My phone rang.
When I saw it was my receptionist’s line, I picked up the receiver and cradled it under my chin while continuing to type. I was working on a motion that had to be filed with the court before 5:00 PM.
It took me a moment before I remembered the temporary employee’s name.
“What do you need, Denise?” I asked while continuing to type to the end of the sentence I was working on.
“I know you’re really busy right now, Mitch,” Denise said, “but we just had a woman walk in who seems like she might be a good fit for you. She’s looking for a criminal defense attorney.”
I frowned, wishing Ellie had not called in sick. Ellie would’ve known how to handle this. She wouldn’t have bothered me because she would have known the importance of my current deadline. Instead, I was forced to suffer with an untrained temp. Denise seemed like a capable person, but I didn’t have time to deal with this today.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, reminding myself that I tended to get snippy with people when I was working on a deadline.
I can’t complain about Ellie taking the day anyway, I thought, she’s here every day. I could not remember the last time she had taken a day off. It was long overdue.
Denise doesn’t need me snapping at her.
I let out a long breath, mentally counting to ten. Ellie would have known to schedule an appointment for the potential client to come back later.
I glanced at my watch, looked at my motion, and hesitated, unsure if I had time to take even fifteen minutes to meet with this person.
On the other end of the line, I heard Denise turn her swivel chair away from the prospective client, cupping a hand around the receiver of the phone.
“She’s in tears,” Denise whispered. “I think she needs some real help.”
If Denise was hoping to convince me, she was going about it the wrong way. The last thing I needed right now was some random walk-in bubbling over with grief while I had a motion that I was concerned about getting filed.
“Did she say what it was about?” I finally asked, trying to keep the irritation from showing in my voice but only half succeeding.
“No, she didn’t.”
I hesitated, wondering if I even wanted to take on another case at the moment. I had a full docket, so to speak, more work than I really needed. I supposed it was a good thing that I was so busy that I had the option of turning down cases.
A sob came through the phone, and my heart wrenched.
Why did I have to hear her cry?
My instinct had been to tell Denise to send the person to somebody else, but that gut-wrenching sound was going to haunt me the rest of the afternoon unless I did something about it.
I glanced at my watch again, and even though it was a significant motion that I still had not thoroughly researched, I knew now that my only way out was to meet with the woman and handle it from there. My conscience would not allow me to do otherwise at this point.
“Mitch, are you there?” Denise asked.
“Send her in. I’ll talk to her for a minute.”
“Just one moment,” Denise chirped.
I miss Ellie.
My door opened as I hung up the phone.
Denise practically bounced into my office. The young college kid was in her freshman year but determined to become an attorney. She probably felt like she was doing some good right now.
I forced the irritation off my face, hoping that Denise had not noticed as I stood and went around to the other side of my desk while extending a hand to the woman who had just entered.
“Welcome, have a seat,” I said, nodding to my guest chairs. She was a short woman, probably just a few inches above five feet. She had dark brown hair and a tan complexion. She was pretty and had only a few years on me. I wouldn’t put her past forty-five.
The woman took my hand. It was moist as if she was nervous about meeting with me. She had taken control of the sobs, but her face was puffy. She did not look entirely comfortable and, after making brief eye contact, focused her attention on my office.
I released her hand and walked around to the front of my desk, turning off my computer screen so she would have my full attention. I repressed a sigh as the motion I had been working on disappeared.
Fifteen minutes, I thought to myself. I have to resolve this in fifteen minutes or less.
I pulled out a fresh notepad from within a desk drawer and put a blue ballpoint pen on the paper before clasping my hands in front of me.
She stared at the back of my computer, a faraway look on her face as she battled with her emotions.
“How can I help?” I asked after the silence had started to become awkward. The woman looked like she was tearing up again. I was trying to bypass that so that I could get this over with. She had not looked at me once after taking a seat.
When she finally did, I was afraid the dam was about to burst.
“My husband is dead,” she barely managed to get the words out without breaking up.
I was taken aback. It was the last thing I had expected her to say. I had thought she would tell me that her husband had been arrested. Or that her son was in jail. Or something like that.
“I’m sorry that happened,” I said as sympathetically as I could. Did this woman understand that I was a criminal defense attorney? If Denise hadn’t been a temp, I would have sat her down and had a discussion. “When did that happen?”
“He was killed late last night. He was at work.”
I hesitated, uncertain how I fit into the picture or what I should say next. I regretted letting her into my office. If she had come on behalf of an incarcerated family member, looking for me to represent them in a pending criminal matter, it would have been a perfunctory conversation. I could have sent her on her way after only a few minutes of discussion.
The woman was now staring at the back of my computer again. I was starting to become impatient, which I did my best to fight, but my motion was waiting. I had professional responsibilities to fulfill.
“I am sorry, ma’am,” I said as cautiously as I could, “but I believe you might be mistaken. Are you aware that I am a criminal defense attorney? Based on what you have told me, you should be looking to speak with a prosecutor.”
“I spoke with her this morning, and she didn’t believe me.”
I knew of only one female prosecutor that would have been assigned this case. Every other senior prosecutor over there was male, a fact the local newspaper pointed out frequently.
Cindy Seakowics. A former flame from more than a decade ago.
“What did you tell… her?” I had almost said Cindy.
“I told her that my husband’s murderer is not the man who killed him.”
I hesitated, wondering if my ears were playing tricks on me. I ran through what she had said in my head, just to make sure I understood.
“Are you telling me the person that killed your husband is not the murderer?”
“Yes, Mr. Turner, that is exactly what I am telling you.