I pushed the slim volume of poetry across my desk and into her lap. The woman with auburn hair, perfect posture, and a broken life picked it up.
"I can't read this," she said, and lifted her head.
"That's because it's in Latin," I said. "Why don't you take off the sunglasses?"
"Why don't you translate for me?"
"Take off the glasses."
The woman slid the dark frames up and off her face. Her left eye was brown and watering. Her right was black and swollen shut. The cheekbone below it offered a study in shades of purple, blue, and yellow.
"You get the picture?" she said.
"The poem is by Catullus. First line reads Odi et amo. Translates as I hate and I love."
"And this is my life?"
"People say it's a love poem, but they're wrong. It's about abuse, about not being able to get out, even when the door is wide open and the whole world is yelling that very thing in your ear."
"I can't just leave. It's not that simple."
"It never is. Let me ask you something. How do you think this ends?"
The woman dropped her eyes back to her lap.
"You're a smart woman, Janet. You can figure it out. You wind up hurt real bad. Maybe dead. Or . . ."
She raised her head again. "Or what?"
"Or he winds up dead. Either way, it's not good."
She thinned her lips and set a hard edge at the corners of her mouth. There'd never been anything soft about Janet Woods' face. Beautiful, yes. Even through the bruises. But never soft.
"What do you want?" she said.
"Same thing I wanted three months ago. Get you out of there. Today. Taylor's in school, right?"
"Okay. We pick her up. I take you to a safe place. No one knows but me, you, and your little girl. Then I approach your husband. Explain the situation to him."
"Johnny will never go for it."
"He doesn't decide, Janet. He just listens."
She hesitated, then shook her head. "I can't. Not right now."
I leaned back in my chair and looked toward the front windows. The sun had cracked through my blinds, and dust floated in panels of afternoon light.
"Don't make this personal, Michael."
I swept my gaze back across the room. "Excuse me?"
Janet had brought a cup of Starbucks with her. She took a final sip and dropped the cup into a wastebasket near her feet. Then she crossed her legs and deflated a little with a sigh.
"I said, 'Don't make this personal.'"
"What does that mean?"
She shrugged and stared at the line of her calf, the angle of her shoe.
"I don't know. Just don't."
I breathed lightly through my nose and let the silence between us settle. Old friends make lousy clients. When that friend was once something more, things only get worse. I considered the tangle of history that bound us to each other, but got nowhere with it.
Then I sat forward, tented my fingers on the surface of my desk, and smiled. "How about some lunch?"
Janet closed the book I'd given her and dropped the glasses back over her face. "Sounds good."
"Let's go," I said. "There's a new place down the street."
She unfolded slowly from her chair, moving stiffly for a woman in her thirties. I figured Johnny Woods might be doing a little bodywork as well but didn't comment.
We made our way out of my office and down the corridor. I stopped about halfway down. My client stopped with me. She kept her eyes fastened on her feet as she spoke. "What?"
"Let me at least approach him. Just once. I can run into him by accident."
"What good will that do?"
"Maybe I can get to know him. Talk some sense into him."
Janet put a hand to her temple and rubbed. Her fingers were long and thin. Old, but not with age. Then she dropped her hand back to her side and gave a small shrug.
Excerpted from The Fifth Floor by Michael Harvey Copyright © 2008 by Michael Harvey. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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