The Guardians: The explosive new thriller from international bestseller John Grisham (3 page)

Since we are in rural Alabama, we greet each other with a proper handshake, as opposed to a man hug we might otherwise consider. Two men, one black and the other white, hugging in a crowded truck stop might attract a look or two, not that we really care. Frankie has more money than all these guys combined, and he’s still lean and quick from his prison days. He doesn’t start fights. He simply has the air and confidence to discourage them.

“Congrats,” he says. “That was pretty close.”

“Duke had just started his last meal when the call came. Had to eat in a hurry.”

“But you seemed confident.”

“I was faking, the old tough lawyer routine. Inside, my guts were boiling.”

“Speaking of which. I’m sure you’re starving.”

“Yes, I am. I called Carter as I left the prison. Couldn’t help myself.”

He frowns slightly and says, “Okay. I’m sure there was a reason.”

“Not a good one. I was just too pissed not to. The guy was sitting there counting the minutes until Duke got the needle. Can you imagine what that’s like, being the real killer and silently cheering from the sideline as somebody else is executed? We gotta nail him, Frankie.”

“We will.”

A waitress appears and I order eggs and coffee. Frankie wants pancakes and sausage.

He knows as much about my cases as I do. He reads every file, memo, report, and trial transcript. Fun for Frankie is easing into a place like Verona, Alabama, where no one has ever seen him, and digging for information. He’s fearless but he never takes chances because he is not going to get caught. His new life is too good, his freedom especially valuable because he suffered so long without it.

“We have to get Carter’s DNA,” I say. “One way or the other.”

“I know, I know. I’m working on it. You need some rest, boss.”

“Don’t I always? And, as we well know, being the lawyer I can’t obtain his DNA by illegal means.”

“But
I
can, right?” He smiles and sips his coffee. The waitress delivers mine and fills the cup.

“Maybe. Let’s discuss it later. For the next few weeks, he’ll be spooked because of my call. Good for him. He’ll make a mistake at some point and we’ll be there.”

“Where are you headed now?”

“Savannah. I’ll be there for a couple of days, then head to Florida.”

“Florida. Seabrook?”

“Yes, Seabrook. I’ve decided to take the case.”

Frankie’s face never reveals much. His eyes seldom blink, his voice is steady and flat as if he’s measuring every word. Survival in prison required a poker face. Long stretches of solitude were common. “Are you sure?” he asks. It’s obvious he has doubts about Seabrook.

“The guy is innocent, Frankie. And he has no lawyer.”

The platters arrive and we busy ourselves with butter, syrup, and hot sauce. The Seabrook case has been in our office for almost three years as we, the staff, have debated whether or not to get involved. That’s not unusual in our business. Not surprisingly, Guardian is inundated with mail from inmates in fifty states, all claiming to be innocent. The vast majority are not, so we screen and screen and pick and choose with care, and take only those with the strongest claims of innocence. And we still make mistakes.

Frankie says, “That could be a pretty dangerous situation down there.”

“I know. We’ve kicked this around for a long time. Meanwhile he’s counting his days, serving someone else’s time.”

He chews on pancakes and nods slightly, still unconvinced.

I ask, “When have we ever run from a good fight, Frankie?”

“Maybe this is the time to take a pass. You decline cases every day, right? Maybe this is more dangerous than all the others. God knows you have enough potential clients out there.”

“Are you getting soft?”

“No. I just don’t want to see you hurt. No one ever sees me, Cullen. I live and work in the shadows. But your name is on the pleadings. You start digging around in an awful place like Seabrook and you could upset some nasty characters.”

I smile and say, “All the more reason to do it.”

The sun is up when we leave the café. In the parking lot we do a proper man hug and say farewell. I have no idea which direction he is headed, and that’s the beautiful thing about Frankie. He wakes up free every morning, thanks God for his good fortune, gets in his late-model pickup truck with a club cab, and follows the sun.

His freedom invigorates me and keeps me going. If not for Guardian Ministries, he would still be rotting away.

Chapter 3

There is no direct route between Opelika, Alabama, and Savannah. I leave the interstate and begin meandering through central Georgia on two-lane roads that get busier with the morning. I’ve been here before. In the past ten years I’ve roamed virtually every highway throughout the Death Belt, from North Carolina to Texas. Once I almost took a case in California, but Vicki nixed it. I don’t like airports and Guardian couldn’t afford to fly me back and forth. So I drive for long stretches of time, with lots of black coffee and books on tape. And I alternate between periods of deep, quiet thought and frantic bouts with the phone.

In a small town, I pass the county courthouse and watch three young lawyers in their best suits hustle into the building, no doubt headed for an important matter. That could have been me, not too long ago.

I was thirty years old when I quit the law for the first time, and for a good reason.

That morning began with the sickening news that two sixteen-year-old white kids had been found dead with their throats cut. Both had been sexually mutilated. Evidently they were parked in a remote section of the county when they were jumped by a group of black teenagers who took their car. Hours later the car was found. Someone inside the gang was talking. Arrests were being made. Details were being reported.

Such was the standard fare for early morning news in Memphis. Last night’s violence was reported to a jaded audience who lived with the great question: “How much more can we take?” However, even for Memphis this news was shocking.

Brooke and I watched it in bed with our first cups of coffee, as usual. After the first report, I mumbled, “This could be awful.”

“It
is
awful,” she corrected me.

“You know what I mean.”

“Will you get one of them?”

“Start praying now,” I said. By the time I stepped into the shower I was feeling ill and scheming of ways to avoid the office. I had no appetite and skipped breakfast. On the way out, the phone rang. My supervisor told me to hurry. I kissed Brooke goodbye and said, “Wish me luck. This will be a long day.”

The office of the public defender is downtown in the Criminal Justice Complex. When I walked in at eight o’clock the place was like a morgue. Everyone seemed to be cowering in their offices and trying to avoid eye contact. Minutes later, our supervisor called us into a conference room. There were six of us in Major Crimes, and since we worked in Memphis we had plenty of clients. At thirty, I was the youngest, and as I looked around the room I knew my number was about to be called.

Our boss said, “There appear to be five of them, all now locked up. Ages fifteen to seventeen. Two agreed to talk. Seems they found the kids in the back seat of the boy’s car, having a go at it. Four of the five defendants are aspiring gang members, Ravens, and to be properly inducted one has to rape a white girl. One with blond hair. Crissy Spangler was a blonde. The leader, one Lamar Robinson, gave the orders. The boy, Will Foster, was tied to a tree and made to watch as they took turns with Crissy. When he wouldn’t shut up, they mutilated him and cut his throat. Photos are on the way over from Memphis Police.”

The six of us stood in muted horror as reality set in. I glanced at a window with a latch. Jumping headfirst onto the parking lot seemed like a reasonable thing to do.

He continued, “They took Will’s car, ran a red light on South Third, smart boys. The police stopped three of them, noticed blood, and brought them in. Two started talking and gave the details. They claimed the others did it but their confessions implicate all five. Autopsies are underway this morning. Needless to say, we are involved up to our ears. Initial appearances are set for two this afternoon and it is going to be a circus. Reporters are everywhere and details are leaking out like crazy.”

I inched closer to the window. I heard him say, “Post, you’ve got a fifteen-year-old named Terrence Lattimore. As far as we know, he hasn’t said anything.”

When the other assignments were made, the supervisor said, “Get to the jail right now and meet your new clients. Inform the police that they are not to be interrogated outside your presence. These are gang members and they will probably not cooperate, not this early anyway.”

When he finished, he looked at each of us, the unlucky ones, and said, “I’m sorry.”

An hour later I was walking through the entrance to the city jail when someone, probably a reporter, yelled, “Do you represent one of these murderers?”

I pretended to ignore her and kept walking.

When I entered the small holding room, Terrence Lattimore was cuffed at the wrists and ankles and chained to a metal chair. When we were alone I explained that I had been assigned his case and needed to ask some questions, just basic stuff for starters. I got nothing but a smirk and a glare. He may have been only fifteen years old, but he was a tough kid who had seen it all. Battle-hardened in the ways of gangs, drugs, and violence. He hated me and everyone else with white skin. He said he didn’t have an address and told me to stay away from his family. His rap sheet included two school expulsions and four charges in juvenile court, all involving violence.

By noon I was ready to resign and go look for another job. When I joined the PD’s office three years earlier I did so only when I couldn’t find work with a firm. And after three years of toiling in the gutter of our criminal justice system, I was asking myself serious questions about why I had chosen law school. I really couldn’t remember. My career brought me into daily contact with people I wouldn’t get near outside of court.

Lunch was out of the question because no one could possibly choke down food. The five of us who had been chosen met with the supervisor and looked at the crime scene photos and autopsy reports. Any food in my stomach would have gone to the floor.

What the hell was I doing with my life? As a criminal defense lawyer, I was already sick of the question “How can you represent a person you know to be guilty?” I had always offered the standard law school response of, “Well, everyone has the right to a proper defense. The Constitution says so.”

But I no longer believed that. The truth is that there are some crimes that are so heinous and cruel that the killer should either be (1) put to death, if one believes in the death penalty, or (2) put away for life, if one does not believe in the death penalty. As I left that awful meeting, I wasn’t sure what I believed anymore.

I went to my cubbyhole of an office, which at least had a door that could be locked. From my window I looked at the pavement below and envisioned myself jumping and floating safely away to some exotic beach where life was splendid and all I worried about was the next cold drink. Oddly, Brooke wasn’t with me in the dream. My desk phone snapped me out of it.

I had been hallucinating, not dreaming. Everything was suddenly in slow motion and I had trouble saying, “Hello.” The voice identified itself as a reporter and she just had a few questions about the murders. As if I’m going to discuss the case with her. I hung up. An hour passed and I don’t remember doing anything. I was numb and sick and just wanted to run from the building. I remembered to call Brooke and pass along the terrible news that I had one of the five.

The first appearance at 2:00 p.m. was moved from a small courtroom to a larger one, and it still wasn’t big enough. Because of its crime rate, Memphis had a lot of cops, and most of them were in the building that afternoon. They blocked the doors and searched every reporter and spectator. In the courtroom, they stood two abreast down the center aisle and lined the three walls.

Will Foster’s cousin was a Memphis city fireman. He arrived with a group of colleagues and they seemed ready to attack at any moment. A few blacks drifted to a rear corner of the other side, as far away from the victims’ families as possible. Reporters were everywhere, but without cameras. Lawyers who had no business being there milled about, curious.

I entered the jury room through a service entrance and eased through a door for a look at the throng. The place was packed. The tension was thick, palpable.

The judge took the bench and called for order. The five defendants were brought in, all in matching orange jumpsuits, all chained together. The spectators gawked at this first sighting. The artists scribbled away. More cops formed a line behind the five as a shield. The defendants stood before the bench, all studying their feet. A loud, strong voice from the rear yelled, “Turn ’em loose, dammit! Turn ’em loose!” Cops scrambled to silence him.

A woman shrieked, in tears.

I moved to a position behind Terrence Lattimore, along with my four colleagues. As I did so, I glanced at the people sitting together on the two front rows. They were obviously close to the victims, and they looked at me with sheer hatred.

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