The first image that drew his focus when Blow pushed through the courtroom doors was the small white face atop the billowing black robe of Circuit Judge Roger Pendleton. He (the judge) was perched on his leather-padded throne at the very center of the elevated, polished walnut furniture ensemble that comprised The Bench. As the doors swished shut behind Blow he saw the judge tilt his face downward and fix his countenance upon him. Blow's peripheral vision detected his client seated at the defense table; five yards away, the prosecutor at his. The air snapped with electric anticipation.
“Your honor.” Blow's salute as he brisk-walked up the aisle between the rows of empty benches.
Pendleton spoke into a little black curved microphone on his desktop. He sounded friendly. “Sorry to interrupt your lunch, Mr. Stone. Hope you had time to get something to eat.”
“Yes, sir, Judge.” He pushed through the bar gate and headed for the table. Elvin Bacon was facing him. The vacant look was gone, replaced by something new, unfamiliar. No smile, no sneer. The eyes were focused, but there was something strange in them. Bacon returned Blow's polite nod. It occurred to Blow that Leonard wasn't present. Another flag.
Blow went to his chair. The judge held up a hand. “Not yet, Mr. Stone. I'd like to meet with you and Mr. Gobble in chambers.” Blow heard Gobble push to his feet. Bacon started to rise, but Pendleton checked him.
“Just counsel, Mr. Bacon, for now.”
“I'm an attorney, your honor.” Bacon's voice was tense.
“You're also the defendant. Unless you're representing yourself you will allow us this conference. We won't be--”
Bacon shot to his feet. “Dammit, Judge, I have a right--”
BANG came the gavel, sharp as a pistol report. A deputy, standing in for the bailiff who presumably was still at lunch, moved hesitantly toward the defense table. “You have a right to go straight to jail for contempt,” Pendleton snapped, “and you can exercise that right with just one more outburst in my court. Otherwise I suggest you take your seat, Mr. Bacon, and mind your manners. I promise you we will not be long.”
Bacon nodded almost imperceptibly as a signal of compliance, but remained standing. He turned back to Blow, who shrugged a shoulder and lifted his eyebrows. Despite the ambiguous intensity in his client's expression, he held off vocalizing the implicit “What the fuck?” Bacon's eyes had hardened to a feral glint. They hadn't relinquished the estrangement he'd seen after the testimony, but there was something personal now, it seemed: a warning?
"Shouldn't we wait for the reporter?" Blow asked the judge. He'd waited until he and Gobble reached the bench before speaking. Pendleton was already standing.
"No need to call her back from lunch just yet. This doesn't have to be on the record. Let's get some privacy." He turned and led the two lawyers through the door that separated the courtroom from his secretary's office and his chambers. Popping open the snaps on his robe as he walked, the judge had the pleated garment open by the time he reached his desk. He peeled it off, tossed it over the back of his chair and slumped into its leather cushions. He motioned to the two chairs in front of his desk, and immediately plunged into a plate of Chinese takeout nestled among piles of papers.
"Make yourselves comfortable," he said, lifting a plastic forkful of lo mein to his mouth. He swallowed the noodles, sipped from a bottle of water, and dabbed his mouth with a paper napkin. "Please forgive me." He waved his fork at the food. "I'm starving. Now then, gentlemen, we have us a situation. It seems the defendant is changing his plea to guilty."
Blow felt his jaw drop as his tongue searched for something to say. When nothing came out he glanced at Gobble, who looked equally dumbfounded save for what appeared to be a partial grin on his ordinarily somber face. The judge forked up another load of lo mein. He tried to speak while chewing, but the sounds were incoherent. Finally, looking at Blow, he said, "I tried to talk him out of it, Joe. Told him I thought the jury was going to acquit. He shook his head. Said he didn't care what the jury did. Your client is one stubborn son of a bitch."
Pendleton turned to Gobble. "Fred, this is your lucky day."
"Well now wait a minute, Judge--"
"What? You don't want a conviction?"
"Of course I do, but you're going to tell me the defendant wants to get off easy. The jury could find him guilty of murder. We should wait for their verdit."
"Oh, fuck, Fred. Get real here. You don't have a case. If this were a bench trial I'd've thrown it out on Joe's motion to strike after you rested. The jury's going to let him walk, and you know it."
Gobble heaved a heavy sigh and shook his head slowly, shoulders hunched. His voice yielded a surrendering whine. "I suppose he wants, what, reckless boat handling?"
Blow's face had gone mobile with confusion. He was staring at Gobble, whose cheeks were reddening.
"Well, that carries one to ten," Gobble muttered, "or does he want a suspended sentence?"
"He's waiving that. Leaving it up to me. This is not a plea bargan, gentlemen. He's throwing himself on the mercy of the court. Fred, you can object, but I'll overrule. Mr. Bacon is handing you a gift. I were you, I'd accept it gracefully."
Blow finally spoke. "Your honor, did he give you any reason why?"
"I asked him, Joe. Believe it or not he said it was his conscience. He said it hit him—those were his words—hit him when he was testifying that his actions on the boat, or rather his inaction, constituted negligence. He said he should have pulled her away from the side when she started choking. And when she fell overboard he should jumped in after her. The blood in his eyes would have washed off in the water. He froze, he said. He almost wept when he told me this. He froze, and it might have cost a woman her life. He said if the woman whose body was found was her, then he was guilty of manslaughter."
"What if it wasn't, your honor? Did he say anything about his theory she was a professional swimmer?"
"I did't ask him that. He didn't mention it. That's something we may never know. Just like we may never know if his ancestor is down there under the river. The thing is, Mr. Bacon is not willing to rely on that supposition. He said he just wants to do the right thing, if for no other reason than so he can live with himself."
Blow started to ask whether Bacon had consulted with his brother before making the decision. He was curious about the wheelchair woman but did not wish to raise any new questions. Maybe bringing Leonard into the discussion would lead in that direction. As if reading his mind, Pendleton mentioned Leonard before Blow could find the right words.
"You might find it interesting, Joe, that your client and his brother—Leonard, I believe—had gotten into quite an argument before I returned to the bench. I had just started eating when I heard shouting. They were standing at the table. Faces scarlet. Both men. I was afraid they might start physically fighting. I had to order Leonard to leave the courtroom. I guess he was gone when you got here?"
"I didn't see Leonard, judge. Did you by any chance hear what they were arguing about?"
"I did not. But once your client told me what he wanted to do, I assumed that was the nature of the shouting match. I suppose were it my brother in the same position as your client I might have gotten a little carried away myself.
"Now, look. I've got to eat here or I'm liable to get pretty ornery. Low blood sugar. Why don't you two go on and finish your lunch. Take your client with you, if you like. Joe. I'll dismiss the jurors when they return, and when you two get back I'll hear Mr. Bacon's plea and enter my ruling." He waved a hand dismissing them, sipped some water.
[to start at chapter 1, click here: http://tinyurl.com/of4gfq5]