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Queen of Swords: a novel

Chapter XI – The Wheel of Fortune

The state’s first witness was the dispatcher who had taken the anonymous 911 call. She, the preposterously pink-haired sedentary with pitted cheeks of ghostly adolescent acne. A tape of the call, of such poor quality I was amazed it could be introduced, was played for us. We were given transcripts so that we could follow every word. The court reporter, a mousy blonde with a hawk-like profile made a hash of it on her laptop.

“Scratch – scratch – report a man lying by the side of the highway.”

“Has he been hit by a car?” the dispatcher wanted to know. “Is he conscious and able to speak? Are there the cars still at the scene? Who is this speaking, please?”

There was one car at the scene, said the caller, besides his own, but this man was very dead. He had been shot in the face.

The dispatcher had tried her best to keep the caller on the line. But when police arrived at the scene, Mr. Good Samaritan had moved on.

The next witness was a policeman, a large uniformed man obviously comfortable with appearances in court. He produced a miniscule notebook and flipped aggressively through the pages. The victim was “shot multiple times”, then sprayed with gravel as if by a fleeing vehicle. Three shells were recovered and two weren’t. A deep wheel trench was photographed in the grass verge but it was too muddy to take a formal impression. The Yugo found at the crime scene had its back seat missing and its driver side door ajar. Registered to Rafael Zanelli, who was subsequently identified as the corpse.

State medical examiner was a huge man over six feet tall, garbed in a strangely double-breasted shiny suit of yesteryear. Was he hanging on to it hoping it would return to style? He improved my boring morning with the crime scene photographs. I studied each for a good long time. My stepfather died in the dark with a bag on his head; he was my only gunshot victim. What would I have seen if I’d removed the bag?

Both were slight, dark men with an addiction to tattoos and hair gel. This victim lay on his back on the pavement, his blue no-iron shirt unbuttoned to reveal a t- shirt that once doubled as a shop rag. His eyes were open, giving his face an expression of surprise. Of course he was surprised – according to what I’d read in the newspaper someone he thought wanted to buy his motorcycle suddenly opened fire on him. He probably died wondering which casual act in a lifetime of unthinking rudeness could have triggered such a vengeance. The wheel of fortune says that progressing souls might be chosen for reincarnation, but those who scrape through a lifetime of denial will be turned away.

There were multiple full-color close-ups of scorched entrance wounds in the chest and the side of the victim’s head. You could see where part of his jaw had been blown away. The blood was as gaudily red and as sticky looking as the paint on a Mexican Jesus. Several jury members barely glanced at the photos. The Gray Panther peeked through a handkerchief. Some woman from the bench behind the prosecution (obviously a Zanelli) hurried from the courtroom choking, swing doors banging loudly behind her.

I felt the touch of a hand. Ron Roccam was trying to give me something. Glad of any excuse to touch me? I welcomed the chance to read his palm. Knuckle hair suggests an ugly nude; his long headline says he’s risk-averse and has trouble making decisions. His typical answer to any question would be “It depends.” Such a man could be managed. He handed me a bullet. With so many levels of awareness, I was in danger of falling behind.

The bullet was a .38, one of two recovered from the body. Both seemed very small and squashed looking; unlikely to have caused so much damage. My stepfather wouldn’t have accepted them even for sinkers; he would have struck them from my hand and sent me searching for something better.

After the shot to the chest, the victim turned as if to flee. “Drop shot” to the spine. Neither shot was fatal. The head wound did the worst damage, entering the back of the head and exiting through the mouth, smashing his jaw and splitting his lip in half, pulverizing several teeth (we saw their chips littering the pavement) in the process. Then as he lay on the ground two more shots, head again, chest again. Bruises consistent with the possibility that he had been run over by the fleeing car, but the victim had been a miracle of strength and health and so there were no broken bones.
That was our morning. The judge announced that it was time for the lunch recess.

Back in the jury room, several fellow jurors announced they were not in the mood to eat after seeing all the crime scene photographs. Personally I thought they all looked as if they could afford to skip a meal; skipping several would have served them better. A weeklong cleanse wouldn’t be too much.

We seemed divided naturally in two camps; smokers and eaters. The thrill of free restaurant food, (paid for by the state), lent our congress an excited, almost festive air. Red Roccam actually raised his arms and chanted, “Field trip!”

I suspected the “strong stomach” gang would prove to be the power jurors. This was the gang I would need to get close to. Lacey declared herself too affected by the photographs to swallow a morsel, but she had given up smoking twelve years before and was terrified of re-infection. Addicts also are easy to manage.

We chose an Italian restaurant named La Trattoria because it was the closest to the courthouse. I recognized members from the courtroom audience already ensconced when we arrived. They pointed at us and whispered just like we were celebrities, and one member of the press actually moved to a closer table as if to overhear anything we might say. Wish I could have given him an earful!

Actually, I have a phobia about eating with others. Too many hungers stir up at once. My mother used to bring special treats home from the diner but they were only for my stepfather. The smells leaking from tinfoil packages laughed at me as they danced around the room. When I succumbed, it was only to see how many crumbs I could steal unnoticed from the edges. Restaurants also remind me too much of dates. The dating scene. The nerve of some hawk-eyed stranger daring to appraise me. Counting every morsel that I eat and weighing up the cost. Easier to eat alone so that I could pick publicly like a bird. Now I would rather have sex with any stranger than eat with the man who bought me dinner.

I am impatient too, and restaurant meals take far too long. What does a woman who has labored all her life to maintain a svelte physique want with all those courses? If you do indulge, you end up with that pressured feeling that can only be relieved by vomiting. And there’s no way you can guarantee having the ladies’ room to yourself. Phobia number two.

The Empress, my old mentor, warned me about letting others see my vulnerability. Virtually everyone you meet has a motive for controlling you; (even if all they want is to turn you into their assassin); you just don’t know about it yet. According to her, King Louis XIV’s mistresses, vying for his favor, loaded his tea with menstrual blood and sprinkled fragments of aborted fetuses into his food. So amusing that the poor King of France, the Sun King, was eating the worst food in Paris!
I ordered a salad. Lacey went for the Mediterranean individual pizza, the men chose the lasagna and spaghetti special (no hand-torn pasta here) and Luna was drawn to the beer-batter shrimp as a moth to flame.

Lacey’s eyes look shadowed and sad and her skin needed ironing. When she saw me studying her she began picking reflexively at the moles on her neck. She’s one of those tragic women who has bought the cultural whimsy that society can’t see a woman past breeding age. That her best years are behind her. I would see if taking her in hand could benefit either of us. A night at the sex club dressed in dominatrix gear would be the making of her.

My salad was slimy with dressing, virtually uneatable. God knows what spume they attached. I sent back for a side of plain lettuce. Iced tea with plenty of lemon helped. Dessert was “included”, so Howling Woodchuck ate mine, a thick wedge of “Mud Pie.” I could visualize him actually making and eating many mud pies in his childhood. We agreed to try Harvey’s next time, a chophouse with a buffet where you don’t wait to be served. I was going to have to coat my stomach lining with zinc to hang out with this pack.

If only I had known what witness was awaiting us, I would have run back. I would never have left at all.

The prosecutor Wilmot himself addressed us. “The state calls Zachary Tobin.”
We all turned our heads to the swing doors. They split apart, and there you were. My beautiful Knight of Swords. Time stood still and the universe became clear to me in that instant. I saw you last at the convenience store, buying scratch lotto tickets for derelicts, but I had seen you once before. You are my perfect match, a Gemini. We met on your birthday. Don’t you remember me? Your father brought you to our club as your birthday gift. I told your fortune before I relieved you of your virginity. The Twins that battle within you must rebel against earth and its limits. Change jingled in your pockets as you walked but I heard spurs. Here in the courtroom you looked right at me – you’d never recognize me without my mask – but I like to think something within you – your manhood, probably – stirred. You seated yourself in the witness box. Within touching distance. So the Wheel of Fortune turns.

I was the Lady in Red who welcomed you into the universe of passion five years ago. Your father wanted to watch but I could tell you longed for me to get rid of him, so we were alone in our velvet cave. Only the Goddess saw you pour your spirit into me. I often wondered about you in the seven years since. How could you forget me? You belong to me.

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