So many friendly, and familiar faces gone in 2017 . . . God speed to all. And thanks for the memories . . .
By the time I found the address, it was near on to full darkness. The house, a rather stately brown-stone Victorian, was nearly buried in the trees and bushes. I couldn’t make out a house number in the gathering gloom—but I could clearly read the name on the mailbox—Rees.
Maggie and I made our way toward the front door.
It was a lovely Summer evening in Shreveport. Old-fashioned lamps were just coming to life, lighting the picturesque street with their friendly glow. A warm gentle breeze caressed our skin. The sweet music of crickets and frogs emanated from a nearby pond. It was, all-in-all, a tableau of the South. The name of the street was Greenwood. And it was—both green and beautifully wooded. It was a friendly feeling street, one that a person could see themselves living on, even without squinting their eyes very much.
Shreveport was off to a good start in my book.
A bit earlier, I didn’t think that was going to be the case. Maggie and I had beat a hasty path to the DA’s office just as soon as we had landed, and I arranged for a rental car. I had started to reach for Holman’s credit card at the desk, but for some reason at the last second hesitated, and then produced my own. That completed, we quick-stepped our way out of the airport. It was getting late in the afternoon, but I still thought we could make it to Rees’ office with plenty of time to spare.
And we did—only to find that Mr. Rees had already departed for the day.
A big surprise—no. What was though, was the fact that the receptionist produced a sealed plain white business sized envelope with my name on it, as soon as I had identified myself.
I hadn’t expected the cloak-and-dagger (or what I like to call the fun stuff) to begin quite so soon.
The enclosed paper bore a simple handwritten note.
“Mr. O’Brien: I think it better if we speak outside the office. My address is enclosed. Anytime this evening would be fine.”
He ended it by simply scrawling his last name, along with the address on Greenwood, at the bottom of the page. I wondered three things. I wondered if he thought his own office was bugged. And I wondered why he thought it made any difference. Unless of course he knew what I was there to talk about. I certainly hadn’t mentioned it in my call to his secretary. I actually hadn’t even told the sec that I intended to visit the very same day. Thirdly, if he did know the subject of my visit, and the timing—just how the hell did he know it.
I intended to find out as I pressed the doorbell to his house.
I didn’t have long to wait, as I immediately hear a shuffling on the other side of the door, and a moment later it opened. A male figure, silhouetted in the living room light, motioned me in. Another male, dressed in a business suit, was seated on the other side of the well-appointed room. He eyed me warily. The quick response to my ring, and the almost staged scene in the living room made me wonder if they had been pensively waiting for me to appear.
I turned slightly to my right to meet the person who had opened the door. Already his hand was extending to me. I guessed him to be Mr. Rees—and I was correct as he introduced himself, and I confirmed my identity.
“Mr. O’Brien,” he said. “How very good to meet you. Mrs. O’Brien as well. Thank you for coming.”
“Just Johnny and Maggie. Way less formal that way.”
“Sabe will work for me as well.”
I sized him up. And I have to tell you, he came as something of a surprise. Like the man across the room, Rees was also dressed in a business suit. Dark blue, and very stylish. I guessed that he had probably not changed since leaving his office. Mr. Rees was very young, much more so than the person I had expected to meet and had hoped to. I also guessed that the events I had to speak with him about were very likely to have taken place before his birth. His companion, still silent and seated across the room, looked equally young.
The mystery was deepening.
I sallied forth. “You seem to have been expecting me.”
“I was,” he replied.
“May I ask how?”
“A call from Henry Homan’s office.”
“When was that?” I enquired.
“First thing this morning,” Rees replied. “I’d barely opened my office door.”
“You know Holman then?”
I’ve made my living reading faces, for a very long time now. Didn’t have to be much of an expert, or very experienced either, to see the slight bit of distaste register on his though, as he answered.
“Yes.” Was his simple, one-word reply. It spoke volumes.
Mr. Sabe Rees looked like a school-boy in the shadowy room. A nice-looking kid, pushing six-feet in height, and a body weight to match it. Trim. A full head of neatly cut and combed hair—dark brown. Far from an ADA, though, I would have figured him for a computer geek of some kind. It didn’t add up.
“How old are you, Sabe?” I asked.
“You don’t beat around the bush very much, Johnny.”
Maggie jumped in. “You’re not from Louisiana either.”
Rees smiled. “Guilty on both counts. No gray hairs yet, and no accent to go along with them. Not what you were expecting, I’ll bet.”
“Not exactly,” I confirmed.
Rees continued. “I’m thirty-years old, Mr. O’Brien—and I’m from the West. When the murders you’re investigating occurred down here, I was a five-year-old kid in Salem, Utah.”
“Mormon?” I asked.
“Not even slightly,” I smiled.
Motioning to the seated man, he went on.
“This is my friend and associate, Mr. Parker Muller. Parker is a year younger than me, but unlike myself, he is a native-born Louisianan.”
Mr. Muller nodded his head toward us, and Maggie and I returned it. Apparently, a man of few words—although I expected to hear a lot more from him as the evening wore on.
“So, what brought you to Louisiana all the way from Utah?”
“A job. The one I have now, as a matter of fact. The former District Attorney was a man named Reggie Smith. He was a sort of legend in these parts. He was also the father of my best friend in law-school. After his son Dan and I graduated, Reggie offered me a job in his office, if I didn’t mind moving out-of-state.”
“Why you and not the son?”
“Well, Dan had some pretty strong views about what would constitute a satisfying law career for him, and unfortunately for Reggie, that meant not following in the old man’s shoes. Reggie accepted that well enough, and offered me the job instead. He always did kind of like me, and in a lot of ways, I think, considered me to almost be an additional offspring.”
“What happened to Dan?” I asked, mildly curious.
Rees grinned. “Went into divorce law, and became one of the richest men in the State in very short-order.”
I grinned too. “Providing a service that will always be needed.”
“That’s for sure,” Rees agreed. “Anyway, Johnny, that’s how I got to be where I am. Reggie was the DA when the Old Church murders took place. He died of a heart attack a few years ago, but he and I shared enough time talking about the case, that I feel I almost know it as well as him.”
“What about the current DA?”
“A lady DA now. A woman I work for, but not a person I closely associate with off the clock. She has no special knowledge of the case, and had absolutely no part in it what-so-ever.”
“Yes.” He hesitated a few seconds, and then added, “Professionally.”
I guessed that was enough said on that subject. Sometimes you just don’t need to know all the details. It was time to cut to the chase. I turned to Rees’ companion. “What’s your part in this case, Mr. Muller?”
“Direct, Mr. O’Brien—I like that.”
“You have to have a scorecard to know the players.”
“Like Sabe, I’m not a player. But my father was.”
“Steven Muller. You’re his son, and an attorney too.”
“Right, Mr. O’Brien. You’ve done your homework.”
“I took the crash-course. A week ago, I’d never heard of any of this.”
“I’m surprised. These murders were a really big-deal. Movies and everything.”
“I’m not a movie-buff,” I replied. Making that statement was getting to be a routine.
“I’m glad to hear that, O’Brien. You don’t come with pre-conceived ideas.”
“I was hired to find the truth.”
“You sure about that?”
“Maybe,” I hedged. “There’s a lot about Holman that makes me wonder.”
“What about his sidekick?”
“That’d be the one.”
“Him, I don’t wonder about.”
“Why are you here, Muller?”
“Parker, if you don’t mind, O’Brien.”
“Johnny, if you don’t mind either. Why are you here, Parker?”
“Because my father can’t be, Johnny. He’s retired, and in poor health. Moderate early on-set dementia. Most the time he has trouble remembering yesterday, much less twenty-five years ago.”
“Sorry to hear that, Parker. Still doesn’t explain why you’re here.”
“Let’s just say I’m looking for the truth too.”
“You don’t think they found it the first time around?”
“You father defended one of the three. The ringleader, if I recall correctly.”
“He did. He was court appointed. Still, he did his best, although they were all convicted anyhow.”
“Why do you two even care?” I addressed the question to them both.
Rees spoke up. “People around here still care. For a lot of them, it might as well have happened last week. It was a bad deal all-round. It should have been done and over a long time ago, but something always comes along to stir things up again. This time it’s you. It’s like an old wound that just won’t ever completely heal.”
“Twenty-five years is a long time,” I said.
“Not in Old Church,” Rees replied. “Hell, not in Louisiana. This is still the South. Child killing doesn’t go over well down here.”
“Amen to that,” Muller added. “Why are you here, Johnny?”
“I’m a hired-hand, that’s all. Paid for by Holman. I do know what he wants though.”
Muller cocked his head.
“He wants these men proven not-guilty.”
“Why. They aren’t in prison anymore.”
“Out on an Alford plea,” I replied. “Worthless to Holman. He wants the world to know they didn’t do it. Another movie deal, I expect. And another big pay-day. Hell, maybe even another gold statue for Dalgetty.”
“That guy creeps me out,” Rees said.
“I’ll bet that’ll make four of us then,” I replied. Everyone smiled, confirming it. “You guys interested in righting an old wrong? Just for the fun of it. There’s nothing in it for anyone—except for Holman and me, that is.”
“I’ve known you ten minutes now, and already you’re lying to me, Johnny.”
I looked Rees square in the eye. “How so?”
“Holman mentioned the little factoid to me that you already donated your rather substantial fee to charity. The recipient called him to authenticate the check. Along with the million dollars, you also got a carte blanche no-limit gold card. Not to mention the possibility of another Jack McGuire novel for you.
I simply smiled. “You do your home-work too.”
“I do. Why, Johnny?”
“Personal reasons. Perhaps I’ll be able to tell you at some point. But I do promise you there won’t be a book.”
“Good enough,” he allowed. “I’d love to help. This is a mystery of long standing. I’d like to know the truth myself.”
“I’m in too,” Muller chimed in.
We all nodded our heads affirmatively, sealing the verbal contract.
“Where do we start?” I said.
“How about a road-trip?” Rees replied.
“You got it, Johnny. The four of us. Tomorrow morning. We’ll get an early start. It’s a fair drive, so we’ll have plenty of time to talk.”
“You know a good place to stay nearby?”
“I do, Johnny. It’s called my guest-room.”
“Can’t get much more nearby than that,” I admitted.
“You mind spending your own money from here on out, Johnny?” Muller asked.
“Not at all.”
“Good. I’d leave Holman’s plastic in my wallet then, if I were you, and go off the grid.”
“Oddly, I’ve had that very same feeling myself,” I replied.
With that, and handshakes all around, we parted company for the night. Muller off to his own house, wife, and family—and Rees, a single guy, showing us to our room. Saying he’d call for us at six in the morning, we said our goodnights.
I was plenty tired, and intended to sleep well. Before I did though, I carefully slid a hard back wooden chair firmly under the doorknob.
“Needed?” Maggie asked.
“Who knows?” I confessed. “Better safe than sorry. After all, as we’ve been told—we are in the still old South.”
We slept like babies, the rest of the night. And the chair, along with the door, never rattled a bit.
Thanks for reading! And a most Happy and Safe New Year’s Eve to all. We’ll see you again in the New Year, with more installments of INNOCENCE, and a lot of other fun stuff. Take care now . . .