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SWEEPS WEEK MURDERS

A novel by Malachi Stone

Fifth Edition



©2018 by Malachi Stone



All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal. All the characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.



TABLE OF CONTENTS



CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CONNECT WITH ME ONLINE



I am fully aware that the State of Illinois has abolished the death penalty. I am also cognizant of the fact that Illinois law does not authorize televised trials other than through a pilot program in certain selected counties. I’m working the fiction street here.



CHAPTER ONE



Susan Kennicott with easy grace and faultless elegance graduated magna cum laude from Bryn Mawr in late spring, sporting dual majors in romance languages and medieval literature. After commencement she summered at the Sorbonne. It was during that madcap Juillet in Paris while sunning herself one après-midi over a leisurely Pernod in a quiet sidewalk café along the rive gauche that she looked up from her Proust to first encounter the grizzled countenance of her bientôt-à-est mari Victor Sloan: sexagenarian scion of the Midwest Media empire, arch-conservative, international industrial pirate, more rapacious than any of his moneyed forebears, rumored billionaire, and founder of The Justice Society. His intense slate eyes shimmering in reflection like black olives in her drink told her at once that he meant to have her.

Inevitably, the happy pair soon wed. A select circle of the couple’s closest and dearest friends—new friends to Susan, mostly Victor’s friends and predominantly members of The Justice Society—fêted their union aboard Victor Sloan’s private yacht The Fairly Balanced, anchored in the calm vermilion waters of Gustavia Harbor off St. Bart’s. Nature obliged by providing a spectacular August sunset for a background tapestry. All agreed that it proved the perfect setting for the exchange of nuptial vows.

Later that evening, scandalously abandoning their guests, the new bride and groom leaped overboard and swam to a deserted islet where they made love on the warm white moonlit sand. Victor despite his age swam like the former Olympic champion he was. Brenda “Red” Keane, sixtyish acting secretary-treasurer of The Justice Society, had remarked to Susan that he reminded her of an aging Buster Crabbe. Susan, slightly unsteady from the cocktails—or maybe she simply hadn’t yet gotten her sea legs—had asked her who in the hell was Buster Crabbe, anyway, and everyone had laughed.

Victor and Susan circumaviated the globe on his Lear Jet The Peregrine that summer, taking in six of the seven continents, with stopovers in Sydney, Cairo, the Isle of Crete and points west. The honeymoon pilgrimage drifted into early autumn. The pair climbed Aztec pyramids, hiked back to Victoria Falls, parasailed high above flame-orange sandstone cliffs off the Western Cape, and snorkeled the coral canyons and undersea caves of turquoise Antiguan bays. They danced all night in Rio, rode rickshaws through the cobblestone streets of old Beijing, skied under the stars down the volcanic peaks of Kamchatka, and shared a romantic late-night candlelit dinner served on the veranda of a French colonial villa overlooking Hanoi, where the clink of their champagne glasses raised in a toast to each others’ happiness heralded a spectacular midnight fireworks display. Back in the States at last, the couple settled into cozy married life in Victor’s secluded mansion tucked away in a wooded glen, yet within easy limousine commute from his empire’s flagship television station.

One early February evening, wearied by the stress of presiding over a particularly contentious county board meeting, Brenda “Red” Keane stopped into a liquor store four blocks from the courthouse looking for a bottle of twelve-year-old scotch. Despite the lateness of the hour, the store clerk was occupied serving another patron. That patron, whom Brenda would later characterize as nondescript yet chilling clutched the grip of a large-caliber revolver, the business end of which was securely lodged in the liquor store clerk’s mouth like an unwelcome thermometer—an exploding thermometer that propelled chunks of the unfortunate clerk’s skull, blood and brain tissue in an aerosol mist, tagging the premium liquor rack behind him. In what she would later describe as instinctive action, Red reached into her purse and drew out the .38 special snub nose pistol she as a county official was licensed to carry, aimed and fired, killing the masked perpetrator instantly with a single shot through the heart.

The first police officer responding to the scene peeled away the perp’s ski mask to reveal the newly reposed face of Susan Kennicott Sloan.

All of which inspired the joke going around King Castle County Courthouse the morning after:

What do you give the woman who has everything?

An autopsy.



When I showed up at my office that morning, exhausted from working late the night before, Chief Assistant Public Defender Rollo T. Jambon lounged in my desk chair like a beached walrus, only I figured instead of sockeye salmon he was sniffing around for a continuance on the Lackland Scopes murder case. Even though the defendant Krystal Noah persisted in protesting her innocence—loudly and often—from the confines of her jail cell and had passed a police polygraph, he was more convinced of his client’s guilt than I was.

Rollie exhaled as though his doctor had told him to. It was an exhale of resignation. “Wonder how long The Big Red One’s been in the Glass Chamber this morning.”

“Brenda Keene’s parked in Cow’s office? Probably party politicking.”

“You’re putting me on. What, you don’t follow the news?”

“Doctor’s orders.”

“Sit down, Cato,” Rollie began with evident relish. “Despite your physician-imposed journalistic aversion, you are no doubt familiar with Victor Sloan, are you not? Victor Sloan and his lovely trophy wife Susan Kennicott Sloan, she of the high-toned charity circuit and uncrowned empress of King Castle County’s well-heeled horsy set? Susan Kennicott Sloan: Victor Sloan’s prize mount?”

“I’ve heard those names before.”

“You’ve heard those names before. But have you heard what our little filly Susan was in the act of doing last night when some high-profile public-spirited citizen shot her right out of the saddle?”

“What are you talking about, Rollie?”

“I’m talking about that unsuspected markswoman, that Republican sharpshooter vigilante herself: Madame County Board Chairperson Brenda Keane. Down in the bailiffs’ lounge they’ve already started calling her Deadeye.”

“Red Keane, what, shot Susan Sloan? That’s what you’re telling me?”

“Colder than last year’s Democratic primary returns. Coroner says a single shot, right between those adorable galloping breasts and through the left ventricle. CPR would have been an exercise in futility. Susan Kennicott Sloan has chased her last steeple.”

“But why? Where? When?”

“There, you see? Your barely-repressed hunger for news bursts forth in your invoking three of the Five Ws. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.”

“Then let’s start with why.”

“Motive? Always an excellent point of departure. You sure you haven’t been taking that Famous Prosecutors correspondence course at night?”

“Why would Brenda want to kill Victor Sloan’s wife?”

“Jealousy? Envy? I guess lust is out of the question. Pride? Greed? Anger?”

“You forgot sloth and gluttony.” As soon as I said the final words, I regretted them.

“Touché. However, they don’t apply here. No, there is no motive, because there is no crime. The smart money is on justifiable homicide.”

“Justifiable homicide?”

“Interrupting a forcible felony in progress. Preventing a fleeing forcible felon from making good her escape. Take your pick.”

“Who’s the felon? Not Susan Sloan.”

“None other. Caught in the act of sticking up the Top Hat Liquor Store on Court and Madison. You think maybe she forgot her platinum charge card in her Gucci riding togs and needed to pick up a magnum of Dom Perignon and a tin of Beluga on the way home? And then there’s the ski mask. Rather a fetching one, I’m told. Could be she was testing it out for the slopes at Vail?”

“Susan Sloan was attempting an armed robbery at Top Hat Liquors?”

“Attempting and succeeding. Up to a point. A thirty-eight special one hundred-ten grain jacketed hollow point, actually. That’s what brings La Roja to the Glass Chamber this morning.”

“Bob Cow, Victor Sloan, and Red Keane are like the Three Musketeers. Those friendships go back for decades, maybe even to childhood. There’ll have to be a special prosecutor appointed on this one.”

“Or maybe Cow will simply delegate the investigation to his workhorse first assistant.” Rollie’s black hair, slicked straight back with a prodigal excess of mousse, shone like a mirror in the fluorescent light. “Saves the county money that way.”

I collapsed into a chair. Rollie must have sensed my apprehension. “Who do you think might be appointed special pross in the extremely unlikely event Cow and company fail to sweep this one under the rug?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’d be career suicide—a thankless job, frankly. Maybe Cow will try and keep it in-office. If so, I’m elected. Every dirty thankless job seems to float my way these days like a turd in a wading pool.”

Rollie nodded. “Bet you never thought it would come to this, back when you were sweating those first-year exams in law school, did you, Thaddeus? Living on peanut butter sandwiches and grapefruit tang? Contracts, Torts, Civil Procedure. Frick and Frack form a partnership. Gratuitous bailments. Promissory estoppel. The Erie Doctrine. I mean, come on. Why does a capable guy like yourself stick with law enforcement after all these years, anyway? I hear there’s an opening at Top Hat Liquors you might want to consider.”

‘“I cannot dig, and I am too proud to beg.’”

Rollie’s moon face brightened. “Hey, Luke Sixteen: the dishonest steward parable, one of my own personal favorites. One can tell you teach Sunday school—you sure know your Bible.”

The intercom sounded. It was Cow. Rollie raised one hand like a traffic cop, signaling our meeting was adjourned. He then began a familiar perseverating motion, struggling to right himself from his seated position. I hurried to Cow’s office.

Robert Cow, duly elected State’s Attorney of King Castle County, Illinois, was the kind of guy who, after I’d worked for him twenty years, still had his secretary Jackie leave me little pink telephone message slips telling me to call him at home the moment I got in to the office. It proved more effective than any time clock, and it still spiked my blood pressure every morning. Every time the subject of hypertension came up, Cow’s reply was that, in his opinion, most stress is self-induced.

Cow’s office was not quite as plush as the Illinois governor’s, but close. Heavy floor-to-ceiling glass doors opened onto indigo carpeting like walking through a field of violets, indirect-lit walnut panels, and Jackie herself, looking like a late-sixties Playmate-of-the-Year gone all woman-executive. Today Jackie wore a coffin-silk black dress as though in early mourning for the late Susan Sloan. Her blonde Sandra Dee bubble hairdo glowed like a vintage magazine ad for Lustre-Creme shampoo.

“He’s waiting for you,” she said with fake warmth in a voice made dusky by decades of cigarettes.

I don’t know why Cow chose to have hair at all; his bullet head was perpetually shorn nearly bald from weekly visits to George Wife’s. Cow could have done the job himself in under five minutes with a Wahl clipper and a one-eighth inch attachment, but George Wife’s represented the main oasis along the trade route of local gossip. Some barber shops specialized in pro ball talk, fishing talk, or hunting talk. At George Wife’s, the talk was all local government intrigue. Anything heard at George Wife’s spread like a venereal disease through the nerve system of the King Castle County courthouse.

I found Cow staring out the window onto the courthouse square, hands behind his back, rocking on his heels. “I suppose you’ve heard the news,” he said. “There’s been a shooting. Very sensitive matter. Very sensitive.”

“How’s Ms. Keane taking it?”

“Red? About the way you’d expect her to take it. How does one react hours after killing the wife of one’s longtime friend? Emily Post doesn’t have a chapter on that. We’re covering new ground here.”

“And Victor Sloan?”

“I was about to call Vic. But first you and I need to get a few things straight, Taddy.”

I flinched. “Go ahead.”

“Early word down at George Wife’s is that I’ll be forced to move to appoint a special prosecutor to handle this investigation. Your thoughts, please?”

“Technically, aren’t you jumping the gun? There’s no formal cause or proceeding yet, is there? I mean, the thing just happened.”

“No, my political friendship with Red and my ties to the party may be enough for my enemies to cry cover-up if I don’t file a petition.”

“Then let’s file one this morning.”

He frowned. Wrong answer. “Once a special pross is appointed, the thing is totally out of our hands and in the newspapers every night. A protracted investigation would kill Victor Sloan. No, there must be some other appropriate course of action. What is it?”

I hesitated. “What if we were to file our petition, set it in front of a sympathetic judge, and lose it?”

Cow turned, beaming. “Then I could assign the whole mess to you, to coordinate the investigation in-office. It will all be handled quietly, with your typical skill and discretion. What might have been a major embarrassment to the party and to this office will have been averted. Excellent analysis, Thaddeus. Excellent analysis.”

“But which judge?”

Cow rubbed his thumb against the back of his fresh-shaven neck. “How about Little Greggy?”

Circuit Judge Krikor Vartanian was no friend to the State’s Attorney’s office. The diminutive Armenian-American judge’s prickly personality and unpredictable rulings had managed to make him an enemy of the Chief Judge as well. Despite Vartanian’s high rank as Circuit Judge, the Chief Judge had banished Vartanian to Courtroom #101, the domestic violence and order of protection sewer. Day in and day out, Little Greggy endured the mutual bickering, interrupting, and taunting of the pro se litigants once they’d elbowed their way through the crowd and up to the bench to speak their piece, ordered them to take off their hats, reminded them to call him Your Honor or Sir, and handed out the occasional thirty days for direct contempt, sentence suspended if an apology were immediately forthcoming from the contemnor. It was called keeping order, and it was starting to look like Little Greggy’s lifetime gig.

“Vartanian hates this office.”

“Little Greggy hates everybody: me, you, the County Board chairwoman, not to mention his brothers and sisters on the bench. He has hatred in his guts. That’s what makes him the perfect choice. Nobody can cry favoritism. Plus, he’ll deny any motion my office puts before him, guaranteed. We don’t need a sympathetic judge, Taddy—quite the contrary: we need the most unsympathetic of judges, and that’s Little Greggy, hands down.”

“I’ll draft something.”

“Make it pretty. Lard it with plenty of citations of authority, so it looks like my office worked hard on it and is betting the farm on him granting it. That way, he won’t be able to resist summarily denying it.”

“I’ll get right to it.”

“And Taddy, we need some decisive movement on that Krystal Noah murder case. You need to get the lead out on that one. Doesn’t Rollie have a speedy trial demand on file?”

“Doesn’t he always? Don’t worry; we’re still in good shape.”

But Cow wasn’t convinced. “We’re not in good shape until we’ve got her convicted. That girl’s guilty as sin, so wrap it up quick. Find out exactly how many days we’ve got left on the one twenty, and get it tried. I don’t want us caught with our pants down on any speedy trial bullshit. It’d be political suicide. This other thing’s a lunch-hour job. Dictate something, just knock it out and take it up with Little Greggy early this afternoon. That way he’ll deny it in time for the morning papers.”



At 1:45 PM I toted two copies of my fourteen-page magnum opus to Courtroom #101, where Vartanian was refereeing an interspousal feud worthy of syndicated afternoon television. From the looks of things, the disorderly hearing had been going on for some time already. Having cut my teeth on similar cases when I first signed on with Cow, I could easily pick out the players: outraged cuckold husband, sympathetic good-ol’ boy neighbor at his side for moral support, outraged cuckold husband’s meddling mother, faithless wife, and faithless wife’s new teenage paramour. All were shouting at once, vying for the floor and the brass ear of Judge Vartanian, who looked like the “before” picture in an ad for Preparation H.

“Lying whore—”

“—threatened to burn my house down with me in it—”

“—ain’t paying all them bills for her to be whoring—”

“Can I say something, Your Honor? Sir? Can I say something?”

“Ask her one thing. Ask her what she done with them kids with my son at work and her busy whoring with that high-school boyfriend a’ hers!”

Judge Vartanian closed the court file and began to pronounce his decision.

“This court’s paramount concern is the best interests of the children—”

“Whyn’tcha ask him the last time he bothered to lift a finger and gimme some help with them kids, then? Whyn’tcha ask him that?”

This last interruption ignited Vartanian’s fabled slow burn.

“Your Honor Sir,” Faithless Wife added, too late.

“Bailiff,” Little Greggy began, deadly quiet. The Chief Judge’s diminutive nephew Philip Pfaith roused from near-slumber at the rear of the courtroom, smoothed out the wrinkles in his uniform, and strode forward with clinking handcuffs to stand before the bench. I edged closer, holding the special prosecutor motion to my chest like a mug shot placard, hoping to form as many negative associations as possible in Vartanian’s mind, the better to take a dive.

“The dignity of the law must and shall be served,” Vartanian intoned, training his baleful squint at Faithless, who by now was sniffling audibly and quavering at the upper lip. “Where did you get the idea, madam, that you could come into this courtroom and interrupt a Circuit Judge?”

No answer.

“Who told you that it would be perfectly all right to shout out at the top of your lungs in open court whatever rude and hostile remarks popped into your head, even if by so doing you were to cut off a Circuit Judge in mid-sentence?”

Still no answer. More sniveling.

“No one, madam, and I mean no one, interrupts a Circuit Judge, especially when that Circuit Judge is in the midst of pronouncing his decision: a decision I might add that is sure to have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences with regard to the care, custody and welfare of your children.”

“Your Honor, Sir, all I meant was—”

“Quiet!” Vartanian shouted in a voice so loud that even I started with its sudden force. “I hereby find you in direct contempt of this Court and sentence you to thirty days’ confinement in the King Castle County Jail. Order of protection granted; temporary custody awarded to Petitioner; support and visitation reserved. Clerk to prepare an appropriate order. Next case.”

“I’m sorry, Sir. I’m so sorry,” the woman wailed as Aphid Pfaith slapped the bracelets on her and began to lead her away. But Vartanian wasn’t hearing any apologies.

It looked like my lucky day.

“Your Honor,” I called out, just to be irritating, “The People have an ex parte motion to present, may it please the Court.”

“Mr. Jobe, it can hardly have escaped your notice that I have a very full docket this afternoon. Is no one else free to hear your motion?”

“No one, Judge,” I lied. “In addition to which, the matter is of the utmost urgency.” If you want to get Little Greggy mad, rush him. “May I approach, Your Honor?” I added, jabbing the motion in his direction as though serving a subpoena.

Vartanian stared at me, his mouth clamped in exasperation. He beckoned wearily and said, “Bring it up here.” He read the first page for about three minutes, and then looked at his watch and said, “We’ll take this up in chambers. Five minute recess.”

Vartanian’s chambers were spare, and cramped. There was nothing of a personal nature: no family pictures, golf trophies, framed sheepskins, commemorative plaques or potted plants. The man who spent his days confined here clearly was a man convinced he was destined for better things, choicer assignments. Or that his days were numbered.

He sat down behind his desk and picked up my motion.

“What’s the matter with Cow these days? He getting too good for his job?”

“I hardly think so, Your Honor.”

“You hardly think so. Then what’s he trying to pull here?”

“Mr. Cow feels that—”

“Your Mr. Cow has thinly disguised political ambitions, and alienating party movers and shakers like Victor Sloan and Red Keane doesn’t fit his career agenda.”

I affected a classified tone. “Judge, between you, me and the lamppost, there may be something in what you’re saying.” Vartanian nodded, leaning closer.

“Remember, I just work here, Your Honor. And let me add, I appreciate the opportunity of your hearing this matter in chambers. I think you’re exactly right: there’s a fear in certain quarters that all this has a definite negative potential, that it may blow sky high. Confidentially, Cow doesn’t want to be holding onto that bomb when it goes off.”

I thought I detected the hint of an anarchist’s gleam in Vartanian’s eye at that last remark. “Motion will be denied. Prepare an order for my signature. Let Cow clean up his own mess.” He stood, threw on his robe, and zipped it up.

I whipped up a quick handwritten denial order on a three-part carbon form provided for that purpose and raced out into the courtroom, where Vartanian was already enmeshed in another domestic dispute. I handed my proposed order to Vartanian’s clerk, who passed it up to him for signature. He signed it without reading and handed it back; for all he knew it could have been a full confession to skullduggery and buggery.

I returned to the office, toting my dubious prize as though it were a duck taken out of season.




CHAPTER TWO



The murder file on Krolene Noah filled two accordion red ropes. I sat at my desk and pored over the file contents until well after office hours trying to discover any weaknesses in the State’s case that Rollie might exploit at trial. Something about the file bothered me and I didn’t know why.

Lackland Scopes’ criminal record tracked his entire adult life; his juvenile record reached all the way back to the fourth grade, when he had assaulted and beaten a younger student nearly to death. Incidents of violence occurred with alarming and increasing frequency throughout his adolescence, as well as drug and alcohol-related encounters with local law enforcement. But it was the Noah network of methamphetamine manufacture and distribution that had defined and shaped the course of Lackland Scopes’ professional career. That network, headed by Arkansas Noah, recognized Scopes’ potential for advancement early on; his comfort level with mindless violence and his singular absence of a conscience were two qualities ideally suited to the job at hand, and served to facilitate Scopes’ remarkable upward mobility through the ranks of his co-conspirators.

Krolene “Krystal” Noah, Ark Noah’s youngest daughter according to the family tree chart prepared by organized crime task force investigators, had been identified as a known associate of Scopes for the past four years. Twelve years his junior, she had for years been his paramour, gal Friday, punching bag, and victim of choice, all of which she had loudly proclaimed to anyone who would listen ever since she was arrested—strung out on her father’s product—the night of Scopes’ murder.

Krystal seemed an ideal suspect. In an attempt to stop the savage beatings and keep Scopes away from her, she had broken ranks and testified against him at an order of protection hearing in front of Judge Vartanian mere weeks before the murder. Vartanian, not wanting to visit the case again, had not only granted the order of protection but on his own initiative had gone one step further and made it mutual, meaning Lack Scopes and Krystal Noah each were ordered to stay away from the other or face imminent arrest and prosecution. The irony was, Vartanian’s attempt to avoid work for himself had backfired. Because Lack Scopes had been granted an order of protection against Krystal, whether he’d asked for one or not, the mutual order of protection bumped an otherwise simple homicide case up into the death penalty category.

Rollie would be tempted to resort to battered woman syndrome. Yet apparently Krystal had been separated from Scopes and his threats for nearly two months prior to the murder; there had been no indication that Scopes had violated the order of protection by any attempt to intimidate or even contact Krystal. Moreover, word on the street was that a mysterious new love interest had entered Krystal’s life even before the hearing.

“Getting ready for a big trial, Mr. Jobe?” Brad Rodgers’ eager young face appeared in the semi-darkness over my banker’s lamp, startling me. “Didn’t mean to spook you,” he said quickly. Everything about the young ASA was keen yet indecisive. In his clear, darting eyes I saw myself twenty-some years ago, before Karryn and the kids.

“Krystal Noah,” I gestured. “Big file. Big case. Big pain in the butt.”

“Need any help?”

“No, just ruminating, I guess. There’s a weenie in here somewhere, but I can’t seem to get a handle on it.”

Brad’s laugh was a nervous staccato. “Sounds like the punch line for a dirty joke.” When I failed to smile, momentary terror flitted across his face. “I didn’t mean—”

“Forget it, Brad. I’m just tired, I guess.”

I could tell from his hesitation that Brad was groping for the teacher-pleasing response. “All my trial files are pretty straightforward,” he said at last. “You know, the cops have the guy confessing on DVD and all. I’d love to second-chair the Noah case, if you need somebody. Not that you do, of course. Is there a speedy trial demand from the defense?”

“Worse. There’s one from Cow.”

“Mr. Cow wants this one tried quickly? I’ll say it again: I’m here if you need me.”

“Thanks, Brad. I may take you up on that. But now I’m afraid Karryn is getting ready to send out a search party after me.” I stood up to leave.

“Exactly how many days do you have left on the one hundred-twenty, if you don’t mind my asking?”

I checked the secretary’s handwritten notation on my calendar. “We’re ok. Krystal wasn’t arrested until early November.”

“Early November? Mr. Jobe, are you sure? Because I seem to remember her being brought over for arraignment a good month earlier than that.”

“Oh, shit!” I broke out the arrest records. “You’re right, Brad; it was October. October third. My secretary fucked up my book. We would have been shit out of luck in three days. That damn Rollie, letting her sit in jail, waiting for the clock to run out.”

“And only a month away from the primaries, too.”

“Brad, I’m lucky you and I had this little conversation. I owe you one.”

“You’re a lucky man, Mr. Jobe. I mean, your family and all.”

“Thanks, Brad, I know. And it’s Tad, ok? Mr. Jobe is my father.”

Another nervous machine-gun burst. “Ok…Tad. Hey, if you’re taking off, is it ok with you if I just, you know, glance over the file for a little bit on my own? Maybe something will pop out at me.”

“You mean after saving my ass tonight? Hell, help yourself, Brad. Go crazy.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean that I’d ever be able to find something you’d missed. Nothing like that. Consider it just a lucky break, is all.” Brad, big toe thrust deep down into the carpet, was clearly beside himself.

“Two heads are better than one in this business, Brad. I appreciate the offer of help. I’ll take it wherever and whenever you can get it.”

“All right. If you’re sure, that is.”

Throwing on my coat, I said, “I’m sure. Good night, Brad.”

“Good night, Mr., er, ah, Tad.”

On the elevator ride down, I tried to visualize the two of us—Tad and Brad—seated together at the counsel table together, trying the Krystal Noah case.



Karryn had dinner waiting for me; she met me at the breezeway door. It was something she’d picked up in one of those Christian wives’ self-help books she was always reading, meeting the husband at the door when he returns from work. She was dressed in a skirt and blouse, with a frilly Betty Crocker apron still tied around her narrow waist. The acne that had appeared out of nowhere when the boys were born and still plagued her at thirty-six was aflame from the heat of the kitchen, worse because Karryn on religious principles did not believe in wearing makeup or going to a dermatologist. There was no use re-tackling the subject with her. Adult-onset acne was a peculiar thorn in her flesh; she had prayed to God three times to remove it and when those prayers were not granted she took it as a scarlet letter meant to punish her vanity, a mortification of the flesh to purify the spirit. Deep, twisted scars and red welts disfigured her forehead and bearded both cheeks and her chin. Under the plain blouse I knew it afflicted both shoulders and tapered down her back as well. It broke my heart, because she was so beautiful, yet thought herself ugly as a leper.

Her kiss was warm, yet reticent in front of the twins, twelve-year-olds Peter and Paul, who waved to me from the kitchen. Both of them were chewing on carrot sticks. Our dog Trixie’s greeting was less reserved; wagging not only her tail but her entire squat body, she danced a canine hula while swabbing my hands with her huge wet washcloth of a tongue.

“You know you’ll have to wash before supper, Tad.” Karryn pulled me aside and we embraced and made out like naughty children as soon as we were out of the boys’ sight.

“I prayed to the Lord Jesus Christ for your safe return,” she sighed, still cuddled in my arms.

“He always answers your prayers.”

“Our Lord answers everything we humbly ask Him with faith in prayer. You’d do well to remember that.” She patted my chest and slipped from my embrace. “Wait’ll you see what we’re having.” Typical for Karryn, not a questioning word about my being late. Also typical was the meticulously prepared meal: roast chicken, with not one but two casseroles worthy of a Baptist carry-in supper, and a lime jello and marshmallow confection for dessert. I sat down at the head of the dining-room table with Karryn at my right and the boys at my left. Trixie took her place between Paul and me, secure in the knowledge that one or more likely both of us would slip her table scraps.

Karryn asked, “Who wants to say grace for us tonight?” Both boys looked down and squirmed like chicken thieves. “No volunteers? Very well, I’ll say it. Unless your father prefers to do the honors?”

“You go ahead.”

Karryn looked disappointedly at me for a moment before saying, “Let’s all bow our heads, then.” In a soft voice reserved only for God she began to pray: “Our Heavenly Father, we thank Thee for the food we are about to eat and for all Thy bounteous blessings which Thou hast bestowed upon us. Grant us always to be truly grateful. And most of all we thank Thee for the priceless gift of eternal life which Thou hast granted us through the sacrifice of Thy blessed Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died and rose again as a ransom for our sins, that He might save us from death and from the snares of the evil one. Father in Heaven, bless our family, preserve the sanctity of our marriage and deliver us from every sin and temptation. Bless our nation and its leaders and guide them to a true understanding and devotion to Thy Word. Grant that Roe versus Wade and all other unjust laws be speedily overturned, and have mercy upon the hosts of innocent unborn who have been slaughtered, and grant that all those persons who have been deluded by the evil one will repent of their sins and turn again to be redeemed by thee. For we ask all these things in the name of Thy Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.” It was completely extemporaneous and from the heart.

“So how was your day, KK?” It was my standard term of endearment for the former Karryn Kay Langhorne.

“Well, it was laundry day of course. Rather than waste precious energy—as if I had any choice—I hung the clothes outside and took advantage of the Lord’s free dryer. And then I’m afraid I got lazy this afternoon. The time wasn’t wasted, though—I sat and watched a couple hours of Christian television before it got late enough to start dinner.”

“Reverend Ruth?”

“I just love her; she seems to reach out to me and speak directly to my heart every time she delivers her message. Plus, she’s local.”

TLN, or The Lord’s Network, was the religious cable outlet in Victor Sloan’s media empire. His fire insurance policy, many suspected. The conservative bent of its preachers formed a seamless web with the red-state editorial content of his national news station, The Newshound Channel, and its judicial branch analog, TrialTV.

“What does that have to do with it?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Something about her living and preaching in our local community makes everything more homey.”

“Homey? She lives in a palace that would have made Emperor Nero jealous.”

“Tad, don’t tell me you’re falling to league with all the naysayers? The ones with little faith who want to drag the rest of us down with them? Don’t you know how easy it is to become wealthy?”

“I guess not.”

“We need to tithe, Tad. Tithing is the one thing we lack.”

“I beg to disagree. Money is the one thing we lack.”

“Don’t you want Our Lord to open the windows of heaven to us and pour down a blessing we cannot contain?”

“Something tells me Reverend Ruth has been preaching Malachi Three again.”

“Don’t scoff, Tad. It’s very unflattering.”

“And just where was Reverend Ruth suggesting we send those tithes of my meager county salary? Could it be the Reverend Ruth Ministries by any coincidence?”

“Reverend Ruth says that small begets small. Small faith begets poverty and misery. Big faith begets big happiness and big prosperity. God wants us to be happy and prosperous, Tad. Why do you insist in always standing in our way and blocking our path to success just so you can cling to your pathetic negative outlook and your mockeries?”

“My mockeries?”

“Boys, have you finished? Good, then go to your room, please. Your father and I need to have a serious discussion. No, wait: before you go, practice your catechism. Name me the twelve disciples.” Petey and Paul knew when to get up from the table and move on. They were already beside their chairs when the order came to recite. They looked at each other, then at me, but finding no rescue began in slow unison.

“Peter and Andrew, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas, James the Lesser, Simon the Zealot, Matthias, and Thaddeus.”

“Also called?”

“Lebbaeus.”

“Also called?”

“Judas, not Iscariot.”

“Very good. Now quick, what’s the number of the beast of Revelation?”

“Six sixty-six.”

“Or?”

“Six-sixteen?” Petey, after some hesitation.

“Are you asking me or telling me, Peter?”

“Telling you?”

“All right. And where do the followers of the beast receive his mark?”

Both boys in eager chorus: “On the right hand or the forehead.”

“That’s right. There will come a time—maybe very soon, maybe tomorrow—when some powerful leader wants to force us all to receive such a mark. It could be a bar code like they use at the Wal-Mart, or the identi-chip the vet put in Trixie’s neck so they could read her address if she ran away. Whatever it is, modern science is advanced to where it could happen any day now. And you must never, never ever receive that mark, no matter who wants you to have it, not even your teacher or your school principal, not even the President of the United States.”

“Not even Reverend Ruth,” I interjected.

KK ignored me. “And do you know why?”

Silence.

“What happens to those who worship the beast and receive his mark?”

Both boys, quietly wide-eyed: ‘“The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshippers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.’”

“You see why it’s so important to avoid being marked? We don’t want to be burned with fire and brimstone forever and ever, now, do we?”

“No, Ma’am. But doesn’t the Book of Revelation say that no one can buy or sell unless he receives the mark of the beast?”

“That’s exactly right, Paul.”

“So how are we gonna live if we can’t go to the store and buy anything? Or if Dad can’t make any money?”

KK didn’t skip a beat. “How did the Israelites live in the wilderness for forty years? God took care of them, didn’t he? He sent them manna every morning from the sky to feed them, and quail. Why, those Israelites ate better than rich people today eat in the finest restaurants, thanks to Our Heavenly Father. Have you forgotten how Jesus fed the five thousand? Not to mention the four thousand? And don’t you worry about your father making money. He can make all the money he wants, any time he wants.” She ended the sentence with a glare focused pointedly in my direction.

“Very good, boys. You may be excused now. If you behave yourselves, there’ll be dessert later.”

As soon as she heard their bedroom door close, Karryn laid into me. “I think it’s shameful how you mock the Word of the Lord at the dinner table in front of our children. And I think it’s equally shameful that we have to live in this cracker box house in a declining neighborhood with two pre-adolescent boys having to share a tiny bedroom and me not even having a working clothes dryer. After all, you are a lawyer. And not just any lawyer—a lawyer with a photographic memory.”

I absent-mindedly flipped through the day’s mail KK had left beside my plate. A couple of utility bills, monthly church newsletter, and a slick catalog for a chain of funeral homes.

Karryn went on, barely taking a breath. “But with your law degree and your photographic memory and all your experience here you sit year after year, wasting and squandering that photographic memory and superior intelligence and all your other God-given gifts, taking orders from people inferior to you, letting opportunity after opportunity for advancement pass you by. Don’t you care about us? Don’t you care about how your wife and children have to live?”

“Of course I care, KK. But I don’t know what opportunities you’re talking about. The practice of law is more overcrowded than ever.”

“It wasn’t always.”

“We’ve talked about this a million times. When we got married and after the kids were born, it wasn’t a propitious time to be taking risks. We needed financial security.”

“Security? Propitious times? How dare you sit there and talk to me about security and propitious times? A woman was murdered last night committing a holdup not a dozen blocks from our home, Tad. I’d feel more secure in the witness protection program. And only a few miles away, the movers and the shakers in this town, those who aren’t afraid to take a risk, who truly trust in God and His grace, are living their lives in wealth and prosperity while we languish here in this dump. Propitious times, my Aunt Fanny.”

“What do you want me to say, Karryn?”

“I want you to tell me why, after so many years working at a fairly high level in county government, you still haven’t managed to get us invited to join The Justice Society. Is it that you just don’t care?”

“The Justice Society. So that’s it.”

“Don’t say ‘so that’s it’ like you know everything. Truth is, you’re afraid of advancement. And the reason you’re so afraid is that you don’t trust in the Lord.”

“You want to know my theory about trusting in the Lord, Karryn? I’ll tell you one canon in the Tad Jobe theology, and it’s based on common sense and observation. Here it is: God has favorites. Like any parent, God has different plans for each of us. Some He plans for greatness, others for obscurity. Look at Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Israel and Manassas. See any impartiality there? Or look at David and Goliath. God sure had a favorite in that bout, didn’t he?”

Karryn covered her ears. “Get thee behind me, blaspheming Satan,” she whispered.

“Fine,” I said. “I’m going back to the office. Have to start earning all that tithe money for Reverend Ruth.”


The cleaning people were used to seeing me working late. They had almost finished vacuuming and straightening up by the time I returned to the office suite at the courthouse. I didn’t need to use my after-hours passkey to let myself in. Nobody gave me more than a glance in my casual clothes. I could have been one of them. Karryn probably thought me no more successful or ambitious than a janitor, although I worked more late nights than I could remember.

The Justice Society. All our arguments seemed to center around The Justice Society. I knew in my heart that Karryn’s ambitions were focused on membership in the Society only because she wanted the very best for me—for both of us. She’d always been standing there to greet me at the door with a warm smile and a welcoming heart, through thick years and thin—mostly thin. Together we’d braved a rocky financial course that had sounded the depths of her Christian faith as well as mine. Karryn deserved better than that, and I knew it.

And Karryn knew in her heart, even though she often accused me of being afraid to take chances and no matter how much I might protest, I was willing to do anything for her, anything at all, no matter the risk. Karryn knew me better than anyone. She was my life, my joy, my reason for living. If I sometimes had funny ways of showing it—sarcasm, put-downs, working too late—I told myself it was only because my love for her was so strong, so passionate, I had trouble expressing it.

A light was on in my office. Through the semitransparent draperies I could see a person seated in my chair. A woman. Probably taking a break from vacuuming.

I opened the door. Krystal Noah, wearing the same Jack Daniels T-shirt and faded jeans she’d been arrested in. She looked much better in person than in her mug shot, but after several weeks in County her hair was greasy and jail-stiff and she needed a shower in the worst way. “Found the door a’jarred and took a load off my feet,” she lilted.

“You don’t belong here,” I said.

“I didn’t belong in county jail, neither, but you boys sure shitcanned me there.”

“I mean it, Krystal. You’ll have to leave right now. How did you get out, anyway?”

“On the wings of a angel, like the old song says.”

“Must have been a powerful and influential angel. You were being held without bond.”

Krystal waved a pink carbon at me; I took it from her hands. It was a handwritten order signed by Little Greggy himself, releasing the defendant on her own recognizance—an incredible step in a murder case.

“He up and gimme a ‘get outta jail free’ card on these here bullshit charges you and your buds have got cooked up against me. Y’all fixin’ to gimme one a them there lethal injections so’s you can get your name in all the papers?”

“Lose the Dogpatch delivery, Krystal. I know you have a college degree.”

Krystal looked me straight in the eye. When she spoke, the cornpone accent was gone. “Look, I know men. I know how men think. And I know you don’t think I killed Lack. I mean, how could you, right? Well, it just so happens you’re absolutely right: I didn’t kill him. You look inside yourself, you’ll realize I’m telling the truth. He like to beat the shit out of me soon as look at me, but I did not kill the asshole.”

I silently debated with myself whether to ask her who did kill him if she didn’t, but thought better of it, although I was burning with curiosity. After all, she did have a lawyer and the Code of Professional Conduct still applied to me as a prosecutor. I shouldn’t be questioning her at all. Volunteered admissions were shaky enough, and I hadn’t Mirandized her.

“You should be telling all this to your attorney.”

In an instant, Krystal was back in character. “I’se to cry rape right now, you’d sure shit get your name in all the headlines, Mr. Prosecutor. Even though you’re no guiltier than I am.”

“In about three seconds I’m calling the county sheriff. You’ve violated every condition of bail I can think of.”

Krystal laughed as she grabbed back the pink papers. “Aww, can’t you tell I was just a’shittin’ ya? C’mon, lighten up.”

I reached for the phone. With an unexpectedly cool right hand, Krystal seized my left wrist just below the watchband. “Gotcha,” she whispered.



Next morning found Rollie slouched in my chair again.

“She’s recogged,” he chortled. “Can you believe it? Somebody got to Little Greggy.” Rollie rubbed his enormous palms together. “The best part is, rumor has it only yesterday some high-priced legal talent entered his appearance as defense counsel in her case.”

“You mean you didn’t present the motion for recog, Rollie?”

“With my caseload? Dream on.”

Before I could respond, the intercom sounded: “Brenda Keane on line one.”

Rollie’s eyes widened, his mouth formed the shape of a delighted donut. “See ya later, Cato.”

I waved the door shut as he left. “Ms. Keane?”

“Tad Darling, please—call me Red.”

“Red. How can I help you?”

“You can meet me for a drink at the Club around ten. Needless to say, you and I have some… sensitive political matters to discuss.”

The Club had to be The Justice Society inner sanctum, where my KK, like the angels, had oft longed to look. “I don’t know whether meeting you at this time would be professionally appropriate, Ms., er, Red. After all, I’ve recently been selected to investigate your case.”

“There is no case, Tad. You and Cow both agree with me privately. Bob Cow is well aware he owes his position and his very livelihood to my late husband and to the party.”

Brian Keane had been elected the youngest County Board Chairman in King Castle County history, and had retained that position for twenty-five years before his untimely off-year death at age fifty-five. The party had appointed Red to serve out his term, where she had proven herself an even savvier pol than her husband. Word at George Wife’s was that Red had been the brains behind the throne during Brian’s entire long tenure.

“Kind of early for a drink, ten.”

“It has to be five o’clock somewhere, Darling. Tahiti, maybe. I’ll order Zombies in honor of the hour.”

“Zombies are Haiti.”

“Let’s discuss world geography over drinks. I’ll leave word at the gatehouse.”



The Justice Society Clubhouse stood protected within the walls of the Sloan Estate, nestled among rolling forested hills. The security proved tighter than a military base on orange-level alert. The gatehouse guard wore mirror sunglasses and a security uniform accessorized with a gleaming chrome .45 automatic sidearm. An AK-47 hung from a rack within easy reach. I had to produce three forms of ID, each of which he called in for confirmation.

“What kind of high-tech computer setup do they have at HQ that they can run my driver’s license, credit card, and bar card while we wait?”

“Should take only a moment, sir,” was all he replied.

“Secretary of State? NCIS? What else?”

“Processing you now.”

“Ever have to use that chopper on anybody, or is it only for display?”

“You’re good to go,” he said, cell phone at one ear. “First left, follow the winding road. Parking lot’ll be on your right.”

“What, no valet service?”

“Enjoy your stay, sir.” The crossing gate rose and I drove through.



Want to know how the other half live? Visit the Club. A doorman in a major domo uniform opened the door for me with a sweeping flourish. Not knowing whether I was expected to tip him, I rewarded him instead with one of my most winning smiles. He said, “The Chairwoman is expecting you in the great room bar, sir. End of the grand concourse and through the double cherrywood doors.”

The curving hallway wide enough for a coach and four drew me onward. Oil portraits in heavy frames honored distinguished jurists and attorneys. Busts of Victor Sloan and Julius Caesar sculpted from marble on pedestals in soft-lit alcoves flanked the double doors to the bar. Sloan’s was on the right, the other emperor’s on the left. Sloan’s forehead was bigger.

In the dim light of the enormous bar everything twinkled that did not glisten. Red Keane, twinkling and glistening like a lensful of vaseline, regarded me whimsically from her perch on a bar stool near the waitress station. She held my gaze for thirty paces without speaking. As I approached I dumbly checked her out. Namesake flaming red hair in tight curls, cropped close to the skull. Great legs and an arresting figure for a woman pushing sixty from the wrong direction.

“Breakfast is served,” she said, gesturing to two tropical drinks in tall glasses as though making a formal introduction. “As promised.”

“Zombies? Before lunch?”

“Before, instead of. Take your pick.”

“I’m really not much of a drinker, Red. Especially on an empty stomach.” I’d never been drunk since law school.

“Practice makes perfect, Tad. Sit down and be sociable. These’ll help in that department.”

Red reached for her drink and took a pull that sucked in her cheeks. “Now you,” she said.

I took my glass in hand and imitated her. Sweet, seductive taste of the tropics hid the unaccustomed strong drink lurking within like a serpent in the jungle.

“I first developed a taste for these on Victor’s boat,” Red said. “Can you keep a secret?”

“I’m a lawyer,” I said.

“Hell,” Red said, “half the lawyers in this town can be counted on to spill their guts cold sober and give up every secret they own at George Wife’s.”

“My wife cuts my hair.”

“Of course she does. Word has it you’re something of a religious man, Tad.”

“No more than anybody else.”

“That’s not what I hear. And in my position I tend to hear everything.”

“That’s a good trick if you can manage it.”

“The trick is to listen. And remember. I guarantee you, Tad, I’ve forgotten nothing over the years. Nothing. It’s been a blessing. And a curse.”

“A good memory is the key to success as a lawyer, too. And I’ve found over the years that the key to a good memory is to trust it.”

She regarded me with a strangely whimsical expression. “You trust your memory, Tad, is that it? Do you really?”

“Of course. Memory is who we are.”

“At any rate, the word around town, at least the word around George Wife’s, is that you are reputed to be a religious man.”

“I try to avoid having sin enter my personal life, if that’s what you mean.”

“And how about your professional life?”

We drank in silence for what seemed a considerable time after that, sizing each other up. Finally she spoke. “I attended the memorial service for Susan Sloan this morning.”

“Must have been a sunrise service.”

“It was. Victor Sloan has always been an early riser. As in, the early bird catches the, you know. One is understandably reluctant to talk of worms when discussing the freshly dead.” She laughed bitterly.

“Memorial service? Was she cremated?”

“Silly boy. She’s resting quietly in a drawer down at the County Morgue awaiting autopsy at this very moment. Imagine that perfect body of hers laid out on a dissection table being violated by that filthy Doctor Man Wong.” Red effortlessly finished her drink and signaled the bartender for another. “Victor wept inconsolably through the whole service, you know. Rather like a father who’d lost a child.”

“I take it you didn’t care for Susan Sloan?”

“Care for her? Tad, Darling, you may as well hear it now from my own quivering lips: I positively detested the woman. Not to mention the fact that, prior to his hasty and ill-considered marriage, Victor had a will prepared naming me his sole beneficiary. In your investigation you’ll soon encounter more than enough nasty innuendo, so I might as well tell you the true story at the outset.”

“Which is?”

“Finish your drink like a good boy and I’ll order you another. After that it’s story time.”

Cow had put me on this case personally, I reasoned. What better way to kick off the investigation than hearing what the target herself had to say, especially with her tongue loosened by alcohol? When I cautioned Red that I couldn’t talk to her if she had an attorney, she vetoed the idea of legal counsel with a curt dismissive wave.

“I devoted twenty-five years of my life to Brian’s career in politics,” she began. “Good years. Lean years. All the best years. I always did whatever it took to support him and to support the party.”

“What happened between you and Brian?”

“The twenty-fifth year, our silver anniversary—which incidentally was the year of Brian’s last illness—I met Victor Sloan.”

“Ah.”

“What do you mean, ‘Ah?’”

“I take it there was some romantic involvement between you and Victor Sloan? That is what you’re suggesting, isn’t it?”

“Victor Sloan was—is—a hell of a man. He knows exactly what he wants and knows how to help himself to it. For eight years, sparks flew. Then she came along.” Red’s voice cracked; she drained another drink. “What say we order up a pitcher of whiskey sours, Tad, old boy?”

“What time is it?”

“Time to make a clean breast of things at last. A full confession to the commissar, the adversary.”

“I’m not your adversary, Red.” The words came out unctuous and manipulative.

“Aren’t you, Tad? Well, I’m glad you aren’t,” Red said, her face too close to mine.

The sours tasted like lemonade after the Zombies. They went down easy. Too easy. From time to time I was conscious of our voices—mostly mine—echoing too loudly off the cathedral beams in the cavernous bar, but I didn’t care. Here I was with the County kingmaker, made privy to all the inner circle’s secrets.




CHAPTER THREE



And then Red told me her story. Trouble was, after I sobered up I couldn’t remember any part of it. Nor could I remember how I got home, or how our car got home. All I was left with was a nagging sense of having forgotten something dreadful, or that something dreadful was about to occur. I don’t think I could have handed another day at the office. Good thing the next day was a Saturday. Or maybe not so good.

“Wine is a mocker,” Karryn preached to me outside the bathroom door. “Strong drink a brawler. And whoever is led astray by it is not wise.’’

“Amen to that.”

“Would you like me to call Reverend Bob to pray over you, Tad?”

“I’d rather be gut-shot.”

“Tad, you know better than to drink alcohol. ‘At the last it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder.’”

“Boy howdy.”

“Want me to fix you something? Can you keep beef bouillon down?”

My involuntary reflex response told her no. She was still standing at the door waiting for me when I emerged. “Do we have anything like an Alka-Seltzer in this house?” I asked her.

“Alka-Seltzer is for drunkards and gluttons.”

“And your point?”

She pursed her lips with disapproval. “No, Thaddeus, we don’t have anything like an Alka-Seltzer in this house. Why don’t you go back to bed and sleep off your hangover? I don’t know whether I can keep your children quiet, though.”

When I finally went downstairs that afternoon, KK and the boys were home from junior choir practice.

I was flipping through the mail on the hallway table when she said, “I just hope you didn’t get drunk enough to make a fool of yourself and ruin our chances.”

Frozen in mid-flip on a full-color brochure advertising a casket company, I could only manage, “Ruin our chances for what?”

“For finally being considered for membership in The Justice Society,” she said. “The envelope came today while you were sleeping it off. Delivered by private messenger, no less. We’ve been invited to the home of Victor Sloan—the Victor Sloan—for what they call a new members fête this Sunday evening at seven. Black tie formal. I just hope you didn’t already do something stupid and blow the whole thing for both of us.”

“No such luck.”

“Well, I hope not. Is she nice?”

“Who?”

“Brenda Keane.”

I paused to reflect. It wasn’t easy, what with the John Bonham drum solo banging around inside my cranium. “How did you know I was with Brenda Keane?”

“It’s all you could talk about when they brought you home last night.”

“When who brought me home?”

She kissed me, oblivious to my hangover mouth. “Don’t worry, Tad. I forgive you.”


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