Slugger, a courtroom thriller

Five star Amazon reviews.

“Cavanaugh has to deal with a contentious divorce, two daughters torn by the divorce, one with a serious illness, bulimia. Rod’s trusted secretary plagiarizes his private case notes and publishes them as a “novel”, though the characters are easily identified.

Emerson McKernan needed to catch Cavanaugh before he left the courthouse. The story she was working on could change the course of her career and get her off the courthouse beat by highlighting her talent for writing feature stories. Cavanaugh had a secret. He was in the center of it all and  was going to admit it.

On the court beat for the paper, she’d learned to be wary of trial lawyers. The good ones could truly make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But then, the best trial lawyers in this jurisdiction were all men, and she wasn’t disposed to trust them. Or most men, for that matter. Especially the ones that agreed with her. They were the ultimate frauds.

BEFORE THE JUDGE appeared, Cavanaugh briefed his client, took a deep breath, and to clear his mind leaned back in one of the captain’s chairs provided for litigants. Rudy followed suit. Both waited for the bailiff to announce the beginning of the morning session.  He sat back, arm dangling over the side, tilting his head back as if searching for clouds, trying not to ask unanswerable questions.

Schuster’s courtroom was his second home. He loved the way the morning light, on bright winter mornings, effused through the east windows and across the oak floor to settle on the witness box. A soft, golden beam of light shone on the place where the truth resided, lit by the source of all things. A subliminal message suggesting trust and value. If he timed it right, he would use it to his advantage.

The courtroom was built in an era when there was just one judge in the county, and trials were considered entertainment. The ceiling, from which hung incongruent Colonial-style chandeliers, was covered in thin copper tiles, stamped and fitted to form an arabesque design, recently painted over in a creamy shade of ivory with pink accents—another incongruity he guessed someone considered, wrongly, to be an improvement over Victorian taste. To Rod’s right, set sternly against the wall next to the jury box, mahogany highboy bookcases were filled with tawny leather-bound law books that turned to powder in your hands. The room was designed with its purpose in mind, reflecting the seriousness of the work at hand and the quest for an ideal rarely achieved. And it was his playground.

TWENTY MINUTES after they began, and after the exchange of heated arguments, Rod and his client were on their feet for the last time of the hearing. To their right, Bill Barlow, the tall, thin District Attorney stood erect, his long fingers entwined before his belt like a pleading supplicant, his bald pate glistening. The building’s furnace hummed in the otherwise silent and near empty room. Golden light, cast from parting clouds, beamed through the courtroom window, a hopeful sign to Rod.

The bail hearing had proceeded as usual. Judge Schuster listened as a good referee should, and then looked over reading glasses to issue his decision. From the first word, his voice was husky, robust, and commanding in its certainty.

“Considering the limited resources of the defendant and his ties to the community, bail is set at ten thousand dollars.”

Without more, Shuster pushed himself up, walked off the bench, and left the courtroom, his robe swirling after him.

Rod expelled trapped air. Barlow shook his head in disappointment. Behind them, Rudy’s girlfriend, Lilly, jumped up and clapped her hands. Rudy scooted his chair back and shifted to his feet. He smiled broadly at Rod, offered his cuffed hand, then shook his mop of hair in surprise. Rod returned a quick smile, showing his relief.

“Rudy,” Rod explained. “You’ll need to raise a thousand in cash, and post the rest of the bail by security agreement or bond. If you run into problems, have your dad call me.”

Rod gathered his file as the Deputy secured the chain at Rudy’s ankles. Steady puffs of warm air pulsed through the soot-filled ventilation ducts of the old building. A taste of creosote was in the air on winter mornings; even so, Rod was comfortably at home in this courtroom.

He heard movement. Rod looked around to see if Barry had arrived with his motion requesting updated forensic reports on Rudy’s case.

That’s when he saw her. Charlotte Emery’s form-fitting sweater dress made little folds across her hips as she negotiated a cluster of lawyers and spectators filing in to find a seat. Her feet slightly crossed as she walked toward him on narrow ankles, passing through the bar gate—a peculiar breach of protocol, taking liberty during the break. Big eyes were on him. Dark lashes fluttered feigned innocence. Plainly pretty, he instantly thought. No, nothing plain about it.

“Got a minute, Rod?” she asked, speaking casually. With a flip of her head, her dark hair bounced.

“For you, Charlotte, anytime.” There was nothing veiled in his sarcasm. His eyes went down to shuffling paper on counsel table.

“Right,” she replied. “I’ve been trying to get you for days. Why are you ignoring my calls? Something to hide?”

“Hide? Look, I read your piece in the Urinal—”

“Journal,” she corrected.

“As I was saying, I read your piece in the Urinal on the Stossel case. You didn’t bother to get our side of the story. What you printed infected my jury pool.”

“That’s not true on the face of it. You won the case, Cavanaugh. Your pedophile is on the street.” She smiled confidently.

“Charlotte,” he continued stuffing paper into his briefcase, “An innocent man was acquitted in spite of your propaganda. But then, who am I to say what the public has the right to know?” He issued a humble shrug, as equally fake as her fluttering lashes, and then looked up, hoping she would get the idea and move on.

“This isn’t about Stossel.”

He stopped shuffling paper and looked at her. “I’ve got nothing to give you on Randal either. You were in the courtroom. You know the release status.” Rod glanced over to Rudy, who was waiting for the deputy to get the paperwork from the bailiff and lead him back to his cell pod. Rudy raised his head with the mention of his name.

“I’m not covering his case.” Charlotte stole a look over to the lumbering man in orange, just feet to her left. She shifted her weight from foot to foot and stepped to the other side of Cavanaugh.

“Charlotte, let me introduce Mr. Rudy Randal.” Rod smiled mischievously, gesturing with one hand toward his disheveled client. “Another innocent man.”

Rudy appeared puzzled by the exchange.

She squeezed a smile off in Rudy’s direction, and then looked Rod in the eye.

“As interesting as Mr. Randal’s case is, I’d like to discuss another matter.”

“Like what?” He had his briefcase filled and was ready to leave.

“I’ve heard you have a secret.”

That statement was insolent in itself and deserved no response. Rod stepped toward the judge’s chambers. The furnace was gaining on the overnight cold; he felt decidedly warmer.

“No, don’t turn away, we need to talk. Rod, Please.”

He stopped. The word “please” still meant something to him. He wondered where the hell Barry was and emitted his own wry smile. “Go ahead, Charlotte. The Urinal’s crime beat reporter apparently is trading in rumor. If this is about Diablo and me, I doubt that qualifies as a secret.”

“It’s not about your little barroom brawl, and I shouldn’t have put it that way; I’m sure you have nothing to hide. I’m sorry, really.” Her large eyes opened. She smiled meekly.

“Alright, shoot. But we need to clear the room for the next case, so . . .” He looked back to the gallery. Attorneys were still filing into the room. They found seats and turned to their iPhones, heads bowed toward their digital demons.

“I have a new story.” She paused and tilted her pretty head to the side. Seemed to focus on his eyes.

“Well?” he asked.

“Do you know a man named Rod Slugger?”

Blood rushed to his face. Rod felt it warm on his cheeks. In the quiet of the room, you could make out the faint crack and creak of heating vents expanding with warm air flow. No, he didn’t see that coming. His mouth turned dry. He needed a moment to think. How did she know about Slugger? He looked to the back of the courtroom.

“Over here, Cavanaugh.” She snapped her fingers. “We’re talking, remember? A simple question. What do you know about Rod Slugger?”

Barry practically stumbled through the courtroom doors, his nerdy law clerk with a nest of curly hair. Rod flagged Barry forward, intent on the folder in his law clerk’s hand.

“I’ll need the DA’s copies too,” said Rod while Barry was almost there, two seconds later grabbing the folder from him in a tug of war over the bar railing.

Emery stepped in, stretching an arm between the two men. “Are you going to answer me? . . . Who is Rod Slugger?”

“I don’t know anyone by that name.” That much was true.

 

The Court Martial of Darren Sweet:  published in Sixfold, winter 2018
Escape from Waycross:  published in Beckoning,  NSW, Calif. Writers Club,  Spring 2018

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