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Home > The Last Juror(13)

The Last Juror(13)
Author: John Grisham

"And so..."

"Highway 401 runs through some lowland near Padgitt Island, real swampy. There's a bridge over Massey's Creek, and when the fire trucks came flyin' up to the bridge they found a pickup layin' on its side, like it had rolled over. The road was completely blocked; couldn't go around because there was nothin' but swamps and ditches." He smacked his lips and poured more from the bottle. It was time for me to say something, but whatever I said would be completely ignored anyway. This was the way Baggy preferred to be prompted.

"Whose pickup was it?" I asked, the words barely out of my mouth before he was shaking his head as if the question was completely off the mark.

"The fire was ragin' like hell. Fire trucks backed up all along 401 because some clown had flipped his pickup. Never found him. No sign of a driver. No sign of an owner because there was no registration. No tags. The vehicle ID had been sanded off. The truck was never claimed. Wasn't damaged much cither. All this came out at trial. Ever'body knew the Padgitts set the fire, flipped one of their stolen trucks to block the road, but the insurance company couldn't prove it."

Down below Sheriff Coley had found his bullhorn. He was asking the people to please stay off the street in front of our office. His shrieking voice added urgency to the situation.

"So the insurance company won?" I said, anxious to get to the end.

"Helluva trial. Went on for three days. Wilbanks can usually cut a deal with one or two people on the jury. Been doin' it for years and never gets caught. Plus he knows ever'body in the county. The insurance boys were up from Jackson, and they didn't have a clue. The jury stayed out for two hours, came back with a verdict for the claim, a hundred grand, and for good measure, tacked on a million in punitive damages."

"One point one million!" I said.

"You got it. The first million-dollar verdict in Ford County. Lasted about a year until the Supreme Court took an ax to it and cut out the punitive."

The notion of Lucien Wilbanks having such sway over jurors was not comforting. Baggy neglected his bourbon for a moment and gazed at something below. "This is a bad sign, son," he finally said. "Really bad."

I was his boss and didn't like to be referred to as "son," but I let it slide. I had more pressing matters at hand. "The intimidation?" I said.

"Yep. The Padgitts rarely leave the island. The fact that they've brought their little show on the road means they're ready for war. If they can intimidate the newspaper, then they'll try it with the jury. They already own the Sheriff."

"But Wilbanks said he wants a change of venue."

He snorted and rediscovered his drink. "Don't bet on it, son."

"Please call me Willie." Odd how I was now clinging to that name.

"Don't bet on it, Willie. The boy's guilty; his only chance is to have a jury that can be bought or scared. Ten to one odds the trial takes place right here, in this building."

* * *

After two hours of waiting in vain for the ground to shake, the town was ready for lunch. The crowd broke up and drifted away. The expert from the state crime lab finally arrived and went to work in the printing room. I wasn't allowed in the building, which was fine with me.

Margaret, Wiley, and I had a sandwich in the gazebo on the courthouse lawn. We ate quietly, chatted briefly, the three of us keeping an eye on our office across the street. Occasionally someone would see us and stop for an awkward word or two. What do you say to bombing victims when the bomb doesn't go off? Fortunately, the townsfolk had had little practice in that area. We collected some sympathy and a few offers of help.

Sheriff Coley ambled over and gave a preliminary report on our bomb. The clock was of the wind-up alarm variety, available in stores everywhere. At first glance the expert thought there was a problem with the wiring. Very amateurish, he said.

"How will you investigate this?" I asked with an edge.

"We'll check for prints, see if we can find any witnesses. The usual."

"Will you talk to the Padgitts?" I asked, even edgier. I was, after all, in the presence of my employees. And though I was scared to death, I wanted to impress them with how utterly fearless I was.

"You know somethin' I don't?" he shot back.

"They're suspects, aren't they?"

"Are you the Sheriff now?"

"They're the most experienced arsonists in the county, been burning buildings for years with impunity. Their lawyer threatened me in court last week. We've had Danny Padgitt on the front page twice. If they're not suspects, then who is?"

"Just go ahead and write the story, son. Call 'em by name. You seem determined to get sued anyway."

"I'll take care of the paper," I said. "You catch the criminals."

He tipped his hat to Margaret and walked away.

"Next year's reelection year," Wiley said as we watched Coley stop and chat with two ladies near a drinking fountain. "I hope he has an opponent."

* * *

The intimidation continued, at Wiley's expense. He lived a mile from town on a five-acre hobby farm, where his wife raised ducks and watermelons. That night as he parked in his drive and was getting out of his car, two goons jumped from the shrubs and assaulted him. The larger man knocked him down and kicked him in the face, while the other one rummaged through his backseat and pulled out two cameras. Wiley was fifty-eight years old and an ex-Marine, and at some point in the melee he managed to land a kick that sent the larger assailant to the ground. There they exchanged blows and as Wiley was gaining the upper hand the other thug banged him over the head with one of his cameras. Wiley said he didn't remember much after that.

His wife eventually heard the ruckus. She found Wiley on the ground, semiconscious, with both cameras shattered. In the house, she put ice packs on his face and determined that there were no broken bones. The ex-Marine did not want to go to the hospital.

A deputy arrived and made a report. Wiley had caught only a glimpse of his attackers and he'd certainly never seen them before. "They're back on the island by now," he said. "You won't find them."

His wife prevailed, and an hour later they called me from the hospital. I saw him between X rays. His face was a mess, but he managed to smile. He grabbed my hand and pulled me close. "Next week, front page," he said through cut lips and swollen jaws.

A few hours later I left the hospital and went for a long drive through the countryside. I kept glancing at my mirror, half-expecting another load of Padgitts to come roaring up, guns blazing.

It was not a lawless county, where organized criminals ran roughshod over the law-abiding people. It was just the opposite - crime was rare. Corruption was generally frowned upon. I was right and they were wrong, and I decided I'd be damned before I knuckled under. I'd buy myself a gun; hell, everybody else in the county carried two or three. And if necessary I'd hire a guard of some sort. My paper would grow even bolder as the murder trial approached.

Chapter 8

Prior to the bankruptcy, and my unlikely rise in prominence in Ford County, I had heard a fascinating story about a local family. Spot never pursued it because it would've required some light research and a trip across the railroad tracks.

Now that the paper was mine, I decided it was too good to pass up.

Over in Lowtown, the colored section, there lived an extraordinary couple - Calia and Esau Ruffin. They had been married for over forty years and had raised eight children, seven of whom had earned PhD's and were now college professors. Details on the remaining one were sketchy, though, according to Margaret, his name was Sam and he was hiding from the law.

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