The jury left the room with Tom Blake’s life.
Tom sat in the wooden chair behind the defendant’s table, trying not to look terrified. A tall man, two years short of forty, with silver-blond hair and cobalt blue eyes, he didn’t look like a serial killer. He was lean, in good shape, with wide shoulders and a narrow waist.
Most serial killers didn’t look like murderers or psychopaths, or at least that’s what he heard watching commentary on his case.
The News Media had him cold. Since the day of his arrest he was portrayed as guilty on TV screens across America. The only question worth discussing, according to commentators and experts, was in regards to the death penalty.
Even here the discussions were not about whether California should execute him, but on California’s troubled death penalty system. The state had not executed anyone on death row since 2006, and now in 2013, a law suit was in motion to shut down California’s death penalty system, citing it as arbitrary and plagued with delay; unconstitutional.
In San Diego, the emotions around this subject were extreme. The public, at least those shown in the News Media, were close to violence every time the possibility of Blake not being executed because of this law suit was discussed.
Tom prayed that suit would not succeed. If he were found guilty, he didn’t want to live. Every hour of living after a guilty verdict for these horrors, would be bitter anguish for his wife and daughter. Declaring him guilty, and then forcing him to endure his daughter’s torment and his wife’s despair, the injustice of destroying their lives further by keeping him alive would be inhuman. What they accused him of wasn’t simply murder. The crime went far beyond taking the lives of five teen-age girls No, it was far worse than merely killing them.
The News Media called him the Coroner Killer. The name caught and held as soon as it was used in the San Diego Union-Tribune, just after the police discovered the second victim. Technically, three murders were needed for a crime to be recorded as a serial killing, but again the News Media cared little about technical details.
The crime itself, when graphically described in this court room over the last two weeks, caused Tom to experience vertigo, and disorientation. They were horrors so strong that he had his lawyer, Charlene “Charlie” Davis, petition the court to have the prosecution warn her if they were going to engage in further displays of graphic extremes, so that his wife and daughter could leave the room. They had of course already heard the descriptions, but the argument that the damage was done, was both false and unfeeling. Just because you mashed your thumb with a hammer, didn’t make you immune to a second or third strike. The judge agreed and ruled that the prosecutors would announce an hour before indulging in another shock circus.
Tom nearly puked during their first performance.
No one in the court room came through that first spectacle unscathed. Charlie was happy to petition the court for Tom. She was also furious at the prosecutor for wheeling out that horror show, posed as evidence. It was nothing of the kind, she told him.
“All of their evidence is circumstantial, with bloated values. The D.A.’s freak show was a grab for the emotional reins of the jury’s minds. And I’m not going to let them get away with that horse shit.”
Over the next two weeks, Tom decided that ‘furious’ wasn’t close to her mental state. She set out to bleed the D.A., and hang him like a deer. Every witness she disgraced, every pseudo-fact she exposed, every omittance she paraded out to the jury and lashed it bloody with her razor mind. Tall, curved and strong, Charlie personified power and demonstrated a near clairvoyant perception of the human condition. She lured in the men of the jury with her deep blue eyes and artful use of her long legs, while empowering the women — giving them the tools and strength not to fall for a freak show, just because the D.A. decided these five girls weren’t worth arresting the right man for their murders.
She crucified the prosecution. Without a hint of her rage or a tremor in her voice, she throat-punched them, and rammed her spiked heels through their balls.
“Aren’t you being a bit too vindictive?” Tom asked her during one of the breaks.
“No, Tom, I’m not. You have to understand how powerful a visual display is on the emotions. You also have to understand that we don’t make decisions based on logic or reason. Not me, not you, and not one of those people in the jury. We decide based on emotional values, and then use our reason and logic to justify those decisions. Emotions are powerful, and near invincible if they are combined with a personal connection to their audience.”
Tom nodded, but wasn’t convinced.
Charlie put her notebook down and leaned her elbows on the table, “Do you remember Baby Jessica? Back in 1987?”
Tom nodded, his interest piqued, “Sure. She was all over the news. She was, what? Two years old or something, and fell down an unstable well? Rescuers couldn’t reach her without the sides of the well collapsing.”
Charlie nodded, “Exactly. But, why did we care? The whole nation went catatonic when that story hit the streets. And yet, kids fall in holes, drown in rivers, and get sucked up into the atmosphere by tornadoes every year. Every year more than a hundred stories about young kids like her, in danger, are printed and reported. We didn’t go into a torrent over them. Hell, those kids were lucky if we remembered their stories for an hour after they were reported.”
Tom thought about that, and then shrugged, “I don’t know.”
“Well, you should, because your life depends on the reason Tom. People across America were sucked up into an emotional storm because the small town reporter didn’t put on the wire that day -- that an eighteen month girl fell into a well. What hit the wire was that Baby Jessica was trapped inside an unstable well shaft. Rescuers could hear her crying but couldn’t reach her.”
Tom looked down at the table top, and then looked back up, “He gave us a name, and an emotional connection.”
“Yes. Humans are the same across the world. We all love our children, and what that story did was to report that our child was in danger, and that’s how America responded. Jessica became America’s little girl, and our response was an unstoppable storm. I sometimes wonder what rage might have lashed across the nation if she had died in that well. And when I do, my spine goes cold.”
She picked up her notepad again and leaned back in her chair, “And I’ll be damned if I’ll let that ass of a D.A. do that shit to you.”
What happened to the five girls murdered by the Coroner Killer certainly held the all the ingredients for conjuring a lynch mob, Tom thought, watching her read her notes and make changes for the next session. After her explanation, he wondered if what she had done so far was enough. Enough to get those twelve people to put down the rope?
Thinking back to his days in Iraq, and then in Afghanistan, to his experiences with fanatical believers, Tom became less sure of his situation. For the first time he questioned the real value of facts in his case, and began to consider the possibility that no matter how many times she disproved their evidence, or unmasked their lack of facts, it might not be enough. Charlie was right, once people formed a mob mentality, and sucked up enough justifiable rage, they didn’t care who they hung. It wasn’t a need for justice any longer. It was a need to persecute the violation, and to savage the one who dared the outrage. A need to brandish a wrath so strong, no one would dare endanger their daughters again. Ever.
It was fear. Fear that their daughter, their child could have this horror happen to her. Fear that they could do nothing, and terror that her murderer would not only walk away, but be free to violate another child. Someone had to hang. If he wasn’t the right guy, he would serve.
And if later they discovered the another guy, well, they would hang him too — just to make sure the message was clear.
Tom’s eyes remained on the door the members of the jury had left through to deliberate. Feeling his hands begin to shake, he placed them in his lap. He wanted to turn around and give his wife and daughter a smile, but was afraid it would look more like a grimace, or worse. Samantha, his wife, never showed a glimmer of doubt in him through this whose affair. Angie, his daughter, was scared and had been since his arrest. He didn’t believe she thought he was guilty, but she was afraid, and confused.
The girls were not simply killed, they suffered. Tortured -- that was the real word for the abuse they endured. The newscasts called them the Coroner Killings. It was an apt name. The girls were cut open; a Y-incision across the chest. Then a bone saw split their rib-cages. After that, organs were pulled out. Somewhere during the process of this autopsy on the living, this dissection, the girls died. No pain medications were used, no sign the victims were asleep at the time. Expert testimony agreed the five girls were alive and alert when their sternums were split. Heavy doses of adrenaline was used by the killer on the victims to keep them alive and alert during the dissection.
These were the crimes Tom was accused of; monstrous acts against living beings.
The people in this court room, in the gallery behind the bar, didn’t help Angie’s fear. He couldn’t always hear what they said in low voices, but he could hear the hate, and anger. The better Charlie was at demonstrating the prosecution was running a case of passion not evidence, the harsher the gallery voices became. These people were convinced before the first day of court that he was guilty, and were resentful of her muddying the waters with her high dollar words.
The whole event felt surreal. Several times he felt out of body, in wonder that he was just sitting here, as they accused him of these horrors and not fighting back. This court was a direct threat to his life and his family. Why wasn’t he responding? Why didn’t he turn around when someone in the gallery said, ”Just kill this fucker already," because another expert witness was surgically castrated by Charlie in cross examination, and blow a hole through the asshole’s head?
Yet he never moved. He never once turned around to see who threatened him. Not once.
His unit in Afghanistan believed him to be fearless. What would they think of him now?
He left the Army a captain, with several combat ribbons and a silver star. He went in as a medic, to gain the support offered by the GI bill. He had six years of college before joining the army. Samantha supported them during those years. Occasionally he would get an odd job — paint a house or clear out a yard — but that was pizza money.
Samantha didn’t want him to join, she argued that she could continue to support them, but every year became tighter with Angie getting near her teens, and it was obvious they were losing ground. He told her he would be a medic, and that it would be alright.
The first day in Iraq he was shot in the leg. The medics didn’t wear red crosses on their backs in Iraq, because the enemy only used them as targets.
“Relax Tom,” Charlie whispered to him, leaning close to his ear. “The longer they deliberate the better it is for us. It means we’ve given them doubt. As long as doubt exists, you’re safe. Hopefully they’ll be back there several hours. In another fifteen minutes I’m going to request that we be allowed a lunch break.”
Tom nodded his head, but didn’t trust his voice to speak.
Then came the knock at the door.
The knock silenced the room. It had only been twenty minutes at most. Tom checked his watch: nineteen minutes. Nineteen minutes was all it took for them to decide the question of his continued existence.
The deputy walked to the door and opened it, then stood back as the jury filed in, their faces stone and deliberate. Tom’s body went cold, as if preparing for the grave.
Charlie’s voice hissed with rage, “There’s no way I screwed up this bad.”
She put her hand on his thigh, and then looked back at his wife and daughter. He silently thanked her for that gesture, one he was incapable of making.
The judge’s expression was grim, and though he tried to hide it, doubtful. “Has the jury reached a clear verdict?”
His question reached every corner of the silent room. His emphasis on the word ′clear′ didn’t escape anyone.
One of the jurors stood up, a middle aged man, with balding black hair and a prominent gut. Tom noticed he wore a suit with jacket each day. They fit him as only tailored suits could. His black rimmed glasses gave him the look of an accountant. His confidence and ease were not welcome to Tom’s eyes. “Yes your honor, we have.”
The judge studied the man, his eyes pressing into him all the weight of his authority, but the accountant stood untroubled. “You’re all in complete agreement?”
The juror nodded his head solemnly, “We are your honor. We are in full agreement and without doubt.”
The judge leaned back in his chair, and looked at his desk top for several breaths. His eyes then rose to meet Tom’s, “Then the defendant shall rise and face the jury.”
Tom didn’t remember standing. He felt like the will of the judge had lifted him out of his chair. His mind panicked, scrambling in chaotic thoughts, clawing at his skull as if trying to escape his body.
The judge returned his attention to the accountant who faced Tom without flinching. “Please give the court your verdict.”
The accountant unfolded the paper in his hand, and studied it for a moment. “We find the defendant, Tom Blake, not guilty of all charges.”
There was an intake of breath, a silent pause and then the gallery exploded in rage and voices.
For Tom the room is far away. All he can hear is the thump of his heart beating against his ear drum. Conflicting emotions send him back to his chair with a long exhale, feeling as if he had been holding his breath for two weeks.
Charlie is standing, she’s saying something, and smiling, but Tom can’t make out the meaning. He nods dumbly, and hopes his smile looks genuine for her. The inside of his skull now sounds like a radio station tuned to an off channel. He feels something hit his head. He blinks, and sees a Bible laying sprawled open on the table, its spine is split. He studies it, wondering which page it was open to.
Then Samantha is beside him, leaning over and hugging him. Her lips are on his forehead and his cheek. Then she’s fussing with a tissue against his scalp, pulling it away full of blood. His daughter Angie is on his other side, kneeling, hugging his waist. He pets her hair and brushes a tear from her cheek.
Then the chaos came through his shock-bubble as if violently popped from a fast altitude drop. Tom turned and found that the court deputies were clearing the room. Five of them were pressing the last of the gallery out of the large wood doors -- faces and fists flashed into view over their shoulders as they pushed the public and media out.
Tom turned his attention to the D.A.’s table. District Attorney, Norris Arroyo packed up his notes and folders with sharp robotic motions. His light-skinned Latino colorings looked attractive and professional framed inside his dark blue suit and red power tie. His hair was perfect, and so was the thin mustache. The prosecutor ignored Tom’s existence.
Homicide Detective John Roads was less subtle. The polar opposite in description from the D.A., Detective Roads was five-ten, three-hundred pounds and dressed in a tan sports jacket that looked as if it was trying to escape from his body. Thinning dark brown hair, and a face too small for his head, gave Roads a shifty, mean appearance. The detective openly studied Tom, flashes of wrath setting gold fire to his brown eyes.
There’s nothing Roads can do now. The trial is over, Tom reminded himself, wishing he believed the words, but the passion fueling the detective’s glare seemed to bend reality into a dimension where Not Guilty was a meaningless phrase; where Double-Jeopardy simply meant Round Two.
Charlie walked over to the deputies and discussed how they were going to get the Blake’s out of the court room and safely to their car. Tom stood up, and looked around, letting the shock and awe of his ordeal pour off him. He felt stronger, and clear headed. The courtroom was a place he had no power. I could only sit and observe. This passive role came as a burden, a weight, and that weight pressed him until the air felt too thick to breath. That part was over now. This part he understood.
When Tom came back from the Middle East he found he could no longer concentrate on his medical studies. He only had two years to complete and six months of residency for his medical license. He ducked his head and bulled forward, but the more he forced the more depressed he became. Then one morning while getting ready for a shift, his mind began planning a way out, a permanent one. Samantha had known long before he talked with her, and agreed that it just wasn’t meant to be.
“What do I do?” he asked her, “What do we do? We’ve got more debt in student loans than we have in this house.”
“You have a doctorate in medicine Tom. You may not be able to finish your residency, and maybe you shouldn’t. You’ve seen enough blood and wounds for several lifetimes. But you still have a degree. Let’s just agree for now that you’re not going to have a license to practice because even if you did, right now, today, it wouldn’t do us much good. Right?”
Tom agreed, “No, it wouldn’t.”
“So, let’s talk again in a week or so. Finish your other requirements for the degree, you’re nearly done right?”
“Good, then relax, and just let your mind wander for awhile. Read, explore new areas. Garden, wrench on the car, paint on a canvas, go to the boxing gym.”
Her suggestion didn’t feel like a solution, but he could try it, two or three weeks of fucking around might help him with this depression, and the anxiety he woke with several times a week. He still hadn’t told her about that, and he’d been home for six months. He tried the VA, and was put on a year waiting list for treatment. He figured any malady he had that could go untreated for a year, couldn’t be much of a problem.
Two weeks later while visiting some friends, he found himself in a discussion about medical equipment. Jake, a man he met we he first started college described to him a field unit the company he worked for were going to manufacture. Tom tried to keep his opinion to himself as Jake described the design and materials. The whole thing was ludicrous though. More than useless it was close to designing malice.
When he opened his mouth, he couldn’t shut up. He took the whole design apart and described in fine detail how a medic in the field would not only be able to save a life with that design, but would likely get him and his unit killed.
“I’m sorry Jake, you didn’t invite us over for me to rip your success apart,” he said after his rant, feeling embarrassed when he noticed the expression Jake’s wife, Catherine, showed — something close to the stress created from denying herself the pleasure of putting her salad fork through his left eye. Samantha looked embarrassed as well.
Jake didn’t get defensive or even angry. He offered Tom a job.
From there, Tom looked into investing in what he understood, field medical equipment, both for military and civilian use. In two years his decisions, and research were bringing in more than the six-figures he was being paid as a design specialist with Jake. And it was working. The challenges from both squashed his depression, and he couldn’t remember the last time he woke with an impending sense of violent death. He even returned to playing poker, a pastime he discovered a natural talent for in college.
Up to this point, he had only a passive role in what his future would bring after he was arrested. He understood the people out in the hallway were angry, and hurt. He no longer needed to sit, and take it now. Passive was over. He wouldn’t draw first blood, but he would defend himself and his girls.
Walking over to Charlie and the deputies he said, “How far is it to the elevator?”
The deputies gave him a placating look.
Tom looked them over, “If you don’t want to go outside of this door with me, that’s fine, but don’t hinder me when I do what I have to in defense of my family. Either we go, or you stay and clean up after we’re gone. I don’t care.”
“Look Mr. Blake,” one of them began.
“The name is Tom, and I’m well aware of my rights. Apparently none of you are out there clearing the hallway, so if you try to arrest me for incitement, I’m sure Charlie will have your nut sack faster than you can spit.”
Charlie turned to them, “Faster than that. So enough talk. Like he said, help or get out of our way.”
“You don’t have to come Charlie, you won your battle. The hall will be clear once we’re in the elevator.”
“Screw that, I have a victory date with a stud. I’m in front if they aren’t.”
The deputies succeeded in getting them to wait for two more to join them, and then they opened the doors and went out into the hallway.
The courthouse hall was already a riot in progress and Tom didn’t notice any rise in the emotional wrath. They already had their throttles back as far as they could go. Once Tom and his family, led by Charlie, exited the courtroom doors. Charlie arranged for six Sheriff deputies to get them to the elevator. The crowd surged as a flash flood of anger and glass. Their progress came at the expense of those who broke against Tom and the deputies. Word must have reached down the hall that they were out of the court room because several more deputies and San Diego policemen came out of doors and up from the stairs at the end of the hall.
Within the cocoon of deputies, Tom and his family were pressed from the rear, and pushed from the sides. Angie staggered, but Tom tightened his hold on her, identified the enemy, and rammed the palm of his hand against the side of his nose. Feeling a satisfying crack, he gave the man a hard look, and the others near him took the warning. They had their time, and he wasn’t going to apologize for being found not guilty.
Something plastic hit Tom on the shoulder and a Taser was fired. Ozone lit the air and a young man faltered within the vice grip of the Taser, and then he was down. Two officers pulled the young man into a side hallway. The shouting increased.
“Electrocute him!” A woman screamed, pointing at Tom as they passed, but then yelped when Angie kicked her in the shin. Ahead of them, Tom saw several SDPD uniforms slamming people into walls and onto the hard tile floors. Hand cuffs were used and then the nylon-plastic cuffs appear. When three more officers came off the elevator and into the fray only five yards away, Tom smiled.
Once inside the elevator they road down to the garage where Samantha was allowed to park during the trial. The Toyota SUV looked undamaged. The deputies waited until Tom and his family were inside, and the car was started, before returning to the elevator. Charlie was flushed with excitement and gave them an energized wave, then pulled her keys from her bag and headed for her own car.
The hybrid engine made so little sound, unless you were standing next to it, you couldn’t tell if it was powered on. Samantha pressed the petal and eased them into downtown traffic, heading for the 163 Freeway.
It was supposed to be over. For Tom, during the last forty-eight days after his arrest, all he could focus on was the trail itself. He never considered the aftermath. He never considered the amount of hate and anger which would erupt once he was acquitted. Acquittal was the goal, and in his mind, the end of the process. Walking through that hallway again in his mind, noting the hate and anger — the rage — he wondered if the aftermath of this ordeal wasn’t going to present a greater challenge than the ordeal itself.
As Samantha navigated them onto the highway heading north, his mind became sluggish. A feeling of serration descended on him, and his eyes wouldn’t focus. Cut away. Carved away and unmade, even unreal. Rubbing his eyes with one hand, he felt tendrils of confusion thicken his thoughts, stirring them around.
He let down his window and felt better in the blast of cool air, and traffic noise. The harsh wind disturbance cleared the compression and twisting tendrils.
“Is it over?” Angie asked from the back seat, mirroring his thoughts with her fears. Her shoulder-length blond hair was flat today, with none of the waves or braids she was fond of using. It made her look nine, instead of fourteen. Her eyes were wide, as if still attempting to project onto the world what she felt this moment should have been like – not anger and terror, but happiness and relief. Her father was not guilty of the sickest crimes she had ever heard about in her short life. The questioning fear in her eyes told Tom her inner projections had met heavy resistance, and suffered extreme damage.
“Yes Angie, it’s over,” Samantha told her, before Tom could put together an answer from his fragmented thoughts.
“One of those women spit on me,” Angie said, in low voice with no inflection.
Tom looked back to her, but her attention was drawn to the trees and gardens as they passed through the Balboa Park area.
Samantha reached over and took Tom’s hand in hers, giving him a gentle squeeze, as if reassuring herself he was in the car with them, and really going home with them. Not to prison, not to the electric chair.
With sudden clarity Tom recognized the emotional state he was experiencing. He felt this same psychological state on his way home from the war, four years ago. His first three days after leaving Afghanistan was like this; unable to envision the future, unable to see a way clear of the battle fields.
The men and women in his unit use to talk around coffee cups, in holes and bunkers and caves, about what they were going to do when they got home – what they missed the most. The talks always began with large things like vacations, and high-roller trips to Atlantic City, or Hawaii. As the night wore on it was the little things that pressed on them: hot baths, laughing children, sunrise, home grass, ocean surf.
Standing on the tarmac waiting for the air transport, none of those came to mind. There was only the numbness of being. Several times he didn’t respond to his name when called. It wasn’t that he didn’t hear his name – his name simply was an irrelevant reference to him.
He never told anyone that part of his affliction, but it was true. Through those three days of being shipped home, he drifted from one stop to the next, hauling his gear as an automaton. It was like his body was preparing for hibernation; shutting down all non-essential activity and awareness — just like it was doing now.
The memory was an odd comfort, because the mental state passed after a few days and never reasserted itself -- until now. Now? Now it seemed he would have to rebuild himself all over again.
Post-traumatic stress disorder – that’s what they called his condition when he was debriefed and evaluated. His psych told him he was a clear example, and that, because of his duty and experience, it was more normal to come home with PTSD, than to show no signs of the disorder.
His defense had been out of his hands. There was nothing he could do to add to his innocence, or alter the facts of his past actions. All of his actions, his words, and his history were used against him, just as they told him it would be when he was arrested. Even his service to his country was used as a method to deface his appearance and character. Honorable discharge notwithstanding, his record gave him the skills, and even the need, to do these crimes. Nothing was left untainted by the prosecution, or the press.
Still, this was a far cry from being in the field. Few ordeals would equal relying on his unit to defend him, while he shoved some trooper’s intestines back into his gut and super-glued him shut.
Every week he pulled soldiers, men and women, back-together after being disemboweled by hot shrapnel. Learning to focus on the wounded while bullets winded through the air, and slammed into the bank he took cover from, to blast sand in his face. The awful nightmare clarity of everything around him, down to ants and even scorpions crawling in the dirt; wondering how many of those insects he had shoved into the man’s belly along with his bowels. For months after he was home he would wake from dreams of creatures crawling inside his guts.
No, it wasn’t the same – but there were parallels, and the mind loved parallels and patterns. There were enough. Enough to fuck with him, to pull him back and down.
The phone rang and Samantha clicked it on through the hands-free system. Tom’s sister, Drew, was on the line, “You all ok?”
Drew’s voice sounded worried through the sound system speakers. “You’re all over the news. It’s like watching a small riot.”
“We’re fine, we’re almost home,” Samantha assures her, as she turned to make eye contact with Angie, assuring her as well.
Drew was silent for a beat and then said, “I’m not talking about the courthouse, I’m talking about your house. There’s a mob of people and newsies there. Maybe you should come up here.”
“You’re all the way up in Julian, Drew,” Samantha said, glancing over at Tom. “That’s more than an hour from here.”
“That’s sort of my point. If you aren’t home now, then you should stay someplace else tonight, and perhaps for the weekend.”
“Is it really that bad?” Samantha asked, lines of concern marring the smoothness around her blue eyes.
Tom feels a nudge on his left arm. Turning he finds Angie is passing him her iPad. He takes the it and watches the segment from YouTube. The segment is from a hand-held camera phone. It shows his house, which is under assault from at least a hundred people. News crews and police are there, but not doing much except watching the crowd yell and occasionally throw things at the house. There are banners and signs. People are shouting protest rants.
“Yeah,” Tom says to his wife, “It’s that bad. Drew, we’ll see you in awhile. We’ll stop and get some groceries on our way up, and a couple changes of clothes. We’ll so some real shopping tomorrow.”
“It will be good to see you little brother. I’ll have the rooms ready.”
Samantha said their good-byes and cut the connection of the cell-phone. “Do you really think this is a good idea?” she asked.
Tom took the wheel with his left hand and handed her the iPad, “Look for yourself.”
Samantha scowled at him, but took the iPad, and after a minute, “Ok, so we go to Julian, but seriously, we have to go home some time. Isn’t there something we can do about this?”
“I’ll call Charlie, maybe she’ll have some suggestions,” Tom said, taking back the iPad. “But not today. She deserves a break, and I need to clear my head,” Turning he handed the pad back to his daughter, “Thanks baby.”
“It looks pretty violent,” Angie suggested, looking back at their home under siege.
“It’ll be fine,” Tom told her, “We’ll get it all cleaned up.”
Drew Rivers was a tall blond, but not the platinum of her brother. Her hair was more like Samantha’s, making them look like sisters. Their bodies even had the same curves; athletic with hips as wide as their shoulders. Their artistic hands, and the deep glacier blue of their eyes convinced most people they were related somehow. Angie could have been the daughter of either woman.
“Hey little brother, good to see you,” Drew said as she stepped down off her porch. The house was brown with wooden slat walls, built up from a real log foundation. It looked seriously rustic, but in the setting of Julian’s mountain pines, it fit perfectly. “What are you making for diner?” she asked with a smile.
“Diner? Probably the fine art of calling for pizza. You guys still have a pizza place up here, right?” Tom asked as he opened the back of the SUV to grab some of the groceries they purchased in Ramona. “Or have you mountain clan folk finally run the foreigner out of town?”
“Yeah, it’s still open,” Drew nodded, giving Angie a hug and tussling her hair. “Tony, is about as foreign as milk and about as Italian as barbecue sauce by the way. Need a hand?”
“He still makes good pizza.”
“Is Mike here?” Samantha asked Drew, while looking at the house.
“Nope. I think we’re really done this time. He’s living down in Lakeside with a twenty-something bartender, or card dealer, or something like that. All I’m sure about is she isn’t a stripper like the last one.”
Drew turned back to Angie, “But Bart is here. I bet he would like to be taken out if you feel up to it.”
Angie’s smile broke through all of her pent up worry. She loved the horse and riding the trails behind the house. She knew them better than Tom did, and likely better than Drew. “Sweet!” she exclaimed.
Once the groceries were inside and stowed in the kitchen, Angie was out the back door and heading for the corral. A young German shepherd pranced up to meet her, and she stopped briefly to make friends with the canine.
“New dog?” Tom asked, watching Angie through the back window.
“Clipper,” Drew answered, then she scowled a bit, “Mike got him, but I try not to hold that against the beast. He seems intelligent enough. Clipper I mean, not Mike.”
Tom allowed a small smile. “I understand.”
He looked over at his sister while taking an orange out of the frig, “You aren’t going to be making digs about Mike the whole time we’re here are you?”
“Probably,” Drew sighed, “Seems to be all I think about lately. That and watering the plants.”
“And, before I forget...” Drew said looking down at a note pad, “Mom called. She asked that you call her when you are settled.”
“Really,” Tom sighed, “What does she want?”
“Didn’t say. But I would guess it’s something like wanting to hear your voice now that the trial is over.”
Tom lifted an eyebrow in doubt, but then shrugged, “I’ll call her. You have the number?”
After getting the number from Drew, he pulled out his cell phone and stepped out on the back porch. Angie was saddling Bart, and checking him over. She handled the horse with firm but loving control. Tom watched for a bit and then dialed his mom. Best to rip wounds open quickly, if they have to be torn.
“Hello?” she said.
“Hey, it’s me. What’s up?” Tom asked.
“Tom?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Tom said.
“I’m glad you called,” his mother told him, “Listen to me Tom, I don’t want you to come by my house or to call me. I don’t know how you got them to let you go, but I know you killed those girls. I remember the animals behind the fence. That was the first thing I thought of when I heard about those girls on the News, those poor animals with their chests split open and their insides pulled out. It didn’t surprise me at all when they arrested you. I don’t want you around. You hear me?”
Ice went down Tom’s back, “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Don’t give me that. I’ve known about you all your life. I’m your mother. You stay away from me and my house. Just stay away. And if you had any decency you would stay away from Angie as well! Just go. Go away. Don’t come back!” she told him, and hung up the phone.
Angie was in the saddle now and walking Bart out of the yard, heading for one of the trails. The German Shepard was dancing next to them, with a doggy grin and a hanging tongue. Angie waved to her dad, and Tom put a mask over his fury and waved back. He watched them go, and then gazed into the mountains once she was out of sight. He waited until the fury cooled down to room temperature.
There was a reason, he reminded himself, that he had not talked to his mother in over seven years. She was mean, and got ugly on the spin of a dime.
The last time they spoke was during his first years in the military. Tom was shipped to Afghanistan and his mother started a campaign to get Angie away from Samantha while he was gone. His mother called Child Protective Services so many times they could recognize her voice. CPS had to respond to the calls, and investigated, but never came up with anything that could be described as a danger to Angie.
When that didn’t work, Tom’s mother hired a lawyer and sued for joint custody, citing ‘Grand Parents rights’.
There were several instances, before all of that, which led to Samantha and Tom deciding to limit Angie’s exposure to her grandmother. The last of these was Tom’s mother showing up at Angie’s school and trying to take her out of class. This of course freaked out the teacher, and the rest of the students. The police had to be called to get Tom’s mother to leave the school.
The evaluation from the courts after a series of supervised visits, resulted in his mother being restrained from Tom, Samantha, and especially Angie. No more calls to CPS, no more harassment, no more visits.
Tom decided he would make the break complete, and have no contact either. Angie never mentioned her grandmother anymore, and didn’t seem to mind the lack of Christmas presents or Birthday cards. Apparently, grandma freaked her out as well.
The whole history flooded through Tom’s mind, and didn’t help his furry, but did remind him that he should have seen this coming.
It was a mistake to call her. He knew better than to believe she would have good intentions... but then, she was his mother, and it had been a really rough month. Tom shook his head with a sad smile – never again. Just leave it be. Never again.
He rolled his shoulders and then his neck, then stretched out his arms as high as he could above his head, arching his back... letting out his breath in a long slow sigh. Straightening up he felt a little better, so he put his phone in his pocket, before he threw it into the surrounding woods, and went back inside the house.
Drew arched an eyebrow at him, “Not motherly love then?”
Tom smiled at her, “No. Not quite.”
Samantha was sitting at the table, “What did she want?”
Tom shook his head slowly, trying to debate against telling Samantha, but the truth outted, “She says she knows I’m guilty and if I had any decency I would leave you and Angie right now, and never return.”
“Fucking bitch!” Samantha hissed. Then she glanced at Drew, “Sorry.”
Drew smiled, “No need to apologize, I grew up with her. Stevie doesn’t see her very often either,” she told her, referring to her son.
“Where’s Stevie?” Samantha asked, opting to change to subject, while she digested this latest from Tom’s mother.
“College, still; probably trying to forget he has parents until mid-terms are over,” Drew said, filling a cup with coffee and handing it to Tom. “Sorry Tom. Really. But you know what she’s like. I didn’t expect that, but...” Drew shrugged, letting the rest pass between them in silence, and shared trauma.
“Yeah, well...” he answered.
Drew gave him a hug and then told him, “Look, no real harm, right? I mean so what? Really. You’re not on trial any longer. You can’t be brought back on the same charges. Mom has no real power to hurt you with her crazy. We don’t really care what mom thinks about you, right?” she lifted and eyebrow, “Do you?”
Tom reached for the coffee, and yes, there was a part of him that did care what his mother thought about him, a part – call it inner child, parental need – which called out for his mother when he was hurt. A part that was still wounded when his expectation was not met, and felt even more pain when his mother attacked rather than nurtured.
But that was a very small part of Tom; a part way back in the depths of his mind. A larger part of Tom was a father and a husband. That part of Tom could care less what she thought of him, because she was a threat, and had demonstrated she was a threat more than once. The last time required a court order for her to stop harassing his family.
Tom shook his head a little, “No, not really. You’re right. There’s nothing to fear from her. Just my own sense of right and wrong.”
“Well you’ve just been through the worst month I have ever heard about, so don’t let her add to the stress. If it matters at all, I know you didn’t kill those girls, and I’ve known you all your life. And at least mom waited until after the trial to start this shit.”
Tom nodded and walked over to his wife and kissed her neck, “Lunch? Hungry?”
Samantha looked at him, “I could eat.”
“I’ll drive up and get some pizza then,” He offered, and then waited for twenty minutes while the two women worked out the order of pizza, salad, and wine.
He took the order, and knew he would have to drive back to Ramona to find the wine. There was no store in Julian that would carry their choice, no matter it was. So he was sent on a mission to Ramona for a bottle of Mâcon Rouge, and if he could not find that, then a Zinfandel would be acceptable.
Two hours later, Tom returned bearing pizza, wine, root beer and beer for himself. He was able to find the Mâcon Rouge, which turned out to be a burgundy from France. He bought a bottle of Zinfandel as well, because he had never heard of the Mâcon Rouge before, and they might have made a mistake.
As it turned out, both women were happy with their choice. They gave a small glass to Angie, having her sip it, and discussing with her why it went with the red sauce, cheese and basil. Tom watched the indoctrination of his daughter in to the wine cult with a smile on his face. Angie was so serious about what they were saying, it was beyond cute. After swelling his heart for awhile, he took two pieces on a plate and a beer to the living-room to watch the news.
What he expected to find on the news was more inane commentary regarding his case, and at this point, his acquittal. Basically he got what he expected, though most of the discussion was on the point that the jury took only twenty minutes to make their decision.
One commentator suggested the jury didn’t take the facts of the case seriously enough. Another commentator disagreed –– “There was a great deal of evidence, but all of it was circumstantial. There was very little physical evidence and absolutely no smoking gun. Basically what the detectives and the D.A. were saying in that courtroom was ‘He’s guilty because we say he is’, with nothing to back it up. At end of the trial, I made my decision well before the jury returned.”
That commentary was good to hear, though it was the only one that mentioned the possibility that Tom was in fact not guilty. The rest took the path that the jury made a mistake, and rushed their decision.
What Tom did not expect was to see his mother.
“Today the judicial system made a serious mistake, which I pray might be rectified in some fashion soon. I was not surprised when they arrested my son Tom. But I was surprised they let him go once they had him. At the very least something should be done to protect Angie. That poor little girl needs help and protection.”
“Dear God Almighty,” Samantha said in a breathless voice of wonder.
“I’m with her, God,” Drew said beside her.
“Wasn’t that grandma?” Angie asked, staring at the screen.
Tom looked over at the three women in his life. “So much for harmless.”