Partners, p.1John Grisham
Tee Ray and his son lived on the back porch of an old shotgun house, one in a long row of identical houses packed along Irvine Street in a section of town known, both affectionately and derisively, as Little Angola. The house was owned by a bruiser called Thick, or Mr. Thick as he preferred, and he really didn’t want anyone living on his back porch, regardless of the paltry rent they paid. The rooms inside were rented too, for a few bucks here and there, to people so poor that Tee Ray and Jameel were at times thankful they lived outside. But winter was coming, and Tee Ray knew they had to move on. They had scratched out an existence on Mr. Thick’s sagging boards for two months, each day vowing to find another place.
But Tee Ray wasn’t working. He had been laid off from his job delivering seafood to high-end restaurants out in the suburbs. Another job had fallen through. Jobs were scarce in Little Angola. He was thirty-three, and according to the newspaper half the black men his age or younger were unemployed. Eventually, most drifted into drug trafficking. From there, they went either to prison or to the cemetery. Tee Ray was determined to avoid both. His life revolved around Jameel, who had just turned fourteen and was headed for the streets. Headed? He was already on the streets, and if they didn’t find a more stable place to live, the boy wouldn’t have a chance. His mother left him years ago; not that it mattered. She and Tee Ray had not bothered with anything close to marriage, and when the kid was four she disappeared.
Through a friend, Tee Ray met a crack runner called Tox. Real names were never used, only nicknames and aliases, and they sometimes changed weekly. Tox worked for an unnamed boss who took orders from someone else up the chain. Tee Ray didn’t know who the big boys were, nor did he care. The urban legend was that the crack that poured into Little Angola came from a Mexican cartel. The cocaine that flooded the white neighborhoods came from South America and was controlled by a local gangster, one who’d received the death penalty a year earlier.
Such matters were of little interest to Tee Ray. He was focused on survival. He’d been told that Tox was looking for an older guy, someone perhaps more dependable. The kids were used as the “cashiers,” the actual street dealers who handed over the goods as the customers handed over the cash. As the most vulnerable, they were the most likely to get busted. Their bosses worked in the shadows, always watching and ready to vanish. After a couple of years as a cashier, a kid savvy enough to avoid the cops would get himself promoted. Most, though, didn’t make it that far. Most were arrested, refused to talk, were processed through the criminal justice system, and got sent away.
Regardless of how broke he might be, Tee Ray had no plans to sell crack on the streets. He was, though, willing to move it around town, carry a gun, and take a few chances, and he was determined to survive. He would do it part-time, save some cash while looking for a real job, then move with Jameel out of Little Angola. But then everybody wanted out. Everybody wanted a job. Everybody wanted a better life away from the streets and drugs and violence and hopelessness. Tee Ray had a first cousin who worked in a tire factory, made $20 an hour, more with overtime, and had a wife who taught school. They lived in a modest tract house with flowers along the sidewalk and an aboveground pool in the back. That’s all Tee Ray wanted; nothing fancy, nothing rich. Just a dignified life built on honest labor.
Instead he was now muling crack around Little Angola on foot. He met Tox after dark in an abandoned warehouse at the end of a war-torn street that even the cops avoided. Other tough guys were moving in and out of small rooms, everyone glancing around with suspicion and no one saying much. A stray word or the wrong move might provoke gunfire. Tee Ray was acting tough because it was required, but inside his stomach was flipping. This was not where he wanted to be.
Tox said, “Nice coat. Where’d you get it?”
“Goodwill. Paid ten bucks for it. At least two sizes too big.” He took it off and dropped it on the floor.
“It’ll work. Here.” From a nail on a wall Tox lifted a bulky vest, customized with extra linings and pockets filled with small bags of rock. It felt as though it weighed twenty pounds. “A hundred bags,” Tox said.
“Where am I going?” Tee Ray asked as he slowly worked the overcoat over the vest.
“Not sure right now. The Bulls were spotted last night, so there might be trouble.” He handed Tee Ray a cheap, prepaid cell phone. “Keep that in your hand. You got a piece?”
Tee Ray reached into the right rear pocket of his jeans and produced a snub-nosed .38 with no serial number. Tox looked at it, shrugged as if it wasn’t much of a weapon, and said, “It’ll do. Just don’t use it unless you have to.”
Tee Ray almost said, “I’ve never used it,” but let it pass. He’d bought the gun from a street dealer two years earlier for protection. He couldn’t imagine actually shooting at someone. The Bulls were rival drug dealers known for their savagery, and Tee Ray felt weak in the knees. As if undercover cops weren’t enough to worry about, drug dealers also had to cope with rivals moving into their territory.
A year earlier, a now-famous drug deal in Little Angola had gone bad when two gangs and a bunch of narcs squared off in a raging gun battle in which, at times, it appeared as though everyone was shooting at everyone else. Three thugs were killed; one cop died; one was severely injured. For a month the editorials raged and the politicians railed, but after a year nothing had changed on the streets. Eight defendants were still awaiting trial. Crack was in high demand. Someone had to deliver it.
Tee Ray was certain he could avoid serious trouble, and he was determined not to use his gun. If he got caught and arrested, he would face his punishment like a man. But he would not, under any circumstances, kill anyone. He knew too many men who would die in prison. Trafficking could get you hard time, but using a gun could get you locked up forever.
He left the warehouse and drifted through the shadows and alleys of Little Angola. A chill was blowing in from the river; it was the coolest night of the season. He thought of Jameel and hoped the kid was where he was supposed to be—on the porch in a makeshift tent, reading a history lesson by the dim light of a small battery-powered lantern. If he wasn’t there, he would be at the YMCA playing basketball. He was already taller than Tee Ray, thin and limber and able to jump over the backboard. Scouts hung around the Y, and a couple had chatted with the kid. If he kept growing, he might escape the streets with an all-expenses-paid ticket to college. Tee Ray dreamed of this, but he wasn’t sure Jameel had visions of the big time. He wasn’t in love with the sport, wasn’t that motivated. Tee Ray feared his son might be one of those talented athletes who didn’t have the drive. Another head case too lazy to work.
Tee Ray’s phone vibrated. Tox told him to take a position near the river, at a place called Pier 40. Ten minutes later, Tee Ray eased into a public restroom, an empty, grimy place that reeked of too many strong odors to identify. A kid, wearing a Lakers cap, who looked to be about the same age as Jameel, walked in and said, “Tox said you got twenty.”
Tee Ray quickly handed over twenty bags. The kid was gone in seconds. Tee Ray waited in the only stall with a lock for five long minutes, then opened the door. If they had been seen, the kid was already handcuffed and the cops were waiting. But all was quiet. He hustled away, found an alley, and called Tox.
As he waited for instructions, he drifted across Little Angola. He checked the porch. Jameel was not there. He prayed he was at the Y. Tox called and told him to go to the Flea Market.
The Flea Market was a city block burned and leveled by the race riots of 1968. Over time most of the charred remains were bulldozed and cleared. All the owners were either dead, gone, or indifferent, and the city eventually planted some trees, built some pavilions, and put in sidewalks and a pond. It granted p
Current wisdom also required an occasional foray into the pit. If the dealers were not intimidated, they would grow bolder and expand their turf. Killing one or two a year became the sensible strategy.
Following instructions, Tee Ray walked to the southeast corner of the block, the darkest part of the Flea Market, an area where the streetlights were shot out with air rifles each time the city replaced them. Behind a row of empty stalls, Tee Ray met another nameless colleague. He dropped his Goodwill overcoat, removed the vest, handed it over, and quickly transferred his entire inventory in a matter of seconds. The man disappeared without a word, and Tee Ray grabbed his coat off the ground. He called Tox, who instructed him to return to the warehouse for another run.
Crump Street bordered the south side of the Flea Market and it was lined with cars parked for the night. Tee Ray was walking briskly along the sidewalk, trying to muster the courage to call Tox and tell him he was finished for now. He had just earned $300 and wanted to go find his son. A sudden movement to his left and across the street caught his attention. A figure jumped from between two cars and yelled, “Police! Freeze!”
Tee Ray froze and threw both hands into the air.
“On the ground!” the cop yelled, and Tee Ray went to his knees, his hands still as high as he could reach. The cop sprinted across the street and emerged on the sidewalk a hundred feet in front of Tee Ray. He was white and stocky and was wearing jeans, a Blackhawks jersey, a rapper’s cap, and combat boots, and he appeared to be alone. He clutched a black pistol with both hands and aimed at Tee Ray as he advanced. “Get down!” he yelled.
“Don’t shoot, man!” Tee Ray said.
The cop kept coming in a low, awkward crouch, as if dodging gunfire, then he fired. The first shot hit the sidewalk in front of Tee Ray and sprayed flecks of concrete into his face. “Don’t shoot!” Tee Ray screamed as he frantically waved his hands over his head. The second shot grazed the bulky right shoulder pad of his oversized Goodwill overcoat. The third shot nailed his left elbow and spun him around. He screamed in pain as he scrambled desperately to crawl under a parked car.
“Don’t move!” the cop yelled. He fired again, and the fourth shot hit the side of the car. Tee Ray managed to get his .38 out of his pocket. He fired twice. The first shot missed everything. The second shot, a miracle, hit his assailant in the right eye.
Buck Lester had been an Eagle Scout, an honor student, an all-state wrestler, and a decorated Marine. He had crammed a lot into his twenty-eight years and had joined the police force after spending six boring months behind a desk. His time in Iraq had instilled a need for excitement, and once he became a cop he had quickly completed SWAT training and landed a spot on the undercover narcotics unit.
Narcs never work alone. Never. But on the night Buck was killed, his partner was spending half an hour with his favorite street hooker in a flophouse not far from the Flea Market. Alone, Buck became bored and got tired of waiting. He crept through the streets of Little Angola, with one eye on the southeast corner of the Flea Market. He had been ordered to make a couple of arrests that night. A quota needed to be filled. When he saw the black guy with the oversized overcoat, he knew he had a mule.
His partner’s name was Keith Knoxel, a ten-year veteran with a thick disciplinary file. Knoxel had finished his business with the girl and was walking toward the Flea Market to find Buck. He heard voices close by, then gunfire, and ran to find it. Buck was on the ground, twitching, when Knoxel arrived. Knoxel aimed his gun at the black guy, who was crouched on the curb near a car.
He wished a thousand times he’d pulled the trigger.
The black guy stood, leaned on a car, tossed his weapon, threw up his hands, and said, “He tried to kill me, man.”
“Shut up!” Knoxel yelled.
Tee Ray’s elbow was burning and bleeding. To keep from getting shot again, he fell forward and lay facedown on the sidewalk, arms and legs spread as wide as possible. He was aware that the second cop picked up his gun. He was aware that the first one was groaning and gasping, the low, sick sounds of someone breathing their last. The second cop was barking into his radio.
Soon enough, Tee Ray heard sirens.
Sebastian Rudd’s law office had once been a Moose Lodge, then a tattoo parlor, then a bar that catered to low-end lawyers. The high-end crowd gathered for drinks in the fancy clubs atop the tall buildings where they worked or in the private clubs in midtown, places few street lawyers would ever be welcome. And that was fine with the street lawyers, as it was with the big-firm boys.
When the bar went down in a foreclosure, Sebastian finagled a loan and bought the building. It wasn’t much of a structure, more of an old clapboard house with additions stuck hither and yon, but what it lacked in architectural virtuosity was more than made up for in location. It was directly across the street from the city jail, a hideous, monolithic high-rise with inmates on fifteen floors and cops and lawyers crawling like ants around its doors.
Just down the street was the Old Courthouse, the heart of the city’s judicial system. Around the corner was the federal building, it too packed with courtrooms and judges and lawyers. One block over was the Central Police Station, another beehive of endless activity. And scattered conveniently among these buildings were all manner of shops owned and rented by bail bondsmen, private investigators, and street lawyers.
Sebastian Rudd was one of many. Ten years out of law school, he was steadily gaining the reputation of a lawyer who wasn’t afraid of the courtroom. Though no one kept score, he’d probably had more jury trials than any other lawyer his age. Almost all his clients were criminal defendants, most of whom Sebastian represented because he wanted the courtroom experience. He had plenty of business, though he longed for clients who could pay nice fees. They would come, he kept telling himself. Build your reputation as a skilled courtroom advocate, and you’ll never lack for clients.
Early in his career, Sebastian had realized that most lawyers, even his street brethren, really didn’t want to face juries. They talked a good game. They liked to brag about their trial calendars. They bored each other with tales of courtroom heroics. But, as Sebastian learned, trial work is incredibly stressful. It’s impossible to have a good time when a jury is in place, and most lawyers preferred just to talk about trial work. They hustled about the courtrooms making deals and plea agreements, getting motions and orders signed, and doing all manner of frantic legal work to make a buck. But give them a deadline facing a jury, and most would manage to avoid it.
Not Sebastian Rudd. He’d gotten his face in the newspaper a few times and he liked it. He’d won a couple of criminal cases no one else would take. His phone was ringing. His office was busy. He wasn’t getting rich, but he was paying his bills and driving a nice little BMW, pre-owned.
His latest secretary was named Rachel, a cute twenty-year-old who wanted to become a lawyer. She was single. Sebastian was divorced. She’d been there a month and the sexual tension was growing each day. Something was about to happen. She walked into his office on a Thursday morning and said, “You’ll never guess who just called.”
“I have to be in court in ten minutes,” Sebastian said, the same thing he said at least five times a week. “Who?”
“No name, but he asked if Mr. Rude, not Rudd, would be in a position to
Sebastian’s jaw dropped. His heart froze. He fell back into his leather swivel and stared at Rachel. He finally managed to mumble, “You gotta be kidding.”
For three days, Mr. Thomas Ray Cardell had been front-page news in the Chronicle. Tee Ray, as he was known in Little Angola, was in jail, in protective custody actually, and charged with the capital murder of Officer Buck Lester. After three days of nonstop and one-sided coverage, it was well known that the drug dealer murdered the cop in a savage, execution-style killing. One report had Buck begging for his life.
“I’m not sure I want to get involved in this one,” Sebastian mumbled.
“He’s waiting for your call.”
“Did he say anything else?”
“No. A man of few words.” She turned around and headed for the door. Sebastian, as always, watched every step. Though he wasn’t sure, he believed the skirts had gotten tighter during her first month.
She closed the door. He took a deep breath, stared at the phone number, refocused, and told himself not to make the call. As a criminal defense lawyer, and one known as a brawler, he had crossed the line with the police, and there was no turning back. He had challenged their credibility in court. He’d caught them cheating. He’d called them liars when they were lying. He’d complained to their superiors. He fought for his clients, most of whom were guilty, and to the cops Rudd and his ilk were no better than the scum they represented. This, though, was different. The cold-blooded murder of a brave keeper of the peace, a decorated soldier, and a local boy at that was a crime so repulsive that no lawyer in his right mind would go near it. His reputation could be ruined. Threats and intimidation were practically guaranteed.
Thomas Ray Cardell was indeed entitled to a lawyer. That’s why the city funded the Office of the Public Defender. The PD had no choice.
Sebastian picked up the phone and dialed the number.
Partners by John Grisham / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4.3 out of 5 / Based on43 votes