Angelo Forte stands alone in the circle of the accused. After the revolt, the rebels would hold court in school gyms with the accused being made to stand inside the circle that surrounds the basketball foul line drawn on every gym floor across the country.
Since that time, the new regime has rebuilt the courthouses of old, incorporating the circle of the accused into the new design.
Like the tableau suggests, trials these days no longer involve judges and lawyers. There are no spectators or reporters allowed inside. The accused pleads their case directly to a jury made up of three people who know them and four who don’t. The whole process is presided over by a magistrate who’s only job is to present the jury with the people’s case against the accused.
Angelo is his given name but he prefers to be called Andy. In the old days, Andy was a feared and respected man around town. He was and still is a high-ranking soldier in the organization.
The revolt brought with it many changes. One of these changes forced Andy to find a real job for the first time in his life. Having no documented prior experience to draw upon the only open job he qualified for turned out to be at the DPW.
He now pushes a broom up and down the city’s sidewalks five hours a day to satisfy his ‘work requirement’. Even people who knew better had a hard time concealing their amusement at Andy’s plight. Sweeping city streets is not a job for any self-respecting forty-eight year old man, especially a man of Andy’s stature.
Andy complained about this change in circumstances to the council, not the civil authorities but to a power higher than that. He had been told to bide his time, the organization was waiting for the young upstarts to go to sleep.
When the decision was made to act, Andy himself was chosen to deliver the message. The gist of the message was simple; we’re still here. The instrument of the message was to be the teenaged daughter of a prominent public official. The wording of the message was to be short and brutal.
Andy was a skilled mechanic and he planned the details meticulously. He got the girl, savagely raped her, executed her ‘gangland’ style and left her where she was sure to be found. The media would have a field day with a news story like this--which was exactly what the organization wanted.
No one was more surprised than Andy was when the only mention of the girl’s death in any media at all was her standard four-line obituary in the paper.
Almost as surprising to Andy is the fact he was taken into custody and charged with her murder in less than four hours.
At the stroke of nine, a thirty something year old ‘kid’ in a gray jumpsuit with a black armband that is the emblem of his office, banged his toy wooden hammer on his desk.
Without any of the old ‘all rise and here comes the judge’ nonsense, the kid announces that the case of the People vs. Angelo G. Forte is now in session.
Andy gives the men and women of the jury his most intimidating glare as the kid reads the charges against him.
"Angelo Forte, you stand before this tribunal accused of the kidnap, rape and gangland style murder of one Ms. Tracy McKeown, a minor and the daughter of City Manager Phillip McKeown. How do you plea?"
Andy puts on his best poker face.
"The court acknowledges your plea of not guilty and charges you to prepare to defend that plea."
Andy nods solemnly, as if he were as innocent as a newborn babe. He is totally unprepared for what happens next. The kid dims the room’s lights and big screen TV is wheeled into the courtroom. The kid hits a button on the remote control and the TV begins playing the most interesting show, a show that stars one Andy Forte!
The first scene captures Andy being given his orders to undertake the hit! The next scene shows the actual abduction and getaway while the final scene shows the getaway vehicle’s arrival and departure from what will later be identified as the murder scene.
The tape takes five minute to run from start to finish and by the end of those five minutes Andy’s jaw is on the floor.
The kid takes center stage once more.
"Mr. Forte, the imaging lab reports with 100% accuracy that the man seen abducting the female on this tape is YOU! The lab also positively identifies the woman captured on this security video as the deceased, Ms. Tracy McKeown!"
The kid fiddles with his remote control and the getaway vehicle’s license plate fills the screen.
"This capture is from the scene of the abduction."
He hits the button again and the matching license plate is seen from the rear of the stolen vehicle as it drives towards the murder scene.
"And this one was taken at the murder scene."
He hits the button one more time, and Andy’s face can be clearly seen in the vehicle’s side view mirror."
"And this is you at that scene."
Andy is totally dumbstruck!
"This is unbelievable! What do you do for an encore? Show me bum blasting the bitch?" Andy asks sarcastically.
The kid turns on Andy and for a moment it looks like he’s going to let loose on him.
"The victim was in fact sodomized, information that was not released to the public. The People have presented their case against you, the floor is yours Mr. Forte." Andy eyes the jury nervously; he can see his doom in their eyes.
"This is all made up, I didn’t do it I tell you, I’m innocent!
"Can you give your exact whereabouts at the time of the murder Mr. Forte?"
"It was a Saturday, I was with a hundred witnesses at my nephew’s birthday party!"
"You do not have a nephew Mr. Forte but the murder was indeed committed on a Saturday, another fact that has not been released to the public." The kid replies deliberately. "Do you have anything else to say in your defense Mr. Forte?"
"Yeah, I didn’t do it, this is a frame up!"
"Can you present any facts to corroborate this claim?"
"Like I told you, I was with a hundred witnesses that will place me fifty miles from that dump in Marlboro."
"The murder scene is indeed a landfill and it is also located in Marlboro, another fact that has not been released to the public!" The kid replies like he’s Perry Mason.
"Let me bring the witnesses in here, they’ll tell you I didn’t do it!" The kid glances over at the jury and the jury foreperson gives a barely perceptible nod.
"You have permission to call in your witnesses, We will adjourn this tribunal until Nine O’clock tomorrow morning."
Andy is led to a phone so he can call someone on the outside to round up his hundred witnesses. The problem is that there are no witnesses to call in, Andy had made it all up. He dials the number of an ‘expendable’ flunky and fills him in on what he’s to tell the Capo.
"They’ve got me cold. Tell the boss I’m gonna to take the fall tomorrow. Ask if he can pull some strings for me, maybe a nice Federal pen something.
"Consider it done!" replies the voice.
Andy hangs up the phone and shuffles back over to the guard so he can return to his cell. The trial lasted all of fifteen minutes and he’s emotionally drained.
Andy swears that regardless of what happens next, the kid is a marked man. Then Andy slaps his forehead. He’s just blown what was likely his last chance to put the finger on the kid! It’s too late now; it will have to wait until later.
The following morning Andy returns to the hearing room to find the kid and the members of the jury already waiting for him. Andy takes his spot in the circle and the kid begins.
"We are aware that there will be no witnesses to testify on your behalf this morning Mr. Forte. I ask you one final time, is there any evidence at all to back up your claim of innocence?"
Andy makes one last attempt at making the jury feel sorry for him. He hangs his head in shame and says "I have nothing to defend myself with but my own good word. I throw myself upon the mercy of this court."
"You understand, Mr. Forte, that the People are seeking the death penalty. If you were to turn People’s evidence and testify against your former confederates, the People may settle for a lesser punishment." The kid offers.
"Nothing doing! I don’t roll over for nobody!"
"How about if we let you go free?"
"Free, like let me walk, free?"
"Free as a bird!"
"With a better job?"
"Any job you want!"
Andy mulls the offer over for a moment. They’ll kill him for sure; the evidence against him is just too strong. One thing’s for certain, the new regime runs a tight ship; nothing gets leaked to the press as evidenced by the girl’s murder.
If Andy were to roll over, who’d know? He could start all over again with any job he wanted somewhere else, maybe even somewhere warm even!
"Let me think it over." Andy replies finally.
"Fine, you’ve got one minute."
"The new rules are an eye for an eye Mr. Forte. In sixty seconds the guard is going to take you to a cell where you will be put to death in very much the same way you murdered Ms. McKeown…including the anal invasion." The kid says grimly.
Horse of an entirely different color! Suddenly Andy is feeling very cooperative. He agrees to turn People’s evidence and for the next three weeks he sings his heart out.
The Magistrates’ office has piles of evidence that corroborate his testimony and by the time Andy’s done, the mob in this neck of the woods is finished.
The Capo himself is the last one brought to justice and Andy is the People’s star witness against him. The jury convicts and Andy is compelled to watch the Capo’s execution.
It is the execution they had planned for him and it is every bit as brutal as the acts he carried out on the young girl at the Capo’s orders.
"That was the last of them. You should be proud of yourself Andy, you did a fine job!" The kid tells him as they leave the ‘Justice chamber’.
"Now it’s time for you to make good." Andy replies ominously.
"Indeed it is, guard!"
"Prepare Mr. Forte for exile."
"I said that you could go free Mr. Forte and I’m a man of my word but if you think for one minute that I’d release you back into society you’d better think again!"
"Wait a minute, what’s this exile crap?"
"Did you live in cave Mr. Forte?"
"You said I could go free!"
"Not every crime against society warrants death and there is no longer any such thing as long term imprisonment. Exile was created as an alternative to prison. If you refuse to live here by the rules then you are sent into exile to live any way you please!" The kid explains patiently.
"So there’s other people there?"
"Millions of them."
"Oh, I thought you were going to maroon me on some island or something."
"No, it’s nothing like that I assure you Mr. Forte." The kid signals for the guard to take charge of the prisoner then beats a hasty retreat in the opposite direction, he’s said too much already.
Andy shakes his head groggily. One minute he’s sipping coffee on the exile plane and the next he wakes up naked in a cell.
The cell is eight feet round and perhaps fifteen feet to the ceiling. There is a window set high into the left-hand wall and a door like a submarine hatch set into the right-hand wall from the bench he’s sitting on.
They had asked him a strange question on the plane and he stares at the rectangle of sunlight that is climbing the right hand wall considering the significance of his response.
The question asked of him was if he wanted to be released at sunrise or sunset. Andy considers himself a night person and he firmly believes that he possesses better than average night vision so naturally, he replied sunset.
The rectangle of sunlight has a tinge of orange to it and it is very high up on the right hand wall indicating that the sun must be very low on the horizon. It’s too tough to tell if he’s witnessing sunrise or sunset just yet.
The circular chamber is devoid of any furnishing except for the bench that juts unsupported from the wall between the door and the window. There is no sink or toilet, just a round room with a single door and a bench.
Andy looks up once again at the rectangle of daylight and notes it is higher up on the wall than it was minutes ago. The rectangle is now crimson in hue…sunset is coming.
A deep male voice issues from speakers hidden overhead.
"Please be seated. The departure process is about to begin. Sit on the bench immediately or you may be injured." The deep voice warns.
Andy is already seated on the bench and concludes the message is canned rather than a statement made by a live observer. Andy watches in amazement as the floor splits in half and retracts into the walls of the chamber revealing an open pit below with a sandy bottom. He is eight feet above the sandy floor but it looks like twenty from where he’s sitting.
Andy doesn’t like heights and his stomach churns as he peers into the unknown. From the pit below, the speaker’s voice resumes. Apparently he was supposed to jump into the pit when the floor opened.
"You have one hour to clear the guard towers. Stay away from the fences. Any one seen approaching the fences will be shot. Run straight from the exit into the open area ahead, you have one hour to get clear of the guard towers or you will be shot."
Andy is paralyzed with fear; he is unable to leap from the bench. The speaker’s voice resumes once more from overhead.
"Warning, once the bench has fully retracted into the wall, the chamber will be filled with poison gas. You must leap to safety before the bench fully retracts or you will be killed!"
Andy feels a sharp pinch on his buttocks. The bench is slowly retracting into the wall and his butt flab is being sucked into the crack as the bench retracts. With a yelp of pain, Andy throws himself into the sand filled pit to avoid being sucked into the wall with the bench.
Andy snaps his back head in the direction of the bench and sees that it is almost fully retracted. He thinks he can hear a hissing sound, like gas vents being opened. He takes a deep breath and runs for his life.
He clears the base of the chamber in a few steps and beholds the stark landscape before him as the last rays of sunlight disappear over the horizon. He trots naked towards the open, flat grassy plain mindful of the warning that he only has one hour to clear the guard towers before they open fire.
A good sniper can pick off a target a mile and a half away in open country like this. Andy’s never done it himself but he’s heard of other’s who have.
He’s sure the people who guard this desolate place have nothing better to do than work on their long shots. Andy decides he’d better cover some ground before he becomes their next practice dummy.
Andy encounters a dry creek bed a hundred yards from the chamber. The bottom of the creek bed is lined with jagged, fist sized stones. He turns to skirt this obstacle only to have two rifle rounds spray his naked legs with hot sand when they impact the ground just inches from his feet.
There are at least two guards who have a bead on him and he takes the hint, crossing the creek bed as gingerly as he can. He stumbles twice crossing over the loose stone footing and suffers abrasions on his hands, knees and shins. He leaps the last few feet to the sandy bank beyond the creek bed and feels a sharp sting to his right foot.
Andy hops about on his left foot, howling. He looks down and spots a dead scorpion in the spot where his foot had gotten injured.
Andy hobbles away as fast as he can, fearing he’s stumbled into a nest of the nasty creatures. His foot throbs painfully with every step. He’ll be shot if he turns back; his only choice is to press on. With luck the exile’s settlement won’t be too far away.
A steady, chill wind saps the warmth from his naked body despite his hurried pace. His eyes scan the horizon, frantically searching for some small sign that salvation lies just ahead.
Andy’s foot encounters something cold and squishy. Startled, he stumbles and falls to the ground hard with whatever it is gripping his left foot. He rolls over and sees that his uninjured foot has a human ribcage wrapped around it.
He stifles a shriek and kicks his foot vigorously attempting to remove the foul, half-rotted object but it’s stuck fast around his ankle.
Andy screws up his courage and peels the piece of cadaver apart so he can remove his foot. The piece of human wreckage reeks to high heaven and is swarming with maggots.
This time Andy does cry out and the sound is not unlike the forlorn wail that a small child makes when they awaken suddenly from a horrible nightmare.
He rubs the moldering gore off his foot in the sand and hurries to escape the stench that now seems to cling to him. Andy’s seen plenty of corpses in his day but never in his life has he had such an intimate encounter with one this far gone.
The naked male body had been headless and Andy glances nervously over his shoulder to check his position relative to the guard towers.
Has he been running for five minutes or fifty? The scorpion bite on his right foot throbs painfully, reminding him of his need to find some help and find it quick.
The kid told him there were millions people out here. Andy prays that he will run into a rescue station or a welcoming committee once he gets clear of the guard towers.
Andy guesses he’s somewhere between a half and three quarters of a mile from the nearest tower. In the cold starlit night he can now make out what appears to be a rise perhaps another half a mile dead ahead. If he can make it to the rise before time runs out he’ll be home free!
Andy sets his mind to the task at hand and he makes good progress towards his goal. Halfway there he encounters another dry creek bed like the first one but this time he sticks to the rocks to avoid another scorpion bite. He manages to cross without losing his footing and emerges on the opposite bank unscathed. ‘I’m going to beat these bastards!’ Andy thinks to himself as he grimly forges ahead to his goal.
As he nears the rise he imagines his eyes will be greeted by the lights of a small city nestled in the valley on the other side.
"Not much farther now!" He reassures himself. He scrambles up the gradual slope and pauses when he reaches the top, scanning the horizon anxiously.
Nada. No city, no welcoming committee, nothing. Off to his left, perhaps another mile away, Andy thinks he can see the flickering light of a campfire.
He looks back over his shoulder to see where the guard towers are but the tower lights are no longer visible. He can still make out their skeletal frames jutting up at regular intervals like jagged teeth against the starry sky but it’s hard to judge distances in the starlit dimness.
A ricochet whines off a nearby rock and Andy stumbles over the rise to safety. The shot was at least ten feet wide but that’s still a little too close for comfort. The guards can still see him and they just let him know it.
Andy trudges blindly forward for a while until it suddenly occurs to him that he’s traveling on a well-trodden path! The campfire must be a beacon the other exiles kept burning to guide new arrivals to their settlement. Andy’s spirits soar and he picks up his pace towards the light.
The narrow path winds past a rocky outcropping a little ways ahead. Just as Andy approaches the rocks he hears the sound of small stones rolling down an embankment. Andy freezes in his steps and a chill runs up his spine at the prospect of his being stalked.
"Hey!" He calls out to the footpad but there is no response. Andy creeps forward cautiously, his eyes straining for a glimpse of what he sincerely hopes is a man. He crests the outcropping and spies nothing hiding amongst the rocks. He dismisses the sound he heard earlier as either an animal or more probably, paranoia as he resumes his journey toward the distant flickering light.
Andy walks for what seems like another hour and the flickering light does not appear to be getting any closer. It has to be a very large fire to still be so far away.
Perhaps that is where the water is, Andy rationalizes. He’s crossed a few dry creek beds along the way and he’s come to the conclusion that his new home is a semi-arid place. Not quite desert but close enough not to make much of a difference.
Andy finds a rock big enough to park on and he sits down to rest. His left leg starts to cramp almost immediately and he rubs it vigorously to work the knots out. He didn’t realize how hard he’s been pushing himself but rest his body let him know the moment he stopped to.
His scorpion-stung foot doesn’t appear to be any worse and he takes some solace in that. This desert, if that’s what it is, is devoid of cactus and for the first time since escaping the chamber, Andy wonders exactly where he is.
Geography isn’t Andy’s strong suit. He’d gone to Las Vegas a few times with the boss in the old days but where he’s at now doesn’t look anything like the desert that surrounds the gambling Mecca.
"Hey there fresh meat, heading for the light?" A voice asks from behind. Andy nearly falls on his face trying to get up too quickly; he is both startled and frightened by the sudden appearance of the voice.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph! You shouldn’t go around sneaking up on people like that!" Andy says.
"Me? It’s you that should be more alert. No such thing as bein’ too careful ‘round here." The voice replies mildly.
"Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind. Are you the welcoming committee?" Andy asks sarcastically as he painfully hauls himself back onto his feet.
Andy struggles to get a handle on the scruffy wild man who’s crouched in the shadows a dozen feet away. All that Andy can make out clearly in the dimness are the creature’s shining eyes and the occasional flash of his white teeth.
The footpad cackles hysterically at the notion of his being the welcoming committee. Once he stops laughing he eyes Andy thoughtfully.
"You headin’ for the light?"
"Bad idea. It’s a trap."
"A trap? What kind of trap?"
"Lure you there to eat cha!"
"I’d say see for your self but if you go much farther down this path it will be too late, you’ll never get away!"
"You telling me there are cannibals down there?"
"I suppose you want me to follow you instead."
"Well, only if you want to live." Andy considers the certifiable crazy mans warning. What he says makes a weird kind of sense if it’s true.
"Look, I need some water and whatever passes for medical attention in this God forsaken hell hole. Is your camp nearby?"
"Not far, it’s less than a mile from here in the opposite direction."
"Back towards the fence?"
"No, you’re heading due south, our camp is north of here."
"Think I’m on my own out here? Nobody makes it alone out here!"
"Okay, I’ll go with you but no funny business. I’m connected if you know what I mean." Andy warns the wild man.
The wild man grins broadly at Andy’s thinly veiled threat but says nothing. He stands up and Andy can see that the wild man is wearing a breach cloth made of some kind of hyde and that he has a long knife fashioned from the bone of some animal sticking out of his waistband.
Andy warily falls in behind his savior but quickly drops back a few paces as the wild man reeks of body odor. Apparently bathing isn’t high on the list of things to do out here in The Badlands.
"So how long have you been here?" Andy asks.
"Since the beginning, they sent us here wholesale once they got the fence put up."
"Really! The kid who sent me here said there’s over a million people out here now."
"A million? Could be. I haven’t been keeping track."
"Well, how many people in your group?"
"Why so few?"
"A lot of new arrivals get too close to the light before we can stop them."
"How many in that camp?"
"Why not, don’t you talk to them?"
"Afraid they’ll eat you?"
"They aren’t choosy."
Andy and his new friend walk in silence for a while when another question pops into his head.
"How are you set for broads around here?"
"No women here, must send ’em someplace else."
You tellin’ me that there’s nothing but men here?"
"That’s what happens when they don’t send in any women."
"How longs this been going on?"
"Since the beginning."
"Well that sucks!"
"Tell me about it! Look, we’re pretty close now. I have to go ahead and warn the others I have someone with me. Follow the path to your right and it will lead you straight to our camp."
Andy just grunts his acknowledgement and does as he told. Fatigue is taking its toll and he’ll be happy when he finally gets a chance to rest.
The path winds between another outcropping of man high rocks. Just as Andy comes abreast of the rocks something hits him hard from behind and he falls into a pit of spikes imbedded in the ground. He screams in agony as his blood runs down the spikes into a stone catch basin below.
The voice of his ‘friend’ comes from behind him once Andy stops struggling to get free.
"We’re all cannibals here, we have no choice." The wild man says apologetically. "It only rains here for a week in November. When they first sent us here there wasn’t much in the way of wildlife and what little there was got killed off quick. If it weren’t for the half a dozen or so new exiles they send through every night, we’d all be dead."
© Copyright 2016 G C Anderson. All rights reserved.