Chelsea Hodgens watched the young woman Judy ushered into her chambers nervously take a seat across from her. Issabella Bright looked frazzled and uncertain. She glanced around at the certificates and plaques that hung on the paneled walls, then at her hands, and finally at the Judge.
Chelsea favored her with a thin smile and leaned back in her swivel chair.
“I have a cold and I don’t want to pass it around,” she said. “Otherwise I would have stood and greeted you with a handshake.”
“You’ve never argued in front of me, have you?”
“No, Your Honor. Not yet.”
A wrinkle appeared between Issabella’s eyebrows.
“Don’t be. It helps that I haven’t had you in my court. I’ve sent a note up to Chief Judge Summers asking to keep anything you’re handling off my docket for the foreseeable future, until the case against Vernon Pullins is concluded.”
She watched a series of expressions, one more confused than the next, play across the pretty young woman’s face. Chelsea coughed into her fist twice, settled back and waited for a response.
“I don’t understand,” Issabella said. “I’m not representing Mr. Pullins. If this is about this morning…”
Chelsea arched a brow. “This morning when you attempted to solicit business in a hospital? Yes, it is about that. That sort of nonsense isn’t the way to build a reputation worth having, you know.”
Issabella flushed red and sank her head down into her hands. She mumbled something into her palms.
“Speak up, Ms. Bright. I don’t tolerate mumblers in my court, or in chambers. You’re a lawyer. Raise your head and say it clearly.”
“I made a very bad decision, Your Honor.”
“I don’t have an excuse worth hearing.”
“Good. I wouldn’t entertain it.”
Judge Hodgens was beginning to doubt this frazzled, apologetic girl in front of her. She didn’t need a mousy, passive lawyer. She needed someone with enough backbone and enough assertiveness to keep Darren Fletcher from self-imploding.
As she was contemplating dismissing Issabella from her presence and putting in a phone call to Darren, the girl seemed to glean onto something. Issabella’s flush of embarrassment subsided, and her eyes narrowed.
“How, exactly, do you know about where I was this morning?”
“Darren Fletcher called me. He was impressed with you. He thinks you should be appointed co-counsel for Mr. Pullins. Wasn’t I clear on that?”
“No. No you weren’t.”
“Well, there you have it,” Chelsea said, and looked up at the wall clock hanging behind Issabella. She picked up a pen and began writing on the back of one of her business cards. “My afternoon docket begins in half an hour. Darren has the case file from the prosecutor’s office. This is his number. Also, don’t worry about not yet being approved for the felony appointment list. Darren’s still on the list for life offenses, so appointing you as co-counsel won’t cause a fuss with whoever your judge winds up being.”
Issabella took the card with Darren’s number and stared at it, then at the Judge.
“I still don’t understand.”
Chelsea blew her nose into a tissue and felt her sinuses throbbing with pressure.
“I can see that. Why don’t you give me all your questions so we can make this fast. I have to prep my docket and guzzle a pint or so of cough syrup. Summer colds are the worst. I hope I haven’t passed it to you. If you wake up tomorrow feeling like someone ran you over and left you in a ditch, consider yourself apologized to, yes?”
Judy appeared, peeking her head in the door before hustling into the room. The judicial coordinator set a cup of steaming beef broth down, gave the judge a supportive wink, and just as quickly hustled back out.
Chelsea took a tentative sip of the broth, gladdened at the scouring heat running down her throat. She grinned and said, “I’ll tell you something you might not know yet. The key to happiness as a lawyer is finding the right person to answer your office phone and keep everything organized. The same is true for a judge.”
Issabella didn’t return the grin, and the Judge wondered if maybe there was some grit in the girl after all.
“Why?” Issabella said.
“Why are you involving yourself in this? Why are you appointing me to a potential life-sentence case? You don’t know me, Your Honor.”
Chelsea didn’t answer, letting Issabella put it together for herself. The young lawyer eventually clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, and her face hardened with recognition.
“This isn’t particularly professional. Whatever this is, it’s personal. You’re pushing me into something personal between you and Darren Fletcher.”
Chelsea stood up, her entire body, from scalp to toes, aching and weak. She plucked her robe off the coat stand in the corner and shrugged into it.
“Darren and I have an agreement,” she said. “He doesn’t take felony cases unless I approve it ahead of time. When he told me Mr. Pullins’s brother hired him, I set the condition that he must have co-counsel. He seems to think you’d fit nicely in the second chair, so I’m appointing you. Congratulations. Not many public defenders can say they’ve represented an accused cop-killer less than a year after sitting for the bar. If all goes well, you’ll have jump-started your career. If all goes poorly, consider it penance for your behavior this morning.”
Issabella was still frowning, but Chelsea had no more time for her. There was a stack of pre-sentencing reports she needed to pick through and decide on before taking the bench.
“This is where you get on your feet and thank me,” she said.
Issabella got on her feet, but there was no thanks forthcoming. She slipped the business card in her purse, shouldered it and said, “Why isn’t he allowed to run his own cases? What did he do, exactly?”
Judge Hodgens shrugged. She sat and picked up the stack of sentencing recommendations while wiping at her raw nostrils with a fresh tissue. The broth was a balm on her throat, but it had done nothing for her plugged and aching sinuses.
“He’s your partner now, Ms. Bright,” she said, not looking up. “Ask him. On your way out, tell Judy to come in, would you?”
Issabella didn’t move.
“I don’t like this.”
Judge Hodgens grew a chilly grin.
“No?” she answered. “You’ve got some common sense, then. Be a dear and direct all of it at Darren. He needs a sound voice of reason. Goodbye, Ms. Bright.”
The young lawyer seemed to recognize there was nothing to be gained by continuing the meeting. Without a word, Issabella turned on her heel and walked out. The Judge expected to hear her telling Judy to come in, but all she heard was the sound of the outer-office door clacking shut.
It was a small thing, a slight, to ignore her request. Still, it meant Issabella could poke back if she had a mind to.
Good girl, Chelsea thought before putting Issabella Bright and Darren Fletcher out of her mind. As miserable as she felt, and as nervous as she was about Darren’s attempt at getting back into the game of life, she had a court to run.
* * *
Issabella was passing the giant Uniroyal Tire landmark on I-94 when she heard her phone chime from inside her purse. Fishing around, she found it and answered on the fourth ring.
“Hey, Issabella. This is—”
“I know who this is,” she snapped.
“—Darren. You do? Okay. Look, I wanted to let you know—”
“That you went behind my back and had a judge assign me to a case I shouldn’t be on?”
She heard the anger in her tone, felt the rush of it in her temples and behind her eyes. If she was having this conversation, it shouldn’t be while driving, she decided. She signaled and glided the Buick down the Telegraph Road exit to Dearborn.
“Well,” Darren answered, sounding entirely unfazed, “I might quibble with that description. What do you mean ‘shouldn’t’? Of course you should. It’s a big case. Why shouldn’t you be on it?”
“I’ve been practicing less than a year is why.”
She turned right on Telegraph, saw a McDonald’s ahead, and brought the Buick to a stop in its parking lot.
“So what? We’re on the case together. I’ve run capital trials before. There’s no reason to be scared.”
She made a face she wished he was there to see.
“I’m not scared, you jackass,” she said. “I’m pissed. At you. I told you no. More than once. Maybe you think it’s cute to go and get me assigned to this anyway, but it’s not. And maybe you can get away with an awful lot with other women. I don’t doubt it. But not every one of us accepts a charming smile as a valid excuse for ignoring what we have to say.”
She took in a breath and waited.
“You think I’m charming.”
Issabella put her forehead against the steering wheel and felt the rushing anger inside her turning over on itself, becoming embarrassment.
“I don’t think you’re charming,” she groaned. “I think you’re presumptuous, and there’s no way this is going to work.”
“Of course it will. This isn’t rocket science, it’s a murder case. Also, guns. I read the search warrant and the evidence logs. Vernon had an impressive amount of illegal firearms in his basement. Murder and guns. How can you want out of that sort of case?”
“I think I already explained how.”
Darren’s voice dropped an octave, becoming playful and intimate, like he was right there in the passenger seat, whispering in her ear.
“If it’s too distracting for you, I can always dial down the charm while we’re working together, Izzy.”
She sat up straight again, hung up on him and turned her phone to “OFF.”
“Sorry,” she said to Invisible Passenger Darren. “But we’re not open for any more embarrassment today. We are full up.”
Outside her windshield, across the street, she spied a corner convenience store. Painted across the brick front of the building in big, green letters, it said “COME ON IN.”
“Yup,” she agreed, and put the Buick in drive. “Absolutely, yes.”
There was a Cheeto on the carpet, right next to her hand. Issabella let out a deep, shuddering yawn and blinked to get her vision focused. Next to the Cheeto was an empty bottle of Pinot grigio.
Sunlight poured in through her living room window. She rolled over and shut her eyes, burrowing into the couch cushions.
“Alright!” she shouted, and rolled onto the carpet. She straightened and felt the ache in her legs and back. She stretched catlike, her joints popping with little firecracker noises, and yawned deeply.
Standing on her front step was a very big woman with a pug nose, long brown hair and an expression of dour boredom. A cigarette dangled from her mouth.
“What?” Issabella growled at the woman, leaning against the door jam and feeling too lousy for any pretense of politeness or civility. She wanted to draw a bath and fall asleep in it.
“You Izzy?” the woman asked around the cigarette. “Darren said I should come over and get you so you two can get working.”
Issabella knew she was just standing there, not responding, but her mind felt like it was on some sort of half-speed setting. She desperately needed water and whatever medicine might make the world around her stop swaying back and forth.
“You know…the case,” the woman said. “The one with the guy and the cops and the whatever? The lawyer case? The—”
Her head felt like it was stuffed full of wet cotton.
“Yep. So let’s get going…”
“I’m not ready to go anywhere.”
“Okie-dokie. I’m in that van there. You go put your face on and come out when you’re ready, okay?”
The van was a big, purple-and-rust-colored thing from the ’70s or ’80s, with a plastic bubble skylight and running boards between the tires. On the side was a rearing unicorn with a starburst of airbrushed points blazing out from its horn.
“Okay,” Issabella heard herself saying, not sure yet why she was saying it. “Okay. Just give me a minute.”
The woman shrugged. “Whatever. You take as long as you want getting pretty.”
The big woman turned away and lumbered back toward the unicorn van. Halfway there, she turned around again. A long limb of ash detached from her cigarette and fell onto her generous bosom.
“Theresa Winkle, by the way.”
“You’re Darren’s new partner, huh?”
Theresa huffed smoke out her nose and looked mildly confused.
“Not partners, no.”
“Huh. He sure seemed to think you were partners.”
“Well, we’re not.”
The big woman shrugged and scratched at something on her face.
“Okay. Well, either way, you go ahead and put yourself together. And, hey, do you have any coffee in your place? The bar’s all out and Darren usually has three cups in the morning. You look like you could use a little jolt, too. No offense.”
“Coffee? Yeah, I have some…wait. Did you just say you’re taking me to a bar?”