Page 4 of The King of Torts

The people who ran Deliverance Camp saw no need to hide from the problems. They made no effort to get away from the war zone from which they took their casualties. No quiet facility in the country. No secluded clinic in a better part of town. Their campers came from the streets and they would go back to the streets.

The Camp faced W Street in N.W., within view of a row of boarded-up duplexes that were sometimes used by crack dealers. Within plain sight was the notorious empty lot of an old gas station. Here drug peddlers met their wholesalers and did their exchanges regardless of who might be looking. According to unofficial police records, the lot had produced more bullet-laden corpses than any other piece of turf in D.C.

Clay drove slowly down W Street, doors locked, hands clutching the wheel, eyes cutting in all directions, ears awaiting the inevitable sound of gunfire. A white boy in this ghetto was an irresistible target, regardless of the time of day.

D Camp was an ancient warehouse, long abandoned by whoever last used it for storage, condemned by the city, then auctioned off for a few dollars to a nonprofit that somehow saw potential. It was a hulking structure, the red brick spray-painted maroon from sidewalk to roof, with the lower levels repainted by the neighborhood graffiti specialists. It rambled down the street then back an entire city block. All the doors and windows along the sides had been cemented shut and painted, so that fencing and razor wire were not needed. Anyone wishing to escape would need a hammer, a chisel, and a hard day of uninterrupted labor.

Clay parked his Honda Accord directly in front of the building and debated whether to race away or get out. There was a small sign above a set of thick double doors:

Deliverance Camp.

Private

No trespassing. As if someone could wander inside, or want to. There was the usual collection of street characters loitering about: some young toughs no doubt hauling drugs and enough assault weapons to hold off the police, a couple of winos staggering in tandem, what appeared to be family members waiting to visit those inside D Camp. His job had led him to most of the undesirable places in D.C., and he had grown proficient at acting as though he had no fear. I'm a lawyer. I'm here on business. Get out of my way. Don't speak to me. In nearly five years with OPD, he had yet to be shot at.

He locked the Accord and left it at the curb. While doing so he sadly admitted to himself that few if any of the thugs on this street would be attracted to his little car. It was twelve years old and pushing two hundred thousand miles. Take it, he said.

He held his breath and ignored the curious stares from the sidewalk gang. There's not another white face within two miles of here, he thought. He pushed a button by the doors and a voice cracked through the intercom. "Who is it?"

"My name is Clay Carter. I'm a lawyer. I have an eleven o'clock appointment with Talmadge X." He said the name clearly, still certain that it was a mistake. On the phone he had asked the secretary how to spell Mr. X's last name, and she said, quite rudely, that it was not a last name at all. What was it? It was an X. Take it or leave it. It wasn't about to change.

"Just a minute," the voice said, and Clay began to wait. He stared at the doors, trying desperately to ignore everything around him. He was aware of movement off to his left side, something close.

"Say, man, you a lawyer?" came the question, a high-pitched young black male voice, loud enough for everyone to hear.

Clay turned and looked into the funky sunshades of his tormentor. "Yep," he said, as coolly as possible.

"You ain't no lawyer," the young man said. A small gang was forming behind him, all gawking.

"Afraid so," Clay said.

"Can't be no lawyer, man."

"No way," said one of the gang.

"You sure you're a lawyer?"

"Yep," Clay said, playing along.

"If you a lawyer, why you drivin' a shit car like that?"

Clay wasn't sure which hurt more - the laughter from the sidewalk or the truth of the statement. He made matters worse.

"My wife drives the Mercedes," he said, a bad attempt at humor.

"You ain't got no wife. You ain't got no wedding ring."

What else have they noticed? Clay asked himself. They were still laughing when one of the doors clicked and opened. He managed to step casually inside instead of diving for safety. The reception area was a bunker with a concrete floor, cinderblock walls, metal doors, no windows, low ceiling, a few lights, everything but sandbags and weapons. Behind a long government-issue table was a receptionist answering two phones. Without looking up she said, "He'll be just a minute."

Talmadge X was a wiry, intense man of about fifty, not an ounce of fat on his narrow frame, not a hint of a smile on his wrinkled and aged face. His eyes were large and wounded, scarred by decades on the streets. He was very black and his clothes were very white - heavily starched cotton shirt and dungarees. Black combat boots shined to perfection. His head was shined too, not a trace of hair.

He pointed to the only chair in his makeshift office, and he closed the door. "You got paperwork?" he asked abruptly. Evidently, small talk was not one of his talents.

Clay handed over the necessary documents, all bearing the indecipherable handcuffed scrawl of Tequila Watson. Talmadge X read every word on every page. Clay noticed he did not wear a watch, nor did he like clocks. Time had been left at the front door.

"When did he sign these?"

"They're dated today. I saw him about two hours ago at the jail."

"And you're his counsel of record?" Talmadge X asked. "Officially?"

The man had been through the criminal justice system more than once. "Yes. Appointed by the court, assigned by the Office of the Public Defender."

"Glenda still there?"

"Yes."

"We go way back." It was as close to chitchat as they would get.

"Did you know about the shooting?" Clay asked, taking a legal pad to write on from his briefcase.

"Not until you called an hour ago. We knew he left Tuesday and didn't come back, knew something was wrong, but then we expect things to go wrong." His words were slow and precise, his eyes blinked often but never strayed. "Tell me what happened."

"This is all confidential, right?" Clay said.

"I'm his counselor. I'm also his minister. You're his lawyer. Everything said in this room stays in this room. Deal?"

"Right."

Clay gave the details he'd collected so far, including Tequila's version of events. Technically, ethically, he was not supposed to reveal to anyone statements made to him by his client. But who would really care? Talmadge X knew far more about Tequila Watson than Clay would ever learn.

As the narrative went on and the events unfolded in front of Talmadge X, his stare finally broke and he closed his eyes. He tilted his head upward, to the ceiling, as if he wanted to ask God why this happened. He drifted away, deep in thought and deeply troubled.

When Clay finished, Talmadge X said, "What can I do?"

"I'd like to see his file. He's given me authorization."

The file was lying squarely on the desk in front of Talmadge X. "Later," he said. "But let's talk first. What do you want to know?"

"Let's start with Tequila. Where'd he come from?"

The stare was back, Talmadge was ready to help. "The streets, same place they all come from. He was referred by Social Service, because he was a hopeless case. No family to speak of. Never knew his father. Mother died of AIDS when he was three. Raised by an aunt or two, passed around the family, foster homes here and there, in and out of court and juvenile homes. Dropped out of school. Typical case for us. Are you familiar with D Camp?"

"No."

"We get the hard cases, the permanent junkies. We lock 'em down for months, give 'em a boot camp environment. There are eight of us here, eight counselors, and we're all addicts, once an addict always an addict, but you must know that. Four of us are now ministers. I served thirteen years for drugs and robbery, then I found Jesus. Anyway, we specialize in the young crack addicts nobody else can help."

"Only crack?"

"Crack's the drug, man. Cheap, plentiful, takes your mind off life for a few minutes. Once you start it you can't quit."

"He couldn't tell me much about his criminal record."

Talmadge X opened the file and flipped pages. "That's probably because he doesn't remember much. Tequila was stoned for years. Here it is; bunch of petty stuff when he was a juvenile, robbery, stolen cars, the usual stuff we all did so we could buy drugs. At eighteen he did four months for shoplifting. Got him for possession last year, three months there. Not a bad record for one of us. Nothing violent."

"How many felonies?"

"I don't see one."

"I guess that'll help," Clay said. "In some way."

"Sounds like nothing will help."

"I'm told there were at least two eyewitnesses. I'm not optimistic."

"Has he confessed to the cops?"

"No. They've told me that he clammed up when they caught him and has said nothing."

"That's rare."

"It is," Clay said.

"Sounds like life with no parole," said Talmadge X, the voice of experience.

"You got it."

"That's not the end of the world for us, you know, Mr. Carter. In many ways, life in prison is better than life on these streets. I got lots of pals who prefer it. Sad thing is, Tequila was one of the few who could've made it."

"Why is that?"

"Kid's got a brain. Once we got him cleaned up and healthy, he felt so good about himself. For the first time in his adult life, he was sober. He couldn't read so we taught him. He liked to draw so we encouraged art. We never get excited around here, but Tequila made us proud. He was even thinking about changing his name, for obvious reasons."

"You never get excited?"

"We lose sixty-six percent, Mr. Carter. Two thirds. We get 'em in here, sick as dogs, stoned, their bodies and brains cooked on crack, malnourished, even starving, skin rashes, hair falling out, the sickest junkies D.C. can produce, and we fatten 'em up, dry 'em out, lock 'em down in basic training where they're up at six A.M. scrubbing their rooms and waiting on inspection, breakfast at six-thirty, then nonstop brainwashing from a tough group of counselors who've all been exactly where they've been, no bullshit, pardon my language, don't even try to con us because we're all cons ourselves. After a month they're clean and they're very proud. They don't miss the outside world because there's nothing good waiting for them - no jobs, no families, nobody loves them. They're easy to brainwash, and we are relentless. After three months we might, depending on the patient, start easing them back onto the street for an hour or two a day. Nine out of ten return, anxious to get back into their little rooms. We keep them for a year, Mr. Carter. Twelve months, not a day less. We try to educate them some, maybe a little job training with computers. We work hard at finding them jobs. They graduate, we all have a good cry. They leave, and within a year two thirds of them are doing crack again and headed for the gutter."

"Do you take them back?"

"Rarely. If they know they can come back, then they're more likely to screw up."

"What happens to the other third?"

"That's why we're here, Mr. Carter. That's why I'm a counselor. Those folks, like me, survive in the world, and they do it with a toughness no one else understands. We've been to hell and back and it's an ugly road. Many of our survivors work with other addicts."

"How many people can you house at one time?"

"We have eighty beds, all full. We have room for twice that many, but there's never enough money."

"Who funds you?"

"Eighty percent federal grants, and there's no guarantee from year to year. The rest we beg from private foundations. We're too busy to raise a lot of money."

Clay turned a page and made a note. "There's not a single family member I can talk to?"

Talmadge X shuffled through the file, shaking his head. "Maybe an aunt somewhere, but don't expect much. Even if you found one, how could she help you?"

"She can't. But it's nice to have a family member to contact."

Talmadge X kept flipping through the file as if he had something in mind. Clay suspected he was looking for notes or entries to be removed before it was handed over.

"When can I see that?" Clay asked.

"How about tomorrow? I'd like to review it first."

Clay shrugged. If Talmadge X said tomorrow, then it would be tomorrow. "All right, Mr. Carter, I don't get his motive. Tell me why."

"I can't. You tell me. You've known him for almost four months. No history of violence or guns. No propensity for fighting. Sounds like he was the model patient. You've seen it all. You tell me why."

"I've seen everything," Talmadge X said, his eyes even sadder than before. "But I've never seen this. The boy was afraid of violence. We don't tolerate fighting in here, but boys will be boys, and there are always the little rituals of intimidation. Tequila was one of the weak ones. There's no way he would leave here, steal a gun, pick a random victim, and kill him. And there's no way he would jump on a guy in jail and send him to the hospital. I just don't believe it."

"So what do I tell the jury?"

"What jury? This is a guilty plea and you know it. He's gone, off to prison for the rest of his life. I'm sure he knows plenty of folk there."

There was a long gap in the conversation, a break that seemed not to bother Talmadge X in the least. He closed the file and shoved it away. The meeting was about to be over. But Clay was the visitor. It was time to leave.

"I'll be back tomorrow," he said. "What time?"

"After ten o'clock," Talmadge X said. "I'll walk you out."

"It's not necessary," Clay said, delighted with the escort.

The gang had grown and appeared to be waiting for the lawyer to exit D Camp. They were sitting and leaning on the Accord, which was still there and still in one piece. Whatever fun they'd planned was quickly forgotten at the sight of Talmadge X. With a quick jerk of his head he scattered the gang, and Clay sped away, untouched and dreading his return the next day.

He drove eight blocks and found Lamont Street, then the corner of Georgia Avenue, where he stopped for a moment for a quick look around. There was no shortage of alleys in which one might shoot someone, and he was not about to go looking for blood. The neighborhood was as desolate as the one he'd just left. He'd come back later with Rodney, a black paralegal who knew the streets, and they'd poke around and ask questions.

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