The Last Juror - Page 4

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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.

I eased the Spitfire down the gravel drive and waved at Gilma peeking from behind the curtain. She jerked her head away and disappeared. The jail was six blocks away. I had slept for about thirty minutes.

Danny Padgitt was being fingerprinted when I arrived. The Sheriff's office was in the front section of the jail, and it was packed with deputies and reserves and volunteer firemen and everybody with access to a uniform and a police scanner. Wiley Meek met me on the front sidewalk.

"It's Danny Padgitt!" he said with great excitement.

I stopped for a second and tried to think. "Who?"

"Danny Padgitt, from the island."

I'd been in Ford County less than three months and had yet to meet a single Padgitt. They, as always, kept to themselves. But I'd heard various installments of their legend, with much more to follow. Telling Padgitt stories was a common form of entertainment in Ford County.

Wiley gushed on, "I got some great shots just as they got him out of the car. Had blood all over him. Great pictures! The girl's dead!"

"What girl?"

"The one he killed. Raped her too, at least that's the rumor."

Danny Padgitt, I mumbled to myself as the sensational story began to sink in. I had my first glimpse of the headline, no doubt the boldest one the Times had run in many years. Poor old Spot had shied away from the jolting stories. Poor old Spot had gone bankrupt. I had other plans.

We pushed our way inside and looked around for Sheriff Coley. I'd met him twice during my brief stint with the Times and I had been impressed with his polite and warm nature. He called me mister and said sir and ma'am to everyone, always with a smile. He'd been the Sheriff since the massacre in 1943, so he was pushing seventy years of age. He was tall and gaunt without the obligatory thick stomach required of most Southern sheriffs. On the surface he was a gentleman, and both times I'd met him I'd later wondered how such a nice man could be so corrupt. He emerged from a back room with a deputy, and I, practicing my assertive-ness, rushed to him.

"Sheriff, just a couple of questions," I said sternly. There were no other reporters present. His boys - the real deputies, the part-timers, the wannabes, the jackleg constables with homemade uniforms - they all got quiet and gave me their sneers. I was still very much the brash new rich boy who'd somehow wrangled control of their newspaper. I was a foreigner, with no right to barge in at a time like this and start asking questions.

Sheriff Coley smiled as usual, as if these encounters happened all the time around midnight. "Yes sir, Mr. Traynor." He had a slow rich drawl that was very soothing. This man couldn't tell a lie, could he?

"What can you tell us about the murder?"

With his arms folded across his chest, he gave a few of the basics in copspeak. "While female, age thirty-one, was attacked in her home on Benning Road. Raped, stabbed, murdered. Can't give you her name until we talk to her kinfolks."

"And you've made an arrest?"

"Yes sir, but no details now. Just give us a couple of hours. We're investigatin'. That's all, Mr. Traynor."

"Rumor has it that you have Danny Padgitt in custody."

"I don't deal in rumors, Mr. Traynor. Not in my profession. Yours neither."

Wiley and I drove to the hospital, sniffed around for an hour, heard nothing we could print, then drove to the scene on Benning Road. The cops had cordoned off the house and a few of the neighbors were huddled quietly behind a strand of yellow police ribbon near the mailbox. We eased next to them, listening intently, hearing almost nothing. They seemed too stunned to talk. After a few minutes of gawking at the house, we crept away.

Wiley had a nephew who was a part-time deputy, and we found him guarding the Deece home where they were still inspecting the front porch and the swing where Rhoda took her last breath. We pulled him off to the side, behind a row of Mr. Deece's crepe myrtles, and he told us everything. All off the record, of course, as if the gory details would somehow be kept quiet in Ford County.

* * *

There were three small cafes around the square in Clanton, two for the whites, one for the blacks. Wiley suggested we get an early table and just listen.

I do not eat breakfast, and I'm usually not awake during the hours in which it is served. I don't mind working until midnight, but I prefer to sleep until the sun is overhead and in full view. As I quickly realized, one of the advantages of owning a small weekly was that I could work late and sleep late. The stories could be written anytime, as long as the deadlines were met. Spot himself was known to drift in not long before noon, after, of course, dropping by the funeral home. I liked his hours.

The second day I lived in my apartment above the Hocutt garage, Gilma banged on my door at nine-thirty in the morning. And banged and banged. I finally staggered through my small kitchen in my underwear and saw her squinting through the blinds. She announced that she was just about to call the police. The other Hocutts were down below, wandering around the garage, looking at my car, certain that a crime had been committed.

She asked what I was doing. I said that I had been sleeping until I heard somebody banging on the damned door. She asked me why I was still asleep at nine-thirty on a Wednesday morning. I rubbed my eyes and tried to think of an appropriate response. I was suddenly aware that I was almost nude and standing in the presence of a seventy-seven-year-old virgin. She kept looking at my thighs.

They'd been up since five, she explained. Nobody sleeps till nine-thirty in Clanton. Was I drunk? They were just concerned, that's all. As I closed the door I told her I was sober, still sleepy, thanks for being concerned but I would often be in bed past 9 A.M.

I'd been to the Tea Shoppe a couple of times for late morning coffee and once for lunch. As the owner of the paper, I felt it necessary to circulate and be seen, at a reasonable hour. I was keenly aware that I would be writing about Ford County, its people and places and happenings, for years to come.

Wiley said the cafes would be crowded early. "Always after football games and car wrecks," he said.

"What about murders?" I asked.

"It's been a long time," he said.

He was right, the place was packed when we walked in, just after 6 A.M. He offered some hellos, shook some hands, exchanged a couple of insults. He was from Ford County and knew everyone. I nodded and smiled and caught the odd looks. It would take years. The people were friendly, but also wary of outsiders.

We found two scats at the counter and I asked for coffee. Nothing else. The waitress did not approve of this. She warmed to Wiley, though, when he reconsidered and ordered scrambled eggs, country ham, biscuits, grits, and a side of hash browns, enough cholesterol to choke a mule.

The talk was of the rape and murder and nothing else. If the weather could cause arguments, imagine what such a heinous crime could stir up. The Padgitts had had the run of the county for a hundred years; it was time to send 'em all to jail. Surround the island with the National Guard if necessary. Mackey Don had to go; he'd been in their pockets for too long. Let a bunch of crooks run free and they think they're above the law. Now this.

Not much was said about Rhoda because little was known. Someone knew she'd been hanging around the lounges on the state line. Someone said she'd been sleeping with a local lawyer. Didn't know his name. Just a rumor.

The rumors roared around the Tea Shoppe. A couple of the loudmouths took turns holding court, and I was surprised at how reckless they were with their versions of the truth. Too bad I couldn't print all the wonderful gossip we heard.

Tags: John Grisham Thriller