Eating a jelly-filled doughnut takes concentration. I hadn’t been concentrating and my first bite sent a glob of red jelly squirting down the front of my white shirt. Thank you, Hewitt Donaldson, Attorney-at-Law. He was the reason for the doughnut. He was the reason for the white shirt.
Hewitt’s office was down the hall from the Blackman and Robertson Detective Agency. My partner, Nakayla Robertson, and I had a three-room suite in the Adler Court building on Asheville’s historic Pack Square. Near both the police station and Buncombe County Courthouse, the location was overrun with attorneys. And where there are attorneys, there’s potential business for private investigators.
I sat in my office, trying to scoop up the glob of jelly with the edge of a manila folder containing the notes for the sworn testimony I would be delivering later that morning. Bad idea. I managed only to smear the red filling across my shirt and the folder. Maybe the jury would think the defendant shot me on my way to the witness stand.
“Nice look. Definitely you.”
I swiveled my chair around to face Nakayla standing in the doorway. She shook her head like she was reprimanding a five-year-old.
“It’s Hewitt’s fault.” My whiny excuse sounded like it came from a five-year-old.
Nakayla held her arms away from her side and pivoted in a complete circle. Her neatly pressed navy blue dress was unscarred by stains or crumbs. “Hewitt gave me a doughnut and I ate it. I didn’t try to wear it.”
I looked at my watch. “It’s eight thirty. Think I can make it home to change?”
“Maybe if I drive you and then drop you at the courthouse so you don’t have to park. Let me get my purse.” She crossed the middle room that served as the client conversation area and entered her office.
I stood, clutching the file in one hand and reaching for my suit coat with the other. The door to the hall opened and a ghastly pale face peered through the crack.
“Oh, good. It worked. I brought you a matching tie.” Hewitt Donaldson’s office manager stepped inside. Shirley the Strange. At some point, I must have been told Shirley’s last name, but I’d forgotten it. She didn’t look like she had a last name, unless it was Underworld. Her white makeup was caked on like frosting, and her black eyeliner and lipstick would send little children scurrying under their mothers’ skirts. She’d recently permed her hair into a tangle of inky black coils that bounced as she walked as if demonic Slinkys had sprouted from her head.
She was also one of the smartest and funniest people I knew. “What worked?” Nakayla joined Shirley in my doorway.
The women stood in stark contrast. Nakayla, a tall, slender African-American whom I dearly loved, projected both warmth and regality. Shirley, white, short, and wispy, projected a life force from some other astral plane.
“Hewitt’s idea,” Shirley said. “Although it pains me to give him credit. He didn’t want Sam going into court looking too slick.”
Nakayla laughed. “Too slick? Sam?”
“I have my days,” I said. “I was the hit at my senior prom.” “Then you must have been home-schooled,” Shirley said.
“Here, Mr. GQ. Wear this.”
She handed me a god-awful powder blue tie with misshapen polka dots.
“These dots are stains,” I said.
“Wow, Nakayla, he is Sherlock Holmes. Here’s another hint. You’ll find a nice assortment of ketchup, mustard, and barbecue sauce gracing that fine polyester fabric. What does that tell you?”
“Hewitt wore it to lunch only one time.”
“Impressive. Those detective correspondence courses are paying off.”
“And his reason?” I asked.
“Ah, Sam. I thought you were going three for three. I bet your smarter partner knows.”
“To have the jury identify with him,” Nakayla said.
“Right. Hewitt doesn’t want them thinking Heather hired some big-time P.I. who framed poor Clyde.”
Clyde Atwood was on trial for shooting and wounding a police officer in the course of a domestic violence incident. Hewitt was representing his wife Heather in the separate, con- tested divorce case, and in this rare instance, Hewitt was allied with the criminal prosecutors seeking to put Clyde away for a long stretch in the penitentiary. A guilty verdict would make Heather’s divorce and settlement a slam dunk.
“What’s Hewitt wearing?” I asked. “A seersucker suit from an all-you-can-eat buffet?”
“I’m wearing nothing.”
Nakayla and Shirley stepped aside to reveal the attorney behind them.
Shirley threw her hands over her eyes. “If you’re wearing nothing, then the jury will require post-traumatic-stress counseling.” “I mean I won’t be in the courtroom. I’ve just learned one of the jurors wound up on the losing side of a case I litigated and won. He’d be prejudiced against Heather if he thought I was connected to her. I alerted D.A. Carter, so when he asks you, emphasize that you were hired by Heather and keep my name out of it.”
Instead of a suit, Hewitt wore a Hawaiian shirt so bright I thought Shirley might have shielded her eyes to prevent burns. His long gray hair hung to his shoulders, and the faded jeans and sandals made him look more like a sidewalk vendor of beaded jewelry and leatherwork than Asheville’s most successful defense attorney.
Hewitt came of age and stayed of age in the 1960s. A hippie who never did cozy up to the establishment, he loved nothing better than to run through the halls of power shouting, “The emperor has no clothes!” I wouldn’t put it past him to do it bare-assed naked too, if it furthered his cause.
“So, I’m on my own?” I asked. “Nakayla planned to work in the office.”
Shirley pointed out my window. “See that building across the square? That’s the courthouse. I can walk you across the street if you like.”
Nakayla took pity on me. “It’s good to have someone hear his testimony for debriefing afterwards. We’re not called as witnesses that often.”
“I agree,” Hewitt said. “Cory’s already there. She’ll take notes. We might need to polish you up if the divorce goes to court.”
“Polish me up? You’re the ones coating my clothes with spilled food.”
“Forget the loaves and fishes,” Shirley said. “Jesus could have fed the five thousand with the food particles on the jury alone. You’ll blend beautifully.”
Neither Nakayla nor I were big on domestic investigations. Sneaking around motels snapping photos of cheating spouses seemed as sleazy as the actions we were documenting. Hewitt Donaldson refused divorce cases unless a criminal element was involved, and spousal abuse brought out the crusader in him.
Nakayla and I had intended to verify Heather’s claims to the extent that we could turn evidence over to the police without her having to confront her husband. But my surveillance put me outside their house one night when Clyde’s mercurial temper spiked. I heard Heather’s screams and phoned 911. Then I pounded on the front door. Clyde yanked it open, cursing and ranting at me to get off his property. When I refused, he retreated into his house, only to emerge brandishing a pistol. Two officers arrived, and as they approached from the side, Clyde swung around, yelling at them to leave. The gun discharged. One of the officers was struck in the shoulder and seriously wounded. I punched Clyde hard in the throat and disarmed him. He was arrested and the subsequent legal process brought us to the moment where I entered the courthouse wearing a blotched shirt and a necktie that looked like it had been dragged through a condiment tray. When I was summoned to testify, I found the courtroom nearly full. Heather and her friends and kinfolk sat behind the prosecutor’s table. Clyde’s supporters, five men who looked like they were drinking buddies, occupied the row behind Clyde and his public defender, Tom Peterson, a newcomer to the Asheville legal scene. Clyde’s mother and father sat alone on the second row, each looking uncomfortable as if they had wandered into the wrong trial. The rest of the observers were family and friends of the wounded police officer.
I understood young Peterson had urged Clyde to plead guilty and ask for mercy. His client refused, claiming he wasn’t abusing his wife, he was disciplining her in accordance with God’s will. “Wives be submissive to your husbands.” Therefore, he had a right to protect himself against me, an intruder. He was sorry about the wounded officer, but the pistol had discharged accidentally.
The photos I took of Heather immediately after Clyde’s arrest showed his alleged discipline was nothing short of an abusive assault. Her swollen jaw and bleeding nose spoke far louder than anything I could say. I hoped the jury would clearly understand why Heather feared for her life and that their guilty verdict would not only provide justice for the wounded police officer, but put Clyde away where he couldn’t touch her.
I took the stand and swore to tell the truth. As I sat, I glanced around the room. Clyde Atwood glared at me. He was sober, clean-shaven, and dressed in a coat and tie. The last time I saw him, he was drunk, scraggy, and wearing an undershirt that lived up to its name, wife-beater. Clyde was a few years older than me, probably thirty-five. He worked in a lumberyard and was well muscled. His wife was no match for his brute force.
Behind Clyde, his buddies put on their meanest tough-guy faces. They must have rehearsed because they all leaned forward and sneered at me. I winked at them. All of them broke eye contact.
On the other side, Heather Atwood sat pale-faced, her lips drawn tight. She wore a loose-fitting dress that made her look small and vulnerable. She cut her eyes to her husband and then back to me. I gave a reassuring nod and she returned a weak smile. An older woman sat beside her. I recognized Heather’s mother from when I accompanied Hewitt to her deposition. She studied the jurors, probably willing them to put away the monster who married her daughter. I wondered who was watching the Atwoods’ three-year-old twin boys, the heart of the conflict in the divorce case.
Directly behind Heather sat Cory DeMille, Hewitt’s para- legal and the third member of his practice. Unlike Shirley, who appeared as if she stepped out of The X-Files, Cory could have starred in The Brady Bunch. In her preppy attire, she played the role of designated grownup for the firm, looking more like a lawyer than Hewitt. Cory raised a legal pad just high enough to show me she was ready to take notes.
“Mr. Blackman. Please state your name and occupation.” The prosecutor, none other than D.A. Derrick Carter himself, flashed me a confident smile.
“My name is Sam Blackman. I’m a private investigator and a partner in the Blackman and Robertson Detective Agency here in Asheville.”
“Very good. Would you share with the jury your qualifications as an investigator?”
Carter omitted the word private because he wanted me to lead with my military experience. I quickly summarized my years in the Army, beginning after high school graduation, my training as an MP, and then finally my role as a chief warrant officer in the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command.
Carter frowned when I skipped over the reason for my military discharge and simply stated that I settled in Asheville to use my skills as a private investigator. I listed several high-profile regional and national cases that Nakayla and I had solved.
Carter nodded enthusiastically. “And am I correct in that convictions were forthcoming in each and every one?”
“Objection!” Tom Peterson rose from his chair. “Mr. Blackman’s prior cases have no bearing on the charges against my client.”
Judge Ronald Clemmons, a seasoned jurist, sustained the objection.
“Very well,” Carter conceded. “Then tell us how you came to work for Mrs. Atwood.”
I went through the chronicle of events from Heather’s initial visit to our office, twins in tow, to my stakeout of her house. I explained how she was afraid to contact the police for fear of repercussions unless she had definitive proof. Heather told me Clyde was particularly volatile when he’d been drinking and that was usually on payday Fridays.
Carter walked me through the Friday in question, culminating with the color photographs of Heather’s injuries. I had immediately given the camera’s memory card to the police at the scene to establish the proper chain of custody with no opportunity for Photoshop or any other enhancement. The judge allowed the photographs to be entered into evidence as exhibits and passed to the jury.
Carter and I studied each juror’s face and saw the reactions range from revulsion to anger, the emotions we wanted the pictures to generate. When the last juror had viewed Clyde’s “discipline,” Carter turned me over to the defense.
Tom Peterson stood at the table, but didn’t approach me. “Mr. Blackman, did Mrs. Atwood know that you were positioned near her husband’s home?”
I noticed how he was subtly reinforcing Clyde’s lordship of his castle.
“Yes. She had called me to say he was becoming intoxicated.” “Called you at your office?”
“No. On my cell. I was already outside Mrs. Atwood’s house.” “So, she knew where you were.”
The public defender nodded like I’d admitted to some major revelation. “Mr. Blackman, you testified that Mr. Atwood was screaming so loudly that you could hear him in your car.”
“But that you couldn’t hear what Mrs. Atwood said.” “No. Not directly from her house.”
Peterson pivoted slightly to angle toward the jury. “Then if Mrs. Atwood knew you were outside, you have no way of knowing what words she might have said to incite Mr. Atwood to lose his self-control, do you?”
Poor Peterson had fallen into the trap, the trap Hewitt Donaldson had devised and that I had shared with D.A. Carter.
“I heard what she said.”
Peterson blinked. His turn toward the jury let all twelve see his confusion. “But you just testified that only Mr. Atwood’s voice could be heard.”
“That’s true. Directly from the house to my car which dem- onstrated to me how enraged he was. But when Mrs. Atwood placed the call to me, she left her cell phone on. That’s how I heard her. Would you like me to repeat what she said?”
The defense attorney’s face glowed like a stoplight. He’d made the rookie mistake of asking a question for which he assumed he knew the answer. In our depositions, Peterson had only asked about making the call, not when the call ended. When Hewitt learned that, he urged me to hold back the fact, and, for once,
D.A. Carter was happy to take the advice of his old nemesis. For a second, it appeared Peterson might choke on his tongue.
To his credit, he took a deep breath, and then said, “That won’t be necessary at this time. I’d rather hear the testimony from Mrs. Atwood herself.”
His sidestep was the best play he could make until he could regroup. He picked up a legal pad and studied it thoughtfully. I knew he was buying time to compose himself.
He dropped the pad. “Mr. Blackman, would you say Mr. Atwood saw your arrival at his home as a provocation?”
“I can’t attest as to how he saw me. He became more enraged when I refused to leave.”
“You were clearly on his property, weren’t you?” “Yes, but I made no attempt to enter the house.”
“And it was only after you refused his order to get off his property that he retrieved the pistol, isn’t that true?”
“And if you had obeyed his order, a police officer wouldn’t have been accidentally wounded.”
“I’m under oath, sir,” I said. “I can’t testify as to what might or might not have happened.”
“Come now, Mr. Blackman, don’t you think if you had run back to your car and waited for the police, the situation wouldn’t have escalated like it did?”
I hesitated. It would be a cheap shot, but Hewitt had instructed me to set it up if I could. Carter started to rise to object that the question asked for speculation, but I shook my head, signaling that I wanted to answer.
“I couldn’t run, Mr. Peterson. I have only one leg. I lost the other one in Iraq. I have a good prosthesis, but it’s not the same thing. I’m sure you understand.”
Tom Peterson froze. He was attacking the testimony of a wounded vet trying to protect a woman who was being beaten by her drunken husband. The damning photos were already etched in the minds of the jurors.
Tom Peterson might have been new to his profession, but he wasn’t stupid. “I have no further questions.”
Carter stood and addressed the judge. “Redirect, your Honor?”
Judge Clemmons nodded. “Proceed.”
Carter smiled and I knew he appreciated why I’d gone off script and not mentioned my war injury earlier.
“Mr. Blackman, is it your opinion that if you had gone back to your car, Mr. Atwood would have continued assaulting his wife?”
“Objection,” Tom Peterson shouted. “Calls for speculation on the part of the witness.”
Carter stood as tall as he could, indignation on his face. “Your Honor, Mr. Peterson has certainly asked his share of questions requiring the speculation of this witness. Mr. Blackman is an experienced and highly decorated former U.S. Army investigator who has been in numerous situations similar to what he experienced at Mrs. Atwood’s home. I’m asking the opinion of a trained law enforcement officer.”
“Objection overruled,” Clemmons said. He looked at me. “You may answer the question.”
Now it was my opportunity to turn toward the jury. “Without a doubt, I was afraid that if I left, Heather Atwood would face the wrath of an intoxicated man waving a pistol. And speculation or not, that pistol nearly killed someone.”
“No further questions,” Carter said. “Thank you, Mr. Black- man. And thank you for your service and for your sacrifice.”
Two days later, I was back in the courtroom. This time I sat directly behind Heather Atwood between Cory DeMille and Hewitt Donaldson. We’d been alerted that the jury had reached a verdict after only an hour’s deliberation. Although I took it as a good sign, juries can be fickle. Nothing is a sure thing until the verdict is read.
Heather turned around. “What do you think?” she asked Hewitt.
“I think we trust our fellow citizens to provide justice.” She looked at me.
“Clyde will never hurt you again,” I said.
Heather bit her lower lip and blinked back tears. “Thank you for what you said and did.”
I was saved from making protests of modesty by the arrival of the jury. As they filed in, I looked across the aisle. The row behind Clyde was empty as if no one wanted to be near him. The buddies present on the day of my testimony had disappeared. His parents were in the same spot on the second row and seemed to be sitting closer together. Mrs. Atwood clutched a lace handkerchief in her right fist and stared at her son. Clyde sat turned in his chair. He wasn’t looking at the incoming jurors; he wasn’t looking at his attorney. He was staring at Heather.
“Mr. Foreman, have you reached a verdict?” Judge Clemmons peered over his reading glasses at the lanky, retired business executive who had been elected by the other eleven.
The man stood. “We have, your Honor.”
The clerk took the verdict form from the foreman’s outstretched hand and brought it to Clemmons. The judge studied it for a few moments.
“The verdict is in order.” He handed it to the clerk, who returned the form to the foreman.
“Will the defendant please rise,” Judge Clemmons ordered. Clyde Atwood stood by his attorney. D.A. Carter also rose.
Clemmons nodded to his clerk.
The man stepped back and cleared his throat. “On the count of felonious assault on a police officer with a deadly weapon with intent to kill and inflicting serious injury, how do you find?”
The foreman kept his eyes straight ahead, ignoring everyone but the clerk. “We find the defendant guilty.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Clyde Atwood stiffen.
The clerk continued. “On the count of assault and inflicting bodily harm, how do you find?”
This time the foreman cut his gaze to Atwood for the final pronouncement. “We find the defendant guilty.”
The verdicts on Carter’s two indictments, one for the shooting of the police officer and the other for the beating of Heather Atwood, meant mandatory sentencing guidelines would send Clyde Atwood away for years. The shooting was the big verdict. Hewitt had been afraid the jury might break down over whether the pistol discharged by accident or was fired intentionally.
On the stand, Clyde had been a less than credible witness, and upon cross-examination, Carter managed to make him angry. The decision to have Clyde testify had backfired, although I doubted Tom Peterson had little choice in the matter. Clyde wanted to vent at what he saw was his unjust arrest, and with just a few character witnesses, the defense was doomed.
Judge Clemmons thanked the jurors for their service and ordered the court deputies to take Clyde away.
As he crossed in front of the bench, Clyde yelled at the judge, “I’ll see you in hell for this.”
The deputies looked up at Clemmons, expecting a response. In that brief moment, Clyde wrestled free and grabbed the pistol from the duty belt of the deputy on his left. Then, instead of springing for the judge, he lunged toward the stunned spectators, pulling back the semi-automatic’s slide to chamber a round. He fired point-blank at Heather. The shot sounded like a cannon. Then he aimed the pistol at me. A second shot erupted and the top of Clyde’s forehead exploded, spewing blood and brains in the air.
Screams filled the room.
Hewitt shouted in my ear. “Are you all right?”
“Yes.” I looked down at Heather lying on the floor in front of me. Her mother cried over the still body. I turned to Cory. She had sat down, her face turned up to me. Her lips moved and I read the single word, “Sam.”
A bright red stain was spreading across the front of her starched white blouse.