Page 34 of Ford County

He waited.

He played poker online for hours, and when he got bored, he drove his RV to the casinos in Tunica, or to the Gulf Coast. He won more than he lost, but was careful not to attract too much attention. Two casinos in Biloxi had banned him months earlier. He always returned to Karraway, though he really wanted to leave it forever.

He waited.

The first move was made by his daughter. She called and talked for an hour one night, and toward the end of a rambling conversation let it slip that Stella was lonely and sad and really missed her life with Sidney. According to the daughter, Stella was consumed with remorse and desperate to reconcile with the only man she would ever love. As Sidney listened to his daughter prattle on, he realized that he needed Stella far more than he disliked her. Still, he made no promises.

The next phone call was more to the point. The daughter began an effort to broker a meeting between her parents, sort of a first step to normalize relations. She was willing to return to Karraway and mediate matters if necessary. All she wanted was for her parents to be together. How odd, thought Sidney, since she expressed no such thoughts before he broke the casino.

After a week or so of shadowboxing, Stella showed up one night for a glass of tea. In a lengthy, emotional meeting, she confessed her sins and begged for forgiveness. She left and returned the next night for another discussion. On the third night, they went to bed and Sidney was in love again.

Without discussing marriage, they loaded up the RV and took off to Florida. Near Ocala, the Seminole tribe was operating a fabulous new casino and Sidney was eager to attack it. He was feeling lucky.

Michael's Room

The encounter was probably inevitable in a town of ten thousand people. Sooner or later, you're bound to bump into almost everyone, including those "whose names are long for-gotten and whose faces are barely familiar. Some names and faces are registered and remembered and withstand the erosion of time. Others are almost instantly discarded, and most for good reason. For Stanley Wade, the encounter was caused in part by his wife's lingering flu and in part by their need for sustenance, along with other reasons. After a long day at the office, he called home to check on her and to inquire about dinner. She rather abruptly informed him that she had no desire to cook and little desire to eat, and that if he was hungry, he'd better stop by the store. When was he not hungry at dinnertime? After a few more sentences, they agreed on frozen pizza, about the only dish Stanley could prepare and, oddly, the only thing she might possibly want to nibble on. Preferably sausage and cheese. Please enter through the kitchen and keep the dogs quiet, she instructed. She might be

asleep on the sofa.

The nearest food store was the Rite Price, an old discount house a few blocks off the square, with dirty aisles and low prices and cheap giveaways that attracted the lower classes. Most uppity whites used the new Kroger south of town, far out of Stanley's way. But it was only a frozen pizza. What difference did it make? He wasn't shopping for the freshest organic produce on this occasion. He was hungry and looking for junk and just wanted to get home.

He ignored the shopping carts and baskets and went straight to the frozen section, where he selected a fourteen-inch creation with an Italian name and freshness guaranteed. He was closing the icy glass door when he became aware of someone standing very near him, someone who'd seen him, followed him, and was now practically breathing on him. Someone much larger than Stanley. Someone who had no interest in frozen foods, at least not at that moment. Stanley turned to his right and locked eyes with a smirking and unhappy face he'd seen somewhere before. The man was about forty, roughly ten years younger than Stanley, at least four inches taller, and much thicker through the chest. Stanley was slight, almost fragile, not the least bit athletic.

"You're Lawyer Wade, ain't you?" the man said, but it was far more an accusation than a question. Even the voice was vaguely familiar - unusually high-pitched for such a hulking figure, rural but not ignorant. A voice from the past, no doubt about that.

Stanley correctly assumed that their previous meeting, whenever and wherever, concerned a lawsuit of some variety, and it didn't take a genius to surmise that they had not been on the same side. Coming face-to-face with old courtroom adversaries long after trial is a hazard for many small-town lawyers. As much as he was tempted, Stanley could not bring himself to deny who he was. "That's right," he said, clutching his pizza. "And you are?"

With that, the man suddenly moved past Stanley and, in doing so, lowered his shoulder slightly and landed a solid hit against Lawyer Wade, who was knocked against the icy door he'd just closed. The pizza fell to the floor, and as Stanley balanced himself and reached for his dinner, he turned and saw the man head down the aisle and disappear around a corner in the direction of the breakfast foods and coffee. Stanley caught his breath, glanced around, started to yell something provocative, but quickly thought better of it, then stood for a moment and tried to analyze the only harsh physical contact he could remember during his adult life. He'd never been a fighter, athlete, drinker, hell-raiser. Not Stanley. He'd been the thinker, the scholar, top third of his law class.

It was an assault, pure and simple. The least touching of another in anger. But there were no witnesses, and Stanley wisely decided to forget about it, or at least try. Given the disparity in their sizes and dispositions, it certainly could have been much worse.

And it would be, very shortly.

For the next ten minutes he tried to collect himself as he moved cautiously around the grocery store, peeking around corners, reading labels, inspecting meats, watching the other shop-pers for signs of his assailant or perhaps another one. When he was somewhat convinced the man was gone, he hurried to the lone open cashier, quickly paid for his pizza, and left the store. He strolled to his car, eyes darting in all directions, and was safely locked inside with the engine on when he realized there would be more trouble.

A pickup had wheeled to a stop behind Stanley's Volvo, blocking it. A parked van faced it and prevented a forward escape. This angered Stanley. He turned off the ignition, yanked open his driver's door, and was climbing out when he saw the man approaching quickly from the pickup. Then he saw the gun, a large black pistol.

Stanley managed to offer a weak "What the hell" before the hand without the gun slapped him across the face and knocked him against the driver's door. For a moment he saw nothing, but was aware of being grabbed, then dragged and thrown into the pickup, and slid across the vinyl front seat. The hand around the back of his neck was thick, strong, violent. Stanley's neck was skinny and weak, and for some reason, in the horror of the moment, he admitted to himself that this man could easily snap his neck, and with only one hand.

Another man was driving, a very young man, probably just a kid. A door slammed. Stanley's head was stuffed down near the floorboard, cold steel jammed into the base of his skull. "Go," the man said, and the pickup jerked forward.

"Don't move and don't say a word or I'll blow your brains out," the man said, his high voice quite agitated.

"Okay, okay," Stanley managed to say. His left arm was pinned behind his back, and for good measure the man jerked it up until Stanley flinched in pain. The pain continued for a minute or so, then suddenly the man let go. The pistol was taken away from Stanley's head. "Sit up," the man said, and Stanley raised himself, shook his head, adjusted his glasses, and tried to focus. They were on the outskirts of town, headed west. A few seconds passed and nothing was said. To his left was the kid driving, a teenager of no more than sixteen, a slight boy with bangs and pimples and eyes that revealed an equal amount of surprise and be-wilderment. His youth and innocence were oddly comforting -  surely this thug wouldn't shoot him in front of a boy! To his right, with their legs touching, was the man with the gun, which was temporarily resting on his beefy right knee and aimed at no one in particular.