PROLOGUE Many years before…
The victim’s scream: it is intensely shrill and unnerving. It was her cry for help, her pleading for life.
It was something Sam could never erase from his troubled mind, a flashback that often replayed as his thoughts drifted back – a torturous daydream, an instant mood changer, bringing a flood of guilt.
When he heard her screams, he was at first overwhelmed with uncertainty – his vision blurred – sounds distant – pain surging in his legs – fear rising. There in front of him he saw a crushed car and a young woman sitting upright with blood streaming down her face. He heard a hissing noise and then one sound became more recognizable – a baby crying. There was a loud popping and a sudden flash of heat. Flames began licking at the edge of her car’s crumpled hood. Shattered glass was everywhere.
And then her screaming began.
The torture of a human being unfolded in slow motion before Sam’s eyes and consumed his bewildered mind. That scene would haunt him continually, even affecting the rest of his life.
Yes, it was a terrible, unfortunate accident. But how did it happen, what was the cause, and who was to blame? And what about the child?
Wednesday, May 8, 1985 – day one.
In Walthem, Pennsylvania, the young Samuel Urban was known as the people’s judge, the District 12 Magistrate. The small town nestled in a narrow valley along the Susquehanna River had a population of 11,398 at the time of the last census. A handmade plaque hung in Sam’s office to remind him daily of his purpose. It stated, “Rule – with diligence. Show Mercy – with cheerfulness.” The sign arrived unexpectedly in a padded envelope. There was no return address and no note to identify the sender. It seemed that someone was observing Sam, watching him very closely from a safe distance, anonymously. He and his office staff waited for the author of those words to identify him or herself. Eventually they lost track of the time that elapsed, but it was more than a year, the mystery remained, and soon enough, the need for the sender’s identity was forgotten.
Sam looked at those words frequently and reflected on them. His was a difficult job that required political finesse. The system often required one thing while his heart urged him to do something else. This happened as he heard the plight of those who were downtrodden and most often already strapped financially. They could not afford to pay another fine or lose time from work. Even worse would be the effect of a recorded conviction on them.
These were past friends, the kids he went to school with, the gang that he conspired with to steal beer, the ones he partied with on weekends. Good times, fondly remembered.
Yes, everyone got older, some matured, and each took a different path in life. Sam knew he got some lucky breaks, but not so with the familiar but aged faces he saw in his courtroom. He couldn’t help but to feel pity for them.
This judge felt like he lived in the middle, somewhere between justice and required retribution. And if his clients felt scorned by his rulings, they would soon have the opportunity, as his constituents, to vote him out of office. That was the system.
But worse, Sam faced a former classmate and girlfriend, Faith Culver, who targeted him, accusing him of a crime he believed he was innocent of. He didn’t understand why she was doing it. How could she, a longtime friend? And this wasn’t the first time he was in trouble with the law.
Sam mentioned the incident involving Faith to his girlfriend, Jodi Culp, but didn’t elaborate. He knew that an investigation was underway, but hoped that the whole thing would just blow over, and quickly.
Sam and I have been dating for nearly four years. Yes, I know that he had some trouble in his past, but the criminal record was supposedly expunged. My guy is thoughtful and kind, sometimes too serious, but can also make me laugh at the drop of a hat. That’s when he isn’t overly concerned about a problem. Lately though, something more is bothering him. He seems distant.
He's the kind of guy that you believe in and hang on to. He has a good heart. So, I have remained committed to him, though sometimes I wonder why he hasn’t proposed… yet. It’s been good, mostly good…well, in reality, if I were to be honest with myself, I’d have to admit that things are going just a little better than okay right now.
I’m tired of the daily grind. He has his work and I have mine, not the job I wanted, and often I feel insignificant. Yeah, he’s kind of a big shot, and sometimes I think he gets off on it. But he’s entitled to it, right? It hasn’t always been easy for him.
But what about me, does he know that I am feeling impatient? Does he even care? With a proposal we could begin to finalize our future, nail things down with a firm commitment, even if the big day is still a couple of years off. As his long-term girlfriend, I need that – a firm commitment. A feeling of finality. Certainty.
And then the events of that fateful morning, Wednesday, May 8, 1985, came upon them like a sudden and unexpected storm of huge proportions – a personal tsunami! They were about to be swept into a sea of uncertainty and be lost, drifting about without an anchor or sail to be steadfast or directed.
Sam intended to go to the office late that morning. It didn’t open to the public until 1PM. He just stepped out of the shower and was drying himself when the banging began. Jodi was pounding on the back door of his upstairs apartment.
“Hold on. Just a minute,” he shouted as he wrapped a towel around his waist. He darted for the kitchen, water dripping on the linoleum floor, his hair wet and disheveled.
“Sam! They’re coming for you!” I yelled through the glass of the door still closed. My words smashed through the quiet of his morning.
“Jodi, slow down. What are you talking about?” Sam fidgeted with the deadbolt that seemed to be stuck, then rubbed the sides of his forehead. His stress was on display. It was obvious to me. His face turned bright red as his heart pounded hard, blood pressure surging.
“Sam! They’re out for you. With a warrant. They are charging you… again!”
As Sam unlocked the door I barged through, accidently slamming it against the side of the refrigerator. “My friend at the newspaper called me. It came over the scanner as the sergeant was calling her boss to inform him of your arraignment. They want lots of press. It’s all set up.”
Sam looked puzzled.
“You’re going to be arrested!” My voice began to quiver despite my shouting. I felt a bit nauseous. Fear was beginning to overwhelm me. “The cops will be here any minute!”
Sam stood in the center of the room motionless, his gaze fixed upon the window in the rear wall behind the dinette table. It afforded a view from his second-story landing. Time stalled as I observed him. He was watching something outside.
“Sam! What are you doing?” I bit my lower lip hard enough to taste the bitterness of blood and squinted to hold back the tears that were beginning to overwhelm me. I was losing it. “Sam, are you okay?”
I turned to see what was holding his attention. Beyond the glass, a squirrel scampered along a tree limb that wobbled under its weight. Its quest portrayed a carefree life. In that moment, the scene felt sarcastic, even ironic.
“You have to do something. Sam! Wake up!” I felt a tear as it trickled down my cheek. Another ran to the tip of my nose.
Suddenly, he realized that he was naked. “I have to get dressed.” He turned, and without another word, walked to his bedroom. When he returned a few minutes later, I was standing near the kitchen sink, an empty coffee mug in my hand. The faucet was running. Tears welled in my eyes.
“Where’s the coffee?”
He placed the filter in the coffee machine and spooned out six heaping teaspoons of ground Columbian beans, a robust brew. As he held the carafe under the running water, I observed his hand as it began to tremble. He steadied his arm with his left hand and turned the faucet off at the indicated measurement of seven cups.
Several minutes passed and he didn’t speak a word to me. I sat at the table; my face buried in my hands. My body shook slightly and I sensed that Sam knew I was crying. I tried to hide it, to not be intrusive.
“Here, this will help.”
As I raised my head, he poured the freshly brewed, hot coffee into my mug. Its steam burned in the tip of my nose. It was a welcome, needed stimulant.
“Tell them to wait,” he instructed in a firm monotone as he stood beside me. “I’ll be back in ten minutes. And I don’t want them coming to my courtroom. But before I see them, I have to get something.”
“Okay, I’ll try to hold them here,” I volunteered, but inside I was feeling reluctant and uncertain. Not seeing a box of tissues, I wiped at my eyes with my sleeve. “I’ll tell them that I just talked to you. You were at your office. But you’re on your way back here. You’ve already left, so they may as well wait… Right?”
“Good. That should work. I’m headed out the door right now.” Tension was obvious in his voice. “Thanks, Jodi,” the words fell behind him as he bolted for the exit. Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks. “Can I take your car? Mine is parked out front.”
“Sure.” I tossed him my keys. “It’s around the corner on State Street.”
“Thanks, mine are on the hook where I always keep them.”
“I’m sorry.” The statement seemed out of context, but still, was necessary.
He paused and our eyes met, connecting on a deeper level. I felt desire for him – but was it that of a lover, or maternal instinct?
“I’m so, so sorry,” I repeated.
He nodded and then, without another word, Sam disappeared as he sprinted through the rear door.
I wondered when I would see him again, and under what circumstances. “Sam, be careful.” I felt empty, knowing that my words were inadequate for the moment. The predecessor of loneliness gripped me. Fear, doubt.
But Jodi’s farewell was like a distant echo in Sam’s ears. More relevant questions were pressing upon him. Arrest? What is the charge? Sexual assault – it must be sexual assault. But a rape charge from Faith Culver? How could she? The question plagued him. Why?
Expecting to soon be incarcerated, he was beginning to realize the inconvenience, the restriction, the loss of freedom he faced. There was a letter he still needed to read. It remained on the desk at his office.
Sirens wailed as the state police cruiser raced down Route 11. They were sent to get their man, the one they despised. Their retaliation was, in their opinion, long overdue.
An officer smiled with glee, riding shotgun and holding the arrest warrant. “Are you sure he will be home?” he asked the other trooper.
“Should be. Neighbor said his car is parked on the street.” The cop was happy about their plan to remove the liberal judge. Urban often embarrassed them in his courtroom. “Can’t wait to see the look on his face. He’s had this coming for a long time.”
“Yea. Think I’ll address him as ‘judge’, just to emphasize the farce that he is… ‘Judge, you’re under arrest… again!’” he rehearsed. “Has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?” He raised his hand for a fist bump. “Let’s get him.”
“He’s going to be arraigned today?” his partner inquired after a moment of silence and continued, “hope the press has been given ample notice to attend all the festivities.”
“Oh yea. Sarge took care of that. It should be a real picnic! I can’t wait to see the front page of tomorrow’s paper.”
When Sam returned to his apartment, Jodi was gone, but the police were waiting for him. He surrendered without resistance. The events that followed later became a mishmash of fast-moving images and loud sounds in his memory bank: angry faces, threatening words, handcuffs, a siren, strobing lights of red and blue, people pushing and shoving, shouting voices with insinuating inquiry, the white explosions of camera flashes, accusations, arguments, and finally the hammering of the judge’s gavel.
It was that final courtroom sound that crashed in Sam’s brain and lingered there.
He was arrested and arraigned by a friend and colleague, another magistrate he knew all too well.
Sitting alone in the holding cell at the rear of the municipal police station it all swirled in his head, aching with pain. Sam vaguely recalled the proclamation of bail temporarily withheld and the hand to shoulder hug of his dear friend and defense attorney, Jared McCabe, promising to have him released by morning.
“Poor Jodi,” he mumbled to himself as his mind shifted. He needed to hear her words of comfort. She was always sympathetic toward his concerns, even patient with his mood swings. “My god,” he whispered, “what must she be going through?” He last saw her at his apartment, just before he ran out, headed to his office.
Sam had gone there to retrieve a note that arrived the day before. It was one in a series of notes that he held in confidence. Even Jodi didn’t know about them. He kept them stored away and hidden in a small box placed in the back of his desk’s filing drawer. It was disguised by the clutter of other items that lacked relevance – old seals and notary stamps. But this note arrived only yesterday. Recognizing the handwriting that addressed the envelope, Sam quickly slid it under the mat on his desk, intending to open it at the end of his work day, but was then distracted and left for home, leaving it unsecured there.
Now, he wondered why and how another note would have arrived just before his arrest. It seemed an unlikely coincidence. Did someone know more about what happened than he did? Could that person help him understand or expose the truth about the events described in the arrest warrant? The night of the alleged assault - much of it was still a blur – as he had limited recollection of it.
As he stood quickly and searched his front pants pockets, he recalled emptying them onto the counter just before his mug shot and fingerprinting. The note, folded in half, had been pressed tightly into his left rear pocket. He was processed and surrendered his wallet and comb. He was then patted down. But the note remained, momentarily forgotten and unnoticed.
As he sorted through these details, Sam reached for it. Like others received in recent months, words were simply printed in black ink with block letters on a plain sheet of white paper.
“My life is as a role that I am playing in a skit – a certain time and circumstance in this world. It is where I live now, but like an actor in a TV movie, this show will soon end, and the influence of it will quickly pass away.
How truly relevant is it all?”
Sam could relate. Tears welled in the corners of his eyes. He continued reading.
“Loved ones: how I long to see joy dancing in their eyes once again. As I consider the loss of such, I am overwhelmed with sorrow. Their pain hurts me even more.”
Jodi’s smile flashed before his mind’s eye. A sob burst out of his throat, unsolicited.
The note was signed as the others: “Your Advocate.”
Whatever was to happen to him, Sam knew that he had to protect the woman he loved.
“This too will pass,” he softly spoke words of assurance to himself. “But there is going to be hell to pay, I just know it. I have to survive – but how? I’m only human.” Self-pity charged in.
But who was this “Advocate”? Was he trying to encourage Sam or redirect his thoughts, and did he know in advance that Sam would be arrested?
At 64 Church Street a widow, Jen Foster, had just finished a conversation with her sister, Karen Jackson, one of the bigwigs in town. They talked about Sam, the young judge taken into custody. It was the morning’s hot gossip that had rung many telephones in town.
The sisters agreed on the irony of it all, especially since Sam had been arrested once before, many years ago. He was charged with vehicular homicide in the death of Darcy Rogers, the young woman who was severely burned and later died from injuries received in a car crash. It was the memory of Darcy that haunted many people in Walthem, and in particular, the ghost that still tormented Jen.
Sam was accused of being negligent and responsible for Darcy’s death, but Jen wasn’t so sure the accusation was justified. Sam faced a felony charge and jail time, but Jen thought he did not deserve it. Now, the news of his arrest was upsetting her once again.
In the months prior to the crash, Jen had received letters from Darcy, who was her close friend. The letters contained information that blamed someone else for Darcy’s troubled life. Her demise was untimely and surely unfortunate, but Jen’s anger was directed toward that other person, the one identified in Darcy’s letters.
After ending the call with Karen, she went to find them. She wanted Sam to finally know everything about Darcy. Somehow, she hoped it might help him.
They were stored, hidden away in a shoebox, on the top shelf of her bedroom closet. Jen placed them in a large manilla envelope, strode outside to her mailbox, straddled the deep mud puddle formed by the front tire of the mailman’s jeep, left the package inside, and raised the sender’s flag. Since he was once again incarcerated, Jen mailed the letters she had received from Darcy to Jodi, Sam’s girlfriend.
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Blessings! Alan Updyke