CHAPTER 1 – Texas 2019
Jude Madigan took her place at the gleaming conference table at the monthly attorney meeting. A small boutique firm specializing in personal injury. Even though she was the most junior of the few lawyers, in her short career she’d never lost a case. Jude gazed out the window at the dull haze that hung over the Dallas skyline like heat steam from hell.
“Okay, let’s get to work,” Drew Winslow said, as he took his place at the head of the table. Drew exuded power yet held a teddy bear softness for each client. That juxtaposition is what attracted Jude to his firm. “We just got hired on a big truck wreck case.” He opened a file and slipped reading glasses on.
“Is that the one where the girl was under her dead mom for almost an hour before the paramedics found her?” a senior associate asked. “I’d love to work that one. It’s going to pay huge.” He made a ka-ching sound, exploding his hands out like tiny fireworks.
“That’s the one,” Drew said. “It’s important we don’t lose sight of the victim. She’s thirteen and will need to be handled with kid gloves”
“Jude.” Drew pushed the file toward her. “This would be the biggest case you’ve handled here, but I trust you can do it. Your success with the plane crash proves your skill.”
Jude sat forward, eager but unsure. Always unsure. “Yes, I can handle it.” She took a deep breath of insecurity. Fear of failure nibbled at her. She still felt like a hack, though she’d handedly won each case she’d tackled. “Thank you. I won’t let you down.” Drew had been a solid force in Jude’s law career, like the guy who held her bike after the training wheels were off.
“I think you’re ready.” He nodded brusquely.
Opening the manila file, Jude tried not to flinch when she saw a grisly photo of a woman’s decapitated head and body, as if it were from two people. Barely visible under the woman, Jude saw a small, bloody arm tangled in the seatbelt. Working to appear unaffected, Jude flipped through the gory photographs. She’d never be able to unsee these.
“Tell me about the girl,” Jude asked, swallowing a lump of shock.
“Tiffany Carmen. She’s still recovering from her physical injuries which are detailed in the medical records, not to mention the psychological damage. The paramedics weren’t aware she was in the car until she screamed, nearly an hour after they worked to extradite her mom.” Drew took off his reading glasses and looked out the window. “She and her mom had been living with her grandmother, who was able to watch Tiffany while the mom worked and went to college trying to make a better life for them.” He shook his head sadly.
“What about her father?” Jude closed the file, pretending to look confident by scribbling notes on a legal pad.
“He’s a deadbeat. Not in the picture at all.” Drew sat back in his leather chair. “We need to make sure the son-of-a-bitch doesn’t get a red cent from this case.” He leveled his gaze at Jude. “Capisce? If he comes sniffing around here, give him the boot.”
Jude looked Drew in the eye. “I understand.”
“Let me work lead, Jude can assist,” the senior associate persisted. “Just in case the father tries anything.”
“I can handle him,” Jude said. Like he’d do a better job. She knew about son-of-a-bitch fathers. Her own father booted her out years ago. She was only fourteen, and innocent.
“This is a big case,” the associate insisted. “I have more experience. He reached for the file.
“You have enough on your plate to finish before Christmas. Jude has proven herself. I know she’ll knock this one out of the park,” Drew nodded to Jude. “We need someone who has the silent sense of a shark. Sink your teeth into it. Draw blood.”
“I will.” Jude stacked her files in front of her and ignored the other attorney. She wanted to help this girl, Tiffany Carmen. Jude only wished she was as sure of herself as Drew thought she was. Pretend, act, you got this. She sat up and smiled.
“I’m here if you need anything. Especially if the father starts sniffing around,” Drew said, as he tapped the shiny conference table with a finger.
She nodded, wished she could tell him she had experience with asshole fathers. Of course, Jude would never bring up her past, she held the kink tight on that hose. No, she’d fought too hard, suffered through apathetic foster families, and kicked her way in to law school. Jude would not let her broken past derail her future. Like with brick and mortar, she’d sealed off that part of her life.
Jude clenched her fist under the table, her fingernails biting the fleshy part of her hand, no doubt leaving half moon marks. She wished she’d had the courage to take on her own father all those years ago. For now, she’d show Drew and the other associates that could play in the big leagues. She could take a punch with the best of them.
CHAPTER 2 – New York - 2002
“If I find out you’re pregnant, I’ll kill you,” Judith’s father sneered as he pushed her against the wall. A lit cigarette dangled from his lips, its ash glowing hot fire.
“What?” Judith sputtered, cowering from his fist.
“Whore!” He slapped her face so hard she heard, more than felt, the pain. “Just like your wop mother, can’t keep your legs together. Always screwing around.” His thick New York accent was dense with spit. He grabbed her arm, shook her until her long hair tore loose from its ponytail. She reached for her hair to hold it in place before thinking to dodge his fists instead.
“Your mother fucked around and got pregnant. I married her. Big mistake,” he slurred, as he pushed Judith down with such force her ribs slammed into the arm of his greasy recliner, landing so hard on the wood floor of the apartment it knocked all breath out of her. A full pedestal ashtray fell and scattered the remains into a pile of empty beer cans. His evening shrine. Christmas decorations tinkled from the force.
“Look at all the good it did me marrying that slut, a couple of bastard kids to soil my good name.” He ground his cigarette on an empty beer can. “That priest said you’re running with the loose girls. I should’ve known you’d be just like your mother.”
Still on the floor, trying to make herself small, invisible, Judith closed her eyes and steeled herself for another blow, fought to think of something else as his foot landed square in her back. A shot of pain tore through her chest and spine. Tramp, whore, slut – all words her father used to describe her. She’d heard those words from him and some of the kids at school. She wasn’t exactly sure what they meant, but had a good idea. He called her mom those names. Judith didn’t think she or her mother were any of those things. An image of her mother came to her mind’s eye because she needed to focus on something good. Her smile, her strength, her regular bruises. How could she have married him?
Judith stayed down and held her breath as her father stormed around their small living room. He stopped, picked up a thick glass vase and threw it at her. She flinched as it landed near her head. It didn’t break. She tasted blood from his first punch, wasn’t sure if it came from her mouth or from another cut on her face.
“I work my ass off,” he yelled from the doorway. “If you’d listen, maybe you’d learn something from the goddamned sisters and priests at that school instead of carrying on the family tradition and open your legs to any dick that wants it.”
Pinching her eyes tight, Judith refused to cry. Tears usually gave him more reason to strike. Most of the time he wasn’t happy until he saw blood. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. She buried her face in the rough dank upholstery of the chair as she lay on the floor and prayed he’d leave her alone.
No matter how hard she tried to be good, it was never enough. One minute he could be decent, then like a time bomb, explode at the smallest trigger. Was there was a difference between fear and love?
Did he know? She wasn’t sure. Didn’t want to know, really. Her period had never been regular. She’d only gotten it last year. Judith hoped her constant upset stomach was from a virus or cancer or anything but what she feared.
At school, Mary Toby, one of the bad girls, talked about French kissing boys and where babies came from. At fifteen, Mary was a full year older than Judith, having been held back in the second grade. Mary used her extra year of experience to teach the younger girls. She seemed to feel a need to teach something the nuns didn’t talk about. Judith was appalled, especially since Mary knew how to do everything. Judith never wanted to learn about such things, wanted to stay pure for Jesus, secretly hoped to be a nun. The sisters at St. Francis Academy took her under their wing. Made her feel special – and, sometimes, normal.
“You’ve been trouble since the day you were born,” her father seethed. Judith glanced up as he stood near the front door, his hand on the knob. The lights from their Christmas tree gave his face a reddish, evil glow.
Judith knew he wouldn’t open it until he was done screaming. The neighbors might talk. Face down on the floor, she reached under his precious chair and felt the stuffing, like cotton candy. She slowly, quietly ripped open a seam.
“I don’t want you here when I get back. Go live with the bastard for all I care.” He opened the door, cold wind whipped through the room. Leaving, he slammed the door shut. Judith’s favorite glass angel ornament, the one with the sweetest bell, fell from the tree and shattered. Its song silenced forever.
Judith worked to muster the strength to get up. Go live with the bastard for all I care. Judith’s father’s words echoed in her head. If he only knew who the bastard was. Judith didn’t have the nerve to tell him – or anybody. Who would believe her? As Judith counted the days, again, since her last period she thought about that night, when she had been in church late on a Friday afternoon. She tried to stay away from home on Friday nights. The payday before a weekend was a sure recipe for her father to give someone a beating. Alcohol-fueled temper lashed like the crack of a whip. Judith often found peace in the solitude of the sanctuary.
The street noise on Thirty-first Avenue in Astoria was muffled through the massive oak doors. Across the river, Manhattan’s lights brightened as the evening sky dimmed. Christmas lights cast a festive glow through the window.
If Judith could have known what would happen in the church that night she would have gladly taken whatever her father doled out. Instead, sitting in the quiet sanctuary, she watched silhouettes of shadows playing off the stained glass, never expecting the old priest to be there. Life would again twist her dreams, her future wrung out like an old sheet.
Judith stayed on the floor counting each pulse of throbbing pain, prayed that her father wouldn’t come back to finish the beating. She couldn’t take a full breath without feeling a sharp stab in her chest and sickness in her stomach. The smell of his chair clung in her nose. Listening to the noise outside, she thought of families getting together sitting down to dinner together. She closed her eyes and worked hard to visualize a scene with her in it but couldn’t. If only the floor would suck her through it and take her into another dimension.
The taste of blood and the odor of the rancid chair brought a wave of nausea. She’d have a hard enough time cleaning herself up before her mother came home. Painfully she rolled on her back, tried to get up. She didn’t want her mother to see her like this. Her mom fought when she saw her babies getting slapped around, and paid a heavy price for it later. Her father beat her mother brutally, always thought she “deserved” it. He saved hitting the kids until her mother was out. Judith’s older brother took the beatings without crying. Judith wondered why he never fought back. Stephen never raised a hand to their father. Knocked to the floor, he’d take each blow, each kick, his face strained and red as he tried not to cry. Instead, he tried to deflect the blows with his hands to shield his face.
Judith rolled to her side and gingerly pulled her knees to her body. Still fighting nausea, she looked around the living room. The arched entryway walls had jagged cracks like veins, and paint peeled from the corners. The hardwood floors stayed clean. The smell of her father’s cigarettes and beer lingered in the throw rug. He was the king of his house and could do whatever he damn well pleased.
Judith lived for his business trips. It saved her from having to crawl around on hands and knees avoiding him. She’d gotten pretty good at being quiet.
She sat up and touched her bloodied face, hoped her father’s fists had taken care of the baby inside her. She wiped a tear away and felt her upper lip. It was starting to swell. Her back ached from his kick. She squeezed hard on her lower abdomen. No bruises, no pain. Damn, why couldn’t one of his punches have landed there?
Judith pushed the pain down, swallowed bile and stood on shaky legs. She wiped blood from her face with her shirt. She wavered and grabbed a sturdy bookcase for balance. A statuette of St. Jude stood on one of the shelves, the patron saint of lost causes. Her namesake. His image beckoned her but she knew better now than to pray for help, for hope. As a child she’d blow bubbles, watch the rainbow-tinted spheres float toward heaven. She imagined each filled with prayers, and when they popped, it meant an angel had taken the message to God. Now Judith could almost see each prayer fallen, unanswered.