Charlotte didn't know why she was surprised to see an actual courtroom inside, but she was. The building was certainly big enough to have a small courtroom and was probably the town hall. Charlotte had been in court a few times before in her life, but the layout of this courtroom wasn't quite what she expected.
Instead of being led to the front of the room to sit at a table, Charlotte found herself led to one side of the room where the jury box usually sat. The box she was put into was nowhere near big enough to seat twelve people and from this Charlotte figured that juries were not a part of the justice system here. That meant that the Judge had enormous power, and this worried Charlotte.
Clay, who had pulled her in here by her chain, stood behind her and raised her arms up. Charlotte found she had to stretch as Clay hooked her cuffs to a hanging chain above the box; the chain that had been her leash fell to her shoulder and down her back. When he let go, Charlotte found her arms trapped above her head, leaving her body defenseless.
She moaned into her gag and looked at Clay, trying to get his attention. But he ignored her and stepped out of the box. He headed for the door and left her alone in the courtroom.
Charlotte tried to stand on her toes, and that did in fact relieve the pressure on her wrists. But even so her arms began to ache and she could feel pain where the hard metal cuffs bit into her skin. She wouldn't be able to take this for long, yet it seemed she would be forced to take this for as long as they wanted.
Why were these people treating her like this? Just who WERE they?
Minutes later, Charlotte was joined by Clay and a small bald man in glasses. The bald man seemed to be the Clerk, for he quickly tidied the room and put a jug of water on the Bench where the Judge would sit. Charlotte eyed the water, the bitter taste of the gag in her mouth making her thirsty. She also tried to catch the eye of the Clerk, but he avoided looking at her.
The Clerk, once he was done, nodded to Clay who opened the doors to the
Immediately people started to come in and Charlotte began to groan. It hadn't occurred to her that her so-called appearance before the Judge would be a public event. Was she actually on trial for something? Charlotte wished she knew what. As it was she had to endure the stares of the men and women who came in and found seats; Levi, Zack and Hettie among them. All were simply dressed, work clothes for the most part, although a few were in suits with an old-fashioned cut. They talked among themselves and didn't raise their voices loud enough for Charlotte to hear what they were saying, although she thought she could guess. She felt helplessly exposed and wanted to hide in shame, especially when she saw that her raised arms had pulled one of her breasts out from behind the broken bib. It made her want to cry.
One of the men in suits broke from the crowd and walked up to the box where Charlotte was forced to stand. He was a middle-aged man with graying hair, but he gave Charlotte the impression that he missed nothing that went on around him.
He gave her body a once over with his eyes and then focused on her face. He didn't smile.
"My name is Harry Combs," he said, "and I'm going to be bringing your case before the Judge today."
Charlotte opened her eyes wide and tried to talk past her gag. This guy was her lawyer? She had to talk to him.
Combs made no effort to remove her gag though, even though he could plainly see that she was trying to communicate with him. Instead he went over to a desk and sat down, pointedly ignoring her.
Resigned, Charlotte just stared at him until the Clerk called the assembled
throng to order.
"All rise," he said, "Court is now in session! The honorable Judge Richard Robinson presiding!"
Everybody stood up and Charlotte watched a door behind the Bench open up. Through it stepped a powerful-looking man in a judge's robe. He had to have been in his sixties, but his body was that of a thirty year old. He stepped up to the Bench and looked everyone over before sitting down.
Everyone else sat down as well, except for Charlotte who strained to keep from pulling her arms out of their sockets.
She could see the Judge looking at her, and she began to blush under his gaze. The man seemed to be staring at her soul. Then he turned to his Clerk.
"Fix her clothing," he said in a surprisingly high voice, not the rich baritone Charlotte expected, "and remove her gag. She hasn't been convicted of anything yet and she will need to be able to testify."
The Clerk paled a little before hurrying to do the Judge's bidding. He stepped around Charlotte in the box and delicately raised the bib of her overalls until she was decently covered.
Charlotte was very grateful, and thought that maybe her luck was finally turning. Once she had her gag out she knew that she could explain that she had done nothing wrong and her nightmare would end. Perhaps she could even get help with her bigger problem, her father!
Meanwhile, the Clerk wasn't sure what to do next. Not the smartest person in the world he had just discovered the broken fastener on Charlotte's only piece of clothing and he looked helplessly toward the Bench.
The Judge sighed. "Does anyone have a pin?" he asked.
Several of the women waved hands and one dug a pin out of her purse and came forward. The Clerk hurried over to get it, leaving Charlotte half bare again for a moment, before successfully pinning the broken strap back in place. Then he untied the cord around Charlotte's head and eased the mouth-filling gag out past her teeth.
Charlotte let her mouth hang open for a second, before asking for some water. The Clerk, after a nod from the Judge, complied.
"Very well," said the Judge after Charlotte had a drink. "Let's begin. What is the official charge?"
Combs, the lawyer, stood. "Seduction, your Honor," he replied, "also trespassing, indecent exposure, and assault."
Charlotte was horrified, they couldn't be serious. She stood numb while the watching crowd murmured.
The Judge looked at her sternly, "How do you plead?"
"Not guilty," Charlotte managed to squeak out, before continuing in a stronger voice, "I'm innocent. I never did any of those things!"
"We have witnesses, your Honor," said Combs, addressing the bench.
"I'm sure you do, Combs, you usually do," the Judge replied, before turning to where Charlotte stood trapped. He looked steadily at her for a moment. "What's your name, girl?" he asked.
"Charlotte, Sir," she replied, feeling the bite of the cuffs getting harder.
She swallowed before answering. "Charlotte...Lowe."
"Well, Miss Lowe, these are serious charges you are facing here, very serious," said the Judge.
"But I didn't do anything!" Charlotte said.
"We'll see." The Judge turned back to Combs. "Call your first witness!"
Frank and Red were sitting in Frank's car by the side of the highway, looking at the almost invisible track that quickly vanished around the other side of the hill. Frank took a last pull at his cigarette before tossing it out the window and looking at his watch.
"This is damn stupid," he said.
"Sure is, Moose," said Red, "but the Boss wants us to look, so we look."
Frank could have said a few things about his employer but even around Red he kept his mouth shut. "Looks like we'll have to go check out this road after all."
"I'm game if you are," Red replied.
Frank nodded, unenthusiastically. He pulled out his radio to inform the men where they were going and then put the car in gear.
"Where did you first see...Miss Lowe?" Combs asked Zachery, who was first on the witness stand.
Zack scribbled for a moment on a piece of paper and showed it to the lawyer and then the Judge.
"Temperance Pond. That's private property isn't it?" asked Combs.
"Your Honor," broke in Charlotte, "I didn't know it was private property!"
"BE QUIET, girl!" yelled the Judge, making Charlotte jump.
"But..." she said after a second.
"One more word and the gag goes back in, Miss Lowe," the Judge said with obvious menace. "You will get your turn to present your case!"
Charlotte bit her lip and tried to stifle her response.
Combs looked at her for a moment before turning back to his witness. "Answer the question please," he said politely.
"In fact, it is your family that owns the pond, am I right?"
"Was this girl invited onto your property?"
"What was she doing when you first saw her?"
Zack mimed swimming, and grinned.
Comb turned to face the watching crowd, "So, as far as you knew she had just come onto your property for a swim, not bothering to ask permission first?"
Zack nodded and Charlotte fumed.
"And how was she dressed?" Combs asked.
Zack touched his clothes and shook his head.
"She didn't have any clothes on?" Combs asked him.
"So this young woman was swimming nude in your pond, without permission, showing herself to God and the world."
Zack nodded and the crowd murmured, some giving Charlotte a dirty look.
"What did you do?" asked the lawyer.
Zack mimed how he had beckoned to Charlotte and how she had come out of the pond naked. The crowd shook their collective heads.
Smiling, the lawyer continued to bring out the story of Charlotte's arrival
The charge of indecent exposure was covered by her nakedness; trespassing by her swimming on 'private' land; assault by her actions when Zack first grabbed her. But what made Charlotte angriest was how they construed 'Seduction'.
"Did you, in any way, feel threatened by the fact that Miss Lowe had no clothes on?" asked Combs of Zachery.
Zack tilted his head for a moment and looked right at Charlotte. He didn't smile, not obviously, but Charlotte caught a familiar glint in his eye as he nodded.
"Threatened, how?" Combs asked.
Zack resorted to pencil and paper again, and his answer suggested that Charlotte had been naked in order to seduce him into letting her go.
The crowd took it in and much was said by all, even Charlotte who couldn't keep quiet any longer. "That's not true," she said loudly, "I wasn't trying to seduce him!"
"Well then, young lady, perhaps you can tell us why you WERE naked in Temperance Pond, in handcuffs no less." said the Judge. The crowd quieted down to hear Charlotte's answer.
"I...er..." she said, trying to think of something they would believe. The truth seemed too fantastic.
The Judge leaned toward her. "Can you in any way refute this testimony?" he asked her, pointing at Zack.
"Yes! It's just...well..." Charlotte answered.
Combs walked over to the Bench. "I don't think there is anything else to be said, Your Honor. She obviously is guilty on all charges!"
"I'll decide THAT, Mr Combs," replied the Judge. He looked back at Charlotte, "Can you refute the claim that you were in Temperance Pond uninvited?"
"No, Sir," Charlotte said miserably, "but I had just crossed the desert from the highway and needed water! It was the first water I came across!"
"You had just come across from the highway," repeated the Judge, "naked? Why naked, and why with your hands locked together in the cuffs you still wear?"
"I...I...I didn't have any choice," Charlotte said slowly.
"No choice? You mean someone made you do this?"
"No...not exactly...It's just that...I wasn't trying to seduce that guy. I just didn't have any clothes and I went to him for help and he ends up locking me in his barn! I came for help and you have me on trial! What kind of place IS this?"
The Judge looked at her, offended, "We're a law abiding people, Miss Lowe, and young Zachery's actions in restraining you for my attention was quite proper. Now I'm going to ask you one more time why did you come to Temperance the way you did?"
Charlotte didn't want to answer, she just felt she couldn't. But she was saved from answering right away when someone near the window called everyone's attention to the outside.
A big black car had just driven into town and was pulling to a stop in the square. Everyone stopped to look at it and there was an uneasy silence.
Charlotte could see the car from her bound position and her blood ran cold. She knew it was Frank and she was as good as trapped. But a part of her wondered if she would be better off surrendering to him rather than relying on the mercy of THIS court. She was terribly confused.
The Judge looked at the car and the two men climbing out of it, then he glanced at Charlotte and saw her fear. He motioned for Clay to come over to him. "Go meet our new visitors and escort them to my chambers," he ordered. "Do not allow them in here and mention nothing about the girl. I want to talk to them first."
"Yes Judge," Clay replied, and he maneuvered his bulk toward the door.
Outside, Frank and Red stood silently, looking the town over. They both thought it a pretty miserable place and couldn't wait to get back to decent civilization.
"What now?" Red asked.
"We find a concerned citizen," Frank replied.
"Here comes one now, Moose," said Red, pointing at the biggest building on the square.
Frank's eyes picked up on the gun on the man's hip and the badge on his chest, but he didn't react visibly. He and Red were way too experienced to be bothered by the Law.
"Howdy, Gentlemen," said Clay as he drew near, "what can we do for you?"
Red stepped back, letting his boss take the lead. Frank took out a cigarette and lit it before replying, his actions casual. "I'm looking for someone," he said finally.
"Well you've come to the right place," said Clay, "if you want to find someone, this here's the place to do it."
"You don't say," replied Frank, trying not to smile, "and I haven't even told you who I'm looking for yet."
"Doesn't matter. You want something here, you go ask the Judge," Clay replied, and he moved as if to invite them into the big building.
"A Judge you say?" Frank said, "Well we don't need to see a Judge. We're just looking for..."
"Yeah," Clay broke in, "you do. Everyone who comes here goes and sees the Judge. Now come with me or just leave town...your choice."
Frank blinked and then turned to smile at his partner. "Wait here," he said, "I'm going to go see...the Judge."
"Sure thing, Moose," Red said, eyeing Clay.
Frank smiled softly and followed the big Lawman inside.
Frank "Moose" Molinari sat in a leather chair in a rather plush office. He was alone, but a moment later a man came in wearing a judge's robe. Even Frank had the brains to figure out who this was, and out of habit he stood up.
The Judge gave a sly smile and went and sat at his desk. He gave Frank a once over with his eyes and made a knowing judgment.
"It's not often we get visitors to our little town," said the Judge, "we're a little off the beaten track here."
Frank hesitated, and then sat back down. "Nice looking place," he said warily. He didn't know quite what to make of the man in front of him. But his instincts demanded caution.
"We do our best to make this a warm and friendly community," replied the Judge, "in fact, I enjoy meeting every visitor that comes through here."
"That's pretty civic-minded of you, Judge," Frank replied. He reached into a side pocket and took out a cigarette case. He opened it and, as if only then remembering that the Judge was there, made a gesture as if to ask permission to light up. It was one of Frank's little power plays, a way of showing that he was taking things in his stride.
The Judge just watched him, leaning back in his chair. He didn't acknowledge Frank's gesture, and after a moment watched as Frank lit up anyway.
"I'm told," said the Judge, "that you're looking for someone?"
"That's right," Frank said slowly.
"Anyone in particular?"
"Well, you see any other strangers in this town in the past few days?" Frank asked him, relaxing a little. He didn't like the Judge and was going to show in his own way that HE was in charge.
"Someone else might have," the Judge said, "but seeing that you're in my town, I would like to know more before saying anything."
"If you don't want to talk, Judge, I can always go out there and ask someone else."
The Judge chuckled and shook his head, "You could, but no one would answer. We're friendly to strangers here, but only if I'm friendly first, and the way you're going that doesn't seem likely. Now, tell me what I want to know or I'll have you escorted out of town. And you're lucky, I won't have the Sheriff run your plates and ID first."
In his mind, Frank said 'Shit'. But outwardly he remained calm, "Well, Judge, I'm a reasonable man just trying to do my job."
"What job is that?" asked the Judge.
"Prisoner transfer. I work for a private company that moves prisoners State to State, and...well...what happened is rather delicate and you can appreciate how I wouldn't want it to get around. My company could lose business."
"You lost a prisoner?" the Judge asked.
"Yes, Sir. Vehicle broke down out on the highway, and while waiting for a tow truck my officers let the prisoner out to stretch her legs. They didn't think she could go far so they weren't watching her very close. Next thing they knew she had disappeared in one of the washes out there and now we have a bit of a manhunt going on."
"I see," said the Judge in a measured tone, "dangerous, is she?"
"No, not as such. But an important prisoner none the less."
"Was she in restraints?"
"Yes, a set of handcuffs."
"And I suppose she was in official prison attire...or was she in civilian clothes?"
Frank did color a little at this point. The fact that Charlotte had escaped him naked was going to be a difficult thing to explain. The prisoner transfer story was actually a ready made cover, one he had built to cover his bringing Charlotte back to her father in case they were stopped. He even had papers made up that would stand a casual scrutiny. But Charlotte being naked really complicated things. He decided to bluff it out anyway.
"She...wasn't wearing any clothes."
"No clothes," echoed the Judge in a disbelieving manner.
"No...we find that it makes prisoners easier to handle...more docile," Frank swallowed and took a drag on his cigarette.
"Well, that's quite unusual, but I expect you know what you're doing," said the Judge, relaxing back into his seat again.
Frank relaxed too, glad the Judge wasn't going to make an issue out of it, "Yeah...well...it works, so we don't argue."
The Judge smiled, "So this woman, in handcuffs and...naked...gives your men the slip and vanishes for...how long?"
"A couple of days," replies Frank.
"A couple of days. She wouldn't last long out in the desert, Mr...er...,"
"Molinari. No, not long at all."
"I know, Judge. Which is why I am here..."
The Judge looked at him for a moment, before standing up. "Well, I can see we have to help you reclaim this dangerous...prisoner of yours. So I'll tell you what I'll do. There's a saloon across the square where you and your friend can get a meal, relax a bit. While you're doing that, I'll talk to my people and we'll make some calls. We'll find out if a person matching your description has been seen. I doubt someone like that could hide for long."
Frank stood too. "I'd appreciate that, Judge," he said.
"I'll send someone along with news either way. It shouldn't take too long to check around. This is a small community."
The men shook hands, never taking their eyes off one another, and then the door to the room opened.
"Clay," said the Judge. "show Mr Molinari here where the saloon is."
"Sure thing, Judge," said the fat man.
Charlotte felt like she had been standing for hours and her wrists were on fire while the rest of her arms were almost numb. She had gotten the Clerk to give her another drink but she was still upset by what was going on. She was worried about what the Judge was doing with Frank. What might Frank say and what would the Judge do? She also had to admit that she didn't know which alternative she wanted to happen. Did she want the Judge to turn her over to Frank, or continue on with this sham of a trial? All she really knew she wanted right then was to be let down.
There was a stir among the people who had decided to wait out the Judge's meeting, and Charlotte saw Frank and the big Sheriff walking across the street outside. A moment later, the Judge came back in and took his seat. He looked at Charlotte for a moment.
"I have just received," he said to the courtroom, "some information which has a bearing on this case. The only problem is, I'm not sure if I can trust the source. If it is true, then we have no claim on Miss Lowe here. If it isn't true, then I would have to find her guilty of the charges against her for by her own admission they are true."
"I didn't try to seduce him!" Charlotte called out, afraid.
The Judge smiled, "Perhaps. I'll reserve my judgment on that issue for just a moment. But a lot resides now on you telling me why you are here in Temperance, and how you came to be here naked and handcuffed!"
Charlotte closed her mouth.
After a moment the Judge sighed, "Well, I guess it doesn't really matter. I could just send you back to jail and be done with you."
"Jail?" Charlotte questioned.
"Yes. Prison. That IS why you were running, isn't it?"
The room grew still in expectation.
"Is that what...he told you?" asked Charlotte, nodding her head at the window.
"Do you dispute it?" asked the Judge.
"I...you can't send me back with him," she said.
"Because...he'll take me back to...my father."
"Not to jail?" asked the Judge knowingly.
Charlotte shook her head.
"And what is so bad about being taken back to your father?"
"He wants me to...marry. He arranged a wedding for me. He did it for my sisters and now it's my turn and they're miserable and abused and I don't want to go through life being a pawn in his sick power games!" Charlotte babbled. Shocked at saying so much, she looked about wildly at the attentive audience.
"I see. Well then. You are in a dilemma. Either you can go back with our other visitors, either to jail as they claim, or a fate somewhat worse as YOU claim. Or you can suffer the sentence of this court."
"What do you mean?" Charlotte asked.
"In the end, this is my town, and what goes on here I decide. At this moment, Mr Molinari knows nothing of your presence here, and will continue to know nothing...IF you agree to abide by the terms of your sentence and serve your term here in Temperance. If you don't agree, I will inform him that you are here and will have you delivered to him."
"What's my sentence?" Charlotte asked, her voice horse, her spirit confused about whether this was salvation or another trap.
"Two years public service, serving the populace of Temperance as a public servant. We have no jail here for long term prisoners. We have found it better to make them work off their sentences. I'm sure you have skills the town needs."
"You mean I'd just have to work here for a couple of years?"
The Judge nodded.
Charlotte felt her load lighten. This would be a place to hide from her father and maybe make a better life for herself. She saw this as a gift, another chance.
"Then yes, I'll stay," she announced to the room.
The Judge smiled and picked up his gavel, "Then the verdict is guilty on all charges. The prisoner is sentenced to two years public service and will begin her term immediately!" He banged the gavel and a collective sigh flowed through the observers who stood up and began to leave.
The Judge also stood and, with a last look at Charlotte, left the room.
Clay waddled up and Charlotte looked at him happily. She was tired and her wrists hurt and she was ready to be let down. But her happiness turned to shock when Clay began undoing her overalls.
"What are you doing?" she asked him, turning to avoid his hands.
"I gotta return these to Hettie," he replied, snagging a strap and pulling it loose, "you'll be issued something to wear where you're being held."
"So why are you undressing me here?" Charlotte asked, panic creeping into her voice.
Clay looked her in the eye and smiled, "Standard procedure, Lowe. Prisoners don't get to keep anything when they get processed, and for you that starts right now!"
Charlotte was speechless, and stood in shock as Clay unpinned her other strap and pulled her overalls to the floor. It was only as he took her arms down and began to lead her out of the back of the building that she began to protest once more. But Clay grabbed her still-cuffed wrists and pulled them down to get her attention.
"See here, Lowe," he said in a quiet voice, "you're a part of the system now, OUR system. The Judge can very easily still send you back to Daddy. And if you cause trouble he WILL! YOUR choice!"
After a moment, Charlotte heard herself say, "I'll come quietly."
Carl smiled and led his new prisoner away.