West Fallon pushed through the revolving door and spun toward a future she’d been dreading all year. The long security line that greeted her once she entered the federal building only increased her anxiety. When she finally reached the conveyor belt, she dutifully placed her wallet and keys in the pale green dog food bowl provided by the security guard and removed her belt and placed it on top of the pile. She patted her pockets for good measure before walking through the metal detector. The absence of a loud beep meant she was safe from the second guard, waiting with a metal wand, and free to go. West shoved her stuff back in her pockets, but when she reached for her belt, she caught sight of a goddess who vanquished all thoughts of what lay ahead.
She was tall and dressed in a tailored suit that didn’t completely hide her curves. She ran a hand through her chestnut hair, and West took in her tapered nose, full lips, and flawless skin marred only by a fierce frown that didn’t quite diminish the brightness in her hazel eyes. “I have no idea what’s setting off the alarm.” Her voice was smooth despite the undercurrent of frustration.
The guard shrugged and pointed at her bag. “Sure you put all your electronics in there?”
“I’m positive.” The woman pointed at the X-ray monitor. “Besides, shouldn’t you be able to see whatever’s in my bag?”
“It’s your bra,” West blurted out. Hardly able to believe she’d referenced this stranger’s underwear out loud, she went all in. “Nasty underwires.” A slow flush burned its way through her as she remembered the time she’d brought her pal Jill Martin here a few years ago. Jill’s double D, full support brassiere almost kept her from entering the building. But this woman was no Jill Martin, interested in exploring the place where federal crimes were tried. No, she was older, late thirties at least, and the suit signaled she was probably here for court, not a curious look around. West cocked her head, assessing the woman’s attire. “Are you an attorney?” A slight hesitation and then a quick nod. “Cool. Just show them your bar card and they’ll let you in.”
The woman stood still for a moment and then began rummaging in her bag. West stared, acutely conscious she was bordering on being rude. Her work here was done, but in a tug-of-war between what waited upstairs and this woman’s beautiful eyes, the eyes won. When the woman successfully negotiated her way past the guard and collected her bag, she smiled in West’s direction. “Thanks for the tip. Do you work here?”
“Not if I can help it.”
“Oh, sorry.” The brunette scanned her, lips pursed. West looked down at her casual outfit, jeans—not her best ones—a Ghostbusters T-shirt, and red Converse. She laughed. “Don’t worry, I’m not some defendant, looking for free representation. I’m here to see a friend.”
The stranger joined in the laugh. “I didn’t mean to imply anything. Besides, I was the one who couldn’t get through security on my own. I haven’t been here in a while, but last time I was, I don’t recall the machines being so sensitive.”
“Where are you going?”
West paused. She’d asked the question without thinking. It wasn’t any of her business where this woman was headed, plus she couldn’t quite decide if she was just avoiding the inevitable. For a second, she considered asking the woman to join her for a cup of coffee or an early lunch—anything to prolong the contact, but she squelched the impulse for the distraction it was. “I just thought I might be able to point you in the right direction. I’m headed upstairs.” She pointed at the directory to their left. “Most everyone in the building is listed there.”
“Thanks.” The woman looked over at the directory but didn’t move.
West glanced at the bank of elevators and then back at the woman, torn between wanting to escort her wherever she needed to go and an aversion to anything that would prolong her errand. They both had business to attend to, and the sooner she got hers over with, the sooner she could get out of this place and back to a summer full of the kind of work she really wanted to be doing. Her itinerary didn’t include time for distractions, and everything about this woman screamed distraction. She shot her one last look. “Have a good day.”
West rode the elevator with a couple of well suited men toting hefty briefcases. She caught them eyeing her in the reflection on the highly polished steel doors, no doubt wondering where she was going dressed like she’d just finished a shift at a local coffee shop. Unlike downstairs where she’d cared what the beautiful stranger thought of her, she didn’t give a rat’s ass about the opinion of these two. Until she was paid to show up here, she’d dress however she pleased, and even after things were official, she’d intended to push the boundaries, unwilling to be uncomfortable no matter what promises she’d made.
When the elevator stopped on the sixth floor, she followed the suits out of the car, and they all walked to the left toward the additional layer of security in place on every floor where courtrooms were located. The marshal at the desk stood and craned his neck past the men to call out to her. “West! I hear congratulations are in order.”
The suits turned toward her, apparently deciding her outfit wasn’t the only unusual thing about her. She ignored them harder than before. “Hey, Peter. Good to see you. He’s in, right?”
“Yep. They’re in the middle of a hearing, but should be done soon.” He looked at his watch. “It’s a pretty big case. Why don’t you stick your head in?” He motioned for her to come on back.
“Thanks.” She ignored the questioning looks of the suits and ducked around the metal detector, allowing Peter to give her a quick hug before she trudged down the hallway. Judge Henry “Hank” Blair’s courtroom was the last one on the left. She paused before the closed double doors, considering her options. Should she continue down the hall to his chambers and wait for him there or should she slip into the courtroom and catch the last part of the hearing? Curiosity won out.
She eased open the door and tiptoed toward a seat at the back of the courtroom. The defense attorney was at the podium arguing vigorously that the defendant’s estranged wife had no right to turn over the defendant’s private video collection to the police while he was in custody. After she made her points, the attorney for the government stood and quoted a string of case law designed to punch holes in every argument he’d just heard. West settled in to listen to the spin, and when both sides finished their spiel, she was surprised to see that thirty minutes had passed and she’d actually enjoyed herself. Maybe this gig wouldn’t be so bad after all.
When the assistant US attorney finished his rebuttal, Judge Blair asked a few questions of each side and then told them he’d have an opinion in the next few days. As the onlookers in the gallery started to scatter, she heard her name.
“West, come up here.”
Hank Blair was standing behind the bench, waving to her, a big smile on his face. Despite her discomfort at being made the center of attention, she returned the smile and walked up the aisle, conscious all eyes were trained her way. It had been a long time since she’d denied Hank anything, but as she drew closer to the cluster of attorneys surrounding the bench, she wished she had.
“I want you all to meet one of my future law clerks, West Fallon. Just graduated first in her class from Berkeley Law. This fall, she’ll be starting work right here in this courtroom.”
West took in the jaw drops and raised eyebrows. She was used to people underestimating her based on her appearance. There was a time other people’s opinions had power over her, but three years of battling her way to the top at Berkeley had cured her. People underestimating her was a sign of their weakness, not hers. She shook hands with the other attorneys, filing their names in her photographic memory for future reference, certain she’d run into them in the fall. If she was here.
A few minutes later, she followed Hank to his chambers, where once they were alone, he scooped her up in a huge bear hug that she pretended to merely endure. When he released her, he frowned and rubbed his chest.
“What’s the matter?” she teased him. “Bear hugs getting the best of you?”
“You wish.” He grimaced. “No, I think it was the patty melt I had for lunch. Love those onions, but they don’t love me.”
She stared a little harder, not entirely sure she believed his explanation, but she saw nothing specific to signal any alarm. He was paler and maybe a little thinner than he’d appeared a few weeks ago when he’d flown out to California for her graduation, but otherwise he was the same larger-than-life personality he’d always been.
“How was your trip?” he asked. “Can you stay for a few days? Diane would like to have you over for dinner and, of course, you’re welcome to stay with us while you’re here.”
West noted his tentative tone. Dinner and an invitation to stay at the house was more than he usually asked for, and for a second, she considered changing her plans to give him what he wanted. “I’d planned to drive out tomorrow. I’m supposed to meet up with some folks about a place to stay during the summer.” She watched his smile falter, and she tossed him a bone. “But I guess I could go a day later. And dinner sounds nice.”
“Good. Food hits the table at seven sharp, same as always. It’ll be nice to have you there.”
“I’m looking forward to it.” And surprisingly, she was. Her original plan had been to make this visit nothing more than a drive-by. She’d swing into the courthouse, drop her news, and hit the road again, but now that she was here, staring Hank in the face, gathering the nerve to be honest was proving harder than she’d thought. Maybe in the causal comfort of his home, it would be easier to tell him she couldn’t possibly keep her promise to clerk for him this fall.
In a day or two, she’d continue her cross-country trek to Montgomery, Alabama, where she had a spot waiting at the Southern Poverty Law Center. There she’d do real work, tackling hate groups, championing civil rights—white knight stuff. The summer gig was a trial run, but she planned to do everything within her power to show the attorneys at the Center her commitment and dedication in hopes they would invite her to stay on for the long haul. She hadn’t told Hank yet, but she’d taken a gamble and signed up to take the Alabama bar exam in July. Knowing everything he did about her, Hank had to understand why she couldn’t let anything get in the way of this opportunity to make a difference in the world.
“So, what’s up?” Hank asked.
“As much as I’d like to believe you came by just to see me, I figure you didn’t brave the lines downstairs just to say hello. Do you want to check out your office? Maybe measure the walls for some art and your diploma?”
She opened her mouth to ask him if he’d lost his mind, but before she could speak, she caught the sly grin and realized he was only giving her a hard time. “Yes, we starving college students often have lots of art worthy of hanging.” He started to reply, but a rap on the door interrupted them. “Get that if you need to,” West said.
“Sorry,” he replied as he strode over to the door. Halfway there, he stumbled. West instinctively reached out to catch him, but he waved her away. “I’m fine. Just clumsy.”
He paused with his hand on the door and a perplexed expression marring his face. West stared, trying to process his sluggish words and drooping face, but before she could make sense of it, he was in free fall, clutching his chest, the other arm flailing for purchase. West leapt toward him and barely made it in time to cushion his fall as her world came crashing down.
When she reached the sixth floor, Camille stepped out to find another security stop between her and her ultimate destination. She smiled to herself and looked around as if the young woman from downstairs might magically appear to give her tips. She hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her, which was silly since their entire conversation had lasted no more than a minute and she didn’t even know her name. But Camille had been intrigued by the juxtaposition between the woman’s causal dress and her easy confidence about the inner workings of the courthouse. And then there was the flicker of interest she’d seen reflected in her gaze. Too young. Not your type. But it’s nice to be noticed. The thoughts crowded her head, and when the marshal standing behind the desk cleared his throat, she figured she’d probably been standing there, lost in thought, for longer than she’d realized.
“Sorry.” She placed her bag on the conveyor belt and patted her suit pockets one more time before walking through the metal detector.
“What’s your business here today?” he asked, his expression unreadable.
She looked at his name badge. Peter Donovan. She hoped someday soon, Peter and everyone else here would know her well enough to waive her in. “I have an appointment with Judge Stroud.”
She stared at him, trying to decipher his question. “You need to see my phone?”
“More than see it. I need to keep it unless you have a bar card.”
“Of course.” She reached toward the conveyor relieved she remembered to carry the card she hadn’t needed in years. She held it out for his inspection. “My phone’s in my bag.”
The marshal’s demeanor shifted ever so slightly, but Camille still felt the cold shoulder that came with being an outsider. She’d never practiced in this building, so there was no reason for anyone here to accord her the respect that came with familiarity.
When she finally reached Judge Stroud’s chambers, the mood was completely different. The matronly woman at the desk outside his door greeted her with a huge smile and an offer of coffee or tea.
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“I’ll let the judge know you’re here.”
Camille sat on the couch, but kept her feet firmly planted, resisting the urge to sink into the bulging cushions. Who put such a nap-worthy piece of furniture in their place of business? It felt like a test somehow, like if she managed to stay awake she would get the job. She suppressed a smile and picked up a magazine she could pretend to read, hoping the ruse would hide her sudden attack of nerves. She flipped idly through the pages, barely noticing the content until she spotted a picture of a young actress who’d recently taken Hollywood by storm with her edgy good looks and devil-may-care attitude. Camille barely remembered the actress’s name, but she bore a stunning likeness to the young woman who’d helped her out downstairs. Of course, she didn’t know that woman’s name either, so it was possible…
No, it wasn’t. The woman she’d just seen was actually more attractive than the starlet on the pages of the magazine. More intriguing and definitely more delicious. Besides, what would a Hollywood actress be doing here in Dallas, lurking around the federal courthouse? The idea fascinated her, but she ultimately settled on the conclusion that the woman she’d seen downstairs was only a doppelgänger for the actress. Or the other way around.
Camille looked up and tracked Judge Stroud’s amused expression as he looked from her to the magazine. She groaned inwardly, wishing she’d been caught reading anything except People magazine, but there was nothing she could do about it now. She decided to spin. “I think it’s great that you keep current pop culture reading materials in chambers. Helps to keep things human. For instance, I now know my horoscope says today has the potential to change my life.”
Stroud pointed toward his office door. “How about we go talk about that very thing?”
The chief judge’s chambers were spacious, and the walls were covered with evidence of his many years in service. Certificates of accomplishment, autographed photos with dignitaries, and a few pieces of museum-worthy original art signaled success. Camille imagined her own professional paraphernalia in this space and applicants meeting with her as the chief judge. She was here to start her journey to that end.
He motioned for her to take a seat on a leather couch in the ample living room type seating area, and he sat across from her in a high-back chair, dropping the formality he’d greeted her with in front of his staff. “Camille, it’s good to see you. How’s your father?”
“The same. Very busy, very accomplished. He’s in Saudi Arabia this week, meeting a new client for the firm.”
“And your mother?”
“She’s doing the real work at the firm while Dad’s out gathering new clients. It’ll be another banner year for them.”
“And you’re not interested in following in their footsteps?”
As he spoke the words, he tapped a folder on the table next to him. She saw the lettering on the tab—her application and résumé. Was this his way of breaking it to her gently that she wasn’t going to get the job? “Their dream, not mine. I was on the bench long enough to know that’s all I want to do.”
“Even if it means you’d be starting over again at the bottom? As a magistrate, you won’t have near the influence and discretion you had in your prior role on the bench.”
Camille bit back her first response. Saying she really didn’t have a choice probably wasn’t the best way to make inroads. She’d gotten this informal meeting because Judge Stroud was a longtime friend of her parents, but he wouldn’t be the sole decision-maker about whether she’d get offered a position as one of the federal magistrate judges. She may as well start practicing polished answers designed to get this appointment. Without the job, she’d have to hang her own shingle, take a soul-sucking big firm job or, God forbid, work for her parents.
“I don’t really look at it as the bottom,” she said. “Just the first step on the ascent to something new and more challenging than what I’ve been doing. My time as a judge in state court provided invaluable experience, but the jurisdictions are wildly different. I think working as a federal magistrate will be a perfect opportunity to broaden my horizons, and one day maybe I’ll be working alongside you as a district court judge.”
Stroud’s laugh was forced. “Perfect answer,” he said. “Way to play down your expectations since we both know your real plan is to eventually take over my job.”
“Maybe.” She cracked a smile. “But you’re safe until I learn the ropes.”
“Duly noted.” He opened the folder and flipped through the pages inside. “You’ve got the glad-handing down. Now tell me what made the good citizens of Collin County toss you off the bench.”
“You don’t waste any time, do you?”
“It’ll be the first question most of the committee members ask. Be glad they’ll want to hear your answer rather than relying solely on the news reports.”
“Fair enough.” Camille took a deep breath. She’d prepared for exactly this sort of question. “I made a tough call, but in state court, judges are elected, as you know, and despite it being nonsensical, the elections fall along party lines, without regard to qualifications. My opponent focused his entire ad campaign on one case—a defendant with a drug problem who I’d allowed to have a second chance on probation. The defendant threw away the chance I gave him and reoffended, but, unfortunately for everyone involved, this time his addiction turned deadly. He was driving under the influence, crashed into a young girl, and killed her.
“It was a tragedy and when he came before me again, I put him away for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, no one remembers that part because it didn’t fit the narrative of my opponent who spent substantial amounts of his own money in his quest for a robe and a gavel.”
“He outspent you two to one.”
“Yes, he did. He could afford it.”
“Is there a reason you let him do that when I’m sure your parents would have gladly funded a scorched earth approach?”
“I’m a grown woman. I don’t need my parents’ money to get what I need.”
“And yet you let them set up this meeting.”
Camille grinned. “Like I said, I don’t need my parents’ money, but I’d be crazy to turn down a healthy dose of their influence. Besides, I know you wouldn’t hire me on their word alone.”
“Smart woman.” He pointed at his desk. “Your file is ready to go out to the committee. We’ve had a lot of well-qualified applicants and I can’t guarantee anything. Are you sure this is what you really want?”
Camille reflected on the last five months. Since she’d been voted out of office, she’d lost her way. She had filled her time consulting on a few cases and serving as a mediator for mind-numbing corporate litigation. Her parents had encouraged her to join their firm, but she had no interest in selling her soul for corporate clients who thought they could buy their way out of any situation. After a full term running a courtroom and having the final say, the idea of spending her days doing other people’s bidding, even at ten times the salary, seemed like a step down. Other girls dreamed of being president someday, but in her dreams, she’d been wearing a black robe and seated with eight other justices at the highest court in the land. This was just the first step, and she was determined to tread carefully. “Yes, I really want this. How soon do you think it will be before the committee reaches a decision?”
“Soon. We need to fill the spot. There’s a tremendous backlog. The last administration had a difficult time getting any judicial nominations approved by the Senate, so we’ve been short-handed. Now, that the Dems control everything, things are sailing through.”
“If it helps, I have the distinct advantage of not currently being employed, so I can start anytime.”
“I’ll let the committee know.”
They both looked up at the sound of a rap on the door. “Sorry, I asked Joan not to interrupt, so it must be important. Come in!”
Joan, the woman who’d greeted her earlier, poked her head in the door. She looked flushed and scattered. “Judge Stroud, we have an emergency. Judge Blair collapsed in his office.”
Stroud sprang to his feet. “Sorry, Camille, I need to go. Give your parents my best.”
He dashed out the door, leaving Joan to escort her out. They stared at each other for a moment, while Camille fished for something to say. “I’m sorry to hear about Judge Blair. Do you think he’s going to be okay?”
“He’s unconscious, so it’s hard to tell. The paramedics are with him now.” Joan shifted in place. “I should go check on things.”
Camille stood, acutely conscious her presence and the norms of politeness were keeping Joan from being where she wanted to be. She followed her to the door. “Go ahead, I can show myself out.” She placed a hand on Joan’s arm. “I hope the judge is okay.”
“Thanks.” She delivered the word on the run.
Camille stood in the reception area watching her go and feeling decidedly useless. A few seconds later, she was walking down the hallway, back toward the marshal’s station, when loud voices shouted behind her.
“Clear the way! Move!”
She hugged the wall, transfixed, as a team of paramedics hustled a gurney down the hall. Their expressions were drawn and grave, and they were almost as pale as the man they carried, but before she could absorb any other detail, Camille’s attention was drawn to the woman who ran alongside them. It was the brunette she’d met downstairs, the one whose advice had gotten her past security. She was holding Judge Blair’s hand, and the calm, confident expression she’d worn earlier had been replaced by fear and tension.
Was this stranger the judge’s daughter or did she just know the judge because she worked in the building? Camille wanted to reach out to her. Tell her that whatever was wrong, it would be okay, but she held her tongue. Other than their few-second exchange an hour ago, she had no connection to this woman, no right to comment or comfort. Hell, she didn’t even know her name. But she wanted to.
Three months later…
Camille rang the doorbell and hoped no one would answer. The last few months had been a whirlwind. The chair of the magistrate judge selection panel had contacted her to say they wouldn’t be considering her application because Senator Armstrong had recommended her to the president to fill Judge Blair’s newly vacated bench. The entire confirmation process had been a speedy blur, and now she was standing on the doorstep of the man she was about to replace. It wasn’t her choice to be here. He’d requested this visit, and she figured the least she could do was honor his last official request. If she knew the agenda, maybe she wouldn’t be experiencing this level of trepidation, but she had no idea why she’d been summoned.
A striking woman with medium length silver hair answered the door. Dressed in white linen pants with a sky blue tunic shirt, she looked like summer, and the smile on her face said she was happy about it. The woman swung the door wide. “Judge Avery, please come in.”
“Please call me Camille.” She walked in and let her gaze sweep the entry before turning her attention back to the woman who’d answered the door. As if noticing the inspection, the woman offered a hand. “Diane Blair. It’s a pleasure to meet you, and I appreciate you making the drive. I know the suburbs can be a pain this time of day.”
“No trouble at all,” Camille lied. Judge Blair’s house in Southlake was far from the courthouse. The traffic snarls had been monstrous and the suburban streets wound around in a confusing fashion, but curiosity fueled her, and now that she was here, she was anxious to find out the reason for the trip. “Have you lived here long?”
Diane’s face was briefly marred by a frown. “Not long at all. We moved here last month. We loved our house in Oak Cliff, but it was an older, historic home and there was only so much we could do to accommodate…”
She let the words trail off, and Camille scrambled to find a way to change the subject. Good thing she was done interviewing, since she seemed to have completely lost any sense of tact. “It’s a beautiful home and this is a well regarded area. I’m sure you’ll settle in nicely.”
“Thanks.” Diane looked over her shoulder. “Hank is just finishing up with his physical therapist. Why don’t you follow me to the kitchen and I’ll get you something cool to drink?”
Camille wasn’t thirsty, but she took the tall, icy glass of lemonade and politely imbibed small sips while Diane pointed out some of the features of the expansive kitchen. Camille heard the edge of nerves in Diane’s voice and doubted she really cared about the convection ovens or the built-in wine fridge, but she played along as if she was here for a regular social call instead of what was likely to be some strange passing of the baton. After what seemed like an eternity, she heard a buzz from a box on the wall. Diane grimaced an apology, picked up the handset, and listened to the voice on the other end. When she hung up, she said, “Hank’s waiting in his office. I’ll show you the way.”
Camille followed her down a long hallway on the other side of the kitchen, marveling at the size of the place. When they reached the doorway at the end of the hall, Diane paused in the entry shooting her a look that said prepare yourself.
Judge Blair was slumped in a wheelchair behind his desk, the left side of his face slack as if straining to pull the other half down. She’d heard the news from Stroud that Judge Blair had had a stroke and wasn’t returning to the bench. Her first thought had been she wouldn’t let a little stroke keep her from her passion, but she hadn’t clued in to the severity until just this moment.
Which brought her back to the reason she was here. He’d specifically requested her presence. Not a phone call, not a note. An in-person visit. Now that she was here, she was even more desperate to know why he’d insisted on meeting in person. After Diane excused herself, she strode into the room, determined to act like this was a perfectly normal visit. “Good afternoon, Judge Blair.”
“Hello.” He strangled out the word with a clear force of effort. She hoped he wasn’t planning to have a long conversation with her, because if he was, it was going to be painful for both of them. He pointed at the computer on his desk and motioned her over. While she walked, he typed with one finger of his right hand. When she was alongside his desk, he pointed at the screen.
This is easier, yes?
Relieved they had a better way to communicate, she nodded. “How are you doing?”
He shook his head and pecked out another series of words. Not about me. Clerks. Have you hired any?
She did a double take at the words. The question was completely unexpected, but she had given the subject some thought. Some of the other judges had given her their leftover stacks of résumés and applications for the position, and she’d been going through them while she boned up on federal law and procedure. At first she’d been concerned about the pile of castoffs, but when she realized the district received hundreds of applications for the one or two coveted spots per judge, she realized everyone else’s castoffs still amounted to the top talent from the recent graduating class. “I haven’t hired anyone yet, but I have a few prospects. Judge Stroud is letting me borrow one of his clerks until I get my bearings.”
Blair barely waited for her to finish her sentence before he started pecking at the keyboard again. I need a favor. It’s important.
Like she was going to deny this man anything. Within reason. “Name it.”
More typing. West Fallon. Best there is. Ready to start on day one. She knows the court inside and out. You won’t do better.
The name didn’t ring a bell, but it wouldn’t. Most clerks were young lawyers, at most a few years out of school, some not even admitted to the bar yet. She’d had a few interns when she was on the state court bench, but federal judges had the luxury of one or two paid full-time lawyers at their disposal for research and other random tasks. The clerks generally worked for a district judge for a year or two before using the experience as a stepping-stone to either a position with an appellate judge or to open doors at some of the more prestigious firms. She was already inheriting a secretary and a bailiff, and she had been looking forward to the opportunity to hire her own clerks as a way to make her mark. What was so important about this clerk that he felt the need to personally ask her to keep her on? Figuring she knew the answer, she asked, “Family friend?”
Yes, but it’s more important than that. Promise me you’ll keep her on?
One look at the judge and she knew she couldn’t deny him. Whatever the reason, keeping this clerk was very important to him, and it wouldn’t hurt to have another clerk by her side who knew the courtroom inside and out. “Okay. I promise.”
Satisfied at her answer, the judge visibly relaxed, and they spent the next hour going over details about the court. Camille was impressed with his willingness to share information about his staff and procedural details about the court. By the time they were done with their visit, it was clear to her he truly cared that she was successful in her new position.
Before she left, Diane stopped her at the door. “Thanks for coming by. The first month we were inundated with visitors, but everyone’s gone back to their lives, as to be expected. He was on the bench for so long, it’s been hard for him to adjust to a life without it.”
“You’re welcome to come back anytime. He’d be happy to answer any questions you have.”
“I might just take advantage of that offer.”
“And by the way, I voted for you. I get that you had to make a tough call.” Diane pointed in the direction of the judge’s study. “He had to make plenty during his career. He was just fortunate enough to have the safety net of a lifetime appointment. Now you’ll have that too.”
Camille reflected on their conversation as she walked down the street to her car. Maybe Hank Blair could be a mentor of sorts. Judge Stroud would be the natural fit to take on this role, but he was so connected to her parents, she wasn’t sure she would trust him with questions that exposed her own insecurities. She liked Hank, and he had a way of making her feel like there were no dumb questions. Deep in thought, she didn’t notice the woman standing beside her until she was inches away.
“Hey, I remember you.”
A second of surprise was followed by a surge of warmth at the familiar face. When Camille had last seen this woman, she hadn’t seen the tattoo snaking up her arm, but she’d never forget that face, those eyes. She grinned. “I remember you too. Courthouse. Last spring. I was setting off alarms on the metal detector and you were dispensing advice.”
“That’s me.” She scrunched her brow. “You live around here or are you following me?”
“No and no. Besides, I think I was here first.”
“Fine, but if I’d known you were going to be here, I’d have shown up sooner.”
“Are you always a flirt, or just with women you meet at the courthouse?”
“On a lot of things. Let me buy you a coffee and I’ll tell you more.”
Camille drew back slightly. Flirtatious banter was one thing, but a date, even a casual coffee date, was another. All her focus needed to be on distinguishing herself at the job ahead, and random dates with total strangers, especially young, tattooed ones, wasn’t on the agenda. “I’m afraid I have plans, but thanks for the offer.”
The stranger cocked her head and gave her a smug, knowing smile as she pulled a card from her wallet. Camille watched, transfixed, as she scrawled a note on the card and handed it over. “When you’re ready, give me a call.”
Camille watched her saunter up the walk toward Judge Blair’s house, and the memory of her running alongside the stretcher at the courthouse flashed in her mind. She wondered now what she’d wondered then—was this Blair’s daughter? She glanced down at the card. Good for one cup of coffee. The offer was followed by a phone number and then a scrawled, but legible signature. West Fallon.
West Fallon. The clerk she’d just promised to keep on her staff. She stared at the phone number written in a neat row beneath the invitation. An hour ago, before her conversation with Judge Blair, she might have called the number on the card and taken West Fallon up on her invitation, but now that possibility was off the table. She was going to spend every workday with West for the next year, and the prospect brought equal parts dread and excitement.
West stood on Judge Blair’s front porch rethinking her semi-slick move with the card and offer of coffee. What she should’ve done was flirt a little more, get the woman’s name and number instead of the other way around. Now she was at the mercy of this stranger who might or might not ever call.
Truth was she was out of practice. It had been a long summer and she’d had no social life to speak of. After Hank had started rehab, she’d finally taken off to Montgomery for her stint at the Southern Poverty Law Center. She’d spent her days working her ass off and her nights studying for the bar exam certain if she worked hard enough on both fronts, they’d offer her a permanent position. Her bosses at the Center had gushed about the quality of her work, but budget cuts meant they’d put a moratorium on hiring. Apparently, the wildly successful Democratic sweep in the last election cycle had left people feeling passive about making donations to organizations that champion civil rights. With her dream job on hold for now, she’d decided she might as well fulfill the promise she’d made to Hank.
She glanced back at the woman who was pulling away in her Lexus. Just because she was about to start a drudge job didn’t mean she couldn’t have a little fun on the side.
“West, I thought that was you. Have you been standing out here long?”
West grinned at Diane Blair who stood framed in the open doorway. “Sorry, I guess I forgot to ring the bell. I haven’t been here long.”
Diane looked past her and then shook her head. “Well, come on in. Hank’s in his study waiting for you and dinner will be ready soon.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Do me a favor?”
“Sure, whatever you need.”
“Don’t wear him out. He’s already had one visitor this afternoon and he won’t admit it, but any amount of conversation really takes a toll.”
“Okay,” West said, but Diane’s comment made her feel she’d missed something important. “I’m a little confused though. I thought he’d already gone back to work, but you’re telling me more than one visitor is a hardship?”
Diane didn’t meet her gaze, but West could tell by the duck of her head and a slight reddening on her cheeks, she was holding something back. “Diane, he is back at work, isn’t he?”
Diane waved her hand. “Go on back. He’s waiting for you.”
West gave her one last hard look before following Diane’s directions back to Hank’s study. The wall along the way was covered with family photos. Hank and Diane. Hank and Diane and their kids. Soccer games, birthday parties, and weddings. In the sea of sentimentality, she found the few framed photos she sought out on every visit. She and Hank, standing on the steps of McFarlin Auditorium at her high school graduation. She wore her cap and gown, and Hank had his arm around her shoulders, beaming like a proud parent. The next one was her college graduation. Same pose, but both Hank and Diane were in the picture, flanking her like she was their own. She lingered for a moment, taking time to savor the closest thing she had to a family photo album.
The study door was slightly ajar, but she knocked out of habit.
She froze at the sound of his voice, recognizing the tone, but not the slurred speech. When she’d left for Montgomery, the doctors were promising a fast recovery. Maybe it just hadn’t been fast enough. Bracing herself, she pushed the door open and stepped over the threshold, determined to deal with whatever greeted her inside.
Hank looked small, hunched in a wheelchair, but more than that, he looked frail, exhausted, and worn, nothing at all like the vibrant man in the pictures lining the hallway. Diane’s words flooded her mind. Hank hadn’t returned to work yet and he might not ever.
“West, it’s good to see you. Come in.”
She understood him, but only because she’d known him for years and knew the natural cadence of his voice. A stranger would probably have a much harder time ciphering through the slur caused by the paralysis on the left side of his face. She met his eyes. He knew exactly what she was thinking, and the last thing he would want was her sympathy. She walked over to the desk, using the length of her steps to search for levity. “Oh, this is pretty handy. Now you can say mean and nasty things about the attorneys appearing before you and they won’t report you because they’re not even sure what you said. Right?”
Hank laughed, and half of his face smiled weakly while the other half remained still and devoid of affect. For the first time since May, when she’d ridden in the ambulance with sirens blaring, her gut twisted at how close she’d come to losing him. She reached around his chair and pulled him into a tight hug, hoping the unusual gesture wouldn’t send his heart into arrhythmia. The embrace lasted several seconds before she was satisfied her fears were no longer real.
“Sit,” he said, waving his good arm toward the couch near his desk. “How was your summer?”
Unable to imagine engaging in small talk while the big question loomed over them, West said, “I will, but first I have to ask. Are you really back at work?”
One simple word, but it changed everything. She’d come back to Dallas for the clerkship. She’d found a place to live and abandoned other possibilities, all for a job that apparently wasn’t hers anymore, but the thing that mattered most was Hank hadn’t told her before now. Anger bubbled up, and she breathed deep to keep from giving in to its tempting pull. “I’m assuming you just found out or you would’ve let me know. Right?”
Hank had the decency to meet her stare head on, but he didn’t sugarcoat his words. “Known for a while. Chose not to tell you.”
“Because you knew I wouldn’t come back.”
“And now there’s apparently no job to come back to.” She shook her head, no longer bothering to hold back her aggravation. “I was first in my class. I could work anywhere.”
He started to answer, but the sounds that came out were less and less like words. He pointed at the laptop in front of him and began pecking at it with his right forefinger. He jabbed at the screen, and she turned it so she could read his response. Sure, you could. Are you ready to take one of those fancy big firm offers? In one year, you’ll make five times what you’d make at a nonprofit.
“I don’t care about the money. I had a great internship this summer. I could’ve stayed there.”
He tapped out more words. Were they even hiring?
West could tell he already knew the answer. “That’s not the point. Even if they aren’t, there are other places. Now, I’m behind the curve and I’m going to have to hope my roommate will let me slide on the first month’s rent until I find a new job.”
You don’t have to do that.
“I’m not taking your money.”
I’m not offering. The job is still yours. I’ve already spoken to my replacement. Nothing has to change.
“Oh, no. I only agreed to this clerkship because you asked. I’m not going to fetch coffee and do research for some brand new federal judge who doesn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground.”
Hank chuckled and then typed a novel. This one might actually know a thing or two. Our agreement was you’d do the clerkship. One year. That was our deal and I’m holding you to it. Yes, I planned for you to be my clerk, but that wasn’t the most important thing for me. This clerkship will open doors for you that your stellar grades won’t. You want to change the world? You need to see how it works first.
“I know how the world works. I’ve had plenty of experience.”
Hank nodded. Yes, you have, and I’m not trying to minimize everything you’ve been through, but the more you learn the judicial system from inside, the better equipped you will be to make it work for you. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.
She did trust him, as much as she trusted anyone, but she couldn’t help but feel ambushed by this news. “Who’s the new judge?”
Camille Avery. She was a state court judge in Collin County.
“Interesting. Does she have any federal experience at all?”
Matter of fact, she does. Right out of law school she worked for the solicitor general’s office, under Addison Riley.
“The Addison Riley who’s now chief justice of the Supreme Court?”
One and the same. After Avery worked in DC, she moved back here and worked as an AUSA for a while in the Eastern District. Her family has a lot of connections and she ran for and won a state court bench on her first try.
“Her family must have a lot of connections if she got confirmed so quickly.”
Avery had already started the interview process to become a magistrate, so Senator Armstrong fast-tracked her into my seat. I just met her. Judge Avery is sharp, personable, and immensely qualified.
“You just met her?” West thought about the woman she’d given her card to not more than fifteen minutes earlier. “Here? Tall, brunette, legs for days?”
Hank narrowed his eyes and nodded.
“I think I may have just asked your replacement on a date. She was getting in her car when I got here.”
“Lovely.” He spoke the one word and then typed. Please tell me she managed to resist your charms.
“Jury’s out on that one, Judge. Seriously, if those are the kind of judges the Senate is confirming these days, sign me up to clerk for a few more years.”
Hank typed even faster now. Good thing I know you’re all talk. Promise me you won’t hit on your employer anymore. She’s going to make a good jurist, and I imagine she has her sights set on more for the future, so she’ll need good, solid clerks to help her along the way. He wagged a wavering finger. “That’s your job. Understood?”
She hung her head in mock dejection. “Understood.”
He grinned. “But you’re right. Her family connections probably didn’t hurt.”
West nodded. She knew all about family connections, but not from personal experience. Many of her less qualified law school classmates had landed cush jobs due to the influence of wealthy and powerful relatives. Most of them thought she was just like them, taking advantage of her relationship with Hank to land a coveted clerkship. Little did they know, she dreaded a year of being a lackey when she could be out in the real world making a difference with her degree. Now that Hank wasn’t going to be her boss, she dreaded it even more.
It’s important to me that you do this. Hank typed as if reading her mind. Now more than ever. It would mean a lot to me for someone I know to carry on my legacy. At least for a little while.
West rolled over her options. She could find another job or fulfill the promise she made, but there really wasn’t a choice. Her own dreams could wait. She owed him this.
Monday morning Camille rushed through the lobby of the Adolphus Hotel toward the Bistro. The maître d’ held up a hand while he spoke to the two people standing in front of her examining the menu. Camille looked over her shoulder and said, “Never mind, I see them.” Ignoring his fluster, she strode through the restaurant to the table where her parents were waiting. “Sorry, I’m late. Parking downtown is a nightmare.”
Her mother motioned to the empty seat, and her father glanced up from the bound set of documents in his hand. “Not a problem,” he said. “We’ve got an expert witness hearing over at the George Allen building and we used the extra time to prepare.”
Camille hovered for a second by the empty chair. Years of experience taught her he didn’t mean anything by the remark, but it still stung that both of her parents always put work first. Roger and Nancy Avery had built an empire specializing in toxic tort litigation, but empire-building came at a cost, and their family had paid the price. Camille thought about her older brother and wondered, not for the first time, if his death had indirectly been a result of being virtually abandoned by over-achieving parents who couldn’t summon compassion for their drug-addicted son. She’d expected her own devastating election loss would impact their view of her, but meeting here, steps away from the courthouse, on the morning of her first day as a federal judge, had been their idea not hers, so she decided to stick around and make the most of the rare familial outreach. “Have you ordered?”
“Just fruit and yogurt for me,” her mother said, patting her waist. “And oatmeal for your dad. Doctor says his ticker isn’t what it used to be.”
Camille nodded, certain her father’s health report had more to do with the stress level of his job than his physical condition. Both of her parents were in perfect shape. They’d probably been halfway through a rigorous spin class before her alarm had gone off this morning. Their obsession wasn’t genetic. She was all for good physical fitness, but she wasn’t crazy about it, preferring recreational exercise like hikes and kayaking to the close, sweaty quarters of a gym. When the waiter came, she stubbornly ordered bacon and eggs, ignoring her mother’s raised eyebrows.
“Where did you park?” her mother asked.
“After driving around and around, I decided to valet here.”
“You’d think they’d have a spot for you somewhere at the courthouse.”
“They probably do. I’m sure there’s some secret judge’s lot somewhere that I’ll find out about today.” Camille took a sip of her coffee. The whole summer had been a whirlwind, from the phone call the week after Judge Blair’s collapse to the speedy confirmation. She’d barely had time to register the fact she was about to assume a seat in the federal judiciary. Little details about where to park and whether there was a secret entrance in the building seemed unimportant. She’d do like she always did—show up and act like she knew what she was doing until she figured it out. In the meantime, she’d try to enjoy breakfast with her parents whom she barely saw anymore.
Once everyone started eating, she said, “I can’t remember the last time we shared a meal together.” She took a bite of bacon. “Actually, I do. It was a year ago. At Uncle Randy’s wedding,” she said, referring to her father’s brother.
“That was quite a spread,” her father said, looking up from his papers and oatmeal. “My brother’s wife knows how to throw a party.”
Camille ignored the sarcastic remark. Her father had never approved of what he dubbed his younger brother’s irresponsible choices—throwing away his law degree to become an author and marrying a woman half his age. “I was thinking of having a dinner party soon. Us, Randy and Evelyn, and maybe a few others. Nothing too fancy, just a smallish celebration.”
“Oh dear, we’ll actually be traveling a lot in the next month, and that’s why we asked you here this morning,” her mother said, raising her glass of grapefruit juice. “Congratulations, to the first federal judge in the family.”
Camille looked over at her father, who absentmindedly raised his glass in response to her mother’s toast. She hadn’t expected any kind of celebration really, but somehow this afterthought of a breakfast seemed like a waste of time for all of them. It was clear her father would rather be working and her mother was only trying to placate. She didn’t need parental approval or praise. Their connections might have gotten her the initial interview, but it was her experience and hard work that had closed the deal. Let them go to dinner parties and professional conferences and brag about their daughter the judge. In the meantime, she’d celebrate with people who truly appreciated how far she’d come and the sacrifices she’d made to achieve this success. Every step forward, up the ladder, would be her own.
She left her car at the valet stand and walked the two blocks to the courthouse. There might indeed be some secret entrance, but today, she’d walk through the front doors and pass through security exactly as she had when she’d come here back in May, looking for a spot as a magistrate judge. No one knew her today, but she was determined that in a few years, everyone would know her name.
West poured hot water over the grounds in the French press and gave the mixture a strong stir. Three more minutes and she’d have a perfect cup of coffee. She was counting on it since good coffee might be the only good thing to come from her first day of work at the courthouse.
“Is that what you’re going to wear?”
Her best friend, Bill, stood in the doorway to the kitchen of their apartment. Or rather Bill’s apartment that he’d graciously allowed her to crash in until she found a place of her own. She and Bill had attended Berkeley Law and had gravitated to each other by virtue of having both grown up in Dallas. Bill had graduated a year before her and moved back to Texas to work for the regional office for Lambda Legal. When she’d found out there was no chance she’d be staying on at the Center, she’d reached out to Bill, and he’d generously offered to let her bunk with him for the year she’d be in town. In the course of moving she hadn’t thought much about whether she’d need new clothes for the job. “What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”
Bill shook his head. “If you have to ask, then you might be beyond help.”
West looked down at her outfit—rust oxfords, tan chinos, a sky blue and pale green plaid shirt, and a Wembley tie she’d found in a fifty-cent box at a garage sale. She gestured the length of the tie. “Uh, this is vintage.”
“That’s code for I bought it at a thrift store. You’re going to federal court, not federal prison,” Bill said, as he rummaged through the fridge. “Is there any milk left for cereal?”
West answered his question by flipping him off. She’d dressed as conservatively as she could stomach, and she’d much rather be sporting jeans, Chucks, and a T-shirt. What she had on would have to do. She’d promised to work the job, but she wasn’t going to let it work her.
“So, tell me about this new judge. What’s she like?”
“I don’t know much about her other than what I could find on the Internet. She worked for Justice Riley a long time ago, did a stint with the US Attorney’s office up in Plano, and she was a state court judge.”
“Who got voted out of office after that guy she let slide killed a little girl. How in the hell did she get a federal bench?”
West shrugged. “Hank likes her and insists I will too. I guess we’ll see.”
“She sounds like she’s been around a while. Old gal?”
“Not even close. Late thirties, forty tops. And she’s pretty hot.”
Bill jabbed her in the shoulder. “And here you were acting like you’ve never met her. Or did you just find a pinup photo online?”
“No, I’ve met her, but it was before anyone knew she’d…it was before Hank went into the hospital. It was that day in fact. I helped her get through security at the courthouse. She was downtown interviewing for a magistrate position the day Hank collapsed. And then I saw her on Friday at the Blairs’ house. Guess he was passing the torch.”
“What’s she like?”
West considered the question. She didn’t have anything concrete to say, but her gut told her under other circumstances, Camille might be a fun date. A little uptight, a bit slow to unwind, but when she let her hair down…For a few seconds, West imagined Camille’s silky brunette waves fanned out across her chest and sucked in a breath while searching for the vaguest possible answer to Bill’s question. “She seems nice.”
“Nice? I saw that look in your eye. Nice doesn’t even begin to cover what you were thinking just now.”
“Lay off, perv,” she said, swatting at his arm. “She’s my new boss. Full stop.”
“In your world maybe. Now I’m just thinking about whether she’s wearing any clothes under that robe.”
West drank the last of her coffee and put the cup in the sink. “I’m outta here. See you later.”
The courthouse was close, but not close enough to walk to in the oppressive Dallas heat that lingered late into August. After circling the main downtown streets a few times, West finally managed to squeeze her Jeep into one of the last spots in a pay lot several blocks from the courthouse. The lot was tucked between two buildings on the east side of downtown that used to be more warehouse and less office space. Things had changed. She spotted several signs of gentrification, from imposing three-story townhouses to a farmer’s market that boasted more restaurants than fruit stalls. The only thing that hadn’t changed was the number of homeless people present on the streets. Some were curled on curbs, leaning against buildings, but some were entrepreneurs, offering an array of services to earn a buck.
“Wash your windows while you’re working? Pay me what you think is fair.”
West appraised the tall, lanky man who’d appeared out of nowhere and immediately pegged him as one of the homeless. Even at ten feet away, she smelled the sour stench of sweat and his stained and tattered clothes only bolstered her conclusion. His eyes were tired, but kind. How long had he been on the street, begging for work just to scrape by? She reached for her wallet, pulled out a five, and held it out to him. “The windows are pretty dirty, but I don’t have a lot of cash on me.” She grimaced as she spoke the last phrase, recognizing it all too well for the common excuse of the pedestrian accosted by the homeless. “I’m starting a new job today, and I can give you more when I get my first check.”
“This is more than enough.”
The man’s smile was gentle and absolving, but it didn’t diminish the guilt that her life had taken a different path than his. “It’s not nearly enough. Thank you.” She hurried off before he could say another word. The encounter stirred too many memories, and the first day of a new job wasn’t the time to dwell on a past better off forgotten.
Early, but not too early to appear eager, she breezed through security and rode the elevator to the sixth floor where Peter greeted her with a big grin.
“First day?” he said. “Guess I’ll be seeing a ton of you this year.”
“Guess you’re right.” She reached into her back pocket for her wallet and set it and her phone on Peter’s desk. “Don’t have a bar card yet. You want to keep my phone?”
“Don’t be silly. You’re family.” He waved her through the metal detector. “You know, I was a little surprised you were going to be here, considering…”
West picked up her stuff and jammed it back in her pockets. “Me too, but it’s pretty hard to break a promise to Judge Blair. He’s not big on the whole ‘circumstances have changed’ excuse.”
“Well, you tell him we all wish him well. He’s a great man, and we miss him around here.”
“I will. Have you seen Judge Avery yet this morning?”
“She got here about fifteen minutes ago, along with her other clerk. You know him?”
“Name’s Lloyd. Word is he’s on loan from Judge Stroud. Seems like a bit of a pain if you ask me, but I’ll let you make your own decision.”
“Thanks, Peter. You have a great day.”
West walked down the quiet hall, taking her time. She tried her best to arrive exactly on time, but she was ten minutes early. The idea of going into Hank’s chambers and not seeing him there made her gut clench, but it was inevitable. After taking a deep breath, she tugged open the door and walked into the new world.
“Hi, West,” the regal, sixty-something, African-American woman behind the desk called out. “You’re early.”
“Not on purpose.” West smiled to soften the words. “Hi, Ester. Is Judge Avery in?”
“She’s been here for an hour. New guy’s here too.” Ester jerked her head back toward the door behind her. “Go on in.”
West looked at the door and mentally chanted the refrain she’d adopted to calm her unease. Only a year. Only a year. She could do anything for a short period of time, and as much as she didn’t want to admit it, Hank had some good points. Working from chambers would give her insights into the judicial system she could leverage to get the kind of job she really wanted in the public sector. She straightened her tie and knocked on the door.
“Come in,” a voice called out.
Camille Avery was seated behind the desk. If she was surprised to see West, she hid it behind a brief but knowing smile. West shot a look at the guy in the three-piece suit—who wore those, anyway—seated in front of Camille’s desk and then nodded at Camille. “Good morning, Judge.”
“Good morning, West. Have a seat. Have you met Lloyd?”
West slid into the seat next to three-piece Lloyd. “I haven’t.”
He stuck out his hand. “Lloyd Garber. Northwestern.”
She stared at his hand for a minute, trying to decide if this guy was for real. When he didn’t flinch, she shook his hand. “West Fallon. Nice to meet you.”
“Now that you’re both here,” Camille said, her expression all business, “Let’s get a few things out in the open. First of all, in case you weren’t aware, this is my first day on the bench. I’m ready to hit the ground running and I hope you are too. We don’t have a morning docket today, but the afternoon is full, and the first thing I’d like you to do is prepare a one-page memo to brief me on each of the matters scheduled for this afternoon’s docket. When you’re done with that, I’d like to start going through the rest of the current caseload and triage any cases needing attention. Some other judges have been filling in to decide pending matters since May, but there might be some motions still lingering and we’ll need to reset any trial dates that were set over the summer. It’ll probably take us a few weeks to get things running smoothly. Any questions?”
Lloyd raised his hand. West barely suppressed a laugh when she caught Camille trying hard not to roll her eyes. “What’s your question, Lloyd?” Camille asked.
“Do you have some kind of template you’d like us to use for the memos? Maybe something you’ve had clerks use in the past. Judge Stroud hasn’t had us write any memos yet.”
“Short answer is no, I don’t,” Camille said. “Longer answer is that I’m new at this job, but I have done your job before, and I can tell you that wherever you work—judicial clerk or associate in a firm, big or small—brevity is always appreciated as long as you cover the salient points. Make sense?”
Lloyd nodded, but West wasn’t sure he understood he’d need to start thinking for himself. Whatever he thought, she respected Camille’s ability to get right to the point. She rose to follow Lloyd out of the room, but Camille stopped her. “West, do you mind sticking around for a minute? I need to ask you something.”
She faced Camille and studiously ignored Lloyd’s curious gaze. When the door finally closed behind Lloyd, Camille motioned for her to sit down again. “Nice to see you again,” West said, keeping her tone even.
Camille nodded. “Nice to see you too. Circumstances have certainly changed, haven’t they?”
“I suppose. I mean, I would still ask you out again. Nothing’s changed about that, but I guess you decided not to use the number I gave you, so it doesn’t seem like a winning proposition.”
“Seemed a little inappropriate once I figured out you were going to be working for me.”
West wondered when that had happened and then she realized Camille must’ve made the connection after she’d given her the card with her name on it outside of Hank’s house. “So, you would’ve called?”
Camille rushed to answer. “I didn’t say that.”
“You’re not going to tell me, are you?”
“We shouldn’t be having this conversation.”
West offered an exaggerated nod. “I get it. We should be all WASPY and ignore our feelings?”
“I don’t have feelings.” Camille scrambled to clarify. “I mean, of course, I have feelings, just not about you.”
“Well, that sounded downright mean.”
Camille cleared her throat. “I think you know that’s not how I meant it. I just want to be clear now that we have a professional relationship, nothing that happened or might have happened before matters. Are we clear?”
West watched Camille’s face for signs of her true feelings. She was obviously a tad flustered, but that could be attributed to first day jitters, but she suspected it was more than that. Camille was attracted to her. West wasn’t entirely sure why she cared at this point since they couldn’t do anything about it now. Maybe she just wanted to know, as if knowing would give her some kind of satisfaction, some kind of power.
“Oh, we’re clear all right.” West stood. “I better join your more experienced clerk before he finishes all the files and makes me look bad. Do you want us in the courtroom for the afternoon docket or would you rather we kept reviewing files?”
Camille looked surprised at the question. “It might be a good idea for one of you to be there. You can decide between you which one shows up.”
“Okay.” West turned to go, but Camille’s voice stopped her.
“Do you mind if I ask how you know Judge Blair?” When West raised her eyebrows, Camille looked away, but kept talking. “It was pretty clear to me from talking to him that you weren’t simply a new hire. He seems very interested in your future.”
West met Camille’s gaze and held it. Camille’s expression was earnest, genuine, not predatory, like she was looking for gossip, but telling her the truth would open wounds long closed, though not remote enough to be painless. A moment ago, she’d had fun playing power games with Camille, but now she knew she’d been playing with fire. Camille was her boss for the next year and their every interaction had to be professional or she’d risk more than a reference on her résumé.
In the meantime, Camille was waiting patiently for her answer, so she delivered a response that would be honest, but share nothing. “I met him working on a case years ago and we became friendly. Nothing more to it.” She waved as she walked toward the door. “Talk to you later.”
She pushed through the door and breathed a sigh of relief when she was finally out of Camille’s presence. She had no idea how she was going to make it through a year with Camille Avery and her devastating good looks and probing questions. If she’d known how hard it would be to keep it together, she wasn’t sure she would’ve agreed to take on the job.
Camille watched the door close, and when it clicked shut, she put her head in her hands. Damn. Everything about West distracted her completely. How in the world was she going to make it through the next year with West strutting around, oozing sexuality? And there was more to it than West’s good looks. She had a mystery about her, and Camille was anxious to puzzle it out. West’s vague detail about how she knew Blair was likely a watered-down version of the truth. She’d seen West’s transcript and résumé. She’d graduated top of her class at Berkeley and held some prestigious internships while in school, so she was certainly qualified, but she was vastly different from the stuffy, pedigreed sycophants that often applied for such positions. In addition to the funky clothes and intricate tattoo hiding under West’s sleeve, she was a couple of years older than most clerks, and the nonchalant manner suggested a take it or leave it attitude toward the job. She seemed like an edgy choice for a federal clerkship, and she had a strong feeling Blair’s hiring of West Fallon was rooted in something deeper than a chance meeting while working on a case. No doubt she’d be able to find out more details from people who’d worked with Blair at the courthouse, but running through the gossip mill on her first day was a bit unseemly. The mystery of West Fallon would have to wait.
The phone on her desk rang. “Judge Avery.”
“Judge Avery, Judge Stroud would like to talk to you.”
“Thanks, Ester. You can put him through.”
“Actually, he’s right outside your door. He planned on busting in, but I told him we weren’t going to start things that way.”
Camille laughed at the protective tone in her secretary’s voice. Ester had been with Judge Blair for a long time, and she’d expected it would take a lot longer than half a day to win her over. “Fair enough, but I’m available now, so you can send him in.”
After a brief knock on the door, Stroud stuck his head in. “Mind if I come in?”
“Depends on whether you got the all clear from Ester.”
Stroud sank into one of the chairs with a glance back toward the closed door. “I have to admit,” he whispered, “I’m a little scared of that woman.”
“Then I’m very happy to have her on my side.” Camille leaned back in her chair. “To what do I owe this visit?”
“First off I want to congratulate you on your swift confirmation. I know Mark Hollis was in contention for the nomination, but Senator Armstrong really went to bat for you.”
Despite his friendly smile, Camille heard a slight edge in his voice at the mention of Mark Hollis. Mark was a well-known lawyer in Dallas who’d made no secret he’d had his sights on a federal bench. It was also no secret Mark was an old friend of Stroud’s, and she wondered if he wished his pal had been chosen over her, but acknowledging the rift seemed awkward, so she changed the subject. “I’m happy to be here and anxious to get started. You have any advice?”
He looked surprised at the question. “Me? No, you’ll do just fine on your own. I came by primarily to make sure you have everything you need. You met West Fallon?”
Camille went on high alert. “I did. She seems very qualified.”
“You sound like someone talking about a blind date. What is it they say—the prospect has a nice personality.”
Camille squirmed in her seat at the dating reference. She needed to be very careful here. “I might’ve been a little surprised, that’s all. She’s not like any of the clerks I’ve met before.”
“True. You won’t find many like her. She was one of Blair’s special projects,” he said, shaking his head. “It was very nice of you to agree to keep her on.”
“Actually,” Camille said, “I’m not sure I need two clerks. I appreciate the loan, but if you’d like Lloyd back, I’m sure I can manage.” She had a feeling Lloyd was going to be more of a drag on her time than helpful with the case load.
“Nonsense.” He looked around the room. “This is a nice office.”
Camille started to ask another question about West, but the abrupt change in subject signaled now was not the time. “You said primarily.”
“You were primarily checking in. What else did you need?”
“I wanted to talk to you about your docket. We operate under a random assignment docket. The clerks dole out cases as they come in, but at times, as chief, I exercise my authority to reassign a case.”
“O-kay.” Camille strung the word out as she tried to figure out where he was headed with this information.
“I’m telling you this because I plan to reassign the Wilson case.”
“Any particular reason?” Camille didn’t try to hide the note of defensiveness in her voice. It might be her first day here, but she wasn’t new to bench politics. When the presiding judge in state court interfered with the usual process of assigning cases, there was usually some implication the assigned judge either wasn’t experienced enough or had some bias.
“It’s not about you. It’s a lightning rod kind of a case and it’s set for trial in the next few weeks. You don’t need that right off the bat.”
“And when will I need that?”
Camille leaned forward. “Barry, if you’re trying to protect me, don’t. I’m fully aware why I got voted out of office, but I don’t regret the decision I made or the attention it generated. I hate publicity as much as the next person, but it’s part of the deal. There will never be a time when having my judgment questioned in public is convenient. If you’re going to pull this case from me now, at what point will you decide I’m ready to handle hot-button cases? And do you baby all the new judges or just the ones whose parents you vacation with?”
Stroud shifted in his chair. “Truth is we haven’t had a new judge in a while.”
“What kind of case is it?”
“Criminal. Drug counts, but one of them is a lifer.”
“Well, I’d prefer if you’d treat me like everyone else. If it were a complex patent law case, I’d understand you wanting to reassign it until I had a little more experience, but I’ve handled plenty of drug cases and quite a few capital cases in state court, not to mention my time as an AUSA. You can safely assume I know what I’m doing. Okay?”
Stroud crossed his arms and frowned, but he apparently saw the logic in her words. “Okay, but come to me if you need anything.”
“I will, but right now the kind of things I need are the password to the secret lounge and the code for the secret door.”
Stroud laughed. “Ester will fill you in. She knows more about the ins and outs of this place than anyone else here.” He stood up. “Would you like to join me for lunch?”
“Thanks for the invite, but I think I’d rather get settled in. Rain check?”
“I’ll round up some of the other judges,” he lowered his voice, “the ones I like, and we’ll make a plan for later in the week.” He walked through the door, calling out, “Have a great day!” over his shoulder.
Camille watched him go. She wished she knew what to ask him, but the truth was until she started digging into the case files, she didn’t have a clue what she didn’t know. Maybe when she got the memos back from Lloyd and West, she’d have a better handle on what she would be facing over the next few months.
West. Every thought circled back to her. Crazy really. Maybe she just needed a date. She’d had lots of offers and plenty of time to date after she was booted out of office last November, but other than her regular Sunday brunch with friends, an active social life had been at the bottom of her list of to-dos. Besides, first date conversations inevitably turned to topics that included career, a total non-starter for an unemployed judge whose only real prospect at the time had been work at her parents’ firm.
But now she was a federal judge and she could hold her head high. Once she settled in, she could venture out and meet other eligible professional woman, maybe even one who wasn’t an attorney. In the meantime, she needed to learn her way around the courthouse if she was going to fit in. She pressed the button labeled Ester on her phone and asked her to come in. The almost immediate knock on the door left her wondering if Ester had ESP.
“Come in. Have a seat. I need your help.”
“Sure, Judge, whatever you need.”
Camille didn’t bother asking her to use her first name. Ester had worked at the courthouse most of her adult life and the title would be ingrained in her, but Camille vowed to break the ice in some other ways. “The list is long, but first I wanted to tell you I’m very sorry Judge Blair had to retire so suddenly.”
“Thank you. We worked together for a very long time.”
“And I know he valued your service. I’m sure I will too. There are a lot of things I need help with, and I’m depending on you to be my right hand.”
“Whatever you need to know.”
“For starters is there a special place I can park, and where can I get something good to eat around here?”
“Great questions. There’s a cafe on the sixth floor, creatively named Cafe on Six. I can always get you food from there, but beware going in yourself because it’ll be open season for attorneys to bug you with questions. A lot of the judges eat at the Adolphus down the street. I also have a list of places that deliver. Whatever you need, I can get it for you.”
Ester’s generous desire to be helpful spurred Camille to ask one of the questions she really wanted to know. “Do you happen to know when Judge Blair hired West Fallon? I couldn’t help but notice you two seem very familiar.”
The second West’s name was mentioned, Ester’s expression changed, closed off. “They’ve known each other a very long time. I think it was always assumed West would clerk for him when she graduated.”
Camille wanted to fish for more information, but this was too obvious, too direct. Her obsession with the details about West wasn’t becoming. West was well qualified for the job and it was none of her business if some sort of nepotism had led Blair to make her keep his promise to hire her. Camille vowed to let the topic go.
“Now, about that parking space.”