The Paris Lawyer
By Sylvie Granotier, Anne Trager
Le French Book Copyright © 2011 Albin Michel
All rights reserved.
One early afternoon, in all other ways like any other afternoon, her mother takes her out in her stroller, soothing her with a lilting mother's voice. She tells her about the wind that sings and then softens in the branches and the swallows that skillfully skim the pond for a few refreshing drops of water before flying into the clouds in perfect circles.
The little girl does not understand every word, but she follows her mother's fingers as they imitate playful birds gliding down to her face.
Then her mother and she will go home for snack followed by a nap.
It is a reassuring life, where nothing unexpected happens.
They stop at the edge of the woods, in the shade of the trees. The little girl toys with the light, squinting to change the intensity of the rays.
Before the screaming starts, before her mother's distant terror horrifies her in turn, before the panicked shrill pierces her ears, and the little girl takes refuge in sleep to bury an anxiety far too great for her to bear, her mother gives her a generous and warm hug, leaving her with the sight of the entire sky, and says, "I'll be right back." A final broken promise. Sitting as she is, the child cannot see the body, or what is left of it, sprawled on the ground, beaten to a pulp. Yet that moment of abandonment remains forever engraved in her adult memory.
The sky is calm and clear above the Seine River in Paris, where traffic is nervous and gray along the banks. Catherine Monsigny cannot figure out what links this fleeting moment with that fixed point in her past, that fuzzy, probably reconstructed memory that usually is tactful enough to leave her alone.
She has even tried to convince herself that it has stopped broadcasting from that faraway land of her childhood.
She crosses the Pont Neuf, parking her scooter at the Place Dauphine. She mindlessly yanks off her helmet, banging her ears in the process, then stows it in her top box. Catherine shakes her head to free her hair, and grabs her briefcase and large bag.
She walks quickly toward the courthouse, cursing her short legs. She slips into her court robe as she climbs the steps, and by habit she automatically replaces those old uninvited images with a quick summary of the case she is about to defend.
Her client—what's his name again? Ah yes, Cedric Devers—is accused of assault and battery. He admits using force and justifies it by pointing out the harassment that preceded it. According to him, he met a woman—Monique Lemaire, fifty-six years old—in a bar, took her back to his place for a short session between consenting adults. Ciao, no see you next time, because there won't be one.
Monique did not see things the same way, harassed him by phone, and one night too many, she took to ringing her seducer's doorbell until he reacted. He opened the door. That was a fatal error. Stubborn with drink, she wouldn't take no for an answer and tried to force her way in. He had to stop the noise and ended up pushing her. She fell, which resulted in a few bruises and three days' disability leave.
Catherine has not yet met her client. They have spoken on the phone. She glances around to find him. He's not anywhere in sight. She pokes her head into the courtroom to check the proceedings.
The pending case is not yet over.
Just as well. Her client will have the time he needs to arrive.
Too bad for him. She does not like waiting.
She senses fingers lightly brushing her shoulder, spins around, and looks into the deepest gray—or perhaps green—eyes she has ever seen. She feels as though she's falling into them. She grasps for something to catch her balance, and her professional composure kicks in, as it does every time. She throws him a sharp look and spits out, "Cedric Devers? You're late."
The thirtyish teenager, classy despite the jeans and sweatshirt he has tossed on, stares right into her eyes, unbothered, like a child, without blinking.
Would he never stop looking at her?
The lawyer turns away and walks toward the courtroom, because it is high time to do so and because she wants to escape his embarrassing look.
She sharpens the professional tone in her voice now that Cedric Devers has thrown her off. What an uncharacteristic sensation.
"I asked you to wear a suit. You are performing here. The first thing the judge will see is your attitude and your clothing, and the judge's impression counts."
"So you're a woman?" He bites his lip to crush a smug ladies' man smile. Too late. The very tone of his question says he's taking up the challenge. Women are his preferred prey.
Male crudeness can become a woman's weapon. Even as she says to herself that he really does have beautiful eyes, Catherine's reflex is to lash out. "Studs don't turn me on. All I'm interested in is supporting women's causes. Yep, I'm a feminist bitch. Come on."
"We've got a little time, don't we?"
"There's no way to know, and arriving late always plays against a defendant.
That's not so hard to understand."
"There was a huge line to get in."
"You should have read your summons."
"Reassure me. You're my lawyer, right? I mean, you are here to defend me?"
"That's right. And I won't wear kid gloves. Nobody will. You might as well get used to that."
For an instant, a crack appears in Cedric Devers's display of self-assurance. He's just another poser. He opens his arms and in an uncertain voice says, "Should I, uh, explain?"
She taps the case file under her arm, letting him know that it is all in there and that she does not need any additional explanations.
He stops at the door. "Is Monsigny your maiden name?"
"It's my name. Period." She tightens her lips as she hisses her counter-attack. She has no intention of doing him the favor of explaining that she is single and fossilizing. He would take that as an invitation.
He gets the message, aware that he has just skillfully cut off the branch he had yet to sit on: she thinks he's an idiot.
The truth is, Catherine is working. She has gotten a quick portrait of Cedric Devers: forty years old despite looking younger, a graphic artist who manages his own agency, a good income, clean cut. Now she has to discover the other Cedric, the victim, because appearances have a huge impact, despite the professional neutrality members of the legal system display.
"Once we are in the courtroom, point out Mrs. Lemaire."
He nods and says nothing.
She will defend him as best she can. That is her job.
They are still in the entryway when she stops him with her hand and gives him an approving look.
"Stay in this state of mind: a little worried, a little fragile, not so sure of yourself. It will help you more than posing as a small-time ladies' man."
She does not wait for an answer and enters the courtroom.
The ordinary trial clientele—the scared, the disconcerted, the regulars—are on the public benches. On the defense benches, people in black robes, some with ermine trim and some without, are preparing to represent their clients. Some indifferent colleagues have the bored look of professionals who have more important things to do elsewhere. Others are reading the paper or whispering among themselves.
Devers sits down at the end of a row and with his chin points out a stocky woman.
Monique Lemaire works in a bar, a job that doesn't play in her favor, implying that she has certain life experience. She won't be able to act like an innocent maiden. Yet she is smart enough to be careful about her looks. No jewelry, no makeup, dark pants, an impeccable white shirt buttoned up high under a modest jacket. Still, she's built like an old kettle. Catherine can't help wondering what he saw in her.
Lemaire turns to her attorney, and Catherine notices that the shirt, as plain as it is, looks like it is going to burst from the pressure of her heavy, plump breasts.
Okay, the lady exudes sex. Some women are just like that. Their bodies speak for them. In this case, it speaks for the defense.
Catherine greets the colleague she is facing. He's nicknamed Tsetse because he has a genius for annoying never-ending sentences.
He is the good news of the day.
The bad news lies in the prosecutor-judge duo, a twosome fed up with seeing couples who stay together only because they are poor and who hit each other because they don't have enough space. So separate! But where would they go?
This scenario is being played out once again in the case before Catherine's. The couple live together; they are repeat offenders and have three kids and problems with alcohol. The two of them together earn only fifteen hundred euros a month, which is not enough to pay two rents.
For a change, Cedric Devers offers the court someone who is well off, which could lean the balance to the wrong side.
Catherine, forgetting that she herself was late, throws a vengeful look at her client before pushing him to the front of the court. They had been five minutes away from missing the hearing.
As was foreseeable, an attentive court questions the plaintiff and goes easy on her.
Mrs. Lemaire is upset. Her story is reasonably confused. She is determined to accuse her passing fling and vehemently emphasizes that he went to bed with her on the first date, which was also the last, something she neglects to mention. Everything indicates that she was perfectly consenting. She had thought he was nice. He threw her out early in the morning with the excuse that he had to go to work, even though she needed to sleep because she worked at night. He just as well could have called her a thief while he was at it.
Devers proves to be a quick learner. He listens attentively and respectfully and answers questions directly, without any flourishes. Humbly.
The barmaid plays up the emotions, and her act rings more of loneliness and being ready to grab onto the first ship that passes. He states the facts and says with dignity that he too was distraught that night. He is sorry about how this misunderstanding, for which he is most certainly responsible, has turned out. One lonely night he felt for a woman in distress. She hoped for more than he could give. He is annoyed with himself for this mistake, for which he is clearly the only person responsible.
The barmaid's lawyer gesticulates. He gets excited, cannot imagine an excuse for the unjustifiable behavior of a man guilty of taking advantage of the naïve trust of a worthy woman. He embellishes his clichés. His words flow one after the other without any meaningful conclusion.
The prosecutor stares at the woodwork, looking like she's mentally writing down her shopping list. The presiding judge wearily fiddles with the case file.
For Catherine, it is time to wake everyone up.
She stands, and from the top of her five-foot-five and a quarter-inch frame, she raises a soft yet clear voice, using short, sharp sentences to describe a well-established man with no history of violence, as demonstrated by his attempt to reason with an out-of-control woman who was banging on his door in the middle of the night. Out of compassion and fearing a public scandal, he had opened that door. There was no actual act of violence, but rather a clumsy movement resulting from his exasperation with the stubbornness of a woman who was under the influence of alcohol, an idiotic gesture that was understandable and whose consequences he regrets, as he himself had said.
She asks that he be acquitted and sits down, whispering to him that they would have the decision at the end of the session.
When the judge leaves with her mountain of case files under her arm, they also leave, and Catherine abandons her client to call her office.
She goes out to the courtyard for a smoke, where she watches Devers's agitation from the corner of her eye. He isn't acting like a smartass anymore. He even comes and asks her what she thinks, like a worried child whose mischief has proven worse than expected. He has a certain charm when he stops playing the tough guy, and Catherine experiences some pleasure in stripping him of the vestiges of his protective armor.
She doesn't really know. With a court like that anything is possible, and it is impossible to tell what side it will come down on.
He congratulates her on her closing argument. He notes that she was brief, showing regard for the number of cases that followed; that could have appeased the court. No, he's not dumb.
From time to time, the look in his eyes changes. He no longer appears to be grasping the information that the person in front of him is sending him silently, absorbed as he is in a contemplation that glazes over his eyes and makes them bigger.
It is disconcerting.
She says, "It's true that your girlfriend did not start out with a good deal.
Life is unfair."
Cedric Devers closes his eyes. "Can you say that again?" "Life is unfair. It's a platitude."
She frowns slightly. He's strange.
After being so clearly worried, he doesn't pay particular attention to the verdict.
She expected a week of public service. He is acquitted.
She holds out her hand to her client. She is expected elsewhere. She is in a hurry; she lets him know.
He opens his mouth to speak, changes his mind, and closes it again, which is just as well, as she has no intention of raising a glass to their victory with him.
She puts her robe back in her bag, intending to drop it off at the dry cleaner. His eyes take in the thin figure that her tight skirt and fitted jacket highlight. He can't resist devouring her in his mind's eye, where he lifts her blond hair into a chignon, revealing her graceful neck. He exaggerates her thin waist with a red leather belt, imagines a flowered dress swirling around her thighs. When she has disappeared, he still sees her going up a step, her dress opening, showing her frail legs. The summer-colored fabric falls to the floor, and her breasts appear, small and round.
He turns around. He should get to work.
Catherine finds her scooter, checks the time and decides she can make a detour to the Goutte d'Or.
The building is run-down. Poverty and time have left deep scars in its façade. The structure looks like it will collapse at any minute, and like the grassroots association it houses, it remains standing more out of steadfastness than soundness.
Catherine climbs the shaky staircase, trying to ignore the leprous walls, the rancid odors, and the broken glass that mark the way to a door that announces "Rights for All."
She has already tried to get the distressed building's owner to renovate, but he is skilled at making regulations work in his favor. Her efforts have been in vain. The deterioration continues, as unyielding as the despair of the undocumented immigrants the lawyer volunteers her time to defend.
She has not yet said her last word. In either area.
The door to the two-room apartment that serves as an office stays shut only when it is locked, so it is open practically all of the time, a powerful symbol for the association's chairman, Daniel, who persists in seeing half-full glasses, even when they are empty.
Inside, all the furniture has come from the neighborhood streets, where each step made in economic advancement rejects the preceding one. It is the IKEA syndrome: a three-seat sofa comes in, and a two-seater goes out; an ergonomic office chair replaces the basic model. Daniel has had to stop the association's volunteers in their enthusiastic retrieval of treasures brought to the office at all hours.
A toilet flushes.
It has been fixed, Catherine notes with satisfaction.
Daniel exits the bathroom, buttoning up. He's wearing his bad-day look, his eyebrows knotted up, like his hair, and his eyes outlined with dark circles, like his nails.
"If you have bad news, just forget about telling me, please. Souad got pulled in after jumping a subway turnstile at La Chapelle, where it's crawling with ticket inspectors. Mimi is back on the streets, and Ali is in solitary again. He thinks he's clever, but in all likelihood, he'll be deported. For three grams of hash. But how are you?"
"I'll let you know in two hours, after I see my boss."
"And after, I'll invite you to dinner to celebrate." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Paris Lawyer by Sylvie Granotier, Anne Trager. Copyright © 2011 Albin Michel. Excerpted by permission of Le French Book.
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