"If I knew he were dead, maybe then I could let go." Sabre Brown's fingers slid up and down the side of her Styrofoam cup as she and her best friend, Bob, walked away from the coffee cart in front of the Juvenile Division of the San Diego Superior Court.
He put his arm around her tiny waist and pulled her closer to him. "I know how much you miss him."
"Not knowing is the worst part. You'd think after five years, I'd quit expecting him to return." She sighed and her voice softened. "The last time I talked to him, he called to wish me a happy birthday. He called me the night before because his plane was leaving early in the morning and he didn't want to wake me. I teased him about growing up, since waking me in the middle of the night would generally bring him great pleasure."
They stood in silence for a moment. Sabre turned to Bob. "You're a lot like him, you know . . . the same crazy sense of humor, only you're less of a prankster. Once he came to my office with silly putty or something hanging out of his nose, like a booger." Sabre swallowed and cleared her throat. "I don't know what I'd have done without you the past few years. You make it a little easier, you know." She glanced at her watch.
"We have a few minutes yet before the vultures start to circle," Bob said. "By the way, Happy Birthday."
She attempted a smile. "You remembered."
"Sure, kid. I couldn't forget such an important day."
"I wish I could."
"I know." He slipped his arm in hers. "We better get into court." They walked arm in arm past the metal detector just as a teenage boy placed his belt on the conveyor, grabbing for his baggy pants as they fell to his knees, displaying his Taz boxer shorts and his warthog tattoo. They chuckled as they entered the crowded hallway.
"I need to talk to my 'methamphetamine gazelle' over there." Bob nodded his head toward a woman with stringy, uncombed hair framing a face with skin spread thinly over her bones. Her missing teeth added a slight whistle to her high pitched voice. She paced up and down the short hallway, rubbing her hands together and complaining to anyone who would listen.
Sabre continued through the crowd in her well-pressed suit, J. Garcia tie, and Ariat shoes past one client after another, each with his or her own sad tale. Gang members, druggies of all ages, and men and women charged with all forms of child abuse filled the halls, many of them touched by poverty, others from gated communities. From wherever they hailed, the stories remained the same; only the package differed.
She spotted a client about twenty feet ahead in a clown suit. Her stomach gave a queasy twinge when she saw him. He had the perfect profession for his pedophilia and he flaunted it by wearing his clown costume whenever he came to court, red nose and all. Not today, she thought. Sabre squeezed her petite body through the crowd, ducked between two bikers, avoided eye contact with the clown, and stepped into a courtroom where he couldn't follow.
By 11:30 a.m., Sabre had completed her morning calendar. As she stepped out into the hallway, she heard Bob call from across the room. "Hey, Sobs. Come here."
Sobs, his nickname for her, came from Sabre Orin Brown. He had a lot of fun with her initials. When he wasn't calling her Sobs, he called her his little S.O.B. They had started working at juvenile court about the same time and had had their first trial together. Neither of them knew exactly what they were doing, but together they figured it out.
Their first case had involved a five-year-old, who had what appeared to be five cigarette burns evenly placed around one of her ankles. Sabre represented the mother and Bob the father. The parents, adamant they had not hurt their little girl, could not offer good explanations for the little round, infected areas. The attorneys were unable to reconcile the fact that the burns were so evenly placed on the ankle. Neither the attorneys nor the judge bought the testimony from a medical expert who stated a five-year-old child could hold still for five perfectly placed cigarette burns, but no other explanation had been proffered.
After some serious research and investigation and a little luck, Bob found an article about flea bites and how the fleas get under elastic and leave a row of bites which are often in a perfect line. The little girl had been playing in a sandbox and had been wearing anklets with tight elastic at the top. With some help from a couple of medical professionals, he determined fleas had been the most likely cause of the infected area, not cigarette burns. The little girl had scratched them to the point of infection.
They had won their first jurisdictional case in juvenile court, a difficult feat even for a seasoned attorney, as they soon discovered. That began a beautiful friendship and their reign at "Kiddie Court." There had never been anything romantic between them. He remained her best friend and confidante. They enjoyed each other's company and completely trusted one another. Inseparable at court, and on the rare occasion when Sabre socialized, she usually did it with Bob and his wife, Marilee.
Sabre walked toward Bob, standing near the appointment desk. "Hi, honey. What's up?"
"The clerk has a pretty nasty case-an eight-month-old baby with broken ribs, a broken femur, and a subdural hematoma. She's tried to give the case away, but no one will take it. She said if we take it, she'll give us one of those easy domestic violence cases," Bob said.
"But I'm hungry."
"You're always hungry."
"All right, let's get it over with. I have the cards."
Sabre removed three playing cards from her briefcase: a king, a queen, and a joker. "We don't need the joker. Public Defender has the minor."
Sabre put the joker back, shuffled the king and queen, and laid them face down on the table. Bob reached down, drew a card, and turned over the queen. "Sorry, Sobs, it looks like you got the dad. From what I've read, he's the most likely perpetrator."
"I'm sure he's a real peach. What do I care anyway, except it'll be more time consuming."
"Well, you can have the minors on the domestic violence case. You're better with the kids than I am anyway."
Sabre went to find her new client, the child beater. She always struggled with this type of case. She found it difficult to understand how someone could beat up an innocent little baby. Maybe my client's not the bad guy, although the information she'd received from Bob indicated otherwise.
She counseled her client and explained his rights and the court process. She looked at the scared, young man, who appeared so innocent, and thought how different he must have been when he used his baby as a punching bag.
After the hearing, Sabre gathered her files and went into Department Four to wait for the other attorneys on the domestic violence case. It had been an easy morning so far with mostly old review cases. Just that new domestic violence case and she could go eat.
Bob came into the courtroom. He and Sabre seated themselves at the table. Another attorney sauntered in, followed by his client, Peggy Smith, an attractive, young, pregnant woman with a bandage on the left side of her forehead. They took a seat on the right side of the table next to Sabre and Bob.
The door opened and the Public Defender entered with Gaylord Murdock, a tall man with sandy blond hair and cutting blue eyes. Murdock stared at Peggy with an intensity that made Sabre shiver. Peggy's face tightened and she squirmed in her seat, unable to tear herself away from his gaze. After about three seconds, Murdock's face softened and his lip curled up in a smile. No sign of remorse or shame emanated from him as he glided to his seat with his broad shoulders straight and his head held high.
Sabre watched their interaction and wondered what she failed to see.
"Excuse me, ma'am," Murdock said, in a strong southern accent as he squeezed between the railing and Sabre's chair. She studied him for a moment. In spite of his obvious good manners, she perceived a hardness about him.
She thumbed through the file and read he had been born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. She hated when her calendar was so full she didn't have time to read the reports prior to the hearing. This wasn't the first time, nor would it be the last, that she had to read and listen at the same time.
"In the matter of Alexis Murdock and Jamie Smith . . ." The court officer called the last case on the morning calendar.
Sabre glanced at each page in the report to determine the most pertinent information. Her client, a ten-year-old girl named Alexis, lived with her father and Jamie, the two-year-old son of her father's pregnant girlfriend. According to the detention report, a neighbor had heard loud voices, a woman screaming, and what sounded like furniture breaking, so she called the police. When the police arrived they spoke with a very pregnant Peggy Smith, who told them her boyfriend, Gaylord Murdock, had hit her and split her head open.
As Sabre read, she heard the attorneys introduce themselves. When her turn approached, she stood up. "Attorney Sabre Brown appearing on behalf of the minors." She sat back down and continued reading the police report.
Peggy Smith is a white female, 24 years of age, light brown hair, dark brown eyes, about 5' 4" tall, weighing about 135 lbs., and approximately eight-and-one-half-months pregnant. Smith had some redness and swelling on her right eye and an inch-long laceration that was bleeding and appeared to need stitches. Smith stated her boyfriend became angry because dinner wasn't ready fast enough and he hit her in the face with his fist.
The case continued, with each attorney making statements for the record. Sabre had done this so often she had become quite adept at listening and reading at the same time. It appeared to be a typical domestic violence case. She continued reading.
We talked to the ten-year-old girl, Alexis Murdock, who said her father came home from work and he and Peggy started yelling at each other. She said her dad was real angry but he didn't hit Peggy. She fell and hit her head on the coffee table. Gaylord Murdock gave a similar version of events, but because of Smith's pregnancy, her lacerations and her earlier statements of physical violence, we took Murdock in for questioning. Officer Jacobs called an ambulance for Smith. By the time the ambulance arrived, Smith had changed her story and said she had fallen and hit her head on the coffee table. We proceeded to take Murdock downtown for questioning and the minors, Alexis and Jamie, to Jordan Receiving Home.
". . . so even though my client vehemently denies the allegations, he's willing to attend the programs the social worker is suggesting. In the interim, we'd request the court detain the child, Alexis Murdock, with her father, pending the next hearing," Mr. Murdock's attorney finished his request to the court.
Sabre took her cue. She stopped reading and responded with words she had stated so many times they rolled off her tongue void of any conscious thought. "Your Honor, I'd ask, if the court is so inclined, it only be done with my concurrence. I'd like to speak with the children and see what they have to say."
"Very well," Judge Cheney said. "The social worker has discretion to return the children to their parents under the following conditions: the criminal charges are dropped; the parents are living separately; any other criminal check comes back unblemished; and minor's attorney is in agreement with their return." He hit his gavel on the block. "That ends the morning calendar."
Before Sabre could stand up, Mr. Murdock appeared at her side waiting to pull her chair out for her. As she rose, he stepped forward and opened the gate for her and the social worker to pass through. Sabre thanked him, though skeptical of his southern gentleman manners, something she rarely saw in southern California.
Bob and Sabre walked out of the courtroom together into the hallway. "The social worker seems to like both of the parents, especially the father. This case should settle at the next hearing with a voluntary agreement," Bob said.
"Well, I'm anxious to see what the kids have to say. I'm going over there now. We could stop at In-n-Out Burger for a quick bite on the way. Do you have anyone to see at Jordan?" Lunch together was a daily ritual, limited to a few select restaurants due to Bob's unwillingness to experiment with his taste buds.
"That works for me. In fact, I do have a kid I need to see in Teen Housing. I'll be right with you," Bob said, as he walked across the room toward a client who stood talking to one of the bailiffs.
Peggy and her attorney walked outside, followed by Sabre. Just as they stepped out, a woman flung the courthouse door open, nudging Sabre's arm.
"Mother Fucker," the woman screamed as she stomped out waving her arms in the air. "Supervised visitation, my ass. I'll see my kids when I damn well please. Fuck that." Bob followed her out. He and Sabre watched while the bailiff escorted her to the bus stop.
"One of yours?"
Bob nodded. "Charming, isn't she?" He removed a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, took one out, and lit it up. "Let's go eat. I'm buying."
Just then, Gaylord Murdock walked out of the courthouse. He looked toward his girlfriend, and once again Sabre spotted a glare from him. She watched the muscles tense up in Peggy's face and then her shoulders slump, as her body tightened into itself.
"Hi, Ms. Brown." Kathy, the clerk at Jordan Receiving Home, greeted Sabre when she came in the door. "Who are you here for today?"
"Jamie Smith and Alexis Murdock. They still here?"
Kathy nodded and raised an eyebrow. "They sure are. Alexis is something else. Wait in Room #3. I'll bring them right out."
Sabre went into the interview room used for visits between the children and their parents or their attorneys. The modest but comfortable room contained a sofa, a table with a couple of chairs, and some brightly colored toys and books for the children. A sliding glass door led to a small square with a patch of well-groomed, dark green grass, a sandbox, and a shade tree so visitors could take the children outside. Offices and other visiting rooms bordered the square, so people couldn't leave without going back through one of the rooms. Occasionally, a parent tried to escape through the square with their child, but they were seldom successful.
Kathy returned with a two-year-old, dark-haired little boy, and a thin, blonde girl, in a pink, cotton dress. The little boy, quiet and solemn, buried half of his face in the side of the girl's leg. The little girl, on the other hand, grinned from ear to ear.
"Ms. Brown, this is Jamie and Alexis."
"Hi, Jamie. Hi, Alexis," Sabre said.
"This nice lady is going to talk to you and explain some things about what's going on. I'll see you in a bit." Kathy left them alone to have a private conversation with their attorney.
Alexis sat down on the sofa and the little boy immediately climbed up on her lap. She pulled him close to her and comforted him as if she were his mother. As she did, a trace of tranquility crossed his face.
"Your dress is very pretty," Sabre said.
"Thanks. My father bought it for me. He says little girls should look like young ladies, not tomboys, so he makes me wear dresses."
"And what do you think? Do you like to wear dresses?"
"Well, my name is Sabre Brown and I'm your attorney. Do you know what an attorney is?"
"Yup, a lawyer. You go to court and say, 'Objection' and stuff."
"True, and sometimes lawyers go to court for their clients so they don't have to, especially when their clients are children," Sabre said. "Alexis, I'm going to ask you a few questions, but before I do, I want to explain something to you. Do you know what 'confidentiality' means?"
"Well, because I'm your lawyer, anything you say to me will be confidential, which means I can't tell anyone unless you give me permission. The law is designed in such a way so you can feel safe when you talk to me. Then I can represent you and protect you better because I know what's going on. It's kind of like a secret. When someone tells you a secret, you're not supposed to share it with anyone, right?"
"Well, this is even more powerful than a secret. Lawyers can't tell the secrets their clients tell them or they can get in a lot of trouble and maybe not even be able to practice law anymore. Do you understand?"
"Yup. So if I tell you something, you can't tell anyone?"
"That's correct." She waited to see if Alexis wanted to add anything. When she didn't, Sabre asked, "Alexis, do you know why you're here?"
"Yup," she said, and paused for a moment as if to line up all the pieces. "Peggy was doing that stuff she does that makes Father really angry. He talked to her at first. Then they started yelling at each other. Then Peggy fell and hit her head on the coffee table. Then the police came and brought me here."
"What 'stuff' does Peggy do that makes your Father angry?"
"You know, drug stuff. It can hurt the baby inside her. 'A person who is pregnant should not do drugs,'" she obviously mimicked.
"Have you ever seen Peggy do drugs?"
"Nope, but they argue about it all the time."
"Have you ever seen your father hit Peggy?"
"What about you? Has he ever hit you or hurt you in any way?"
"No," Alexis snapped.
"Alexis, I'm sorry if I upset you, but there are questions I have to ask and sometimes they are uncomfortable for both of us. Just remember they're just between you and me. Okay?"
"Okay," she answered, as she looked down at Jamie and tightened her hold on him. "I'm teaching Jamie his ABCs. It's never too young to learn them, you know. Everyone should know them. I love my father. He's a good father. Peggy shouldn't do those things to make him angry. She shouldn't do drugs. She could hurt the baby. You shouldn't hurt babies. When I grow up I'm going to take care of little kids." She continued to hold on to Jamie while she babbled.
"You love your little brother very much, don't you?"
"Yup, he's the best. He's real smart, not like . . . ."
"Not like who, Alexis?"
"Alexis," Sabre spoke softly, "can you tell me what happened before the police arrived the other night?"
"I heard them yelling at each other."
"Where were you?"
"In the bedroom doing homework and watching Jamie. When I heard them yelling, I came out. I don't like it when they yell. It scares me."
"Did you hear what they were yelling about?"
"Yeah, about drugs. My father hates it when Peggy uses drugs."
"Then what happened?"
"My father got real mad, but he didn't hit her," Alexis said. "She was screaming real loud. She tried to hit him with that soup thing, you know, the thing you dip soup with. He tried to take it away from her, and she fell and hit her head on the coffee table. She acted real crazy. I've never seen her act that bad before."
"Alexis, did you tell Marla, the social worker, what you just told me?"
"I don't know."
"Do you mind if I tell her what you just shared with me? Remember, I can't tell anyone what you tell me unless you agree."
"You can tell her."
Sabre observed Alexis' discomfort. She needed Alexis to trust her, so she tried a subject less threatening. "Alexis, I hear you do really well in school. Do you like school?"
"Yeah, I love going to school. At least, I did in Atlanta. I haven't made any friends here yet because we just started."
"What's your favorite class?"
"I like music. I love to sing, and Father says I sound like a canary when I sing."
"Wow, maybe you could sing for me sometime. I can't sing at all. I sound more like a sick cow than a canary."
A little smile spread across Alexis' face. "Maybe, but I don't feel like singing right now."
"That's okay. You don't have to sing now. Some other day." Sabre felt like she'd made progress, but she could see it wouldn't be easy gaining the little girl's confidence.
"What was it like living in Atlanta?"
"Fine," Alexis responded, but her chin dropped into her chest and she pulled Jamie closer to her, as if she needed to protect him.
Sabre sensed something terrible had happened to Alexis, more than just the fighting between her father and Peggy. "Do you have family in Atlanta?"
"My Grandma Ruby used to bring me Christmas and birthday presents, but she doesn't anymore."
"Is she your father's mother?"
"Nope, she is my mother's mother. My father's parents are Grandma and Grandpa Murdock. They're real nice and they live in a really big house."
Sabre remembered reading in the detention report how Alexis' mother had left when Alexis was about five years old and had never returned. "Alexis, do you remember your mother?"
"Yup. She was real pretty, but I was a bad girl."
"Why? What did you do?"
"I don't remember, but if I wasn't bad she wouldn't have left us. So I try real hard to be good. Maybe she'll hear about it and come back to me."
"Did someone tell you your mother left because you were bad?"
"Sometimes Peggy says she'll leave like my mother did if I'm not good. And she'll take Jamie with her. I don't want Jamie to leave." Alexis squeezed Jamie tighter.
Sabre wanted to take her in her arms and just hold her and make her feel loved, but when she reached over and touched her on the shoulder to comfort her, Alexis pulled away. Sabre removed her hand and looked into eyes filled with sadness. This part of her job pained her, seeing the heartache in these innocent little children. It drove her to continue to work sixteen-hour days, seven days a week.
"Sweetheart, I'm sure your mother didn't leave because of you. Adults sometimes do things that affect the people they love, not because they want to hurt them, but because they have their own problems. Lots of reasons come to mind why she may have done what she did. Maybe some day you'll find out the truth. In the meantime, don't blame yourself. Even though I don't know why your mother left, or why she hasn't returned, I'm absolutely certain it had nothing to do with your being bad."
Alexis looked up at Sabre with eyes that said, "I want to believe you." For a moment Sabre almost connected with her. Then her demeanor changed and she slipped into the little, bubbly girl who had first entered the room. She seemed to put on emotional armor and tune out the rest of the world.
"I got to help this morning in the classroom. The teacher's real nice. She let me tutor the little kids, too. She said I was real smart, and so when I finished my work, I got to work with the others. Most of the kids didn't finish, so she was real happy when I did. And I got an 'A' on my spelling paper, too. I love to help the little kids, especially with their spelling." Alexis smiled and continued her chatter.
Sabre picked up the house phone on the wall to let the front desk know she had completed her interview, and the children could return to their rooms. She continued to chat with Alexis, with the little girl doing most of the talking, until the attendant came back to pick them up.
When they rose to leave, Sabre wanted to hug her and hold her close to let her know someone cared for her, but she didn't. She knew not to impose herself on Alexis, even if she appeared desperate for attention. Enough boundaries had been crossed.
Sabre watched as Alexis chatted with the attendant. Alexis walked towards the door. Just before she went out, she turned and looked at Sabre. "That confidential thing you talked about-you can't tell anyone, right?"
"Not even my father?"
"Not even your father."
Alexis turned just as quickly and walked away, picking up her chatter where she had left off.
Sabre exited the building in search of her friend Bob, knowing if he had finished his interview he would be outside having a cigarette. She hated his smoking. Sabre couldn't stand the smell of it, but most of all she felt concern for his health. She nagged him about it every day, trying to shame him into quitting.
She spotted his prematurely gray hair above the fence outside the gated area, far enough away so the children from the facility couldn't see him. "I thought I'd find you here, sucking poison into your lungs. You know, if you weren't such a wuss, you could quit that nasty habit," she teased him.
"Hey, I know I can quit. I've done it a thousand times," Bob retorted. "How did your visit go?"
"I'm not sure. Alexis is a sharp little gal. She's real bubbly and she loves to talk, but she's not letting anyone in right now. It's going to take some time to gain her trust and learn the family secrets. I'm afraid if we don't reach her soon, we never will."
"Well, Sobs, if anyone can do it, you can. You'll win her heart, just as she'll win yours. So what's next?"
"I'm going to speak with the social worker and see if she's come up with anything else. Maybe I'm reading too much into this. It's probably a simple little case we can cover with some classes and a quick reunification." Before Bob could respond, she went on, "It's just . . . I see fear in her eyes. I have no idea where it's coming from. It may have nothing to do with what's going on in her life right now. Perhaps it's just my imagination, but I need to help her if I can."
"Go with your instincts, Sobs. You don't miss many. In fact, my queen, I can't remember your being wrong yet."
"Right," Sabre said with a snicker. "Do you have a trial this afternoon?"
"Yeah, how about you?"
"No, my case settled this morning. I'm meeting with the social worker on the Murdock case in about half an hour. I have just about enough time to drop you back at court before our appointment. We better get rolling."
Sabre walked into the cubbyhole Marla called an office, partitioned off like the other nineteen, eight-by-ten-foot cubicles surrounding her, her desk piled a foot high with papers and files. On top of one stack sat a partially eaten box of white, powdered donuts and a huge cup of soda.
Amateur drawings wallpapered every wall. A bulletin board of children's photos, from newborns to teenagers, some laughing and playing, and others with sad faces, depicted Marla's life. These were her children. Not her birth children, but the product of her work, and she loved them all. Marla yearned for children of her own, but the doctors had told her she'd never conceive because of the cancer she had had at the age of four. Marla was twenty-nine now, single and looking, her dream of marriage and raising a family fading. She'd always planned to adopt, but her belief that a child deserved two parents made her reticent to be a single mother - and Mr. Right was yet to be found.
"Hi Marla, how's life treating you?"
"Probably better than I deserve." She chuckled. "Are you here about Alexis and Jamie?"
"Yeah, I just came from Jordan Receiving Home."
"So you met them, then? Aren't they precious? Did you get any information you can share with me?"
"I hoped you'd be able to fill in some of the blanks for me. I'm not sure what it is, but there's definitely something wrong. Alexis appears to be afraid of something. By the way, does Peggy have any drug history?"
"I don't know. We're still waiting on the records from Atlanta."
"What about Murdock?"
"Nothing on him yet, either. Same story; we're still waiting. You'd think, in this information age, we could obtain things a little quicker. If we don't come up with something before the next hearing, we aren't going to be able to keep those kids in the system. Maybe we shouldn't - maybe they're safe at home - but I sure couldn't stand to see one of them end up in the morgue like . . . " She stopped mid-sentence, pain evident on her face.
"Marla, you have to quit blaming yourself for the death of the Sanders boy. It wasn't your fault. There's nothing you could've done."
"But I made a home visit the day before, and I didn't remove those boys. I keep thinking that little boy would be alive today if I'd made the right call."
"You made the only call you could. You didn't have a legal basis to remove those children at the time. You had no way of knowing the parents had a meth lab in their van and it would blow up and kill him. The police didn't even know. How were you supposed to? Everyone, except you, realizes you're not at fault. The investigation by the Department completely cleared you. You need to stop beating yourself up.
"Anyway, this case is totally different. We have these children now, and we'll keep them safe. When we have all the puzzle pieces, we'll figure out this family secret, if there is one, and we'll make the best decision we can. You know you can't return the children without my concurrence, and I'm not giving it until I know it's safe. So if you have a problem with your department head, or with the parents, just blame it on me."
"I may just do that." Marla smiled. "So do you think you can get through to Alexis?"
"I'm not sure. She did tell me her father didn't hit Peggy that night. She said they argued about Peggy using drugs and Peggy came after him with a soup ladle. When he tried to take it away from her, she fell and hit her head. It'll be interesting to see what we find in the police report from Atlanta. I'm going to put in a call to them and see if they can help."
"Sounds good. I'll follow up with what Alexis said. If Peggy uses drugs, it's interesting Murdock didn't tell us or the police about it. Please keep me informed if you hear from Atlanta, and I'll do the same."
"Will do. Listen, Marla, you take care of yourself. If you ever need someone to talk to, I'm a good listener." Sabre gave her a hug and headed down the hallway between the cubicles, toward the exit, greeting other workers as she passed. She knew almost everyone in the building, most of them diligent workers who really cared about their clients, but few as dedicated as Marla.
Sabre drove back to her office to catch up on some paperwork and the slew of phone calls she knew she'd have to respond to.
When her cell phone rang, Sabre looked at her watch. It read 3:03 p.m. "Hi, Mom. I'm glad you didn't give birth to me in the middle of the night," Sabre said as she answered the phone. Her mother always called exactly on her birth minute.
"Happy twenty-eighth birthday," her mother said. "I hope you plan to do something fun today. Remember, this is your special day."
"Yeah, Mom. I'm going out with my friends this evening," she lied. In reality, she never told anyone her birth date except her best friend, Bob, and she made him promise not to make a big deal of it. Sabre hadn't celebrated her birthday for the last five years. Birthdays had always been such a family affair, but things were different without her brother Ron. It had been bad enough when he had moved to Dallas, but his disappearance was almost unbearable.
Back at the office, Sabre dialed the phone and heard a pleasant voice say, "Atlanta Police Department, how may I direct your call?" She gave her name and briefly explained what she needed. "One moment please, I'll connect you to Detective Carriage. Have a pleasant day, ma'am."
"Thank you," Sabre responded, amused at being called "ma'am." She heard the phone ring and then a deep, southern voice came on the voice mail. "This is Detective Joe Carriage. Please leave a message, and I'll get back to you just as soon as I return."
Ring, ring. Sabre bolted upright in her bed early on Saturday morning, too early for light to be shining through the window. Ring, ring. The bright red numbers on her clock read 5:32 a.m.
"Hello." She cleared her throat.
"Good morning, ma'am. May I please speak to Ms. Brown?"
"This is Sabre," she said, trying to sound awake. "Who is this?"
"Oh, ma'am, I'm so sorry. Did I wake you? I just realized how early it is in California. I'm calling from Atlanta, Georgia, and it's 8:30 here. I was returning my phone calls and this one came up next. I'm so sorry. Go back to sleep, ma'am. I'll call you later. Oh, this is Detective Carriage, Joe Carriage. I'm sorry, ma'am," the smooth, southern voice continued.
"No, no. It's fine. It's time to get up. It's a good thing you called," she fibbed. "I called you about a case I'm working on here in juvenile court. I'm a defense attorney, and I represent the children in a dependency case."
"And how do I fit in?"
"The family is from Atlanta and I need some background checks. I know the Department of Social Services has asked for them, but I wanted to take it a step further. We need the information very soon. I don't want to keep those children out of the home if they're not at risk."
"I'll see what I can do. I'll be delighted to follow up on the background checks to see what the holdup is. I'll need a little information, names, etc."
"The names of the adults are Gaylord Murdock and . . .."
"Did you say Murdock?"
"Yes. Why? Do you know him?"
"Murdock is a well-respected name in these parts. They've been around for years, practically built this city. I apologize, ma'am. I didn't let you finish. Who else is involved?"
Sabre provided him with an overview of the case and gave him the details he needed to run a check on both Peggy Smith and Gaylord Murdock.
"Sounds like a simple domestic violence case. Do you know something you haven't told me?" Detective Carriage inquired.
"Just some things Alexis said made me uneasy. It may be nothing."
"You said you wanted more than a background check. Is there anything in particular you want me to be on the lookout for?"
"The usual stuff - criminal history, drug involvement, family background. If you wouldn't mind, would you see what you can find out about Alexis' mother? She left the picture approximately five years ago, and Alexis hasn't seen her since. Her folks may be still living there. Perhaps they can shed some light on the situation. I sure would appreciate any help I can get."
"My pleasure, ma'am. I owe you one, just for waking you up at 5:30 in the morning. I'll sure see what I can find out. I have to run, but I'll get to this as soon as I can."
Sabre hung up the phone and leaned back on the propped-up pillows. She needed to plan her day so it didn't slip away, but first she reached into her nightstand and pulled out a little red, tattered notebook. She held it as one might a precious piece of artwork. She brushed her hand across the top of it and pulled it close to her heart. She thought about how her eight-year-old brother Ron had saved his nickels intended for the church collection plate. Instead, he had bought her the notebook for her sixth birthday. So, at six years and two days old, Sabre started to create a list of things she planned to accomplish in life.
As she did every morning when she first woke up, she read through her list, checked a few things off, and reviewed what she had accomplished and what she still had yet to do.
The list had grown over the years. The items had become more realistic and defined. Every single entry, except one, developed into some form of manageable dream. Some of the "kid's fantasy" ideas, like become a famous movie star had been adjusted to fit Sabre's life. She didn't actually aspire to be a star, but she did want a part in a movie, so that remained as her focus. Only one entry did she ever actually cross out and that was Marry Victor Spanoli, the little boy who had lived next door. Sabre chuckled to herself every time she read that part of the list. She remembered the day Victor had moved into the neighborhood. Two days after her sixth birthday, they'd met. His name had been her first entry in the notebook. Sabre wondered whatever had happened to Victor - if he still played his sax and what he looked like today.
She continued to read through the list of things she hadn't yet accomplished: play a part in a movie; learn to oil paint; take a dance class; visit every state in the U.S. The list went on. She'd been busy the past few years getting an education and establishing a stable home. Soon she could start doing the fun stuff, not that she hadn't done a lot in college and law school. She managed to travel quite a bit, but it only made the list grow because she discovered new things she wanted to do or see.
Sabre looked at the notebook. She had tried so hard over the years to protect it, but time had taken its toll. Once a deep red, now almost without color, the cover was partially off the wire spiral. Several pages had been taped back in because they'd been torn completely out. Only half of the back cover remained intact.
The notebook served as a checklist of her life - what she had accomplished and what she had yet to do. It acted as a guide for her and helped get her back on track when she strayed. Most of all, the notebook provided her a lifeline to Ron. She thought of him every time she saw it. Sabre wondered if he knew just how much it meant to her and how it helped her achieve her dreams. When she wrote something in the notebook, it represented a commitment to her brother, and with the exception of her goal to marry Victor Spanoli, she was determined to meet her commitments. Tears swelled up in her eyes and she murmured, "I sure do miss you."
Sabre rose from her bed, slipped into an old pair of gray sweats and a t-shirt that read: "I wonder what wine goes best with guilt." She headed out on her Saturday routine of visiting minor clients in their relative's or foster home placements, group homes, or mental hospitals.
By seven in the evening, she had finished her visits. She drove to her office to check her messages and to write a de facto parent status motion that needed to be filed by Monday. Her office, located in an old Victorian style home downtown, had its parking lot in the back alley. Sabre parked as close as she could, approximately twenty feet from the back door. The only illumination came from an adjacent office building and the sixty-watt bulb above her office's back doorstep, making it difficult for Sabre to see. Fog had started to set in, blocking any light from the moon.
She opened the office door. A familiar odor caught her attention - faint, but recognizable. Her brother's favorite cologne, Kantor. It had been years sinceshe had experienced the smell of his cologne, unsure if they even still made it. She'd check with the other attorneys on Monday to see who in the building wore the cologne. She started to dismiss it when she noticed that her brother's photo, on the credenza behind her desk, was facing the wall. She knew she hadn't moved the photo.
Putting it out of her mind, she sat down and began to work. The silence in the office provided the perfect atmosphere to write the motion she needed for Monday. No phones ringing, no interruptions from clients or delivery persons. Sabre found it difficult to focus, though; she still felt a little uneasy about the cologne and the photo.
She tried to bury herself in her research and drafting of the motion. As she delved into the legal issues, she forgot all about her concerns until the phone rang. Sabre jumped.
She took a deep breath and answered the phone, "Law Office." No one responded. "Hello." Still silence. "Hello," she repeated. She hung up the phone and went back to work.
Ring, ring . . . She picked it up again. "Law Office." Still not hearing anyone on the line, she hung up the phone. She began gathering up her cases, waiting for the phone to ring again. This time she didn't answer it. She picked up her files, shut off the lights, and walked to the back door. She stood sideways as she locked the office door, glancing from side to side, and looking over her shoulder. She hurried to her car, each step picking up the pace. She hit the button on her keys to open her trunk and tossed her files into it. As she reached her car door, she heard a rustling across the parking area in the bushes. A shadow moved across the pavement. Her hand shook as she hit the button to unlock her door. She jumped in her car, locked the door, and drove off, skidding as she left the parking lot. Several miles down the freeway, the nervousness in her stomach began to dissipate.
Sabre could see the sun streaming in through the window. It promised to be another beautiful day in San Diego. No time to waste on negative thoughts. She leaned over, opened the drawer in her nightstand, pulled out the little tattered notebook, and commenced reading through her list. She felt good about her life, in spite of the struggles she had encountered along the way. It had been a long, hard road, but she had finally made it. The majority of her dreams had been accomplished. College had been tough, working two jobs and attending school full time, and law school even tougher, especially the last year without Ron, but things seemed easier now.
She picked up a pencil and read from the notebook: Home with an ocean view. She had lived in her first home for a week now, "a spacious two-bedroom condo with an office, three bathrooms, an ocean view, within walking distance of the beach," or so the ad read. The ocean view was a stretch, but she could see some water from one little corner of her living room window. She checked it off.
Sabre got up and opened the shade to let in more sun. She dashed downstairs, plugged in the coffee pot, jogged back upstairs, and took her shower while her decaf coffee brewed. She fluffed her dark hair in front of the mirror. It had finally grown almost to shoulder length.
The smell of the coffee beckoned her to the kitchen. She picked up the cranberry scone she had bought the night before, cut it in half, poured her favorite mug about half full of skim milk, and filled the rest with coffee. She stepped through the sliding glass door to sit on the front porch in the early morning sun. Perusing the newspaper's headlines, she found nothing but sadness and crime. She saw enough of that at work. She laid the paper down and watched the mourning dove in a nearby magnolia tree.
As Sabre sipped her coffee, she reflected on her life. Others may not have found it ideal, but she chose this life. She mulled over what she had to do today: several hearings this morning; the trial on a drug baby case this afternoon; and a visit to Jordan Receiving Home to meet with a four-year-old client who had been found sleeping in the bushes in a cemetery and now suffered from post-traumatic-stress syndrome, as evidenced by her total lack of speech. Then to the office to respond to the phone calls, write a couple of letters, and open those two new cases from yesterday . . . a pretty normal day, probably ending about midnight. Putting in full days didn't matter much since she had no social life. Being a lawyer often proved to be hectic, frustrating, even demanding, but never boring. Now she had her new condo to come home to. What more could she ask for?
Sabre opened her closet door and picked out a very expensive black suit she had purchased the day she received the news she had passed the bar. Up until then, her wardrobe had consisted mostly of jeans and t-shirts. She used her one suit for job interviews. When she received her first paycheck as an attorney, she spent the entire check on power suits and silk blouses, but her black suit, still her favorite, made her look as good as she felt. She added two inches to her height with her black-leather Gucci pumps, which brought her up to five-foot-three-and-a-half-inches.
Sabre picked up her calendar and a huge stack of files, threw them in the trunk of her car, and drove to court. She felt the same kind of exhilaration she remembered from junior high school, excited to get there to see her friends. The juvenile court attorneys were a different breed, not like Domestic Court where she had started her career in law. She had quickly tired of the conflict and backbiting she experienced handling divorce cases and soon found her element in "kiddie court."
Her mood dimmed as the events of Saturday night at her office crept back into her mind, especially the smell of the familiar cologne. She pulled into the parking spot adjacent to her friend Bob.
"Good morning, Sobs," Bob said as he exited his car. He always sounded so pleased to see her. "How's my post-pubescent nugget of love and carnality this morning?"
She smiled. "Hi, honey. You sure know how to change a girl's mood."
He walked over, put his arm around her, and gave her a little hug. "What's the matter?"
"I'm not sure anything is, but it feels like I've entered the twilight zone." She explained what had happened in her office on Saturday night. "I'm sure there's a perfectly good explanation for each thing that happened, but all together they made me uneasy."
"Well, let's look at it. The phone ringing and no one there, that happens all the time. It could've been someone on a cell phone unable to make a connection, or someone who dialed wrong and just hung up. There are a thousand possibilities. The photo being turned could have been the janitorial crew."
"They only come on Wednesdays."
"Okay, but you could've bumped it when you turned around or, you said yourself, you may have looked at it, been distracted by something, and then placed it back down askew, right?"
"Right," she acquiesced.
"And as for the cologne, it probably belonged to someone who had come in with one of the other attorneys in your office. A strong smell can linger awhile."
"Yeah, that bothers me the most. I checked with the other attorneys. No one had been there. Do you think I just imagined the smell?"
"I doubt it, but I'm sure there's a perfectly good explanation. Maybe someone walked past the office wearing the cologne, or maybe someone in the offices upstairs had it on and the fragrance came through the vents. It's an old building. It's not exactly air tight."
"You're right. It just made me really miss my brother. I guess a part of me expected him to walk in the door. Five years and I still haven't accepted he's dead."
"It's harder when you don't get closure." Bob appeared to be empathetic, but Sabre knew he had never lost anyone close to him.
"He must be dead, because I can't believe he wouldn't have contacted me somehow if he were still alive. Maybe he was hit over the head and he has amnesia." She chuckled.
"Stranger things have happened."
"You know, we had a conversation the night before he disappeared. At the time it seemed perfectly normal - normal for Ron, anyway. But afterward it made me wonder if he knew he was in some kind of danger."
"Why? What did he say?"
"Well, he made me promise to visit our mother more. He said, 'She needs you, and she's going to need you even more.' At the time, I just thought she'd been complaining about me not spending enough time with her, but I think he knew he might not be around much longer."
"Did he say anything else that struck you odd?"
"Ron always said odd things, just to drive me crazy. I've played that conversation over in my head a thousand times, and I haven't come up with anything else. He was going fishing the next day. He lived in Dallas at the time, but he loved to go to Seeley Lake near Missoula, Montana. We'd go there every summer when we were kids and stay with our grandparents for a couple of weeks. Anyway, that's where he said he was going, but they found his car abandoned at the airport a few days later, in short-term parking. The police checked with all the airlines, but his name didn't appear on any of the passenger lists."
"So, if he flew out of there, he used an assumed name. Why would he do that? Why would he not contact the people he loved? It doesn't make any sense."
"I agree. We were really close, and it's impossible to believe he wouldn't have done something to contact me."
They reached the courthouse and waited in line to go through the metal detector. "Good morning, Mike," they both said, almost at the same time.
"Well, if it's not the king and queen of juvenile court!" Mike joked.
"Yeah, we're going to Burger King today to pick up our crowns. I hear they have some with our names on them," Bob responded. "I see they fixed the metal detector. It's amazing we don't have more trouble than we do with fathers in the same room with some pervert who molested their kid."
"If anyone ever dared to molest my little girl, he wouldn't live to appear in court," Mike said.
Mike often helped out at the front door until the hearings began in Department Four, his regular station. Sabre admired most of the bailiffs who worked at juvenile court, but Mike was her favorite. He loved to tease, but she knew he meant what he said about the child molesters hurting his seven-year-old daughter, Erin. Mike went through some hard times when his wife filed for divorce, but fortunately for him, she seemed more concerned about flying around the country with her airline pilot than about staying home with their daughter. Consequently, she didn't fight his pursuit of custody, and Erin faired better for it. Everyone knew Mike lived for his little girl. He attended all her gymnastic events, her dance practices and recitals, or whatever she happened to be involved in at the moment.
"You two have a good day. I'm here if the bad guys get out of line. Just yell and I'll come running and perform my Clint Eastwood act. You know how I love to play Dirty Harry."
Sabre picked up her bundle of files from the belt on the metal detector and walked over to the side of the room to lay them on the ledge protruding from the south wall, so she didn't have to carry them from courtroom to courtroom. Some of the attorneys had huge briefcases. If Sabre tried to pack all of her files in one of those, she wouldn't be able to lift it, much less carry it around all day. She hated those goofy little carts you stack things on and pull around. Besides, they'd slow her down. Her stack of files approached nearly a foot in height. She had eight hearings scheduled. With the exception of two fairly new cases, each file measured between one and three inches thick, all labeled and color coded.
Bob, on the other hand, had an equal number of hearings, but all of his files together were about as thick as one of Sabre's. She eyed his files. "How do you do that?"
"All you have in your files is the report for today's hearing, and it's not even fastened in. It's just thrown in there. I could never function like that. Besides, I always need to look back in the file to find some bit of information in the middle of a hearing."
"It's all up here." He pointed to his head with his index finger. "Anyway, you're on most of my cases, so if I need something, I can always have you look it up."
"I don't know how you function when I'm not around," she teased back. She admired his intelligence and his memory. He seldom wrote anything down. Sabre wished she could do that, but she didn't trust herself enough to rely on her memory, so she made sure everything stayed at her fingertips.
Sabre picked up three of her files and walked with Bob down the long corridor to Department Five, past the counter in the middle of the room with the big "Information" sign hanging overhead. Bob and Sabre thought the space could be put to better use as a coffee stand. Unfortunately, the court administrators didn't agree.
A line formed at the information counter, and the hallways filled with people waiting to see what would happen next in their dysfunctional lives. On a bench near the wall, a mother sat next to a ten-year-old boy facing burglary charges. Most of the delinquent minors were detained in Juvenile Hall, located behind the courthouse. They would be brought through a tunnel from The Hall directly into the courtroom when the judge called their case. The majority of the clients were there for dependency hearings, which consisted of child abuse or neglect, and stretched across all races and professions. Abuse didn't seem to have any real boundaries. It found its way into all walks of life.
"Hey Sabre, Bob. Wait up." Thomas Gilley, the public defender on the Murdock case, called from within the crowd about ten feet behind them.
"Hi, Tom, how goes the war?" Sabre asked, as he caught up to them.
"I need to talk to you about the Murdock case. Do you have a minute?"
"You should hear this too, Bob. Don't you represent Jamie's father?"
"Yeah, for what it's worth. The guy's in some institution. I've tried to talk to him, but he's a few French fries short of a Happy Meal," Bob said. "Why, what's up?"
"I had a long talk with Gaylord, my client. He seems like a pretty nice guy. I don't have the police report back yet, but it appears his girlfriend, Peggy, has drug history. He's very worried about his baby she's carrying. His version of the incident last week differed from hers. When he came home, he could tell she'd been using and a fight ensued, an argument actually. When he confronted her, she flipped out. She started screaming at the top of her lungs and swinging at him. She picked up a soup ladle from the kitchen and started hitting him with it. When he tried to calm her down and restrain her, she pulled away and fell and hit her head on the coffee table."
"His story fits with what Alexis told the police," Sabre said, "but why didn't he just tell the police Peggy was using? Why did he let them arrest him?"
"Because he didn't want Peggy taken into custody. She's so close to having the baby, he feared she might give birth in county jail. He didn't want his child born in jail. Besides, the cops weren't exactly open to any scenario except domestic violence. They didn't give any credence to what Alexis told them. You know as well as I do men are always the ones arrested when there is a hint of domestic violence."
"Here, look at this." Tom handed her an album covered with bright, Barbie-pink fabric. The cover contained the words "Alexis Murdock" in big block letters. Underneath her name in slightly smaller letters, it said "My Pride and Joy."
"I thought you might find it interesting. My client was reluctant to give it up, even for a second, until I impressed upon him the importance of your viewing it. Why don't you hold onto it this morning so you can look it over. I'll get it back from you before we break for lunch. Just be very careful with it; I had to promise him my firstborn if I didn't return it in perfect condition."
"I'll be careful. I'm going to be in pokey Judge Kaylor's courtroom. As slow as she is, I'll have plenty of time to review it between hearings." She took the album and walked to Department One.
Sabre found a seat in the back corner of the courtroom where she wouldn't be interrupted while she waited for her case to be called. She looked at the bright pink cover, untied the ribbon, and opened it. On the first page she saw a sonogram and the words, "Alexis' first photo." It had her footprints, her first artwork, and a photo of her every year on her birthday. It contained awards ranging from "The Sandbox Award" through "Best Citizen." The album held spelling-bee conquests, ribbons from sporting events, and poems Alexis had written. It captured Alexis' life from birth to present.
As Sabre studied the album, Bob walked in and took a seat next to her. She handed it to him. "Have a look at this. A lot of effort and love went into this album. Murdock obviously cares a great deal about his little girl, his 'pride and joy.'"
"Hmm . . . . He seems genuinely concerned about his unborn child as well. If what he said about the fight is true, he has good reason for concern. Unfortunately, in this state, there isn't anything a father can really do until his baby is born. He certainly has no means to keep the mother from using if she decides to. He can't lock her up or place any kind of physical restraints on her to protect his child."
"I guess his frustration is understandable . . . if it's true."
The sun had set and twilight faded enough to make the lights inside Sabre's office visible. After her experience on Saturday night, she felt relieved to have company. She entered through the back door, dropped her files on her desk, and walked to the front of the building to say hi to Elaine, the receptionist.
Sabre's office, furthest from the front entrance and the least desirable of the three, seemed perfect to her. Jack Snecker occupied the front office. He had first pick since he discovered the building, leased it for himself, and then sublet the office space to other attorneys. The building had once been a beautiful, old Victorian home. Fortunately, someone had the foresight to convert it to office space rather than tear it down. Jack's office, the largest, had once been the living room. It had a beautiful bay window across the front providing him a view of the street from his huge, antique mahogany desk and chairs. In front of the fireplace, a little settee and a couple of chairs created a cozy sitting area for guests.
"Hi Elaine," Sabre greeted the receptionist. "How has your day been going?"
"Not bad, actually," she responded with her dry sense of humor. "The copy machine broke down again, I spilled coffee on my desk and made a big mess, I accidentally hung up on Jack's wife when she called, but the good news is we've only had eight calls today from your favorite Looney tune, Crazy Carla. I don't know how you can deal with that woman. She ranted and raved about some nonsense. I couldn't make any sense of it."
"She has problems we can't even imagine, Elaine." Sabre sighed. "I'll call her in a minute and calm her down. Did you hear anything from the Atlanta Police Department?"
"Oh yeah, here's the fax and your mail." Elaine handed her the police report on Peggy Smith and the stack of mail she had opened for her. "One of the pages is not legible, though. I called and left a message, but it's late in Atlanta so you'll probably have to wait until tomorrow. I didn't speak to Detective Carriage. I left a message with some night clerk."
"Thanks, Elaine." Sabre took the report, along with the twenty-two pink slips containing phone messages, and went to her office. She shuffled through the pink slips as she walked down the hallway, pulling out the ones from Carla. When she returned to her desk, she called Carla. This task always took some time, but Sabre wanted it out of the way. It was a daily routine, not one she particularly enjoyed, but it had to be done even if every call was the same. Sabre would call; Carla would scream for a little while making no sense. After she rambled for five minutes or so, Carla would take a breath and Sabre would start talking to her about butterflies and green pastures. It always soothed her. Sabre couldn't remember when she had discovered how to do it, and although uncertain if it was the words or the way she had learned to deliver them, it calmed Carla down.
Today's call was no different. Sabre called her, and while Carla yelled, Sabre turned the volume down on her headset and started thumbing through her mail. Sabre hated that some tree had to die for all the junk mail. She separated the mail into stacks of bills, checks, correspondence needing to be filed, personal items, and the junk. Even though Elaine opened all the mail, Sabre still wanted to view everything coming in so she could decide what to keep and what to throw away.
She tossed the junk mail into the recycle trash bin, put the bills in a basket on her credenza, clipped together the checks and correspondence and placed them in a box for Elaine, and set her personal items in another basket on the corner of her desk to take home and look through later.
She heard Carla take a breath. Sabre turned up her volume and started to speak. She had to be quick or she would miss her opening. "Butterflies, green pastures, and butterflies," she began. "Carla, imagine yourself walking through the field and a beautiful purple and blue butterfly lights on your arm. You look around and you see little dots of color-pink, blue, red, and yellow-the tall, green grass moving ever so slightly in the light breeze, and a rainbow of multi-colored butterflies dancing across the pale blue sky. There's no one else in your world, just you and your butterflies wandering through your green pasture . . . ." Sabre went on until she heard Carla breathing comfortably and then she said, as she always did, "Don't worry, Carla. I'll take care of everything."
She hung up the phone and turned to the police report, anxious to see what it said. She read through the report twice, first to see if it contained anything significantly affecting the case, the second time, more slowly, looking for details she might have missed the first time. After the second reading, she called Marla.
"Marla, it's Sabre, your favorite attorney."
"True, but that's not saying a whole lot," she responded. "Whatcha got?"
"Did you get the report from Atlanta on the Murdock case?"
"It's somewhere on my desk here, but I haven't had a chance to read it yet. Anything exciting in it?"
"Well, Peggy does have a drug history. It looks like she's had a problem for some time. She's been arrested a couple of times for possession, once for pot and most recently for meth. . . . .a little over a year ago, about the same time she hooked up with Murdock. Do you happen to know how they met?"
"No, but I'll see what I can find out."
"By the way, I have an illegible page - page eight. It looks like it might be Peggy's family history sheet. Will you look at yours and see if you can read it?"
"Sure. I know it's here somewhere." Marla said. "Is there any bad news in there on Murdock?"
"No. He has no convictions, not even a traffic violation. He comes from a well-respected family in the area. The Murdocks own a good portion of the city and have been in local politics for generations. Gaylord Murdock has lived there most of his life. He left twice, once to go to college - to Harvard, no less - but returned right after graduation. It appears he may have left about five or six years ago and returned after about a year. I don't know for certain exactly when he left the second time."
"Any idea where he went?"
"No, not yet. I'll see what I can find, though, and maybe you could do the same. It's probably nothing, but he's so squeaky clean in Atlanta, I wonder if his political connections have something to do with it, or if he really is the 'good guy' he portrays. I've become so skeptical; I don't believe anything I read anymore and only half of what I see."
"I know the feeling, but you have good instincts, Sabre. I know you'll dig until you find what you're looking for. Just keep me informed if you can." Sabre could hear Marla shuffling through the papers on her desk. "Oh, here's the report. Let's see . . . page eight. No, sorry; I can't read mine either."
"By the way, how are Alexis and Jamie doing? Have you seen them recently?"
"Yeah, I went by this morning. They seem okay, but Alexis won't let Jamie out of her sight. She nearly panics when they're separated. She can't focus until she can see he's okay. I've seen siblings attached before, but this goes beyond that. You can see the fear in Alexis' eyes when she doesn't have a visual on him."
"You have to wonder what she's seen or heard that has made her so 'parentified.'" Sabre paused. "I think I'll go by and see her when I leave here. Maybe I'll take them for a bite to eat. Do you think I can get a car seat at Jordan? I don't expect I'll be able to take Alexis without Jamie."
"That's a given. I'll call over there and make sure they have one for you."
Sabre hung up the phone and read through the police report again. She jotted down a few questions she needed answers to.
Where did Gaylord Murdock go when he left Atlanta?
Does he have a record anywhere else?
How did he meet Peggy Smith?
Why does Alexis seem so protective of Jamie?
How did Peggy get hurt the night of the arrest?
Is she using drugs now while she's pregnant?
Finally, the ultimate question: Is it safe to send the children home with Murdock?
She put down her note pad and dialed the Atlanta Police Department, "Detective Carriage, please."
"I'm sorry ma'am, but he's gone for the day. May I take your name and number and have him return the call tomorrow?" the person at the other end of the line responded in her sweet, southern accent.
Sabre gave the woman the information she requested along with her home and cell phone numbers. "If he calls in, please ask him to contact me. Oh, and please tell him not to worry about waking me up. I don't sleep much anyway."
Sabre took out her calendar and gathered together the files she needed for court the next day. As she started to go through the first case, Elaine walked into the office with her purse and jacket in her hand. "I'm calling it a day, Sabre. Jack and David have already gone. As usual, you are the last to leave."
"Goodnight, Elaine. See you tomorrow." Sabre heard the back door close and lock as Elaine left for the day. She buried herself back in the case.
She wrote a few notes on a form she'd designed for her hearings. She had a different color for each type of hearing so she could find things at a glance. It became especially helpful in the middle of a hearing. Everyone at court teased Sabre about her anal organizational skills, but whenever someone needed information on a case, they checked with her first.
She clipped the pink form on the right side of the Sanders file, closed it up, and started a separate stack of "ready files." She picked up the next case; pulled a green form for the disposition hearing and filled in the date, case name, and department number; and proceeded to read through the file to see what she needed to cover in court. She started to write something in the "requests" section of her form when . . . THUD. Something hit the wall. She muffled a scream. She stood and pulled the curtain back a bit. Total blackness. She grabbed her cell phone and dialed 9-1-1, ready to push "Send" if needed. Her heart pounded as she tiptoed to the back door. She lifted one slat in the blind very carefully and peeked out into the parking area. The dim porch light provided little help. Sabre couldn't see anything and detected no movement. She stood still, watching for a few minutes. She took a deep breath, tried to dismiss it, and went back to her desk to finish preparing her cases for court.
Sabre reached for a pencil, but her trembling hand dropped it. She let it lay there and gathered up her files to leave. She peeked out the window again before she slowly opened the back door and looked around. When she decided everything was okay, Sabre stepped out, locked the back door behind her, and jumped in her car to leave. Once on the road, she began to breathe easier thinking how silly she had acted.
Sabre called Jordan Receiving Home to remind them she was taking Alexis and Jamie on a little excursion. Though her office was located only a few blocks away, by the time she parked and entered the building, the children were ready to go.
"Hi, Alexis, remember me?" she asked the little girl standing there in a pretty yellow dress.
"Yeah, you're the lawyer and your name is Sabre. Are we really going to McDonald's?"
"Yes, we are. Do you like McDonald's?"
"I love their French fries. Can we get a kid's meal? Jamie likes to go there, too. He can have my toy if he wants." She turned to Jamie, "Come on, Jamie. Let's go."
"Okay, Alexis, we're ready. You bring Jamie and I'll get the car seat for him." Sabre saw Alexis gently take the hand of her little "brother." Sabre buckled Jamie in the back seat and Alexis watched as if to make sure it was done correctly. She sat down in the front seat, listening and responding whenever Jamie spoke.
"I'll show you where my office is," Sabre said. "We drive past it on the way." They drove three blocks, made a right turn, and half way up the block Sabre said, "There it is, on your right, the one with the bright lights in the front."
"You have a pretty office," Alexis said.
They continued their conversation at McDonald's, Sabre being careful not to interrogate her. "Tell me about school in Atlanta. What did you like best about it?"
"My friend, Mattie," Alexis said. "She's my best friend in the whole world. We played with our Barbie dolls. She has more than I do, and she has lots of doll clothes, too. But mostly, we played school and I was the teacher. We didn't play with the other kids because they would tease Mattie and call her names because she couldn't hear and she talked kinda funny. I wonder who she plays with now. I sure miss her." Alexis always spoke fast, like she needed to make sure she could get it all in.
"Maybe you could write her a letter. Do you know her address?"
"Yeah, I'll write her a letter. She'd like that."
Sabre picked up her briefcase and took some paper, an envelope, and a stamp and handed them to Alexis. "Here's everything you need." Sabre pointed to the upper left corner and said, "You put your name here above mine and Mattie will know who the letter came from. If she writes you back, I'll bring the letter to you. Here's where Mattie's name and address go." Sabre wrote Mattie's first name on the envelope for her so she would know where to write it. "What's her last name?"
"Sturkey," Alexis said with a smile. "It's turkey with an 'S' in front. It's a funny name, but she can't help it. The other kids would gobble around her. She couldn't hear them, but she could see and she knew they were making fun of her. When I grow up, I want to take care of kids who can't hear, like Mattie. Maybe I can teach them things. I can sign, you know. Mattie taught me." Alexis spelled out her name in sign language. "A-l-e-x-i-s. That's my name. I can say other things too, like 'Good morning,' 'I love you,' and lots of other stuff. Mattie taught me something new every day."
"How long have you known Mattie?"
"Since we came back to Atlanta from . . .." Alexis caught herself and didn't finish her sentence. "She was in my class. I was new and she was real nice to me. We sat next to each other."
"It sounds like Mattie is a great friend. No wonder you miss her."
"Yeah, I miss her so much. She shared my bed, you know . . ." Alexis stopped talking for a second, looking at Sabre with her eyes wide open like she surprised herself. She picked up where she left off. ". . . whenever she would stay the night. She would stay sometimes. We'd have slumber parties, just the two of us."
"Did you ever stay at her house?"
"Nope. She only stayed at mine. Father doesn't like me to stay overnight anywhere. He doesn't like me staying at Jordan. He says I should be going home soon. Will I?" Her voice held little emotion.
"I'm not certain yet. We'll go back to court in a few days, and the judge will decide whether you can go home or if you need to stay out a little longer."
"But I'll go home sometime?" Alexis' expression did not change.
"Do you want to go back home to your father?"
"Sure. Who wouldn't want to go home to their father?" Obviously a canned response.
On the ride back to Jordan Receiving Home, Alexis chattered about things she had seen or heard while in the Home. She talked about new kids who had come in and others who had been there awhile. She seemed to know just about everything going on there.
By the time they arrived Jamie had fallen asleep, so Sabre took him out of the car seat and carried him in. She handed Jamie to one of the workers and turned to Alexis. "You have your paper and envelope to write to Mattie. If you can have the letter done, I'll swing by here tomorrow, pick it up, and get it in the mail for you. It should arrive in a couple of days. I'm sure she'll enjoy hearing from you."
"I'll have it ready. She'll like getting a letter." Sabre detected sadness in her voice.
"Good night, Alexis. I enjoyed our time together."
Alexis took a step toward Sabre, and with her arms stretched out, reached up to hug her. Sabre reciprocated and Alexis held on for a couple seconds, then let go, said, "Bye," and ran back to her room with a staff member.
"She must like you a lot," said the attendant.
"Because, as long as she's been here, she has not allowed one staff member to hug her. She's a very lonely little girl."