Laurel Hatcher walked slowly down the long hallway behind the prison guard, her pulse hammering. When she stepped into the interview room, her lawyer, Jim Hight, was already there, standing behind the center table, his briefcase open.
“Hi, Laurel, how are you doing?” He towered over her at six feet, two inches and peered down at her. She slid into the chair opposite him, and Jim sat down. The guard closed the door and waited outside.
Laurel swallowed hard. “I’m okay.”
She nodded. Jim wasn’t one to encourage emotional scenes, but he always showed concern for her. Of course, it was business, but she felt that some sort of respect lay between them. The last few weeks had splintered her courage and her self-respect, though, and she knew she couldn’t stay calm much longer.
“Just get me out of here.” Her voice shook, and she clutched the edge of the table.
“We’ve been granted another bail hearing tomorrow morning.”
She inhaled deeply, trying not to let the hope take root. “Do I get real clothes?”
Laurel wrinkled her nose.
“It’s all right to show a little emotion,” Jim said. “Let the judge see that you cared about your husband. We don’t want a major rainstorm in the courtroom, but a few tears would be appropriate.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
His brief smile was a bit cynical. “I know this is tough, but you’ve got to let the court see the real you tomorrow, not the crusty shell you’ve built up over the past few weeks.”
She exhaled. Could she stay tough for one more day inside the county jail, then suddenly become soft and vulnerable again when she stepped into the courtroom, ready to expose her shredded nerves to strangers?
“Good. We’ve got judge Elliott, which is in our favor, but it will be tough to convince any judge to grant bail in a capital case. I think I can convince him that you’re not a flight risk. We’ll see what happens.”
“What about the evidence?” she asked.
“This is about your character. You have no prior record, and you’ve always been honest and dependable.”
“But the district attorney will try to keep me in here until the trial.”
“That’s standard in this type of case, and your in-laws are putting some pressure on him,” Jim admitted.
“But the prosecution wouldn’t be so insistent if they didn’t think I’m guilty.” The fear began to rise again inside her.
He sighed. “You’ve got to keep a positive outlook.”
“They turned us down the first time you asked for bail, and I’ve spent the last five weeks in jail.” Her voice cracked a little, and tears stung her eyes. She blinked and looked away. She didn’t need to hear him tell her to save her tears for the jury.
He watched her silently for a moment, and her doubts grew. He was a small-town lawyer, tall and gangly with thick glasses. She should have hired someone more dynamic, a powerhouse attorney with a proven track record on homicide cases. But with her assets tied up, that was impossible.
“What happens if they release me?”
He sat back and studied her face. “We’ll find a place for you to stay until the trial.”
“And if the judge refuses?”
He winced. “You’ve got to be prepared for that. I’m sorry. . . It will mean another eight to twelve months in here, I’m guessing.”
There ought to be more he could do. Why wasn’t he assuring her that they would win? Shouldn’t he be going over the prosecutor’s case and pointing out to her all the gaps in it? I could be in here for the rest of my life!
“So, you’re not optimistic about this hearing.”
“Not really.” His eyes didn’t quite meet hers.
“And for the trial?”
He hesitated, and her heart sank.
“I’m doing everything I can to build up a case that will counteract anything the prosecution can bring on.”
“But they have no proof.”
“I know. But there is some circumstantial evidence.” He shrugged apologetically. “We should be all right.”
Should be. She pulled in a ragged breath. “If they convict me, I won’t win the civil suit. I won’t be able to pay you.”
“Well, we both knew that at the beginning, didn’t we?”
She looked at him long and hard. He’d put a lot of time and effort in on her case. She wanted to believe he was doing everything possible. He met her gaze, honest regret reflected in his dark eyes. He wasn’t hiding anything. He wished things were different, but he wasn’t ashamed of the job he was doing.
She stood on shaky legs.
“Laurel, wash your hair tonight.”
His request raised her hackles, and she glared at him.
He smiled gently. “I’m not trying to insult you. Just be squeaky clean, and fluff your hair out around your face, okay? No braids tomorrow. We want a soft, vulnerable look.”
She stood looking at him, waiting for the whole surreal situation to fade into something real and good and bright. This isn’t normal. This isn’t right. It will pass.
Her throat constricted, and she needed their meeting to end.
“I put some money in your account here,” he said.
“Fifty. Is that enough? If you need more. . .”
He nodded. “All right. Tell me if you need more later. I’ll see you at the courthouse.”
“Sure. I’ll be there in my basic orange.”
She turned toward the door and heard his chair scrape on the concrete floor.
“Laurel, don’t you go to pieces on me.”
He knew her better than she’d realized. She didn’t answer but walked toward the door.
“Look, if you stay awake all night, you’ll be all haggard in the morning.”
She turned and glowered at him. “Thanks. I really needed that.”
“I’m sorry.” He raised one hand, reaching toward her across the room. “But you need the judge’s sympathy, and you need to hold it together. Don’t come to court with raccoon eyes.”
“Why don’t you just send a beautician to my cell in the morning?”
She knocked on the door, and the guard opened it. Remorse hit her halfway back to the cell block. Jim was just trying to do his job. . . and he was right. A judge wouldn’t look favorably on a bitter, defiant woman.
As the guard closed the cell door behind her five minutes later, Laurel walked unsteadily to her cot and sat down. Her cellmate, Renee, was sprawled on her cot on the other side of the small room, flipping through a tabloid. Beside her lay the packet of candy Laurel had ordered a week ago.
“That your lawyer again?” Renee’s dark eyes glinted.
“He bring you anything?”
Reluctantly, Laurel nodded.
Renee grinned. “How much?”
“Just tell me what you want, and I’ll order it.”
Renee’s eyes went steely. “I said, how much?”
“Is that all?”
“Yes.” Laurel lay down against the thin pillow.
Renee unwrapped a small piece of candy and popped it into her mouth. “Maybe you should just tell that hotshot lawyer to put something in my account.”
“He wouldn’t do that.”
The candy wrapper crinkled as Renee rolled it between her fingers. “I bet he would if he thought it would help you stay healthy.”
Laurel rolled over and faced the wall.
“Did he get you another bail hearing?”
“Tomorrow.” The tears were unstoppable now. Laurel burrowed her face into her pillow.
“What’s your problem?” Renee snorted. “This is maybe your last night in the clink, and you’re bawling like a baby. It’s almost like you want to stay here.”
Laurel shuddered. Oh, God, help me. Don’t leave me in here. She wiped her face with her sleeve, determined to stop the tears. Dear Lord, if you’re still there … She had nothing more to pray. She had to believe God was real, and that He was watching over her. If He was, then He knew what she needed, without her having to express it. And if somehow all her life she’d gotten it wrong, and He wasn’t there in her absolute blackest moment, then it didn’t matter that she couldn’t find the words.
Laurel took a deep breath and stared at the concrete wall. When her cellmate spoke again, and Laurel jumped. Renee was close to her, bending down to speak in a loud whisper. “If you do beat this murder rap and get out of here, don’t forget your friends.”
A piece of candy landed on the blanket near Laurel’s hand. Renee’s cot creaked, and the pages of the tabloid rustled. Laurel clenched her teeth to hold back a sob.