Free Fiction Monday: The Best Defense

John Lundgren loves the challenge of defending his clients. As a public defender in the great city of Chicago, he defends them all: the guilty, the not-so-guilty, and the bug-eyed crazy.

But when he gets assigned Richard Palmer, a highly intelligent man accused of an impossible arson and horrific mass murder, he soon discovers this case will challenge him like no other—just not in any way he ever expected. 

“The Best Defense,” by World Fantasy Award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook through various online retailers here. 

 

The Best Defense

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

 

They tell me time has no meaning here. I sit cross-legged in a glade, surrounded by willow trees and strong oak and all sorts of green plants I don’t recognize. Flowers bloom out of season—roses next to tulips next to mums. The air is warm, the breeze is fresh, and I have never felt more trapped in my life.

Except when I was in law school.

Third year, sitting in my carrel in the law library, various teas stacked around the top, hiding me from the other students. I’d spend a few hours digging through some musty old tomes to find one little nugget of information that might help my hypothetical client or, failing that, impress some stupid professor, all the while wondering if I should just drop out.

Escape.

Pretend the past three years of Aristotelian logic and Socratic debate had never happened at all.

Now I have tea at my fingertips—all I have to do is snap them and some scantily clad nymph pours me a cup—and all the food I want (oh, yeah: that’s the thing they don’t tell you: never eat the food), and it doesn’t matter.

I’m still digging through tomes, trying to find something to get my client off. He’s not so hypothetical any more. Although I am going to have to impress a few people.

People I don’t really want to impress.

People who may not be people at all.

***

I only caught the case because I didn’t escape quickly enough from Judge Lewandowski’s courtroom. I’d been there to argue against remand for a repeater, even though I knew all of Chicagoland would be better off if he went to prison for life.

That’s what I do. I defend the defenseless. At least, that’s what I tell the newspapers when they ask, or that schmo at a cocktail party who thinks he’ll get the better of a seasoned public defender.

Mostly I do it because I like to argue and I like to win against impossible odds. I’m not one of the liberal-hippie types who gravitates to the PD’s office to save the planet; I’m not even sure I believe everyone is entitled to a fair trial.

What I do believe is that everyone is entitled to the best defense I can provide—given that I have hundreds of other active cases, only twenty-four hours in my day, and no real budget to hire a legal assistant.

Which was actually what I was thinking about as I slipped into the bench two rows back from the defense table to repack my briefcase before heading down to the hot dog carts on California Avenue.

“John Lundgren.”

Hearing my name intoned by the judge after my case has already been gaveled closed was not a good sign. I looked up so fast my notes almost slipped off my lap. I caught them, but lost the briefcase. It thudded against the gray tile floor.

“Yes, Judge,” I said, standing up, even though my entire day’s work was laying in a mess around me.

The judge was peering at me through her half-glasses. She looked tired and disgusted all at the same time. “You’ll represent Mr. Palmer.”

I glanced around, trying to figure out what I’d missed. The courtroom was filled with attorneys waiting for their cases to be called, a few witnesses and even fewer victims, and a couple of defendants who had probably made a previous case’s bail.

Now,” the judge said.

The one place I hadn’t looked was the defense table. A scruffy man with long black hair stood behind it, his shoulders hunched forward. He wore a trench coat covered with soot, burn marks, and not a few holes.

I slid out of my bench, leaving my briefcase on the floor and grabbing only a yellow legal pad, knowing that no one else would pick up my mess. Unlike TV lawyers, real lawyers are so overwhelmed they don’t dig through each other’s briefcases, hoping for the one nugget of information that will make or break the trial of the century.

Not that I’d ever handled a client involved in the trial of the century. Or even one involved in the trial of the year.

“You must be Mr. Palmer,” I said as I dropped my legal pad on the defense table.

Palmer didn’t even look at me. His face was covered in soot and a three-day-old beard. He smelled like gasoline and smoke.

I didn’t even have to guess what he was charged with. It was as obvious as the stench of his clothes.

The prosecutor—some new twit who looked like he was wearing his father’s suit—rustled his papers together. “Mr. Richard Palmer is charged with arson in the first degree, attempted arson in the second degree, and sixteen counts of murder in the first degree.”

“Mr. Lundgren, how does your client plead?”

I looked at my client, but he didn’t look at me. The smell was so overwhelming, my eyes were watering.

“Mr. Lundgren?”

“Mr. Palmer?” I said softly. “What do you want to plead?”

Palmer kept his head down.

“Mr. Lundgren,” the judge said, “I asked you a question.”

Well, Palmer wasn’t talking. I wasn’t even sure he was present and accounted for. But if he was like 99.9% of my clients, his plea would be simple, no matter what the evidence against him.

“Not guilty, Your Honor,” I said.

“See?” she muttered. “That wasn’t hard, now was it? Bail, counselor?”

She was looking at the young prosecutor. His hands were shaking.

“Since Mr. Palmer is accused of burning down one of the largest mansions on the Gold Coast, your honor, and killing all sixteen people inside, we’re asking for remand.”

He made it sound like they’d ask for more if they could get it.

I opened my mouth, but the judge brought down her gavel so hard it sounded like a gunshot.

“Remand,” she said. “Next case.”

And with that, I became responsible for Richard Mark Harrison Palmer the Third.

Or at least, for his legal defense.

Every last bit of it.

***

It took hours before I could get to the Cook County Jail to see my brand-new client. By then, he was in prison blues. Someone had washed his face, and surprisingly there were no burns beneath all that soot.

I’d represented arsonists before, many of whom smelled just like Palmer had when he was brought to court, and they were always covered with burns or shiny puckered burn scars.

They were also bug-eyed crazy. Something about staring at fire made their eyes revolve in their skulls—rather like the eyes of someone who’d taken too much LSD over too long a period of time.

But this guy didn’t look crazy. He didn’t give off the crazy vibe either, the one that always made me stand near the door so that I could pound it for a guard and then get the hell out of the way if I needed to.

Palmer sat at the scratched table, his head down, his hands folded before him. His hair was wet and he smelled faintly of industrial soap.

“Mr. Palmer.” I sat down across from him, set my briefcase on the table, and snapped the top open so that it stood like a shield between us. “I don’t know if you remember me. I’m John Lundgren, your court-appointed public defender.”

“I don’t need you.” His voice was deep, his accent so purely Chicago that the sentence sounded more like a mushy version of I doon need yoo.

“I’m afraid you do, Mr. Palmer. You’re charged with some serious capital crimes, and it was pretty clear that Judge Lewandowski doesn’t believe you can handle it on your own. So she assigned me—”

“And I’m unassigning you. Go away.” He looked up as he said that and I was stunned to see intelligence in his blood-shot brown eyes.

I sighed. I always hated clients who argued with me, clients who believed they knew more about the legal system than I did.

Or worse, clients who somehow believed they could go up against Chicago’s finest prosecutors all by themselves.

“I’m not charging you, Mr. Palmer,” I said. “The county pays my salary to represent people who can’t afford their own attorney.”

“I don’t want an attorney,” he said.

I sighed again. It was always a nightmare to go before the judge—any judge—and say that my indigent client wants me off the case in favor of his own counsel. Usually I’d have to sit in anyway, advise the stupid client on matters of the law (or, as I’d privately say, matters on which he was screwing up royally).

“It’s better to have one,” I said, “especially when you’re facing sixteen counts of premeditated murder. You want to tell me what happened?”

Usually that ploy worked. The client forgot his belligerence and wanted to brag. Or to defend himself. Or make excuses.

A lot of my colleagues never wanted to know what the client believed he did, but I always figured the more information I had, the better. That way, I wouldn’t get blindsided by my own client’s idiocy in the middle of trial.

“No, I don’t want to tell you what happened,” Palmer said. “I think it would be better if you leave.”

I closed my briefcase. “You’re not going to be rid of me that easily. I will remain your attorney until we can go to court to sever the relationship, and then the judge is going to want to know all kinds of things, like what kind of preparation you have to represent yourself. And frankly, Mr. Palmer, I’d be remiss if I didn’t—”

“Tell me how stupid I’m being for taking this on alone, I know.” He gave me half a smile. It was condescending. I’d never met an arsonist capable of being condescending before. “But you’re the one who pleaded me not guilty.”

“You weren’t exactly talking,” I said. “I even gave you a moment to give me some kind of response, and you didn’t say a word. So I gave my standard answer. Not guilty. We can always modify the plea later. Do you have medical records that would show mental health treatments—”

“I wasn’t going to plead out to a mental defect,” he said.

My hand froze on top of the briefcase. “You were going to plead guilty? Why in the hell would you do that, Mr. Palmer?”

He shrugged. “It seemed like the only thing to do.”

“Look, I don’t know the details of your case, Mr. Palmer. The file hasn’t come up to our offices yet. So I don’t know what they have on you. But let me tell you, I’ve seen some supposedly tight police cases unravel in court. It might look hopeless now, but I can assure you that with good counsel we should be able to fight this. So let me—”

“I’m not suicidal or stupid,” he said. “I have no defense.”

I’d heard that before too, usually from guilty clients who felt remorse.

“I’ll decide that,” I said, and flicked the locks on the briefcase so the top popped open again. I pulled out the legal pad that had Palmer’s name on it and indictment scrawled almost illegibly in my handwriting. “Just tell me your side of the events.”

“The events, Mr. Lundgren?” He raised his eyebrows at me. I had a sense that I have only rarely, that I was sitting across from someone with an intellect more formidable than mine.

“Where were you? What happened? What exactly are they accusing you of? That kind of thing.”

“You heard what they’re accusing me of. They think I burned down the Brickstone mansion and killed everyone inside.”

I hadn’t known it was the Brickstone mansion. When I was an undergrad at Northwestern, my buddies and I used to climb over the ivy-and-moss covered stone fence onto the three-block expanse of yard owned by the Brickstones. We’d walk to the edge of Lake Michigan, plop behind a group of giant rocks that blocked that section of the shore from the mansion proper, and proceed to get very drunk. We’d see who could drink the most and still be awake for sunrise.

Usually that would be me.

“The Brickstone mansion,” I repeated, trying to put this together. “They say you burned it down?”

I expected him to tell me that was a figure of speech. In fact, so convinced was I that that was going to be his next sentence that I almost missed his actual one:

“To the ground.” His tone was dry. “Nothing left but charred remains.”

I frowned at him. That made no sense. The Brickstone mansion was in Chicago’s city limits—and any building in the city limits had to be made of stone. The famous Chicago Fire left its legacy: no building could be made of combustible materials.

And I’d seen the Brickstone mansion. It was well named. It was made of a kind of white stone you didn’t find outside of the Midwest, but the wealthy in Chicago seemed to adore it. Each “brick” was the size of an armchair, and when I looked at them one drunken dawn, those giant stones gleamed whitely in the light of the rising sun.

“Did you see it?” I asked. “What was left?”

“Of course I saw it,” he said. That look was making me uncomfortable. I was beginning to feel as if I truly was dumber than he was.

“And was it burned to the ground?”

“Nothing left except rubble,” he said.

“You smelled of gasoline when I met you, Mr. Palmer,” I said.

He shrugged.

“Gasoline fires burn hot.”

He looked down.

“But they can’t melt stone. You want to tell me what’s going on?”

He lifted his head. His mouth was open slightly, as if he hadn’t expected real thought from me. “I burned down the Brickstone mansion,” he said. “Killing everyone inside.”

I no longer believed him. “How?”

“What do you want me to do? Say I waved my magic wand, brought down lightning from the heavens into a puddle of magicked up gasoline, and caused the building to explode?”

It was my turn to shrug. “That’s about the only thing that would reduce that white brick mansion to rubble.”

“Well, then,” he said, crossing his arms. “That’s exactly what I did.”

***

We left it at that. I couldn’t get him to tell me anything else, and I didn’t really try because he seemed to have dumped the idea of firing me. He didn’t exactly say I could stay, but he nodded when I said I’d be back after I had a chance to review the file.

I took that as a change of heart. We were now attorney and client, whether either of us liked it or not.

So I went back to the office in hopes of finding the file. It was on my desk along with six other brand-new case files, eight old case files, and the seven cases I’d been trying desperately to plead out. My office was a graveyard of active files. They trailed off my desk to boxes on the floor, accordion files on my chair, and half-opened file cabinet drawers beneath my window.

I wasn’t exactly overworked. Overworked would mean that I had some free time to look forward to. My workload was impossible, which made it exactly like everyone else’s workload inside the Public Defender’s office.

Which should have meant that the minute I saw all those piles of paper, I should have forgotten about Palmer. But I didn’t. In fact, I grabbed his file first.

It was incomplete. A lot of the paperwork had little typed notations TK which, oddly enough, meant “to come” (I always thought, shouldn’t that be TC? Probably too close to TLC, something the police department did not believe in). A few sticky notes explained that the documentation was being copied, and one handwritten note said that the arson squad planned to finish its investigation tomorrow and would have a detailed report by the end of the week.

And pigs would fly out of my butt.

But I made do with what I had. I often got incomplete files, especially on cases as new as this one. Sometimes the police department felt they’d done enough, and would “forget” to update me. So every morning, I made a list of cases that needed additional material, and I’d talk to a clerk who’d talk to a squad leader who’d talk to a detective who would sigh and fill out the necessary paperwork.

The more times I had to do that, the more the detective got irritated at me, so that by the time we went to court, I was usually as big a bad guy in the detective’s eyes as the person he arrested. Fortunately for me, detectives, while smart, aren’t all that articulate, and I can—if I choose—slice one of them into tiny little pieces on the stand.

I don’t always choose. Because if I do, that detective and his buddies’ll be gunning for me on the next case. So I reserve such treatment for special cases.

I had a hunch this was one those.

Special. How I hated that word.

But I stopped feeling sorry for myself and started to make notes about all I could glean from the file.

At 12:13 a.m., neighbors near the Brickstone Mansion (and you’d have to be stretching it to call them neighbors, considering the three-block lawn, the half-mile driveway, and the large stone fence blocking the view) called 911 to report flames shooting into the sky “so high that it looked like the entire North side is on fire.” A few boats on Lake Michigan called in a massive fire as well.

The fire seemed localized around the Brickstone Mansion. Fire crews were called in. When they arrived, they realized the doors were all bolted shut on the outside. The building was “fully engaged.” When they attempted to put out the fire, the entire place exploded.

Debris fell all over that massive yard, but somehow managed to miss outbuildings, vehicles, and people. Fortunately, the flaming debris did not ignite secondary fires anywhere on the property or on nearby properties.

But the mansion itself was a total loss.

By six a.m., it was clear to fire investigators that at least sixteen people had died inside that building—all of them unidentified. An accurate body count was, according to the report, TK.

Investigators found my client hiding between the shrubs and the stone wall—on the inside of the Brickstone property. He smelled of gasoline, had soot marks on his hands, and “couldn’t give a coherent account of where he had been or what had happened to him.”

Finally, when pushed, he said, “I had to do it,” and then clammed up.

The fire department called in the police, who arrested my client, and brought him to the station.

I searched the file and found no mention of hospitals or trauma centers or counselors. I made a note of that too—because it was good for us.

Then I continued to read. At the police station, my client was offered breakfast including coffee (they always make that sound like a service when, in fact, I think it part of the torture), which he declined. He was interrogated, but refused to say much more than what he said to me, which was that no one would believe what actually happened.

Finally, the exasperated detectives figured they had enough to charge him, and brought him into Judge Lewandowski, where the lucky defendant got introduced to me.

Which was going to make Mr. Palmer’s day—or rather, his tomorrow. Because I was filing a motion first thing to have his case immediately thrown out for lack of evidence. And for severe mistreatment on the part of the police and fire departments. The man was covered in soot and gasoline. He needed to go to a hospital. He was probably disoriented when they found him.

There was no proof that he wasn’t in that house when it exploded, and had somehow miraculously survived.

I was going to argue all of that in front of whatever sympathetic judge I could find (adding, of course, as much legal mumbo jumbo as I could assemble by nine a.m.)

I was pretty good at putting together case dismissal arguments, so good I wouldn’t need to do too much research on the case law. And I think my client’s appearance (I’d put him back in his street clothes for court), his non-confession, and one or two well-timed coughs on his part, would be enough to get him off.

I was in a great mood as I outlined the argument on my trusty laptop—until I got the hair-brained idea to look up Palmer himself.

***

Palmer is an old and venerable name in Chicago. During the last half of the nineteenth century, Potter Palmer and his wife Bertha remade Chicago into the city it is today. In addition to building the Palmer House Hotel, they donated their private art collection to the Art Institute (those Monets? Bertha’s), redesigned downtown Chicago into the configuration it has today, and built the very first mansion on Chicago’s Gold Coast.

In fact, it was their decision to move north (or rather, Bertha’s) that segregated the rich from the rest of the plebs in Chi-town. If there hadn’t been Palmers in Chicago, there wouldn’t have been a Brickstone mansion to burn down, over a century later.

Richard Mark Harrison Palmer the Third was related to those Palmers but not on the right side of the sheets. From what I could gather, the first Richard Mark Harrison Palmer was really Richard Mark Harrison until he got someone to admit something and prove that there was Palmer blood in the Harrison bloodline.

That didn’t get Richard the First any money or any of the Palmer property (of which there is still a lot, at least according to city rumors), but it did give him some status among people who care about that kind of thing.

Which led to his son and his grandson getting the family name (and, apparently, the family snobbery), as well as inheriting the family business.

When Richard the First ran it, it was some kind of ghostly empire where a number of “real” mediums brought back the dead, if only for an evening and a bit of conversation. By the time Richard the Third inherited it, it had become a school for the psychic and those with magical abilities.

I didn’t make a note of that or any of the rest of this, particularly the files I found all over the internet about Richard the Third being some kind of magical hero—a man with strong abilities who wasn’t afraid to use them to fight the Forces of Darkness.

Stories like this—even though they came from places like the Star and the National Enquirer—would be enough to torpedo my case, if I couldn’t get the damn thing dismissed. At the moment, it wouldn’t negate my client’s mistreatment at the hands of the authorities, although it would explain that mistreatment.

No one likes a nutcase. Particularly a nutcase with delusions of grandeur.

And sure enough, the following morning, the prosecution brought it all up while we stood in front of the judge, arguing for dismissal. Palmer stood on the other side of me, reeking in his gasoline- and smoke-damaged clothing.

When we met just before court, I told him to look as pathetic as he could which really wasn’t hard for him, considering the ill treatment he’d gotten in jail the night before. I’d also asked him to give me at least two deep tuberculoid coughs, one at the beginning of the hearing and the other somewhere in the middle.

His first cough, just after Judge Galica entered, was a tour-de-force of shudders and phlegm. It was so convincing that the Judge himself asked Palmer if he needed water or a lozenge or—heaven forbid—a break. But Palmer managed to shake his head, and the prosecutor used that moment to shoot me an accusatory glare as if I’d been the one to do the coughing.

This time, the prosecutor wasn’t a baby. It was Rita Varona, one of the office’s very best. Normally she made me nervous.

This morning, she didn’t. They’d sent her because of the judge we’d been assigned.

Judge Joseph Galica had gone from law school to the Fair Housing Council and later became an advocate for the homeless before getting appointed to the bench. He was as liberal as possible, someone who knew the excesses of the Chicago police (some say because he was in the middle of the 1968 riots and got teargassed), and who actually believed that all defendants should be treated with respect.

Yes, I milked Galica’s attitude. But I did focus on the legal argument as well. I was brilliant, and was about to make my most important point when Palmer interrupted me with another prolonged coughing spell—this one requiring a glass of water from the bailiff.

That spell got Varona to butt in, saying what a fake Palmer was, both in his life and his profession, that he had a hatred of the Brickstones, and he’d told a number of people that the house on the coast was “evil” and had to be destroyed.

I carefully did not look at my client while these arguments got made. Varona talked a lot about my client’s beliefs, and finally made the slip I was hoping for.

“He claims he’s a magician, Judge,” she said. “Once the arson squad’s reports come back, we’ll be able to show that he used the wonders of science—chemistry and physics—to explode that house as if he’d performed a spell on it.”

“Why would he do that?” I asked in my best snide manner.

Varona gave me a sideways glance. She’d hoped for that question. “To cement his claim that he’s the best wizard in the city of Chicago. To get rid of a family that he considered to be his enemy and to increase his business traffic and visibility at the same time.”

Then she launched into his family’s history of quackery as if that were proof of his murderous tendencies.

I let her talk, even though the judge kept glancing at me, clearly wanting me to object.

Finally, the judge himself said in a blatant hint-hint, nudge-nudge kinda way, “Mr. Lundgren, what do you have to say about Ms. Varona’s claims?”

I made sure I didn’t grin. This was the moment I’d been waiting for.

“Simply this, Your Honor. If my client really were Chicagoland’s best wizard, then he should have been able to get himself out of jail. In fact, he would have cast some kind of spell on the responding officers to leave him alone or on the fire investigators so that they wouldn’t find him. Instead, he spent the night in lockup and has the bruises to prove it.”

“Your Honor,” Varona said. “I never claimed he was a wizard. Just that he advertised himself to be one.”

“And if he’s not a wizard,” I said over her, “then all you have to do is look at the family history that Ms. Varona outlined to see that there’s a solid record of mental instability here. And the Chicago PD knows it. That’s why they didn’t take him to the hospital. That’s why they conducted such a shoddy interrogation. And that’s why the fire investigator’s report doesn’t record what my client actually said when they found him. Just that he—and I quote—’couldn’t give a coherent account of where he had been or what had happened to him.’”

“He’s clearly guilty, your honor,” Varona said. “He was on the scene. He’s wearing the same clothes he wore yesterday and I’m sure you can tell from there that they stink of smoke and gasoline. He—”

“Gasoline?” I said, trying not to overplay my incredulousness. “Your Honor, Brickstone mansion was built of stone. Gasoline couldn’t burn that place down. Nor could it cause an explosion of the magnitude described in the other reports. I got assigned this case while Mr. Palmer was standing alone in front of Judge Lewandowski. I didn’t get the file until late last night. That’s why we’re here. If I’d had any of this information, I would have asked for dismissal then.”

Varona rolled her eyes. “Your Honor, Mr. Palmer is a very dangerous man—”

“If that’s true,” the judge said, “you should have waited until you had a real case before charging him. I’m going to drop all the charges against this poor man, and I’m going to instruct his attorney to get him to the hospital immediately.”

And the gavel came down.

Palmer turned to me. His mouth was open, and his eyes were wide. I’d never seen a man look so astonished.

That,” he said, “was pure magic. You’re amazing.”

I shrugged. It was less egotistical than agreeing. Then I touched his arm. “You heard the judge. I have to make sure you get medical treatment.”

Palmer nodded. We walked out of the courtroom together, and I surreptitiously checked my watch. Another two hours before I had to be back. I actually could take the guy to get medical care.

Besides, the judge would probably check, so I wanted to be able to prove I’d followed instructions.

“You know,” I said as we walked down the stairs, “you might want to pull every favor you have and hire a good attorney. Because the prosecutor’s office will come after you again.”

“I’m not worried,” he said.

“Yesterday, you were ready to chuck it all.”

He smiled. “Yesterday I had no idea what a good defense lawyer can do.”

I permitted myself one small smile of satisfaction.

We walked in silence through the hallways that connected the courthouse with the Public Defender’s office. Because Palmer reeked so bad, I stopped at a desk and asked for an official car to take us to the hospital. I didn’t want Palmer in my used Lexus.

As we waited, Palmer turned to me. “You seem to love what you do.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Because you appreciate the challenge.” That sense I’d had of his intelligence came back. He’d seen through me faster than most did.

“Yes,” I said.

“Would you consider continuing to defend me?”

“If they charge you again, you can come to me,” I said, hoping it wouldn’t come to that. Then I realized I already had a strategy in place. I’d work the evidence, and if that turned against us, then I’d get a few shrinks to examine the family history and Palmer himself and declare him mentally incompetent. He’d probably get time in a mental hospital or some outpatient counseling, but that wouldn’t necessarily be bad—if all those articles on his past had even a smidgeon of truth.

“Good,” he said. “Then you won’t mind handling the most difficult part of the case.”

And Lord help me, I thought he was still talking about the criminal case. Because egotistical me, I said, “The difficult part of any case is my favorite part.”

***

Which is how I ended up here in this glade, surrounded by willow trees and strong oak and all sorts of green plants I don’t recognize. A place where the breeze is warm and smells of roses, and the little creatures who bring me food and drink have human faces and multicolored wings.

You see, the most difficult part of the case is arguing to get Palmer’s magic back. Apparently, the magical world has laws and rules and regulations just like ours. And while there isn’t jail per se, there are worse punishments, like taking away someone’s magical abilities.

Palmer is Chicagoland’s greatest wizard. He can wave a wand and bring down lightning from the sky to ignite a puddle of magically enhanced gasoline to destroy a mansion made of stone. (And yes, I checked just before I got whisked here. There was a lightning storm that night.)

It seems no one here cares that Palmer destroyed the house. They’re not even that upset that he managed to kill the beings inside which were—if the files I have scattered across the grass are to be believed—dragons that could assume human form.

Seems the dragons had a plan to steal every treasure in the City of Chicago, starting with the contents of the Art Institute first, but ending with every human treasure, like the Chicago Bears—the actual team members, not the team ownership. When dragons steal a city’s treasure, they don’t move it. They just take over the city. Chicago would have been a haven for evil—that’s what Palmer says—and after seeing the folks who run the magical justice system, I’m inclined to believe him.

Not that I have to. I just have to defend him. I have to make the case that even though he used his magic injudiciously and caused sixteen deaths and—worse, under magic laws—called attention to himself in the non-magical world, he was justified in doing so.

Palmer’s right; this is the most difficult part of the case. Not to make the argument—I’m great at argument. But to understand the stupid magical laws. I have to know the system before I can beat it.

Which is why his magical friends dumped me here, in this glade which is run by faeries. And what I didn’t know at first was these faeries are the kind Rip Van Winkle ran into on his famous night of bowling and carousing. These folks control time. They make it go slow or they speed it up.

Palmer promises me I’ll have all the time in the world to do my research. I won’t lose a day of my life. I’ll be here, I’ll make my arguments, I’ll win my case (I’d better, considering what these people can do), and then I’ll go home as if nothing’s happened.

Of course, I’ll be a little older, a little grayer, a little paunchier. They can’t completely negate the effects of time on a human being.

But, as Palmer says, now at least I’ll know how people seem to age overnight.

As if that’s supposed to cheer me up while I sit here in sunshine-filled hell, eating the best food and drinking tea by the gallon, reading parchment and watching tiny replays of arguments made through the ages.

And I do mean ages.

Magic has existed a long, long time. Longer than the United States. Longer than the Magna Carta. Longer than England or the Roman Empire or Ancient Greece.

Our laws aren’t based on Greek conventions or English common law. They’re a modification—an improvement (believe me)—of magical law.

Which just makes it all the more confusing.

And I’m told, defense attorneys aren’t required here. So no one goes into that side of the magical legal system.

After reviewing one-one-thousandth of the documentation before me, I can see why. It’s hard to defend these people against anything. And not just because of the convoluted law, but because of all the things they’ve done.

Fortunately for Palmer, I’m not one of those liberal-hippie types who gets appalled when his client is actually guilty. I’m not in this to provide a fair trial. I’m in this to provide the best defense I possibly can.

Because I like to argue and I like to win against impossible odds.

And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Crime Spells, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Loren L. Coleman, Daw Books, February 2009
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2018 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Christianm/Dreamstime

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

3 responses to “Free Fiction Monday: The Best Defense”

  1. Chong Go says:

    Great story! It really sucked me in, and I even found myself thinking about it days after I read it.

  2. John says:

    Love this story Kris! This is the first fiction of yours I’ve read. Will look for more short fantasy especially.

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