Serial Fiction: Legal Aid - Part One

I've received the rights back on a few short works and have decided to release them in serial form on ye olde blog. I hope you enjoy them.

Legal Aid first appeared in BETRAYED, an anthology of stories about crime survivors to benefit domestic violence programs. As an attorney who used to specialize in DV divorces, I can tell you that the danger is very real, both physically and mentally.

Michael Vahl mural in St Pete Florida. Photo by T. Coop
LEGAL AID - Part One

The death rattle of the prehistoric air-conditioning system confirmed my suspicions as to why management opted for the offices in the center corridor and left the bright sunny spaces on the east and west sides to the lawyers.
“The Richardson Foundation loans us this building as a tax dodge. It’s cheaper than repairing or demolishing it. The joys of working for a non-profit.” Lana, the catch-all miracle-worker paralegal took a fan off her mail cart and set it on the table by my door. After she plugged it in, the blades hesitated before taking off with enough speed to lift a small airplane off the runway, or all the loose papers off my desk.
“Um, sorry, boss. I thought you’d like the best one.”
I adjusted the fan so the jet stream caromed off the wall. At least the warm dead air was being rearranged.
“No problem. Do you have my docket for Monday? I can’t find it.”
“You forgot, didn’t you?”
“What?” But even as she said it, reality slithered into my consciousness.
“No. It can’t be. It’s too soon.”
“It’s been a month. Ms. Sinclair, you know it’s your turn.”
That turn meant covering the protective order court docket for a week. It meant I had to represent all our Legal Aid clients, including those who came in on our daily clinics, in the hearings for their POs. Since we were mixed in with all the private attorney cases and the pro se applicants arguing their own claims, it was no big deal for there to be a hundred cases on the schedule. It was rare to get out of there before downtown-traffic-jam o’clock.
“You enjoyed reminding me of that, didn’t you? I’d blocked it out, like a root canal. Is the cart loaded?” The PO attorney didn’t have a briefcase. The files were arranged alphabetically in milk crates and strapped to a wheeled contraption for transport to and from the basement courtroom.
“You wound me with that question. Have I ever let you down? Here’s the printout with a one-paragraph summary of the facts. There are some doozies on there. Check out Klein v. Klein. He’s on your in-custody schedule. They’ll bring him over from county with the rest of the prisoner chain.”
“Really? We don’t get many of those. Actually, what I mean to say is that we don’t get enough of those.”
My voice reflected my general disgust at the reluctance of local law enforcement to arrest domestic abusers. The sheriff, in particular, believed that what went on between a man and his wife was private. For them to arrest Mr. Klein, he must have really worked for it.
And by the way, what’s the over/under in the admin pool?”
“For Monday, it’s three.”
“Sounds a little high. What’s your criterion?”
“It’s going to rain. Too dreary to fight, it’s easier to cuddle and reconcile.”
I laughed. About a year ago the secretaries and paralegals began betting on the number of couples that would either call in to drop their protective order petitions or show up hand-in-hand asking for a dismissal.
“And I thought lawyers were the cynical ones.”
“Oh please honey, you have no idea. Anything else I can do for you? I need to get these fans passed out before your fellow legal crusaders melt.”
“Is there any iced tea in the break room?”
That earned me another indignant paralegal glare.
“I apologize. Of course, there is. Sweet and unsweet with lemon and mint. Have I mentioned lately that you’re underpaid?”
“Of course I am. Face it, y’all couldn’t afford me otherwise.”
As her cart creaked down the hall, I turned to the thick stapled document on my desk to find out what was in store for me on Monday morning.
The protective order docket.
* * *
The first two hours and twenty files went as expected. The facts were so standard that I could template most of my presentations.
Petitioner and Respondent are [husband/wife, domestic partners] that live at [address] and have been together for [years.] On [date,] respondent [hit/kicked/punched/threatened] petitioner, broke his/her cell phone, and called him/her a [you name it.] Petitioner is in honest fear for his/her continued safety and requests the court to issue an order removing Respondent from the home.
They always broke the cell phone. It was like clockwork.
In most cases, the respondent didn’t show up and the PO was granted by default. If they did show, then it was set for a hearing after lunch and that meant I’d actually have to read the file.
At least the courthouse was cool. The judges wouldn’t tolerate anything different. They rotated PO court duty every month and they didn’t like it any more than we did. Judge Reinhardt ran a tight ship. She didn’t let anybody ramble and either made a quick decision or continued it until the afternoon. She also always called a twenty-minute recess about halfway through the morning session. There was an unspoken use this time to work things out when she dropped the gavel and fled the bench.
As the representative of Legal Aid, I got the coveted space on top of the newspaper machine in the hallway to spread out my case files and conference with other attorneys.
“So what are you going to do about Marty Klein?”
Dan Gold of the Public Defender’s Office was the one guy in the courthouse with a bigger docket than mine. His cart merited an intern.
“A pleasure to see you as well. Why do you ask?”
“I have him at three, or whenever he’s done down here. The DA wants Aggravated Domestic Battery with 12 months. I’m trying to deal it to misdemeanor Battery with credit for time served and probation. Klein wants to know if she’ll drop the PO in exchange for him giving her the mobile home in the divorce.”
My well-honed bullshit detector pinged right to the red line. I liked Dan. We’d even flirted around at the happy hour bars where lawyers congregated. But this was business. Sharon Klein was my client and Marty Klein was his. We were adversaries.
“Let me pull the file. That’s the case with the letter.”
“Yes, the letter. He is really sorry about that. He says he’s been praying for her forgiveness every night he’s been in jail.”
I stifled the laugh that bubbled up. Being able to repeat whatever bizarre things our clients uttered and keep a straight face was part of the job description. The original letter, written in pencil on notebook pages with the ragged strips of the spiral binding hanging off the side, was in evidence for the criminal case. I had a photocopy. During a lull in the courtroom proceedings, I’d highlighted a few passages.
“Dan, did you read this shit? Not only does he confess to acts that are clearly aggravated battery, well, the rest is just creepy. I can’t, in good conscience, advise her to drop the PO. I’m not going to ask her to back off on her position in the divorce or the criminal case either. This isn’t on her. Most of what we see down here is the typical bullshit, but if even half of this is true, then it’s the real deal. Marty Klein is dangerous.”
He ruffled his blond hair and gave me an exasperated overly-dramatic sigh.
“She cold-cocked him with the divorce and asked for full custody of the kid. He went a little nuts. If anything, that letter is evidence of his altered mental state. I’ll tell you right now, he won’t consent to the PO. He’ll want a full-on trial and he’ll want to call witnesses about her mental state. Not to mention the brick she took to the side of his head. This is mutual combat.”
“Are you trying to threaten me? With a bench trial? Ohhh, I see we’ve got a badass here. Try again. It’s called self-defense. He does know that every word he says in the PO trial will be used against him in criminal court and the divorce, right?”
Before he could answer, a small voice said, “I don’t want the trailer. It’s an evil place now. Marty can burn it down for all I care. But I won’t let him hurt Rhino . . . I mean Ryan. Rhino is what his father calls him.”
I’m not sure what I expected of Sharon Klein, but a statuesque woman who vaguely resembled Ripley from Alien wasn’t it. My memory flashed on her file, she was a construction worker. However, there were two things about her I easily recognized – the purple handprints on her throat and the haunted hunted look in her eyes. Even the biceps bulging against the sleeves of the circa-1995 polyester blouse hadn’t protected her from the devils that live behind closed doors.
Dan Gold moved to greet her. I grabbed his arm and injected some venom into my voice, “You aren’t thinking of speaking to my client, are you? Tell me you’re not.”
His muscles going slack under my hand told me that my message was received.
“She’s pro se in the divorce. I was just going to convey her husband’s property settlement offer.”
Fuck you, Dan.
And fuck any thoughts I’d ever entertained of making a really bad decision some Friday night.
I turned to the client I’d never laid eyes on before. “Mrs. Klein, is it true you don’t have a lawyer for your divorce?”
“No money for it. I got the papers off the internet.”
I scooped up my files with a flourish and opened the courtroom door. “You met the financial qualifications for help with your protective order. As far as I’m concerned, you meet the qualifications for help with your divorce. I’m your lawyer now. Mr. Gold, this discussion is concluded and all future offers will be directed to me. Mrs. Klein, if you’ll follow me please?”
When the doors were closed behind us, she started to speak, but I put my finger to my lips.
“We only have a minute before the judge comes back. What are you doing here so early? The in-custody docket isn’t until two o’clock.”
“I tried to stay home, but couldn’t relax. It seemed easier to be here. What do you mean that you’re my lawyer now?”
I softened my demeanor and tone. This woman was fragile and spider-sense told me she was going to need a lot of strength in the next few months. I needed to get her ready for the ordeal to come.
“I’m a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid. Although with the turnover there, senior means I’ve been doing this for about eight years. I have a lot of leeway in the cases I can take. Yours has piqued my interest. We have a lot to talk about, but we need to get through today. Do you have plans for lunch?”
“Not really. I have a sandwich in the car.”
“Well, I don’t. Do you like Mexican? Chico’s is right around the corner.”
She shuffled her feet, clad in cheap pumps, and said, “I can’t really afford it.”
“Neither can I, but the owner comps me a couple of trips to the taco and salad bar when I’m on PO duty. It’s not something I spread around because it technically violates the no gifts or gratuities rule. He insists and who am I to refuse? I cleaned up a little problem for his family a couple of years back. By lunchtime, I’m going to want to sit down for a few and we can talk about your case.”
“Okay, I guess. If you want.” Her tone told me this was a person who wasn’t used to receiving kindnesses without strings attached. At that moment I vowed that Marty Klein would pay -- one way or another.
I patted her arm and glanced at the clock. Only about a minute left. I pulled out my cell phone, another courtroom perk of being with Legal Aid, and punched a number. The usual clatter of dishes and the heavily accented greeting told me I was speaking to the owner.
“Mr. Rojas, this is Jill Sinclair. Can you save one of the tables in the back room for me? Thank you.”
I ended the call just as the bailiff entered the room. “Sharon, grab a seat and watch. It’ll give you an idea how this works”

She dropped immediately into the nearest chair and worried at the straps of her purse with her big hands. Her manner wasn’t someone getting comfortable; it was that of someone following an order. I quelled my rage as I headed to my seat at the front. 

Stay Tuned for Part Two