The Guardians: The explosive new thriller from international bestseller John Grisham (12 page)

BOOK: The Guardians: The explosive new thriller from international bestseller John Grisham
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He shakes his head. “Not really. I wasn’t there very long and, as I said, sort of left in a hurry. It was not the highlight of my career.”

“Did you know a deputy named Kenny Taft?”

“Sure, knew ’em all, some better than others. When he got killed I read about it in the newspapers. I was in Gainesville doing narcotics. I remember his photo. Good guy. Why are you curious about him?”

“Right now, Mr. McKnatt, I’m curious about everything. Kenny Taft was the only black deputy working for Pfitzner.”

“Drug thugs don’t care if you’re black or white, especially in a gun battle.”

“You’re right about that. Just curious if you knew him.”

An elderly gent in shorts, black socks, and red sneakers approaches and sets two paper cups of lemonade on our table. McKnatt says, “Well, thank you, Herbie. It’s about time.”

Herbie snaps, “I’ll send you the bill,” and moves on. We sip our drinks and watch the slow-motion shuffleboard.

McKnatt asks, “So, if your boy Miller didn’t kill Russo, who did?”

“I have no idea, and we’ll probably never know. My job is to prove Miller didn’t do it.”

He shakes his head and smiles. “Good luck. If somebody else did it, then he’s had twenty-plus years to run away and hide. Talk about a cold case.”

“Ice cold,” I agree with a smile. “But then all of my cases are like this.”

“And this is all you do? Solve old cases and get people out of prison?”

“That’s it.”

“How many?”

“Eight, in the past ten years.”

“And all eight were innocent?”

“Yes, as innocent as you and me.”

“How many times have you found the real killer?”

“Not all were murders, but in four of the cases we identified the guilty parties.”

“Well, good luck with this one.”

“Thanks. I’ll need it.” I move the conversation to sports. He’s a real Gators fan and proud that his basketball team is winning. We touch on the weather, retirement, a bit of politics. McKnatt is not the sharpest guy I’ve met and seems to have little interest in Russo’s murder.

After an hour, I thank him for his time and ask if I can come back. Certainly, he says, eager to have a visitor.

Driving away, I’m struck by the fact that he offered no warning about Seabrook and its shady history. Though he clearly has no affection for Sheriff Pfitzner, he did not offer the slightest hint of corruption.

There is more to his story.

Chapter 14

Two months into a slow start, we get our first break. It comes with a phone call from Carrie Holland Pruitt, and she wants to talk. I leave before dawn on a Sunday morning and drive six hours to Dalton, Georgia, about halfway between Savannah and Kingsport, Tennessee. The truck stop is just off Interstate 75 and it’s one I’ve been to before. I park with a view of the entrance and wait on Frankie Tatum. We chat on the phone and twenty minutes later he parks near me. I watch as he enters the restaurant.

Inside he selects a booth near the rear and orders coffee and a sandwich and opens a newspaper. On the table next to the wall is the usual assortment of condiments and a dispenser with paper napkins. With the newspaper as a shield, he removes the salt and pepper shakers and replaces them with our own versions, cheap stuff from any grocery store. At the bottom of our salt shaker is a recording device. When his sandwich arrives, he sprinkles some salt to make sure there is nothing suspicious. He texts me and says all is well, the place is not that crowded.

At 1:00 p.m., our agreed-upon meeting time, I text Frankie and tell him to eat slow. There is no sign of either Buck’s pickup or Carrie Pruitt’s Honda. I have their color photos in my file and I’ve memorized their Tennessee license plate numbers. At 1:15, I watch the truck slow on the exit ramp and text Frankie. I get out of my SUV, walk into the restaurant, and see Frankie at the counter paying his bill. A waitress is clearing his table and I ask if it’s okay to sit there.

Carrie has brought Buck with her, which is a good sign. She’s obviously told him her backstory and needs his support. He’s a burly guy with thick arms and a graying beard and, I assume wrongly, a short fuse. As soon as they walk in the door, I jump up and wave them over. We make awkward introductions and I motion to the table. I thank her for the meeting and insist that they order lunch. I’m starving myself and ask for eggs and coffee. They order burgers and fries.

Buck stares at me with many doubts. Before I can get to the point he says, “We checked you out online. Guardian Ministries. You a preacher or a lawyer?”

“Both,” I say with a winning smile and then ramble a bit about my background.

He says proudly, “My daddy was a preacher, you know?”

Oh, we know. Four years ago, his daddy retired after thirty years at a small country church far outside of Blountville. I feign interest and we tiptoe around theology lite. I suspect Buck strayed from the faith a long time ago. In spite of his rustic appearance, he has a soft voice and a pleasant manner.

Carrie says, “For a lot of reasons, Mr. Post, I’ve never told Buck much about my past.”

“Please, it’s just Post,” I say. She smiles and I’m once again struck by her pretty eyes and strong features. She’s wearing makeup and has pulled back her blond hair, and in a different life her looks could have opened more promising doors.

Buck says, “Okay, first things first. How do we know that we can trust you?” He is asking this of a man who’s secretly recording them.

Before I can respond, he says, “I mean, Carrie told me what happened back then, what she did, and obviously we’re concerned or we wouldn’t be here. But this looks like trouble to me.”

She asks, “What do you really want?”

“The truth,” I say.

“You ain’t wearing no wire or anything like that, are you?” Buck asks.

I snort at this and raise my hands as if I have nothing to hide. “Come on, I’m not a cop. You want to pat me down, go ahead.”

The waitress arrives with more coffee and we clam up. When she’s gone I take the initiative. “No, I’m not wearing a wire. I don’t operate like that. What I want is simple. Ideally, you tell me the truth, then sign an affidavit that I may one day use to help Quincy Miller. I’m also talking to the other witnesses and trying to get the same thing—the truth. I know that much of the testimony at trial was fabricated by the cops and prosecutor, and I’m just trying to piece it all together. Your statement will certainly help, but it’s just one part of the big picture.”

“What’s an affidavit?” Buck asks.

“Just a sworn statement, under oath. I’ll prepare it and you guys review it. Then I’ll keep it under wraps until it’s needed. No one around Kingsport will ever know. Seabrook is too far away.”

“Do I have to go to a courtroom?” she asks.

“Unlikely. Let’s assume I can convince a judge that Quincy did not get a fair trial. That, frankly, is a long shot. But if it happens, then there is the remote possibility that the prosecutor will decide to try him again for the murder. That could be years down the road. If so, you could be called as a witness, which is quite unlikely because you did not see a black man running from the scene, right?”

She doesn’t nod or say anything for a moment. Our plates arrive and we prepare our food. Buck likes ketchup. Neither wants salt or pepper. I sprinkle salt on my eggs and place the shaker in the center of the table.

Carrie nibbles on a French fry and avoids eye contact. Buck chomps on his burger. They’ve obviously talked about the situation at length without making a decision. She needs prodding and I ask, “Who convinced you to testify? Sheriff Pfitzner?”

She says, “Look, Mr. Post, I’ll talk to you and tell you what happened, but I’m not sold on the idea of getting involved. I’m gonna think long and hard before I sign any affidavit.”

“You can’t repeat what she says, can you?” Buck asks as he wipes his mouth with a paper napkin.

“I can’t repeat it in court, if that’s what you’re asking. I can talk to my staff about it, but that’s as far as I can go. Any judge will require an affidavit from a witness.”

“I’m worried about my boys,” she says. “They don’t know. I’d be ashamed if they found out their mother lied in court and sent a man to prison.”

I reply, “I understand that, Carrie, and you should be concerned. But there’s also the likelihood that they will be proud of the fact that you came forward to help free an innocent man. We all did bad things when we were twenty, but some mistakes can be corrected. You’re worried about your boys. Think about Quincy Miller. He has three kids he hasn’t seen in twenty-two years. And five grandchildren he’s never seen, not even in a photograph.”

They absorb this and stop eating for a moment. They are overwhelmed and frightened, but the wheels are turning. I say, “We have the records and they tell us that your drug charge was dismissed a few months after the trial. Pfitzner convinced you to take the stand, tell your story, and the prosecutor promised to lose the drug charge, right?”

She breathes deeply and looks at Buck, who shrugs and says, “Go ahead. We didn’t drive five hours for cheeseburgers.”

She tries to drink from her coffee cup but her hands are shaking. She puts it down and shoves her plate a few inches away. Staring straight ahead, she says, “I was dating a deputy named Lonnie. We were doing drugs, lots of drugs. I got caught but he kept me out of jail. Then the lawyer got murdered and a few weeks later Lonnie told me he had things worked out. If I would claim that I saw a black man running away from the lawyer’s office, then the drug charge would get dismissed. Just like that. So he took me down to Pfitzner’s office and I told my story. The next day, Lonnie and Pfitzner took me to see the prosecutor, can’t remember his name.”

“Burkhead, Forrest Burkhead.”

“That’s him. And I told the story again. He recorded me, but didn’t say a thing about the drug charge. When I asked Lonnie about it later, he said the deal had been worked out between Pfitzner and Burkhead, not to worry. Lonnie and I were fighting, mainly about the drugs. I’ve been clean and sober for fourteen years now, Mr. Post.”

“That’s wonderful. Congratulations.”

“Buck got me through it.”

Buck said, “I like my beer but always stayed away from drugs. I knew my daddy would shoot me.”

“Anyway, they took me to Butler County for the trial and I testified. I felt rotten about it but I really didn’t want to spend a lot of time in jail. I figured it was either me or Quincy Miller and I’ve always been loyal to me. Every dog for himself, you know? Over the years I’ve tried to forget about the trial. That young lawyer made a fool out of me.”

“Tyler Townsend.”

“That’s him. I’ll never forget him.”

“And then you left town?”

“Yes sir. As soon as the trial was over, Pfitzner called me to his office, thanked me, gave me a thousand dollars in cash and told me to get lost. Said if I came back to Florida within five years he’d have me arrested for lying to the jury. Can you believe that? A deputy drove me to Gainesville and put me on the bus to Atlanta. Never been back and don’t want to go. I didn’t even tell my friends where I was. Didn’t have many. It was an easy place to leave.”

Buck wants some credit and says, “When she first told me about this a few weeks ago, I said, ‘You gotta tell the truth, babe. That man’s been locked up because of you.’ ”

“There’s still a drug charge on your record,” I say.

“That was the first one, a year before.”

“You should get it expunged.”

“I know, but it was a long time ago. Buck and I are doing okay these days. We both work hard and pay our bills. I don’t really want to be bothered with the past, Mr. Post.”

“If she signs the affidavit, can they get her for perjury in Florida?” Buck asks.

“No, the statute of limitations has run out. Besides, no one really cares anymore. There’s a new sheriff, new prosecutor, new judge.”

“When will all this happen?” she asks, obviously relieved now that she’s told the truth.

“It’s a slow process, could take months or years, if it happens at all. First you have to sign the affidavit.”

“She’ll sign it,” Buck says, then takes another bite. With his mouth full, he adds, “Won’t you, babe?”

“I gotta think about it,” she says.

Buck says, “Look, if we have to go to Florida, then I’ll drive you down there and punch anybody who causes trouble.”

“There will be no trouble, I can assure you. The only downside for you, Carrie, is telling your sons. The rest of your family and your friends will probably never know. If Quincy Miller walked out of prison tomorrow, who in Kingsport, Tennessee, would hear about it?”

Buck nods in agreement and takes another bite. Carrie picks up another fry. Buck says, “They’re good boys, her two. I got a couple of wild ones, but Carrie’s are fine boys. Hell, like you say, I’ll bet they’ll be proud of you, babe.”

She smiles but I’m not sure she’s convinced. Buck, my new ally, is confident.

I finish my eggs and begin prodding her about the drug scene in Seabrook back then. Cocaine and pot were the preferred choices, and Lonnie always had a supply. Their romance was on and off and she did not spend time with the other deputies, though some were known to deal in small quantities. She claims she knew nothing about Pfitzner’s alleged role in the trade.

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