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Authors: Michael Malone

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BOOK: Time's Witness
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Coop Hall stepped around Percy; his face was a lot younger than his eyes. Hatless, he seemed indifferent to the weather; his close-cropped beard and hair glistened with rain. He shook his head at me slowly, scanned his eyes down the ruffled tuxedo shirt. “You don’t belong here.”

Jordan said, “Coop, please.”

He pulled away from her with a twitch of his arm. “What are you supposed to be, Mangum, fuckin’ police protection? We don’t need it. Why don’t you go do something for my brother? Why don’t you go figure out how—”

Rosethorn said, “Cooper!”

I said, “Isaac called me, okay? Listen, I know how you feel—”

Coop said, “Ha.” It wasn’t a laugh.

I nodded at him. “I meant, how you feel about me. Okay? I’m just trying to do my job…about these pickup trucks, didn’t the county sheriff send somebody over here with y’all?”

Isaac dismissed the sheriff with a swipe at the air. “He had two bozos drive by every now and again, but naturally they haven’t been back since before our visitors showed up.”

“Did these guys stop? Anybody see any weapons?”

Jack Molina wanted to take charge, but Coop cut him off, his breath steaming out in the cold. “Okay. They came twice, they didn’t stop, they threw a glass bottle—”

“Did you recognize anybody, anybody from that bunch that tangled with you back at the Trinity Church meeting?”

Molina pushed forward. “They were going too fast. They yelled out stuff like ‘Gas the nigger’—”

“And ‘Fuck the nigger lovers,’” Jordan added, her eyes bright and hard.

Coop winced with impatience. “So what? You think my mind's on filing some more complaints about what a few more chickenshit rednecks spew out of a truck window?!” He pointed at the prison looming over us. “Julian Lewis is in there with the warden right now! And I can’t find out if it's even about my brother or not. So, do
you
know, Mr. Police Chief?”

“No. I don’t know any more about it than you do.” I looked at Isaac Rosethorn. Hall walked away from us back toward the gate. The other vigilants followed him immediately, and Bubba Percy grabbed Molina, tugging him aside.

Isaac finally budged; he’d just been watching me and Coop. “Here's the bottle they threw. That makes it assault. Ron Rico rum, a pint. Disgusting.” He pulled a bent McDonald's milkshake cup out of his fat coat pocket and handed it to me; it was full of chunks of glass.

“I tell you what's disgusting, Isaac. The thought of you out in this weather drinking a milkshake.” I walked him back to my car and he pulled himself in, lifting his bad right leg with his hand.

Isaac Rosethorn's a fat old bachelor who's never done a thing to
deserve still being alive. Living in the South, his family had totally tossed away all the healthy habits of their race. When Isaac wasn’t eating spareribs or fried chicken wings, he was drinking bourbon; when he wasn’t napping on his worn-out couch, he was sucking on unfiltered Chesterfields, holding the smoke down until it puffed out of his wide mouth like steam from a train. I never could decide if his eccentricities were natural, or if he’d put them together out of all the books he must have read to get away from being a poor, fat, brainy Jewish boy in the South, when none of that was popular. But he’d eat lasagna for breakfast and cereal for supper; he’d wear a ratty wool tweed suit in July and sleep with his windows open in February. His career was built on his brilliance and ostentatious peculiarity, not to mention a spectacular head of white wavy hair, a voice dark as molasses, and eyes like a cocker spaniel's—all very effective in the courtroom. When I was younger, I’d tell him, “Get off your fat butt. You could be rich and famous!” He’d say, “Probably,” and go back to identifying weeds or birdcalls, or reading Rumanian poetry, or whatever weird fancy he’d dodged off into at the time.

“Ahhh, God.” A sigh rumbled down Rosethorn like an old elevator as he settled into the seat. “Poor Cooper hates you, still hates you.”

“No kidding. It's not exactly the way to get folks behind you.”

“So who are you, Dale Carnegie? What's this ‘Auto-Reverse’ mean?” he said, then he sneezed on my dashboard.

“Tapes, they play one side, then they play the other. Isaac, you’re too old, not to mention fat, to try dodging shotguns in the slush. Why are you out here?”

“Who said shotguns?” He checked his watch, then started through his soggy pockets, dropping crumpled papers and file cards on the seat, looking for his cigarettes. “Our lieutenant governor's now been in there forty-two minutes. That's his chauffeur over there in the stretch limo.”

“I figured. You know why?”

His round shoulders shrugged inside his overcoat. Then straightening a cigarette, he pointed it at the prison gate. “You know who carved those letters over the gate?” I glanced across at the deep Gothic incisions in the stone ledge: EUSTACHE P.
DOLLARD STATE PRISON.

He smiled, “W. O. Wolfe, Thomas Wolfe's father, that's who. Interesting, huh.”

“Yes, interesting.” Back by the fire, I saw Bubba was still cornering Jack Molina, or vice versa. I said, “Okay, Isaac, besides nobility and architectural tidbits, what are you up to? Yesterday you said you had to rewrite a petition for some District Court judge.”

“Mrs. Hall just drove it to Greensboro.”

“In this weather? She's too old to go to Greensboro in an ice storm. Why couldn’t Coop go himself? What's the matter with him, sending his mother!”

“God almighty, Cuddy, what's the matter with
you?
The main business here is not you and Cooper. The main business here is George.” He yanked off his hat and jerked his hands through the shaggy white hair. “Anyhow, that priest at St. Stephen's took her. I thought if maybe she drove all that way herself, personally,
especially
on a night like this. Judge Roscoe's an ignorant dotard, but he's sentimental.” Now he was looking for his box of kitchen matches. “Slim, I’ve got some bad news.”

“The governor already said no. Why didn’t you say so!”

But he shook his head. “No, nothing to do with that. Old Briggs Cadmean died a few hours ago.”

“Cadmean
died?
” I guess it surprised me, not just because I’d enjoyed tangling with the old bastard about his daughter, but because Cadmean
was
Hillston. Growing up in the east part of town, his smokestacks and sawtoothed mills were my skyline. The mills were where grown-ups’ paychecks came from, and Cadmean was the man who owned the mills. I wondered how Cadmean's daughter had felt when they called her, high on some western starry mountain, to tell her the news; or maybe all the while she’d been by his bed right here in Hillston, the past forgiven.

Isaac patted my knee absentmindedly. “Well, well, well, well. But he died in his sleep, and since he was so convinced he wasn’t mortal, it's nice he never found out he was wrong.”

“Whooo.” I rubbed my eyes fast. “Almost hard to believe he couldn’t work a deal on this one too. How’d you hear?”

“Professional courtesy. He kept a drawerful of lawyers by the bed. Could there be an ashtray hidden in all this machinery?”

I said, “It's a virgin. Those vile cigars are probably what killed Cadmean.”

“He was ninety-one. Why blame cigars?” Rosethorn fluttered his thick fingers down the ruffle on my rented tuxedo shirt. “Slim, hope he rests in peace, swine that he undeniably was. So, how was the Confederacy Ball? You leave a glass slipper, I hope?”

“If I did, it's still sitting on the steps, unless it got tromped under somebody's galoshes. Lord, Cadmean dead.” I looked toward all the squares of light in the black brick wall of Dollard Prison. The sleet had lightened to a drizzle of rain now. Jordan offered Coop a thermos cup of coffee that he didn’t want. I said, “Julian Lewis never showed at the dance, but I guess you already figured that. What else could he be here for but the Hall case?”

“Maybe.” He threw his cigarette out the window. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

“Maybe, wait and see? Jesus! And you jump all over me about forgetting the ‘main business.’ Seven years, I can’t get you interested that a racist judge and jury railroaded George Hall into—”

“It's not necessarily racist, Slim, to take exception to a white policeman's getting shot through the eye by a black assailant. Not
necessarily
racist. People have strong feelings about eyes.”

“I bet
you
could have pulled off self-defense.”

“With that jury? I don’t think so.”

“At least murder two, Isaac, manslaughter; not first degree. But, okay, you’re not interested. Then five weeks before the man's scheduled for execution, you suddenly volunteer to represent him—”

“The Hall Committee offered me a moderately substantial fee to represent him—”

“Don’t tell me about money, Isaac. Money's not worth dick to you. And don’t tell me about the Halls, and don’t even tell me about capital-J Justice. Tell me the
idea
you decided might be interesting.”

He smiled with a sweet bogus incomprehension. Over the decades, Isaac Rosethorn had been preserved not just by some alchemic mix of tobacco, alcohol, and animal fat, but by an avoidance of all major human emotions, except a cupidinous curiosity. Whenever I thought I’d detected in those deep round eyes some mild stirring of anger or envy or hurt, it always slid behind the cloud
of abstracted serenity now floating over his face. He took law cases because they “interested” him, variously outraging acquaintances both on the left and the right, who had decided he was one of them. A full pardon for George Hall wouldn’t have satisfied Isaac; what he wanted was a new trial. Stopping the execution was a necessary first step. I said, “‘Maybe’ what? Tell me.”

The spaniel pouches under his sad beautiful eyes crinkled. “Tell me, tell me, tell me, ever since you were a skinny kid with ears out to here. What kind of food did they have at this fancy dance?”

“Aww, shit.”

“Did you meet anybody you liked?”

“Isaac, you’ve been trying to find me the right girl since the day I met you.”

“Don’t exaggerate. You were five years old then.”

“Don’t you. I was nine.”

I’d met Isaac the day he’d tapped me on the shoulder in the drugstore and hired me to run to the library for some book nobody’d checked out since 1948, that I had to beat the dust out of like an eraser. For the next decade I ran to the courthouse for his messages and to the corner for his newspapers. Isaac Rosethorn never ran anywhere, or did much walking either. His right leg dragged a little—from polio, he said. Sometimes it seemed to work almost fine, sometimes it limped along downright pitifully—depending on the jury. He’d lived then where he lived now, in the Piedmont Hotel, and if he ever went any farther, he drove a Studebaker that I know an antique auto show would love to get its hands on. He went to visit his sister-in-law every Saturday, and every Sunday he went to the cemetery to visit somebody called Edith Keene who’d died at twenty and had “Gone to a Better Place,” which first I thought maybe meant that she’d had the sense to get out of Hillston—since a better place was where my daddy had always wished he could go, out of Hillston, “this armpit.”

Isaac said, “I hope you aren’t going to argue with me that your own efforts to find the right girl have been terribly successful.”

I said no, I wasn’t going to argue with him.

Outside the car, the drizzle had slowed, almost stopped. Behind us, Jordan West, checking the rain's pause with an upturned palm,
pulled thick white candles from her canvas purse, lit them in the fire, and passed them around to all the vigilants, who moved out in a line from under the gate ledge to take one each. Then they began singing, clapping the beat. “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around.” The guard in the cubicle, licking glaze from his fingers, clearing a circle of steam from the window-pane with his forearm, stood up to watch them. “Walking down that freedom road.” Their voices sounded eerie, disembodied, in the outdoor night.

Bubba Percy broke away from Molina and trotted up to my car, looking excited, his new Burberry trenchcoat flapping. When I rolled down the window, he stuck his head all the way inside. “That guy says Briggs Cadmean died! Tonight!” We nodded back at him. “And here I am all the fuck out here like an asshole!”

“That's strong, but factual,” I said. “Just stop eavesdropping on police business, and you won’t get led so far astray.” Behind the waves of Percy's auburn pompadour, I saw a second prison guard opening the long gate. A man walked out with an umbrella, raised it, then lowered it, then Julian Lewis stepped out behind him, tucking his scarf inside the velvet collar of his coat. As soon as they saw him, Coop's little group grabbed up their signs and ran over, chanting, “
Free George Hall! Free George Hall!

“Bubba,” I said, “on the other hand, eavesdropping just made your day. The lieutenant governor's about to give you an exclusive.” I turned his soft pink cheek with my forefinger. Percy spun around and took off, probably before he even believed Lewis was there. “Come on,” I told Isaac; but instead, settling his wide buttocks down in my upholstery, the old man pulled a bag of pistachio nuts out of his pocket. I walked off after Percy, who’d already wedged himself between Lewis and his assistant.

Like most of Justin's Dollard relations, Julian D. Lewis was good looking, personable, and not too bright—not dumb, just not bright; he was also as tan in December as he was in August because he represented the state at a lot of winter conferences in warm golf resorts. He was also polite, not to mention wanting to be governor himself if he could beat Andy Brookside, so when a newsman with a circulation of 110,000 asked him what he was doing at Dollard
Prison at midnight, he stopped to answer, though I could tell the circling crowd made him nervous: he kept his back to the limo and his eye on the guards by the gate.


Free George Hall!
” yelled the vigilants again.

Looking solemn, Lewis held his bronzed hand up, then combed it briskly through his hair, like he was revving a motor. “I’m here on behalf of the governor…to inform Warden Carpenter…that the governor has decided to grant…a stay of execution to the prisoner George Hall.”

BOOK: Time's Witness
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