The most powerful weapon against evil is sacrifice.
Attorney Scott Ellis is defending Lester Garrison, a 16-year-old accused of opening gunfire on a Sunday afternoon church gathering.
At the same time, Scott's volunteer work at the local high school brings him into contact with Kay Wilson, an English teacher and former girlfriend. Unknown to either of them, Catawba High School is not just a place of learning--it's a battleground for an age-old struggle between good and evil. On one side are praying students and a simple janitor with an extraordinary faith. On the other side is a deeply troubled young man intent on mass destruction.
Caught in the middle, Scott and Kay learn that lasting victory will require the ultimate sacrifice.
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About the Author
Robert Whitlow is the bestselling author of legal novels set in the South and winner of the Christy Award for Contemporary Fiction. He received his JD with honors from the University of Georgia School of Law where he served on the staff of the Georgia Law Review. Website: robertwhitlow.com; Twitter: @whitlowwriter; Facebook: robertwhitlowbooks.
Read an Excerpt
Roll, Jordan, roll. Come down to the river and be baptized.
Roll, Jordan, roll. Pass through the waters to the other side.
Roll, Jordan, roll. In dying you'll become alive.
Roll, Jordan, roll.
The members of Hall's Chapel weren't in a hurry. In some cases, friends and relatives had prayed and waited decades for this moment. Prodigals had come home; those wandering in the wilderness of sin had come to the edge of the promised land. The celebration of salvation was a time to be savored. The voices of the congregation gathered along Montgomery Creek flowed over the water in triumph. Refrain followed refrain in affirmation of a faith as unrelenting as the force of the current rushing past the white frame church. Tambourines joined the voices. Hands clapped in syncopated rhythm.
Dressed in white robes, the five candidates for baptism walked forward to the edge of the stream and faced the rest of the congregation. The small crowd grew quiet.
A heavyset woman in a baptismal garment lifted her hands in the air and cried out at the top of her voice, "Thank you, Jesus!"
Her declaration was greeted with a chorus of "Yes, Lord!" and Amen!
Bishop Moore joined the converts and introduced each one using their new first name"brother" or "sister." From this day forward they would be part of the larger family of God's children who had met on the banks of the creek for almost 150 years. The former slaves who founded the church took seriously the command to love one another andpassed on a strong sense of community that had not been lost by subsequent generations.
Each new believer stepped into the edge of the water and gave a brief testimony of the journey that had brought him or her to the river of God's forgiveness. The stories were similar, yet each one unique.
When it was her turn, the woman who had cried out shed a few tears that fell warm from her dark cheeks into the cool water at her bare feet. Some who knew her had doubted she would ever let go of the bitterness and unforgivingness that had dominated her life for more than twenty-five years, but the chains had been broken, the captive set free. Other testimonies followed until all five confirmed their faith in the presence of the gathered witnesses.
Bishop Moore waded into the water. Much of the stream bottom in the valley was covered with smooth rocks that made footing treacherous for the trout fishermen who crowded the stream each April, but the church deacons had cleared away the rocks and made a safe path to the small pool where Bishop Moore waited for the first candidate. A teenage boy walked gingerly forward into the cold water that inched up his legs to his waist. His family looked on with joy.
Bishop Moore held up his right hand and said in a loud voice, "Michael Lindale Wallace, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost."
Then, putting his hand over Mike's face, the bishop laid the young man back into the water. Bishop Moore didn't do a quick baptism. He wanted people to remember their moment under the water, so he went deep and stayed long. The five had been cautioned by the lady who gave them their robes to take a deep breath.
After several seconds, the bishop lifted Mike out of the water and proclaimed, "Buried in likeness to his death in baptism; raised to walk in newness of resurrection life."
The sputtering boy managed a big smile. His father shouted, "Halleluiah!"
Mike splashed through the water toward the shore. The next in line was the woman who had shed the tears. She stepped deeper into the water.
The first shot didn't cause a stir. One of the elders later told the police detective, "I thought it was a firecracker."
The second shot knifed through the water about three feet from the woman wading toward the bishop. The bullet left a line of bubbles before disappearing into the sandy bottom.
The third shot shattered the windshield of a car parked next to the sanctuary. At the sound of the splintering glass, pandemonium broke out. The air was filled with screams. People began running away from the water. Some ran toward the sanctuary. Others hid behind cars and trucks. Several children who were not standing near their parents froze, unsure what to do.
The fourth shot passed through the bottom of the new dress Alisha Mason was wearing. At that moment, the teenager didn't know how close she'd come to serious injury. (It was several days before she took out the dress and saw the place where the bullet almost nicked her left calf.) She hid behind a tree.
The fifth shot hit the church above the front door. It was the only bullet recovered by the sheriff's department.
Hurriedly glancing over his shoulder, Bishop Moore scrambled toward the bank as quickly as his aging legs could carry him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a figure running downstream through the dense underbrush on the other side of the stream.
* * *
Papers from a real-estate development contract were neatly stacked in rows across the wooden surface of Scott Ellis's desk. He ran his fingers through his short brown hair as he searched for a paragraph that he wanted to move from one section of the document to another. Stocky and muscular, the young lawyer had taken off his coat and hung it on a wooden hanger on the inside of his office door. The phone on a small, antique table beside his desk buzzed.
"Harold Garrison on line four," the receptionist said.
Scott didn't recognize the name. "Did he say what it was about?"
"No. Mr. Humphrey talked to him and told me to forward the call to you."
"Okay, I'll take it."
Scott knew from the receptionist's response that Mr. Garrison was a potential client referred down the line from the firm's senior partner. He couldn't dodge the call. Leland Humphrey would ask him about it later. He punched the flashing button.
"Scott Ellis, here."
"Yeah, this here is Harold Garrison. My son is in trouble with the law, and I have to talk to someone today."
Scott looked at his calendar. "What kind of trouble?"
"He's locked up at the jail for teenagers."
"The youth detention center?"
"Yeah. The police picked him up this past weekend. I'm leaving town tonight and need to see a lawyer before I get on the road."
"What are the charges?" Scott asked.
"Uh, the summons from the juvenile court said he's unruly and delinquent."
"That could mean a lot of things. Did anyone at the detention center tell you anything more specific?"
"Yeah, a guy wrote it down on a piece of paper." The phone was quiet for a few seconds. "It says 'assault with a deadly weapon with intent to inflict serious injury, assaulting by pointing a gun, and criminal damage to property. "
"Those are serious charges."
"Lester says it's a big mistake. He ain't never been in any kind of trouble before."
"Lester is your son?"
"How old is he?"
"Sixteen. He'll be seventeen in less than a month."
Scott's Calendar was clear at three o'clock. "Can you come in at three this afternoon?"
"Yeah, but I need to know you're a fighter. I want someone who can win."
"I've had some success," Scott responded.
Actually, he'd appeared in juvenile court two times since graduating from law school. In his first case, he represented a student who was suspended from school for fighting. The other matter involved a young man charged with illegal possession of a few pills. Scott worked out deals for both clients that involved supervised probation. He wasn't sure that met Mr. Garrison's definition for success, but the juvenile court process was informal and the results predictable. He was confident that he could do as well as any other attorney in town.
"How much is this going to cost me?" Mr. Garrison asked.
Scott thought quickly. "Did Mr. Humphrey mention a fee?"
"He said it might be $2,500 if it has to go to a hearing."
"That sounds right."
"Do I have to bring all of it this afternoon?"
Scott hesitated. The cardinal rule of criminal cases was to get the entire fee up front, but he didn't want to lose the chance for courtroom experience.
"Can you do that?" he asked.
"Only if y'all take cash. I don't have no checking account."
"Yes, sir. Cash will be fine."
Scott Wesley Ellis, the newest associate of Humphrey, Balcomb and Jackson, checked the time on the small digital clock that divided his working day into the six-minute intervals billable by the law firm at rates of $115 to $160 per hour. He quickly completed a billing slip: "Initial phone callGarrison case."
Scott's cream-colored office was at the end of the hall on the second floor of the firm's two-story, brick building. Everything in the office was there for a reason. Scott's diplomas and his law license were framed and hung in a razor-straight row behind his desk. A picture of his father at the main entrance to Fort Bragg stood at attention next to a similar photo of Scott taken at the same location twenty-five years later. Inside the top drawer of his desk every pen and paper clip was in its place. The young lawyer didn't have to look twice when he needed something.
The dark-colored wooden surface of his desk and the small antique table where his phone rested were always shiny. Scott tried to keep clutter in the office to a minimum. There weren't any pleadings or documents on the floor, and stray letters or memos found a home in the proper file or ended up in the trash can without lingering in paperwork limbo. As much as possible in the midst of a developing law practice, Scott tried to manage the flow of work from his in-box across his desk and into his out-box. For him, outward organization was a key to efficiency.
As a child, Scott had ridden his bicycle past Humphrey, Balcomb and Jackson on his way to the barbershop. He never imagined that one day he would enter the building as an attorney himself. The same shiny brass nameplate was still there, but the firm had expanded over the years from three to seven attorneys. Lawyers, secretaries, and paralegals occupied every available inch of both floors.
From his office window, Scott could see the steeple of the First Baptist Church and the southwest corner of the Blanchard County Courthouse. One of the advantages of practicing law in a small town was convenient access to the halls of justice, and all the law firms in Catawba clustered around the courthouse like baby chicks around a hen.
Scott's salary was smaller than his counterparts an hour down the road in the office towers of Charlotte, but at the smaller firm he had the opportunity to sit at the feet of Mr. Humphrey, a true Southern orator whose courtroom demeanor was so compelling that other attorneys would listen and take notes in the gallery when he gave a closing argument. Scott wanted to be a trial lawyer, and if there was courtroom potential in his future, he believed Leland Humphrey could call it forth.
Deciding to give an immediate report to his boss about the call from Harold Garrison, Scott left his office and descended the broad wooden staircase to the first floor. He passed Frank Balcomb's darkened office. The number two attorney on the firm letterhead spent more time playing golf or relaxing at his beach house near Wilmington than practicing law.
Mr. Humphrey's office occupied a large corner on the ground floor. From his chair he could adjust the window blinds and see the sidewalk in front of the main entrance to the firm, thus observing who walked through the door before the receptionist notified him.
Scott knocked lightly.
"Come in!" the older man's voice boomed out.
Leland Humphrey was sixty-nine years old with a full head of white hair, bushy eyebrows, and clear green eyes. Navy blue suspenders framed his ample midsection, and he wore a blue bow tie and white shirt. The older lawyer was leaning back in a burgundy leather chair behind a huge desk covered with mounds of papers. His office was the antithesis of Scott's work area. File folders turned in opposite directions were stacked like paper battlements three feet high on the floor surrounding the chair. More piles of paperwork rested on a long credenza.
It was an organizational nightmare, but when asked about a particular case, Mr. Humphrey could usually thrust his hand into a stack of papers and come up with the answer in a matter of seconds. Orderliness existed in the senior partner's mind, not in his surroundings.
The two men were different in outward habits, but they shared a common dedication to the law and an ability to communicate with each other that was obvious to both of them from their first meeting when Scott interviewed with the firm. Mr. Humphrey's affection for the practice of law was mature and seasoned with wisdom; Scott's interest was motivated by a new challenge and his innate commitment to honor and justice. On a more basic level, both men liked a good, clean fight.
"Have a seat," Mr. Humphrey said.
Scott sat in a comfortable wing chair. "I talked with Mr. Garrison about his son's juvenile court case. He's coming in this afternoon. I told him to bring $2,500 as the fee for handling the case through a hearing in juvenile court."
"Good. It's a chance for some low-key trial experience, and I thought you might enjoy it. If you have any questions, let me know."
Leland Humphrey sat up straighter in his chair and raised his right eyebrow. "Have you done any pro bono work recently?"
The older lawyer often raised an eyebrow when asking a question. Sometimes it was the left, sometimes the right, sometimes both at once. He had been accused of using the habit as a device to signal a witness the most advantageous answer to a question in court.
"I served as a court-appointed guardian about six months ago," Scott said.
"What type of case?"
"It involved a tenth-grade girl at the high school who ran away from home and accused her stepfather of physical abuse. Now she's back at home, and the man is out of the house."
Mr. Humphrey reached into a stack of papers on his desk and began stirring the mix. "She went to the high school?"
"What a coincidence!"
"What do you mean?"
"A pro bono project I'd like you to consider." The older lawyer found the sheet of paper he wanted. "This is a letter from Dr. Lassiter, the principal at Catawba High School. Was he there when you were a student?"
"No, sir. He came after I graduated."
Mr. Humphrey handed Scott the sheet of paper. "Take a look at this."
Dear Mr. Humphrey,
Each year, the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers sponsors a high school mock trial program. I want to provide this opportunity for students at Catawba High School. The team will participate in simulated trial competitions against other schools in our region. One of our faculty members has agreed to serve as an advisor; however, we need the type of expertise that only a practicing attorney can bring to the program.
Do you have an attorney with your firm who would be willing to serve as a volunteer advisor? The program will involve significant time commitment over the next few months, but I'm sure it will be a rewarding experience for all involved.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Dr. Vince Lassiter
While Scott read the letter, Mr. Humphrey continued rummaging through the papers on his desk. He pulled out another sheet and slid it toward Scott.
"After reading the request from Dr. Lassiter, I remembered your résumé. Didn't you participate in the mock trial program at Wake Forest?"
Scott didn't need to read the résumé. His team from Wake Forest Law School had made it to the regional finals, only to lose to Duke in a controversial decision.
"Yes, but I was a team member, not a coach."
"The best coaches play a sport before they coach it. It will be great exposure for you and the firm." He pointed again at Scott's résumé. "You're just the kind of attorney they need."
Excerpted from The Sacrifice by Robert Whitlow. Copyright © 2002 by Robert Whitlow. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.