Chapter 17


Chapter 17

In the old town of Natchez there is a slice of land below a bluff, near the river, known as Under-the-Hill. It has a long and colorful history that begins with the earliest days of steamboat traffic on the Mississippi. It attracted all the characters-the merchants, traders, boat captains, speculators, and gamblers-headed to New Orleans.

Because money was changing hands, it also attracted ruffians, vagabonds, swindlers, bootleggers, gunrunners, whores, and every imaginable misfit from the underworld.

Natchez was rich with cotton, most of which was shipped and traded through its port, Under-the-Hill. Easy money created the need for bars, gambling dens, brothels, and flophouses. A young Mark Twain was a regular during his days as a steamboat pilot.

Then the Civil War killed river traffic. It also wiped out the fortunes in Natchez, and most of its nightlife. Under-the-Hill suffered a long period of decline.

In 1990, the Mississippi legislature approved a bill that allowed riverboat gambling, the idea being that a handful of fake paddle wheelers would churn up and down the river while their cargo of retirees played bingo and blackjack. Along the Mississippi River, businessmen rushed to establish these floating casinos. Remarkably, once the legislation was actually read and analyzed, it was discovered that the boats would not be required to physically leave the shore. Nor were they required to be equipped with any type of engine to propel them.

As long as they touched the river, or any of its chutes, sloughs, oxbow lakes, man-made canals, or backwaters, the structures qualified as riverboats under the legislation. Under-the-Hill made a brief comeback.

Unfortunately, upon further analysis, the legislation accidentally approved full-fledged Vegas-style casino gambling, and within a few years this roaring new industry had settled itself along the Gulf Coast and in Tunica County, near Memphis. Natchez and the other river towns missed the boom, but did manage to hang on to a few of their engineless, stationary casinos.

One such establishment was the Lucky Jack. There, at his favorite blackjack table with his favorite dealer, Clete Coley sat hunched over a stack of $25 chips and sipped a rum and soda. He was up $1,800 and it was time to quit. He watched the door, waiting on his appointment.

Coley was a member of the bar. He had a degree, a license, a name in the yellow pages, an office with the word "Attorney" on the door, a secretary who answered the occasional phone call with an unenthusiastic "Law Office," and business cards with all the necessary data. But Clete Coley wasn't a real lawyer. He had few clients to speak of. He wouldn't draft a will, or a deed, or a contract, at gunpoint. He didn't hang around the courthouse, and he disliked most of the other lawyers in Natchez. Clete was simply a rogue, a big, loud, hard-drinking rogue of a lawyer who made more money at the casinos than he did at the office. He'd once dabbled in politics, and barely missed an indictment.

He'd dabbled in government contracts, and dodged another one. In his early years, after college, he'd done some pot smuggling, but abruptly abandoned that career when a partner was found dead. In fact, his conversion was so complete that he became an undercover narcotics officer. He went to law school at night and finally passed the bar exam on his fourth attempt.

He doubled-down on an eight and a three, drew a jack, and collected another $100.

His favorite cocktail waitress brought him another drink. No one spent as much time in the Lucky Jack as Mr. Coley. Anything for Mr. Coley. He watched the door, checked his watch, and kept gambling.

"You expecting someone?" asked Ivan, the dealer.

"Would I tell you?"

"Reckon not."

The man he was expecting had also escaped a few indictments. They went back almost twenty years, though they were anything but friends. This would be their second meeting.

The first had gone well enough to lead to this one.

Ivan was showing fourteen when he drew a queen and went bust. Another $100 for Clete.

He had his rules. When he won $2,000 he quit, and when he lost $500 he quit. Anything between those limits and he would play and drink all night. The IRS would never know it, but he was up eighty grand for the year. Plus, all the rum was free.

He flipped two chips to Ivan and began the elaborate task of freeing his massive body from the elevated chair.

"Thanks, Mr. Coley," Ivan said.

"Always a pleasure." Clete stuffed the rest of the chips into the pockets of hislight brown suit. Always brown, always a suit, always with shiny Lucchese cowboy boots. At six feet four, he weighed at least 280, though no one knew for sure, but he was more thick than fat.

He lumbered away toward the bar, where his appointment had arrived. Marlin was taking a seat at a corner table, one with a view of the floor.

No greetings of any sort, no eye contact. Clete dropped into a chair and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. A waitress brought them drinks.

"I have the money," Marlin said, finally.

"How much?"

"Same deal, Clete. Nothing's changed. We're just waiting on you to say yes or no."

"And I'll ask you again. Who is 'we'?"

"It's not me. I'm an independent contractor, paid a fee for a job well done. I'm on no one's payroll. I've been hired to recruit you for the race, and if you say no, then I might be hired to recruit someone else."

"Who's paying you?"

"That's confidential, Clete. I explained this a dozen times last week."

"You did. Maybe I'm a little dense. Or maybe I'm just a little nervous. Perhaps Iwant answers. Otherwise, I'm not in."

Based on their first meeting, Mariin was doubtful that Clete Coley would eventually say no to $100,000 in cash in unmarked bills. Mariin had virtually put it on the table. A hundred grand to get in the race and stir things up. Coley would make a beautiful candidate-loud, outrageous, colorful, able to say anything with no concern about the fallout. An anti-politician the press would follow like ants.

"Here's what I can tell you," Mariin said, with a rare eyeball-to-eyeball glance at Clete. "Fifteen years ago, in a county far away from here, a young man and his young family returned home from church one night. They didn't know it, but two black punks were in the house, a very nice house, and they were burglarizing the hell out of it. The punks were hopped up on crack, pistols in every pocket, nasty characters.

When the young family came home and surprised them, things got out of control. The girls got raped. Everybody got a bullet in the head, then the punks set the house on fire. Cops caught them the next day. Full confessions, DNA, the works. They'vebeen on death row at Parchman ever since. Turns out the young man's family has serious money. His father had a nervous breakdown, went insane, poor guy. But he's back and he's pissed. He's furious that the punks are still alive. He's livid that his beloved state never executes anybody. He hates the judicial system, and he especially hates the nine honorable members of the supreme court. He, Clete, is where the money is coming from."

It was all a lie, but lying was a part of the job.

"I like that story," Clete said, nodding.

"The money is peanuts to him. It's yours if you jump in the race and talk about nothing but the death penalty. Hell, it's a natural. The people here love the death penalty. We got polls that show almost 70 percent believe in it and more than that are upset because we don't use it enough in Mississippi.

You can blame it on the supreme court. It's a perfect issue."

Clete was still nodding. For a week he'd thought of little else. It was indeed the perfect issue, and the court was the perfect target. A race would be a hell of a lot of fun.

"You mentioned a couple of groups," he said, slugging his double rum.

"There are several, but two in particular. One is Victims Watching, a tough bunch who've lost loved ones and been chewed up by the system. They don't have a lot of members, but they are committed. Between me and you, Mr. X is also secretly funding this group. The other is the Law Enforcement Coalition, a very legitimate law-and-order group with some clout. Both of these will jump on board."

Clete was nodding, grinning, watching a cocktail waitress glide by with a tray loaded with drinks. "Such balance," he said, just loud enough to be heard.

"I really have nothing else to add," Marlin said without pushing.

"Where's the money?"

Marlin took a deep breath and couldn't conceal a smile. "In the trunk of my car.

Half of it, fifty grand. Take that now, and the day you officially announce, you get the other fifty."

"Fair enough."

They shook hands, then both grabbed their drinks. Marlin pulled keys out of a pocket.

"My car is a green Mustang with a black top, on your left when you leave. Take the keys, take the car, take the money, I don't want to see it. I'll sit here and play blackjack until you return."

Clete grabbed the keys, struggled to his feet, then strutted across the casino floor and out the door.

Marlin waited for fifteen minutes, then called the cell phone of Tony Zachary "Looks like we've hooked us one," he said.

"He took the money?" Tony asked.

"The deal is going down now, but, yes, you'll never see that money again. I suspect that the Lucky Jack will get its share, but, regardless, he's in."


"This guy is going to be a scream, you know? The cameras will love him."

"Let's hope so. I'll see you tomorrow."

Marlin found a spot at a $5 table and managed to lose a hundred bucks in half an hour.

Clete was back, grinning, the happiest man in Natchez. Marlin was certain that his trunk was now empty.

They returned to the bar and drank until midnight.

Two weeks later, Ron Fisk was leaving baseball practice when his cell phone rang.

He was the head coach of his son Josh's Little League team, the Raiders, and the first game was a week away. Josh was in the backseat with two of his teammates, sweaty and dirty and very happy.

At first, Ron ignored the phone, then glanced at the caller ID. It was Tony Zachary.

They talked at least twice a day. "Hello, Tony," he said.

"Ron, you got a minute?" Tony always asked this, as if he were willing to call back later. Ron had learned that Tony was never willing to call back later. Every call was urgent.


"A bit of a wrinkle, I'm afraid. Looks like the race might be more crowded than we thought. Are you there?"


"Just got it from a good source that some crackpot named Clete Coley, from Natchez, I believe, will announce tomorrow that he is running against Judge McCarthy."

Ron took a deep breath, then pulled onto the street next to the city's baseball complex.

"Okay, I'm listening."

"Ever heard of him?"

"No." Ron knew several lawyers in Natchez, but not this one.

"Me neither. We're doing a background check now. The preliminary stuff is not too impressive. Sole practitioner, not much of a reputation, at least as a lawyer. Got his license suspended eight years ago for six months, something to do with neglecting clients. Two divorces.

No bankruptcies. One DUI but no other criminal record. That's about all we know, but we're digging."

"Where does this fit?"

"Don't know. Let's wait and see. I'll call when I hear more."

Ron dropped off Josh's friends, then rushed home to tell Doreen. They fretted over dinner, then stayed up late tossing around scenarios.

At ten the following morning, Clete Coley wheeled to a stop at the edge of High Street, directly in front of the Carroll Gartin Justice Building. Two rented vans were behind him. All three vehicles were parked illegally, but then their drivers were looking for trouble. A half-dozen volunteers quickly spilled out of the vans and began carrying large posters up a few steps to the sweeping concrete terrace that surrounded the building. Another volunteer hauled up a makeshift podium.

A capitol policeman noticed this activity and strolled over to inquire.

"I'm announcing my candidacy for the supreme court," Clete explained at full volume.

He was flanked by two beefy young men in dark suits, one white, one black, both almost as large as Clete himself.

"You got a permit?" the officer asked.

"Yep. Got it from the attorney general's office."

The cop disappeared, in no particular hurry. The display was put together rapidly, and when it was complete, it stood twenty feet high, thirty feet long, and was nothing but faces. High school graduation portraits, candid snapshots, family photos, all enlarged and in color.

The faces of the dead.

As the volunteers scurried about, the reporters began arriving. Cameras were mounted on tripods. Microphones were mounted on the podium. Photographers began snapping away, and Clete was ecstatic More volunteers arrived, some with homemade posters with proclamations such as "Vote the Liberals Out," "Support the Death Penalty," and "Victims Have Voices."

The cop was back. "I can't seem to find anyone who knows anything about your permit," he said to Clete.

"Well, you found me, and I'm telling you that I have permission."

"From who?"

"One of those assistant attorney generals in there."

"You got a name?"


The cop left to go find Mr. Oswalt.

The commotion attracted the attention of those inside the building, and work came to a halt. Rumors flew, and when word reached the fourth floor that someone was about to announce a campaign for a seat on the court, three of its justices dropped everything and hustled to a window. The other six, those whose terms expired in later years, likewise ventured over out of curiosity.

Sheila McCarthy's office faced High Street, and it was soon filled with her clerks and staff, all suddenly alarmed. She whispered to Paul, "Why don't you go down there and see what's up?"

Others, from the court and from the attorney general's office, eased down, too, and Clete was thrilled with the mob that was quickly gathering in front of his podium.

The cop returned with reinforcements, and just as Clete was about to give his speech, he was confronted by the officers. "Sir, we're gonna have to ask you to leave."

"Hang on, boys, I'll be through in ten minutes."

"No, sir. This is an illegal gathering. Disband it now, or else."

Clete stepped forward, chest to chest with the much smaller officer, and said, "Don't show your ass, okay? You got four television cameras watching everything. Just be cool, and I'll be outta here before you know it."


With that, Clete strode to the podium, and a wall of volunteers closed ranks behind him. He smiled at the cameras and said, "Good morning, and thanks for coming. My name is Clete Coley. I'm a lawyer from Natchez, and I'm announcing my candidacy for the supreme court. My opponent is Judge Sheila McCarthy, without a doubt the most liberal member of this criminal-coddling, do-nothing supreme court."

The volunteers roared with approval. The reporters smiled at their good fortune.

A few almost laughed.

Paul swallowed hard at this unbelievable volley. The man was loud, fearless, and colorful and was loving every second of the attention.

And he was just warming up. "Behind me you see the faces of one hundred and eighty-three people. Black, white, grandmothers, babies, educated, illiterate, from all over the state and from all walks of life. All innocent, all dead, all murdered. Their killers are, as we speak, preparing for lunch up at Parchman, on death row. All duly convicted by juries in this state, all properly sent to death row to be executed."

He paused and grandly waved at the faces of the innocents.

"In Mississippi, we have sixty-eight men and two women on death row. They're safe there, because this state refuses to execute them. Other states do not. Other states are serious about following their laws. Since 1978, Texas has executed 334 killers.

Virginia, 81; Oklahoma, 76; Florida, 55; North Carolina, 41; Georgia, 37; Alabama, 32; and Arkansas, 24. Even northern states like Missouri, Ohio, and Indiana. Hell, Delaware has executed 14 killers. Where is Mississippi? Currently in nineteenth place.

We have executed only 8 killers, and that, my friends, is why I'm running for the supreme court."

The capitol police now numbered almost a dozen, but they seemed content to watch and listen. Riot control was not a specialty, and besides, the man was sounding pretty good.

"Why don't we execute?" Clete yelled at the crowd. "I'll tell you why. It's because our supreme court pampers these thugs and allows their appeals to drag on forever.

Bobby Ray Root killed two people in cold blood during the robbery of a liquor store.

Twenty-seven years ago. He's still on death row, getting three meals a day, seeing his mother once a month, with no execution date in sight. Willis Briley murdered his four year old stepdaughter." He stopped and pointed to the photo of a little black girlat the top of the display. "That's her, cute little thing in the pink dress. She'd be thirty years old now. Her murderer, a man she trusted, has been on death row fortwenty-four years. I could go on and on, but the point is well made. It's time to shake up this court and show all of those who have committed murder or who might do so that, in this state, we're serious about enforcing our laws."

He paused for another boisterous round of applause, one that obviously inspired him.

"Justice Sheila McCarthy has voted to reverse more murder convictions than any other member of the court. Her opinions are filled with legalistic nit-pickings that warm the soul of every criminal defense lawyer in the state. The ACLU loves her. Her opinions drip with sympathy for these murderers. They give hope to the thugs on death row.

It is time, ladies and gentlemen, to take away her robe, her pen, her vote, her power to trample the rights of the victims."

Paul considered scribbling down some of this, but he was too petrified to move. He wasn't sure his boss voted so often in favor of capital defendants, but he was certain that virtually all of their convictions were affirmed. Regardless of shoddy police work, racism, malice by prosecutors, stacked juries, and boneheaded rulings by presiding judges, regardless of how horribly defective the trial was, the supreme court rarely reversed a conviction. Paul found it sickening. The split was usually 6-3, with Sheila leading a vocal but overmatched minority. Two of the justices had never voted to reverse a capital conviction. One had never voted to reverse a criminal conviction.

Paul knew that privately his boss was opposed to capital punishment, but she was also committed to upholding the laws of the state. A great deal of her time was spent on death cases, and he had never once seen her substitute her personal beliefs for a strict following of the law. If the trial record was clean, she did not hesitate to join the majority and affirm a conviction.

Clete did not yield to the temptation of speaking too long. He'd made his points.

His announcement was a fabulous success. He lowered his voice, grew more sincere, and finished by saying: "I urge all Mississippians who care about law and order, all who are sick of random, senseless crimes, to join with me in turning this court upside down. Thank you." More applause.

Two of the larger officers moved in close to the podium. The reporters began to throw questions. "Have you ever served as ajudge? How much financial support do you have?

Who are these volunteers? Do you have specific proposals to shorten the appeals?"

Clete was about to begin with his answers when an officer grabbed his arm and said, "That's it, sir. Party's over."

"Go to hell," Clete said as he yanked his arm away. The rest of the police contingent scurried forward, jostling through the volunteers, many of whom began yelling at them.

"Let's go, buddy," the officer said.

"Get lost." Then to the cameras he boomed, "Look at this. Soft on crime but to hell with the freedom of speech."

"You're under arrest."

"Arrest! You're arresting me because I'm making a speech." As he said this, he gently, and voluntarily, placed both hands behind his back.

"You don't have a permit, sir," one officer said as two more slapped on the handcuffs.

"Look at these supreme court guards, sent down from the fourth floor by the very people I'm running against."

"Let's go, sir."

As he moved from the podium, Clete kept yelling, "I won't be in jail long, and when I get out, I'll hit the streets telling the truth about these liberal bastards. You can count on that."

Sheila watched the spectacle from the safety of her window. Another clerk, standing near the reporters, relayed the news via cell phone.

That nut down there had chosen her.

Paul lingered until the display was removed and the crowd drifted away, then he raced up the steps to Sheila's office. She was at her desk, with the other clerk and Justice McElwayne. The air was heavy, the mood somber. They looked at Paul as if he might by chance have some good news.

"This guy's crazy," he said. They nodded their agreement.

"He doesn't appear to be a pawn for big business," McElwayne said.

"I've never heard of him," Sheila said softly. She appeared to be in shock. "I guess an easy year just became very complicated."

The idea of starting a campaign from scratch was overwhelming.

"How much did your race cost?" Paul asked. He had just joined the court two years earlier, when Justice McElwayne was under assault.

"One point four million."

Sheila grunted and laughed. "I have $6,000 in my campaign account. It's been there for years."

"But I had a legitimate opponent," McElwayne added. "This guy is a nut."

"Nuts get elected."

Twenty minutes later, Tony Zachary watched the show in his locked office, four blocks away. Marlin had captured it all on video, and was more than pleased to see it again.

"We've created a monster," Tony said, laughing.

"He's good."

"Maybe too good."

"Anybody else you want in the race?"

"No, I think the ballot is complete at this point. Nice work."

Marlin left, and Tony punched the number for Ron Fisk. Not surprisingly, the busy lawyer answered after the first ring. "I'm afraid it's true," Tony said gravely, then recounted the announcement and the arrest.

"The guy must be crazy," Ron said.

"Definitely. My first impression is that this is not all bad. In fact, it could help us. This clown will generate a lot of coverage, and he seems perfectly willing to take a hatchet to McCarthy."

"Why do I have a knot in my stomach?"

"Politics is a rough game, Ron, something you're about to learn. I'm not worried, not right now. We stick to our game plan, nothing changes."

"It seems to me that a crowded field only helps the incumbent," Ron observed. And he was right, as a general rule.

"Not necessarily. There's no reason to panic. Besides, we can't do anything about others who jump in. Stay focused. Let's sleep on it and talk tomorrow."