District Attorney Burke concluded his opening arguments. Despite promising himself not to, he found himself staring at the defendant. The defendant, inside his box of bullet-proof glass with only a metal grill to talk and breathe through, smiled cheerfully and waved.
Victor Jackson didn’t look like a mass murderer. Nothing like the ones Burke’s predecessor sent to Death Row. Jackson had pale skin, thinning straw-colored hair, expressive blue eyes. Any citizen could pass Jackson in the street and not even notice.
Maybe that’s how Jackson killed so many people. He looked like “everyone else”, at least in some neighbordoods. Often he wore uniforms: valet, orderly, mall cop, pizza guy, cable guy. Once he wore a highway patrol uniform, after he killed the patrolman.
Jackson’s famous and famously expensive defender rose. The defense’s opening argument was full of sound and fury. Jackson was a victim of society, the defender said, abused by his parents and mocked by his peers. Multiple doctors would attest that Victor Jackson had mental disorders that made him incapable of separating right from wrong. The lawyer could prove the police used this innocent man as a scapegoat for all the most heinous unsolved crimes. Experts would prove all the forensic evidence was fake, all the eyewitnesses mistaken or coerced, the Unknown Killer’s few survivors far too traumatized to know whom or what had mutilated them.
Burke grabbed the edge of his desk. It’s all part of the process, he reassured himself. Zealous defense of one’s client and all that. This trial could take weeks or – God help them – months, especially if the defense had his way. Burke could use that time pursuing multiple other cases: domestic abusers, rapists, reckless corporations, corrupt officials, bad cops. All the cases the last few D.A.s didn’t bother prosecuting, the ones that D.A.s could lose, the ones that didn’t make friends or win campaign contributions.
At last the defense attorney sat down. Burke made a note to find out how Jackson could pay for that kind of lawyering.
“Mr. Burke, your first witness,” the judge said.
Burke beckoned to Officer Williams. He’d served the city for twenty years, and he apprehended Jackson after his final spree at the movie theater. The wounds Jackson inflicted cost Williams his leg.
Williams hobbled slowly to the stand; an aluminum cane supplemented his artifical leg. Burke thought of leaving Williams to the last, to end with the jury’s sympathy. In the end, though, Burk decided they had to know at the outset just what kind of monster they were dealing with. Whatever other machinations Jackson’s lawyer had in mind, Burke wanted them to remember that theater: the bodies, the screams, the mangled limbs … and Jackson in the center with his hand-made weapons, enhanced not for lethality but sheer cruelty.
As Williams passed by Jackson, the veteran officer kept his eyes front. Jackson watched owlishly, with a faint smile, more like a man attending a show than a man fighting for his life. Abruptly Williams lost his balance and fell against Jackson’s cage.
As bailiffs rushed to help him, Williams tore off his own artificial leg, pressed the stump against the box’s metal grill, and pushed a trigger. A small charge tore through the grill. The device fired dozens of steel darts directly into the cage, spreading outward. As the court erupted in pandemonium, a second stage wedged itself into the hole where the grill used to be. Gas seeped into the cage, made airtight to prevent such a gas attack.
Bailiffs cleared the court, but Burke watched, helplessly, as Jackson died bleeding, choking … and laughing.
Hours later, in his windowless office lined with law books, Burke sat at his desk and scribbled notes on a legal pad. The largest and most often circled were these:
*Who paid for D.?*
- Who gave W. device?
- Who made device?
- Baliffs in on it?
How Jackson could afford a top-tier lawyer didn’t matter now, but it still nagged at him.
There was a knock at the door. “Come in, Burke shouted.”
In walked Selena Vasquez: tall, racially ambiguous, bold yet watchful. She was still dressed for court … by her standards, at any rate, which meant casual slacks and a practical blouse. She’d been a city cop for six years, and a pretty good one from the records he saw. Her commanders, however, didn’t care about job performance, She quit and became a P.I., first with the Pacific Detective Agency, then solo. Even moreso than other private investigators, she hung out with a strange crowd. One of them was former boss at Pacific, a middle aged detective who retired abruptly and only works at night.
Vasquez muttered, “How’s that wife of yours?” It was her standard greeting, ever since they’d gotten drunk together at a Tiki bar and Burke had mistaken her sisterly concern for something else. Was she even attracted to men? Burke reminded himself it was none of his business.
“We’re divorced, remember?” Burke replied.
“And you don’t keep in touch? That’s cold.” Vasquez dropped into a chair Burke reserved for occasional guests. “Williams or the bomb? Or the lawyer?”
Vasquez was always quick. That’s why Burke hired her when he couldn’t rely on the police, for one reason or another. “Williams.”
Vasquez sighed. “You’ll never convict him. He’s a hero.”
“He broke the law. He killed a man in cold blood.”
“So do lots of cops.”
“And I prosecute every one I can.”
“Ah, that’s why your so popular.”
Through opening arguments, through Jackson’s assassination, throught the crime scene investigation and press statements and questions from the staff, Burke had remained calm, professional, the principal representative of the people’s Justice System. Now the rage he had surpressed burst out. “I don’t care about popularity, Selena! I care about the rule of Law! I care about justice!” In Burke’s mind’s eye Jackson was laughing, would be forever laughing. “If I let Williams go free, Jackson wins!”
Vasquez stood slowly, with what almost looked like pity. On one wall of the office, also for guests, hung a flat-screen TV. Vasquez switched it on. Broadcast news showed a “Free Williams” protest just outside the building. A much smaller “Justice for Victor” counter-protest raged in one corner. Protesters from each side fought, while riot police watched.
Vasquez changed the channel, and a white, elderly Congressman harangued his supporters at a rally: "– and we will *bomb those bunkers, so that you, the hardworking taxpayer, can feel safe –"
Another channel flip, and a different speaker at a different protest: "– and they’ve been dropping their stuff on us our whole lives!" Over cheers, the speaker added, “On our parents! And our children! And our families! It’s time WE fight back! It’s time WE go up to their nice white houses and shove a BOMB –"
“Turn it off!”
Vasquez did. “It’s too late, Jim. Jackson won. Years ago. All that matters is what we do now.”
“No! We have to fight this! We set an example –”
“– of Officer Williams and anyone who helped him. Maybe the billionaire? He’d have the resources –
“– for a device like that. And the bailiffs –”
“We have to fight!”
“Yes! We do! Out there!”
“No, no, we’re a nation of laws. We can win this!”
“We can’t … OK, you know what, Jim? Fine. I’ll find the bomb-maker. Get you a nice paper trail. It’s you’re money … sorry, the taxpayers’ money. Would that make you happy?”
“Yes, anything you can find. We can stop this, Selena.”
“Yes. We can.” Selena shook her head and left.
“Shut the door behind you, would you Vasquez?” Burke asked.
And then Burke was alone again, in his windowless office, scribbling notes to himself.