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Grif Stockley

Religious Conviction


“Chet bracken is here to see me?” I ask in disbelief.

Stuffed on a big lunch, I come awake and sit upright in my chair and stare at my telephone as if I expect it to pop up a picture of Blackwell County’s one true whiz bang hotshot criminal attorney, Chester Theodore Bracken, an ugly, short man with jug ears the size of satellite dishes and a paunch he doesn’t bother to hide.

Bracken is the guy you call if you shoot Mother Teresa in a room full of nuns as she is being blessed by the Pope. Oddly enough. Bracken has showed up in my life unannounced once before. He had just picked up a client in the Hart Anderson murder case and rumbled through my office at the Public Defender’s that day like a flash flood, intimidating me with his reputation and overbearing manner. It doesn’t seem to have made much difference that I’m in private practice now. Why doesn’t he just use the telephone like everybody else?

“He’s not Jesus Christ, for God’s sake!” barks Julia, our floor secretary and receptionist, her tone up to her usual snotty standards.

“Are you gonna see him, or do you want me to say you’re too busy crapping in your pants?”

If Julia weren’t right so often, she’d still be intolerable. As a relative of the owner of the building, she dresses and talks as she pleases. Today the magenta sweater covering her breast implants is so tight her nipples look like rivets that have popped out of their holes from metal fatigue. At some perverse level, the lawyers on our floor like Julia and have grown attached to her, as one would a dog with a nasty growl. She can be a bitch, but she’s our bitch. I look down at the blank legal pad in front of me. I had set aside this morning to work on a brief to the Arkansas Supreme Court, but what the hell, it’s a loser anyway-a cocaine deal with the search being the main issue. If the money is right, the temptation is overwhelming to bag the client before he can slither out the door down to someone else’s office.

“I’ll be right out.”

“What’s the big deal?” Julia mutters.

“This guy looks pretty scruffy to me.”

“Wonderful, Julia!” I exclaim.

“Why don’t you put down the phone and just yell it in his face?” Yet I know what she means. Outside of a courtroom, Bracken is a ratty dresser-cowboy boots the color of musca dine wine, ties that strain against his bulging neck like sprung mousetraps, and belt buckles that double as beer bottle openers. Still, I’d cut off my left arm to get the results he does for his clients. My friend Dan Bailey, a veteran Chet Bracken watcher, retells the story that Bracken is so prepared he can tell you what his clients ate for breakfast the day they got themselves into trouble.

In the reception room Bracken’s appearance is, in fact, alarming. Scruffy isn’t the word. His suit, a cow patty gray, hangs on him; he looks like the family runt who has acquired a wardrobe of hand-me-downs. If he has been trying to lose weight, he should consider a career change as a barker for Weight Watchers. Otherwise he looks like a candidate for a bone-marrow transplant.

Immediately, I think he must have AIDS and realize I haven’t seen him around in two or three months. Despite the ghost he has become, Chet is a presence in Blackwell County legal circles, whether he is sighted or not.

“Mr. Bracken,” I say with a forced, uneasy jocularity, “to what do I owe the honor of this visit?” I would feel awkward calling him by his first name. We are not friends or equals, merely colleagues in a suspicious profession. A couple in the waiting room stare at Bracken and me as if I am greeting royalty.

Bracken pushes up from his chair and says, “Page, you got a few minutes?” No handshake. No smile. He may not look like the Chet Bracken of three months ago, but he is acting the same.

“Come on back,” I say, determined not to let myself be overwhelmed by him.

Seated in one of my chairs (the first time he came to my office at the PD’s he stood the entire time), he asks, “Page, you know anything about the Wallace murder?”

“Only a little,” I say. Leigh Wallace is a knockout brunette in her early twenties and the daughter of the minister of one of the largest nondenominational churches in the South who is on trial this month for the murder of her wealthy businessman husband at their swank home overlooking the Arkansas River.

“You got any interest in helping on the case?”

Bracken grunts so quickly I wonder if I have heard him.

I can’t believe he is asking me. Bracken has always been a one-man band, paying investigators and law clerks on a case-by-case basis.

“What do you need?” I ask, trying not to sound suspicious. While Bracken is the best criminal defense attorney Blackwell County has to offer, his reputation is clouded by rumors of violent paybacks when he feels a witness has lied to him on the stand. (One informant supposedly ended up with broken kneecaps.) Yet, since nothing has ever been documented, the stories may be mere jealousy. We like winners in Arkansas, but we like to hate them, too.

“Right now I need your word that what I’m about to tell you will go no further than this room,” he says, his voice earnest and low, “whether you come in with me on this case or not.”

My curiosity raised by the hint of pleading in his tone, I nod and say, “Of course,” noticing that the lines around Bracken’s mouth look drawn so tightly they appear to be sewn on his face.

“I’m dying of cancer,” he says hoarsely.

“I’m on some painkillers, but I’m not going in for all the experimental crap and pretend I’ve got a chance.”

Bracken’s words send a chill through me that leaves me clammy. My wife, Rosa, died of breast cancer less than four years ago at the age of thirty-nine, and I’ve become spooked by the disease. It hasn’t been a year since my girlfriend was in St. Thomas for a breast biopsy that ultimately proved benign but not before her surgeon (the same sawbones who mutilated Rosa) told us to expect the worst. Even though my experience with Bracken is that he is an obnoxious son of a bitch, I can not imagine this intensely driven man dead. He can’t be more than forty.

“I’m sorry,” I barely murmur. What is there to say?

Ignoring my sympathy, he says, “Anyway, I’ve got the Wallace case coming up, and I need somebody, if I don’t feel up to it, who can talk to a jury the way I heard you did in that case with the nigger psychologist.”

I feel my stomach muscles knot into a mass as if a tumor of my own is being formed. Bracken obviously has no idea I was married to a woman who was partly black. Rosa was a native of the northern coast of Colombia, and her bloodlines melded Indian, Spanish, and Negro ancestries. So, despite my eastern Arkansas up bringing, the word “nigger” is no longer in my vocabulary At the same time I’m elated by his reference to the Chapman case. Bracken sets the standard by which all criminal defense attorneys in Blackwell County are measured. I feel as I did when I was seven and brought my father a note from Mrs. Harrod that I was the best reader in her second-grade class at Mulberry Elementary

“When is the trial date?” I ask, trying to conceal the excitement I’m beginning to feel.

“It begins on the twenty-fourth,” he says, unfurling on his knees abnormally long fingers, which I realize now have been clenched.

“I asked a couple of other guys, but they had a conflict.”

My ego shrivels like the skin of a helium-filled balloon suddenly pierced by a needle.

“What’s the pay?” I ask, masking my disappointment with a question lawyers understand. Bracken commands fees the rest of us usually only dream about. Perversely, I think that with the money he is saving on medical bills he can afford to be doubly generous. My gall surprises even me. Here I am willing to haggle over money, and this guy’s life is boiling away faster than a pan of water being heated by a flamethrower. Still, it’s easier than talking about the pain he must be feeling.



2011 - 2018