Today's Reading

After he hung up his telephone receiver, my father told me what the call was about. He'd put his name on a list of lawyers willing to take cases free of charge if it developed that all the public defenders were busy, and now someone wanted him. "And here I was just telling you I had no work," he added. "It's serendipity."

The call was from the Public Defender's Office in Skagit County, north of Seattle. That office had been contacted by a woman in the Skagit County Jail who needed an attorney. The afternoon before, she and her husband had been arrested on homicide charges. Her husband had gotten the last public defender the county could find. "I promised I'd go up there right away and have a talk with this lady," my father said. "Which means—and I'll get the gas—could you give me a ride?"

I said, "Sure," rose, and pulled my car keys from my pocket. My father nodded, then opened his cereal drawer and retrieved his bran flakes, a paper bowl, and a plastic spoon. He plucked his raincoat from the seat back he'd thrown it over, and we walked down the hall single file, he in front and I behind.

I DROVE TOWARD Skagit County. The city traffic waned, and we came down onto the Skagit River floodplain. I was familiar with this area, chiefly because I'd lived nearby my whole life, and so, for one reason or another, had been there before. It was quiet country, rural and serene, but it made the news now and then because the Skagit River breached its banks periodically, cutting off roads and rising into houses. Dikes and levees loomed at the edges of fields, and behind these were barns, milking parlors, bunker silos, loafing sheds, tall poplar windbreaks, and homes on elevated foundations. The ground here often looked black and wet, as if freshly exposed by receding water.

When it wasn't flooded, Skagit County felt serene. The most notable event of the past few years was the collapse of the I-5 freeway bridge in 2013. A truck with an oversize load hit a sway strut, the trusses gave way, the support members failed, and the deck and superstructure fell into the river. Otherwise, Skagit County was bucolic, and well known in western Washington for its miles of spring tulip fields.

I left the interstate at Mount Vernon, the county seat, which sits beside a river bend behind a flood wall. It's a bit of bad luck, or a cruel piece of planning, that I-5 was situated here so close to the river that downtown Mount Vernon is squeezed between the two. The freeway also looms like a wall between the town's business core and most of its residential neighborhoods, so that they seem unrelated. Finally, in another example of curious town planning, a railway moves freight through Mount Vernon so regularly that it's common to have to wait downtown for long trains, as my father and I did on Kincaid Street.

The jail was conveniently across from the courthouse, in a building easy to imagine as a jail—impregnable, with the merest of windows. It was windy in Mount Vernon, but not raining at the moment. A density of gray cloud streamed eastward steadily.

We made a plan. My father would talk to his potential client. I would walk around Mount Vernon, return to my car, and wait inside of it until he was ready to go to the nearest grocery store, buy milk and a banana, and eat his cereal. We split up then without ado, and I walked westward aimlessly. The river ran wide, I saw, above the town's flood wall. The pavements were well swept, and the flowers in the municipal planter barrels well tended. Mount Vernon felt, to me, quiet, charmed, and modest. I soon discerned, though, that there was an old town and a new. A diner and a grocery store were remnants of the old. A coffee lounge, more than one bistro, more than one brewpub, and a food co-op with an extensive salad bar were all evidence of change. Over everything rose the three-story courthouse, which I passed on my return to the jail parking lot. Outside of it, a cannon sat mounted between wooden carriage wheels, long barrel facing south. There was no plaque or placard that I could find explaining its provenance or purpose.

I sat in my car, listening to the radio, until my father returned from the jail. "Sad case," he said. "Very sad."

I drove to the Red Apple. This is the grocery store I mentioned earlier as a remnant of an earlier Mount Vernon. My father found a banana there, and a pint of milk, and we bought coffee and sat at a deli table in a corner. My father hunched over his bowl of cereal, wiping his chin now and then with a napkin, and told me about the woman under arrest, whose name was Betsy Harvey, nee Huber.

She was forty-one, he said, and had seven children. She was very conservative and a fundamentalist Christian. She'd grown up in Garden Grove, California, which produced—or at least used to—a lot of strawberries. Her parents had come to Garden Grove from West Plains, Missouri, where her father had worked as a sheriff's deputy. Before that he'd been with the U.S. Marshals. In California, he'd worked for the Highway Patrol.

Her father's family, Betsy told my father, was originally from Haywood County, Tennessee, but her father had moved to Missouri when he was seventeen to take a job at a meatpacking plant. Her mother's family, on her grandfather's side, was from Yell County, Arkansas, and on her grandmother's side from Oklahoma.

The Hubers moved to Seattle when Betsy was twelve so that her father could work in security for a truck manufacturer. Five months after graduating from high school, she met Delvin Harvey at a church social. They dated for seven months, married, bought a house, and started having children. Eventually, they bought five acres in Skagit County, cleared one, left the other four in brush, and built a house, or, rather, had it built by a contractor, even though, as Betsy assured my father, Delvin was good at a lot of things demanding tools, a millwright who could wire, plumb, frame, pour concrete, and put up drywall. Delvin, added Betsy, had been in the air force. Since discharge, he'd worked at Boeing.

This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.

Monday, May 30th, we begin the book THE ACCOMPLICE by Lisa Lutz.

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