Warning: Contains mild language; allusions to violence; spousal abuse
Lady Justice towered over the courtroom steps. Her slick white marble shined against the drab gray of the building that was all but swallowed by the overcast sky. The Lady’s tendons stood taught and proud, muscles tensed, shoulders bared. The scales were held out ahead of her, resolute and precise. She wielded a sword by her side, the tip barely resting on the ground, always at the ready. A blindfold covered her eyes. I basked in that for a moment. Under Justice, all stood equal.
The blinding flash of a camera brought me back to reality. I folded in with my legal crew and tried to shelter Martha, my client, from the small ocean of press who were pushing in. No doubt her almost ex-husband, Governor Ripley, had already bathed in the press's spotlight like a snake in the sun, leaving this poor blind woman to hurry through the chaos behind him, ushered by hands she could only hope belonged to her team.
“Can you really call yourself a mother when you’re dragging your own daughter into this?”
“Mrs. Ripley! Some are saying you splashed acid into your own eyes to get a larger divorce settlement! Is it true?”
“Have you always preyed on men?”
“Mrs. Ripley, do you have any words for other women who are struggling for justice against men of power?”. I’d have to remember that reporter. A phoenix in a flock of vultures. That was not a popular opinion to have at the moment.
I squirmed through the outer shield of my teammates, and placed a hand solidly on Martha’s back, between her shoulder blades. I wasn’t the lead prosecutor of this team, but as the witness coach, I thought of Martha and her daughter, Samantha, as my clients.
I had taught Martha some physical cues to help with the anxiety peaked by her newly inflicted blindness. Martha visibly relaxed as she focused on my touch and shut out the chaotic chatter. Just like we had practiced.
Keeping my hand on her back, I twisted around to glimpse Justice one more time. The dew of the morning tracked some dirt off the folds of marble in lady justice’s blindfold and drew it down the curve of her cheeks. From this angle, it looked like she was crying. A push of the crowd almost bowled me over, and I snapped my attention back ahead of us. As we pushed our way towards the dark, open maw of the courthouse, I could feel Justice’s presence fall behind us. Security stood with outstretched arms ushering us out of the storm. As Martha was pulled away from my touch, my hand nervously took to fiddling with the new bracelet on my left wrist. Its uncomfortable rigidity made it more of a temptation to fidget with. The very type of mannerism I coached my client’s against. It made them look nervous at best, and guilty at the worst.
As we stepped into the cool, echoing halls of the courtroom, the scuffle of shoes on rugs and the straightening of ties and suit jackets brought us all out of the madness and back to the silent decorum of the court. Our team’s almost ceremonial preening was cut short as a tall, well built man waved at us from the other side of the lobby. Governor Ripley. The man and monster of the hour. The Governor was accompanied by his own legal team, who were moving into the courtroom to take their roost. But he found time to give a grand smile which thankfully his soon-to-be-ex-wife was unaware of. A look of sad worry dramatically knitted his brow as he caught sight of her. It was almost believable, except for that one moment where his eyes flickered over to mine, and the corners of them wrinkled in a wicked smirk.
As my stomach roiled, I quickly averted my eyes, and pretended to adjust my earrings. The diamonds of my bracelet glinted under the fluorescent lights of the grand receiving hall. I could feel Governor Ripley’s stare hold for a moment longer. No doubt he recognized the accessory. It was the capstone of our deal. Monetary payment was always a requirement of course, as the two million dollars in an offshore bank account paid by the state-endorsed charity Speak Up could attest to. But I also required a trinket of my choosing from Stanford Jeweler's as final payment from my “counter clients”.
After all, I was a damn good lawyer, and after fifteen years of coaching clients and filing evidence, I knew a losing case when I saw one. Martha started to move her head around, as if searching for a sound or an explanation for the delay. I placed my hand on her back to calm her down. The prosecution's case was doomed from the start. The evidence was circumstantial, and she didn’t have the same sway over the press as her husband did. If this played out the way it was scripted, she wouldn’t see justice from inside the courts anymore than she would in the court of public opinion. Enough gold could tilt the scales of justice.
I knew that. Martha knew that. Governor Ripley knew that. And his smile said just as much as he and his team left the entrance hall and made their way into the courtroom.
I might as well find some justice of my own in these sad little moments that played out in these grand, cold halls. If not my own, that Judas gold would have lined a different pocket. Men like Governor Ripley were always looking for a crack in the system to exploit. And I had an anonymous bank account he could funnel that exploitation right into.
But my Justice had its just ends. Martha was now a benefactor of “Justice is Blind”. As a liaison between the charity and our legal practice, I could nominate those in need–defendants against powerful men, victims who didn’t get a fair shake, and the falsely imprisoned who needed an appeal. Justice is Blind allowed anyone to anonymously donate to any nominated benefactor of their choosing. Although Martha wasn’t winning good graces with the media, there were still people who saw through the spectacle of it. While these people wouldn’t go as far as to mail Mrs. Ripley a $5 check, they might click a few buttons and make a donation online. Martha would be eligible to receive these donations for the rest of her life.
Martha reached around, and took my hand into hers. I squeezed it reassuringly before heading off to go check for her daughter at the back door. Today was the day Samantha would take the stand. This was supposed to be our case’s saving grace. Martha’s testimony had been brilliant, but as she never “saw” Governor Ripley during the attack, it wasn’t a solid account. She had been cut down by the defense. Bit by bit. Between testimonies about the trauma of a divorce and the constant threats to the Governor’s family, there wasn’t much to stand on. But their daughter, Samantha, had glimpsed her daddy leaving the house after the attack. This was the last witness for the prosecution.
I found Samantha leaning against the wall by the back door, her expression far too sorrowful for an eleven year old. Sam didn’t deserve this. I could feel the bracelet pinching near the clasp. I pulled the damned thing up before placing my hands on her shoulders. “Sam, deep breaths”. We stood there, her choked breaths lengthening little by little. She eventually looked up and held my eyes while she tried to match the rhythm of my exhales. I narrowed my stare and tightened my grip, “No matter what happens, none of this is your fault. The only thing you can do, the only thing you should do is tell your truth. I’m proud of you. We all are sweetheart. It will be okay”.
A few hours later Sam was looking at me as she took the stand. I motioned for her to take deep breaths. Calm. Slow. Thought out. Just like we talked about.
Her testimony was heartbreaking. Hearing her mother’s horrified screams. Running down the stairs to see her dad wiping his hands and smirking before he left Martha on the floor, in a new world of pain and darkness. When the prosecution rested, the courtroom was dead silent. The power of Sam’s testimony was undeniable. But it was refutable.
The defense lawyer approached Sam gently at first. He asked a few confirming questions, and Samantha answered. Calmly. Thoughtfully. The whole courtroom seemed to fall into the cadence of the factual exchange. A cadence I knew. One that was leading to the two million dollar question.
“It was your dad you saw down by the door?”
“What was he wearing?”
“A blue shirt and some jeans”
“That must have been very hard for you”
“When you gave your testimony to the police, and to the lawyers, and to the court, you never doubted once that it was him that you saw? Never thought maybe it wasn’t my daddy? That maybe you got it wrong?”
Samantha’s mouth opened, ready to answer, but as the question filed into her head, she paused.
When I first started coaching Sam–getting her ready for the hearings, the official testimony, the court–it had been too much for her. In one of our first sessions she had burst out into tears and sobbed, “Maybe it wasn’t my daddy! Maybe I got it all wrong!” I let her cry. I held her. I told her it was okay. This was normal. A normal part of grief. Because she was, in a big way, losing her dad. This was the death of the man she new, and the birth of a monster she didn’t recognize. I told her then, as I would tell her many times “Just speak your truth”. And today, in this courtroom, her truth included that moment. And because of me, the defense knew it.
Sam’s wide eyes relayed the shock of that memory, “I did think that at first. That maybe it wasn’t him.”
The inhale from the jury was audible. The defense lawyer kept his composure like the professional he was. Governor Ripley raised a hand to his heart.
The rest of that case was one I had seen play out too many times. Tears, innocent verdicts for guilty men, headlines smothering praise upon their underdog.
When court was finally adjourned, we took Martha and Sam out of the back. The bulk of the flock of media vultures were perched out front, and Governor Ripley was almost too happy to feed them. He stood on the stone steps of the courthouse in front of its great statue, the hilt of Lady Justice’s sword peeking out from behind his back, and announced that he would not only be increasing the state’s charitable contributions budget but would personally be pledging a generous amount to support survivors of abuse through his charity of choice, Speak Up. His heartfelt address ended with a reminder: that his offer of $10,000 for any leads on his wife’s actual attacker still stood, as we all must stand, against violence.
While the Governor sang his sermon to the masses, Mrs. Ripley sat in the car next to her daughter, and told Sam how proud she was.
I walked Martha and Sam to the door of the condo they were living in. Sam hugged me tight. I tried not to get her hair caught in my jewelry as I cradled her head. I told Martha I would make monthly arrangements for any payments coming in from Justice is Blind.
On my way home I took a detour to main street and parked off the main drag. After a fifteen minute stroll, I discreetly ducked into Stanton Jeweler’s. Clarice Stanton caught sight of me from the back office and shooed off the sweet sales girl that had tried to greet me. I handed the owner my bracelet for a quick cleaning and pretended not to notice the piercing glare she was trying to bore through my face. Clarice returned a few minutes later, and handed over the bracelet–just as resplendent as ever–as well as a plain, unmarked envelope. I threw a wink at the shopkeep as she handed it over, and although Clarice chuckled she kept a hint of reprimand in her smile.
On the way back to the car, I stopped by a corner store for a cup of coffee. It was going to be a late night.
At 1AM I made a call to my current “couter client” bank. The first order of business was to have the bulk of the funds transferred to a few dozen splinter accounts and to stagger their scheduled deposit dates into Mrs. Ripley’s Justice is Blind fund. This way they wouldn’t be flagged as suspicious.
The second order of business was to get the transaction information from the account that had transferred the two million. You would be amazed at what you could find out from a wire transfer receipt.
It was a beautiful little money laundering circle, really. But I didn’t expect Governor Ripley to help draw it out on live TV. Governor Ripley directed state funds to the charity front, and the charity front funneled these back to the Governor in the form of “consultation fees”, “event bookings”, and such. As narcissistic as the man was, he would never be stupid enough to accept money from Speak Up to an account with his name on it. No no no. He would have an account under an alias. The kind of account that would be used to pay for a pretty dumb trinket from Stanton Jewlers. What a boon it would be to get your hands on that kind of information.
After dropping the unmarked envelope near my laptop, I slipped the garish bracelet off, and wandered towards my display case.
I really did wish I could just send all of the pieces of this puzzle to the IRS and call it a day. But I’ve found over the years that the wheels of bureaucracy move slowly, and there’s nothing like a media source with evidence to get the wheels turning. I’d expect the good Governor to be in jail in three years time. I’d have to wait a few months to send out my little connect-the-dot parcels of information to give myself enough distance from it. If I ever got caught in my own web, Clarice would kill me before they could even book me.
The mahogany display case sat neatly against the wall, a picture of Lady Justice hanging above it. Looking at that picture, I felt the same rush of purpose I had when I was Samantha’s age and I saw my Lady for the first time. Yes, she may have held the scales out front, but that sword in the background, poised and ready. Someone had to be that sword.
I opened the lacquered lid of the case, and looked at the dozen or so pieces gleaming against the satin lining. I layed the bracelet next to a black pearled broach, and closed the lid.