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Mark Ethridge is a third-generation reporter and writer who directed the Charlotte Observer 's Pulitzer Prize-winning investigations of the textile industry and the PTL scandal involving Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. His work has appeared in newspapers and magazines coastto- coast. Ethridge studied as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and was a member of Esquire magazine's inaugural class of "People Under 40 Who Are Changing America."
It seemed like only seconds went by before I was awakened by the bleating of the horn on Bullock's Dodge. "Your turn to drive," he said, flicking away a cigarette. "I'm whipped."
"You're whipped? What about me?"
"Since when did you consider that an advantage?"
"Since now. I'll drive this afternoon. You can sleep then."
I didn't really mind. There are times when I am my own best company.
Bullock eased his seat back and turned on his side. His left pants leg hitched up and I could see the glint of the derringer by the dashboard light. I kept the radio off and the windows up as we sliced through the dark hours before South Carolina's dawn. In moments, he was snoring.
We were running out of strings to pull, by my way of thinking. We needed to take another run at Olen Pennegar Sr. He had to know about what went on in the back of De Sto. And we needed to go back by the town hall, only this time to look at the real estate records instead of police reports. Watson operated the business but did he own the building? Today and one more day of reporting, I figured. After that, we'd either have more leads or we'd be out of luck.
Fatigue pushed my chin to my chest. My mind played tricks and I kept imagining deer darting from the shadows by the side of the road. I struggled to keep my eyes open and the Dodge between the white lines. I felt my eyelids close. My mind started to drift until fear shocked me awake. I clenched the steering wheel. When we arrived on the outskirts of Hirtsboro at 8:30 a.m., I was so tired it hurt.
"Brad's gonna meet us at Town Hall," Bullock said, emerging from his cobwebs. "We should find out who owned the store building before we go see OP senior."
"Let's hope the property records are in better shape than the police reports."
Lights gleamed inside the cinderblock building but the parking lot was empty except for our Dodge. The doors were open but inside, the clerk's desk was empty.
"Miss Patty?" Bullock yelled. Then louder. "Anybody home?"
"I am." I whirled around to see Brad Hall. "What are you guys doing here? It's Friday. Town Hall's supposed to be closed."
That's right, I thought. I'd forgotten. "But the door was open," I said. "The lights were on."
Bullock eyed Brad, who wore hiking boots, shorts, floppy hat and had a knapsack slung over his right shoulder. "What the hell are you dressed for, a geriatric nature walk?"
"I've been collecting specimens," he said.
Bullock yawned. "Exciting."
"It can be." Brad unslung his backpack, unzipped a pocket and pulled out a plastic baggie, which he held to the light. From it he carefully extracted a leafy green vegetable matter attached to a long root. " Cnidoscolus stimulosus ," he said proudly. A natural aphrodisiac that grows in the woods here. Country people call it the Courage Plant."
"What's it do?" Bullock wondered.
"Makes you feel like a teenager. Twenty minutes later, you're ready to go again. So I hear."
"Lemme see that," Bullock grabbed for the plant.
"Careful. The leaves are covered with little hairs that will sting you. The magic is in the root."
Bullock took notes as Brad explained the identification and proper processing of the Courage Plant but my attention drifted. I strolled around the room studying the paper trail of a tiny town's bureaucracy-faded faxes about federal mandates, three-by-five cards with the new garbage pickup schedule, and the maintenance bill for the Hirtsboro police car.
I noticed a set of file cabinets apart from the ones containing the police reports and started pulling the file drawers. I didn't think about it. It's just something I do. Closed doors make me nervous. Closed drawers make me curious. The files were in alphabetical order. I skipped to the Ps and began thumbing through them. Payroll. Pension, Personnel, and then the one I was looking for: Property Taxes.
The youthful voice of Olen Pennegar Jr. sent my stomach to the floor and stopped me cold. "Freeze!" he shouted. "Hold it right there!"
I started to turn around.
"I SAID FREEZE," he shouted. "PUT YOUR HANDS OUT TO YOUR SIDES WHERE I CAN SEE THEM."
I did as I was told.
"Now turn around."
Slowly I turned and realized Olen Pennegar Jr. wasn't talking just to me. Bullock and Brad stood with their hands in the air. Pennegar swung his gun back and forth between the two of them and me. He was taller than I remembered. He might be a rookie cop, I thought to myself, but he looks pretty comfortable with a gun. For a while, we were all too shocked to speak.
"Just what the hell are you doing in here?" Pennegar demanded.
"We just came by to say hey to Miss Patty," Bullock said. "But no one was home. Jeez, put the gun down." He dropped his hands and took a step toward Pennegar.
Pennegar pointed the gun at Bullock's head. "Hold it right there! You're all under arrest." Bullock stopped in his tracks. "Patty don't work Fridays. Town Hall is closed. You knew that."
"The door was unlocked," Bullock said.
"I doubt it but it don't matter. It's Friday. You're not allowed here."
"So what's the charge? Some big crime like trespassing on public property?" I avoided looking at Bullock and Brad, whom I knew would disapprove of my sarcasm.
Pennegar's face boiled. "Attempted theft of government property, pal. A felony. Get over here and spread 'em. Hands on the wall."
"Theft!" Bullock protested. "That's bullshit."
"I saw him going through files," Penneger said, meaning me. "You were attempting to steal something."
I put my hands on the wall and assumed the "get frisked" position, just like I'd seen on the TV shows. I couldn't read the young cop to tell if he was just jerking us around or if he really believed we'd come to commit a crime. "This is crazy. I wasn't stealing. I was trying to figure out where some real estate records might be. They're public information. You can't steal something that's already yours."
Pennegar pointed to a desk. "Over there. Sit down and keep your hands where I can see them. Now you." He motioned Bullock to the wall and I realized we had bigger worries than Pennegar's understanding of the public's right to know-namely the derringer strapped to Bullock's calf. I expected Bullock to volunteer that he had a weapon. But he was silent, and Pennegar's search was cursory as he struggled to pat one of us down with one hand while keeping the pistol trained on the other two at the same time. The derringer went undetected.
Brad was next to face the wall and he tried his best to defuse the situation.
"Olen, why don't we forget this morning ever happened," he said. "We didn't mean to break in. Honest. We won't come back until Miss Patty's here. And we'll only look with her permission."
Pennegar didn't respond but when the frisking was finished, I could see him relax. He holstered his gun.
"Olen," Brad said, "There's been no harm done. Nothing's been stolen. Nothing's missing."
"It's still a crime."
"A misdemeanor," Brad deflected. "How about if we bring Judge Buchan into this? If you arrested us, we'd be entitled to a hearing. Better to find out beforehand if it'll hold up."
As Pennegar wavered, Brad pressed his edge. "He's going to need to know what happened anyway."
"Might be right," Pennegar conceded. "It's his day off but I'll get him down here. You all sit around that desk and keep your hands where I can see them."
I breathed a sigh of relief. Magistrate J. Rutledge Buchan was a good ol' boy who had collected every penny he could from us when we faced him over the speeding violation. But he seemed like someone who could be reasoned with and, better yet, he was unlikely to send Everett Hall's son to jail or charge him with a felony.
Pennegar dialed Buchan's number and turned away. Bullock used the opportunity to take his hands off the table and scratch his nose.
"Huntin,'" Pennegar said when he hung up. "Be back directly."
"What's directly?" I wondered.
"'Fore too long," Pennegar said. "Lunchtime at the latest."
I breathed another sigh of relief. It was clear that this day of reporting was going nowhere. The best we could hope to accomplish was to get out of town without being charged with a crime-and to do it in time to beat it back to the newsroom for the night shift. To do that we would need to get this cleared up and be on the road by 12:30 p.m. I hoped Buchan bagged his quota early.
When Bullock asked if we could take our hands off the table, Pennegar said yes. "Stay seated, though. No looking through documents and no trying to get out of here. I'm going to make coffee. You boys want any?"
Bullock and I said yes and a few minutes later Pennegar returned with three cups of coffee.
"Better than the newspaper's," Bullock said. "But then, that don't take much."
Pennegar laughed and took a sip. The conciliatory approach taken by Brad was working. "Let me ask you something, Mr. Hall. You're a nice person. You come from a big rich family. Why are you out to make trouble?"
Brad was taken aback. "Why do you think we're out to make trouble?"
"Well, you have been making trouble."
"I don't see how."
"That article in the Reporter , to start. Dragging up stuff that don't matter no more. Bringin' them down here, too." He nodded at Bullock and me. "The judge says you're stirrin' up all the blacks."
"All we're trying to do is find out who killed Wallace Sampson," I said. "We're doing the same thing you do. Trying to solve a crime. It's just like police work."
Pennegar looked me in the eye. "I don't go around making sick old men cry."
I winced, embarrassed at the memory of my impudence. "I'm sorry. We just wanted to talk to him. Still do."
"No chance," Pennegar said. "How would you like it if some reporter wanted to write something about your daddy and he didn't want it? Imagine what you would feel like then?"
For the next two hours Bullock leafed through a stack of magazines, trying to find something of interest in City Manager Monthly and Public Works Today . Brad poked around in his knapsack and compared plant samples to pictures in the pages of South Carolina Wildflowers . Pennegar sipped coffee and did paperwork. I counted the tiles in the ceiling while my stomach tightened in a knot. At 11:30 a.m. I suggested that we call the magistrate's house again.
"No point," Pennegar said. "He'll get here when he gets here."
"Officer Pennegar," I said, "Mr. Bullock and I need to be back in Charlotte by 4:00 p.m. We're hoping to get this thing resolved in time to make it back by then."
Pennegar snorted. "You'd best be thinking more about bein' in jail at four o'clock than thinking about bein' at work." He stepped into the bathroom but kept the door open so he could watch the front entrance in case we tried to escape.
"We got to get out of here and get back home," I whispered to Bullock.
"What we do on our own time is our business," Bullock said.
"Yeah, but our ass is grass if we don't show up for work."
"We'll just call Walker and let him know."
By noon, I almost couldn't take it any longer. With no protest from Pennegar, I left the table and started to pace. I glanced out the window every eight seconds. Even if Buchan showed up now, explaining to him what had happened and hearing Pennegar's side of the story was going to take more than half an hour. There was no way we were going to get back to Charlotte in time for the start of the night shift.
"We need to call Walker," I finally said. "Don't see any way around it."
"Still got a half hour," Bullock said.
"Not enough time," I said. "Officer Pennegar, whether or not we are technically under arrest, I believe we're entitled to make a phone call."
Pennegar looked up from his paperwork. "Go right ahead," he said. Then, thinking about it, he added, "Keep it to three minutes. You can reimburse Patty later."
I dialed the newspaper.
" Charlotte Times . Can you hold please?"
"No, I-" But the operator hadn't waited for my answer and I was greeted by a generically sweet voice which explained that the Charlotte Times cared deeply about my call. But apparently not enough to actually hire people to answer it, I thought angrily. I twisted the phone cord as I paced, alternately looking out the window in hopes that Buchan might appear and checking back in with the on-hold message which was now telling me to call a different number if I wanted to complain about a delivery problem and yet a different number if I wanted to buy a classified ad.
"Just pick up the damn phone," I swore. But no one did. Not after one minute. Not after two minutes. And not after three.
"Idiots!" I exploded.
Pennegar snickered. Four minutes on hold. Five minutes on hold. My blood pressure was clicking up another notch with each second.
"You're gonna have to wrap it up," Pennegar said.
"Relax, I said we'd pay for it," I hissed.
Finally, " Charlotte Times , thank you for holding."
Thank God, I thought. "Newsroom please." I heard the click as the call was transferred. "Circulation."
"Sorry. I was trying to reach Walker Burns in the newsroom."
"This is circulation."
"This is Matt Harper. The switchboard switched me to you but I'm trying to get Walker Burns in the newsroom."
"Just a moment. I'll transfer you." The phone clicked and I heard a dial tone.
I slammed the phone to the cradle. "Damn it!" I picked up to dial again.
"One call's all you get," Pennegar said.
"I didn't get anyone," I protested. "I need to tell my boss we're going to be late."
"You should have thought about that before you broke in."
I put the phone down and returned to the desk with Bullock and Brad.
"Well, we tried," Bullock said. "It ain't our fault if they don't answer."
I looked at the clock. It was now after 1:00 p.m. "We're screwed, " I said, as resignation replaced anxiety and adrenalin gave way to fatigue. Too much tension and too little sleep had drained me. I headed toward the coffee pot.
"Don't," Brad whispered. I sat down.
Pennegar, too, was beginning to nod off. His eyes closed briefly then he suddenly jerked forward in his chair and looked around, as if he didn't know how long he'd been asleep.
He stood unsteadily, drew his pistol and waved it at a large closet. "Y'all get in there."
Before I could say anything Brad poked me in the ribs and whispered, "Go ahead."
We piled into the closet. Pennegar shut the door. I heard the bar latch click. It was pitch dark in the closet until an overhead bulb snapped on.
"What's this all about?" Bullock yelled. "You can't lock us up like this!"
"Just need to rest my eyes," Pennegar slurred. "Need to keep you from goin' anywhere until the judge gets here."
Brad put his finger over his lips, telling us to hush.
We heard Pennegar sit. A moment later we heard a thud that could only be one thing: the officer hitting the floor.
"Well," Brad said. "I guess that did the trick. Now let's get out of here."
Bullock and I looked at him like he was crazy.
"Lady slipper," Brad explained with a smile. "The flower's a natural sedative. Puts you right to sleep. I collected some this morning. Dropped it in the coffee pot while he went to the bathroom."
Bullock and I looked at each other.
"Don't worry," Brad said. "He'll be fine. But for the next two hours, he's going nowhere except dreamland."
Bullock crashed into the door with his shoulder. It wouldn't open, held by the latch on the outside of the door. He tried it again but the closet wasn't big enough for him to get any speed.
Bullock hitched up his pants leg and drew the derringer. "We got one shot," he said. "It has to be a good one." He examined the door to determine the precise location of the latch. He raised the derringer and pressed it against the wood. I closed my eyes and put my hands over my ears but there was no need. The bang when Bullock shot through the latch was barely louder than a cap pistol. Bullock turned the knob and we stepped out of the closet and over the form of Olen Pennegar Jr., who snored away on the floor.
Bullock put the derringer back in the holster. "And you thought this wouldn't come in handy."
"C'mon, Ronnie," I said. "Let's get out of here."
"Hold on," he said. He took out his wallet and left a twenty dollar bill on Patty Paysinger's desk. "That ought to cover the lock and the door repair."
"Don't forget the phone call," I reminded him.
He took out another twenty and left it on the desk.
"Let's go," he said. "I'm driving."
Walker Burns was in the 3:00 p.m. news meeting when I called. So I left a message with the receptionist that Bullock and I had been unexpectedly detained by authorities in South Carolina but would be in the newsroom by seven o' clock. I could have said six-thirty but we were already so late there was no reason for Bullock to race.
"Did you tell them that we'd been arrested?" Bullock asked when I returned to the Dodge.
"I don't think we ever were. Detained is the right word."
"What do you think Pennegar's gonna do when he wakes up?"
"I'm thinking he says nothing. It ain't gonna look too good if he says he caught three criminals but they got away when he fell asleep."
"He's going to have to explain the lock."
"He just has to face Miss Patty. We got Walker."
Journalists are gossips. We get paid to find out information that people want to know and we delight in telling them. The more shocking the information, the greater the delight. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that the newsroom receptionist was driven by the same instincts. By the time Bullock and I walked into the newsroom, everyone knew something had happened between Bullock, me, and the authorities in South Carolina and they were waiting.
"You guys okay?" I heard someone ask as we headed for Walker's desk.
"Free at last!" someone else called and Bullock raised a clenched first. A smattering of applause broke out among some of the reporters in Metro. All they knew is that we had clashed with authority and authority hadn't won. I gave a little wave. The respect felt good.
Wow, I thought. Even the publisher has shown up to herald our return. Tall, tanned, and tailored, Warren Reich stood talking with Walker at the Metro Desk, with his arms folded protectively against his chest, his massive gold cufflinks on display. As we got closer, I could tell that neither was happy.
"What's that asshole doing here?" Bullock whispered.
"I think we're about to find out."
"Howdy, men," Walker greeted us. "Had a little dust-up, did we? Everybody okay? Anybody hurt or facing a felony?" He smiled weakly.
There was no smile from Reich, who made a point of looking at his watch. "Fine. Just a little misunderstanding. It's worked out." I harbored the hope that we could skate through this with just a reprimand, that maybe even Reich's presence was unrelated. "Sorry we're late."
"Carmela tells me you were back in South Carolina," Reich interrupted, his arms still crossed.
"Yes, sir," Bullock answered.
Reich turned to Walker. "I thought we had agreed that we would stick closer to home."
"We were on our own time," I volunteered. "We intended to be back to start our shifts."
But Reich had stopped listening. His attention was distracted by an open bottom drawer on one of the metro desks. He reached in and extracted a shiny, almost-new, pair of black men's shoes. "Walker," he asked, "what's this?"
"Shoes, sir. Size ten, if I remember."
"I see they are shoes," Reich said. "What are they doing here?"
"They're staff shoes, sir."
"Yes, sir. We purchased them for use by the staff whenever it might be necessary."
"You bought these shoes with company money?" he exploded. "Who in hell authorized this?"
"You did, sir. Do you remember when Les Becker won first place in the state press association contest and he wanted to go to the awards ceremony and you said he could but only if he wore a decent pair of shoes?"
"I did not want the Charlotte Times publicly embarrassed when he walked up on stage to accept the award in his sneakers," Reich said. "With no laces, no less."
"Right. Well, he bought the shoes and wore them to the awards ceremony and then turned in the cost of the shoes on his expense report."
Reich was livid. Livid doesn't mean angry, it means purple. Despite his deep tan, Reich was purple.
"He expensed the shoes," Walker explained. "Claims he was required to buy them by the company, that he wouldn't have bought them otherwise and therefore they were a company-mandated business expense."
"You approved the expense report?" Reich was incredulous.
"Yeah, but if the company paid for the shoes, then they are company shoes. So I made Becker turn them in. We keep them right here."
"In case he wins again," I joked.
Reich was steaming. "This is an abomination. Staff shoes. Reporters wandering around down in South Carolina wasting the company's money and doing things you don't even know about. Getting arrested! Walker, I told you I would not have the Charlotte Times embarrassed again. Your people are out of control!"
Ordinarily, the publisher's contact with the newsroom is confined to top editors like Walker. But the high-level pow-wow had caused reporters and copy editors alike to find work that called them to a spot where they could hear what was going on. Reich's outburst marked the first time many of them had been directly exposed to the business-side pressures that good editors fight against. I decided I needed to step in.
"No one got arrested," I said to Reich. "If you're going to get involved in journalism, you ought to learn to get your facts straight."
The crowd behind me murmured. I watched the shock on Reich's face. "Easy," I heard Bullock say. I didn't care. I was tired, cranky and pissed.
"Then what are the facts?" Reich challenged.
"The facts are that we were down in South Carolina doing investigative reporting. We were committing journalism and we were doing it on our own time because apparently the Charlotte Times is either no longer willing or able to pay for it."
I paused to see if Reich would take the bait and pronounce there in front of everyone that the newspaper was indeed committed to investigative journalism. He was silent so I summarized what had happened, leaving out the part about Bullock, the lock, and the derringer.
"You missed the first part of your shift," Reich said. It sounded weak and he knew it.
"You're right," I said with all the contempt I could manage. "Tell you what. How about if I just put in an extra three hours on the day that I retire?" Reich turned from an angry purple to an embarrassed red. Someone whooped.
"That's enough," Walker said sternly. "We'll have the rest of this discussion behind closed doors." He started to head off to the conference room, but Reich stopped him short.
"I will brook no more discussion about this," he yelled. "We are done spending this newspaper's resources making fools of ourselves on a story hundreds of miles away that will not sell us one more newspaper or one more ad."
"Making it easy for you to sell an ad is not why I got in the business."
"Selling ads pays your salary. Newspaper people like your father and grandfather understood that when they were in the business," he answered. "What happened to you?"
I thought of Dad stepping off the curb and marching in the streets for civil rights. I thought of him using the editorial page to oppose the Vietnam War. I thought of Glenn Hudson's editorial about Wallace Sampson and his son's smashed bike.
"Newspaper people like my dad also understand that one of the reasons to make a profit is so the newspaper can be used to fight injustice and to right wrongs."
"Enough," Reich barked at Walker. "I command you to end your ceaseless thrall with Wallace Sampson."
I thought of the town of Hirtsboro, of the lynching cross, of the faces of Mrs. Sampson, Reverend Grace, Mary Pell, Vanessa Brown, and Brad Hall. I recalled Delana's words: Someone killed Wallace Sampson and has gotten away with murder.
Walker was silent. I looked at Bullock. He wasn't about to intervene. I looked at my colleagues who stood hushed on the periphery too frozen to act, like they were watching a car wreck in progress. I was on my own.
"You can command our hours and you can command our assignments and you can command what goes in our paychecks," I said, shaking with rage. "You can even command if we get paychecks. But as long as it is on my time, I, not you, will decide when I end my involvement in what you refer to as our ceaseless thrall."
I slammed my fist on the metro desk with such force that the baseball cap flew from the urn containing the ashes of Colonel Sanders, his cigar went cart-wheeling across a stack of old newspapers, and the urn itself did a slow motion topple, spewing the fine dust of what had been the Colonel onto the desk.
My newsroom colleagues stood in stunned silence. Then someone in back began to clap. Someone joined. Soon sustained, dignified applause echoed from around the room. I felt my face redden.
Reich dusted Colonel Sanders from his sleeve. "I'll talk to you later," he said to Walker, before he escaped though the double doors of the newsroom.
Walker grabbed me by the elbow and hustled me in the same direction. "Let's go, pardner," he said. "I'm getting you out of here before you shoot the other foot."
"Sorry, Walker. The son of a bitch made me lose it."
"Yeah, but it was spectacular. I've seen a publisher told off before but seldom have I seen it done better."
Halfway through the door I heard the whine of an unfamiliar newsroom machine. I looked up to see assistant managing editor Bob DeCaprio vacuuming the ashes of Colonel Sanders from the desk and the keyboard, crossing himself and muttering as he did so.
I could not hear what he was saying but I knew it anyway: Thank God it wasn't Coca-Cola.