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Home > The Last Juror(12)

The Last Juror(12)
Author: John Grisham

It was discovered sitting ominously, still intact, next to a pile of old papers in the printing room, by the village idiot. Or, I should say, one of the village idiots. Clanton had more than its share.

His name was Piston, and he, like the building and the ancient press and the untouched libraries upstairs and down, came with the deal. Piston was not an official employee of the Times, but he nonetheless showed up every Friday to collect his $50 in cash. No checks. For this fee he sometimes swept the floors and occasionally rearranged the dirt on the front windows, and he hauled out the trash when someone complained. He kept no hours, came and went as he pleased, didn't believe in knocking on doors when meetings were in progress, liked to use our phones and drink our coffee, and though he at first looked rather sinister eyes wide apart and covered with thick glasses, oversized trucker's cap pulled down low, scraggly beard, hideous buck teeth - he was harmless. He provided his janitorial services for several businesses around the square, and somehow survived. No one knew where he lived, or with whom, or how he got about town. The less we knew about Piston, the better.

Piston was in early Thursday morning - he'd had a key for decades - and said that he first heard something ticking. Upon closer examination he noticed three, five-gallon plastic cans laced together with a wooden box sitting on the floor next to them. The ticking sound came from the box. Piston had been around the printing room for many years and occasionally helped Hardy on Tuesday nights when he ran the paper.

For most folks, panic would quickly follow curiosity, but for Piston it took a while. After poking around the cans to make sure that they were in fact filled with gasoline, and after determining that a series of dangerous-looking wires tied everything together, he walked to Margaret's office and called Hardy. He said the ticking was getting louder.

Hardy called the police, and around 9 A.M. I was awakened with the news.

Most of downtown was evacuated by the time I arrived. Piston was sitting on the hood of a car, by then thoroughly distraught at having survived such a close call. He was being attended by some acquaintances and an ambulance driver, and he seemed to be enjoying the attention.

Wiley Meek had photographed the bomb before the police removed the gasoline cans and placed them safely in the alley behind our building. "Woulda blown up half of downtown," was Wiley's uneducated evaluation of the bomb. He nervously darted around the scene, recording the excitement for future use.

The chief of police explained to me that the area was off limits because the wooden box had not been opened and whatever was in there was still ticking. "It might explode," he said gravely, as if he was the first one smart enough to realize the danger. I doubted if he had much experience with bombs, but I went along. An official from the state crime lab was being rushed in. It was decided that the four buildings in our row would remain unoccupied until this expert finished his business.

A bomb in downtown Clanton! The news spread faster than the fire would have, and all work stopped. The county offices emptied, as well as the banks and stores and cafes, and before long large groups of spectators were crowded across the street, under the huge oaks on the south side of the courthouse, a safe distance away. They gawked at our little building, obviously concerned and frightened but also waiting for some excitement. They'd never seen a bomb blast before.

The Clanton city police had been joined by the Sheriff's deputies, and every uniform in the county was soon present, milling about on the sidewalks, doing absolutely nothing. Sheriff Coley and the police chief huddled and conferred and watched the throng across the street, then barked some orders here and there, but if any of their orders were followed it wasn't noticeable. It was obvious to all that the city and county had no bomb drills.

Baggy needed a drink. It was too early for me. I followed him into the rear of the courthouse, up a narrow flight of stairs I'd not seen before, through a cramped hallway, then up another twenty steps to a small dirty room with a low ceiling. "Used to be the old jury room," he said. "Then it was the law library."

"What is it now?" I asked, almost afraid of the answer.

"The Bar Room. Get it? Bar? Lawyers? Booze?"

"Got it." There was a card table with folding legs and a beaten look that indicated years of use. Around it were half a dozen mismatched chairs, all county hand-me-downs that had been passed from one county office to another and finally ditched in this dingy little room.

In one corner there was a small refrigerator with a padlock. Baggy, of course, had a key, and inside he found a bottle of bourbon. He poured a generous shot into a paper cup and said, "Grab a chair." We pulled two of them up to the window, and below was the scene we had just left. "Not a bad view, huh?" he said proudly.

"How often you come here?"

"Twice a week, maybe, sometimes more. We play poker every Tuesday and Thursday at noon."

"Who's in the club?"

"It's a secret society." He took a sip and smacked his lips as if he'd been in the desert for a month. A spider made its way down a thick web along the window. Dust was half an inch thick on the sills.

"I guess they're losin' their touch," he said, gazing down at the excitement.

"They?" I was almost afraid to ask.

"The Padgitts." He said this with a certain smugness, then allowed it to hang in the air for my benefit.

"You're sure it's the Padgitts?" I asked.

Baggy thought he knew everything, and he was right about half the time. He smirked and grunted, took another sip, then said, "They've been burnin' buildings forever. It's one of their scams - insurance fraud. They've made a bloody fortune off insurance companies." A quick sip. "Odd, though, that they would use gasoline. Your more talented arsonists stay away from gasoline because it's easily detected. You know that?"

"No."

"True. A good fire marshal can smell gasoline within minutes after the blaze is out. Gasoline means arson. Arson means no insurance payoffs." A sip. "Of course, in this case, they probably wanted you to know it's arson. Makes sense, doesn't it?"

Nothing made sense at that moment. I was too confused to say much.

Baggy was content to do the talking. "Come to think of it, that's probably the reason it wasn't detonated. They wanted you to see it. If it went off, then the county wouldn't have the Times, which might upset some folks. Might make some other folks happy."

"Thanks."

"Anyway, that explains it better. It was a subtle act of intimidation."

"Subtle?"

"Yes, compared to what could've been. Believe me, those guys know how to burn buildings. You were lucky."

I noticed how he had quickly disassociated himself from the paper. It was "I" who was lucky, not "we."

The bourbon had found its way to the brain and was loosening the tongue. "About three years ago, maybe four, there was a large fire at one of their lumber mills, the one on Highway 401, just off the island. They never burn anything on the island because they don't want the authorities snoopin' around. Anyway, the insurance company smelled a rat, refused to pay, so Lucien Wilbanks filed this big lawsuit. It came to trial, in front of the Honorable Reed Loopus. I heard ever' word of it." A long, satisfying drink.

"Who won?"

He ignored me completely because the story was not yet properly laid out. "It was a big fire. The boys from Clanton took off with all their trucks. The volunteers from Karaway took off, ever' yokel with a siren went screamin' off toward Padgitt Island. Nothin' like a good fire around here to get the boys worked up. That and a bomb, I guess, but I can't remember the last bomb."

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