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A Message in the Roses

 

 

Appreciation:

 

First and foremost I need to thank my loving and patient husband Larry: he graciously read this book time and again without complaining. Mare and Jere Semerad raised an amazing son.

Thank you to Peggy Elgin, Barbara Warren, Ginger Simpson, and my Books We Love family, especially Jude and Jamie, for their support and editing expertise. This book is much better because of them.

Thanks to my daughters, Rene Endres and Andrea Ryles, for their unconditional love and suggestions. They have taught me so much, as has my granddaughter Cody. Cody orchestrated and snapped the author photo for this book.

To my sister Alice Kay and to Sue Hughes; your courage and love inspire me.

And to Barry Hazen, legal eagle; your diligent defense of the little guys provides a model for us all.

Chapter One

 

On a snowy morning in Atlanta, Carrie Sue rummaged through an old cedar chest, searching for a journal. The storm had knocked out her power, but she was grateful to have a fire in the hearth and a kerosene lamp to read by.

She shook her head in dismay at all the stuff she’d collected. Only a pack rat would keep a stack of reporters’ notebooks and a cassette recorder from the 1980s. That was so long ago. No cell-phones or social media then.

When she uncovered her wedding dress embroidered with roses, she buried her nose in the crinoline and inhaled the sweet musk, still lingering after all these years.

Beneath the dress, was a small safe. She fumbled with the combination lock and eventually opened it to reveal the lovely leather-bound book.

Her hands shook as she withdrew the diary. She sucked in a sharp breath and opened it.

But as she began to read, a painful nostalgia stung her. She barely recognized the passionate and reckless young woman she used to be.

 

Journal of Carrie Sue Justice

December 8, 1986

 

My stomach knotted when I saw the strange car in my driveway. Damn it, my key wouldn’t open my front door. Deadbolt was locked.

The door vibrated from the blaring stereo inside, as if my house were possessed. I couldn’t imagine my husband blasting music. He’d always complained about loud noise in the morning, and when I left an hour ago, he looked fast asleep.

As the Eagles belted out Heartache Tonight, I punched the doorbell nonstop. No response. By now snow clouds had buried the sun.

Dad used to say, “Always trust your gut.”

My gut screamed disaster, reminding me of the day I received the tragic news about Mom and Dad. They’d died in a plane crash on their way from Atlanta to Ethiopia.

I shook off that sad memory, and focused on trying to get in the house. Kyle didn’t expect me home. He thought I was interviewing Police Chief Barnum about the recent shooting death in our community.

As a news reporter, my job was to find out what happened. Why did police arrest four black teens for the murder of a white teen? Were their arrests racially motivated? Barnum had promised to give me the full scoop.

Unfortunately, my car broke down.

Tyrone, of Ty’s Wrecker and Repair, kindly offered to take me to my appointment in his tow truck. But I had him drop me off at my house so I could drive Mom’s old Cadillac to my meeting. I can’t stand to be without wheels. My downfall.

I couldn’t back the Caddy out of the garage, because Kyle had parked his car behind it. The other car, a red Thunderbird, had parked beside his Alfa Romeo.

How inconsiderate of him to block the driveway like this. I wanted to protest his rudeness, but first I needed to get inside.

I zipped up my leather jacket against the icy wind and inspected the unfamiliar Thunderbird. It had a Georgia tag with the letters “Hot stuff,” and a graduation tassel hanging from the rear-view mirror.

I peered through the T-Bird’s window and saw papers and spiral notebooks scattered everywhere, along with crumpled up paper bags and a pizza box. I pulled at the door handles. Locked.

Who was visiting my husband? And why was he up this early, blasting the roof off? He’d worked late last night, which suited his nocturnal clock.

I’m usually up and out with the chickens. This morning I’d left the house before seven, in plenty of time to stop by the newspaper office before driving to my interview with Barnum. If my car hadn’t died, I would have arrived early.

I stomped my feet like a toddler. The tantrum and fierce wind dislodged my hair from its bun. Unruly strands whipped my face as I pounded on the front door and rang the bell.

Kyle had some nerve, locking me out. This house has been in my family forever.

I’ve lived here most of my twenty-five years. My closest neighbor and buddy, Freemont, said my home, with its white pillars and large veranda, reminded him of Tara in Gone with the Wind.

After I lost Mom and Dad, the so-called “classic antebellum” house I inherited became more of a burden than a home. I’d gladly trade this old relic and all my possessions, if only I could turn back the clock and stop my parents from boarding that fatal flight.

I probably wouldn’t have married Kyle if they’d been alive to advise me against it. Sadly, they weren’t, and I fell in lust too quickly.

Knowing Dad, he would have broken down the door. Mom would have said, “Be patient. Patience is a virtue.”

“Give me patience,” I whispered as I followed the veranda to the back porch. I thought I could get in this way, but the door wouldn’t budge. The slide lock was engaged.

Burning with rage, I ran back to the front of the house and rang the doorbell again. I could barely hear the chimes above the blaring stereo of Bruce Springsteen’s I’m on Fire.

I screamed like an angry banshee, or what I thought an angry banshee might sound like. I yelled loud enough to be heard from miles away. My hollering would have woken the dead.

After a while, I gave my burning lungs a rest, and glanced at my wristwatch. He’d given me this watch to celebrate our one-year wedding anniversary. I found out he’d charged it on his American Express card, and couldn’t afford to pay the bill. He even had the audacity to ask me to pay for it. For crying out loud, what kind of man surprises his wife with a gift she didn’t ask for, and then asks her to fork out the cash for it? I’m glad I had sense enough to keep our bank accounts separate, or else he would have bled me dry.

My expensive timepiece showed eight thirty. I needed to call Barnum to reschedule, pronto. At least the earsplitting music had finally stopped.

I pushed on the doorbell again. The chimes echoed loudly. I waited and waited. No Kyle.

I knelt down to pick up the stone planter from the veranda. A pang of guilt warned me against what I felt compelled to do. Mom loved these windows. She called them “sentinels.” They’re nearly as old as the house.

I gripped the giant vase in both hands, bent my knees for leverage and drew back the urn. Then the front door creaked open.

My husband’s handsome face appeared, looking like Hamlet seeing his father’s ghost. Indeed, Kyle had played Hamlet a number of times for the Shakespeare Festival. His wavy hair, the color of a copper penny, was all mussed up. His two-day stubble gave him a rugged bad-boy look. He had on a beige long-sleeved tee-shirt, open in the front to show wisps of chest hair. His snug corduroy jeans displayed his abundant manhood. His brown eyes glared at me like I was crazy Ophelia.

He stepped outside and grabbed the planter out of my arms. “What’s wrong, love?” His mouth looked puffy, and he seemed to be exaggerating his Irish brogue, the one he used to charm my pants off. He wrapped his arms around me as if he thought I needed a strait jacket.

I shoved him away and walked inside to see what he was hiding. Lo and behold, I ran smack dab into a young woman about six feet tall, Junoesque and voluptuous.

I’m her opposite; blonde, five-seven, and skinny. Mom used to say I looked like a popular model, the one with the gap like mine between her front teeth, but of course, my mom would say that.

Kyle’s lady friend tossed back her silky long hair, the color of last night’s sunset—reddish orange. She looked me up and down.

My messy hair was frightful, but the rest of me appeared decent. I’d worn my favorite black dress, leather jacket and heels. Kyle’s paramour had on tight blue jeans and a velour sweater that matched her hair. Her sweater was wrong side out, as if she’d dressed in a hurry, in the dark.

She glanced at the tiny watch on her wrist. “Oh, no, I’m late for work.”

“Who are you?” I spat out.

Rather than answer and explain why she was in my house with my husband, she turned toward Kyle.

He answered for her. “Carrie Sue, this is Maryann Nielson. She’s Blanche in Streetcar. We’ve been going over her lines.”

I bit my tongue and considered Kyle’s explanation. He directs plays for Stage Atlanta at night. In the afternoons he teaches two college classes, with ample time to coach actors at the college or at the theatre. I saw no legitimate reason for him to invite this woman to our home.

Maryann’s lips twitched nervously. “Hi,” she said, as her green eyes ping-ponging from me to Kyle. “Thanks, Kyle. See you later.” With that, she dashed away, jumped into her red Thunderbird, and sped down the long circular driveway like a racecar driver.

I glared at him. “You and Maryann have been screwing around, haven’t you?”

Kyle gave me a stern stare. “No, absolutely not, Carrie Sue. Maryann called this morning and asked me to help her get into character. You know how it is…Opening Night jitters. She’s nervous, unsure of herself.”

I gasped in disgust. “You think I’m stupid enough to believe you were rehearsing with the stereo blaring the way it was?” I slammed my hands on my hips to keep from slapping him.

He rolled his eyes. “I turned on the stereo to try to wake up. And when Maryann arrived, I thought it’d be more appropriate to rehearse on the back porch.” He stepped closer, thinking he could charm me. “And I forgot to turn the music off, love. I’m sorry.”

I slapped his chest, pushing him away. “Don’t give me that crap. You weren’t on the porch. I walked back there trying to get in the house after I discovered my key wouldn’t open the front door, because you’d engaged the deadbolt to lock me out.”

Rather than argue, he strolled outside like a tomcat on the prowl, and looked around. After a moment, he wandered back in. “Where’s your little car?”

“That’s none of your concern.”

He frowned. “Did it break down?”

Seething with anger, I refused to answer.

“If your car broke down, why didn’t you call me?”

“Get real. You wouldn’t have heard the phone above the blaring music. Plus, you were preoccupied with Maryann.”`

He grabbed my arms. “Stop it, Carrie Sue. I love you. Don’t you know that?”

“Get your filthy hands off me.” I pushed him backwards.

“You’re overreacting.” Tears welled in his deceitful eyes.

I turned away, determined not to let this Shakespearian Iago deceive me again. He might be a great actor, but he didn’t have a sincere fiber in his body.

He grabbed my waist and pulled my butt against his sex. “I think I know what you need, baby.”

I poked him as hard as I could with my elbows. “Get out of my house,” I shouted.

His arms tightened around my waist. “You don’t mean that.”

I elbowed him again and stepped toward the antique hunt board. Dad used to keep his snub nose pistol in the top drawer. It was the same type of gun Jack Ruby used to kill Lee Harvey Oswald.

I didn’t find the gun but spotted Mom’s stainless steel letter opener. She called this her “paper knife.”

I wrapped my fingers around the handle, not intending to kill him. My main purpose was to get him out of the house and away from me. However, I have to admit, the thought of destroying his manhood crossed my mind.

I pivoted toward Kyle, holding the letter opener like the murderer in the movie Psycho. His eyes looked wide and disoriented. He jumped back.

My rage had startled him. Good, he deserved to be afraid.

“Philandering snake,” I shouted.

His expression changed from fearful to ferocious, as if I were a burglar who’d broken into the house. He growled and lunged toward me like Bruce Lee, his hands and feet chopping all over the place.

I jumped away, but not quickly enough. He whacked at my hand, and I lost my grip on my weapon. It flipped wildly through the air.

I imagined the knife coming down and piercing his heart. Instead it clanged to the floor, missing him by inches. I drew my hand back, intending to slap him from now until Sunday. Before I could, he turned and strutted out.

As I listened to his car scratch off in the driveway, I started trembling. I pressed my back against the door and slid down to the floor, sobbing. His betrayal hurt like a stab in the heart.

I told myself he wasn’t worth this pain. I never should have married him, in the first place. I’d dated Kyle for only six months before I agreed to become his wife. He’d been married twice before. Those marriages failed, because his previous wives didn’t want an “open” relationship, he’d said.

Before I married him, I insisted on an exclusive union, and he had agreed to forsake all others. I was naive enough to believe him. I should have known he wouldn’t change.

I inhaled slow, deep breaths to steady myself enough to call Chief Barnum and apologize for missing our appointment.

“Everyone has car problems now and then,” he said and agreed to meet me in the afternoon. I hoped he couldn’t hear the self-doubt in my voice. I’d lost all confidence in myself as a woman, and questioned my ability to write a decent article before my deadline.

I gritted my teeth, got into the Caddy and drove out. Someone once said, “Most of life is showing up,” and I wanted to believe that.

As I pulled onto Freedom Lane, my hands were still shaking. I weaved from side to side on the narrow, winding street, named in honor of the slaves who’d escaped my ancestors’ cotton plantation a century ago.

My grandmother and my parents eventually broke that cycle of prejudice. They were progressives for peace. Mom and Dad frequently talked about the importance of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and when I learned his Gettysburg Address, as required in school, Mom said I should insert the word women, and say “all men and women were created equal.”

They also admired Dr. Martin Luther King, and prominently displayed a photo of them both taken with King at his I Have a Dream speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

I now know that my parents were a hard act to follow, but in my rebellious teen years, I thought every word they uttered was pure crap. I wanted to be their complete opposite and find my own identity. Cheesy, I know. They should have disowned me, but they kept saying they loved me, and understood. They were young once, they said. Back then I couldn’t imagine my parents as young, and unfortunately, I gave them hell and no reason to be proud of me.

Would they be proud of me now? I pondered the question as I turned on the radio and listened to Bob Seger singing Against the Wind.

My whole body throbbed like it’d been stung by wasps. Dad almost died from wasp- stings once, and would have, according to the doctor, if not for Mom’s quick response.

If Mom had been riding in this car with me, she would have said “slow down and smell the roses,” but I wouldn’t stop speeding, not even around the hair-pin curves.

An old truck honked like crazy and barreled toward me. I swerved to miss it; then froze like a helpless ninny as the tires squealed. It made a loud thump before plowing into a patch of pine trees.

I opened the door to apologize and offer aid. The irate driver rolled down his window and cursed in Spanish. He reminded me of Fidel Castro.

Incongruously, I recalled when Castro allowed Cubans to flee to America several years ago. We later discovered some of the exiles had been released from jails and mental institutions.

As I waited for the man to stop yelling, I tried to think of something to diffuse his anger. I’d taken two Spanish courses in college.

“Lo siento. Fue sin quere,” I said, trying to apologize for the accident.

He gunned the accelerator and glared at me like a charging bull. His tires stirred up a murky cloud of Georgia red clay.

“Drive away,” I told myself. “Don’t be a target.”

I cranked up the Caddy as his truck plunged forward out of the mud. I expected him to aim his vehicle at me, but he sped off down the road in a haze of dust, dragging a baby pine tree caught under his back bumper.

As he disappeared, I took deep breaths to relieve the tension, and drove to a grassy area where I could rest until my hands stopped trembling. I sat in the car with the motor running, radio on, and heat blowing full blast.

Two buzzards circled overhead, probably waiting for me to die. I stared at them until the news came on.

“Cuban detainees freed eighty-nine hostages, after signing an agreement that ended a siege at the Atlanta Penitentiary, the longest prison uprising in U.S. history,” the newsman reported.

I thought of that angry trucker and his fierce eyes. A shiver ran up my spine. Had he escaped the Atlanta Pen?

Chapter Two

 

The Southern Journal resides in a three-story Victorian house, all decked out for the holidays. Lisa Anderson and her husband Thomas endangered life and limb, stringing a gazillion lights around the roof and windows. Lisa was the office secretary and circulation manager. Thomas was a retired journalism professor. He often helped Marcus Handley, the publisher and managing editor, in whatever capacity was needed.

I’d sold the newspaper and building to Marcus a few months after I’d lost my parents. He’d been my mentor since Dad hired him seven years ago. Under his leadership, the Southern Journal had won several awards and honored the tradition my Dad started: Fight injustice. Write the truth.

Our weekly covered all of Atlanta’s Southside. Marcus had assigned me the crime beat. I also wrote a personal column and feature articles.

I grimaced at the thought of going inside, but I couldn’t avoid it. I needed my Tandy. It was an advanced word processor. I’d become entirely too dependent on mine since Marcus bought them for the staff. We could now send our stories through the telephone lines from wherever we were, which was convenient and a time-saver. I could type my interviews, rather than try to decipher my speed writing.

A sick dread washed over me. I couldn’t shake it off. My eyes were red. My hair was a mess. I hated to face the crew like this. Journalists are buzzards. They can smell weakness and pain. I expected a barrage of nosy questions.

I redid my hair bun, rested my forehead on the steering wheel and remembered what Mom used to say, “In ten years you’ll forget all about this.” Perhaps she was right, but ten years was an eternity.

At the tap on my window, I jumped up like a Jack-in-the-box. Marcus was frowning and holding my little computer like a weapon. Without the scowl, he resembled those pictures of Jesus featured in Sunday school books. His mustache, beard and long hair made him appear older than thirty-five. I often found it difficult to believe he was only ten years my senior.

Dad used to say Marcus was wiser and had endured more than people twice his age. This afternoon he wore jeans and a V-neck blue sweater, giving me a peek at his powerful chest.

A compulsive runner, he often ran to and from work. He lived three miles away in an old Georgian Colonial he was restoring.

When Dad hired him, he came to our house for dinner and stayed the night. My body tingled when I first saw him. He looked like Superman with facial hair.

I exhaled a sigh and forced a smile as I rolled down the window. “Hi Marcus. What’s up?”

He tapped the Tandy. “I couldn’t find the story on the shooting in here, Carrie.”

I inhaled his sexy, musky scent and chewed on my lower lip to keep from crying. I’d rather stand nude in freezing rain than cry in front of Marcus. “I haven’t written it yet. I had to reschedule with Barnum.” I glanced at my watch. “I need to get over there now.”

His dark blue eyes bored into mine as if he could read my soul. “Why’d you have to reschedule?” He touched his beard as gently as he might stroke a lover. Dad once told me he heard Marcus play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano. I tried to imagine these masterful hands dancing across piano keys - though I couldn’t reconcile that image with what Dad said about Marcus flying B-52s and dropping bombs.

“It’s a long story. No time to tell it.”

He leaned through my open window and whispered, “Are you all right, Carrie? You don’t look well.”

I closed my eyes to hide. “Gee, thanks.”

“If you need me to interview Barnum and write the story, I will.” He touched my shoulder.

His fingers sent an electric charge though me. “I’m fine, just pissed off. My car broke down, and I had to postpone the interview. Don’t worry. I’ll get the article together in time.”

He exhaled a grunt. “I need that story before deadline.”

“Of course,” I barked. “I’m in no mood for your condescending attitude.” I snatched the computer and cranked up the Cadillac.

As I drove away I regretted my words. I ought to have known better than to misdirect my anger at Marcus. He was an unpredictable, grouchy man. He expected perfection, and didn’t tolerate disrespect. What if he fired me for spouting off at him?

Chapter Three

 

 

Chief Barnum’s office was inside the belly of the College Station police building, an ugly concrete box, hogging the street corner. I parked, took deep breaths, and slid my little word processor inside my heavy tote, which was already crammed full with reporters’ notebooks, cosmetic items, and a change of clothes, tampons, clean underwear and my trusty Olympus camera.

I needed to take another picture of Chief Barnum. We had several photos of him in the can, but Barnum claimed they made him look like a fat convict. He’d lost quite a bit of weight recently, and was justifiably proud of that accomplishment.

I sucked in my gut, pulled my shoulders back and walked through the double doors like I owned the place. My boots clopped like horse-hooves on the linoleum, as I headed down the hall.

The door to Dora Lee Thompson’s office was closed. She was Barnum’s secretary, and no one entered his office without going through her first. I stopped for a moment and took a few more deep breaths to compose myself before I eased the door open.

Dora Lee faced the back wall. She appeared to be copying something on the Xerox machine. Her lavender knit dress clung to her rear end. She looked like a model in a fashion magazine. Her long dark hair draped her shoulders.

She arranged the copied pages into three separate stacks and stapled each pile. When she turned around, she gasped and slapped the papers to her chest. “You scared me to death, Carrie Sue. When did you get here?”

“I just walked in.”

“The Chief will be back soon. Time got away from us.” She plopped down in the chair behind her desk and slammed the copied papers on top. “I thought I’d never finish transcribing these.”

I nodded at the stack of papers. “What are those?”

“Police interviews, you know, of the boys arrested for killing Preston Campbell. Took me forever to transcribe.” Dora Lee glanced at the Coca-Cola clock on the wall. “Nev Powers will be here any minute. He’s taking these over to Wally’s office.”

“You mean, Wallace Sheppard, Fulton County D.A.?”

She nodded. “Yeah, and thank God I finished in time. I don’t need Nev breathing down my neck.” She twisted her mouth into a quirky grin. “You know how he can be.” She threw up her hands in a gesture of surrender. “Of course you do. Y’all dated in high school, or at least, that’s what he tells everybody.” She lowers her voice to a whisper, “I was surprised you’d date him. He talks down to people and he’s narrow-minded. Don’t you think?”

My face burned with embarrassment. “Nev is exaggerating, as he tends to do. I thought we’d talked about this before, Dora Lee?”

“Yes, but you changed the subject and evaded my question.”

“We had only one date.”

Dora Lee’s brown eyes widened as if she wanted me to elaborate, but I had sense enough to keep my mouth shut. Knowledge is power, I’d learned, and gossip in the workplace was anathema.

I sat in the chair opposite her. “That was years ago, Dora Lee.” I gritted my teeth. I needed to stay professional, not puke up all my personal stuff.

She smiled and blinked, as if processing information. “Nev said y’all went to different schools.”

“He played quarterback for Fulton County High. I went to Justice Academy.”

She nodded. “I heard your grandma started that school.”

“That’s right. She did.” I shuffled through my tote, pretending to look for something. Stay calm, I told myself.

She propped her elbows on her desk. “I’m always giving you scoops. ‘Bout time you gave me one.” She giggled, and I wondered how she could find humor in anything so silly. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d enjoyed a silly laugh.

“How’d you and Nev get together?”

“I met him at the Varsity. One thing led to another. We went to a movie. Nothing much to talk about.”

I didn’t dare tell Dora Lee that Nev Powers lost his temper at the movie and called Jimmy Johnson a “coon,” then punched him in the face. Nev said he attacked Jimmy because I flirted with him, and what’s more, he looked like the drunk driver who caused the automobile accident that paralyzed his Mom and killed his twin brother Nathan. If I regurgitated all that crap, Dora Lee might use it against Nev, and he’d end up resenting us both.

“Speaking of Nev, before he gets here, I’d like a copy of those police interviews, please.” I held out my hand, expecting her to grant my request.

She stared wide-eyed, as if I’d asked her to swallow poison. “This is an on-going investigation, Carrie Sue.”

“I know, but the Chief will have to share them with the legal eagles. And I will get a copy eventually, anyway.” I tried to look sincere as I waggled my outstretched fingers. “I won’t tell anyone. You know you can trust me.” She’d given me information before, and I’d never revealed her as a source.

She and I eyeballed each other for a moment. Then she stood abruptly, walked over to me, opened my tote and crammed in one of the little stacks she’d stapled together. “Don’t you dare tell a soul, Carrie Sue.” She shook her finger like a teacher scolding a child. “I’ll get fired, and I need this job. I’m a single mother of a four-year-old daughter with a sorry ex, who’s negligent on his child support.”

“I won’t tell a soul. I promise.” I gave her what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “Thanks for scoring one for the First Amendment.”

As Dora Lee rushed to make another copy, Nev walked in, dapper in a Reaganesque brown suit and wide-striped tie. His chest seemed a little bulky from the shoulder holster, gun and ammo pouch that detectives wore. His boyish face hadn’t changed much since high school. His short brown hair stuck up like a well-used brush. His forehead was almost as long as the rest of his face, which made him appear intellectual, although he claimed to be “a good ole boy.”

“Hello, Nev,” I said, loudly, to alert Dora Lee, so she wouldn’t pass any comments and incriminate herself.

Nev flashed his tiger eyes. “Well, well, well.”

Dora Lee turned from the Xerox. She gave him a tight-lipped smile. “That’s a deep subject, Nev.”

“I’m a deep guy.” He shifted his eyes toward me. “Carrie Sue, you doing any good?”

“Depends on your point of view, Nev. Right now, I’m waiting to interview the Chief.”

“He’ll be along shortly,” Dora Lee said, as if she hadn’t already told me this.

Dora Lee stapled and handed a stack of papers to Nev. He flipped through the pages. His eyes zipped from left to right as if he were speed reading.

Silence enveloped the room. I embraced it like an old friend. A quote from Abraham Lincoln kept running through my head: It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.

When Chief Barnum strolled in, wearing a dark grey suit a size too big, Dora Lee sighed in relief. Barnum was a tall, bulky Tennessee Ernie Ford look-alike, with the same high cheekbones, long nose, mustache, and coarse, slicked-back hair. Dora Lee once told me he even did a fair imitation of Ford singing Sixteen Tons.

He placed his large hands on Nev’s shoulders. “Thanks for taking those over.”

Nev backed away. “Sure thing, Chief.” He bowed toward me and Dora Lee. “Try to stay out of trouble, ladies.”

Dora Lee and I raised our eyebrows at his condescending remark. She seemed to be holding her breath. I crossed my legs and nervously swung my top foot to offset the sadness seeping into my bones.

Nev turned to face Chief Barnum. “I’m gonna read these statements over carefully before I give them to the D.A. I wanna make sure they’re accurate.”

Chief Barnum frowned. “Dora Lee’s a stickler for accuracy, you know that.”

Nev grunted a response, pushed the door open and walked out. “See you later.”

After Nev left, Barnum smiled at me. “Hi, Carrie Sue. Hope you haven’t been waiting long.”

I pushed my stiff, achy body out of the chair. “No, I just got here, Chief. Sorry for missing our appointment this morning. I know how busy you are.”

“No busier than anyone else. You get your car fixed?”

“Not yet. I’m driving Mom’s old Cadillac. At least it runs.”

He motioned for me to follow him. “That’s good. Come on in.”

He plopped down behind his mahogany desk with its mountain of papers. He had forbidden Dora Lee to straighten it. “He can usually find what he’s looking for on top of his messy desk, but it drives me nuts,” she’d said.

I sat in the worn leather chair directly across from him, trying not to look at the sad-eyed buck with antlers mounted on the wall. Beside the buck’s head was a sign that said, A clean desk is a sign of a sick mind.

Next to the slogan was a photo of Barnum with President Reagan. Another photo showed a younger Barnum as deputy with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Department. He grew up in Cumming, where he lived until moving to College Station to become the chief of police.

As I pulled out my camera and focused on Barnum’s face, he picked up a paper from his messy desk and pretended to study it as I snapped him.

After taking several shots, I stuffed the camera inside my tote and withdrew my little computer, maneuvering the stapled pages from Dora Lee to the bottom of the bag. Right on cue, she walked in with a beige file folder and handed it to him.

When my Tandy booted up, I said, “Tell me about the victim of last night’s shooting.”

Barnum opened the file from Dora Lee, withdrew his reading glasses from a breast pocket and positioned them on the bridge of his long nose. “Preston Campbell, sixteen, Caucasian; He performed odd jobs at the Methodist Church. He was walking home from church when he was shot in the back. He died at the scene. Robbery seems to be the motive. His father Hampton Campbell identified the body, lying in a pool of blood, at the scene. Preston had decided to walk home from church that night, Mr. Campbell said. When his son didn’t come home, Mr. Campbell came looking for him.”

I asked him to verify the spelling of Preston’s name. Then I asked, “Which school did he attend?”

“Justice Academy. Didn’t your grandmother start that?”

“Yes, my paternal Grandmother, Elizabeth Ann Justice.”

“I’ve seen the plaque. What inspired her to start a school?” He pulled off his glasses and stared at me, as if waiting for my answer. Was he trying to get me off track and avoid a lengthy interrogation?

Rather than disclose my suspicions, I answered him. “She died before I was born, unfortunately. But according to her journal, she started Justice Academy because she didn’t think the public school system would integrate, as required by law. Only a few students attended back then. She drove them to and from school and taught the classes. She even provided breakfast and lunch free for the students who couldn’t pay.”

He nodded. “Several hundred attend now, don’t they?”

I glanced down in embarrassment. I couldn’t recall the exact number. “I’m not sure how many, but I know the administration tries to keep a good ratio of blacks and whites. Some Asian students attend, too.” I studied my computer screen. “Getting back to Preston Campbell, you said robbery was the motive?”

“That’s what we’ve determined. We’ve interviewed the suspects, and a witness who heard one of the boys brag about shooting Preston. But Preston didn’t have money on him when he was gunned down.”

As I typed in what Barnum said, he stood and sauntered into Dora Lee’s office. “Make Carrie Sue a copy of the addresses of the victim and the suspects, Dora Lee.” He waited at the doorway until she handed him a sheet of paper with the requested information.

After he offered the info to me, he asked, “What else do you need to know?” He sat and drummed his fingers on his desk.

“Where exactly did the shooting occur?”

“On Hemphill, near Virginia Ave, a few blocks from where Preston lived.”

“Whom did you arrest for Preston’s murder?”

“Four black youths, all members of the same gang. Jeremy Andrews, age sixteen, Calvin Newson, age fourteen, Leroy Cortez, age sixteen and Tatum Brookins, age fifteen.”

I glanced at the sheet Barnum had given me to make sure their names and ages were included. “You said these boys were members of a gang? What’s the name of the gang?”

“Bad and Black.”

“Were they wearing clothing identifying them as belonging to this gang?”

“No. We gathered that information from other sources.”

“What sources?

“I can’t divulge that right now, Carrie Sue. This is all under investigation.”

“Did any of the youths admit to being part of a gang?”

“No.”

“Chief, if you claim these youths are members of a black gang, eventually you’ll have to prove it.”

“I do have proof. I’m just not ready to share it with you yet, Carrie Sue.”

“Why did you arrest these four?”

“Like I said, we have witnesses, and we have the boys’ statements.”

Even though Dora Lee had given me copies of the statements, I tried to get copies from Barnum in order to protect her. “I’d like to read their statements please.”

“You know I can’t give you that now, Carrie Sue. They’re not for publication.”

“Then tell me what you know for sure.”

“The suspects ganged up on Preston. They all worked together to commit the crime.”

“Are you saying all the suspects have admitted to this?”

“More or less.”

“What do you mean, more or less?”

“It’s like I said. We gathered from their statements that they worked together to rob and kill Preston Campbell.”

“Other than the suspects, who are your witnesses?”

“We’re not revealing that information yet, Carrie Sue, but we think we have the murder weapon, a twenty-two pistol, found in Jeremy Andrews’ car.”

“Did any of the youths admit to shooting and killing Preston?”

“The suspects identified two possible shooters, but they’re blaming one another, which is typical.”

“Who are the two possible shooters?”

“Jeremy Andrews and Calvin Newson.”

“Are you still holding all four suspects?”

“We are.”

“Where?”

“Juvenile Detention Center.”

I glanced at the sheet Barnum had given me with the addresses of the suspects. “Do all of the suspects live in the same area?”

“Yes, they live in the projects, you know, public housing.”

“Have these boys been in trouble with the law before?”

“I would almost swear to it, but we’re in the process of gathering all of that information now.”

“What time did the shooting occur?”

“Around eight…eight-thirty, two nights ago.”

“Where did the suspects attend school?”

“All except Tatum Brookins were bused to Tanksley High in DeKalb County under the Majority-to-Minority program. You know how that works. If you’re in a public school where you’re in the majority, you can get permission to go to another public school where you’re in the minority.”

Barnum frowned, shook his head and closed his eyes as if it pained him to continue this interview. “Tanksley High is mostly black now, due to all the bussing going on. Also, all the white folks have moved farther north or they’re putting their kids in private schools that are white. That means the efforts to desegregate aren’t working. Bussing isn’t doing a damn thing to integrate the school system. Tanksley, used to be majority white. The bussed kids spend too much time on the bus, going to and from. By the time they get home, it’s dark, they’re hungry and frustrated, and want to hang out and get in trouble.”

I interrupted Barnum. “Where did Tatum Brookins go to school? Didn’t you say all the youths except Tatum went to Tanksley?”

“Brookins attended College Station High.”

“If Tatum Brookins attended a different school from the others, how is it likely they all belonged to the same gang?”

“It happens. They live in the projects.”

I took a moment to read through my notes. “Thanks for your time, Chief. If I have other questions I’ll call you.” Little did he know I had a bounty of information, thanks to Dora Lee.

Chapter Four

 

I walked back to the corner toward the giant magnolia tree where I’d parked the Cadillac. One of my favorite places to write was in my car, parked in a safe, private location. If any place was safe, it should be the police station. Or so I thought.

I scooted my seat back, pulled out my computer and read through my notes again. I tried to think of a clever lead, but my mind wouldn’t cooperate. It kept going back to the horrible moment when I caught Kyle cheating on me.

A reddish gold sunset had filled the sky by the time I’d written a semblance of an article. I read it through and grimaced. Not good.

I tried to meditate, reciting the mantra “om” to spark my creativity. I imagined Marcus pacing the floor like a caged lion, while waiting for my piece. He couldn’t put the paper to bed without this front page story. I could almost feel his petulance, like the chilly air seeping through the car windows.

Regardless, my conscience, and my professional pride, wouldn’t allow me to give him a half-ass, one-sided article when I suspected a more complete story could be found in the police interviews.

I flipped through the stack of interviews Dora Lee had given me. The first statement was from Tim Dillon. Officer Lewis Stanley had recorded his statement. Nev Powers asked the questions.

Chief Barnum hadn’t mentioned Dillon’s name in connection with Preston Campbell’s alleged murder, but as I read, I discovered Dillon was a witness. He told Nev he was riding the bus with Calvin Newson when Calvin admitted he shot Preston Campbell with Jeremy Andrews’ gun.

Dillon said he knew Jeremy and the name of the third boy involved, Leroy Cortez, but he didn’t mention Tatum Brookins.

That didn’t make sense. From what Chief Barnum said, four boys had been arrested, and they were all members of the gang Bad and Black. Yet, Dillon said nothing about a gang and only mentioned three teens, leaving out Tatum, who was arrested anyway. Why?

I riffled through the stack of interviews, searching for another witness. When I couldn’t find one, I read the statement from Tatum Brookins. His mother Lucille had signed a paper waiving his Miranda rights. Why? It would have been better to remain silent and request an attorney.

Nev asked Tatum what he was doing the night Preston was shot and killed.

Tatum said he went to the grocery store to buy donuts, but Jeremy, Calvin and Leroy went to shoplift. When Calvin saw Preston Campbell he wanted to rob him. Tatum said Calvin got the gun from Leroy, because Leroy was holding it for Jeremy. Tatum said Calvin didn’t think a twenty-two pistol could kill anyone. Tatum stated he warned Calvin and the others not to bother Preston, and then walked away. He was two houses up, he said, when he heard a gunshot. He saw a lady named Ms. Sikes. “She in a wheelchair and there was a guy-I forget his name-he do her laundry. He brings it to her,” Tatum said. “That guy he say, ‘Hello,’ to me,” Tatum stated.

I paused from reading. Was Tatum referring to my neighbor and friend Freemont Jackson? Freemont owned and operated Jackson Laundry. He carried on his mother’s business after she passed. He ran the business out of his home, as she had. Just about everyone had called her Mama Jackson. She died of a heart attack a year after Mom and Dad were killed.

I stared out in the darkness. Were police planning to talk to Freemont?

The night had killed the sunset. Did Marcus want to kill me? Probably, but he also wanted a balanced story, not a regurgitation of what Chief Barnum said. So I continued reading.

Next in the stack of interviews, I found Jeremy Andrews’ statement. Barnum said, police discovered the twenty-two handgun in his parents’ car. Jeremy’s father Joseph had also signed a paper agreeing to waive his son’s rights.

Sixteen-year-old Jeremy claimed Calvin robbed and shot Preston with Leroy’s gun. The gun in his car belonged to his sister’s boyfriend, and was not the gun used in the shooting, Jeremy stated. He mentioned nothing about Tatum being involved.

One of the last interviews was with fourteen-year-old Calvin Newson. His mother Clarissa had also waived his rights.

Calvin stated that Jeremy ran up to Preston with the gun and shot him. Calvin said Tatum told all of them to leave Preston alone. Then Tatum left the scene.

Next, I glanced at the statement from sixteen-year-old Leroy Cortez. Like the others, he waived his rights. Nev questioned him in the presence of his mother Lisa Cortez.

Leroy claimed all four boys walked out of the grocery store when Calvin spotted Preston. Calvin wanted to jump him, Leroy said, but Tatum said, “Naw, I ain’t touching the dude,” according to Leroy.

Leroy said he and Tatum walked a different way, but Calvin and Jeremy went up the street toward Preston. Leroy said he gave Calvin the gun because Jeremy told him to, but later when he talked to Calvin, Leroy said he found out Jeremy took the gun, jumped on Preston and started hitting him. “When Jeremy said he shot the dude right in the back. I tell him, ‘They catch you, they gonna lock you up,’” Leroy stated.

After I read Leroy’s statement and polished my article, I wrote down two questions to consider later: 1.Why was Tatum arrested? 2. Why did Barnum say the arrested youths were gang members?

I heard a knock on my widow and looked up at a tall, dark man. He wore a wool cap, pulled down low over his forehead. Blood raced to my head. The man looked like a burglar.

“Oh no,” I whispered and groped for my car keys. They weren’t in the ignition. Why? I’d started the car not long ago to turn on the heat. I couldn’t remember pulling the keys out. My heart hammered as I searched for them. They weren’t on the floor board or between the seats.

The stranger sprayed my windshield with what appeared to be water and wiped it off with a rag. When he’d finished, he smiled and folded his hands in prayer, bowing slightly.

As I studied him, I began to relax. He looked like a humble man. Did he need money for food, alcohol or drugs? Who was I to judge? He’d performed a service. He’d clean my windshield.

I reached inside my tote for my billfold, and miraculously found my bunch of keys. From the money folder, I took out a five and rolled down the window. The cold air swooshed in.

I shivered as he grabbed the wrinkled Lincoln and squeezed my hand. “Thank you, Ma’m.” He smiled. No front teeth. “I’m warm from your gift. ...

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