A John Grisham book virtually defines the mega-popular legal thriller. Grisham's popular fiction has dominated the marketplace since the early '90s, when New York Times bestsellers The Firm, The Client and The Pelican Brief made him a publishing and pop-culture institution-and raised the standard for the legal thriller. The Arkansas native and avid baseball fan has extended his range with New York Times bestsellers like the true story of The Innocent Man (movie rights were snatched up by George Clooney) and popular fiction like Playing for Pizza (which The Boston Globe described as "delightfully comic...a deeply satisfying story"), while still producing the hard-hitting legal thrillers and bestselling books for which he is known. One John Grisham book that departs from the novel form is Ford County, a collection of short stories that are page-turners in their own right. In a recent John Grisham book, The Confession, he works with a simple but powerful premise: For every innocent man sent to prison, there is a guilty one left on the outside. The Confession is the guilty man's story. TIME magazine wrote this about Grisham's bestselling books: “The secrets of Grisham's success are no secret at all. There are two of them: his pacing, which ranges from fast to breakneck, and his Theme-little guy takes on big conspiracy with the little guy getting the win in the end.” The New York Times puts it even more succinctly: “John Grisham is about as good a storyteller as we've got in the United States these days.”
I am a lawyer, and I am in prison. It’s a long story.
I’m forty-three years old and halfway through a ten-year sentence handed down by a weak and sanctimonious federal judge in Washington, D.C. All of my appeals have run their course, and there is no procedure, mechanism, obscure statute, technicality, loophole, or Hail Mary left in my thoroughly depleted arsenal. I have nothing. Because I know the law, I could do what some inmates do and clog up the courts with stacks of worthless motions and writs and other junk filings, but none of this would help my cause. Nothing will help my cause. The reality is that I have no hope of getting out for five more years, save for a few lousy weeks chopped off at the end for good behavior, and my behavior has been exemplary.
I shouldn’t call myself a lawyer, because technically I am not. The Virginia State Bar swept in and yanked my license shortly after I was convicted. The language is right there in black and white—a felony conviction equals disbarment. I was stripped of my license, and my disciplinary troubles were duly reported in the Virginia Lawyer Register. Three of us were disbarred that month, which is about average.
However, in my little world, I am known as a jailhouse lawyer and as such spend several hours each day helping my fellow inmates with their legal problems. I study their appeals and file motions. I prepare simple wills and an occasional land deed. I review contracts for some of the white-collar guys. I have sued the government for legitimate complaints but never for ones I consider frivolous. And there are a lot of divorces.
Eight months and six days after I began my time, I received a thick envelope. Prisoners crave mail, but this was one package I could have done without. It was from a law firm in Fairfax, Virginia, one that represented my wife, who, surprisingly, wanted a divorce. In a matter of weeks, Dionne had gone from being a supportive wife, dug in for the long haul, to a fleeing victim who desperately wanted out. I couldn’t believe it. I read the papers in absolute shock, my knees rubbery and my eyes wet, and when I was afraid I might start crying, I hustled back to my cell for some privacy. There are a lot of tears in prison, but they are always hidden.
When I left home, Bo was six years old. He was our only child, but we were planning more. The math is easy, and I’ve done it a million times. He’ll be sixteen when I get out, a fully grown teenager, and I will have missed ten of the most precious years a father and son can have. Until they are about twelve years old, little boys worship their fathers and believe they can do no wrong. I coached Bo in T-ball and youth soccer, and he followed me around like a puppy. We fished and camped, and he sometimes went to my office with me on Saturday mornings, after a boys-only breakfast. He was my world, and trying to explain to him that I was going away for a long time broke both our hearts. Once behind bars, I refused to allow him to visit me. As much as I wanted to squeeze him, I could not stand the thought of that little boy seeing his father incarcerated.
The accused was a wealthy man by the name of Pete Duffy, and his alleged crime was murder. According to the police and the prosecutors, Mr. Duffy strangled his lovely wife in their attractive home on the sixth fairway of a golf course where he, the accused, was playing golf that day, alone. If convicted, he would spend the rest of his life in prison. If acquitted, he would walk out of the courtroom a free man. As things turned out, the jury did not find him guilty, or not guilty.
This was his second trial. Four months earlier, the first trial had ended suddenly when Judge Henry Gantry decided it would be unfair to continue. He declared a mistrial and sent everyone home, including Pete Duffy, who remained free on bond. In most murder cases, the accused cannot afford to post a bond and stay out of jail while waiting on a trial. But because Mr. Duffy had money and good lawyers, he had been free as a bird since the police found his wife’s body and the State accused him of killing her. He had been seen around town—dining in his favorite restaurants, watching basketball games at Stratten College, attending church (with greater frequency), and, of course, playing lots of golf. As he waited on his first trial, he seemed unconcerned with the prospect of a trial and the possibility of prison. Now, though, facing his second trial, and with a new eyewitness ready to be used by the prosecution, Pete Duffy was rumored to be very worried.
The new eyewitness was Bobby Escobar, a nineteen-year-old illegal immigrant who was working at the golf course on the day Mrs. Duffy was murdered. He saw Mr. Duffy enter his home at about the same time she died, then hurry away and resume his golf game. For a lot of reasons, Bobby did not come forward until the first trial was underway. Once Judge Gantry heard Bobby’s story, he declared a mistrial. Now, with Bobby ready to testify, most of the folks in Strattenburg, who had been closely watching the Duffy case, were expecting a guilty verdict. It was almost impossible to find someone who believed Pete Duffy did not kill his wife.
And it was also difficult to find a person who did not want to watch the trial. A murder trial in the Strattenburg Courthouse was a rare event—indeed, murder was rare in Stratten County—and a large crowd began gathering at 8:00 a.m., just after the front doors of the courthouse opened. The jury had been selected three days earlier. It was time for the courtroom drama to begin.
At 8:40, Mr. Mount got his eighth-grade class quiet and called the roll. All sixteen boys were present. Homeroom lasted for only ten minutes before the boys went off to first period Spanish with Madame Monique.
Mr. Mount was in a hurry. He said, “Okay, men, you know that today is the first day of the Pete Duffy trial, round two. We were allowed to watch the first day of the first trial, but, as you know, my request to watch the second trial was denied.”
Several of the boys hissed and booed.
Mr. Mount raised his hands. “Enough. However, our esteemed principal, Mrs. Gladwell, has agreed to allow Theo to watch the opening of the trial and report back to us. Theo.”
Theodore Boone jumped to his feet, and, like the lawyers he watched and admired, walked purposefully to the front of the room. He carried a yellow legal pad, just like a real lawyer. He stood by Mr. Mount’s desk, paused for a second, and looked at the class as if he were indeed a trial lawyer preparing to address the jury.
The tumor in my father's pancreas was removed last week in an operation that lasted five hours and was more difficult than his surgeons had expected. Afterward, they delivered the grim news that most people in his condition could not expect to live for more than ninety days. Since I knew nothing of the surgery, or the tumor, I was not there when he was given his death sentence. Communication is not a priority with my father. Ten years ago he divorced one wife and had found another before word filtered down to me.
His current wife—she's either number five or number six-eventually called and, after reintroducing herself, passed along the barest of details about the tumor and its related issues. Agnes explained that my father was not feeling well and didn't want to talk. I replied that he had never wanted to talk, regardless of how he felt. She asked me to spread the news to the rest of the family. I almost asked "Why?" but didn’t want to bicker with this poor woman.
The rest of the family consists of my younger sister, Jill, and my mother. Jill lives in Seattle and, as far as I know, has not spoken to our father in at least ten years. She has two small children who have never met him, and never will. My mother, after surviving twelve years of marriage, got lucky and got out, taking Jill and me with her, and I have a hunch that the news of his impending death will have zero impact on her.
Needless to say, we do not get together at Christmas and exchange gifts by the fire.
After the phone call from Agnes, I sit at my desk and ponder life without Warren, my father. I started calling him Warren when I was in college because he was more of a person, a stranger, than a father. He did not object. He has never cared what I call him, and I have always assumed he prefers that I don’t call him at all. At least I make the occasional effort; he never has.
After a few minutes, I admit the truth-life without Warren will be the same as life with him.
I call Jill and break the news. Her first question is whether I plan to attend the funeral, which is somewhat premature. She wants to know if she should try to visit him, to say hello and good-bye and go through the phony motions of acting as though she cares, when in fact she does not. Nor do I, and we both admit this. We have no love for Warren because he never cared for us. He abandoned the family when we were kids and has spent the past thirty years acting as though we do not exist. Jill and I are both parents now, and we find it inconceivable that a father can have no use for his own children.
"I’m not going," she finally declares. "Now, or later. How about you?"
"I don’t know," I reply. "I’ll have to think about it."
The law ﬁrm of Finley & Figg referred to itself as a “boutique ﬁrm.” This misnomer was inserted as often as possible into routine conversations, and it even appeared in print in some of the various schemes hatched by the partners to solicit business. When used properly, it implied that Finley & Figg was something above your average two-bit operation. Boutique, as in small, gifted, and expert in one specialized area. Boutique, as in pretty cool and chic, right down to the French-ness of the word itself. Boutique, as in thoroughly happy to be small, selective, and prosperous.
Except for its size, it was none of these things. Finley & Figg’s scam was hustling injury cases, a daily grind that required little skill or creativity and would never be considered cool or sexy. Proﬁts were as elusive as status. The ﬁrm was small because it couldn’t afford to grow. It was selective only because no one wanted to work there, including the two men who owned it. Even its location suggested a monotonous life out in the bush leagues. With a Vietnamese massage parlor to its left and a lawn mower repair shop to its right, it was clear at a casual glance that Finley & Figg was not prospering. There was another boutique ﬁrm directly across the street—hated rivals—and more lawyers around the corner. In fact, the neighborhood was teeming with lawyers, some working alone, others in small ﬁrms, others still in versions of their own little boutiques.
F&F’s address was on Preston Avenue, a busy street ﬁlled with old bungalows now converted and used for all manner of commercial activity. There was retail (liquor, cleaners, massages) and professional (legal, dental, lawn mower repair) and culinary (enchiladas, baklava, and pizza to go). Oscar Finley had won the building in a lawsuit twenty years earlier. What the address lacked in prestige it sort of made up for in location. Two doors away was the intersection of Preston, Beech, and Thirty- eighth, a chaotic convergence of asphalt and trafﬁc that guaranteed at least one good car wreck a week, and often more. F&F’s annual overhead was covered by collisions that happened less than one hundred yards away. Other law ﬁrms, boutique and otherwise, were often prowling the area in hopes of ﬁnding an available, cheap bungalow from which their hungry lawyers could hear the actual squeal of tires and crunching of metal.
With only two attorneys/partners, it was of course mandatory that one be declared the senior and the other the junior. The senior partner was Oscar Finley, age sixty-two, a thirty-year survivor of the bare- knuckle brand of law found on the tough streets of southwest Chicago.
The custodian at St. Mark’s had just scraped three inches of snow off the sidewalks when the man with the cane appeared. The sun was up, but the winds were howling; the temperature was stuck at the freezing mark. The man wore only a pair of thin dungarees, a summer shirt, well-worn hiking boots, and a light Windbreaker that stood little chance against the chill. But he did not appear to be uncomfortable, nor was he in a hurry. He was on foot, walking with a limp and a slight tilt to his left, the side aided by the cane. He shufﬂed along the sidewalk near the chapel and stopped at a side door with the word “Ofﬁce” painted in dark red. He did not knock and the door was not locked. He stepped inside just as another gust of wind hit him in the back.
The room was a reception area with the cluttered, dusty look one would expect to ﬁnd in an old church. In the center was a desk with a nameplate that announced the presence of Charlotte Junger, who sat not far behind her name. She said with a smile, “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” the man said. A pause. “It’s very cold out there.”
“It is indeed,” she said as she quickly sized him up. The obvious problem was that he had no coat and nothing on his hands or head.
“I assume you’re Ms. Junger,” he said, staring at her name.
“No, Ms. Junger is out today. The ﬂu. I’m Dana Schroeder, the minister’s wife, just ﬁlling in. What can we do for you?”
There was one empty chair and the man looked hopefully at it. “May I?”
“Of course,” she said. He carefully sat down, as if all movements needed forethought.
“Is the minister in?” he asked as he looked at a large, closed door off to the left.
“Yes, but he’s in a meeting. What can we do for you?” She was petite, with a nice chest, tight sweater. He couldn’t see anything below the waist, under the desk. He had always preferred the smaller ones. Cute face, big blue eyes, high cheekbones, a wholesome pretty girl, the perfect little minister’s wife.
It had been so long since he’d touched a woman.
“I need to see Reverend Schroeder,” he said as he folded his hands together prayerfully. “I was in church yesterday, listened to his sermon, and, well, I need some guidance.”
“He’s very busy today,” she said with a smile. Really nice teeth.
“I’m in a rather urgent situation,” he said.
Dana had been married to Keith Schroeder long enough to know that no one had ever been sent away from his ofﬁce, appointment or not. Besides, it was a frigid Monday morning and Keith wasn’t really that busy. A few phone calls, one consultation with a young couple in the process of retreating from a wedding, under way at that very moment, then the usual visits to the hospitals.
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