I could feel the oatmeal I'd had for breakfast threatening to make a premature exit out of the wrong hole. Oh God, please don't let me puke all over my new shoes. It was court day, the first day of Wolf West's trial. The perp was being charged with breaking and entering into an electronics store and making off with some high end merchandise. West got away clean, but the next day when he was transporting the goods to the buyer, he got pulled over for speeding by a rookie police officer, only a few months out of the Academy. Yeah, that'd be me.
That's what I was doing in the courthouse this morning, in my tan suit I'd had to buy especially for this occasion. Usually this testifying stuff is done by experienced detectives, not officers like me, but according to the DA most of this case hangs on what I say up on that stand. No pressure.
My training officer, Detective Harris told me not to sweat it, that the Wests are criminals through and through, and every member of that jury is going to know it. I was pretty new to the force, but I already heard the stories of the infamous West clan. The guy who, god-willing, I'd be putting away today, was only the most recent in a legacy of liars and thieves the Wests have spawned over the past century.
The family tradition aspect is only one part of what makes this group such a source of gossip around the precinct. The main topic of debate amongst my peers is the "West Code" or as they refer to it, "The West Code of Honor". I mean you've heard the saying "no honor among thieves" but according to the Wests, there is. Basically this so-called code comes down to three things, number 1: No Snitching. Almost every crook out there will insist that they would never turn on a fellow criminal, right up until their own fat's in the fire, and then they start singing a difference tune. Not the Wests. According to Harris you cannot flip a West. It cannot be done.
As for rules number 2 and 3, no drugs and no violence, there is some argument whether this is supposed to be a moral choice or just a strategy to avoid the harsher penalties that accompany these more serious offences. I have noticed that those among the police force that take the former view are of the female persuasion. If you saw the youngest member of the West gang you'd understand. Apparently not even police women are immune to this punk's supposed "bad boy" charm.
My own brief encounter with this criminal left me with a somewhat different impression of him. "Entitled" is the word that springs to mind. A guy like Wolf will live his entire life doing exactly what he wants when he wants to, regardless of whatever or whoever happens to be in his way, and all the time act like it's his god given right to do so. Worse, it seems like most of the time he gets away with it. Well, not today, not on my watch. Provided I don't blow it by puking all over the witness stand.
Walking seemed like a good idea. As I wandered I focused on the other people bustling through the halls of the court house. Lawyers, criminals, witnesses, and cops all scampering to and from various places. That was when I saw her, the one still object in a storm of chaos. She was sitting alone on one of various wooden benches scattered around the courthouse, staring straight ahead, but not really seeing anything. I guessed her age to be early twenties, my age or a little younger. By anyone's standards she was a woman worth looking at. She had long blonde hair fair skin, delicate features, and a full curvy body nine out of ten men would take over any runway broomstick. It wasn't any of these things that caught my attention though. It was her eyes, big, beautiful and bright, that looked they belonged to a child whose lost her mother.
I needed to help her. I started walking without any real idea what I was going to do or say once I reached this beautiful, lost-looking stranger. I had no plan, I didn't even have a real definitive reason why I felt compelled to reach out to her in the first place. I just knew I was. I made it within three feet of the woman without her noticing me. I stood there for a second or two, unsure how to begin.
"Um, excuse me, miss?" The result of my oh, so, smooth opening was that the woman turned fast in my direction and inadvertently knocked the coffee that had been resting next to her off the bench and right on to my shoes. Oh yeah, I could already tell this was going to go real well. For her part, the woman looked horrified at the mess. She recovered faster than I did.
"Oh my God, I'm so sorry. You startled me. Here, I think I have, a, yeah-" She dug rapidly though her purse, and miraculously pulled out a rag and handed it me. She must have caught the somewhat surprised expression on my face, because she gave a small laugh.
"You'd be surprised how often one of those comes in handy. Don't worry, its clean." I froze a second, temporary stuck by the warmth of her smile. As it faded a little I realized that I was standing there, like an idiot, not doing a thing to dry my shoes. I gestured to the space next to her.
"Do you mind if I-" At last, words. Keep it up and you may actually stun her with a complete sentence.
"No, it's fine." She moved her purse to her lap, making more space for me. My shoes squeaked a little as I moved to sit down beside. By the way she was biting her lip I could tell she was trying hard not to laugh at the sound. She wasn't able to hold back a small snort. It was such a strange sound to hear coming from such a beautiful woman I couldn't help giving a chuckle of my own. In the next instant I looked at her and she looked at me and suddenly we were both laughing, a ridiculous, giddy, irrepressible laughter. I don't think either of us understood why we were laughing, but somehow it made the moment all the more funny. It was like everything that had been making me worried and tense flowed out of me in one steady stream. Watching the woman out of the corner of eye, I could tell something similar was happening with her. Every tensed muscle of her body seemed to loosen and her face suddenly glowed with excessive vitality that had been absent only minutes before. Once we'd both finally gotten the energy out of system, she turned and looked at me with a sheepish smile.
"Sorry, I don't know what came over me. Weird day I guess." She was silent for a moment and the darkness that had vanished from her eyes seemed to slowly seep back in. In an instinctive effort to keep her troubling thoughts at bay I extended my right hand to her.
"I'm Mack." Ok not a vast improvement over 'Um, excuse me?', but it achieved its objective of getting her to refocus her thoughts. She took my hand and pumped it once.
"Cheryl," I instantly decided that 'Cheryl' was my favorite word in the entire English language, "So, those shoes weren't new, were they? " The shoes. I looked down at the coffee-coated leather, unsure how to respond. Before I could make up my mind Cheryl correctly interpreted my silence.
"They were. I'm sorry, it was all my fault. I could, you know, buy you another pair-" There was no way I could ever accept her money, even if I did appreciate the generosity in the gesture.
"No, it was my fault anyway. I shouldn't have startled you."
"Are you sure?" I had never been more sure of anything in my life.
"Yeah, and besides they were mostly brown before anyway. You'd barely notice it." What on earth was I babbling? Cheryl looked down at my shoes that by now stained beyond any hope of repair. Any second now she was going to edge away from me like the idiot I so obviously was. Then a miracle happened. She started laughing again. I didn't mind, though. The sight of Cheryl when she laughed was a sight I wouldn't miss for anything, even if I was at least part of joke. She put her hand up to her mouth to muffle the sound.
"I'm sorry, again. I don't know what's gotten into me." Before she or I could say anything else, I noticed a tall man in this mid to late forties, with jet black hair that had started to grey at the temples cutting a path through the mob of people and straight to the bench where Cheryl and I were sitting. He had a drawn face and eyes were fierce and focused. I knew this man from the precincts catalogue of career offenders. This was Frank West. He and I had never met face to face, so there was no way he should have know me for the officer who was about to testify against his son, but it was the only reason I could think of that he would be shooting me that cold look of a predator narrowing in on prey. Imagine my complete surprise that when he reached the bench a few seconds later it was not me he spoke to, but Cheryl.
"Cheryl, they're gonna start in a few minutes. We should get in there." My brain struggled to process this new information. Cheryl, the beautiful woman I'd been laughing with, was on a first name basis with the man whose son I was about to put behind bars.
"Yeah. Thanks Frank." As Cheryl turned to grab her purse I got my first good look at her left hand. She was wearing a wedding ring. As my stomach dropped to somewhere around my ankles I remembered another little factoid about the West clan. Wolf West was married not longer after he graduated from juvenile courts. His young wife had already ensured the continuation of the proud West legacy with the birth of their two sons last year. Her photo wasn't yet among the illustrious collection because she'd never been arrested. My mind raced for another possible explanation and found none. Cheryl meanwhile seemed completely oblivious to the bomb that had just been dropped on my head. She followed her father-in-law for a few steps before pausing and turning to face me.
"You never did say why you came over to talk to me in the first place." I looked at Cheryl, examining her for any signs she was putting me on. I found none. She was as ignorant of my identity as I had been of hers. I couldn't decide if that was better or worse.
"I wanted to see if you were alright." The honest to God truth, not that she'd believe it once she sees me walk into her husband's courtroom.
"You wanted to see if I was alright?" She seemed puzzled, like it was hard for her to understand why a stranger would care about her well-being.
"Yeah. You had this look and I don't know, I wanted to see if I could help or something." Little did I know that I was a significant part of what was making her so miserable in the first place.
"You know something, I think you did, a little. Thanks." She smiled her breathtaking smile at me for what I now was sure would be the last time and headed off to provide morale support to her criminal husband. I sat on that bench for what felt like an eternity until Detective Harris found me, smacked me upside the head, and dragged me down to the courtroom.