Excerpt: Lambda Finalist in Lesbian Mystery: The Acquittal by Anne Laughlin

THE ACQUITTAL

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CHAPTER ONE

Friday, February 15

Lauren flipped on the kitchen lights and saw the body of her lover sprawled at her feet, a bullet hole centered on her forehead. She knelt and felt for Kelly’s pulse. There was no need, really, since half of her head appeared to be stuck to the breakfast room wall. The body was still warm, the smell of the gunshot still fresh in the air. Kelly’s glorious hair was fanned out and drenched in blood. Her arms and legs were shooting out at curious angles, so at odds with the graceful woman she’d been. Lauren had to turn away. She saw her own revolver on the floor a few feet from the body. When she touched it she could feel it was still warm as well.

A tremendous clatter came from the hallway behind her, booming in the dead quiet. Lauren grabbed the revolver and shot blindly, splintering a kitchen cabinet. All was quiet for a moment before her cat came rocketing out of the doorway, galloped across the family room, and flew onto the fireplace mantel. She licked herself furiously. Lauren dropped the gun where she found it.

She sat next to the body and watched a small rivulet of blood make its way toward her, heedless of the ridiculously expensive business suit she wore. Kelly had given it to her as a gift. She was quite generous that way, as long as she was using Lauren’s credit card. She felt guilty thinking ill of Kelly. The things she complained about were the very things she’d found charming about her when they first got together.

The gift buying, the elaborate care she took of herself, the relentless cheerfulness morphed over time into reckless spending, shallowness, and inability to take anything seriously. They’d had a bad fight about her spending that morning.

But Lauren felt real sorrow. They’d been together a number of years. There’d been many good times. She stood and reached into her bag for her phone. She dialed 911 and then went to see if the cat was okay.

 CHAPTER TWO

Friday, September 6

The paint was barely dry on the walls when Josie Harper’s first client walked through her office door. Josie sat cross-legged on the floor of the reception room, trying to put together an Ikea chair. She hadn’t expected any business her first day, but now an exceedingly tall woman was standing with one hand on her door, reading the words stenciled on the glass—Josie Harper, Private Investigations.

Josie got up from the floor. She was shoeless and wore a tattered Led Zeppelin T-shirt and blue jeans. She was dressed for back-room assembly, not front-room sales.

“Can I help you?” Josie said. She could feel a flush of color move up her face.

“I’m Sarah DeAngeles. I have an appointment with Stan Waterman. I think his office is past yours.”

Sarah appeared to be in her thirties, good-looking, if your preferences ran to cheerleader faces and ponytails. Josie’s did not. She watched Sarah’s eyes as they traveled from her ancient ball cap, past her old 501s, down to her polka-dot socks. They might as well have been different species.

“Sure, I know Stan,” Josie said. He ran Shield Detectives down the hall.

“When I saw your name on the door I decided to come in,” Sarah said. “I’d much rather work with a woman on this matter.”

“Naturally,” Josie said. She had no idea what the matter was, but was happy to take advantage over a PI with more experience than her—a group that included every PI in Chicago.

“Is this a good time to talk?” Sarah said.

“Of course. Let’s go into my office.”

Sarah took a minute to cancel her appointment with Stan Waterman before following Josie through the Ikea detritus and into her office.

The window faced east toward Lake Michigan. The light streamed over the desk and visitor chairs that were fortunately assembled and ready for business. The rest of the room was a mess. Josie’s laminated wood desk would be peeling in a year’s time. It was littered with office supplies still in shrink wrap. Josie could see the wary look in Sarah’s eye as she took the chair in front of her desk.

“I’m sorry things are such a mess. Setting up an office is a real pain,” Josie said.

“But you’ve been in business for a while?”

“I was a cop for over ten years. I’ve been doing investigations for a long time.” Josie felt that was true, depending on what definition of “long” was being used. Or “investigations,” for that matter. She’d been a property crimes detective for a couple of years before leaving the department. “Why don’t you tell me what brings you here?”

“I’m a member of the board of directors for Wade-Fellows Publishing. Our president and editor-in-chief was recently acquitted of murdering her partner. We need help clearing her name and I’ve been put in charge of that effort,” Sarah said.

It took a moment for the words to sink in and Josie felt a twinge of panic. Murder? It didn’t seem possible her first case would involve murder. And Sarah hadn’t delivered the statement with the right amount of gravitas. She sounded like she was inquiring about getting new carpet for her home.

The Acqittal 300 DPI

“What did you say?” Josie said. She’d placed her hands flat on her desk and leaned slightly forward.

“You sound surprised. Haven’t you handled murder cases before?” Sarah said.

“Not as a private investigator. You won’t find many of us who have.” Josie didn’t want to tell Sarah that Stan Waterman was one of the few PIs with actual homicide experience. Hell, he was a former homicide detective.

“Then you have at least two things in your favor,” Sarah said. “You’re female and you have police experience. Should I tell you the story now?”

“Please.”

Sarah got herself settled in her chair. Apparently she was one of those women who constantly drink water. She’d already taken several long pulls from the bottle she’d walked in with. She dropped her bag to the floor and took another swig before shrugging out of an expensive high-tech climbing jacket Josie doubted would ever brush up against a mountain.

“Are you familiar with the Lauren Wade case?” she began.

“Not really. I’ve heard her name on the news once or twice.”

“It’s unusual for a woman to be accused of murdering her female lover. I’d have thought it would grab your attention.”

“Why would you say that?” Josie asked.

Sarah cocked her head to one side. “Am I getting this wrong? I read you as lesbian. I was thinking that I’d gotten very lucky when I walked through your door.”

Was she that obvious? Josie thought of herself as average. Average height and weight, average face. Not average lesbian. Simply average.

“For the record,” Sarah said. “I am too. But you probably guessed that.”

No, she hadn’t. She would have lost a lot of money on that bet.

“So your company is concerned?” Josie prompted.

“Yes, of course. Having our top executive arrested for anything would be of concern to the board, especially a murder charge. But Wades have always been at the head of the company; Lauren Wade is naturally given a lot of leeway before action would be taken against her by the board.”

“But she was acquitted,” Josie said.

“The board thinks that still leaves the question of whether she committed the murder hanging in the air. There was no evidence that she didn’t do it. The jury simply felt the prosecution didn’t meet their burden of proof. There are plenty of people in the business world who think she may be guilty.” Sarah looked hurt at that opinion, as if it reflected on her personally.

“Why is that a concern?” Josie asked. “The system says she’s not guilty.”

Sarah looked at Josie as if she’d just said something odd. Or stupid. “Obviously there are authors and companies who will refuse to do business with us.”

Josie shrugged. “What about the police? Won’t they be trying to catch the real killer?” Josie knew that was unlikely. Once someone’s acquitted, the file’s unofficially closed. The police always think they got it right the first time.

“I’m sure they think they already have. We’re not counting on further action from the police. We want you to identify the killer.”

Josie pulled a notebook out of her bag and wrote Lauren Wade’s name on a fresh page. The pages before it were filled with notes from when she was a police detective. “What’s your relationship with Lauren Wade?”

She’d been reading books on how to be a private investigator. One stressed the importance of knowing your client’s true motivation.

Sarah, however, seemed taken aback by the question. “Why do you need to know that?”

“It’s pretty basic information. Is there some reason you don’t want to tell me?” Josie said.

Out came the bottle of water again. Sarah appeared to be buying some time by taking a long drink. Finally she capped the bottle.

“Initially, Lauren and I had a strictly business relationship, which goes back a few years now. In addition to sitting on the board, I also publish books with Wade-Fellows. We’re not best friends or anything, but we’ve had enough meals together to say the relationship goes beyond business.”

“Did you urge the board to fund this investigation?” Josie said.

“I don’t know why you’re questioning my motives,” Sarah said, sounding a little annoyed. “I’m trying to help her, not harm her.”

Josie didn’t want to lose her first client before she even got started, so she backed off. “Why don’t you tell me the story and we can figure out where to go from there.”

Sarah relaxed and sat back in her chair. “I know a little about Lauren’s relationship with Kelly. They’d been together for five years when Kelly was murdered, and from what Lauren told me they were happy.”

“When did she tell you this?” Josie had zero experience in happy relationships.

“It was several weeks before Kelly was killed. They’d just finished redoing their house. I don’t think you do a renovation when your relationship’s on the rocks.”

“Why not?” Josie said. “People have babies to try to save relationships.”

“True, but Lauren seemed genuinely excited. I got the impression they were a pretty solid couple. It turns out there was trouble. But I’ll get to that.”

She didn’t think Sarah had been unhappy to hear Lauren and Kelly’s relationship was shaky.

“Tell me about the murder,” Josie said.

“You’ll find all this in the trial transcript, which I’ll give you, but the bare facts are Lauren came home around eight thirty on February fifteenth and found Kelly dead on the kitchen floor. She’d been shot through the head. When the police arrived they discovered Lauren’s own revolver next to the body and no sign of forced entry anywhere in the house. The gun had been recently fired and they found powder residue on Lauren’s hands. They took her in for questioning and then charged her with the murder.”

“How did Lauren explain the gun and the residue?”

Sarah leaned forward. “That’s what’s so weird about this whole thing. Lauren wouldn’t say anything at all to the police.”

“You mean she requested a lawyer?”

“No, she refused a lawyer. She wouldn’t say anything to defend herself. The detectives and their lieutenant took her refusal to answer questions as tantamount to a confession. They felt they had enough to charge her.”

Josie was drawing question marks in her notebook. “Tell me more about Lauren’s work.”

“Wade-Fellowes Publishing is an old family company. They produce hobby and lifestyle books,” Sarah said. She sounded very formal. “I write crafts books and publish with them, which is how I first knew Lauren. I joined the board only recently. I was scheduled to have a business lunch with her the day after her arrest and I had to call her office several times to find out why it was canceled. None of her staff would say anything, but one referred me to the Tribune’s website, where the story was breaking. Everyone was stunned, of course,” Sarah made this sound like she spoke for the nation.

“I left Lauren’s assistant a message with the name of the criminal defense attorney recommended by our general counsel, but I didn’t know at the time she was refusing counsel. Lauren eventually ended up using that lawyer. I was touched she took my advice.”

Josie looked up from her notebook. She saw Sarah had a little color on her cheeks. Even a PI with Josie’s limited experience could see she had a thing for Lauren, and the crush, or whatever it was, was probably enough to convince Sarah of Lauren’s innocence.

“The trial only took a few days,” Sarah continued, “and most of that was jury selection. Lauren didn’t take the stand. All her lawyer could do was argue the evidence was insufficient to meet the beyond-a reasonable-doubt standard.”

“Why do you think Lauren didn’t testify?” Josie found Lauren’s silence the most disturbing thing about the story. How could she help someone who didn’t want to be helped?

“I really don’t know,” Sarah said. “I haven’t had any contact with her other than sending her the attorney’s name. She refused to see me when I went to Cook County Jail for a visit.”

“So far I don’t see how Lauren got acquitted.”

“I think it was due to Nancy Prewitt, Lauren’s lawyer, who gave an amazing closing. She pointed out what I think the jury already thought—the prosecution had done a half-assed job and the police investigation may have been worse. The jury couldn’t see past the fact Lauren was unlikely to be stupid enough to shoot Kelly with her own gun and then leave it next to the body before calling the police.”

“The prosecution didn’t offer anything else at trial?”

Sarah looked uncomfortable. “The only other thing that came out was Kelly was having an affair with another woman and Lauren had recently found out about it. That’s what I meant about Kelly and Lauren not being as happy as I thought they were.”

It also gave Lauren a whopping motive. Josie contemplated what to say next. The case seemed tremendously fucked up and probably nothing but trouble. But it was a paying case—if she could manage to get hired.

“Have you considered the possibility my investigation may prove Lauren did murder Kelly?” Josie asked.

Sarah looked unconcerned. “There’s no downside. Lauren can’t be retried for the same crime. And after all, that’s the information the company wants an investigator to find.”

“True, but perhaps it’s something you’d rather not know.”

Sarah waved that away. “I’m not worried about it. I don’t believe for a minute she’d hurt anyone. But you can see how murky the whole thing is and why it’s important to remove that doubt.”

Josie couldn’t, really. She’d think Sarah would thank her lucky stars for the acquittal and leave it at that. It seemed Lauren had.

“I can check on the status of the police investigation,” Josie said. “I have contacts in homicide.” She thought that should impress Sarah.

“What does Lauren think of this effort of yours? She doesn’t seem very interested in keeping her name untarnished.”

Sarah fiddled with her water bottle. “She doesn’t know anything about it.”

Josie stopped writing and looked up, careful to take the sarcasm out of her voice. “You want me to find the person who killed Lauren’s girlfriend, presuming it’s not Lauren herself, without her knowledge? Won’t she know the board hired an investigator?”

“We’re not volunteering the information, but we’re aware she’ll find out as soon as the investigator starts interviewing people.” She paused. “You sound like you may believe she’s guilty. I need you to be on board.”

Josie didn’t believe in causes. She believed in paychecks and getting the job done. She stole a look at her watch. She was going to be late for her therapy appointment.

“I have an appointment I need to get to, so we’ll have to stop here. I have to think about this before I can agree to take your case.”

“Of course. And I’ve not yet decided whether to hire you,” Sarah said. She pulled a thick file out of her bag and pushed it across the desk. “You’d find most of this on the Internet, I imagine, but I’ll save you the time of looking it up. These are the media reports and trial transcript. Maybe you could read them and we’ll meet again tomorrow morning.”

Josie looked at the file skeptically. She wasn’t a particularly fast reader. She’d just finished the Lord of the Rings trilogy and that took forever. This was a very thick file. “I could meet you back here at four tomorrow afternoon. That’ll have to do.”

Sarah rose and put on her jacket. “Fine. I assume all this will remain confidential?”

“Of course.”

There was a hint of a smile on Sarah’s lips as she turned away and left the office. Josie took a moment to whisper a thank-you for the possibility of a paycheck and another thank-you for all the medications that made it possible for her to take on this case. She grabbed the Lauren Wade file, found her shoes, and hurried to her fifty minutes of torture.

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