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Chapter 16

Annie leans over the front seat of my car, kisses me, then climbs out and runs into the St. Stephens middle school. From habit, I wait until she disappears from my sight before driving on. Its a primitive instinct, like the one that made Annie keep a hand in contact with me for over a year after her mother died, even while she slept.

As the line of cars moves slowly past the high school, Holden Smith steps from beneath the overhang and motions for me to pull over. When I do, he comes to the window with a big smile and tells me hes scheduled an emergency board meeting to deal with the aftermath of our two student deaths. Yesterday he practically demanded my resignation along with Drews; today-with the Examiner offering up Cyrus White as a possible suspect-hes saying the board was hasty in suggesting I resign. Holden sounds positive that Chris Vogel drowned because of Ecstasy or LSD. And while no one has fingered Marko Bakic as the source of those drugs, Holden seems quite prepared to expel our troublesome exchange student without any proof. I reiterate my intention to resign, but I also agree to appear at the meeting, primarily in order to gather the most information possible about the events surrounding Chris Vogels death. I feel Holdens relief as he pumps my hand in farewell.

Chickenshit, I mutter as he walks away.

I pull out onto Highway 61 and head into town. The first order of the day is getting the assault charge against Drew dismissed. As I pass the hospital, my cell phone rings. Its Don Logan, chief of the Natchez Police Department.

Are you getting your buddy out of jail this morning? he asks.

Im on my down there now.

Well, his situation has worsened a bit since last night.

My pulse quickens; something serious has happened. How so?

This morning we searched the woods upstream from where we found the Townsend girl. We started at dawn, and we moved pretty fast along both banks. We had a little dispute with the sheriffs department, but I wont go into that now. The point for you is that when we reached the woods between Pinehaven and the creek, we found Kates cell phone.

Theres a hitch in my breathing. And?

Its one of those camera phones. She had some pictures stored inside it. One of those pictures shows Dr. Elliott asleep on a bed. In the nude.

Even though Im driving, I waver like a man losing his balance. Does the district attorney know about that picture?

Yes, sir. He does.

While I work through the implications of this development, Chief Logan speaks again. Penn, between you and me, Ive got a source over at the sheriffs department. She tells me that Dr. Elliott is going to be arrested by a couple of deputies as soon as he leaves this building.

Jesus.On what charge?

Sexual battery is what I heard. But Im thinking murder.

If the D.A. wants Drew charged with another crime, why doesnt he just have you charge him?

Theres a long silence before Logan answers. The D.A. would tell you its because murder is a state crime, and a defendant accused of it has to be held in state custody. But if you ask me, its because Billy Byrd is a lot deeper in Shad Johnsons pocket than I am or ever will be.

This leaves me both angry and uncertain about what to do. Has Drew been scheduled for arraignment?

Eleven oclock.

I may let him attend that proceeding after all. Ill let you know well before then what Im going to do.

Id appreciate it. Things are getting mighty interesting down here.

Don, have you turned up anything on Cyrus White?

Nothing at all. Its like hes vanished off the face of the earth.

Id say that makes him look more than a little guilty.

I agree. But maybe hes just paranoid. Maybe he doesnt believe Shad Johnsons promises of fair treatment for blacks in the judicial system.

Was that humor, Don?

Dont forget to call me.

Chief Logan hangs up.

Even before I lay my phone on the seat, one certainty settles into my bones. Despite what I told Shad and Sheriff Byrd about Cyrus White last night, Drew is going to be charged with capital murder. It seems unbelievable, but worse has been done in this town in the name of politics. Another certainty quickly follows the first: Drew needs a real lawyer, not a former prosecutor-turned-novelist whos too close to the case. He needs a top-flight defense attorney with years of experience, one with the credentials to neutralize the subliminal cards that Shad Johnson will bring to the table. That means a local attorney who is black and preferably female. Several black attorneys practice in Natchez, but the only one I know well practices civil law. I need a wise counselor to help me choose my candidate.

I slow down and make a U-turn, then head back south. My fathers office is less than a mile away. For forty years, he has treated more black patients than any white doctor in town, and he knows many of them like family. If anyone can tell me about the black lawyers in town, its my dad. I call ahead and ask for Esther Ford, his physicians assistant. Esther has very little formal training, but after forty years of working at my fathers side she knows more about primary care medicine than many interns. When she comes on the line, I ask if Dad can spare me fifteen minutes. She laughs and simply hands the phone to him.

Whats up, Penn? Dad asks in his resonant baritone.

I need to see you for a minute. Ive got an emergency.

A medical emergency?

No, but almost as bad.

Does it have to do with Drew Elliott?

Howd you know?

When I made rounds this morning, thats all anybody was talking about in the doctors lounge.

What were they saying?

That Drews been screwing the Townsend girl. That she got pregnant, and he snapped and killed her.

Great.

I figure if any of thats true, its the first part. The rest I cant see. Drew Elliott is the best young doc Ive seen in my career, and Im not talking about technical skills. He cares about people. Any man can be led astray by his willie, but Drew Elliott committing murder? No way.

I wish more people felt that way.

People turn on you fast. Its human nature.

My father once learned this lesson in a very painful and public way. It took me almost twenty years to pay back the man who tried to ruin him. Dad, I need some advice, and I need it fast.

Shoot.

I need the best black lawyer you know.

To defend Drew?

You got it.

Youre the hotshot lawyer. Why ask me?

You know why. I want him local, and Id actually rather have a her. Does anybody in town fit the bill?

Hang on, Im thinking.

Take your time. I hear Esther talking in the background.

I only know of three black female lawyers in town. Ive heard good things about two of them, but thats not who Id hire if Shad Johnson was trying to nail me to the barn door.

Why not?

Im not sure. You asked my opinion, Im giving it to you.

Fair enough. What about men?

We ought to ask Esther.

Id go to her if I was sick, but not for this.

More silence. Dad calls out a medication and dosage to someone. Penn, Im at a loss here. When I think of local lawyers-black or white-and then I think of the situation Drew is facing, I just come up blank.

I know what you mean.

Sorry I cant be more help.

Its okay. Ill just-

Wait a minute! Dad says in an excited voice. Hell, I should have thought of that first thing.

What?

Not what- who.

You have someone in mind?

The smartest lawyer for a thousand miles around, if you ask me. No offense.

Who are you talking about?

Quentin Avery.

Images of a tall black man in a black suit arguing before the Supreme Court fill my mind. In some of those old news photographs, the Negro lawyer-as the captions referred to him then-stands beside Thurgood Marshall. In others, beside Robert Carter and Charles Huston. I even remember Quentin Avery standing shoulder to shoulder with an angry-looking Martin Luther King, Jr.

Quentin Avery, I echo. I knew he owned a house out near the county line. But I didnt think he spent much time there.

Quentin travels a lot, but hes been staying out there most of this past year. Hes sort of a recluse now. Ive been treating him for diabetes and hypertension.

How old is he?

Mm, two or three years older than I am. Seventy-four?

What kind of shape is he in?

Mentally? Hes writing a law textbook. And in conversation, hes so quick I can barely keep up with him.

What about physically?

He lost a foot a couple of months ago-diabetes-but he still gets around better than I do. Hes like a spry old hound dog.

What made you mention him? I mean, Avery is a legend. Why would he take a case like this?

Even as I ask this question, a possible answer comes to me. Quentin Avery might be a legend of the civil rights movement, but time has not increased his stature. The moral leadership he demonstrated in the sixties and seventies seemed to vanish in the 1980s, when he began handling personal injury cases and class action lawsuits against drug companies. This giant who argued landmark cases before the highest court in the land was suddenly trying accident cases in Jefferson County, Mississippi, the predominantly black county famed for its record-breaking punitive damages awards, most of them based on the prejudices of the African-Americans who filled the jury box each week. Recently, federal prosecutors began reviewing many of those awards, and initiating action against both jury members and the attorneys involved.

Oh, I dont think hed take the case, Dad replies. Although you never know what will interest Quentin. But you can bet he knows the perfect lawyer to get Drew out of this jam.

Does Avery know who I am?

Sure he does. Quentin wasnt in town when you solved the Del Payton murder, but he followed it from New Haven. He was teaching law at Yale then. He said he admired you for bringing Leo Marston to justice after all those years. I think hes read a couple of your books as well. Maybe he was just being nice, but thats not Quentins style.

Should I just call him out of the blue?

You could, but he probably wouldnt answer. Why dont you let me call first? Ive got a good idea of your situation. If Quentins willing to help, hell call you.

Good enough. But time is critical.

I got that, son.

Someone is beeping in on my phone. Its Chief Logan again. Ive got to run, Dad.

Go. Bring Annie by to see us soon.

I will. I click the phone to take the incoming call. Chief?

Penn, somebody just told Billy Byrd that he saw Dr. Elliotts car parked in a vacant lot in Pinehaven on the afternoon of the murder. That lots adjacent to St. Catherines Creek, and not a quarter mile from where we found Kate Townsends cell phone.

Mother fucker. Drews recklessness is going to damn him in the end. Is that the worst of it?

Afraid not. This witness says he saw Drews car at about three forty-five p.m. Kate Townsends cell phone records show that she answered a text message from a girlfriend at three twenty-two p.m. We found her cell phone in the woods less than two hundred yards from where Drews car was parked. That means they were in very close proximity to one another within twenty-three minutes. Thats provable, Penn. What a jury would read into that, you know better than I.

I cant believe this.Is there anything else, Don?

My source says Sheriff Byrds planning to arrest your man for capital murder. She even heard that with the D.A.s help, Byrd might try to take Drew right out of my custody.

Astonishment paralyzes me.

Penn, are you Drews lawyer or not? He doesnt seem too sure himself.

I guess I am for the moment.

What do you want me to do if Byrd shows up and tries to take him out of here? Ive called the attorney general in Jackson for an opinion, but all I got was the same old runaround. Goddamn lawyerspick any dozen of them and you wont find a pair of balls in the bunch. No offense.

None taken, I mutter, searching desperately for a solution.

What do you want me to do?

Desperate times, desperate measures

Penn?

Charge Drew with capital murder.

The silence on the other end of the line is absolute. On my own authority?

You know what the evidence is. Youve got the girls cell phone. Charge him with murder right now. Dont wait. Do it the second you hang up.

I take back what I said before. Youve got a pair of balls on you, all right.

Will you do it, Don?

Ill do it. But youd better get your ass down here in a hurry.


Chapter 15 | Turning Angel | Chapter 17