I meet my celebrity client, Edmond C. Mayhew, IV in the City Jail Interview Room Seven. Mr. Mayhew has the rugged, handsome look of an athlete/movie star even in his baggy prison orange. He appears confident, a little tense and a bit annoyed to find himself in his current predicament.
“Mr. Mayhew, I’m—”
“I know who you are, Tecumseh H. Douglass, the legal magician who swoops in and brings the bright glory of victory to the most dismal and darkest moments of despair. It’s truly my pleasure to meet you, especially under these circumstances.”
Mayhew gives me his winning smile as he offers me his handcuffed hand. I give his hand a quick shake and settle into my uncomfortable straight-back chair. I don’t return his smile.
“Please, call me Ed. All my friends do. And, could I take the liberty of calling you, Tec? I have read that’s your preferred term of address—”
“Mr. Mayhew, have you talked to anyone at all about the alleged crimes or the victims? By anyone, I mean significant others, parents, friends, employers, law enforcement officers, cab drivers, anyone at all?”
“I talked to my agent, Barry Strong, with my first telephone call. I called my sister, Eleanor, in Providence with my second call. I informed them that I had been arrested and that I was not guilty. I told the arresting officers and the detectives that I wished to speak to my attorney.”
I fish a notepad and pen from my suit jacket inside pocket and pass them to Mayhew.
“Write down the time and locations of the calls, the approximate duration, and the exact words said by all the parties to your conversations.”
Mayhew looks a bit taken aback, but he starts to comply. “Is this necessary, I, no. I apologize. I know you’re the expert here.”
“When you called Mr. Strong, did you speak directly to him?”
“No, no I didn’t I spoke to Lyman, his secretary.”
“Write that conversation down, please. Is anyone in the jail hassling you or threatening you?”
Mayhew puts down my pen and looks at me. “I’ve only been in here about three hours. I haven’t mingled. What is your concern?”
“Mr. Mayhew you’re a wealthy, white, male celebrity in a world where poor, black and brown men rule. That puts you at a distinct disadvantage. Your fame as an author, actor, and Bon Vivant all work against you here.”
Mayhew narrows his eyes, his chin juts forward. “Yes, that’s why my publisher has hired you to make my stay as brief as possible.”
“You’re charged with intentionally setting a house fire knowing that two children and both of their parents were asleep in that house. Mr. Mayhew, the deaths of those children mean you have no friends here among the prisoners or the guards.”
I finally have Mayhew’s full and undivided attention. I see the fear flickering in his eyes for a second.
“The Sheriff has agreed to place you on the Security Ward—”
“No! No, absolutely not. I have to be with the general population I—Tec, have you read any of my Adonis Brown series?”
“Mr. Mayhew, we need to stay on topic. Your publisher, your public and the Sheriff and I want you safe. The best place to keep you safe is on the Security Ward.”
“Call me Douglass.”
There’s a flash of anger across his face as he replies, “My reputation’s at stake. Adonis Brown would face a situation like this with courage and class.”
“I know, and he would be quoting Zeno or some other ancient Greek writer. Adonis is a fictional character, he’s black and a veteran of maximum security prisons and is an ex-US Army Ranger. You’re none of the above.”
“Douglass, listen if my readers thought I was less a man than Adonis it would undermine my creation. My reputation, my career, my manhood’s at stake here. I’ll not go to the Security Wing like, like a cowardly snitch. I won’t do that. And as my attorney, that’s my direct order to you.”
“Mayhew, I don’t take orders from you. I didn’t even want to be your lawyer. I’m here as a favor for a friend. Now, I need you alive and well to survive the fire storm that’s about to incinerate your reputation and career. I hate to disappoint a friend but I will.”
Mayhew closes his eyes, grits his teeth, takes slow deep breaths and releases them. He opens his eyes and looks at me giving me his most earnest and imploring look. “Twenty-four hours. Just give me twenty-four hours and I’ll go into the Security Ward. I’ll provide you with the essential information that’ll blow this matter away at the preliminary hearing.”
My skepticism is evident on my face.
“Douglass, Douglass I’ll stay in my cell. I promise. Please, I’m a desperate man here. If you use this information I give you, it’ll be clear to you, that I have not committed any crime.”
My experience and instincts are all telling me to deny his request. In my very best mind I would stand up and dismiss Mayhew with a curt nod and a quick goodbye. However, I did make a promise to a friend who has always had my back. “Give me your information.”
Mayhew chuckles and grins with relief. “OK, OK now, you need to take these steps. First, examine the tax records on the house that was burned—”
“Mayhew, how will this help you?”
“Please, please just listen. I promise you this information will exonerate me. Next, go to that house and examine the rubble.”
“What am I looking for?”
“Douglass, you’ll know it when you see it. And, finally, go by the Coroners and check on the remains of the deceased. When you get back here, I’ll explain it all to you.”
“You could explain it to me now.”
“No, no, no you have to see it to believe it.”
I take a long look at this silver spoon, bestselling author, and budding film star. I didn’t want this case, and my gut tells me to drop it now, immediately and run as far as I can from Mayhew.
“Douglass, when you first read Adonis Brown did you think the author was black?”
“What?” I’m texting my assistant to get on the tax records search.
“Did you think—“
“Yes, yes I did. Why?”
“So, when you discovered, along with the rest of the world that I, a white male, had written the Adonis stories what was your reaction?”
I stand to leave. “I was surprised.”
“So, I convinced you, a black man, and very keen observer, that I was a black writer. What’s your opinion of my writing?”
“Mayhew, you’re a very good bestselling author, but you’re no Hemingway or Faulkner or Baldwin, or Richard Wright. I’ll be in contact soon, Stay in your cell.”
“Thank you for your candid opinion. We’ll revisit this issue when you return.”
I doubt that very much. Even my return’s doubtful.
The site of the arson is just outside the city limits on a dirt road behind a landfill. There’s one small shack on the last bit of pavement before the road turns to dirt. I wave to the ancient hillbilly sitting on the porch. He waves back. I’ll talk to him on the way back. He’s a key witness in this case.
There’s a pile of burnt, wet wood, but the pile’s way too small to be even a two car garage. I get out and study the rubble up close. There are the remains of some six-inch or so boards, but no framing two-by-fours, no foundation, or appliances or tub or toilet. I’m scratching my head when my phone rings.
“Hey, boss, they’re no tax records. There’s no record of a house at that location.”
“Anita, are you sure?”
“I used Google Maps. There’s no house there. And, I checked with the County Recorder, and as far as they know there has never been a building on that spot.”
I turn as I hear, someone, the hillbilly, approaching with his hands in his overall pockets. “Anita, thanks. I got to go.”
The hillbilly has lived here for ten years. There has never been a house here until the night of the fire. He saw a black family of four driving a beat up old Ford sedan pass the hillbilly’s house about six pm. He thought nothing of it because quite a few blacks fished in Moss Creek down by the landfill. My client drove past his house about ten pm. Several hours later he woke to the smell of smoke and ran down here to see what was burning. He was almost run over by Mayhew ‘driving like a bat out of hell’ away from the fire. The hillbilly, John Wormwood, was, in his other life, a Fortune 500 CEO. He’ll be an excellent witness for the prosecution, especially his comment about hearing screaming as he ran toward the fire. Mr. Wormwood is still trying to understand the events of that night. That makes two of us.
None of it makes any sense. I sit in my car outside the Coroner’s Morgue and study the cover of the Latest Adonis Brown book. Adonis is clad in his trademark brown leather jacket, tight pants with an automatic pistol in his right hand and a book, Aristophanes, His Plays in his left hand. The brown-skinned brother’s built like Muhammad Ali in his prime with a face many women and men would find irresistible.
I wonder what amazing revelations wait for me in the Coroner’s Morgue. Maybe I’ll meet Mr. Adonis Brown inside.
“Jesus, Tecumseh, what took you so long.”
I do an elaborate sixties style handshake with Slim Burnside, the pathologist with the best bedside manner in the business according to her.
“Slim, you’re always on my mind—”
“Tecumseh, you know I like single malt Scotch, right.”
“Of course. I think of you every Christmas—”
“And now, birthdays too.”
“OK, Slim why would I be so thoughtful?”
“Because I can tell you that your client may have set the fire, but the fire didn’t kill anyone.” Slim’s so excited she’s dancing around like my eight-year-old daughter when she has an urgent bathroom need.
“The police report said four badly burned bodies were removed from the site—”
“Yes, yes, but not human bodies. Shapes like two adults and two children, but—and here’s the strangest part. The bodies are some kind of flesh over clay. Just clay shaped in a human form. Incredible! Wow! Just, wow!”
“Hold on, Slim, before you pee on yourself. Can I see the remains?”
The flesh’s burnt black, but when Slim cuts through the flesh, there’s only red clay. We stand close to each other and back away from the four things on the tables. For once Slim has no smart-ass remark.
“Is the flesh human? What kind of flesh is it?”
“It’s not human flesh. This is all so fucking bizarre. I have my preliminary report completed. I sent you and the DA a copy. So fucking weird!”
I look down and discover Slim, and I are holding hands. We’re surprised and embarrassed.
Back in Interview Room, Seven with my smug client. I’ve related my findings as he smiled and nodded, even giggled at my description of the bodies.
“Mr. Mayhew, I would appreciate an explanation if one’s even possible.”
“You look a little rattled Tec. You look unnerved, perplexed and vexed.”
“OK, don’t explain. I would rather not hear your explanation—”
“Clever, clever reverse psychology. Alright. I created the house and the bodies in my mind. I translated those ideas into realities. You look stunned. I’m not having a psychotic break. I can turn my characters and settings into real external objects.”
“Like a 3D Printer?”
“What a wonderful simile! Very much like that.”
I rub the back of my neck. I feel a massive headache threatening like an avalanche of pain.
“You don’t believe me?”
“Mr. Mayhew, please keep that story to yourself.”
“Well, I think—”
“Shut up. Don’t think. Go back to your cell. I can confirm that you didn’t kill anyone. We’re going to have a special bail hearing just for you right after lunch. You sit tight for an hour and thirty minutes, and you’ll be out of here. Can you do that?”
“Will they charge me with attempted murder?”
“Mayhew, everyone associated with this matter just wants it to go away.”
Mayhew’s quiet for a minute looks apprehensive. “I was working out a back story for the next Adonis book, and I wanted to get the fire scene correct—This was a quick and dirty. I can do much better work, printing, as you call it. I—”
My headache’s rolling down on me as I hush Mayhew with a wave of my hand and stagger to my feet.
Deputy DA Swanson and I are in Judge Linda Fong’s Courtroom waiting for my client to be transported from the jail building next door.
“Douglass, this is as crazy a set of circumstances as I or anyone in my Office has ever encountered. What the fuck is happening here. This—“
We’re interrupted by my phone. I answer. The call last for less than thirty seconds. I pause for a few beats before I turn to Swanson. “There’ll be no hearing. It’s over. That idiot left his cell to go to lunch. Swanson, they turned him into a pin cushion. Stabbed him too many times to count. His assailants were shouting something about Mayhew ‘writing in blackface.’”
I tell the Clerk. She phones the Judge. I chew another handful of aspirins. I’ll not be doing another favor for my friend, Linda Fong, for a long time.
My poor, delusional, sick, egotist of a client. Mayhew’s last words were calling out to Adonis Brown to save him.
As I slowly make my way down the Courthouse steps, I can’t miss the ruggedly handsome black man in the brown leather coat racing up the steps to the jail.
I have to set on the steps for a moment. I need a minute to figure this one out. There’s a logical explanation. I just need to beat back my headache and figure this out. I think about the house that wasn’t there and the skin covered clay bodies. On, second thought, some things are best left unexamined, at least, by me.
Header photograph: By Related names: Lowe, Jet, photographer Jandoli, Liz, transmitter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons