On the evidence table in the well of the court lays a rumpled body-bag. The evidence table is screwed to the floor. The floor of the court is bare boards.
The body-bag is twisted. It is bulked up in places. There is something inside the bag. It is not obvious what that something is. It is not very big. It does not seem big enough to be a body. It is does not look like the body of a full-grown adult.
On the far side of the evidence table the air shimmers. You look at it directly. The shimmering stops. You are seeing things.
The lights in the court are still on. The light is poor. It is daylight outside. The small high windows are caked with bird shit and grime. There are several elaborate chandeliers. The chandeliers hang from the high ceiling. Many of the bulbs of the chandeliers are broken or missing.An open crack runs the length of the ceiling.
Above the well of the court there is a bench. The bench is solid mahogany. On three sides the bench is enclosed by bullet-proof glass. Blast-proof mesh stretches between the tops of the bullet-proof panels.
On the wall behind the bench there is a low relief. The relief is plaster. The moulding depicts the Royal and Republican coat of arms. One of the supporters beside the shield is a pterodactyl. The other is a giant sloth.
Above the coat of arms a signboard is screwed to the wall. The paint is fading. The letters can still be read.
DEPARTMENT FOR THE CORRECTION OF
PUBLIC MORALS AND MANNERS
The line below reads:
M’Lud M’Lud, presiding. It is the first case on his list for the day. M’Lud M’Lud peers at the court through the dirt and the streaks of the bullet-proof glass. His fingertips caress the microphone.
On either side of the glass walls the bench is flanked by Them Police. Them Police are in riot helmets. They wear flak jackets. Nightsticks and forty-fours hang from their belts. They carry automatic rifles at the low port. The slings of the automatic rifles are over their shoulders. Them Police stand motionless. Their black visors are down.
In the body of the court stand tiers of wooden benches. They are chipped and scratched. The benches look like pews in church. They are nearly empty.
There are a handful of loiterers. There is a scatter of bored and indifferent court officials. At the back of court a quartet of warders plays cards for small change. The warders have dragged the benches round in a rough square. They have made themselves more comfortable. They have created a bit of privacy. The warders have no interest in what is going on in the court. They have little more interest in their game.
By the door at the back of the court a couple of Them Other Police lounge against the wall on either side of the door. Them Other Police wear flat caps and stab vests. They carry thirty-eights. They are bored.
M’Lud M’Lud coughs. The PA whines. M’Lud’s head jerks back. One or two of the rabble in the benches look up. Judge M’Lud settles his gown around his shoulders. He smoothes the folds.
‘Well?’ he demands. ‘Why did she do it?’
As he speaks his nose bobs over the microphone. A great wail of feedback fills the court. Judge M’Lud winces. On either side of the bench the masked policemen grin. Only the grins are visible under the visors.
M’Lud stares down at the trio of expert witnesses. They are sitting in a row on the bench in front of him. The Archimandrite is in the centre of the row. M’Lud M’Lud stares directly at the Archimandrite.
Behind the expert witnesses sit a couple of paramedics in high-vis vests. The paramedics fidget. They fiddle with their devices.
The Archimandrite looks round at his colleagues. He rises to his feet. At the back of the court Them Other Police look up. They see the Archimandrite standing. It is a signal. It alerts them. Them Other Police lean away from the wall. They stand up straight. They square their shoulders. They straighten their arms by their sides.
On the Archimandrite’s left the Hospitaller crosses and uncrosses his legs. He brushes the back of his head with his hand. The Hospitaller is staring at a blank spot on the wall above the bench. On the Archimandrite’s right the Almoner keeps her head down. She is shuffling her papers.
One of Them Other Police folds his arms across his flimsy stab vest. He takes a step or two forward. He stares out from under the peak of his flat cap. He is staring at the Archimandrite’s back. His partner slips into the doorway. He looks down the corridor.
‘M’Lud,’ the Archimandrite begins.
‘You may proceed,’ the judge informs him.
The Archimandrite does just that.
‘The young woman was known to us,’ the Archimandrite announces. He gestures in the direction of the body-bag. Behind the evidence table something shadowy flickers in the air. Nobody sees.
Judge M’Lud picks up a pen.
‘Our agency had contact with her over a period,’ the Archimandrite says. ‘Sadly the pattern of contact was never consistent.’
The Archimandrite raises his eyebrows. He tilts his head to one side. Judge M’Lud does not look at the Archimandrite. He scribbles.
‘We never really thought there was enough commitment on the young woman’s part.’ The Archimandrite pauses. He stares at M’Lud. M’Lud stares back. The Archimandrite looks away. He carries on.
‘We had a file, of course. We built one up. Sadly it fell below the standard we would normally require.’ M’Lud nods. He taps his pen in the air.
‘The young woman was not of course referred to us in the normal way. She self-presented.’ The Archimandrite shrugs. ‘Without a referral, there were of course no documents. There was no handover. As a consequence, we had very little information.’
The Archimandrite looks directly at the judge. ‘We did not even have a place of birth,’ the Archimandrite says. Judge M’Lud shakes his head. He sighs.
‘We had been given a date of birth,’ the Archimandrite concedes. ‘However, we lacked confidence in it.’ The Archimandrite pauses.
‘We found the date claimed barely credible. The young person related a great many episodes to us, often in considerable detail, which she insisted were part of her life experience. We were not altogether convinced. We found it difficult to believe that so many events could have occurred in the life of someone who was genuinely as young as she was representing herself to be.’
The skin over Judge M’Lud’s cheeks is tight. His lips draw back. His teeth show. He jabs his pen in the air. ‘What information did you have about her nationality?’ he snaps. ‘And what were you able to establish about her settlement here?’
The Archimandrite inclines his head. ‘We of course made persistent attempts to verify her status. We asked to see documents.
‘We were shown a transit pass. It contained very little detail.’
The Judge interrupts. ‘And why would the young woman have required a transit pass?’ the Judge demands.
‘We were fairly sure that the young woman was living south of the river,’ the Archimandrite says. He looks around. ‘In irregular circumstances,’ he adds.
Judge M’Lud exhales. ‘This isn’t much help,’ he says. The Archimandrite opens his mouth.
On one of the side benches, a homeless man stirs. The homeless man wears a khaki greatcoat that is too big for him. The sleeves of the greatcoat are rolled up. The brass buttons have long since disappeared. Below the ragged skirts of the coat the homeless man’s legs are bare. His sandals are falling apart.
On the bench beside the homeless man there is a worn carrier bag. It is full of dog-eared papers. Some of the papers are crumpled typescript. Others are pages printed out from the internet. They are coffee-stained. The homeless man riffles through his papers. He is looking for something. He mumbles. His white wispy beard bobs up and down.
‘Files, files, files,’ the homeless man mutters. He does not look up. ‘Fucking files. That’s all they care about. I would shove their fucking files right up their fucking bums. That would get them fucking going, wouldn’t it?’
Judge M’Lud starts. He turns in the direction of the homeless man. He glares at him. The homeless man takes no notice. He is unaware. He continues to rummage in his carrier bag.
Judge M’Lud turns away. His eyes bulge. He glares at Them Other Police. One of the Them Other Police steps forward. He focuses his gaze on the homeless man.
His partner slips out. He disappears into the corridor.
The policeman knows the homeless man. Everybody knows him. Most people call him The Prophet.
Them Other Police catches M’Lud’s eye. He cocks his head towards The Prophet. Them Other Police holds his hand out in front of him. He holds it at waist height with the palm down. He moves his hand from side to side. He looks at M’Lud while he does this. His look is very meaningful.
Judge M’Lud sighs. He nods. He looks up at the ceiling. He looks down at the court again. M’Lud waves a hand at the Archimandrite. ‘Continue,’ he orders.
The other policeman slips back into the court. He is looking quite pleased with himself. M’Lud leans back against his chair. M’Lud is tired.
The court sinks back into torpor. The warders play on. The Archimandrite clears his throat.
‘Before the index event,’ he says, ‘the young woman ceased to engage. Her attitude was difficult.’ He looks up. He hesitates.
‘She was clearly convinced there was something we could do for her. She would become irritated when we could not somehow guess what that was without being told.
‘Sometimes she became angry with us. Once or twice she walked out.’ M’Lud makes notes.
‘She alternated her stories about her past with complaints about the present. We rather felt there were some issues of self-responsibility that needed to be addressed.’
The Archimandrite stops talking. He looks up at M’Lud. M’Lud lays his pen on top of his notes.
‘This is all very well,’ M’Lud snaps, ‘and no doubt profoundly insightful. But what I need to establish, for the purposes of these proceedings, is what happened.
‘I need to make a determination.’
The Archimandrite spreads his hands wide. He is still looking at M’Lud.
‘Was there an incident?’ M’Lud asks him. ‘Were there changes? Was there an event?’
The Prophet jumps up on the bench and shakes his fist. He is hanging on tightly to his carrier bag. ‘Traitors!’ he yells. ‘Murderers! Assassins!’
Judge M’Lud’s mouth drops open. He grabs the microphone. The PA whines. The Almoner covers her ears. The warders look round.
The judge is shouting. He cannot be heard. The PA whines too loudly. M’Lud waves his hands at Them Other Police. His eyes are round. His lips are peeled back.
The Prophet is still standing on the bench. He shakes his fist again. ‘You are the guilty ones! You! You are responsible!’ he yells.
Them Other Police turns to his partner and gestures. His partner steps into the corridor. He beckons. Them Other Police starts moving down the courtroom. His hands hang loosely, away from his sides.
The building starts to shake. There is no warning. There never is any warning. The floor moves. The chandeliers dance. One of the warders covers his head. There is a rumbling deep underneath the floor of the court. The Earth is angry.
In the well of the court the Archimandrite ducks to the floor. Bulbs fall. They explode on the floor like hand grenades. The loiterers dodge the splinters. The policeman staggers.
The crack in the ceiling opens wider. The PA whines. The ceiling creaks. Big chunks of plaster fall. The warders hang on to the benches. Their mouths are open. Their eyes are wide.
On the wall above the bench a screw pops out of the signboard. The end of the board swings down. The board crashes into the top of the Royal and Republican coat of arms. The head of the plaster pterodactyl snaps off. It falls on the blast proof mesh above the bench. The head is smashed. The plaster is pulverised into dust. A fine white cloud rises from the top of the cage. It is gunsmoke. M’Lud ducks.
The Prophet grins hugely. He is standing on the bench. It sways. The Prophet balances. He holds on tight to his carrier bag.
On the evidence table the body-bag slithers across the surface. Nobody notices. The body-bag slides half-over the side of the table. The body-bag hangs down. The body-bag casts no shadow. The grey outline of the evidence table is visible on the boards below in the dim light. The body-bag casts no reflection.
The tremor subsides. The court is still. Nobody moves. A few more chunks of plaster fall. In the corridor something crashes to the floor. Someone shouts. In the court there is a smell of fear. It is strong. You can taste it.
People look around. They straighten up. They are relieved. It wasn’t a serious tremor. It wasn’t like the other tremors. Nobody died.
M’Lud lifts his face. He peers through the glass. At the back of the court the warders let go of the benches. They step back.
In the doorway two more of Them Other Police appear. They sidle quietly along the benches. They are reinforcements. They have been summoned. They are trying to get behind the Prophet. They don’t want him to see.
The Prophet has already sat down again. He is looking vacant.
Them Other Police nod to their colleagues. They start walking down the aisle.