Claire helps a young lawyer trying to overturn murder conviction her own father prosecuted
"Just when I think I have learned the way to live, life changes."
I'm the person you compare yourself to when you're hung-over or finished a marathon. I'm here to tell you, no, you don't feel like you've been hit by a bus. Even a slow-moving one will damn near kill you. Mine traveled only 20 miles per hour, and left me with a broken back, nerve damage and, worst of all, a traumatic brain injury.
After two years of therapy, my world-renowned neurologist paged through his file, flipping through some pages and taking time with others. "Your improvement leveled off months ago. There is no more we can do for you."
"So now what?" I asked. "Who's taking over my care?"
The middle-aged, geeky man eyed me. "No one."
"No one?" My voice sounded shrill and I tried to gain control. "When do I go back to work?"
"Perhaps I was ambiguous." He cleared his throat. People do that when there's something in their heads that they didn't want out there for the world to hear. "You won't ever work. You'll probably never follow a recipe. This is likely the best you'll be."
What? No! "But you said it's a MILD traumatic brain injury."
"Such an injury can be devastating, Claire. We discussed this."
I shook my head. "No." I couldn't give up my life's work, keeping the worst criminals out of prison and on the streets of Chicago. "Fuck." There it was, my most frequent word back in the day, when I needed lots of emphasis and shock value to kick prosecutors to my way of thinking. The word was absent from my vocabulary for two years, but this guy, this quack, needed a kick start. The man's life work was curing people with traumatic brain injury, for God’s sake.
I straightened and pointed one finger at his nose. "I've been patient with you, Doctor."
He cocked his head. "Not really."
So chiding wouldn't help. Maybe pleading. "But you can't stop now. You haven't cured me yet. There's much more for you to do: make the right words come easily and the wrong ones stay inside my head. Make uncomplicated, stupid things easy so I can concentrate on the complexities no one else can understand."
He stepped towards me, like he might hold my hand or give me a hug, but thought better of it. Perhaps I recoiled, as I was never receptive to hugs. He stopped and gazed at his own feet. What was wrong with his feet? "I'm sorry, we've exhausted our options." Then he gazed directly into my eyes. His feet must have been okay. "My advice: go home and relax. Don't trust your own judgment. You'll always think you're right, but you seldom will be. Depend on others to help you. And keep up your counseling. You'll need it."
Two years later, four years since the accident, my mind is no longer the sponge it was, soaking up information for later use in arguments or speeches. Rather, it's like Teflon, shirking new facts never to be recalled. With the brain injury came odd quirks that were supposed to go away, but didn't. I can't stop speaking in a South African style British accent. With too much activity, I "hit the wall," suddenly becoming too weary to stand. The most annoying: I blurt. The filters that stop other people from saying inappropriate things don't always work for me; words bubble out of my mouth and I want to grab them from the air before they reach others' ears.
I accepted my new normal, shortly after that doctor appointment. Constant adrenaline rushes I'd lived for in my past life was simply missing now. I started to paint. Abstracts, because I had no training and couldn't draw anything recognizable if I placed my hand flat on paper and moved a pencil slowly around my fingers. Many days, I mindlessly watched movies over and over. Heck, I could watch snow fall for hours.
My old partner, Ben Daniels, had called me a couple of times each month since my accident with gossip and updates. This time, though, he asked me to "come on in and jawbone."
"Jawbone?" I asked. Ben's deep Tennessee drawl and Southern phrases often confused me.
"Talk, chat. You know, jawbone," he said. "How 'bout now?"
I hadn't come to my old office in four years. "I nearly forgot how awesome this is," I said to the unfamiliar, stout woman behind the desk.
"Yes, it's lovely," she said flatly. Ben needed to fire this sloth and find the kind of receptionist we had before, the kind who made clients smile and overlook their lawyers’ tardiness.
What an intriguing mix of mahogany, glass and steel, straight lines coming together in stark angles, and a wall of eighteen-foot windows overlooking Lake Michigan. When we opened the firm, we covered the support beams with wildly expensive silver leaf that not only fit in, but took center stage in the room. The decor came together as a jaw-dropping statement of power and wealth to our clients.
Nothing changed since I left, down to the carefully chosen modern lamps and oversized paintings. Hopefully they'd also kept the open personal atmosphere I worked so hard to cultivate. We encouraged all lawyers, even the newest associates, to say what was on their minds. These were bright people in pressure cookers; blowing off steam throughout the day was cathartic and built camaraderie.
Ben and his hound dog, Jethro, greeted me and led me to his office, the one that used to be mine. We took our seats, Jethro at Ben's feet, me in a chair my clients previously occupied.
"Damn, you fixed my desk," I said. I threw a high heel at the ten-thousand-dollar furniture in a fit of rage years ago, deeply scratching it. "I was proud of that little battle scar." I’d enjoyed breaking stuff.
Ben nodded with a slight grin, then fiddled with papers that didn't need straightening. He spoke in his slow drawl. "I know conversation can wear you out, so I'll get right to the point. I want you to mentor Liz. Your dad'll be mad if he finds out, ‘cause the case y'all will be working on is State versus J. Hobart Jones."
Good Lord, Chicago's most infamous murder in fifty years. The case that rocketed Dad into national politics. The one that started the media attention that ruined my mother. Judy Jones’ butt's discovery ran through my mind, and the whirlwind year that followed as my father put together the case and convicted the monster who cut up his wife with a chainsaw. Finally, the monster was to be executed, and the story would be over.
"Claire?" Ben said, snapping me back to the present. "I know you were Bobby Jones' schoolmate, and your dad tried the case, so you might hesitate. Wha'dya think?"
What did I think? I thought Ben was crazy. I couldn't figure out how to work an unusual door knob; I was certainlyin no shape to help someone working on a death penalty case.
"Why would Elizabeth need a mentor? She's been practicing for five years."
"Liz is talented. But she's nasty as a polecat in a burlap bag. You ruined her, and we can hardly let her out in public, let alone put her up in front of news cameras. A considerable attitude adjustment is in order. It’s a good job for you now that you’ve settled into a kinder and gentler life."
"I didn't ruin anyone," I protested.
"She tries to be you, but she didn't come in with the finesse you brought. She seems to think your power came from being mean, and can't tell her bitchiness is different from yours."
"I wasn't bitchy."
Ben leaned forward. "Liz is gorgeous, young, brilliant. She can be the new face of the firm with a little work." He shrugged, but I knew he was more concerned than he let on. "Our best clients are growing up and staying out of trouble, Claire. We need a new star to bring in the next generation of bad guys." Prolific criminals often lost their edge, grew some sense, went to prison or died before they turn thirty-five, and younger ones rose to take their places. A firm had to stay on top to continue bringing in the major criminals.
"Where are the young guys going for their legal work?" I asked.
"Everyone wanted the Senator's daughter to represent 'im, but now you're gone and the rest of us are just another bunch 'a hacks," Ben said. "So, can you help us out?"
"You want me to follow Elizabeth around? Tell her how to act? I'm limited, you know."
"Whenever you're up to it. Call it pro bono, 'cause we're not paying you." Ben smiled broadly, his eyes narrowing to little slits. He looked as well as sounded like a Tennessee hick, with broad cheekbones and squinty eyes. Those eyes danced, though; the man was affable to a fault.
Thoughts of the Jones trial ran through my mind. A chiropractor nicknamed "Doc Hollywood" for his extravagant lifestyle killed his wife with a chainsaw. To me, it meant excused absences from school for three weeks so I could watch Dad put away a killer. A man Dad had been acquainted with, someone I now know he shouldn't have prosecuted. Lawyers don't prosecute friends or people they've been seen with regularly. Dad dismissed any hint of wrong-doing. "Hollywood didn't object, and he got the death penalty. Why would anyone else even mention a possible conflict of interest?"
The most riveting testimony came from Dr. Jones' son, Bobby. At only twelve, he was a senior at Roycemore with a year's worth of college credits, with a higher I.Q. than Albert Einstein. The boy sobbed on the witness stand. "Dad yelled at Mom and said he'd cut her up into little pieces before he'd let her divorce him." Listening to Bobby's story brought a tear to my eye. My dad teared up, too, right there at the prosecutor's table. Mustering tears was one of those disingenuous talents Dad mastered years ago.
Then someone found a piece of Judy Jones -- her butt and hips, specifically -- floating in the Chicago River. The murder occurred before law enforcement utilized DNA, but a steel hip and a plate holding two vertebrae together identified her. Dr. Jones must not have considered the body part would float to the surface with all that metal. He went on the radio pleading for her to come home, creating the illusion that she had just left one day.
"But he slipped up, ladies and gentlemen," my dad proclaimed in his opening statement. "J. Hobart Jones is the only person in this world with a motive to kill Judy. She would have taken half his money in a divorce, after rumors swirled about a possible affair. Then he covered it up. And J. Hobart Jones left the kind of irrefutable circumstantial evidence that points to him as his wife's killer. Beyond a reasonable doubt."
A police officer testified he found Judy's car abandoned at the airport, as if she drove there and flew away. But the driver's seat was as far back as it could go. Dr. Jones stood at 6'7" while his wife was barely five feet tall. The seat would have been in its most forward position if Judy drove. Another officer told of finding a "brand spanking new" chainsaw in Dr. Jones' garage, like he used one to cut up his wife and then replaced it. "Brand spanking new?" Dad asked, chuckling. "Is that newer than regular old new?" The question wasn't funny, but the jury chuckled with him, because they adored him.
The same officer testified an area of Jones' basement floor appeared less faded than the rest -- an area about the size of a chest-style freezer, one that might hold a body until it was time to hack it to bits. And, the only scientific evidence: Judy Jones' blood in her own dining room. Hollywood tried to clean it with bleach, but the crime scene technicians pulled up the floorboards and found a small dried pool underneath. "He hacked her to pieces where his family shared Christmas dinner," Dad told the jury.
Hollywood never confessed, but everyone knew he killed her.