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Thrust into a dirty political campaign and torn between his morals and his love ...
Thrust into a dirty political campaign and torn between his morals and his love for the wealthy and beautiful wife of an up-and-coming politician, Cuddy must uncover the secrets that lie in his own backyard.
From high-powered and elegant country club ballrooms to dark and dangerous bar room corners, Malone weaves a mystery of plot and place where the difference between good and evil and right and wrong sometimes become indistinct.
In Time's Witness, Michael Malone returns to North Carolina and the quiet town of Hillston, the setting of his internationally acclaimed novel Uncivil Seasons. There, Police Chief Cuddy Mangum and his blue-bloodied lieutenant Justin Savile V are up against a new challenge--of life and death.
George Hall was over in Vietnam trying hard not to get killed when the death penalty went out of fashion back home. That was 1967. At the time some kind folks thought we had us a moral revolution going that couldn't slip back; it was racing along the road to glory, chucking war and racism and sexism out the windows like roadside trash. These sweet Americans could no more imagine a backward slide than Romans could imagine their Forum was going to end up a cow pasture in something called the Dark Ages, much less a big litter box for stray cats tiptoeing through the condoms and cigarette butts.
So when I joined the Hillston police, everybody figured the death penalty was gone for good, like racks and thumbscrews. Turned out it was only gone for nine years, seven months, and fourteen days. Then a death row huckster told the state of Utah he wanted them to shoot him, and Utah had to fight off the volunteers eager to oblige, and the United States was back in the habit of killing people to stop people from killing people.
Nobody'd heard a word from the governor, so my state was still planning to kill George Hall at nine o'clock Saturday night. It used to be, before the moratorium, executions at Dollard State Prison were scheduled early in the morning. Then, after the Supreme Court changed its mind and told the state that capital punishment wasn't cruel and unusual after all, somebody over in the Raleigh legislature decided that on the other hand, it was cruel to make condemned prisoners sit up all night waiting to die at dawn, since studies showed that not too many of them could sleep. So they changed the time of death to midnight. But given the fact that our Haver County D.A., Mitchell Bazemore, held the national record for death penalty convictions (forty-four, so far, and still counting), before long the staff at Dollard starting protesting about the late hours—the doctor on call at the gas chamber had a daytime job in a clinic at Haver Power and Light—and eventually they scheduled executions for 9:00 P.M., or as close to it as they could manage.
George Hall was the first man I ever arrested in a homicide case. He was black, unemployed, and he shot an off-duty cop outside a bar in East Hillston. With the officer's own pistol. George was sitting on the sidewalk beside the gun when I happened to drive by. "I'm not running, just don't shoot!" was the first thing he said to me. His nose was still bleeding from where this particular off-duty cop had stuck his pistol in it. At the time, a fidgety toady named Van Fulcher was chief of police; he showed up fast, and relieved me of the case even faster—not because he was wild about either justice or Bobby Pym, the dead cop, but because whenever a case looked likely to interest anybody with a camera (and a black man shooting a white policeman was about as likely as you could get in the Piedmont Carolinas), Captain Fulcher suddenly felt the urge to take a personal interest: "Go hands on" was how he put it. So Fulcher went "hands on" in the Hall investigation, which was a short one. So was the trial. George had a court-appointed lawyer who tried to persuade him against pleading not guilty since he didn't think the jury would go for self-defense. This public defender wasn't a very bright guy, but he was right about that jury. While half-a-dozen witnesses said it certainly looked like self-defense to them, there having been a reasonable appearance of the necessity for deadly force on George's part to prevent his own immediate death or serious injury, not a one of these witnesses was white. The jury didn't even stay away long enough to order dinner. But, at the time, like I said, we all thought capital punishment was out of fashion for good, except in places like Iran and South Africa. Nevertheless, after three appeals and seven years on death row, George Hall was about to become Mitchell Bazemore's next victory on his way to the national record. Friday morning I told George's brother I never thought it could go this way, and George's brother told me to go fuck myself. Friday evening I went to a dance.
For ninety-six years running, on the Saturday before Christmas, the Hillston Club had held its annual Confederacy Ball. Every year the town's inner circle, which liked to refer to itself as "our number" or just "us," let a committee at the Club tabulate this "number" and send them creamy gilt-bordered invitations. The elected drove through North Hillston, where they all lived on windy roads, over to the Club, and there they two-stepped around a mildewed ballroom for a couple of hours, pretending it was 1861 and still possible they were going to win the War. The men grew mustaches and strapped on swords they claimed were inherited. The women ballooned out of BMWs in hoop skirts, with gardenias pinned to their hair. My information comes from Justin, who loved any excuse to dress up in a costume, and had a handmade gray brassy outfit looped with gold tassels that he frisked about in there every year.
Except this year. This year the entertainment committee had not only dropped the word Confederacy from their invitations, they'd changed the date from Saturday to Friday. A black man was scheduled to be executed at Dollard Prison on Saturday and there'd been considerable publicity regarding the case, because in the years George had waited on death row, his younger brother, Cooper Hall, had become a pretty well-known political activist with an instinct for what his enemies (and that was most of Hillston) called media manipulation. I'm not saying the Hillston Club acted out of worry over what Coop Hall could do with their planning to dance the Virginia reel while his brother was being gassed to death. The number'd been raised on good manners, and they were feeling genuinely queasy. Peggy Savile, Justin's mother and my source, made a motion to cancel the ball entirely, but after some "frosty" discussion the motion was defeated five to four in secret ballots that fooled no one. Still, even Judge Henry Tiggs, Retired, who'd once called an attorney with a sardonic black colleague up to his bench and drawled at him, "Get that nigrah out of my courtroom," even Judge Tiggs probably wasn't comfortable with the thought of stumbling through a waltz under the mistletoe at the exact same moment somebody he'd sentenced to death was paying his debt to society by inhaling for three or four minutes (up to six, if, like Caryl Chessman, he was determined not to breathe too deeply) the vapors from a sack of sodium cyanide eggs dropped into a little sulfuric acid.
So it was decided to move the dance to Friday, and unanimous to substitute black tie and formal gowns for the antebellum costumes, which undeniably had the smack of nostalgia for the Age of Slavery, or at least might give that tacky impression to people not of the number. That last included me, but the doorman didn't notice when I tugged Justin's invitation out of my rented tuxedo, laid it out on his open white glove, and strolled into the foyer, ducking a chandelier that burned real white candles.
Earlier, back at my bureau mirror in River Rise, I'd tried putting different hands in different pockets, looking for the nonchalant effect. Martha Mitchell was disgusted; Martha's this little more-or-less poodle I found dumped out, just a puppy, on Airport Road the day I got home from Vietnam; she had the deceased Mrs. Mitchell's nose and bangs, and she appeared to have been treated about the same by her relations. Since I knew the feeling, what with the Nixon gang dicking us both around in the worse way, I gave her a ride to Hillston, and we've been splitting Big Macs for years. So Martha, lying on my king-sized waterbed, lets go with this sigh while I'm practicing nonchalance at the bureau. She's a proud lady. Well, hey, here I am, youngest chief of a city this size in the whole South, modernized my department with some drastic innovations like computers, women, and blacks; dropped the crime rate 11.75 percent my first year, not to mention the crime rate inside the force—bribery, bigotry, and occasional mild brutality being the oldest favorites; with a half-column and my picture in Newsweek magazine stuck to my refrigerator door by a magnetized tiny pineapple. Scholar Cop is the headline on this piece: I'm going for a history Ph.D. at a slow pace.
So Martha squirmed on the waterbed, embarrassed for me, while I tried out one hand versus two in the slippery pockets of those rented trousers. I told her, "Honey, don't give me that Marxist wheeze. There's things about my life story you don't even know, so get your toenails out of my waterbed before I find you floating around in the closet." Martha's listened to my conversation a lot longer than my ex-wife Cheryl did; she's not much on repartee, but she hangs in there.
* * *
I decided on one hand, so that's how I walked into the Hillston Club ballroom, heading for the waltzy music and hum of voices, past a ceiling-high Christmas tree burning some more real white candles, past a blond beautiful drunk girl in a strapless red satin gown lying on a couch against the wall, her arm over her eyes, past Mr. Dyer Fanshaw trying to unhook his wife's stole from the catch on her necklace.
"Well, why, Chief Mangum, surprised to see you here." A.R. Randolph, short, stout, shrewd, and ignorant as a hog, was shoving toward me, one hand in his back vent, tugging his pants loose from the crease of his buttocks. These folks were so used to their Rhett & Scarlett rentals, they were having trouble with their own clothes. "Dammit." He jerked his head at the girl in red satin. "That's my damn granddaughter passed out on the damn couch and it's not even ten o'clock."
"Looks like she might be a real pretty girl when she's feeling better." We shook hands when he'd finished playing with his underwear. "Surprised to see me? Why's that, Atwater?" I let Randolph's Lions Club set up their October carnival in the HPD parking lot, so I called him Atwater and joked some circles around him. He got a kick out of it. He was more than twice my age and a hundred times my income, inherited the construction company that had built Haver University and just about everything else in Hillston, including the River Rise complex and the state-funded four-lane bridge over the Shocco River that you could play a full game of softball on without worrying about interference from traffic.
He stepped closer for confidentiality. "Figured they'd need you over at the state prison. What I hear is, the Klan's going there tonight and bust up that vigil. All those 'Save George Hall' nuts. That's what I hear."
"Well, now, rumors. A rumor's kind of like the flu bug. You don't know where it came from and you don't want to spread it around." I gave him my country grin. "Those Klan boys aren't as young as they used to be. They'll all be home watching HBO. It's too cold and messy out there for politics."
"I heard you had a tip they were going to hassle those pro-lifers tonight."
Luckily I was already grinning, so my laugh sounded friendly. "You got to keep up with the lingo, Atwater. Pro-lifers are the ones that are against killing fetuses, and for killing grown-ups. Whereas Coop Hall's group is anti-pro-capital punishment, and most of them anti-pro-lifers too. You with me?"
"Well, they're wasting their time, whatever they call themselves."
"Cuddy, the historical fact is, mankind has a right to protect ourselves against scum. And that's always the type that gets themselves executed."
"Um hum. Historical-wise, three popped right into my head. Socrates, Joan of Arc, and Jesus Christ. Talk about scumbags, whoowee!"
His plump face wrinkled. "Now hold up, Chief, if Christ hadn't been killed, we'd none of us be redeemed today."
"Well, you got me there, Atwater."
Neither one of us was looking at the other one during this chitchat. He was watching his friend Dyer Fanshaw still trying to detach his wife from her stole while she ignored him and hugged everyone who walked close enough. I was looking over Randolph's head into the ballroom to try to spot either the man I'd told myself I was coming to see, or the lady I'd told myself I didn't care if I saw or not. The man was Julian Lewis, once attorney general, now lieutenant governor, hoping to move up another step. The lady was Mrs. Andrew Brookside, wife of the man Lewis was running against. Except when I knew her best she wasn't married; she was still in her teens and her name was Lee Haver.
One wall of this ballroom was glass doors; each one had its own wreath. In front of them, tables floating with white linen stretched along, crowded with crystal punch bowls, beds of oysters in their shells, and platters of tiny ham biscuits. Every four feet, a waiter stood waiting to tilt a glass ladle of champagne punch into any receptacle held up in his vicinity. (Some members had obviously lost patience with their little crystal cups and had moved on to water glasses.) The waiters were the only black people I saw in the room, except for the mayor, the mayor's wife, the president of Southeast Life Insurance Company, and half the band, which sat on a little dais behind shiny red shields draped with holly garlands and labeled The Jimmy Douglas Orchestra. The band was pumping through "The Anniversary Waltz" (maybe celebrating a near-century of these affairs), but only about fifty couples were dancing (or forty-nine; I don't know what old Judge Tiggs and his wife were doing, maybe the tango, or maybe one of them was trying to leave the floor and the other one didn't want to). The rest of the guests looked like they were scared to lose their places in the punch line.
"You know Dyer Fanshaw?" Randolph tugged me toward the couple.
"Let me take a wild guess. Does he own Fanshaw Paper Company?"
"Chief, you kill me. Dyer, will you leave that woman alone and say hello to our chief of police? You see him in Newsweek last month?"
"Cuddy Mangum," I said, just as Mrs. Fanshaw broke loose, tossed me a fast hello, and rushed into the party.
"Everything under control?" Fanshaw asked while we shook hands.
"Personally or criminally?"
"Mangum kills me," Randolph explained. "He means the George Hall business, Chief. Don't you, Dyer?"
Dyer did, so we talked awhile about whether the governor would stay Hall's death sentence (they didn't think he would), and whether there'd be a riot at Dollard Prison between the vigilants protesting execution and the enthusiasts demanding it. I explained why I had my doubts. "First of all, it's freezing rain out there, which discourages philosophical debate, and second"—I shared a little of the inside track—"I talked to Warden Carpenter an hour ago, and the place is quiet as an opium den. I talked to the FBI, which pays about two-thirds of the dues at our local Knights of the KKK, and they don't have a plan rattling around in their heads. And I talked to somebody working with the George Hall vigil and she says they can't get Action News to come, which they surely could if there was a hundred-to-one shot of even a poke in the eye, much less blood in the dirt."
My business leaders were relieved and disappointed, and tickled to be in the know. Then they talked for a while about how Governor Wollston could follow his heart since he wasn't up for reelection, and about whether Andy Brookside had made a mistake resigning the presidency of Haver University to run on the Democratic ticket, since—even if he was a war hero married to a billionairess—having an assistant campaign manager like that Jack Molina mouthing off against capital punishment was going to kill him in the polls; not that they cared—they were Republicans and loved to see Democrats beat in their own heads with their own baseball bats. I asked if Brookside was here tonight and they said, sure, he went every place there were more than a dozen voters penned up in a room with only one exit.
Then some more stocky financial spokes of the inner circle herded around us. A lot of this group I knew by name, but we weren't exactly what you'd want to call golf partners. I recognized a bank, a towel company, a "Hot Hat" barbecue franchise (all the roofs had red neon pigs tipping top hats), and a lot of real estate. Most of these men looked like their bow ties were choking them. The bank (still growing the mustache he'd started for the reclassified Confederacy Ball) jumped right into the George Hall business with the interesting theory that the problem with capital punishment these days was that it wasn't cruel enough. "Listen here, it's painless! They put you the hell to sleep, come on! In the old days, they'd flay you alive, burn you—you'd think twice."
Excerpted from time's witness by Michael Malone. Copyright © 2002 Michael Malone. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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Michael Malone is the literate and compassionate voice of the new American South. Critically acclaimed as one of the country's finest writers, his great gift for crafting remarkable and enduring comedies, as he did in Handling Sin, Dingley Falls and Foolscap, is matched only by his ability to deliver riveting suspense and mystery. Now, after a long absence, Michael Malone has returned to the scene of the crime. He has also come home to the South. He now lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina, with his wife, Maureen Quilligan, chair of the English department at Duke University.
Posted February 11, 2004
This is one of the most chilling books I have ever read about the death penalty and its links to class and race, especially in the South. Malone is great writer. The novel moves very quickly through a complicated plot. The characters are wonderful. Cuddy is one of those police chiefs we wish existed everywhere: thoughtful, balanced, and fair. The other characters, especially Isaac Rosethorn and Justin Saville, are equally fascinating. Malone really knows and understands the complexity of the South.
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This is an exceptional thriller. The characters are engaging. The plot unfolds at the perfect pace.
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