Read Shoveling Smoke Online

Authors: Austin Davis

Shoveling Smoke

a clay parker crime novel
Austin Davis

Lawyers spend a great deal of time shoveling smoke.
– Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Good men must not obey the laws too well.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson


Jenks, Texas, was not as easy to find
as Wick Chandler had led me to believe on the phone. I headed north out of Houston on State Highway 59, switched to 69 at Lufkin, and spent two hours drifting through thick pine forests and fields of Bahia grass, most of which had been walked brown by cattle. None of the folks in the filling stations and convenience marts I stopped at could or would give me a coherent set of directions. “Jenks?” they said, a faraway look in their eyes as they pointed me down the road, usually back the way I’d come. The air conditioner in the Austin Healey gave out—I should never have installed one in that wreck of a car—and the last hour was godawful, with hot wind blasting through the open windows and the locusts in the trees making their damned clatter, as if the sky were unzipping itself from the ground. finally I found it, a one-horse town with a two-block business district and a Dairy Queen. Jenks. My new home.

The office of Chandler and Stroud, Attorneys at Law, was a storefront operation on the main street, next to the Video Palace and the Bon-Ton House of fine Apparel. Tired as I was and dressed in jeans, T-shirt, and flip-flops, I nevertheless decided to go inside and get the introductions over. I was curious to meet Gilliam Stroud and Hardwick Chandler, the two lawyers who had offered me, sight unseen, a job out in the middle of nowhere, among the locusts and pine trees and cattle.

Stroud I knew something about. He had had a reputation in his early days, a long time ago. Chandler was an unknown quantity, a friendly voice on the phone. I was hoping the two of them would turn out to be wise old country lawyers. In addition to a job, I needed some wisdom.

When I walked in the office nobody was home. Country music played softly from a radio on the front desk. I went through the little reception room, down a hallway, looking through doors. There were three offices in a row, one virtually empty, but two with desks buried in papers and bookshelves crowded with a conglomeration of objects never before seen in a law office. There were burlap bags of what looked to be grain; shirt boxes trailing rumpled sleeves; giant plastic sacks of Butterfinger candy bars; enough fishing tackle to start up a shop; piles of hubcaps; a model of a sailing ship; garden hoses; plastic body parts—arms, legs, hands with pointing fingers; glass bottles of all shapes and sizes; maybe twenty-five pairs of boots, all bright orange with parti-colored cactuses on the sides; a beer cooler full of disassembled firearms; and dozens of rusty leather-and-steel contraptions that looked like they had something to do with either horses or nineteenth-century bondage. The place was part law office, part weird warehouse.

Back in the hallway, I collided with a giant wearing frayed denim overalls split from the crotch to the knee. I fell back from him, startled, and we stared at each other. The man’s beard looked as if it had exploded, leaving clumps of spiky red hair scattered across his massive jaws. His T-shirt was stained nearly black at the neck and armpits, and a smell of sweat and new-mown grass rolled off him. His eyes were round and colorless. He was chewing something.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t see you.” The tall man looked at me as if I had spoken in Polish. His face was badly sunburned under his bill cap, the front of which read, in script,
Pascal’s Wonder Wormer.

“Is somebody helping you?” I asked.

He took a massive chew, held it, spoke: “Mr. Stroud told me to come in. He said I needed a easement.” His voice was slow and thick, like asphalt liquefying under a July sun.

“I see.” I glanced past him toward the reception desk. It was a little after ten o’clock in the morning. Where was the secretary? I pointed to the waiting room. “Why don’t you go down there and sit, and we’ll see if anybody turns up.”

The big man kept staring. “Mr. Stroud said I needed a easement,” he said. I excused myself and went to the receptionist’s desk, where I thumbed through a Rolodex, looking for Stroud’s number and trying to figure out how in hell a law firm could be deserted at ten
on a business day, with a client waiting in the hall. At
I found three entries, two of them women’s first names, the third, Sin Palace. So I tried C for Hardwick Chandler. Nothing but nonsense:
Che-Che, Cherry, Choo-Choo, Cosy,
No Chandler.

The phone rang. I picked it up.


“You have ten seconds to come up with an alibi, you fornicating son of a bitch.” It was a woman’s voice, white hot. “And it better be good. You’ve seen what I can do with a razor!”

“You’ve got the wrong number, ma’am,” I said. “This is a law office.”

“That’s eight seconds,” said the voice.

The big farmer had wandered up the hallway in my wake. We shared a moment of silence: slow giant, crazy woman on the phone, baffled lawyer. “Three seconds!” said the phone.

The front door opened and in walked a tiny, stern-faced woman wearing a librarian’s blouse, skirt, and sweater. Without a word she took the phone from me, listened for a moment, and hung up. She looked at the big farmer, the planes of her small face sectioned by deep worry lines.

“You go on home now, Mr. Randall,” she said in a soft, sad voice that managed to convey authority.

“Mr. Stroud said I needed a easement,” the farmer told her.

She took the giant by the arm and walked him to the door. “Come in tomorrow afternoon,” she said. “Mr. Stroud will do that easement for you then.” The big man shuffled away down the sidewalk just as the phone rang again. The little woman picked it up. “Attorney’s office.” She listened for a few seconds and hung up.

She turned to me. “You must be Mr. Parker.” I nodded. She shook my hand and introduced herself as Molly Tunstall, the firm’s secretary. She spoke to me with the same sweet gravity in her voice that she had used on the big farmer. “Please come with me,” she said, and then she was hustling me out the door just as she had done Farmer Randall.

“Where are we going, Ms. Tunstall?” I asked.

“Please just call me Molly,” she said as we walked past the Bon-Ton House. “I’m sorry to bother you with this on your first day with the firm, but there’s no help for it. I can’t find Mr. Chandler, and I need some assistance with Mr. Stroud.” Suddenly she stopped walking and looked me over.

“Have you brought a suit with you?” she asked.

“I’ve got one in my car,” I replied.

“Would you mind getting it? We’ll find a place on the way for you to put it on.”

“Are we going somewhere?” I asked, walking over to the Austin Healey and opening the trunk.

“Mule Springs,” she said. “It’s the county seat. Mr. Stroud has a trial set there this afternoon.”

“We’re going to trial?” I asked, pulling a garment bag out of the car’s trunk.

“Soon as we collect Mr. Stroud,” she said.

“Where is he?”

“He’s over at the jail. We have to bail him out.”


The jail was only a block away,
a cinderblock lean-to attached to the city hall. Parked in front of it was an old black Continental, its vinyl top shredding with age. Molly unlocked its trunk and had me put my garment bag in it.

“What’s Mr. Stroud been arrested for, Molly?” I asked.

“Let’s just see how bad it is,” she replied.

The jail’s office was paneled in cheap plywood, the windows reinforced with chicken wire, the linoleum floor marbled with grime. Everything in the place, from the chairs to the air conditioner to the bailiff and his panzer tank of a desk, looked as if it had been pounded with a large hammer. Molly made arrangements with the bail bondsman, and then we sat on a bench under the buzzing fluorescent light waiting for Stroud to be brought out to us.

There was a framed photo on the wall next to me, showing a wet, stocky man in swimming trunks, grinning, with his fist down the throat of a whiskered, olive-and-flesh-colored nightmare the size of a six-year-old. Two other men were helping to hold the animal up.

“It’s a beaut, ain’t it?” the bailiff said to me.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Catfish!” he said. “A flathead. Sixty-four pounds. That’s the sheriff caught it, over in Oklahoma. Sheriff’s a noodling champ.”

“I’ll bet your day has taken a bit of a turn,” Molly said to me.

“A bit of one,” I replied.

I was actually thinking about another photograph, old, grainy, black-and-white, hanging on a wall in the Leon Jaworski wing of the Baylor Law School. It’s a snapshot of the iron railroad bridge, long unused now, that spans the Brazos just north of downtown Waco. For generations that black-trestled bridge was the townspeople’s favorite spot for taking the law into their own hands, and sure enough, spreading out through the foreground of the photo is the dark stain of an angry mob. Standing at the bridge’s center are two sheriff’s deputies, one with his arms crossed, one fingering his holster. Between them is the black man the mob has come to hang. The man has just been found not guilty in court of raping and murdering a white girl, the daughter of a local dry cleaner. At the end of the bridge, between the mob and the three men, is a tall, bulky figure in a black suit, facing down the crowd with a section of railroad trestle, which he holds in his hands like a club. The man in black is the acquitted man’s lawyer, who, having saved his client in the courthouse, is now saving him outside it. The year the photo was taken was 1948. The lawyer was Gilliam Erasmus Stroud.

That photograph helped get me through law school. From time to time, as I struggled through civil procedure, contract law, torts, or property, I would stop in the hallway to look at the tall figure holding at bay the collected hatred of an entire Texas town, swinging a trestle for justice. That was the sort of lawyer I was going to be.

While at Baylor I learned only a little more about Gilliam Stroud’s career. After coming west from Harvard, he had taught with distinction for some years at Baylor, then was appointed to a federal judgeship out in West Texas. I knew that he left the bench only a few years later to go into private practice. That was odd, giving up a lifetime appointment. In fact, it was unheard of. I knew nothing about his reasons for abandoning the bench or about his subsequent career.

But I did know that he saved his man from the Waco mob, and that there had been other moments for him like the one on that bridge.

Noise of a scuffle came from the other side of the door leading to the cells. An officer appeared and unlocked the door, but before he could open it, he was pushed aside by a slack, massive shadow that spun into him from behind and bounced into the waiting room. The figure righted itself three feet from me—I caught a sweet-and-sour gust of whiskey—and, turning back to the officer, spoke in a deep, booming voice: “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.”

Stroud was dressed in a black suit three sizes too big for him. He had the withered look of someone who had been burned through by some terrible illness. His scrawny neck rose out of a soiled collar to support a tiny, wizened head adorned with random wisps of white, baby-fine hair and heavy eyebrows the color of lead ingots. In shape, Stroud resembled a giant condor, with shaggy plumage and a fragile, dwarfish cranium. His eyes were dying coals. His breath was the breath of the dragon.

Stroud was so drunk he was molten. He was squinting in an odd way, as if working hard to keep his eyes fixed on either side of his nose. Molly took him firmly by the arm. The top of her
head only came up to the old man’s shoulder, and together they looked like a bizarre carnival attraction: an aging waif with a trained condor.

“Get him home, Molly,” said the bailiff, patting the old man on the back, “he’s had a rough night.” Stroud whirled at the touch and puffed his cheeks in and out. He opened his mouth to speak, but apparently couldn’t find any words. In his confusion, he turned and saw me for the first time.

“Who in hell are you?” he asked. I was engulfed in a tidal stench of whiskey and decay.

“I’m your new lawyer, Mr. Stroud.”

Stroud fell back as if he’d been struck in the face, then lurched forward again. I could see why Molly Tunstall had thought she would need help with her boss.

“My new lawyer,” Stroud murmured, rolling the words around on a tongue the color of ash.

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