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Chapter 19

My fathers private office is a library devoted to medicine and military history. Scale models of World War Two tanks and planes stand beside ships from the Napoleonic era, and hand-painted lead soldiers guard every bookshelf in the room.

Hows Drew holding up? Dad asks from behind his desk. My father is six feet tall with white hair, a silver beard, and piercing eyes that have witnessed most of the ways the human body and soul can fail.

Its hard to tell.

Did that drug dealer named in the paper kill Kate Townsend?

I honestly dont know.

You dont look very confident. Whats your worst fear, Penn?

I havent really thought about it that way. To anyone but you, Id have answered its that Drew will be wrongfully convicted of murder.

But to me?

I close my eyes, and when I speak, the truth emerges as though by its own decision. Its that Drew might have killed Kate without meaning to. The girl was highly sexual, despite her youth, and she liked to be choked during sex. She died of strangulation. It doesnt take Sherlock Holmes to see the possible link.

But Drew denies anything like that?

Yes.

A buzz sounds from Dads phone, and Esther tells him shes on her way back with Quentin Avery.

Wheres Annie right now? Dad asks.

I had Mia meet me outside and take her home. I didnt know how long wed be.

He looks past me and rises from behind his desk, his eyes twinkling. Theres Quentin! Come in here, man.

I turn and face the door. Often, when I meet someone Ive seen only in pictures or on film, I find the actual human being to be much smaller in reality. Thats not the case with Quentin Avery. The famed lawyer may be over seventy, but he still carries the charismatic aura of a man who once strode boldly across the national stage. Despite the loss of his foot, he still stands six-feet-four, and he wears his white hair in a tight Afro hairstyle. His eyes have a greenish tint, and his skin is lighter than that of most Natchez blacks, but its darker than Shad Johnsons, which is so light that some people have called him more white than black. But Averys appearance means nothing in the end. This man standing in my fathers office has argued multiple cases before the United States Supreme Court-argued and won. He has counseled presidents on civil rights issues, most notably JFK and Lyndon Johnson. He has struck fear into the hearts of white supremacists and corporations across the country. He has taught death penalty law at the Yale Law School. He has profoundly changed legal precedent, and by so doing, has done what few of us ever will: he has changed the world.

My friends gonna be a little late, Quentin Avery says by way of greeting. My apologies, gentlemen.

I imagined that he would speak precisely, the way so many black leaders of his generation strived to do. But Quentin Avery seems to have retained his Southern accent. His rich baritone rumbling in the lazy drawl of a manservant has probably caused many an opposing lawyer-not to mention judges-to underestimate him over the years. I offer him my hand.

Penn Cage, Professor.

Avery smiles an easy smile, then takes my hand in a grip of steel. Just plain Quentin works for me. Mind if I sit down? My foot may be gone, but it still throbs something terrible on occasion.

Take the couch, Quentin, says my father, coming around his desk. Penn, you sit back here. Id love to hear this, but Ive got patients to see. Ill kick you out if I need to.

Thank you, Tom, Avery says, settling into the leather sofa opposite Dads desk.

I sit behind the desk and wait for the legend to speak.

Your father told me a little about your problem, he says. And based on what he said, I have a good lawyer in mind. Local, too, though not female. Black lady lawyers are still in short supply in Mississippi. But my prot'eg'e is tied up downtown. Why dont you tell me a little more about your case? I ought to be able to tell you whether he can help you or not.

As I summarize the events of the past few days, Quentin Avery watches me with eyes that miss nothing. I tell him about Drew finding Kates body, the anal sex angle, the blackmailer, Cyrus White, even the nude photos in the cell phone. Now and then Averys eyes narrow or his lower lip pushes out, but he doesnt break my flow with a single question. I suspect hes learning as much about the situation by the way I describe it as he is from the facts. I conclude my briefing by telling about the witness coming forward and placing Drews car in the vacant lot near the creek. The only detail I omit is Jenny Townsend leaving Kates private effects with me. Until I know that Quentin Averys prot'eg'e intends to handle Drews defense, I cant afford for anyone to know that shoe box exists.

So, what do you think? I ask.

Avery sighs thoughtfully. I can tell youre worried for your friend.

I nod assent.

Youre right to look for another lawyer for him. You have no business handling this case.

He seems to be waiting to see if this offends me. It doesnt.

Youre way too close to your client. The man saved your life. You played on the same athletic teams for years. From what youve told me about him, Dr. Elliott is a larger-than-life kind of man. A hero, in some ways. Thats why its so hard for you to accept that he killed her.

I open my mouth to argue, but Avery holds up a hand that could easily palm a basketball. Im not saying he did it, Penn. But somewhere down deep in your soul, youre afraid that he did.

I remain silent, but my opinion of Quentin Averys instincts just went up.

I dont care whether he killed that poor child or not, Avery goes on. And its critical that his lawyer be just as detached. Thats the only way he can defend Elliott to the best of his ability. You know that, of course. Its just tough to remember when youre that close to a defendant.

Youre right. What do you think about the facts?

Facts? Avery snorts. What facts? The police havent even found the crime scene yet. Everything the D.A. has is circumstantial, and most of that doesnt point to murder. Now, Im not saying that the evidence he does have wouldnt predispose a jury against Dr. Elliott. A Mississippi jury hears everything youve told me? Theyre surely going to believe he could have done it. And if they find out Dr. Elliott was down in that creek with his hands on her dead body, theyre gonna vote guilty. Unless you can prove that big, bad Cyrus White raped and killed her.

Thats a pretty tall order, it seems to me.

Quentin nods. Even if that other semen sample matches Cyruss DNA, all youve done is prove that Cyrus had sex with her. He sniffs and gives me a little smile. Of course, the jurys gonna make all the difference in this trial. White folks are gonna come on preconditioned to believe that a depraved nigger dope dealer wouldnt hesitate to rape and kill a tasty young thing like Kate Townsend. Black jurors will feel exactly the opposite. Odds are, youll get a racially mixed jury. Thats good for Dr. Elliott, because this is capital murder. All it takes to acquit is one juror with reasonable doubt. Avery grins, his teeth astonishingly white. Itd be a mighty poor lawyer who didnt think he could persuade one juror that a fine, upstanding healer like Dr. Elliott just might not have done it.

For the first time in days, I feel a surge of real hope. I feel stupid for sounding so pessimistic. I think its because I know that the D.A., the sheriff, and the judge are so dead set on convicting Drew.

Avery nods sagely. Cause for concern. And to tell you the truth, thats why I was willing to get involved in this case.

I dont understand.

Shad Johnson, he says with obvious distaste.

Do you know him?

Weve met a few times. I know his people.

His people.This means family, stretching back for an unknown number of generations. How do you feel about him?

I think hes dangerous. Not only to Dr. Elliott, but to every black man, woman, and child in this town.

Im dumbstruck. What do you mean?

Theres a crisis in black leadership in this country, Penn. The leaders of my era are relics of another age. A lost age, Im sorry to say. Martin, Malcolm XFannie Lou Hamer, Medgartheyre dead as the dinosaurs. Youve basically got three types of black leaders today. Theres the managerial type, who pretends race isnt even an issue. He wants a large white constituency, but he also wants to keep the loyal blacks behind him. Hes pragmatic-and not a bad leader-but he tends to suppress the best type by claiming that going mainstream is the only solution for blacks. Then you have your black protest leader. Hes black, loud, and proud. He casts himself in the image of Malcolm and Martin, but deep down hes nothing like them. He uses the ideals of those great leaders only to get what he really wants: personal status and power. Marion Barry, Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan-the list is endless. Theyre flashy, flowery, and dangerous. They deceive the mass of black Americans by tapping into their emotions, but they use that support only in service of egotistical ends. You wont see these men wearing the simple black suits and plain white shirts that Martin and Malcolm wore. They want to be players, and they love dressing the part. True protest leaders are humble men, Penn. They value wisdom, not media consultants.

That sounds a bit like Shad Johnson, but not completely.

Shad is schizophrenic, says Quentin Avery. He began as the first type, but failure has pushed him into becoming the second.

Im about to ask what the third type of black leader is when Quentin says, Shad actually despises his own people. Did you know that? Not all of them, but the ones who most need help. He blames them for their own misfortunes, just like white racists do.

I nod. Ive heard Shad speak disparagingly of local blacks. He actually used the term bone-dumb bluegums in front of me once.

Quentin bends over to rub his phantom foot. That doesnt surprise me at all. Theres a lot of self-hatred at the root of that language. Hes anti-Semitic, too. He maintains close ties with Louis Farrakhan. Its sad to see in a man of Shads intellectual gifts.

Are you all right? I ask, as Avery seems to be in some distress.

Im fine. Damn diabetes. He straightens up. The thing is, Penn, to be a genuine black leader, youve got to love that lazy, weak-minded brother fishing on the highway bridge with a cane pole in the middle of the workday. If you dont, you aint gonna help nobody.

I remain silent, trying to decide if I agree with him.

Its like Jesus, Avery muses. Jesus loved the harlot and the sinner. You want to save a whole people, you got to start at the bottom, not in the kings antechamber. Or in the mayors office, as it were.

Does Avery know that Shad has his eye on the mayors office again? Whats the third type of black leader?

A look of regret settles into the lawyers face. The prophetic leader. Thats Martin, MalcolmElla Baker. Or James Baldwin, in the intellectual sphere. Jesse Jacksons the only recent political leader who had an opportunity to fill that role, but he faltered after 1988. The current generation has produced no leaders of this type, much less of that caliber. Im watching Barak Obama, but Im not sure yet. The reasons have more to do with the pervasiveness of mass market culture and the failure of the black middle class than with any personal failure. Avery waves his hand. But thats not why were here. I only mention this because it underpins my feelings toward the district attorney.

He reaches into his shirt pocket and removes an expensive-looking cigar, which he puts between his teeth but does not light. The minute I heard Mayor Jones was terminally ill, I knew Shad would declare for mayor again. Five years ago, he left Goldstein, Henry, in Chicago-thats a top firm, with many influential black lawyers-and he left there bragging how he was gonna come down South and win the mayors office, then use that as a stepping-stone to the governors office in Jackson. From the governors office, Shad figured, he could reach the Senate. After that, who knows? But he failed his very first test. Wiley Warren beat him, even with all the black celebrities Shad flew down here. Well, young Shadrach wasnt about to go back to Chicago with his tail between his legs. So he ran for D.A. and won. But thats not what he wants. No, sir. He wants what he told his partners he was coming down here to get. Now, this town desperately needs a good mayor. But Shadrach Johnson isnt it. Last time out, he promised a color-blind meritocracy and a rejuvenated city. That didnt get him the mayors chair, so this time hes putting out the word that hes stepping to an all-black band. Every city position will be filled by a black candidate, qualified or not. Friends are good, familys better. Hes gonna give whitey a taste of what its like to be on the bottom. A lot of local blacks will vote for Shad just because of skin color, but that would be a mistake.

I understand your feelings about Shad, Quentin. But I dont think a courtroom defeat in this case will be enough to keep him out of the mayors office.

Youre right about that. No, Im relying on Shad to do the critical damage himself.

What do you mean?

Avery gives me a rogues smile. Lets say, God forbid, that Dr. Elliott did kill that poor girl. And lets assume that a mountain of evidence piles up that seems to prove that he did. Penn, I believe that even in that circumstance, Shad wont be able to let well enough alone. He wont trust in the evidence. Hell do something unethical-maybe even illegal-to stack things in his favor. To make the verdict a lock. And youll be right there to expose him. Then my personal end will have been accomplished.

A surge of optimism courses through me, but just as quickly it dissipates. Quentin, Im very encouraged by this meeting. But Im also worried. You understand the overall situation much better than I do, but the guy you brought me here to meet knows nothing yet. And time is a factor in this case. Shads in a big hurry.

The guy I brought you to meet knows more than you think.

Hows that?

Avery takes the cigar out of his mouth and smiles. Hes sitting right in front of you.

It takes me several moments to absorb the full implications of this. Are you telling me you plan to defend Drew at trial? Personally?

I do.

Because of Shad Johnson.

Thats right. But my motive shouldnt bother Dr. Elliott too much. Hes gonna get a better defense than he ever dreamed.

I sit silently, trying to take this in. I know youre right about that. But

What?

Drew doesnt seem to grasp the jeopardy hes in. Or doesnt care much, if he does. I think Kates death put him into some kind of shock, and he hasnt come out of it yet.

Avery chuckles softly. Dont worry. When he sees those twelve supposed peers sitting in the jury box staring at him like hes Charles Manson, itll sink in. In a big damned hurry, too.

The realization that a legend like Quentin Avery has taken up the cross I thought I was going to have to bear alone brings relief unlike any Ive experienced in years. I tell you, Quentin, I feel like a new man.

Dont celebrate yet. Ive got a feeling we got more bad news coming.

What kind?

Evidence. Evidence that wont help the doctor any.

I nod slowly. I hope youre wrong.

Sometimes I am. But it happens less and less, the older I get.

From anyone elses lips this would sound arrogant, but from Quentin Avery it doesnt.

Its one of the paradoxes of old age, he adds. Your prick gets weaker but your reasoning gets stronger. He laughs richly. The two must be related. Maybe intelligence is more a matter of focus than anything else.

You could be right.

I drop my palms flat on the desk with a slap. What do you want me to do?

He ticks off a list on his long fingers. Reserve some rooms at the Eola Hotel. A suite for me, plus four or five regular rooms for offices and overflow. Ill need a retainer of sixty thousand dollars, and another fifty thousand deposited in an account for expenses. Thats just to start.

Consider it done, I say, praying that Ellen Elliott doesnt have control of Drews liquid assets.

Thats what I like, Quentin says, a man who knows what talent is worth.

Its easy when its somebody elses money.

Youve got a point there.

What about me personally? How do you see my role?

The old lawyer purses his lips like a man trying to figure out the function of an unfamiliar machine. Lets call you my chief investigator. Youve shown a flair for it, which is only what Id expect from a former prosecutor. Come to think of it, youre the enemy by constitution. But Id rather have you inside the tent pissing out.

Without preamble, Quentin Avery lifts his cane and struggles to his feet-or to his foot, I guess.

Let me walk you to your car, I offer.

No, thanks. Ive got somebody to do that.

Nevertheless, I accompany him to the waiting room. Avery walks with great purpose despite his limp. When we open the door, a beautiful black woman of about forty stands and starts forward.

Is this your daughter? I ask, as she holds the front door open for us.

They both laugh.

Doris is my wife, says Quentin, limping outside. Penn Cage, Doris Avery. He winks at me. Now you see why I spend so much time at home.

Yes, I do, I say awkwardly, wondering if Quentin has more sympathy for Drew than I thought. At probably thirty-five years older than his wife, he must view a separation of twenty-three years as relatively minor.

As though reading my mind, Quentin says, Kate Townsend was seventeen; we cant let ourselves forget that.

No, I agree.

Sexual battery is a statutory offense, he says gravely, and Dr. Elliott could well get thirty years for it, no matter what happens with the murder case.

I understand.

But-Quentin winks at me-if any lawyer can talk a jury into a little human understanding on the issue of younger women, Im your man.

I cant help but laugh. Ill bet you are.

We proceed slowly to the parking lot, Doris supporting Quentins right side by bracing his right arm. She looks strong, with taut calves showing beneath her skirt.

Now that weve got things settled, Quentin says, I have one question for you, Penn.

Shoot.

Whats the real reason youre not handling this case? Your friends life is at stake, and youve got the chops to defend him. Isuppose you might have the good sense and detachment to realize you shouldnt handle it, but I dont think thats it. He looks hard into my eyes. About the only reason I can see you giving it up is that you know hes guilty.

I shake my head. Thats not it. The truth is, Im thinking of running for mayor myself in the special election. And if I go to war with Shad to defend Drew-and lose-Ill lose the election, too. Somaybe the future of the town is more important to me than Drews fate, as terrible as that sounds.

Quentin Avery appraises me for several moments. Then theres a wrinkling around his eyes, a glint in his pupils, and finally his lips break open to reveal his shining white teeth. Boy, youre gonna put a big old kink in Shads world, arent you? Hes gonna want to kill you before the month is out.

Doris stops us at a shining new Mercedes and opens the passenger door.

What do you think about me running for mayor? I ask.

Quentin shrugs. Dont know you that well yet.

Fair enough. What do you think about another white mayor instead of a black one?

The renowned lawyer chuckles and looks down into the valley of kudzu behind my fathers office. What Id like to see is a good mayor. This towns in a world of hurt, and its got no time for racial ideology. Its got no time for anything but getting down to the business of business. Maybe youre the man for the job, and maybe you aint. All I know is, youre the man who put Del Paytons killer behind bars, and thats more than I could do back in 1968. He grins. So Im willing to give you a look, anyway.

Quentin climbs into the passenger seat, settles himself, then peers up at me. I sense youve got a question for me, too. Maybe more than one.

Hes right. I want to ask him why he seemed to abandon the civil rights movement in the 1980s and 90s to pursue personal injury and class action cases, which greatly enriched him but did little for the people he professes to love. But I dont dare offend him. Drew cant afford to lose a lawyer of this caliber, not with the system already aligned against him. Im just trying to get my mind around all this, I reply, not untruthfully.

No, youve got questions, insists Avery. But well be seeing a lot of each other in the coming days. After you get your confidence up, you can grill me to your hearts content. He faces forward and laughs. Tell your daddy Ill see him later in the week.

Doris Avery closes the door, then takes me by the upper arm, pulls me to the rear of the Mercedes, and speaks in a low but intense voice.

I want to make you aware of something, Mr. Cage.

Please call me Penn.

All right, Penn. Quentins in a lot worse shape than he pretends to be. Diabetes is a terrible disease, and its taken more away from him than a foot. A lot more than hell admit.

Doris Averys eyes are wet with private pain, but she doesnt cry. Im not going to tell him not to take this case. But Im tellingyou -dont push him too hard. Ive already got a lot fewer years to spend with him than Id like. And he gave far too much of himself over the years to people who didnt appreciate it to kill himself doing the same thing now.

I hear you, Mrs. Avery.

She nods once, then turns and walks to the drivers door. Then she smiles, just a little. You can call me Doris from now on. Good day to you.


IMG style="WIDTH: 35; HEIGHT: 5" hspace=1 vspace=1 src=" | Turning Angel | Chapter 20