Lucky Penny, book 3 in the Miranda Vaughn Mysteries series, is out on December 14th! Yay! Here’s a sneak peak at chapter 1!
I gripped the handle on the courtroom door and took a deep breath before forcing myself to pull it open and walk into the silent and solemn room. The gallery was about half-filled, and several audience members turned to watch me come in. I glanced around quickly, trying to locate my boss, Rob Fogg, in the area reserved for spectators. From the middle of a row near the back of the room, he nodded and waved at a few empty seats near him. I squeezed past other spectators who had come to watch the trial.
“Glad to see you made it,” he whispered as I sat down.
“Parking,” I mumbled.
It was a common excuse in the busy downtown blocks around the federal courthouse, but it was also a lie. I’d found a prime parking space in the lot across the street. I’d also hit every green light on the way there. There was no excuse for my tardiness except my own nerves.
I wasn’t even sure why he wanted me to join him. Rob’s specialty was criminal defense, and as far as I knew, he had no connection to the civil trial that was underway in front of Judge Smith. And I had never wanted to set foot in this building again.
It had been more than a year since I’d been in the same courtroom, facing the same judge, on fifteen federal fraud charges. With Rob defending me, I’d been acquitted. I hadn’t planned on ever returning to the scene of my utter humiliation and near destruction. If Rob weren’t practically family now that he was engaged to my Aunt Marie, I probably would have come up with an excuse not to join him.
I swallowed hard and looked around the too-familiar room, trying to dampen the ghosts of old feelings that had rushed back—fear, nervousness, and even shame, though I had known that I hadn’t done what I’d been accused of.
Get a grip, I told myself. It’s been more than a year. No one will even recognize you.
Unlike during my two-week trial, the courtroom was crowded, especially for a civil lawsuit over a business deal. Rob’s brief summary hadn’t given me much background on the lawsuit, except that it was one business partner suing another over the dissolution of a start-up tech company.
A phalanx of lawyers and their paralegals sat at each of the counsel tables, surrounded by binders and boxes of exhibits that would be entered into the record. The jurors, who sat in two rows in the elevated box along the side of the room, looked bored out of their minds as the attorney at the podium wrapped up his questioning of the man on the witness stand.
The witness was excused and one of the other lawyers stood.
“The plaintiff calls Ms. Dorothy Russell.”
An assistant hurried out of the courtroom, then returned a moment later with an older woman wearing a black Chanel-inspired suit and a leopard-print scarf. Her short spiky hair was dyed an odd shade of brassy orange that matched the scarf perfectly. The assistant, a lawyer so young he looked like he was wearing his father’s suit, tried to direct her to the witness stand, but the petite woman raised a hand to stop him.
“I got this, sweetie,” she said in a deep, gravelly voice that carried through the hushed room.
She looked to be in her seventies, but Ms. Russell walked to the front of the courtroom with a confident stride. She stood in front of the clerk, then raised her right hand without being asked.
“I solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So help me God.” The pledge was over before the clerk could stand to read the swearing-in statement.
She sat in the witness stand and, unprompted, bent the microphone toward her. “My name is Dorothy Elaine Russell. That’s spelled R-U-S-S-E-L-L.”
The plaintiff’s attorney at the podium looked up from his notes. “Good morning, ma’am. Would you please state your name for the record?”
“She already did that,” Judge Smith said. “Try to keep up with your witness, counsel.”
“Oh, uh, right,” the attorney said, flustered.
“Why don’t you ask me what I do for a living,” Ms. Russell suggested.
This time, the jurors’ giggles were full-fledged laughs. Even the judge bit his lip and looked down, trying to suppress a smile.
“Please let Mr. Walters ask the questions, Ms. Russell,” he said.
“Sure, sure,” she said with a wave of one wrinkled and bejeweled hand.
The attorney stammered a few more words, then sighed. “What do you do for a living, Ms. Russell?”
She beamed her approval as he finally got with the program. “I’m a forensic accountant.”
“And what does a forensic accountant do?”
“I do the math that lawyers can’t handle.”
Despite my nerves and discomfort, I smiled at the truth in the woman’s words. That was pretty much what I did for Rob. After I’d been acquitted, he had started taking white-collar criminal cases. My job was to help him examine the financial evidence against his clients, such as bank records and company profit-and-loss statements. It seemed to be as close as I was going to get to my old job as an investment analyst, at least until the stigma of being handcuffed and arrested on the job faded. Which was likely to happen, oh, never.
The direct examination proceeded quickly, with Ms. Russell leading the jury through her examination of the business’s finances. Though it was dry material, she ran through it quickly and concisely, and painted a clear picture—both partners had control over the bank accounts, but one of them was skimming off the top and stashing the proceeds overseas. The two men were now pointing fingers at each other, hence the lawsuit.
The courtroom doors opened, and two more people found seats in the audience. I shifted in my seat, uncomfortable in my suit. It wasn’t the formal dress that was making me fidget, it was the growing crowd. I was starting to recognize some faces I’d seen during my trial as more court staff and attorneys drifted into the room.
The plaintiff’s lawyer closed his folder and thanked his expert witness. As he sat down, the defense attorney stood up, adjusted his jacket, and made his way to the podium.
“Good morning, Ms. Russell. My name is Lyle Styler, and I represent the defendant in this lawsuit, Mr. Griffith,” he said. He spoke slowly and loudly, as if the older woman might have problems understanding him, though there had been no hint that Ms. Russell was slowed by her age. “I suppose I should clarify your name. Do you prefer to be addressed as Mrs. Russell?”
“If you want to get formal, I suppose it’s Dorothy Willis Stanford Chapman Scolari Lively Russell,” she said with a wink. “Been married five times. But you can call me Dottie. Everyone does.”
The jury giggled again, and the man at the podium shifted, probably wondering whether the panel was laughing at him or the witness.
“Well, let’s start with your testimony about the bank accounts you studied. How did you come to the conclusion that my client, Mr. Griffith, was the one who was siphoning off money?”
Dottie adjusted her reading glasses and glanced at the papers in front of her.
“On paper, it could have been either Mr. Griffith or Mr. Hart who was transferring money to the offshore account. But when I examined the personal checking account and credit card records, certain patterns appeared. That led me to Mr. Griffith’s penchant for day trading,” she said, leaning in toward the microphone and dropping her voice a little. “He’s not very good at it.”
“Uh, um, well that doesn’t mean he was embezzling from his business partner,” the lawyer said, thrown by the candid answer. “And didn’t you find similar information about your client, Mr. Hart?”
“Sure did. Mr. Hart likes the ladies. Well, the ladies at the Tip Top Club, at least,” she said with a shake of her head.
Mr. Hart’s lawyer jumped to his feet. “Objection. That’s not relevant.”
“So you discovered that the plaintiff in this matter, Mr. Hart—” Here, the lawyer motioned dramatically to the slumped plaintiff sitting at the counsel table. “—was frequenting strip clubs?”
The jury and audience leaned forward like we were enjoying story time at the library. Dottie lowered her chin and looked over the reading glasses at the attorney. “Glass houses, Mr. Styler.”
The attorney took a step backward, and the rest of us in the courtroom held our collective breath.
“What did you say?”
Dottie shook her head and sighed. “Mr. Styler, all I’m saying is that it’s not illegal to spend one’s own money to watch some cute young thing shake her moneymaker,” she said, then winked. “Good thing, huh?”
“Are you insinuating that I go to strip clubs?”
Judge Smith coughed gently, and I suspected it was to cover a laugh. “Mr. Styler, it’s your choice, but are you sure you want to continue with this line of questioning?”
The courtroom was hushed as we waited to hear whether the attorney was going to get smacked down again by the tiny woman in the witness box.
“I’ll move on,” Mr. Styler said. “Ms. Russell, couldn’t another employee have been the one to transfer the funds overseas?”
She smiled, and the slumping plaintiff sat up a little straighter.
“Besides the two partners, the only other employee who had banking authority was the accountant.”
“So it could have been the accountant?”
A frustrated sigh echoed through the room. “Why not?”
“When the transfers started, the accountant was Margie Griffith, who was married to Mr. Griffith. But shortly after the money began flowing overseas, Mr. Griffith left his wife, and she stopped working for the company. I suspect he thought it was a good way to hide assets from his wife in the divorce,” Dottie said with a knowing nod to the jury. “You see this a lot in my line of work.”
“Move to strike,” Mr. Styler said. “Nonresponsive.”
“Overruled. Ms. Russell’s answer was responsive. You just need to phrase your questions better, counsel,” Judge Smith said, leaning back in his chair and waiting for the next revelation.
Mr. Styler tried again. “The next accountant could have—”
Dottie waved an impatient hand. “No. There was no next accountant. The partners handled the bookkeeping until the company folded a few months later.”
The defendant’s lawyer didn’t seem ready to give up digging a grave for his client’s case. My discomfort faded away as Dottie’s cross-examination continued. This was a subject that interested me, but I had degrees in finance and economics and had worked as an analyst at a financial services firm. Ms. Russell was doing the impossible—making this interesting to lay people.
“The money went to a numbered account, correct?”
“That is correct.”
“So you can’t say with any certainty that it was my client who opened that account, can you?”
Dottie tilted her head and paused before answering. “No, I guess I can’t.”
“And you can’t say that it was Mr. Griffith who transferred the funds there and not Mr. Hart, can you?”
“I suppose that I can’t say that with 100-percent certainty.”
“And after all your poking around the personal finances of those involved in the company, you can’t say that Mr. Griffith had control over that account,” he said, his voice rising as his confidence returned.
“Uh oh,” Rob whispered, nudging my elbow with his. “I think that was one question too far.”
By now, I was hanging on every word, along with the rest of the audience. Dottie looked thoughtful, then shook her head.
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I can’t imagine who else would pay for Mr. Griffith’s mail-order bride.”
The collective gasp in the courtroom could have sucked all the oxygen out of the thirteenth floor. A delicious thrill ran through me as the smug lawyer was smacked around again by Dottie Russell. I was really starting to like her.
“I mean, unless you think Mr. Hart paid thirteen-thousand dollars last year to an internet business called Russian Brides For You, but I think that’s unlikely, don’t you? Mr. Hart has been married for seventeen years to Mrs. Hart, and as far as I know, he didn’t purchase her online. And Mrs. Griffith, the new one I mean, is a recent immigrant from Russia. So that leads me to conclude that the person who had control over the account was your client.”
The courtroom was silent as the attorney stood at the podium. He seemed unsure of whether to continue or give up. The only sound in the room was the shuffling of papers as Mr. Styler regrouped from the beating he was taking.
Oh yeah, this woman was my new hero.
“Any further questions?” Dottie asked.
“Uh, no.” Mr. Styler turned and sat next to his client, who was resting his head in his hands.
“Ms. Russell, you’re free to go,” Judge Smith said. “We’ll take our morning break now.”
We stood as the jury filed into the room off the side of the courtroom. I had become so engrossed in Dottie’s testimony that I hadn’t noticed the room had filled to capacity, with a few people standing in the back. Word must have traveled through the building that there was something worth watching. After the door to the jury room closed, the judge disappeared into his chambers, and the audience began leaving, a low murmur of amusement rising as the attorneys and courthouse staff rehashed the testimony they’d just watched.
I followed Rob into the hallway, navigating around the crowds of courthouse staff.
“That was entertaining, but I still don’t know why you wanted me here,” I said.
“I want you to meet Dottie,” Rob said. “She’s an old friend of mine and one of the best forensic accountants in the state. It would be a good thing for you to get to know her.”
He took my elbow and steered me toward the windows. Dottie Russell joined us in a cloud of Chanel No. 5. Though I was only five-foot five-inches tall, I towered over this tiny rock star of an accountant.
“You must be Miranda,” she said, taking my hand and shaking it with great enthusiasm. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Thank you. I really enjoyed watching your testimony.”
She laughed. “Those young pup lawyers have got to learn when to stop asking questions, right Rob?”
“I think they both learned a valuable lesson today,” he said.
“Rob says you’re working on his white-collar cases now,” Dottie said.
“I help out when I can,” I said.
In truth, though, Rob hadn’t taken on a new fraud defendant in a couple months, so I wasn’t working full-time any longer. My skills, which involved reading financial reports and studying bank records, just weren’t needed in cases where our clients were charged with selling drugs or buying illegal firearms. I knew Rob was trying to keep me busy and earning some money, but there was only so much work he could throw my way.
This wasn’t a huge problem for me as my overhead was fairly low. I was living in my childhood home now that Aunt Marie had moved in with Rob, and the house was paid for. So was my car, a semi-reliable decade-old Volkswagen GTI. I didn’t have any debt except for property taxes on the house and my family’s cabin at Lake Tahoe. I didn’t need a huge salary.
But I also couldn’t work part-time forever. I’d worked in finance and understood the need to build up a retirement nest egg.
Basically, I needed to rebuild my career, but I was still unsure as to what that career would be. Sure, I enjoyed the work enough, and it was nice that my best friend, Sarah, was Rob’s paralegal. But it wasn’t what I imagined my career would be. Unfortunately, financial services seemed to be out, since my arrest on fraud charges was so high profile. The fact that I’d been acquitted didn’t matter to the human resources department at major investment banks. All the hiring committee members would recall was the image of me being led out of Patterson Tinker Investment Services with my hands cuffed behind me. I kept hoping that the stigma would fade, but a year after I was found not guilty, and I was still unemployable.
Dottie gave me a warm smile and handed me a business card. “I could use some help, if you’ve got some time. Rob said you’d be uniquely suited for this project.”
I took the card. “Sure, I guess I could do that.”
She looked me over with an appraising eye. “You like Lake Tahoe?”
My mind flashed back to happy childhood memories of hiking and camping and to my more recent acquisition of the Vaughn family cabin that sat far up a mountainside that overlooked the sparkling blue waters. “Of course, who doesn’t?”
“I’m doing an internal audit of a family-owned resort. It’s not a huge job, and I’ve worked with the family for years, so I’m quite familiar with the operation, but it would be nice to have another set of eyes on the books. If you’re interested, come by my office after lunch, and I’ll fill you in,” Dottie said.
I nodded, but before I could voice my agreement, she was speed walking toward the elevator, pausing occasionally to return greetings from some of the courthouse regulars.
“Have you worked with Ms. Russell?” I asked Rob. “And why did you recommend me?”
“You’ve had some time on your hands. That means you’re spending idle time with Sarah, and nothing good can come of that.”
He may have a point there. Sarah did seem to gravitate toward trouble.
“You’ll like working with Dottie,” Rob said, his expression hopeful that I’d grab the opportunity he had clearly engineered for me. “She’s a bit unorthodox, but she’s the best in the business. It would be good for your career to work with her.”
“Are you firing me?” I asked, figuring it was better to get the bad news out there.
He laughed. “No way. You’ve been invaluable to the firm. But if I don’t have enough work for you, I think it would be good for you to branch out a little. Dottie’s got a good reputation. And plenty of work.”
I mulled this over as we followed the crowd toward the elevators. It would be nice to earn a little more money. I wouldn’t mind upgrading my car eventually. The little white hatchback had so many dents that Sarah had dubbed it the Golf Ball. And while I loved living in the house I’d grown up in, the two-bedroom bungalow needed some cosmetic renovations. With a little extra money, I could finally rip out the pink shag carpet in my childhood bedroom.
“I guess I could meet with her,” I said.
“Good,” Rob said with a nod. “Are you on your way to the bridal shop now to meet with Marie?”
“Oh, damn it,” I said, grabbing Rob’s wrist and looking at his watch. “I’m late. Gotta run.”
“Tell my beautiful bride hello for me,” he said, hitting the elevator button for me and then turning to greet another defense attorney.
I turned at the sound of my name, and my heart skipped at the sight of Jake Barnes striding through the crowd toward me. He was wearing a suit, which never failed to make my mouth water. Seeing the FBI agent standing tall above the rest of the crowd made my pulse quicken. It was a sight I should have been used to, since Jake had been living in the apartment over my garage for the last three months while his house was being renovated. Unfortunately, he had been out of town investigating cases or at training seminars for much of that time, so I’d spent more time with his dog, Hank. I hadn’t actually laid eyes on the tall, dark-haired agent in more than two weeks while he was off learning new crime-fighting skills or something.
“What are you doing here?”
His greeting was sincere and warm. The glances from several prosecutors standing nearby echoed the same question but with suspicion. I could see it in the quick exchange of puzzled looks and the whispered asides. Why was a federal agent chatting up a former criminal defendant? Why was she even here?
“Rob asked me to meet him here,” I said as the elevator doors slid open. I stepped in quickly to get away from the pack of attorneys and courthouse staff who were studying us.
Jake followed me and hit the ground floor button for me, then another floor for a pair of federal prosecutors who joined us. We rode in an awkward silence about halfway down the building until the attorneys filed off to go to their offices.
“You coming, Barnes?” one asked as he stepped out of the elevator.
Jake shook his head. “I’ll catch up with you later.”
The young man glanced at me, smirked, and turned away. I moved to the middle of the elevator as the door slid shut.
“How have you been?” Jake asked.
“Okay. It’s nice to be home. Thanks for taking care of Hank.”
“He’s no problem.”
I liked having the big mutt around. The house felt too empty with Aunt Marie gone. She’d left behind Kvetch, her ornery orange cat, but he didn’t appreciate having me as a roommate. I didn’t entirely trust him not to kill me in my sleep. Hank, at least, always seemed happy to see me. Even though Kvetch would be more of a threat to an intruder, the dog’s massive size was enough to deter anyone who might want to break into the house.
The elevator continued its slow descent, and despite my extreme discomfort at the surroundings, my mind immediately flashed to some of the more…interesting times when Jake and I had been alone together over the past year. It was the first time I could remember wanting to be trapped in an elevator.
My hopes were dashed when the doors opened to let me out at the lobby. Jake followed me and then put a hand on my arm to stop me.
“Hey, I know we haven’t really had much time to hang out this summer, but I’m done with traveling for a while. Would you like to get dinner tonight?”
My mouth went dry at the invitation. This was what I’d been craving for months—a chance to be alone with Jake, to move things along in our fledgling flirtation. And the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The construction on his house was running way over the deadline, so he was probably going to be living in my backyard until the end of summer. I had plenty of time on my hands, since Rob didn’t have much work for me. We could put behind us all the drama and conflict that had kept us apart in the past.
I opened my mouth to answer as the door across the hall opened, disgorging a half-dozen men who came in from the secured parking lot. They greeted Jake by name, and I recognized several as federal prosecutors and guessed by the thick necks, broad shoulders, and suspicious stares that the others were law enforcement. Again, the wave of uneasiness came over me as Jake returned their greetings.
Then a tall, slim woman in a dark pantsuit walked through the door, and our eyes locked. FBI Special Agent Bethany Boylan gave me a steady and unfriendly stare. Jake’s stunning partner had no love for me. And it was mutual. It was hard to say what I was more jealous of—her supermodel good looks or that she spent her days working alongside Jake.
“The meeting’s in ten minutes in the conference room,” she said to Jake, pointedly ignoring me.
“I’ll be right there,” Jake said, making no move to follow the agents into a waiting elevator.
His eyes were still on me as his colleagues were whisked up a dozen floors. They were gone, but there would be more of them walking by any second. This was the federal courthouse where Jake’s colleagues spent their days investigating suspected criminals—and where last year they had tried, and failed, to build a case that would have put me in prison for a decade. From the pounding of my heart, it was clear, I hadn’t let that go yet.
“I should go,” I said, backing away, my breathing shallow. “I have to meet Aunt Marie.”
“Sure,” Jake said, turning and stepping into an elevator to go back upstairs.
As the doors slid closed, I realized that I hadn’t given him an answer.
Want to read on? Lucky Penny is available to preorder at these online retailers! Available everywhere on December 14th!
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