High in Trial - By Donna Ball


December 1992

The rust-colored pickup truck came out of nowhere, careening into the intersection like a skier taking off on a slalom course. There was no way she could have avoided it, even if the road had not been icy, even if the night had not been pitch black, even if she had not had a glass of wine—or maybe two—at dinner. She didn’t have time to cry out, and before her foot could even hit the brake, her Taurus had gone into a spin. Headlights flashed in her eyes, the steering wheel wrenched itself from her hand, and her companion shouted, “Steer into the skid! Steer into it!”

She grabbed the wheel, twisted it hard to the right, fought the foot that wanted to slam into the brake pedal. She remembered—she would never forget—the instant her headlights caught the face of the driver of the other vehicle and seemed to freeze it in time: small, terrified eyes, white skin, scruffy beard, and stringy brown hair. His mouth formed an obscenity, revealing one tooth missing in front, before the night snatched him away and she heard the piercing shriek of metal on metal, smelled the burn of rubber, and the car shuddered to a stop. The pickup truck careened off her front bumper, spun around, and screeched to a stop facing north in the southbound lane ten feet away.

For the longest time, she could hear nothing but the sound of her own thundering heartbeat, the hic and gasp of her breath, and, oddly, the hiss of the car’s heater, still blowing hot air across the interior. Then she became aware of the man in the seat beside her, dragging off her seat belt, touching her arms and her face, saying, “Sweetheart, are you all right? Talk to me. Are you hurt?”

“Fine, I’m fine. The other fellow… Do you have your phone? Call 9-1-1.”

She fumbled for the door handle, but he stopped her with a hand firmly on her wrist. “Wait,” he said. He had an authority about him that could command armies: quiet, calm, calculated, and always in control. It was this she had first loved about him. He didn’t panic. He didn’t rush to judgment. And he didn’t make mistakes. “You’ve been drinking. I’ll go check on him. Change seats with me.”

She stared at him. Her voice, normally so gentle, her tone so dulcet, deteriorated into a near hiss of horror. “Me? You’ve had more to drink than I have! What if he recognizes you? You’re supposed to be in Seattle! Think this through, for God’s sake—”

“I have.” His hand was already on the passenger doorknob, and with the other hand he thrust his phone at her. “Call it in. He could be hurt.”

He had one foot out the door when the blare of a horn tore through the night. The engine of the pickup truck revved and its driver rolled down his window. “Bitch!” he screamed out the window. “Crazy-ass bitch! Keep it on the damn road, will you? Crazy bitch!”

And then, incredibly, the transmission shrieked into reverse, he turned the truck around, and the tires squealed as he sped away.

That turned out to be the biggest mistake of that young man’s life. And, for the two people watching incredulously as he peeled off, perhaps the luckiest break of theirs. For a time, anyway.

Two hours later, a bored and sleepy patrolman outside a small North Georgia town pulled over a rust-colored pickup truck for speeding and failure to maintain a lane, ran the plates and discovered two DUIs and an outstanding bench warrant. This, and the suspect’s erratic behavior, gave him cause to search the vehicle, where he discovered a small cellophane bag containing a trace amount of a white powdery substance that might have been cocaine, a thirty-eight special concealed in the glove box, along with a wad of cash that amounted to two thousand fourteen dollars and a crumpled receipt for gas from a mini-mart outside Hansonville, North Carolina. The officer also noted minor damage to the front right fender of the vehicle that appeared to be recent. The suspect, one Jeremiah Allen Berman, was cuffed and booked on DUI, possession of a concealed weapon, and suspicion of trafficking controlled substances.

At eight o’clock that morning those charges were dropped in favor of far more interesting ones. Apparently a man matching Berman’s description, driving a brown or red pickup truck, had stopped for gas at the Cash-N-Carry outside Hansonville, North Carolina, robbed the cash register of over two thousand dollars,