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Read the first chapter for free. Meet Elizabeth Strong…

CHAPTER ONE

It was a mad Monday morning in the courthouse after the first nice weekend in Silverton, Ohio, following a dreadfully depressing winter. Once the trees began to show signs of life again and the lilacs were beginning to bloom, it seemed people would start to go berserk from being relieved of the cabin fever they’ve been suffering for months.

Elizabeth walked out to the busy courtroom lobby. The cathedral ceilings loomed as her heels made a powerful, intimidating sound on the marble floor.  She stopped and as the echo of her heels faded, the voices of the innocent until proven guilty took over.

“Man, can you loosen these cuffs?”

 “Sir, you have to go through the metal detector…”

“Seriously? This is ridiculous!”

“Just call my girl, I wasn’t there!”

Pen and court docket in hand, Elizabeth looked around the crowd and called out the first woman’s name on her docket sheet, “Michelle Gardner?” After scuffling through the human remnants of the weekend, Elizabeth saw her. Michelle sat alone on one of the antique wooden benches next to the security screener with a tissue in hand.

She had a gymnasts build with short, wavy, dark brown hair snuggly framing her young, round face and hazel eyes; very big eyes, one of which was now bruised black and blue. Her face was streaked with mascara and screaming for Elizabeth’s help. She kept herself very neat and her clothing, not to mention the massive diamonds in her ears and colossal rock on her ring finger, suggested she held a position of above average intelligence and stature.

Unlike many of the victims Elizabeth had encountered, Michelle was obviously out of place. She looked scared, confused, and embarrassed to be surrounded by common criminals and local street trash. She wasn’t the typical ‘victim’ Elizabeth was used to. Elizabeth walked up to Michelle with a caring and comforting demeanor, remembering where she had once been.

“Hi Michelle, my name is Elizabeth Strong. I’m a victim’s advocate with the Annapolis County Prosecutor’s Office.”

Michelle immediately flooded Elizabeth with questions and excuses. “Oh my God! What have I done? I shouldn’t have called the police; I completely blew everything out of proportion. This is a total misunderstanding. Is he going to prison because of me?”

Elizabeth was used to this type of reaction and knew how to handle first timers. But frankly it was getting old. She was tired of hearing ‘It wasn’t his fault. I should have. He didn’t mean to. He was really drunk.’ She had heard it all.

God woman, wake the hell up!  is what Elizabeth wanted to say but she bit her tongue. I’ve been doing this too long, she thought to herself.

Although Elizabeth had become somewhat jaded, she reminded herself that she could not turn her back on another woman again; even if it seemed she was just one of those traveling through the revolving door. The same ones in court every other week accusing the man of abuse and the next day or two ready to drop the charges because he swore it wouldn’t happen again.

Resting her hand on Michelle’s forearm Elizabeth said, “It’s okay, I am here to help you through this whole process. What’s done is done. I know you don’t want to be here but you are, so take a deep breath and let’s take it from here, okay? Why don’t you tell me what happened. ”

Michelle looked a little relieved to have a friend and tears slowly started to wash away the mascara that was already drying on her cheeks. She proceeded to tell Elizabeth that her marriage had been on the rocks for some time. It all started about a year ago when she suspected her husband, Richard Gardner, was cheating on her.

The worst part for Michelle is that she was the wife of a prominent man.  His family had money, and a lot of it. They owned Chip’s, the biggest casino in the county and Richard was the baby. Mommy and Daddy, Chip Gardner, would always be there to bail him out. And hey, if that didn’t work, threaten the little wifey to take away her only child.

“It has progressively gotten worse over the past few months. Last month we got into a fight when he didn’t come home from work until the next morning. I told him if he didn’t tell his little girlfriend it was over, I was ready to leave. He had been drinking, he was yelling and calling me every name he could think of; he punched me in the side of head so hard I had to go to the hospital. Elizabeth, he – he busted my eardrum. I don’t understand!”

“Did you report that incident at all? Did you tell a friend or talk to a relative?”  Of course she didn’t, Elizabeth thought, they never do.

“Richard is really a good man, he loves his son, he takes very good care of us and we have been through so much,” claimed Michelle in her husband’s defense. “I know he loves me but I just can’t take it anymore! I am so scared that eventually he will turn on our son.” Michelle burst into tears almost hyperventilating.

Trying very hard to be sincere and consol her, Elizabeth hoped that Michelle was not just another piece of ‘trailer trash’ trying to get back at her man for crossing her in some way or another, either because he cheated or he didn’t pay child support, or simply because.

Elizabeth thought at one time she was able to tell the difference, but she had learned not to pass that judgment. She was just tired of the justice system making the same assumptions she once did.

The kid, it was always the kid that did it for her. It’s not his fault his dad’s a piece of crap and his mother lets him get away with it. Elizabeth explained the court process to Michelle and everything to expect in the near future.

She told Michelle that she was entitled to a protection order, by law, which was a court order that would demand Richard leave the residence and not return nor come near her or her child until the case was over. She convincingly advised Michelle to request it from the judge when they went before him, at least long enough to let things settle down.

Elizabeth not only had a law degree that helped her immensely in her work, but she also remembered all of her advocacy and counseling instruction that was drilled into her head to never promise a client, nor a victim anything. Elizabeth couldn’t help herself and hesitantly whispered in Michelle’s ear, “He will not get out of jail tonight. We will figure this out.”

The bailiff called Richard’s case and Michelle followed Elizabeth to the front of the courtroom. Elizabeth stood in front of the Judge’s bench in between Michelle and Richard, who had yet to retain an attorney. The bailiff stood next to Richard.

“Your Honor, Mrs. Gardner wishes to get a temporary protection order at this time to keep the defendant out of the residence for the time being,” said Elizabeth.

After the judge confirmed that was what Michelle wanted, he made a few notes on the paperwork. He ordered that Richard not come within 500 feet of Michelle or their current residence until the case was settled or until Michelle spoke with Elizabeth extensively, requested that the protection order be dropped, and Elizabeth agreed that it was wise.

“Excuse me judge, but I hope you’re not intending on keeping me out of my own house and away from my son. Do you know who I am?”

The judge looked up at Richard from beneath his bifocals, “I’m very much aware of who you are Mr. Gardner and frankly, I really don’t care.” Judge Bennett snidely looked back down and continued making some notes.

After hearing Richard drop the Do-you-know-who-I-am-card, Elizabeth knew she would have to work a little harder for Michelle’s sake, “Your Honor, I understand that there will be an order in place and I mean no disrespect to the Court, but please, I understand you have to issue a bond – ”

 “That is right Miss Strong I do and this is my Court and I will address the issue of bond as I see appropriate. The Court orders a bond in the amount of $5,000.00. Surety, property, or cash; ten percent.”

Elizabeth always despised when the judge ordered a bond. That meant that the worthless guy that just beat his girl could get out of jail and be back on the streets when he paid the court $500.00, or 10% of whatever amount the judge decided; no get out of jail free cards here.

Either that or the defendant would have to get a bail bondsman. Elizabeth hated them too; they would take a generous amount of cash from the defendant and basically write an insurance policy, which would guarantee their appearance at the next court date; layman terms for surety. If they owned property, they could simply put that up for collateral.

“You can’t be serious your Honor!” Elizabeth so courageously announced. “The defendant pulverized this woman! Do you see the same bruises that I see? You mean to tell me because he’s a first time offender you’re going to give him a ten percent bond?”

When Elizabeth questioned the current bond, the look on the judge’s face was not that of admiralty and he quickly tried to diffuse the advocate’s disrespect for the Court. “You are walking a fine line here Miss Strong.”

Elizabeth was obviously more concerned for the safety of the victim she was trying to assist. “Well it’s about time someone did!”

“Miss Strong, may I remind you that I am the man with the long black robe sitting significantly above every one else in this court room?”

“Well you would think your Honor could be more creative in ways for the Court to make its money.” Did I just say that? Elizabeth was as surprised with her reaction as the judge.

“That’s it! You are in direct contempt of this Court and you’re ordered to pay a fine of $500.00! Bailiff would you kindly escort Miss Strong to her cell?” The judge’s patience was wearing thin, “Is that creative enough for you? Next case!”

The judge never used his gavel in court before but this time he did. Actually Judge Bennett was typically a tranquil man. Surprisingly so in his line of work. Of course, he was a criminal defense attorney before being elected municipal court judge; everyone felt he favored defendants and second chances.

Elizabeth Strong was twenty-eight years old with long blonde hair and blue eyes but as fiery as a redhead, a direct result of her Irish-German decent from her mother’s side. At only 5’5” and 110 pounds, she looked as frail as when she herself was being abused. She was intelligent and very easy on the eyes, although she didn’t realize how pretty she was; she didn’t flaunt herself nor was she a girly girl.

Actually, she had no interest in men or trying to appease their need for visual stimulation. She wasn’t a man hater as some defense attorney’s claimed; she was just finally happy with herself and didn’t want to complicate her life. She tried that once when she was only nineteen-years-old and he beat the hell out of her for two years practically killing her spirit.

As were most people that worked in her field, she was somewhat socially awkward and although she suffered from anxiety, she was confident and as turbulent as a tornado especially when she was passionate about something. Elizabeth was definitely passionate about her victims.

She had been there. She had been a victim of domestic violence. But she survived. Elizabeth was now the domestic violence advocate for the county prosecutor’s office trying to help as many women as she could and still trying to make her parents proud.

Stationed at the municipal court, Elizabeth handled all the domestic violence cases that came through as misdemeanors. A first time offense meant it was the person’s first time being arrested with no prior convictions and was classified a misdemeanor.

They were introduced in the Silverton City Municipal Court after an initial arrest. If a defendant had previously been convicted of a domestic violence offense, it was a felony; it would start at the municipal court level but usually ended up going to Annapolis County Common Pleas Court where there was a chance it could go to trial by jury.

She also followed the felony cases to common pleas if she had the same victims of repeat offenders who were facing prison time. Her job was to explain the basic court process to the victims, counsel them, keep them notified of the status of their case, escort them to court hearings, and speak to the prosecutors and the court on their behalf.

Mostly, or so Elizabeth was beginning to feel, she was to be there at every victims beckon call when they were frazzled. She wanted to help them so badly, but was always frustrated when they went back to the abuse.

Sometimes, she referred the victims to outside domestic violence resources if and when they were ready to leave the relationship, which was not usually the case.  But she developed strong relationships with many of the victims she worked with and most of them would only speak with her.

Elizabeth always wondered where the classification of a “first time offense” had derived from in the realm of domestic violence. It didn’t take a law degree to figure out when a woman finally makes a decision to call the police that it generally was not the first time she had been assaulted. Typically it was when the abuse had escalated to the point the woman fears serious harm, even the possibility of being killed.

Contempt? Are you serious? Elizabeth thought to herself. Just because she wanted to protect her victim, the court sees it as disrespect. Disrespect the court and pay. She thought it was ironic that in attempting to protect a victim, she had to pay the court the same amount that the wife beater had to pay to get out of jail. Unbelievable! Elizabeth’s belief in the justice system was dwindling now more than ever.

Before the bailiff could respond to the judge’s order, Elizabeth looked at Richard who was waiting to be escorted to his own cell, his green scrubs slightly revealing the orange T-shirt underneath. Elizabeth glared at him and he glared back with a smug grin of victory on his face. As he rubbed his chin the shackles around his wrists clanked and Elizabeth got a chill on the back of her neck.

She thought to herself, That’s okay. This is far from over you worthless piece of –  As he walked past Elizabeth he looked at Michelle and said, “I’ll see you tonight.”  Elizabeth had a gut feeling he would follow through with his promise.

Elizabeth was not only taught never to promise anything to a victim but she was also told to never give out her personal phone number. After Richard’s announcement, this was the one time she could not resist.

She was not going to leave Michelle knowing he would be out on bond in an hour and completely disobey the protection order. She thought she could give her at least one night of peace and a sound sleep. She wished someone had given that to her years ago.

Handing Michelle a piece of paper while the bailiff clasped her arm she said, “Michelle, this is my cell phone number. Please, if you need anything do not hesitate to call me! Remember, you have a protection order in place.”  Elizabeth looked at the bailiff and politely demanded, “Please, let go of my arm.”

The bailiff sarcastically threw his hands up with a slight grin on his face and walked Elizabeth down the cold damp hall to her cell. As he shut the heavy steel cage door behind her, he said with a sigh, “Damn advocates. Just love to stir the pot, don’t ya?”

Elizabeth sat in her cell waiting for China to show up with the $500.00 fine that the judge had ordered her to pay. Mia Lee, nicknamed China, was a beautiful, forty-two-year-old Chinese-American with long dark hair always styled to perfection. She was thin with large fake breasts and wore French manicured, acrylic nails and gold rings on her fingers to accentuate them.

She stood about five foot seven, with heels, and closely followed the demeanor of Audrey Hepburn. But China was no Audrey Hepburn. To all those not close to her heart, and to most men, she was the devil in disguise but she was Elizabeth’s best friend. Actually, she was her only friend.

Elizabeth and China started working at the office together around the same time. China was also a court advocate. They were trained together and worked side by side for two years. They had lunch together everyday and they both knew the sad truth about the outside world and the many scandalous people in it.

China handled all of the other cases; victims of robbery, assault, and most everything in between. If it was a crime that didn’t involve boyfriends and girlfriends or wives and husbands, it came across her desk. The rape cases were divided between the two of them.

They helped each other with their caseload, stood in for one another when the other was gone, and helped each other to keep their sanity in the inscrutable world they worked in day to day.  Actually, they knew each other so well one could always tell what the other was thinking and China knew Elizabeth was sometimes more than obsessed with her advocacy. This time it landed herself in a jail cell.

China was gorgeous and she knew it. It was a wonder her husband left her for a younger model. But boy did she love men, especially defendant’s. And it was a blatant no-no in her line of work to get involved with any party, victim or defendant. It was a perfect smoke screen for her. She had a date every night of the week. She was a drama queen and being a ‘bad boy’ was a prerequisite to be with her.

Elizabeth sat on the cot in her cell, tilted her head back onto the cement wall and closed her eyes for a moment.

******

Elizabeth had just started her position as the domestic violence advocate for the Victim Assistance Division at the prosecutor’s office even though she was still dealing with her own issues of leaving a violent relationship. It was a normal Monday morning after a long weekend.

The docket sheet was trifling on Mondays; the courtroom always packed. It seemed as if every criminal came out of the woodwork on Friday through Sunday and every other man in the county decided to get drunk and beat his old lady.

There sat Thomas Hunter handcuffed and shackled in the jury box where they placed the felons waiting to see the judge. Elizabeth was calmly seated at her table in the front of the judge’s bench. Thomas was a frequent flyer in their court. He had allegedly beaten his live in girlfriend, Brittany, again and was now facing felony charges.

The first time Brittany called the police because they had an argument and she claimed he slapped her across the face. The second time the police went to their home they were both charged; she actually gave him a bloody lip after he pushed her around. They were your typical fly-by-night, high drama case that Elizabeth preferred not to deal with.

Brittany was always so willing to call the police, but when push came to shove, she would drop the charges. Even more troubling, she was never going to leave him. In Elizabeth’s mind, Brittany was just as guilty as Thomas; she was using the system to get her man to do what she wanted him to.

They were both stuck in the vicious cycle of a system that failed many because it stuck by the letter of the law instead of on a case-by-case basis. And unfortunately many of the cases Elizabeth dealt with were similar to Brittany and Thomas.

 The clerk, familiar with the two, came into the courtroom. Giving Elizabeth a quick eye roll she whispered that Brittany was waiting to talk to her. Although she already knew Brittany would do anything to get her man out jail from past encounters with couple, she was anxiously waiting to talk to Elizabeth.

Elizabeth spoke with her before the hearing and did the required procedural assessment for what felt like the hundredth time. This time, instead of hearing the notorious story about what a wonderful guy Thomas was and it was just a big misunderstanding, Brittany was ready to hang him from the rafters.

When Elizabeth was finished with the interview she took her seat and waited patiently for the judge to call Thomas’ case. Elizabeth glanced over and caught eyes with Thomas sitting ten feet across from her. He was not only handsome but charming in a twisted sense. Just like a man she used to know.

He gently smiled at Elizabeth and for the first time she smiled back, lowered her head, and slowly looked back at him again. He held a certain kindness in his eyes. She felt and understood how he could be so charming to Brittany. For a moment, maybe longer, she was compelled to feel compassion for him as she had done before many times for someone else.

She smiled again as if to signal how sorry she was that he was in such a situation. After all, she knew Brittany wasn’t a ‘true victim’. Definitely not the thoughts a victim’s advocate should be considering.

As quickly as those thoughts had entered her mind, they rapidly disintegrated.  Silly girl, she thought to herself, as she was all too familiar with domestic violence and the relentless cycle of compassion, hate, and denial that surrounded it.

The bailiff witnessed Thomas flirting with Elizabeth and as he was escorting Thomas back to his temporary cell he asked, “So, who was the chick at the table?”

Thomas coyly replied, “I might have asked her out.”

“Sorry dude, she doesn’t date defendants.”

******

Faintly hearing her name, she snapped out of her trance.

“Elizabeth – Elizabeth! What the hell happened?”

“China! What took you so long? Can you believe the judge held me in contempt! I was just doing my job.”

“I am sure you were honey,” rolling her eyes and giving Elizabeth that look as if to say, Here we go again. “I can’t leave you alone for a minute can I?”

China handed the guard the paperwork showing the fine had been paid and Elizabeth could be released but he just stood there.

“Okay, Sparky, can you let her out now?”

He unlocked the cell door and winked at China. “Sure. I just had to savor the moment. Not sure if I’ll ever see this one again.”

As they walked out of the city building China said, “Liz, I am really beginning to worry about you. This is a lot more serious than arguing with a defense attorney in the judge’s chambers. Judge Bennett put you in jail!”

Trying desperately to defend herself she said, “I can’t lose another one – I had to do something. China, you know that every case is a serious case as far as I am concerned, and I just couldn’t stand myself if I didn’t try.”

“Damn it Liz! That was not your fault. Thomas was a broken individual and twisted in the head and I’m sorry, but Brittany dug her own grave.”

China didn’t give sympathy to any one, especially those who were a glutton for punishment.

Just six months before, Elizabeth saw Brittany in the courtroom lobby again. Elizabeth had grown so cynical from her past experiences. Brittany was never willing to educate herself and never listened to Elizabeth’s advice; and Thomas was so pompous, anger management counseling was a court order not a Saving Grace.

She had grown so drained of seeing the two of them in and out of court, spending money on court costs and attorney’s fee’s they couldn’t afford and hearing the same old story about ‘he did this’ and ‘she did that’ and for what?

Elizabeth had finally chalked off most of her experiences with them, not to mention the majority of her other cases, as a couple who thrived on drama and used her as a pawn in their unremitting game of domination.

She never imagined that she would wake to the morning newspaper to find out that Thomas fatally shot Brittany in the head and then turned the gun on himself.

As they reached her car, China leaned over the top of the driver side with her keys in hand and reminded Elizabeth, “Sweetie, we can only do what we can do. Let’s get outta here.”

They jumped in the car, buckled themselves in and looked at each other with mutual frustration.

“You do realize we have to go back to the office,” China asked.

Elizabeth managed to clear the lump in her throat and said, “Yes China, I do.”

It was just about lunchtime and on the drive back to the office, Elizabeth couldn’t help but feel she had somehow failed Michelle. China glanced over and saw her staring out the window watching the white line on the road. Elizabeth turned to her, “You gotta cigarette?”

“Yeah, they’re in the console there. I thought you quit?”

Reaching in the console, Elizabeth took out a Misty Menthol 100 and lit it with the car cigarette lighter. As she took a long drag, deeply inhaling the smoke she said, “So – did – I.”

“It will be okay,” China said with a half smile. “You did all you could. Hell, you know she’ll drop the protection order tomorrow!” China laughed; she was contagious. She had a laugh that always made Elizabeth feel better no matter what the situation.

Elizabeth giggled and joked back hiding her apprehension and desperately attempting to shrug off the last hour, “I know, you’re right. Hell, I’m sure he’ll be sleeping with her tonight!”

Deep down she was really concerned for Michelle. Elizabeth was never good at letting anything roll off. They pulled into the parking garage of the six-story office building; the prosecutor’s office’s retaining the entire secured top floor.

It was an extremely busy, fast paced office handling all of the grave criminal cases throughout Annapolis County.  They sat there for a moment while Elizabeth finished her cigarette in silence.

As China held onto the door handle, she asked, “Well, are you ready for this?”

Elizabeth sighed, “Not really, but let’s get it over with.”

They got off the elevator and Elizabeth followed nervously behind China as if to hope no one would see her come in. She walked straight towards Marilyn Bennett’s office.

Marilyn was not only the prosecuting attorney for Annapolis County and Elizabeth’s boss, but she was also Judge Bennett’s daughter. Marilyn had the reputation of being a pit bull in the courtroom according to all the defense attorneys in the area. Elizabeth knew this as she had seen Marilyn try many cases before.

Marilyn was a simple, yet attractive woman in her early fifties. She always had her dark hair pulled back away from her slightly worn out face and wore expensive suits that framed her thick and curvy, soccer player frame.

She was generally quiet and reserved, much like her father, but when it came to proving the crimes of evil men that would inevitably confine them to a 8’ by 9’ steel cage, she was as compelling and frightening as Medusa herself.

Elizabeth had never really been in trouble before. Wondering what side of Marilyn she was going to be subjected to was distressing to say the least.

She walked to the threshold of Marilyn’s office and knocked on the door. Marilyn was seated in between her two desks; one held her computer and the other all of her files. Her back to the door staring at her computer, she was consumed in preparing for an upcoming murder trial.

“Have a seat. Just let me finish this up,” Marilyn said.

Elizabeth sat down in one of the brown leather chairs facing Marilyn’s back. In front of her, Marilyn’s other desk was overflowing with files, strewn papers, and post-it notes. Elizabeth thought, How on earth does she know what’s in here?

She looked around the office at all of Marilyn’s family pictures, some with her father. On another wall she had proudly hung her law degree and certificates to practice law from the state’s Supreme Court.

The more the keyboard clicked the more her heart pounded. She was desperately trying to control having an anxiety attack. After all, she couldn’t pop a happy pill right in Marilyn’s office. Besides, she tried to keep a lid on her personal life as much as possible. God not now, oh Liz, of all times and places not now! Deep breaths…

Elizabeth no longer heard the clicking of the keyboard. Marilyn slowly turned around in her chair, sat back comfortably and removed her round, wire-rimmed glasses laying them on the flooded desk in front of her.

Folding her hands on her lap she had somewhat of a smile on her thin red lips and slightly giggled, “Well, I must say, I think you have set a precedent here.”

Quickly interjecting she asked, “May I explain?”

Marilyn was astonishingly calm, “You’ll have the chance when I’m through. Now, China came to me some time ago. Knowing the two of you are very close, I listened to what she had to say. She was under the impression you’ve become too involved with your work; that you’re having trouble separating yourself.” Marilyn looked into Elizabeth’s eyes as if to read her thoughts about China’s theory.

“This afternoon I get a call from Judge Bennett, who much to my surprise, tells me that he has held one of my advocates in contempt of court and has confined her to a jail cell.”

Normally, whenever anyone in the office disagreed with a judge’s decision, they were free to offer their opinions and voice their dissuasion. Never the less, no one has ever attempted to do this when it involved a decision of Marilyn’s own father and Elizabeth was not going to be the first one to test those murky waters.

Marilyn reluctantly announced, “Much to my dismay, Judge Bennett has always been defendant friendly. However, never, and I mean never argue for a defendant’s bail. Elizabeth, as much as I understand your passion for protecting your victims, you are not an attorney.

You made the choice to counsel victims instead of taking the bar and being sworn in with the court. Defense attorneys and prosecutors make arguments before the judge; you are there as an advocate to the victim.”

Elizabeth’s heart was beginning to feel as if it was breaking through the skin from beneath her breasts and she wanted to say, ‘Well maybe it’s time I take bar exam,’ but she kept her silence.

“Now it appears that China’s suspicions and concerns may have merit. Are you following me Elizabeth?”

Elizabeth took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, “Yes ma’am.”

“Okay, so this is what you’re going to do. First, you’re going to take the rest of the day off and go home. Second, tomorrow morning you will return to work, go to the courthouse and apologize to Judge Bennett. Thereafter, you will immediately take a vacation. I’m not sure how much time you have right now – ”

“I’ve never taken time off since I’ve been here.”

“Well, that explains a lot. If this happens again or you step out of line at all, you will be suspended. Am I making myself clear?”

Her voice a little shaky, Elizabeth replied, “Yes Marilyn, and I apologize for any embarrassment I have caused you or the office as a whole.” Elizabeth was not happy with Marilyn’s decision but she was happy to still have her job.

“Elizabeth, go home and get some rest please.”

Elizabeth rose from the chair, forced a smile at Marilyn and walked through the office back to her own office. Wow… is she finally getting some? No one said a word to her. Everyone had already heard what happened and they knew whenever anyone was about to feel the wrath of Marilyn they had to keep it “business as usual.” Of course that usually meant a dead calm that silently screamed, “We hope everything is okay.”

Elizabeth sat at her desk in her nearly empty office and stared at her calendar sprawled across the top. She looked up at the picture of her parents that sat in front of her, the only piece of home that she brought to work. God, I really need you right now.

She proceeded to look at all of her appointments for the week, which had to be rescheduled and everyone she had to call before taking her forced vacation. Really? She asked herself. It’s not like I made a bomb threat.

Her mind began to wonder as she sat there with her pen in hand and started coloring in all the empty spaces; every zero, every letter a, e, and o. Any letter or number that had a blank space that could be colored in was filled. Sometimes she would get consumed, more like OCD; as if she was trying to compensate for some void in her life.

Elizabeth looked up and there stood China leaning on the office doorframe with her arms crossed and head tilted sympathetically.

“Everything okay?”

With a long sigh Elizabeth rolled her eyes, tilted her head back, and ran her fingers through her hair clasping onto the ends.

“God, China! I don’t know! I’m so tired of this. What are we doing here? Does anything we do even help?”

“Now come on, Liz – you of all people know it does. What about last year, that one girl. What’s her name? She was glued to you through her whole case and she actually testified against her boyfriend because of you. Now that jerk is serving ten years. You know damn well they would have never gotten that conviction if it weren’t for you.”

Elizabeth took a deep breath and looked at China. Her face revealed that her confidence was slowly deteriorating.

“I guess, but they really had enough evidence without her.”

“Seriously Liz, you don’t give yourself enough credit. And you worry way too much. Michelle is a big girl. She’ll be fine.”

“Well, since I have to take this ‘vacation’, you got my back at court the rest of the week?”

“You know I do. Go home, have some wine; have a glass for me and I’ll call ya later. Okay?”

“Why does that sound so much better coming from you than Marilyn?”

With her heels planted in the carpet, China smiled and winked at Elizabeth, “That’s what I’m here for sweetie.”

China dug her left heel deeper into the carpet and slowly turned around to go back to own her desk and get some work done. She knew she was going to have a hell of a week with Elizabeth gone, but that could also mean dates for the next two months.

Elizabeth made a few phone calls, rescheduled some appointments and straightened up her desk. Then she made arrangements with the office manager to take the rest of the week off through the Memorial Day weekend. As she was leaving the office all she could think about was Michelle.

She has my cell phone number. God, I hope she calls me if she needs me.