Page 36 of Ford County

Stanley was stunned, groggy, aching, and not sure if he could hold back the vomit. When he didn't respond, Cranwell jerked his collar, yanked him back so that Stanley was on his knees. "Got any last words, Lawyer Wade?" The barrel of the gun was stuck in his ear.

"Don't do this, man," Stanley pleaded, suddenly ready to cry.

"Oh, why not?" Cranwell hissed from above.

"I have a family. Please don't do this."

"I got kids too, Wade. You've met both of them. Doyle is drivin' the truck. Michael's the one you met at trial, the little brain-damaged boy who'll never drive, walk, talk, eat, or take a piss by himself. Why, Lawyer Wade? Because of your dear client Dr. Trane, may he burn in hell."

"I'm sorry. Really, I mean it. I was just doing my job. Please."

The gun was shoved harder so that Stanley's head tilted to the left. He was sweating, gasping, desperate to say something that might save him.

Cranwell grabbed a handful of Stanley's thinning hair, yanked it. "Well, your job stinks, Wade, because it includes lyin', bullyin', badgerin', coverin' up, and showin' no compassion whatsoever for folks who get hurt. I hate your job, Wade, almost as much as I hate you."

"I'm sorry. Please."

Cranwell pulled the barrel out of Stanley's ear, aimed down the dark road, and, with the gun about eight inches from Stanley's head, pulled the trigger. A cannon would have made less noise in the stillness.

Stanley, who'd never been shot, shrieked in horror and pain and death and fell to the pavement, his ears screaming and his body convulsing. A few seconds passed as the gunshot's echo was absorbed into the thick woods. A few more seconds, and Cranwell said, "Get up, you little creep."

Stanley, still un-shot but uncertain about it, slowly began to realize what had happened. He got up, unsteady, still gasping and unable to speak or hear. Then he realized his pants were wet. In his moment of death, he'd lost control of his bladder. He touched his groin, then his legs.

"You pissed on yourself," Cranwell said. Stanley heard him, but barely. His ears were splitting, especially the right one. "You poor boy, all wet with piss. Michael wets himself five times a day. Sometimes we can afford diapers; sometimes we can't. Now walk."

Cranwell shoved him again, roughly, while pointing down the road with the pistol. Stanley stumbled, almost fell, but caught himself and staggered for a few steps until he could focus and balance and convince himself that he had not, in fact, been shot.

"You ain't ready to die," Cranwell said from behind.

Thank God for that, Stanley almost said but caught himself because it would most certainly be taken as another smart-ass comment. Lurching down the road, he vowed to avoid all other smart-ass comments, or anything even remotely similar. He put a finger in his right ear in an effort to stop the ringing. His crotch and legs felt cold from the moisture.

They walked for another ten minutes, though it seemed like an eternal death march to Stanley. Rounding a curve in the road, he saw lights ahead, a small house in the distance. He picked up his pace slightly as he decided that Cranwell was not about to fire again with someone within earshot.

The house was a small brick split-level a hundred yards off the road, with a gravel drive and neat hedges just below the front windows. Four vehicles were parked haphazardly along the drive and in the yard, as if the neighbors had hurried over for a quick supper. One was the Ford pickup, once driven by Doyle, now parked in front of the garage. Two men were smoking under a tree.

"This way," Cranwell said, pointing with the gun and shoving Stanley toward the house. They walked by the two smokers. "Look what I got," Cranwell said. The men blew clouds of smoke but said nothing.

"He pissed on himself," he added, and they thought that was amusing.

They walked across the front yard, past the door, past the garage, around the far side of the house, and in the back they approached a cheap, unpainted plywood addition someone had stuck on like a cancerous growth. It was attached to the house but could not be seen from the road. It had unbalanced windows, exposed pipes, a flimsy door, the dismal look of a room added as cheaply and quickly as possible.

Cranwell stuck a hand on Stanley's bruised neck and shoved him toward the door. "In here," he said, the gun, as always, giving direction. The only way in was up a short wheelchair ramp, one as rickety as the room itself. The door opened from the inside. People were waiting.

Eight years earlier, during the trial, Michael had been three years old. He had been displayed for the jury only once. During his lawyer's emotional final summation, the judge allowed Michael to be rolled into the courtroom in his special chair for a quick viewing. He wore pajamas, a large bib, no socks or shoes. His ob' long head fell to one side. His mouth was open, his eyes were closed, and his tiny misshapen body wanted to curl into itself. He was severely brain damaged, blind, with a life expectancy of only a few years. He was a pitiful sight then, though the jury eventually showed no mercy.

Stanley had endured the moment, along with everyone else in the courtroom, but when Michael was rolled away, he got back to business. He was convinced he would never see the child again.

He was wrong. He was now looking at a slightly larger version of Michael, though a more pathetic one. He was wearing pajamas and a bib, no socks or shoes. His mouth was open, his eyes still closed. His face had grown upward into a long sloping fore-head, covered in part by thick black matted hair. A tube ran from his left nostril back to some unseen place. His arms were bent at the wrists and curled under. His knees were drawn to his chest. His belly was large, and for an instant he reminded Stanley of those sad photos of starving children in Africa.

Michael was arranged on his bed, an old leftover from some hospital, propped up with pillows and lashed down with a Velcro strap that fit loosely across his chest. At the foot of his bed was his mother, a gaunt, long-suffering soul whose name Stanley could not immediately recall.

He'd made her cry on the witness stand.

At the other end of the bed was a small bathroom with the door open, and next to the door was a black metal file cabinet with two drawers, legal size, and enough scratches and dents to prove it had passed through a dozen flea markets. The wall next to Michael's bed had no windows, but the two walls along the sides had three narrow windows each. The room was fifteen feet long at most and about twelve feet wide. The floor was covered •with cheap yellow linoleum.

"Sit here, Lawyer Wade," Jim said, shoving his prisoner into a folding chair in the center of the small room. The pistol was no longer in sight. The two smokers from outside entered and closed the door. They took a few steps and joined two other men who were standing near Mrs. Cranwell, only a few feet from Wade. Five men, all large and frowning and seemingly ready for violence. And there was Doyle somewhere behind Stanley. And Mrs. Cranwell, Michael, and Lawyer Wade.

The stage was set.

Jim walked over to the bed, kissed Michael on the forehead, then turned and said, "Recognize him, Lawyer Wade?"

Stanley could only nod.

"He's eleven years old now," Jim said, gently touching his son's arm. "Still blind, still brain damaged. We don't know how much he hears and understands, but it ain't much. He'll smile once a week when he hears his momma's voice, and sometimes he'll smile when Doyle tickles him. But we don't get much of a response. Are you surprised to see him alive, Lawyer Wade?"

Stanley was staring at some cardboard boxes stuffed under Michael's bed, and he did so to avoid looking at the child. He was listening with his head turned to his right because his right ear wasn't working, as far as he could tell. His ears were still traumatized from the gunshot, and if faced with lesser problems, he might have spent some time -worrying about a loss of hearing. "Yes," he answered truthfully.