The custodian at St. Mark's had just scraped three inches of snow off the sidewalks when the man with the cane appeared. The sun was up, but the winds were howling; the temperature was stuck at the freezing mark. The man wore only a pair of thin dungarees, a summer shirt, well-worn hiking boots, and a light Windbreaker that stood little chance against the chill. But he did not appear to be uncomfortable, nor was he in a hurry. He was on foot, walking with a limp and a slight tilt to his left, the side aided by the cane. He shufﬂed along the sidewalk near the chapel and stopped at a side door with the word "Ofﬁce" painted in dark red. He did not knock and the door was not locked. He stepped inside just as another gust of wind hit him in the back.
The room was a reception area with the cluttered, dusty look one would expect to ﬁnd in an old church. In the center was a desk with a nameplate that announced the presence of Charlotte Junger, who sat not far behind her name. She said with a smile, "Good morning."
"Good morning," the man said. A pause. "It's very cold out there."
"It is indeed," she said as she quickly sized him up. The obvious problem was that he had no coat and nothing on his hands or head.
"I assume you're Ms. Junger," he said, staring at her name.
"No, Ms. Junger is out today. The ﬂu. I'm Dana Schroeder, the minister's wife, just ﬁlling in. What can we do for you?"
There was one empty chair and the man looked hopefully at it. "May I?"
"Of course," she said. He carefully sat down, as if all movements needed forethought.
"Is the minister in?" he asked as he looked at a large, closed door off to the left.
"Yes, but he's in a meeting. What can we do for you?" She was petite, with a nice chest, tight sweater. He couldn't see anything below the waist, under the desk. He had always preferred the smaller ones. Cute face, big blue eyes, high cheekbones, a wholesome pretty girl, the perfect little minister's wife.
It had been so long since he'd touched a woman.
"I need to see Reverend Schroeder," he said as he folded his hands together prayerfully. "I was in church yesterday, listened to his sermon, and, well, I need some guidance."
"He's very busy today," she said with a smile. Really nice teeth.
"I'm in a rather urgent situation," he said.
Dana had been married to Keith Schroeder long enough to know that no one had ever been sent away from his ofﬁce, appointment or not. Besides, it was a frigid Monday morning and Keith wasn't really that busy. A few phone calls, one consultation with a young couple in the process of retreating from a wedding, under way at that very moment, then the usual visits to the hospitals. She fussed around the desk, found the simple questionnaire she was looking for, and said, "Okay, I'll take some basic information and we'll see what can be done." Her pen was ready.
"Thank you," he said, bowing slightly.
"Travis Boyette." He instinctively spelled his last name for her. "Date of birth, October 10, 1963. Place, Joplin, Missouri. Age, forty-four. Single, divorced, no children. No address. No place of employment. No prospects."
Dana absorbed this as her pen frantically searched for the proper blanks to be ﬁlled. His response created far more questions than her little form was designed to accommodate. "Okay, about the address," she said, still writing. "Where are you staying these days?"
"These days I'm the property of the Kansas Department of Corrections. I'm assigned to a halfway house on Seventeenth Street, a few blocks from here. I'm in the process of being released, ‘re-entry,' as they like to call it. A few months in the halfway house here in Topeka, then I'm a free man with nothing to look forward to but parole for the rest of my life."
The pen stopped moving, but Dana stared at it anyway. Her interest in the inquiry had suddenly lost steam. She was hesitant to ask anything more. However, since she had started the interrogation, she felt compelled to press on. What else were they supposed to do while they waited on the minister?
"Would you like some coffee?" she asked, certain that the question was harmless.
There was a pause, much too long, as if he couldn't decide. "Yes, thanks. Just black with a little sugar."
Dana scurried from the room and went to ﬁnd coffee. He watched her leave, watched everything about her, noticed the nice round backside under the everyday slacks, the slender legs, the athletic shoulders, even the ponytail. Five feet three, maybe four, 110 pounds max.
She took her time, and when she returned Travis Boyette was right where she'd left him, still sitting monklike, the ﬁngertips of his right hand gently tapping those of his left, his black wooden cane across his thighs, his eyes gazing forlornly at nothing on the far wall. His head was completely shaved, small, and perfectly round and shiny, and as she handed him the cup, she pondered the frivolous question of whether he'd gone bald at an early age or simply preferred the skinned look. There was a sinister tattoo creeping up the left side of his neck.
He took the coffee and thanked her for it. She resumed her position with the desk between them.
"Are you Lutheran?" she asked, again with the pen.
"I doubt it. I'm nothing really. Never saw the need for church."
"But you were here yesterday. Why?"
Boyette held the cup with both hands at his chin, like a mouse nibbling on a morsel. If a simple question about coffee took a full ten seconds, then one about church attendance might require an hour. He sipped, licked his lips. "How long do you think it'll be before I can see the reverend?" he ﬁnally asked.
Not soon enough, Dana thought, anxious now to pass this one along to her husband. She glanced at a clock on the wall and said, "Any minute now."
"Would it be possible just to sit here in silence as we wait?" he asked, with complete politeness.
Dana absorbed the stiff-arm and quickly decided that silence wasn't a bad idea. Then her curiosity returned. "Sure, but one last question." She was looking at the questionnaire as if it required one last question. "How long were you in prison?" she asked.
"Half my life," Boyette said with no hesitation, as if he ﬁelded that one ﬁve times a day.
Dana scribbled something, and then the desktop keyboard caught her attention. She pecked away with a ﬂourish as if suddenly facing a deadline. Her e-mail to Keith read: "There's a convicted felon out here who says he must see you. Not leaving until. Seems nice enough. Having coffee. Let's wrap things up back there."
Five minutes later the pastor's door opened and a young woman escaped through it. She was wiping her eyes. She was followed by her ex-ﬁancé, who managed both a frown and a smile at the same time. Neither spoke to Dana. Neither noticed Travis Boyette. They disappeared.
When the door slammed shut, Dana said to Boyette, "Just a min ute." She hustled into her husband's ofﬁce for a quick brieﬁng.
The Reverend Keith Schroeder was thirty-ﬁve years old, happily married to Dana for ten years now, the father of three boys, all born separately within the span of twenty months. He'd been the senior pastor at St. Mark's for two years; before that, at a church in Kansas City. His father was a retired Lutheran minister, and Keith had never dreamed of being anything else. He was raised in a small town near St. Louis, educated in schools not far from there, and, except for a class trip to New York and a honeymoon in Florida, had never left the Midwest. He was generally admired by his congregation, though there had been issues. The biggest row occurred when he opened up the church's basement to shelter some homeless folks during a blizzard the previous winter. After the snow melted, some of the homeless were reluctant to leave. The city issued a citation for unauthorized use, and there was a slightly embarrassing story in the newspaper.
The topic of his sermon the day before had been forgiveness— God's inﬁnite and overwhelming power to forgive our sins, regardless of how heinous they might be. Travis Boyette's sins were atrocious, unbelievable, horriﬁc. His crimes against humanity would surely condemn him to eternal suffering and death. At this point in his miserable life, Travis was convinced he could never be forgiven. But he was curious.
"We've had several men from the halfway house," Keith was saying. "I've even held services there." They were in a corner of his ofﬁce, away from the desk, two new friends having a chat in saggy canvas chairs. Nearby, fake logs burned in a fake ﬁreplace.
"Not a bad place," Boyette said. "Sure beats prison." He was a frail man, with the pale skin of one conﬁned to unlit places. His bony knees were touching, and the black cane rested across them.
"And where was prison?" Keith held a mug of steaming tea.
"Here and there. Last six years at Lansing."
"And you were convicted of what?" he asked, anxious to know about the crimes so he would know much more about the man. Violence? Drugs? Probably. On the other hand, maybe Travis here was an embezzler or a tax cheat. He certainly didn't seem to be the type to hurt anyone.
"Lot of bad stuff, Pastor. I can't remember it all." He preferred to avoid eye contact. The rug below them kept his attention. Keith sipped his tea, watched the man carefully, and then noticed the tic. Every few seconds, his entire head dipped slightly to his left. It was a quick nod, followed by a more radical corrective jerk back into position.
After a period of absolute quiet, Keith said, "What would you like to talk about, Travis?"
"I have a brain tumor, Pastor. Malignant, deadly, basically untreatable. If I had some money, I could ﬁght it—radiation, chemo, the usual routine—which might give me ten months, maybe a year. But it's glioblastoma, grade four, and that means I'm a dead man. Half a year, a whole year, it really doesn't matter. I'll be gone in a few months." As if on cue, the tumor said hello. Boyette grimaced and leaned forward and began massaging his temples. His breathing was heavy, labored, and his entire body seemed to ache.
"I'm very sorry," Keith said, realizing full well how inadequate he sounded.
"Damned headaches," Boyette said, his eyes still tightly closed. He fought the pain for a few minutes as nothing was said. Keith watched helplessly, biting his tongue to keep from saying something stupid like, "Can I get you some Tylenol?" Then the suffering eased, and Boyette relaxed. "Sorry," he said.
"When was this diagnosed?" Keith asked.
"I don't know. A month ago. The headaches started at Lansing, back in the summer. You can imagine the quality of health care there, so I got no help. Once I was released and sent here, they took me to St. Francis Hospital, ran tests, did the scans, found a nice little egg in the middle of my head, right between the ears, too deep for surgery." He took a deep breath, exhaled, and managed his ﬁrst smile. There was a tooth missing on the upper left side and the gap was prominent. Keith suspected the dental care in prison left something to be desired.
"I suppose you've seen people like me before," Boyette said. "People facing death."
"From time to time. It goes with the territory."
"And I suppose these folks tend to get real serious about God and heaven and hell and all that stuff."
"They do indeed. It's human nature. When faced with our own mortality, we think about the afterlife. What about you, Travis? Do you believe in God?"
"Some days I do, some days I don't. But even when I do, I'm still pretty skeptical. It's easy for you to believe in God because you've had an easy life. Different story for me."
"You want to tell me your story?"
"Then why are you here, Travis?"
The tic. When his head was still again, his eyes looked around the room, then settled on those of the pastor. They stared at each other for a long time, neither blinking. Finally, Boyette said, "Pastor, I've done some bad things. Hurt some innocent people. I'm not sure I want to take all of it to my grave."
Now we're getting somewhere, Keith thought. The burden of unconfessed sin. The shame of buried guilt. "It would be helpful if you told me about these bad things. Confession is the best place to start."
"And this is conﬁdential?"
"For the most part, yes, but there are exceptions."
"If you conﬁde in me and I believe you're a danger to yourself or to someone else, then the conﬁdentiality is waived. I can take reasonable steps to protect you or the other person. In other words, I can go get help."
"Look, Pastor, I've done some terrible things, but this one has nagged at me for many years now. I gotta talk to someone, and I got no place else to go. If I told you about a terrible crime that I committed years ago, you can't tell anyone?"
Dana went straight to the Web site for the Kansas Department of Corrections and within seconds plunged into the wretched life of Travis Dale Boyette. Sentenced in 2001 to ten years for attempted sexual assault. Current status: incarcerated.
"Current status is in my husband's ofﬁce," she mumbled as she continued hitting keys.
Sentenced in 1991 to twelve years for aggravated sexual battery in Oklahoma. Paroled in 1998.
Sentenced in 1987 to eight years for attempted sexual battery in Missouri. Paroled in 1990.
Sentenced in 1979 to twenty years for aggravated sexual battery in Arkansas. Paroled in 1985.
Boyette was a registered sex offender in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.
"A monster," she said to herself. His ﬁle photo was that of a much heavier and much younger man with dark, thinning hair. She quickly summarized his record and sent an e-mail to Keith's desktop. She wasn't worried about her husband's safety, but she wanted this creep out of the building.
After half an hour of strained conversation and little progress, Keith was beginning to tire of the meeting. Boyette showed no interest in God, and since God was Keith's area of expertise, there seemed little for him to do. He wasn't a brain surgeon. He had no jobs to offer.
A message arrived on his computer, its appearance made known by the distant sound of an old-fashioned doorbell. Two chimes meant anyone might be checking in. But three chimes signaled a message from the front desk. He pretended to ignore it.
"What's with the cane?" he asked pleasantly.
"Prison's a rough place," Boyette said. "Got in one ﬁght too many. A head injury. Probably led to the tumor." He thought that was funny and laughed at his own humor.
Keith obliged with a chuckle of his own, then stood, walked to his desk, and said, "Well, let me give you one of my cards. Feel free to call anytime. You're always welcome here, Travis." He picked up a card and glanced at his monitor. Four, count 'em, four convictions, all related to sexual assault. He walked back to the chair, handed Travis a card, and sat down.
"Prison's especially rough for rapists, isn't it, Travis?" Keith said.
You move to a new town; you're required to hustle down to the police station or the courthouse and register as a sex offender. After twenty years of this, you just assume that everybody knows. Everybody's watching. Boyette did not seem surprised. "Very rough," he agreed. "I can't remember the times I've been attacked."
"Travis, look, I'm not keen on discussing this subject. I have some appointments. If you'd like to visit again, ﬁne, just call ahead. And I welcome you back to our services this Sunday." Keith wasn't sure he meant that, but he sounded sincere.
From a pocket of his Windbreaker, Boyette removed a folded sheet of paper. "You ever hear of the case of Donté Drumm?" he asked as he handed the paper to Keith.
"Black kid, small town in East Texas, convicted of murder in 1999. Said he killed a high school cheerleader, white girl, body's never been found."
Keith unfolded the sheet of paper. It was a copy of a brief article in the Topeka newspaper, dated Sunday, the day before. Keith read it quickly and looked at the mug shot of Donté Drumm. There was nothing remarkable about the story, just another routine execution in Texas involving another defendant claiming to be innocent. "The execution is set for this Thursday," Keith said, looking up.
"I'll tell you something, Pastor. They got the wrong guy. That kid had nothing to do with her murder."
"And how do you know this?"
"There's no evidence. Not one piece of evidence. The cops decided he did it, beat a confession out of him, and now they're going to kill him. It's wrong, Pastor. So wrong."
"How do you know so much?"
Boyette leaned in closer, as if he might whisper something he'd never uttered before. Keith's pulse was increasing by the second. No words came, though. Another long pause as the two men stared at each other.
"It says the body was never found," Keith said. Make him talk.
"Right. They concocted this wild tale about the boy grabbing the girl, raping her, choking her, and then throwing her body off a bridge into the Red River. Total fabrication."
"So you know where the body is?"
Boyette sat straight up and crossed his arms over his chest. He began to nod. The tic. Then another tic. They happened quicker when he was under pressure.
"Did you kill her, Travis?" Keith asked, stunned by his own question. Not ﬁve minutes earlier, he was making a mental list of all the church members he needed to visit in the hospitals. He was thinking of ways to ease Travis out of the building. Now they were dancing around a murder and a hidden body.
"I don't know what to do," Boyette said as another wave of pain hit hard. He bent over as if to throw up and then began pressing both palms against his head. "I'm dying, okay? I'll be dead in a few months. Why should that kid have to die too? He didn't do anything." His eyes were wet, his face contorted.
Keith watched him as he trembled. He handed him a Kleenex and watched as Travis wiped his face. "The tumor is growing," he said. "Each day it puts more pressure on the skull."
"Do you have medications?"
"Some. They don't work. I need to go."
"I don't think we're ﬁnished."
"Yes we are."
"Where's the body, Travis?"
"You don't want to know."
"Yes I do. Maybe we can stop the execution."
Boyette laughed. "Oh, really? Fat chance in Texas." He slowly stood and tapped his cane on the rug. "Thank you, Pastor."
Keith did not stand. Instead, he watched Boyette shufﬂe quickly out of his ofﬁce.
Dana was staring at the door, refusing a smile. She managed a weak "Good-bye" after he said "Thanks." Then he was gone, back on the street without a coat and gloves, and she really didn't care.
Her husband hadn't moved. He was still slouched in his chair, dazed, staring blankly at a wall and holding the copy of the newspaper article. "You all right?" she asked. Keith handed her the article and she read it.
"I'm not connecting the dots here," she said when she ﬁnished.
"Travis Boyette knows where the body is buried. He knows because he killed her."
"Did he admit he killed her?"
"Almost. He says he has an inoperable brain tumor and will be dead in a few months. He says Donté Drumm had nothing to do with the murder. He strongly implied that he knows where the body is."
Dana fell onto the sofa and sank amid the pillows and throws. "And you believe him?"
"He's a career criminal, Dana, a con man. He'd rather lie than tell the truth. You can't believe a word he says."
"Do you believe him?"
"I think so."
"How can you believe him? Why?"
"He's suffering, Dana. And not just from the tumor. He knows something about the murder, and the body. He knows a lot, and he's genuinely disturbed by the fact that an innocent man is facing an execution."
For a man who spent much of his time listening to the delicate problems of others, and offering advice and counsel that they relied on, Keith had become a wise and astute observer. And he was seldom wrong. Dana was much quicker on the draw, much more likely to criticize and judge and be wrong about it. "So what are you thinking, Pastor?" she asked.
"Let's take the next hour and do nothing but research. Let's verify a few things: Is he really on parole? If so, who is his parole ofﬁcer? Is he being treated at St. Francis? Does he have a brain tumor? If so, is it terminal?"
"It will be impossible to get his medical records without his consent."
"Sure, but let's see how much we can verify. Call Dr. Herzlich—was he in church yesterday?"
"I thought so. Call him and ﬁsh around. He should be making rounds this morning at St. Francis. Call the parole board and see how far you can dig."
"And what might you be doing while I'm burning up the phones?"
"I'll go online, see what I can ﬁnd about the murder, the trial, the defendant, everything that happened down there."
They both stood, in a hurry now. Dana said, "And what if it's all true, Keith? What if we convince ourselves that this creep is telling the truth?"
"Then we have to do something."
"I have no earthly idea."
Robbie Flak's father purchased the old train station in downtown Slone in 1972, while Robbie was still in high school and just before the city was about to tear it down. Mr. Flak Sr. had made some money suing drilling companies and needed to spend a little of it. He and his partners renovated the station and reestablished themselves there, and for the next twenty years prospered nicely. They certainly weren't rich, not by Texas standards anyway, but they were successful lawyers and the small ﬁrm was well regarded in town.
Then along came Robbie. He began working at the ﬁrm when he was a teenager, and it was soon evident to the other lawyers there that he was different. He showed little interest in proﬁts but was consumed with social injustice. He urged his father to take on civil-rights cases, age- and sex-discrimination cases, unfair-housing cases, police-brutality cases, the type of work that can get one ostracized in a small southern town. Brilliant and brash, Robbie ﬁnished college up north, in three years, and sailed through law school at the University of Texas at Austin. He never interviewed for a job, never thought about working anywhere but the train station in downtown Slone. There were so many people there he wanted to sue, so many mistreated and downtrodden clients who needed him.
He and his father fought from day one. The other lawyers either retired or moved on. In 1990, at the age of thirty-ﬁve, Robbie sued the City of Tyler, Texas, for housing discrimination. The trial, in Tyler, lasted for a month, and at one point Robbie was forced to hire bodyguards when the death threats became too credible. When the jury returned a verdict for $90 million, Robbie Flak became a legend, a wealthy man, and an unrestrained radical lawyer now with the money to raise more hell than he could ever imagine. To get out of his way, his father retired to a golf course. Robbie's ﬁrst wife took a small cut and hurried back to St. Paul.
The Flak Law Firm became the destination for those who considered themselves even remotely slighted by society. The abused, the accused, the mistreated, the injured, they eventually sought out Mr. Flak. To screen the cases, Robbie hired young associates and paralegals by the boatload. He picked through the net each day, took the good catches, and tossed the rest away. The ﬁrm grew, then it imploded. It grew again, then it broke up in another meltdown. Lawyers came and went. He sued them, they sued him. The money evaporated, then Robbie won big in another case. The lowest point of his colorful career happened when he caught his bookkeeper embezzling and beat him with a briefcase. He escaped serious punishment by negotiating a thirty-day misdemeanor jail sentence. It was a front-page story, and Slone hung on every word. Robbie, who, not surprisingly, craved publicity, was bothered more by the bad press than by the incarceration. The state bar association issued a public reprimand and a ninety-day suspension of his license. It was his third entanglement with the ethics panel. He vowed it would not be his last. Wife No. 2 eventually left, with a nice check.
His life, like his personality, was chaotic, outrageous, and in constant conﬂict with itself and those around him, but it was never dull. Behind his back, he was often referred to as "Robbie Flake." And as his drinking grew worse, "Robbie Flask" was born. But regardless of the turmoil, of the hangovers and crazy women and feuding partners and shaky ﬁnances and lost causes and scorn of those in power, Robbie Flak arrived at the train station early each morning with a ﬁerce determination to spend the day ﬁghting for the little people. And he did not always wait for them to ﬁnd him. If Robbie got wind of an injustice, he often jumped in his car and went searching for it. This relentless zeal led him to the most notorious case of his career.
In 1998, Slone was stunned by the most sensational crime in its history. A seventeen-year-old senior at Slone High, Nicole Yarber, vanished and was never seen again, dead or alive. For two weeks, the town stood still as thousands of volunteers combed the alleys and ﬁelds and ditches and abandoned buildings. The search was futile.
Nicole was a popular girl, a B student, a member of the usual clubs, church on Sunday at First Baptist, where she sometimes sang in the youth choir. Her most important achievement, though, was that of being a cheerleader at Slone High. By her senior year, she had become the captain of the squad, perhaps the most envied position in school, at least for girls. She was on and off with a boyfriend, a football player with big dreams but limited talent. The night she disappeared, she had just spoken to her mother by cell and promised to be home before midnight. It was a Friday in early December. Football was over for the Slone Warriors, and life had returned to normal. Her mother would later state, and the phone records bore this out, that she and Nicole spoke by cell phone at least six times a day. They also averaged four text messages. They were in touch, and the idea that Nicole would simply run away without a word to her mom was inconceivable.
Nicole had no history of emotional problems, eating disorders, erratic behavior, psychiatric care, or drug use. She simply vanished. No witnesses. No explanations. Nothing. Prayer vigils in churches and schools ran nonstop. A hotline was established and calls ﬂooded in, but none proved credible. A Web site was created to monitor the search and ﬁlter the gossip. Experts, both real and fake, came to town to give advice. A psychic appeared, unsolicited, but left town when no one offered to pay. As the search dragged on, the gossip seethed nonstop as the town talked of little else. A police car was parked in front of her home twenty-four hours a day, ostensibly to make the family feel better. Slone's only television station hired another rookie reporter to get to the bottom of things. Volunteers scoured the earth as the search spread throughout the countryside. Doors and windows were bolted. Fathers slept with their guns on their nightstands. Little children were watched closely by their parents and babysitters. Preachers reworked their sermons to beef up their slant against evil. The police gave daily brieﬁngs for the ﬁrst week, but when they realized they had nothing to say, they began skipping days. They waited and waited, hoping for the lead, the unexpected phone call, the snitch looking for the reward money. They prayed for a break.
It ﬁnally came sixteen days after Nicole disappeared. At 4:33 a.m., the home phone of Detective Drew Kerber rang twice before he grabbed it. Though exhausted, he had not been sleeping well. Instinctively, he ﬂipped a switch to record what was about to be said. The recording, later played a thousand times, ran:
Voice: "Is this Detective Kerber?"
Kerber: "It is. Who's calling?"
Voice: "That's not important. What's important is that I know who killed her."
Kerber: "I need your name."
Voice: "Forget it, Kerber. You wanna talk about the girl?"
Kerber: "Go ahead."
Voice: "She was seeing Donté Drumm. A big secret. She was trying to break it off, but he wouldn't go away."
Kerber: "Who's Donté Drumm?"
Voice: "Come on, Detective. Everybody knows Drumm. He's your killer. He grabbed her outside the mall, tossed her over the bridge on Route 244. She's at the bottom of the Red River."
The line went dead. The call was traced to a pay phone at an all-night convenience store in Slone, and there the trail ended.
Detective Kerber had heard the hushed rumors of Nicole seeing a black football player, but no one had been able to verify this. Her boyfriend adamantly denied it. He claimed that they had dated on and off for a year, and he was certain that Nicole was not yet sexually active. But like many rumors too salacious to leave alone, it persisted. It was so repulsive and so potentially explosive that Kerber had thus far been unwilling to discuss it with Nicole's parents.
Kerber stared at the phone, then removed the tape. He drove to the Slone Police Department, made a pot of coffee, and listened to the tape again. He was elated and couldn't wait to share the news with his investigative team. Everything ﬁt now—the teenage love affair, black on white, still very much taboo in East Texas, the attempted breakup by Nicole, the bad reaction from her scorned lover. It made perfect sense.
They had their man.
Two days later, Donté Drumm was arrested and charged with the abduction, aggravated rape, and murder of Nicole Yarber. He confessed to the crime and admitted that he'd tossed her body into the Red River.
Robbie Flak and Detective Kerber had a history that had almost been violent. They had clashed several times in criminal cases over the years. Kerber loathed the lawyer as much as he loathed the other low lifes who represented criminals. Flak considered Kerber an abusive thug, a rogue cop, a dangerous man with a badge and gun who would do anything to get a conviction. In one memorable exchange, in front of a jury, Flak caught Kerber in an outright lie and, to underscore the obvious, yelled at the witness, "You're just a lying son of a bitch, aren't you, Kerber?"
Robbie was admonished, held in contempt, required to apologize to Kerber and the jurors, and ﬁned $500. But his client was found not guilty, and nothing else mattered. In the history of the Chester County Bar Association, no lawyer had ever been held in contempt as often as Robbie Flak. It was a record he was quite proud of.
As soon as he heard the news about Donté Drumm's arrest, Robbie made a few frantic phone calls, then took off to the black section of Slone, a neighborhood he knew well. He was accompanied by Aaron Rey, a former gang member who'd served time for drug distribution and was now gainfully employed by the Flak Law Firm as a bodyguard, runner, driver, investigator, and anything else Robbie might need. Rey carried at least two guns on his person and two more in a satchel, all legal because Mr. Flak had gotten his rights restored and now he could even vote. Around Slone, Robbie Flak had more than his share of enemies. However, all of these enemies knew about Mr. Aaron Rey.
Drumm's mother worked at the hospital, and his father drove a truck for a lumber mill south of town. They lived with their four children in a small white-framed house with Christmas lights around the windows and garland on the door. Their minister arrived not long after Robbie. They talked for hours. The parents were confused, devastated, furious, and frightened beyond reason. They were also grateful that Mr. Flak would come and see them. They had no idea what to do.
"I can get myself appointed to handle the case," Robbie said, and they agreed.
Nine years later, he was still handling it.
Robbie arrived at the station early on Monday morning, November 5. He had worked on Saturday and Sunday and did not feel at all rested from the weekend. His mood was gloomy, even foul. The next four days would be a chaotic mess, a frenzy of events, some anticipated and others wholly unexpected, and when the dust settled at 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, Robbie knew that in all likelihood, he would be standing in a cramped witness room at the Huntsville prison, holding hands with Roberta Drumm as the State of Texas injected her son with enough chemicals to kill a horse.
He'd been there once before.
He turned off the engine of his BMW but could not unfasten his seat belt. His hands clutched the steering wheel as he looked through the windshield and saw nothing.
For nine years, he had fought for Donté Drumm. He had waged war as he had never done before. He had fought like a madman at the ridiculous trial in which Donté was convicted of the murder. He had abused the appellate courts during his appeals. He had danced around ethics and skirted the law. He had written grating articles declaring his client's innocence. He had paid experts to concoct novel theories that no one bought. He had pestered the governor to the point that his calls were no longer returned, not even by lowly staffers. He had lobbied politicians, innocence groups, religious groups, bar associations, civil-rights advocates, the ACLU, Amnesty International, death-penalty abolitionists, anybody and everybody who might possibly be able to do something to save his client. Yet the clock had not stopped. It was still ticking, louder and louder.
In the process, Robbie Flak had spent all his money, burned every bridge, alienated almost every friend, and driven himself to the point of exhaustion and instability. He had blown the trumpet for so long that no one heard it anymore. To most observers, he was just another loudmouthed lawyer screaming about his innocent client, not exactly an unusual sight.
The case had pushed him over the edge, and when it was over, when the State of Texas ﬁnally succeeded in executing Donté, Robbie seriously doubted if he could go on. He planned to move, to sell his real estate, retire, tell Slone and Texas to kiss his ass, and go live in the mountains somewhere, probably in Vermont, where the summers are cool and the state does not kill people.
The lights came on in the conference room. Someone else was already there, opening up the place, preparing for the week from hell. Robbie ﬁnally left his car and went inside. He spoke to Carlos, one of his longtime paralegals, and they spent a few minutes over coffee. The talk soon turned to football.
"You watch the Cowboys?" Carlos asked.
"No, I couldn't. I heard Preston had a big day."
"Over two hundred yards. Three touchdowns."
"I'm not a Cowboys fan anymore."
A month earlier, Rahmad Preston had been right there, in the conference room, signing autographs and posing for photos. Rahmad had a distant cousin who'd been executed in Georgia ten years earlier, and he had taken up the cause of Donté Drumm with big plans to enlist other Cowboys and NFL heavyweights to help wave the ﬂag. He would meet with the governor, the parole board, big business boys, politicians, a couple of rappers he claimed to know well, maybe even some Hollywood types. He would lead a parade so noisy that the state would be forced to back down. Rahmad, though, proved to be all talk. He suddenly went silent, went into "seclusion," according to his agent, who also explained that the cause was too distracting for the great running back. Robbie, always on the conspiracy trail, suspected that the Cowboys organization and its network of corporate sponsors somehow pressured Rahmad.
By 8:30, the entire ﬁrm had assembled in the conference room, and Robbie called the meeting to order. At the moment he had no partners—the last had left in a feud that was still tied up in litigation— but there were two associates, two paralegals, three secretaries, and Aaron Rey, who was always close by. After ﬁfteen years with Robbie, Aaron knew more law than most seasoned paralegals. Also present was a lawyer from Amnesty Now, a London-based human rights group that had donated thousands of skilled hours to the Drumm appeals. Participating by teleconference was a lawyer in Austin, an appellate advocate furnished by the Texas Capital Defender Group.
Robbie ran through the plans for the week. Duties were deﬁned, tasks distributed, responsibilities clariﬁed. He tried to appear upbeat, hopeful, conﬁdent that a miracle was on the way.
The miracle was slowly coming together, some four hundred miles due north, in Topeka, Kansas.