- Shannon Kilgore, Santa Fe

Hours before the hearing’s scheduled start, the courtroom filled with the curious, impatient for a glimpse of evil. Would the Banker enter a defeated man, or would he deliver a spectacle of wickedness unbowed? Stride in smoothly or slouch in a wheelchair? And what of his lean handsomene­ss, so eagerly recorded by news photograph­ers back in the day? Everyone longed to see how the town’s most hated citizen had weathered 41 years behind impenetrab­le walls.

In her chamber, the Judge dabbed moisture from her neck and zipped her robe. Today’s docket — not the usual DWIS and misdemeano­r thefts — would bring her faceto-face with the man sentenced by her grandfathe­r, the county’s storied jurist, in the case of his career. Before he died he told her, “For most people, lying is an anxious enterprise. Not for the Banker. Falsehood flowed from him like music from Mozart. But, in the end, his own records sealed his downfall.” He added, “Completely.”

The hearing was brief. The ancient petitioner took quaking steps down the aisle, supported more than guarded by four sheriff’s deputies. The Banker’s head wobbled but maintained a dignified uprightnes­s. His famous face had collapsed, the mouth practicall­y invisible inside a deep horizontal crease that traveled across both cheeks. Each iris, still startlingl­y aquamarine, peered inquisitiv­ely from a yellow sclera.

The Banker’s lawyer invoked old age’s toll and his client’s recent lung cancer diagnosis. Denied parole, the man had served all but four years of his unheard-of sentence — for purely financial crimes! No one could seriously argue he should be denied compassion­ate release!

The State argued exactly that, vigorously. “This man’s vast fraudulent scheme,” cried the State’s attorney, “shattered lives and still affects families today. His crimes were deliberate and numerous. He receives medical care in prison. Where. He. Belongs.”

The emphasis on “numerous” criminal acts was pointed. True, the Banker had been convicted of multiple counts of fraud. But everyone grasped the subtext.

For years, billboards with images of two murder victims loomed over the town’s roadways. Women, both 19 years old. The pair of slightly dated high school yearbook photos showed faces as yet unmarred by life. “CALL WITH INFORMATIO­N,” the signs implored. The two had worked at a semi-rural bar that (prior to its reincarnat­ion as an upscale pub) was a destinatio­n for paid sex.

The Banker never bothered to hide his elegant car, regularly parked under the blinking “BEER” sign. It was no secret he fancied waist-length hair. After being questioned three times about the killings, he publicly taunted the prosecutor, daring him to pursue homicide charges. Instead came only the fraud case. The prosecutor was overheard to insist, “Fraud leaves a paper trail. Strangulat­ion doesn’t.” No one was ever charged with the murders. The women’s loved ones wandered helplessly through time, both sets of parents and a sister eaten alive by a slurry of alcohol and poisonous rage.

That night after the hearing, a bartender took the Judge’s order for sparkling water. Her face had the roundness of girlhood. She smiled in a sweet, elusively familiar way.

The Judge asked, “Have you worked here long?” The bartender barked a laugh, unexpected­ly harsh. At that moment, the Judge’s friend arrived, walking up and pointing at the Judge’s glass. “Is that fizzy water? Don’t you want something with a little more kick?”

“You know I never drink if I’m going to drive. If I get even stopped for suspicion of DWI, my career is finished on the spot.”

“Well, I’ll have an old fashioned.” The friend eased onto a barstool.

The Judge shifted to face her oldest companion. A pause. “Listen. I’m leaning toward granting the Banker’s petition.”

“No! I was afraid of this! How could you possibly live with yourself?”

“Where is my choice? Terrible prognosis, advanced age, and weakness he has in spades. He’s served nearly all his sentence — for nonviolent acts. I can’t keep him locked up because of crimes he wasn’t even convicted of!”

“We have compassion for the murderer. Forget about justice for the women.”

The bartender slid the old fashioned and a second sparkling water across the bar. The Judge said, “Thank you, but I didn’t order another one.”

The girl made a wincing expression. “I think maybe you had a rough day? This water has lemon. No charge!” That smile.

The Judge, warming at this small kindness, nodded her thanks and took a sip. She inclined toward her friend. “I know you wanted to come here tonight because of the connection to all this.”

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