Val reclined her chair back and took a sip from the tiny glass of orange juice the stewardess had handed her. Flying coach didn’t bother her, but she wished one of the “more leg room” seats had been available as an upgrade. At 5’7” she fit into the standard seats easily enough but getting to stretch out a little more was always a good thing.
Being trapped in the back wasn’t all bad though. Tam and Anna had scored seats closer to the front of the plane that was whisking them off to the west coast, but by keeping her original boarding pass, Val got to sit with JB which she always enjoyed.
“Tessa’s lawyer will be able to meet with us once we touch down,” JB said, looking up from their laptop.
“Were you able to get Margaret Hemmings to handle the case?” Val asked. Margaret was a member of the Second Chance Club and a practicing defense attorney in California. She’d helped them on a couple of the assignments already and generally had solid legal advice when they needed to check with someone.
“No, she’s tied up in a case down in San Diego,” JB said. “She was able to recommend someone though, Noelle Lee, one of the associates at her firm.”
“If Maggie trained her, she’ll be good,” Val said, setting her hand on JB’s arm for encouragement.
“I hope so.” JB’s expression belied their words, worry pressing a heavy weight on their eyes and mouth. “This should never have happened.”
“Yeah, well, it’s our job to make sure what’s going to happen happens to the right person, and that’s not your sister,” Val said.
“I keep telling myself that,” JB said. “You and Tam and Anna have got a good track record. And she’s innocent. That’s got to be enough.”
JB leaned sideways and rested their head on Val’s shoulder.
It was an unusual thing to see JB at something other than their best. They were usually a calm harbor of refuge no matter how chaotic a storm Val and the others found themselves swept up in. It was JB who acted as the Second Chance Club’s primary public liaison. They had a knack for connecting with people and understanding what those people needed to hear to do their job. Even when there was an exceptionally good reason to panic, JB would be there with quiet and reasonable suggestions for people that could help make the situation better.
But no one can be strong and unaffected all the time.
Val left her hand on JB’s arm and ran the fingers of her other hand through their hair, trying to soothe away the worries that were eating away at the JB she knew. It wasn’t great to see them distraught, but it was nice to get to support them for a change.
“It will be enough,” she said. “Your sister is not going to do jail time. One way or another, I am not going to let that happen.”
“But it’s not that easy.” JB sighed. “Her life is already in a shambles. This is just another nail in the coffin.”
Val drew JB’s hair back over their ear. JB didn’t keep their hair long enough for anything interesting like braids but since Val was in the same boat she was also aware of how relaxing it could be to have someone do something as simple as comb away the stress that tags along with deep worries and settles into the scalp.
“You said she lost a custody battle?” Val asked. “How many kids does she have?”
“Two, my niece and my nephew,” JB said. “I haven’t seen them in far too long either.”
“Did you have a falling out with her?” Val asked. She didn’t mind prying into people’s live in general but Val respected JB too much to want to force them to spill secrets they’d rather keep to themselves.
“With Tessa?” JB asked. “No. She’s always there for me. She was the first one I came out to, and she’s never been anything but supportive. Her husband on the other hand…”
“Not the most welcoming of guys I take it?” Val asked, guessing that she was probably going to have an urge to hit someone in a moment.
“He was fine at first,” JB said. “I didn’t like how he joked about Tessa though and I think that put me in his bad graces. I caught a part of one of the last arguments they had. ‘Freak’ was one of the nicer terms he threw out when he figured out Tessa was on the phone with me.”
“I’m guessing Tessa wasn’t happy with that either?”
“She divorced him,” JB said. “A few years later than she should have, but I can’t hold that against her. Especially with how the custody battle turned out.”
“Yeah, that’s unusual isn’t it?” Val asked. “Doesn’t the mother generally get the kids?”
“Technically, custody is decided in terms of what’s best for the child,” JB said. “A bit over 80% of the time the mother is the one custody goes to, but there are plenty of cases where that’s not what happens. Tessa and I stayed with my father when my parents split, for example.”
“Did that work out ok?” Val asked.
“Not really. I stayed at his place for a year and then left to live with one of my aunts. Tessa joined me about a year later.”
“I’m sorry. That sounds rough.”
“It worked out ok,” JB said. They seemed content to continue resting on Val’s shoulder, and Val had nowhere else to be until the plane landed on the west coast. “My aunt was great, and my parents managed to turn things around eventually. We talk on holidays now.”
“So what happened with your sister? Why did she lose the kids?” Val asked.
“It was pretty simple. She was out of work, and he wasn’t,” JB said. “Wouldn’t have been a big deal probably, except that she was fired from her job a month before the custody hearing and charged with embezzling.”
“I could see how that might weigh against her,” Val said. “What was up with the embezzling charge?”
“She’s still fighting it,” JB said. “Supposedly the case against her there is weak. The only evidence they had was a server log that tied her account to the thefts but the company had a data breach before the funds went missing, and hers was one of the accounts that was exposed.”
“And no one told her?” Val asked.
“They did, and she secured the account, but the damage was done in the period where she was exposed.”
“That sounds really fishy,” Val said. “Someone happens to line her up to take the fall for a career ending theft, and then she’s framed for murder?”
“I know. It’s stupid, but it could play with a jury,” JB said. “The prosecutors for the embezzlement charge paint her as a woman desperate for some extra money because she’s left her husband. The murder prosecutor paints her as a woman desperate for revenge on the man who took her kids away from her. Both of them point to the other accusation as support that she’s unbalanced and capable of anything.”
“Or,” Val said. “We find the person who really killed Judge Klairborn, and when that case falls apart, the Tessa’s defense lawyer for the embezzling charge is able to point to it as part of conspiracy against her and discredit the prosecution’s paltry server logs.”
JB smiled and glanced up at Val.
“I could see that,” they said. “It still leaves her in a tough place though. No job, and no kids.”
“Yeah, that’s not the best,” Val said. “Good thing we don’t have to solve all her problems at once.”
“It would be more convenient though,” JB said, resting against Val’s shoulder once more.
The extended hair massage had achieved the desired effect and left JB more relaxed than they’d been since news of Tessa’s plight first came in. By the time the stewardess came around to ask whether anyone wanted a microscopic bag of chips for a meal, the two were fast asleep.
Noelle Lee was ready and waiting for her clients when they arrived. She had papers ready, and her case laid out. That was the good news.
The bad news was that more evidence had surfaced against Tessa.
“These came in about an hour ago,” Noelle said, passing copies of the evidence reports to everyone in the room.
“Crime scene results?” Tam asked, glancing at the dossiers label.
“They place Ms. Ogden at the scene of Judge Klairborn’s murder. Fingerprints on his door handle, and on his desk. DNA too from her blood.”
“She left blood at the scene?” Tam asked, flipping the dossier open to study it as she powered on her laptop.
“And a broken glass,” Noelle said.
“But I thought he was electrocuted?” Val said.
“He was. Tied to a chair and then connected to a power cable that was cut from one of his floor lamps.” Noelle pushed a photo to the center of the table in their meeting room. It showed the deceased Judge Klairborn, still tied to his chair with a pair of wires tapped to his chest.
“How is this supposed to add up?” Val asked. “Tessa came in, tied him to a chair, and then broke his glass so that she could bleed on his room a little before plugging him into the wall?”
“The prosecutor will say it shows a pattern of erratic behavior,” Noelle said. “It goes along with the narrative of her being distraught and enraged by the decision against her in the custody trial.”
“Tessa can offer another explanation though I believe,” Anna said, the ghost of a question lingering over a field where certainty was taking root.
“She can. Ms. Ogden has stated that she did visit the judge’s office on the night in question. She did not previously disclose that she had broken a glass, but she was not asked any questions in relation to that either. When I spoke with her a few minutes ago, she said she dropped a glass of water which Judge Klairborn handed to her when she learned that he had not summoned her to the office to work out a revised plan for the custody agreement.”
“That’s not enough to clear her though, is it?” Tam asked.
“I’m afraid not,” Noelle said. “With the physical evidence in place, the prosecution can show that Ms. Ogden had the means, motive and opportunity to commit the murder. That alone isn’t necessarily enough for a conviction but the rest will depend on what they can get the jury to believe concerning Ms. Ogden’s overall character.”
“What will you be presenting in her defense?” Anna asked.
“We have character witnesses that we can call,” Noelle said.
“Yes. Definitely,” JB said. The worry Val had massaged away was back, though it was suppressed under a sheet of professionalism that was cool enough to turn metals into superconductors.
“How much is the embezzling charge going to hurt her there?” Val asked.
“That’s where things get a bit uncertain,” Noelle said. “The accusation alone won’t be admissible as evidence. Ms. Ogden isn’t guilty of anything until a verdict is rendered in that case. Also, even if she is found guilty in that case, the conviction can only be used to attack her credibility. Any other witnesses we call, or evidence we present, won’t be affected by it.”
“That sounds good, but I’ve got to imagine it’s not that simple,” Val said.
“Juries aren’t perfect law-robots,” Noelle said. “What they hear in the courtroom can and will influence their opinions. Even learning that Ms. Ogden did not get custody of her children may leave some of the jurors questioning her innocence.”
“We have a very simple task ahead of us then,” Anna said. “For Tessa’s sake, we must make sure this case never goes into a trial against her.”
“I’m not sure that’s possible at this point,” Noelle said. “The date for the first hearing has already been set.”
“That gives us a timetable to work against,” Anna said. “But we have an advantage working in our favor. We already know who the guilty party is.”