SO I'LL TELL YOU. I'll tell you because confession is supposed to be good for the soul, and when choosing between the tonics available—from religion to Tony Robbins to the friendly late-night chemist—this unburdening seems to present the least risk. When it comes to my soul, I have adopted a doctor's attitude: First, do no harm.
The complete overthrow of my principles. That was what I had done. A moment in time, and my life—previously not lived to the highest standards, but plenty respectable—blew up. The distance between integrity and the loss of innocence proved to be razor-thin, a handful of decisions, frictionless, greased with desire. I thought I was choosing a woman. I thought—and I have to swallow this back, but it's the truth, and this is the unburdening, after all—I had earned her. And now she is my ghost, come to judge me.
This is the beginning of moral collapse: to be held captive by a woman's eyes. Looking into hers, my mind went blank. All I knew was that she was in my office, and she was crying, and at some point I asked her to sit down. Her name was Violeta Ramirez, and I ignored her faux leather pocketbook, her Wal-mart dress, the run in her stocking. These were signals that she was in the wrong office, of course, in the same way that a Timex is the wrong watch in a store that sells yachts. But I was looking at her flawless, caramel skin, the deep, black hair pulled back, the fathomless, brown eyes. The familiar script in my body began to play, this hormone washing over these cells, neurons lighting up, a million years of evolution lining up my thoughts like little soldiers.
The clients of Carthy, Williams and Douglas did not generally cry in my office. They were far more likely to rant, curse, or even, when I was lucky, to intently listen. But having paid four hundred dollars an hour for the privilege of occupying the chair opposite me, complaints about their manners were not welcome. A crying woman was something else, however, and I found myself leaping up, asking her if I could get her anything. She was exquisitely beautiful, she was crying, and she could not be ignored.
Caliz was the father of her child, she said. There had been a mistake; he had aggravated the police; they had planted las drogas on him. He was good, if only people understood him. He had a smart mouth, and the police had made him pay. He was no choirboy, she knew that—was that a bruise hiding underneath her dark makeup?—but of this, he was innocent.
I don't know if she was aware of the effect she was having on me. I watched, mesmerized, as each tear slipped down her cheek. She crossed her legs, and I caught my breath. It's not that I didn't appreciate most women. I have appreciated them from my earliest memories, from the bosomy warmth of my mother to the incisive intelligence of the female associates at the firm. It's just that feminism doesn't mean anything to the human body, and there was something so uncomplicated and vulnerable in her that I couldn't stop my entire soul from wanting her.
There were obligations, which I met: I explained the firm didn't do drug cases, or for that matter, criminal law of any kind. The crying had gotten worse then, and in the end I couldn't even bring up the obvious impossibility of her paying my fee. But it wouldn't have mattered, because Carthy, Williams and Douglas would sooner invite the archangel of death into their offices than defend a drug dealer. So I simply said that my hands were tied, which was true. I did not have the power to change the rules of the firm. She rose, shook my hand, and crept from my office in tears and humiliation. Hours after she left, the image of her lingered. I stared at the chair where she had been, willing her back. For two days, I couldn't do a thing at the office. At last I called her, telling her I would see what I could do. The truth is, I would have moved heaven and earth to see her again.
It was work selling the idea to the firm. By meticulous design, Carthy, Williams and Douglas was as far away from legal aid as it was possible to get. Its offices occupied three floors of the Tower Walk building in Buckhead, the part of Atlanta where it's a crime to be either old or poor. And if anybody was going to go play in the slums for a few days, it wasn't likely to be me, Jack Hammond. At three years out of law school, I had just moved to Atlanta—the magnet that pulls together the shards of humanity from all over the Southeast—was working seventy-hour weeks, and generally outspending my salary with a vengeance. I couldn't afford any detours. But in spite of this, I made an appointment with founding partner Frank Carthy.
Carthy was seventy years old and had come up when pro bono work was a part of every big firm's responsibility. Until the early 1980s it had been expected, and judges had handed it out as a part of the obligation of the profession. That had suited him fine; he was an old-school southern liberal, with a soft spot for civil rights cases. He still told stories about getting protesters out of jail in the 1960s, mostly for things like being the wrong color to sit at a particular place in a restaurant. So even though he would resist a drug case, he might be attracted to a case about a crying girl and false arrest based on race.
I didn't see Carthy much; within the hierarchy of the firm he occupied Mount Olympus, rarely descending into Hades two floors below him where the new associates worked. In spite of working my ass off—mostly to live down growing up in Dothan, Alabama, with an adolescence so ordinary it could have been cut out of cardboard—my access to the gods of the firm was limited. I had arrived with the impression that I was in possession of a significant legal gift. What I discovered at Carthy, Williams and Douglas was that being the smartest little boy in Dothan, Alabama, was like being the shiniest diamond in a pool of mud. So in a way, just having something to talk about with a founding partner was a boost to my prospects.
I knew the second I told him I had hit a nerve. For a while, I was actually worried he would volunteer to try it with me. For Carthy, a millionaire several times over, taking a case like this was the equivalent of standing outside a grocery store for a couple of hours with a red cup for the Salvation Army, except he wouldn't risk getting wet: it was good for the soul. He probably assumed that this expression of legal largesse would be a minor diversion, likely taking only a few hours. Drug court—a tiny courtroom attached to the police station, with seating for only ten people—was little more than a revolving door.
I went to meet Caliz the next morning, which required a trip to the inner recesses of the Fulton County Jail. The smell of that place is the atmospheric accumulation of everything unpleasant when things go horribly wrong. It is composed of equal parts human misery, sweat, and indifferent bureaucracy, of metal filing cabinets and the homeless and overweight cops and fluorescent lighting that has never been turned off. I followed a wordless guard to a nondescript room with two metal chairs and a long table.
Caliz came in a couple of minutes later, and it took me no time at all to dislike him. Still in his early twenties, he already had the insolent, blank stare of the small-time thug. His eyes were pools of detached anger, precursors to sociopathic behavior. Whatever he lacked in that department, he would certainly find after a couple of years at the school for cruelty known as state prison. Getting a straight story out of him was impossible, his ability to lie having already become effortless. He looked right at me, expressionless, and said, "No, la policía put las drogas in the car. I never take las drogas. Bad for you. I stay away."
Horseshit, I thought, which wasn't strictly the point. The real question was why his car had been pulled over in the first place, and why, after a brief but unfriendly conversation, the backseat of his car had been removed, disassembled, and his trunk thoroughly searched. Bad attitudes didn't void the Constitution.
Pitting the word of Miguel Caliz against the Atlanta Police would not be a walk in the park, except I met the arresting officers later that afternoon, and they were exactly as Caliz described. That was the moment I knew for certain that Caliz would walk, whether or not he was guilty. The two policemen were a couple of meanspirited assholes who couldn't keep their dispositions off their faces. They reminded me of Caliz himself: they were bullies, making their living off the pain of society. It was simple human nature, therefore—people despising being reminded of their own shortcomings —that Caliz would bring out the worst in them. I could see it in their eyes: they didn't like Latinos, they didn't like Caliz, and above all, they didn't like people they couldn't scare. If I put together a jury with the right disposition, just looking at those officers would be all it would take to spring Caliz.
None of that explained what happened, how I took his girlfriend to dinner, how for three or four hours the conversation drifted easily into areas she knew nothing about: law school, the summer I had backpacked across Europe—it was only three weeks, but we were a couple of drinks into it by now—how the cost of a really good bottle of wine wasn't something to compare with other, lesser things. In fact, I knew very little of these matters, but she had watched me with those shining, dark eyes, which was enough. It was a wet fall evening, and she had huddled close to me as we walked past the shops in Buckhead, a world she couldn't reasonably expect to ever call her own. She was wearing what ghetto girls always wear when they go someplace decent—something black, a little too tight, a little too short.
The word seduction implies a victim, and there is too much confusion about what happened next to assign the word here. Certainly, I found myself wondering what it would be like to lose myself in her beauty, to see myself in her dark, shining eyes. And after a few hours I invited her home—I fumbled the invitation a little, but she didn't seem to notice—still telling myself we were only going to talk, to spend some time together. But inside my apartment she brushed against me, bringing her breasts against my chest, and I pulled her to me, determined to treat her like the angel I wanted her to be. My sin was not lust. My sin was the sin of Satan, who wanted to be like God. I wanted to be the savior of the earthbound Violeta Ramirez, and I wanted her to worship me for doing it.
The next morning there was a rustle of sheets beside me, her exquisitely feminine scent creeping over me as I woke, making me dizzy. She sighed deeply and turned over, her light brown backside coming up against my hip. I closed my eyes and felt something like euphoria, only deeper, earthier. Her sleeping was so deep, so untroubled, that I marveled once again how God, with His infinite capacity for irony, so often paired angels like Violeta with losers like Caliz. Maybe I was romanticizing. I'm certain that I was, because at that point in my life I still had that capacity. Maybe she had a bad-boy complex. Maybe she was working through some father issues by dating a guy like Caliz. Maybe she was like me, and just wanted someone of her own to save. Caliz certainly fit that bill. The mind is infinitely complex.
Lying awake beside her in bed, I didn't know if what happened between us was romantic or cheap. There was so little context, and I never had the chance to find out. One of God's tricks is to cloud the human mind at the moment of mating with so much angel dust that it's only in looking back at things that you can discover what they really meant. We fall in love and then, on the fourth date, we wonder who the hell we're with. I do know that when Violeta finally awakened and started to dress, she looked even more beautiful to me than the night before. It hit me how extraordinary sex was, that she was walking around with me inside her, every strand of genetic code containing the purest essence of myself. Inside her warm body was every detail of who I am, and I felt extravagantly, marvelously happy.
We didn't speak much before she left. She dressed and slipped away gracefully, without imposition or demand. She left me with my task: in other words, to get Miguel Caliz out of jail. If nothing else, I owed her that. And after what had just happened, I owedhim that.
I had to buy him clothes. I paid for them myself, probably out of a sense of penance. I knew I had crossed an ethical line, although lately the lines were moving so quickly that I wasn't sure where they were. I only knew one thing for certain, that winning was the most ethical thing of all.
I met Caliz at the jail to give him the suit, and he accepted it without a word. I waited for him to dress to go over his testimony. He looked good, but not slick, which was the idea. I didn't want the jurors to know I had dressed him, so the suit I brought was cheapish, nothing too stylish.
Ten minutes into the trial, I realized it didn't matter. I had planned carefully, ready to cite the most cutting-edge legal opinions on constitutional law, from search and seizure to racial profiling. I never had the chance. Everyone in the courtroom was spellbound as they watched the police officer on the stand blowing up, his face covered with ill-concealed loathing for all things brown in the inner city of Atlanta. I actually wondered how long the prosecuting attorney would let it go on. But she had no choice. The policeman was the arresting officer, and without his testimony, there was no case. In spite of his angry, narrow eyes, sarcastic tone, and generally hate-filled countenance, she had to keep asking him questions. The jury—there had never been a question in my mind whether or not to ask for a jury—was more than half Latino, and they were hating him back with a combined hundred years or so of built-up resentment.
Caliz himself had helped; like a lot of cons, the kid could act. His expression, with me suspicious and dangerous, transformed itself into victimized fear. His voice trembled. The officers had pulled him over because of his skin. He was humiliated. They had searched him because they didn't like his accent. Of course he knew about drugs. Everybody in his neighborhood knew about them. But he had never taken them in his life.
It took less than an hour for the jury to acquit. There was some satisfaction in that, I suppose. I had to take satisfaction where I could get it, because I didn't get any from Caliz. He didn't shake my hand when he heard the verdict. Instead, he turned and looked at Violeta, who was sitting quietly behind the two of us. Which was the moment I began to wonder who was driving the train I was on.
I thought about her that night, missing her. I was confused, wondering what she was doing. Was she flat on her back, happily letting Caliz replace my heritage with his own? Or was she declaring her independence, telling him having her man in and out of jail wasn't acceptable anymore? I wanted to will her back into my bed, to feel her legs wrapped around me, to lose myself again in her dark hair and eyes. The next morning, submerged into my normal life, she floated in and out of my mind, coalescing in my memory. I very nearly called her, formulating some banal question to ask, some bit of paperwork needing to be signed.
I did not yet understand the chasm between normal and criminal thinking. To Caliz, it didn't matter whether or not Violeta had sacrificed herself to get him the kind of legal expertise he could never afford on his own. It only mattered that he was the kind of angry young man who beats the woman in his life. If she had seduced me on his orders, maybe he just suspected that she had enjoyed herself too much. I never found out. I only know that two days after I got him out of jail, he beat her to death.
The coroner explained to me that when he broke her jaw she would have stopped begging him for mercy. But it was when he broke her ribs that she stopped breathing. Respiration wouldn't have continued for long, what with the punctured lung, the rapid and inevitable buildup of fluid around the heart. He testified that she would have survived between four and six minutes.
No one was able to testify what Miguel Caliz had on his mind while he was beating the hell out of Violeta Ramirez. He might have been taking revenge on her for breaking the foremost rule of dating a thug: never cheat. He might, on the other hand, have felt nothing at all. He might have been as calm as a hot, airless Atlanta day in summer. But either way, Violeta Ramirez was dead.
I learned what happened when I was served witness papers in the middle of a lunch with clients at 103 West, a trendy and expensive restaurant in Buckhead. I smiled apologetically for the intrusion, set down my glass of pinot noir, and read the handful of lines that were to blow up my world. Caliz's lawyer this time was cheap— I had never heard of the firm—but not so cheap that he didn't know there was sympathy for his client in the fact that I had just slept with his girlfriend. So my deposition would be required.
Some weeks later I put my hand on a Bible and swore that my name was Jack Hammond, and these were my sins. But a judge isn't a priest, and he didn't offer any penance. I would have to find that on my own. He did, however, use the word reprehensible in his admonishment to me before I was excused. That word was powerful enough for the firm of Carthy, Williams and Douglas. They did not desire to have a person who committed that word in their employment. The tawdriness of what happened to the girl was not a positive reflection on the firm, and I was on the street.
For several weeks, I didn't turn off the lights in my bedroom. I simply sat, watching the hours click by slowly. Eventually, my body demanded its due, and I closed my eyes. But it was a dangerous sleep, and there was no protection in it.
It means nothing at all to me that Miguel Caliz will spend the next several decades in a federal penitentiary. Locking up Caliz did nothing to restrict the memory of Violeta Ramirez. That memory continues to haunt me, both in daylight and dark.
The complete overthrow of my principles. That was what I had done. And here I make confession, for the benefit of my soul. But even as I confess, I know that the scar remains. Until I make this one thing right in my life, I will have no peace.
Two years later
MY EYES WERE CLOSED, and I was remembering. The venerable Judson Spence, professor of law, was repeating his ceaseless plea, beating into our young, idealistic heads his most fervent bit of advice: Avoid criminal law like the plague. It is one of the principles of life that once you get involved in the shit of another human being, you become magnetically attractive to the shit of others. Again and again, he steered his most talented students toward the vastly more profitable, and sanitized, world of torts. He made his entire class memorize a little aphorism: "Spend your time around the successful, and you will be successful." Otherwise, he cautioned, a huge codependent cycle of human excrement would rain down on us, as the damaged of the world flocked to the enabler.
I, Jack Hammond, am living proof that Judson Spence, professor of law, was an absolute genius. After a considerable tour of duty in the world he warned against, I have discovered my own magnetic powers to be considerable. Not that this has made me rich. My law offices are utilitarian, beginning with the location—a mostly vacant strip mall in a spotty part of southwest Atlanta—and continuing to the furniture, which is cheap, leased, and unsupportive. The paint scheme of the walls—a semigloss eggshell with an unfortunate tendency to reflect the harsh overhead light onto the linoleum floor— is so uniform across doors, walls, and ceilings as to give a visitor vertigo.
There is a sign on the constructor-grade, single-frame door that says, "Jack Hammond and Associates." This is an embellishment, since other than myself, the firm's only employee is Blu McClendon, my secretary. Having associates makes the phone listing look better, so I do it. This is not the time in my life to be overly scrupulous about details. This is the time in my life to survive.
To be honest, describing Blu as a secretary is itself a kind of embellishment. Although she is nearly devoid of skills, she is happily provided with both a living wage and a very comfortable chair in which to sit and read Vogue and the catalog for Pottery Barn. How can I describe her? She is the love child of Marilyn Monroe and somebody who doesn't speak English that well, like maybe Tarzan. Her hair—dark blond with highlights, although only at the moment, this is an ever-evolving thing—frames a face of mystical symmetry. The way the gentle, downward curve of her back meets the rounded uplift of her backside is capable of cutting off a man at the knees. Only one pair of knees is essential for the survival of Jack Hammond and Associates, however, and those are the knees of Sammy Liston, the clerk of Judge Thomas Odom.
The words that enable me to pay three dollars more than minimum wage to the beautiful Miss McClendon are these: "If you cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one for you." Although the drug problem in Atlanta is thoroughly equal opportunity, the criminal justice system is not. It specializes in lowincome, black defendants. Because the court of Judge Thomas Odom—the very cesspool where I destroyed my once impressive career—is overwhelmed with such cases, the good judge is forced to utter that beautiful, rent-paying phrase several times a day. He leaves the actual appointments to Sammy Liston, his trusty clerk, and the unrequited lover of my secretary. Sammy and I have a deal: I am unceasingly available, I am affably predisposed toward plea bargaining, and I look like I believe him when he tells me he has a chance with Blu. Sammy's love for her is all consuming, impressively one-dimensional, and utterly hopeless. Blu McClendon wouldn't date Sammy in a post-nuclear holocaust. In exchange for ignoring this fact, I am free from the burden of putting my face on bus stop benches, and I will never have to figure out how to make my phone number end with h-u-r-t. Let me put it plainly: when the phone rings at Jack Hammond and Associates, I always hope Sammy is on the other end. A phone call from Sammy is worth five hundred bucks, on average.
At about ten o'clock in the morning on a day in May hot enough for July, the phone rang. Blu twisted her perfect torso and said, "It's Sammy, down at the courthouse."
I opened my eyes, left behind my memories, and came back to reality. "Our regular delivery of government cheese," I answered. I picked up the phone and said, "Sammy? Give me some good news, buddy. I got Georgia Power and Light on my ass." Other than the fact that Blu thought he had a face like a horse, I kept no secrets from the clerk of Judge Thomas Odom.
Liston's southern-fried voice came across the phone. "You hear the news?"
"So you haven't heard. It's one of your clients. Actually, he's more of a former client. He's dead."
I have a mantra that I repeat to myself for news like that; lately, I had been using it more often than I liked. Strip it down, Jack. Let it go. "Who is it?" I asked.
"You aren't going to like it."
"You mean there are some of my clients I wouldn't mind finding out they're dead?"
"If most of your clients were dead, the entire justice system would be grateful."
"It's Doug Townsend. He fell off the wagon, big time, and ended up in overdose."
And so the irony that is my life cranks up a notch. Doug Townsend, the very reason I became a lawyer, is no more. "Overdose?" I asked. "Are you saying he tried to kill himself?"
"Who knows? You know how it gets, Jack. The body readjusts after a while, and they can't take the whack."
"I just spoke to his probation officer three days ago, Sammy. The guy was glowing."
"I'm sorry, Jack."
"Listen, Jack, the old man wants to know if you'll stop in on Townsend's place."
"To do what?"
"Go through his stuff. See if there's anything to salvage for the estate."
"Does he have any family coming? He's got a cousin in Phoenix, I know that."
"Just got off the phone with her. She doesn't want to know."
"What can I tell you? You get a black sheep, family gets scarce."
"All right," I said, "maybe there's something of his I can salvage. I'll make sure to send it to his loving cousin, who can't be bothered to get on a plane and bury her relatives."
"They probably weren't that close, Jack. The guy's a junkie."
"Was a junkie, Sammy. Was."
"Stop by the courthouse on the way over and pick up a key. And listen, Jack, take it easy over there. It's not exactly a great neighborhood."
That was putting it mildly; Townsend had traveled the wellworn path, spiraling downward to pay for his habit, eventually landing in a crap apartment building called the Jefferson Arms. "I know, Sammy. I'll be in touch."
A pointless, futile death for Doug Townsend was laced with irony, because ten years earlier, I had watched him do the bravest thing I had ever seen. We met in college—I was a freshman, he was a senior —through the intracampus tutorial service. Doug tutored me through calculus, about which I had little aptitude and less interest. But it was a hoop to jump through, so I had to buckle down. We were both busy during those days—I, grinding through the freshman flunk-out courses; Doug, who was three years older, with his computer science classes—and we usually met late at night, around ten.
Doug had confided to me that he had pledged every single fraternity on campus his freshman year, and been turned down by them all. He had the kind of overeager, wide-eyed social style that doomed him to loneliness. He was as well-rounded as a ruler and as awkward as a one-legged bird. But he could be brilliant in a narrow range of subjects. Chief among these was the application of computer technology. He loved computers, adored them, opened them up to expose their inner workings. They were, for him, friend, lover, and savior. It was just as well, because his human friends could be numbered on a single hand.
Late one night, Doug having finally explained to me the difference between tangent and secant lines, we were walking back across campus toward the dorms. I was staring down at the concrete, trying to work out what he was saying, when Doug sprinted out ahead of me. What Doug saw, and I did not, was a girl involuntarily vanish into the bushes beside the walkway. While I was still trying to figure out what was happening, all 130 pounds of Doug
Townsend leaped into those bushes with a high-pitched, bloodcurdling wail. He was all arms and legs with no particular strategy, but it was impressive to see.
There were two frat boys in the bushes with the girl. Under ordinary circumstances, it would have taken them about ten seconds to waste Doug Townsend. Because they were drunk, it took about twelve. By the time I got there—and believe me, I was hauling—
Doug had already taken a couple of significant clips to the body.
I dropped one of the frat boys with a decent right. I turned to see what was happening with Doug, and saw him take a smack to the side of the head. On the point of impact he had a strange, almost detached smile on his face, like a baby held in his mother's arms. There was the crunch of bone on bone, the peaceful, satisfied smile, and Doug crumpling into a little heap at his attacker's feet. Who then leaned over, vomited into the bushes, and passed out, saving me the trouble of finishing him off.
The girl was no more sober than the frat boys. She crawled back out onto the sidewalk in a drunken, four-legged, crablike move and fell to one knee. I tried to help her up, but she refused, eventually righting herself. She muttered something incoherent and careened down the sidewalk toward the dorms. Strictly speaking, I should have seen her home. But I didn't, because Doug Townsend, her forgotten, damaged hero, was groaning at my feet, and between the two of them, I knew who I was going to help.
No charges were filed. The girl let the bastards off, which wasn't a big surprise. But that night was a watershed for me. It was the moment adult concerns first entered my young mind, the time when my adolescence ended and I discovered that some things were truly important and worth fighting for. On that night I left Dothan and high school behind, and I decided that if there were frat boys and drunk girls and people as weak and brave as Doug Townsend in the world, there were going to be quite a few thorny inequities to be made right. In a fit of hubris that makes me wince to remember, I decided there and then to become a lawyer, and I've been trying to save people ever since.
We stayed friends through Doug's last year, but we lost track of each other when he graduated. I plowed through my prelaw classes, went to law school, and ended up in Atlanta. I had nearly forgotten about him, until from out of the blue, he called me. He sounded changed—agitated, like he had drunk too much coffee—but a lot of time had passed, and for all I knew, I sounded different, too. We agreed to meet for lunch. The man who walked into the restaurant that day was a shell, a thin capsule of skin barely capable of holding a human soul. Thanks to my new, inglorious line of work, it took me about ten seconds to recognize his problem: Doug Townsend had become a drug addict. From his amped-up, frazzled look, the problem was some kind of uppers.
The first question was how, and he refused to answer. He had more immediate needs: he had been arrested. Bail had been set at two thousand bucks, and scraping his ten percent together for a bondsman had tapped him out. He had nothing to pay an attorney, but I agreed to defend him. He was, after all, the reason I became a lawyer in the first place.
It was a first offense, and I pled him down, like most of my clients. There was time served, a stern lecture, a hand-slap. None of which served to slow down his wicked meth habit. He relapsed; he relapsed again, risking serious incarceration. But a few months later he had made a turnaround. He had reached the all-important bottom, and, having discovered himself doing and thinking and feeling things he would have previously considered unimaginable, he was determined to live. Weeks had gone by, his resolve taking root. The last few times I had seen him, he had seemed like his old self again; full of dreams and optimism. Now, inexplicably, he was dead.
All of this was on my mind as I drove across Atlanta toward Doug's apartment. I exited off I-75, making sure I didn't miss the Crane Street flyover. If you miss it, you and your formerly valuable car are dumped into one of the largest public housing developments in the Southeast: the McDaniel Glen projects. I took the flyover and looked down on the Glen—as it's referred to by its lamented residents—as I headed farther south. I had been there a few times with a uniform, looking for testimony on a drug case. But I never went there without a good reason.
Townsend's place was only two streets past the Glen, which gives you a good idea of where it stood on the desirability scale. It was called the Jefferson Arms, but it sure as hell wasn't Monticello. It was a sad, two-story brick affair, and the row of beat-up cars out front in the middle of the day told me welfare checks paid a lot of the rent. But even at the Arms there were better and worse units, and Townsend had told me how he had swung a second-story, corner two-bedroom: wiring up the manager with untraceable cable TV. A lot was possible in the black market economy if you had skills.
I pulled into the lot, parked, and looked around. Doug had drifted a long ways down from the college kid with dreams I remembered. He had started and failed at a couple of small-time computer businesses, but his bad habits undermined any chance of success. I pictured him fighting his demons, struggling against the compulsion, then giving in at last. I could picture him going out and making the buy, or worse, uncovering the secret stash he had kept around. I could see him talking it over with himself, going through the self-justification, the delusion. Then the whack, the horrible surprise, the struggle to breathe.
I stepped out of the car and walked up to Doug's door. I took a breath, turned the key, and walked into the very still, very quiet airspace of a dead man. I looked around cautiously. The first thing I noticed was the neatness of the place. The police usually left a place worse than they found it, but Doug's apartment was immaculate. There was something defiant about how everything was in its place, especially so close to the chaos of the Glen. I could picture Doug straightening the magazines on his table, just before he decided he couldn't live another second without meth.
The furniture was predictably worn: a sofa, a couple of chairs, a coffee table. I opened the miniblinds, standard apartment issue. The window unit air-conditioning snapped on, probably from the blast of warm air when I opened the front door. I'd have to get the electricity turned off, one of the little details nobody thinks about when a loner dies. Electricity, phone, cable, magazine subscriptions, all continuing on, oblivious, all assuming that the body of Doug Townsend was still warm, still filled with moving fluids, still dreaming up business plans for his little company.
I walked into the kitchen, looking at the three dishes and the silverware resting upright in the drying rack. I opened up a cabinet: Rice Krispies, Ramen noodles, couscous—which made sense, because Townsend, like a lot of computer geeks, had been slightly built, as thin as a blade of grass. I moved through the apartment, switching on lights. The first bedroom was fairly large, and doubled as his office. The bed sat simply on a frame, no headboard, but the covers were pulled taut. At the other end was a desk with a computer, a file cabinet, a couple of phone lines. It dawned on me that the phones were probably not in the database of Southeastern Bell; or if they were, they were being paid for by some company that had never heard of Townsend. We had talked a few times about hacking, and Townsend had played it down, but like I said, he had skills.
I opened the filing cabinet, flipping through the index tabs of projects. I knew Townsend had been busy; as a part of his defense we had discussed his business prospects at length. Townsend was pure geek, down to the cheap rayon shirts and the black-frame glasses: he once told me he could write programming code like some people hum melodies; almost improvisationally. As expected, there were a good number of folders, and I opened a few at random. Most were bids for programming work: small-time stuff, customizing databases or a networking job for a small business. Townsend could have done far better working for a company that could handle the business end, letting him be free to create. But he kept dreaming about a big score, coming up with something revolutionary enough to flip or turn into an IPO.
Junkies fall off wagons. It happens every day. But after two years of defending small-time drug offenders, I had acquired a nearly infallible sixth sense about that. Not just me; everybody who works in Odom's court gets it. We wonder: Is this guy fucked? Or will he look back on this as his dark hour, secure and comfortable on the other side? I can see it in a defendant's eyes, in his posture, in his damaged, unredeemable soul. Judge Odom could see it, that was certain. He was doing his best to hang on to a shred of humanity, a pretty considerable task for somebody who spends eight hours a day sending people to hell. But the fact was, for some defendants, he and everybody else knew he was merely delaying the inevitable. Maybe there's a value even in that.
Doug Townsend was as firmly on the side of life as anybody I'd seen. For one thing, he had something other than drugs that he was passionate about, a key survival ingredient. Watching him talk about computers was like watching Sammy Liston talk about Blu McClendon. I used to buy Doug coffee just to listen to him rattle on about what the future would look like. He saw a world where computers were in everything, even people, making sick people well, making old people young.
I cast off the memory and went back through the living room to the remaining room, the back bedroom. I opened the door and stopped cold. Most of the opposite wall was covered with pictures of a woman. I walked in, drawn forward by the photographs. The woman was black, late twenties, and strikingly beautiful. What the hell is this? The pictures were a mélange, some professional, others cut out of magazines and newspapers. At first I thought she must be an actress, because several of the photographs had been taken on stage, the woman dressed in a variety of ornate costumes. But one picture was a simple headshot, and there was writing beneath the photograph: Michele Sonnier, mezzo soprano. I stared at the photo, thinking. Michele Sonnier. Sounds French, upper crust. Or maybe a stage name.
I tore myself away from the pictures to get a handle on the rest of the room. There was a twin bed, a small chest of drawers, and an old, wooden desk and chair. I pulled out the chair and sat down. There were some papers on the desk, business ideas, mostly, and some printouts of what looked like computer code. To my surprise, there was a framed snapshot of the woman—casual, with a lot of people in the background. She was smiling, although it wasn't clear if she was smiling at whoever took the photograph. I looked for an inscription, but there wasn't one. I tried to place the face, but I drew a blank. If you had ever met this woman, I thought, you would definitely remember. I set the photograph down and opened the main drawer of the desk. Inside were the usual paper clips, rubber bands, and pens. To the left was a row of three more drawers. The first had more nondescript papers; the second was nearly empty. I opened the third, the deepest one, and saw it was nearly full; on top was a stack of rectangular papers tightly bound by a rubber band. I picked up the packet and pulled off the bands. Airplane tickets. A lot of them.
I fanned out the tickets on the desk before me. Baltimore. New York. Miami. San Francisco. I counted the tickets, then sat back, stunned. Townsend had made more then twenty trips in the last year, all paid for in cash. After defending him so many times, I was intimately aware of his finances; basically, there weren't any. What is this? And how the hell did he pay for it?
I reached down into the drawer, pulling out the rest of the papers. On top were at least twenty more photographs of Sonnier, again, from a variety of sources. I looked through the remaining papers: more Sonnier, everywhere I looked. Beneath the photographs were press clippings and performance reviews, almost all of them glowing. Mixed in was a set of playbills, all apparently originals. I glanced back through the plane tickets, mentally calculating the cost. Maybe the guy was stealing for this, not meth. Maybe she was his real drug. Eventually, I was just seeing more of the same; not content with one photograph, Townsend had accumulated several copies of each. I stuffed the plane tickets and photographs in my valise and stood up. This is beyond being a fan. This is definitely some kind of obsession.
The computer equipment was the only thing of obvious value, so I loaded that into the trunk of my car. Knowing Doug, it would take a security expert to find out what was inside it, and I didn't have those skills. I walked back to the apartment and stood in the doorway, taking a last look. Opera. Rich people's music. Connecting that world to the world of Doug Townsend was a problem I had no idea how to solve. I locked the door, recognizing it as a gesture of futility. It wouldn't take long for people to figure out Townsend wasn't coming back, and his place was certain to be looted.
I got back in my car and started the drive back toward town. Presumed suicide. That was what Sammy had said was on the police report. Which brought me back to why Doug would have picked that moment to throw his life away. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't make that make sense.
The thing about cops is that half of them are crooked. I don't mean bad crooked, just bent a little. I'm not judging them. And I'll tell you who gave me the fifty percent figure: a cop. But here's the deal: they're so underpaid that most of them work extra security jobs just to make ends meet. Say you're young, you've got some school loans, and you can choose between a hundred hours of babysitting the parking lot of a rowdy bar in the middle of the night, or just picking up the two thousand dollars in cash that's staring you in the face in the crack house you just busted. Like the man says, you do the math.
Which is not to say there aren't good ones. Billy Little, who was handling the paperwork for Doug's death, is one of those. Here's how much I trust him: I'd pour him two bottles of Scotch, tell him I'd screwed his mother, hand him a loaded gun, and beg him to shoot me. Billy Little plays by the rules.
Don't let his name confuse the issue. He's Samoan—the whole dark hair, slightly wide face thing—and six-two, every bit of two thirty-five, and percent body fat of six, maybe. He could subdue the average man while calmly eating a cheeseburger. He started in the projects, on the bike squad; incredibly enough, they patrol those monstrosities on bicycles, at least during daylight hours. That way they can haul down alleys that cars would never make it through. After about three years of that, Billy finished college at night with a business degree and made lieutenant. He made detective four years later. He was barely thirty, and as far as I was concerned, he knew more about the Atlanta drug trade than anybody in the department. He was, as they say down here, the shit that killed Elvis.
Billy worked at the Atlanta PD headquarters in the City Hall East building, which is where I went from Townsend's place. He always looked impeccable, and when I went to see him about the Townsend case it was no different. He looked like he was ready for a screen test, in nicely pressed tan slacks, a green golf shirt, and brown leather shoes. Predictably, he was also up to his well-muscled arms in paperwork. When I walked into his office, he looked up and smiled. "What brings you to the slums, Jack?" he asked.
I shook his hand and took the chair opposite his desk. "Sammy Liston tells me you're handling Doug Townsend's case," I said. "Anything special I should know about it?"
"Other than the fact he's dead?"
"Townsend was a friend."
Billy's smile faded. "Sorry, Jack. I didn't know that. Were you guys close?"
"We were friends in college. I lost track of him, until recently. His life took a bad turn, and he needed a lawyer."
"So you were representing him?"
Billy nodded. "Well, it's still provisional, but it looks like he killed himself."
I reached in my pocket and pulled out the picture of Michele Sonnier. "Does this ring any bells?"
Billy glanced at the photograph. "Yeah. I heard about that. Lots of pictures, apparently."
"You know her?"
"The lady's an opera singer. Supposedly she's some big thing in the music world. She's also the wife of Charles Ralston."
I looked up, surprised. "Charles Million-Dollar Ralston?"
"No, Charles Hundred-Million-Dollar Ralston. But yeah, he's the one."
"No kidding." I stared at the picture. Ralston, founder and CEO of Horizn Pharmaceuticals, was a poster boy for the new African-American South. Pick your stereotype, and he blew it up: he was a superbly educated scientist, an impressive speaker, and a brilliant, hard-nosed businessman. And he was just as aggressive about solving Atlanta's social problems, even when it bought him controversy. He had achieved near-sainthood with the city's peace-and-justice activists by instituting—and eventually paying for with his own money, because he couldn't find anybody with the guts to push for it in city hall—a clean-needle exchange program in the projects of Atlanta. Considering he had made his fortune with a hepatitis treatment, there wasn't much point in arguing about whether or not his motives were pure. Every addict he saved cost him a potential patient, and that wasn't the kind of behavior most people expected from pharmaceutical companies. Not content with his millions—the kind of money most people find sufficient—he was preparing to take his company public and walk away with something under a billion. Everybody decent in Atlanta business was pulling for him to make a killing, simply because he had a superb track record of reinvesting in the cultural and social life of Atlanta. Billy was eyeing me warily. "So what's his wife got to do with Doug Townsend?"
"Her picture was all over Doug's apartment." I pulled out the plane tickets and tossed them on Billy's desk. "These were in a drawer. There's about twenty of them."
Billy looked through the tickets a moment, then back at me. "That wasn't in the report."
"Tell me something, Detective. Can you get your people to give a damn about the underclass in this city for a change? You know, actually do a real investigation?"
"Don't start with me, Jack. The city's broke, and I'm doing the best that I can."
I let it go, out of respect for Billy. "The trips correspond with her performance schedule," I said. "They were all paid for in cash."
Billy drummed his fingers on his desk. "Looks like he was a fan."
"You could say that. He had built a chapel to Saint Sonnier."
"My daughter's got four pictures of some rap group up on her wall."
"Come on, Billy. This is a little different."
Billy leaned back, considering. "Are you saying your friend might have been harassing her? Trying to get too close?"
I thought back, remembering Doug getting decked by frat boys for trying to protect a woman. "Doubtful. Not his personality."
"Okay. Then unless it's illegal, it's not really my problem. People have weird passions."
I paused, thinking. "What did pathology say?"
"The EMTs did a Valtox on the scene, confirmed the cause of death. The medical examiner on call came out and saw no reason to contradict."
"So that makes it a suicide?"
"No, the formal victimology report we get back in about a week makes it a suicide. Believe it or not, we actually have procedures for that kind of thing."
I nodded. "So until then he's in the morgue?"
"We'll hold the body until the report's final. But look, Jack, I've read the preliminary. There was depression, a long history of drug abuse. There was the failed businesses, no apparent social life. Frankly, not a lot to live for."
"No suicide note?"
"Big myth, that. Suicide notes are pretty rare. More likely it's a DBS."
"Death by stupidity," Billy said quietly. "Accidental, in other words. Happens all the time." He opened a file and flipped to the EMT report. "No evidence of foul play, no body trauma. No forced entry, no upset furniture, items of value left in place. So sure, we're going to jump through the hoops. But unless you have some connection between these tickets and your friend's death, I'd say you're back at square one."
"Did your guys take anything from the scene? Any papers or anything?"
"Lemme see." Billy flipped further through the folder. "Yeah, a few things. The drug stuff, obviously. But papers . . . yeah, a notebook. It was on the floor, right by the body."
"What's in it?"
"Blank, except for one page." Billy pulled a cheap notebook out of a plastic bag. He opened it up and showed me the first page. There were three letters printed near the top.
"What's that?" I asked.
" 'LAX.' Los Angeles Airport. Makes sense, considering how much flying he was doing."
I looked at the letters, thinking. "Whoever wrote it didn't have the best penmanship in the world. Pretty bad scrawl."
"So are you following up on it?"
"Follow up on what? Last time I checked, the airport's still there." Billy looked at me sympathetically. "If the final victimology report turns up something, you'll be the first to know." He rose. "Let's you and me get a beer sometime, okay, Jack? Maybe over at Fado's."
I rose with him. "Yeah, we'll do that," I said. I started to leave, then turned back. "You said they found drug stuff," I said. "What kind?"
Billy looked back down at the folder. "Looks like the usual stuff, couple of vials, a needle . . ."
I stiffened. One thing Townsend had told me repeatedly: he had never shot up in his life. "What did you say?"
"There's got to be some mistake there. Doug was terrified of needles. He told me that himself. About a hundred times, actually."
"A lot of people get over that when they're addicts," Billy said, shrugging. "Anyway, maybe it's all he could get his hands on."
"He lived a block from the Glen, Billy. He could have just stuck his head out of the window and yelled, 'Drugs, please.' "
"Look, I'm not arguing with you, but the fact is we found the guy with a hole in his arm and a needle."
I shook my head. "It's like a phobia, Billy. If a guy's going to kill himself, he doesn't pick that moment to get over a lifelong fear. And anyway, Doug was a meth addict. You don't even have to inject it, for God's sake."
Then Billy Little looked up in surprise and said five words that changed everything. "Who said anything about meth?"
"TWO THINGS CAN LEAD A MAN to make a commitment." Sammy Liston, clerk of the court of Judge Thomas Odom, was chewing steak, which always put him in a good mood. He was not yet seriously hammered, the place where his brain became inert; instead, he was in the in-between state, which made him philosophical. He was holding forth on why I should follow up on Doug Townsend's death. "Number one: intuition."
"You mean like, 'The second I saw her, I knew she was the girl for me'?"
"No, I mean like, 'The second I saw it, I knew it was the right pickup truck for me. Or maybe the right dog.' "
"What's the second thing?"
"You said there were two things."
Sammy cut a perfect slice of sirloin off his plate and held it on his fork up to the light. "Beef," he said. "It's what's for dinner."
"Oh, yeah. Loyalty, Jack. The code of honor."
"The guy thing. Somebody messes with your friend, you got to step in."
"Damn right." Sammy took the bite, chewing slowly, savoring the taste. Suddenly, his face turned serious. He chased the beef down with a swallow of Seagram's. "But how do you know?" he asked. "That he got messed with, I mean. The guy was a junkie. Bad things happen."
"It was fentanyl, Sammy. Fentanyl."
Sammy whistled. "No shit. I didn't know that." He took another bite. "What's fentanyl?"
The trouble with alcohol—and I say this with considerable personal experience—is that it makes people feel like they're getting more brilliant, when it's actually having the opposite effect. "Fentanyl," I answered, "is the place where man's capacity for greed and disregard for human life reach their current apex. Some pharmacist figured out that by subtly changing the molecular structure of morphine, he could make something four hundred times stronger. It's so powerful there's only one legitimate use for it, and that's anesthesia."
"Wow. You mean it just knocks your ass out."
"Yeah. But then some inventive little bastards started cutting it down for recreational use. You know, playing with the parameters. And what they got was real smooth, both up and down. No jagged edges. The perfect drug, especially since you didn't have to deal with any of those nasty people in South America to sell you the raw materials."
"The ones who kill you if you piss them off," Sammy said.
Sammy shrugged. "But?" he asked.
Sammy was referring to the one immutable law of pharmacology: there is always a "but." No matter how perfect a drug seems, a down side always lurks. It's as if God has decreed that pleasure and pain must be kept in a cosmic equality. The more beautiful a drug makes you feel, the more certainly it will crush you in the end. "But," I said, "it's so powerful that a typical dose weighs about the same as a postage stamp. It's almost impossible to cut accurately, especially by somebody who's probably an addict himself. And if you get too much, it does the damnedest thing."
Sammy shrugged. "It kills you?"
"If you take enough. Mostly, it just makes you wish you were dead."
"It gives you an instant case of advanced Parkinson's disease." Sammy stared. "Jesus, Jack. You serious? What is that, some urban legend, right? Like a street myth?"
I shook my head. "Billy Little laid it out for me. People are screwing around with the universal elements, Sammy, cosmic forces. They're going into labs and making things the human body never encountered before. All hell is breaking loose."
"Yeah, but, shit, Jack. Parkinson's?"
I nodded. "The whole range of tics and tremors, the uncontrolled bodily functions. Everything. Nobody knows why, except maybe the bastard who invented it."
"Than that? Jesus, Jack."
"You can't tell it from heroin by looking at it."
"It looks like heroin?"
"Not like heroin. Exactly like heroin. But it's between four and six hundred times more powerful."
"So if you think it's . . ."
"If you think that, it's over before you get the hypodermic emptied. Billy told me he had personally seen some very dead, very rigid, bodies with the needle still stuck in the arms."
"You think that's what happened to Townsend?"
I shook my head doubtfully. "I don't buy it," I answered. "He'd never done heroin before, so why start now? Doug had turned his life around. He'd been clean for months. And anyway, he was terrified of needles."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean he had a pathological fear of them. So nobody is going to tell me that he did that to himself."
Sammy picked up his glass of whiskey. He stared into the amber liquid thoughtfully, turning it in the dim light of the restaurant. "Jack," he said quietly, "your buddy got messed with."
I leaned back in my chair. "Damn right."
I showed up at work early the next day, determined to find what I could about Doug's last few days. To me, the issue of intentional suicide was almost incidental; break it down far enough, and nobody takes fentanyl who doesn't, somewhere in his damaged subconscious, want to die. And obsessed or not, I didn't believe it about Townsend. I was no expert on suicidal tendencies, but Doug had been more upbeat the last few weeks than I had ever seen him. And besides, I knew enough about depression to know that the biggest impediment to killing yourself is fear. Doug would have chosen another way, rather than try to conquer his lifelong phobia of needles at the very moment he was working up the courage to end his life. So when I got back to the office, I knew I was going to find out more about Michele Sonnier. Not that I thought she had anything to do with Doug's death. She was about as far away from fentanyl and the Jefferson Arms as scented candles. But that didn't change the fact that she was all I had.
I looked over at Blu, who was staring intently at a magazine. It seemed unfair to disturb her. She appeared perfectly content and still, filling her head with horoscopes and articles like "When Sisters Want the Same Man." For a while, I was going to just let her indulge herself at ten bucks an hour. It seemed glorious, in a way, making someone happy at such a small cost. But after a while I said, "Blu, do me a little research, will you?"
My secretary looked up at me, all shiny hair and perfect skin. "About?" she asked.
"About an opera singer. Michele Sonnier."
Blu tilted her head. "I don't really picture you at the opera."
I blinked several times to prevent myself from staring. The truth is, I could never tell if she was secretly a genius, or a spectacularly beautiful kind of blank slate. Sometimes, I pictured her walking out of my office, lighting up a cigarette, and saying to herself, Damn, I was great today. "Okay," I asked, "where do you picture me?"
Blu scrunched up her face in thought. Even scrunched, it was still beautiful. "More like at a baseball game," she said.
"Yeah. Eating a hot dog."
We lapsed once again into silence. Blu, satisfied with her contribution, looked back down at the magazine and flipped the page. I watched her for a moment, started to speak, shrugged, and walked into my office. I flipped on my computer and typed Sonnier's name at a search site. The page disappeared, and after a few seconds I saw the results: 639 matches. Mrs. Charles Ralston definitely gets around. I glanced over the lead lines until I saw what I assumed was the singer's home page, MicheleSonnier.com. I clicked on the URL and watched a photograph of the singer scroll down across my screen. It was one of the photographs I had seen at Townsend's apartment, Sonnier in a long, flowing, lamé dress, very elegant. I flipped down the screen to the bio and started to read. Michele Sonnier is the most exciting female voice to have emerged in the opera world in the last ten years. The only child of a doctor and a teacher, she demonstrated her prodigious talent at an early age. After graduation from the Juilliard School, she debuted by winning the Metropolitan Opera Competition at 21. The prize, a solo concert at Carnegie Hall, began her storied career. Her operatic premiere a year later with the San Francisco Opera was a triumph. In defiance of her age, she has performed principal roles at the Metropolitan, La Scala, and the Kirov. In a recent European tour she was compared to her idol, Marilyn Horne.
Together with Ralston, they would make a hell of a power couple. Ralston's money would give them entrée to the new social elite, while Sonnier's artistic endeavors would give them entrance to the old. I flipped down the screen to Sonnier's schedule. I scanned down the list of concerts for that year, comparing the dates with the plane tickets I had found at Doug's apartment. January 17, Portland, Oregon. I riffled through the tickets, eventually landing on a Northwest flight from Atlanta to Portland. I checked the date: January 17. I went through several other dates—two in February, the first in New York, the second Miami. Both corresponded to Townsend's tickets. After confirming a handful of others, I leaned back in my chair. What the hell is this? I scanned Sonnier's schedule into the future; one date in particular caught my eye: June 15, Atlanta Civic Opera. It was four nights away. After the Atlanta date there were some scattered concerts, but all far away. I called the contact number. A nice-sounding woman answered, very polite and educated. "Atlanta Opera."
"You've got a concert with Michele Sonnier coming up, is that correct?"
"Yes, sir. Bellini's The Capulets and the Montagues."
I paused. "Like Romeo and Juliet?
That sounded promising. At least I knew the story. "In English?" I asked.
A slight pain crept into the woman's voice. "No, sir. In Italian, with English supertitles."
"Is Sonnier singing the part of Juliet?"
"Ms. Sonnier will be singing the part of Romeo."
I paused, playing back the sentence in my mind. "Romeo?"
"That's correct, sir. It's a trouser role." The voice on the phone explained, "In certain operatic scenarios the roles of men are sung by women. Bellini's opera is one such scenario." I paused, thinking about how much I didn't know about opera, and how little interest I had in changing that fact. I don't have anything against heartache music, but I don't see why it has to be two hundred years old. Give me a beat-up John Prine cassette and a full tank of gas, and my musical needs are pretty much met. "How much are tickets?" I asked. "In the lower range, I mean."
"Well, the less expensive seats are sold out."
That could be a definite problem; I was scraping by as it was. "So what's left?"
"The least expensive seats available are forty-six dollars."
I did some quick math: ninety-two dollars, plus parking and dinner, that was a couple of hundred bucks for an evening. There was a time when spending two hundred bucks on a night out was something I did just to remind myself I could afford it. Those days had never seemed so distant. But just going to the opera wasn't enough; I wanted some personal contact. "Will Ms. Sonnier be signing any autographs?" I asked.
"If somebody wanted to get his program signed. Ask her about opera, that kind of thing."
"We are offering a special opportunity for serious fans of Ms. Sonnier."
"Are you a serious fan of Ms. Sonnier, sir?"
I looked down at my screen and read out loud, "Ms. Sonnier is the most exciting female voice to have emerged in the opera world in the last ten years."
The voice seemed pleased. "Excellent. Ms. Sonnier has been kind enough to agree to a private reception after the concert for a select group of her most devoted admirers. It's a fund-raiser for the opera company. Champagne and hors d'oeuvres will be served. I feel certain she would agree to sign your program."
"What does something like that cost?"
"Two hundred and fifty dollars per person," the woman answered. "However, this price does include premier seating for the concert."
I very nearly thanked the woman and got on with my life. If I had, everything would be different. Life can turn on a dime. But I had just found out that what looked like the most important thing in Doug Townsend's world had been a woman I didn't even know existed. Looking at Sonnier's schedule, she wouldn't be appearing in Atlanta again for at least a year. I made a snap decision. "Hey," I said, "you guys take Visa?
The first thing to do was to get a date. I needed a foil, someone who could help me blend into conversation. You can't go to a highroller opera event alone. My social life at that point consisted of drinks with Sammy Liston. The reason that I hadn't dated anybody since losing my job was simple: there was nothing in my life that I needed to keep more completely under control. I learned that lesson the hard way, because it was letting my feelings go that had cost two people everything they had.
I looked out at the golden expanse of hair that was the back of Blu McClendon's head. Notlikely.com, I thought. Although she would be perfect. Young, gorgeous, and certain to wear the kind of dress that made women over forty nostalgic for their better days. I thought about a girl who worked down at the courthouse; not bad, but lacking a certain ability to impress . . . I looked back at Blu.
Although I was almost as deeply enamored by looking at Blu McClendon as Sammy Liston was, I had never laid a hand on her. I called her "baby" and "sweetie" on occasion, Neanderthal epithets that she accepted with utter aplomb. The great thing about Blu was she understood that kind of thing. Calling a woman like her "baby" kept me alive in a way, while I figured out that I was still a man, even though I was starting my life over. Nevertheless, asking her out on a date was new territory. It would be confusing, out of character. I wouldn't want her to get the wrong idea. Although I'd never seen her out, I had to assume that if I wasn't rich I would at least need to be a bodybuilder. Of course, in the back of my mind I also thought that if she got the wrong idea and said yes, that would be even worse. A love affair between the two of us would devolve into a soap opera by lunch the next day. But the truth was I needed her. My days at Carthy, Williams and Douglas taught me that a girl like Blu is the definitive ice-breaker. You can walk up to any group of men you want, and they are certain to open their little circle, smile, and immediately start to figure out what the hell you have going for you. I sat there and worked on the problem for a little while, until the obvious hit me, and I thought of an invitation for the gorgeous Miss McClendon so perfectly conceived it could have come from Michelangelo's chisel. "Blu," I asked, "how would you like to meet a lot of very rich men?"
Excerpted from THE LAST GOODBYE © Copyright 2004 by Reed Arvin. Reprinted with permission by HarperTorch. All rights reserved.