First Place

Once More Into the Breach

Written by Kenneth Muir

When his iPhone’s alarm roused him from a soon to be forgotten dream, Scott Stewart remembered the last thing he had told himself before falling asleep the night before. “Today is a glorious day for battle,” he muttered, picturing himself as a fierce kilt-wearing Highlander marching to war across a field blanketed in heather, the blast of his bagpipes rousting the enemy from its positions over the ridge. It was mid-July in Galveston, and by six the sun was already well up over the Gulf of Mexico. Daylight was seeping into their bedroom.

“Turn it off,” Gloria, his wife, complained, flipping over onto her side and covering her head with a pillow. “So loud,” she moaned.

He decided to shave with a new razor for good luck. As he did so, a tremor started up in his hand, and he nicked his chin. The shaking will get a lot worse soon, the doctor had told him. He studied himself in the mirror. His brown hair was graying, but mostly still there. His face was red from a beach foray, his light brown eyes puffy from early mornings getting ready for trial. He wasn’t really that flabby, and at fivefoot- ten he felt impressively sturdy. He was still one tough hombre, he reckoned. The cut stung.

“What do you think,” he asked Gloria, who squinted at him from her repose under the sheets. He stood holding a suit jacket in each hand.

“The blue. It gives you a little energy. Gray is boring.”

“But classic gray.”

“And a red power tie. You’re bleeding.”

“I got sloppy.”

“Why are you still going through this every day when you could just be taking it easy? Like you said, the difference between your salary and what you’d get in retirement is a dollar an hour—it’s actually costing you money to work. What’s the point? I want you to turn in your retirement, like we agreed.”

“Well, that’s all true, but I’m just not sure I’m ready to do it.” He also wasn’t ready to tell her yet about his doctor visit.

“Really, Scott? Really? Just do it. We already decided this! Ugh.” She rolled over again and hid her face under the pillow. He leaned over to kiss her, but she turned away.

As he backed down the driveway in his F-150 Raptor, he noticed Rafael, his neighbor, two doors down, examining his lawn for weeds. As far as he knew, working on his lawn was the only thing Rafael did these days.

It was usually a pleasant 15-minute drive from their old house, which had survived two hurricanes, to the weathered concrete government building down Seawall Boulevard. This morning was no exception. The waves were coming in rough and foamy, spreading a layer of sea spray mist. An impulse made him pull over into the McDonald’s drive-thru line. He accidentally handed the cashier his government ID instead of his credit card, and she looked at him, befuddled.

“Oops, sorry,” he said, taking it back. “I guess I needed my coffee.” The smoky aroma of the mocha latte she handed him relaxed him. The unwrapped half of the hashbrowns went into his mouth, as he kept a hand on the steering wheel. They were warm and crunchy; a corner landed on his white dress shirt, leaving a grease spot. “Wonderful.” He nodded to the guard as he entered his agency’s parking lot.

“Hey there, Scott,” his supervisor, Fred, called out as he strode down the hall toward his office at quarter after seven. “Looking sharp, man! You ready for your hearing?”

“Thanks, pardner. Yeah, I’m ready to kick some butt.” He opened his door with a key, faking a kick with his square toed boot. “Or get mine kicked. Kidding. No, I don’t think it’ll be mine. But it could be. It’s hard to say exactly.”

“There’s no doubt that one of those two things will happen. The director wants you to give him a call. I think he’s getting cold feet. If you need any help with your witnesses let me know.”

“Thanks. I think Angie’s got ’em under control. Yeah, he’s been pretty nervous about testifying. He’s my first witness. I’ll give him a call.”

“Hey, Scott,” Angie, their paralegal, called out from her desk down the hall. “Needmore called. He said for you to call him back before the hearing.”

Needlemeyer was a young attorney at a big employment law firm out of D.C. They had a running joke about his name, because he’d always needed just a little more than they were offering to settle a case. But they’d been through settlement discussions several times already, as the judge had required. He hated this last-minute stuff—at this point he just wanted to try the case and let the judge decide. His witnesses were ready. He guessed Needlemeyer was trying to rattle him with last-minute demands, a common tactic.

“And I brought doughnuts,” Angie added, helpfully.

“I do not ever say no to a doughnut. In fact, I usually say yes. Blueberry, I hope.”

The mismatched fluorescent lights flickered on in his office, and his areca palm’s leaves were browning. He didn’t know what to do about it. He’d have to ask Gloria for some suggestions. Green mold dust was accumulating along the edges of his diploma frame.

He signed into his laptop and checked to see that Zoom for Government was working and opened his PDF exhibit files. He longed for the days of actual in-person hearings. There was an email from his director. “CALL ME!” was the subject line.

But first he got Needlemeyer on the phone. “What’s up?” he asked.

“Look, my client really wants to resolve this matter. We’re ready to make a deal at $90,000 and a clean record. I emailed your director and he’s interested in making a deal.”

“Wait. What skullduggery is this? You can’t email my client. That’s unethical.” He felt his blood pressure rising.

“He reached out to me. Don’t accuse me of being unethical. You’re unethical for not passing my settlement offers along to your client.”

“That’s a ridiculous accusation. I always consult my client. And I might have to report you to the bar for talking to a represented client.”

“Well, you’d better talk to your client first because he wants to make a deal.”

“I’ll talk to my client. But we’re doing the hearing in 30 minutes. So get ready.”

“Oh, I’m ready. I have three co-counsel here with me, and we’re more than ready. We’re the best employment law firm in the country. You’re gonna wish you were retired by the time we’re done with you. Talk to your client.”

“I tell you what, Needmore.” He paused.

“It’s Needlemeyer. Yes?”

“There’s no point in trying to convince me you can win. It’s the judge you’re gonna have to convince. You’re in Texas now, boy. Bring it.” Of course, Needlemeyer was in D.C.

Scott hung up, and Angie was holding a plate in the doorway, squinching up her face at him. “What? Was I hard on him,” he said, shrugging. “Is that blueberry?” He stood up to reach for it.

“Nope, I ate the blueberry. Sorry not sorry. It’s a jelly donut, though. Just as tasty.”

“That’ll do, then. Don’t be jelly.”

She groaned. “Eyeroll.” She looked at him. “Your hand is shaking.”

“Is it? Too much coffee, I guess.”

“Go get after it.” She sauntered away.

“Gracias.” He made a video call.

“Scott, I want you to settle this case.” The director was a pretty preppy political guy from the richest part of Highland Park. That was the main noteworthy thing about him. “I got a bad feeling about this one. I don’t want to end up in federal court—again. Even if you win, we could end up with a jury that doesn’t like us. This is Galveston County, and you know how it rolls down here.”

“You can settle this if you want, but let me tell you why you shouldn’t. First, this is a really bad guy that we fired. What he did to that woman,” he let out a little whistle for effect, “that was bad. Second, this is an administrative hearing, and we only need to show it’s more likely than not that he did what we said he did wrong. I would never tell my client that we have a sure win, but ... this is a sure win. And I’ve been doing this a long time. Decades. I can count them on my fingers.” He held several fingers up and folded one back down.

“You can say that, but you can’t really guarantee it. I want you to settle this.”

“Let me tell you one more thing then.” Scott leaned forward into his webcam. “I’ve got an ace up my sleeve. I can’t tell you what it is, but you’ve just got to trust me, amigo.”

The director looked unconvinced. “You can’t guarantee a win, can you?”

“Yes, I will absolutely guarantee it. If we don’t win, I’ll retire. I’m willing to stake my job on it.” An unenforceable promise, but it sounded good. He said it with swagger.

“All right, fine. I’m taking your word on that. But you’d better be right or you’re out of here. Tell him no deal and let’s get this show started.”

“Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more,” Scott said to himself, rubbing his hands together excitedly.

At nine, the Honorable Merry Hand entered the virtual room. Scott’s witnesses went first. The director nervously stated that “He was a very bad dude, and I made the right decision for the good of the government. I gave him all of his procedural due process rights.” A co-worker testified with gusto that “I saw him do it. Not just once but several times.” Finally, from the former employee’s somewhat dubious supervisor: “No, I didn’t do those equally shameful things that he alleges I did.”

After lunch, the appellant put on his case. During cross, Scott asked the appellant certain questions he already knew the answer to, including, “By the way, just idle curiosity, but have you always been known as George S ___?”

When the testimony concluded, Judge Hand said, “Counsel, is there anything further?”

“Yes, your honor,” Scott said. “We call detective Fingerhut as an impeachment witness.”

“Foul play,” cried Needlemeyer. “This witness wasn’t disclosed in discovery.”

“Well, I couldn’t have known in advance that the appellant would actually lie about his true identity. This witness will be able to prove that George S ___ has actually been someone else with another name at another agency where he was fired for doing the exact same thing he did here.”

“Does he even have any personal knowledge,” Needlemeyer scoffed.

“He’s a fingerprint expert with the Galveston County D.A.’s office,” Scott said.

“Overruled,” said Judge Hand.

By the time Fingerhut finished connecting the dots in George S ___ ’s life, it was clear that he wasn’t getting his job back. The judge adjourned to render her decision.

Fred was loitering in the hallway. “Once again, the Scotsman knocks it out of the park,” Fred said. “So tell me. Why is it you still hang around this joint? When you could be out there chilling on the beach, or taking a nice cruise to the Bahamas—every day of the week?”

“Well, let me tell you.” He adjusted his Stetson. “I’m here for the ride. And on days like this, it’s one hell of a ride. Besides, somebody’s gotta show ’em how it’s done.”

He left the building and climbed into his pickup. He sat there savoring the day and considered. “Not this week. I’m not throwing in the towel this week.” He rode off into the rays of a setting sun. TBJ

Headshot of Kenneth Muir Wearing a Grey Suit and White ShirtKENNETH MUIR does employment law for the federal government in Corpus Christi, where he and his wife live. He enjoys reading, writing, and swimming in his spare time.

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