This is the prologue to the second draft of 'Her Parenthood Assignment' which was cut in the final round of edits:
‘They’ve reached a verdict.’
Luke Armstrong peeled his gaze from the floor and looked at the uniformed man standing in the doorway. For weeks he’d sat in the courtroom and watched it all play out. Witnesses fidgeted, jurors frowned, lawyers attacked and counter-attacked, but none of that mattered now. It had only been a prelude to this moment.
So much hung on where the scales of justice finally tipped. His and Heather’s lives would be defined by the clipped reply of the jury foreman. They had to make the right decision. His wife’s murder could not go unpunished.
He felt strangely numb as he navigated the network of corridors that led to the courtroom. Why wasn’t his heart punching against his ribcage, his adrenalin levels in the rafters? There was only a sense of inevitability, like the eerie calm of a deserted beach waiting for a storm.
The future was no longer his to command. But then, it never had been. Not since the moment Lucy had been found in that hotel room.
The hotel room.
Just that thought alone should send a tremor through him, but there was nothing. Not a blip. He’d seen the glossy pictures of the crime scene, heard every grisly bit of medical evidence countless times over. It had taken on the surreal, impersonal quality of those late night forensic shows he used to enjoy so much.
He’d become desensitised. He’d had to. ‘Till death do us part’ was supposed to have referred to when they were old and grey, not when they when they were barely halfway there.
All that mattered now was his daughter. Heather needed every scrap of his love and strength if she was going to make it though this. He would have to be her rock while she grieved; he could do his own later when she had come to terms with the loss of her beautiful, vibrant mother.
The spectators' gallery of Courtroom Two was packed. Every seat in the high-ceilinged, panelled room was filled. All except the judge’s chair and the twelve empty spaces to his left. Seats reserved for the seven men and five women would decide the fate of his shattered family.
A plain door on the left creaked and an usher appeared. Every head in the courtroom swung round.
The jury were here.
Their faces had become as familiar to him as actors in his favourite television dramas. For weeks, day in, day out, he’d studied them. He didn’t know where they lived or what they filled their days with, but he felt like he knew them. He’d even given them nicknames.
The shuffling and whispering in the gallery hushed as they filed in. They weren’t in their usual order. The woman he’d labelled “The Redhead” led the way. The fact she’d been made foreman had to be a good omen. Not that he believed in any of that stuff. He used to laugh at Lucy when she’d read her horoscope. But he was desperate, and he’d cling to any sign of hope.
It seemed to take an age before they were all seated and the judge entered and started talking. The words were just background blah. All the time he kept his eyes on the Redhead, trying to gauge her secret.
Would her answer be one word, or two?
And then he heard the clerk say, ‘Would the defendant please rise?’
It took him a few seconds before he realised that was his cue to move. His legs didn’t seem to want to work, but somehow he hauled himself to his feet and looked the judge straight in the eye. He had nothing to be ashamed of. He was innocent, had said so all along. The Redhead believed him, he knew she did. He’d seen it in her eyes when he’d given evidence.
But now she wasn’t looking at him, none of them were, and he didn’t know if this was a good or a bad sign. He didn’t really hear what the clerk said next, because he was waiting for her to look up, waiting to see that look of understanding in her eyes. Then he’d know he was safe, that Heather wasn’t going to lose both her mother and father in the space of a few short months.
‘…and have you reached a verdict on which you all agree?’
‘And on the count of murder, do you find the defendant guilty or not guilty?’
The world stopped spinning. Luke certainly stopped breathing.
The Redhead tore her gaze from the court official and looked at him, her eyes filled with pain and sadness. She seemed to plead with him to understand. And he did.
A split-second before her lips moved he knew what she was going to say and his knuckles whitened on the rail in front of him.