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Exclusive Preview: The Courtroom Coroner, Chapter 1

· Fenway Stevenson,Extras,New Release

Fenway Book 5, The Courtroom Coroner, is coming in April! For you loyal readers, here's a sneak peek of the first chapter. WARNING: spoilers of Book 4, The Incumbent Coroner, lie ahead—so if you haven't read Book 4 yet, get it now!

The Courtroom Coroner

Chapter 1

 

Fenway Stevenson threw an exasperated look at the officer manning the new metal detector just inside the courthouse entrance. “Come on, Quincy, the arraignment starts in five minutes. I was the one who arrested Professor Cygnus, for crying out loud.”

 

Quincy shook his head. “You know I can’t let you through without searching your bag, Fenway.”

 

“You know I don’t have—”

 

“Come on, now. I’ve bent the rules for you before, but you know this is non-negotiable.” His gaze softened. “Look, you can spend a couple of minutes letting us go through the kit, or we can argue about it for another fifteen minutes, and then I’ll have to get my supervisor over here and you’ll be late for the arraignment.”

 

Fenway closed her eyes and nodded, taking a deep breath. “Yes, of course you’re right.” She put the large black plastic case on top of her small black purse on the table between them. “Sorry. I guess I missed the memo on the new metal detector.”

 

“Yeah, I’m getting that a lot this morning. Didn’t seem to be a problem in the old courthouse.” Quincy clicked open the latches on the kit.

 

“Don’t mess up my fingerprint dust. I just refilled it.”

 

“I have done this before, Fenway.”

 

Fenway scrunched up her face. “Sorry, Quincy. I’m running late and I’m just on edge.” And if I’m completely honest with myself, I’m worried about my dad’s arraignment right after the professor’s.

 

“I’ll be quick.”

 

Fenway checked herself for metal, but she had no pockets in her black suit pants, and the pockets in her light gray blazer were too shallow to hold anything. She held her breath as she walked through the metal detector. The line of lights flared about halfway, spiking into the yellow, but the machine was silent.

 

Quincy pulled out the GSR pads and the container of fingerprint dust. “No weapons of any kind, right?”

 

“Just my rapier wit.” She paused. “Cell phones in the courtroom?”

 

Quincy shrugged. “You can bring them in, but you won’t be able to call, text, or receive data. Some special paint they used on the walls. It kills the cell signal. The judge doesn’t even have to ask you to go on silent anymore.” He put everything back, closed the case, and pushed it back across the table. “You’re good. You can still make it in time. And Fenway?”

 

She picked up the case. “Yeah?”

 

“Good luck with your dad’s arraignment.”

 

Fenway managed a tight smile and hurried off.

 

The newly refurbished corridor led to the left toward the new courtroom, and the Ricardo, the bailiff, stood next to the large mahogany doors. He saw Fenway coming down the hall, tapped his watch, and looked up, grinning.

“Chop, chop, Miss Stevenson,” he said. “The sheriff’s been saving you a seat.” He winked.

 

Great. The county’s rumor mill had wasted no time about her dating the outgoing sheriff. “Sorry, sorry,” Fenway said, feeling the heat rise to her face. She wondered what everyone in town thought. Did they think she was too young for him? Did they think she was the reason behind his divorce? Did they disapprove that he was white and she was black? Did they think she slept with him in order to get the position?

 

She turned the corner and tried to push those thoughts out of her mind.

As she stepped into the new courtroom, she was struck by the sheer size of it. Ever since she’d moved to Estancia and been appointed to the county coroner position seven months ago, the main courtroom had been the old cafeteria in City Hall, which made for a cramped and ugly experience. But the new courtroom was stately and gorgeous, all dark wood and art-deco lighting. It looked more like an architecture firm’s conference room than a courtroom—excepting, of course, the traditional layout. The judge’s bench, the jury box, and the witness stand were all made from the same dark walnut wood of the trim and the wainscoting.

 

The gallery was packed and buzzing. While arraignments were hardly ever well attended, Professor Virgil Cygnus, who’d put Nidever University on the map, and Nathaniel Ferris, the oil magnate and Fenway’s father, were being arraigned back-to-back. It was the closest thing Dominguez County had ever had to a celebrity scandal.

 

A white man in his early forties, with sandy blond hair and a black sheriff’s department uniform, sat in the front row of the gallery and turned to face her. He caught her eye and lifted his hand, then pointed at the empty space next to him.

 

Fenway lifted her case to shoulder height and stepped in front of the people in the front row. “Excuse me—sorry.” The woman on the end of the first row was Professor Cygnus’s wife, Judith, who looked pale and weak, and scrunched her face up in annoyance as Fenway squeezed between her and the railing separating the gallery from the defense table.

 

She almost called him Craig, and then remembered the rumor mill. “Thanks, McVie,” she whispered. She sat in the open seat next to him.

“My sheriff’s badge was the only thing that saved your seat,” he whispered back. “The Nidever students came out in full force today. They’re all showing their support.”

 

Fenway turned and saw Amanda Kohl, Xavier Go, and several of the other students in Cygnus’s play sitting in the back rows. There were at least a dozen large signs with wooden handles stacked against the wall behind them.

“Are those picket signs?” she whispered to McVie.

 

He nodded. “A pretty small but vocal demonstration. About an hour ago—I’m surprised you didn’t hear anything from your office.”

 

“I was refilling my kit. That’s sure a hell of a way to mar the opening of Estancia’s shiny new courtroom.”

 

McVie tried to suppress a grin. “I know. The electricians and audio teams worked the long weekend to make sure the new courtroom would be ready for the big arraignments this morning.”

 

Fenway looked around the rest of the gallery, and gave a start. “Hey, Cynthia Schimmelhorn is here.”

 

McVie turned. “Oh. Yeah. Didn’t Judith Cygnus say that she was one of his students way back when?”

 

“Yes. I guess she still supports him.” She thought for a moment. “I guess I’ve had a couple of professors in college who I’d show up to support, too.” She paused. “How is the Nidever community taking the news? Are they in denial? Are they supportive?”

 

“Too soon to tell,” said McVie in a low voice.

 

“But it’s definitely a black eye for the university.”

 

“It’s an even blacker eye for the people behind the money laundering. They just lost one of their biggest laundering avenues—the professor’s scholarship fund was turning over millions every month.”

 

Jennifer Kim, the assistant district attorney, came through the double doors, smartly dressed in a gray suit. She walked through the mahogany gate in the middle of the rail separating the proceedings from the audience and set her briefcase down on the prosecutor’s table on the right.

 

A moment later, a trim, olive-skinned man strode through the double doors, down the aisle, through the gate, and set his briefcase on the defendant’s table on the left.

 

Ricardo, the bailiff, brought in Professor Virgil Cygnus. The orange jumpsuit made the respected Shakespeare scholar look old, hiding his strong arms in the loose-fitting outfit, but his eyes were bright. Ricardo motioned to Cygnus to sit, and as soon as he was satisfied that Cygnus wouldn’t go anywhere, he walked to the front of the courtroom, in front of the judge’s podium.

 

“All rise,” he said.

 

Fenway and McVie stood up with everyone else.

 

“Dominguez County Superior Court now in session, the honorable Didi Miller presiding.” The judge, a large woman with a mop of tight black curly hair and Buddy Holly glasses, strode up to her seat, and asked everyone to sit down.

“I like Judge Miller,” McVie whispered to Fenway. “She’s got a low tolerance for bullshit.”

 

Judge Miller talked briefly about this being a high-profile case, and expected nothing but the lawyers’ best behavior, then admonished the audience, stating she’d ask anyone who interrupted the proceedings to leave. She looked pointedly at the Nidever students near the back.

 

“Thank you, your honor,” the defense attorney said.

 

The clerk got up from her chair. “Criminal cause for arraignment. Counsel, please state your appearances.”

 

Jennifer Kim stood. “Jennifer Kim for Dominguez County. Good morning, your honor.”

 

The judge nodded.

 

The defense lawyer stood next. “Evans Dahl for Mr. Cygnus.”

 

“Good morning,” the judge said. “Sir, can you state your full name for the record?”

 

Cygnus nodded. “Virgil Devonte Cygnus, your honor.”

 

The judge smiled, tight-lipped. “Thank you, Mr. Cygnus. This is an arraignment hearing for you, of course. I’m going to read the indictment. It’s fairly straightforward.” The judge held a few sheets of paper in front of herself, adjusted her glasses, and read. “‘Count one, murder in the second degree. Between Tuesday, November 6 of this year, at approximately eleven p.m., and Wednesday, November 7 of this year, at approximately two a.m., within the jurisdiction of Dominguez County, the defendant Virgil Devonte Cygnus did knowingly and intentionally commit the murder of Jessica Marquez with malice aforethought, as defined in California Penal Code one-eight-seven.’” She set the papers down. “See? I told you it was straightforward.” She chuckled, but no one else in the courtroom joined her. “Mr. Dahl, have you discussed the charge set forth in this indictment with your client?”

 

“I have, your honor.”

 

“And will your client be entering a plea at this time?”

 

“Yes, your honor. He pleads not guilty.”

 

The judge nodded. “So entered.” She turned to ADA Kim. “Is there discovery?”

 

“Yes, your honor,” said Kim. “It will go to the defense by Tuesday at the latest.”

 

She looked at Dahl. “The parties expect to engage in plea discussions.”

 

“When do you expect to have those discussions?”

 

“Perhaps by next Friday, your honor. I expect they’ll take at least a few weeks.”

 

“Will both parties be ready for trial after that?”

 

“Pending what’s in the discovery, your honor,” said Dahl.

 

“Yes, your honor,” said Kim.

 

“We’ll be running into the Christmas recess,” the judge said. “So we’ll schedule the trial first Monday of the new year. Sorry if that ruins your New Year’s Eve plans, but justice is a cruel mistress. And maybe that will incentivize you to negotiate the plea before you pop the champagne and kiss your sweetie at midnight.”

 

“Thank you, your honor,” said Kim.

 

“Regarding bail—” the judge began.

 

“Yes, your honor,” Kim interrupted. “This is a serious crime, and given the defendant’s—”

 

Judge Miller held up her hand. “Half a million dollars,” said the judge. “Is there anything else?”

 

Kim blinked hard. “No, your honor.”

 

Evans Dahl opened his mouth, then closed it. He screwed up his mouth, then said, “No, your honor.”

 

The judge banged her gavel. “We’ll take a fifteen-minute recess before our next case.” She stood up and walked off. About half the people in the gallery stood up. Fenway turned around to look. A few of the students packed up the signs in the back of the room and started to leave. Xavier and Amanda kept sitting, talking to each other in hushed tones, serious looks on both their faces.

 

“That was quick,” Fenway said, a knot in her stomach. Her father’s arraignment for murder was next on the docket.

 

“I like how Judge Miller handled that,” McVie said. “Didn’t even give anyone an opportunity to ramp up to a rant.”

 

Fenway saw ADA Kim walk over to the defendant’s table and start a conversation with the Evans Dahl—not five feet in front of her. She could hear snippets of what Kim said in a low voice—“plea bargain,” “give up names,” and “money laundering” were all plainly audible.

 

The side door opened and Nathaniel Ferris walked in, Ricardo behind him. Ferris raised his hand in solemn greeting to someone coming in through the double doors. Fenway turned around and craned her neck. A thin blonde of medium height, her smile unable to mask the anguish behind it, stood and raised her hand in return.

 

“You okay?” McVie said in a low voice.

 

She turned. “Sure. Why wouldn’t I be? Charlotte’s his wife. I’d expect her to be here.”

 

“So there’s no issue?”

 

Fenway cleared her throat. “I’m not sure where his lawyer is, that’s all.”

 

“Probably out in the hall. Talking to her team, maybe. She’s got ten minutes, right?”

 

“Right.” Imani Ingram was one of the best criminal lawyers in the business. Fenway scolded herself for her creeping doubt.

 

The door opened again and a willowy redhead entered. She was dressed in slacks and an awkward-looking tan-and-turquoise striped top. “There’s Piper,” Fenway said.

 

After Piper Patten was forced to resign from the county’s IT department, Fenway convinced Charlotte to hire the tall redhead as a researcher for Ferris’s murder defense. Piper carried her old black canvas backpack, in which Fenway figured she carried her newly-purchased top-of-the-line PC laptop. If there was any sort of digital trail to prove Ferris’s innocence, Piper would find it.

 

Piper was busy listening to Charlotte, so Fenway turned toward the front of the courtroom, where Dahl and Kim were still talking to Virgil Cygnus. The professor was nodding enthusiastically and stood up. “I can give you a dozen names,” he said.

 

“You better start talking,” Kim said, a little louder.

 

“If he gives up these names,” Dahl said pointedly, “this will make your career, Jennifer. This is ten times bigger than my client murdering a cog in the conspiracy machine.”

 

“The victim isn’t on trial, Evans, and you better not think you can bring up her past.” Kim folded her arms.

 

“The jury can be swayed,” Dahl said with a smile.

 

The ADA shook her head. “I know you’re not above doing that kind of thing.”

“You catching this, McVie?” Fenway whispered, opening her purse and searching through it for her phone, but watching the scene in front of her closely, hanging on every word.

 

“Yep,” McVie said in a low voice. “We’ll finally get somewhere if the info’s any good.”

 

“Think of how many arrests you’ll get out of this,” Cygnus said. “The Cayman accounts are accessible if you just know where to look. That should give you enough to go on, especially after I give up the mastermind behind this.”

 

“You’re acting like this is a walk in the park,” Kim said, turning to Cygnus. “You’re going to have to testify, you know.”

 

“As long as I can spend the next few months with my wife,” Cygnus said. “I think the district attorney will be very interested to know who’s behind the murders and behind all of the money that’s been laundered.”

 

Kim cocked her head in the direction of Evans Dahl. “Counselor, aren’t you going to advise your client to keep those names to himself until he can work out a deal?”

 

Dahl smiled. “I’ve advised him of his rights, Ms. Kim. In the courtroom, in an interview room, wherever. The professor wants to cooperate.”

 

“I can give you the name of the person who coordinated the use of the scholarship fund right now,” Cygnus said. “Do your research. If it checks out, then I’ll negotiate for my freedom in exchange for the names of the big players behind the scenes.”

 

Fenway pulled her phone out of her purse and tapped on the voice memo app—then the phone slipped out of her hand and onto the tile with a clatter.

 

“This is highly irregular,” Kim said.

 

Fenway leaned to her left to grab her phone off the floor—

 

Bang. Bang.

 

A whizzing noise and a puff of air next to her right ear.

 

The shots came from the rear of the courtroom. People screamed. McVie grabbed her shoulders and pulled her down onto the cold tile, shielding his body with hers.

 

Fenway saw feet scrambling, people running for the doors, the exits, hiding behind their chairs or the desk. Screaming and yelling, chairs pushed, people barked at each other, all trying to get out of the courtroom.

 

The weight of McVie’s body on her back, his breath hot in ear.

 

“I love you, Fenway,” he whispered.

 

And then McVie was up, barking orders, moving people out of open areas, out of the courtroom, pulling up his radio and requesting all available officers at the scene.

 

This is exactly why I shouldn’t be categorized as a peace officer. McVie’s instinct was always to run toward the fire, while Fenway lay motionless in fear on the floor.

 

She blinked.

 

Wait.

 

Did Craig just tell me he loved me?

 

A rush of panic seized her, then she turned her head and looked through the ironwork barrier that separated her from the defense table.

 

Virgil Cygnus’s sightless eyes stared back at her.

Copyright  © 2020 Paul Austin Ardoin. All rights reserved.

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