Authors: Howard Owen
OTHER BOOKS BY HOWARD OWEN
Answers to Lucky
The Measured Man
Harry and Ruth
Rock of Ages
Copyright © 2013 by Howard Owen
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The Philadelphia Quarry / Howard Owen.
1. Reporters and reporting—Fiction. 2. Murder—
Investigation—Fiction. 3. Richmond (Va.)—Fiction. I. Title.
Printed in the United States of America
To Karen, as always
Monday, January 17
The morgue is self-serve, which isn’t the best of news, because some of our reporters are mechanically challenged, and there’s no one there to teach them for the third time how to thread the microfilm machine. Watching someone like Ray Long try to do it, Jackson noted once, was like watching a monkey try to fuck a football.
The files for August of 1983 weren’t between July and September, of course. They were after April, like someone thought the months should be alphabetized.
But I finally found Richard Slade, at the time of his arrest.
He looked even younger than his seventeen years. I didn’t remember that, didn’t remember much about it at all.
He wouldn’t be convicted until May of the following year, but he never saw unfettered daylight again. Until today.
It is instructive to see what that much prison can do to a man.
The Richard Slade who stands today, waiting for some white man to undo what another one did in 1984, has been reborn—probably, I’m thinking, not in a good way.
He wears glasses now. When he walks, you can see that he has picked up a limp at Red Onion or Greensville that makes him seem old and arthritic. In addition to those twenty-seven-plus years he lost, he’s probably aged another ten. But it’s the beaten-down aspect that really stands out. Richard Slade, 1983 version, was, from my memory and catch-up reading, a big talker, a smart kid who also was a smart-ass. He would have been called uppity if he’d been born a little earlier. It didn’t endear him, I’m sure, to Judge Cain, who wore a Confederate flag tiepin when he drank bourbon at the Commonwealth Club.
Richard Slade, 2011 version, seems as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs, like a man trying his level best to be humble for fear that anything else might cause him to wake up in his cell after a particularly good dream. When the judge pounds his gavel, he jumps a little. I want to tell him to chill. The Court of Appeals has already issued what they call the “writ of actual innocence.” He is exonerated. Unless he shoots somebody here in this dingy-ass courtroom, he’s walking.
This judge expresses his regret over the state’s mistake. He sounds about as sincere as I’d expect, but he does say the magic words:
“You are now free to go.”
An older woman in the seats just behind Slade leans forward and rubs his back. She doesn’t cry, or shout hosannas, the way much of what appears to be his family does. The uproar causes the judge to bang his gavel and utter some bullshit about clearing the court, as if everyone can’t wait to do just that before he changes his mind. The woman just closes her eyes and rests her forehead against her son’s spine.
Philomena Slade has aged more than twenty-seven years, too.
As they leave the old building, the celebration kicks into another gear. Slade’s mother is holding on to his right arm, and various people who might be cousins are tugging at him, taking turns hugging him. They are not a petite family, and I fear that some of the more amply endowed women might smother him. Other than the limp, Slade is prison-fit, not an ounce of fat on him.
The state was kind enough to allow him to wear the suit Philomena no doubt bought for him. I guess it’s the first time he’s worn civilian threads in his adult life.
On Slade’s left side is his lawyer. Marcus Green is wearing his usual: a $500 suit and a perpetual frown. Looking at him and Richard Slade, you’d think it was Green who had been done wrong by the state the past twenty-seven years.
Standing next to Green is the Jewish lawyer from Boston who picked Slade out of the sizable lottery of potentially innocent prisoners and took up his cause four years ago. It’s taken that long to get from there to here, and I wonder why Slade had to count on some skinny, myopic guy from Up North who talks funny to deliver him.
In addition to the family, there’s us, the News Media. I cringe to be a part of this club, clawing and scratching for a piece of the newly freed man. All four local TV stations and a couple from Washington have sent their hairpieces and camera goons over. Then there’s our photographer, a couple of freelance reporters and one from thePost, and half a dozen guys with iPhones and other high-tech wonders. And here I stand with my notepad. I am the only person out here using a pen and paper. A couple of the young Tweeters are looking at me like I’m some exhibit at the Newseum. “Look! He’s even wearing a wristwatch!”
A fight almost breaks out between a couple of the Slade cousins and two of the more obnoxious camera guys, who now look as if they’d like to be somewhere else. A deputy moves in our direction, but then Marcus Green stops at the bottom of the courthouse steps, moves in front of the Boston lawyer, and holds up his right hand. The cameramen and cousins part.
“We are here to celebrate the commonwealth’s belated effort to bring justice to an innocent man,” Green says, and I can see that he’s getting into his preacher mode. “We all know that justice delayed is justice denied. We all know that this man, Richard Slade, has endured the unendurable, left to rot by a system that enslaved and marginalized his ancestors, that came this close”—Green holds his right forefinger and thumb half an inch apart—“this close to burying him alive forever.
“Moses was never allowed to enter the Promised Land, only to glimpse it from afar. Richard Slade is able to walk, proud and free, back to the fresh air and sunshine of freedom.”
A “Praise Jesus” escapes from the crowd.
Green stops and pauses for effect. Everything Marcus Green does in public is for effect.
“And there’s nothing they can do about it except stand and watch. The police can’t keep him from shucking his chains. The courts can’t do it. The racist system can’t do it.” He fails to mention that it was “the system” that just freed him.
Green pauses and looks at me. I’m about ten feet away, half-hidden by a fat guy wielding a fifty-pound camera.
“Not even the news media can do it.”
I hear a couple of muttered “amens” and “uh-huhs.” Green has managed to turn the crowd’s attention toward me. I suppose that I’m the one person here who looks like the stereotype of the newspaper guy.
That’s it, Marcus, you asshole. Throw me under the bus.
True, the people I work for haven’t been Richard Slade’s BFF. There was an editorial back in 1984 that more or less advocated bringing back public hangings. A search in more recent archives, the ones I can bring up on my computer, shows a distinct lack of sympathy for a man who, according to Mr. DNA, did not do it.
Green eventually shuts up. The crowd seems not to know exactly what to do next. Then, one of the cousins announces that they’re all invited over to Momma Phil’s, “where the real celebration gonna be.”
He pauses and looks at all the hunter-gatherers of news and gives his best Mr. T scowl.
“No damn media,” he says.
No one’s been able to really talk with Richard Slade himself, other than to get a very small sound bite as he left the courthouse.
“Richard! Richard! How does it feel to be free?” some genius journalist shouted as he was being escorted toward the door.
He just looked at the woman who asked the day’s dumbest question so far.
“Feels good,” was all he said.
Now, as everyone heads toward their cars, Slade and his mother are led by Green to the lawyer’s shiny black Yukon.
I’ve known Marcus Green since the first time he had Richard Slade for a client. I know and he knows that he owes me one after the stunt he’s just pulled. Owing and paying are two different things, but it’s worth a try.
I slip past one of the cousins and fall into step beside Green, who can only go as fast as Philomena Slade, whose arm he has.
“Can I catch a ride?”
Green acts as if he doesn’t know me, then seems amused.
“Willie,” he says. “Willie Black. Well, well. I’m surprised that rag you work for is covering this, it being a ‘black day for justice’ and all.”
“I don’t write the editorials, Marcus.”
It had not been one of our editorial department’s finest hours, but, Jesus Christ, it was four years ago.
Back in 2007, when Stephen Fein of Boston first got publicly involved in Slade’s case through the Innocence Project and called his first press conference—accompanied by co-counsel Marcus Green—our self-appointed judges were not amused.
The editorial that Green remembers fulminated about the possibility of releasing the man who had committed such a heinous crime.
“It will be a black day for justice,” our editorial concluded, “if this scourge is allowed to walk free.”
Our newsroom tends to be a bit more liberal than our editorial department (“Fuck,” Sally Velez once said when someone presented her with that bit of insight. “What isn’t?”), and many wondered if our deep thinkers on the first floor had gone completely tone-deaf.
Now that Richard Slade has been exonerated, those words might as well be etched in stone in the black community. The weekly that has anointed itself as the voice of Richmond’s African-American majority actually came up with a good headline last week, when it became clear that this was going to be Slade’s own personal Juneteenth: Day for Black Justice.
Green looks at me for a few seconds. Other reporters are trying unsuccessfully to get past what has now become a human cordon around the car.
“C’mon,” he says. He gets in the front seat, with the driver. I scurry into the second row, with Richard and Philomena Slade.
We’re moving before I introduce myself to them.
Richard Slade doesn’t say much. He seems to be concerned with looking out the window like he’s trying to remember it all. It can’t be more than forty degrees outside, but he lowers his window, after Philomena shows him which button to push.
I ask Slade when exactly he knew for sure he was going to be a free man.
He turns his head back toward me and is quiet for a few seconds.
Finally: “I’m still not sure. Not sure yet. Won’t be sure until we get home.”
His mother turns to me after I’ve asked Slade a few more questions.
“What paper are you from?”
I tell her. I think I hear Marcus Green snort in the front seat.
Her face is hard, as if it has been baked on by her often-solitary battle to free her son.
Finally, she says it. “Get out.”
I don’t say anything. It’s suddenly very warm in here, and I wish I had a smoke.
“Get out! Get out of this damn car!”
Green looks back. I think even he is a little surprised by the sudden violence from this small, self-contained woman. He doesn’t care that she has begun to hit and kick me, as best she can in such tight quarters, but I don’t think he knew this would happen.
“Careful, Momma,” Richard says, trying to quell her, and Green looks concerned for his upholstery.
Finally, he tells the driver to pull over.
“You put him in there!” she’s shouting as I slide away from her and out the door in a somewhat frayed district of our fair, careworn city.
“I’m sorry, man,” Green says, trying to stifle a giggle. “But you were the one that wanted a ride.”
The car tears away. I pull my cellphone out of my pocket. Sarah Goodnight answers on the fourth ring.
“I need you to come get me.” I’m walking toward a street sign and give her the name when I can finally read it.
“Did you get an interview?”
I’m fishing for my cigarettes with my free hand while I answer her.
“More like it got me.”
Ipitch the Camel and get into Sarah’s Hyundai.
“Rough day?” she asks, either smirking or smiling.
“I’ve had worse.”
I tell her about my morning, and about how much I want to kick Marcus Green’s ass.
We go to the hole-in-the-wall across the street from the paper for lunch. No sense in rushing into the day. I forgo a beer, ordering iced tea instead, but then Sarah surprises me by ordering a Miller Lite.
“Are you old enough to drink this early in the day?”
She flips me the bird.
“The way things are going around here, they ought to make beer mandatory,” she says.
Sarah’s too young to get really cynical about this business, and she hasn’t been around newspapers long enough to remember the good times and have a fair basis for comparison. One thing I have learned: You never really appreciate the good stuff when it’s here. You take things for granted, things like raises and decent health insurance and the knowledge that your job probably will be there tomorrow.
But Sarah’s giving it a good try.
“You know what Grubby wants me to do?”
I offer a guess. She gives me a disgusted look and tells me to keep my mind on a higher plane, that Grubby isn’t like that.
Probably not, I concede.
“OK. What, then?”
“He wants to loan me out to SOP.”
I suggest that my original guess wouldn’t have been as disgusting.
SOP is Sense of Place. It’s our version of the special section every newspaper does every year. It’s full of stories about various aspects of “our community,” whatever that is. By a remarkable coincidence, the stories we do often are about some of the same organizations that buy full-page ads in the section. It comes out every August. We do it because it makes money, but I don’t think SOP is ever going to be nominated for a Pulitzer.
Grubby is our publisher, James H. Grubbs. We have a managing editor, but sometimes Grubby can’t help himself and has to drill down through about four layers of management and take the hands-on approach.
“I’ll have to ‘coordinate’ with advertising,” she wails.
There’s not much choice, though. She and I both know that. There are ads on the section fronts, little sticky note ads attached to A1, and ad salespeople sit in on our afternoon meetings. Back in the day, like about six or seven years ago, that would have been about as permissible as pork chops in Mecca.
But we’ve all found out just how low we’ll go when the bottom line is below sea level and health insurance is a privilege instead of a given.
I suggest that she might not ought to refer to our publisher as Grubby.
“Why not?” She takes a swig. “You old farts call him that.”
I’m stung. I am too courtly, or not stupid enough, to tell her that I wasn’t too old for her on one memorable (for me, at least) occasion. Best not to go there. I am trying to be good, and she probably doesn’t even have to try. Hell, she might not remember.
“Well,” I say, “we usually try not to say it where he can hear it.”
Sarah shrugs. She’s twenty-four. She has options. Oh, to be in the don’t-give-a-shit years again.
“So,” she says, “what’re you going to write? I mean, you were there for the trial, right? Back in, like, 1983?”
Eighty-four, I tell her.
“Wow,” she says, “that was the year my older brother was born.”
“Cool,” I reply.
“So, bring me up to speed.”
I give her the CliffsNotes version, from what I remember and what I’ve read in the morgue.
I was younger than Sarah is now when it happened, in my first full year at the paper. I’d worked for them some in college, and they probably hired me because I’d already become a dependable designated driver for some of the older editors, who liked it that I didn’t roll my eyes, outwardly at least, when they started telling the old, old stories.
Night cops was what they put you on, still is, when you’re low man or woman on the politically incorrect totem pole. How I’m back on that beat is a long story nobody cares or has time to hear.
“It happened the week after Labor Day. They made the arrest late on a Wednesday night, and we didn’t hear about it until the next morning.
“I had to rely on the only cop I knew very well at the time, guy named Gillespie . . .”
“Gillespie? The fat guy who’s always trying to tell me dirty jokes from, like, 1957?”
Sarah has done a few turns on the night cops beat, trying to work off her natural overload of curiosity and energy.
“Well,” I say, forced to semi-defend the indefensible, “he wasn’t so bad back then.
“Anyhow, I had to depend on Gillespie to tell me what really happened at the Philadelphia Quarry.”
“Wait,” Sarah says, setting down her beer. “What the hell is the Philadelphia Quarry?”
“If you can rein in your ADD, all will be revealed.”
“I haven’t taken Ritalin since I was ten,” she says.
That morning, I was hung over. I had gotten off work at one, and then we’d gone over to Jack Wade’s house and wound down until we could all fail a Breathalyzer test.
When the phone rang, I’d been asleep maybe four hours. Since it had happened at night, this one still fell to me.
“There was a rape over in Windsor Farms last night,” the guy playing adult supervision that morning told me. “Find out what happened.”
It got my attention. Most of our serious crime happens in less well-tended neighborhoods. About the worst thing that ever happened in Windsor Farms was some guy would earn himself a DUI coming back from the Commonwealth Club.
“It was at some place called the Quarry.”
The place had never been that well-known. One of my neighbors at the Prestwould calls it Richmond’s most exclusive club. I was never an invited guest until recently, but I had swam there, sans invitation or trunks, in my youth.
I got dressed and headed out. Jeanette was leaving for work as I brushed my teeth. We had been married a little over a year, and she was still relatively tolerant of the fact that there was a serious time lag between when I got off work and when I returned to our little Bon Air apartment.
I didn’t have a lot of great sources yet. I went to Gillespie because he was around the station that morning and I had played five-card draw with him.
“It’s still under investigation,” he told me.
I assured him that nothing he said would be quoted; I just wanted a starting point. “Just some background.”
He looked around and then led me outside.
“I gotta go on patrol. Come on and ride with me.”
We left the station, and he started talking.
They had gotten a call sometime after eleven. Somebody was swimming in the Philadelphia Quarry. Just some kids raising hell, but one of the neighbors had complained, and complaints from Windsor Farms were heeded.
When they got there, Gillespie said, the kids ran for it. Most of them were able to get through the break in the fence and disappear into the night. One of them, though, the slowest, or maybe just the one who was farthest out in the water, couldn’t get out in time.
“He said that they were out driving around, and then somebody said he knew where they could go swimming in some white guy’s pond.”
It had been a sticky night, September on the calendar but August on your skin.
They took Richard Slade back to the patrol car, but then the guy with Gillespie had said maybe they ought to take a look inside the fence, check for vandalism.
Gillespie even then was hitting the doughnuts pretty good, and when we arrived at the Quarry that morning and I saw the hole in the fence, I had to smile at the thought of him squeezing his fat ass through.
“So we went inside,” he told me, “checked around, gave it the once-over. Then we went over to this shack there, where people changed clothes, I guess.
“And that’s where we found her.”
Alicia Parker Simpson was sixteen. She was lying on a bench inside the men’s changing area. Her arms were tied over her head. The rope was attached to a hook on the wall behind her. Her panties, the only item of her clothing in the room, were stuffed in her mouth.
They managed to find a robe someone had left there. When they helped her to her feet, she told them to please not tell her father.
They asked her who did it, and she sat there, crying and shaking her head.
Finally, Gillespie said he asked her if it was a black guy. They brought Richard Slade over and made him stand a few feet away, outside the open door to the changing room. She was silent for a few seconds, and then Gillespie said she nodded her head.
The hospital confirmed what the cops there already knew, and they charged Richard Slade with rape.
Gillespie told me who she was. We never ran her name in the paper.
I covered the trial, the next spring.
Slade, represented by a court-appointed attorney, never admitted to anything. They interrogated him for a few hours and got nothing but denials. Basically, it was her word against his.
The other guys from the neighborhood, Richard’s so-called friends, took a powder. They were made to know that if they falsely claimed that Richard Slade was innocent, that they had only gone to the Quarry to sneak in a late-night swim (and maybe thumb their noses at the rich white folks who put fences up everywhere they wanted to go), that they could be charged with perjury. And they also could be charged as accomplices, although the girl said it had been only the one boy who raped her.
Richard told them who the other boys were, and that they would vouch for him. But the other boys knew, and their parents knew better than them, how it was likely to play out. White girl says she was raped. Black boy says he didn’t do it. When his lawyer got them on the stand, they didn’t know nothin’. They weren’t sure whether Richard was with them all the time or not, just knew that, when they made a run for it, he wasn’t there.
When it came time to step up for Richard Slade, everybody stepped back.
Even his own family didn’t seem to believe him. Or they just decided to cut their losses. Whatever; by the end of the trial, it was just Philomena. I still remember her sitting there, clutching that ridiculously large purse that was searched meticulously every day by the guards, clinching and unclinching her hands, hoping to exchange a glance with her only child, waiting for the inevitable.
The court-appointed attorney had advised him to forgo a jury trial. The lawyer, who was about two minutes out of law school, told me later, over a few beers and off the record, that he thought a judge would see the irrefutable fact: No one could prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Richard Slade raped the girl. Hell, there was so much doubt shading that case that you needed a searchlight.
But he hadn’t counted on the cops finessing the other boys into going deaf, dumb and blind.
If it had happened a couple of years later, DNA probably would have cleared him, the way it finally, belatedly has now.
Judge Cain chose to believe the girl. I suppose he thought that no one would put herself through a trial like that if she hadn’t actually been raped. Or maybe he was hardwired, when it came to black vs. white, to go with white.
She wasn’t particularly convincing, but she never wavered. She had been coached well, no doubt. Her parents and older sister sat there every day, hard-eyed, firm-jawed counterparts to Philomena Slade. Alicia looked back at them often for eye contact and, I suppose, reassurance.
When she broke down a couple of times, she only made the accused’s lawyer look like a bully. She never really gave a good answer as to why she was at the Quarry at that time of night, just something about “wanting to go for a swim.”
Richard Slade got life. When the judge pronounced the verdict, I turned to look at Philomena Slade, but by then, she already had zipped up her sorrow and rage.
Richard himself looked a little gut-shot, the way I would have looked upon receiving a life sentence at the age of seventeen.
They took him away, and not much was heard of Richard Slade, except for his mother’s yearly letters to our editorial pages on the date of his conviction, demanding justice. They ran the first one and threw the others away, sometimes sharing them with the newsroom, for the amusement factor. They’ve done a half-assed mea culpa—or them-a culpa, since we have new Neanderthals doing our deep thinking now—for that “black day for justice” crap four years ago; but being one of our editorial writers apparently means never really having to say you’re sorry.
When Mr. DNA entered the picture, people buried forever in black holes started turning up inconveniently innocent. Of course, it was hard to separate the wheat from the chaff, because every murderer and rapist in the federal system wanted some kind of science-based exoneration, but finally it was Slade’s turn.
Once they finally were able to compare that long-ago semen with Richard Slade’s present-day fluids, it seemed pretty cut-and-dried; but it still took four years and a month to get everyone on board. The commonwealth’s attorney, when all hope of keeping Slade in prison legitimately was lost, threw his predecessor to the lions and welcomed Richard Slade back to the land of the living.
Sarah Goodnight is taking all this in as she finishes her fries.
“Wow,” she says. “This guy must be sorely pissed.”
“Funny thing, it didn’t seem that way.”
Maybe the rage comes later, after the relief wears off. Before it’s over, I’m pretty sure the commonwealth will be giving Slade a nice little welcome-home gift, too. I don’t know if Marcus Green can make any money for his client and himself suing the girl’s family, but he ought to give it his best shot.
We’re back in the newsroom by two thirty. It’s my day off, but news is news. If I hadn’t dragged my ass to court this morning, I know Mark Baer would have been there, poaching my story.
Jackson tells me that Mal Wheelwright wants to see me. It seems wrong, being forced to have a sit-down with our managing editor on a day when I’m not even supposed to be here, but no good deed goes unpunished.
I prefer to stand in Wheelie’s office. Makes the meetings go faster.
“So, what’re you going to write?”
He ought to know that already, but I explain it to him.
He clears his throat.
“Not too much about our, ah, editorial stance in the past? We don’t want to come across looking like the bad guys here.”
“Well,” I say, yearning to win the lottery so I can tell Wheelie to go fuck himself, “we aren’t exactly the good guys.”
“That was editorial.”
Like the readers give a shit. Anybody who’s worked at a paper whose editorial writers have their heads up their asses knows how stupid you look when you say, “It’s not me; it’s them. Never mind that it comes in the same plastic wrapper. We’re news, not editorial.”
That usually flies like a concrete block. Like it did with Philomena Slade.
I ease his fears about my further sullying the reputation of this fine rag. It really isn’t fair to lay it all on Wheelie, anyhow. He’s just following orders. I’d have to go a couple of floors up, to the publisher’s office, to find the puppet master who’s pulling Wheelie’s strings. I can feel the pale fingers of James H. Grubbs all over this one.
So I write the story of Richard Slade, such as I know it.
I tell Sally Velez she’s got thirty minutes to read it before I check out. It’s almost happy hour, and I could use a couple of pints of happy.
She obliges me, because she knows it’s easier to fix any problems the story might have with me sitting beside her, clean and sober. Reaching me later at Penny Lane, as I get happier and happier, can be difficult. Or so I’m told.
“Not bad,” she says, after making a couple of changes that I grudgingly admit make it better.
She asks me what happened when the Slades got home, and I have to tell her about my aborted ride. She seems to think it’s funny.
She turns to face me.
“What next? Are you going to try to see her?”
She sighs. Sally and I have known each other too long for this kind of bullshit.
“Yeah,” I say. “I’m going to give it a shot anyhow. I’ll go out there tomorrow, I guess. She’ll probably slam the door in my face. I’m getting used to rejection.”
With the exception of three reportedly eventful and unhappy married years, Alicia Parker Simpson lives where she’s always lived. When she came back, she didn’t even take her husband’s name with her.
The geezers at the paper, like Sally and Jackson and Ray Long and me, knew her back when. She worked as an intern one summer, at the publisher’s “request.” The old publisher, the one before Grubby, lived in the same Windsor Farms neighborhood as the Simpsons. He and Harper Simpson were bourbon buddies.
She wasn’t bad. A little brittle, maybe. I doubt if I’d have taken her to a dirt nap the way I did Sarah when she was a cub reporter, but Alicia was a good writer, and she did several freelance features for us after she dropped out of Sweet Briar, before she got tired of journalism. The sense I had: Alicia Parker Simpson got tired very easily. After what she’d been through, the general consensus was that she was entitled to a little fatigue of the soul.
We all knew who she was, of course. After the rape, the paper never mentioned her name, but Richmond isn’t that big a town. Everyone handled her with white linen gloves, and maybe that just made her more tired.
Over the years, I’ve seen her from time to time.
“There she is,” someone will whisper, and there she will be. We’ve even spoken a couple of times. She seems to know me, but maybe that’s just good manners.
I ring the bell. Standing here, with the aspirin kicking in finally, in the sunshine and out of the wind, I’m feeling halfway human.
I expect a maid to answer the door. Instead, a West End caricature greets me, although “greet” might not be quite the word I’m looking for.
“Yes?” she says. “May I help you?”
The woman in front of me bears a slight resemblance to Alicia Simpson. I tell her who I am and what I am.
She gives me a firm handshake and identifies herself as Lewis Witt.
I’ve mercifully never done a stint as society columnist, but Lewis Geneva Simpson Witt I know. Her picture shows up somewhere in our paper every week or so. She must be on every do-good board in the city. And she’s Alicia Simpson’s older sister.
She invites me inside, then stops me a few steps beyond the door.
“Alicia isn’t seeing anyone right now,” she explains, planting her athletic body in front of me. I’m guessing she’s about fifty, but she looks fine. She looks well-maintained. “I’m sure you can understand. It’s been quite a strain on her, with the news media and all. They aren’t all as polite as you.”
Well, I did put my cigarette out before I knocked and squashed it flat on the stone walkway.
I tell her that I know Alicia from when we worked together at the paper.
Lewis Witt just nods and smiles slightly. I know the smile. It says No Sale.
“Well, do you think Alicia might be willing to talk about it all at a later date?”
“I don’t know. You might check back again. But I’m sure you understand this is a very difficult time.”
There isn’t much left to do, short of getting arrested for trespassing. I give her my card, which she is polite enough not to throw away in front of me, and leave.
As I’m walking back down the slate walkway toward my car, something makes me turn and look back.
In one of the four upstairs windows I can see, Alicia Simpson is standing, the curtains half open. When she realizes I see her, she draws them back.
It can’t be a lot of fun. As soon as the DNA evidence told the world that the great Commonwealth of Virginia had stolen twenty-eight years of some innocent black man’s life after he was falsely convicted of raping a pampered Windsor Farms teenager, the heat was on.
We’ve been trying to get an interview ever since, but she has always refused. To Alicia’s credit, she did make a statement, in which she said that she was horrified to discover that it was possible an innocent man had been imprisoned on her testimony, but that she was sure, at the time, that she had been right.
“Apparently,” her statement concluded, “I was wrong.”
In the past four years, she’s never been unpleasant to the occasional reporter who manages to waylay her when she makes what seem to be more and more infrequent forays out of her home. But she’s usually with someone else, and that someone else usually whisks her away before she can be bothered.
After Richard Slade got the long-awaited writ of actual innocence, she issued another statement, apologizing for her long-ago mistake and wishing the alleged rapist well. For right now, it seems that’s all the fourth estate is going to get out of Alicia Parker Simpson.
I have time to run back to my apartment and grab a quick bite before my real workday begins. Kate is still letting me rent from her, which I appreciate. I have come to think of the Prestwould as home. Most of the other residents are older than me, and most of them surely have bigger stock portfolios, but we get along. And in how many places can a fifty-something newspaper reporter be referred to on a regular basis as “young man”?
Custalow is taking his lunch break. He’s sitting there at the table, looking out at the park six floors below, munching on one of the two peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches he’s made for himself.
“The hawk’s back,” he says. I walk closer to the window and see the red-tailed hawk that keeps the pigeon and squirrel population manageable. This time of year, you can spot him a mile away, a fat silhouette adorning the top of an oak tree like an ornament left over from Christmas.
I observe that the radiators are making more noise than usual. Custalow glares at me like I’ve questioned his janitorial competence.
“We’re working on it,” he says and tucks into the other sandwich.
It works out pretty well. Abe Custalow has a roof over his head and something resembling a salary. I have an old friend to help me make the rent payment to my ex-wife.
“Oh,” he says, “Clara Westbrook was looking for you.”
Clara probably needs a light bulb replaced. Or just some company. The grande dame of the Prestwould is a social butterfly, and her friends keep leaving for “independent living” or the Great Beyond.
“So Slade is finally free?”
“Seems like it.”
Abe finishes the second sandwich and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
Abe Custalow has spent some time as a guest of the state, and it has occurred to me that he might have crossed paths with Richard Slade. I’ve never asked him. Prison isn’t something he really likes to talk about. I doubt he’ll want it mentioned in his obituary.
Still, since he brought it up . . .
“Did you know him?”
He looks at me.
“Yeah, a little.”
And then he gets up, takes his paper plate into the kitchen, and is out the back door leading from the kitchen to the service hallway before I can ask him anything else.
The place still looks good, despite my and Custalow’s best efforts to turn it into a bachelor pigsty. Since Kate owns it, she has a key. She is prone to drop by from time to time, just to make sure I’m not smoking indoors or piling used Miller High Life cans in the living room. When we were married, she was as big a slob as me, but now that she’s a landlady, she takes her job seriously.
Still, the rent’s reasonable, especially with Custalow’s modest contribution. If I had to pay what my neighbors do, or bear the full brunt of that four-figure monthly condo fee, I’d be gone by sundown.
I have time to take a twenty-minute power nap and then check in with Clara before work.
When I get there and knock, she yells down the hallway for me to come on in. Clara doesn’t believe in locking her door, even after the little theft ring that Custalow broke up last year, resulting in his co-worker going to jail and him becoming our Head Janitor in Charge.
Clara’s got some health issues, but she’s not complaining. She drags that oxygen bottle behind her in its little wagon like a pet and offers to get me something to eat or drink. I tell her I know where the bourbon is, but that my boss likes it if he doesn’t smell liquor on my breath, at least not before sundown.
“Nobody has any fun anymore,” she says.
She’s right about that. Gone are the days of the two-bourbon lunch and the sleepy afternoons. And it’s hard to disappear for long when the editors have your cellphone number.
I fix her a very light Scotch and, what the hell, make one for myself, too.
Clara says she invited me up to ask if I want the leftover booze from her New Year’s Eve party, which I and seemingly half of Richmond attended. Clara planted herself at the end of the big foyer leading into the living room and greeted everyone with a kiss. I stopped by for a while, and she whispered to me when I left, “If I’ve got to go, I want to go wearing a party dress.”
I thank her for the offer and tell her I’ve got a fairly ample supply of both the brown and white liquors.
“Well,” she says, with the twinkle in her eye that’ll be the last thing she loses, “you go through it pretty fast.”
We chat for a couple of minutes, then she says what probably was on her mind from the start.
“Wasn’t that awful about Alicia Parker Simpson?”
I observe that it was pretty awful about Richard Slade, too. I’d take feeling guilty over twenty-eight years in prison any day.
She waves her hand as if swatting away a tiresome fly.
“Oh, you know what I mean. The whole thing.”
I mention knowing the woman briefly and then tell Clara about my abbreviated ride with the Slade family.
“I can’t blame her,” she says. “She was his mother. I read about how hard she fought, all those years. That’s what a mother does.”
She takes a sip, trying to make the one drink she knows should be her limit last as long as possible.
“I knew her parents.”
Clara probably could say that about just about anyone in the West End, where “Who was your family?” is not considered to be a rude or inconsequential question.
I glance at my watch. Since I worked gratis yesterday, I think the paper can afford to spot me a few minutes today.
“Tell me,” I say, taking a seat on the ottoman facing her.
Harper Simpson, long since taken from us by a heart attack suffered in the bathroom at the Commonwealth Club, was a well-compensated corporate lawyer. His family had made its money, as had so many in Richmond, in tobacco, and the family still seems to be living off that long-ago bounty.
“At least,” Clara says, “I don’t hear about Alicia having to work, and Wesley and Lewis certainly don’t, although Lewis at least married pretty well.”
I tell her I met Lewis Simpson Witt earlier today, and that she seemed to be quite the brick.
“Oh, she’s a tough cookie,” Clara agrees.
Clara, well into her eighties, had been a contemporary of Harper and Simone Simpson.
“They were very glamorous,” she said, taking another small sip. “And their kids were, too.”
It isn’t that hard to imagine Lewis as the young, raven-haired beauty Clara describes, even if she has, like the rest of us, collected a few wrinkles and pounds along the way.
She was a debutante and went to what was then Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. She was the kind of girl who always made her parents proud.
“She would have been a beauty queen,” Clara says, “but Harper thought beauty pageants were trashy. I remember they had a terrible fight about it one year. But she always gave way to Harper. I tried to convince him one time that she wouldn’t automatically turn into a red-light girl if she got picked as Miss Richmond.”
Clara was runner-up for Miss Virginia back in the day, although you’d never find that out from her. So I could imagine her intervening on Lewis’s behalf, to no avail.
“Harper was a good man, but he was stubborn,” she says, and takes another sip.
“But it seemed like they got, you know, diminishing returns with those kids. The other two started out like Lewis, the apple of everybody’s eye. Wes and Alicia were adorable. Everybody said so, not just me.”
I ask her if she thought it was the rape that changed her.
Clara thinks about it a minute. I try not to hear her breathing with the help of her little friend.
“No,” she says. “I think there was something odd about her before that. She had a way of zoning out. You’d be talking to her, and then you’d see that she wasn’t really there.
“And, by then, they were already having trouble with Wesley.”
Coming from the West End, where girls wind up with androgynous, family-heirloom names as often as not, Wesley could have been the third sister.
“Oh, no,” Clara says, laughing. “Wesley was all boy. He was the apple of Harper and Simone’s eyes. Before he . . . well, before he lost his mind, I suppose you’d say.”
He was fifteen, a straight-A student and already a starter on the lacrosse team as a freshman, popular and handsome.
“And then, he came home from school one day and told them he couldn’t go back. Just like that.”
Clara snaps her fingers.
“He went to a ‘special’ school somewhere up in the valley, and then he came back and lived with them, but from then on, he was in and out of different kinds of homes. I saw him at Simone’s funeral, last year, and I meant to speak to him, if he even still knows me. But then he disappeared. I suppose Lewis and her husband look after him now, if anybody does.”
Clara shakes her head. I need to go, just to keep her from talking. It’s pretty obvious that the oxygen tank is having trouble keeping up.
“I always felt bad about it all, felt bad that I couldn’t help Wesley in some way. You know, I was his godmother.”
I have one hand on the ottoman to push myself up when she says it. I stop.
“Oh, I know,” Clara says, laughing and wheezing a little. “I buried my lede.”
Clara never forgets anything, including old newspaper jargon. I told her about burying ledes one time when she’d spun some fifteen-minute yarn about a run-down home she was trying to help save near the VCU campus before finally mentioning that she and her late husband had reared three kids there.
“I’ve left him something in my will. Maybe it’ll keep him independent for a few more years.”
But after that day when he told them he couldn’t go back to school, Clara rarely ever saw him.
“I think there was some sense of shame. They diagnosed it as schizophrenia, but neither Harper nor Simone would talk about it, even with me. They’d just change the subject, and after a while, you just stopped asking. And I never tried as hard as I might have to stay in touch with him, later.”
The general feeling, Clara said, was that “losing” his beloved son, and then the rape of his youngest daughter three years later, contributed greatly to Harper Simpson’s fatal heart attack when he wasn’t yet sixty.
“That’s all hooey, of course. What caused Harper Simpson’s heart to quit was too much Smithfield ham and too many Marlboros.”
I make sure she’s OK and take my leave.
“Come back anytime,” she says, walking me slowly to the door, which only wears her out and delays my parting a couple of minutes.
Feldman, a.k.a. Mr. McGrumpy, the Prestwould’s resident busybody (although he has plenty of competition), is in the lobby when I come down.
“Ah,” he says, “and how is Clara today?”
He loves to do that shit. He saw the elevator go up to twelve and then come down, depositing me in the lobby. The only other unit on twelve is unoccupied.
I tell him she’s fine and congratulate him on his skills as a snoop. I’d like to throttle him sometimes, but he’s almost as old as Clara, and I think they put you in jail for dough-popping people that age, even if they do deserve it.
“And how is our resident felon?”
He must spend half his waking hours down here in the lobby, watching and waiting for chances to piss people off.
He’s really pushing it. If McGrumpy had his way, Custalow would be back out on the street. Other than one rather unfortunate and semi-deserved killing, Abe Custalow is as gentle as a lamb; but I think McGrumpy’s afraid our maintenance man and my co-tenant might pinch his head off and shit down his neck, and I like the idea of the old bastard being a little jumpy.
“Abe was looking for you,” I tell him as I leave.
The forecast is for snow. Sitting in the den and looking out, I think the TV moron with the bad hair might have gotten it right. Even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then.
One of the disadvantages of living ten blocks from the paper is that you can’t exactly claim the roads are too icy. I tried it once, told Jackson I might fall on those slick brick sidewalks and hurt myself. He reminded me that the bus stops right in front of my building.
When the phone rings, I let the answering machine pick it up. That’s only fair. I wouldn’t even be up now if I could have gone back to sleep after I got my acid reflux wakeup call at five.
Then I hear Sally Velez’s voice, and it doesn’t sound like a casual call. What call is casual at seven thirty on a Saturday morning?
“Alicia Simpson has been shot. They don’t think she’s going to make it.”
I pick up and ask her where.
“Somewhere on West Cary. She’s at MCV.”
“It must’ve just happened. Maybe an hour or two ago. Some friend of Ray Long’s, an ER nurse, called him and he called me. I don’t know much else.”
“We’re sure it’s her?”
“Pretty sure. Sure enough that I’m calling you.”
Point taken. Unlike some editors, Sally doesn’t get her kicks by playing newspaper. When she pulls the alarm, there’s probably a fire.
I put down my coffee and head for the bedroom. There on the floor, where I left them, are my pants and shirt. I can always take a shower later and get presentable before I start my real workday, the part I get paid for.
I see Custalow in the lobby, talking to Marcia the manager. I tell him what’s going on.
He shakes his head.
“You didn’t get in until one thirty.”
I tell him I’ll get the hours back sometime.
“After you’re dead,” he says, and turns back to Marcia, to whom he is trying to explain the latest plumbing issue.
I light a Camel while I’m on the front steps. I’m not dressed for bad weather, and I debate for a few seconds whether I should go back up. But then I’d have to waste a cigarette. Screw it.
The air is cold and still, and it seems like I can already feel the snow. But when I get to the car, there’s no evidence of ice on my windshield, just an empty Bud on the hood, which some young scholar must have mistaken for a recycling bin sometime after I got in. I think briefly of the Black family’s current contribution to higher education. I need to give Andi a call.
The VCU hospital is a long walk or a short drive from the Prestwould. Everyone beyond a certain age still calls it MCV, as in Medical College of Virginia.
With HIPAA and all, it’s very difficult to get information out of hospitals these days, or at least it is supposed to be. I recognize one of the receptionists, though. As luck would have it, she’s Goat Johnson’s niece. I’ve known her since she was a baby.
“Willie,” she says, brightening when she sees me. “You look like you’ve been run over by a bus. Sure you don’t need the emergency room entrance?”
I tell her what’s happened. She looks around and then gives me what I need.
Alicia Parker Simpson is in intensive care. I can’t get in there without a pass, and even Goat Johnson’s niece can’t do that for me.
“You can go up to the floor, though,” she says, “and maybe go to the family waiting room.”
I thank her and ask her when Goat’s going to be back in town.
“Ah,” she says, “he’s too big for Oregon Hill now. I think he’s high-hatting us.”
“Hard to believe a guy named Goat could high-hat anybody, even if he is a college president.”
She laughs and sends me on my way.
It isn’t that easy finding the family room. I’ve never been in a big hospital yet that wasn’t designed along the same lines as those corn mazes every farmer these days seems to create for the city folk to get lost in. By the time I reach my destination, I have met the same dazed-looking older couple twice. I want to help them, but I can barely help myself.
The family room is the kind of place you never want to be unless you must. Everybody in there has a loved one, or at least a relative, hanging by a thread. The fear and despair are as thick as a river-bottom fog. Teaching hospitals are where they send you when nothing less can possibly save you; and ICUs in teaching hospitals are where skill has to turn the wheel over to luck and prayer, and the prayers don’t get answered on anything like a regular basis.
When I walk in, the first person I see is Carl Witt. I recognize Lewis Witt’s husband from his photographs, which regularly adorn the paper’s pages, either for his work as an attorney or with Lewis on his arm at some fundraiser.
He’s sitting forward, his elbows resting on his thighs and his hands clasped together. He seems to be dozing, but then he looks up at me, and I see that he’s wide awake.
“Yes?” he says. He can see that I’m not a doctor. The way I’m dressed, he might think I’m one of the neighborhood’s homeless who wander in occasionally, looking for free medical attention or just warmth.
“I heard about Alicia,” I say. “I used to work with her.” Well, that’s not technically a lie.
At the paper, I tell him.
The nickel drops.
“Ah,” he says. “You guys don’t waste much time, do you?”
I say nothing. Somebody with a family member headed for the light doesn’t really care to hear about the public’s right to know. Anyhow, this story probably is more about the public’s thirst for information it doesn’t really need, a.k.a. entertainment. And we are entertainment’s eager little handmaidens.
“Well,” he says, “everybody’s got a job to do.”
Witt, being a corporate lawyer, understands how it feels to be a notch or two below whale shit in the public’s pecking order. But at least corporate lawyers get paid pretty well. I once asked Kate why she didn’t go for the money instead of trying to change the world through our criminal justice system.
She asked me why I turned down that PR job they offered me at Philip Morris, since I was pretty much single-handedly propping up the tobacco industry anyhow.
“You could get some of your cigarette money back,” she said.
I told her that even scum-sucking, Commie journalists like me had their standards.
Carl Witt is willing, once we’ve gotten past our opening parry, to tell as much as he knows about “the incident.”
“Alicia gets up every morning and goes to work out. God knows why. She weighs about ninety damn pounds. But she gets to that gym on West Main by five thirty, and she’s out by seven. She says it’s pretty empty that time of day.”
They found her car, with the engine running, rammed into a parking meter just beyond the stoplight where West Cary crosses Meadow. A city cop came by and saw that the driver was slumped over the steering wheel. He thought he might have a case of severely drunk driving on his hands, but then he saw that the side window was shot out. And then he saw all the blood.
“They told Lewis that the rescue squad was there in less than ten minutes, but I don’t know if there was much they could do. Lewis is back there now. They’re not supposed to let anybody in, but you know Lewis. Or I guess you don’t.”
We sit there quietly for maybe ten minutes, and then Lewis Witt comes out. She hasn’t had time to do what you do when you’re fifty and want to get your game face on before you meet the world. Her mouth is a grim, tight line.
Her husband gets up and embraces her. There are others in the room, strangers with their own grief. She looks over her husband’s shoulder and sees me.
“Who are you?” she asks me, in a surprisingly strong voice. And then she remembers.
“You’re that reporter,” she says. “Get out.”
Nobody seems to have much use for journalists invading their most private moments these days. Go figure.
I express my sympathy as I back out the door. I really mean it. What I remember about Alicia Simpson is almost all good. She was a competent writer who was not averse to the concept that someone else might know something about the craft that she didn’t. She was a little fragile, I thought, a little too jumpy to be a good newspaper reporter. But she was blessed with enough family money that she never had to find that out.
Whatever happened that night at the Quarry, twenty-eight years ago, I’ll never know, but both Alicia Simpson and Richard Slade definitely were the worse for it.
Back at the paper, I blog a few paragraphs so our potential readers don’t have to actually buy the Sunday paper. I try to leave something really juicy out of the blogs to tease them (“Tune in to the Sunday paper, folks, for the full story”), but the circulation numbers tell me that’s not working so well.
My cellphone rings. It really does ring, like a damn phone is supposed to. What is so cool about having your phone play “Billy Jean” or “Stairway to Heaven”? It’s like that singing fish thing that was so big a few years back. Funny once, maybe twice, then you just want to shoot it.
“He’s gone again.”
Les. This happens now and then, and I usually know where to look.
I tell her I’ll be there in half an hour. I have a couple of hours before I’m expected at the paper.
Les Hacker, the light of my addled mother’s life and the guy who saved my butt from being barbecued last year, has gone walking.
We haven’t had to get him off the roof lately, but he is prone to occasionally wandering off. Les’s body is still in pretty good shape. The last time I got the cops to find him, he was all the way out of town, headed toward Williamsburg. When they stopped him, they said he looked confused, like somebody who’s just woke up from a dream.
He reminds me of a comedy bit I heard once: “Grandma’s walking five miles a day now, and we have no idea where she is.”
I always try to find him myself first. I start in the neighborhood, then expand my search into Blackwell and the Fan. I don’t want social services coming over and telling Peggy she’s got to put him in some damn home.
When my mother opens the front door, I am temporarily overwhelmed by the sweet smell of wacky weed, but Peggy seems relatively coherent. The day is young.
“He was right here,” she says, “watching that ESPN. I went to do the dishes and then took a shower, and when I got back, he was gone.”
This time, it’s easy. I look in their bedroom closet and see that the old catcher’s mitt, remnant of his last pro baseball stop with the Richmond V’s, is missing.
So, I get in my ancient but indestructible Honda and head toward The Diamond. It’s been more than twenty years since they demolished Parker Field, where Les once played, and built something with a newer, more hip name (even if the damn thing is falling down now). Hey, I’m no mossback, but things have to change names for about fifty years before I really buy in. Holding back the hands of time, one of our younger reporters told me once, when I was ranting about texting and tweeting, is a twenty-four-hour-a-day job.
Sure enough, I find Les, walking up Boulevard, just past Buzz and Ned’s. I manage to pull over and park a block ahead of him and intercept him as he’s walking past, that 500-yard stare telling me he thinks he’s late for the game. I notice the first few snowflakes. Les has on a light sweater.
“Hey, Les,” I ask him, like I’d just happened to bump into him there, “where you going?”
He doesn’t seem to recognize me for about five seconds. Then he wakes up and looks around him.
“I did it again, didn’t I?” he asks me. He looks as abashed as a kid who’s just wet the bed.
“Big game today?” I asked him. He looks down at the mitt he’s carrying in his right hand, and we both laugh.
He looks around and figures out where he is.
“Can we get in the car?” he says finally. “It’s cold as a witch’s tit out here.”
I bring him home. I can see Peggy’s neighbor, Jerry Cannady, looking at us out his front window. Jerry no doubt knows what’s happened. He’s always complaining about something Les has done, none of which has ever harmed another human being, to my knowledge. I give Jerry the finger, and the blinds snap shut.
Peggy calls Les an old fool, asks rhetorically what she’s going to do with him, then hugs him.
I stay around for a few minutes and let Peggy fix me a baloney sandwich.
I ask her about her erstwhile tenant, the redoubtable Awesome Dude.
“Oh,” she says, “he went walking a couple of days ago. He’ll be back.”
The Dude, saved by Peggy from a life of homeless shelters, park benches and lean-to’s by the river, occasionally still hears the call of the wild.
I note that her men seem to be prone to running away.
“Go fuck yourself,” she explains. In Peggy-speak, “Go fuck yourself’ translates as “Let’s change the subject.”
I ask her if that’s the same mouth she used to kiss me goodnight with.
“I never kissed you goodnight,” she says, laughing. “You were too ugly.”
“Did you hear about that Windsor Farms girl?” she asks me. I’m thinking, shit, the TV guys have got it, too. Usually, it would take a nuclear blast to wake them up on Saturdays, when the whole crew of most of our local stations seems to consist of VCU mass com students with good hair and empty heads. They probably got it from my blog. Talk about red meat for the on-the-airheads: Rich, blonde former debutante shot to death at a stoplight five days after the man she accused of raping her gets his “writ of actual innocence.”
I tell Peggy about my day so far.
“I guess it isn’t going to be hard to come up with a suspect,” Peggy says. “That poor boy. After all he’s been through.”
Well, I suggest, it does seem as if Richard Slade might be a logical choice. If I’d just gotten back from twenty-eight years in the big house for a crime I apparently didn’t commit, I might have built up a slight case of resentment. I mean, just how many people in the city of Richmond did have a reason to shoot Alicia Parker Simpson twice in the face on her way to her morning workout?
Peggy shakes her head.
“That whole thing, even back then, seemed so bogus. I never did believe Philomena’s boy would’ve done that.”
I have half a sandwich in my mouth and have trouble speaking until I wash it down.
“Wait. What? You know Philomena Slade?”
Peggy wipes her hands on a paper napkin.
“Well, she was Philomena Lee back then.”
I implore Peggy to tell me more. She has to circle around it. Eventually, though, I find out that Richard Slade is probably my second cousin.
There’s about an inch of snow on the ground, but the sun’s out now. Andi and I are headed down to Millie’s for brunch. I haven’t seen my daughter since Christmas. She gave me a tie and a fifth of Jack Black, which she probably got for next to nothing at her most recent stop in her apparent quest to wait tables at every restaurant and bar in the city limits. I gave her cash. That’s what she said she wanted, but it didn’t seem to thrill her that much.
Andi probably will graduate from VCU about the same time she checks the last eatery in town off her to-do list. Like the tortoise, her progress is slow but steady, a course or two a semester. I hope that, like the tortoise, she crosses the finish line one day.
As we make our way across town through the slush, my mind is still reeling a bit from Peggy’s latest bombshell.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this before?” I asked after I’d finally dragged it out of her. Peggy has never had much of a filter between her brain and her mouth. She thinks it, she says it.
“It wasn’t any of your business.”
I told her that it sure as hell was my business, but she crossed her arms like some sulking little kid and told me to change the subject or get out.
It isn’t exactly a big deal anymore to be of “mixed race.” Mixing the races might be the only thing that can save these Benighted States of America, although I’m sure we’d find some other reason to hate each other.
Artie Lee, saxophonist and bon vivant, died when he wrapped a car around a sycamore tree while I was still crawling. I inherited almost none of his light-skinned African-American physical characteristics. Growing up in Oregon Hill, which was as white as Minute Rice back then, that was probably just as well.
I can vaguely remember Peggy taking me over a couple of times to visit a black family in Highland Springs, when I was still pre-school age.
The family, it turns out, was the Lees.
You know the Hillary Clinton thing about it taking a village? Well, the Lees were a small town, everybody looking out for everyone else’s kids, everybody closing ranks around their weakest, sharing what they could. Kind of like America is supposed to be.
And one of Artie Lee’s first cousins was Philomena, who was twelve or thirteen when Peggy began “seeing” Artie.
“She was so bright, so sweet,” Peggy said, before she refused to say any more. “She used to take care of the younger ones, like she was their momma.”
Philomena and Peggy kept in touch for a while, and Peggy said the late Artie’s cousin once even ventured over to visit her in Oregon Hill.
“But she said people were giving her the evil eye, and she didn’t come back.”
Peggy said she hadn’t seen Philomena since probably 1980.
“When her son was arrested, maybe three years after that, somebody else answered the phone, and said she’d moved. And I never tried to get up with her again.
“But I just know Philomena Lee wouldn’t have raised a boy that would rape a girl like that. He was—is—her only child, too. Don’t know what happened to the daddy.”
A lot of that going around, I want to say.
In adulthood, I have never tried to run away from my heritage, but back then, when I was a kid, it was easier to be “us” than to be “them.” My friends knew, and some of my enemies suspected and, it being the South, fights ensued. It was easier to just let people think I was something exotic without any of that old Dixie baggage attached.
Sometimes, though, the truth will out no matter how hard you try to bottle it up. Faulkner was right about the past. You can drive a stake through the son-of-a-bitch’s heart, bury it deep, and it’ll still rise up waving the Stars and Bars.
I checked around last night, and my best cops’ source, the re-doubtable Peachy Love, told me that they were already questioning Richard Slade about his whereabouts early yesterday morning. He said he was at home asleep, and Philomena backed him up.
“But she’s his mother,” Peachy said. “It’s just a matter of time.” She’s probably right.
I am obliged to take another crack at Philomena Slade. Maybe, with my genealogy brought up to date, she will cut me some slack if I play the family card. The white sheep returns.
We have a great meal at Millie’s, as always. We both prefer its frantic, pants-on-fire ambience and heartburn specials to the somnolent brunch buffets at the Jefferson.
We at least have Millie’s in common.
I ask her how school’s going, and she reminds me that the spring semester hasn’t started yet.
“Well, then, how’d you do in the fall?”
“I did OK.”
I ask her if she might be able to expand a little on “OK.” Back in my college days, I remind her, when the earth’s crust was still warm, they actually defined a student’s progress with certain letters: A, B, C and such.
Her grades come directly to her. That’s the way they do it now. The student is an adult, albeit one whose parents are writing the checks, and it would be an offense against the student’s privacy and dignity to send Mom and Dad any information as to what the second mortgage is actually yielding, education-wise.
Andi’s a good kid, though, and I know she does appreciate my belated effort at parenthood. I missed most of the diaper-changing and wasn’t around for toilet training, so I’m trying to pay off my guilt with tuition and fees. Her mother and stepfather have enough bills to pay, and their two boys are fast approaching college age themselves.
“I got an A in English and a B in psych,” she says. I do the math in my head and figure she might be above C-level overall by now.
I ask her about the third course. She was very pumped, I seem to remember, about getting into this “very cool” course in African-American history.
“I dropped it, back in November. I thought I told you.”
She probably did.
“I didn’t feel welcome,” she says, after a short pause. “I was the only white kid in there. I felt, you know, like it was all on me. Every time they’d talk about Nat Turner, or segregation or something, I felt like everybody was giving me the fish-eye.”
Andi knows next to nothing about Peggy’s side of her family, just that her grandfather on her dad’s side died a long time ago. Jeanette’s never told her, and neither have I. Am I a racist? Doesn’t feel that way, but somehow Andi and I have never had that talk, the one where she finds out that she has more of a stake in African-American history than she knows.
She’d think it was “cool” to be something other than blue-collar, white-bread Scots-Irish. But telling her now would also entail tacitly admitting that I hadn’t told her for almost twenty-two years. It’s complicated. Maybe I’ve been too hard on Peggy.
“So,” I ask, slipping very gingerly into these shark-infested waters, “how are you . . . where are you . . .?”
“When am I going to graduate?”
I nod my head, grateful that I haven’t upset the delicate balance of this father-daughter get-together by asking an indelicate question.
“If everything goes right, I should be through in a couple of years, maybe spring of 2013.”
Well, I say, that’s not so bad, thinking to myself how seldom everything goes right.
“You know,” she says, reaching across the table and laying one of her hands over mine, “we don’t have to do this. I’m making pretty good money. I can support myself. I don’t need a degree.”
I shake my head.
“No, sweetie. One day, trust me, a college degree’s going to be the difference. There’ll be a job somewhere, probably one that doesn’t relate to anything you’re studying. You’ll really want it, but the human resources assholes will decree that ‘the applicant must have an undergraduate degree,’ and some jerk with some bullshit major like psychology will get it instead of you.”
“Dad,” she says, “I’m probably going to major in psych.”
“Well,” she says, as we slide out of our booth and head toward the door, “maybe you’re right, but the world’s changing. It isn’t all about the BA or BS anymore.”
The world is changing, I tell her, but there always will be a premium on people who prove they can stay the course.
I turn to her when I hear her snort.
“Says the man with three ex-wives.”
As we walk past the bar, I see a guy sitting there reading the Sunday paper, with my story across the top of A1.ALICIA SIMPSON SHOT TO DEATH. They had a hard time with the headline, I’m sure. Who was Alicia Simpson? Former rape victim? Rape alleger? Mis-identifier?
I wonder how deep the cops are into Richard and Philomena Slade’s shit already.
I ask Andi if she’d like to take a short trip to Richmond’s most exclusive club.
“You’re taking me to the Country Club of Virginia?”
“Much better than that.”
I tell her a little about the Philadelphia Quarry on the way there—how it had been around since the 1930s, how the stone they cut out of there went to, duh, Philadelphia, where I guess they built something with it. Andi stifles her yawns.
The Quarry’s secret membership list probably has always included a Prestwouldian or two. Some are shareholders. Some, like Clara Westbrook, are “summer members,” invited from year to year at the pleasure of the shareholders.
When she first took Kate and me over as her guests, I could see my beaming bride’s eyes light up. Nothing turned my third wife on like the prospect of breaking into some club.Someday,the thought balloon above her head said,they’ll ask me.
As Kate pumped Clara for more details about the place, I chose not to tell either of them that I’d already been to the Quarry, several times and uninvited.
All the Oregon Hill boys knew the Quarry. It was almost a rite of passage to sneak into this place where only what we thought of as rich people were allowed. There was always a way to get around or through the fence, and nothing was more delicious on a hot summer night than skinny-dipping and pissing in the deep, clear, cold water of the well-to-do. We’d go over there from the Hill after midnight when we were old enough to drive and could get a car—me, Abe, McGonnigal, Goat Johnson, Andy Peroni, John Wesley Samms. Unlike Richard Slade, we never got caught, but it was close a couple of times.
Alicia Parker Simpson’s rape gave the place the kind of notoriety its members would’ve paid dearly to avoid, but since the trial in 1984, it has slipped back into welcome obscurity. The Quarry has been on my mind ever since Richard Slade’s release from prison brought it back to the surface.
We drive through the city, taking one detour so I can see the spot where Alicia met her demise. Yellow police tape surrounds the spot, and a handful of black kids have drifted over from the convenience store across the street to gawk.
Once we get to Carytown, we take McCoy Street south, go past City Stadium and then over the expressway, and we’re in Windsor Farms. Coming this way, it seems like we should have to show our passports. It’s another world, the green, green grass of old money.
I get lost once. Then, suddenly, we’re there. My intention was to find the place, show it to Andi through the barbed-wire fence, tell her a few stories about my misspent youth and be on our way.
But the gate to the parking lot is open, although it’s four months and forty degrees from swimming weather.
I drive in and see that some kind of maintenance crew is there. Two old guys in jeans and jackets are getting ready to paint one of the sheds. I guess they think we’re members, because they leave us alone.
“What is this place?” Andi asks. Like most people in Richmond, she’s never seen it.
I tell her that it is an icon of my wayward youth.
“Also, it’s where Alicia Parker Simpson was raped.”
I fill her in, and we take a short walk around the place.
Like almost everything except my damn waistline, the Quarry seems to have shrunk over the years. I remember it being much bigger. There’s a white sandy beach with some picnic tables. Beyond that is the water, with a fifty-foot wall of granite behind it. The Quarry is shaped like an S, with the tails at either end just out of view.
The two sheds are still there, one of them still housing the men’s and women’s changing rooms. The buildings are nondescript cinder block.
I walk into the men’s room there, where Alicia Parker Simpson’s and Richard Slade’s lives changed so long ago. The bare smell of concrete and mildew make it seem more like a YMCA summer camp than a den of exclusivity.
“This is like the most hoity-toity club in Richmond? It smells.”
Andi is behind me. She is obviously unimpressed. I tell her the story that brought me here, and I tell her how we used to sneak in.
“Seems like sneaking into a pay toilet,” she says before she goes outside.
The bare sycamores hover over us. Their dead leaves float on the greenish surface. A lone heron flies over, headed for the river that’s just beyond the cliff we’re facing.
“Well,” I tell Andi, “it was much bigger when I was a boy.”
“Wasn’t everything?” she asks.
“Yes,” I reply, “it was.”
“So,” she says, “this was where that black guy was supposed to have raped the white girl way back when, and she’s the one that got killed yesterday?”
“Yeah. That’s pretty much it.”
“Wow. Sucks being him today.”
I drop her off at her apartment on Floyd, the one she shares with another girl and two guys. They’re just friends, she told me the first time I came by. Not, I’m hoping, friends with benefits.
I shouldn’t stop by the paper. It is my day off. But my car seems to have a magnet in it, guiding me to one of the empty parking spaces beside the building. Even on weekdays, there are often empty spaces right out front. In its infinite wisdom, the company that owns us built its corporate headquarters right across the street from the newspaper building, back when newspapers made money. Now, you could fit all the suits and the worker bees in one of the two buildings, but nobody’s done that. I guess it would be kind of like running up the white flag.
I stop by and say hello to Enos Jackson on the copy desk, where he seems at least moderately content to end his working career. Jackson gets grumpy sometimes. He’s done bigger things than this. But he knows he’s lucky to have a job at all.
I see Sarah Goodnight’s head barely visible over the top of her computer terminal. She seems to be the only reporter in the place.
“Oh,” she says when she sees me standing there. “Hi. Just trying to finish my latest Pulitzer nominee. It’s about catfish.”
Something—could be global warming or the fertilizer that gets washed into the James upstream—is making our catfish grow to monstrous proportions. A couple have topped 100 pounds. They look like fish versions of the overweight, Big Gulp-sucking kids I see around town. Maybe the catfish are going to McDonald’s. And Sarah, the weekend reporter, has been elected to go down to the docks and interview some of the people who catch them for food. You’re only supposed to eat them a couple of times a month, the health officials say. The river is still recovering from about a century of industrial abuse.
Two things: If you’re desperate enough to look on river catfish as a reliable source of protein, you’re going to eat what you catch—all of what you catch. And, anything that you should eat only once or twice a month, you probably shouldn’t eat at all. A little bit of cancer is a little too much.
I read Sarah’s story. She’s done the best she can, even got some pretty good quotes from a couple of the old black men and women fishing down there. She found out that most of them, including the ones going out into the deep current in leaky rowboats, can’t swim a lick.
“Honey,” she quotes one woman as saying, a grandmother with her five-year-old grandson at her side, “something’s gonna get you.”
Chuck Apple, who does night cops on Sundays and Mondays, comes in from a shooting. No fatalities this time, so it’s maybe a 1-2-18 on B5. I ask him what’s happening on the Alicia Simpson front.
“The cops say they’ll have an announcement tomorrow morning, nineA.M.”
They don’t tell you ahead of time that they’re having a press conference unless there’s some good news—at least their version of good news, which means they’ve got their man, or will sometime soon.
Chuck isn’t what you’d call extremely motivated. He’s having to take a couple of unpaid furlough days, like the rest of the workers, and I know he’s worked at least one of those, because, as he said, somebody’s got to put the damn paper out. But he’s not exactly gung-ho. Five years ago, he might be out there hitting up every source he knows, trying to find out what the police are planning to trot out for their dog-and-pony show tomorrow.
Hell, we both have a pretty good idea of what’s coming, although it would have been good to have nailed it down. It’s always satisfying to a cops reporter to know the police chief is spitting out his cornflakes, reading his day’s itinerary in his morning paper.
“Can’t be but one thing,” Apple says.
I nod. Like Andi said, it sucks being Richard Slade.
Why can’t they ever have press conferences in the afternoon, or at least on a day when I’m paid to work? I don’t have to be here, but if it wasn’t me, it’d be Mark Baer or Handley Pace or some other byline poacher half my age. It’s my story, even if it is my day off.
When I get to city hall, damned if Baer isn’t the first person I see, all spiffy and ready for an easy A1 byline to add to the résumé he still hopes he can convert into a job at theWashington Post.
“I thought this was your day off,” he says.
I tell him to get the fuck out of there, and he does.
There are only six of us there—me, some freelancer from the local entertainment weekly and four TV types. ThePosthasn’t deigned to send somebody down. We’re outnumbered by the cops, which seems to piss L. D. Jones off. He shoots me a death-ray glare. He’s still harboring grudges from last year, when my “interference in police matters” led to the uncomfortable revelation that one of his lieutenants was a murderer.
“No smoking,” the chief says, looking at me.
We’re outside, for Christ’s sake, in front of City Hall, freezing our butts off. Am I going to give the birds cancer? But I don’t need any more trouble from L. D. Jones. I stub out my Camel. He’s still glaring at me. I reach down, pick it up and walk fifty feet to the nearest trash can. The chief says something to the flunky next to him. They laugh.
There is little news here that a four-year-old couldn’t have figured out. You free a man on Monday after he’s done twenty-eight years for a rape he didn’t commit, and then the woman who accused him gets shot through the head on Saturday. One plus one equals two. Richard Slade is back behind bars. They got him yesterday. He had six days of open windows and doors that locked from the inside.
The mayor’s there, too, to reassure the people of Richmond that he personally won’t let innocent people get shot to death in their cars. Well, he won’t let folks from Windsor Farms get shot that way, anyhow. He’s probably the one who insisted we do it outside, with City Hall as the backdrop. He must have laryngitis, though, because he lets the chief do the talking. In good health, Hizzoner would only relinquish a microphone when you tore it from his cold, dead hands.
Jones is asked if they’re sure they have the right man.
“We, ah, can’t go into that right now,” the chief says, “but we have strong evidence pointing to the suspect.”
“Do you have the murder weapon?”
Jesus. Whoever shot Alicia Simpson threw the weapon down on Cary Street, which is where the cops found it. No prints. No serial number. It was in the paper, dumb-ass. Can TV reporters not read?
He’s never going to call on me, so I yell it out, loud enough so he has to answer.
“Do you have forensic evidence of any type linking Richard Slade to Alicia Simpson’s murder?”
The chief would really like to pistol-whip me. He takes a deep breath. He seems to be counting.
“We can’t reveal that information at the present time,” he says, then adds, “but I’m sure we will have a breakthrough there very soon.”
In other words, no.
The TV types were hoping for a perp walk, but they’re disappointed. Slade is already in the city lockup, and they have at least spared him the usual public shaming, for now.
The press conference lasts all of fifteen minutes. Nothing is revealed, other than what we knew already. The television reporters and crews rush off to get it on the air at noon. I head back to the Prestwould to blog about it. The guy from the entertainment magazine is already posting his with his iPhone. You need one of those, Wheelie told me last week. Buy me one, I said.
The paper’s as close as my apartment, but I still have fond hopes of sneaking in another hour or two of sleep after I feed the blogees.
Custalow is there. I’d forgotten he was taking the morning off. He had to attend to a plumbing emergency that ate up half his Saturday. Custalow isn’t afraid of hard work, but he seems to have decided that he won’t go the extra yard for the folks who were ready to fire him for theft last year.
He’s watching one of the local channels. They’ve broken into some stupid-ass, bare-your-soul-in-front-of-strangers talk show with the breathless news that, yes, Richard Slade is arrested. It’s safe to go outside again.
“You need somebody to dress you,” Custalow says. I stand next to him and see myself on the screen, in the background. Maybe the jeans and theI AM THE MAN FROM NANTUCKETsweatshirt with chili stains on it weren’t a great choice. Maybe I should have worn socks. And shaved. Maybe I should have gone home from Penny Lane two hours earlier last night.
“You might as well have worn your pajamas,” he says, suppressing a laugh.
I suggest to Custalow that he could have saved me. He saw me headed out the door.
“I thought you must be going out for a walk, somewhere where nobody would see you.”
Yeah, he’s right. And I really don’t want a male housemate asking, “Are you going to wear that?”
Custalow turns away from the TV as they switch back to a couple who seem to be having a very public discussion about his having sex with her sister, in their bed.
“I can’t believe it,” Custalow says, and I assume he’s talking about Richard Slade, not the disaffected couple.
“What’s so hard to believe? Who had a better motive?”
“It doesn’t make any sense.”
I sit back. Custalow chews his words for a while before he spits them out. You have to wait for it.
“He was in my cellblock for a while. I remember, at lunch one day, he got to talking. He didn’t talk that much, so when he did, you listened.”
“He said that if he did get out, all he was going to do was sit under the big shade tree in his momma’s backyard, drink lemonade and watch the world go by. When it got cold, he said, he’d feed the birds, then sit in his momma’s kitchen and watch them.”
“One of the young bucks on our block kind of laughs and asks him, ‘How about the white bitch that put your ass in here. Ain’t you got sumpin’ for her?’ By this time, most of us believed Slade when he said he didn’t do it.
“Slade just looked at him for a minute. Then he said, ‘That woman didn’t know what she was doing. She didn’t mean any harm.’ And then he just got his tray and walked off.”
“You don’t think he killed her?”
“Anything’s possible,” Custalow said. “But if I gambled, I’d bet against it.”
I blog, and then I nap. When I wake up, Custalow’s gone to work. After I shower, shave and exchange the sweatshirt for a button-down, a sweater and a sports jacket, I do the same. I wouldn’t have showered and shaved for the desk monkeys at the paper, especially on a day I’m not getting paid for, but I have another stop in mind.
At the office, somebody has already done a screen grab and has left a printout on my desk. There’s the press conference, with the TV “talent” in their camel-hair overcoats, and there’s me. Somebody got a red pen and drew a line to one of the talking heads standing next to me, then wrote in “TV journalist,” then drew another line to me. That one was titled, “real journalist,” but somebody had marked through it and wrote “homeless person asking TV journalist for spare change.”
“Nice of you to dress,” Sally Velez says.
“It’s my day off. You’re lucky I’m wearing pants.”
I lean closer to her, so no one else can hear.
“That’s not what you used to say.”
Sally comes as close to blushing as she ever does.
“Are you writing the story?”
“No, I just went to the press conference to wipe Baer’s butt.”
She looks surprised.
“Baer was there?”
Mal Wheelwright is in his office.
“Wheelie,” Sally calls over, “did you send Baer over to cover the chief’s press conference?”
Wheelie, looking up and seeing me, looks embarrassed.
“Uh . . . yeah. He told me he’d cover it, since it was Willie’s day off.”
Every year at the state press contest awards dinner, where everybody’s a winner, Mark Baer leads the league in shared awards. A good story turns up on somebody else’s beat, and suddenly, there’s Baer, “helping” and earning a byline or two for a sidebar, or stepping in when the reporter’s been chasing the story for nine days and needs a break.
It only takes me a few minutes to bang out fifteen inches for the Tuesday paper. I tell Sally that there might be a write-through later.
She’s already given my story a cursory read as I’m putting on my jacket.
“Where to now, Clark Kent?” she asks. “It’s too early for happy hour.”
“Always happy hour somewhere,” I tell her. I blow her a kiss, and she graces me with the smallest of smiles and gives me the finger.
Philomena Slade’s home is pretty easy to find. By the time I get there, the TV types have already gone. This isn’t Los Angeles, and paparazzi might as well be some appetizer at Mamma Zu’s.
Still, I don’t relish this. I only hope a couple of large male relatives haven’t been left in charge of dispatching snooping reporters. It’s hard to hurt my feelings, but I have a strong aversion to pain.
I knock three times, then wait a few seconds and knock again.
Finally, the door opens. There’s a storm door, locked, I’m sure, between me and Richard Slade’s mother. I can barely see her with the sun reflecting off the glass.
“Go away,” she says. I don’t think she even realizes yet that I’m the SOB from the paper that she threw out of Marcus Green’s Yukon a week ago.
“Please, Mrs. Slade,” I say, trying to make myself heard through the storm door. “I’m not here to make trouble. I want to get his side of the story.”
This goes about as far as I thought it would. She’s starting to shut the door when I play the only card I have.
“Wait. Please. I’m Artie Lee’s son.”
The door shuts. I wait for about two seconds. The door opens.
She looks me up and down.
“Bull,” she says.
Then, she opens the storm door and squints at me, giving me the once-over.
“You’re passin’,” she says.
As in passing for white. We both know it isn’t necessary to “pass” these days. They get extra PC points where I work if they can claim you’re black. But, yeah, maybe I have been passing, for about half a century.
She asks me who’s my momma, and I give her a concise enough description of Peggy Black that she finally believes me.
“Peggy still smoking that weed?” she asks.
I tell her I think she’s trying to quit. Yeah. She’s down to a joint a day.
As I start to step inside, though, she stops me again.
“You’re the one I had them throw out of Marcus Green’s car. That reporter from the paper.”
I wait, not bothering to deny it. Finally, though, family wins out.
“Well,” she says, “come on in anyhow.”
We go through a living room full of photographs and time-worn furniture, with a pre-flat-screen TV sitting in the corner. We dodge kids’ toys, which seems strange until we get to the kitchen, where two little boys, maybe four years old, are sitting at the table, coloring.
“Momma Phil,” one of them says, “look.”
She offers the first smile of the day.
“That’s very good, Jamal. Very good. You stayed between the lines and all, just like I told you to. Let’s see, Jeroy. Umm. Yes. That’s nice. Now, you all go on back to the bedroom. This gentleman and me have got to talk.”
They ask her if they can watch TV, and she says maybe after a while. They whine a little but don’t question her.
“That TV,” she says, shaking her head.
I observe that she seems to have a way with kids.
She looks at me and kind of snorts.
“You caught ’em on a good day.”
She says Jamal and Jeroy are her great-nephews, her niece’s twins. She’s keeping them while their mother works at the post office.
“You’re related to them, I suppose. Chanelle would’ve been Artie’s cousin, too. Anyhow, there’s always somebody needs some help. And now I’m retired, I’ve got the time.”
She offers me a Coke or some water. I can see when she opens the fridge that there’s no beer.
“I’d meant to work until next year, when I’m sixty-five,” she says, “but when I found out Richard was getting out . . .”
She pauses for a few seconds. She has her back to me, pouring the Coke. I see her left hand clench into a fist, then relax.
“It just seemed like a good time to quit.”
She says she was a secretary for thirty-two years at Philip Morris, “long enough to pay for this place.”
After an appropriate amount of time, I get around to asking what I came to ask. At first, it looks like she’s just going to tell me to leave.
“Richard was here Friday night,” she says at last. “Some folks came over, but they were gone by ten, and Richard went to bed right after that. He’s used to going to bed early. He says he has trouble sleeping here, because it’s so quiet.”
Philomena says she went to bed right after the eleven o’clock news, and that Richard was asleep when she looked in on him at eleven thirty—in the bedroom she’d kept waiting for him to return to for the past twenty-eight years.
“Then, when I got up Saturday morning to fix breakfast, about seven, he was in here, watching that sports channel on the TV. You could tell that he’d just woke up.
“I told the police that, told ’em three times, but they believe what they want to believe.”
She’s chopping up some onions, getting supper ready for the boys, or maybe just for herself. She turns toward me and points with her hand, still holding an impressive chopping knife.
“He didn’t do it. He didn’t do it twenty-eight years ago, and he didn’t do it now.”
I’m not inclined to argue with anybody holding a knife that big, but I wonder. Is it possible that Richard Slade could have left the house, done the deed and come back before his mother got up? The shooting happened about a quarter past five. He would have had time.
I ask her about her car. There’s a ten-year-old Camry outside on the street, which must be hers.
“I keep the keys in my purse,” she says. “I keep my purse by my bedside table. I told the police that, too.”
Well, he could have jump-started it. Or, he could have just gotten somebody else to do the deed. Slade probably knew a character or two, from nearly three decades as a guest of the state, who could have done it for him. Or maybe it was just a cousin or a nephew. Maybe revenge takes a village, too.
Philomena shows me his room. There are trophies, from Little League baseball and pee-wee football, then a few from junior high and high school. She probably dusted them off every week, waiting.
“He was quite an athlete,” she says, “and he was full of himself, the way boys are. He was running with some boys that he shouldn’t of been running with. And I was always on him about his grades. But he was a good boy.
“He always told me not to worry, that he was going to go to college and make me proud.”
When they heard the news, later on Saturday, about Alicia Simpson’s murder, Philomena says Richard just “kind of wilted.”
“ ‘Oh, lord, Momma,’ he told me. ‘They gonna think I did it.’ ”
She says it was all she could do to keep him from running, right then.
“I told him, ‘You stay right here, and when they come asking questions, you and I both know where you were, and we’ll tell ’em.’
“And we did, like it did any good. They came for him on Sunday morning, just as we were getting ready to go to church. They took him away, and they stayed here and asked me the same damn—excuse me—the same questions over and over. And telling them the truth didn’t seem to matter.”
I ask her if she thinks Richard would like to talk to somebody from the newspaper, to give his side of the story.
“I don’t know. I’d have to ask Marcus Green.”
Well, I should have figured that one out. I can’t believe our premier bomb-throwing mouthpiece hasn’t already called a press conference of his own.
I tell her I’ll call Mr. Green myself.
At the door, she puts her hand around my wrist. She’s strong for such a wiry woman.
“You come back, now,” she says. “You’re family, even if you do work for that newspaper.”
I’m fifteen minutes late. Caught unawares, before she can give me hell for making her wait, Kate is adorable. She’s seated facing the wall, with the left side of her face visible to me. She does that thing where she grips her lower lip with her teeth while she does something deathly important on the iPhone. A strand of her brownish-red hair hangs loose. She has started wearing reading glasses. Maybe she’s been wearing them awhile. Paying attention wasn’t one of my strong suits. She’s frowning a little. I used to put my hands on her forehead when she did that and smooth the frown lines out. Usually, I was the one who had put them there.
She doesn’t see me until I reach down and tuck the stray strand behind her ear. She jerks her head around and sees that it’s me, and the look turns from one of surprise to the kind you give a delinquent child who has met your expectations.
“I figured I’d better get here on time,” she says. “If I waited for you, they might have given our table away.”
Well, no. Not likely. Looking around Can Can, with its loose approximation of a Paris bistro, I see plenty of empty tables. In the Great Recession, some seem to have forgonemoules frites.
Still, point taken. Yes, it is a sign of disrespect to always be the waitee instead of the waiter. But I’ve already been around to Marcus Green’s office and been told he’s in court and will be in about two. And then I stopped by Penny Lane for a quick pint, and then a photographer I used to work with before he got laid off dropped in, and we talked for another pint. Time slips away.
She puts away the iPhone.
“This Richard Slade case,” she says, never one for useless verbs. “Any sense in even having the trial before the hanging?”
Kate likes to play devil’s advocate. If you say the sun comes up in the east, she wants to discuss alternative possibilities.
“I am not,” she told me once, when we were arguing about global warming, “a yes woman.”
I tell her that they don’t really do hangings in Virginia anymore, even for black men who kill white women; but the odds seem to favor either a very long stay in a very bad place or an eventual enforced overdose of some very lethal chemicals.
“But he seems so, I don’t know, so innocent.”
“You got that from watching on TV? They didn’t even get to tape him doing the perp walk.”
“I met him.”
She gives me a sly smile. As was often the case in our shared past, Kate’s ahead of me.
“Yesterday at the jail. I went with Marcus Green.”
Kate knew Marcus back in the day. I can’t remember now if I introduced him to her or if she knew him first. He’d been a good source, a quote machine, as long as you knew that he had his own agenda and it might not jibe with yours. I haven’t talked to him much since I went back on night cops, but he doesn’t seem to have changed much.
At any rate, we’ve all had a few drinks together over the years.
The Green connection probably explains then why Kate asked me to meet her for lunch today. Her calls to me usually are along the lines of “Why haven’t I gotten the rent check yet?” When she moved out, we reached an agreement. She pays the mortgage and I pay the rent. My ex-wife is my landlady.
“He said he was impressed with what I did in the Martin Fell case.”
I note that there wasn’t really any “case,” since the common-wealth’s attorney chose to free Mr. Fell long before it ever came to trial, mostly due to the efforts of yours truly.
“Still,” she says, “he liked how I took a chance. He said he liked anybody with balls enough to sass Bartley, Bowman and Bush and get away with it.”
“So,” I say, wishing I could smoke indoors, “you’re going to work with Marcus Green? I guess that had something to do with my lunch invitation.”
She graces me with a ten-watt smile.
“Could be. I just wanted to talk, about Richard Slade and all. You know all the history.”
I fill her in. For some reason, I don’t tell her about my recent visit with Philomena Slade, but I do tell her Abe Custalow’s assessment.
“Well, Abe’s pretty astute,” Kate says. ‘Astute’ isn’t a word I usually associate with my old friend, ex-con and housemate, but it’s probably pretty apt.
She frowns. I resist the urge.
“The guy seems real,” she says, and I deduce that she’s talking about Slade. “I mean, there’s nothing about him that indicates he might have killed somebody for revenge. He just seemed, I don’t know, befuddled, like he couldn’t figure it all out.”
Kate’s munching on the “quiche de la semaine.” I ordered a cheeseburger with French fries, “although I guess you just call them ‘fries’ in here.” The waiter didn’t get the joke. Kate winced.
I tell her that I’m not willing to write Richard Slade out of the book of life just yet, either, even if the police think they’ve got this one tied up with a nice little bow on top.
“Maybe he got somebody else to do it for him,” I say as Kate directs me to wipe ketchup off my chin. “He could’ve orchestrated the whole thing and had it done while he was sleeping at his momma’s.”
“Anyhow,” she says. “I thought maybe we could work together, share information and all that.”
“That could work,” I tell her. It did last time. She got a gold star from BB&B. I got one of those three-dollar Virginia Press Association awards. Wheelie even nominated me for a Pulitzer, which is not so impressive when you realize that you can nominate the weekly school lunch menu listing for a Pulitzer, as long as the check doesn’t bounce.
“There’s something else,” I tell her, after we’ve chitchatted a bit and she’s insisted on picking up the tab.
She looks up from figuring out the tip.
“I think the defendant is my second cousin.”
I explain my convoluted kinship with Richard Slade, mentioning Philomena without telling Kate I’ve seen her in the last twenty-four hours.
“Well,” she says, “you might ought to recuse yourself from the case.”
I remind her that I’m a newspaperman, not a lawyer. Plus, nobody at the paper knows, yet, that Slade and I share a couple of great-grandparents.
“So,” she says, “can we, you know, meet once in a while, compare notes and such?”
I nod. Why not?
We walk out together, but we’re parked in different directions.
I ask her how things are going with Mr. Ellis, her present husband.
“His name’s Greg. Everything’s fine. But thanks for asking. Headed in to work?”
I tell her I’m on my way to see Marcus Green.
Green’s office is on Franklin Street, close enough to the paper that I can use the company parking deck and walk there.
He is a lone wolf, no partners, just a couple of assistants, one of whom tells me that she will check and see if Mr. Green is in.
Soon, the door to his office opens and he comes bursting out like the place is on fire.
“Willie! How’s my favorite muckraker? Come on in!”
He slaps my back and gives me a man-hug.
Even if Marcus Green was going to shoot you, he’d treat you like you were his long lost brother. Even if you wanted to shoot him, he’d probably be able to jolly you out of it, if he was trying. The night-and-day aspect of his personality works well in the courtroom and elsewhere. He can make you want to be his best friend and, in the blink of an eye, cop that menacing, fuck-with-me attitude he uses on witnesses and others he wishes to bend to his will.
“Still got your penthouse apartment?”
I tell him that Kate is still my landlady.
He laughs. He has the kind of booming laugh that makes people want to tell him their funniest joke.
“I don’t think I’d like giving either one of my exes the option of kicking me to the curb. Although I do write them each a check every month.” He laughs again, then turns down the volume, goes all solemn on me.
“So, what’s this about?”
I tell him, like he doesn’t know already.
“Do you think there’s a chance I might be able to talk with your client? His mother said I’d need to check with you.”
“You got Philomena to talk to you? Damn, Willie. You are a helluva reporter.”
I don’t tell him, just yet, about my trump card.
“Thanks, by the way, for letting her put my ass out in the middle of the East End the other day.”
“It was her call. She was somewhat upset with that racist rag you work for. I don’t blame her, actually.”
I wonder to myself what our editorial department has cooked up in the aftermath of Richard Slade’s arrest. I’m surprised there wasn’t something in this morning’s paper.
I ask him again about meeting with Slade.
He frowns and says he’ll consider it.
“Well,” I tell him, “you might as well have the whole family working with you. Me, you and Kate. The Mod Squad.”
“Ah. So you know about that. Well, I know she’s on the side of the angels. I’m not so sure about you. You’re more like the guy with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other one, both whispering in your ears.”
There doesn’t seem to be any way around it.
“My father and Philomena were first cousins.”
He absorbs this, never showing any sign of surprise. I would hate to play poker with Marcus Green. Actually, the thought of him at one of our Oregon Hill sessions with Custalow, McGonnigal, Andy Peroni and the rest is amusing.
“I always thought you were one of us,” Green says. “Something about the way you carry yourself, your hair, something.”
I doubt it, but if I can win the hand with this particular hole card, so be it.
“Let me see if my client is amenable to your request.”
I look him in the eye.
“He’ll be amenable if you tell him to be.”
Marcus Green gives me a look that could cut diamonds. Then he nods.
“Could be,” he says. “Could be. We’ll have to pray over that one.”
I put up with this bullshit because, for all his grandstanding and playacting, he has walked the walk, a burr in the power structure’s ass since he got out of law school. No name causes more consternation at the Commonwealth Club, where the white-haired great-grandsons of the Confederacy have their bourbon and water with a shot of bile.
He walks me to the door, then stops. He pins me with the look he usually saves for his final summations. His face is like a fist, hard and ready.
“Know this. Richard Slade did not kill that woman, no matter how much some people want it to be so.”
I nod. He dials The Look back a notch.
“Please give my regards to Kate,” he says, and I remind him that he’s likely to see her before I do.
The most mellifluous laugh in Richmond follows me out into the street.
I have time for a Camel between Marcus Green’s office and the paper. I’m a block away when my cellphone rings.
“Willie,” Sarah Goodnight says, “they’re at it again.”
My ID badge still works, although the guard at the front desk looks a little more alert, or at least awake, than usual.
As soon as I come out of the elevator, the tension hits me like a blast of sewer air. Rumors have been perching on our computer terminals like buzzards for weeks. Advertising is down. Circulation is down. Expenses aren’t down far enough. Today, it appears, is the day.
There’s a clot of people over by the features department, where some decidedly uncomfortable-looking human resources boy is watching Beth Reynolds clean out her desk. Jesus Christ, Beth Reynolds has been here longer than I have, and she does what nobody else in the newsroom wants to do. She deals with the brides and—God help her—the brides’ mothers. When they come parading in, determined that absolutely nothing is going to screw up the social event of their lives, that they are not going to brook any sass from some newspaper flunky, Beth is on the receiving end, defusing them and at the same time preserving whatever dignity our poor tree-killing anachronism clings to. When we get the brides’ photos and IDs somehow mixed up, Beth is the one who catches the mistake and averts disaster. Three years ago, we managed to switch photos of a truck driver who’d just saved a woman’s life in a car fire with that of a very self-important bride. Before she was done, Beth had appeased not only the trucker but both the bride and her mother. If we sent Beth Reynolds to Washington, she could make the Republicans lie down with the Democrats.
And now, apparently, she’s gone. Another one bites the dust.
“There’s six that we know of,” Sally Velez says before she goes over to offer condolences to a fifty-seven-year-old woman who’s about to not have health insurance.
A photographer, a page designer, a copy editor, a sportswriter, Beth Reynolds and an assistant city editor. Chip, chip, chip.
“By the way,” Sally adds, “Wheelie wants to see you. He and Grubby.”
She sees me blanch.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “They’re not going to fire your ass. Not now, anyhow.”
“How do you know?” I figure I must be near the top of the managing editor’s and publisher’s shit lists.
“All the ones that have been axed so far, they got calls from upstairs this morning.”
I check my voice mail back at the apartment, then start breathing again. This place makes me crazy, but what else am I going to do? Media relations?
I walk past Enos Jackson, who looks a little pale. He’s already been brought back from the dead once, thanks to a little secret agreement between me and Grubby, and he doesn’t know that he is—unless Grubby himself gets hauled away—more or less golden.
“You’re next,” I tell him. He doesn’t seem to think it’s funny.
Up on the fourth floor, Sandy McCool looks a little flustered, at least compared with her usual unflappable self. When Pete Bocelli in sports did a face-down in the lunchroom two years ago, it was Sandy who had the defibrillator out and working its magic in about thirty seconds while everybody else was crapping their pants. She saved his fat-ass life, then went back and finished her sandwich.
But Sandy’s the one, I know, who always has to make The Call, the one who then has to see a lifetime of friends and acquaintances come trudging up and then trudging out, escorted by HR, some of them in tears, some of them glaring at her as if she were responsible.
“Tough day,” I say. Sandy gives me a nod so small and tight that the security camera might not have caught it. Sandy’s divorced with two kids in college.
Wheelie comes puffing in, shaking his head and muttering something about how much he hates all this. He straightens his tie as we walk past Sandy and into thesanctum sanctorum.
James H. Grubbs doesn’t bother to stand up. He motions for us to take a seat. He looks a little haggard, pale even by Grubby’s standards. It really can’t be that much fun to fire people who once befriended you as a young reporter. But Grubby’s got the MBA playbook, the one that says the only morality is what’s good for the company. Coincidentally, doing what’s good for the company is good for Grubby, who can always take a Xanax when he needs a good night’s sleep.
“I wanted to get an update on what’s going on with the Simpson murder.”
Wheelie fills him in.
“So, we’re done with this one, until the trial?”
Wheelie nods his head.
I clear my throat. I should shut up. I can’t.
Grubby acts as if he was expecting it. I hear Wheelie groan.
I tell them both about my conversations with Philomena Slade and Marcus Green.
“His mother and his lawyer don’t think he did it?” Grubby says. “Well, we’d better get all over that, then. Stop the presses.”
“I’m not saying he didn’t do it. But I think we ought to look around a little, see if things check out.”
“Well, I don’t think so. So don’t do it.”
I’m a little surprised, I must say. Grubby is a cautious man, but he isn’t above selling newspapers, and he’s got to know that this story has everything the circulation department could ever hope for.
He looks at Wheelie.
“We’re done here,” he says, and my managing editor gets up to go.
I start to say something else, but Wheelie takes me by the arm. I shut up and leave.
“What the fuck?” I inquire back downstairs in Wheelie’s office. “We’re dropping this?”
“No,” Wheelie says. “We’re just not going to create our own news. The arraignment’s tomorrow, right? After that, we’ll wait for the trial.”
“What is this all about?”
Wheelie shuts the door.
“Just between you and me,” he says. “This never, ever leaves this room.”
“It’s about the Whitehursts.”
The penny drops. The Whitehursts own the paper, have owned the paper since before the Civil War. Grubby is the first non-family publisher, and everybody in Richmond knows his predecessor isn’t just sitting back and giving the new boy free rein. Giles Whitehurst, a hale and blustery eight-five with no heirs desiring a career in newspapering, is still the chairman of the board, and chairman of the board trumps publisher.
“Did you know,” Wheelie asks, “that Giles Whitehurst and Harper Simpson were fraternity brothers at U.Va.?”
I confess that I am deficient in my knowledge of Alicia Simpson’s father.
“Well, apparently, the sister went to Daddy, who called Grubby and told him to back off, that the family has been through enough anguish already. They just want it dropped.”
I wonder out loud why Lewis Simpson Witt would think we weren’t dropping it.
“Maybe she knows something about the way you stick that big nose of yours into everybody’s business.”
“You know what they say, Wheelie. Big nose, big . . .”
“Yeah, yeah. Just let this one ride, though. I don’t want Sandy giving you a wakeup call.”
He grimaces as he looks out into the newsroom, where a photographer is being gently led out of the building carrying a cardboard box. He looks our way and pauses long enough to balance the box on his hip with one hand and give Wheelie the finger.
“Don’t worry,” I tell Mal Wheelwright, “anything I do, I do on my own. They won’t be able to trace it back to you.”
Wheelie groans again. It is not the response he was hoping for. I can’t help that. Now I’m interested. All of my best stories have come after somebody told me to back off. Most of my worst screw-ups have, too.
As I put my hand on the door handle, Wheelie says, “Wait.”
“You’re off the story.”
I wait some more.
“There isn’t anything more to write anyhow, Willie. We’re just going to have Baer pick it up. He’ll cover the arraignment.”
“This is nuts. Baer doesn’t know shit about this case.”
“He’s a quick learner.”
“Goddammit, Wheelie, you’re giving this story away. There’s more to this. Go back up there and tell that son of a bitch we’re a newspaper. Grow a pair, for God’s sake.”
Even as I say it, I know my mouth has again outrun my brain.
Wheelie turns kind of pale, and then his face starts to glow. He comes around his desk so fast that at first I think he’s going to hit me, and my last act here will be to punch out the managing editor.
“Don’t you ever talk to me like that again, even in here with the door closed,” he says. “I argued your case before you ever got there. I lost, OK? Unlike some people, when I’m overruled, I do what’s best for the team. Unlike some people, who shall remain you, I’m a team player.”
I have several other things on the tip of my tongue. They’re waiting in line, actually, dying for their moment on the stage.
But, for once, my brain reels them all back in before they can slip past my teeth. I apologize and slip out quietly. Right now, I don’t need to be headed out the door carrying a cardboard box.
This morning, the only mention of the Alicia Parker Simpson murder is in editorial.
Apparently, Giles Whitehurst, Lewis Witt and the rest of the Simpson family are not opposed to certain kinds of publicity. Our crack editorial writers, defenders of truth, justice and the white American way, took Richard Slade to the woodshed. They even saw his arrest as a repudiation of DNA testing, somehow. (Editorially, we’re not big fans of science around here. See: evolution, global warming.)
Some of our readers will smack their lips over their Cheerios and nod approvingly, shaking their heads over fuzzy-headed criminal coddlers who would turn such a man as this loose again. Many others, no doubt, will believe that we are once again afflicting the afflicted. Maybe that’s why we don’t have as many readers as we once did. But that’s just my opinion.
I’m hanging out the window over Monroe Park, trying to direct Camel smoke in that direction, when the phone rings. Custalow gets it. Holding the phone in his hand, he mouths “Kate.”
I remind her, before she can get really wound up, that I don’t write the editorials.
“I know that,” she says. “But how can you work for those people?”
I tell her I’ll quit tomorrow if she’ll stop charging me rent.
“I just might,” she says. We’re both bluffing.
She asks me if I’m going to the arraignment. I tell her I’m off the story.
“But I still plan to be there,” I add. I don’t think Wheelie and Grubby will fire me for that. I think I’m free to do what I want when they’re not paying me.
“So, I guess you’re not going to be much help to us.”
“Does that mean you’re definitely on the defense team?”
“If, by ‘team,’ you mean Marcus and me, yes.”
I tell her that I’m still not sure about Richard Slade, but that I want to check around a little more.
“On your own time?”
“If that’s what it takes. But I’m not going to get my ass fired over this.”
“Getting fired from that place would be like getting evicted from the bus station bathroom.”
I tell her I’ll see her at the arraignment.
It’s going to be a busy day. In addition to the arraignment, services for Alicia Simpson are scheduled for threeP.M. I told Sally Velez that I’d be in by five-ish (without, of course, giving the funeral as the reason). Since I have one less story to cover than I did a day ago, I have some time on my hands.
When I get to the courtroom, I see a sparse crowd consisting mostly of news media types. Philomena Slade is sitting by herself a couple of rows back. The entourage that was there to celebrate her son’s freedom has vanished. It is as invisible as it apparently was for the twenty-eight years he was locked up.
“Mind if I sit here?” I ask her.
She seems to take a couple of seconds to recognize me. Then she tells me to get the hell away from her. She obviously has read our paper, including the editorial pages. All things considered, I can’t believe she subscribes. I move two rows back. In the same row on the other side, Mark Baer looks surprised to see me. I ignore him, and the judge comes in before Baer can ask me what the hell I’m doing here.
Richard Slade is bedecked in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs. It doesn’t take long for him to be charged with first-degree murder. It doesn’t even take that long for the judge to deny bail. Marcus Green’s face is a billboard, telling the world what a gross injustice has been done to his client, but it’s all for show. Everybody in Richmond knew how this was going to turn out.
They take him away, and we all leave. On the steps outside, Green gives our assembled fact-gatherers a lecture on the right of every man to have his day in court and not be tried in the news media. He looks meaningfully at me when he says that.
“Before this lamentable episode is over,” he says, actually shaking his fist, “some of those who have appointed themselves as this innocent man’s judges will hide their faces in shame.”
Well, I doubt it, but it’s a nice thought, if Marcus is right.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Philomena walking toward her beat-up Camry. She looks as defeated as I’ve seen her. I decide to try again. All the others are still in the thrall of Marcus Green.
I reach her before she can get in her car and lock the doors.
“Ms. Slade. Philomena. Wait.”
She tries to get around me. I move with her in an awkward dance to keep her from getting into the car until I can convince her, again, that I am not the devil.
“Get away from me,” she says, and I can see that she is near tears.
“I’m on his side,” I tell her. “I want to find out what happened.”
“You already know what happened. I told you what happened. And then you all went and wrote that, that stuff. Family, my behind.”
“It wasn’t me. They don’t ask my opinion on editorials.”
She finally manages to get past me and into her car. Before she slams the door, she looks up at me.
“I think we both know which side you’re on. You’re gettin’ a nice salary, it looks like to me.”
As she starts the car and speeds away, all defenses of my righteousness and purity in this sorry episode curdle in my mouth like sour milk.
Baer finally catches up with me as Philomena is leaving.
“What are you doing here?” he asks. He seems a little winded. I can see already the pudgy middle-aged hack he’s morphing into. It’s always sad when you see them come here fresh out of college, all lean and hungry, and then you watch them put on a couple or three pounds a year and start losing their youth a day at a time. Although, with Baer, it’s not all that sad. He is an opportunist, and I don’t really like opportunists.
I tell him that I’m exercising my right as a citizen, that I wanted to get a close look at how our judicial system works.
“You know that I’m covering it, though, right?”
“That’s what they tell me.”
“They just thought maybe you were, like, too close to the case.”
Too close as in asking too many questions. But neither Grubby not the Simpson family, and certainly not Mark Baer, knows just how close to this case I am, at least not yet.
“So who was that?” he nods in the direction of Philomena Slade’s now departed car.
He probably ought to know her on sight, but I tell him.
“His mother? You talked to his mother?”
“Tried to. After that editorial this morning, she wasn’t in the mood.”
“Yeah,” Baer says, agreeing with me for once. “That was a little hard to swallow.”
I turn to leave. Baer stops me.
“But, you don’t have any reason to believe he didn’t do it?”
I tell him I don’t know anything. Yet.
“But you’re going to find out. I know you.”
“I’m not empowered to find out. I’m off the story, remember?”
He doesn’t believe a word of it, but he lets me go.
Marcus Green has finished dispensing quotes, and he and Kate are waiting for me.
“Those guys,” Marcus says, shaking his head. “They eat this stuff up. Oh, wait. Did I say that out loud?”
He gives me a quick grin, then looks around to make sure no TV camera is there to catch him not looking like Frederick Douglass with a hangover.
“But seriously,” Kate says, “how can they just write something like that without waiting for any kind of trial, without any kind of hard facts at all?”
“Well, they did preface it with, ‘If the facts are as they appear to be.’ ”
“Yeah, that was considerate. And then they went on for ten paragraphs excoriating our client as the lowest form of scum.” She reminded me that, last year, the paper urged the “utmost caution in rushing to judgment” when one of our leading state senators was arrested for shooting his wife to death. Then, after his slam-dunk conviction, they expressed their sorrow over “the downfall of a man who has done the Commonwealth much good.”
“They might be doing us a favor,” Marcus says. “Maybe they can editorialize us into a change of venue.”
I note that his client might have a better chance keeping his business in the city and not depending on some suburban or deep country jury for his deliverance.
I ask them if they want to join me at Perly’s for either late breakfast or early lunch. Marcus Green has to get back to his office. Kate, who usually turns down such offers from me, surprises me by saying yes. Breaking bread with her twice in two days will set the post-marital record.
“I’m on a kind of leave of absence,” she tells me when we’re seated and I remark on her willingness to blow off an hour or so of company time. It turns out that Bartley, Bowman and Bush isn’t all that thrilled about Kate working on this particular case. When I think about it, it makes sense. The old partners in her firm have, like Giles Whitehurst, probably had more than a few bourbons with Harper Simpson and would like to distance themselves from his daughter’s alleged murderer.
Kate confirms this when she tells me that old Felix Bowman was one of the founding members of the Quarry.
“Blood’s pretty thick around here,” I observe.
She can use BB&B’s offices for now, and she can come back to the land of the living when she’s finished with this case, presumably with no ill effects. Or so they say.
There’s something else, though. Kate would deny it, but I was not consistently and completely oblivious to her when we were married. I knew when she was holding back, when she had a bug up her butt.
We finally get around to it, about the time she’s finishing the last of her eggs.
“I guess you could say I’m kind of on leave from Greg, too.”
There aren’t many things an ex-husband can say about that without stepping on a tender part of his anatomy. So I shut up and let her talk, pitching in with the occasional “I see” and “uh-huh” to keep things flowing.
There’s nothing original or startling in what she’s telling me. Mr. and Mrs. Ellis have decided on a little unofficial trial separation “just to figure out where we’re headed.” They don’t seem to have as much in common as they once thought they did. I think but don’t say that this is often the case.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” she says.
“Maybe because I can keep a secret?”
She shakes her head.
“No. Hell, everybody’s going to know about it anyway.”
Kate isn’t completely unlike me, God help her. Maybe there are some people who just aren’t meant to say the magic words and spend the rest of their lives never considering all the roads not taken.
“Well,” I say, looking at my watch, “I’d better go home and change.”
“You’re going to the funeral?”
“Yeah, I thought I would.”
“Would you mind if I came back to the Prestwould with you? I could wait while you change. I’m about as dressed for a funeral as I intend to be. We could go together.”
She graces me with a smile that hints of very un-Kate-like shyness.
“I’d like to see what you’ve done with—or to—the place.”
Probably not the best idea, but we’ve each had a Bloody Mary, and I can’t think of a reason to say no, other than “What will the neighbors think?” Which would be a very stupid thing to say right now. It would indicate that I believe my ex has something in mind other than convenience and a chance to see the inside of the place for which she pays the mortgage.
So she follows me over and parks in a visitor’s spot.
McGrumpy is, as always, ensconced in the lobby. He makes a point of having a very courtly conversation with Kate, who never seemed to mind him as much as I do. She tells him that we’re going to Alicia Simpson’s funeral service. So is McGrumpy, along with about half the Prestwould. At least three of our residents are near or distant cousins. There are about a million and a quarter people living in the general vicinity, but then there’s the small village, undetectable to the untrained eye, of Old Richmond, carrying seven generations of history to the latest wedding or funeral.
“Well,” McGrumpy says, lifting his ancient eyebrows in an approximation of juvenile salaciousness that makes me want to smack him, “you all have a nice visit.”
There is every probability that there will be some mention of Kate’s impromptu visit in the nextPrestwould Post, whose gossip column is co-written by McGrumpy. Jesus.
Upstairs, I am happy to see that Custalow is absent, working on some balky part of our ancient building.
Kate sniffs the air as we walk down the thirty-foot hallway leading to the living room, but she doesn’t mention anything about illicit smoking. I’ve been pretty careful. The hallway was what hooked her on the place, I think, made her feel like we had to have it. The walls are what I called pink and she called coral, with a couple of pillars halfway down. I’d never tell Kate this, but it reeked of the old-money Richmond her middle-class heart must have secretly coveted while she was overworking her way to summa cum laude and through law school.
“Not bad,” she says, obviously pleased not to see empty pizza boxes on the coffee table or a week of dirty dishes in the sink. “Abe must be keeping you straight.”
“I’ve had some practice at not being a slob.”
“Yeah,” she says, smirking. “I remember.”
“It wasn’t that bad. I always had clean underwear.”
She looks up at me and feeds me my lines.
“Do you still?”
There might as well be a teleprompter in front of me.
“Why,” I ask, regretting my words while I say them, “don’t we go and find out?”
The services at St. Paul’s are over by two forty-five. We gave Clara a ride, and she is among the chosen few dozen who have been invited to Lewis and Carl Witt’s afterward. I’m not so sure that the Witts included us in that inner circle, but, hey, I’m driving.
The crowd at the downtown church was, as I’d expected, out the door. Despite the fact that Alicia Simpson had been seen as almost a recluse by the outside world, she had a lot of friends—from St. Catherine’s and Sweet Briar and, according to the obituary, various boards and committees. And then, there were the gawkers, people who might have known the family and had nothing better to do on a Wednesday afternoon than put on a suit and go see how the rich handle tragedy. We used to have an obit writer who called it funeral porn.
At the Witts, the crowd is somewhat more select, present company excepted. The old Tudor that Carl inherited from his father looks like it could have been, as was the case with a slightly larger concoction farther west, taken apart in Merry Olde England and reassembled on the banks of the James. Perhaps only in Richmond would this not look out of place.
In the receiving line, Lewis is polite enough to me. She probably thinks I’m using Clara Westbrook to pick the lock on her front door, but Clara helps me out there by introducing us and explaining that she needed a ride to the funeral, and was able to prevail on “these nice young friends” to accommodate.
“We’ve met,” Lewis says, giving me a completely neutral smile. “I didn’t know you were friends of Clara’s.” She says it in a way that indicates that this seems an unlikely match. Lewis probably can smell Oregon Hill on me.
Kate is smitten, as she often is among people with money. She says all the right things to Lewis and Carl. I am fortunate to have two charming women with me to smooth any rough spots my appearance might have produced.
Next to Carl is a man who appears to be about my age, although it’s hard to tell. I shake hands with him and offer my condolences.
“Hi,” he says, “I’m, ah, Wes,” like he forgot his name for a half-second. He grips my hand like a drowning man reaching for salvation. I can feel a slight tremble in it before I pull away.
Alicia’s brother looks like he’d rather be just about anywhere else.
He’s a tall man, maybe six-three, with spiky, steel-gray hair. The frown crease above his nose, along with the bloodshot eyes with enough baggage under them for a trip to China, more or less negate the smile he attempts. He looks at me like a kid who doesn’t know it’s not polite to stare.
Kate is pleasant enough to him. Then, Clara, who has lingered to speak quietly with Lewis, comes up and gives him a full-blown Clara hug, complete with tears.
“I haven’t seen you in so long,” she says. He is looking over her shoulder, in my direction. He gives a kind of “what can you do?” shrug.
The Witts seem to have an entourage of servants, at least on this sad occasion, who come around with scallops wrapped in bacon, little tomato-cheese-and-parsley things on toast, Smithfield ham biscuits and other tidbits that seem more appropriate for a cocktail party than a day like this. Hell, maybe it’s supposed to be a party. Celebration of life and all that crap. Hey, I want kegs and my favorite blues band at my going-away bash.
Nobody, though, seems much in a festive mood. Lives that end at forty-four don’t elicit a whole lot of giddiness, in my experience. The Witts and their friends handle it better, or at least more sedately, than the East End families of drug war casualties, but dead is still dead.
I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn around to face a woman who looks to be about five feet tall, in her early forties, kind of cute, nice, well-preserved body, blonde this month.
“I need to talk to you,” she says, and I say fine.
“Not here,” she says, and demands my cellphone number. I’m inclined to give attractive women pretty much anything they want.
“I’ll call you,” she says, looking over her shoulder the way some of our editors at the paper do when they’re bitching and worry that one of Grubby’s snitches might be within earshot. Then she’s gone.
Clara spends half an hour talking with old friends, and Kate finds a couple of lawyer acquaintances to chat with. Between ham biscuits, I call Sally and tell her I might be a tad late.
“Get here when you can,” she says. “If you’re gone two or three days, Wheelie might notice.”
I see the mystery woman across the room and ask Clara who she is.
“Which one?” she says. “Oh, there. That’s Bitsy. Susan Winston-Jones. She and Alicia are—were—close.”
As we’re leaving, Lewis puts her hand on Kate’s arm.
“I understand,” she says, “that you’re defending my sister’s murderer.”
Says it as calm as dawn, as Peggy used to say. I don’t know how she has learned that already, probably gleaned it from someone here at the death party. There’s definitely a pipeline that moves the news faster than our printing presses do.
Kate is thrown for a couple of seconds, which seems to have been the intent.
“I am defending the man accused of that, yes,” she says at last, and I’m proud of her for not doing the hummina-hummina, not apologizing or making excuses.
“Good day,” is all Lewis Witt says before turning her back to us.
“That went well,” I observe.
Clara seems perplexed. The possibility that Alicia Simpson’s murder wasn’t as cut-and-dried as our editorial pages say it was hasn’t occurred to her.
“Well,” she says, “I’m sure there’s more than one side to the story.”
Kate, who still can let herself be bothered by the knowledge that she has displeased one of the elite, in spite of all her efforts to do otherwise, gives Clara a hug.
“Do you think,” Clara says, “that we could go by the Quarry?”
It’s already four thirty. It’ll be dark in less than an hour. It’s cold as a witch’s tit.
“Sure, why not?”
Kate shrugs and says she has nowhere particular to be.
Clara, it turns out, is on a committee in charge of making whatever minor repairs the place needs. A couple of jackleg carpenters are supposed to have fixed a small hole in the roof over the dressing rooms. A tree branch fell on it after the last storm.
“I just want to make sure it’s covered,” Clara says. “It’s supposed to snow next week.”
It’s only five minutes away. Clara gives me the key, and I open the gate and drive us as close to the building as possible.
We all get out, and Clara steps back far enough to determine that there is, indeed, some kind of patch on the roof. She nods her head and says, “Good.”
She looks out across the Quarry. What’s left of the sun has lit it up so that it looks like a pit full of gold instead of water.
“We had some good times here,” she says, leaning on her cane. She has risked leaving the oxygen bottle at home, and she’s hoarding her breaths like she knows she doesn’t have an infinite number of them left. “Alicia was such a good swimmer. I taught them how, you know. The two youngest ones anyway. Her and Wesley.”
I ask her to fill me in on Wesley. All I’ve had so far is the shorthand version.
“Can we go sit in the car?” Clara asks. “I need to warm my rear end.”
There are few joys, in my experience, equal to stepping from a windy, chilly January day into a heated car, with the late afternoon sun streaming in, and listening to a good story while the sun and the heater warm your bones. All that’s missing is a pint of bourbon to pass around. Can’t have everything.
Clara is a born storyteller, one who remembers the small details and hasn’t picked up the annoying habit of telling the same tale two or three times.
“Wesley must be forty-six now, because he’s two years older than Alicia,” she says, shielding her eyes from the glare. I pull down the visor.
“He was a wonderful boy. Made straight A’s and was on all the ball teams. Baseball, football, basketball. He could beat Harper at golf by the time he was thirteen, and Harper was good. Simone called him her golden boy.”
But then, he came home from school one day and said he didn’t think he could go back. He had started hearing voices, telling him to do things. Eventually, he would heed the voices when he didn’t think he could do otherwise. A garage set on fire, a “borrowed” car wrecked, a neighbor’s cat hanged.
“It was so awful,” Clara says. “It seemed like one minute he was this All-American boy, mowing our lawn, looking you in the eye and talking to you like an adult, but polite, ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘Yes, sir,’ like he still knew he was a kid. He told them in the ninth grade that he was going to Princeton, Harper said.
“And then,” Clara says, snapping her fingers “just like that, he changed.”
They tried everything money could buy. The best shrinks, private schools that focused on “special” students, every kind of magic dust some drug company could come up with that might help but didn’t.
“The worst thing,” Clara says, “was that day at the Quarry.”
She thinks it was about a year after Wesley was first diagnosed as schizophrenic. He was there with his parents and Alicia.
“I remember it was Fourth of July weekend, so the place was packed. Old Richmond all in one little knot there. I was sitting at one of the picnic tables, with the Tayloes, I think, when suddenly we heard this commotion.
“And then I hear Harper yell, ‘Get back in there. Get back in there, goddammit.’ Excuse me.
“We all look up, and there’s Wesley, naked as a jaybird, walking and running toward the water, with Harper right behind him, trying to catch him. He runs out on the diving board and jumps in.
“He was a good swimmer. He must have stayed out there in the deep water for fifteen minutes at least, mooning everybody and giving us the finger. Harper just stood on the beach and finally gave up even trying to coax him in. By that time, I think Simone had gone to the car.”
He finally had to come in, and by then whatever had gotten into him seemed to have gotten out again. Harper threw a towel around him, Clara said, and more or less dragged him to the car, with Alicia in tow.
“I heard a smack, we all did, and then Alicia screaming, ‘Don’t you hit him! Don’t you hit Wesley!’ ”
“I never saw Wesley at the Quarry again. I don’t know if he was banned or not, but after that, it was like he was invisible.”
Finally, his father just seemed willing to cut his losses.
“Harper and Wesley had been close, closer than most fathers and sons, and I think what happened just killed something in Harper. He couldn’t deal with it, couldn’t accept that Wesley was broken, couldn’t accept that Wesley couldn’t help being broken. Simone wasn’t that strong, I guess, and she kind of went along with sending him away. Lewis was older and I think just wanted some peace. I suppose it was all about Wesley back then.
“The only one that didn’t give up on him, I guess, was Alicia.”
I’ve got to get back to the paper before Sally sends out a search party, or they just say fuck it and hire a new night cops reporter. But with a little encouragement, Clara tells me the rest.
Wesley was eighteen when Alicia was raped, living in a group home somewhere on Meadow Street. Everyone was so upset that it was three days before they realized Wes was missing. It took six months and a private detective to find him, in a jail in Nevada. Apparently, a cop had tried to arrest him, and Wes took a swing at him.
“I guess what happened to Alicia just drove him over the edge. Harper spent a few thousand dollars, I heard, to get him out of there and back home and back on his medication.”
Home, Clara explained, wasn’t the stately manor where I’d tried to talk with Alicia. Or at least not for very long. Something, she said, would always happen, and Wes would be evicted. He lived in various “homes,” and sometimes in his own apartment, depending on how well his current drugs were working and how faithfully he was taking them.
He enrolled at VCU and eventually got a degree, more than I can say for my darling daughter so far, and was hired to work for the law firm of one of Harper’s old friends, “probably just clerical stuff, but he had a job.”
“Lewis said he lives somewhere over in the Museum District now. He kind of keeps to himself, and she said he hasn’t had an episode in more than six years.”
“Had an episode” apparently is code for “went batshit.” The last “episode,” Clara tells us, ended with Lewis and Carl traveling to some small town in Quebec and spending what would be, to me, a lot of money.
“But Lewis says the drugs they have now are so much better than in the old days.”
Lewis also confided in Clara that Wesley is spending at least some of his time in their parents’ old house, now that they’re gone.
“I don’t think Lewis is too happy about that,” Clara says. “She’s afraid it’ll make him get into old habits.” Like going nuts, I guess. “But they left the house to Alicia, and she didn’t seem to mind him staying over.
“It probably passes to Lewis and Carl now, so I don’t know what’s going to happen. Lewis said they might move back in, try to fix the place up. It’s gotten pretty run down.”
Run down, I’m thinking, is a relative term.
We’re nearing the Prestwould, where I’ll drop Clara off and Kate will retrieve her car, when I ask Clara about Lewis.
“Oh,” she says, “Lewis is Lewis. Harper always called her his rock, the one he could depend on.”
Lewis was the only one of the three who went what you might call the traditional West End route. From what I’ve seen of some of these tapped-out old Richmond families, one out of three ain’t bad.
She graduated in four years from Sweet Briar and married Carl. They have a son who’s just gotten into law school at the University of Virginia, a daughter at Sweet Briar and a younger son still at home.
“Wonderful kids,” Clara says. “Wonderful family, really. Simone was so proud of them. They’re members of the Quarry, too, although I don’t see them as much as I used to.”
I walk Clara up the steps to the front door, and she gives me a peck on the cheek.
“You know,” she says, looking down at Kate, who’s waiting for me to take her around back to her car, “what was good once can be good again. Broke doesn’t have to stay broke.”
“Maybe” is about as far as I’m willing to take that one.
“Well,” Kate says, after I’ve driven her around to the back parking lot and gallantly open her driver’s side door for her, “thanks for the ride . . . and all.”
“And all? That’s a pretty paltry phrase for this afternoon’s festivities.”
“Hah,” she says. It sounds like something between a snort and a laugh. “Festivities. I like that.”
“You certainly seemed to.”
“I was faking it.”
It’s time for my own “hah.” The former Kate Black, perhaps soon to be the former Kate Ellis, could fake a lot of things—interest in my stories of ill-fated drug deals, tolerance for my perambulations from the straight and narrow, my old Oregon Hill friends, an admiration for my crumbling physique.
What she could not and cannot fake is an orgasm. I remind her of that, and she blushes, pretty much the same way she blushes when she is being vigorously entertained by Mr. Johnson and can’t hide it.
“Well,” she says, “so I’m a slut.”
She gives me a kiss, a real one with all the bells and whistles.
As she reaches to unlock her car door, she says, “But this was an aberration, an anomaly, a one-night—or afternoon—stand. You’re a bad habit I can’t afford to get hooked on again.”
OK. Fair enough.
“But it was good,” she concedes, just before she shuts the door on our little time-out from divorce.
Back at the paper, I do a little electronic snooping and get to read Baer’s story on the funeral. He wasn’t invited to Chez Witt, of course, but he’s done a passable job of catching what he would call the zeitgeist. I remember the time Sally called him on that one when he used it in print, in a story about the watermelon festival in Carytown.
“Shit, Mark,” she said, “why don’t you just come right out and tell them how much smarter you are than they are? People love to be talked down to. Save ‘zeitgeist’ until you get that job at thePost.‘Zeitgeist’ and ‘watermelon’ do not belong in the same story.”
It’s a blessedly slow night. I call Andi to find out which restaurant she’s waitressing at this week, and also try to find out something about her social life with my usual lack of success.
“With this economy,” she says, when I wonder aloud how long it’ll take her to graduate taking two courses a semester, “why hurry?”
It’s hard to argue with that, much as I want to.
About nine thirty, I get a call from Marcus Green.
“Hey,” he says. “You still interested in interviewing my client?”
I tell him I’ll call him back in thirty seconds.
In the smokers’ gulag, I use my cellphone. I explain that I’ve been taken off the story.
“Man,” he says, “those guys take care of their own, don’t they?”
Marcus doesn’t have to check ESPN to know what the score is. He’s been watching game film of West End power brokers for a very long time, looking for tendencies and weaknesses.
I tell him that Mark Baer is going to be covering whatever else happens to Richard Slade.
“My client doesn’t want to talk to Mark Baer. He wants to talk to you.”
“That’s flattering, Marcus.”
“Flattering doesn’t have shit to do with it. His momma told him about you maybe being his cousin and all.”
I opine that maybe I’m making some inroads with Philomena Slade after all.
Marcus Green laughs.
“Well, she’s got a pretty good hard-on against all you scoundrels down there. That’s what she called y’all the other day, after she threw you out of the car.
“But maybe she thinks you’re the best of a bad lot. You being family and all. That still tickles me, by the way. You’re about as African-American as Donald Trump.”
“Hurts coming from you. You’ve probably got a butler and a maid.”
Green lives along River Road. I’ve seen his place. He even had a lawn jockey out front for a while. All the white folks out there painted theirs white, about as far as most of them were willing to ride on the tolerance train, so Marcus painted his black, in some kind of twisted attempt at sardonic humor that went over like a fart in a phone booth. He finally gave up after the jockey got stolen three times. The last time, somebody put a love note in his mailbox, calling him a racist cracker and promising more personal and heartfelt retribution.
“I’m just a proud black man who’s pulled himself up by his bootstraps, overcoming oppression every step on the way.”
We both laugh. If the Grand Wizard—or whatever the hell he is—of the Ku Klux Klan offered Marcus Green a nice payday, Marcus would be right there, with that same aggrieved look, fuming over the injustice that awaited his client if a fair and balanced jury didn’t save the day.
Still, Marcus Green has helped me, and vice versa. Sometimes, we are aiming in the same direction. Often, neither of us is pure of heart, but sometimes you have to be saved by a scoundrel.
“Yeah,” I say, “I’d like very much to talk to your client. Tell him that, if there’s some truth to be had, we will get at it.”
And I promise him something else. I promise that I’ll find a way to get that truth, whatever it might be, into the paper.
It’s a promise I hope I can keep.
Peachy Love succeeded me in my first incarnation on night cops.
Then, she decided she liked the police end of things better than the newspaper end. She’s been a flack for them now for about twelve years. We have an agreement. She’s never seen talking to me, except maybe at a group press conference. I never mention her name. But, when either of us knows it’s necessary, we talk.
Usually, like today, it’s over the phone, although I have been known to make an after-hours house call to Peachy’s place in Ginter Park.
“Thought I’d give you a heads-up,” she says. I’m still two-thirds asleep. Her voice tells me I’d better wake up fast.
“The guy you’re checking on? He’s going to be a TV star today.”
Richard Slade, it turns out, did not sleep tight in his old bed at his mother’s house last Friday night. Either that, or his identical twin was in the Kwik-Mart two miles away at three thirtyA.M., buying a carton of cigarettes.
“Trust me,” Peachy says, “it’s him. I saw the tape.”
And so, it seems, will everyone in Richmond before the day is out.
I ask her how the surveillance tape got into the hands of one of our local network affiliates.
“Hell if I know. Might have been one of the investigators, might have been the guy at the Kwik-Mart. Doesn’t much matter, right now, does it? It’ll be on the noon news, though. You can count on that. They’ve already called the chief, asking for a comment on it.”
I thank her and hang up. It’s nine thirty. I’d planned to sleep for another hour. I’m supposed to meet Marcus Green at the city jail at one thirty. Now, I’m wondering if I should even bother to go.
Richard Slade might as well be wearing a toe tag already. This just plants him about six feet deeper. I have been accused of having a soft spot in the head for the underdog. But I do expect the underdog not to bite me on the ass with lies and bullshit while I’m trying to help him. A guy who says he slept all night like a baby at his momma’s house should not be videotaped at three thirtyA.M. buying cigarettes at the Kwik-Mart. It sends the wrong message.
But, there’s nothing much to do until I show up for work. Assuming Green doesn’t drop the guy like bad meat, I’ll be there. It should be entertaining, at least.
There is time, though, before noon, to run a fool’s errand.
The guess here is that our local TV news pups didn’t bother to call Philomena Slade. Somebody ought to tell her before she hears about it on the news, or from Mark Baer or somebody else calling her for a comment.
By the time I shower, shave and wash down two Krispy Kremes with some of the coffee Custalow kindly left for me, it’s ten forty-five, and it’s after eleven when I get to Philomena’s.
She doesn’t seem that glad to see me, our little truce notwithstanding. In the background, I can hear Jamal and Jeroy playing.
“There’s something you need to know,” I tell her, and she goes silent but leaves the door open about four inches.
When she hears about the surveillance tape, the door opens the rest of the way. She doesn’t invite me in, just turns and walks away, defeated.
She sits down at the kitchen table. One of its leaves sags as she puts her elbows on it.
“Not now, Jamal,” she tells the twin who wants her to play a child’s card game with him.
“Why did he do that?” she says, not really asking me but just the world in general, or maybe God.
I’m thinking the most obvious answer usually is the right one. He went out in the middle of the night because he knew, somehow, that Alicia Parker Simpson always came down a certain street at a certain time every day of the week, and he had some issues that all the forgiveness in the world couldn’t wash away.
“I wondered,” she says, and now she is talking to me. “I wondered about those cigarettes.”
She’d found most of a carton of Kools in his bedroom, and it crossed her mind briefly that she hadn’t seen them before Saturday afternoon and didn’t remember Richard going out that day.
“A friend came by that morning, a fella he’d known in prison who got out before he did, and I guess I just thought he brought the cigarettes. Richard didn’t smoke before he went to jail. I’m hoping he’s going to try to quit.”
Then she goes silent, perhaps realizing that nicotine is not her son’s biggest problem right now.
I tell her I just wanted to let her know, because somebody might be calling her, asking questions.
She looks up, tired-eyed, like she needs to sleep.
“Isn’t that what you do?”
I explain that I’m not on the story anymore.
“So what are you doing here?”
I can’t come up with a better answer than the one that comes out:
“Because you’re family.”
She seems to accept this, and I feel certain she’s being honest when she says that she never heard anything the night her son took his soon-to-be-infamous ride.
“Guess I sleep more soundly than I realized. Those Ambiens really knock me out.”
When I get to the door, she stops me with a slight pressure on my elbow.
“I don’t know what kind of evidence they’re coming up with,” she says, “but I know, just as sure as I’m standing here, that he did not kill that woman. I know that.”
I nod and tell her I’ll do what I can to find out more. When I wave to her through the screen, the twins are clinging to her dress.
I get to the jail at one fifteen. I am kind of surprised when Marcus Green shows up five minutes later. Kate’s not with him.
“Well,” he says to me, not appearing the least bit daunted, “we’ve got some work to do.”
I suggest that all the work in the world might not save his client.
“Aw,” he says, “I’ve had worse cases than this.”
“That you won?”
“Let’s just wait and see,” he says.
Maybe it’s my imagination, but the jailer who escorts us to the interview room seems to be smirking. Half of Richmond must know by now about Richard Slade’s little after-hours run.
Slade, when we get to the room, doesn’t look that much different than he did when he went free ten days ago, but I’m thinking he’s going to be a little hard to read. He’s had most of his life so far to work on keeping his true self hidden.
I can’t tell, until he speaks, that he knows.
“I heard about the tape,” is all he says.
“Would’ve been nice if I’d heard about all this somewhere other than the TV,” Marcus says.
“I didn’t know . . .” he says, then stops and looks off, focusing on some point beyond the wall behind us.
“Well,” Marcus says, “you better start truthin’ right now, or get yourself another lawyer.”
This gets Slade’s attention. He looks, for a fraction of a second, like I imagine that scared teenager did back in 1983. Other than his mother, he knows Marcus Green is all he’s got. He might not know, as I do, that his lawyer would dump him like a box of cat litter if it begins to look like Marcus Green’s best interests aren’t being served. I’ve seen him do it.
I’ve been mostly a fly on the wall so far, waiting to pick up what shit I can out of this.
Slade seems to notice me for the first time.
“So you’re the white sheep of the family,” he says.
I explain it all as quick as I can, including the part about how I’m not really on the story anymore. Richard Slade might or might not believe me, but he and I both know he’s not in a position to alienate anyone who has a better than twenty-to-one shot at saving his ass. He probably knows that a distant cousin who might or might not ever write anything else about the mess he’s in might be the best shot he has.
“Anyhow,” Marcus says, getting the conversation back to where it might do someone some good, “tell it.”
“Bump came by, and he wanted me and him to go for a ride.”
“He came by when?”
“It was about two in the morning.”
“He just knocked on your momma’s door at twoA.M.?”
Slade is quiet for a few seconds, and I can hear the gears shifting, like he’s doing a little self-editing. Marcus and I exchange a glance.
“Well,” he says, “it wasn’t quite like that.”
“What I’m here for,” Marcus says, raising his voice the way he might pounce on a vulnerable witness who’s just identified his client, “is the truth. T-R-U-T-H. Not a bunch of bullshit. The truth.”
“OK, OK.” Slade holds his cuffed hands up. “I ran into him that afternoon. I was just out walking, and he sees me and pulls over. He said he was going to work, wouldn’t get off till one in the morning, but he’d come by and get me. We’d go down to the docks, drink a couple of beers, catch up, you know?”
“I don’t know anything,” Marcus Green says, his arms crossed. “Educate me. Start off by telling me who Bump is.”
Bump Freeman, Slade explains, was his friend when they were growing up.
“Hadn’t seen him in twenty-eight years,” he says, which makes me wonder why Mr. Freeman never visited him, but sometimes friends can be fickle. If anybody understands that, it’s Richard Slade.
“He was with me that night.”
At first, I don’t understand, and then I do.
“At the Quarry?”
He nods his head.
“I think he wanted to try to tell me about, you know, what happened.”
“What happened,” Marcus says, “is he and your other so-called friends sold your ass out.”
“We were kids. Cops came after me like they did him, I’d have done the same thing.”
I can tell that Marcus, who is the type to redress old wrongs instead of forgiving them, isn’t exactly buying this.
Slade says the plan was for his old buddy Bump Freeman, whom he hadn’t seen since Bump was helping send him to prison, to come by, and they’d go catch up.
“I knew he’d be by about two, so I just set the alarm for one thirty. Then I sat on the front steps and waited.”
According to Slade, Bump had picked up a couple of 40s, and they went down to the dock. They sat in the car, sipping malt liquor and looking out at the river with the car’s heat going, and they caught up.
“Did anybody see you?” Marcus asks him.
“Naw. Man, it was freezing out there. Nobody to see us.”
“Bump never visited your ass in prison?”
Slade shakes his head.
“He said he was too ashamed.”
“Hell,” Marcus mutters, “he should’ve been.”
On the way back, Slade wanted some cigarettes. He went in and Bump stayed in the car.
“We were back to my momma’s house by four thirty, at the latest. I swear.”
Swear all you want, I’m thinking.
“Did anybody see you get out of Bump’s car and go inside?” Marcus asks him.
Slade shakes his head again.
“I don’t think so.”
Alicia Parker Simpson was shot around five fifteen. That time of morning, you could get there from Philomena’s house in fifteen minutes, maybe ten. Even if Richard Slade did what he said he did, up to the time he came back with his Kools from the Kwik-Mart, he had time to go out again, either by himself or with the ever-helpful Bump, and wait for his accuser. Maybe Bump had visited him in prison after all. Maybe he was helping to settle an old score, make up for not being there twenty-eight years ago.
And about the only person who can even begin to vouch for Slade, it appears, is the redoubtable Bump Freeman.
Where, Marcus asks him, does Bump live?
Slade tells him that he lives “somewhere over by the school,” which turns out to be about two blocks away.
“So you went back inside when you got back?”
“Yeah. I was beat. I went straight to bed.”
I’ve got a question of my own.
“What about the guy who came by to see you that morning? Your momma said some guy who was at Greensville with you stopped by.”
He looks surprised.
“Oh,” he says, “you mean Shooter Sheets. Yeah, he wanted to wish me good luck, on getting out and all.”
Shooter Sheets, Slade explains, had gotten out of prison a couple of years ago and was working as an auto mechanic now.
I ask him why he was called Shooter, and he just looks at me like I’m the biggest dumb-ass in the world.
“So,” Marcus says, “you went out in the middle of the night and got yourself a screen test at the Kwik-Mart, and nobody saw you come or go, other than some damn Indian clerk, and you spent time earlier in the day with an ex-con named Shooter.”
“I know how it looks,” Slade says. “But can’t you find Bump? He’ll vouch for what I said.”
I know what Marcus Green is thinking. Even if the upstanding Mr. Freeman is willing to go against form and step up for his old friend, who’s going to believe him? I’m hoping that, when Bump Freeman got home at the alleged hour of four thirty or so, he woke somebody up.
And what was to keep Richard Slade from heading back out again, or getting into somebody else’s car? Maybe he just let Bump do it, or maybe this guy Shooter.
Any way you look at it, there’s not a lot of positive takeaway from having the whole world find out that you lied about where you were on the night that the woman you had every reason to hate was murdered.
I’ve listened to a lot of con jobs by cons, ex- and otherwise. If you’re on the cops beat, sometimes they fixate on the guy who wrote all those bad things about them. And then, when they’re convicted, they try to stay in touch, as if a few bylines have bonded our asses for life.
It’s funny, but they don’t ever seem resentful. In most cases, they just seem to want to convince you that they didn’t do it, even after the police and the judge and jury and everyone else, myself included, is sure of the opposite.
It is always, I learned early on, wise not to respond to the eight-page, handwritten jailhouse letters. These guys have a lot of time on their hands, and they’re looking for a Best Friend Forever on the outside. Then, when they get out, they can look you up, which is not a thing you might necessarily want to happen.
Richard Slade never did that. Other than the occasional letter from his mother, he was out of sight, out of mind. And yet, he kind of won me over in the ten days since he was released. Until today, he seemed like the closest thing to an innocent victim I’ve seen go through our penal system—a guy who was locked away for damn near half his life and then harbored no grudges when he got out, just wanted to sit on a front porch with no bars on it and savor freedom.
Well, I’ve been done in by gut feelings before.
As we’re leaving, Slade puts his hand on my arm.
“Help me,” is all he says.
I tell him I’ll see what I can do. The way he looks at me, I can tell that he sees what a lost cause I think he is. I look away.
On the way out, Marcus Green doesn’t say much.
I try to crack the silence a little as we’re walking down the steps.
“So, do you think he did it?”
He stops and turns to me.
“If I did,” he says, “I sure as hell wouldn’t tell you about it. He’s my client.”
“But you told him that if he wasn’t telling the truth, he’d have to get another lawyer.”
Marcus frowns and then nods.
“Yeah. I said that.”
“And you didn’t drop him.”
Marcus starts walking away. With all the street noise, I barely hear him say, “Not yet.”
The newsroom is humming when I get there, or as close to humming as it gets without typewriter keys as background music. Sarah looks up when I walk by.
“Some story, huh?” she says.
“Yeah. Where’s Baer?”
She motions toward Wheelie’s office. I see the back of Baer’s head, nodding up and down like a Bobblehead doll. Whatever Wheelie’s telling him, he seems to be in complete agreement.
Then I notice another head, to the left of Baer’s and much less animated. I take a few steps over and see that our publisher has graced us with his ghostly presence.
Wheelie and Grubby. Grubby doesn’t descend into the newsroom except on rare occasions. I’m guessing that the latest bombshell in the Alicia Simpson story has led to some cages being rattled. Maybe even Grubby’s cage.
I slip away to get a cup of coffee before anyone sees me, in case they want to invite me to the party. Wheelie’s office gets awfully small when there are more than two people in there, especially if one of them is the publisher.
When I come back, Grubby’s gone back upstairs and Baer’s been freed.
I’m checking with the cops to see what mayhem has occurred during the past fourteen hours when I feel Baer’s presence. He likes to hover, and he’s been known to read what’s on other people’s screens, like a runner on second stealing signs from the catcher. I have an urge to brush him back.
“Willie,” he says when I reluctantly hang up. “Can you help me? Nobody knows more about this than you do.”
One of Baer’s strong points, and one that might eventually earn him a job in Washington or New York, or at least Atlanta or Philadelphia, is that he can lick ass when the occasion calls for it. If you’ve been around him long, you know that it’s only temporary. You know that, if the situation were reversed, he wouldn’t piss on you to douse the flames if you were on fire. But, it works, for a while.
Baer can’t get anyone to talk to him. After TV was fed the news that Richard Slade was out and about in the wee hours before the murder, the cops stopped talking. I know for a fact that Marcus Green isn’t talking to Baer, as a small favor to me that I’m sure I’ll be repaying with twenty percent interest, compounded weekly, and he sure as hell isn’t letting his client speak to him. I’m pretty sure that Philomena Slade would kick his ass around the block a time or two if he showed up in her neighborhood, just because he was from the paper.
“I’ll make you a deal,” I tell him after he’s made his pitch.
Baer, I am sure, has complete and unfettered access to Lewis Witt, and probably to brother Wesley, too. Not even the intervention of Clara Westbrook can get me so far up that road.
“You’re going to go see Lewis Witt, right?”
“Well, yeah. Matter of fact, I’m going over there this afternoon.”
“Take me with you.”
Baer is stumped. He doesn’t want me to weasel back into this story that’s been dropped into his lap.
He frowns and then realizes he doesn’t know what the tit for his tat is.
“What do I get?”
“I’ll get you an interview with Philomena Slade.”
I doubt this is possible, but I’m pretty sure Baer doesn’t know whether he can get me past the front door at the Witts’ abode, either. We’re just two guys holding low-card pairs and bluffing. He’s got to get something from the other side to go with everything the Witts are more than eager to tell him. I really, really want to talk to Lewis Witt.
“Aren’t you supposed to be off this story?”
“I just need to scratch an itch,” I tell him.
He thinks about it and then shrugs.
“OK with me. I don’t know if she’ll let you in, though.”
I tell him I’ll count on his boyish charm.
“But I really need to talk to Mrs. Slade.”
I nod my head.
We’re off an hour later, after I’ve done a couple of shorts on people who were only robbed and shot but not killed. We wouldn’t even put the robbery bit in the paper, but it was VCU students, forced to relinquish their cellphones and cash at gunpoint. Crime against middle-class kids, probably white, will always sell papers. I think about Andi, walking all over the Fan in the dead of night, probably talking on the phone or texting, not paying attention.
I tell Sally that I’ll be back in time to check on any late-night misdeeds among the populace.
The sun is threatening to set on us by the time we get to the Witts’ place. Baer rings the doorbell. They’re expecting him, but certainly not me. I’m hoping maybe Lewis Witt has put some of her animosity toward me on the back burner. When we’re shown in, the look in her eyes tells me I’m mistaken.
“What is he doing here?” she asks Baer.
I tell her that today’s events have made me think twice about Richard Slade. What I say has enough truth in it that I don’t blush saying it.
“Well,” she says, “I hope you know now what kind of animal the criminal justice system has turned loose on us. A little late, though.”
I swallow and nod.
She stands back, silently accepting my non-apology and not bothering to ask why it takes two reporters to interview her.
She stops after a few steps.
“Is your, ah, ex-wife still defending that bastard?”
I tell her that she was helping Marcus Green, but that she’s having second thoughts now.
Lewis Witt’s nose wrinkles at the mention of Marcus.
“I should hope so,” she says.
There’s no one else visible, although I can hear music somewhere in the recesses of the Witt home, which seems about four times too big for the three people living there now.
Baer tells Lewis that we’re just trying to get the story straight, that we want to do a piece on the Simpson family and its impact on Richmond through the years.
The Simpson family’s impact on Richmond, as far as I can learn, is to have made as much money as possible getting suckers like me hooked on nicotine, then giving some of it back to the symphony and the fine arts museum. But Lewis seems to be more or less buying Baer’s explanation for our presence, and she spends a couple of hours regaling us with more family history than anyone should be expected to endure. I get through it by drinking three cups of coffee and asking an occasional question of my own, and finally we get to 1983 and the Philadelphia Quarry.
Baer asks most of the questions. Lewis was twenty-two, just graduated from college, when it happened.
“I was down in Atlanta, interning there for a PR firm, trying to decide what to do with the rest of my life,” she says.
“Daddy called me and said something had happened to Alicia. I didn’t really hear the whole story until I got back, and then Momma had to tell me.”
She abruptly quit her job, such as it was, and returned home.
“They needed me,” she says. “And Wes sure as hell wasn’t any help.”
Baer and I have to agree that whatever she says about Wesley’s disappearance after “the incident” can only be used for background.
He could hardly have picked a worse time to disappear, everyone agreed.
“Daddy was not that inclined to look for him, but Momma and I persuaded him to hire a detective. It was sometime in October before he showed up in Nevada. We never did find out what happened to the car.”
“Where’s he staying now?” I ask. As with my other questions, she looks at Baer when she answers.
“He’s got a place in the Museum District, but we’re letting him stay at my parents’ home, for now.”
The way she says “for now” makes it quite clear that it is a markedly different time span than “forever.”
Baer asks her if we can speak with Wesley. She says she doesn’t think that would be a good idea, that Alicia’s death has hit him very hard.
I’m thinking, Wes is forty-six years old. Surely he can make his own decisions.
But I bite my tongue and then ask her if Alicia had ever talked about that night.
“If she did,” Lewis Witt says, giving Baer the laser death stare she means for me, “I certainly wouldn’t share that with you. We are not the kind of people to air our dirty laundry.”
No doubt Giles Whitehurst has assured her that no one from the paper will be asking any rude questions.
I shut up before I get both me and Baer thrown out. Carl Witt comes in. From the look on his wife’s face, he wasn’t supposed to do that. He offers us drinks and we decline. We play a little verbal badminton for a few more minutes, and it’s time to go.
Back in the car, Baer wants to know what I think.
“About what Lewis Witt just said.”
“I’d say she’s had a rough week. Write the story and move on.”
When we get back to the paper, there’s a message on my phone. Ninety seconds, the recorded female voice says. Damn, I hate those. Ninety-second calls are usually from poor suckers who want you to do a story on how they’ve been fucked over by life through no fault of their own and want somebody to write about it.
This one, though, is a little different.
“Hello? This is Susan Winston-Jones?”
It takes me a few seconds to remember who Susan Winston-Jones is.
“You know, we met after the funeral yesterday?”
The late Alicia Simpson’s friend seems to be playingJeopardy, framing everything in the form of a question, but after she rambles a bit, she cuts to the chase.
“I’d like you to give me a call, at your convenience. I think I have something that might be of interest to you, about Alicia?”
She has my attention.
I go into one of our conference rooms and call the number she gave me.
She tells me to call her Bitsy, and then spends a few minutes telling me what a fine person her late friend was.
“She was a little fragile, but, you know, she always wanted to do the right thing.”
I’m wondering if Richard Slade would necessarily agree with that.
“Here’s the thing,” Bitsy says, just as I’m about to tell her to get on with it. “Alicia was writing something.”
“You know, like her memoirs or something? But she wouldn’t let me see it. She told me, sometime early last week, that she’d let me read it when she was finished, and she said she was nearly finished.”
“Do you have any idea,” I ask, “what it was about?”
There’s a pause.
“Kind of,” Bitsy says at last. “She said that it would—how did she put it?—‘finally tell the truth.’ She said she’d finally be able to sleep nights.”
“But you don’t know what she did with it?”
“I asked Lewis about it, the day of the funeral. She said she didn’t know anything about it, and that there wasn’t anything in the desk Alicia was using, but that she would check and see if there was anything on her computer.”
I ask her if she knows anything else about Alicia Parker Simpson’s “memoirs,” and she says she doesn’t, “but there was something there, something she wanted to get out.”
“Did Lewis seem like she knew about it at all before you mentioned it?”
“Well, she tried to hide it, but I think she did know. She acted kind of funny, kind of flustered, which is not Lewis, trust me. She did seem surprised, but I couldn’t tell if it was because Alicia was writing something or because I knew about it.”
One of the news editors and a reporter open the conference room door. I wave them away, and the editor frowns and mouths that he has the room reserved. I hold up five fingers.
“Anyhow, I wanted you to know about it. In case there was something there, you know?”
I ask Bitsy why exactly she wanted me to know about a missing manuscript that was probably just a middle-aged socialite’s bow to Narcissus. Well, I didn’t put it quite that bluntly, but she got the message.
“Because of something she said.”
I resist the urge to ask. Better to let the silence draw it out.
“It was the same conversation where she told me about her memoirs, so it must have been Monday week, because it was the same day they released that man. And you know what she said?”
“She said, ‘Thank God. He’s suffered enough. I’m the one that ought to be suffering.’ And then she shut up about it and never mentioned it again. I meant to talk with her about it, but I never had the chance.”
Bitsy’s voice breaks a little. I tell her I’m sorry about her friend, and that I’ll look into it, although I have no earthly idea how.
I ask her, before I hang up, to call me if she remembers anything else.
Outside, having avoided the lethal stare of the editor who had reserved space in the conference room at the time I was interviewing Bitsy Winston-Jones, I warm myself from the heat of the Camel I’m forced to smoke alfresco. I’m trying to figure if there’s anything out there that I should be chasing. Richard Slade looks as guilty as sin, to me and everyone else. Even if he didn’t do the deed twenty-eight years ago, he sure as hell is the prime suspect for Alicia Simpson’s murder. What difference could a manuscript, missing or otherwise, make?
Only one thing to do, I decide at last: Blog.
They want us to blog every day, like flossing. With me, it’s a sometimes thing. I still don’t hold some unedited crap offered to our former readers on the Internet in the same high regard I reserve for the printed, paper-and-ink word. And I don’t care if we cut down all the trees in Oregon to do it.
Still, it has its place. When you don’t know shit, but you’ve heard some pretty juicy gossip, it’s a good place to fling it, see if any of it sticks. I’ve gotten some pretty good tips, actually, by slinging stuff up against the electronic wall.
So, back inside and, with no murders to sully our fair city so far tonight, I blog.
“Is there a story behind the story of Alicia Parker Simpson’s tragic death?” I muse. I love to muse. “Is it true that she was working on her memoirs at the time of her death, and that those memoirs have mysteriously disappeared?” (Nothing ever just disappears, it mysteriously disappears.) I blog on, mentioning Richard Slade’s unfortunate bad judgment in being out in the wee hours before Alicia was murdered, even throw in the fact that an old friend might be able to vouch for his whereabouts, if that old friend can be found.
It goes on for a few paragraphs. Then I hit the “publish” button and wait to see what happens next.
Sally Velez, who actually reads some of the crap we put on our blogs, comes by an hour or so later.
“Jesus Christ,” she says. “Grubby is going to barbecue you.”
Well, I said I’d cede the story to Baer. I didn’t say I wouldn’t blog about it. But I doubt if our publisher will appreciate that fine distinction.
Custalow is in the kitchen, getting breakfast. I’m sitting by the living room window, overlooking Monroe Park, with my head halfway out, sending my secondhand smoke in the direction of the pigeons and squirrels.
“You going to keep that window open much longer?” Custalow asks as he walks in. It is late January, and even the joy of nicotine is diminished somewhat by the fact that I’m freezing my ass off. Abe, munching on a bagel, is only getting the down side.
“Doesn’t look good for Richard Slade,” he says as he sits down. He’s carrying the paper, reading the front page.
I agree with him.
“I still can’t see it,” he says.
“Can’t see what?”
“Nobody I knew at Greensville ever thought he did it to start with, you know, rape that girl. And he was the most peaceable guy you’d ever want to meet. Course, he was pushing forty when I met him. Maybe he was wild when he was young.”
“Weren’t we all.”
Custalow checks his watch.
“The thing is,” he says as he gets up, “he spent twenty-eight years behind bars. He did everything right. And then it turns out he really didn’t do it. So, I’m thinking, is it possible the first crime Richard Slade ever committed was a well-planned execution?”
Not that well-planned, I remind him, but Custalow does have a point. It’s why I haven’t given up on the fact that there’s a story here beyond the one we’ve spread across the front page this morning. I’ve checked, and Slade didn’t seem to have any kind of record before he was arrested for raping Alicia Simpson.
“Maybe he was a little pissed off,” I suggest, always the devil’s faithful advocate, “spending half his life in prison for something he didn’t do. That’d do it for me.”
“Maybe,” Custalow says, “but he didn’t seem like that kind. You know, he wrote his mother every week, read the Bible all the time, led prayer groups. You can fake that stuff for a while, but not for twenty-eight years.”
Custalow heads for the door.
“Hey,” I call to him, “the radiator pipes are still clanging. Maybe you ought to get some outside help.”
“I’m on it,” he says, fixing me with a stare that would surely qualify as baleful.
Not fifteen minutes after he leaves, the phone rings. Foolishly, I answer it.
“Mr. Grubbs wants to see you,” she says, and the fact that she doesn’t call him “Grubby” tells me he must be right there by her desk.
I’m pretty sure I know what. The blog. Probably wasn’t one of my better ideas. I may have used up whatever stay-out-of-the-unemployment-line points I’ve ever earned.
She ignores my question.
“He wants you here in an hour.”
That would be ten o’clock, about four hours before I start getting paid.
“Sally,” I tell her, “I know he’s standing right there beside you, making you call me. Just say ‘All right’ if that’s so.”
She pauses for a couple of seconds, then says it.
“OK. Tell him I’m on my way.”
She says “All right” again and I hang up.
It’s only ten blocks up Franklin Street from the Prestwould to the paper. It’s a nice, compact little world. I pass the YMCA, where a better person would stop for a workout on the way to the office, and the city library, and only a block beyond the paper is Penny Lane, where everybody knows my name. Who could ask for anything more?
I’d hate to mess this up. If I get fired, there isn’t anything else I can do that’s legal that would pay nearly what I’m drawing now.
Still, give me truth serum and I’d tell you that I don’t regret being the fly in the ointment, the turd in the punch bowl, refusing to write off Richard Slade. Most of my best stories were the ones somebody told me not to write. If I took orders better, I’d still be drinking and hobnobbing with our state legislators, where all the crimes are legal, instead of spending my late middle age chasing police cars.
It’s not much after ten when I get there.
I go straight to the fourth floor, where Sandy McCool greets me and tells me Mr. Grubbs will be with me shortly. I know better than to expect Sandy, longtime friend and Grubby’s executive assistant, to be The Weather Channel and tell me just how big a shitstorm I’ve stirred up. Sandy’s a good woman, but she takes her job seriously.
Five minutes later, she tells me he’ll see me.
I knock on Grubby’s door and he says to come in. He doesn’t even bother to get up from his desk.
“Sit,” he says.
“Willie,” he begins, leaning forward, “what part of ‘Let Baer have the Richard Slade story’ did you not understand?”
I start to protest that I haven’t written a word about Slade in the last three days’ papers. He puts up one of his hands to stop me.
“You blogged about it, and from what I can tell, about half the city’s read that. You went to the funeral. You went to the city jail and talked to him, you and Marcus Green.”
I don’t know how he found out about that last part, but it’s not that big a town.
“Do you know I’ve been on the phone with Giles Whitehurst? He called me at seven this morning. He doesn’t want to fire your ass, Willie. He wants to fire my ass, because he assumes I don’t have any control over this newspaper, over what our reporters do.”
I’m truly sorry for that. James H. Grubbs is a back-stabbing corporate climber who sold his journalistic soul for an MBA, but I did promise to stay off the story, and I haven’t. I don’t want to make anyone the recipient of a sevenA.M. phone call from the chairman of the board, not even Grubby.
There isn’t much to do except try to convince our publisher that there was a good reason for doing what I did, that there is that tiny chance that we’re putting the hanging before the trial.
Even as I’m telling Grubby what I know about Slade, I realize that it’s weak as water. My ex-con housemate and friend knew him in prison and doesn’t think he’s capable of something so heinous. There’s a guy out there, according to Slade, who will corroborate his story. Slade has never, to anyone’s knowledge, ever assaulted another human being, let alone murdered one.
When I tell him about Susan Winston-Jones and the alleged missing diary, journal, memoirs, whatever the fuck it was, Grubby seems only mildly more interested than before. I catch him sneaking a peak at his watch.
“We have to do something, Willie,” he says.
“OK. I. I have to do something. You’re suspended.”
“For how long?”
“Let’s say two weeks. Two weeks without pay.”
It doesn’t really bother me as much as it should. Two weeks won’t break me. Quite.
“This isn’t going to look good on my résumé. How am I ever going to get a job at theWashington Postwith this blemish on my reputation?”
Grubby almost thinks I’m serious, then nearly smiles at the idea of thePosthiring a fifty-something almost-white guy whose reputation already has more stains than a two-year-old’s bib at a spaghetti supper.
I figure there’s not much to lose, so I tell Grubby that the presumed-guilty Mr. Slade probably is my cousin.
“So you’ve not been exactly unbiased about this.”
I concede that this might possibly be the case, but that I do believe the story hasn’t been fully told yet. I add that it doesn’t seem like Giles Whitehurst is an impartial bystander either.
“Oh, he’s definitely not a bystander,” Grubby says.
We both know there’s a whole herd of sacred cows out in Windsor Farms, and I’ve been trying to tip one of them over.
I have to ask one more thing, though, even as Grubby is reaching for his coat, no doubt due somewhere else in five minutes.
“I promised to help Baer. Do you want me to do that?”
I don’t ever really want to help Baer. I think our publisher and I both know that.
“If you want to, but it’s on your own time. The paper does not back or condone anything you do connected to this story. That is our official stance.”
“But what I do on my own time is my business, right?”