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"It will be a cakewalk. You'll simply go in front of the judge and waive your rights to a preliminary hearing. Then the assistant district attorney will tell him we've come to a plea agreement, and the judge will tap his gavel and it will all be over."
"It's that simple?" Carly asked, her voice echoing in the marble-tiled Erie County Courthouse hallway. She'd never been in the building before, and while she hoped she never had a reason to be in it again, she couldn't help but admire its classic, stately beauty.
"It's that simple." Her attorney, Henry Rizzo, was an Erie Elementary parent, albeit a recent one. His daughter, Izzy, was in the second grade, and cute as a button. "Really, Carly, it will be fine. It's not like you habitually set your neighbor's shed on fire. It was a one-time accident and you've already paid the restitution."
"That's true." Three weeks ago, Carly had thought she was putting her past behind her.
Well, she'd certainly managed that, though not in the manner she'd anticipated.
She glanced nervously around the room, and found two cops sitting in the back. The cute young patrol officershe thought his name was Mastersonwho'd been so nice and understanding when he'd taken her to the police station. And the other one. The one who'd arrived on the scene first and stood with her during one of the lowest moments of her life, as she watched her shed and her neighbor's go up in flames.
Lieutenant Jefferson. She'd never forget his name.
He was taller than herwhich was no shock, since everyone in the world seemed taller than her five feet and three inchesbut he wasn't too tall. Maybe five eight? His plain brown hairwas military-length short, but looked as if it would be soft to the touch. For a moment, at the fire, as he'd walked toward her, she'd stopped crying and simply admired the view. But then the fire truck pulled up and the officer had made it apparent he wasn't overly sympathetic to her plight.
All she could think of now, as she looked at him, was that he'd been there that day and that he'd seen her cry. By the time the young cop had arrived on the scene, she'd gotten herself under control, but Lieutenant Jefferson had witnessed her sobs. And she didn't cry pretty like they did in the movies. She was the type of person whose face and eyes turned red while her nose ran like a spigot. The only other person who'd ever witnessed her cry like that was her ex on what had been the absolute lowest day of her life.
Carly didn't normally cry. She actually avoided it at all costs, but sometimes it was the only thing left to do.
"Carly Lewis," a bailiff called from the courtroom door, interrupting her sad memory.
"That's us." Henry rose to his feet and waited for her.
Carly stood as well, and tried to ignore the wobbly feeling in her legs. Appearing in front of a judge wasn't something she was accustomed to.
She wasn't sure what to expectmaybe a television, Perry Masonish sort of courtroom, something in keeping with the grandeur of the hallway. What she found instead was a smallish room that looked as if any kind of business was conducted in it. There were a few ordinary tables, some chairs, and people milling about.
The man sitting behind a raised bench wasn't precisely what she'd imagined, either.
In Carly's mind a judge should be gray-haired with wire-rimmed glasses and a kindly but tough expression.
The judge was her age. In his mid-thirties tops. He had unruly-looking brown hair that looked as if, given a little more length, it might curl. Henry said Judge Anderson Bradley was tough, but fair. She hoped so.
Carly concentrated on following Henry to one of the two tables in front of the judge's bench.
The ADA, Jacqueline Kelly, smiled at her as she walked by. The woman had an abundance of dark hair that would have overwhelmed Carly's petite frame. But on the very tall Jackie the straight, long hair lent an air of warrior woman. And Carly was glad they'd reached an agreement before coming into the courtroom, because Ms. Kelly looked as if she'd be an intimidating opponent.
Things unfolded just as Henry had said. As Ms. Kelly laid out the plea agreement, Carly felt some of her tension ease. It was going to be all right.
She'd already paid Julian, next door, for the shed she'd ac-cidently burned down. Actually, he'd been downright sweet about the whole thing. He'd gone through a difficult divorce three years ago, and said he totally understood wanting to make a fresh start. That's what his move to Pennsylvania had been, a fresh start.
"No," the judge said in a loud, clear voice. "That is not acceptable."
"Pardon?" the ADA asked politely.
Carly looked at Henry, who looked as confused as she felt.
"Mrs. Lewis, would you please stand?"
Carly obliged, feeling a jolt of nerves. She tried to tell herself the judge was only a man, but sitting there in his robes he was intimidating.
"Ms. Lewis, you burned down your neighbor's shed. Do you realize you could have burned down your entire neighborhood with your stunt?"
She nodded. "Yes, Your Honor, and I'm so very sorry."
"I'm sure you are. Being brought before me tends to make many criminals sorry. However, there's no excuse for your wanton disregard of your neighbor's property, as well as your inability to comprehend that your act might have unforeseen consequences."
Carly was willing to apologize, was willing to take her browbeating as stoically as possible, but the judge glaring down at her in his oh-so-condescending way didn't seem to understand. "Pardon me for saying so, Your Honor, but there is an excuse."
"Do tell," Judge Bradley commanded with definite sarcasm in his voice.
"You see, I was dating Dean when my parents died. In hindsight, I suspect losing my family had something to do with why I married himI was only twenty and felt so alone. I was a junior in college, and he was a senior. I got pregnant almost immediately, and I quit school to work full-time and put him through law school. I was supposed to go back to college and finish my last year as soon as Dean passed the bar, but he said he needed me at home, supporting him, and that my working so much would short-change the kidswe had two by thenand so I should stay home. I thought I'd go back and finish my degree after they got older"
Judge Bradley looked bored. "Mrs. Lewis, I'm sure this would be an interesting story if someone were looking to be entertained. Maybe you should consider writing your autobiography? I hear memoirs are all the rage. What I want to know is what sort of excuse you have for burning down your neighbor's property?"
"I'm getting to that, sir. I became a perfect lawyer's wife. I decorated the perfect house Dean insisted we buy even though I hated it. At his prodding, I joined all the appropriate organizations. I dedicated my life to my family. Last year, for Dean's birthday gift, I even decided to redecorated his office. It was another piece of perfection, Your Honor. A steel-gray wool carpet."
In her mind's eye, she could still see the room. "I spent months shopping for the perfect antique mahogany desk. The painting. The Tiffany lamp. The only thing that I couldn't find was a couch. Functional but antique. It would be the focal point for the whole room. Four months, Your Honor. I spent four months combing thrift shops and estate sales. Finally, I found it on eBay, and drove to central Ohio to pick it up. Then I spent two weeks putting new fabric on it, a pattern that pulled everything in Dean's office together."
"Is this the couch you burned?" the Judge asked, looking a bit more interested now.
She nodded. "Yes, but we're not quite to that part of the story, sir. You see, I'd finally moved the couch into Dean's officehis office was done. I stopped by with a surprise picnic. He was working late on a big case, and I thought we'd celebrate. And that's when it happened." She paused, the horrible sight still fresh in her mind, still able to cause her pain.
"It was six o'clock," she said softly, lost in that moment. "I walked in with dinner in my hands. His reception area was empty, but that wasn't a surprise. I hadn't expected to find anyone there that late. I opened his inner office door and
sir, I smiled. I looked at the beautiful office I'd worked so hard on for DeanI saw his desk and the wall of law books behind it. It looked so stately, so perfect, then a movement caught my eye and there they were."
"My husband and his secretary
on the couch." She stopped as the embarrassment, the humiliation, the shock of that moment hit her again. "On my couch. On the couch I spent months searching for. The couch I'd driven to Ohio to get. There was Dean, with his secretary. Together with his secretary, if you know what I mean. How much of a cliché is that? His secretary."
"I'm not sure I follow. How does catching your husband and his secretary together offer an excuse for arson?"
"Your Honor, when my ex and I split our assets, the biggest sticking point was that couch. I wanted it. I was the one who'd found it, who'd put that whole office in order. Dean could keep the rest, but I deserved that couch. He didn't want me to have it because the office was, in fact, wonderful. Eventually he wanted to conclude the settlement more than he wanted a perfect office, so I got the couch."
"And? I do have other cases to hear today, Mrs. Lewis."
"And he brought it to my house the day after Thanksgiving. I had him move it into the backyard. I needed to put that portion of my life to rest. All the bitterness, all the anger. Those kind of emotions can be draining. So, I went into the garage, got the can of gas, poured it on that fabric I'd so painstakingly chosen and I lit it
and well, you know the rest. I only wanted to burn the couch, sir. Not my shed. And certainly not my neighbor's shed. So you can see, burning anything but the couch was an accident."
"An accident brought about by your recklessness," he insisted.
"Yes, sir. It won't happen again."
"I'm sure it won't. And while I have no intention of sending you to jail, because I do believe this was an aberration, I don't think merely making restitution with a year of probation before your record is expunged is enough. So, I sentence you to the restitution and thirty hours community service. Specifically, there's a school district program in January, a safety awareness program. You'll have your nursing degree at the end of this month, I believe I read? You'll be taking your boards in January?"
"Fine. You can go and tell school students in local schools all about the dangers of playing with fire, and whatever other health-related topics the committee would like you to discuss"
The police lieutenant coughed loudly, causing the judge to stop, as everyone else turned around to glance at him.
Judge Bradley continued, "and you'll still have time to study for your boards."
"I wasn't exactly playing with fire, Your Hon"
"And I wasn't exactly done, Mrs. Lewis. As a mother, I'm sure you've taught your children to know better than interrupt while you're speaking. The same rule applies in my courtroom. As I was saying, you can participate in this safety awareness program. Go to the schools, talk to the kids. When the program's over, there will be no probation and your record will be expunged immediately, rather than a year from now. I assume that will make your job interviews go easier?"
She nodded, "I'm sure it will, but sir"
"Mrs. Lewis, this is open for neither debate nor for argument. Do the community service, and get on with your life. All that's left is for you to say, 'Thank you, Your Honor.'"
Henry, her lawyer, jabbed her in the side. "Thank you, Your Honor," Carly muttered.
"I think you'll find the experience very insightful."
Carly muttered under her breath, "Insightful my a"
"Pardon me?" the judge barked.
"I said, Thank you, Your Honor." Carly frowned.
"Next case," the judge barked.
Henry hustled her out of the courtroom.
"Carly, I'm sorry," Ms. Kelly said. "Judge Bradley can be
well, unpredictable. Especially this last year or so."
"I'll be fine," Carly assured the woman, who wished her luck and said goodbye, leaving Carly standing with Henry.
"Carly, I'm sorry as well," he said. "Maybe the community service won't be too bad."
"I'm sure it won't," Carly reassured her stricken-looking lawyer.
She pulled herself together and started walking down the hall, ignoring the fact she'd just told Henry a lie.
A big one.
When Heidi assigned her to the PTA Social Planning Committee, it'd turned out to be a stroke of good fortune, but she didn't believe she'd be that lucky again with enforced volunteering.
Carly had graduated. She had her nursing degree. She'd done her internship at the hospital. All that was left was passing her boards.
She needed to pass the test first time around.
Carly tried to lay out her January in her mind. She'd have to work at the hospital, study for her boards, plan the PTA Valentine Dance and spend hours talking about fire safety to school children.
Add to that, and most importantly, she had to be there for her kids.
Thinking of her kids reminded her that today was the Christmas Fair. Michelle and Samantha were both working it and expecting her.
She glanced at her watch. She'd better hurry. They were bound to ask how today had gone. She felt better just thinking about the sympathy they'd be bound to give her.
Speaking of sympathy, the lieutenant shot her a glance that seemed to contain more than a bit of that emotion in it.
Carly didn't want his, or anyone else's pity. She purpose didn't make eye contact and hurried past him.
She was going to be just fine.
Lieutenant Chuck Jefferson watched as Carly Lewis walked by him. She was a little bit of a thing. Maybe five three, with a good pair of heels. Her dark hair was cut to shoulder-length and swayed from side to side as she stalked down the hall. Still, if her nose stayed that high and it rained, she'd drown. Of course, it was winter in Erie, so rain wasn't likely. Snow was likely, and with the cold shoulder Carly was nudging in his direction, she'd be right at home.
He felt sort of sorry for her, though he knew she wouldn't like that. He'd been a cop for twelve years and had thought he'd long since grown immune to defendants' sob stories, but something about hers touched him.
No, it wasn't her story, it was her reaction. She wasn't willing to stand by and be a victim. She'd been proactive.