Saturday, 26 May 2018

Mister Fix-It: Chapter One

He wanted us there.
We didn't know that at first, but the whole point of James Fischer getting arrested, or going on trial at all, was because he wanted us all there.
I was there for the Coming Out Party. I was a courthouse reporter. My stories in the Chronicle were usually two lines long, a paragraph at most. When there was an actual trial worthy of media attention, they'd send someone from the Crime Beat, or a Features writer.
The Trial affected everyone in a very personal way. Every child is told that if they work hard, they'll have success in life. But the truth is, they need talent too. The talented people who have not found success will tell you that you need luck, money, a good name… But as much as all us 'little people' long for money and fame, we all know that those things are transitory. We'd give our left arm for something that makes us extraordinary. Something that can't be taken away. That's the X Factor. That's what we call 'Gifted'.
That's the power of being talented.
Given what happened in the weeks after The Trial of James Fischer concluded, I was asked to put together my own testimony of the trial. A basic rule of being a news hack is that The Journalist is not the story; but to make clear some of the things I tell you, some background is required. I've been a courtroom reporter for almost eight years. There was very little chance of escaping the post. Our stories are usually always published, but per story we get less than a paragraph, and we're often the first ones cut when room needs to be made in the paper. An ad for toilet brushes once pushed me off the Morning Edition.
But every now and then, there's a sensation. The OJ Simpson Trial, for example, launched a few careers and more than a few book tours. Jim Fischer launched mine.
Here for the record, are my impressions of the trial, and what followed. I've included personal conversations and some of the background which came out long after. This is as much a confession, as it is a tell-all novella.
~~/*\~~
Lisse told me that there was something interesting in Courtroom Four that morning. She'd been listening to the Jury Selection, and said there were some unusual questions being asked. Questions about the kinds of movies they liked, the kind of books they read. It took a while to settle on twelve men and women.
So I sat in for the opening statements, and that was when I started paying a lot more attention.
If you've never heard a courtroom proceeding before, it's all done by rote. The Bailiff says all the formally required words like a mantra, swearing people in, all of it rapid-fire, the way you get when you've said it all a million times before. Everyone in the room was the same way, until we got to the keywords: "Court is now in session; the honorable Judge Hall Presiding; all rise."
Judge Hall had been sitting at the same bench for almost thirty years, and he checked it all off like a checklist.
"Good morning." Hall said without looking up from his file. "Bailiff, have we all been sworn in?"
"Yes your honor. Only one case on the docket today." The Bailiff reported. "All parties in the matter of City of San Francisco versus James Fischer; AKA Mister Fix-It, step forward!" While they assembled, the Bailiff presented the file to Judge Hall. "Mister Fischer is charged with using coercion against a woman, Amy Williams, to commit the first degree murder of one Dennis Risley."
"Mm-hmm…" Judge Hall looked to those assembled for the case. "Ladies and gentlemen of the Jury... The particulars of this case are very unusual, so in order to render your impartial verdict, some background will be necessary. You will have been taught the nature of murder by proxy. One person can coerce another to kill against their will. In some of these cases, even without their knowledge. The District Attorney has the authority to grant clemency to the coerced party; in much the same way a gun is not charged with firing a bullet. Miss Amy Williams is therefore not charged with any crime in today's trial... in favor of the man who is accused of using her as a weapon. Are we clear on this?"
There was a general murmur of agreement. Hall barely looked up. "Good. Will the defendant please rise?"
Mister Fischer did stand up, a little slower than his lawyer did. He certainly didn't look the part of a manipulative killer. In a cardigan with elbow patches, and thinning grey hair, he looked like a 'Mister Rogers' type. At the time, I almost expected him to offer his lawyer a butterscotch.
His lawyer was blonde and fierce and twenty six years old. In fact, when I first saw them walk into the courtroom together, I thought they were father and daughter. But the other Owls told me that her name was Samantha Swire.
Miss Swire was a rookie. In fact, this was her first trial. And her last. After the huge mess that was made of the Fischer Trial, there was no chance of her settling into a nice, steady lawyer job. But I did interviews with her classmates, after she retired from public life. They tell me that she became a lawyer because she liked the idea of pro-bono work. She was independently wealthy, and was looking to provide some justice to people who couldn't afford any. In a way, I think she was the worst victim of this whole thing.
The prosecution was Ken Vega. Vega, I did know. He was part of the state's attorney's office. He was a prosecutor, and he lived for the kill. If you've ever heard a lawyer joke… or a hundred lawyer jokes, all about how predatory and slimy they are? Well, to give you an idea of what it was like in that courtroom, every single one of those jokes could easily be about Ken Vega.
Judge Hall knew it too. "Mister Fischer, you have entered a plea of Not Guilty, is that correct?"
Fischer nodded. "Y-Yes, your Judge. Your Honor."
I saw Vega smile. A defendant has only one chance to make a first impression, and an unscrupulous lawyer will strategize that moment considerably, and coach a client on how to sit, tone of voice; anything that will create sympathy. Vega knew that Swire didn't have that much cynicism in her. The Jury saw Fischer as a scared older man.
The Judge invited Vega to make his opening statement.
Vega stood, and made two slow strides towards the Jury, putting all the attention on himself. It was the way a Ringmaster worked an audience at the Big Top, and Vega was an expert at it. "Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury; it's good that Judge Hall spoke to you before we started; about the particulars of this case. Because there is also another matter you need to understand. This case; is entirely something new. It's rare to find a legal matter without any legal precedent. You will have the opportunity to shape any and all cases that are heard on this topic."
I remember glancing at the Jury. Every one of them was interested. Most people only had experience with courtrooms from legal shows, none of which had ever shown anything like this before.
Vega knew this, and made it part of his monologue. "Not that long ago; a Jury had to hear the first incidence of cyber-crime. It wasn't even a word; nothing had been taken except knowledge, nothing violated except privacy and security. A judge and a Jury had to decide if that could even be considered a crime. And like those jurors; what you hear might be hard to believe or understand. But I assure you, it is very real. With a method never before considered; Mister Fischer; or as he's known in some circles: 'Mister Fix-It'; has taken things that he never had any claim to; and extorted money from his customers for these illegal goods. The way he stole them is... unusual; but no less wrong for it. One of these customers; a man named Dennis Risely, was unable to pay his fee; and the defendant then used His Method, to force an innocent woman to commit murder in his place. We will show you how; and why... And all that I ask of you; is to remember that what we're speaking of is real. It is all true; no matter how it might stagger belief. What you're about to hear... is as factual as it gets."
Vega stayed with the Jury for another few seconds, letting that sink in. In all the courtroom dramas you watch at home, this is the part when the camera would cut to a different scene. Vega knew that, and let everyone get a good look at him, let the moment stretch.
Judge Hall cleared his throat loud enough to shake Vega's spell, and moved the trial along. "Ms Swire, if you please."
Swire took a breath, and strode up to the Jury. She didn't put on any airs. She was all energy and light. Swire struck me as being instantly likable; and the Jurors reacted the same way.
"Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury. The prosecution has told you one thing only; that the crimes my client is accused of will stretch your imaginations." Swire told them. "He has offered no physical evidence because he has none. He has offered no witnesses to the crime itself because there are none. He has a story that pushes the boundaries of science fiction; and leaves reality far behind. He hasn't told you what that story is, because he knows you won't believe it. He hopes that bringing in some paid people with PhD's might be enough to flummox you; when common sense fails you. The charge is murder through coercion, because nothing else the Prosecution will tell you is actually a crime; if it's even remotely possible as fact. My client, stands accused of dealing... Talent."
She was the first person to say it out loud, and she hit the tone perfectly. Half the Jury was looking at Vega in disbelief, the other half looking at her, trying not to laugh. I was having a similar reaction, looking to Lisse. "Seriously?"
Lisse was in her 'zone', eyes glued to the Jury, weighing up their reactions.
Swire was laughing along with them, making them feel it. "Yeah. Does it sound as laughable to you as it does to me? Because that's what the charge is. Stealing talent. A talent cannot be stolen, like your money or your secrets; that's not a technicality; it's a fact. The prosecution reminded you to believe what you're told; and all I ask is that you use your common sense."
~~/*\~~
The Judge called a bathroom break, and I went to the Vending Machine with Lisse. "This is what you called me in here for?" I didn't hide any of the disbelief in my voice. "Stealing talent?"
"Not just stealing: Dealing." She grinned toothily. "You're always saying that only the interesting cases get noticed."
"Yeah, and if I worked for the Enquirer, I could write all about the guy who's suing the Air Force for not keeping the alien spaceships off his lawn."
Lisse grinned and pushed her coke-bottle glasses up her nose. "I figured you'd be into this. It's a little bit crazy, and a little bit Rock'n'Roll. You've been looking for 'Out Of The Box' for as long as I've known you."
This was true. And when she said it, it dawned on me just how long Lisse and I had known each other. Hovering around the Emporium of Human Misery that was a Downtown Courthouse for years on end is not what I got into journalism for. I was happy to pay my dues, but I didn't think they would take so many years.
It was a depressing thought, so I agreed to stay for the trial.
~~/*\~~
Judge Hall brought his gavel down sharply. "Mister Vega, call your first witness."
The first witness, to my surprise, was Detective Niko Waram. I knew him. He was a good cop, and had been around a lot longer than his face betrayed. Most cops carry the job on their face. It ages you, being around all the worst parts of humanity. Niko was able to shrug it off and keep his head high.
It was an open secret that Cops hated lawyers more than the rest of us do. Cops bring in the criminals, and then the lawyers dedicate themselves to letting them out again. This creates a certain love-hate-homicidal relationship. In full dress uniform, Niko had to try and explain to the Jury why he was right, in a case that already had them rolling their eyes.
After he was sworn in, Vega started to walk the Jury through it. "Detective, you were the one that made the arrest of the defendant, on the 12th of November, is that correct? Can you describe the events of that day to the court?"
"I was at the 31st Precinct; doing some paperwork; when the front desk paged me to come to the lobby." Waram told the court. "I went; and I found a young woman named Amy Williams. She had blood under her fingernails; and bruises on her face. The Sergeant told me that she had just confessed to killing a man she knew. I brought her to the interrogation room; and she told me everything."
Vega made a point of looking at Amy Williams, letting the Jury see her, sitting in the third row. "What did she tell you?"
"She told me that she had been buying syringes full of a new drug called 'Nimble' for her job." Niko testified. "She said that without it, she never would have gained steady employment. She said that her dealer had given her a bad dose; and that her memories were hazy after that."
"Did she tell you when her memories stopped being 'hazy'?"
"When she was at the victim's apartment; by which time he was already dead."
Vega introduced Exhibit A. The Crime Scene Photos. The thing about a murder trial is that you have to make the Jury care about someone they'd never met. A long shot, most of the time. For this case, it was a whole lot harder, since the victim in question had no family, no job; and a drug problem that had taken twenty years of his life.
"She led me to that apartment; and the body. Dennis Risley was found dead in his living room. Cause of death was multiple stab wounds. Autopsy revealed that he had been sedated; probably wasn't even aware of what was happening. There were no signs of a struggle."
Nik had to tell the Jury this, because the photos were jarring. Not as bad as some I've seen, but the Jury doesn't get this kind of thing very often, and they were notably more disgusted by the sight than I was. It was a bloody scene. The kind that made a Jury want to blame someone.
"Any other evidence?" Vega was already heading for his table.
Waram narrated, as Vega brought up Exhibit B, and put pictures of it on the screen for the Jury. "There was a small notebook in the victim's apartment, detailing a list of many cash payments to 'James F'. According to the notebook; these payments are for products that are never made clear; but listed with different keywords. 'Nimble' 'Virtuoso' 'Casanova' and 'Einstein'."
"And what was the state of the Victim's financial records?"
"Risley was deep into debt. His credit cards were all maxed out; and his bank accounts empty. According to his ledger, he owed over half a million to 'JF'."
Vega gestured at the defendant. "James Fischer?"
Swire pounced. "Objection. There are a million names that could match those initials, and that's assuming the initials are for a name in the first place. Counsel is asking the witness to speculate."
The Judge shook his head. "The Witness is an experienced police officer; his speculation is valid."
Waram didn't hesitate. "In Vice; we see this all the time. Someone gets too deep in debt to the wrong people; and it costs them their lives. Yes, the initials are common, but in a murder case, there are no coincidences. We believe that the victim was also a client of Mister Fischer, and he couldn't pay up. The only person who seemed to have knowledge of the case was Miss Williams, and she led us directly to Mr James Fischer as her own dealer." He gestured at the exhibit, still displayed. "JF. Miss Williams and the Victim had the same dealer; and he used her to kill the regular who couldn't pay up."
Vega moved onto Amy, making everyone look at her again. "Did she demonstrate any of the signs of drug use?"
"There were needle tracks in her arms; from regular injections; but otherwise... no. She seemed lucid, rested... She was somewhat emotional from the experience; but there was no sign of mania; nausea, compulsive behavior…"
Vega moved to pre-empt the defense. "Now, by her own admission; she was using drugs. Is this behavior consistent with any form of narcotic you are familiar with?"
Waram shook his head. "No; this is something new."
"Did Miss Williams give you any indication of what effects this drug had?"
Waram sat up straighter in his chair. The whole point of the Prosecution was to prove that Fischer had something that had never been done before. "She went into great length on that. It was a designer drug. A kind that hasn't been recorded before. She said that it gave her excellent typing skills. One shot a day for 300 words per minute. No typos."
Vega knew what the first question would be on the cross-examination. "That's a rather unusual claim."
"I didn't believe it either; but during the course of our investigation; her employer said she had the skills. And pretty much everything else in her history says she never learned."
"Did you ask her to demonstrate?"
"I did, the day after her confession. She was unable to break five words per minute. Nevertheless; her employer insists, every day; flawless. He said it made her one of the most efficient members of his administrative staff. He was planning on giving her a bonus."
"Did she have any explanation for that?" Vega asked.
Waram nodded. "She said that her fix had worn off."
Vega nodded. "No further questions."
He made his way back to his seat, and Sam Swire bounced up to begin her first Cross-Examination. "Detective; you've worked Vice for a number of years. I imagine you could identify most designer drugs on sight."
"Yes."
Swire pointed at Amy Williams, who was sinking into her seat in the gallery. "And her story was that this new one had given her nimble fingers?"
"I suppose she called it 'Nimble' for a reason."
Swire had a smile that was meant to look relaxed, but instead looked like it could cut glass. "Would a more likely reason be that she could have been on any number of other illicit substances? Something perhaps that could have given her heightened energy and reflexes?"
"Possible, but highly unlikely in my opinion." Waram shook his head. "As I said, she didn't appear to have any side effects of known narcotics; there were no traces of drugs in her system. At least, nothing we recognized. It's not entirely unusual for a new designer drug to be available on the street without anyone from law enforcement being briefed on it yet."
Swire almost laughed. "So it's more likely that her dealer was selling her typing skills in those syringes?"
There was the sound of general laughter from the room, and Hall banged his gavel down to quiet them.
Swire kept the questions coming quick and fast. "Detective; did you investigate the Crime Scene further?"
"Yes, of course we did."
"Did you find any fingerprints?"
"Just the victim's, and Miss Williams'."
"Did you locate any blood traces?"
Waram had done this more than she had, and knew not to fall for the rhythm she was trying to build. He took his time, giving proper responses. "The victim was stabbed; which was consistent with the blood traces we found on her hands and clothing."
"You said there was no sign of struggle. Was there any sign of anyone else being present?"
"No."
"You also mentioned that the usual indicators of drug use were largely absent. Detective... this woman told you that she had been compelled through a new kind of drug to kill this man... and you believed her?"
Waram nodded. "I've worked Vice, and homicide for twenty years. The variety of things I've seen junkies do under the influence of a hit? Murder wouldn't even be in the top ten."
"And you were sure Williams was a junkie?" Swire questioned.
Waram nodded. "When she gave me her identification; I ran her name through the database. She's been arrested for possession and use several times. Never a violent offender; and her record said she'd been in and out of rehab."
"Voluntarily?"
"Not always." Waram conceded.
Swire seemed to be personally annoyed, though you could tell she was playing it up to the Jury. "Is there any connection between Miss Williams and the Victim? Personal? Financial?"
"Yes. The victim had attended Rehab himself for addiction to prescription drugs; and his stay coincided with Miss Williams'."
Swire gestured to her client, still looking so wholesome at the defense table. "When she gave you the defendant's name; did you check his records too?"
Waram nodded. "Yes. Mr Fisher's record was clean. In fact the only thing in his record was a good conduct check; which the government had done as a routine background check to his job."
Swire gestured from Amy Williams to the display screen, showing the crime scene photos. "Did she offer any indication of why she was at the Victim's apartment in the first place?"
Waram didn't let it show on his face, but this was where his testimony was at its weakest. "She said... she just wound up there. She said she didn't even know where he lived."
Swire nodded and summed it up her way. "I see... so just to be clear; a woman with a history of criminal behavior, drug abuse and forced institutionalization wandered into the precinct, confessed to committing a cold-blooded murder, and basically said that it wasn't her fault because a law-abiding citizen with no record had managed to compel her to commit murder with some form of mind control drug which she bought... because it made her a great secretary. And though all the physical evidence pointed to her; you arrested my client instead?"
"Miss Williams wasn't going anywhere." Niko insisted. "The evidence, and the story are always two parts of the same event. In this case; the two weren't mutually exclusive."
Swire gestured at Fischer. "Describe what happened when you came to my client's house."
"He wasn't there. We had a warrant and made a search of his home; we found a notebook full of names and payments; and a small case with over a dozen syringes in it. Miss Williams identified two of them as the ones he sold her; and we went through his calendar; so that we could find him and arrest him quickly."
Swire nodded and glanced at the Jury. "One last question. When you came to arrest my client; what was he doing?"
"He was at the local high school." Waram said, noncommittally.
"He was teaching an after-school class." Swire corrected him pointedly. "I'm told he volunteers there three days a week to help kids with juvenile records do their homework; and get their grades back up."
"Objection." Vega jumped in. "Counsel is testifying."
"Sustained." The Judge ruled.
Swire had no further questions, and the Judge had Vega call his next witness.
~~/*\~~
The prosecution's next gambit was Doctor Brooklyn Gellar. Gellar was an older man, red hair. The white coat he wore wasn't hospital issue, but definitely invoked the impression of a medical expert, and it didn't take long to realize that this was deliberate.
Vega made sure the Jury knew what to make of him. "Doctor Gellar. You are, for the record; the head of pharmacology for the UCSF Medical Centre; is that correct?"
"Yes."
"Is it fair to say that on the subject of drugs and their effects on the human body; you're the top expert in this state?"
Gellar didn't have a trace of humility to him. "I would say yes."
Vega glanced at Waram, who was seated back in the gallery. "Police make use of your department when they track the supply of narcotics in this city?"
"Yes."
"Can you give the Jury an example?"
Gellar nodded. "Well, for example: When there's a bad batch of heroin on the streets; people die. We provide the police with details on when this batch is found; and we study samples forensically so that police can identify the source."
Vega nodded. "Now, you've been made aware of the medical properties of this case. In your expert opinion, is there any known drug that can add or take away Talent?"
Gellar leaned forward, finally giving more than a short answer. "No, not officially; but over the last six months, we've been seeing a number of unusual cases that follow the same pattern. Someone with a unique talent: for example, a concert pianist would come in saying that they had, for lack of a better way to say it, forgotten how to play. Literally overnight."
Vega made sure the Jury understood that much before pressing on. "How do you know that this was done deliberately?"
"Strictly speaking, we don't." Gellar managed to sound all-knowing even when admitting that. "But unerringly; the most question marks about the use of an illicit substance come before anyone knows about its existence."
"Doctor, when the police approached you about Miss William's story; you were skeptical, were you not?"
"I was." Gellar agreed. "It stretched the bounds of credulity to say the least. But I was asked to take a look at some syringes found in Mister Fischer's home. The medical records state that he is suffering from Type-One diabetes, and requires regular insulin shots. But these syringes... they didn't have insulin in them."
"What was in them?" Vega pressed.
"Well that's somewhat difficult to say; as it matches no known compositions. It doesn't match any other kind of medication or narcotic on file. Most of the... base elements are naturally occurring in the body. Specifically, they are neuro-chemicals. Specific ones."
Vega knew there was no way the Jury was about to listen to a chemistry lecture. "Doctor Gellar, in your opinion, what kind of effect could this cocktail of chemicals have on a person?"
Gellar spoke straight to the Jury. "In medicine, we are taught to verify things. It's dangerous to make generalizations about things you don't understand; but after studying the testimony of Miss Williams, as well as reviewing interviews... I think it's possible that the serum does as advertised. It can actually create an artificial level of muscle memory."
Vega took a breath. This was going to be the hardest part to get across and he knew it. "Given that none of us are neuro-scientists; can you explain how such a thing would work?"
"Well, if it is what those involved say it is; then the process would be relatively simple." Gellar said, pleased to demonstrate how smart he was. "Neuroscience tells us that synaptic connectivity is usually pretty elastic, but is strengthened by repetitive firing of the right neurons, and-"
"Doctor." Vega cut him off. "For those of us who are not, literally, brain surgeons."
Gellar seemed annoyed at having to dumb it down. "Whenever you do something a million times; it gets to be unconscious. It's why a skilled, experienced piano player can find the right key blindfolded; and why a touch-typist doesn't have to look at the keyboard. We call this 'Muscle-Memory'. That memory is stored the same way normal memories are; as chemical sequences in the brain. Now... all chemicals can be isolated; that's basic laboratory work. Gene Therapy works in a similar way; isolating a specific gene and activating it. This serum, if it is what it looks like; isolates a specific chemical marker and... makes it systemic to the body. It would mean that your... memories, could then be drawn in a blood sample."
"And given to someone else?" Vega pushed.
"Well… only if you knew how." Gellar said.
Vega turned back to his seat. "Your witness." He said to Swire.
Swire rose and came towards Gellar slowly, closing the distance without making it seem like an an attack. "Doctor Gellar. You understand the gravity of the case. The defendant is accused of being a drug dealer; and a cold blooded killer."
"Yes."
"So what's the drug he's accused of pushing?" She knew the answer to that, but her tone made it seem like it should be a simple matter to answer.
"It... doesn't have an official name." Gellar admitted.
"Why not?" Swire asked. "And why has there been no announcement from the Food and Drug Administration?"
"The... compound in question is something entirely new. There is usually a long term and fairly vigorous testing program; to decide if a new drug poses a threat, if it is made in an illegal or dangerous manner, how much information should be made available to the general public; that sort of thing."
Swire nodded and made a show of checking her notes. "You say that this formula would make a memory systemic to the body. It would seem likely then that you could just do a blood test on one of the so-called affected 'victims', and test to see if these brain chemicals appear in an ordinary blood test."
"Not necessarily." Gellar said immediately. "A lot of chemicals break down quickly without a fresh supply. That's why you have to take repeated doses of many medications; because they don't last."
"Tell me, Doctor. How would you be able to isolate a specific talent, using this method? Aren't all memories made up of similar chemicals? Why would one skill alone be isolated by this formula?"
Gellar hesitated, though I got the impression it was because he hated to admit ignorance. "That's... difficult to say. As I said; this is an entirely unprecedented area of study."
Swire didn't let him off the hook. "So you don't have an answer to that one?"
"Well-"
"Doctor; you've been called as an expert witness in a trial that will decide the fate of an innocent man: 'I-don't-know' doesn't cut it!" Swire barked at him.
Vega jumped up. "Objection!"
Judge Hall sustained the objection, and Swire paused, looking at her notes again, but Lisse poked my side with a grin. She'd seen this before, when a lawyer would be silent for a long beat to let the last thing said stick in the Jury's mind. "One last thing, Doctor Gellar... Why is it dangerous to make broad generalizations about things you don't understand in medicine?
Gellar was looking at Swire like he had a bad taste in his mouth. "Because without the support of data... sometimes you're just wrong."
Swire nodded, satisfied. "No further questions."
~~/*\~~
But I'm not the only one who hung around other people's trials. Some people are trying to write a book, looking for stories. Some people are just bored, living on a pension, and have no interest in hanging out in a park or a library. One or two are there because they wanted to be lawyers, and had no money for tuition, and this was as close as it gets. The Bailiffs and clerks call us 'The Owls'.
Angelissa was an Owl. She was there because she was trying to quit smoking, and the Bailiffs were quick to take her cigarettes away when she tried to light up in court. So Lisse never left the courtroom until it was out of her system. Every time she started relapsing, she'd be there day and night.
"Still think it's a joke?" She quipped, pointedly stepping away from the cigarette vending machine.
"I don't know." I admitted. "Vega's a shark. We've seen him in action before. Is this pro-bono? Does he owe someone on a bet? Is he pledging a fraternity?"
Lisse grinned. "I thought all the same things when I heard about the case."
"Where did you hear this, by the way?"
"I got a buddy who works in San Quentin." Lisse told me. "The Justice System being what it is, they've been trying to sort this out for months. It's not easy to get a particular cop, and a particular doctor, and all the other players involved together on the same day."
I winced. The part of the trial that the TV Shows rarely talk about is how long a person can wait in prison before actually seeing a courtroom. "And they're remanding him at San Quentin?"
"You ready for this?" Lisse slurped her vending machine coffee. "He requested a transfer there."
"What?" This was stunning. San Quentin was one of the country's most famous prisons, and not famous for being comfortable. "Why?"
"Well, from what I hear, his time with the 'At-Risk' kids was finished because of the drug charge. Unless he can get this quashed, he'll never volunteer with them again. But there are all sorts of teaching programs that run all week in San Quentin, and if he's there, he can volunteer for those."
I shook my head. "This guy sure doesn't fit the role of some criminal mastermind, Lisse. I mean, I know that Swire has coached him on how to sit, how to dress, how to… If he is what they think he is, then he must be an amazing actor."
"Yeah, well... Between you me, and this sludge they call coffee; the prosecution's case is actually worse than it looks."
"How so?"
"Well, I don't know if people are all idiots in a courtroom, or if they just get treated like idiots when they get here, but Swire wasn't wrong. There isn't a law against stealing or dealing someone's Talent. Juries like simple ideas. The minute that Doctor tried to explain the science, they all went to sleep; and Vega knew it. Presenting something 'new' is not a popular move. It took them four weeks to find someone who was willing to testify it was even possible."
"Gellar wasn't their first choice?"
"Their first, second, third, and fourth choice all laughed the DA out of the room." Lisse told me. "Your old pal Niko is against the wall now. He's trying to organize a Task Force to find the rest of Fischer's customers; assuming he has any. I hear he's being laughed at too."
While we had been out there talking, the Prosecution had called Amy Williams to the stand.
~~/*\~~
Lisse and I slipped back into our seats just as Amy Williams had been sworn in. She had made an effort to clean herself up, but you can always tell the signs of long-term drug abuse. It was something around the eyes and mouth. This woman was still months short of her twenty third birthday, but she looked so… used up. The kind you see sleeping in a bus shelter, and cross the street to avoid.
Vega didn't put the screws to her. She was his weapon against the disbelief. He was asking the Jury to believe something ridiculous; based on the word of a woman that you wouldn't give spare change to on the streets. "Miss Williams. Can you explain your connection to the defendant; and how you met him?"
Amy spoke directly, too hard to mince words; and her voice was hoarse from cigarettes. "He's my dealer. I... I was fresh out of Rehab; and I was looking for work. But... well, you can imagine I had trouble finding some. I mean, you don't have to tell anyone that you had a problem; but eventually someone asks why you got fired from your last job."
"I understand. How did you meet the Defendant?"
"Well, I was hanging around with some old friends; and then I start to hear stories about a new guy making the rounds. He's not like the other guys. My friends tell me he's got some really good stuff." She coughed a bit, and looked to the Jury. "Now; I was only a week out of Rehab, so I said no. I mean... I don't know if you ever got hooked on anything; but after a while it's like you wonder why you ever stopped. If it makes you feel good; then why would you not want to feel good longer? And you know, it's not like there's a whole lot else that makes you feel good; because your family got fed up with you, your landlord kicked you out. So I gave in. I went looking for this new guy."
"Did the New Guy have a name?"
"They don't give names. Not real ones." Amy shook her head. "But after a while I tracked one down for this guy. They called him 'Mister Fix-It.' They say he... fixes things that are wrong with you. I've heard it all before; so that doesn't faze me much. Lots of dealers have names like that."
"Where did you find him? Mister Fix-It?"
"Well, I tried to ask some friends of mine." She said. "They're pretty well connected. But they say no. They say there's nobody new around. The Dealers see.... they're territorial. So I started going back to the Meetings; cause I knew I was playing with fire. You always are when you look for a New Dealer. Devil you know, and all that." She wiped her nose, which always seemed to be running. "When I was at the Meeting; I saw one of the volunteers sneaking something to this guy. It's the quick glance that gives them away. Anyone who's ever needed Rehab knows that move; just... sneaking a packet from one jacket to another; real quick, real sneaky. Someone at the meeting was buying. I tracked him down once we left; and I asked him about it. Turns out we went to the same Clinic once, so he knew I wasn't a Narc; and he showed me."
"Showed you what?" Vega pressed carefully.
"What he'd bought. It was a syringe. And on the side; someone had written the word 'Virtuoso.' The guy said that he had a gig that night; and didn't have time for lessons. I didn't get it; so he invited me along."
The Jury wasn't biting. Amy Williams was a junkie, and by definition, that meant she was someone that the Jury didn't like to think about, look at, or give consideration to. If they'd seen her on television, they'd change the channel, not wanting to think about her plight. Vega knew it, and lead her there gently. "Who was this person, Amy?"
Amy's voice cracked. "His name was Dennis Risely."
Vega put his picture up on the screen. "The Victim?"
Amy nodded, tearfully. "The man I killed."
Vega was gentle with real, simulated human feeling. "The man Fischer killed, Amy."
Swire jumped up. "Objection!"
"Sustained." The Judge ruled.
Vega kept things moving. "Where did Risley take you?"
"To a club on the West Side." Amy reported. "He was the lead guitarist for the band. He asked me to watch. The other members of the band had... groupies around. He bought me a drink and sat me down with them. It was pretty clear where he hoped the night was going; but I figured I could slip out while he was on stage."
"Did he play?" Vega asked, almost casually.
Amy Williams was suddenly flat out reverent. "Oh man, did he ever play. Dennis was amazing. I mean; professional level good. He brought the whole room to their feet. He had the entire audience screaming. I couldn't even see his fingers moving on the strings he was going so fast; but there wasn't a note off. You know; even at that speed you can hear it when the player starts losing it? Dennis was Hendrix and Santana rolled into one."
We found out, much later, that she was almost right.
Vega glanced at the Jury. She was telling the story in such a compelling way that they almost forgot she was nothing to them. "Tell us what happened next, Amy."
"Well... Look; he was amazing." Amy said again. "The rest of the band just got out of the way. They weren't annoyed; they were spellbound. Everyone was. He was just that great at it... So when the set ended; and everyone begged him for an encore; I didn't sneak out. I wanted to stay too. And then after the fifth encore; he still didn't even seem out of breath; but it was after three am; and the place had to close up. He asked if I wanted to grab some coffee; and I said yes. We got to talking; and I asked him when he started playing; and... well; he gave me this smile; and pulled out a syringe. I was surprised; because he wasn't psyched up; he wasn't fevered... In fact; it was like he was having just another night."
"And that's when you returned to his house?" Vega queried.
"No, I told you; I didn't know where Dennis lived." Amy told him. "We went to my place."
"And then?" Vega asked, without a trace of sleaze.
"Objection." Swire said dryly.
"Sustained."
Vega shook his head. "Rephrase. Miss Williams; what else happened that night?"
"Dennis gave me his second shot." Amy said quietly. "Said he could afford three more doses with all the tips he'd got that night. I believed that one. Some of those tips came from me after his second encore."
"And you took the shot?"
Amy nodded, her eyes going wide and hopeful for a second. "And a few minutes later; he handed me his guitar... It was incredible. I think I was almost better than he was that night. I just belted it out like nothing. I never even knew what the strings on a guitar are called; but I was hitting them all." Her tone was changing. She couldn't help but get caught up in the excitement; even now. "I never touched a guitar before; and suddenly I was a freaking rockstar! I could keep up with the musicians on CD; I could play every song I knew from memory; note for note."
"And all from that injection." Vega said, more for the Jury than the witness.
"I was clear; I wasn't emotional; I just... knew." Amy said, and it was the happiest we had heard her. "It was clarity. It was the most amazing feeling I've ever had. It wasn't like any of the other things I'd tried; this actually made you feel good. Not because of the chemicals; but because of the... reality. It was the way all those people with incredible gifts must feel."
"Amy, you knew Dennis…" Vega moved her on. "Did he ever tell you about any money troubles? Any problems he was having with Mister Fix-It?"
"Dennis and I didn't speak that much after the first night. It's not like he was my boyfriend." Amy explained. "But we met up once or twice. We both wanted to be good at playing an instrument; so a couple of times we played together; y'know in bars and that?"
"When was the last time?"
"A month before he…" She glanced at the Crime Scene photos, rather than finish that sentence. "We played three sets that night. It was weird, because he came to me and asked me to play piano while he took the guitar. I didn't have any of the musical doses; but he did; and he gave it to me."
"He just gave it to you? Did you ever ask him why?"
"That night." Amy nodded. "That night; when we were done; he was begging me to let him keep all the tips. That was strange; because usually we split it. He said... that he had taken his latest supply on... credit. He said he was feeling the pinch; and had to come up with cash quickly. That's why he had come to me; because duets always pay more than solo musicians... and I was the only person he could ask for help. It's not like he needed someone with musical ability." Her voice started to crack, reality crashing down again. "All the ability he needed, he could carry around in his pocket. I gave him the cash... and that was the last I saw him until…"
"Yes." Vega agreed somberly. "'Until'."
Amy kept going. "So I get Dennis to tell where I could find Mister Fix-It, and see what other magic skills he had on offer. One of them was cheap, and it got me a job, working as a typist. One shot a day; and I could actually afford it with a steady job that I could do."
"You bought these Talents from Mister Fix-It directly?"
"I did. Like I said, Dealers are territorial. Middle-men eat their profits a bit."
"Is that man in the room right now?" Vega asked.
Amy pointed at Fischer.
For the stenographer, Vega made it clear. "Let the record show, that the witness has identified James Fischer as her Dealer, AKA Mister Fix-It." Vega turned back to the stand and made his voice low and sympathetic. "Amy, can you tell us what happened to Dennis?"
Amy was silent a long moment. "Yeah. Yeah, I can tell you what I know." She sighed at the unpleasantness. "I went to Fix-It for my regular dose. He told me that the price had gone up; and... well; I didn't have it with me. Going to a Dealer is a little like dieting at a supermarket. You don't want to risk any impulse purchases at the checkout."
There was actually a light chuckle in the courtroom. I noticed that Lisse looked so sorry for her. She was used to this sort of thing. You see enough people with Amy's problem pour their hearts out to a Jury, you start to see them as people again. The Jury wasn't so warm, but it was clear Lisse believed her.
"What did Fix-It do then?" Vega asked, pointing at Fischer.
"He made me an offer. He'd let me have a weeks supply for free; if I would test out a new 'Talent' for him." Fischer sniffed. "Something he'd never tried before."
"And for the record; what was the new Talent called?"
Amy's voice was dark. "It was called... Ripper."
"And what did you say?"
"I said no." Amy admitted. "I'm not above experimenting; but... not like that. So I said no; and he said it was fine; and we both walked away... except I couldn't afford the new price. So I called Dennis and asked him; and he sounded completely freaked out on the phone. Said he was in trouble." She looked down, bitterly. "I told him to go to a cop; but of course, we both knew that wasn't going to happen."
Vega nodded harshly, glaring at the Defendant. "And so did Mister Fischer, it would seem."
"Objection." Swire pounced.
Judge Hall nodded. "Sustained."
"Amy, if you knew Mister Fix-it was getting dangerous, or more expensive, why'd you go back to use his stock again?" Vega asked.
"Well I stayed away at first, but nobody else had this sort of thing."
Vega asked the key question. "You stayed away? And... what was the result?"
Amy scowled. She'd known the question was coming, but still hated it. "I didn't go through withdrawal; if that's what you mean. I didn't freak out, I didn't get the shakes; I didn't get the cravings... but I did lose my job for a while."
"Why was that?"
Amy let out a breath, and a cough at the same time. "Because.... because all the skills that made me qualified were gone."
Vega let that hang long enough for it to sink in with the Jury. "And so you went crawling back."
"I told Fix-It that I was willing to be his test dummy." Amy said, with a glare of pure hatred at Fischer. He looked really sympathetic to her. "I took the dose... and then I walked out... and the next thing I remember clearly is being in Dennis' apartment with the knife in my hand. I immediately went to the police and told them everything I knew."
"No further questions." Vega declared.
Swire rose, and came over to the stand. Swire was passionate, but knew that the one thing the Jury disliked more than an unsympathetic Witness, was a lawyer who beat them up too much. As a result, she had to come at this carefully. "Miss Williams. I would like to ask you about September fourth, 2009."
"Objection. Relevance?"
Swire turned quickly. "Oh, I have a point your honor."
Hall nodded. "I'll allow it."
"Miss Williams? 2009?" Swire pressed.
Amy scowled. "I... was arrested as a suspect. But I was released without charge."
I sent a look over at the Prosecutor, and so did the rest of the Owls. We've been watching the practiced poker face of every lawyer in town for a notably unspecified number of years, and we could tell, even if the Jury couldn't. This had caught Vega off guard.
Swire was enjoying the moment. "But if you had been charged; the charge would have been assaulting a junkie; with whom you had a common dealer. Sound familiar?"
Vega finally recovered. "Objection! There was no charge made. The word of the San Francisco PD should be enough for this court."
Judge Hall sustained the objection, but the damage was done. Amy Williams was unraveling, getting more and more worked up. Swire was right, her story was thin; and getting thinner every time she had to search for a word or stuttered a response. She'd already testified that the effect of 'Talent' didn't mess with her memory.
"So why can't you remember?" Swire drilled into her.
Amy bared her teeth, getting worked up. "Well... this was something different!"
"How convenient." Swire nodded.
"It was different!" Amy insisted, an explosion gathering somewhere under all that despair. "It was always different!"
Vega jumped in. It wasn't his turn, but he was giving his key witness a push before Swire could object. "Why was it different, Amy?"
And Amy Williams erupted into the most impassioned speech anyone had ever heard. The fact that Vega pushed her into speaking out of turn made me believe that he'd seen this kind of fire from her before; and he wanted the Jury to hear it too.
"Because it was REAL!" Amy screamed.
Everything. Stopped.
"It was real!" Amy yelled again, with all the fury of a zealot as she poured her heart out all over the place. "It was... you turn on the Television, and you see these people sing like superstars; you go to a show and watch these people dance like their bodies ain't even human. You go to a basketball game and you watch them just fly through the air... You watch a music video and they just make the hardest instruments sing without so much as looking at them... The Gifted People. The Special Ones. We've all had them in our lives. The smartest kid in class that the teacher dotes on; the guy at the party who can come up with a million clever things to say... The ones that people just flock to! Those people are just so incredible; and you know it must have been practiced and practiced and practiced over and over and over again; but they make it look so effortless; so easy, like a bird that already knows how to fly. They make it look so easy, and then... they do interviews and they say 'Remember kids, you can do it too! All you gotta do is stay in school and say no to drugs!' Well you know what? I stayed in school. And I didn't even start drinkin' until I was twenty three. And it just happened over and over and over again. Every job I applied for; every hobby I tried my hand at, every guy I liked the look of... There was always someone else that just had that little bit of... magic. And they all knew it. Those lucky people that had some brilliant gift that made the world idolize them; and the rest of us just get left behind! Well they lied! Alright? Those smug; wonderful gifted people lied! You can't just do anything you set your mind to; because it's not that easy for the rest of us! Supermodels get to say you only have to be beautiful on the inside! Billionaires can say that money isn't everything... I wanted to be good at something. I never wanted to be famous; I never wanted to be powerful... I just wanted to be one of those people who can say 'I have a talent!' I just wanted to be special!"
There was dead silence in the court. For a long moment, the sound of Amy's low sobbing breath was the only thing audible in that courtroom. Swire was standing in front of the Witness Box, gaping like the rest of us, suddenly aware of how much the Jury wanted to give the junkie a hug. I think the explosion took her by such surprise that she only then realized she could have objected.
"I would pay anything for that." Amy said finally, exhausted. "And instead... I got used to commit murder."
Dead silence.
Swire, realizing that she had bit off way more than she could chew, sat down, with no further questions; and the Judge adjourned for lunch. But it would be over two days before Court Reconvened, and that was when the circus really began.
Everyone thinks that the tide started to turn with the next witness, but I was there, and I can tell you; the tide turned right then.
It was The Confession. I'd seen a hundred of them in my career as a professional Courtroom Owl. A lawyer puts the screws to a suspect, and he finally breaks, pouring out his reasons with some impassioned variation on 'Sure, I did it; and I'm glad! Glad, I tells ya!'
What Amy Williams dished out was something else entirely. She got the whole Jury on her side in one minute of screaming at the wind. As post-trial events have proven; everyone wants what she wanted.
Everyone wants to be special.

***

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