Never Look Back

By: Linda Lael Miller


She made a huffy sound and threw back her shoulders. "I have changed my ways," she said, measuring out the words and firing them at me like missiles. "If you don't believe me, just ask Father Mike, down at the Community Center."

"It doesn't matter much whether I believe you or not, Ms. Rawlings," I pointed out. "In this instance, the judge will be calling the shots. Do you have a public defender?"

"He's a doofus," Shanda said, with spirit.

"What's his name?" I pressed.

"Ted Adams."

I had to agree with her assessment. While most public defenders are bright, eager types, underpaid but dedicated, Adams was indeed a doofus.

"You admit you wrote the checks?" I asked.

She nodded miserably. "I did it all right."

"Why?" Rhetorical question. I knew the answer.

"I needed diapers and stuff, for the baby." She shook her head, watching as the little girl reached out a tentative hand to stroke Bernice. Fresh tears pooled in Shanda's eyes. "I don't want to lose my little girl."

"How old are you, Ms. Rawlings?"

She looked at me steadily. "Shanda," she corrected. " 'Ms. Rawlings' is my mama. And I'm almost eighteen. I had my baby when I was sixteen, since you're probably wondering, and no, her daddy is not a part of my life. Me and Maya, we're mostly on our own."

"I see," I said, feeling a pinch in the back of my heart. I set the water bottle down and folded my hands. "Well, Shanda, I do represent people on a pro bono basis, but generally, they're innocent."

"I wasn't innocent then," Shanda said directly, "but I am now."

I might have smiled, if the situation hadn't been so serious. Instead, I raised an eyebrow and waited.

"I know that sounds crazy," she went on, with another sigh. "I've decided some stuff, since I got honest. Father Mike said I needed to set some goals. I want to get a job and a car, and go to school nights. That way, me and Maya can have our own place sometime."

I wondered if she'd named the child after Maya Angelou, and if she had, whether it was because she read or simply because she'd caught one of the poet's appearances on Oprah. It might seem like a minor point, but I was interested just the same.

"Have you finished high school, Shanda?"

"I got my GED," she said, and those eyes of hers flashed with a combination of pride and defiance. "Took some computer classes, too, at the Community Center. Are you going to accept my case or not?"

"I might," I said. "I want to do some checking first. Starting with Father Mike. If I get so much as a hint that you're messing up, you're out of here."

She smiled bravely; no sign of the slyness I'd trained myself to watch for. "I've got his number right here in my bag," she said. "He wrote me a letter of reference."

I held out my hand.

The letter all but glowed with heavenly light. Despite the recent scandals, there are a lot of good priests out there, quietly doing their jobs, and this guy was plainly one of them. I copied down the phone number and handed the letter back to Shanda. "I'll be in touch this afternoon," I said. "What's your number?"

Her face fell. "Our phone isn't working."

As in, disconnected. I felt another pang of sympathy, for Shanda, for little Maya, and for the no-doubt hardworking Mama, who probably had all she could do to keep food on the table and a whole pack of wolves from the door.

"Maybe you could stop by again later," I suggested quietly.

Shanda was on the edge of her chair. "I have to take the bus," she said. "It's hard with Maya, and it costs money. So if you're just going to tell me no when I get back here, well, don't do me any favors, okay?"

I tried to see myself from Shanda's point of view. White woman, with an Escalade parked outside and a law degree on the wall. She had no way of knowing how similar our backgrounds probably were. For those reasons, and because I instinctively liked her, I was willing to overlook a little attitude, at least for the time being. "Maybe I could leave a message with one of your neighbors, or a friend—?"

Her face hardened, softened again as she lifted Maya off the floor and stood up to leave. "There's a pay phone at the convenience store on the corner," Shanda said. "I'll call you from there. What time?"

I consulted my watch. Assuming I was able to get in touch with Father Mike right away, an hour ought to do. I decided to give myself two, so I'd have a while to mull things over. Experience had taught me that the old adage was true; act in haste, repent at leisure. Not that I always heeded my better angels. "Noon."

Shanda glanced at the bullet holes again. "Funny," she said. "I'm trying my best to get out of this neighborhood, and you're here on purpose."

Before I could comment, the office door swung open and Peter Bailey rushed inside.

"They're after me!" he shouted, and dived behind the file cabinets.



* * *





Four





What's the matter with him?" Shanda asked reasonably, frowning as Bailey crouched and peered around the edge of the file cabinet. She shifted her body, putting herself between Maya and my visitor,