She felt good. Bright, alert, ready for the day. Yet the bathroom mirror told a different story. Puffy eyes, tangled hair, and a pink line running down her left cheek all spoke of a night gone wrong, and a morning that came far too early. The LED’s of her alarm clock burned through the gloom of the early morning. If she was in the car in half an hour, she could make it. If the traffic was light, there were no delays, and nothing out of the ordinary held her up, she’d be alright.
Breakfast was a cold granola bar she found while rummaging through the pantry. Rather than check for an expired by date, she rolled the dice and chomped down on its hard, crunchy oats. The taste of cinnamon tingled on her tongue as she raced across the lawn, pressed the unlock button on her key fob, and fumbled for the door handle in the gloom of an overcast, gray morning.
Rounding the first corner, her tires squealed. She made a mental note to slow down, but the idea didn’t transition from her brain to her right foot. She ran a stop sign at Maple Street and Forbes, then another at Oak and Main. Six miles to go. Ten minutes at this pace. She’d make it. Barely. Her hands trembled slightly on the wheel. She tried to force them to remain still, but failed in the attempt. She cheated a look into the rearview mirror to check her makeup and found the face staring back to be unacceptable, but uncorrectable at this point. Shuddering at her own image, she averted her eyes and bore down on the task at hand. Get there, get there, get there. Tw0 miles remaining. A quick dash over the bridge, merge left toward the downtown exit, and shoot down the ramp to the parking garage one block west.
Throwing the car into park, she bolted. Running across the drab concrete of the third level, she got lucky and caught the elevator waiting empty. Jabbing at the ground floor button, she rode down in silence, tidying her appearance as best she could, straightening her suit, running both hands over her hair, tied back in a tight bun. The elevator thumped to a stop. The steel doors opened, clean on the inside, graffitied on the outside. She scurried out across open ground, headed for the granite steps and heavy glass doors of the courthouse across the street. A heel caught on a crack in the sidewalk. She wobbled, but did not fall. Her bag fell heavily to one side, counterbalancing her as she swayed back to center and found her balance.
Inside the building she pressed the up elevator button while simultaneously glancing up at the display that told her the closest car was ten floors above her, going in the wrong direction.
“Shit,” she muttered under her breath. Throwing the door to the stairwell open she attacked the stairs like Marines coming ashore on a contested beach. On the third floor she pressed a hip heavily against the dark wooden door, forcing it open. Down the hall she sped, around the corner, and into the outer office of Judge Connor’s chambers.
An administrative assistant no more than twenty-five years old sat behind an imposing oak desk. He raised an eyebrow but did not speak. Jerking his head to one side, he indicated a door to his left. The door to the judge’s private office. She pushed through it, slowing her pace as she did. Almost miraculously transforming in the space of two steps from a frantic, harried woman on the verge being late to the most important appointment of her life, to a steady, confident woman whose self-assurance and poise was obvious, even unquestionable.
Inside the room two men sat in sturdy but uncomfortable looking chairs. They were positioned slightly left of center in front of an ominous piece of furniture that could be described as a desk, or could be an overly ornate battlement designed to lull an enemy into a false sense of civility. Behind the desk, a small man with a sharply pinched nose, upon which sat a pair of heavy horn-rimmed glasses, was slumped down in a high backed leather chair. His head jerked up when she entered the room, almost as if her were spring loaded.
To her right stood two chairs. One filled by a balding, downtrodden middle aged man wearing an orange jumpsuit. A uniformed guard stood against the wall just behind him. The other chair was empty.
“I’m glad you could join us this morning, counselor,” the judge spoke derisively.
“Eight O’clock on the dot, your honor,” she hoped with all her might the clock hadn’t ticked past the appointed hour yet. “I am well aware of position regarding punctuality.”
“Hmph,” the judge grunted, accepting her acknowledgement of his authority and importance to the proceedings.
She sat down, removed a sheaf of documents from her bag, and patted her client on the thigh, reassuringly.
“Whenever you’re ready,” the judge nodded in her direction.
Taking a deep breath she leaned forward from her seated positive, placed three pages on the desk in front of the judge, and said simply, “If I may, your honor.”
And so it begins. Hanging in the balance is the freedom of a sad, lonely man who would almost certainly go through life unnoticed…except for that one night. One too many drinks at the bar. On a night when the temperature dropped just enough for ice to form on the road. Ice that would cause a homeless man to fall in the street while crossing in the middle of the block, not twenty yards away at the cross-walk. Ice that would prevent her clients tires from gripping the road when he pressed the brake pedal.
Her head throbbed. Her intestines rumbled. She wished for all the world she’d gone straight home last night. But she didn’t. She stopped for a drink with a friend. Then another. Then another.
The irony of her position didn’t escape her. Yet she wondered as she spoke, directing the judge to documents intended to cloud the issue more than clarify it, what the condition of her own front bumper might look like. She had no memory of driving home last night. None. Not even a glimmer of an idea how she’d gotten there, or when.
Digging down deep, she focused on her case. Yet a shiver ran up her spine as she defended her client. Might she be in his seat one day? One day soon? She didn’t know, couldn’t remember, and the blank spots in her memory worried her. Perhaps, with good reason.