The trial of Commonwealth v. Individual Registered as “Topaz” was unlike anything Kathleen Aurelia had ever seen.
As a police officer, she’d been to court dozens of times. Most trials were short, simple things, with an officer or two testifying about what had happened and, maybe, in the more elaborate cases, another witness or two. Courtrooms were grey, shabby rooms with glaring fluorescents, and lawyers were awkward figures in shoddy, grey suits.
She should have known that Titan City’s biggest trial in years would be different. The courtroom was an oak-paneled wonder with huge, curtained windows along the right side, the pews were elaborately carved, and the judge’s bench was the size of Rhode Island. The defense lawyer was eight feet tall and bulletproof, the defendant wore a costume, and the man crouched next to Kathleen had a wolf’s head and a tail poking out of the back of his suit.
“I hate coming to court,” Chief Gherrenfur murmured in her ear. “Sitting on these pews pinches my tail.”
It wasn’t like the Chief to complain. Kathleen had known him long enough now to tell that his voice held a canine whine and his fur bristled slightly.
“Concerned about the case, Chief?” she whispered back.
For an answer, Gherrenfur motioned toward the front of the courtroom with his pointed nose.
Topaz sat impassively, in full costume, at the defense table. At the prosecution’s table opposite, District Attorney Cortez, handling the case personally, scribbled on a legal pad, looking like she’d bit into something unpleasant. Beside her sat Martin Roth, who gestured animatedly at her legal pad. Roth had been transferred to Homicide and become the chief investigator on the case against Topaz after the hero’s arrest. But Roth still, Kathleen thought, looked like an unhappy ferret in a cheap suit.
The defense attorney stood at a podium between the tables. Elmer Haws, “Hoss” in his ads, was something of a legend in the Titan City superpowered community. Hoss, with superstrength himself, had built a practice out of defending both super-criminals too intimidating for unpowered attorneys and helping out heroes in legal trouble.
He dwarfed the lectern with his great height, and the fabric of his suit strained across his broad shoulders. Despite his powerful build, he spoke quietly and evenly, with a faint Texas twang in his voice, as he cross-examined Lenny Alvarez, Kathleen’s SWAT colleague, who’d been the first into the warehouse in Ironport, the scene of Aragon’s murder. “You didn’t see the defendant attack Detective Aragon, did you?” Hoss asked.
“No,” said Lenny flatly. As a veteran officer, Lenny had obviously testified often enough to know that he’d do the least possible damage to the state’s case if he answered the defense’s questions as briefly as possible.
“An’ you didn’t see him draw his, uh, lil’ ray-gun, did you?” Hoss continued.
“No,” answered Lenny. His face was getting flushed.
Come on, Lenny, Kathleen thought, keep your cool.
“The defendant was already lying on the floor when you entered the warehouse, wasn’t he?” asked Hoss.
A corner of Lenny’s mouth twitched up in a slight smile. Kathleen doubted anyone who didn’t know him would’ve noticed. “I don’t know,” he said.
Hoss mimicked Lenny’s expression almost exactly. “You didn’t see him at all until after the police assault was all over, right?”
“Correct,” said Lenny.
“You never saw him moving?”
“No.” Lenny was visibly beginning to sweat.
Gherrenfur spoke in Kathleen’s ear again. “Join me outside.” The two officers stepped over several other witnesses who’d already testified, past more packed pews, and slipped out through the large, double doors of the courtroom as Hoss continued to demonstrate just how much Lenny did not know about what had happened in the warehouse.
The hallway outside the courtroom was empty aside from a couple of aged, unarmed marshals lounging in the chairs lining the walls. Kathleen reflected that all the reporters and curious citizens must have been inside, watching. “That was painful,” she said.
“At least you didn’t have to testify,” said Gherrenfur. He’d taken the stand immediately before Lenny Alvarez, and Hoss had demolished him on cross.
“I’m sorry,” Kathleen said. She’d been there when Roth had been inspired to investigate Topaz for the detective’s murder, weeks earlier. She’d even encouraged him.
Gherrenfur’s nose twitched. “It’s not your fault, Aurelia.” His tail switched and bristled as he began pacing. “The D.A. is a fool. This case never should’ve been brought.”
“Lower your voice, Chief,” said a flat, stern voice. Kathleen turned to see the speaker, an Asian-looking man with a short, neat beard, approaching. He wore a dark suit and a serious expression. “There may be reporters around.”
Gherrenfur shook his head and let his tongue loll out in what Kathleen had come to recognize as his version of a chuckle. “I’d smell them if there were, Commissioner.”
Understanding dawned. This man was Commissioner Yao Zheng, who’d cleaned up the TCPD and undone the corruption the department had suffered in the 1990’s. “Commissioner, it’s a pleasure,” said Kathleen, shaking hands. The Commissioner had a firm, hard grip. “I’m Kathleen Aurelia. I work for the Chief in SWAT.”
“Hello, Officer Aurelia,” said the Commissioner. He turned back to Gherrenfur. “Chief, I’m serious. I promoted you to head of SWAT, back when there were almost no nonhumans in the Department, because I knew you’d uphold the law, no matter what. That’s what we’re doing here, in this case. This is the most serious thing to come through Titan City’s legal system in over a decade. We have to be guided by Detective Roth’s investigation and the D.A.’s charging decision here.”
“Law is nothing without honor, Commissioner.” Gherrenfur’s ears twitched back. “The D.A. …” He lowered his voice to a soft growl. “I don’t trust that woman, Chief. Everyone knows she’s a mercenary.” He practically spat the word. “She’s been hunting for a big, splashy case like this for years. She’s just using this thing to advance her career.”
Kathleen found herself nodding along. After Topaz had been charged, there’d been a huge public outcry against abuses of power by heroes. District Attorney Cortez had ridden that wave for weeks. Seemingly, she’d expected Topaz to plead guilty and use the conviction to ensure her reelection for the foreseeable future.
But to everyone’s surprise, Topaz had chosen to fight every inch of the way, from a contentious series of hearings on whether he’d have to disclose his identity (he hadn’t) to further hearings on whether being able to wear his costume in court meant he could wear his flight gadgets and ray gun (he couldn’t). Then had come trial, which had gone all Hoss’s way so far. Now, public opinion had turned against the D.A.’s office and the TCPD. Just a week ago, she’d seen an editorial in the Titan City Herald calling for an independent investigation into the whole affair.
“Well, Chief,” she said, “it isn’t working out for her, is it?”
“Cold comfort,” said Gherrenfur. “The entire TCPD has been made to look like overeager, conviction-hungry idiots.”
The Commissioner merely looked troubled, as if he didn’t want to agree with Gherrenfur but couldn’t see any way to argue. “It’s unfortunate,” he agreed. “It almost reminds me of the ‘90’s.”
“Commissioner Zheng was a hero then,” said Gherrenfur softly. “He used to wander around patrolling Lotus Hills with the Jade Men.”
“I’ve left that part of my life behind,” the Commissioner said quickly. “But the ‘90’s were like this. Public outcry against heroes for excessive force, fear of corruption in the police department, unsolved murders everywhere. It was the perfect time for the villains. Everything went wrong at once, like someone had planned it. There’s a reason they called it the Dark Age.” He shook his head. “I thought we’d finally cleaned things up after the Hurricane and the Atlas 33.”
It’s my fault, Kathleen thought. Her superiors’ concern, the department’s honor, and the integrity of the justice system had all depended on her making good decisions at the Ironport warehouse, during Roth’s investigation in the aftermath, and that day in the Skypark with Topaz. “I failed us,” she murmured.
Then, deep in Kathleen’s mind, something sparked faintly. Something the Commissioner had said.
Gherrenfur’s ears twitched again. “What was that?” he said, interrupting Kathleen’s train of thought.
“The Dark Age,” repeated Commissioner Zheng.
Gherrenfur’s ears twitched more violently. “No, that noise.”
Now, Kathleen could hear it, too, bangs and rumblings that grew steadily louder.
“It’s coming from outside,” Gherrenfur said. “Toward the courtroom!”
The three of them dashed back inside, toward the sound, now a loud roar.
They burst through the doors into a cloud of dust and a crowd of screaming bystanders. Bailiffs shouted vainly for order. To Kathleen’s right, beams of sunshine shot through the swirling dust: the entire wall of the courtroom was gone, a gaping hole open to the outdoors.
Seven human-shaped shadows loomed in the gap. One of them, its hands shrouded in flames, hovered above the others in the air.
The largest, a huge, armored figure, stepped over a pile of fallen steel and stone. “Listen, everyone!” it announced in a booming, synthesized voice. “I am Agent Tower, and we’re the Tarot!”
Kathleen had never seen them in the flesh, but she knew them right away. The Tarot, one of Titan City’s most feared villain teams, who ran “prison rescue services” and “vengeance for hire” operations for other criminals. The Tarot, famous for brutally slaughtering the Sharp, a renowned hero, years earlier.
“You called for us, Topaz,” said Agent Tower, “and we’ve come to get you!” He raised an armored fist and pointed around the terrified crowd. “Now, everyone just stay out of the way, and you won’t get hurt. Get in our way, and you die.”
Gherrenfur growled deep in his throat. “Got your folding shield, Commissioner?” he asked. The Commissioner shook his head. Kathleen went for her gun.
It wasn’t there. She wasn’t armed. None of them were. They’d been in court, after all.
An eighth shadow raced around the others at superspeed to stand in front of Agent Tower. As the figure stilled, it resolved into a young man, barely out of his teens, in a black and white costume. He carried a razor-edged throwing ring in his hand, and he grinned lopsidedly. Kathleen knew him as the Chariot, the Tarot’s young speedster. “Please,” he said cheerily, “say you’ll get in our way.”
“Freeze! TCPD!” shouted Gherrenfur. “On the ground, now!” His lips drew back in a snarl. Beside him, Commissioner Zheng settled into some kind of martial arts stance. Kathleen prepared to spring.
The Tarot struck.
Written by - Jack 'O'lantern' Snyder