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A Cass Jameson Mystery
By Carolyn Wheat
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 Carolyn Wheat
All rights reserved.
I thought she was dead.
I hoped she was dead.
But she was very much alive, too damned much alive, and her thin, nervous face stared at me from the front pages of every newspaper on the Court Street kiosk.
Jan was back. She'd been working at a Wal-Mart in Emporia, Kansas. One day she left work early and drove to Kansas City, where she walked into the FBI office in the federal building and turned herself in.
That night, Jan was the lead story on all three national newscasts. Fugitive Captured: Woman who fled murder charges in 1982 lives underground for almost fifteen years. "I never knew," says boyfriend. "She was the nicest clerk in the store," proclaims Wal-Mart manager. "I always suspected there was something," landlady announces. "She never got any mail. Not even catalogues."
Not even catalogues. Jan had fled to where not even L. L. Bean could follow.
I watched in fascination, flipping through all my channels to catch a glimpse of the exact same footage of cops marching Jan toward a waiting police van as the announcer repeated the charge: wanted for the shooting death of a federal agent in 1982.
She wore a long dress with a tiny flower print and a stretched-out cardigan. Given the Indian summer temperatures, I assumed she was dressed to cope with the Wal-Mart air conditioning.
Face, dress, sweater all would have looked at home in a Depression photograph by Walker Evans.
I studied the face. It was the same Jan face, thin, intense, slightly mad. Darting eyes, a tendency to hang her head and gaze at the world through a curtain of limp hair. The hair was auburn, not the mouse-brown I remembered; I guessed at an over-the-counter dye job, not certain whether she'd done it as a disguise or just a middle-aged flight of fancy.
Do fugitives from justice care about covering that gray?
Once upon a long, long time ago, Jan and I had been foot soldiers in Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. In the summer of '69, we'd helped organize migrant farm workers into a union and gotten ourselves arrested. We'd been young, idealistic, insufficiently worried about consequences. The difference between us: I'd grown up and she hadn't.
Jan was back. On the way to court the next morning, I scooped up a copy of every paper on the newsstand. I'd need them in order to explain to the Honorable Harold "the Toop" Feldman exactly why I wasn't going to be picking a jury in his courtroom.
The Toop wore the absolutely worst hairpiece ever seen in the borough of Brooklyn, which was saying a great deal. On the outside, he resembled every pudgy, nerdy little guy who still lived in his old bedroom in his parents' house in Sheepshead Bay. But this particular nerd had graduated second in his class at Columbia Law School and clawed his way onto the bench by sheer willpower. People might laugh at Harry the Toop behind his back, but he demanded and got deferential respect in his courtroom.
He did not grant adjournments lightly. Hell, he didn't grant adjournments at all. The courthouse still buzzed over the time he'd given Kathy Malone the morning to bury her husband's mother, demanding that she show up ready to try her case after the lunch recess. She'd dabbed at her eyes with a sodden Kleenex every few minutes, but she'd conducted a passible voir dire.
The Toop was not going to be pleased when I told him I absolutely, positively had to be in federal court in Ohio by two o'clock. This afternoon.
Jan was back, and that meant my brother Ron faced federal charges for the things he and Jan had done together in 1982. At the time, he and Jan had shared the same lawyer, but now, with her facing a murder charge, I wanted to be there in person, handling his case.
My Brooklyn client waited for me in the hallway outside the courtroom. He was a natty little black man of sixty-something. Pops, his neighbors called him. Sometimes he showed up in court with his twentysomething girlfriend and their four-month-old daughter, but today he'd come alone. He sported a hat with a bright green feather, which complemented his shiny, moss-colored Lawrence Welk suit. He was not unhappy to learn that his case might be put off; things didn't look good for him, and every day he spent out of jail with his wife and child was a blessing.
The judge was another matter.
"This case is ready for trial, Ms. Jameson," he said testily. "And I see no reason why it shouldn't be tried today. Whatever matters you may have pending out-of-state will just have to wait."
"This matter can't wait, Your Honor," I replied. I was uncomfortably aware that the urgency in my voice was dangerously close to the surface.
I took a deep yoga breath and willed myself to relax. Where to start? How to cut through the fog of ego that hung over the judge's bench and make him see that "the matter" I had to attend to wasn't just another case.
What you did when addressing the Toop was concentrate on his chin. You could maybe raise your eyes to encompass the nose, but you did not under any circumstances go above the eyebrows. If you did, you were in danger of seeing the Thing Itself. I aimed my words at the judicial nostrils.
"A woman named Jan Gebhardt was arrested in Kansas yesterday," I began. "She was a fugitive from justice, having fled the jurisdiction in 1982 after the murder of a federal law enforcement officer."
"I read the papers, Counselor," Judge Feldman interjected. "Just tell me what all this has to do with you."
"I knew her in the summer of 1969," I replied. "When we were in college, we worked with migrant farm workers. Jan and I and my brother, Ron, and some other people."
"Ms. Jameson, just because you knew this woman in 1969 is no reason—"
"I understand, Judge," I cut in. "I'm not saying this very well. The reason I have to go to Ohio for her arraignment is that my brother was arrested along with Jan in 1982. The charges were held in abeyance after Jan fled, but now that she's turned herself in, they've been reinstated. He's surrendering this afternoon in the federal courthouse in Toledo." Among the many things I didn't say was that I'd had this piece of information not from my brother himself, but from my parents. It was they, not Ron, who'd begged me to go to Toledo and help out.
"I see," the judge said. His meaty hand stroked his chin.
I was aware of an unnatural silence in the courtroom. Everyone from the court officers to the front row of lawyers waiting for cases to be called to the defendants chained to chairs inside the well area seemed to hang on my words.
"Your Honor may recall that the federal agent was shot and killed during an arrest for transporting illegal aliens. Ms. Gebhardt and my brother were part of what was called the sanctuary movement. They were helping refugees from Central America." I deliberately glided over what the judge and I both knew; that sanctuary was no defense to violating the immigration laws.
"The van in which the aliens were being transported," I continued, carefully masking my feelings in legalese, "was owned by my brother. It's a specially equipped van. He's—" I stopped and drew a ragged breath, willing away thoughts of Ron facing arrest and imprisonment. "He's a quadriplegic. A Vietnam veteran."
I thought I detected a glimmer of sympathy in the judge's poached-egg eyes. Much as I hated to use Ron's condition this way, I had to pull out all the stops if I wanted the Toop to let me off the hook. "He didn't know what Jan was up to," I explained, uncomfortably aware that I was trying to convince myself as well as the judge. "He didn't know the people were illegals. But after the shooting, he was arrested along with Jan. She fled, and the charges against him were adjourned sine die."
This meant that the charges hung over Ron's head like the sword of Damocles. And now that Jan was being brought back for trial, the sword, which had glimmered into nothingness, had miraculously reappeared, as strong and solid as ever. Ron faced trial as a codefendant. He faced jail.
My brother faced jail. There was no way on God's earth I was going to let him do that alone, with or without Judge Feldman's permission.
He heard a few more minutes of argument. In truth, the prosecution put up only a token fight. I walked out of the courtroom a free woman. But the judge's last words hung in the air like a rain cloud.
"I'll give you two days, Counselor," he said. "And after that, I'm proceeding to trial with or without you."
In case I didn't get the full picture, he went on. "I'll assign a new lawyer, and while he prepares the case for trial, your client can enjoy the hospitality of the State of New York."
In other words, if I wasn't back in two days, Pops would go to jail.
"I'll be back," I promised.
Pops tugged at my sleeve as we left the courtroom. "What's that mean, Ms. Jameson? You ain't gonna leave me high and dry, now? You ain't gonna let old Pops go to jail?"
"No," I said firmly. "I'll be back in two days."
I believed it, too. My plan was to fly to Toledo, step into court next to Ron, play the quad card, get him out of the whole mess, and come straight home.
I swept into my office, hung my jacket on the hat stand, and walked toward the cork bulletin board in the corner. It held pink phone messages from January of last year, New Yorker cartoons of guys in jail commenting unfavorably on their legal representation, and, in the right-hand corner, a small collection of political buttons.
There it was, in between a NOW pin and a button from the last Legal Aid strike. A green button with a ripe red tomato in the center. Over the tomato were yellow letters that spelled out FLAC. Farm Labor Action Coalition, northwest Ohio's answer to Cesar Chavez' United Farmworkers union.
I'd spent one summer in Toledo, helping to organize that union. A summer in which I'd fallen in love, gotten high, taken political action, and seen my first dead body. A summer after which nothing was ever the same.
I removed the button carefully, trying not to damage the crumbling cork. I held it in my hand and looked down at it with wonder. Yesterday it had been a relic, a piece of the past with no possible relevance to the present. Today, Jan was back and the past had thundered into my present with a vengeance.
I stared at the button until the sun made little black spots in front of my eyes.
Stop the plane—I'm getting off!
The thought started drumming at me as we taxied along the La Guardia runway. The man in the seat ahead of mine reclined his chair as far back as it would go, in direct violation of the overhead sign, thrusting himself into my already tight space. Hell is other people, especially on airplanes.
Finally we were next in line to take off. The engines roared, the wheels accelerated, and we took the great broad jump into the sky. Stop the plane ... stop the plane ... STOP THE PLANE became a painful pounding in my inner ear.
I was never afraid to fly. Afraid to get to my destination, yes; this was not a new feeling. But flight itself was freeing. "Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth." The trouble was, you had to land; the surly bonds of earth won every time.
Over the engine's roar I heard Ron's voice from the summer of '69: "Just how poisonous is this stuff, anyway?"
"A little dab'll do ya," Joel Rapaport had replied with his usual flipness.
A little dab was all it took to turn Kenny Gebhardt, Jan's cousin, from live nuisance to dead meat. The fact that he'd chosen to inhale the stuff didn't help much.
"Would you like coffee or tea, ma'am?" The real-life voice of the flight attendant brought me back to reality. I wondered just when I'd stopped answering to "miss" and edged over into "ma'am." Within seconds of ordering, a toylike bottle of vodka appeared on my tray along with a thimbleful of spiced tomato juice. I brushed away thoughts that drinking on an airplane before a court appearance wasn't a good idea; if the ghost of Kenny Gebhardt was going to occupy the seat next to me, I'd need a little spiritual sustenance.
Even tomato juice brought back memories. The last drink of the night at the old Rivoli Bar in Toledo: beer spiked with tomato juice, Wes Tannock's surefire home preventative for hangovers. Not only was it totally ineffective; it looked and tasted like you'd bled into your brew. I drank it anyway; I could have—and did—swallow anything John Wesley Tannock gave me that summer.
The story of that summer for me: I wanted Wes Tannock; I got Ted Havlicek.
We were somewhere over the great green state of Pennsylvania and I was getting as high as the plane. Pot was fine, but I was old enough that alcohol was my first drug of choice.
I gazed out the window at the tree-clustered mountains. From here, they looked like mounds of curly endive. There was something soothing about the gentle undulations of green; the throbbing in my head subsided a little as I leaned back and took in the scenery.
Wes Tannock's voice wasn't famous yet, but it already had the power and authority, the sincerity, that would put him on the political map. I saw him standing on the steps of Our Lady of Guadalupe church, the setting sun behind him, his shirt drenched with sweat, his throat as raw as Janis Joplin's.
"What do we want?" he shouted into the mike Rap had wired to huge amplifiers.
"JUSTICE," we all roared.
"When do we want it?"
The response was thunder: "NOW!"
"How will we get it?"
This time the crowd went really wild, jumping and clapping and banging tambourines and garbage can lids."HUEL-GA! HUEL-GA!" We shouted it over and over again until it became a ritual chant that carried us away on a tidal wave of commitment. The strike had begun. Tomorrow's sun would rise on fields empty of the imported workers who picked the crops and kept the ketchup factory supplied with workers.
In the front of the crowd, her face washed with sweat and tears, her eyes glowing with equal parts passion for social justice and lust for Wes Tannock, stood a naive college freshman named Cassandra Jameson.
I lifted my drink; the hand that poured the rest of the vodka into the glass shook a little.
The lady next to me edged over in her seat.
Jan's voice from that long-ago summer was next. She was sobbing as she told us how four-year-old Belita Navarro had been rushed to the hospital, poisoned by the pesticides in the field the family had been working in. "God," Jan wailed, pounding her hip with a small, clenched fist, "we have to do something."
Dana Sobel's voice chimed in, thick with anticipation, "This will get their attention. All we have to do is handle it right."
Tarky, who'd grown up to be Wes Tannock's perennial campaign manager, had handled it. He'd handled it so well we all got arrested, and Ron lost the most precious thing in his life: his conscientious objector status. Because of that summer, he was drafted. Because of that summer, he went to Vietnam. Because of that summer, he came home in a wheelchair.
Oh, who the hell was I kidding? Not because of that summer. Because of me. Because big brother Ron wasn't about to let little sister Cassie play radical activist by herself. He said yes, he got involved in the conspiracy, in order to keep an eye on me.
The plane lowered itself to the ground, over checkerboard farmland cut into fields like a quilt. Red barns and white farmhouses stood like Monopoly hotels surrounded by parsley trees. Straight, black, T-square roads, sped upon by matchbox cars and trucks, sliced the countryside.
I wanted to break the window with my fist and crawl out onto the wing. Anything to keep from walking out of this aircraft and into the past. Anything to keep from standing in a courtroom next to my brother. The fear in my stomach was like a lump of cold oatmeal. I started to shake.
Oblivious to the "Fasten Seat Belt" signs, I undid my belt, gestured frantically to the aisle seat passenger to get out of my way, and lurched into the aisle. Brushing past the flight attendant, I put hand to mouth in a universal gesture of need, and fled to the bathroom, where two Bloody Marys hit the toilet just in time.
As I stood in the tiny metal closet, leaning against the cold glass, sweat pouring down my face, one more voice hit my ear. Like Dylan, Ted Havlicek was talking about more than the weather when he said, "Tornado's coming. Feel the electricity in the air. Like stored-up lightning ready to strike."
I took a deep breath, but the sense of heavy, electricity-laden air, promising severe storms ahead, didn't dissipate.
It was not for nothing that I was named Cassandra.
Excerpted from Troubled Waters by Carolyn Wheat. Copyright © 1997 Carolyn Wheat. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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