2.2: Mark My Words

Four beige walls surround Stark and her fidgety young lawyer who races between forms trying to come to an understanding of her case. Stark refuses to look at her lawyer, and instead focuses on being still. The cuffs on her wrists and ankles are chained to the table and floor and are locked so tight that even sitting up straight will cause the metal to bite into her flesh.

     I deserve this. I told Neth I had unsavory connections in my past when he hired me, but I should’ve explained what they were, even when he didn’t press that topic. He should’ve known the risks behind hiring me.

     “I must say, Ms. Stark,” her lawyer says, “this is going to be an almost impossible case. I think I can clear your name on charges of conspiracy to commit murder and aiding and abetting fugitives, but once this case breaks into every news cycle in Vanu, your law enforcement career is over. Your name and lineage being connected to The Pure and Underworld is a stigma you can’t come back from.”

     “I’m aware. It’s why I’ve never mentioned my mother to anyone, nor had any contact with her from the day outlined in your forms there,” she points with minimal movement to his collection of dossiers, “to the day she and her partner attacked Jojen’s Dojo.”

     “Which is our key defense. The prosecution only has circumstantial evidence against you. If they can’t provide proof of contact between the two of you, it’s a witch hunt.”

     “But if they convince the jury I’m a witch, proof won’t matter,” Stark says gravely.

     The lawyer shuts the dossier in his hands, his expression a spooked one. “My law school professors had nothing but horror stories for us regarding cases involving The Pure and Underworld. I’ve never read anything like those court transcripts before, but thankfully yours doesn’t read the same. I can do something with this. I mean, just spitballing the reports from the accidents you and Warden Crata filled out, the paper trail will support you. The prosecution only has four witnesses to use against you, and only two of them appear to be present in the reports signed by you and the warden.”

     “Only four witnesses?”

     “They originally only had six, but I hear that two refused to testify against you. They’re faculty members from Four Hearts Academy, I believe. But the amount won’t matter, so long as they stick with their circumstantial statements, then we can counter easily and get you cleared.”

     Stark sits quietly as her lawyer goes back to reviewing the case, dabbing at his brow with an eggshell handkerchief. His dark suit and deep blue shirt do not inspire any confidence in Stark, and she feels the jury will have a likewise response once he breaks into a sweat before them. She reviews her own suit, lighter than his in the same areas, and knows that if they gleam her attitude during the case, the reassuring gray and light blue won’t be of much help.

     There’s a knock on the door and in steps a tall, dark-skinned bald man. His navy uniform, decorated service, and law enforcement badges tell Stark and her lawyer who he is right away. He looks to the lawyer and in a richly deep baritone tells him, “Give us the room, please.” The sweaty attorney gathers his dossiers and squeezes past the tall officer.

     “Good morning, Officer Stark,” the man says, lowering his hat as he takes the seat opposite her. “Do you know why I’m here instead of Warden Crata?”

     “Yes, sir, I do, Commissioner Daci,” Stark replies. “You’ve ordered him to be one of the witnesses for the prosecution, and having him visit me prior to his testimony wouldn’t look very good. Jupiter City is a mecca for individuals of Vanusi, Ohaida, Sulublei, S’nue and Ibri descent, and being affiliated with someone so closely tied to The Pure is bad for the JCPD.”

     “All correct, save for it being on my orders. The mayor is enjoying the added benefit of having a security deal with Four Hearts Academy. That good press, as well as the business it generates, has been very good to her campaign. She now believes you being the focal point of that no longer works. However, in regards to your impeccable record, she believes she can recommend a lighter sentence without backlash. That is, of course, only in the case that you lose.”

     “Which, given the court-appointed intern I’ve been given, is practically a guarantee,” Stark comments. “Was that her honor’s idea, or yours?”

     Commissioner Daci rises and places his hat beneath an arm. “Warden Crata has a bright future still, Officer Stark. He’ll one day have my job. Suffer your consequences silently and try not to drag him down, too. So, make sure your “court-appointed intern” doesn’t object too much or do something as foolish as cross-examine him. Best of luck to you.”

     Stark’s glare intensifies when she looks from the commissioner closing the door to back down at her cuffs.

     I almost had my mother. If I’d been faster…more attentive, then she’d be on trial now. My failure. My consequences. Commissioner Daci’s veiled threat doesn’t matter. I need Warden Crata to keep his position. With me locked up, he’s the best chance I have to see mother captured in the future. And if she’s after me, then he can use my incarceration as bait. Of course, knowing my mother, wanting me back isn’t her goal. Something else is afoot. Crata must know that, too. After all, it’s up to him now.

     Stark barely turns her head when her lawyer returns with all his dossiers, papers nearly spilling out of them. He rambles on about a potential defense witness while Stark studies him more closely than before. He has a class ring with an emerald and rose tiger’s head. She recognizes the mascot as the representation of JC Law University, the state’s number one law school; the same one she wanted to attend once upon a time.

     “Your name is Syerus, right?” Stark asks.

     “That’s right,” he says, stunned by Stark’s sudden interest.

     “Listen to me, Syerus. When we step into that courtroom, be quiet. Only speak if the judge asks you a specific question. You are not here to win this case. You are here to ensure I lose. I’m guessing you graduated law school very recently.”

     “Uh…well, technically, I should still be in school. Until two weeks ago, I was a junior. Some people came to me and said my work was superb and that I could try a national case and gave me my diploma and attorney’s license.” He holds up his hand. “I paid for the class ring myself.”

     “You’ve been bribed, Syerus. And once I lose this case, you’ll be rewarded again as long as you stay quiet. But only if you do as they want. This case is toxic. It can ruin careers. You’ve read court transcripts, so you understand why. As long as you let it play out as planned, you’ll be nothing larger than a footnote buried so deep the record practically won’t exist. So, let the stenographer be able to forget your name by tonight. Understand?”

     “But what happens to you?” Syerus asks.

     “I get what I deserve.”

     “But I looked at your story, your record. I–”

     “You will do nothing. Accept the bribe and work to earn the right to possess the gifts you’ve been given. That’s all I want from you.” Syerus buckles beneath her daunting stare and nods minutely.

     A pair of plaintiffs enter the room. One stands guard at the door while the other unlocks Stark’s cuffs, though he’s rougher than necessary, bruising her wrists.

     “Hey! Treat my client with–”

     Stark stops him with a throat clear and a pointed stare. Her young lawyer seethes but regains his cool quickly.

     “Present your recistene patch,” the rough plaintiff says.

     Stark unbuttons her suit jacket and blouse and pulls the latter back enough to reveal a blue badge implanted just above her breast. The plaintiff allows her to make herself presentable again before he and his partner escort her and Syerus to the courtroom.

     The news crews in the back of the court start to snap photos the moment Stark steps into the courtroom. She ignores the flashes and shows them her back once she and Syerus take their seats. She sees that he’s unnerved by all the cameras.

     “Stop fidgeting and sit up straight,” Stark says without moving her lips much. “I may be the focus today, but give none of those vultures any ammunition against you. They’re opportunistic to the core.”

     He fixes his posture as instructed. “Thank you.”

     Stark keeps her head still as she inspects the courtroom. The plaintiffs show her nothing but the same love as they did in her conference quarters. The jury is comprised of more women than men, and they whisper amongst one another as they eye Stark curiously.

     Wonder if they’ve been bribed, too. Not that it matters.

     “Stark, I’m going to ask just once more- are you sure you don’t want to fight? You have a legitimate chance. The witness I mentioned before should be here. I can–”

     Stark breaks her rigid posture and whips her head around to survey the crowd. After the flashes of the opportunistic vultures die down, she finds Roark seated in the row across the aisle from Warden Crata, but it’s not their presence that frustrates her. In the same aisle as the warden are Sheriff Will, Professors Tameri and Zathony, and Nuria.

     What is she doing here?

     Stark whirls around before the vultures can take snapshots of her frustrated countenance. Nuria is the last face she wanted to see, especially after the look she had on her face before she fainted the day of her arrest. A dark realization dawns on Stark.

     Sheriff Will, Warden Crata, Professors Tameri, and Zathony equals four. Why would the professors bring Nuria? An emergency witness in case it looks like I could win? I know Zathony would have no qualms about using her, but Tameri isn’t that kind of person. Or is she one of the witnesses and they had to jointly escort her here? She does have the right to hate me the most.

     “Yes, Syerus,” she says once her nerves are under control. “I’m sure I don’t want to fight.” Not against Nuria.

     At that moment, Stark prepares herself for the onslaught of knives to tear her career and life as she knows to pieces.

     The judge arrives and after they take their seats, the prosecuting lawyer begins his opening deconstruction of Stark, never not using her name without mentioning The Pure or Underworld in the same sentence. Stark is elated when he only mentions incidents related to those two organizations instead of launching into great detail, just name dropping events like the Ghaney Firestorm. The names are enough for the jury as all of them are old enough to know, but she doesn’t want Nuria to hear the disturbing details of such events.

     When Syerus is called to speak on behalf of the defendant, Stark smiles on the inside when he declines the offer to do so.

     The prosecution begins their parade of dooming testimony, starting with Crata and then Sheriff Will. Since their names are on reports in regards to the investigations launched post each of the incidents he references Stark as a co-conspirator for, he wisely sticks to opinion-based inquiries that add color to the blank target on Stark’s back. Crata tries to add extra details to his answers, but the prosecutor always cuts him off prematurely with another inquiry.

     The two inquiries that rattle Stark as much as the jury are, “Why, after three opportunities this year, has Stark failed to arrest her own mother?” and “Do you feel it odd that an officer would flee one scene where children they’d sworn to protect are to pursue and then lose sight of a criminal they prioritized? And let it be known that four of the five children are indeed Ibri, The Pure’s main targets.”

     The former is directed toward Warden Crata, and he replies by saying, “There were only two incidents involving her mother.”

     “So, you were present the night of that fire, then?” the prosecutor asks.

     “No, but–”

     “Then how can you be so sure her mother wasn’t present that night? Yes, you investigated a hand from that night, but it’s since been stolen. Stark knows the layout of your precinct by heart, does she not?”

     “She does,” the warden says with a heavy heart.

     “And if she’s connected to Underworld, she’d be able to coordinate the theft of evidence with any of the members with the power of invisibility. They could even be standing in this very courtroom now.”

     “Counselor,” the judge says in warning.

     Stark spares a quick glance to the jury and sees their eyes racing all over the place, spooked by the chance they’re being watched. She can tell that even if they don’t believe her guilty, they’ll still likely vote against her, too unnerved and having only her person to affix that feeling to.

     “My apologies, your honor. I have no further questions for Warden Crata.”

     Sheriff Will is sworn in and takes the stand to answer the second question to rattle Stark. “Of course, I do.”

     “As a law enforcement professional, would you have left the children to fend for themselves?”

     “No,” Sheriff Will says with a touch of agitation.

     “Could there be an ulterior motive behind Stark’s decision to do so, in your professional opinion?”

     “With her mother on a murderous rampage, having already attacked twice at that point, I’d say stopping the incidents at their source is as good an ulterior motive as any,” he says in a very clear rush of words. “It takes a strong mind to prioritize that responsibility in the midst of a dangerous situation.”

     Stark grins briefly, stunned by the sheriff’s not-so-subtle defense of her. It won’t amount to much, but at least not everyone completely hates my guts.

     “Or, she could’ve left to coordinate with her mother in secret. Another equally possible scenario given the events that led to Officer Stark’s arrest.”

     Even though Nuria is on her mind, and is the main subject of Zathony’s testimony (though her name is never stated for the record), Stark never looks over her shoulder, afraid to witness the same fury as the day of the Freshman Derby.

     “So,” the prosecutor begins, “the night of that fire, your student was so freaked out that she attacked you, and it was confirmed by Stark herself that she was with your student in the library prior to the incident, correct?”

     “That’s right,” Zathony says plainly.

     “And while Stark does bring that student back, are you comfortable saying that her coma could be Stark’s doing?”

     “No,” he says.

     “Why not?” the prosecutor asks, taken aback by Zathony’s response.

     “My student’s coma, whether Stark’s doing or not, is not a comfortable situation. No matter the cause, it was a terrible consequence.”

     “Well, a school bombing is always a terrible consequence,” the prosecutor says, regaining the flow of his narrative between witnesses.

     “It was a nightmare,” Tameri says while leering directly at Stark. “Three of my students were seriously hurt and one was forced to take a life because Stark and I both failed. Her exact words to me that day were “Yes, they were harmed, and we will answer for that, but they all survived. You made that happen”.”

     “Interesting that she doesn’t end that last part with “we” also. It sounds as if she was trying to distinguish between you and her and her mother. I mean, her “chasing” her mother over assisting you and your class is evidence enough of where her true loyalties lie.”

     “Her mother and she have no loyalties.” Tameri’s leer turns lethal, as if she regrets not forcing the recistene patch on her.

     Stark meets her furious gaze with a passive expression. Enjoy this relative peace. Once Nuria takes the stand, I won’t be able to look her in the eyes. And no jury nor vulture will miss that. Even though my loyalties aren’t compromised, Nuria believes it, and if she gets emotional during her testimony, my fate is–

     “That’s not true!”

     Stark snaps her head around in time to see Zathony yank Nuria back down into her seat.

     “Sir, keep your daughter quiet. This is a courtroom, not a playground,” the judge warns.

     ‘Yes, your honor.” Zathony moves to quietly scold Nuria as Tameri takes her seat on his other side. Tameri joins the scolding, but Nuria turns away from them with a scowl; her eyebrows are furled inward at sharp angles, her lip is turned up on the left, and her nostrils flare repeatedly. Stark has that same expression burned into her memory.

     Stark only allows herself to smile after turning around. She still believes in me…so, her rage back then was for the professors. Then why would they bring her here? Don’t tell me…

     “I now wish to call Stark to the stand, your honor,” the prosecuting lawyer states.

     Stark slowly rises, makes an oath to speak truthfully, then takes her turn in the hot seat. The vultures do what they do best, but she keeps her eyes trained on the lawyer. Her concentration on him keeps her expressions from betraying her thoughts.

     I still can’t do anything. Even if Nuria doesn’t hate me, asking her to testify on my behalf would be as much of a threat as my mother. She can only clear me by outing herself as a phoenix, and thank Drijad Zathony kept that to himself. Powered individuals like Roark and I are typically only allowed to be in the nation’s army, but we have special permissions. Someone like Nuria, with her extremely rare abilities, would be forced into that life. I can’t let that happen.

     “Stark,” the lawyer addresses her coolly, “why is it that you haven’t visited your father Jerry’s grave in the past six years?”

     The officer can’t help but narrow her eyes and scowl. In those six years, she’d repressed a lot of guilt and fear and shame. Ever since the dojo attack, she’s felt all those emotions preparing to pounce. Her scowl forms as she fights them from smothering her soul.

     “Because six years ago, I was hired as the head of security for Four Hearts Academy. I was beginning a new chapter in my life and wanted to distance myself from my old one.”

     “That’s quite cold, don’t you think? That kind of morbid thinking that comes easy to sociopaths. You’ve obviously undergone police training, so you can understand my reasoning, can’t you?”

     “Yes,” Stark says, trying her best not to clench her teeth.

     “I think a more reasonable conclusion is that your mother, who’d become listed as an official associate of The Pure eleven years ago, finally converted you as well. Finally siding with her, you could no longer visit your father’s grave with a clear conscience, and so you didn’t. And in the six years since being recruited, you’ve had–”

     “Your honor, objection!” Syerus declares, drawing forth Stark’s ire.

     “On what grounds, counselor?”

     “The prosecution has yet to present a question to my client and is building up an impossible to prove precedent. He either offers up evidence that Stark has contacted her mother these past six years, or he terminates this line of questioning,” Syerus explains.

     After a moment of consideration, the judge says, “Sustained. Does the prosecution have any evidence in support of that inquiry?”

     The prosecutor huffs under his breath as he straightens his suit jacket. “Not at this time.”

     “Then you may step down, counselor.” To Syerus she says, “Have you any witnesses you’d like to call today?”

     Syerus stands and says, “Actually, your honor, I’d like an extension on the trial. I have just received confirmation of a witness, and I’d need time to double-check the facts as they know them.”

     “Very well. You have forty-eight hours to do so. The court is in recess until Anak 8th, 1989.”

     Once the court is free to clear on the judge’s command, Stark rises to have her cuffs replaced. She glares at Syerus as he gathers his dossiers. He mouths an apology as he races in the opposite direction. The door to the courtroom closes behind Stark, but not before she sees Syerus kneel down to speak with Nuria.

     Her dreaded emotions pounce.


     Stark sits at her table solo, surprised that the puddle of tears around her elbows isn’t bigger. She’s drained her eyes as dry as they can go. She laughs as she realizes she lacks the strength to even consider drying her face, though her tight cuffs would have made that impossible.

     I should’ve visited your grave more, daddy. I can imagine you hate me as much as I do myself. I can’t even console myself. All I feel is hatred. At my mother. At myself. Even as much as I loved you…I couldn’t even attend your funeral. I wallowed in my own self-pity, and I guess I have been ever since then. I was powerless then, and I am now. But if I’m going to be punished, it’s only going to be me. When I see you again, if I see you again, I pray you don’t forgive me.

     She snaps out of her funk when she hears Syerus’ voice approaching. The moment the door opens she fires off. “What the f- hell was that out there?” she shouts, though possessing a quick enough mind to somewhat censor herself when Nuria steps into the room. “Ow, ow, ow! Nuria, wait!” Stark states when the energetic teen launches into her for a hug.

     Nuria swiftly notes the cuffs and Stark’s reddened wrists. “My mistake,” she says apologetically.

     Syerus and Roark step into the room, as the former says, “One of you get in here and unlock my clients’ hands!”, the latter says, “How you doing, boss?”

     “I’m not your boss anymore,” Stark replies coldly as she massages her now free wrists against her cheeks. “I’m a criminal now.”

     “Says who?” Nuria asks angrily.

     Roark silences Nuria by sliding his hand in front of her. He moves to address Stark calmly. “No, sir. You only suffered a lapse. A big one for sure, but one you can bounce back from. All of us at the school agree. I’m the only one here because we’re all still on high alert. Warden Crata beefed up our numbers to compensate for your temporary absence.”

     “It’s not temporary, Officer Roark. Anyone with a connection to The Pure cannot work at Four Hearts Academy. Plain and simple.”

     “You know that’s not true,” Roark says. “Otherwise Neth–”

     “Why the hell not?” Nuria freezes temporarily in the face of Stark’s disapproving look. “What? You said “hell” too.”

     Stark turns to Syerus. “Get them both out of here and stick to my plan, Syerus. I mean it.”

     “The plan of you landing in prison for a crime you didn’t commit? I don’t think so. Besides, Nuria here is our star witness. I was iffy about her being able to pull off being a credible avenue- no offense–”

     “None taken.”

     “–but she told me that she’s the coma kid Zathony mentioned. Once we invite her to the stand, our defense only picks up more and more momentum.”

     Stark narrows her eyes. “Do you know what–”

     “They’ll do to me? Please, they gave me my license and made me your court-appointed attorney in hopes I’d buckle and lose. If they try anything to discredit my qualifications, they only open themselves up to attack for trying to fix the case. It’s too late now. The trial just has to play out. And we’ll win.”

     “You don’t know that. And the jury will never take the word of a child seriously. No offense, Nuria.”

     “A little taken.”

     “They will if she has proof, and someone to corroborate her story,” Syerus says.

     “It won’t work. Nuria doesn’t remember the night of the fire, and that prosecutor will tear her testimony to pieces when he picks up on that.”

     “Then it’s a good thing I remember now,” Nuria boasts.

     Stark slowly turns to Nuria and searches her gaze, finding no telltale signs of her lying. “What? How?”

     “Neth told me…what I did.” Nuria swallows hard and takes a deep breath. “I’ll tell the jury and I have someone else who witnessed it.” Her lips curve into a smile. “Rest easy, Stark.” Nuria stands tall and points a thumb at herself. “I’ve got your back!”

     “Nuria, even if you testify, it may not save me, but there are things you might not understand about this world, and it could–”

     “Nobody makes decisions for me, Stark.” Nuria drops her childish boasting posture and assumes a serious demeanor. “I came here because I wanted to come, and I always had every intention of testifying on your behalf. Even if it’s only me, I’ll do what I can. You have my word on that.”

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