The units were all empty. They put Virgil in the nearest one. The cell, if that's what it was, was very clean and appeared to have been recently painted; the smell of fresh latex filled the room and Virgil spotted a piece of masking tape on the door casing and a few drops of paint on the scarred pine floor. Alongside an Arborite-topped table with a few magazines on it sat two wooden slat-back chairs, and behind it, a large, steel mesh–covered window, probably five feet high. The mesh also looked newly painted, green in contrast to the white walls.
Delano didn't seem too thrilled at the prospect of leaving his prisoner there, but he was obviously anxious to respond to the call. He removed Virgil's cuffs and he and the sheriff left, closing the door behind them. Virgil could hear the heavy lock fall into place.
He sat down at the table and had a look at the magazines. All were Field & Stream and the most recent issue was from 1997. He leafed through them absently and then stood up and walked to the window. The room faced east and he could see the Hudson River, maybe half a mile away. The town itself extended only a couple of blocks past the courthouse. Beyond that was a cornfield and a stand of hardwoods. Then the river. Immediately outside the window was another building, single story but attached to the courthouse. It looked to be a garage or storage facility. As he looked down, an elderly man pushing a wheelbarrow came around the corner of the building and stopped by the flower bed along the wall. He got down on his knees and began pulling weeds from the bed and tossing them in the wheelbarrow.
Virgil watched the old man for a while and then walked over and sat down again. For the past two days he felt as if he'd been performing in a play he hadn't been allowed to read first. Everybody but him knew their lines. And he'd been waiting, scene after scene, for some indication that he was going to be let in on the joke. So far that hadn't happened. Now he had to consider that it might not happen. If he thought that Joe Brady was going to start looking elsewhere for the person who killed Mickey Dupree, the joke really was on him. It was Virgil's bad luck that Brady was the cop who showed up at the farm that day. Not only was he convinced that Virgil was guilty, the man was obviously not all that bright to begin with—something Virgil had already known, having seen his act on the stand during Comstock's trial. Virgil might have been better off with Marchand, but that was only speculation, and likely irrelevant; she hadn't been in court today and Virgil wondered if her involvement with the case had ended.
The last time he'd been locked up, it had been in a tiny cell in a new concrete-and-chrome facility in Quebec. This time it was in a twelve-by-twelve room with fresh paint and worn wooden floors and a view of the historic Hudson. But there was no difference between the two, once the door lock fell into place.
After serving the two years back home, Virgil vowed that he would never again fuck up badly enough to go back. It had never occurred to him that it might happen as the result of somebody else fucking up. It wasn't something a man might consider.
It wasn't something a man should have to consider. How the hell did he end up here? People talk all the time about how things never turn out the way they plan. Well, Virgil couldn't recall ever planning anything. Things just happened. Or something happened, and then something else happened.
One thing leads to another.
It seemed like a good idea, driving down to see Tom Stempler after being released from jail. They'd kept in touch over the years, and Tom had written to Virgil regularly when Virgil was in stir, giving him advice much as he had back when he'd been a manager and Virgil had been behind the plate. Once he even drove up to visit Virgil in the medium-security unit a few miles outside of Three Rivers. Virgil knew, of course, that Tom was retired from baseball, but he also knew that Tom kept close contact with a number of teams, and even scouted a little when the farm work allowed him. What Virgil didn't know was that Tom had ALS.
So one thing led to another. Virgil was at the Stempler farm for only a day when he realized he would be sticking around to help the old man, who was stubbornly working the farm on his own while his strength was flowing out of him like a swiftly running stream. He was a stoic bastard, never asking for help or acknowledging it when Virgil provided it. Virgil never did bring up the subject of him getting back into baseball. He meant to, but he never did.
And one thing led to another again.
Kirstie came home the following spring. Virgil and Tom had finished the harvest and the fall plowing and made it through the winter, when, for the most part, running the farm was just a matter of looking after the stock and making odd repairs to the implements and the outbuildings. Tom had gone through some experimental treatments in Albany that had little effect on the ALS, although there were times when he seemed to be holding his own against the disease. That was as optimistic an outlook as anybody could have with ALS, and even that was temporary. Kirstie had come home to look after her father. Although he had known Tom for several years, Virgil had never met Kirstie and was concerned at first that she might resent the presence of a stranger, or be suspicious of his motives, but she was neither. She'd had a souring experience in Nashville, after a fledgling producer persuaded her to make a demo of pop songs passing for country. There were a lot of pop songs passing for country these days, but this bunch was terrible, even by those low standards, and she couldn't find anyone to release the CD. Radio play was out of the question.
Kirstie didn't talk much about the record. She took on the role of the farm wife, doing the cooking and cleaning, and attempting to manage the faltering finances of the place. Her spare time was shared either with her guitar or her horses; it wasn't long after she returned that she began to board rescued animals as well. She and Virgil had gotten along fine from the start. She seemed to sense in him a kindred spirit, not along artistic lines, but in a general sense of what she referred to as "detachment from the conventional." Virgil had been accused of worse. Once, after they started sleeping together, she told Virgil that he was "half a bubble off plumb," but that it was okay because she was too.
She never gave up on her music, though, and it was through a friend, a mandolin player who had once backed Levon Helm at his barn down the road a piece, that she met Alan Comstock.
And one thing led to another.
Comstock agreed to produce an album of cover songs. And he agreed to do so for no money up front—his production fee being contingent on the success of the release. Kirstie was over the moon at the prospect, disregarding the fact that Comstock had produced virtually nothing for the past twenty years. It was true that in music circles he was a legend, and not just in his own mind.
Virgil met Comstock just once, when he dropped Kirstie off at the studio when her car wasn't running, and he came away convinced that the man was a lunatic—a fidgety, twitching neurotic who refused to shake Virgil's hand or even look him in the eye. As if there was something in his own gaze that might be revealed. But Virgil didn't need a closer look. He had been around enough crazy people in his life to know the real thing when he saw it.
What he didn't see was the part he would come to regret.
He knew that Comstock was infatuated with Kirstie and of course she knew it too. But she was convinced she could keep him at bay. "Takes two to tango," she had told Virgil. All she was focused on was finishing the album, which probably meant she ignored the signs that things were out of control. That Comstock was out of control. Guns and alcohol and drugs were a bad recipe, and Comstock was a walking mix of all three. Toss in a dash of the spurned and delusional would-be lover and somebody was sure to end up dead. How the shooting actually happened was something Virgil would never know. On a certain level, it didn't matter. Only the result mattered and it was something he couldn't change. It was simply a case of one thing leading to another.
And sonofabitch, look where he was now.
He could hire a lawyer and go along for the ride, put his faith in the system, in the belief that innocent people don't get convicted. It wasn't much of a plan. First of all, he had no money for a lawyer. And second, innocent people get convicted all the time. The ones who do usually have no money for a lawyer.
In the end, it all came down to money. That had been the case back home in Quebec too. Virgil had laid a shit-kicking on a crooked lawyer named Frank Finley, beat him up badly enough to put him in the hospital, because the Quebec courts were not going to punish the man, due in part to Finley's being rich enough to cover his swindling ass, at least where the law was concerned.
Now, like Yogi said, it was déjà vu all over again. The money always won. Comstock had walked because he was wealthy enough to pay Mickey Dupree to represent him. Unfortunately, that made it appear that Virgil had a motive for killing Dupree; in fact, he had frequently entertained thoughts of doing bodily harm to the lawyer. During the trial Dupree had, day after day, engaged in a character assassination of Kirstie, suggesting she was a drug addict, a liar, a mental case. Kirstie had been none of those things. Kirstie had been a dreamer but that was hardly a crime. Mickey Dupree was an arrogant creep who couldn't have cared less about the memory of a nice girl with the capacity to dream. He probably didn't care about Alan Comstock either, except that Comstock could meet his price. So again it was the money. Virgil was the only one involved who didn't have any, and he was the only one sitting in a jail cell. The motive was there, as was his past, and the prosecution would tie the two nicely together and present them to a jury. It was becoming clear to Virgil that what he needed wasn't a good defense. What he needed was somebody who would try to find out who killed Mickey Dupree.
He pulled his cigarettes from his shirt pocket and lit one, tossing the Zippo on the table. As he smoked he watched the sky outside. Still cloudless. Perfect haying weather. Funny how everything revolved around the weather when you were a farmer. You thought about it even when you weren't thinking about it. Even when you had things of a more urgent nature to consider. Looking out the window, his eyes shifted to the steel mesh that covered it. It was fastened to the frame with lag bolts, and the bolts appeared to be brand-new, of some brass alloy. Virgil realized that the mesh would have been removed for the recent repainting. Eight bolts held the screen in place, and the bolt heads, he guessed, were roughly three-eighths of an inch. He picked up the Zippo, flipped the top open, and studied it for a moment. He walked over to the window for a closer inspection. Then, with a twist, he broke the top off the lighter and pulled the guts from inside, placing both in his pocket. He pushed the lighter casing over the head of the lag bolt and found it fit snugly, like a socket. He applied pressure on the bolt. And it turned.
Outside the window, the sun burned brightly on the tall corn, and the hardwood forest, and the rolling Hudson beyond.