Page 3 of The King of Torts

The building was, after all, a jail. Though it was of recent vintage and upon its grand opening had been the source of great pride for a handful of city leaders, it was still a jail. Designed by cutting-edge urban defense consultants and adorned with high-tech security gadgetry, it was still a jail. Efficient, safe, humane, and, though built for the next century, it was overbooked the day it opened. From the outside it resembled a large red cinderblock resting on one end, windowless, hopeless, filled with criminals and the countless people who guarded them. To make someone feel better it had been labeled a Criminal Justice Center, a modern euphemism employed widely by the architects of such projects. It was a jail.

And it was very much a part of Clay Carter's turf. He met almost all of his clients there, after they were arrested and before they were released on bond, if they were able to post it. Many were not. Many were arrested for nonviolent crimes, and whether guilty or innocent, they were kept locked away until their final court appearances. Tigger Banks had spent almost eight months in the jail for a burglary he did not commit. He lost both of his part-time jobs. He lost his apartment. He lost his dignity. Clay's last phone call from Tigger had been a gut-wrenching plea from the kid for money. He was on crack again, on the streets and headed for trouble.

Every criminal lawyer in the city had a Tigger Banks story, all with unhappy endings and nothing to be done about them. It cost $41,000 a year to house an inmate. Why was the system so anxious to burn the money?

Clay was tired of those questions, and tired of the Tiggers of his career, and tired of the jail and the same surly guards who greeted him at the basement entrance used by most lawyers. And he was tired of the smell of the place, and the idiotic little procedures put in place by pencil pushers who read manuals on how to keep jails safe. It was 9 A.M., a Wednesday, though for Clay every day was the same. He went to a sliding window under a sign for ATTORNEYS, and after the clerk was certain that he had waited long enough, she opened the window and said nothing. Nothing needed to be said, since she and Clay had been scowling at each other without greetings for almost five years now. He signed a register, handed it back, and she closed the window, no doubt a bulletproof one to protect her from rampaging lawyers.

Glenda had spent two years trying to implement a simple call-ahead method whereby OPD lawyers, and everyone else for that matter, could telephone an hour before they arrived and their clients would be somewhere in the vicinity of the attorney conference room. It was a simple request, and its simplicity had no doubt led to its demise in bureaucratic hell.

There was a row of chairs against a wall where the lawyers were expected to wait while their requests were sent along at a snail's pace to someone upstairs. By 9 A.M. there were always a few lawyers sitting there, fidgeting with files, whispering on cell phones, ignoring one another. At one point early in his young career Clay had brought along thick law books to read and highlight in yellow and thus impress the other lawyers with his intensity. Now he pulled out the Post and read the sports section. As always, he glanced at his watch to see how much time would be wasted waiting for Tequila Watson.

Twenty-four minutes. Not bad.

A guard led him down the hall to a long room divided by a thick sheet of Plexiglas. The guard pointed to the fourth booth from the end, and Clay took a seat. Through the glass, he could see that the oilier half of the booth was empty. More waiting. He pulled papers from his briefcase and began thinking of questions for Tequila. The booth to his right was occupied by a lawyer in the midst of a tense, but muted, conversation with his client, a person Clay could not see.

The guard returned and whispered to Clay, as if such conversations were illegal. "Your boy had a bad night," he said, crouching and glancing up at the security cameras.

"Okay," Clay said. "He jumped on a kid around two this morning, beat the hell out of him, caused a pretty good brawl. Took six of our guys to break it up. He's a mess."

"Tequila?"

"Watson, that's him. Put the other boy in the hospital. Expect some additional charges."

"Are you sure?" Clay asked, looking over his shoulder.

"It's all on video." End of conversation.

They looked up as Tequila was brought to his seat by two guards, each with an elbow secured. He was handcuffed, and though the inmates were customarily set free to chat with their lawyers, Tequila's handcuffs were not coming off. He sat down. The guards moved away but remained close.

His left eye was swollen shut, with dried blood in both corners. The right one was open and the pupil was bright red. There was tape and gauze in the center of his forehead, and a butterfly Band-Aid on his chin. Both lips and both jaws were puffy and oversized to the point that Clay wasn't sure he had the right client. Someone somewhere had just beaten the hell out of the guy sitting three feet away through the Plexiglas.

Clay picked up the black phone receiver and motioned for Tequila to do likewise. He cradled it awkwardly with both hands.

"You are Tequila Watson?" Clay said with as much eye contact as possible.

He nodded yes, very slowly, as if loose bones were shifting throughout his head.

"Have you seen a doctor?"

A nod, yes.

"Did the cops do this to you?"

Without hesitation he shook his head. No.

"The other guys in the cell do it?"

A nod, yes.

"The cops tell me you started the fight, beat up some kid, put him in the hospital. Is that true?" A nod, yes. It was hard to imagine Tequila Watson, all 150 pounds of him, bullying people in a crowded cell in the D.C. jail. "Did you know the kid?" Lateral movement. No. So far his receiver had not been needed, and Clay was tired of the sign language. "Why, exactly, did you beat up this kid?"

With great effort the swollen lips finally parted. "I don't know," he managed to grunt, the words slow and painful.

"That's great, Tequila. That gives me something to work with. How about self-defense? Did the kid come after you? Throw the first punch?"

"No."

"Was he stoned or drunk?"

"No."

"Was he trash-talking, making threats, that kind of stuff?" "He was asleep." "Asleep?" "Yeah." "Was he snoring too loud? Forget it."

Eye contact was broken by the lawyer, who suddenly needed to write something on his yellow legal pad. Clay scribbled the date, time, place, client's name, then ran out of important facts to take note of. He had a hundred questions filed away in his memory, and after that a hundred more. They rarely varied in these initial interviews; just the basics of his client's miserable life and how they came to meet. The truth was guarded like rare gems to be passed through the Plexiglas only when the client wasn't threatened. Questions about family and school and jobs and friends were usually answered with a good measure of honesty. But questions related to the crime were subject to gamesmanship. Every criminal lawyer knew not to dwell too much on the crime during the first interviews. Dig for details elsewhere. Investigate without guidance from the client. The truth might come later.

Tequila, however, seemed quite different. So far, he had no fear of the truth. Clay decided to save many, many hours of his precious time. He leaned in closer and lowered his voice. "They say you killed a boy, shot him five times in the head."

The swollen head nodded slightly.

"A Ramon Pumphrey, also known as Pumpkin. Did you know this guy?"

A nod, yes.

"Did you shoot him?" Clay's voice was almost a whisper. The guards were asleep but the question was still one that lawyers did not ask, not at the jail anyway.

"I did," Tequila said softly.

"Five times?"

"Thought it was six."

Oh well, so much for a trial. I'll have this file closed in sixty days, Clay thought to himself. A quick plea bargain. A guilty plea in return for life in prison.

"A drug deal?" he asked.

"No."

"Did you rob him?"

"No."

"Help me here, Tequila. You had a reason, didn't you?"

"I knew him."

"That's it? You knew him? That's your best excuse?"

He nodded but said nothing.

"A girl, right? You caught him with your girlfriend? You have a girlfriend, don't you?"

He shook his head. No.

"Did the shooting have anything to do with sex?"

No.

"Talk to me, Tequila, I'm your lawyer. I'm the only person on the planet who's working right now to help you. Give me something to work with here."

"I used to buy drugs from Pumpkin."

"Now you're talking. How long ago?"

"Couple of years."

"Okay. Did he owe you some money or some drugs? Did you owe him something?"

"No."

Clay took a deep breath and for the first time noticed Tequila's hands. They were nicked with small cuts and swollen so badly that none of the knuckles could be seen. "You fight a lot?"

Maybe a nod, maybe a shake. "Not anymore."

"You once did?"

"Kid stuff. I fought Pumpkin once."

Finally. Clay took another deep breath and raised his pen. "Thank you, sir, for your help. When, exactly, did you have a fight with Pumpkin?" "Long time ago." "How old were you?" A shrug, one in response to a stupid question. Clay knew from experience that his clients had no concept of time. They got robbed yesterday or they got arrested last month, but probe beyond thirty days and all history melted together. Street life was a struggle to survive today, with no time to reminisce and nothing in the past to get nostalgic over. There was no future so that point of reference was likewise unknown.

"Kids," Tequila said, sticking with the one-word answer, probably a habit with or without broken jaws. "How old were you?" "Maybe twelve." "Were you in school?" "Playing basketball." "Was it a nasty fight, cuts and broken bones and such?" "No. Big dudes broke it up."

Clay laid the receiver down for a moment and summarized his defense. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my client shot Mr. Pumphrey (who was unarmed) five or six times at point-blank range in a dirty alley with a stolen gun for two reasons; first, he recognized him, and second, they had a playground shoving match about eight years ago. May not sound like much, ladies and gentlemen, but all of us know that in Washington, D.C., those two reasons are as good as any.

Into the receiver again, he asked, "Did you see Pumpkin often?"

"No."

"When was the last time you saw him before he got shot?"

A shrug. Back to the time problem.

"Did you see him once a week?"

"No."

"Once a month?"

"No."

"Twice a year?"

"Maybe."

"When you saw him two days ago, did you argue with him? Help me here, Tequila, I'm working too hard for details."

"We didn't argue."

"Why did you go into the alley?"

Tequila laid down the receiver and began moving his head back I and forth, very slowly, to work out some kinks. He was obviously in pain. The handcuffs appeared to be cutting into his skin. When he picked up the receiver again he said, "I'll tell you the truth. I had a gun, and I wanted to shoot somebody. Anybody, it didn't matter. I left the Camp and just started walking, going nowhere, looking for somebody to shoot. I almost got a Korean dude outside his store, but there were too many people around. I saw Pumpkin. I knew him. We talked for a minute. I said I had some rock if he wanted a hit. We went to the alley. I shot the boy. I don't know why. I just wanted to kill somebody."

When it was clear the narrative was over, Clay asked, "What is the Camp?" "Rehab place. That's where I was staying." "How long had you been there?" Time again. But the answer was a great surprise.

"Hundred and fifteen days." "You had been clean for a hundred and fifteen days?" "Yep." "Were you clean when you shot Pumpkin?" "Yep. Still am. Hundred and sixteen days." "You ever shot anybody before?" "No." "Where'd you get the gun?" "Stole it from my cousin's house." "Is the Camp a lockdown place?" "Yes." "Did you escape?" "I was getting two hours. After a hundred days, you can go out for two hours, then go back in."

"So you walked out of the Camp, went to your cousin's house, stole a gun, then began walking the streets looking for someone to shoot, and you found Pumpkin?"

Tequila was nodding by the end of the sentence. "That's what happened. Don't ask me why. I don't know. I just don't know."

There was possibly some moisture in the red right eye of Tequila, perhaps brought on by guilt and remorse, but Clay could not be certain. He pulled some papers out of his briefcase and slid them through the opening. "Sign these by the red check marks. I'll come back in a couple of days."

Tequila ignored the papers. "What's gonna happen to me?" he asked.

"Well talk about it later."

"When can I get out?"

"It might be a long time."

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