Home > The King of Torts(5)

The King of Torts(5)
Author: John Grisham

"Was he trash-talking, making threats, that kind of stuff?" "He was asleep." "Asleep?" "Yeah." "Was he snoring too loud? Forget it."

Eye contact was broken by the lawyer, who suddenly needed to write something on his yellow legal pad. Clay scribbled the date, time, place, client's name, then ran out of important facts to take note of. He had a hundred questions filed away in his memory, and after that a hundred more. They rarely varied in these initial interviews; just the basics of his client's miserable life and how they came to meet. The truth was guarded like rare gems to be passed through the Plexiglas only when the client wasn't threatened. Questions about family and school and jobs and friends were usually answered with a good measure of honesty. But questions related to the crime were subject to gamesmanship. Every criminal lawyer knew not to dwell too much on the crime during the first interviews. Dig for details elsewhere. Investigate without guidance from the client. The truth might come later.

Tequila, however, seemed quite different. So far, he had no fear of the truth. Clay decided to save many, many hours of his precious time. He leaned in closer and lowered his voice. "They say you killed a boy, shot him five times in the head."

The swollen head nodded slightly.

"A Ramon Pumphrey, also known as Pumpkin. Did you know this guy?"

A nod, yes.

"Did you shoot him?" Clay's voice was almost a whisper. The guards were asleep but the question was still one that lawyers did not ask, not at the jail anyway.

"I did," Tequila said softly.

"Five times?"

"Thought it was six."

Oh well, so much for a trial. I'll have this file closed in sixty days, Clay thought to himself. A quick plea bargain. A guilty plea in return for life in prison.

"A drug deal?" he asked.


"Did you rob him?"


"Help me here, Tequila. You had a reason, didn't you?"

"I knew him."

"That's it? You knew him? That's your best excuse?"

He nodded but said nothing.

"A girl, right? You caught him with your girlfriend? You have a girlfriend, don't you?"

He shook his head. No.

"Did the shooting have anything to do with sex?"


"Talk to me, Tequila, I'm your lawyer. I'm the only person on the planet who's working right now to help you. Give me something to work with here."

"I used to buy drugs from Pumpkin."

"Now you're talking. How long ago?"

"Couple of years."

"Okay. Did he owe you some money or some drugs? Did you owe him something?"


Clay took a deep breath and for the first time noticed Tequila's hands. They were nicked with small cuts and swollen so badly that none of the knuckles could be seen. "You fight a lot?"

Maybe a nod, maybe a shake. "Not anymore."

"You once did?"

"Kid stuff. I fought Pumpkin once."

Finally. Clay took another deep breath and raised his pen. "Thank you, sir, for your help. When, exactly, did you have a fight with Pumpkin?" "Long time ago." "How old were you?" A shrug, one in response to a stupid question. Clay knew from experience that his clients had no concept of time. They got robbed yesterday or they got arrested last month, but probe beyond thirty days and all history melted together. Street life was a struggle to survive today, with no time to reminisce and nothing in the past to get nostalgic over. There was no future so that point of reference was likewise unknown.

"Kids," Tequila said, sticking with the one-word answer, probably a habit with or without broken jaws. "How old were you?" "Maybe twelve." "Were you in school?" "Playing basketball." "Was it a nasty fight, cuts and broken bones and such?" "No. Big dudes broke it up."

Clay laid the receiver down for a moment and summarized his defense. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my client shot Mr. Pumphrey (who was unarmed) five or six times at point-blank range in a dirty alley with a stolen gun for two reasons; first, he recognized him, and second, they had a playground shoving match about eight years ago. May not sound like much, ladies and gentlemen, but all of us know that in Washington, D.C., those two reasons are as good as any.

Into the receiver again, he asked, "Did you see Pumpkin often?"


"When was the last time you saw him before he got shot?"

A shrug. Back to the time problem.

"Did you see him once a week?"


"Once a month?"


"Twice a year?"


"When you saw him two days ago, did you argue with him? Help me here, Tequila, I'm working too hard for details."

"We didn't argue."

"Why did you go into the alley?"

Tequila laid down the receiver and began moving his head back I and forth, very slowly, to work out some kinks. He was obviously in pain. The handcuffs appeared to be cutting into his skin. When he picked up the receiver again he said, "I'll tell you the truth. I had a gun, and I wanted to shoot somebody. Anybody, it didn't matter. I left the Camp and just started walking, going nowhere, looking for somebody to shoot. I almost got a Korean dude outside his store, but there were too many people around. I saw Pumpkin. I knew him. We talked for a minute. I said I had some rock if he wanted a hit. We went to the alley. I shot the boy. I don't know why. I just wanted to kill somebody."

When it was clear the narrative was over, Clay asked, "What is the Camp?" "Rehab place. That's where I was staying." "How long had you been there?" Time again. But the answer was a great surprise.

"Hundred and fifteen days." "You had been clean for a hundred and fifteen days?" "Yep." "Were you clean when you shot Pumpkin?" "Yep. Still am. Hundred and sixteen days." "You ever shot anybody before?" "No." "Where'd you get the gun?" "Stole it from my cousin's house." "Is the Camp a lockdown place?" "Yes." "Did you escape?" "I was getting two hours. After a hundred days, you can go out for two hours, then go back in."

"So you walked out of the Camp, went to your cousin's house, stole a gun, then began walking the streets looking for someone to shoot, and you found Pumpkin?"

Tequila was nodding by the end of the sentence. "That's what happened. Don't ask me why. I don't know. I just don't know."

There was possibly some moisture in the red right eye of Tequila, perhaps brought on by guilt and remorse, but Clay could not be certain. He pulled some papers out of his briefcase and slid them through the opening. "Sign these by the red check marks. I'll come back in a couple of days."

Tequila ignored the papers. "What's gonna happen to me?" he asked.

"Well talk about it later."

"When can I get out?"

"It might be a long time."

Chapter Four

The people who ran Deliverance Camp saw no need to hide from the problems. They made no effort to get away from the war zone from which they took their casualties. No quiet facility in the country. No secluded clinic in a better part of town. Their campers came from the streets and they would go back to the streets.

The Camp faced W Street in N.W., within view of a row of boarded-up duplexes that were sometimes used by crack dealers. Within plain sight was the notorious empty lot of an old gas station. Here drug peddlers met their wholesalers and did their exchanges regardless of who might be looking. According to unofficial police records, the lot had produced more bullet-laden corpses than any other piece of turf in D.C.

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