Least Wanted (Sam McRae Mystery #2)
Shanae Jackson breezed into my office like she owned the place. Not even a knock or word of greeting. Pint-sized and wiry, in jeans and a plain orange T-shirt, Shanae projected an attitude that compensated for her lack of stature.
Her daughter, Tina, trailed behind her. Though she was quite tall for a 13-year-old — taller by a couple of inches than her mother — she slouched as if standing up straight carried too much responsibility. Tina slumped into a chair and began reading a book, while Shanae took the other seat and glared at me.
“Hi,” I said, hurriedly closing out the online research I’d been doing. “You must be Shanae Jackson.”
“You got someone else you meetin’ at two o’clock today?” she asked. Her piercing brown-eyed gaze pinned me to my chair.
“Then I guess I must be.” She spoke in a tone reserved for the village idiot.
I plastered on a big smile and refrained from telling her to fuck off. Standing and extending my hand, I said, “I’m Sam McRae. It’s nice to meet you.”
I half expected another snappy comeback, but she remained seated, looking at my hand like I’d just blown my nose into it. After a moment, she reached out and grasped my fingers.
I risked further sarcasm and turned to the girl. “And you must be Tina. Hi.”
Tina glanced at me. “Hey,” she said, then glued her eyes back on the book.
In contrast to Tina’s slouch, Shanae sat bolt upright, her posture as intense as her gaze. Her abundant hair was plastered back from a dark chocolate face with high cheekbones and angular lines.
I sat down and opened the thin file containing notes of my earlier phone conversation with the angry woman sitting before me.
“Is that the paperwork?” I asked, nodding toward an envelope clutched in her left hand.
Shanae thrust it at me. I pulled out folded copies of the police report and other papers concerning her daughter’s case. Smoothing them out on my desk, I took some time to review them.
“This looks pretty straightforward,” I said. “As I mentioned on the phone, I’ll need to speak to your daughter alone.”
I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but Shanae’s expression hardened.
“I gots to stay,” she said. “I’m her mother.”
“Tina is my client. I have to discuss the case with her alone.”
“But I’m her mother,” she said.
I suppressed a sigh. In juvenile cases, it’s never easy to explain to parents the need for complete attorney-client confidentiality. From the moment I saw her, I knew Shanae Jackson would be no exception.
“I have an ethical duty to keep client confidences,” I said. “Things Tina and I say in front of you are no longer confidential.”
“But I’m her mother.” She stressed the last word, as if I hadn’t heard it the first two times. Shooting a withering look at Tina, she slapped the girl’s arm. “Put that book down, child!” With a grimace, Tina closed the book and set it on her lap.
“In the eyes of the law, you’re another person. I have to ask you to leave.”
“I’ll find another lawyer,” she said, her eyes filled with accusations of my shortcomings.
“You can ask the Public Defender for the name of another lawyer who’ll do this for a reduced fee, but whoever you get will tell you the same thing.”
Still glaring at me, Shanae kept silent. If she thought that look would force me to change my mind, the woman knew nothing about me. Or maybe she resented the fact that, while she was too well-off to get a public defender, one glance at my dinky sublet office and she could see I was no Gloria Allred. I was just another scrambling solo who took work from the public defender’s short list of private attorneys willing to represent defendants on the financial borderline.
“White people,” she said, for no apparent reason.
I didn’t know if she was smitten with her own voice or blamed white people for her lot in life, the rules of professional conduct, or the price of gas. Maybe she was disappointed at my color. For the pittance I stood to earn from this case, I was ready to tell her to find a black attorney.
I considered telling her about my childhood in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn or pointing to the wall behind her at my father’s photo of Jackie Robinson entering the Dodgers clubhouse through the door marked “KEEP OUT.” Not so much to impress her, but to clue her in that she didn’t know jack shit about me.
She grumbled, “This is bullshit.”
I yanked open the bottom drawer of my old wooden desk and hauled out my Yellow Pages, dropping it, with an intentional thud, in front of her. “Here you go,” I said, flipping to the attorney listings. “Call anyone. And be prepared to pay dearly for what they have to say.”
She pursed her lips and continued to give me the evil eye. But she knew I had her. “Fine,” she said. Grabbing the large black purse she’d parked next to her, she shot to her feet as if the chair were on fire. “I need to do some shopping,” she announced.
I nodded and smiled, like I gave a damn where she was going or what she intended to do. “This shouldn’t take more than an hour.”
“Hmmph.” She turned toward Tina. In a stern voice, she said, “You behave. And answer Ms. McRae’s questions, you hear me?” Over her shoulder on her way out, she tossed the words, “I’ll be back.”
Goody, I thought. Tina’s sullen expression suggested our thoughts were identical.
Sinking into the chair like a deflating balloon, Tina’s elbows jutted over the armrests as she crossed her arms. Her blue-jeaned legs waggled, signaling boredom. I could see the outline of rail-thin arms and bony shoulders under the loose-fitting pink sweatshirt that swallowed her frame. She must have taken after her father. Her chubby-cheeked face and cafe au lait complexion were nothing like her mother’s. Her hair was tied in a ponytail with a pink sequined scrunchie.
“Tina, it says here you knocked an elderly woman down while trying to snatch her purse. Is that right?”
She shrugged. “Yeah.” Her look said, “What about it?”
“Based on what I have, this looks like your first offense. What brought this on?”
She shrugged again. “I just tried to jack her purse,” she said, revealing a crooked overbite. “She wouldn’t let go.”
“Why did you do it?”
She rolled her eyes. At least her repertoire included more than shrugging. “Why you think?” she said, in a tone that suggested I might be missing a few brain cells.
“I could assume lots of things, but I’m asking you.”
Again, she shrugged. “Money, I guess.”
“Money,” she said, in a flat voice.
“How much money did you expect to find in an old lady’s purse?”
Shrug. I suppressed the urge to hold her shoulders down. “I dunno,” she mumbled.
I scanned the report again. “This happened three blocks from where you live. Do you know this woman?”
She shook her head.
“You have a problem with her?”
“You just figured you had nothing better to do, so why not pick up some spare change from a little old lady who can’t defend herself?”
Tina shrugged and rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”
“Was breaking her arm part of the plan?”
Some emotion — regret? — flashed in her eyes, but her game face returned quickly. “I wasn’t tryin’ to knock her down. If she’d let go the damn purse, she’d o’ been all right.”
“But she didn’t let go. And you got caught.” A pair of undercover cops sitting surveillance had intervened when they heard the woman scream.
“Yeah. Jump out boys got me,” she said. “Motherfuckers.”
“Jump out boys?”
“You know. Unmarked.”
I nodded. You learn something new every day. “What are your grades like?” I asked, switching gears.
“Okay, I guess.”
I went through the tedious process of digging for more information. Bottom line: she was an average student who read at a higher-than-average grade level. And she had better verbal abilities than her terse responses would suggest.
“So what’re you reading now?” I asked.
She held up the book. A Piece of Cake by Cupcake Brown.
“I read that. Quite a story.”
She nodded. “It’s real.”
It was real, all right. The memoir was a mature selection for a 13-year-old girl. Cupcake Brown (her real name) had run away from a dreadful foster home and ended up in a gang, addicted to drugs — before her eighteenth birthday. She hit rock bottom, living in a dumpster at one point. With some support from other recovering addicts and the law firm that employed her, Cupcake turned it all around and became an attorney. An uplifting story about possibilities that casts a positive light on lawyers — and you don’t get to hear many of those.
“Are you reading that for class?”
“Naw. Jus’ for fun.”
“It’s refreshing to meet a young person who reads.” I winced at my choice of words, those of an old fart. Tina didn’t seem to notice. “You do any after-school stuff?” I asked.
“I played softball up ’til last year, but I dropped outta that.”
Another shrug. Maybe she was trying to work out knots in her shoulders. “I dunno. Just don’t feel like it no more.”
“Ever do any volunteer work?”
She shook her head.
“Go to church?”
“Your mom go to church?”
“Naw. She work Sundays.”
I was fishing for the kind of “give-her-a-break-your-Honor-she’s-a-good-kid-with-a-bright-future” stuff that defense attorneys routinely trot out, in the hope their clients will get off with lighter sentences. Unfortunately, this approach tended to work better for middle-class kids who had been fast-tracked for success as early as nursery school. By high school, they were already padding their future resumes with internships and other extracurricular activities that would set them apart from — or at least keep them abreast of — their career-driven peers. Unfortunately, the neighborhoods that fed Silver Hill Middle School were far from middle-class, and many of the students were busier building rap sheets than resumes. So the “bright, shiny future” stuff seemed less workable than the “let’s-not-make-things-any-worse-than-they-have-to-be” approach.
With that in mind, I asked, “Have you ever been suspended?”
“Nuh-uh. I done some detentions.”
“Bein’ late, talking in class.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “Once for getting in a fight, but the other girl started it.”
I looked at her. She stared back, daring me to say otherwise. “How’d it start?”
“I was eating lunch in the caf with my friends. This heifer named Lakeesha, she step up, start dissin’ my friend, Rochelle. She always raggin’ on her. She jus’ jealous, is all. Anyway, she start in on Rochelle again. Rochelle say, ‘Girl, you got a mouth on you. You want to back your noise with some action?’”
Tina snickered. “That heifer was frontin’, big time. She back down. I kep’ a eye on her, anyway.
“Then, when we was getting up to leave, Lakeesha get up, too. I saw her come up behind Rochelle wit’ a razor in her hand. So I shoved Lakeesha and knocked her ass down. Then Rochelle and this other girl start wailin’ on the bitch for sneakin’ up on her like that. I started kickin’ her, too.”
“So you were the one who knocked her down?” Just like the old woman with the purse. “Why were you kicking her, if she was already down?” And would you have beaten up the old lady if the cops hadn’t been there?
“Lakeesha the one wit’ the razor,” she said, in a soft voice. “I couldn’t just let her try to cut Rochelle up and get away with it.”
Sounded reasonable, assuming it was the truth, and you could never be sure about that. But if Tina were going to lie to me, why mention the fight at all? I’d represented a handful of violent juveniles — all boys. They’d had more attitude than brains. Tina didn’t seem to fit that profile, even if she did talk tough. Or maybe I was letting her gender, baby face, and slightly nerdy overbite fool me.
“Have you been in fights before?” I asked.
“No. But I ain’t scared to fight or nothin’.” Her voice took on a petulant, defensive tone.
“Well, no one said you were, but I’d avoid it, if I were you.” What was with the attitude? Maybe someone accused her of being chicken. Maybe she’d gone after the old woman on a dare. “You can be suspended for fighting at school, you know. Or even expelled. I guess they cut you a break because you were defending your friend.”
“That an’, like I say, I ain’t never been in no fight before. Mr. Powell, he put in a good word for me, too.”
“Who’s Mr. Powell?”
I finished up our interview with some routine questions, a brief description of juvenile court and the probable outcome in her case. I suspected that, as a first-time offender, the court would go easy on Tina, but I qualified every possible result with “maybe,” because you never know for sure.
When we’d finished the formalities, I said, “I loved to read when I was your age. Seems like I hardly have the time now. What else have you read?”
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
“Maya Angelou. I read that, too.” In high school. She wasn’t lacking in intellect.
Tina’s face remained impassive, but her eyes warmed to the subject of books. “I also read Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah.” She gave me a speculative look. “Whatchoo read when you was a kid?”
“Lots of books.” I tried to think back. Seemed like a century ago, though it was closer to a quarter of that. “Catcher in the Rye. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”
“I think we s’posed to read that Catcher book in high school. Don’t know the other one.”
“They may not teach it. I guess I liked it because I’m from Brooklyn.”
“Oh, yeah? I got a uncle live in Brooklyn. In Bed-Stuy.”
“That’s where I’m from.”
Her eyes narrowed into a quizzical squint. “But ain’t that mostly black?”
“Yes, it is. And it was when I was there, too.” That was in the 1970s, not the best of times for Bedford-Stuyvesant, once known as the biggest ghetto in the U.S. Not the best place for a pale-skinned white girl like me to be living, either.
Her expression was appraising now, as if trying to gauge exactly who I was in light of this new information. I must have passed some test, because her expression softened and she smiled.
I gave Tina my card which she stuck in her book.
“Call me anytime, if you have questions. Or want to talk about books.”
“Okay, Ms. McRae.”
“Call me Sam.”
Three raps on the door and Shanae poked her head in. I checked my watch. She’d been away an hour, to the minute.
“You done, right?” she said. “I need to talk to you.” To Tina, she said, “Go downstairs and wait,” dismissing her with a wave of her hand.
The animation drained from Tina’s expression as she rose. Glaring at her mother, she slunk out and closed the door.
Shanae shook her head. “That girl trouble. She need to clean up her act, you see what I’m sayin’?”
“She’s at that age, I guess.”
“Yeah, and I don’t know how much longer she gonna live, if she keep up her bullshit.”
“Well, this is her first offense, so to speak. It should go pretty smoothly. It may take a month or two before we get a hearing before a master. A master is like a junior judge — ”
Shanae dipped her chin, in a brief nod. “Fine,” she said. “You jus’ let me know when her court date is. I gots another problem to talk to you about.”
I was surprised she didn’t have more questions about Tina’s situation, since she’d been so adamant about staying for the interview. “What is it?”
“You do child support cases?” she asked, taking the seat she’d vacated an hour before.
“I need a lawyer,” she said. “My girl’s father owe me child support. I wanna do sumpin’ ’bout it.”
“I’d be happy to help you,” I said, doubting my own words. There was no conflict of interest that I could see. And I could always use the work. “I would have to charge my regular fee, though.”
I thought that might end the discussion. “I can work that out,” she said. “My brother’ll lend me the money.”
“Okay,” I said. I wondered if she’d discussed it with her brother and why she hadn’t asked him for help when she failed to qualify for public defender services. I decided to get some case particulars, since I always give an initial free consult.
According to Shanae, Rodney Fisher had acknowledged paternity of Tina a few years after she was born, though he and Shanae had never married. He’d paid child support, not always regularly, since then. Shanae said he was making more money now and she wanted to sue for past-due support and seek an increase in his monthly obligation.
“Rodney making way more money than he say he does.” A worldly-wise smirk creased her face. “Under-the-table money, you see what I’m sayin’?”
“I get your drift. How do you know this? Off-the-books earnings can be difficult, if not impossible, to prove.”
“I got a friend been looking into this. He can tell you. See, Rodney own a pawn shop. I think a lot of money coming in that ain’t making it onto the books. Unnerstan?”
“I’d like to talk to your friend,” I said. “And see any documentation you have on his income, along with a copy of the child support order.”
“Oh, I can get that for you. Make me sick. I had to take another job, since Giant cut back my hours. Sons of bitches. And that worthless niggah think he can screw me outta my child support. Well, we’ll just see ’bout that.”
“As we discussed, it’ll be three hundred dollars to handle your daughter’s case. For your case, I’ll have to ask for a two thousand dollar retainer up front,” I said. “If the retainer’s used up, I’ll bill you monthly. I need payment by cashier’s check or money order.”
Without batting an eye, she said, “Okay.” I gritted my teeth thinking about this woman’s temerity to go poor-mouthing for a referral from the public defender’s office. Should have asked for four grand on the child support case.
I pulled up the retainer agreement for Tina’s case and a release form to get access to her school information. I also opened a standard form for Shanae’s case, and typed in the retainer amount before printing the papers.
I told her to read them over and invited her to ask questions. She read and signed them without comment. Just to be sure, I reviewed the main terms with her. Shanae handed me a $300 money order for Tina’s case. Seeing that she had come with payment in hand made me feel better.
“I’ll start work on your child support case after I get the two thousand dollars,” I reminded Shanae. I made copies of the retainer agreement for her and her brother and handed her another business card.
“All right. Thank you, Ms. McRae.”
Her sudden politeness was a welcome change. “Call me Sam,” I said. “See you later.”
Shanae strode out. It was the last time I saw her alive.