The Tortoise Shell Code by V Frank Asaro (Excerpt 6)

Posted on Saturday, July 27, 2013

A Walk in the Midnight Sun

Anthony Darren sat alone at a small table in a dark back corner of the jammed bar, listening to the jukebox playing “Sweet Home Alabama.” Well, what else? It seemed like “Sweet Home Alabama” was the only current song any jukebox played in 1974.

The view through the plate glass window a few feet away overlooked the rigging, masts and hulls that filled one of the most scenic yacht basins in San Diego Bay. Halfway through his second scotch, above the din of laughter and guitar riffs, Anthony heard a woman’s voice: “I know you.”

He looked up. “Hi, maybe so.” With the dim light behind her and so much cigarette smoke in the air, he saw only her silhouette from the bosom down. But it was a terrific silhouette.

“Would you mind some company?” she asked. “I’m afraid your table has the only available chair in the place.”

“No wonder you said you know me. Sure, no problem, sit down.” He adjusted the chair for her. As she seated herself, a pair of black horn-rims perched on a pert nose came into view. The glasses partially hid a face he was sure he’d seen somewhere, maybe on the front page of a fashion magazine. She held what looked like a gin and tonic.

“Hi. My name is Laura Evans. I really meant it when I said I know who you are: Anthony Darren. I’ve seen you in the courtroom.”

Anthony didn’t respond. A few bars of different music filled the space: thank God, someone had discovered “Bennie and the Jets.”

“Why so glum?” she said. “You look like a kid who lost his puppy.”

“Lost something. It wasn’t a puppy.”

“Sorry…I don’t mean to be nosy.”

“Okay, then, I’ll be nosy. Tell me all about you.”

“Well…I do editing and proofreading for an educational book publisher, and also write the occasional newspaper article.”

“You’re a writer?”

“Not full-time. I also moonlight as a legal secretary.” Her gaze intensified. “I watched you in court one afternoon about six months ago and sold a small piece about it to the Business Daily. Did you see it?”

“Let’s see, the Archer case?”

“That’s it.”

He rubbed his chin. “I read that article. Factually very accurate. Well done for such a complicated matter.”


But he was looking out the window again. As pretty as this girl was, and as intelligent as she seemed, he wished she hadn’t intruded on his solitude. Well, that’s what you get when you look for privacy in a crowded bar, you moron.

After the silence stretched uncomfortably thin, he looked back at her, looked squarely into a pair of frankly sympathetic eyes of darkest brown. Eyes you could fall into.

“Tell me about it,” she said.

And he realized he wanted to. Realized that was exactly why he’d come here—to improve the odds of talking. To anyone. About anything. He smiled. “I just left my house, and no one there showed any interest in talking to me.”

“I’m different. I could be your secret admirer.”

“You’re also a journalist. This isn’t going to end up in the Business News, is it? ‘Half-Drunk Lawyer Whines Like Baby?’”

“Strictly off the record. I promise.”

“In that case, I can’t be rude to a possible secret admirer. But kick me or throw an ice cube at me if I talk too much.”

“Deal. Go on; I’m a good listener.” She shifted forward on her elbows with her chin cradled in her knuckles. He noticed her breasts jiggle beneath a thin sweater: no bra.

“Okay. My last trial. I’d been in court for a month defending these guys, Phillips, Jones & Conrad. Three partners with everything at stake. One day Conrad caught me in the hall outside the courtroom and said he was concerned about Phillips’ health. Said the old guy had heart problems and was making himself sick worrying about the case. Could I do something to pep him up—give him a boost? Like, tell him we had a reasonable chance to win?”

A waitress brought the drinks. When the glasses were on the table Anthony said to Laura, “Are you with me so far?”

“Of course. Cheers.” She lifted her glass and touched it to his. “So, did you?”

“Did I what?”

“Have a reasonable chance of winning the case?”

He sipped his drink; actually sucked half of it down. “You never know. It didn’t look good, but you never know. The judge made some promising comments. So I was torn between wanting to ease Mr. Phillips’ stress and at the same time be completely truthful. But one day I saw him standing in the hall, looking real bad. On impulse I went over, put my arm around his shoulder and told him to perk up—things would get better. We had a pretty good chance of winning, I said. He looked very happy. ‘Do you really think so?’ he asked. I said sure. And at the time, you know, I believed it.”

She leaned farther forward. “So, did you win?”

“No. I lost. Lost big. As my secret admirer, you must have heard about it: TV cameras rolling outside the courtroom when we left, reporters cornering Phillips.” He finished his scotch. “Four days later I’m at his funeral, watching his wife and kids say farewell to his casket. Heart attack. The night of the decision.”

Laura reached over and placed a warm palm on Anthony’s hand. Said nothing.

He stared back out at the boats. “I holed up in my house for three days reenacting the case in my head. The truth is that from the get-go I knew we were almost certain to lose. But as the case evolved I thought we had a reasonable chance. Maybe the let-down for Phillips wouldn’t have been so harsh if I’d better prepared him to handle it. I don’t know—I can’t shake the feeling I’m partly responsible for his death.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Anthony. Surely you realize that.” She squeezed his hand again.

He looked at her. “Isn’t it funny that you’re the only person I’ve been able to talk to about this? Maybe a stranger is exactly who I needed. I appreciate your listening.” He paused. “I also broke up with my girlfriend tonight. It was a long time in coming. We both knew it.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No. I went back to work today—for the first time since Phillips died—and when I got home she was sitting in my kitchen with all her cackling buddies—drinking, smoking and having a good ol’ time. She hardly even noticed me. I felt like a renter stopping by to change clothes.” He shook his head. “So I suggested that the party might be over; she knew how I still felt about the funeral. When they didn’t leave, I did.”

To his astonishment tears appeared in Laura’s eyes, their shine almost missed behind the horn-rims. Been through it, too, he thought. And in that instant he was swept away. How long had it had been since he’d known a woman with such an open and touchable heart? Since Cheryl, that’s how long.

He smiled. “Will it surprise you to hear I’ve never been married?”

“Will it surprise you to hear I was married and don’t want to talk about it?”

“Hey, that’s not fair.”

“Maybe some other time.”

“Kids?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“Me neither. No wife, no girlfriend, no kids…only work. Am I a living cliché or what?”

“I read up on your background for that article I wrote. It didn’t seem cliché to me. A full scholarship to Berkeley Law…and then you volunteered for combat in Vietnam?”

He fiddled with his empty glass. “Well, I was going over there one way or the other, right? Like everybody else. Could have opted for JAG, and soon I ended up there anyway, but…it sounds ridiculous when I say it.”

“Go ahead.”

“You know Berkeley’s reputation, politically—‘Moscow West.’ Well, one night I went to an event and some antiwar activists had this North Vietnamese propaganda film. It showed American soldiers getting gunned down—and the audience applauded. It pissed me off so much I went across the bay the next day and enlisted. I saw two other law students from my class doing the same thing; they were in the audience at the film too. Reported for duty the week after graduation.”

“And saw action.”

“Yes. Some. Then became a Judge-Advocate—a military lawyer—after all. They needed me more there.”

“So the law is your passion.”

He hesitated. “You could say it’s another way to fight the good fight.”

“Okay. So after your enlistment ended you came back to San Diego, served as a deputy DA for five years, and now you’re a member of one of the top law firms in the city, specializing in shipping and maritime accidents.”

“You did do your homework.”

“Why that particular niche?”

He shrugged. “My best friend in high school came from a tuna fishing family, so I learned a lot about the industry and developed real admiration for the people who do it. I don’t know, it just seemed a natural direction for me to take.”

“According to rumor, you’re very good at it.”

“I thought so, until that last trial.” He spun the glass between his hands. “I don’t know, maybe I’m already burning out. I’ve been going from trial to trial to trial for so long I’m beginning to feel like a dolphin spending too much time between resurfacings.”

“Then slow down. Take a breath.”

“I’m not sure I know how.” He gave a laugh. “Sorry, I’m not usually so mawkish. You’re very gracious to sit here listening to me whimper.”

Again, the warmth of her hand pressed against his. “Maybe it’s not burnout or even too much dedication. Maybe you’re running away from some fundamental disappointment in your life.”

Her eyes were—there was no other word for it—hypnotic. “Are you sure you’re not the reincarnation of Sigmund Freud?”

“No, I told you. I’m your secret admirer.”

“Not so secret now.”

“No, not so secret. So ‘fess up. What’s really got you down?”

He shrugged. “I guess I feel the need for something…more. Graduating from college I almost went into political science. Had written some papers, got some recognition. Had some ideas. Well, those ideas are still there. In fact they keep growing, looking for a way out.”

“What kind of ideas?”

“Oh no you don’t. I haven’t had that much to drink.”

“Drat. My evil plan has failed.”

He laughed, and on impulse reached out to brush a lock of her thick shiny hair behind her ear.

“That smile looks good on you,” she said. “I love a deep thinker who can laugh.”

“And I love a deep laugher who can think. What? Damn, I have had too much to drink.” He threw enough crumpled money on the table to pay the tab plus a generous tip, then stood. “May I walk you to your car?”

She took his arm and they maneuvered together through the crowd and into the refreshing night.

“Where is your car?” she asked.

“Let’s see, about two blocks away.”

“C’mon; I’ll give you a ride to it.” She escorted him to a well-used sedan, climbed in, waited until he was buckled, and then pulled into the street.

“Right turn at the next corner,” he said. His tongue felt a little thick. “I’m down about half a block.”

At the corner she slowed…and turned left.

“Laura. You’re going the wrong way.”

“No I’m not.”

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Genre – Legal Drama

Rating – PG13

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