Zeb and Zoe filed into the courtroom, along with half of Madrid, he thought. Today, they would all discover Andres’ fate. The story of his testifying against Seve and his subsequent acquittal on all charges in California had been the focus of his trial by media for weeks now. Half of the city, maybe even half of the country, wanted to see him go free. The other half howled for his blood.
For the match tanking, FIFA and the International Football Assiciation Board banned him from refereeing soccer for life and fined him the equivalent of a few thousand dollars, which, surprisingly, was not an issue for him financially. Apparently, there was good money in watching players kick a ball around a patch of grass. Zoe, of course, smacked Zeb quite hard for sharing that particular sentiment, telling him not to disrespect the most amazing sport on the planet.
But that was all determined independently of the Milian trial. The laws being so open to interpretation and so full of exceptions and limitations, the two sides had been arguing back and forth for weeks. His defense attorney repeatedly reiterated that it had been an accident that Nico Milian had died, and, therefore could not be ruled murder, so therefore his client cannot be convicted of accessory to murder. Accessory to involuntary manslaughter would be the absolute most that could be possible. He went on to also repeatedly maintain that his client had had nothing to do with the altercation leading up to the accident anyway, and, at worst, could only be guilty of covering up an accidental death, and even that was against his will.
The prosecution alleged that Andres was guilty of what they termed “failure in the duty to assist” Nico Milian while Seve was attacking him. They said Milian’s death could have been foreseen by Andres, and, therefore, prevented if he had just stepped in to end the fight. They also insinuated that Andres was a far more willing accomplice than he stated, citing how easy it would have been for him to go to the authorities and turn Seve in at any point in the ordeal. They cast doubt on how afraid Andres could have been of Seve given that Andres was a stronger, younger man than Seve.
Neither side was willing to lose, neither side had concrete proof to support their case.
Zeb was called as a witness, ironically from any outsider’s point of view, for Andres’ defense. The photographs he had taken, recovered from the email Rob had sent Harriett, were entered in as evidence that Andres was in an agitated state of mind when he helped carry Milian’s body out of the youth center. Zeb also provided testimony that Andres had appeared upset and was arguing with Seve.
He had to admit, however, when the prosecutor asked, that he was not able to hear what the two men were saying to each other. He was also expressly forbidden to mention anything that had happened in the States, which might have helped prove Andres was a decent man caught in circumstances beyond his control because they had no bearing on the current charges and had already been ruled on by an American court.
In the end, it turned out to be a lot more cut and dried than it seemed on the surface, in Zeb’s opinion. By the true letter of the law, Andres was barely culpable of anything. Andres’ lawyer cited mitigating circumstances, including acting under duress and insurmountable fear for his own safety and not being directly involved in the act that led to Milian’s death, as grounds for the nullification of his accountability for that death.
The prosecution then went after him for the cover up and destruction of evidence. Again, however, being afraid for his own safety was cited to defend his actions.
The only charges that the prosecution ended up making stick were failure of the duty to assist and accessory to the destruction of evidence for helping with the staging of the fiery crash that had badly burned Milian’s body and hiding evidence of foul play.
The verdict on those charges was about to be revealed. Zeb sat in the courtroom, sweating nearly to death with Zoe, Hector and dozens upon dozens of other people, including Nico Milian’s family. His wife sat with Nico’s parents. Zeb’s heart ached for her and the rest of the Milian family’s loss, and prayed that this media circus would soon die out and leave them in peace.
So far, the family had remained stoic and displayed no overt emotion or opinion toward Andres. At least, not that anyone could see. They remained unmoved and calm as the judge began to address the court.
After the preliminary preamble, he finally got to the crux of the matter. “”For the charge of accessory to destruction of evidence, Andres Eduardo Delfino is found not guilty.””
The court erupted in angry shouts and joyful cheers from a roughly equal measure of the crowd. Zoe tightened her grip on Zeb’s hand, but otherwise remained still. Zeb placed his other hand on hers and thanked God.
Standing in his place by his lawyer, Andres’ shoulders slightly relaxed, his jaw muscles clenched and unclenched with repressed emotion, but he held himself together with dignity. Zeb could tell he was waiting for the other shoe to drop before indulging in any positive reaction.
Then the judge demanded silence and continued to read off the verdict for the remaining charge. “”For the charge of failure in the duty to assist, Andres Eduardo Delfino is found guilty.””
The reaction from those gathered in the court was only slightly more subdued this time, mostly because everyone was surprised. Zeb himself was in shock He had automatically assumed not guilty of one led to not guilty of the other. He didn’t know what to think or say.
Zoe doubled over, one hand balled up against her mouth and wept, her silent cries racking her body. Zeb put his arms around her and pulled her close. His eyes sought out Hector, a few rows ahead of them.
The Inspector looked stunned, his face a blank mask of shock, his skin pasty and sweaty, as he locked eyes with Zeb. He shifted his gaze to Zoe and his expression threatened to crumble. He turned away.
Andres had slumped forward to place his hands on the table before him, head bowed. His lawyer spoke rapidly in his ear, and Andres nodded in response. He then stood up straight and took a shuddering breath.
“”The court has been requested to render sentencing immediately,”” the judge said, once the crowd had quieted again. “”Therefore, taking into consideration the mitigating circumstances presented by the defense and the statutes and requirements inherent in the Rule of Law, I hereby sentence Andres Eduardo Delfino to three months incarceration, to be served in the manner of house arrest. The defendant-“”
Cries of outrage from one segment of the crowd drowned out the judge’s voice. He called for silence and order, and eventually got it. Zeb glanced over at Milian’s widow. She stared straight ahead, not looking at anything he could tell, and tears streamed down her face. Her in-laws reached over and drew her into a group embrace, comforting each other as best they could.
Once the noise died down enough, the judge continued. “”The defendant will be remanded into the custody of local law enforcement, fitted with a tracking device and delivered to his place of residence, where he will serve out his sentence. Andres Eduardo Delfino, do you understand the sentence as handed down to you?””
Andres swallowed. “”Yes, Your Honour, I understand.””
The judge nodded. “”Court is dismissed,”” he said.
The entire courtroom exploded with sound: cries of protest, cries of support, sobs of friends and family of both the victim and Andres, shouts from reporters trying to get the reactions of the various members to report in the day’s news.
Andres looked back at Zoe once, as he was being led out of the courtroom. Zeb saw him mouth the words I love you to her. She took a shoring breath and whispered, I love you, too.
It was a year to the day since Zeb had taken the photographs that changed the lives of so many people. He had gone back to Spain only once since Andres’ trial, to visit with Hector, who had retired from the police service the same day Andres’ sentence had ended. Hector spoke of returning to California with Zeb, maybe trying to get a vacation home there, but so far that had just been a pipe dream.
Zoe had come home after Andres was convicted, but Zeb knew her heart was with Andres and not in her work. His conviction could very well jeopardize his ability to ever come back to the US, and Zoe was worried that she would have to leave her home if she wanted to be with him when his sentence was over. She worried about how she could make that work, if she would have to become a Spanish citizen and move there permanently, or if he would be allowed to visit the States at all and they could spend part of the year together… It was a lot to consider, and she was feeling the stress of it. Zeb tried to help her sort out her options, but it was a little too much to think about for any of them. So, she had gone through the motions of her life, hanging on to hope only through faith and daily surrender to God’s will.
But Andres was released in due time. He had consulted an immigration lawyer immediately and begun the process of negotiating permissions to apply for US citizenship. His lawyer seemed optimistic that the whole process would be much simpler than any of them had previously thought. The crime for which Andres had been convicted was not, legally speaking, very serious, so he felt confident that Andres would be allowed into the US and allowed to become a naturalized citizen.
Their worries proved pointless. The immigration lawyer was right, as it turned out, and Andres had been allowed to enter the US and begin the naturalization process. He had sold his home and most of his possessions, and donated a huge sum to a trust for Milian’s widow and to one set up to fund soccer training for underpriveleged kids in Madrid. He told Zeb that he wanted a clean slate, no ties to his old life as he began the journey into his new life with Zoe. And today, one step that would help pave the way was about to begin.
Zeb adjusted his tie as he waited for the ceremony to start, turning toward Hector and Rob to get their opinion on how it looked. Hector gave him a smile and Rob shot him a thumbs up. “By the way,” Hector whispered to him, “you’re going to be seeing a lot more of me, my friend.”
“That house at the end of your block has a new owner.”
Zeb laughed and shook Hector’s hand. “That’s fantastic!” He then pulled a serious face. “But I’m not helping you move in.”
“No worries, no worries, I hired people.”
“Wow, you really are a Californian now then, my friend.” He grinned at Hector and clapped him on the back.
Then, their attention was turned to the back of the assembled group of friends and family as the wedding march announced Zoe’s imminent walk down the aisle. Zeb glanced once at the man who would be his brother-in-law. Andres’ eyes lit up as Zoe appeared, drinking in the sight of her, and a peace settled in Zeb’s heart. He would be good to his little sister, and she would be happy. That was all that was important to him.
Zoe was, in a word, radiant, to use her turn of phrase. Her dress was simple, a flowing ivory gown that stopped a little shorter in the front than it did in the back. The neckline was relatively high and drapey, but as she passed him, Zeb was a little shocked to see that the back was completely open to just above her waist. He smiled to himself, though, because that was just like her. On the surface she is this sweet, demure lady, but just underneath that is a fiery, bold streak. Luckily, he thought, since that fire is probably what kept her alive last year…
Their father, who escorted his only daughter down the aisle, kissed her on the cheek, his eyes glistening, and placed her hand in Andres’. The two exchanged a nod and Zeb’s dad took his seat next to his wife. Andres beamed at his bride, his ivory linen shirt and pants snapping in the breeze that was blowing in off the water. None of the men had been required to wear jackets, for which Zeb was infinitely grateful in this heat, and the women in the wedding party, one of which was Detective Addison and a couple of Zoe’s friends from work, were all wearing simple summer dresses. Addison, in particular, looked incredible. She smiled at him when she caught him admiring her. He smiled back, but looked away quickly before he made a fool of himself. Rob winked encouragingly at him.
As the preacher began the ceremony, Zeb became steadily more aware of a roaring sound that was not coming from the ocean beside them. His doctor’s words floated to the forefront of his mind, but he ignored them to try to catch every word of his little sister’s wedding. They couple exchanged traditional vows and pledged to love, honor and cherish each other to the end of their days. The rings were followed by the kiss that sealed their union and Zeb joined in with the others to cheer the happy couple.
The reception was on the beach as well, just up away from the water on the outside dining area of the beautiful, historic Spenser hotel. Zeb toasted his sister and new brother, leaning rather heavily on his cane as the whole area seemed to be swaying in circles around him. But he made it through the toast and the toasts of all the others after him. But when the music started, and everyone was dancing, he slipped away and went back down to the water.
Here, the roaring, rushing sound of the waves blended in with the rush of noise in his ears and could pretend, just for a moment, that there was nothing wrong with him. Coming to the beach in the evening had been his ritual for the last few months as the spells of tinnitus had become more and more frequent. And, as long as he kept his eyes fixed on the horizon, he felt his balance stabilize somewhat, though he still had to grip the cane tightly with both hands.
It had been a very good day, he decided, and he thanked God for getting them all to this point. Laughter and cheers rang out behind him and he turned to see that Andres and Zoe had just finished their first dance together. He gave them a smile they did not see, then turned his eyes back toward the ocean. The waves were calm this afternoon, and with the peace he felt he could almost believe he was in his own private universe. He drew in a breath, held it a moment, then slowly let it out into the warm air.
Zoe’s arm looped around his like a chain link. He gave her a smile that she returned easily. “I thought this is where you’d be,” she said, her voice, too, muffled.
He nodded. “It’s easier here,” he told her. “I know that doesn’t make sense, but it’s true.”
Now she nodded in turn. “I want you to know something,” she began, turning her face more toward him, pushing a stray wisp of hair the wind had teased out of her elaborate braid back behind her ear. “You are a hero.”
He dropped his gaze. “Zo, you don’t-”
She bumped her arm against his. “I’m not talking about last year. Not just about that.” She made him look her in the eye. “You have always protected me. You have always been there. Even as kids when we argued so fiercely anyone would think we were about to kill each other, it was almost always because you were trying to do what’s best for me.” She waved a hand dismissively. “The rest of the time you were just being a selfish jerk who was trying to take the last of my food, or toys, or fun for yourself.”
They laughed. “Yeah, I’m probably supposed to apologize for that now, but you know what? I’m really not that sorry.” He shrugged.
She elbowed him in the gut. “I’m trying to being serious here, Zeb!”
“Sorry. Carry on.”
“You’re impossible…” she muttered. “What I’m trying to say is: I love you and I’m always going to be here for you, no matter what, okay? And I am so very grateful to have you here with me today. But it’s time you stopped looking out for me. Let me – let us – look out for you this round.”
He regarded her a long moment. “When the time comes,” he replied.
She smiled. “When the time comes.”
He turned his gaze back to the ocean. She waited until he looked back, then said, “You’ll always be my hero, Zeb.” She squeezed his hand. “Always.”
A tear slipped over his lashes. He pulled her into a hug. “I love you, Zoe.”
She swallowed back her own tears and held onto him. “I love you, too, big brother,” she said in a gentle voice.
She fell silent, as did the rest of the world.
Zeb closed his eyes.
Then he smiled.