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Things We Left Behind: Chapter 26

Dewey Decimal Justice


A tiny groan escaped me as I maneuvered the cart into the reference section and pulled a volume at random off the shelf. My entire body hurt. It was distracting me from my Monday. And by “it,” I meant Lucian Rollins. My nemesis. The man who had fucked me into oblivion, promised to never call, and then made a date with me for Valentine’s Day.

I slid a dollar bill inside the cover and put the book back on the shelf.

It was official. I had lost my damn mind. It was why I’d abandoned my regularly scheduled to-­do list to help Jamal set up for the monthly Kids Dewey Decimal Scavenger Hunt Extravaganza. I had to get away from my phone so I would stop checking it to see if the man I hated had texted me.

“There you are!” Naomi appeared in the stacks with a coffee in each hand.

I patted my chest. “Holy cheese and crackers, woman. Don’t sneak up on me like that.”

“Sorry. I would have called for you, but the Shushy Twins already shushed me twice this morning.”

The Shushy Twins were elderly, widowed tattletales who spent every Monday morning on the first floor of the library working on their crossword puzzles and policing the behavior of all patrons and staff.

I shuddered. “They busted me for turning pages too loudly last week.”

“Then it’s a good thing we’re meeting in one of the conference rooms upstairs, because the lawyer is here.”

“She’s early,” I said, noting the time on my watch.

“I know. I like her already,” Naomi said, taking a hit of coffee.

“Are those both yours?” I asked.

“Well, they weren’t going to be, but it took me one entire cappuccino to find you, so unfortunately you have to acquire your own caffeine now.”

Fran Vereen was a tall, boxy woman in her early sixties. She wore her blond hair cut bluntly at the shoulders, black pants, neon-­green heels, and a pale-­ pink leather blazer emblazoned with lilies of the valley. I too liked her already.

“Thank you for battling the traffic to pay us a visit,” I said, offering her my hand.

“It’s nice to get out of the city every once in a while and play Death Race through northern Virginia,” she said. “Shall we get started?”

Ten minutes later, Naomi and I shared a shell-­shocked glance. Fran wasn’t your run-­of-­the-­mill attorney. She was the kind you called when you woke up next to a dead body. Lucian had hand-­delivered the best of the best. And the most expensive of the expensive.

“So what you’re saying is we should be mentally prepared for a very expensive, very long fight,” I repeated.

“Like I said, things are incredibly difficult once a person is incarcerated. There’s little incentive for a court to reopen a case they already invested in and won. But we have options.”

My head was spinning.

“Okay. Let me try to summarize this,” I said, reviewing my notes. “An appeal means taking the case to the appellate level and arguing the entire thing all over again. A commutation of sentence comes from the governor and could shorten Mary Louise’s sentence, possibly to time served. But the Virginia judicial system is so confident in itself this is a slippery slope. Which also means a full pardon—­also from the governor—­is an even trickier quest. To make matters worse, the state abolished discretionary parole in 1995, which means all prisoners are required to serve at least eighty-­five percent of their sentence.”

“This doesn’t sound…hopeful,” Naomi said.

“It’s a process that could take years,” Fran explained.

Years meant expensive. Years meant Mary Louise wouldn’t get to see Allen graduate law school.

“No offense, Fran, but I was feeling a lot more optimistic about this before I met you,” I confessed.

Fran’s grin was lightning quick. “It’s my job to bring the doom and gloom to make sure you understand worst-­case scenarios, which in this case means investing several boatloads of time, money, and energy. But…”

I perked up.

“I think we have a good shot at winning this,” she continued.

“You’re a roller coaster, Fran,” I told her.

“I get that a lot. Here’s what we do have going for us. The sentence is wildly disproportionate to similar charges in the state, which is reason enough to appeal. Given the fact that she’s been through several public defenders, we can also argue that Ms. Upshaw did not receive proper representation.”

“That sounds reasonable,” Naomi said.

“We also have you,” Fran said, looking at me.

I pointed at myself. “Me?”

“We need interest in the case, in Mary Louise. The more attention we can bring to this, the better. You’ve heard of convictions being overturned thanks to true crime podcasts and their rabid followings?”

“Sure, but I don’t have a podcast.”

“No, but you have a face and a story. We’re sitting here today because your father passed away and you wanted to continue his legacy of championing the underdog. You, your dad, his connection to Mary Louise through her son, it’s a story, and stories make people care.”

“I get that. Believe me, I do,” I said, sweeping my arm toward the window to indicate the book stacks. “But how am I going to help on that front?”

“You’re the face,” Fran answered. “We want people to know who Mary Louise is, why we’re working to get her out, what they can do to help. And you’re the one who is going to tell them.”

“Uh, why can’t you be the one to tell them?” I asked uneasily.

“Because nobody likes lawyers. You’re a small-­town librarian who believes in social justice. You’re smart, you’re pretty, and you’re nonthreatening.”

Naomi choked on her second cappuccino. “She’s a little threatening.”

“That works too,” Fran said.

“Okay. So what do I have to do?” I asked.

Fran interlaced her fingers. “We’ll start small. I’ll set up an interview for you with some local media. I can put you in touch with some PR folks, give you some talking points. Once that article comes out and we get some interest drummed up, I’ll see about an in-­camera review with the sentencing judge.”

“What’s an in-­camera review?” Naomi asked.

“Basically I’ll ask for a private, in-­chambers meet with the judge and district attorney. We can ask Judge Atkins to reconsider the sentence.”

I straightened in my chair. “Wait, the judge could just decide to reduce the sentence?”

“It’s a possibility. I haven’t done any digging into him yet,” Fran cautioned. “But this is an older conviction. The judge may have mellowed a little with time, or he might appreciate the PR boost that comes with criminal justice reform.”

Naomi and I shared another look, a triumphant one.

“I’ll give the best damn interview in the history of interviews,” I promised.

Fran shook her head. “They’re gonna love you.”

“How does this work financially?” the ever-­practical Naomi asked.

“My firm takes on a limited number of pro bono cases a year,” Fran said, eyeing us both. “If this becomes a case that requires a significant time investment, we may ask you to pay reasonable court costs.”

“Or we settle the whole thing in one visit with the judge,” I pointed out. “So how do we move forward? Do we need to sign something to make it official?”

“I just so happen to have a retainer letter with me,” Fran said, snapping open her sleek briefcase. “Once this is signed, I’ll pay my new client a visit.”

Me: Not that you care, but the attorney has been retained! And she’s taking the case pro bono! She’s on her way to meet Mary Louise!

Lucian: Congratulations, exclamation point abuser. Welcome to the nightmare of the justice system.

Me: Has anyone told you that you really need to tone down the over-­the-­top positivity? No? Weird.

Lucian: Has anyone told you that you’re annoying? I’m the eleventh person today? Not surprising.


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