Sustained, p.5
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       Sustained, p.5

         Part #2 of The Legal Briefs series by Emma Chase
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  “How many kids live in this house exactly?” I ask the aunt.

  It’s starting to feel like they’re cockroaches—see one, and you can bet there’s fifty more crawling around inside the walls. I shiver at the thought.

  “Six.”

  Six? I’m guessing Robert McQuaid didn’t have many hobbies.

  The boy retrieves a black skateboard from the corner and tells his aunt, “I’m going to Walter’s next door.”

  “Okay. Make sure you put your helmet on, Raymond.”

  The kid groans. “It makes me look like a dork.”

  “And when you’re in a coma after fracturing your skull on the pavement, you think you’ll look . . . cool?”

  Rory’s smartassness is obviously genetic.

  “No,” Raymond whines. “It’s just . . .” He turns to me. “You’re a guy—you understand what I mean. Explain it to her.”

  “Yes”—Chelsea crosses her arms—“explain to me how having a penis excuses you from the laws of gravity.”

  “Oh my god!” Raymond hisses, his ears and cheeks blooming fire-engine red. “Don’t say that.”

  “What?” She looks from him to me. “What’d I say?”

  I shrug because I have no fucking clue.

  “Penis?” she guesses.

  And Raymond does a fabulous impression of a tomato. “Oh my god! You’re so humiliating!” He grabs his skateboard and flees.

  “Helmet, Raymond!” Chelsea calls. “Or that skateboard will be roasting in the fireplace tonight!”

  She looks at me with a sigh and a smile. “It’s the little joys that get me through the day.”

  And I have the urge to laugh. Chelsea’s not only hot, she’s . . . entertaining, too.

  She moves back to the stove and starts to lift the heavy gargantuan pot, and I quickly step closer and take it from her hands. “I got it.”

  “Thank you.” She directs me to a ceramic bowl on the counter and I carefully pour the hot broth, with its white chunks and strips of green, into the bowl. Then we stand just inches apart, those crystal-blue beauties fixed on me.

  “So . . . how did you meet my nephew, Mr. Becker?”

  I give it to her straight, like ripping off a Band-Aid. “He stole my wallet, Chelsea. Right on the street. Bumped into me, slipped his hand in my pocket, and then took off.”

  Her eyes slide closed and her shoulders hunch. “Oh.” After a moment, she rubs her forehead, then lifts her chin and looks up at me. “I am so, so sorry.”

  I wave my hand. “It’s okay.”

  Her voice goes soft, with a ring of sorrow. “He’s taken it really hard. I mean, they all have, of course, but Rory is just so . . .”

  “Angry,” I say, finishing for her.

  She nods. “Yeah. Angry.” Her voice drops, a trace of hurt seeping in. “Especially at me. It’s like . . . he resents me. Because I’m here and they’re not.”

  “How old are you? If you don’t mind me asking.”

  “Twenty-six.”

  “Do you have any help? Your parents? Friends?”

  Rosaleen walks back into the kitchen as her aunt shakes her head. “My parents passed away a few years ago. All my friends are back in California. I was in grad school there . . . before . . .”

  Her voice trails off, eyes on her niece as she grabs a stack of plates from the counter.

  “When I first moved in, I called an agency for a part-time nanny, but—”

  “But she was a bitch,” Rosaleen interjects.

  “Hey!” Chelsea’s head turns sharply. “Don’t talk like that.”

  “That’s what Riley said.”

  “Well, don’t you say it.”

  As soon as the girl walks out to set the table, Chelsea turns to me. “She was a bitch. I wouldn’t leave Cousin It with her, never mind the kids.”

  “What about social services?”

  She shakes her head. “Our social worker is nice, she tries to help, but there’s all this administrative stuff. Required checklists and meetings, surprise inspections and interviews, sometimes it feels like they’re just waiting for me to mess up. Like they don’t think I can do it.”

  “Can you?” I ask softly.

  And those gorgeous eyes burn with determination. “I have to. They’re all I have left.”

  “You mean, you’re all they have left,” I correct her.

  Her shoulder lifts and there’s an exquisite sadness in her smile. “That, too.”

  I rub the back of my neck. “You should get the kid in therapy, Chelsea.”

  Normally I wouldn’t suggest such a thing, but Brent’s kind of made a believer out of me. Particularly when it comes to childhood traumas. He swears that if he’d had to deal with the loss of his leg without therapy, he would’ve ended up a miserable, raging alcoholic.

  “I know.” She adjusts the fuck-me glasses. “It’s on the list. As soon as I get a minute to research it, I’ll find a good therapist for all of them.”

  “The list?” I ask.

  She points to the refrigerator, where a magnet holds a handwritten list of about a thousand items. “My sister-in-law, Rachel, was the ultimate multitasker. And she had a list for everything. So I started one too. Those are all the things I have to do, as soon as possible.”

  A to-do list that never gets smaller—that may be my new definition of hell.

  “Okay.” I did what I came for. Now he’s her problem—they’re all her problem. Not mine. “Well, I should get going.”

  Her head tilts and a delicate wisp of hair falls across her cheek. “Thank you so much for bringing him home. For not pressing charges. I . . . would you like to stay for dinner? I feel like it’s the least I could do.”

  I glance at the bowl. “What are you having?”

  “Miso soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.”

  Sounds like something they serve in prison to cut down on costs.

  “No thanks. I have some work to finish up . . . and I’m more of a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy.”

  Chelsea walks with me out of the kitchen toward the front door. “Well, thank you again, Mr. Becker.”

  We pause, facing each other on the shiny black-and-white-tiled foyer floor. And I feel four sets of eyes on the landing above us—watching, listening, burning holes in the back of my head.

  But—screw it—why not?

  I slip a business card from my wallet. “Here’s my card.” Chelsea takes it, looking down at the raised black print, stroking her fingertip against one corner. “If you have a free night, want to grab some dinner, a drink or . . . something . . .”

  The oldest girl—the one who hates her family—lets out a short snort of disbelief. “Did you just ask her out on a date?”

  I keep my eyes on Chelsea’s face. “Yeah—I did.”

  And her cheeks turn the loveliest shade of pink.

  Then it’s blond Shirley Temple’s turn. “But you’re so old!”

  I tear my eyes from Chelsea’s blush to blast the kid with a grumpy brow.

  “I’m thirty.”

  The grumpy brow fails to intimidate.

  “Thirty!” Her hands go to her hips. “Do you have grandchildren?”

  A laugh bubbles in my chest but doesn’t make it past my lips. This kid’s a piece of work.

  “Thirty is not old enough to have grandchildren, Rosaleen,” Chelsea explains. Her attention swings back to me and her voice drops lower. “I doubt I’ll have a free night any time soon, but . . . it’s nice to be asked.”

  “Right.” I nod. “Good night, Chelsea.” A fleeting look at the four peering faces has me adding, “And . . . good luck.”

  She’s definitely going to need it.

  6

  On Saturday, I take Brent up on his offer to set up a double date. The way I look at it, this dating thing is kind of like fishing. The more lines you toss out, the greater the likelihood you’ll bag a catch that’s edible. When you’re hungry—and I’m definitely hungry—even a battered trout seems appetizing.

&nbs
p; And Lucy Patterson’s friend—a fellow attorney at Emblem & Glock—is most definitely not a trout. She’s cute. Short, dark hair; tall, toned, athletic body—she mentioned she’s an avid tennis player, and from the looks of her ass, she wasn’t bullshitting. It turns out to be a pleasant evening, but not an I-can’t-wait-to-get-in-your-pants-let’s-fuck-in-the-alley-behind-the-bar kind of turn-on. The four of us meet up at a local place, eat appetizers, and go through a few pitchers of beer. Because we share career paths—deal with the same judges and prosecutors and similar uptight bosses—we mostly talk shop. It kind of feels like a casual business meeting, and before we part on the sidewalk outside the bar, we all agree to get together again next weekend.

  For the apparently crucial date number two.

  And if I’m lucky, maybe I’ll get my dick wet by the end of the month.

  Great.

  When I get home, I can’t stop my thoughts from turning long and hard to a certain young, auburn-haired aunt. Emphasis on the word hard.

  She was feisty—I liked that. Strong-minded but . . . definitely soft in that attractive, feminine way.

  She was also way in over her fucking head.

  I wonder how she handled Rory after I left—did she ground the little smartass? Make him do extra chores, maybe, like weeding the garden or mowing the lawn? I can say from experience, manual labor leaves a bitch of an impression on even the most stubborn punks. And their lawn was massive.

  Grabbing my laptop, I Google Chelsea’s brother, Robert, for reasons I can’t explain. But the pull of information literally at my fingertips is too strong to resist.

  Most lobbyists are bottom-feeders. Smarmy, self-important deal makers who are drunk on their power over the powerful—not unlike the pencil pushers who run the Department of Motor Vehicles. But, as I told his sister, Robert McQuaid had a reputation as a straight shooter. A good guy who genuinely cared about the cause he was paid to champion.

  There’s a wealth of information about his career—and his death. He was at a charity dinner with his college sweetheart turned wife of seventeen years, Rachel. On their way home, a truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and veered into their lane, too quickly to avoid a head-on collision. His obituary lists his professional accomplishments and his survivors: six children, Riley, Rory, Raymond, Rosaleen, Regan, and Ronan, as well as a sister, Chelsea, of Berkeley, California. There are pictures—a few of the kids through the years, with their attractive parents at various family-friendly events around DC. And one of Chelsea, head bowed, in a black dress and large dark glasses, beside a double grave site. Looking tragically beautiful.

  And very much alone.

  Feeling like a fucking creeper, I end up closing my laptop and going to bed.

  • • •

  Like I said before, I’m a fan of routine. Strict time management and an impenetrable schedule. I spend Sunday morning at Sofia and Stanton’s, having a breakfast of coffee and delicious Brazilian cheese balls that she makes so very well. Brent jokes about popping my dating cherry and recounts our mutually sexless evening. Stanton mentions that Presley has a few days off from school next week and is coming for a visit.

  It’s just after noon when I leave their town house and head straight for the Brookside Retirement Home, like I do every Sunday. Because that crotchety old judge who pulled my fifteen-year-old ass out of the fire—who literally saved my life, straightened me out, and made me believe I could actually be a man of significance? That’s where he is.

  I don’t like being beholden to anyone. I don’t have many debts. But the few I do owe, I gladly pay.

  “Good afternoon, Jake.”

  “Hi, Mildred.”

  “Hey, Becker.”

  “How’s it going, Jimmy?”

  It’s important to stay in the good graces of the lower staff at any facility—be it a hospital, law firm, school, or retirement home. They’re the ones who do the actual work, and if shady shit is going down, they’ll be the ones who let the cat out of the bag, while the owner and upper-echelon administrators are focused on damage control. The staff at Brookside and I are on a first-name basis. I sign in at the front desk and greet the orderlies and nurses traveling down the hall, some carrying trays of medication to the private rooms, others pushing their feeble charges in wheelchairs to their physical therapy sessions, art classes, or daily afternoon bingo games.

  I’ve played bingo with these senior citizens. They take that shit seriously. They might be old, but if you get I-22 when they were waiting for B-6? They’ll bust your fucking kneecaps as quick as any backstreet bookie, without an ounce of remorse.

  Brookside is a private facility, top of the line. Its rooms are tasteful, generically comfortable, like a hotel chain. Its employees are educated and well compensated, so they treat the clients here with the respect, care, and dignity they deserve. Other places, for those on public assistance, those who don’t have pensions or family with the funds to pay, they’re . . . well . . . let’s just say there’s nothing golden about spending your “golden years” in a damn warehouse.

  I step into the Judge’s sunlit room. He’s in a leather reading chair by the window, dressed in tan slacks and a burgundy sweater, brown loafers on his feet. His thick, gray hair is clean and combed neatly.

  His name is Atticus Faulkner, but to me, he’s the Judge. He wasn’t always the way he is today. Ten years ago, he cut an imposing figure—tall, strong for his seventy years, and active, with green eyes that seemed to see straight into your soul. He was a living, breathing lie detector with a brilliantly intimidating legal mind.

  And he was my hero.

  Everything I wanted to be. Everything my real father never was.

  But life’s a bitch sometimes. Six years ago, he was diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer’s. He’d done an impeccable job of covering the early signs. Little tricks—hidden notes and reminders—so no one could tell he didn’t know what day it was. Sometimes he’d walk home from the courthouse, but only because he couldn’t remember where he’d parked his car. Then, later, he’d spend hours in a coffee shop because he’d forgotten his address.

  I was busy then—practically just out of law school—making my bones. I should’ve seen that something was off, but I missed it. So, eventually, when he didn’t have any other choice and told me what was going on, it felt like things went downhill really fast. And the hard-ass I knew, the man I feared in the best sense of the word, just . . . slipped away, practically overnight.

  The Judge was a lifelong bachelor. Married to his work, respected and esteemed by friends and enemies alike. No children, just a string of “lady friends”—some younger than others, some smarter than others, but all of them gorgeous. And all of them casual. A good time.

  Casual lady friends aren’t usually interested in visiting a man who no longer recognizes them, who can no longer keep them entertained with a handsome face, a sharp wit, and amusing stories. So I’m the Judge’s only regular guest. Which means come hell, high water, sweltering temperatures, or freak blizzard, I’m here, every single week.

  I read him the paper—keep him up to speed on the intrigue and ridiculousness of Washington, DC. Sometimes I talk to him about my cases, the fucking lowlifes I keep out of prison. Most of the time he just listens, nods, tells me how interesting the story sounds without any real understanding. But every once in a while, there’s a spark, a glint of recognition in his eyes; sometimes it lasts a minute, sometimes ten, but for that brief time, he’s himself again. He remembers me. It’s good to know that even on the worst of days, he’s in there, somewhere.

  Today he turns from gazing out the window when I walk in and watches as I pull up a chair from across the room and sit down. “Good afternoon, Judge. How’s it going?”

  “It’s going well, thank you. How are you?” His tone is hesitant and polite. The way you’d speak to a stranger—and right now, that’s what I am to him.

  “I’m doing good.” I unfold the newspaper from under my arm. “The Supreme Court heard o
ral arguments on Thursday for that health care case. We talked about it last week, do you remember?”

  His eyes squint and his finger presses against the lines surrounding his lips, his hand trembling slightly. “No, I can’t recall. Which case was it?”

  I open to the front page. “I’ll read it to you. It’s a good article. Lays it all out.”

  He leans forward attentively, and I begin to read.

  • • •

  After the newspaper, we kick back and watch the basketball game. The judge grew up on the south side of Boston, so he’s a die-hard Celtics fan. Or . . . he used to be. As the game winds down, I talk about my week—Milton Bradley and the epic-fail dinner with Camille. And then I tell him about Rory McQuaid.

  “He gets halfway down the block, looks me right in the eyes, and gives me the finger.” I chuckle, because it seems a lot funnier now. “Little bastard.”

  The Judge smiles. “I knew a boy like that once.”

  My chuckles quiet and my smile slows. “Did you?”

  His whole face lights up. “Oh yes! He was delightful. Smart and stubborn—a real tough nut to crack—with gray eyes like a storm cloud. He got into some trouble, and that young boy stood before my bench with his chin raised, just daring me to send him away. Like he was ready to spit in the devil’s face. But I could see, deep down, he was terrified.”

  And I had been. For the first time in my life, I knew what real fear tasted like.

  “There was something special about him, a diamond in the rough. So I had him serve his probation under my supervision. For three years, I owned that kid.”

  Yep, three long years.

  “I had to teach him to control his temper. He had a short fuse. So I started with the lawn. Each time he finished mowing, hot and sweaty, I’d go out and inspect his work.” He wags his finger. “And I always found spots that he missed. So I’d make him . . .” He starts to cackle, the son of a bitch. “I’d make him go back over the whole lawn with . . . with . . .”

  “Garden shears,” I fill in for him.

  “Yes! Garden shears.” He laughs loud. “Oh, he hated me those first few months. Probably thought of ten different ways to murder me.”

  It was closer to twenty.

  “After the yard work, I taught him how to organize, how to repair things around the house. It was good for him—channeling all that energy. And even though he was a very hard worker, I’d always say, ‘Do it right . . .’ ”

  Or don’t bother.

  “ ‘. . . or don’t bother.’ Then I started to teach him about the work I did. How to research, how to read the statutes. After his probation was up, I offered him a job. A paid intern.” The Judge taps his chin and shakes his head. “He could look at a page once and remember every word. So intuitive, great instincts.” He sighs.

  Then he covers my hand with his age-spotted one. “Do you think . . . do you think you could find him for me?”

  And I can’t breathe past the lump that clogs my throat.

  “I’d like to make sure that boy’s all right. See if he needs anything.” His green eyes earnestly look into mine.

  I clear my throat loudly. “Um . . . I, ah . . . I did find him for you. I checked up on him. He’s doing really well—you don’t have to worry. He’s on his way to making partner. And he . . . asked me to tell you how grateful he is, for everything you did for him. All the things you taught him.” I blink against the burn in my eyes. “He hopes . . . he wants to make you proud.”

  The Judge gives me a peaceful, relieved smile. “I’m sure I would be proud. He was always a good boy.”

  The two of us fall quiet again, watching the game. Until there’s a knock on the open bedroom door. And Marietta—one of the volunteers here—walks in with a smile and a tray of dinner for the Judge.

  “Good evening, Mr. Atticus and Jake. How you are you two doin’ tonight?”

 
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