Masks of Morality

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Chapter 17

The next morning, Anna and Pierre drove to the courthouse together, Pierre at the wheel of his beat-up BMW. His fingers clutched the steering wheel. Along the way, Anna thought of losses: her daughters, six years of her marriage, her parents, and her youth.

The Plaintiff Attorney’s words flashed through her head: “The punitive damages of wrongful death…the spiraling effect on your family could net you at least ten million dollars.”

They no longer had their own kids to feed, clothe, and send to college. Why enable the media frenzy to exploit everybody’s suffering?

“We have each other Pierre,” she heard herself saying in the quiet of the car. Neither of them had spoken during the past twenty minutes while sitting in traffic. “That’s all I will ever need now. You and our sweet Jared.”

Pierre remained quiet, a solemn nod of his chin his response. The Golden Gate Bridge under their tires provided solace in an otherwise glum moment.

“I keep thinking” stammered Anna… ”what would happen to this bright college kid’s life if the jury found him guilty under a warped legal system, which offered “Liberty and Justice for some?” A convicted child killer, how would he be treated in prison?”

She knew she could never get over the anguish of destroying the Garth family, a young man’s life. There are enough youth’s lives destroyed in this world by cruel acts of revenge and ‘justice.’

Anna quickly chased those thoughts away, her mind refreshed from the first good night of sleep in months, maybe even six years. She and Pierre had made tender love last night and fallen asleep in each other’s arms after crying for an eternity. All that pent-up tension was now gone. Amazing that on the day of the trial that now wouldn’t be, she felt like herself again.

They had no idea of protocol, or if this tactic would even work. Is the political dishonesty of the justice system powerful enough to override….oh, she needed to stop thinking!

Finally, they were in the Mission District, turning off Seventh Street near the courthouse. They found parking easily, which had to be a good omen. Pierre got out of the car, went around to Anna’s side, opened her door, and handed her out to the sidewalk. She was once again his queen, and he her king.

Holding hands, heads held high, they approached the courthouse. Passersby stopped to stare. Faint whispers of “are they together again?” barely registered in Anna’s ringing ears. Reporters flocked around them in droves within feet of the BMW, so it was hard to move. Cameras flashed in their faces. Shouted questions came at them from all directions.

“Mr. and Mrs. Beauvais, have you reconciled your differences?” barked one reporter.

Neither Anna nor Pierre dignified the reporter with a response, not even the expected “no comment.” Together they pushed through the crowds. Determined. Confident. Excited about their decision. They didn’t answer one question thrown their way.

Meanwhile, at the Golden Gate Grind Café just across the bay, three parents from the elementary school gathered around a table, ready for the opening day of Beauvais vs. Garth to be aired live on the huge flat screen TV. The place was packed, all eyes on the screen.

“Is this being aired everywhere? Or just locally?” one of the patrons asked.

“Nationwide…heck, it’s like the OJ case or something, what with Mr. Big Bucks vs. Gorgeous Money Reaper there,” his friend replied.

Caryssa, Brenda, and Stan glanced at each other, cringing at the crude remark about Anna. “That guy is in for a surprise,” Caryssa muttered under her breath to the other parents.

“Yep…fresh entertainment for the masses,” whispered Stan.

“A true reality TV show, feeding on real people’s misery.” Caryssa needed a glass of wine and started wishing they met at a bar instead of the coffee shop. “Step right up folks, get your popcorn, the show is about to start!” she practically laughed the words out of her mind.

On the big screen, Defense Attorney John Mills walked into the courthouse, cameras flashing around him. He was on the small side, with a neat compact build, kindly eyes behind frameless glasses, and a pleasant, intelligent face. Stan thought; too soft a look? He took a gulp of his latte. Shit, he’ll be clobbered!

The reporters went wild. They thronged him, shoving mikes into his face, elbowing each other to get closer. “Do you believe the allegations that Pierre and Anna Beauvais were at fault for letting their daughter skateboard on a dangerous road and foggy day?”

Caryssa cringed at the callousness of this remark. “Let her skateboard?” Are these reporters parents themselves? Have they no clue about the willful defiance of a preteen?

“No comment,” Mills replied.

Another reporter “Is it not true that a twelve-year-old should know better than to be skateboarding on a narrow, winding road in inclement weather?”

The journalists swarmed the case like vultures, jostling for attention. More unnecessary fuel to the fire “The kind of weather that fogs windshields and makes it difficult for a driver to see?”

“No comment.”

“Mr. Mills, isn’t it true that your key witness is now ready to testify that indeed the then sixteen-year-old teenager was not driving to endanger…”

This time Mills didn’t respond verbally but gave an irritated wave of his hand, as if he were pushing away a swarm of flies.

The camera switched to a commotion off to the right, as the TV reporters continued gathering like predators fighting over the footage.

Unlike Mills, lead prosecutor Phil van Wagner looked flashy and charismatic. Tall, dark, and handsome. People Magazine had named him one of the sexiest men alive. Sexy. And ruthless.

“I heard van Wagner is a brilliant prosecutor. He outsmarts the defense in every case,” remarked a heavyset brunette woman at the next table. “Eats the defense team live, like a shark.”

Shit!” Caryssa wailed.

Brenda glanced at Caryssa with an odd look. “What, don’t you wanta get justice for Anna’s daughter? What kind of loyal friend is that? What do y’all think?”

“Yeah,” the woman’s companion replied. “I read in the paper he’s relentless, never rests. Both of them are Harvard Law grads…but their courtroom styles might be quite the contrast for the jury. I heard Mills is the diplomatic soft-spoken type.”

A shiver went down Caryssa’s spine, listening to this conversation. She felt frightened for Brandon. The images of his young face splashed all over front pages of the newspapers haunted her.

More camera flashes, pushing and crowding for coverage, then “Mr. van Wagner, is it true the victim’s parents are now going after more than ten million in punitive damages?”

“No comment,” replied van Wagner.

“Mr. van Wagner, what are the consequences of the defendant failing to step up until five years after the event?”

Caryssa thought she detected him slurring under his breath, “a prison sentence” as he walked away. Wow, what ever happened to constraints a lawyer can say?

Phil van Wagner looked dangerously impressive, a powerful figure. Very controlled, an arrogance radiating from him even through the veneer of silence.

The reporters swarmed around something happening ahead. There was a huge commotion directly in front of the courthouse. Now the camera was on Anna Beauvais, in a lime green cable-knit sweater, with her butterscotch hair blowing free.

Caryssa was struck by how beautiful Anna looked on the café’s big screen, all gleaming blond streaks and huge almond eyes. Eyes that for the first time in a long time looked bright and full of confidence.

“Mr. and Mrs. Beauvais, are you prepared to finally seek justice in the name of your daughter—actually your daughters since the second took her own life because of this needless tragedy?”

What Caryssa secretly hoped for came next.

Pierre responded with a subtle shake of the head, remaining silent.

Anna stopped, turned, and looked straight into the camera. “Why yes. We are prepared to seek justice. But not revenge. There will be no trial. My husband and I are pleased to announce that we are dropping the case against the defendant, Brandon Garth. Likewise, we seek no punitive damages.”

Yay!” Caryssa screamed the word, nearly falling out of her chair.

“The dog-and-pony show ends here!” Stan announced happily as he carried a fresh round of lattes to each parent.

“Seriously! Added Caryssa. “This media and legal circus have made enough money exploiting family tragedies!” She pointed directly at the TV screen airing the cast of amoral circus show characters. “Let them go back to their desks and think about what they’re doing. Surely this isn’t what they dreamed of during journalism or law school.”

Pandemonium broke loose. “Mr. and Mrs. Beauvais, surely you are not walking away from what could amount to a ten million dollar lawsuit of wrongful death for your young daughter against the defendant?!”

The two attorneys, who had already entered the courthouse, must have seen Anna’s response on the TV monitors from inside the lobby.

Phil van Wagner came back out, looking at Anna disbelievingly, and mouthing “No! Not another word!”

“Yes!” Stan yelled from his café seat at the Golden Gate Grind.

Reporters swarmed around Anna and Pierre, cameras flashed wildly. So many questions were being asked, it was difficult to comprehend any of them. Through all the commotion, the viewers could hear Phil van Wagner’s incredulous “Do you know how much time and money have been spent on this case since re-opening it over the past year and a half?”

A commercial came on, and the group of parents from the elementary school sat there stunned. Finally, Brenda broke the silence.

“Wow, that’s not what I was expecting!”

From across the café came laughter, then “Someone paid that good looking gal off to drop the case…come on! Like someone would drop the chance at ten million freakin’ dollars! This from a male wearing a do-rag, pirate-like bandana along his forehead, tied at the nape of his heavily tattooed neck.

“Yeah…like the rich fucking father…he has been wanting to protect his precious criminal son … this is vehicular homicide of a little girl!” screeched a red-haired woman with a ponytail poking up from the top of her head, like Pebbles from the Flintstones. “If it was my daughter, I’d want him fried!”

A little girl not all that much younger than the sixteen-year-old defendant at the time of the accident. Caryssa thought this as she glared at the woman stuck in the harsh Stone Age.

Stan exclaimed in a voice loud enough for others in the café to hear “Personally, I’m glad the case is being dropped … there’s too much pointing towards this outstanding young man being not at fault.”

Caryssa also purposely responded loud enough for others to hear. “Yeah, plus no amount of money will bring her daughters back. It would do nothing but crush yet another family.”

The unruly gang at the other table shot back dirty looks. “Shit man, give me the fuckin’ ten million, dumb ass if ya gunna just drop the case!” one of them said, glancing back at the TV screen.

Just then, the live report came back on. Spectators and reporters were still swarming around the courthouse. A reporter spoke into the microphone.

“This is Jamie Evans reporting live on KTVU, from San Francisco. We have just received word that the much-publicized case of Garth vs. Beauvais has been adjourned until further notice. There is no further report at this time. Thank you for tuning in. Now back to our regular programs. Local news coming up at five, and then at six national news.”

“There’s no way she dropped the case. Someone paid her off.” Repeated bandana dude.

The TV screen flashed back to the case, and all eyes in the café glanced up again. The camera was now inside the courtroom.

Defense attorney John Mills whispered something to Judge Yale. The judge took his gavel and gave it a good bang. “Court is recessed until further notice.”

“Oh my God, it hasn’t even started yet!” someone in the café yelled.

The camera was now focused on an intense interchange between van Wagner and Anna. The plaintiff’s lawyer was fixing Anna with an angry baffled look. The microphone picked up bits of their conversation.

“How could you give up this opportunity?” van Wagner hissed.

Opportunity? An opportunity to ruin yet another family? How could I not?” Anna replied calmly.

In the café, Stan proclaimed “Anna is ethical and classy to the bone. Even hard-core idiots like this attorney can sense the virtue radiating from her.”

“So true,” Caryssa joined in. “Anna is so beautiful inside and out. A real humanitarian.”

The camera did one last sweep before another cut to commercials. The lawyers at the prosecution table were squirming. A ten million dollar verdict and visions of percentages in their pockets fading away fast.

Caryssa and the rest of the parents decided they had had enough. The crowd inside was merciless. It was a gorgeous day, so they decided to take their lattes to the bistro tables out front. A huge palm tree waved in the sunshine, and the view of the Golden Gate Bridge was magnificent. Sailboats were everywhere, and the bay shone an exquisite turquoise blue.

The three of them sat in silence for a few minutes, Brenda almost sulking.

“Are you really upset Anna dropped the case? Caryssa admonished.

“Well…no, not really. I’m just amazed,” Brenda said.

“I’m not,” Caryssa responded. “I would have been amazed if she hadn’t dropped the charges. Disgusted actually!”

“I’m relieved at the outcome,” Stan glanced at each of them. “I don’t want Brandon, the alleged defendant, having to swear his innocence to a non-compassionate judge and biased jury.”

“And the prosecution team playing up the aggressive male driver story,” Caryssa added. “I could not have sat and watched that inhumane, unfair crap.”

“Oh my God, Caryssa! She was a twelve-year-old girl!” Brenda exclaimed.

“Yes! And he was only a sixteen-year-old boy!” Caryssa argued. “You sound like pitiless Pebbles back in the café, wanting her revengeful bam-bam.”

Brenda did not seem to connect the remark with the crude patron that wanted the kid “fried.”

She continued “He is still so young, a twenty-one-year-old college kid. His entire life is in front of him! Get over it, Brenda!”

“Well, I still wonder if this whole terrible tragedy could have been avoided,” Brenda crushed her latte cup in the palm of her hand “I sure hope he wasn’t driving fast or drunk. No matter, the whole thing just sucks.”

“Just look at his record now,” Caryssa intoned. “He’s a straight A medical student, highly respected by his professors and peers, by all reports does no drugs, only drinks socially, and that very lightly. He has never even gotten a speeding ticket. That hardly sounds like a menace to society. And I’m just disgusted with a system that is so revengeful and cruel it would define ‘justice’ as Anna getting multi-millions of the fucking almighty dollar while this beautiful kid gets bullied and beaten up or worse in prison!”

“True. Our nation’s statistics with so many in prison is embarrassing enough,” Stan spread his arms upward, revealing his palms. “And what scares me is that could be one of our kids someday. Just got their license, driving very cautiously due to fog and poor visibility. Then the dare-devil, risk-taking skateboarder flies into the street out of nowhere—a dare-devil skateboarder pissed off at her mom I might add—and next thing you know, an innocent child accused of killing another innocent child. ”

“Or it could be one of our kids on the skateboard,” Brenda countered. “Let’s face it, our kids will defy our orders. Didn’t we go against what our parents suggested at times ourselves?”

“No way, no skateboards will be allowed in my family!” Caryssa exclaimed. “Well, at least not anywhere on the streets…Inner Park only.”

“That was Anna’s rule,” Brenda reminded her quietly.

“OK, then no skateboards at all. Those things are too dangerous. I tell Tyler that it isn’t wise for anyone to even ride bikes in the streets, including adults. Why take chances around cars, never mind breathe all those toxic fumes.”

“Oh, come on Caryssa! You’ve ridden your bikes with Tyler over the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalito and Tiburon several times…which means you’ve ridden on the streets. Winding streets. Just like the ones this little girl rode her skateboard on against her mother’s instructions. And we see Tyler on a scooter all the time. He skis steep mountains and climbs tall jagged rocks. So say Tyler got rolled over by the grooming machine at a ski resort. Would you not want to have a trial against the driver?”

“If the driver was at fault, maybe. But you’re forgetting that there is too much indication that Brandon was not at fault. It’s possible Bianca was at fault. We can’t be sending innocent kids to prison or putting a delicate family through that. It solves nothing. And yeah, we’ve ridden on the streets. It’s hard not to. But I prefer not to ride on streets at all with Tyler. Nine out of ten rides we take are off-road.”

Stan chimed in. “And no matter what, even if a child is willfully defiant to her parents like they all would be at some time, even if she is innocent of anything but that willful defiance…nothing can justify taking revenge for her life. Not when we have so much reasonable doubt. We as a society, put innocent people—kids—in prison way too much, while the real criminals walk.”

A small, uncomfortable silence fell over the group. Brenda changed the subject.

“Hey Stan, where’s your little guy Kieran today?” she asked.

“Stacy’s working from home, so we decided to have him play at home while I watch the trial. Speaking of which, I should go relieve her so she can get some work done! He must be bugging the crap out of her!”

After Stan left, Caryssa decided to ask Brenda what she had wanted to ask for the past hour. She leaned towards her friend. “OK, let it out, something is bothering you girlfriend. What’s up?”

Brenda looked momentarily startled. “Is it that obvious?” Then she hesitated.

“Yeah, it is. You way overreacted to this whole trial thing.” Caryssa looked straight into Brenda’s eyes, keeping her head neutral. “I can tell something else is going on. And it’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it. I won’t push. But I’m here if you need an ear. Is it about the trial?”

Brenda sighed and looked at Caryssa gratefully. “You know me so well. It’s nothing to do with Anna or the trial. I haven’t spoken to anyone about what’s bothering me. I’m too embarrassed, or maybe too guilt-ridden.”

Guilt-ridden? You couldn’t have done anything too bad…you are the epitome of motherhood, a female Einstein, a beautiful goddess, splendid in nature, representing all things good and pure…which is why I was flabbergasted that you would even think Brandon Garth should be put away!”

Although, Brenda does fall off the ‘good and pure’ train, at times drowning in the syrup of patriotic sentimentality with the rhetorical sloppiness and authoritarian shallowness of our cultural insistence of “hero “worship of violence. That, we can do without.

“I cheated on Ron,” Brenda blurted. “So that’s how ‘good’ I am!” Within seconds, the tears were streaming down her cheeks. “Do you know how I feel? It’s not just Ron’s trust I violated, which is bad enough. I feel like I’ve cheated my children! I’ve rocked their world, deflated their perfect little float, and crapped on their daddy!”

Caryssa was stunned into silence. “Wait, you told the kids?”

“Of course not! Nor Ron. But my soul knows!”

“Brenda, honey. Okay, so you made a mistake. It sounds like you’d never do it again.”

“It’s not that easy! I mean, no I won’t let it happen again, no matter what. But every time I look into my kids eyes, I see Ron. I’ve violated my family, my children, and their world!”

A couple came out of the café to the bistro area where Brenda and Caryssa were sitting by themselves.

Caryssa smiled at Brenda. “Do you want to take a walk, where it’s more private?” she whispered.

“Yeah,” Brenda replied, gathering her things. “Good idea. Let’s go sit in my car.”

Once they were settled in the car, Caryssa just listened as Brenda continued. “No matter what, I won’t tell them. But no matter what, it will be on my conscience. They won’t know, I can’t let that hurt into their lives. Any of them. But I know!” and here she broke down sobbing. “I know, Caryssa! How am I supposed to live with that?”

“Oh Brenda, I know it must be so hard,” Caryssa pulled her friend into a warm hug. “I think…I think anything that happens to us or our family, we tend to think of our children first. Like I think about if I lost George…it would not be just me I would be grieving for. I would be grieving far more for Tyler.”

The two women sat in silence for a moment. Then Brenda continued. “I can’t, I just can’t let the kids know, or Ron. But it’s the kids I worry about it affecting the most. I hope my own hurt doesn’t seep through to them. You know how family secrets can end up hurting kids just because they are secrets? How kids pick up on what isn’t being said? The proverbial family elephant in every room? I’m so afraid my secret is going to do that to them somehow. And if it did? I’d never forgive myself.”

“Don’t keep blaming yourself,” Caryssa straightened her body, spreading her palms in front of her. ”I mean, if it happened, there has to be a reason, Brenda. Everything happens for a reason. And in marriages? It takes two to keep the passion alive. You and Ron are in this together, and if you were drawn to cheat, Ron has a part to play as well. So what is missing in your life, your marriage? You don’t have to tell me, but just think about it.”

“Well, it’s weird. The guy I was with…I’m not even really attracted to him. I love Ron so much. I guess…well, between the day-to-day martyrdom of motherhood, Ron working long hours, and…I swear with two kids and both of us working so hard, we can go five or six months without sex. It’s not Ron’s fault any more than mine. I’m too damn tired!”

Caryssa chuckled “Yup that’s the story of more than half the moms I know, including me…too damn tired. We can easily go months without intimacy, even in the best of marriages!” But truthfully, for Caryssa, she is happier being a Mom than when sex was so within reach. She feels the love.

Brenda continued her head down towards her lap. “And…I don’t know…his attention made me feel like an attractive woman again…one thing led to another…”

“Well Brenda, I guess in time you’ll feel better, the guilt will dissipate. You said it won’t happen again. Just look at it as a mistake, learn from it, and move on. And remember … it’s not all your fault. It takes two to keep the spark lit.”

Meanwhile, in a certain Sausalito loft, two lovers who had been married and then divorced and who had just beaten the justice system were rediscovering just what it meant to keep the spark alive.

And sparks were flying.

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