This post contains portrayals of homosexual actions and lifestyles. There may be references to, or explicit descriptions of, sex between consenting adults.
If homosexuality, sexually explicit language, or swearing offends you, or if reading material that contains these violates any law or personal or religious beliefs, you must exit now without proceeding further.
If you’re under 18 years old you may not read it either because it is against the law. I regret this because I was once a randy teenager myself and I feel somewhat two-faced in helping enforce the law. Hopefully, one day, censorship may disappear along with other vestiges of Big Brother and Mother Grundy.
The story is entirely fictional. Moultrie and Camilla, of course, exist, but the people associated with them and the Georgia Court System are entirely fictional. Nor are the actions of the officials portrayed meant to reflect the behavior of any real people in those positions. All the characters are imaginary.
My thanks to Drew Hunt and Tim Mead, who take time away from their own work to edit my writing, correct my logic, and give me advice. Since, however, I make changes after I get their suggestions, any mistakes are mine.
Out in the lot, where a couple of pickup trucks were parked under the grand oaks whose branches provided shade but no respite from the heat, the asphalt had begun to soften and there was no breeze to blow the throat-catching, oily-petroleum odor away. Inside the bar, conditions were only marginally better. The sultry atmosphere ignored the efforts of the ceiling fan whose blades turned lethargically hour after hour, and the air-conditioner, second-hand when it was installed in the sixties, clattered lustily but lacked the stamina to drop the temperature more than a degree.
“I tell you, I do not know!” He shook his head and sighed. “It just happened, man. In one second, everything I’d hoped for was just going down the tubes.” His eyes stared straight ahead as though he were still watching the scene unfold before him. “And then, when I tried to explain it to him, why I needed it, what the money was for, he just turned his back on me. God, I mightn’t be one of these smooth-talking guys with some post-grad degree or other, but I’m not dirt, either. All he said was ‘Read your Bible,’ and then he turned his back on me and went on with whatever he was doing. Read your Bible — shit, wasn’t that a joke given the decision he’d just made?” He looked down at the beer bottle he was gripping in two hands, his chest heaving under the T-shirt stained with sweat and mud. His lips clamped together for a moment before he looked up again. “I don’t know what happened next. All I could see was the water. But, Jesus, I hadn’t thought of hurting anyone. I don’t know. I thought, like, maybe I could get him to see some sense. I was so angry…so sore…hurting.” There was a long silence. “And then all there was was the water. And I knew, somehow I knew ’cause I couldn’t remember doing it, I knew I’d killed him. And then there was just the water. Nothing else. The pump, and the water splashing.”
His companion sat, mouth open, trying to comprehend what he had heard, and at the same time desperately not wanting to know. His inclination was to reach out, offer some comfort, some assurance, but not a muscle in his body would move.
“I didn’t know what to do. I was trying to think who I should call, what I could say, what would happen to me.” He lapsed into silence again. A fly buzzed around his head and landed on his neck where the small drops of perspiration had gathered. He slapped at it and shook his head. “You know what I was thinking?” He paused and looked up, but when the other man did not move or utter a sound, he continued speaking, “I was thinking that I wasn’t sorry. There was no remorse in me. It was his choice. He had turned against his own son, and I had no pity for him.”
At the window, the fly battered again and again against the glass pane in a futile attempt to get back to the outside world it had left behind. Overhead the fan continued to turn, barely moving the clammy air at all.
According to Matt, it was predestined that I should get involved in Bradley Honeycutt’s death. It was on a Friday afternoon and he and I were having coffee in Savannah. “Don’t you see, Chris,” he had said in his earnest way, leaning forward across the table and staring into my eyes, “it was the water.” I looked at him blankly, so he explained, as though to a child, “You’re a Scorpio.” And when my expression didn’t change he added, “Scorpio is a water sign.”
I like Matt: he has a sharp mind and a quick wit, but every now and again, he will come up with a statement like this and I have to wonder about him. I considered his deduction, trying to figure out a reply. From what little I knew about the supposed traits of my astrological sign — most of which education I had had foisted on me from time to time by Matt — they should have predicted that I would have given the case wide berth and then sat back to enjoy my revenge. But then, I recalled, Libra, the sign of even-handedness, had thrown its influence into the ring, too. Rob is a Libra.
“Listen, chav,” Rob’s voice, had come through the phone, “I need to ask you something.” It was a Tuesday evening some three months previous. Dinner was over, Mike had gone upstairs to check his emails, and I had settled down on the deck with a beer to wash down the last fiery nuances of the curry I had made. From the speakers in the living room Mussorgsky softly chronicled the artistic efforts of his friend, while on the beach the waves came in and out in a gentle yet regular, businesslike way. Further out, the lights of a solitary trawler sat unmoving, blending in with the stars that reached down to the sea. I stretched back in the chair and held the phone to my ear.
“Yeah sure. What’s up?” Before Mike was in my life, Rob was. He was there before Steve, too. There was a time when Rob and I were inseparable: two young expats, Rob older than I by a bare month, experiencing the city life of an awakening Atlanta together. We shared everything: apartment, beds and, sometimes, men. Not that we had ever been lovers. Not in the real sense, anyway. Rob is easy going and relaxed, I am sensual and possessive. No romance could flourish in such ground, and when Pete came into Rob’s life, he and I moved on on our own journeys without rancor or bitterness, yet remaining close, like brothers.
Now, as the wind came in little eddies off the sea, the answer to my question was not immediately forthcoming. Instead, Rob and I spent a minute or so passing the time of day, until, abruptly, the course of the conversation changed.
“A guy I know called today. Tells me his friend needs a lawyer.” I scanned the black sea, trying to decode his words: Rob was not usually this arcane in conversation. For one thing he’s a Brit, and before he came to The States, he had had twenty-six years to hone his native country’s bent for directness. Secondly, as I said, Rob and I are close and we’ve never felt the need to beat about the bush with each other.
“Well, I happen to know a lawyer,” I answered, curious. “You want to speak with him? He’s upstairs.”
“Well this is a little different.” He stretched the ‘well’ out. “I thought I’d run it by you first.”
“It’s nothing illegal, is it?”
“No!” He protested. “Oh, come on, Chris, you know me better than that!”
“Then why are you talking to me? I don’t get to choose Mike’s cases for him.”
“That’s as may be, but I know he won’t take this case if you don’t OK it first.”
“Rob, come to the point, for God’s sake, will ya?”
There was the slightest of pauses and I thought I heard him take a deep breath. “Chris, it’s Steve. He’s in trouble.”
I swallowed, not knowing what to say. I felt the constricting feeling in my gut. In the living room the limping gait of the promenade had morphed into the dancing strings of the Tuileries. Somewhere in the back of my mind I recalled the subtitle, Dispute between Children at Play. “Chris?” Rob asked.
“Uh-huh. I’m here.” I gathered together what I could of my thoughts. “Look, Rob, you’ve come to the wrong guy. It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve finally managed to get Steve completely out of my life. I really don’t want him back in it — even at a distance.”
“I know, mate. I know. Pete has already told me I shouldn’t call you, but I felt I should.”
“Why, Rob? Why in God’s name?”
“Partly because we’re up against a wall. Steve’s in deep shit. He’s in jail.”
“Lucky him. He can get all the sex he wants and never have to worry about a relationship.” I swallowed. “What’s he done now?”
“They’re saying that he killed Jason’s father.”
“That wouldn’t surprise me.”
“C’mon, Chris, don’t be a complete arsehole. Get over what happened years ago, will you.”
“I’m an asshole? Get over…? What are you smoking? Fuck, Rob, do you remember what that bastard did to me? Do you think for a second that I care if he rots in that jail?” I swallowed. “Anyway, who’s Jason?”
I tried to ignore the sudden pain that caused my bowels to clinch. I straightened up and swallowed. “Well that’s Steve’s style: get someone to love you and then find the worst way to hurt them.”
“Look, all I wanted to know is if Mike could tell us how to get a lawyer who is half-competent.”
“Then why are you calling me? Hang on. Who’s ‘us’?”
“Me. I mean me and Jason.” There was a silence. “Well, me actually: Jason has gone to pieces a bit.”
“So you hang out with Steve and this Jason?” I couldn’t believe that Rob was a Judas.
“God, you are such a fucking dickwad. No, I don’t hang out with them. Jason does some work for one of my customers so I see him from time to time.”
“And when he’s in trouble he knows to come running to you?”
“No,” Rob was calm and logical. “I heard about it at the bar last weekend from another guy. I called Jason up yesterday. He wasn’t at work, but I left a message. He got back to me last night and I got some of the story. We went to lunch and I got the rest from him today.”
“There are a million fucking lawyers in Georgia. Why Mike?”
“I’m not saying it has to be Mike, just someone who is competent, will do an honest day’s work, and not cost a bundle. Steve has some el cheapo lawyer assigned to him by the court, but Jason doesn’t think the guy has ever seen a courthouse before.”
“Oh yeah, of course. Steve wouldn’t be doing anything himself. Always leave it up to someone else. Even when it’s his own ass that’s in the sling.”
There was a brief hiatus, long enough for him to inhale deeply. “You’re bonkers, Chris. Bloody bonkers. You were once in love with this bloke. Just because you aren’t now doesn’t mean he doesn’t need help.”
The pain shot through my middle again. I stretched to try for some relief. “You said it Rob. The operative word is ‘once’.”
“Oh, give it a break, mate.”
“Rob, I’ve got a partner. I’ve got a guy whom I really love. I think he really loves me, too. I can’t handle Steve in my life as well.”
“Don’t be a plonker, Chris. Why has this got to be about your life? All I’m looking for is a lawyer that isn’t going to cost an arm and a leg.”
“Then why are you calling me? Call Mike.”
“Because I thought I should. Because it involved Steve I thought I should ask you first.” Silence. And when I said nothing he went on, “Seems as though I was wrong.”
“Oh, God, Rob, the pity angle isn’t going to work with me. Not where Steve’s concerned. Ask yourself how you would feel if Pete left you. Honest now. What’d you be like, buddy?”
“Chris, I know, mate. I was there remember. It was me picking up the pieces. But that was years ago. You’ve got to move on. You’re going to end up ninety years old, sitting in a pub, toothless and spilling your beer all over yourself, and still railing against Steve.
“You’ve got Mike, you’re happy as a pig in Palestine. Just drop this crap about Steve. Chalk it up to experience and move on.”
“I’m not railing against Steve. Just don’t ask me to help him when, once again — as he always does — he digs himself a hole.”
“But you won’t mind if I ask Mike?”
“Go ahead. I’m not Mike’s boss.”
“OK. Just remember that.”
As though on cue, Mike came out onto the deck. “Hang on. Here he is. I’ll put him on.”
“Thanks, Chris.” Was I imagining it or did Rob sound relieved?
“Whatever. Say hi to Pete from me.”
“It’s Rob.” I handed the phone to Mike. “Have fun.” My partner gave me a quizzical look. I shrugged and walked back into the house to recycle the beer.
‘God,’ I thought as I watched the yellow stream splash into the clear water, ‘Rob’s right, I am a prick. What is Steve to me or I to Steve?’ I traced figure-eights on the surface. ‘It’s all ancient history. Whatever happens with him means nothing to me.’ I flushed, pulled up my jogging shorts, washed my hands, and stood, towel in hand, looking into the mirror trying to figure out what made the guy who looked back at me tick. But I searched his face in vain, and after two minutes, frustrated, I threw the cloth down and headed back outside. Mike was holding the phone to his ear with his shoulder as he held a dripping bottle of beer in his left hand. Balanced on his right thigh was the notepad that we keep in the kitchen for writing shopping lists, and I noticed he had already flipped one sheet over and was jotting down notes on a second.
I picked up my beer and gazed out over the sea trying to ignore the pithy questions my partner asked into the phone. The crescendo of The Bogatyr Gates floated from inside. Eventually Mike stopped writing and laid the ballpoint down. “OK. I’ll look into it and get back to you,” he said.
“Tell Rob he’s a Limey bastard,” I said. Mike looked at me as he repeated the words into the phone.
“Rob says you’re an ignorant Colonial,” he repeated a second later.
I nodded without smiling and took another swig from my bottle, satisfied that there was no grudge between Rob and me.
“What’s going on?” I asked Mike after he clicked the off button and set the phone down.
“Why d’you want to know? Am I going to be chopped up into pieces, too?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
“Rob sure doesn’t think you are.”
“Mike,” I growled warningly. Fuck, why was everyone painting me the villain?
“OK. Chill.” He pushed the pad and pen to one side. “Well, from what Rob says, your ex’s boyfriend is sick. Real sick. Seems like he’s got a tumor on the brain.” I closed my eyes as the spear went in. I should have asked. Nobody deserves that. Not even Steve. But I said nothing, and Mike went on. “He’s been having treatments, but they cost money. Now he needs surgery. Steve is self employed, and the boyfriend’s health insurance is pathetic, so they’re short of cash. Steve says, at least according to Rob, that he went out to see this guy’s father to ask him to help with the payments. The father is some hard-ass gay-hater who had cut Jason — that’s Steve’s partner — out of the family when he came out, but Steve thought he might reconsider if he knew about the tumor.
“Rob tells me that Steve says the father had agreed to pay, and that he, Steve that is, then left the guy’s house, with a check in his pocket. He says he was so happy with this break that he went out and got drunk. Not just drunk, but totally plastered. So drunk that he fell asleep in his pickup truck, and the cops picked him up sometime in the evening. They took him in on a DUI. Later that day they started to question him some more, and ended up charging him with killing the father.”
“How’s he supposed to have done it?”
“There’s a small cave on the father’s farm. The father had gone down into the cave because there was a group of scouts coming up the following day to see what caving is like. The cops say Steve turned on a borehole pump and flooded the cave while the father was down there.”
“Steve will never cease to amaze you.”
“Chris, can it, will ya?”
“Well for fuck sake, what do you expect me to say? That guy stabbed me in the back. Mike, you went through all that with Andy…”
There was a silence after that remark. He sipped his beer. “I know, Chris. I know you still hurt. But kicking the guy when he’s down isn’t going to make you feel better.”
I thought that over. “I guess. But you know, all I want is this guy out of my life. There must be fifty-fucking-thousand lawyers in Georgia. Why does he have to come to you?”
“He didn’t. He is, as far as Rob knows, pretty much stone broke. He got himself — or rather the State gave him — a guy from Indigent Defense, but Rob says the guy is completely useless. He says the lawyer hasn’t done anything for Steve. Steve’s in jail — the guy didn’t even try for bail, and he hasn’t done a fine job of lining up a defense, and the trial starts on in two weeks on Tuesday. Rob wanted me to recommend someone else.”
“You got anyone in mind?”
“There are a couple of guys I can ask. I don’t know what their case load is like, though.” He tipped his head back and drained his bottle. He didn’t look at me.
Oh, fuck! “You’re going to take it, aren’t you?”
He turned to me and I saw his jaw muscles tighten. “Uh-huh,” he nodded.
“Mike…,” I whined.
“What, Chris?” He turned his face to me. “Do you figure this is a way for you to get back at Steve?” He pushed his leg out and rubbed the side of my calf with his foot. “C’mon, buddy, let it slide.”
“No, Mike. I’m not getting back at him. It’s just… it’s just if you take the case it’ll mean I’m going to have Steve in my life again for the whole time the trial is going on. Every time you talk to me about the case, it’s going to involve Steve.” I wanted him to understand. “It has taken me a long time to go through a day, a week, without thinking about him and what he did. Now it’s going to be thrown in my face over and over again.
“And anyway, what if you lose the case? Won’t people say it was a revenge thing?”
Mike clutched his chest and let out a groan. “Aaagh! My partner, my lover, can even suggest that I, Michael Jorgensen, the lawyer who causes prosecutors to have sleepless nights clinging to their pillows in despair, the guy who has all nine justices of the Supreme Court impatient to hear his oratory, could possibly lose a case.”
I sent a slap to the back of his head which he ducked, laughing.
“Why would I want revenge on Steve?” he asked when we settled down. “Steve being an asshole gave you to me, so the way I see it, I owe him,” Mike replied with a sly look at me out of the corners of his eyes.
“You jerk!” And, as always when I was with Mike, my anger melted.
And so it began. On Thursday Mike dispatched Don, the associate from his office, down to Moultrie to start going through the paperwork, collecting all the documents from the DA’s office, and interviewing Steve and the people on the list of witnesses. Mike followed on Monday afternoon. “Be good,” I said as he pulled the Audi’s door closed, and then summoned the courage to add, “Good luck.” He nodded, turned the key in the ignition, and within a minute was out of sight.
I took little interest in the case. I had skimmed through the newspaper accounts, and glanced at the legal documents that highlighted the charges, but, in the interests of keeping my emotions stable, had eschewed any other involvement. And yet, in spite of that, I was already half a day behind my work schedule, the fresh Atlantic salmon that I had bought for my dinner had gone into the fridge raw, along with the oranges and yoghurt for its sauce, none of my music suited my mood, and when I finally gave up and went to bed I tossed and turned until the sheet was twisted into a rope. I missed Mike: we were further apart than when we had been on separate continents.
I was honest enough to know that the responsibility for this situation rested squarely on my shoulders, yet I felt the need to isolate myself: my breakup with Steve had cost me dearly, and the heartache, like some malaria, lurked dormant within me, poised to break out at any time. Small mementos of our time together would occasionally still be stumbled on in some obscure niche in my memory: the hiatus in conversation in a restaurant or at a party when Steve and I walked in; the twitter in the audience about the young tenor who looked like a rock star in the front row when the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus took the stage; the vaguely uncertain look, slightly oblique, directed under the sable eyebrows when Steve showed me a radically new design he had created for a garden — or when he wanted to check if I was still angry with him. Ah yes, The Look. Just once I had managed to catch that expression on film, and when Steve had walked out of our relationship and everything lay at my feet, broken — my feelings, my life, my heart — that photograph had somehow remained intact. It lay in its frame, face down, in a cupboard upstairs under some old FORTRAN manuals. Why is it that men feel the need to keep the bullet that nearly killed them on their mantel?
Now Mike was in South Georgia and somehow entangled in the web of my former life, and I felt guilt-ridden that I had let my guy go off without the assurance that I would be around if he needed me.
Our goodnight call had been stilted as we each danced around any mention of his client, even though I knew by that time he would have met Steve and covered a lot of ground with him. A night of restless sleep followed. My mind kept on trying to imagine a guy pouring hundreds of gallons of water into some kind of cave knowing as he did so that someone underground would be battling for his life against the torrent. As much as I wanted to hate him, it was hard to imagine Steve doing that. And yet, and yet… if not having the money would condemn him to watching his partner suffer, perhaps die, what might he — what might I — have been driven to?
My brooding was interrupted by the cell phone vibrating and beginning its erratic dance across my desk. I grabbed it before the ring started.
“Hey, Chris. What’cha doing?” The gentle timbres of the English accent came through the earphone.
“Not much, Rob. What’s on your mind?”
“Do you know what time the trial starts on Tuesday?”
I uttered a silent curse at having Steve’s problems out in the light again, yet, at the same time, realizing that I had been thinking about the events most of the time anyway. Rob’s call merely made it official. “No idea. Why?”
“Jason doesn’t feel up to driving, so I said I’d take him. I was wondering if I could get there in time if I left Atlanta by six.”
I hesitated. Rob was supposed to be my bud. Here he was, if not actually consorting with the enemy, then, at the very least, providing aid and comfort.
He knew me well. “Chris, don’t read more into this than there is. I’m helping a guy who is down and out in every which way.” He paused, and then asked, “Have you spoken to Mike about the case?”
“Naah. Not really. There’re a lot of issues that make that kinda hard. You know, since Steve’s someone I know, the whole client-lawyer privilege thing is pretty tight. In other cases he usually tells me stuff, like what’s been said, what he plans to do, but with this one, it’s different…”
“I guess.” Rob sounded doubtful. “Jason spoke with him yesterday. Mike didn’t tell him too much either. Jason thinks Steve is going to go to jail.”
That was a shocker. “He does? Why? I mean, yeah I hate Steve, but I’m having a hard time believing he could have done it. What’s Mike said to Jason that makes him think Steve’s in such deep shit?” Inside my mind ran my more honest fear: if Steve went to jail, Mike would have lost the case.
“Jason figures that lawyers always talk on the bright side. Mike is saying it’s about fifty-fifty, which Jason translates to sixty-forty against.”
Rob’s voice took on a more urgent tone. “Chris, you have to understand something. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. This isn’t the Steve you knew. This guy is devoted to Jason. If Jason’s father wasn’t going to cough up the dough for the operation, I think, perhaps, Steve could have snapped. Kinda a momentary insanity thing.”
I swallowed hard. For once I wasn’t thinking of the trial, or even of the verdict. I was imagining Steve, gray-haired, bent and aged, coming out of prison when he was seventy and having nothing to come back to.
“I don’t know what time the trial starts,” I said. “I’ll phone Mike.”
“I don’t really want to disturb him,” Rob said. “Maybe I’ll just phone the clerk of the court.”
“That’s probably best. Anyway I think it’ll probably take you close on three, three and a half hours or more to get down there from Atlanta. Why don’t you go tonight?”
“I guess we could. Jason has a doctor’s appointment today. This stress is giving him a hard time — he gets tired easily. Where is Mike staying?”
“Hampton Inn. From what he says it’s on the outskirts of town.”
“OK, I know it. There’s another place just down the road that’s less expensive. I think I’ll take that.”
“I hear you. Look, do me a favor: send me an email or an IM when you find the trial start time.”
“Sure. You going down?”
“I dunno. I guess. I feel I’m abandoning Mike by staying here.”
“Yeah. Maybe.” He sounded doubtful. “Look Chris, it’s great to go if you think you can help Mike, just no big scenes with Jason or Steve, OK? It’s a small place and you’re probably going to come face to face with Jason at some time.”
I gulped. I hadn’t thought of that. “I guess you’re right. Maybe I’ll just stay put.”
“Chris, we’re up against the wire. Mike probably needs you there. Not for the trial — that seems like all legal crap, no nerdy stuff for you to play with at all. The highest tech thing they’ve got is a petrol-driven pump. But he could probably get a lot of relief having you around, even if it’s just neck-rubs, back-rubs and blow jobs.”
I laughed. It was the first bit of humor I’d had for over twenty-four hours. “OK. I’ll come.”
“No histrionics, though,” Rob reiterated his warning.
“I’m not some goddam queen. I can play it cool.”
“OK. See you there then. Maybe we can all get to have dinner together?”
“I don’t know that I can be that cool. We’ll see.”
It took me all of ninety minutes to pack some clean jeans and shirts into my tail-bag, secure my PC and power supply in my tank-bag, and shut up the house. By three in the afternoon I had already left Waycross, my first fuel stop, behind, and I crossed into Atkinson County with my spirits starting to lift as I got rid of the feeling that I had abandoned Mike. I opened up the throttle, and the fields and trees whipping past, the telegraph poles a blur, the wind streaming past my helmet as quick left-right leans sped me past slow moving trucks, returned some joie de vivre to me.
But as I rode past the technical college, its buildings reflecting on the waters of a small dam, and slowed down for the traffic lights on Route 319, my assurance began to wane. Somehow I had the feeling of entering an unknown world, a place where life went on at a different pace, a sequestered community of unfamiliar mores and attitudes.
And Steve and Mike and I and Jason and Rob were the intruders.
I turned into the parking lot of the Hampton Inn and found a place outside the front door for my Ninja where it was not in any danger of being knocked over by an enthusiastic guest but still could be seen by the person at the front desk. Ten minutes later I was placing my helmet on top of the TV and surveying my temporary home away from home. From the sitting room where I was standing, I looked through a pair of sliding doors to a bedroom large enough to accommodate two king-size beds. I walked through and, placing my bag on one of them, slid open the wardrobe door. To the left, three suits hung evenly and at perfect right angles to the bar. Four dress shirts, two blue, two white, hung next to them, each with its matching tie over a thin shoulder. At the other end, two pairs of jeans, one dark blue with a designer label, the other washed out and with rips across the knees, symmetrical and neatly torn, were supported by their legs from clasps on hangers. In a drawer, trimly arranged with slight overlap, like brochures in a travel agency, lay five white T-shirts, and a pair each of black and blue muscle shirts. I was in the right room. I found an empty drawer and tipped the contents of my tail-bag into it.
I set my PC up in the living room, stripped and took a shower, and then carefully sliding my hand under the tidily layered T-shirts, pulled out two DVDs. I checked the pictures of naked men on the back, then slipped one into my PC’s DVD reader and settled down to wait for Mike to return.
“Thanks for coming,” he said an hour later holding me close. “I know it’s not easy for you.”
“And it is for you?” I asked, running my fingers along the jaw where a muscle occasionally twitching betrayed his inner tension.
“It’s a can of worms,” he said, shaking his head as he disengaged from me.
“What’s going on, Babe?” I inquired, wary of prying too deeply.
He looked at me for a full half minute, the miniscule movements of his eyelids the only indication of the thoughts racing across his synapses. “I don’t know. Steve’s holding something back from me.”
A shorter pause, he looked unseeingly toward the window for about five seconds, then, “The one thing that could help the jury understand whether he’s innocent.” His eyes swiveled back to me. “Yeah, I’d say important.” He slapped my butt. “Why don’t you put some clothes on and we go get a beer?”
“Or you could take yours off. Rob gave me a hint of how I might be able to relax you.”
Mike looked at me thoughtfully, and then with a slight smile coming to his mouth he pulled his tie-knot loose. With more haste he unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it over his head while he toed his shoes off his feet.
“What I cannot understand, and what he will not explain,” Mike said an hour later as we sat on the patio, beers in hand, watching the reflection of the setting sun in a small lake about fifty yards away, “is why he went and got drunk.” He turned to me, “Was Steve a heavy drinker?”
It was the first time in several days the name had been uttered between Mike and me, a tacit understanding having come into play since that first night that we would refer to the trial as ‘The Case’.
I thought about his question. “No. Not really. I mean, naturally, there were times when he — we — had too much to drink, at parties, things like that. But he hardly ever went to bars, and he didn’t go overboard at home.”
Mike had predicted that Tuesday would be taken up with jury selection, so I decided to spend the day at the hotel pool taking advantage of their wireless connection to get ahead with my work. I kept to that plan in the morning, but when the noonday sun became too warm I set out on the Ninja looking for lunch. Down a side street I found a small bar where I could get a beer accompanied by a plate of pulled pork. It was good. I mean, it was really good. With regard for neither convenience nor the community standards of clear air, a young man in his early twenties roasted the pork in a small, covered shanty in back, carefully tending the meat in an environment thick with wood smoke. When my order was called out to him I saw him lift a piece onto a massive wooden block made from the bole of a tree. Very deliberately with a long fork he pulled the ribbons of pork off onto a plate, and when the pile seemed in danger of landsliding, he dipped a ladle into a pot on a stove and doused the heap with sauce. And when the food touched my tongue, I realized I had reached Nirvana. Succulent and tender, it seemed to float through my mouth, leaving behind the taste of rich tomato sauce sweetened with molasses and spiced up with pepper as the only evidence of its passing. The lunch was not expensive, either: a couple of bucks and a quarter for a platter piled high with the succulent meat, a generous piece of cornbread, and a helping of coleslaw to appease those who demand the excesses of meat be balanced by the penitence of vegetables. The only fault, if I were forced to find one, was the lack of a locally brewed beer. But they had a fair selection at good prices. “Beers are two sixty. Two if they’re light, three eighty-five if they’re imported,” the barman informed me. “Four bucks gets you a shot.”
And naturally, after a lunch like that, the pace of work slowed considerably.
Wednesday came. The trial was being held in Camilla in the neighboring county where the superior court of the South Georgia Judicial Circuit would, from time to time, sit in session. Mike had left the hotel early and I followed some forty minutes later. As I put my helmet and leather jacket on the belt to be screened by the security guards I was nervous. It would be the first time in over two years that I would set eyes on the guy who had once been my partner. Why was I even there? Twice on the thirty-mile ride to Camilla I had slowed, ready to make a U-turn and beat a retreat to the hotel. But each time I reasoned that Mike needed my support. If he had never met me the fates might still have given him this case, but having a relationship with me was bound to place added pressure on him. The way I figured it, I owed him.
I found a seat at the back of the court and set my jacket and helmet on the chair next to me. I had thought that the court would be filled with spectators, but only some twenty — about a third of the places available —were occupied.
At about ten before nine a door at the front of the court room opened, and a man in uniform escorted Steve in and gestured to the defense’s table. Mike rose as he came to the table and took his hand, motioning the guy who had once meant the world to me to the chair next to him. In the time since I had last seen him Steve had changed little. Perhaps thinner, perhaps slightly more tanned. He, too, had come into the court clad in suit and tie, but his black hair still hung over his collar and tumbled over his forehead, giving him a attractively raffish appearance. As he pulled his chair back he saw Jason sitting next to Rob toward the front of the spectators’ area and his face broke into the smile I remembered so well, the dimples forming on the front of his cheeks and framing the white teeth. Quickly he scanned the spectators’ seats and, as my heart pounded, his glance met mine. He froze momentarily, and then gave a slight nod as he turned and sat down next to Mike.
My mind was reeling, and I barely noticed the jurors enter and take their seats. It was the bailiff calling us to rise as the judge entered that brought my attention back to the present. We settled down, the charge was read, and the judge asked the prosecutor and Mike if they were ready to proceed.
The assistant DA who was running the prosecution stood up and, buttoning his coat, walked toward the jury, stopping about eight feet from the rail that separated them from the well of the court. Speaking without notes he began to go through pretty much everything I had read in the newspapers.
“You will hear that the defendant has a lover who is in need of serious medical treatment which neither he nor the defendant could afford. You will hear, from the defendant’s own admission to the police, that he had come to Moultrie for the express purpose of asking the father of the man he lived with for money for this operation.” The assistant DA had a deep Southern accent, and accentuated some of his details with country-boy amazement, as though to fool the jury into thinking he was not really a lawyer but merely a common-sense man asking for common-sense agreement with his premise. But my eyes kept wandering to the figure sitting next to my partner. I had hated Steve in absentia for two years, but now I found it hard to believe that he could have been a participant in the scenario that was being described. Yet in life not everything happens in a logical way. Sometimes one just snaps. So it was, I guessed, possible that Steve, driven by the needs of someone he doted on, could have sought revenge. Maybe he did not expect the man to die. Perhaps he thought he would merely frighten him into recognizing the value — and fragility — of life.
“Evidence will be presented to show that equipment that the defendant had with him on June 20th was used to pump water from a borehole on the farm into the cave where Bradley Honeycutt was preparing for a training session of Boy Scouts.” The words went on and on, planting hooks in the minds of the jurors on which to hang the evidence that would later be presented. If the testimony did indeed support what the assistant DA had said, Mike was going to have a hard time countering it. But then I remembered Mike once explaining to me that acquittal was not always the goal. Sometimes, in a case where the evidence was heavily stacked against his client, getting a reduced sentence was in itself a significant achievement. On the bench, Judge Whitaker, a tall, lean man, leant forward, attentively listening to the opening statement, his demeanor stern and dispassionate. Mike had told me about him over dinner the previous night. One of the very few black judges on the Georgia Superior Court, Whitaker had spent many of his early years in the practice of law in South Carolina, but in the ’70s had moved to Atlanta and within five years had gained his judgeship. He had a reputation of being very conservative, and, Mike had informed me, of not allowing much variation from strict courtroom protocol. ‘That’s all we need,’ I thought as the voice droned on, ‘a traditionalist judge, a gay defendant and a gay lawyer.’
“Once you have heard the evidence, ladies and gentlemen, we ask you to evaluate it and return a verdict of guilty against the defendant, Stephen Goodwin.” With a gesture to the jury that was more than a nod, less than a bow, the assistant DA returned to his table.
“Mr. Jorgensen?” the judge asked.
Mike stood up. “The defense will reserve its opening statement, your honor.”
“Very well. Mr. Libberton, you may call your first witness.”
“Thank you, your honor. We call Alicia Talford.”
And so the trial began. Ms. Talford described a household that was quiet and orderly. The older Honeycutt was a fairly successful artist, now living in semi-retirement. His parents had once owned a large farm in the Moultrie area and worked the land until into their seventies. On their death, Bradley Honeycutt had continued to run the farm, but eventually he had retired and rented out the lands, retaining only a small lot of some five or six acres of the original farm where he had built a house in which he and his wife could live. Ms. Talford had worked for Mr. Honeycutt since that time. When Mrs. Honeycutt was alive she had come in twice a week to help with the cleaning, but after Mrs. Honeycutt passed away, she had come in for half a day every weekday to cook and clean and act as housekeeper.
“And on the morning of the day Mr. Honeycutt died, you worked at his house?”
“At what time did you arrive at the Honeycutt house?”
“At 8 o’clock. Normally I work from 8:30 to 12:30 in the afternoon, but I had to go see the dentist that morning, so I came in a bit early.”
“And did you see anyone at the Honeycutt house when you got there?”
“Well, yes, sir. When I got there, I saw a white pickup truck in the driveway. As I drove past the front of the house — I always drive around to the side so I can park under the tree — I saw a man standing there. Since there were all pipes and tubes on his truck, I assumed he had come about the septic tank which had been giving a bit of trouble. As I was just by the door, it was opened and I saw Mr. Honeycutt speak to the man.”
“You are sure that it was Mr. Bradley Honeycutt who answered the door?”
“Yes sir.” The woman paused, thinking, and then spoke in a slower cadence, as though looking at a picture in her mind. “I saw he had on gray slacks, and a light blue shirt. Yes, and his beige sweater, the one with …”
“Thank you,” Libberton interrupted, raising his hand to stop the flow of talk. “Now, when you went inside the house, did you see either the visitor or Mr. Honeycutt?”
“No, sir. They had gone into Mr. Honeycutt’s study. That’s the room where Mr. Honeycutt had his computers and easels and where he worked.”
“How do you know they were both in there, Ms. Talford?”
“Well I came in through the side door to the house, and on my way to the kitchen I walked past the door to the study and I heard them talking.”
“And what were they saying, Ms. Talford?”
“I couldn’t say, sir. The door was shut, and it was a thick door. Also, I was in a hurry because of my dentist appointment. Not that I am ever one to stand outside doors listening to others’ conversations, it was just that I had my mind on different things that morning.”
“So you had no idea of what was going on in that room — the study?”
“No sir. Just…”
“Yes Ms. Talford?”
“I heard the other man, the visitor, raise his voice once or twice.”
“And how did Mr. Honeycutt respond to that?”
“I don’t know. I couldn’t hear his words.”
“And then what happened?”
“I saw that Mr. Honeycutt had made coffee already, so I didn’t have to do that. I put the boxes of cereal that Mr. Honeycutt liked on the table, and a plate and the milk. Then I looked through the pantry in the kitchen to see what I needed to buy for dinner and made a list, then I went to my car and drove to Dr. Meredith’s office.”
“And at what time was that?”
“Close to eight fifteen, sir.”
“OK. And at what time did you return to the house?”
“About a quarter past eleven. Maybe a few minutes later.”
“And did you see Mr. Honeycutt’s visitor at that time?”
“No, sir. When I got there his truck was gone and no one was in the house.”
“Did that surprise you?”
“No, sir, not really. Mr. Honeycutt had mentioned a day or two before that some scouts were coming on the weekend to go down into the cave and that he needed to go down and check it out.”
“Check it out? Do you know what he meant by that?”
“He said something about making sure the chain ladder was secure. I don’t know what else he had in mind to do.”
“Now tell me, Ms. Talford, from the house, could you see the entrance to the cave?”
“Not the entrance, sir, because that was in a small hollow. But if Mr. Honeycutt had been standing there I could have seen him.”
“And did you see him?”
“No, sir. He must have already gone down.”
“Objection, your honor,” Mike said. “The witness had no way of knowing whether Mr. Honeycutt had gone down into the cave.”
“Sustained,” the judge responded.
“Now, Ms. Talford. Just one more thing,” the assistant DA continued. “That visitor that came to Mr. Honeycutt the day he was killed, do you see that person in this courtroom?”
“Yes, sir, I do. It was that man there.”
“Thank you, again, Ms. Talford. Let the record show that the witness identified the defendant, Mr. Stephen Goodwin.
“I have no further questions, your honor.”
“Mr. Jorgensen?” inquired the judge.
“Thank you, your honor.” Mike stood up and moved a few paces toward the witness. “Ms. Talford, you mentioned that you saw that Mr. Honeycutt had already made coffee. Usually it was you that brewed the coffee in the morning?”
“Yes, sir. Most weekdays I made the coffee and Mr. Honeycutt would come down at about 9:00 to 9:15, but occasionally, maybe once a month or once in six weeks, if he had to go to town he would get up earlier and then he would make the coffee. He said he had to have coffee first thing in the morning before he could think.”
“When Mr. Honeycutt answered the door to Mr. Goodwin, the clothes he was wearing — the gray slacks, and a light blue shirt — were more formal than he usually wore at that time of the morning?”
“Yes sir. Normally in the summer he wore shorts and a T-shirt.”
“The blue shirt and grey slacks were typical of the type of clothes he would wear if expecting a visitor?”
“And the clothes he wore that day were not those he would have put on if he were planning on going straight down to the cave after his coffee?”
“Oh no. He always wore his camouflage pants and boots if he went down there.”
“So it appeared that he was expecting Mr. Goodwin?”
“Objection, your honor. The witness can only speculate what Mr. Honeycutt was anticipating.”
The challenge did not seem to faze Mike in the slightest, and he continued right on as though he had not been interrupted. “On the occasions when you made coffee for Mr. Honeycutt, how many cups did you make?”
“Two, sir. He had two cups every morning.”
“On that morning, when you went into the kitchen, can you say how much coffee was in the pot?”
“Not exactly, but more than two cups, sir.”
“So more than he normally consumed himself?”
“When you returned from your appointment with the dentist, did you have occasion to go into Mr. Honeycutt’s study?”
“Yes, sir. I went in to straighten things up. I do that most days, although he doesn’t — didn’t — allow me to touch the easels.”
“Did you happen to notice any cups in there?”
Yes, sir. There were two. I took them through to the kitchen and put them in the dishwasher.”
“Ms. Talford, from the time you saw Mr. Honeycutt answer the door to Mr. Goodwin until you got into the kitchen, how much time elapsed?”
She thought for a second. “Two, maybe three minutes.”
“So Mr. Honeycutt would have had to brew the coffee before he answered the door to Mr. Goodwin?”
“Now, when you went into Mr. Honeycutt’s study to straighten things up, was the room untidier than you usually find it? Was there any sign that any struggle might have taken place?”
“No, sir. The room was just like it was most mornings.”
“No spilled coffee?”
“Now, cast your mind back to when you returned to the house after your dentist appointment. You mentioned that, had Mr. Honeycutt been at the entrance to the cave, you would have seen him.”
“Yes sir, and I did not.”
“Right. Did you see anyone else near the entrance to the cave?”
“No sir. I saw nobody anywhere in that direction.”
“And so you did not see Mr. Goodwin anywhere there either?”
“Did you see his pickup truck anywhere near the cave?”
“And you noticed no pump equipment.”
“From the time you saw Mr. Goodwin admitted to Mr. Honeycutt’s house until you saw him today in this court, did you see Mr. Goodwin at any time?”
“Thank you. No further questions of this witness, your honor”
Mr. Dillon Honeycutt was the next witness called. This time it was a junior member of the prosecutor’s team that guided him through his testimony. The younger Honeycutt told how he had come home from Tallahassee to spend a few days with his father, how, when his father was not around the house, he had assumed that he had gone into town or to visit with a friend, and had not been unduly concerned. However, when Sheriff Perry called about the check found in Mr. Goodwin’s possession he had become more concerned, and had begun phoning around family and acquaintances. When these produced no results he had called one of his friends. Together they had gone down into the cave and found his father lying face down in a pool of water, close to the bottom of the ladder. Honeycutt had called 9-1-1, and the paramedics and fire department had responded, but his father could not be revived.
The testimony then turned to Steve. Dillon Honeycutt stated that he had never seen the defendant before, nor had his father said anything to him about meeting Steve. The younger Honeycutt expressed doubt that his father would have met with him since his father had believed that it was Steve who had drawn Jason, Dillon’s older brother, into the deviant, homosexual lifestyle. When Jason had moved in with Stephen Goodwin, Mr. Honeycutt had disinherited him totally.
Under the guidance of the young attorney, Dillon Honeycutt painted a picture of his father as being a hard-working man who had returned from Viet Nam to his home town where he had built up a large farm where he cultivated both cotton and corn. For much of Dillon’s youth the family had assumed that Jason would take over the reins from his father, but after going up to Atlanta to college he had changed, becoming more interested in the lures of the city than the arduous life of a farmer. When, later, Jason turned his back on his family, his father had rented out much of his land to neighboring farmers, retaining just the few acres surrounding his home for him and his wife to live in semi-retirement where he turned to painting.
As Mike got up to cross examine I felt despondent. During Dillon Honeycutt’s questioning, the jurors had seemed to be sympathetic toward him, and I felt sure there had been the slightest nods of a couple of heads when they were told of Jason being cut out of the will. During the testimony Jason had sat forward in his seat, his head unmoving and I felt sure his eyes were fixed on his brother. Dillon had looked over to him but once, the time when he mentioned the ‘homosexual lifestyle’. Mike maintains that I have an overactive imagination, but I was convinced that a gloat lay in that glance.
“Mr. Honeycutt, was your father knowledgeable about the cave on his farm? In other words, did he often go down into it?”
“Oh yes. It was a small cave, but it had some unusual stalactites and stalagmites.”
“How often had you been into the cave before the day your father died?” Mike asked, standing relaxed in front of the witness box with one hand in his pocket.
“Many times,” he responded.
Mike nodded as though he knew that was the correct answer. “And was it usual for the cave to have so much water in it?”
“No. It was more likely to be just a few small ponds. In places where the cave became narrow.”
“When you eventually went down into the cave on that day, how deep was the water?”
“The tunnel that goes back from the entrance was almost full. In the entrance area it was about two and a half, three feet deep.”
“And where was your father’s body?”
“He was lying in the water, in the entrance.”
“In the entrance? Surely, then, he could have climbed up the chain ladder?”
“He would have, had that been where he drowned. Obviously he was further back in the tunnel when the water came in and couldn’t make it out. His body must have floated into the entrance as the water level fell.”
Mike nodded thoughtfully as though that were a reasonable explanation. “Your honor, I have no more questions for the witness at this time, but since he was the person to find the body, and since we have still to hear the evidence of the medical examiner and the police, I would like to reserve the right to recall the witness later.”
“Very well,” the judge replied, “but your questions then will have to relate to new testimony, not to this given now.”
“Yes, your honor.”
At that point the court took a recess for lunch. I hung around the parking lot for a few minutes, but when Mike did not appear I guessed he was talking with Steve, and went off to find a fast food shop.
The afternoon session was filled with the testimony of the medical examiner and the sheriff’s people. In detail the medical examiner described how the cause of death had been determined. He was definitely playing to the court, and kept using technical jargon, then carefully rephrasing his sentences in lay terms as though to underline the gulf of knowledge that existed between a man of his caliber and the populace. With consummate showmanship he produced colored pictures of diatoms, too small to be seen by the human eye, which he had removed from the organs of the deceased, the presence of which proved that the dead man had inhaled the water in which they existed. In the final seconds of the victim’s life, the examiner declaimed, these small creatures had entered the blood stream from the lungs and thence to the organs where he had discovered them. The selection of the types of diatoms found inside the dead man, he told the court, were consistent with those found in the waters of the South Georgia areas.
Mike’s cross examination concentrated on the condition of the body. There had been no sign of a blow or any kind of injury on the body. A graze or scrape on the lower abdomen perhaps indicated that he had slipped down when the water first came in, and a rope mark on his chest showed where his body had been attached to the ladder to stop it floating away before the paramedics arrived.
Next up on the witness stand was Sheriff Perry. In a factual voice he stated that the defendant had been brought in at around a quarter to six in the evening on a DUI charge. The defendant had not been driving. He had been asleep in his vehicle, but had had the keys in his possession, which constituted driving under the influence. When he had been booked at 6pm his blood-alcohol content had been 0.19, almost two and a half times the legal limit of 0.08. The defendant had then been informed of his rights, and charged. It was at that point that a check for ten thousand dollars had been found in the defendant’s possession. The sheriff testified that the defendant had stated that Mr. Honeycutt had given him the check for his, that is Mr. Goodwin’s, partner’s medical expenses. However, since the sheriff recognized Mr. Honeycutt’s name, and in view of the large amount, he put in a call to the latter’s home to see if he could throw some light on the defendant. He had not made contact with Mr. Honeycutt, but had spoken with his son. About an hour later, he stated, the son had called him with a report of a death. He called for an ambulance and the fire department to go out to the farm and then headed out himself with two of his men. Later on, due to the manner of death, the water in the cave, and the pump and irrigation equipment in the accused’s truck, he had called in the GBI and had tests made on the equipment. In the pump and in some of the pipes as well, droplets of water that remained had matched the water drawn from the disused borehole a short distance away from the cave’s entrance.
Under questioning from the assistant DA, the sheriff stated that Mr. Honeycutt’s checkbook showed no entry in its record pages relating to the check that was found in Mr. Goodwin’s possession, and he had therefore asked for a handwriting expert to examine the check. Libberton entered the checkbook into evidence, and then returned to Steve’s arrest. “Sheriff, did you ask the defendant if he had any idea about the death of Mr. Honeycutt?”
“Yes, sir, the defendant merely said, “Traded a life for a life.”
“‘Traded a life for a life.’ He said that?”
“Twice, sir. Each time in front of another police officer.”
And with that, the assistant district attorney ceded the witness to the defense.
Mike walked across to the witness. “Sheriff Perry,” he asked, “did you have occasion to have the defendant’s blood alcohol content tested other than just before he was charged?”
“Yes. At a quarter past 10 that same evening Mr. Goodwin’s had a BAC of 0.119”
“Why did you request the second test?”
“’Cause it was reported that he was trying to vomit, though he had nothing left inside him other than bile to bring up. I wanted to make sure he wasn’t in any medical danger, but his alcohol level was coming down in a manner consistent with his weight”
“Sheriff Perry, Mr. Morris was assigned to represent Mr. Goodwin on the morning of June 22nd. Since Mr. Goodwin was arrested on the afternoon of June 20th, can you explain a delay of almost 48 hours in counsel being assigned?”
“That was the first time Mr. Goodwin requested representation.”
“Yes,” Mike said walking over to the table where Steve and Don were seated. Don handed him a sheet of paper and Mike returned to the witness stand. “Sheriff, this is a transcript of the questions the police asked Mr. Goodwin. I have highlighted the part when he asked for an attorney. Would you look through them and tell the court if, to the best of your memory, the transcript is accurate?” He handed the paper to the witness who pulled a pair of glasses from his pocket and studied it.
“Yes, sir. They appear to be accurate as far as I remember.”
“Would you read Mr. Goodwin’s words out loud for the court to hear, please? Starting from where he says ‘Is it true.’”
The sheriff cleared his throat, “‘Is it true that if I can’t afford a lawyer, you guys give me one for free?’
“Corporal Barnes: ‘If you wish to have an attorney appointed for you we can request that.’
“Sheriff Perry: ‘Are you saying that you cannot afford a lawyer and you wish to have one appointed to by the courts to represent you?’
“Stephen Goodwin: ‘Yes. I think I need one.’
Mike held up his hand. “Thank you, sheriff. Now this was two days after his arrest, and Mr. Goodwin asked if it was true that he could have legal representation even if he could not afford to pay. Yet you testified just now that he had had his rights read to him. Does this not seem somewhat contradictory to you?”
The policeman gave a chuckle. “He was so drunk that night he couldn’t have remembered his own name.”
“Yet you read him his rights? Even though he was really disabled through alcohol?”
The witness saw too late the trap that had been set. “He was asked if he understood his rights and he said yes. He didn’t appear too drunk to understand what was being said. He understood when we asked him if he wanted something to eat.”
“Sheriff Perry,” Mike said in a tone of mild disbelief, “you have just told the court he was so drunk he would not have remembered his own name.”
“He was asked,” repeated the sheriff obstinately, “and he said yes.”
“And if your doctor said you needed a heart transplant and you knew he had a blood alcohol content of close to 0.2 at the time, would you go ahead and schedule the operation?”
“If your mechanic said that your car needed a new transmission but you knew he was drunk, would you go ahead and take your car into the shop?”
“No,” he shook his head.
“If you knew your waiter at the hamburger joint was over twice the legal limit of drunkenness, how much confidence would you have that your order would be filled accurately?”
“Not very much.”
“I would think not.” Mike turned to the judge, “Your honor I ask that the defendant’s statements to the police and answers to questions from the time he was arrested to the time he had legal representation be struck.”
Libberton was on his feet in a second. “Your honor, the defendant had his rights read to him. He said he understood them. The police cannot be expected to be mind readers as to what people understand.”
“But your honor…”
“The court was not born yesterday, and neither were you, counselor. One does not need to be a mind reader to recognize the abilities — or lack thereof — of someone who is staggeringly drunk. The objection is sustained and the jury is to disregard all testimony as to what the defendant said to the police in the first two days of his arrest.”
The prosecutor sat down again and studied the papers in front of him, and when Mike excused the witness the judge called for a short afternoon recess. ‘Score one for Mike,’ I thought.
Once we were all seated again, one of the GBI forensic technicians took the stand. The lights were dimmed a little and she went through her testimony with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation projected onto a large screen. It was she who had analyzed the evidence, and she pointed out how scratch marks on the bolt heads of the borehole cover matched some on a wrench found in the toolbox on Steve’s truck. Then followed details of the analysis of the borehole water and how they matched samples that remained in the pump that had also been recovered from the pickup. The chemical composition, the salinity and acidity, all matched, whereas there was a distinct difference from samples taken from the last two areas where Steve had stated he had worked. And if this information was not enough, she went on to explain that she and her team had examined the walls of the cave and determined the maximum depth reached by the water. They then ran a test using Steve’s pump and pipes and the cave filled in just two hours with what was estimated as 24,200 gallons.
“So,” asked the assistant DA, “if the woman who looked after Mr. Honeycutt’s house was away from the house from 08:15 to 11:15 that would have been adequate time for Mr. Goodwin to set up the pump and fill the cave?”
“Yes, it would have been. The setup took about twenty-five minutes, and afterwards it took about a quarter hour to pack it back on the truck.”
With that, the prosecution stated that they had no more questions for the witness, and Mike stood up, but the judge raised a hand.
“Mr. Jorgensen, I believe now would be a convenient time to adjourn for the day.”
Mike gave the slightest of shrugs, and stated that he had no objection.
This last witness had been a nail in Mike’s case’s coffin, I thought, as I walked dejectedly across the hot asphalt to my bike. Her testimony had been crisp and concise, the unemotional detailing of the facts gave her words all the more credence, and the net effect had been to bind all the State’s evidence together. Mike was going to be toast. I could feel it.
The trip back to Moultrie did little to raise my spirits. Normally a fast ride amongst open fields, copses of trees and the occasional pecan orchard would have uplifted my outlook, but it looked as though Mike was going to lose this case, and that hurt. Not that I was naive enough to expect that every case would end in his favor, but I knew that having me there to witness his downfall would be bitter medicine indeed
And then there was Steve. God, would this guy never get out of my life?
I flipped my visor up as I crossed the old railroad tracks and then, on an impulse, swung right and motored up the back streets to the bar where I’d had lunch the previous day. With my jacket held over one shoulder and my helmet in my hand I pushed the door open with my knee. Although the cookery in back was closed up, the inside of the bar still retained the scents of wood smoke from the fire where the pork had been roasted at lunch time. On the wall in two corners TV sets were showing some baseball game. The sound was muted and the commentary flowed across the bottom in white-on-black letters. Two youngish men were playing a video game in another corner, while over by the sole window which was covered by venetian blinds, a group of three men lounged at a table. Two men sat at the bar together and another two separately. Behind the counter, at the far end, the young man who had been pulling the pork on my previous visit, packed glasses from a dishwasher crate onto the racks above the bar, his baseball cap perched backwards on his head. I pulled a stool away, put my helmet near my feet and sat down. A tortoiseshell cat sidled against my legs, and then disdaining the hand that I reached down, wandered away. The barman pushed a small bowl of peanuts toward me and took my order. “D’you need a glass?” he asked as he slid the bottle across to me.
“Naah. Bottle’s fine.”
“Two sixty, or d’you want to run a tab?”
“One’s fine.” I put three singles on the counter and turned my attention to the TVs. But there was nothing there to hold my interest, and my eyes dropped to the slim figure unpacking the dish washer, his sinewy arms moving tray after tray of glasses. My mind, however, was thinking of the trial. Mike had appeared confident and unfazed, but I knew he would be burning inside as he sought for any chink in the apparently impenetrable wall of evidence.
“Three Miller Lights, please.” The voice came from a man standing next to me. I turned slightly and recognized him as the blond guy of the three from the table. As the barman swept the empty bottles from the mahogany and rummaged for their replacements in the small chiller, the guy turned to me. “What do those two yellow bars on your helmet mean? I keep seeing them on cars, but never know what they’re for.”
‘Oh man!’ I thought, ‘I really don’t need this now.’ Aloud I said, “It’s an equals sign. It’s the logo of the HRC — Human Rights Campaign.”
“Oh. Like those people in places in Asia? Tibet or something.” He pronounced it tie-bet.
“Nope. It’s for gay rights here in the States. Gays, lesbians, transgendered and bi folk.” I turned away and took a slug of my beer, indicating that I considered the conversation over. There are times I’m prepared to die on this particular hill, but that evening I had other battles to fight.
“So what brings you to Moultrie? We getting some Gay Pride parade here?” I turned my head in time to see him give a wink to the bar tender. I returned to my beer, ignoring him, but he persisted. “So why are you here?”
“My partner’s the defense attorney in a trial up in Camilla.”
The blond pulled six singles off a small roll of bills and put them on the counter. Pushing his hand into the front pocket of his jeans he pulled out two quarters. He studied them for a couple of seconds as though their appearance was a surprise, and then added them to the notes as a tip.
“Figures. Faggot killer, faggot lawyer.”
Even without booze in me, that was a challenge, and I began to uncoil from the bar stool, but my boots had barely touched the floor when I felt a hand on my forearm. “Leave it. The trash ain’t worth it.”
I turned toward the voice and saw the serious eyes of a black man looking back at me. His face was lean, his body wiry, and there were just the first few traces of gray in the short hair.
I sighed, and relaxed. “Yeah. I guess.”
The blond picked up the bottles and, as he turned, flapped his elbows and made the squawking sounds of a chicken.
“Welcome to Moultrie,” my neighbor said resignedly. “It takes a bit longer down here for some folk to move into the new century,” he added.
“There’s always one or two everywhere,” I replied, lifting my eyes from the beer bottle I had been staring at in frustrated anger.
“Terrel Williams,” he said holding out his hand.
I wiped the condensation off my palm onto my jeans and held mine out. “Chris Lawrence,” I replied as we shook.
“Where you from?” he asked after a second or two.
“Kirkhall Island. A tad down the coast from Savannah.”
My companion nodded and considered this information for a while. “So you’re involved with the Goodwin trial.” It came out as a statement. “That’s a bad one.” He pondered a while. “You said you were a friend of the lawyer. Do you work for him?”
I considered his words. I did not think I could articulate in words that he would understand exactly why I was down here. Truth said, I wasn’t sure I understood that myself. I figured that Steve and I loaded Mike’s job with some emotional baggage, and somehow I figured that by being there I could tell him it didn’t matter. And, nope, I could definitely not explain that adequately to a stranger.
“He’s my partner. Not really. Sometimes I do some research for him. Computer or tech stuff. Don’t know that there’s any in this trial, though.”
My neighbor pursed his lips, then lifted his bottle and drained it. “That’s going to be a hard fight,” he observed as he put it down.
“Don’t tell me. I sat through a whole day of things not going his way.”
“Things don’t always go the way we want.” He studied his bottle, and then pointed at mine with the neck of his. “How ’bout I buy you another. Just to show you that we’re not all redneck hicks down here.”
I mulled his offer over. Normally one drink is my limit when I’m on the bike, but I figured I might need someone to walk out of that bar with me later. “Thanks. I’d appreciate that.”
“Your health,” I said when I had a full beer in my hand.
“Good luck to your friend,” was the reply.
“He needs it.” It’s a simple word, so why is the word ‘partner’ so difficult for a hetero tongue to get around?
But I let that thought slide, and we lapsed into general, everyday conversation. I learned that he was married, that he had a kid who was a senior at high school, that he rented land and raised corn and cotton and made little money from it. I told him about where I lived, about Mike, about my origin and immigration, about my job.
“Computer man, huh?” he said when I mentioned my work. “Know anything about PCs?”
“A bit. What’s the problem?”
“It’s my son’s PC. He got it second hand on eBay. He thought it was going to be fast, but it’s real slow. He’s working on some science fair project, and it takes a long time to do stuff.”
“Is it slow the whole time? Or just when he does certain things, like big calculations, or internet access?”
“I don’t know. I think the whole time from what he says, but I don’t know much about computers.” He gave a small smile. “I can Google stuff and do email and that’s about all.”
“Has he said whether he’s defragged his hard drive?”
He shrugged. “Don’t know.”
“It’s difficult to say. His disk could need defragging — that’s kinda easy: he can run it overnight.” I sipped at the beer. There were a hundred possibilities, but without being in the driver’s seat it was impossible to do any serious debugging.
“Let me write that down,” he said, pulling a ball point out of his pocket and reaching for a napkin. “What was that? De-what?”
“Defrag.” I watched him write the word in block capitals. I wondered if the kid knew how to do that. “Look, why don’t I drop by sometime and walk him through it?”
“Is it that difficult?”
“Depends. If he’s PC-savvy, no. If he isn’t, well then it’d take some time. And that mightn’t be the problem — might be something else. I could come by tomorrow afternoon sometime. The trial will probably adjourn at about 4:30.”
“I don’t want to be taking up your time,” he said. He thought for a few seconds. “The thing is, that he’s really trying to make good grades, he wants to get into college, and if this would help.” He let the sentence hang.
“I could come around later tonight if he’s not doing anything.”
“That would be mighty nice of you, sir. But you sure it’s not taking you away from something you need to be doing?”
“I doubt it. Mike’ll probably work with the other guy from his office until about midnight.”
“Well, in that case why don’t you come have some food with us? Might save you some time, and I wouldn’t feel we were imposing on you so badly.”
“That’d be good. Thanks. It’s not going to be a problem for your family?”
“Problem?” He laughed. “Food is something my wife ain’t never had a problem with. Always more’n enough to go round. And she’ll enjoy talking with you. Not often that folk from out of town come round.”
And so it was settled. Once outside I preflighted my bike and, while I did, called Mike to tell him of my dinner plans. The call went to voicemail, and I left a message with scant details telling him that I’d be back at the hotel a little later. As I zippered my jacket I noticed Terrel on the other side of the parking lot with his cell phone to his ear, and I guessed he was calling his wife to let her know there’d be one extra at their table that night. I was just swinging my leg over the saddle when the three men from the bar came out.
“Looks like a fairy bike to me,” said the blond guy loud enough for me to hear. “Not man enough to ride a Harley, huh?” The other two laughed.
“I could ride a Harley if I wanted to make noise instead of ride fast,” I said, fastening my helmet strap.
The three came closer and I began to feel a little vulnerable.
“Want to head out of town a tad and have a race?” the blond asked.
“Naah. I got other plans.” The blond guy gave a short laugh and, once again, flapped his arms and squawked.
“Come on, Jay, leave him alone. Let’s go.” It was another of the trio, a guy with black hair and a camouflage baseball cap, who spoke. I shifted my gaze. A pair of straight black brows highlighted well-spaced, brown eyes, and a longish nose led down to a mouth that had no dimples or laugh lines around it. I held his gaze for a few seconds then he turned and walked back to where three pickup trucks were parked. The other two hesitated, but just then Terrel drove up next to me in his car and they began to move away. I kicked the side-stand up and turned the key in the ignition, and by the time I was leaving the parking lot I saw my blond tormentor climb into the cab of a red pickup truck with long yellow flames painted down its sides.
I followed the dusty green Taurus out of the town and headed north, the buildings thinning out to be replaced by fields of corn and cotton and tobacco. Several miles later Terrel slowed and took a left onto a gravel road. I followed him gingerly, being careful not to jerk on the power and get my rear wheel into a slide. A couple of metal-sided buildings and a railroad crossing made the quintessential rural American scene, and a short distance further Terrel pulled up and signaled me to come alongside. Pointing to a house on the right he said, “That’s the Honeycutt house — where Mr. Bradley died.” I edged the Ninja forward so I could see it better. It wasn’t a plantation house, but nonetheless it was, for the area, a fairly grand residence. Set back from the road about two hundred feet, the twin porches that ran along the first and second stories were shaded by tall oaks that must have stood for at least a century. A gravel driveway edged by poplars wound from a pair of wrought-iron gates past the front door and circled to the back. Between road and house was a well-trimmed lawn.
Terrel pulled up next to me. “That road over there,” he pointed to a small intersection about sixty yards past the house, “is where the sheriff’s boys found the guy in the trial sleeping in his truck. Bout half a mile up.
“Other side of the road, those are my fields.” I swiveled my eyes to where rows and rows of young corn-stalks stretched back from the road in diagonal rows to disappear on the not-too-distant horizon. “I rent them from the Honeycutts.” That was a surprise to me. What was the probability of me meeting a person who rented land from the man my ex was supposed to have killed?
“Can we go up there?”
“If you like. It only goes about half a mile. Mainly for the harvesters to get to the field.”
I shifted into first and with the engine idling, gently felt my way up amongst the ruts on the uneven road. Two gates, one on either side of the road, came into view. I pulled up and cut the engine. Terrel stopped behind me and walked up to where I was.
“That gate back there,” he said, pointing to the right, “that’s the one that goes to that cave where he died. That’s the one where they say your friend’s client went in. They found his truck about quarter of a mile down thataway.” He pointed to where the road disappeared over a low rise.
I unbuckled the strap and pulled the helmet off my head. The scent of warm dust surrounded me. Next to the gate on the left, a large concrete tank held water, dark and unmoving and streaked with algae. A bird, about the size of a pigeon but with gray and brown feathers and a long beak, was pecking at the ground next to the tufts of grass and weeds at the tank’s base. We were out of sight of the main road and everything here was still. If I moved I could hear the sand under my boots, and when small eddies of air came and went the corn moved gently and barely sighed.
What had been in Steve’s mind when he came up this road?
“Let’s go,” I said after a minute. There was nothing to be gained by morbid curiosity or maudlin thoughts.
Terrel and his family’s home was not as grand as the Honeycutt’s, but it was still larger than others in the area. The house itself was barely visible from the road, nestled amongst a small grove of trees that would keep the hottest part of the summer sun at bay. A tall, imposing woman, solid yet not fat, the sternness of her face belied by the creases around the eyes that deepened when she smiled, greeted me, and when she mentioned her name, Francelle, her voice had the gentle lilt of the South.
Zachary, or rather Zack as he later told me was his preference, was a younger image of his father. The broad shoulders, squared back, the forehead that already had the creases of inquisitiveness, the unwavering eyes which held mine when he spoke, had all come down in the paternal genes. With introductions complete, and with dinner still a quarter hour away, Terrel and I accompanied Zack to his room. The young guy immediately sat down and began to demonstrate some of his issues he was having, and asked what I thought about them. I directed him to clear his history and cache to prevent any embarrassment, and then, pulling up a chair, took over. As I had thought, the hard drive had a mere ten percent free space, and the map was awash in the red bars indicating fragmented files. We could at least start the defrag while we had dinner, I thought, so turned my attention elsewhere. Bouncing AIM helped speed up the internet by at least fifty percent and enabled me to download and install Spybot and AdAware.
By the time Francelle’s voice came up the stairs announcing the meal time, things were starting to look a bit better, and after setting the defrag program running, we left Zack’s den for the dining room.
The dinner was good and, as Terrel had said, the food plentiful. The conversation flowed steadily. We started with the trial and gently probed around that since it was plain that the consensus in the family was that Steve was the culprit. But when we moved on to Savannah, Darien, and Kirkhall, there was a lot of interest, and the concept of my telecommuting was novel to them. “So,” Zack said as he placed knife and fork together on his empty plate, and when he was feeling more comfortable with me, “if you and this guy live together, like who is the husband and who is the wife? Do you stay home and do the cooking and…”
“Zachary Williams,” Francelle reprimanded, “you hush now!” Turning to me with a hand covering her embarrassed mouth she apologized, “I’m so sorry, Chris. What must you think of us?”
“Hey, Francelle, it’s OK. It’s not a problem for me. I reckon it’s a fair question. Down here, Zack’s probably never come across a household like mine and Mike’s, and I think it’s good that he’s curious. Zack, it’s not like we have rigid roles. I mean, because I’m at home most of the time, during the week I’ll most often make the dinner at night, but Mike likes to cook, too, and we’ll cook together at the weekend. Basically we share the chores. We both clean, we both do laundry whenever we have the time.”
Zack nodded. “OK.” I suspected there were a lot more questions he might have liked to ask, but he knew his parents would probably have boxed his ears if he did — and that I very likely wouldn’t have given him the details, either.
I declined dessert, but Zack took a bowl of ice cream up to his room when we went back up. For an hour or so, I tweaked various settings, removed a whole lot of useless software, and by that time his system was working pretty well.
“So what’s the science project you’re working on?” I asked as I started AdAware for a final run.
“I’m working on the types of diatoms found in the dams and ponds and rivers around here. I want to show how the speed of the water movement can affect the types that live in different places.”
My synapses started firing. Why was the word diatom familiar? Oh yeah, the medical examiner had mentioned finding them in Honeycutt’s organs. “They’re those real small things that live in water, right?” I said.
“Yup. They live in pretty much all water. And they’re important, too. Diatoms take more carbon out of the atmosphere than the Brazilian rain forest.”
“Wow! How’d they do that?”
“It’s through photosynthesis; diatoms turn carbon dioxide into organic carbon and, in the process, generate oxygen. Then they sink down and the carbon goes into the ground at the bottom.”
“Photosynthesis? So they need sunlight?”
“Yes. Cycles of sunlight and dark, really.”
“But they wouldn’t live in totally dark places?”
“A few might. Most not.”
“So you wouldn’t find many in a cave or a borehole.”
“I don’t know about caves. Not naturally, but if the water in them is coming from outside, they could be there. I’ve sampled a few boreholes. There are some diatoms in the water, but not many. The longer the water has been underground before getting to the borehole I would guess would mean fewer diatoms. But I’ve never seen a sample of borehole water that held very many. Ponds hold a lot, though.”
I thought about this for a few seconds, absently staring at the screen as the program ran through the hundreds of files the kid had on his drive.
“If I were to give you some names of diatoms, could you tell me where they come from?”
“Not for sure, but probably.”
I flipped my cell phone open and hit the speed-dial for Mike. “Hey, Chris, what’s up?” His voice was terse and I knew I was interrupting something.
“Mike, do you or Don have a list of those diatom things that medical examiner was talking about today?”
“No, Chris. It’ll be in the transcript. We didn’t take any notes about that.” He didn’t ask me why I wanted to know, so I guessed I was trespassing on some deep brain-storming session.
“OK. No sweat. Thanks.” I flipped the cover closed.
“What’s going on?” Terrel asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “It was just an idea I wanted to try out.” Probably nothing — anyway the medical examiner was local: he would surely know about these things.
AdAware ended, showing an exe file that I knew I’d removed earlier. Damn! It was obviously a Trojan. I logged onto one of the tech sites I visited regularly, and sure enough found a hit. But the news wasn’t all bad: they had a step-by-step removal procedure which I printed off then sat back and watched while Zack cleaned his PC up.
We were on step three when my cell phone rang. I looked at the little screen, but didn’t recognize the number. “Hi, this is Chris.”
Ah — Mike’s associate. I wondered what he wanted. “Hey, Don. What’s going on?”
“Those atom names you wanted…”
“Yeah. Right. Diatoms. I’ve got the report here from discovery, and there’s a list of them. What’re you looking for?”
“Don, I’m going to give my phone to a guy here. Can you dictate those names to him? He knows all about this sh… this stuff, and I want to ask him about it.”
“OK. What’s this about?”
“I dunno yet. Not until I can talk to this guy about them. His name’s Zack, by the way.”
I handed my cell over to Zack who looked puzzled. I pushed a writing pad over toward where he sat. “The guy’s name is Don. He’s a lawyer. Write down the names of the diatoms he’ll tell you.”
For a few seconds Zack and Don engaged in the awkward ritual of cold-call introduction, but then Zach began to write. Line after line. Words like Cocconeis and Gomphonema, Pinnularia and Achnanthidium flowed off the ball point onto the sheet.
“So what did you make of all that?”
“What was I supposed to make of it? I mean they’re all diatoms. Find them in any of a hundred ponds around here.”
“What about boreholes.”
Damn! That blew my theory.
“But probably not all at once — not in big numbers,” Zack added.
“What do you mean?”
Zack pushed the paper back onto the table, and stared at it. “I mean, if I take a sample of water from any pond around Moultrie, I’m going to find all of those. But if I take a sample from any borehole, I might get two, maybe three of them.”
I said nothing, frightened that I would put a jinx on my theory.
“Unless there’s a big flood.”
“When last did you have a flood like that around here?” I asked, not sure that I wanted to hear the answer.
“Not in the last two years,” Zack said.
“Rain like you’re talking about — 2002,” Terrel interjected.
“So let’s get this straight,” I said. “If you had a sample with all those diatoms in it, you would think it unlikely the water came from a borehole?”
“Yeah, man. No way that sample would come from anywhere but a pond — or maybe a river.”
“How about a cave? Could that sample come from water in a cave?”
Zack rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t know. Depends where the water in the cave came from, I guess. Like if the cave was on a river or something, maybe.”
“How about that cave on Honeycutt’s farm?”
“No. Any water in there would be seepage. Ain’t no pond or river within half a mile from that.”
“Ain’t no pond?” Terrel said.
“I mean there is no pond or a river anywhere near that cave,” Zachary corrected himself while, unseen by his father, his eyes rolled.
“There’s the water tank across the road in my fields,” Terrel said thoughtfully, “But the water from that goes the other way, onto the corn for irrigation. None of that would go into the cave.”
“I thought you said you were using the wells for irrigating,” Zack said.
“I was when I just had those fields with corn. Now that the west fields have got corn, too, the pumps drop the water level too low, so I supplement the flow from the tank and fill it up later after the irrigation is done.”
“Would that emptying and filling up change the diatoms?” I asked.
“I haven’t seen it change,” said Zack, “I would think that the mix stays the same, but the total count might drop.”
“Man, I wish you could tell this to Mike, Zack. I think it might give him a break. What time do you have a recess at school tomorrow?”
“Lunchtime. About 11:45.”
“I guess that’ll have to do then.
“Could he come around now and talk to Zack?” asked Terrel.
“I can ask him. Isn’t it too late for you?”
“It’s only half past eight,” Zack pointed out.
Once again I pulled out my cell phone and called Mike. “Hi, Chris. Where are you?” He was not as short with me as he had been before.
“I’m still out at the folks where I had dinner.
“Mike, remember that medical examiner who was spouting out all those Latin names of things he’d found in Honeycutt’s gut?”
“In his organs, I think.”
Geez, don’t get bogged down in the semantics, Mike. “Whatever. Mike, there’s a guy here that knows about those things. He says they didn’t come from borehole water.”
There was a silence, then “How sure is he?”
“Well, like all science it’s a probability, but it’s a high one.”
“Is this guy a scientist?”
“Naah. He’s a high school student, but these diatom things are his science fair project.”
“Geez-us, Chris, I’m not going to put a kid on the stand to refute a medical doctor.”
“Mike, I think you need to come see this guy’s work. It’s thorough. And his displays are for a high school science project: they are clear enough for the jury to understand.”
Again there was silence. “Can you or Don come out here tonight, now?” I asked.
“I guess. Yeah, I guess I could. It’s not that we’ve got a whole lot of any other evidence.”
“Mike, it’s good stuff.” I gave him directions.
While we waited for Mike to arrive, I finished cleaning up Zack’s PC. The next run of AdAware was clear.
“So how does it run now?” I asked as I relinquished my seat at the keyboard.
Zack logged onto the internet and selected a PDF. The document opened up in about two seconds. “Man, that’s fast,” he grinned. He went into PowerPoint and started the slide show that I guessed was going to accompany his presentation. “Wow, Chris, this is going so smoothly. It used to jerk the whole time with the animations.”
It took about twenty minutes for Mike to arrive. He still wore his suit, but the tie had gone and his shirt was open, showing the gold chain — a present from me the previous Christmas — that hung from his neck across his chest. I went through the introductions, Mike accepted the offer of a cup of coffee, and we went upstairs. Zack sat at the computer, Mike next to him, while Terrel and I sat on the bed and watched. It took Zack about five minutes to explain what he had told me and to show Mike charts on his display and tables on his PC. That Mike was impressed was shown by his demeanor: the kid gloves of social politeness came off and he went into full cross-examination mode, asking questions, cutting the answers off if they seemed to be wandering off point. How accurate were the results? How repeatable were the experiments? Did they compare or contradict any other studies? Was there any other place where the water could come from?
“I need to put you on the witness stand,” he said after about half an hour during which Zack had not flinched once under the barrage of questions. “It’d probably be tomorrow afternoon.”
“I could do that. Court appearance would be an excused absence.” He looked across at his father who gave a slow nod.
“When would we know the time for sure,” he asked.
“I can tell you in the morning. Whenever it is, I’ll have Don or Russ come by and pick you and your displays up, and on the way to Camilla whoever it is can prep you for the testimony.”
Something had been said earlier in the room and had been hanging around in my subconscious imparting a feeling of unease. While Mike had been grilling Zack over the diatom studies, my mind had drifted back to the courtroom and suddenly the import of the remark snapped into focus.
“Terrel, what was that you were saying about the pumps causing the water level to drop?”
“Oh, that. As you pump water out of a borehole, the level of the water drops until the surrounding water starts seeping in to take its place. If there’s just one borehole it’s not a big issue, but I’ve got about three boreholes that are only a few hundred yards apart, and the inflow can’t keep up. The level drops and the pumps can’t deliver the quantity, so I have a valve that lets water from the tank supplement what the pumps put out.”
“Would the pumping Steve — I mean the accused guy — was supposed to have used have the same effect?”
“Not too much. I seem to remember reading that that was a small pump. And it was only one, so the water would’ve dropped some, but not a lot.”
“Nice try, Chris,” Mike said, “but they did the test live, remember, and got the timings, so that would’ve taken the drop into account.”
“What if Terrel had been pumping at the same time, though? What time do you irrigate,” I asked turning to my host.
“Mornings. 8am or thereabouts.”
“See, his pumping could have made a difference.”
“I don’t irrigate every day, though. Maybe just a couple of times a week.”
“Do you have records of when you water?” I asked.
“Yes I keep track of the irrigation schedule — as well as the rain — so I can keep the watering constant.”
“Would you have them for June last year?”
“Hmmm…A year ago? That’s last year’s crop. Maybe. Let me go see.” He stood up and walked from the room.
“Would that be a big deal in your case?” Zack asked.
“I don’t know,” Mike said uncertainly. “Guess it depends how much the time difference is.”
Terrel came back into the room with an old spiral-bound notebook. He dusted it off with his hand and then started to page through it. “What day?”
“June 20th,” Mike said, and I could see his jaw muscles tighten.
“Yup. Irrigation on North and West fields from 08:00 to 08:40. All three pumps. It must have used some tank water, too, because pump number one stayed on for another hour, so that means it was topping off the tank.”
“Would that have pulled the water level down on Honeycutt’s borehole?” I asked.
“Oh yes. Pump one is a little bit to one side, so if it took an hour to top off the tank the underground level must have dropped fairly significantly. At normal levels it would completely fill the tank in about forty minutes.”
“Oh my God,” I said.
“It could make things look a bit different,” Mike said cautiously.
The four of us trooped downstairs to where Francelle was sitting watching TV. She turned it off, and we sat around discussing what we had uncovered.
“The Lord sure moves in mysterious ways,” she said when our discourse stopped. “To think, if you and Terrel had not met tonight, Chris, an innocent man might have… Oh!” she put her hand to her mouth.
“What, Ma?” Zack asked with the barely-concealed tolerance teenagers reserve for anyone over twenty-two.
“Well, if Mike’s client didn’t do it, it means someone else did, uh-huh? And who is that, is what I’m awondering?”
“Well fortunately I don’t have to provide the lamb as substitute for Abraham’s son,” Mike replied. “All I’ve got to do is show either my client could not have done it or there is an equal probability that someone else could have.”
“It’s not going to be that simple though,” Mike said to me an hour later when he, Don and I were sitting in the study part of our suite, beers in hand.”
“Why not?” I asked. “I bet that water level drop is going to throw their timeline way out — far enough where Steve would’ve had to still be there when the housekeeper came back from the doctor.”
“Dentist,” Don said.
“If the jury buys it,” Mike added.
“Why wouldn’t they?”
“Because juries basically trust that the police and their lab folk are above reproach. I’ve got to convince them that I’m not the out-of-town magician trying to stuff their rabbit back into the hat.”
“Why don’t you go on the offensive and use this to get the evidence of the test thrown out?” suggested Don.
“No, I need that evidence in. I just need her to say I’m right.” Don raised his eyebrows and nodded. Mike took a swig from the bottle. “I’ve got a bigger problem,” he went on, turning to me. “Steve’s binge that afternoon. The DA is bringing on some psychiatrist whacko who is going to say this is very much in line with a guy who has committed a big crime and is remorseful, and very much out of line for a guy who has just been thrown a lifeline.”
“So,” I argued, “you bring on an unwhacko psychiatrist who says that Steve’s drinking was quite plausible.”
“And then,” Mike said with a little note of exasperation creeping into his voice, “what I’ve got is a stalemate. One expert says one thing and the other expert says the opposite. What happens then? The evidence is out on the table. Don’s been out to speak to the barman, and he says Steve was as drunk as a skunk, that he’d been downing beers for a long time. So what will the jury do? They’ll apply their own reasoning to it and that will say that, yeah, a guy who has just got a reprieve does not go and drink himself into a stupor.
“And I’m fucked!”
“What does Steve say about the drinking?”
“That he was happy,” said Don in a monotone, spacing out each word to make it clear he wasn’t buying it.
By eleven that night we were tired and Mike was already in the bed when I finished in the bathroom. Turning out the lights I walked over to the window to open the heavy drapes. The hotel lot was about half full of cars, and there was only the occasional vehicle on the main road. I was just about to turn away when I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. At the far end of the lot, the driver’s door of a pickup had opened. I watched as a man got out, reached back in and pulled something off the dash. As he walked toward the lobby I noticed the camouflage baseball cap on his head and the trim body.
Holy crap! It was the black-haired guy from the bar, and right outside the hotel entrance was my bike.
“What the fuck are you doing?” said Mike as I hopped on one foot toward the door trying to drag my jeans on at the same time.
“Someone’s messing with my bike, “I yelled as I made it through the door. I ran to the end of the corridor, and took the fire escape stairs two at a time. As I burst into the lobby I saw red tail lights pulling out of the driveway and the night receptionist coming out of the office rubbing sleep from his eyes and staring at me as though I were crazy.
“Is everything all right?” he asked.
“Someone was at my bike,” I yelled as I battled with the revolving doors.
“They’re locked,” the receptionist said.
The Ninja was still standing exactly where I’d left it. I walked around it looking at the cables, the chain, the tires, but nothing appeared to be awry. What had black-haired guy done? I was convinced he had been after my bike. And then I spotted it: a piece of paper hanging from my front brake cable, attached with a small sliver of duct tape. I pulled it off, and in the light from the foyer read the words in neat block capitals: ‘YOU’RE ASKING THE WRONG GUY. ASK A GUY LIKE YOU.’
The night air blew across my bare chest making me shiver, and with a final glance over the bike, I walked back inside. “Everything OK?” the receptionist asked. He gave me a strange look. I guess guys bolting through the lobby in the middle of the night were not really common in Moultrie, Georgia.
“Yeah. Seems like it is.” I replied, heading for the elevators.
Once Mike had let me back into the room, I sat on the bed and showed him the note.
“You think this refers to Terrel?” Mike asked.
“I dunno. This guy would have no idea what I talked to Terrel about — when we left the bar, all I was going to do was fix his kid’s PC. As far as I know he’s only seen me in the bar. I thought for a second, “D’ya think he could be talking about what Don’s been doing? That the bar tender is the wrong guy?”
“Dunno.” He thought for a while. “It’s possible, I guess. What’s this ‘guy like you’ stuff?”
“I have absolutely no idea. I don’t know what it means. Out-of-towner? Motorcyclist? Nerd? I don’t know.”
Mike studied the note for a long time. Eventually he looked up at me and asked, “How sure are you that the guy in the parking lot was one of the guys from the bar last night?”
“About 98 percent.”
He mulled that over for a while. “OK. So let’s say it is one of those folk. What did they know about you?”
I considered his question. That I lived near Savannah. No, I told Terrel that later. That I was a motorcyclist, that I was gay, that my partner was a lawyer. I spoke the list out loud.
“OK. How many other motorcyclists have you seen?”
“I dunno. Maybe two since I’ve been here.”
“At the bar?”
“How many gays have you seen?”
“Mike, you know I don’t look at other guys since I met you.”
“Only when you’re asleep, and then you dream of them. So how many?”
I shook my head. “Zip. This is straightsville, man.”
“You know, I’m betting that that’s not what this guy thinks,” Mike said holding up the paper. “Who was in the bar that might have looked like a mo to a hetero?”
I thought of everyone at the bar. It was a Small Town America cross section. Jeans were the uniform. Ts were slightly ahead of other types of shirt, there were no button-down Oxfords and I was the only person wearing a polo. There were no muscle shirts or tank tops. I mentally reviewed my surroundings. A butt, clasped in tight jeans, a dish towel hanging from the left back pocket. Garrison belt. White T- shirt. An image began to take form in the darkness of my mind, as though through the liquid of a developing tray. “Well, there was this one guy. He’s like a gofer. Does the meat in the smokehouse, packs glasses away.”
“What was he wearing?”
“Black jeans that hugged his butt, black leather belt, brown hiking boots, white T-shirt with the logo of some radio station, sleeves rolled up, brown bead necklace… what the fuck has this got to do with the note?”
“Nothing,” Mike smiled and, reaching out, rubbed my neck and jaw with the back of his fingers. “Just trying to see how much you watched him. Note-boy sure noticed you looking, apparently.”
“Hey, at least we think we know who to go talk to.” He looked over at me. “Did you go running into the lobby dressed like that?”
“Yeah. Well there wasn’t time to put a shirt or shoes on.”
Mike pursed his lips slightly and nodded. He said nothing for a second or two, then, “No time to pull your zipper closed either.”
Oh fuck! No wonder the desk clerk had given me such a weird look as I walked back in. Mike reached his hand inside my jeans. “Don’t worry,” he murmured as I flopped back onto the bed, “if there’s a public indecency charge I’ll get you off on a plea of temporary insanity.”
The next morning I had a conference call to attend to about a project I was leading, and by the time I reached the court room I was the last in the line of public spectators. Don’s seat at the defense table was empty, and I guessed that Mike had sent him off to interview the guy at the bar. Once the jury had been seated and we had stood for the judge, the GBI technician took the stand and Mike began his cross examination.
At first it was bland. He elicited an admission that, while Steve’s fingerprints had been found on some of the wrenches, none, of his or anyone else’s, were found on the wrench that had been used on the borehole cover. But having conceded this, she dashed my hopes by pointing out that workmen would frequently wipe their tools clean after use and then, still holding them with the rag, return them to the tool box. Mike returned to the defense’s table and picked up a tool box and placed it on the ledge of the witness box. Pulling a stainless steel bolt from the box, he asked the witness to select a wrench that would fit its head. She rummaged through the wrenches, picked one which was too big, but the second one fitted. Mike smiled encouragingly, handed her a clean piece of cloth and told her to clean the wrench and return it to the box. Once she had done that he walked a step or two away then turned.
“Ms. Reed, if you were to take this box back to your lab, on how many of the tools would you expect to find your fingerprints?”
“Well, just the wrench that didn’t fit,” she replied.
“What about the other tools that you had to move to get to the two wrenches you tried?”
“Oh…well yes… those, too, I guess.”
“So perhaps four or five?”
“Perhaps more? Maybe ten?”
“Maybe,” she shifted in her chair, “but some would be only partials.”
“So, in the tool box it would have been reasonable to expect that whoever needed to take the bolts off the borehole would have touched more tools than the wrench that actually turned those bolts?”
She hesitated, and then said, “Yes.”
“And did you examine the other tools for fingerprints?”
The witness looked toward the prosecutor’s table, but there was no aid to be had there. Eventually she responded, “No.”
“Oh. May I ask why not?”
“I was only asked to examine that wrench.”
“Why was that?”
“Well, it was the only one in the box that fitted the bolts on the cover. I had measured the heads of the bolts and determined ahead of time what wrench would be required.”
“Quite so. And whoever did use that wrench to turn the bolts would have measured them first, too?”
“Objection, your honor. The witness has no idea what anyone would have done.”
Mike pushed her further, and eventually drew out the information that the technician had examined only one wrench because that was what the District Attorney’s office had told her to do.
“So really, you were interested in only trying to prove that Mr. Goodwin had an opportunity to commit the crime, rather than find out if anyone else could have,” Mike said.
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“No, Ms. Reed? Then how would you explain it?”
The door at the back of the court opened, and Russ Hespen, the paralegal who worked with Mike and Don came in. In his hands were four or five binders, each with some twenty sheets of paper. He moved to the front of the spectator area and took a seat. At the defense table, Don quietly stood up, took a few steps back, and took the binders from him.
“Now, Ms. Reed, when you were on the stand previously you mentioned that you had determined the height to which the water in the cave had risen, is that correct?” With matter-of-fact questions, Mike gently elicited the fact that the GBI team had established how much water was required to fill the cave and from a subsequent test had shown that the pump from Steve’s truck could have filled the cave within the time parameters set by the DA’s office. As the witness’s confidence returned, her responses resumed the academic tone of the scientific observer.
“Ms. Reed, are you aware of drop down in boreholes?” Mike asked conversationally.
“Yes, sir, I am.”
“Just in case the term might be unfamiliar to the jury, could you put it into terms a layman could understand?”
Ms. Reed did a good job of explaining and, when Mike asked, she admitted that in the test they had run, the pump had initially delivered 180 gallons a minute whereas, at the end of the test, her team had measured only 120.
“And if the water in this borehole were to drop in this way, would you expect the level in boreholes nearby to drop as well?” Mike asked.
“It would depend on how far away they were. At the rate we were pumping. A borehole about a hundred yards away would see a drop of a couple of feet.”
“But if you had had a bigger pump, pulling out more water, the water in your borehole would have sunk more, and also in the borehole about 100 yards away.”
Still she was unaware of the gin Mike was leading her into. “Yes, sir, that would be correct.”
Mike turned to the defense table and picked up two of the binders Russ had brought. “Your honor, the defense would like to introduce into evidence the logs of irrigation from the farm adjacent to Mr. Honeycutt’s. These show the duration of irrigation on that farm each day it occurred.” He passed the books to the assistant DA, and he and his assistant pored over them for a minute.
“Your honor, we are not sure of the relevance of these documents.”
“Your honor,” Mike explained, “these logs will show that on the day when the GBI test was run there was no other irrigation activity taking part in the vicinity of the borehole on Mr. Honeycutt’s farm. On the other hand, on the day when Mr. Honeycutt met his death, at the time when the prosecution alleges that Mr. Goodwin was pumping water into the cave, there were three heavy-duty pumps pulling water from three boreholes on this farm. The nearest of these boreholes is ninety seven yards from the borehole on Mr. Honeycutt’s farm, another was one hundred ten yards away in a different direction and the third about one hundred forty yards away. The defense contends that this pumping activity would have impacted the water level sufficiently in the borehole on Mr. Honeycutt’s that the pump from Mr. Goodwin’s truck could not possibly have delivered the required amount of water into the cave in the time period when Mr. Goodwin’s whereabouts was unaccounted for.”
There was a general rustle in the courtroom, and the jury sat as one with their heads turned to the judge waiting for his next words.
“Mr. Libberton?” the judge asked.
“This is mere speculation, your honor. The boreholes are on a different farm.”
“Your honor,” Mike said, holding his hands out in amazement, “the water table is not cognizant of farm boundaries.”
“Yes, Mr. Jorgensen, the court is aware of that,” he said in a resigned voice. “You may enter your evidence.”
Giving copies to the witness, Mike led her through the columns of numbers until she reached the conclusion that the conditions under which the test had been conducted were significantly different from those on the day of Honeycutt’s death.
“Your honor, the defense requests that the court order the tests to be redone under similar conditions to those on June 20th last year.”
“If the defense is willing to cover the costs, they can go ahead,” Libberton said. “We do not believe the new tests will show any significant difference in the results.”
“Your honor, defense is working the case pro bono. This is not rebuttal evidence, it is tightening up sloppy testing methods that were made by the State, in the area where those testers reside and thus could reasonably be presumed to know the variation of conditions under differing circumstances.”
“The court is inclined to agree with counsel. Expert witnesses are supposed to be experts. Ms. Reed, how quickly can these tests be completed?”
“The pump and pipes are in the sheriff’s evidence room, your honor, so that would be no problem. It would depend on how quickly the neighboring farm people can organize their irrigation.”
“Your honor, Mr. Terrel Williams, who rents the farm in question, is waiting for a call. He can be ready to do his part within a quarter hour of being called.”
“Very well, unless Mr. Libberton has any objections, the witness may step down and proceed with these tests and report back to this court by tomorrow with her results. Bailiff, please assign a deputy to accompany Ms. Reed to the test.”
The next witness the assistant DA called was a small man dressed in a brown suit. The lack of hair on his bald pate was more than compensated by a pair of black, bushy eyebrows that extended a good inch on either side of his head. Vaughan was his name, and he was the handwriting expert. His testimony was concise. The check had been written in block capitals, a style that, if done slowly and deliberately, could conceal any individual characteristics. Led by the assistant DA, and with the aid of large blown-up photographs of characters, both individually and in groups, he testified that the writing on the check in no way matched the samples of block capital writing done in a normal hand by the late Mr. Honeycutt. He projected an image of the signature field of the check taken from Steve onto the screen, and then added another specimen from a different check below it. With the aid of a laser pointer he detailed differences in slopes and flourishes, spacing and direction, and declared the signature on Steve’s check was a rather hasty tracing.
“Mr. Vaughan,” the assistant DA asked him when he stopped speaking, “what is the number on that check?” The image on the screen changed to the entire check, and the little red dot of the laser pointer circled the number in the top left corner as the witness voiced them, “four one three four.”
The assistant DA picked up the check book and handed it to the witness. “And what is the last check number recorded in the check book?”
I watched as the witness thumbed through a few pages, his eyebrows moving slightly as each page turned. Finally he held the check book up, open at the page, and said, “four one three three.”
“So the check found on the defendant on the night Mr. Honeycutt was killed was not recorded?”
“As though the check had not been written by Mr. Honeycutt himself?”
“Objection, your honor,” Mike said. ”The witness has no knowledge of when Mr. Honeycutt was in the habit of updating his check book.”
“No more questions, your honor.”
Mike’s cross examination was concise. “Mr. Johnston, as an expert, did you find any evidence in your studies that the writing on that check was done by Mr. Goodwin?”
“Thank you. No more questions.”
After the lunchtime recess, the bar tender was called to the stand. He testified that on June 20th Steve had indeed been in his bar, and had indeed consumed a prodigious amount of beer. In fact, he stated, it was the amount that one man drank that helped him remember the date. In response to Libberton’s question the barman told the court that Steve had seemed morose when he came in, and had become more and more so as the beer was consumed. He had spoken nothing to any other customer, and said little to the bar tender, but at some point had asked rhetorically, “What does one life matter?” Later, and under further questioning, the barman admitted that the only other person he could remember drinking so steadily in his time behind the bar was Mr. Dickard, and that that was when his son had been killed in a car accident. And then, replying to the assistant DA’s final question, he testified that Steve seemed short of cash and paid his bill with a credit card.
On cross examination Mike made little headway. He did manage to elicit an admission that, in the years he had been tending a bar, the man had seen people who had been seeking relief from stress find that relief in ways other than drinking excessively, but in counterpoint, I thought Mike took a big hit when, on questioning the man’s memory about the bill amount, the bar tender produced the copy of the credit card receipt, with Steve’s signature, which confirmed his testimony.
And, if possible, the next witness was even worse news for Mike. He was a psychiatrist who pontificated for an hour, quoting reference after reference, that a normal person — and his caveats about the term normal took the court through a further quarter hour of bombast — who had committed some horrendous deed, might well try to blot it out of his mind through the lethe of alcohol.
But even from this, what I considered, devastating testimony, Mike managed to pull a few embers, getting the witness to contradict, in similar detail, even some of his own testimony.
Not exactly a silver bullet for Mike, but at that moment any bullet would do.
As the witness left the stand, the assistant DA stood and announced that the prosecution was resting its case.
“Your honor,” Mike was on his feet, “the result of the new tests being carried out on the borehole is critical to the defense’s case and since the disregard of the external circumstances in the original tests clearly prejudices the rights of the defendant, we ask for a continuance until the outcome is available.”
“Your honor,” Libberton rose with a pained expression on his face, “we have fourteen jurors who have their lives interrupted. A continuance would cause further inconvenience on them and expense for the State.”
“Mr. Libberton,” the judge replied, “the convenience of the jurors and the expense of the trial, while being worthy of consideration, are trivial to the rights of the defendant.” He turned to Mike. “But perhaps we could find a compromise. Mr. Jorgensen, is there any way you could, perhaps, find a way to proceed?”
“I believe we could do that, your honor, but bearing in mind that evidence not yet available for scrutiny will be forthcoming, the defense requests flexibility in recalling witnesses to the stand after the new evidence has been presented.”
“That seems like a reasonable request, Mr. Jorgensen, but the court does not want this to be a fishing trip for facts, and will decide each request for a recall on an individual basis.”
“The defense will agree to that, your honor.”
From his facial expression it was clear he was not happy with the situation, but when he stood, he answered, “We have no objection your honor.”
With the formalities dispensed with, Mike stood up and, buttoning his suit jacket, walked toward the jury to make his opening statement. In the calm, dispassionate tones with which he explained the law to me on our deck over a glass of wine in an evening, he outlined the defense’s case. I only half listened. In my mind I was reliving a September night several years before. Steve had been competing as a novice in the motorcycle races at Road Atlanta. We had pitched our tents next to his pickup in the infield close to turn nine. It was about 11pm when another of the racers had come running up to our camp site to summon me because Steve was fighting in the heads. I had sprinted across the stubbly grass to the concrete structure to find a guy on the floor clutching his stomach, another in a stall trying to stanch the blood flowing from his nose, while Steve was holding the face of a third mere centimeters from the trough of the urinal and yelling at him that he had better be apologizing. It took the other rider and I a good five minutes to get Steve out of the bathroom and to manhandle him back to our camp site, and once we had him quieted down we had learned that he had gone to relieve himself, and, on stepping inside, had found the three men throwing insults at and generally hassling one of the novice racers — a slim youth in his late teens from the 125cc class — because he was gay. When the three had not heeded Steve’s warning to back off, something inside him snapped. Was that evening, I wondered, some presage of whatever had happened out on a farm near Moultrie?
I was recalled from my reverie by Mike announcing that the first witness the defense wished to call would be Professor Bastable of Georgia Tech. The professor was a small man, and spoke in gentle tones as he recounted his professional standing in the field of biology and enumerated the articles and books he had authored. Mike began by asking him to explain to the court what diatoms were, how they lived, and why they were to be found in almost any body of water.
With the calm voice of someone who was very familiar with his subject, and in terms that everyone could understand the professor coached the court.
“Your honor,” Mike said when the professor finished speaking, “the defense is going to produce evidence collected by someone who lives in Moultrie and who has studied the diatom population of the area in fair detail. However, due to the witness’s age and inexperience in public speaking, we would like Professor Bastable to remain on the witness stand in case it should be necessary for him to amplify or clarify some point. If counsel wishes to further inquire into the Professor’s qualifications, now would be a good time.”
“The State accepts the witness’s credentials,” the assistant DA said, “but we reserve the right to cross examine him if necessary at the conclusion of the testimony.”
“Could not this witness stand down and be recalled after the other testimony to explain it?” the judge asked Mike.
“Your honor, the defense feels that having both witnesses present will provide the court with the clearest understanding of the subject matter, which is rather technical in nature, and also, by having it presented in its entirety rather than piecemeal, it will speed up the process.”
“Very well, Mr. Jorgensen. Call your next witness, but the court wishes to instruct both witnesses before they begin to give their testimony.”
There was a stir in the courtroom when Zachary Williams, looking even younger in his starched white shirt and dark tie than he had the previous evening, came forward. Mike took the overhead projector out of standby mode and handed the mouse to the new witness.
Once he had taken the oath, the judge leaned forward and looked from Bastable to Zack. “Although this is not without precedent, it is unusual to have two witnesses testifying at the same time. The reason for that is that it can be disruptive to the orderly presentation of evidence. Nonetheless, the defense has stated that by having you both up here, explanations can be more readily given, and in the interests of expedience the court has agreed. However, this is a court of law and not a lecture hall or laboratory, and thus, aside from simple directions such as asking for the next slide to be shown, the witnesses will not engage in conversation or debate with each other. All answers to counsel’s questions will be delivered to counsel; all other comments will be addressed to the court.”
Mike began by taking Zack through a summary of his studies for the science fair, how he collected and stored samples, and how he prepared his microscope slides. As the student moved onto more familiar ground he became more self assured.
“Professor,” Mike asked, “would the procedures Mr. Williams has outlined here meet with the accepted standards for the collection and presentation of scientific data by an expert witness?”
“Yes. I would say he has done a very thorough and accurate job. University-level techniques in my opinion.”
And with that, Mike began to take Zack through the types of diatoms found in various locations around Moultrie. The jury heard in detail of the plethora of tiny creatures that inhabited pond and stream and dam.
“Do you have any examples of the diatoms found in boreholes?” Mike eventually asked.
“Only a few, sir,” Zack replied, “because there are a lot fewer diatoms found there.”
“Why is that?” Mike asked.
“Well, diatoms live through photosynthesis. That’s how they get their energy and nutrients. In a borehole there is no light, so mostly you get just a few that have filtered through cracks in the ground.” Clicking on the mouse, the student produced three more slides of the regularly shaped creatures and then said, “That’s all I’ve got.”
“Thank you very much, Mr. Williams. Now, if I had two large buckets filled with water, one with water from a pond, and one with water from a borehole, and if I were to take a glass of water from each of these buckets, which glass would you expect to have more different types of diatom?”
“Oh, the one from the pond, very definitely. There would be more in the bucket, so there’d be more in the glass.”
Turning his attention to the professor, Mike let him summarize and verify everything Zack had said. Handing him a sheet of paper, Mike asked, “Professor, this is a list of the diatoms the medical examiner found in Mr. Honeycutt’s organs. From your experience in the field and from what Mr. Williams has told us here this morning, would you say that the deceased had drowned in water from a borehole?”
“I would say that it is so unlikely as to be close to impossible. With that variety of diatoms inside him, it is almost certain he drowned in open water.”
“Thank you, Professor. Thank you, Mr. Williams. No more questions, your honor.”
This last was a telling point, and the assistant DA spent a great deal of time trying to trip Zack up, but the student had his facts straight and parried every question. The cross examination continued after the afternoon recess with the prosecution apparently determined to find a chink in the wall of reasoning that Mike had built. Eventually, when the assistant DA asked, seemingly for the twentieth time in varying formats, how come it was unlikely to get all the diatoms in borehole water, and Bastable was drawing a large breath to calm himself, Zack said, “It’s like my Dad smoking his pipe after dinner. When he’s the only one smoking there’s still enough air so’s my mom and I can still breathe, but when my uncles come around and all five of them are puffing away, there’s so much smoke that every breath we take our lungs fill with smoke until my mom gets the broom and chases all the men onto the porch.” The court erupted in laughter, and even as the judge banged his gavel for order, the tiny muscles at the edge of his mouth were being strained as they tried to prevent a smile from breaking out.
As the laughs died down, the assistant DA came to his senses and declared that he had no more questions for the witnesses and they were dismissed.
When court had been adjourned for the day I straddled the Ninja and rode back to Moultrie in a better frame of mind. Mike wasn’t in the room when I got to the hotel, but that was OK: I had some work to do. I shucked my jeans, slipped into a pair of jogging shorts and a sweatshirt, and put a call in to the local Pizza Hut to order my dinner. I pulled a beer from the fridge, and sitting down at my PC logged into my company’s VPN.
Within ten seconds the emails started coming in. I set to, and had answered most of them by the time the front desk called to say my pizza was on the way up. Balancing the pizza box on one hand I passed the green notes to the young guy in the doorway. He looked up to thank me for the tip and our eyes locked. For maybe ten seconds I stood there not wanting him to step back through the open doorway. I wanted to drag him in, kick the door shut, throw him on the bed and rip his clothes off. But then my mind cleared, and I watched him walk down the corridor until he turned the corner. I shut the door and reminded my hormones, as I had to about once a day, that they were not the mercenaries they once had been. I grinned to myself, cracked open a beer, slid a slice of pizza out of the box, and sat down at my keyboard.
The team I lead — well lead, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder: four guys, one woman, and I spend our days and nights trying to out-geek each other — work for a month or two at a time on control code for avionics. We test in simulators, and then head up to the FAA airfield in Atlantic City to have it tested in real life. Tension rides high: flight time costs money, and the flight crews don’t like having their time wasted. My boss maintains he can tell from the way we walk back from the aircraft after the test whether it was successful or not.
And so, from the manner in which Mike and Don walked into our hotel room that night, I knew things were not going well.
Once they had slouched into the two armchairs and I had placed cold beers in their hands I heard the story. The borehole tests had gone much as I had predicted, according to a phone call Mike had received from Terrel. The flow was seriously impacted by the water level drop, and the times were elongated. Then one of the local folk on the team pointed out that there were still pipes on the pickup that had not been used. By connecting them to the output side of the pump and lowering them down below the level of the pump, they acted as a siphon, the downward pressure in the pipe negating some of the effects of the head on the input side. They were testing into a small ravine rather than into the cave, and the GBI folk had moved Terrel away so he did not know the final outcome of the test, but as he walked back the test had started and he had heard that the flow had been increased by fifty to sixty gallons per minute. With this kind of change, the cave could have been filled in the two hours, even if the irrigation on Terrel’s farm had been going at full capacity.
This was a blow. Steve had worked with irrigation systems for years — this concept would be one he understood, maybe even used.
We sat in silence, occasionally Don would suggest a tactic they could try, but each time, as they talked it through, they would conclude that it either wouldn’t work or could backfire on them.
“Guys,” I said at some stage, “we can figure out if he used this. If he did like we thought he did, just putting the pipe to the entrance, there will be flow marks down the entrance shaft. If he used the pipes, these would be more concentrated, and very concentrated where the end of the pipe was.”
Mike cast a cold eye towards me. “Yeah, except these clowns didn’t think of this before they ran their first tests a few months ago, which washed away any previous splash marks.”
“Well the photographs will show them,” I exclaimed.
“Nope.” He took a swig. “The ones of the entrance shaft are not sharp enough, and because they didn’t foresee the impact of splashing they didn’t take any close-ups.”
I sat and thought about this for another ten minutes. Just as Mike drained his beer, I said, “Have you got a photograph of the back of Steve’s truck when the cops found it?”
“Don, do we?”
Don shrugged. “I guess. Somewhere. He got up and walked to the two long rows of concertina files standing against the wall and began to rummage through them. After a minute or two he stood up and handed me three black and white glossy photographs.
“Naah. It wouldn’t have worked,” I said.
“Why not?” Don asked.
“None of these pipes is joined.”
“They have a collar thing that you use to join them. The pipes slide into either side,” Don said. “The collar is tight, but it can be pulled apart.”
“Yeah. That’ll work while they’re lying down on the ground. But as soon as you hang them, they’ll come apart. Steve has only one long flexible tube on his truck, so that would be what he used to put down the borehole. He would have had to use collars on the others and if he did that they would have fallen apart.”
“You forget, Terrel said he saw the test. It must work.”
“He said he saw the start of the test. If they push the pipes on the collars hard, they might hold for a while, but the friction of the water at that speed on the sides of the pipe is going to be quite a force. Also the flow will be turbulent so the pipe will shake. The joint’s going to fall apart. If they want the pipes to hold they would have to cement the collars on, but if Steve had done that they would have found pipes still joined. According to their timeline he wouldn’t have had the time to saw them apart on the farm. And anyway, they would have found a whole lot of plastic sawdust.”
The two lawyers thought it over. “Naah,” said Don, “I’m going with what Terrel said. I think they got it to work.”
I shook my head. “I’m telling you, it won’t work. I’m a tech. It’ll fall apart within minutes. That’s a fact.”
“Geez-us, Chris,” Mike said, his frustration breaking through, “You tell us it’s a fact. But it’s only a fact as you see it.
“Look, I know you believe it. I want to believe it, too, I really do, but you and I see the evidence differently. You think like a tech. You think if each step is logical, the whole chain of steps is logical, too, and that the result, then, has to be logical. Like some real-life computer game.
“I think of it as legal evidence. What I can get into court. What I can get a jury to believe. I’m dealing with crap like borehole water levels that depend on all sorts of extraneous shit like other boreholes, irrigation schedules, ground seepage, and rain storms in the preceding two months. I’ve got little bugs that nobody can see, and we’re relying on statistical probability that seems like black magic to the jury. I’ve got a career-politico as a DA who is trying to make out that I’m some highfalutin lawyer from Atlanta trying to show off in the country. His assistant is an imbecile, and I’ve got a judge who wants me to toe the strictest interpretation line of evidentiary law.
“Oh, and surprise surprise, I’ve got witnesses who won’t tell the truth.
“This trial is in South Georgia, and I’ve got a client who even in a plain gray suit looks like a gay-porn star.
“And somehow I’m supposed to get a jury to believe that some rabid homophobe, who hated his son because he’s queer, magically changed into a fairy godmother and willingly wrote a check out for ten thousand dollars for this guy.
“I’m walking some nightmarish tightrope.
“But then, on the bright side, my partner, who just happens to be my client’s ex, helps me by expounding theories on fluid dynamics.”
I felt downcast. What Mike said about me was correct: if I thought something was logical, I didn’t really care what the outcome was. That the true nature of things had been exposed was all that mattered. If my test showed a piece of code in a box of avionics was not doing what it was supposed to do, the fact that I’d discovered that, that I’d outsmarted another coder, was all that I cared about. Mike’s job, Mike’s criteria for success, the stuff that his reputation was built on, hung off a different point of view.
“Hey guys,” Don said, standing up, “let’s go sleep on this. Things might look better in the morning.”
Mike sensed my disappointment, too. “Chris, don’t sweat what I said.” He stood up and put his hands on my shoulders. “I’m just really dragging my ass. Everything here is so fucking hard.”
After he had said good night and turned off the light in the bedroom, I sat in the living room thinking over what he had said. I had come down to Moultrie thinking that maybe, just by being there as a sounding board for his ideas, I might help. But now I saw how it was playing out: my being there was a hobble on him. He could not treat the case as purely a legal puzzle. Any time he wanted to talk about it he had to consider my reaction: would it hurt me, would I come up with yet another smart-assed remark based on my bitterness. And always in his mind was the idea that, whichever way the case went, it would have some effect on his partner.
I didn’t know what to do. Going back home wouldn’t help, Mike would blame himself. Staying would just continue the status quo. A big change in my attitude — possibly the one thing that might alleviate the issues — would come across as false and waste more of Mike’s cycles as he tried to decipher which was the real me and which not.
My fingers idly turned over the sheets he had left on the desk, the documented evidence of veins that had never held ore or which had looked good but had then petered out. I picked up the copy of Steve’s bar tab. Holy cow he must have been drunk: over eighty dollars of beer had gone down his throat in a few hours. I felt a slight pang of guilt. How much alcohol would it take to blot out the memory that one had taken a life? How much alcohol blots out the hard fact that what you did in a moment of frustrated anger and disappointment has taken from you the very thing you sought to protect?
I pushed the bar chit aside and turned over sheet after sheet of notes taken during depositions, sheets with Mike’s sloping italics and Don’s neat, upright printing juxtaposed. The writing referred to other sheets or, occasionally, the arcane shorthand references to cases setting precedent. The barman had given details of Steve’s drunken binge. ‘Seemed to be a loner,’ Don had written, and, later, ‘Very morose’. Apparently the barman had not thought it any of his business when Steve had staggered out of the bar. ‘There’d be no bars in the state if we chased away patrons when they’d had too much to drink,’ Don had quoted him as saying.
His assistant, the young guy Mike had surmised the note-writer was referring to, had had little to add. All I got from the sheet was his name, Landon Selin. His phone number was there, too. There was a time, in a previous life, when on a night like this I would have called, delivering my patter to inveigle an hour or two of entertainment, but tonight the phone number was just another set of random digits.
For another fifteen or twenty minutes I read through the papers. Mike had always told me that Don was thorough, and I had evidence of that here: background information abounded on every witness, copies from newspapers and high school yearbooks, lists of books or articles published. Every document containing the details of the investigation into Honeycutt’s death was numbered and cross-referenced to other documents. I browsed through photograph after photograph of the man’s house, trying, as in a museum, to get through them a glimpse at everyday life in some other world.
By the time I returned the last piece of paper to its folder the time was close to midnight. I thought that I should have felt tired, but instead a strange sense of anxiety filled me. I am a great believer in my subconscious, and when it sends out its abstruse messages I tended to pay heed. Time and time again they had proved to be my saviors from stupid mistakes, assumptions that were invalid, calculations that omitted some vital factor. But try as I might, nothing was coming up in my brain as an error. Instead I kept on seeing the image of Landon Selin, the denim pulling tight over his butt as he bent down to shove another tray of glasses into the dishwasher. ‘It’s always the same with you,’ I thought to myself. ‘Your mind is rarely far from your crotch.’ With a half rueful smile at my self-realization I got out of the chair, picked up the empty beer bottle and moved to push it into the trash can. And with the bottle in my hand, the very thought that had been eluding me flashed into my mind. It wasn’t Selin, it was the bar.
Grabbing the folders I rummaged through each until I found the sheet I wanted. Within five minutes I had coded up a program in EXCEL and was looking at the worksheet that it produced.
‘So, not everyone has been telling the truth,’ I concluded as I looked at the screen.
But why? They had nothing substantial to gain by lying. And if they were lying, how, if at all, did that change the perception of what had happened?
I dumped water into the coffee brewer, spooned ten percent more of the fine brown powder into the filter than I normally would have and pressed the ‘on’ switch. I needed to be wired.
But a third of an hour after the hot liquid had splashed down my throat, the neurons that had been lashed into action were merely cavorting around in a crazed frenzy. I was wasting time, and time was the one thing Mike did not have. ‘O lente, lente, currite noctis equi!’ I recalled, glumly wondering if I could get a solution to my problem if I offered my soul in payment.
But even as I was recalling the cry for time to slow, a group of synapses fired in unison. A tableau began to form within my mind and then snapped into focus. I knew what Steve had done. Cold enshrouded me, my skin tightened on my arms, as I got a glimpse of the depth of human cruelty to which a person could sink.
Now the entire picture changed. Whom we had thought innocent was, indeed, guilty; whom we had trusted had proved deceitful. But just as the thirteen-letter word that spans the crossword provides, when discovered, not the solution but merely more clues, my theory still left much to be done if I were to present a coherent train of thought to Mike in the morning. Each time I came up with a new idea I had to seek some item to back it up, perhaps even revise some previous theory.
The time on my PC screen showed 00:55 when I punched a speed-dial number on my cell phone. “Hey, Rob,” I said when my buddy’s voice came through. “Did I wake you?”
“Chris! What’s happened?”
“I need to talk to Jason.”
“For Chrissake, it’s fucking one in the morning. What for?” he asked.
“I need to know something about Steve.”
His voice dropped to almost a whisper. “Let it be, Chris. Steve’s moved on — and you really need to, too.”
“Don’t be a fuckwit, Rob. This is all I want to know…”
Once a puzzled Jason had answered my question and hung up the phone I was more confident that I was on the right track, and began to work, building up step by step. Soon I ran out of desk space and began to place sheets of paper on the floor around the living room.
By 6am the room looked as though burglars had vandalized it. Papers and photographs lay everywhere on the carpet, notes were stuck to the wall with ripped-off pieces of masking tape, and the standing lamp had had its shade removed to provide the necessary light my tired eyes required. Pulling on a baseball cap to hide my rumpled hair, I headed down to the lobby and picked out about eight of the pastries they were setting out for breakfast, started brewing my third pot of coffee for the night, and called Don’s room.
“Hey, Don, I’ve got breakfast. Come over to our room at half past.” I took the grunt that came back across the line as an assent, and went to wake my guy.
“What time is it?” Mike groaned as he rolled over onto his back.
“Quarter after six. Get up. I’ve got something to show you.” He let his head roll to the side and closed his eyes. “I’ve got coffee, too.”
He opened his eyes and gave me a baleful stare. “If you’re waking me up to see some goddam eclipse, or some comet, I swear I’ll kill you.”
“No. This is real important shit.”
“OK. Let me take a leak first, though.”
“Better put some shorts on, Don’s coming across. Don’t want him going all queer on me.”
“Why’s Don coming?” Mike asked running his hand through his hair, a habitual move that showed he was getting frustrated.
“Go pee, get some shorts on, come through and have some coffee, and all will be revealed,” I said.
Four minutes later a soft knock at the door heralded Don’s arrival. Barefoot, and clad in torn jeans and a hooded sweatshirt from which the word ‘Duke’ had been almost entirely washed out, Don took a step into the room and stood in stunned bewilderment looking at the apparent chaos that surrounded him. The bedroom door slid open and Mike came in, pulling a T-shirt over his head. “Holy fuck, Chris, what in God’s name have you done?” He looked around. “Geez-us, do you know that we had all those papers in order? What the fuck is going on?”
“Guys, don’t touch anything,” I warned. “Here’s some coffee, there are some Danishes over there. Tell me when you’re ready to start the story.
With cups of hot coffee in their hands I moved to the start of the paper trail. In the seven-or-so minutes he had been in the room, Don had not said a word, but stood with the stunned expression of a car-wreck survivor on his face.
An hour later, both were as hyper as I was. Don kept on pointing at one or other item and saying “This could explain this,” indicating another sheet of paper.
“OK,” I said at last. “I think you have everything you need, except the info from the bank. You’re going to have to get that still.”
“How sure are you that that’s what they’re going to show?” Mike asked.
“Not at all. It’s the only fucking way things make sense, though.”
“Dude, we so owe you,” Don said.
“See if it pans out first,” I said.
“I need to go get showered and get to Camilla,” Mike said. “Can you get Russ to deal with the bank?” he asked Don.
“Sure, boss,” the other replied as he started to arrange my maze of papers into the order he wanted them. “Do you think we need to subpoena the doctor, too, or just get an affidavit?”
“Affidavit’ll do. Let him do that first and courier it to Camilla.”
“Will do. But Chris?”
“Why are these times highlighted on Sumrow’s phone records?”
“It’s this number,” I pointed to another set of phone records.
“Why’s that important?” Don asked, as Mike looked over his shoulder.
“See the times?”
“Yeah. Late. But so what?”
“C’mon, Don, you’re straight. It’s what heteros do.”
“Chris!” Mike groaned, “Go get showered.” I laughed and walked through to the bedroom, seeing Don’s face redden as Mike explained.
“Have you had any sleep?” Mike asked me as he walked into the bathroom.
“Naah. Been taking coffee intravenously. I’ll be fine. I’m a computer nerd: for us, tiredness only starts after 72 hours.”
“Well don’t go crashing on your bike,” he said as he slid his shorts down.
“What, and spoil my nice paint job?” I asked, then added slyly, “You know, coming to think of it, I am feeling tired. Maybe you’d better come shower with me and help me wash.”
I was at the courthouse fairly early which was good because the news must have got out that all was not necessarily as it had seemed and the seats were filling fast. By the time Rob and Jason came in the only place where there were two seats next to each other were next to me. “Morning, Chris,” Rob said as though nothing was out of the ordinary. “Those seats taken?”
“Nope. All yours,” I said, my outwardly calm demeanor belying the knots forming in my gut.
“Great. Thanks, mate.” He stood aside to let Jason go in first so that Rob would be sitting next to me as a DMZ. “Jason, this is Chris, Mike’s partner. Chris, Jason.”
‘I’m going to have to kill Rob sometime,’ I thought as I stood and took Jason’s hand. “Hi, Jason.”
“Hi, Chris. Good to meet you.”
Well at least he didn’t say that he’d heard a lot about me.
Rob and I passed the time of day while we waited for the session to begin, and then the door opened and Steve was ushered into the court. As his glance ran over the spectators looking for Jason our eyes met, and I saw the muscles in his jaw clench and the sinews in his neck tightened momentarily, but then he turned, pulled the chair out and sat down next to Mike. At that moment the jury entered and moved to their places, and almost before they were all seated, we were called to our feet and Judge Whitaker strode to his seat. A man I had not seen before was seated at the prosecution’s table next to the assistant DA, and when the judge was seated, the man stood up and stated that his name was Durling and that he was the district attorney for the county and he would be joining the prosecution. ‘Mike’s got ’em worried,’ I thought as the newcomer sat down.
From their table, Don stood up and called Dillon back to the stand. Step by step, he made the younger Honeycutt recount the events on that day in June, and at each answer, Don added a point to a long timeline on a whiteboard that stood to the side of the witness stand, facing the jury. The trip from his home in Tallahassee had been planned about a week before the day his father had died, and on that day he had left Florida at about noon and arrived in Moultrie at about one thirty. His father was not home, so he called his friend, Cory Sumrow. The two had had lunch together, and spent much of the afternoon at a local restaurant just catching up. Towards five o’clock they had split up and gone their separate ways, Dillon going back to the farm. When the sheriff had phoned him about the check, he had called Mr. Sumrow again and, and he had driven over to the farm and helped him search. Mr. Sumrow had been with him when they found the body of his, Dillon’s, father floating in the water in the cave.”
“And what actions did the two of you take at that time?” Don asked.
“Well,” for the first time the witness seemed to hesitate, “when we saw he was dead, we went up the chain ladder and I called 9-1-1 and Cory ran to his pickup and got some rope so we could try to tie my father to the ladder so he wouldn’t float away.”
“What made you sure that your father was dead?”
“He wasn’t breathing,” Dillon Honeycutt answered, as though explaining the obvious to a retard, and the answer raised a titter of laughter from a few of the spectators.
Don ignored the reaction. “Did you check for a pulse?”
“Where? At the neck or at the wrist?”
“At the neck.”
“Mr. Jorgensen, will you step up here, please?” Don asked, and when Mike came up, Don turned to the witness and said, “Please show the jury how you took the pulse.”
Dillon stepped from the witness box and, standing in front of Mike, placed his three digits next to his Adam’s apple.
“Excellent, thank you so much. Thank you, too, Mr. Jorgensen.” Once Mike was seated and the witness was back on the stand, Don continued in a different direction. “How deep was the water at the bottom of the ladder where your father was?”
“About just over two feet,” I guess. “It came to the bottom of my thighs.”
“And how did you call 9-1-1?”
“From my cell phone.”
Don handed a yellow legal-pad to the witness, “Please write down the number of your cell phone on this paper.”
“Objection, your honor,” the DA said without standing. “Relevance.”
“The witness testified that he used a cell phone, your honor,” Don said. “The phone is associated with a number. The number identifies the call.”
“Overruled,” the judge said, and Dillon Honeycutt dashed off the number and pushed the pad back toward Don who introduced it into evidence.
Picking up the check book from the evidence table, Don handed it to the witness. “Do you recognize this checkbook?”
The witness took the book in his hand and opening the cover looked at the contents. “It is my father’s.”
“Thank you,” Don said. He flipped through the record pages, apparently having a problem finding the right place, then, handing it back, asked, “And there is no record here of any check having been written to Mr. Goodwin?”
“Objection, your honor. “That has already been established.”
“I’ll withdraw the question, your honor. One final question, Mr. Honeycutt. Was your father in good health at the time of his death?”
The witness hesitated. “Yes. He seemed to be in good health.”
“I have no more questions for this witness.”
The prosecution waived the cross, and Mike stood up to call Cory Sumrow as the next witness. The man who was sworn in appeared to be about thirty years old. His hair, short and curly, formed a straight line above the brow of an almost rectangular face that tapered to a strong chin. High cheekbones and overly thick lips gave his face a truculent demeanor.
“Mr. Sumrow,” Mike asked after the preliminary questions were out of the way, “can you recall the day of 20th June?”
“Yes. That was the day that guy killed Mr. Honeycutt,” he pointed to Steve. “I was with Dillon when we found the body in the cave.”
Mike turned to the judge and raised his eyebrows.
“Mr. Sumrow,” the jurist said with a scowl, “you are a witness in a court of law, and you will behave at all times in a dignified and courteous manner. You are not to disparage counsel, other witnesses,” he paused for emphasis, “or the defendant. You will answer the questions of counsel truthfully and concisely. Do you understand me?”
“Good. The jury is to ignore the witness’s emotional outburst. The witness stated that he remembered the 20th June last. Please continue, Mr. Jorgensen.”
“You are a friend of Mr. Dillon Honeycutt.”
“Yes. We went to school together.”
“Were you close friends?”
“Yes. Very close.”
“Yeah. I’d say so.” The judge’s head turned sharply and he gave the witness a glare that brought a flush to the man’s cheeks.
“Yes, I consider Dillon my closest friend,” the witness corrected himself.
“On June 20th, when was the first time Mr. Dillon Honeycutt spoke to you?”
“At about two o’clock. He called me to see if I wanted to go to lunch.”
“Two o’clock? And you hadn’t already had lunch?”
“I’d been busy with a customer at work, so I hadn’t.”
“What kind of work do you do, Mr. Sumrow?”
“I’m a salesman at Colquitt Ford.”
“Ah. And on June 20th did you subsequently meet Mr. Dillon Honeycutt for lunch?”
“Yes. About half an hour later. He drove into town from their farm.”
“Where did you have lunch?”
“And you were there all afternoon?”
“From approximately two thirty to…?”
“Until about five, I guess.”
“When did you first see Mr. Goodwin?”
“In court when he was arraigned. I mean I’ve seen pictures of him, but in person, it was at the arraignment.”
“But you did not see him before then? For example, on the day Mr. Honeycutt died?”
“No. I mean, I might have passed him in the street, you know, but I wouldn’t have known who he was.”
“Quite. Now, getting back to the evening of Mr. Honeycutt’s death, at what time did Mr. Dillon Honeycutt call you?”
“About quarter past, half past six.”
“What did he tell you?”
“That nobody knew where his father was and he was a little worried.”
“Did he say why he was worried?”
“You took Mr. Dillon’s concern for his father seriously enough that you dropped whatever you were doing and headed out to their farm?”
“Yes. I said I’d go out and help him search.”
“But we have heard that the older Mr. Honeycutt was in good health, so he could have been anywhere. Why did you assume he was at the farm?”
“Dillon had said that his father had planned to go down into the cave.”
“And he was concerned that some accident might have befallen him?”
“How did you determine that Mr. Honeycutt was dead?”
“I felt for a pulse.”
“On his wrist?”
“Did you and Mr. Dillon Honeycutt go down into the cave together?”
“Who went down the ladder first?”
“And what did you see at the bottom of the ladder?”
“Mr. Honeycutt’s body.”
“How was he positioned? Sitting? Lying?”
“He was lying face down in the water.”
“Did you or Mr. Honeycutt turn the body over?”
“No. He was dead.”
“And then what did you do?”
“Dillon said we should call 9-1-1 and he started to go up the ladder. I thought, what with the water level dropping, the body might float away, so I ran to my truck to get some rope and I tied the body to the bottom of the chain ladder.”
“How did you tie the rope to the body?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, clove hitch around a wrist, or by an ankle?”
“I passed the rope under him across his chest.”
“Good,” said Mike. “Nice and secure.” The witness nodded. Mike picked up a photograph from the evidence table and handed it to the witness. Mr. Sumrow, this is a photo of the body when it was recovered from the cave by the sheriff’s people. There is a rope beside the body. Is that your rope or theirs?”
“It was mine.”
“How long was the rope?”
“Rather long just to tie a body to a ladder?”
“It was the only rope I had.”
Mike tacked again. “When Mr. Dillon Honeycutt called you to come out to the farm and help search for his father, did he call your place of employment, or did he call you on your cell phone?”
“On my cell phone.”
As before, Mike handed a yellow pad to the witness and asked him to write the phone number down. I saw the DA take a deep breath as though to object, but then he exhaled and spoke to the assistant DA beside him. Once the sheet had been admitted, Mike asked, “When you got the rope to tie Mr. Honeycutt’s body, you said you ran to your truck. And by that you mean you ran to the area of the house?”
“Oh no. My truck was close to the cave. Up a side road.”
“So you drove from the house to the cave?”
“No, I drove right to the cave when I got there.”
“So, in his call, Mr. Dillon had said that he wanted to search the cave?”
“Well…er…yes. I guess so.”
“When you were down in the cave, what light did you have to see with?”
“We had battery lights on our hard hats.”
“And did you touch the body?”
“Only to take his pulse.”
“Did you turn Mr. Honeycutt over?” Mike asked.
Mike returned to the defense table and Don handed him a sheet of paper. Mike handed it to the DA who looked at it and returned it. “Mr. Sumrow, would you look at this sheet, please, and tell the court what it is.”
“It looks like a photocopy of a page of the Moultrie Observer.”
“And is there a date on the sheet?”
“Yes. June 5th 1992.”
“And who is in the photograph on that page?”
“Me and Dillon.”
“And what is the article that is associated with that photograph about?”
“That Dillon and I were lifeguards at the local swimming pool.”
“Yes. Does it mention any of your training?”
“Yes. It says we passed the Red Cross lifeguard course with top marks.”
“So, with all this lifeguard training, why did neither you nor Mr. Dillon Honeycutt try any CPR or any other resuscitation on Mr. Honeycutt?”
“Well, he was dead.”
“And you determined this in a dark cave with just the light of a lamp on your helmet.”
“Well he had no pulse.”
“But Mr. Dillon Honeycutt testified that you took the pulse at the front of the neck, yet you say his father was lying face down and that you didn’t turn the body over. You also said that that you touched the body only to take the pulse, and that when you tied the rope around him, you passed the rope under the body across his chest. So I ask you, how had you determined that Mr. Honeycutt senior was dead?” Mike’s voice had gone hard.
“Well, I…er…put my fingers onto his pulse from behind.”
“Is that a technique you learned from your Red Cross lifeguard training?”
“In that training, what did they recommend you do?”
“Get the person onto their back.”
“Yes. And in your training, were you taught how to give CPR while a drowned person was still in the water?”
“Yet Mr. Honeycutt says the water was only up to his thighs, you could have easily stood there and attempted CPR, but instead you left the man face down in the water?”
“Well he was dead. It wouldn’t have helped.”
“Because you knew, before you even entered that cave, that Mr. Honeycutt was long dead, didn’t you.”
“Because the mark across Mr. Honeycutt’s chest was made when you used your rope to lower his body into the cave, wasn’t it?”
“No!” The word came out long, almost two syllables.
Mike let the silence after the denial hang in the courtroom, then, reverting to his conversational voice, asked, “Do you know The Tall Tree Diner?”
“Yes. I go there sometimes.”
“Did you go there on June 20th?”
“Do you know Mr. Brightwell?”
“Bob? Yes. He owns the place and works behind the bar.”
“And do you know Mr. Selin?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Mr. Selin is the young man who tends to the meat in the smokehouse and does some of the drudge work behind the bar.”
“Oh, you mean Landon?”
“Well, I couldn’t say I know him. Maybe he served me some food once or twice, or a beer, but that’s it.”
“So you don’t know him socially?”
“Have you ever been at a party with Mr. Selin?
“No…we move in different crowds.”
“Have you ever chatted with him on the phone?”
“No. As I said, he’s a lot younger than me.”
“Mr. Sumrow, you said that on June 20th, Mr. Dillon Honeycutt first contacted you sometime after one in the afternoon, yet how do you explain the record on Mr. Honeycutt’s cell phone records of a call to you at 9:20 in the morning?”
“Well…er…that was when he said he was coming to Moultrie. I thought you meant when he was in Moultrie.”
Mike passed a sheet of paper to the prosecuting team and thrust a yellow card into the witness’s hands. “Mr. Sumrow, what is this?”
“It’s my time card.”
“What does this timecard show happening at 9:22 on the morning of June 20th?”
The witness said nothing for close to half a minute. “It shows that I left work.”
“Why did you leave your place of employment at 9:22 on that day, Mr. Sumrow?”
“I… I can’t remember.”
“Mr. Sumrow, you said that you and Mr. Dillon Honeycutt were best friends?”
“So you would help him if he asked you?”
A short pause. “Yes.”
“Would you say you would do anything he asked in order to help him?”
A longer pause. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Thank you Mr. Sumrow. No more questions.”
The DA’s cross centered on the body, eliciting the fact that rigor had set in, and that that had been a factor in determining that Mr. Honeycutt was dead while the two young men were in the cave. He did not address the time card.
“Your honor, the defense would like to call Mr. Landon Selin, please.”
The young man who took the stand had metamorphosed from the caterpillar youth I had seen in the bar into a fully grown butterfly. The work clothes had given way to slender-legged black slacks; in place of the T, his upper body was covered by a royal blue shirt, open at the neck to display a necklace of inch-long stones on smooth, tanned skin, and the lank hair that had peered out from a reversed baseball cap was now gelled into an informal, blown-by-the-breeze style.
“It’s OK to breathe, Chris,” Rob said patting my thigh, and I heard Jason chuckle.
Once the witness had been sworn and taken his seat, Mike walked toward him, and in the tones of greeting an acquaintance, asked, “Mr. Selin, how old are you?”
“Twenty one, sir.”
“Mr. Selin, during our preparation for trial, my associate, Don Sherer over there interviewed you, did he not?”
“And you told him during that interview, that when Mr. Goodwin was in The Tall Tree Diner he sat alone, drinking, is that correct. I am not asking you whether Mr. Goodwin was alone, all I want to know is, is that what you told Mr. Sherer?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Mr. Sherer asked you several times, and your answer was always the same?”
“At what time were you served the subpoena to appear at this trial?”
“Yesterday evening, just when I was about to leave The Tall Tree. About five, I guess.”
“Did you discuss the subpoena with anyone?”
“Well, I told Bob, I mean Mr. Brightwell, because I wouldn’t be at work today.”
“And when did you pass this news on to Mr. Brightwell?”
“Right then, sir. About five, five fifteen.”
“Mr. Selin, do you know Mr. Cory Sumrow?”
“No, sir.” The answer came out fast and emphatic.
“Mr. Selin, have you been in a court room before?”
“Have you watched court cases, or parts of trials on TV?”
“Mr. Selin, let me explain how the trial system works. The objective here is to get at the truth in a case.”
“Your honor,” the DA asked, smiling tolerantly, “are we going to have to listen while the witness gets dragged through a legal civics class? Counsel has had twelve hours to prepare his witness.”
“Counselor?” Judge Whitaker asked Mike.
“Your honor, the defense asks for the court’s indulgence. We believe that the evidence which will be forthcoming will show that effective preparation would have been at best fruitless, at worst, perhaps, reckless.”
“Very well,” he sounded doubtful, “continue, but make it brief.”
“Yes, your honor. Mr. Selin, to uncover the truth, the job of both counsel for the state and counsel for the defense is to probe, probe through both physical evidence and through witness testimony. For this reason, the witnesses must tell the truth. The oath that you took is taken very seriously. If, having taken that oath, you knowingly misrepresent the truth, the court can hold you in contempt and send you to jail. You could also face a criminal charge of perjury.”
Mike paused and looked at his witness. The young man swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple moving up and down as he did so.
“So, now…,” Mike started, but the judge held up a hand.
Turning toward the witness stand the jurist looked at Selin and said, “This court will not be trifled with, sir. You have taken an oath to tell the truth and the whole truth. The court will have no tolerance of prevarication or circumlocution, is that clear?”
The witness’s face was white and he answered softly, “Yes, judge.”
“Very well. Counselor, you may continue.” I noticed the witness’s eyes flicker to a point somewhere behind me in the gallery, but almost instantly they returned to Mike.
“Mr. Selin, do you own a cell phone?”
“Yes, sir.” And as had been done twice before, the witness was asked to write his number down on a sheet of paper that was entered into evidence. Mike picked up a similar sheet from the evidence table and moved to the defense’s table where Don handed him a sheaf of papers.
Handing the second sheet of yellow paper to the witness, he said. “Mr. Selin, the previous witness, Mr. Cory Sumrow, wrote his cell phone number on this sheet of paper.” Mike handed a stapled set of papers to the DA and another to the witness. “These are the phone company’s records of the calls made from the cell phone that has that number. If you look down toward the bottom of the last page you will see that at a quarter to six someone using that phone called the number which you wrote down here. The call lasted four minutes and thirty seven seconds. Do you recall getting such a call?”
“Did you recognize the voice on that call?”
Another swallow. “Yes sir.”
“Who was it?”
“It was Cory Sumrow, sir.”
“Objection, your honor,” the DA said, “it could have been anyone disguising their voice.”
“Counselor, can you rephrase your question?”
“Yes, your honor. Mr. Selin, have you received calls from anyone purporting to be Mr. Sumrow before?”
“How many times?”
“I couldn’t say. Probably about fifteen, maybe twenty, times.”
“Is there any way that the voice on those calls could be definitively linked to Mr. Sumrow?”
“Well, he phoned and arranged for us to meet, and the person who came to the meeting was Cory.”
“And the voice on the call last night, which came from a cell phone belonging to Mr. Sumrow, sounded the same as the voice on those previous calls?”
“And what were the matters discussed in last night’s call?”
“Cory told me that I should say that Mr. Goodwin was drinking alone in the bar last June.”
“Don’t believe that lying little faggot. Can’t you see? They’re all queers sticking together.” Cory Sumrow shouted out, standing up from where he had been sitting in the front row of the spectator’s gallery. “I would never phone…”
Judge Whitaker banged his gavel ferociously. “Mr. Sumrow, you are in contempt.” Cory remained standing, his fists clenched. “If you make one more sound, if you even cough, I will have you removed. You, sir, are not to leave this courtroom without being accompanied by a bailiff, and you are not to leave the courthouse today until I have settled the contempt charge. Is that clear?”
“Better. Now sit down. Counselor, continue.”
“Mr. Selin,” Mike asked calmly, “would you please repeat your last answer in case some of it was not heard by the jury. What was the phone call about?”
“Cory said that if I was asked, I was to say that Mr. Goodwin was drinking beers by himself when he was in The Tall Tree on the day Mr. Honeycutt died.”
“Am I to infer from that, that Mr. Goodwin was not drinking by himself when he was in the diner?”
“Well… he was at the beginning. But later Cory came in, and then he and Mr. Goodwin moved away from the bar and went and sat at a table, and they drank together.”
“And who bought the drinks?”
“Well, Mr. Goodwin paid for them, because when he’d come in he’d started a tab, but once they sat at the table, Cory, Mr. Sumrow, came to the bar and got them.”
“Mr. Selin, when Mr. Brightwell was giving testimony earlier in the trial, he produced the credit card bill for the drinks allegedly consumed by Mr. Goodwin.” Mike picked the small piece of paper off the evidence table and handed it to the young man. “Does this look like it was the correct bill as you remember?”
“Yes. I rang it up.”
“Mr. Selin, what is the cost of drinks in The Tall Tree?”
“Light beers, like Bud Light, or Mic Light are two dollars. Regular beers, like Bud, or Michelob or Coors cost two dollars and sixty cents. If you want something like Heineken, which is imported, we charge three eighty-five, and all the hard liquor — the shots — are four dollars.”
“And when you rang Mr. Goodwin’s bill up, did you include a tip in the amount?”
“No, sir. I’m not allowed to do that.”
“Now Mr. Goodwin was very drunk that day. Did you, perhaps, take advantage of that to, let’s say, pad the bill?”
“No, sir. I wouldn’t do that. Ever.”
Mike took a sheet of paper that Don handed him. “Mr. Selin, on this sheet, my assistant has calculated every possible combination of drinks that could total up to the $88.20 of that bill which is in evidence. Which combination would you say most closely resembles what Mr. Goodwin drank that day?”
“Assistant?” Rob whispered to me. “You’ve taken a demotion, mate.”
“That’s going to cost him tonight,” I whispered back. I was going to elaborate, but the judge’s eyes began boring into the front of my skull, so I put on my ‘I’ll be good. Promise!’ face and sat still.
“Well, I don’t remember him drinking any imports, and Cory, I think, had a couple of lights, so I think it would be this one,” Selin responded, pointing to the list.
“Seventeen regular beers and ten shots?” Mike asked with incredulity.
“Yes, sir. Mr. Goodwin was very drunk.”
“Wasn’t it unusual for a customer to drink so much?”
“Well, sometimes folk get real plastered. But that’s at night mostly. Don’t hardly ever see that at lunchtimes.”
“What did you think was going on?”
Again the swallow. Selin’s eyes dropped to the floor then went back to Mike as he squared his shoulders and said, “I thought Cory was making a move on Mr. Goodwin, sir.”
I thought Cory Sumrow was going to launch himself into the court, his legs drew back under him and his body leaned forward, but the judge cast a steely gaze in his direction and one of the bailiffs took a step forward, and after a few seconds he settled back in his seat. I could not see his face, but I was fairly certain he was glaring at Landon Selin.
“Mr. Selin, you said that Mr. Goodwin paid for the drinks, but you have also indicated that he was extremely drunk when he left. Was he coherent?”
“Well, it was Mr. Sumrow who paid, but it was Mr. Goodwin’s card. Mr. Sumrow came up with a card, and I rang it up, then he took the card and the bill to their table and I saw Mr. Goodwin sign it.”
“What happened to the card?”
“I saw Mr. Sumrow put it in a wallet, and when Mr. Goodwin stood up he needed to hold on to the chair, so Mr. Sumrow pushed the wallet into the back pocket of Mr. Goodwin’s jeans.
“So Mr. Sumrow had Mr. Goodwin’s wallet in his possession and at the time, Mr. Goodwin was extremely drunk?”
Mr. Selin, have you ever received a check in payment for anything?”
“Yes, sir. When I sold my ATV.”
“From when you received the check to when you deposited it in the bank, where did you keep the check?”
“It was in my wallet, sir.”
“Mr. Selin, when Mr. Sherer first questioned you about Mr. Goodwin’s behavior, you had not been subpoenaed, and Mr. Sumrow had not called you. Why then, at that time, did you insist that Mr. Goodwin had been drinking by himself?”
“Mr. Brightwell told me not to say anything about it. He said if The Tall Tree was involved in a murder trial it could get shut down and I would lose my job.”
“Thank you. No more questions.”
The DA tried his best to discredit Selin’s testimony, but the young man stood his ground. Eventually, the lawyer played his trump. “Mr. Selin, you claim that Mr. Sumrow threatened you in order not to reveal that he had been drinking with Mr. Goodwin. What was his threat?”
“Objection, your honor.” Mike said, standing up. “The threat has no relevance on the defendant or on the prosecution’s case.”
“Your honor, it goes to the witness’s character. If a trivial threat were to sway him it would go to show that the witness was untrustworthy.”
“Your honor,” Mike said, “the determination of what is trivial is too subjective to serve as a gauge of reliability. The threat of introducing a mouse into someone’s room might fill one person with dread, yet to another person it would be of little consequence.”
“Mr. Selin,” the DA said as Mike sat down, “did Mr. Sumrow threaten to expose you as a homosexual?”
Mike and Don both rocketed to their feet, and the word ‘objection’ came out as a chorus, but their protests were drowned out by Judge Whitaker. “Counsel, I want to see you in my chambers. Now.” He banged his gavel angrily. “Court will recess for fifteen minutes. Bailiff, please attend Mr. Sumrow at all times — he is not to leave this courthouse.”
With long strides the judge left the court, with Mike, Don and the prosecution team following. Landon Selin slumped back in the chair of the witness box and closed his eyes. A minute or two later one of the bailiffs walked up to him and handed him a plastic bottle of iced water, which he snapped open and gulped down.
“That boy’s ass is grass,” I said to Rob.
“But he’s giving Steve one huge break,” Jason said.
“Yeah,” I admitted. “I think things might work out.” I got my act together and turned to him. “Look, Jason, I’m sorry about what happened to your father. This must be hurting you like hell.”
“Thanks, Chris.” He shook his head, “No. Doesn’t hurt at all. Dad and Dillon treated me like shit after Mom died. She had always held them in check. And when she was dying, she made Dad promise to look after me. He told her he would, but he didn’t.” He fell silent, then looked at me and said, “Steve went to see him without telling me. I would have waited another two years for surgery rather than ask Dad for the money. When I found out what Steve had in mind I drove down to Moultrie — on the day my dad died — but Steve had already left the farm by the time I got there.”
I nodded without saying anything, thinking of how I imagined the scene had played out in that final meeting between Steve and Honeycutt. If Jason knew what I thought I knew, how would he feel?
When the four lawyers re-entered the court room, the DA’s face was crimson and Libberton was silent. Mike and Don went to the defense table and sat down. Once Steve and the jury were both back in court, the judge entered. “The jury is to ignore counsel’s last question. It has no bearing on the witness’s evidence nor this trial. Mr. Durling, do you have any more questions for this witness?”
“No, your honor.”
“Mr. Sumrow, will you stand up?” the judge asked, and the man in the front row stood up uncertainly. “Is Mr. Brightwell in court?”
“Yes, judge.” All heads turned to see the owner of The Tall Tree stand up at the back of the room.
“This court orders that neither of you is to attempt to see or speak to this witness for the remainder of this trial, nor to communicate with him in any way, directly or indirectly. Mr. Durling. I expect your office to be extremely thorough in investigating these people on a charge of witness tampering.”
“Yes, your honor. We will be doing that.”
“The witness is excused.”
“Your honor, the defense calls Annabelle Higdon.”
Quickly Mike brought out that the witness was a manager at the Bank of America where the senior Honeycutt had had an account, that she had worked at the bank in Moultrie for several years and knew the deceased well. “Ms. Higdon, did you bring any check record books with you?”
“Yes, Mr. Jorgensen. I have several with me here.”
“May I have three, please? Any three will do.” The witness opened her purse and handed Mike a bundle of the small booklets. The prosecution made no objection to them being introduced, and once they had been recorded, Mike handed them back to the bank manager. “Ms. Higdon, will you take each book and count the number of pages in them?”
She quickly riffled through each and replied, “All of them have twenty pages each.”
“Thank you, Ms. Higdon. He handed her the check book from the evidence table. “And how many pages are in this book?”
She thumbed through it once, then started and counted a second time. “Eighteen. Two pages are missing.”
“So, since the pages are stapled in the center, if one page is taken out, its attached partner also goes?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Ms. Higdon, did you bring some of Mr. Honeycutt’s cancelled checks with you?”
“Yes. I brought the most recent twenty.”
Once they had been admitted into evidence and labeled, Mike asked her to compare the checks with the record book and see if there were any discrepancies or differences. We sat in silence as she took check by check and compared it to the records kept by Honeycutt.
“All the amounts match,” she said, “and the parties to whom the checks were made to all match the record book. Check 4130 was not recorded and has not been presented to the bank, but that is not too unusual — people make a mistake in filling out a check, and so they shred it or tear it up and don’t necessarily record it since it won’t impact the account balance.
“But there is something that is a bit odd,” she added. “On this final page, where checks 4131, 2 and 3 are recorded, the checks were all written in blue ink, but the entries in the check book are all in black. The other seventeen checks are written in blue or black, and in one case a turquoise ink, but all the entries in the record book are entered in the same color.”
“So it would appear that the records were entered at a different time to when the checks were written?”
“Objection. The witness would have no way of knowing when the writing took place.” The DA said.
“Ms. Higdon, these last three checks that you mentioned, 4131, 4132 and 4133, are they, by any chance, entered on the center page — the one where the staples are?"
“Yes. On the right hand side.”
“So, if when that record book was in its original condition, with all twenty pages, those checks would have been the only entries on the double sheet?”
“That would be a logical assumption, yes.”
“And if we suppose that check 4134 had been entered, then that, too, would have been written on that same sheet?”
“And if the center sheet were subsequently removed, no entries for those four checks would remain?”
“And to maintain a record of checks 4131 through 4133, they would then have to be re-entered on the right hand side of what was then the center page?”
“If they were to remain in sequence, yes.”
“No more questions.”
The DA asked no questions on cross examination, and as the witness left the stand, one of the bailiffs handed a note to Mike. “Your honor, the tests on the borehole are complete, but since the defense would like the testimony to be heard all at one time, perhaps the court could bring the lunch recess forward fifteen minutes?”
Rob, Jason and I went across to the coffee shop again for lunch, and they pressed me, trying to find out from me what I knew of how things would go in the afternoon, but I insisted that Mike hadn’t told me what he was going to do — which was, in the strictest sense, true — and so I was in as much anticipation as they were. Not that I wanted to be secretive, but I was terrified of letting slip what I thought of as the key to the case. If Jason had any inkling what I thought Steve had done, I didn’t know what he would do.
About half an hour before the afternoon session was due to start I headed back to the court room. In the corridor I ran into Mike and Don.
“I ran your idea about Steve’s binge by him this morning,” Mike said. “He says you’re smoking something, and he’s pretty pissed with you.”
“So what’s new?”
“He says if you even breathe a hint of that idea to Jason he’ll kick the crap out of you.”
“I can take Steve on his best day,” I snorted, “but, no, I won’t tell Jason.
As soon as the court was settled, Don called John Vaughan, the handwriting expert back to the stand.
“Objection, your honor. The witness has already testified and been cross examined by counsel.”
“The witness is appearing for the defense now, your honor.”
“I had thought we were going to take the testimony of the GBI about the borehole, counselor.”
“Your honor, the defense plans to call Ms. Reed shortly. We have a witness whose testimony should not take long. However, he may need to do some study to come up with an answer and the defense thought he could do that while Ms. Reed was testifying in order to save the court’s time.”
“Very well, counselor, you may call your witness.”
The brown suit had been replaced by a green one, and the eyebrows appeared bushier than ever. Don handed him the check book. “Mr. Vaughan, when you first assessed evidence for this case, did you study the record booklet from Mr. Honeycutt’s check book?”
“No, sir. I was asked only about the check.”
“Very well. Did you bring your equipment with you to court today?”
“Yes, I have it here.”
“How long would you need to ascertain whether the last three entries were in Mr. Honeycutt’s writing?”
“Probably about fifteen minutes.”
Don picked up the three sheets which had the cell phone numbers written on them. “And could you tell if the numbers of those checks were written in a similar hand to any of these numbers?”
“Objection. There has been no foundation to say that any of those people could have written in the check book.”
“The defense is not saying they did. The witness is an expert in comparing handwriting, we are asking him to compare.”
“But your honor, if the writing should be identified as the same, the State would be taken by surprise. We would need to have our own expert analyze it before it gets presented to the jury.”
“Your objection is noted, counselor. The results of the test will be presented to the State before they are stated in court. However, the court finds it strange that, since this witness was introduced as an expert to this court by the State, that the State should be concerned about his partiality.”
The DA appeared to be about to say something, but then nodded and sat down.
“The defense is prepared to let the witness do his work, your honor. If counsel wishes to ask any questions…?”
“The State will cross examine the witness at the completion of his testimony, not piecemeal,” the DA replied.
“Bailiff,” the judge said, “there is a vacant office next to mine. Please take Mr. Vaughan there to conduct his work.”
As the GBI technician took the stand at Mike’s request, the atmosphere in the court was tense. “Good afternoon, Ms. Reed,” Mike said as he walked toward the witness stand.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Jorgensen.”
“Were you able to complete the tests under the appropriate conditions?”
“Yes, sir, we did.”
“And what were the results of those tests?”
“We were able to run the tests twice,” the witness replied. “Before we started, we measured the level of the water in both the borehole near the cave on Mr. Honeycutt’s farm, and the borehole on the farm rented by Mr. Williams using a plumb line. We then tried to replicate as close as we could the timeline of June 20th. Mr. Williams began irrigating, and fifteen minutes later we started the pump in Mr. Honeycutt’s farm. The test ran for close on three hours before the required amount of water had been transferred. We had run the water into one of Mr. Williams’s tanks on the farm, and after the test was complete, we allowed the water to siphon back into the borehole on Mr. Honeycutt’s farm. When the water level had been steady at its original height we ran the test a second time, this time starting the irrigation and the pump at the same time. The resulting transfer took two hours and fifty minutes.”
“Thank you, Ms. Reed. Now in your previous testimony you had mentioned that it took your team about twenty-five minutes to set the pump up and fifteen to pack it away on the truck afterwards. Would that have been the same amount of time it took this time?”
“Well previously we had set it up as a team, different people doing different things. This time I had just one man do the whole operation and it took thirty minutes to set up and twenty five to pack away.”
“Your honor, may the defense have the court reporter read back Ms. Talford’s answers to Mr. Libberton’s questions about when she left Mr. Honeycutt’s house and when she returned?”
The court reporter accessed her PC and after a few seconds began reading, “The witness, ‘then I went to my car and drove to Dr. Meredith’s office.’
“The State, ‘And at what time was that?’
“The witness, ‘Close to eight fifteen, sir.’
“The State, ‘OK. And at what time did you return to the house?’
“The witness, ‘About a quarter past eleven. Maybe a few minutes later.’
“The State, ‘And did you see Mr. Honeycutt’s visitor at that time?’
“The witness, ‘No, sir. When I got there his truck was gone and no one was in the house.’ ”
She stopped and looked at Mike.
“Thank you, ma’am. So, Ms. Reed, from both your recent tests, the setting up of the pump and the pumping of water into the cave could not have been achieved in the three hours Mr. Honeycutt’s housekeeper was away from the house, could it?”
“It would appear that it couldn’t, no.”
“Thank you, Ms. Reed. No more questions.”
The DA rose and began to attempt to undo the damage, but the technician had had plenty of time to prepare and would not be moved.
“Why did you not run the water into the cave this time?” he demanded.
“The National Speleological Society had asked us not too because they feared it would damage the cave.”
“So, in fact, you could have pumped more water this time into the tank than was required to fill the cave?”
“No, sir, we measured the amount in the first test that was required and we pumped the same amount as before.”
“How much was that?”
“24, 242 gallons.”
“Really? That sounds like very little water to fill a cave.”
“Your honor,” Mike said with a chuckle, “those were the numbers the State introduced in earlier testimony. Is counsel saying their earlier testimony was incorrect?”
“Counselor?” Judge Whitaker asked.
The DA’s face colored up. He had not studied the previously given testimony with enough attention to detail and now he had been caught.
“I guess the witness knows,” he said lamely.
“It is actually quite a lot of water,” the technician said. “It’s seven or eight of those big tanker trucks you see on the highway.”
“Ms. Reed, please answer only my questions,” the DA snapped.
“I thought you had asked if I thought the estimate were low,” the witness replied with genuine confusion in her voice.
Durling must have been smart enough to realize that he had lost control of the witness, for he returned to the prosecutor’s table and said, “No more questions, your honor.”
“Your honor, may the defense inquire whether Mr. Vaughan has completed his work?” Mike asked.
“Bailiff, please go and ask Mr. Vaughan if he is finished or whether he needs more time,” Judge Whitaker said.
“Mr. Vaughan has already said he is ready, your honor.”
“Very well, please bring him into court.”
Having ensured that the witness remembered he was still under oath, the judge indicated that Don could continue.
“Mr. Vaughan, were you able to determine whether the last three entries in Mr. Honeycutt’s check book records were written in his handwriting?”
“They appeared to be, yes. But when I magnified the writing there were signs that the entries had been traced.”
“Could you demonstrate this to the jury?” Don asked, pointing to the overhead projector.
“Yes, I can do that.” Once the image of the check book filled the screen, Vaughan pulled out his laser pointer and began to explain how various instances of the same letter had been written with different strokes, and in a few cases, how the apparent movement of the pen would be unnatural.
When he stopped speaking, Don asked, “And did you ascertain any other information from your investigation?”
“Well, yes, actually I did. The check numbers were not traced, they were written, and there are several similarities between them and the writing on the exhibit labeled D9.”
“Your honor, may the record show that exhibit D9 is the number of Mr. Dillon Honeycutt’s cell phone number and it was written by him in this court.”
“The record will so show.”
Thank you Mr. Vaughan. No more questions.
If the DA got any concession from the witness on cross examination it was that people wrote letters differently, but every time he got that far, Vaughan added that in this case it was an unnatural hand movement, and in time the lawyer gave up.
As the witness stepped down, a general undercurrent of discussion broke out in the spectator area, and the judge had to bang his gavel twice to restore quiet.
“Your Honor, the defense calls Mr. Dillon Honeycutt.”
“Your honor,” the DA called out, “counsel has questioned this witness twice before. This is merely a fishing expedition.”
“Your honor,” Mike replied, “the witness’s previous testimony has been shown to be somewhat less than candid. The defense needs a chance to get truthful answers.”
“Objection overruled. The witness will take the stand.”
Dillon Honeycutt’s face was ashen as he walked across the well of the court to the stand. As he did so, a man stood up in the spectators’ area. “Your honor, my name is John Abrahams, I am a practicing attorney in the State of Georgia, and I have been retained to represent Mr. Honeycutt.”
“Very well, your representation is noted.”
Mike handed the witness a photograph. “Mr. Honeycutt, is this a picture of the bedside table next to your father’s bed?”
“On my lawyer’s advice, I decline to answer as the answer may incriminate me.”
“Your honor, is having a table now a chargeable offence?”
Abrahams was making signs at Honeycutt, who appeared confused. “You cannot take the fifth amendment on this type of question,” the judge instructed the witness. “No charge could be brought against you from divulging this information.” Turning to Mike, the judge added, “and counsel is not to be flippant.”
“Yes, your honor. Mr. Honeycutt?”
“That is my father’s table in his room.”
“And if we blow that picture up,” Mike said adjusting the overhead projector, “what is this here?”
Honeycutt looked at his attorney who nodded. “It was the pills he took.”
“Yes. Those were his pills. And if we zoom in on the label, we see the name, Avinza. What were these Avinza pills for, Mr. Honeycutt?”
Abrahams shook his head. “On my lawyer’s advice, I decline to answer as the answer may incriminate me.”
“Incriminate you for what, Mr. Honeycutt? For perjury, because you previously said that your father was in good health, when you knew he was being treated for cancer?”
“Objection,” the DA came out with, although he seemed as confused as everyone else. “Leading,” he added.
“This is cross examination, your honor. The witness appeared for the State.”
“Overruled. Nonetheless, counselor, where possible, try not to lead the witness.”
Mike handed a sheet of paper to the DA and then thrust a similar one into the witness’s hands. “This is an affidavit from Dr. Campbell. Will you read what it says out loud, Mr. Honeycutt?”
The witness looked at the paper, then despairingly at his attorney who nodded.
“‘Patient, Honeycutt, Bradley. Male. Age 68.
“‘MRI and X-rays showed Adenocarcinoma in the lining of the lungs which had spread. In the respiratory tract there were two areas of squamous cell carcinoma. Diagnosis was non-small cell lung cancer of an advanced stage. Efficacy of surgery was thought would be minimal, and patient was informed. Patient declined surgery. When patient began to experience pain, morphine was prescribed as a palliative. Initial dosage was 30mg Avinza, and later increased to 60mg. At the time of his death, the patient was stabilized on 90 mg Avinza as an analgesic…’”
“Thank you Mr. Honeycutt,” Mike interrupted. “Now, these pills were on your father’s bedside table in full view, yet you maintain that he kept the fact that he had cancer a secret from you?”
Another shake of the head. “On my lawyer’s advice, I decline to answer as the answer may incriminate me.”
Mike changed direction. “Did your father contact you on the evening of June 19th or the morning of June 20th and tell you that Mr. Goodwin, your brother’s partner, was coming to see him?”
Head shake. “On my lawyer’s advice, I decline to answer as the answer may incriminate me.”
“Did your father intimate that your brother was a very sick person and he, your father, that is, was planning to pay for medical treatment for him?”
“On my lawyer’s advice, I decline to answer as the answer may incriminate me.”
“Did this news not alarm you, so that you got into your car and drove, in the early part of the day, from your home in Tallahassee to Moultrie to confront your father?”
“On my lawyer’s advice, I decline to answer as the answer may incriminate me.”
“And when your father showed every sign of bringing your brother back into the family — and, thus, into his will — did you not seize the opportunity when your father was out in the lands, to drown him in a reservoir?”
“No! I mean, on my lawyer’s advice, I decline to answer as the answer may incriminate me.”
The DA leaped to his feet. “Your honor, counsel is presenting his closing argument in the form of questions. He knows the witness is going to invoke the fifth.”
“Your honor, until I ask the question I have no idea how the witness will respond.”
“Counselor, please. Your questions are very close to being accusatory.”
“Your honor,” Mike was resolute, “this witness has prevaricated throughout his testimony. Based largely on that fairy tale, my client has been held in custody for close on four months. Because this witness’s testimony was, apparently, never thoroughly investigated, my client now finds himself on trial for his life.”
“The court is aware of that, counselor. However, that is an avenue which the district attorney’s office will be taking up at another time, so do not continue on this direction of questioning.”
Yes, your honor. The defense has no more questions for this witness.”
The DA declined to enter into cross examination, and Dillon Honeycutt stepped out of the witness box, and almost like a sleepwalker, looking at no one, seeing no one, walked out of the court room with his lawyer trailing behind.
“The defense calls Cory Sumrow, your honor.”
But no sooner had the witness reached the stand than he said, “Judge, I think I need a lawyer.”
“Now that’s a smart decision,” Mike blurted out.
“Counselor, you will keep your opinions to yourself. The jury is to ignore counsel’s outburst. The witness is excused to obtain legal representation at which time he shall return to this court.
“Court will take a thirty minute recess. The court reminds the jury that they may not discuss any aspect of the trial, amongst themselves or with anyone else, until they are charged to begin deliberation.”
And with the, by now, familiar flurry of black robes, the judge left the court room, and before the door had closed behind him, there was a roar of conversation. As Steve was escorted out of the court he turned to Jason, and for the first time since the trial began, I saw him smile.
The jury had been seated and the court was being called to order when Cory Sumrow came through the door accompanied by an older man with graying hair. As the judge took his seat, I noticed that the DA was no longer sitting with the prosecution team. ‘Rat leaving a sinking ship,’ I thought to myself. Mike stood up to continue his examination, but before he could speak, assistant district attorney Libberton rose. “Your honor, certain new evidence has been brought to the State’s attention. In view of that evidence, the State moves to have all charges against Stephen Goodwin dismissed.”
There was, maybe, half a second of silence and then Jason let out a loud whoop and at the same time there was a collective gasp from the spectator area and scattered applause.
Three times the judge banged his gavel before the noise subsided sufficiently for his voice to be heard. “The public is to be quiet,” he said, looking sternly at us for a full five seconds until the court was silent.
“Counselor, is this new evidence likely to prevail? The defendant has endured incarceration and now a trial which seems ready to go to the jury. If there is a chance that at a later date you may wish to recharge the defendant, I believe this case should go forward.”
“What the fuck is he doing?” Rob whispered, punching my thigh.
“I think he’s making sure that Steve goes free,” I whispered back, trying to keep my lips from moving. The judge seemed a tad trigger-happy for my liking.
“Your honor, the new evidence is very compelling. The State is convinced that the defendant could not have committed the crime.”
“Very well, all charges against Stephen Goodwin are dismissed. Mr. Goodwin, you are free to go. Jury members, I thank you for your time and your patience. You are dismissed and free of obligation to serve on any jury for the next twelve months.
“Court is adjourned.”
Steve was on his feet in an instant and had his arms around Mike. I knew it was a matter of seconds before he’d be over to hug Jason, so I picked up my helmet and jacket and headed into the crowd shuffling toward the exit.
The following morning, with all my gear in Mike’s car and the only stuff in my tank bag being my rain suit, I swung out of the hotel and headed up to the Shell station to fill up. “Which way you going?” the clerk asked when I presented my card. I told him. “OK, you’re fine then. The State Police are trapping on 37 just before Industrial.”
I was at the lights, waiting to turn left onto 319, when I noticed a red pickup, its sides emblazoned with a yellow-flame paint job, turn right from the cross road onto route 37. As the light turned green, I cancelled my indicator and headed straight, accelerating hard. I blasted past the truck doing 90, holding my left hand up with my middle finger raised. I heard the big engine roar and watched the red hood and silver grill draw up behind me as I gradually let my speed bleed off. The pickup rocketed past me at about 80 mph, and a tanned arm extended from the driver’s window giving me the bird. I braked hard and down shifted. Well within the speed limit I rounded the curve, just in time to see the blue lights go on as a patrol car swung onto the asphalt and sped after the pickup truck. At a sedate 25 I hung a right on Industrial and looped back to 319 and began my journey home.
Thanksgiving had passed before we all got together again. Mike, Matt and I drove up to Atlanta for a combined party to celebrate Rob’s and my birthdays, as well as the success of the recent trial.
“It must be quite an experience cooking dinner for your lover and your ex,” Pete remarked, as he and Rob sat at the bar which separated the kitchen from their dining room watching Mike, Matt and I put the finishing touches to the food. “Is there anything we should know? Like you adding a little arsenic to anything?”
I looked up and gave a wry smile. “Naah. I’m a big boy now. Steve’s just another guy.”
“Well, I’ve got a nice big hanky handy if you want to cry,” Matt said.
“What color and what pocket are you wearing it in today, Matt?” Mike asked without losing the rocking rhythm of the mezzaluna as he chopped up a pile of spinach.
“Oh, Michael. I’m not like that!” Matt closed the fridge door and leaned against the edge of the table. “ I’m very discrete. You know, I really don’t think anybody at work, except the people that know me well, of course, even suspects I’m gay.”
There was a moment of silence, broken only by the sizzling from the stove, then Rob started to laugh and then it was a loud roar as we all lost control.
“What?” Matt asked.
“Matt,” I said, “even my dog would be able to tell that you weren’t straight.”
“You don’t have a dog.”
“I’ll buy one,” I said and got a stony stare in response. “Tell you what,” I said, “when Don comes we’ll ask him what he thinks.”
“Is he bringing his girlfriend?” Matt asked, his face brightening.
“No. I think her sister has some girls-only party up in New York,” Mike said as he dumped the spinach into a bowl and scooped in some mascarpone. “Class reunion, bridal shower, Christmas shopping — I don’t know. Anyway, he’s coming alone.”
“Oh,” Matt said, leaning back a trifle dejectedly. “I was just wondering if that facial cream I recommended helped her skin.”
“You see, Matt, it’s remarks like that that brand you as not-straight,” Rob pointed out.
“Let me assure you, the words ‘facial cream’ never come out of a breeder’s mouth unless followed by a whole bunch of question marks.”
“All I can say is that she is either the stupidest or else the most trusting of girl friends,” Pete remarked. “She lets her boyfriend go stag to a gay party!”
“I know,” I said. “Mike and I have a bet going as to which of us can get him into bed first.”
“We certainly do not!” my lover retorted, which caused another round of laughter.
“But what I don’t understand,” Matt asked, dipping a beet chip into the sour cream and curry sauce before lifting his head and surveying the guys at the table, “is how looking at a bar tab helped figure out that the witnesses were lying?”
“Well,” Don explained, “the guys from the bar had said that Mike had been only drinking beers. But Chris happened to know the price of beers at the bar, and he also knew that Steve didn’t drink light beer, so the…”
“Yeah,” Jason interrupted, “and he phoned me at like one in the morning to check on that. I could’ve killed him!”
“Anyway,” Don continued when the laughs died down, “Chris figured out that there was no reasonable combination of beers that would give that total. So there had to be shots mixed in. Now, if Steve was knocking back shots in order to get drunk, why would the bar tender lie about it? And since he hadn’t said anything, it meant that either the bar tender was dumping the shots into the beer to get Steve drunk, and that didn’t make sense, or someone else was drinking with Steve and trying to get him drunk.”
“But it could’ve been anybody,” Jason said. “What made you think it was Cory?”
“I wasn’t real smart on that,” I conceded as I placed a bowl of soup in front of each guest, “it took me close on three quarters of an hour to figure it out. The thing was, why would whoever it was want Steve that drunk? At first, I thought like Landon did — is he going to be coming around later, by the way?”
“Yeah,” Rob said. “He’s working tonight. He and his boyfriend should be here about half past ten. I said we’d hold the pudding until they got here.”
“He’s in Atlanta and already got a boyfriend?” Matt asked.
“He’s not as picky as you are,” Mike suggested, and got a sneer in return.
“No,” Rob said. “He told me it’s some guy he knew in Moultrie. I haven’t met him, though.”
“So anyway,” I continued, sitting down and picking up my spoon, “I thought that maybe the guy buying the shots was trying to hit on Steve, but then that didn’t fit either: with a guy that drunk what are you going to get? No sex and a guy throwing up in your bed. So that seemed to rule out possibility one. The other alternative was that he wanted to rob Steve, but he had every opportunity, yet Steve had not said that he was missing anything.
“Then I got to thinking, why was Steve found asleep in his truck so close to the Honeycutt farm? What’s that, Steve? It’s a truffle garnish,” I replied when he asked what was floating in the soup. “Like it?”
“Oh yeah. Everything’s superb, Chris,” he replied with a nod that sent a lock of black hair down over his forehead, and I felt the hormones in my body begin to stir.
“Maybe it wasn’t Steve: maybe it was his truck that was the clue,” I continued hurriedly to redirect my brain.
“So, my first thought was that Honeycutt had been killed somewhere else and Steve’s truck had been used to carry the body to the farm, but there was no evidence of that. So what else was left? Only the stuff in Steve’s truck. And once I went down that path, all the diatom stuff in Honeycutt’s stomach started to make sense. I’d actually seen the reservoir on the farm when I rode out to have dinner with Terrel, and then, with all the shit Don had collected as evidence, there was a photo of Honeycutt’s study. In his study was a half-completed water color of a very similar reservoir as the foreground to a landscape.
“So then I thought, what if Honeycutt had actually drowned in that reservoir? That would explain the diatoms, and it would explain two other things that I thought should have made that miserable halfwit medical examiner suspicious. Firstly, no hand injuries. Look, if I am in a tunnel and water is rushing in, I would be trying to pull myself against the flow. My hands would be trashed.”
“But if he were in the cave, wouldn’t he have had gloves on?”
“Bingo! And were any gloves found?” I shook my head.
“What was the second point,” Jason asked.
“Graze on his abdomen. I reckon he was looking over the edge and someone lifted his legs high up, pushing his head under. Pushed him far enough in so that his hands couldn’t reach the sides, so they didn’t get messed up. But when he had drowned he was a dead weight, and in pulling him out, his shirt pulled up exposing his gut to the rough concrete side of the reservoir.”
“Where did you get watercress at this time of year?” Pete asked as I slid the plate of salad in front of him.
“The farmers’ market.”
“So why did you think it was Dillon?” Jason persisted.
“I wasn’t sure at first. Still could have been Steve for all the evidence I had.”
“Thanks, Chris!” and again he gave me the sideways glance from under the brows.
“I didn’t really think it was,” I explained, “but I was having to play devil’s advocate if I didn’t want Mike to nail my ass in the morning.”
“Versatile are we?” asked Rob archly.
I grinned at him. “Pass the Chardonnay, wise-ass.”
“If Steve had committed the murder, it could explain why he’d gone out and got drunk. On the other hand, if he had done it and had got drunk, why would he then drive back to the farm to sleep it off in his truck? It kept on pointing to somebody else having been involved.”
“There’s this guy that sells fresh fish from his boat at our harbor in the mornings. We get all our seafood from him,” I told Jason as everyone tucked in to the main course.
“Man, this is the best fish I’ve ever eaten,” Steve remarked. “What’d you stuff it with?”
“Spinach and mascarpone cheese,” Mike said.
“It’s excellent,” Rob said, adding, “And I must say the champagne matches it well. I’ve never thought of pairing champagne and salmon.”
“So tell me, Chris, when did you actually decide I wasn’t the villain,” Steve asked between mouthfuls.
“Well, I wouldn’t say you’d ever really been high on the list, but in the end, there were just too many weird things you would have to do. In the end, I guess I’d have to say that that was Dillon’s and Cory’s downfall — they tried too hard to pin it on you. If they hadn’t done that check thing, it would have been a bunch harder. If you had been filling caves with water and messing with pumps and pipes, when did they think you would have had the time to do all that copying?”
“You know, until Mike came along that Friday morning and explained your idea about that, I had no idea what was going on. Jase’s dad had given me a check: I’d seen him write it in front of me, but then everyone kept saying it was a forgery. I really thought it was some dumb, anti-gay conspiracy thing in the Deep South like you’d see in the movies.”
“Have they got a good case against those other two guys?” Matt asked, turning to Mike.
“You know that one of the guys is Jason’s brother, don’t you?” I reminded him.
“Oh, Jason, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so insensitive. Please forgive me.”
“Don’t worry on my account,” Jason said. “Dillon has made my life more miserable over the years than you could ever imagine. He was the first person I came out to, and he spread it all over the town, so my parents heard it from other folk, outside the family, before I had told them.
“Maybe one day I’ll come to terms with it, but right now I don’t care what happens to him.”
“So, is there a good case?” Pete asked.
“Yup,” Don said. “Cory cut a deal with the DA’s office. In exchange for his testimony about what happened, the DA agreed not to bring accessory-to-murder charges. He’s up for concealing a crime and disrespectful treatment of a corpse. He really was involved only after Mr. Honeycutt was killed, so an accessory charge would have been a long shot for the DA to win. I hear that Dillon’s entered a nolo contendere.”
“That surprised me about Cory,” Jason said. “I didn’t think he would rat on Dillon.”
“There was some evidence he really didn’t want to come out in open court,” Don said, giving me an embarrassed smile.
“Like what?” Jason asked.
“I think I’m going to let Mike answer that,” Don said.
“He had been in the habit, now and again, of visiting Landon Selin late at night for an hour or so,” Mike said, and when the cat-calls had died down he continued, “Chris uncovered this in Cory’s phone records. That’s why I was so relieved in the court when Cory decided to get a lawyer. I couldn’t have gone to Cory who was a witness and put pressure on him, but when I got a chance to speak to his lawyer, I had a little discussion with him just to show which direction my questioning was going to go. Being publicly outed in court scared the bejeesus out of Cory, and he and his lawyer decided that a plea-bargain would be a good way out.”
“So Landon is gay?” Jason mused. “I wonder what his boyfriend is like.”
“My guess? Thin, blond, twink,” said Rob.
“Yes, definitely twink,” Jason agreed.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Anyone want to put some money on it?”
“Why, what do you think,” Rob asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I think about five-eleven, dark hair, dark eyebrows, brown eyes, broad shoulders, fairly muscular.”
“You know his boyfriend?” Mike asked.
“Nope. Didn’t know until dinner tonight that he even had one. It’s just my guess as to who he’d like.” I dug my wallet out of my back pocket and pulled out a twenty. “Andy here agrees with me,” I said and put the bill on the table.
“Nope, Chris. I’ve got to agree with the others. This guy’s definitely after the chicken salad.” Steve placed another twenty on top of mine.
“And you didn’t know until you were at our place tonight that Landon had a boyfriend?” Rob asked.
“Nope. No idea.”
“OK, I’m in,” he said and laid two tens to the pile. “I say twink.”
“Mike? Jason? Don?”
“I’ll go with Steve,” Jason said, “But I’m only going to bet ten.”
“I have no idea what you guys are talking about,” Don said.
“Don,” I said, “from everything you learned about human nature in your years defending the upright from the lowest levels of humanity, would you say that Mr. Selin would be more likely to choose a smooth-skinned, young, slight guy as a consort, or a more masculine type of man?”
Don pondered for about ten seconds, then said, “You know, I think opposites attract. I’d be inclined to think he would go for the more rugged type.”
“Yes!” I crowed. “Put your money there, we’ll split when we win.”
“This was good tonight, Chris.”
“I thought so.” From the balcony I looked at the lights stretching across the I-75/85 connector to the horizon. “I’m really happy that things turned out OK for Jason.
“He looks kinda cute in that beanie,” I added.
Steve laughed. “Yeah, he does. It covers the dressings and the shaved part.”
“So no sign of malignancy at all?”
“No. The doctor cut everything out and said it was all benign. No damage to the brain. Jase’ll have to get a checkup once a year or so for the rest of his life, but at this stage the prognosis is excellent.”
The night air was cold, and I shivered slightly in spite of my leather jacket.
“You know, I really appreciate all you did back at the trial,” Steve said, staring out into the night.
“No problemo. It was kinda interesting.”
“I was scared shitless.”
He dug his hands into the pockets of his denim jacket and tried to make smoke rings with the condensation of his breath.
“Thanks for not blowing my cover. It was a dumb thing for me to have done.”
“No! I thought it was kinda big. In a dark way.
“So Jason doesn’t know?” I asked when he didn’t say anything.
“No.” He turned to me, “And he’s never going to.”
I nodded. It seemed best that way. We stood in silence, watching as a big jet climbed off 26 Left and turned to the North.
“Look, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry how I handled things back then.” He didn’t have to explain what ‘back then’ meant.
“It’s OK. I think I’m going to be OK now.”
“Yeah, I think you are. Mike’s a special guy.”
“Yeah, he is that.”
Below us a police car, its blue lights reflecting off the buildings, zigzagged through the traffic.
“I didn’t know…”
“That you felt about me the way you did. You never told me.”
The sound of the siren fell away in the distance.
“I was crazy about you. How could you not have known?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t. Not until it was too late. You’d never said anything.”
I leaned against the ledge, watching the cars leaving the theater parking lot below us battle to get into the traffic.
“Would it have made a difference?”
“I like Jason. He seems like a nice guy.”
“He is. I was so scared when he got sick. I couldn’t think of anything else.”
“So what’re you guys going to do now? I guess you own a farm in Moultrie. You going to till the soil?”
He laughed. “I don’t know that South Georgia is ready for a session of “Gay Farmers”. I think Jase is trying to set up some type of plan where Terrel Williams can do a kind of lease-purchase on the farm.”
“That’d be good.”
Gradually the parking lot emptied.
“D’you think we could be friends again?”
“Do you mean I’d have to get rid of all the voodoo dolls with the pins in them?”
“You know, I always wondered where those pains came from.”
I laughed. “Yeah, I’d like that.”
‘You still have the same guy-scents you always had,’ I thought as we held each other close, my cheek against his.
“I guess we’d better go inside before Mike and Jason come out and throw us over the edge.”
“Landon, I guess you remember Mike from the trial,” Rob introduced the two guys who had just come in.
“Sure do. Nice to meet you, sir.”
“It’s Mike. Nice to see you again, Landon.”
“This is Matt, a friend of Mike’s, you’ve met Pete, my partner, and I think you ran into Don a couple of times down south.”
“I hope I make a better impression tonight,” the newcomer said, shaking Don’s hand.
“I’m sure you know who Steve is by now, and this is his partner Jason, and this is Mike’s partner, Chris.
“Guys, this is Landon and this guy here is his boyfriend, Chuck.” We shook hands all round, and as we moved into the living room I lifted the dollar bills from the table, counted them, and without saying anything handed half to Don, as Jason and Rob gave rueful smiles.
“You’d better not be thinking of going to Moultrie anytime soon,” Chuck said to me with a quiet laugh as Mike poured him a glass of wine. “That was Jay’s third moving violation. He’s real sore about it. It cost him a packet.”
“I thought you said you didn’t know Landon’s boyfriend,” Steve said coming up behind me.
“I’ve never spoken to Chuck in my life before,” I admitted. “We were in the same bar once, and another time we nearly met at the hotel I was staying in, but just missed each other. Ships that pass in the night.” Chuck gave a start and looked over his shoulder, but Landon was busy talking to Mike and Don and did not appear to have heard. Chuck turned back to me and held up a finger to his lips. I smiled and nodded.
“I still think you cheated on that bet,” Steve said as he and I moved to the kitchen.
“OK, I think we’re all done,” Rob declared much later when just the six of us remained. “Dishwasher started, food away, kitchen clean. Anyone care for another cognac, or a liqueur? We can sleep in tomorrow.”
“Yeah. Thanks, Rob. I’ll take a cognac,” said Mike.
“I’ll take a Cointreau, thanks.”
“A good party, don’t you think?” I asked as the six of us sat down.
“I thought so. Great meal you and Mike cooked up, and Matt, any time you want to make that chocolate soufflé, you’re welcome to come visit Rob and me and use our kitchen.”
“I see you and Steve made up,” Mike said, ruffling the back of my hair.
“Yeah,” I sighed. “It was getting a bit stupid. Otherwise, before I knew it, I’d be ninety years old and toothless, sitting in a pub, spilling beer all over myself, and still railing against Steve.”
“See? Whatever Mike says, the boy can learn,” Rob remarked with a slight smile.
“If I’d known there was going to be such a hot guy here tonight, I’d have dressed up more. Every time I looked at Steve I got a touch of the vapors.”
“Well, nobody would have guessed,” Mike said earnestly.
“I mean, who else at the table but Steve got offered extra soufflé? And who was it that said, ‘Oh, Steve, don’t get up, dear, I can make you another espresso?’”
“Oh. Michael, that is such an exaggeration. I think you are just jealous because Chris and Steve are friends again.”
“I’m not jealous at all.” He took a sip of his cognac, studied the glass for a few seconds, and then said, “I’ve got a court injunction forbidding Steve to come within six miles of Chris.”
I shook my head at him as the giggles died down.
“But seriously, boys, what I don’t understand is why Steve went to a bar after he got the check from Jason’s father? I mean, here he gets this great gift, just what he’s gone down to Moultrie to beg for, and he doesn’t even phone Jason. If I had a boyfriend like that I would have been headed back home, ventre a terre as the French say, to tell my partner about his stay of execution.”
“Yeah, Matt, dead on. That’s been nagging at me the whole time,” said Rob. “Remember, Chris, I asked you about that at the trial, but all you would tell me were those dufus lines from Ovid.”
“Ovid?” Mike looked puzzled.
“O lente, lente, currite noctis equi!” I said.
“I mean, technically, it’s Ovid, but actually I was referring to its quotation in Marlowe’s Faustus.”
“Oh.” Rob thought it over. “No, still don’t get it.”
“OK. Think about this. One, Steve got a check. Two, he then went to a bar where the barman testified that he said, ‘What does one life matter?’ Three, he also says to the policeman, ‘Traded a life for a life.’ Four, head surgery like Jason had could be expected to cost over a hundred thousand bucks: the check Steve got from Honeycutt was for ten thousand. Five, Faustus quotes those lines from Ovid to prolong the hours left before midnight when the devil was going to claim Faustus’s soul which he had sold to him.
“And,” I added, “as a bonus, but this is just my opinion, six, Honeycutt deserved to die.”
With Mike and Don claiming client privilege, Matt, Pete and Rob were left to sift through my words. “Nope,” Pete eventually said, “I’m not seeing it. Why did Honeycutt sell his soul, and why did Steve go get drunk?”
“I didn’t say Honeycutt sold his soul.”
“C’mon, Chris. Stop teasing us.”
“OK. But this has to stay just amongst us — Steve can’t know I’ve told you and Jason must never find out.”
The others nodded.
“Steve needed that money. Desperately. He believed without the surgery Jason would die. I don’t know what else he tried, but in the end he saw only one way out — ask Jason’s father. Now Jason’s father hated Steve. He blamed Steve for dragging Jason into the ‘Gay’ way of life. And on that day he saw his chance. The ten thou was a deposit. Jason would get the remainder when Steve had fulfilled his part of the deal.
“I think the bar tender misheard. I reckon what Steve probably said was, ‘What does one’s life matter?’ And when he talked about trading a life for a life he was referring not to Honeycutt but himself.
“Because Steve, in exchange for the money for Jason’s treatment, had agreed to Honeycutt’s demand that he leave Jason.”
There was a stunned silence for a good thirty seconds, broken eventually when Rob blew his nose and said, “And the breeders say we have a deviant lifestyle.”
“I had a good time tonight. It was interesting to meet Landon outside of a court room,” I said to Mike as we cleaned our teeth later.
“Yeah. He’s a neat guy. I think he and Chuck are a bit overwhelmed by it being OK to be openly out.”
“Yeah. Pretty classy of Rob to help them get jobs up here.”
“Rob’s a good guy. Always ready to help another human being.
“Talking of helping another human being, your associate and Matt were getting on well toward the end of the evening.”
“Uh huh. I think Mr. Sherer might be inclined to meet up with Matt for a quiet dinner one night, you know. Nothing serious, just dry, legal stuff. For instance, Don could do some discovery, and after some due process see if there’s any appeal. Maybe explain a zipper clause, which could lead to exclusive easement, then move on to oral trust, and finally end up with a little quid pro quo.”
“No way! And where did you learn all those words?”
“You shouldn’t leave your law magazines in the john.”
“Shhhh… Take it easy,” Mike said, gripping my shoulder and pulling my head onto his chest. “Pete and Rob will hear us.”
“Hate to tell you, but I suspect they already know we’re gay.”
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© Copyright 2008 Horatio Nimier