Exclusive Excerpt From Stolen Justice – Coming August 2019!
Copyright © 2019 – Robin James
My client rose. “What the heck just happened? Did we win?”
I waited until the sparse courtroom cleared.
“More or less,” I said. “The judge agreed your case is worthy of going to trial.”
“So he believes Livvie,” her husband Ross said. “He thinks she’s telling the truth. That bastard’s the reason she lost her job and was miserable over at the hardware store all these years.”
Livvie was a forty-year-old former Miss Woodbridge County. She took a job at the local hardware store when Ross got laid off from the spark-plug factory a few years ago. Ever since, Livvie had endured crude remarks, groping hands, and finally an ultimatum from old man Harvey. If she had sex with him, she could keep her job. The trouble was, Harvey had a slew of witnesses ready to say Livvie was lying.
“The judge is only saying we get to have your day in court. This is going to trial. The jury will hear your side of it and they’ll be the ones to decide what happens. It’s big. Harvey didn’t want the details of this going public. Now, there’s no way to stop it.”
I didn’t say the rest of it. Livvie herself was a problematic witness. Her story had shifted several times in the months since I’d met her. I believed her to the core of my soul. But a jury might not. If Harvey offered a decent settlement, I might have to strongly urge Livvie to consider it.
“It’s good,” I said. “A loss here today would have been the end of this, most likely. We live to fight another day.”
“Thank you,” Livvie said. She hugged me. Ross put a hand on her back and ushered her out.
I took a breath. The other problem was old man Harvey. He was more or less the town Santa Claus. He looked exactly like him and went to the elementary schools at Christmas to pass out candy and read stories. Castor was right, we had an uphill battle indeed.
The case was on my mind as I walked across the street and into my office. Miranda Sulier, my secretary, waited for me with a smile. She already knew the outcome of my hearing. This was Delphi, after all. Gossip traveled faster than the internet.
“Good job,” she said. “I always knew there was something creepy about that old buzzard.”
I set my messenger bag down. Miranda would go through it and make sense of my shorthand on all my proposed orders for the day.
“You know,” I said. “I need to give credit where it’s due. Tori knocked it out of the park with that motion brief. Castor cited to it at least six times in his ruling.”
Tori Stockton was my newly hired paralegal. She came to me from a stint in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Detroit. She was timid, sweet, but possessed a sharp intellect and stellar writing skills. Having her had been a godsend this summer.
“She’s a good hire,” Miranda said. She was still smiling, but there was something hollow in her eyes. “A good kid.”
She was looking toward the stairs. My office was at the top of them. Tori had moved into the space right beside me.
Hiring a paralegal had been the first big sign that my little practice was taking off. For the last year and a half, I’d operated on a shoestring budget and Miranda ended up donating half of her time. But I’d managed big wins on a few high-profile murder cases and now I had a real foothold in the county.
It had come with a price though. There were still people in Delphi who couldn’t forgive me for going after their hometown hero, the state’s winningest basketball coach. I had no regrets. The man was a monster. The cover-up into his misdeeds had reshaped the entire school district. They still hadn’t found a permanent superintendent.
“Don’t suppose killing Sant-ee Claus is going to do much for your reputation,” Miranda said, echoing my thoughts.
I shrugged. “Right is right. Is Tori up there? I want to tell her all the great things Judge Castor said while they’re fresh in my mind.”
Again, that haunted look came into Miranda’s eyes. I knew she’d become something of a mother figure to Tori over the last few weeks. Tori confessed she’d lost hers just a few days before her high school graduation. Now she was working on her own law degree part-time.
“I’m worried about her,” Miranda said. “She’s been moping around the last couple of days. She won’t tell me why. She said there was something she wanted to talk to you about.”
“Hmm,” I said. I sincerely hoped whatever drama had Tori down wouldn’t take her away from us. Miranda had been on at me for months to hire more support staff. I’d been reluctant. I’d gotten used to writing my own briefs again and it was hard to give up that kind of control. Now I couldn’t figure out why I’d waited so damn long to take Miranda’s advice. I should have known by now she was always right.
“I kind of wondered,” I said. “She was dead set against coming to court with me today. It would do her some good to see the rhythm of it. Plus, Nancy and the other clerks will love her. Just like you do.”
Miranda nodded. “She’s a good kid. She’s just sad a lot, I think. I was hoping her routine here would bring her out of her shell a little. I know things got rough for her in Detroit there at the end.”
Rough was an understatement. Tori ended up being a material witness against one of the lawyers she worked for. It made her a champion in my mind. She’d done the right thing. But it cost her her job. Maybe not directly, but she felt the mood shift against her and buckled under it. Then she came to work for me.
“I’ll go talk to her,” I said. “It’s been a while since I had a good old-fashioned lakeside clambake. Joe and Matty have been on me about that for a while. Summer’s half over. We’ll get Tori over and introduce her to some people her own age. The lake community is filled with them.”
“That’s good,” Miranda said. “That’s real good.”
“And you’ll come too, of course,” I said.
“Betcher ass I will.” She saved a wink for me as I turned and headed up the stairs.
I found Tori at her desk, her face buried in a discovery file. The Becker case. Of course Miranda would have already told her about the summary disposition hearing. Tori was two steps ahead of me, combing through deposition transcripts.
“Good job today,” I said. “Judge Castor was very impressed with your brief. I’d like you to meet him next time. He’s one of the best Circuit Court judges we have. You could learn a lot from him.”
“I’m happy for Mrs. Becker,” she said. Tori’s tone was flat. She was young. Just twenty-three, but she looked even younger. She didn’t wear much makeup and had fine bones and an almost translucent, pale complexion.
I took a seat on the other side of her desk.
“I mean it,” I said. “You’re really good at this, Tori. You wrote one of the best briefs I’ve seen in a while. Castor had already made up his mind before I even had to say a word.”
She gave me a weak smile. Damn. She looked so tired. She had dark circles beneath her eyes and her shoulders drooped. She looked like she carried the weight of the world on them.
Why hadn’t I noticed this before? Tori looked like she may have even lost weight since I first met her a few months ago.
“Tori,” I said. “I don’t mean to get into your business … but is everything okay with you?”
Her eyes flicked downward. She bit her lip and shifted in her chair.
“It’s fine … I’m sorry … I’m just tired.”
I leaned forward. “Honey, you’re part of this office now. I know these past few months have been rough for you. You’ve had your whole life sort of turned upside down. Starting a new job, everything that happened at your old office. I just want to make sure you’re taking care of yourself.”
She blinked hard as if she were on the edge of tears.
“Tori,” I said. “What is it? You can tell me.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know how.”
My heart skipped. Whatever was going on, I didn’t need to be a mind reader to know it was bad. Tori looked physically ill.
“Tori, whatever it is, keeping it secret won’t help. You of all people should know that by now.”
This time, her tears did come. They fell slow and silent down her cheeks.
“Ms. Leary,” she started.
“Cass,” I corrected her. “I’ve told you a dozen times. It’s just Cass.”
She sniffled. “Cass. You’re so good at what you do. You know that, right? I hear what people say. They respect you. The other lawyers in town, they’re intimidated by you.”
It was my turn to blink hard. Ever since I came back to Delphi after a decade as a corporate lawyer in Chicago, they hadn’t really rolled out the Welcome Wagon for me.
“Well, that’s good to hear. But …”
“I don’t have anyone else I can ask,” she said. “I’ve tried. They slam the door in my face. They won’t even take a meeting.”
I tilted my head. “Who’s they? What is it you need help with? Tori … I swear, if it’s within my power, I’d like to help. I haven’t forgotten how you stuck your neck out for my client. I know what it cost you.”
“You promise?” she asked.
I opened my mouth to give her a resounding yes. Something stopped me. I had that creeping sensation up my spine that told me I may just live to regret my offer.
“I promise to listen,” I said.
Tori flinched. She knew a backpedal when she heard one.
“Please,” she whispered. “There is literally nobody else for him. And you’re the best, Cass. I know it. I’ve seen that firsthand. You’re like magic in the courtroom. And you don’t back down. You don’t care what people say about you. I know if you take a look, if you just talk to him …”
“Tori, I need you to stop dancing around. Tell me what it is you need. Is it a boyfriend? Someone’s in trouble?”
I could almost write the script. I’d watched this scene a hundred times. Was he some deadbeat? Drug dealer? Drunk driver? Had he promised Tori the moon then disappeared with her life savings?
Tori reached into her desk drawer. She pulled out a thick, dog-eared file. She opened it. Dozens upon dozens of newspaper clippings fluttered as she flipped through them. She pulled one carefully out and spread it in front of her. Every instinct in me told me to walk right back out of the room.
“He’s got no one else,” she said. “And he’s my dad.”
“What’s he been charged with?” I asked. So not a boyfriend at all.
“He’s been in prison my whole life, Cass. And he’s dying. He won’t admit it, but I can see it in his face. He has that gray look to his skin. Cancer or something. I know it.”
I knew that look too. I’d watched my grandmother waste away from ovarian cancer when I was just a teenager.
“Let me see,” I said, my voice sounding flat and resigned.
If the guy had been in prison most of Tori’s life, it had to be something awful. A lost cause, probably.
She turned the paper so I could read the headline. My heart went from a dead stop to falling straight to the floor.
A year and a half ago, I’d managed to try the second most notorious murder case in Delphi. There, staring up at me in black and white, was the face of the number one most notorious killer in Delphi’s history.
I didn’t even need to read the headlines. I recognized that face instantly. Everyone in Delphi would. In my town, at least, his name was uttered with the same disdain as Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy.
Sean Allen Bridges.
I sat back in my seat. It hit me like a shock wave. I’d never noticed it before. But Tori looked just like him.
To Be Continued in Stolen Justice – Coming August 9, 2019!
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