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Judgment – Excerpt

Being a judge was a kind of performance art, Juliana had often reflected. Every word you said was being recorded, so you had to be absolutely fair and make sure to sound that way. You had to act and talk with dignity. You had to look and sound engaged.

You wore a costume: a black silk robe—actually 100 percent polyester and made by a company that provided caps and gowns to graduating seniors in high school and college. No one could see what you were wearing underneath the robe. On the other hand, at least in the American system (unlike judges in France or the U.K.) you didn’t have to wear a white wig. When she first started as a judge, she walked out into the courtroom without her robe a number of times, forgot to put it on. On some level she disdained the formalities. But eventually she decided there was a purpose to the robe. It showed respect for the legal process. That was important.

And you had to live your life with probity. Juliana never drove above the speed limit. She never broke the law. She was scrupulously honest about her taxes.

That requirement extended to her family as well. She couldn’t have a son arrested for marijuana possession, and at his age he could be arrested. Yes, he would resent it, and yes, he’d be oppositional, but tough luck. That was the reality. Judges’ kids had to be better behaved than other kids. That was the deal.

You also weren’t supposed to let your mind wander during a hearing, but it was happening this morning anyway. She found herself listening to the defense attorney in the medical malpractice case, trying to focus, when she realized: she had to recuse herself.

It had been a perfect June night, warm but not quite balmy, with a soft breeze coming in off the lake, carrying with it the faint sounds of traffic from Michigan Avenue twenty floors below. Juliana was sitting alone on one end of a couch on the Peninsula’s rooftop terrace, still wearing her conference lanyard, still wired from her speech from two hours ago. She’d delivered a talk on the rules of evidence in front of five hundred people, and it had gone really well. She tended to be self-critical, but she also knew when she’d hit a home run. Rules of evidence wasn’t exactly a sexy topic, but she had her own take on it, and people seemed to respond.

She’d just had a drink with six fellow attendees, all judges from Indiana, and she was all talked out. Mostly she’d been the center of attention, which was flattering for a while, and then just exhausting. For now, she wanted to sit by herself—not in her room, with CNN keeping her company, but out there on the terrace in the refreshing breeze off Lake Michigan. Be in her own head. She dropped her lanyard on the glass-topped coffee table and scanned an array of magazines fanned out in front of her. One caught her eye—a travel magazine with a cover story about Spain—and she started leafing through it, keeping one eye out for a server. Another drink? Or maybe a cup of coffee—luckily, caffeine at night usually didn’t prevent her from falling asleep.

No server was on hand, so she went back to her magazine—“The Unknown Mallorca,” the piece promised. She felt someone’s eyes on her, and she looked up; when she saw nobody looking her way, she felt a little silly. Too much time in the spotlight, she told herself with a laugh. Having delusions of grandeur.

Again she felt that strange sensation of being watched. She glanced up to see a man in a charcoal suit making his way in her direction. He was tall, early thirties, an olive complexion and wavy dark-blond hair that fell below his collar. She didn’t recognize him. Maybe he was attending the legal conference too.

“Is this seat taken?” he asked. “Or am I interrupting?”

She gestured noncommittally to the chair by the couch—suit yourself. Her gaze could sometimes be stern and intimidating. “I’m not here for much longer, but help yourself.”

Something about him gave off a slightly melancholy air, but he was a good-looking guy.

“Long day?” he asked.

She nodded. “And for you? Are you here with the law conference?”

“V.C. I think there’s three conferences going on here this weekend.” He paused, took in the magazine. “Planning a visit to Spain?”

“Looking at rentals in Costa Brava. In my dreams, mostly.” She drained the last few drops of her Sancerre.

“You should go for real.”

“Oh, Spain is my favorite place on earth.”

“I just got back from Mallorca yesterday.”

She tipped her head. “Nice vacation.”

“Business, but still nice.”

She put down the magazine. “Never been to Mallorca. I hear it’s beautiful but overrun by tourists like me.”

“Not if you know where to go.”

She put out her hand. “Juliana Brody.”

He shook it firmly. His hand was dry and smooth, his nails neatly trimmed. “Matías Sanchez.”

Just the faintest accent.

“You’re Spanish?”

“Argentine. Spanish and Argentinians, we’re like cousins.” He shrugged.

“But you know Mallorca.”

“Quite well. I travel a lot.”

“So where do I have to go in Mallorca to escape the crowds?”

He paused briefly. “The most spectacular sunset you’ll ever see at Cap de Formentor. You’ve got to drive up a terrifying little winding road, but by the time you get there it’s worth it.”

“Yeah?”

“Oh, and there’s this great little restaurant in the old town called La Boveda; nothing fancy, but their tapas are to die for. And you can have a drink next door at Abaco, this fourteenth-century house filled with flowers and baskets of fruit. You tell them Matías Sanchez sent you, they’ll take care of you right.”

“Okay, I’m sold.” She laughed lightly. “I’m easy. When it comes to Spain.” She flushed. Then, to cover her embarrassment, she gestured for the server, who’d miraculously appeared. “Another Sancerre?”

He ordered an Ardbeg, ten years old, on the rocks.

“I’m afraid I was staring at you before. It’s just that you remind me of someone I used to know.”

He smiled again, a nice, frank smile. One of his front teeth was crooked.

“It happens with me a lot,” Juliana said. She used to remind some people of a movie actress named Amy Adams. Used to being the operative phrase.

And she thought: Is this guy actually hitting on me? It had been a while since she’d felt that particular buzz. This fellow—Matías—was easily ten years younger. And unnervingly handsome, she had to admit.

This is exactly the kind of thing I don’t do, she thought. Would never do.

She wanted to say to the guy: You’ve got me all wrong. She’d say, If you knew anything about me, you’d know I’m not your “live in the moment” kinda gal. You are wasting your time, buddy.
He tilted his head as if assessing her anew. “What’s weird? Up close you don’t look anything like her. It’s just—I can’t put my finger on it; it’s something in the way you hold yourself. A kind of self-confidence, or maybe it’s elegance, or both.”

“So who do I almost look like?”

“The woman I used to be married to.”

“Oho, I see. Nothing quite like being compared to a person’s ex!”

Matías averted his gaze. “It’s not like that . . .”

“I was only teasing. And anyway, I’m sure you have a girl in your life already.”

“I do! An amazing, beautiful girl. She’s everything to me.”

He took out his phone and swiped at it.

She leaned in close to him and looked. A blond girl, maybe seven or eight, a gap-toothed smile, sitting in a rowboat. A red-and-white-striped T-shirt. Not what she expected.

She caught him watching her and smiled.

“She’s a darling,” she said. “Is she with her mother?”

“She . . .” He looked away, put the phone back in his jacket’s breast pocket. She noticed tears in his eyes.

“Hey,” she said, touching his wrist. “I didn’t mean to . . .”

“No, it’s . . . We were swimming in Costa Rica, a place called Playa Hermosa, and she . . .” He compressed his lips. “She was a terrific swimmer, but the riptide was too strong, and by the time . . .” His face seemed briefly to crumple in on itself, then just as quickly he recovered.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought this part of it was behind me.” He got up, bowing his head in apology. Juliana reached out a hand, took his forearm, beseeching him to stay.

“Sit, please,” she said. “How long—?”

He picked up his drink, sipped, put it down. “Two years.” He slowly sat back down. “I still can’t really talk about it. I shouldn’t have tried. I—I never do this. This isn’t me.”

“It’s quite all right—Matías, is that right?”

“Yes. And—Juliana?” She nodded.

“I don’t know you,” he continued. “But I feel as if I do; that’s the weird thing. Just something I saw when I looked at you. Don’t ask me to explain.”

“Okay, now you’re going to have to explain.”

“Well, I can try. You’re beautiful, of course. But so many beautiful women have this icy reserve—they have to, it’s how they protect themselves, keep people out of their swim lane. But you—this is going to sound crazy. I saw a sense of a light inside you.”

She blushed again, hoped it wasn’t visible. “LED, I’m sure.”

“You’re making fun of me, and you should.”

“No, I’m sorry, go on. What else did you see?”

“Honestly?”

Juliana reached for her wineglass, took a steadying sip. “Sure, why not?”

“I see a kind of . . . loneliness. Not by-yourself lonely; but lonely. Maybe because . . . well, didn’t you say you’re a judge? Perhaps people are intimidated? And maybe because the ones who should love you don’t love you like they should.”

Juliana was momentarily speechless.

“I am so sorry,” Matías said. “I swear I’m not normally like this. Let’s blame the Ardbeg.” He put his hand on hers briefly and she felt the heat. “Four hours ago I was deciding whether to do an equity arb deal with a binational real estate investment trust. Now, that’s where my instincts are good.”

She gave him a long look. “Maybe not just there,” she admitted, and she finished the Sancerre.

They kissed leaning against the door to his suite. She could taste the single malt. She leaned back, took a breath. He found a tendril of her hair and ran his fingers under it, along her cheek. His eyes met hers for a moment. “I wonder if you know how beautiful you are.”

She could feel the heat radiating off his body. “Tomorrow I’m flying off. Back to my life. This . . . this can’t mean anything.”

Something was happening inside her. Like a wave that suddenly, startlingly forms in a usually placid lake. A wave formed by that surprisingly good French Sancerre and some kind of reservoir of resentment at how goddamned predictable she’d become. Everybody knows she’d never do this. But shouldn’t there be more to her than what everybody knows?

For just one night, she’d pretend to be that woman she’s not. For just one night, she’d do what she never does. For just one night, she’d live a life that isn’t the one she so carefully mapped out.

Just one night.

He found his key card and the lock beeped open and he held the door for her.

***
That was when it all had unraveled. When he had reappeared in her courtroom with the threat. With the video and his demands about her judgment of the case over which she was presiding right now.

She had to recuse herself.

Otherwise, she was trapped . . . and that blackmail video would go public.

She took the elevator up to the thirteenth floor of the courthouse building and stopped by the office of Sam Giannopoulos, the deputy court administrator, a few doors down the corridor.
“Justice Brody,” he said, looking up from his crowded desk. He was a small, gaunt, bald man with heavy black-framed glasses, around sixty. “What brings you up here?” Giannopoulos’s shoulders were stooped. He was an affable introvert, always pleasant to deal with, probably something of a clock-puncher. He was there to serve out his time until retirement.

“A scheduling thing. I have a question about the calendar.” She sat down in the chair next to his desk.

He gave a nervous smile. In front of him was a half-eaten sandwich, which he was slowly pushing away.

“Okay. What’s the question?”

“I’m considering recusing myself from a case I’m presiding over. And I’m wondering if it’s going to be a problem to assign it to another judge.”

She expected little more than a shrug. Judges recused themselves fairly often. Another judge could be assigned. It happened.

Instead, Giannopoulos looked wary and tense. His brows furrowed and his mouth jutted open. “But is—is there a problem? Something I should know about?”

She was surprised at his response. Giannopoulos took care of the court’s calendar, but he didn’t normally get involved in judges’ decisions on whether to step away from a case.

“A possible conflict with a member of the defense team.” She couldn’t say much more than that, and she’d already told him more than she was required to.

But others would ask, other judges on the circuit. And what could she tell them? That she’d once had a drink with one of the lawyers on the case? That again. How could she possibly justify recusing herself if she was pressed for details? In fact, she couldn’t. Not honestly.

Giannopoulos’s face was slowly drained of color. “Everyone else has crowded schedules,” he said, taking off his glasses and polishing them with his tie. “This wouldn’t be easy for another judge to take over after—how many months?”

“Four.”

“Four months. Wow. That’s a lot of water under the bridge. You recuse yourself at this point, you could have a mistrial. I’m not—I’m not so sure it’s a good idea. You should think seriously about this.”

“Which is exactly what I’ve done.” Something was off about him.

Giannopoulos seemed to study his desktop. “For a number of reasons, I think it would be better if you made no changes to your schedule.”

“I understand that,” she said. “But there are also strong reasons to recuse.” She said it as much for herself as for Giannopoulos’s benefit. She didn’t have to give a reason if she decided to withdraw from a case and pass it on to another judge. She could just do it.

A long silence passed.

Finally, Giannopoulos said softly, “I think you’d be well-advised to see this through.” He quickly looked away, glancing down at his keyboard.

Juliana felt ice freeze in her abdomen, dripping coldly into her bowels.

See it through.

Matías had said the same thing, hadn’t he? I advise you to see it through.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Giannopoulos wouldn’t meet her eyes. He got up and closed his office door. Then he returned to his desk, his face now chalk-white. He folded his hands, interlacing his fingers. He cleared his throat nervously. “Just—just see it through. It’s better this way.” He repeated: “Just see it through.”

“Sam, what’s wrong—what happened to you?”

He shook his head slowly. “All I can say is, see it through.” His phone rang, and he lunged for it, seemingly grateful for the interruption. “Will you please excuse me, judge?”

***

In the elevator down to the ninth floor, she could feel her heart thudding in her ears. She was still numb from her encounter with the court administrator, his tone thick with warning. Just see it through, he’d told her. It’s better this way.

She felt queasy, her stomach tight. She remembered, too, how Sam himself had seemed frightened, even as he was warning her. They’d gotten to him, that much was clear. Whomever they were. They’d scared him somehow.

Shakily, she returned to her office, her lobby, and keyed open the door, glanced at her watch. Twenty minutes before she had to be back in court for the afternoon session. . . . She tried to focus on the document that was on her monitor, but her brain felt scattered; she couldn’t concentrate, her mind flitting from the videotape she’d seen to Sam’s blanched face.

Her life was balancing on a tiny fulcrum. It was on the verge of being ruined. One wrong move, one mistake, and it was over. She was petrified and couldn’t think clearly.

Suddenly her cell phone rang. Not many people had that number. Duncan, Jake, a few other people. The caller ID said Private Caller. Apprehensively, she picked it up.

“Listen to the man,” the caller said. “See it through.”

She recognized the voice.

“You are not to recuse yourself. That would be a serious mistake. I’ve already told you what will happen. The video goes public, and your career is over. Thousands, maybe millions will watch it. Your life will be over.”

The line went dead.