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Lawyer Tom McInnes returns to his hometown in Alabama to search for the men who killed his drug-dealing younger brother. In the process he gets to know his brother better than ever. A first novel.
Fall light angled low through the office window overlooking Mobile Bay, laying a bright trapezoid of sunlight across the floor. I had separated from Higgins & Thompson some six months before to get away from the billable-hour marathon. I succeeded admirably. I hadn't worked more than twenty hours any week since leaving the firm. It had begun to dawn on me that I was a lawyer, not a rainmaker.
This was not an original thought.
Last spring when I told Wilbur Thompson III, the managing partner, I was leaving, he smiled and said, "You won't make it. You're one of the smartest lawyers I've ever seen, but you're also a prick. Clients don't hire pricks. They hire nice guys who can supply them with pricks."
He paused to reach inside his coat and casually remove a black and gold fountain pen the size and shape of a cheap cigar and to admire the luster of the black barrel which, as he had mentioned on a dozen occasions, was made of "space-age polymers." He played with his three-hundred-dollar pen for a few seconds—a true thespian emoting disinterest—before he continued. "This firm has been your keeper. We give you cases, and our firm's reputation gets you clients. We stand on the golf course and tell CEOs what a smart, tough lawyer you are. We supply the meals. All you do is feed. All you do, Tom, is out-prick all the baby pricks."
Wilbur sat there looking at me over half glasses like he had just handed me the key to wisdom. I said, "Fuck you," and left.
On the way out, his secretary gave me an empathetic,I-guess-you-got-fired kind of look. I said, "Do you think we should tell him that space-age polymer is plastic?"
She didn't smile.
It was six months later, the last Thursday morning in September, when Kelly buzzed me. "Your mother is on line one. She sounds awful."
"Have you met my father?"
I picked up the receiver and punched a blinking acrylic button. "Hi there."
"Is something wrong?"
"It's your brother. They found him in the river near the lake house. He's dead, Tom."
"I don't know everything. Your father won't tell me."
"Let me talk to him. Is he at work?"
"I don't know where he's gone. You know how he is. Sam is probably out cussing the rescue squad for waiting till Hall was dead to find him."
When I didn't respond, she added in her soft mother's voice, "I'm sorry. That came out bad. Dr. Pearson has given me something, and I'm a little fuzzy. I want you here. I know you're busy starting your own firm, but I think I need you here as soon as you can."
"Mom, I'm on my own. I'm not starting a firm, and if I were you know I'd still come. Hall's been jerking all of us around for ten years, but I love him as much as you do."
I said, "Are you okay? I mean, I know you're not, but—"
She interrupted. "Tom, I'll be okay. Like I said, Dr. Pearson has given me something to help, and Mabel's here to look after me." She paused before going on. "Sam won't say it, but we both need you here. There's a lot that's wrong about all this. Even more wrong, I mean, than it looks like now."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know exactly. As I said, Sam hasn't told me everything."
"When is the funeral?"
"I'll be there tomorrow morning. Goodbye, Mom. I love you."
My lips and cheekbones started to go numb as I lifted my suit coat from the door hook and left the office. On the way by Kelly's desk, she asked if something was wrong.
"Call Dan Smitherman and tell him my brother just died and the Scrimscher case won't try next week. Call Judge Varner and tell him the same thing, then draft a motion for a continuance and sign my name to it."
"That's not funny, Tom."
In the elevator, the numbness seemed to spread to my hands and feet. I found my Jeep in the parking deck, got in, and wondered momentarily where to go. Outside, I found my way through town, crossed Polecat Bay, and took I-10 to the coast highway, where I rolled down the windows, and headed south toward Point Clear.
The autumn wind felt cool. Ocean smell filled the world, and in less than an hour I pulled onto the familiar crunch of the white gravel drive at home. Inside the beach house, I left my suit, shirt, and boxers on the bedroom floor, pulled on canvas shorts, and walked across the sand to feel cold waves on my feet before running a few steps and diving into a rolling swell. It was late in the year, and the sudden cold made my stomach tighten. I began to pull through the water, raising my head to the left every fourth stroke to inhale before blowing out into water. After fifty yards the numbness gave way to warm blood, and I slowed to a steady rhythm. Two hundred yards out, I stopped moving and floated upright like a fishing cork. The swell gently lifted and lowered me as waves rolled in from somewhere out in the Gulf of Mexico and lost momentum inside the bay.
In my memory, Hall and I had half grown up in the water. Not in the Gulf, but in swirling river water the color of rust. We swam in it, pulled bass, crappie, and catfish out of it, skied on it, and now Hall, somehow, had been killed by it. Even clearer in my mind than the gray and green swells around me, I could see Hall at seven or eight years old, bobbing in muddy water behind Sam's gold and white ski boat. Hall had turned as dark as our mother's Creek ancestors, as he always did in summer. Early afternoon sun glinted off the small hard muscles in his shoulders and off the knuckles of his small fists as he clenched the plastic handles of the nylon rope. Invisible beneath the dirty water, a white strip of foam rubber circled his waist and kept him afloat. Hall was always more strong than agile until he stopped growing in high school, and that afternoon he was having trouble learning to ski. He was having more trouble than Sam thought any son of his should have, and Sam had been dragging Hall behind the boat, through one failed attempt after another, for the better part of an hour. I could see Hall trying not to cry, trying not to let our father down. I wanted to help him. I told Sam that Hall looked too tired to get up. Sam looked disgusted. "Look at him, Tom. See his eyes? Big as saucers. He's scared. He'll get over it. He quits being scared, he'll get up."
I wanted to defend my brother, who had been tougher that afternoon than I thought he could be. All I could think of to say was, "Hall isn't scared." Sam ignored me. I watched as Hall braced himself to be dragged through another hundred feet of water. I was only ten or eleven, and I could see that nobody, not even someone who could already ski, could pull up after being repeatedly snatched through the river for an hour. Sam was right about one thing, though. Hall's eyes were big. White showed all around his dark irises. I knew the look. Hall wasn't scared, except maybe of Sam. He was trying not to cry, and I was mad. "He's not scared. He's tired. He needs to get in the boat."
Sam said something about us acting like a couple of little girls all day. Like a child, I threw something across the stern of the boat. Sam turned sideways in the vinyl captain's chair to lock eyes with me. He just said, "Fine," and turned the boat hard to head back toward Hall, who was too tired to pull himself out of the river. I grabbed a small, slick arm and pulled. Hall was halfway in when he slipped and fell back. Sam stepped out of the captain's chair and walked back to the side where Hall bobbed in the current. Hall was worn out, and he was looking up into Sam's face for something—for approval or encouragement or just about anything to not feel like he had let him down. Sam reached over the side and picked Hall up in one hand, grabbing him by his forearm and lifting him into the boat like a hooked fish.
We waited for Sam to say something. He didn't. He left Hall alone, and we headed back to the dock. Hall sat cross-legged on the seat next to the outboard motor and shivered inside a light blue towel. Finally, unable to hold on any longer, tears began to roll down his sunburned cheeks. Sam didn't speak to either of us again that afternoon. He dropped us off at home and drove away, probably to check on his sawmill.
I shook off the memory.
To the south, cumulus clouds met the horizon and stood out in perfect contrast to the sky like a Steve Graber charcoal. I watched the shore, the horizon, the clouds for a long time before turning toward shore. As always, the gentle crosscurrent brought me out a couple of hundred yards south of my piece of beach. I sat there for an hour on someone else's sand. The wind grew cold and the sky gray before I stood to go home.
A hot shower washed away the salt and cold. Wrapped in a terry cloth robe, I sat on the deck eating cold grilled shrimp out of a Ziploc bag and drinking warm Glenfiddich. By nine o'clock I was filled with an overwhelming sense of relief and joy. Two hours later a dark weight began to lower.
It had been almost two years since I had seen Hall, when Mom had been able to talk through all our excuses, wear us down, and bring the family together for Thanksgiving. And it started out pretty bearable. We watched football and had drinks and everything was fine until the big meal when Sam decided to motivate Hall by comparing his life to mine. Thinking back, even then, there seemed to have been undercurrents that I was unaware of.
Sam began by teasing Hall about his girlfriend, who lived with Hall but had not been invited to dinner, and then worked his way into Hall's "academic career." Sam sarcastically asked, "How many quarters were you at Patrick Henry Junior College, Hall?" Hall didn't answer. I ignored Sam, and Mom tried to talk about something else. Sam had a few drinks in him. He went on. "Managed to maintain a C-minus average at that institution of higher learning for two quarters. Isn't that about right?"
Sam couldn't get anyone to play. A cloud of silence settled over the table, and Sam decided on another tack. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to pick on you, son. But sooner or later, you're going to have to get your act together. Got to quit chasing trailer-park girls and trying to make a living betting on football games."
Enough was enough. I pushed back from the table and looked at Sam. I said something the whole family had heard Sam say all our lives about foolish drunks. "If a man can't hold his liquor, he shouldn't be drinking." Sam flushed red, stood up, and walked out of the room. Mom followed. I could hear them arguing on the front porch. I looked at Hall and said, "Don't worry about him."
Hall stretched to reach across the table for a basket of rolls. He said, "I don't."
It dawned on me that Hall seemed to be the only one at the table who had not been bothered by what Sam had said. During Sam's diatribe, Hall had never stopped eating, and his expression had never changed. Hall hadn't been hiding his feelings about Sam. He didn't have any. The realization scared me. I wanted to talk to my brother about it, but Hall had gone to a very cold place. And I didn't know what to say about that.
Now he was gone. I looked out across the black expanse of Mobile Bay and cried for my little brother until I passed out in a deck chair.
At daybreak the sun brought me around. I walked carefully into the kitchen with each step sending echoes of pain from neck to temples. Following the remedy we used in college, I washed down three aspirins with a sixteen-ounce Coke and went to bed. At nine, the phone rang. Kelly told my machine that Judge Varner's law clerk called to extend condolences and let me know the continuance had been granted. I got up a few minutes later and forced down a quart of water to replace fluids taken by salt water and Scotland's oldest distillery, then fell back into bed. I lay there for another hour in an uncomfortable tangle of terry cloth bathrobe until I heard tires on the gravel driveway. A few seconds later the front door opened and closed, and I headed downstairs, finally wide awake. I found Kelly in the kitchen standing on tiptoe trying to reach a couple of glasses on the top shelf of the cabinet next to the sink.
I said, "Good morning," and she turned to look at me. Kelly stands about five-two in bare feet and might weigh a hundred pounds with sand in her pockets. She has black hair, cut too short for my taste, bright blue eyes, and a complexion that has never seen a freckle, much less a blemish or wrinkle. Kelly is a few years younger than I am. She runs five miles a day—considerably more in the fall when she trains for the New York Marathon—and she looks it. On the counter next to her left hip sat two plates of pancakes, each garnished with twin sausage patties. Next to the plates lay three Styrofoam breakfast trays from McDonald's.
She said, "Can you hand me down a couple of those juice glasses?"
I smiled. "You know, we could just drink out of the paper cups from McDonaldland."
"No way. I came out here to do something nice for you. I can't cook, so we're going for presentation."
I walked over and handed the short glasses to Kelly. She stood there with her elbows resting on slender hips, holding an empty glass in each small hand. She searched my face with her eyes, then asked, "Are you okay?"
"It wasn't a great night."
"I know. It's a stupid question."
"It's the same one I asked my mother when she called yesterday."
Kelly stepped forward and, still clutching the empty juice glasses, hugged me hard around my rib cage. When she let go, she said, "Grab the plates and sit down. I've just got to pour the juice. I put on a pot of real coffee after I got here, by the way."
"You were meant to be. Go. And do something about that robe."
I picked up the breakfast plates. "I always thought I looked pretty cute in this robe."
She turned toward the counter and said, "Yeah, but if it falls open another two inches, I'm going to find out some things that a secretary just doesn't need to know about her boss."
I turned and walked very quickly out of the kitchen.
Over breakfast, I told Kelly as much as I knew about Hall's death. She agreed that it was going to take more than a weekend to settle things, and she said she'd clear my calendar for the next few days. I promised to call as soon as I knew when I'd be able to get back to my life in Mobile.
Less than an hour after she left, I was showered, packed, and driving north on I-65 to attend my only brother's funeral.
Thirty miles north of the Gulf of Mexico I pulled onto an off ramp, turned left under the four lane, and headed due north along a narrow stretch of blacktop as the interstate pulled away to the northeast toward Montgomery and Atlanta. Soon the flat coastal plains began to roll, and the road curved more and more often to move over and around the land. Creeks large enough to be called rivers in New England cut back and forth across the road, requiring a bridge every few miles. Soybean fields, cow pastures sprinkled with brown and white Herefords, and dense stands of timber passed by. Occasionally, an anachronistic field of cotton floated past as the road descended into bottomland. Almost a hundred miles from my beach house in Point Clear, I passed a wooden sign cluttered with the seals and insignias of the Civitans, the Kiwanis Club, the American Legion, and the Fighting Wildcats. All of them officially joined in extending a civic-minded welcome to anyone who stumbled across the city limits of Coopers Bend, Alabama.
I took a few minutes to drive around the courthouse square and along Magnolia, the main drive, before turning toward the house where Hall and I grew up. My father's house sprawls across a hilltop overlooking the town and, more important, overlooking his sawmill. Out of twelve thousand residents, a thousand make their livings, one way or another, from the mill. I pulled the Jeep around the circular driveway and onto a cement pad next to the carport where I had parked my old Chevy in high school. Inside, my mother was sitting in the atrium surrounded by greenery and smelling of bourbon and cigarettes. A copy of Redbook fell from her lap as she rose to kiss me, smearing my neck and cheek with tears.
"How are you, Mom?"
"I'm not too good."
"He's at the mill. He wanted you to come down there as soon as you got here."
"I'll stay with you. He can see me when he gets home."
"No, Tom. It's okay. I'm fine as long as I know you're here to take care of things. You know how he is."
"Yeah, I know how he is. He's a bastard. I came here to be with you. I'll stay with you, and he can see me when he sees me."
Her eyes focused on my face for the first time. "I don't need to hear that now. And we both know he's not the only bastard in this family." She emphasized the word bastard, which seemed as foreign to her tongue as Serbo-Croatian would have been to mine. "I've got all I can handle. Just go down and talk to him. You're Hall's big brother. We all need you to act like it." She was being brave. Obviously and pointedly brave, but brave nonetheless. And she made her point that I was not.
"Don't be sorry." Her voice was soft but firm. "Just go meet with your father. I'll be here when you get back."
There's something about being in the house where you were a child, where your parents were gods, where adolescence and hormones later made it a territorial imperative to challenge those gods and to make temporary enemies of the people who gave you life and as much love as they were capable of feeling. It is odd that grown men, and I suppose women, revert to egocentric children in the place where they learned to be independent and self-sufficient by challenging and denying the love and authority of the flesh and souls that produced them.
I thought these completely unoriginal thoughts as I drove away feeling about thirteen years old.
The sawmill was not in the city limits. It lay on a rail spur about five miles from downtown. As I bumped over the railroad crossing and turned into the mill yard, the dirty, human beauty of the place struck me the way a littered, graffiti-covered strip of urban playground must strike those who have innocent memories of such places. Even the soot exhaled from triple smokestacks seemed picturesque and somehow graceful. Tall bundles of freshly cut yellow pine lumber stood in perfect order on a football-field-sized landing; men and women with kerchiefs and hard hats covering their heads slowly and deliberately operated large, loud, hand-crushing machinery so they could make payments on tract houses and pickup trucks; and stray dogs with razor ribs and rheumy eyes delicately sniffed bits of trash for scraps of ham sandwiches and Vienna sausage among greasy lunch sacks. The workers and the dogs always looked the same. They had looked the same since I was a little boy. The men and women who ran the machines, who hauled logs and lumber and trash, were powdered from head to toe with sawdust that clung to sweat-soaked clothes and salty faces and hair, with wooden dust that seemed the deadening opposite of the stuff that kept Peter Pan young and lighter than air. The dogs that dodged kicks throughout the day to search for scraps looked like the same part bird dog, part coonhound, part God-knows-what that had lived on the yard for as long as I could remember.
Lying along the town side of the property, in contrast to the dirty, sweat-drenched beauty of the mill, was an out-of-place strip of manicured green lawn separating a small asphalt parking area from the wooden building that housed my father's office. The afternoon was warm and humid. I parked in a space near the brick walk, left the Jeep unlocked, and walked into a wall of cold, artificial air as the front door swung open. I found myself facing a twenty-year-old girl with permed, straw-colored hair that had been sprayed and locked into a cresting wave above her tiny forehead.
"Mr. Tom. How you doing?" She used the Southern habit of putting Mr. in front of a first name to show respect coupled with familiarity. It's the way I addressed my father's friends as a child. Now the children of my married friends in Mobile call me by my first name, which always seems disrespectful until I try to think of why any particular respect is due. Social customs from childhood die hard.
"I'm fine. Is my father here?"
"I sure am sorry about your little brother. We all loved Hall."
"Thank you. I'm sorry, do I know you?"
"Naw. I was a baby when you left here. I just knew you were coming, and you look like your daddy."
"Thanks a lot."
"Mr. Sam's a good-looking old guy. I always thought he must have been a hunk when he was younger. Now I know."
"How about telling my father the hunk that I'm here."
"That's not what I meant. I meant—"
"This is a bad day. Please just tell him I'm here."
Her lower lip puckered like a child's as she picked up the phone. "Mr. Sam. He's here."
The office door opened and Sam filled the doorway. He was as tall as I, but much broader. The years had progressively softened and widened the shoulders that had made him an all-state fullback in high school. He had even played a little ball at Auburn. By the time I got to the same college, high school stars who were six feet and weighed one eighty sat in the stands and watched guys half again their size ram each other.
"Good to see you, Tom. Come in."
As much as I disliked hearing that I looked like the old man, I knew I was looking at exactly what I would look like in twenty-five years. I have the same sandy hair, the same copper eyes, and the same physical attitude.
We shook hands briefly. He walked behind his desk and sat down. "Want a Coke or a beer or something?"
"No. I'm fine."
He left me sitting there in silence for some time while he studied my face. The next thing he said was, "Let's go for a ride."
"I didn't come here to go for a ride. I want to know what happened to Hall. Mom doesn't know, which I think is pretty shitty, and I don't even know why, or if, he drowned. I know he liked to scuba dive in the river, which is beyond me since you can't see a goddamn thing three feet down in that muddy water. I just want to know, did he get caught in fishing line on the bottom, or did he run out of air at the wrong time, or did he just get drunk fishing with Zollie and fall in the river? It shouldn't be too complicated. Hall fucked up and drowned. I just want to know how he fucked up this time." I realized I was rambling and trying to act like a tough lawyer to impress my father and taking out my anger on a man who had just lost a son. And I didn't care.
Sam said, "Are you through?"
"If you tell me what happened to Hall we'll both be through."
"Tom, Hall didn't drown. He didn't live long enough. Somebody blew away part of his neck with a deer rifle. Looks like he was on the river when it happened, but he never drew another lungful of air or water after he was hit. Apparently some of his friends knew where he liked to go fishing. Once he'd gone missing, the rescue squad dragged the area for three days before they hooked him."
"Somebody shot him?"
"That's what I said."
"Do they think somebody was shooting at a deer on the bank?"
I could feel my face grow hot and flushed in the air-conditioned room. "Sam, this cryptic shit is getting old. Tell me what happened."
He did not respond. Once again, he just sat there studying my face. I was rising to leave when he finally said, "Hall was mixed up in some things that would kill your mother. I knew some of it before. Since we found out he was dead, I've found out a lot more. Looks like he was breaking the law in about a dozen different ways, got crossways with someone, and they killed him." He paused for a moment. "This is my place of business, and I'm not going to talk about it any more here. Now, do you want to go for a ride and talk about this like a grown man and figure out what to do about it, or do you want to go home to your mother?"
With that, he got up and walked out of the office and through the front door. I stood there for a moment trying to control my anger before I went out and got into his Blazer. We drove about ten minutes before I realized he was headed for the lake house. A few minutes after that, he began to calmly tell me about the man my little brother had become, and, for the first time, I began to listen.
Posted December 20, 2000
Tom McInnes isn't a quitter, but he couldn't take it anymore. He simply had to get out of the upscale, Mobile, Alabama lawfirm to which he'd pledged his soul. So he did, opting to save his sanity and what was left of his integrity by opening his own office. Shortly after setting up shop, he recieves a call from his father, telling him that his younger brother had been murdered. Not knowing what to expect, McInnes returns home to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding his brother's murder. What he uncovers is a viper's nest of trouble...with him in the dead center of it. The resulting story is a hellacious thriller put together by a master storyteller. One would never guess that this is Mike Stewart's first foray into the literary world. His characters sing and shine in every aspect, and his capabilities as a believable and deft writer are finely displayed in 'Sins...' The action races along, with nary a breath between scenes, with perfect execution. I found myself flipping pages faster than I could read practically, wanting to find out what happens next. All the way to the last word, Stewart holds you enthralled, like a voyeur at the scene of some heinous crime. Buy this today!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 7, 2000
Mike Stewart's debut novel is yet another tale of an independent-minded young attorney who is smarter, stronger, hipper, quicker, sexier... (add your own words here - the list goes on, ad nauseum) than anyone else in this sadly predictable story. Returning to his hometown after his younger brother's murder, attorney Tom McInnes finds himself virtually alone in trying to solve the mystery surrounding his brother Hall's death. No one else, including Tom's supposedly overbearing father, seems to care how or why Hall was murdered which, of course, leaves it all up to Tom to figure out. Throw in some low-life southern mafia types, a reluctant local cop, a hint that the dead brother was dealing drugs, add some sex for good measure, and you have all the ingredients needed for a Grisham wannabe bestseller. Unfortunately, character development is sorely lacking, leaving the reader stumbling through plot twists looking for somebody - anybody - worth caring about. The dialogue is stilted and the author's attempts at humor sound ridiculously contrived at best. This book beat watching the election returns, but I don't think Stewart should give up his day job just yet.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.