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Plea of insanity, p.16
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       Plea of Insanity, p.16

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  ‘He’s been looking,’ piped in her aunt while cutting cucumbers for a salad big enough to feed the entire floor. ‘I told everyone at the pool my Julia’s gonna be famous.’

  ‘I shouldn’t even have said anything,’ Julia replied with a smile, shaking her head and reaching for a slice of cucumber. While she’d mentioned to Nora the other night over pork loin sandwiches and ravioli that she’d gotten assigned to a really big case, she hadn’t mentioned exactly what that case was. And she hadn’t mentioned it for a reason. She tried to keep the tone light. ‘But it’s pretty exciting. It’s my first murder, Uncle Jimmy. A prosecutor in Major Crimes asked me to try it with him. Can you believe that? So I had to go out to the scene, and I’ve been handling all the pre-files of the witnesses, getting the case ready for the Grand Jury.’

  ‘What’d this guy do? What kind of murder are we talking?’ asked Jimmy.

  Julia took a long sip of wine. ‘It may even be a death-penalty case.’

  ‘Oh my,’ said Nora with a frown.

  ‘But what’d he do?’ Jimmy asked again.

  She hesitated a second and took another sip. ‘It’s the doctor case, Uncle Jimmy. You know, the man who killed his family.’

  Aunt Nora stopped cutting.

  ‘Are you gonna be on TV?’ Jimmy asked, looking carefully over at Nora.

  ‘Maybe, but I’m not the lead attorney. I’m what they call second seat.’

  ‘Second string,’ Uncle Jimmy said absently, nodding at the thirteen-inch TV that was mounted under a cabinet in the kitchen. Jimmy Rose had started talking about Sunday’s upcoming Dolphins game.

  ‘Is that the man who was just in the paper?’ Aunt Nora asked quietly. ‘The one with the wife from New Jersey?’

  Besides the excessive local TV coverage of the arrest, both the Herald and Sun Sentinel had run pictures of the funerals in their local sections this past week. ‘Yes,’ said Julia quietly. ‘That’s the one.’ She looked down into her wine and swirled it around, avoiding Nora’s stare.

  Before she found out they were going to be held in Philadelphia, Julia had wanted to go to the funerals. She’d wanted to say a proper goodbye to the family whose deaths she was now charged with avenging. It was not normal practice for a prosecutor to get personally involved with a case, but, for her, Jennifer, Danny, Emma and Sophie were no longer just names on the back of an A-form. They couldn’t be. She felt an intimate, growing connection to each one of them, a connection that had frightened her as she walked through the halls of a slaughterhouse with John Latarrino, still decorated with last week’s artwork and tomorrow’s to-do lists, closing her chest and clutching at her throat – overwhelming emotions that she’d struggled to keep in close check ever since she was thirteen years old. It had triggered horrible, vivid memories that had then become bloody, familiar nightmares – nightmares that seemed to grow worse each night, worse than they’d been in years. When the terrors woke her before dawn, her body drenched in an icy sweat – that was when she would lay in the dark with her eyes wide open, seriously considering once again just backing off the case, of distancing herself far away from anything and anyone that could take her back to the night that she’d struggled for years, like Nora, to completely forget. Running away until a dumb ache was all that remained of her pain once again. But the closer it seemed she got – the more frightened she became – the more she was inexplicably drawn in. And as daylight broke through her blinds each morning, thoughts of backing away and trying to simply forget it all again faded along with the night sky.

  ‘Mary, Mother of God,’ said Nora, putting down the knife altogether and walking over to the sink. She put her hands across it and took a deep breath.

  Julia nibbled on a lip and turned back to her uncle. ‘Well, I’ll be trying it with the Major Crimes prosecutor, Uncle Jimmy. His name’s Rick Bellido. Maybe you could meet him sometime. I could have him over for Aunt Nora’s sauce.’

  ‘I don’t like you around these people, Julia. These—’ Her aunt’s bitter voice trailed off. ‘You shouldn’t be around criminals. It’s not good for you.’

  ‘Criminals are not good for anyone, Aunt Nora. I’m not becoming one. I’m trying one.’

  ‘Sounds like something serious,’ said Uncle Jimmy, eyes still glued to the TV. After twenty-nine years of marriage, he knew enough to stay out of Nora’s way. She’d get the job done herself. ‘Is this a boyfriend?’

  ‘I don’t know, Uncle Jimmy. Maybe. I hope so. I’m working on it.’

  ‘A boyfriend?’ Nora asked, raising an eyebrow and her voice. Jimmy walked back into the living room.

  ‘I said maybe.’ Julia held her hands up defensively. ‘We’ve gone out. That’s all.’ Rick had actually made good on his musings about missing her – and in a big way. While she wasn’t yet clearing her calendar on Saturdays, she was officially booked for dinner tomorrow night at Prime 112, a hot spot on Miami Beach.

  ‘I want to meet him,’ Nora said quietly.

  ‘We’ll get to that,’ she replied, finishing her wine with a gulp. ‘Now let’s eat, okay? This stuff smells amazing.’ She picked up the salad bowl to move into the dining room and head off the rest of the conversation.

  Aunt Nora grabbed her arm and held it fast. For such a little woman, she had quite the powerful grip. ‘Listen to me, little one. Jimmy and I never wanted you doing these cases. Never. I’ll admit that. I don’t know why you can’t be a lawyer in an office, with some nice people. Maybe make some money, find a good man. I worry about you. My God, do I worry. Every day. But you’re a big girl and I suppose you can pick what you want to do for a living.’ Her voice lowered to just above a whisper. ‘But I don’t want you on this case. I’ve read about it. It’s too close, Julia. Too close. Please, I’m begging you to stay away. It can only bring …’ she stumbled to find the right word. The word that could possibly describe a lifetime of tears and loneliness, nightmares and stolen memories. ‘It can only bring despair.’

  Julia bit her lip again and blinked back hot tears. She nodded and quickly turned her face away so that her aunt would not see her. Would not read her. Then she took the salad and walked into the dining room.

  Aunt Nora had no idea how right she was.

  28

  When the red digits on the bedroom clock changed from 3:59 to 4:00, Julia finally gave up the fight and climbed out of bed. Lying there with her eyes closed was useless; sleep would not come again tonight. She padded into the dark living room, twisting her long hair up into a bun as she looked out the window. Her skin was clammy from the night sweats, and she wrapped her robe tightly around herself. Downstairs, her building’s sprinklers had just turned on, lightly misting the lawn and the maze of deserted walkways that weaved in and around the sprawling apartment complex. The sky was black; the streets empty. She put a kettle of water on for tea in the kitchen and flopped down on the couch to wait for it to whistle. Everything in the apartment was dark and still. Back in bed, Moose was sound asleep, lost somewhere under the warm covers.

  Julia hated waiting for morning to come, waiting for the world to finally wake up with her. It was the loneliest time of night. The first couple of years after she’d gone to live with her aunt and uncle were the worst. If she was lucky, she’d get three or four hours of sleep a night. Most early hours, though, were spent staring out her bedroom window at the empty street outside, like a bird in a cage, watching neighbors either stumble home drunk or leave for work that started long before the sun came up. Watching, night after night, as winter turned to spring, spring to summer, summer to fall, fall back in to winter – as the world kept on turning and life speedily marched forward without once ever missing a beat. And every night she would wish she was any one of those neighbors, with a different life, full of different worries. Some nights, when the loneliness and pain proved too overwhelming, she’d sneak out and defiantly wander the unfamiliar streets of Staten Island or hop the ferry into Manhattan, hoping some would-be robber or rapist or killer would find her and do he
r the favor of ending what she herself could not. But nothing bad ever happened.

  She stared at the black television screen, absently rubbing her socks to keep her feet warm. Her nightmares lingered with her now in the darkness, raising goosebumps on her cold skin. She squeezed her eyes shut, struggling to hold back the tears and the memories that continued to force their way out anyway, like a blistered, rupturing infection.

  ‘Julia? Julia? Sweetie? You have to get up.’

  She heard the words, but they were so far away. Too far away to be real. Julia buried her head in the pillow and reached out her hand to touch the person who had called her name, but she couldn’t quite reach. The distance had grown between them by what felt like miles. She squinted, trying to see the face that was only a blur. It was when she felt the cold hands on her shoulders, gently shaking them, that she realized the voice was no dream.

  ‘You have to get up now, Julia.’

  She strug gled to open her eyes, which felt like they had lead plates on them. It seemed like she’d just fallen asleep, maybe only a few minutes ago. The room was as cold as an icebox and she remembered the news said it might snow. Outside the window, a bright moon lit the stripped, bare branches of an elm, which was still sprinkled with a thin, crusty layer of last week’s snowfall. What time was it? Tomorrow was Sunday, right? She didn’t have to be home till ten. She blinked again and sat up, rubbing her eyes. She looked over at her best friend, Carly, who was already awake and sitting up in the other twin bed across the room, chewing on a strand of her brown hair. Carly stared at her, then looked away. She looked strange. Scared, maybe.

  Mrs Hogan, Carly’s mom, was the one shaking her shoulders. Standing over Julia in her nightgown and robe, she wore the same weird look on her face as her daughter. She clutched her pink velour robe by the bosom.

  ‘What’s the matter?’Julia asked. ‘Is everything okay?’

  Mrs Hogan hesitated for a moment and looked around the room while searching for the right words. ‘There are detectives here, honey. Downstairs. Two of them. They want to speak with you.’ She spoke quietly, her voice just above a hushed whisper, as though she feared waking up the rest of the house.

  ‘Detectives?’ Julia asked, reaching for the jeans and sweatshirt that Mrs Hogan held out in front of her. She shook her head, letting the word roll around her brain like a pinball Waiting for it to hit a memory or something and light it up. Her heart started to race and a lump formed in her throat. She automatically felt guilty, even though she knew she hadn’t done anything. She turned to her best friend again. Cary still had that awful look on her face, so Julia was the one who looked away this time. Her eyes trolled the bedroom while she pulled on her jeans. Cary had the coolest room. It was painted a freaky purple that was almost blue. Her mom had let her pick out the color and paint it herself. U 2 posters hung on every wall and neon yellow and pink butterfly mobiles dangled from the ceiling. And her mom let her have a phone in her room, too. Julia had sometimes been just a little envious of Carly – of her cool room and her cool clothes and her cool mom – but never more so than at this very moment. Right now she just wanted to be Carly – the one who wasn’t in trouble – and she really wanted everyone to stop looking at her in that strange, scared, pathetic way.

  She pulled her sweatshirt on over her pajama top and slid her feet into her sneakers. ‘What do they want?’ she finally asked, tying her sneakers. I didn’t do anything, Mrs H. I swear.’

  Mrs Hogan suddenly began to cry. ‘It’s not you, Julia. It’s nothing you’ve—’ She stopped herself and reached over and hug ged Julia tight. Then she wiped her cheeks with her hands and folded up the sleeping bag on the bed, tying it closed. She took a deep breath and handed the bag to her. ‘Something has happened, honey. You have to go now. You have to go home.’

  Julia opened her eyes with a sudden start and looked helplessly around the dark, still living room, her heart beating fast.

  In the kitchen, the kettle had begun to shriek.

  29

  Marisol Alfonso – the secretary with the unholy reputation – sat at her cubby in the Major Crimes secretarial pool, chatting away on the telephone, twisting the pigtail cord around white and pink striped fingernails that were so long they curved inward, like a hawk’s talons. Rick was right – it wasn’t too hard to pick his secretary out of a crowd. Especially this crowd. She was the only one in the lair dressed head-to-toe in varying shades of pink. Glossy fuchsia lips framed an oversized toothy grin; a rose-covered headband held back a jet-black wild mane of thick, coarse curls. She wore sparkling carnation-pink corduroys that someone must have poured her into, resulting in a love handle around her middle the size of a small life preserver. Her ultra-tight bubblegum-pink T-shirt, from which herconsiderable breasts were attempting to escape, was embroidered in glittering rhinestones.

  Even though John Latarrino and Steve Brill’s pre-files had been set for ten and it was already ten fifteen, Julia carefully made her way around the maze of cubicles and through the gaggle of suspicious secretaries over to Marisol’s colorful little corner of the world with a smile glued to her face. Her impatiently tapping toes hidden from view, she waited for Marisol to finally notice her and get off the phone, acutely and awkwardly aware while she waited that, in a room full of women, the only sound she was hearing besides a phone ringing and the hum of an incoming fax, was the nasally, abrasive laughter of Rick’s oblivious secretary.

  It didn’t take a soul-searching session with Dr Phil to figure out why Marisol Alfonso had a problem getting along with others. A thirty-second phone call had been enough for Julia. In their one and only conversation last week, Marisol had managed to make it perfectly clear – through a conveniently thick, and definitely annoyed-to-have-even-been-asked Cuban accent – that her days were far too busy to be doing work for some attorney who, A) wasn’t in her division, B) wasn’t even Major Crimes and who, C) already had her own damn secretary. And, true to her short, mispronounced words, she hadn’t. Hadn’t sent subpoenas, hadn’t set pre-files, hadn’t lifted one painted claw to do much of anything. And with thirteen-plus years on the government payroll, it was pretty obvious in those thirty seconds to an equally annoyed-to-have-been-practically-hung-up-on Julia that nobody was going to make her. Present company especially included.

  Under normal circumstances, Julia Valenciano would never let so much as an ant walk all over her, but these were no ordinary times. Superman could fly naked over Madison Square Garden before she’d run to Rick to complain that his secretary was an obnoxious, lazy lump. Three years in the office was long enough to appreciate the politics of how things really worked around these-here parts: the pay might be dismal and the résumé credentials short, but secretaries wielded the power that counted in the office. They could easily make you, or worse – break you – in front of judges and colleagues and Division Chiefs. And lovers. That was something she definitely did not need.

  ‘What can I do for choo, honey?’ Marisol finally asked with a sigh, covering the receiver in her clawed hand. The toothy smile was gone.

  ‘Good morning,’ Julia began brightly. ‘I’m so sorry to interrupt. Marisol, right? We spoke on the phone. I’m Julia Valenciano with Judge Farley’s division. I’m here for the pre-files with Rick Bellido. Is he in?’

  Little yellow Post-it notes cluttered the fabric walls of Marisol’s cubby like cheap wallpaper, as did thumb-tacked pictures of bare-chested, oily men. Ricky Martin sat poolside next to Antonio Banderas and a few other cut-outs from People en Español that Julia didn’t recognize, mixed in with a few familiar courthouse faces that she did, but wished she hadn’t – including an undercover City of Miami narcotics officer she’d once respected. And once dated. She swallowed her grimace.

  It took a moment for the light to switch. ‘Oh yeah, yeah,’ Marisol said suspiciously. ‘You here on the new case, right? Go ’head down. The detectives are ’ready here for a long while now.’

  ‘I know, I’m running so late … thanks,’ Jul
ia replied, walking quickly down the hall. Then she turned and, still smiling, called out, ‘I love your T-shirt. It’s so funky. And that color is great on you.’

  Marisol looked down at her self as though even she couldn’t believe what Julia had just said. ‘Thanks,’ she replied, a smile once again taking root as her face defrosted. ‘Did it work on those subpoenas choo needed?’ Before Julia could answer, she sighed and waved her free hand excitedly across her cluttered desk, speckled with orange Dorito crumbs. ‘I wish I could have helped choo, honey, but they have me so busy here. It’s crazy, you don’t know. I mean, look at this!’

  The statement simply invited a snappy retort, but it wouldn’t come from Julia. ‘Tell me about it. I figured you were busy. No big deal. I had my Victim Witness Coordinator and secretary help me and, so far, everyone’s shown for their pre-files and everything’s worked out.’

  ‘Okay, well, maybe next time I won’t be so busy. Maybe I can help choo then, choo know.’

  The ice was melting. Julia could see spring just up ahead. ‘Great! That would be great!’

  ‘I like your hair,’ Marisol said, making a curling motion with her claw.

  ‘Thanks! The humidity kills it, though,’ Julia said, sighing herself. ‘Frizz was always my nickname. I better get down there. It was nice finally meeting you! We’ll talksoon!’ She waved cheerily behind her before rounding the corner and finally disappearing down Rick’s hall. The exchange was like swallowing Mylanta without a chaser. It might be good for you in the end, but it sure as hell tasted awful on the way down.

  Damn, damn, damn. She hadn’t meant to be late again. She tapped lightly on the door and someone called out, ‘Come in.’ She slowly opened the door. John Latarrino and Steve Brill sat in front of Rick’s desk, a box of files at their feet. Rickwas on the phone, his back to them. The tension in the room hit her like a stiff breeze and she hoped it didn’t have anything to do with her.

 
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