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"Izzy," my friend Maggie said, "I need you to try this murder case with me. Now."
"What?" I shifted my cell phone to my other ear, not sure I'd heard her right. I had never tried a criminal case beforenot even a parking ticket, much less a murder trial.
"Yeah," she said. "Right now."
It was a hot August Thursday in Chicago, and I had just left the civil courthouse. I had taken three steps into the Daley Center Plaza, looked up at the massive Picasso sculpturean odd copper thing that looked half bird, half dogand I actually said to it, "I'm back."
I'd argued against a Motion to Dismiss for Maggie. She normally wouldn't have filed a civil case, but she'd done so as a favor to a relative. I lost the motion, something that would have burned me in days of yore, but instead I was triumphant. Having been out of the law for nearly a year, I'd wondered if I had lost itlost the ability to argue, to analyze information secondtosecond, to change course and make it look like you'd planned it all along. I had worried that perhaps not going to court was like not having sex for a while. At first, you missed it deeply but then it became more difficult to remember what it was like with each passing day. Not that I was having that particular problem.
But really, when I'd seen the burning sun glinting off the Picasso and I stated boldly that I was back in action, I meant it figuratively. I was riding off the fact that although Maggie's opponent had won the motion, and the complaint temporarily dismissed, Judge Maddux had said, "Nice argument, counsel" to me, his wise, blue eyes sparkling.
Judge Maddux had seen every kind of case in his decades of practice and every kind of lawyer. His job involved watching people duke it out, day after day after day. For him to say "Nice argument" was a victory. It meant I still had it.
As I walked through the plaza, the heat curling my red hair into coils, I had called Maggie. She was about to pick a jury at 26th and Cal on a murder case, so her voice was rushed. "Jesus, I'm glad you called," she said.
Normally, Maggie Bristol would not have answered her phone right before the start of a criminal trial, even if she was curious about the motion I'd handled for her. But she knew I was nervous to appear in courtsomething I used to do with such regularity the experience would have barely registered. She was answering, I thought, to see how I was doing.
"It went great!" I said.
I told her then that I was a "lawyer for hire." Civil or criminal, I said, it didn't matter. And though I'd only practiced civil before, I was willing to learn anything.
Since leaving the legal world a year ago, I'd tried many thingsparttime assignments from a private investigator named John Mayburn and being a reporter for Trial TV, a legal network. I liked the TV gig until the lead newscaster, my friend Jane Augustine, was killed and I was suspected in her murder. By the time my name was cleared, I wasn't interested in the spotlight anymore.
So the reporter thing hadn't worked out, and the work with Mayburn was streaky. Plus, lately it was all surveillance, which was a complete snooze. "I miss the law," I told Maggie from the plaza. "I want back in."
Which was when she spoke those wordsI need you to try this murder case with me. Now.
I glanced up at the Picasso once more, and I knew my world was about to change. Again.
Over the years, it became disquietinghow easy the killing was, how clean.
He had always lived and worked in an antiseptic environment, distanced from the actual act of ending a life. They were usually killed in the middle of the night. But he never slept on those nights anyway, even though he wasn't there. He twisted in his bed. The only way he knew when they were dead was when he got the phone call. The person on the line would state simply, "He's gone."
He would thank them, hang up and then he would go on, as if he hadn't just killed someone.
But then he'd reached a point when he wanted to make it real. He wanted to see it.
And so he went to watch. He remembered that he had walked across the yard, toward the house. In the eerie, moonless night it seemed as if he heard a chorus of voicesformless cries, no words, just shouts and calls, echoes that sounded like pain itself.
He had stopped walking then. He listened. Was he really hearing that? Something rose up inside him, choked him. But he gulped it down. And then he kept moving toward the house.Ah , 26th and Cal. You could almost smell the place as you neared ita scent of desperation, of seediness, of excitement.
Other parts of the city now boasted an endofthesummer lushnessbushes full and vividly green, flowers bright and bursting from boxes, tree branches draping languidly over the streets. But out here at 26th and Cal, cigarette butts, old newspapers and crushed cans littered the sidewalks, all of them leading to one place.
Chicago's Criminal Courts Building was actually two buildings mashed togetherone old, stately and slightly decrepit, the other a boxy, unimaginative, brownish structure better suited to an office park in the burbs.
The last time I'd been here was as a reporter for Trial TV, covering my first story. Now I flashed my attorney ID to the sheriff and headed toward the elevators, thinking that I liked this feeling betterthat of being a lawyer, a participant, not just an observer.
I passed through the utilitarian part of the building into the old section with its black marble columns and brass lamps, the ceiling frescoed in skyblue and orange. As I neared the elevator banks, my phone vibrated in my bag, and I pulled it out, thinking it was Maggie.
But it was Sam. Sam, who I nearly married a year ago. Sam, the guy I'd happily thought I'd spend the rest of my life with. Sam, who had disappeared when we were engaged. Although I eventually understood his reasons, I hadn't been able to catch up in the aftermath of it all. I wanted more time. He wanted things to be the way they'd been before. We'd finally realized that the pieces of Sam and Izzy, Izzy and Sam no longer fit together.
I looked at the display of the phone, announcing his name. I knew I had to get upstairs. I knew I was involved with someone else now. But I hadn't talked to Sam in a while. And the fact was, his pull was hard to avoid.
I took a step toward a marble wall and leaned my back on it, answering the phone. "Hey. How are you?"
"Hi, Red Hot." His nickname for me twinged something inside, some mix of fond longing and gently nagging regrets. We had a minute or two of light, meaningless banterHow are you? Great. Yeah, me, too. Good. Good. Then Sam said, "Can I talk to you about something?"
"Sure, but I'm in the courthouse. About to try a case with Maggie." I told him quickly about Maggie's phone call. I told him that Maggie's grandfather, who was also her law partner, had been working extra hard on the murder case. Martin Bristol, a prosecutorturnedcriminallawyer, was in his seventies, but he'd always been the picture of vigor, his white hair full, his skin healthy, still wearing his expensive suits with a confident posture. But that day, Maggie said he'd not only seemed weak but he'd almost fainted. He'd denied anything was wrong, but Maggie sensed differently. And now here I was at 26th and Cal.
"You're kidding?" Sam had always been excited for me when I was doing anything interesting in the legal realm. It was Sam who had reminded me on more than one occasion over the last year that I was a lawyerthat I should make my way back to the law. "This is incredible, Iz," Sam said. "How do you feel?"
And then, right then, we were back to Sam and Izzy, Izzy and Sam. I told him the thought of being back in a courtroom was making my skin prickle with nerves but how that anxiety was also battling something that felt like pure adrenaline. I told him that adrenaline was something I had feared a little, back in the days when I was representing Pickett Enterprises, a Midwest media conglomeration.
"You've always been a thrill seeker," Sam said. "You jumped in with both feet when Forester starting giving you cases to handle."
We were silent for a second, and I knew we were remembering Forester Pickett, whom we had both worked for, whom we had both loved and who had been dead almost a year now.
"You didn't even know what you were doing," Sam continued, "yet you just charged in there and took on everything."
"But when I was on trial or negotiating some big contract and the adrenaline would start surging, sometimes it felt like too much. And now
" I thought about trying a case again and I let the adrenaline wash over me. "I like it."
"You're using it to fuel you."
This was not a conversation I would have had with Theo, my boyfriend. It was not a conversation I would have had even with Maggie. It felt damned good.
I looked at my watch. "I need to go."
A pause. "Call me later? I kind of
well, I have some news."
I felt a sinking in my stomach, for which I didn't know the reason. "What is it?"
"You've got to go. I'll tell you later."
"No, now." Another pause.
"Seriously," I said. "You know I hate when people say they want to talk and then don't tell you what they want to talk about."
He exhaled loud. I'd heard that exhale many times. I could imagine him closing his green, green eyes as he breathed, maybe running his hands through his blond hair, which would be whitegold now from the summer sun.
"Okay, Iz," he said. "I know this isn't the right time for this, but
I'm probably moving out of Chicago."
"Where? And why?" But then I knew.
"It's for Alyssa," I said, no question mark at the end of that statement. I suddenly knew for certain that this news of his had everything to do with Alyssa, his tiny, blonde, highschool sweetheart. His girlfriend since we'd called off our engagement.
And with that thought, I knew something else, too. "You're engaged."
His silence told me I was right.
"Well, congratulations," I said, as though it didn't matter, but my stomach felt crimped with pain. "So when is the big date?"
He didn't say anything for second. Then, "That's why I had to call you. There's not going to be a date."
I felt my forehead crease with confusion. Across the foyer, I saw a sheriff walking toward me with a stern expression. I knew he would tell me to move along. They didn't like people standing in one place for too long at 26th and Cal.
"There's not going to be a date," Sam repeated. "Not if you don't want there to be."
I got in the elevator with two sullenlooking teenagers. I needed to focus on Maggie's case and put my game face on. I couldn't think about my conversation with Sam right now, so I tuned in to the teenagers' conversation. "What you got?" one said.
The other shrugged. "Armed robbery. My PD says take the plea."
"Why you got a public defender if you out on bail?" The first kid sounded indignant. "If you can get bail, you can get a real lawyer."
The other shook his head. "Nah. My auntie says she won't pay no more."
"Damn." He shook his head.
They both looked at me then. I tried to give a heythere, howdy kind of look, but they weren't really heythere, howdy kind of guys. One of the teenagers stared at my hair, the other my breasts. I was wearing a crisp, white suit that I'd thought perfect for a summer day in court, but when I looked down, I realized that one of the buttons of my navy blue blouse had popped open and I was showing cleavage. I grasped the sides of the blouse together with my hand, and when the elevator reached my floor, I dodged out.
Although I was still in the old section of the courthouse, that floor must have been remodeled a few decades ago, and its hallways now bore a staid, uninspired, almost hospitalish look with yellow walls and tan linoleum floors. I searched for Maggie's courtroom. When I found it and stepped inside, I felt a little deflated. Last year, when I'd been here for Trial TV, the case was on the sixth floor in one of the huge, twostory, oakclad courtrooms with soaring windows. This courtroom was beigefrom the spectators' benches, which were separated from the rest of the courtroom by a curved wall of beige Plexiglas, to the beigegray industrial carpet to the beigeish fabric on the walls to the beigeyellow glow emanating with a faint high pitch from the fluorescent lights. A few small windows at the far side of the benches let in the only other light, which bounced off the Plexiglas, causing the few people sitting there to have to shift around to avoid it.
Maggie was in the front of the courtroom on the other side of the Plexiglas at one of the counsel's tables. She was tiny, barely five feet tall, and with her curly, chinlength hair, she almost looked like a kid swimming in her tooloose, pinstriped suit. But Maggie certainly didn't act like a kid in the courtroom. Anyone who thought she did or underestimated her in any way ended up on the losing end of that scuffle.
No one was behind the high, elongated judge's bench. At another counsel's table were two women who must have been assistant state's attorneysyou could tell by the carts next to their tables, which were laden with accordion folders marked First Degree Murder, as if the verdict had already been rendered. The state's attorneys were talking, but I couldn't hear them. The room, I realized, was soundproof. The judge probably had to turn on the audio in order for anything to be heard by the viewers.
I walked past the spectator pews and pushed one of the glass doubledoors to greet Maggie. The door screeched opened half an inch, then stopped abruptly.
Maggie looked up, then pointed at the other door. I suddenly remembered a law professor Maggie and I had at Loyola Chicago. The professor had stood in front of an Advanced Litigation class and said the most important thing she could teach us, if we planned to practice in Cook County, was Always push the door with the lock. I'd found she was right. At the Daley Center, where most of the larger civil cases were held, there were always double doors. One of them always had a lock on it, and that one was always unlocked. If you pushed the other, you inevitably banged into it and looked like an ass, and in the world of litigation, where confidence was not only prized but required, you didn't want that.