“How late do you plan to stay?”
Maggie Davidson glanced up from her desk. Her boss and close friend, Inga, leaned against the edge of her cubicle divider. She already wore her jacket and carried her large leather shoulder bag. Before she left each evening, she often took a lap around the main section of the office, where her four records clerks labored in a quad of cubicles. Often, Maggie was the last one left working.
“I want to finish this request and email it before I go.”She hated leaving in the middle of a project. Then, the next day, she would spend the first fifteen minutes reviewing everything to remind herself where she’d left off. If she took that extra time today, she could complete her work and start fresh on a new request tomorrow.
“You work too hard. And you make the rest of us look bad.”Inga grinned and winked. “Luckily, I mitigate that fact by taking credit when our department exceeds our productivity goal.”
“Have a good night.”Maggie turned back to her computer screen as Inga continued down the hall.
The automatic lock clicked behind Inga, and the office fell quiet. Maggie picked up her phone and set it to stream through the Bluetooth speaker on her desk. Easy-listening music drowned out the clicking of her keyboard. A phone rang somewhere else in the office, then stopped.
Ten minutes later, having reached a satisfactory stopping point, Maggie packed her leather tote and slung it over her shoulder. After a short elevator ride, she said good-bye to the night security guard on her way out of the building. He grumbled his response. She’d thought he was crotchety because he was stuck working overnights. But Inga said he had enough seniority to work the day shift if he chose to. So maybe grouchy was just his natural state.
Since she’d barely glanced at the window all day, the smattering of rain as she stepped outside caught her off guard. She dug in her bag, then popped open her umbrella. Now, in addition to rush-hour traffic and the usual Friday-evening influx of people headed into downtown for dinner and night life, she’d have to deal with slick roads and bad drivers.
As she walked two blocks to the parking garage where she paid a monthly fee, she passed only a couple of people. She leaned her umbrella to one side, and they tilted theirs to the other to make room on the sidewalk as they met. Before she entered the darkened structure, she fished her keys out of her bag. She lowered her umbrella and tucked her key ring in her closed fist, leaving one key sticking out between her fingers. Her father had given her those instructions when she’d moved to the “big city”over a decade ago. For a man who’d never left the rural north-Georgia town where he grew up, Nashville was very metropolitan.
She took the stairs down one level, then found her car, two rows over, halfway across the cavernous garage. She’d taken a long lunch for a dentist appointment, and when she returned, she’d had to park farther away than usual. Luckily, Inga was flexible regarding their schedule. Tomorrow, Maggie would work through her lunch to make up the work she’d missed. She began making a mental to-do list for the next day.
She heard several heavy footfalls behind her, and then a deep voice said, “Give me your bag.”
Maggie turned, certain she’d misheard. “What?”
A man stood a couple of feet from her. He wore a black hooded sweatshirt and a menacing snarl, but she couldn’t stop staring at the gun he held. Her stomach swirled with nausea, her arms felt weak, and she couldn’t catch her breath.
“Just hand it over, lady. I don’t want to hurt you.”He took several steps closer, thrusting the gun in her direction, and Maggie shrank back against her car.
She fumbled behind her for the door handle. If she could just get inside, she’d have a chance to get away. Her keys. The angled edge of the one key dug into her fingers as she’d clutched it tightly. Her father had told her to grasp it this way—to punch with it. She lashed out, simultaneously trying to connect with some part of his body while also bracing for the gunshot. He yelped as her fist glanced off his shoulder. Before she could act on his distraction, he swung his free hand out and caught her wrist.
“I said, I don’t want to hurt you. But I will.”He squeezed her wrist, hard, then twisted it away from her, forcing her to contort to ease the pain. He pushed her back against the car, using his body to pin her there. When he shoved the barrel of the gun under her chin, she froze. His eyes shifted over her face erratically for a second, and she thought she felt a tremor in his hand where it held hers.
She’d barely registered that he’d released her wrist before he grasped the strap of her purse where it lay against her shoulder. As he wrenched it from her, he staggered back several steps. She jerked forward, stumbling to her hands and knees. Her keys clattered across the concrete and under a nearby car. He mumbled something, but she couldn’t make it out over the pounding of her own heart.
By the time she raised her head, he was running away. She leaned back on her heels, still too shocked to try to stand. The sound of footsteps sent a renewed wave of panic through her. Was he coming back? What would he want from her now? As a figure rounded the corner, Maggie’s fear eased. The sensible shoes of an older woman clacked against the concrete as she hurried over to Maggie. When she drew close, she slowed and hesitantly reached out as if to touch Maggie’s shoulder.
“Honey? Are you okay? Did you take a fall?”
“No. I—I need to call the police.”She braced a hand against her car and forced herself to her feet. “But he—my purse. My phone.”
“Okay. Where’s your purse?”The woman looked around for it.
“He took it.”
The woman nodded and fished in her own shoulder bag for her phone. While the woman recited the address and a confused account about finding Maggie on the floor of the garage to the 9-1-1 operator, Maggie stared into her car, wishing she could sit down. But she’d have to crawl under that other car for her keys to unlock it.
“Well, I don’t know. She’s kind of out of it, but she doesn’t have her purse or anything,”the woman said into the phone. “No. I don’t see any injuries.”Then to Maggie, she said, “They want to know were you robbed or attacked or something?”
“Robbed. A man. Black sweatshirt.”She frantically searched her mind for some other piece of his description but couldn’t see anything except the gun. The police would come, but they would never find him. How many men were running around in a black sweatshirt?
Less than a week later, Maggie’s stomach wavered as she guided her car down the ramp leading to the underground parking garage. The shadow from the concrete roof overhead ominously crawled across her windshield toward her. She glanced in her rearview mirror. The driver in the car behind her appeared impatient to get inside, and suddenly, she didn’t want to enter at all. But she couldn’t very well throw her car into reverse, and she was even less likely to get out and ask him to move so she could escape. So she forged ahead, trying to ignore the darkness traveling over her steering wheel and up her arms and the dread that seeped in with every fading inch of sunlight.
Inside, she rolled her window down only long enough to grab the ticket stub that would both activate the mechanical arm allowing her entrance and later calculate her charges as she exited. She found a spot as close to the elevators as she could, circling down several ramps into the abyss as she passed open spots at the far end of each level. She backed into the space. When she shifted into Park, the automatic unlock of the doors startled her. She jammed her finger down on the button, relocking them, then cursed under her breath as she startled herself.
“Get a grip, Maggie.”
She sat there with her hand on the door handle, staring through the glass vestibule that separated those waiting for the elevator from the rest of the garage. A crowd had already gathered, and Maggie stayed safely ensconced in her Prius while the elevator doors opened. Once the passengers disappeared inside and the doors closed, she quickly exited and hurried over to press the call button once more. Maybe the next car would arrive before any other riders did, but with only two elevators, the chances were low.
The slam of a vehicle door echoed from the far end of the garage. Her palms grew damp, and she clenched them into fists. The sharp sound of approaching footsteps indicated some type of hard-soled shoe.
“It’s okay. Hard soles—maybe a dress shoe or a woman in heels,”she whispered. They weren’t the heavy footfalls of a large man’s boot. Despite her own reassurances, she felt light-headed, and her breathing quickened. Fear brought a sour taste to her mouth as she remembered staring down at a pair of dusty brown work boots and praying she wasn’t about to die. Five days had been enough time for details of the robbery to begin coming back to her, but not enough to dull the edge of terror.
Fighting panic, she glanced at the stairwell. Did the unknown spiral upward hold less danger than being trapped in a tiny box with a stranger? She dashed through the door before said stranger came into sight and climbed the stairs as quickly as she could manage in her own flats. These days she dressed with consideration to how fast she could flee if she needed to.
By the time she reached the top, her calves burned, and she struggled to catch her breath. The stairs ended in a small vestibule that opened to the courtyard outside city hall, across the street from the courthouse. The tension in her chest lessened. She crossed the street, sucking in as much fresh air as she could.
She stepped inside the front door and stopped immediately, stuck in some kind of line that snaked out into the vestibule between the inner and outer doors. She rose on her toes to see over the people in front of her, and luckily none of them were much taller than her own five feet seven inches. The crowd spilled back from three metal detectors manned by uniformed security guards.
The line inched forward until it was finally her turn. Then the guard ordered her to drop her purse into a bin and empty the pockets of her dress slacks, waving her through the metal detector. As she exited the other side and waited to gather her belongings, another guard passed a wand over the front of a man holding his wallet in one hand and his belt in the other. Maggie hadn’t set off any alarms and was allowed to reclaim her purse and progress into the lobby toward a bank of six elevators, three on each side of the space.
The crowd in the lobby was not nearly as organized as the lines out front. Here, in fact, she couldn’t detect any order to the horde. Some people huddled close to one of the elevators, obviously having chosen to hedge their bet on that one being next. Others hung back in the center area, the tension in their posture indicating they were ready to shove forward toward the first doors to open.
Maggie chose an elevator on the end and tried to make her own place in line, not interested in cutting ahead of someone else just to get into one of the tiny boxes. But most of those around her didn’t share her respect for order. A rotund man practically rested against her right shoulder. When someone pressed into her back, she tried to shuffle forward a step, but she had no escape. The stinging scent of too much cheap cologne mixed with body odor turned her stomach. Pretending to rub her face, she breathed shallowly into her cupped hand.
She missed the first time the closest elevator opened. The car filled quickly with those in front of her and a few who crowded past her. The next time the doors opened, she shuffled forward with the surge of people. She tried to work her way to the back but ended up trapped in the middle. Hunching her shoulders inward, she attempted to lessen her footprint in the already small space. The woman standing close on her left reeked of stale cigarette smoke. She was too skinny in a seemingly unhealthy way, and her skin appeared paper-thin. When she buried her fingers in her messy ponytail and dug at her scalp, Maggie fervently wished she had imagined the dusting of flakes floating in the air. If she could have shifted to the left, she would have. But two men occupied that space.
One, wearing a pair of khakis and an ill-fitting plaid shirt, kept tugging at his tie. The other was dressed in a sharp suit, with a bright-blue shirt and a boldly patterned contrasting tie. The way he leaned close and spoke quietly to the other man hinted that he might be the man’s attorney.
Why wasn’t this elevator moving? Every time the doors started to close, someone in the large crowd still waiting for the next car would push the button, causing her elevator door to open again. The first two times, someone new tried to squeeze in. By the third time, she was ready to scream at them to wait until her car left to push the button again. Surely elevator programming couldn’t be that difficult to figure out. The man behind her shifted and brushed against her.
“No,”she murmured, then repeated it more loudly as panic surged up in her throat. She didn’t even excuse herself as she shoved between the woman and child in front of her and stumbled back into the lobby before the doors closed once more.
Ignoring the exasperated looks from the people she pinballed against, she forced her way through the crowd until she reached the security check-in area again.
“Ma’am.”One of the guards approached her. “Are you okay?”His hand hovered around his waist. Was she about to get hit with a Taser? She couldn’t blame him for being suspicious. “Ma’am?”
“Yes. Claustrophobic.”She didn’t look up to see if he accepted her explanation before she hurried past him toward the nearest restroom. She would make herself presentable, grab a coffee from the shop adjacent to the lobby, then try the elevators again.
Ally Becker shuffled along in a cafeteria-style line, selecting a small coffee and a plain bagel with cream cheese. She’d arrived at the courthouse over an hour early for her brother’s hearing. His lawyer had warned her that she’d face a bit of a madhouse getting up to the courtroom. Apparently, all the judges liked to start their mornings at the same time, regardless of whether they presided over a docket or a criminal trial. She’d seen the mass of people waiting for the elevators and opted to take her chances that the crowd might thin a bit before his preliminary hearing started.
She settled at one of only a few remaining tables and pulled out her phone to check her email. Soon, she found the crowds milling about outside the cafémore interesting than anything on her screen. So her attention was on the entrance when a frazzled-looking woman walked in.
Ally didn’t know the difference between custom and just well-tailored when it came to women’s dress clothes. But either way, the woman’s black pant suit fit her perfectly. Thick, light-brown curls floated around her head, defying gravity, in a short bob that just grazed her ears.
Her put-together appearance warred with the furtive, almost fearful way she glanced around the café. Ally felt her discomfort from across the room. Realizing she was staring, she feigned interest once more in her phone screen. But she remained aware of the woman as she rushed through the serving line, then found herself standing in the middle of the crowded space.
Ally didn’t see any free tables. So before someone could vacate one and steal away her excuse, she made eye contact with the woman. “I’ve got an extra seat, if you don’t mind sharing.”With her foot, she pushed out the empty chair across the table from her.
For a moment she thought the woman would refuse. She seemed to search the caféfor another available place.
“Look, it’s either me or that guy over there.”She tried to inject some levity into her voice as she tilted her head toward a grumpy-looking elderly man with a newspaper spread out on the small round table. The corners draped over the edges like some sort of disposable tablecloth.
The woman nodded and lowered herself tentatively onto the chair opposite Ally. She set her drink and napkin-wrapped-muffin as close to her edge of the table as she could without losing them to the floor. Ally moved her own coffee closer to her, making room, but the woman didn’t adjust her snack.
“Maggie.”When Maggie scowled, Ally began to lose patience. She’d only been trying to be nice, and this woman was acting as if she couldn’t be bothered to do the same. Ally held up her hands, palms out.
“Okay. We don’t have to be cordial. I just thought since we were sharing a table—”
Maggie’s face flushed. “I’m sorry for being rude. I—I’m not comfortable being here.”
“In a coffee shop?”
“No. The courthouse.”
“So you’re not a lawyer? I wasn’t sure, since you’re wearing a suit and all.”
“No. I’m not.”
“So why are you here? If it’s okay to ask.”
“I’d actually rather not talk about it.”
“If you’re being charged with something, I’ll try not to judge.”She tried for a joke, but it fell as flat as Maggie’s expression. “Well, then I’ll tell you why I’m here. I’m clearly not a lawyer either.”She gestured to her best navy slacks and button-down shirt. While her outfit was presentable, no one would mistake her for someone as white-collar as an attorney. “My brother has a preliminary hearing today.”
“Oh.”Maggie stared at her untouched muffin. “I’m sorry. I’m not really sure what to say to that.”
“You don’t have to say anything. He—uh—he has a drug problem. Now that I think about it, I’m not really in the mood to talk much about that either.”She didn’t know why she’d said anything to begin with. Her brother’s addiction embarrassed her and made her ashamed that he’d reached the point he had. “Let’s talk about something else. What do you do for a living, Maggie?”
“That’s not an interesting topic either. I’m a public-records clerk for the city.”
“It’s not.”Ally didn’t think most would find her career interesting either.
“It pays the bills. And I love the people I work with. They’re a great group and have been very understanding this past week when I haven’t been able to be there.”She rolled one hand in a gesture that Ally assumed meant she hadn’t been there because of whatever brought her to court and therefore she likely didn’t want to talk about it. “What do you do?”
“Carpentry. I recently started my own business, making furniture. But I supplement that job by working for a company that frames houses for new construction.”Until six months ago, she’d worked on a crew with her brother. Even before his recent legal troubles, their employer had given him his last “one more chance”to get his act together. His losing his job had been the kick in the pants she’d needed as well. She decided to stop saying she’d concentrate on furniture-making “someday”and start putting her focus there. She still did framing in spurts to pay her bills, but now she contracted with the company by the job, when sheneeded to work. She was on a project now that would end in a couple of weeks.
“Carpentry, wow. I’ve always wished I was good with my hands.”
Ally smiled and glanced down at Maggie’s hands, which were wrapped around her coffee cup. They were small and looked soft, her medium-length nails well-shaped and painted a neutral shade.
“Sorry. I—I didn’t mean that like it sounded.”Maggie avoided eye contact. “My father was handy. He could fix anything. I’ve often wished I’d paid more attention instead of taking him for granted.”
Ally nodded, picking up on Maggie’s use of the past tense. “When did he pass?”
“About five years ago now.”
“I’m sorry.”She felt strange expressing sympathy for five-year-old grief but didn’t know what else to say. Ally often got uncomfortable with anything more than light social conversation. On the job site, her crew didn’t have time for small talk. And she rarely spent time with anyone other than her two best friends outside of work.
“It’s okay. It’s been a long time. I mean, it’s never really the same, but it becomes the new normal, you know.”
Ally’s own father had run off when she was just four years old. Her mother had met and married Carey’s father and given birth to Carey within a year. They’d divorced when Ally was in high school. He’d been a decent stepfather, but never close enough that Ally missed him after he left. He barely bothered to keep in touch with Carey, so Ally had never been surprised that he didn’t maintain a relationship with her.
Maggie still looked sad, and Ally wanted to reach across the table and touch her arm. But she didn’t think Maggie would welcome the gesture. “What about you? I know you’re here for your brother. But is anyone else in your family coming? Are you close?”
“My mother is at home. She says she can’t stand to see him in court. And my father is—not in the picture.”
“I’m sorry.”Maggie’s sorry sounded sincere and warm and brought a lump of emotion to Ally’s throat that she hadn’t felt in years.
Ally swallowed, then rolled her eyes. “This isn’t an appropriate getting-to-know-you conversation with a stranger.”
Maggie smiled. “Is that what we’re doing? Getting to know each other?”
“We were.”Maggie glanced at her watch, then stood and gathered her trash. “But now I should probably head up. It looks like the crowd has dispersed at the elevator.”
“Oh, right.”When Maggie stood, Ally did, too.
“Thanks for sharing your table.”
While Ally was working up the nerve to ask for her number, Maggie left the caféand headed for the bank of elevators. She sighed and dropped back into her chair. Bringing her empty coffee cup to her lips, she pretended she was finishing the drink rather than watching Maggie until she disappeared inside one of the elevators.
Maggie got off at the fourth floor and followed the signs for courtroom 4B, one of the general-sessions courtrooms. She stopped as soon as she stepped inside, overwhelmed and wishing she’d taken her boss Inga up on her offer to accompany her.
“Keep it moving, lady. We all gotta sit down, too.”
She stepped aside to allow the four people behind her to pass, and they moved down the aisle and into a row of church-pew-like benches. Over half the seats were full already. Should she sit on a specific side? She scanned the people around her, then silently berated herself for trying to figure out which ones looked like the perpetrators of crime. She’d spoken with someone from the district attorney’s office on the phone, but she had no idea what he looked like. He sounded young, but any one of the men in suits gathered around the two tables facing the judge could fit that description.
She’d just decided to move to the left when a woman carrying a clipboard approached. “Are you a witness in a case today?”
“Yes. Maggie Davidson.”
“Who’s the defendant?”
She cleared her throat. “Um—his last name is Rowe.”
The woman made a mark next to Maggie’s name. “Hold on. I think General Miller wants to talk to you.”
“Right. Sorry. In court the assistant district attorney general is addressed as general.”
The woman turned and pushed through the swinging gate in the low railing that divided the front of the courtroom from the gallery. Bending, she spoke quietly to a dark-haired man seated at the table on the left. He turned to look at her over his shoulder as the woman gestured to where she still stood awkwardly in the aisle. The woman motioned Maggie closer, and she approached the rail.
“This is General Ralph Miller. He’s handling the preliminary hearing for your case.”
“Maggie Davidson.”She stuck her hand out. “So you’re the prosecutor on the case.”
“No. Not exactly. I work here in general-sessions court. Our goal today would be to show the judge we have probable cause to get the case bound over to the grand jury. After Mr. Rowe is indicted, if the case goes to trial, another ADA will be assigned.”He glanced at the judge’s bench, then at a gathering of men and women in suits hovering nearby. “I’m sorry. I don’t have time to go into all of that right now. But if you’ll call our office later, someone can explain the process. In fact, I spoke with Mr. Rowe’s attorney a few minutes ago, and he plans to ask for this hearing to be reset so he can have more time to prepare.”
“So I’ll have to come back to court?”She just wanted all this to be over. She’d fought her anxiety to get here, and now she’d have to do it again.
“Probably. Have a seat and wait for the judge to call the docket. When we get to Rowe, he’ll assign another date on his calendar, probably sometime later this week or next.”Without waiting for a response, he turned away and waved over one of the suited men nearby.
Clearly having been dismissed, Maggie looked around for the woman who’d helped her before, but she’d moved on and was now huddled in conversation with another woman and her teenager. Maggie found an empty space on a bench in the second row from the back.
A few minutes later, Ally eased through the doors, along with a tall, lanky, suited man. He angled his head as she spoke quietly to him. He murmured an answer, then pointed toward a seat on the opposite side of the aisle from Maggie. He continued to the front of the courtroom and joined several men and women at the table opposite the ADA.
Maggie considered moving to sit closer to Ally. Their chat downstairs had provided the closest thing to a distraction that Maggie had experienced in days. For the duration of a cup of coffee, Maggie had imagined she could be a functioning member of society again. Once more, she could be the kind of woman who spoke to an attractive stranger—maybe even flirted, instead of worrying about hidden danger.
She’d had game before—had never had a problem approaching someone, giving out her number, and leaving with a date. And Ally was exactly the kind of woman she went for. She was beautiful and strong. Openness and welcome warmed her dark-brown eyes. The cleft in her chin begged for Maggie’s finger to stroke it. Maggie had entered that cafécompletely closed off, and Ally had coaxed her out. She’d gotten more conversation from Maggie than anyone had since the robbery.
When the judge came out, Maggie stood because everyone else did. She sat at the judge’s command. She tried to follow along as a court employee read off a list of names, and after each one, an attorney called out whether the parties were present. While she’d expected the prosecutors to be assigned to many cases today, she was surprised to find that some of the defense attorneys represented multiple defendants. The man she’d seen with Ally answered for at least seven cases, and she wondered how he could keep them all straight. She soon figured out that they were public defenders, assigned to represent those who couldn’t afford an attorney.
Sometimes, the attorneys spent several minutes talking about motions and plea agreements. Though she had trouble keeping up with what was going on in each case, she stared at the front of the room.
Only a week ago, she’d been the kind of person who enjoyed people-watching while in a crowd. And she had a feeling last-week-Maggie might have liked to try to figure out the stories of the diverse group of people around her. But present-Maggie could focus only on the fact that half of these people were likely accused of a crime, and the other half were victims—like her. She didn’t know which made her more uncomfortable.
Hearing the clerk call Carey’s name sent Ally’s heart racing. She’d tried to act calm while on the phone with her mother yesterday, assuring her that she’d go to court so Carey would see a friendly face. But now, she was unexpectedly nervous about seeing him led out in an orange jumpsuit like the defendants before him. Since his arrest, he’d been in jail for five days already.
His public defender had advised them to leave him there until after his preliminary hearing. Though the suggestion sounded harsh to Ally, he wanted Carey to detox in jail. He planned to suggest that Carey go to a recovery house upon his release. He would participate in rehab while there and be closely monitored. His previous attempt at rehab hadn’t stuck, but at least this way he wouldn’t be staying at their mother’s house. She coddled him and looked the other way when he was obviously using.
Carey’s attorney addressed the judge, and he seemed to be asking for another court date. Was this for the criminal trial? She’d thought that would be months away. Earlier, she’d tried to follow along when he explained the process and thought that, after this hearing, the case would go to the grand jury for indictment. So why was the judge now talking about an opening on his calendar on Friday? Before Ally could figure out what had happened, the clerk had called another name, and Carey’s attorney slung his messenger bag over his shoulder. Ally hated that he carried the olive-drab bag that looked more suited for an undergrad. Wasn’t a reputable attorney supposed to own a nice briefcase or something?
What had happened? Ally hurried to catch up with him as he pushed through the divider and strode toward the back of the courtroom.
“Mr. Baez,”she called as he cleared the doors into the hallway. He stopped and turned. “Why didn’t my brother go before the judge?”
“Ms. Becker.”He glanced around, then took her elbow and guided her out of the way of the doors, almost into the corner of the large hallway. “I didn’t have time to tell you before the docket started. Carey has been ill, and he’s in extremely poor spirits today.”
Ally shook her head. “He’s in poor spirits? He’s in jail. Isn’t he supposed to be in a bit of a bad mood? You’re going to leave him there for four more days because he’s a little down?”
“This judge isn’t known for sympathizing with addicts who commit felonies. We need Carey on his best behavior if we’re going to get him out and transferred to the recovery program.”
Did some judges sympathize with criminal addicts? How could they get Carey’s case assigned to one of them? Ally shoved her hand into the front of her hair in frustration. She’d worried about how they would pay for treatment. But Mr. Baez had said he would help Carey apply for assistance. She wished she didn’t have to deal with all of this on her own.
“I’d hoped to convince him to agree to a plea deal. But he’s not interested. When I spoke with him earlier, he was combative and not receptive to treatment.”
“Not receptive—tell him he doesn’t have a choice.”What was the plan if he wasn’t any more cooperative in four days? Would this guy leave Carey in jail indefinitely? He seemed unprepared for anything except Carey pleading guilty. And why not? In the short time she’d sat in the courtroom, Ally had heard several attorneys advise the judge that they’d worked out a deal with the prosecutor. That seemed to be all the defense attorneys were interested in: negotiate a deal, collect your fees, and move on to the next client.
“But he does, Ms. Becker. And he has to make his own decision, or his getting treatment is a waste of time and money.”
“What are we talking about here?”Ally barked, then seeing several heads turn around her, she pitched her voice lower. “He’s probably going to prison. If primetime television is to be believed, he’ll be able to get drugs in there anyway.”
“Ms. Becker, the hearing has been reset for Friday. Try not to get ahead of yourself in predicting the outcome of a trial that we’re still months away from. Let’s take this step by step.”His voice carried a warning, but Ally didn’t know if it was truly about her presumptive conclusions. Maybe he wanted to convey that she shouldn’t imply Carey was guilty where she could be overheard.
“Please, call me Jorge.”
“I’m sorry. I’m feeling a little lost here. Nothing we’ve done so far to try to help Carey has worked. That’s one reason I can’t exactly summon any optimism right now.”
“I know it’s frustrating, but you need to trust that my job is to represent Carey’s best interests and to think long-term about all possible outcomes for these charges.”
Frustrating didn’t even cover her emotions. As children she and Carey had been close. Their mother described five-year-old Ally creeping into Carey’s room to sleep on the floor next to his crib. The chasm in their relationship had begun only in recent years, following Carey’s injury on a job site and subsequent slide into an addiction to painkillers.
“You don’t need to come to court Friday. If I’m able to get him released to the recovery house, he’ll need to go right away.”
She shook her head. “I’ll be here. My mother will want it that way.”
“Okay, then. Please, let me know if I can do anything for either of you before then.”His words sounded sincere, though he’d already traveled several steps down the hallway away from her as he spoke.
She replayed their conversation while she rode down in the elevator, trying to align what had happened today against the legal timeline he’d explained when they’d spoken on the phone a couple of days ago. These were just preliminary hearings. His case would most likely be bound over to the grand jury, and Jorge seemed certain they would indict him. The criminal trial would be set months away. In the meantime, she had to worry about Carey getting clean and staying that way. She wanted all of this to be over, or better yet, to wake up and find it had all been a dream.
She stepped out of the lobby, breathing easier. On a good day, she didn’t like to be inside. She was happiest building furniture in her garage or raising walls and building trusses. Today, the courthouse air had felt especially stifling.
She started across the expanse of landscaped concrete outside the courthouse, intent on getting as far away as she could. She almost missed Maggie lingering near a large planter, while on the phone. Giving her privacy, Ally kept walking, but Maggie finished her call just as Ally reached her. Maggie glanced up, and Ally stopped abruptly, inelegantly caught between hurrying by and exchanging pleasantries.
“Hey. I was just asking my boss if she wanted me to pick up some lunch on my way to the office.”
Ally wanted to ask Maggie if shecould take her to lunch. She glanced at her watch and amended, a late lunch. Anything to spend more time with her. But her mother was expecting her at home, and Maggie apparently needed to get to work. Maggie fiddled with her keys, and Ally latched on to a reason to grab a few extra minutes.
“Did you park in the garage across the street?”
“Yes.”Maggie glanced in that direction, and though they couldn’t see the entrance from where they stood, apprehension filtered across her expression.
“Me too. Can I walk you to your car?”She flushed at the awkwardness in her words. She felt like a teenager asking a girl to the dance. Could Maggie tell what an idiot she was?
“Sure.”Was that relief on her face?
“Yeah? Okay.”Ally fought the urge to poke out her elbow for Maggie to take. She didn’t even know Maggie’s whole story, but Maggie brought out a protective instinct in her. She waited until Maggie started forward, then moved beside her. As she let Maggie go in front, she touched her hand to her back. Maggie flinched, and Ally dropped her arm back to her side.
“Everything go okay in there?”Maggie tilted her head toward the building they’d just left.
She shrugged. “I don’t really understand all the legal stuff.”
“Isn’t that what your brother’s lawyer is for?”
“I guess so. It would help if I trusted him, instead of feeling he’s just another overworked government cog.”They paused at the end of the sidewalk, waiting for the light to change.
“Ah, a public defender.”
“Well, speaking as a government cog myself, I can confirm that we’re exhausted, under-appreciated, and underpaid. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t trying to do a good job.”The light changed, and Maggie didn’t wait for Ally as she proceeded into the crosswalk.
Ally grimaced and followed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply—”
“Yes, you did.”
“Okay. I did.”
“And that’s all right. Your brother’s future is in his hands, after all. Clearly, he means a lot to you.”
Their sleeves brushed as their arms swung at their sides, but despite Maggie’s earlier reaction, Ally didn’t step away. In fact, she wanted to move closer. Maggie was a few inches shorter, so her shoulder would fit right under Ally’s arm. She imagined their hips bumping together lightly as they walked. But, of course, she and Maggie didn’t know each other well enough for such intimacy.
“He’s my half brother. He was only ten when his dad and my mom divorced. He had a tough time after that, and I kinda knew what it was like to not have a dad, so I tried to take care of him.”
“Your father…”Maggie let the question hang in the air, but Ally knew what she was asking.
“He took off. I haven’t seen or heard from him in thirty-five years.”
“Stairs or elevator?”Ally seized the chance to change the subject as they approached the entrance to the underground garage.
Maggie glanced between the elevators and the entrance to the stairs. She didn’t look happy about either option. “Stairs are fine. What floor are you on?”
“The second.”They entered the stairwell, walking down side by side.
“I’m on the third.”Maggie seemed bothered that they weren’t on the same floor.
Footsteps below them indicated someone on the way up, so Ally slowed and moved behind Maggie to make room. Had she not been looking directly down at Maggie, she might not have noticed the way her shoulders stiffened and how she shifted closer to the wall as soon as the man came into view. When Ally put her behavior together with her obvious nervousness at the top of the stairs, her conclusions made her sick to her stomach.
Maggie had never said what she was doing at the courthouse. But, for some reason, Ally didn’t think she was a defendant in a case. Something criminal had happened to Maggie—something that had rattled her enough to scare her in what should be a relatively safe situation. The man nodded at them as he passed, and Ally gave an answering lift of her chin. She wanted to reach out to Maggie—just a reassuring touch on the back or shoulder, but Maggie had already communicated that her touch wasn’t welcome, and she seemed to be in an even more heightened state of anxiety now.
Maggie paused on the next landing and turned toward Ally. “This is you.”
“I’ll go down with you, then come back up.”
“You don’t have to—”
“I said I’d walk you to your car. You’re not getting rid of me that easily.”Ally gestured toward the stairs.
Maggie shrugged and headed for the next flight. As she turned away, relief flashed across her expression. Ally jogged a couple of steps to catch up and fell in beside her again. They exited the stairwell on the next floor, and Maggie led them to her car. She pulled out her key fob, unlocked her car, and turned toward Ally.
“Thanks for walking me down.”She pulled open the door, clearly dismissing Ally.
“Would you like to get coffee sometime?”Ally blurted.
Maggie tilted her head slightly. “I thought we already did.”
Ally recalled their shared table in the café. Why did that seem like so long ago? “While I’m still flattered that you chose me over newspaper guy, maybe this time we could sit together on purpose.”She saw the rejection Maggie was constructing, even before she finished speaking.
“You seem very nice and all, but I’m not really looking to get involved with anyone right now.”
Ally smiled and held her hands up, palms out. “Whoa. Me either. It’s a friendly cup of coffee. Possibly a scone or some comparable pastry. And maybe we can talk about what we arelooking for.”She couldn’t resist the hint of flirtation, though she knew she would probably scare Maggie off.
“Don’t say no. Not yet. Just say ‘we’ll see’and take my number. If you decide not to call me, well, I’ll find a way to go on. But if you need someone to talk to or want to share a meal or something, you’ll have it.”
“Please.”She didn’t know why it mattered so much. Something about Maggie’s obvious fear in the stairwell earlier made her want to make sure Maggie had someone to call when things got dark.
Maggie sighed. “You’re not going to leave me alone until I do, are you?”
Ally shrugged and shook her head.
Maggie took out her phone, unlocked it, and handed it over. Ally typed in her number and handed it back, resisting her urge to text herself from Maggie’s phone so she’d have hers as well. After all, she didn’t want to be tagged as a stalker.
“Ma, I’m here,”Ally called as she pushed through the door to her mother’s ground-level apartment.
“Did you get my cigarettes?”Shirley Rowe barely glanced away from the television in front of her.
Ally rolled her eyes as she deposited the three plastic grocery bags hooked over her hand onto the table in the small area that passed for a dining room. The surface of the table was covered with stuff and hadn’t been used for dining in months. Shirley ate her meals sitting in the same chair she currently occupied. Ally drew a carton of cigarettes out of one of the bags and placed it on the side table next to Shirley, being careful not to spill the coffee that had probably gone cold hours ago. Ally hated cold coffee, but it still had to taste better than the cigarettes Shirley smoked back-to-back all day long.
“You should quit.”Ally didn’t bother trying to inject sincerity into her suggestion. She’d given up hoping years ago that Shirley would quit smoking. Ally’s grandfather, Shirley’s father, had died from lung cancer, but that hadn’t slowed Shirley’s pack-a-day habit.
“Did you go to court?”
“Yes, Ma.”She perched on the edge of the sofa in order to avoid immersing herself in the stale odors that permeated the fabric—smoke, greasy food, and the stuffiness of lack of cleaning and poor ventilation. Growing up, Ally had hated the smell she knew clung to her clothes when she went to school each day. In middle school, she’d secretly splashed herself with her stepfather’s cologne to cover the odor. One day, she’d grossly over-doused, and her teacher held her over at lunch hour to talk to her. Ally finally broke down and explained. Even at ten years old, Ally had realized Miss Warren struggled with the cloying scent, but she pulled Ally into a tight hug anyway. Miss Warren had taken a small bottle of perfume from her purse and given it to Ally, with instructions to put on only one spray at a time so as not to overwhelm the senses.
“Did you see him?”Shirley ripped open one end of the carton and removed a pack.
“No. They didn’t bring him out. Jorge asked for a new court date.”
“Who the hell is Jorge?”
“Mr. Baez. His attorney.”Ally cringed at her mother’s distasteful expression and braced herself for the bigoted comment likely to follow. She wouldn’t have faith in Carey’s Hispanic attorney. Ally would have to bite her tongue not to point out that Jorge Baez was a lawyer and had made more of himself than either she or Carey had. “Jorge is optimistic that he can get him in that program I told you about.”
Shirley waved a hand dismissively. “He doesn’t need that. I don’t understand why he can’t just come and stay with me. I’ll make him stop taking those pills.”
Ally glanced into the U-shaped kitchen that opened to the rest of the apartment at the three liquor bottles lined up next to the toaster. Shirley liked her Tito’s and hated to run out. Ally didn’t have to wonder where Carey’s addictive tendency came from.
“This is what’s best for him.”She wouldn’t let Shirley see the doubts she’d expressed to Jorge. “Do you want me to put these groceries away?”Ally stood and picked up the bags, then headed for the kitchen without waiting. The answer didn’t matter. She knew her mother’s expectations.
“I don’t want to trouble you.”
“It’s no trouble.”
She filled the freezer and the canned-goods cabinet. After her mother’s stroke four years ago, she’d tried to buy her mother produce and lean meats, encouraging healthier eating. But the next week, she wound up throwing away the soft and soggy vegetables and expired meats. At least the frozen dinners wouldn’t spoil when her mother ignored them in favor of random meals like a can of beans or a bag of tortilla chips and a jar of processed cheese dip.
Shirley had been lucky to not have lasting effects from the stroke. However, her doctor had warned that if she didn’t change her ways, a second stroke was much more likely.
“Do you want to stay for dinner?”Shirley meant, did Ally want to make her dinner? She’d had a long day and just wanted to go home, eat a bowl of soup, and go to bed.
“Sure. I can do that. Spaghetti okay?”
Without waiting for an answer, she pulled a box of pasta and a jar of tomato sauce out of the cabinet. At least Shirley wasn’t picky when someone else was cooking. From the spice rack, Ally grabbed garlic powder, onion powder, and red-pepper flakes. She could handle a jarred sauce if she doctored it up a bit. As she fixed the food, she prepped herself for an evening eating off a plate in her lap while Shirley zoned out to the latest episode of whatever procedural crime drama she was hooked on now. Maybe it would be that one with the hot, lesbian detective her friend Kathi was always raving about.