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Chapter 26

At seven stories the Eola Hotel is the tallest building in Natchez. Built in 1927, the year of the great flood, the Eola has weathered boom and bust to find itself in the National Register of Historic Places. When I was a boy in the 1960s, the lobby of the Eola was a seedy place where old men played chess and smoked cigars while families fresh from church walked through the stale air to eat their Sunday dinners in the hotel restaurant. In that era, uniformed black men operated the elevator and attended the restroom while Yankees like Dan Rather, his CBS news crew, and New York print journalists stood in the caf'e watching robed Klansmen on horseback march down Main Street outside. Quentin Avery remembers that era a lot better than I do. And now he will run Drew Elliotts legal defense from the penthouse suite of a hotel that wouldnt have given him a reservation when he was a thirty-year-old lawyer.

Today I operate the elevator myself as I ride up to the seventh floor. When the door opens, I see two young white men carrying computer equipment between rooms. They have the harried look of young lawyers. I nod at them and make my way up the hall to Quentins suite. The door is propped open with a heavy law book. I knock and walk inside.

The suite is huge: three separate rooms and two baths, all decorated with obsessive attention to detail. Quentin is standing on the long balcony, which gives a panoramic view of Natchez, the Mississippi River, and the Louisiana delta stretching away for miles to the west. Hes wearing jeans and a white button-down shirt. From the rear, his grayish-white Afro gives him the look of a much younger man.

Quentin? I call. Its Penn Cage.

Avery turns and smiles, and though I see every one of his seventy-plus years in his face, the light in his eyes tells me hes excited to be back in the game again.

What do you know? he asks. Anything new?

I talked to Chief Logan this morning. Marko Bakic has vanished. Ditto Cyrus White.

Quentins smile broadens. Good, good. Thats just how we like it.

Whys that?

You need to ask me that? Come out here into the sun. Maybe itll prod your brain.

I walk out onto the balcony. Theres a cool breeze blowing off the rust-colored river, which is high for this early in the spring. Tell me.

This is a murder case, Penn. Our goal is acquittal. To get that, we need one thing: reasonable doubt.

And?

Cyrus White is our reasonable doubt. Just as he is. If I could stop time right now and go to trial, I would. Because no sane jury can convict Drew Elliott of murder with unidentified sperm in that dead girl and Cyrus White on the loose. Not with proof that Kate and Cyrus knew each other.

Im not sure we can prove that.

Quentins smile vanishes. You told me the police had video of the dead girl going into Cyruss apartment.

Sonny Cross told me that. Hes dead now. And, wellhe worked for the sheriffs department.

So the sheriffs department will have the video. Well get that during discovery.

I hope so.

What do you mean?

When I talked to Sonny, I got the feeling he kept a lot from the sheriff. I dont think they got along too well.

Quentins face hardens. I need that video, Penn. Youve got to get it for me.

Ill do my best.

Is there any other proof that Kate Townsend and Cyrus knew each other?

An image of Kates secret journal fills my mind, but Im not ready to tell Quentin about that yet. Theres no way we could use that diary in the trial without causing Drew further damage. Besides, Jenny Townsend gave me Kates private things specifically so that they wouldnt be seen by prying eyes. Even if I wanted to make the diary public, Im not sure I could bring myself to violate Jennys trust. If it meant saving Drews life, I would, of course. But right now, that journal is as likely to hurt him as help him. There might be digital proof somewhere that Cyrus was tracking Kates cell phone, but Ill find that out on my own.

I dont know, I murmur. Ill try to find out.

Youll have to talk to Cyruss crew, Quentin says, see if they remember her coming around.

You think theyll talk to me?

Quentin shrugs. Youre my investigator. Well subpoena them if we have to, but thats never the best way to get information.

Its time for me to come clean with Quentin about Kates relationship with Cyrus. As succinctly as possible I explain Ellen Elliots Lorcet addiction, and Kates reason for visiting Cyrus once a month. He listens like a man who has heard it all in his time. He cant be shocked, only disappointed.

This aint good, Quentin says when I finish. I can make the jury feel sorry for a good doctor who happened to fall in love with a beautiful young girl. Even an underage girl. But I cant make them feel sorry for a manipulator who used a high school girl in a sleazy scheme to get drugs.

Ill be very surprised if Shad makes that connection.

Quentin raises one eyebrow. Ive learned something in my long years of practicing law, Penn. What holds true of adultery holds true for most other sins. Sooner or later, people find out. For us the important question is, how long does this particular sin stay secret?

In other words, how soon will Drew be indicted and go to trial?

Quentin nods. I look for sooner rather than later. As soon as Shad gets a DNA match on the semen taken from the girls rectum, hes likely to ask for an indictment.

Thats usually three weeks, minimum, although Shad hinted to me that it might not take that long. If he really wants Drew bad-and we know he does-he could use a private lab to do the analysis. That could knock ten days off the wait, maybe more. The irony is that Shad will be helping us if he rushes to trial.

Only as it relates to that single issue, Quentin points out. Connecting the Lorcet to Ellen Elliott. Maybe you shouldnt talk to Cyruss crew after all. We dont want to jog anybodys memory too hard.

Were at the beginning of a court term now, I think aloud. Even if Shad gets an indictment, the trial will be scheduled for the next term, which gives us two months to prepare.

I wouldnt count on that, Quentin says.

Why not?

Shads thinking about the special mayoral election, not the trial. Thats the whole point of the trial. If he gets the indictment, hell try to have the trial scheduled for the current term.

Judge Minor and Shad are thick as thieves. All Shad will have to do is steer the case to Minors court, and Minor will schedule the trial for this term.

Were likely to be trying the case in less than a month, Quentin says.

Thats unethical!

Quentin laughs heartily. Try convincing the Supreme Court of that. The founding fathers specifically guaranteed the right of the accused to a speedy trial. If we protest against Shad rushing this trial, he can argue that hes only trying to provide what the Constitution demands, the right of an innocent man to prove his innocence as soon as possible. Hell, that was the way it worked all the time in the old days. In some rural counties, they still indict the accused and try him within a week. The system has gotten so ass backwards over the past three decades that we routinely expect capital cases to take years. But thats not how its supposed to be. If Judge Minor is on Shads side, theres no way well slow this trial down.

Great.

Quentin nods thoughtfully. It is great. Because we want the trial over before anyone can figure out just what a sleazy character our defendant really is. And we want Cyrus White to stay lost.

Quentins description of Drew offends me, but I hold my tongue.

Out with it, says the lawyer. Am I pissing you off?

A little bit.

A tight smile. I understand human frailty, Penn, believe me. Im only talking the way the jury will behind closed doors. I dont care if your buddy was Albert Schweitzer right up until he met Kate Townsend. His behavior since then is going to make him scum in the eyes of most potential jury members. Now, a lot of jurors will understand the psychological dynamics of extramarital affairs. And some of them will even forgive that. But this drug angletheyll fry his ass for that.

The sheriffs men will be questioning Cyruss crew about Kates visits to Cyrus. I hope to hell Kate never said anything about Ellen to Cyrus or his men.

Yeah, it would be a lot better if you hadnt told Byrd about that video.

I didnt tell him there was video.

You told him there was documented evidence. Thats video or still photos.

I squeeze my hands into fists, wishing I could change the past.

Stop beating yourself up, says Quentin. Cyruss homeys wont say shit to those cracker cops. The cops may find out Kate was going there to buy drugs, but theyll assume she was getting them for herself. At first, anyway.

But the toxicology on her body will be clean.

Are you sure? Have you seen the report yourself?

No. But Sonny Cross said it was clean.

Quentin chides me with a smile. Well request that in discovery. If were lucky, our prom queen popped a few Lorcet herself to ease the pain of waiting for her lover to get divorced.

Im glad I never came up against you in court, Quentin. Youre a pragmatic son of a bitch.

His eyes twinkle. That I am, my boy. You are, too. You just have this romantic haze over your eyes. You want the world to be better than it is. But I know your record. Youre as hard as I am when it comes down to it. You just get there by a different route.

Im not sure about that.

Quentin snorts. As many people as you got executed, I hope youre sure.

Images of desperate men fill my mind, some of them glaring at me from death row cages, others staring through bulletproof glass as a technician injects paralyzing drugs into their veins. In some of those eyes I see a plea for forgiveness, in others unalloyed hatred. But one thing is common to them all: the animal fear of death.

Stop it, Quentin says. Let the dead bury the dead.

Sometimes I cant stop it.

The old lawyer looks out over the rooftops toward the river and speaks in a low voice. Fifteen years ago, I was asked to review the case of a young man sitting on death row in Huntsville, Texas. He was black, and his family told me hed been railroaded by the state. The facts sounded promising as presented, so I flew down to Texas and reviewed the file. Quentin glances at me. You were the lawyer who convicted him.

A chill goes through me. What was his name?

Doesnt matter. Quentin looks back at the river. The point is, I spent three days and nights going over that case. I had two associates helping me. And we couldnt find one chink in the wall of evidence that had convicted that boy. There wasnt a glimmer of hope. I gave the family back their files and flew home. He spits over the brick wall of the balcony, then turns to me. I dont believe in the death penalty, Penn, not in this mortal world. Its applied unfairly, and innocent men are executed. But I will say this: according to the law of the land, that boy in Huntsville got exactly what he deserved. And you have nothing to be ashamed of. Ive reviewed a lot of death penalty cases, and that was the best work Ive ever seen.

Why are you telling me this?

Because thats the reason the two of us are standing here now, working together. Were about to go through some shit, you and I. And I want you to know I know youve got what it takes to do it. Now, if you want to do your friend any good, youre going to have to start looking at the facts as coldly as you would if you were dealing with some dead-eyed killer in Texas.

Its hard for me to look at Drew like that.

Thats because hes white.

I feel my back stiffen. Thats not true. I sent five white men to death row. I killed a white supremacist myself.

Quentin shakes his head like a patient tutor. I said hes white, not white trash. When you look at Drew Elliott, you see yourself. When you look at Kate Townsend, you see your sister, or your daughter, or your mother. How do you think I got so many black men off of death row? When I looked at them, I saw myself. Or what could have been me, with just a tiny push at the wrong time.

I see what you mean. So, youre telling me not to try to find Cyrus?

Damned straight. As long as Cyrus White stays a mystery, hes our acquittal on the hoof. The last thing we want is that depraved hoodlum on the witness stand telling a jury how Kate was scoring dope for Drews wife. You get me?

Yes. Only

What?

I tried a lot of murder cases, Quentin. If you dont really know what happened at a crime scene, you can get your ass handed to you in court.

Stop thinking like a prosecutor. Were the defense, boy! We dontcare what really happened at the crime scene. We dont even want to know. All we care about is reasonable doubt. Thats your mantra from now on. I want you saying it in your sleep: reasonable doubt. Say it, man! Its like, Show me the money! Quentin grins. Come onreasonable doubt.

Id like to humor him, but at bottom I just dont believe in his strategy.

He puts his hand on my shoulder and squeezes. Its human nature to want to know the truth, Penn. But what if the truth is that your best friend flew into a jealous rage, raped that girl in the ass, and strangled her to death?

Quentins frank tone tells me that he fully believes in this possibility. I know what hes trying to do, but I simply cant abandon my faith in my friend. If I do that, I abandon my faith in myself. I dont think thats what happened.

But you dont know. And at least until this trial is over, thats the way I want it. Because if you find out that is what happened, you wont be any earthly good to me or Drew Elliott. And I need your help. Just remember, youre the foot soldier here, not the general.

I got it.

Make sure you do.


Chapter 25 | Turning Angel | Chapter 27