Prologue

Samuel hummed a soft tune as he hunched over the worn wooden stairs that led to the small porch and drove a final nail into the loose step in hopes of securing its wobbling state. He inspected his work and moved up and down the stairs a few times, testing their strength, and was reasonably certain that they would withstand another decade or more of use, not that he was expecting any guests for the dilapidated wooden shack.

With the late afternoon sun at his back, he wiped the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his shirt and stepped back to look around the expansive property, planning his next project. He had given his life to this land, and it was all he really knew.

“Samuel.”

He knew she was coming, but hearing her smooth, Southern inflection made him shiver; time had not diminished her effect on him. He turned and could only stare at her soft oval face, features that he had memorized. She was still as beautiful as the day they met.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” he whispered as he closed the space between them and reached out to stroke her cheek.

She leaned into his touch and closed her eyes, before returning the loving stare. “You work too hard,” she said, caressing his calloused hands.

He shrugged and looked past her. “This place just needs some extra attention. She’s getting old.”

“I know, but tomorrow is another day. Come on home. I’ll cook your favorite supper.”

Answering for him, his stomach grumbled, and he could already savor her gravy and cornbread. It had been a long time since he enjoyed his favorite meal.

 

Chapter One

The stars were not aligned for Elizabeth Campbell, as she cursed the blinking yellow light that advised drivers of construction ahead. A small oversight of failing to set her alarm had her running late already, plus she’d snagged her pantyhose on her car door in her haste. She resigned herself to the will of the traffic god and sank back into her leather seat, enjoying the moment of solitude. It seemed that her life had been thrown into a whirlwind the last few months. She had only been living back in her own home for a day, after spending two challenging months in her parents’ home and under her mother’s reign; however, that seemed to be the least of the sharp turns that her life had taken. A little over a week ago, she was unemployed, essentially fired from the Southern Indigent Legal Center, but was now returning as the supervising attorney. This was only after being hunted by a psychopathic priest. Yet, that was the least of it: she kissed Detective Grace Donovan.

As the traffic began to move, she was pulled from her thoughts and maneuvered her car with a sudden sense of urgency into spaces most people would assume too small for a vehicle and continued to weave her way through, until she finally arrived at her usual parking spot for her coveted Roadster. After raising the collar of her jacket in an attempt to fight off the brisk morning air, Elizabeth rushed to SILC as fast as her impractical shoes would permit. However, her pace in combination with her shoe choice was a decision she soon regretted. When her heel met with a crevice in the uneven sidewalk, the crevice won and she found herself stuck. Part of her felt like leaving the damn shoe behind, but knowing that wasn’t practical, she bent and tugged on the trapped shoe until the crevice gave up its hold. As she leaned her hand on the stucco wall for extra support to return the shoe to her foot, she felt a sticky substance. She pulled back from the offending wall and looked at the new graffiti art that was on display that included a caricature of a man with a larger than life penis protruding from his pants. When she realized which body part her hand had been resting on, she shuddered at the foreign substance that was still stuck to her.

She reached her good hand into her leather messenger bag that managed to remain perched on her shoulder through the ordeal and searched for a tissue, expelling expletives in the process, but was interrupted when a small solid object was thrust into her back.

“Give me your wallet.”

“What?” She wheeled around and was surprised to find a young man with his hand stuck in his pocket, holding a hidden object. His brown eyes darted wildly as he searched for witnesses. She assessed his scruffy, sandy blond hair that looked unwashed and wrinkled clothes that showed evidence of several days’ wear and were wholly inappropriate for the onset of winter. After weighing her options, she allowed her bag to slip off her shoulder and drop to the ground. She reached inside and moved items about as though looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack of files, loose documents, pens, stray paper clips, and half a bag of Cheetos.

When she realized that her search was taking longer than her companion liked, she raised her index finger in a gesture, silently requesting his patience. He shifted from foot to foot, eager to be done with his task as he watched Elizabeth continue her exploration of what could only be compared to Mary Poppins’s endless bag of trinkets.

“Come on, lady!” he demanded as he nervously turned his head to the sound of distant voices.

“Here it is,” Elizabeth said as she reached for him and snapped a handcuff around his free hand.

“What the f—”

Before he could finish his cursing tirade, she encased her wrist with the other side of the handcuff.

“You’re crazy, bitch!”

“Many would agree with you,” she said as she bent to collect her bag and yanked on his arm to follow.

“I’m not going with you.”

“Okay then, where should we go? Perhaps we can wander around the city, see the sights. We might attract a bit of attention being like this and all.” She lifted their cuffed hands for emphasis.

“Where’s the key?”

“For that, we will need to go to my office.”

He sighed deeply and dropped a thick stick that he had been holding, resigning himself that he was trapped.

“So how did you know I didn’t have a gun?” he asked as Elizabeth led him down the street toward SILC.

“It’s a good thing for your sake that you didn’t. Given how my morning is going, I might have kicked your ass and then shot you.”

She remembered where her hand had been just before their encounter and shuddered, then rubbed it on his shirtsleeve in a feeble attempt to wipe off the unmentionable foreign substance.

“What are you doing?” he asked, trying to pull away and create as much space as possible between them.

“I’m just a touchy-feely person.” She pulled on him to speed him along when she saw the entrance to SILC. “Come on, I’m already late.”

She stopped in front of the glass door and turned to him. “Okay, let me do the talking.”

He looked at her in bewilderment before she yanked him through the door.

“Morning, Amy,” she said as nonchalantly as she could to SILC’s receptionist who sat at the front desk. Elizabeth and Amy had become friends over the last four and a half years, so Elizabeth figured Amy would only be half surprised to see her handcuffed to a strange man.

“Ummm, should I ask?” Amy asked with a skeptical look.

“Probably best not to.” Elizabeth reached into her bag and handed over her phone. “Would you do me a favor and call Detective Donovan and ask if she can bring the key to these cuffs?” She held their joined hands up in case there was any doubt as to which cuffs she meant.

“What? You said you had the key!”

“Nooo, I said we would have to go to my office. I never said I had the key.”

With the misunderstanding cleared up, she strode through SILC and stopped in the kitchen to grab some sustenance for her new friend before she proceeded to her office in the back corner. Elizabeth sat in the worn black leather guest chair across from her desk and motioned for her companion to sit in the mismatched chair next to her. He resisted at first, until she set a leftover roast beef sandwich and carton of milk on the desk in front of his intended seat. As though drawn to the food, he plopped down and eagerly grabbed at it, pulling on Elizabeth’s arm as he used two hands to unwrap the sandwich and shove it into his mouth. Elizabeth watched as he devoured every bit of his food and milk in a matter of moments, which told her everything she needed to know about him.

“I’m Elizabeth Campbell. What’s your name?”

“Danny Johnson,” he mumbled as he wiped at his mouth.

“How old are you, Danny?”

“Eighteen,” he answered while staring at a candy bowl that sat at the side of her desk.

“Go ahead, help yourself.”

Not needing to be told twice, he grabbed a handful of Skittles and popped them in his mouth. She was amazed at how fast he could eat.

“When was the last time you ate, Danny?”

He offered a shrug in response.

“Do you have a place to live?”

Refusing to make eye contact, he shook his head.

“You want to tell me your story?”

She could sense his mistrust, and she guessed it was a learned response.

“Maybe I can help,” she said. “That’s what I do. I try to help people.”

“I’ve never done that before.”

“Done what?”

“Tried to rob someone. I was just…” he choked out. “I was just hungry.”

“Where are your parents?” she asked softly.

Certain that her question was going to be his undoing, she squeezed his hand and held it, and she could feel his breath quicken.

“They hate me.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Because that’s what they said.”

Elizabeth sat quietly and tightened her grip on his hand.

“I told them I’m gay,” he whispered as his lip quivered, and he began nervously playing with a small key that was intertwined into a braided rainbow-colored bracelet on his wrist.

She moved away a lock of hair that dangled in his eyes so she could get a better look at him. “I’m sorry. Your parents were wrong.”

Danny lifted his head unsure if she was mocking him.

Elizabeth couldn’t imagine how an eighteen-year-old could face such rejection. A moment of panic passed through her as she thought of her own parents and how they would react if she told them about Grace. However, that was a dilemma for another day, and she refocused on the hurt teenager who sat beside her and looked at her with hope that he might have found a friend.

“I’ll tell you what. I could use some help around here. How about a job?” She knew the clinic’s budget couldn’t afford another employee after she brought on Rosa Sanchez, her last client who found herself in need of a job, but she didn’t care. She would pay him out of her own salary if she had to.

He nodded in acceptance, but she could sense the weight still resting on his shoulders at his immediate predicament.

“And here.” She reached into the side pocket of her bag at her feet and pulled out her wallet.

“Here is…” She counted out the cash. “Two hundred and forty dollars.”

He eyed the money but hesitated. She suspected that he wasn’t accustomed to being treated so nicely, especially from a woman he nearly robbed.

“Consider it an advance. It is enough to get a good meal, a motel nearby, and a new set of clothes. Oh, and a jacket,” she said in an afterthought. “Be here tomorrow at nine a.m. and we’ll work out the employment details and find you a more permanent place to stay. Sound like a deal?”

He offered a watery smile and graciously accepted the money, shoving it into his pocket. Elizabeth was unsure if she would ever see him again, but if not, she still thought it was money well spent.

She bent to replace the wallet in her bag, and it stuck to her hand. “Oh, this is just gross.” She turned to him. “Let’s go. I need to go to the bathroom.”

Danny hesitated, but she gave him no choice but to follow as she dragged him out of her office behind her. Elizabeth pushed open the ladies’ room door, but it swung closed on him before he could make it through, and a thud could be heard as his body made contact with the wooden surface and Elizabeth was yanked backward. She pulled open the door and eyed him. “Come on, keep up.”

She turned the water on full force and rubbed vigorously, yanking Danny back and forth with each movement. Satisfied that she had removed all the slimy disgustingness, she took the opportunity to stare at her reflection in the scarred mirror and ran her hands through the front of her hair, but the cuff on their joined hands snagged her dangling earring.

“Shit,” she exclaimed, as the earring catapulted through the air followed by a delicate splash sound. “No, no, no.”

She dashed into the stall and dropped to her knees, bringing Danny down with her, but she was too late to rescue her earring that slid down the porcelain tunnel. After hastily pushing up her sleeve, she jammed her free hand in the toilet, and Danny looked away in disgust. As she searched for the lost artifact, the bathroom door swung open.

“Elizabeth,” Amy called out. “Are you in here?”

Elizabeth held her breath and hoped she would go away, this not being a position she wanted to be caught in, but Danny’s snicker gave them away. Amy rounded the corner of the stall and stood over them.

“Is there something I should know?” Amy asked accusingly with her hands on her hips.

“My earring fell in and I tried to get it out, but now I’m stuck.”

“Stuck you say…interesting,” Amy said as she scratched her head in fake consternation.

“Would you stop enjoying this so much and help me get out.”

“Well, I was watching this nature show, and when an animal gets its leg stuck in a trap, it chews it off.”

Elizabeth offered a growl in response, but Danny was rather enjoying the exchange and ineffectively hid a snicker.

“I’m not saying you should chew off your arm.”

“Thank you.”

“I have a nail file. I might take a while, but—”

Amy’s thoughtful suggestion was interrupted by Rosa’s entrance, who was followed by Grace.

Unsure of what to make of the sight, Rosa backed out of the room, still trying to adjust to the unusual American customs, leaving Grace to gawk at them.

“What the hell?” Grace asked as she tried to decipher Elizabeth’s situation with one hand cuffed to a male stranger and the other stuck in a toilet. “I can’t even imagine how this happened,” she laughed.

Thoroughly humiliated, Elizabeth tried to use her cuffed hand to cover her face, but Danny was not willing to cooperate.

“Would you just uncuff us?” Elizabeth pleaded as Amy backed up to give Grace room and decided it was a good time to make her exit.

“Please?”

“Please,” Elizabeth barked.

With a smirk firmly in place, Grace reached down and grabbed the chain between the cuffs and used the key to release its hold on them.

“Thank God,” Danny murmured as he rubbed at the red mark around his wrist.

But before Danny could make his escape, Grace towered over him. “Who are you?”

“Let him be, Grace, and help me out of here.”

Danny took the opportunity to scurry out of the bathroom, and Elizabeth was convinced that she would never see him again. And who would blame him?

Now that they were alone, Grace bent down by her ear and whispered, “If you’re going to steal my cuffs, there are far more fun things to do with them.”

“I didn’t steal your cuffs! You left them in my office the other day.” Elizabeth glared at Grace and realized that she was being played. “Are you going to help me?”

Without a word of warning, Grace reached down and yanked on her arm, freeing her captive hand.

“Ouch!” Elizabeth said in indignation at Grace’s rough treatment as she examined her hand to make sure all fingers were present.

After being helped to her feet, Elizabeth walked to the sink and began washing her hands. Grace stood behind her, watching her through the mirror. Even stuck in a public toilet, she was beautiful, and an ache of longing began to grow inside. They hadn’t seen each other since their kiss a few days ago. They had spoken, but Elizabeth seemed distracted, and the kiss was never mentioned, and that worried her.

With her task complete, Elizabeth regained her composure and turned to Grace, offering a soft smile. “Hi,” Elizabeth whispered, and that simple word was nearly Grace’s undoing. There were so many responses she had in her head, including “So about those cuffs,” but instead she just stared, speechless. She wanted to reach out and push a stray strand of hair behind Elizabeth’s ear, but instead she just stood frozen, uncertain.

After a moment of silence, Elizabeth turned to the door. “So, um…”

“Right, I guess you probably have to get back to work,” Grace interjected, embarrassed by her behavior. She watched Elizabeth peel off her jacket with a soggy sleeve, as she exited the bathroom, and an overwhelming loss filled her. She knew she wasn’t ready to let her go and followed to catch up. “So you want to tell me what this was all about?”

Elizabeth let out a quick laugh and seemed happy to have her company for a few more moments. As she went through her morning drama starting from the top with her failed alarm clock, Grace smiled at the story, but was more interested in the run in her pantyhose.

When they reached Elizabeth’s office, Elizabeth settled into her chair and completed her tale as to how she came to be stuck in a toilet. The easy banter loosened Grace up, and feeling emboldened, she perched herself on Elizabeth’s side of the desk, her leg brushing against Elizabeth’s arm as she settled herself. Elizabeth offered a coy smile and placed her hand on Grace’s knee, causing her breath to quicken as the warmth of Elizabeth’s touch sent electric currents up her leg and then some.

Leaning forward, Grace whispered, “So, about those—”

“Elizabeth, Mrs. Francis is here.”

Amy stood in the doorway, and Elizabeth stared at her dumbfounded, as though Amy spoke an indigenous language, and Grace winced in pain at the death grip Elizabeth now had on her knee.

“What?”

“Mrs. Francis, your ten o’clock appointment. She’s been here for about fifteen minutes, but you were, uh, indisposed.” Amy smirked.

“Right, will you bring her in?” Elizabeth asked with a distracted looked.

As Amy left, Grace stood and moved to the other side of the desk and leaned on the back of her guest chair.

“Sorry,” Elizabeth said with a look of true regret, which warmed Grace.

“So, how about din—” Grace was interrupted by the entrance of an elderly African-American woman. Seriously!

“Mrs. Francis, it’s good to see you again.” Elizabeth stood to greet her as a younger woman entered behind her.

After accepting her offered hand, Mrs. Francis turned. “This is my granddaughter, Camille.”

A fashionably dressed woman stepped forward. “Thank you for seeing us.” The woman, who Grace guessed to be in her mid twenties, stood with confidence and gripped Elizabeth’s hand, her caramel colored eyes never breaking contact. Camille loosened a brightly colored scarf that complemented her mocha skin, and looked around the modest office before landing her eyes on Grace and offering a small smile and nod in acknowledgement.

Grace returned a strained smile, already knowing the purpose of their visit. Although they didn’t know her, she knew them, as the lead detective on the newly opened Francis case. If this meeting went as she expected, the forecast on their fledgling relationship looked gloomy, at least in the short term. Lost in thought and not noticing Elizabeth’s approach, she flinched when Elizabeth placed her hand on her arm. “This is Grace Donovan.”

Grace went through the perfunctory greeting process before turning to Elizabeth with a guarded look. “I have to get going. I’ll call you later.”

Elizabeth tried to offer her a reassuring smile, but wasn’t sure that it reached her as she watched Grace walk out. What was that about?

She decided to save that thought for another time and turned to her guests. “Please have a seat.” She rounded her desk to return to her worn black chair, lovingly named Black Devil or BD for short, and stroked its top before sitting. “So tell me what’s going on?”

“It’s my grandson, Jackson. He’s been arrested. They say he killed a woman, but they’re wrong. I know that boy; I’ve raised him since he was five. He wouldn’t hurt anyone.” Elizabeth watched Mrs. Francis as she twisted the end of her sweater as she spoke. “My son Robert, he found a lot of trouble when he was young, and it finally got him killed. Their mama was nowhere to be found. That’s when they came to live with me.” She gingerly patted her granddaughter’s hand. “Camille was only eleven.”

Mrs. Francis fell silent for a moment as she seemed to gather her thoughts. “Jackson is a good boy. He wasn’t like his father. He wants to be somebody. He graduated high school, and he was learning to be an electrician.”

After waiting a respectable amount of time in silence to see if Mrs. Francis had completed her story, Elizabeth finally spoke. “So tell me about the arrest.”

Mrs. Francis took a deep, fortifying breath before she continued. “He was just walking to the store. A woman was killed, but he didn’t do it. He was only trying to help her.” Tears filled her eyes, and Camille wrapped a comforting arm around her before reaching into Mrs. Francis’s purse and extracting a manila envelope.

“This is the police report.” Mrs. Francis took the envelope from Camille and held it out.

Elizabeth reached forward and accepted the envelope, and Mrs. Francis made eye contact. “You have to help him.”

Elizabeth was conflicted. Although she knew little about the story, she suspected that the facts wouldn’t bode well for Mrs. Francis’s grandson. “I will talk to him,” was all she could offer, but it seemed enough for Mrs. Francis, who nodded in appreciation.

“Thank you.” Mrs. Francis stood and gathered her purse, and Camille silently followed her, but stopped before walking out the door and turned, her eyes filled with hope. “Thank you.”

Elizabeth sat staring at the envelope in her hands. “This isn’t going to be good.”

 

 

 

Chapter Two

Elizabeth sat quietly in the windowless room trying to ignore the incessant ticking of the clock on the bare gray wall of the detention center. Time almost seemed irrelevant in a place like this. The thick glass that separated her from “them” was deeply scratched with gang insignias and obscenities. A bang that reverberated through the confined space caused her to jerk her head to the origin of the sound. Jackson Francis stood on the inside of a heavy metal door, his head bowed, frozen in place. He tightly gripped the material of his orange pants that hung loosely on him. He remained still, and she sensed that he needed a moment to gather himself.

She rested her hands on the envelope containing the police report, which detailed how the nineteen-year-old was spotted standing at the entrance of an alley, acting suspiciously, and appeared to be holding a purse. When the police approached, he discarded the purse and ran. After apprehending him, the police returned to the alley to find an elderly woman dead with her throat cut.

When the young man finally lifted his head to acknowledge her, she offered him a small, reassuring smile, which she guessed might have been the first kind act that he had experienced since his confinement. He seemed to size her up to determine if she was friend or foe before he pushed himself forward and plopped down on the metal stool across from her. He crossed his arms in front of him, and she could see the tight grip he had on himself, as though he was afraid to let go. Elizabeth sat patiently until he lifted his head and faced her. Red streaks marred the whites of his eyes and dark rings were prominently displayed below. No words were needed to understand the toll that incarceration was having on the young man.

She grasped the phone on her left and gestured her head toward the receiver on his side. As he seemed to contemplate her request, Elizabeth glanced at the phone in her hand and wondered how many other hands had held that same phone before her. After remembering that it wasn’t that long ago that she had her hand in a toilet, she shrugged it off.

When he finally lifted the receiver, she spoke first and introduced herself. “Your grandmother asked that I talk to you.” He stared at her with no emotion. “I hoped we could talk about what happened.”

“What do you want to know?” he said barely above a whisper.

“Why don’t you tell me what happened from the beginning.”

He tapped the phone against his forehead, as though considering her request.

“Please, I am only here to help.” She wasn’t sure why she was encouraging him. She could simply pick up her things, walk out of this dreary place, and tell Mrs. Francis that she tried, but she didn’t. Instead, she sat and watched this helpless man, who appeared to be drowning in front of her. How could she walk away?

After bowing his head, he finally spoke. “I was going to the store. My grandma needed her prescription. My sister was supposed to pick it up, but she had to work late.”

He paused to look at her, and she smiled, hoping to encourage him to continue.

“I was walking past this alley when there was this woman. She was standing inside the alley, next to the wall, and she stopped me—said she needed help. She was old, you know, so I thought maybe she was lost…you know, that memory thing?”

“Dementia,” Elizabeth said.

“Yeah, that. So, I stepped in the alley and asked if she needed help, and she gave me her purse.”

“She handed you her purse?” she asked as though she hadn’t heard him correctly.

“Yes,” Jackson said defensively. “She shoved it at me and told me to take it and keep it safe. She said…” He paused momentarily and looked down as though replaying the conversation in his mind. “She said it’s the key to the castle and to be careful of the knights.” He tightly clasped his hands in front of him. “I didn’t want to take it, and it dropped to the ground. I bent to pick it up for her, but then she was just gone.”

“What do you mean, gone?”

“I don’t know. I looked back up, and she wasn’t standing there anymore. I looked out on the street to see if she went that way and that’s when the police came by.”

“Then you ran?”

“Hell yeah, I ran.”

“Why? If she gave you the purse, why did you run?”

“Because I’m a black man holding a white woman’s purse.” Jackson looked as though he was going to cry and swiped at his eyes.

Elizabeth looked away in an attempt to give him some privacy and pondered his story. She was conflicted. He told a convincing tale, yet it seemed implausible, and to clarify, she asked, “She told you to keep the purse safe and that it had a key?”

“Yes, she said it was a key to the castle and something about watch out for the knights.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know. I assumed she was not operating on all cylinders.”

“Do you remember anything else about what she said?”

“No, that was pretty much it, but…”

“But what?”

“There was something written on the outside of the purse in like a red marker.”

“What was written?”

“I don’t know…I just noticed it when I bent to pick it up. I didn’t have time to read it,” he said with a bit of sarcasm.

Elizabeth wrote down some notes and returned her attention to him. “The police went into that alley after they arrested you, and they found the woman dead with her throat cut. Do you know how that happened?”

“No. Just like I told the police, I didn’t do it. She was alive when I saw her. I was just going to the store.” He hung his head. “You’re just like the rest of them. You think I did it.”

“I didn’t say that—”

“You don’t have to,” he interrupted. “Your face says it all. You can go tell my grandma that you did your job and you talked to me.”

Without waiting for a reply, Jackson hung up the phone, pushed himself up with considerable effort, and walked back to the metal door without looking back.

 

v

 

Burdened by her meeting with Jackson, Elizabeth stared at the ground as she approached the front entrance of SILC. She used her shoulder to push open the glass door and nearly fell forward as Raymond Miller yanked open the door from the inside.

“Elizabeth!” he exclaimed, grabbing her in a hug, unable to contain his excitement.

She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed until he squealed in delight. She was truly happy to see him; she missed him. He had become a permanent resident of her parents’ home, along with Charlie, her cat that her mother claimed to detest. When it came time to move back to her own home, she was forbidden to take the pampered gray cat.

Finally released from Raymond’s grip, Elizabeth turned to her mother and offered a more dignified hug. “What brings you here?” Which was a fair question because in all her years of working at SILC, her mother had never come to visit. It seemed that there was a line that her Mercedes wouldn’t cross, and SILC’s side of town seemed to be on the wrong side of that line.

“We were running errands and thought we’d swing by and say hello.”

Elizabeth found it unlikely that her mother was running errands anywhere near this neighborhood. “I missed you too, Mom. How about a tour?”

Her mother offered a weak smile and looked around the poor excuse of a waiting room dubiously. Nonetheless, she obediently followed Elizabeth to the heart of SILC where dutiful staff bustled about. Raymond trailed behind and touched everything in his path, and anything not bolted down was picked up for inspection.

“This is…” Her mother was at a loss for words because she was trying her best to be polite, but clearly, nothing polite came to mind. Suddenly, she brightened and walked ahead of Elizabeth, no longer in need of an escort. She opened doors and cabinets, poked her head in rooms where she didn’t belong, and inspected every inch of the legal clinic, including rolling a chair away from a desk, with the chair’s occupant still seated, to get a better perspective of the space. “Yes, that will work, uh-huh, tsk-tsk” were some of the phrases she muttered as she explored. Elizabeth didn’t dare stop her as the SILC staff tried not to stare at the nosy lady.

When she was reasonably certain that her mother had completed poking and prodding her staff, Elizabeth approached. “What are you doing?”

“I’m going to redesign this place and make it look like a real law firm.”

“Uh, no, Mom, I don’t think that’s such a good idea.” Elizabeth could only envision her mother taking over the space.

“Don’t be silly, of course it is.”

“Mom, the clinic doesn’t have a budget for this.”

“Pshaw.” She waved her off. “It’s my treat.”

Elizabeth knew that she should be grateful for the generous offer, but instead a pit sat in her stomach. She was sure nothing good would come of having her mother at the clinic on a regular basis. It would be only a matter of time before she started giving out legal advice.

“Excuse me, Ms. Campbell.”

Elizabeth turned to find Danny standing a safe distance from her and her mother. Elizabeth was pleasantly surprised when he showed up for work the day after the bathroom adventure and equally thrilled that he proved to be a dedicated worker and valuable asset to the clinic. “Ms. Francis is in your office. I hope it’s okay that I put her there. She has been waiting awhile.”

“Thank you, Danny. I appreciate it.” Although she was not expecting Mrs. Francis, she was not surprised by her visit either. She had informed her the day before that she planned to visit Jackson. She turned to her mom. “I have a client.”

“Oh, don’t worry about us. We’ll see ourselves out,” her mother said as she pulled Raymond along with a bounce in her step and a mission in mind.

Elizabeth closed her eyes and offered a small prayer, Lord, give me strength, before she strode to her office. “Mrs. Francis, it is good to see you again.” She stopped abruptly inside her doorway as Camille stood and turned to face her. “I’m sorry. When they told me Ms. Francis was in my office, I assumed it was your grandmother.”

“Sorry, my grandmother couldn’t come. She’s in the hospital.”

Elizabeth approached her. “I’m sorry to hear that. Will she be all right?”

“It’s her diabetes. Her blood sugar goes out of sync when she’s stressed, and she hasn’t been taking care of herself since, well…you know.”

Elizabeth moved to BD and stroked it before she sank into the seat, guilt weighing her down. On her drive back from the detention center, she worked it out in her head how she would tell Mrs. Francis that she didn’t see how she could help and would recommend a public defender.

“Did you see my brother?”

“Yes,” was all Elizabeth said, still grappling with herself.

“Will you help him?”

“Ms. Francis—”

“Camille,” she said.

Elizabeth looked up in to beseeching caramel-colored eyes. “Camille, I—”

She sensed the impending rejection and broke the professional demeanor and pleaded, “He didn’t do it. I know my brother. I practically raised him. He wouldn’t hurt anyone.” Tears filled Camille’s eyes as she spoke. “Please, will you help him?”

Elizabeth hesitated for a moment and knew she could give no other answer. “I will do my best.”

 

Chapter Three

It had been five years since Elizabeth had stepped foot inside a classroom, and as she watched the students settle, she was filled with a warm feeling of remembrance. Law school wasn’t so bad.The rustling of books and papers accentuated by the students’ amiable conversations made her nostalgic. There were spirited conversations; professors who liked to challenge, such as Professor Schmidt, (for inexplicable reasons, a name that Elizabeth kept forgetting to pronounce with the “m”), who got right in a student’s face with his spit flying insulting every answer. She remembered when it was her turn, she took the Fifth; it was a criminal procedure class after all. Unfortunately, Professor Schmidt failed to see the humor and demanded that she leave the class, forcing her to scrounge for the remainder of the lecture notes from fellow classmates, who proved stingy. Okay, maybe law school wasn’t so great.

“Good morning, class. I would like to introduce you to our guest, Elizabeth Campbell, Supervising Attorney at the Southern Indigent Legal Center,” Professor Elena Dixon announced as she gestured toward Elizabeth, and she straightened, a bundle of nerves finding its way into her stomach. Why was she nervous? It wasn’t like her entire life was staked on the grade in this class. Okay, maybe I’m channeling too much of my law school days.

She took a deep breath and strode toward the front of the class and stood next to the petite, middle-aged woman, who clearly had the respect of the entire class because no sound, not a paper rustle nor hushed whisper, was made the moment Professor Dixon entered the room. Elizabeth agreed to guest lecture the afternoonclass on a moment’s notice when she received a call from Professor Dixon, who had by chance seen her in court and thought she would make an interesting addition to her current lecture series. She wasn’t sure if it was the six oranges gifted to her by her migrant worker client that gracefully spilled out of her bag and rolled across the well of the courtroom or her sneezing fit in response to opposing counsel’s cologne that caught the professor’s attention, but she gladly accepted the offer. SILC was running low on legal interns, and as the newly installed supervising attorney, it was her job to generate new (and free) labor. If it meant standing in front of a classroom reliving her law school days, then so be it.

Her anxieties were put at ease as the professor opened a discussion on the US Constitution. “The Founding Fathers gave us a constitution of checks and balances because they realized the inescapable lesson of history that no man or group of men can be safely entrusted with unlimited powers.” Professor Dixon then posed the question whether the courts should use strict construction in interpreting the meaning of the Constitution, so that the words were taken as written with no extraneous considerations, as the late Justice Scalia argued, or loose construction, a more liberal approach that consults the current norms and ideals.

A student boldly replied that the courts had to take into consideration the events and moral beliefs of current society for it to be relevant.

“Then what value does the document have if it’s subject to the whims and interpretation of a judge?” another student shot back.

“That’s the question. Though there has been no constitutional amendment or act of Congress, the Supreme Court can exercise their naked judicial power and substitute their personal political and social ideals for the established law of the land.” The professor paused and allowed her words to resonate before she continued. “Or is strict construction of the words suffocating the document that was written in an era that could never have conceived the world we now live in?” Professor Dixon asked.

After several minutes of polite discourse, Elizabeth felt comfortable taking the reins. She followed the professor’s easy style and didn’t lecture, but threw out questions and allowed an equal conversation to flow between professor and student. The students hung on her words, some of them even writing them down, a boost for her ego. When the topic turned to the current state Supreme Court that was left one justice short after the passing of its chief justice, Elizabeth sat back and let the professor take the lead. She was equally interested in hearing her take on the current state of the court, as without its seventh member, it currently stood equally divided, with three conservatives and three liberals. The late chief justice was the moderate voice and could swing either way depending on the issue.

Judge Davis Powers, the governor’s nominee for the open seat, was meeting resistance by several on the left. A twenty-year veteran of the state court of appeals, he was anything but moderate. There had been several attempts to discredit the man and have him removed from the bench, but the “good ol’ (white) boys club” was alive and well, and no action or comment, no matter how offensive or unethical, managed to stick. Hence, the state senate was in its second month of deliberating the appointment of Judge Powers. It didn’t help that several senators were facing tough reelections as a result of redistricting, making self-preservation their primary concern. As the discussion evolved, the topic shifted to the fate of the prominent cases on the court’s docket, ranging from a proposition passed by the voters that allowed businesses to deny services based on religious grounds to the Defense and Rezoning Act, better known as DARA, that was approved in a special session called by the governor. The students debated the Constitution, private liberties, and the “compelling government interest” standard, as the professor watched, nodding thoughtfully at some of the statements.

Elizabeth and many of the students were disappointed when Professor Dixon signaled that the class had come to an end. After she confirmed the reading assignments for the next class, the students filed out, several stopping on their way to collect Elizabeth’s business card in hopes of interning. Mission accomplished.

v

 

Grace stood with her arms crossed as she deliberately scanned the asphalt for anything that might have been missed. She crouched by the wall and peered behind a trash dumpster certain that the forensic team overlooked a piece of evidence, but was deflated to find only empty space.

“Looking for leftovers?”

Grace jumped at the voice and stood and turned. “Elizabeth, what are you doing here?”

“Oh, I don’t know, I saw the alley and was in the mood for a little dumpster diving.”

She ignored the quip and trailed her eyes down Elizabeth’s navy suit before turning back to the dumpster. “What are you doing here?” she repeated.

“I was driving past, and I saw your car. What are you doing here?”

“My job.” Grace didn’t really need an answer as to why Elizabeth was here. She already knew when Mrs. Francis walked into her office that they would once again find themselves in this position.

“What are you looking for? Maybe I can help.”

“You can’t help; we aren’t a team. Remember, I put them in jail and you get them out.”

“Grace, why are you so upset?”

She couldn’t answer the question because she didn’t really understand it herself. How could there be a relationship if they couldn’t even be on the same side?

“Grace, please, look at me.” Reluctantly, she turned to face her and made eye contact. “Remember when we first met, you told me that I should spend my time representing someone who says he’s innocent. Well, Jackson claims he’s innocent. He needs help.”

“Well, then have at it,” Grace said, pointing to the dumpster. “Happy diving. I have to get to an appointment.” As she started to walk away, she turned and softened. “Don’t stay too long; it’s getting late.”

v

 

Grace strode through the family restaurant with her father, arms linked, which he believed was chivalrous, but she held on for extra security in case he stumbled. As much as he physically improved after the stroke, she felt better having a hold on him. The restaurant was a place they knew well, as it was their favorite when she was a child, and he led them to their usual booth. The menu was simple and there were better places where they could dine, but memories kept them coming back.

“So, Pop, what are you having?” she asked as she lifted the plastic menus from a metal holder at the end of the table and handed one to him. The question was not a real question, as he always ate the same thing, meatloaf, but she asked more out of tradition.

Once the orders were placed, her father leaned in. “So what’s going on with you?” She suspected something was on his mind because their usual restaurant visit wasn’t due for another week.

“The usual, Pop. Just working a new case.”

He eyed her as though knowing that there was more going on than a new case. “You want to talk about it?”

Growing up, it had only been the two of them, and they knew each other well, so she wasn’t surprised that he sensed her turmoil; however, she wasn’t ready to talk. As much as she loved her father, she never told him that she was gay. She never saw the reason because there was never anyone in her life worth it—until maybe now. A headache began to grow in her forehead, and she sipped at her ice water.

“You want to talk about him?” he asked.

Grace choked and nearly spit her water on him. “Him?”

“I know that look, Gracie. This is a matter of the heart.”

She could only stare until the server interrupted to bring their food. As they settled in carving up their meat, she hoped the topic passed, but it didn’t.

“Well?”

She treaded lightly. “Well, it’s complicated.”

“It always is when it’s worth it.”

His one-liners were about to do her in. She didn’t know whether to laugh or run. She pushed forward, knowing that she wouldn’t be permitted to escape. “We work together, sort of, and that makes it complicated.” Among other things

“Do you get along?”

She pondered that question. Do we?“We bicker, she…he is stubborn.”

“Ah, your mother was stubborn,” he reminisced. “When she had her mind set, there was no changing it.” Pride was evident in his voice. As his mind returned to the present, he asked, “How do you feel when you’re together?”

It’s hard to breathe when we’re in the same room. “Not sure.”

“All right, I drilled you enough. Just know I’m here for you.”

“Thanks, Pop.”

 

Chapter Four

“And how does the defendant plead?” the judge asked in a manner indicating that he had asked the same question countless times before.

“Not guilty.” Jackson spoke loud enough so only those closest to him could hear, causing the judge to order him to repeat it. Elizabeth gave him a reassuring smile, and with his pleading complete, finished with the court formalities before Jackson was led away again out of the court.

Elizabeth approached the assistant district attorney and asked the question that had been bothering her since she received the charging document before she headed out of the court. Camille, who had been sitting in the front row, followed directly behind her.

“He looks too thin. What are they feeding him?”

Elizabeth understood her concern and offered the only response she could. “It will get easier.” Although she wasn’t sure that was true. She sank down onto a bench outside the courtroom and thumbed through the charging document.

“What’s wrong?”

She shook her head. “It’s nothing…It’s just curious that the victim’s name is not identified in his charging document.”

“Is that unusual?”

“I honestly don’t know.”

Camille sat next to her and leaned in to view the court document. “It says Jane Doe.” Elizabeth nodded in acknowledgement.

“I’ll call someone who may know.” Elizabeth reached into her bag for her phone and pushed her speed dial.

Grace stepped off the elevator in time to see Camille lean into Elizabeth. A sense of uneasiness filled her, and she jammed her hand into the closing elevator door and stepped back in. She wasn’t sure why she came. She had no reason to be there. Her presence wasn’t needed for the hearing, but she wanted to see Elizabeth, if only for a moment, but now she wished she had stayed at the station. Grace’s phone began to ring, and she unclipped it from her belt to view the caller. Elizabeth’s name appeared on her screen, and she hovered her finger over the button. Before she could decide, the call went to voice mail.

She waited until she found a quieter spot outside the courthouse before she listened to the message. “Hi, Grace, it’s me. I have a question, and I know I probably shouldn’t be calling you, but I don’t know who else to ask.” A moment of silence passed, before the message continued. “I miss you.” Grace allowed her tense grip on the phone to lessen, finding a bit of comfort in the last three words.

 

v

 

Grace leaned back in the driver’s seat with her eyes closed and relaxed her breathing. A gentle sound of crickets filled the still night air, and the peace nearly lulled her to sleep. She hadn’t been sleeping well, her mind refusing to shut down. She blamed it on work, but knew that there were other thoughts that kept her awake at night.

Oncoming headlights forced her eyes open, and she pulled herself up, transitioning to full alert. She watched the car slow and pull into the paved driveway. She narrowed her eyes and peered through her passenger window in an attempt to get a better view of Elizabeth, who exited the car with plastic bags dangling from her arms. Realizing disaster was close at hand as a small tear on the bottom of a bag began to widen, Grace dashed out of her car in a heroic effort and snatched up the bag before the contents broke through and spilled.

“God, you scared me! Where did you come from?” Elizabeth asked.

Without answering the question, Grace scooped up another bag to equal out their load and headed for the front door.Elizabeth followed and juggled her remaining bags as she freed her keys from a side pocket of her messenger bag and opened the door, then allowed Grace to enter first.

Grace had only been in her home once before, but she remembered it well and headed for the kitchen.

“Where do you want these?” Grace asked, lifting the bags in a gesture. These were the first words she spoke.

“Just put them on the counter, thanks.”

Elizabeth busied herself putting the groceries away as Grace leaned against the counter to watch, running her hand against the cool, smooth marble. She smiled to herself at the site of Elizabeth doing a simple domestic task. She had seen her defend the rights of the less privileged, take on the system when no one else believed, and all around kick ass when those close to her were threatened, but this was different. It was ordinary and simple, and yet it was equally wonderful. Grace shook her head. Oh God, I’m losing it. 

With her mission complete, Elizabeth pulled down two glasses for wine and poured. “Let’s go in the living room.” She handed a glass over, and Grace accepted.

Elizabeth settled on her overstuffed couch, crisscrossing her legs and resting her arm on the back. Grace sat at the far end, facing forward, gripping the wine glass. She felt Elizabeth assessing her, making her even more uneasy.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she said, the glass perched at her lips and her eyes fixed on Grace.

“I got your message,” Grace replied as though that sufficiently explained her unexpected visit and tried to keep her eyes trained on the table in front of her, instead of unabashedly staring.

Elizabeth kept her position, quietly sipping her wine and watching.

After a few moments of silence passed, Grace finally spoke. “We don’t know who the victim is.”

“Huh?” Elizabeth seemed as though her mind was engaged in another internal discussion.

“That’s why you called me, right?” Grace turned to her. “You want to know why the name of the victim is not listed in the criminal complaint.” Elizabeth nodded, and Grace continued. “I know I shouldn’t be telling you this, but you’ll get it all during the discovery phase anyway. The victim had no identification on her. Her prints don’t match anything in our system, and no one has reported her missing.”

“What about her purse?”

“It was nearly empty. There was just a hairbrush, a tube of lipstick, and a compact mirror. No wallet, no ID.”

“Could it have spilled out?”

“I checked the alley myself to see if anything was missed, but nothing. How about you? Did you find anything?”

“No, but I didn’t even know what I was looking for.”

Having said what she came for, Grace set the full glass of wine on the table and pushed herself up with considerable effort.

“Grace, wait.” Elizabeth hastily set her glass down and grabbed her arm. Grace offered little resistance and allowed herself to be guided back to the couch. No longer willing to see how things would play out on Grace’s terms, Elizabeth leaned into her and brushed against her lips. A delicious shiver traveled from her mouth downward as Elizabeth’s lips lingered and taunted.

Grace reached out and caressed Elizabeth’s neck. She weaved her fingers into her hair and pulled her closer to deepen the kiss. Elizabeth groaned, and she desperately grasped at the back of Grace’s shirt trying to find a hold.

Grace moved her mouth lower below her ear, and Elizabeth turned her head to allow her better access. Resting her hand on Elizabeth’s side, she caressed her breast with her thumb. “God, Grace, I’ve been waiting for this.”

Grace pulled back. “Wait, we can’t.” She stood, putting distance between them.

“What’s wrong?” Elizabeth asked.

“We can’t do this,” Grace said, gesturing her hand back and forth between them.

Elizabeth sank back into the corner of the couch and pulled her knees to her chest, forming a protective barrier.

Grace knelt in front of her. “Honey, I’m the detective on the Francis case, and you’re defending him.”

“So it’s my fault?” Elizabeth snapped.

“No, it’s just…”

“Just what?”

“I don’t have a choice what case I investigate.”

“Oh, and I have a choice who I defend.” Elizabeth’s hurt was quickly replaced by anger.

There was truth to that statement, but Grace didn’t respond because it would have made things between them even worse. Silence was her best option.

Elizabeth rose and walked to the door. “I’ll show you out.”

Propped up against the couch, Grace remained on her knees, rubbing her hand across her eyes and silently praying that this night would end differently. She chastised herself for coming, warning herself that nothing good would come of it, but she couldn’t help it. She just wanted to see her. Realizing her mistake, she pushed herself up with great effort and walked to the door. She stopped in front of Elizabeth. “I’m sorry.” Grace heard the door close behind her, but she didn’t look back.