While working on my non-fiction book today, I came across this file. It’s chapter one of a novel I started writing a few years ago….
….who knows? It might be worth doing a bit more work on. Enjoy!
The adjective, not the month, Alex Gosnold told himself, with the emphasis on the second syllable.
That’s the only way to describe this place, the reporter thought as he (in between furtive glances at his watch) looked around Courtroom B in the Federal Courthouse in Mobile, Alabama. Wood so polished you could see your reflection in it, burnished walls with marble accents, crimson and dark navy blue carpeting so thick it felt like the fibers were trying to pull your shoes off as you walked. He impatiently looked at his watch one more time, jotted down “august chamber” on his slim reporter’s notepad (and just as quickly recognizing he’d never use that phrase in a local television story), and thought of the sanctity -there really was no other word- of this courtroom.
In an instant, that sanctity was broken.
“Hey, how you doin, Cher!”
It was a statement, not a question, and Alex immediately regretted his use of the word sanctity to describe anything having to do with Pierre Beauragard. Beauragard (“Everyone just calls me Pee Bee, that’s P-E-E B-E-E, got it?”) was a coon-ass.
Gosnold’s attempt to explain the entymology of the phrase coon-ass was met by skepticism by his Massachusetts family. Apparently General Andrew Jackson, during a battle in the War of 1812, directed a group of coon-skin wearing, northern Louisiana Cajun militiamen to a specific part of the battlefield with a concise, “Get those Coon-Asses over there!” The early nineteenth century nickname stuck, and is still used to describe rural Cajuns from the region. The racial overtones are a more recent development. Gosnold’s efforts to explain the distinction to his liberal family was met only with cynical nods and the comment, “It must be a Southern thing.”
One more look at the watch gave Gosnold time to ponder yet again Pee Bee’s enduring legacy. He was a liberal sociologist’s dream: a four time loser, twice sent to juvenile hall before two different stints at the Louisiana State Prison in Angola for drug possession charges. Beauragard was a walking, talking example of all that was wrong in the corrections field.
“Recidivism, thy name is Pee Bee,” a judge said before sentencing Pee Bee to his most recent stint at Angola three years ago.
“Huh?” Pee Bee asked, rendered as close to speechless as he’d ever get, before he was escorted to the lock-up to await transport to prison. In prison Pee Bee, for all intents and purposes, thrived. He didn’t have to worry about a bed, a meal, or bills (not that the latter especially concerned him outside of prison). He was glib, popular, and –with his ability to embellish- considered somewhat intelligent. He was not, however, physically strong, and bore the torment of prison with a degree of resignation.
That is, until he met Francis Andrews. Andrews was another recidivist criminal who just couldn’t deal with “the outside”. Andrews had seen his share of juvey halls, halfway houses, county lock-ups and state prisons (both medium and maximum security). If anyone had the experience to write a Michelin Guide to Prisons it was Andrews. And he’d save his top reviews for the federal penitentiary in which he’d once done time.
“The fags stay away from you, the guards aren’t assholes, the food is pretty good, and it’s air-conditioned” he’d once told a rapt audience of prisoners in Angola.
Pee Bee, in the group of prisoners listening to Andrews, began to hatch a plan.
“Why’d you get to go to the Federal Pen?” he asked as the group walked from the one-hundred two degree exercise yard to the relative cool of their ninety-eight degree cells.
Andrews looked at him, surprised that someone as familiar with the law as Pee Bee didn’t understand the difference between federal and state offenses. My God, I’m serving with a bunch of idiots, he thought.
“Cuz I committed a federal crime,” he told Pee Bee.
“What’d you do?” (and how can I do it? wondered Pee Bee, who finally realized that life in prison –without the physical struggles- was far better than life outside).
“I beat up a guy.”
“-I- beat up a guy,” Pee Bee replied, “and I was sent to a county lock-up.”
“Yea, but my guy was a mailman.”
“So? My guy was a doorman at a bar. They’re tougher than mailmen.” Pee Bee, proud of the distinction, cackled and fist bumped another prisoner listening to the conversation.
Andrews regretted talking to this moron whose good nature and quick wittedness had made him into something of a prison celebrity. The sooner I finish with this guy, the better, he thought. He didn’t realize any attention he gave to Pee Bee would be reciprocated. Intensely.
“Pee Bee, it’s like this: they don’t determine who tries you because of toughness, they do it based on jurisdiction.”
“Yea, I know.”
“No, Pee Bee, you don’t know, you fucking moron. If you knew, you wouldn’t have asked. The trial for a crime committed against the feds takes place in a federal court. And if the suspect is found guilty, he’s sentenced tooooo…” Andrews gave the “tooooo?” an interrogative tone, expecting Pee Bee to finish his sentence. He did.
“Less time in here?”
Patiently now, as if talking to a child.
“No, Pee Bee, the suspect is sentenced to federal prison. Not less time….a better jail. Three hots, air-conditioning in summer, and,” he paused, with a dramatic flair, “conjugal visits.”
Pee Bee knew all about conjugal visits – from stories, not from firsthand experience.
And it was at this point that Pee Bee’s plan began to take shape. Pee Bee had a vague childhood recollection of a summer visit spent at the Fort Barancas National Seashore – a national park just off the Pensacola coast. Nothing too fancy: a guard house (staffed by National Park employees –who would play a vital role in his plan-) where visitors paid the two dollar beach entry fee, and miles of white sandy shoreline running into the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s federal property, he thought, and the Park employees are unarmed.
Pee Bee, immediately upon his release from Angola, traveled to a cousin’s apartment in Pensacola. While there Pee Bee, who didn’t like guns, bought a starter’s pistol from a sports supply store and drove the fifteen or so miles through Gulf Breeze, onto Pensacola beach and down to the Seashore. The crime would have been perfect, except for one thing: the Park employee manning the guard shack that day was fifty-nine years old with a history of heart trouble. Pee Bee, in an effort to scare the official, fired off the starter’s pistol as he entered the guard shack.
The Park employee died of an immediate heart-attack.
Pee Bee, all his life, had decried his lack of good luck. The attempted robbery proved yet again that Pierre Beauragard’s request to God for a break, any break at all, fell on deaf ears.
And at that point, Pee Bee realized his bad luck only became worse.
Unfortunately for him, he had chosen to commit his robbery on the very same day a multi-jurisdictional mock rescue exercise (scheduled months in advance) was taking place just over the dunes of the guard shack.
Alerted by the gunshot, other Park workers, less than one hundred yards away from the shooting, immediately took off for the guard shack. They were joined by local police and fire employees, county sheriff’s deputies, coast guard officials and even a contingent of marine aviators from the nearby Naval Air station participating in the exercise. Also overhead were two news helicopters videotaping the “rescue” (it had been a slow news day along the Gulf Coast). Pee Bee, scared out of his wits by the immediate demise of his robbery victim, turned at the sound of the helicopters, military humvees, and fire trucks headed his way. Expecting only five or so National Guard employees, Pee Bee saw framed through the guard shack window thirteen green suited National Park employees, seventeen sheriff’s deputies from both Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties, twenty-two firefighters, thirteen EMTs and a platoon of marines, all running to the shack.
So he did the only thing he could.
He jumped through the window on the opposite side of the guard shack, directly toward to the beach and in perfect view of the news helicopters hovering nearby. Both helicopters captured the diminutive Pee Bee crashing through the glass, landing on the ground, gathering up his gun and running headlong for the Santa Rosa Sound.
If I can only make it to the water, he thought –forgetting for a moment that he had actually made this plan in the hopes of getting captured– I’ll make it across the Sound and I’ll be home free.
Forget Los Angeles car chases – THIS was compelling video. A hardened criminal, waving a gun (yes, it was just a starter’s pistol, but who could tell from five hundred feet away?), trailed by dozens of law enforcement and military personnel running through the dunes, as he made his way across a strip of asphault and into Santa Rosa Sound.
Pee Bee, scared out of his wits, seemed to kick into a gear that surprised even him. Unfortunately for him, the extra burst of speed simply put off the inevitable and gave the reporters in the two local news copters covering his run time to persuade their supervisors that this chase deserved a live cut-in. (“I don’t know what the fuck is happening down there,” one of the reporters told his executive producer over the cell phone, “but we have some dude in the water being chased by, what, fifty cops? A hundred cops? I don’t need facts, man, we’ve got great video! Get me on!”).
So, in a matter of minutes, Pierre Beuragard’s asinine attempt to quietly rob a federal park, all in the hopes of getting him time in a federal prison, was broadcast to tens of thousands of people along the gulf coast from Destin, Florida to Biloxi, Mississippi. Those thousands who tuned in were treated to the site of Pee Bee slowly swimming through the Sound between a Coast Guard patrol boat and a Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s boat. The crews of each decided to let him tire out before they attempted to retrieve him from the water.
Gosnold, hired at the local CBS affiliate a week after the incident, recalled laughing with his new colleagues in the newsroom as they watched the unedited video of Pee Bee’s capture. Pee Bee, by now naked (hoping, by shedding his clothes and losing the starter’s pistol he’d swim faster), crying and hugging the heavyset deputy who cuffed him.
“I din’t wanna die out there, Big. I din’t wanna die in dat water.”
“You idjit,” the deputy told him, “the water was only five feet deep. Jesus.”
Three years after that capture, Pee Bee’s trial was about to come to an end. The United States had presented its case, and rested, as had Pee Bee’s court appointed lawyer. Now, the judge was about to instruct the jury members and send them off to deliberate. Gosnold and his colleagues from the four competing stations in Mobile and Pensacola had fielded calls from their respective desks, all with the same two questions, “When is the jury coming back? Will you be ready for the five?”
Gosnold didn’t know the answer to the former, and the answer to the latter didn’t matter; he’d be fronting a live shot for the five pm show regardless of the jury’s status. What the jury didn’t know, however, was the decision the presiding judge presiding had already made on this Friday afternoon: the jury was going to work through the weekend to come up with a verdict.
And if the jury was going to work through the weekend, so, too, would the reporters covering the story.