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Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows.
RICHARD II, ACT 2, SCENE 3
Kent "Mac" McClain checked the time on the grandfather clock that faced him impassively from the far corner of his walnut-paneled law office. The old clock was an antique inherited from his mother's side of the family and worked perfectly as long as the weights and chains were kept in proper tension. As a child, Mac would lie in bed and listen to the old clock's solemn announcement of each passing hour from its spot in the foyer of his parents' home. Many years later he cleared a place for it in the corner of his office; however, the clock's loud striking every quarter-hour disrupted meetings with clients, so Mac disabled the chiming mechanism. Now, except for a steady ticking, the ivory face with its large, black Roman numerals kept a silent, closed-lipped vigil.
It was almost 5:00 P.M. In a few minutes the office staff would pass through the reception room door and go home for the weekend. He would be alone.
His neatly combed brown hair was heavily streaked with gray, but Mac was in better than average physical shape for age fifty-six. Just under six feet, he only weighed twenty-five pounds more than when he graduated from law school at the University of Georgia, and he could still spend an afternoon hiking in the mountains east of Dennison Springs. But he couldn't take total credit for his good physical condition; it was genetic.
He'd also inherited his father's dry wit and his mother's compassionate brown eyes. Mac still maintainedhis wit, now a facade he hid behind, but it had been a long time since he felt compassion for another's pain. He hadn't blinked away tears for someone else's sorrow in years.
He heard the front door close and slowly poured a beer into the cold mug sitting on the corner of his desk. Except for Friday afternoons, he never drank at the office. Friday afternoons were different. On Fridays he didn't drink to mask the malaise he carefully concealed from the eyes of the world. Rather, he renewed a ritual from a happier time, a thirty-five-year-old tradition begun on crisp autumn Fridays during college days in Athens, Georgia. Mac lived in a fraternity house his senior year, and as soon as classes were finished for the week, he would take an iced mug from the refrigerator, carefully pour a beer, sit on the front porch in a rocking chair, and watch the traffic go by on Milledge Avenue. But today was different. Today was no celebration.
His heart beating a little faster than normal, he opened the bottom left drawer of his desk and took out the Colt .45 pistol issued to his father during World War II.
At the beginning of the war, the standard side arm for military officers was a six-shot Smith and Wesson .38 revolver, but the ferocity of the Japanese soldiers in the Pacific forced the American military to rethink its strategy. In close combat, a .38-caliber shell might wound a charging infantryman, but it did not have sufficient mass to knock him down. The arms makers answered with a more potent weapon, and when Mac's father made the shift from head of the trust department for a local bank to captain in the U.S. Army, he acquired the drab olive weapon that now rested on his son's desk.
Mac snapped out the clip. One by one, he extracted the bullets and lined them up like polished sentries on the edge of the dark wood. Bullets were small objects that could have devastating and deadly effect, especially when fired directly into the human skull at close range.
Opening the narrow middle drawer of the desk, he took out a bottle of prescription pain pills. In some ways, pills and bullets were remarkably similar. Of course, the pills were intended to relieve pain; bullets were designed to inflict it. But for Mac's purposes, bullets or pills would serve the same purposeto end his suffering, once and for all. Mac shook the bottle. It was full.
How many of the potent pain relievers would it take? Half a bottle? Three-quarters? It wouldn't be that difficult to take them all. And then what would happen? Dizziness? Sleepiness? Nothingness?
Mac had not been able to decide which would be the best method of deathbullet or pill. Each had its advantages. There was something masculine about a bullet to the brain. Messy, but manly. Pills were more suitable for Hollywood starlets who discovered that bright lights and fame were just another path into the black hole of depression and despair. But pills were tidy; no hair need be disturbed, and whoever found him wouldn't have to deal with a horrific death scene. Mac's sense of decency and decorum argued for the pain relievers. His desire for swift certainty drew him toward one of the shiny metal sentinels. The issue remained undecided.
The phone on his desk buzzed. Startled, he set down the pill bottle, knocking over some of the bullets.
"Who is it?" he barked into the receiver.
"Judge Danielson on line one," his secretary answered.
Stepping back from the edge of the cliff, Mac brushed the bullets into his hand. "I'll take it, Judy. I thought you'd gone home."
"I wanted to finish the first draft of the Morgan brief. I'll be going in a few minutes. Have a good weekend."
"Uh, thanks. You, too."
Mac punched the phone button. "Hello, Judge."
"Glad I caught you before you started your weekend. Do you still have a cold one every Friday?"
"I'm looking at it as we speak." Mac held the phone to his ear with his shoulder, snapped the clip back into the gun, and returned it to its place in the desk drawer.
"Come over to the courthouse," the judge said. "I need to talk to you."
"What is it?" he asked. "I'm off duty."
"Just come. I'll explain when you get here."
"Can it wait until Monday?"
"No," the judge said simply.
Mac sighed. "Give me five minutes."
"Thanks. See you then."
Mac put the phone receiver back in its cradle. His hands slightly sweaty, he held the pill bottle up between his fingers. He resented the interruption of the judge's call. He was getting closer to a verdict in the hidden trial raging within the dark brooding of his soul. Life or death. Bullet or pill. He knew he didn't have to go to the courthouse; he could continue the secret trial interrupted by the judge's call. But the spell was broken; the jury deciding his fate would have to continue its deliberations at a later date.
* * *
Mac buttoned the top button on his shirt and straightened his silk tie. Grabbing a blank yellow legal pad, he locked the front door of the small, red-brick house he'd converted into an attractive law office and began the short walk to the courthouse. One of the advantages of practicing law in a town like Dennison Springs was convenience. The courthouse, the offices of the three major law firms, and two of the main banks were all close-by. Unless it was raining or bitter cold, he would often hand-deliver legal papers or go to the bank to make a deposit as an excuse to take a walk.
Mac knew every tree, stray blade of grass, and crack in the sidewalk along the way. He crossed the street and climbed the wide steps of the Echota County Courthouse. Built as a project of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, the large, square, red-brick building with its silver domed roof would not win any architectural awards, but it had a certain crude charm. Surrounded on three sides by long rows of crepe myrtles, it was wreathed in purple for a few glorious months in late summer.
The ground floor contained the office for the clerk of court, the probate judge, and a large vault where the deed records were stored. Except when he had to go to the clerk's office to file papers, Mac rarely stayed on the first level of the building. Climbing the worn steps, he went upstairs to the main courtroom with its high ceiling and tall windows that provided a spectacular view of the southern Appalachians. Mac didn't need to "See Rock City," the mountaintop tourist trap in Chattanooga. He could take in the panorama of the mountains free of charge every time he went to court. During the past thirty years, he had witnessed every nuance of the changing seasons on the distant hills from the courtroom vantage point. This afternoon, the pale yellows, oranges, and reds of mid-October dominated the view.
The courtroom was laid out like a miniamphitheater. The floor sloped gradually downward from the back of the room to a level area where the jury box directly faced the elevated judge's bench and witness stand. When trying a case, the lawyers sat on opposite sides of the jury, and everybody had a clear view of those called to testify.
* * *
Judge William L. Danielson was three years younger than Mac. Short and stocky, he was raised on a pecan farm in middle Georgia and moved to Dennison Springs after graduating from Mercer Law School in Macon. For the next fifteen years, he practiced corporate and commercial law as an associate and partner with one of the "big three," the law firms in town with more than five attorneys. During his years in private practice, Bill Danielson and Mac only squared off in court on one occasion. Mac won.
* * *
Judge Danielson's chambers were to the right of the bench where he presided. Mac walked into the office suite and knocked on the wooden frame of the open door.
"Come in and have a seat, Mac." The judge motioned toward a pair of wooden armchairs across from his light-colored oak desk. "I need your help."
Mac sat and waited.
Holding up a single sheet of paper, the judge said, "I'll get to the point. This is an order appointing you to represent Peter Thomason."
Mac's jaw dropped. "What! I haven't tried a major criminal case in years."
"I have a good reason"
"Gene Nelson is public defender," Mac interrupted. "He handles these types of cases."
"Take it easy," the judge lifted his hand. "Gene called me an hour ago. He has a conflict. The pathologist from Atlanta who tested the defendant's blood for drugs is Gene's new brother-in-law. The man is certain to testify as an expert witness and will have to be cross-examined by Thomason's lawyer. If there is a conviction, I can't risk a habeas corpus from a smarty-pants lawyer down the road based on ineffective assistance of counsel."
"But why me?" Mac asked, slumping back in his chair.
"Because it involves the Hightower family," the judge said slowly. "Who else could do it?"
Mac didn't answer. Peter Thomason was charged with murder. But it wasn't a sordid domestic killing or the result of a botched drug deal. The victim was nineteen-year-old Angela Hightower, the only child of Alexander and Sarah Hightower, the most influential family in Dennison Springs.
A friend of Mac's once suggested that the Echota County Chamber of Commerce should sell bumper stickers that read, "Dennison Springs, Georgia. Owned and Operated by Hightower & Co." Alex Hightower's ancestors were among the first settlers in the area after Andrew Jackson ordered the U.S. Army to remove the Cherokee Indians from northwest Georgia and march them along the "Trail of Tears" to Oklahoma in the 1830s. By 1880, the Hightower family had built the first textile mill, chartered the first bank, and controlled the First Methodist Church. During the next hundred years, their economic interests expanded beyond the boundaries of Dennison Springs, and the family moved seventy-five miles south to Atlanta. But they kept strong ties to the area and spent a month each summer at the family estate on the edge of town. Hightower money was the backbone of several major business ventures in the area, and no local lawyer in his right mind did anything to antagonize them. No lawyer, that is, except Mac.
"I see," Mac said. "You don't know a young lawyer who would take the case without caring about the consequences?"
"Do you?" the judge responded.
Mac mentally ran down the list of possibilities and shook his head. "None with any criminal defense experience."
"I can't appoint someone who's handled a few nolo pleas in traffic court to a murder case."
Mac shrugged. "It's been awhile. The last major criminal case I handled was"
"State versus Jefferson," the judge interrupted. "Three and a half years ago. You tried the case for three days to a hung jury. The D.A.'s office decided to nol-pros the charges and turn him loose."
Mac suppressed a slight smile. "You didn't think he was guilty, either, did you?"
"No comment. My point is that under the Sixth Amendment Thomason deserves quality representation."
"And you don't want to jeopardize another young lawyer's career by asking him to defend the man who may have murdered the Hightowers' daughter."
"Right." The judge leaned forward and picked up the order. "Even though you're an officer of the court, I'm not going to make you do this."
Mac raised his eyebrows. "I can refuse?"
"Yes. Consider it over the weekend and call me Monday morning."
"Does Thomason know about the conflict of interest?"
"Gene Nelson is going to talk to him this evening."
"Fair enough." Mac got up to leave. "I'll let you know first thing on Monday."
"One other matter," the judge said. "I understand Alex Hightower has hired Joe Whetstone from Atlanta to act as special prosecutor."
"Really? Bringing in the big guns for the execution."
"It will be a challenge."
"And you think I want a challenge?" Mac asked.
The judge shook his head. "You don't have to prove anything to me, Mac."
Mac stepped to the open door. "Will the county pay for an investigator and expert witnesses?"
"Anything within reason. I'll try to get it for you."
Mac walked down the steps of the courthouse. He'd read articles about the murder in the local newspaper. It would be a difficult case to handle. The Hightowers would spare no expense to obtain a conviction. Hiring Joe Whetstone as special prosecutor was just one step. The Atlanta lawyer would be supported by a cadre of associates, an army of paralegals, and the best investigators and expert witnesses money could buy.
Forgetting about the bullets, the pills, and his beer, he crossed the street. With each step, the secret, dark thoughts of his own death retreated. Thoughts about another man whose life hung in the balance before the eyes of everyone in Echota County took their place.
she said yes
the unlikely martyrdom of cassie bernall
By misty bernall
A Thomas Nelson Company
Copyright © 1999 Misty Bernall. All rights reserved.