Findo lifted his leg and peed on the metal pole of the chain-link fence - as close as he could get to
a tree on the interstate. A semi roared by, the backdraft of which almost caused him to lose his balance.
He finished and looked up at his master, awaiting instructions.
His master was officer Kirk Landeau of the Clinton, Georgia Police Department. Officer Landeau, a large, good-natured young man was, like the two officers in the car beside his “canine unit,” assigned to the department’s Drug Task Force. Most of its officers were young because they aspired to work for the Piedmont Regional Drug Enforcement Unit – more status, power, glory. At Piedmont everyone started out working undercover, and to work undercover and look like a user, being young was an asset.
Landeau wasn’t savvy enough to work undercover. He’d probably have been a regular patrolman for the rest of his life but for his love of dogs. He was so fond of the department’s drug-sniffing dog, Findo, that the officer assigned to the canine unit had gladly turned the dog over to Landeau then gone around chuckling to himself for days. Except for Landeau, nobody wanted to ride around all day in a car that smelled like a kennel.
Landeau had gone through the required training at the school in Alabama and renamed the dog “Findo.” The dog didn’t seem to notice the difference, and he loved Landeau, who talked to him and played with him a lot, but the name change brought his master much grief.
“Findo?” his co-workers would exclaim. “That’s the stupidest name for a dog I ever heard.”
And Landeau would explain over and over, “It’s like Fido, see, except Findo is a finder, see, because he finds stuff, so his name is Findo.”
When Officer Landeau and Findo got back in the car, Justin Bledsoe stuck his head out the window of the other car. “Hey Landeau, next time you and Findo need to go before you leave home.”
“It wasn’t me, it was just Findo,” Landeau said, then realized Justin was having fun with him. Bledsoe was like that and sometimes his jokes were kind of mean, like the time back in high school when he’d put “Deep Heat” in Kirk’s jockstrap.
“Findo, what a dorky name,” Bledsoe said and rolled up his window.
At eight p.m. it was still over ninety degrees. Bledsoe and Stevens were running the air conditioning but Landeau kept his windows down so Findo could stick his head out the window and sniff, something he loved to do. A metal screen kept Findo in the back where the seat had been removed for his benefit, so that Landeau had to reach out his window to tousle Findo’s head. “Yeah, you’re the best dog in the whole world, Findo. When we get home I’m –“
The car beside them activated its light bar and slung sand that stung Landeau’s cheek and made Findo yelp.
“Are you alright boy?” Landeau got out of the car to examine his dog’s face. He seemed to be okay. “Its alright, Findo. It was an accident boy. You’ll be okay.”
He was kissing Findo’s forehead when Bledsoe came over the radio. “Landeau, you working with us or pissing again?”
Landeau grabbed the mike. “10-4, 219. K-9 struck by debris. 216 on route.” He put the car in gear and was about to activate his blue lights when he noticed a sliver of brown glass sticking in Findo’s ear. He got out of the car to give his dog a more complete physical.
The Maxima had pulled over as soon as Stevens whooped his siren once. Its driver sat perfectly still as Bledsoe approached. He had both hands on top of the steering wheel when Bledsoe shined his flashlight in the window. Nothing in the car but a leather briefcase.
“May I see your license and proof of insurance, sir?”
The driver, a clean-cut, middle-aged man wearing an Izod shirt and laundered khaki slacks, slowly and conspicuously took out his wallet and removed his license. “This is a rental car,” he said. “I can show you the rental agreement. Insurance is provided through my American Express.”
Bledsoe was looking at the license trying not to grin. “Let me see those if you don’t mind, Mr. McKay.” He shined his flashlight on Ron McKay’s hand as McKay slowly opened the glove box, pausing to let the officer see there was nothing other than papers inside before he removed them.
Bledsoe took his time examining the papers. Where was that idiot Landeau? “Mr. McKay, the reason I stopped you is you were going sixty-seven in a fifty-five mile per hour zone.”
“I was slowing down, Officer. I just passed the sign where it turned from sixty-five to fifty-five. Don’t you get a reasonable distance to slow down?”
“I understand, sir. I need to run your license and registration. If everything checks out, we’ll give you a courtesy warning and you’ll be on your way in a few minutes.”
Ron McKay felt a little better, but he was still worried because his driving history was a checkered one. Not to mention that he had a criminal record and a pound-and-a-half of cocaine in his trunk.
He watched in his rearview mirror as the first cop handed the driver cop his license and started talking to him. The driver cop was holding his license and grinning, but McKay had little time to worry about that because the first cop was coming back.
“Where you headed tonight, Mr. McKay?”
“You traveling for business or pleasure?”
“Me and you both working on Saturday. What kind of business you in?”
“I make pottery.”
“No kidding. You selling some down this way?”
“My sister makes pottery. Mind if I see a piece of yours?”
“I don’t have any with me.” The cop was grinning at McKay as if they were old buddies and McKay tried to match his expression. “Officer, do you think I could go ahead and get that warning? I need to be getting on.”
“What’s your hurry? You seem a little nervous.”
“Just tired of driving.”
“You know, Mr. McKay, we get a lot of drugs through here. I see a man in a rental car, no luggage, tells me he’s been selling pottery but doesn’t have any, license says he lives in Towns County and he tells me he’s headed home from Augusta, but he’s headed due west when Towns County is due north, it makes me kind of suspicious. You don’t mind if I bring a dog up here and just let him walk around your car, do you? It’ll just take a minute.”
The cop’s demeanor was unchanged but what he was saying now made the smile seem sinister to McKay, who tried to put on his most serious face as he said, “Yes, I do mind.”
“Well now, that just makes me more suspicious. Would you mind stepping out of your vehicle for me? Please keep you hands where we can see them.”
Ron McKay was careful to make no sudden movements. He tried to look like a businessman annoyed at being delayed, but his heart was pounding. He concentrated on breathing slowly. This must be some kind of set up. The convertible he’d been following had been going the same speed he was.
He leaned back against the trunk of the Nissan to steady his shaking, his arms propped well out from his sides, watching the two cops in the car behind him in animated conversation. They kept looking behind them and back at each other.
He’d managed to slow his heart rate when a second patrol car pulled in behind the first, producing another adrenaline rush. A third cop got out of this car and was putting a dog on a leash. Somebody had tipped them off. He closed his eyes and said, “Oh, dear God,” preparing to face the inevitable.
The first cop with the flashlight got out of his car and walked up to McKay. The other cop had emerged from the driver’s side when a yelping of dogs and a crashing in the undergrowth outside the chain-link fence drew their attention. The first cop swung his light that way and caught in its beam a spectacular sight. The biggest buck Ron McKay had ever seen was clearing the fence in full stride, posed like one of Santa’s reindeer against the sky, soaring in an arc that would land him on a beeline trajectory toward McKay and the cop with the light. His hooves struck the mown turf with a soft thud.
A lot happened in the next few seconds.
“Shit!” said the cop with the light and dove behind his patrol car. His partner stood transfixed. McKay hit the ground and rolled under the back of the rental car. The buck crossed the emergency lane, thundering between the Nissan and the first patrol car and onto the interstate, followed by the drug dog with his leash trailing behind. The third cop was inanely screaming, “Find doe!”
The buck managed to clear the median just ahead of an oncoming semi, but the dog didn’t. It met the truck’s huge bumper with a noise that sickened Ron McKay in spite of his own plight, and emitted the smallest of whelps as it bounced and skidded a hundred feet across the pavement into the emergency lane. The third cop was now running in the outside lane, howling. Both the other cops were on their feet yelling at him to get out of the road. The second cop ran after him.
McKay raised up to see what was happening and struck his head on the underside of the car. His cry of “Fuck!” caused the first cop to wheel around and draw his gun, but he didn’t see McKay.
“God damn it,” the cop said in a loud whisper and dropped to a prone position with his nine millimeter clutched in both hands before him.
“Don’t shoot, I’m right here,” McKay said and waited for the cop to spot him before he moved.
“Lemme see your hands motherfucker!”
McKay held up his palms. The flashlight beam struck him in the eyes.
“I want you to crawl out from under there, real slow. Make a wrong move and I’ll shoot your ass in a heartbeat.”
When McKay was clear of the car, the cop patted him down, then cuffed his hands behind his back. McKay was too scared to protest. The cop had the crazy look in his eyes that McKay had seen in junkies overdue for a fix. He was happy to see the other two cops walking back, one of them crying.
“I’m not letting you call an ambulance for a dog, Landeau; they’d have your badge.
Besides, if your dog’s not dead, he wishes he was. You oughta let me shoot him.”
“No! We can’t shoot Findo. He’ll be okay. We just have to get him to the vet. I’ll call an ambulance and we won’t tell them it’s a dog.”
“You’re not calling an ambulance, Landeau.”
“Oh, please Lieutenant Stevens.” He started crying again.
“Okay, Landeau. What if I help you put the dog in your car and you take him to the vet– if you can find one on a Saturday night.”
“I’ll call Dr. Ledford. He’ll come.”
“Okay, get your poncho and we’ll slide him on that.”
Landeau snorted a long mucas-rattling sniffle and beamed. “Thank you, Lieutenant. I know we can save him.” He was already trotting to his trunk.
“Stevens,” the first cop said, “how ‘bout y’all carry the dog by the dude’s car and see if he alerts.”
“Are you as stupid as Landeau? The dog’s dead, dickhead. It was hit by a transfer truck and knocked into Fulton County. Get on the radio and have the county–no wait.”
Stevens came up to the first cop and whispered in his ear causing him to fish a cell phone out of the patrol car and walk out of McKay’s hearing. Landeau came back with the poncho, bouncing anxiously from foot to foot. “Come on Lieutenant.”
“Just a minute, Landeau.” Stevens approached Ron McKay and used his cuffs to fasten the already manacled motorist to the bumper of his patrol car. “You sure you don’t want to consent to us looking through your car and save yourself some time, sir?”
“I’ll wait till hell freezes over, Lieutenant Stevens, but I’m not letting you search my property without a warrant,” McKay said, looking up from the pavement on which he now sat, then on a hunch added, “You heard that didn’t you, Officer Landeau?”
“Sorry about your dog, man.”
He’s my oldest friend, the person who goes back farthest in my history, aside from my family, but Ronny McKay is closer than family. It was Ronny McKay I turned to when my dog, a Springer Spaniel named Clementine, was hit by a car and needed twelve-hundred-dollars worth of surgery. My family, good Baptists, would have said, “Put that old dog to sleep and get another one.” I knew better than to ask. But Ronny McKay, ex-con cocaine distributor, had driven a hundred-and-twenty miles to put twelve one hundred dollar bills in my hand.
It was during my first year of law school, the first (and only) time in my life I worked really hard for an extended time, and finals were coming. The day I gently lifted Clementine from Millage Avenue, three legs severely broken and displaced from their sockets, she growled at me and bit my arm, poor thing, she was in such pain, probably shock. She looked at me with one sad, frightened eye as I held her steady on her side in the back of a good samaritan’s pickup on the way to the UGA vet clinic. I told her it would be okay. I wouldn’t lie to Clementine.
She had been with me for ten years, since my sophomore year in college. She stayed with me through good trips and bad. From Shelly Ballew through Candice Payne, who both broke my heart and left me in too much despair to talk to people, she remained true. She understood what I had to say, even if I couldn’t say it.
I know you’re saying, “She’s a dog; that’s her job,” but there were times I couldn’t stand myself. She was a good dog. So I would have tossed my Torts book into the corner and said, “Screw it; I didn’t want law review anyway,” and driven the hundred and twenty miles to Hiawassee, Georgia to get the money for Clementine.
I told Ronny that and he said, “No way G-Bag, we ain’t sending you to law school to fuck off. I’ll hop in the Vette and be there in two hours.”
“Do you have a license?” I asked, a reasonable question given his history.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, and he’d taken that worry off me. I finished the year in the top fifteen percent of my class with a dog I had to carry down the steps to pee. A very good dog.
So when Ronny McKay called me from the Liberty County jail, I couldn’t say no. I wanted to, I tried to. I told him I’d get him the best lawyer money could buy but he said, “No way G-Bag, you’re the man in Liberty County. My co-residents here tell me you hung the moon and stars. Well, actually what they say is, “Mr. Bagley the man here. You be thinking ‘bout how fine your Atlanta lawyer sound when you doing your time in Jackson.’ You get your ass down here and get me out of this hell hole.”
I told him I’d get to work getting him a bond and we’d see what happened after that, but I had the sinking feeling I was in the case for good or ill.
My name is George Bagley. As you have surmised, I’m a lawyer, a criminal defense attorney. As the jail inmates told Ronny McKay, I’m good, damn good. This is no place for modesty; you need to understand my predicament if you’re going to understand the story of me and Ronny McKay. He’s “Ron” to most people, but to me he is and always will be Ronny, the first friend I remember, Ronny and me in the crayon-scented basement of a Baptist church in Towns County, Georgia, looking at pictures of Jesus with a passel of kids in his lap.
I was always good--as a trial lawyer, that is--but labored in obscurity, as they say, until I defended a man named Jerry Davenport, a Liberty County Commissioner, in a sensational murder trial and got him off for killing his wife and her boyfriend. I was more lucky than good in that trial, but I was already good; it was luck I was waiting for. Now people come from all over the state bearing big bucks, wanting me to keep their boy, who is a good boy basically--just fell in with the wrong crowd--out of prison. More often than not, I do, and I couldn’t care less whether he’s a good boy so long as I get the money up front.
But I care, care deeply, about Ronny McKay. That’s why I don’t want to take his case. Caring what happens to him might make me do something I wouldn’t otherwise do. That’s why I try to avoid representing friends or even close acquaintances. I once represented a neighbor who claimed he’d had a few drinks after he left the scene of the fender-bender but before the cops came to his house, one of the more common lies you hear in this business, but since he watched my house while I was on vacation, I believed him and passionately argued his case at trial. I pulled out every rhetorical trick I knew, bashing the young prosecutor at every opportunity. My neighbor did three months in the county jail when he could have pled out to forty-eight hours and a fine.
Right now, ten o’clock on a Saturday night, I’m already doing things I wouldn’t otherwise do. To begin with, I wouldn’t have just finished talking to a jail inmate because nobody else could have called me from the jail. They would’ve got the answering machine which wouldn’t have accepted the collect call, the only kind you can make while incarcerated. And if a relative had called on their behalf I would have told them the standard working truth: you can’t get a bond on a Saturday night and, even if you could, a bond for Trafficking in Cocaine can only be set by a Superior Court judge in open court and you’ll be lucky if he sets one then.
Ronny knew my unlisted number
For Ronny McKay I called Carlton Sims, the District Attorney, at his house and almost cried, telling him this was important to me personally. I would post bond myself, he could put me in jail if Ronny didn’t show up for court; just please consent to a bond.
“You’re lucky this isn’t an election year, George,” he said, and told me to bring him the fifty-thousand-dollar bond order and he’d sign off on it.
That was just the first hurdle.
After leaving Carlton’s house, I found the Hon. Althea Greer where the babysitter whom I bribed with a hundred-dollar bill said I would, with an Atlanta Falcon linebacker at the best restaurant in Clinton . By then “Mr. Ray’s” had stopped serving dinner so she knew I wasn’t there for solitary dining.
They were the last patrons in the dining room, sitting at a corner table conversing in low tones. When she saw me, she removed her hand from her date’s thigh, a thigh clad in a tailor-made suit, a thigh as big as my waist, and looked down at her drink. She may have been blushing. I don’t know. It was dark and so is Judge Greer.
Things weren’t starting off well.
I stood there by her table holding a hand-written bond order, feeling like a heel.
“George, are you out for a nightcap?” she asked.
“No Althea, I’m a desperate man looking for a signature on a bond order.”
She just looked at me. I shifted my weight and looked anywhere else, at her friend it turned out. He was grinning.
“Hmmm,” he said in a very deep voice.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the judge blink. “George Bagley,” she said, “this is Curtis Brown. Curtis Brown, George Bagley.”
He stood, towering over me, and took my outstretched hand but did not rip my arm off and beat me with it. “I’m familiar with Mr. Brown,” I said. “I’m just glad I’m not meeting him with a football under my arm.”
“I know who you are too, Mr. Bagley. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He held out a clenched fist and I returned the gesture, doing the ritual hammer tap, both of us smiling.
I turned back to Althea Greer, who wasn’t. “I don’t know that I ought to set a precedent of allowing lawyers to spring felons on a Saturday night.” She was staring a hole in me. “I think you’d feel the same if you were in my shoes.” With that, she turned sideways and stretched out a bare, mocha-brown leg that would stop traffic. On its foot was a black, suede, open-toed pump. It could have been funny, but it wasn’t. I could see she was just warming up to what an indignity this was.
“You know I got a couple of cousins,” Curtis Brown interjected, “that the Fulton County D.A. has indicted for what he calls ‘gang-related violence.’ They could use a better lawyer than the one they got.”
I was happy not to have to look at Althea. “Well Mr. Brown, I’m flattered, but it takes a lot more money than it’s worth to get me in Fulton County court. The place is a zoo.” I heard Althea’s chair scoot back and looked at her. Her eyes were wide and wild.
“But,” I said, fishing a business card out of my pocket, “as a favor to you and Althea, I’d be glad to take their case.”
“Money’s no problem, you know,” Mr. Brown said taking my card.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “You just pay any expenses we might incur.”
“Give me your damn bond order,” Althea said. Her head bent over, pen in hand, I noticed the suggestion of a smile at the corners of her mouth.
A half hour later Ronny McKay sat in the passenger seat of my car, a free man on a warm summer night.
“Nice car,” he said. “What happened to the Austin Healey?”
“I’ve still got it. I’m saving it for Jim. He’ll be the only kid in Liberty County driving a vintage Austin Healey.”
“Probably be the first kid in the county to wreck an Austin Healey if he’s anything like you and me were, G-Bag. How is the boy anyway?”
“He’s great. Make’s all A’s. Has an endless list of things I ought to buy.”
“I guess this new Saab was on that list?”
“It’s not new. It’s a ninety-seven. I wouldn’t pay sticker price for a new car if I was Bill Gates. Besides, only another Saab owner could tell it’s not new anyway.”
“G-Bag, the money-bags lawyer. Too cheap to buy a new car. How’s Ursula?”
“She’s fine, I guess. We’re separated. She’s living over near the college. She got tenure last spring.”
“Separated. Shit. Guess I’ll have to locate my old friend Ursula and see if I can get a little rebound action.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Why? You think I can’t still kick your butt, G-Bag?”
“The day I can’t mop the floor with your ass ain’t never happening. I just can’t see you getting anywhere with Ursula. Let’s just say you make her nervous.”
“Nervous? That’s not nerves; that’s sexual tension. You’ve had your head in a book too long, son.”
I laughed and shook my head.
“You can laugh now, son, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.” With that he rolled down the window and stuck his head out, his tongue hanging out like a dog’s. I think I’m supposed to think he’s a dog in heat. Then he starts howling at the moon.
“Get your ass back in here you hillbilly, white-trash, snuff-dipping fool,” I say, pulling him by the sleeve. “We got cops in this town.” We are circling the Clinton town square.
“Yeah, I noticed.” He settled back into his seat. “They seem to be kinda down on cocaine. Put the top down.”
“I bought a convertible because I like the way it looks,” I say. “I’m too old to go cruising around with the top down. You ever see an old guy riding with the top down on the convertible he can finally afford? I’d look like a fool.”
“You are a fool if you’ve let Ursula get away. Put the damn top down.”
I pull over, flip two levers, and push a button. The top goes back and magically disappears. I point to the floorboard. “Stuff that trash under the seat so it won’t go blowing everywhere,” I say, and head off at law-defying speed down Haygood Street.
I look over at my oldest friend, his thick brown hair rising and falling in the wind. He has a look of daredevil bliss. We could be back in Towns County, 1969, throwing bottles at road signs with no ten year prison sentence hanging over one of our heads.
“Rock...and...Roll!” he yells and turns on the stereo. Moby blasts the most fashionable street in Clinton. I’m gonna get my money back/ Sometime/ I get a hump in my back/ Sometimes/ I’m going over here/ Sometime.
“Hey G-Bag, I need to get some smokes.”
I make a few turns and pull in at the town’s only all night drug store. The place is busy at eleven-thirty on a Saturday night.
We get a couple of Cokes and get in line to pay. There are two lines, one long, the other short: one woman. When we get in line behind her we find out why that is. She has a pile of coupons.
“You rang those up at a dollar twenty-nine. The tag on the shelf said sixty-nine cents.”
“They’re scanning at a dollar twenty-nine,” the young cashier says. She’s smiling but her tone says this has been going on a while.
“I’m sorry to be so much trouble, really I am, but if you’ll go look at the shelf you can see for yourself.”
She is short, middle-aged, wearing baggy black slacks, a black leather jacket, a black backpack and a black felt hat with a beaded band. It’s August, you’ll recall.
We look over at the other line which has a half dozen people in it. “You go get in the other line and we’ll see who gets there first,” I tell Ronny.
The cashier comes back. “They’re marked a dollar-twenty-nine. The sixty-nine cents is for the store brand next to them.”
“Well, it’s very confusing. I want to see the manager.” She has not once looked behind her. A woman who had got in line behind me moves to the other one.
When the manager gets there, Ronny has moved up to number three in his line. “What seems to be the problem ma’am?” He’s wearing horn-rimmed glasses, a tie and has three pens inside the pocket of a short-sleeved dress shirt, one of which has leaked a nickel-sized circle of blue.
“I have this problem every time I come in here,” she says, looking through her stack of coupons. “This woman’s trying to charge me a dollar-twenty-nine for these bobby pins that are marked at sixty-nine cents on the shelf. You probably get a lot of people who just go ahead and pay double but I won’t stand for it. The sign says Revlon bobby pins are a dollar-twenty-nine.”
“Ma’am, the sign says ‘Eckerd brand sixty-nine cents. Compare to Revlon at a dollar-twenty-nine.’ Would you like me to get you the store brand?” He’s looking over her head at a group of kids on the magazine aisle.
“No, I don’t want the store brand. They’re probably as crooked as the management.”
He lets out a big sigh, looks down at her, shakes his head, takes a pen out and notices the stain. “Damn cheap pens,” he mumbles and writes something on a small yellow pad, tears it off and gives it to the cashier. “I’m sorry you were confused, ma’am. I’ll comp these down to sixty-nine cents.” He heads off to the magazines.
“I wouldn’t be confused if you would mark things plainly. It’s false advertising,” she adds without turning and goes back to sorting her coupons. I do a pantomime of whacking her in the back of the head. The cashier grins, rolls her eyes and goes back to ringing up her purchase. Ronny has reached the front of his line where I join him with my Coke.
A new sap comes in and lines up behind the woman in black, who says, “You rang those up twice.”
“Excuse me?” the cashier says.
“You rang those up twice. I’m not stupid.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Yes you did. I saw you. You take it off right now.”
“You’re mistaken, ma’am. Just wait till you get your receipt and you can check it.”
“I don’t have all night to go through receipts. I want to see the manager.” The cashier takes one step back and stares at her. She’s near tears.
Ronny leaves me to pay and walks over to the other line. “Eckerd Security,” he says, and smiles at the woman in black. “I think I can sort this thing out. Okay, this stuff is all Eckerd merchandise, am I right?” He takes his arm and rakes her pile of purchases toward the cashier. “Now, you haven’t given her any money. Is that right?” he says to Blackie.
“No, and I won’t until she gets my bill right.”
“And these are your coupons?” He grabs them up in one fist.
“Yes, those are my coupons and you’re wrinkling them.”
“Okay, you take this.” He pushes the pile of goods a little closer to the cashier. “And you take this.” He crams the coupons in the top of the backpack. “Now, this line is closed. Give me your closed sign, Amber.”
Amber, whose nametag gives her away, reaches under the counter and hands it to Ronny, snickering as she does. “Now, I think everybody’s even. Take ten minutes, Amber.” He turns to Blackie, who is hyperventilating. “That was a close call. I saved your ass, lady. They were about to take every penny you had.”
“Let’s hit it, G-Bag,” he says and we set out into the night. As our weight opens the automatic doors, everybody in the front of the store, including Amber and the manager, bursts into applause. Ronny turns and gives a “Sargent Preston of the Yukon” salute.
As we hop in the Saab, Blackie comes out the door screaming.
“You think she’ll call the cops?” Ronny asks.
“The cops would be on our side,” I say.
We didn’t talk about the circumstances of his arrest, Ronny McKay and I sitting on the front porch of my house drinking shots of tequila chased with Ice House. We didn’t talk about whether I’d be his lawyer, except for him assuring me that I was and me saying I’d think about it. I told him I’d done all the work on a Saturday night I was going to.
We talked about other things. We talked about my daddy, who’d owned a small bookstore in Hiawassee. We talked about Ronny’s father, who had run a used car lot and had his finger in a dozen other marginal businesses. We reminisced about what good men they were, the apple brandy they made, and how much trouble we’d caused them.
“It’s too bad Beau didn’t live to see you make a hot-shot lawyer,” Ronny said, meaning my father, Beau Bagley, dead since 1975. “I think the last time I saw Beau, he was telling me how the Sheriff had found some marijuana plants growing back in the clearing behind y’all’s house. The Sheriff said some kids told him they’d seen me and you back in the woods there, but he figured it was probably the Dillard boys; Travis and Larry weren’t fit to shoot noway. He just thought Beau might want to tell us there’d been some talk. And that was all Beau ever said to me about it. As far as I know, he never told Daddy.”
“Yeah, I heard about that, of course. Although by the time I saw Daddy, his major complaint was that he’d given the Sheriff a gallon of his apple brandy. ‘And it ain’t even election year, son.’ He musta said that a dozen times. ‘It ain’t even election year.’”
We laughed and poured another shot of tequila.
“Jim into any petty vandalism like we used to pull?” Ronny asked.
“I hope not,” I said. “At least I’m hoping he doesn’t get caught.”
“Probably doesn’t have any rewards out for him like we did for painting the Blairsville water tower.”
“Well, the rewards weren’t for us,” I said. “They were for the low-life hooligans that painted, ‘We don’t want your fucking war’ on their water tank.”
“They still don’t know who did that. Maybe I ought to turn you in and get the reward. I’m gonna be needing some money for legal fees.”
“I don’t think you wanna play that game, Ronny. If it comes down to telling what we know about the other one, I got a lot more ammunition than you.”
“You can’t divulge any of that, son. You’re my lawyer.”
“The hell I am. Hand me another beer.”
Ronny reached into the cooler beside him. We were, as some of my clients’ say when asked if they were intoxicated, “feeling pretty good.”
“Seen much of Shelly?” I asked. Conversation between us would always turn to Shelly Ballew. Shelly Ballew whom I’d sworn I would love forever. Shelly with whom I’d lain out on the front yard at her daddy’s mansion on the hill, sighting shooting stars on crisp October nights, Shelly with whom I’d planned out our whole life together: me going to Harvard Law School, becoming a congressman, then Senator, maybe President, Shelly beside me all the way.
Shelly was the daughter of the richest man in Hiawassee and I was working class, pretty much like everybody else in Towns County except for a few merchants, doctors, and the indigenous poor who lived back in the hills off welfare mostly. I was the S.T.A.R. Student, leadoff man on the baseball team, president of the Student Council. I was president of everything, earned every honor the school could bestow. I fantasized I would achieve so many honors and awards that there wouldn’t be enough room in the yearbook to list the accomplishments of the student pictured beside me, Karen Baker. (“Six years perfect attendance.”) I was sure I would be a great and famous man.
I had all that and finally, my senior year, I had Shelly Ballew and my world was complete.
Shelly’s father, Bobby “Bobcat” Ballew, was possibly the ugliest man in Towns County. He’d made a small fortune starting from nothing in the lumber business, and to show for it, he had two fingers sawn off at the middle joint, a huge brick house sprawled over a hilltop overlooking the town--he’d cut down every tree which might obstruct view of his house for those of us down below--a Lincoln Continental, a Cadillac and, rumor had it, a good-looking redneck sweetie working at his lumber mill. His wife was a plain, rail-thin woman who kept the books for the mill and still did all her housework even though she could have paid a fleet of servants. Their daughter, their only child, Luanne Michelle, stood out like the niece on “The Munsters:” tall, blonde, and drop-dead good looking.
Shelly had perfect orthodonture, expensive doctors in Atlanta to treat any pimple that might arise, and chic, short, 1969 skirts to show off her fabulous legs, tanned in any season from trips to the Carribean. When Shelly bent over and looked back between her legs into the stands, shaking her pom-poms as the cheerleaders slowly rose and turned to look over a shoulder into the Towns County faithful, nobody cared that the Indians were getting shelacked. Shelly Ballew was worth the price of admission.
“Hot damn, wouldn’t you like to get some of that,” Ronny would say as we sat back in the stands taking surreptitious nips of apple brandy. “I’m gonna get some,” I’d say, and he’d laugh and call me King G-Bag the Deluded. But I did get me some of Shelly Ballew, claimed her through my class ring on her finger, although by the time I’d got some in the sense that Ronny meant, the dream life I’d constructed for Shelly and me was a thing of the past. Some frat boy had broken the seal and she was giving me a drink for old time’s sake.
But for that first year, my Senior year in high school and my first quarter of college, I was King of the World and Shelly was my queen. Parked behind an abandoned house in a poplar thicket, she’d let me do everything short of the deed--she was a Baptist girl in rural, 1960's Georgia--and I’d take her back to the house on the hill with a slimy spot on the front of my jeans.
I was as happy as a human could be. Shelly and I were Best All Around in the yearbook, and I sincerely believed--I kid you not--that I was Best All Around in the world. I was smarter than anyone I knew, and while I was willing to concede that there were eggheads with higher I.Q’s, they couldn’t match my looks, my charm, my imagination. I believed that I was chosen by God.
Try not to gag; I’m getting to the end of this.
If I had any doubts, Shelly Ballew wearing my ring, walking down the hall with her hand in my back pocket, “Shelly Bagley,” “Shelly B. Bagley,” “Michelle Bagley” covering pages of composition notebooks, Shelly sliding smack up against me on the bench seat of my daddy’s Dodge, nibbling my ear and whispering, “I’ll love you till the day I die, George Bagley”--I still get lightheaded thinking about it. If I had any doubts, Shelly Ballew erased them. She confirmed my worth for the world to see. She filled in the only part missing: love, the perfect complement, anima to my animus.
You can see I lived in a very small world, the only world I knew, and you know I was “cruising for a bruising,” as we used to say back in Towns County, but it wasn’t, as you may suppose, the realization that I wasn’t World’s Best All Around that knocked me off the throne; it was Shelly Ballew, Shelly who decided that going steady in college wasn’t as much fun as her sorority sisters were having, Shelly who with one phone call left me lying in a puddle of tears on the cold vinyl floor of my dorm room. I stopped going to class, started sleeping to mid-afternoon, staying up all night nursing the keg at whatever party I could find. It was eight years before I finally got a degree, but if Shelly had remained true I still believe I would have sped through Vanderbilt magna cum laude and headed for Harvard.
The problem was, as everyone who’s lived long enough to find out knows, that love doesn’t last forever. You may break up, you may divorce, you may stay faithfully married until you both pass away in the nursing home, but that love that brought you together in the first place dies a naturally preordained death. It may be replaced by something else that we also call love, something which does the name proud, but it is not that first thing. You know what I mean.
You know what I mean unless you are seventeen and in love for the first time. Your mama may tell you it’s not love, that you’re too young to know what love is, but you know. You know you’re in love because you are, and you are dead right. If you are seventeen or thirteen or twenty-five and you are in love for the first time, you know that love so strong could never die. About that you are so wrong, but I envy you and wish I could freeze you in time, child, like the figures on the Grecian Urn. I’d trade my knowledge for your ignorance in a heartbeat and Bob Seger would too. I’m wishing I didn’t know more what I didn’t know then./ Against the wind.
Love would have ended for Shelly and me somehow, sometime, but as it was it ended with me coming down hard, face pressed against the cool tile floor, crying like a baby, and then I knew, though I didn’t expressly form the thought for some time, that I was not Best All Around; I was fatally flawed. I suffered from a deficiency of the heart. It was for others who were tougher, who didn’t need another to complete them, to reel off achievement on the way to power and glory.
So love died and I became a philosopher and I repeated the love-and-death cycle again and again, but even now, maybe more so now, any woman in my REM sleep may turn into Shelly Ballew: Shelly leaving me, Shelly coming back to say it was all a big mistake, my heart aglow with the knowledge that love never dies, Shelly thrusting her hips into mine saying, “Oh it’s you George, it was always, only you.”
I’d asked Ronny McKay if he’d seen much of Shelly and he told me, “All there is to see, G-Bag, every fucking inch.”
I thought he was just being funny. “You been helping Doctor Dink do his examination?” Shelly had gone back to Hiawassee after college and married David Downs whom we’d called “Dinky” in high school, but dinky though he may have been with his thick glasses and Ichabod Crane frame, he’d become a gynecologist who kept Shelly in the style to which she was accustomed. I hated the bastard.
The last time I’d seen Shelly six years ago at a high school reunion, she’d been a beautiful but flabby woman with a bloated face and watery eyes from prescription drugs.
“Dinky ain’t in the picture no more. I figured you’d know that. After Bobcat died and she came into his money, she dropped Dinky-D and moved to the house on the hill. The last six months or so she’s been staying down at the lake,” he said, meaning, I knew, his place on Lake Chatuge.
“She looks good, G-Bag. You oughta see her. She got off Dinky’s pain pills and started getting some exercise. She’s teaching an aerobics class now, first job she’s ever had in her life.”
“So MoRon finally got him some of that,” I said, calling up the old high school nickname. Although its been twenty-five years since I last lay with Shelly, the last seventeen of which I’ve been married, I felt a rush of jealous resentment toward my friend Ronny McKay.
I changed the subject and we went to bed soon thereafter.
Two days later I called Ronny and told him I would not be his lawyer. With him away I came to my senses and did what I knew I ought to do to begin with. I could not be a party to Ronny’s imprisonment; it would tear me up inside and I’d lose my objectivity. I might make things worse.
“You can’t do this to me, Bagley,” he’d said over and over, but I held firm. “I’ll help you get Don Samuel or Ed Tolley,” I said, naming some top-notch Georgia criminal-defense attorneys.
“Fuck you G-Bag,” he’d said, ending the conversation. I felt bad, of course, but confident I’d done the right thing.
You may be wondering whether the business with Ronny and Shelly figured into my decision. I’ll leave you to decide that for yourself. I don’t think it did but I can’t be objective when it comes to Shelly, any more than I can with Ronny.
I felt bad about telling Ronny I couldn’t do it, but not nearly bad as I’d have felt if I hadn’t. It took a load off my mind. I really didn’t need anything else weighing on me because I had plenty to deal with at home without importing problems from Towns County.
Home was where I lived without my wife and son, a large, empty house that echoes with their absence, a hundred-year-old wooden house six blocks off the Clinton town square. In the kitchen of my house, my fourteen year old son recently told me that he hated me, then got in the car with his mother and left. That was a month ago. I haven’t seen him since. He won’t talk to me.
He doesn’t hate me, I know, but hearing him say it really hurts. We’d been best buddies until his mother left, shared interests in sports, “The Simpsons” and rock-and-roll bringing us closer than the usual filial bond, then after she left we were further bound in a conspiracy of two to get her back.
She left last fall, the day the jury freed Jerry Davenport, and came back as soon as the semester ended at Cloister College, where she teaches. I felt like a man who’d been given reprieve from a sentence of exile and I think Jim felt the same.
She’d left, she said, because she needed to find out who she was. I guess she found out, because she came back. Six days later she left again, because I found who she was, and told her I would leave if she didn’t.
I’d put seventeen years into a marriage with a woman whom I thought I knew but didn’t, and now that I do, the sight of her pretty face makes me feel like I’ve been tied to the whipping post. Good Lord, I feel like I’m dying. My son won’t speak to me because she’s told him it’s me who won’t have her, and I can’t tell him why that is. I fall back on lame shit like, “It just didn’t work out.” Of course I could tell him the truth, but I don’t know whether I should. You tell me.
I guess you’ll want more information if you’re going to play Dear Abby.
When I met Ursula Chastain, I was working in the Virginia Highlands section of Atlanta, an area between Emory University and Midtown which in 1980 had just turned the corner from decaying urban squalor to the upscale collection of restaurants and shops it is today. I was waiting tables at Atkins Park Delicatessen, which had been there through it all, starting as a solid neighborhood pub then descending to seedy juke-joint before reemerging as a trendy restaurant with al fresco seating while somehow retaining some of its hippy-dive ambiance.
Ronny McKay was living in Atlanta too, finishing up an undergraduate degree in Psychology at Georgia State University. Ronny, like me, had sporadically attended college for ten years, but unlike me he took it seriously when he did and maintained a 3.8 grade point average. We both lived in Little Five Points, which was then a fairly low rent district, and he’d sometimes stop in at Atkins Park on his way home from school.
When I emerged from the kitchen with a tray of sandwiches this particular October day, Ronny was sitting at a table in the restaurant’s fenced-in alley with the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen close-up and in person.
I did not tell Ronny McKay, as I had told him about Shelly Ballew twelve years earlier, that I would get me some of that, for Ursula Chastain looked unattainable. I was no longer Best All Around, and she had the breathtaking look of a movie star--Ingred Bergman or Audrey Hepburn--and though she smiled politely when Ronny introduced us, her attitude seemed imperious. Still, I fell all over myself being witty and charming, because all one had to do to want Ursula was to see her.
I did my singing waiter routine. If there’s anything that you want,/ If there’s anything I can do,/ Just call on me and I’ll send it along/ With love from me to you. I suggested a drink I’d invented which tasted just like the last drink you’d tasted: The Tequila Mockingbird. I folded napkins into swans and butterflies.
You might wonder why this ravishing woman was with Ronny McKay, but I didn’t. Ronny was good looking enough but he wouldn’t stand out in a crowd. He was brighter than average, but being a twenty-eight-year-old undergraduate didn’t put him on the fast track to wealth and fame. I’d never heard him rumored to be a great lover, although we had many friends in common and I think I would’ve heard. What Ronny had that could get you any number of beautiful women in Atlanta, Georgia in 1980, at least for the short haul, was an endless supply of cocaine.
Not that I blamed Ronny for what a sour-grapes observer might call an unfair advantage. I didn’t blame him any more than I’d blame someone with an exceptional voice for singing or, a better analogy, someone who’d won a medal for showing it off. While others of us could chip in a hundred dollars or two for an evening of recreational drug use, Ronny was doing some fairly major dealing and had access to as much coke as his body could stand. I never knew the extent of Ronny’s dealings. I made it a point not to and he had the good sense to volunteer nothing, but I knew he was taking big risks to live the life he did, so I couldn’t begrudge him its reward the way I would someone born to the silver coke spoon.
Ursula and Ronny drank a pitcher of beer with a bowl of steamed mussels, then she got on a Marta bus and headed off to her apartment on Virginia Avenue. Before she left I learned that she was in graduate school at Georgia State; she worked part time as a model; she spent a lot of her time at the movies, and that she’d met Ronny through our mutual friend, Liz Lasseter.
“So, you having a thing with Ms. Chastain, McKay?” I asked as we watched her disappear from view.
“Why? You thinking about making a fool of yourself?”
“Maybe. I just don’t wanna step on any toes,” I said, standing on the sidewalk she’d just graced.
“We had a good time one night a few weeks ago. She hasn’t shown any interest since then. She’s out of our league, G-Bag. Swimming pools and movie stars. Go for it if you’re a glutton for punishment.”
“I just might,” I said, but wondered if I really had the nerve. I was a little fish in a big pond, no trophy catch. Shelly Ballew had shown me that big time and I hadn’t forgotten. My live-in girlfriend had just left me three months earlier. I’d had enough rejection to last me a while.
But I did ask Liz Lasseter about her, Liz who was a friend and sometimes lover to all the boys in my circle and some of the women, but nobody’s sweetheart for long. I’ve never been sure why that was. “George has got the hots for Ursula C., huh? You and everybody else. Join the club,” she’d said, pushing chestnut-brown hair back from clear blue eyes.
“You think she’d go out with me?” I asked.
“Hell, how should I know, George? I don’t know her that well. She might, I guess; she’s got quirky tastes. She kissed me once at a party. Of course we both had straws up our noses. If you’re going to try, now would be the time. She was living with this writer guy from Asheville--that’s where she’s from--till recently. She usually has a heartthrob boyfriend of some kind. I wouldn’t wait long.”
“You think you might mention me to her?” I ventured.
“Talk about your big dick and your lust for life?”
“Something like that. Tell her she might get lucky if she plays her cards right.”
“Sure, I’ll do it. Old Liz, everybody’s pal.” She looked at me wistfully. We both knew she’d be my girl if that were an option. I didn’t know what to say, so I just said, “Thanks, Liz,” kissed her on the cheek and left.
I saw Ursula two days later when she came in with another woman at happy hour. She smiled and put her hand on my arm when she introduced me to her friend. The tables were full so they sat at the bar. I didn’t have much chance to talk to her. I thought about it but couldn’t think of anything to say that didn’t sound stupid, so I was glad to have an excuse not to. I hadn’t heard back from Liz.
I scurried around taking orders and bussing tables, kept forgetting things because I was distracted by the woman whose face I caught glimpses of in the mirror behind the bar. The bartender, Reggie, whom I now hated, was hovering over her to the extent it was hard to get my drinks made. She had, I counted, three vodka martinis. When she left, she sought me out and hugged me like we were old friends, then turned and winked at me over her shoulder as she left.
I finished my shift with my feet barely touching the floor. A couple of gay guys left me a fifty dollar tip. I was giddy and anxious to get home and call Liz, until I emptied my apron to count my tips and found a matchbook turned inside out on which was written, “Ursula Chastain, 876-2402.” I still have it.
When I called the next day she asked how I got her number. I told her it was written on a stall in the bathroom.
“You sure know how to sweet talk a girl,” she said.
“You’re just saying that,” I said.
We went out to dinner that night at the Pleasant Peasant, hit the bars until they closed, then had alternately bone-crushing and silky smooth sex until dawn, a pattern we repeated almost nightly for months to come, Ursula Chastain and I.
I was in heaven. She would do anything I would do and I don’t just mean in bed. She’d drink Wild Turkey straight up, drink the Guinness Stout that even my alcohol-foraging roommates wouldn’t touch. She’d go with me to Braves games; she learned to play Foosball and play it well. She was up for any outing my friends suggested. If I did it, then it must be alright. Wonder of wonders, she seemed as much in love with me as I with her.
I was drunk on her love, happier than I thought I had any right to be. She was too good to be true, a breathtakingly beautiful woman who acted like one of the boys. She empowered me, inspired me. Those first years with Ursula were the most productive in my life and by the time that hot passion began to cool we were married and I’d finished a year of law school.
I’ve told you all this to shed some light on why we’ve been married for seventeen years, much of it spent in controlled animosity. Looking back, I think part of the problem was that I continued to treat her like one of the boys long after she stopped idolizing me. Boys don’t need flowers on Valentine’s day; boys don’t need a lot of petting; boys suck it up and make the best of it. But Ursula wasn’t a boy, she was a passionate woman adopting another lifestyle out of love for a man, storing up my transgressions in an arsenal for future use.
And use them she did. There were a few years of open hostility. She would get drunk and scream and cry and break glass, but we still hit runs of our prior passion. Then our son was born and things were never the same. He was now the chosen one; I was someone she put up with. But she loved me, twisted though it may have been, and I loved her and hid my love away, always believing that somehow things would get better and we would be friends again.
I hid my love away because I didn’t think it could survive her icy contempt; at least that’s what I told myself at the time. Looking back, I can see I neglected her because it was just too much trouble to deal with her depression and complaints I couldn’t fix, until finally, last fall, she left “to find out who she was.”
When she left I was shattered. I stopped sleeping for the first couple of months. My life became a campaign to win her back and in this my son was my powerful ally.
I listened; I soothed; I empathized. I didn’t talk about myself unless I was asked. I owned up to what a sorry husband I had been, for the first time seeing how true that was, but I never doubted that she loved me, no matter what she said to the contrary.
After a month or so she told me she was “seeing” a professor at her college, part of her ongoing pursuit of who she was. She wouldn’t tell me who he was, and though I pored over the list of potential suspects, hating each in proportion to his perceived likelihood of being her lover, I did my best to deal with it.
I started sleeping with my neighbor, Corey McFain, a tall, young, green-eyed Texan whom I’d met at Cowboy Heaven where she tended bar, not knowing she was my neighbor at first. I eased up my assault on Ursula, deciding I would just have to wait her out. I had fun with Corey McFain, but it was tacitly understood that my door was always open to Ursula’s return.
In June, when her semester ended, after eight months living in an apartment near to the college, she walked in my door as abruptly as she’d walked out, saying she was ready to try again.
For ten days we were happy as newlyweds. We took Jim to Jekyll Island, our habitual summer retreat. I felt like the Count of Monte Cristo, or Job after God called Satan off.
On Friday of that week we left Jim with some videos and had a splendid dinner at the Jekyll Island Club, a palace built by the captains of industry who’d once owned the island. Afterward we sat on one of its several porches having Cognac and dessert, watching the sun set over Brunswick. I decided there would never be a more disarming setting in which to broach the subject of the mystery professor.
“We’ll be different now,” I said, treading gently.
“Yes, how so?”
I looked at her and was, as I still am sometimes, unexpectedly taken aback by her beauty. I almost chickened out but plodded on.
“We rarely talked to each other before,” I said. “I mean the last few years. I mean intimately.”
She started to speak but I silenced her by putting my hand on hers. I needed to get it behind us while I still had momentum.
“I was the worst offender, I know. I was afraid, I think, that if I poured out my heart to you it would be submerged in the flood of our everyday resentment.”
“That sounds like poetry,” she said.
“Thank you. It’s heartfelt. I don’t want us to be that way anymore.” I was feeling more confident. “I want us to be totally open and honest now. No secrets, no private schemes, no hidden agendas. Talk about problems as soon as they arise. I want to make my life an integral part of yours and vice-versa. There shouldn’t be anything so bad or so personal that I can’t talk about it with you.”
“That all sounds good,” she said, but, I sensed, with misgivings. She looked away from me toward a family riding by on bicycles and fingered the jewels at her throat, an expensive gift I’d bought her the week before.
“Does this mean,”she said, “you want to put everything that went on while we were apart under a microscope? Analyze me and my motives?” She smiled, but there was a confrontational edge in her tone.
I tossed away my cigar, which had abruptly turned bitter, took a deep breath and answered, “I’m willing to tell you anything you think you need to know about what I did. I’m not proud of myself, but I won’t keep anything from you.”
“So,” she said, getting louder, “are you going to give me a blow-by-blow description of how good your hot young thing was?”
I couldn’t decide if she was intending a pun and didn’t venture to ask. “As I said, I’ll tell you anything you think you want to know. I don’t have anything bad to say about Corey,” I added, “except that she wasn’t you.” I was proud of that last line.
She stuck her finger in her water glass and rubbed it around the rim of her brandy snifter until it sang, which irritated me but I didn’t say so. I waited.
“I don’t need to know those things, George, and I don’t think you do either. I don’t see anything good that could come of it.” She caressed me with her eyes as she squeezed my arm.
I was tempted to stop there but I didn’t yet know what I needed to know. “I agree,” I said softly, taking her hands in mine. “I just want you to know I would tell you if you asked, and I need to know you would do the same.” I paused, but she was silent. “The only thing I want you to tell me right now is who you were seeing.”
“There was only the one,” she said, freeing her hands and sipping her drink.
“I don’t know whether that’s good or bad,” I told her.
After another long silence, she looked at me with tears in her eyes. “What good could that possibly do? Why can’t you just let it rest?”
“I need to know,” I said, “because I need to know. I’m going to pass this man on the street. I don’t want to suspect every Cloister professor I meet. So long as I don’t know,” I added more softly, “it will eat at me day and night.”
She took another sip of her brandy, then let out a sigh. “Dan Kinard,” she said, not looking at me.
I pictured a man in desert boots and elbow patched tweed, retirement age. I was at first appalled, then insulted at the quality of my competition. I tried to think of what else I knew about him. Married, head of the History department, then, wait a minute. “Didn’t you tell me he was head of the tenure committee?”
She still wasn’t looking at me. She said, “Yeah, what of it?” took a big sip of Cognac, got up and walked off to the bathroom.
We got up and left the next day, speaking only as packing and driving demanded, our son looking like a frightened animal in the back seat. When we got home I told her one of us was moving out. She left that evening.
So, should I tell my son the truth? Tell him that his mother prostituted herself to advance her career? To a married man old enough to be her father? Should I tell him that it appears to me, despite her denials, that leaving “to find herself” was just bullshit to enable this affair? I don’t think so but you tell me. Because in order to spare him the truth, preserve his relationship with Ursula, it is I who bears the brunt of his resentment.
And what about Ursula? Ursula whom I think about every day and whom I miss with a longing that is a physical ache within me. Should I forgive her? Am I being unreasonable? “It was just sex,” she says of her affair with Kinard. She pleads with me to take her back. She claims it was just a coincidence that he was head of the tenure committee. He’d been flirting with her for months before she indicated her willingness to bed him. There wasn’t much available in her small circle. She recognized the potential career benefits but that wasn’t her motivation.
Bullshit. She has a powerful facility for recreating history to suit her ends. The question is: even knowing what I know, should I, will I, forgive her? I think the answer is probably going to be yes, but I’m not there yet. A lot more water needs to pass under that bridge and part of it must be of her owning up to just how badly she acted. I think I could start again from there.
The afternoon after I told Ronny I wouldn’t take his case, I was taking care of business from which my talk with him had distracted me, answering phone calls, reading mail when she walked in. Connie, my secretary, must have been in the bathroom because Shelly Ballew walked in unannounced. I looked up and saw above me a face which haunts my dreams. She was thinner than when I last saw her, older of course. She strongly resembled, it occurred to me not for the first time, another Georgia girl, the actor Kim Basinger.
“Hello George. It’s been a long time.”
“Shelly!” I said, surprise having taken the timbre out of my voice so that I sounded like an adolescent.
I got up and walked toward her. She met me halfway and when we hugged a nostalgic thrill went through me as she pressed her chest into mine. I backed off and held her at arm’s length. “You look great,” I said, stating the obvious. She was wearing baggy cut-offs and a pale yellow tank top which matched her flip-flops, the plain, foamy-rubber kind they sell at discount stores. Shelly had always had enough money that she didn’t feel the need to flash it in her clothes, and she again had that body which didn’t require sexy attire to command one’s attention.
“Thanks,” she said. “You look as good as you did at the prom.” She looked me over. “Let’s see now; you got less hair and it’s a lot shorter, but I swear I think you could wear the same pants. You moonlighting as a male stripper or what?”
Shelly spoke in the same Appalachian dialect with which we’d both grown up, so that “or what” came out “ar whut.” Coming from her it was music to my ears.
“I think it’s ‘or what.’ Have a seat,” I said, moving a stack of files from the less cluttered of two chairs.
“So, George, George, George,” she said, twisting around in her seat, surveying the room. “This is nice. Kind of like what you expect Atticus Finch’s office to look like.”
“That’s pretty much what I had in mind,” I said to the side of her face, admiring the definition of muscles in her neck and shoulders which turning emphasized. “Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but what brings you to visit me for the first time in several decades?” I asked, although the question was disingenuous.
“Did I catch you at a bad time? I guess I should’ve called first. I wanted to surprise you. Are you real busy?”
“Nothing that can’t wait for you.”
“You got time to go have a drink somewhere? It’s way too businesslike in here. It feels like you’re gonna up and start drafting my will any minute now.”
I looked at my watch. 3:45. “Connie,” I said, picking up my phone and pressing the intercom button. “Would you please call and reschedule the four-thirty appointment with Vickie Cantrell?”
“Sure,” she said. “Do you want to give her a reason?” Shelly was grinning at me and I grinned back. “Yeah, tell her I just got a hot date with a horny divorcee.”
“Let’s go,” I said, collecting my coat and hat.
We walked out through the reception room. “Connie,” I said, “this is an old friend from back in Towns County, Shelly Ballew. Shelly, this is my assistant, Connie Fambrough.”
“Nice to meet you,” Connie said, giving her the once over, then slightly arching an eyebrow my way.
“How do you put up with him?” Shelly asked.
Her country-girl informality struck the note she intended with Connie who laughed and said, “He pays me, honey. He pays me.”
Out in the hall, I said, “You still talk like a Towns County sawmiller’s girl.”
“You got a problem with that, buddy? Cause if you do, yore ass is grass,” she said, intentionally hardening the “a” sound into the backwoods mountain speech we upscale Towns Countians used to parody.
“You mean I’m ‘crusin’ for a bruisin?’ You know I don’t have a problem with that. A Towns County lady raised me. I just think it’s interesting that Vanderbilt didn’t change your speech the way it did mine.”
“Well, I think it enlarged my vocabulary a little, G-Bag. It never embarrassed me the way it did you,” she added as we went down the stairs side-by-side.
“You’re saying you had more innate self-confidence than I did.”
“Whoa now. You had more self-confidence than anybody I ever met. It’s just that...Nevermind, I like the way you talk now. It’s kind of an educated Southern blend.”
“Igen talk like you’uns anytime I take a notion.”
“Shit I reckon,” she said.
“We’ll need to take your car. I walked to work.”
“Oh, goody. ‘Baby, you can drive my car.’ It’ll be like old times. It’s over here.”
As we walked around the town square, I thought about a ‘66 Mustang convertible, and later a GTO, barreling down mountain roads. “This is it,” she said and handed me the keys.
“No shit it’ll be like old times,” I said, because I was holding the key to a perfectly restored, classic Mustang convertible.
“It’s the original sixty-four-and-a-half model,” she said.
We were the only customers at Stiller’s Bar and Grill, one of three places in Liberty County where you can get a drink that isn’t a Chinese or Mexican restaurant. I selected it over The Whistle Stop or Cowboy Heaven because it was cool and dark in contrast to the blazing August heat outside, and, as I’d hoped, empty of people I knew.
When we were seated in a booth the bartender, a chain-smoking older woman in polyester pants, served us Tanqueray martinis. Two televisions played silently in opposite corners of the room, one tuned to a talk show, the other to a soap opera. Shelly said, “I like this place. It’s the way a bar is supposed to be: dark and smelling like stale beer and cigarettes.”
I watched her sip her martini then smile and lick her luscious full lips. I was struck with the urge to pull her face to mine and kiss those lips I’d kissed so many times before, but instead I said, “I remember when you wouldn’t drink anything that didn’t have a maraschino cherry in it. You said gin tasted like kerosene.”
“Hey, we were raised in a place where respectable women didn’t drink--at least not in public. Gimme a break, sugar. I do lots of stuff I wouldn’t have used to.”
“Like shacking up with a cocaine dealer?” I said and instantly regretted it.
But Shelly just gave me a prim smile and kept her eyes fixed on me as she took a major swallow of gin. “Listen to you. Shacking up? You sound like my mama; God rest her soul. I don’t live there. I live at the former home of Bobby and Selma Ballew. And as for drug dealing, I don’t know anything about it; Ronny’s a potter.”
“Yeah, right, pot and cocaine.”
“Seriously, George, you should see his stuff now. You’re nobody in Towns County if you don’t have at least one Ron McKay bowl.”
“Must be some damn fine bowls to be able to afford a pound and a half of coke and the prettiest woman in Towns County.”
“George Bagley, if it hadn’t been twenty-five years and you weren’t a married man, I’d say you were jealous.”
“I’ve been jealous of every boyfriend you ever had, Shelly. I’ve been jealous of goddamned Dinky Downs. So you can imagine how I feel about you and my best friend.” I suddenly realized I was talking loudly and looked up to see the bartender watching not “Oprah” or “Days of Our Lives” but “George Bagley and the Mystery Blonde.” “Give us two more, please,” I said to cover my embarrassment.
“That is so sweet, George,” Shelly said, and I was surprised to see tears in her eyes.
“It’s just a couple of martinis.”
“Same old smartass you always were, aren’t you?”
The bartender set our drinks down and took our empties away after Shelly polished off the last quarter of her’s in one gulp.
“Do you have a cigarette, George?”
“No,” I said, “but they sell them at the bar, I think. What kind do you want?”
“Oh, anything that’s got a filter and not menthol.”
I went to the bar and got a pack of Marlboros and some matches, took one out and lit it for Shelly. She took my hand in both of hers, blew the paper match out with smoke, her lips grazing my thumb. I sat down and lit one for myself. We smoked in silence.
Shelly seemed to be watching t.v. over my shoulder until she stubbed out her cigarette and looked me in the eye. “You wanna know why I see Ronny?” Without pausing for my answer she said, “I’ll tell you why. It’s because he reminds me of you. If I can’t have the real thing I can have his best friend, like one of those people who can’t quite afford a Mercedes and settle for an Audi.”
She was leaning across the little table, six inches from my face, speaking softly. “I’ve waited so long to say this,” a tear bubbled over and ran down her cheek leaving a stream of mascara in its path. “I was a fool, George. I never should have let you get away. I raised two daughters. I don’t regret that, but I used to look at them and wish they were yours. I hate to say it, but there were times when I would have left them for you if you hadn’t been married. I’ve called your house just to listen to your voice on the answering machine. I never left a message because I had no right to screw your life up the way I had mine. I drowned my pain in liquor and Valium. Did you know I had my stomach pumped once?”
She grinned as if this were funny. I shook my head. She produced a tissue and wiped her face, the mascara now pale ghost shadows under her eyes. “I must look like Tammy Faye.”
“You need more hair,” I said.
“And more cleavage,” she said and worked on the mascara some more. “I didn’t come down here to talk about this; I came to talk about Ronny. I figured you must hate me for the way I treated you. I’ve had this conversation with you in my head so many times, but it was just a fantasy, a fantasy that you still cared.
“When Ronny told me you and your wife were separated, I fantasized. I fantasized a lot. Now this is sick, but it’s true. I discovered I was glad Ronny got arrested when I figured out it gave me an excuse to come see you.”
She had both her hands over mine, again leaning over the table. The bartender gave no pretense of watching television. A tingle ran down my spine and I wanted to pinch myself because it was I, of course, who was seeing dreams come true. It was always you, George, only you.
“You want to talk about Ronny?” I asked.
“No,” she whispered, “I want to go somewhere and fuck your brains out.”
Later I lay on top of the sheets sweating, looking at the glorious, glistening body of Shelly Ballew. We lay in the bed that up until an hour before I had shared only with Ursula. Sticking to one of her breasts, breasts that were more compact and firm than a woman nearing fifty had any right to, was a button that had popped off my shirt. I picked it off and flicked it across the room.
“Out, damn spot,” she said and giggled. The line from MacBeth had been a high school cliche. She raised up on an elbow and propped her neck in her palm, doodling my hair with her free hand. “Sugarbag,” she said, the only person to ever call me that, “I want you to do something for me. It’s important.”
I rolled over on my stomach next to her and propped my face on folded arms. “Can’t talk...brains fucked out.”
“ I want you to take Ronny’s case.”
“Shelly, I’ve been over this with Ronny. I care too much about him to be objective. I might screw up. He needs somebody else.”
“He understands that, but he needs you, George. He figures he’s up shit creek no matter what, which is bad enough, but on top of that he feels like you’ve abandoned him because you’re ashamed of him. You know he’s always felt inferior to you. He didn’t get into the Ph.D. program. Dealing drugs is his way of getting back at the world.
“He says the search was all screwed up. He thinks if anybody can beat it, you can. He believes in you, George. You’re his hero. You’re the Towns County boy who made good. He’s got enough to worry about without thinking you don’t want to dirty your hands with him.”
I started to protest but she put her fingers on my lips. “You’re right,” she said, “but he’s right too. It’s important to him that you do this. It’s important to me too.” Her lips were brushing my forehead. “Will you do it for me?”
I let out a long breath. “O.K.” Would I jump off a cliff? How high? “How was the search screwed up?”
Two months later, I’m looking over for one last time my motion to suppress in the case of State v. Ronald McKay. It’s a motion I fully expect to win at the hearing tomorrow. Judge Dunn will hate it, but Don Dunn, unlike some judges, will follow the law even though his ruling will be politically unpopular. He will suppress the admission into evidence of the largest quantity of cocaine ever seized in Liberty County, and Ronny McKay will walk out of the courtroom a free man. Some judges would deny my motion and make Ronny serve the first eight or nine months of a long prison sentence before I could get the decision reversed on appeal, then blame the whole thing on those bleeding hearts in Atlanta, but Don Dunn will follow the law.
And the law states that while having a canine sniff around a citizen’s car is not a “search” and if that dog “alerts” there is then probable cause and “exigent circumstances” justifying a warrantless search, it is unlawful to detain a motorist more than a few minutes waiting for a dog to arrive. I am going to win this case and my fame and fortune will grow because a buck bolted across the interstate. As Dylan says, “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.”
And speaking of lucky, I’ve been getting lucky on a regular basis with Shelly. That first day she said, and I agreed, that we shouldn’t tell Ronny until after his case was over. He was going to prison, and then it wouldn’t matter. That was enough for him to deal with without having his best friend/lawyer steal his girl. I felt bad about doing this behind Ronny’s back, but there was no question I was going to do it. It was Shelly, for God’s sake. Besides, I felt I was making a sacrifice for my friend. He didn’t own Shelly; I had her first, yet he still had her most of the time.
The times I have with Shelly are stolen time, mostly daylight rendezvous at a Holiday Inn in Gainesville--midway between Hiawassee and Clinton--or parking in the woods as we’d done so long ago, once in the picture booth at the mall. They are torrid encounters, usually not much time for conversation or foreplay, but that’s okay because our juices flow in advance. We aren’t there for intimate conversation; we have our conversations on the telephone. We talk about Ronny and his case. We talk about my relationship with my son. We talk about what we’ll do after Ronny’s case and how to deal with Ronny, because I knew as soon as I interviewed the witnesses that I would win eventually, and after the case was assigned to Don Dunn--pure dumb luck again--I was confident I’d win at the motion hearing.
Dealing with Ronny is not a problem as far as I’m concerned--we’ll just tell him the flat out truth--but Shelly worries about it. She is the one sleeping with both of us. I tell her not to worry about it. Ronny and I have weathered situations like this before and sometimes he gets the girl.
It’s what she and I will do afterward that worries me. Shelly wants us to marry. She’s got it all planned out. We will live in both Hiawassee and Clinton. She’ll sell her house and build what she calls a “chalet” on the lake. I’ll stop taking so many cases; she’s got plenty of money. I could start taking cases in Towns County and Habersham; plenty of crime there, she says. I can gradually move my practice to Hiawassee. Shelly’s a Hiawassee girl. “God’s country,” she calls it. She couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
The picture she draws has a lot of appeal for me. I grew up in the mountains. The tepid creeks of Liberty county have no charm for me. The sound of icy mountain water babbling over smooth stone strikes a chord deep in my soul. My favorite poem is by Donald Davidson, one of the “fugitive poets” of my alma mater. It’s called “Sanctuary” and it describes how I feel about Towns county. It is the place I will go when the bad times come. It’s the place my father returned to from the Alcoa plant in Tennessee when the depression hit. As Hank Jr. observes, “Country folk can survive.”
And there will be Shelly. Yes, there will be Shelly.
From what I’ve told you so far, you might be wondering about my hesitation. Well, for one thing I have a wife and a son, in case you’d forgotten, a son whose professed hatred for me might solidify into something long term if I married Shelly, and a wife whom I have pawned into purgatory but always believed I would eventually redeem.
Then there is Shelly. Shelly of my dreams.
And that is the problem: there is Shelly of my dreams, and then there’s Shelly.
You’d think I would have known that, given my experience, would have not gone floundering along like Jay Gatsby thinking you can repeat the past. And I didn’t for long. Shelly of my dreams was that because she was innocent first love. The Shelly who met me at the Holiday Inn was a beautiful and vivacious woman, clever enough in her way, whom I will always love because of the Shelly of my dreams, but with whom I can’t picture my life day in and day out after the passion subsides.
The sex is hot because it’s new and I would probably think much more of it if it weren’t for Ursula, Ursula’s imagination, Ursula’s willingness to please. Shelly will copulate anytime and anywhere but she thinks some things are “icky.” “Watch it buster,” she says.
And now Ronny isn’t going to go to prison, so there will be Ronny to deal with, but I’m putting off thinking about that until after the hearing.
The hearing excites me. Not only do I intend to win, I expect to blow the prosecution out of the water. The incident report, prepared by Officer Justin Bledsoe and approved by Lieutenant Hunter Stevens, relates simply that their “canine was struck by a passing truck,” but that they had called for the Sheriff’s departments dog which had “arrived promptly” and “alerted to the presence of narcotics in the suspect’s vehicle,” then goes on to describe in great detail the discovery and seizure of the cocaine.
According to the incident report, the entire episode took just over a half hour. The time listed for “when reported” is “20:43:05,” or 8:43 p.m. I know from experience that the initial call is normally made before the officer gets out of the car so that dispatch will know what’s up in the event he doesn’t call back soon or backup is otherwise needed. I also know that some officers have been known to postpone that call until they decide they are actually going to make an arrest. There are a couple of reasons for that, it saves them the paperwork of filling out incident reports not needed for a prosecution. That’s is the innocent excuse. The other is more sinister. Gonzo drug cops might not want to report all the frivolous traffic stops which are made on some legally unsupportable “profile” of possible drug offenders. Hunter Stevens and Justin Bledsoe epitomize “gonzo drug cop.”
The time listed for “completed call” is 21:11:22. More importantly it shows “unit 236,” what I assumed to be Bill Quintrell and the Sheriff’s Department’s drug dog, as arriving at 21:02:16, sightly under twenty minutes of detention of Ronny McKay. That’s a borderline time for justifiable detention but a short enough time that any judge I know, given the amount seized, would uphold the search.
I know that Ronny was held much longer before the dog got there, over an hour, because he told me so. He knows he was stopped around eight o’clock. I also knew it was a waste of time to expect any help from Stevens or Bledsoe, so I had to look elsewhere: the dog handlers.
I had dealt with Kirk Landeau on prior cases and had found him as pure as the driven snow. Unfortunately, not only is he without guile, he also doesn’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain. He wasn’t likely to know much and would defer to Stevens’ and Bledsoe’s judgement and recollection.
I started with Quintrell.
Bill Quintrell is a beefy, surly, bald man who has been with the Sheriff’s department for twenty years. He fell into the drug dog job because he’s a hunter and get’s along with dogs much better than he does people, but he likes me.
He likes me because I’m from Towns County where he loves to bear hunt at every opportunity the season and his work permit. In spite of the fact that I don’t hunt or do anything else that requires getting up early and going out in the cold, he will bend my ear for as long as I am willing because I know the creeks and hollers and can, as it were, validate his experience by saying things like, “Yeah I know that little cemetery; it’s the old Cantrell Chapel graveyard. My Grandma Patterson had a baby buried there,” for which he looks at me with reverence, as if I am somehow part of the soul of the place where he is most happy.
Although I knew he would be cordial with me in spite of the fact I’m what he calls a “de-fense” attorney, he would be guarded and not volunteer anything he thought might help the enemy I defended. One thing I hoped he would solve for me was an oddity in Bledsoe’s report that hadn’t occurred to me after multiple readings until it came to me in a bourbon-inspired flash of insight in a rocking chair on my front porch. Although the report cites the time of Quintrell’s arrival, no time is cited for a call to the Sheriff’s department or any other calls back to central dispatch between the initiating and concluding calls.
He would know a phone call from me was defense attorney business and wasn’t likely to return it, so I waited at the Sheriff’s office to corner him at shift change. He solved my mystery right off the bat.
“No, I didn’t get no call from dispatch. They called me up on my home phone. They probably didn’t want to waste time going through dispatch. Them boys was in a hurry to get a canine out there.”
And, I thought, that’s no doubt what they would say on the stand.
“How long did it take you to get there?”
“Five or ten minutes. It wasn’t that far from the house.”
“What time did you get the call?”
“Ten minutes till nine.”
“How come you remember exactly?”
“When you working overtime you look at the clock, son.”
The time he was giving me checked out exactly with the incident report. It seemed I had run into a wall. “Well didn’t you have to change clothes or round up the dog?” I heard the peevishness in my voice but Bill ignored it. Or maybe he was enjoying it.
“Hell no. I just came on in my fishing clothes and Sugar Boy’s always ready to ride in the truck. I was out the door as soon as I hung up the phone.”
He was looking down the hall as if he were ready to hit the time clock and go home. I couldn’t blame him but I had a job to do, even if I were fresh out of ideas as to how to do it.
“Did you catch any?” I said to prolong the conversation.
He grinned and patted his belly. “Me and my boy hauled in so many stripers we had to quit fishing so we wouldn’t have more than we could clean.”
“Just between you and me, Bill, ain’t there a legal limit on how many bass you can take home?”
“Not in no private lake there ain’t. We was over at Arthur Johnson’s pond.”
“What time did you get home from fishing?” I asked, fishing myself.
“Ten minutes till nine.” The phone was ringing when I come in the door.”
Eureka! They were calling before he got there.
“Was Estelle home?”
“Are you investigating your case or are you writing a damn book? Hell no, Estelle wasn’t home. She took off with her sister to that outlet mall over near Forsyth. Damn fishing trip cost me two hundred and forty dollars.”
He thought that was a hoot and I didn’t mention Estelle worked for the state and made more money than he did.
“Been bear hunting lately?” I had the distinct sense I was missing something obvious about the drug cops’ call and was stalling in hopes I could figure it out before he got away.
“Shit I wish. The season don’t open till November. I went up last weekend and did some tracking though. I’ll bet there’s fifty bear in Towns county now. Hell, maybe a hundred. I hear they been getting into peoples garbage in north Atlanta. Well, hell, Cherokee county. That’s damn Atlanta as far as I’m concerned.”
“People in Towns county think me and you are in Atlanta,” I said hoping to get him started.
“The sad truth of the matter is they’re just about right. Back when I started on the road, more often than not you knew everybody you ran into or at least some of their kinfolk. Now we get a call to some place with a bullshit name like “Quail Run” or “Millhouse Manor” and we have to look up the road on the damn map.
“Somebody could bleed to death while we was looking it up. Tell you God’s truth,” he nudged me with his elbow and leaned in closer, “I wouldn’t lose a whole lot of sleep if some of these Yankee bastards did bleed to death. Telling me how much damn taxes they pay and who they’re gonna damn call if I don’t catch whoever stole their damn lawnmower, when it’s likely as not their own damn crackhead kid. Hell, tell me about their damn taxes when I pay two cents on the dollar to build more sewer lines and schools for them and their damn devil-worshiping young’uns. Soon as I hit retirement me and Estelle’s gonna sell out to the bastards and move to the mountains.”
Where, I was thinking, he’d be similarly situated to the young Republicans he hoped bled to death, when it hit me. “I just thought of something. Back to that phone call, didn’t they try to get you on your beeper?”
He took a step backward and frowned. “Yeah, Stevens’ phone number was in there four times. By the time I’d figured out I left my damn beeper at home, them bass was hitting poppers so fast I wasn’t about to go home and get it.”
“I guess your beeper records what time you get the calls.”
“You happen to remember the times?”
“No, I didn’t even notice really. I knew what he’d been calling about so I just cleared it. Listen, you take it easy, George. Say hello to that pretty wife and boy of yours.”
Well, I could at least establish that they called a few times before they got him, but that was only good as far as it went. I couldn’t necessarily move the time of the stop back before the time given in the incident report. Maybe I could subpoena phone company records which would show the time of the calls. I didn’t know. It would take a while anyway, much longer than it would take Bill Quintrell to tell Stevens and Bledsoe about our conversation. Stevens and Bledsoe no doubt would have other explanations for the earlier calls.
In the meanwhile I talked to Kent Landeau, who reacted about the way I thought he would. “Gosh, Mr. Bagley, I sure would like to help you but I think I ought to clear this with Lieutenant Stevens before I talk to you. You know how it is.”
I had found him sitting in his patrol car near the loading dock behind the police station. He had the motor running --cops will leave the motor running even when they go in a building-- and was filling out a form. When he opened the window, essence of dog poured out so strongly I almost gagged.
“Well of course you don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to, Officer Landeau, but I will have to tell the judge when you testify that you refused to be interviewed.”
“Now, don’t do me like that, Mr. Bagley. I didn’t say I wouldn’t talk to you. I just said I needed to clear it with Lieutenant Stevens. That’s who you ought to talk to. Him or Bledsoe. They made a report,” he said, brightening.
“I’ve seen their report, but it’s my job to talk to all the witnesses. You understand I have to do my job, don’t you?”
“Oh, you’ll do a good job I know, Mr. Bagley. I’ve heard people in law enforcement say they’d want you if they was in trouble. I know you got to do your job, but--” he stopped and looked around, for what I didn’t know, rolled down the back window and reached around to the head of a chocolate lab that had been trying to scratch a hole in the plexiglass since I’d tapped on the window. “Anyway, I was so upset by Findo getting run over that I wasn’t paying much attention to anything else. All I know is the man in the car said hell would freeze over before he let us search his car, so they had to get another dog out there. He was a nice guy for a drug dealer though. He said he was sorry about Findo.”
“I was real sorry to hear about Findo too,” I said to prolong the conversation. “My son told me about you bringing him for a demonstration at school. He said he was the smartest dog he’d ever seen. He was real sorry to hear about the accident when I told him.”
“I appreciate that. Everybody’s been so nice. Scout’s a good dog, too, aren’t ya boy?” He turned again to scratch the dog’s head, which now was a foot out the window, and didn’t flinch when the dog licked him smack in the face. “But he’s not as smart as Findo,” he turned and added in a whisper so Scout wouldn’t hear.
“At least he didn’t suffer much, I guess.” I took it for granted that impact with a speeding semi brought instantaneous death to the poor dog.
“Yeah, I guess that’s so. He was dead when I got him to the vet. Coach and Lieutenant Stevens told me he was dead before we carried him to the car.”
“Coach?” I said, my eyebrows making for the top of my forehead.
“Yeah, Coach Hardeman. He saw me running down the road after Findo got hit. He pulled over and helped me and Lieutenant Stevens put Findo on my poncho. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. Lieutenant Stevens told him it was official police business and he hadn’t ought to be there, but Coach told the Lieutenant he’d always been too big for his britches and he’d have him doing pushups right there on the side of the road if he didn’t shut up and help with Findo. Gosh, I was glad to see Coach. He was always like a daddy to us boys.
“I guess it’s kind of funny how Coach was ordering the Lieutenant around. You don’t talk back to Coach.”
Coach Morris Hardeman was a man used to getting his way. He’d taken the Liberty County Panthers to eight State basketball championships before retiring three years ago. Nobody in Liberty county--and that included Judge Dunn and the D.A.--would talk back to Coach. After I talked to him, I knew that Coach Hardeman was on my team and Coach’s team, as usual, would win.
I don’t like doing this. It’s not that I mind sitting by the side of an interstate highway as wave after wave of automobiles hit their brakes when they spot our two patrol cars. If I close my eyes it’s kind of like sitting by the ocean with the breakers rolling in. Lionel and the kids are building a sand castle. I’m thinking about another frozen daiquiri.
It’s not that I object to riding shotgun with Jared Rayburn. He’s not a bad kid. He’s got that rookie cop attitude of looking at every encounter as a potential arrest, but he’ll grow out of it. You learn to look the other way. Different strokes for different folks. You’re not the moral watchdog. There’ll be plenty of serious shit to deal with without you going looking for it.
But that’s the reason he’s here, and that’s the reason Jerell Jackson is sitting in the other car with Landeau and the dog. Not to grow out of it, but because they’ve got that rookie zeal that has them looking for trouble behind every cracked windshield, every bad tail light, every expired tag decal.
That’s not the reason I’m here. I’m here because I have a video camera. I’m here because twenty years ago I left my home and my family to get as far away from them as I could and for me that was Berkeley, California to study film making. Yes, I got my degree. Yes, I’ve been to Hollywood. I’ve worked with Martin Scorcese, dammit. So why is a skilled film maker, wife of a tenured professor, daughter of the late Senator Billy Barnes, sitting in a City of Clinton patrol car wishing she was at the beach instead? Because my name is Christine Barnes and I’m a cop.
I usually get a kick out of a saying that, giving it my best Joe Friday deadpan, but today it comes out sounding like the joke’s on me. Today I am forty years old, so I’ve got the right to be a little snippish, don’t I? I’ve got crow’s feet, my tits are sagging, it’s my birthday and I’m sitting in a blue Ford waiting for some baby-faced boys too dumb to go to college to stop some poor bastard with a gram of coke in the console so they can steal his BMW.
I’ll get back to that. Right now I want to talk about me, alright? Lordy, Lordy. If somebody puts that lordy business in the newspaper they better remember I carry a fucking gun.
It’s that damn Lionel’s fault, him and his fucking British accent. I swear if it hadn’t been for the accent he would have just been a tall professor with a big dick that I screwed over Christmas holidays. I mean I’ve slept with fucking movie stars and left them wanting more. Did I mention that when I left L.A. I was twenty-eight-years-old, five-foot-eleven, not an ounce of fat on me from living on cocaine and fourteen hour workdays, had a sexy southern accent and an ass that had the gofers lined up drooling behind my camera when they could have been watching Melanie Griffith get naked? Okay, maybe not competition for Melanie Griffith in a sex scene, but it was a damn fine ass, and now it’s got an extra ten pounds ballooned out in a cop uniform that makes it look like twenty.
Did I mention that I’m forty years old and feeling like the fucking world has passed me by? Am I swearing too much? Well fuck, fuck, fuck.
I told myself I’d had enough of life in the fast lane, that Lionel was sweet and sincere, that California was nowhere while Liberty County, Georgia was a place, my place, that my life was going nowhere, but the truth is I took the easy way out. I had a nice apartment, plenty of spending money, no mortgage, no dependants. In between the rejections, I was getting better and better shoots. I just didn’t have what it took to stick it out. I could have been somebody, dammit.
I know. Everybody’s somebody. I have a wonderful husband and two beautiful children. My job is sometimes very interesting. I really like shooting crime-scene videos, especially the murders. I like my boss, even if he is making me do these stupid traffic-stop shoots. Luther McKee, the Chief of Police, is a sweetheart, but he’s from the old school. He believes in the “War on Drugs.” He thinks it’s a war the government can win. He doesn’t see that the “war” is more of a danger to us than the drugs. Hasn’t anyone noticed that as soon as the Berlin wall fell and the “red menace” was no longer a bugaboo anybody would believe in, suddenly drugs became the new demon? That drugs have replaced “national security” as the government’s justification for assuming powers that threaten our liberty? And worse, it’s not just the FBI and the CIA this time. I reaches to the lowest levels of government.
Everybody’s in competition for the drug money. That’s why Rupert’s got me out here with these drug-unit cops even though we’ve got cars equipped with cameras to film traffic stops. He’s applying for a federal grant. “Those dash-mounted cameras are just gonna give them what they see every week on “COPS,” he told me. “You can make us look professional, girl.” Rupert can call me “girl” and get away with it. He’s known me since I was in diapers.
There’s all that money coming from the government, our tax money, but that’s not the scariest thing. The real scary thing is the “condemnation” laws that both the feds and the state have now which allow the government to seize property allegedly purchased with drug sale proceeds or “used to facilitate” a drug transaction, and the really sinister part is that they let the agency which seizes them keep the proceeds to expand their bureaucracy. Think about that. It’s like the old system we had in Georgia where Justices of the Peace were paid by the fines they accessed. Is that a conflict of interest or what?
The framers of this litigation probably envisioned seizing yachts from wealthy drug barons, and I guess that must happen somewhere, but what usually happens here is they’re stealing cars and whatever money’s in the billfold of some poor schmuck with a few grams of coke and there’s usually not enough money involved for the schmuck to pay a lawyer to do the complicated legal work required to have a chance to get the property back. So thousands of dollars are pocketed by the Clinton Police Department every year without any kind of hearing on their right to take it. And yeah, did I mention gold chains? To a drug cop, any gold chain around a young man’s neck was purchased with drug money.
The state can take your money, your car, your jewelry, and the feds can take the house you’ve worked all your life to buy if you’re growing marijuana in the closet. I’ve seen it happen.
So that’s why I’m out here, to document the City of Clinton’s heroic efforts in the war on liberty. It galls me to have any part in it.
And we’re off! Our target is one of those small Mercedes. It has fancy wheels and one of those chrome-chain frames around the license plate. If I had me one of those I could be the only white person in Liberty county to sport one. The windows are tinted and Jared thinks they may be darker than the law allows. At least he’s going to check. And while he’s doing that, he’ll be leaning on the poor guy to let him search the car and, if he finds dope it’s not only bye bye Bill of Rights, but bye bye Mercedes.
People think that criminal practice is the most exciting lawyer’s life, and they’re right. Civil lawyers go to trial much less often--I mean a real trial, a jury trial--and when they do the stakes are less high; nobody’s going to prison; nobody’s going to die. Below them on the excitement meter are the majority of lawyers who rarely if ever face juries, paper pushers of various sorts.
Nevertheless, criminal defense attorneys spend a minority of their time in court, and most of the time in court is spent waiting one’s turn. Even in the unlikely event a hearing is scheduled for a specific time, it’s more likely than not that it won’t start on time; the cases before will take longer than the court has allowed, but that’s better than the usual situation, which is what we in the business fondly refer to as a “cattle call.” That’s where all defendants are scheduled to show up at the same time, thirty defendants and their lawyers at 9:00 am., with their cases handled in whatever order the judge, or often by delegation of authority, the prosecution, prefers.
That’s what I’m doing today, sitting at a cattle call waiting to hear the motion to suppress in the case of the State vs. Ronald McKay.
Unlike many lawyers who view waiting in court as an imposition, I choose to look at it as a perk. In a crunch I’ve been known to do some paperwork, but mostly I use the time to read for pleasure. That’s what I’ve been doing today even though I’m sitting here with my friend Ronny McKay. You don’t talk in court unless you’re speaking to the judge.
I figured my case, an evidentiary hearing, wouldn’t be held until after lunch and I was right, but the Assistant D.A. wouldn’t guarantee that even though we both knew he’d fill up the time before that with fifteen or so guilty pleas and sentencings. He fears the wrath of Don Dunn should he suddenly find himself without a case to call.
I could have asked Don to excuse me until after lunch and he probably would have, but then I couldn’t have justified spending all morning reading From Dawn Till Decadence. Also, I’d rather have done this sooner than later so there’d have been more spectators left. Since I plan to win, I’d like an audience.
But sitting here at two o’clock watching a probation revocation hearing, Ronny and I are the only spectators left who don’t work for the government. I attend to enough of the hearing to know that the expected will happen. The judge will find the defendant in violation of probation and incarcerate her, with or without a lecture depending on his mood, but I’m guessing without. He likes an audience too.
I’m flipping back in the book trying to get straight who Montaigne was, when the defendant gets my attention with her tearful plea for “some intense probation.” (What she might get if she had a shorter rap sheet is “intensive probation.”)
“I’ve never had no intense probation; I just get sent off and it don’t do nobody no good. I’ve got two little boys at home which need their mama. I was just getting my life straight when I got locked up. I got a job a waiting for me with my uncle if I can just get out--”
I tune her out and go back to my book. We’ve all heard this spiel so many times any of the bailiffs could deliver Don’s opprobrium. When I hear, “Take her into custody,” I gather up my stuff and Ronny and I move to the defense table. Don announces a fifteen minute recess which suits me because it gives me time to phone Coach Hardeman myself and tell him to be here in half an hour and wait outside the courtroom until he’s called.
“Remain seated and come to order.” Don Dunn reenters the courtroom after exactly fifteen minutes of recess and says, “Mr. Flowers, call your next case.” Don wants people to say he runs an efficient courtroom.
“The State calls the case of the State vs. Ronald McKay. Your Honor, this will be a motion to suppress. The State announces it’s ready to proceed.”
I stand. “Do you have a copy of my motion, Judge?”
“Mr. Bagley, not only do I have a copy of your motion, but in my usual habit of cracker- jack preparation I actually read the thing not five minutes ago. I must say it’s short and to the point. Didn’t waste my time with a bunch of legal authority to support your position.” Don’s come back as the court jester.
“I thought you were the law, Judge.”
The court reporter, who knows not to take this down, laughs.
“Ms. Newborn, I hope by your laughter you are not suggesting I’m not the supreme master of all I survey.”
“No, judge, you’re the man, the big banana.” She pushes back her long black hair, looks up at him straight-faced and we all laugh.
“Well that’s better. I like that part about the banana. You must have been talking to my wife, who, by the way, questions my authority on a daily basis. Are we ready to proceed or do y’all need to impugn my honor some more? Mr. Flowers, you want to get a crack in here?”
“No, your honor. The defendant’s the one with the crack.”
“Well, Mr. Bagley, if I read his motion right, claims y’all been messin’ where you shouldn’t a’ been messin’. You dispute that I guess.”
“Yes sir, and I call as my first witness, Officer Kirk Landeau. We’d ask the court to invoke the rule. Also, I request that the prosecutor, Officer Justin Bledsoe, be allowed to remain in the courtroom to assist in the presentation of evidence.”
“The rule is invoked. Mr. Bagley, ask your witnesses to remain outside the courtroom until called to testify.” The judge looks out into the gallery where only Kirk Landeau sits. “Of course, I don’t know who that would be unless you’re planning to call Ms. Biggers as a witness.” He smiles at Emily Biggers, who’s been Clerk of the Superior Court since he was in law school and gives him no quarter.
“No Judge, George tried to get me to testify but I must say I was insulted by the pitiful bribe he offered.”
“Well I’m glad to hear you don’t come cheap, Ms. Biggers. Mr. Bagley, you got any objection to Officer Bledsoe remaining in the courtroom to help Mr. Flowers?” He nods at Bledsoe, already seated beside Flowers at counsel table. “From what I’ve seen he needs all the help he can get.”
“No, sir.” Flowers doesn’t need Bledsoe’s assistance. The reason he wants Bledsoe in the courtroom is so Bledsoe can hear all the testimony and frame his own accordingly, but it’s a foregone conclusion the judge will let Bledsoe stay. Besides, I’d much rather have him in here than out in the hall seeing Coach Hardeman.
“Raise your right hand, please.” Landeau is given the oath and Flowers establishes who he is and what he was doing on the day in question.
“Officer Landeau, did anything unusual happen after you removed the canine unit from your vehicle to conduct the walk-around of the defendant’s vehicle?”
“Yes sir, we heard some dogs barking and then this big deer, a buck, jumped over the chain-link fence and headed across the interstate. It almost hit Justin. Officer Bledsoe that is.”
“And then what happened?”
“Well Findo--that’s was my dog, the canine unit--took off after him so fast he jerked the leash out of my hand. I should have had it wrapped around my wrist,” he adds and hangs his head.
“And then what, Officer Landeau?”
“Findo got hit by a big truck. The guy didn’t even stop.”
“And was Findo able to conduct an olfactory surveillance of the defendant’s vehicle?”
“No sir. Findo got killed. Officer Bledsoe had to call in the county’s canine unit.”
“No further questions.”
“Yes, your honor.” I get up but don’t go to the lectern as Flowers had. I’m saving my big splash. “Officer Landeau, were you there when a second dog arrived?”
“No sir. I had to take Findo to the vet, but Officer Bledsoe has the times in his report.”
“Yes, one other thing: did you hear Mr. McKay say anything before you left?”
“Yes sir, he said he was real sorry about Findo.”
“Anything about consenting to have his car searched?”
“Oh, yes sir. Officer Stevens was telling him he’d have to wait for another dog unless he wanted to consent to have his car searched and he said...” Landeau looks up at the judge. “Should I say exactly what he said or take the cuss words out?”
Don smiles. “Tell us exactly what he said as best you remember.”
“He said he would wait till hell freezes over but he wasn’t gonna consent.”
“Thank you Officer,” I say. “No more questions.”
“No, your honor. May this witness be excused?”
“Your honor, in an abundance of caution we would ask that Officer Landeau remain outside the courtroom. We may need to recall him.”
“You’re to wait outside until released by the court, Officer.”
“The State calls Officer Justin Bledsoe.”
Bledsoe says, “Good morning, Judge,” before he takes the oath and Flowers establishes that he’s assigned to the Drug Enforcement Unit.
Then we have to hear what the D.E.U. does, what his duties are and what special training he’s had. I exchange a knowing glance with Don. This is a waste of our time but he’s not ready to tell young Flowers how to present his case. Yet.
Finally Flowers says, “Your Honor, I offer this witness as an expert in the field of drug investigation.”
If a jury were present I could have a little fun asking Bledsoe questions about his “expertise,” but it’s not worth the effort here. “I have no objection, Your Honor, though I fail to see where any expert opinion will be needed.”
“Officer Bledsoe is tendered without objection as an expert in the field of drug investigation. Whether expert opinion will assist the trier of fact will be determined by the court at the proper time.”
Flowers resumes. “Thank you, Your Honor. Officer Bledsoe, tell the court, if you will, how you were engaged on the early evening of August 10, 2000.”
“Lieutenant Stevens and I were positioned on Interstate 20 westbound doing routine traffic surveillance. We were accompanied by our canine unit, Officer Landeau and C147, a canine trained and certified in the detection of illegal drugs.”
“And did you have occasion to encounter the defendant while so engaged?”
“Yes sir. At 20:43 hours we observed a 2000 Nissan Maxima, grey in color, traveling westbound at what appeared to be an excessive rate of speed. Radar confirmed that the vehicle was traveling 67 in a 55 mph zone.” Bledsoe glanced down at his report, the same one which lay in front of me, when numbers were called for, but otherwise delivered his testimony without hesitation looking straight at the judge. “Lieutenant Stevens activated our emergency equipment and we executed a stop of the suspect’s vehicle.
“I approached the vehicle and noticed immediately that it had a rental tag out of Fulton County. I asked Mr. McKay for his license and proof of insurance. He was real slow and deliberate in producing them like he was going out of his way to be careful. That made me suspicious so I asked him a few questions about where he was headed.”
“You say that you were suspicious. What aroused your suspicion, Officer Bledsoe?”
“Objection,” I say, “asked and answered.”
“Officer Bledsoe,” Flowers says walking toward his table and grinning so only I can see, “was there anything other than what you just stated that aroused your suspicion?”
“Well he was traveling alone and he seemed kind of nervous to me, like he might be hiding something. When Lieutenant Stevens was running his license, I asked him some questions, just stuff like why he was traveling and where he was headed, and he said he’d been to Augusta selling pottery and he was headed home. I thought that was strange because he was traveling due west toward Atlanta whereas his license said he lived in Hiawassee, which was due north. I asked him about that and then he changed his story and said he was going to see some friends in Atlanta.
“By then we were finished with his license check and that checked out okay, so I was writing out a warning ticket--I hate to give folks from out of town a ticket if I don’t have to. He wasn’t exceeding the speed limit by that much and I hated for him to have to drive all the way back down here for court.
“So I told him I was giving him a courtesy warning and I told him I saw a lot of drug traffic through here and would he mind if I just had a dog do a walk-around of his car, two minutes max. He wouldn’t even agree to that.
“By this time my suspicions were sufficiently aroused to warrant having a canine unit brought to his car. I radioed Officer Landeau to come forward with the canine but right as he exited his vehicle with the canine a deer ran directly between my vehicle and the suspect’s vehicle. The canine engaged in pursuit of the deer and was struck and killed by a tractor trailer.”
“Had you ever encountered such a situation before, Officer Bledsoe?”
“No sir, the situation was highly unusual. It was just a freak accident, unavoidable. Officer Landeau was highly upset, the dog was a valuable resource to the department, but he was Officer Landeau’s pet. He thought the canine might could be saved and he went to take it to the vet. Lieutenant Stevens helped officer Landeau move the dog while I attempted to call Sgt. Bill Quintrell regarding possible utilization of the L.C.S.O. canine.”
“And were you able to reach him?”
“Yes sir. I was aware that Sgt. Quintrell works first shift and very likely would be home during this time frame so I utilized my cell phone to make contact at his residence.”
“And did he come to the scene?”
“Yes sir. He arrived at 21:02 hours and deployed his canine. His canine promptly alerted to the trunk of the suspect’s vehicle. We obtained the suspect’s keys and opened the trunk.”
“If my arithmetic is correct, Officer Bledsoe, Sgt. Quintrell arrived just nineteen minutes after you initially encountered the defendant. Is that correct?”
“And what did you find in the defendant’s trunk?”
“Objection. It’s irrelevant to this proceeding what was found or not found in the trunk. The only issue is whether the search was constitutional.”
“I’ll sustain the objection, Mr. Bagley, but I do note that the defendant is charged with trafficking in cocaine, which leads me to suspect that at least an ounce of cocaine was in his trunk. Not that it matters of course.”
“Allegedly, Your Honor.”
“Yes, allegedly.” Neither Don’s shaking of his head nor the snickering of the probation officers will be preserved in the record. “You may continue, Mr. Flowers.”
“Your Honor, with all due respect, I think the State should be allowed to present all the circumstances of the arrest.”
“Well you’re wrong. This is not a trial on the merits; it’s a motion to suppress. Any further questions of this witness?”
Dennis Flowers looks at his pad, flipping pages until the judge says, “Mr. Flowers?”
“Nothing further at this time.”
This time I go to the podium. “Officer Bledsoe, you testified, and I believe this is confirmed in your incident report, that you first observed Mr. McKay’s car at 20:43 hours, is that correct?”
“And that would be 8:43 pm in real people’s time, correct?”
“20:43 hours military time corresponds to 8:43 pm in civilian time.”
“Is it possible you are somehow mistaken about that time?”
“No sir. That time is recorded by dispatch. It’s their job to know what time it is.”
“Well is it possible they, dispatch I mean, somehow recorded the wrong time?”
“I suppose anything is possible, sir, but I know this time to be accurate because I had looked at my watch just prior to the stop. You get pretty bored sitting out there by the side of the road on a Saturday night.”
I could stop right here and not affect my case or its eventual outcome, but when I look at the son of a bitch and see him sitting there so smug, I can’t resist giving him a little preview of life in hell.
“Officer Bledsoe, is it possible then that you’re flat out lying through your teeth and you stopped Mr. McKay an hour--“
“Sustained.” Don looks at me like what-in-the-hell-am-I-up-to. If I were some out-of-town lawyer I’d be getting the tongue lashing of a lifetime about now.
“No further questions, Your Honor.”
“The State rests, Your Honor.”
“Call your first witness, Mr. Bagley.”
“I call Coach Morris Hardeman.”
Dennis Flowers suddenly has a worried expression that’s nothing compared to Bledsoe, who looks as if he just gave blood. All of it. As Coach Hardeman takes the stand and we go through the preliminaries, they are whispering like a game show team with the clock running down.
“Coach Hardeman, let me direct your attention to the evening of August 10, 2000. Were you traveling west on Interstate 20 that evening?”
“Yes sir. My wife and I had been to the mall in Athens and we were on our way home.”
“Did you see anything unusual on your way home?”
“I guess you’re not wanting to hear about the old man in a dress and high heels I saw at Da Best Food to Go?” The coach smiled an easy smile, blue eyes twinkling under a broad forehead crowned with thin hair long since gone white, looking from me to the judge, at whom he winked. “You’re probably meaning the two policemen and the dog.”
“Yes sir, that’s what we’re interested in.”
“Well, I had just passed the Georgetown exit when I was met by two policemen on foot, walking against the traffic in the direction of a dog lying in the emergency lane. I slowed down of course, and when I did I recognized both of them as being boys I coached, so I pulled over to see if I could help.”
“Who were the two policemen, Coach?”
“The one in front was Kirk Landeau and the other one was Hunter Stevens.”
“What happened when you stopped?”
“I got out and talked to them--Kirk mainly--and found out the dog was his, one of those drug-detecting dogs. He was real upset. It was a real pretty dog, a Labrador, but if the dog wasn’t dead already it might as well have been.
“They had a poncho and I helped them get the dog on it so Kirk could take him to the vet, which was foolish and Hunter kept telling him so till I managed to shut him up. It’s like I told him: just because something’s foolish doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. It was plain to me that taking that dead dog to the vet was something Kirk needed to do.”
Morris Hardeman is looking at the clerk when he finishes, probably because she’s such a receptive audience. Emily’s eyes shine with tears as she smiles and nods to the great man.
“Do you recall what time it was when you stopped to help these officers?” I ask, trying to sound idly curious. You got to play these scenes out for their dramatic potential if you’re going to be worth much as a trial lawyer.
“Yes, it was just before eight o’clock.”
“Thank you. That’s all I have.”
“Thank you, Your Honor.” Dennis Flowers has a whispered exchange with Bledsoe then approaches the podium as if it’s a bomb he’s been sent to diffuse.
“Coach Hardeman, it’s a pleasure to meet you sir. My name is Dennis Flowers and I represent the State of Georgia on the defendant’s motion to suppress cocaine seized from his vehicle.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Flowers.”
“Coach Hardeman, I don’t suppose you looked at your watch when you saw this unfortunate scene on Interstate 20 last summer?”
“No. I don’t remember looking at a clock at all.”
Flowers looks as if he’d clipped the red wire and is still alive to talk about it. “So when you said it was around eight when you so commendably stopped to help these officers, that’s just an estimation on your part, correct?”
“I believe what I said was it was just before eight o’clock. Anyway, I’m sure that’s what time it was.”
Flowers now has to ask the question to which the primrose path has led him. “How is it that you’re sure?”
“Because my wife and I were listening to “A Prairie Home Companion.” It goes off at 8:00. “The News From Lake Woebegone” had ended I remember--it usually starts around 7:30--but the show was still on. They were singing some gospel song. I don’t recall which one.”
Flowers looks at his notes, which evidently tell him his goose is cooked because he announces, “No further questions, Your Honor.”
“Your Honor, I’m prepared to offer Mr. McKay’s testimony if the court would like to hear it.”
“That won’t be necessary, Mr. Bagley. Your motion is granted. Mr. Flowers, I’d like to see you in my office.”
“I’ll start at the end and work my way back. The bottom line is you’re both suspended
without pay for a week.” Luther McKee, the Chief of Police, paused to let that sink in. Hunter Stevens and Justin Bledsoe sat in two chairs pulled up to his desk as McKee stood behind it daring them to make eye contact. Stevens was staring at his shoelaces but Bledsoe, squirming in his chair, was about to speak when McKee resumed.
“I don’t want to hear a peep out of you, son, unless you want to dig yourself in deeper. The D.A. told me what happened in court this afternoon and he’s as mad as a hornet that y’all made his boy Flowers look like a fool in court. He wants me to fire your asses and I’m this close to doing it.” He held up a finger and thumb to demonstrate.
“You want to know why I’m not doing it?”
The two officers looked up at him dolefully.
“Well I’ll tell you why, you inquisitive dumbasses. The first reason is I’m not letting that son of a bitch think he can tell me how to run my department. I don’t tell him which one of his smartass assistants I’d get rid of and I ain’t answering to him just because he’s been to law school.” He drew out “law school” derisively. Stevens responded with a weak grin but Bledsoe didn’t feel that confident.
“The second reason is I’m a soft-hearted son of a bitch and don’t want to see you boys shut out of law enforcement. If I fired you for this you’d be lucky to get a job in Sweet Jane,” he said, mentioning a hamlet in south Liberty County where the two cops’ pay and corresponding qualifications were so low they were the butt of jokes at C.P.D.
“You, Bledsoe,” he said, pointing. “You flat out lied in court and don’t say you didn’t because neither one of us is dumb enough to believe otherwise. Which is not to say you’re not in as deep as he is, Stevens. You signed off on the report. You knew y’all stopped the guy a long time before the report said. You’re both guilty of not calling in the start time. I don’t know which one of you is the sorriest: the one caught lying in court or the one that got out of going and threw his fellow officer to the wolves.”
Stevens’ head had dropped so low that Luther McKee was addressing the crown of his head. Bledsoe’s wasn’t so low that the chief couldn’t see him cut his eyes toward his partner. He wanted a full ten seconds before resuming.
“I know how tempting it is to bend a few rules. We all do it on occasion,” he said in a softer tone which encouraged the two officers enough to look up. “But there’s a line you don’t cross. I’m not sure exactly where it is but I know you two are way over it.
“Sometimes you don’t get the bad guy. Sometimes the scumbag walks when you’ve got him dead to rights and you don’t have to be a A.C.L.U. bleeding heart to see there are some methods you cannot use without bringing disrespect on all of us. And that’s what you two did. You brought disrespect on all of us.
“If people can’t believe that a law-enforcement officer is as good as his word then every scumbag walks, and all hell breaks loose, and it’s open season on anybody dumb enough to wear a badge.” He sat down at his desk and started evening the edges of a stack of papers, a rhythmic tapping as the last of sunset filtered through the blinds.
“I know it galls you to see a dope dealer get away. There’s nothing sorrier than a dope dealer. If I had my way I’d line ‘em all up and shoot ‘em and I’d quit mollycoddling the dopeheads that keep ‘em in business. Lock ‘em up and throw away the key and we’d nip this thing in the bud. But that ain’t gonna happen as long as this country’s run by over-educated atheists turning ‘em out as fast as we can catch ‘em. The whole system is set up to make sure criminals get all the rights.
“Well, don’t get me started on that. The bottom line is you’re both suspended for a week starting Monday. Now, we both know you can ask for a hearing on that, but I don’t think you want to. The newspapers get a hold of this thing and you’re finished in law enforcement.
“Anybody calls for you, the word is you took the week off. The paperwork will say you were suspended for negligence in filling out an incident report. I may take some heat for this, but I understand where you’re coming from. Which is not to say that y’all are not on unofficial probation for as long as I’m in this office. If I hear of either of one of you as much as spitting on the sidewalk, I’ll fire your ass so fast it’ll make your head spin. Any questions?”
The delinquents said, “No sir,” and took their leave.
Out in the hall Justin Bledsoe was smacking his fist into his open palm. “That motherfucker Bagley, I’ll fix his ass if it’s the last thing I do. I swear to God I’ll kill him, Stevens.”
“You’re not doing shit, Justin.” Hunter Stevens was prodding his finger into Bledsoe’s chest. “ We fucked up. We’re both gonna lay low and think about covering our asses better. Bagley’s just doing his job. He’s a smart motherfucker.”
“He’s a fucking candy-ass prick is what he is. He sandbagged me. He made me look like a fool. If he’d told us what he knew, we could’ve worked things out. The asshole wants to play rough, he’s fucking with the wrong dude.”
“The man couldn’t take that chance, Justin. You think we wouldn’t have explained away the time problem if he’d told us he knew about Coach. The D.A. wasn’t gonna lose this bust without a fight.”
“What I want to know is how the bastard found out about the coach anyhow? It’s not like they’re drinking buddies.”
“Think about it Justin. I didn’t tell him and you didn’t tell him.”
Kent Landeau turned the corner into the hallway at just that moment, his attention fixed on the rubber ball bouncing from a Bolo Paddle “Forty seven, forty eight...
“Landeau, you son-of-a-bitch, I’ll kill you’re ass!” Bledsoe lunged in his direction and Stevens jumped on his back, riding him to the floor.
“You lay a finger on Landeau and I’ll hurt you Bledsoe.” Stevens was sitting on Bledsoe’s back with his right arm in a half nelson.
Bledsoe, teary-eyed, croaked a hoarse whisper through clenched teeth, “One of these days you’re gonna go too far Hunter.”
The last thing Hunter Stevens needed was a week off from work. Ownership of four ounces of high quality cocaine can be a curse for one without the means or inclination to sell it.
By Wednesday, his nose was shut down completely. He and Karla hadn’t eaten anything but ice cream since Saturday but they had augmented their caloric intake by consuming three gallons of vodka. Still, their bellies were shrunken and their faces sunk in on the bones.
“I want some more, Stevie.” Karla spoke in a deep harsh voice which had the stupid sound of one whose nasal passages are clogged. Looking at Stevens through bloodshot eyes, she lay supine on the sofa, a naked, petite woman of twenty-six who still looked like the saucy cheerleader she once had been, though the heart-shaped face was haggard. Her body looked as trim as it had back at Liberty High though the muscle tone had gone slack. Thin red welts cris-crossed her thighs and a hand-shaped, multi-colored bruise adorned one tricep.
Her boyfriend, dressed only in boxer shorts, reclined in a leather Lazy Boy nursing a vodka on the rocks. They hadn’t been out of the house since Friday.
“I do too,” he said in a similar voice, “but we need to take a day off and get better. You can’t get it up your nose anyway.”
“I could call Sheila. She’s got needles.”
“You get that junkie bitch over here and we won’t have any dope left. You haven’t told her anything about us doing dope, have you?”
“No, Hunter, everybody I know thinks you’re a straight-laced jock cop. They’re afraid you’ll bust them.”
“And if it don’t stay that way your ass is dead meat. And we’re not starting on needles. When dopers take to needles, it’s all downhill from there. Same story with smoking the stuff. I see it all the time.”
“I know. She says it’s the bomb, though. I wouldn’t mind trying it once.” She swung her legs around and sat with her elbows propped on spread knees. “We could rub some on our gums.”
“We need to take a day off and dry out. Get some decent sleep. Eat some real food.” He took two Camel Lights out of a pack on the floor beside him, lit them and gave one to Karla.
“Have a drink and chill out,” he said, emitting a cloud of smoke into the living room of what real estate agents call a “starter home.” It was a small, cheaply constructed, vinyl-sided, one-story house on a half-acre lot in a subdivision with fifty others which differed from it only superficially, a slum awaiting its time. On this eighty-degree October day they had the windows open so that cigarette smoke was carried across the room by a light breeze.
Karla raised herself from the sofa and sat down on the floor beside him, running her palm up the inside of his thigh. “Come on Stevie, just a little on our gums to ease us down. We could play some games,” she said, but observed no response in his groin. They were as overdosed on sex as cocaine.
“No Karla, it’s wasteful. It would take too much just to get a buzz at this stage. I read about this somewhere. Coke releases this stuff named “el dopa” or something like that in your brain. That’s supposed to be what you makes you high. You only produce so much at a time, that’s why it takes more and more coke to get less and less high. We’ve got to lay off a while.”
She leaned over to the coffee table and stubbed out her cigarette. “Okay asshole, Mr. I-run-Karla’s-life, I’m gonna take a shower.” She filled her glass with Smirnoff and turned a corner into a narrow hallway.
Stevens heard a door close, the shower start and then what he expected: the creak of the door being reopened slowly. He arose with a minimum of noise, tiptoed down the hall and opened the bedroom door.
Karla stood at the dresser, one hand holding an open baggie, the other rubbing her index finger around in her mouth. Her face, before she saw Stevens, was a mask of pleasure but when she turned to the door her eyes went wide and her hands shook, spilling a cloud of white powder into the carpet.
She pled in a croaky whisper as he approached, “No, Stevie. Please no.”
When he stopped he gently removed the baggie from her hand and placed it on the dresser, then struck her with a swift backhand that knocked her over the corner of the bed and into the wall. She bounced back dully, landing partially on the bed before she hit the floor in the two-foot alley separating the queen bed and the wall. Above her, a head-shaped concavity appeared in the sheet rock.
He stood over her as she raised herself, crying soft-winded sobs, onto her hands and knees. Grabbing her by her hair he pushed her head back to face him and said, “I hope you’ve learned a lesson here, Karla,” then drooled spit onto her face. A glob of foamy white mucus hung from her nose and mixed with the blood that dribbled over her chin and landed in large drops on the carpet.
“What have you learned, Karla?” When she didn’t answer, he began lifting her up by her hair so that she cried out as he repeated the question loudly into her ear.
“No...dope,” she said between sobs, “unless ... you ... say ... so.” He released her and she collapsed to the floor as he turned to walk away.
When he returned she was still on the floor, leaned back against the wall whimpering, her face smeared with blood and tears. He knelt down beside her and softly wiped her face with a cold, wet washrag.
“There’s another way I’ve heard about,” he said as he delicately swabbed the end of her nose. “Get on all fours.”
She looked at him with frightful eyes, but complied.
“Now close your eyes and put your face down on the floor.”
With a resigned sigh she obeyed.
Stevens stuck his finger in his mouth then coated it with cocaine and thrust it in her anus.
“No, Stevie! I’m so sore. No..oh..oh.” The “oh’s” lengthened with each repetition, tracing an ascent from pain to pleasure. She giggled, “Yes baby, yes, yes, yes,” as he repeated the process.
“Let me do you,” she said, and did, then bounced up to turn off the shower.
Stevens felt life flowing through his veins as Karla came back behaving like Miss School Spirit. She took a long swallow of her drink, her eyes fixed on his lower torso. “Glad to see you’re not Mr. Downer anymore,” she said, straddling the corner of the bed and bending face down onto her forearms, “cause my ass is ready for some fucking.”
Ed. Note #2: Pretty damn good, right? Again, either keep an eye out here at TPC or shoot an email to: