The yellow legal pad shone like a beacon against the jumble of papers strewn across her desk. A steaming cup of coffee she’d hoped would help focus her thoughts sat next to an ashtray that smelt of lost weekends and defeated dreams. It was crowded with squashed cigarette butts – some smoked down to the chemical sting of their filter, others abandoned halfway in disgust or distraction.
Anna rubbed her eyes and stretched in her seat as she tried to reboot her brain to make sense of the papers littering the table-top like super-sized confetti.
It wasn’t HER case she was working on, she was only assisting. But she'd come to think of it as hers. She felt involved, intrigued. It was one of the oddest cases she’d ever come across – even in the pages of all those text books she’d waded through at law school. The facts were unremarkable: a fairly straight-forward case of sedition with a dash of blasphemy thrown in for good measure. But the people involved and the circumstances surrounding it would certainly make it one to remember.
Personally, she couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Why so much pressure to convict and punish the sad, silent man who’d refused to take the stand, offer any kind of defense or even recognise the court?
Sure, he’d stirred up some unrest, but that was hardly remarkable in these days of disenfranchisement, disenchantment and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, was it? Every Tom, Dick and Harriet was out there rabble-rousing these days – and a good few who backed up their angry words with knuckle-dusters and knives had been overlooked by the authorities. So why pick on the bedraggled figure who had sat staring at his hands neatly folded in his cheap-suited lap at the initial court hearing last week? His frustrated court-appointed lawyer had failed to cajole him out of his silence, despite the fact that those he inspired had obviously become far too vocal for comfort.
But who was she to question? A high profile case would look good on her resume, especially as a conviction looked like a certainly, albeit a vaguely uncomfortable one.
Taking a sip from her coffee and lighting a fresh fag, Anna looked back down at her desk. Her eyes were drawn to the photocopied letter in a clear plastic folder. It was only background, circumstantial, unimportant to the case, but something about it kept drawing her back to it.
I’m writing to you because I know that you haven’t been swept up in the madness. You’re a man of good sense, not likely to get caught up in the mania that’s infected the others desperate to believe something more than the simple truth.
I don’t suppose you’re happy to get this letter. I’m not going to win any popularity contests from now on, am I? But I hope you’ll read on.
You must be wondering why I did what I did? The answer is simple: I had no choice. I hate what I’ve done, what I’ve become. But I couldn’t let things carry on like they were, hurtling at break-neck speed towards destruction. I had to do something to pull him back from the brink of his madness before it ate him alive, and perhaps salvage something of the dream of mending a broken world that had brought us all together in the beginning.
I believed in him from the start. I saw something that could lead us to something better, kinder. Mesmerised by his charisma, I became his right-hand man, his most passionate advocate. Even - I hoped - his friend.
Until something changed.
I’m not quite sure when I first saw it, that odd glint in his eye. Something more than the spark that lit a fire in us – it was the glint of mania. It didn’t help that that she was always there, whispering nonsense in his ear about him being “The One”. Soon, he started believing his own rhetoric just as completely as the sheep desperate for something to cling to.
I still loved him. Maybe in more ways than he ever knew. I still do. But he scared me.
I’d helped him weave a web of pretty half-truths and I could see it was heading for something nasty, loud, maybe dangerous, and definitely too much of a threat to be ignored. And he’d be the one to pay the price.
I thought I could save him from himself. That's why I went to the media, and then the authorities. I thought they’d help. What a fool! I really thought they’d just pick him up and deliver him to calm-voiced, white-coated experts in quiet, pastel-painted corridors where they would soothe him, exorcise his demons, help him see things as they really were.
But I was wrong. They chewed me up and spat me out like a piece of gum that’s lost its taste, making sure that I knew full well that it was me who had sealed his fate.
Now I’m hated, reviled, forever branded a traitor.
Even you turned away when I tried to explain.
That’s why I’ll be lying on a cold slab by the time you read this.
I’m more sorry than anyone can ever know. I hope you can forgive me.
Don’t give up. You’re much smarter than I ever was. We need people like you to make a difference. We just don’t need any more martyrs.
Anna exhaled heavily. No matter how many times, she read the letter, it got to her. Something kept pulling her back to the dead man’s words. A sense of affinity, despite herself.
An urgent bleep brought her back from her thoughts. A text from Theo, her boss, reminding her that he needed the papers on his desk by 8am tomorrow – in just six hours – ready for their big day in court.
His words as he gave her the assignment echoed through her mind: “Let’s get this nutter sorted, so people like you and me can get on with things.”
Like she was part of some secret cabala of privilege that couldn’t afford to let the boat rock too much.
Perhaps she was?