‘Return to Court’
by Taki Scordis
Otis threw his racquet on the beech floor, the thin titanium alloy frame bending. The sound echoed in the squash court. The racquet was destroyed, the game ended.
‘Well, that’s it then,’ Claire said, removing a gym towel tucked in her shorts to wipe sweat from her face. ‘3-0, was it?’
Otis picked up his racquet. He fingered the strings as though it would make a difference. ‘There was a time when you couldn’t score a point against me, much less a set.’
‘True; a time when I was 11 years old, and you weren’t 30kgs overweight.’
Claire let Otis open the glass door for her. Like a guard of honour. The loser always did, and she hadn’t lost in a long time.
‘I have another job for you.’
‘I go where the money does. I won’t go to court though.’
‘Nobody wants this to go to court, Otis.’
Claire watched the man setting up the video camera in the conference room; he meticulously set up the tripod, connected the wires, and tested the frame shot.
She called her assistant to remove the flowers from the centre of the table. She took a seat and didn’t have to wait long. The defendant’s two lawyers arrived early. They were dressed in elegant blue suits, starched white shirts and silk ties. The taller of the two lawyers was balding. The shorter was younger with heterochromia – one eye was blue, the other green. They all shook hands and waited.
Otis arrived on time, but as usual, he was always the last person to arrive. He was shouldering a laptop bag. He looked like a wildlife photographer. Chino pants, white sneakers, and a double-pocketed, short grey sleeve shirt.
‘Gentlemen,’ Claire said addressing the lawyers, ‘this is Dr Otis Mzobe.’
‘Why’s he here? the young lawyer asked.
‘I’m here,’ Otis replied, ‘for money, although not much. But I’m also here to help you.’
‘I find that hard to believe.’
Claire stepped in. ‘Gentlemen, your client will be charged with involuntary manslaughter. Now, my client is open to a settlement, and I’m prepared to make you an offer.’
The lawyers shared a look. The balding one said: ‘This is a litigious case.’
‘Then you’re badly misinformed,’ Claire replied.
‘Your client filed for common assault charges,’ the younger lawyer said.
‘Correct,’ Claire said.
‘And she’s alive?’
‘As of yesterday.’
‘She died today?’ the younger lawyer asked.
‘No,’ Claire said.
‘Then what are you talking about? How is this manslaughter?’
‘My client is well and alive.’
The balding lawyer shifted in his chair. ‘Can we please get to the point? As fun as all this is, we’d like to know what the hell is going on.’
‘Dr Mzobe, would you mind bringing the defendant’s lawyers up to speed?’
‘Your client pushed Miss Steenkamp causing her to fall and break her leg.’
‘Allegedly,’ the balding lawyer corrected.
‘The hotel bar has security cameras,’ Claire said.
‘The point,’ Otis interjected, ‘is that Miss Steenkamp was pregnant during the incident and has subsequently miscarried, caused directly from the fall.’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ the balding lawyer said.
‘Miss Steenkamp was four weeks pregnant.’ Otis removed a Lancet sheet from his bag and slid it across the table. ‘You’ll notice that the hCG count in her blood was 794. That was taken four days before your client pushed her. I’m here to inform you that based on that number, Miss Steenkamp was pregnant, and possibly carrying more than one embryo. In fact, I’ll testify that her hCG count is so abnormally high, that she was possibly carrying triplets, and at the very least twins. Now here,’ Otis slid another lab report across the table, ‘is Miss Steenkamp’s hCG count three days after your client pushed her. Notice that her hCG count has dropped to 576. hCG doubles every 24-48 hours in the first 16 weeks. The drop is because her body was no longer producing the hormone needed to eventually develop a placenta.’
‘Your client,’ Claire said, ‘is now facing charges of involuntary manslaughter.’
‘What proof do you have that this incident resulted in her miscarrying?’ the younger lawyer asked.
‘Stress,’ Otis said. ‘It’s simple. Stress induced by trauma in early pregnancy is detrimental.’
‘You can’t prove that,’ the balding lawyer said.
‘And to my medical knowledge, you can’t disprove it. But the fact remains that she miscarried.’
‘So, we go to court and let the judge decide.’
‘You’ll lose if we do,’ Claire said.
‘Her medical records also show that she was given Ibuprofen 200mg after surgery on her leg,’ Otis said. ‘That’s an anti-inflammatory drug and extremely dangerous when pregnant.’
‘Are you really trying to blame our client for something a doctor gave her?’
‘Yes,’ Claire said blankly.
‘By your own admission, ‘the balding lawyer said, ‘your client knew she was pregnant before the incident. Why wouldn’t she have told the doctors?’
‘My client has no medical background. Why would she think surgery on her leg would be -’
‘Then you should be litigating the doctor who treated her broken leg,’ the young lawyer interjected.
‘And maybe we will,’ Claire said. ‘But right now, your concern should be with your client. We’re quite happy to go to court, but you’ll be arguing from a position of negligence with my client. That’s not going to hold up and we both know it. You can’t win this one, but luckily for you, we’re open to a settlement.’
‘So, this is just a money grab?’ the younger lawyer asked.
Claire ignored the question. ‘We think seven million is fair compensation.’
‘Ridiculous,’ the balding lawyer said.
‘Your client has a history of abuse. He was drunk, aggressive, and disorderly. We have no shortage of witnesses who’ll testify to this. He’s one of the wealthiest people in the country, but he’s not going to get away with just a fine – I’ll make sure of that. He’s going away for a decade if we win. And we will win.’
‘We’ll need to discuss this with our client,’ the balding lawyer said.
Claire nodded. ‘I’ll have all the details of our offer sent to you.’
The lawyers got up, buttoned their jackets, and left the room.
Claire sighed and looked at Otis. ‘You think it’ll work?’
‘I don’t know,’ Otis replied, standing up. ‘Let me know what they say.’
‘Squash again on Wednesday night?’
Claire was escorted inside a room and told to wait. No camera this time. The balding lawyer came in first, then the young lawyer. They sat across from Claire. Their offices were nicer. Dark wood furniture, venetian blinds, and frosted glass panel windows.
Claire spoke first. ‘You’ve had time to look over our offer and give me an answer?’
‘We have,’ the young lawyer replied. ‘We’re rejecting the offer.’
Claire tried to hide her shock. A big part of her had expected them to settle. Their client had money to burn. The settlement was nothing compared to his larger fortune. ‘Then I guess we’ll see you in court, gentlemen.’
‘You don’t want to go to court,’ the balding lawyer said. ‘And neither do we. Our client especially doesn’t want to go to court, so we’re countering your offer instead.’
Claire relaxed a little. A counteroffer wasn’t the best-case scenario, but it told her they weren’t convinced they had a strong case. ‘What’s the counter?’
‘Is that a joke? That won’t even cover my client’s hospital bills.’
‘It’s a take it or leave it offer. No room for renegotiations this time.’
‘Well, that’s made things simple,’ Claire said.
The balding lawyer said: ‘Before you make any rash decisions know that your words have consequences. Besides, we’d like you to meet our own expert.’
Claire drew in a sharp, short breath when she saw Otis enter the room and take a seat beside the lawyers.
‘What are you doing here?’ she asked Otis. Then to the lawyers: ‘You can’t speak to my expert witness on the same case.’
‘Actually, we can,’ the younger lawyer said. ‘Dr. Mzobe was never made an expert witness in the case because you were careless. You thought we’d take the settlement. No need to go through all the paperwork when the witness helping you is just a friend, right?’
‘Was a friend,’ Claire snapped.
‘Claire,’ Otis began. ‘You know this is nothing personal. I’ve always told you that I go where the money is.’
‘How much are they paying you, Otis?
The balding lawyer smirked. ‘Our client doesn’t like being backed into a corner. And he’s not the type to be told what to do. Let’s just say that Dr Mzobe’s offer to become our official expert witness was a bargain compared to settling, and with his new testimony, you don’t have a case anymore.’
‘What new testimony?’ Claire asked.
‘Well,’ Otis said, rubbing cheek as though he had been slapped there. ‘Everything I said before is technically true.’
‘Speculative actually,’ the younger lawyer interrupted, correcting him.
‘Fine. Speculative then. It’s much more reasonable to assume that women miscarry for several reasons.’
‘But you said stress by trauma is detrimental,’ Claire said.
‘There are no official studies to prove this,’ Otis replied.
‘I still have the Ibuprofen, and I’ll find another medical expert to back me up. You’re not the only doctor in Joburg, Otis. My client won’t accept your offer, gentlemen.’ Claire stood up to leave.
The balding lawyer said, ‘There’s a reason we wanted Otis. We could’ve found a medical expert to help us too, but we didn’t. We were smarter. Why find a random expert when we can have your guy? The same guy that showed us exactly how you’re going to argue; the same expert who you’ve confided in. We’ve seen your playbook as it were. You can’t win this.’
‘Did you tell them?’ Claire asked.
‘We know your client was planning on having an abortion,’ the balding lawyer said. ‘That’s why the doctor gave her the medication. That’s why it didn’t matter. Your client told you this, and you blabbed it to your expert to try and find a way to cover it up. It almost worked. You almost had us fooled.’
‘How could you do this to me, Otis?’
‘Otis didn’t do anything wrong. You did. But we’re reasonable people. No one wants to see you lose your license. Otis made us sign legal documents that if you get your client to accept our settlement, we won’t report that you broke attorney-client confidentially. Everyone wins this way.’
Claire was quiet for a long time. She didn’t meet anyone’s eye. Nobody spoke. Only the soft hum of the air-con could be heard in the room. Finally, she said: ‘R70000.00?’
The lawyers looked at each other and smiled.
Claire hit the squash ball over and over against the wall. She was covered in sweat. She was practising her straight drive, trying to get the ball as close to the side wall without it touching, making it travel the length of the court. Her best run had been 18 shots in a row.
‘You’re going to collapse from a heart attack if you keep pushing yourself so hard.’
Claire turned in surprise to see Otis standing on the court holding a racquet.
‘Luckily I’ll have a doctor close by.’
Otis smirked. ‘How long have you been here?’
Claire threw the ball to Otis. ‘I just wanted to warm up. Your turn. I need five minutes before I kick your arse again.’
Otis hit the ball against the wall a few times, each time a little bit faster and harder until he built up a sweat. He missed a shot and caught his breath.
‘Did the money come through?’
‘Yip,’ Otis panted. ‘Three million.’
‘Not bad for a week’s worth of work.’
Claire took the ball from Otis and stepped into the service box. ‘I have another job for you.’
Otis said, ‘I go where the money does. I won’t go to court though.’
‘Nobody wants this to go to court, Otis. Ready?’
Taki is an English lecturer at Unisa and spends his time writing between work and family life in Johannesburg. His love for writing stories started when he was high school after reading a copy of Richard Laymon’s, Island in one sitting.
He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Pretoria. His degree specialises in Creative Writing with a focus on short stories.
As a husband and father of three, there isn’t much time to do much else, but he enjoys working on the next story whenever the chance arises.