Sneak Preview: Judgment at Santa Monica by E.J. Copperman
by Martin Brown on 30 July 2021
Legal mayhem at its finestKirkus Reviews Starred Review
Hollywood stars, sunshine, stabbings . . . New Jersey prosecutor turned family lawyer Sandy Moss gets mixed up in another celebrity murder case in the second Jersey Girl legal mystery, set in glamorous Santa Monica. Read on to get a sneak peak of the first chapter!
‘Is this the sock in question?’
I held up a long, ugly argyle knee sock and showed it to the witness, who was Elizabeth Corcoran, my second college roommate. I couldn’t remember where I’d gotten the sock and was trying to remember the charges that had been brought against Liz, who was also the defendant.
‘I can’t be sure that’s the exact sock, but it was one that certainly looked just like that.’ Liz had always been good at assessing the situation, so she knew to answer the questions directly and not incriminate herself. In . . . something . . .
‘And where did you find the sock that evening?’ I asked, again unsure as to exactly where that question had come from.
Liz looked up at the judge, a stern-looking man I didn’t recognize. ‘Do I have to answer that?’ she asked.
‘You have to answer unless you feel the response will incriminate you, in which case you would invoke the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution,’ he answered.
Liz nodded, not the least pleased with that idea. ‘What was the question?’ She was buying time as I was trying to figure out why she looked exactly the same as she did in college, which was fifteen years earlier.
The court reporter, a dowdy-looking woman in her fifties who bore a striking resemblance to my Aunt Helene, repeated, ‘Where did you find the sock that evening?’
Liz swallowed hard and gave me a look that I couldn’t read. Was it anger? Remorse? Pity? Then she took a deep breath and said, ‘I found it tied on the doorknob of our dorm room, Sandy.’
They tell you as a lawyer never to ask a question that you don’t know the answer to in advance. And I did know the answer to the question I was about to ask, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why I would be stupid enough to ask it.
‘And what significance did seeing that sock on the doorknob have for you?’
Liz’s look said it all: Really? You want to go there? But I had asked the question and it was her obligation as a sworn witness to answer it.
‘It meant you had a boy in our room, Sandy, and I shouldn’t come in because you were probably in bed with him.’
Yup. That was what it meant, all right. Mike Denton. Wow. What a jerk. Hang on; what was this all about, again?
I looked up at the judge, who for some reason was now my mother. ‘Is that true, Counselor?’ she asked. Or demanded. It was hard to tell.
‘Mom,’ I said.
‘You’ll refer to me as Your Honor or Judge,’ my mother insisted.
‘Your Honor,’ I corrected myself. ‘This information is not material to this case.’
‘Oh, I think it is, Ms Moss,’ my mother said. ‘And I think you know the consequences of this offense.’
My stomach was a knot. ‘No,’ I moaned.
‘Yes. You are grounded for a month and your father will be speaking to you about the dangers of premarital intercourse. You’re also held in contempt of court and sentenced to a year of community service followed by a public hanging.’
I opened my mouth to protest but no sound came out. It was like a dream where . . .
Hey, wait a minute . . .
I woke up sweating, but not sitting up straight in bed with my eyes wide like in the movies. The ceiling fan was on low so there was a gentle breeze, but my blanket, which I’d lugged all the way here from New Jersey less than a year ago, was made for winters in the Northeast, not late spring in Southern California.
Maybe that was why I had that bizarre vision in my sleep. It took me a full minute to remind myself that none of that had actually happened, that I’d clearly just been having a really odd nightmare, and that my mother was well aware that I was not as pure as the driven snow and hadn’t been for some years now.
But Liz Corcoran was definitely going to get a testy message on Facebook.
Well, I wasn’t going to fall back asleep, not after a corker like that one. So I stretched for a moment and then got out of bed and got dressed for running.
It should be noted that for the first thirty-plus years of my life in New Jersey I never went running. Not until I moved to Los Angeles, where everyone is so fit you figure they’re hiding all the fat people in a community dungeon, did I take up the practice. I have a very low tolerance for dungeons.
And I sincerely hate running. Putting on sweats and sneakers is fine with me – that’s my natural state of fashion – but then going outside and pushing myself back and forth on the streets, up and down hills and back again without ever reaching a desirable destination? That’s a form of self-torture that I could easily have lived without. Not as long probably, but more enjoyably.
You might very well be wondering why I put myself through it, and if I had a defensible answer I would offer it to you. But the fact is I was running because I compared myself with other women in the area I lived, came up short in my own mind, and was taking steps to try to narrow the gap. And my thighs.
I didn’t tiptoe through the living room even though Angie was sleeping in the other bedroom just off the main area. My best and longest-tenured friend, Angie had flown to LA just a few weeks after I’d moved in, the circumstances of which I’ve explained elsewhere. She’d shown up as ‘protection’ for me under extraordinary circumstances and then stayed because she decided she liked it here and besides, I couldn’t be trusted with my own safety.
So I’d given up the one-bedroom apartment and moved to a two-bedroom three flights up in the same building. Angie had insisted on the smaller quarters and promised to pay her half of the rent (prorated to reflect the fact that I had the bigger bedroom) as soon as she found a job. She was negotiating with Dairy Queen, for whom she’d been working in New Jersey, and was told they might be able to find her a similar position in Santa Clarita or Redondo Beach. Angie had said that was great and then we quickly googled maps to try and figure out where those places might be. We still really didn’t have the lay of the land in the City of Angels.
It had been months and Dairy Queen, which insisted it didn’t want Angie to leave its employ, had not yet found a job for her other than distributing soft serve, which was about six levels below where she’d been. Angie was, let’s say, exploring other options.
She almost never sleeps so trying to keep quiet as I passed was a pointless exercise as I prepared to exercise, which I was beginning to think was also pointless. Life is cyclical.
Sure enough she stuck her head out while I headed for the door. ‘Running?’ she asked.
‘No. I’m going on a hot date at seven in the morning dressed like I’m training for the Olympics.’
‘Pick up some light cream.’
I gave her my best withering look. ‘Where in this outfit do you think I keep my wallet?’ I asked.
‘Who told you to buy sweats with no pockets?’ Angie asked.
‘They were all the rage.’ They were discontinued and $12 on OldNavy.com.
‘You got your phone so they can call me in case they need someone to come identify the body?’ Angie’s mind tends to go dark at odd times.
‘Good. You can pay with that.’ Angie went back into her room and closed the door.
I was out on the street and starting to raise my heart rate before I had digested that. I love Angie more than if she were my own sister (and my sister knows that) but I was chafing a little at the way she was counting on me for . . . everything. I don’t begrudge her a thing and she was looking for a job so paying for stuff like cream wasn’t at all a concern. It was the casual assumption that I would, without a please or thank you, that was gnawing at me this morning.
Or maybe it was the case I was going to court with in another four hours.
I ran up whatever street this was (who pays attention when you’ve got GPS on your phone?) considering how to convince a judge that my client, a forty-two-year-old mother of three, should not have been charged with prostitution because she had been ‘flirting’ online with a man who turned out to be a woman who turned out to be a vice cop looking for violators. Madelyn Forsythe was the most suburban woman in the world and honestly had no idea she was doing anything other than indulging what she considered to be a slightly naughty impulse.
The problem was that cops are cops and the charges were pending about a month after Maddie had divorced her husband, who had been indulging his naughty impulses with a dental hygienist for eight months and oddly was not brought up on any charges whatsoever. If justice is truly blind, it’s also fairly tone deaf.
I had agreed to represent Maddie because the firm I work for, Seaton, Taylor, Evans and Wentworth (formerly Seaton, Taylor, Evans and Bach, but that’s another story) wanted me to. We’re a family law specialty firm but, since I used to be an assistant county prosecutor in New Jersey, I tend to get the cases that have a Venn Diagram overlap with criminal matters. So I would go to court for Maddie over her charges, which were ridiculous. Prostitution involves the exchange of money as well as bodily fluids. Maddie had demanded neither.
But I knew, after some months, the judge who’d be hearing the case, and he was not likely to care about the particulars. A woman ‘soliciting herself’ online while her children slept in the next room? She’d be in jail and her kids would be calling the dental hygienist ‘Mommy’ before I could introduce the explanation. But just to be sure I had put the cop who arrested her on my witness list. Let her explain why she thought Maddie was a sex worker.
I was about half a mile from my apartment and playing Strauss’s ‘Tales From the Vienna Woods’ in my earbuds as I ran. Since I was a little girl I have always tested myself against the music in my head. If I reach that tree before this chord change or that part of the pavement before the tempo picks up, I can consider myself a winner. And since I get to set the rules, I win almost all the time. It’s like a constant race. I don’t even notice myself doing it all the time.
No, I don’t know why I do that. It wasn’t making me run faster. People are weird and I am a person. But I do it all the time. If I can beat that car in the street to this tree, if I can get down the stairs before that lyric, if I can make it to that line in the pavement before the guy walking toward me . . . it all seems to matter somehow. It’s one of the ways I motivate myself, I guess.
I made it past the one lone palm tree on the street before Strauss decided to start a new movement, but just barely. At only a half-mile I had pretty much exhausted myself, which was sad but better than the week before, which was sadder. There was a little tiendita on the corner where I could pick up the cream for Angie, so I took a break, checked my pulse (I had one) on my watch and walked inside.
The dairy case was in the back of the store. I walked through and nobody noticed the sweaty, poorly dressed woman because they had, you know, lives. I stopped at a cooler a few feet away and took out a bottle of water – just water, not flavored or jazzed up with nutrients – for myself. Then I found a small carton of half and half (Angie would have to cope; it was a tiendita) and took both to the counter.
Standing there was Angie.
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked her.
Angie’s face was emitting beams that were equally concerned and elated. ‘You’ll never guess who called me. Is that half and half?’
‘You came here to tell me about a phone call? You could text, you know. And yeah, it’s half and half. If you can find light cream in a tiendita, be my guest.’
The guy behind the counter looked over at me. ‘Far cooler,’ he said, pointing.
Angie gave me a look. An Angie look. ‘Far cooler,’ she repeated.
So we walked over to the far cooler, stopping just long enough for me to replace the half and half I’d taken out less than a minute earlier. ‘How did you know I’d be here?’ I asked her.
‘This is as far as you can run without collapsing,’ she said. ‘I used to be a personal trainer, remember?’
‘You used to work at Planet Fitness. You wiped down the machines.’ Sure enough there was a refrigerated rack three sections away from where I’d been where there were various varieties of milk and one of them was light cream. Angie reached over and took a container then handed it to me because I was the one with the money.
‘You got me off track,’ she said. ‘Guess who called.’
‘I don’t want to guess. Who?’ There was a bead of sweat rolling straight down my spine and all I could think was that if
I stayed with Angie and carried the cream, I could walk home instead of running.
‘Come on.’ Angie loves games. I hate games. Except for trying to beat the music in my head to the next tree. That’s a game, right?
‘Beyoncé,’ I tried.
Angie’s eyes widened to the size of silver dollar pancakes. Or silver dollars. ‘That would be so amazing,’ she said.
She rolled her eyes; I was clearly not playing along in the way she’d rehearsed it in her head. ‘Patrick McNabb.’
Oh no. Not again.
Awesome characters in believable settings. Lots of twists and turns. Fast paced fun read with intrigue galoreRenee Winter, 5* Goodreads review