It was the Tuesday following the Wellses' abrupt departure when Elizabeth called me at my office. Our offices were only five floors apart but we rarely visited each other during the working day.
The legal section of Children and Youth Services did not hang out with prosecutors. I was surrounded by granola eaters that think every child is a snowflake.
I guess I agreed to a certain extent. I spent enough winters in the North that I think snow is a pain in my ass. I feel the same about children for the most part. At least other people's children, that is. So Elizabeth and I talk via telephone if we need to share something during working hours.
"Biff Wells was found dead in a hotel on Century Island yesterday," Elizabeth announced without a word of introduction.
"Damn," I said. "I thought he was in protective custody."
"They pulled the deal Friday afternoon and sent him on his way," I was told. I could hear the disgust in her voice. "They couldn't tie Wells to anything and he had no useful information that wasn't total bullshit. So they pretty well opened up the door and booted him in the ass."
"No loss to humanity," I said.
"How do you think Lauren will react?" Elizabeth wondered.
I thought for a moment.
"Do you think I should call her?" I asked.
"I do, Ben," she said. "I'm sure it will sound better coming from you than from Pam or cop who pays a visit."
So I called. Lauren was in a chatty mood and it took me a few minutes to get to the reason for contacting her.
She went silent for a minute then moved the conversation back to something else.
I felt badly for Lauren but it seemed that any affection she felt for her father dissipated when he offered her up for statutory rape in order to pay off a debt.
I couldn't really say that I blamed her. I assumed she told her mother but I can't say for certain. I soon had a host of other things on my plate to worry about.
It was two days later when Elizabeth called my office again.
"We got him!" she said into the phone. "We got Tiny Huntley dead to rights. Literally dead to rights. Murder with special circumstances. We got him on security camera going into Biff Wells' hotel room. Can you believe that shit? He's going to get the needle!"
Actually, if I were honest, I couldn't believe it. Tiny Huntley did not get to his spot atop a criminal organization by doing stupid shit. Could I accept he killed Biff? Oh yeah. But Tiny did not show up at your hotel room and shoot you. He had you brought to him and he spent the better part of six months making you wish you were dead before he finally got bored with you.
At least that was my impression of the man, courtesy of my wife, I'm sure. I realized she was still talking.
"The judge signed the warrant a few minutes ago," she said. She was giddy as hell and had been all week. Valerie Dwyer was taking a leave of absence for what were being dubbed "personal reasons." It didn't take long for a transcript of Judge Castille's promise to find its way to the press and everyone knew the personal reason was abject stupidity.
With no one else to turn to, Elizabeth was appointed interim District Attorney. If the state bar suspended Dwyer's license, there was a good bet Elizabeth would be elected if she ran.
"Ellie, stay in the office this time," I said. The only time I had really let my wife see my temper was when she was involved in a shootout during a drug bust. For some high-profile arrests, Elizabeth liked to tag along with the cops. She said she wanted to make sure they didn't get overzealous with the arrest or do something to screw up her case.
I thought she enjoyed the rush and I was never comfortable with it.
A little more than a year after Lauren was born, push came to shove. A raid at a biker bar went tits up in a hurry. Someone tipped off the occupants and it turned into an all-out war – with the mother of my infant daughter in the middle of it. Once I assured her how happy I was that she was safe, I lit into Ellie until a fly wouldn't land on her.
I don't recall all of what I said but my best line was good enough.
"I am not going to be a single father and raise our daughter alone because her mother is an adrenaline junkie and an idiot," I yelled.
To her credit, she didn't refute any of my assertions and she promised she would use better judgment in the future. She had lived up to her word but I worried this was too big for her to let go. I was wrong.
"I'm staying here," she assured me. "In fact, you can come up and sit with me if you want. Paul Scarborough is heading up the arrest team. Nothing will go wrong."
Famous last words, I thought.
In fact, a great many things went wrong that day. Tiny was nowhere to be found when the cops raided his home. His girlfriend, significant other, common-law wife or whatever she was, however, was home and so were his two children. Scarborough almost got himself a face full of buckshot from a 10-gauge shotgun when he led the way through the door. Only his quick identification saved him.
Elizabeth called me to make arrangements for Social Services to take the children.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because she is going to prison," Elizabeth replied.
"No, she's not," I countered. "It's 'Castle Doctrine.' Unless she is a felon in possession of a firearm, she has every right to protect her home and her family. It's the peril of the no-knock warrant. You're just lucky Scarborough identified himself. Your office would hope for Valerie Dwyer back if you let your guys shoot up a Mama protecting her children."
I could feel the anger radiating through the phone.
"Do yourself a favor," I said. "Call a handyman to fix her door and then apologize. She knows why you were there. But I'll bet there wasn't an ounce of illegal drugs in that house. You don't even have that to fall back on."
"Fuck you, Ben," Elizabeth said and hung up.
I shrugged and went back to what I was doing – at least for another couple of hours. Then Desmond "Tiny" Huntley, wanted for capital murder and suspected of perhaps a hundred other heinous crimes, walked right past the fucking worthless security guards at the entrance of the courthouse, past the fucking worthless security guards at the entrance to Children and Youth Services, past my stunned paralegal, through my door and plopped his ass down in a chair across from me.
"Can you take me to turn myself in?" he asked. I glanced down to make sure I hadn't pissed myself. I could just picture him taking revenge on Elizabeth then coming down to pay me a visit because someone fucked with his family. It was what I would probably do if the situations were reversed.
"Seriously?" I asked.
"They scared the shit outta my lady," he said. "Bout got themselves shot for it, too."
"I heard," I said. "If it's any consolation, no one is going to touch your kids. I'll make sure of that myself if I have to."
"You already did," Tiny informed me. "Your wife called my lady to apologize. They already came to fix the door, too. I know that came from you, but I hope you'll tell your lady I said thanks. I can't let family get cross on this. So I'll turn myself in."
"OK," I said. "You know, there won't be bail on a capital charge."
He nodded, resigned to his fate.
I gave a mirthless chuckle.
"You didn't kill Wells, did you?" I asked. I don't know why I wanted to know. I don't know why I was prolonging a conversation with a man who scared the hell out of me.
"Nah," he said. "Don't make no difference though. They gonna hang me for it anyway. I woulda. Don't get me wrong. If I knowed where he was, I'd a done him and not thought twice. Not like he was done though."
"That's what I thought," I said. "Well, let's get this show on the road."
We stood before I spoke again.
"I'll find you a good lawyer if you need one," I said.
Tiny gave me a smile. I saw he had about a dozen gold teeth. Those were new since I saw him two weeks earlier.
"Your Honor," he said in his best "whiny white guy voice," "this crime could not have been committed by my client. It does not meet his typical level of violence. You must acquit."
Then he laughed and we walked through the doorway.
I am a smart man. On the way out the door, I called the Sheriff's Department, which is the only police agency housed in the courthouse. I was not going to let Tiny anywhere near my wife. That would not happen if I could stop it.
For once, I wasn't worried about someone else's safety in Elizabeth's proximity.
"This is Ben Wallace," I said. "I am bringing Desmond Huntley down the service elevator. He has agreed to turn himself him."
I let out a deep sigh when the sheriff's deputies took responsibility for Tiny. I worried the entire elevator ride that he would change his mind, snap my neck and run off. But he was actually pleasant.
"You did good with that little girl," he told me as we waited for the elevator to arrive. "Your wife came out OK, too."
"You might get out of this, too," I said. I knew I was probably lying to the man and I think he knew it, as well.
"Maybe," he said. "If I don't, maybe you could check on my kids now and then for me?"
I nodded. It was a part of my job but I couldn't help but feel a slight amount of empathy for Tiny Huntley's children.
It was only after I saw Tiny safely into another's custody that I called my wife.
"The Sheriff's Office has Tiny," I told her.
"I know they do," she replied. "How in the hell do you know it? I just heard not 30 seconds ago."
"He asked me to go with him to turn himself in," I explained. I was not prepared for the explosion that followed.
"Are you the dumbest fucking man on the planet?" Elizabeth asked. I assumed it was a rhetorical question and stayed silent. "You berate me for thinking about going to the arrest. Then you waltz your dumb ass out to meet him – alone – after my office kicked in his door and scared his kids to death. Ben, I swear, sometimes I don't know why I put up with you."
I could see Ellie going off on a tangent. The week had been stressful for her and she had vented at me more than once. I wasn't going to let her do it just right then.
"Because you love me," I said brightly.
"I do love you," Elizabeth said. "Damn it, he could have killed you or taken you hostage or God knows what else. What were you thinking?"
"You have some basic facts wrong," I stated. "I did not go to meet Tiny. He came to me. He walked right past the deputies who are supposed to guard the courthouse, right past the guards outside our main office and then plopped his ass into a chair in front of me."
"Jesus Christ!" Elizabeth said in a small voice.
h said in a small voice.
"Yeah," I said. "He asked me if I would escort him to you to turn himself in. I told him I would turn him in to the sheriff's department but I thought it prudent to never be around the two people I am most afraid of at any one time. He told me the venue was my choice. We talked for a couple of minutes and then I escorted him to the Sheriff. It was not my idea and I would have never gone alone to see someone wanted by your office. I have too much respect for you and I have too much to live for. Now, are you done yelling?"
"I'm done," Elizabeth said sheepishly. "Are you going back to your office? It's almost 4."
"I have to sign out and get the cell," I replied. "It's my night on call."
Elizabeth let out a long breath.
"Can you switch?" she asked. "I have a ton of stuff to do yet. With Tiny's arrest, my list just got longer."
"You have the Mommy and Me dinner tonight," I pointed out. "It's why I switched tomorrow night for tonight."
Elizabeth was suffering from the same illness that hit almost all first-time department managers – the urge to micro-manage. There was no doubt that she was the most capable person in the office. I can say that even while putting aside my bias. But she was trying to do too much for one person.
"Damn it," she said. "I don't guess you're available."
"For what?" I asked. "I know nothing about pending cases in your department so I can't help there. And when I went to the restroom a little while ago I found out I still lack the proper equipment to be a mommy. I'd help you in any other way if you figure out how."
I paused for a moment.
"Ellie, we've been through this before," I said. "It wasn't a year ago that you told me I needed to decide which had priority in my life. My job or my family? It was an easy choice for me. Now you're going to have to face the same question."
Lauren's preschool hosted a dinner every month to encourage parents to spend one-on-one time with their children. One month it was Daddy and Me. The next it was Mommy and Me. My choice didn't involve a dinner of the evening. That would have been easy for me to arrange because I'm only on call at night once every other week and one weekend every other month. Mine came during a holiday get-together at the preschool. It was scheduled for 10 a.m. and I had a conference rescheduled on me for 11:30 a.m.
There was no way I could do both so I picked what was most important. I caught a royal ass-chewing from a family court mediator – at least until I told the old bat my time was far more valuable than hers and she needed to check with the attorneys to make sure they were available before changing the time or date of a conference. Since then I have used my "peremptory excuse" card to avoid having any dealings with her.
Every attorney in our county is given one chance to disqualify a supervisory official for each case. You don't have to list a reason and you only get one per case. But you could remove a judge – or a mediator – if you found you couldn't work with them. I was sure Elizabeth's office would have Judge Castille at the top of their list.
I heard Elizabeth sigh on the other end of the line. I was surprised it was taking her this long to make up her mind. Perhaps she was enjoying the trappings of power as much as Valerie Dwyer had.
"You're right," she said finally. "I have staff here and I'll give some of this to them. Most of them are Dwyer's cronies so I have to keep them isolated. But there are a couple decent lawyers here. Can you pick up Lauren and get her ready?"
I started to bite my lip and simply agree – but decided I need to say what needed to be said.
"If you're just going to swing by, pick her up, eat with her and then drop her off, just cancel it," I said. "This is about spending time with her. It's about talking about her day and playing with her on the floor after dinner. It isn't about focusing your attention on what you still need to do."
"What do you expect me to do, Ben?" she asked. "There is paperwork that needs to be done. There are cases that need preparation. That woman did absolutely no oversight on prep. Most of the people here are young and inexperienced. They don't know how to prepare a case and I'm about the only one to teach them."
"You also have another young person who will be looking to you for guidance," I answered. "I'll pick up Lauren from preschool and get her ready. But Elizabeth, this can't become a habit. I will tell you like you told me. If you can't handle both aspects of your life, then pick one. But do not think I'll sit here and let you do a half-assed job of raising our daughter because someone else's responsibilities take precedence over yours."
That was almost word for word what she had told me a few months earlier. I paraphrased parts, but she got the gist.
"I'll close up here by 5, I promise," she said.
I closed my phone and started to plan what I could fix for dinner in case Elizabeth called to cancel.
I was somewhat surprised when Elizabeth arrived at little before 5:30 p.m. I was downright shocked when she didn't give me the cold shoulder and instead gave me one of her megaton kisses.
"Thank you," she said when I had regained my equilibrium. "I could have gotten lost in that morass and forgotten what is important in life. If I had stayed tonight it would never have changed. So, I gave out marching orders. I told them this is a test run to see if they still have a job when Dwyer is out on her ass. If they can't handle the new workload, put out resumes but don't expect a recommendation from me because I hadn't seen anything worth recommending yet. I've got a couple of things I still have to do but I'm not going to do it all."
"Good," I said. I admitted that I had wondered what choice she would make.
"I could tell," she said. "That is what spurred me to make the right one. I don't want to see you disappointed."
I didn't get to see much of Elizabeth that night. She took our daughter on their date and then sequestered herself in the office while I bathed Lauren. Elizabeth came out to help tuck the little one into bed and then disappeared back into the office. I assume she came to bed at some point but I can't confirm it. She wasn't there when I fell asleep and she was already in the shower when I got up.
As it turned out, that was OK. I would get to spend most of the day with her in one form or fashion.
It was just before 10 a.m. on Thursday morning when life went to crap again for me. It started out as a seemingly innocuous call from my paralegal.
A paralegal, to my way of thinking, is a lawyer without an advanced degree. I know mine is indispensible. In fact, if I had to make a choice, I would fire half the lawyers rather than dismiss one paralegal. They are that integral to what goes on in the CYS legal offices.
A paralegal does everything an attorney does – except represent clients and appear in court. Oh, and rake in a ton of dough. They are often called upon to handle the research for any given subject. They perform document searches and cull the online database for relevant case law. They take notes at depositions, notarize papers and make sure they get delivered to the right people. They prepare the briefs for trial and, often, play a significant part in strategy because it is likely they are better aware of legal precedents on some matters than the attorney is.
I know that is the case in my office. My paralegal presents me with a weekly briefing of any items of interest from rulings across the United States that might pertain to child advocacy law. I have, on numerous occasions, tried to get her to apply to law school. But, as with so many people, money is not abundant in her household. It is almost impossible to perform full-time work duties and succeed in achieving a professional degree.
I have often wished I could afford to help the woman out – because she has a brilliant legal mind – but I can't. Although I am well-paid by the county, Elizabeth and I do not make nearly as much money as we could in private practice. That statement probably applies to me more than my wife. I am not a better attorney. I do not mean to imply that. But Elizabeth is in the job she is best suited for – prosecution. She would be bored silly in civil practice. She would be disbarred quickly in a criminal practice – because she would strangle some of the idiots who do stupid or hurtful things and get caught.
Additionally, we both are still paying off cumbersome student loans. So Michelle toils daily at a job that is beneath her skill level for a wage that is barely above poverty-level. She has been offered jobs in the private sector – and she would probably triple her wages if she were to leave. But she stays. Part of the reason is because of the benefits package the county offers. It is unparalleled by any private firm I know of, which offer benefits packages that are more cost-effective for the ownership than worthwhile for the employees.
Michelle has a special-needs son at home and the benefits offered by the county mean almost every medical procedure or educational requirement does not require funds from Michelle's pocketbook. As important as that is, I believe Michelle stays for another reason: she likes what she does. She is good at her job and she makes others better at theirs. That helps make life a little better for the young people we serve.
I have seen attorneys belittle their paralegals and blame their own failings on their staff. The quickest way to an ass-chewing in the department where I work is to raise your voice to one of the six people who do the majority of work in our small office. I can assure you that none of the six have a juris doctor after their names.
Michelle is always on top of my schedule. We have worked as a team for four years and she is like the little sister I never had. I was meeting with two attorneys in our conference room to try to resolve a child-custody issue between two parents who hated one another and a 15-year-old girl who hated them both.
She was too young for emancipation under our laws but she wanted her parents to sign over guardianship to an aunt. The mother had primary physical custody – as the Court awards most of the time and almost every time with female children – and had absolutely refused. The father was more willing to see the girl somewhere else but was opposed to it being anywhere but with him. I was brought in by the Court as the girl's advocate.
The parents didn't particularly care about who raised the child. They were more interested in who had to pay and who got to receive child support. There was no reasonable settlement in sight when Michelle knocked softly and motioned me outside. She wore a troubled expression.
"What is going on with you?" she asked.
I had no answer for her because I wasn't certain anything was going on.
"You're gone for three weeks on a private case," she said, holding up one finger. "Your name is in the newspaper a dozen times – which you have always despised before – and you shrug it off. Now the President Judge calls and wants you in her chambers as quickly as I can find you."
The presiding judge of the family court section is a man. I raise my eyebrows at Michelle because there is only one President Judge. The highest level on the judicial bar in our county is the woman who is responsible for everything, the Honorable Lisa M. Valasik.
"Why?" I asked.
Michelle smiled and tilted her head.
"Please reference my previous question, Counselor," she said evenly. "I'll ask this: are you leaving for private practice again?"
"No," I said firmly. "This is probably about something that happened last week. Some parts of the Wells case were irregular."
"No kidding," Michelle replied with overt sarcasm. The news had gotten around the courthouse like wildfire Friday afternoon and into the press by Monday morning.
"I'm sure it is either related to that or to something I goofed up and filed in the wrong place," I told her. "I figure I better put a book in the back of my pants because The Pickle is about to take me to the woodshed."