This posting features Chapter 32 of my ongoing action novel, The Day of the Gun.
Steve Harris was awake when his lawyer and friend Gregg Stacey talked his way past the U.S. Marshals guarding the hospital room.
“I’m Mr. Harris’s attorney,” the seasoned criminal defense counsel insisted as he presented his bar card. “Stand aside, please, gentlemen. I have a right to see my client.”
The lawyer was a big fellow, built like what Steve’s grandmother used to call a “lumberjack gone to pot.” He had played football as a young man, but in retirement it was clear his days as an athlete were long gone. Now, he wore a blue striped summer suit and a red tie. He was the kind of man who always looked disheveled, no matter how he was dressed. Whenever he removed his suit coat, the area beneath his arms was pitted with stains. Consequently, he never removed his coat in public. The knot in his tie always seemed to be unraveling so that anyone viewing the big man at the end of an especially long, arduous day came away with the distinct impression that this strange character preferred wearing an ascot to a standard man’s necktie. He customarily sauntered around in a rumpled suit exuding lawyerisms with an ease that marked a steady familiarity with his chosen profession.
“Well, gentlemen?” Parking his hands on his hips, the lawyer repeated his claim that he had a right to meet with his client forthwith.
The burly sentinels hesitated. They had been briefed on the possibility of a physical assault against their ward, but the possibility of verbal assault against them had not been discussed. They were about to call the U.S. Attorney for guidance when they heard a feeble voice emanating from the hospital room. Pushing the door open, their hands resting on the butt of their guns, the Marshals saw that Harris was awake.
“Steve!” Gregg Stacey blurted out before he could restrain himself.
“Let him in,” the injured man said in a hoarse voice that was little more than a soft whisper.
The older U.S. Marshal had interposed his body between Stacey and the doorway. His size and musculature were immense, intimidating. “Sir, we have strict orders to allow no visitors.”
Stacey had encountered such objections many times in his career. “I assure you, officer, this is not a courtesy call for a friendly chat. I am Mr. Harris’s attorney, as I said. You undoubtedly know that an attorney always has a right to meet with a client under arrest. It’s the hallmark of the legal system.”
“I don’t know if he’s been charged yet,” the younger Marshal observed.
“No matter. If he’s being detained for any reason, the right still applies.”
The older Marshal spoke. “I suppose we can make an exception for an attorney — if you are, in fact, his attorney.” Knowing the answer already, the officer was duty-bound to pose the question, anyway. “Is this gentleman your attorney?”
Steve nodded. Yes, he was.
“And do you wish to meet with him?”
Again, the injured man nodded.
“You heard the man,” Stacey intoned as he pointed. “He wants to see me.”
The older Marshal squinted at the bar card held in front of his face. “We’ll have to search you, Mr. Stacey. It’s standard operating procedure.” He handed the card back to the attorney.
He lifted his arms. “Of course. Go ahead. I’m not armed.”
The two officers patted him down thoroughly, drawing out the process as long as they could. Stacey knew it, but he remained silent. He was familiar with law enforcement personnel and their myriad ways of obstructing justice. He had served as a defense attorney for almost 25 years, and he knew how these fellows operated. If he stood motionless and remained unflappable, eventually they would exhaust themselves and let him have his way.
Sure enough, as if on cue, the Marshals exchanged glances.
“Go on in,” the older one said as he motioned toward the room. “But the door stays open. At the first sign of anything unseemly, the interview ends.”
“Now see here, gentlemen —”
“The door stays open. End of discussion.”
Stacey hesitated. He did not like to meet with a client based on conditions set forth by police officials, but he recognized his precarious situation. If he protested, the Marshals could forcibly eject him from the room while they consulted with the U.S. Attorney. Because it was a Sunday evening, the consultations could spill into Monday, and still he would not have spoken with Steve. It was far better to meet the conditions and save reproaches for another day.
Holding his bar card in a clenched fist, he dramatically stuffed it back into his wallet. “Very well,” he said in a huff. “But anything you overhear is protected by attorney-client privilege. It’s inadmissible in court. If you tell anyone, it’s the fruit of the poisonous tree, and therefore —”
“We’re familiar with federal criminal procedure, Mr. Stacey. Even if we could hear you inside the room, we are not to repeat whatever we hear.”
“Very well, then, gentlemen. As long as we understand each other.” Grasping the lapels of his suit coat, he turned and sauntered into the room as though he had not a care in the world.
Watching him, the Marshals smiled. Lawyers were such assholes.
“One more thing,” the older Marshal said. “No physical contact of any kind.”
Stacey stopped, turned, and opened his mouth to speak, but the older Marshal cut him off. “Those are the rules. We can’t have either of you passing items back and forth. If we see anything of the sort, that’s it. You’re outta here.”
Stacey pursed his lips, but wisely remained silent. Glaring at the officers, he waited, too angry to trust himself to speak. The men sensed his anger, and it seemed to amuse them, which made the lawyer angrier still.
Finally, having milked the scene for all it was worth, the older U.S. Marshal motioned with his head for Stacey to continue. He released his head from his gun butt as the gray-haired lawyer ambled over to the bed. To his partner, the Marshal said, “Call Mr. Roth. We need to inform him of this latest development.”
“On a Sunday evening?” Stacey was genuinely surprised.
The younger Marshal grinned. “You must not know Mr. Roth. Weekends mean nothing to him.”
“A man after my own heart. Well, then, if you reach him, yes, I would like to speak with Mr. Roth as well.” Gregg Stacey represented many clients in federal court, and he knew of Mr. Roth, the legendary U.S. Attorney. They had not actually met, but the Roth name was famous — or infamous, depending on one’s point of view.
Turning to his client and friend, Stacey marveled at how much the man had changed since their last meeting. Steve looked much smaller and more vulnerable than he could have imagined. He remembered this strong-willed ex-Marine as a solid, rock-hard, steel-eyed, defiant soul. The man lying in the hospital bed appeared weak, desperate, and spent.
“So,” Steve whispered through chapped lips. “How ya been?”
Stacey laughed. “I’m supposed to ask you that.”
“Well, you know.” Smiling, Steve shrugged, wincing as he did so. “A dull life in suburbia.”
“So I see from CNN.” He leaned over the bed so his friend would not have to speak in a loud voice. “How’s your shoulder? Does it hurt?”
“Only when I breathe.”
“Have they told you anything about it?”
Steve shook his head. “I haven’t seen the doctor since they brought me in. Even then, I was pretty groggy. My understanding is it’s not life threatening.”
“That’s my understanding as well.”
“It takes more than a shoulder wound to put me out of commission.”
“Can I get you anything?”
“No, thanks. It aches a bit,” he said as he repositioned himself in the bed as best he could. “I bet it’ll hurt like a sonofabitch tomorrow, after the medication wears off. I’ve got a sore throat, too, but it’s prob’ly from the tube they stick in your throat.”
“At least the bullet hit your shoulder, and not something worse.”
“Easy for you to say.”
Stacey paused, growing reflective. “I never thought I would see you again, Steve. Then you show up as a material witness in a murder investigation — and now this.”
“How’d you know where to find me?”
“Everyone in America knows where to find you. Your handsome mug is flashing all over the news. You’re the latest media darling.”
“Hardly the WITSEC motto.”
“Hey. It is what it is.”
“So how bad is it? My legal situation, I mean.” Still groggy from the anesthesia, Steve had difficulty getting his mouth to work properly, but his lawyer seemed to understand.
“No formal charges have been filed yet, but I suspect they will be tomorrow. From what I know so far, kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon, aggravated assault, theft by taking. They probably can tack on obstruction charges.”
“It was self-defense, Gregg. Christ, a man does what he has to.”
“True enough, but it will take some doing to convince the authorities that taking a hostage was a necessary act of self-defense.”
“That turned into a big fiasco, but it wasn’t supposed to work that way.”
“Let me help you,” Stacey said as he reached for a cup of ice chips on the nightstand beside the bed. Holding up the cup so the Marshals could see it, he called out, “gentlemen?”
The Marshals looked on impassively.
Realizing that handing ice chips to a sick man did not constitute physical contact, the lawyer placed the cup on the tray next to Steve’s hand.
“Thanks.” Steve reached out for the cup and shoveled the chips into his mouth.
As his client chewed the ice, Stacey pointed to the television mounted on the wall. CNN was playing, although the sound was muted. “See there — what did I tell you? You’ve become quite the celebrity.”
“Uh-huh. So I see.”
Stacey grew pensive. “I’m sorry it worked out this way, Steve. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” He had first told his client about the Department of Justice’s Witness Relocation Program, so he felt no small measure of responsibility for subsequent events.
“Hey, Gregg, it’s not your fault. Shit happens. You know that.”
“I just don’t understand what happened. The program is renowned for its security.”
Steve shifted in his bed, spilling a few ice chips on the sheet. Seeing this, Stacey reached forward to pick them up, but his friend waved him away. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “The maids’ll take care of it.”
“Whatever you say.” Stacey straightened up. “Anyway, about the self-defense issue — that’s certainly something we’ll argue once we see the charges. The DOJ will be in a difficult position in this case because the Feds don’t want a lot of details about the Witness Protection Program coming out at trial. We may be able to use that to our advantage.”
“I hope so.”
“Do you feel like telling me what happened? Is your throat too sore?”
“I’ll live.” Leaning up as much as he could, Steve spoke in a soft voice for close to 15 minutes. He outlined the original shooting, Jim Gilleland’s death, the hideout in his hotel room, the encounter in the cemetery, and, finally, his decision to confront Fran Gilleland, only to find another woman in her place.
“It turns out that the woman was a friend of hers,” Stacey told his client. “She was driving Mrs. Gilleland’s car.”
Steve closed his eyes. “Um. That explains a lot. Is she gonna be okay?”
Stacey nodded. “As far as I know. Trauma and what-not, but nothing physically wrong.”
The older Marshal leaned into the room. “Mr. Roth is on his way. He’ll be here shortly.”
“Who?” Steve looked to his lawyer.
“The U.S. Attorney in charge of the case.”
“I told him you wanted to speak to him, but he said it could wait until he arrived.”
“Very good,” Stacey said with a nod. Turning to the supine figure in the bed, he whispered, “this is a treat. We’ll get to meet the celebrated Mr. Roth. The stories I could tell you about him would make you laugh out loud.”
Stacey knew his client well enough to see that something was troubling him. “What’s wrong? Aside from the obvious, I mean.”
“Hey, Gregg,” Steve said in a small voice so his lawyer would have to lean over the bed. “I appreciate you coming. I was gonna call you when I had a chance.”
“No problem. When I saw you on the news, I knew you would need someone.”
“It doesn’t hurt the old career, either, huh?”
Stacey chuckled at the comment. “That’s right; that’s right. So can I do anything for you right now?”
Steve was no longer playful. His face looked deadly serious. “Yeah, you can. I want you to find out what happened at WITSEC. How did my identity get out, and does this McLean fellow have anything to do with it?”
“McLean?” Stacey was perplexed. “The director of the program? Why would he be the one to out you?”
“That’s what I need to find out.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow you.”
Briefly, with as much detail as he could muster in his weakened condition, Steve told his friend about the gunman’s dying declaration on Shiloh Trace. “Think about it,” he concluded. “You send two amateurs — and that’s what they were, amateurs — to carry out a bold daylight hit in a residential area using outdated Russian assault rifles. That’s not just a hit, Gregg. Somebody wanted to send a message. This wasn’t just about killing me. It was about embarrassing the Feds, taking down WITSEC.”
The lawyer nodded. “I agree, which brings me back to the question: Why McLean? Why would he destroy his own program, a program that made his reputation?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I need your help.”
“You’re absolutely sure the guy you shot said ‘McLean’?”
“I can’t be sure, but that seemed to be what he said.”
Stacey rubbed his brow and sauntered over to a chair by the foot of the bed. “I don’t know, Steve. That’s a pretty thin reed.”
“It’s the only reed I have.” Looking toward the window, he closed his eyes. “Anyway, I need your help to sort it all out.”
“Sure, Steve, I’ll help you. Still, I think Tony the Knife’s involved.”
Crunching on ice chips, Steve nodded. “Yeah, that’s likely. But even that doesn’t add up completely. If Tony’s men had a clear shot at me, then why am I still alive?” He paused to swallow and rub a few chips on his cracked, swollen lips. “Something doesn’t add up here, Gregg. I need to find out why. I can’t do it alone.”
Before they could continue speculating, the two men heard a commotion in the hall. A woman’s shrill voice overrode the angry tones of the U.S. Marshals. Stacey marched to the doorway and peered at the hallway scene.