Shonda knew, if she could just get Juror #3 to pick up her pencil, then this would be a sure win. It was the day of final arguments in the case of Becky Sarnoff, a woman accused of a hit and run. Miss Sarnoff had been leaving her job as a waitress in a diner around the same time that another car – matching the make, color, and model of hers, granted – had driven a swath of destruction through the local mall’s parking lot. It crashed through signs, dented a long line of cars, and tore up grassy medians. Shonda had let out a long whistle when she saw the full price tag for the incident, but she took the case after one interview of Miss Sarnoff. Becky was an admitted alcoholic, but with a chip that promised she hadn’t touched a drop in over a decade. It didn’t help that her car was an old jalopy that looked like it had been driven through a half dozen shopping malls on its own, but Shonda could tell she was innocent. So could her team, and they all found that a heartwarming and refreshing change.
It was one that affected wardrobe too. If you worked for Shonda long enough, you learned to tell what she thought of her client by what she wore on her feet to work. When she was worried that she was defending a guilty party – like with that tax evasion creep last month – Shonda always wore a black pair of platforms that made not a hint of noise as she moved back and forth across the buffed tile of the courtroom floor. It was a telltale sign that she was on her back foot, in a way. She didn’t want to overstep her presence when she knew she was trying to get away with something (which, with the tax evasion creep, she certainly had).
Today, however, she was in her red heels.
When Shonda was at max confidence – especially when that confidence was to the betterment of a client who was innocent – she always wore the same set of crimson dynamos that gave her footfalls a fierce staccato rhythm that sounded like a call to arms as she cross examined. She loved that sound – when her steps were sure – and she let them propel her into her final argument. Facing her jury, and she was really feeling like they were hers, she began with a bit of a ruse that wasn’t going to feel like a home run at first. That was okay, she wasn’t afraid to bide her time and build to sway opinion at speech’s end. She cocked her head and gave a bit of a shrug. “We’ve all done wrong… isn’t that right?”
The jury looked to each other, not sure what to say… and a bit surprised that Shonda was opening with such a weak presumption. She went on, however, building to her point like a potter working clay. “The bulk of the prosecution’s case hasn’t relied on evidence. It hasn’t really needed to, has it? No. Instead, they’ve built an entire argument that depends on whether my client is telling the truth.” She took one tiny step toward the jury. Then a second – but not a third. No, two was just right. Two was ‘leaning in’ like they were confidantes. Three would have been presumptuous. She lifted a hand to her mouth, whispering to the jury like they were a pack of drinking buddies, “Well, we’re all liars, right? That’s the only real truth, isn’t it?”
There was one fleeting moment here where her opponent – a balding but capable little cuss of a lawyer named Wallace Sturbridge – thought Shonda had made a mistake, and she took a bit of delight in that: That’s okay, Wally. It’s good to want things. He was right that she was skating right up to the edge, sympathizing with liars. Both Wally and Shonda watched Juror #3 closely as her eyes narrowed at the sacrilege. Juror #3, you see, didn’t consider herself a liar. Shonda knew that. This was all just her set up. She could tell Juror #3 considered herself a “good,” honest woman. She had excellent posture, never gave the slightest snicker at inappropriate jokes, and wore a tiny cross over her turtleneck that absolutely, positively kept her from ever showing the slightest bit of cleavage or curvature of the breast – the woman reminded Shonda a great deal of her mother, actually. Her mother walks the walk. Shonda knew women like Juror #3 deeply – which meant she knew how to change their minds too.
Juror #3 was the only one who hadn’t been taking notes during the entire trial. Every one of the jurors had been furnished with the same drab, court-issued pad and pencil. Shonda knew those pads well. Most juries are split down the middle between two different types of people, the “scribblers” and the “Tolstoys” – those who doodled and those who feverishly wrote down far too many notes. Shonda was amazed at how much some people wrote down – didn’t they realize that, if they needed to write it all down, Shonda wasn’t doing her job. Her defenses were a kind of performance art. If they would just sit back and let her dazzle them with her show, it would be as easy as pie to keep up with the facts. Hammering the pertinent facts was her job. No matter which group each juror belonged to, however, they all gave off a thousand signs in the way they jotted down on their pads as to how they were feeling about the case. Shonda knew what it meant when a scribbler paused to listen to a detail, or when a Tolstoy started writing faster and more feverishly. She knew just how to cater her performance to an audience of either style.
Ultimately, however, the final decisions of many juries – including this one – rested on the will of one person from a mysterious third category. Juror #3 was a listener. She hadn’t even touched her pad. It was like she didn’t know what it was for or, more accurately, like she didn’t need it at all. Some would see that as Juror #3 being lazy, detached… but Shonda knew – and she suspected that Wally did too – that Juror #3 had already made her mind up. Juror #3 didn’t trust Shonda’s client. This was probably due to the fact that, unlike her, Becky showed plenty of cleavage. This was probably due to the sad reality that it increased her tips. Becky lived on those tips and Juror #3 probably hadn’t lost sweat on a rent check her entire life.
This wasn’t the time to judge either woman over the other, however. It was time for Shonda to play the game and, in this risky moment, Juror #3 wasn’t going to be taking much of a liking to Shonda either. When Shonda had said, “We’re all liars, right?,” the rest of the jury had collectively nodded, conceded, agreed…
… but not #3. No. Juror #3 considered her record clean, her honesty spotless. It wasn’t Shonda’s job to challenge that, but to appeal to it. So she followed that set up question straight into Juror #3’s eyes and challenged it herself. “No. Not all of us, right? Some of us pride ourselves on our honesty.” This got a small, almost-imperceptible nod from Juror #3. Almost nothing, but Shonda knew it meant it was time to seal the deal. “Those of us that aren’t liars know what it is to be falsely accused, to fight back, provide full transparency. Look at the prosecution’s case, witnesses unavailable, moments they can’t remember, working hard to hold to their ‘truth.’ Not my client. She remembers everything, even when it doesn’t help her case. No waffling. No lost records. You can tell which of us are honest because our lives are open books. We live by what the Bible says. My client lets her yes be yes and her no… no.” That was how Shonda got Juror #3. Scripture. She quoted the book of Matthew and it had shot right into the core of Juror #3 like a lightning bolt.
Juror #3 picked up her pencil.
After her client was found not guilty, Shonda gave a victory tour around the courthouse steps. She was delighted to meet the rest of Becky’s family, who had come from all around to offer support and fill the courtroom behind her. “You all being here had a lot to do with it. Thank you.” The family didn’t want to hear a thing about any of that. They showered Shonda with hugs and gifts, including a homemade pencil cup decorated by Becky’s young daughter, Jessica. “I’ll cherish this. Thank you.”
The little girl smirked and said, “My mommy says your desk is a mess.” They all laughed at the honesty.
“Well, it’ll be a lot less messy now because of you.”
Shonda tussled the little girl’s hair and gave a long hug to Becky, whose eyes were tearing with relief. The trial had been hard on her. She didn’t have anywhere near the money to cover the damages – or Shonda’s fee – had they lost. When she explained that to Shonda at their first meeting, however, she had simply reassured her, “Well, in that case, let’s just not lose. How about that for a battle plan?”
Becky stammered for words to show appreciation, to which Shonda just replied, “You can thank me by hiring me to conduct your countersuit. That mall fumbled with its security camera game and you and Jessica went through great hardship because of it. It’s time for celebration now, but after let’s get to work on winning you a little bit of a settlement to take your daughter to Disneyland.” That made Jessica’s eyes light up and Shonda winked as her heels clicked away.
Next up was a dull line of handshakes from other lawyers and suits that wanted to congratulate her on a well-handled case. Wally gave a bow of defeat, “I thought I had you there at the end, just for a moment.”
She gave him a friendly – but somewhat emasculating – touch on the shoulder. “Isn’t that sweet. Wally thought he was gonna come out on top.” She shared a sly smile with Wally. They were often rivals, but the truth was also that he genuinely respected her. When they had first met, she was just a nobody lawyer wannabe, not even an up-and-comer yet. Her beauty was both an asset and a detriment in that era of her career. The boy’s club didn’t take her seriously and, more often than she liked to think about, they would make passes at her behind closed doors.
There had been an unfortunate shady period where Shonda knew she was baring an unjust and mistaken scarlet letter of sorts. It was the worst kept secret in town that many members of the male-dominated Atlanta lawyer scene whispered about who she must have slept with to get where she had gotten in so short a time. There was no truer proof of the entrenched sexism in her profession or the region itself than the sheer disbelief some men carried at the idea of a woman daring to outshine them at every turn. She was proud to know that she had never crossed that line, and didn’t mind making sure she looked good doing it to twist the knife in her critics’ backs all the more.
Wally, on the other hand, was a member of another class of man. He was a gentleman. After a few cases against each other, the poor guy had given a knock on her office door and gave her a very timid and nervous ask out to dinner. Shonda had been relieved to have the old stand-by of “Wally, we really shouldn’t. It would cross a professional line.” The truth was, the little guy was a bit of a dweeb. They both knew he was hitting a little above his weight on asking her out. She was a head-turner and he looked like, well, a lawyer. Still, in a world of men counting her out, getting away with inappropriate remarks, or even placing a hand where they knew it didn’t belong, it was a breath of fresh air to actually know a man who was old-fashioned enough to not be a monster. She had never made fun of him behind his back about it, and was genuinely happy for him when he got married a couple of years later. They had a lot of water under the bridge, but she was genuinely happy whenever she learned he was going up against her. They fought fair against each other always. That was starting to sadly be a limited quality these days.
Her next handshake was with a man who was the exact opposite of Wally. Jackson Moreland was one of the hottest attorneys in the region. He wore a suit better than any man his age had any business to, and he sported the strongest jawline that she had ever known. All the assurance of a veteran lawyer with decades more experience, all packed into an achingly attractive young body. They had shared a lunch once at a restaurant near the courthouse, and Shonda still remembered thinking about letting her calf kick out, just a bit, to brush up against his leg. That feeling, that girlish exhilaration at the idea of even a casual “accidental” touch, had been the closest she had ever come to crossing the line.
She often wondered what she would have done if he had made a move on her that afternoon. The truth was, however, that he definitely did not. He kept things intimate and whispered, but professional, and Shonda had a feeling he knew that must drive some women crazy. Moreland had the nerve to be not only one of the best lawyers in town – he was certainly the most attractive – and here he was having the nerve to never hit on her.
He did want her in another way, however. He, like many of the partnered lawyers in the city, wanted her to join his firm. There were many entities courting her these days – enough that she was just starting to come to terms with the fact that she was kind of a big deal. Wally had mentioned this to her earlier in the week, listing off the top firms that she was rumored to be closely courting. She had enjoyed letting him know that he didn’t even know about the best three. Moreland was with one of those: Kaplan & Warren & Statham & Beauregard. It was no secret that Jackson was ravenous to add a “& Moreland” to that already too-much-of-a-mouthful company name. Bringing aboard an up-and-coming successful attorney at the top of her game – say, a Shonda Lassiter for example – would certainly be a help on his way to putting his name on their dull but impressive business cards and large metal nameplate that dominated the front lobby.
That, however, wasn’t Shonda’s dream at all. No, there was no desire in her to be one of the names on a list that made her firm’s title too long for an average business card. She wasn’t even intrigued by a corner office in a tall building. Shonda liked making her own coffee and having an office on the second floor, overlooking the street just right. She liked being down near the people – the actual people – who she was working for. She also preferred those people to not be rich snobs. Jackson Moreland’s life was lousy with rich snobs. He magically wasn’t becoming one himself, but he knew just what watch to wear and where to take the snobs for dinner, cigars, or pole dancing so that he could seal the deal. Shonda wanted clients that needed true help, not for a tax write-off to go away. As it was, she was so very close to fully achieving her dream – however it didn’t look like it to many of the other lawyers in town…
… Shonda was on the verge of making partner in just five years at Kerns & Dunaway, one of the most highly regarded law firms in Atlanta (and one with a still not-bonkers-long name as well, so bonus, yeah?). Terrance Dunaway was the first person who ever assigned her a case. No professional lawyer ever put stake in her ability to succeed before him. He was a heartfelt mentor and friend and, no, he had never so much as let a dirty joke fly around her or anyone she knew. She had once overheard a rat-faced intern make a joke about her and Terrance and she almost put the kid through a wall. Only after the fact did she realize that, unlike any other jokes that had ever sent her over the edge, it wasn’t the slight on her that pissed her off. It was the idea that they were disrespecting Terrance. He was the patron saint of her career in law.
It was only because of the shot he had given her that Shonda had become what she was now: a gladiator in Louboutins, with a tough exterior and confrontational nature that made her the “go-to” defender for high profile cases. She had a who’s who roster of star clients, but her dreams involved bigger moves than just other law firms. The pieces were falling into place for her to leave her group practice and start her own law firm. She knew it would mean driving a worse car than Jackson – or even Wally – but Shonda wanted fewer celebrity cases and more grassroots changing people’s lives for the better. Terrance understood this. Many were worried that he was going to be mad when it finally came time for her to set off on her own. Shonda knew he understood her though. For anyone who truly knew Shonda, they knew she believed that the law was there to save people’s lives; not just their tax returns or business dealings. She worked hardest when it was to save a family’s rent check, to get back a grandmother’s heirloom, or to keep a child’s parent out of unfair jail time. She knew she only had to establish herself at Kerns & Dunaway for a few more months to establish herself well enough to create her own practice and failure was not an option – but she also knew that, no matter how she tried, not everything worked out the way she planned…
Breaking her from her glad-handing with the masses surrounding the courtroom doors, she suddenly felt a strong hand press to her arm. A voice, soft but deep, whispered into her ear: “Shonda, I need to speak to you. It’s urgent.”
At first, she bristled at whoever was taking her arm in such a way. She turned, about to protest and pull away, until she saw who it was. “Brice? What are you doing here?” Brice Larson was a good man, a former cop who had turned in his badge when he found corruption in his higher-ups. Because of his past, it was odd to see him in this part of the city, which was dominated by the courthouse and police department. Back when he was muscled off the force, Shonda had wondered if Brice was being too naïve about his career in law enforcement – what police department wasn’t wracked with bribes and double-dealing? It had impressed her to watch as Brice stuck to his guns, but she was saddened to see later that it didn’t exactly assure him a heroic exit or a very comfortable future. Instead, he had ended up working as Head of Security on what must have been the most boring beat in the greater Atlanta area…
Mountaintop was the largest mega-Church in the state and it was aiming to someday say the same about the nation. It broadcast every sermon internationally to the faithful, and wallpapered every highway on the East Coast with billboards proclaiming the words of the Christian Bible and the works of Jesus Christ. Four United States Presidents had attended services there over the decades (two of which the Church wasn’t ashamed of). If you asked any homeless person in the city what building mattered to them most, it was Mountaintop Church. It was a monolith of social impact for Atlanta, a haven for lost souls everywhere, and its pastor just happened to be Shonda’s stepfather.
Though Shonda had a checkered past with her powerful and outspoken stepdad, Brice had always been a staunch defender of his character. That faith of his, however, was being rocked today. “Shonda… it’s Reverend Richards – your father. He’s in trouble.”
Shonda could tell by his eyes that that trouble just happened to be big. Without a word, she led him out of the courthouse and they hurried out into the parking lot toward Brice’s car. “What kind of trouble?” she asked en route.
It felt like only moments later when Shonda found herself sitting across a police station interrogation table from Reverend Sherman Richards. She remembered that Brice drove her over here, but her brain was churning for the entire ride – chewing over the impossibility that he had whispered to her in the parking garage of the courthouse just before getting into his car: “Shonda… they think the Reverend killed a man.”
That sentence was echoing in her mind and making her question if she was awake at all. Crap. Has this all been a dream? Am I about to wake up and have to shower and get to the courthouse to defend Becky again? The reality of the situation shook into clear focus, however, as Pastor Richards was led into the room before her. This was a man she was used to seeing in a crisp suit and tie behind a pulpit, his sermon being projected onto massive screens on the walls to either side. Here he was today, face awash in fear, and being roughly cuffed to a harsh metal table. Knowing it wasn’t going to do any good, she attempted a protest on his behalf. “Officer, I know this man and, believe me, the handcuffs aren’t necessar–”
Like she predicted, they weren’t listening to her at all. Though he was a celebrity of the church circuit, this jailer didn’t know the difference between Reverend Richards and any other car thief, drug dealer, or wife beater he was used to escorting down the halls of this place. He affixed one handcuff to Reverend Richards and the other to a stark metal ring on the table in the center of the room. Shonda sat on the opposite side from him, having no idea what to say to the poor man, who was obviously beside himself with worry and fear. He was the one that broke the silence. Though he spoke in a stammer, you could tell he meant his words in an urgent and desperate way. It was a plea: “I didn’t do it, Shonda.”
Shonda had stared into a thousand faces as they told her that they “didn’t do” something. It had been an agonizing thing to perfect, but she was now fully able to tell if someone saying such a thing was a lie or not – usually by the time the person had finished the sentence. Her heart still ached from the half a dozen cases in which she had been wrong about in the past, mostly at the start of her career when she was still green. Nowadays, however, she considered herself a human lie detector. She remembered, bringing a sour taste in her mouth, the last time she was wrong about it – a three-time murderer from Greensboro – and she shuddered at the thought. It gave her some comfort, in contrast, to count the years between that last failed diagnosis and now. She hasn’t been wrong about guilt in over nine years. Reverend Richards, right there in front of her, wasn’t lying. He hadn’t done it. Shonda had known that, however, before he had even said it. Sometimes she didn’t need to hear it from the mouth of the accused. Sometimes she could tell by the premise of the crime that it just didn’t add up. Didn’t seem right. Not one bit of any of this right here seemed right in the slightest.
The grisly information that was presented for her over the next hour shook her to the core. Her stepfather was being held under suspicion of first degree murder, and it was a murder most gruesome. A man had been found, strangled and stabbed, with his mouth stuffed with journal papers soaked in blood. Detectives were still piecing together what the papers said – and forensics was carefully probing deeper inside the victim’s throat to see if more pages had been lodged further inside. However, the overwhelming evidence was becoming all too clear on the gore-stained pages. In careful script that was a calling card of the author, they discovered it was a letter from Reverend Richards himself. They were trying to make out more of the message that was delivered in such a grisly way but, for now, the only words that were discernible through the dead man’s blood was the very last line, “I know what you did and this is how I want to forgive you.” The damning message was even signed at the bottom. So few words, but they were all it took. It practically read like a confession of the crime.
Her brain was a whirl just trying to accept the circumstances of the day. She and her stepfather didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, it was true – they had fought over law, religion, who sits where at Thanksgiving, how best to care for her mother – but she never considered him even capable of committing a crime, let alone first degree murder. Normally she called him Reverend Richards, as did most of the people in his life. Across this table, however, she was surprised as she called him: “Dad… what did you mean, ‘I know what you did’ – before we keep talking. I need to know the answer to that.”
The question made his eyes well with emotion. He obviously knew the answer, and it terrified him to say it aloud. He shook his head and fell silent. After waiting long enough, Shonda stood. “I’m praying you didn’t murder that man. But you did write that letter. When you’re ready to talk about it, I’m ready to defend you.” As she stepped out, she noticed those same high heel footfalls of hers. They sounded so confident back in her winning courtroom that morning. Now they sounded like they were echoing in a dark world of doubt.
Outside the room, Brice was surprised to see how much Shonda kept her composure. She was all business, giving the police a list of demands as to the pastor’s treatment. “My client is not to share a cell with anybody. I want him under constant–”
An officer took an ill-advised route, interrupting her with a challenge. “Your client? Is that an official status? That’s news to us.”
Shonda knew they were right – her stepdad hadn’t hired her… and she hadn’t fully offered her services yet, either – but that didn’t stop her from cutting violently through any red tape they were considering throwing up to get in the way. “Well, then here’s news. I’m his lawyer. That’s as official as you need to know. And when I represent one of your inmates, you know what that means. Keep him safe. Treat him legally. Or I will rain hell.” The officer stayed quiet behind the desk, but Shonda didn’t let him off the hook. “So we’re good, right. We’re clear?” Brice stifled a smirk as the officer only managed a slight nod in reply. He was clear. Shonda got no further argument throughout the precinct – a force to be reckoned with – as she strutted out of the station on a warpath.
Brice watched her keep that confident strut all the way out the door and across the sun-drenched parking lot on the way to his car. It was the kind of painfully humid day that could sap the energy out of just about anybody, yet she moved like an electrified gazelle. He had always been enamored of Shonda – hell, most of the men he knew were – but she had also always heavily intimidated him. His security work at her stepdad’s church often sat them beside each other at dinners and functions. They were friendly, but he had always chosen to let his crush take the backseat to a healthy amount of respect… and a bit of fear. Over the years, that strategy had proven itself a winner. He knew quite a few guys who had suffered a tongue lashing when they tried to get too close. He considered her unattainable romantically, so he had grown to accept just being close acquaintances via family.
Watching her power strut, however, was a sight to behold – even under such horrible circumstances as the conviction of a man who was such a father figure to him.
Once they reached Brice’s car, however, he was suddenly privy to a side of Shonda that he didn’t even know was possible. She slid into his passenger seat and didn’t seem to hear him as he asked, “So, where are we headed?” He let the uncomfortable and charged silence hang there a moment, as her eyes seemed to lose themselves in the plastic pattern on the dashboard in front of her. She reached out an arm – Brice noticed it was shaking – and placed her hand flat on the dashboard. This seemed to steady her for a moment…
… then Shonda’s shoulders started to pulse and quiver in a way that was easy for Brice to identify. She was obviously holding back a full-on tearful breakdown. He cast aside any cares about keeping a polite distance now, seeing only a person in need right there before him. He placed a hand on her arm. “It’s okay. I feel the same way. Let it out.”
She tried to brush this off, but her chest was beginning to heave. “I’m fine. I’m fine. Just drive. I don’t want them to see.”
Brice did as she desired. He rolled them out of the parking lot, far from any lawyers or police that she needed to shield her emotions from. As soon as they got around the corner, Shonda broke down into a fit of uncontrollable sobs. Brice drove on, occasionally letting out a small chirp of support that he couldn’t tell if she was even hearing or not. “I understand. We all do. It’s a lot to try and digest.” Shonda just traced the back of her fingers down the window glass beside her and stared out as she wept, perfect makeup now running down her cheeks.
Heading away from the city center, Brice circled Centennial Olympic Park a few times, then meandered near the Botanical Gardens. His mind drifted to how the cruise of the city with her would make for a lovely afternoon under any other circumstances. Eventually, however, he felt it was time to try and help her focus and get back to the matter at hand. When he broke the silence and again asked her where she would like him to take her – assuring her that he was up to the task, no matter what action she thought was right – Shonda fumbled into her purse for a pair of sunglasses and slipped them on as she spoke. She seemed haunted by the answer even as it left her mouth. “I– I need to go see my mother.”