The FugitiveJohn Grisham
Though the streetlights of Strattenburg were still on, and there was no hint of sunlight in the east, the parking lot in front of the middle school was buzzing with energy as almost 175 eighth graders arrived in family cars and vans, all driven by sleepy parents eager to get rid of the kids for a few days. The kids had slept little. They had packed all night, tossed and turned in their beds, hopped out long before sunrise, showered, packed some more, awakened their parents, pushed for a quick breakfast, and in general acted as hyper as a bunch of five-year-olds waiting for Santa. At six a.m., as instructed, they all arrived at the school at the same time. They were greeted by the awesome sight of four long, sleek, matching tour buses in perfect single file with running lights glittering in the dark and diesel engines purring.
The Eighth-Grade Field Trip! Six hours by bus to Washington, DC, for three-and-a-half days of seeing the sights and four nights of mischief in a high-rise hotel. For this, the students had worked for months—selling doughnuts on Saturday mornings, washing a thousand cars, cleaning roadside ditches and recycling the aluminum cans, soliciting the same downtown merchants who contributed every year, selling fruitcakes door-to-door at Christmas, auctioning used sports equipment, holding bake-a-thons and bike-a-thons and book-a-thons, and pursuing with enthusiasm any number of mildly profitable ventures approved by the Field Trip Committee. All proceeds went into the same pot. The goal had been ten thousand dollars, certainly not enough to cover all expenses but enough to guarantee the trip. This year the class had raised almost twelve thousand dollars, which meant that each student was assessed $125.
There were a few students who could not afford this. However, the school had a long tradition of making sure no one was left behind. Every single eighth grader was headed to Washington, along with ten teachers and eight parents.
Theodore Boone was thrilled that his mother had not volunteered for the trip. They had discussed it over dinner. His father had quickly bowed out, claiming, as usual, that he simply had too much work. Theo’s mother, at first, seemed interested in tagging along, but soon realized she could not. Theo checked her trial calendar at the office and knew full well she would be in court while he was having a ball in Washington.
As they waited in traffic, Theo sat in the front seat and stroked the head of his dog, Judge, who was sitting partially on the console and partially in Theo’s lap. Judge usually sat wherever he wanted, and none of the Boones told him otherwise.
“Are you excited?” Mr. Boone asked. He had drop-off duty because Mrs. Boone had gone back to bed for another hour of sleep.
“Sure,” Theo said, trying to hide his excitement. “A long bus ride, though.”
“I’m sure you guys’ll be asleep before you get out of town. We’ve gone over the rules. Any questions?”
“We’ve been through this a dozen times,” Theo said, mildly frustrated. He liked his parents. They were a bit older than average, and he was an only child, and at times they seemed a little too protective. One of the few things that irritated Theo about them was their fondness of rules. All rules, regardless of who made them, must be followed perfectly.
Theo suspected this was because they were both lawyers.
“I know, I know,” his father said. “Just follow the rules, do what your teachers tell you, and don’t do anything stupid. Remember what happened two years ago?”
How could Theo, or any other eighth grader, ever forget what happened two years ago? Two bozos—Jimbo Nance and Duck DeFoe—dropped water balloons from a fifth-floor hotel room into the indoor lobby far below. No one was hurt, but some folks got really wet, and really mad. A snitch turned them in, and the boys’ parents had to drive six hours in the middle of the night to retrieve them. Then six hours back to Strattenburg. Jimbo said it was a very long drive. They were suspended from classes for a week, and the school was told to find another hotel for future field trips. This misadventure was now legendary around town, and it was used to caution and frighten Theo and every other eighth grader headed to Washington.
They finally parked. Theo said good-bye to Judge and told him to stay in the front seat. Mr. Boone opened a rear door and removed Theo’s luggage—one nylon overnight bag that was supposed to weigh under twenty pounds. Anything over twenty pounds would be left behind (one of the Big Rules!), and the guilty kid would be forced to make the trip without the benefit of clean clothes and a toothbrush. This would not have bothered Theo in the least. He had survived a week in the woods with the Boy Scouts with less equipment.
• • •
Mr. Mount was standing by a bus with some scales, weighing other luggage as it was loaded into storage. He was smiling and laughing, as excited as his students. Theo’s bag weighed nineteen pounds, eight ounces. His backpack barely made the limit at twelve pounds, and Theo was in business. Mr. Mount checked the overnight bag for an ID card and told Theo to get on the bus.
Theo shook his father’s hand, said good-bye, froze for a moment, terrified his father might try to hug him or something awful like that, then breathed a sigh of relief when Mr. Boone said, “Have fun. Call your mother.” Theo scampered aboard.
Close by, the girls were saying good-bye to their mothers with all manner of embracing, blubbering, and carrying on as if they were going off to war and would probably never come home. By the boys’ buses, though, the tough guys stiffened and tried to get away quickly from their parents with as little contact as possible.
The parking lot slowly cleared as the sun rose. At precisely seven a.m., the four buses rolled away from the school. It was Thursday. The big day had finally arrived, and the kids were noisy and rowdy. His seatmate was Chase Whipple, a close friend who was often referred to as “The Mad Scientist.” To prevent them from getting lost and wandering through the dangerous streets of DC, the teachers had implemented the Buddy System. For the next four days Theo would be stuck with Chase, and Chase with Theo, and each was supposed to know what the other was doing at all times. Theo knew he got the bad end of the deal because Chase often got lost on the campus of the Strattenburg Middle School. Keeping an eye on him would take some work. They would share a room with Woody Lambert and Aaron Nyquist.
As the buses eased through the quiet streets, the boys chattered excitedly. No one had yet thrown a punch or yanked off someone else’s cap. They had been threatened about misbehaving, and Mr. Mount was watching them closely. Then someone behind Theo passed gas, and loudly. This was instantly contagious, and before they were out of Strattenburg Theo wished he could have been sitting with April Finnemore on the other bus just ahead.
Mr. Mount cracked a window. Things eventually settled down. Thirty minutes into the trip, the boys were either asleep or lost in video games.
Theo’s room was on the eighth floor of a new hotel on Connecticut Avenue, about a half mile north of the White House. From his window, he, along with Chase, Woody, and Aaron, had a clear view of the top half of the Washington Monument rising above the city. According to their schedule, the boys would climb to the top of the monument first thing Saturday morning. But for now, they had to hurry downstairs for a quick lunch, then, they would be off to see the sights.
Each student was allowed to pick and choose from the many attractions in Washington. It would take a year of serious work to see everything, so Mr. Mount and the other teachers had put together a list from which the students could select their favorites.
April had convinced Theo that they should see Ford’s Theatre, the place where Abraham Lincoln was shot, and this seemed like an interesting idea. Theo convinced Chase, and after lunch they gathered in the hotel lobby with Mr. Babcock, a history teacher, and a group of eighteen students. Mr. Babcock expla
ined that they would not be taking one of the buses because their group was small. Rather, they would get to experience the DC subway system, known as the Metro. He asked how many of the students had ever ridden on a subway. Theo and three others raised their hands.
They left the hotel and began walking along a busy sidewalk. For kids who lived in a small town, the sounds and energy of a big city were at first hard to absorb. So many big buildings, so many cars bumper to bumper in traffic that hardly moved, so many people bustling along the sidewalks, all anxious to get somewhere. At the Woodley Park Metro Station, they rode the escalator down, far below the streets. Mr. Babcock had plastic SmarTrip cards that would give the students limited use of the Metro system. Their train was half-empty, clean, and efficient. As it zipped along the dark tunnel, April whispered to Theo that it was her first time on a subway. Theo said he’d been on one before in New York, when his parents took him there on vacation. The New York system, though, was far different from DC’s.
When the train stopped for the third time, just minutes after they had started, it was time to get off at the Metro Center Station. They hurried up the steps and back into the sunlight. Mr. Babcock counted eighteen kids, and they began walking. Minutes later they were on 10th Street.
Mr. Babcock stopped the group and pointed across the street to a handsome redbrick building that was obviously important. He said, “That’s Ford’s Theatre, the place where President Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865. As you know, because you all have spent so much time doing your history assignments, the Civil War had just ended; in fact, General Lee had surrendered to General Grant only five days earlier at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. The city of Washington was in a good mood, the war was finally over, and so President and Mrs. Lincoln decided to have a night out on the town. Ford’s Theatre was the grandest, most magnificent theatre in town, and the Lincolns came here often for concerts and plays. At the time, the theatre had over two thousand seats, and the play, one called Our American Cousin, was selling out every night.”
They walked half a block and stopped again. Mr. Babcock resumed with, “Now, the war may have been over, but a lot of folks didn’t think so. One was a Confederate named John Wilkes Booth. He was a well-known actor, and he was even photographed with President Lincoln during his second inauguration, a month earlier. Mr. Booth was upset because the South had surrendered, and he was desperate to do something to help its cause. So he decided to kill President Lincoln. Because he was known to the theatre personnel, he was allowed to approach the box where the Lincolns were sitting. He shot the president once in the back of the head, jumped onto the stage, broke his leg, then, escaped out the back door.”
Mr. Babcock turned and nodded at the building beside them. He said, “This is the Petersen House, which at that time was a boardinghouse. They brought President Lincoln over here, where he was attended to by his doctors throughout the night. Word spread quickly. A crowd gathered, and federal troops were used to keep people away from the house. President Lincoln died here on the morning of April 15, 1865.”
Enough of the lecture. They finally crossed the street and entered Ford’s Theatre.
• • •
After two hours, Theo had had enough of the Lincoln killing. It was certainly interesting and all that, and he appreciated the historical importance, but it was time to move on. The coolest thing was down in the museum, under the stage, where they displayed the actual gun Booth used.
It was almost four thirty when they emerged onto 10th Street and headed back to the Metro Center Station. The traffic was even heavier, the sidewalks more crowded. Their train was packed with commuters headed home and seemed to move a lot slower. Theo was standing in the middle of the car, in a crowd, with Chase and April close by, as the train rocked and clicked along the tracks. He glanced around him at the glum faces of the commuters; no one was smiling. They all looked tired. He wasn’t sure where he would live when he grew up, but he didn’t think it would be in a big city. Strattenburg seemed the perfect size. Not too big, not too small. No traffic jams. No angry horn blowing. No crowded sidewalks. He didn’t want to ride a train to and from work.
A man seated tightly between two women lowered his newspaper as he flipped a page. He was less than ten feet away from Theo.
He looked familiar, oddly familiar. Theo took a deep breath and managed to wiggle between two men bunched together with the others. A few feet closer now, and he could see the man’s face.
He’d seen it before, but where? There was something different about it, maybe the hair was darker, maybe the reading glasses were new. Suddenly, it struck Theo like a brick against the head: The face belonged to Pete Duffy.
Pete Duffy? The most wanted man in the history of Strattenburg and Stratten County. Number seven on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted. The man who’d been accused of murdering his wife, had gone to trial in Strattenburg, in front of Judge Henry Gantry, a trial that Theo and his classmates had actually watched. The man who’d barely escaped a conviction when Judge Gantry declared a mistrial. The man who’d fled town in the middle of the night and had not been heard from since.
The man lowered the newspaper again as he flipped another page. He glanced around as Theo ducked behind another commuter. They had exchanged stares just after the trial.
Duffy had a mustache now, one sprinkled with gray whiskers. His face disappeared again behind the newspaper.
Theo was paralyzed with uncertainty. He had no idea what to do. The train stopped and more commuters piled on. It stopped again at the Dupont Circle Station. The Woodley Park Station was next. Duffy showed no signs of getting off. He did not appear to have a briefcase or bag or satchel like the other commuters. Theo squirmed his way down the train, putting a few more feet between himself and his classmates. Chase was lost in another world, as usual. April could not be seen. He could hear Mr. Babcock tell the students to get ready to get off. Theo moved farther away.
At the Woodley Park Station, the train stopped and the doors flew open. More commuters rushed on as the students scrambled to get off. In the melee, no one noticed that Theo was still on the train. The doors closed and it took off again. He kept his eyes on Pete Duffy, who was ducking behind the newspaper, probably a habit now. At the Cleveland Park Station, a few more passengers got on. Theo sent a text message to Chase explaining that he had been unable to get off, and that he was okay. He’d simply catch another train back to Woodley Park. Chase called immediately but Theo kept his phone on mute. He was sure Mr. Babcock was panicked. He would return the call in just a few minutes.
Theo began toying with his cell phone, as if he might be sending texts or playing games. He had the camera on, the video, and he was scanning the car, just another goofy thirteen-year-old being rude with a phone. Pete Duffy was fifteen feet away, sitting calmly behind his newspaper. Theo waited and waited. Finally, as the train approached the Tenleytown Station, Duffy lowered the paper and folded it. He stuck it under his arm, and for about five seconds Theo nailed him with the video. He even managed to zoom closer. When Duffy looked his way, Theo giggled at his camera as if he’d scored points in a game.
At the Tenleytown Station, Duffy got off the train, and Theo followed him. Duffy walked quickly, as if he lived with the fear of being followed. After a few minutes, Theo lost him in a crowd. He called Chase, said he was waiting on the next train, and should be there in fifteen minutes.
Mr. Babcock was waiting at the Woodley Park Station, and he was not happy. Theo apologized repeatedly, fibbing that he had been caught in the crush of people and simply could not get off the train in time. Theo did not like the fact that he was being forced to lie. It was wrong and he tried to tell the truth at all times. However, occasionally he found himself in the awkward position of having to fudge on the truth for a good reason. On the subway, he had made the quick decision that it was more important to try and nail Pete Duffy than to get off when and where he was supposed to. If he got off with his classmates, Duffy
would be gone, and a great chance to nail him would have been missed. Now, if he admitted to Mr. Babcock that he had deliberately stayed on the train, then all sorts of bad stuff would happen. He could not tell the truth about Pete Duffy, not now anyway, because he had no idea what to do with the truth. He needed some time alone to think things through.
He needed to talk to Uncle Ike.
For the moment, though, he was forced to apologize to Mr. Babcock, who was a nervous type to begin with. Back at the hotel, Mr. Babcock marched Theo over to Mr. Mount and made a full report of his student’s misdeed. As soon as Mr. Babcock walked away, Theo mumbled, “That guy just needs to relax.”
Mr. Mount, who trusted Theo and knew that if any kid could survive in the big city it was Theodore Boone, agreed and said, “Don’t do it again, okay? Just pay attention to where you are.”
“Sure,” Theo said. If you only knew.
Dinner was a pizza party in a hotel ballroom. Seating was not regulated; you could sit anywhere you wanted. So, typically, the boys took one side of the room and the girls the other. Theo nibbled on some crust and sipped water from a bottle, but his mind was not on pizza. He was certain he had seen Pete Duffy. He even remembered the way the man walked as he was entering and leaving the courthouse during his trial. It was the same walk. The same height and body type. Definitely the same eyes, nose, forehead, and chin. Theo had locked himself in his hotel bathroom and watched the video on his phone a dozen times.
Theo had found Pete Duffy! He still couldn’t believe it and he was still uncertain about what to do next, but in his excitement he had almost forgotten something important. Since Duffy had fled town, the police had posted a $100,000 reward for information leading to his arrest and conviction. In his room before dinner, Theo had gone online and verified this reward. The Strattenburg police website had several pages dedicated to the Duffy case. There were several close-up photos of his face.
• • •
Cell phones were strictly prohibited during meals—if one was seen by an adult it was to be immediately confiscated. Halfway through the pizza party, Theo informed Mr. Mount that he needed to walk down the hallway to the restroom. Once inside, Theo locked himself in a stall and called Ike.
“I thought you were in Washington,” Ike said.
“I am. Ike, I saw Pete Duffy on the Metro. I know it’s him.”
“I thought he was in Cambodia or some place.”
“Not now. He’s right here in Washington. I got him on video. I’ll e-mail it to you right now. Take a look and I’ll call you later.”
“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Ike said, his voice suddenly sharper.
“Dead serious. Later.” Theo quickly e-mailed the video to Ike, then left the restroom and hustled back to the ballroom.
After dinner, when it was dark, the entire eighth grade loaded onto the four buses and headed for the Lincoln Memorial. There, they milled about the famous statue of Lincoln sitting and staring seriously—did the guy ever smile? Theo wondered—while clutching the sides of his chair. The lights cast even more shadows on his face, and Theo found it all quite awesome. With the assistance of a park ranger, Mr. Babcock, who evidently was a big Lincoln fan, set up a large screen at the foot of the steps—fifty-eight steps to be exact—and the students gathered around for a quick lecture. They listened in perfect silence as Mr. Babcock recapped the significant events of Lincoln’s life, material they had all covered in class, which now meant much more sitting on the steps of his memorial. As he spoke, Mr. Babcock, who was a compelling teacher, flashed photos of Lincoln as he advanced through his life.
Though the students were sitting on marble steps, there was no wiggling and no whispering. They absorbed the lecture with great interest. When Theo looked away, he gazed upon the awesome sight of the Reflecting Pool just in front of them. Beyond it, a mile away, was the towering Washington Monument, also lit to perfection. And beyond that, another mile away, was the US Capitol, its dome glowing magnificently in the night. When Theo turned around, he found President Lincoln staring down at them.
Theo knew it was a moment he would never forget.
They gave Mr. Babcock a round of applause when he finished. Next up was Ms. Greenwood, a popular African American lady who taught English to the girls. She began by asking the students to look all the way down to the Washington Monument and to try to imagine the Mall packed with almost a quarter of a million people. The day was August 28, 1963, and black people from all over America had marched on Washington to demand justice and equality. They were led by a young Baptist minister from Atlanta named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As she spoke, she flashed images onto the screen, photos of the crowd that day, of people marching and carrying signs. She explained that Dr. King delivered one of the most famous speeches in American history, right over there on a temporary podium, under the proud gaze of the president who ended slavery. She then played a tape of the speech, black-and-white footage of Dr. King and his dream.
Theo had seen and heard the speech before, but it was far more moving at that moment. As Dr. King’s words echoed through the night, Theo looked down the Mall and tried to imagine what it was like that day, with thousands of people packed together and listening to words that would live forever.
They applauded for Ms. Greenwood, too, when she finished. Mr. Mount said there would be no more lectures. The students were allowed to hang around the Reflecting Pool for an hour or so. Theo found a seat on a park bench and texted Ike: Did you get video? What do you think?
Evidently, Ike was waiting: I’d say it’s p duffy. Let’s talk.
• • •
Later, at the hotel, as his three roommates were watching television and waiting on the ‘lights-out’ order from Mr. Mount, Theo went to the bathroom, locked the door, and took a seat on the toilet. He called Ike, who again seemed to be waiting with the phone in his hand. He asked, “Have you told anyone?”
“Of course not,” Theo said. “No one but you. What are we going to do?”
“I’ve been thinking and I have a plan. I’ll catch an early flight to DC and land at National around noon. I want to be on the subway when he gets on this afternoon and follow him as closely as I can. I need the time, the station, and the Metro line.”
Theo had already taken notes and had it memorized. “It’s the Red Line. We got on at the Metro Center Station, and I’m positive he was already on the train.”
“How many cars on the train?”
“Uh, just guessing, I would say seven or eight.”
“And which car did you get in?”
“Don’t know, but somewhere close to the middle.”
“What time was it?”