Saturday, 2 June 2018

Mister Fix-It: Chapter Two

Court was adjourned for the day, so we all went home. The Owls were all gossiping about this one with no small excitement. Like I said at the start, a courtroom drama was more or less anticlimactic. We've seen it all before, over and over.
But not this one. To explain to you why I did what I eventually did, you need to know a little about why I was there at all.
Like most journalists, I had to cover my share of obituaries and classified ads. Truth is, most newspaper stories are a paragraph long. Lost cat here; traffic violation there. You're lucky if you get your name put somewhere people will see it. You gotta pay your dues, and wait to be in the right place.
Every journalist I know lives a hobby or two, trying to be in the right place at the right time to catch something impressive. My spot was the courtroom. Most cases are open and shut, done with a plea deal; and no big surprises. But there's an incredible 'slice of life' that walks through the city's courtrooms, one after another.
I follow the parade because I'm hoping for a big break. But here's my secret shame: I had no real talent for journalism. I dreamed of Pulitzer Prizes, high-level interviews, photos of me with movie stars and world leaders... But I didn't have that X Factor. The thing that makes a witness talk to you, or makes a reader stay with you after the first paragraph? I didn't have it. If I had that natural talent, I wouldn't have been hanging around a courtroom nobody cared about for over a decade.
I think that's why I did it. Why I got involved. My story was being written in the courtroom too. I wasn't supposed to care, one way or another, once everyone left that room. But there was something about Amy's Confession that had jarred me. Hit me right in the guts, in fact. I wanted to be amazing too. I wanted to be special. Everyone does.
I called the paper, and asked them to look up an address for Amy Williams. She didn't have one anymore. There was a list of broken down places in the cheapest neighborhoods; which is not unusual for a junkie.
Her mother was willing to answer the phone, but not willing to talk about her 'useless waste' of a daughter. But Mrs Williams did confirm one thing: Amy had never learned how to play the guitar. She just never had the patience to learn, even after getting high was her norm.
So, that was one part of the story that lined up with Amy Williams' testimony. It was time to take this to the Features Editor.
"Don't be ridiculous." Came the answer from On High. "Stealing talent? The Chronicle has never had a science fiction section, and it's not about to start now!"
The Boss disconnected before I could argue, but to be fair, I had nothing to argue with. He was right. Rule Number One in journalism to to make sure of your sources. And more of us may break that rule than follow it these days, but it's still The Law, carved in stone.
So I went back to my notes, trying to find something that would make my cheapskate employers care about this story as much as Amy Williams did… When my phone rang again; less than five minutes later.
"Okay." It was my Editor again. "We're interested now."
"What changed in five minutes?"
"Vito Starr has just been named as a witness for the Prosecution in the matter of James Fisher vs the People of San Francisco."
Lisse had been unable to save a seat for me, for the first time in three years. "When I said the trial was a 'little bit Rock'n'Roll', I was kidding." She deadpanned when I met her at the corridor.
Having a Rock Star involved in anything made it a much bigger story. People are more interested in what a celerity is snorting than anything else. So this was my chance. My chance to show the higher-ups what I could do. And more than that, I was the first journalist to put anything out, concerning this trial. Everyone was going to be looking now; and my name was the only one attached to it.
Which is why I felt my heart stop when I saw a familiar face entering at the Courthouse door. "Elliot?" I was surprised, and not in a good way. "What are you doing here?"
The older man pushed his way past three others, flipping open one of his omnipresent moleskine notebooks. He looked around, taking in the crowd quickly; recognizing faces from the competition. "The Boss wanted me to keep an eye on how this pans out. Something for the Editorial Pages. You can't be surprised to see me."
"This is my story." I told him, as dignified as I could get, given that I was ready to chew the walls. "At worst, I expected Madison."
"Madison's a celebrity gossip writer. Look, this is a story that happened on your beat. Nobody disputes that. But the story has gone National, and nobody thinks that Madison should handle a murder trial, even if the only thing most people know about it is that a Rock Star is on the stand."
Elliot was a Features Writer at the Chronicle. He had more experience than over half the guys at the paper, digital or print. We all knew that he was the best we had. We all wanted to be him, except that if he was here, it meant this story just became noticeable. The boss had decided that the trial of James Fischer was suddenly too important to trust to me.
It was a stark reminder of my place in the System. The second I got anything good, it was clearly too important for my pen.
But when we got closer to the Courtroom, it was hard to be mad. It wasn't so much a veiled insult to my ability, as it was a desperate attempt to keep the paper in competition. Newspapers are a dying breed; which is why we all went online. But even CNN has to compete with Podcasters and Social Media. This wasn't the Supreme Court, it was a typical courtroom, with room for about twenty observers.
And almost a hundred people were trying to cram themselves in. This case suddenly had everything. Drugs, celebrity, young people, cops that seemed to defy common sense… if they could get dirty pics of someone involved having an affair, it was front page news. As it was, the story grew outward from the entertainment pages over the following weeks.
With such a competition at the door, needless to say, I was not invited. But the transcripts gives all the important details.
Hall: All right, before we begin, a word to the Jury. As you're no doubt aware by now, a new witness came forward while we were in session after lunch yesterday afternoon. Due to the high profile nature of our next witness; the press has taken notice; and the particulars of the case have become public knowledge. As a result; the trial is now open to the public... and the press. Members of the Jury: This changes your responsibilities not at all. Don't let the cameras intimidate you.
Swire: Your honor; the defense objects to this witness; he wasn't on the witness list; the defense has had no chance to review his testimony.
Vega: The Prosecution apologizes for this, Your Honor; it was unavoidable. Nevertheless; his testimony is vital to refute the Defendant's case. Since this matter is unprecedented; I would ask the court for a little leeway to get to the truth.
Hall: I'll allow the witness.
Vega: The Prosecution calls Vito Starr.
If you've ever met him in person, the only difference between how he is on stage and in Real Life, is the clothes he wears. Starr never had the 'bad boy' persona, he wasn't famous for chasing women or getting drunk. He'd had a few stints in rehab, like they all do, but he'd come out of it and made himself the face of a public campaign against alcoholism and drug abuse. He'd not only never relapsed, he'd opened more clinics out of his own pocket. Word was that he wouldn't let anyone bring any 'stuff' into his recording sessions, not even prescription.
He wasn't famous for the leather jacket, or the gold eyeliner. His voice was never what made him a star. Every music video he put out had close-ups of his fingers on the strings. He had the fastest fingers in music for almost six years straight.
Bailiff: Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
Starr: I do.
Vega: Mr Starr, you've won numerous awards for your musical talents. Three of your albums have gone gold, you've played backup for numerous rock stars across the world... And you've performed solo world tours.
Starr: Yes.
Vega: Your last tour made a stop in San Francisco. Can you please describe the events of the 29th?
Starr: I was preparing. The sound-check was done, and I had a few hours. I was in my dressing room, working on a new song. It was a piece that I'd been working on for over two years; and it just... It wasn't quite there yet. I was playing it through, trying to figure out what I could change; when there was a knock on the door. I was annoyed, because all of my own people know to avoid disturbing me while I'm tweaking a new song, or preparing to go on stage, so I answer the door, and there's nobody there... but when I turned away from the door, I felt something cover my face, and my next clear memory was two hours later.
Vega: Did you report the assault?
Starr: Well, no. See, I didn't realize that was what it was. I wasn't in any pain, I didn't have any bruises, nothing was missing, or even disturbed; and I didn't wake up on the floor. I was on the couch, like I had just fallen asleep. I wrote it off as a nap attack and went back to my guitar and...
Vega: And?
Starr: I... I couldn't play! I picked up the guitar, and it was like I'd never touched one before. It was terrifying. I was born with a guitar in my hand, and I honestly couldn't tell which end of it to hold upright. I had the medic run me through every kind of test; I had my brain scanned because I was convinced I had tumors somewhere. I had to cancel the event that night. The next morning, I had it back, but... I could not play the guitar for a full night.
Vega: Now, you came to us yesterday, after reading the details of the case in the news. Can you tell us what makes you think your momentary... 'writers block' is connected to this case?
Starr: Well, the week after I canceled the show? I saw this video on YouTube. It was a clip of Amy Williams playing guitar. That piece of music I was talking about? The one that I wasn't satisfied with yet? She was playing it. I could play it blindfolded, but it had never been released to anyone, never been recorded... and she was playing it for an audience. After what she said those syringes could do, that was good enough for me.
Vega: Sir, in your opinion, did your lapse of ability seem unnatural? Even forced?
Starr: Yessir.
Vega: No further questions.
Hall: Miss Swire?
Swire: Thank you, Your Honor. Mister Starr, what else in the past, has made you unable to perform on stage?
Starr: Nothing. Not like this.
Swire: No? I have evidence here that you are usually unable to play after a night of heavy drinking. In fact, this evidence shows that you have used your private dressing room and a recording of yourself playing to keep people out while you get drunk. I'd like to admit this as defense exhibit 'D'
Vega: Objection! The evidence is a copy of Reader's Digest!
Swire: Your honor, I was given exactly two hours to prepare for this witness. Mister Starr has publicly admitted that the comments of his former Manager given in this interview are true. Beyond that, who cares where it was published?
Hall: I'll allow it.
Starr: I'm a rock star, I have had heavy nights in the past; I won't deny it. I wasn't drunk that night. I haven't touched a drop in forty-six months, twelve days.
Swire: Did you see the defendant?
Starr: I didn't see anyone.
Swire: So, instead of admitting to your fans that you canceled on them at the last minute because you were hungover, you'd have us believe that your Talent got stolen and sold to Amy Williams?
Starr: I know it sounds nuts, but I can't think where else she would have heard that song.
Swire: Mister Starr, I have here another piece of evidence, which suggests-
Vega: Rolling Stone Magazine?! Come on!
Swire: -which suggests that your record sales have dropped more than thirty percent since the last tour. When you canceled that event, less than half the ticket holders tried to get them swapped for a later show. A significant number of your fans could care less about seeing you on stage again; but with all these cameras coming along to today's trial with you, I'm sure that all the free advertising will-
Vega: Objection!
Hall: Sustained. Miss Swire, you're not here to testify, or manage the witness' career.
Swire: Of course, Your Honor, I apologize. Nothing further.
Hall: Mister Vega, your next witness.
Vega: The prosecution rests, Your Honor.
Lisse filled me in as soon as Court let out. Swire pouncing on Starr at the end of the questioning was never going to fly, but she got the Jury to hear all the reasons they shouldn't trust him.
I filed my own story. With Elliot there, The Boss wasn't that interested in my work, but you never know. A line or two might make it into the final draft. I grit my teeth enough to invite Elliot to join me for a bite, but he turned me down. He had one or two other stories that needed work. Lisse had no plans.
"The Prosecution rested." She said for the fourth time, and I could understand why. Lisse wasn't expecting that. She was expecting Vega to call Fischer, and so was I. But Vega had apparently decided to save The Man Himself for cross-examination. It meant that Vega was playing on Swire's inexperience. He was expecting her to make the case all about how likable and innocent the Defendant was.
And I had to admit, looking at him from the hallway as he was escorted out, he seemed like a kindly old man. Mister Rogers in a second-hand jacket and tie.
"I've been a courtroom journalist for years, and I have no idea what to make of this one." I told Lisse over Vending Machine sandwiches.
"Neither do I." Lisse admitted. She wasn't grinning toothily, or placing bets on the outcome like she usually did. In fact, I'd never seen her looking so… Contemplative. "Can I ask you something?"
I smiled around a mouthful of coffee. "Does anyone ever say 'no' to that question?"
"What did you want to be when you were a kid?" Lisse asked quietly.
"Me?" I grinned. "I wanted to be an astronaut."
"Mm." Lisse nodded, staring into her egg salad sandwich. "I wanted to be a dancer. Ballet." She smiled a tiny bit. "I wish I could say it was some grand disaster like I broke my ankle on a skiing holiday or something, but truth is my folks couldn't afford ballet lessons for me, and I just didn't have… Well…"
"Didn't have the talent." I finished for her. "You'd be surprised how many people I've heard making the same statement over the last few days."
"No, I wouldn't." Lisse said seriously. "Because I've been hearing them too. After today, the whole city's gonna be asking the question: What would you do, if you could do anything?"
She wasn't kidding. Having a celebrity added to the trial got Mister Fix-It all the media attention he could want. Unless there's a huge media circus, nobody ever looks at our justice system. Nobody likes to think about lives being smashed up. Every now and then you get a case that everyone will talk about. Something gruesome enough to be memorable.
The Morning Shows all had the question. So did the Late Night guys. Social Media went berserk. Nobody was allowed to discuss the trial in any way that could compromise the outcome, but the questions raised by the idea that Talent could be something marketable… even affordable, was a very appealing notion.
Which brought me back to Elliot. This case was fast becoming a national story. The international press would be on it within hours. The major outlets were all involved now. This wasn't going to be my big break. But the Chronicle was on record with the first mentions of it, which meant AP, the Times, the Post, and half a dozen networks were all going to be referencing our story on their websites.
And Elliot was getting Editorials. A day later, I'd seen him do two interviews on the networks. And rightfully so, because his Editorials were just that good. He tied in everything. Drugs, medicine, the law…
It was frustrating. I got a few looks at his notebook. He had all the same information I did. There was no secret source of extra info. He just put it together in ways I didn't. It was talent. He was just that talented. And it drove me crazy, because this was my only real chance to make my career something better than hanging around Courthouse vending machines, and Elliot was just… better than me.
I think that was why I did it. It was the only real chance of my career and I just didn't have it in me to make the most of it in the usual way. So I did something crazy. I went to the Prison.
"I'm sorry, sir. The Judge has ordered no press."
"Who said I'm press?" I put on my most innocent smile. "I'm part of Mister Fischer's legal team, you see. Miss Swire has asked me to speak with him and clarify one or two points before his testimony tomorrow. If you check the sign-in sheet, you'll see that she's spoken with him several times. The office was meant to call ahead, but-"
"I know who you are." The lady behind the desk said sharply. "I was a Bailiff in Judge Morgan's courtroom for months. I know who you work for."
I tried to smother my wince. After ten years of being one of the anonymous people in the audience, you'd think I would have recognized all the other anonymous faces. If I'd seen her in court, I would have recognized her straight off. "And now you're administration in San Quentin? Is that a promotion from Bailiff, or a demotion?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?" She snorted.
"Look, I'm not here for The Chronicle. They have someone else working the story, and…" I suddenly ran out of words. There was little more I could say, and I doubt there was a way to come back from admitting I wasn't on the story; to say nothing of not recognizing her.
"Let him in, Judy." A young voice said. "He's with me."
The young man who came in behind me never even stopped at the sign-in desk. He barely broke stride heading into the Secure Areas; and with a single nod from the Gatekeeper, I went with him.
And that's not supposed to be possible. State Law in California means that a prisoner has to undergo four bed-checks a day. The worse ones more often. Also by law, the inmates always have their locations accounted for. So when I was brought into one of the multi-purpose rooms without signing in at half a dozen places; I started to get worried. There was something really, really wrong going on in one of the most notorious prisons in California.
The Multi-Purpose Room was used for all sorts of things. People regularly came into the Prison. The Prisoners were taught everything a person could be convinced to come to a Prison and demonstrate. Reading, writing, cooking. All sorts of musical instruments, all sorts of degrees. Religious studies from various denominations. I spoke with a few of the people in that room afterward, and the fact was; most Prisoners took these classes to pass the unending amount of free time. It's not like anyone was going to give these men a job once they got out. Once you're in The System, you almost never get out.
They all knew it, but they were so eager in this room. It's the worst kept secret of the Justice System that all the small time crooks who come into Prison are promptly taught all sorts of ways to get better at far worse crimes.
But here in this room, they were demonstrating all sorts of incredible skills. I saw one man dealing cards. After shuffling them for several minutes, he dealt the cards, and managed to deal over forty cards in numerical sequence, according to suit. Penn and Teller couldn't do it better. There were two guys in the other corner, playing the same piece of music I saw Amy Williams belting out on YouTube, and they were both playing in perfect unison. One man had apparently operated on a prison safety razor enough to make a passable edge, and was in the process of carving an incredibly intricate wood sculpture, no bigger than a postage stamp.
And over in the center of the room, standing beside a large, tattooed man with long-healed scratch marks down the front of his face, was The Man Himself, James Fischer. The scratched man was sketching in a large scrapbook. I only caught a glimpse, but it looked pretty good. Scratches was pretty pleased with himself too. The kid who walked me in presented him with a foil-wrapped package.
Fischer unwrapped the foil with relish, revealing a meatball sub. I relaxed subconsciously, but Fischer noticed. "Did you think it was something more nefarious?"
"Well, yes." I admitted. "Though if it was, you never would have let me in to see."
Fischer smiled. "There's a little place near the Bay, makes fantastic sandwiches. Better than anything your grandmother could make at home, better than anything you could buy in a chain store. Something… unique."
"And you're a man always on the lookout for 'unique talents', from what I hear." I ventured.
"Isn't everyone?" Fischer chuckled. "When you're placing your bets on a sporting event, don't you pick the most talented players? When they broadcast the game, doesn't the instant replay focus on the most impressive displays of skill? What are the most watched videos on YouTube? Average people trying their best, or exceptional people making it look easy? When your boss assigns his reporters to various assignments, doesn't he look for people with the best skills? The most experience? Relevant contacts?"
"Why am I here, Fischer?" I asked quietly, more stricken by that than I would admit to.
Fischer gestured at the large scrapbook that Scratches was putting his sketch into. The huge man immediately turned it over to him, and Fischer flicked through the pages.
"You remind me of the nice boys in my old Youth Group." Fischer smiled a little as he did so. "Those kids, they're so… hopeful. They want a chance to make their mark, you know? Not anything dangerous, or even suspicious, but life dealt them a bad hand, and they know nobody's ever going to expect anything of them. Nothing good, anyway. You get a reputation like that at twelve years old, and are called trash all your life, sooner or later you believe it. Once that happens…" Fischer gestured around at the walls. "Well, let's just say that coming to visit me here has done more to keep lads like Devon on the straight and narrow than any speech I could ever give." He found what he was looking for. "Ah! Here it is!"
Nobody reads newspapers anymore. But even so, Fischer's scrapbook was remarkable. He didn't have things sorted by date, or by headline. He had things sorted by Source. Each section in the scrapbook was a different paper or network, and each page was a different journalist. He had the book open to the Chronicle.
If he was trying to send a message, it was a good one. Elliot's Articles and Editorials took up almost the entire page; and what I had sent in had been edited down to a pamphlet-sized anthology of notes. "Well." I said finally. "You do your research, Mister Fischer."
"You know, you're the first one to come here yourself." The kindly fellow said warmly. "There are other interview requests, but they all go through my lawyer. You're the first one who's actually come here."
"Well, I hate to have you think less of me, Mister Fischer; but I wasn't hoping to break you out, or bring you cookies…"
"No, I know it." Fischer actually chuckled warmly. "Are you sure you won't have some of this sandwich? It's the best thing you'll ever taste."
I shrugged. What can I say? It did smell amazing. One of the prisoners presented an actual switchblade, and offered to slice it for him. Fischer scolded the man for carrying a knife, saying that was how trouble started. The man was covered in prison tats, and some facial piercings; but he was just so… respectful to James Fischer. It wasn't fear, or even obedience. It wasn't until later I realized: It was awe.
"I'm sorry your work is being marginalized." Fischer told me while we ate. "I see some real talent in your work. What little of it there is, anyway." He closed the scrapbook. "You know, I see a lot of myself in people like you. It's why I got into volunteering with the kids. They just needed someone to help them do what they always wanted to do. Someone who could get them in reach of their dreams. Money, prejudice, health, circumstance, even politics. We're not a complicated species; and the list of reasons why we never achieve our lifelong dreams is not one that varies." He gestured to himself with a good-natured sigh. "In my case, it was time. By the time I was able to achieve any of my life goals, age had gotten away from me."
"If only there was a way to get there faster." I said, with just a hint of leading in my voice. "A way to master skills without having to practice…"
Fischer laughed. "Yeah, I know. If I'm honest, I'd love to wave a magic wand and just… be amazing." He gestured at the scrapbook again. "That's why they never give their new go-getters a real break, you know? If they ever give someone an inch, then they have to deal with the fact that you got in the door."
I didn't say anything. If I'm honest, he'd hit a major nerve. He wasn't wrong. Elliot had been at the paper a long time, since the days when it actually was printed on paper exclusively. He had his pick of stories. Why did it have to be the one thing that might give me a shot?
And of course, the answer that I never liked to think about was simple: It's because he was a much better journalist than me.
"There's always someone hungry and talented out there; and all the old men know it." Fischer said quietly. "Your brilliant replacement is born every day."
"Don't I know it." I admitted ruefully.
"I have to admit, I like to see someone get a lucky break. Especially someone who can't get it any other way."
I almost let my face react. "Any 'other way' to what?"
Fischer smiled a bit. "So. Were you looking for an interview?"
"I was." I pulled out my notebook. A roomful of prisoners all flicked their gaze to me. The minute they saw what was in my hand, they all went back to ignoring me. It gave me a little shiver. I was the lowest man on the totem pole in that room, and the only advantage I had was that I was allowed to leave.
"Well, I'm afraid my lawyer was quite insistent that I route all press requests to her." Fischer said. "But I love to help someone out." He gestured around the room. "These guys can vouch for that." He smiled at me, and the urge to smile back was unbelievable, he was just so likable. "Listen, maybe we can help each other?"
I felt a chill. "How?"
"Well, if you were following the trial, you know that I take injections. The prison has been pretty good about my meds, but… I helped a few people out, here and there. Nice folks, who couldn't really afford some of the natural remedies that have helped me so much." He sighed. "While I'm in here, I haven't really been able to get them what they need."
I gestured at the sandwich. "You don't seem to have any trouble getting deliveries made."
"I know, but I always like making new friends." Fischer smiled warmly and gestured at everyone else. "Take it from a guy who's been in prison for months over a crime he didn't commit. It's good to have friends."
"No." I rejected that. "Why me?"
"Honestly?" He pointed at the scrapbook again. "Everyone's so sensationalist, talking about that poor rock star, or how convincing Amy was. You're the only one that seems to care about the fact that a man died, and nobody's trying to prove who killed him. I knew Dennis Risely. He was a good guy who had a bad problem. And everyone seems to have forgotten him, except you. I think that kind of attention deserves to have the chance to shine."
Long silence. He was either asking me to help a needy person out of a jam, or asking me to make a delivery of stolen talent, and offering me something pretty unique in return.
And there was the point that I had been avoiding in all of this. There's no law against stealing or dealing Talent. Who would think to make that illegal? The trial was happening, right now. The verdict was still days away. There was no chance of getting in any real trouble…
I'm sure Dennis Risley thought the same thing, once.
"Be honest with me." Fischer said kindly. "You never thought you'd get past the front desk. You're not really here for an Interview, are you?"
On my way out of the prison, Devon stuck close to me. So close, in fact, that I almost missed it.
Elliot was at the prison too, also being lead in by a young man in civilian clothes. Elliot and I traded eye contact for a split second. He was as surprised as I was.
None of this should have been possible. Even a remanded prisoner, who hadn't been convicted yet, did not get assigned to San Quentin, and have this much liberty. By all rights, I never should have made it past the door without police escort. The guards didn't seem to care. Neither did the other prisoners. All of which was just flat wrong.
Judge Hall banged his gavel to bring us all to attention the next morning. "All right. Members of the Jury, as you can see, several members of the press have decided to remain, despite the circus having left the building. Once again, this has no bearing on your responsibilities, and I would remind the press that this is a court of law. Anyone who approaches any member of the Jury will be expelled from the court; any cameraman trying to get position will be also." He gestured. "Miss Swire, the floor is yours, call your first witness."
Swire stood up. "Your honor, there is only one witness to anything that is verifiable in this entire trial. I call the defendant, James Fischer."
Fischer took the stand and was sworn in. The whole testimony was very carefully done. Swire was leading him through it like a teacher with a very shy pupil. Fischer was constantly tripping over himself, very nervous; but I got the impression that it was the spotlight making him shy. He still had that very earnest quality that he somehow managed to have while in prison.
"Now then, James; we'll make this as painless as possible." Swire said with her friendliest smile. "Can you tell us about the nature of your relationship with the victim?"
Fischer nodded. "Well, no. I don't really know the Victim well. I volunteer at a halfway house sometimes; and Mister Risel-that is, Dennis? The Vic-the-the, man who was killed? He is... well, he was, he came by. And um, well…"
Swire put a hand up, and came over, making him look at her. "Okay, take it slow. Have you met the Victim before?"
"Yeah. He came by a number of times. One time, he came hurrying in and he looked.... well, scared. He asked me to hold onto something for him." He took a deep breath. "Now, we're not supposed to do that; but he looked so worried and all. So I took it. It was a notebook. Well; I took it; since it wasn't anything illegal."
"Did you read it?"
"Oh, naw, course not. It wasn't mine."
Swire nodded, pleased. "Now then; have you ever met Miss Williams?"
"Amy? Oh sure. A lot of people who... well, sometimes people have problems.. You know what it is, they go into Rehab; then they come out; but it ain't always better. I help out there sometimes. So Amy; she asked me to keep some things for her. A lotta people from the Twelve Step crowd do that, to make sure that there are a few things that they can't sell for drugs."
Amy Williams was suddenly shouting from the back row. "That's a lie! He's lying!"
The Judge brought his gavel down again. "Miss Williams; you had your testimony; you will kindly allow the Defendant to do the same."
Swire made her next step. "James, what do you know about that notebook?"
Fischer actually blushed. "Oh. Well. I know a lot now, but... back then; there wasn't any... I wouldn't read it, you know? That's not what you do. But then some police officers came and arrested me at the place where I volunteer."
Swire had already covered his connection to the victims, the witness, and the possession of the Victim's Ledger. She moved onto her pre-empt of the Prosecutor. " It was suggested that you resisted arrest."
Fischer had a flawless 'Gee-whiz-golly' expression. "Well, Miss Swire; it's just that so many of the kids there don't like police officers. I keep telling them that their parents only say that because... well; I try not to speak bad of folk, you know? But a lot of those kids are there for a reason, and you do what you can... I think they trust me. But they don't trust cops; so if I get arrested; then they don't ever forget that. So I asked the police to leave the cuffs off when I went with them. I had to ask that in private, so… that's how that happened."
Swire took a breath. "One more thing, Mister Fischer. The case that the police found on your person. The small zip-up leather case that was full of syringes?"
"Oh yes, Ma'am. The syringes were for me. Diabetes you see. Terrible disease. I feel sorry for the kids though. They love eating sugar. Personally, I can't afford the dentist bills."
"It wasn't insulin in those syringes, James." Swire said, as though reminding him.
"Oh sure, but I try some more natural remedies, too." Fischer nodded. "It's a lot cheaper than most of the medicines that they give you in hospitals these days."
Swire smiled, pleased. It was clear that her biggest fear was that her client would get rattled on the stand. This was going pretty well for her. "Your Honor, the defense would like to submit Exhibits 'E' and 'F'. Letters and prescriptions from Mister Fischer's Doctor, confirming that he has Type One Diabetes, and that he is exploring natural remedies."
I watched the Jury during all this. Fischer was winning them over, just by being so… unremarkable. He had a very easygoing, 'aw-shucks' way about him. He was a bit too young to be a grandfather, but that's what he was. He was everyone's favorite grandfather, telling stories.
"Now, something the police couldn't figure out is why your syringes had labels on them." Swire said, pre-empting the cross-examination again. "Labels like 'Nimble' and 'Concerto' and 'Magician'."
"Oh that?" Fischer smiled this was wasn't a conversation he'd rehearsed with his lawyer a hundred times. "That was from some of the younger kids. See, I help them learn to read, and well... they made me little word pictures with some of the words I taught them to spell. I keep their little gifts in my pocket case. Miss Swire, did I ever tell you that I actually got that case from one of my students? He found it on the ground; and the poor kid doesn't have a lot of money you see…"
Swire held up her hands with a smile. "Thank you, Mister Fischer; no further questions." She looked so proud of him for holding his nerve. "Mister Vega is going to ask you some questions now."
Vega was still staring at his notes, so the Judge actually had to prompt him. "Mister Vega?"
Vega looked up, startled. "Huh?"
Judge Hall was a little surprised. "It's your turn." Vega was clueless and Hall tried again. "To... cross-examine the defendant?"
Vega blinked rapidly. "Oh. Um, no questions."
The Judge was nonplussed. "No questions?"
Vega spoke as casually as he could. "Nope."
A low murmur ran through the room. Fischer's testimony was the entire Defense; and Vega wasn't even going to try and poke a hole in it? None of us could make sense of that.
Neither could Judge Hall, but it wasn't his call. "Very well. Then given the lateness of the hour, we'll recess for tonight, and return for closing statements in the morning; so that the Jury can have time for their deliberations."
Vega's sudden silence got the attention of several people. The more experienced among the Crime Reporters, and all the Courthouse Owls were burning a hole in Vega with their gaze. He hadn't been distracted. He'd just decided not to cross-examine his own suspect.
The First Rule in Journalism is to be sure of your sources. The Second Rule is that The Reporter isn't The Story.
Every other Pen-For-Hire in that Courtroom sniffed scandal and started digging, looking for the usual suspects. If a lawyer changes sides halfway through a trial, there's usually only three or four reasons. Money and Blackmail are the top of the list, and they all got on the phone to investigate if Vega had any sudden wealth, or hidden skeletons.
I didn't. I had another theory.
You see, I told you that Amy William's 'confession' had won over the Jury to her side, even if they didn't quite believe it was possible. But what I didn't tell you, was that she had convinced me too. Fischer hadn't been wrong. I never thought for a second that I would get an interview when I showed up at the Prison. That was what I told myself, but deep down, I knew that was a joke.
Vega was right about one thing. This was an entirely new kind of trial. Jurors didn't like 'new'. Most of them were happy to write off Amy Williams as a junkie who came up with an outrageous story. Fischer was just too nice. On the stand, he was Mister Rogers, telling a folk tale to the kids.
So I went elsewhere.
"I've been getting a lot of press attention." Vito Starr said easily, lounging in a pool chair. "I've taken to taking interviews wherever I am." He waved at the lavish party going on around him. "I seem like a walking cliche, but this party is for Cancer Research. I couldn't cancel just because of how the trial's schedule shook out."
"I understand, and I appreciate the time." I said respectfully. "I'm sure the press attention will be good for the Benefit, too."
"We can only hope." Starr said. Sincerely, I might add. He cared about the fundraising he was doing. "I'll be honest, though. I don't know what there is to say about the matter that hasn't been said already. I was honest on the stand, and I was deconstructed fairly effectively."
"You were wise to be upfront about everything those articles said about you." I told him. "You don't need my advice on the matter of damage control, but Rule Number One is always to make Full Disclosure yourself."
Starr nodded. "So, what brings you to the party? Of all the Journalists involved, you were the one I least expected to see."
That surprised me. "You know my work?"
"I've been reading your coverage of the trial." Starr said with a frank nod. "You seem to be the only one still writing about it. Everyone else is asking if I'm taking advantage of the whole thing to cover an embarrassing fall off the wagon. Everyone else is wondering if it's a publicity stunt. One or two wonder if it's actually possible that some grandfather from California stole my talent and sold it to a junkie. Absolutely nobody but you is asking about the law, about the possibility of a new street drug… or a guy in the Morgue named Dennis Ridley, that everyone seems to have forgotten about."
"Risley, not Ridley. But you're right. There's a genuine mystery going on here." I said to him quietly, leaning in to give the sense of a serious conference happening between us. "It's been covered up by your star power, by legal guidelines, and lawyers scoring debating points. But this is a straight up murder case. Did a drug dealer coerce one of his customers into killing another?"
"And I went and confused the whole matter with a huge megaphone." Starr nodded, not liking it.
"Which makes me wonder why you got into the case at all?" I pushed him. "In your testimony, you mentioned that you learned about Amy Williams' playing skill from a YouTube video that someone emailed to you. But if that particular piece of music hadn't been shown to anyone…"
"You work for the cop?" Starr asked, more surprised than annoyed.
"Which cop?" I asked automatically, tossing out a fake name to see if he'd give me the real one. "Detective Smith?"
"No, the guy from the trial. The one that arrested everybody."
"Niko Waram?" I was stunned.
"That was it. He was here the other day, asking me all the same questions."
It was too late to try and charm information out of Niko, so I had to wait until morning. A Courtroom Reporter gets to meet all sorts. Lawyers, orderlies, and cops. Niko was a friend, as I mentioned, so I was able to sit down with him fairly quickly. At the time, he was off the record. But once the trial was over, he told me I was free to tell the whole story.
Niko wasn't home, like a sane person would be. SFPD didn't like reporters hanging around, but Niko knew me, and that early in the morning, nobody much cared. Most of them were Night-Shift cops trying to wait out the clock and go home.
"You think Starr was a plant." I asked him over a steak and eggs sandwich breakfast. The price of talking to a public servant before business hours.
"Swire took apart the Rock Star's past." Niko nodded. "His career was tanking. His appearance yesterday? Made this case extremely talked-about. And if anyone believes it, it means he's got a platform to hype his next single. Hell, even if his story was full of it, he gave himself a way to plagiarize a girl he saw on YouTube."
"Yeah, but if this was all a scam, why isn't Amy Williams trying to line up recording deals right now? She insists she can't play. Her mom says the same thing." I got to the point. "Niko, you're too good a cop to fall for a junkie's wild theories, and you think it's for real."
Niko shook his head. "The Captain took me off three other unsolved cases. Says I've clearly lost my mind, if I think someone out there is dealing Talent."
"But you knew that would happen." I reminded him. "So you must have been pretty sure if you made an arrest, let alone testified."
The Detective hesitated for a long moment, before he finally talked. "You heard Fischer testify about his arrest? It's a load of crap. We had to break down the door to get to him. Why Vega didn't cross examine him, I dread to think. I'm trying to run that down, but…" Niko sighed. "Unless we find something brilliant, Fisher's going to walk. We've got a Rock Star past his prime trying to explain a canceled show, and the word of a junkie accused of murdering another junkie. The prosecution can make a splash or two, but…" He rubbed his eyes. "I don't know. It all seemed so perfectly logical when I was laying it out in Pre-Trial. A dealer with a new product. A customer who couldn't pay for his next fix. Another customer desperate to stay hooked up willing to experiment. If it was any other drug, this would be open and shut." He looked at me with a wry grin. "Think Fisher has any 'detective' for sale? Maybe if I had Sherlock Holmes' talent, I could crack this before the trial ends."
"It's a tricky needle to thread, Nik." I told him with a smile, trying to tease some more info out of him. "A drug dealer who volunteers with at-risk kids?"
"You ever see those kids?" Niko pounced. "Those kids are superstars. Their basketball games? They're professional level. Woodworking classes, also master craftsmen. A music program that's getting some attention from the big record labels… Before the trial started, those kids were being hired out to everyone. Musicians one day, catering the next, landscaping the following week… And always the same kids; every one of them with a long juvie record. Hence the At-Risk tags. So either Fischer has found a group of ghetto teens that are masters of every possible trade, despite their background, or-"
"Or he was using his little troop to test out his Talent Formulas." I finished, intrigued. "Can I talk to the kids?"
"I would have had them all in to testify, except we can't find them anymore. Every single one of them has vanished into thin air since Fix-It got arrested." Niko shook his head. "Which is doable. If you're smart enough and skilled enough, you can get around investigators, get around flags at the bank, dodge in and out of cameras and search teams. But…."
"But only if you're just that good." I agreed. "Listen, I shouldn't tell you this, but if you have pictures on some of those kids… I might be able to ID some of them."
"How so?"
"I… went to the Prison the other day. I was trying to score an interview. Fischer has friends. He had some teenage kid named Devon bringing him things. News clippings, favorite foods; that sort of thing. The guys in Prison with him? Also professional level superstars in every trade."
"That's… impossible." Waram breathed. "We had him under some pretty tight controls. In Drug Cases, it's automatic. We keep them from receiving mail, we monitor anyone they meet with to make sure they aren't passing packets of product." Niko shook his head. "Are you very sure, about him receiving visitors?"
"I was one of them, but you didn't hear it from me." I promised.
Niko was finished with me instantly. "I have to make a very pointed phone call."
I turned to go, but hesitated for a long moment.
"You want to know what I think?" I said finally. "I think that Fischer really can deal Talent. I think he found a Rock Star on the ropes and made a deal. I think Starr was willing to sell off his Talent with a guitar to anyone who could pay for the needle; in exchange for the press conference of all time."
"Congratulations, News Hack. You've now achieved the rank of Amateur Detective." Niko nodded. "I realized the same thing a few days ago. At the time, it wasn't an issue, because I was expecting the Prosecutor to take Fischer apart. We've both seen Vega in action. I don't understand what made him change his mind. Vega's taken apart hitmen and mob enforcers. He doesn't spook easily."
"Was he spooked?" I asked. "Or maybe he just couldn't physically do it."
That thought got Niko's attention, and made him pale. "Being a lawyer isn't like being a musician. There's no muscle memory for arguing with someone, is there?"
"Is that how it works?" I pushed him. "Because I don't know. Do you?"
He was about to answer, when my phone beeped, and I checked the message. "They're calling the Jury in for Closing Arguments."
Pretty much the entire world saw The Closing Arguments of the Mister Fix-It Trial. The press weren't hanging around as much that early, so there was no blanket coverage until days later. But the Gallery was full. A few reporters, but most of the people there were young men and women. Little more than teenagers. I recognized one or two from my visit to Fischer in the prison. They were all there for him, and all of them had their phones out to record the final day of the trial.
Lisse waved me down from the front row, and I had to push my way through to sit beside her. "Where's Elliot?"
"I dunno, but he isn't here." Lisse reported. "Kinda early for this, but the Jury was apparently as eager to get this done as the Judge was. Having the world's media watching your Courtroom for a day or two is exciting. Three days or more is a headache. Hall wants to Boat This Bass and move onto something more boring."
I texted my Editor that Elliot hadn't arrived. I was answered immediately that he wasn't answering, and thus, I was the Chronicle's only reporter on scene, when Counselors Swire and Vega came in with the Defendant.
I could see at once there was something wrong with the Lawyers. They were always poised and confident and ready for anything; but this morning they were terrified six-year-olds having to give a speech in front of the Supreme Court.
We all stood as Judge Hall came in and brought us to order. "Are we ready for closing?" He asked without so much as looking up from his notes. "Mister Vega?"
Vega looked terrified. "Closing. Right." He stood up, then seemed to want to sit down, then pushed his chair back awkwardly and cleared his throat compulsively. "Um, Ladies and Gentle-m-men of the Jury…" He began awkwardly, before deciding he didn't like how that sounded. "Hi, how are you?" He immediately knew this was worse, as we all stared blankly at him. "Right; um... The Defendant, Mister Fischer... he's doing bad things; and his only defense is that he hasn't actually broken a Law." Vega was stammering, completely lost. "Now that maybe be true... But still; its wrong, y'know? So if you find him guilty anyway... Well then we can do something about it. And... And the people like you-" He corrected himself constantly. "Like the victim-" This was worse, and he shook his head. "S-sorry; like you; deserve that. Sorry."
He sat down fast, like he was sorry he'd stood up.
Judge Hall, like the rest of us, was more than a little taken aback. "Is... Is that it?"
Vega nodded. "Yeah."
"Very well." Hall moved them along. "Counsel for the Defense?"
Swire looked equally nervous. "I... um... Sure." Her chair squeaked loudly as she stood. "Uh…"
Then Fischer stood up next to her. "Your Honor; I'd like to make my own closing statement, please."
The room reacted. There were lots of cameras clicking from the Gallery. My eyes flicked to the younger people, who were on their feet, edging to different sides of the gallery, getting position to cover the whole room. Their clothing wasn't such that they could conceal weapons, or I'd have been expecting an armed conflict.
Judge Hall noticed them too, but answered Fischer. "That is, of course, your right, Mister Fischer. But if you want to wait for your counsel to prepare a little better; there is no reason why we can't delay this."
"Ohh, I think I can handle it." Fischer seemed very sure of that point.
Judge Hall nodded. "As you wish."
Fischer stood, strode powerfully to the Jury, and suddenly launched into a spellbinding monologue. "My very distinguished members of the Jury. Soon you will retreat to that back room and confer; gathering your collective will to question my worthiness. And when you do; you must ask yourselves: Why is it your place to decide? You are the Jury of my Peers. Twelve men and Women; chosen from among a group of people who are supposedly able to relate to my circumstances; so that they may coolly; dispassionately weigh the sins of my soul. You can relate to my situation from an inherent equality to me. We are the regular people. The man-in-the-street; the average, every-man. This is no great failing. Mediocrity is no sin."
Lisse and I were staring, jaws hanging open. Out of the corner of my eye I was dimly aware that all of Fischer's Teenage Troop were standing up, cameras trained on him expertly.
"Haven't you ever looked at the television, as someone sang so well they brought the whole room to tears?" Fischer continued. "Or a sprinter so fast that a million people chant their name as they break the world record? Or for that matter... a lawyer, arguing his case, working the room so smoothly, that you just want to agree with him? Have you never looked at the screen and said 'I wish I could do that?' They stand so tall; don't they? The beautiful people. The ones touched by wonder. It seems so easy for them. It comes so naturally. It's not like having wealth. We can accuse them of greed. It's not like being cruel. We can accuse them of malice. Being Talented... We just call it a Gift. We look up at them and say that these people have a God-Given Gift." He smirked ironically. "Well. Now there's another supply."
He had a confidence that we'd never seen before. The voice and face was identical; but this is not the same man who fumbled his way through his testimony.
"I did not seek; nor did I expect; but in retrospect, it was all too obvious. Nobody is completely happy with what they can do." Fischer drawled, turning to look at all of us in turn like he was speaking to us directly. " People come to me and they say 'Help me, Jim: my mother-in-law is coming over for Thanksgiving and I can't cook'. Or 'Help me, Jim; my fiance is worried I'll embarrass her when we dance at our wedding'. 'Help me, Jim; I've got a chance to impress this fantastic girl, she loves musicians'. 'Dear Jim, can you fix it?' 'Dear Jim, can you teach me?' 'Dear Jim, can you make me better than I am?'" He smiled broadly, as though he was only too happy to help. "Against these things, there is no Law. You all come running to me; and I do not hold back from those in need. I turn nobody away. Not Amy Williams, not Dennis Risley, not anyone in this courtroom; or indeed anyone across the world who may learn of this; thanks to the diligent attention of the world's media."
Those assembled who were actual reporters suddenly remembered themselves and started taking pictures. I mentioned that The Confession was usually the big moment in a trial? Well, I just found something better. This was The Monologue. The Denouement.
"I am the doorway, the keeper of every talent; the master of every trade... And all I do is share it. Make no mistake; I am the future. This is not my defense; it is my manifesto; my audition to the world. The time of watching the amazing ones with envy is over. Everyone can be special. Everyone can be exceptional. Everyone can be gifted. A thousand lifetimes of skill and knowledge are at your disposal; for a moderate fee. You have it in your hands now. No law has been broken." He turned back to the Jury. "It will be for you; you brave few; you twelve men and women of my Peers; to look upon the path I am offering to show you and decide if it is worthy of us. The New Law will be written in this courtroom today. It will not be written by the Judge, or by these lawyers. It will be written by you. It will be for the twelve of you to decide if what I have done is a crime... or a way to rise up above our own limits; to transcend our own weakness; our own impatience; and become something new and better."
Fischer came over to look at each member of the Jury specifically. He had the whole room hanging off his every word. Mister Rogers had just taken off a mask and revealed he was Moriarty in disguise all along.
"I know you are scared. It's hard to believe that you can decide the future of all human society." Fischer said to them, almost sympathetic again. "There's nobody who can tell you what to decide. And when you go to deliberate; there will come a moment when you wonder if you are equal to the task; a moment when you will wonder: 'What am I doing here? How did this choice get left to me?' And when that moment comes; just remember... that this time next year; any person who doubts their wisdom; their judgment; could have all the certainty of Solomon himself; with just one call to me. I thank you."
Fischer returned to his seat and the courtroom exploded into whispers. The Judge was staring too, but he got there faster than the rest of us. With a bang of his gavel, he broke the spell. "Order in the court! Members of the Jury will now begin their deliberations. The Defendant will be taken into holding…" His eyes locked on Fischer. "...and placed under guard until a Verdict is reached. And the court will be closed to The Press during the reading of the Verdict!"
The Jury took over two days to reach a verdict. None of them have ever talked about what happened in that room. But as it happens, Lewis Carvajal, Juror Number Four, began a new career as a musician a week later. I've heard her play. She's impressive.
Juror Number Nine, Justin Torres. He began a startup as a caterer, and hit the big time in a major way. The Governor, who received no small amount of criticism for his handling of the trial's fallout; lost the next election. Torres cut his new catering business loose and became the ex-Governor's personal chef. There's talk of him being hired as sous-chef for the White House next year.
Muriel Schultz, Juror Number Ten, made a sudden career change into landscaping, won a few awards. But then she was put in jail for possession of an illegal substance. Nobody said what that substance was; but when she made it into jail, she was placed in solitary confinement. Apparently, when the prison gangs started giving her trouble, she was suddenly a skilled black belt; and took four of the most dangerous enforcers apart with her bare hands.
The Big News guys offered money, fame, book deals, and anything else they could think of. They offered it all to the Jury, the bailiffs, and finally the janitors. But to this day, nobody knows what went on in that room during Jury Deliberations.
When the Jury announced they had reached a verdict, I got the call. My editor told me that I had to cancel my weekend, and get to the Courthouse. I must admit some bitterness, as I asked him why he needed both me and Elliot down there.
Elliot wasn't answering his phone. That's breaking Rule Number Three of the journalism business.
I've been listening to courtroom arguments for more years that I'll admit to. I know a lot of the tricks that private investigators used. I had seen Elliot type in his passwords half a dozen times, I knew the make, model, and plate numbers of his car. It was enough to get onto the website, and ping his GPS. He was in a parking lot behind a McDonalds, less than two blocks from the Courthouse. It wasn't even out of my way.
When I found him, it was a shock. He was asleep in the backseat. He had weeks worth of burger wrappers on the floor, his toothpaste and brush were sitting on his dashboard, and there was half a loaf of bread in the front seat, next to an open jar of peanut butter.
It was immediately obvious that Elliot, the standard I had been trying and failing to live up to for half my career, was living in his car.
"I had a book deal." Elliot confessed as I poured espresso into him. Little known fact about Old-School journalists: They are surprisingly coherent at putting a story together while hungover. "I figured after doing this job for thirty years, there might be an anecdote or two that people would be willing to pay for. But all my early chapters got rejected by my publishers."
"You couldn't get an extension on your deadline?"
"I got three. Then they wanted the advance back." Elliot explained. "Except the advance was already covering my rent, plus a few alimony payments…"
It was weird, listening to him pour his heart out to me. I was so jealous of this man only a day before. "I'm… stunned. You've got three Pulitzer Prizes. I would have thought that you'd have… I don't know, at least a little more security than this; financially."
"The newspaper game changed, rookie." Elliot confessed with a crooked smile. "People don't even read past the headlines anymore. Anything we can do gets done for free on Twitter."
"Except we check our facts."
"And even that's a losing fight nowadays." Elliot admitted. "There's always someone hungry and talented out there. Your brilliant replacement is born every day."
I'd heard those words before. The repeated phrase got my attention, and I found myself staring at him. I already knew he was popping pills for all-nighters. He was too smart to shoot up, but I'd seen enough open and shut drug cases in Court to know that most professional junkies just found a better place to hide the track marks.
He was talking the same way James Fischer had spoken to me during our 'interview', and I remembered suddenly the look we'd shared as we passed each other in the prison corridor.
Did Fischer make Elliot the same offer? And if so, what had Elliot said?
Finally, I spoke. "Jury's back. The boss wants us down there."
The Judge walked in and was taken aback. He'd ordered no Press, but we were all there anyway. Nobody had challenged us. The Courtroom was dead silent as the Jury filed in. The Judge looked like he wanted to be anywhere else.
"The Jury will be seated; Bailiff, fetch our Defendant." He said as he sat down. "Miss Swire, you have been dismissed from the proceedings in your capacity as counsel for the defense, but the defendant has expressly asked that you stay on as his co-counsel, as he has no law degree; and requires someone to co-chair." He looked over the two attorneys, but his face was unreadable. "You and Mister Vega are now... prepared?"
"Yes, your honor." Vega and Swire chorused.
Vega was still as flawless as ever, as though such things happened to him every day. "Speaking for myself... I seemed to snap out of it after a few hours."
Swire, still green enough to show her actual emotions when not working over a witness, was quiet and troubled. "Me too."
It was immediately clear to all of us that they'd gotten their mojo back overnight. That was more unsettling than the fact that they'd lost it before Closing Arguments. It was clear that they were more rattled by it than any of the Courtroom Owls. The gallery was stuffed with people. Almost all the journalists who had been assigned to watch for Vito Starr had stuck around. I found out later that almost all of them were there on their own dime.
"Your Honor?" Swire piped up suddenly. "Can I ask... what happened to the rest of those syringes?"
Judge Hall was extremely pointed in his response. "I don't see how that is relevant, do you?"
Swire bowed her head, properly chastised. "Nosir; of course not."
Judge Hall turned to the Jury. "Now then, members of the Jury; you may be aware of the public interest in this case. Once you have rendered the verdict; you will be taken back to the lobby; where you will be allowed to leave. You will most likely be approached by the press. While your involvement with the matter ends once you leave; the trial will still be in progress until such time as the Defendant is sentenced or released. Either way; you are strongly advised not to make any statements or conduct any interviews until the Justice Department has released their official statements. The City of San Francisco thanks you for your service."
Vega finally choked out whatever it was he'd been trying not to say all weekend. "Your honor... if Fischer is found innocent... the whole world changes. You know he had to have planned this whole trial; just for the publicity."
Judge Hall spoke in a carefully controlled voice. "You're lucky that the Jury has already reached a verdict, Mister Vega. Not only would that remark have been stricken from the record; but it would have been close to grounds for a mistrial."
And then, the door exploded open, and the Bailiff came running in. "He's gone!"
Judge Hall was on his feet instantly. "WHAT?!"
"He's gone! Fischer escaped!"
"I ordered him put under guard!" Hall barked. "Where are they?!"
The Bailiff nodded compulsively. "The guards are at their posts; the cuffs are still in the cell; the door wasn't even unlocked. I don't know how he did it but-"
"Alert the entrances; alert the building security!" Hall ordered swiftly. "...and post an alert to the local Police."
Vega was sweating bullets already. "Oh my god!"
I will never forget the look of horror on Vega and Swire's faces. They'd gone head-to-head for the entire time they'd known each other, but they were on the same side now.
Miss Swire all but threw herself at the Jury Foreman, and the Bailiff had to hold her back before she climbed over the railing to get to him. She was calling, begging, then flat out screaming: "What was the verdict!? I gotta know! What was the verdict?!"
The Judge shut her right down, telling the Foreman not to answer that. Vega, on the other hand, had charged towards the Bailiff, demanding to know about Fischer's things. In particular, the 'insulin shots'.
I wonder sometimes, if Vega knew then what the world found out soon after. How seriously Mister Fix-It had changed things. I looked around at the rest of the journalists, scribbling down notes, calling their editors, already tweeting the story. They all knew.
From that moment on, we lived in a world where you could buy a skill on the black market. They say that it will become a legal industry within six months. When crime gets organized enough, it's not even crime anymore. This was a product with limited supply. And all Fischer had to do for unlimited demand was commit a murder.
Swire was wrestling with the Bailiff. "Did Fischer get an insulin shot? Answer me! Did Fischer give himself an injection before the Jury came back?!"
Judge Hall was madly trying to restore order. "Miss Swire; SIT DOWN!"
As for myself, my eyes went straight to Elliot, my superior and rival. He was taking it better than me. He wasn't scribbling notes or taking pictures. He was just… watching, soaking it in. Like me. I wondered, not for the first time, if Fischer had offered him the same deal he offered me. If one of us decided to take the chance and help him out. Both of us had the same price, and I have no idea if he took the deal.
Elliot has no idea if I did, either.
Tough-as-nails Vega was completely going to pieces. "You won't find him! He can pick any lock; he can get out of any box, he can win any fight! He's got every skill he needs!"
The Gavel hammered down so hard I could hear it crack. "We are Adjourned until the defendant is returned to hear the verdict... and face any other charges that this might lay against him!" Judge Hall shouted over the din. "CLEAR THE COURT!"



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