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It was a time when liars were heroes and killers walked free. Jake McBride splashed cold water over his tired face and looked into the smudged men's room mirror. At twenty-seven years old he was about to lose his first case as District Attorney. The deranged legal system was favoring a man who had ruthlessly gunned down a young police officer. Judge MacKenzie had no choice other than enforcing the law and getting Butkis off on a technicality. The six-week trial had left McBride haggard. Circles ringed his blue, bloodshot eyes, and the dark beard stubble was embarrassing. He cupped his hands and doused his face again.
" Butkis is a damned killer, what kind of justice is that?"
" There is no justice here."
Jake had seen no one inside the courthouse restroom. He shut off the tap and walked around the painted blue stalls. Next to the wall hoppers a darkened corridor leading to a hazy light source had formed within the tiles and chipped plaster. A bearded, rotund man in a vested brown tweed suit stood firmly at the corridor's edge and held a gold pocket watch in his pudgy hand.
" Who the hell are you?" The man produced a quixotic smile and his azure eyes gleamed. " And why is there a corridor in the men's room? "
" Why not?"
" I didn't see any corridor here."
" Then you were not looking, sir. "
" I repeat my question: Who the hell are you?"
" I am Mr. Melbourne."
" Okay." Jake laughed and shook his head. " I've finally cracked. Two and a half years, a perfect record ... Now I lose my first case and I start hallucinating"
Melbourne's voice had a credible smoothness, laced with great emotion, " I assure you, Jake, what you are seeing is real. I apologize if I have startled you. I know you're under tremendous pressure."
" How would you know anything about me? And how do you show up in the men's room? Come on ..."
" You've gone through hell and Dunbar's family has gone through hell. Letting Butkis off isn't right."
Jake gestured toward the corridor. " MacKenzie has no choice."
" Not in this reality."
" He has no choice and Sam Turner knows it. Turner makes his living get-ting people out of tricky legal situations. And Butkis has the drug money to pay him ... Listen, I have to get back upstairs and then I'm calling a shrink."
Melbourne tucked his watch into his vest pocket. He squinted and pressed his lips together before he spoke. " I understand your misapprehension ... I want to offer you a deal."
" Plea bargain, eh? Sure ... Sure. Why not? "
" I've been watching you from the shadows of your life. I know the intensity of your commitment to the truth, your integrity and your quest for justice. What will happen in MacKenzie's courtroom in the next half hour is not justice. I can assure you of that."
Jake's hand hit something solid, yet transparent, blocking the hallway.
" Have I lost my mind?"
" Not at all. You have to appreciate I cannot let you inside until you have accepted my terms. Please forgive my suddenness and my intrusiveness."
Jake smiled again and tightened his tie. " I'm getting out of here. I have to get back to court for the sentencing."
" I can arrange for you to bring Butkis to justice."
Jake faced Melbourne back in the corridor. " In case you hadn't noticed, I'm an officer of the law not a vigilante."
" You're a man who wants justice. I have the ability to bring people into situations where, using their own abilities, they can seek the justice not offered in this life."
" I am losing my mind. Good-bye, Mr. Melbourne."
Jake spun on the slippery men's room floor and stormed past the white ceramic sinks. The corridor chatter and confusion overtook him when he opened the wire mesh door. The reporters waiting in the rotunda turned in unison and descended upon him. A plethora of microphones were stuck in his face. " Jake, any chance the judge will change his mind.?"
" No comment."
" Do you think this is fair?" asked Cara Connolly from Channel Eight.
Jake looked back toward the men's room door. Melbourne's image was firmly implanted in his thoughts and his words bounced around his brain.
" No, Cara, I don't think this is fair."
" Can we quote you on that?" she asked, pencil in hand and ready to in-scribe his words onto paper.
" After we're done upstairs." Jake veered left up the spiraling staircase to a rotunda with a mosaic floor. Around the rim, white marble Greek statues stood like guardians outside Hades and huge murals from American history led to the varnished courtroom doors. His chief investigator put out a cigarette and shook his disheveled gray hair as Jake approached. Jake looked into his angry dark eyes.
" Nothing we can do about it, Alby. "
" The guy is a low life scum, Jake. All I keep hearing is about his rights. What about Dunbar? Guy has a wife and kids. He just happened to answer the wrong dispatch."
Jake bit his lower lip. The sunlight pierced the open Venetian blinds and cut across the spacious courtroom. Judge MacKenzie's empty bench, bordered by huge, fluted white pillars, hovered over the shiny defense table twenty feet away. Butkis was not yet back in the room, but his leather clad girl-friend stretched out in the seats behind the defendant's table. Her long, perfectly formed legs extended toward Jake and the deep scent of Pizzazz perfume surrounded the area. She had the sly look of a cheap street-walking slut. " You lost the big one, Jakey."
Jake looked at her sheer silk blouse and leather skirt. " He'll be back in court. You know that, Pam. You best just stay away from him before you get yourself into any more trouble."
Some part of him regretted sleeping with her. Her mascara brushed green eyes cast a seductive lure Jake still found arousing and she spoke in a low direct voice . " You call me ... Mr. District Attorney."
Alby pushed Jake along to the prosecutor's table and his young assistants, glum faced and silent, looked over to him. He pursed his lips and said nothing. Letting them down was another aspect of this travesty. The side door popped and the bailiffs brought Butkis into the courtroom. A wide smile covered his wide grubby face and his dark eyes focused on Jake. He puckered and sent a kiss in Jake's direction. A pewter cross earring swung from his ear above a clump of sinewy dark hair, dangling down his neck. Jake read his lips.
" You're a loser, McBride."
" Son of a bitch," Jake replied, continuing the silent dialogue.
Butkis tilted back his head and laughed. Even Sam Turner, his silver haired lawyer, a man about to launch a campaign for mayor, had a grin on his face. The chamber doors opened and everyone stood when the tall and lean Judge MacKenzie was announced. Jake heard the gavel but his mind was set on the Dunbar's autopsy photos. Dunbar had died in the line of duty. His wife and kids had already left the court. Jake looked over at Bart Bowers, the FBI agent involved in tracking Butkis' drug activities. Bowers grit his teeth, shook his bald head.
MacKenzie's constrained voice pronounced Butkis the victim because of an illegal search of evidence. Jake knew Ernie MacKenzie did not relish sending criminals back to the street. Bowers stood and marched like a military man from the courtroom. The judge's gray eyes moistened as the FBI agent exited the rear doors. Jake and Bowers had eleven witnesses and a cruiser surveillance camera. Yet, Butkis was free.
Jake swung the racket and sent the little black ball careening off the wall. Jim Coltraine blasted it back. Jake cocked his arm quickly and missed. He closed his eyes. The anguish only intensified a week after Butkis' acquittal. His game was off. Coltraine picked up the ball and faced him. " You all right, Jake?"
" I'd like to say I'm all right." He looked into Coltraine's sharp brown eyes. " What do you do when somebody like Butkis is free after committing murder? I don't know what to compare it to. Would be like someone refused to pay the bill at your restaurant and it was sanctioned by the courts."
" Except it was murder." Coltraine squeezed the black ball with his left hand. " I think you have to let time take care of it."
" Time, come on ... Problem is, I'm never going to get over this."
" You will." He dropped the ball onto the wood court. " What about Pam, she keep calling you?"
" Getting involved with her was a mistake. She swore she hadn't seen Butkis in months."
Coltraine stroked his heavy handlebar mustache. " Woman is poison. I wouldn't believe anything she says."
" You have no idea what that woman can do."
Coltraine nodded and raised his brows. He put his hand on Jake's shoulder. " You want another game?"
" I may hit the showers," said Jake and he rubbed his eyes.
" I'm going to get a little more exercise. I'll join you in a few minutes"
" Good. Let's stop by the restaurant later and have a drink."
" Sounds good to me." Coltraine bounced the ball and lobbed it forward.
" Don't worry, Jake. You'll straighten this thing out."
" We'll see ..." He lowered his head and wandered out of the court. Along the cinder block ramp he pondered leaving New York for a few weeks. Maybe at some remote location he could clear his head and let the Butkis thing settle in his mind. He shoved the heavy door and headed for the bench in front of his locker. His cell phone buzzed inside the locker. After fumbling, he pulled open the metal door, but the phone stopped ringing. " Damn."
He plopped himself on the center concrete bench and sweat rolled down his cheeks. The phone rang again. He scooped it from his bag. " Jake McBride."
" Jake ... Alby."
" What's the good news, Alby?"
" I don't have good news."
" Lay it on me."
" Butkis, he's on the run again. Jake, he ..."
Jake squeezed the phone and started along the locker room benches.
" What the hell did he do now?"
" There's a kid over at City Hospital. A Robert J. Pauntok. Security guard. Shot in the gut. I don't think he's going to make it. Another drug deal." Jake fell back to the bench and rubbed his eyes again. " You there, Jake?"
" Yeah ..."
" You want me to do anything?"
" Change the system. I don't believe this guy. He has no conscience. And he gets away with murder."
" Somebody's got to plug him, Jake. That's the only way."
" I'm hitting the showers, Alby. I'll call you."
He pushed the yellow button and held the phone in his hand. Trying to second guess what he could have done differently in the trial was useless. He set the phone back in the bag and was about to shed his clothes when he heard shower area rumble. Brightened steam swirled inside and leaked into the locker room.
" What's going on in there?" Some kid must have turned on all the showers. Jake stomped into the haze and clenched his fists. " Hey, one shower at a time."
Inside the fog Melbourne called out. " Robert Pauntok just died at City Hospital, Jake."
" Oh, no. Not this guy again."
The mustard tiled shower wall spread apart and cut the fog. Down the same wood paneled corridor Mr. Melbourne, in a lighter vested suit, gold watch chain draped from his vest pocket, stepped to the edge. His smile was empathetic. " I think you're looking for justice."
" And I think you're an aberration."
" I am quite real and I offer changes in people's lives. I offer you justice, Jake."
" Okay," said Jake looking back toward the empty locker room. " I'll bite. How are you going to offer me justice?"
Melbourne motioned toward a spacious room, also wood paneled, with a large painting of a clown above a marble fireplace. " I invite you to accompany me into the Nexus House. Under your own accord, of course."
Jake smiled. " How can you produce a corridor from your house to a shower room wall?"
" Reasons are not as important as reality."
" What's that supposed to mean?"
" Jake, do you want bring Butkis to your own kind of justice?"
" How?" He shook his head. " This is bizarre."
" Yes, I know what you must be thinking. And I do apologize for my lack of hospitality. You see, I make it my business to seek out those who long for justice or need justice thrust upon them."
Jake moved closer through the fog until he was only a few feet away.
" How do you do that?"
" I bring people into a new existence as real as the world you live in now. If you accept my offer, you will experience the range of human emotions and con-sequences. You can love and hate ... live and die."
" Then what? If I get the justice I seek?"
" You have a choice. You can stay where I put you or you may return to the world you live in now."
Jake stroked his chin. " I don't even think you're real."
" Butkis' killings are real."
" Am I committed if I walk inside?" asked Jake.
Melbourne shook his head and removed a finely wrapped cigar from his coat pocket. He struck a thin wooden match against a matchbox's abrasive strip and produced a flaring, orange flame. He lit the cigar. After a few puffs, once the tobacco glowed red, he exhaled a blue smoke stream. " No, you are free to visit the Nexus House. No agreement is reached until you actually walk into your new existence."
Jake smiled and continuously shook his head. He moved his hand back through his sweaty hair. " You know, I just may do this ..."
" Your choice." Jake pushed his teeth together and nodded once. He walked through the fog and into a clear and dry corridor permeated with rich tobacco. Melbourne held the cigar in his left hand and extended his smooth right hand.
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