Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Tortoise Shell Code by V Frank Asaro

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Anthony Darren crossed a busy street and double-stepped toward the courthouse portico. Along the way he passed a newspaper stand prominently displaying the headline JURY STILL OUT IN CONSPIRACY MURDER TRIAL. A few pigeons fluttered out of Anthony’s path and settled atop the Doric columns framing the courthouse entrance. At least they give me some respect, Anthony thought as he stepped into the building.

He strode down the long marble hall along almost empty corridors. The sense of vacancy was, he knew, ephemeral; the courtrooms and juries were still in session as the noon hour approached. That would soon change. The echo of his footsteps evoked images of gavels pounding ominously behind each closed door.

When Anthony pulled on the brass handles of the double doors to Courtroom 12, they didn’t budge. He knocked. Through the crack between the doors he saw Jennifer Jackson, the judge’s clerk, fumbling with the latch.

“Hello, Jenny,” he said as she opened the door.

Her smile struck him like a sunbeam through a blizzard. “Hello, Mr. Darren. Sorry, I called you back, but Laura said you’d already left. The judge just decided it’s so close to noon he’s sending the jury to lunch. They won’t be back until about 1:30.”

“Oh. I see.” Anthony shuddered with the impact of a violent internal clash between disappointment and temporary relief.

“Why don’t you get yourself some lunch?” Jenny asked.

“Thanks, but do you mind if I just sit here and wait?”

“No, make yourself at home. I’ll be right around the corner. If anyone else comes in, would you let them know about the recess too?”


She adjusted the latch so the door could be opened only from the inside, then turned. “Mr. Darren, good luck.”

He sat on an upholstered swivel chair at the defendant’s table, in the position farthest from the jury box. Silence closed in. Not even the clock mounted above the witness box made a sound. How come he had never noticed that before? He’d appeared in these courtrooms innumerable times over the past ten years. At first he’d found the dark oak paneling dignified, the high ceilings with their carved crown moldings majestic. In those days the room had inspired in him—a young lawyer, rising fast—feelings of reverence. But now he found the space oppressive, threatening, portentous .When the doors rattled, he got up and walked over to them. Through the crack saw the tall form and hungry face of Deputy District Attorney Egan James. Anthony hesitated, took a deep, steadying breath, and unlocked the door. When it swung open he wasn’t surprised to find Herbert Hooks right behind Egan, peering over the younger man’s shoulder. Beside Hooks stood a third man, the weasel-eyed witness, with dark hair pulled back into a tiny pigtail.

At the sight of Anthony all three hesitated a bit.

Anthony exposed his teeth in what might have objectively been called a smile. “Come on in, guys. Sorry to say the judge sent everyone to lunch. They won’t be back until one-thirty.” He twisted the latch so the door would no longer lock, then turned and headed back to the defense table.

The three men took seats in the gallery to the far right, near the jury box.

Anthony focused his attention on the door nearest the judge’s bench. No Christian waiting for lions to appear on the floor of the Coliseum had ever watched a door so avidly. The jury would eventually re-enter the courtroom through this portal. .

Usually when a jury came in to read their verdict he had a yellow legal pad in front of him and a pen in his hand so he could give his eyes something to do while his ears received the kiss or the blow. But today no pad lay before him, and he wasn’t sure what he should do when the jury returned. Stare at the tabletop? At the wall? Or directly at the foreman?

Not that it mattered.

A few minutes later the main door to the courtroom opened and Laura stepped in, accompanied by a girl of sixteen, petite yet blossoming into an auburn-haired conversation-stopper. As always, Laura had tried, and failed, to make herself look plain in her sensible suit and horn-rimmed glasses.

Egan called across the gallery: “We’re on recess until one-thirty.”

The women did not respond, and took seats as far from him as possible. Egan watched with the habitual sneer Anthony remembered from long ago.

All at once Anthony wished Laura and Andrea hadn’t come after all. He was afraid they would suffer even more than he while sitting here waiting for the verdict. They would spend the time dwelling on facts only they and he knew; facts the jury had never heard. So go over and sit with them, he told himself. Hug them. Comfort them. But an invisible public curtain hung in his way. At moments like this he wanted to be alone, like a performer waiting to go on stage. Besides, he didn’t want a show in front of Egan.

Once again the door opened, and this time Anthony watched Sylvia Cruz—frail, her eyes tragic—lead Joe in by the arm. The blankness on Joe’s face seemed to blend his features—all but the charcoal-black eyes—into the featureless wall behind him. The couple moved toward Laura, who whispered to them, undoubtedly informing them of the delay. They took seats in the row behind Laura and Andrea.

Again Anthony felt the urge to go back there and dispense comfort, but he knew Sylvia would ask him to predict what the verdict would be. He felt the reticence as he waited for the curtain to rise.

As he turned away, his gaze crossed briefly with that of Egan James, a square-jawed and slightly pug-nosed man, his once-athletic body growing thick in an expensive suit. But in that second, Anthony was sure he saw Egan’s sneer expand.

I’d like to think he’s just overzealous at his job, Anthony thought. I’d like to think that what’s happening now, has nothing to do with the past. Nineteen sixty-two was so long ago.

Nineteen sixty-two. The year an American astronaut orbited the earth for the first time. The year the number of American soldiers sent to an obscure Southeast Asian country called Vietnam first exceeded fifteen thousand. The year the United States and the Soviet Union almost swapped nuclear missiles across the Gulf of Mexico between Florida and Cuba.

The year Anthony Darren graduated from college.

Whoever knows, at the moment of occurrence, how one event might lead to another? What the consequences of even the most innocuous decision might be? The most reflexive choice? Even the most noble one?

Who could pinpoint the precise moment that this day in court, this twenty minute arc stretching between the known past and the unknown future, became…inevitable?

I can, Anthony thought. I can pinpoint the moment.

It happened in 1962, yes. On the warm white sands of La Jolla.

That was when and where it began. For him, for Joe Cruz, for Egan James, and by extension, for many others.

That was where and when it began, on the last perfect afternoon.

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Genre – Legal Drama

Rating – PG13

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