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The Last Juror(6)
Author: John Grisham

For the better part of a hundred years following the Civil War, the Padgitts owned the Sheriffs of Ford County. They bought them outright with sacks of cash. Mackey Don Coley received a hundred thousand a year (it was rumored), and during election years he got whatever he needed. And they were generous with other politicians. They quietly bought and kept influence. They asked little; they just wanted to be left alone on their island.

After the Second War, the demand for moonshine began a steady decline. Since generations of Padgitts had been schooled to operate outside the law, Buford and the family began to diversify into other forms of illicit commerce. Selling only timber was dull, and subject to too many market factors, and, most important, did not generate the piles of cash the family expected. They ran guns, stole cars, counterfeited, bought and burned buildings to collect insurance. For twenty years they operated a highly successful brothel on the county line, until it mysteriously burned in 1966.

They were creative and energetic people, always scheming and searching for opportunity, always waiting for someone to rob. There were rumors, quite significant at times, that the Padgitts were members of the Dixie Mafia, a loose-knit gang of redneck thieves who ran rampant through the Deep South in the sixties. These rumors were never verified and were in fact discounted by many because the Padgitts were simply too secretive to share their business with anyone. Nonetheless, the rumors persisted for years, and the Padgitts were the source of endless gossip in the cafes and coffee shops around the square in Clanton. They were never considered local heroes, but certainly legends.

In 1967, a younger Padgitt fled to Canada to avoid the draft. He drifted to California where he tried marijuana and realized he had a taste for it. After a few months as a peacenik, he got homesick and sneaked back to Padgitt Island. He brought with him four pounds of pot, which he shared with all his cousins, and they, too, were quite taken with it. He explained that the rest of the country, and primarily California, was toking like crazy. As usual, Mississippi was at least five years behind the trend.

The stuff could be grown cheaply, then hauled to the cities where there was demand. His father, Gill Padgitt, grandson of Clovis, saw the opportunity, and soon many of the old cornfields were converted to cannabis. A two-thousand-foot strip of land was cleared for a runway and the Padgitts bought themselves an airplane. Within a year there were daily flights to the outskirts of Memphis and Atlanta, where the Padgitts had established their network. To their delight and with their help, marijuana finally became popular in the Deep South.

The moonshining slowed considerably. The brothel was gone. The Padgitts had contacts in Miami and Mexico and the cash was coming in by the truckloads. For years, no one in Ford County had a hint that the Padgitts were trafficking in drugs. And they never got caught. No Padgitt was ever indicted for a drug-related offense.

In fact, not a single Padgitt had ever been arrested. A hundred years of moonshining, stealing, gunrunning, gambling, counterfeiting, whoring, bribing, even killing, and eventually drug manufacturing, and not a single arrest. They were smart people, careful, deliberate, patient with their schemes.

Then Danny Padgitt, Gill's youngest son, was arrested for the rape and murder of Rhoda Kassellaw.

Chapter 4

Mr. Deece told me the next day that when he was certain Rhoda was dead he finally left her in the swing on the front porch. He went to his bathroom, where he stripped and showered and saw her blood spin down the drain. He changed into work clothes and waited for the police and the ambulance. He watched her house while holding a loaded shotgun, anxious to blast anything that moved. But there was no movement, no sound. In the distance he could barely hear a siren.

His wife kept the children locked in the back bedroom, where she huddled with them in the bed, under a blanket. Michael kept asking about his mother, and who was that man? But Teresa was too traumatized to speak. She managed only a low groaning sound as she sucked her fingers and shook as if she were freezing.

Before long Benning Road was alive with red and blue flashing lights. Rhoda's body was photographed at length before it was taken away. Her home was cordoned off by a squad of deputies, led by Sheriff Coley himself. Mr. Deece, still holding his shotgun, gave his statement to an investigator, then to the Sheriff.

Shortly after 2 A.M., a deputy arrived with the news that a doctor in town had been notified and had suggested that the children be brought in for a look. They rode in the backseat of a patrol car, Michael clutching Mr. Deece, and Teresa in the lap of his wife. At the hospital, they were given a mild sedative and placed together in a semiprivate room where the nurses brought them cookies and milk until they finally went to sleep. Later in the day an aunt arrived from Missouri and took them away.

* * *

My phone rang seconds before midnight. It was Wiley Meek, the paper's photographer. He'd picked up the story on the police scanner and was already hanging around the jail waiting to ambush the suspect. Cops were everywhere, he said, his excitement barely under control. Hurry, he urged me. This could be the big one.

At the time I lived above an old garage next to a decaying but still grand Victorian mansion known as the Hocutt House. It was filled with elderly Hocutts, three sisters and a brother, and they took turns being my landlord. Their five-acre estate was a few blocks from the Clanton square and had been built a century earlier with family money. It was covered with trees, overgrown flower beds, thick patches of mature weeds, and enough animals to stock a game preserve. Rabbits, squirrels, skunks, possums, raccoons, a million birds, a frightening assortment of green and black snakes - all nonpoisonous I was reassured - and dozens of cats. But no dogs. The Hocutts hated dogs. Each cat had a name, and a major clause in my verbal lease was that I would respect the cats.

Respect them I did. The four-room loft apartment was spacious and clean and cost me the ridiculous sum of $50 a month. If they wanted their cats respected at that price, fine with me.

Their father, Miles Hocutt, had been an eccentric doctor in Clan-ton for decades. Their mother died during childbirth, and, according to local legend, Dr. Hocutt became very possessive of the children after her death. To protect them from the world, he concocted one of the biggest lies ever told in Ford County. He explained to his children that insanity ran deeply in the family, and thus they should never marry lest they produce some hideous strain of idiot offspring. His children worshiped him, believed him, and were probably already exposed to some measure of unbalance. They never married. The son, Max Hocutt, was eighty-one when he leased me the apartment. The twins, Wilma and Gilma, were seventy-seven, and Melberta, the baby, was seventy-three and completely out of her mind.

It was Gilma, I think, who was peeking from the kitchen window as I descended the wooden stairway at midnight. A cat was asleep on the bottom step, directly in my path, but I respectfully stepped over it. I wanted to kick it into the street.

Two cars were parked in the garage. One was my Spitfire, top up to keep the cats out, and the other was a long, shiny black Mercedes with red-and-white butcher knives painted on the doors. Under the knives were phone numbers in green paint. Someone had once told Mr. Max Hocutt that he could completely write off the cost of a new car, any car, if he used it for business and some sort of logo was painted on the doors. He bought a new Mercedes and became a knife sharpener. He said his tools were in the trunk.

The car was ten years old and had been driven less than eight thousand miles. Their father had also preached to them the sinfulness of women driving, so Mr. Max was the chauffeur.

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