. He’d warned him about drugs, and protected him from bullies. And he felt terrible about this introduction to vice. But it was just a cigarette. It could be much worse.
The weeds stopped and they were under a large tree with a rope hanging from a thick branch. A row of bushes yielded to a small clearing, and beyond it an overgrown dirt road disappeared over a hill. A highway could be heard in the distance.
Mark stopped and pointed to a log near the rope. “Sit there,” he instructed, and Ricky obediently backed onto the log and glanced around anxiously as if the police might be watching. Mark eyed him like a drill sergeant while picking a cigarette from his shirt pocket. He held it with his right thumb and index finger, and tried to be casual about it.
“You know the rules,” he said, looking down at Ricky. There were only two rules, and they had discussed them a dozen times during the day, and Ricky was frustrated at being treated like a child. He rolled his eyes away and said, “Yeah, if I tell anyone, you’ll beat me up.”
Ricky folded his arms. “And I can smoke only one a day.”
“That’s right. If I catch you smoking more than that, then you’re in trouble. And if I find out you’re drinking beer or messing with drugs, then–”
“I know, I know. You’ll beat me up again.”
“How many do you smoke a day?”
“Only one,” Mark lied. Some days, only one. Some days, three or four, depending on supply. He stuck the filter between his lips like a gangster.
“Will one a day kill me?” Ricky asked.
Mark removed the cigarette from his lips. “Not anytime soon. One a day is pretty safe. More than that, and you could be in trouble.”
“How many does Mom smoke a day?”
“How many is that?”
“Wow. Then she’s in big trouble.”
“Mom’s got all kinds of troubles. I don’t think she’s worried about cigarettes.”
“How many does Dad smoke a day?”
“Four or five packs. A hundred a day.”
Ricky grinned slightly. “Then he’s gonna die soon, right?”
“I hope so. Between staying drunk and chain-smoking, he’ll be dead in a few years.”
“It’s when you light the new one with the old one. I wish he’d smoke ten packs a day.”
“Me too.” Ricky glanced toward the small clearing and the dirt road. It was shady and cool under the tree, but beyond the limbs the sun was bright. Mark pinched the filter with his thumb and index finger and sort of waved it before his mouth. “Are you scared?” he sneered as only big brothers can.
“I think you are. Look, hold it like this, okay?” He waved it closer, then with great drama withdrew it and stuck it between his lips. Ricky watched intently.
Mark lit the cigarette, puffed a tiny cloud of smoke, then held it and admired it. “Don’t try to swallow the smoke. You’re not ready for that yet. Just suck a little then blow the smoke out. Are you ready?”
“Will it make me sick?”
“It will if you swallow the smoke.” He took two quick drags and puffed for effect. “See. It’s really easy. I’ll teach you how to inhale later.”
“Okay.” Ricky nervously reached out with his thumb and index finger, and Mark placed the cigarette carefully between them. “Go ahead.”
Ricky eased the wet filter to his lips. His hand shook and he took a short drag and blew smoke. Another short drag. The smoke never got past his front teeth. Another drag. Mark watched carefully, hoping he would choke and cough and turn blue, then get sick and never smoke again.
“It’s easy,” Ricky said proudly as he held the cigarette and admired it. His hand was shaking.
“It’s no big deal.”
“Tastes kind of funny.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Mark sat next to him on the log and picked another one from his pocket. Ricky puffed rapidly. Mark lit his, and they sat in silence under the tree enjoying a quiet smoke.
“This is fun,” Ricky said, nibbling at the filter.
“Great. Then why are your hands shaking?”
Ricky ignored this. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, took a longer drag, then spat in the dirt like he’d seen Kevin and the big boys do behind the trailer park. This was easy.
Mark opened his mouth into a perfect circle and attempted a smoke ring. He thought this would really impress his little brother, but the ring failed to form and the gray smoke dissipated.
“I think you’re too young to smoke,” he said.
Ricky was busy puffing and spitting, and thoroughly enjoying this giant step toward manhood. “How old were you when you started?” he asked.
“Nine. But I was more mature than you.”
“You always say that.”
“That’s because it’s always true.”
They sat next to each other on the log under the tree, smoking quietly and staring at the grassy clearing beyond the shade. Mark was in fact more mature than Ricky at the age of eight. He was more mature than any kid his age. He’d always been mature. He had hit his father with a baseball bat when he was seven. The aftermath had not been pretty, but the drunken idiot had stopped beating their mother. There had been many fights and many beatings, and Dianne Sway had sought refuge and advice from her eldest son. They had consoled each other and conspired to survive. They had cried together after the beatings. They had plotted ways to protect Ricky. When he was nine, Mark convinced her to file for divorce. He had called the cops when his father showed up drunk after being served with divorce papers. He had testified in court about the abuse and neglect and beatings. He was very mature.
Ricky heard the car first. There was a low, rushing sound coming from the dirt road. Then Mark heard it, and they stopped smoking. “Just sit still,” Mark said softly. They did not move.
A long, black, shiny Lincoln appeared over the slight hill and eased toward them. The weeds in the road were as high as the front bumper. Mark dropped his cigarette to the ground and covered it with his shoe. Ricky did the same.
The car slowed almost to a stop as it neared the clearing, then circled around, touching the tree limbs as it moved slowly. It stopped and faced the road. The boys were directly behind it, and hidden from view. Mark slid off the log, and crawled through the weeds to a row of brush at the edge of the clearing. Ricky followed. The rear of the Lincoln was thirty feet away. They watched it carefully. It had Louisiana license plates.
“What’s he doing?” Ricky whispered.
Mark peeked through the weeds. “Shhhhh!” He had heard stories around the trailer park of teenagers using these woods to meet girls and smoke pot, but this car did not belong to a teenager. The engine quit, and the car just sat there in the weeds for a minute. Then the door opened, and the driver stepped into the weeds and looked around. He was a chubby man in a black suit. His head was fat and round and without hair except for neat rows above the ears and a black-and-gray beard. He stumbled to the rear of the car, fumbled with the keys, and finally opened the trunk. He removed a water hose, stuck one end into the exhaust pipe, and ran the other end through a crack in the left rear window. He closed the trunk, looked around again as if he were expecting to be watched, then disappeared into the car.
The engine started.
“Wow,” Mark said softly, staring blankly at the car.
“What’s he doing?” Ricky asked.
“He’s trying to kill himself.”
Ricky raised his head a few inches for a better view. “I don’t understand, Mark.”
“Keep down. You see the hose, right? The fumes from the tail pipe go into the car, and it kills him.”
“You mean suicide?”
“Right. I saw a guy do it like this in a movie once.”
They leaned closer to the weeds and stared at the hose running from the pipe to the window. The engine idled smoothly.
“Why does he want to kill himself?” Ricky asked.
“How am I supposed to know? But we gotta do something.”
“Yeah, let’s get the hell outta here.”
“No. Just be still a minute.”
“I’m leaving, Mark. You can watch him die if you want to, but I’m gone.”
Mark grabbed his brother’s shoulder and forced him lower. Ricky’s breathing was heavy and they were both sweating. The sun hid behind a cloud.
“How long does it take?” Ricky asked, his voice quivering.
“Not very long.” Mark released his brother and eased onto all fours. “You stay here, okay. If you move, I’ll kick your tail.”
“What’re you doing, Mark?”
“Just stay here. I mean it.” Mark lowered his thin body almost to the ground and crawled on elbows and knees through the weeds toward the car. The grass was dry and at least two feet tall. He knew the man couldn’t hear him, but he worried about the movement of the weeds. He stayed directly behind the car and slid snakelike on his belly until he was in the shadow of the trunk. He reached and carefully eased the hose from the tail pipe, and dropped it to the ground. He retraced his trail with a bit more speed, and seconds later was crouched next to Ricky, watching and waiting in the heavier grass and brush under the outermost limbs of the tree. He knew that if they were spotted, they could dart past the tree and down their trail and be gone before the chubby man could catch them.
They waited. Five minutes passed, though it seemed like an hour.
“You think he’s dead?” Ricky whispered, his voice dry and weak.
“I don’t know.”
Suddenly, the door opened, and the man stepped out. He was crying and mumbling, and he staggered to the rear of the car where he saw the hose in the grass, and cursed it as he shoved it back into the tail pipe. He held a bottle of whiskey and looked around wildly at the trees, then stumbled back into the car. He mumbled to himself as he slammed the door.
The boys watched in horror.
“He’s crazy as hell,” Mark said faintly.
“Let’s get out of here,” Ricky said.
“We can’t! If he kills himself, and we saw it or knew about it, then we could get in all kinds of trouble.”
Ricky raised his head as if to retreat. “Then we won’t tell anybody. Come on, Mark!”
Mark grabbed his shoulder again and forced him to the ground. “Just stay down! We’re not leaving until I say we’re leaving!”
Ricky closed his eyes tightly and started crying. Mark shook his head in disgust but didn’t take his eyes off the car. Little brothers were more trouble than they were worth. “Stop it,” he growled through clenched teeth.
“Fine. Just don’t move, okay. Do you hear me? Don’t move. And stop the crying.” Mark was back on his elbows, deep in the weeds and preparing to ease through the tall grass once more.
“Just let him die, Mark,” Ricky whispered between sobs.
Mark glared at him over his shoulder and eased toward the car, which was still running. He crawled along his same trail of lightly trampled grass so slowly and carefully that even Ricky, with dry eyes now, could barely see him. Ricky watched the driver’s door, waiting for it to fly open and the crazy man to lunge out and kill Mark. He perched on his toes in a sprinter’s stance for a quick getaway through the woods. He saw Mark emerge under the rear bumper, place a hand for balance on the taillight, and slowly ease the hose from the tail pipe. The grass crackled softly and the weeds shook a little and Mark was next to him again, panting and sweating and, oddly, smiling to himself.
They sat on their legs like two insects under the brush, and watched the car.
“What if he comes out again?” Ricky asked. “What if he sees us?”
“He can’t see us. But if he starts this way, just follow me. We’ll be gone before he can take a step.”
“Why don’t we go now?”
Mark stared at him fiercely. “I’m trying to save his life, okay? Maybe, just maybe, he’ll see that this is not working, and maybe he’ll decide he should wait or something. Why is that so hard to understand?”
“Because he’s crazy. If he’ll kill himself, then he’ll kill us. Why is that so hard to understand?”
Mark shook his head in frustration, and suddenly the door opened again. The man rolled out of the car growling and talking to himself, and stomped through the grass to the rear. He grabbed the end of the hose, stared at it as if it just wouldn’t behave, and looked slowly around the small clearing. He was breathing heavily and perspiring. He looked at the trees, and the boys eased to the ground. He looked down, and froze as if he suddenly understood. The grass was slightly trampled around the rear of the car and he knelt as if to inspect it, but then crammed the hose back into the tail pipe instead and hurried back to his door. If someone was watching from the trees, he seemed not to care. He just wanted to hurry up and die.
The two heads rose together above the brush, but just a few inches. They peeked through the weeds for a long minute. Ricky was ready to run, but Mark was thinking.
“Mark, please, let’s go,” Ricky pleaded. “He almost saw us. What if he’s got a gun or something?”
“If he had a gun he’d use it on himself.”
Ricky bit his lip and his eyes watered again. He had never won an argument with his brother, and he would not win this one.
Another minute passed, and Mark began to fidget. “I’ll try one more time, okay. And if he doesn’t give up, then we’ll get outta here. I promise, okay?”
Ricky nodded reluctantly. His brother stretched on his stomach and inched his way through the weeds into the
The lawyer’s nostrils flared as he inhaled mightily. He exhaled slowly and stared through the windshield while trying to determine if any of the precious, deadly gas had entered his blood and begun its work. A loaded pistol was on the seat next to him. A half-empty fifth of Jack Daniels was in his hand. He took a sip, screwed the cap on it, and placed it on the seat. He inhaled slowly and closed his eyes to savor the gas. Would he simply drift away? Would it hurt or burn or make him sick before it finished him off? The note was on the dash above the steering wheel, next to a bottle of pills.
He cried and talked to himself as he waited for the gas to hurry, dammit!, before he’d give up and use the gun. He was a coward, but a very determined one, and he much preferred this sniffing and floating away to sticking a gun in his mouth.
He sipped the whiskey, and hissed as it burned on its descent. Yes, it was finally working. Soon, it would all be over, and he smiled at himself in the mirror because it was working and he was dying and he was not a coward after all. It took guts to do this.
He cried and muttered as he removed the cap of the whiskey bottle for one last swallow. He gulped, and it ran from his lips and trickled into his beard.
He would not be missed. And although this thought should have been painful, the lawyer was calmed by the knowledge that no one would grieve. His mother was the only person in the world who loved him, and she’d been dead four years so this would not hurt her. There was a child from the first disastrous marriage, a daughter he’d not seen in eleven years, but he’d been told she had joined a cult and was as crazy as her mother.
It would be a small funeral. A few lawyer buddies and perhaps a judge or two would be there all dressed up in dark suits and whispering importantly as the piped-in organ music drifted around the near-empty chapel. No tears. The lawyers would sit and glance at their watches while the minister, a stranger, sped through the standard comments used for dear departed ones who never went to church.
It would be a ten-minute job with no frills. The note on the dash required the body to be cremated.
“Wow,” he said softly as he took another sip. He turned the bottle up, and while gulping glanced in the rearview mirror and saw the weeds move behind the car.
Ricky saw the door open before Mark heard it. It flew open, as if kicked, and suddenly the large, heavy man with the red face was running through the weeds, holding onto the car and growling. Ricky stood, in shock and fear, and wet his pants.
Mark had just touched the bumper when he heard the door. He froze for a second, gave a quick thought to crawling under the car, and the hesitation nailed him. His foot slipped as he tried to stand and run, and the man grabbed him. “You! You little bastard!” he screamed as he grabbed Mark’s hair and flung him onto the trunk of the car. “You little bastard!” Mark kicked and squirmed, and a fat hand slapped him in the face. He kicked once more, not as violently, and he got slapped again.
Mark stared at the wild, glowing face just inches away. The eyes were red and wet. Fluids dripped from the nose and chin. “You little bastard,” he growled through clenched, dirty teeth.
When he had him pinned and still and subdued, the lawyer stuck the hose back into the exhaust pipe, then yanked Mark off the trunk by his collar and dragged him through the weeds to the driver’s door, which was open. He threw the kid through the door and shoved him across the black leather seat.
Mark was grabbing at the door handle and searching for the door lock switch when the man fell behind the steering wheel. He slammed the door behind him, pointed at the door handle, and screamed, “Don’t touch that!” Then he backhanded Mark in the left eye with a vicious slap.
Mark shrieked in pain, grabbed his eyes and bent over, stunned, crying now. His nose hurt like hell and his mouth hurt worse. He was dizzy. He tasted blood. He could hear the man crying and growling. He could smell the whiskey and see the knees of his dirty blue jeans with his right eye. The left was beginning to swell. Things were blurred.
The fat lawyer gulped his whiskey and stared at Mark, who was all bent over and shaking at every joint. “Stop crying,” he snarled.
Mark licked his lips and swallowed blood. He rubbed the knot above his eye and tried to breathe deeply, still staring at his jeans. Again, the man said, “Stop crying,” so he tried to stop.
The engine was running. It was a big, heavy, quiet car, but Mark could hear the engine humming very softly somewhere far away. He turned slowly and glanced at the hose winding through the rear window behind the driver like an angry snake sneaking toward them for the kill. The fat man laughed.
“I think we should die together,” he announced, all of a sudden very composed.
Mark’s left eye was swelling fast. He turned his shoulders and looked squarely at the man, who was even larger now. His face was chubby, the beard was bushy, the eyes were still red and glowed at him like a demon in the dark. Mark was crying. “Please let me out of here,” he said, lip quivering, voice cracking.
The driver stuck the whiskey bottle in his mouth and turned it up. He grimaced and smacked his lips. “Sorry, kid. You had to be a cute ass, had to stick your dirty little nose into my business, didn’t you? So I think we should die together. Okay? Just you and me, pal. Off to La La Land. Off to see the wizard. Sweet dreams, kid.”
Mark sniffed the air, then noticed the pistol lying between them. He glanced away, then stared at it when the man took another drink from the bottle.
“You want the gun?” the man asked.
“So why are you looking at it?”
“Don’t lie to me, kid, because if you do, I’ll kill you. I’m crazy as hell, okay, and I’ll kill you.” Though tears flowed freely from his eyes, his voice was very calm. He breathed deeply as he spoke. “And besides, kid, if we’re gonna be pals, you’ve got to be honest with me. Honesty’s very important, you know? Now, do you want the gun?”
“Would you like to pick up the gun and shoot me with it?”
“I’m not afraid of dying, kid, you understand?”
“Yes sir, but I don’t want to die. I take care of my mother and my little brother.”
“Aw, ain’t that sweet. A real man of the house.”
He screwed the cap onto the whiskey bottle, then suddenly grabbed the pistol, stuck it deep into his mouth, curled his lips around it, and looked at Mark, who watched every move, hoping he would pull the trigger and hoping he wouldn’t. Slowly, he withdrew the barrel from his mouth, kissed the end of it, then pointed it at Mark.
“I’ve never shot this thing, you know,” he said, almost in a whisper. “Just bought it an hour ago at a pawnshop in Memphis. Do you think it’ll work?”
“Please let me out of here.”
“You have a choice, kid,” he said, inhaling the invisible fumes. “I’ll blow your brains out, and it’s over now, or the gas’ll get you. Your choice.”
Mark did not look at the pistol. He sniffed the air and thought for an instant that maybe he smelled something. The gun was close to his head. “Why are you doing this?” he asked.
“None of your damned business, okay, kid. I’m nuts, okay. Over the edge. I planned a nice little private suicide, you know, just me and my hose and maybe a few pills and some whiskey. Nobody looking for me. But, no, you have to get cute. You little bastard!” He lowered the pistol and carefully placed it on the seat. Mark rubbed the knot on his forehead and bit his lip. His hands were shaking and he pressed them between his legs.
“We’ll be dead in five minutes,” he announced officially as he raised the bottle to his lips. “Just you and me, pal, off to see the wizard.”
Ricky finally moved. His teeth chattered and his jeans were wet, but he was thinking now, moving from his crouch onto his hands and knees and sinking into the grass. He crawled toward the car, crying and gritting his teeth as he slid on his stomach. The door was about to fly open. The crazy man, who was large but quick, would leap from nowhere and grab him by the neck, just like Mark, and they’d all die in the long, black car. Slowly, inch by inch, he pushed his way through the weeds.
Mark slowly lifted the pistol with both hands. It was as heavy as a brick. It shook as he raised it and pointed it at the fat man, who leaned toward it until the barrel was an inch from his nose.
“Now, pull the trigger, kid,” he said with a smile, his wet face glowing and dancing with delightful anticipation. “Pull the trigger, and I’ll be dead and you go free.” Mark curled a finger around the trigger. The man nodded, then leaned even closer and bit the tip of the barrel with flashing teeth. “Pull the trigger!” he shouted.
Mark closed his eyes and pressed the handle of the gun with the palms of his hands. He held his breath, and was about to squeeze the trigger when the man jerked it from him. He waved it wildly in front of Mark’s face, and pulled the trigger. Mark screamed as the window behind his head cracked into a thousand pieces but did not shatter. “It works! It works!” he yelled as Mark ducked and covered his ears.
Ricky buried his face in the grass when he heard the shot. He was ten feet from the car when something popped and Mark yelled. The fat man was yelling, and Ricky peed on himself again. He closed his eyes and clutched the weeds. His stomach cramped and his heart pounded, and for a minute after the gunshot he did not move. He cried for his brother, who was dead now, shot by a crazy man.
“Stop crying, dammit! I’m sick of your crying!”
Mark clutched his knees and tried to stop crying. His head pounded and his mouth was dry. He stuck his hands between his knees and bent over. He had to stop crying and think of something. On a television show once some nut was about to jump off a building, and this cool cop just kept talking to him and talking to him, and finally the nut started talking back and of course did not jump. Mark quickly smelled for gas, and asked, “Why are you doing this?”
“Because I want to die,” the man said calmly.
“Why?” he asked again, glancing at the neat, little round hole in his window.
“Why do kids ask so many questions?”
“Because we’re kids. Why do you want to die?” He could barely hear his own words.
“Look, kid, we’ll be dead in five minutes, okay? Just you and me, pal, off to see the wizard.” He took a long drink from the bottle, now almost empty. “I feel the gas, kid. Do you feel it? Finally.”
In the side mirror, through the cracks in the window, Mark saw the weeds move and caught a glimpse of Ricky as he slithered through the weeds and ducked into the bushes near the tree. He closed his eyes and said a prayer.
“I gotta tell you, kid, it’s nice having you here. No one wants to die alone. What’s your name?”
“Mark Sway.” Keep talking, and maybe the nut won’t jump. “What’s your name?”
“Jerome. But you can call me Romey. That’s what my friends call me, and since you and I are pretty tight now you can call me Romey. No more questions, okay, kid?”
“Why do you want to die, Romey?”
“I said no more questions. Do you feel the gas, Mark?”
“I don’t know.”
“You will soon enough. Better say your prayers.” Romey sank low into the seat with his beefy head straight back and eyes closed, completely at ease. “We’ve got about five minutes, Mark, any last words?” The whiskey bottle was in his right hand, the gun in his left.
“Yeah, why are you doing this?” Mark asked, glancing at the mirror for another sign of his brother. He took short, quick breaths through the nose, and neither smelled nor felt anything. Surely Ricky had removed the hose.
“Because I’m crazy, just another crazy lawyer, right. I’ve been driven crazy, Mark, and how old are you?”
“Ever tasted whiskey?”
“No,” Mark answered truthfully.
Suddenly, the whiskey bottle was in his face, and he took it.
“Take a shot,” Romey said without opening his eyes.
Mark tried to read the label, but his left eye was virtually closed and his ears were ringing from the gunshot, and he couldn’t concentrate. He sat the bottle on the seat where Romey took it without a word.
“We’re dying, Mark,” he said almost to himself. “I guess that’s tough at age eleven, but so be it. Nothing I can do about it. Any last words, big boy?”
Mark told himself that Ricky had done the trick, that the hose was now harmless, that his new friend Romey here was drunk and crazy, and that if he survived he would have to do so by thinking and talking. The air was clean. He breathed deeply and told himself that he could make it. “What made you crazy?”
Romey thought for a second and decided this was humorous. He snorted and actually chuckled a little. “Oh, this is great. Perfect. For weeks now, I’ve known something no one else in the entire world knows, except my client, who’s a real piece of scum, by the way. You see, Mark, lawyers hear all sorts of private stuff that we can never repeat. Strictly confidential, you understand. No way we can ever tell what happened to the money or who’s sleeping with who or where the body’s buried, you follow?” He inhaled mightily, and exhaled with enormous pleasure. He sank lower in the seat, eyes still closed. “Sorry I had to slap you.” He curled his finger around the trigger.
Mark closed his eyes and felt nothing.
“How old are you, Mark?”
“You told me that. Eleven. And I’m forty-four. We’re both too young to die, aren’t we, Mark?”
“But it’s happening, pal. Do you feel it?”
“My client killed a man and hid the body, and now my client wants to kill me. That’s the whole story. They’ve made me crazy. Ha! Ha! This is great, Mark. This is wonderful. I, the trusted lawyer, can now tell you, literally seconds before we float away, where the body is. The body, Mark, the most notorious undiscovered corpse of our time. Unbelievable. I can finally tell!” His eyes were open and glowing down at Mark. “This is funny as hell, Mark!”
Mark missed the humor. He glanced at the mirror, then at the door lock switch a foot away. The handle was even closer.
Romey relaxed again and closed his eyes as if trying desperately to take a nap. “I’m sorry about this, kid, really sorry, but, like I said, it’s nice to have you here.” He slowly placed the bottle on the dash next to the note and moved the pistol from his left hand to his right, caressing it softly and stroking the trigger with his index finger. Mark tried not to look. “I’m really sorry about this, kid. How old are you?”
“Eleven. You’ve asked me three times.”
“Shut up! I feel the gas now, don’t you? Quit sniffing, dammit! It’s odorless, you little dumbass. You can’t smell it. I’d be dead now and you’d be off playing GI Joe if you hadn’t been so cute. You’re pretty stupid, you know.”
Not as stupid as you, thought Mark. “Who did your client kill?”
Romey grinned but did not open his eyes. “A United States Senator. I’m telling. I’m telling. I’m spilling my guts. Do you read newspapers?”
“I’m not surprised. Senator Boyette from New Orleans. That’s where I’m from.”
“Why did you come to Memphis?”
“Dammit, kid! Full of questions, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. Why’d your client kill Senator Boyette?”
“Why, why, why, who, who, who. You’re a real pain in the ass, Mark.”
“I know. Why don’t you just let me go?” Mark glanced at the mirror, then at the hose running into the backseat.
“I might just shoot you in the head if you don’t shut up.” His bearded chin dropped and almost touched his chest. “My client has killed a lot of people. That’s how he makes money, by killing people. He’s a member of the Mafia in New Orleans, and now he’s trying to kill me. Too bad, ain’t it, kid. We beat him to it. Joke’s on him.”
Romey took a long drink from the bottle and stared at Mark.
“Just think about it, kid, right now, Barry, or Barry The Blade as he’s known, these Mafia guys all have cute nicknames, you know, is waiting for me in a dirty restaurant in New Orleans. He’s probably got a couple of his pals nearby, and after a quiet dinner he’ll want me to get in the car and take a little drive, talk about his case and all, and then he’ll pull out a knife, that’s why they call him The Blade, and I’m history. They’ll dispose of my chubby little body somewhere, just like they did Senator Boyette, and, bam!, just like that, New Orleans has another unsolved murder. But we showed them, didn’t we, kid? We showed them.”
His speech was slower and his tongue thicker. He moved the pistol up and down on his thigh when he talked. The finger stayed on the trigger.
Keep him talking. “Why does this Barry guy want to kill you?”
“Another question. I’m floating. Are you floating?”
“Yeah. It feels good.”
“Buncha reasons. Close your eyes, kid. Say your prayers.” Mark watched the pistol and glanced at the door lock. He slowly touched each fingertip to each thumb, like counting in kindergarten, and the coordination was perfect.
“So where’s the body?”
Romey snorted and his head nodded. The voice was almost a whisper. “The body of Boyd Boyette. What a question. First U.S. Senator murdered in office, did you know that? Murdered by my dear client Barry The Blade Muldanno, who shot him in the head four times, then hid the body. No body, no case. Do you understand, kid?”
“Why aren’t you crying, kid? You were crying a few minutes ago. Aren’t you scared?”
“Yes, I’m scared. And I’d like to leave. I’m sorry you want to die and all, but I have to take care of my mother.”
“Touching, real touching. Now, shut up. You see, kid, the Feds have to have a body to prove there was a murder. Barry is their suspect, their only suspect, because he really did it, you see, in fact they know he did it. But they need the body.”
“Where is it?”
A dark cloud moved in front of the sun and the clearing was suddenly darker. Romey moved the gun gently along his leg as if to warn Mark against any sudden moves. “The Blade is not the smartest thug I’ve ever met, you know. Thinks he’s a genius, but he’s really quite stupid.”
You’re the stupid one, Mark thought again. Sitting in a car with a hose running from the exhaust. He waited as still as could be.
“The body’s under my boat.”
“Yes, my boat. He was in a hurry. I was out of town, so my beloved client took the body to my house and buried it in fresh concrete under my garage. It’s still there, can you believe it? The FBI has dug up half of New Orleans trying to find it, but they’ve never thought about my house. Maybe Barry ain’t so stupid after all.”
“When did he tell you this?”
“I’m sick of your questions, kid.”
“I’d really like to leave now.”
“Shut up. The gas is working. We’re gone, kid. Gone.” He dropped the pistol on the seat.
The engine hummed quietly. Mark glanced at the bullet hole in the window, at the millions of tiny crooked cracks running from it, then at the red face and heavy eyelids. A quick snort, almost a snore, and the head nodded downward.
He was passing out! Mark stared at him and watched his thick chest move. He’d seen his ex-father do this a hundred times.
Mark breathed deeply. The door lock would make noise. The gun was too close to Romey’s hand. Mark’s stomach cramped and his feet were numb.
The red face emitted a loud, sluggish noise, and Mark knew there would be no more chances. Slowly, ever so slowly, he inched his shaking finger to the door lock switch.
Ricky’s eyes were almost as dry as his mouth, but his jeans were soaked. He was under the tree, in the darkness, away from the bushes and the tall grass and the car. Five minutes had passed since he had removed the hose. Five minutes since the gunshot. But he knew his brother was alive because he had darted behind trees for fifty feet until he caught a glimpse of the blond head sitting low and moving about in the huge car. So he stopped crying, and started praying.
He made his way back to the log, and as he crouched low and stared at the car and ached for his brother, the passenger door suddenly flew open, and there was Mark.
Romey’s chin dropped onto his chest, and just as he began his next snore Mark slapped the pistol onto the floor with his left hand while unlocking the door with his right. He yanked the handle and rammed his shoulder into the door, and the last thing he heard as he rolled out was another deep snore from the lawyer.
He landed on his knees and grabbed at the weeds as he scratched and clawed his way from the car. He raced low through the grass and within seconds made it to the tree where Ricky watched in muted horror. He stopped at the stump and turned, expecting to see the lawyer lumbering after him with the gun. But the car appeared harmless. The passenger door was open. The engine was running. The exhaust pipe was free of devices. He breathed for the first time in a minute, then slowly looked at Ricky.
“I pulled the hose out,” Ricky said in a shrill voice between rapid breaths. Mark nodded but said nothing. He was suddenly much calmer. The car was fifty feet away, and if Romey emerged, they could disappear through the woods in an instant. And hidden by the tree and the cover of the brush, they would never be seen by Romey if he decided to jump out and start blasting away with the gun.
“I’m scared, Mark. Let’s go,” Ricky said, his voice still shrill, his hands shaking.
“Just a minute.” Mark studied the car intently.
“Come on, Mark. Let’s go.”
“I said just a minute.”
Ricky watched the car. “Is he dead?”
“I don’t think so.”
So the man was alive, and had the gun, and it was becoming obvious that his big brother was no longer scared and was thinking of something. Ricky took a step backward. “I’m leaving,” he mumbled. “I want to go home.”
Mark did not move. He exhaled calmly and studied the car. “Just a second,” he said without looking at Ricky. The voice had authority again.
Ricky grew still and leaned forward, placing both hands on both wet knees. He watched his brother, and shook his head slowly as Mark carefully picked a cigarette from his shirt pocket while staring at the car. He lit it, took a long draw, and blew smoke upward to the branches. It was at this point that Ricky first noticed the swelling.
“What happened to your eye?”
Mark suddenly remembered. He rubbed it gently, then rubbed the knot on his forehead. “He slapped me a couple of times.”
“It looks bad.”
“It’s okay. You know what I’m gonna do?” he said without expecting an answer. “I’m gonna sneak back up there and stick the hose into the exhaust pipe. I’m gonna plug it in for him, the bastard.”
“You’re crazier than he is. You’re kidding, right, Mark?”
Mark puffed deliberately. Suddenly, the driver’s door swung open, and Romey stumbled out with the pistol. He mumbled loudly as he faltered to the rear of the car, and once again found the garden hose lying harmlessly in the grass. He screamed obscenities at the sky.
Mark crouched low and held Ricky with him. Romey spun around and surveyed the trees around the clearing. He cursed more, and started crying loudly. Sweat dripped from his hair, and his black jacket was soaked and glued to him. He stomped around the rear of the car, sobbing and talking, screaming at the trees.
He stopped suddenly, wrestled his ponderous bulk onto the top of the trunk, then squirmed and slid backward like a drugged elephant until he hit the rear window. His stumpy legs stretched before him. One shoe was missing. He took the gun, neither slowly nor quickly, almost routinely, and stuck it deep in his mouth. His wild red eyes flashed around, and for a second paused at the trunk of the tree above the boys.
He opened his lips and bit the barrel with his big, dirty teeth. He closed his eyes, and pulled the trigger with his right thumb.
THE DECISION to bomb the office of the radical Jew lawyer was reached with relative ease. Only three people were involved in the process. The first was the man with the money. The second was a local operative who knew the territory. And the third was a young patriot and zealot with a talent for explosives and an astonishing knack for disappearing without a trail. After the bombing, he fled the country and hid in Northern Ireland for six years.
The lawyer’s name was Marvin Kramer, a fourth-generation Mississippi Jew whose family had prospered as merchants in the Delta. He lived in an antebellum home in Greenville, a river town with a small but strong Jewish community, a pleasant place with a history of little racial discord. He practiced law because commerce bored him. Like most Jews of German descent, his family had assimilated nicely into the culture of the Deep South, and viewed themselves as nothing but typical Southerners who happened to have a different religion. Anti-Semitism rarely surfaced. For the most part, they blended with the rest of established society and went about their business.
Marvin was different. His father sent him up North to Brandeis in the late fifties. He spent four years there, then three years in law school at Columbia, and when he returned to Greenville in 1964 the civil rights movement had center stage in Mississippi. Marvin got in the thick of it. Less than a month after opening his little law office, he was arrested along with two of his Brandeis classmates for attempting to register black voters. His father was furious. His family was embarrassed, but Marvin couldn’t have cared less. He received his first death threat at the age of twenty-five, and started carrying a gun. He bought a pistol for his wife, a Memphis girl, and instructed their black maid to keep one in her purse. The Kramers had twin two-year-old sons.
The first civil rights lawsuit filed in 1965 by the law offices of Marvin B. Kramer and Associates (there were no associates yet) alleged a multitude of discriminatory voting practices by local officials. It made headlines around the state, and Marvin got his picture in the papers. He also got his name on a Klan list of Jews to harass. Here was a radical Jew lawyer with a beard and a bleeding heart, educated by Jews up North and now marching with and representing Negroes in the Mississippi Delta. It would not be tolerated.
Later, there were rumors of Lawyer Kramer using his own money to post bail for Freedom Riders and civil rights workers. He filed lawsuits attacking whites-only facilities. He paid for the reconstruction of a black church bombed by the Klan. He was actually seen welcoming Negroes into his home. He made speeches before Jewish groups up North and urged them to get involved in the struggle. He wrote sweeping letters to newspapers, few of which were printed. Lawyer Kramer was marching bravely toward his doom.
The presence of a nighttime guard patrolling benignly around the flower beds prevented an attack upon the Kramer home. Marvin had been paying the guard for two years. He was a former cop and he was heavily armed, and the Kramers let it be known to all of Greenville that they were protected by an expert marksman. Of course, the Klan knew about the guard, and the Klan knew to leave him alone. Thus, the decision was made to bomb Marvin Kramer’s office, and not his home.
The actual planning of the operation took very little time, and this was principally because so few people were involved in it. The man with the money, a flamboyant redneck prophet named Jeremiah Dogan, was at the time the Imperial Wizard for the Klan in Mississippi. His predecessor had been loaded off to prison, and Jerry Dogan was having a wonderful time orchestrating the bombings. He was not stupid. In fact, the FBI later admitted Dogan was quite effective as a terrorist because he delegated the dirty work to small, autonomous groups of hit men who worked completely independent of one another. The FBI had become expert at infiltrating the Klan with informants, and Dogan trusted no one but family and a handful of accomplices. He owned the largest used car lot in Meridian, Mississippi, and had made plenty of money on all sorts of shady deals. He sometimes preached in rural churches.
The second member of the team was a Klansman by the name of Sam Cayhall from Clanton, Mississippi, in Ford County, three hours north of Meridian and an hour south of Memphis. Cayhall was known to the FBI, but his connection to Dogan was not. The FBI considered him to be harmless because he lived in an area of the state with almost no Klan activity. A few crosses had been burned in Ford County recently, but no bombings, no killings. The FBI knew that Cayhall’s father had been a Klansman, but on the whole the family appeared to be rather passive. Dogan’s recruitment of Sam Cayhall was a brilliant move.
The bombing of Kramer’s office began with a phone call on the night of April 17, 1967. Suspecting, with good reason, that his phones were tapped, Jeremiah Dogan waited until midnight and drove to a pay phone at a gas station south of Meridian. He also suspected he was being followed by the FBI, and he was correct. They watched him, but they had no idea where the call was going.
Sam Cayhall listened quietly on the other end, asked a question or two, then hung up. He returned to his bed, and told his wife nothing. She knew better than to ask. The next morning he left the house early and drove into the town of Clanton. He ate his daily breakfast at The Coffee Shop, then placed a call on a pay phone inside the Ford County Courthouse.
Two days later, on April 20, Cayhall left Clanton at dusk and drove two hours to Cleveland, Mississippi, a Delta college town an hour from Greenville. He waited for forty minutes in the parking lot of a busy shopping center, but saw no sign of a green Pontiac. He ate fried chicken in a cheap diner, then drove to Greenville to scout the law offices of Marvin B. Kramer and Associates. Cayhall had spent a day in Greenville two weeks earlier, and knew the city fairly well. He found Kramer’s office, then drove by his stately home, then found the synagogue again. Dogan said the synagogue might be next, but first they needed to hit the Jew lawyer. By eleven, Cayhall was back in Cleveland, and the green Pontiac was parked not at the shopping center but at a truck stop on Highway 61, a secondary site. He found the ignition key under the driver’s floor mat, and took the car for a drive through the rich farm fields of the Delta. He turned onto a farm road and opened the trunk. In a cardboard box covered with newspapers,
he found fifteen sticks of dynamite, three blasting caps, and a fuse. He drove into town and waited in an all-night café.
At precisely 2 A.M., the third member of the team walked into the crowded truck stop and sat across from Sam Cayhall. His name was Rollie Wedge, a young man of no more than twenty-two, but a trusted veteran of the civil rights war. He said he was from Louisiana, now lived somewhere in the mountains where no one could find him, and though he never boasted, he had told Sam Cayhall several times that he fully expected to be killed in the struggle for white supremacy. His father was a Klansman and a demolition contractor, and from him Rollie had learned how to use explosives.
Sam knew little about Rollie Wedge, and didn’t believe much of what he said. He never asked Dogan where he found the kid.
They sipped coffee and made small talk for half an hour. Cayhall’s cup shook occasionally from the jitters, but Rollie’s was calm and steady. His eyes never blinked. They had done this together several times now, and Cayhall marveled at the coolness of one so young. He had reported to Jeremiah Dogan that the kid never got excited, not even when they neared their targets and he handled the dynamite.
Wedge’s car was a rental from the Memphis airport. He retrieved a small bag from the backseat, locked the car, and left it at the truck stop. The green Pontiac with Cayhall behind the wheel left Cleveland and headed south on Highway 61. It was almost 3 A.M., and there was no traffic. A few miles south of the village of Shaw, Cayhall turned onto a dark, gravel road and stopped. Rollie instructed him to stay in the car while he inspected the explosives. Sam did as he was told. Rollie took his bag with him to the trunk where he inventoried the dynamite, the blasting caps, and the fuse. He left his bag in the trunk, closed it, and told Sam to head to Greenville.
They drove by Kramer’s office for the first time around 4 A.M. The street was deserted, and dark, and Rollie said something to the effect that this would be their easiest job yet.
“Too bad we can’t bomb his house,” Rollie said softly as they drove by the Kramer home.
“Yeah. Too bad,” Sam said nervously. “But he’s got a guard, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. But the guard would be easy.”
“Yeah, I guess. But he’s got kids in there, you know.”
“Kill ‘em while they’re young,” Rollie said. “Little Jew bastards grow up to be big Jew bastards.”
Cayhall parked the car in an alley behind Kramer’s office. He turned off the ignition, and both men quietly opened the trunk, removed the box and the bag, and slid along a row of hedges leading to the rear door.
Sam Cayhall jimmied the rear door of the office and they were inside within seconds. Two weeks earlier, Sam had presented himself to the receptionist under the ruse of asking for directions, then asked to use the rest room. In the main hallway, between the rest room and what appeared to be Kramer’s office, was a narrow closet filled with stacks of old files and other legal rubbish.
“Stay by the door and watch the alley,” Wedge whispered coolly, and Sam did exactly as he was told. He preferred to serve as the watchman and avoid handling the explosives.
Rollie quickly sat the box on the floor in the closet, and wired the dynamite. It was a delicate exercise, and Sam’s heart raced each time as he waited. His back was always to the explosives, just in case something went wrong.
They were in the office less than five minutes. Then they were back in the alley strolling nonchalantly to the green Pontiac. They were becoming invincible. It was all so easy. They had bombed a real estate office in Jackson because the realtor had sold a house to a black couple. A Jewish realtor. They had bombed a small newspaper office because the editor had uttered something neutral on segregation. They had demolished a Jackson synagogue, the largest in the state.
They drove through the alley in the darkness, and as the green Pontiac entered a side street its headlights came on.
In each of the prior bombings, Wedge had used a fifteen-minute fuse, one simply lit with a match, very similar to a firecracker. And as part of the exercise, the team of bombers enjoyed cruising with the windows down at a point always on the outskirts of town just as the explosion ripped through the target. They had heard and felt each of the prior hits, at a nice distance, as they made their leisurely getaways.
But tonight would be different. Sam made a wrong turn somewhere, and suddenly they were stopped at a railroad crossing staring at flashing lights as a freighter clicked by in front of them. A rather long freight train. Sam checked his watch more than once. Rollie said nothing. The train passed, and Sam took another wrong turn. They were near the river, with a bridge in the distance, and the street was lined with run-down houses. Sam checked his watch again. The ground would shake in less than five minutes, and he preferred to be easing into the darkness of a lonely highway when that happened. Rollie fidgeted once as if he was becoming irritated with his driver, but he said nothing.
Another turn, another new street. Greenville was not that big a city, and if he kept turning Sam figured he could work his way back to a familiar street. The next wrong turn proved to be the last. Sam hit the brakes as soon as he realized he had turned the wrong way on a one-way street. And when he hit the brakes, the engine quit. He yanked the gearshift into park, and turned the ignition. The engine turned perfectly, but it just wouldn’t start. Then, the smell of gasoline.
“Dammit!” Sam said through clenched teeth. “Dammit!”
Rollie sat low in his seat and stared through the window.
“Dammit! It’s flooded!” He turned the key again, same result.
“Don’t run the battery down,” Rollie said slowly, calmly.
Sam was near panic. Though he was lost, he was reasonably sure they were not far from downtown. He breathed deeply, and studied the street. He glanced at his watch. There were no other cars in sight. All was quiet. It was the perfect setting for a bomb blast. He could see the fuse burning along the wooden floor. He could feel the jarring of the ground. He could hear the roar of ripping wood and sheetrock, brick and glass. Hell, Sam thought as he tried to calm himself, we might get hit with debris.
“You’d think Dogan would send a decent car,” he mumbled to himself. Rollie did not respond, just kept his gaze on something outside his window.
At least fifteen minutes had passed since they had left Kramer’s office, and it was time for the fireworks. Sam wiped rows of sweat from his forehead, and once again tried the ignition. Mercifully, the engine started. He grinned at Rollie, who seemed completely indifferent. He backed the car a few feet, then sped away. The first street looked familiar, and two blocks later they were on Main Street. “What kind of fuse did you use?” Sam finally asked, as they turned onto Highway 82, less than ten blocks from Kramer’s office.
Rollie shrugged as if it was his business and Sam shouldn’t ask. They slowed as they passed a parked police car, then gained speed on the edge of town. Within minutes, Greenville was behind them.
“What kind of fuse did you use?” Sam asked again with an edge to his voice.
“I tried something new,” Rollie answered without looking.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Rollie said, and Sam did a slow burn.
“A timing device?” he asked a few miles down the road.
“Something like that.”
THEY DROVE to Cleveland in complete silence. For a few miles, as the lights of Greenville slowly disappeared across the flat land, Sam half-expected to see a fireball or hear a distant rumble. Nothing happened. Wedge even managed to catch a little nap.
The truck stop café was crowded when they arrived. As always, Rollie eased from his seat and closed the passenger door. “Until we meet again,” he said with a smile through the open window, then walked to his rental car. Sam watched him swagger away, and marveled once more at the coolness of Rollie Wedge.
It was by now a few minutes after five-thirty, and a hint of orange was peeking through the darkness to the east. Sam pulled the green Pontiac onto Highway 61, and headed south.
THE HORROR of the Kramer bombing actually began about the time Rollie Wedge and Sam Cayhall parted ways in Cleveland. It started with the alarm clock on a nightstand not far from Ruth Kramer’s pillow. When it erupted at five-thirty, the usual hour, Ruth knew instantly that she was a very sick woman. She had a slight fever, a vicious pain in her temples, and she was quite nauseous. Marvin helped her to the bathroom not far away where she stayed for thirty minutes. A nasty flu bug had been circulating through Greenville for a month, and had now found its way into the Kramer home.
The maid woke the twins, Josh and John, now five years old, at six-thirty, and quickly had them bathed, dressed, and fed. Marvin thought it best to take them to nursery school as planned and get them out of the house and, he hoped, away from the virus. He called a doctor friend for a prescription, and left the maid twenty dollars to pick up the medication at the pharmacy in an hour. He said good-bye to Ruth, who was lying on the floor of the bathroom with a pillow under her head and an icepack over her face, and left the house with the boys.
Not all of his practice was devoted to civil rights litigation; there was not enough of that to survive on in Mississippi in 1967. He handled a few criminal cases and other generic civil matters: divorces, zoning, bankruptcy, real estate. And despite the fact that his father barely spoke to him, and the rest of the Kramers barely uttered his name, Marvin spent a third of his time at the office working on family business. On this particular morning, he was scheduled to appear in court at 9 A.M. to argue a motion in a lawsuit involving his uncle’s real estate.
The twins loved his law office. They were not due at nursery school until eight, so Marvin could work a little before delivering the boys and heading on to court. This happened perhaps once a month. In fact, hardly a day passed without one of the twins begging Marvin to take them to his office first and then to nursery school.
They arrived at the office around seven-thirty, and once inside, the twins went straight for the secretary’s desk and the thick stack of typing paper, all waiting to be cut and copied and stapled and folded into envelopes. The office was a sprawling structure, built over time with additions here and there. The front door opened into a small foyer where the receptionist’s desk sat almost under a stairway. Four chairs for waiting clients hugged the wall. Magazines were scattered under the chairs. To the right and left of the foyer were small offices for lawyers–Marvin now had three associates working for him. A hallway ran directly from the foyer through the center of the downstairs, so from the front door the rear of the building could be seen some eighty feet away. Marvin’s office was the largest room downstairs, and it was the last door on the left, next to the cluttered closet. Just across the hall from the closet was Marvin’s secretary’s office. Her name was Helen, a shapely young woman Marvin had been dr
eaming about for eighteen months.
Upstairs on the second floor were the cramped offices of another lawyer and two secretaries. The third floor had no heat or air conditioning, and was used for storage.
He normally arrived at the office between seven-thirty and eight because he enjoyed a quiet hour before the rest of the firm arrived and the phone started ringing. As usual, he was the first to arrive on Friday, April 21.
He unlocked the front door, turned on the light switch, and stopped in the foyer. He lectured the twins about making a mess on Helen’s desk, but they were off down the hallway and didn’t hear a word. Josh already had the scissors and John the stapler by the time Marvin stuck his head in for the first time and warned them. He smiled to himself, then went to his office where he was soon deep in research.
At about a quarter to eight, he would recall later from the hospital, Marvin climbed the stairs to the third floor to retrieve an old file which, he thought at the time, had some relevance to the case he was preparing. He mumbled something to himself as he bounced up the steps. As things evolved, the old file saved his life. The boys were laughing somewhere down the hall.
The blast shot upward and horizontally at several thousand feet per second. Fifteen sticks of dynamite in the center of a wooden framed building will reduce it to splinters and rubble in a matter of seconds. It took a full minute for the jagged slivers of wood and other debris to return to earth. The ground seemed to shake like a small earthquake, and, as witnesses would later describe, bits of glass sprinkled downtown Greenville for what seemed like an eternity.
Josh and John Kramer were less than fifteen feet from the epicenter of the blast, and fortunately never knew what hit them. They did not suffer. Their mangled bodies were found under eight feet of rubble by local firemen. Marvin Kramer was thrown first against the ceiling of the third floor, then, unconscious, fell along with the remnants of the roof into the smoking crater in the center of the building. He was found twenty minutes later and rushed to the hospital. Within three hours, both legs were amputated at the knees.
The time of the blast was exactly seven forty-six, and this in itself was somewhat fortunate. Helen, Marvin’s secretary, was leaving the post office four blocks away and felt the blast. Another ten minutes, and she would have been inside making coffee. David Lukland, a young associate in the law firm, lived three blocks away, and had just locked his apartment door when he heard and felt the blast. Another ten minutes, and he would’ve been picking through his mail in his second-floor office.
A small fire was ignited in the office building next door, and though it was quickly contained it added greatly to the excitement. The smoke was heavy for a few moments, and this sent people scurrying.
There were two injuries to pedestrians. A three-foot section of a two-by-four landed on a sidewalk a hundred yards away, bounced once, then hit Mrs. Mildred Talton square in the face as she stepped away from her parked car and looked in the direction of the explosion. She received a broken nose and a nasty laceration, but recovered in due course.
The second injury was very minor but very significant. A stranger by the name of Sam Cayhall was walking slowly toward the Kramer office when the ground shook so hard he lost his footing and tripped on a street curb. As he struggled to his feet, he was hit once in the neck and once in the left cheek by flying glass. He ducked behind a tree as shards and pieces rained around him. He gaped at the devastation before him, then ran away.
Blood dripped from his cheek and puddled on his shirt. He was in shock and did not remember much of this later. Driving the same green Pontiac, he sped away from downtown, and would most likely have made it safely from Greenville for the second time had he been thinking and paying attention. Two cops in a patrol car were speeding into the business district to respond to the bombing call when they met a green Pontiac which, for some reason, refused to move to the shoulder and yield. The patrol car had sirens blaring, lights flashing, horns blowing, and cops cursing, but the green Pontiac just froze in its lane of traffic and wouldn’t budge. The cops stopped, ran to it, yanked open the door, and found a man with blood all over him. Handcuffs were slapped around Sam’s wrists. He was shoved roughly into the rear seat of the police car, and taken to jail. The Pontiac was impounded.
THE BOMB that killed the Kramer twins was the crudest of sorts. Fifteen sticks of dynamite wrapped tightly together with gray duct tape. But there was no fuse. Rollie Wedge had used instead a detonating device, a timer, a cheap windup alarm clock. He had removed the minute hand from the clock, and drilled a small hole between the numbers seven and eight. Into the small hole he had inserted a metal pin which, when touched by the sweeping hour hand, would complete the circuit and detonate the bomb. Rollie wanted more time than a fifteen-minute fuse could provide. Plus, he considered himself an expert and wanted to experiment with new devices.
Perhaps the hour hand was warped a bit. Perhaps the dial of the clock was not perfectly flat. Perhaps Rollie in his enthusiasm had wound it too tight, or not tight enough. Perhaps the metal pin was not flush with the dial. It was, after all, Rollie’s first effort with a timer. Or perhaps the timing device worked precisely as planned.
But whatever the reason or whatever the excuse, the bombing campaign of Jeremiah Dogan and the Ku Klux Klan had now spilled Jewish blood in Mississippi. And, for all practical purposes, the campaign was over.
My decision to become a lawyer was irrevocably sealed when I realized my father hated the legal profession. I was a young teenager, clumsy, embarrassed by my awkwardness, frustrated with life, horrified of puberty, about to be shipped off to a military school by my father for insubordination. He was an ex-Marine who believed boys should live by the crack of the whip. I’d developed a quick tongue and an aversion to discipline, and his solution was simply to send me away. It was years before I forgave him.
He was also an industrial engineer who worked seventy hours a week for a company that made, among many other items, ladders. Because by their very nature ladders are dangerous devices, his company became a frequent target of lawsuits. And because he handled design, my father was the favorite choice to speak for the company in depositions and trials. I can’t say that I blame him for hating lawyers, but I grew to admire them because they made his life so miserable. He’d spend eight hours haggling with them, then hit the martinis as soon as he walked in the door. No hellos. No hugs. No dinner. Just an hour or so of continuous bitching while he slugged down four martinis then passed out in his battered recliner. One trial lasted three weeks, and when it ended with a large verdict against the company my mother called a doctor and they hid him in a hospital for a month.
The company later went broke, and of course all blame was directed at the lawyers. Not once did I hear any talk that maybe a trace of mismanagement could in any way have contributed to the bankruptcy.
Liquor became his life, and he became depressed. He went years without a steady job, which really ticked me off because I was forced to wait tables and deliver pizza so I could claw my way through college. I think I spoke to him twice during the four years of my undergraduate studies. The day after I learned I had been accepted to law school, I proudly returned home with this great news. Mother told me later he stayed in bed for a week.
Two weeks after my triumphant visit, he was changing a lightbulb in the utility room when (I swear this is true) a ladder collapsed and he fell on his head. He lasted a year in a coma in a nursing home before someone mercifully pulled the plug.
Several days after the funeral, I suggested the possibility of a lawsuit, but Mother was just not up to it. Also, I’ve always suspected he was partially inebriated when he fell. And he was earning nothing, so under our tort system his life had little economic value.
My mother received a grand total of fifty thousand dollars in life insurance, and remarried badly. He’s a simple sort, my stepfather, a retired postal clerk from Toledo, and they spend most of their time square dancing and traveling in a Winnebago. I keep my distance. Mother didn’t offer me a dime of the money, said it was all she had to face the future with, and since I’d proven rather adept at living on nothing, she felt I didn’t need any of it. I had a bright future earning money; she did not, she reasoned. I’m certain Hank, the new husband, was filling her ear full of financial advice. Our paths will cross again one day, mine and Hank’s.
I will finish law school in May, a month from now, then I’ll sit for the bar exam in July. I will not graduate with honors, though I’m somewhere in the top half of my class. The only smart thing I’ve done in three years of law school was to schedule the required and difficult courses early, so I could goof off in this, my last semester. My classes this spring are a joke: Sports Law, Art Law, Selected Readings from the Napoleonic Code and, my favorite, Legal Problems of the Elderly.
It is this last selection that has me sitting here in a rickety chair behind a flimsy folding table in a hot, damp, metal building filled with an odd assortment of seniors, as they like to be called. A hand-painted sign above the only visible door majestically labels the place as the Cypress Gardens Senior Citizens Building, but other than its name the place has not the slightest hint of flowers or greenery. The walls are drab and bare except for an ancient, fading photograph of Ronald Reagan in one corner between two sad little flagstone, the Stars and Stripes, the other, the state flag of Tennessee. The building is small, somber and cheerless, obviously built at the last minute with a few spare dollars of unexpected federal money. I doodle on a legal pad, afraid to look at the crowd inching forward in their folding chairs.
There must be fifty of them out there, an equal mixture of blacks and whites, average age of at least seventy-five, some blind, a dozen or so in wheelchairs, many wearing hearing aids. We were told they meet here each day at noon for a hot meal, a few songs, an occasional visit by a desperate political candidate. After a couple of hours of socializing, they will leave for home and count the hours until they can return here. Our professor said this was the highlight of their day.
We made the painful mistake of arriving in time for lunch. They sat the four of us in one corner along with our leader, Professor Smoot, and examined us closely as we picked at neoprene chicken and icy peas. My Jell-O was yellow, and this was noticed by a bearded old goat with the name Bosco scrawled on his Hello-My-Name-Is tag stuck above his dirty shirt pocket. Bosco mumbled something about yellow Jell-O, and I quickly offered it to him, along with my chicken, but Miss Birdie Birdsong corralled him and pushed him roughly back into his seat. Miss Birdsong is about eighty but very spry for her age, and she acts as mother, dictator and bouncer of this organization. She works the crowd like a veteran ward boss, hugging and patting, schmoozing with other little blue-haired ladies, laughing in a shrill voice and all the while keeping a wary eye on Bosco who undoubtedly is the bad boy of the bunch. She lectured him for admiring my Jell-O, but seconds later placed a full bowl of the yellow putty before his glowing eyes. He ate it with his stubby fingers.
An hour passed. Lunch proceeded as if these starving souls were feasting on seven courses with no hope of another meal. Their wobbly forks and spoons moved back and forth, up and down, in and out, as if laden with precious metals. Time was of absolutely no consequence. They yelled at each other when words stirred them. They dropped food on the floor until I couldn’t bear to watch anymore. I even ate my Jell-O. Bosco, still covetous, watched my every move. Miss Birdie fluttered around the room, chirping about this and that.
Professor Smoot, an oafish egghead complete with crooked bow tie, bushy hair and red suspenders, sat with the stuffed satisfaction of a man who’d just finished a fine meal, and lovingly admired the scene before us. He’s a kindly soul, in his early fifties, but with mannerisms much like Bosco and his friends, and for twenty years he’s taught the kindly courses no one else wants to teach and few students want to take. Children’s Rights, Law of the Disabled, Seminar on Domestic Violence, Problems of the Mentally Ill and, of course, Geezer Law, as this one is called outside his presence. He once scheduled a course to be called Rights of the Unborn Fetus, but it attracted a storm of controversy so Professor Smoot took a quick sabbatical.
He explained to us on the first day of class that the purpose of the course was to expose us to real people with real legal problems. It’s his opinion that all students enter law school with a certain amount of idealism and desire to serve the public, but after three years of brutal competition we care for nothing but the right job with the right firm where we can make partner in seven years and earn big bucks. He’s right about this.
The class is not a required one, and we started with eleven students. After a month of Smoot’s boring lectures and constant exhortations to forsake money and work for free, we’d been whittled down to four. It’s a worthless course, counts for only two hours, requires almost no work, and this is what attracted me to it. But, if there were more than a month left, I seriously doubt I could tough it out. At this point, I hate law school. And I have grave concerns about the practice of law.
This is my first confrontation with actual clients, and I’m terrified. Though the prospects sitting out there are aged and infirm, they are staring at me as if I possess great wisdom. I am, after all, almost a lawyer, and I wear a dark suit, and I have this legal pad in front of me on which I’m drawing squares and circles, and my face is fixed in an intelligent frown, so I must be capable of helping them. Seated next to me at our folding table is Booker Kane, a black guy who’s my best friend in law school. He’s as scared as I am. Before us on folded index cards are our written names in black felt–Booker Kane and Rudy Baylor. That’s me. Next to Booker is the podium behind which Miss Birdie is screeching, and on the other side is another table with matching index cards proclaiming the presence of F. Franklin Donaldson the Fourth, a pompous ass who for three years now has been sticking initials and numerals before and after his name. Next to him is a real bitch, N. Elizabeth Erickson, quite a gal, who wears pinstripe suits, silk ties and an enormous chip on her shoulder. Many of us suspect she also wears a jockstrap.
Smoot is standing against the wall behind us. Miss Birdie is doing the announcements, hospital reports and obituaries. She’s yelling into a microphone with a sound system that’s working remarkably well. Four large speakers hang in the corners of the room, and her piercing voice booms around and crashes in from all directions. Hearing aids are slapped and taken out. For the moment, no one is asleep. Today there are three obituaries, and when Miss Birdie finally finishes I see a few tears in the audience. God, please don’t let this happen to me. Please give me fifty more years of work and fun, then an instant death while I’m sleeping.To our left against a wall, the pianist comes to life and smacks sheets of music on the wooden grill in front of her. Miss Birdie fancies herself as some kind of political analyst, and just as she starts railing against a proposed increase in the sales tax, the pianist attacks the keys. “America the Beautiful,” I think. With pure relish, she storms through a clanging rendition of the opening refrain, and the geezers grab their hymnals and wait for the first verse. Miss Birdie does not miss a beat. Now she’s the choir director. She raises her hands, then claps them to get attention, then starts flopping them all over the place with the opening note of verse one. Those who are able slowly get to their feet.
The howling fades dramatically with the second verse. The words are not as familiar and most of these poor souls can’t see past their noses, so the hymnals are useless. Bosco’s mouth is suddenly closed but he’s humming loudly at the ceiling.
The piano stops abruptly as the sheets fall from the grill and scatter onto the floor. End of song. They stare at the pianist who, bless her heart, is snatching at the air and fumbling around her feet where the music has gathered.
“Thank you!” Miss Birdie yells into the microphone as they suddenly fall back into their seats. “Thank you. Music is a wonderful thang. Let’s give thanks to God for beautiful music.”
“Amen!” Bosco roars.
“Amen,” another relic repeats with a nod from the back row.
“Thank you,” Miss Birdie says. She turns and smiles at Booker and me. We both lean forward on our elbows and once again look at the crowd. “Now,” she says dramatically, “for the program today, we are so pleased to have Professor Smoot here again with some of his very bright and handsome students.” She flops her baggy hands at us and smiles with her gray and yellow teeth at Smoot who has quietly made his way to her side. “Aren’t they handsome?” she asks, waving at us. “As you know,” Miss Birdie proceeds into the microphone, “Professor Smoot teaches law at Memphis State, that’s where my youngest son studied, you know, but didn’t graduate, and every year Professor Smoot visits us here with some of his students who’ll listen to your legal problems and give advice that’s always good, and always free, I might add.” She turns and lays another sappy smile upon Smoot. “Professor Smoot, on behalf of our group, we say welcome back to Cypress Gardens. We thank you for your concern about the problems of senior citizens. Thank you. We love you.”
She backs away from the podium and starts clapping her hands furiously and nodding eagerly at her comrades to do the same, but not a soul, not even Bosco, lifts a hand.
“He’s a hit,” Booker mumbles.
“At least he’s loved,” I mumble back. They’ve been sitting here now for ten minutes. It’s just after lunch, and I notice a few heavy eyelids. They’ll be snoring by the time Smoot finishes.
He steps to the podium, adjusts the mike, clears his throat and waits for Miss Birdie to take her seat on the front row. As she sits, she whispers angrily to a pale gentleman next to her, “You should’ve clapped!” He does not hear this.”Thank you, Miss Birdie,” Smoot squeaks. “Always nice to visit here at Cypress Gardens.” His voice is sincere, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Professor Howard L. Smoot indeed feels privileged to be here at this moment, in the center of this depressing building, before this sad little group of old folks, with the only four students who happen to remain in his class. Smoot lives for this.
He introduces us. I stand quickly with a short smile, then return to my seat and once again fix my face in an intelligent frown. Smoot talks about health care, and budget cuts, and living wills, and sales tax exemptions, and abused geezers, and co-insurance payments. They’re dropping like flies out there. Social Security loopholes, pending legislation, nursing home regulations, estate planning, wonder drugs, he rambles on and on, just as he does in class. I yawn and feel drowsy myself. Bosco starts glancing at his watch every ten seconds.
Finally, Smoot gets to the wrap-up, thanks Miss Birdie and her crowd once again, promises to return year after year and takes a seat at the end of the table. Miss Birdie pats her hands together exactly twice, then gives up. No one else moves. Half of them are snoring.
Miss Birdie waves her arms at us, and says to her flock, “There they are. They’re good and they’re free.”
Slowly and awkwardly, they advance upon us. Bosco is first in line, and it’s obvious he’s holding a grudge over the Jell-O because he glares at me and goes to the other end of the table and sits in a chair before the Honorable N. Elizabeth Erickson. Something tells me he will not be the last prospective client to go elsewhere for legal advice. An elderly black man selects Booker for his lawyer and they huddle across the table. I try not to listen. Something about an ex-wife and a divorce years ago that may or may not have been officially completed. Booker takes notes like a real lawyer and listens intently as if he knows exactly what to do.
The face of Nicholas Easter was slightly hidden by a display rack filled with slim cordless phones, and he was looking not directly at the hidden camera but somewhere off to the left, perhaps at a customer, or perhaps at a counter where a group of kids hovered over the latest electronic games from Asia. Though taken from a distance of forty yards by a man dodging rather heavy mall foot traffic, the photo was clear and revealed a nice face, clean-shaven with strong features and boyish good looks. Easter was twenty-seven, they knew that for a fact. No eyeglasses. No nose ring or weird haircut. Nothing to indicate he was one of the usual computer nerds who worked in the store at five bucks an hour. His questionnaire said he’d been there for four months, said also that he was a part-time student, though no record of enrollment had been found at any college within three hundred miles. He was lying about this, they were certain.
He had to be lying. Their intelligence was too good. If the kid was a student, they’d know where, for how long, what field of study, how good were the grades, or how bad. They’d know. He was a clerk in a Computer Hut in a mall. Nothing more or less. Maybe he planned to enroll somewhere. Maybe he’d dropped out but still liked the notion of referring to himself as a part-time student. Maybe it made him feel better, gave him a sense of purpose, sounded good.
But he was not, at this moment nor at any time in the recent past, a student of any sort. So, could he be trusted? This had been thrashed about the room twice already, each time they came to Easter’s name on the master list and his face hit the screen. It was a harmless lie, they’d almost decided.
He didn’t smoke. The store had a strict nonsmoking rule, but he’d been seen (not photographed) eating a taco in the Food Garden with a co-worker who smoked two cigarettes with her lemonade. Easter didn’t seem to mind the smoke. At least he wasn’t an antismoking zealot.
The face in the photo was lean and tanned and smiling slightly with lips closed. The white shirt under the red store jacket had a buttonless collar and a tasteful striped tie. He appeared neat, in shape, and the man who took the photo actually spoke with Nicholas as he pretended to shop for an obsolete gadget; said he was articulate, helpful, knowledgeable, a nice young man. His name tag labeled Easter as a Co-Manager, but two others with the same title were spotted in the store at the same time.
The day after the photo was taken, an attractive young female in jeans entered the store, and while browsing near the software actually lit up a cigarette. Nicholas Easter just happened to be the nearest clerk, or Co-Manager, or whatever he was, and he politely approached the woman and asked her to stop smoking. She pretended to be frustrated by this, even insulted, and tried to provoke him. He maintained his tactful manner, explained to her that the store had a strict no-smoking policy. She was welcome to smoke elsewhere. “Does smoking bother you?” she had asked, taking a puff. “Not really,” he had answered. “But it bothers the man who owns this store.” He then asked her once again to stop. She really wanted to purchase a new digital radio, she explained, so would it be possible for him to fetch an ashtray. Nicholas pulled an empty soft drink can from under the counter, and actually took the cigarette from her and extinguished it. They talked about radios for twenty minutes as she struggled with the selection. She flirted shamelessly, and he warmed to the occasion. After paying for the radio, she left him her phone number. He promised to call.
The episode lasted twenty-four minutes and was captured by a small recorder hidden in her purse. The tape had been played both times while his face had been projected on the wall and studied by the lawyers and their experts. Her written report of the incident was in the file, six typed pages of her observations on everything from his shoes (old Nikes) to his breath (cinnamon gum) to his vocabulary (college level) to the way he handled the cigarette. In her opinion, and she was experienced in such matters, he had never smoked.
They listened to his pleasant tone and his professional sales pitch and his charming chatter, and they liked him. He was bright and he didn’t hate tobacco. He didn’t fit as their model juror, but he was certainly one to watch. The problem with Easter, potential juror number fifty-six, was that they knew so little about him. Evidently, he had landed on the Gulf Coast less than a year ago, and they had no idea where he came from. His past was a complete mystery. He rented a one-bedroom eight blocks from the Biloxi courthouse–they had photos of the apartment building–and at first worked as a waiter in a casino on the beach. He rose quickly to the rank of blackjack dealer, but quit after two months.
Shortly after Mississippi legalized gambling, a dozen casinos along the Coast sprang forth overnight, and a new wave of prosperity hit hard. Job seekers came from all directions, and so it was safe to assume Nicholas Easter arrived in Biloxi for the same reason as ten thousand others. The only odd thing about his move was that he had registered to vote so quickly.
He drove a 1969 Volkswagen Beetle, and a photo of it was flashed on the wall, taking the place of his face. Big deal. He was twenty-seven, single, an alleged part-time student–the perfect type to drive such a car. No bumper stickers. Nothing to indicate political affiliation or social conscience or favorite team. No college parking sticker. Not even a faded dealer decal. The car meant nothing, as far as they were concerned. Nothing but near-poverty.
The man operating the projector and doing most of the talking was Carl Nussman, a lawyer from Chicago who no longer practiced law but instead ran his own jury consulting firm. For a small fortune, Carl Nussman and his firm could pick you the right jury. They gathered the data, took the photos, recorded the voices, sent the blondes in tight jeans into the right situations. Carl and his associates flirted around the edges of laws and ethics, but it was impossible to catch them. After all, there’s nothing illegal or unethical about photographing prospective jurors. They had conducted exhaustive telephone surveys in Harrison County six months ago, then again two months ago, then a month later to gauge community sentiment about tobacco issues and formulate models of the perfect jurors. They left no photo untaken, no dirt ungathered. They had a file on every prospective juror.
Carl pushed his button and the VW was replaced with a meaningless shot of an apartment building with peeling paint; home, somewhere in there, of Nicholas Easter. Then a flick, and back to the face.
“And so we have only the three photos of number fifty-six,” Carl said with a note of frustration as he turned and glared at the photographer, one of his countless private snoops, who had explained he just couldn’t catch the kid without getting caught himself. The photographer sat in a chair against the back wall, facing the long table of lawyers and paralegals and jury experts. The photographer was quite bored and ready to bolt. It was seven o’clock on a Friday night. Number fifty-six was on the wall, leaving a hundred and forty still to come. The weekend would be awful. He needed a drink.
A half-dozen lawyers in rumpled shirts and rolled-up sleeves scribbled never-ending notes, and glanced occasionally at the face of Nicholas Easter up there behind Carl. Jury experts of almost every variety–psychiatrist, sociologist, handwriting analyst, law professor, and so on–shuffled papers and thumped the inch-thick computer printouts. They weren’t sure what to do with Easter. He was a liar, and he was hiding his past, but still on paper and on the wall he looked okay.
Maybe he wasn’t lying. Maybe he was a student last year in some low-rent junior college in eastern Arizona, and maybe they were simply missing this.
Give the kid a break, the photographer thought, but he kept it to himself. In this room of well-educated and well-paid suits, he was the last one whose opinion would be appreciated. Wasn’t his job to say a word.
Carl cleared his throat while glancing once more at the photographer, then said, “Number fifty-seven.” The sweaty face of a young mother flashed on the wall, and at least two people in the room managed a chuckle. “Traci Wilkes,” Carl said, as if Traci was now an old friend. Papers moved slightly around the table.
“Age thirty-three, married, mother of two, doctor’s wife, two country clubs, two health clubs, a whole list of social clubs.” Carl clicked off these items from memory while twirling his projector button. Traci’s red face was replaced by a shot of her jogging along a sidewalk, splendidly awash in pink and black spandex and spotless Reeboks with a white sun visor sitting just above the latest in reflective sport sunglasses, her long hair in a cute perfect ponytail. She was pushing a jogging carriage with a small baby in it. Traci lived for sweat. She was tanned and fit, but not exactly as thin as might be expected. She had a few bad habits. Another shot of Traci in her black Mercedes wagon with kids and dogs looking from every window. Another of Traci loading bags of groceries into the same car, Traci with different sneakers and tight shorts and the precise appearance of one who aspired to look forever athletic. She’d been easy to follow because she was busy to the point of being frazzled, and she never stopped long enough to look around.
Carl ran through the photos of the Wilkeses’ home, a massive suburban trilevel with Doctor stamped all over it. He spent little time with these, saving the best for last. Then there was Traci, once again soaked with sweat, her designer bike nearby on the grass, sitting under a tree in a park, far away from everyone, half-hidden and–smoking a cigarette!
The same photographer grinned stupidly. It was his finest work, this hundred-yard shot of the doctor’s wife sneaking a cigarette. He had had no idea she smoked, just happened to be nonchalantly smoking himself near a footbridge when she dashed by. He loitered about the park for half an hour until he saw her stop and reach into the pouch on her bike.
The mood around the room lightened for a fleeting moment as they looked at Traci by the tree. Then Carl said, “Safe to say that we’ll take number fifty-seven.” He made a notation on a sheet of paper, then took a sip of old coffee from a paper cup. Of course he’d take Traci Wilkes! Who wouldn’t want a doctor’s wife on the jury when the plaintiff’s lawyers were asking for millions? Carl wanted nothing but doctors’ wives, but he wouldn’t get them. The fact that she enjoyed cigarettes was simply a small bonus.
Number fifty-eight was a shipyard worker at Ingalls in Pascagoula–fifty years old, white male, divorced, a union officer. Carl flashed a photo of the man’s Ford pickup on the wall, and was about to summarize his life when the door opened and Mr. Rankin Fitch stepped into the room. Carl stopped. The lawyers bolted upright in their seats and instantly became enthralled by the Ford. They wrote furiously on their legal pads as if they might never again see such a vehicle. The jury consultants likewise snapped into action and all began taking notes in earnest, each careful not to look at the man.
Fitch was back. Fitch was in the room.
He slowly closed the door behind him, took a few steps toward the edge of the table, and glared at everyone sitting around it. It was more of a snarl than a glare. The puffy flesh around his dark eyes pinched inward. The deep wrinkles running the length of his forehead closed together. His thick chest rose and sank slowly, and for a second or two Fitch was the only person breathing. His lips parted to eat and drink, occasionally to talk, never to smile.
Fitch was angry, as usual, nothing new about that because the man even slept in a state of hostility. But would he curse and threaten, maybe throw things, or simply boil under the surface? They never knew with Fitch. He stopped at the edge of the table between two young lawyers who were junior partners and thus earning comfortable six-figure salaries, who were members of this firm and this was their room in their building. Fitch, on the other hand, was a stranger from Washington, an intruder who’d been growling and barking in their hallways for a month now. The two young lawyers dared not look at him.
“What number?” Fitch asked of Carl.
“Fifty-eight,” Carl answered quickly, anxious to please.
“Go back to fifty-six,” Fitch demanded, and Carl flicked rapidly until the face of Nicholas Easter was once again on the wall. Paperwork ruffled around the table.
“What do you know?” Fitch asked.
“The same,” Carl said, looking away.
“That’s just great. Out of a hundred and ninety-six, how many are still mysteries?”
Fitch snorted and shook his head slowly, and everyone waited for an eruption. Instead, he slowly stroked his meticulously trimmed black and gray goatee for a few seconds, looked at Carl, allowed the severity of the moment to filter in, then said, “You’ll work until midnight, then return at seven in the morning. Same for Sunday.” With that, he wheeled his pudgy body around and left the room.
The door slammed. The air lightened considerably, then, in unison, the lawyers and the jury consultants and Carl and everybody else glanced at their watches. They had just been ordered to spend thirty-nine out of the next fifty-three hours in this room, looking at enlarged photos of faces they’d already seen, memorizing names and birthdates and vital stats of almost two hundred people.
And there wasn’t the slightest doubt anywhere in the room that they all would do exactly what they’d been told. Not the slightest.
Fitch took the stairs to the first floor of the building, and was met there by his driver, a large man named Jose. Jose wore a black suit with black western boots and black sunglasses that were removed only when he showered and slept. Fitch opened a door without knocking, and interrupted a meeting which had been in progress for hours. Four lawyers and their assorted support staff were watching the videotaped depositions of the plaintiff’s first witnesses. The tape stopped just seconds after Fitch burst in. He spoke briefly to one of the lawyers, then left the room. Jose followed him through a narrow library to another hallway, where he barged through another door and frightened another bunch of lawyers.
With eighty lawyers, the firm of Whitney & Cable & White was the largest on the Gulf Coast. The firm had been hand-picked by Fitch himself, and it would earn millions in fees because of this selection. To earn the money, though, the firm had to endure the tyranny and ruthlessness of Rankin Fitch.