Dirty Blonde - Chapter 1

By Lisa Scottoline

Cate Fante was the guest of honor at this celebration, which was drawing to a liquefied close. She raised a final snifter of cognac, joining the judges toasting her appointment to the district court. Tomorrow would be a slow day on the bench. The wheels of justice weren't lubricated by Remy Martin.

"To Judge Cate Fante, our new colleague!" Chief Judge Sherman shouted, and the judges clinked glasses with a costly chime. Wrinkled cheeks draped their tipsy smiles, and their bifocals reflected the flickering candlelight. Their average age was sixty-two, and an appointment to the federal bench was for life. At thirty-nine, Cate felt like she was joining the world's most exclusive retirement village.

"Speech, Speech!" the judges called out, their encouragement echoing in the private room. Golden light glowed from brass sconces, and coffee cooled next to scalloped half-moons of créme brulee and bread pudding veined with cinnamon. "Speech, Judge Fante!"

"Order in the court, you crazy kids," Cate called back, rising with her glass and only apparent bravado. She managed a smile that masked her panic about what to say. She couldn't tell the truth: namely, that she was secretly intimidated by a job described in the Constitution of the United States. Or that she only looked the part, in a Chanel suit of butterscotch tweed, donned like overpriced armor.

"Keep it short, Cate." Judge William Sasso formed a megaphone with his hands. "It's past my bedtime."

Judge Gloria Sullivan chuckled. "Give her a break, Bill. We listen to you, and God knows what a trial that can be."

"No, he's right." Cate gathered her nerve. "Thank you for this lovely dinner, everyone. You said a lot of nice things about me tonight, and I just want you to know — I deserve every single word."

"At last, an honest judge!" Chief Judge Sherman burst into laughter, as did the others. The young waiter smiled, hovering by the wall. The judges clapped, shouting, "Way to go!" "Well done!"

"Thank you and good night." Cate mock-bowed and caught the waiter's eye, then looked away. She accepted the congratulations and goodbyes as the judges rose to leave, collecting their briefcases and bags. She grabbed her purse and they all walked to the door, filing out of the Four Seasons restaurant. On the way out, Cate felt a soft touch on her arm and turned to see Chief Judge Sherman, tall and stooped at her shoulder, his sterling silver hair slightly frizzy.

"Don't look so happy, kiddo. You're taking a major pay cut,"

Cate laughed. "Chief, you give fixed income a good name."

Chief Judge Sherman laughed, as did Judge Jonathan Meriden, who fell into stride. Meriden was fifty-something, conventionally handsome, with sandy hair going to gray and a fit, if short, stature. Cate had legal history with Meriden. When they were both in practice, he'd tried a securities case against her and ended up losing the jury verdict and the client. Tonight he'd acted as if all was forgotten, so he'd sucked it up or warmed to her, with Glenlivet's help. They walked out of the lobby into the humid, summer night, and Cate played the good hostess, waiting until everyone had dispersed to grab the last cab.

Inside, she leaned against the black vinyl as the cab lurched into light traffic. Its tires rumbled on the gritty streets, wet from an earlier thunderstorm. The air conditioning blew only faintly, and Cate eyed the rain-slick buildings like a stranger to the city. She'd lived in Philadelphia since law school, but her heart wasn't in the city. She'd grown up in the mountains, from a small town erased from the map. Cate still felt a twinge at the thought, even though she knew she wasn't supposed to care about her hometown anymore. She was pretty sure the official cutoff was fourth grade.

Cate's head began to ache. Today she'd presided over opening arguments in her first major trial, a construction contract case with damages of fifty million dollars. Fleets of pricey lawyers from New York had filed special appearances, and the witness lists contained more PhDs than most colleges. It was a bench trial, with no jury to make the decision, but at least it was a civil case. Cate already sentenced four men to federal prison, which was four too many.

The cab was stifling, and Cate lowered the window. A breeze blew in, too sticky to offer any relief, and she unbuttoned the top of her silk blouse. She felt the weight of her pearls like a noose. The night sky was black and starless, and the full moon a spotlight. She leaned back against the seat but her chignon got in the way, so she loosened it with her fingers.

She looked idly out the window. Couples walked together, their arms wrapped around each other, their hips bumping. A handsome man in a white oxford shirt dashed across the street, his tie flying. The cab turned onto one of the skinny backstreets that scored Center City, no more than an alley with rusted blue Dumpsters lining the curb. Cate caught a whiff of the rotting smell. "The scenic route, huh?"

"It's faster than South," the driver said, and the cab slowed to a stop sign, waiting for someone to cross the street.

Cate eyed a rundown tavern on the corner. DEL & ROY's flickered a failing neon sign, and graffiti blanketed its brick. Its side window was covered with plywood, though an amber glow emanated from yellow Plexiglas in the front door, which was the only indication the bar wasn't abandoned.

It's Miller time, Cate thought. The line from an old TV commercial. Her mother used to drink Miller. The champagne of bottled beer.

"I'll get out here," she said suddenly, digging in her purse for the fare.

"Here?" The driver twisted around on his side of the smudged plastic divider. "Lady, this ain't the best block. I thought we were going to Society Hill."

"Change of plans." Cate slid a twenty from her wallet and handed it to him. Ten minutes later, she was perched on a wobbly barstool behind a glass of Miller. Lipstick stained the rim of her glass, a sticky red kiss slashed with lines, like vanity's own fingerprint. It wasn't her color, but she drank anyway.

The bar reeked of stale draft and Marlboros, and dusty liquor bottles cluttered its back underneath a cardboard cut-out of Donovan McNabb, set askew. The bar area doubled as a hallway to a closed dining room, its darkened doorway marked by an old-fashioned sign that read LADIES ENTRANCE. Cate looked away.

The bar was half-empty, and a man with dark hair hunched over a beer two seats from her, smoking a cigarette. He wore a white T-shirt that said C&C Towing, stretching in block letters across a muscular back. Three men sat beyond him, silently watching the baseball game, the Phillies playing San Francisco on a TV mounted above the bar. They watched with their heads tilted back, their bald spots an ellipsis.

Cate crossed her legs, bare in her brown pumps, and took a sip of warm beer. She hated herself for being here, and at the same time, wondered how long it would take. It wasn't that she wanted to get home to sleep. She could function on almost none from a childhood interrupted by nighttime alarms. She'd be pulled from bed and dressed in a winter coat with an embroidered penguin, worn over a thin nightgown. The coat was turquoise and the penguin of raised black fuzz, she remembered now, for some reason. She had loved that coat.

"Hey," said a voice beside her, and Cate looked over. It was the man in the T-shirt, with his beer and Marlboro. Up close, he had bloodshot blue eyes, heavy stubble, and hair that shone in greasy strands. He smiled drunkenly and asked, "How're you, beautiful?"

Cate turned to him and smiled. "Evidently, beautiful."

The man chuckled and set his beer on the bar, his cigarette trailing a snake of smoke. "I think I know you from somewhere," he said, putting his hand on Cate's bare knee. "Whas' your name again?"

"Karen," Cate told him, then moved his hand up onto her thigh.

Feeling thrilled and miserable, both at once.

2009© by Lisa Scottoline. All rights reserved.

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