The most wanted, p.12
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       The Most Wanted, p.12

           Jacquelyn Mitchard

  “Don’t do it, Annie. For once in your life, pay attention to what’s right instead of what’s possible. I mean it. You know this isn’t right for this child. And sure, I’ve seen a lot worse.” I heard the drawer, and the conversation, slam shut. “But that don’t mean I still don’t want to see better once in a while.”

  I wanted to put my head down on my desk blotter and roll my forehead back and forth like a stamp on an ink pad. “What I know, Warden Southwynn, is my job. And my job is not to figure out whether people are correct in their wish to exercise the rights guaranteed to them under the law, but to see that they get the chance to exercise them. I’m not Solomon, Ray Henry.”

  “Well, I am, Annie. In this place. For these matters, I am.”

  “That must make it hard to sleep some nights, sir.”

  “It do. But I fight the impulse to toss and turn.”

  “See you in court, Ray Henry.”

  “You won’t see me, missy. You know better than that. You’ll see my legal representative, Lee Petty.”

  “Ah yes, Petty. Some people look like their dogs. Some people look like their names, huh?”

  Ray was laughing now, but quickly sobered up. “I know Lee does his job.” We shared an opinion on this particular member of the Justice Department counsel team, and both of us knew what it was, just as we knew the conversation had grown too dicey to share it.

  “Well, I’m glad for you that he does. And I do mine.”

  “Well so.”

  “Love to Fleury.”

  “Will do.” He was gone. I wanted to blame the hell out of him. I wanted the sense of unrighted wrong that usually helps me get my adrenaline flowing. But I didn’t have it. Now I had another phone call to make. Yet I was reluctant, for some reason, to make it—to call Arley and even get started with the preparations we would need to make to go to court. They wouldn’t be much, in any case, beyond a little coaching about speaking up and dressing as if she were ready to go out for Sunday supper with her church youth group. I fiddled around, making other, miserably postponed calls for other clients, making sure Matt had followed up on an arrest warrant—which would be equally ineffective as the restraining order, I was sure—for Estralita’s op-art stalker of a husband. I debated whether I should give Matt or Patty the job of getting me a quick date with the Galleon County Judge who’d drawn the dog duty of hearing Solamente River prisoners’ writs for the month.

  After a few minutes of fuming, I sent Matt an E-mail, telling him the specifics of the pound of paper he’d have to drive to the clerk’s office in Galleon County. The county was basically a cluster of one-stoplight towns that surrounded Solamente River Prison like the prefab neighborhoods that used to surround auto-manufacturing plants, except that the employment base was people who made license plates instead of cars. Matt would first have to phone Mr. Dillon LeGrande himself (I knew I should do this, but I didn’t have the stomach for it) and make sure that our proposed lawsuit reflected his true intentions, because technically we had no evidence of those intentions beyond the copy of the letter to the warden Arley had given me in her folder. Then there was, of course, the writ of mandamus itself—Ex rel. Dillon Thomas LeGrande v. Ray Henry Southwynn and so on and so on—a slew of other motions, including the request for the waiver of court costs, with copies of that and everything else to everyone Matt could think of, starting with Counselor Petty and continuing up through the universe.

  In the late afternoon, Patty came into my office and flopped into the leather judge’s chair I’d liberated from a courtroom renovation site in Ballou County.

  “Child abuse,” she said.

  “We’re not for it,” I agreed.

  “I wish I smoked,” Patty said.

  “I eat to forget,” I told her.

  The case Patty was involved with had drained her, on and off, for two years; even for Women and Children First it was a real slam dunk. Mom and Dad were the kind of abusers who could have been trained by the junta in some South American prisoner-of-war camp, but the five kids had found a good stable home with Mom’s ex-boyfriend. The boyfriend had just learned he was HIV-positive. The county’s position was that there was no alternative but a foster placement. Our position was that we wanted the boyfriend to be certified as a foster parent, with a full-time attendant funded by the county. No one was going to adopt five troubled siblings. The county was worried about the children’s “future.” “What future? How about letting these kids have a little healthy present first?” Patty was mourning now.

  “I think I should adopt them all, I can’t stand this.” I was very fond of Patty. She not only lacked the lizard hide of a lawyer, her skin didn’t even have normal human thickness. Pain went right through. She was wrong for this work; but it was her dangerous compassion as much as her Notre Dame summa that had made me hire her. I did my best to comfort her, and when she left, I called my friend Jeanine.

  “Let’s go over to the clinic and get some medical attention,” I suggested. “The clinic” was a trendy Tex-Mex café called something in Spanish that Stuart insisted meant “sad-eyed lady of the lowlands.” It was a watering hole for young doctors; Jeanine and I liked to gaze at them, playing one of two favorite people-watching games. One was “Would you, could you . . . ?” and the other was “Too cute to be straight?”

  The restaurant was located in the King William district, south of the city and near the river, where the great pillared homes of German cattle barons bloomed in the nineteenth century, moldered toward the end of the twentieth, and were now deep into the impasse between handsome young hoodlums raising hell and handsome young gay home owners gentrifying up a storm. I loved the King William neighborhood, which was also the location of my favorite tchotchke store, Tienda Corina. At Corina’s storefront, once a gas station, I bought almost all my gifts for non-Texans, like little statues and pieces of silver jewelry commemorating November 2, All Souls’ Day, the sacred Mexican Catholic Day of the Dead. My favorites were silver studs in the shape of tiny skulls, with turquoise eyes.

  They nauseated Stuart, even after I explained that El Día de los Muertos was a happy day, when the departed got to come back and do the things they loved most in life. I had four or five little statues, made by Mexican artists, including a skeleton bride and groom. I’d wanted a skeleton mother cuddling her skeleton infant, but Stuart had stalked out of the store when I showed it to him.

  “What gripes me isn’t that you like this sick stuff,” he’d said, when I told him I thought the Madonna-and-child skeletons were touching. “What gripes me is how you think my reaction to it is funny.”

  “Well, it’s a big overreaction.”

  “You’re just playing at being some kind of latent Catholic.”

  “I am not. I think it’s a sort of lovely statement about . . . well, about the fact that your real immortality is the life you lived. Or something.”

  “Clearly a statement made by people who never saw a crime-scene photo.”

  Ah, my Stuart. Always there when you needed a curmudgeon.

  I called Stuart and left a message, asking him to meet Jeanine and me for dinner and to bring Tarik—Jeanine had a crush on him. It was Wednesday night, a big going-out night in this part of town. The restaurant, Amor Ausente, was filling with a lazy mix of Hispanic and Anglo professionals, pulling off ties and wrinkled sports coats, plus the district’s own artists and working-class folk—both of whom, Jeanine had pointed out, wore paint-spattered clothing, except the artists wore scarves too. The waiter, Luis, was our bud.

  “You look not so happy, Anne,” he told me, his skin shiny as a chestnut and, I imagined, as soft. He had to be, what, twenty-three?

  “I’m absolutely perfect, Luis,” I told him. Jeanine arrived then. Her mood was no better than Patty’s had been. “It’s apparently mi amiga here who’s in the dumps.”

  “Ah. What’s the problem?”

  “Children.” Jeanine sighed. “The children whose children I have to find parents for, when I should be fin
ding parents for the children who are giving birth to the other children.”

  “Would you like a margarita?” Luis asked sweetly.

  “Actually, I would like a baby, Luis.” She sighed. “I’d like to have a family of my own someday. And I’m never going to, at this rate. I’m just going to keep spending twenty-four hours a day making or unmaking families for other people and dating guys who had vasectomies before they got divorced. . . .”

  “So you do want a margarita?”

  “Luis,” said Jeanine, “would you like to have a baby?”

  What was in the air tonight? Was it the annual equinox for the overwound biological clocks of all thirty-something females? Jeanine was at least seven years younger than I and had often told me that her intake files were the original inspiration for the phrase “Just say no.”

  “You’re kidding,” I told her.

  “No, really. I couldn’t be more serious. How about it, Luis?”

  “Okay,” Luis agreed. “I get off at twelve. Can you wait that long?”

  “Italian-Irish, like me, and Mexican—you know, fair and dark . . . ,” Jeanine went on.

  “Drinking and praying . . . ,” said Luis.

  “Fighting and singing . . . ,” Jeanine agreed.

  “And guilt,” I put in. “Don’t forget guilt.”

  “I’ll get you just what you need,” Luis interjected, and headed toward the bar.

  “I really do want a baby,” she said after Luis retreated. “The pediatrician thinks one of the best things about me is that I’m a ‘career woman’ who doesn’t, in his words, want to ‘nest.’ Not that he didn’t nest for twelve years and two sons with his ex-wife. And the cop is afraid that having children might be too much of a risk, given his line of work.”

  “I’ve heard that before.”

  “He says he sees too much.”

  “I’ve heard that before too. Why don’t you adopt one of your babies?”

  “Because I want the whole thing. Husband. House. Hanging up my diaphragm forever. Nine months of finishing my whole meal . . .” She paused, as if she’d just received my words by mail. “What do you mean, you’ve heard that before?”

  My voice did one of those slide-guitar things with the vocal cords. “I . . . when Stuart and I talk about kids . . . well, he says he doesn’t think that he could really handle—”

  “I didn’t know you and Stuart were even considering that. You love your life, Annie.”

  “I do. I do love our life.”

  “You never told me you wanted to have a baby. I just assumed . . .”

  “You shouldn’t assume.”

  “But you and Stuart . . .”

  “It’s not like we have to decide tomorrow or anything.”

  “Day after, though, right?” Jeanine pressed me. “You’re . . . how old are you, Annie?”

  “Jeez. I’m going to be forty, Jeanine. Happy now?”

  The drinks arrived. “Well, I didn’t mean anything.” She took a sip of hers. “This is not a margarita. Luis!” she called softly. He turned from the bar. “You know, this is not a margarita.”

  “No,” he said, his handsome, gentle face almost sad. “I decided a margarita was not enough for tonight. I decided I must choose the drinks tonight. A mission. This establishment most proudly offers thirty different blends of tequila. This is why the bartender is called Jesús not for nothing. You are in my hands.”

  Now, I love tequila. It’s the only liquor that doesn’t make me feel, before or during, as though I’m one step from phoning ralph. By the time Stuart arrived, there were eight shot glasses on the table between Jeanine and me, actually in kind of a nice pyramid. The residue at the bottom of some of them had dried to various tinctures of gold, from orange to flax, and one looked like some kind of psychotic child’s science project—a chartreuse from outer space with a red dot, like a fertilized egg yolk, still floating on it.

  “That’s called a Martian Boob,” Jeanine said.

  “It’s not.” It seemed important to give Stuart correct information. I stood up for emphasis. “It’s a Venetian Nipple.” Stuart grinned with half his mouth, which always made me think he looked like Steve McQueen, and eased me back down into my chair.

  “It looks pretty effective.”

  “Oh, it is,” said Jeanine. “Join us.”

  Tarik came in then, dressed, as always, like a GQ model, in soft heather-colored slacks made of some kind of slightly iridescent material. How he could afford to dress this way on a death row lawyer’s salary was beyond me. “Rich relations,” Stuart suggested once.

  “What kind of relations?” I had asked him. “A sugar daddy?”

  “Or a sugar mama?” he’d retorted.

  Neither of us had ever known Tarik, whose looks were as model perfect as his clothes, to date anyone, male, female, mineral, or vegetable.

  The two of them sat down and ordered longnecks, and we got some chips and salsa and a plate of bean burros to share. Stuart kept staring down into the neck of his beer bottle as if seeking an oracle, and I really didn’t want to ask, I really didn’t, but I finally had to say, “Honey, what’s up?”

  “It’s Kim McGrory,” he said.

  “That’s the guy who killed everyone after Thanksgiving dinner,” Jeanine put in brightly.

  “He’s my client,” Stuart said. “My client.”

  “He got a stay,” Tarik explained. “A psychiatric evaluation—”

  “He poisoned everyone, right?” Jeanine persisted. “Am I thinking of the right guy? He said it was botulism—”

  “He didn’t say it was botulism,” Stuart explained weakly. “He didn’t say anything. He was in the hospital for two weeks. Somebody poisoned that meat—”

  “No, Stuart, I read about it,” Jeanine said. “They said he was abusing his granddaughters, and what he took himself turned out to be an overdose of aspirin or something. He didn’t really try to kill himself—”

  “Well, Jeanine, I wouldn’t ever presume to argue facts with the press. He did, however, really try to kill himself today.”

  “What?” I asked. “You just said he got a stay—”

  “He doesn’t really want a competency hearing. He doesn’t want another psychiatric evaluation,” Stuart continued softly. “His mother was in and out of institutions his whole life. She set fire to the house when he was six, and his grandmother got custody of him. But she made him live in a horse box—”

  “These stories are all so touching.” Jeanine smiled, toasting Tarik with her second Venetian Nipple. Stuart and Tarik shrugged, silent, their tension stiffening the very air around them. I could feel the friction between their despair and Jeanine’s bleary wit. I sent her a mental E-mail: Flirt with Tarik now. Leave this alone. She wouldn’t, though. She was in the mood to pick at something. “The children in that family who died when Kim cooked dinner—I’m sure their stories were pretty bleak too.”

  “Actually, they were, Jeanine,” Stuart said. “Abuse is a gift that keeps on giving, generation after generation.”

  “Well, he took care of that for future generations.”

  “You should have been his defense attorney, Jeanine,” Stuart said thinly. “Kim’s lawyer was such a moron, he just about said the same thing.”

  “He’d have to have been a moron to defend a guy who poisoned his whole family, not to mention the neighbors.”

  “But you know, Jeanine, because you are a well-informed citizen,” Stuart went on, “Kim never confessed to any crime and was never really proven to have killed anybody. And now he actually might not need to get the poke, after all. Because he’s probably taken care of the job himself.”

  “A huge loss to the commonwealth.”

  “Well, cheer up, Jeanine. Now he’s in a coma. Nobody knows how long he was hanging from one of those rubber exercise bands in his cell. Folks tend not to notice prisoners on death row—especially when they’re just hanging around like that, you know?”

  “Stuart . . . ,” I began, pleading

  “Oh, Anne, I don’t have to listen to this bullshit—”

  Jeanine cut in. “Why don’t they spend money on trying to give kids a better start so they don’t turn out to be serial killers, instead of trying to save—”

  “Where’s the cutoff? Which generation should we start with? Is thirteen too young? Is seventy too old?”

  “You’re such a tedious liberal, Stuart.” Jeanine plonked her glass and her elbows down on the table, nearly upsetting our pyramid.

  “You have such a strong, powerful sense of social justice for a social worker, Jeanine,” he said.

  “Shut up,” I told them both. This spat wasn’t helping my digestion. The congealing beans and tortilla chips looked as appealing as haggis, though I knew I should eat something. The tower of glasses winked and subdivided before my eyes.

  Then all of a sudden, Stuart was banging open the door and gone.

  “He’ll be back,” Tarik said.

  “Maybe not,” I said morosely. “I can hope for the best.”

  But I knew the only choice I had was to follow him out. To tell you the truth, though, I wouldn’t have minded right then getting hold of Kim McGrory’s exercise band and using it on him and Jeanine both. Tarik started to say that he’d get Jeanine home, but I assured him we’d just walk around the block and cool off. Outside, the night was what makes people put up with Texas—tropic, lush as a red fruit but without the wet dullness of summer. You didn’t have to wear a sweater, but a little ribbon of cool from somewhere made you appreciate the fact. From the gloom of a deep gallery, someone was playing the old song “Por Un Amor” on a guitar. I took Stuart’s arm, making noises about how everyone had had a hard day. Actually, even I had had a hard day, a circumstance I began to describe, when a wide-eyed look from Stuart simply shut me up. His mishegas was always worse than my mishegas. His was life; mine was usually quality of life. I always felt I had to apologize for that. Besides, though I wasn’t drunk, the motion of my arms and legs didn’t seem quite in synch. So I just stopped. And I looked up.

  And there was this house.

  It was a rambling red-brick Revival of Everything pile, with every cliché from a B horror movie well represented. “This place has more wings than a Saturday night in Buffalo,” Stuart said, relaxing a little under the embrace of the sweet night air.

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