By Margaret Maron
Published by Grand Central Publishing
August 2007; 0446582433; 320 pages
If a man goes at his work with his fists he is not so successful as if he goes at it with his head.
—Profitable Farming in the Southern States, 1890
Friday, February 24
A cold February morning and the first thing on my calendar was the State of North Carolina versus James Braswell and Hector Macedo.
Misdemeanor assault inflicting serious bodily injury.
I vaguely remembered doing first appearances on them both two or three weeks earlier although I would have heard only enough facts to set an appropriate bond and appoint attorneys if they couldn’t afford their own. According to the papers now before me, Braswell was a lineman for the local power company and could not only afford an attorney, but had also made bail immediately. His co-defendant, here on a legal visa, had needed an appointed lawyer and he had sat in the Colleton County jail for eleven days till someone went his bail. Each was charged with assaulting the other, and while it might have been better to try them separately, Doug Woodall’s office had decided to join the two cases and prosecute them together since the charges rose out of the same brawl. Despite a broken bottle, our DA had not gone for the more serious charge of felony assault because keeping them both misdemeanors would save his office time and the county money, something he was more conscious of now that he’d decided to run for governor.
Neither attorney had objected even though it meant they had to put themselves between the two men scowling at each other from opposite ends of the defendants’ table.
Braswell’s left hand and wrist had been bandaged last month. Today, a scabby red line ran diagonally across the back of his hand and continued down along the outer edge of his wrist till it disappeared under the cuff of his jacket. The stitches had been removed, but the puncture marks on either side were still visible. I’m no doctor, but it looked as if the jagged glass had barely missed the veins on the underside of Braswell’s wrist.
The cut over Macedo’s right eye was mostly hidden by his thick dark eyebrow.
I listened as Julie Walsh finished reading the charges. Doug’s newest ADA was a recent graduate of Campbell University’s law school over in Buies Creek. Small-boned, with light brown hair and blue-green eyes, she dressed like the perfectly conservative product of a conservative school except that a delicate tracery of tattooed flowers circled one thin white wrist and was almost unnoticeable beneath the leather band of her watch. Rumor said there was a Japanese symbol for trust at the nape of her neck but because she favored turtleneck sweaters and wore her long hair down, I couldn’t swear to that.
“How do you plead?” I asked the defendants.
“Not guilty,” said Braswell.
“Guilty with extenuating circumstances,” said Macedo through his attorney.
While Walsh laid out the State’s case, I thought about the club where the incident took place.
El Toro Negro. The name brought back a rush of mental images. I had been there twice myself. Last spring, back when I still thought of Sheriff Bo Poole’s chief deputy as a sort of twelfth brother and a handy escort if both of us were at loose ends, a couple of court translators had invited me to a Cinco de Mayo fiesta at the club. My latest romance had gone sour the month before so I’d asked Dwight if he wanted to join us.
“Yeah, wouldn’t hurt for me to take a look at that place,” he’d said. “Maybe keep you out of trouble while I’m at it.”
Knowing that he likes to dance just as much as I do, I didn’t rise to the bait.
The club was so jammed that the party had spilled out into the cordoned-off parking lot. It felt as if every Hispanic in Colleton County had turned out. I hadn’t realized till then just how many there were—all those mostly ignored people who had filtered in around the fringes of our lives. Normally, they wear faded shirts and mud-stained jeans while working long hours in our fields or on construction jobs. That night they sported big white cowboy hats with silver conchos and shiny belt buckles. The women who stake our tomatoes or pick up our sweet potatoes alongside their men in the fields or who wear the drab uniforms of fast-food chains as they wipe down tables or take our orders? They came in colorful swirling skirts and white scoop-neck blouses bright with embroidery.
We danced to the infectious music, drank Mexican beer from longnecked bottles, danced some more, then stuffed ourselves at the fast-food taquerías that lined the parking lot. I bought piñatas for an upcoming family birthday party, and Dwight bought a hammered silver belt buckle for his young son.
It was such a festive, fun evening that he and I went back again after we were engaged. The club was crowded and the music was okay, but it felt like ten men for every woman and when they began to hit on me, I had to get Dwight out of there before he arrested somebody.
So I could picture the club’s interior as Walsh called her first witness to the stand.
“¿Habla inglés?” she asked.
Despite his prompt Sí, Macedo’s attorney asked that I allow a translator because his own client’s English was shaky.
I agreed and Elena Smith took a seat directly behind Macedo, where she kept up a low-pitched, steady obligato to all that was said.
“State your name and address.”
The middle-aged witness twisted a billed cap in his callused hands as he gave his name and an address on the outskirts of Cotton Grove. His nails were as ragged and stained as his jeans. In English that was adequate, if heavily accented, he described how he’d entered the restroom immediately after Hector Macedo.
“Then that man”—here he pointed at Braswell—“he push me away and grab him—”
“Mr. Macedo?” the ADA prompted.
“Sí. And he hit him and hit him. Many times.”
“Did Mr. Macedo hit him back?”
“He try to get away, but that one too big. Too strong.”
“Then what happened?”
“Hector, he break a bottle and cut that one. Then he let go and there is much blood. Then the bouncers come. And la policía.”
“No further questions, Your Honor,” said the ADA.
Braswell’s attorney declined to cross-examine the witness, but Macedo’s had him flesh out the narrative so as to make it clear to me that the smaller man had acted in self-defense when Braswell left him with no other options.
A second witness took the stand and his account echoed the first. When Walsh started to call a third witness, Braswell’s attorney stood up. “We’re willing to stipulate as to the sequence of events, Your Honor,” whereupon the State rested.
Macedo, a subcontractor for a drywall service, went first for the defense. Speaking through the interpreter, he swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. According to his testimony, he had been minding his own business when Braswell attacked him for no good reason. He did not even know who Braswell was until after they were both arrested.
Under questioning by Braswell’s lawyer, he admitted that he was at the club that night with one Karen Braswell. Yes, that would be the other defendant’s ex-wife although he had not known it at the time. Besides, it wasn’t a real date. She worked with his sister at the Bojangles in Dobbs and the two women had made up a casual foursome with himself and a friend. He’d had no clue that she had a husband who was still in the picture till the man began choking and pounding him. Macedo’s attorney called the sister, who sat in the first row behind her brother and strained to hear the translator, but Braswell’s attorney objected and I sustained.
“Call your first witness,” I told Braswell’s attorney.
“No witnesses, Your Honor.”
“Mr. Braswell,” I said as his attorney nudged him to stand. “I find you guilty as charged.”
“Your Honor,” said his attorney, “I would ask you to take into consideration my client’s natural distress at seeing his wife out with another man while he was still trying to save their marriage.”
“I thought they were divorced,” I said.
“In his mind they’re still married, Your Honor.”
“Your Honor, I think it’s relevant that you should know Mr. Braswell was under a restraining order not to contact Mrs. Braswell or go near her.”
“Is this true?” I asked the man, who was now standing with his attorney.
He gave a noncommittal shrug and there was a faint sneer on his lips.
“Was a warrant issued for this violation?”
“Yes, Your Honor, but he made bail. He’s due in court next week. Judge Parker.”
“What was the bail?”
I could have increased the bail, but it was moot. He wasn’t going to have an opportunity to hassle his ex before Luther Parker saw him next week. Not if I had anything to say about it.
“Ten days active time,” I told Braswell. “Bailiff, you will take the prisoner in custody.”
“Now, wait just a damn minute here!” he cried; but before he could resist, the bailiff and a uniformed officer had him in a strong-arm grip and marched him out the door that would lead to the jail.
Macedo stood beside his attorney and his face was impassive as he waited for me to pass judgment. I found him guilty of misdemeanor assault and because he’d already sat in jail for eleven days, I reduced his sentence to time served and no fine, just court costs.
He showed no emotion as the translator repeated my remarks in Spanish, but his sister’s smile was radiant. “Gracias,” she whispered to me as they headed out to the back hall to pay the clerk.
“De nada,” I told her.
“State versus Rasheed King,” said Julie Walsh, calling her next case. “Misdemeanor assault with a vehicle.”
A pugnacious young black man came to stand next to his lawyer at the defendant’s table.
“How do you plead?”
“Hey, his truck bumped me first, Judge.”
“Sorry, Your Honor,” said his attorney.
“You’ll get a chance to tell your story, Mr. King,” I said, “but for our records, are you pleading guilty or not guilty?”
“Not guilty, ma’am.”
It was going to be one of those days.
Copyright © 2007 Margart Maron
As Judge Deborah Knott presides over a case involving a barroom brawl, it becomes clear that deep resentments over race, class, and illegal immigration are simmering just below the surface in the countryside. An early spring sun has begun to shine like a blessing on the fertile fields of North Carolina, but along with the seeds sprouting in the thawing soil, violence is growing as well. Mutilated body parts have appeared along the back roads of Colleton County, and the search for the victim's identity and for that of his killer will lead Deborah and her new husband, Sheriff's Deputy Dwight Bryant, into the desperate realm of undocumented farm workers exploited for cheap labor.
In the meantime, Deborah and Dwight continue to adjust to married life and to having Dwight's eight-year-old son, Cal, live with them full time. When another body is found, these newlyweds will discover dark truths that threaten to permanently alter the serenity of their rural surroundings and their new life together.
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Margaret Maron grew up on a farm near Raleigh, North Carolina, but for many years lived in Brooklyn, New York. When she returned to her North Carolina roots with her artist-husband, Joe, she began thinking about a series based on her own background and went on to write Bootlegger's Daughter, a Washington Post bestseller and winner of the major mystery awards for 1993.