The Fallen

Anna Ward didn’t follow the judge’s gaze as he turned and looked at the jury. She didn’t need to because she’d already memorized the faces of the people who held her sister’s future in their hands.

           

A thirty-something woman who stared at her watch all the time and fiddled with her wedding ring. A tubby man at the end of the first row who struggled to stay alert after lunch. A guy at the back with glasses who looked like a math teacher.

Then there was the gray-haired woman in charge of them—the forewoman, the judge called her.        

        

She was the one Anna watched most, and during the past two weeks, she’d returned Anna’s glance several times. She hoped she wasn’t imagining the sympathy the woman’s eyes. If Rose had any chance of staying out of prison, the older woman might be it. Sometimes Anna pretended the woman was the mother she’d lost five years ago when she’d been ten. A mother might understand what had happened, and Rose would be okay.

 

“Has the jury reached a verdict?” the judge asked.

       

“Yes, we have, your Honor,” the woman said.

       

Anna crossed her fingers and shoved her hands under her legs, hiding the childish gesture as she willed the forelady to look at her and smile.

         

The woman kept her gaze forward, and Anna’s heart clenched.

         

The judge nodded at the sheriff’s deputy hovering nearby, and he headed for the jury box. 

From the corner of her eye Anna could see the back wall where the police officers stood. They’d been there the entire trial. A whole row of them waiting silently. A blue wall.

       

When she’d been a little kid she’d thought her father’s friends were the good guys. Always ready with a smile or a tease, they’d wave when her mom would drop her dad off at the station for his shift, maybe even walk over to the car and say hello. In the first grade, Anna had announced to everyone who would listen, including complete strangers, she was going to be a policeman when she grew up.

         

Now they were the enemy. They wanted to take away the only family Anna had left in the world. She might have been a mess, but Rose was still Anna’s older sister, and Anna had looked up to her. She still did. The love between the two of them was special, as it was with most sisters, and the bond they shared went beyond blood. The prospect of losing Rose was almost more than Anna could bear.

         

And it was all the cops’ fault. Especially her father’s partner, Leroy Brunolo. Her dad had always called him Bruno .              His nickname tasted like ashes in her mouth, and the sight of him turned her stomach.

           

Unlike the lady on the jury, he met Anna’s gaze.

           

There was no question about the message in his expression. It was clear as could be. His eyes were two black stones, intimidating and hard, his mouth a thin, threatening line. The cops had decided Rose was guilty long before this trial had even begun, and Bruno had led the charge. Anna didn’t have a clue why he’d been so convinced Rose had pulled the trigger. 

           

She shivered and forced away herself to look away, but she knew his gaze stayed on her because she could feel the anger he sent her way. The heat was as fierce as the words he’d thrown out like bombs the day he’d testified.

Yes, he’d heard Stan Ward and his daughter exchange furious words on numerous occasions. Yes, he’d witnessed those fights turn violent and yes, he’d seen Rose punch her father once, leaving a black eye and a cut above his temple. 

Time and time again, Stan had gotten Rose out of tight places, Bruno had sworn. He’d even admitted that yes, like all the guys on the force, he’d looked the other way as she’d been brought home several times when she should have been arrested instead.

           

Stan had loved his daughters, Bruno had said, and done everything he could to give them a good life but Rose been determined to find trouble and disrupt the family Stan had been trying to hold together since his wife had died. Truancy had given way to drugs and drugs had led to theft. And it’d all ended in bloodshed, death, and grief.

Anna couldn’t argue with part of what he’d said because it’d been the truth. Rose had changed after their mother died. Until then she’d gotten better grades than Anna, had been the model daughter, had even gotten a part-time job. Anna had tried her best, but Rose had always tried harder. No matter what she did, though, it never seemed to work out right. Their father had never been happy with her.

           

The other cops had added their damning testimony to Bruno’s. The department had thoroughly investigated every lead they’d gotten, her father’s lieutenant had insisted, and they’d questioned everyone remotely tied to the case. No stone had been left unturned. But the path continually drew them back to Rose Ward. He’d been shocked and disappointed and had done all he could to reject the idea, but the truth was the truth. Evidence didn’t lie.

           

When the district attorney had held up the bag with Rose’s favorite earring and asked one of the rookies if it was the one he’d found at the crime scene, he’d cleared his throat and said yes. He’d found it right beside the body. Obviously there’d been a struggle, and it’d been pulled out of Rose’s ear. The silver skull had sparkled in the lights of the courtroom, each glint a painful reminder of how pleased Rose had been when Anna had given them to her for her birthday. Rose had rarely taken them off. 

           

But she hadn’t lost that earring the night of the murder. Anna had seen her wearing them the following day, and she’d told everyone who would listen. No one had believed her, including Rose’s lawyer, who’d said that even if Anna had had a photograph proving her point, it wouldn’t matter. He’d had all kinds of counterarguments: Anna was Rose’s sister and couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth. There was nothing special about the earrings. Rose could have purchased another pair. The cop had said he’d found them the night her father was killed, and that was that.

The final straw came when Rose’s boyfriend, Billy Alsop, testified he’d dropped Rose off at the pharmacy an hour before the shooting. The whole time he’d been on the stand he’d repeatedly jerked his eyes to the row of policemen in the back.

Anna was only a kid but she’d understood those looks. In fact, she’d probably understood them better than anyone because she was a kid. Billy Alsop had been making sure he was saying exactly what he’d been told to say. He was lying.

           

They were all lying, and Anna had no idea why.

           

The judge stared at the square of paper the officer handed him, and Anna’s panic was so sudden and overwhelming, she thought for a moment she might throw up. As he started to read the note out loud, Rose audibly caught her breath and shot a look over her shoulder at Anna, her gaze wild and dark. Anna dropped her head and closed her eyes, the verdict slicing through the silence.

           

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