Chapter 3: Breakdown
"The prosecution would like to call Ms. Elizabeth Sellers to the stand."
I held my breath. This was it. The moment of truth. If Athena and I were right... then I was about to crack this case wide open. Along with a few other things.
Athena looked at me hesitantly. “So, did you tell Su what we’re doing?”
“WHAAAAT?” Athena clapped her hands to her face. “Apollo, you’re going to be opening up a whole bag of worms if you do this… no, a whole jar of BEES!”
I rubbed my forehead tensely. “I know. But I think she’d prefer this to getting sent down for a murder she didn’t commit. Don’t you?”
Athena lowered her eyes. “I… I guess. But even so, it doesn’t seem fair to spring it on her like this.”
“I have a feeling if we told her what we were going to do, she’d tell us not to.”
“Yeah, but it just feels so…”
I nodded. It definitely felt wrong. Then again, this whole case felt wrong… and the wrongest feeling of all was coming from the woman currently on the stand.
Now that I was paying closer attention to her, I could see the details of her outfit. All the buttons on her suit looked to be tiny, old-fashioned typewriter keys. Even her earrings looked like they’d been pulled from the same typewriter. She was currently paying the rest of the court little to no mind, though, as she scribbled away on a notepad with the quill pen she’d plucked from her hairdo.
“Name?” the prosecutor asked tersely. She was new, someone I’d not seen before, but she had an edge to her that I’d definitely encountered in previous cases.
“Three guesses whose protégé she is,” Athena muttered as she looked at the young woman’s gimlet-eyed glare, “and the first two don’t count.”
Bess continued scribbling away.
“Your name, witness?”
“One second… can’t let this idea get away.” Bess scribbled a final few words furiously, then popped her quill back in her hairdo with a smile. “Elizabeth Sellers, world-renowned author of the Pye, P.I. series. Latest book now available from all fine booksellers.”
The judge sighed. “This is a court of law, Ms. Sellers, not an interview.”
Bess chuckled. “Force of habit. Your Honor.” Then she turned to the young lady prosecutor. “I believe you have a few questions for me?”
The prosecutor nodded. “Indeed. You were closest to the defendant, correct?”
“In business, or at the time of the murder?” Bess pursed her lips thoughtfully. “The answer to both is ‘yes,’ of course.”
“I’m referring to the murder, Ms. Sellers.”
“Then yes, I was sitting only three feet from her at the time.”
“Very good. Could you please outline what you saw at the time?”
“Of course.” Bess adjusted her posture ever so slightly. “I was sitting at my table signing books. Su was, as ever, next to me, and Artemis was next to her, eating cookies she’d made for him. I don’t know what they were discussing, but it seemed very heated. I imagine she was bending his ear about his career choice. Then he suddenly keeled over dead, and she just stood there. Obviously she’d planned to kill him as an example to others – to show how despised defense attorneys are!”
I prodded my forehead. Everything she had said was technically accurate… well, at least up until that last bit. But unfortunately, anyone who knew about the Khura’inese attitude would probably understand the logic leap she’d made.
“It holds up,” Athena muttered, as though reading my thoughts. “Remember the guy from the front of her line that came in yesterday? Reed N. Renbo or whatever his name was? He said he heard Su say something about ‘leaving a career full of lies.’”
I winced. “Y-Yeah. That’s… yeah.” I looked over at Su, who sat with eyes downcast. When questioned about that statement, she had refused to answer. If only she’d just give us something to go on… then I wouldn’t have to feel like I was dragging it out of her against her will.
“The defense may cross-examine the witness.” The judge’s voice broke me out of my thoughts.
“Ah. R-Right.” I turned to Bess. “Ms. Sellers, you say you ‘imagine’ the defendant was talking to the victim about his career choice.”
Bess nodded. “Yes. I heard her mention a ‘career full of lies.’ Which pretty well stacks up to the Khura’inese notion of defense attorney, wouldn’t you agree?”
“That was brought up yesterday,” I confirmed, leaving the rest of her statement unaddressed. “But how can you be sure she was talking about his career… and not hers?”
“I beg your pardon?” Bess pressed a hand to her chest. “Are you implying that I am a bad employer?”
I shook my head. “Not at all, Ms. Sellers. In fact, I believe you are an excellent employer, under the proper conditions.”
Athena and I turned our eyes toward the prosecutor. “Ms. Sellers’s aptitude as an employee is not on trial,” the prosecutor snapped. “Your client is. What could this possibly have to do with the murder of Artemis Master?”
“That’s what I’m hoping to find out. Tell me, Ms. Sellers, what sort of conditions did Ms. Ro’ghit work under?”
“The best, of course.” Bess frowned, her eyes narrowing. “She was paid extremely well – more than most personal assistants you’ll find. She was indispensable; of course I’d treat her well. And I’ll have you know I’d be very sad to see her go if she’s found guilty.”
Athena cocked her head. “That’s funny.”
“That last sentence just now…” Athena screwed up her face in thought. “There was something weird about how she said it.”
Really? Had she noticed some “noise” in Bess’s statement? If so, then maybe that could give us the foothold we needed! “You wanna do your thing?”
“Do you even need to ask?” Athena grinned, turning to the judge. “Your Honor, I have a problem with that last statement.”
“Oh? It seemed quite caring to me.”
Athena nodded. “And to me. But there was something about it that seemed a little… off. With your permission, I’d like to see if I can get to the root of it.”
“Get to the root of what?” Bess snapped.
“With all due respect, Ms. Sellers, we can’t have you testifying if you’re too emotional. And if you’re caught up in sadness about the potential verdict, I’d be happy to work through those feelings with you.” She raised Widget. “May I?”
“OBJECTION! Implying that the witness is mentally unstable constitutes-“
“Overruled,” the judge interrupted. “The defense may proceed.” The prosecutor fumed, sinking backwards a bit, but didn’t protest further.
“Thank you!” With a flourish, Athena opened up the Mood Matrix screen in front of her. “Now… let’s go through that again, shall we?”
Bess wrinkled her nose a bit. “I… I said I’d be very sad to see her go if she’s found guilty.”
“Aha… now that’s funny.” Athena pointed at a spot on her screen. “You say ‘sad,’ but I’m picking up a few other things, too.” She rubbed her chin. “Scared… and… happy? Very interesting.”
“W-Why would I be happy?”
“That’s what I’d like to know.” Athena glanced up at Bess. “But at the moment, I’m more interested in the ‘scared’ side. I know you say she’s indispensable, but it seems strange that you’d be literally afraid of losing her.”
“Could it be there are certain tasks she can perform that you can’t?” I spoke up.
Bess grimaced. “If you must know, I make terrible coffee.”
Athena shook her head. “I have a feeling this isn’t just about keeping you caffeinated, Ms. Sellers. This is some BIG fear. In fact, the only thing you’re feeling as much as that fear is HAPPINESS. It’s almost as though… you’re excited about her being out of your life, but worried that you may be losing something. That doesn’t sound like a caring employer to me… that sounds like someone using an employee where it’s convenient!”
Bess’s face turned as white as her suit.
“OBJECTION!” The prosecutor slammed her hands on her desk. “Everyone knows Ms. Sellers and Ms. Ro’ghit were very close. It’s natural for someone to be afraid for their friend and coworker.”
“OBJECTION!” This from Athena, before I could even respond. “The point isn’t that she’s afraid. It’s that she’s afraid AND HAPPY. If they’re as close as we all think, then why is she potentially happy about Su getting charged with murder?”
The prosecution faltered. “Because… she’s… she’s confused… she’s too distressed to testify-”
“OBJECTION!” This time, it was me. “A moment ago you took Ms. Cykes to task for suspecting Ms. Sellers might need in need of some talk-therapy. Are you now agreeing with us? Or are you perhaps saying she’s an unfit witness?”
“I… I… Ngh!”
I snapped my head around to the judge. “Your Honor, I maintain that Ms. Sellers has something to gain from Ms. Ro’ghit being found guilty.”
“Oh? Such as?”
This was it. All or nothing. If I was right, then Su would go free – but her biggest secret would be laid bare. And she might hate us both for it. But it was worth it if it meant saving her and seeing justice being done.
I smiled. “Such as her silence.”
Bess gasped. Su, still looking at the floor, flinched.
“Ms. Cykes pointed out,” I went on, “that Ms. Sellers acts as though losing the defendant is something to be afraid of. That means, in spite of her apparent happiness, she will lose something in the process. What could possibly drive Ms. Sellers to that level of fear?”
“Mr. Justice,” Su whispered, “please don’t.”
I’m sorry, Su. “Her books.”
“OBJECTION!” The prosecutor looked more baffled than angry. “What does that even MEAN!”
“It means,” Athena cut in, “that without our client, Ms. Sellers will not be able to write her books.”
Su flinched, turning her head away. Bess’s eyes went wide.
“A-Are you implying that the defendant is the witness’s ghostwriter?”
I nodded. “I assert that Su Ro’ghit is the true writer of the Pye, P.I. series, and that Elizabeth Sellers framed her to keep her from ever going public with it!”
“OBJECTION!” screeched the prosecutor. “There’s no proof that Ms. Sellers even knew the victim! Why would she kill him?”
Bess laughed nervously, fiddling with the buttons on her jacket. “Ha! Yes, what she said. Why would I kill someone I don’t even know?”
“You may not have known him personally,” Athena countered, “but you knew what he was telling Su, didn’t you?”
“What was it they were talking about?” I went on. “A ‘career built on lies’? We all assumed it was to do with the innate Khura’inese dislike for lawyers… but what if Artemis was pressing Su to go public?”
“OBJECTION! That’s… that’s pure conjecture!”
“OBJECTION!” Athena slammed her hands on the stand so hard, I thought she might break it. “How is it any more conjecture than the assumption before?”
The sound of the judge’s gavel cut through the voices. “Order! Order, please!” Silence returned to the court room, and the judge lowered his voice. “While I agree that both statements require a great deal of assumption, I do think it’s fair to ask for some proof that that was the topic of discussion.”
“Well, good luck there,” Athena muttered. “One of them is dead and the other won’t talk… and even if she did, she wouldn’t be believed.”
“Can the defense prove that the subject of the conversation between Ms. Ro’ghit and the victim was to do with her job rather than his?
I couldn’t. There was no way I could prove it. “I… w-well…”
“Ssst! Apollo!” Athena nudged me gently. I looked to the side; she was holding her new copy of Defining Pye.
“Your Honor, I can’t prove the topic of the conversation… but I can prove that Ms. Sellers is NOT the author of her own books!”
Bess snorted. “That’s some pretty big talk.”
I glanced at Athena. “Would you care to do the honors?”
“With pleasure.” Athena opened to a fairly early part of the book. “Ms. Sellers, would you please tell the court who is the first murder victim in your most recent book?”
“OBJECTION!” shouted the prosecution. “Writers can’t remember every single detail of everything they write!”
Athena smiled shaking her head. “Ah, but anyone who’s read – or written – this book will know that the character’s name shows up quite a bit. I’ve only read it once, and it sticks in my head. So, Ms. Sellers… your most recent victim, please.”
Bess laughed, but her voice was shaking. “Ahahaha! Of course! That’s easy! He’s… his name… he was…”
“Ooooh… you’re already striking out… the victim in the book is a she.”
“She! I meant she! I’m nervous! I hate being put on the spot!” Bess’s calm exterior was cracking; strands of hair were dropping form her hairdo. “It’s… she’s…” Suddenly, and probably unconsciously, she turned to Su. “Who is she????”
The courtroom fell silent.
“M-Ms. Sellers…” the judge stammered. “Do you really need the defendant to tell you about your own book?”
“I think,” Athena said quietly, “you’ll find her most recent victim’s name was, in fact… Artemis Masters. In the REAL world, anyway.”
“O… Objection!” The prosecution’s voice was weak. “The… the poison… if the defendant didn’t do it, then how did she know-“
“Of course a crime writer would know what a poisoning looks like,” Athena shot back. “Probably better than her boss does.”
The judge turned his eyes toward Su. “Ms. Ro’ghit… your attorney is making some enormous claims on your behalf. Are they true?”
“Su,” Athena whispered plaintively, “PLEASE.”
Reluctantly, Su nodded. “It… yes. It is true. The books… they are all mine. Published under her name. A-Arty didn’t like my lack of recognition and wanted me to tell the world, but-“
“Ha…. Ha! Ha! Ha ha ha…”
“What in the world?” The judge looked back at the witness stand… as did we all. Bess was clutching the railing, her long blonde hair having fallen down from its bun, her glasses askew.
“Ha! Silly girl! Who’s going to believe YOU? You’re going to be sent down for MURDER! No one will EVER listen to you… HA!”
Athena set her jaw firmly. “Ms. Sellers. It’s over. It’s time to come clean.”
Bess laughed hoarsely, but it faded out slowly. “Ha… ha… haaaaa…. Hhhhow… how?”
“How… how will I ever get published again…” She pulled her hands in close to her chest, as though flinching away from all of us. “I… I had no choice… if Masters had his way, she’d tell everyone and I’d be a laughingstock. If I could make sure no one would ever believe a word she said… then I’d lose my career, but I’d keep my name!” Her face brightened into a sad, desperate smile. “I could retire! I could…”
“Are we meant to take this as a confession, Ms. Sellers?” The judge’s face was grim.
Bess nodded slowly. “Yes. Yes… I did it. I killed Artemis Masters. Su… I… I had to stop her… but I couldn’t bear to lay a finger on her.”
“Bess…” Su looked away, wounded.
“Bailiff? Escort Ms. Sellers from the courtroom.”
“I’m sorry, Su.” I bowed my head to my client. “I know you didn’t want anyone to know, but it was the only way to save you.”
Su shook her head. “You did the right thing. I should have been willing to protect myself.”
“But, man…” Athena folded her arms, regarding Su quietly. “You were ready to go to jail just to keep your secret! That’s pretty hardcore!”
“No… don’t make it sound good,” Su insisted. “Not at all. You and Mr. Justice were right to bring it up. I just… I don’t know what to do now. Without Bess.”
“You don’t need her,” Athena scoffed.
“But she knew all the business ins-and-outs. She had The Name. What do I have.”
What did she have?? I reached over to take something off the table, shoving it at Su.
“Y-You know, Apollo, you can just hand people things quietly.” Athena laughed awkwardly.
“T-This is…” It was Athena’s copy of Defining Pye.
“Even though Bess’s name is on it, it’s still your work. And I’m sure there are plenty of publishers and agents who’d be thrilled to publish you as you.”
Su smiled, hugging the book. “Thank you, Mr. Justice.”
“So,” Athena grinned, “what’s next for the great Pye, P.I.?”
“Oh, I think I’m retiring her.” Su looked off thoughtfully. “When I think of Pye… I think of Bess. I think I’m going to start a new series. With a new main character.” She looked back at us. “A heroic defense attorney who stands up for their clients, no matter what!”
I felt myself beaming. “That sounds great, Su.”
Su nodded, grinning back. “And if it gets popular enough, maybe I can publish a Khura’inese translation… to show my friends and family back home that defense attorneys aren’t as bad as they think.”
“I’m sure Mr. Wright would be glad of that,” Athena snorted.
Speaking of Mr. Wright… I hope he’s okay. I heard Maya’s final rite is soon. In all the stories he told me about their time together, he said she always seemed to manage to get arrested for murders she didn’t commit.
Ah, well. It’s been a long time since then. That’s probably behind them.