Just by the way that his black robes flapped about him like the wings of an angry crow, regulars in Judge Findlay Sisk's courtroom could tell that he was in one of his black moods as he sailed in, taking his seat on the bench.
The line between his bushy eyebrows was as deep as the Baltimore Canyon, and the assistant state's attorney, a young woman with the ink not yet quite dry on her law degree, stuck her Nicorette under the table as she exchanged a meaningful look with the baliff. The judge grunted as he rifled through his docket, and the crier ordered the spectators to be seated.
Junior Redmond was, in his own way, something of a regular in this bile yellow room, and he tried to sink down into his sport coat, his Christmas tie bunching painfully under his freshly shaved neck as he attempted to become invisible. His one consolation so far was that that most efficient of Fish Cops, Lt. Louisa Kelsey, had not yet appeared in court. His worse fear was that Hudson Swann would not show up in time. It was $300 or 30 days, and Huddie had been assigned to collect the money in cash before Junie's case came before the bench.
Junie knew Judge Sisk and he had heard the inside gossip that the judge had been lecturing no-show jurors this morning, an activity designed to put him in the worst mood. A 30 days or $300 sort of mood.
''I thought I told you never to show up in my courtroom again, Junie,'' The judge said in measured out tones, glaring at the hapless waterman. ''After that last episode with Uranians invading the Patamoke Seafood Plant, I thought you'd learned your lesson.''
June grinned sickly, feeling a cold line of sweat break out on his spine. Judge Sisk was in a mood to be all business today.
''It was a small rockfish, Judge,'' he said weakly.
All he got for his trouble was a baleful look; behind his glasses, the judge's eyes looked like twin nooses to Junie, and he recalled, without pleasure, the smell of the Santimoke Detention Center, a mixture of fear, sweat and unwashed bodies.
As Junie watched the clock crawling away the morning, Judge Sisk dealt summarily with non-supporting fathers, a DWI appeal and a crack dealer's sentencing. Usually, putting a drug dealer away for an extended period of time would put the judge in a better mood; but not today. His face was still all long lines and hard looks when Junior heard his own name being called.
He looked at the door, then at the clock; it was almost noon and still no Hudson, no $300.
As he approached the bench, Junior heard a deep, dark rumbling sound. At first, he thought it was a car starting up on the street outside, but then he realized it was Judge Sisk's stomach. Dressing down the no-show jurors had deprived him of his breakfast, and now he was anxious to have done and get on to the lunch recess. How the judge's stomach complained!
Junior Redmond would be the first to admit that inspiration rarely seizes him, but that when it does, it seizes him good.
''Well, judge,'' he said, ''It was like this. When they put the ban on rockfish, it hurt. It hurt where I live. There's nothing in this world like a rock, all grilled on a slow flame and served up on a plate, with just a smidge of salt and pepper, a dab of butter, the way that white, fine fish just flakes away on your fork, melts in your mouth. . .''
The judge was looking interested. Hungry but interested.
Junie plunged on, lowering his voice so that just the young state's attorney and the judge could hear him, as if he were telling a naughty tale. ''Oh, down to Oysterback, we tried. We had perch, fried with just a little onion in a red hot skillet, we had flounder with green peppercorns, we had shad roe, baked against an open fire on a plank, so that the salt just pops out of the eggs in your mouth like an explosion . . .
''We had crab meat. Crab salads, all pink, crab cakes , well, judge, you've never missed a supper at Oysterback Hardshell Methodist Church, you know what an Oysterback crab cake is like, how it just melts in your mouth . . . but there's nothing quite the same as a bite of that fine, fine rockfish.
''Well, I tried and I prayed and I sweated, and I did the right thing; ever' time I went fishing, and I had one a them big striped beauties on my line. I cut it loose, watched it swim away, as if it were on my dinner plate with a side of Miss Nettie Leery's cottage fries and a dish of fried tomatoes. . .''
Junior sighed, shaking his head. The judge was looking at him as if he were a plate of food, and he would eat him up. The judicial stomach growled, demanding to be fed. If the Hon. Findlay Sisk had less dignity, he would have drooled.
''Well, this went on for pret' near two years, judge. I'd started to dream about rockfish at night, a nice tender white fillet, laying across the plate, and me just about to take a bite of it and raise it to my mouth when I'd wake up. Not even in my dreams could I experience rockfish, the best eating fish in the Bay.
''Well, finally, last September, when we was tonging, and it was such a nice day, I couldn't stand it no more. I put a line over, and when that fish come up, she was a rock. Just as pretty as you could stand, about eighteen inches long,'' Junie swallowed. It was more than a human being could stand, judge! I was just about to toss 'er back over when Big Louisa pulled alongside.''
The judge's empty stomach let out one last gurgling protest just as the door of the court slammed open and Hudson, a white bank packet in his hand, blinked around the room. The long hand of the clock met the small hand at the 12.
Like the sun behind thunderheads, Judge Sisk's smile warmed the room. ''Thirty days or $300,'' he said, rising from the bench. ''Lunch recess!''
As Hudson placed the money in Junie's hands, he smiled. ''Rockfish plate special over to the Elite Lunceonette today,'' he drawled.
Helen Chappell covers Oysterback for The Sun.