“Case number…” my courtroom clerk, Jake Purifoy, began to say before he poorly hid his chuckle with a cough and finished with a slightly sung out, “8675309. The People V. Tina Mason. The charges are Possession of an Illegal Substance and Prostitution.”
“Tina, huh?” I glanced at him from where I sat on the bench, with a small smile, while the defendant was led into the courtroom.
Covering the mic with my hand, I leaned towards him and said only loud enough for him to hear, “If her name had been Jenny I would have had to call a short recess for a bathroom break.”
Because instantly recognizing the Tommy Tutone song title, I definitely would’ve been in danger of pissing myself.
But hearing the name Tina brought back fond memories of my childhood pet cat. She’d lived a good long life, dying at the age of twenty in her sleep, while I’d been away at college.
Maybe I should get another cat?
I could certainly use the company.
I’d been living on my own for the last five years, after divorcing my college sweetheart Bill. We’d gotten married not long after we graduated from law school together, living what I’d thought was a happily married life for about five years. But it all came to an end when I found out he’d had an affair with his secretary, Judith.
It was all very cliché.
But I honestly hadn’t been all that surprised and Bill had been honest with me by telling me what he’d done as soon as he’d come home from that fateful business trip. He and I had never had what could be called a passionate relationship. Instead it was safe and comfortable, which weren’t necessarily bad things.
They just weren’t right for us.
Not long-term anyway, so I wasn’t all that sad that it ended.
And seeing them together now, I knew they were meant to be together, so I was happy for them. We were all still friends even to this day and I’d even been to their house just a few nights before for dinner.
Being the gentleman Bill truly was on the inside, he felt it was only right that I be one of the first ones to be informed they were expecting a baby. I was more surprised that Bill wasn’t lying down with a case of the vapors over the news – something he grimaced at, while Judith and I laughed our asses off when I’d said my initial thought out loud – because he’d mentioned more than once that he didn’t think children were for him.
I’d been on the fence either way about it, so it hadn’t been a deal breaker at the time. I was more focused on my budding career and children hadn’t fit into that picture. And now that I was getting older, I doubted I would find anyone in time for us to start a family, now that my career allowed for the time to have one.
So maybe I would get two cats.
But watching Bill fawn all over Judith for the remainder of the night, I knew they definitely fit into their picture.
I truly was happy for them.
The only thing I’d kept from our marriage was his last name, but only because I’d already built my professional career on being Susannah Compton.
Sookie Stackhouse was reserved for those who were truly close to me.
I had even let him have the house we shared and instead moved into what had been my grandparents’ home. They were gone now too, but I’d held onto the house, initially thinking Bill and I could use it as a vacation home for weekend getaways.
It still needed a lot of work, but I would get to it.
Looking up at the defendant who was going through obvious withdrawals, I wondered – as I sometimes did about whoever appeared before me from my elevated bench – what had led her down this path. Close to my own age, she looked a decade older thanks to the life she led, but I set aside my curiosity and looked her in the eye, asking, “Miss Mason, do you understand the charges against you?”
I couldn’t really tell if her nod was an affirmation or if it was a byproduct of her withdrawal symptoms, so I looked to her court appointed attorney who then nudged her and whispered something into her ear.
“Yeah,” she huffed out without even looking back at me.
“Yes,” I corrected on automatic reflex.
If most of the people who came before me in arraignment court had been corrected in the past – grammatically or behaviorally – then they likely wouldn’t have ever been arrested in the first place.
“Yes,” she bit out, with a little bit of attitude and her eyes now staring daggers at me.
This Tina was nothing like my sweet childhood pet.
Shaking my head and letting her attitude roll off of me, before I rolled off of the bench and gave her my Gran’s-Come-to-Jesus cuff to the backside of her head, I turned to her attorney and asked, “What is your client’s plea?”
“Not guilty, your honor.”
No one was ever guilty before me.
Glancing at her rap sheet and seeing it was her fifth arrest in as many years for the same infractions, I took another look at her and figured she could use a little bit of time away from the streets.
Obtaining drugs in jail wasn’t unfeasible, but it wasn’t as easy as being on the streets and she would at least get three square meals a day, so I said, “Let the record reflect the defendant’s plea of ‘not guilty’ and bail is set at fifty thousand dollars.”
I highly doubted she – or her pimp – had the five grand they would need to pay a bail bondsman to get her out.
Moving her folder from the left side of the bench to the right, I picked up the next one in the pile and flipped it open, just as Jake called out, “Case number 8675342. The People V. Eric Northman. The charges are Simple Burglary and Resisting Arrest.”
My eyes stayed on his file, staring at both his name and his mugshot photo, unable to look up and see who I could hear was being led into the courtroom.
The twelve year old girl in me was instantly screaming at the injustice of it all, not wanting to believe what the woman in me could see in the photo. But there was no mistaking him.
Even though twenty-five years had gone by, I knew without a doubt he was the same Eric Northman from my childhood.
I would never forget those blue eyes.
But where they had once twinkled with mischief, now they were hardened from whatever life he’d led that had brought him to this point.
I’d had a secret crush on him all through middle school, when he’d just been a sweet kid who’d been cursed by being from the wrong side of the tracks. I’d never known who his father was – I wasn’t even sure he had known him – but his mother was known for being the town drunk and falling into bed with any man that would have her.
She’d gotten arrested for being an accomplice to an armed robbery – as the getaway driver of all things – turned felony murder when her partner in crime had shot and killed the clerk behind the counter because of a skittish trigger finger.
It had all happened during the summer before our freshman year of high school was going to start and when she had gone off to prison Eric had disappeared, presumably getting lost somewhere in the foster care system and never to be seen again.
I’d always wondered what had happened to him.
Now I almost wished I didn’t know.
Forcing my eyes upward, I took in the man before me and tried to find any remnants of the boy I once knew. Looking worse for the wear, I could see where the ‘resisting arrest’ charges likely came into play by the cuts on his knuckles, with his hands shackled by his wrists to his waist in front of him.
Still, there was something in his eyes that made him appear beaten down by more than just the officers who’d arrested him.
He looked beaten down by life itself.
But I couldn’t help but see some of that boy I’d known from middle school. The one who used to stick up for me on the playground, when the other kids would pick on me for being the nerd. Being shy, a little on the plump side, and forced to wear glasses until I discovered the heaven that was contact lenses, I’d met the trifecta for being the odd duck out, with the other kids being merciless in their taunts.
I’d lost both the weight and my shyness a long time ago, but now I wondered what I could possibly do to help him.
Back then I used to share my lunch with him because he rarely had any of his own, but giving him half of a PB&J sandwich wouldn’t do the trick now.
I couldn’t treat him any differently than I would any other who appeared before me under the same circumstances, but maybe there was something else I could do to help him that wouldn’t get me disbarred.
Before doing any of that though, first I needed to see if there was any of that boy left inside of him. I’d seen in his jacket that this wasn’t his first arrest, but the others had been for petty misdemeanors. Simple Burglary charges weren’t much more substantial, but even so, for all I knew he was a complete dirt bag now, thanks to the cards that he’d had no hand in drawing, but had been dealt to him nonetheless.
He might already be a lost cause before I’d ever found him.
Looking him in the eye, I didn’t see any recognition coming from him when he looked back at me. I wasn’t sure if I’d made any sort of lasting impression or impact on his life for him to even remember who I was and back then I’d simply gone by my childhood nickname, Sookie.
He might not have even known my given name was Susannah.
But needing to say something one way or the other, I started off with, “Mr. Northman, do you understand the charges that have been brought against you?”
Meeting my eyes, he answered simply, “Yes.”
The smirk I attempted to fight off only got as far as the corners of my lips.
Improving his grammar had been one of my personal goals all through middle school.
My inner twelve year old cheered her small victory.
I still didn’t see any recognition from him, but looking at the legal aid attorney at his side, he seemed more interested in whatever he was reading on his cell phone at the moment.
A sharp stab of protectiveness flashed through my bones, remembering all of the times Eric had protected me from bullies.
God knows his mother hadn’t protected him and it would seem the foster care system failed him as well, so I took the reins temporarily on his behalf, by glaring at the lawyer as I admonished, “Mr. Burnham. Unless your wife is giving birth at this very moment or you’ve just learned your house is on fire, I suggest you put your cell phone away and concentrate on helping your client before I hold you in contempt of court. Then you’ll be free of your distractions and have plenty of time to get his case ready, when you spend the night at his side in a jail cell.”
My harsh rebuke was enough for a flash of the Eric I used to know to appear in the form of his smirk.
In fact, I was pretty sure his is where mine had come from.
But it was the same one he would always give me whenever he made one of the other kids who’d been teasing me run off, in either fear or tears.
“I apologize, your honor,” Burnham offered, sounding more put out than apologetic. “My client pleads not guilty to all charges.”
Again, no surprise there.
But I surprised myself when I heard myself say, “Mr. Northman. Did you go to Chatham Roberdeau Wheat Middle School?”
The name of the former confederate soldier was a mouthful, but it was why our school mascot was a tiger, for the Louisiana Tigers, named after the battalion he’d led during the Civil War.
Hearing my question, his eyes lost some of the glaze they’d held at whatever had been on his mind and instead focused on mine for the first time.
Traveling back and forth from my nameplate sitting directly in front of me on the bench to my face, his confusion was obvious before his expression turned into complete and utter shock as he whispered, “Sookie?”
Whatever hold he’d had of his emotions was lost, with my heart breaking for him when the gathering tears finally fell from his eyes, before he buried his face in his hands. With his wrists shackled to his waist, he’d had no choice but to bend over because of how tall he was.
He’d always been the tallest kid in the school. Of course, the other kids knew better than to make fun of him, but I knew he’d felt awkward. He’d certainly grown into himself.
And he’d done a mighty fine job of it too.
Broad shoulders tapered down to his slim waist, but even in his jailhouse garb you could see he was cut with muscles.
But now wasn’t the time to be ogling my long lost classmate, so I smiled as softly as my next words sounded when they filtered through the courtroom, with me saying, “I always wondered what happened to you.”
He was still too emotional to say much of anything, so I gave him some time to compose himself by looking out at the courtroom spectators and cluing them in to what only the two of us had known until now, by saying sincerely, “He was the nicest kid in school.”
I doubted some of my former tormentors felt the same way, but to hell with them.
If they’d been there and tried to object, I would hold them in contempt of court too.
He still hadn’t released his face from his hands, but I could hear him muttering something I couldn’t quite make out, so I only said, “I’m truly sorry to see you here.”
Scrubbing his face with his hands, he finally straightened up and looked me in the eye, but no words were said.
Those same blue eyes I’d dreamt about as a girl were saying plenty though.
I wasn’t sure what to make of that last one, so I tried to not dwell on it and instead glanced down at the paperwork in front of me again. He’d been arrested for breaking into a small convenience store instead of a residential home, so in the state of Louisiana, the act itself was classified as a Simple Burglary. He hadn’t been armed with a weapon and even with his prior arrests, none of them had been for violent crimes.
If he was lucky, he might get away with paying a two thousand dollar fine with a plea deal from the DA when he went to trial.
If Burnham could be bothered to do his job.
Wondering over the ethics of calling in a favor or two by getting my ex-husband to represent him pro bono – it was the least he could do – I set the thought aside for now and mentally calculated his bail.
Seeing as how he was forced to use legal aid, I doubted he had the funds to post much of any bail, but I couldn’t just release him ROR. Between the two charges, the minimum bail amount required for the resisting arrest charge was the higher of the two, so I had no choice but to say, “Bail is set at twenty-five thousand dollars.”
Eric still seemed lost, so I wasn’t sure if he’d even heard me. But as he was being led from the courtroom, I couldn’t stop myself from adding, “I really hope you turn your life around, Mr. Northman. I’ll be pulling for you.”
And making a call to my ex-husband in the very near future for you.
After all that Eric had done for me once upon a time, it was the least I could do for him.