Page 6 of The King of Torts

He felt somewhat safer with Rodney, plus 9 A.M. was too early for the dangerous types on Lamont Street. They were still sleeping off whatever poison they had consumed the night before. The merchants were slowly coming to life. Clay parked near the alley.

Rodney was a career paralegal with OPD. He'd been enrolled in night law school off and on for a decade and still talked of one day getting his degree and passing the bar. But with four teenagers at home both money and time were scarce. Because he came from the streets of D.C. he knew them well. Part of his daily routine was a request from an OPD lawyer, usually one who was white and frightened and not very experienced, to accompany him or her into the war zones to investigate some heinous crime. He was a paralegal, not an investigator, and he declined as often as he said yes.


But he never said no to Clay. The two had worked closely together on many cases. They found the spot in the alley where Ramon had fallen and inspected the surrounding area carefully, with full knowledge that the police had already combed the place several times. They shot a roll of film, then went looking for witnesses.

There were none, and this was not surprising. By the time Clay and Rodney had been on the scene for fifteen minutes, word had spread. Strangers were on-site, prying into the latest killing, so lock the doors and say nothing. The liquor store-milk crate witnesses, both men who spent many hours every day in the same spot sipping cheap wine and missing nothing, were long gone and no one had ever known them. The merchants seemed surprised that there had been a shooting at all. "Around here?" one asked, as if crime had yet to reach his ghetto.

After an hour, they left and headed for D Camp. As Clay drove, Rodney sipped cold coffee from a tall paper cup. Bad coffee, from the look on his face. "Jermaine got a similar case a few days ago," he said. "Kid in rehab, locked down for a few months, got out somehow, don't know if he escaped or was released, but within twenty-four hours he'd picked up a gun and shot two people, one died."

"At random?"

"What's random around here? Two guys in cars with no insurance have a fender bender and they start shooting at each other. Is that random, or is it justified?"

"Was it drugs, robbery, self-defense?"

"Random, I think."

"Where was the rehab place?" Clay asked.

"It wasn't D Camp. Some joint near Howard, I think. I haven't seen the file. You know how slow Jermaine is."

"So you're not working the file?"

"No. Heard it through the grapevine."

Rodney controlled the grapevine rumors and gossip and knew more about OPD lawyers and their caseloads than Glenda, the Director. As they turned on W Street, Clay said, "You been to D Camp before?"

"Once or twice. It's for the hard cases, the last stop before the cemetery. Tough place, run by tough guys."

"You know a gentleman by the name of Talmadge X?"

"No."

There was no sidewalk circus to wade through. Clay parked in front of the building and they hurried inside. Talmadge X was not in, some emergency had taken him to a hospital. A colleague named Noland introduced himself pleasantly and said he was the head counselor. In his office, at a small table, he showed them Tequila Watson's file and invited them to look through it. Clay thanked him, certain that it had been purged and cleaned up for his benefit.

"Our policy is that I stay in the room while you look through the file," Noland explained. "If you want copies, they're twenty-five cents each."

"Well, sure," Clay said. The policy was not going to be negotiated. And if he wanted the entire file he could snatch it at any time with a subpoena. Noland took his place behind his desk, where an impressive stack of paperwork was waiting. Clay began leafing through the file. Rodney took notes.

Tequila's background was sad and predictable. He had been admitted in January, referred from Social Services after being rescued from an overdose of something. He weighed 121 pounds and was five feet ten inches tall. His medical exam had been conducted at D Camp. He had a slight fever, chills, headaches, not unusual for a junkie. Other than malnourishment, a slight case of the flu, and a body ravaged by drugs, there was nothing else remarkable, according to the doctor. Like all patients, he had been locked down for the first thirty days and fed continually.

According to entries made by TX, Tequila began his slide at the age of eight when he and his brother stole a case of beer off a delivery truck. They drank half and sold half, and with the proceeds bought a gallon of cheap wine. He'd been kicked out of various schools and somewhere around the age of twelve, about the time he discovered crack, he'd dropped out altogether. Stealing became a way of survival.

His memory worked until the crack use began, so the last few years were a blur. TX had followed up on the details and there were letters and e-mails confirming some of the official stops along the miserable trail. When he was fourteen, Tequila had spent a month in a substance abuse unit of the D.C. Youth Detention Center. Upon his release, he went straight to a dealer and bargained for crack. Two months in Orchard House, a notorious lockdown facility for teens on crack, did little good. Tequila admitted to TX that he consumed as many drugs inside "OH" as he had on the outside. At sixteen, he was admitted to Clean Streets, a no-nonsense abuse facility very similar to D Camp. A stellar performance there lasted for fifty-three days, then he walked away without a word. TX's note said "... was high on crack within 2 hrs. of leaving." The juvenile court ordered him to a summer boot camp for troubled teens when he was seventeen, but security was leaky and he actually made money selling drugs to his fellow campers. The final effort at sobriety, before D Camp, had been a program at Grayson Church, under the direction of Reverend Jolley, a well-known drug counselor. Jolley sent a letter to Talmadge X in which he expressed the opinion that Tequila was one of those tragic cases that was "probably hopeless."

As depressing as the history was, there was a remarkable absence of violence in it. Tequila had been arrested and convicted five times for burglary, once for shoplifting, and twice for misdemeanor possession. Tequila had never used a weapon to commit a crime, at least not one that he had been nabbed for. This had not gone unnoticed by TX, who, in one entry on Day 39 said, "... has a tendency to avoid even the slightest threat of physical conflict. Seems truly afraid of the bigger ones, and most of the small ones too."

On Day 45, he was examined by a physician. His weight was a healthy 138. His skin was clear of "... abrasions and lesions." There were notes about his progress in learning to read, and his interest in art. As the days passed, the notes became much shorter. Life inside D Camp was simple and grew to be mundane. Some days passed with no entries at all.

The entry on Day 80 was different: "He realizes he needs spiritual guidance from above to stay clean. He can't do it alone. Says he wants to stay in D Camp forever."

Day 100: "We celebrated the hundredth day with brownies and ice cream. Tequila made a short speech. He cried. He was awarded a two-hour pass."

Day 104: "Two-hour pass. He left, returned in twenty minutes with a popsicle."

Day 107: "Sent to the post office, gone almost an hour, returned."

Day 110: "Two-hour pass, returned, no problem."

The final entry was Day 115: "Two-hour pass, no return."

Noland was watching as they neared the end of the file. "Any questions?" he asked, as if they had consumed enough of his time.

"It's pretty sad," Clay said, closing the file with a deep breath. He had lots of questions but none that Noland could, or would, answer.

"In a world of misery, Mr. Carter, this indeed is one of the saddest. I am rarely moved to tears, but Tequila has made me cry." Noland was rising to his feet. "Would you like to copy anything?" The meeting was over.

"Maybe later," Clay said. They thanked him for his time and followed him to the reception area.

In the car, Rodney fastened his seat belt and glanced around the neighborhood. Very calmly he said, "Okay, pal, we got us a new friend."

Clay was watching the fuel gauge and hoping there was enough gas to get back to the office. "What kinda friend?"

"See that burgundy Jeep down there, half a block, other side of the street?"

Clay looked and said, "So what?"

"There's a black dude behind the wheel, big guy, wearing a Redskins cap, I think. He's watching us."

Clay strained and could barely see the shape of a driver, race and cap indistinguishable to him. "How do you know he's watching us?"

"He was on Lamont Street when we were there, I saw him twice, both times easing by, looking at us but not looking. When we parked here to go in, I saw the Jeep three blocks back that way. Now he's over there."

"How do you know it's the same Jeep?"

"Burgundy's an odd color. See that dent in the front fender, right side?"

"Yeah, maybe."

"Same Jeep, no doubt about it. Let's go that way, get a closer look."

Clay pulled onto the street and drove past the burgundy Jeep. A newspaper flew up in front of the driver. Rodney scribbled down the license plate number.

"Why would anyone follow us?" Clay asked.

"Drugs. Always drugs. Maybe Tequila was dealing. Maybe the kid he killed had some nasty friends. Who knows?"

"I'd like to find out."

"Let's not dig too deep right now. You drive, and I'll watch our rear."

They headed south along Puerto Rico Avenue for thirty minutes and stopped at a gas station near the Anacostia River. Rodney watched every car as Clay pumped fuel. "The tail's off," Rodney said when they were moving again. "Let's go to the office."

"Why would they stop following us?" Clay asked. He would have believed any explanation.

"I'm not sure," Rodney said, still checking his side mirror. "Could be that they were only curious as to whether we went to D Camp. Or maybe they know that we saw them. Just watch your tail for a while."

"This is great. I've never been followed before."

"Just pray they don't decide to catch you."

Jermaine Vance shared an office with another unseasoned lawyer who happened to be out at the moment, so Clay was offered his vacant chair. They compared notes on their most recent murder defendants.

Jermaine's client was a twenty-four-year-old career criminal named Washad Porter, who, unlike Tequila, had a long and frightening history of violence. As a member of D.C.'s largest gang, Washad had been severely wounded twice in gun battles and had been convicted once of attempted murder. Seven of his twenty-four years had been spent behind bars. He had shown little interest in getting cleaned up; the only attempt at rehab had been in prison and had been clearly unsuccessful. He was accused of shooting two people four days before the Ramon Pumphrey killing. One of the two was killed instantly, the other was barely clinging to life.

Washad had spent six months at Clean Streets, locked down and evidently surviving the rigorous program there. Jermaine had talked to the counselor, and the conversation was very similar to the one Clay had had with Talmadge X. Washad had cleaned up, was a model patient, was in good health, and gathering self-esteem every day. The only bump in the road had been an episode early on when he sneaked out, got stoned, but came back and begged for forgiveness. Then he went almost four months with virtually no problems.

He was released from Clean Streets in April, and the next day he shot two men with a stolen gun. His victims appeared to have been selected at random. The first was a produce deliveryman going about his business near Walter Reed Hospital. There were words, then some pushing and shoving, then four shots to the head, and Washad was seen running away. The deliveryman was still in a coma. An hour later, six blocks away, Washad used his last two bullets on a petty drug dealer with whom he had a history. He was tackled by friends of the dealer who, instead of killing him themselves, held him for the police.

Jermaine had talked to Washad once, very briefly, in the courtroom during his initial appearance. "He was in denial," Jermaine said. "Had this blank look on his face and kept telling me that he couldn't believe he'd shot anybody. He said that was the old Washad, not the new one."

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