Judgment – Joseph Finder

A perfect May night in Chicago, warm but not quite balmy. A soft breeze coming in off the lake, carrying with it the faint murmurings of traffic from Michigan Avenue twenty floors below. Juliana was sitting alone on one end of a couch on the Peninsula’s rooftop terrace, still wearing her conference lanyard, still wired from the speech she had given two hours earlier. She’d delivered a talk on the rules of evidence in front of five hundred people, and it had gone really well. She tended to be self-critical, but she also knew when she’d hit a home run. “Rules of evidence” wasn’t exactly a sexy topic, but she had her own take on it, and people seemed to respond. She’d just had a drink with six fellow attendees, all judges from Indiana, and she was talked out. Mostly she’d been the center of attention, which was flattering for a while, and then exhausting. For now, she wanted to sit by herself—not in her room, with CNN keeping her company, but out here on the terrace in the refreshing breeze off Lake Michigan. Be in her own head. She dropped her lanyard on the glass-topped coffee table and scanned an array of magazines fanned out in front of her. One caught her eye—a travel magazine with a cover story about Spain—and she started leafing through it, keeping one eye out for a server. But she was still wired. Another drink? She almost never did that. One drink, that was her limit.

Her mother, Rosalind, had been a drinker. Rosalind never drank at work, but at night and particularly on the weekends she drank too much. When Juliana was twelve, Rosalind had taught her how to make a “pitcher of martinis,” she called it, as if martinis were discrete entities with a shape and form, like eggs, and you could count how many were in the pitcher if you looked really hard. So Juliana generally did what her mother couldn’t: stopped at just one drink. But tonight she was keyed up and thought: What the hell. She waved over a server and was about to order another Sancerre when she changed her mind once again and ordered a Pellegrino and lime. She went back to her magazine—“The Unknown Mallorca,” the piece promised. She felt someone’s eyes on her, and she glanced up; when she saw nobody looking her way, she felt a little silly. Too much time in the spotlight, she told herself with a laugh. Having delusions of grandeur.

Black Robe disease. Juliana Brody was in her early forties, but as her mother liked to say immodestly, she had good genes. She looked younger. Rosalind had been beautiful. Juliana had long ago accepted the fact that she hadn’t inherited her mother’s looks, but she had her cheekbones and jawline, and the gray-blue eyes. And the russet hair—actually, L’Oréal called it “red brown.” And then there was all the time Rosalind used to spend tending to her appearance, while Juliana couldn’t be bothered. Again she felt that strange sensation of being watched. She noticed a man in a charcoal suit making his way in her direction. He was tall, early thirties, with an olive complexion and wavy dark-blond hair that fell below his collar.

She didn’t recognize him. Maybe he was attending the legal conference too. “Is this seat taken?” he asked. “Or am I interrupting?” She gestured noncommittally to the chair by the couch. Her gaze could sometimes be stern and intimidating. “I’m not here for much longer, but help yourself.” Something about him gave off a slightly melancholy air, but he was a good-looking guy. “Long day?” he asked. She nodded. “And for you? Are you here with the law conference?” “Venture capital.

I think there are three conferences going on here this weekend.” He paused, took in the magazine. “Planning a visit to Spain?” “Looking at rentals in Costa Brava. In my dreams, mostly.” She drained the last few drops of her seltzer. “You should go for real.” “Oh, Spain is my favorite place on earth.” “I just got back from Mallorca a couple days ago.” She tipped her head. “Nice vacation.

” “On business, but still nice.” She put down the magazine. “Never been to Mallorca. I hear it’s beautiful but overrun by tourists like me.” “Not if you know where to go.” She put out her hand. “Juliana Brody.” He shook it firmly. His hand was dry and smooth, his nails neatly trimmed. “Matías Sanchez.

” Just the faintest accent. “You’re Spanish?” “Argentine. Spanish and Argentinians, we’re like cousins.” He shrugged. “But you know Mallorca.” “Quite well. I travel a lot.” “So where do I have to go in Mallorca to escape the crowds?” He paused briefly. “The most spectacular sunset you’ll ever see happens at Cap de Formentor. You’ve got to drive up a terrifying little winding road, but by the time you get there it’s worth it.

” “Yeah?” “Oh, and there’s this great little restaurant in the old town called La Bóveda, nothing fancy, but their tapas are to die for. And you can have a drink nearby at Abaco, this fourteenth-century house filled with flowers and baskets of fruit. You tell them Matías Sanchez sent you, they’ll take care of you right.” “Okay, I’m sold.” She laughed lightly. “When it comes to Spain.” She flushed. Then, to cover her embarrassment, she gestured for the server again, who’d miraculously appeared. She held up her glass of ice and mineral water. “Another one of these?” He ordered an Ardbeg, ten years old, on the rocks.

“You know what?” she said. “I think I’d like another Sancerre after all.” The waitress gave a quick double head nod, like a shore bird swallowing a bread crust, and strode off. “I’m afraid I was staring at you before,” Matías said. “It’s just that you remind me of someone I used to know.” He smiled again, a nice, frank smile. He had a sexy gap between his front teeth. “It happens with me a lot,” Juliana said. She used to remind some people of the movie actress Amy Adams. “Used to” being the operative phrase, she thought.

And then: Is this guy actually hitting on me? It had been a while since she’d felt that particular buzz. This fellow—Matías—was easily ten years younger. And unnervingly handsome, she had to admit. This is exactly the kind of thing I don’t do, she thought. Would never do. She wanted to say to the guy: You’ve got me all wrong. She’d say, If you knew anything about me, you’d know I’m not your “live in the moment” kinda gal. You are wasting your time, buddy. He tilted his head as if assessing her anew. “Know what’s weird? Up close you don’t look anything like her.

It’s just— I can’t put my finger on it, it’s something in the way you hold yourself. A kind of self-confidence, or maybe it’s elegance, or both.” She felt herself blush, asked a question to cover her embarrassment. “So who do I almost look like?” “The woman I used to be married to.” “Oh, I see. Nothing quite like being compared to a person’s ex.” The server put down their drinks. Matías averted his gaze. “It’s not like that. ” “I was only teasing.

And anyway I’m sure you have a girl in your life already.” “I do. An amazing, beautiful girl. She’s everything to me.” He pulled out his phone and swiped at it. She leaned in close to him and looked. An actual girl, a cute little blonde, maybe seven or eight, a gap-toothed smile, sitting in a rowboat. A red-and-whitestriped T-shirt. Not what she expected. She caught him watching her and smiled.

“She’s a darling. Is she with her mother?” “Her mother . ” He looked away, put the phone back in his jacket’s breast pocket. She noticed tears in his eyes. “Hey,” she said, touching his wrist. “I didn’t mean to . ” “No, it’s . We were swimming in Costa Rica, a place called Playa Hermosa, and she . ” He compressed his lips. “She was a terrific swimmer, but the riptide was too strong, and by the time .

” His face seemed briefly to crumple in on itself; then, just as quickly, he recovered. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought this part of it was behind me.” He got up, bowing his head in apology. Juliana reached out a hand, caught his forearm, beseeching him to stay. “Sit, please,” she said. “How long . ?” He picked up his drink, sipped, put it down. “Two years.” He slowly sank into his chair.

“I still can’t really talk about it. I shouldn’t have tried. I— I never do this. This isn’t me.” “It’s quite all right—Matías, is that right?” “Yes. And—Juliana?” She nodded. “I don’t know you,” he continued. “But I feel as if I do, that’s the weird thing. Just something I saw when I looked at you. Don’t ask me to explain.

” “Okay, now you’re going to have to explain.” “Well, I can try. You’re beautiful, of course. But so many beautiful women have this icy reserve— they have to, it’s how they protect themselves, keep guys out of their swim lane. But you—this is going to sound crazy. I saw a sense of a light inside you.” She blushed again, hoped it wasn’t visible. “LED, I’m sure.” “You’re making fun of me, and you should,” he said, tipping his glass of Scotch toward her and taking a sip. “No, I’m sorry, go on.

What else did you see?” “Honestly?” Juliana reached for her wineglass, took a steadying sip. “Sure, why not?” “I see a kind of . loneliness. Not by-yourself lonely. But lonely. Maybe because . well, didn’t you say you’re with the law conference? You are a lawyer? A judge?” Juliana was momentarily speechless. “I am so sorry,” Matías said. “I swear I’m not normally like this. Let’s blame the Ardbeg.

” He put his hand on hers briefly, and she felt the heat. “Four hours ago I killed a deal that looked great on paper until I met the management team. And I knew within two minutes these guys couldn’t execute the plan. These were not the guys. Now, that’s where my instincts are good.” She gave him a long look. “Maybe not just there,” she said, and she took a good swig of the Sancerre. — They kissed leaning against the door to his suite. She could taste the single malt. She pulled back, took a breath.

He smelled of wood smoke and leather. He found a tendril of her hair and ran his fingers under it, along her cheek. His eyes met hers for a moment. “I wonder if you know how beautiful you are.” She could feel the heat radiating off his body. “Tomorrow I’m flying off. Back to my life. This . this can’t mean anything.” Something was happening inside her.

Like a wave that suddenly, startlingly forms in a usually placid lake. A wave formed by that surprisingly good French Sancerre and some kind of reservoir of resentment at how goddamned predictable she’d become. Everybody knew she’d never do this. But shouldn’t there be more to her than what everybody knew? For just one night, she’d pretend to be that woman she’s not. For just one night, she’d do what she never does. For just one night, she’d live a life that wasn’t the one she’d so carefully mapped out. Just one night. He found his key card and the lock beeped open and he held the door. 2 The next afternoon, waiting for an Uber home from Logan Airport in Boston, she found herself in a reverie, replaying moments in her mind from the night before. She couldn’t remember when she’d last been touched like that, by Duncan or by anyone else.

It was as if he’d found her reset button; even now, her body hummed. At one point she had seen tears in his eyes, and she had wondered whether he was thinking of his late wife, making up for lost time. Sitting on a corner of the king-size bed, she’d said, “I have a family.” “I understand,” he’d replied, his voice gentle. “It can’t happen again.” They were agreed. She briefly wondered whether Duncan’s “dalliance,” as she thought of it, three years earlier, had played a role in her decision to go to Matías’s hotel room. She didn’t think so; she’d come to accept what had happened with him, and she wasn’t a petty person. She didn’t believe there was a balance sheet in a marriage, a ledger of rights and wrongs. In any case, the problems in their marriage, if she were being honest, were bigger than that one incident.

No, she had done something she’d never done before. She had taken a risk. She’d had a second drink. That wasn’t her at all, that woman in the bar at the Peninsula. She was the A student, the obeyer of rules. Judge Juliana Brody: sensible, prudent, and cautious. Unlike her mother (and because of her mother, who lived in her own dream world), she had always been a planner, always been careful to put her foot right, choose the next step thoughtfully. And then she had gone and done one single incautious, impetuous thing. And was it so bad? It had been a lovely evening, actually. Maybe she needed to let go more often.

Now, an e-mail flashed her phone alive, and she glanced at it despite herself. The reality of daily life was beckoning, haranguing. Her Uber was arriving. She had a couple of texts too, a voice mail, and a shit-ton of e-mails to sort through. An ordinary, prudent life to get back to. She greeted that prospect with some relief. 3 One of the things Juliana liked most about being a judge was the routine, the predictability. Everything happened on schedule. She had something like 250 pending cases on her docket, but only one trial at a time. Every morning she arrived at her office before eight thirty, went through whatever writing she had to do—discovery disputes, motions, jury instructions—and then began presiding over a trial at 9:00 A.

M. sharp. (These days she had a med-mal case—medical malpractice, a wrongful death.) The trial ended at 1:00 P.M. Then came lunch from 1:00 P.M. to 2:00 P.M., usually spent at her computer catching up on paperwork.

In the afternoon, from 2:00 P.M. to 4:00 P.M., were often motion sessions. Which basically meant a bunch of arguments, made orally and on paper, on which she had to make decisions. These were cases that might go to trial but usually didn’t. For the last few months she’d been dealing with Rachel Meyers v. Wheelz, a sex-discrimination case that seemed as though it would never end. True, there were little things that popped up fairly often.

People walked in with requests for ex parte relief, motions to attach property, and so on. Appeals from sex offenders. Condo disputes. A motion ordering a hospital to release a guy’s medical records. Loads of paperwork. The Superior Court didn’t yet do electronic filing, so her office was heaped with piles of paper, with more coming in every day. The workload could be punishing. It was unyielding, an unending cascade. There was always a load of homework. Reading and writing.

It was like being back in school. It truly never stopped. And—in fact—she loved it. No one said judging was easy. You had to be really committed to it. You didn’t do it for the money. You didn’t make any friends in this job. In a courtroom, Juliana once realized, half the room thinks you’re just barely smart enough to get it. The other half just thinks you’re stupid. Lawyers liked to tell a joke: What do you call a lawyer with an IQ of eighty? “Your Honor.

” But the psychic income was high. You were making a difference in people’s lives. That was worth something. Unfortunately, judges were also susceptible to the dreaded Black Robe disease, in which they come to believe the black robe lets them walk on water and that all their jokes are funny. For almost a week after Chicago, she’d been able to lose herself in the routine. Which was not to say she didn’t think about what she’d done at the hotel. She thought about it constantly, and the feeling that seemed to have settled over her was guilt. She was susceptible to feelings of guilt anyway. There’d been moments in her life she couldn’t forget, moments when she’d let herself down, moments she still didn’t like to think about. That time in tenth grade, when she was on the high school yearbook staff and she’d quietly removed an unflattering photo of herself, at the expense of another girl in the picture, glamorously captured spiking the ball.

Or that time at the end of junior year in college, just back from France, when she’d promised her friend Sandy they could room together senior year—until Alyssa, to her surprise, asked her to join the quad she was creating, and Juliana had quickly accepted. Sandy had been crushed. I’m not a good person, Juliana had thought at the time. That was how she felt about Chicago: it had been a rare error in judgment. Fortunately, work was there to distract her. There was always another decision to write, another dispute to decide. She found herself conveniently distracted. She had piles of work to lose herself in. She had her run too. Every morning she got up at six and did three miles.

Running was important to her. It gave her calm for the entire day, reduced stress, helped maintain her sanity. She had her earbuds in, listened to some Sara Evans or Chris Stapleton. She thought a lot about cortisol, the hormone naturally released in your body by stress. It could make you superproductive. In some ways she was attracted to stress, to danger. But cortisol was bad for women’s hearts. If you lived in a constant state of high stress, your levels of cortisol elevated and you were far more likely to have a heart attack. After her run, she allowed herself precisely forty-five minutes to shower, dress, and do her hair and makeup. She had all her makeup ready to go, like an assembly line.

Perfectly choreographed. She didn’t have to worry too much about what she wore, since she covered it all in a black sack anyway. Once, a defendant’s girlfriend had erupted in the courtroom, yelling at Juliana. “You’ve destroyed my family—I’m going to destroy yours!” the young woman screamed. “And you need a makeover!” That was truly the dagger in her heart, that bit about a makeover. Also not true, she thought. On this morning’s run, she admired, as she always did, the beautiful houses on her street in Newton, graceful houses of stone and wood on ample lots, some of them designed by famous nineteenth-century architects. Their house was by far the most modest on the block, a brick-and-stone Tudor, built in the 1920s, on a quiet dead-end street. She’d loved it on sight, which was why, when they first went to look for a house, she’d immediately urged Duncan to go for it—even though it was more house than they could afford at the time. She’d been an assistant US Attorney and he was a law school professor, neither making much money.

Eventually she went into private practice and the money got better. When she became a judge, her pay dropped again. No one ever became a judge for the money. But they were getting by. They could even afford to rent a beach house in Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, for a month each summer. When she came downstairs after her postrun shower, she could smell the bacon. Duncan was making breakfast, which was a nice surprise. Then she remembered: Jake had a big math test this morning, and Duncan’s ritual was to make a serious breakfast on Jake’s test days. Bacon, eggs, toasted English muffins. The menu never varied.

“Mm,” she said, giving Duncan a kiss. “Smells great.” “Hey,” he said. “Coffee?” “Thanks.” He turned from the stove to the coffeemaker, poured her a mug. “Where’s Jake?” she asked. “Can you yell up to him?” “Sure.” She felt a pang of guilt. Duncan was a wonderful father and a good person. I don’t even deserve the guy, she thought.

Her first serious boyfriend, in college, had been Richard, the lock-jawed Hotchkiss grad with the Nantucket red pants and the Bean boots, the vexing early bald spot and the perfect table manners. They were totally compatible, both prudent, rules-following, list-checking people. Whereas Duncan was a scruffy, bearded kid, an idealist, a pleasure-seeker, who for too long a time didn’t want to get married. He was a good-looking man. He still had a great head of curly hair, though it was more gray than brown now. A closely trimmed beard, killer smile. Maybe twenty pounds overweight, but he wore it well. He was still, in fundamental ways, her polar opposite. That was what had really attracted her to him. He was impulsive and risk-taking, a terrible planner, but really smart.

He loved adventure. He was a devoted scuba diver and skier and surfer. He didn’t do extreme stuff like bull riding or motorcycle racing or bungee jumping, but he liked to have fun. His ideal vacation might be trekking on foot through the Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia. Hers might involve breakfast at the Brasserie Lipp in Paris. He once dragged her to some eco-resort in Costa Rica, where the howler monkeys lived up to their name. Her revenge involved dragging him to Paris, and a fancy part of it too. As she walked over to the foot of the stairs, she thought: I’m home. This is home. The coffee, the sizzling bacon, Duncan, even the recalcitrant teenager upstairs.

This is something valuable and meaningful, something I don’t want to break. This is good. She felt a deep sense of gratitude. She called out, “Jacob, come on.” She didn’t hear the shower running. So he was still in his bedroom. The kid was sixteen but acted like a child sometimes. He regularly slept through his alarms. She started up the stairs to get him and then heard his door open. “I heard you,” Jake said.

“I want us to call Ashley.” “I don’t have time.” “Well, we’re Skyping in five minutes, so let’s get moving.” Ashley, who was eighteen, was spending a gap year, between high school and college, in Namibia, volunteering at a village outside Windhoek that took care of women with AIDS. Internet service there was intermittent. Juliana imagined a shack made from corrugated steel, with a 1998- model modem and a long extension cord. Jake came into the kitchen, in jeans and a black T-shirt with a couple of cartoon characters with bulging eyes on it and the words RICK AND MORTY. Some TV show he liked. He had his father’s brown eyes and curly brown hair, in need of a haircut. He was a good-looking kid, in a gawky, awkward teenage way, and she was pretty sure he’d grow up to be a handsome man like his father.

But his eyes were bloodshot and glassy. He looked feverish. “Hey, sweetie, you okay?” “I’m fine, what do you mean?” “Were you up really late last night?” “No,” Jake said too quickly. Which meant yes. She had no idea what he did in his room so late at night. Video games? Lights were supposed to be out by ten, but neither she nor Duncan regularly enforced that. She spent the day being a judge, being the arbiter, making sure the rules were followed. She didn’t want to do it at home too. “All set for the big math test?” she asked. “What? Oh, I don’t know.

” He shrugged. “I don’t particularly care.” “Dude,” said Duncan, turning around. “You’d better care,” Juliana said. She worried about the kid. He didn’t seem to give a damn about anything. There was something self-protective about that, she figured. If you lower your ambitions, you won’t get disappointed. You won’t get slapped down by the Splintered Ruler of Life. But the way he was going, he could end up circling the drain, like her screw-up brother, Calvin.

“You look like you could use some coffee,” Duncan said. “What about Mom’s rule?” Jake said. “That’s your parents’ rule, Jake,” she said. Jake wasn’t allowed to have coffee until he was a senior in high school. A totally arbitrary policy, she had to admit. But it had been her father’s. Then she added, “But you know what? Rules are meant to be broken. Go ahead and have coffee.” “Why not?” Duncan said, after throwing a surprised glance at Juliana. He took a mug out from the cabinet and poured some coffee.

“You’ll probably want a lot of cream and sugar.” “I’ll take it black,” Jake said. “Really?” Duncan said. Jake took a sip and grimaced. “Yeah, I like it black now,” he said. “Jake, can you sign me into Skype?” Juliana said. “I think you changed the password.” “No, I didn’t,” Jake said. “Sign me in, okay?” “Anyway, I don’t have time to talk to her. I’ll miss the bus.” “Talk to your sister,” Duncan said. “I’ll drive you to school. And sign your mom into Skype.” Duncan, a professor at New England Law, had an easier schedule than hers. His first class didn’t start until ten. She had to be at the courthouse no later than eight thirty. Duncan put The Boston Globe down on the table in front of her, folded to a story about Wheelz in the Boston market, about all the competition in ride-hailing apps and how the ordinary cabdriver was getting screwed big time. She saw a big picture of the extremely rich founder of Wheelz, Devin Allerdyce, a pointy-faced man of thirty-five with scraggly brown hair and a pinched face that reminded her of a mouse. “That rat-faced scumbag,” Duncan said. “Hope you drop an anvil on his ass.” She smiled, shook her head. “Dispassionate judgment. Procedure. Rule of law. You know, all the stuff you tell your impressionable law-student groupies is just a mask for the workings of power and hegemony? Call me old-fashioned, but that’s still how I roll. We are not having this conversation.” He smiled, and then she admitted, “He does kinda look like a rodent.” This morning she found herself looking around the kitchen, watching Duncan slide a couple of sunny-side-up eggs onto Jake’s plate, and suddenly her throat got tight and tears came to her eyes. This happened to her, every once in a while: her heart would swell. She never knew when it would come on. “You okay?” Duncan said, putting two crisp pieces of bacon on her plate. “An eyelash,” she said. “I’m fine.” The Skype ringtone sounded, and she pulled the laptop close to answer. “Ash, baby,” she said. “I miss you.”

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