Confession and Corruption

The arrest of Sam Johnstone’s mentor Press Daniels had Sam feeling restless, irritable, and discontented. He pouted and slouched around the house until he sullenly looked in the refrigerator and found only a jar of jalapeños, a stick of butter, a pitcher of sweet tea, and a rotting onion.

Despite knowing he was only one drink away from disaster, he drove to the Longbranch Saloon—ostensibly to order food to go. Jamey Johnson was playing on the jukebox, and he hummed along, enjoying the bar’s smoky haze. When he ordered a longneck and whiskey back, owner/bartender Gino Smith asked him three times if he was sure.

Three times he assured Gino he was fine. “I’m okay—really.” Two hours later he had downed four or five tall beers and an equal number of shots. He was halfway to feeling all right . . . and he only felt right when he was wrong.

Before he left the bar, he walked to the men’s room and practiced walking heel-to-toe, turning around, and reciting the alphabet backward in an effort to gauge his probable success on the standardized field sobriety tests used by law enforcement—just in case. He was pleasantly surprised that he had remembered the drills so well and headed for the bar to pay his tab. He had no business driving, of course, but risk was part of the kink for an addict/alcoholic.

He paid his tab, tipped big, and purchased two small bottles of vodka “for the road,” assuring a grim-faced Gino he was good to go and that he could make it home safely.

“Damn it, Sam,” Gino groused. “You get busted, and the police report and the newspaper will note you’d been drinking here.” Sam had assured Gino he was fine, then grabbed the Styrofoam container with his cold food and walked unsteadily out the door.

Now, as he neared the turn on a darkened road approximately one mile from his apartment, he uncapped one of the miniature bottles of vodka he’d purchased, drained the contents, and tossed the empty out the open window, enjoying the feel of both the icy April evening air and his burning esophagus.

Keith Whitley was on in his old truck’s CD player, and Sam sang along until flashing blue lit up his cab, bringing him out of his reverie. He looked in the mirror, and upon seeing his reflection cursed himself and slapped at the offending glass, then took deep breaths in an effort to control the onrush of adrenaline that always accompanied drinking trouble.

The stakes were high—a conviction for drunken driving would imperil his career as an attorney. More importantly, it would disappoint everyone who had cared enough to help him when he was struggling.

Relapse was neither inevitable nor uncommon, of course, but in Sam’s case it was predictable—he’d been “too busy” to meet with either his VA counselor, Bob Martinez, or his AA sponsor of late. His secretary, Cassie, would scold him mercilessly. Forgetting to signal, he steered his truck uncertainly to the side of the road, put it in park, and pounded the steering wheel in frustration.

All the work, all the effort, all the people who had faith in him. He should have called Bob. He should have called his sponsor. Hell, he could have talked with Cathy, Cassie, or someone—anything but go to the bar. How many times had he listened to a man or woman in a twelve-step meeting lament their actions while smugly thinking it would never happen to him?

He struggled to retrieve his driver’s license from his wallet and was searching through his glovebox for his truck’s registration and insurance card when he felt a presence at his window. He prayed it wasn’t an officer he knew. “Evening, Sam.” Christ. It was Ron Baker of the Custer Police. “Hi, er, Ron,” Sam replied. “How you doin’?” “I’m well, Sam.

Do you know why I pulled you over?” The proper response was, “I have no idea, Officer,” but this was Baker. Sam shrugged. “I was probably speeding.” “Well, that and weaving all over the road,” Baker replied. He made a show of sniffing the air in Sam’s truck.

“You been drinkin’?” Again, the proper response was, “Of course not.” “A little,” Sam admitted, somehow incapable of following the legal advice he had provided innumerable clients over the years. Baker nodded. With a traffic violation, the smell of booze, and an admission to drinking, he had reasonable suspicion, enabling him to extend the traffic stop to investigate possible drunk driving.

“Well, how about you step out and we’ll do some tests to make sure you’re okay to drive—sound good?” “You bet.” When Sam unsteadily exited the car, the remaining bottle dropped on the ground at his feet. He struggled to retrieve it while Baker watched. “I’ll take that,” he said, extending his hand when Sam had finally picked the small vodka bottle off the ground. “Did you toss one of those out the window a ways back?” “Maybe,” Sam admitted, feeling extremely fatigued.

He turned to face Baker and noticed a line of cars driving slowly past. It seemed he knew the face of every driver and occupant. He looked to Baker, who was shaking his head.

“Sam, are you okay?” Another day, another bad decision. He’d been sober for months, but remained halfway between who he was and who he wanted to be. “I—I’m fine,” Sam replied. “A little tired, is all. Leg’s hurting,” he lied, knocking on the prosthesis. “Let’s just get this over with.” He heard himself say, “Letth” and “thith.”

“Okay,” Baker said. “Before we get started, could you turn off the music?” “Do what?” “The music. Turn off the music on your phone.” Sam turned off his phone. “There,” he said, but when he looked up, he didn’t see Baker. Instead, he saw the stark white walls of the small bedroom in his apartment. He was home. And sober.

It had been a relapse dream—and not the first he had experienced, of late. He swung his remaining leg over the side of the bed, then reached for and shakily donned his artificial left leg. In so doing he felt slightly repulsed by the soaking wet T-shirt sticking to his body. Later, in his kitchen, he texted his sponsor.

Got time for a call? Hours later, Sam was in his office trying to focus. The events of the past week had brought a whirlwind of emotions—never a good thing for a recovering addict/alcoholic. Last Tuesday his client Mike Brown had been rightfully acquitted of the murder of his father-in-law, billionaire cryptocurrency mogul Maxim Kovalenko.

Hours later, Marci Daniels had died following an extended illness. On Saturday afternoon, he and Cathy Schmidt had attended Marci’s funeral and graveside services with Daniels, only to stand by helplessly as Daniels was arrested for her murder. Daniels’ arrest was unnecessary, gratuitous, and provocative.

Now, two days later and despite prayer and meditation, Sam’s fury at Lee hadn’t abated and had probably contributed to last night’s relapse dream. Still shaken hours later, he had to remind himself to breathe. Later this morning, he would enter an appearance on Daniels’ behalf and this afternoon he would join Daniels in court for his initial appearance in front of Judge Downs.

Try as he might to focus on the task at hand—crafting an argument to convince what he anticipated would be a highly skeptical judge to release an accused murderer on pretrial release conditions—his thoughts were clouded with memories of Marci and Press. They’d been like the parents he hadn’t had since his mother’s death decades past.

After Daniels’ retirement and even during the early onset of Marci’s illness they had him over from time to time. He’d sit on the couch and listen to Marci give Press hell and marvel that the old judge had someone to tell him what to do—just like everyone else. Following each visit, Marci would send Sam home with plates and plastic containers full of food.

“You’ve got to eat, young man,” she would say. “You’re too thin.” The change in her had been gradual but drastic.

Loss of weight, loss of hair; ultimately, she had turned a sickly gray color. Daniels’ degradation had been just as marked; he’d gone from curmudgeonly to flat-out angry, and the change in his appearance had been a topic of discussion in town. For a time, Daniels had attempted to continue some part-time legal work for Sam’s firm as an “of counsel” attorney, but frequent trips abroad to attempt risky, unapproved-in-the-US treatments for her advancing cancer had taken their toll.

At last, when he’d been too worn down to work or care for Marci alone, Daniels had brought on Julie Spence, a recovering methamphetamine addict and home health care assistant upon whom he came to depend. But by then it was too late, and last week Marci had passed. Until Daniels’ arrest, Sam assumed her death had been a natural one.

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