What if . . .
What if a watch that had been presented by General George Washington to one of his aides, a watch that had been passed down through the generations of that aide's family, somehow got out of the family?
What would someone be willing to do to get it back? What of you were the someone?
That was the genesis for this first novel in the AJ Garrison Crime Novels series.
After writing a stack of novels in which the protagonists were men – hey, I'm a guy, it's easy for me to write male characters –I decided I needed a challenge . . . write a novel with a strong female protagonist.
But who would she be?
I decided she would be a young defense lawyer, AJ Garrison, fresh out of law school. The time period, the late 1960s. Not many female lawyers then, so most people in any community are going to be against her.
the thumbnail of the story: A note on the windshield of defense lawyer AJ Garrison’s car asks who killed Dr. Taylor? It’s a cold case, and Garrison takes it on because Taylor was her family’s doctor and the community’s go-to man. She finds herself walking into the inner world of county politics and government where no one is as Garrison believes them to be.
Concurrent with her investigation, she’s attempting to settle the estate of a friend killed in a one-car crash, a job that has her snatching gold coins from a fish tank seeded with piranhas and jockeying for big settlements in the world of thoroughbred horse farms.
So here's chapter 1.
AJ Garrison stared at the transistor radio in her hand.
“Lies,” she said, talking back to the reporter delivering the latest body-count news from the Vietnam war, as if he could hear her. She snapped the radio off and marched on to her elderly VW.
“These hawks. We ought to–” Garrison cut her thought short. Before her, there under the windshield wiper of her car, laid a white envelope with a question printed on it in large letters: WHO MURDERED DR. TAYLOR?
Doctor Walter Taylor.
The leader of her city’s medical community.
She shot her gaze up the street, then to the houses across the way. Who had left this? Could they be watching?
Garrison spotted one person on the sidewalk–a mailman sorting letters as he stepped around an abandoned tricycle, and he appeared to be unaware of her.
She pulled the envelope out–no one had talked of the doctor in almost three years, at least not to her–and fingered the flap.
Garrison flipped it open, and a newspaper clipping poked up from inside the envelope. She brought the clipping out. It smelled of must, like an old book shut up for years in a damp room.
The dateline: Morgantown.
The lead paragraph delivered the news as disturbing now as it had been three years ago–
Prominent physician, Dr. Walter Taylor, 56, died last night of a gunshot wound sustained outside the Ballard County Courthouse.
According to Sheriff Clarence Bogle, Deputy Daniel “Bunch” Jeffords found the body minutes after hearing the shot.
“It wasn’t suicide. We know that,” Bogle said. “We didn’t find no gun.”
But he refused to call it murder. “We just don’t know what happened out there,” the sheriff said. “We got no witnesses. We got nothing. Old Doc was about the nicest man around, helped just about everybody in the county. There’s no one would want to do him harm.”
The story went on to say that robbery had been ruled out because Bogle had found forty thousand dollars in one-thousand-dollar bills in Taylor’s trouser pocket.
Forty thousand dollars. That perplexed Garrison. What could he have been doing carrying that kind of money around?
The story went on to say the sheriff had placed himself in charge of the investigation, that he had refused offers of help from the city and state police.
His investigation had gone nowhere. Garrison knew that and wondered whether it would have been different had Bogle accepted assistance.
She skimmed the next two paragraphs, details of the Morgantown resident’s life, all familiar–he’d graduated from Memphis Hospital Medical College in 1935, had served in the Army Medical Corps during World War II, had returned to Morgantown after the war to establish a private hospital, that he had sold the hospital to the county in 1959 and stayed on as chief of the medical staff, that he had built Tattersall Park, funded the expansion of the city library, and endowed the Taylor Chair for Humanities at John Morgan College.
The last paragraph puzzled Garrison. It reported that Taylor had recently become interested in tracing his family’s lineage. “Dr. Taylor had gotten back as far as A.D. Taylor, one of Ballard County’s early doctors,” the newspaper quoted Martha Cunningham, chief librarian and genealogist at the Morgantown City Library, as saying. “That Dr. Taylor came here in 1853 from Washington County. Like our Dr. Taylor, he also was an Army surgeon, having served with the First Tennessee Cavalry during The Late Unpleasantness.”
Garrison turned the clipping. Someone had scribbled a date along the side–May 18, 1965–and the words Knoxville Sentinel.
Not even the Morgantown Democrat or The Chief.
Garrison was in first-year law up at the University of Tennessee when the shooting occurred. She had come home for the funeral, had sobbed through it as had so many others.
Taylor had brought this willowy young woman into the world at his hospital. As a kid, she had tagged after him when she wasn’t tagging after her father. In high school, she had worked at the hospital as a candy striper. Taylor encouraged her to go into nursing, telling her he would always have a job for her. And she would have gone into nursing had she not injured her back helping an aide lift a woman into bed, a woman who weighed more than Garrison and the aide combined. On bad days now Garrison still had to wear a brace. So she chose the law, where she could help others with her brain.
She examined the envelope–just a cheap number ten, the paper so thin one could read through it.
Hammond MacTeer–Garrison’s mentor–shambled up. “Whatcha got there?”
She held up the clipping. “The newspaper story of Doctor Taylor’s murder. It was under my windshield wiper.”
“Strange place for it, wouldn’t you say?”
Garrison put the clipping, envelope, and her radio in her attache case, empty except for a couple file folders and a legal pad. “You never talk about it, do you? At least you never have to me.”
“The killing of old Doc? There’s not much to talk about. How about you come with me to a funeral, and I’ll tell you what little I know in the car.”
“Teddy Wilson. You know the Wilsons. The First Morgantown Bank? Maybe we can get you some clients.”
“You want me to do business at a funeral?”
“Never know who might need a lawyer, particularly a young pretty one like you.” MacTeer’s eyes twinkled with a hint of mischief as he took out his cigar cutter. He clipped a lavender rose from a bush by the sidewalk and inhaled the rose’s perfume before he tucked the flower’s short stem through the button hole in his lapel. “Do love this one. A hint of spice.”
Garrison straightened her charcoal suit jacket.
MacTeer appraised her. “You know, girl, I wish you wouldn’t wear those damn suits. Show some leg and maybe a little up here.” He waggled his fingers at Garrison’s cleavage.
She shook her head. “We’ve had this discussion before. I’m a woman, and I’m a professional. I dress the part, just as you dress like the old-time Southern lawyer you are, you with your white suits.”
“I do, don’t I?”
“A little beard and a cane, and people would think you were Colonel Sanders.”
MacTeer pulled a gold watch from his pocket. He opened the cover and checked the time.
“That’s a handsome watch,” Garrison said.
“You’re watch, I’ve not seen it before.”
“Oh, this old thing? I bring it out every now and then.” He held out it for Garrison to see. “I tell everybody it’s the General’s watch. There’s a story to it I’ll tell you sometime.”
MacTeer slipped the watch back into his pants pocket, then opened the passenger door of his decade-old Cadillac for Garrison, the car parked next to her Volkswagen.
White Cadillac, white leather seats, white carpeting, MacTeer employed an eight-year-old black boy–Clement Downey–to keep his car clean and polished. He called him Ajax. Clement thought that had something to do with the kitchen cleanser his mother bought at the store until, one day, MacTeer explained that Ajax was a mighty Greek warrior. Ever after, the boy walked tall around MacTeer. When Clement wasn’t around, MacTeer called him “my little darkie.” He also employed Clement’s mother to clean the mansion that served as offices for him and Garrison.
Garrison settled into the passenger seat. “Mister MacTeer–”
“My gawd,” he said as he wrenched the key in the ignition, “when you gonna stop callin’ me Mister MacTeer and call me Hammond?”
He stepped down on the gas. The engine roared, and he let off and slipped the transmission into drive. Brakes from another vehicle squealed as MacTeer pulled out into the street.
Garrison shot her hand to the dashboard. She twisted around in time to see a mail driver hammering at the steering wheel of his truck. “You cut him off.”
“Oh, I did not. Now when are you going to stop with this mister business?”
“Maybe when I’m as old as you. You’ve always been Mister MacTeer to me. You helped me get into law school. Calling you Mister MacTeer, it’s me showing respect.”
“Well, gawddammit, missy, if you won’t call me Hammond, at least call me Judge.”
“All right, Mister Mac–Judge.”
MacTeer grinned. “You hear the radio news this morning? Looks like our boys got the Viet Cong on the run again.”
“Judge, we have no business over there.”
“I know what you think, AJ, but the country is committed.”
“What country are you living in? Judge, I have friends at the university who can turn out a thousand students in protest.”
MacTeer held up his hand. “How about a truce here for the moment?”
“All right, truce.”
“Okay, now what do you want to know about the murder of poor old Doc?”
“Anything you can tell me, like who could have put that clipping on my car?”
MacTeer swung wide onto Maple Street and aimed toward the Methodist church. Three cars stopped short in rapid succession. “Can’t imagine. You remember much about the murder?”
“Oh, that’s right, you were up in Knoxville, weren’t you?”
“I took off classes to come home for the funeral.”
“Real sad affair.”
“I remember,” Garrison said, “there were some whispered speculations at the church, but, after the funeral, I don’t recall that anybody ever talked about it again. Not even my father.”
“Well, it kinda hurt too much.” MacTeer glanced out the side window. He waved to two women on the sidewalk. “There wasn’t anybody wasn’t friends with Doc, and you know that included me.”
“We were on the fiscal court together some six years. Damn Yankees who move down here, I have to tell ’em they call it a county commission up where they come from. They just can’t get their heads around our terminology. Anyway, I talked Doc into running for it when Abner Rumple died. Abner was a good man on the court.” MacTeer snatched a look at Garrison. “I’m proud to say Doc was even better.”
“But you aren’t telling me what happened.”
MacTeer stuck his paw out the window. He waved it at the church parking lot, intending to turn.
“Why don’t you use the signal?”
“Don’t believe in it. Besides, it didn’t work right when I got the car.”
“That was ten years ago. Why didn’t you get it fixed?”
“Hand never fails me. Everybody sees me waving where I want to go, they know what it means.” MacTeer herded the Whale across a lane of approaching traffic. He cut in front of a milk truck, ignored the driver’s horn blast as the great white whale lifted itself over the sidewalk and into the church lot. MacTeer wheeled the car into a spot marked ‘Reserved for Rev. Donnelly.’
Garrison fired a look at him that would shrivel apples.
“Hey, Al won’t mind. Nice day like this, he probably walked to church anyway.”
MacTeer opened the door. He worked at shifting his bulk outside while a man in a black suit trotted up with a small ‘Funeral’ flag. The man’s nose looked like it had been flattened one too many times in a bar fight. “Going with us out to the cemetery, Judge?”
“Day wouldn’t be complete without standing by the grieving family when you lower the dearly departed into the ground, Wilsey.”
Wilsey James, a partner in the funeral home of Roberts & James, gave off a crooked grin as he planted the flag’s magnetic base on the hood of the Whale. “There isn’t a funeral you’ve ever missed, is there?”
“Well, couple years ago, just about. I was down with the flu.”
“I ’member that. Yeah, you had your wife bundle you up–”
“And you picked me up so I wouldn’t have to drive.”
“Yup, the Harris funeral.”
“Haw, me riding in the front of the hearse.” MacTeer’s jowls jiggled. “I expect there were a lot of people wishing I’d been ridin’ in the back.”
“Oh, come now, Judge.”
“You know AJ? Amanda Jane?”
“Surely do,” James said. “Nice to have you back, Miss Amanda. Robby and me handled the funeral for your mom, what was that, ten years back?”
Garrison gave a weak smile.
“You surely growed up to be a handsome young thing.”
Her face tinged pink.
James produced two small folders. He gave one to each of the funeral guests. “Teddy’s obituary. I expect you’ll want to be getting inside. Another five minutes, they start the service.”
“I expect you’re right,” MacTeer said as he extended his arm to Garrison. She took it and they walked on, MacTeer speaking to the other late arrivals hurrying toward the side entrance of the church.
That entrance opened into the chancel.
Everyone else turned left and went to the back of the church, to sign the guest book and go on to their seats, guided by Jefferson Roberts, the senior undertaker.
MacTeer, unlike all others, went straight into the front of the church. He stopped and shook hands and spoke with each member of the Wilson family, all in the front pews.
Garrison trailed behind, introducing herself to those she didn’t know. She had known Teddy Wilson in high school, had had a crush on him–those dimples and a smile that could have been in a toothpaste commercial. He, though, was three years older than she, and Garrison knew he had hardly been aware of her.
When MacTeer ran out of family to console, he went over to the side of the church, to the pallbearers. There he spoke with each man, and several muffled laughter over something MacTeer said. Garrison thought one of the pallbearers slipped him an envelope.
“Well, I expect we’d better find us a seat,” MacTeer said on returning. He peered up the center aisle to Roberts motioning to him, the undertaker gesturing toward space open at the end of a pew.
The steeple bell started its long toll as Garrison slid onto the pew. MacTeer settled his wide frame in the space remaining.
Reverend Donnelly, in a black robe, came away from his chair on the platform. He stepped up into the pulpit and, on seeing MacTeer, tilted his head in the lawyer’s direction, gave a quick nod.
MacTeer waggled his fingers in response.
Donnelly pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. “Dearly beloved,” he intoned.
Garrison heard little. She became absorbed in this great stone church that smelled richly of lilies. Garrison gazed up at the high-pitched ceiling, the polished oak rafters, and the stained glass window in the east wall, brilliant with the mid-morning sun illuminating the picture story of Christ’s ascension. This was nothing like the little Baptist church outside of Genesis that she had grown up in. Every Wednesday night, Sunday morning, and Sunday night, her father and mother had driven up into the mountains, Garrison riding in the front seat between them. Often they drove out to the family cemetery in Paradise Cove where four generations of Clicks were buried, her mother now the most recent addition to that gathering of the dead.
Garrison became aware of the comfort of the padded seats. There’s money here, she thought. This is indeed the church of the bankers.
She glanced to the side, to MacTeer. He had put on his dark glasses.
His jowls sagged.
And he breathed deeply, asleep.
“How could you do that?” she asked, a scolding tone in her voice, when they were back in the Cadillac, rolling in the procession toward the cemetery. “How could you go to sleep at a funeral for heaven’s sake?”
MacTeer scrunched a shoulder. “Missy, when you get to be my age, you’ll find yourself falling asleep at the damnedest times. One thing’s sure.”
“Good old Teddy didn’t notice.”
“Because he was dead. Judge, I was afraid you were going to snore. And don’t call me Missy.”
MacTeer patted his breast pocket for a cigar. “AJ, look, if we’re going to be partners, you got a job when you’re with me. You’ve got to wake me up before I do snore.”
“Where’d this partner thing come from? I’ve only had my bar license for three months.”
“Hon, sometime I’m going to set my valise on Millie’s desk, walk out, and never come back. You better be ready to take over the practice.”
She twisted in her seat. “Judge, you’re never going to quit. Pop says you’re going to be pleading cases from your casket.”
MacTeer roared. He pounded the steering wheel, the car swerving toward the ditch. “He could be right, you know,” MacTeer said between guffaws as he jerked the Whale back into the westbound traffic lane.
“If I may,” Garrison went on, “way back before we got to the church, you were telling me about Doctor Taylor.”
He pulled a now-found cigar from his breast pocket. MacTeer stuffed the end of the stogie in his mouth and chewed. “It’s the damnedest thing. Judgeson Lattimer and I didn’t hear the shot. We were back where the court–” He snickered.
“What are you laughing at?”
“Judge Judgeson, isn’t that something?”
Garrison stared at him.
“Well, anyway,” MacTeer said, “old Bunch comes gallopin’ back, shouting the doc’s been shot. I send him to call the sheriff and the ambulance, and we run outside and there in the alley, near where we park our cars, there he was just slumped down on the gravel.”
He rolled the cigar in his lips. “I’ve seen more than a few dead bodies in my time, and, AJ, Doc was dead.”
“I’m sure that newspaper story told you there was no gun. There were no witnesses either. Poor old Sheriff Bogle, he had nothing to go on, but he shook the bushes for a couple weeks before he hung it up.” MacTeer’s speed rose as he looked away, the Whale closing the gap on the car ahead.
Garrison blanched. She slapped MacTeer’s arm, and he turned toward her. Garrison gestured ahead. “Slow it down. The car!”
MacTeer glanced out the windshield. With the quickness of a toad hopping across hot asphalt, he tromped on the brake, throwing both of them forward.
MacTeer let off only when he had slowed the Whale to half its speed. “Hooeee, wouldn’t that have been exciting, rooting the mayor in the rear.”
Garrison shook her head.
MacTeer rolled his cigar again. “Were you about to ask me something?”
She squared her shoulders. “Couldn’t the state police have done anything?”
“About Doctor Taylor’s murder.”
“Maybe, but it wasn’t their jurisdiction. It was either going to be the city police or the sheriff, and gawddammit, it happened on our property. The man didn’t have an enemy in the world, you know that.”
“Then whoever did it, could they have murdered the wrong man?”
“It’s possible I suppose. Bogle checked that idea out. Judgeson never offended anyone and me, I’ve had to defend some real mean ones in court. But they did their crimes, and now they’re doing their times at Brushyfork.” MacTeer stuck his hand out the window. He waved it over the Whale’s roof as he turned the steering wheel with his other hand and followed the procession of cars into The Green Chapel Cemetery. “I’ve always had Bogle warn off any when they come out of prison. They usually find it right agreeable to move to west Tennessee.”
The procession wound through the old cemetery filled with garish monuments to Ballard County’s fathers and mothers and their children and their children’s children. MacTeer pointed to a limestone slab, most of the carving worn away by weather and time. “Old Robert MacTeer is buried right there. That’s my grandfather, AJ, six generations removed, the first white man in the county. The way the county’s grown up, he probably wishes he’d shut the door behind him.”
The procession drifted over a rise and down into a new section dotted with monuments more modest, many flush with the sod. MacTeer nosed the Whale off the gravel drive and in beside a Ford pickup that belonged to Henry Tingle, head of the county road department.
“How you doin’, Henry, Alva?” MacTeer called out as he disgorged himself from the Whale.
Tingle, in a black suit worn shiny in the seat, waited beside his wife for MacTeer to catch up with them.
“You know AJ, AJ Garrison? She’s got a practice in my office,” MacTeer said by way of introduction. “She’s Will Click’s little girl.”
Garrison shook hands with Missus Tingle and gave Tingle the expected greeting.
“Oh, of course, you wouldn’t,” MacTeer said. “You were farming out there at Rocky Gap, and AJ grew up here in town. We didn’t get you that job with the highway department until, what, five years ago?”
“’Bout then,” Tingle said.
“That’s what I thought. Well, by then AJ was up at the university.”
MacTeer put his arm around Tingle’s shoulders as they strolled on. Tingle handed something to the judge. MacTeer looked away as he slipped it in his pocket.
“What did he give you?” Garrison asked, hushing her words when MacTeer and she were away from the Tingles and again standing with the Wilson family.
“What did he give you? Mister Tingle.”
“Campaign contribution. It’s a gawddamn election year. You going to contribute?”
“With what? I haven’t even billed my first client.”
“You’ve done four cases pro bono, right? It’s time you started charging.”
“Those people didn’t have any money, and you know it.”
“That’s why I wouldn’t take their cases.”
“So justice is only for the wealthy?”
“If you want to pay your bills, it is.” MacTeer put the back of his hand beside his mouth, sheltering his words from other people. “Let’s see if we can snag you a rich client out of this funeral.”
“Judge, you’re hopeless.”
“Just bein’ practical.”
Reverend Donnelly raised a hand. After all eyes had turned to him, he bowed. “Our mighty God, we bring You one of Your children, Theodore McKinley Wilson, taken so tragically from us, to place his body here in this holy ground, to rest here until You call all of us forth–”
Garrison’s mind wandered. She knew fewer than half the people gathered around the grave and only a handful well, yet MacTeer seemed to know them all, could even ask after the babies and the relatives who had moved away. This old man was a people’s lawyer. Could she ever be half as good as he? She envied him that his ten-minute walk from the office to the courthouse often took an hour because people stopped him to tell him their problems and ask for his help and advice. And he always listened, Garrison knew–never walked away from anyone.
“–we now commit the body of our brother to the soil, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
Donnelly stepped back. As he did, Teddy Wilson’s widow came from the row of chairs at the side of the grave. She held her small daughter in her arms and said something to her somewhat older son beside her, the boy’s hair brushed just so, he looking every bit the little man in his new suit, although his tie was askew.
The boy tugged a lily out of a funeral spray. He placed the flower on the casket, going up on his toes to reach the center. His mother grasped the collar of his coat lest he tumble. The boy came back beside her and gazed up, the sorrow in his eyes matching the sorrow in hers.
The parents came next–Teddy’s parents, the senior banker holding his wife’s arm, she weeping. She waved a damp lace handkerchief at the casket, as if that would make it go away.
MacTeer moved up beside her, the rose from his lapel in his hand. He bent down. “You can do this, Mae. It’s for your boy. I got a boy out here, too. I know how it hurts.”
He placed the rose in her hand.
Mae Wilson held back her tears. With an effort, she reached out. She put the rose on the casket, and then, sobbing, asked her husband to take her away to the car–the Roberts & James limousine.
MacTeer touched the shoulder of Averrell Wilson as the banker and his wife passed by. “Sorry, Ave,” he said.
“That was awfully good of you to do what you did with Mae Wilson,” Garrison said as the two strolled back to the Whale.
“With Missus Wilson.”
“Yes, well, come a time, you’ll do that for others, too. Comes with lawyering.”