The email subject reads “Fireflies.” I stare at it. My heart races, bile rises in my throat, my palms are sweating, my mouth is dry, I’m paralyzed. I blink. I blink again. It’s still there. Go away! You’re not there, are you? Open it! No! Do it! No! Delete it! NO!!! Why not? Because you can’t, can you? Because I can’t. My fingers tremble as I click on it. There are only three simple words: “Can we meet?” I silently scream. No. No. No. No! I can’t do that. We can’t do that! I shove my fist in my mouth, my teeth sinking into my own flesh. I rock back and forth to stop the panic rising within me. Why now? Why after all these years? We made a solemn promise to each other: no contact unless we were in real trouble. Oh God! That’s it. One of them is in trouble, or maybe one of them is about to betray the rest of us. No, they wouldn’t do that. We would never betray each other. I don’t have a choice. I made that promise too. I reach out, hit reply, and type “when and where?” I stare at my words, then hit send. Now I wait.
“Brrr…April, you suck!” I say, pulling up the collar of my trench coat and tightening the belt around my waist. Springtime in Louisville is a crap shoot. There’s that one day, that one glorious day, when the promise of spring bursts forth, then whoosh, the tickle of that warm day and early morning birdsong vanishes, carried away on the remaining winter winds. That glorious day was yesterday: sunny, high sixties, the smell of spring in the air. The weather was spectacular. It’s what we locals call Derby weather, the kind this town hopes for in the weeks leading up to the fastest two minutes in sports, the Kentucky Derby. Yesterday was so beautiful that I even went jogging in Cherokee Park. Today, Mother Nature has turned manic. I can even see my breath. It must have plummeted nearly thirty degrees since last night. I’m running a bit later than usual. I don’t normally sleep past seven a.m., but the chill in the house kept me under the covers. Besides, the jury may or may not reach a verdict by the end of the week. My client, Emma Davies, has been waiting for three days to learn her fate. It’s excruciating. Believe me, I know the toll waiting can take on a person. It’s been over a week since I received that email. So far nothing. That email’s been taking up real estate in my brain and has made it difficult—no, damn near impossible—for me to give my full attention to the trial. It’s not fair to Emma that my mind’s been elsewhere, but I think my closing arguments were good regardless. We’ll see soon enough how effective I was with this jury. And yet, how can I be anything but distracted? I don’t want to lose the life I’ve worked so hard for.
Despite the cold temperatures, the birds are singing. It’s amazing. I feel like everything’s on the verge of falling apart, and yet, the damn birds are still singing. I breathe in the cold air as I hop into the car and start the engine, adjusting the heat to maximum. Cold air blasts me. My little Subaru, which I lovingly refer to as Lil’ piece of shit, takes her time waking up. She’s a lot like me. I really should think about getting another car, but I know I won’t anytime soon. I grip the frigid steering wheel, wishing I’d remembered my gloves, but they’re still stuffed in the pocket of my winter coat that’s hanging in the closet. I wish I’d worn my boots instead of these three-inch Sam Edelman heels. Also, slacks would have been a better choice than my don’t-I-look-sophisticated charcoal-gray pencil skirt. I’m not sure why I selected this outfit today. Normally, I’m more practical in my fashion selections. The older I’m getting the less I care about outer appearances, but this case is too high profile and many eyes are on us. Besides, I don’t have time to go back and change my clothes or retrieve my gloves or boots. My head feels cloudy, and I’m so cold my tits are standing at attention. I just need to get into the office and get coffee, a lot of coffee. My pocket vibrates. Noooo…please, nooo…I just need an hour. I feel sick. My world feels shaky. I fish the phone out of my coat pocket and see that it’s Beaker. Here we go…
“Hey, what’s going on, Beaker?” I ask my law clerk with fear in my voice.
“Hey Bertie, where are you?” he asks.
“Just left my house. What’s happening?”
“The jury’s in. Get here ASAP!” Beaker bestowed himself with that name because of his prominent nose. He’s got a really kind face, but the lengthy nose and scraggily goatee make him look more like a beatnik from the 1960s. He’s a gifted law clerk, a bit different though. Aren’t the good ones always a bit different? He’s never mentioned a girlfriend since he’s been with the firm, but I’ve caught him gazing at my daughter Annie. I believe he has deep feelings for her, I can see it in his eyes. She adores him too, but only as a friend, maybe even more like a brother. Still, regardless of the relationship, they work fantastically well together. Beaker’s heavily into video games and loves to play the card game Magic, both online and in tournaments. He spends his evenings at various music shows around town and can tell you the name of any band playing locally on any given night. Annie’s extremely athletic, plays tennis, and loves watching soccer. She’s charismatic and self-assured, both great assets for a trial lawyer. At thirty-four years of age she has traveled the world and is totally independent. Beaker’s thirty-five, lives alone in a studio apartment in Germantown, and, oh yes, like Annie, he loves his mother. He’s a good guy. His real name is Reginald Lansing. I like Beaker.
“On my way,” I say with dread and hang up.
Breathe, for God’s sake. I’ve got to keep it together. Think of something else. I pull out, trying to defrost my windshield while dodging the early morning cars parked on my treelined street and tell myself to focus. All I need is to cause an accident this morning because I’m freaking out over this impending verdict. Well, that and the damn email. I scan the neighborhood. It’s quiet. Calm down, you got this. Remember, one thing at a time. I inhale and slowly exhale. I stop at the light, then turn right onto the main road. I manage to clear my head enough to take in the scenery. I do love living in the heart of the Highlands, a neighborhood so full of flavor, so full of life. Besides a breathtakingly beautiful park, there’s something for everyone. I head down Bardstown Road, the main artery that divides residences to the east and the west of the city. Vintage consignment shops, eccentric boutiques, and retail shops are aplenty. Here in this cultural mecca are bookstores, restaurants of diverse ethnicities, night clubs, tattoo parlors, bakeries, and churches of every denomination. Gorgeous older homes surround the park, like the Barnstable Brown residence that annually hosts the Derby Eve gala for celebrities. There are blocks and blocks of Victorian and Georgian style homes in various states of repair. Some are single-family dwellings, while others have been divided into apartment units. Arts and crafts houses—many literally ordered through the old Sears and Roebucks catalogs a hundred years ago and brought in on rail cars, then built on purchased lots—surround the densely populated area, along with bungalows and shotgun houses. City buses navigate up and down the streets, wobbling back and forth on massive steel frames picking up and dropping off passengers. The smell of exhaust is in the air. And the people, oh, the people. This neighborhood was once home to the provocative author Hunter S. Thompson and the astronomer Edwin Hubble. I have a habit of collecting bits of useless trivia that rattle around in my brain. But this place has a history and personality like no other. I belong here because everybody does. On any given day, you can see kids and adults with pink hair, tattoos, and piercings. Some are gay, some bisexual, some transgender, but many are straight. Old hippies walk arm in arm wearing Birkenstocks. Millennial parents are ever-present hauling backpacks and pushing their little ones in state-of-the-art strollers that must require tutorials on how to operate. They take their toddlers to their Montessori day cares or music classes, stopping off on their way home for a flat white or chai tea with soymilk. A potpourri of religions can be found in our community. Catholics and Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists, as well as the Islamic and Buddhist faiths to name just a few that are practiced here. We are a brilliant kaleidoscope of races and ethnicities—Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, and a dash of so much more. It’s not uncommon to see homeless men and women pushing grocery carts filled to the brim with their earthly possessions. Hipsters rush by, never looking up from their phones. Even refugee men, women, and children find safe harbor here thanks to our neighborhood ministries. The Highlands is home to the wealthiest of the wealthy, the middle class, the poorer residents, the homeless, and the weirdest of weird. In this neighborhood, my age and economic means both fall right of center on the demographic spectrum. I’m a widow in my thirtieth year as a defense attorney. I own a drafty Victorian right behind my favorite bookstore. I’ve had plans to renovate my house since the day Annie and I moved in. She had just turned four, and we celebrated with cheese pizza on paper plates, sitting on the living room floor among all the boxes. It was a bittersweet time. Celebrating our new lives in this beautiful old house, but unable to share it with him. Joe had only been gone a year before we moved in, a massive heart attack at thirty-nine years old. Annie and I were lost without him. The house was our new beginning, helping us to heal. It seems like forever ago. And as far as those renovations, I did paint the mailbox red. That’s a start.
Traffic isn’t too awful, but I keep hitting every red light there is from here to the courthouse. Luckily, downtown Louisville is no more than twenty-five minutes from the house. I finally arrive and park in the garage, and the click of my heels echo in the underground. I get through security quickly and show my photo ID. I’m doing great on time and am navigating the gauntlet until I find one of the three elevators is out of order and the others are hovering on the twelfth and fifteenth floors.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” I say out of exasperation. “Sorry.” I mumble to the small group waiting behind me for the elevator. I push the button several more times, finally losing all patience. “Aw, screw it!” I head for the steps.
Taking two at a time, I manage to make it to the sixth floor without breaking a heel. My heart is hammering in my chest, more from anxiety than exertion, though I am a bit winded. I stop and catch my breath. Slow down, I tell myself. Keep it together. I see that reporters and television cameras have gathered. I keep my head down and keep moving as the reporters hurl their questions at me. How are you feeling about the trial? Do you believe your client will have a guilty verdict? Will you appeal if she’s found guilty? I ignore all of it and enter the courtroom. The prosecution’s already there. That arrogant little prick Jack Hamilton, lead prosecutor, flashes his cocky grin at me. It doesn’t help that he’s dating Annie. Ugh! He’s incredibly handsome, I’ll admit, with that thick ash-blond hair and a gleaming smile. How can anyone’s teeth be that white? Looks like he should be in a friggin’ toothpaste commercial instead of here playing lawyer. It makes me nuts when I watch some of the women on the jury, regardless of their age, blush when he flashes that smile in their direction. I mean, seriously, I’d like to slap that Ivy League grin right off his face. He’s a Stanford grad who sailed through with a full ride, even though his extremely rich parents could have easily afforded tuition anywhere. Years ago, I graduated from The University of Louisville, for both undergraduate and law school, bartending at night in the early years to survive. As a single mother, I worked hard to provide for my daughter. I didn’t do too badly, eventually opening my own practice and sending my daughter to Vanderbilt so she could take her place as a member of the firm. I look over at that smug face and give him the finger, and he responds with a full-blown smile.
“Is that any way for you to treat your future son-in-law?” he says, giving me a wink.
“You are delusional, counselor,” I say loud enough for all to hear.
“And a good morning to you, too,” he volleys back, still wearing that irritating grin.
I disregard him. I set my purse and satchel down and take my seat at the defense table, peeling off my coat and throwing it on the back of my chair. Beaker arrives and gives me a double thumbs up as he takes the seat directly behind me. The side door opens, and in walks Emma Davies, escorted by the jailer. She is rail thin and looks as if she hasn’t eaten in weeks. There are shadows under her eyes, shadows that have increased exponentially since the trial began. Her thick, short wavy hair remains dark, only slightly graying, which is not unusual for those of us in our early sixties. She must have been an aging beauty, but since all of this began, the lines on her face have deepened. Her soft brown eyes are weary. Even still, she’s lovely. Her positive attitude has been remarkable throughout the trial. It all seems quite ridiculous. This tiny wisp of a woman stands accused of killing her boss, J.D. Bauer, and his wife Margaret in their own home. Mr. Bauer was one of Louisville’s wealthiest businessmen. He was the CFO of Elite Wealth Management, one of the largest financial conglomerates in the U.S. According to Emma, Mr. Bauer asked her to stop by his house and pick up some signed papers needed for a meeting later in the day that he would not be able to attend. He and his wife were catching a flight that afternoon for Paris to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary. Emma arrived late in the morning, picked up the papers, and delivered them back to the office. Somewhere between the time she left the Bauers’ residence and the thirty minutes it took her to get back to the office, the Bauers were killed. Both had been shot. Forensics would later prove that both the husband and wife were shot with Mr. Bauer’s own gun. The problem? The gun was located about a foot from his body. His clothing did have traces of gun residue, but there was nothing at all on Emma’s clothes that morning. There was no DNA evidence to convict her and no motive. The prosecution painted her as a woman scorned. According to office gossip, Emma provided her boss with more than her expert office skills behind closed doors and would constantly stay late with him to “catch up” on things. There had been other rumors that she and Mr. Bauer had had a long-term relationship. But there was no direct evidence of that either. She should never have been charged in the first place. At least I hope the jury sees it that way. Emma takes her seat next to me.
“Good morning,” she says with a nervous smile. “It’s good to see you.”
I stare at her. She greets me as if she’s meeting me for coffee, instead of to learn her fate. “It’s good to see you too, Emma,” I whisper. I cover her hand with mine and look deep into her eyes. “Stay strong. I’m here for you.”
“Oh, Bertie,” she says placing her hand over mine, “I know that.”
I look at her, and I’m moved by her strength. I’m wondering if I’ll have that kind of resilience to face whatever’s coming my way. I desperately try and put on a brave face for her.
“Just hold on tight to my hand, okay?”
She nods. “You’ve done all you can. It’s out of our hands and into the good Lord’s.” She looks back and searches for her son in the courtroom. She finds him and blows him a kiss.
I secretly pray the good Lord is sitting in one of those juror’s seats, ’cause we could use divine intervention right about now. As if on cue, the jury enters the courtroom, and I quickly study their faces, looking for any signs of what’s to come. Some glance our way, others look down, which could mean something or nothing. I don’t know. I can’t read them. I look at Emma and give her my best smile. She smiles back and continues to grip my hand. It’s almost as if our situation is reversed. She’s consoling me. I marvel at this woman.
“All rise. The Honorable Joseph Edwards presiding,” says the courtroom deputy. Judge Edwards has been on the bench for as long as I can remember. There are far worse judges a lawyer could argue a case in front of. He’s been fair and consistent throughout the trial. He’s a no-nonsense judge and doesn’t put up with any shenanigans—his words. I help Emma rise, wrapping my arm around her for balance and support, as much for me as for her.
“You may be seated,” says the judge. “It is my understanding that the jury has reached a verdict.” He’s directing his statement to the middle-aged man who has been selected by the jury as the foreperson.
“We have, your honor.”
“Would you please hand the verdict to the court deputy?”
Judge Edwards silently reads the verdict, his face a total blank slate. He hands the verdict back to the foreperson.
“Would the defendant please rise?”
We rise together.
“Would the foreperson please read the verdict?”
“We, the jury, find the defendant, Emma Margaret Davies NOT GUILTY.”
Someone seated in the chambers lets out a gasp. At first, there’s no other sound. Time seems to stand still. I’m frozen. I can’t speak. The sounds of both shock and jubilation can be heard in the courtroom. It jars me from my stupor. I look at Emma. She looks to be in a trance. Our hands are bound together in a grip so tight that there’s practically no blood flow. We’ve both been holding our breath. I’m finally able to get some words out.
“Emma, congratulations! We did it, we did it. You’re free.” I grab her in a bear hug, wrapping my arms around her tiny frame.
I finally release her. She’s smiling sadly. A tear rolls down her face. I reach out and wipe it away with the back of my hand. “It’s okay, you’re free to go. It’s over. It’s all over, Emma.”
“It’s over, it’s really over,” she whispers.
“Yes, Emma, it is, it’s over. You can go home. And I think I see your ride,” I say as her son and daughter-in-law approach.
“Thank you, Bertie. Thank you,” she says tearfully. We take a moment to give hugs all around. I watch as her son leads his mother out of the courtroom and into freedom. Happy endings, I think, so few and far between.
“Congratulations, Counselor,” says Jack with an outstretched hand.
“Thank you.” I accept his congratulatory handshake. I grab my coat and briefcase and turn to exit.
“Congratulations, Bertie,” Beaker says giving me a fist bump.
“Thanks,” I say. “Hey, listen, I’ll see you back in the office in a bit.”
“Yeah. Hey, you okay? Cheer up! We won, remember?” Beaker says as he raises his clenched fists in the air, shaking them as a sign of victory.
I smile. Beaker’s not exactly emotionally in tune with what others may be feeling. That makes me appreciate his efforts. It’s a stretch for him. Before leaving the courthouse, I take a few minutes to give a brief statement to the press. “Yes, we are very pleased with the verdict,” and “I never had a doubt that the jury would find my client not guilty.”
I don’t know if my outward appearance reveals my inner turmoil. I make it to the bathroom, locking myself in a stall. Thank God I’m alone. I collapse onto the toilet seat. I don’t have the luxury of celebrating the win for Emma. It begins as a quiet sob, then crescendos into crashing waves of pent-up fear and anxiety. I stretch out my arms, reaching my palms to the walls of the stall for balance. It’s all just been too much. And it’s only just begun for me. I will myself to get my act together, but the words in the email keep flashing in my brain. Can we meet? It’s probably just one of the “Fireflies” reaching out, right? Or maybe there’s someone else seeking justice or revenge? Today I’m the defense attorney, but how long before I’m the defendant? I rack my brain, going through a list of possibilities and realize it’s a lesson in futility. I can suspect all I want, but I won’t know until whoever it is reveals themselves. Maybe someone’s been patient all these years, just waiting for the right time to strike. Is this some psychological game they’re playing, to push me to react out of fear and…and…WHAT? My thoughts are running completely wild.
“Stop it, stop it,” I hiss through clenched teeth while pressing my fingertips to my temples. I close my eyes and rub my temples until the pounding in my head eases and my breathing begins to return to normal. I use the john, blow my nose, and regain enough composure to stand up and exit the stall. I look in the mirror. I resemble something feral, like a racoon. I clean up the best I can, wiping the mascara from under my eyes with a moistened paper towel. My face has no color. I apply a bit of lipstick and even rub some into my cheeks. Better, but still not great. I run a comb through my out-of-control mane and knot my hair at the base of my neck as best I can with a clip I find at the bottom of my purse. I give a last look in the mirror and square my shoulders. It’s time to go.
On the drive back to the office, I’m exhausted, like I’ve swallowed an anchor and weigh about a thousand pounds. I look at my watch, and it’s not even noon. I take a moment to think about Emma and silently thank my higher power for granting her liberty. She’s lucky. She’s free to go anywhere, travel anywhere, and I’m elated for her, I truly am. I’m mean, hell, I wish I was her right now. I’m not quite ready to go back to the office, not just yet. On impulse I pull into Starbucks. I sit in the car listening to the radio, wondering what my next move will be. I finally turn off the engine and enter the coffee shop, ordering a tall coffee of the day, no room for cream. I sit at a table up front, sipping the scalding hot caffeine, watching traffic pass by. I take out my phone, anxiously checking my emails, but there’s still nothing. I take another sip and watch as an extremely well put together woman walks in with her daughter. How do I know it’s her daughter? The young girl is the spitting image of her mother. I wonder why this girl’s not in school. Maybe they’re coming back from the dentist or a doctor’s appointment. Like her mother, she’s got a remarkable face, flawless skin. Her long blond ponytail trails down her back. She’s wearing a navy sweater, a white button-down blouse tucked into a navy and dark-green plaid pleated skirt. It’s obviously a school uniform, and if I were to guess, I’d say she’s around twelve or thirteen. They wait in line to give their orders. The girl’s chatting incessantly to her mother, while her mother nods periodically. I wonder what it would have been like to have a mother like that. Though I can’t quite make out the conversation, I can hear the girl’s lyrical intonations, and I see the animation on her face as she relays to her mother the colorful details of what is most likely her latest adolescent drama. I continue watching over the brim of my coffee cup as the girl waves her hands in the air and vacillates between intermittent bursts of laughter and the rapid fire of enthusiastic dialogue. Like girls do. Like we did when we were young.