We didn't speak much before she left. She dressed and slipped away gracefully, without imposition or demand. She left me with my task: in other words, to get Miguel Caliz out of jail. If nothing else, I owed her that. And after what had just happened, I owed him that.
I had to buy him clothes. I paid for them myself, probably out of a sense of penance. I knew I had crossed an ethical line, although lately the lines were moving so quickly that I wasn't sure where they were. I only knew one thing for certain, that winning was the most ethical thing of all.
I met Caliz at the jail to give him the suit, and he accepted it without a word. I waited for him to dress to go over his testimony. He looked good, but not slick, which was the idea. I didn't want the jurors to know I had dressed him, so the suit I brought was cheapish, nothing too stylish.
Ten minutes into the trial, I realized it didn't matter. I had planned carefully, ready to cite the most cutting-edge legal opinions on constitutional law, from search and seizure to racial profiling. I never had the chance. Everyone in the courtroom was spellbound as they watched the police officer on the stand blowing up, his face covered with ill-concealed loathing for all things brown in the inner city of Atlanta. I actually wondered how long the prosecuting attorney would let it go on. But she had no choice. The policeman was the arresting officer, and without his testimony, there was no case. In spite of his angry, narrow eyes, sarcastic tone, and generally hate-filled countenance, she had to keep asking him questions. The jury--there had never been a question in my mind whether or not to ask for a jury--was more than half Latino, and they were hating him back with a combined hundred years or so of built-up resentment.
Caliz himself had helped; like a lot of cons, the kid could act. His expression, with me suspicious and dangerous, transformed itself into victimized fear. His voice trembled. The officers had pulled him over because of his skin. He was humiliated. They had searched him because they didn't like his accent. Of course he knew about drugs. Everybody in his neighborhood knew about them. But he had never taken them in his life.
It took less than an hour for the jury to acquit. There was some satisfaction in that, I suppose. I had to take satisfaction where I could get it, because I didn't get any from Caliz. He didn't shake my hand when he heard the verdict. Instead, he turned and looked at Violeta, who was sitting quietly behind the two of us. Which was the moment I began to wonder who was driving the train I was on.
I thought about her that night, missing her. I was confused, wondering what she was doing. Was she flat on her back, happily letting Caliz replace my heritage with his own? Or was she declaring her independence, telling him having her man in and out of jail wasn't acceptable anymore? I wanted to will her back into my bed, to feel her legs wrapped around me, to lose myself again in her dark hair and eyes. The next morning, submerged into my normal life, she floated in and out of my mind, coalescing in my memory. I very nearly called her, formulating some banal question to ask, some bit of paperwork needing to be signed.
I did not yet understand the chasm between normal and criminal thinking. To Caliz, it didn't matter whether or not Violeta had sacrificed herself to get him the kind of legal expertise he could never afford on his own. It only mattered that he was the kind of angry young man who beats the woman in his life. If she had seduced me on his orders, maybe he just suspected that she had enjoyed herself too much. I never found out. I only know that two days after I got him out of jail, he beat her to death.
From The Last Goodbye. Copyright © 2004 by Reed Arvin. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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