The Trial of Arthur A. Westcott

by Megan E. Cassidy

“Doctor Lynch, can you explain for the jury precisely how your machine works,” the prosecutor began. She had been waiting for this moment for the past seven months. After the investigation, the manhunt, the arrest, the pre-trial hearings, and the standard sets of objections and appeals, the stage was finally hers.

Due to the high profile nature of the crime and the sensitivity of the evidence being given, the judge ordered a closed courtroom, but the drones chronicling the events for the record and future public consumption zoomed in on the witness, as all twelve members of the jury and six alternates leaned forward in anticipation.

jury-box

It was not just a pivotal moment in the course of the trial. It was, quite literally, the pivotal moment of human history. Thousands of scientists would kill to get even the smallest tidbit of information on the heavily guarded research. Lynch and Pillay might have hidden away the information for years had it not been for the assassination. Instead, Lynch was about to reveal the secrets of the universe to eighteen average citizens with absolutely no scientific background whatsoever.

Lynch cleared his throat, recalling at the last second Prosecutor Janey’s careful instructions during their months of coaching. He dropped his fluttering hands and folded them in his lap, nails digging into his flesh as he tried to calm down. Lynch had always been more comfortable in a lab or library than around people. It was one of the reasons he had become a researcher instead of a professor. He wished that his partner Niemah Pillay had been called up first. But Janey worried about jury bias and wanted testimony from an American male instead of a South African female, whom the jury might see as an outsider in a trial involving the assassination of the President of the United States.

Lynch licked his lips and cleared his throat again, “The device was built after my colleagues and I discovered the flaw in the Einstein-Rosen Bridge hypothesis. By solving the Kepler problem and redirecting the gravitational…”

“In layman’s terms please, doctor,” Janey interrupted kindly, eliciting smiles and nods from the jury. She and Lynch had practiced this dialogue. Both Lynch and Pillay were reluctant to share their discoveries, fearing that other, less ethically responsible parties, would replicate or surpass their research to calamitous results. Janey had assured them that the jury, a group which included an accountant, housewife, preschool teacher, gardener, and grocery clerk, would be unable to understand the precise physics of time travel. Nevertheless, she had coached Lynch to begin elucidating on the subject, just to establish authority. Then, he could give carefully worded examples clear enough for amateurs to understand.

Janey handed her witness the small cardboard box to demonstrate. Lynch nodded and began again, “There are four known dimensions.” He held up box, running a finger across the sides and center of the box, “The first three are easily seen—height, width, and depth.”

“The fourth dimension is time. Historically, we have moved in three dimensional space. You can walk forward or backward, jump up, fall down, and spin around,” Lynch manipulated the box as he spoke, and Janey was pleased to see the eyes of the jury glued on the object, following Lynch’s every minute motion.

“But,” he continued, “thus far, we have only been able to move forward with time.” He slid the box along the rail of the witness stand, pausing momentarily as he said the words, “through the past, present, and future.”

“What do you mean?” Janey asked.

Lynch wanted to sigh. He thought this would be clear, but she had insisted on a further explanation, “Well, I was born July 6, 2013 at precisely 6:07am.” He set the box to his left. “As I wriggled back and forth in my crib,” he twisted the box around, “time continued marching forward to 6:08, 6:09, and so on.”

He inched the box forward by small increments, “I went along in that time, but I could not break the flow of time to jump ahead to noon. Nor could I jump from 6:06am to the minutes before I entered the world.”

“But now you can?” Janey asked.

“Yes,” he replied, and the jury gave a collective jump of excitement.

“Can you explain how,” Janey inquired, “again in layman’s terms?”

“Our machine is able to move backward and forward in time,” he began.

“But not in space?”

“No. It moves along the fourth dimension,” he dragged the box against the railing again, “but it is unable to move up, down, or from side to side. Instead, once it is placed on a particular spot, we are able to observe past, present, and future events only in that singular location. This is somewhat similar to the old HG Wells’ novel , The Time Machine. The device is rooted to one spot.”

“And how are you able to move into the past or future unseen?” Janey’s voice quavered almost imperceptibly. She knew this would be the most complicated part of the scientist’s testimony, and desperately hoped the jury would be able to understand. If not, the case might be lost.

Lynch explained, “Once the device is engaged, our machine, the Tempus V, moves within a fifth dimension, outside of our own.”

He opened the cardboard box and drew out the cube that had been nested within. “Think of this as a location,” he held up the box and placed it on the railing. “And think of this as the machine,” he held the cube a few inches away.

“It’s there. We can see and hear everything on the box. We can even see the box in the future or in the present. But we can’t touch it or interact with it. That’s one reason the machine doesn’t move from side to side or up and down. It’s on a different plane of existence.”

“A different plane,” Janey echoed his last words, “So, to use another literary reference, you become like the ghosts in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol?”

Lynch’s muscles eased and he realized he had been holding his breath, “Yes. We are able to observe, but can neither be seen nor heard.”

“Objection, Your Honor,” Defense Attorney Cain cut in, sneering sardonically with each word she spoke. “Are we really supposed to believe that this man and his,” she paused, “friend, fly around time like some sort of zany spirits?”

Judge Denison looked down, annoyed that the ground-breaking testimony had been cut short. It was standard and almost obligatory to object at such a point, but the seasoned lawyer had to know that she was hurting her case by doing so. “As I stated before, Ms. Cain, there have been numerous government officials who have observed Dr. Lynch’s work. Their testimonies have been recorded, but is highly classified. We will have the opportunity to hear from Dr. Pillay as well, and the defense team will, of course, have the ability to cross-examine both witnesses. Motion is denied.”

Cain nodded and sat back down. The fact was that she did know she was hurting her case, but realized that her client had been found guilty in the hearts of the jury weeks before. She also knew that without at least the appearance of a rigorous defense, Arthur Westcott would have grounds for appeal. After reading over the prosecution’s evidence during discovery, Cain wanted him executed just as much as every person sitting in that jury box.

Janey rolled her eyes at the rapt jury and smiled as if they were sharing an inside joke at the defense attorney’s expense. Turning back to her witness, she said, “You were just explaining that your machine, the Tempus V, exists on a separate plane. Once you reach that plane, are you able to move about and examine the location further since you’re unseen?”

“No,” Lynch resisted the urge to shout, bile rising slightly in his throat. He had known the question was coming, but he still felt unprepared to answer. “Our understanding of the fifth dimension, of this separate plane, is still limited,” he paused now and took a drink of water from the cup sitting by the stand and looked again at Pillay, who was staring into her lap, teary eyed.

“Look, you’re talking about moving about in a completely unknown space. Maybe you could come back into the vehicle. Maybe. But more than likely, you would be trapped within that moment, able to move through time, but not up, down, back, or forth.” His voice rose slightly as he pulled the little cube along the rail, shaking it gently to show the tension in his hand, as if it were trying to move off the railing of its own accord.

He continued, “Without the normal earthly rules of time, your body and mind wouldn’t age the same way. You’d be somewhere in this fifth dimension completely disembodied from our world, unable to communicate with anyone on this plane of existence ever again.” Lynch winced, and the entire jury shuddered right along with him.

“Objection, Your Honor,” Cain stood again. “Isn’t this entirely theoretical? Can we please return to the facts of the case?”

Lynch’s mind moved away from the trial proceedings. It wasn’t theoretical. Not in the least, no matter how he was presenting it here. But only he, Pillay, and a handful of others knew about their former colleague Rikichi Okada, and he wasn’t about to dredge up that painful incident in front of a roomful of strangers who could never understand.

Okada had assisted with the creation of each one of the five Tempus machines. Tempus I and II were complete failures. The first fell apart once the circuits were started, and the second closed up in on itself, thankfully crashing to the floor instead of creating some irrevocable time rift. Pillay had wanted to quit at that point, but Okada was more reckless and daring, and he had convinced a still-curious Lynch to continue on in their research.

Tempus III and IV had been sent out on a trial run with only a remote video feed. Only static was recorded, but they believed the experiment to be successful. The three scientists built the fifth prototype and had agreed to accept the risks of time travel when they boarded the Tempus V. Unsure whether their theories on fifth dimensional space were correct, they kept the machine in the lab, strapped themselves in and moved forward ten years into the future. When the machine stopped whirring, they saw three students cleaning beakers and straightening papers. One of the students passed directly through them, completely failing to acknowledge their presence.

Pillay was horrified when they returned, completely shaken by the experience. Lynch suggested that they had been reckless in jumping into the vehicle themselves and recommended turning the project over to the university at large. The headstrong Okada who had insisted they continue experimentation. “We are the first and only known people to travel through time,” he proclaimed. “Taking such a journey is like Neil Armstrong walking on a moon of another planet two solar systems away before anyone else figured out space travel was even possible!” After much debate and discussion, Okada won the battle.

The research team continued in their secret travels for three months after their first successful excursion. The Tempus V was a small carbon and glass structure wired to receive sound, and so they were able to observe everything, though recording had proved unsuccessful. The vehicle had room for four people, should they wish to bring someone else on board, but was relatively light and easy to transport in the large moving van they had purchased expressly for that purpose. Still, they cautiously limited trips to locations around the small college town, covertly moving the machine from place to place only at night and travelling backward and never forward, having universally agreed that knowing too much about the future could be detrimental.

They were preparing to publish a highly restrained and abbreviated account of their research when Okada suggested they take one last trip. They had taken the machine to a small cul-de-sac on the outskirts of town. Then, the team rolled the machine back to the previous morning and cheerfully observed parents sending their children off to school, dogs being walked, and mail being delivered.

Without warning, Okada had shouted, “I am not a scientist!  I am an explorer!” Before the other two could stop him, he threw open the door and dove headlong out of the vehicle.

They quickly closed the door, and looked around wildly, hoping to see their friend moving like a ghost amongst the other citizens of the town. There was no sight of him. They waited for hours. They moved the Tempus V back and forth through time, thinking perhaps Okada might appear in either the future or the past. But he did not, and most likely could not return.

At last, they had to leave Okada behind, wherever he had gone. Upon their return to campus, they had contacted first the university president and then a number of top government officials to report and explain their colleague’s sudden disappearance. All parties concerned had agreed to classify their findings as top-secret and move their research to the Pentagon for security reasons. Under the guise of an alternate energy grant, the two scientists continued to secretly observe and record both mundane and pivotal moments in American history.

It was not until three years later, upon the death of President Ophelia Smithe that Lynch, Pillay, and their highly guarded research were violently thrust into the public eye. The two researchers had been dodging questions and living in near seclusion under a heavily protective guard ever since.

Janey interrupted Lynch’s thoughts with a sharp, “Would you like me to repeat the question, Doctor?”

Lynch cringed, shamed that his attention had wandered at such an important moment. Janey smiled warmly; she didn’t want to alienate her star witness. “Coming back to the matter of the defendant Arthur Alan Westcott, how did you arrive at the conclusion that he had murdered President Smithe?”

The scientist relaxed again. From this point forward, his statements would be limited to those of witness describing a crime. There would hopefully be little room for the jury to doubt this evidence. “To begin with,” Lynch eased back into his chair, steepling his fingers in front of his chest, “the praise must go to the Chicago police department and the FBI for all of their hard work.”

He paused as both Janey and the jury smiled. She had thought this bit necessary, both to elucidate the procedure and to establish Lynch as not just a knowledgeable witness, but a kind, relatable one as well. Back at the defendant’s table, Cain snorted derisively but did not object, and so he continued. “The forensics team first determined the trajectory of the bullets that pierced through President Smithe’s skull and person.”

“How were they able to reach those conclusions?”

“Objection,” Cain stood. “Is Mr. Lynch an expert in time travel, or an expert in forensics?”

“I’m an expert in physics,” Lynched blinked, affronted and speaking out of turn. “I assure you I can speak to both.”

Janey smiled at the unexpected interruption. Lynch was proving to be the best witness she’d ever had. “Your Honor,” she said, “the trajectory of the bullets led directly to Dr. Lynch’s eventual placement at the scene of the crime. And, as he stated, he is in fact an expert in physics and if he can explain the bending of time and space, he can surely describe the simple path taken by a bullet moving along a mere three dimensional plane.”

The jury stifled laughter and the judge’s lips twitched almost imperceptibly in amusement, “I’ll allow it.”

bulletJaney motioned to the scientist to continue and he said, “There are a number of factors taken into account when concluding the origin of a bullet. First, one group inspected the bullets to determine the caliber. They also examined the angles at which the bullets had passed through the President’s podium and through the stage wall set up behind her. Meanwhile, doctors at the morgue examined the wounds in the President’s body to determine the angle at which they had entered her body. Finally, a third group studied footage from television cameras and phones taken during the event.”

“And yet, no one was able to see the origin of the shots?” Janey prompted.

“Correct. No cameras had been trained on that exact spot, but using this footage, the team was able to set up a dummy the exact height of the President in her exact location on the stage. From there, rods were placed from the dummy to the stage wall at the exact angle of entry. Finally, lasers were placed to show through the entrance of the bullets in the stage wall through the President’s body, and up into the buildings surrounding the square. At that point, it was determined that the shots had been fired from the roof of the Granchelli Building.”

“And that’s where you came into the picture?”

“Not quite. The area was inspected first by the brave men and women of both the FBI and the Chicago PD. According to their reports, which were testified to earlier, there was no physical evidence. The area had been completely cleaned. There were no footprints or fingerprints, no gunshot residue, no evidence that anyone had been up there.”

“So then you were called in to help?”

“Yes,” Lynch nodded. “Niemah, that is, Dr. Pillay and I were contacted by authorities and were asked to use the Tempus V to observe events and determine what had occurred.”

“And you agreed?”

“The President of the United States had been shot three days prior. The entire country was turned completely upside-down. Everyone was, and still are, shocked with grief. Of course we agreed,” Lynch finished his impassioned answer, and Janey repressed the urge to smile again.

“Tell us what happened next,” she said. Now that trust had been established and Lynch had the jury hooked, she gave her witness free rein to describe events as he saw fit.

“After all possible evidence had been collected and recorded, a helicopter brought Dr. Pillay, the Tempus V, and me onto the roof. After setting up the device, Dr. Pillay and I entered the vehicle. We then travelled backward to five minutes before the President’s death. From our location, we observed a blond middle-aged man dressed in a green polo shirt and blue jeans kneeling at the edge of the roof. He was holding a heavy barrelled sniper rifle with a high power scope.”

“Objection, Your Honor. Is the witness also a firearms expert?”

“Sustained,” the judge conceded.

Lynch tried again, “He was holding a large gun, which was later identified by a firearms expert who accompanied us on one of the later excursions.”

“So, the man was holding a gun at the edge of the roof where the bullet was determined to have originated from. What occurred next?”

“He fired five shots directly at President Smithe. The first two were fired off within seconds of each other.  Both entered the President’s chest. She stumbled backward and a secret service agent dove in front of her, but the agent was unable to prevent the third bullet from entering her skull and piercing through her brain. The assailant moved his gun to a lower trajectory and the fourth bullet crashed through the podium, missing the President, but hitting a second Secret Service member, Agent Cody Michaels in the shoulder. The final bullet went wild and killed Melissa Evans, a five-year-old child standing in front of the stage,” he paused as members of the jury gasped, clutched hands to mouths, and shook their heads. The death of the young girl had engendered almost as much sadness and outrage as the death of the President.

“After Melissa collapsed to the ground in a pool of blood,” Lynch remembered to elaborate on this portion of the story, “the assailant took precisely thirty-nine seconds to disassemble the sniper…the weapon. He had been kneeling on a blanket placed on top of the rooftop gravel. After placing the weapon into a green and white gym bag, he pulled up the blanket and shoved that into the bag as well. He then proceeded out of the rooftop door and calmly exited the rooftop.”

“Can you identify the man you saw that day?” Janey asked.

“Absolutely,” Lynch said, pointing to the defendant. “He’s sitting right over there.”

“And did you identify him immediately?” Janey asked.

“No. After a number of observations, Dr. Pillay and myself along with several other attending witnesses worked with sketch artists provided by the FBI. Once a sketch was created, there was a manhunt for the suspect, which lasted eight days. After Mr. Westcott was apprehended, Dr. Pillay and I were brought in to identify the suspect. Separated from one another and brought in before independent police lineups, both she and I identified Arthur Westcott as the perpetrator.”

“Was there ever any doubt in your mind that Mr. Westcott might not be the person you saw that day?”

Lynch sat forward, “Ms. Janey, seeing him kill the President and that little girl once would have been enough, but my colleague and I observed the murder precisely forty seven times.” He paused as the jury gasped again.

Lynch turned away from Janey and looked directly into the eyes of every juror and every alternate one by one. His voice became slow and deliberate, “Forty seven times. From every angle imaginable. I have absolutely no  doubt whatsoever that the man we saw that day over and over and over again is the man who sits before us now.”

“Thank you, Dr. Lynch, for your clear and courageous testimony. Your work will have far-reaching implications not just on the outcome of this trial, but on the fields of science and history. No further questions at this time, Your Honor,” Janey said, taking her seat.

“Would you like to cross-examine the witness at this time, Ms. Cain?” the judge asked, hoping the lawyer would say no so that they could pause for a recess and he, like everyone else in the courtroom, could take time to fully digest the implications of Lynch’s testimony.

Unfortunately, the attorney replied with a terse, “Yes, Your Honor,” and approached the witness stand.

“Mr. Lynch,” she began.

“Doctor,” he cut her off.

“I’m sorry?”

“You’ve been calling me Mr. Lynch all afternoon. I have dual doctoral degrees in physics and astronomy. I would prefer being addressed by my proper title.”

“Doctor then,” she conceded, to the delight of the jury and the chagrin of her client. “Dr. Lynch, I am not going to question any of the observations you or your colleague made that day.”

“You’re not?” Lynch tried not to show the shock which was written all over his face.

“No,” she smiled, “instead, I’d like to focus on your theories of time travel.”

He resisted correcting her again, even though theories were unproven concepts and his beliefs on the rules of the space-time continuum had already been proven many times over. She continued, “First, could you explain why you are unable to move about in three dimensional space and why you are unable to be seen by anyone?”

“Asked and answered, Your Honor,” Janey objected.

“I think we could all use a bit more clarification,” Cain smirked.

“I’ll allow it,” the judge decided.

“Well, as I stated before, working fifth dimensionally, we are outside this plane of existence,” Lynch said. “So, first is the fact that within the realms of the fifth dimension, space and time do not…” he paused, searching for the right word, “bend to allow for horizontal or lateral movement. Beyond that, there are two theories of time travel, one of which presents significant complications if one were to be seen.”

“Can you explain?”

“The first school of thought states that the fourth dimension, that is to say time, is unyielding. In this case, any visit to the past and any interference therein would have almost no effect on present or future events. You could attempt to travel back to prevent your own birth from occurring, but would be unsuccessful.”

“Ah. I see, and the second theory?”

“The second school of thought states that time is highly viable. So that any small alteration, even the tiniest of changes, would have enormous repercussions on the future, possibly even causing an unalterable paradox which could theoretically tear the fourth dimension apart.”

“A paradox?”

“Yes. To draw from the earlier example. If you went back to prevent your own birth and were successful, you would not be born, nor would any of your children or grandchildren. Yet, you were the one to prevent the birth. So, you would be there to do it, but you would not be born to complete the task. This process of being born and unborn might loop, or might destroy a part of the universe in unimaginable ways.”

“And yet, you took the risk that this would occur, at least with your first journey?”

Lynch looked over to Pillay, wondering how much to say, “We knew that working within the fifth dimension, this would not be a possibility. However, as a precaution, we journeyed first into the future as any visit ahead of our time would not cause any sort of alteration such as I have described.”

“Except that you could then know the future,” Cain quipped.

“Objection, badgering,” Janey broke in.

“I’ll answer,” Lynch said, wanting to explain. The judge nodded and the researcher said, “Before our work was brought under the auspices of the federal government, we took only two trips into the future. Both journeys were within the confines of our laboratory, and both lasted less than three minutes.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it,” Cain said. Waving a hand at an already rising Janey, she resumed, “Withdrawn, Your Honor. Now, Dr. Lynch, outside of these two excursions, you have traveled into the past on a number of occasions?”

“Yes.”

“How many?”

“I’m afraid that’s classified,” Lynch said. Finally there was a question for which he had been prepared, and he hoped his answer would be the same for every other inquiry the prosecutor threw his way.

“I’m sorry, but this is a federal trial in the case of the assassination of a president. Surely, you should be as forthcoming as possible,” she pretended to be shocked, turning with mock horror to the jury.

“I have been advised to limit my answers to the events of that day,” Lynch said.

“You have been advised,” Cain murmured. “By Counselor Janey, I presume.”

“No,” Lynch said, actually shocking her this time. “By Vice President, sorry, by President Lopez.”

The jury broke out into loud murmurs and exclamations that did not cease until the judge banged his gavel, “That will be enough. Continue, Ms. Cain.”

“I see,” the prosecutor arched an eyebrow, playing the part, but again secretly pleased to see the case was not going her way. She had only one set of questions left and hoped Lynch would be able to refute them. There were weeks left to this trial, but everyone knew the verdict would be truly decided today.

“Are you familiar with multi-verse theory?” she inquired.

“Of course,” Lynch said. His hands began to flutter again with nervousness, and again he folded them in his lap.

“Could you explain it for the jury?”

“In layman’s terms?”

“Of course,” she inclined her head

He turned to the jury, “The theory of the multi-verse proposes that there are parallel universes all existing in different planes of existence. According to these theories, some of these universes are nearly identical to our own. Others may follow entirely different laws of physics.”

“So there could be an earth without gravity?” the prosecutor asked.

“Theoretically.”

“Or there could be an earth with a carbon copy of myself asking you these very same questions?” she probed.

“Possibly, again, theoretically. Unlike our theories on time and time travel, the theory of parallel universes has yet to be proven,” he looked directly into her eyes.

“And yet, don’t many researchers believe that there are at least ten or eleven of these parallel universes?” she asked, staring right back.

“They did,” he said.

“Did?”

“Or, at least, they still might, until Dr. Pillay and I present our findings.”

“I see. Let’s imagine for a moment though that you’re wrong about this theory. Isn’t it possible that the man you and your friend saw on the roof that day was not my client?  Isn’t it possible that it was another Arthur A. Westcott living a parallel life in one of ten or eleven or even a hundred other dimensions?”

“No,” Lynch stated.

“And why not?” Cain leaned in toward him.

“Because if other universes existed within the fifth or sixth or tenth dimensions, we would be able to move around within them. Almost like astronauts coming into the moon, we would be able to come into those worlds, be seen, walk around, and interact among the people there. This, we are unable to do.”

“I see,” Cain pretended to look disappointed. “And could you tell us whether you’ve ever tried to do such a thing, to test out this particular hypothesis?”

coffin“We have, but the details are classified,” Lynch took another drink of water, thinking again of the reckless Rikichi Okada and the memorial service they’d held for him back in his hometown of Takayama, Japan. He, Pillay, and Vice President Lopez had flown in on Air Force Two for the solemn occasion. The Vice President gave an impassioned speech about the dedication and sacrifice of the researcher while standing in front of a coffin that could never be filled. Besides the assassination, the empty coffin was the one image which would never leave him.

“I see,” Cain said again, looking defeated. “One final question. Why forty seven times?”

“I’m sorry?” Lynch’s brow furrowed.

“You stated previously that you and Dr. Pillay returned to the scene of the crime forty seven times. Why forty seven? Or is that classified as well?”

“No. It’s not classified,” Lynch said, reaching up a hand to massage the space on his forehead between his eyes, where a migraine was beginning to form. “The original plan was to observe the event one hundred times.”

Cain pounced, “And yet, you stopped short at forty seven.”

Lynch looked up, “It came down to PTSD. We were all developing it. Witnessing a murder once is horrifying enough. To see it over and over again and from every angle as I said before… Well, the scene was shocking, as anyone who saw it in person or in the media knows. We observed it as often as we could. By the time we arrived at that number, more journeys and observations didn’t seem necessary, and no one at the FBI, CIA, or Pentagon felt that we should put ourselves through any further distress than was necessary.”

“Distress?”

“The trauma of seeing a beloved leader and an innocent little girl getting shot over and over again without being able to do anything about it,” Lynch rasped, holding back tears. “Once would have been enough. Ten times, more than enough. Forty seven was excessive. We were seeing it in our sleep, in our daydreams, every time we closed our eyes to blink. We didn’t need to see it again.”

“I see,” Cain repeated. She retreated, head bent down toward her shoes as she returned to her table. Her posture was one of defeat and the jury could guess her words before she even uttered them, “No further questions, Your Honor.”

Judge Denison looked to Janey, “Redirect?”

“We don’t feel there’s a need, Your Honor,” Janey said, standing tall and triumphant.

The judge nodded, “We’ll break for today, then and reconvene tomorrow.” He banged his gavel and at the sound, Lynch gave a sigh, wanting to cry tears of relief that he could begin putting this tragedy behind him.

◊ ◊ ◊

The next day, Niemah Pillay was called to the stand. Her description of their research and eye-witness statements were a formality, since her testimony was almost identical to her colleague’s. The trial was paused that Saturday and Sunday, but resumed the following Monday with testimony from Derek Tamworth, the lead investigator on the case. The courtroom was still closed to everyone except those involved in the case. Typically, witnesses were excused from the courtroom to preserve the authenticity of their testimony.  In this momentous trial, all the usual rules seemed to have exceptions.  Seated in the gallery seats, Lynch and Pillay observed the proceedings, ready and willing to return to the witness box, if necessary.

Under Janey’s direction, Tamworth again covered the territory begun by Lynch and Pillay, describing the forensics of the bullet trajectories in more detail, and using diagrams to explain how they had made their final determinations. After several hours of testimony the jury had already heard and understood, it was at last Cain’s turn to question the witness.

“Deputy Director Tamworth,” Cain began her cross, “isn’t it true that you had absolutely no physical evidence in this case prior to bringing in Drs. Lynch and Pillay?”

“Yes. That is correct.”

“And isn’t it true that even after the eye witness testimony, there was no further corroborating evidence pointing to my client as the perpetrator of this horribly tragic crime?”

“No. That is incorrect,” Tamworth said.

“Oh, so there were records of Mr. Westcott buying a rifle?”

“No.”

“Or, perhaps there were witnesses who saw him receiving firearms’ training, or accounts of any gun clubs he might have joined or firing ranges he might have visited.”

“No.”

“And, as you stated before, there were no fingerprints, fibers, DNA, or other pieces of evidence tying my client to the crime scene?”

“That is correct.”

“So, could you tell us just precisely what this other evidence consisted of?”

“There were psychological indications that Westcott was guilty,” he held up a thick calloused hand to ward off her objections before she could make them. “I know, I know. I am not a psychological expert. They’re not due in for another week or two, I’ve been told. So, I’ll just stick to the hard physical evidence within my realm of expertise. In terms of actual physical evidence, we had several suspects after the artists’ renderings were released to the media. However, within all the crackpot calls and tips on individuals with solid alibis leading nowhere, Westcott’s name kept reappearing.”

He cleared his throat and continued, “After questioning peers, family members, coworkers, and neighbors, it was clear that Westcott did not have an alibi during the afternoon of the incident. Based on those interviews, we were able to obtain a warrant, which we used to search Mr. Westcott’s home and office.”

“And in your searches did you find a weapon of the type described by Dr. Lynch and Dr. Pillay?”

“No,” Tamworth admitted, “but we did find clothing that matched their description.”

“That would be Prosecution’s Exhibit E?”

“Yes.”

She held up the clear plastic bag containing the shirt and pants in question. Lynch, who had not seen them since the repeated day of the assassination, sat forward in his seat in the second row of the gallery, squinting at the shirt beneath the plastic. “This pair of pants and shirt?” Cain asked the obligatory question.

“The very same,” the man nodded.

“And were you able to read the labels on the clothing in question?”

“I was.”

“And where did those labels identify the clothing as coming from?”

“The jeans were Levis and the shirt was from Lacoste,” Tamworth mispronounced the brand name.

“And are you aware that these are the most common cut of Levi jeans?  Or that this shirt is two years old, and that two years ago the Lacoste Company produced 25,000 shirts of the same size and color that year?”

“No. I was not aware of that,” Tamworth said, “I am not an expert on fashion. All I can say is that the clothing described by the two witnesses was found in your client’s closet, a man who matched their description exactly. At the point we found the items in his wardrobe, we made our arrest.”

“So, you arrested a forty-five-year-old school teacher with no evidence of firearm training and no history of violence on the basis of a commonly produced polo shirt and an even more commonly produced pair of jeans?” Cain sneered.

“Yes,” Tamworth admitted again, “and then after the arrest, the perpetrator was identified by both witnesses.”

“After you had spoken to them?” Cain attempted.

“Absolutely not. In a case as important as this one, we wanted to follow everything according to the book. After their work at the crime scene and their eye witness statements, they were kept in isolation both from the other investigators and from each other. Then, each was brought in separately to view the lineup and make identifications with yourself, your paralegal, and your independent investigator as witnesses for the defense. There were no violations here, Ms. Cain.”

“Thank you,” Cain said. “No further questions.”

“Redirect?” Judge Denison asked.

“Not at this time, Your Honor,” the prosecutor smiled, standing tall once again.

“Then we’ll take a break for lunch, and pick up with testimony in one hour,” the judge banged his gavel and the jury exited the courtroom.

As soon as they were out the door, Lynch and Pillay began whispering to each other fervently. She was violently shaking her head, but he pointed again to the bag and then to Janey, and at last, she shrugged, seeming to give in.

“We need to talk,” Lynch tapped the prosecutor’s shoulder.

“Here?” she inquired.

“Better to do it in your office,” he eyed one of the drones buzzing nearby.

She followed his gaze and nodded. Once they were seated in the quiet privacy of Janey’s office, Lynch said, “We never saw the other evidence before today.”

“Your point is?” Janey was tired and annoyed at this impromptu meeting so late in the game.

“That’s not the shirt.”

“What?” she tried not to shout, in case someone outside could overhear them.

“That’s not the shirt,” Lynch repeated as Pillay sat silently next to him, looking at the floor and shaking her head.

“How can you be sure?” Janey whispered.

“The logo on the breast of the shirt. I saw it through the bag. It’s an alligator.”

“Yes. That’s the standard logo for that company,” she replied.

“When we saw the murder, it was a penguin,” he said.

Janey froze, “Are you sure?”

“Forty seven times,” he reminded her. “Each time, it was a penguin.”

“But surely, he might have worn a different shirt, perhaps even bought an almost identical one after the crime,” Janey turned to gaze out her window, speaking more to herself than to either of her witnesses.

“Maybe,” Lynch said, “but it’s their only piece of physical evidence, surely…”

“Surely, he purchased a second shirt, Mr. Lynch,” Janey whipped back around, glaring at him sternly.

“That could be the case, but you don’t understand,” Lynch fumbled. “The multi-verses the prosecutor was talking about could…”

“I don’t want to hear it, Mr. Lynch, and neither will the jury. I see no reason to bring this to Ms. Cain. Discovery concluded long ago…”

“But this is new evidence,” Lynch tried again, wishing Niemah would jump in.

“This is a theory speculating that Mr. Westcott may have worn a different similar shirt the day of the crime,” she said and turned her attention to the silent Niemah. “Dr. Pillay, do you recall the shirt in question?”

Niemah shrugged, refusing to lift her gaze from the floor. Witnessing the assassination had been traumatizing, and now that her testimony had concluded, she didn’t want to talk about the incident ever again.

“Do you recall identifying the murderer from a lineup including nine other nearly identical men?” the prosecutor pushed.

“Yes,” the researcher squeaked.

“That settles it,” Janey brushed her hands together. “We shall assume that if Dr. Lynch is correct about the appearance of the attire, after the murder, Mr. Westcott stripped of his clothing, disposed of said clothing in whatever location he also hid the gun, and purchased a similar shirt to replace the one missing from his wardrobe.”

“But certainly, you could easily check with his wife to confirm the shirt had altered,” Lynch stammered, as Janey stood and ushered them toward the doorway, indicating they were done.

“And you could easily become the laughingstock of the scientific community,” she retorted, opening the door and practically throwing them out.

Lynch stood in the hallway staring as the lawyer quietly closed and then locked her office door. He looked to his colleague, stunned, “Niemah, you know I’m right. We have to go to the defense team with this.”

“Drop it, Gary,” Pillay replied. “We did our part, and we did our best. Let’s just leave it. We can even abandon the research. Go back to the university and start on something new.”

He shook his head, unable to fathom such a possibility. Abandon the research? The research was everything. “I’m going,” he squared his shoulders.

“Then you’ll have to go alone,” she turned and walked away.

Lynch was unsure how to approach the other attorney, and wondered whether witnesses were allowed to confer privately with the other side. He didn’t know what the rules were, but at this point, he didn’t care. He waited in the hallway outside of the conference room Cain and the rest of her team occupied, wondering when she might emerge. He didn’t have to wait too long as the defense attorney came out of the room alone ten minutes later. She was pushing open the door to the ladies’ room when he intervened. “We need to talk,” he said.

Shaken, Cain said, “I shouldn’t be…”

He cut her off, “Alone. Now!”

She pulled him into the bathroom, locking the door and carefully opening each stall to ensure no one could overhear their conversation.

“What?” Cain’s hands were shaking worse than his had been earlier.

“The multi-verse theory you mentioned earlier?”

She nodded and he continued, “There was one other flaw I didn’t mention.”

“What?” she asked again, her heartbeat quickening.

“Flaws, changes from one parallel universe to the next. You said it yourself, one carbon copy of you asking the same questions, another world in which gravity doesn’t exist.”

“Right,” she raised an eyebrow.

“Under that theory, in each universe, there would almost by necessity need to be at least some small infinitesimal changes in each dimension. For example, if true, there could be another me, exactly the same as myself, only with blond hair instead of brown.”

“I see, and did you observe any of these differences in any one of your forty seven trips to the crime scene?”

“No,” he admitted, feeling as if he were under cross examination again.

“You said the multi-verse theory was impossible,” she stated.

“We had a colleague whom we lost when he tried to move within the other dimension. We thought he was gone, but if the theories are correct, it’s possible he’s moving between each universe, or that in moving laterally, he landed in a separate dimension, a different parallel world we couldn’t see.”

“Doubtful and difficult to either explain or understand,” Cain said.

“But Westcott’s shirt,” Lynch exclaimed, “I saw it before. It’s different now. When we saw it on the roof, it had a penguin logo on the breast. Today in court, I saw that the logo on the shirt in evidence features an alligator. If those theories of multiple universes are correct, it could mean that Dr. Pillay and I observed a completely different parallel world in our travels. In those worlds, anything could be possible. There could be a world in which Arthur A. Westcott might be named Arthur B. Westcott. A world in which the mild mannered school teacher and father of three has no children, or has the same family, but homicidal tendencies, or had a different upbringing, or…”

“Or, a world which is precisely our own in which Mr. Westcott simply discarded the shirt along with the sniper rifle,” Cain interrupted.

“That’s exactly what Janey said,” Lynch was shocked that both women had arrived at the same conclusion.

“So you told her,” Cain tilted her head. “What did she say?”

“She told me to keep quiet,” Lynch admitted.

“She was right,” Cain smiled at the man’s wide eyes and gaping mouth. She had shocked him for once.

“She, she, she…” he stammered again. “But, the evidence. You said it yourself. It’s the only piece and if it’s wrong, if I’m wrong…”

Cain held up a hand to stop him again, “What you’re telling me could be enough to cast reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. Your testimony is what won the prosecution’s case. If you back down or change your story now, it will throw everything off track.”

She leaned forward, causing Lynch to retreat, his back against the door of the bathroom stall. Cain continued whispering, “If you’re wrong, then that still means that some Arthur Westcott in some world somewhere out there murdered the best president this country’s ever seen and took a five-year-old girl down in the process. And someone is going to pay for that. And I don’t have Arthur B. or Arthur C. or Arthur fucking Z. in that courtroom. I’ve got Arthur A., and he’s the only perpetrator this universe is ever going to see. And I’m going to make damned sure he’s punished for the crime, no matter which version of him actually pulled the trigger.”

“But you’re his lawyer!” Lynch cried.

“Wise up, Mr. Lynch. Arthur Westcott is a psychopath and a murderer and not one person in this whole damned country is on his side, including me.” She unlocked the door. “And this conversation never took place.”

For the second time that afternoon, Gary Lynch found himself thrust out into the hallway, alone and desperately questioning every decision he had ever made.

Neither he nor anyone else needed a time machine to determine what was going to happen next. The prosecution whipped through witness after witness including three more forensics’ experts and a bevy of psychologists and psychiatrists, all testifying to the fact that Arthur A. Westcott was a dangerous psychopathic murderer who had shot down President Ophelia Smithe in cold blood, and had maliciously kept firing, injuring a valued Secret Service agent, and murdering an innocent little five-year-old in the process. Then came the pack of other eye-witnesses including Vice President, now President Thomas Lopez, the injured Secret Service agent, Cody Michaels, and Melissa’s parents, each of whom wept throughout their entire testimony.

But, as both lawyers had surmised, it had been Lynch’s testimony that had condemned the man. The rest was all nearly routine. By the time the trial was done, the jury reached a verdict in just under eight minutes, though they waited a respectable seven hours before revealing their decision to the court, wanting to seem as if they had truly deliberated. Westcott was convicted and, in a move that defied the traditions of the American legal system, he was executed for the crime less than six months later, the American people almost unified in their cry to see him punished.

The day of the execution, Lynch and Pillay silently dismantled the Tempus V and erased all of their research. For extra measure, they destroyed the computers beyond repair and then set about first shredding and then burning all traces of paperwork. Neither one spoke of time travel, the assassination, or their doubts ever again, but neither one ever had another night of uninterrupted sleep either.

Until the end of his days, Lynch’s dreams traveled back to the day of the assassination and he watched Westcott from every possible angle as the logo on the man’s chest flickered and changed from penguin to alligator and back over and over again.

«»-«»-«»

Megan E. Cassidy’s young adult novel Always, Jessie will be published by Saguaro Books this spring. Other short stories and essays have appeared in Pilcrow and Dagger, Wordhaus, and Gilded Serpent Magazine. She holds a master’s degree in English from the State University of New York at Brockport and us an Assistant Professor of Literature and Writing at Schenectady County Community College.

Damsel in Distress

By Lauren Triola

One day my prince will come, and on that day…I’ll throttle him within an inch of his life! I’m the damsel in distress, damn it! I’m the curvaceous blonde who’s in trouble and needs rescuing! I’m trapped in a tower by a madman, the clock is ticking, and there’s a tear in my dress. He should have showed up hours ago! Where the hell is he?

◊ ◊ ◊

meadmugs“See, the way I figure it, you got a hero complex. You don’t need to go saving her just because she wants you to. She’s the one who’s gotten herself kidnapped. It’s her own fault, you know, let her figure it out!”

Davey certainly did make a lot of sense, especially after two mugs of mead. Why should Randolf go save her? Just because he was the prince and she was the princess didn’t mean he was her keeper. She could take care of herself. Who made up these rules about saving the damsel in distress anyway? If she was distressed, she should really learn to control herself; calm down a bit, do some yoga. He can’t go off and save her butt every time she gets in a little scrape. What about his needs?

“Davey,” Randolf slurred, “you’re right. She got herself into it, she can get herself out. More mead, barmaid!”

◊ ◊ ◊

Within the wicked depths of the Forest of Darkness, inside his iniquitous Castle of Dread, the dark wizard Lord Evilman drummed his fingers on his armrest.

Where was Randolf? Evilman had told him where the princess was, had practically given him a map because god knows that moron would never have gotten here on his own. He had given Randolf until midnight to show or he’d kill her, slowly, painfully.

Evilman looked up at the clock.

Where was he?

◊ ◊ ◊

Queen Moreen stared out her chamber window, biting her thumbnail. The door opened behind her, and she turned to see her husband, King Straus, enter the room.

She rushed to him. “Any news?”

Straus sadly shook his head and Moreen gave a silent sob. She had been pacing her room off and on ever since hearing the news of her daughter’s kidnapping. She was weary with worry but quite glad about the two pounds she had lost.

“There’s still time,” Straus assured her.

Moreen nodded. “I know, I know. But…Randolf will save her, won’t he?”

Straus wrapped Moreen in his arms. “Of course he will. It’s his princely duty. She’ll be just fine.” As long as that drunk got off his ass and sobered up long enough to know what was going on, the King thought but, wisely, did not tell his wife.

◊ ◊ ◊

“I love you, man,” Randolf said thickly, trying very hard to figure out why there were five Davey’s floating in front of him.

“You gotta lay off the mead, man,” Davey said as he grappled with what turned out to be his own leg. “I think we’re trashed, Randy. Better go home.”

“I can’t go home,” Randolf shouted, having lost control of the volume of his voice. “They think I’m saving the prinis—prancess—prinkass—whatever, you know, what’s-her-name.”

“The bar’s ’bout ta close, though,” Davey said.

“Yeah, well, I know a place,” Randolf yelled in what he thought was a conspiratorial whisper.

◊ ◊ ◊

I’ll boil him in oil, chop off his head, and display his body parts throughout the kingdom. That’ll show Prince Stupid. I bet he’s getting wasted right now.

Other lovely thoughts such as those went through the princess’s head as she paced her cell in the tallest tower of Lord Evilman’s castle. Occasionally she would add a rather violent gesture. At this point, she wasn’t even concerned with whatever dark destiny Evilman had in store for her. His role in all this felt secondary, really, despite him being the one who’d kidnapped her. He had always been nothing more than a distant figure of legend she had ignored in school, and honestly, he went down easy when kicked.

It was Randolf’s fault in her mind. He had mouthed off, said Evilman was all talk—a nonsense speech he often gave at random, usually followed by several sustained minutes of belching. So no, she didn’t really blame Evilman, or even fear him.

As for Randolf…

Her pink and frilly gown flowed out behind her as she practiced coming down on Randolf with a blunt and rusty ax.

◊ ◊ ◊

darkcastleEvilman paced his study, thinking. What if Randolf didn’t show? All the planning, the kidnapping, the rather nasty kick to the shins by a pair of pink and frilly shoes would all be for naught.

Then again, wouldn’t that mean he had won? But if there was no showdown between villain and hero, then he’s winning by default. That doesn’t prove Evilman’s superior to Randolf; that just proves Randolf was incompetent, which was hardly any news.

If Randolf didn’t show up, then what was the point? Why show his superiority to Randolf anyway? A shoe covered in horse manure was superior to Randolf. Why does Evilman need to challenge him? Why, because Randolf’s the prince? Big freaking deal! Why did Evilman even do this in the first place? What was there to be gained by kidnapping the princess?

Evilman rubbed his temples, a headache forming as panicky bubbles of anxiety boiled beneath his breastbone. Chewing his lip, Evilman strode toward the back wall of his study and pulled open a set of black curtains. Behind them was not a window but an oval mirror. It did not reflect Evilman’s ageless face. Instead, it showed a different man’s head: bald, strong-jawed, slightly transparent, and suspended among black swirling mist.

“Hi, Jeremy, nice to see you again. What’s on your mind?” the mirror asked in a calm, kind voice.

Evilman hugged himself, filled with guilt, rubbing his hands over his arms. “I’m having doubts about the plan.”

The mirror gave a kind smile. “Are you doubting the plan, or are you doubting yourself?”

“I don’t know. I’m so confused. People expect this kind of thing from me, because of my name, you know. But all I want to do is work in my garden and do interior decorating. What should I do, Mirror?”

“You shouldn’t search for answers from outside voices but from your own, inner voice. What is your inner voice telling you, Jeremy?”

“That I should take a bubble bath.”

“Good. Then that is what you should do. And if you ever doubt yourself again, I want you to say to yourself ‘I am Jeremy, and I am in control of my own life’.”

◊ ◊ ◊

“More mead, barmaid!” cried the prince as he entered the bar.

Randolf and Davey staggered over to a table and collapsed onto some chairs. About five, actually.

“See…this bar…stays open…later,” explained Randolf, trying very hard to recall the English language. “Mead more, barmaid!”

◊ ◊ ◊

“Randolf is a moron, a drunk, a cad, and he will never save the princess unless she’s being held prisoner in a wine cellar!”

“Come now, King Jonas,” said King Straus. “You’re talking about your son.”

“That’s how he knows,” remarked Jonas’s wife, Queen Rubella, as she adjusted her lipstick in a hand mirror.

Queen Moreen paused her pacing of the chamber. “But, Rubella—”

Queen Rubella.”

Moreen rolled her eyes. Oh, yes, now she remembered why they never invited Randolf’s family over for dinner anymore. If he hadn’t been the only prince within reasonable traveling distance… “My apologies, Queen Rubella. But as I was saying, it is your son’s duty as prince to respond to any and all damsel in distress situations involving his betrothed. It is his role. Are you saying he will ignore all that? Will he not fulfill his rightful responsibility and save my daughter?”

Queen Rubella finished applying a fresh coat of lipstick and popped her lips, eyes on her reflection. “Not a chance in hell, dearie.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Does he really expect me to sit and wait for him? I’ve gotten into trouble, that’s my job, now where is he to do his? Don’t those bimbos from the fairy tales ever get annoyed with their princes swaggering in at the last minute? Can’t he ever come before she’s just about to die? Or how about preventing the whole thing altogether? Why can’t the damsel ever save herself? And then maybe get a job as an interior decorator…

Stuck in a tower? Seriously? She never thought she’d be one of those princesses. Yet here she was. The cliché to end all clichés. All that was missing was a Prince Charming.

Too bad she didn’t know one.

Randolf was a betrothal of convenience, though at the moment it didn’t feel particularly convenient. She was a princess and so it was her role to be married to a prince. It didn’t matter that she cared less about him than for the bugs she fed her pet tarantula (she had demanded an exotic pet for her eighth birthday, like a unicorn or tiger or something—her father had misunderstood). And she had far better things to do than eat apples, prick her finger, sell her voice, or go to balls in vermin-assisted coaches like what all the other princesses were doing. Not that there was anything wrong with those life choices, of course. Princesses could do whatever they wanted, whether it involved wielding swords or singing songs. She just wasn’t the sort to do either. All she wanted was to have a night in, maybe artfully arrange the rushes or invent the valance, all without having to find a true love or some such ridiculous thing. Where was the harm in that? She didn’t need, nor want, the adventure or near-death experiences.

Also, did she smell potpourri?

◊ ◊ ◊

Lord Evilman looked toward the clock then took a deep breath. “This is it. You told Randolf that if he didn’t come you would kill the princess. If you don’t carry out that threat then no one will ever believe you again. They’ll think you’ve gone soft. You can do this. I am Jeremy, and I am in control of my own life.”

“That’s the ticket,” the mirror said with an encouraging smile.

Evilman hesitated only a moment before heading toward the stairs to his tallest tower. Torches lined the dark winding staircase, the flames flickering as he passed. And flickering again when he briefly turned back. And then once more after he gave himself a pep talk and determinedly strode to the highest room, with only occasional pauses to hyperventilate.

He was outside the princess’s door now. He could hear her pacing the stone floor. Fumbling only slightly, he pulled out the key and unlocked the door.

◊ ◊ ◊

Queen Moreen stared, mouth slightly open, as Queen Rubella continued to reapply her lipstick. Despite the fact that red looked especially good on her and matched the highlights in her perfectly coiffed bouffant, Moreen very much wanted to jab it into Rubella’s eye socket.

“Excuse me, but did you just say there was ‘no chance in hell’ Prince Randolf—your son and leader of your army—will save my daughter from certain death?” Moreen asked.

Rubella rolled her eyes. “Oh, the army thing is just an honorary position. Jonas’s father did the same thing when he was a boy. I mean, come on, can you honestly see either one of them wielding a sword without chopping off their head or, god forbid, something important?”

“I’m right here,” Jonas said through clenched teeth.

Rubella adjusted her eyeliner. “Yes, so you are.”

“Let me get this straight,” Moreen said, resuming her pacing (if she kept at it, she might go down a whole size). “Your son, who promised to love and protect our daughter even in the face of the darkest evil, who swore in front of the Fairy Godmothers themselves that he would fight an actual fire-breathing dragon if need be to save her, is not going to rescue her from Lord Evilman, the most dreaded sorcerer this side of the Great Mountains? And he’s forgoing his duty because…?”

“Because he lied his ass off so he could get the free wine at the reception. And if your precious Fairy Godmothers hadn’t been three sheets to the wind themselves, they would have noticed.”

“But—but—but Rubella—”

Queen Rubella.”

Moreen clenched her fists, itching to cram Rubella’s hand mirror the same place as her lipstick. “Come now, can’t we drop the royal titles? We’re going to be in-laws pretty soon.”

King Jonas snorted, slouching in his chair. “Pretty soon your daughter’s going to be the key ingredient in one of Lord Evilman’s potions. We just told you, Randolf will never save Princess What’s-Her-Face.”

Moreen turned her glare to Jonas. “My daughter is not Princess What’s-Her-Face! Her name is—”

“It doesn’t matter. Randolf won’t save her unless her name’s Guinness.”

“So my daughter is going to die?” Moreen cried.

“Nonsense,” King Straus piped up. “Evil guys are always kidnapping damsels, but killing them is always an empty threat.”

“We don’t know that. The prince always saves the princess.”

“Oh, right.” Straus tapped a finger to his lip in thought. “Then yes, yes she is going to die.”

◊ ◊ ◊

“More mead, barmaid!”

Ginny had had just about enough of the two drunks in the corner of the tavern. They’d come in sloshed and now they were thoroughly plastered. Despite her frustration, she shuffled off behind the bar to retrieve their requested refreshment then served them with a smile.

Five minutes later, she did the same.

And another five after that. And another.

“Maid more, barmead!”

This time, Ginny slammed the two flagons onto the table.

“Here’s your damn mead! When you finish it, get out! We’re closing!” Ginny turned to leave but a hand clutched her arm.

“Wha’ did you say?” slurred the more nicely dressed of the two boozehounds.

“I said this is your last round, get out!”

“Tha’s not wha’ you said before,” the second one said.

Ginny sighed. “It’s the gist. And I mean it, too. If you don’t leave in five minutes, I’ll get the bartender to toss you out.” Ginny wrenched her arm free of the rummy’s grasp. “And don’t touch me again, you pig!”

“Hey!” The nicer dressed one got shakily to his feet. “You can’ talk dat way to me! Do you know who I am?”

“No, so if you forgot, I can’t help you.”

“I’m the prince!”

Ginny paused. She looked him up and down. “Prince Randolf, eh? Who cares?”

Who cares? You should! I could make things very diff’cult for you—”

“You already are making things difficult for me! Those taxes you’ve proposed to institute after you marry the princess and become king are just ridiculous. I can barely get by with the current ones, and now you want to take more?”

“I’m the prince—”

“Yes, we’ve established that. But just because you’re the prince doesn’t mean I have to like you. I’m not gonna curtsey to the Ass Who Would Be King. Now, get out!”

“No!”

“Then I’ll get the bartender to kick you out!”

“I’d like to see him try!”

◊ ◊ ◊

As Randolf and Davey struggled, both nursing black eyes and strained wrists, to pull themselves off the ground, Davey slurred, “Maybe we should’ve left when she told us to.”

Randolf, too drunk for this, rolled over several times in the dirt before remembering how legs worked. “I thought I could take him, but he was bigger than expected.”

Davey dragged himself upright with the help of someone’s horse. Or at least he thought it was a horse. “So, where to now?”

Randolf shrugged then noticed a building across the street. “Hey, look, a bar! I could use a drink.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s almost midnight, and hark! What’s that galloping away over yonder? Could it be? Yes! It’s the last of my fucks!

The princess stared out the tower window. Evilman could throw his worst spells at her right now and she wouldn’t care, not with the wrath boiling beneath her skin. And she would boil Randolf if she could. At this point, she didn’t even care where he was. She wasn’t going to wait for him anymore. She was done playing this part. He wasn’t coming and she didn’t feel the least bit sad or disappointed.

She was in control of her own life for once, gods damn it.

Let Evilman come for her. She could face him. It couldn’t be worse than the awkward conversations she’d endured during dinners with Randolf’s parents. Now those were painful.

How bad could it be? What was the worst Evilman could do? And where did he get those curtains? That lace was just lovely…

A lock clicked behind her. The princess turned to see the door creak open.

◊ ◊ ◊

Evilman strode determinedly into the darkened room atop his tallest tower, conjuring a circle of fire to line the walls as he moved and shifting the lighting to a vivid green (for mood). The princess, arms crossed, stood in the middle of the room and watched as he stalked toward her.

“It is time for your end, my dear,” Evilman said, throwing out his arms in a grandly sinister gesture and putting on the dramatic voice that he’d learned at theater camp. “Your prince is not coming to save you. You will tremble with fear at what death I have in store for you.”

The princess continued to stare at Evilman. “No.”

There was a pause as Evilman tried to process what just happened. “No?”

“No,” the princess repeated.

“No to what?”

“To everything. I’m not going to tremble with fear, I’m not going to wait for my prince to come, and I’m not going to die.”

“You’re not?”

“No.”

Evilman, arms still held out in what was quickly becoming a not-so-grand gesture, blinked. “Uh…”

Maybe he needed more fire. Igniting the very ceiling with black-gold flames, he put on the maniacal grin he’d practiced in the mirror all morning and growled, “But you will.”

The princess yawned and pulled her dress away from the flames. “Nope.”

Spiders? People were scared of spiders, right? Or bats…? Thinking fast, Evilman conjured an army of spider-bat hybrids that crawled across the floor, carpeting it in a writhing black mass of eight-legged, winged beasts, all crawling straight toward the princess.

“Prepare for your doom!”

The princess, instead of cowering in fear, picked up one of the spider-bats and scratched it behind the ear. It purred.

“Ah, geez, don’t pet the monsters,” Evilman sighed, running a hand down his face. “I mean, DOOM—”

“Look, I see what you’re doing here, but none of this is actually lethal, so if all you’ve got are fancy parlor tricks, then I’m going to head out. I’ve got a prince to maim.”

“But—”

“But nothing, pal.”

I am Jeremy, and I am in control of my own life. “I will kill you…?” Evilman said, but even to him it sounded like a question.

“Hmmm, no.”

“But—”

“No.”

Evilman glared at the princess then burst into tears.

◊ ◊ ◊

The clock struck half an hour to midnight. Queen Moreen was showing the utmost restraint by not beating Rubella and Jonas to death with their own arms.

“We are running out of time!” she screamed, stomping her foot. “Where the hell is your son?”

“Moreen, please!” King Straus said, shifting awkwardly in his chair. “Don’t yell at our guests.”

“How can you stand by and let our daughter be murdered by a madman?” Moreen demanded of her husband.

“I don’t want Evilman to kill our daughter, but that doesn’t mean we should be rude.”

Moreen stormed across the room and grabbed him by his shoulders. “If you don’t want her to die then do something!”

“Come now, you know perfectly well that as king it’s my obligation to be ineffectual. It’s Prince Randolf’s job—”

“How many times do we have to tell you?” King Jonas said, picking lint off his velvet doublet. “Randolf isn’t going to save her. I bet he’s drunk right now, probably at some bar with that friend of his, Davey.”

Moreen jabbed her finger at Jonas. “See! Randolf has broken his vow and refuses to play his part. It is up to us now to fix this. Bring me a horse!” Moreen shouted to the servant bringing more wine to Jonas and Rubella. “I’ll save her myself.”

“Whoa, whoa.” Straus stood up, brow furrowed. “The queen and the princess in the hands of Lord Evilman? That certainly won’t end well. No, no, that just won’t do.” Straus straightened his purple robes and cleared his throat. “I will save my daughter.”

“Thank you,” Moreen sighed.

“And when I come back, I’ll hunt Randolf down and shove my foot up his—”

“Excuse me,” Rubella snapped. “My son might be a useless, drunken idiot, but he is not yours to punish.”

“Let King Straus kill him, I don’t care,” Jonas said, waving his hand vaguely as if pushing the issue aside and increasing his slouch.

Rubella’s jaw dropped. “Jonas! Don’t you care about our son?”

“Weren’t you just saying he’s a useless, drunken idiot?”

“Yes, but he’s my son and I’m supposed to forgive him for those things.”

Jonas suddenly leapt up from his chair, pointing violently at Rubella. “That’s why I didn’t want to marry you! You always overlook things like that. If you ran the kingdom, you would have handed it over to the barbarians after they sent you that severed head as a gift!”

“It’s the thought that counts!” Rubella cried, jumping to her feet too. “And that’s why I didn’t want to marry you! You’re completely insensitive and haven’t a care for anyone besides yourself! If you hadn’t knocked me up then our parents would never had made us marry and I would be better off!”

“So would I!”

Moreen shifted uncomfortably. “Do you think we should leave?” she whispered to Straus.

“No, no, this is good stuff,” Straus whispered back. “No wonder Randolf’s so screwed up.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The princess awkwardly patted the somewhat greasy hair of Lord Evilman as he cried into her shoulder. Of all the scenarios she had considered during her waiting, this one had never occurred.

“Don’t cry,” she said. “It’s all right.”

“No, it’s not! I can’t do anything right!” Evilman howled in despair and continued to cry on the princess’s shoulder.

“No, that’s—that’s not true. The fire was quite, um, impressive… You’re very, uh, terrifying—”

“I don’t want to be terrifying! I never wanted that, but I’ve never been able to do what I’ve wanted. I always have to be ‘the bad guy’.”

“You don’t have to be the bad guy,” the princess said.

“Yes, I do. My parents made me. They never listened. They never loved me. And all I wanted was to be loved!” Evilman wailed again and sobbed even louder.

◊ ◊ ◊

“Horses! Get the horses!”

“We have to save my daughter!”

“Magenta doesn’t go with everything, Rubella!”

The servants rushed about the castle courtyard, trying to make sense of the shouting, deciphering what was an order and what was an insult.

Waiting for his horse, King Straus strode toward the guards standing at the gate. “Gather the men! We ride to Evilman’s castle immediately.”

Queen Moreen nodded behind him. “Bring our daughter home, men.”

“How can you call our dinner conversations communicating?” Queen Rubella demanded of King Jonas as they trailed behind. “All you ever say to me is ‘Pass the mead’! No wonder Randolf is a drunk!”

“Where the hell is the damn messenger?” Jonas said, staring anywhere but at his wife. “I refuse to listen to this defamation another minute without my lawyer.”

“Yes, god forbid you hear something that hurts your feelings—oh wait, you don’t have any!”

Moreen side-eyed Rubella and Jonas. She leaned in close to the captain of the guard. “If they accidentally get hit by a stray arrow, I won’t be upset.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The princess’s shoulder was now thoroughly soaked.

“And then when I joined the ballet,” Evilman said, sniffing, “the other kids made fun of me!” Another wave of tears started to fall. “I never got to make my own choices after that. My dad told me I had to act like a man, and my mom said I should become a sorcerer, but all I ever wanted to do was interior decorating!”

“Interior decorating?” the princess said.

“Yes,” sobbed Evilman. “Why, are you going to make fun of me, too?”

“No, I love interior decorating.”

Suddenly, the crying stopped. Evilman looked up at her and wiped away his tears on his black velvet sleeve. He sniffed and said, “Princess, would you like to look at fabric swatches with me?”

◊ ◊ ◊

“More mead, barmaid!”

Randolf tried to steady himself in his chair. By the time the mead arrived, he had established that it was in fact the room that was spinning, not him.

“This isn’t the nicest bar,” he commented.

“It’s too dark,” Davey said.

Randolf pulled Davey’s head off the table.

“That’s better,” Davey said.

Randolf let go and Davey fell forward once more.

Something hazy entered the spinning vortex off to Randolf’s right. “Are you boys feeling well?”

“WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?” Randolf demanded.

“Uh…I asked if you were well…?”

“Oh, yes, we’re fine,” Randolf slurred toward the spinning haziness. “Why’d you ask?”

“Well,” said the haziness, “it’s just that you’re covered in dirt and you called me a barmaid.”

Randolf tried very hard to focus on the haze speaking to him, but too many people swam before him. It took awhile before Randolf realized they were all the same person.

“What’s wrong with calling you barmaid? You did bring us our mead.”

“Yes,” said the haze-person slowly, “and that is my job, it’s just that I’m a man.”

Randolf squinted hard but the haze-person spun too rapidly to focus. “Oh.”

“Good for you,” Davey told the floor.

The haze shifted its round thing into an arch. “Who are you guys, anyway?”

Randolf puffed out his chest importantly. “I’m Prince Randolf, and this is my associate, Davey.”

“Your associate?”

“He accompanies me on important excursions and offers counsel.”

“So, your drinking buddy.”

“Exactly.”

The speaking haze swirled slightly to the left. “Aren’t you supposed to be saving the princess? News of her kidnapping is all over the kingdom.”

Randolf leaned back in his chair, affronted, but almost fell backwards. Gripping the table, he glared at the swirling haze, which had just grown a beard. “I’m the prince! You can’t tell me what to do!”

“Sorry.” The haze put up the largest hands in the universe. “It’s just that it’s your job, and I think you should do what is expected of you. I always do my job, even if I don’t like it.”

“What, you think you’re better than me?”

“No, I’m just giving my opinion.”

“Damn straight!” Randolf shouted and passed out onto the table.

◊ ◊ ◊

The castle courtyard bustled with activity as horses were prepared to ride and soldiers were prepared to fight.

“You have to hurry!” Queen Moreen said. “It may already be too late.”

“Don’t worry, my dear, we’re almost ready,” King Straus assured her as he settled onto his horse. Moments later, the rest of the rescue party had mounted their steeds. Straus signaled his men to follow him, waved good-bye to his wife, kicked his horse into a canter, and rode off. The rescue party waved good-bye to Moreen, kicked their horses, and sped after Straus.

“Bring her home safe!” cried Moreen, feeling somewhat empty at not being able to go as well.

“Oh, shut up, Moreen,” Queen Rubella snapped.

Moreen’s back went ramrod straight. She turned coldly to where Rubella was slouching against a pillar, awaiting the return of the messenger with news from her lawyers. “Queen Moreen.”

Rubella returned Moreen’s look. “What happened to ‘can’t we drop the royal titles’?” she sneered.

“I’ve changed my mind about that,” Moreen said. “And about you. You are no longer welcome here. And I don’t just mean this castle—the whole kingdom! Collect your husband and son and leave!”

“Oh, we were just about to!” snapped Rubella. “By the way, you aren’t welcome in my kingdom either!”

“Fine!”

“Fine!”

Rubella stormed off, King Jonas following behind saying, “Technically it’s my kingdom,” to which Rubella replied, “We’ll see what the lawyers have to say.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Evilman had led the princess to the deepest, darkest recesses of his castle, aka his sewing room. It was actually rather bright and airy ever since he’d put in that skylight to the Eternal-Sun realm, and it had the best light for needlepoint.

Evilman dug through one of his fabric trunks and held up a heavily used bolt of material for the princess to see. “Am I crazy or does paisley go with everything?”

“Jeremy, if you’re crazy, then I’m completely insane.”

Evilman and the princess giggled.

“Oh, Princess, I just bought a new fabric I want to show you, be right back.”

Evilman scurried off to his study, humming.

He opened an antique wooden trunk by the fireplace and pulled out a bolt of deep purple velvet. He was about to go back to his sewing room when a voice said, “So, did you do it?”

Evilman jumped. “Wha—oh, Mirror, hi. I almost forgot about you.”

The mirror smiled slightly, like he was being kind and understanding, but it came off more as a wince.

“Well, Jeremy, did you go through with it?”

Evilman shifted awkwardly, hugging the bolt of velvet closer. “Oh…well…no. But that doesn’t matter anymore. The diabolical madman who kidnaps and kills princesses isn’t me, and I know that now. The princess and I are friends, and a friend is all I ever really wanted. I’m so happy now, Mirror, and I’d like to thank you for all your help.”

The mirror frowned and sighed. “Jeremy, Jeremy, did you let her talk you out of it?”

“What? No, Mirror, that’s not it at all—”

“Jeremy, you always do this, you never stay your ground. You have to stand up for yourself and not let anyone get in your way.”

“But, Mirror, I don’t want to kill the princess. And it’s not because I’ve lost my nerve, but because I’ve realized I don’t need to live up to my parents’ dream of me being an evil overlord. I need to live my life the way I want to. And the princess helped me see that.”

The mirror shook his head. “You’re letting her control you. She’s become like your mother, always telling you what to do, and you’re letting her.”

“No, I’m not!” cried Evilman. “She’s my friend—”

“Jeremy, listen, I’m only worried about you—”

“No! She’s my friend, and that’s that! I don’t have to listen to you anymore! And don’t expect to be paid for saying those—those things!”

Evilman stormed out the room, clutching his purple velvet.

The mirror stared after him, unnerved. “I can’t believe, after all these years, after all I’ve done for him…he’s not going to pay me. All my hard work, helping him through his pain, and nothing, not a cent! Glass cleaner isn’t free, you know!”

◊ ◊ ◊

The horses galloped through the village, kicking up dirt along the main road. King Straus kept his lead and tried to push his horse harder. Up ahead, the door of a thatched building opened, and two limp figures were thrown into the king’s path. He reared his horse and shouted for his men to halt.

Straus turned to the man standing in the doorway. “What are you doing? Don’t you realize those men could have been trampled?”

“Yes,” the man in the doorway replied, looking disappointed, and retreated back inside.

Confused, Straus stared down at the two prone figures. His eyes widened.

“RANDOLF!”

One of the bodies stirred slightly and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, “I don’t wanna go to school today, Mom.”

“Randolf, you imbecile, I wish I hadn’t slowed down!”

“Wha-wha—” Randolf tried to focus on Straus. “Daddy?”

“I’m not your father! The wedding’s been called off!”

“Wha—?” Randolf blinked slowly, head tilted like a dog baffled by where his ball went. “Bu-but why?”

“Because you didn’t do your duty!”

The other figure on the ground giggled, muttering, “Doodie.”

“So?” Randolf slurred. “I can safe da prisness anuhder day.”

“No, you can’t!” King Straus roared. “Because I’m going to save her, and then I’m going to throw you out of my kingdom for good!” With that, Straus signaled to his men and galloped onward with even greater speed than before.

After the dust settled, Randolf and Davey got shakily to their feet.

“Well, that was rude,” Randolf remarked.

“How did we get out here?” Davey asked, looking around.

“We can worry about that later, Davey man, ’cause we got a job to do.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m gonna save the prin’is before they can. That’ll show King Rod-Up-His-Butt. C’mon, Davey.”

◊ ◊ ◊

With King Straus now on his way toward a no doubt dangerous showdown with Lord Evilman, Queen Moreen had resumed pacing her room with worry for her family and periodical admiration of her slimmer figure in the mirror as she passed. Close to tears with thoughts of her precious daughter and dear husband, she was about to try modeling an old dress she hadn’t fit in for years when the door opened.

Moreen glanced over to see who it was then turned stiffly back to her mirror. “Knock, please.”

“Moreen—”

Queen Moreen.”

Rubella sighed. “I just need someone to talk to.”

“I thought you were talking to your lawyers.”

“They haven’t arrived yet.” Rubella crossed her arms, wrinkling her nose at the décor. “Is that a pink ottoman? Yikes. Anyway, I’ve been thinking—”

“Amazing,” Moreen muttered, gaze firmly on the mirror as she tried not to glance at Rubella’s reflection in the corner.

“—is divorce the right thing to do? I mean, I don’t care for Jonas, and I’d love to be rid of him, but what kind of effect will it have on Randolf?”

“Randolf’s a grown boy, he can take care of himself.”

Rubella raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really. What about right now?”

“I said he can take care of himself, not others.”

Rubella sighed more harshly, almost a growl. “Come on, Moreen! You’ve stuck with Straus despite that awful beard he grew, so you know how it is. Seriously, what should I do?”

“Seriously? Well, seriously, I think you should leave my kingdom, and then I seriously don’t care what you do afterwards.”

Rubella’s eyes flashed with anger. “Fine!”

“Fine!”

Rubella stormed out of the chamber and slammed the door behind her. Moreen breathed heavily, trying to calm down so as not to order Rubella’s execution. After a moment, she began her pacing, worrying, and modeling again.

◊ ◊ ◊

“‘Cuse me, you know where da rinses is?”

“Get out of my yard.”

The inn door slammed rather painfully into Randolf’s face. He fell over backwards and stayed there for a moment, wondering how he got there. Eventually, he staggered to his feet and leaned heavily against Davey, who leaned heavily against the wall of the inn to which they had stumbled.

“No one knows where the prince is,” Randolf mumbled.

“You’re the prince, man,” Davey slurred.

“Oh, thanks Davey, now let’s go to the bar.”

“No, Randy, we weren’t looking for you, we were looking for the princess.”

“That’s me.”

“No, you’re the male princess, we’re looking for the one with boobs.”

“Oh. Let’s see if anyone at this inn’s seen her.”

◊ ◊ ◊

This is so much fun! With all the evil-lord-you-will-tremble-before-me-and-despair stuff, I never imagined that Jeremy could be such a nice guy. I’m glad Randolf didn’t save me. I just hope that jackass doesn’t show up now—who knows what drunken, idiotic thing he might do.

The princess shuddered at the thought but went back to humming happily and sifting through Lord Evilman’s exquisite fabric collection.

◊ ◊ ◊

Evilman was still a little huffy when he reentered his sewing room with the purple velvet. He sat down on a chintz pouf, clutching the bolt of fabric to him, staring at the opposite wall.

The princess glanced up and frowned. “Jeremy, are you all right?”

“Yes,” he replied in an unnaturally high voice, his gaze not even shifting toward her.

The princess furrowed her brow. “Jeremy, please, you can trust me. What’s the matter?”

Evilman chewed his lip. “My mirror wants me to kill you.”

“Your…mirror?”

“Yes, it says I’m not standing up for myself and I’m allowing you to control me.”

“Your mirror?”

“It told me that you’ve become like my mother—”

“Your mirror?”

“Yes, my magic mirror.”

“Oooooh,” the princess said. “Magic mirror. That makes more sense.” She scratched her head. “At least, I think. So, your mirror says that you should kill me to prove that you are independent and in control of your own life.”

Evilman nodded sadly, like a reprimanded child. “Yes, exactly.”

“But you don’t want to kill me.”

“Of course not!” He finally turned to look at her, eyes wide. “You’re my best friend.”

“Awww.” She grinned, flattered. “But anyway, so you don’t want to kill me, but he—it—whatever—wants you to in order to prove independence. Well, it sounds to me like doing what you don’t want to do just because someone told you to isn’t very independent at all.”

Evilman paused for a moment in thought. “You’re right!” He put down the purple velvet, stood up, and opened the door. “Princess, follow me, please. I have some business to attend to.”

◊ ◊ ◊

King Straus looked around the Forest of Darkness for some recognizable landmark.

“I’ve never been this far into the forest before,” he said. “Have any of you?”

The men in the search party shook their heads.

“Well,” Straus said slowly, trying to think. “If I remember correctly…” He trailed off, not entirely sure what he was saying. He’d been told long ago about how the forest was laid out, but since he never used it, just like with algebra, the knowledge had long slipped away.

“Damn, why didn’t I bring a map?” he muttered. Then he said, more loudly, “Let us press onward, men! Evilman’s in here somewhere.” Or at least, he really, really hoped so. Wasn’t there a magic tree or something…?

◊ ◊ ◊

Queen Moreen wandered the halls morosely, hoping to fit into a size six she had seen at a boutique in the village. She fretted about her daughter, prayed for her husband to find her, and considered fun and painful ways to torture Prince Randolf.

A sudden outburst of voices in the courtyard distracted her from her musings. Moreen ran outside to see what the fuss was all about.

King Jonas was fuming, yelling at no one in particular. “WHERE ARE THE DAMN LAWYERS?”

“Stop shouting!” Queen Rubella snapped, her carefully arranged hair coming loose.

“Quit telling me what to do, woman!”

“Don’t talk to me like that!”

“Don’t talk to me at all!”

“Jonas! Rubella!” Moreen cried. “Calm yourselves!”

Jonas rounded on her. “This is none of your business!”

Moreen crossed her arms. Oh, she was so done with them. “I thought I told you two to get out.”

“We’re waiting for our lawyers,” Rubella said, chin high in the air.

“Wait for them in your own kingdom. I’ve had enough of you two sniping at each other.”

Rubella breathed slowly and loudly through her nose, nostrils flaring like an angry bull’s, while Jonas turned from red to purple and looked as if he were about to have an aneurysm.

“It’s your fault!” he suddenly screamed.

“What?” Moreen asked, taken aback.

“You!” He jabbed his finger at her “You and your husband made us get a divorce. It’s your fault!”

“Oh, please.” Moreen waved her hand in exasperation. “Don’t try to blame this on us. You two have obviously had marital problems for a long time—”

“I’m suing!” Jonas shouted, pointing at Moreen ever more emphatically.

“Suing?”

“Yes, suing you and your husband. And your daughter!”

Moreen gaped. “My daughter? What does she have to do with any of this?”

“If she hadn’t gotten herself kidnapped then none of this would have happened, and we would never have broken up!”

“Don’t you dare blame my daughter! She isn’t responsible for any of this—”

“Suing!” Jonas yelled again.

Rubella rolled her eyes. “Good luck with that. The princess is probably dead anyway.”

Now Moreen turned on Rubella. “My daughter is not dead!”

“You don’t know that,” Rubella said, smirking.

Moreen shook so hard she thought she might explode. “That’s it! I’ve had enough of this waiting and tension and you! I’ll save my daughter myself! Bring me a horse!”

◊ ◊ ◊

“Knock, knock!”

“Who’s there?”

Randolf and Davey collapsed laughing at their joke and completely forgot that they had actually knocked on someone’s door.

The door opened. “Hello—oh god, it’s you two.”

“Hi, I’m Prince Dandalf and this is Ravey—”

“Get off my lawn before I shove a fire poker up your ass.”

Randolf tried and failed to focus properly on the person before him.

Davey, however, pointed, slack jawed. “Beermead!”

Ginny knocked her head against the doorjamb in annoyance. “That’s not even a word! How many bars did you go to after the bartender threw you out?”

“Hey,” Randolf slurred, realization dawning finally, “you’re that lady—”

“And you’re Drunktard and Associate.”

Davey grinned, eyes unfocused. “I’m an associate,” he said proudly.

“Ginny, is everything all right? Who’s at the door?” asked someone from within the cottage. A large and handsome man appeared in the doorway, staring down at Randolf and Davey, who shrunk away in recognition.

“It’s big guy,” Randolf squeaked.

“Oh, did I forget to mention?” Ginny said, faking realization. “The bartender is also my husband, Daniel. We own that bar, which you will never ever be allowed back into. Unless you want to get thrown out on your asses again,” Ginny added in gleeful remembrance.

“They don’t need to be at the bar for me to knock them on their asses again,” Daniel said, rolling up his sleeves.

Davey held up his hands. “Hey, hey, man, we didn’t know you two lived here. We’re jus’ lookin’ fer the princess—”

“About time,” Ginny muttered.

“But we don’t know how to get to Evilman’s castle.”

“Hmm…” Ginny put a finger to her lip in thought. “Well, since helping you will get you away from me, I could give you directions. I’ve passed by there on a delivery before. The dark elves sure love their spritzer. It’s all right, Daniel, you can go back in.”

Daniel the bartender walked away, eyeing Randolf and Davey.

Ginny eyed Randolf and Davey too, but then she got down to business. “I’ll tell you a shortcut so you might possibly get there in time. Now, you head straight into the creepy Forest of Darkness on the Black Path and take a turn by the evil-looking dead tree…”

After Ginny had sent the two drunktards on their way, she headed back inside. Daniel sat in a chair, reading a book.

“So, do you think they’ll save her?” he asked.

“I doubt it,” Ginny said. “But I told them the shortcut so they may have a chance, if they don’t pass out before they get there.”

Daniel raised an eyebrow. “The shortcut?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Did you tell them about the troll?”

Ginny thought back a moment. “No…”

“But you know how angry he gets when people trespass on his bridge… Murderously angry.”

“You’re right,” Ginny said slowly. “I forgot to tell them about that… Well, I’m gonna go take a bath.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Queen Moreen tucked a map to Lord Evilman’s castle into her pocket then swung herself onto her horse.

King Jonas stormed out of the castle and ran toward her. “I’m not finished with you!”

Moreen tossed her hair out of her face. “You want to sue me, fine. But I’m saving my daughter first.”

“Fine, go! But then I’m suing.”

“Fine. Then I’m suing you!”

“Fine—no. Wait!” Jonas grabbed hold of Moreen’s bridle before she could gallop off. “You can’t sue me.”

“Yes, I can,” Moreen said. “Your son failed to come through with his end of the deal, so I have the right to sue him. But since his money is your money, I’ll just sue you.”

Jonas mouthed noiselessly at her for a moment. “Very well,” he said finally, slowly, as if it pained him. “I’ll save her.”

Moreen burst out laughing. “You’re not going to save her.”

“Yes, I will,” Jonas said stiffly. “If I save her and complete Randolf’s end of the deal, then you can’t sue.”

“Yes I can, because I’ll get there first.”

“No, I will.”

“You idiot, why do you want to save the bimbo?” Rubella asked Jonas.

“My daughter is not a bimbo!” Furious, Moreen broke free from Jonas’ grip and galloped into the distance.

“Rubella!” Jonas whipped around to glare at his wife. “She’s going to sue me!”

Rubella rolled her eyes. “And I should care?”

Jonas gritted his teeth. “If she takes all my money, there won’t be much left for you.”

Rubella went as white as snow. “Bring the horses! We have to save the princess!”

◊ ◊ ◊

Evilman led the princess out of the sewing room and through the entrance hall, which acted as the main thoroughfare to the many rooms on the ground floor. He opened one of the doors lining the hall and entered another room—his study.

He showed her to the back wall, where the black curtains still lay open, and nervously cleared his throat. “Princess, this is the mirror. Mirror, this is the princess.”

The face in the mirror put on a small but kind smile. “Nice to meet you, Princess.”

“Likewise,” she said, staring in awe. “I’ve never seen a magic mirror before.”

“And I’ve never seen a princess before.” His smile grew strained. “So, Jeremy, have you calmed down?”

“Yes, I have.”

“And have you thought about…what we discussed earlier?”

“Yes, I have,” Evilman said, nodding. “You’re fired.”

“Good—what?”

“I’m sorry,” Evilman said, twisting his hands. “You’ve been a great help through a dark time, but you’re right, I need to think for myself and not let anyone control me. I’m afraid I have to let you go. You can remain here until you’ve found a new place to stay—”

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing.” The mirror was no longer smiling. “Jeremy, you need me. There are still so many things you need help with—”

“I know, Mirror, but I need to be on my own to think for myself. I’m grateful for your help, though, I want you to remember that.”

“What about her?” The mirror jutted his chin toward the princess. “Are you her getting rid of her?”

“No, she’s my friend—”

“I’m your friend. I’m trying to help you. You’re letting her control—”

“No, I’m finally doing what I want to do, I’m finally who I want to be—”

“But Jeremy—”

“I’m sorry, Mirror. It’s over.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Randolf tripped over a tree root. Or what he thought was a tree root. “Man, it’s dark in here.”

“Yeah,” Davey said, or the black shadow stumbling along beside him that he was pretty sure was Davey. “I wonder if that’s why they call it the Forest of Darkness.”

Randolf thought about this for a moment and then forgot what he was trying to think about.

“Hey, is that the bridge she mentioned?” Davey asked, pointing a wavering finger at something dark and evil up ahead.

“Yeah, I think that’s it.”

The two of them lumbered up to the bridge, knocking into each other and overturning stones as they tripped their way along the path. After a minute of falling, crawling, and standing up again out of shear spite toward King Straus and confused ideas about gravity, they finally made it. Randolf stepped onto the first plank of the bridge.

Suddenly, a dark figure leapt out of nowhere and in a deep, threatening voice said, “None shall—whoa! Did you two buy out a whole bar?” The dark figure waved a hand in front of his nose. “Gods damn.”

Davey flailed wildly and ineffectually in place. “What the hell is that?”

“I dunno,” Randolf said quietly. He turned to the figure. “What the hell are you?”

“I’m a troll, duh,” he said, his voice becoming higher as if realizing a deep, scary one meant nothing to people as plastered as the two before him. In the dark of the forest, the troll’s green mottled skin and tall mohawk could only vaguely be seen. “And this is my bridge. None shall pass without paying a toll.”

“Yeah, well I’m da rinse and I gotta save the one with boobs.”

The troll eyed them weirdly. “Uhhhhhhhh, sure.”

“He means the him with boobs,” Davey said in “clarification.”

The troll just kept staring at them. “Riiiiiiight. So, how much did you two drink?”

Randolf and Davey gazed into space for a moment, which then became five minutes.

The troll shook his head. “Wow, you guys are gone. But, anyway, I still have to ask for a toll. Money doesn’t come out of my nose, you know.”

“Where does it come from?” Davey asked reflectively.

The troll blinked at him. “So—do you two have money or not?”

“I spent the last of it at that bar that kept moving,” Randolf said, feeling in his pockets futilely.

“Do you have anything of value?” the troll asked.

“Does this count?” Davey pulled a flask out of his pocket.

The troll rolled his eyes. “Human drinks are worthless. Too weak. I make my own brew. I bet it’d kill you.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yeah. One drop would probably do it, especially in your current state.”

Davey grinned woozily. “I’ll take that bet.”

The troll smiled too, but it was all teeth. “All right. If you can drink it and survive, I’ll let you cross my bridge.”

“Deal!” He held out his hand. “My name’s Davey by the way.”

The troll shook Davey’s hand. “I’m Rodney.”

“That’s my name!” Randolf shouted indignantly.

“No, man, you’re Randolf,” Davey informed him.

“I thought he said Rodney.”

“That’s his name.”

“Oh.”

Rodney covered his face with his hand, embarrassed to be even near this conversation.

“Wait!” Randolf cried suddenly, making Rodney jump. “I have to get to Evilman’s castle. Is Davey’s death gonna take long?”

“It shouldn’t,” Rodney said. “But in case he lives, I can show you a portal that leads right into Evilman’s linen closet. But if you want to use my portal, you’ll both have to drink.”

“Deal,” Randolf said, putting his hand out like Davey had, but he overbalanced and fell into the creek under the bridge.
Rodney just shook his head.

◊ ◊ ◊

“You can’t do this to me!”

“Mirror, stop shouting!”

“No, Jeremy, you have to listen!”

“Look, Mirror,” the princess said, trying to reason with him—it—whatever. “Jeremy needs some time to think for himself. Like he said, you helped him a lot and he appreciates that but—”

“Look!” the mirror cried. “She’s doing it already!”

“Doing what?” Evilman asked.

“Talking for you. I told you, you’re letting her control you. You always do this. It’s a pattern of behavior I was trying to wean you off of—”

“But then I began to let you control me,” Evilman said. “I was no better off. Now, however, I have broken free from that. The princess and I are equals, we’re friends, we listen to each other—”

“No, no, you are depending on her, using her as crutch, you have to get rid of her!”

“I’m not going to kill her—”

“But that was your plan!”

“Plans change—”

“She made you—”

“No!” Evilman stomped his foot on the floor, holding his hands out to stop the mirror from talking. “I created the plan because I thought that was what I had to do. But I changed the plan because I knew that’s what I had to do. I’m not an evil dark lord. I’m a snazzy interior decorator!”

The mirror scrunched his nose, like he was in physical pain, despite being a mirror and not able to feel anything. “You can be whatever you want to be, but without therapy you will fall back into your old patterns. You need me to stay and help you through this.”

Evilman shook his head, face sad. “I was using you as a crutch, Mirror. I thank you for your help, but I need to break free. The princess and I are going into business together—”

“She will control you—”

“Excuse me!” the princess said, hand on hip. “I’m not going to control him. We are friends, and we will be equal business partners—”

“Just kill her!”

The princess threw her head back and gaped. “Kill me? KILL ME? What kind of a sadistic bastard are you?”
The mirror curled his upper lip. “One who cares for his clients.”
“More likely a financially sound one. That’s all it is, isn’t it? You just don’t want to lose your job, your money, this house!”

The mirror mouthed wordlessly at the princess for a moment before sputtering, “No-no-no, that’s-that’s not it at all.”

Evilman narrowed his gaze. “Mirror,” he said slowly, “are you only trying to stay for the money?”

“No! You know that’s not true. Look! She’s already trying to influence you—”

“That’s it, I’ve had enough!”

In one swift movement, Evilman ripped the mirror off the wall. He walked determinedly to the nearest window, opened it (“You can’t throw me out!”), and quite unceremoniously threw the mirror outside.

The mirror soared through the air then landed in the surrounding forest, shouting at Evilman.

“You can’t do this to me! I’ll be back, you’ll see! I’ll—”

CRACK!

◊ ◊ ◊

“Uh-oh.”

King Straus pulled his horse off the mirror it had just stepped on. Large cracks stretched across its surface, starting at a gaping hole the size and shape of a horse’s hoof. It was completely destroyed.

“I hope that wasn’t important. Oh, well,” Straus said, and urged his horse on. “We’re almost there, men. Let’s go save my daughter.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The princess stared at Evilman, impressed. “I can’t believe you just did that.”

“I know, neither can—” He broke off as a loud noise sounded from outside the study. “What was that?”

They left the room and glanced around the entrance hall.

“Where did that racket come from?” the princess asked.

“I don’t know…”

Suddenly, a door burst open and from amid a shower of fluffy purple towels and silk sheets, Prince Randolf strode into the hall, Davey at his side. Randolf stopped before Evilman and the princess, standing tall and proud, like a true prince, legs apart and fists on hips. He held his head high, face serious and noble, and said triumphantly, “I’m not wearing any pants.”

The princess and Evilman looked down as one then stared back at Randolf’s face.

“No, you’re not,” the princess said slowly. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” Randolf said, so noble, so proud.

Evilman eyed him with a mix of caution, confusion, and a little bit of worry at what possibly happened to remove the poor prince’s trousers. “How do you not know—”

A bang echoed through the castle and the front doors burst open with great force. A dozen men, led by King Straus, charged down the hall.

“Evilman!” Straus thundered. “Give me back my daughter! You will not win today!”

“Daddy, please!” the princess huffed. “Be nice.”

Straus took a step back in confusion, as if he’d been hit in the face. “‘Be nice’? What do you mean—” Suddenly he noticed Randolf. “You’re not wearing any pants.”

“I know,” Randolf said, still in the same position, still so noble.

Straus furrowed his brow. “I left you nearly incapacitated in the village. How did you get here before me?”

“‘Cause trolls are awesome when they’re drunk,” Davey explained, wagging an emphatic finger.

Before Straus could even start on that response, the back door flew open and in walked a bickering trio.

“Moreen?” Straus cried, astounded. “Why are you here?”

“To prevent this moron from suing us,” Queen Moreen replied, jerking a thumb over her shoulder at King Jonas. She turned to look at her husband, but on the way, her gaze paused. “You’re…without pants.”

“Yes, I am,” Randolf said, oh so noble.

Queen Rubella’s eyes bulged, her eyeliner smudged from galloping through the forest. “Where are they?” she demanded.

“The troll took them,” Davey slurred. “He didn’t think it was fair that we didn’t die.”

Everyone just blinked at that.

Moreen opened her mouth several times to comment, but eventually she shook her head—he wasn’t her problem anymore (good luck marrying him off, Rubella)—and turned back to the situation at hand.

“Evilman!” she shouted, making him jump. “Release my daughter this instant!”

The princess crossed her arms. “Will you please stop making demands of him, he just went through a terrible experience and lost a good friend,” she snapped.

There was silence followed by a chorus of “What?” asked by everyone in the room, except for the sloshed Davey and practically frozen yet noble Randolf.

“Honey, you’re not making any sense,” Moreen said. “We’ve come to rescue you and take you home.”

“I don’t want to go home,” the princess said. “Didn’t you bother to think about my feelings? Or were you just going to take me away against my will?”

Another pause followed by another room full of “What?”

“But he’s trying to kill you!” Straus cried.

“No, I’m not,” Evilman piped up. “We’re going into business together as interior decorators.”

Once again, the chorus: “What?”

“That’s right,” the princess said, head held high. “I’m staying here. I have a potentially lucrative career on my hands and an excellent and willing partner.”

“But-but-but—he’s evil,” Straus said, voice and expression turning uncertain.

The princess rolled her eyes. “No, he’s not.”

“But—”

“Dad, I thank you for this whole rescue attempt thing—you too, Mom—but I’m quite happy here.”

“Oh,” Straus said, somewhat deflated. “Well, then…I guess…we’ll be going.”

“Yes,” Moreen agreed vaguely, eyes wandering in confusion.

“You can stop by whenever you’d like,” Evilman said with a bright smile. “You’re always welcome. You can even stay the night.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Straus said as vaguely as his wife while they moved awkwardly toward the door.

“Does that mean they can’t sue?” Jonas murmured to Rubella.

But Rubella ignored him. “Come along, Randolf,” she commanded. “We have to get you home and into some pants for god’s sake.”

“Coming mother,” Randolf said, the noblest, and followed her, head held so high and proud.

“Now, Randolf, I have some good news,” Rubella began as she, Jonas, Randolf, and Davey walked down the hall and out of the castle. “Your father and I are getting a divorce…”

Moreen and Straus followed them out, the rescue party in their wake, looking disappointed there had been no need for a bloodbath.

When the last person had left, closing the door behind him, the princess turned to Evilman. She scrunched her nose in apology. “I’m so sorry about all of that.”

Evilman waved it off, chuckling slightly. “Oh, it’s all right! They did think I was going to mercilessly kill you just to reaffirm my evilness.”

“Well, they still shouldn’t have been so rude.”

“It’s no problem, Princess…um, by the way…what’s your name?”

End

Lauren Triola