From atop her high and mighty pedestal, Judge Christine Flanders gave the jury foreman a nod as she accepted the envelope containing the verdict. She read it herself and then glanced over the top of her reading glasses at the packed courtroom, her eyes landing briefly on the defendant before returning to the foreman. She nodded to him. “Please read it for the court.”
“On the charges of…”
Blah, blah, blah. The defendant, Justin Hammer, tuned out all the legal mumbo-jumbo. He had the most expensive lawyers in the whole damned world. It was their job to pay attention to this kind of crap, not his. Another few seconds of standing here, playing meek and contrite in front of this old biddy, and this whole asinine trial business would be over. He could hardly wait to turn around and give Stark and Potts the finger and then get on with his life.
“…we the jury find the defendant guilty.”
Hammer’s guts fell about a thousand feet straight down, into the twilight zone of utter shock. The foreman was dismissed and the judge started blathering, but Hammer was still too stunned to process Missy Chrissy’s pompous prattle. He only vaguely registered the end of her little speech:
“… hereby sentence you to twelve years in federal minimum security prison, to commence immediately.” Her gavel slammed down on its block; its harsh wooden clack reverberated throughout the courtroom.
The audience erupted in a collective burst of chatter. Happy? Surprised? He couldn’t tell.
The deposed weapons mogul stood there, numb. He was dimly aware of three extremely overpriced lawyers patting his back, whispering their empty platitudes.
“It could have been a lot worse.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll appeal.”
“That’s Club Fed. They have tennis courts and a swimming pool.”
Hammer didn’t move. This isn’t real. Any second, I’ll wake up.
Some overweight cop-type pushed through the crowd around him and unceremoniously slapped handcuffs on his wrists.
What the hell do you think you’re doing? his mind screamed, but his mouth wasn’t engaging for some odd reason. Why wasn’t he waking up?
The lawyers backed away like he was some sort of pariah, all of them looking anywhere but at him. Hammer heard them discussing which restaurant to visit for lunch.
He was in chains here, about to be led off to a cage, and they couldn’t even make a show of sympathy? How about outrage at this miscarriage of justice? How could they eat at a time like this? He finally found his voice. “You said this wouldn't happen! You said you'd fix everything. You’re fired—every last one of you, you bloodsucking, incompetent cheats!”
They sighed and shook their heads, only barely masking their apathy. Why should they care now, after already soaking him for everything he owned? Bastards. Hammer Industries was defunct and there would be no dividends coming while he was rotting away in some dilapidated hellhole. They squeezed all his money and his life away and then discarded him like spent shell casings.
The cop grabbed his upper arm and pressed him toward the door. Hammer looked over his shoulder at all the reporters gawking at him like some circus side-show. “What’re you looking at?” he growled.
The guard shoved him harder.
“I’m going. I’m going,” he complained loudly, even as he kept looking over his shoulder, scanning the crowd for the objects of his wrath.
His gaze caught the strawberry blonde first. Potts was glaring back at him with the same cut-throat aggression she’d displayed that night at the Expo—the night that was supposed to be his crowning glory and instead turned into his never-ending nightmare. Without her, he would only have lost a bunch of hardware, maybe a defense contract or two. No, that bitch had made it personal. This wasall her fault and he hated her with every fiber of his being.
Only a fraction of a second later, Tony Stark’s smug face appeared next to hers, sickeningly close, in fact. They were a couple? With all the hot women throwing themselves at Stark, why in hell would he ever pick Potts? Hammer didn’t concern himself with Stark’s questionable taste in lovers. That was his problem. However, Stark had appointed that bitch as his CEO and thus set her against Hammer both personally and professionally. Not to mention, if Stark had kept his red and gold fancy pants out of the Expo, Vanko wouldn’t have had any reason to ruin the presentation and go all psycho-revenge-dude on everyone. That Russian’s meltdown and all the resulting injuries and general destruction were why everyone was so bent on throwing the book at him now. That was not his fault. That was Stark.
Hammer still wanted to fly the bird at Stark and Potts, but with his wrists cuffed and the cop now gripping his bicep hard, he couldn’t physically manage it. Although he had more venom seething in his heart for the bitch, this was not the time to show it. The press was here, trolling for a juicy tidbit, and for some dumb reason, they seemed to like Potts—probably because she was a woman. Stark, however, was always fair game in the media.
“This isn’t over, Tony!” he shouted. “You set me up. I’m not going to forget. Mark my words, you’re gonna pay!”
Goatee-surrounded lips curled into a smirk while Stark fluttered his fingers in a juvenile wave. “Bye, Justin, sweet cheeks. Have a nice stay at Hotel Queer. Send you a postcard care of ‘Head Twink,’ shall I?” He added a few smooch sounds, barely heard over the laughter from the crowd.
Hammer would have shouted a comeback, but the guard had noticed his attempt to delay the inevitable and precluded it by giving a last hard shove, pulling the door shut behind them with a slam. “Hey, watch it!” Hammer whined. “Do you have any idea how much this suit cost?”
“This,” the cop said through gritted teeth as he punched his prisoner in the gut, “is how much I care about your stupid suit. You’re not calling the shots anymore, rich kid. Shut up and learn some respect.”
Although the entire Hammer trial had been a media circus in the United States from its inception, worldwide news outlets had been mostly indifferent. International news did, however run footage of the final verdict, complete with Justin Hammer’s dumbfounded reaction and Tony Stark’s bawdy verbal jab as the convict was dragged out of the room. It played well as a bit of pseudonews fluff, even with the audio appropriately censored.
The prince of Monaco and his staff had followed the trial with more attention than most. They’d had a vested interest in this ever since being denied extradition of the man who conspired to fake Vanko’s death, killing fifteen people in the process of the prison breakout. The tiny country hadn’t been too pleased when Hammer’s lawyers had him declared a federal offender and kept him out of their reach.
They watched the clip, cheering at the “guilty” proclamation and sighing over the light sentence. While the penalty the Americans imposed was woefully inadequate to punish a murderer, Hammer hadn’t actually been charged with the crimes committed on Monaco’s soil yet. If he ever showed his face at the Grand Prix or a Monte Carlo casino, they would have him then. There was no statute of limitations.
Everyone, including the prince, laughed at the difference between what Monsieur Stark said in English and the sanitized French translation flashed across the bottom of the screen. The billionaire playboy could be an arrogant jerk at times, but they had to admit he was entertaining.
Many miles from Monaco, more men squatted in a dimly lit bunker draped with a faded red flag depicting ten rings encircling two crossed scimitars. Mud walls, improvised electricity, and men who appeared not to have bathed or washed their clothes in months sharply contrasted the expensive-looking laptop computer upon which they watched the Al Jazeera broadcast of the same news clip. All original sound had been purged in favor of an Arabic commentary which only gave the barest of details.
A few of the men in the bunker knew enough English to make out some of what was said by reading lips. However, no knowledge of English or lip-reading was required to read the faces and the body language of the spoiled Americans who appeared on their screens, acting more like bickering 10-year-olds than adults.
“Perfect,” said a heavily accented, deep voice. “This will fit quite nicely into our plans.”
Those sitting closest to the speaker nodded while the rest of the men continued cleaning weapons, eating, or playing cards. They didn’t need to agree. They didn’t need to think. All they needed to do was follow orders.