Monday, February 28, 2011

The Worst Thing In The World

Excerpt from Lawyers, Guns and Money:

No place in Blainesville was too far from any other in terms of mileage. But driving to the house where Chloe Gibson had lived and died was like taking a mine-car ride down through the strata of Blaine County society. I drove past the shady downtown streets I’d walked not long before. They were lined with large comfortable homes built during the early part of the 20th century. There was a church on every other block, usually brick with tall but dignified steeples. Then came the old downtown where the mom and pop stores were slowly eroding away, thanks to the big box stores out on the by-pass. After the downtown came the railroad tracks where no trains ran and the weeds grew up between the rails. Across the tracks stood the crumbling textile mill that once provided Blainesville’s wages before the industry crumbled before the brutal reality that there was more profit in paying an Indonesian child a dollar a day than in paying an otherwise unskilled North Carolinian a few dollars an hour. On the other side of the great empty factory were the rows of old mill houses, shabby when they were built and nearly unlivable now. Just past the city-limit sign, I passed the football-field-sized gravel lot and sprawling cinderblock structure that was Voit Fairgreen’s nightclub, the Rancho Deluxe. By the roadside, cheap moveable plastic letters on a lighted sign promised LIVE ROCK & ROLL FRI-SAT COLDEST BEER IN TOWN LADIES NIGHT TUES. It was one of the few businesses in town that was still thriving. Just beyond, separated by a chain link fence and a narrow wooded strip, was the sad little cinderblock house where Chloe Gibson lived. The place where she had taken Danny’s car, because they were both too wasted to walk. The place where someone had killed her.

I drove down the corrugated dirt driveway until I was stopped by a ribbon of yellow crime scene tape. As I sat there and stared at it, a Blainesville police cruiser pulled in behind me. He hit his lights as he pulled to a stop. I started to get out of the car.

“STAY IN YOUR VEHICLE, SIR!” a tinny loudspeaker squawked at me.

“What the hell…” I muttered, but I settled back down into the seat and waited for the cop to come to me. And waited. And waited some more. I turned around and looked back. I couldn’t make out the face of the cop behind the wheel, but he was just sitting there. The crime scene tape in front kept me from going forward and the cop car behind held me in place. I pulled out my cell phone and started dialing. As I did, I saw another car pull in behind the cop car. I saw someone get out and I shut off the cell. I spotted Marty Ellis walking past the patrol car towards me and rolled down the window. He was a short guy, broad, his graying hair in a military-looking brush cut. He looked pissed about something.

“Hey, Marty,” I said. “What’s going on?”

“What are you doing here, Cole?”

“I’m representing Danny Fairgreen,” I said.

“So I heard.”

“So you know what I’m doing here, then,” I said. I started to get out of the car again. He put his hand against the door, almost slamming it shut.

“What the fuck, Marty?” I said.

“Crime scene’s sealed,” he said.

“What, the lab guys aren’t done yet?”

“They’re done.”

“Okay,” I said. “So I guess I need to set up a time…”

“You’re not getting in there.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” he said. “It’s sealed.”

“Look, Marty,” I said, “Quit screwing around. This is a murder case.”

“No shit,” he said. “I saw the body.”

“So you know,” I said, speaking slowly and carefully, “That in order to properly defend my client, I or my investigator’s going to need to…”

“You go in there,” Ellis said, “Or if any officer even sees you on this property, you’ll be arrested.”

I was having a harder time controlling my voice. “Arrested for what, exactly?”

“Interfering with an ongoing police investigation. And contempt of court.”


“We’ve got a court order, Cole. No one goes in there except law enforcement.”

“And what idiot issued an unconstitutional order like that?”

He actually chuckled. “Judge Atkins.”

“Ah, shit,” I said disgustedly.

“Yep,” Ellis said, and he was smiling this time. “Your old pal.”

The Honorable S. Kenneth Atkins, who I privately called Judge Smirk, was a political appointee through and through, and he knew it. It caused him a considerable amount of professional insecurity, which he overcompensated for by constantly trying to prove he was the smartest guy in the room. If the prosecutor argued for one thing, and the defense attorney argued for another, Smirk would usually give the condescending little smile that earned him his nickname and come up with a third thing, which nine times out of ten made no damn sense at all.

There was this to be said in Smirk’s defense: he didn’t play favorites. He was a complete asshole to everyone: prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officers, even courtroom clerks. The only reason someone so universally despised stayed in an elected position was that the straight-ticket-voting public rarely paid any attention to judicial elections, and this was a county that would elect Bozo the Clown if he ran on the Republican ticket. A couple of people had tried to mount challenges for Smirk’s seat. One had abruptly withdrawn for “personal reasons” a month before election day, and the other had been buried at the polls. No one had tried since. So there he stayed, a thorn eternally looking for a side.

“You got a problem with this,” Ellis said, “Take it up with Judge Atkins.”

“Thanks,” I said, defeated. “I’ll do that.”

“Any time,” he said. He turned to walk away.

“What the hell’s going on here, Marty?” I called after him. “This isn’t the way things are done, and you know it.”

He turned back. “What I know is that your client gutted that girl. From the position of the body and the preliminary blood spatter reports, he slashed her open in the kitchen. Then he went over and sat down in the chair while she crawled across the floor. She died at his feet while he sat there and watched.

Jesus. If that was the story they were spinning around this one, it really was going to get ugly. “What was the weapon?”

“Some kind of large bladed knife.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Some kind of…you mean you don’t have the weapon?”

He realized he’d said too much. He shut his mouth so fast I’m surprised I didn’t hear a snap. “Marty,” I went on, “My client was too wasted to remember what he was doing. I’m not even sure how he got to the house.”

“If you’re trying for some kind of intoxication defense, counselor,” Ellis said, “well...good luck with that.”

“Intoxication, hell,” I said. “Are you telling me the State is going to try to argue that a guy as fried as Danny Fairgreen not only managed to kill the girl, but that he hid the weapon so well a police search couldn’t find it before he passed out?”

“I’m not telling you anything,” Ellis said, his face darkening with blood, “other than to get the hell out of here.” He turned and strode angrily back to his car. I sat and watched as he backed out and drove away. The patrolman sat there for a minute, watching me behind his shades, then backed out slowly. He waited on the road, his lights still flashing, as I backed out. He killed his lights, but followed me all the way back into town. Only when I pulled up outside the office did he drive away.

Back at the office, I stopped and knocked softly on Chuck’s door.

“Come in,” he said.

The office was mostly dark except for the desk lamp, illuminating the binder open on his desk. The rest of the desk was cluttered with files and papers and a laptop computer. Chuck’s tie was half undone and his hair was mussed as if he’d been running his hands through it. His face fell as he saw me. He probably thought I was coming to lay another load of work on him.

“You asked if Danny actually did it," I said. "I'm beginning to think he may not have."

He looked baffled. “Isn't that a good thing?”

"No," I said, "It's a terrible thing.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Look, Chuck,” I said. “If you have a client you know is guilty, you do your job by making the State prove it. You make sure the cops and the prosecutors do their job right, because if you don't, sure as hell, they will start getting sloppy about it and cutting corners, and then we're all fucked. But when a guy you know did it goes off to jail, and most of them do, all you have to ask is 'did I do my job and make everyone else do theirs?' If the answer is 'yes', then you can sleep easy. But a guy you know is innocent but who might get convicted anyway...that's not a good thing, Chuck. An innocent client is the worst fucking thing in the world. When you say your prayers tonight, be sure to thank God that it doesn't happen often." I closed the door before he could answer.


janetmiles said...

Hm. Tempting! I'll put this on my to-read list.

Randy Johnson said...

Flat out enjoyed this one!

JD Rhoades said...

Thanks, Janet and Randy!

Rae said...

Crap. Now I'm gonna have to get a Kindle.


JD Rhoades said...

It's also avialable for Nook and other e-readers (including your computer), Rae :-).

lucylocket said...

Another winner!