Justice and Shu Mai —You thought Jury Duty was boring…

“Just lie and say you don’t trust cops or that everyone who gets arrested must be guilty.”

“Really Tom? Really?” Amanda rolled her eyes.

“It’s a terrible time for you to be on jury duty,” he continued in an exasperated tone.

Amanda didn’t say it out loud, but she was a little bit happy to hear the anxious edge in Tom’s voice. This was her first big assignment as a project manager for the hospital and knowing she had the confidence of the construction foreman was a victory.

“Get a postponement!” Lee hollered from the far corner of the old building’s basement. The crew tearing up the floor and digging out the old plumping had discovered an acoustical anomaly in the large space. A whisper, in certain spots, was broadcast throughout the basement at top volume.

“Did that,” Amanda replied. “Three is the max. I’m stuck on jury duty starting tomorrow.”

Lee walked along the makeshift pathway built of mismatched wooden planks, to carry heavy wheelbarrows across the large expanse of mud and debris. He approached the foreman and the project manager gracefully, as if he’d walked on planks across muddy oceans all his life.

“There’s something you should see.”

“Over there?” Amanda stared down at her street shoes.

“This is worth a little mud on your soles.”

Lee led the way and Amanda, regretting that she’d left her work boots in the office, followed with careful steps in his wake.

“This better be good,” Tom said. “No time to waste on bullshit.”

“It is! I found it when I was digging next to the interior wall. It’s a shrine.”

“Lee, this was a Catholic hospital. We don’t stop working for an old statue of Mary or…” The foreman began to lecture his best mechanic.

“A Chinese shrine… Jesus, Tom, the boys and I have a box with a dozen Marys, a ceramic crèche, three crucifixes and too many Saint Jude medals — way too many. Must have been a pretty hopeless place when it this building was open.”

“There was a TB ward in 1900 and a special unit for WWI amputees…” Amanda recited two of the highlights of the Hospital’s early history. “Saint Jude territory, if you know what I mean.”

“I know, I know,” Lee was a bit anxious as they made slow progress to the farthest corner. “I heard they performed lobotomies on alcoholics, too.”

“Much later and upstairs,” Amanda replied. “Terrible things done with the best of intentions…”

Tom pointed his flashlight into the darkness just outside the range of the lights strung by the crew, and there it was.

“I haven’t seen anything like this since my Granny died. It’s a shrine to Xie Zhi — the fire-eating goat of justice. An avenging demon, monster…I don’t know what. Really scary and demonic, but kind of heroic too… He’s part dragon, part unicorn, mainly goat, but with lethal claws, like a raptor. See the claws — tear through anything, or anyone!”

“We should document this.”

Amanda pulled out her phone and started snapping a series of photos.

“You know, if you bring the archeologists in we’ll be held up for way longer than jury duty…” Tom grumbled and pulled his tool belt up above his narrow hips.

“Hey, I just wanted to show you this not hold up the work. And, if we’re not stopping for Jesus, Joseph and Mary, I’m not getting laid off for Xie Zhi.”

“Point taken,” Amanda replied. “When?”

“When?” Tom asked.

“What’s the time frame for the fire-eating, demon goat shrine?”

“Oh, this is the part of the basement with the plumbing from the 50s and 60s — in other words, it’s recent. That’s unless your historians think mid-20th century is worth stopping work and in that case the entire project is screwed!”

“Got it — nothing for the historians. Still it’s a cool find.”

Amanda put her phone in her bag.

“Very cool, and just in time for you to go on jury duty. Catch!”

Lee tossed a softball-sized, wooden carved monster.

“Xie Zhi always knows who’s guilty. Exacts very bloody rough justice… No plea deals; no qualms about the punishment fitting the crime; just takes down the guilty party. My granny used to scare my brother and me when we lied. Xie Zhi will get you, even for a little lie!”

“Great,” Amanda shrugged. “I’ve been looking forward to dim sum lunches — shu mai and har gow not goat, fire-eating or otherwise.”

“The best part of jury duty in Manhattan is Chinatown!” Lee went back to dismantling an old plumbing line, carefully preserving the valuable vintage fixtures.

“That’s what I get for living in Brooklyn.” Tom frowned.

Tom and Amanda left Lee to his work, chatting as they walked back toward the front door.

“I’m hoping I don’t get on a panel. Three days… they only keep you three days if you don’t get on a jury. You just hang out. I’ll have my phone and my iPad — email me, or text me. I won’t be able to take the phone into the courtroom, but if I’m lucky it’ll just be three days of texting.”

“Three days of texting — we can handle that.”

Amanda put the carved monster in her bag and headed to her office in the hospital’s newest building. At a red light at the corner she looked back at the Columbus building. The plan was to keep the historic exterior and fill it with up-to-date doctors offices and diagnostic suites. It was a good plan and she hated to be away from her “baby” for even three days.

The wind picked up and blew a plastic bag down Second Avenue. Amanda tightened her scarf around her neck. February sucked, but a fire-eating justice demon was kind of cool.

 

The clerk stood at the front of the room reading off a list of names in alphabetical order. Amanda held her breath through the W’s and when the names went directly from Warner to Yee, she relaxed.

“The rest of you come back by 1:15…”

Amanda didn’t have to hear the announcement twice. She threw her coat over her shoulders and made a mad dash for the elevator. In ten minutes she was out on Centre Street and headed toward a highly rated Dim Sum place on Mott. The restaurant was crowded, but when the hostess offered her a single seat at a big table she took it and nodded her greeting to the elderly couple speaking Cantonese to her right, the six young tourists from France to her left and a man seated alone. She recognized him from the jury pool. He was tall and slender with an angular face, café au lait skin, salt and pepper hair and features that defied any obvious ethnicity. In other words — he looked like a typical middle-aged New Yorker. He smiled at her and then opened The Daily News from the back page — starting with the sports section.

Amanda’s pot of tea arrived and she poured out a cup. It was weak and she spilled a little on the table as she poured it back into the pot. The elderly Chinese lady smiled her appreciation and poured some dark, brown tea from her own pot into Amanda’s cup. The aroma of jasmine was just short of perfume strength. It was heavenly, a floral daydream from a far away summer. Amanda smiled, noting that the couple had left their sticky rice half eaten while they happily polished off an order of steamed pork buns with their tea.

When the first cart came by, Amanda gestured disinterest in the sticky rice, waiting for the second cart with scallion pancakes. The waitress added a tick to her tab and moved on. The shu mai arrived next and French tourists went crazy. Amanda dove into her own tiny plate of juicy steamed pork dumplings with great pleasure, pulled out her iPad and enjoyed her lunch treat, losing herself in a cocoon of dim sum, tea and a detective novel.

When the cart with razor clams in black bean sauce rolled by she faced the classic dim sum dilemma — a solo dim sum lunch was good, but not as good as one shared with a group with whom she could taste of all the best offerings. She promised herself she’d come back tomorrow and passed on the delicious looking clams. By this time her fellow juror was gone and the old couple were sharing a cup of custard for dessert.

Amanda made it back into the jury pool’s waiting room at exactly 1:05 and ten minutes later the clerk began reading another list of names. This time Amanda wasn’t lucky.

“… Harold Walsh, Elsa Wizinsky, Amanda Wolff, Donald Yurman, Rina Zolotow, report for Voir Dire in Part C, down the hall on the right.”

Amanda followed the other potential jurors into a courtroom, filing into the seats usually occupied by spectators. A court clerk passed out a brief questionnaire.

Have you or any of your family members been the victim of a violent crime?

No.

Do you, or do any members of your family, live above a small shop?

No.

Are you afraid of dogs, snakes or other animals considered to be pets?

No.

The first question seemed routine, the second a bit more specific to the particulars of this case, but the third was downright odd. Amanda grew up with dogs and cats, and, although she wasn’t fond of snakes, ferrets or pot bellied pigs, she wasn’t afraid any common or unusual pets. She was afraid that mortgage loan rates would go up before she had the money for a down payment. She was afraid of never meeting a man who was attractive, intelligent and not already married. And she was afraid of her grandmother’s disappointed glare — but she wasn’t afraid of animals.

Voir Dire continued with individual questions. One-by-one the potential jurors were quizzed by the prosecutors and the defense attorneys. And one-by-one most of the jurors were sent back to the jury pool’s room. A few, including the man from her dim sum lunch, were sent through another door. Amanda grew anxious. She counted eight through the second door and many more sent back. When it was her turn she sat in the witness box and the Assistant District Attorney said, “Ms. Wolff, do you know anyone who may have been involved in a gang or organized crime organization?”

“No, I don’t think so…”

“Your work brings you in contact with members of the construction trade unions, correct?”

“Yes.”

“Do you follow crime stories on the news?”

“Sometimes.”

Amanda much preferred fictional crime to the real thing. Fictional crime always made more sense.

The defense attorney’s questions were even more peculiar.

“Do you believe in demonic possession?”

“Umm, no…”

“Do you go to horror movies or read horror stories?”

“Yes, I like vampire and ghost stories…”

“But you don’t believe or do you?”

“No, I don’t believe in ghosts or vampires or demons or any of that. They’re just fun in fiction.”

Then, as neither the ADA nor the defense attorneys, had verbalized an objection to Amanda serving, the judge turned to her.

“Please go through the door on the right. The trial will start tomorrow morning and testimony will take between three and five days.”

Amanda began to regret not lying on the initial questionnaire. Perhaps if she’d lied and said she was terrified of snakes she’d be headed back to the big room for three days of shu mai and text messages from Tom?

Ten people, including the clerk and the man from lunch, sat in the jury room.

“This sucks!” A young woman with hennaed hair and 50s vintage dress announced to no one in particular. “They’ve used up all but two of their objections.”

“Maybe if I’d said I was a Satanist?” Another woman mused out loud. She was wore her size 0 Chanel suit like a billboard shouting ‘I don’t belong with the hoi polloi and that includes anyone who doesn’t know what hoi polloi means.’ “This is insane! I have work to do. I can’t take a week off to…”

“None of us can,” an older lady replied, looking up from her knitting.

“Maybe you have time for this, Madame Lafarge, but I have critical things to…”

Four more people (two jurors and two alternates) entered the room with the judge’s clerk. He addressed the group.

“Get here at 10am. Here are your passes, use the back entrance to go through security — it’ll be faster. You’ll find a phone number on the back of your pass. Use it if you are going to be late or if you are sick. Don’t play games with us. The judge will hold you in contempt. No B.S. excuses. She’s all business and wants this trial to wrap up in a week including deliberations. It’ll be straightforward. You do your part and there won’t be any problems. She’ll give you an introductory speech, but listen up now for the highlights. Don’t talk about this trial to anyone. Don’t research it on the Internet or ask around. Take your part seriously and this will go smoothly and justice will be served. Got it?”

The jurors stared at him in silence.

“Got it?” the clerk repeated.

“Got it,” the man from the dim sum place replied on behalf of his fellow jurors.

“Good. See you all tomorrow. Don’t be late.”

 

Amanda, AKA Juror Number Nine, glanced over the rim of her dreadful cup of take-out coffee, checking out her companions for the trial. She gave them nicknames, Miss Marple (the knitter), Betty Boop (the vintage clothing aficionado), Coco (the Chanel suited business woman), Piazza (a middle-aged man wearing a Mets baseball cap and Number 31 jersey in honor of the famous Mets catcher), Shui Mai (the dishy, if slightly too old, man from the dim sum restaurant), Mr. President (a college professor who could have made a living impersonating President Obama at promotional events), Hamlet (an aspiring actor/barista, etc. Like most juries, it was an odd mix, an almost random cross section of Manhattan residents from assorted neighborhoods and walks-of-life.

The one thing they all shared was a desire to get rolling quickly and for the trial to be over fast!

At five minutes after 10 they were seated in the jury box, rose in unison for Judge Wendy Cooper, and sat down again to hear the opening arguments. The ADA in charge of the case was a short, round, prematurely balding thirty-something with an officious air about him. The second chair was occupied by a skinny, nervous young woman who fidgeted constantly — her teary, blue eyes kept darting to a large, gray bag at her feet.

“Hello everyone. My name is Alan Freed. I hope you are prepared to hear some serious and convincing evidence in the case of the state of New York versus Mr. Harrison Yee. Mr. Yee has been charged with felony assault. It is likely that the defense will attempt to obscure the evidence with extraneous arguments meant to justify Mr. Yee’s heinous actions. I hope you will keep in mind that your role in this proceeding is to follow the law as you are instructed by Justice Cooper….”

Shit!

Amanda suddenly realized that this was a case she’d followed in the press in the early fall. Yee was an animal rights advocate and he was accused of the brutal beating of the owner of an exotic pet store — Luis Hernandez. Mr. Hernandez was still in a coma and his business partner John Blanco witnessed the near fatal attack, describing the assailant as “possessed by a demon.” Amanda remembered photos of the victim — a strikingly handsome and muscular man — with a huge yellow snake draped around his heavily tattooed shoulders.

Yee’s sister lived in the apartment over the pet shop and had complained to Yee about the animals, claiming that after regular store hours endangered, and otherwise illegal, species were for sale. The Voir Dire questionnaire suddenly made sense. Amanda steeled herself. This was not going to be fun.

Just then, she felt her phone buzz in her bag. She knew she’d turned it off, as instructed by the court clerk. She surreptitiously reached into her purse. It wasn’t her phone vibrating. It was the carved justice demon. It was humming, almost purring. She looked around the jury box and no one seemed to notice. No one except Juror Number 2, shu mai — he smiled ever so slightly and Amanda wondered why, of all the jurors, he was the only one to notice the vibrating demon carving.

The first witness was a police lab technician. He was sworn in as an expert in smart-phone technology.

“Dr. Phillips, you examined the iPhone registered to Mr. Harrison Yee.”

“Yes.”

“Please tell the court about the photos you found on the phone.”

“I found a series of photos taken in the exotic pet shop.”

The nervous, young second chair ADA stood up and showed three photos to the judge as her colleague said for the record. “We’re offering these photos as exhibits A, B and C.”

The judge accepted the photos and they were passed to the jurors. One showed a tank housing a brightly colored snake, the second a strange lizard and the third was a close-up shot of the lizard.

“And were these among the photos?”

“Yes.”

“What is the location and time these were taken?”

“According to the phone, these were taken at the pet shop at five minutes after nine at night on September 12.”

The second witness to take the stand was John Blanco.

“On the night of September 12, when did you arrive at the pet store you co-own with Mr. Hernandez?”

“I got there at nine. Luis was cleaning out the front window display. I went into the back to do the books.”

“And then what happened?”

“I heard yelling and other weird sounds.”

“To the best of your recollection, what kind of sounds?”

“Oh, like chairs hitting the floor and then a big crash. I came running out when I hear the big crash. A tank, a tropical fish tank, was overturned — water all over and…”

“And what else did you see?”

“Luis was on the floor groaning. I helped him up. Sort of picked him up and put him in the desk chair behind the cash register. I got blood all over my clothes. He was beaten up, bad. That’s when I saw that crackpot Yee taking photos of the Dragon. He ran out of the store and I called 911.”

“Mr. Blanco, do you know that it is illegal to buy or sell Komodo Dragons?”

“Yes, I did. Luis must have brought the Dragon in while I was on vacation. I, er… I know it’s bad, but Luis was always saying how we could make a bundle with collectors and…”

The purring in Amanda’s purse grew louder and then a ferocious roar echoed through the courtroom. It seemed to come from all directions at once, but no one else seemed to notice.

“I knew, well, sort of knew that he was trying to get one, a baby one, to sell and…”

The second chair ADA reached under the desk and carried what looked like a travel case for a medium-sized dog to the judge’s desk.

“This is exhibit D…”

“Get that creature away from my desk,” the Judge stated through clenched teeth. “What kind of stunt are you trying to pull, Mr. Freed?”

“My apologies, your honor, we were…”

The Komodo Dragon leapt from the case, tearing through the tough fabric as if it were tissue paper. In a flurry of movement that defied even the speediest of the uniformed court officers, the monster went for John Blanco’s throat, ripping it to shreds. A geyser of warm, deep red blood shot to the ceiling and descended on the judge and the art deco mural behind her bench. Amanda, hand clenched around the vibrating Xie Zhi in her bag, saw what the rest of the jury did not. The Komodo Dragon had transformed into a fire-eating goat of justice. The justice demon identified the guilty party and saw no need for the defense to try to pick apart the business partner’s testimony and point to his participation in an organized crime ring buying and selling endangered species. The Xie Zhi exacted his brand of rough and bloody justice without hesitation.

By the time the now “normal” giant lizard was wrangled by an officer from the Animal Welfare Squad, and the police had taken individual statements from everyone in the courtroom, the Xie Zhi in Amanda’s hand was back to being an inanimate object. The judge dismissed the jury, thanking them for service while apologizing for the nightmare they had witnessed. Shaken and a bit nauseous, the jurors gathered in the jury room to collect their coats and get their paperwork stamped by the clerk.

Shui Mai, whose name turned out to be George, whispered to Amanda as they put on their coats.

“If you can handle lunch after all that blood, would you like to join me for some dim sum?”

Amanda agreed. Turned her phone back on and called Tom with the good news.

“I’ll see you tomorrow. Done with jury duty!”

As they headed out of the building George said, “Did you know that Xie Zhi appear on the badges of many police departments in Korea?”

“No, I didn’t know.”

“So you didn’t know what might happen when you brought a fire-eating Justice Demon to court?”

“Nope. But he sure shortened jury duty.”