Seven members of one family are found murdered in their homes in the heart of Ohio farm country. No one saw. No one heard. Everyone has a theory and a motive.
With the ink still wet on her divorce decree, prosecutor Mara Brent catches the case that shocks the nation. Suspicion grows as the investigation gets underway pitting neighbor against neighbor. The press dubs the victims the Sutter Seven and almost everyone in town has a finger to point. Were the Sutters victims or villains?
Mara hopes tensions will cool when an arrest is made and the trial unfolds. But it only opens up fragile fault lines and old family feuds that erupt in more violence. To make matters worse, Mara must face down her toughest courtroom adversary yet. The defendant has hired one of the country’s top defense lawyers and the woman who taught Mara everything she knows. Revelations at trial will test old alliances and uncover new enemies as Mara fights to restore order to her hometown.
Can Mara bring the killer to justice before the whole town implodes?
Release date: February 15, 2021
Publisher: Robin James Books
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Hand of Justice
Copyright © 2021 by Robin James Books
All Rights Reserved
If a tornado hit the Blue Pony at 5:27 p.m. that particular Friday night, the Waynetown justice system would cease to exist. It wasn’t my scene. Not really. I was more of a wine-in-the-bubble-bath kind of drinker. But my boss, Kenya, had made my attendance at the Pony after work mandatory. “Just try to act surprised,” she said. “Oh, and if you try to worm your way out of it, I’ll make you cover traffic court for the whole summer.”
I laughed until I saw her steely-eyed stare. Kenya Spaulding, Chief Prosecutor of Maumee County, told jokes, but she didn’t kid around.
As I walked in, the bar itself was almost empty. A game room with pool tables, vintage eighties arcade games, and pinball machines came in from the right. I bypassed it, heading for the tables. The muscle-bound bartender with the slicked-back hair lifted his chin when he saw me.
“Another lawyer?” he said cheerfully, taking in my crisp dark suit and three-inch Sergio Rossi pumps. “Your group’s in the back.”
Smiling, I walked around the bar and headed down the dark hallway into the restaurant. They’d taken up four long tables. In the corner sat Kenya, Howard Jordan (who everyone called Hojo unless they were from out of town), Caro, our office manager, and the entire appellate court team.
The judiciary took up the second table. Judges Saul and Ivey from Common Pleas, along with Judge DeCamp from Muni court. Their spouses. A few of my favorite defense attorneys had a table well in the back, away from the final grouping in the other corner. Detectives Gus Ritter, Sam Cruz, the sex squad, and a few from upper command rounded out the law enforcement group. As I stepped into the dim light of the room, a cheer went up and everyone raised their glasses.
I felt a hot blush creep up my cheeks. Sweat formed beneath my collar. Then Kenya was there.
“First round’s on me,” she said, handing me a shot glass.
Tequila. I could smell it. The crowd waited. There was no getting out of it.
“Bottoms up!” Hojo called from the end of the table. He had his own shot glass poised for my signal.
“I gotta get home somehow,” I said under my breath.
Kenya laughed and pushed the glass closer. I did the shot. She handed me a lemon wedge. I got a round of applause.
“Congratulations,” Kenya said, putting her arm around me. She led me to the prosecutors’ table. It was then I noticed the banner taped to the wall. Well, not so much a banner as 8 1/2 x 11 copy paper printed with red lettering.
The tequila warmed my belly and loosened my nerves.
“It’s okay,” Kenya whispered as Hojo held a chair out for me. “Today you get to be happy about it.”
She was right. The cause for this little celebration was still folded up in the bottom of my briefcase, the ink barely dry on it. Its timestamp read May 18th, 4:51 p.m. Judgement of the Court. Dissolution of Marriage. Judge Saul had actually been the one to sign it. She must have lit out for the Blue Pony right before me.
I was divorced. Single again. Free. Out of habit, my thumb went to the base of the ring finger on my left hand. I hadn’t worn my wedding ring in nearly a year. It sat in a teacup along with my engagement ring on my kitchen ledge next to a succulent my son brought home from school. He’d made the pot in ceramics class.
“I am happy,” I admitted. “It’s just …”
“Weird,” Kenya answered for me. “I know. I remember.” Kenya had what she called a starter marriage years before we met.
“Gets easier,” Hojo chimed in. He would know. He’d been married and divorced three times. Kenya just the once, though I’d only recently learned that. The little charge I’d gotten out of the tequila faded a bit. The three of us made up the litigation team for the prosecutors’ office. Not one of us could keep our marriage intact. Though, in my case, I wouldn’t take all the blame for it. I could have forgiven a lot of things. Jason’s cheating wasn’t one of them.
“What’ll you have?” A waitress appeared. She set a beer down in front of Hojo and a rocks glass in front of Kenya.
“Uh ... I’ll do a margarita,” I said. “And did anyone order any food?”
“Pizzas are coming,” the waitress answered. I thanked her. Settling into my seat, this whole thing felt like a reverse wedding shower. And it kind of was. But Kenya was right. Dang it, if she wasn’t always.
It would take time to adjust to my new status. Time to figure out exactly how I’d navigate life as a single mom of a ten-year-old boy with special needs. But today felt good to celebrate.
It got a little crazy after that. I made my way from table to table, thanking everyone for coming. Lord, it felt like a reverse wedding reception. I made it to the “cop table” last. By then, only Gus and Sam remained. The others had bellied up to the bar to catch a basketball game. The Cavs were playing.
“You good?” Gus asked. He too knew his way around divorce court.
“How many for you?” I asked.
Gus held two fingers up. “The first former Mrs. Ritter barely counts, though. That was before I entered the police academy.”
“Lucky for you,” Sam chimed in. “She’d be throwing pension check parties with the second former Mrs. Detective Ritter.”
Gus smiled even wider. “Bought her out. Gave her the house. Had that sucker paid off. Plus, I caught her cheating on me with the neighbor. Got lucky I drew old Judge Mattis. Turns out the first former Mrs. Judge Mattis pulled a similar number on him.”
This got a laugh at first from Sam. Then the two of them went silent.
“Uh, sorry, Mara,” Sam offered. “Not trying to make light of …”
“No,” I said, putting a hand up. “It’s okay. Really. Might as well laugh about all of this sometimes. It’s better than the alternative.”
“How’s Will holding up?” Sam asked. “You know what? Forget I asked. This is a party. And it’s none of my business.”
I reached across the table and touched his arm. “We’re friends,” I said. “And I know you’re not asking me for gossip’s sake, Sam. The answer is, good ... ish.”
“Ready for another margarita?” The waitress practically sang it.
I put a hand over the top of my glass. “I’m good.” It was then I noticed Sam wasn’t drinking at all. He had a glass of ice water in front of him. Gus finished his third beer and waved the girl off from any more.
“He taking you home?” I asked Gus. This garnered a sheepish grin from him and outright laughter from Sam.
“She is,” Sam explained. I turned my head to follow his gaze.
“Well, I’ll be,” I said, whistling. Paula Dudley, the bar’s owner, weaved her way through the tables, checking on every patron. She was a pretty woman with striking white hair and black, circular-framed glasses. She’d gotten the bar after her divorce from the first former Mr. Dudley whose family opened it in 1962.
“Well done, Gus,” I said.
Sam poked him in the arm, still laughing.
“Just make sure you take your heart medication.”
“Zip it,” Gus said, his voice like sandpaper over gravel. “Both of ya.”
At that point, Paula Dudley caught Gus’s eye. She was blushing all right. So was Gus. He cleared his throat and scooted out of his chair, leaving Sam and me alone.
“Oh my,” I said. “I didn’t know Gus had it in him.”
“I don’t think Paula did either,” Sam said.
“I mean ... he’s smiling!” I said. “And uh, is that what it sounds like when Gus Ritter laughs?”
Paula sidled up to Gus and threaded her arm through his. She planted a kiss on his cheek and I swear his eyes actually twinkled.
“How long’s that been going on?” I asked.
“About a month,” Sam answered. “She’s got a cousin who works in the property room. I don’t know how she did it, but she fixed them up.”
“Well, good,” I said. “Gus deserves some fun in his life.”
Sam’s eyes went a little dark telegraphing his thoughts. I knew what he wanted to say. I deserved some fun too.
“Thanks for being here,” I said. “I had no idea Kenya was putting this all together.”
A strange expression came into his eyes.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “This was your idea?”
Sam cleared his throat. “Not just me. Gus said something to Paula and …” The rest of his sentence trailed off. There was a dart game going on, and it looked like Kenya had just wiped the floor with Judge Ivey. There was an equal amount of cheers as grumbles as those who’d bet on the game squared up.
“Well thank Gus and Paula for me,” I said. “And you. A night out was a great idea.”
Sam reached for the pitcher of water. He was about to fill his glass when his cell phone went off. It lit up and vibrated on the table in front of him.
His expression fell when he saw the caller ID. I didn’t even ask him about it before I saw Kenya’s smile fade to a frown as she pulled out her own ringing phone.
Sam stuck one finger in one ear and held his phone to the other. His eyes caught Kenya’s as she listened to whatever bad news her caller delivered.
“How many?” Sam asked. “Are you sure? That can’t ... Holy ... Yeah. Okay. You better get B.C.I. down. I’m at the Pony. I can be there in fifteen.”
Kenya had hung up with her caller. The partygoers yelled after her as she waved off a rematch.
Sam hung up. He pressed his hand to his forehead. Then he slammed his fist to the table.
“Sam?” Kenya asked.
“It’s mine,” he answered her. “I’m heading out to the farm now. Can you try to keep this from spreading through the bar, at least for tonight?”
“Of course,” she said.
Sam rose to his feet. Gus had his back to him. Sam gave me a pained look, then hustled toward the front door.
Kenya put a hand on my arm. “We need to go,” she said. “You sober?”
“Sober enough,” I said. “What’s going on?”
Kenya pulled us down a dark hallway by the service entrance. We waited as a server hustled past us.
“Multiple homicide,” she said. “Out in farm country. Redmond Road. The Sutter family. Sam’s going to need us out there. We should go.”
The Sutters. They were a big family. Waynetown business owners. It seemed like almost everyone in town could claim some relation to them if you went far back enough.
“How many?” I asked.
Kenya slowly closed her eyes as she found her breath.
“Kenya. How many?” I whispered.
She opened her eyes. “All of them, Mara. All of them.”
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