The Fires of Loki
New - 22 September 2008
We the Jury, a novel:
The Fires of Loki
The Sessions House and its stifling atmosphere were never amendable to formal dress being coincident with comfort. But within the constraints of true allegiance to tradition, Lieutenant James Cook of the Royal Marines took the stand in full military regalia and without any visible hint of apparent discomfort on his part. It was all a matter of discipline. First, one learns never to flinch at wilting heat conditions, and then later on to avoid even blinking when walking in formation… toward volley after volley of enemy fire.
All such activities are of course a matter of probabilities. With a long line of mates on either side, what were the chances that the enemy bullet would hit any target; much less the very personal target of the marine charging at a measured walk toward an enemy line? What were the chances of simply falling feint at some unbridled heat while in full uniform? Actually the chances of dying were inevitably greater than mere fainting (and any resulting embarrassment). Accordingly, tolerating the heat had become a marine tradition. Dying had also become something of a marine tradition, but had never been officially designated as such… for obvious reasons. Esprit de Corps would have been horrified at the mere suggestion of such official recognition of the obvious.
Sitting ramrod straight – another, officially sanctioned tradition – Cook quickly observed the proceedings from his new vantage point. The enemy was not immediately threatening he concluded in a matter of seconds -- even the Clerk who was now approaching him with a Bible, someone the Lieutenant quickly decided could be tolerated. Putting his hand on the Bible, Cook watched the Clerk as he intoned as instructed, “Lieutenant Cook, your hand on the Bible, do you swear the evidence you shall give this court betwixt our sovereign king and the prisoners at the bar shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
“I do,” the Lieutenant answered in a crisp, precise voice.
Starling leaned slightly, as he asked, “What do you know of this case?”
“I was at the Exchange when I was ordered to disperse a meeting in Gracechurch Street Meetinghouse.”
“And what therein transpired?”
In the heart of the Roman Londinium, the street running directly over the site of the basilica and forum was known progressively as Garscherchestrete, Gres-cherch, Gras-cherche, and finally after the Great Fire of London had done some much needed pruning of dilapidated buildings, Gracechurch Street. The street was subsequently mentioned in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, while Dickens included the street as the location for the Swan-with-Two-Necks Inn in his Great Expectations. Someone certainly deserves credit for naming the Inn, and we will, in absentia, bestow that credit.
Meanwhile, the Quakers had had an assembly hall on Gracechurch Street for several hundred years. The assembly hall, however, never really came into its own until William Penn was arrested on August 14, 1670 for delivering a sermon in the street in front of the building after having been forbidden to preach indoors. (Some people just can’t take a bloody hint!)
The “hint” was actually the presence of a phalanx of Redcoats, standing in impenetrable ranks in front of the main door of Gracechurch Street’s old Meeting House. A sergeant major, typical of one of the earliest weapons of mass destruction, was in command of a bevy of men nervously gripping cocked carbines. The scene had all of the looks of a Russian standoff, when Lieutenant Cook arrived from a different direction with several other Redcoats. The concern and determination on his face was clear to anyone.
Had they taken the time to switch their attention to the newcomer, this might have included a crowd of several hundred Quakers. However, the young, 25-year old William Penn and his older colleague, William Mead, had the crowd’s rapt attention. Even when Cook proceeded to get Penn’s attention, there was precious little acknowledgement that the foot-cavalry had indeed arrived.
In the courtroom Cook described the scene. “I saw Mr. Penn speaking to the people and I tried to stop him. But he obeyed me not, and continued to speak. I could not hear what he said because of the noise.”
Still trying to get Penn’s attention, Cook had ordered his men to follow him as he struggled through the crowd. The crowd was quiet and mile mannered, but not totally acquiescent. They did not actually resist Cook’s intrusion, but they also did not readily yield either.
“I tried to make my way to him, but was unable to do so due to the crowd of people. I ordered my men to form up in front of the Meetinghouse, just as Captain Mead approached me”
Mead made his appeal to Cook self-evident... even for a marine. “I beg of you, Sir, let Mr. Penn go on, for when he is done, I will bring him to you.”
In the courtroom, a new wrinkle had been added. Starling asked, in clear surprise, “Captain? Is this man not merely a linen draper?” With that he looked toward Mead.
“Sir, that is my present employment,” Mead responded. “But I was a Captain in service some twenty years ago in the army of Charles, the father of our present king.”
“Sit down,” Starling ordered. “I did not ask you. Lieutenant Cook, did Mr. Mead bring Mr. Penn to you?”
Cook was certain. “He did not.”
What Cook had done, was to order his Corporeal to go to the Exchange and inform them he was requesting reinforcements. That had been the case when Mead tried to dissuade him.
“Sir, I beg of you; surely you can see that we are prevented from entering our meetinghouse by the soldiers. Being men of peace, we will not rush them or try to force our way. But it is also the Lord’s Day, and we are determined to honor Him upon His day. If we cannot do it inside the meetinghouse, then the steps of our meetinghouse must of necessity serve...”
“And you, Sir, are in violation of the Law. You cannot hold a religious service here in Gracechurch Street!” With that Cook pulled out a piece of paper and began to read, “The Act of Uniformity of 1662, the Conventicle Act of 1664, and the Five Mile Act of 1665, established one legal church, The Church of England. No other religious services or gathering of other churches of any kind are permitted.”
For a moment the Lieutenant looked directly at Mead, now speaking extemporaneously. “Sir, any attempt by you to hold a religious service here violates the law. I beg of you, everyone must disperse and do so now.”
“There is a higher law, Sir,” Mead replied evenly. “There is the law that permits every man and woman to worship God or not worship Him, according to the dictates of his or her own conscience.”
The Lieutenant responded with a glare… until Penn, speaking from his impromptu pulpit, gestured with one arm toward Mead. “Brother Mead," he called out, “if you would lead us in prayer.”
Mead stepped forward, bowing his head, with Lieutenant Cook suddenly looking horrified.
“Our heavenly Father…”
“Stop!” Cook yelled.
“We come to you in our time of need,” Mead continued.
Cook gestured to his sergeant major with the predictable result of four men quickly stepping forward to take hold of Penn and Mead.
“Sirs! In the name of the King of England, you are under arrest! The rest of you will disperse! Or I will disperse you by force.”
With two Redcoats holding Penn and Mead by either arm, the other Redcoats raised their rifles, preparatory to firing into the crowd. The crowd surged slightly toward Penn, only to hesitate in the face of the rifles. Penn had been dealing first with the men who had grabbed his arms. Then he looked up, his expression suddenly showing grave concern.
“My Brothers and Sisters! I beg of you, disperse. Return to your homes for now and pray for us. As we will pray...”
Penn and Mead were summarily moved away from the crowd toward a paddy wagon. The Redcoats and the Lieutenant concentrated their attention on the crowd, which suddenly hesitated -- their attention drawn to Penn and Mead being led away and then taken into the paddy wagon. As Penn and Mead disappeared inside, the crowd’s attention shifted from the two men to the Redcoats who are standing ready with their rifles lowered and ready to fire. Slowly the crowd began to disperse. The Lieutenant and Redcoats remained cocked for battle, but slowly relaxed as the crowd backed away.
In the courtroom, Cook concluded his report. “The defendants were taken to Newgate Prison, where they were charged and legally incarcerated.”
Starling asked, “What number were at Gracechurch Street?”
“About three or four hundred, I would guess.”
“You say you tried to stop him?”
“Before he spoke,” Cook answered, “my Sergeant Major made entreaties that he not do so, that instead he disperse the crowd. But Penn spoke and attracted a great crowd in so doing.”
“Do you know what he said to the crowd?”
“I could not hear for the noise, but I did not like the tenor of it.”
Starling seemed content as he said, “Very well. You may go.”
Lieutenant Cook stood up smartly, and saluted. As he started to step down, a surprised Penn stood up.
“Sir, if I may be allowed to ask the Lieutenant…”
“Sit down, Sir,” Starling ordered. “You are out of order.” Without missing a breath, he added, “Call the Constable Richard Read.”
As Lieutenant Cook left and Penn slowly took his seat, Howell, a sinister smile on his face, turned to the jury and began sizing them up, each in turn.
The jury’s reaction appeared to be mixed. Edward, Jack and Charlie were looking stoic and slightly skeptical. John Hammond looked confused – and therefore, probably not a problem; the confused seldom are. Until Hammond glanced at the first three for their reaction, as if he might be more swayed by the skeptics than by the weight of the Court. That might amount to four questionables. On the other hand, Michel, Damask and Plumstead all appeared to be seriously considering the testimony, while the other five -- Veer, Leaver, Henley, Walklet, and Brightman -- were showing varying degrees of agreeing with whatever had transpired… just as soon as they could figure out what had in fact transpired.
Howell leaned back in his chair. ‘No problemo,’ he might have at some time in the distant future have said aloud. For now, it was just the thought that counted.
Richard Read was on the witness stand, obviously in a highly charged and very emotional state. His testimony was spiced tears and a choked, harsh voice. Howell, looking sympathetic, was standing in front of him.
“I was on my way home when I heard the deafening noise.” With Howell’s unspoken encouragement, Read continued, “Even in my car with the windows up, it unnerved me. Then as I turned the corner I could see it some two or three blocks up the street.”
Read had been in his car when it turned the corner onto the street of the explosion. Two and a half blocks away, the front facade of a Colorado Springs five-story brick building was in the process of toppling over into the street. Flames and debris from the building’s lower floor were already scattered about the street. As Read continued to describe the scene, there were people on the street, already injured or dead from the initial blast. Others were staggering about, with only a few aware of the building beginning to fall on them.
“Oh my God, it was terrifying! I don’t know why, but somehow I knew my wife was inside, that she was in immense pain and dying. By the time I reached the building, all I could do was stand there and weep. There were fires and smoke everywhere.”
Howell knew not to interrupt an emotional response, but Read was only shaking his head, clearly not able to continue. 'Time to move it along,' Howell decided. “Did you see either of the defendants?”
Read shook his head. “I don’t know. There were the fires everywhere and explosions! Everything kept exploding! And the screaming, the people on fire and trying to run from the building! Oh, my God, you can’t imagine the horror! My family was being burned alive before my very eyes! I just know it!”
As Read broke down into sobs, Howell stepped around to the side of the witness box, where he comfortingly put his hand on the man’s slumped shoulders.
In London, Read’s demeanor was radically altered. Raising his head, his expression was now one of supreme confidence. Starling watched the witness as the Clerk backed away with the much-kissed Bible.
Without waiting for his cue, Read began, “My Lord, I was required at Gracechurch Street because of a great tumult of people gathered there. I heard Mr. Penn speaking to the crowd and Mr. Mead with Lieutenant Cook, but what either said I could not tell. I with my watchmen endeavored to get at Mr. Penn to pull him down, but the people gathered there began kicking my watchmen and myself on the shins.”
Several vocal murmur erupted from the spectators, essentially of the nature of, ‘Quakers? Is he mad?’ As the skepticism filtered through the crowd, more than a few expressions of disbelief followed.
Starling, as was his custom, ignored the rumblings from Old Bailey’s tiered seating. Instead, he asked, “What did Mr. Penn say?”
“There was such a great noise,” Read said, “I could not tell what he said.”
Okay… that was a bit too much. The spectators promptly responded with mocking laughter and other examples of such incredulous expressions. Olivia, for one, had to make her unique contribution. “Such a great din is more likely to hath come from thine own head!”
She was rewarded for her taunt with murmurs of agreement, and an increasing enthusiasm for merriment at the expense of the witness. Starling was about to slam down his gavel, take names and dispatch skeptics accordingly, when Mead abruptly rose to his feet.
“Jury, observe this! He said he heard him preach and yet does not know what he said. He swears one thing now and a contrary thing of what he swore before.”
“Silence,” the judge ordered. To Read, he asked, “And the number you saw there?”
“My Lord Mayor,” Mead again interrupted, “it is what he swore before you when I was committed. He swore then he had not seen me there. I appeal to you, my Lord, if this is not true.”
Read, assuming he too was to ignore Mead, answered the judge’s question, “About four or five hundred.” Obviously there had been something of a population explosion between the Lieutenant’s and Read’s testimony. Sigh.
“My Lord,” Penn interjected, “I desire of him a question myself.”
But Howell was already on his feet. “Which is of no import, my Lord, and serves only to waste the Court’s precious time. The witness saw the defendants there; he testified he heard Penn preach. That is sufficient. Whether anyone saw the witness is of no importance. Note, jurymen, that ‘tis enough it was a tumult and he was speaking unlawfully.”
When everyone turned to the Lord Mayor, he lowered his eyes and said, “Call the next witness.”
In Denver, Cook was on the stand. “As the first rescue crew on the scene, I can only describe it as horrifying.”
When Cook had pulled up in the paramedic ambulance, he had leapt out of the vehicle just as a man on fire had come running out of a jagged opening in the wall of a nearby building adjacent to the destroyed, collapsed rubble. As the helpless man screamed and flailed about, a woman, blood smeared and limping with her own injuries, tried to take off her overcoat and get to the man. But the man did not notice her and kept running at random away from her. The woman stumbled and then fell back down on the rubble, unable to keep up with her quarry. Surrounding her and scattered about the street were several dead and dying bodies, a few people staggering about in a daze, and several relatively uninjured individuals who are trying to get to and help the primary victims. The man on fire abruptly collapsed to the ground and began writing in pain as he tried to roll in the rubble to put the fire out.
Cook’s version on the stand was, “My first sight was a man on fire, screaming and trying to run to me. His whole backside was in flames. Some woman tried to help him. But she couldn’t catch him. My partner and I were about to try ourselves, when we suddenly saw all of the other injured people. They were everywhere! As for the burning man, I don’t think he made it. I really don’t know if he did or not.”
Howell leaned forward toward Cook. “This man on fire… had you ever seen anything like that?”
“Yes,” Cook answered, “in the war. A maintenance sergeant was burned when a fuel tank exploded, dousing him with flames. The burning fuel stuck to the sergeant just as it did to that unnamed soul I saw at the scene of the explosion. It was like napalm, which is designed to cling even while burning.”
“Napalm? Not a sticky rocket fuel, for example?”
Cook shook his head. “I don’t know what it was. Might have been.”
“Of course,” Howell quickly interrupted. “That’s all of my questions.”
Starling spoke directly to the witness. “You’re free to step down.”
Suddenly the judge caught himself, and took a quick look at Sophing, the Defense Attorney who would be allowed to cross-examine the witness. Sophing, however, merely watched the proceedings and showed no other signs of life.
Starling involuntarily raised his eyebrows, and then turned back to the witness and Howell. He failed to see, or simply ignored, defendant Matson’s nudging of Sophing, who had only turned to look upon his client with an intolerant expression of legal superiority and contempt for the legally unschooled.
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