The Price of Justice 9/14

The Price of Justice
Written November 2005
Rated PG-13
Synopsis: The rape and subsequent murder of a prominent judge leave the squad with no evidence and no suspects.

Disclaimer: The characters within are property of Wolf Films, Universal Television, Studios USA, and other corporations.  No infringement is intended.


“You all right?”

At first, Casey didn’t hear him. She sat on the cot in the crib, staring at a speck on the floor, hugging herself. She was still wearing the sweat pants and t-shirt that she had slept in. Her hair was a mess from her visit with the crime scene photographer, who had pulled the strands in different directions to reveal her scalp and get a better shot of the bump on the back of her head.

“Casey?”

She looked up to see Cragen, a kind smile on his face. “Yeah.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah.” She cleared her throat and touched the purplish bruises on her skin. Her whole neck ached, inside and out. The damage to her esophagus was minimal, but it made her cough, and swallowing was painful. She sipped her glass of water and coughed again. “If John hadn’t been there, I don’t know what I would’ve done. Leonard was … strong.”

“We’re going to need to take your statement. You feeling up to it?”

“I’m fine, Captain, I just…” She sighed. “Before she died, Judge Woodward told me that she was glad I was going to be the one prosecuting her case. Now I won’t be.”

He looked at her for a long moment. “Maybe not in the courtroom, but you fought for her – and you won. If that brings a conviction, then you did exactly what she wanted you to do.”

She rubbed her neck, her mind wandering for a moment. “How’s the interrogation going?”

“They’re just about to start.”

Fin tapped on the wall to get their attention. “Whenever you’re ready, Casey.”

She smoothed down her hair and let out a sigh. The clock on the wall read 4:27. They’d go through the night’s events step by step then do it again to see if there was anything she’d forgotten. Maybe a third time, just to be sure. Either way, it would take a couple of hours, and her chance of going back to sleep before sunrise was shot.

As if he could read her mind, he said, “I have coffee waiting for you.”

***

Munch stood outside of the interrogation room and glared through the glass at Martin Leonard. The man didn’t seem to be least bit concerned that he was under arrest for rape, murder, assault, breaking and entering, attempted murder, and whatever other charges Munch had spouted out after pulling him off of Casey. No, Leonard simply looked bored.

That didn’t sit well with Munch.

Elliot and Olivia came around the corner. She smiled at him before putting on her poker face and walking into the interrogation room. Elliot stayed outside, hands in his pockets. They both remained silent for a moment.

“Look, John–” His sigh turned into a chuckle. “About this … whatever it is between you and Casey?”

“Which is none of your business.”

“You’re right, and I don’t want to know. Just be careful, okay?” He walked into the interrogation room where Olivia introduced him as her partner. “You’re not going to call your attorney?”

“I am an attorney,” Leonard said. “Detective Benson informed me of the multiple and, if I may say so, preposterous charges against me.”

“So you’re saying you’re innocent?”

“Very much so.”

Elliot folded his arms across his chest. “You didn’t break into Casey Novak’s apartment?”

“No.”

“You didn’t assault Casey Novak?”

Leonard sighed. “Not intentionally.”

“Who did you intend to assault?”

“The man I saw enter her apartment.”

Olivia raised an eyebrow. “You saw someone enter her apartment?”

“Yes. I was leaving Cynthia’s, and I saw a man – or at least I presumed it was a man, I suppose it could’ve been a woman. Regardless, this individual had some kind of object in his hand. When he slipped inside, I became worried. Cynthia said she was concerned about people coming in the building without permission. So I went over to Ms. Novak’s apartment. The door was unlocked, and I went inside.”

“Why didn’t you call the police?”

“With the response times nowadays? She could’ve been burglarized or attacked or worse by the time you got there.”

“But she was attacked,” Elliot said with a malicious grin. “By you.”

“It was an honest mistake. I expected to encounter whoever had broken into her apartment, not her – and certainly not with a baseball bat. You should see the bruise on my hip.”

“Yeah? Well, you should see the bruise on her neck where you tried to choke the life out of her.”

Olivia took over the interrogation, sitting casually across from Leonard while Elliot paced the room. “Did you rape Marianne Woodward?”

“Of course not.”

“Did you murder her?”

“No.”

“Then why does all the evidence point to you?”

He scoffed. “I’m a judge, Detective. I know all about forensics. I’ve seen juries convict criminals on forensic evidence alone – a single hair, saliva, footprints. Get the right jury, it can be very persuasive. So if I raped and murdered Marianne, as you seem to believe I did, why would I leave behind that which would incriminate me?”

“If you know all about forensics, then you should know that it’s almost impossible not to leave evidence. Killers always leave a piece of themselves behind.”

Leonard looked amused. “So what is it that I left behind?”

Elliot was more than happy to jump in. “All sorts of things. Fibers from the clothes you wore, cat hairs from your cousin’s cat… Oh, and blood.”

“Blood?” He actually laughed. “I’m stupid enough to leave blood behind?” Shaking his head, he stood. His tone lowered, and all humor disappeared from his face. “Go ahead, Detectives. Pluck a hair from my head. Swab the inside of my jaw. I’ll even piss in a cup if you’d like. But I assure you, my DNA won’t match whatever blood sample you have because I didn’t kill Marianne.”

On the other side of the two way mirror, Munch rubbed his eyes. Criminals who didn’t have a strong educational background sometimes submitted to DNA tests, not realizing that they were often damning to them. Leonard was well educated. Criminals also concocted wild stories about where they were the night of the crime, why they weren’t guilty, who actually committed the crime — whatever they could to shift the police’s suspicion onto someone else. Leonard’s story wasn’t that far outside of the realm of believability. So it was entirely possible that he was–

No. Leonard was guilty; Munch could sense it. He was a textbook sociopath: glib, arrogant, narcissistic. He planned Woodward’s rape and murder, right down to the trial. Juries would see right through his lies, and he would be convicted.

The door opened, and Leonard stepped out. He looked at Munch, the tiniest hint of a satisfied smile on his face. “Keep going,” Elliot said from behind him. The two of them walked away. Cragen passed them and approached Munch and Olivia.

“That was fast,” the captain said.

“They’re going to the lab,” Olivia said. “We may already have his DNA, but if he submits to the test himself, there’s no way he can refute it if it comes back a match.”

“If?” Munch repeated.

Cragen ignored him and looked at Olivia. “I take it he didn’t confess.”

“He denied everything, even breaking into Casey’s apartment.”

“How does he explain that one?”

“He said he saw someone else break in and went to intervene. He did admit to assaulting her, though it was a mistake. He thought he was attacking the burglar.” She looked at Munch. “Did you notice anything strange last night?”

“You believe that load of crap?”

“No, but if that’s what he’s going to tell the jury, we need to find a way to prove him wrong.”

Munch shook his head. “No, nothing out of the ordinary.” Casey’s shocked expression when she saw the open window in her bedroom appeared in his mind. “Her bedroom window was open. She thought she had closed it.”

“Thought she had closed it?”

“When she came home from the batting cages, the window was open. The lock had been broken, but the maintenance crew came by and fixed it. They left the window open, so she closed it – or so she thought. When she went to bed, it was open again.”

“Did you see her close it the second time?” Cragen asked.

“Yes, and lock it.”

“Was the window open after Leonard was arrested?”

He frowned at the captain’s question. “The only people in that apartment were myself, Casey, and Leonard. There was no one else.”

“Did you check?”

Munch bit back the comment he wanted to say and swallowed it. No doubt it would fester inside and create an ulcer. “No. I believed that apprehending the suspect was more important than a window … sir.”

His eyes still on Munch, Cragen said, “Olivia, go over to Casey’s apartment, bring her back a change of clothes. CSU’s already there, but make sure they dust the window for prints.” When he was sure she was gone, he spoke again. “John, what are you doing?”

“Getting reprimanded.”

“No. With Casey.”

“Nothing,” Munch replied, sounding like a child who’d just been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

“You’re sure about that? Because for all intents and purposes, she’s a co-worker. You still have to work together. Someday down the line, she’ll have to question you during a trial, and if you think the defense will turn a blind eye to your relationship, you’re mistaken.”

His usually logical self hadn’t even considered that, which proved to him how far gone he really was. Defense attorneys loved to shift the focus from their deadbeat client to the witness, and something like this would definitely bring out their claws. He wouldn’t do that to Casey, have her humiliated in public. He looked at Cragen and took a breath. “What do you want me to do?”

Surprisingly, Cragen shrugged. “You do what you have to do, John, but my recommendation would be to make it work.”

***

“I think that’s everything. Sign on the line.”

Casey opened her eyes. She wondered if she had fallen asleep while Fin had typed her statement. She took the blue pen and scribbled her name where indicated. It hardly looked like her signature, and her last name had an extra loop in the V. Nowak. She giggled. With barely three hours of sleep, everything was funny.

“You did good, Casey. Olivia brought you some clothes; they’re up in the crib. Go get some sleep.”

“What’s wrong with my apartment?”

“They’re fingerprinting it.”

“Oh.” That seemed strange, but she wasn’t sure why. “Okay.” She went upstairs alone and laid down on the cot. Her body screamed from exhaustion, but her mind tormented her. Had she done okay on her statement? Did she forget anything? What did Leonard say about the attack? Did he call a lawyer? Submit to a blood test? Confess?

She groaned at her endless questions and rolled onto her side. Munch stood in the doorway, mouth opened as if he was about to greet her. She grinned at him, propping herself up with an elbow. “Hey.”

“Hi,” he replied. “You okay?”

“Yeah.”

He knelt beside her cot, examining the bruises on her neck. “Did you see a doctor about this?”

“Yes. They’ll fade soon, so the lab techs took some pictures. For evidence.”

His eyes were glazed; either he was going to break down or he was about to fall asleep. “Casey, I’m so sorry. I-”

“Don’t. If you hadn’t been there, we might not be having this conversation.”

“Case-”

She silenced him with a deep kiss, her fatigue giving her the courage to do what she should’ve done long ago. His hesitancy melted almost instantly, and when she pulled back, he had a silly, dazed look on his face. “Thank you,” she said, resting her head on the pillow. The last thing she remembered before falling asleep was his soft reply.

“You’re welcome.”

***

“Okay, I know you’re all exhausted, but let’s go over this.” Cragen closed his office door, shutting Elliot, Olivia, and Fin inside with him.

“Shouldn’t Munch be with us?” Fin asked.

“At the moment, Munch is a witness and not a detective. Casey Novak is a witness and not an attorney. Is that clear?” Nobody said a word. “Good. Now, you took Leonard down to the lab for bloodwork and photos?”

Elliot nodded. “Then I dropped him off at the holding cell, which he wasn’t too thrilled about. He wants his arraignment first thing Monday morning and his trial as soon thereafter as possible.”

“No plea bargaining?”

“Not a chance.”

“What’s his story?” Fin asked Elliot.

“He admitted to strangling Casey but that it was accidental, that he was trying to be a good samaritan, blah blah blah. As far as the rape and murder of Marianne Woodward, he says he’s innocent.”

Cragen put his hands on his hips and let out a breath. “What do you think?”

“Oh, he’s definitely guilty,” Elliot said. Fin nodded. Olivia remained still.

“Olivia?” Cragen prompted. “You disagree?”

She collected her thoughts. “If he’s guilty, why would he submit to a DNA test?”

“Because he’s an arrogant prick who thinks he can get away with anything,” her partner said as if it were obvious.

“He said it himself. He’s a judge. He’s seen juries convict on DNA evidence. If he knew his DNA would match the DNA we found at the scene, I don’t think he’d consent.”

“So you believe his story about noticing someone breaking into Casey’s apartment?” Elliot began shaking his head. “Come on, Liv, that’s the mother of all lies.”

“But what if it isn’t? Her chain lock had been cut with a pair of bolt cutters. Leonard didn’t have anything like that on him. He wasn’t wearing gloves or a hat or a disguise. He didn’t take any of the precautions to protect his identity like he did when he raped and killed Woodward. It’s almost as if an entirely different person committed those crimes. Organized versus disorganized.”

“I just spent the last couple of hours staring at Casey’s bruises,” Fin said. “The marks on her neck match the ones on Woodward.”

“Maybe he didn’t feel he needed a disguise,” Elliot suggested. “We don’t know what happened when she was killed; maybe he wasn’t wearing a disguise then either.”

A thought came to mind. “You were there when CSU took photographs of Leonard, right? Did you notice anything unusual?”

“Uh … you know that thing they say about guys with big feet? Not true about guys with big heads.”

She wasn’t amused. “Fork marks, Elliot. Did you notice any fork marks in his skin?”

“I didn’t scrutinize over every square inch of his body. Besides, if he’d used a bit of Neosporin, those things would be healed by now.”

Before Olivia had a chance to respond, Cragen held up his hands. “Okay, we seem to have some differences. Let’s just agree to disagree for now and look at the evidence. How is the lab doing on the blood from the fork?”

“Still being processed,” Fin replied, “but it should be any time now.”

“And the cat hairs?”

Elliot stuffed his hands in his pockets and sighed, his frustration burning under his skin. “Also being processed.”

“Benson, Stabler. At eight-thirty, I want you at Cynthia Gray’s apartment. Be cordial. Ask her about last night: was her cousin there, what time did he leave, et cetera. If you happen to notice any bolt cutters lying about, make a note of it, but this is not a search. You got that?” They both nodded. “Fin, you’re going to coordinate with the lab, see if we can get those results any sooner. Then you’re going to talk to Casey and find us a new attorney. If the blood matches Leonard’s DNA, we’ve got ourselves a case. But if it doesn’t, then we’ve still got a murderer on the loose.”

***

Fin found his partner sitting on the floor of the crib, watching Casey sleep. His suit jacket had been delicately placed over her torso as a makeshift blanket. The situation reminded Fin of a vigil over the sick or dying. Or the end scene from Sleeping Beauty.

“Hey, John.”

His voice must have sounded like a foghorn in the silence because Munch jerked upright in alarm. When he realized who it was, he relaxed and even managed to smile. “Hey.”

“She looks pretty wiped out. So do you. Why don’t you get some sleep?”

“I’m fine.”

“Nothing’s going to happen to her here.”

Munch didn’t look convinced, turning his head to check on Casey.

“You’ve got it bad, don’t you?” He didn’t expect a verbal response; the look on Munch’s face was answer enough. Fin chuckled. “Let me know when she wakes up.”

“Sure.”

“Take it easy, partner.” He left Munch to resume his vigil once more.

***

“So if you were on the jury, you’d find Leonard not guilty.”

Olivia rolled her eyes at her partner. They’d argued the entire way to Cynthia Gray’s apartment, and she was getting tired of it. “I didn’t say I’d find him not guilty, I said I’d have some doubts if we had to present our case with the evidence we have right now.”

“What about the blood and the cat hairs?”

“Neither are conclusive at this time. Maybe they match, maybe they don’t.”

“They’ll match.”

“And if they don’t?”

He knocked on the door to Cynthia’s apartment. “They will.” When Leonard’s cousin opened the door, he gave her his most winning smile. “Hello, Ms. Gray.”

“Detective Stabler.” Her own smile was pleasant but wary. “How can I help you?”

“Would it be all right if we talked inside?”

Once they had entered and introductions were made, Elliot told her about Casey’s attack, leaving out the fact that her cousin had been the perpetrator. Cynthia’s expression went from confused to shocked to saddened. “I told the super that something like this would happen. It’s really gone downhill lately. Is Casey going to be all right?”

“She’s holding up.”

“And the man who did it, did you catch him?”

“We did, and he confessed to attacking her.”

Relief washed over her features, and she closed her eyes. “Thank God.”

“Were you home last night?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Was your cousin here?”

“Martin?” She frowned. “Yes, but … what does that have to do with Casey’s attack?” Realization touched her face. “He did it?” she squeaked.

“He said he was trying to thwart a burglar,” Olivia said softly. “Did you hear anything out of the ordinary?”

“No. I went to bed early; Martin was going to sleep on the couch. With all the reporters stalking him, he doesn’t have any privacy.” She held her chin high. “Did you catch the man who broke into her apartment?”

“No.” Elliot chose his next words carefully. “Was your cousin behaving strangely last night?”

“I know what you’re trying to do, Detective, but Martin is not a violent man. He may have attacked Casey, but I’m sure it was a mistake.” Her body stiffened. “I’d like you to leave now.”

They were no sooner in the hallway when the door was slammed on them. Olivia sighed. “Didn’t happen to notice any bolt cutters, did you?”

“No.” Elliot’s cell phone rang, and he answered it. “Stabler.” He listened to the voice on the other end. “Yeah … Okay, thanks.” Another pause, and he disconnected the call. “That was the lab.”

“The DNA results?” He nodded, and she felt her chest tighten. “Was it a match to Leonard’s DNA?”

“Yes.” But instead of smiling, Elliot’s mood seemed to darken. “Let’s go nail that bastard to the wall.”

***

Veselka
144 2nd Avenue
Monday, November 29

Getting someone to handle the case was easier said than done, but in the end, the DA agreed to loan out novice attorney Jeremiah Ashland. Not only did he attract the ladies with his youthful features and shaggy brown hair, his voice commanded the attention of everyone within earshot, and he was absolutely mesmerizing to watch and listen to in the courtroom. Ashland had laughed out loud when Cragen told him who the defendant was, but he was swayed by the facts — and that if he won, he’d be the next Johnnie Cochran.

Munch didn’t particularly care for him, but at least he got them an indictment.

Today was the day Martin Leonard’s trial was to commence. Leonard had used his position as a judge and the apparent sympathy of the legal community to push the case forward, and they had achieved a trial date in record time. The press milled outside the courthouse in the gently falling snow, waiting for an attorney or a witness or anybody to arrive. Court wasn’t due to start for another hour and a half, so the chances of someone showing up now, particularly since they couldn’t get inside the building, were slim. Munch was in a twenty-four-hour Ukranian diner a mile away, having a cup of coffee and potato pancakes. Elliot and Olivia were supposed to meet him in fifteen minutes, Fin in twenty, and Casey in five. Ashland would show up sooner or later; Munch hoped later.

The tinkling of the bell over the door caught his attention, and he saw Casey coming toward him, unbuttoning her long coat to reveal an aquamarine-colored pantsuit. With her hair bundled carefully atop her head, she looked very professional. He stood to greet her. “Did you manage to escape from the press?”

“Barely,” she replied, giving him a quick peck on the cheek before sitting across from him. “I think one of them snuck in and spent the night in my hallway. Once I threatened him with my bat, I was home free.”

“That was a joke, right?”

She shrugged one shoulder. “Maybe.” Then she winked and laughed, and Munch grinned again.

Seeing her – alone – after nearly a month of court appearances and press questions made his heart beat a little bit faster. They’d talked on the phone, even met for lunch a few times with the other detectives, but this was the first time in a long time that they’d been alone together, face to face. And for some reason, he couldn’t think of anything to say.

The waitress came and took her order, and when she was gone, Casey leaned back in the booth and studied him. “You okay?”

“Yeah, fine.” His head screamed at him for saying something so foolish.

“Well, I don’t think I am.” She took a deep breath. “It’s been a while since I’ve had to testify.”

“You did great at the grand jury trial.”

“No cross.”

“True.” In the actual trial, Leonard would get to examine her directly. Ashland had spoken with all of the witnesses, Munch himself included, and posed sample questions to them. But how close the mock questions were to the actual ones remained to be seen. “You’ll be fine, Casey.”

“I hope so. I just–”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“No, what?”

He could see the pain in her eyes when she finally spoke. “Martin Leonard was my friend, John. We played softball together, went to the batting cages together, the practice fields. I can’t count the number of hours I spent alone with him, and now he’s on trial for murdering a woman I respected and admired, someone we both worked with. And I sent him to the wolves.”

“He did that to himself. You were the only one wise enough to catch him.”

She shook her head and blinked. For a moment, he thought she might cry. “I guess I’m just having a hard time dealing with that.”

“I don’t blame you. He fooled everyone. But if it’s any consolation, I’ll be there for the whole trial if you need me.”

She looked at him for what felt like an eternity. “You know, John … I’ve really missed you.”

Their fingers intertwined in the center of the table, and he briefly shut his eyes, savoring the contact. It had been too long. “With this trial and the press–”

“I know. Unless we want to find ourselves on the front page of the paper, we can’t. It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not okay. I need you, Casey.” The words tumbled out before he realized what he was saying, and he froze in place when it clicked. Her grip tightened, as if she was hanging on his next sentence. “And if that’s front page news, then … the public must be really bored.” He frowned. “I have no idea what I’m talking about.”

“Neither do I,” she replied with a grin. “But I liked the part where you told me you needed me.”

Jeremiah Ashland chose that exact moment to enter the diner, expelling a loud sigh. “I hate snow.” The flakes on his navy blue jacket melted in the warmth of the building, and he sighed again. He pulled off his wool cap and ran a hand through his hair. He noticed Munch and Casey at a booth halfway through the restaurant and walked toward them. “Good morning.”

“Hi, Jay,” Casey greeted as she moved from her seat and slid into the empty place next to Munch. Ashland and his oversized briefcase took up the other side. Munch took a sip of his coffee in lieu of saying hello.

“Are we ready?” He glanced at each of them in turn. “You both look very presentable. We’ll be spending today and maybe part of tomorrow with jury selection, but it’s good that you make an appearance.”

“Have you ever prosecuted a murder case?” Munch asked.

The question caught him off guard. “Yeah.”

“How many?”

Ashland cleared his throat. “Three. As second chair.”

“Why don’t you have a second chair now?”

“Are you kidding? No attorney wants to touch this case. You’re prosecuting one of the most well-known judges in the city.”

“Who also happens to be a criminal. Your office should want to put him behind bars. They–” Under the table, Casey squeezed his knee. He knew what that meant, and he took a breath before continuing. “I’m sure you’ll do a fine job, Mr. Ashland.”

“Jay.”

“Jay.” He glanced at Casey with a quirked eyebrow before turning back to Ashland. The attorney’s eyes were focused on a cute dyed-blond waitress up at the counter.

“Excuse me a minute,” he said, straightening his tie and clearing his throat.

Munch watched him strut over to the counter and lay on the charm. “I don’t like him.”

“I know, but he’s right. No one wanted to take this case.”

“You would’ve taken this case.”

Her eyes sparked with a fire he hadn’t seen since Woodward’s rape. “Yeah. I would’ve taken this case.”

He sighed, gaze locked with hers. His heart seemed to trip over itself whenever he looked into her eyes, and he wanted to reach out, to hold and kiss her, to tell her how he felt and that it wasn’t going to change. But as usual, Fate laughed at him, manifesting herself as the jingling of the diner bell. Elliot and Olivia walked in, talking quietly to each other. They found Munch and Casey in the growing breakfast crowd and headed over.

“We’re not interrupting anything, are we?” Elliot asked with a smirk.

Munch made a show of checking his watch. “No, you’re right on time. Ashland’s practicing his opening speech with that blonde waitress. Feel free to dump his stuff on the floor.”

Olivia glanced in that direction. “Must be a pretty dull opening speech. She looks like she’s about to fall asleep.”

“Did I say opening speech? I meant opening line.”

Elliot chuckled. “Ladies of the jury, let me ask you something: what’s your sign?”

“Yeah, I fell for that once,” Olivia said as she slid into the booth.

“There’s something incredibly sexy about a man that can spout out legal jargon,” Casey agreed.

“Really?” Munch exchanged a confused glance with Elliot. “Did Kathy marry you because you could speak legalese?”

“Nope. She married me because I look good in uniform.”

Casey and Olivia nodded simultaneously, oohing and ahhing about men in uniform. Ashland returned to the table, frustration creasing his youthful face. “Well, the mood at this table is jubilant, considering it’s the first day of trial.” He waved Casey over and slid in next to her, sandwiching her between himself and Munch.

“She turn you down, tiger?” Munch asked.

He managed a pitiful nod. “It wouldn’t have worked out anyway. I’m not sure she speaks much English.”

“There are other fish in the sea.”

“Maybe you should try someone in your line of work,” Casey suggested.

He turned to her, eyebrows raised. “Really? Well…” He noticed the glare that Munch was giving him and sighed. “I heard Elizabeth’s single again.”

Fin entered the diner, completing their group. He looked at the full table and pulled up a nearby chair. “What’d I miss?”

“Nothing,” Ashland said, eliciting a few chuckles from the others. “Now we’ve got … forty-five minutes before trial begins. Jury selection will probably take all day, so testimony will start tomorrow. You’ve all been subpoenaed by both sides — except you, Fin.”

He grinned. “I’m here for moral support.”

“And that’s good. It’s likely that you’ll all have to take the stand twice, once for us and once for the Defense. We go first. We already discussed the order of testimony. Anybody have any questions?”

No one spoke, and the only sounds audible were the clanking of dishes in the kitchen and the typical murmurs of conversation from other patrons. Casey broke the silence with a soft, “So this is it.” Munch gripped her hand under the table, and she squeezed back.

“This is it,” Ashland confirmed. He held up his glass of orange juice. “To victory.”

The rest of the group followed his example, glasses clinking over the center of the table. “To victory.”

End of part nine

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