Authors: Nita Prose
It feels awfully strange to be wearing pajamas in the afternoon, and it feels particularly unnerving to be in a courthouse wearing such wholly inappropriate attire. One of Detective Stark’s police officers kindly drove me to this courthouse about an hour ago, and now I’m seated in a cramped office on the premises with a very young man who will serve as my attorney in the bail hearing. He asked me my name, reviewed the charges against me, told me we’d be called into the courtroom when the judge was ready, and then claimed he had some emails to read. He took out his phone and has been giving it his fullest attention for at least five minutes. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do in the meantime. No matter. This allows me time to collect myself.
I know from TV that as the accused, I should be wearing a clean blouse, buttoned to the neck, and formal dress slacks. I most certainly should not be wearing pajamas.
“Excuse me,” I say to the young attorney. “Would it be possible to go home and change before the hearing?”
His face scrunches up. “You can’t be serious,” he replies. “Do you know how lucky you are to be seen today?”
“I am serious,” I say. “Quite.”
He puts his phone in his breast pocket. “Wow. Do I have some news for you.”
“Excellent. Please share it, posthaste,” I reply.
But he doesn’t utter a word. He just stares at me with his mouth open, which surely means I’ve made some blunder, but what it is I do not know.
Moments later, he proceeds to fire questions my way. “Have you ever done jail time?”
“Not until this morning,” I say.
“That wasn’t jail,” he says. “Jail’s way worse than that. Do you have a criminal record?”
“My record is squeaky clean, thank you very much.”
“Do you harbor plans of leaving the country?”
“Oh, yes. I’d love to visit the Cayman Islands someday. I’ve heard it’s lovely. Have you been?”
“Just tell the judge you have no plans of leaving the country,” he says.
“As you wish.”
“The hearing won’t take long. They’re pretty standard, even in criminal cases like yours. I’ll try to get you free on bail. I’m assuming that like everyone else who’s ever been accused, you’re not guilty and you want out on bail because you’re the sole caregiver for your poor, sick grandmother, right?”
“I was. But not anymore,” I say. “She’s dead. And I’m not guilty on any of the charges, of course.”
“Right. Of course,” he replies.
I’m grateful for his instant vote of confidence.
I’m about to get into the details of my complete innocence, but his phone buzzes in his pocket. “We’re up,” he says. “Let’s go.”
He leads me out of the small office, down a hallway, and into a much larger room with benches on both sides and a wide aisle in the middle. I’m walking down the aisle with him to the front of the courtroom. For a moment, I imagine a similar room with a similar aisle, with the big difference that in my imagination, I’m walking down the aisle as a
bride-to-be and the man beside me is not this stranger at all but a man very known to me.
My flight of fancy is rudely interrupted when my young attorney says, “Take a seat,” and points to a chair in front of a table to the right of the judge.
As I sit, Detective Stark walks into court and seats herself at an identical chair in front of an identical table across the chasm of the aisle.
I feel my jitters return. I clasp my hands tightly in my lap to quell my trembling.
Someone says, “All rise,” and I feel the young attorney’s hand on my elbow guiding me to my feet.
The presiding judge emerges from a door at the back of the court and plods to his high bench, sitting down in front of it with an audible groan. I do not mean it unkindly when I say that he reminds me of a Brazilian horned frog. Gran and I watched a tremendous documentary about the Amazon rain forest and the Brazilian horned frog. Such a unique creature. It has a long, downturned mouth and protuberant eyebrows, much like the judge before me.
The proceedings begin immediately, with the judge asking Detective Stark to speak. She presents the charges against me. She says many things about the Black case and about my involvement in it. She makes it seem like I’m not a reliable person. But it’s the end of her diatribe that stings the most.
“Your Honor,” she says, “the charges against Molly Gray are very serious. And while I’m aware that the accused before you presents as a picture of innocence and not a flight risk at all, she has proven herself unreliable. Much like the Regency Grand Hotel where she works, which by all appearances is a fine, upstanding hotel, the more we probe into the life of Molly and her workplace, the more dirt we uncover.”
If I could and it were my place to do so, I’d bang a gavel and yell, “Objection!” just like they do on TV.
The judge doesn’t move at all, but he does interrupt. “Detective Stark, may I remind you that the hotel is not the subject of this hearing, nor can a hotel stand trial. Can you please get to the point?”
Detective Stark clears her throat. “The point is that we’re beginning to question the nature of the connection between Molly Gray and Mr. Black. We’ve gathered significant evidence of illegal activity between Mr. Black and the seemingly innocent young hotel maid you see before you. I’m deeply concerned about her moral integrity and her ability to abide by the rule of law. In other words, Your Honor, this is a prime example of appearances being deceiving.”
I find this incredibly insulting. I may have my faults, but it’s balderdash and poppycock to suggest that I don’t follow rules. I’ve devoted my entire life to just that, even when the rules are entirely unsuited to my constitution.
The young attorney is directed to speak on my behalf. He talks quickly and flails his arms dramatically. He explains to the judge that I have a squeaky-clean criminal record, that I lead a woefully uneventful life, am gainfully employed in a menial position offering zero flight risk, that I have never in all my years left the country and have occupied the same address for twenty-five years—ergo, my entire life.
In closing, he poses a question. “Does this young woman really fit the profile for a dangerous criminal and a runner? I mean, really. Take a good look at who you have in front of you. Something doesn’t add up.”
The judge’s froglike jowls are resting on his hands. His eyes are droopy and half-closed. “Who’s posting bail?” he asks.
“An acquaintance of the accused,” the young attorney answers.
The judge checks a paper in front of him. “Charlotte Preston?” The judge’s eyes open slightly and fall on me. “Friends in high places, I see,” he says.
“Not usually, Your Honor,” I answer. “But lately, yes. Also, I wish to apologize for my wholly inappropriate attire. I was arrested at my front door at an inopportune hour of the early morning and was not afforded a chance to dress in a respectful manner that befits your court.”
I don’t know if I was supposed to speak, but it’s too late now. My young attorney’s mouth is wide open, but he’s giving me no clues as to what I should do or say.
After a sizable pause, the judge speaks. “We won’t judge you on the
basis of your teapots, Ms. Gray, but on your propensity to obey the rules and to stay put.” His impressive eyebrows undulate to accentuate his words.
“That’s welcome news, Your Honor. I’m actually quite gifted when it comes to obeying rules.”
“Good to know,” he replies.
The young attorney remains completely quiet. Since he’s not venturing a word in my defense, I carry on. “Your Honor, I consider myself most fortunate to have made a couple of friends several rungs above my station, but I’m just a maid, you see. A hotel maid. A wrongly accused one.”
“You’re not standing trial today, Ms. Gray. You understand that if we grant you bail, your movements will be restricted. Home, work, and the city only.”
“That accurately summarizes my circumnavigations up to this point in my life, Your Honor, minus travel and nature documentaries on TV, which I’m assuming don’t count since they occur from the relative comfort of an armchair. I have no intention nor financial ability to expand my geographic reach, nor would I know how to go about travel all on my own. I’d be worried I wouldn’t know the rules in a foreign place and that I’d make an…well, a fool of myself.” I pause, then realize my faux pas. “Your Honor,” I add hastily, with a quick curtsy.
One side of the judge’s long, amphibious mouth curls up into something resembling a smile. “I’d hate for anyone here today to be making a fool of themselves,” the judge says, then he looks at Detective Stark, who for the first time in the proceedings does not meet his eye.
“Ms. Gray,” the judge pronounces, “I hereby grant you your conditional bail. You’re free to go.”
At long last, after many forms and formalities, I find myself sinking into the plush leather backseat of Charlotte Preston’s luxury car. Once I left the courthouse, I was passed off to a clerk who said she knew Charlotte well and would bring me safely to her. She escorted me to a back door, where Mr. Preston and his daughter, as they had promised, were waiting for me. They whisked me away in this car. I am free, for now at least.
The dashboard of Charlotte’s car tells me it’s one
. I believe this vehicle is a Mercedes, but given that I’ve never owned a car myself and only ride in them on rare occasions, I’m not up on the finer brands. Mr. Preston sits in the passenger seat while Charlotte drives.
I’m tremendously grateful to be in this car rather than in court or in the filthy basement holding cell in the police station. I suppose I should focus on the bright side rather than on the unpleasantness. This day has afforded me many new experiences, and Gran used to say that new experiences open doors that lead to personal growth. I’m not sure that I’ve enjoyed the doors that have opened today, nor the experiences I’ve had, but I do hope they lead to personal growth in the long run.
“Dad, you have Molly’s phone and keys, right?”
“Oh, yes,” Mr. Preston says. “Thank you for reminding me.” He removes them from his pocket and passes them back to me.
“Thank you, Mr. Preston,” I say.
Only then does it occur to me. “May I ask where we’re going?”
“To your home, Molly,” Charlotte said. “We’re going to take you home.”
Mr. Preston turns around in the passenger seat to meet my eye. “Now, don’t you worry, Molly,” he says. “Charlotte’s going to help you out, pro bono, and we won’t stop until everything’s back to normal, tickety-boo.”
“But what about the bail?” I ask. “I don’t have anywhere near that kind of money.”
“That’s okay, Molly,” Charlotte says, never taking her eyes off the road. “I don’t actually have to pay that, only if you run away.”
“Well, I’m not about to do that,” I say, leaning into the space between the two front seats.
“Sounds like old Judge Wight figured that out fairly quickly, or so I’m told,” Charlotte says.
“How did you hear that so fast?” Mr. Preston asks.
“The clerks, the assistants, the court reporters. People talk. Treat them well and they give you the inside scoop. Most attorneys walk all over them, though.”
“The way of the world,” Mr. Preston says.
“I’m afraid so. They also said Judge Wight was in no rush to release Molly’s name to the press. Sounds to me like he knows Stark’s chasing the wrong fox.”
“I don’t know how any of this could have happened,” I say. “I’m just a maid, trying to do my job to the best of my abilities. I’m…I’m not guilty of any of these charges.”
“We know that, Molly,” Mr. Preston says.
“Sometimes life isn’t fair,” Charlotte adds. “And if there’s one thing I’ve learned over years of practice, it’s that there’s no shortage of criminals out there who will prey on a person’s difference for their personal gain.”
Mr. Preston turns around in his seat again to look at me. Deep wrinkles have emerged on his forehead.
“Life must be hard without your gran,” he says. “I know you relied on her a lot. You know, she asked me to look out for you, before she passed.”
“Did she?” I say. How I wish she were here. I look out the window through the tears that have formed in my eyes. “Thank you. For looking out for me,” I say.
“That’s quite all right,” Mr. Preston replies.
My building comes into view, and I’m fairly certain that I’ve never been happier to see it.
“Do you think it’s appropriate for me to go to work today as usual, Mr. Preston?”
Charlotte turns to her dad, then looks back to the road ahead.
“I’m afraid not, Molly. It will be expected that you take some time off,” Mr. Preston says.
“Would it not be correct to call Mr. Snow?”
“No, not in this case. It’s best right now not to contact anyone at the hotel.”
“There’s visitors’ parking at the back of my building,” I say. “I’ve never used it, as the visitors Gran and I used to receive were mostly Gran’s friends and none of them had vehicles.”
“Do you keep in touch with them?” Charlotte asks as she turns into a free spot.
“No,” I reply. “Not since Gran died.”
Once we’re parked, we get out of the car and I lead the way into the building. “This way,” I say, pointing to the stairwell.
“No elevator?” Charlotte asks.
“I’m afraid not,” I reply.
We climb silently to my floor and are walking down the hall toward my apartment when Mr. Rosso emerges from his.
“You!” he says, pointing a plump index finger at me. “You brought the police into this building! They arrested you! Molly, you’re no good, and you can’t live here anymore. I’m evicting you, you hear me?”
Before I can answer, I feel a hand on my arm. Charlotte steps past me and stands a few inches from Mr. Rosso’s face.
“You’re the slumlord—I mean landlord—I suppose?”
Mr. Rosso pouts the way he always does when I tell him I’m going to be a bit late with the rent.
“I am the landlord,” he says. “Who the hell are you?”
“I’m Molly’s lawyer,” Charlotte replies. “You do realize that this building is in violation of more than a few codes and bylaws, right? Cracked fire door, parking too tightly spaced. And any residential building over five stories has to have a working elevator.”
“Too expensive,” Mr. Rosso says.
“I’m sure city inspectors have heard that excuse before. Let me offer you some free legal advice. What’s your name again?”
“It’s Mr. Rosso,” I offer helpfully.
“Thank you, Molly,” Charlotte replies. “I’ll remember that.” She turns back to him. “So the free advice is: don’t think about my client, don’t talk about my client, don’t harass or threaten my client with eviction or anything else. Until you hear differently from me, she’s got a right to be here, the same as anyone else. You got it? Clear?”
Mr. Rosso’s face has turned bright red. I expect him to speak, but surprisingly, he does not. He merely nods, then backs away into his apartment, quietly closing the door behind him.
Mr. Preston smiles at Charlotte. “That’s my girl,” he says.
I fumble for my keys and unlock my apartment door.
One of the great virtues of Gran’s daily cleaning regimen is that the apartment is in a perpetually suitable state to receive unexpected visitors, not that I usually receive any. Besides the unwanted visit from police earlier today and the shocking visit from Giselle on Tuesday, this is one of the few times I’m able to reap the benefits of this advantage.
“Please come in,” I say, directing Charlotte and Mr. Preston through my front door. I don’t take the polishing cloth out of my closet because I’m still in slippers and they have spongy bottoms that can’t effectively
be wiped. Instead, I grab a plastic bag from the closet and wrap my slippers in it, TBSL—To Be Sanitized Later. Mr. Preston and Charlotte elect to keep their shoes on, which is fine by me given how grateful I am to them at this particular juncture in time.
“May I take your bag?” I ask Charlotte. “The closets are small, but I’m a bit of a wizard when it comes to spatial organization.”
“Actually, I’m going to need it,” she says. “To take notes.”
“Of course,” I say, though I feel the floors tilt under me as I realize what she’s here for and what’s about to happen next. Up to now I’ve been concentrating on the new delight of having people—friendly people, helpful people—in my environs. I’ve tried to ignore the fact that very soon, I’ll have to think more deeply about all that has happened to me today and leading up to today. I’ll have to share details and recount things I don’t actually want to think about. I’ll have to explain all that has gone wrong. I’ll have to choose what to say.
No sooner have I had these thoughts than I visibly begin to shake.
“Molly,” Mr. Preston says, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Would it be all right if I went into the kitchen and prepared us all a pot of tea? Charlotte will tell you, I’m very good at it, for a big old lug, anyhow.”
Charlotte strolls into the living room. “He makes a mean cuppa, my daddy does,” she says. “Leave that to him, and you can go freshen up, Molly. I’m sure you’re eager to change.”
“I most certainly am,” I say, looking down at my pajamas. “I won’t take long.”
“There’s no rush. We’ll be here when you’re ready.”
I can hear Mr. Preston clanging around in the kitchen and humming to himself while I’m out here in the hall. This is most certainly a breach of proper etiquette. The guests should be seated comfortably in the sitting room and I should be tending to them, not the other way around. And yet, the truth of the matter is, I can’t follow protocols in this very moment. I can barely think straight. My nerves are too frayed. While I stand, immobilized in my own hallway, Charlotte joins Mr. Preston in my kitchen. They chatter back and forth to each other, like two birds on a wire. It’s the most pleasing sound, like sunshine and hope, and for a
moment I wonder what it is I have done to deserve the good fortune of having them both here. My legs gradually regain mobility and I walk over to the kitchen and stand in the threshold. “Thank you,” I say. “I can’t thank you enough for—”
Mr. Preston interrupts me. “Sugar bowl? I know it must be here somewhere.”
“In the cupboard beside the stove. First shelf,” I say.
“Off you go then. Leave the rest to us.”
I turn and head to the bathroom, where I shower quickly, grateful that there’s proper hot water today and relieved to scrub the sour filth of the station and court off my skin. I enter the living room a few minutes later in a white, buttoned-down blouse and dark slacks. I’m feeling quite a lot better.
Mr. Preston is seated on the sofa and Charlotte is sitting across from him on a chair she’s brought from the kitchen. He’s found Gran’s beautiful silver serving tray in the cupboard, the one we bought for a most economical sum at a thrift store so long ago. It’s so strange to see it in his large, masculine hands. The full tea service is expertly arranged on the table in front of the sofa.
“Where did you learn to serve a proper tea, Mr. Preston?”
“I wasn’t always a doorman, you know. I had to work my way up to that,” he says. “And to think, I now have a daughter who’s a lawyer.” His eyes crinkle up as he looks upon his daughter. It’s a look that reminds me so much of gran, I want to cry.
“Shall I pour you a cup?” Mr. Preston asks me. He doesn’t wait for an answer. “One lump or two?”
“It’s a two sort of day,” I say.
“Every day is a two sort of day for me,” he says. “I need all the sweetness I can get.”
Truthfully, so do I. I need the sugar because I’m feeling a tad faint again. I’ve had nothing to eat since the raisin-bran muffin in the station this morning. I don’t have enough food in my cupboards to serve three people and eating on my own would be the very pinnacle of impropriety.
“Dad, you’ve got to cut back on sugar,” Charlotte says, shaking her head. “You know it’s not good for you.”
“Ah well,” he replies. “Hard to teach an old dog new tricks and all, right, Molly?” He pats his belly and chuckles.
Charlotte puts her teacup on the table. She picks up the yellow pad of paper and a sleek gold pen she’s placed on the floor beside her chair. “So, Molly. Have a seat. Are you ready to talk? I’ll need you to tell me everything you know about the Blacks and why you think you stand accused of…well, many things.”
“Wrongly accused,” I say as I take a seat beside Mr. Preston.
“That’s a given, Molly,” Charlotte replies. “I’m sorry I didn’t make that immediately clear. My father and I wouldn’t be here if we didn’t believe that. Dad’s convinced you had nothing to do with this. He’s long suspected there’s nefarious activity taking place at that hotel.” She pauses and looks around the room. Her eyes land on Gran’s flowered curtains, her curio cabinet, and the English landscape prints on the wall. “I can see why Dad’s so sure about you, Molly. But to absolve you, we need to figure out who might actually be guilty of these crimes. We both think you’ve been played. Do you understand? You’ve been used as a pawn in Mr. Black’s murder.”
I recall the gun in my vacuum. The only people who knew about me and that gun were Giselle and Rodney. That thought alone sends a wave of sadness rushing through me. I slump over as it washes away all the gumption from my spine.
“I’m innocent,” I say. “I didn’t kill Mr. Black.” Tears prick my eyes and I drive them back. I don’t want to make a fool of myself, I really don’t.
“It’s all right,” Mr. Preston says, giving my arm a little pat. “We believe you. All you have to do is tell the truth,
truth, and Charlotte will see to the rest.”
“My truth. Yes,” I say. “I can do that. I suppose it’s time.”
I start with a full description of what I saw the day I entered the Black suite and found him dead in his bed. Charlotte furiously jots down my every word. I describe the drinks on the messy sitting-room table, Giselle’s spilled pill bottle in the bedroom, the discarded robe on the
floor, the three pillows on the bed rather than four. I start to shake as the memory returns.