On Thursday morning at 9 a.m., I walked into the Calhoun County Courthouse, a large red brick neoclassical structure with white arches at the entrances. After I cleared security, I walked to the parole office, my shoes echoing off the marble floor. The waiting room had an institutional feel, with none-too-clean tile floors, and a window of thick, almost blue glass, behind which sat the receptionist.
After I signed in, the sour-faced receptionist told me to take a seat until I was called. I sat down in one of the hard plastic chairs. Experience had taught me that it might be a long wait; my monthly visits with the parole officer typically took up an entire morning.
Ironic that I found myself here. Growing up, half my cousins had been in and out of jail. I’d sworn to myself a million times that I wouldn’t be like them, that I wouldn’t be the kind of white trash that Daddy came from. I kept that promise to myself, worked my way up the corporate ladder, bought a spectacular house in the suburbs of Washington DC, and yet, except for Lucas, I was the only one of the cousins who ended up as a felon.
After I was arrested, it took four days before I was finally arraigned. I’ll never forget the arraignment hearing. The county prosecutor described me in terms I couldn’t imagine. He said it was a vicious and unprovoked attack, and that I represented a danger to anyone I thought might have had anything to do with my daughter. Vicious and unprovoked.I felt—righteous. I was trying to protect my daughter. I was a fool.
My lawyer fought hard to get bail set, but the last straw was when the arresting officers testified that I had threatened repeatedly to kill Chase. It was true, I had, though it was in the passion of the moment. As a result of that, the judge denied bail. I was to stay in the Fairfax County jail until I went to trial.
I had to hand it to Brent, my lawyer: he was good. Before I had even been shuttled back from the courthouse to the jail, he’d already lodged an appeal with the state court of appeals. The next morning’s Washington Post carried the front page headline, Father of Missing Girl Denied Bail for Assault. Apparently it was a slow news day, and Brent was pretty good with the media—by lunchtime the cable networks had gone insane. The talking heads on the cable networks, and the public, seemed to be on my side. It took longer than expected, but far faster than it would have, had I not had access to those resources. Two weeks after my arrest, I was released on bail.
I was grateful to be out. But I’ll never forget the disappointment and anger on Erin and Sam’s faces when I was home. They’d needed me terribly, and I’d failed them.
Brent spent the next two months maneuvering but with little luck. I was scheduled to go to trial on December 11. The week before that, Brent came over to the house and pulled Erin and me into my office. His face had been grim.
“Cole,” he said. “I’ve done everything I could. The prosecutor’s got a hard-on … excuse me, Mrs. Roberts. He’s very aggressive, with all his public statements about vigilante justice. The bottom line is, you’re not going to be able to avoid going to trial on Monday.”
Erin began to cry silently. I’d already been placed on a leave of absence from work; a conviction would surely mean that I’d be fired. I had a golden parachute in my contract, but one of the clauses in that contract said that I lost the parachute if I was terminated due to a felony conviction. And that’s where it looked like we were heading.
“What are my odds?”
“Well, you have the jury on your side to an extent. Except that you fucked up that Morton kid pretty good. He’ll probably never regain the full use of his hand. The guidelines for assault with a deadly weapon is eight to fifteen years. You’ll probably end up at the lower end of that scale, meaning you’ll be eligible for parole in three or four years.”
I gasped. Three or four years? How was that possible? How could I possibly do three or four years in prison?
My next words came out in a rasp. “What are my options?”
Brent shrugged. “We can offer to plea bargain to a lesser charge. You’ll still almost certainly get a felony conviction, but we might be able to get them down to vanilla assault. With luck you’ll be out within a year. That’s really the best-case … if you go before a jury and they wheel Chase Morton into the courtroom, you don’t stand a chance.”
I rested my head in my hands. Even the best-case scenario … we’d lose the house. I’d racked up twenty thousand in legal fees already. We had the mortgage on a two-million-dollar home, three car payments, student loans … we couldn’t survive without a sizable salary.
We couldn’t leave the house with Brenna missing. What if she came home and we weren’t there anymore?
Without a word, Erin stood up and walked out. I felt like I’d been punched. But who could blame her? Who could blame her?
In the end, I took Brent’s advice and pled guilty to simple assault. I was sentenced to three years, with two-and-a-half of those years suspended. I actually served six months and five days in the Deep Meadow Correctional Center just outside Richmond.
Looking back, sometimes I wish I hadkilled Chase. That might’ve at least made it worthwhile. As it was, I had wrecked what was left of my family’s life for no purpose at all.
I almost hadn’t been able to take the job in Alabama, which would’ve been a real tragedy considering that I interviewed more than a hundred times for different positions after I got out of prison. After Jeremiah got me the interview with Brian, I jumped at the chance, even though I knew that my salary in this job wouldn’t be much more than ten percent of what I’d been making before. At least it was enough to buy food and pay rent for a crappy little house in Oxford. Offer in hand, I’d gone to the court and requested permission to transfer my probation to Alabama. Miraculously, it was approved.
So here I was. Waiting to see my probation officer for our monthly visits.
At eleven a.m. I was finally called in to see her. Sergeant Joyce Friendly had once been an Atlanta cop and had readily told me her story when I asked during our first meeting several months before. During a routine traffic stop in South Atlanta five years before, she’d been shot in the face and left for dead. She’d been medically retired from the police department, but after years of therapy and healing, she went looking for work. She finally found a spot with the Alabama Department of Corrections.
When I knocked on the door to her office, she waved me in. She was a physically formidable woman, probably somewhere around one hundred and ninety pounds of mostly muscle. She wore a grey uniform and smiled when I walked in.
She spoke in a thick accent that reminded me of Dad’s relatives in the mountains of Georgia. “Cole Roberts. Have a seat, tell me how things are going for you.”
I took the proffered seat. “The job’s going well,” I said. That didn’t really answer her question, but I had no plans of getting into discussions about the state of my marriage.
“That’s good to hear. Your son’s getting settled in school okay?”
I nodded. “You know how it is … moving is a big change. Especially from a big city to … here.”
She nodded, eyes wide. “Oh, I know it is. I gotta ask you the routine questions. Have you been out of state?”
I shook my head. “No, but I’m going to ask for clearance to go to Atlanta in the next couple of weeks.”
“What takes you there?”
“My parents live there, and it’s time we visited.”
She nodded. “I don’t see that that’s a problem. Just make sure you notify me if and when you’re going to go. Are you drinking?”
I shook my head. “Not much. A beer sometimes when I get home from work.” I didn’t say, Erin does enough drinking for the both of us.
She nodded. Her face turned serious, and she said, “Have you had any news about your daughter?”
I shook my head. We talked briefly about Brenna during my first meeting with her. Sgt. Friendly had been surprisingly sympathetic. In response to my gesture, she frowned.
“I’m so sorry to hear that, Cole.”
I didn’t answer. There wasn’t really anything to say.
She leaned back in her seat then shuffled in her desk drawer for a moment, pulling out a sheet of paper. “Well, then, that’s all I have for this month. I’ll need you to take this paperwork to one of the labs listed on the back, it’s time for a drug test.”
I nodded. I’d been through that routine twice already since we moved to Alabama. I took the papers.
As I stood, she leaned forward and spoke again. “If you do hear anything, whether it’s tomorrow or next year, you let me know. I’ve got a daughter too. I’ll do whatever I can to help.”I let out my breath in an exhalation that seemed to deflate my entire body.
Note: This is an unedited preview of my upcoming novel Winter Flower, releasing June 22, 2019. Pre-orders are available at all major retailers.