With Nancy Allen
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BALANCING A TRAY loaded with dirty glassware, Darrien Summers dodged the masked men and women in evening dress as he made his way through the dining room. The annual Mardi Gras ball at the country club in Williams County, Mississippi, was in full swing, the dance floor so crowded that many guests swayed to the jazz band in the narrow spaces between the tables.
Darrien shouldered his way through the door into the kitchen. As it swung shut, the heavy door caught his bad knee. He grimaced and dropped his tray on a metal counter by the dishwasher. Limping over to a chair, he sat to massage the knee with both hands.
A white-haired waiter stood by the back door, blowing cigarette smoke into the outside air. He pointed the cigarette at Darrien. “That football knee still hurting you?”
Darrien nodded with a rueful laugh. “Sometimes it sure does.”
“You played at Alabama? Or was it Arkansas?”
“Arkansas,” Darrien said. He added, “Arkansas State. Not good enough for U of A.”
The flare-up in his knee was a painful reminder. He’d been a strong player at the high school level—maybe not enough of a star for Ole Miss or the Crimson Tide of Alabama or University of Arkansas, but he’d been signed for a full ride at Arkansas State, not far across the state line from Mississippi.
“Bet your daddy was proud. You going back in the fall? When your knee gets better?”
“No,” Darrien said, and turned away to discourage further conversation. He’d been answering that question since he was sidelined with a knee injury back in his sophomore year. He’d needed to remain on the team to get his degree, but shortly after, he’d been busted at a campus party in possession of a joint. They’d pulled the scholarship, and here he was.
Darrien’s phone buzzed in his pocket, and he reached for it under his white waiter’s jacket. Reading the text, Darrien smiled, whispering “Sheeiitt” under his breath.
The club manager, Bert Owens, came into the kitchen, pushing the door open with a bang. Darrien rose from the chair, and the other waiter pitched the cigarette out the back door. Owens marched over, tilting his head back to look Darrien in the eye.
“Summers, you get paid by the hour. I want you working all sixty minutes of it, not sitting on your ass and playing with your phone.”
Darrien slipped his phone into the pocket of his jacket.
“Mr. Owens, can I go on break now? Sir? I haven’t had a break all night.”
The manager pointed a finger at Darrien’s chest. “Twenty minutes. Then I want you back on the floor.”
Before Darrien could make his exit, the swinging door opened wide and a man in a black tuxedo stepped into the kitchen. His hair was parted on the side with razor-like precision, so that Darrien could see the white skin of his scalp. The man leaned against the door frame, crossing his arms on his chest.
“Damn, Owens. Have to chase you into the kitchen to get a word with you.”
The manager wheeled around, snatched a towel, and wiped his right hand before extending it.
“Mr. Greene, sir. We’re mighty happy to have you here tonight. What do you think of our shindig?”
Owens was grinning so hard, it looked like his face might crack.
Greene accepted Owens’s hand and gave it a brief shake. “Y’all put on a fine Mardi Gras party, that’s for sure. But I just heard that the band will stop playing at midnight. Owens, we can’t have that.”
As if on cue, the whine of a saxophone drifted into the kitchen.
“Mr. Greene, the band’s got a contract.”
“Is that so?” Greene’s blue eyes fixed on Owens. “Well, I do know a thing or two about contracts.”
“Yes, sir. You should, working with the finest law firm in Jackson.”
“And I didn’t come all the way from Jackson to go home at midnight, not at Mardi Gras. No, sir.”
Beads of perspiration shone on Owens’s forehead. “Mr. Greene, if the band plays past midnight, we got to pay them extra.”
Mr. Greene’s face broke into a smile. “Well, if that’s all.” He pulled a wallet from his pocket. He folded several bills and slipped the money into the manager’s hand, then pushed the door and walked out, with Owens at his heels.
Seizing the opening, Darrien slipped through the back exit out onto the patio, then walked toward the swimming pool at a brisk pace. The pool was drained, the lounge chairs and snack tables locked up until Memorial Day weekend. A dozen cabanas made a semicircle beside the women’s dressing room—and the door to cabana 6 was ajar.
Jewel Shaw would be waiting for him inside.
SHE WAS BAD news, he knew that. At twenty-eight, she was seven years older than Darrien; and as the only daughter of one of the club’s founding members, Jewel Shaw was forbidden fruit. Even in the twenty-first century, rich white women usually didn’t mix with the black waitstaff at the country club. Not in Rosedale, Mississippi.
But Jewel was a wild child.
He pushed open the door to cabana 6 and slipped inside. It was dark, but Darrien knew from experience there was a light switch somewhere on the wall. Feeling for it with his fingers, he bumped against a table—with his good knee, thank Jesus. He found a lamp and switched it on.
He saw Jewel lying on the chaise lounge near the far wall of the small space. Her left arm dangled off the side, and it looked like her purple dress had stains all over it.
He hesitated. Maybe he ought to turn around and head back to the kitchen. If Jewel was passed out—and that had happened before—he was in no position to deal with it.
But he reconsidered. It wouldn’t be right to leave her like that. He’d best check on her, make sure she was okay. He approached carefully in the dim lamplight.
“Jewel?” he whispered. “What you doing, baby?”
When he got to the lounge, Darrien muffled a groan.
Blood was seeping through slits in the fabric of her purple dress, where she had been slashed in her chest, abdomen, and side. The green and gold Mardi Gras beads at her neck were wet, and blood matted her blond hair where it fell past her shoulders.
Her eyes were open and her chest heaved.
Darrien squatted on the floor beside her, barely noting the pain that knifed through his knee. “Oh, Jesus.” He picked up her limp wrist and, not feeling a pulse, pressed his ear to her chest to try to listen to her heart, smelling the coppery odor of Jewel’s blood.
Nothing. Her chest didn’t move again. Leaning over her, he lifted her head and spoke her name. “Jewel.” Then louder: “Jewel?”
Dropping her head back onto the chaise, Darrien squeezed his eyes shut, trying to think what he should do. He pressed his hands onto her chest, trying to revive her with CPR. It didn’t help. He reached into his pocket for his phone, registering with panic that his hands were bloody, and his white jacket was smeared with blood.
He would dial 911. But his hands shook so violently, he couldn’t enter the passcode.
Footsteps sounded on the cement outside the cabana and he heard men’s voices. Darrien tried to shout “Hey!” but it came out like a squawk.
As he held the phone, a flashlight beam cut into the dim room. Darrien dropped the phone and said, “Oh, my God.”
THE CLUB SECURITY guard, a reserve deputy for Williams County, tackled him to the floor. Bert Owens trained the flashlight on Jewel, then turned the light into Darrien’s face. “What have you done?”
Darrien shook his head, pinned beneath the deputy, trying to frame the words: I tried to help her. Owens said to the deputy, “Stand him up.”
The man pulled Darrien to his feet and with the help of another security guard pinned his arms behind him. Owens swung the flashlight and smashed it into the side of Darrien’s head. “Boy, what have you done to Miss Shaw?”
Owens punched him. Darrien felt his lip split over his teeth and tasted blood.
The reserve deputy said in a doubtful tone, “Read him his rights, you reckon?”
Owens said, “Fuck that.” He swung the flashlight again, hitting Darrien’s scalp near his left eye. His knees sagged, but the security guards held him upright.
Owens held the flashlight so that the beam shone straight into Darrien’s eyes. “What did you do? Talk, boy.”
Darrien struggled to catch his breath, then said in a hoarse whisper, “I want a lawyer.”
Four Weeks Later
I TOLD MY client not to bring her kids to court.
It wasn’t that I was unsympathetic to her situation. My mom was a single mother, too. But Darla Lamar should have been sitting next to me at the counsel table, to present a united front while I made the case to the judge about her gripes against her slumlord. Instead, she was seated in the back row of the Williams County courtroom, wrestling four-year-old JimBob and his little sister Lily.
The judge said, “Miss Bozarth, are you ready to give your closing argument?”
When I rose from my seat, I heard an ear-splitting whine coming from the back of the courtroom. The judge peered at me over his eyeglasses.
Turning around, I gave Darla a pleading look. She slapped a hand over Lily’s mouth.
As I walked around the counsel table to address the judge, I tried to look supremely confident, like a woman who’d been practicing law for decades. In fact, I’d been at it for eight short months, since I graduated from Ole Miss and passed the Mississippi Bar Exam, and I held my yellow legal pad in a sweaty grip. But in this case I knew I had the facts and the law on my side.
Standing up straight, I fastened the jacket of my suit, purchased the week before at Goodwill. The button popped off into my hand.
I slipped the button in my pocket, trying to look like having my buttons pop was totally cool.
“Your Honor, we’ve established by a preponderance of the evidence that my client’s landlord has violated the implied warranty of habitability.” I scooped up photos from the counsel table. “Defendant’s Exhibit One proves that, despite repeated requests from my client, Darla Lamar, her landlord has failed and refused to exterminate the vermin that inhabit the apartment: cockroach infestations throughout the property, as well as rats. Rats, Your Honor.”
I placed the photographs on the bench, so the judge would be sure to give them a second look. One showed roaches crawling from a kitchen cabinet; the other caught the image of a rat peeking into a crib. A picture really is worth a thousand words.
“And those conditions can adversely affect the health of her young children.”
At the mention of Darla’s kids, I heard JimBob cry “Mama!” I gave the judge a nod, as if having the children fuss in court was all a part of my master plan.
At least Darla didn’t bring her infant. The judge was looking testier by the moment.
I faced him with what I hoped was a steely look, steadying my voice. “The case is clear, Your Honor. For all the reasons stated, I urge you to enter a judgment in defendant’s favor, in both plaintiff’s action for rent and our countersuit for damages.”
I smiled, turned, and sat at the counsel table with an expectant air, waiting for him to announce our victory. We were sure to win; it was a textbook case, straight out of my landlord/tenant law class at Ole Miss. From the moment Darla Lamar had walked into my office with her three kids and her tale of woe, gripping a fistful of rat pictures, my gut had told me that this case was a winner—money in the bank.
The judge flipped open the file, lifted his pen, and announced, “Court rules in favor of the plaintiff.”
My jaw dropped. How could he?
I could feel my temper flushing a shade of pink up my neck. How could I have lost this?
I had clawed through law school on the belief that my gut instincts were generally right. Growing up poor in small Mississippi towns, I had learned at an early age to anticipate other people’s reactions.
And when my gut failed me, I had my fists. Too bad I couldn’t throw a punch at the county judge.
Darla Lamar was at my elbow, tugging on my secondhand jacket. I gingerly pulled away, afraid the fabric would pop a seam.
“What does he mean?” Darla asked in a frightened whisper.
Keeping my voice low, I said, “Darla, we lost. The judge found in favor of your landlord.”
Darla’s face contorted. “Where does that leave me? And my kids? You said we was going to win.”
Oh, no, I had not said that. My trial practice prof had beat that into our heads: Never guarantee victory. With an effort, I kept my voice patient. “Darla, what I said was that the law was on our side, and it surely is. But you still have the right to appeal.”
Darla started to cry. She pulled her enormous black purse up onto her shoulder with such a violent jerk, it smacked me in the chest.
“I don’t get it. This ain’t right.” She turned to the gallery. “JimBob, get your sister over here!” Fixing a glare in the judge’s direction, she wiped her eyes and said, “I gotta go pick up the baby, and now I’m out ten bucks for the sitter this morning. This ain’t right.”
I picked up the Darla Lamar file and tucked it into my Coach briefcase. Darla watched me zip it up.
“Fancy purse,” she said.
She was eyeing the bag with resentment. Darla said, “Must be nice, buying things like that.”
“It was a gift,” I said—which was the truth. “It’s a briefcase,” I added, as if explaining the bag’s purpose might make a difference to her.
Apparently not. She turned her back to me without further comment, gathered her children by the hand, and led them out of the courtroom. Watching them go, I felt sick to my stomach. Darla was right to be upset with the judgment, but I was pretty unhappy, too. I’d taken the case on a contingent fee basis. In other words: “No fee unless you win!” But it looked like I’d be eating Kraft macaroni and cheese for supper.
When I heard my name, I looked around. The circuit judge’s clerk stood in the courtroom doorway.
“Yes, ma’am?” I said.
“Ruby? Judge Baylor wants to see you in his chambers.”
Well, that was weird. I didn’t have anything pending in Judge Baylor’s court. Baylor handled the big cases: felonies, big-money civil matters. Looking at the clerk, I shook my head and said, “Me? Are you sure?”
The clerk nodded and pointed at the hallway. “He’s waiting. It’s about your murder case.”
Huh? I didn’t have a murder case.
How could I? I’d never handled anything bigger than a country roads DWI. And I’d lost that case, too.
I DIDN’T WANT the judge to spy the dangling threads hanging off my suit, so I tucked the side of my jacket behind my back and entered the office with my hand on my hip, like a Salvation Army fashion model walking the runway.
“Miss Bozarth here to see you, Judge,” said the clerk.
“Good! Excellent! Take a seat, ma’am.”
Two leather wingback chairs faced his mammoth walnut desk. I set my shiny briefcase beside the one nearest the door.
“No, not over there. Sit here.”
He pointed to a small wooden library chair to the right of his desk. I got the message, loud and clear. I wasn’t important enough to sit in the fancy chair. My jaw clenched as I picked up the briefcase.
Settling on the hard edge of the chair, I smoothed my skirt and primly crossed my ankles.
“Judge Baylor,” I began, but he cut me off.
“So you’re a grad of Ole Miss law school?”
I nodded. “Yes, Your Honor. I graduated last May.” Should I tell him my class rank? Because it was pretty damned good.
“Did you know, I graduated from Ole Miss, too—class of 1976.”
I smiled politely. Life had been good to the judge. By his appearance, with salt-and-pepper hair and a trim physique, I’d thought he was younger than that.
He smiled back. “Got my undergrad degree there, too. Oxford is a grand old town. Beautiful campus.”
“Beautiful,” I echoed.
“I was a Sigma Nu, back in undergrad. How about you, Miss Bozarth? Which sorority did you pledge?”
Was there a murder case, or had he called me in to take a trip down memory lane?
God, I wanted a piece of Nicorette. My hand itched to reach down and dig for the box inside my briefcase.
I said, “No sorority. Not my scene. Your Honor, your clerk said—”
He tilted back in his chair and propped his feet on the shiny desktop. “How’d you happen to come to Rosedale to hang your shingle?”
I answered by rote. “I like small towns, sir. Grew up in them.”
Actually, one of the places I’d lived as a kid was right here in Rosedale. But I wasn’t inclined to tell him the whole story.
I also did not confide that I’d had a cushy job lined up after graduation at a big law firm in Jackson. A generous offer that disappeared when I broke off my engagement with my ex-fiancé, Lee Greene, whose family knew a whole lot of people in Mississippi.
It still gave me satisfaction to recall the shocked look he wore when I threw the diamond ring in his face. The Coach briefcase he gave me, though, was another matter. A woman has to be practical.
“Where’d you grow up?”
Was he digging, or just being polite? Was there a chance that he knew I’d spent time in Rosedale? I shifted my weight in the uncomfortable chair. “All over. We moved around Mississippi. Even spent a while across the river in Arkansas.”
I fell silent but tried to send him a telepathic message: Don’t you dare ask me what my daddy did for a living. Because the fact was, I didn’t know. I was the product of a one-night stand following a concert. Mom was taken with my biological father because she thought he kinda looked like Garth Brooks. “That’s where you get your shiny brown hair,” she’d say, and kiss the top of my head.
“Well, Miss Bozarth, y’all being new to town puts you in a prime position for the Summers case. You’ll be more comfortable handling the defense, since you don’t have a history with the victim and her family.” He shook his head, his mouth turned down in an expression of deep regret. “Jewel Shaw was a Kappa at Ole Miss.”
Finally. “Exactly what kind of case are you talking about, Your Honor?”
“State v. Darrien Summers. He’s been charged with the murder of Jewel Shaw. It happened over at the country club, if you can believe it.”
I was poised so close to the edge of my wooden seat that I was in danger of falling onto the floor.
“But Judge Baylor, what’s this got to do with me?” When he frowned, I added hastily, “Sir, I don’t mean to sound impertinent. But I don’t represent Mr. Summers.”
“Oh, yes you do.” He dropped his feet back onto the floor. “I appointed you this morning.”
A wave of panic washed over me and I let out a nervous laugh.
“Your Honor, I’m not qualified. I’ve only tried one case before a jury—it was a misdemeanor. I’ve never handled a felony defense.”
While I spoke, he began to smile at me. “I’m surprised to hear you say that. My clerk tells me you’ve been begging for appointments.”
It was true. I had—but not appointments like this. “For guardianships. I told your clerk I wanted to serve as guardian ad litem in family law matters.”
“In fact, Grace told me you’d been complaining about it, saying it was downright unfair that I hadn’t given you an appointment yet. Now I am.” He smirked.
I should have known that his clerk would repeat my rash words. But I’d been angling for GAL work for months, and he kept handing the guardianships to the same two lawyers. “Judge, if you have a guardianship, I’m more than ready to take it on. But not a murder. I don’t have any background in that kind of case.”
“Miss Bozarth, if you want to learn how to swim, you’re going to have to jump in the water.” His tone was benevolent.
My heart beat so fast, it was hard to breathe. “I have to decline. Respectfully. I respectfully decline.”
The kindly expression disappeared. “You, ma’am, are a member of the Mississippi Bar. And when you became a member, you swore an oath.” He tossed a file at me. “I expect you to honor your obligations as an attorney licensed to practice law in this state.”
I picked up the file with a shaking hand. Opening it, I skimmed through the judge’s docket sheet.
“Your Honor, it says here that Darrien Summers is represented by the public defender.”
“Was. Was represented. The public defender withdrew. Look at the most recent docket entry. The defendant is represented by you, Miss Bozarth.” The judge turned to the phone on his desk and pushed a button. “I’m ready for my next appointment, Grace. We’re all wrapped up here.”
Clearly, I was dismissed. I stood, my briefcase in one hand, the file in the other. Judge Baylor gestured toward the file I held. “You can keep that copy. It’ll bring you up to date.”
As I tottered toward his office door, a thought struck me. I turned around.
“Beg pardon, Your Honor, but why did the public defender withdraw?”
“Oooooh,” he sighed. “Well, the defendant took a swing at him the last time they appeared in court. Tried to punch him out. The attorney could hardly be expected to continue representation, under the circumstances.”
Judge Baylor winked at me. “Y’all be careful, now. Watch your back.”
A MURDER CASE. I had a murder case.
I walked out of the judge’s office in a fog, heading for the courthouse stairway. I grasped the banister at the top of the stairs with a sweaty palm.
Get a grip.
I was going to have to pull it together. Gotta deal.
Directly across the hall from Judge Baylor’s chambers was a door painted in bold black letters:
- On Sale
- Sep 10, 2018
- Page Count
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- Little, Brown and Company