DoubtingScotty hated Ella Justice. From his comments on her blog, he really was out to get her. She could tell he was a man, hiding behind a mask like others online. This guy, though, not only wore that mask, but was a troll, stopping at nothing to be mean.
Good. She really needed a bad guy for her blog. It gave it credibility.
She read DoubtingScotty's comment aloud. "Don't give up your day job, because this is an awful recipe. If I had a dog, I wouldn't feed this to him because it might kill him." She laughed. DoubtingScotty was both her nemesis and her hero, if that was even possible.
Her blog, 'Justice for Dessert,' had close to a million followers. Even though she was a paralegal by day, by night, this blog was her passion. It was also part of the grade for her required class project.
In the big scheme of things, it didn't matter what DoubtingScotty thought, because his biting comments helped drum up more onlookers. She loved to cook, dreaming up strange desserts to keep her readers interested. This blog, though, wasn't just to share recipes, but designed to prove a point.
"I guess he didn't like sponge cake with shrimp and grits." She chuckled. "His loss. It was one of my better awful concoctions." She shook her head. "This guy must have refined taste buds. He's definitely not the fast-food type." She rested her fingers on the keyboard, ready to reply. The more controversy, the better. But before she could type a single letter, six other people posted comments, all disagreeing with DoubtingScotty, proving her point about herd mentality in a blog. People always followed a strong leader, which she seemed to have in spades for the blog. They all seemed to agree with her, no matter what she posted. However, if truth be told, she agreed with DoubtingScotty. The cake tasted awful, but she had to keep up the charade. The grade for this project would be better than she thought.
"JoeMan, you're so right," she said with a chuckle. "'Don't knock it until you try it. Grits go with everything.' Yep. Tell it like it is." She read over more of the comments, laughing as she went, since they all beat up the poor new guy. "Time to pay the piper." She poised her fingers over the keyboard, talking aloud as she typed. "DoubtingScotty, I think JoeMan said it best. 'Don't knock it until you try it.' From all the comments, 'Justice has been served…for dessert.' The jury has spoken. See, Dawg, you just don't know good eats." She chuckled as she pressed enter and then waited.
Her cell phone rang, so she grabbed it and glanced at the caller ID before she answered. "Hey, Cher. What's up?" She put it on speakerphone.
"I'm reading your blog right now. Dawg? Seriously?"
"I don't want anyone to know I have any college background. I want them to think I'm a sous chef or something and learned everything on the job. I want to have street cred." She chuckled, because she, of all people, barely had street cred, whatever that even meant. She'd been raised in an upper-class, white-collar home, with every whim taken care of. But she wanted to prove to herself that she wasn't above anyone and was trying to make it on her own. Her independence was her street cred.
"Yeah. Right." Her friend chuckled. "You're hardly street anything. You have too many legal terms on the disclaimer that you're definitely someone who went to college and are still going."
She put her hands over the sides of the laptop's monitor. "Shh! Don't say that too loudly. Someone online might hear you."
Cher laughed at her. "You're crazy. I think DoubtingScotty has a thing for you."
"You're hilarious. He's probably one of our clients, being charged with murder or something nefarious. For all I know, he could be a serial killer, out to get me. You'll help me if he's a criminal, right?"
Cher was a lawyer in Ella's law firm who was fighting to become a partner in their plush Washington, D.C. office.
Ella, on the other hand, was going to school during the week to become a lawyer. It would be a while until she could take the bar exam, so she put it out of her thoughts and concentrated on one class at a time. Since this was her third class, she had a while until she could finally become a lawyer. Was it her dream job? No, but it would pay the bills and make her family happy.
Cher chuckled. "Sure, I'll help you, along with a few dishy cops. If DoubtingScotty's a murderer, I think it'd be fitting to feed him the recipe on your current post for his last meal. I'd make sure he gets it, too. If he keels over from shrimp and whatever, then it'll save the state a bundle from killing him off."
Ella just laughed. Cher wasn't the type to send someone to their death for any reason. She was more of a bleeding heart, willing to take on any sob story.
"Sure," Ella said, playing along. "I think we should force feed him."
"You read my mind." Cher paused. "Hey, he's talking to you."
Ella looked back at the blog and read aloud. "Dawg, you're no gangsta, so don't go there. You're probably some snotty soccer mom who thinks she can cook because she knows how to make hotdogs in a microwave."
Ella couldn't believe it. "That guy has a lot of nerve, but thank you, DoubtingScotty. I'm sure my ratings just went up." She placed her fingers on the keyboard.
"Don't type yet," Cher said. "We have to make this guy put his money where his mouth is. Make him show that he knows better. Take this off-blog, though, because you don't need a shouting match between you and him. Tell the guy to email you. It looks more mysterious that way."
"You're the boss." Ella typed as she spoke. "Email me. Harassment online isn't nice." She stopped typing but didn't press enter yet. "Is that okay?"
"Yep. Your blog's email address is on there, so hopefully, he'll be able to find it. That is, unless he's an idiot."
Just as she pressed enter, a loud noise in the hallway made Ella turn toward the door. "They're at it again." It was in the direction of the nasty apartment down the hall. All they ever did was yell.
"Is he hurting her?" Cher asked.
Ella listened. "Not yet. But he's screaming. He sounds drunk."
"I'm calling the cops. This is ridiculous."
"Thanks." Ella pushed up her sleeves, ready for a fight. "I'm tempted to go over there."
"No. You stay put. My buddy Rodney will handle it."
Ella couldn't believe her boss. "You just want to flirt with any cop. Admit it."
Cher chuckled. "Yeah. I'm wearing this guy down. Listen for the sirens." She ended the call, so Ella pressed end.
With her phone still in her hand, Ella headed for the door. She put her eye to the peephole and watched. No one was in the hallway, but Dwayne's voice grew louder.
"You don't know?" he screamed. "Let me show you how to chop onions then. Give me that knife."
Ella had to do something. The cops were taking too long and she couldn't let Dwayne kill his mousey wife, Janie. The woman was six months pregnant. They had a five-year-old daughter, Isabel, who was probably in the same room.
"No, Daddy," Isabel screamed. "Don't hurt Mommy!" She cried, along with Janie's loud sobs, confirming Ella's worst fears.
Ella pocketed her phone, unlocked her door, and ran to the apartment down one door and across the hall. She rapped on the door. "Is everything okay in there?"
"Go away," Dwayne said.
"Help?" Janie's voice seemed almost quiet. "No! Don't!" She must've been more upset because she yelled even louder as if being hurt.
Ella tried the door, but it was locked. Once she braced herself, she slammed her body up against the thing, but to no avail.
The door across the hall opened and old Mrs. Peterson stepped into the hallway. "Let me try."
Ella backed away and Mrs. Peterson rattled the doorknob. A scream came from inside the apartment, but it wasn't a female scream.
"Janie!" Ella yelled, pushing on the door. "Are you okay?"
"You won't hurt Mommy again," Isabel cried. "No! I never want to see you again. Get out of here!"
Ella looked over at Mrs. Peterson in question. The old woman shrugged. What was Isabel talking about and to whom? Dwayne?
Sirens squealed outside, and within minutes, three cops ran through the door and up to the second-floor apartments.
"What's going on?" the oldest cop asked.
Screaming and crying came from behind the door. It sounded like three people were all trying to cry at once.
"I think someone's hurt," Ella said. "There's a young child in there, along with her parents." She wanted to know more about Isabel's comments, but kept quiet. Something else was going on and she was determined to find out more.
The cop rapped on the door. "Open up."
The lock clicked and the door opened. Janie stood in front of them, covered in blood.
"No," Ella whispered. "Not Isabel."
Janie shook her head, opening the door wider. "It's Dwayne." She pointed to where her husband leaned against the counter, his arm bleeding from a deep cut.
"I've been knifed," Dwayne said. "I want to press charges against…" He looked over at Isabel, and then Janie. "My wife. I also need medical attention."
Janie's face paled and her mouth fell open in surprise. "But…" Dwayne shot her a dirty look and she kept quiet.
"Call an ambulance," the main cop said. Another cop pulled out his walkie-talkie and stepped away. Ella recognized him as Rodney, the cop Cher liked.
Isabel ran out the door, sobbing, and into Mrs. Peterson's arms. She was covered in blood spatter, as well.
"It's okay," Mrs. Peterson said. "You're going to be okay."
The main cop stepped into the apartment for a moment. Ella stayed in the hallway, watching what might happen next. When her cell phone rang, she knew right away who was calling, but glanced at the caller identification screen anyway. Yep. Her boss.
She put the phone to her ear. "Cher?"
"Hold on for a moment." Ella watched the cop step out of the apartment and walk away. "It looks like Janie knifed Dwayne in the arm," Ella whispered over the phone. "But I'm not so sure she did it. He's blaming her but she doesn't appear to be guilty. She looked as surprised as anyone at the accusation."
"What?" Cher asked. "That doesn't make sense."
Ella kept watching the scene unfold before her. "You heard me. Also, Isabel is a mess. She's five."
"She's a witness. Is anyone taking care of her?"
"Yep. The neighbor lady." Ella paused and watched. "They're putting Janie in cuffs."
"Give Janie our card," Cher said. "I'll represent her pro bono. You can help me."
Ella ran back to her apartment and grabbed a card. As soon as she stepped into the hallway, the cops paraded Janie down the hallway in the opposite direction of Ella's apartment.
Ella ran up to the cops. "Wait. She's being represented by my law firm." She handed the card to Rodney. "Cher will represent her." She waved her phone.
"Uh-huh." But from Rodney's expression, he wasn't impressed and didn't take the card. "Tell your lawyer friend she'll be in booking. She knows our precinct." He and the older cop pulled Janie toward the door. Ella couldn't believe how cold he was, and pocketed the card, instead.
"Mommy!" Isabel screamed, and tried to run to Janie. But Mrs. Peterson held her back.
"We'll get child protective services out here," the older cop said to Mrs. Peterson.
Mrs. Peterson shook her head. "I'll take care of her. I don't mind." She looked down at the young girl. "Let's get you cleaned up. I bet you're hungry."
Isabel nodded, making her blonde curls bounce, as tears ran down her cheeks. "Is Daddy going to be okay?"
Dwayne stepped out of the apartment and plopped onto the floor of the hallway, holding his arm with a tea towel. "Don't worry, Isabel. I think I have the bleeding stopped but I need to go to the hospital."
Ella hated this type of scene, but it came with the job. Now she knew what she had to do—take a case of self-defense for Janie. This was one time she was glad to be working for a defense lawyer, to help abused women like Janie. But did she want to do that for her career? It was a sad job, taking on other's problems. She just wasn't sure. She only knew she wanted to fight the bad guys. Maybe she should become a secret agent or something else instead. It had to be less heartbreaking than this job.
She took a chill, thinking of what could've happened in that apartment. At least no one had died. Their problem would become her problem tomorrow, but for now, she wanted to have a little chat with Isabel on the sly. The night hadn't exactly gone as she wished but at least she could try to get back to her own life after talking with the child.
She went back into her apartment and while waiting for the excitement in the hallway to die down, she turned on the oven and grabbed some cookie dough from the freezer. Within ten minutes or so, she had hot cookies on a plate.
As she stepped out of the apartment and locked her door, the man across the hall from her, Charlie, was taking out the trash.
"Evening," he said. "Just got in. What's going on here?"
"I'm not sure." Ella wasn't about to tip her hand to anything. "I'm just taking Mrs. Peterson some cookies." She held out the plate. "Want one?"
"Sure." He grabbed a cookie. "Thanks." But he didn't hang around and practically ran down the hallway toward the stairs with the trash bag in his hand. He was a strange man, but she considered him lucky for missing all the excitement. Even so, he kind of gave Ella the creeps, just because he was rather unkempt and never seemed to work. At least she never saw him going to work. He said he was an artist so she had to believe he worked from home. The less she knew about him, the better.
She knocked on Mrs. Peterson's door. The door opened and Mrs. Peterson stood in front of her.
"Want some cookies for Isabel?" Ella asked.
Mrs. Peterson grabbed Ella's arm and yanked her inside before locking the door behind her. Isabel sat at the kitchen table drinking a glass of milk, all cleaned up and wearing an oversized shirt. It was probably one of Mrs. Peterson's. The thing was so long, it looked like a dress, coming down to her knees under the table.
"Want a cookie?" Ella asked the young girl.
"Yes." She wiped her eyes. "My mommy's not coming back, is she?"
"Not tonight. But don't worry. We'll get her to come back to you soon." Ella put the plate down on the table. "Have a cookie. That helps me when I'm sad."
"It does?" Isabel wiped her blue eyes and looked up at Ella's face. "Are you sad now?"
"Not really. Do you know why?"
Isabel took a cookie in her left hand and bit into it as she shook her head, making her blonde curls fly a bit.
Ella continued. "I'm not sad because you and your mommy are okay. Your daddy's even going to be okay. It's all going to be okay. Do you understand?"
Isabel shook her head. "No. Daddy's going to die and Mommy won't ever see me again. She went to that other house where they put bad people. The other man told me about it."
Other man? Huh? "What other man?"
She shook her head. "The one I'm never to talk about. Don't tell anyone I told you about him. He's scary."
"He is?" Ella moved closer. "Who hurt your daddy?"
"Is this legal?" Mrs. Peterson whispered.
Ella shook her head. "Keep it a secret. It might help Janie, though."
"I'm not allowed to tell, but it wasn't Mommy," Isabel whispered.
Ella needed to know more. "Why can't you tell?"
"I just can't." She stood up with the cookie in her hand and went into the living room. "Now don't ask me anymore or my daddy will paddle me. He told me that. He knows what I say."
"He doesn't." Ella sat beside Isabel. "Tell me who hurt your daddy?"
"I don't think this is a good idea," Mrs. Peterson said. "If the cops find out you asked questions, we'll all be in trouble."
Ella sighed. "Yeah. You're right." She stood up. "Isabel, don't worry. We'll figure out what happened and take care of everything. Just calm down and know that Mrs. Peterson will take good care of you."
Someone knocked at the door and Mrs. Peterson ran to answer it. When she opened the door, Dwayne stood outside with his arm wrapped in white gauze. "I'm here for my kid," he said.
"Daddy?" Isabel jumped off the couch and ran toward her father. "I didn't tell nothing."
"I'm sure of it." He shot both women a dirty look. "Let's go home."
She bit into her cookie. "Thank you."
Dwayne took her home, shutting the door behind them.
Ella turned toward Mrs. Peterson. "Weird."
"You know it. She wouldn't have told you anything. I already tried and she was getting upset with me asking. But at least you found out about some other man."
Something strange was going on, that was for sure. "It was probably a friend of Dwayne's who visits. But that doesn't tell us anything about tonight. With just three of them in the apartment, one of them had to have cut Dwayne's arm."
"She said it wasn't Janie. That just leaves her or Dwayne." Mrs. Peterson bit her lips. "You don't think Isabel did it, do you?" she whispered.
"I have no idea. But if she did, we'll figure something out." Ella said goodbye and left the apartment. She had to do something to get her mind off these problems. Nothing like taking time to bake something good. Cooking was her therapy and she needed it now more than ever.