Home > The King of Torts(7)

The King of Torts(7)
Author: John Grisham

"He couldn't tell me much about his criminal record."

Talmadge X opened the file and flipped pages. "That's probably because he doesn't remember much. Tequila was stoned for years. Here it is; bunch of petty stuff when he was a juvenile, robbery, stolen cars, the usual stuff we all did so we could buy drugs. At eighteen he did four months for shoplifting. Got him for possession last year, three months there. Not a bad record for one of us. Nothing violent."

"How many felonies?"

"I don't see one."

"I guess that'll help," Clay said. "In some way."

"Sounds like nothing will help."

"I'm told there were at least two eyewitnesses. I'm not optimistic."

"Has he confessed to the cops?"

"No. They've told me that he clammed up when they caught him and has said nothing."

"That's rare."

"It is," Clay said.

"Sounds like life with no parole," said Talmadge X, the voice of experience.

"You got it."

"That's not the end of the world for us, you know, Mr. Carter. In many ways, life in prison is better than life on these streets. I got lots of pals who prefer it. Sad thing is, Tequila was one of the few who could've made it."

"Why is that?"

"Kid's got a brain. Once we got him cleaned up and healthy, he felt so good about himself. For the first time in his adult life, he was sober. He couldn't read so we taught him. He liked to draw so we encouraged art. We never get excited around here, but Tequila made us proud. He was even thinking about changing his name, for obvious reasons."

"You never get excited?"

"We lose sixty-six percent, Mr. Carter. Two thirds. We get 'em in here, sick as dogs, stoned, their bodies and brains cooked on crack, malnourished, even starving, skin rashes, hair falling out, the sickest junkies D.C. can produce, and we fatten 'em up, dry 'em out, lock 'em down in basic training where they're up at six A.M. scrubbing their rooms and waiting on inspection, breakfast at six-thirty, then nonstop brainwashing from a tough group of counselors who've all been exactly where they've been, no bullshit, pardon my language, don't even try to con us because we're all cons ourselves. After a month they're clean and they're very proud. They don't miss the outside world because there's nothing good waiting for them - no jobs, no families, nobody loves them. They're easy to brainwash, and we are relentless. After three months we might, depending on the patient, start easing them back onto the street for an hour or two a day. Nine out of ten return, anxious to get back into their little rooms. We keep them for a year, Mr. Carter. Twelve months, not a day less. We try to educate them some, maybe a little job training with computers. We work hard at finding them jobs. They graduate, we all have a good cry. They leave, and within a year two thirds of them are doing crack again and headed for the gutter."

"Do you take them back?"

"Rarely. If they know they can come back, then they're more likely to screw up."

"What happens to the other third?"

"That's why we're here, Mr. Carter. That's why I'm a counselor. Those folks, like me, survive in the world, and they do it with a toughness no one else understands. We've been to hell and back and it's an ugly road. Many of our survivors work with other addicts."

"How many people can you house at one time?"

"We have eighty beds, all full. We have room for twice that many, but there's never enough money."

"Who funds you?"

"Eighty percent federal grants, and there's no guarantee from year to year. The rest we beg from private foundations. We're too busy to raise a lot of money."

Clay turned a page and made a note. "There's not a single family member I can talk to?"

Talmadge X shuffled through the file, shaking his head. "Maybe an aunt somewhere, but don't expect much. Even if you found one, how could she help you?"

"She can't. But it's nice to have a family member to contact."

Talmadge X kept flipping through the file as if he had something in mind. Clay suspected he was looking for notes or entries to be removed before it was handed over.

"When can I see that?" Clay asked.

"How about tomorrow? I'd like to review it first."

Clay shrugged. If Talmadge X said tomorrow, then it would be tomorrow. "All right, Mr. Carter, I don't get his motive. Tell me why."

"I can't. You tell me. You've known him for almost four months. No history of violence or guns. No propensity for fighting. Sounds like he was the model patient. You've seen it all. You tell me why."

"I've seen everything," Talmadge X said, his eyes even sadder than before. "But I've never seen this. The boy was afraid of violence. We don't tolerate fighting in here, but boys will be boys, and there are always the little rituals of intimidation. Tequila was one of the weak ones. There's no way he would leave here, steal a gun, pick a random victim, and kill him. And there's no way he would jump on a guy in jail and send him to the hospital. I just don't believe it."

"So what do I tell the jury?"

"What jury? This is a guilty plea and you know it. He's gone, off to prison for the rest of his life. I'm sure he knows plenty of folk there."

There was a long gap in the conversation, a break that seemed not to bother Talmadge X in the least. He closed the file and shoved it away. The meeting was about to be over. But Clay was the visitor. It was time to leave.

"I'll be back tomorrow," he said. "What time?"

"After ten o'clock," Talmadge X said. "I'll walk you out."

"It's not necessary," Clay said, delighted with the escort.

The gang had grown and appeared to be waiting for the lawyer to exit D Camp. They were sitting and leaning on the Accord, which was still there and still in one piece. Whatever fun they'd planned was quickly forgotten at the sight of Talmadge X. With a quick jerk of his head he scattered the gang, and Clay sped away, untouched and dreading his return the next day.

He drove eight blocks and found Lamont Street, then the corner of Georgia Avenue, where he stopped for a moment for a quick look around. There was no shortage of alleys in which one might shoot someone, and he was not about to go looking for blood. The neighborhood was as desolate as the one he'd just left. He'd come back later with Rodney, a black paralegal who knew the streets, and they'd poke around and ask questions.

Chapter Five

The Potomac Country Club in McLean, Virginia, was established a hundred years earlier by some wealthy people who'd been snubbed by the other country clubs. Rich folks can tolerate almost anything, but not rejection. The outcasts pumped their considerable resources into Potomac and built the finest club in the D.C. area. They picked off a few Senators from rival clubs and enticed other trophy members, and before long Potomac had bought respectability. Once it had enough members to sustain itself, it began the obligatory practice of excluding others. Though it was still known as a new country club, it looked and felt and acted like all the rest.

It did, however, differ in one significant way. Potomac had never denied the fact that its memberships could be bought outright if a person had enough money. Forget waiting lists and screening committees and secret votes by the admissions board. If you were new to D.C., or if you suddenly struck it rich, then status and prestige could be obtained overnight if your check was large enough. As a result, Potomac had the nicest golf course, tennis facilities, pools, clubhouses, dining room, everything an ambitious country club could want.

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