The Interview

by Jeff Tolley

 

Gary Tatum was consciously grateful for the rare commodity of silence that enveloped his apartment. Through the haze brought on by over-indulgence, he winced and turned away from the shaft of light that beamed through the skylight in the bathroom. The thick, double-lined, blackout drapes allowed only a faint glow at the seam, mercifully denying access to the bright Florida sunshine that would torture the pair of tequila-marinated souls laying prone under the pearlescent white silk sheets. The small apartment was warm; there were few cool summer days in north Florida apart from those when thunderstorms rolled through.

The interior walls of the Tatum residence were painted the hue of the local beach sand, almost white but not as dim or dingy as ecru. Bits of seashells and a shovel-full of sand were mixed with the paint, bringing the breezy environment to life in the small front room. The theme of the walls accentuated the palm tree and surfboard pattern of the drapes. The store that had sold the drapes, years now out of business, catered to property owners who decorated for tourists. The trail of black mold that grew along the baseboards served as evidence that the absent landlord cared little about maintenance or long term leases. Such details were nowhere near the top of Gary Tatum’s to-do list, either.

A scant trail of clothing was strewn from the front door toward the bed across the faux bamboo floor. One pink, slender flip-flop peeked from under the couch, and the thin string of a white bikini top lazily pointed in the direction its owner was last seen. A neon pink polyester triangle hid in the shadow cast on the floor by the open closet door.

The neighborhood had stirred from its sleep hours before, but only now did the faint wail of a car alarm a block away begin to penetrate the haze surrounding Gary Tatum’s senses. His eyes were swollen and bloodshot, and his lips were red with a crust of dried, white saliva at each corner of his mouth. The good news of the previous afternoon became the celebration of the evening and then the idiocy of the early morning, a trail of unabashed college students left in the wake of Gary Tatum and guest.

The relative darkness of the apartment was sympathetic to Gary’s plight. A much closer shrill ring gave notice that Gary’s phone had skittered under the bed, inadvertently kicked several hours before when his shorts hit the floor and he stumbled toward the bed with one smooth, tan thigh in each hand, her arms draped over his shoulders. The pale lines created on her skin by her beach attire started below the base of her spine and created a long arc over each hip. At the beach just before sunset, she had been asked several times to cover herself, which only made her more bold in her belief that the human body was to be celebrated. At some point between shots of tequila, punctuated with a dash of salt between her breasts and a slice of lime between her crimson lips, Gary Tatum introduced himself to the beach patrol, quite convincingly, as her attorney and designated caretaker for the evening. She unabashedly bounced behind him to the overdone bass tones of the music. Neither cop cared who he was, as long as he got her mostly visible rear end and breasts clothed and off the beach and away from the gawking families. Mothers gasped and covered the eyes of their innocent children, and fathers struggled indecisively with morality. She reveled in the attention.

Now, long after the party and miles away, her torso was covered by the thin bedspread. To whom the long, shapely legs belonged didn’t matter, but she was apparently tall, blonde, and quite inarguably pickled. Fun was measured by the shot at Jax Beach, and this was no secret to Susan. . . Sharon. . .Stephanie. . . Oh, her name didn’t matter.

The phone screamed again from under the bed, begging for attention. Gary pried an eyelid open, and he guessed that the clock, wherever it was, would claim the time to be somewhere in the neighborhood of nine. The phone quit complaining after four rings, but he still gave serious thought to easing himself to the floor to begin an exhaustive search for the little noisemaker. He moved slightly from underneath her left leg to position himself so he could see under the bed. As soon as his head was less than level with the mattress, a flood of nausea washed over him and he pulled himself back to the safety of his pillow.

“I’m never gonna drink again,” he lied out loud in a soft slur as he collapsed into the pillow and flopped his right arm over his eyes. Death was not inevitable, but it was preferable. The self-inflicted revelry brought about by his completion of law school was now evidenced by cottonmouth, bloodshot eyes, and the resonant pounding of the blood vessels in his temples.

Sylvie or Simone or Sandy pulled away from him and rolled from underneath the sheet onto her stomach. Gary paused, rubbed his eyes, and stared. The tattoo that filled the space at the base of her spine between the tan lines was a remarkable depiction of a climbing rose that wrapped around a strand of barbed wire. It seemed incongruous to the slenderness of her waist and the shape of her hips.

She rolled her head in her flowing mane of blonde hair and looked at Gary through a tired, bloodshot eye. “Where you going?” she asked in a hazy, soft mumble.

“Nowhere,” he admitted as he rubbed his eyes. “My phone rang. It’s under the bed.”

“Oh my God, did I have fun last night,” she mumbled with a satisfied smile as she stretched her hands and arms past her head toward the wall where there was no headboard. Rouge and base and lipstick and mascara painted a tentative landscape across the pillow case canvas. “Wasn’t that a blast?”

Gary was reluctant to answer. He reached toward her, but his phone shrieked and interrupted his attempt at making physical contact. He found the equilibrium to get down on his hands and knees and find the phone. On the third ring he read the blurry letters of the caller ID on the screen, sat heavily on the floor, and answered. “Hey, Dad,” he said with as little conviction as he could muster. Sonja or Samantha or Sarah started to speak, but he held his index finger to his lips and she obeyed. She rolled her eyes as she heard the grumbling voice on the other end, but intelligible words escaped her. She stretched, destroying Gary’s concentration on his father’s voice.

“Where the hell have you been, Gary? I’ve been calling for an hour,” he snorted impatiently.

Gary rolled his eyes and thrust five fingers toward the ceiling. He smoothed his hair with his hand as he said, “No, Dad, you’ve called three times in the last ten minutes. What’s wrong?”

The Honorable Winston Samuel Tatum, Federal District Court Judge for the Eastern District of Virginia, was in no mood for his son’s attitude. He got to the point. “Nothing. Gary, you have exactly one hour and eighteen minutes to make it to Jacksonville International and get on a plane to Raleigh. There is a ticket in your name at the Southwest counter.”

“But, Dad, I. . .” he tried to complain.

“I don’t care who she is,” he guessed. “Get yourself cleaned up and get on that plane, do you understand me?” Gary thought it better not to answer his father. “Mayor Ellington of Azalea Springs will meet you at the gate in Raleigh. You’ll be back tonight.”

“Where the hell’s Azalea Springs?” he wondered aloud as he tried to squelch the next wave of nausea.

“South of Raleigh, and it is likely your new home provided you don’t screw this up. They need a public defender.” Sarcasm was a mere formality in the relationship between Gary and his father. The younger Tatum scowled but he remained silent. “After the embarrassing debacle of your failing the bar in Florida, I pulled some strings for you to at least make a feeble attempt at making your own way.”

“South of Raleigh. No beach? Gee, thanks, Dad. That’s exactly what I was hoping for.”

He didn’t care if he rattled his father’s cage. Their argument just days before over Gary’s need for help in getting a job was heated, and the elder Tatum’s strongest attribute was his inability to listen.

After a short pause, the elder Tatum allowed, “A two-hour drive to Wrightsville Beach.” Gary slowly placed his hand on his throbbing head and squeezed his temples with thumb and middle finger. “Gary, take this seriously and try to make a positive impression. I don’t have a lot of favors left.” There was simply nothing left to say; the line went dead.

“Don’t want your goddam favors, anyway,” he said to nobody through gritted teeth. He closed his phone and looked through the blue eyes that stared back at him. Her expression was full of pity for him.

“Your dad’s kind of an asshole, huh?”

Gary laughed at the boldness of her statement. “Yeah, sometimes.” He traced every curve of her body with his eyes before he rose from the edge of the bed and took several steps toward the bathroom. “Look, I gotta get on a plane here in a little while.” He carefully turned toward the bathroom, trying to avoid the dizziness that slowed every move.

She looked hurt. “Oh,” she pouted.

“You can stay if you want,” he said sincerely, following her movements in the post-dawn streaks of light that found their way around the heavy curtains. “I’ll be back tonight. Do you have to work or anything?” He stopped at the bathroom door frame and stared back at her, waiting for an answer.

She stood uneasily from the bed, one hand extended for balance and the other halfheartedly covering her chest. She considered her options. “I’m gonna blow off class,” she announced lazily as she managed to straighten her spine and stretch. “You don’t mind if I stay?”

“Nope.” Gary Tatum allowed his two weaknesses, tequila and athletic sorority girls, to take advantage of him. “I hope you will. Maybe we’ll make some dinner and, well, who knows.” She smiled and rolled playfully back onto the bed, presenting a dilemma that Gary didn’t dare give thought. A blinding flash of his father’s ire screamed through his throbbing head. “Look, uh,” he said, trying to find the right tone. “I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but I really have to get going.” Sadie. . .Sasha. . .Shauna. “I’m going to get a quick shower and get dressed. I’ve got an interview in Raleigh in a few hours.”

“Like, for a job?” she asked

“Yeah,” he said as he backed toward the bathroom. One hour and sixteen minutes left, twenty-five minutes to the airport, and he would have to sprint from the parking garage to the ticket counter and then to the gate. At least he didn’t have luggage. He backed into the bathroom, turned on the shower, and then grabbed the toothpaste and his toothbrush out of the top drawer. The harshness of the peppermint made him gag, but he managed to relieve himself of the taste of hours-old tequila and lime. He continued brushing as he stepped into the shower, and he spent a precious two minutes standing under the shower head hoping that the cold water would revive him. He rinsed and tossed the toothbrush from the shower onto the counter.

She knocked on the door, startling him back to the reality that he had no time to waste. “Hey, I don’t want this to be weird or anything,” she yelled through the cracked-open door, “but can I come in? It’s kinda an emergency.”

“Come on in,” he said, leaning against the shower wall with both hands. The rest of the shower took less than a minute. “You want to jump in? I’ll leave it running.”

“No, I’ll shower later. You got coffee?”

“Yeah, in the freezer. The coffee maker’s on the counter by the stove. Filters are in the drawer under the coffee maker.” He turned off the water and threw open the curtain. “Bottle of Tylenol there,” he said and motioned at the red-capped white bottle by the sink. He reached for his towel, and when he glanced at her she was staring. He couldn’t help but stare back. “Uh, anyway,” he stumbled, “there’s sugar in the cabinet and there’s milk in the fridge. Just make yourself at home.”

 

With just a faux leather attaché in the passenger seat beside him, Gary Tatum darted his red convertible Z28, what his father called a graduation present and what Gary called divorce bribery, in and out of traffic toward Jacksonville International. He arrived at the parking garage in record time. He locked the doors and he walked as quickly as he dared to the elevators. Even a slow jog ran the risk of an open declaration of war between stomach and head. He had forced himself to consume four dry pieces of toast during the nineteen minute trip, and he prayed for a bottomless urn of black coffee during his flight.

“A will-call ticket for Tatum, T-a-t-u-m,” he said when he stepped up to the counter. He reached for his ID, and the security guard twenty feet to his left looked him up and down since he was boarding a plane with nothing more than his small leather case.

“Thank you, Mr. Tatum. Departing from gate C4 in. . .” she paused and looked over her right shoulder at the clock. “Thirty-seven minutes. Better get on your way.”

Gary thanked the agent and followed her red, manicured finger nail toward the escalators. The white tiled floor reflected the glare of sunshine and industrial fluorescent lamps, magnifying the effects of the alcohol that still churned deep inside. He cursed silently when he realized he had left his sunglasses in the car, and he cursed out loud when the security agent at the metal detector instructed him to remove his shoes.

Ten minutes of scanning and all foreseen roadblocks behind him, Gary arrived at C4 just as HimynameisLaurel announced the penultimate boarding call for flight one fifty-three to Raleigh-Durham. He offered his boarding pass and made his way down the gangway. Coffee and a short nap, hopefully, would go a long way toward reviving him before he attempted to fulfill his duty of not embarrassing his father.

He stowed his satchel in the overhead bin and folded himself into his aisle seat. At six-feet-four, the airline industry standard of saving space was not a welcome change to Gary Tatum. He buckled his seatbelt and propped his head against the top of the seat. As soon as he was relaxed and nearly asleep, the speaker immediately over his head squawked and the static-filled voice of the pilot startled Gary back to full consciousness. “Good morning folks. We’ll be under way in just a few minutes nonstop service to Raleigh-Durham. Current weather in Raleigh: haze and seventy-seven degrees with sustained wind out of the south southwest at six miles per hour. Relative humidity eighty-eight percent.” The rest of the captain’s spiel was lost in Gary’s hangover. He was able to close his eyes and shut out the noise.

Ten minutes into the flight, Robbi the forty-something flight attendant flashed twenty-eight sparklingly white teeth and asked, “What to drink for you, hon?” The other four teeth took cover behind her artificially elevated cheeks.

“Coffee,” answered Gary, still waking from his short nap.

Before he could add “black” to his order, Robbi asked, “Cream and sugar in that, hon?”

“No, thanks. Just black.”

“You betcha!” she gushed, and she took two short paper cups from the stack and filled them both with hot liquid that Gary hoped was much stronger than it looked. She placed both cups on the folded down tray in front of him, followed by four cellophane-wrapped crackers. “To soak up the poison.” Years of serving coffee to the hung over masses made them easy to spot. She patted him on the shoulder. “I’ll be back.”

She pushed the cart down the aisle, and Gary winced at the heat that assaulted his upper lip. His stomach settled more with each swallow, and each bland cracker was a welcome ally of the toast he had devoured on the way to the airport. A few minutes later, Robbi with the blinding smile tossed a small foil package of Tylenol on Gary’s tray and said grimly in his ear, “For the spike that is being driven through your skull.”

“Thanks,” he said in a whisper.

“Last day of vacation?” she asked.

“Something like that.” He wanted no words of congratulation, especially not those that carried any volume, so he kept to himself the fact that he had, technically, graduated from law school the day before. He swallowed the two tablets with the last sip of his first cup of coffee. Robbi was ready with a refill immediately. The sunlight that reflected off of the laminated tray was blinding, so Gary eased his seat back and turned his head toward the aisle and away from the window and closed his eyes.

“Sir?” asked Robbi with no response. There were only scant signs of life. She tried twice more before she resorted to a series of quick pats on Gary’s shoulder with three fingers, her pinky drawn up and pointing toward the ceiling. He drew his head upright from the awkward, crick-inducing angle in which he fell asleep. For a horrifying few seconds he checked his chin and his shirt for drool. “Time to wake up sir,” beamed Robbi. “We’re on approach. Do you want to finish your coffee, or can I take it for you?”

The rest of the cabin was far more lucid than Gary Tatum. He stretched in an attempt to stimulate some blood flow. As he looked to his right and across the aisle, he made eye contact with a girl of perhaps thirteen or fourteen who was carefully scrutinizing his every move. Gary brought his arms down and smoothed the front of his shirt, suddenly self-conscious. “Take it,” he ordered through a yawn.

Gary stretched and rolled his head. When he grunted and cleared his throat, the girl peeked in wonder at the creature that was making the noise that disturbed her concentration on her hand-held video game. She shook her head and returned to her game.

“Whatcha playing?” he asked in an attempt at conversation, but there was no answer. Gary wrestled with the idea of making another attempt at conversation. It seemed she was travelling by herself. “My name’s Gary,” he said clearly, skipping the formality of offering his hand. She rolled her eyes, her fingers never leaving the game, and it occurred to Gary that he probably sounded like a creep. The plane had touched down, and passengers were anxiously staring at the overhead compartments.

A couple of minutes passed before she uttered, teenage disdain and disgust spearheading angst, “You remind me of my mother.”

He was surprised at her response, not at the content but that it happened. “Yeah?” Does she like the beach?”

The aircraft was slowing, nearly at the gate. She smiled faintly, still a hint of disgust. “No. She was an alcoholic, too.”

The remark jarred Gary just as the brakes set when the door aligned with the gangway. “Gracie!” said a mature male voice loud enough to be heard over the din of the rising tones inside the cabin. “Find your bag and leave that man alone.” His words were stern.

She answered with a flip of her hair and she rolled her eyes at Gary Tatum.

The line in the aisle began to move and Gary said pleasantly, “It was nice to meet you.”

She almost let loose a teenage, cynical remark, but she made eye contact with her father and silently began walking up the aisle. The lights were dim and flickering, and the plane shook as the baggage brigade began unloading suitcases from the hold below. Gary glanced up from the back of the line and caught Robbi’s gaze as she smiled affectionately at each and every passenger.

The crow’s feet at the outside corners of Robbi’s eyes softened as Gary approached. “How ya doin’?” she asked, concerned but loud enough to remind Gary that he had done significant temporary damage to himself the night before.

He winced at her volume. “Fine, fine.” He had no intention of slowing as he exited. “Thanks for the Tylenol.”

“Anytime, hon.” She patted him on the shoulder. “B’bye now.” She shook her head but her eyes followed him until he made the first turn toward the terminal.

He was silently grateful that he had no baggage to struggle with, and he shaded his eyes as he entered the sunlit terminal. He slowed as his eyes adjusted, and he scanned the waiting friends and family members for, hopefully, a sign that said “Tatum”. No such luck. He was actually beginning to feel a nervous pang in his stomach; at least he was fairly certain that it was more than the tequila-toast-Tylenol-coffee conflict. He once again cursed under his breath the fact that his sunglasses were protecting his dashboard from an ultraviolet assault. His eyes screamed for a drop or two of anything that would take the red out. That bottle was in the glove compartment.

Gary’s thoughts were on the interview at hand, but he was confident he could sell himself and his legal ability. He was insecure about anything his father suggested to be a wise move for his future, and there still existed a large chip on Gary’s shoulder over the divorce. Chances were miniscule that neither the Honorable Winston Samuel Tatum of the Eastern District of Virginia nor his alter ego, the beer drinkin’, cigar chompin’, cheatin’ sonofabitch Sam Tatum would ever get an even break or a second chance from his only son. Gary had finished his senior college football season, and after he finished his finals in early December he decided to drive home to Colonial Heights to surprise his mother. She was on her knees in the dining room, waxing the wood floors by hand, when Gary came through the front door. “Christ, Mama, you mean Daddy doesn’t have enough money to hire somebody to do that?”

They arrived at the courthouse just before dinnertime to surprise the elder Tatum. It was late enough in the afternoon, almost six, that the entire building seemed deserted. When they found themselves in front of the polished oak door to his chambers, a passionate female voice was breathily blurting, “Yes, Your Honor! Yes, Your Honor!” Judge Tatum moved into an apartment close to the courthouse within the week, and Mrs. Tatum amassed her ex-husband’s wealth in less than a year. At least Gary didn’t end up with a stepmother who was only four years his senior. The affair fell apart rapidly.

“Gary Tatum?” asked a tall, well-groomed man wearing cargo shorts and a baggy Queensryche Operation Mindcrime t-shirt.

“That’s me.”

“I’m Luke. I’ll be your driver today.”

“Nice shirt.”

“Thanks. Saw ‘em at Walnut Creek. Got any bags?”

“Only the ones under my eyes,” he said sarcastically.

“Well, then, we’re on our way. Parking garage isn’t far.” Gary nodded. “First time in Raleigh, Mr. Tatum?”

“Nah. I was up here a few months ago for the bar exam. Nice place. Drove right up to the Graham Building at the State Fairgrounds, took the test, and found a pub across the street from State.” Gary was getting past his acute alcohol setback. “Say, can we stop and grab a soda?”

“Sure, there’s a Quik-Sak or something right on the other side of I-40 on the parkway.”

“Sweet. I need about another gallon of caffeine and I’ll be straight. It wouldn’t be good to show up to my interview with mud on my tongue and red streaks in my eyes.”

Luke reached in his pocket and produced a bottle of saline. “I use it for my contacts, but you’re welcome to give it a shot.”

“They oughta promote you from driver to Christ,” Gary drooled.

Luke chuckled. “Long night?”

“Shall we say that had I been notified of my trip to your fair state last night as opposed to this morning, I could’ve committed tequilus interruptus at an appropriate hour?” Gary put two drops in each eye, rolled his eyes, and blinked. He handed the small bottle back to Luke. “Thanks, dude. Better.”

They made it to the garage and to Luke’s Suburban. “Right here. You may have to move that seat back a bit. The boss is about a foot shorter than you.”

“Nice wheels. Yours?”

“Sort of. I get to drive it a lot.” Luke navigated the exit and paid the attendant at the gate. Luke began the conversation with small talk. “So Russell Vaughn is our big shot attorney in Azalea Springs, and I guess he knows your father through someone in DC. Is that right?”

“I guess. My dad called this morning and told me to get my ass to Raleigh for an interview in Azalea Springs, that Mayor Ellington would meet me at the gate.” Luke steered the Suburban through the short airport maze that led to Highway 54 as Gary took deep breaths to quell his churning stomach. The toast and the crackers and the coffee helped, but relief was only temporary. “I appreciate you driving. I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle a stuffy old mayor.” Luke chuckled. “You’ve been around Azalea Springs for a while, then, Luke?”

“Yeah, I grew up there,” he responded with a smile.

“You been working for the town long?”

“About eight years now. I like it. My mom still lives in the same house.”

“It hasn’t gotten old? Living and working in a small town?”

“Well, I do pretty much whatever needs to be done, I guess. Small towns are like that. It’s in my blood. Good people, slow pace, no need to stare at the clock.” Gary nodded, but he didn’t offer his own insight about small towns. He was a city boy, through and through. “You’ve finished all of your classes, Mr. Tatum?”

“Yeah, last semester, but I had a few things left to do. Just some minor details to tie up this semester. I finished up last week.”

“Russell Vaughn, the lawyer I mentioned, says you’ve passed the bar?”

“Here and Virginia.” The Virginia exam was strictly to placate his father.

“Any experience in court?”

“Trying cases, no. In court, yes.” Luke laughed at his passenger. Gary realized his faux pas and backtracked. “No, nothing like that. What I mean is that I’ve spent a lot of time in my father’s courtroom, and I clerked in metro court in Jacksonville for a couple of semesters. That was a better education than any classroom.” Gary’s explanation helped, but he hoped his driver would forget the slipup.

“Gotcha.”

“I did a lot of mock trial stuff in school.” Luke nodded his approval as he listened. “It was pretty cool, but not quite realistic,” Gary said as his stomach became more disagreeable and the Tylenol was losing its effect.

“Enough to teach you how to argue, though?” Luke asked.

“I guess,” Gary snickered. “I had a pretty good start with arguing growing up around my mom and dad.” They rode in silence for several minutes. Luke had no desire to hear about unpleasant family memories, and Gary was slightly embarrassed that he had taken the conversation in that direction. Gary interrupted an Eagles tune on the radio and asked, “What’s Azalea Springs like? Is there really enough crime that the town needs a public defender?” His physical condition was making him perspire, and the late-morning heat and humidity weren’t helping.

Luke considered his answer for several seconds before he responded. “I know that Russell Vaughn handles several corporate clients, and he is looking at expanding. His practice does about everything, from wills to real estate to the few criminal cases we get.” He paused, waiting for Gary to acknowledge his answer. Gary’s eyes were fixed on the road ahead, his face expressionless. He was turning an unnatural shade of green and his temple was throbbing. Luke continued. “We get DUIs and some minor drug cases and the occasional domestic cases, but I can’t remember the last time we had anything really newsworthy.”

Gary heard the words but nothing could penetrate the haze in his head. A tall sign introducing a Quik Sak and proclaiming that the tiny convenience store stocked the coldest beer around crept over the horizon. “Stop there!” he blurted as he pointed at the sign.

“Your wish is my command,” said Luke. He decelerated and flipped on the turn signal.

Gary couldn’t get out of the car quick enough and he bolted through the front door of the store in search of the restroom. He crouched in front of the commode until he was reasonably certain that the violent turmoil in his stomach had passed. Gary held a cool, brown paper towel on his neck, and he vowed he would never, ever imbibe to such a stupor again. He hoped that his companion was faring better (Sally. . .Sunny. . .Shelby). He exited the restroom a new man, and he purchased a sixty-four ounce Coke Classic, a travel sized Listerine, and a small bottle of Tylenol. “Good luck,” the clerk offered. Gary paused beside the sleek black Chevy and took a swig of Fresh Burst Listerine, the harshness of which made the muscles in his throat contract. He barely missed Luke’s white cross trainers with a stream of green antiseptic.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, just trying to make sure I’ve got last night behind me.” He rubbed his temples and reached for his Coke.

“You know, Tatum, it’s not my position to judge, but I will tell you that you need to get whatever’s in your system out of your system before you end up in front of Russell Vaughn.” Gary looked up at Luke and raised his eyebrows. “The old man will crucify your ass if he knows you’ve been drinking like a frat boy.” Luke paused and then said, “Come on. We best be on our way.” Gary climbed into the passenger seat and they headed down Highway 54 toward US 1.

After several minutes of considering Luke’s advice, Gary asked, almost pleaded, “Say, you’re not going to say anything about, well, you know.”

“Nope. Not my business, as long as you do your job.” He re-gripped the steering wheel and added, “Providing it’s offered to you.” Luke’s tone was dry and his words were flat.

“Thanks.” He looked at Luke and asked, “So what’s your story? High school? College? Working as a driver and what else?”

“High school right in Azalea Springs. College was a bit more challenging. I did my BS in Poli-Sci at NC State, and then I did my MA in Public Policy at Wake Forest.”

“Damn, man. That’s impressive. Why are you working as a gofer?” Gary tried to soften his tone.

“Budget cuts.” The answer was simple. Luke glanced at Gary and said, “After my first term I lost my deputy mayor to budget cuts. That, to say the least, sucked.” Gary Tatum was confused, but it didn’t occur to Luke Ellington that he hadn’t introduced himself fully. “We’ve never had the money to hire a bunch of folks, and there’s really not enough work to keep them busy.” Luke paused for a few seconds, fully in character as the man in charge, and then he said, “So, on top of being mayor, I am the chief financial officer, the head umpire for the softball league, and the entertainment coordinator for the Harvest Days Festival.” Gary had turned his head to stare at Luke, who responded with an embarrassed smile, “I think I’ve confused you a little bit.” Gary lowered his brow. “We really haven’t been fully introduced, and that’s completely my fault. You can certainly call me Luke, but a lot of people call me Mayor Ellington.”

Gary nearly fumbled his sixty-four ounce tub of soda onto the floorboard. His mouth dropped open and he looked at his new friend the mayor and began to laugh. “Well, Mr. Mayor, I sure am sorry that I spit Listerine on your shoes.” He offered his hand and said, “Nice to meet you.”

“Good thing that I’m not an old and stuffy mayor.” He shook Gary’s hand firmly.

“Don’t sweat it.”

“I didn’t exactly correct you when you began to make assumptions,” the mayor admitted.

Finally Gary asked, “How am I doing so far?”

Luke chuckled sarcastically and smiled. “Tell me why the Town of Azalea Springs should hire you as its chief public defender.”

Gary was stunned by the mayor’s directness. “Well. . .”

“This is interview question number one, by the way,” Luke advised without taking his eyes off the road.

“Fair enough.” He considered his words before he answered. “Let’s see, Mr. Mayor. I’m obviously gullible and unobservant, I make rash assumptions based on the clothing of the person at whom I am looking, and I had way too much to drink last night.” Luke raised his eyebrows. “I’m not so sure you should hire me, how about you?”

“Good points. Aside from your more favorable qualities,” the mayor began sarcastically, “tell me about defending a man who is charged with spousal abuse.”

“Huh?”

“If you are defending a man who is accused of beating his wife, what is your defense?”

“Oh, like a roll play?”

“Very similar.”

The answer was found after a few short seconds of thought. “Take a plea,” said Gary decisively. “There is no defense. I advise my client to offer the most heartfelt apology he can muster to his wife and the court, and then I ask for counseling and probation.”

“So you’d put him right back at home where the crime happened?”

“That would be my job, wouldn’t it?” Luke didn’t answer. “I’d also hope that the wife had an attorney or a family member who would help her get as far away from the husband as she could.” There were several darker aspects of Gary’s career choice that he didn’t like. The prospect of defending rapists and child abusers turned his stomach.

The next question didn’t come immediately. Luke was much more comfortable with the idea of continuing his duty as driver and leaving the interview to Russell Vaughn. Vaughn was experienced in court, and he knew the qualities necessary for a public defender in a small town. The pay was less than desirable, the hours could be long, and the clientele was difficult. The more well-off citizens of Azalea Springs who could afford a top-notch lawyer retained Russell Vaughn. The rest hoped for an adequate defense from Enos Reagan, the self-proclaimed yet unproven third cousin of the thirty-third President of the United States. Enos, nine days before Gary Tatum’s interview, announced his immediate retirement from public service when he was caught in flagrante delicto with an alluring young blonde who proved to be two years from legal adulthood.

He cried at the press conference when he begged for the forgiveness of his wife of thirty-one years. His backseat indiscretion was a setup, he claimed, and the young lady with whom the attorney was caught with his pants down proved her adulthood with a valid North Carolina driver’s license. It was in his best interests, as he faced the reconstruction of his marriage, to allow the good people of Azalea Springs to turn a page in history. Russell Vaughn was certain without the resignation that Enos Reagan would face charges of child abuse, statutory rape, and criminal sexual penetration of a minor.

Luke Ellington wanted a replacement for the dishonorable Enos Reagan before the next bill for Russell Vaughn’s services arrived at City Hall. In the silent anticipation of his formal interview, Gary Vaughn fell asleep in the passenger seat.

He was startled back to consciousness when Luke slapped Gary’s left shoulder with his right hand. “About ten minutes out. You’ll want to start pulling yourself together.”

“Wh--?” Gary jerked.

“About ten minutes. Rise and shine.” Luke was impressed with Gary’s ability to sleep so deeply, even if he was under the influence of an untold amount of alcohol.

“Thanks, dude,” he said through a strained yawn. He pushed his feet against the floorboard and reached behind the headrest as far as he could. “Did I snore?”

“Like a chainsaw.”

“Great.” Gary reached into the back seat for his jacket, in the pocket of which was a silver tie. He began running the tie under his collar.

“A sense of fashion. Impressive.”

“What?”

“Nothing,” Luke smiled. Gary stared. “No, really. It’s nice,” he complimented and nodded at the silver fabric that rested against the navy blue suit jacket. Gary was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt against sarcasm. “My wife still dresses me every morning so I don’t embarrass the family name.”

“She kind of missed the mark this morning,” shot Gary, hoping to destroy any traces of an insult. He did admire the Queensryche shirt.

“See? Wait until you’re married and the missus picks out your clothes.”

“Got a long wait for that one.” Luke let the conversation drop.

After a few minutes, the mayor said, “Okay, we’re here,” he said and pointed at a massive old mansion that advertised “Russell J. Vaughn and Associates” in eighteen inch raised letters across the eve of the building above three massive stone pillars.

“What’s he like?”

“Who? Russell? He’s formal, pompous, and rich. My best advice is to be formal, gracious, and humble.”

“Right,” Gary said as he put on his jacket and straightened his collar. They walked to the front door and stepped inside.

“Hello, Mr. Mayor,” greeted Vaughn’s receptionist, Connie.

“He’s expecting us,” Luke said and steered Gary Tatum past the desk and down the hall. They stopped in front of the last door on the left and the mayor rapped lightly three times.

“Enter!” the voice from within commanded.

Mayor Luke Ellington, still in cargo shorts and concert t-shirt, made the formal introduction: “Russell Vaughn, this is Gary Tatum.” Gary stood at the office door until Luke pushed him in the small of the back toward Vaughn, who had risen from his chair and was striding across the massive office. Gary met him at the twelve-chair conference table and extended his right hand. Vaughn shook it firmly.

“A pleasure to meet you, sir. Thank you for seeing me today.”

“Thank you for coming up on short notice.”

“Well, when the judge pronounces a sentence it’s usually in my best interest to listen,” Gary joked. Apparently Russell Vaughn knew the Honorable Winston Tatum better than Gary understood. There was no laughter.

“Yes, yes, I believe that to be accurate. He sounded well when I spoke with him yesterday.”

“I’m sure he is.” Gary wasn’t about to let the subject of his father dominate the conversation. He handed the contents of his attaché to Vaughn, who had retreated to his desk. “A resume and transcripts for you, sir.” Vaughn sat slowly in the plush office chair behind his desk. He motioned with his palm up for the documents, forcing Gary to take another step and lean over the massive desk.

“Thank you.” He motioned for Gary to sit. “I’m sure the mayor has explained our predicament in Azalea Springs. Our current public defender has decided rather suddenly to leave his position. We do not have the luxury of beginning a weeks-long hiring process involving the town council and a committee, so we have decided to interview candidates by recommendation only.” He paused and looked up from Gary’s transcripts.

“Thank you,” Gary said in a tone that nearly indicated a question. He heard Ellington snicker softly and then cough more audibly behind him.

“Florida Coastal School of Law,” observed Vaughn, stretching each word out as if he had never before uttered the name. He may not have. Gary could feel the sarcasm and condescension. Why was he even there? “Ninety-seventh in a class of one hundred eight. Three-point-one grade point average. One seventy-one on the LSAT. Good score, Mr. Tatum.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Tell me, Mr. Tatum, how does a young man score so high on an entrance exam and fail to translate that to a proper class ranking?”

Nothing like being direct. Without a thought, which would have been a wise decision, Gary said, “I dedicated much of my time to the improvement of student morale.” Vaughn was not impressed.

“Well,” Vaughn said in a louder voice across the room toward the mayor, “I have nothing further here, do you, Lucas?”

“No, sir.”

“Shall we move this meeting to the courthouse?” Russell gathered Gary’s paperwork and a large file into a briefcase. “You’ll drive, mayor?”

“Sure.”

When they were in the mayor’s SUV and on their way to the courthouse, Russell pulled the file from his briefcase and handed it to Gary. “Take a few minutes and familiarize yourself with this case. State of North Carolina v. Wicker. It is unwinnable, but I think it will be appropriate for you to demonstrate your abilities in a live trial.” Gary’s mouth dropped open. He hadn’t seen this one coming.

“You’re not serious,” he mumbled, staring at the label on the folder.

“I’ll give you the highlights. Rusty Wicker, age twenty-nine, a white male of questionable political and social values, was pulled over on US1 for failure to maintain a lane. He was subsequently asked to perform several field sobriety tests, the results of which led the arresting officer, Nolan Pratt, to order a breath test.” Gary had opened the file and was reading. Vaughn was serious about putting Gary behind the defense table. “Your client blew a point-one-seven, Mr. Tatum. He is demanding a trial.”

“If it’s unwinnable, why does he want a trial? Why not plead no-contest and be done?”

“Because his uncle is paying me for a miracle. This is your interview, Mr. Tatum.” Gary was perspiring, and his head began to throb again. “Your father tells me you think well on your feet. I’d like to see that.” Gary was flipping through pages, and he read the criminal complaint closely. “Besides, I’ll sweeten the pot by giving you half the fee.”

“I think I have no choice here.” He was actually excited.

The three men walked into the courtroom, the mayor taking a seat in the gallery and the two lawyers walking to the defense table. Shortly, the defendant was led into the room in handcuffs and he was introduced, for the first time, to his lawyer.

“I’ll do my best,” said Gary sincerely.

“You just do your damn job,” Rusty Wicker spat as the guard guided him into his seat. His hair was long and stringy, and it barely covered a tattoo of a swastika on the right side of his neck.

Gary shook his head and opened the file on the table. Russell Vaughn was explaining to the obviously agitated Rusty Wicker that Gary Tatum was a lawyer from Florida who was in Azalea Springs for a short period of time. “Your outcome will be no different,” said Vaughn in as droll a tone as he could conjure.

“I don’t like it a damn bit, Russell. Not one damn bit,” complained Wicker.

“Just keep your mouth shut. Another outburst like last time and Judge Patterson will throw the book at you.” Wicker sat low in his chair and stewed.

As if on cue, Judge Eldon Patterson appeared and the bailiff shouted, “All rise!”

Gary turned and looked at the mayor. “What’d he do last time?”

The bailiff continued his duty. “This court is now in session. The Honorable Judge Eldon Patterson presiding.” He shot Gary Tatum and Luke Ellington a stern look.

“The less you know the better,” whispered the mayor.

Patterson started the proceedings. “Rusty Wicker. You have declared yourself not guilty of the charges of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, operating a motor vehicle while possessing an open container of alcohol, failure to maintain a lane of traffic, and failure to use a restraining device.” The judge peered over his bifocals at Gary Tatum and asked, “Russell, I don’t believe I’ve met your new counsel.”

Gary spoke up. “Gary Tatum for the defense, Your Honor.”

“I was not speaking to you, young man,” he said with disgust and threw his pen on the desk in front of him.

“Judge Patterson,” began Russell Vaughn as he stood, “this is Gary Tatum. He is a member of the bar in North Carolina and he will be representing Mr. Wicker during today’s proceedings.” Russell immediately sat back down, knowing further explanation was not necessary.

“How many cases have you tried, Mr. Tatum?” inquired the judge, feigning sincere interest.

“This is my first, Your Honor,” Gary admitted sheepishly after contemplating a lie.

“Stupendous,” muttered Rusty Wicker. It was the longest word in his limited vocabulary.

“Pardon me, Mr. Wicker?” asked Patterson.

Gary stepped into the line of sight between Wicker and the judge. “I apologize, Your Honor. I will impress upon my client the importance of the sanctity of the nature of these proceedings.”

“Thank you, Mr. Tatum,” said the judge. Russell was impressed that the freshman attorney didn’t throw his client under the wheels of justice. He nodded his approval. “Also impress upon your client the fact that another profane outburst will land him in the county jail for thirty days.”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

The prosecution spent the next few minutes explaining the facts of the case. Everything seemed in order. When Deputy Sheriff Nolan Pratt was called to the stand, Gary formed an instant dislike for the man. The deputy was full of value judgments, and he sneered at Wicker during each answer he gave.

“Your witness,” pronounced the prosecutor when she was finished deposing Pratt. Gary rose slowly from his chair and approached the deputy.

“Deputy Pratt, my client has stated that you have harassed him and his cousin on numerous occasions.” Gary waved Wicker’s file in the air. Nobody expected Tatum to challenge the deputy. “In this file, Mr. Wicker states that he has been physically assaulted, verbally harangued, and mentally tortured, all at your whim.”

“Objection, Your Honor. Deputy Pratt is not on trial here. Is there a question?”

“Get to the point, young man,” the judge instructed Gary.

Gary had been facing Judge Patterson, and he turned on his heel to face Pratt. “Is there video evidence that my client was failing to maintain a lane?”

“You mean like a dash cam?” Deputy Pratt sounded like the simple man he was.

“Yes, that’s exactly what I mean,” Gary said in a huff. He played the part of the impatient defense attorney well.

“Well, no, not exactly,” Pratt muttered.

“What does that mean, deputy?” demanded Gary.

“The camera was not in service at the time.” The deputy’s confidence waned and he began to fidget.

“Do you mean it was broken, deputy, or do you mean that you forgot to hit the ‘on’ switch?” Russell Vaughn looked up from the hang nail on his right index finger, impressed with Gary’s willingness to bait the deputy into a confrontation.

“Broken,” spat Pratt.

The prosecutor stood quickly. “We will stipulate that the camera was in disrepair, Judge.”

Gary didn’t miss a beat. “I see. And in the presentation of the case by the assistant district attorney, I do not recall seeing the alleged open container of alcohol. Where might that container be, deputy?” The open-and-shut case of the prosecution was still very much standing agape, and Rusty Wicker’s lawyer was gaining the upper hand.

“I emptied it by the side of the road,” Pratt said sheepishly.

“Is that standard operating procedure, deputy?”

“I didn’t have a waterproof evidence bag and I didn’t want my car smelling like beer.”

“Your Honor, please instruct the witness to answer my questions,” Gary said, never taking his eyes off the deputy.

“The witness will give direct answers to the questions posed by the defense. Is that clear?”

“Yeah, judge,” muttered Pratt. The ADA sat with his hand on his forehead as if he was checking to see if he had a fever.

“So,” Gary said, trying to elicit a reaction from Pratt.

“So, what?” asked Pratt as if he had just been drawn from a day dream.

“Permission to treat the witness as hostile, Your Honor?” Gary asked as a statement.

“Treat away, Mr. Tatum. Please know that I have a tight hold on your leash.”

“Woof,” said Gary in the direction of the bench, bringing a smile to Russell’s face.

“That’s enough, Mr. Tatum,” warned the judge.

Vaughn leaned to whisper in Ellington’s ear. “He’s a natural, Lucas.” Ellington nodded.

Gary didn’t miss a beat. “Deputy, you testified under oath that my client registered a point-one-seven when the breath test was administered, is that correct?”

“It is,” confirmed Pratt.

“And that level of intoxication is more than double the presumed level of intoxication for an adult in the state of North Carolina, correct?”

Deputy Pratt sneered. “Yes, that is correct.”

Everybody in the courtroom stared at Gary Tatum, presumably wondering why the young lawyer was confirming such damning evidence against Rusty Wicker.

“Now, Deputy Pratt, by what method did you determine that Mr. Wicker was operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol?”

Pratt laughed. “Jeez, man, you just said yourself that he blew a point seventeen.”

Tatum stared at the witness. “Your honor, please instruct the witness to answer the question.”

“Deputy, please answer. . .”

Pratt interrupted the judge. “Breathalyzer. Breath. . .a. . .ly. . .zer,” said the deputy in four precisely, sarcastically pronounced syllables.

“That’s enough!” shouted the judge. “Counselors, get up here,” he snarled, pointing to the bench. After several minutes of the judge admonishing the lawyers, especially the prosecutor, and the lawyers staring at their shoes, Tatum’s line of questioning resumed. “Understand me, Mr. Pratt, that if you fail to completely and factually answer one more question posed by the defense, I will throw you in jail.”

Pratt nodded sheepishly. “Deputy Pratt, by what method did you determine that my client was intoxicated?” asked Gary a second time.

“A breath test, sir.” Sir was added to convince the judge there would be no further shenanigans, however sarcastic its intent.

“And deputy, have you been properly trained and are you currently certified to perform such a test in this state?” Gary’s focus was becoming obvious to Russell Vaughn and Judge Patterson.

Vaughn looked over his shoulder at Ellington. “This is good.” The mayor wasn’t following the argument yet.

“I am,” declared the deputy. The prosecutor held up a piece of paper that proved the deputy’s answer to be truthful.

“Deputy,” began Gary, “Can you tell me when the instrument was inspected before it was used to test the level of intoxication of my client?”

The blood drained from the prosecutor’s face. Pratt looked at the prosecutor, then at the judge, then at Rusty Wicker. Silence fell across the courtroom in anticipation of the answer. “No, sir,” Pratt said inaudibly.

“Pardon me, Deputy Pratt, but I didn’t quite catch your answer.” Gary caught the smile that was forming across his face before it became too obvious.

“I do not know when the instrument was last inspected,” Pratt said louder.

“Is it not the policy of your department that the last inspection date of the Breathalyzer, its components, and its software are to be entered on the arrest report?”

“Well, not really,” said Pratt. He was trying to make light of the mistake. “There’s a space there, but we usually leave that blank because all of the DWI reports have the same date after every inspection.”

“And where are the dates of inspection kept?” asked Gary, feigning disbelief.

“At the station,” admitted Pratt.

“So you have no proof of when the machine was last inspected?” Gary was incredulous. Vaughn was proud.

Before the deputy could make himself look more like a fool, the prosecutor stepped in to take his place. “Objection, Your Honor. We can produce that record after a short recess.”

Gary stepped from behind the defense table and into the aisle that separated the two sides of the courtroom. “Your Honor, I object. Just because the prosecutor is getting his ass kicked does not constitute grounds for him to bring in a bigger bully.”

“Mr. Tatum, find a vocabulary of a higher order, please.” The judge paused and then spoke to the prosecutor. “Overruled. Sit.” The order was simple. “Continue, Mr. Tatum.”

“Thank you, Your Honor. Deputy Pratt, when was the instrument calibrated before it was used on my client?”

“I suppose when it was inspected,” shot back Pratt. He was frustrated, and he would have been wise to have kept his mouth shut. “Dammit, Judge, this is bullshit and you know it. Rusty blew twice the legal limit and it was a good bust and now this yahoo’s comin’ in here trying to tell me how to do my job. Bullshit’s what it is.”

The judge banged his gavel several times on the bench in front of him, finally quieting the sparse crowd. “No, deputy, what it is is contempt of this court. Mr. Tatum, are you finished with this witness?”

“Yes, Your Honor,” Gary said dryly.

“Bailiff, take Mr. Pratt into custody.” The bailiff obeyed and looked apologetically at Pratt as he placed the deputy in handcuffs.

“Your Honor, given the fact that the prosecution has failed to provide physical evidence and supporting documentation as to the guilt of my client, I’d like a mistrial,” said Gary, this time unable to suppress his smile.

“Young man, if you are going to stand in my courtroom, you must use the correct phrasing. Your declaration should be, ‘the defense moves for a mistrial.’”

“Yes, sir,” Gary said uneasily. “Right.” He stood silent while everyone stared at him.

Russell Vaughn cleared his throat twice before he stood and announced, “Forgive me, Your Honor. In light of the developments in this trial, the defense moves for a mistrial with prejudice.”

Judge Patterson banged his gavel and said, “The mistrial is granted without prejudice. Russell, there was no misconduct here, only stupidity and overconfidence. The defendant is free to go. For now.”

Rusty Wicker looked at Gary Tatum, his eyebrows raised. “What just happened?”

“I got you off, but don’t celebrate too much,” Gary cautioned with a laugh.

“Whaddya mean?” asked Rusty Wicker.

“Without prejudice means that they can file the same charges against you as soon as they get their evidence together. Your best defense is to not get in a car with a thirty pace of Miller Lite any time soon. That deputy will be watching every move you make.”

“Why? I didn’t do nothin’ to him,” Rusty complained.

“No, you didn’t. But I made him look foolish on your behalf, and I don’t live here. You do. Good luck, Mr. Wicker,” Gary said and extended his hand. Wicker grasped it quickly, shook it weakly, and headed for the door.

Russell Vaughn and Luke Ellington stepped toward him and offered their hands in congratulations. “Well, done, Mr. Tatum,” said Vaughn proudly.

“Yeah,” said Luke. “I figured we were rid of Rusty Wicker for one to three.”

“An impressive defense, Tatum,” complimented Vaughn. “I’m impressed with your ability to think on your feet, and that you weren’t intimidated by the court.”

“Thank you, Mr. Vaughn,” Gary said sincerely.

“Mr. Tatum, it was nice to meet you. I hope we have occasion to meet again.” Russell gathered his things and glanced at the mayor. “I have a meeting upstairs. Please don’t wait for me, Lucas.”

Gary leaned against the defense table soaking in the moment. He just notched his first victory as a lawyer in a real courtroom.

When Vaughn was gone, Luke said, “Great argument. You had me convinced. Where’d you come up with the idea to dismiss because of the Breathalyzer?”

Gary laughed. “Read it in USA Today a few months back. A lawyer in some little county in Pennsylvania got a whole mess of DUIs dismissed using the same argument.”

“How’d you know it would work?”

“I didn’t,” Gary admitted. “But I sure as hell didn’t have anything else. Did you smell the alcohol on his breath?”

“Who? Wicker or the bailiff?”

“Nice. Come to think of it, I did. And that’s the last odor I needed to smell with my stomach.” Gary shook his head as he and the mayor walked toward the lobby.

“All right, here’s my deal: low pay, decent hours, basement office. I’ll help you find a place to live and I’ve got a spare bedroom you can use for your first week in town. Beyond that you have to negotiate directly with my wife.” It appeared that Lucas Ellington wanted an answer on the spot.

“Are you offering me the job?” Gary asked, unexcited but relieved.

“I am. You want it?” Gary could not find the right words. He was reluctant to jump right in, and he was even more reluctant to appear too eager. “Nice small town. Eight churches, nine bars, high speed Internet’s supposed to be comin’ in a few months. Best sausage gravy on the whole damn planet over at Hannah’s Café.”

Gary smiled. He liked the mayor and he enjoyed being pursued. He still had the feeling that he was quickly becoming a last resort. “Let me think about it and call you?”

“Don’t wait too long. I have to move fast or the town council will want to make my decision for me.”

 

The trip back to Jacksonville was uneventful. There was no sign of Robbi the stewardess and her hundred watt smile. He catnapped until the plane stopped at the gate, and when he stood to exit the aircraft he realized how tired he was. His thoughts were filled with the prospect of having a job practicing law, which was more than many of his former classmates were doing so soon after graduation. Forty-one thousand wasn’t a lot of money, but it was over forty thousand more than he was making before the offer. The hours were regular, and he wouldn’t have to answer at all times of day and night to a slave driving senior partner. He would have his father off his back.

The mayor was a regular guy, and the clientele wasn’t made up of the brightest bulbs in the world’s marquee. Less than two hours to Wrightsville Beach and Jax was a straight shot down I-95 for an occasional three day weekend. The mayor promised that Gary wouldn’t have to wear a tie unless he was going to court, pay day was twice a month, and housing was pretty cheap.

Could he deal with being so far out of his element? Servicing a bunch of drunk rednecks wasn’t at all the kind of law he dreamed of practicing. A special trip just to go to the beach seemed foolish. Afternoons at the Wet Whistle couldn’t shine a candle to happy hour at Freebird or Engine 15 on the beach. How he would miss Sandy Crack, where the lack of a dress code was a mixed blessing and he still held the keg stand record. He was getting sentimental.

He stepped off the elevator in the parking garage and took a long, satisfying breath of ocean air. “I can’t leave this,” he said aloud, and he checked over his shoulder to make sure nobody was listening. He could take the bar exam again in just over a month, and this time he’d pass it without a problem and then he could get the same job that Azalea Springs offered but in Jacksonville or Ponte Vedra or St. Augustine. Afternoons spent sitting on the beach, staring at the water, and trying to find Europe in the distance.

The rest of the drive back to his one room castle three-quarters of a mile from the beach was spent rehearsing his phone call to Lucas Ellington. “Thank you for your time and for considering me for the position, but I have decided to pursue my options in Jacksonville. I hope I’m not putting you in a bad spot.” His thoughts shifted to Shonda/Sharisse/Selma as he eased into his parking space. Memories of the night before gave him a chill. He hoped she had decided to stay, and he knew he would regret leaving Jacksonville without another night with her.

A different shiver ran up his spine as he approached his front door, key in hand. The door was cracked open, and a note was tacked to the door frame. “Sorry about your stuff. You seem like a really nice guy—Elaine.”

“Son of a bitch!” he yelled as he walked into the apartment. Everything was gone. Microwave, toaster, coffee maker, refrigerator, bed, lamp, night table, all of his clothes. Even the toilet paper and his tooth brush. The apartment was empty. He walked back out to the kitchen in complete disbelief. She even took the handles off the cabinets.

His first call was to the police, during which the dispatcher told him that such robberies were pretty common, especially around college campuses. “I’ll have an officer right out, Mr. Tatum. Just sit tight.”

The second call was the one he had talked himself out of making. The phone rang three times on the other end before Mayor Lucas Ellington of Azalea Springs, North Carolina, answered. “Hey, it’s Gary Tatum.” He paused to listen to the mayor. “I’m fine, thanks.” Another pause to listen. “Yes, yes I have. I’ll take it.”

“When would you like to start, Gary?” The mayor was grateful.

 

“I think I’ll just drive on up tomorrow,” Gary said.