COURTING DEATH Excerpt
That’s my final offer.” State prosecutor Connie Sanchez slapped shut the cover of her case file. “One year and a five thousand dollar fine.”
“Come on, Connie,” I protested. I knew better than to use my opponent’s full name, Conchetta, which she hated. At the moment I needed her cooperation.
“My client may be a screwed-up teenager, but you haven’t proven any malicious intent. A thousand dollar fine and no jail time.”
“Sorry, Nicole. No can do.” Connie shrugged. “Your client chose the wrong gravestone to deface. The family members want his ass fried or they’ll go straight to the media. I can see the headlines.” She held up her hands, fingers splayed. “White kid gets away with spray-painting a black girl’s grave.”
“Chalk, not paint.” I gritted my teeth. Although we’d been friendly during my years as a state prosecutor, the friendship hadn’t survived my conversion to the “dark side,” as she loved to say. If she only knew… Switching to defense wasn’t all that difficult with conscience’s fangs snapping at your heels.
“Trust me.” Connie dropped her hands. “It will be paint by the time the reporters get through with the story.”
True enough, I reflected as I collected my briefcase and purse. If a story had enough sympathy play, the dry facts could easily get lost in the hue and cry. I glanced at my watch.
Damn. Without a deal, I wouldn’t be out of here until late. That meant I couldn’t stop by the house before my evening appointment, and this was the day the caretaker had to leave early. The all too familiar sensation of tension filled my chest like a balloon, pressing against my lungs until I could hardly breathe.
Stop it, I told myself, fighting to take a normal breath. Now’s not the time to hyperventilate. It wasn’t as if Mom had started wandering off and getting lost like the doctor warned about. She’d be fine by herself for a few hours. Still, a burning sensation flared in my lower chest. I thumbed a tablet from the antacid roll I kept in my jacket pocket.
The door of the small conference room opened and Bailiff Doug Scott poked his head in. “Ms. Sterling, Ms. Sanchez. The judge is ready to resume the proceedings.”
“Oh, thank you, Doug.” Despite the dark circles under her eyes, Connie’s eyes flashed with sudden fire. She practically tripped over herself to follow the bailiff out.
Not that I blamed her. The buff deputy was easy on the eyes and a spark to any woman’s libido. His being single didn’t hurt the fantasy factor either. There was always a moment of reverential silence whenever he strolled by a group of female lawyers in the courthouse hallways.
As I allowed the bailiff and enamored prosecutor to get ahead, I pulled out my cell phone and called my law firm partner Kate Rochelle.
“Kate? It’s Nicole. I need a favor.”
“Of course,” she responded in a cultured tone instilled by her Palm Beach upbringing. “The hearing not going well?”
“The state’s presented its case, but the prosecutor won’t offer any deal that doesn’t include jail time.”
“Tough break. Your client may have to testify after all.”
“Looks that way. I have that funeral service tonight at seven. I might not be able to swing home, could you—”
“Stop in and check on your mother? Not a problem.”
Relief swept through me. Sometimes I wondered at what quirk of fortune had blessed me with friends like my partners. “Thanks, Kate.”
“Go kick some butt.”
I laughed as I switched off the phone. Taking a deep breath, I pushed open the courtroom door and walked to the table where my client, Trevor Jordan, sat guarded by the bailiff. I nodded to Doug, who withdrew only a slight distance.
After sitting down, I leaned over and said in a low voice, “Sorry, Trevor. The state wants jail time. The best deal they’ll offer is a year and a five thousand dollar fine. I might be able to reduce the fine in exchange for an agreement to do the time.”
God help me. Deep inside, that cowardly part of me wanted him to take the deal. I glanced at the podium stationed in front of the bench and swiped my cold, sweaty palms along my thighs.
Trevor’s lower lip quivered before he swallowed. Five-ten with a stocky build, he wore his blond hair one-quarter inch longer than military. Given his father, Tommy, sat glowering at the rear of the room, his own short hair bristling with indignation, I knew Trevor’s quarter-inch represented a visible mark of rebellion.
“If I put you on the stand, the whole truth may come out. Once I open up the issue of motive, the prosecutor will jump all over herself to cross-examine you.”
The boy studied his clasped hands on top of the table. “I understand.”
“Do you?” I placed my hand over his.
His troubled blue eyes met mine. “Screwed if I do. Screwed if I don’t.”
My lips twitched. “That sounds about right.”
“Then call me as a witness.”
“All rise,” the bailiff called out as Judge Kay Fanning entered. Once seated, the judge glanced at me. “Is the defense ready?”
As this was a preliminary hearing, there was no jury. I was playing my cards for the judge only. “Yes, Your Honor. The defense calls Trevor Jordan.”
My breathing quickened as I approached the podium. This isn’t the Archer case. There’s no tainted evidence to screw things up. My hand trembled when I placed my notepad on the stand. Best not to risk my former routine of standing beside the podium in a show of confidence. I gripped the sides of the lectern.
After my client had been sworn in, I began my direct. “Please tell the court your name.”
He turned toward the judge. “I’m Trevor Jordan.”
Nice move. Exactly like I’d told him. “Where were you on the afternoon of October 20th?”
“I was at the Powell Memorial Gardens.”
“Why were you there?” Careful.
“I wanted to make a rubbing of Felicia’s gravestone.”
His gaze darted toward his father. “Yes.”
“Was anyone else in the area?”
“No. I looked but didn’t find any caretaker.”
“Why did you need to find a caretaker?”
“An internet article about rubbings recommended that you get permission first.”
“What happened after you didn’t find a caretaker?”
“I placed tracing paper over the stone and began to rub chalk over it.”
“Did you intend to deface the grave?” Intent was critical in a charge of malicious defacement of a grave.
Trevor’s face flushed with indignation. “No. The tracing paper wasn’t supposed to leave a mark. I only wanted a keepsake. I…” He snapped his mouth shut.
Out of nowhere I developed lightheadedness and a smothering sensation as if there were no oxygen in the room. I couldn’t hear for the ringing in my ears and the pounding of my heart. I tried to speak but couldn’t. It was as if my body had a foot on both the gas and brake pedals.
“Ms. Sterling. Are you all right?” The sharp edge of the judge’s voice pierced my paralysis. “Is there a question?”
I glanced down but couldn’t bring my notes into focus. Where was I? Something about why Trevor had done the etching.
Desperate to regain control, I blurted, “Mr. Jordan, why of all the thousand of gravestones in Powell Memorial Gardens did you want a rubbing of Felicia Williams’s marker?”
Confusion flashed across Trevor’s face and he cast a nervous glance at his father.
“No, wait.” Why had I asked that question? I’d opened the motivation gate. “I withdraw—”
“Because I loved her.”
His admission was like a bombshell in the courtroom.
© 2011 Carol Stephenson