Three hours had passed before Sheriff Ellison heard a familiar knock on the holding room door.
“Who is it?” he asked, just to make sure.
Ellison opened the door to let his deputy in, screening off the clamoring reporters from the hall outside. “Glad you could finally make it,” he said.
“I had to let it die down a little.”
“What’s going on out there?” Stern asked.
“It’s pretty lively. The networks are out there. They want a shot at your client. He’s the big national story right now.”
“Swarming flies,” the attorney observed.
“I figured you’d want to be out there with your client, getting some face time,” said Kennesaw.
“I suppose my fifteen minutes of fame is slipping away. But the press seems awfully hostile right now.”
“Not all of them,” Kennesaw said. “The network guys want to take their shots, but the locals coming in from all over are a mixed bag.”
“What do you mean?” Stern asked.
“I think many are sympathetic. I talked to a crew from Grand Junction, and they seemed almost pleased with the verdict.”
“We can use that, Monte.” Stern turned to Turcot. “Maybe it’s time for a press conference.”
“You’re free to do whatever you want,” said Ellison. “But I’m not going to be able to secure a press conference tonight, and I don’t recommend you doing a turkey strut right at this moment.”
“So what do you suggest?” asked Stern.
“I suggest you give it twenty-four hours. I know I’d personally appreciate that. I don’t want a riot on my hands.”
Stern looked at Turcot, who seemed to be falling back asleep.
“We can’t wait around in here much longer, either,” Ellison continued. “We should get back to Calumet City for the night. You could do your press conference there, tomorrow.”
“That sounds like a plan,” answered Stern. “I need a drink.”
Ellison turned to the deputy. “Kennesaw?”
“I need you to get Mr. Turcot some clothes. That jumpsuit he’s in is a little too conspicuous. Then I need you to pull your cruiser around by the south entrance. Text me, and I’ll bring us out.”
Kennesaw nodded. He cracked the door, picked the right moment where the commotion was at a lull, then slipped out of the room. Ellison blocked the door behind him. Stern straightened his tie and bundled his papers. He wasn’t sweating anymore, but dark rings had formed under his eyes, and his complexion had grayed. When his effects were gathered, he leaned back in his chair, and with a savory look on his face, he laughed.
“You seem pleased with yourself,” observed Ellison.
“You’re a celebrity now.”
“And a hero to some.”
“And an outlaw to others,” Stern answered proudly.
“Yeah, I beat them bastards,” the attorney continued. “I beat them at their own rigged game. I’m sorry, Sheriff. I don’t mean to gloat, but it was a hard fought battle.”
“Didn’t you both win?” asked the sheriff.
“You’re right. Of course. It’s really Monte’s victory. He’s a free man.”
“A free man by one measure, maybe not so free by another. It seems he may have acquired a new set of chains,” observed Ellison.
“It’s a twenty-four-hour news cycle. The press will move on soon enough,” Stern replied.
“You’ve got a lot of public relations to do in the coming weeks,” said Ellison, “you being a villain and all.”
“I’m not a villain,” said Stern indignantly.
“I thought you just said you were.”
“I said outlaw, not villain.”
“What’s the difference?”
Stern’s exhausted face flushed with an aura of self-satisfaction. “Outlaws live beyond the law, but that doesn’t necessarily make them villains,” he explained. “Sometimes the ones who enforce the laws are the villains.”
“I have a question for you, Sheriff,” Turcot asked suddenly. His eyes were still closed, and his body remained slouched in his chair, motionless.
Ellison looked at him. “What is it?”
“Don’t you want to ask me?”
“Ask you what, Monte?”
“Don’t you want to ask me if I did it?”
“I don’t care,” answered the sheriff. “That answer’s meaningless to me. Guilty or not guilty is all that matters under the law.”
“Spoken like a true lawman,” said Stern.
“You’re a lawyer, Stern. You’re a man of the law, too.”
“Indeed I am.”
“My job as sheriff is to enforce the law. Your job as lawyer is to interpret it, but it’s still the law.”
“I guess I’m not so self-righteous about it, Sheriff.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Stern chuckled. “Don’t try to tell me that you don’t interpret the law, too.”
“I enforce it. That’s all.”
“But you get to decide when and where and how.”
Ellison surrendered, turning to the door to listen to the commotion outside.
“Monte’s innocent,” Stern said. “No jury from here was going to convict you, Monte, not so long as I was in the courtroom.” He stood up and started to pace back and forth. “I’m going to write a book. I’m going to write a book about how we beat the empire. We’ll go on the talk show circuit and wind everyone up. We’ll be a lightning rod.” He could already imagine all the high profile, million dollar cases he was soon to get. This victory was going to be his big break…
…but as he noticed Ellison watching him, Stern remembered that the sheriff, like the deceased Kevin Sniggs, was a member of the law enforcement brotherhood. He immediately wiped the self-satisfied smirk off his face and sat down.
Kennesaw’s text arrived thirty minutes later. The sheriff glanced down at his watch, then looked up at Turcot and Stern. “Are we ready to go?” he asked.
The two men nodded and gathered by the door. Ellison listened for a moment. It was quiet on the other side. He cracked the door to take a look.
“Okay, here we go.”
Stern straightened his jacket. Ellison opened the door, and the trio drove into the swarm of press that sprang to life with shouts and flashes of white light. Ellison led, followed by Turcot, then Stern, all triumphant five-and-a-half-feet of him. Ellison cut a path through the mass. Turcot’s eyes had glazed over, and he appeared to have numbed himself to the chaos enveloping him. The mob was mostly press, but some federal agents were mixed in. They were the ones without recorders or phones, stoic, watching, stalwart against the fluid froth of media. Their one unifying feature was the malice in their eyes.
Ellison looked ill as he pushed through. He was trapped by circumstances. It was his duty to protect Turcot, but in doing so, he felt as if he was betraying the brotherhood. He hoped his beleaguered expression emanated sufficient angst that the feds might understand. It called out to them: “I regret doing this, but I am just doing my job.” But he found no understanding in their faces. The mere act of him escorting Turcot offended them.
The trio pressed through the mob, out the side of the courthouse, and into the cruiser driven by Kennesaw. The car lurched forward into the crowd that spilled out around them. The deputy revved the engine to open a path, and as soon as the way was clear, they were off. However, they soon found themselves being pursued by two white news vans and a black DEA Tahoe.
“I want you to know something, Sheriff,” Stern said as the crowd vanished behind them. “We do appreciate your help. We’re both very grateful.”
Ellison tried to look gracious, which was difficult for a man whose troubled face evoked the image of a clenched fist. “I’m just doing my job,” he replied.
“What do you think the public’s take on the verdict is?” asked Stern.
“Back in the county?”
“They revere your client; they feel badly about what happened to him, and there’s a lot of folks who aren’t very pleased with the DEA. I imagine that makes them sympathetic.”
“Are you sympathetic?” asked Stern.
“I don’t get paid to sympathize.”
Kennesaw drove at a brisk pace up SR 24, but not so fast as to give the impression that they were fleeing. The clunky news vans yawed and heaved behind them on the rippling two lanes of asphalt. The trailing black SUV vaulted ahead of the news vans in the oncoming lane. Kennesaw checked it in the rearview mirror. The windows, including the windshield, were tinted, concealing everything inside. It was closing in on them. Ahead lay a slow-moving flatbed truck, presenting an opportunity to lose their pursuers.
“The feds can’t be too pleased with you, Sheriff,” Stern observed.
“I don’t answer to the feds.”
“That’s a refreshing attitude that I’m not accustomed to when it comes to local law enforcement. So many local cops are quite eager to please them.”
“There are plenty of people for me to keep pleased in this county, already.”
Kennesaw moved into the left lane to pass the flatbed. The oncoming traffic was obscured by a swell a half mile ahead.
“So, what do you think those boys in the black truck want?” asked Stern, looking back and watching the SUV close in from behind.
Ellison glanced at the driver of the flatbed they were passing. The man looked like he was in his twenties, and had the appearance of a ranch hand. He turned his head to the sheriff and cast a supportive nod, implying that he knew what had just happened back at the courthouse. He had probably heard it on local radio.
The cruiser shot through the pass a thousand feet before the road plunged below the other side of the crest, concealing anything barreling towards them. Kennesaw floored it. The black Tahoe remained in the oncoming lane, still accelerating in an attempt to pass the truck and close the gap with the police cruiser, but they weren’t going to make it before the crest.
“What do you say, Sheriff? What do those feds want?” asked Stern again as he removed his tie and tucked it into his coat pocket. He looked boyish inside his loose collar.
Kennesaw watched the SUV pull alongside the flatbed in his mirror, but it wasn’t pulling past it as the flatbed was now accelerating. The feds were trapped in the left lane with the crest of the hill approaching, and whatever unknown steel lay behind it barreling towards them at eighty miles per hour. The wobbly news vans pulled up tight behind the flatbed, like connected railcars.
“That’s a good question,” answered Ellison distractedly.
“They’re not going to make it, Boss,” warned Kennesaw. Up ahead, an oncoming semi rose from behind the crest, approaching at full speed.
“Sheriff?” asked Stern.
The semi driver blared his horn. Its pitch climbed as the vehicles approached each other at a combined speed of 150 miles per hour. Ellison looked back at the Tahoe, waiting for it to capitulate and fall back. The eighteen wheeler’s horn blared again, but the flatbed refused to brake and let the feds pass. The news vans fell back and offered a gap, but surprisingly, the SUV didn’t take it.
“They ain’t gonna make it!” Kennesaw shouted.
The analog of dual yellow lines streamed like lightning on the road beneath them as the truck’s horn howled. A second before impact, the Tahoe swerved into the flatbed’s lane, nearly running it off the road. With the SUV straddling the ribbon of double yellow, the two lane highway became three, and the semi roared past them in the other direction, shearing off the driver’s side mirror of the SUV. A wake of air, displaced and churned by the fifty-three-foot-long box of steel and aluminum and spinning rubber, reverberated through the vehicles.
“Sheriff?” asked Stern.
“What?” Ellison shouted.
“What do they want?”
Stern looked back at the Tahoe, which was now just behind them.
“I suppose they want justice,” Ellison answered.
“But that’s already been decided.”
“They seem to have their own interpretation of it.”
The procession reached the Calumet County sheriff’s department station. Kennesaw pulled into the garage and lowered the door, sealing themselves off from their pursuers.