Luna sat in the front row of the courtroom gallery and tried not to look at the ass of the lawyer in front of her.
In moments like this, she thought of it as stealth mode. She enjoyed the act of checking out a man, of letting her eyes graze over buttocks clad in carefully tailored suit pants. She did it every time an attractive lawyer entered the courtroom, although that didn't happen as often as she'd like. Most of the lawyers were gray haired and heavyset, the sort who were on their third marriage and ninth Lincoln Town Car.
Luna sat on the same bench three days a week, her notebook open on her knee, and her pen tip scrawling across the lined paper. She prided herself on being able to separate herself from the stories she covered, and she was seasoned enough to believe she did it with this one, too. A local Christian Orthodox doctor, Tziaki, had hauled the school board into court for not informing him when the teachers were going to discuss "non-traditional" views such as same-sex marriage.
They were all waiting for the judge to return. Luna opened a fresh page in her notebook and wrote the date along the top—"Sept. 17 court." The man in front of her sat along the periphery of the inner chamber as if waiting his turn; he hadn't talked yet. He was a law clerk of some kind, Luna decided. He couldn't be older than 25.
The courtroom clerks chatted with each other. "We're heading up there this weekend with the kids," one woman said. "John heard there's good fishing."
"That's a great campground," the other said. "We take the kids up there. It's a perfect area for families."
Luna underlined the page heading again, making this line a squiggly one that swerved over the straight one. She glanced at the cute law clerk, who sat back in his creaky chair and stretched.
She liked to fantasize about being bold with men because in reality, it felt impossible. She'd been raised as a boy—hopelessly dainty, sitting knock-kneed on the school bench as the boys clobbered each other on the soccer field. When she'd studied journalism at Carleton University, it wasn't much more comfortable. She'd finally been free to go to gay bars, but when she had, she'd stood along the sidelines watching shirtless men dance, sizing up each other based on abs, pectorals, shoes, trousers. So she'd sat in her dorm room on Friday nights listening to her roommate's drunken roar in the hall. She'd curl up with her copy of Geek Love until he'd barge in with a girl and say "Stevens, get the fuck out."
She'd embarked on her journalism career with her male name, starting off in an all-male Belleville newsroom where the reporters called each other gaylord. She'd worked her way up to the newspaper in Waterloo, where she finally came out to the world. She caught snatches of inappropriate dialogue here and there. Some glances in her direction turned into stares. The young straight-out-of-college photographer visibly shook as she approached Luna, voice wavering. I just want you to know that I think you're really brave.
But that had been a year ago, and Luna forged onward. She'd picked up the court beat again, sitting through trials of murderers and bank robbers and cops charged with unnecessary use of force. Aside from one rapist who boldly winked at her from the prisoner's box—did he know? didn't he?—she lost herself in the walled garden of the courthouse. She walked with the same studious, impartial stare as the lawyers. She knew every sandwich option at the lunch kiosk.
Luna pulled out her phone and peeked at the time. 3:50. Court would break for the day soon. She opened her email program and messaged her editor. "On break. Nothing to report yet." When she looked up, the pretty law clerk turned around, and she caught the clearest look at him she'd had all day.
He had a sharp nose and nearly crystalline blue eyes. His hair partially covered his ears. He clicked his pen over and over—ink in, ink out, ink in, ink out. He scanned the courtroom as if events happened on his own time, and he momentarily settled on Luna. Her heart galloped.
Life can change in an instant. Give it twenty-four hours and it can turn cartwheels around itself. Evan McKay was dizzy from the speed of litigation, dealing with a person who kept a lawyer in his back pocket.
The conference room that Evan and his own lawyer were shown to in the Sampson & Associates law offices was, in a word, posh. The table was a long piece of polished cherrywood that should have been at odds with the smooth black leather chairs and bright white walls, but came off as sumptuous instead. The firm's secretary showed them in, and moments later an older woman—with platinum blond hair pulled back into a bun, and a crisp navy pantsuit—came in with two cups of rich-smelling coffee, sweeteners, cream and a cool smile.
"Mr. Klempt and his lawyer, Mr. Delour, will be with you shortly," she said briskly. "I'm Mr. Delour's personal assistant, Jeaniene. Is there anything else I can bring either of you while you wait?"
Evan looked at Jeaniene, registered her calm professionalism and air of competency, and barely kept himself from begging, "Holy shit, help me!" Sure, she wasn't a lawyer, but he kind of thought at this point that she might do a better job of representing him than the guy he'd looked up in the phone book at 2 am last night, and who clearly felt out of his depth if the fidgeting was anything to go by. Karl Price, Evan's new lawyer, had wanted more time to go over things before any meetings, but one rapid phone conversation with Mr. Delour had left him quivering and conciliatory. So they were here today, not even a full day after the assault, with no real expectation beyond getting owned by Klempt and his bulldog lawyer, just like that asshole had promised last night when the cops took him away. Less than twenty-four hours and he was out of jail, just like he'd said.
"No, thank you," Evan said at last, once it became clear that his lawyer had nothing to say. He started to reach for a cup of coffee, and then retreated with a wince when it pulled at his bruised collarbone. The doctor told him it wasn't broken, but it sure didn't feel good after having a bottle smashed against it.
"Allow me." Jeaniene sized him up for a moment. "A little raw sugar and plenty of cream, I think."
"That's how I like it," Evan replied, a little surprised. "How did you know?"
"I'm good at figuring these things out," she said. She fixed his coffee, handed over a cup, and then looked at his lawyer. "Lighten up, Mr. Price. This isn't an execution."
Jeaniene and Evan rolled their eyes simultaneously. She took the tray and its remaining cup of coffee out of the conference room. A moment later Klempt and his lawyer came in. Evan looked up, his heart pounding, hands clammy despite their grip on the hot coffee cup, and—
Huh. This wasn't the same Josiah Klempt that Evan had been smacked around by last night. That man had been larger than life, loud and florid and extremely drunk. Drunk enough to get angry at the twink he hadn't been able to pick up at the Park Street Pub, drunk enough to go after him, and powerful enough that when Evan jumped into the fight, before the bouncers could reach them, he'd had no compunctions about swinging an empty beer bottle at Evan instead. It had missed his head, thankfully, but his shoulder was turning a grotesque shade of purple and his face and neck were scratched from the broken glass. The bouncers had arrived and pulled them apart, the cops had shown up, and Klempt was taken away. He was shouting the whole time about how he had the best lawyer in Philadelphia on retainer, how he'd be out in no time, how they were nothing, worthless, garbage. That man had been frightening in his fury.
This man looked shrunken, so cowed he didn't even raise his head as he and his lawyer sat down across from them. He was still wearing his white suit from the night before, stained and stinking of stale beer. His thick dark hair was mussed and the collar of his shirt was wrinkled, as if he'd been twisting it. He sat a little slumped in his chair, quiet and sullen, and Evan turned his eyes toward the other man.
Melanie was distracted as she ordered her morning coffee. She had to ask the blonde barista to repeat herself twice before Melanie realized the girl was asking if she was having a good morning. The question flustered Melanie even more, so she answered with a smile and a nod before moving away from the counter to wait for her drink.
It's going to be a long day, she thought. Melanie had a full caseload, as well as research to prepare for one of her firm's partners. But that's not where her mind was. She'd been struggling for a while, trying to figure out what she wanted. Melanie had spent so many years busy with school that she hadn't really focused on dating. She was still busy, her work kept her in the office at least 60 hours a week, and she often worked from home, too. But people were starting to ask questions, like why she wasn't bringing anyone with her to company parties, and that was making Melanie ask herself the same question.
Now, Melanie was worried about what she'd pledged to herself she'd do that night– she was going to a strip club.
As she thought about the people she'd been attracted to, or people she'd admired, she realized most of them were women. Then, when she forced herself to consider–during the full light of day–what she thought about when she touched herself at night, she had a realization. She was a lesbian.
She wasn't worried about it, really. Her family, her city, her workplace... they were all liberal. Mostly she was annoyed that she hadn't realized sooner. She would have liked to have found a way in to the LGBTQ networking opportunities at Law School.
But now that she knew–at least in theory–she had to figure out what to do about it. She'd barely even kissed boys, and those had all come as surprises, initiated by the boy, not her. She'd never done more than hug another girl. As Melanie started to work herself into a panic she had stopped, took a deep breath, and forced herself to think of this in the same way as any other problem she faced. She could make a real decision after she did a bit of research.
And that's when she'd decided to visit a strip club.
Well, after a few hours of researching online.
The night Melanie walked into the strip club, she had another moment of panic. She'd had to remind herself what she was doing there, and why it was a good idea. At work, Melanie liked to approach every issue logically, having researched all the possible angles, and she'd decided that her personal life should be handled the same way. This reminder was little comfort as she was assaulted by the heavily remixed dance music, the crush of bodies, and the flashing lights around her.
Melanie paused, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. There's no reason not to treat this like walking into court for a new case or facing a new judge for the first time, she thought. I can do this.
She went straight to bar. Usually, holding her case notes kept her from fidgeting, and holding a glass would be a good substitute. Besides, if any situation called for liquid courage, this was it.
Whiskey and soda in one hand, and a pocket full of ones handed over as change from her drink, Melanie approached the biggest stage. One look at the leggy red-head swinging from the poll was almost enough to send Melanie running the other way, but instead she took a sip of her drink and stood her ground. There were several men sitting at the rack that appeared to be on their own, a couple of men who seemed to be together, and one couple; the man was placing dollar after dollar in front of his date, who simply smiled and played along.
Melanie, afraid that standing was drawing attention to herself, took an open seat and placed a dollar on the stage in front of herself. The giant sign on the wall helpfully proclaimed "one dollar per person per song," so there was a least one rule she understood.
The dancer made her way over to the other woman sitting in front of the stage, the one with the pile of dollars in front of her, and Melanie watched-fascinated-as she did a hand stand, slowly bending forward with her legs open in a V. The dancer pushed off with her hands and landed on the woman's lap, straddling her. The woman shrieked with laughter as her date sprinkled more ones over them. Melanie found herself blushing as she imagined being in that position herself.
Surim Court was the most impressive courthouse Daru em Caron had ever seen. Tall, sturdy vaaron trees surrounded the three story high glass walls and sheltered the enormous structure from the brightest sunlight. Three points of the five-sided form drew the energies of the South, East, and West Spirits, while the side between the fourth and fifth point reflected the cold, harsh judgment of the North Spirit. He'd heard the stories and seen the image crystals, but standing before it in person was... breathtaking.
Of course, when he'd watched the image crystals, he never could've imagined that one day he'd be working here. Yet, here he was, ready to start his first day.
His time of slaving at the small Caron Court was long gone. Daru had steadily moved onto bigger courts and bigger cases until word had come that he'd been chosen to fill the position of legal researcher as part of Defender Illan em Murq's team. At twenty-eight years, Daru wasn't the youngest to be invited to Surim Court—Defender Illan himself still held that record after all these years—but it was close.
Daru was deeply honored to be working with such a brilliant defender. He had analyzed many of Defender Illan's cases in preparation, watching hours of image crystals to study his technique and tactics. Defender Illan was ruthless in his pursuit of the truth and the facts. He didn't suffer fools or mistakes, and his team was considered the best. Daru's racing heart drummed in his chest, and his knees trembled with every step. Now, he was part of that team.
With one last look at the outside of the impressive courthouse, Daru straightened his skirt, wiped his sweaty palms on his tunic, and turned onto the path leading to the main entrance. When he reached the guards standing watch, he showed his name badge, proudly pinned onto his uniform, and held out his credit crystal that had his new status burnt into it. But before they could motion him to enter, someone slammed into him from behind.
Daru cried out as his knees hit the stone path, thrusting his hands out in front of him to stop his fall. His long dreads hung in a messy bundle in front of his face and pulled at his scalp as he untangled them and refastened the clasp at the back of his neck. One of the guards helped him up while the other guard was already restraining the person who'd slammed into him. Daru sighed at the state of his skirt and brushed the dust off, wincing as he grazed his sore knees.
"I want to see Defender Illan!" the man, wearing a scruffy dress and worn shoes, yelled as he tried to wriggle himself out of the guard's firm grasp.
"Do you have an appointment, sir?"
"I only need to see the kuruch for five minutes."
The guard shook his head and forced the man to walk away from the courthouse. "I'm sorry, sir. But we can't let you in without an appointment. Come back when you have one."
The man struggled against the guard, pleading to be let go. The guard, stronger and taller, dealt with it swiftly, pushing the man back down the path. He handled it calmly, without raising his voice, obviously used to this sort of behavior.
Daru was relieved when the other guard waved him through. He'd never experienced anything like this in the courts he'd worked at. Never. Of course, he'd never worked on a case more serious than petty theft before, either. Located just outside the city of Orsa, capital of the Surim Province, Surim Court was where murder, kidnapping, and armed robbery cases were tried.
Entering the courthouse, Daru was as nervous as he'd felt on the first day of school, and he kept his hands firmly at his sides, lest others see them tremble. A young woman stood waiting for him, arms held out hooked in front of her, her hands clasping her underarms in a formal greeting. She bowed her head. "Well met, Daru em Caron. I am Neris em Murq, Master Illan's first assistant. Welcome to Surim Court."
Daru mirrored the greeting. "Thank you, Ris Neris."
"That title belongs in the court room, Daru. You can call me Neris." She smiled. "I hope that little scuffle out there hasn't shaken you up too much?"
"It was... unexpected."
"Unfortunately, that sort of thing happens almost daily here. You'll get used to it."
That didn't sound promising.
"There's someone here to see you."
That was Samson—a.k.a. Frank Samuelson—the lug I'd been stuck with as a partner since Robinson took a bullet between the eyes from one of Red Callaghan's thugs. Samson was wide as he was tall, and as thick as the lifts in his shoes he thought nobody noticed. I knew the Chief had put me with him because he blamed me for Robinson's death. It was hooey, but thick suited me fine. Robinson had been too smart for his own good. But there was thick, and then there was thick. "Oh, yeah?" I snapped, tossing the wrapper from the hot dog I'd had for lunch into the trash, expecting some weak punchline.
Samson tipped his square, stubbled jaw in the direction of the ladies' room and winked. "Powdering her nose. Real looker."
I rolled my eyes, sat down at my desk, and put my feet up. Probably some floozy wanting me to spring her worthless palooka from the slammer. She'd be all bedroom eyes and quivering mouth, crossing her legs and hiking up her skirt to give me a gander at the gams—and fantasies of the vanishing point between them. I'd seen it all before, and while I liked the view, the dolls were rarely worth the price of admission.
Still, I had to admit I needed diversion from my boredom. Truth was, we hadn't had a good case in weeks. There was only ever the rich kid who'd run away from home, or the poor kid who'd stolen a car. More lessons from the Chief, who kept giving the juicy stuff to the other team, the guys at the next set of desks over. Double A, I called them. Archer and Aikens: two smug jerks who got along so well, they'd even started looking alike, and the sight wasn't pretty. They were off at the mayor's office now, trying to figure out who'd murdered one of his assistants. I could already guess it was an inside job. That office was so corrupt, you'd have a rough time finding an honest stiff among them.
But no point thinking about it. Double A would solve the case and take the credit—shared with the Chief, of course—and they'd probably get a nice 'tip' from the mayor for not spilling any of his dirty secrets along the way.
I was just reaching for my Luckies when the jane stepped out of the john. I smirked. I'd pegged her just right: smoldering hazel eyes, full red lips, chestnut hair like silk. She was curvy in all the right places in her tight black dress, with legs that went on forever. I watched her stalk her way over to my desk, heels clacking, quick and steady, across the floor. Samson was practically drooling, but I kept my cool.
Rising, I offered her a seat, but she wanted no part of it. She came around the desk and bent forward to look straight into my eyes. Little silver earrings glinted from her lobes; they were tiny replicas of the Eiffel Tower. "Cocque sent me," she said.
I jerked a nod and brushed my hair back from my face. Hadn't heard that name in a good while. I turned to Samson. "I'll be back later. Tell the Chief I'm on a case."
Samson grinned. "He won't like it, Cal."
"Nuts to him." I pushed aside the stack of papers on my desk. I was tired of office work.
"Cal?" interrupted the babe. "I was told to find Detective Guy." She bit her lip, looking confused—and confused looked good on her.
"That's me, Calvin Guy. Call me Cal."
She released her lip from the prison of her even, white teeth and tossed her hair. "Please, help me, Cal," she said, voice husky, traces of cheap booze in its smoky depths.
I was hooked.
In a back booth at Joe's, I struck a match to light her cigarette and then lit my own. Joe brought my usual—whiskey, neat—and a gin and tonic with lime for the 'lady'. She insisted on top shelf, and I let it go, figuring I'd get paid back—one way or the other. "What's your name?" I asked, enjoying the cool darkness of the familiar, grubby bar.
"Candy," she said softly, letting the smoke drift from her mouth. "Candy LeBon."
I raised an eyebrow.
She gave a cute little shrug. "Sounds better than Candy Labonski for a hostess at Callaghan's, n'est pas?" Her little earrings sparkled and there was a twinkle in her eye.
That perked me up. "Much better," I agreed. I slugged back my drink and she sipped prettily from the little black and red straws. Callaghan's, that explained it. Red Callaghan's gambling joint was on the other end of town, small but getting bigger. The owner had ordered my old partner killed; he was Irish mob through and through. I knew he ran his place like an iron fist in a glove of red velvet drapes—with hatchet men behind them. He served up watered drinks, fixed games, and pretty babies like Miss Candy LeBon to soften the blow when the chumps lost all their money—and they always did.
"How do you know Cocque?" I asked. Cocque didn't break bread with creeps like Callaghan anymore, at least he hadn't last time I seen him. Cocque was a prettyboy from Quebec who'd worked the streets until the precinct had taken him on as a snitch. When Callaghan caught wise, he'd threatened to off the kid. Now Cocque lived in some downtown penthouse with a rich guy who made 'art films'.
Candy tapped her butt on the edge of the grimy ashtray. "Let's just say we… worked together." She took another drag.
So, she'd been a pro. Cocque had told a tale or three about johns who liked jacks and jills together, said it paid well, but he never coughed up the names of his co-workers. I respected him for that, the gaycat. I looked into Candy's eyes, deep, trying to get a fix. Seemed she thought working for Callaghan was a step up. I wasn't so sure. "How's he doing these days?" I asked, pressing to be sure she was on the up-and-up.
She tipped her head and let her hair slide over an eye, and then flipped it back. Nice trick. "Still bunking up with Aloysius," she said, real straight, like she knew what I was looking for. "Making movies." She smiled. I smiled, too. Yeah, movies, the blue kind. She sighed and put a well-manicured hand on mine. The scarlet polish looked black in the dimly-lit bar. "He said you'd take care of me."
Henry Valentino hated high-society events in all of their forms. His mother loved them, though Henry was starting to suspect her fondness for them went beyond love and into full-blown obsession. Her eyes took the same manic gleam whenever an invitation would arrive and on the rare—very rare, thank God—occasion that they were left off an invite list, her temper reached levels quite unholy.
She hadn't always been like this. His mother was an active socialite but when he was younger, she'd been much calmer about the whole affair. Then his elder brother Charles had eloped with a woman Henry had never met (which wasn't surprising considering how little Henry and his brother had to do with each other given the choice). His mother referred to Charles' wife as 'that colonial hussy' without mentioning exactly which colony Charles and his new wife had disappeared to. It didn't matter, really. What mattered was that he was gone.
He wouldn't have cared at all, except Charles' disappearance meant that Henry was suddenly the heir to the Valentino estate, a position which he was unprepared for, and entirely uninterested in. To say he was ill suited to follow his father into the high reaches of the law was an understatement. It wasn't that he disliked law—he was perfectly happy memorizing volumes of texts and quoting it back—but he had never seen eye to eye with the Church and they were the source of the law. They also wanted him dead, or would, if the truth of his nature were to become public knowledge.
"What about her?" His mother, Luciana, poked him in the side with her fan. For an object covered in an excessive amount of lace, it was deceptively pointy.
Henry turned his attention away from his brooding and obediently glanced in the direction his mother indicated. A trio of women chatted next to an array of wildly overgrown potted plants. There was a blonde, a brunette, and a woman with impressively curled black hair piled high on her head. He assumed the latter was the one his mother was referring to, but there was no way to be certain. They were all pretty, he supposed, though the appeal of their beauty (or lack thereof) was lost on him.
He shrugged. "She's nice enough, I supposed." For a woman, he wisely did not add.
Ever since Charles had left, his mother had been obsessed with finding Henry a 'good' wife. She wanted to secure the Valentino line, and preferably bring in some much needed wealth to add to their dwindling fortunes. He was fine letting her take over the hunt. She was certainly more interested in potential matches than he was, and would likely do a much better job. He didn't particularly care who he married.
A glimpse of black hair and sharply chiseled features drew Henry's attention away from the women. He caught sight of an achingly handsome man with faintly foreign features exiting onto the patio and felt a sudden, overpowering need for fresh air.
"Excuse me, Mother. I'll be outside."
She waved him off with an absent flick of her fan, her eyes busy scanning the room for potential marriage prospects.
The chill autumn air was a relief after the stuffy heat of the ballroom. Small groups of well-dressed aristocrats stood on the patio, their voices lowered in quiet conversation. Henry hesitated at the edge of the ballroom. The man he'd seen wasn't there, though Henry could guess where he might have gone. He should turn back. That was the rational thing to do, but his life was full of rationality. For this one moment, he wanted something less than rational.
He slowly wound his way across the patio, slipping between clusters of people, giving polite nods to the few who greeted him without even looking to see who they were. At the far end of the patio was a broad staircase leading down into the gardens and a large hedge maze. He took the stairs two at a time and stepped into the maze. The hedge stood a good seven or eight feet tall, well over his own short stature. The maze split off in two directions and he took one at random, following the twists and turns of the maze at whim. There was no way he was going to find the stranger, not in here, and even if he did find him, then what?
He felt slightly foolish even being out here, like Alice chasing after her white rabbit. It made no sense, and yet the senselessness of it was a large part of the appeal. If anyone asked, he could say he was merely out for a stroll to get some air, and let them assume he was escaping the machinations of his mother. It was as good an excuse as any.
The maze wound around the side of the house, jutting against the wall in parts. He could hear voices drifting towards him from open windows. Every few turns he would catch sight of the house and the brightly lit windows. He must be below the parlors. There was a faint clank of glassware—he mentally marked two windows as the library, where the older gentlemen gathered to sip scotch and spin tales of the old wars—and the repeated scrape of metal on metal, which must be the back parlor. Refreshments were being served.
He was paying so much attention to the noises of the house that he didn't realize he had found the stranger until he'd almost walked into him. Henry started as the man appeared before him, seemingly materializing out of the shadows, and took a step back.
"P-pardon me," he stammered, his voice uneven from surprise. He felt like a schoolboy again, caught playing with marbles when he should be doing his homework.
The stranger turned away from the house and cast a measuring look over Henry. He had a calculating sharpness to his gaze that put Henry on edge as soon as it was turned on him. He felt like he was being sized up and knew that he wasn't going to measure up to whatever quality the man was looking for. Henry was all too familiar with being found wanting.
I should leave, he thought. I shouldn't be here at all.