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Queen of Swords: a novel

Chapter IX – The Royal House of Cups

I awoke from a dream with the sensation of escaping noisy rooms, but I could neither remember the words nor distinguish the voices. That’s what thinking about the past does, it stirs the tranquil pool of my life until the waters are muddy. Yet they will settle down once more, though perhaps in some new, more exciting configuration.

It was a day of great significance in my life, the first day of the trial. As I drank my espresso and ate cantaloupe with strawberries I checked my horoscope: ” Refuse to be taken for granted. This could be the beginning of your winning streak. Trust your intuition honed to razor-sharpness. Events of timing and luck focus on you. Passion ignites: wear bright colors”. Maybe that’s why I chose an orange Chinese silk jacket and yellow linen skirt, and a pair of rose-pink granny glasses. I was still not quite used to my face in the mirror: I had never had my hair this short and I was also not used to seeing it so straight, but I had to admit that it was flattering. In my day, curls were the thing. Big, big hair. My once-upon-a-time much-admired frosted mop cost hours of labor, especially back when I was broke. No more. I had always feared short hair would make me look mannish. But it’s more like viewing Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo – it only emphasizes how feminine she is. My face was so tanned I only needed a touch of concealer on my proud scar. Didn’t bother with makeup other than a slash of lipstick – break them in slowly to the evolution of the Widow Quantreau.

Before walking out the door I naturally pulled a card. The Lovers. How appropriate! In the Rossetti deck these beautiful young people are both naked, with only her flowing hair and his ripe thigh protecting their privacy. He holds her breast; she grasps his buttock as they gaze into each other’s eyes, reclining beneath a verdant bower ablaze with roses. The Lovers is not just sex, it indicates productivity, success, new creation and the unexpected. It is especially powerful with the number six, but I did not have time for a full reading this morning. It was too exciting, too evocative to leave behind. I tucked it into my breast pocket.

Driving my Mercedes through the gate – top up ready for underground parking – Judge Sugarman stopped me. The fussing he had been doing with the flowerpots around his mailbox was so obviously unnecessary I knew he had been lying in wait. My stalker! Well, I had turned even a stalker to my advantage! He put his big dinner-plate hands right inside my open window as if to take hold of me.

“I was wondering if we could have coffee later,” he asked, smiling ingratiatingly. “I’d love to hear about the trial.” A big man with a stomach that preceded him, he looked especially ludicrous in a pair of aging madras shorts and a puke-green golf shirt. He should get rid of those wisps and leave his skull proudly gleaming. He has a powerful jaw with a bulldog set; I wondered how dangerous enemy he would prove. His squashed nose suggested he had supported himself through law school as a boxer. Better to keep him dangling rather than to shut him down completely.
“I don’t think we’re allowed to talk about the case,” I averred, playing dumb.

His face was a study as he tried to figure out how to bring me into the “in” club without breaking his prosecutorial code. Pity he has such an uninteresting mind to read.
“Oh, I know all about it,” he gruffed bluffly. “Kozlowsky’s the judge on that one – no friend to the defense, and that’s for certain. Let’s plan dinner when you’re free. And call me Saul.”

“Sure thing, Saul,” I said, exulting in getting away so easily. “I touched his hand, giving him that electric thrill. It was all he stood to get from me. “And thank you so much for this opportunity.”
He reddened. I was talking about it again! The first rule of “In Club” is never talking about “In Club!!! I adjusted my seat belt forcing him to release his hands. He patted the side of my car as if blessing a horse and giving permission to depart. I didn’t run over his feet but I almost wished I had.

That repulsive man…imagine him thinking I would welcome his advances! Quid pro nothing! He was lucky to be allowed to gaze at me – fortunate in the extreme that I deigned to speak to him. How could he not realize how old and hideous he looked? I felt insulted by his attentions. When I thought of my pre-Raphaelite “Lovers” I quivered with indignation. It is an insult to the Goddess when ugly people mate with the beautiful. They should keep to their own kind. I began to amuse myself with a plan to send him anonymous letters! What fun that would be! It never would have occurred to me if I hadn’t received one of my own. What would it say? What could most shame him? Make a note to self – something to chew over when court gets boring – as we know it must. The government mills grind exceedingly fine. And slowly, so I’ve heard tell.

Closer to the courthouse I stopped at the Kay-Cup and made myself a soy latte. As I stood in the cashier line, there was something very familiar about the guy buying lottery tickets just ahead of me. He was huge, seeming to sway as he stood, giving off testosterone in waves. He was built so like my archer. I could almost imagine the quiver of arrows hanging off his flannel shoulder. He wore a colorful bandanna around his head, a pair of ratty jeans, a pinkish hanging flannel shirt that had evidently been used as a rag and a tattered t-shirt with the logo, Champion Motor Oil. I usually shun men who work with their hands – ever since my stepfather. Less than perfect hygiene gets a turndown at the sex club. After all, I made such an effort to get out of that world. But there was something about him.

The Goddess was speaking to me. I felt bathed in his maleness like a hot summer sun. His pale hair was grew back sketchily on his scarred head in a thin fuzz. What had happened to him? Really bad haircut from a Benihana wannabe? Brain surgery? It seemed ancient, cuts and scrapes like someone tried to scalp him. Obviously he wore the bandana to keep speculation such as mine to a minimum. When he turned he crashed into me, because I was standing right there, staring. I spilled coffee between us, like an offering.

“Sorry.” We both said it at once. He had a raw, grainy voice. Producing that sound from somewhere deep inside himself made his cheeks quiver, showing a single unlikely dimple. His eyes swiveled over me like camera lenses, pale irises expanding as if sucking me in appreciatively. He was just a kid. Where had I seen him before? I know I knew him. Intimately. Eager to say something, I gestured at the lottery tickets. “Are you a believer?”

It’s what people say about the cards. He smiled a beautiful, deep smile, shaking the colorful handful. “Oh these,” he said, in his gravelly burr, like a person unused to speech. “I give them away. To the panhandlers outside the courthouse. Maybe there are some believers there.”
Then he was gone.

The entire courthouse throbbed with the excitement of the first day of trial, even though there were other cases, this was The Case. The Press was out in force, The Times-Call, The Daily Camera, even the Denver Post. My fellow jurors – all wearing our distinguishing blue stickers – appeared to have dressed down for the occasion, though there was one overly tanned, well-kept older woman in a pencil skirt, who looked at me in a startled way. She’d plainly expected to be the belle of this particular ball, until I showed up.

There were several rooms off the long hallway in the bowels of the courthouse. We were shown our “deliberation room” – the judge’s chambers, the clerk’s room, and the prosecutor’s office. There was also a small cloakroom. I saw the defense attorney’s junior, a young highly-made- up faux platinum blonde so pretty my fellow jurors referred to her as “the Bond girl”. She tossed some used fashion magazines across our table. Her eyes met mine and she gave me a big smile. “Good morning!” she said. All this friendliness in aid of her client? Or did she favor every casual stranger with this desperation? A born pleaser. I recognize it because I can fake it. Takes one to know one.
She bustled away down the hall in her platform boots to the conference room given over to the defense. I knew she’s just wanted to get a look at us. No one else seemed interested.

People over-burdened with files, water bottles and huge cups of coffee rushed from their doorways and scurried like vermin along the hall. I caught sight of the judge, “Kozlowsky” very unimpressive without his robes, a fish-faced man with prematurely white hair dressed as if for a day of golf. No one would look at him twice when he wasn’t on the bench.

“I guess fashion doesn’t count as “news”, said my belle-of-the-ball juror I thought of as “the belle of the ball” juror, trying to be friends. Checking out the competition. “I hear we’re in for a long siege of boredom. They say this trial could last three months!”

“That is a long time,” I smiled. “But you know what?” I hissed conspiratorially. “People always break the rules a little.”

“Bend them anyway,” she agreed. “They’re rules because they’re hard to follow. Hi, I’m Lacey Morag.” Her lifetime honorific “pretty” was expiring. Fraying at the edges. I saw powder in soft drifts along the lines of her cheeks and her pale hazel eyes quivered with the need for approval.
I’ve got this one, I thought. I can make her do anything I want.

“I forgot to bring anything to read. In voir dire we had to sit around so much. It’s wonderful to have someone to talk to. I’m Charmian Quantreau.” We shook hands. I checked her loveline – one marriage. Possibly some love frustration.

I saw her visibly relax. Now we were confederates. We chose seats beside each other in the jury room.

“It’s going to be hard, living without any news,” I said. To say something.
“At least we’re not sequestered,” said a tall, pencil-necked man in a button-down shirt. Too bossy for an actuary. Probably some sort of accountant. “That would be hell.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Lacey, responding to him in spite of his wedding ring in a “take me I’m yours” sort of way. “I could use the vacation. And don’t you think the news is so artificial these days? It’s so partisan. When my kids were at home I used to sponsor a “Turn off the TV Week” at the schools. Life is about so much more than politics, gossip and titillation.”

Was she just ignorant, or the type of woman who subtly insults you and then disclaims intentionality? The reading I was getting was “stupid” and “fault-finding”. But I felt no need to flush out of cover yet. I can play one-up.

“I know exactly what you mean. I live on Hayden Lake and it’s so glorious at night. The silence! The stars are magnificent, and there are so many owls. Always something to watch and do. I sit out in my kayak pitying the addicts glued to their glo-boxes.”
Now she knew I was rich. Her face sharpened.

“Hayden Lake? Do you live alone?”

“I’m a widow,” I said comfortably, status was now assured. “But it was his time. I’ve been very lucky.”

“It must be so beautiful… I’d love to see it sometime.”

“Let’s have a party. As soon as this is over. It’s a wonderful place for entertaining. You know, I’ve heard jurors bond for life on these important cases. We’ll feel we deserve it after our deliberations.”

“That would be lovely,” she echoed faintly. One in the corner pocket! Now, who else could I get?
Appointing herself social director of our cruise, Lacey moved on to a shriveled old woman of the “proud crone” variety. I smiled at a swollen young man in glasses who wore a t-shirt depicting a howling wolf. He was hardly a wolf. He’d chosen the wrong power animal. Howling Woodchuck, I dubbed him. He told me he was a web developer between jobs, who lived with his parents at home. I started right in on how I was thinking of starting a foundation named after my grandchildren. Shouldn’t it have a presence on the web? Really, I was so ignorant. His eyes gleamed. He had lots of suggestions.

I kept sneaking peeks at the married accountant. He had clear leadership qualities. I suspected we would wrestle for jury control; but I am willing to be the power behind the throne. He is gifted with the sort of long, lean physique despised in high school that holds up well in middle age.

Ron Roccam was his name. He was nicely turned out in a sweater vest, tie and neatly pressed slacks to go with his button-down shirt. Had he mistaken our civic requirement for a job interview or did he always dress like this? Lots of men don’t know how easy it is to impress a woman with clothes. Certainly Roccam was the only male juror making any effort.

Now we were all showing pictures of our families. Ron Roccam had the sort of wife and two little boys that comes ready-made in a K-Mart frame: could he be a bullshitter? I’d find out of he tried to get me to invest in something.

I saw their expressions when I showed snaps of me and the late doctor who looked, as usual, like a Gila monster. I made a mental note to dump this photo – my stepdaughters and their children made a much more positive impression. Lacey’s eyes actually filled with tears while she told me how lucky I was to have grandchildren. Her own daughter was approaching thirty and working a sixty-hour week. It was starting to look hopeless.

I was startled to find out Roccam was actually laid off. He said otherwise he never would have accepted jury duty. He seemed to think they were lucky to get him. A plump retiree with a thin fringe of hair clinging to his pate like seaweed to an inhospitable rock jumped in and talked eagerly about the horrible economy and the nightmare of diminishing fixed income.

He told us all to call him “C.D. – the safe investment”. Talk about irony. Roccam cluck-clucked sympathetically. Didn’t try to sell him anything. Agreed no safe investment is worth anything any more. I ventured that I liked unpredictability. It makes life so more exciting. They gazed at me, bemused.

A jury room is not a place to get comfortable. I guess that’s so the taxpayer gets the quickest reasonable verdict. The room is dominated by a coffin-shaped table and the chairs are too stiff to sleep in. Between a coat rack and a coffee table stacked with decks of ordinary playing cards, crossword puzzle and wordsearch books and shabby sets of out of date games were connecting doors to a men’s room and a ladies room. At least it would be possible to be occasionally alone, which I have always found to be a necessity in life when others become too claustrophobically overwhelming. Three vending machines – coffee-tea-cocoa, juice and soda, snacks and fruit, and a miniature refrigerator containing a variety of creamers. Not Acceptable.

A plump young woman looking barely old enough to vote was rifling through the fashion magazines. Howling Woodchuck gestured to the cover and rolled his eyes. “I wish women would realize skeletons don’t turn men on,” he said. Flirting! The plump girl regarded him gratefully. Would love bloom in our lengthy sequestration?

“Turning men on isn’t the be all and end all of every woman’s existence,” snapped the crone. Retired schoolmarm? I wondered. Some sort of gray panther. I noticed her nubby-woven peasant vest was ornamented with cat hairs. Too bad the metal detector lacked a vacuum attachment! I wondered if my fake asthma would be flaring up. So far its kept me out of my stepdaughters’ dog-and-cat infested homes.

The very plump woman introduced herself as Luna. “All those pictures are airbrushed anyway,” she said. “Nobody really looks like that.”

I amused myself picturing Howler and Luna’s Dueling Bellies. I have landed smack dab into a meeting of the Royal House of Cups here! Imagine attempting to defend oneself with a cup! They do not realize they are being fattened for slaughter.

Pentacles are magic, Swords rule, even Wands possess the power of fire. But the Cups? Their collective motto is “I’ll have another.”

Yes, you will. It makes you so much easier to take down. You can be bribed with a cookie. If shared tastes are key, these two trencher-persons, Howling Woodchuck and Luna, surely are made for each other. How many couples got their romantic start as fellow jurors?
The Gray Panther introduced herself to me, but I missed everything she said while attempting to identify her strange scent. Mothballs? Penicillin? Saved by the bell – the court clerk, a settled woman with a hairband and large unfashionable glasses put her head around the door.

“Time, ladies and gentlemen.” She distributed a notebook to each of us as we filed past.
In the red upholstered jury box we were the cynosure of all eyes. Every body at the prosecution and defense tables rose. It’s nice to be treated royally. Doesn’t happen often in this democratic society. The defendant crossed her wrists in front of her as if they were still handcuffed, or as if she were praying to us: the Gods of the Courtroom. She wore a long skirted suit of drab autumnal tweed to conceal her electronic bracelet, but her form fitting pink sweater left nothing to the imagination. Some men admire that red hair, but the skin that goes with it is usually problematic. The eyes she swept over us were feverish.

Who among our number was born to save her? I couldn’t believe she found much comfort in our motley crew; most dressed as if for a sporting event, and too obviously handicapped in life by a love affair with the pleasures of the table.

Both the prosecutor and the defense sat with their juniors: the prosecution had a huge, shambling young man who looked at if someone with a sense of humor dressed him in the morning, and at the defense table sat our photogenic Bond girl, holding a protective arm around the defendant. The visitors’ benches were packed.

The judge admonished us about custody of the eyes and brain. No discussing the case, no reading the news, no email, no Facebook. No social networking. It was only by reading the newspapers when I was safe home that I discovered that I discovered the “pro-forma” motion heard in our absence was to dismiss the case for lack of other than circumstantial evidence. Righteously tossed out. And we were off. Mr. Wilmot, who has always looked to me like a high school kid disguised as an old man for a play, stood up to give his opening statement. As he stands before the defense table, trying to kill this woman, a little shrinking violet trying to vanish behind her defenders, shall we rank Mr. Wilmot a King of Swords? Being as he has chosen a career of at least attempting to put people to death, I think we must.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a case about a woman who is accustomed to winning. A woman who has always been successful at persuading others to do her dirty work. A woman who simply didn’t like her brother-in-law, and who so made the decision that his existence should be terminated. Her family did not want to lose control over her niece, and in the contentious litigation in which the two families were engaged, Rafe Zanelli declared he would move his family out of state rather than allow Karen Sivarro’s family access. For that threat he paid with his life.

You already know that she has pled not guilty to the charges of conspiracy, of murder and of accessory to murder with which she is charged. After all, she didn’t buy the gun and never touched it or its bullets. She didn’t use her own dollars to pay the hitman, and according to our evidence only met him once, although they may have seen each other on several occasions. But the man who was her lover will come and testify in this court that it was she who gave sole birth to this idea of murder, that she nagged him relentlessly into hiring the murderer, then continued to wheedle every day until the crime was accomplished.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is a crime, even though gunpowder never touched her fingers. This murder benefited the defendant and her family — and only them. It devastated many other lives, including the life of the man who will testify that she demanded of him as a test of love that he do this for her.

In trials, it often comes down to which witnesses you believe. I have every confidence that you will do an excellent job. Thank you.”

Mr. O’Hara rose, walked right over to our seats, placed his hand on the rail and gazed at ups with his crocodile eyes suddenly gentle in their bags of skin. I felt grateful to be in the back row. Those eyes were cynical; I could not read him. Under a thatch of sandy hair, those eyes were very old. Forget crocodiles; Mr. O’Hara is a dragon. Does he also wield a sword? Let us see.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I will not be making an extensive opening statement at this time, but I don’t want to let slip the opportunity to inform you that my client is absolutely innocent of these charges. The state has no case against her. Her crime has been to fall in love with a completely untrustworthy, drug addicted man who was cheating his clients and embezzling their money, a man who would stop at nothing to bind her to him, and for that she has already been heavily punished. No evidence connects her with this crime other than the most self-serving statements of this same man, who has by redirecting blame avoided the death penalty he so royally deserves. I have absolute trust that you will discharge your duty fairly and refuse to end the life of an innocent person. Thank you.” Slapped the rail and he was gone.

So we began.

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