High Stakes Trial by Mindy Klasky

High Stakes Trial

Vampires aren’t the only danger in the dark…

Sarah Anderson’s dream job at Washington DC’s magical night court has turned into a nightmare. She’s under indictment for murdering a vampire judge. Her former boss (and ex-lover) is missing in action. Her occult mentor (and current beau) is siding with paranormal creatures against her.

Sarah longs to leave the whole mess behind, undertaking a quest to find her supernatural father. But her mission becomes infinitely more complicated when she’s caught between an ancient Egyptian goddess and DC’s most notorious vampire villain.

What does Sarah’s future hold—a lover, a jail cell, or an entirely new type of magic?

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Chapter One

I, Sarah Anderson, do solemnly swear that I will strangle the sadist who invented Take Your Child to Work Day.

After all, I was a sphinx. My ancestors were bred to strangle criminals in the earliest days of Egyptian civilization. And I couldn’t think of a criminal in the history of the Eastern Empire who was more deserving of execution than the torturer who thought up Take Your Child to Work Day.

Exhibit 1 for my exoneration: The word “your.” I wasn’t the parent of any child. In fact, given the shambles of my love-life, I wasn’t likely ever to become a parent.

Exhibit 2: The word “child.” Children accompanying beloved parents to stimulating days at offices in the mundane world were human boys and girls. But the children visiting my workplace included one griffin, a centaur, a basilisk, a sylph, and a cat shifter. It was hard enough for adult imperials to mind their manners when that many imperial races were thrust together in close quarters. I’d already separated the obligate carnivores from the prey species three times, and my chances of maintaining the peace for the rest of the night were low.

Exhibit 3: The word “day.” I worked for the Eastern Empire Night Court. We were open at night, when well-behaved children were snug in their jammies, tucked into bed, their slumbering minds filled with sweet dreams. Children who were forced to stay awake hours past their bedtimes, wearing uncomfortable grown-up clothes, and listening to incomprehensible legal mumbo-jumbo were most decidedly not well-behaved children.

But as clerk of court, I was a devoted team player, intent on making Washington DC safe for imperial and mundane citizens alike. Especially when we had a new judge on the bench. In fact, Elizabeth Finch was the first new judge in twenty years.

I, um, killed the last one.

Sure, as a sphinx I was supposed to protect vampires, not kill them. Protecting vampires was literally in my DNA. But when paranormal push had come to supernatural shove, the best protection I could offer Judge Robert DuBois was giving him the coup de grȃce, releasing him after a magical battle where those of us on the side of right and justice had come up short.

Very short.

Ten months later, I was still recovering from the emotional and physical fallout of that fight. Sphinxes weren’t sure what to make of me because I’d murdered a vampire I was sworn to protect. Vampires didn’t trust me either because, well, ditto.

I had to prove I was a team player. So, when Judge Finch personally asked me to manage the court’s Take Your Child to Work Day, er, night, festivities, I reluctantly agreed.

Of course, I hadn’t taken into account how long it would take the kids to clear court security. Since last June, we’d been functioning at Security Level Orange—limited access through a secret underground entrance, heightened restrictions on the metal detectors, hand inspection of all bags larger than a standard briefcase, and regular full-court searches by bomb-sniffing wolf shifters.

All of the adults who worked at the court had grown used to the routine. We called it Security Theater, an elaborate charade intended to make us forget that Maurice Richardson—the most vicious criminal mastermind of the vampire world—had been on the loose for ten months. Judge DuBois’s unfortunate demise had resulted in a mistrial in the case that was supposed to put Richardson behind silver for the rest of his unnatural life.

We adults were used to the hurry-up-and-wait of court security, but the kids were restless even before I rounded them up for a fun night of wholesome, educational, workplace-based activities.

It didn’t help that we needed to stay in hiding for the first four hours of night court, the time when humans frequented the hallways and Judge Finch heard mundane cases. I kept the kids isolated in a dusty supply room down a long, deserted corridor, far from the actual courtroom and any chance we’d be spotted by mortals.

Twisting the hematite bracelet on my left wrist, I fought the urge to straighten the shelves around me. The clutter of partially used notepads jangled in my mind like out-of-tune violins. The plastic bin that held a jumbled pile of pasteboard folders made my palms itch.

But if I started organizing the supply closet, I’d never get the kids to settle down. Instead, I tapped the face of my coral signet ring, trying to reassure my sphinx brain that a little disorder had never killed anyone. Yet.

With desperate good cheer, I handed out word-search puzzles, explaining to the kids that they were going to find fun terms related to the case Judge Finch was hearing that night. As they dutifully started to circle letters, I told them about plaintiffs and defendants, doing my best to make land-use litigation sound engaging. Easement, I said brightly, helping them pick out letters on the diagonal. Laches. Estoppel.

Why the hell weren’t these kids visiting some other parent’s workplace?

Using a fresh box of sixty-four crayons that I’d snagged from the local drugstore, we colored the court’s logo—an ornately carved sword that pinned down a sheaf of parchment.

I dumped a huge bin of Legos (thank you, Amazon Prime) onto the table, and each kid built something related to the courthouse—the judge’s massive bench, a gavel, a fragile scale of justice. That activity met its untimely end when the cat shifter started rigging an electric chair.

After a refreshing snack break of cookies and juice, I handed out workbooks ruthlessly cadged from a computer site: “What I Want to be When I Grow Up.” I passed out pencils and watched the kids complete their scaled-down version of the Myers-Briggs personality test.

It wasn’t my fault the centaur came back with “meatpacker” as his primary job focus. It only took half an hour to get him to stop sobbing when he realized exactly where packed meat came from. (How many meatpacking plants even existed these days?)

The sylph wasn’t thrilled with the recommendation that she pursue a career in nuclear power reactors. And I couldn’t begin to explain to the griffin that “ballerina” was never going to fly, not for a mountain spirit who already clocked in at more than two hundred pounds.

So much for the workbooks.

“Okay, kids,” I said, glancing with relief at the clock on the wall. “It’s time to head into the courtroom. But before we go, what is Judge Finch’s number three rule?” We’d rehearsed them every hour, on the hour.

“No talking to humans!” shouted the cat shifter, loud enough that any human within a five-hundred-yard radius could easily hear.

I nodded before I prompted, “And Judge Finch’s number two rule?”

“No harming other imperials,” recited the sylph, with a sweet smile that almost made me miss the hungry looks the shifter directed toward the centaur foal.

I smiled encouragement at all the kids, hoping my own calm demeanor would still the savage beasts. “And Judge Finch’s number one rule, the most important one of all?”

“No speaking out loud while court is in session,” the basilisk hissed.

Well, I’d indoctrinated them as much as possible. Still, my heart pounded with misgiving as I led my ragtag army down the hall to the courtroom. I was just about to open the heavy oak doors when the centaur clutched the crotch of his pants, shifting from foot to foot and whinnying an all-too-familiar song of need.

“Time for a pit-stop, kids,” I announced, making a detour to the restrooms. It only took fifteen minutes to get my motley army pottied, zipped, and hands-washed before we reached the courtroom’s massive oak doors.

“Remember, everyone,” I whispered, exaggerating the words by raising my eyebrows. I set a finger on my lips, and five earnest heads nodded. I eased the door open, and my charges slipped inside.

Judge Finch glanced up as we settled on the back bench. She still manifested her human form, the mien she wore to handle human cases before midnight. Her shoulders sloped beneath her black robes. When she blinked, her muddy brown eyes watered. Her hair was frizzy, a tragic victim of Washington DC’s legendary humidity, even though it was only late April.

Before she settled her gaze on me, her eyes flickered to the clock at the back of the courtroom.  Shrugging, I tried to think of a discreet way to tell her we’d been unavoidably delayed by various calls of nature. She pursed her lips, carving lines on either side of her narrow mouth.

The skin on her hands looked powdery as she reached for the sleek steel carafe beside her gavel. Lifting a cut-crystal goblet, she poured precisely, taking care not to spill a drop. The liquid was dark, nearly black in the courtroom’s fluorescent lights. A fine curl of steam rose from the surface.

As Judge Finch downed her cocktail of fresh blood, the basilisk bounced up and down and whispered, “Cool!” At the same time, the centaur began to tremble, his reaction violent enough that I was grateful his bladder was empty.

Judge Finch turned a cold smile toward my little group, her fangs clearly visible. My little centaur tossed his head, looking wildly from left to right.

“Ms. Anderson,” the judge warned. “If you can’t keep your charges quiet, I will be forced to take action myself.”

Clearing the courtroom. She meant clearing the courtroom, sending all unnecessary imperials away as she adjudicated the stultifying case at hand.

But the glint in her vampire eye threatened more. And the tongue she flicked past her fangs only emphasized her power.

I—a sphinx, a strangler, a confident imperial citizen with full awareness of my rights—wasn’t afraid. But the centaur child beside me began to keen, a high neigh of distress that echoed in the marble-walled courtroom.

I caught a flash of motion out of the corner of my eye. The cat-shifter brat, my direct boss’s daughter, was rubbing her thumb over the nails of her right hand.

The centaur wasn’t terrified by Judge Finch—at least not completely. The centaur was terrified because the cat shifter had raked her nails across his nape. Even now, a trio of bright red lines ripened on the centaur’s trembling neck.

“Ms. Anderson!” Judge Finch bellowed. She didn’t need to follow up with a direct command. I understood that I needed to get the kids out of the courtroom immediately.

Snatching the petrified centaur’s hand, I pulled him to the aisle between the courtroom’s hard wooden benches. With more whispers than should have been necessary, I got the other kids moving as well—the smug cat-shifter, the docile sylph, the stolid griffin.

The basilisk brat held his place. “What?” he said, in response to my jutted chin and glare. “You said we could watch Judge Finch!”

“I’ve got treats, back in my office,” I wheedled. When that did nothing, I tried, “I’ve got special secret agent pens for everyone.” Bupkis. I brought out the big guns. “We can play on the computer!”

All five kids fell in line without further hesitation.

So that’s how we ended up back in my office, with three more hours of Take Your Child to Hell left to endure. My emergency Valrhona chocolate bar was broken into six portions—even though the kids didn’t have the good sense to recognize superior confectionery when it melted across their tongues.

I grabbed a handful of pens, the retractable ones, with Skilcraft embossed on their clips. “Here you go, kids. Secret agent pens. Each one will write for an entire mile of ink!”

That’s what the box said, anyway. The griffin’s broke the first time she set its point to paper.

That left the computer. And there was no way I was going to let anyone—much less a group of chocolate-sticky kids—use my office computer. That was common sense, not my obsessive-compulsive control-freak temperament shining through.

But the kids were supposed to see what a workplace was like, right? And my workplace involved handling massive amounts of information, new filings in a vast array of cases. And those filings were on my computer. So I hadn’t really lied to them, back in the courtroom. They were going to get to play on my computer. Or, at least, to watch while I played.

Or, you know, got a tiny bit of work done on this evening of otherwise-wasted time. “Okay, everyone,” I said. “Here’s something most people never get to see! Here’s how one of Judge Finch’s cases starts!”

I sat in front of my computer and encouraged my five charges to gather around. Fighting the twinge in my gut as I broke up the order and precision of my desk alcove, I tilted my computer monitor so they could see the screen more clearly.

My fingers moved over the keyboard automatically, entering my password to access the Eastern Empire’s secret court documents. I clicked on a flashing box to pull up the first filing waiting for me to process.

“Oh, look, kids!” I pointed toward the bold-face title. “This is an indictment. That’s when a group of imperials just like you gets together in a great big room. They’re called the grand jury, and their job is to listen to witnesses who all tell the truth about something that happened. If the grand jury thinks a crime has been committed, then a lawyer called the prosecutor files an indictment, so Judge Finch can decide if the grand jury is right.”

The kids nodded gravely.

The basilisk, son of a prosecutor, boasted, “My mom puts lots of bad people in jail. They stay there years and years and years.”

There was no need for me to elaborate that some criminals’ stays were cut short by execution. The tear-stained centaur by my right elbow might never sleep again. Instead, I scrolled down a little further.

“Here we go!” I said, as if I’d just discovered a pirate king’s buried treasure. “This line says that the case is being heard in the Night Court of the Eastern Empire.”

The kids nodded, eyes wide.

I scrolled down again and pointed to Clans of the Eastern Empire. “And this means the case is being brought on behalf of every single one of us, because the Empire wants every citizen to be safe and sound.”

My audience caught its collective breath.

Smiling with confidence, pleased that I finally had everyone’s attention, I turned back to the screen. “And the next part says who the defendant is.”

I paused a moment, adding to the drama for my dedicated little audience. When I was certain they were clinging to every word, I moved the cursor down, line by line. “The…” I said teasingly.

Each child took a step closer. “Indictment…”

I felt them breathing against the back of my neck. “Is…”

Someone whined with impatience, and I bit back a smile, “Against…”

One last line. One dramatic reveal.

But my words froze in my throat. I couldn’t make a sound. The screen glared at me, black letters on white, searing into the backs of my eyeballs: Sarah J. Anderson, Sphinx.

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