Blood on the Leaves

Blood on the Leaves

by Jeff Stetson


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In the 1960s, racism was rampant in Jackson, Mississippi, and it was common for white men caught in the act of killing blacks to be acquitted by all-white juries. But 40 years later, someone is seeking justice; those same men are turning up dead - in the identical manner in which they killed their victims. Now, James Reynolds, who has overcome the odds - and his own personal demons - to become the only black prosecutor in Jackson, will face the toughest case of his life: He'll have to prosecute prime suspect Martin Matheson, a brilliant professor, the son of a venerated Civil Rights leader, and the newly appointed folk hero for thousands of African Americans hungry for retribution.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780446527064
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 07/27/2004
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Blood on the Leaves

By Jeff Stetson

Warner Books

Copyright © 2004 Jeff Stetson, Elisia-Paul Productions, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-446-52706-8

Chapter One

THE DEFECTIVELY REPAIRED air conditioner murmured and moaned, harmonizing with Professor Martin Matheson, whose soothing voice hardly needed musical accompaniment. "Andrew Reid was on leave from his second tour in Vietnam when he stopped to have a drink in a local bar with his nineteen-year-old brother."

Dr. Matheson stuck a pushpin through the photo of a black man burned at the stake and attached it to a poster board. Some students let out audible gasps. Others turned away or diverted their eyes to the polished hardwood floor of the former dance hall where Matheson's class had been reassigned to accommodate greater than expected enrollment. Even in this larger space, many undergraduates were forced to stand alongside the mirrored walls. Their reflections made the room appear twice as crowded.

A number of students sat on the floor. Women who'd left their previous classes five minutes early to ensure they'd sit closest to the faculty member nicknamed "Mister Knowledge" and "Doctor Fine" filled front-row seats. They watched Matheson unbutton the top of his Armani linen-and-silk-blend shirt as he gracefully walked past.

"Waitress was white. They smiled at her. She smiled back." He retrieved an eight-by-ten photo of two grinning white men in their mid- to late twenties. He casually pinned it to a second poster board resting against an easel.

"Her husband, Robert Taylor, and her brother, Reginald Hopkins, followed the two young black men out of the bar and at gunpoint drove them to a deserted wooded area." Matheson returned to the first poster board and uncovered a photo of another black man, a thick-knotted noose around his fractured neck. He was hanging from a tree that had once borne less precious fruit.

The professor placed the photo next to the picture of the charred corpse, making it easier for his students to imagine the unimaginable. "They tied Reid to a log and burned him at the stake, but not until they tortured him and forced him to look at the lynched body of his younger brother."

Brandon Hamilton, a second-year graduate student, sat in the back row. He stared at the horrific remains of two black men who, in the words of Matheson, "once shared the same earth as us and perhaps the same dreams." His large right hand gripped the side of the desk, then slowly closed, making a powerful fist. At six feet four, carrying 235 pounds of solid muscle, he'd been the most sought-after athlete in the country. In his freshman year he set collegiate records in three sports and became captain of the football and basketball teams. As a sophomore he was giving serious consideration to turning pro until, by accident or destiny, he signed up for a class taught by Matheson. On the day he handed in his term paper to the professor, he also turned in all his uniforms and forfeited his scholarship. He vowed never again to serve a system content to exploit him as a commodity but never respect him as a man.

"In deliberations that lasted three minutes, a jury of their peers found Taylor and Hopkins not guilty." Matheson was reaching for a stack of photocopies when the oak door creaked open and two white policemen entered. Matheson smiled as he watched Dr. Henry Watkins, assistant vice president of administrative affairs, passively follow the police. The only black man in the university's central administration, Watkins had long ago grown accustomed to following behind quietly.

"It would've taken less time, but the foreman had difficulty filling out the verdict forms. I suppose some people are just naturally inept when it comes to carrying out instructions." Matheson directed this last remark to Watkins, who was meticulously adjusting his glasses.

The first officer waited quietly near the rear entrance, seeming reluctant to interrupt class proceedings any further. The second officer chose to be more conspicuous. He paced the area with his short, stocky arms folded across his police shield. Heavy footsteps beat rhythmically against the shining parquet floor, announcing his impatience.

Matheson, ignoring the officers, picked up the stack of papers, and handed it to Regina Davis, seated in the front, center row. She'd been voted the first black homecoming queen in the university's 168-year history. But to her the only honor that mattered was the privilege of serving as Matheson's teaching assistant. She'd been chosen from among 112 eager applicants.

Matheson sensed her anxiety and touched her hand. She looked briefly at the policemen before dividing the large stack into smaller sections, placing a pile on each front-row desk for the students to distribute.

The impatient police officer stared at Watkins, which seemed to provide the prodding the timid administrator needed. "Professor Matheson, will you be long?"

"Not as long as justice takes in the great state of Mississippi," Matheson responded politely. "But, as they say, good things come to those who wait." The class erupted in laughter.

"Although they also say, 'Justice delayed is justice ...'"

"'Denied'!" the students shouted out as they'd done many times before.

Matheson felt immensely proud of them. He'd become a teacher to make a difference, to hold up a mirror before the despised and dispossessed so they'd see just how beautiful they really were. If nothing else, he hoped he'd achieved that goal.

The students reviewed the material. Each page contained a recent photo of Taylor and Hopkins along with their home addresses, phone numbers, and other personal information.

"Remember your history. It can be painful, but it's all we have. I'll see you Friday. Until then ... good hunting." Matheson nodded at the impatient policeman, who'd finally stopped pacing.

The students gathered their books and quickly filed past the uninvited visitors. Regina, the ever-vigilant witness, returned to her seat and opened her notebook. Brandon marched toward Matheson and stood silently by his side.

Matheson focused his attention on the two officers. "Did you come for these?" He removed the photos of the black victims. "Or those?" He pointed at the photo of the smiling white men, then leaned against the podium.

The policeman dropped his arms to his sides and studied Matheson curiously. "I need to read you your rights."

"That presumes they come from you. They don't." Matheson, displaying absolute conviction in his response, still delivered it with surprising congeniality.

The policeman removed a pair of handcuffs from his belt, clanking together the two sides.

Brandon approached him and stared at his name tag. The officer started to issue a command when Brandon turned toward Regina and announced, "Officer Macon, badge number three-seventeen."

Regina recorded the information, and Brandon directed his attention to the handcuffs. "You're not putting those on him," he warned.

Macon slowly placed his hand on his holster and unsnapped the thin restraining strap. Matheson stepped in front of the anxious officer. "It's all right, Brandon," he spoke softly. "Putting two fists together is always preferable to one."

Matheson held out his hands in a manner that suggested a challenge more than an offer to submit to arrest. He smiled disarmingly at Macon, then voluntarily extended his arms while shifting his attention to Watkins. "Don't look so worried, Dr. Watkins; the publicity will probably drive up enrollment." The professor winked, which obliged Watkins to smile in appreciation.

The annoyed officer placed the handcuffs on Matheson, making them fit as tightly as possible.

Matheson felt the cold steel binding his wrists and recalled the first time he'd seen his father arrested. Television cameras were supposed to ensure safety but didn't. A deputy sheriff had unwittingly become part of recorded history by twisting the cuffs until they dug deep into his father's skin; a vein was cut, almost severed. The blood gushed onto a camera lens, which led a moment later to a baton striking glass, then flesh, then bone. He'd been five years old and had never seen violence or felt terror or imagined his father helpless. His first impulse had been to overcome the fear and place his small body in harm's way. Instead, he did as he'd been taught. He sang songs of protest and faith and love and watched his father bleed.

"Are you comfortable, Professor?" Macon's partner asked, genuinely concerned.

"Oh, yes, very. But I'm a teacher, so it's my job to make others uncomfortable. The search for truth is often unsettling. If acquiring knowledge were easy, everyone would have it." Regina and Brandon exchanged a smile while Macon remained stoic.

Matheson moved his fists as far apart as the cuffs allowed and examined his hands in front of Watkins. "The chains are more sophisticated now," he stated reflectively.

"So are the crimes," volunteered the quiet officer.

"Not the crimes-the criminals," Matheson corrected.

"You want to know why we're taking you in?"

Matheson looked kindly at Macon's partner, who had asked the question. "I was expecting you to arrive the first week of classes. Have you ever read Pedagogy of the Oppressed?" He didn't wait for a response. "There's a myth that the truth shall set you free. It won't, but it'll make you angry as hell. Making people angry by telling them the truth has been considered a crime in virtually every jurisdiction in this country." He looked at Watkins. "I believe it's called sedition."

For all the rhetoric, Matheson's tone remained nonconfrontational. He delivered his words dispassionately, with a style that set others at ease.

Regina rose from her seat and joined Brandon. "If he's not released within twenty-four hours, you'd better expect half the university outside his cell."

"I'll keep that in mind, young lady," replied Macon.

"Keep this in mind, too," interjected Brandon. "We won't stop going after the people on Professor Matheson's list, no matter what you do or how many of us you arrest."

"Is that a fact?" Macon said with disdain.

"And here's another," Brandon said, his vehemence escalating. "If he's harmed in any way, the next person we're going to visit is you."

"You threatenin' a police officer, son?" Macon's chest expanded until Matheson's voice relieved the officer's tension.

"My students don't make threats, Officer Macon. As a general rule it's not advantageous to give your adversary any warning."

Macon grabbed Matheson's elbow. "I think it's time for you to go with us."

Regina studied Matheson. "Do you want me to come with you?"

"Just tell my father not to worry," Matheson said calmly. "And let the students know I don't intend on missing any classes, so I expect everyone to complete their assignments on time."

A group of black male students quietly entered the room and stationed themselves on either side of the door.

Macon released Matheson's arm with a trace of apprehension. "There's not gonna be any trouble, is there, Professor Matheson?" He'd been finally forced to use Matheson's name and the entitlement that went with it.

Matheson leaned in close to Macon. "I'd never allow that," he replied gently, carefully emphasizing the word "allow."

Matheson glanced at Regina and signaled his permission for her to leave. She and Brandon walked through the parallel rows of student guards, and Watkins followed seconds later. The loyal entourage remained attentive. The policemen led Matheson out of the room, although from his demeanor the professor appeared to be the person in command.


Excerpted from Blood on the Leaves by Jeff Stetson Copyright © 2004 by Jeff Stetson, Elisia-Paul Productions, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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