At the instant he was saying “Huh?” Blow knew precisely what Barbara Bassett had just said to him. Ordinarily such sloppiness would embarrass him. He was a lawyer. Lawyers were trained to keep ahead of everyone else or else to react quickly enough with something like “That's a damn good question” or “Are you sure?” to jangle the narrative, buy a little time. Lawyers did not say “Huh?” unless they were being sarcastic, and Barbara Bassett, the semi-retired secretary he'd inherited from his father, would tolerate sarcasm only if done playfully. Blow and Bassett were feeling anything but playful.
He recovered quickly, almost quickly enough to keep it from being a question. But even as a question he had wiggle room. It was noisy around them, and Bassett had lowered her voice a tad more than necessary to keep potential eavesdroppers from picking up what she said. He rotated his head to complement the “Huh?” which served also to compliment her for noticing something of possible importance he had missed. In fact, it occurred to him as he surveyed the courtroom, a flat unquestioning “Huh” might have sounded patronizing. Sensing that his response had done no harm triggered a warm pulse of reassurance his instincts at least were in balance. This came as a particularly welcome affirmation in the foggy uncertainty that shrouded the trial's conclusion for him after his tumble through the emotional rapids.
Buoyed momentarily by Bacon's successful testimony, his confidence dropped under Bacon's mood change. Rose again on the crest of his closing argument, then a plunge wondering what was wrong with his client. Buffeted in the struggle with self-doubt over the two-hour jury mystery. Ascending on the private hope from a verdictless two hours, jarred by Leonard Bacon's violating the two-hour taboo, startled to near abdominal collapse by the inside knock on the jury room door, and giddily relieved by the break for lunch. His calm response to Bassett's question was less a triumph of intent than a product of nervous fatigue.
“They been here today?” He'd started to say Oh shit, but tamped it down, kept it casual.
She stepped aside and stopped, allowing traffic behind them to continue toward the exit. She leaned close. Her soapy smells and wintergreen from the mints she favored enveloped him. He watched her lips as she whispered, “He and the wife came up and talked to him for about a minute. I couldn't hear what was said. The old man seemed angry when they left.”
“Where was I?”
“It was when you left. Took your break I assumed.” Blow nodded.
“Didn't see her.” Brow furrowed now, Blow nodded again. He touched his secretary's elbow, tipped his head toward the aisle. “Let's eat,” he said.
Blow cautiously glanced around the courtroom twice more as he and Bassett worked their way down the aisle. He saw neither Bacon's father nor his wife. The wife had attended each day of the trial, the father only the last three days, appearing first on the first morning of his son's two days testifying. Bacon's mother had been there both days, as well. They'd arrived early each day and sat in the first row directly behind the defense table.
An intimidating figure, the father. An inch or two taller than Elvin, he looked sinewy and hard, more fit. The same piercing black eyes but in a narrower face, all sharp angles under hair of a color and texture suggesting steel wool. The voice was surprisingly gentle, yet held a tension that left no doubt it was kept under iron control. He'd introduced himself and his wife, a sleek beauty with proud, silver hair who might have been an older version of her son's spouse. Merely knowing they were in the room focused Blow's concentration much as Gregory Peck in person might have in those distant thespian days. To avoid any more immediate influence or distraction Blow studiously reined his eyes from peering behind the bar at the spectator rows while he worked before the jury. But afterward he'd rather hoped for an affirming word or gesture from the elder Bacon.
He felt a rising alarm something was wrong. With a last glance at the defense table he saw the brothers, seated now, deer-in-headlights stare still frozen on Elvin's face. Swiveling back to face the aisle he caught a closer glimpse of the woman in the wheelchair. She had graying hair. He didn't recognize her. A young man, apparently her attendant, stood next to the chair. The woman's head was turned to give her a straight view across the room of the defense table.
“Know her?” Blow asked Bassett. She followed his eyes and trained hers on the woman for several seconds. She turned back. Her head moved in negation, lips compressed. “I don't,” she said.
As they moved with the line toward the exit Blow became aware the intensity he was feeling, the ambiguous intensity of suspense, was transmitting to acquaintances and others who recognized him. They gave him room, seeming not to want to intrude on his thoughts. They exchanged nods and smiles with him, some murmured expressions that included the word “good” with “luck” and “job,” but no one tried to start a conversation. This shield of consideration extended to Barbara Bassett. Blow's gut clenched as they pushed through the swinging doors to the foyer where people lingered in clusters, talking freely. This is where the voice he least wanted to hear cut through and slashed open the respectful cloister.
“Feeling good, Counselor? Two hours--you're winning, babe!” Ferret-faced Mel Watterman, Newport News Daily Herald, whose penetrating tenor never failed to ruffle Blow's hackles. Watterman stood at the forefront of a pack of reporters and camera crews, most of whom Blow did not recognize. A clearly embarrassed Mary Lloyd stood near Watterman. She tried to smile, then looked down at her notepad. A deputy had herded the newshounds into an alcove between the courtroom exit and the outside doors.
Another deputy approached him, leaned in and spoke quietly, “Follow me. The judge is waiting outside.” The deputy meant Blow's father, which wasn't apparent until they were out the doors and saw the elder Stone and Lila standing on the walkway leading to the side parking area. Only then did Blow feel himself start to relax.
It was mostly small talk on the way to Luigi's after the fine jobs The Judge and Lila offered. An unspoken sense of protocol prevailed in the car. No comments on the trial. A couple of times Blow considered mentioning the mysterious “wheelchair woman,” as he'd come to think of her, but the thought alone of bringing it up sent an unpleasant pang through his abdomen, and he let it go. There was nothing to be done about it, about anything at this point. Whatever the outcome he was in the hands of the jury.
“Jury's going to Bubba's, I suppose?” The question seemed a perfect segue from larger questions.
“Oh, yes,” said Lila. “With that room in back Judge Pendleton thinks it's the safest place.” The Sheriff's Office had been busing the jurors to lunch every day of the trial. It was an unusual precaution for Leicester County, but, as Pendleton had explained on the first day, it was an unusual case. “Better to be safe than sorry.”
“Yeah, I figured,” Blow said to Lila, “but a man can dream, can't he?”
“What? You're not tired of spaghetti!” The Judge pretended shock.
“Never! I just had a mad notion we could sneak into Bubba's in disguise. Pick up a hint or two, how things are going.” Blow meant it to be joking, but it came out flat. Everyone laughed politely.
The Judge said, “Hang in there, Son. Remember, the audience loves you.” Blow's turn to laugh, and it was genuine, appreciating the nod to a vocation he'd given up for the law.
Ensconced in the familiar comfort of Luigi's, alive with a lunch crowd not part of the trial, Blow had finished his salad and was waiting for the first forkful of spaghetti and meat sauce to cool in front of his mouth, when his cellphone erupted with its damnable beat me daddy ringtone. He set the fork down, its bounty still steaming, and pulled the phone out of its leather holster on his belt. He flipped it open and pressed the OK button to bring up a text message. He stared at the screen a moment, feeling blood rush to his face, then snapped it shut.
His voice was hoarse when he spoke, “Gotta get back. Something's come up.”
[click here for Chapter 1 -- http://tinyurl.com/of4gfq5]