Chapter 5: The Adversarial System

As we made our way down the hill, into the cemetery proper, I noticed groups of the undead stopping and kneeling by graves. A number of them carried flowers, mementos, or bottles of alcohol. Jenny frowned, looking among them. “What are they doing?” she asked, curious.

“Leaving mementos for their loved ones. You tend to have a lot of friends in graveyards when you have been Undead for more than a couple of decades.” Fang Fen sighed softly, and shook her head. “I don’t visit here as often as I should, and I never bring something with me. I have a few friends languishing in these graves.” She ran a finger across one of the marble markers, staring at the second date. “If only they could have risen like me.”

“I always thought the Undead were kind of predatory. I thought you’d not want the competition for food,” Polly said.

“Oh, there is that concern. If everyone rose as undead, they would outnumber the living. A supernatural Malthusian crisis. A Methuselahian crisis, if you will.” Fang Fen smiled. “Death is natural, and comes to everyone, even the immortal, in time. Everything has an end. But we would not still be human if we did not desire a reprieve for those we love from the law, even those of nature.” She stopped in front of a gravestone, just for a moment, and gave a brief bow. I tried to read the monument, but it was old and well-worn. In the darkness, I couldn’t make out what was written on the gray headstone, but I felt compelled to think some good thoughts towards whoever was listening. I hadn’t been religious ever, really, raised by lapsed Catholics. I’d been baptized, but I wasn’t a faith kind of person. Maybe God would be inclined to help out these folks, though.

Jenny looked down at the graveyard. “Tony’s grandparents lived in this town, and they were buried here. His mother and father, too.” She crossed her arms, lowering her head, a sick expression on her face. “He had a cousin in Baltimore. That was about it. They’ll never know what happened to him, because he’s just going to disappear, isn’t he?”

“Maybe,” I said, my voice soft. “It’s your right to decide whether to tell him or not. I’m going to make sure you live long enough to make that choice.”

Jenny bit her lip. “I read some of your case files. They were interesting.” She rubbed her hands together. “I read what you said about ghosts. Do you think Tony’s… gone? Forever?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “But there are some cases where ghosts are sustained even if they don’t have any blood relations. Uh, you and Tony were… intimate, yeah?” Jenny nodded, face reddening. “Then in a way, part of him is still mixed up with you. I’ve heard that phantasms can survive on just that loose a connection with someone, so he may still be around.” This seemed to put some steel in her spine, and she stood up a bit straight.

“So, uh, I hate to be the uneducated outsider, here,” Polly said.

“But why play against type?” Fang Fen asked with a smile. She’d changed into an elegant black gown while I’d showered. It hung down to her ankles, but didn’t attract any dirt, and revealed an amount of cleavage that was scandalous today, and likely violated obscenity laws when she was alive. She wasn’t wearing a bra, I noted with a hint of annoyance. I knew that if I tried something like that, it would be a grotesque, painful misadventure. Another one of the perks of not being human. I then noticed the glare Polly was giving Fang Fen, and patted her on the shoulder. She sighed, and continued.

“Weeeell, as I was going to ask before a certain someone opened their mouths, how exactly does this jury selection go down?”

“It’s… Well, overall, it’s a pretty simple system,” I admitted. “Simple to understand, anyway. The trick is in manipulating it. See, the undead are all about seniority, in everything they do. The older something is, the longer it’s endured, the more right it’s gotta be. Bunch of hard-nosed conservatives.”

“Hey,” Fang Fen said, her nose wrinkling. “Don’t say that like it’s a bad thing. Stability’s important.”

“Whatever you say, Fang. Now this shows itself in the court system. When someone calls the Night Court, any undead present can put themselves forward to be placed on the jury. The thing is, once you’ve done so, you can’t withdraw, regardless of the results. The twelve oldest are the jurors. If you’re a juror, then you decide the case. It’s a coveted position, because anyone can sway a juror however they like. Bribes are a favorite. A good, juicy argument can get the blood flowing and persuade even the most staid corpse. They tend to be fond of great, fiery oratory. I’ve won a few cases just with some good speeches. And of course, whatever decision they make can be used as precedent for future cases. The older the precedent, the stronger it is, the less people want to break it.”

Jenny tilted her head. “What are the precedents related to vampires in these cases?”

I coughed. “Not great. Lady Ann Willing’s husband was killed by a wastrel- That is, a makerless vampire- in the 1800s. She tried the wastrel in front of the Night Court, and strangled him to death for his crimes.”

Jenny’s raised an eyebrow. “Do I… still need to breathe?”

“No. Lady Ann Willing was extraordinarily upset. She took his head clean off.”

Jenny’s eyes widened, and she turned to Fang Fen. “She’s joking, isn’t she?”

“I am afraid not.” The Jiang-shi sighed, stretching her shoulders, a symphony of pops and cracks rising from them. “The case law is not in your favor. We shall simply have to do the best that we can with what we have.”

“Next up is the judge, a position going to the thirteenth-oldest volunteer. It’s not actually a very desirable position, for several reasons, not least that their vote isn’t counted except in the case of a tie. They are duty-bound to prevent interference from outside of the trial, and to prevent violence between the attorneys.” I smiled. “Not many undead are interested in acting as referee, which is why they’re not allowed to withdraw once they’ve submitted themselves for jury duty. The stick, to go along with the carrot, ensuring that only those who take the trial seriously will take part. It also ensures that, if the case is of any importance at all, only the most powerful undead will be able to participate.”

“I’m still not quite clear… Why do older undead get more powerful?” Jenny asked, frowning.

“Why is kind of a difficult question,” I looked over at Fang Fen.

“I suspect it is a simple accumulation of power. Blood, chi, breath, body heat, all of these things are magical. The longer one of us lives, the more we feed. The more we feed, the more strength we take in, adding it to our own. Age makes many things more powerful or more valuable. Why should we be any different?” She shrugged. “Many consider it a matter of philosophy; Some wizards are intrigued with researching it, but I have yet to hear much in the way of an explanation from them. Suffice it to say that it is an almost universal trait. One which vampires… subvert.”

Jenny nodded softly, looking down. “That’s why they want to execute me.”

“Yes,” Fang Fen said softly.

“The last position is the prosecutor, at least in a criminal case. The judge gets the final decision on the prosecutor, although they’re usually fairly flexible and bow to the desires of the jury, for obvious reasons. Whoever gets the job as prosecutor is bound by honor to make the case with all the tools they have available to them. How much being bound by honor matters to them is one of the things the judge usually considers when choosing a prosecutor. Oftentimes, you’ll find someone who has a grudge against the defendant or the defense being put into the position.” I shook my head, frowning. “I personally think that makes for a poorly thought-out legal strategy, but they believe in the adversarial process.”

“Sadly, many are susceptible to bribes or other such offers. Many juries will argue for a prosecutor who can be bribed or otherwise influenced,” said Fang Fen.

Jenny frowned. “Is there any limit on who can become prosecutor?”

“Well, only those who have applied for the position on the jury. Very few young Undead are eager to apply for jury duty, because they are the ones who often wind up bearing the brunt of the most difficult and tedious positions in the court. Rather a shame, really.” Fang Fen sighed. “Conservatism is not all upside.”

We approached a large cluster of individuals. There were perhaps twenty people in the party, and my eyes scanned over them quickly for faces I recognized. I spotted Arthur, and the strange Hispanic woman from my office. The woman had removed her robes, and now stood in bandages. Wrapped around her from her throat down to her ankles, out across her arms to her wrists, they were fresh and showed no sign of yellowing. A mummy. That was odd- she must have been of a recent vintage to be wrapped in white surgical gauze like that. Then my eyes turned to Lady Ann Willing.

I have to be blunt: I think Lady Ann Willing is a pretty impressive figure. She was the daughter of a wealthy banker, and the wife of the founder of Binghamton, a great man in his own right. I’d heard that she was used as the symbol for Lady Liberty on certain coins, and that she was considered one of the most beautiful women of her time. Tastes may have changed, but the process of becoming undead had only improved her beauty.

Wights, not to put too fine a point on it, only arise from nobility. There weren’t even supposed to be American wights. It was considered metaphysically impossible by most wizards. But Lady Ann Willing sat, with absolute grace, her back straight, her posture perfect. Her skin was white as bone china, her hair the color of burnished silver, in her traditional bun. Her cheeks were rouged, and her lips painted bright, bloody red. On a lesser woman, the effect would have been spoiled by the great, jagged talons growing from her nails. But the Lady Ann Willing Bingham had cleaned them, polished them, and painted them a delicate blue, and they looked very fetching. She was not a lesser woman.

I want to be very clear that I am not sexually attracted to the Lady Ann Willing, or at least not any more than is perfectly natural. I simply appreciate the fact that she is a supernaturally attractive woman, everything I desperately wish that I could be, and everything that I never will be. Instead of becoming jealous and resentful, I simply choose to admire her, and what I’ve said to Fang Fen on nights when I’ve drunk too much does not change that.

“Ah, Miss LeRoux.” The Lady Ann inclined her head ever so slightly towards me. “I feared that you might take this case.”

I gave a slight smile. “Feared, your ladyship?” My heart was pounding, and I was sure every one of those supernatural bastards in her retinue could hear it.

“Oh, yes. I can’t think of another individual in my city who would have the courage to take this case, and the intelligence to make my life hell with it.”

“You flatter me, lady.”

“No, I’m afraid I don’t. Flattery is the giving of false compliments, meant to extract a favor in return. This is an attempt to soften the blow. I am afraid that you must lose this case, and lose it utterly. I fear that what I need to happen may shatter your reputation among the Undead in this city, and that is a shame, because you have always been a wise and thoughtful mortal.” She leaned back in her chair. “I want you to know that I don’t do this out of a personal spite for you, and that I actually respect you greatly. I can only hope that softens the blow somewhat for you.” I shrugged. “Well, I suppose that will have to do. And this must be Jenny.” She beckoned for the young Japanese woman to approach, and she did, her eyes wide.

“I’m… sorry, for what has happened, ma’am.”

Lady Ann didn’t even frown at the incorrect address. She simply reached up, resting a hand very gently on Jenny’s chin, turning her head this way and that. Jenny stayed very still, allowing herself to be manipulated, the long talons pressing delicately into her skin. After a long few seconds of study, Lady Ann sighed. “Yes. I too am very sorry. You did not intentionally enter into this state. It is a shame when we must execute those who did not realize what they were doing. Death…” She stared into space. “Death is a poor teacher.”

“You could grant clemency,” I offered, an eyebrow raised. “Take her into your household, keep her under your thumb-”

“Hnh.” Lady Ann Willing smiled, and turned towards the woman sitting at her side. I hadn’t noticed her at first. “What do you think of that, Chaac? If one of your offspring, or one of Hun-Came’s were to be in my house, and awoke to their true power, do you think I could stand a chance against them?”

Chaac was a woman. A tall woman, I could tell, even sitting down. Her features were vaguely Latino, although closer to Native American. She sat with her head slightly bowed. She did not wear the out-of-touch ancient clothing that one would expect an ancient vampire to favor. Instead, she wore a simple pair of jeans, and a button-down blouse. Her hair was black and straight, hanging down across her shoulders, feathered. It was an attractive look for her. Her pupils were dark, and she met my gaze. My back stiffened involuntarily, as a little thrill of terror ran down my spine. “You would not,” she murmured softly. “We both know this, Lady Ann. Thus, it would require trust.” She sighed softly. “There is so little trust in this place.”

“Lady Ann Willing, Fang Fen, Atina.” Edwin Link strode up, bluff and confident, his back straight, his eyes running across the assemblage. “Ah, and this must be the young Oriental girl.” He frowned. “Or is it Japanese? Or Nipponese? Damn, I can’t keep up with language. Whichever will give least offense and greatest praise, I think.” He held a hand out to Jenny. She took it, and then looked very embarrassed as their hands passed through one another. Edwin didn’t appear to notice, turning to face Lady Ann. “Once again, Lady Ann, I hope you understand how odd I find this whole thing. This city was built to be a place for all. When we begin to make exceptions, those exceptions snowball.”

Edwin Albert Link was not a big man. He didn’t need to be. His head was balding, and he wore a pair of glasses. His entire figure was faintly transparent, but it was no surprise that Jenny had not noticed in the dark. He looked almost exactly as he had in life, a hard-nosed man who had taught himself to fly and then done the same for the world. Hundreds of thousands had used his aviation simulators to learn how to fly in World War 2. This was a man whose son had died in a submersible accident, and who had responded by inventing an unmanned rescue device that could have saved him, and had saved quite a few other men’s sons.

I may have had a slight crush on Edwin Albert Link.

“You know why we can’t, Mister Link,” the Lady Ann Willing said.

“Yes, yes. Power in the hands of those who haven’t earned it. Paying your dues.” He stared off at the ghostly Cessna sitting down in its clear space. “I still remember that flight instructor telling me the very same thing. You had to learn by watching before anyone’d let you learn by doing. Hrn.”

“There is a difference. An accident with a single-engined plane kills you, Mister Link. An accident with a vampire kills this city.”

“Wait till we’ve decided the jury before you try to persuade me, Lady Ann Willing. And if you’re on that jury too, I certainly hope you aren’t going to be trying to strong-arm me.” He gave her a wide grin, showing off a set of pearly white teeth. “Lot of men tried that on me over the course of my career. Can’t think of one of them who didn’t wind up regretting it.”

Then he turned towards me. “And you’re the defense attorney, eh? Ever done any patent work, girl?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. Not a job for decent folk.” He grunted again. “You going to make a good argument on this?”

“I’m going to knock your fucking socks off, sir. With all respect.”

He laughed. “That’s what I like to hear! Good to hear a lawyer with some fire in their belly! Beats the hell out of most of the saps I worked with. That’s why I like working with young people, they still think they can do everything.”

“And you find that a plus?” asked a soft voice from further up the hill. A man approached, and Jenny shuddered. I was very glad Albert was not there. Dean Morton, Head of Applied Postmortology, had not been an attractive man before he’d developed Leukemia. What he had been was a terrifyingly powerful wizard. Around stage 4, he had completed a spell, made with the aid of a pact with the Lady Ann Willing, to become a Lich. He had saved his mind, if not his life or his appearance. He had no hair, eyebrows, or anything else. His sharp blue eyes were overlarge and protruded from a pinched, shrunken face. His hands were like sticks, the bone clearly visible in a body that looked as though every spare ounce of fat and muscle had been extracted. I was grateful for the tweed outfit he wore. “The folly of youth is in believing they have something valuable to contribute to the world besides healthy bodies for labor.”

I not only didn’t have a crush on Dean Morton, I loathed the man. But he would almost certainly be on the jury, like the vulture that he was, seeking a chance to extend his hold over some other part of Binghamton. That was a good thing. He’d be the man to approach if I were going to resort to bribes. He’d know who would want to wet their beak, and how.

“Aaah, Academics.” Link grinned. “You’re a goddamn shame to the concept of science, old man. How’re you holding up, huh?” he clapped the man on the shoulder, his hand passing directly through Dean Morton’s back, and out through his chest. The Lich shivered.

“The same as usual. I presume we’re deciding what the outcome of the trial will be?”

“We are most certainly not,” said Lady Ann Willing, a delicate brow arched. “Everyone knows what my preference is, but I am not a dictator, and this is a free county. If Miss LeRoux is able to make a strong argument, I will listen to it.”

“Oooh, Miss LeRoux!” The dean’s face turned ingratiating, a sickly smile showing through cracked lips. “I’d heard rumors that you would be the defense, but this is such lovely news! You always have the best contacts. Tell me, have you made any progress in being admitted into one of the local Demon courts? I would so love to get a chance to sit in on one of their trials. The Harbingers in the Department of Infernal Affairs are always so secretive about their work. Why, you’d think they’d sold their souls!”

“Not yet. I haven’t found much call for it, yet. Perhaps the demons of the world have enough lawyers as it is,” I suggested. I had personally tried to avoid any demon clients.

Let’s be frank, if you’re a lawyer, getting tangled up with demons has never worked out. At best you get away with your soul.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll be able to find some juicy bit of information with which to tempt me! You are a talented young lady, Atina.” He licked his lips and winked in a way that he may have thought was charming and roguish, but which reminded me of the last time I’d seen my grandfather, when the dementia had nearly destroyed his mind. I shuddered, and pulled my coat a bit tighter. “Aaah, yes, it must be a rather chilly night. Lady Ann Willing, when on earth are we going to begin the jury selection?”

“Yeah, I’m getting a little antsy here.” The man had a New Jersey accent. My eyes flickered to him. His hair was slicked back with hair gel, and he wore a fancy looking suit that looked both expensive and poorly tailored. The man had big, yellow-irised eyes, and the suit looked about two sizes too big for him, making him look as though he were about to be lost in it. Those eyes were the same as the man who had attacked me, but that was hardly proof. Many supernatural creatures had yellow eyes. “I appreciate your ladyship’s polite fuckin hospitality of keeping an eye on me and my associates at all times, but we’d like to know what’s goin’ on with this trial.”

He gave Jenny a grin, and stepped forward, prompting a tightening in the fists of every other Undead. “Hey, Donald Rossi, but you can call me Donny. If you make it through this, doll, the Notte Nostra’s always an open place for a vampire without a place to call home.” He pointed towards the other two with him. One was a young, nervous looking man wearing a rosary around his throat. The other was a woman of obvious class. Pale skin, and dark eyes, she reminded me of nothing so much as Morticia Addams, before she’d had three kids. He took out a small business card, and placed it in Jenny’s hand.

Jenny stared at it for a moment, and then coldly tore it in half. “I have little interest in your company, Mister Rossi.” The man’s eyes tightened, and his lips drew back, revealing sharp teeth. He looked about to jump at her, but then looked around. A smile replaced the rage with well-practiced ease.

“Hey, hey. I understand. Don’t want to have close connections to us. I just hope that you remember, on this day when almost everyone around you is thinking about how to kill you because of what you were, how important family is.” He gave a quick flash of his teeth. “Metaphorically speaking.”

“I think that is sufficient,” Lady Ann Willing said, resting a hand on the man’s shoulder. He turned, and her eyes were as cold and silver as her hair. “I have been a proper hostess, Strix. But if you violate the bonds of hospitality- and you come dangerously close to that- I will rip your jaw off.” He blanched, and swallowed.

“Begging your fucking pardon, ma’am,” he growled, and stepped back towards the others, shooting her a murderous look when he thought she wasn’t looking. Once again, the Lady Ann Willing showed no sign of noticing the slight as she took her seat again. She simply crossed one elegant leg over the other, settling her taloned fingers in her lap, and tapping them rhythmically.

A very old spirit slowly rose from the ground. The first judge there’d ever been in Binghamton proper, nobody remembered his name. He’d been just another laborer who’d been selected by his fellows to preside over a trial, and had never really stopped. He was old, maybe older than Lady Ann, though he never did much of anything besides this. His eyes opened. “The Night Court is now in session. What business is there to be had?”

Normally, there would be half a dozen contracts, minor complaints, and other example of the grinding wheels of justice brought up in front of the old spirit. But everybody was waiting, this month. This jury would be powerful, and opinionated, and expensive. Everyone knew that this was not the time to try to settle a dispute over property rights or complain about infringements over territory. So instead, Lady Ann Willing stepped down the path, immaculate heels managing to click on dirt as she walked up to the spirit. “I accuse Jenny Nishi of Gluttony, and of being a wastrel. The penalty for her crimes is death. A painless staking, and execution by dawn.”

The spirit nodded slowly. “Jenny Nishi. Have you retained council?”

Jenny looked towards me nervously. I nodded, and stood up. “Yes. I will act as her defense, and she pleads not guilty to all charges.” There wasn’t going to be a plea bargain or anything like that. The undead didn’t go in for half measures, and it wasn’t as though you could half-execute someone.

“Very well. If there are no other cases, then jury selection may begin. All who are willing to be among the jury, please, raise your hands and declare your age.”

Lady Ann Willing held her hand up. “I was born in the year of our Lord, Seventeen Sixty Four, on the first of August.” Several more held up their hands, and I leaned in towards Jenny as others stood up. She, Fang Fen, Polly, and I, stood in a small group. All three leaned in to listen.

“Lady Ann Willing is going to be the one who’s the head of the faction who wants you executed. That’s a good thing, and a bad thing. As long as she believes she can win, she’ll be hard. But if she really does believe this could cause a split in the jury, and divide them against her, then you’ve got a chance. She’s not going to impose her own beliefs in the face of the desires of the public. I don’t think so, anyway.”

Fang Fen frowned. “I don’t know, Atina. She hates vampires. And the presence of the Camazotz and the Notte Nostra are going to make her angry, and frightened, even if she doesn’t show it. She is going to fight hard on this one.”

“Well, regardless, she’s our lowest priority, because she won’t change her mind unless she has no other choice.”

“I am Dean Morton. I was born in the year eighteen hundred and ninety-three, on the twelfth of December.” The dean sat, his expression slimy and unpleasant, looking pleased with himself.

“The Dean’s going to want something. He’ll act as middleman, and a magnet for everyone who’s in this for their own gain. He’s a great believer in the power of advantage.” Fang Fen smiled. “His price will be heavy, and likely measured in favors to be held over your head. Control that he wishes to have over you in the future, both of you. If you survive, Jenny, you may prove a powerful ally to him. And I’m sure that he wouldn’t mind having his hooks in you, Atina.”

I sighed. “I don’t think we’ll get much choice in the matter. If it means his vote, then I’ll have to owe him a favor.” I shuddered. “Maybe more than one. That’s going to be tricky to time. If we make a deal when things look good for us, it’ll hurt less than if we desperately need him on our side to sway the court.”

“What is to keep him from changing his price if we gain favorable terms?” Jenny asked, frowning.

“Ah.” Fang Fen smiled. “The undead take contracts very, very seriously. Think about it, they live forever, and they have very good memories. Betraying a contract is not generally considered a very wise move, if only because no one trusts an oathbreaker. I know Undead hundreds of years old who still haven’t overcome the stigma of a broken deal made in their youth.”

Jenny frowned. “I’ve gotten the impression that you’re considered unusually honorable. Why would that matter if Undead don’t break contracts?”

Fang Fen sighed. “There is a difference between honor and legalism. One honors the spirit of the deal, the other the word. I might conceivably break a contract if it meant doing the right thing for the one I made the contract with, though I would never break it for selfish reasons.”

“She’s popular because of that. No tricks, no attempts to cheat those she’s contracted with.” I frowned at the crowd as Edwin stepped forward.

“Name’s Edwin Albert Link. I was born July 26th, 1904.” The phantasm stood nonchalantly, arms crossed.

“Edwin might be our best ally. He’ll need to give us good reason to believe that you’re not guilty of the murder, but on the count of being a wastrel, we can expect some leniency from him. He’s not a traditionalist.” I tapped my chin. “But we are going to have to figure out a way to convince him that you’re not the one who killed Tony, or failing that, that you weren’t responsible for his death. He’s likely to go our way the most easily. We’ll talk with him first, and try to build up some momentum. Looks like they’re almost done calling names-”

Someone stepped forward into the circle. Chaac stood, her eyes slowly turning around the group. “I am Chaac. I was born in the year, 7 Kimi, 14 kumk’u. In your calendar, July 16th 1496.” She looked Lady Ann Willing in the eye. “My mistress does not deign to get involved with your politics, or your feelings about my kind. But if you will allow it, I will have my voice heard on this matter. If Jenny can live, I wish to see her live. If she does not, then I will ask the gods to watch over her soul as she moves on.” Lady Ann Willing held that gaze for a very long time, tension filling the air. Then she inclined her head very slightly.

“That is your right,” Lady Ann Willing said, tense. “Is there anyone else who wishes to put their name forward?”

Fang Fen stood. ” I am Li Fang Fen. I was born October 5th, 1904. I will volunteer.” I did a little quick math, and a smile crossed my lips. Fang Fen had timed it perfectly. She was the thirteenth oldest volunteer, with Chaac putting her name forward. She’d be the judge. It wouldn’t be a guarantee of victory, but if anyone could keep the city together and make sure I didn’t get murdered by the opposing counsel, it was-

“I think I’ll volunteer too.”

The entire crowd turned. Morticia Adams had stood up, a smile on her face, and she was slowly striding down the path, with an expression of satisfaction on her face. “And your birth date?” asked Lady Ann Willing, her voice strained, her teeth gritted, her talons pressing against her palms.

“Why, as it happens, I was born in 1904, too. September 21st. Sofia Marzetti.” She smiled pleasantly. “Is there anyone else who wants to volunteer?” She looked around the crowd. Silence reigned. “Well, my-my. I suppose that makes me judge.” She gave Lady Ann Willing and Chaac a poisonously sweet look. “Unless vampires are only allowed to be a part of this proceeding if they’re powerful enough to kill you, Lady Ann?”

“Your age is sufficient,” Lady Ann hissed. “Do you have a preference for the prosecutor? I can recommend-”

“Li Fang Fen,” said Sofia, a sharp smile on her lips.

“I… cannot accept that,” Fang Fen said, her eyes narrowed, her fists tightened into balls. “I would not be a suitable candidate for prosecutor-”

“Oh, come now,” said Sofia lightly, smiling. “I’ve heard all about your honor, Fang Fen. You turned in your own partner when you found he was working with organized crime. You’re as honorable as they come. And I’ve chosen you. That’s my right as judge. Isn’t it, Willing?”

“It is,” whispered Lady Ann, in a murmur that carried across the entirety of the deathly silent court.

“So, what do you say? Are you going to play ball, Fang Fen? I could assign my buddy Donny there to Prosecutor. He could make a hash out of things, and make it so every person in this goddamn court wants to vote to acquit that girl out of sheer bloody-mindedness. But then, what do we get? Everyone says the Notte Nostra’s up to their old tricks. They say that bunch of bloodsuckers can’t be trusted. They say that the girl got away with it by cheating the system. Maybe she winds up staying out too late one night, all that’s left of her is a suicide note in someone else’s handwriting and a bunch of ashes. That wouldn’t suit our purposes. We want to show that we’re innocent, don’t we? That we don’t deserve this shitty treatment.” She turned towards the entire court, doing a slow spin. “So I want the best, the most honorable goddamn person in this town as prosecutor! So when she says that she doesn’t think Jenny here deserves to die…” Sofia smirked. “Maybe it’ll mean something.”

“Why is she doing this?” Polly asked, very softly, leaning towards me, frowning.

“I don’t know. Maybe she wants Jenny to live, and is rigging the prosecution in the hopes that Fang Fen is going to be biased towards me. If she is, she’s badly misplayed her hand.” I frowned. “Fang Fen is merciless in the prosecutorial position. She won’t accept anything less than an absolute victory, and she’s willing to fight for it. She knows what our plan is, and what our hopes are. She’s going to be trying to find the truth too, but unless we can prove to her beyond a doubt that Jenny’s not guilty, she’s going to fight for this. Hard.”

Jenny’s cheeks paled even further. “She… she would do that?” she asked softly. “But she was just helping me, and you. She said everything would be alright.”

“Yeah,” I whispered softly, staring at Fang Fen there, her hands curled into fists. I knew her. Arthur’s warning might have been just speculation, but now it had become true. Fang Fen would never accept a hung jury, a small majority. If it came down to half and half, and the vampire judge deciding the case- Fang Fen would do anything to prevent that.

“If there are no further entries, then we are ready. In fourteen days hence, the Night Court shall meet on the three days of the Full Moon. On the first day you will present opening remarks and evidence. On the second day, you will present your arguments and your closing remarks. On the third day, the accused will be sentenced, and found guilty, or not guilty.” The ghostly judge bowed his head. “May you find wisdom in your hearts.” And then, he was gone, like a puff of air on the wind.

Polly, Jenny and I sat at the ice cream store just opposite the graveyard. I was nursing a milkshake. Polly had chosen mint, and had proudly started to explain that it was because it was green before I’d shushed her. Jenny was sitting with her hands between her legs. She hadn’t been hungry. We waited for Alfred to arrive with his Honda.

“So. How fucked are we that she knows what questions we’re going to ask?”

“Not all that badly, honestly. She already would have known that. It’s who she is, not what she knows, that’s dangerous.” I closed my eyes, and rubbed my forehead.

When you make friends with other lawyers, you always know that this day might come. The thing about opposing counsel. I’d never really expected it would happen with Fang Fen. The two of us had been close friends, she owed me her life, and she was too old to be easily manipulated, most of the time. But the Notte Nostra had chosen Sofia specifically, for her age. There was no doubt in my mind about that. They’d positioned it perfectly. But it was so obvious, to try to free the girl by cheating the system. How could they have been so stupid?

Of course, they’d played the undead court system perfectly. Waiting until a moment of maximum impact to give them power as the judge. That loudmouth Donny had been acting like the leader of the group for days, while the far older Sofia had been preparing herself to take advantage of the jury selection process. It was a dangerous undead who could swallow their pride.

No, there was still something that wasn’t clear about this case. And I needed to find it out. And there was something else I needed to do, too. Polly had told me that things ended so new things could begin. I stood up suddenly. “Where are you going?” Polly asked with a frown.

“Just going to pick up some fast food. You, Jenny, and Albert wait at the house. I’ll see you in an hour or so.” I gave her a smile.

Shark Belly’s glowed in the night like a neon cathedral to the weary traveler in need of succor. I pushed open the door, and Roy looked up from a magazine. A happy smile spread across his face at the sight of me. “Miss LeRoux-”

“Tuesday night. You and I are going on a date. I’ll come to your place, and we’ll have dinner together.”

His eyes widened. “Reall-”

“This isn’t me saying I’m going to start having sex with you. This isn’t a promise, or an obligation. This is me saying that you deserve a chance, at least. Maybe, at the end of the night, I’ll decide that we don’t get along, and I’ll break it off right there. And I need you to promise me you’ll accept that. No weirdness, okay? I hate someone who can’t take a hint.”

“I understand, Miss LeRoux.” He smiled, and it was a very soft and warm smile. “I didn’t ever much s’spect you’d even be interested.”

I took a deep breath, and rested my hands on the counter. “I’ll see you Tuesday, 8 PM.” He wrote his address down for me, beaming and blushing at the same time, and I took the card. “And it doesn’t have to be anything fancy.”

He nodded slowly. “You’ve had a bad night, haven’t you, Miss LeRoux?”

“Yeah,” I whispered softly. “Pretty bad.”

“World’s got a way of working out, Miss LeRoux. I know you take on a lot of bull when you’re workin’. Taking on a lot of other people’s bad karma and bailing ’em out of their mistakes.” He smiled. “It’d be my honor to make a bit of home cooking for you.”

I felt my shoulders sag with relief. “Thanks. I’ll see you then.” I turned sharply.

“Oh, and Miss Atina! I made this for you. Something for the road.” I turned, and he placed the sandwich bag in my hands. I gave him a weak smile, and walked home through the night, taking a roundabout route. This time, I wasn’t attacked. The sandwich was cooked just right, the bun toasted on the inside, the beef sweet and tender. And for the first time in quite a while, I had no regrets about the choice I’d made.

One thought on “Chapter 5: The Adversarial System

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