by James R. Stratton
Melanie sat rigid on the iron bench, panting as her gaze darted around the jail cell. She wore her best navy blue outfit, flattering but demure, the sort of thing you wear to visit your boyfriend’s parents or your grandmom, or to appear for trial in criminal court. Across from her, the security field sealing the entrance shimmered with a soft red glow, red for danger, red for no-go. Melanie had learned not to mess with the security field while still in high school.
But I’m not supposed to be in lockup. Sid guaranteed I’d get probation if I took the damn plea. Where the hell is he? She could hear her heart thumping as she panted. At least they didn’t put me in a cell with some pervert dyke. And then she shivered. At least, not yet.
The security field buzzed and shifted to a shade of sky blue. Melanie didn’t move, blue just meant the security field had polarized so someone could walk through from outside. A balding guy wearing a rumpled suit and carrying a battered briefcase strode down the hall and stepped through the opening without pausing. He was sweating and looked harried as the field flashed to red behind him.
“Okay Sydney, what’s going on? Why am I in lockup?” Melanie felt her heartbeat ramp up worse when Sydney sighed and didn’t look her in the eye. “Shit, Sydney, did you screw up?” His jaw clenched and he glared.
“No, Mel, I didn’t screw up. The deal was going just like we discussed, up until this morning. You’ve pled guilty to three felony counts out of ten bad check charges. The rest will be nolle prossed. And the prosecutor is locked into not making any recommendation on the sentence. This should’ve been a walk in the park. We go see Judge Jones, he gives you probation and you walk out. I got no idea why they grabbed you. An order came down this morning for you to be held until sentencing.” He paused and glared again. “In fact, I should be asking if you screwed up. You got some new charge I don’t know about? Not smart Mel, it’s guaranteed to piss off the judge.”
Melanie glared back and balled her fists. “No, goddamn it! You think I’m an idiot?”
She and her attorney argued back and forth until Melanie clenched her teeth and looked away. Well, somebody screwed up and it’s my tail in the ringer. Jesus!
The security field buzzed again and a tall man in a starched white shirt and pressed black suit stepped through the entrance gingerly, wincing with bald fear of it.
He straightened his tie, glanced from her to Sid, and grinned the kind of smile Melanie would expect a veterinarian to give a mutt just before he neutered it. “Sydney, my man! I wanted to be the first to tell you how thoroughly the shit has hit the fan. I take it you haven’t heard about Judge Jones?”
Her attorney plopped on the bench next to Melanie and ran his hand through his sparse hair. “Quit jerking us around, Jim. Spill it! We’re scheduled before Judge Jones in half an hour on Ms. McCarthy’s sentencing. Has it been continued?”
The prosecutor just flashed another smile that sent chills down Melanie’s spine. “No, no! We’re on for 10:30. But we’ll be before Judge Harkins, not Jones. Judge Jones’ father went into the hospital yesterday. He made arrangements for Judge Harkins to handle the calendar. So your little client here goes before Ironman Harkins instead. I gotta give the guy credit. Harkins was in his office before dawn reviewing files, and had detainers issued on a bunch of the cases.” The prosecutor paused to glance over to Melanie. “I don’t think he likes you, sweetheart. If he’s got you in lockup now, I can just guess what’s coming when we go upstairs.”
“Jesus, Jim! That isn’t fair!” Sydney jumped up and stood toe to toe with the prosecutor. “And we agreed, no jail. She’s only had a couple of juvenile convictions and a misdemeanor conviction last year. You need to tell Judge Harkins the deal was probation, not jail.”
Melanie shivered as the prosecutor’s smile just widened. He shook his head once, back then forth. “The deal was I would make no recommendation, and I won’t. And what the good judge does after that is entirely up to his honorable conscience. It’s the luck of the draw, Sid, you know that. But your client is a good-looking young lady, she has options.”
“Shut up!” He poked the prosecutor in the chest. “And get out! I haven’t discussed that with her, I didn’t think it was necessary. Now go, you’ve given us your news.”
The prosecutor chuckled and waved his electronic passcard in front of the security field. It flashed to green and he stepped through.
Sydney rubbed his forehead, then sat on the bench and patted her on the knee. “Okay, things aren’t happening the way we thought. Not my fault, not your fault, but that’s the way it is. You need to make some decisions before we go upstairs.”
“Can’t we just withdraw the plea?” Melanie fought tears and bit her lip. “I mean, this wasn’t the deal.”
“I can make the request, but I expect Judge Harkins will deny it. You’ve already entered the plea in open court, admitted guilt and agreed to all the terms. Nobody guaranteed you would get Judge Jones for the sentencing. And that’s not a basis to withdraw a plea. Now listen up, I need to explain some things.”
Melanie took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded. “Okay, how deep is the shit I’m in?”
“Pretty deep.” He grimaced, took a deep breath. “You got three options. First is jail.”
“Okay, I was in detention as a juvenile. I can do that.”
Sydney just shook his head. “Juvenile detention isn’t adult jail. The State has an obligation to rehabilitate juveniles. That means the State pays. But the Governor and the Legislature changed all that three elections back for adults. You remember the campaign, ‘Criminals should be responsible for their punishment.’ Jail costs the good citizens of this State over fifty grand a year per inmate. Nowadays, detainees are expected to reimburse the State, at least for a fat percentage. Anyone in your family got money?”
“Hell no! You think I’d be buying my date-night outfits with rubber checks if I did?”
Sydney grunted and continued. “Second option, public service in a needy community. I know you don’t have a college degree, but have you got any kind of job skills I can sell to the judge? The ghetto communities always need medical technicians, teachers, and drug counselors. Understand, if I sell this you’ll be signing away your life for the next five years. You got anything I can cobble into some sort of specialized skill?”
Melanie stared at the floor and shook her head. She dropped out of school in 11th grade. Never worked at anything but minimum wage jobs since.
Sydney grunted. “Too bad. Last option, what some call the meat option. You sign away your rights and agree to take part in an unskilled public service project.”
Melanie felt tears burning her eyes as she glanced up.
Her attorney continued. “You volunteer for medical experimentation. The government always needs subjects for testing new drugs and medical appliances. Ever since the passage of that animal rights act, testing on dumb animals isn’t allowed.”
“Yeah, but I’ve seen what can happen.” Melanie stood and paced the cell. “A guy on my street can’t hardly walk or talk after they tested a new drug on him. Nerve damage, they told him.”
Sydney just shrugged. “Of course there are risks, that’s why they need volunteers.”
He looked away and fidgeted with the handle of the briefcase. “And they’re always looking for licensed comfort liaisons for the military. The Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act of 2050 guarantees members of the military will have appropriate companions available when they’re off-duty. Most of the liaisons are licensed prostitutes hired out of Las Vegas and New York City.”
Melanie shivered. Dead meat or fresh meat was the way it’s described on the street.
“What if I just refuse, tell the judge to go to hell?”
Sydney chuckled. “I wouldn’t recommend it. The law is clear, the State can’t be burdened with the cost of your punishment. The good citizens voted that referendum in back when you were still in high school. The old prison system cost millions of dollars, produced nothing and rehabilitated nobody. People came out more dangerous and crazy than when they went in. Let the criminals pay for their own punishment the politicians used to say. Make them give something back. Anyway, you refuse to cooperate and the Ironman Harkins gets to pick.”
“Jesus, Sydney!” Melanie closed her eyes and leaned against the wall. “How the hell can I choose? This ain’t fair.”
“Neither is stealing from the merchants of our fair city, and you ripped them off for a bundle. But don’t sell the comfort liaison gig short. It’s Federal, which means good food, good housing, good medical, and decent working conditions. You work at the clubs on military bases.”
He glanced at his watch. “Think it over. We’ve got ten minutes.” The security field flashed blue and a burly guard stepped into the cell. Sydney stood and stepped aside as Melanie was cuffed and patted down. He waved his passcard at the security field and it flashed green. “See you upstairs.” He walked out.