The Last Juror - Page 22

Listen Audio


In late September there were two notable deaths in one week. The first was Mr. Wilson Caudle. He died at home, alone, in the bedroom where he'd secluded himself since the day he walked out of the Times. It was odd that I had not spoken to him once in the six months I'd owned the paper, but I'd been too busy to fret over it. I certainly didn't want any advice from Spot. And, sadly, I knew of no one who'd either seen him or talked to him in the past six months.

He died on a Thursday and was buried on a Saturday. On Friday I hustled over to Mr. Mitlo's and we had a wardrobe session regarding the proper funeral attire for someone of my stature. He insisted on a black suit, and he had just the perfect bow tie. It was narrow with black and maroon stripes, very dignified, very respectful, and when it was tied and I was properly turned out, I had to admit that the image was impressive. He pulled out a black felt fedora from his personal collection and proudly loaned it to me for the funeral. He said often that it was a shame American men didn't wear hats anymore.

The final touch was a shiny black wooden cane. When he produced it I just stared. "I don't need a cane," I said. It seemed quite foolish.

"It's a walking stick," he said, thrusting it at me.

"What's the difference?"

He then launched into a baffling history of the crucial role walking sticks had played in the evolution of modern European male fashion. He felt passionately about it, and the more worked up he got, the thicker his accent became, and the less I understood. To shut him up I took the stick.

The following day, when I walked into the Methodist church for Spot's funeral, the ladies stared at me. Some of the men did too, most of them wondering what the hell I was doing with a black hat and a cane. In a whisper just loud enough for me to hear, Stan Atcavage, my banker, said behind me, "I guess he's gonna sing and dance for us."

"Been hangin' around Mitlo's again," someone whispered back.

I accidentally whacked the cane on the pew in front of me, and the noise jolted the mourners. I wasn't sure what one did with a cane while one was seated for a funeral. I squeezed it between my legs and placed the hat in my lap. Portraying the right image took work. I looked around and saw Mitlo. He was beaming at me.

The choir began "Amazing Grace," and we fell into a somber mood. Reverend Clinkscale then recited Mr. Caudle's basics - born in 1896, the only child of our beloved Miss Emma Caudle, a widower with no children of his own, a veteran of the First War, and for over fifty years the editor of our county weekly. There he brought to an art form the obituaries, which would forever be Spot's claim to fame.

The reverend rambled on a bit, then a soloist broke the monotony. It was my fourth funeral since landing in Clanton. Except for my mother's, I had never attended one before. They were social events in the small town, and often I heard such gems as, "Wasn't that a lovely service," and "Take care, I'll see you at the funeral," and, my favorite, "She would have loved it."

"She," of course, was the deceased.

Folks took off work and wore their Sunday best. If you didn't go to funerals, then you were downright peculiar. Since I had enough oddities working against me, I was determined to properly honor the dead.

* * *

The second death occurred later that night, and when I heard about it on Monday I went to my apartment and found my pistol.

Malcolm Vince was shot twice in the head as he left a honky-tonk in a very remote part of Tishomingo County. Tishomingo was dry, the tonk was illegal, and that's why it was hidden so deep in the sticks.

There were no witnesses to the killing. Malcolm had been drinking beer and shooting pool, behaving himself generally and causing no trouble. Two acquaintances told the police that Malcolm left by himself around 11 P.M. after about three hours in the tonk. He was in good spirits and was not drunk. He said good-bye to them, walked outside, and within seconds they heard gunfire. They were almost certain he was not armed.

The joint was at the end of a dirt trail, and a quarter of a mile up the road a sentry guarded a passageway with a shotgun. In theory his job was to alert the owner if the police or other unsavory characters were approaching. Tishomingo was on the state line, and there had historically been feuds with some hoodlums over in Alabama. Tonks were favorite places to settle scores and such. The sentry heard the shots that killed Malcolm, and he was certain no car or truck had fled the scene afterward. Any such vehicle would've had to pass by him.

Whoever killed Malcolm had come from the woods, on foot, and carried out the hit. I talked to the Sheriff of Tishomingo County. He was of the opinion that someone was after Malcolm. It certainly wasn't a garden-variety honky-tonk flare-up.

"Any idea who might be after Mr. Vince?" I asked, desperately hoping that Malcolm had made some enemies two hours away.

"No idea," he said. "The boy hadn't lived here long."

For two days I carried the pistol in my pocket, then, again, grew weary of that. If the Padgitts wanted to get me or one of the jurors, or Judge Loopus or Ernie Gaddis or anyone they deemed guilty of helping send Danny away, then there was little we could do to stop them.

* * *

The paper that week was devoted to Mr. Wilson Caudle. I pulled out some old photos from the archives and plastered them all over the front page. We ran testimonials, stories, and lots of paid announcements of sympathy from his many friends. I then rehashed everything I'd written about him into the longest obituary in the history of the newspaper.

Spot deserved it.

I wasn't sure what to do with the story about Malcolm Vince. He was not a resident of Ford County, thus not entirely eligible for an obituary. Our rules were quite flexible when it came to that issue. A prominent Ford Countian who'd moved away would still qualify for an obituary, but obviously there had to be something to write about. One who'd just passed through the county and either had no family or contributed little could not qualify. Such was the case of Malcolm Vince.

If I exaggerated the story, the Padgitts would get the satisfaction of further intimidating the county. They would frighten us again. (Of those who'd heard of the killing, no one thought it might be the work of anyone other than the Padgitts.)

If I ignored the story, then I would be running scared and shirking my responsibility as a journalist. Baggy thought it was front page material, but there was no room when I was finished with our farewell to Mr. Caudle. I ran it at the top of page three, with the headline PADGITT WITNESS MURDERED IN TISHOMINGO COUNTY. My first headline had been MALCOLM VINCE MURDERED IN TISHOMINGO COUNTY, but Baggy felt strongly that we should use the Padgitt name with the word "murdered" in the headline. The story was three hundred words.

I drove to Corinth to snoop around. Harry Rex gave me the name of Malcolm's divorce lawyer, a local act who went by the name of Pud Perryman. His office was on Main Street, between a barbershop and a Chinese seamstress, and when I opened the door I immediately knew that Mr. Perryman was the least successful lawyer I would ever meet. The place reeked of lost cases, dissatisfied clients, and unpaid bills. The carpet was stained and threadbare. The furniture was left over from the fifties. A rancid haze of old and new cigarette smoke hung in layers, dangerously close to my head.

Mr. Perryman himself showed no signs of prosperity. He was around forty-five, potbellied, unkempt, unshaven, red-eyed. The last hangover was wearing off slowly. He informed me he was a divorce and property guy, and I was supposed to be impressed by this. Either he didn't charge enough or he attracted clients with little to sell or fight over.

He hadn't seen Malcolm in a month, he said as he looked for a file among the landfill that covered his desk. The divorce had never been filed. His efforts to work out an agreement with Lydia's lawyer had gone nowhere. "She flew the coop," he said.

"Beg your pardon?"

"She's gone. Packed up after the trial over there and hit the road. Took the kid, vanished."

I really didn't care what happened to Lydia. I was much more concerned with who shot Malcolm. Pud offered a couple of vague theories, but they broke down after a few basic questions. He reminded me of Baggy - a local courthouse gossipmonger who'd make up a rumor if he doesn't hear a new one within an hour.

Lydia had no boyfriends or brothers or anyone else who might want to shoot Malcolm in the heat of a bad divorce. And, of course, there was no divorce. The bad blood hadn't even begun!

Mr. Perryman gave the impression of one who preferred to prattle and tell lies all day, as opposed to tending to his files. I was in his office for almost an hour, and when I finally managed to leave I ran outside for fresh air.

I drove thirty minutes to Iuka, the Tishomingo County seat, where I found Sheriff Spinner just in time to buy him lunch. Over barbecued chicken in a crowded cafe, he brought me up to date on the murder. It was a clean hit by someone who knew the area well. They had found nothing - no footprints, no shell casings, nothing. The weapon had been a.44 magnum, and the two shots had practically blown off Malcolm's head. For drama, he unholstered his service revolver and passed it over. "This is a forty-four," he said. It was twice as heavy as my meager weapon. I lost what little appetite I had.

They had talked to every acquaintance they could find. Malcolm had lived in the area for about five months. He had no criminal record, no arrests, no reports of fistfights, no dice shooting, disturbances, or drunken brawls. He went to the tonk once a week, where he shot pool and drank beer and never raised his voice. There were no loans or bills past due for more than sixty days. There appeared to be no illicit affairs or jealous husbands.

"I can't find a motive," the Sheriff said. "It doesn't make sense."

I told him about Malcolm's testimony in the Padgitt trial, and about how Danny threatened the jury. He listened intently, and said little afterward. I got the clear impression he preferred to stay in Tishomingo County and wanted no part of the Padgitts.

"That could be your motive," I said when I finished.

"Revenge?"

"Sure. These are nasty people."

"Oh, I've heard of them. Guess we're lucky we weren't on that jury, huh?"

Driving back to Clanton, I could not erase the image of the Sheriff's face when he said that. Gone was the swagger of a well-armed man of the law. Spinner was truly grateful he was two counties away, and had nothing to do with the Padgitts.

His investigation was dead. Case closed.


Tags: John Grisham Thriller
Source: www.freenovel24.com