On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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It had been a difficult case, and the primary emotion in the courtroom was of relief that the proceedings would soon be over — even if the outcome wasn’t what many of those present would have preferred.
The judge’s name was Buchanan, and he was relatively young for his position and seniority; only forty-seven years old. He was renowned for his fairness, precision, and procedural exactness. Fools were not suffered gladly (or at all) in his courtroom, and many a lawyer had left chastened, and all the wiser for it. People had often said that he was the epitome of a servant and wielder of the law, and it was rare for a defendant of obvious guilt to go free.
Today, however, was one such occasion. A technicality relating to the chain of evidence had left no room to manoeuvre, and the counsel for the prosecution had actually held his own head in his hands briefly in despair. A profoundly evil and dangerous man would now go free, leaving the grieving widow and her children shocked and traumatised all over again.
The prosecution looked calm and confident, if not quite triumphant. The murderer’s lawyer knew their client had committed the crime. But due process was guaranteed, and a fair trial according to the law was a cornerstone of each person’s inviolable rights.
Buchanan was silent, and looking thoughtfully out at the many upturned faces before him. His duty was clear. His required next act was a formality, and indeed it was by no means the first time he had carried it out. The accused must be acquitted, and by long convention Buchanan would use the Not Proven verdict, rather than Not Guilty, to indicate his summary lack of belief in the defendant’s innocence.
He glanced over at the woman whose husband was gone forever, and she dropped her gaze. Her face was pale. He looked at the teenaged daughter, but she was already silently weeping, with her slender hands covering her face. He looked at the son, twelve years old, and part of him was strangely proud to see the defiance and hatred in the young man’s dark eyes. Buchanan could see a lifetime charted out ahead of the boy. At moments like these, the sons were usually imagining how they might one day engineer the opportunity to kill the person who had taken away their loved ones.
And rightly so, Buchanan thought. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise.
“I’m very disturbed by what has transpired here,” he said, noting in his peripheral vision that both the woman and her daughter raised their heads again. The defendant was also listening carefully.
“Our laws and procedures are designed to protect every member of our society,” he continued. “To ensure fairness, transparency, accountability, and to preserve the rule of law. Together, they make a statement about our values as people.”
He paused, and then allowed his gaze to fall upon the man who was certainly a murderer, and who was now visibly smirking.
“There are days when these protections fail, however,” Buchanan said, “and today is one such day. Not the first, and not the last. These days are inevitable, I have come to realise, because ours is a legal system rather than a justice system.”
Frowns appeared on brows. Even the court reporter had momentarily looked up from her compact keyboard.
“The one precludes the other,” he continued. “Most of you know something of the law. Some of you may even have fallen foul of it at some point in your lives, in minor ways or otherwise. Some of you will have found it frustrating, but you very likely understood the purpose and validity of the law nonetheless. But then we have this situation here today, with this man.”
Buchanan met the defendant’s gaze. The counsel for the defense shifted in his seat, clearly unsettled, but Buchanan paid him no heed. There was absolute silence in the courtroom.
“I am required by law to acquit the accused. No matter how anyone may feel about it, that is the law. And our system is one of law; a system I have spent the better part of my life in service of. Today, however, I think that many of us might say that its limitations — and even its unfairnesses — are sometimes all too apparent.”
He turned his attention to the bereaved family. “I’m deeply sorry for your loss. For the fact of it, for how unnecessary it was, and for the mark of it that will lie upon you for the rest of your lives, in one form or another. And most of all I am sorry that our system of law could not provide remedy.”
Several long moments passed, until at last the woman gave a small nod of her head. Buchanan returned the gesture, and then looked again at the man who would escape a lawful sentence for his crime.
“There is, however, the question of what is right,” he said, and to the astonishment of all present, he stood up.
“I do personally find you guilty on all of the charges, sir,” he said, seeing with some satisfaction that the grin evaporated from the man’s face immediately. Buchanan leaned forward slightly.
“If I had my way, I’d lock you up for twenty years. But the law won’t allow that,” he said. “So today we must acknowledge that the law will sometimes fail in its goals.”
In a move practised for hundreds of hours, at first as a curiosity and then as a means of focusing his mind, Buchanan reached smoothly within his robes and drew out a perfectly-balanced and immaculately minimalist knife. Dark grey carbon steel from the tip of the blade to the handle’s base, it bore no markings at all, and it was a miracle of Japanese metalwork. He knew it as intimately as the soft and gentle face of his own wife, both to see and to touch, and his action was almost instinctive.
No-one in the courtroom actually saw the knife fly, but everyone heard the unique bass drumbeat of it embedding itself between the defendant’s ribs.
The man’s face was all surprise, and Buchanan understood the sentiment perfectly. He should have been released, after all. The law was clear.
Today, he had justice instead.
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