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Home > The King of Torts(4)

The King of Torts(4)
Author: John Grisham

"I happened to be in the Criminal Division this morning at the wrong time, got nailed with a murder case, one I'd rather pass on. I just finished the Traxel case, which, as you know, lasted for almost three years. I need a break from murder. How about one of the younger guys?"

"You beggin' off, Mr. Carter?" she said, eyebrows arched.

"Absolutely. Load up the dope and burglaries for a few months. That's all I'm asking."

"And who do you suggest should handle the, uh, what's the case?"

"Tequila Watson."

"Tequila Watson. Who should get him, Mr. Carter?"

"I don't really care. I just need a break."

She leaned back in her chair, like some wise old chairman of the board, and began chewing on the end of a pen. "Don't we all, Mr. Carter? We'd all love a break, wouldn't we?"

"Yes or no?"

"We have eighty lawyers here, Mr. Carter, about half of whom are qualified to handle murder cases. Everybody has at least two. Move it if you can, but I'm not going to reassign it."

As he was leaving, Clay said, "I could sure use a raise if you wanted to work on it."

"Next year, Mr. Carter. Next year."

"And a paralegal."

"Next year."

The Tequila Watson file remained in the very neat and organized office of Jarrett Clay Carter II, Attorney-at-Law.

Chapter Three

The building was, after all, a jail. Though it was of recent vintage and upon its grand opening had been the source of great pride for a handful of city leaders, it was still a jail. Designed by cutting-edge urban defense consultants and adorned with high-tech security gadgetry, it was still a jail. Efficient, safe, humane, and, though built for the next century, it was overbooked the day it opened. From the outside it resembled a large red cinderblock resting on one end, windowless, hopeless, filled with criminals and the countless people who guarded them. To make someone feel better it had been labeled a Criminal Justice Center, a modern euphemism employed widely by the architects of such projects. It was a jail.

And it was very much a part of Clay Carter's turf. He met almost all of his clients there, after they were arrested and before they were released on bond, if they were able to post it. Many were not. Many were arrested for nonviolent crimes, and whether guilty or innocent, they were kept locked away until their final court appearances. Tigger Banks had spent almost eight months in the jail for a burglary he did not commit. He lost both of his part-time jobs. He lost his apartment. He lost his dignity. Clay's last phone call from Tigger had been a gut-wrenching plea from the kid for money. He was on crack again, on the streets and headed for trouble.

Every criminal lawyer in the city had a Tigger Banks story, all with unhappy endings and nothing to be done about them. It cost $41,000 a year to house an inmate. Why was the system so anxious to burn the money?

Clay was tired of those questions, and tired of the Tiggers of his career, and tired of the jail and the same surly guards who greeted him at the basement entrance used by most lawyers. And he was tired of the smell of the place, and the idiotic little procedures put in place by pencil pushers who read manuals on how to keep jails safe. It was 9 A.M., a Wednesday, though for Clay every day was the same. He went to a sliding window under a sign for ATTORNEYS, and after the clerk was certain that he had waited long enough, she opened the window and said nothing. Nothing needed to be said, since she and Clay had been scowling at each other without greetings for almost five years now. He signed a register, handed it back, and she closed the window, no doubt a bulletproof one to protect her from rampaging lawyers.

Glenda had spent two years trying to implement a simple call-ahead method whereby OPD lawyers, and everyone else for that matter, could telephone an hour before they arrived and their clients would be somewhere in the vicinity of the attorney conference room. It was a simple request, and its simplicity had no doubt led to its demise in bureaucratic hell.

There was a row of chairs against a wall where the lawyers were expected to wait while their requests were sent along at a snail's pace to someone upstairs. By 9 A.M. there were always a few lawyers sitting there, fidgeting with files, whispering on cell phones, ignoring one another. At one point early in his young career Clay had brought along thick law books to read and highlight in yellow and thus impress the other lawyers with his intensity. Now he pulled out the Post and read the sports section. As always, he glanced at his watch to see how much time would be wasted waiting for Tequila Watson.

Twenty-four minutes. Not bad.

A guard led him down the hall to a long room divided by a thick sheet of Plexiglas. The guard pointed to the fourth booth from the end, and Clay took a seat. Through the glass, he could see that the oilier half of the booth was empty. More waiting. He pulled papers from his briefcase and began thinking of questions for Tequila. The booth to his right was occupied by a lawyer in the midst of a tense, but muted, conversation with his client, a person Clay could not see.

The guard returned and whispered to Clay, as if such conversations were illegal. "Your boy had a bad night," he said, crouching and glancing up at the security cameras.

"Okay," Clay said. "He jumped on a kid around two this morning, beat the hell out of him, caused a pretty good brawl. Took six of our guys to break it up. He's a mess."

"Tequila?"

"Watson, that's him. Put the other boy in the hospital. Expect some additional charges."

"Are you sure?" Clay asked, looking over his shoulder.

"It's all on video." End of conversation.

They looked up as Tequila was brought to his seat by two guards, each with an elbow secured. He was handcuffed, and though the inmates were customarily set free to chat with their lawyers, Tequila's handcuffs were not coming off. He sat down. The guards moved away but remained close.

His left eye was swollen shut, with dried blood in both corners. The right one was open and the pupil was bright red. There was tape and gauze in the center of his forehead, and a butterfly Band-Aid on his chin. Both lips and both jaws were puffy and oversized to the point that Clay wasn't sure he had the right client. Someone somewhere had just beaten the hell out of the guy sitting three feet away through the Plexiglas.

Clay picked up the black phone receiver and motioned for Tequila to do likewise. He cradled it awkwardly with both hands.

"You are Tequila Watson?" Clay said with as much eye contact as possible.

He nodded yes, very slowly, as if loose bones were shifting throughout his head.

"Have you seen a doctor?"

A nod, yes.

"Did the cops do this to you?"

Without hesitation he shook his head. No.

"The other guys in the cell do it?"

A nod, yes.

"The cops tell me you started the fight, beat up some kid, put him in the hospital. Is that true?" A nod, yes. It was hard to imagine Tequila Watson, all 150 pounds of him, bullying people in a crowded cell in the D.C. jail. "Did you know the kid?" Lateral movement. No. So far his receiver had not been needed, and Clay was tired of the sign language. "Why, exactly, did you beat up this kid?"

With great effort the swollen lips finally parted. "I don't know," he managed to grunt, the words slow and painful.

"That's great, Tequila. That gives me something to work with. How about self-defense? Did the kid come after you? Throw the first punch?"

"No."

"Was he stoned or drunk?"

"No."

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