The courthouse coffee was terrible, but the morning after Valentine’s Day was no time for a domestic violence prosecutor to go uncaffeinated. Anna poured the inky brew into a Styrofoam cup, took a sip, and grimaced. Scalding and bitter—a fitting start to a day of sorting through last night’s crimes. At least she’d have help. Anna pulled out her cell phone and called her officemate.
“DV Papering,” Grace answered in crisp singsong.
“Hey, I’m in the cafeteria. Want some coffee?”
“That’d be fabulous.” Grace hushed her voice. “And grab a bunch of napkins. There’s a woman bleeding all over your chair.”
Grace had been a prosecutor for four months, but Anna was still new enough that the information jolted her. “Should we call an ambulance?”
“She’s okay. A lot of scrapes and bruises, and a very messy nosebleed. Nothing life-threatening. I can cover till you get here. And can you snag me a muffin? I’m starving.”
“Sure. Be right there.”
Marveling at Grace’s calm, Anna grabbed a muffin and got in line to pay. Three people stood in front of her: a tall guy in a dark suit, a man wearing a Redskins jersey over a blue collared shirt, and a buxom woman in fishnet stockings and a spandex miniskirt. Lawyer, Anna guessed of the first man. Then a policeman, hiding his uniform so courthouse visitors wouldn’t ask him questions. And a prostitute, just getting off work, here to see her probation officer. The one thing Anna liked about the courthouse’s grim basement cafeteria was its democracy. The cop might arrest the prostitute later tonight, and the lawyer might skewer the cop during cross-examination, but everyone had to wait in the same line to get their corned-beef hash.
After paying, Anna hurried to the napkin dispenser, but the tall lawyer who’d been ahead of her took the last ones.
She looked at him in dismay. “Actually, I really need those,” she said, nodding at the napkins in his hand.
Something about the man’s dark hair and lanky figure seemed familiar, but out of place. His tailored suit and buttery leather briefcase were common in the federal court next door, but marked him as several income brackets above the D.C. Superior Court crowd. He probably worked for some big Washington law firm, in one of the high-paying jobs she’d turned down to work for the government.
The man glanced down at her and suddenly grinned. “Anna Curtis! Hey! It’s been a while.”
“Hi, um . . .” She shook her head.
“Nick Wagner. Harvard Law School. I had a ridiculous beard? And hair down to here.” He tapped his shoulder and blushed slightly. “Your team beat mine in the final round of Ames Moot Court. Kicked our asses, in fact.”
“Nick! You used to play guitar in the Hark during Friday happy hour.”
“You got it.” His smile widened. “I guess you made more of an impression on me than I made on you.”
“Sorry—I’m just in a rush, and focused on those napkins.”
Nick placed them ceremoniously in her palm. “Some kind of food spill emergency?”
“Thank you. Bloody nose. Abuse victim in the Papering Room. So—I’ve got to go.” Anna began to walk out of the cafeteria, looking over her shoulder with regret. “I’m sorry I can’t really talk now.”
Nick hurried along with her through the labyrinth of the courthouse basement. “So, you’re a prosecutor—and you pulled papering duty on the day after Valentine’s Day? What’d you do, run over the U.S. Attorney’s dog?”
She had to laugh. Papering was the most despised assignment in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, a task only the greenest prosecutors could be compelled to do. Anna would turn arrests from the last twenty-four hours into criminal case files: typing information into a computer, two-hole-punching police paperwork, condensing lifetimes of violence into slim manila folders. The tedium was broken only when a victim came to tell her sad story in person. And Valentine’s Day was notoriously the worst time for domestic violence. People were two-timing each other, or paying too much attention to their baby’s mother and not enough to their wife, or just plain forgetting a card. It was surprising how often a lovers’ quarrel turned into a trip to lockup.
“I just started in January,” Anna explained, “so I’m still in the hazing period.”
“Well, we should catch up sometime.”
“Sure,” she said as they rounded a corner. A crowd of police officers lined the hallway outside the Papering Room. She’d never seen so many blue uniforms in one place before. It was going to be a long day.
“How about dinner tonight?” Nick asked.
“I don’t know.” Anna glanced sideways at him without slowing her pace. Despite the poor timing, it was a tempting offer. She’d been feeling homesick and disconnected in her new city. It’d be nice to talk with a law school acquaintance. She stopped in the doorway to the Papering Room and handed him her business card. “Call me. Let’s see how things look later.”
He smiled at her: a warm, radiant smile. Despite herself, she felt a natural pull toward him. This might not turn out to be such a bad day-after-Valentine’s Day after all.
That thought died as she walked into the Papering Room.
A tiny woman sat at one of the two sagging desks, flanked by Grace and a uniformed policeman. Blood had soaked the woman’s white button-down shirt and spattered the gray linoleum at her feet. A few dark red drops flecked the bottom of the mint green cinder block walls. Her beautiful brown face was marred by two black eyes so swollen they were nearly shut. Raw red abrasions covered her left cheek in a messy cross-hatch pattern. She held a piece of bloodstained office paper to her nose and rocked herself back and forth, moaning softly.
Although Anna had read a lot of police reports describing gruesome injuries lately, she hadn’t seen a woman this badly scraped up since her childhood. A wave of memories, guilt, and anger stunned her into a momentary paralysis. But today was her day to pick up cases, so this victim was her responsibility. Clenching her teeth, she strode over to the woman and held out a couple of napkins. “Here,” she said gently. “Try these.”
The woman swapped them for the paper at her nose.
“My name is Anna Curtis. I’m an AUSA, an Assistant U.S. Attorney. I’ll be handling your case.”
“Laprea Johnson,” the woman said. Her voice was so soft it was barely audible.
Suddenly Laprea gasped. The pain on her face transformed into a puckered mask of rage. At first, Anna wondered what she’d said to infuriate the woman.
But she was glaring past Anna—at Nick, who stood frozen in the doorway. His face had turned an ashy white. The wounded woman spat her words at him.
“What the fuck are you doing here?”
© 2010 Allison Leotta