She didn’t have an office anymore, she didn’t have a webpage with a “contact me” button, and forget about social media. Turned out there were exactly two ways to reach her. Option One: send a letter, a real letter with a stamp and everything. Option Two: go to her house and knock on the door.

I didn’t have time for the real-letter-with-a-stamp approach. Also, I didn’t have her address. That was the problem with Option Two: I didn’t know where her door was to knock on it. She did a really good job of keeping her address secret.

This was a good sign. She knew how to protect her privacy, even though she was all over the internet because of the cases she had won. It was also really annoying.

It took two hours, but between us we narrowed it down to 23 possible addresses, then down to ten, then finally –

<Kadabra> Bingo!

<Gargle> Why are you playing Bingo? The rest of us are doing actual work.

<Kadabra> It’s the one on Bedford. Smartass.

<Gargle> You sure?

<tork> I’m betting on that condo on Snelling.

<Gargle> Why Bedford?

<Kadabra> Triangulation. Prop tax, DMV, voter reg all match.

<tork> too small for a big time lawyer.

<Kadabra> You don’t get rich defending the people she defends.

<tork> But given her age? I think the condo is it.

<DoDec> Wait, is that mail I see on the stoop?

<Kadabra> yup and her name is on it.

<Fa1staff> HUH ?!?

<tork> Those satellite images are old.

<Kadabra> Not that old. Zoom in.

<tork> Holy sh!t your right

<callmecheese> You mean ***you’re***, you idiot

<inky> Who called the grammar police?

<Fa1staff> And so the apostrophe wars continued, laying waste to the land.

<ferret> Breathe, Cheese. You have to breathe through the contractions.

Her house, if it really was the one on Bedford, wasn’t far. I could bike there in under twenty minutes. I logged out, put on a pair of long johns under my jeans, and spent too much time trying to find my gloves, finally borrowing Monica’s mittens. I also borrowed her warmest cap while I was at it, one that fit under my bike helmet, even though it was one of those dorky Norwegian things with ear flaps. I caught sight of my reflection in the glass of the front storm door as I bent to tie my boots. The hat looked ridiculous with my hair sticking out under it. For a moment I wanted to go back inside and watch a video and eat popcorn and let Wilson take care of himself. No way this was going to work. That lawyer would take one look at me . . .

Whatever. It wouldn’t matter how I dressed. Even without the stupid hat, my hair looked like I had stuck my finger in an electrical socket. When I was living in the big house in the suburbs, my stepmother started taking me to a salon that did beaded braids (which gave me headaches) or used a curling iron to make it into squiggly tentacles. She’d buy fake-African headbands to keep the tentacles under control and give me a big smile like there, that’s SO much better, don’t you agree? Because she didn’t know what else to do with my crazy negro hair and, though she never said so, it was obvious that she would have been happier if they hadn’t gone through all that adoption rigmarole, but by then it was too late. The only thing she could control was my hair, even though I didn’t want her to. Who knew that, underneath those sunny smiles and Oprah moments of emotional therapy talk, lurked an iron will? It doesn’t matter what you think; we’re fixing your hair my way. End of story.

I suddenly remembered hearing one of those comments you get behind your back in school, the ones just loud enough that they’re sure you can hear it, the snorty giggles and the innocent looks when you turn around. “What? We were talking about the homework for English. Jeez, Zenobia, you’re paranoid . . .”

It was eighth grade and we were doing mythology. The teacher had a PowerPoint with famous art showing the stories were supposed to be reading. Soon as a picture of Medusa came up, an angry dark face with wriggling snakes for hair, everybody looked at me and this ripple of snorts and smothered giggles fanned out through the room. It made the teacher really mad and kind of embarrassed that she had chosen a slide that looked too much like me. I could tell she wanted to talk to me about it after, but I left in a hurry.

Later I began to think it would be really cool if I could give people looks that turned them to stone, just like Medusa. I tried it out in the mirror, seeing what looked scariest, and settled on an intense, evil stare in an otherwise totally blank face that seemed to say “You just wait. You won’t see me coming.” It almost worked. They didn’t turn to stone, unfortunately, but they left me alone.

Then I moved in with Aunt Monica and left school for good, along with all those smiling blond people who acted nice to your face but really didn’t want you there. But there were these little splintery pieces still stuck in me, deep under the skin, like tiny shards of glass I couldn’t find and couldn’t get out. Mostly I didn’t notice them, but every now and then one would poke me unexpectedly and I’d remember what it had been like. And it made me glad all over again that I had escaped.

If this lawyer couldn’t handle what I looked like, she probably wouldn’t do anything for Wilson, anyway. I wrapped a scarf around my neck, got on my bike, and headed out.

~ ~ ~

It was a little blue house with an enclosed front porch and a tiny second story just about tall enough for really short dwarves. I couldn’t tell if the doorbell actually worked, so I waited a while and knocked for good measure. There wasn’t any mail on the steps like there had been on the satellite image, but if I squashed my face up against the glass storm door I could see mail lying on the floor inside. Junk mail, it looked like, mostly addressed to Resident, some of it addressed to Occupant, and one addressed to Mr. Frank Sweeny offering him a one-time deal on car insurance. Maybe Frances Bernadette McSweeney was no longer a Resident or Occupant. Maybe she’d moved to that condo on Snelling, or had gone to a nursing home. Maybe she was lying inside, dead, surrounded by mountains of junk mail. That happened to old people sometimes. I remembered a Buzzfeed story about a man who died in a house so full of trash they could hardly get the door open to get his smelly body out.

The mail lying on the floor wasn’t the only thing on the porch. There were lots of empty flower pots and rusty garden tools and cardboard boxes and a broken chair and two lamps that didn’t have lampshades –

“Can I help you?”

She said it in that snooty voice that really means “go away.” She didn’t look much like her pictures, the ones of her with white hair piled up in a complicated braided hairdo that looked a little like those wigs lawyers in England stick on top of their real hair. Her pinned-up hair was all undone on one side and halfway falling down on the other. Also, she looked mad. Like angry-mad combined with crazy-mad.

“My brother needs a lawyer.”

“He’s in luck. Law schools have been pumping them out like crazy. He won’t have any trouble finding one. Just lift a rock.” Her voice didn’t sound as old and frail as she looked. It was sharp and snobby.

“No, I mean he needs you.”

“Don’t be silly. Nobody needs me.”

“Asif Ranjha and Xavier Jackson needed you.”

“Charming. You’ve done your homework.”

“It’s all online.”

“I’m sure that’s where you do all of your homework. Much easier than actual research, I’m told. Well, it was a waste of your time. I’m retired.” She started to close the door. It got stuck on the piles of mail.

“The FBI picked Wilson up this morning,” I said, fast and loud. “Along with a bunch of other people, one of whom is probably an FBI informant. They’re accused of being terrorists, but they aren’t.”

She rolled her eyes. I guess she thought that’s what happens to stupid people. I was getting fed up with her attitude.

“I think the informant set them up. That’s what they do. They find people naïve enough to talk about how wrong everything is and then they say, ‘yeah, we should do something about it,’ so they all say ‘yeah, totally,’ and then the guy says ‘hey, I know someone who could get us some explosives, what do you think?’ and pretty soon they’re in jail and it would never have happened without some FBI guy talking them into it.”

“Your point?”

“Wilson wouldn’t do it. Not really. It’s just that he wanted Zip to like him. The informant. Wilson kind of fell under his spell.”

“If this Zip . . . “ She shook her head. “Such a ludicrous name. If he really is working for the FBI, he’ll have been given strict instructions. They know how to get around an entrapment defense. They give workshops on it. How old is your brother?”


“Old enough to know better. Does he have a record?”

“Well, he’s never been convicted of anything.”

She glowered at me. A shrill whistle from somewhere inside the house. “That’s the kettle.” She turned and started to cross the porch to go inside, moving in a lopsided way, as if it hurt to walk. “I suppose you’d better come in,” she called out, not bothering to turn around.

~ ~ ~

The house was a mess. I mean, really.

When I’m working, my room gets pretty chaotic, but this was a mess like I’ve never seen before. There were books and papers everywhere. You’d expect a lawyer to have a lot of books. But there were also piles of unopened mail and yellowed newspapers and random rusty hardware and clothes and dirty coffee cups and plates with food still on them and the carpet was filthy. It wasn’t what I expected at all.

But she didn’t seem embarrassed, even when we went into the kitchen and the counter was completely full of stuff and the floor was sticky and the stovetop looked as if it hadn’t been wiped off in a decade. Still, she managed to find a packet of tea, rinse out a brown teapot, pour in tea leaves and set it in the sink, which was the only place where there was room to set it because the counters were jammed full of junk. When she tried to lift the kettle, she made a little grunt. She closed her eyes, a fierce frown on her face.

“I’ll do that,” I said, reaching for it.

As I poured the steaming water into the teapot she glared at me, like she was practicing the Medusa thing. I ignored her, just picked up the pot and put it on the kitchen table on top of an old newspaper. It was from three weeks ago, so I figured it was okay if it got spilled on. Besides, there was no other place to put it.

“Thank you,” she finally said, easing herself into a chair, though it sounded like something-else-you.

“Got any cups?” I asked.

“In the dishwasher,” she said, then I guess she didn’t like my expression because she closed her lips tight, little wrinkles looking like cross stitch forming all around her mouth. “They’re clean,” she snapped.

Well, some of them were, anyway. I picked out two that weren’t too bad and found two spoons that didn’t have anything stuck to them.

She found a bowl of sugar hiding under a newspaper and a tea strainer that she banged on the table to shake the old  dried-up tea leaves out so we could use it again. I told myself to chill, she seemed perfectly happy with the way things were, trying to be all mellow and whatever about it. Live and let live. Then she ruined it by sniping at me. “Hasn’t anyone ever told you it’s impolite to wear hats indoors?”

I had forgotten I was wearing the stupid thing. I pulled it off. “Sorry.”

I almost followed up with “Has anyone told you your kitchen could be listed on the EPA website as a dangerous toxic waste site?” but because of Wilson, I kept it to myself.

“How old are you?”

I started to say something, then for some reason told the her truth. “Fifteen.”

“Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“I go to an alternative school. It’s all self-paced. Besides, school let out already.”

She sipped her tea, then seemed annoyed that it fogged up her glasses and she had wipe them off with a handkerchief. “So, your brother was arrested on terrorism charges?” she finally said.

“Bogus terrorism charges. There’s video of it online.” I pulled out my phone, found the clip that was making the rounds on YouTube, then handed it over to her.

She squinted, turned it on its side. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

“Push the little arrow.”

She pushed it, lowered it into her lap, then tried looking at it from under her glasses, as if trying to sneak up on it. “The screen’s far too small.”

“Do you have a computer with an internet connection?”

“Yes, but something’s wrong with it. Every time I try to get online I get the same stupid advertisements.”

“Let me check it out.”

She got that cross stitch look around her mouth again before snapping, “I suppose you think a child of five would be better with computers than an ancient hag like me? I was using the internet before you were born, not to mention conducting complex legal searches on powerful databases.”

“I didn’t mean to say you don’t understand computers, but I know a lot about them. I might be able to fix it.”

She humphed. “I suppose there’s no harm in it.”

Her study was dusty, but there was nothing but a giant old-fashioned monitor and keyboard on her desk.  She bent down, moving as if it hurt, and switched on the tower that lurked under the desk. “Knock yourself out.”

“How do you back up your stuff?”

“It’s all in there,” she said, waving her skinny, knotty fingers at a plastic box.

I lifted up the dusty hinged lid. “You’re kidding.” There were maybe two hundred diskettes inside.

The computer monitor finally lit up with an old-fashioned Windows logo. A few minutes later, the desktop finally showed up. I checked out her documents, a system of neatly-labeled file folders stuffed full of Word and PDF documents. Confidential memos, court documents, stuff you wouldn’t want in the wrong hands. “You don’t have a password on your computer?”

“I need a password? I have no idea what it would be.”

“No, that’s okay. I just thought lawyers might want to . . . never mind.” I poked around, feeling like a time traveler. She was running Windows 98. The only browser she had was an ancient version of internet Explorer. I launched it and it spawned a bunch of weird popups that blossomed all over the screen like some creepy invasive species.

“See? I suppose I’ll have to buy a new one.”

“This one’s fixable, if you don’t mind switching to a new operating system.”

She gave a little shrug. “Worth a try, I suppose.”

“Okay, then. First, we should do a fresh backup of any files you need.”

“I don’t need any of them.” The sharpness was back in her voice.

“Really? I mean, stuff from your court cases? Emails?”

She hesitated, then said firmly, “No. I’m retired. You can erase everything.”

I was about to tell her it wasn’t so simple, that ferret found the most amazing stuff on computers just because people thought pressing “delete” actually deleted stuff, but I figured that would just make her mad. “All right,  if you’re sure. I’d like to do a complete rebuild. New operating system, new software. You’ll have your basic office suite, a browser, email. Anything else you need?”

“All I need is a browser so I can read the news.”

“Okay. I’ll get started. But you have to do something for me.”

“Here it comes,” she said, rolling her eyes again.

“Find my brother a good lawyer.”

I thought for a moment she would refuse. But instead, she said “First, I’m going to drink my tea before it gets cold. Then – no promises, but I’ll make some calls.”


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if then else Copyright © 2016 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.