Leslie Dancroft reviewed her notes beside a box of Kleenex and a large accordion file folder on the steel table inside the muted interview room. Her somber mood exacerbated by the gray concrete walls and dim lighting, she faced the ambiguity of an observation mirror and her own diluted sense of justice as she waited for Morallen’s arrival. What she knew to be true, she could live with. What she didn’t know kept her up at night, toiling over the case she refused to relinquish despite George’s instructions to the contrary.
She found no hard evidence to support Manny Morallen’s version of events leading up to Deputy Carter’s murder. Without something tangible to balance the scales, her defense was dead in the water. Morallen, a career criminal who’d pimp his own grandmother to keep himself out of jail, gave a statement that held no weight in court. And despite his caustic demeanor and self-proclaimed loathing of men in uniform, Morallen appeared to have the one thing the majority of her client’s lacked—a conscience. Nonetheless, eighteen years of courtroom experience convinced her that Morallen’s jury would conclude their deliberations in the time it took to order lunch. The verdict—guilty as charged with a minimum sentence of life without parole and a push from the state attorney for the death penalty.
She read Blanchart’s report over and over, searching for a discrepancy she could parlay into reasonable doubt. Compelled to follow the truth wherever it led her, she refused to give up, prepared to dig in and fight before she pinned her client’s fate on a miracle.
More than twenty minutes late, Morallen finally arrived in his orange jumpsuit and restraints. His pork chop sideburns grew ragged on his face, replete with a black eye and substantial facial bruising.
“You’re late.” Leslie spoke through a stuffy nose. “We don’t have a lot of time.” She signaled for the armed escort to leave the room before she introduced her digital voice recorder.
“What are you doing here?” Morallen grumbled.
“What happened to your face?”
“I fell down the stairs.”
“In a single story jail?”
“I’ll talk to someone—”
“Don’t,” Morallen insisted. “I can handle my own in here.”
“Who did this to you?”
Morallen turned away from the mirror. “What do you want?”
“I need to ask you some more questions about your statement.”
Morallen put his handcuffed hands on the table. “It’s your dime.”
“How did you come to know Leeland Marks?”
“What’s it matter?”
“How did you get involved with him?”
Morallen rubbed his chin. “We did time together. He offered me a job when I got back to the world. I took it.”
Leslie retrieved the crime scene photos from a folder and spread them on the table. “What do you see in these pictures?”
“This some kind of trick question?” Morallen asked. He stifled a yawn, and she realized his jaw hurt too much to let it out.
“Look at the photos,” Leslie prompted him.
Morallen gave a cursory glance. “That’s Hugo and the dead cop.”
“How can you be certain about the cop with half his face shot off?”
“Because only two cops were there. And the other one’s still breathing.”
“Do you recognize the shotgun in the photo?”
“Yes or no.”
“It looks like Hugo’s gun.”
Leslie moved the first set of photos to make room on the table. “Is it possible that Hugo shot Deputy Carter before he shot himself?”
Morallen leaned across the table. He whispered in an angry tone. “Lady, how many times can I tell you? Hugo didn’t kill no one but himself.”
Leslie sneezed into a tissue. She blew her puffy nose and showed a photo of Vince Parr in the morgue. “Do you recognize this man?”
“What are you? Some kind of detective?”
Leslie persisted. “Do you recognize him or not?”
“Yeah. I seen him before. His name’s Parr. What’s he got to do with me?”
“The sheriff’s department found him dead on the side of the road three days ago. Victim of a hit and run. Turns out his prints were also found in the house on Lipscomb Street.”
“Maybe Vince Parr was in the house with you when Carter was killed. Maybe he saw something he shouldn’t have. And maybe you had him killed to keep him quiet.”
“From inside this joint?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time someone ordered a hit from behind bars.”
“Lady I’m just a cook. I ain’t got that kind of juice.”
“Then who does?”
“How the fuck should I know?” said Morallen. “I only met Parr a couple times. The dude was messed up. That’s all I can tell you.”
Leslie cleared her throat again. She yearned for the bottled water the officer confiscated before she passed through the metal detectors. “What was your connection to Parr?”
“Parr delivered the materials. Hugo and me cooked the shit.”
“And the three of you worked for Leeland Marks?”
“Something like that.”
“Was Leeland Marks in the house when Carter was killed?”
Morallen glanced at the camera in the ceiling. “Marks never got his hands dirty. He was all about the business end. Like a silent partner. He was the money man. Never touched the product himself. Had a niece who overdosed on meth and croaked. Said he’d never sell to kids again.”
“Real humanitarian,” Leslie mumbled to herself.
Leslie rolled her eyes and jotted notes on her legal pad. “Never mind.”
Morallen lowered his voice. “You think we could pin this murder rap on Marks?”
“I think it’s something we could sell the jury.” Leslie gathered the crime scene photos. Given Morallen’s criminal background, she had reason to doubt him, yet she trusted his statements. Why exactly, she couldn’t say at the moment, but her instincts told her Morallen had something to hide. They also told her he stopped short at murder.
She pulled a copy of the state’s lab report. “One more thing… When you were arrested, the sheriff’s office tested your hands for the presence of gunshot residue. The good news is, the results came back negative. The bad news is that the sheriff’s office didn’t test you until they found you two days after Carter was shot. The prosecution will argue that you had ample time to wash the evidence away before you were taken into custody.” She blew her nose and reviewed the highlighted text at the bottom of the page. “The lab also found traces of GSR on your shirt.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you either fired a weapon, or you were standing next to someone who did.”
“I told you I was hiding in the attic when the shit went down.”
“Then how do you explain the gun powder residue on your shirt?”
“I can’t. I didn’t shoot no one.” Morallen pointed to the accordion file holder. “You got my mug shot in there?”
Leslie searched the alphabetized holder and laid the black and white photo on the table.
“That’s not my shirt,” Morallen proclaimed. “I mean that’s the shirt I was wearing when they busted me, but that’s not the shirt I had on at the house.”
“Are you sure?”
“I tossed it in a dumpster so the dogs couldn’t track me.”
“Did you ever fire a gun while you were wearing that shirt?”
“Are you certain?”
“Yes. Does this mean my case gets tossed out?”
“Not exactly. But it’s a win for us.”
Leslie gathered Morallen’s photo in her folder. She had experience with dirty clients. Dirty cops were another animal altogether. If Blanchart was somehow involved in Carter’s murder, she needed more than a convicted felon’s testimony and a pile of circumstantial evidence.
“So now what?” Morallen asked.
“Sit tight a little longer. Someone posted your bail this morning.”
Lloyd splashed cold water on his face in the restroom at Sonny’s. He wiped a paper towel on his sunburned skin, grateful for the paycheck and supremely hungry for food that didn’t come in a plastic carton. Burdened by the circumstances of his father’s death, he yearned for an explanation from the man who lay buried beneath the earth. But that conversation would have to wait. He had his whole life ahead of him with no intention of an early exit.
Where his father failed to teach him about the ways of the world, prison filled in the gaps. From the second he stepped out of the transport bus, he discovered how life behind bars preached its own set of unspoken rules and consequences. Rapes, murders, and perpetual threats defined the norm in a closed society governed by those in power—and feared by those who lacked the courage to stand tall and face their troubles, real or imagined.
Some problems he left behind; others he carried with him for the long haul, unable to shake the guilty conscience that metastasized from his core beliefs and hindered his ability to carve a better life for himself. A life with dignity and purpose. A life without remorse for the savage acts of self-defense that shielded him from larger predators who broke the spirit of frightened inmates and turned weaker men into slaves. What happens in here today, defines who you are tomorrow, his cell-mate would preach. A man with nothing to lose has nothing to fear. A man with nothing to fear commands respect.
Outside the restroom, Lloyd pulled his time card from the rack on the wall near Sonny’s office and poked his head in the customer waiting room to find the last person he expected to see.
Jamie poured coffee in a paper cup. Startled by the loud cha-chink from the time card machine, she bumped the coffee pot on the counter and splashed the back of her hand.
Lloyd grabbed a stack of napkins by the counter. “Did it get you?”
“I’m fine,” said Jamie. Her hand throbbed from the scalding burn, but the initial pain wore off quickly, courtesy of the mild sedative in her system.
Lloyd offered the napkins. “You should run that under cold water.”
Lloyd fed a dollar in the drink machine and pressed the button for a twenty-ounce Dasani. He gave the cold bottle to Jamie. “Hold this on your hand. It will take the sting away.”
“You keep it,” said Jamie, noting Lloyd’s sweat-soaked shirt. “You look like you need it more than I do.”
Lloyd sniffed the air. Immune to his own fragrance after working in the sun all day, he felt nervous and euphoric at the same time, as if he jumped from an airplane naked. “I’m Lloyd,” he said, his smile beaming at Jamie. “You’ve been here twice this week, and I still don’t know your name.”
“Do you know all your customers by name?”
“Only the ones that matter.”
Jamie blushed. “You’re the only car wash in town.”
“That’s what I hear,” said Lloyd. He wiped the spilled coffee from the counter.
Jamie looked away. “How long have you worked here?”
“A couple weeks,” said Lloyd. “How long have you been married?”
“That’s kind of personal, don’t you think?”
“Not really,” said Lloyd.
Jamie twisted her wedding band on her finger. “Twelve years.”
“Do you love him?”
“Of course I love him. Why would I marry someone I don’t love?” She stared at Lloyd’s forearm and the cross tattoo sketched in black ink. “Where did you get that?”
“That’s kind of personal,” said Lloyd, his radiant smile slowly melting the wall of ice in front of him. “Don’t you think?”
“Not really,” said Jamie, in lock-step with Lloyd’s overt attempt at mockery.
Lloyd racked his imagination to think of something funny to say, anything to coax a reaction from the woman who held his undivided attention. “I got it in prison,” he confessed.
“What did you do?”
“I broke the law.”
* * *
Jamie sipped her coffee. Light cream. No sugar. She felt threatened and secure all at once. She’d done what her husband asked her to do and washed the car. A task she completed with no repercussions to fear, aside from a tinge of guilt for conversing with a man who spent time behind bars. A man with penetrating eyes and a stimulating aura about him. “I should check on my car,” she said in an effort to disengage the conversation.
“Do you use the library?” asked Lloyd.
“I go there to read. Thursday nights, usually. It’s quiet. And private.”
Jamie blushed. She toyed with her necklace, light-headed and anxious to abandon the awkward conversation.
“Your car’s ready, Mrs. Blanchart,” Sonny announced outside the waiting room.
Jamie dropped her cup in the trash and excused herself.
“You better be clocked out,” Sonny harped at Lloyd. “Your shift ended ten minutes ago.”
Lloyd pulled his time card from the rack and held it for Sonny to read. He waved the bottled water. “Just came to get a drink.”
“Where’s your brother? I haven’t seen him in days.”
“He better be on life support. No work, no pay. Comprender?”
“I’ll tell him.”
Sonny took the time card from Lloyd. “I have your brother on the schedule every day next week. If I catch him playing hookey, you’ll both be looking for another job.”