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Evan Stratus was pumped. His opponent was on the ropes and his jaw was fully exposed. "Prior to going to the bar, did it dawn on you that it wasn't a good idea to leave your seven year old son in the car?" he snarled at the witness, his client's ex-husband.
The young man on the stand dropped his head and whispered, "I thought I was just going in long enough to give Jessie her keys." Ready for the knockout punch, Evan went in for the kill- "Did it take you an hour and fifteen minutes to find her?"
Evan didn't bother to listen for the answer. It didn't matter what the answer was. From the corner of his eye he shifted his attention to what really mattered- Judge Petras' right ear. He looked to see if he had his forefinger in it. If he did, that meant he was angry, and that was a good thing.
There it was, firmly implanted. Evan tapped down his excitement and continued the assault. But in his mind the case was over, his client had what she wanted.
To the casual observer of the face of Judge Michael Petras nothing had changed. It was still the same unmoved piece of granite that it had been since the beginning of the hearing. For that matter, it had not changed since he took the bench seven years ago. He would slowly move his tall, gaunt frame to the magisterial seat high above his courtroom, and then remain motionless, save his note taking hand.
He never smiled, never frowned. His lips were perpetually tight and thin. His head was typically focused forward but his eyes bore down on the notepad before him, which he pored over like a great master on a canvas. It seemed his ambition was to record every word spoken without anyone knowing he was looking away from courtroom before him, as if someone was going to get away with something if he took his gaze off of them. His head was ever still, like it would break if he moved it too suddenly.
Petras is a variant of the Greek word for rock. It seemed only too fitting that "The Rock" had become the nickname for this judge of Greek ancestry. Not that anyone ever called him that to his face, but when the lawyers gathered at The Razor's Edge, their local watering hole, they called him that-at least when they were being kind.
Evan Stratus circled around his prey and continued the pounding. "When you'd been in the bar for 15 minutes did it cross your mind that you should go check on your son?" he said, keeping one eye on the ear. Evan knew the boy had been left in the car for over an hour so either a yes or no would fit his narrative nicely. The forefinger was still rubbing the ear.
"So what did you do after it crossed your mind?" Evan growled as the poor ex appeared to look around for someone else to get an answer from.
"Well… nothing really," he finally mumbled. A glance at the ear confirmed the finger was still there. "Well," he sneered, "didn't you manage to drink 5 beers in that hour?' holding up the police report from the resulting DUI.
"Objection!" shouted Carmine DeMente, the now-cowering witness' lawyer, "Judge, he's badgering the witness," he stated without much conviction.
"Overruled," Judge Petras stated flatly without ceasing to make notes.
And so it continued on. Ten minutes later Evan finally was satisfied he had exhausted the subject. Confident that he would get a ruling for restricted visits for the DUI dad, Evan relented and rested his case.
The Rock arose to adjourn the case, having worked his ear over sufficiently for Stratus to feel confident. With that, Evan left the courtroom beaming, his chest expanded. His client wasn't quite so confident. "Why didn't he say who won?" she asked him sheepishly.
"That's not his way. He'll think about it and then write up a decision. We'll know in a few days, but don't worry, you won, your ex isn't gonna be seeing that boy unless you're around for a long time."
"I hope your right, but how can you be so sure?"
"Oh, just trust me," he quipped, "I know; I've been doing this in front of him for a while now."
How Evan could be so sure had nothing to do with what The Rock was about to write. He was famous for writing next to nothing. A typical ruling consisted of a sentence:
"The Court grants custody to the Petitioner and restricts the visitation rights of the Respondent by requiring the presence of the Petitioner or an agreed third party at said visits, no overnight visits allowed." No explanation for why it was best for this to happen. Just this is what I'm doing and that was it.
It drove the lawyers crazy. They could not understand the lack of words. Lawyers, as is generally known, live or die by words. They write and speak millions of them. They spend hours arguing in court over the meaning of commonly used words and phrases-what does "is" mean?-most famously.
In cases involving children, the law said the Judge was to consider certain factors and make mention of them, either in writing or orally when deciding the case. But The Rock did not do things that way. He said what he was doing and that was that. No explanation why.
To make matters worse, the appeals court had affirmed him when his lack of stated reasons was raised on appeal. The facts were there in the record, they said.
So perhaps it was not surprising that one of the favorite pastimes of the members of the Gillette County Bar became guessing why Judge Petras did what he did. In fact, it was more than just a pastime. Petras was even more of a mystery to the divorcing public than he was to practicing bar. So a verified claim to have access to the inner workings of his seemingly impenetratable mind was a ticket to family law legend status in Gillette County.
But such status had proven elusive. Putting a label on him was not easy.
Labeling judges is part and parcel to family law practice. There were mother's judges- those more concerned than others with risks to children There were also father's judges- those more concerned with the parent's right to see their child.
Once a judge was properly labeled then the lawyer can make her best effort to get before him, or avoid him, as the case may be, through the strategic use of scheduling. Sometimes it worked, most times it did not, but at least once the lawyer knew who the Judge was assigned to the case, she knew how to advise the client what to expect. These expectations often played a major role in deciding whether a case was settled or tried.
The Rock could wear both labels. Sometimes he seemed to overlook a father's bad behavior. Other times he came down hard on it. Then there were times when he was apparently being hard on mother's who withheld visits for reasons he did not think were serious enough. On other occasions he appeared to agree with her decision to keep the children home
Most of the judges had been labeled quickly, but The Rock was seven years on the bench and still had the lawyers guessing. But not Evan Stratus. He was confident he knew. Not that confidence was something he usually lacked.
Two years out of the prosecutor's office and still the youngest associate at Whitney, Stuffle and Burns, he had made his name as a hard-driving, aggressive divorce litigator. At a time when most lawyers his age were still trolling around the law library of their firms cite-checking their superior's law memoranda, Evan had talked his way out of the library and into the courtroom. After six months he was set free with his own caseload of middle-class contested divorce cases, where child custody was the most litigated issue. The Whitney firm did a lot of divorce work, and that meant Evan would be in front of The Rock a lot.
He made good use of his time. When an objection was sustained he made a mental note, logged it in his file and recorded it a journal that he kept on Judge's rulings. He claimed to have a record of every ruling by every judge he had practiced before since he passed the bar. He was not shy about letting people know this. His clients knew. His lawyer opponents knew. Anyone within earshot of his usual booth at The Razor's Edge knew.
Stratus was the fourth child of a working class couple who probably could not afford more than two. All of his siblings were male. At five foot eight and a hundred and fifty pounds, he was five inches shorter and fifty pounds lighter than his smallest brother. The other three had been athletic and good looking, Evan was neither. Usually consigned his older brothers second hand clothes, furniture and cars; he had learned to fight for something better. Fighting, that is, with his mouth. He found he could talk his way into a better situation. He learned to compete in matters that had nothing to do with muscle and speed. While his brothers were winning on the field, he led the debate team. He talked his way onto the student council, then later into a Congressional internship and an academic scholarship to Princeton law. He had a will to win that few could match.
His present goal was to be the go-to-guy on what judges liked and did not like. He already had a following among the younger lawyers. Any number of them made the pilgrimage to his booth for a consultation about what Judge So-and-so might think.
He was one of the few, if not the only one, who was willing to venture an opinion about how The Rock might rule. That was territory where even the most seasoned of divorce practitioners feared to tread.
Stratus retired to his usual haunt that evening to celebrate. When Carmine DeMente, "Dementia" to those who knew him best, the forty something opponent in today's hearing, heard Stratus spouting off he decided he had heard enough from him for one day. "Mista Strat-o-Sphere," he shouted in his hard- to-miss brogue. "You tellin'me after eighteen months of doin' divorce work, you got The Rock all figured out?"
Evan jumped up and made his way over to where Carmine was perched. "Yeah, I think so", he boasted, setting his wine cooler on the table and looking straight into the big Italian litigator's weary eyes.
"If you know what makes the man tick, by all means tell us who are not so enlightened."
Evan pursed his lips. "Ah, I dunno Dementia, that's kinda like a trade secret, inside information and all that. I like you, but you are a competitor and you're asking me to give away proprietary secrets. I'm not sure that would be wise of me - its probably bad for business. If you got a fact pattern you want me to give an opinion on I will, but why he does what he does? - no, not sayin'."
"Oh, I see how ya are," roared Demente, looking around to make sure everybody in the bar could hear him, "when you needed me to tell ya what I know about the Gillette County bench that's one thing, but now I'm asking you for a favor and its a different story!"
"No, no…" Evan chirped back, "its not like that, its just that I market myself to the public as the a lawyer who's got access to certain information that others don't…know what I mean?"
Demente gave a knowing glance to the other two lawyers who where at the booth, hoping to shame Stratus into talking."Oh, I hear ya loud and clear, you're saying basically you're smart and we're stupid and you aim to keep it that way!"
"Nah, Dementia, its not that way, "he implored. " I just need to keep my work product to myself, that's all."
" Now we're calling it our work product are we?," taunted Demente, rolling his eyes at Stratus' choice of the legal ethics term for those facts and opinions a lawyer was sworn by his professional ethics to keep secret.
Several lawyers rolled their eyes at that comment and one whispered "Give me a break!" just loud enough for Stratus to hear.
Stratus, as usual, was not backing down, "I certainly developed it in the course of my practice, its based on facts I observed in my cases, and its information only I am privy too, so yeah, its classic work product, why wouldn't it be?" Stratus looked around like he expected unanimous support, but he did not find any.
Not fazed by the lack of agreement, he continued. "Well anyway, you're not getting any freebies guys; I worked too hard on this. And it works; I haven't lost a case in front of Petras in the last three months."
"Stratus, it's too bad you have such a low opinion of yourself," offered Jake Belmont, normally a Stratus fan.
"Opinions got nothing to do with it, Jake, its spread on the record, look it up if you want. In the last three months I'm nine and oh in front of The Rock."
"Ya know," Demente said, "my saintly grandmother usta say "pride cometh before a fall, I think that's good advice for lawyers."
"Your grandma never practiced law did she Dementia?" Stratus shot back.
"Come on Stratus, tell us what you know, you got like some sort of moral obligation to keep your brethren in the know don't you think? After all, this group basically got you up and on your feet, am I right Belmont?"
Belmont just nodded his head, " I dunno about moral obligation, but we've given up a lot of "inside info" to you Strat-o-Sphere- seems like a little quid-pro-quo is in order."
"Jake, I love ya like a brother," quipped Stratus, putting his hand on Belmont's shoulder, "but my lips are sealed on this, ask me any other favor, but that's too much."
Belmont knocked Stratus' hand off his shoulder, and avoided his overly sincere gaze, "So much for all your talk about bein' "brethren of the bar" Belmont said, shaking his head.
"At least tell me this," he continued, "how come in that Francis case, Petras lets your guy take his kid into a bar 'til midnight while he gets hammered- and nothing happens, but in Dementia's case, his client does about the same thing and he's got to have his ex around if he wants to see his kid? I don't get it,"
"Well, my guy wasn't "hammered", he only had a couple of drinks. Beyond that …like I said, its work product," Stratus offered.
" I guess "a couple" means 8-10 in your world," Belmont said sarcastically "but knock off the work product bull and just tell us ,come on, its not like were not gonna figure it out anyway."
"If you guys did your homework, you wouldn't have to ask," Stratus snapped back.
"Hey, unlike you, I got a wife and three kids for "homework," Belmont quipped," I don't have time to write down every little thing. And unlike you, if I did keep a journal, I'd be happy to share it with my brethren."
Unfazed, Stratus had his attention drawn to the entrance to the bar, more specifically to the young female attorney opening the door. "Speaking of homework, I see a subject I need to study, excuse me fellas," Stratus crooned as he headed briskly in the direction of Mattie Bauers, the object of his attraction.
Stratus slid into the booth across from Bauers, leaning across the table. "Hey good-lookin', how'd ya do with The Rock today?," he chimed, continuing his rapt stare into her rather pouty, downcast face.
Bauers turned her gaze away. "Not so good, I had a custody hearing. We're not done yet, coming back tomorrow, but I don't like the vibe I'm getting."
"Who's your client?," Stratus asked, trying hard to communicate that he was ready to listen and dole out advice all night long if that is what Mattie Bauers wanted. He had been sending signals that he would give her any help she wanted because what he wanted was her.
And who would blame him? Tall, blond and athletic, she could have passed for a college football cheerleader, which in fact she had been just five years before. Having been hired at Pigeon and Burkess, the city's largest firm, she was starting to get her feet wet in the sometimes baffling world of divorce litigation. She needed all the help she could get, and Stratus was more than willing to oblige.
She was one of the small posse of young lawyers that followed Status around The Razor's Edge, hanging on every tidbit of information he might throw their way. And he threw more Mattie's way than most for reasons that were obvious.
"My client has two kids, six and eight. She stays at home with them. Her ex works at Cummings Engine and likes to drink," Bauers continued, "he works the 3-11 shift and then goes out with the boys. He's been living with his parents. She's afraid if he gets "every other weekend" visitation he'll dump the kids with grandma and go out drinking for most of the weekend. We're asking Petras to not give him the kids on Friday night and order him not to drink for the 24 hours before he gets them."
Stratus shook his head. "That's a lot to ask Mattie, The Rock is pretty consistent about going with Friday night to Sunday night visits even for guys that work second shift on Friday night. Got any dirt on dad?"
"He was on probation at work last fall for getting into it with a coworker, gave the guy a black eye over whether the Packers would beat the Bears."
"Hmm, sounds like a real Einstein," joked Stratus, 'but what about stuff that involves the kids, any bad boy stuff happen while they were around?"
"Nothing violent," she said.
"Let me think…" He closed his eyes and cogitated on how much he really wanted to share with her.
The one thing that consistently had The Rock fingering his ear was children being left alone. Parents who left their kids at home to run to the store or who left them in a car while they went into a bar found themselves on the wrong side of The Rock's rulings if things went bad and the child was alone for too long. . Stratus speculated that there was something in Petras' past about being left alone that had left him traumatized .Now evidence of that was pure dynamite. It was in black and white in his journal. Five times it had happened in his cases. Five times he saw the finger go to the ear. Five times he won when he had proof that a child was left alone too long.
But did he want open up to Mattie Bauers about it? It had taken him over a year to develop this information, was his attraction to her worth giving it away? His deep thoughts where quickly interrupted by the bellowing of Carmine Demente.
"Yo, Mattie Bauers, "he barked, "…, I got that twenty bucks I owe ya, come get it before I'm forced to buy another round!"
Bauers saw the outstretched arm of the ever dramatic Demente held high and waving the bill around. "You'll have to excuse me," she said turning back to Stratus. "Sure," he said weakly,continuing his deliberation over his moral dilemma
Was she worth all the possible repercussions? Was his work product more important than his chance at romance? What would his seniors at the firm think if they found out? What would Judge Petras think if he heard of it?
He was still navel-gazing when he saw Bauers had retrieved her $20 and was headed back. As she sat down she cleared her throat, "I am really frustrated with Petras", she offered. "He sits up there like Gibraltar and hears how this guy is out boozing instead of being home with his kids. There is just no visible affect on him; I don't know how to read the man, do you?" With the last phrase, she reached out and grabbed Stratus' elbow.
Stratus felt a big buzz when he felt her touch. While it was anything but sensual , to Stratus it felt like she was starting to open a door that he had been knocking at for months. He quickly dropped his arm off the table and grabbed the tips of her fingers with his.
"Alright, you can't share with anybody," he blurted out, hardly believing he heard the words coming out of his mouth.
"Heard what?" she fired back, leaning farther across the table, "I haven't heard you say a word, man, I'm as deaf as a post," she joked, squeezing his fingers as tight as she could .
"The key to The Rock, believe it or not, is all in his body language," he stated bluntly.
"Body language!" she cried loudly, "what are you talkin' about? That statute of Colonel Gillette on the Courthouse lawn has more body language than he's got!"
"Sssh!" whispered Stratus, , " you gotta keep you're voice down. I agree he sits there like a rock, but if you pay attention I'm telling ya the body language is the key to understanding what moves the man!" It's all in black and white Mattie; you know how I am about this kinda stuff. I've written down how he reacts to evidence for the past year and a half. He is pretty consistent, …really always consistent, he does the same thing every time he gets upset, and it's the same thing making him upset every time. "
"O.K., I believe you. You were spot on about Holsapple not liking mothers who work , I've got no reason not to believe you, except I've been in front of The Rock for six months now and its by name by nature, he is a rock, he hardly moves up there, what in the world are you talking about?"
They had not noticed that Bauers' legal assistant had entered the bar and was standing in front of them clearing her throat. "Mattie," she said firmly, "Mr. Berkuss wants to see you back at the office, something about a deposition he needs you to cover for him tomorrow."
"Give me just a minute here." she managed to mumble.
The assistant stared back at her. "He wants to leave, his kid's got a ball game, I think you should come with me!"
Bauers blew out a puff of frustrated air. "Alright, don't go anywhere Evan," she ordered. Stratus found himself alone in the booth wondering if he had done the right thing. He had momentary thoughts of leaving and denying what he said. But the better part of him decided he had already spilled too many beans and he was going to have to just tell her the whole story. He wondered why he let pretty faces make him do things he wouldn't otherwise do. That little buzz he felt when she grabbed his elbow put him over the edge. "Why can't I just ignore that stuff," he mused.
He thought he was feeling that buzz again, but when it happened a second time he realized it was his smart phone vibrating. He pulled it out and saw he had a text from his secretary. "Judge Petras needs an emergency GAL tomorrow, wants you in his office at 8:30 to talk to you about the case." "Great," thought Stratus, "just what I want to do, babysit some kid instead of getting ready for my hearing on Monday." He hated GAL work, which required him to represent a child's best interest at a rate of pay roughly half of what his normal hourly rate was. But it gave him a chance to score some points with The Rock, which was always a good thing. Plus he could test out his theory in a case where he wasn't directly affected. Maybe its not so bad after all.
He was still thinking this through when his cell phone started buzzing again. It was a text from Mattie. "Burkess wants me here drafting questions for this dep, don't wait, Catch up with you later on The Rock."
The seventh floor office of Judge Michael Petras was something of a impenetrable fortress. First one had to get past the twelve foot high double doors that were the entrance to the Judges Office wing. Always locked, a small metal box with a keypad and an intercom unlocked the doors if one knew the code. Few people did. Once inside one was greeted by an enormous half circle security desk and DeMarcus Trope, the 6'4", 290 pound ex-college football player of a security guard that sat behind it. "What's your business here?" was Trope's perpetual question for anyone entering the door. He made it clear that you better well know what your business was if you were in this sanctuary.
"Judge Petras wants to see me." Stratus said, pulling his tie up. Entering the Judge's chambers was still something of a novelty for Stratus, and the clicking of the double doors behind him still made his heart race a little.
As he entered the doorway he was greeted by the smiling face of Mary Ellen Quartress, the Judge's secretary. "Oh, Mr. Stratus, how are you?"
"Just fine, Mary Ellen, he stated in his polite formal voice, "Judge wanted to talk to me?"
"Yes, he's ready for you, go on back."
Evan smiled politely, tugged his tie up one last time and walked into The Rock's chambers.
Like its occupant, The Rock's office was spare and unrevealing. The walls were lined with old law reporters that had been there for the past three or four decades. Two black leather chairs sat before his desk. The desk was small, almost tiny compared to the tall, thin figure that sat behind it. Besides the morning's neatly stacked court files and a solitary family picture, it was completely empty. No papers, books, computer or clutter.
The Rock sat stiffly behind it, just as rigid as he did in court. He looked up and smiled briefly when Stratus entered the room. "Ah, Mr. Stratus, thank you for allowing me to impose upon you on such short noice."
"No problem you're Honor, what do you need?" he stated compliantly.
"Mr. Cranston is ill today, I've had this Jimenez case set for hearing for three months and the parties are anxious to get it over with. They've got three children but only one of them is still a minor, he's a nine year old boy, name is… let's see, Benito. Father is Juan, mother is Marie …any conflicts that you know of?"
"Nothing ringing a bell but let me call just to make sure." Evan pulled out his smart phone and hit the speed dial. As he waited for his secretary he heard the high pitched voice of Ms. Quartress from the other office. "Your honor, Mr. Fenwick is on the line wanting to know if he can reschedule that TRO hearing he set for this afternoon, the other side is agreeable."
Petras got a puzzled look on his face, "Penwich," he shouted, "do I know an attorney named Penwich? That's not a familiar name."
His secretary came to the door and glared at him, "Its Paul Fenwick your honor, not Penwich."
"Oh, Paul, of course, yes by all means set it over," he smiled and shook his head, "where did I get Penwich?"
Ms. Quartress remained in the doorway still glaring at the Judge. "Your honor," she stated emphatically, "do you have your device in?"
The Rock's smile vanished and a frown replaced it. He shook his head and opened the pencil drawer to his desk, pulling out a small rectangular box. As Stratus watched he removed a small flesh pink object the size of a fingernail from the box and balanced it on his forefinger. Then he bent his head down and implanted it in his right ear canal.
As Stratus watched The Rock probed his right ear with his finger, the same way he had seen him probe it during his moments of glory in Court.
"Test, testing one two," The Rock said as Evan sat, now gap- mouthed, watching. A few more seconds of fingering the ear and he apparently was satisfied with the volume on his hearing aid.
Stratus sat there stunned, finally realizing he was doing so and leaving his secretary without a response. "Ah, could you do a conflicts check on Juan and Marie Jimenez? Thank you" he managed to get out, hoping his voice wasn't quivering like he was now inside.
"One of the benefits of being in your fifties is body parts start to malfunction," The Rock joked. "I've had this thing for nearly a year now and I'm still not used to it. For as much as I paid for it you'd think the volume would be easy to adjust, but its just not. I find myself having to play with it all the time, sometimes even in Court. It's frustrating. I worry that it's a distraction having the Judge fidgeting with his ear all the time, I hope it's not too noticeable?"
"No, no, not at all your honor," Stratus said weakly, "I've really never noticed."
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