“You what?” Paige practically shouted, her mind unable or unwilling to comprehend what Mike was saying. Did he mean to say someone else? Was this a joke?

“He’s being held in a cell at the city jail, but he’ll likely be moved to county by the end of the day,” Mike said. “The district attorney is going to push to try him as an adult.”

“I don’t understand,” Paige finally said. “What happened?”

Mike explained — off the record — that the sheriff’s department had gotten a call just before midnight for an assist with a shooting at the Gas N’ Grab in Bellington, a tiny town of about 250 people just five miles down the highway from Flannery. Arriving deputies and EMTs found the town’s lone officer — a brand-new 22-year-old graduate of the police academy — working frantically to stanch the bleeding from the clerk’s single gunshot wound to the chest. The kid-cop had been working on some paperwork in the town’s Main Street office just up the street from the gas station when he heard the gunshot, so loud he thought it had been fired outside the front doors. He was calling dispatch to report when the 911 call came in. He found the clerk behind the counter, still conscious, but gravely wounded. The man died an hour later in the trauma ward of the Flannery Medical Center.

“The clerk was able to describe the shooter,” Mike said. “He said it was a young black man wearing a hoodie, his face covered with a bandana. But the clerk said he was tall. Really tall.”

“That’s beyond thin,” Paige had defended. “It’s not like Darius is the only tall person in the county.”

“He essentially ID’d Darius, Paige,” Mike said. “He told the responding officer that it was the kid who’d been in the news; the one who’d gotten the kicks from DeShawn Johnston. The perp’s hoodie had the name `Johnston’ emblazoned on the back.”

“Half the population has DeShawn Johnston apparel!” she protested. “Regardless, it just doesn’t make sense. This kid has no record; no money to buy a gun. Hell, he doesn’t even drive. How was he supposed to get to the next town, pull off an armed robbery and get back?”

“Paige, I know how attached to Darius you’ve become. And, believe me; I understand your disappointment. But you’re going to have to trust me when I say the case against the kid seems pretty solid. I’m talking way out of school telling you what little I have, and it goes without saying that the chief would have my badge if he knew I had called you. I just felt you deserved to hear it from a friend instead of finding it on the police blotter.”

She apologized and thanked the detective for giving her the heads-up. Of course, she was thankful.

She quietly slipped from the newsroom and headed downtown to the city/county building that held all the accoutrements of local law enforcement: the police station, sheriff’s department and city jail.

“Should have known you’d be first to hear,” the sergeant behind the desk opined without looking up from his paperwork as she asked to speak to the chief. “You’ll want to talk to the sheriff; they’ve got the lead on this case.”

Paige groaned. The sheriff was a notorious blow-hard who had little love for Paige or any reporter, convinced that legitimate news outlets were all part of a “deep state” conspiracy to discredit law enforcement — especially his department.

“He’s in the building,” the sergeant offered in a near whisper, looking up now to meet her eyes. His head gave a quick jerk to indicate the interior of the jail offices behind him.

“The sheriff and the DA have been holed up at the jail since about 4:30 this morning working on the case against the kid.”

Paige thanked him and headed for the security corridor to the jail. 

The first person she saw in the lobby was Corella, who sat clutching her purse to her chest, two-fisted, as though she might have to fend off an attack at any moment.

The minute she saw Paige, she broke down into defiant tears.

“They’ve got the wrong person,” she sobbed, shaking as she sought to regain her crumbling composure. “He didn’t do this. He couldn’t have.”

She hadn’t been able to get any information as they dragged him from the house, the distraught mother said. The chaos and pre-dawn hour of the arrest had left her panicked and confused. She spent those minutes assuring Darius that everything would be all right while simultaneously begging — almost screaming — for police to tell her what was going on. 

“They gave him one 3-minute phone call at eight this morning, and he called me,” she said in ragged, gasping breaths, as though she were trying to gulp down her fear. “It was only enough time to find out they think he robbed a gas station and shot the man behind the counter. He was crying, saying over and over that he didn’t do it. I told him to hush. I know he didn’t do nothin’. How could anyone think he did?”

“I’m so sorry, Corella,” Paige said. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through. What can I do to help?”

“You can tell me you believe he didn’t do this!” she exclaimed. “You know him! You’ve been in our house; You know he couldn’t have done this!”

This painted Paige into a corner. She truly didn’t believe that Darius had it in him to rob a convenience store, much less shoot someone. But she’d seen worse crimes for little to no motive. Was there a money problem stressing Corella that would lead her son to try to come up with a quick fix? Some trouble he’d gotten into, say, with online gambling or a girl? None of that seemed to hold water, even with her devil’s advocate. But even so, she couldn’t very well profess her belief in Darius’ innocence with police sources telling her they had solid evidence of his guilt.

“We both know Darius is a good kid,” Paige said, trying to walk the tightrope.

Either Corella found this satisfactory, or she was too traumatized to focus much on Paige’s response. 

“I just don’t know what we’re going to do,” Corella said, rocking back and forth in her chair. “I can’t afford no lawyer. We shouldn’t need a lawyer. I told them he was at home last night!”

“Ok, that’s a start,” Paige said. “Can you come up with any proof of Darius being at home, Corella? Did you order out for dinner? Watch a television show that Darius would be able recall the details of?”

Corella looked at her as if she had grown a second head.

“Order out? What, are we made of money? You know how much Darius eats at one sitting? No; we did not ‘order out,’” Corella snapped, not hiding her contempt.

“I’m sorry, Corella. I really am just trying to help.”

“I know; I know you are,” Corella sighed, the tears welling up again. “Darius was on the court, working on his free throw. I made a pork roast, greens and cornbread for dinner and ate around 7:30. I made Darius come home a little after 9 to eat. Starts getting dark around then, anyway. There’s lights on the court, but I don’t like him there after dark when the good-for-nothings show up. I stayed up long enough to clean up and watch the evening news, then went to bed. Darius may have stayed up and watched something. I don’t know.”

“And you’re sure he didn’t leave after you went to bed?” Paige asked.

“And go where?” Corella shot back. “He don’t have a car. Don’t even have a driving permit. I keep my keys in my purse, and my purse was in my room when I went to bed. You think he rode his bike down the highway in the dead of the night to rob a gas station? It don’t make sense!”

Paige had to agree with that. It didn’t make sense that he would try to pull off a crime like that without access to a car. She supposed he could have ridden the 10 miles roundtrip to Bellington on his bike, but the asphalt road to the town is unlit and shoulderless, and with a new moon, the ride there and back would have been pitch-dark. It seems unlikely that he would have been able to make that trip without being hit by a passing car or at least run off the pavement. If he were to go slow enough to stay on the road, keep an eye out for approaching cars and to take evasive action to hide every time he saw headlights, it would have taken him almost the entire night to get there and back. Police had arrested him around 3 a.m., pulling him out of bed, according to Mike.

Paige was still trying to put together the few pieces she had in her head when Sheriff Ace Armstrong and Flannery County DA Chase Williamson emerged from a side door.

Corella jumped to her feet, still clutching her bag in front of her like a shield. Paige followed suit and rose out of her seat.

“Mr. Williamson,” Corella said, ignoring the lawman, “I’m here to tell you that my boy didn’t do nothing wrong. Nothing. He was home with me last night.”

She had no sooner began speaking than Williamson raised a hand and lowered his head, shaking it. The universal sign for “save your breath.”

“Now, Ms. Grimm, I know you’re upset and that you want to help your son, but I can’t talk to you about it,” Williamson said. “This is a criminal case. You need to see about hiring an attorney. If you can’t afford one, the court will appoint one for Darius.”

“But I’m telling you, he didn’t do it!” Corella pleaded.

A sheriff’s deputy behind the bullet-proof glass in the lobby had already gotten to his feet and was making his way to the door, and Paige knew he was going to escort Corella out. Maybe hold her on charges if she didn’t comply right away.

Paige took it upon herself to gently take Corella by the elbow to get her out of there before anything got out of hand.

Corella jerked her arm away.

“I’m not done!” she spit at Paige.

“I know, Corella, but trust me when I say this will accomplish nothing. These men are not going to turn Darius over to you here. There is a process they have to follow, and that’s what they’re going to do. There’s a deputy coming out here right now to escort you out of the building. Are you going to give him a reason to do it? Are you going to take the chance that he doesn’t cuff you for resisting if you protest?”

Paige had no sooner gotten the words out than the deputy swung open the door from the inner jail office to the lobby, his hands already on his utility belt.

Paige gave a quick tug to Corella’s arm, pulling the smaller woman back two steps and insinuating herself between Corella and the deputy.

This seemed to take the deputy by surprise, and he stopped in his tracks.

“We were just leaving,” Paige said, keeping a grip on Corella’s arm and taking a step toward the exit, which forced Corella to take a step backward toward the door, too.

Paige heard the quick intake of air as Corella mounted another protest. She turned her back on the deputy to face Corella before the woman could get a word out.

“You want to help Darius? Then you need to leave with me right now,” Paige said, low enough that only the two of them could hear. “You are no good to your son if you’re sitting in the cell next to him.”

Corella, frozen with her mouth still formed into a tight “O” shape to protest her son’s arrest, pulled up short, as though Paige’s interference gave her a beat to rethink. She pursed her lips closed, again yanked her arm from Paige’s grip, turned and walked out without another word. 

Paige hurriedly told the attorney and sheriff she’d like to speak to them about the case, but wanted to catch Corella first. She sprinted out the door, calling for Corella, who was already half-a-block from the building. Paige had no sooner caught up than Corella turned on the reporter, her devastation turned to muted rage.

“Don’t you ever talked to me like I don’t have sense God gave a goat,” she seethed, struggling to contain her rage over the indignity. “And then to do in front of those men!”

“I’m sorry,” Paige stammered. “I just know how these guys can be _ especially the sheriff …”

“You think I don’t know ‘how they can be’?” Corella accused more than asked, her gaze hard and stern. “Do you really think you can tell me anything about how unfair a bunch of white men can be to someone like me? To Darius? Like we haven’t had a lifetime to figure it out?”

Paige felt her face flush to a deep red. She really had been trying to help, but realized too late that her efforts had been presumptuous and preachy. For as good as she could sometimes be at reading people, Paige thought, she whiffed on this one. She realized she had been too focussed on the authorities and what they were thinking, and failed to tune in to Corella’s viewpoint.

“Look; you’ve been good to Darius, and I do appreciate all you’ve done _ the stories, getting DeShawn Johnston involved _ all of it,” Corella said. “And I know I wasn’t exactly collected back there. But I don’t need you or any other ‘savior’ swooping in like you know us or how the system works for us; like you’re somehow going to magically change the unfairness of it. Would you even care if Darius hadn’t provided you with a story that also got you some national attention? If he wasn’t on a path to be a basketball superstar, if he was just an average teenager, would you be here to questioning his arrest? Or would he be just another black kid destined for prison, because the police told you he was guilty?

“I got news for you,” Corella continued, “it’s not Darius’ athletic talent or this new fame that makes him innocent. He’d be just as innocent if he had nothing going for him. But the difference is, people like you wouldn’t care.”

Paige swallowed hard as her head spun in search of a response. Was there some truth to it? She supposed there was. Had she ever felt compelled to go to bat before for any of the other dozens of black teens arrested since she came to this town? She hadn’t pondered their guilt or innocence. Police and prosecutors said they were guilty, and Paige had never thought to question it. So why the 180-degree turn on Darius’ case? She knew this much: It wasn’t because he provided her with a great story, which he had. It wasn’t because of his newfound fame. It was because she’d had the opportunity to get to know him.

“You’re right, Corella,” Paige said. “I didn’t mean to come off as a know-it-all. Over the last couple of months, I’ve seen what a good person Darius is, and what a good person his mother is. I don’t want to play anyone’s savior. I just want to get the truth.”

“Good,” Corella said. “I’ll take that. Because the truth is that my son had nothing do with shooting that man. And if you can show that, I’ll call you a savior or an angel or whatever you want. I just want Darius out of that jail and home.”

Paige promised she would call Corella later that morning with any updates she could unearth. She hoped, as she watched Corella march up the street still clutching her purse like a life raft, that she hadn’t lost the woman’s trust.

When Paige stepped back into the jail lobby, the district attorney had already ducked out. Armstrong, however, was there, chatting with the deputy who had come from the inner office.

“Well, Ms. Powell. Ah see you’ve already picked a side,” the sheriff drawled. If Hollywood ever came to Mississippi to hold a casting call for “good ol’ boy sheriff,” Armstrong had a lock on the part. He was smiling, but his tone was sodden with disdain.

“I didn’t know there were sides, sheriff,” Paige shot back. “I thought we were all just looking for truth and justice.”

“That’s definitely mah goal,” he said. “But I can’t speak for everyone.”

Paige stifled the urge to roll her eyes. 

“I’d like to talk to you about the case, sheriff. You have some time right now?” she pressed.

Armstrong made a show of studying his watch and calculating his schedule.

“Ah can give you a few minutes,” he said, sweeping his hand in front of him to let her lead the way to his office. He made the same gesture when he opened the door to his office.

She took a seat in front of his desk, which of course sank a good three inches lower than the sheriff’s chair. Paige had barely allowed Armstrong to sit at his massive leather swivel chair before starting in.

“What evidence do you have that would point to Darius Grimm as the suspect in this Bellington shooting?” she asked.

“Well, Ms. Powell, we have plenty of ev-ah-dense, or we wouldn’t have arrested the boy,” Armstrong said. “And we’re gathering more as we speak. But I’m in the middle of an investigation, and I’m not going to jep-ah-dize the case by givin’ it to you to broadcast to the whole world.”

“I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the case, sheriff. I’m just trying to understand how investigators turned their sights on a 15-year-old honor student and local basketball star who’s never been in any trouble. I know that the clerk, God rest his soul, was able to give first responders some statements about the shooter’s height and clothing.”

Armstrong glowered at the revelation that someone on the case had been talking to her.

“I’m not at lib-ah-ty to confirm or deny whether the victim made any statements before his death,” the sheriff said. “But we have strong ev-ah-dense that Darius Grimm shot and killed the Gas N’ Grab clerk last night at 11:47 p.m.”

Hmmm; 11:47 is pretty specific, Paige thought. Not “around midnight” or “shortly before 12 a.m.”

“Do you have video surveillance from the convenience store?” she asked.

Armstrong couldn’t keep the smug satisfaction from his face.

“In fact, we do,” he said. “And it’s pretty damnin’ for Mist-ah Grimm.”

Before Paige had opened her mouth fully to inquire further, Armstrong ran interference with an admonition not to “even think about asking for a copy of the video.”

“This is an ongoing murder investigation, Ms. Powell,” he said. “The department is under no obligation to turn that video ovah to reporters.”

Paige thought on this for a couple of seconds.

“I understand that the department isn’t required to release the video until the investigation has concluded,” she said, referencing the state’s open records law. “But don’t you think it might be the prudent thing to do, if it leaves no doubt to Darius Grimm’s guilt? I mean, it’s no secret that this department has little to no trust from Flannery’s black community, for reasons we’re both aware of. Now you’ve gone and arrested a young black teen viewed by that community as its rising star. Local basketball prodigy, good student, no history of trouble, either in school or with the law.  Some folks in this community might compare this arrest to the Adkins case.”

The Adkins case was the fatal deputy-involved shooting 10 years earlier of Marvin Adkins, an unarmed black teen and star running back set to play for Alabama that fall, whom deputies had confused for a bank robbery suspect. It was later proven that Adkins had been nowhere near the bank in question, and that police had targeted him only because he and the suspected bank robber were both black. There was no video of the incident, but deputies had claimed Adkins was shot when he reached for his waistband after being ordered to stop and get his hands in the air. Numerous witnesses, however, claimed the kid had not been given time to do anything as he rounded a street corner on his daily jog before he was shot twice by an itchy-fingered deputy. The DA had refused to bring state charges against the deputy, and federal officials said they couldn’t build a strong enough case to bring civil rights violation charges. But an autopsy showed the kid had been shot once in the chest and again in the back, possibly after he was already on the ground. Three other shots missed Adkins altogether, with one hitting a nearby home. The witnesses said Adkins was listening to music on an iPod when he was ambushed by deputies and that he had been reaching for the device _ presumably to shut off the music to hear what deputies were yelling at him. The county later settled a lawsuit brought by the teen’s family for $6 million. Relations between Armstrong’s agency and the black community had never recovered.

Paige knew bringing up the Adkins case was a gamble. Maybe it would trigger a reasoned response from the sheriff, who could see that releasing proof of a clean collar might nip any festering resentment and protests in the bud. But more likely, it would serve only to stoke his insecurity and enrage him.

She was surprised when it seemed to do neither. 

Instead, Armstrong leaned back in his chair, folding his hands over his ample belly and offering a smug grin that came across more as a sneer.

“Well, Ms. Powell; I can’t concern myself with the unreasonable demands of a community that accounts for 85 percent of the law-breakin’ in this county,” he drawled.

“That’s debatable,” Paige shot back, her own anger rising. “There are serious questions about whether this department routinely engages in racial profiling, specifically targeting the black community, while giving certain white folks a pass on bad behavior.”

Armstrong shrugged.

“When you can show me proof of that, I’ll listen to it,” he said. “Meanwhile, I’m building a solid case that will prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that this boy you’re so quick to defend shot that man in cold blood, all for a measly 50 bucks.

His tone then softened into something patronizing, as though he were having to explain the simplest of concepts to a small child.

“Listen, Ms. Powell; you haven’t lived here all that long, so you’ll just have to take my word for how very common this kind of thing is,” he said. “These kids like Grimm never stand a chance, no matter how hopeful the community gets that one of them is going to outrun their circumstances and make something of themselves that the rest of these freeloaders and welfare queens then want to take some sort of credit for. Low IQs, sloth and, inevitably, crime are just par for the course for these … Democrats.”

He couldn’t have made his use of “Democrats” more of a pejorative if he’d tried. He practically snarled it. To his marrow, Ace Armstrong was an unadulterated racist.

“I’m a Democrat,” Paige retorted.

“You know what I mean,” Armstrong said.

“Yes, I’m afraid I do,” Paige said as she got up to leave.

“By the way, that’s all off the record,” he added.

“Not how that works, sheriff. Everything was on the record,” Paige said as she walked out the door.