Living the Promise: Chapter Seven
The stack of folders on Rita's battered desk had finally been reduced to one last, bulging remnant. "The Hillerman case", she spoke with a weary sigh that suddenly caught hold of Joe's attention. He'd never known Rita to be visibly defeated in her work.
"When does it to go trial?" he asked.
"A week from Tuesday."
"Who do you have assigned to it?"
"Romero. He's been on it all along."
Joe let a small smile of satisfaction trace over his face. Rita knew her stuff. Romero was their best prosecuting attorney. He'd do all he could to get Mark Hillerman convicted.
"Romero will do fine, Rita. He won't leave any loose ends."
"And we'll get a cop who beat his wife to within inches of her life in front of their three kids behind bars."
It was so difficult for Rita's gentle soul to reconcile the fact that someone placed in the public trust could privately be so abusive of trust. It made their efforts at the Women's Center seem so futile at times, just a drop in a cloudburst, but then her tired gaze caught sight of something in the folder that brought her back her hope.
"I got this from Emily Hillerman today." She handed a folded piece of yellow construction paper over to her expectant colleague. It was a card, obviously constructed with great care by a child's hand, who couldn't have been more than four or five. On the front was a collection of simple figures, a taller one with arms stretching around three smaller ones. The perspective left much to be desired, but the colors on the card were bright and lively.
Joe opened it up and felt his heart brighten as well, at the uneven marker letters filling the space. "Thank you Miss Escobar for helping my Mom." Someone had obviously assisted the child, as all the spelling was correct, even Rita's family name which always was destined to mutation in anyone's writing.
"Something like this makes it all worthwhile, doesn't it?" Joe asked quietly.
Rita nodded in agreement, and carefully placed the card onto a corner of her desk. "Terry Hillerman is starting a new life. She's working part time, going back to her studies to pick up on her nursing degree. The kids are doing better in school." A soft care warmed the delicate, dark features of the young attorney's face. "Every now and then we get one right, we do some good before everything is too far gone."
Looking across the army surplus desk at the quiet-spirited young woman, Joe read a gentle hope in her large, bright eyes that seemed unexpectedly open and searching. For once, he let that hope rest on him, without battle. "It's past seven. You want to grab something to eat?"
The restrained shock on his companion's face gave Joe an understanding of just how long he'd actually been shutting her caring support out of all but the most superficial reaches of his spirit the past six months. He'd thought it necessary -- keeping Rita at a distance, for her sake, as well as his.
They'd worked together, battled government bureaucracy together, held to hopes of doing good together, but he'd never so much as taken her hand in his in supportive friendship and acknowledging gratitude, spent a moment of rare free time together sharing anything other than their wearying battlefield experiences.
Maybe it was because he knew she'd be reaching out to him with more than a simple office friendship.
Joe had never felt himself free to accept that hesitantly offered care before, the soft, hopeful trust that could easily take hold of a long-embattled heart. A night spent in a wind-swept cemetery a few days ago had changed that for him, though.
The jingling bell on the storefront door, a leftover reminder of the building's colorful, neighborhood history, suddenly intruded on the expectant silence in the room that had become palpable between the two colleagues. It heralded a late evening visitor in the reception area. Grace had already left for her kids and home. Rita got up from behind her desk to check on who had entered.
Joe followed her, with cautious protection that seemed surprisingly natural to him.
In the outer room stood a lean, well-dressed man of about 60 or so, with the bearing and demeanor of a cultivated professional. At the sound of their approach from the inner office, the man turned and smiled. Joe was certain then that he knew him, but couldn't quite put his finger on the man's identity.
"Miss Escobar?" the visitor questioned in a deep, gentle voice. When Rita acknowledged her name, he continued. "I'm sorry I came without an appointment, but I was told you usually worked late, and I took the chance you'd still be here." Extending a hand to Rita's outstretched one, he said, "My name is Peter Alcott."
"Yes, Mr. Alcott. What can I do for you?"
"Isn't it, 'Dr. Alcott'?" Joe questioned, knowing now why the man seemed familiar.
"Yes it is, Mr. Maxwell."
Rita turned to Joe in confusion. "You two know each other?"
"Dr. Alcott testified for us in a medical fraud case about five years back."
Recognition also lit Rita's face, but from another source. "Yes, Doctor, I remember. You were Catherine's friend, too, as I recall."
A momentary silence passed between the three, as unexpectedly, no one seemed certain about how to handle that bit of information. Especially Rita. She silently berated herself for the observation, knowing Joe's usual reaction to anything that had to do with his murdered colleague in the past.
The pain did come into the younger man's kind eyes, but somehow he was able to keep it from completely overtaking his spirit. Rita blessed heaven for the unexpected miracle.
"Catherine was a very special person." The doctor's soft words spoke of his own remembered loss. Turning to Joe, he continued. "She had a special commitment to her work. It wasn't just a job, it was a life choice." After a moment, the older man let the gentle smile come over his reassuring features again. "In a way, that commitment is why I am here."
Beyond the flood of memories that filled his heart at the description of Cathy's work ethic, Joe's mind was attempting to process the doctor's possible reasons for an after-hours visit to a women's crisis center. He didn't have to wait long for his answers, which came without prologue, as soon as Rita had invited them all into her office again.
"How may we help you, doctor?" the young director asked her visitor. She was greeted with a heatfelt laugh that reminded Joe very much of Catherine's usual natural good humor.
"Actually Miss Escobar, I'm here to offer you my help."
Joe and Rita exchanged meaningful glances that woudn't dare evolve themselves into hope at that moment. Their battles for the survival of the Center were still too fresh on both their minds.
Dr. Alcott read their surprise and quickly offered them his explanations. "I am one of the principle trustees of the Margaret E. Chase Foundation. We are a charitable foundaton that seeks to support worthwhile social service and justice-related activities on behalf of the city's at-risk populations."
Rita joined in the conversation with new awareness. "Yes, I remember reading about some of the programs you've helped sponsor. There was Magdalen House, the shelter for girls trying to get off the streets, and the scholarship fund at Westfield Law School. The music outreach program for gang-targeted kids was in the papers just last month."
"You're well-versed in our past sponsorships, Miss Escobar, though we usually prefer to keep our involvement low-keyed. It is unfortunate that helping do good in the world today must be considered a newsworthy event by the media, instead of an everyday sort of thing that is a natural part of our lives."
In silent agreement, Rita couldn't help but feel her heart start to pound. Had the angels finally come to rest within the tidy, besieged confines of the storefront office? Dr. Alcott almost answered her. "We've been proud to become a part of positive, empowering activities such as those. Your own Center here is an example of what can be done by decent people willing to risk themselves for others."
Joe ran a hand over his chin as he always did when he was at a sudden loss for words. After a moment of contemplation, he addressed the doctor. "Are you saying you are interested in helping fund the Center?"
Dr. Alcott smiled warmly again, taking in the mounting flood of relieved disbelief his quiet words were ready to unleash within the spirit of the two earnest souls before him. "Your work is a vital safety net for the city's victims of domestic violence. It must continue, regardless of political posturing. Our foundation can offer you some immediate emergency funding to get you back on track. Once you've paid your bills and gotten everything on a stable footing, we are prepared to work out a long-term relationship with the Center for sponsorship -- at least five years. To that end, here is our emergency grant."
As naturally as if he was handing over a written prescription to a patient he was attending to, Dr. Alcott slid a white envelope emblazoned with a simple, elegant logo of a full-blown rose, across the desk to within reach of Rita's hand.
The young director looked from her apparent benefactor's face to her co-worker's, and back again, with dazed wonder. Her words were as justly overflowing as her heart. "I don't know what to say. I mean, I can't thank you, we can't thank you enough, Doctor. What you are doing . . . it's an act of Providence . . . "
"Hardly 'Providence,' Miss Escobar. We just recognized a need and were in a position to help. I only wish we would have been made aware of your plight sooner." The gentle grey eyes were reassuring and totally understanding. "Go ahead, open it," he urged with another smile, that held what seemed to be more delight for his own state of spirit than Rita's at the moment.
Joe closed his soft brown eyes and called to mind, without omission , every single promise he'd made with heaven in the past six months that involved what he'd be willing to commit himself to should the Center, and Rita's hope, find their saving support. It would take some doing, he realized with an inner sigh, but he'd honor every single one. The look of totally rekindled belief in his co-worker's lovely face would be worth it.
Rita passed the long envelope through her fingers and opened the unsealed back slowly. From within, she pulled out a typically corporate-looking, computer-generated check . . . in the amount of $25,000, a figure she blurted out with uncontested shock.
"That will cover your expenses for the interim?" came the cool question that held just a hint of nearly-embarased uncertainty with it. "Utilities, rent and training expenses for your existing clients, day care? And the salaries of your staff? If not . . . "
"Oh my God, Dr. Alcott, yes, yes! That is more than what we need right now. Most of our caseworkers and legal assistants are volunteers. They don't take salaries." Then, thinking aloud to herself, she continued with quiet wonder, "This will pay up all our tuition grants for clients in school, augment day care expenses for them . . . I don't know what to say!"
"That is a very generous grant, Doctor. We'd probably have closed our doors here at the end of next month without it. You're helping a lot of people with nowhere else to turn." Joe's quiet statement did little to disguise the unasked questions holding fast in his eyes. Doctor Alcott let his supportive spirit touch the long-tested young idealist before him. They'd all been so right in their decision, he knew.
"I'm certain I can say the same thing about you both, Mr. Maxwell." The long, undeniably searching gaze the older man held the DA's to was at once acknowledging, and, unexpectedly, gently, paternal. As if he knew all the quiet struggle, the burdening loss of hope that had characterized most of Joe's spirit of late, even beyond his efforts for the Center, and had sought to offer a steadying hand.
But, how could that be possible? Joe only knew the man briefly on a professional level in the past. He'd last seen the distinguished doctor five years ago.
Finally, the quietly uplifting gaze pulled itself from Joe's features and back to Rita's now relief-washed, luminesce ones that carried within them more than mere commitment to doing right for the masses. Dr. Alcott smiled at her from the bottom of his heart. He'd read a commitment to seeing that the soft truth of her own heart would reach itself out to her tested colleague sitting across from her. They'd truly not misjudged her.
"All I need, Miss Escobar, is for our financial officers to meet with you, go over your books and get the paper work started. Here's my card. Give the office a call in the morning and set up an appointment when it's convenient for you."
Rita held the small business card carefully, then came to her feet as the doctor did and extended her hand back out to him. "I'll do that, Dr. Alcott. Thank you, so much, again. You've been the answer to our prayers."
"I'm sure there are a number of people that could say that about you, too, my dear." The physician held both of Rita's hands gently in his, then shook Joe's hand with a strong grip that spoke uncontested certainty in his manner.
"Let me walk you out, Doctor." The retreating figure didn't even seen surprise at the DA's offer. He simply stopped to wait as Joe came around from the side of Rita's desk. Leading the way out of the reception area of the office, he stood in front of the Center and paused for Joe's questions that he knew would be forthcoming.
"I have to ask you . . . why now? Why us, now, Doctor? The Center's been struggling for months. Who brought our situation to your attention? I mean, there's someone else we need to thank."
The strong, lean face of the Doctor softened considerably at the earnest inquiries he'd been expecting. "Let's just say you have a considerable number of guardian angels out there who appreciate what you and Miss Escobar have done to see that justice and compassion survive in this city, Joe, despite everything. Cathy would have been proud to be a part of your efforts."
With a casual "good night", Dr. Alcott walked over to his parked car across the street and drove off, leaving Joe to shakily contemplate the sudden recollection that had settled now into his mind: Cathy's estate had been left almost wholly in trust to a charitable foundation administered by some doctor.
When Diana had disappeared that time for three weeks: She had offered him a doctor's address as a means to contact her during the time she'd been left stranded and hurt with Samantha's and Jacob's family. "Dr. Peter Alcott." He'd made the connection even back then, between Catherine's mysterious private life and Diana's equally indecipherable circumstances. Cathy'd been dead three years. Diana he'd only caught sight of in a church yard in the past six months.
But he'd poured out his frustrations with the Center situation to her in his last few letters that had been only addressed to a post office box.
"You know, I fully believe in angels, but, somehow, I never quite pictured one looking like Dr. Alcott." Rita's quietly incredulous words at the door to the Center pulled Joe back from his contemplation of interconnected destinies. Not before, though, he'd silently thanked Cathy, and Diana, in the deepest recesses of his heart.
"Yeah, I know what you mean. We must have a couple of angels looking out for us, despite everything." The gentle life radiating from Joe's handsome face seemed to completely lift the burden of still-remembered pain he'd too-long carried. Rita held his dark eyes tenderly with her own.
"I'm famished. Think we could call it a night after all and get that meal now? I'd say we deserved to celebrate."
Following the slight young attorney back into the storefront, Joe let an ease of heart he'd barely been able to recognize, fill his entire being. "My treat. What do you feel like?
Chinese? Mexican? Thai?"
Taking a chance on the continuing promise of the blessed evening, Rita let her quiet restraint of emotions go and held on to hope. "How about Italian?" she asked brightly, and nearly innocently.
Joe's face lit up completely. He let a soft laugh escape him at the challenging inquiry. Rita couldn't remember the last time she'd seen him so unburdened.
"I know this great little place in Astoria. Cooking's almost as good as my Mom's"
"Sounds great." Rita reached up to the old-fashioned coat rack up against the wall to retrieve her light jacket. The night was so beautiful she almost didn't even need it.
At the same time that she reached for the hanger, Joe had automatically done the same to hand her wrap down to her. Their hands collided against each other -- and lingered for a breathless moment -- before Rita pulled hers away and let her colleague continue reaching for the garment for her.
A sweep of emotions at long last released from their purgatory of regret and pain hung unexpectedly between the two of them, as Joe slowly, carefully, helped Rita ease into her wrap. The surprising wonder suddenly took hold of his consciousness: He'd known the young attorny for five and a half years, ever since she came to the DA's office as a fresh-faced, idealistic law school graduate.
God, he'd been so like her at the beginning, too, full of dreams of setting wrongs to right, seeing justice prevail in a world of compromised consciences. She still carried that bright-eyed hopefulness with her, scarred somewhat, he noticed with a pang, but still there.
Along with a quiet intensity of hope that slipped over his spirit shyly like a teenager's first hesitant attempt to hold a cherished hand.
Turning to share his gaze after she'd accepted his help, Rita felt tears brimming up in her soft eyes. Ordinarily, she'd have done everything possible tokeep Joe from catching sight of them. And there had been so many occasions of tears to hide from him, times when she'd all but shattered with the effort to keep from touching his pain. This time, though, she knew there'd be no need to disguise her love.
For it was love.
Joe read it easily now, and accepted its revelation without desperate hurt -- the quiet support that had always been there for him, always, since Cathy's death, more evident since Diana's departure from his life -- soft, never calling attention to itself, but there for him.
Daring to expect him someday to gather it to himself.
He could do so, tonight, he knew. The angels weren't going to cry any more on his account.
Gently, shyly, he lifted his hand to Rita's cheek, a blessing that set her tears free to flow from dark eyes caressing with disbelieving wonder. His words were quiet with their own wonder. "How did you ever find the patience to wait for me?"
She turned her face into his cupping hand, giving herself permission at last to brush it with a kiss. "I knew you were in there somewhere, and just prayed my heart could hold out long enough for you to find your way out of the pain."
Before either one of them questioned their grips on the reality of the moment, they were in each other's arms. Gifting her with a tender kiss, Joe marveled at how unbelievably -- right -- it felt, to hold Rita's slender, sweet body next to his. Right, promising, and so long overdue.
"Do you like lasagna?" came an automatic, lighthearted inquiry from Joe's reeling awareness, in a flood of good humor that seemed so totally in place at the moment, too.
"Only if they use real, fresh, ricotta, like I do. Anything else isn't even worth the effort." Rita's challenging observation forced Joe to quickly push her away from him far enough to look into her face for understanding.
"You cook Italian?" The words were close to astounded. This was a subject too near Joe's heart for idle chatter.
"Sure I do, though it has a bit of Cuban flair thrown into it. My mother's maiden name was 'Rosario'."
"Forget Astoria, counselor. I'll settle for some help in my own kitchen. How does some quick marinara sound?"
Diana's words in her letter two weeks ago rang in the DA's heart with confirming shelter and warm truth: "Take hold of love when it reaches out to you again, because, make no mistake, it will, probably from somewhere you'd never even think to look."
Joe knew it as an unshakeable certainty at that instant: The angels had been smiling down on him, offering him the gentle guidance of one of their own, over late-night marinara and finally touched to hopes shining in lively bright eyes brimming with tenderness. He prayed, actually prayed, silently, for forgiveness, that he'd ever doubted heaven's efforts on his behalf, then fell into a blessedly peaceful sleep, the image of a slight, gentle-mannered young attorney holding to his heart without pain.
Continued in Chapter 8