Tina and I look up as Alice, Dana, Shane, and Carmen enter the small office. I look down at my watch; it’s 8:45 and the time is crawling by. I release a heavy sigh and stand as they come to hug and greet me and Tina. Alice squeezes me hard and pulls back, saying, “I know Tina, Carmen, and I can’t be in there with you since we’re witnesses, but we’re there in spirit, and I wanted to give you something.” She smiles so brightly, and with so much hope and faith that I feel a little lighter. She pulls her purse off her shoulder and retrieves a 4×6 inch photograph, handing it to me. “This… is a little reminder of better times for when things get hard.”
I gaze down on the small photo of Tina and all of our children, smiling as I stroke the glossy surface. “You took this just a few days ago.”
Alice’s smile becomes a grin. “Yep, and I have reprints for the sneaky photo queen over there.” Tina chuckles and gazes down at the photo with me, absently playing with a lock of my hair and helping to ground me.
I look up at Alice. “Thank you. This will help tremendously.”
She grins crookedly. “You know, you guys were great together before, but now… now, well, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. And I’ve seen some crazy shit.” We all chuckle and she continues. “Seriously though, I could only hope to know that kind of love, that kind of connection.”
Dana mumbles something unintelligible under her breath and Alice glares at her. Dana pulls on an unconvincingly innocent expression while Tina and I hold a hand over our mouths to hide our smirks. After a long moment, Alice turns back to us. “Anyway, what I was saying is that you can see it…” She gestures to the photograph. “…literally. You just… you belong together.”
I lean forward and hug her again, and she clears her throat as she pulls away. I can tell she’s barely holding it together. Carmen has tears in her eyes as she meets my gaze, “I’m sorry I got the family involved, Bette.”
I squeeze her arm and smile back. “It’s okay, Carmen. You were just trying to help, and it worked for a while. It’s my fault for not handling Candace correctly from the beginning. I should have just told the police.”
She sighs and smiles sadly. “I’m glad we’re okay. I’m still sorry…” She exhales heavily and forces herself to brighten. “In the end it won’t matter. You’re going to kick that overgrown bruja’s ass.”
I chuckle lightly and Dana says, “We should probably get in there and get seats. We want to be right behind you.”
Shane pats my arm, her eyes sincere. “Good luck.”
I nod as they start to make their way to the door and watch as Alice grabs Dana’s hand, pulling her to an abrupt stop. Dana gazes down at the appendage restraining her for no apparent reason; Alice, realizing what she’s just done, lets go quickly, adjusting her dress nervously and avoiding eye contact as she says, “I just… I wanted to… just save seats for Helena and Peggy, okay?”
I sigh. Nice save, Al. There’s an awkward moment of silence before Dana nods with a curious expression on her face, and Shane opens the door. “Okay, we’ll see you in there.”
I put my arm around Tina’s shoulders and Shane rolls her eyes at Alice before shutting the door behind her. Alice turns to us and clears her throat. “Any word from Duffy yet?” I shake my head and she sighs. “Okay, I’ll call her now.” She takes out her cellphone and Tina rests her head against me as we look at the picture together. We’re curled up on the sun lounge by our pool, each of us holding up a baby and Angie sitting between us. Our faces are brighter than the afternoon sun filtering through the thin drapes, and my heart swells. I’ve been living this dream for a while now, but I’ve never seen it, looked in on it like an outsider. For some reason… it means so much more now. This is precisely what I’m fighting for, the joy and the family bonds that define a life worth living, at least for me.
My smile reaches my eyes as I pull Tina in and kiss her chastely. I bury my nose in her lavender-scented hair and breathe deeply. The words flood from my soul without thought and I don’t try to stop or filter them. “I love you, T. I want a lifetime with you and I swear to you, that we’ll find a way to have it. I love you so, so much.”
The wonderful arms around my waist tighten and I hear the tremor in her voice as she says, “I love you, babe. And I believe in you. We’ll have it, one way or another.”
I lean back and she kisses me again. The door opens and we turn to see Helena and Peggy enter. Helena’s face is somewhat sour as she comes forward and hugs us both. “I just saw Merle Rothman in the hallway.” She releases me and I furrow my brows at her. She huffs indignantly. “She propositioned me like a common whore while we were queuing for the metal detectors. I feel… dirty.”
She makes an overdramatically disgusted noise as she lifts her shoulders and shudders. Tina chuckles and I wince. I know how that feels and apparently, so does Peggy as she says, “It’s like getting marked by a skunk in 90 degree heat while hiking through the rainforests of Antigua. That smell never quite goes away.” We all look over at her and she grins. “Oh, please. You think that someone who travels extensively has never run into any unfortunate issues with the more distasteful wildlife?”
I smile back at her. “So you ran into Merle in Antigua?”
Everyone chuckles and she pats me on the cheek. “No, it wasn’t exactly Ms. Rothman, but close enough by the smell and general feeling of distaste.”
We all laugh and Helena squeezes my shoulder. “So, are you ready to go in there and shoo her out of your garbage with a broom?”
I grin back at her. “Thanks to the two of you, and Whit and Joyce of course…” I gesture over at my silently waiting attorneys. “…I think I am.”
Peggy titters. “Oh, no, darling. You’ll need to do better than that.” I consider her words for a moment and pull up more confidence than I feel, squaring my shoulders, holding my head high, and adopting the most feral smile in my arsenal. Peggy grins and winks. “Much better.” She claps her hands in finality. “Okay then, we’ll be in the courtroom. Come, darling.” She tugs Helena gently and they make their way to the door, Peggy turning at the threshold to point at Whit. “I want what’s left of that DA after you’re done tearing her apart, Whit.”
Whit smirks and gives a slight bow. “Of course, Peggy.”
They depart and I release a heavy sigh as I start to pace, looking down at my watch. It’s 8:55. I blow out a breath and Tina grabs my hand, pulling me to a stop and settling herself in my arms. “It’s going to be fine. I know you’re nervous, but we’ll be here waiting.”
Joyce pulls up from her leaning position on the wall and says, “It’s almost show time. The bailiff will be here to retrieve us any minute.”
I watch Alice hang up her phone irritably as Carmen sits to wait. I know she feels bad, but none of this is her fault. I just hope that they didn’t do anything illegal. She’s adamant that they didn’t, but I guess we’ll see. Tina leans into my line of sight and gazes deeply into my eyes as she strokes my cheek with her thumb. Her grin is warm and genuine and I smile at the effort it must have taken it to put it there. “I’m with you, all the way.”
I turn and kiss the palm of her hand. “I know. We’re almost done.”
She leans up and kisses me again before pressing the photo over my heart. She pulls her cellphone off the nearby table, dialing 2 and handing me the phone. I smile as I wait for Kit to pick up. “Hey, baby sis. How you holdin’ up?”
I pull Tina into me, holding her close as I answer. “I’m fine. I have a tremendous amount of support.”
I hear her sigh through the phone. “You can never have too much. I wish I could be there with you; Malcolm does too.”
I smile sadly. “I wish you both could too. But, he’s got the gallery and you’ve got the Planet, and both of you are sharing babysitting duty, so you’re more than doing your part.”
There’s a sarcastic, “Mm-hmm…”
I chuckle. “How are the children?”
As if she heard her name, I hear Angie mumble something in the background. The phone is jostled and I hear Kit say something in response before Angie’s voice booms excitedly through the receiver. “Mama B?”
Tears well in my eyes. “Hey, babycakes. Are you having fun with Auntie Kit?”
Her voice is excited and sweetly innocent. “Yeah! We watchin’ cartoons and Chance has the hick-mumps.” She sighs in exasperation, her voice incredulous as she continues, “Boys…” I chuckle. “Good, I’m glad. I love you, babycakes…” Tina tugs on my arm and I smile. “…so does Mama T.”
The phone jostles again and I hear a yelled, “Love you, too,” in the background before Kit’s laugh rumbles through the receiver. “I better go, baby sis. She’s hell on wheels this mornin’. I swear she has the attention span of a golden retriever.” We laugh together and she clears her throat. “You’re gonna do fine. We’ll be here when you get home.”
I close my eyes, releasing a sigh and wiping at my tears. My voice is thick with emotion as I say, “Okay. I’ll see you later.”
“Bette… I love you, and so do these babies. You just remember that today.”
Tina swipes a tear from my cheek as I say, “I love all of you too, very much. I’ll talk to you later.”
I hand the phone to Tina and she turns it off, putting it on the table. The door opens and a decidedly less obnoxious bailiff steps in. “Elizabeth Porter-Kennard?”
My lawyers step up in front of me and I hold onto Tina’s hand until the last minute as we reluctantly file from the room. There’s a chorus of, “Good luck,” as I gaze at my wife once more before shutting the door with finality. I already miss her, and reluctantly pull my hand from the knob, running my free hand through my hair as I gaze down at the photo and reverently stroke the glossy surface. My family… my family with Tina. I’ve wanted this for as long as I can remember and I can barely believe that I’m holding proof of its existence. I can’t believe that it could be ripped away from me at any time this week.
I follow my lawyers into the courtroom through a side door, and the bailiff walks us over to a large, wooden desk to the right of the judge’s bench. This courtroom is larger and much more modern than that of the arraignment hearing. Everything but the floor, including the desks, is covered in paneling like before, but this faux-wood is a much lighter, blond color and it looks more like vinyl. The fluorescent lights hit the walls in a harsh way, bouncing the light around and causing me to squint against the brightness. There are flat screen computer monitors on all available surfaces, adding to the heat and glare of the room. It would almost be cheerful if it weren’t so stiflingly enclosed and uncomfortably warm. I sigh. At least the chairs look comfortable.
There are three different manned cameras from local media set up in the gallery to cover this trial, my trial. They’re here to tell my sick and twisted story to the public at large, and I feel nervousness start to frantically beat its wings in my stomach. I almost can’t make my feet respond to the call of my brain to move me forward but I look down at my photo and find the will to move forward.
I see Dana, Shane, Helena, and Peggy right behind what appears to be our desk as we approach, and I straighten up to face this with what dignity I have left in me. Joyce and Whit pull up to the innermost seats, and I sit in the very outside chair, facing forward to the looming judge’s bench, left and center of my location. I glance to my left to see Merle already seated at her desk and going through some papers.
She turns her head to look at me, her black eyes piercing and cruel. For a moment, I want to feel compassion for her and it surprises me. I’m not one for benevolence to those who wrong me, especially this egregiously. I can’t help but smile as I realize that this is something my wife is teaching me, showing me. Merle sees my smile and her harshness falters which only makes me grin wider. It took her off guard, and I can tell that she has no idea why I’d smile at her. The person she is, the way she views the world… I just don’t believe that she can understand compassion, let alone feel it. It’s sad really.
I straighten my black blazer against the uncomfortable heat, and cross one leg over the other as I try to sit straight but relaxed. I know it’s okay to show emotion so long as it’s quiet and non-threatening, or at least I’ve been instructed that it is. But I don’t want to appear nervous, even though I most definitely am. I also don’t want to appear overconfident. It’s a difficult balance. I just want to appear strong in the face of confrontation even if my heart is racing and my palms feel a bit sweaty. I again gaze at the photo, trying to find the peace and comfort that I felt that day. I look long and hard at my face, a face I hardly recognize in this photo, because it’s so warm and honest and open. I have to remind myself that this is me, the new me, the me who shouldn’t be here today.
“All rise. District one criminal court is now in session. Judge Cornelius T. Compton III presiding.” I snap my head up, placing the photo face down on the desk and stand as the judge enters through the back chamber door. Corky? The judge is Corky Compton? Wow, his parents must have hated him…
He’s a squat, round man, his paunch visible even beneath his robes. The bright fluorescent lights gleam off of the shiny bald portion at the top of his head, crowned by a thin crop of stark white hair. His thick, bristly mustache is whitish grey and his cheeks and nose are overly pink where his thin, wireframe glasses are perched. The way he curls his hands as he walks reminds me of a mole digging a tunnel.
The bailiff booms out, “The jury will now enter!” It’s quiet as the twelve strangers who hold my future in their hands filter into the room, taking a seat in the box along the wall. We all wait patiently for the judge, who takes a sip from his coffee mug and spills some down his chin.
His beady eyes are cold as he gazes out over the room, his lips pursed in a sour-faced expression as his nasally voice calls out, “You may be seated,” the ‘be’ followed by some spittle. We all take our seats and I watch as Joyce and Whit give each other a loaded gaze.
Merle attracts my attention as she leans back in her seat and smiles smugly. Something bad is happening here. I lean into Joyce’s ear and whisper, “What’s wrong?”
She looks to me and sighs. “Judge Compton. I’ll explain later.”
I sit back in my chair to see Compton staring at us with disdain. An icy chill rolls down my spine as I look into his eyes. This man just seems… utterly hateful. He finally decides to start the proceedings. “Calling the case of the People of the State of California versus Elizabeth Porter-Kennard. Are both sides ready?”
Merle and Whit stand but Merle is the first to speak. “Ready for the People, your honor.”
Whit clears his throat. “Ready for the defense, your honor.”
Compton leans back and says, “Will the Clerk please swear in the jury.”
The Clerk at the front of the room, near the jurors’ box, stands and faces them. “Will each member of the jury please stand and raise their right hand?” All twelve get to their feet and comply. “Do each of you swear that you will fairly try the case before this court, and that you will return a true verdict according to the evidence and the instructions of the court, so help you God?” There is a chorus of “I do,” before the Clerk continues. “You may be seated.”
The judge calls out. “Let the record reflect that the Jury, the Judge, all council, and the defendant are present.” He gestures to Merle who gets to her feet. “The People will go first.”
Merle walks up to the jury pacing back and forth in front of them for long moments. The room starts to feel tense, and I force myself to sit back, prepared and waiting for the first barrage of dishonest insults. She finally turns to face them, her rough voice grating to my ears. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this is going to be a difficult case.” She gestures in my direction. “The defendant is a powerful, wealthy, successful woman who’s not only shrewd and cunning, but highly intelligent. She owns her own art gallery, a very successful art gallery, and has a far reaching reputation for her selective and impeccable artistic eye. But, there are aspects of that same reputation that might shock you.”
She starts to pace in front of them again. “She is known throughout her own community for being cold, calculating–”
Whit interrupts her. “Objection, speculation and hearsay.”
The judge pins Whit with his tiny, black eyes. “Overruled.” He looks back to Merle. “Please proceed.”
Merle’s small bow of respectful acknowledgement is dripping with sickeningly sweet gratitude, and it makes me want to leap over this desk and commit the crime she’s trying to put me away for. Then she has to go and intensify that feeling by trying to force her gravelly voice to sound delicate. “Thank you, your honor.” He smirks at her and I can’t help but wonder if this has been rigged from the get go. Did Kelly pay off the judge? I gaze at Compton. Somehow, I don’t think it would take much to convince him. He seems like the sort that enjoys causing pain, especially when it’s unnecessary, like he might boil live puppies for fun.
What about the jury; are they bought and sold like prized whores as well? I look around at their faces, faces of people I’ve never even met holding my life in the palm of their hands. It’s discouraging to say the least. There really just may be no way out of this. I take the photo from the desk in front of me and gaze at my family. I won’t allow myself to cry or show anything but calm repentance, but it’s scary. It’s scary to think that I may lose this when I’ve only just attained the life I’ve been working so hard for, and all because of a person that no longer exists.
Merle points at me, keeping her face turned toward the jury. “She is known to be cold, calculating, and cruel. But of all of that, she’s most known for her licentious use of people to meet her own ends. Now, I understand that this sounds a little far-fetched. I mean, just look at her.” They all turn to look at me critically and it’s everything I can do to face them instead of lowering my eyes. I can’t let her intimidation tactics destroy my self-confidence, even when it seems insurmountable. I take a deep breath and meet their eyes head on, just as Joyce instructed. If I’m not guilty, I shouldn’t act like it. “She doesn’t look like a cold-blooded predator that defiles women, does she? But that’s the problem with appearances, they’re deceiving. Not only has she brought women into her bed under false pretenses, but once she’s done, she throws them away without a thought or a second glance.”
Merle sighs, drops her shoulders, and shakes her head. She’s just so saddened, I’m sure. “I know what you’re thinking. You wonder why these women would allow this to happen to them, how they get to a place where they’re utterly destroyed by Mrs. Porter-Kennard’s blatant disregard for their feelings and needs.”
Judge Compton interrupts. “Ms. Rothman. You will address the defendant by miss not missus.”
Joyce stands. “Your honor, the defendant is married.”
He glares at Joyce and his jowls start to flap as angry words fly from his scrunched, pig-like face. “I am well aware of her marital status, counselor. Missus is a prefix reserved for a man’s wife. I know the state has defiled the definition of ‘marriage,’ but they did not change the definition of ‘missus.’ Your client is not married to man. Therefore, she will be addressed accordingly. Furthermore, keep in mind that this is my courtroom. I will not have anyone, let alone a lawyer, correcting me. Try that again and I’ll hold you in contempt.”
Is he fucking kidding? He pushes his glasses up his greasy nose, his face red with the aftereffects of his tantrum, and it’s everything I can do to keep my seat. That would explain his irrational hatred from the very start. Joyce correcting him isn’t the only contempt he’s harboring. If he’s this bad only twenty minutes in, there’s no way I’m going to get out of this. My hope rides solely on that of the jury. I glance at their blank, inscrutable faces and feel a pang of defeat gnaw at my heart.
Joyce is gripping the end of the table with white knuckles and Whit stands. “If it pleases the court, I’d like to approach the bench, your honor.” The judge eyes Whit with angry distaste, but seems less disdainful with him than he is with Joyce. Maybe he hates women and gays. Fuck. If he hates blacks, I’m three for three. He finally nods his shiny, round head and Merle meets Whit and Joyce at the bench. The judge’s color starts to rise as he berates my counsel and Merle watches on with smug satisfaction. Outside of heated murmurs, I can’t distinguish what’s being said.
I sneak a look behind me to see Dana and Shane sitting rigid in their seats, their demeanor pissed. I know the feeling. Shane meets my eyes and I smile sadly at her. Her smile is tight and I turn, taking my photo and gazing at it again. Tina’s face is even more of a revelation as my own. She is joy incarnate and I just want to bury my head in her neck, breathe her in, and forget this mess. Maybe load her and the kids on a plane for Taha’a and just disappear.
Probably fifteen minutes pass this way before Joyce and Whit come to retake their seats, and I tear my eyes away from the photo of my wife to whisper to Joyce, “What was that all about?”
She’s still angry as she shakes her head and says, “Later.”
Fuck me. Things are worse than I had imagined and it’s only just begun. Merle returns to the jurors and looks to the judge for approval. He waves and she slowly paces a few steps, tucking her hands behind her back. “As I was saying, it’s hard to believe that a person, let alone a competent, kind, and generous person, would allow themselves to be used or pushed to extremes. So the question is why? Why would a sane, productive person allow this to happen to them? Well, I’m going to tell you. Some of these women, these innocent women, they are in the lowest, most desperate rungs of our society, a place where they don’t feel they deserve better; maybe they’ve been abandoned or are seeking asylum from previous abuse. Maybe some of them just have low self-esteem or don’t know how to make a better life for themselves. Maybe some are just so utterly desperate for someone to care about them. The deplorable reasons and possibilities are endless really, but they all have one thing in common: these people, people like Candace Jewel, people that are good, innocent, hardworking citizens are just so trusting that they get taken in and taken advantage of. And sometimes the lies and degradation have been engrained so deep over such a long period, that by the time they realize they need out, that they need help, it’s too late.”
Merle stands straight before the jury, her demeanor one of deep empathy. It’s so disingenuous that I could puke, the nervous flutter in my stomach redoubling its efforts to make this feeling a reality. “Candace… Candace Jewel… remember that name. She was a kind and caring woman, and that was her only mistake. She loved Ms. Porter-Kennard. She’d have done anything for her, given anything for her, and that devotion was callously thrown in her face. The defendant vowed love, offered her body and her heart under false pretenses, but to someone like Candace, it was hope. It was like a dream come true. But when the relationship wasn’t convenient for the defendant anymore, she threw a confused and deeply committed woman away. She consumed Ms. Jewel body and soul, lied to her, gained her trust and love and crushed her without thought or regard. But that just wasn’t enough. She then added insult to injury by using Candace’s affection to torture her for nearly five years.”
She holds up her spread hand, her voice and plea seemingly fueled by righteous anger. “Five years of being strung along; five years of emotional and sexual abuse; five years of having Ms. Porter-Kennard’s hired thugs torment her, destroy her property, threaten her with physical abuse and rape…” She releases an exhausted breath, closing her eyes for effect. Her voice is choked with emotion as she says, “…the defendant even threatened her family. Five years of suffering that kind of indignation would push anyone to extreme lengths, but Candace was strong.” She sniffs. “She went to the source of her torment, to talk it through, to ask Ms. Porter-Kennard to stop, to try and reason with an unreasonably cruel woman… and what did she get?”
She holds her hand up, shaped like a gun. There’s a moment of silence as she aims at each of the jurors and then pretends to pull the trigger. “She was murdered–”
Whit stands. “Objection, your honor. The defendant is innocent until proven guilty.”
Compton snarls at Whit, but he can’t really argue that point. It’s the fucking law. His face contorts as he physically has to choke out the word, “Sustained.”
Whit clears his throat. “I petition the court to strike the last remark from the record.”
Compton’s lip twitches and it tugs at his mustache. “Granted. The jury will disregard that last remark.”
Whit sits down and Merle smirks as she continues. She knows as too well that once you’ve heard it you can’t un-hear it, no matter how much you’re told to ignore it. This all seems like a giant joke. Merle’s harsh voice breaks the silence that’s settled over the room. “Ms. Jewel was shot in cold blood, by the very woman who pushed her to the ends of her sanity. That is why she’s not here today to tell her story or plead her case for justice. But, thankfully, I am here and so are you. I am her voice in this atrocity. I am her road to justice, but I need your help to give her that satisfaction.”
She lowers her hand and squares her shoulders. I have to hand it to her, she’s a good actress. “In this trial, Ms. Porter-Kennard is going to try to sway you to her version of events. She’s going to underplay her role in this innocent woman’s death. She’s going to say that she was attacked; she’s going to say that she had no choice but to kill; she is going to say that she is the victim here, but you are going to have to remember why Ms. Jewel was there in the first place. Remember that her intentions were noble, just as she was in life. Remember that she is the one who was murdered all too conveniently.”
She puts her hands together in a prayer pose. “I implore you: do not be pulled in by the defendant’s ploys, her lies, her twisting of the truth, her magnetic personality or well-spoken and reasonable demeanor. Do not be bullied by her counsel into refusing the truth. Remember why we’re here. Remember that a woman is dead. Remember her. If you can do that, I’m confident that you will make the right decision. Remember that because of the defendant, an innocent woman will never see a sunrise again, will never see the ocean again, will never have the chance to fall in love with someone worthy of her, and it’s all because she was used, tormented, and murdered. Remember Candace Jewel.”
Rothman pauses and allows the silence to hang heavily in the air for a long moment before returning to her seat. The judge looks to us and Whit pushes a file folder to the edge of the desk before he stands, unbuttoning his blazer as he approaches the jury. He stands at somewhat of a distance, his stance very casual with his right hand tucked into his pocket as he gazes at each of the jurors for a long moment. He turns to the side and paces a few steps, his voice pensive as he says, “I remember Candace Jewel.” He faces them and gestures to Merle. “I didn’t actually know her any better than Ms. Rothman, but I feel like I’ve gotten to know her pretty well over the last two months. There is a stack of police reports and evidence that tell a story, her story. Ms. Rothman has read this story, and yet our recollections of the same woman, the same events, are vastly different.”
Whit walks over to our desk and picks up the folder before striding back up to the jury and holding it up. It’s all quite dramatic and he seems very intimidating. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is that story. This file contains photos, police reports, and sworn affidavits that weave the tale of an individual who struggled with addiction, someone who ran away from home at fifteen and was missing for over a week before being found at a location known for prostitution and drug trafficking and forcibly returned to her distraught mother. It’s the story of a confused and troubled young woman who refused to make good decisions to better herself.”
He lowers the file and sighs. “But let’s be honest here; everyone has something in his or her past that they aren’t proud of; everyone makes mistakes. Each of you have regrets you live with. But you know as well as I do that those regrets, those lessons… they’re opportunities. You either choose to do better, or you choose to do worse. At the end of the day, it’s always a choice. Now, do I plan to stand here and talk about Candace’s past? No. Why?”
He puts his free hand up in exasperation. “Because her past has no bearing on this case. Her past isn’t on trial, any more than my client’s past is on trial. And I’ll be honest, my client’s past isn’t nearly as severe as Candace Jewel’s. So, no, ladies and gentlemen, I’m not here to rehash events that are long over and forgotten or delve into years-old reputations; I’m here to show you the evidence, the cold, hard facts about an accident, a terrible accident, where a very disturbed woman chose to put herself in a terrible situation that resulted in the loss of her life.”
He starts to pace, shaking his head. “Was it senseless? Of course it was. She could have made better choices, choices that would have given her the chance to see another sunrise, another chance to visit the ocean, a chance to fall in love in a healthy way. But she chose to forfeit those opportunities when she unlawfully broke into my client’s home, pulled out a gun, and threatened not only the lives of two innocent adults, but two infant children. None of this needed to happen, but she made a choice.”
He walks up to the short wall that separates the juror’s box and braces his hands, leaning in with a stern voice. “She had a choice, and so did Mrs. Porter-Kennard.” The judge bangs his gavel sharply in warning making everyone in the room jump – everyone but Whit, who continues in a calm but loud voice. “She could choose to watch her family be slaughtered by an intruder, or she could choose to stop that intruder. She chose to stop her.” He pushes off the short wall. “Who wouldn’t?” He points at one of the women jurors to the left. “You, would you protect your family?” He points to another woman towards the middle. “You?” He points to a male at the left. “How about you?”
None of them move, but he nods decisively. “Anyone would, and the evidence…” He again raises the folder. “…it proves that a hard choice was made, a terrible price was paid, but it was the only choice given the circumstances. So while you remember Candace Jewel, I want you to remember two screaming infants with a gun pointed at them. I want you to remember two desperate mothers putting themselves in front of a gun wielded by a deranged intruder to protect those same children. I want you to remember that you’d do no less to save the lives of your family given the same circumstances.”
Whit turns and tucks the folder under one arm, staring down Merle as he buttons his blazer and finally steps back to his seat. The courtroom is so quiet I can almost hear the bead of sweat dripping down my temple. I swipe it away, running my hand through my hair before I quietly remove my blazer and settle it on the back of my chair.
Judge Compton’s angry voice booms out. “We’ll take an hour recess for lunch. The jury is reminded of the admonition.” He looks pointedly at Whit. “Counsel will meet me in my chambers.” He bangs his gavel and stands, his bald head barely popping up over the bench as his feet hit the floor.
He exits into his chambers and the bailiff’s voice booms out, “Stand for the jury.” A rumble of movement echoes throughout the room as the jury files out. “Court is recessed for one hour. All participants in the proceedings are instructed not to leave the premises.”
Joyce turns to me and says, “We’ll come find you once we’re done with the judge. Just sit tight, okay?”
I nod and watch for a moment as both Whit and Joyce make their way to the chamber door, knocking and entering. I sigh and grab my blazer, walking around the side of the low gallery wall and approaching Dana, Shane, Helena, and Peggy. They’re quiet and pensive. There’s nothing to say, only extreme melancholy to hang in the muggy air of this stifling room as it empties. Helena breaks the silent tension as she says, “We have to go meet Dylan, but we’ll be back in an hour.” She puts her hand on my shoulder, her green eyes wide and alert. “Try not to worry and trust Whit. He’s gotten me out of some very sticky situations.”
I nod and watch as they make their way for the exit and notice that the media camera men haven’t moved an inch unless you count training the cameras on me as I hold tight to my emotions. A surge of anger wells in my veins and I’m forced to swallow it. The last thing I need is a violent outburst all over the six o’clock news. I look to Shane and Dana. “I need out of here.”
They look at the vultures lining up by the door and sigh heavily as they step in front and behind me. Almost on reflex, we drop our heads as we make our way to the door and try to push through; we’re bombarded by a barrage of questions, and I swear I see Shane elbow one of the camera men in the stomach.
We step out into the hallway where it’s quieter and make our way to the small office on the opposite side, the news casters and camera men in tow. I breathe a sigh of relief as the door shuts out the cacophony of their inane questions. I turn and Tina comes up to me, taking my face in her hands and gazing into my eyes. I’m hot and my stomach is swirling. She takes the blazer from my hands and hangs it on the back of one of the chairs before she wraps her arms around my waist. I lean heavily on her and hold on for dear life as I try to keep it together. Shane goes to Carmen and Dana starts to go to Alice only to stop and navigate to the dark, oval table in the middle of the room. I feel stiff, like I’ve been sitting and straining my muscles for ages as opposed to only a couple of hours. Alice’s voice breaks through my thoughts. “Duffy didn’t answer her phone but I left a message for her. I hope she’s okay…”
Tina leans back, stroking my cheek. “Babe, you look pale and you’re clammy. Are you okay?”
No, T. I’m not okay. I don’t know if any of this is going to be okay. I’m… I’m… I don’t even know. She watches my face as I struggle and takes my hand, settling me in a seat. She reaches for the chair next to me but I stop her, pulling her onto my lap and burying my face in her breast. She wraps her arms around my head and shoulders, and I feel a warm kiss to the curls that obscure my eyesight as she starts to absently play with a tendril of my hair. I close my eyes, the comfort of her immense and far more powerful than my fears, and I feel my muscles finally start to relax. Her gentle voice echoes through her chest as she speaks. “Shane, there’s cash in my purse. Can you order us some lunch, something light? Bette needs to eat.”
My stomach rebels at the idea but I know she’s right. I have to snap out of this funk so I can finish this nightmare, my one final recurring nightmare. Shane’s low voice answers, “Yeah, sure.”
I hear Shane dial something on her cellphone and speak quietly into the receiver as I place a gentle kiss to Tina’s neck. “Thank you.”
She squeezes me. “It’s going to be okay, babe.”
I breathe in her wonderful scent and it helps me to feel more grounded. Alice’s voice causes me to leave my warm haven and look over at her. “Have either of you spoken with Duffy since that night we showed her the information?”
Tina shakes her head and I say, “No. Why?”
She leans back, releasing a breath as she plays with her cellphone on the table. “Well, shouldn’t she have called by now? I mean, it’s been nearly two months and she knew we needed it for the trial.”
If I’m honest, I didn’t truly expect it to do much good. I can’t put my faith in much of anything right now outside of my lawyers and that jury, and even then I don’t know if faith is the right word. It’s not the safest place to store all my hopes and dreams, but it’s all I have. I know Alice means well but I just don’t see vigilantism or personal vendettas saving the day. “Al, she probably just hasn’t found anything. She did say the banks would take a lot of time. Maybe it’s just a dead end.”
Alice shakes her head as she continues to play with her phone over the table, her face speculative. “No. That information was important. I know it. You don’t think something happened to her, do you?”
I give her a disbelieving expression. “Alice, we’re talking about Duffy. It would take a small army to take her down. She’s like… what was that show you loved so much? The one with…”
Alice grins at me. “Xena, she’s a lot like Xena.”
I nod. “Yeah, that’s the one. I’m sure she’s fine, Al. Honestly, I don’t think that information is going to help.”
She glares at me. “Okay, Debbie Downer. I get that the whole world is a giant fucking nightmare right now, but you need to suck it up. You’re not going to jail, damnit! And when Duffy Warrior Princess comes storming in with the information that’s going to secure your ticket out of here, you’re going to owe me… I don’t know, something fucking awesome, and… big. Yeah, fucking awesome and big.”
I can’t help but smile at her words, but it’s bittersweet. “Al, I’m not being pessimistic. I’m doing everything I can to fight this, but I’m not going to set myself…” I look at Tina. “…or my family… up for disappointment. This isn’t going to go well, Al.” I blow out a short, incredulous breath. “Hell, things are worse than we anticipated.” Shane pockets her phone and takes her seat next to Carmen. “That judge…” My voice turns mocking. “…Cornelius T. Compton III, he’s out for my blood, just as much as the rest of L.A. apparently.”
Al’s face gapes. “He-he’s a notorious bigot!”
I nod my head and Tina kisses the crown of my head. Alice snatches her phone, hitting the call button before putting it to her ear and waiting. I can hear the muted ringing from across the table before Duffy’s voicemail picks up. Alice angrily ends the call and slams her phone down. She stares at me for a long moment and it starts to feel uncomfortable. Her nostrils flare as she says, “Okay, so shit can’t get much worse…” Her words give her pause for a moment and she knocks on the surface of the table three times. “Look, I know this is bad, but it’s not over yet. I’ll put you, Tina, and the kids on a donkey and send you into the desert before I watch you get hauled away in chains.”
Tina turns to me with a raised eyebrow and after a moment of quiet contemplation we chuckle a little hysterically. Too many conflicting emotions and nerves are racing through us, but I still manage to joke, “What do you say, T? Want to caravan around in the desert with me and some smelly pack animals.”
Her smile fades and her expression becomes serious. “If… if that’s what it takes. I’d go anywhere with you.”
My own nervous smile falters before melting into tears. She’d run with me for the rest of her life, harbor a wanted fugitive? I gaze into her glassy eyes and the answer is written plainly on her face. She really would. “You’re serious…”
She takes my face in her hands and leaves a lingeringly kiss on my lips. Her expression and voice are sincere as she looks deep into my eyes, beyond my soul, and right into my expanding heart. “I’d do anything to be with you.”
The tears fall harder and I furrow my brows as I take her hand in mine. “It’s not just you and me, T.”
She plays with my fingers. “I realize that, but they need you just as much as I do.”
I shake my head. They’re just children. They deserve so much better than that. I won’t do that to them, or her, even as much as I’d like to. “It hasn’t come to that yet and even if it does, it wouldn’t be right. I’ll spend some time in the appellate court. I’ll keep fighting until I get a fair hearing.”
Alice smirks. “Thanks for letting us know ahead of time that we’ll need to sedate you.”
I glower at her incredulously. She doesn’t say a word and Tina turns my face to hers again. Her eyes are pleading as a single tear escapes one of the hazel depths and tears a hole in my chest. I don’t know what I’d do without her either. She leans in again, giving me a small taste of the passion and devotion on her lips. “I love you, to the ends of the earth if necessary.”
I tuck my arms around her and kiss the tender area just beneath her earlobe, my thoughts racing. Could we… could we start over somewhere else? I’ve considered it in passing, but more as the joke of a desperate person. Is it a viable option? I see movement out of the corner of my eye and turn to watch Carmen curl up against Shane, tears in her own eyes. Shane puts her arm around Carmen and kisses her hairline as she runs her fingers through the coffee colored hair against her shoulder. A sigh of unaware satisfaction and quiet contemplation escapes her lips.
She meets my eyes and I’m taken aback by what I see. She’s done it. She’s finally arrived. Her penetrating, blue eyes become serious and I can see the gratitude-laden loyalty in them. I know she’d help me disappear in a moment if I needed her to. I haven’t said this in a while, but thank God for Shane. She is truly one of the most trustworthy people I’ve ever met. But unlike before, she has the trust and love that she so desperately lacked. I squeeze Tina a little tighter, smiling at Shane, and knowing that no matter what, she’d die with my secrets but more than that, she’d have a full life if I was unlucky enough to have to start over elsewhere. She nods and I can’t even believe I’m considering running with my family, but desperate times… Several long minutes pass and I glance over at Alice and Dana.
Alice’s face is lowered, but I can feel the weight of heavy sadness radiate across the table. Alice is my best friend, and I know she’d help us in an instant, but I also know she’d be devastated to lose us. We’re her family. Dana is gazing at her, the sadness I feel from Alice written all over her face as she gazes at the one person she’d do anything to comfort. Unlike Shane, I’d worry about these two. Dana hesitantly reaches over and takes Alice’s hand in her own, bringing it to her lips and kissing it sweetly. Her voice is low and soft as she says, “It’s okay, Al. You’d still have me. You always would.”
Alice lifts her face, her determination breaking as tears fall from her eyes. Her mouth tries to form words that she’s forced herself not to allow as she holds Dana’s gaze. “Dane…” She struggles as she watches Dana link their fingers. After a long, intense moment, her composure breaks and she leans forward imperceptibly, as if she’s going to throw all her conviction out the window. There’s a knock at the door and we all jump, Alice releasing Dana’s hand like it’s on fire as Shane gets up to answer the door. “It’s lunch.”
She hands the delivery man some money and takes the bags from his hands, returning to the table and unloading the Planet’s finest salads. I glance over at Alice and Dana as they open their own containers and sigh. Alice has shut down, increasing the space between her and Dana and avoiding the situation all together. I close my eyes, trying to clear some of the heavy atmosphere lingering around us. Tina strokes my thigh and I smile into her radiant face, determined to try and relax before I have to go back into that courtroom. The worst is yet to come. And… while I know it would be foolish, I can’t help but wonder about escaping the country.
The jury files into the courtroom and Corky the piggy bigot, sitting high on his throne in the front, center of the room booms out, “You may be seated. Let the record reflect that the Judge, jury, counsel, and defendant are present. The prosecution may call the first witness.”
I lean in to Joyce and whisper, “Did he keep you in his chamber for the whole hour?”
Her expression is cold as she replies, “Yes. He was just pompously abusing his authority.” She pats my hand almost condescendingly and says, “Just try to relax; we’ll handle him. We only need to convince the jury.”
This is little comfort, and her unwillingness to really explain things is frustrating. But there’s no other option, at least not yet. The cameras are trained on me and I have to maintain my composure. Merle’s hoarse voice breaks my thoughts as she says, “The People call Nadia Karella to the stand.” The bailiff tilts his head, holding his hand to a walkie-talkie on his shoulder. Moments later another bailiff comes through the courtroom doors escorting a young woman.
She’s in her late twenties to early thirties, with long blonde hair that’s been styled into controlled curls. Her blouse is sheer white with black pinstripes that match her straight leg black slacks and vest. She has a round, Midwestern face, straight, white teeth, and all together she is the quintessential American girl-next-door. I have no idea who she is, or why she’s here.
She and the bailiff approach the clerk by the bench who stands and says, “Raise your right hand and repeat after me.” The blonde raises her hand. “You do solemnly state that the testimony you may give in the case now pending before this court shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.”
She nods, making the long curls down her back bounce and something niggles at the back of my mind. “I do.”
“Please state your first and last name for the record.”
“Can you spell your last name please?”
“Thank you. You may now be seated.”
The bailiff escorts her to the witness stand where she takes a seat. He stands off to the side as Merle steps up to the middle of the room. “Good afternoon, Nadia. Thank you for being here.”
There’s a slightly vacant look to her eyes that’s offset by her blonde hair. It’s a little disconcerting when she speaks and her voice implies intelligence, confidence, and linguistic excellence. “Hello, Ms. Rothman. It’s my pleasure to help in any way I can.” She glances at me. It’s just a moment, but that’s all I need to see the acrimony she harbors glowing behind her eyes. I sigh. Somehow, somewhere in my hazy past, I must have visited some petty atrocity on her. Fucking wonderful.
“Ms. Karella, do you know the defendant, Elizabeth Porter-Kennard?”
Merle points to me and Nadia’s eyes pin me to my seat as she says, “Yes.”
Merle nods and paces a few steps toward the jury. “How do you know her?”
Nadia tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear and lowers her head, smiling shyly. “We met when I was a grad student at California University’s school of the arts. The topic for my dissertation was twenty-first century modern art and its impact on social behavior. She’s a legend in the modern art community, so I requested an interview with her.”
I lean back in my chair with the force of the disgust wriggling in my guts. I remember her now. She showed up after-hours at the gallery wearing a short, black skirt, stilettos, a push-up bra, and not much else. She wasn’t even wearing underwear… fuck me… literally. She’s the first in the parade of one-night stands Joyce was talking about. I don’t remember much after her showing up. I had been mixing and downing Absolut martinis in my office for more than an hour. “And she granted this interview?”
I force myself to push the panic and nervousness I’ve been feeling all day to the side and let indignant anger reign as I stare at her. She avoids looking at me as she breathes out, “Oh, yes.”
Merle stops and looks at her, cocking her head. “What do you mean… why did you phrase your answer that way?”
Nadia again lowers her head, a small blush blooming on her cheeks as she chuckles embarrassedly. “Well, she… um, she seduced me almost from the very moment I arrived at the gallery.”
This is so absurd that I can’t even fathom it. I wanted to be alone that night, that’s why I was at the gallery. “She seduced you. How do you mean?”
“Well, when I arrived she tried to brush me off, but I wouldn’t let her. I could tell that she’d been dri-I mean, I knew that it would be months before I could get an appointment with her, and the paper was due the following week. So I began to argue my case. The longer we spoke, the way she looked at me… I-I felt like a piece of meat.”
Merle nods. “She made you uncomfortable?”
Nadia nods in return. “Yes.”
Merle paces again. “So why didn’t you leave?”
Nadia gets slightly defensive. “I needed her help and I was desperate. She also… as the discussion progressed, she kept saying that she was looking for a protégée, someone with talent that she could instruct, someone to pass on her knowledge to. I mean, she’s Bette Porter! How could I pass up an opportunity like that?”
Merle tucks her hands behind her back. “So she started to offer you things, make promises, use her power and influence to woo you?”
“What did she want in return?”
Nadia fidgets, tucking her hair behind her ear as she stares into her lap and plays with her fingers. “She um… she wanted… me, for the night.”
This is completely unbelievable. That’s not what happened at all. “And you did it?”
Nadia’s voice is small and broken. “Yes.”
“So what happened after?”
Nadia clears her throat. “I left with the understanding that I would come back the next day and she would give me the information for my dissertation as well as put together a schedule for me to start working with her.” All of her shamefully shy innocence fades away, bitterness and anger mingling in her expression and voice as she looks up and pins me with her eyes. “When I arrived, she had the gallery security throw me out and banish me from the property.”
Merle nods sympathetically. “So, she offered you a chance at your dreams in a ploy to seduce you, and once you gave her what she wanted, she abandoned you, had you manhandled and shut off access to one of the best art galleries in the state?”
Nadia’s voice is harsh as she spits out, “Yes.”
“And how did that make you feel?”
Her eyes glass over as if in pain. “I felt cheap… like I was a whore and I didn’t matter.”
Merle’s rough voice is sickeningly empathetic. “Why didn’t you report her?”
Nadia sniffs and swipes at her eyes. “Because I was embarrassed. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. I just wanted to forget it.”
“Were you able to forget it?”
Nadia shakes her head. “No. I’ll remember what happened and how she made me feel for the rest of my life.”
“Thank you, Nadia.” Merle turns to walk back to her desk. “I have no further questions.”
It’s silent in the room for a long moment before the judge seems to wake up. “Does the defense have any questions?”
Whit stands, adjusting his blazer. “Yes, your honor.”
The judge glares at Whit and leans back. “Proceed.”
Whit walks up to Nadia, his demeanor gracious and understanding. I’m a bit taken aback. He has to know she’s lying… doesn’t he? “You stated that you requested an interview with Bette?”
She nods, playing the victim. “Yes.”
“But you didn’t want to go through the normal channels, like calling her assistant and setting a time during normal business hours?”
“And that was because you needed the information immediately?”
She nods. “Yes.”
“Why didn’t you set the appointment when you started researching your dissertation?”
Nadia scowls at him. “I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”
Whit shrugs. “Well, dissertations are lengthy studies performed at the graduate level. They take months, sometimes years, to complete. Why did you wait until the last minute to seek out my client’s assistance?”
Nadia stammers a bit before lying through her teeth. “I hadn’t realized I would reach out to her until it was nearly complete.”
“So, you didn’t actually need her assistance, if it was nearly complete without it.”
Merle stands. “Objection, leading the witness.”
Whit looks to the judge. “I’m merely trying to determine if the witness was in fact desperate enough to sell her body for her thesis, your honor.”
Judge Compton glares at him. “Rephrase your question, counselor. And step carefully.”
Step carefully? It’s the whole premise of my alleged ‘seduction.’ How is it wrong to question it? “Very well, your honor.” He turns back to Nadia. “Did you honestly feel that your body was worth less than a graduate paper?”
Nadia gets defensive. “No, of course not…”
“But you traded your body for that information?”
I can see Nadia’s getting angry and I can’t help the thrill that charges through me. “It wasn’t just the information…”
Whit nods. “My client offered you information and a job, and those combined were worth more to you than your body?”
Her voice gets higher and slightly whiny. “Working for her is the chance of a lifetime…”
Whit lifts a placating hand. “So, you feel it’s reasonable, professional, and ethical to trade sexual favors for position and power?”
“You’re twisting my wor–”
“Answer the question with a yes or no, please. Do you feel that it’s reasonable to trade sex for the things that you want? Yes or no?”
She knows the answer but she can’t seem to force herself to say it. “Sometimes… there are things–”
“Ms. Karella… yes, or no?”
She huffs. “No, b–”
Whit’s voice is loud as it cuts her off. “You’ve just admitted that it’s not reasonable. So then why did you do it?”
Nadia points at me. “She seduced me!”
Whit nods. “She seduced you. Please explain what you mean when you say ‘seduced.’”
“She knew what I wanted, and used it against me.”
Whit tucks his hands into his pockets. “You said that you didn’t go through the normal channels prior to showing up at the gallery. Is that true?”
She sighs. “Yes.”
“How did she know what you wanted?”
“I told her.”
“And then she brushed you off?”
“How is that seduction?”
“Because she wouldn’t give me what I wanted until I gave her what she wanted.”
“She knew you wanted something, and brushed you off?”
“Only at first…”
Whit nods. “So what changed? Why did she stop brushing you off?”
Nadia sighs. “I told you. She started to ogle me… it was uncomfortable.”
“So she all of a sudden she noticed your what, your body?”
“And you were uncomfortable?”
“But you still needed something from her?”
“So you believed she wanted you?”
“So you offered her what she wanted?”
“Yes – I mean, no! She–”
Merle stands again. “Objection, badgering the witness.”
Judge Cornelius sneers at Whit, “Sustained.”
Whit sighs. “Ms. Karella, what time did you show up at the gallery?”
She fumbles a bit at the abrupt change in direction. “I think it was close to nine o’clock at night.”
“How did you know she was there?”
“I saw her car in the lot.”
“How did you know which car was hers if you hadn’t met her before?”
Nadia’s face goes blank and I realize that no matter the outcome of this mockery of the legal system, I owe Peggy and Helena my eternal thanks for lending me Whit. “I… I just… assumed. It was the only one left.”
She nods. “Yes.”
“So out of the more than fifteen people that staff the gallery, you assumed that the only car in the parking lot was my client’s?”
She nods. “Yes.”
“Nadia, did you know that the entire building and parking lot are wired with surveillance?”
Nadia’s expression slowly sinks into panic and Merle saves her. “Objection, this line of questioning is bordering on contempt.”
The judge leans back. “Counselor, if you are indeed headed in the direction I think you are, you realize that you will be in contempt?”
I lean into Joyce. “What is he talking about?”
She sighs. “We submitted video tapes from the gallery that showed your interlude with her. It showed her dressed as little more than a hooker and you stumbling drunk. It was deemed inadmissible.”
I feel a flush of anger as Whit continues. “Question withdrawn, your honor.” Whit paces toward the jury. “Ms. Karella, what were you wearing the evening you went to visit the gallery?”
Merle stands again. “Your honor, this line of questioning bears no significance…”
Whit was ready to address the judge as if the objection was expected. “Your honor, her attire holds deep significance in both her allegation that she was seduced as well as her intent for approaching the defendant that evening.”
The judge thumbs through the file in front of him as if looking for a reason to sustain the objection. There isn’t one. And if he plans to make this dog and pony show at least appear to be fair so that he can keep his job, he has no choice but to allow it. He finally slaps his hands down in defeat and grudgingly says, “Overruled. Please answer the question Ms. Karella.”
Nadia hesitates and Whit cuts in. “Please remember that you are under penalty of perjury, Ms. Karella.”
She glowers at him as she says, “I don’t remember.”
Whit frowns. “Are you sure?”
“But you remember everything else. You remember the time, the reasons you were there; you remember her car, a car you testify that you had never seen before. You remember the way she looked at you and how it made you uncomfortable. Why can’t you remember what you were wearing?”
I can tell she’s getting agitated and I can’t help but enjoy it. I’ve been agitated for months because of opportunistic people just like her. “I just don’t remember, okay?”
Whit shakes his head. “Why did she look at you that way?”
“I don’t know! Why don’t you ask her?”
“What area did she look at, specifically, that made you uncomfortable?”
“I don’t know… it was sort of… everywhere…”
Her voice is getting whiny again as the questions and answers start becoming more and more rapid, and I want to strangle myself. “My chest and my legs… just everywhere.”
“Were they exposed?”
“Were you wearing a bra?”
“Yes! Of course–”
“You remember wearing a bra. What else were you wearing?”
“I told you, I don’t know!”
“How do you know you weren’t exposed if you don’t know what you were wearing?”
She stammers. “I… I just don’t walk around like that.”
Whit cocks his head to one side. “You don’t?”
“No, I don’t.”
Whit walks to the desk and Joyce hands him a piece of paper from one of nearby file folders. He takes it and turns. “The defense would like to enter exhibit number 172 into evidence.”
He takes the paper to Merle who looks it over. “Your honor, the People object to this evidence.”
Compton sighs. “Approach the bench.”
Joyce stands and the three of them walk forward, handing the paper to him. He pushes his glasses up his nose with a pudgy finger, listening to Merle’s complaint as he reads. This goes on for almost an forty-five minutes and I look over to see Nadia staring at me, a smug expression on her face. Part of me wishes I could remember what happened that day, but part of me is glad I can’t. The revulsion of just knowing that I touched her that way is enough. I don’t need the memory of it.
I cross one leg over the other and lean back, adopting my most casual demeanor. Two can play at this game, and she’s far too young to win against me. There’s nothing truly intimidating about her, and if she wants to become a player, she has a long way to go. At this moment, as I look at her, I can’t help but feel sad. Sad for the person she obviously aspires to be. I know first-hand that it leads to nowhere but empty loneliness. I saved myself; I recovered Tina. There’s nothing I can do for her. I just hope she learns a better way to live.
The judge hands the paper back to Whit and Merle strides to her desk, giving me a disdainful glare for good measure. She lost this one. She must have. Defeat is written all over her face. Joyce joins me, leaning back in her chair much in the same demeanor I have, as Whit lays the paper under a backlit projector near the clerk. The image is blown up on a screen in the far right corner of the room and it pops up on all the monitors as well.
I gaze at the text in front of me and it’s everything I can do not to blurt out a laugh. It’s her complaint record from California University. Whit adjusts the focus as he says, “Ms. Karella, can you please verify that your name is listed on this record?”
I look at Nadia again to see her flushed with angry embarrassment. “Yes.”
Whit paces a little to the left. “Can you please tell the court what this is?”
“It’s my record from Cal U.”
He nods. “Just to specify, please read the title.”
I gaze at the screen incredulously. She’s obviously a shameless hussy. I look over at Joyce and she smirks. I shake my head. This is brilliant. “Complaint of Harassment or Discrimination.”
I look over to Merle to see her seething and it’s all I can do not to grin. As hopeless as it is, Whit is making good on his promise. I will not be crucified even if I’m hung. “Who filed these complaints?”
“The record indicated three separate occurrences, all of them with faculty members at California University. Is that correct?”
“You testified that my client was the first time you’d been in a situation where sex was exchanged for something that you wanted. But, my client is your fourth claim at harassment.”
Merle stands. “Objection, this–”
Whit raises a hand. “Withdrawn. Ms. Karella, do you often find yourself in unwanted sexual situations?”
Tears gather in Nadia’s eyes. They’re not repentant, they’re angry, and all I can do is hope that this difference is not lost on the jury. “I, um… I hadn’t realized it, but I guess I do.”
Whit leans over the document. “Please read the last sentence on the third complaint against one Gordon Percy.”
She clears her throat, wiping at her eyes to buy herself time. “’He then demanded that I give him’…”
I follow along with my eyes, finishing where she left off. Silence reigns for a long moment before Whit finishes for her. “…’oral sex in return for his assistance with my’… Ms. Karella, what is the last word?”
He looks up at her as we all do. Everyone knows what it says, the projector made sure of that. Her voice is so soft it’s almost inaudible as she spits out, “Dissertation.”
Whit pulls the paper from the projector and looks to the judge. “The defense rests, your honor.” He comes back to the desk, Nadia’s eyes burning holes in his back.
Compton turns to Nadia. “That’s all. You may step down.” She stands and nearly runs from the room, her escort hot on her heels. Compton addresses the room. “We’re out of time. We’ll reconvene tomorrow at 9 a.m. Jury is reminded of the admonition. Court is adjourned.”
He bangs his gavel, scooting out of his high chair to be swallowed up behind his bench. The bailiff’s voice booms out, “All rise!” Compton disappears into his chambers and I wait impatiently for the jury to file out.
Once the last is gone I breathe a sigh of relief, take my photo, and turn to shake Whit and Joyce’s hands. “Thank you both… so much.”
Joyce smiles. “Don’t you worry about a thing. Let’s collect the rest of your entourage and we’ll escort you out.”
My returning smile is bright as I turn to Peggy, Helena, Shane, and Dana. I step around the low dividing wall and hug Helena tightly. “Thank you…” I look to Peggy as I release her. “…both of you.”
Helena squeezes my shoulder. “We have to be going. We won’t be here tomorrow, but I think you’re in good hands.”
I grin. “I know I am.” I let out a tense breath, some of my nervousness draining away. I just want my wife and my babies right now, and they aren’t that far away. The worst of today is over… I hope.
Helena and Peggy start walking for the door and that’s when we notice that the media is again blocking the exit. Shane and Dana fall into what will most likely be a common formation as we approach and the bailiff clears them away. We exit into the hall and through the door to the office, Helena and Peggy pulling away to leave.
I wave at them and step through the door, heading straight for Tina like a heat-seeking missile. She stands and wraps her arms around my waist, tucking her head under my chin as I pull her close to me. I breathe in her calming scent. “Let’s go home,” escaping with my exhale. She squeezes me before she pulls away and I hold onto her hand as she retrieves her purse and my suit jacket.
We all gather by the door, Alice asking, “So it’s over for the day?”
I grin at Alice as I tuck the photo in Tina’s purse. “Yeah. We start again at 9 a.m. tomorrow.” Whit opens the door and we file out of the office, the in-trial media dregs still lingering in the hallway. I glare at them, putting my arm around Tina’s shoulder and holding her close to me as we begin to move past them.
A blonde reporter in a hideous pink skirt-suit with black, floral silhouettes manages to keep up with us, shoving a microphone in my face. “Ms. Porter-Kennard, what happened at the time of the shooting?!”
I turn my face further into Tina only to have another mic rammed under my nose. “Bette! Why did you kill Candace Jewel?!”
That remark causes me to pause for a moment, and I see Tina glare at the woman. The look in her eyes says that death is imminent and despite this situation, my heart swells with love for her. I hold onto her tighter to keep her from bludgeoning the reporter to death with her microphone. Alice manages to ‘bump’ into the reporter, a loud, “Oh, excuse me. My bad,” said over her shoulder as pulls up next to us.
The force of the shove knocks the reporter off balance where she trips onto one of the low benches that line the plaster and wanescoted walls. Joyce gets us moving again and I catch her eyes for a moment. She warned us about this. Not only are we to keep our mouths shut, but we are to keep our calm and placidly ignore them. “Can you tell us more about your relationship with Ms. Jewel?!”
Fuck me. This irritating blond is relentless. Her hair and makeup are slightly disheveled, and she now has a slight limp, but she’s right with us as we finally reach the large wooden doors, gloriously marked as ‘EXIT.’ Dana pushes them open. There’s a roar of noise and Dana stops so abruptly that we nearly slam into the back of her. I hear Alice shout, “What the frickin’ frak?!”
Tina and I both look up to gaze out at the crowd of haphazardly parked media vans surrounded by a small group of fifteen to twenty people at the bottom of the courthouse steps shouting in unison. The bright gleam of sunlight on a glossy surface catches my eye and I feel my jaw clench together harder and harder with each hateful word I read. ‘FAGS DOOM NATIONS,’ ‘2 GAY RIGHTS: AIDS AND HELL,’ ‘REPENT OR PERISH.’ These are bad enough, but I can feel a sick, twisting fury writhe in my guts when I see a small boy wearing a tie dyed tee shirt that says, ‘GOD HATES FAGS,’ pacing near the police barrier, shouting along with the adults.
I’m frozen in shock at this scene and it allows these… fucking insane savages to focus on me. Their shouts of how I’m going to burn in the fires of hell ring in my ears and everything starts to tune out. My heart is pounding in my chest, I can’t catch my breath, and the world around me starts to narrow in my vision. I hear a murky version of Tina’s voice shout, “Shane, get the car!”
I see Shane run down the edge of the steps in my peripheral, the protestors crowding in on her. Carmen chases after her, pushing one of them back and shouting, “Atrás, perra!” Carmen spits at the stumbling woman’s feet as Shane pulls her further away. They disappear across the street at a run as all the hateful and intrusive eyes again focus on me. I’m that much closer to blacking out. I lean on Tina, and as if things couldn’t get worse, I watch in horror as Tom comes up from within the crowd of hate mongers. He meets my eyes and grins, pulling the bull horn in his hands up to his mouth. His voice is piercingly loud as he shouts, “Alright!” What is he playing at?
The bull horn squeals and the whole area goes quiet as everyone looks to him. He lowers the horn and I notice his white shirt says, ‘NO H8.’ Oh, thank all that is fucking holy. I’d hate to serve two consecutive life sentences for murder and then have the added pressure of apologizing to Tina. The singing starts up again, but it’s not the current crowd. We all turn to the sound coming from down the left sidewalk. A large group of NO H8 protestors come into view, stride up to the homophobes, link their arms, and create a wall of singing bodies as they push forward to force the religious zealots back.
I see Tom grin at me again as he links onto the end, the line continuing to sweep away the obnoxious human garbage. With the threat of a riot moving away, the media again focus on me, rushing the steps and barraging us with questions. I hear a honking horn somewhere in the distance and Tina pulls me, pushing her way through the crowd with Alice and Dana’s help.
We pile into the Lexus, Joyce leaning in and saying, “Take it easy and stay indoors for the rest of the day. We’ll work on this mess and call if we need to. Otherwise, we’ll see you in the morning.”
I try to smile at her but I’m not at all sure if it’s successful. Either way, the door shuts and the car screeches away from the curb. I feel Tina’s small, warm hands run through my hair to stroke my face and pull it to rest on her shoulder. I don’t hesitate for a moment, choosing instead to cling to my wife as I cling to fleeting consciousness and heave for breaths. What the fuck is this? The last time I felt this panicked, Tina died. Her soothing voice is a balm for my soul as she says, “It’s okay, babe. It’s probably just a panic attack. We’ll be home soon.” I nod my head, closing my eyes, and allowing my mind a few moments of respite from any form of thought.