About the Book

The Office of the Public Defender is not known as a training ground for bright young litigators. Clay Carter has been there too long, and, like most of his colleagues, dreams of a better job in a real firm. When he reluctantly takes the case of a young man charged with a random street killing, he assumes it is just another of the many senseless murders that hit Washington D.C. every week.

As he digs deeper into his client’s background, Clay stumbles upon a conspiracy too horrible to believe. He suddenly finds himself in the middle of a complex case against one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, looking at an enormous settlement that would totally change his life – a settlement that would make him, almost overnight, the legal profession’s newest king of torts …



About the Book

About the Author

Also by John Grisham

Title Page

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Author’s Note


This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorized distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

Epub ISBN 9781407059136
Version 1.0
Published by Arrow Books 2007
9 10 8
Copyright © Belfry Holdings, Inc 2003
John Grisham has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in Great Britain in 2003 by Century
Arrow Books
Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road,
London SW1V 2SA
Arrow Books is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at
The Random House Group Limited Reg. No. 954009
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN 9780099416173

About the Author

John Grisham lives with his family in Virginia and Mississippi. His novels are A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Client, The Chamber, The Rainmaker, The Runaway Jury, The Partner, The Street Lawyer, The Testament, The Brethren, A Painted House, Skipping Christmas, The Summons, The King of Torts, Bleachers, The Last Juror, The Broker, Playing for Pizza, The Appeal and The Associate. He is also the author of one work of non-fiction The Innocent Man.

Also available by John Grisham
A Time to Kill
The Firm
The Pelican Brief
The Client
The Chamber
The Rainmaker
The Runaway Jury
The Partner
The Street Lawyer
The Testament
The Brethren
A Painted House
Skipping Christmas
The Summons
The King of Torts
The Last Juror
The Broker
Playing For Pizza
The Associate
The Appeal
The Innocent Man

Chapter 1

The shots that fired the bullets that entered Pumpkin’s head were heard by no less than eight people. Three instinctively closed their windows, checked their door locks, and withdrew to the safety, or at least the seclusion, of their small apartments. Two others, each with experience in such matters, ran from the vicinity as fast if not faster than the gunman himself. Another, the neighborhood recycling fanatic, was digging through some garbage in search of aluminum cans when he heard the sharp sounds of the daily skirmish, very nearby. He jumped behind a pile of cardboard boxes until the shelling stopped, then eased into the alley where he saw what was left of Pumpkin.

And two saw almost everything. They were sitting on plastic milk crates, at the corner of Georgia and Lamont in front of a liquor store, partially hidden by a parked car so that the gunman, who glanced around briefly before following Pumpkin into the alley, didn’t see them. Both would tell the police that they saw the boy with the gun reach into his pocket and pull it out; they saw the gun for sure, a small black pistol. A second later they heard the shots, though they did not actually see Pumpkin take them in the head. Another second, and the boy with the gun darted from the alley and, for some reason, ran straight in their direction. He ran bent at the waist, like a scared dog, guilty as hell. He wore red-and-yellow basketball shoes that seemed five sizes too big and slapped the pavement as he made his getaway.

When he ran by them he was still holding the gun, probably a .38, and he flinched just for a instant when he saw them and realized they had seen too much. For one terrifying second, he seemed to raise the gun as if to eliminate the witnesses, both of whom managed to flip backward from their plastic milk crates and scramble off in a mad flurry of arms and legs. Then he was gone.

One of them opened the door to the liquor store and yelled for someone to call the police, there had been a shooting.

Thirty minutes later, the police received a call that a young man matching the description of the one who had wasted Pumpkin had been seen twice on Ninth Street carrying a gun in open view and acting stranger than most of the people on Ninth. He had tried to lure at least one person into an abandoned lot, but the intended victim had escaped and reported the incident.

The police found their man an hour later. His name was Tequila Watson, black male, age twenty, with the usual drug-related police record. No family to speak of. No address. The last place he’d been sleeping was a rehab unit on W Street. He’d managed to ditch the gun somewhere, and if he’d robbed Pumpkin then he’d also thrown away the cash or drugs or whatever the booty was. His pockets were clean, as were his eyes. The cops were certain Tequila was not under the influence of anything when he was arrested. A quick and rough interrogation took place on the street, then he was handcuffed and shoved into the rear seat of a D.C. police car.

They drove him back to Lamont Street, where they arranged an impromptu encounter with the two witnesses. Tequila was led into the alley where he’d left Pumpkin. ‘Ever been here before?’ a cop asked.

Tequila said nothing, just gawked at the puddle of fresh blood on the dirty concrete. The two witnesses were eased into the alley, then led quietly to a spot near Tequila.

‘That’s him,’ both said at the same time.

‘He’s wearing the same clothes, same basketball shoes, everything but the gun.’

‘That’s him.’

‘No doubt about it.’

Tequila was shoved into the car once again and taken to jail. He was booked for murder and locked away with no immediate chance of bail. Whether through experience or just fear, Tequila never said a word to the cops as they pried and cajoled and even threatened. Nothing incriminating, nothing helpful. No indication of why he would murder Pumpkin. No clue as to their history, if one existed at all. A veteran detective made a brief note in the file that the killing appeared a bit more random than was customary.

No phone call was requested. No mention of a lawyer or a bail bondsman. Tequila seemed dazed but content to sit in a crowded cell and stare at the floor.

Pumpkin had no traceable father but his mother worked as a security guard in the basement of a large office building on New York Avenue. It took three hours for the police to determine her son’s real name – Ramón Pumphrey – to locate his address, and to find a neighbor willing to tell them if he had a mother.

Adelfa Pumphrey was sitting behind a desk just inside the basement entrance, supposedly watching a bank of monitors. She was a large thick woman in a tight khaki uniform, a gun on her waist, a look of complete disinterest on her face. The cops who approached her had done so a hundred times. They broke the news, then found her supervisor.

In a city where young people killed each other every day, the slaughter had thickened skins and hardened hearts, and every mother knew many others who’d lost their children. Each loss brought death a step closer, and every mother knew that any day could be the last. The mothers had watched the others survive the horror. As Adelfa Pumphrey sat at her desk with her face in her hands, she thought of her son and his lifeless body lying somewhere in the city at that moment, being inspected by strangers.

She swore revenge on whoever killed him.

She cursed his father for abandoning the child.

She cried for her baby.

And she knew she would survive. Somehow, she would survive.

Adelfa went to court to watch the arraignment. The police told her the punk who’d killed her son was scheduled to make his first appearance, a quick and routine matter in which he would plead not guilty and ask for a lawyer. She was in the back row with her brother on one side and a neighbor on the other, her eyes leaking tears into a damp handkerchief. She wanted to see the boy. She also wanted to ask him why, but she knew she would never get the chance.

They herded the criminals through like cattle at an auction. All were black, all wore orange coveralls and handcuffs, all were young. Such waste.

In addition to his handcuffs, Tequila was adorned with wrist and ankle chains since his crime was especially violent, though he looked fairly harmless when he was shuffled into the courtroom with the next wave of offenders. He glanced around quickly at the crowd to see if he recognized anyone, to see if just maybe someone was out there for him. He was seated in a row of chairs, and for good measure one of the armed bailiffs leaned down and said, ‘That boy you killed. That’s his mother back there in the blue dress.’

With his head low, Tequila slowly turned and looked directly into the wet and puffy eyes of Pumpkin’s mother, but only for a second. Adelfa stared at the skinny boy in the oversized coveralls and wondered where his mother was and how she’d raised him and if he had a father, and, most important, how and why his path had crossed that of her boy’s. The two were about the same age as the rest of them, late teens or early twenties. The cops had told her that it appeared, at least initially, that drugs were not involved in the killing. But she knew better. Drugs were involved in every layer of street life. Adelfa knew it all too well. Pumpkin had used pot and crack and he’d been arrested once, for simple possession, but he had never been violent. The cops were saying it looked like a random killing. All street killings were random, her brother had said, but they all had a reason.

On one side of the courtroom was a table around which the authorities gathered. The cops whispered to the prosecutors, who flipped through files and reports and tried valiantly to keep the paperwork ahead of the criminals. On the other side was a table where the defense lawyers came and went as the assembly line sputtered along. Drug charges were rattled off by the Judge, an armed robbery, some vague sexual attack, more drugs, lots of parole violations. When their names were called, the defendants were led forward to the bench, where they stood in silence. Paperwork was shuffled, then they were hauled off again, back to jail.

‘Tequila Watson,’ a bailiff announced.

He was helped to his feet by another bailiff. He stutter-stepped forward, chains rattling.

‘Mr Watson, you are charged with murder,’ the Judge announced loudly. ‘How old are you?’

‘Twenty,’ Tequila said, looking down.

The murder charge had echoed through the courtroom and brought a temporary stillness. The other criminals in orange looked on with admiration. The lawyers and cops were curious.

‘Can you afford a lawyer?’


‘Didn’t think so,’ the Judge mumbled and glanced at the defense table. The fertile fields of the D.C. Superior Court Criminal Division, Felony Branch, were worked on a daily basis by the Office of the Public Defender, the safety net for all indigent defendants. Seventy percent of the docket was handled by court-appointed counsel, and at any time there were usually half a dozen PDs milling around in cheap suits and battered loafers with files sticking out of their briefcases. At that precise moment, however, only one PD was present, the Honorable Clay Carter II, who had stopped by to check on two much lesser felonies, and now found himself all alone and wanting to bolt from the courtroom. He glanced to his right and to his left and realized that His Honor was looking at him. Where had all the other PDs gone?

A week earlier, Mr Carter had finished a murder case, one that had lasted for almost three years and had finally been closed with his client being sent away to a prison from which he would never leave, at least not officially. Clay Carter was quite happy his client was now locked up, and he was relieved that he, at that moment, had no murder files on his desk.

That, evidently, was about to change.

‘Mr Carter?’ the Judge said. It was not an order, but an invitation to step forward to do what every PD was expected to do – defend the indigent, regardless of the case. Mr Carter could not show weakness, especially with the cops and prosecutors watching. He swallowed hard, refused to flinch, and walked to the bench as if he just might demand a jury trial right there and then. He took the file from the Judge, quickly skimmed its rather thin contents while ignoring the pleading look of Tequila Watson, then said, ‘We’ll enter a plea of not guilty, Your Honor.’

‘Thank you, Mr Carter. And we’ll show you as counsel of record?’

‘For now, yes.’ Mr Carter was already plotting excuses to unload this case on someone else at OPD.

‘Very well. Thank you,’ the Judge said, already reaching for the next file.

Lawyer and client huddled at the defense table for a few minutes. Carter took as much information as Tequila was willing to give, which was very little. He promised to stop by the jail the next day for a longer interview. As they whispered, the table was suddenly crowded with young lawyers from the PD’s office, colleagues of Carter’s who seemed to materialize from nowhere.

Was this a setup? Carter asked himself. Had they disappeared knowing a murder defendant was in the room? In the past five years, he’d pulled such stunts himself. Ducking the nasty ones was an art form at OPD.

He grabbed his briefcase and hurried away, down the center aisle, past rows of worried relatives, past Adelfa Pumphrey and her little support group, into the hallway crammed with many more criminals and their mommas and girlfriends and lawyers. There were those in OPD who swore they lived for the chaos of the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse – the pressure of trials, the hint of danger from people sharing the same space with so many violent men, the painful conflict between victims and their assailants, the hopelessly overcrowded dockets, the calling to protect the poor and ensure fair treatment by the cops and the system.

If Clay Carter had ever been attracted to a career in OPD, he could not now remember why. In one week the fifth anniversary of his employment there would come and go, without celebration, and, hopefully, without anyone knowing it. Clay was burned out at the age of thirty-one, stuck in an office he was ashamed to show his friends, looking for an exit with no place to go, and now saddled with another senseless murder case that was growing heavier by the minute.

In the elevator he cursed himself for getting nailed with a murder. It was a rookie’s mistake; he’d been around much too long to step into the trap, especially one set on such familiar turf. I’m quitting, he promised himself; the same vow he had uttered almost every day for the past year.

There were two others in the elevator. One was a court clerk of some variety, with her arms full of files. The other was a fortyish gentleman dressed in designer black – jeans, T-shirt, jacket, alligator boots. He held a newspaper and appeared to be reading it through small glasses perched on the tip of his rather long and elegant nose; in fact, he was studying Clay, who was oblivious. Why would someone pay any attention to anyone else on this elevator in this building?

If Clay Carter had been alert instead of brooding, he would have noticed that the gentleman was too well dressed to be a defendant, but too casual to be a lawyer. He carried nothing but a newspaper, which was somewhat odd because the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse was not known as a place for reading. He did not appear to be a judge, a clerk, a victim, or a defendant, but Clay never noticed him.

Chapter 2

In a city of 76,000 lawyers, many of them clustered in megafirms within rifle shot of the U.S. Capitol – rich and powerful firms where the brightest associates were given obscene signing bonuses and the dullest ex-Congressmen were given lucrative lobbying deals and the hottest litigators came with their own agents – the Office of the Public Defender was far down in the minor leagues. Low A.

Some OPD lawyers were zealously committed to defending the poor and oppressed, and for them the job was not a stepping-stone to another career. Regardless of how little they earned or how tight their budgets were, they thrived on the lonely independence of their work and the satisfaction of protecting the underdog.

Other PDs told themselves that the job was transitory, just the nitty-gritty training they needed to get launched into more promising careers. Learn the ropes the hard way, get your hands dirty, see and do things no big-firm associate would ever get near, and someday some firm with real vision will reward the effort. Unlimited trial experience, a vast knowledge of the judges and the clerks and the cops, workload management, skills in handling the most difficult of clients – these were just a few of the advantages PDs had to offer after only a few years on the job.

OPD had eighty lawyers, all working in two cramped and suffocating floors of the District of Columbia Public Services Building, a pale, square, concrete structure known as The Cube, on Mass Avenue near Thomas Circle. There were about forty low paid secretaries and three dozen paralegals scattered through the maze of cubbyhole offices. The Director was a woman named Glenda who spent most of her time locked in her office because she felt safe in there.

The beginning salary for an OPD lawyer was $36,000. Raises were minuscule and slow in coming. The most senior lawyer, a frazzled old man of forty-three, earned $57,600 and had been threatening to quit for nineteen years. The workloads were staggering because the city was losing its own war on crime. The supply of indigent criminals was endless. Every year for the past eight Glenda had submitted a budget requesting ten more lawyers and a dozen more paralegals. In each of the last four budgets she had received less money than the year before. Her quandary at the moment was which paralegals to terminate and which lawyers to force into part-time work.

Like most of the other PDs, Clay Carter had not entered law school with the plan of a career, or even a brief stint, defending indigent criminals. No way. Back when Clay was in college and then law school at Georgetown his father had a firm in D.C. Clay had worked there part-time for years, and had his own office. The dreams had been boundless back then, father and son litigating together as the money poured in.

But the firm collapsed during Clay’s last year of law school, and his father left town. That was another story. Clay became a public defender because there were no other last-second jobs to grab.

It took him three years to jockey and connive his way into getting his own office, not one shared with another lawyer or paralegal. About the size of a modest suburban utility closet, it had no windows and a desk that consumed half the floor space. His office in his father’s old firm had been four times larger with views of the Washington Monument, and though he tried to forget those views he couldn’t erase them from his memory. Five years later, he still sat at his desk at times and stared at the walls, which seemed to get closer each month, and asked himself how, exactly, did he fall from one office to the other?

He tossed the Tequila Watson file on his very clean and very neat desk and took off his jacket. It would have been easy, in the midst of such dismal surroundings, to let the place go, to let the files and papers pile up, to clutter his office and blame it on being overworked and understaffed. But his father had believed that an organized desk was a sign of an organized mind. If you couldn’t find something in thirty seconds, you were losing money, his father always said. Return phone calls immediately was another rule Clay had been taught to obey.

So he was fastidious about his desk and office, much to the amusement of his harried colleagues. His Georgetown Law School diploma hung in a handsome frame in the center of a wall. For the first two years at OPD he had refused to display the diploma for fear that the other lawyers would wonder why someone from Georgetown was working for minimum wages. For the experience, he told himself, I’m here for the experience. A trial every month – tough trials against tough prosecutors in front of tough juries. For the down-in-the-gutter, bare-knuckle training that no big firm could provide. The money would come later, when he was a battle-hardened litigator at a very young age.

He stared at the thin Watson file in the center of his desk and wondered how he might unload it on someone else. He was tired of the tough cases and the superb training and all the other crap that he put up with as an underpaid PD.

There were six pink phone message slips on his desk; five related to business, one from Rebecca, his longtime girlfriend. He called her first.

‘I’m very busy,’ she informed him after the required initial pleasantries.

‘You called me,’ Clay said.

‘Yes, I can only talk a minute or so.’ Rebecca worked as an assistant to a low-ranking Congressman who was the chairman of some useless subcommittee. But because he was the chairman he had an additional office he was required to staff with people like Rebecca who was in a frenzy all day preparing for the next round of hearings that no one would attend. Her father had pulled strings to get her the job.

‘I’m kinda swamped too,’ Clay said. ‘Just picked up another murder case.’ He managed to add a measure of pride to this, as if he were honored to be the attorney for Tequila Watson.

It was a game they played: Who was the busiest? Who was the most important? Who worked the hardest? Who had the most pressure?

‘Tomorrow is my mother’s birthday,’ she said, pausing slightly as if Clay was supposed to know this. He did not. He cared not. He didn’t like her mother. ‘They’ve invited us to dinner at the club.’

A bad day just got worse. The only response he could possibly give was, ‘Sure.’ And a quick one at that.

‘Around seven. Coat and tie.’

‘Of course.’ I’d rather have dinner with Tequila Watson at the jail, he thought to himself.

‘I gotta run,’ she said. ‘See you then. Love you.’

‘Love you.’

It was a typical conversation between the two, just a few quick lines before rushing off to save the world. He looked at her photo on his desk. Their romance came with enough complications to sink ten marriages. His father had once sued her father, and who won and who lost would never be clear. Her family claimed origins in old Alexandria society; he’d been an Army brat. They were right-wing Republicans, he was not. Her father was known as Bennett the Bulldozer for his relentless slash-and-burn development in the Northern Virginia suburbs around D.C. Clay hated the sprawl of Northern Virginia and quietly paid his dues to two environmental groups fighting the developers. Her mother was an aggressive social climber who wanted her two daughters to marry serious money. Clay had not seen his mother in eleven years. He had no social ambitions whatsoever. He had no money.

For almost four years, the romance had survived a monthly brawl, the majority of them engineered by her mother. It clung to life by love and lust and a determination to succeed regardless of the odds against it. But Clay sensed a fatigue on Rebecca’s part, a creeping weariness brought on by age and constant family pressure. She was twenty-eight. She did not want a career. She wanted a husband and a family and long days spent at the country club spoiling the children, playing tennis, doing lunch with her mother.

Paulette Tullos appeared from thin air and startled him. ‘Got nailed, didn’t you?’ she said with a smirk. ‘A new murder case.’

‘You were there?’ Clay asked.

‘Saw it all. Saw it coming, saw it happen, couldn’t save you, pal.’

‘Thanks. I owe you one.’

He would have offered her a seat, but there were no others in his office. There was no room for chairs and besides they were not needed because all of his clients were in jail. Sitting and chatting were not part of the daily routine at OPD.

‘What are my chances of getting rid of it?’ he said.

‘Slim to impossible. Who you gonna dump it on?’

‘I was thinking of you.’

‘Sorry. I got two murder cases already. Glenda won’t move it for you.’

Paulette was his closest friend inside the OPD. A product of a rough section of the city, she had scratched her way through college and law school at night and had seemed destined for the middle classes until she met an older Greek gentleman with a fondness for young black women. He married her and set her up comfortably in North West Washington, then eventually returned to Europe, where he preferred to live. Paulette suspected he had a wife or two over there, but she wasn’t particularly concerned about it. She was well-off and seldom alone. After ten years, the arrangement was working fine.

‘I heard the prosecutors talking,’ she said. ‘Another street killing, but questionable motive.’

‘Not exactly the first one in the history of D.C.’

‘But no apparent motive.’

‘There’s always a motive – cash, drugs, sex, a new pair of Nikes.’

‘But the kid was pretty tame, no history of violence?’

‘First impressions are seldom true, Paulette, you know that.’

‘Jermaine got one very similar two days ago. No apparent motive.’

‘I hadn’t heard.’

‘You might try him. He’s new and ambitious and, who knows, you might dump it on him.’

‘I’ll do it right now.’

Jermaine wasn’t in but Glenda’s door, for some reason, was slightly open. Clay rapped it with his knuckles while walking through it. ‘Got a minute?’ he said, knowing that Glenda hated sparing a minute with anyone on her staff. She did a passable job running the office, managing the caseloads, holding the budget together, and, most important, playing the politics at City Hall. But she did not like people. She preferred to do her work behind a locked door.

‘Sure,’ she said abruptly, with no conviction whatsoever. It was clear she did not appreciate the intrusion, which was exactly the reception Clay had expected.

‘I happened to be in the Criminal Division this morning at the wrong time, got nailed with a murder case, one I’d rather pass on. I just finished the Traxel case, which, as you know, lasted for almost three years. I need a break from murder. How about one of the younger guys?’

‘You beggin’ off, Mr. Carter?’ she said, eyebrows arched.

‘Absolutely. Load up the dope and burglaries for a few months. That’s all I’m asking.’

‘And who do you suggest should handle the, uh, what’s the case?’

‘Tequila Watson.’

‘Tequila Watson. Who should get him, Mr. Carter?’

‘I don’t really care. I just need a break.’

She leaned back in her chair, like some wise old chairman of the board, and began chewing on the end of a pen. ‘Don’t we all, Mr. Carter? We’d all love a break, wouldn’t we?’

‘Yes or no?’

‘We have eighty lawyers here, Mr. Carter, about half of whom are qualified to handle murder cases. Everybody has at least two. Move it if you can, but I’m not going to reassign it.’

As he was leaving, Clay said, ‘I could sure use a raise if you wanted to work on it.’

‘Next year, Mr. Carter. Next year.’

‘And a paralegal.’

‘Next year.’

The Tequila Watson file remained in the very neat and organized office of Jarrett Clay Carter II, Attorney-at-Law.

Chapter 3

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 other 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.’


‘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?’


‘Was he stoned or drunk?’


‘Was he trash-talking, making threats, that kind of stuff?’

‘He was asleep.’



‘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 Ramón 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.


‘Did you rob him?’


‘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?’


‘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?’


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?’


‘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?’


‘Once a month?’


‘Twice a year?’


‘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 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?’


‘Were you clean when you shot Pumpkin?’

‘Yep. Still am. Hundred and sixteen days.’

‘You ever shot anybody before?’


‘Where’d you get the gun?’

‘Stole it from my cousin’s house.’

‘Is the Camp a lockdown place?’


‘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.

‘We’ll talk about it later.’

‘When can I get out?’

‘It might be a long time.’

Chapter 4

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?’


‘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?’


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?’