“Okay, these are the pieces of information you needed,” Chloe said, walking into Allison’s office with a folder in her hands, “and they are not good,” she concluded with a touch of disappointment. Chloe was Allison’s assistant and best friend. Reliable, passionate, enigmatic, very private about her life; with her exotic ebony beauty, her deep warm voice, her curly hair always tied in a long ponytail and her elegant walk, she never went unnoticed.
Allison, till now confident they might win the case, gave her a worried look, stretching her arms to take the folder. “What do you mean?” She asked nervously, shifting her gaze from the papers to Chloe to the papers again.
“Matt Wayne might not be as innocent as we thought,” Chloe started. “He had a fight with the victim the day of his death,” she explained.
Allison looked up at her, seriously worried now. “This is not good…” was all she could say. “This is not good at all…” she repeated to herself, as the thought of the failed negotiation crossed her mind. “Why didn’t this come up before?”
“The guy who witnessed the fight left for a business trip that same night, before we had any chance of knowing,” Chloe explained, sounding apologetic.
Allison let out a heavy sight and let herself sink onto the chair. “The negotiation is off the table,” she said, her gaze lost somewhere on the floor. “I took it off the table!” She repeated, suddenly guilty. She was given the chance to take ten years and simply let it go, certain of the innocence of a man who suddenly didn’t sound innocent at all.
“Do you think the prosecution might still be open to reconsider the offer?” Chloe asked her.
It was probably their only way out. But that depended on Mr. O’Bryan. How could she possibly ask him to reconsider the ten years offer? No. She just couldn’t do it.
“No,” she replied firmly. They needed to find another way. “We need to prove that he didn’t cause the heart attack but was indeed attempting to perform a cardiac massage…” she considered, looking defeated at the police report on her desk. It was the record that their client was supposed not to have until a couple of days before.
“Ask him,” Chloe insisted politely.
“Who?” Allison asked faking confusion, but she already knew who she was referring to.
“Ask the prosecutor to reconsider the offer,” Chloe explained, still very quietly.
“No,” Allison repeated with the same quietness, though giving away some discomfort. When she looked up, Chloe’s gaze was fixed upon her, questioningly.
“Why not?” She asked, looking bewildered.
“Because he…” She paused, words failing on her. What good reason could she have to avoid a renegotiation? One that Chloe could find believable. “Because it…” She stumbled on words, unable to find an excuse right on the spot.
“You said he…” Chloe said. But her quiet voice didn’t certainly match her curious look.
“What?” Allison stiffened in her seat. She didn’t like that look. Usually it was the prelude to an interrogation that had nothing to do with work.
“You said because he… He what?”
A blank look, mouth half open, this was her last chance to save herself from becoming food for her friend’s inquisitiveness. And she knew by experience that when Chloe started, there was no way out. “He was very clear, Chloe. No renegotiation. He took our act pretty badly,” she said, with her best poker-face. It wasn’t a complete lie in the end.
But judging from Chloe’s puzzled look, she wasn’t totally convinced. Having a best friend who was a very careful observer wasn’t always a good thing.
Truth was, she would prefer having to face him on the safe ground of a busy courtroom rather than having another embarrassing tête-à-tête.
A knock on Allison’s door made them both turn to see Timothy Hayes, the oldest of the three name partners, standing there.
Occasionally blustering, very determined and a bit arrogant in his all-now approach to life and business, the man’s notoriety came before his own name. He had spent half of his life as headhunter, recruiting the best and greediest attorneys for the most generous law firms, before finally deciding to get his head together and start his own firm.
He silently gestured for Chloe to follow him.
Saved by the boss.
“Ok, I gotta go now,” Chloe said as she stood up, “but promise me you’ll call the DA’s office,” she insisted with a pointed finger.
Allison didn’t answer, she just sighed, going through the police report in the desperate attempt to find something, although she really didn’t know what to look for.
Two hours later, Allison threw the folder on her desk, defeated. She had read every single line ten times, looked at every damn detail of the pictures without finding anything useful. She had wasted half morning on nothing. As she stared at her desk, lost in thought, she spotted a business card showing among the papers. She leaned out to take it and read the name.
“Todd Jacob O’Bryan – Prosecutor – District’s Attorney’s Office”
Damn. She really had no other choice. Bracing up and putting every discomfort aside, she slowly dialed his number.
“Hello?” Even on the phone, Mr. O’Bryan’s voice sounded confident and intimidating.
Allison hesitated for a moment, suddenly losing all the strength she hardly managed to gather.
“I… I’m Allison Murphy,” she said, her voice certainly reflecting her anxiety.
“Allison?” He sounded surprised. Of course he was, they were supposed to meet in courtroom in five days. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this unexpected call?”
What was she supposed to tell him? The plain truth or just ask him to reconsider the offer? She decided to go with the second, totally unwilling to give too many explanations.
“I was wondering… my firm actually was wondering… if there was a chance to re-debate the negotiation,” she said, her words coming out rushed.
The lack of a prompt answer on the other end didn’t sound optimistic.
“The police report made you reconsider our offer?” Mr. O’Bryan asked. He obviously already knew about the new witness. How could she ever possibly have thought that he might not know?
“Not yet, actually,” she admitted, “but we might decide to,” she concluded.
More silence on the other end. She hated when he did it. She hated when he played with her nerves. “Okay,” he finally agreed. “At lunch,” he added.
At lunch? No way. She couldn’t agree to that.
“I’d rather meet in the DA’s office, or here if it’s more convenient for you.” She hoped with every single cell that he would take one of the two options.
“I have a rather busy schedule over the next two weeks, Allison,” he explained. “It’s either lunch… or dinner, – if it’s more convenient for you,” he said, using her own words against her and almost mocking her.
She wasn’t sure if he was serious or just kidding. The dead silence on the other end lead her to think that he was damn serious.
“So… lunch it is,” she yielded.
“Okay, Johnnie’s, at 12.30. Is that fine for you?” He asked in a cold tone. This was nowhere close to their latest conversation, making her feel even more uncomfortable.
“Sure, that is fine,” she agreed, unenthusiastically and more nervous than she was supposed to be. After all, they were only going to re-discuss the negotiation. Why was she in a sweat?
“Good… see you later, then,” he said, his words immediately followed by the sound of the interrupted call. If it was his game to her to make her yield, it was working perfectly.
Close to both the Police Department and the DA’s offices, Johnnie’s filled with agents and lawyers. Making her way through the crowd, Allison spotted Mr. O’Bryan sitting at a small square table close to the window wall, waving at her with a light gesture.
“Allison, a pleasure to see you again,” he said, standing up to shake her hand.
“Todd,” she simply replied. Todd. She felt so uncomfortable calling him by his first name. She’d rather go back to the safer and more detached Mr. O’Bryan.
“So,” he started, leaning forward, his forearms resting on the table, looking comfortable and open – a harsh contrast with their previous phone conversation, “you want to reconsider our offer…”
She was still convinced that ten years were too much and hoped they could settle for something less. “We are open to an agreement,” she corrected him, laying the closed folder on the table.
“I thought you were sure about his innocence…” he teased her.
“No teasing, no beating around the bush,” she cut it short. “Would you be willing to drop to seven years with parole?”
He let out a small sigh, peeking outside the window for a moment. “From fifteen to seven years even including a parole… that’s a huge drop,” he commented, “I don’t think my boss would like it,” he said giving her a knowing look.
She couldn’t help but smile slightly. “Seven years with parole,” she insisted politely. “Come on, we both know it’s a good compromise,” she added, a hint of plea in her voice, “regardless of what your boss might say. She glanced at the folder.
That’s when she noticed – it… how could they have missed it before? She stiffened in her seat, simmering with anger. She didn’t say anything, just gave him an annoyed look, which he surely couldn’t pretend to avoid or ignore.
“What’s the problem?” He asked simply.
“What about the fact that you did not disclose all evidence?” She asked, anger rising. Why was she that angry anyway? It wasn’t the first time it happened and, sure enough, it wouldn’t be the last one either.
“We didn’t,” he replied quietly. “He’s a prospective witness, it’s exempt from disclosure, as it was taken down as a government-witness statement. We weren’t bound and you should know it,” he pointed out, impassive.
“It’s a police report! And it’s dated before the last courtroom session!” She erupted, pointing an accusatory finger at the file. “It’s the criminal record my client wasn’t supposed to have, you were bound indeed, Mr. O’Bryan!” She tried to contain the tone of her voice and the growing anger.
Mr. O’Bryan stood there, silent for a while, probably searching for the right answer. “I thought we were past the Mr. O’Bryan thing,” he said instead.
“We were… until a few minutes ago,” she responded, coldly. She felt betrayed and she didn’t even know why. Why was she expecting something different from this man? Why did she believe she could somewhat trust him?
“I was just doing my job, so are you. Why are you taking it personally?” He asked with a hint of disbelief.
“You were the one making it personal, throwing private questions during an official negotiation,” she reminded him, slowly regaining composure. Being surrounded by attorneys, most of them probably working under Patrick, didn’t make it easier or more comfortable. “Just to clear things up, is this something you always do or is it a preferential treatment reserved to me?” She leaned forward, defying.
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” he quietly replied.
“Constantly pushing me, trying to embarrass me, unnerving me, making it personal when it’s supposed to be just professional. Shall I go on?” He was bursting with an ironic smile. “Do you think it’s funny?” She asked.
Mr. O’Bryan gave her a puzzled look. “Is that what you think? That I want to embarrass you?” He asked, slightly leaning forward, reducing the distance between them.
Allison didn’t move. She gathered all the possible strength not to withdraw. “I don’t think you want to do it. You just do it.”
Mr. O’Bryan looked away for a moment, his gaze lost outside the window, before reverting his attention to her with an ironic, slight laugh. “Do you know what I think? That you’ve probably spent too much time forcing yourself not to feel and you now stand in a place where you can’t recognize some feelings anymore,” he very slowly replied.
Allison could have sworn there was a hint of bitter disappointment in his voice and in his eyes. She didn’t dare move, or talk, she just looked away. Forcing yourself not to feel. If she had to be honest with herself, he had just perfectly summarized her last two years, maybe a bit more. She hated when people tried to probe into her. She hated even more when they succeeded. She looked up, and back at him, upon hearing him slightly shifting on his chair.
“Well,” he started again, “then I’m sorry you think like that, because you are very far out left field,” he said smiling, but his smile wasn’t really reflected in his eyes.
“Then what is it?” She asked, never breaking eye contact. Regretting the question the very moment it was spoken. Did she really want to know? Did she really want him to put into words something she certainly didn’t want to hear?
Mr. O’Bryan took a moment, searching the words in the glass of water in front of him. “I find your… inscrutability, control and secretiveness… interesting,” he said, showing a bit of hesitation, “even… fascinating from time to time…”
“Don’t make a pass at me.” She tried to sound cold and distant. She had taken their previous encounter’s light flirting for that and nothing more. An innocent, atypical way to test each other and set some limits. Because even the most professional defense/prosecutor relationship had a personal component. To know the strengths and weaknesses of the person you were opposing was often used as a weapon during trials. One could question its ethics. But when you had in front someone steadfast like Mr. O’Bryan, even the smallest advantage could prove helpful.
But his disclosing words and his look, suddenly unsure and profound, destabilized her inwardly. She had misinterpreted every word, every gesture and she didn’t know what felt worse; to have misread him, the fact that he was right or that, deep down inside, that discomfort she felt around him might mean that she couldn’t read her own feelings as well. Maybe the latter.
She forced herself to look completely uninterested, untouched and unaffected by his words. Truth was, she was scared like hell. She didn’t want any more complications in her life. She wasn’t ready for any complication. She was barely starting to settle into her own life; after the separation, after the short-lived affair with Chris, after the divorce. All she needed was time for herself.
“I’m not… You asked a question, I just gave you an honest answer,” he pointed out, very sincerely. His ability not to bat an eye even under her accusatory gaze was disturbing. Much to her displeasure, she found herself being the one yielding.
“End of negotiation,” she said, standing to leave. “See you in courtroom, Mr. O’Bryan,” she concluded, suddenly feeling a lump in her throat. Force yourself not to feel. She had to remind herself of the words that he told her only minutes before.
“Don’t worry,” he stopped her. “It won’t be necessary.”
Allison gave him a confused look.
“If your client is for it, we’ll take the seven years with parole,” he concluded.
Seven years with parole. It was what she wanted. It was more than what she was supposed to expect from the negotiation. Then why was that feeling weighing so heavily on her? She slightly nodded at him and turned to leave. Forcing herself not to feel once more.
Sitting at her desk, dashing off a few notes on her laptop, Allison looked up upon hearing a slight knock at her door. Chloe was there with a smile and two beers in her hands. Allison smiled back, gesturing for her friend to step in and take a seat.
“So the prosecution agreed upon the seven years?” Chloe asked as she moved to sit down.
“With parole,” Allison corrected her, “but, yes, they did,” she concluded, before tasting a fresh sip of beer. It was really what she needed.
“What about the client?” Chloe asked.
“He took them,” Allison replied, giving her a knowing look.
Chloe stared at her with a slight surprise. “Wow, way to admit your guilt.”
Yes, from pleading innocent to taking seven years, it was a pretty huge admission, Allison considered. Admission. Confession. Feelings. Suddenly reminded of the sour and unpleasant conversation which came along with lunch, she let out a heavy sigh. Staring blankly through her laptop, Todd’s words kept echoing in her mind.
“Do I force myself not to feel?” She asked, looking up at a clearly confused Chloe.
“I’m not sure I completely understand what you mean,” Chloe replied to her disconnected question.
“Do you think… that I force myself… not to feel?” Allison repeated slowly, her gaze between thoughtful and questioning.
Chloe looked at her for a moment, probably pondering what to reply. Finally, she was able to put her thoughts into words. “I think you want people to think that you force yourself not to feel… Which is different,” she concluded.
Allison stood there, looking at her friend, trying to understand what she meant exactly. “I’m a giant mess…” It was all she managed to say.
Chloe looked at her with a confused and inquiring gaze. She hesitated a moment before saying something else. “Does all of this have to do with a certain someone working for another certain someone?”
Allison raised an eyebrow. “You can be very cryptic,” she just said. She was conflicted on whether having a mind and soul reader like Chloe as friend was a good or bad thing. She would often begrudge her ability to glean bits, looks, gestures and put it all together as if it were a simple jigsaw.
“But since you know what I’m talking about, then it’s him,” Chloe concluded, very obviously.
The jigsaw was slowly starting to take shape in front of Allison too, but somewhat, she couldn’t still get the final picture off. Letting out a small sigh, she took the courage to admit what she already knew but didn’t dare wording.
“I think he feels… something… for me,” she said in a faint voice.
Chloe only gave her a quick look. “Okay,” she just said, her mind probably already working out the best thing to say.
“No, Chloe, it’s not okay. It’s not okay at all!” Allison protested in a very frustrated tone.
Chloe just gave her a concerned look.
“I don’t want anyone new to feel… something… for me. I’m still struggling with the old ones; I can’t handle any more of them!” When she was just starting to settle into her new life alone, this man appeared out of nowhere deranging her apparent newly founded calmness.
“Well, if you don’t feel anything for him then where is the problem?” Chloe shrugged. “Unless…” A Mona Lisa smile enlightened her face.
“There is no unless,” Allison promptly interrupted her with a serious tone. She didn’t want to talk, or even think, about that man anymore. He was just the umpteenth unwanted complication in her life.
“I think you like him,” Chloe said, confidently, then crossed her arms on her chest and sat comfortably against the back, as if waiting for her reaction.
Allison closed her eyes. Maybe Chloe last words would disappear. But when she opened them back, Chloe was still there with an expectant look.
“I think it doesn’t matter,” was all that Allison said. She didn’t want a man in her life. She didn’t want a new entanglement. She didn’t want to give anyone the chance, even slightest, to hurt her again. Because in the end, it was all about that; she was damned afraid to feel any kind of emotion. Todd was right. She didn’t want to feel. Then what? It was her only self-defense and he had no right to judge her.
“Did you tell him?” Chloe asked very composedly.
“Did I tell him what?” Allison asked confused.
“The things you have just told me,” Chloe explained.
It was a thought that never, even very remotely, crossed Allison’s mind. Why in the world would she share her feelings – or lack thereof – with someone who was, after all, quite a perfect stranger? Why in the world was she supposed to justify not wanting him to feel anything for her, whatever it was he felt? She felt everything spin so fast around her, confusion, anguish, conflicts, fear and anxiety.
“I can’t… and I don’t want to,” she just said. She was aware that she was forcing herself not to feel again but right now she had no intention of dealing with any emotion. Her only option was to cowardly go to ground.
“Do it, Allison,” Chloe went on with her quiet tone. “Don’t let him think your anger is at him, when it’s really just aimed at yourself,” she concluded.
Allison didn’t say anything. She didn’t need to say anything. Chloe was helping her solve that messy jigsaw that was her heart, piece by piece. She watched as her friend took her beer and left with a soft smile and a bossy look. Tell him. She couldn’t do it. The least she saw him, the best it was for her nerves. Still, those words wouldn’t leave her throughout the day and kept haunting her throughout the night. Until the morning after she woke up with a decision and an unwelcome knot at her stomach.
She spent a good ten minutes sitting on a bench, outside the District’s Attorney’s offices, staring at the steady stream of nondescript faces, coming and going. The unusually mild October weather would make it an enjoyable day, if it wasn’t for the anxiety consuming Allison from the inside.
She kept glancing at the stairs, unable to force herself to go up those last few steps separating her from the building, those same few steps she’d walked on, up and down, scores of times.
Truth was, she had no idea what she was doing here. The rambling and incoherent thoughts crowding her mind were the perfect mirror of her disconnected and contrasting feelings. She was a massive essence of non-sense.
With a small sigh and a resigned look, she forced herself to stand up and enter. She simply had to do it. Better eye out than always ache.
Taking advantage of the apparently very hectic day, she slipped through the disorderly crowd and towards the offices, hoping she’d pass unnoticed.
“Allison!” A way too familiar voice made her jump. – Patrick! of all the people she might run into.
“Hey…” she just answered uncomfortable and definitely guilty.
“What are you doing here? I don’t think there’s any case involving you today,” he asked curious.
Great. She was still struggling to come up with a speech idea, now she had to come up with an excuse, too. Or maybe not. Maybe the truth – part of it, at least – was the best solution, under the circumstances.
“I was looking for Mr. O’Bryan,” she said, trying to look quiet and serene.
“I thought the case was over. Didn’t you agree on seven years with parole?” He asked, between confused and questioning.
“We did…” She admitted. “We just… there are a couple of details that still need to be settled down,” she faked a smile. Details, what a nice way to define it. “I can’t remember where his office is…”
“Round the corner, second floor, third office to the left,” Patrick said, looking totally oblivious to what happened during their previous meetings.
“Okay, thanks,” she said looking down and started to follow his directions.
“Oh… Allison,” Patrick called her back.
She froze, her blood suddenly turning cold.
“Hope wants to spend the weekend at the cottage…” he said. Allison felt a thick layer of ice melting as she took one step towards him, relieved. “Is it okay for you if I take her out of town for a couple of days?” So, that was it about. Their daughter.
Her nerves were already in possession of her ability to talk and all she was able to express was a simple “Okay… sure…”
How was she supposed to even start a speech, nervous like this? She had no idea.
She turned the corner, second floor, third office to the left. On the half-closed door, a tag with his name.
She knocked at the door, hesitatingly and so light that she wondered if it was even audible to the human hearing.
“Come in!” His voice was confident and intimidating, even beyond a door. She wondered if he’d still sound like that by the time she’d walk out of his office.
Slowly, silently, she took a few steps in, stopping right beyond the doorstep. “Hey,” she said, her voice barely perceptible.
Todd’s surprise was splattered all over his face and she couldn’t blame him. “Hey,” he replied quietly, before adding, “I thought the case was over…”
“It is,” she quickly confirmed. “I just…” Where to start? This was not going to be easy. “I just came to apologize,” she admitted, looking down.
Todd gave her a confused look and gestured for her to take a seat. His dark eyes were fixed on hers in the wait for some elucidation. He was clearly expecting neither a visit nor an apology. She suddenly felt stupid and in need of supplying a quick explanation.
“I’ve been excessively hard… and unjustifiably and unfairly crabby…” she explained, in a sincere apology.
She looked up to see him looking at her, mouth half open, searching for something to say.
“Allison,” Todd started but couldn’t finish, as Allison gestured for him to stop. She needed to get through this.
“No, please,” she said, gathering all the strength she could to keep his probing gaze at bay. “I… I don’t know what you want from me exactly,” she said, her words coming out in haste, only to correct herself right after. “Okay, maybe I do have an idea, sort of,” she said. After all, she’d been through it and knew perfectly that even the most innocent one night stand brought complications of any kind. “The point is…” What was the point? Did she even know that? Was she unprepared? Scared? Still hurting? Maybe it was a mixture of all of them, which only made it worse. “I’m just… I’m just starting to get used to being alone, to try to rediscover myself… I need time… I need time alone,” she pointed out, leaving no room for doubt. “Everything’s still so fresh, too fresh…” Patrick. Scandal. Tabloids. Separation. Press. Chris. Patrick. Divorce. She couldn’t prevent her mind from being constantly replaying the last two years of her life.
Todd was staring at her, she wasn’t sure if his eyes were hurt or just disappointed, but even then, he never looked away, not even for a single second. Even rejected, he kept his confidence and pride intact. Or at least, he faked it very well.
“Allison,” Todd started, but this time Allison didn’t stop him. She gave him her reasons, he deserved at least to make his own stand known, regarding this whole situation. “I watch the news and I read newspapers… I can imagine what you’ve been through and how painful it can be. Let alone, I’ve been through a divorce myself,” he confessed in a low voice, reminding her of their conversation of few days before, about him not being for marriage.
“Then… I beg you to understand me,” Allison asked in a pleading voice, “that I can’t give you… whatever it is that you want.” This time she couldn’t find the strength or courage to meet his gaze. She was putting the end to something that wasn’t even started in the first place and was very likely to never begin at all. “I’m sorry…” she simply concluded, quickly leaving his office before he could say something else, and before she could rethink this.
She was well aware of the inevitability of that, sooner or later, they’d end up against each other in courtroom again. Till then, till that moment she had to face him once more, she would have to force herself to put all thoughts of him aside.