Exclusive! That’s how most marketers launch their new products. You know the drill by now … that gadget you’ve been waiting for, that you’ve seen advertised on TV — it’s available only at the Apple Store, only at Target stores, only at Macy’s, etc. And so it is with new releases from Bella Books. Paperback copies are ready to ship, or you can download Trial by Fury today only from Bella Books. I know what some of you are thinking … you like to read on your Kindle. So do I, because I can make the font GIGANTIC. But I buy all of my lesbian books from Bella, select the mobi format, and email them as an attachment to my Kindle account. Presto! They show up like any other book on my device, and I have the satisfaction of knowing that 100% of my purchase price stays in the lesbian book community.
Here’s a preview of Trial by Fury. If you like what you read, click the link below to go to Bella where you can download the rest. Thank you from the bottom of my heart (and eye chart).
…from Chapter One
Celia Perone straightened her necktie and tucked a loose strand of hair back under her fedora. The disguise came courtesy of the theater department’s wardrobe, and was undeniably a ludicrous charade. She couldn’t risk being recognized, not at this critical point in her career.
“You can wait here. Ms. Constantine will be with you shortly.”
She gazed around Theodora Constantine’s plush office with interest. It had all the personal touches of someone in the lofty role of champion of women’s rights. A framed cover of Ms. magazine celebrating one of her victories…smiling photos with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Meryl Streep and Gloria Steinem. Those were in prominent positions behind her desk, clearly placed so potential clients would know how important she was.
As if the woman needed any more publicity. She was a fixture on cable news talking about her cases and providing expert commentary on issues relevant to women or the LGBT community.
The large mahogany desk held a laptop computer and phone, along with a small framed photo propped in the far corner. Against her better judgment, Celia stepped around the desk for a better look. It was Constantine with three young men. While the woman’s blond hair, cut to her collar in soft layers, set her apart, it was obvious the four were siblings from their strong jaws and deep-set, crystal-blue eyes.
Celia wondered if the men in the family had made their mark in the world the way their sister had. It took a special kind of upbringing to produce a woman capable of arguing before the Supreme Court at the age of thirty—albeit four years older than Sarah Weddington, who, at twenty-six, had argued the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade. Constantine’s case was Crossman v. The Town of Jeffersburg, Georgia, which set a precedent regarding maternity leave. Jeffersburg had held open its city manager’s position until assistant manager Kimberly Crossman went on leave, after which they hired a man under her supervision, one who lacked her experience and qualifications.
What impressed Celia most wasn’t that Crossman was handed the promotion and back pay. Rather, the sweeping ruling had put cities across the country on notice that the practice would not be tolerated. That’s why Celia had come to Constantine and Associates—she needed someone to make waves, someone who could take on a case with a sledgehammer that would strike fear into every university in America.
Voices in the hallway startled her and she scurried from behind the desk to take a seat in one of the wingback chairs upholstered in deep green.
Constantine entered and closed the door. She was larger than life in person, her hair lighter, her eyes brighter. Already taller than most women, she wore heels that made her even more imposing. A navy blue dress, its high round collar draped by a string of pearls, hugged her slender body like a diver’s wet suit.
“Hello, I’m Theo Constantine. How may I help you?”
Celia took the offered hand, noticing the woman’s eyes as they drifted downward, likely in response to the incongruous softness of her skin against the absurdity of a man’s dress. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“Perhaps not,” she replied, a small smile turning up from the corner of her mouth.
“I look ridiculous, but I promise you there’s a good reason for this getup. I can’t let anyone know I’m here.”
The attorney guided her back to the chair, and instead of moving behind her desk, turned the adjacent chair to face her. When she sat, she crossed a leg comfortably and placed her hands in her lap as if ready to chat with an old friend. “In this day and age, it’s hardly unusual to see a woman dressed as a man…or vice versa. I already assumed you had a good reason.”
Even with her experience onstage in costume—playing everything from a medieval witch in MacBeth to a drag king in Victor Victoria—Celia couldn’t help feeling ridiculous in front of such an accomplished woman as Constantine. Especially since her disguise had crumbled the moment she opened her mouth.
“I was worried about security cameras. They’re all over your building. You never know who has access.” She listened to herself and sighed. “Shit, now I sound paranoid. Maybe I am.”
“What brings you here?”
“Okay, I’m an idiot.” Celia removed her hat and shook free her shoulder-length dark hair. Then she loosened her collar and tugged off the necktie in hopes of also shedding her lunacy. “I’m Dr. Celia Perone. I teach performance studies at Harwood University. The disguise is because I’m up for a promotion this year. Full professor. I can’t afford to jeopardize that, but I have to tell somebody what’s going on there. It needs to be stopped.”
“Something related to your employment?”
“No, it doesn’t have anything to do with me.”
It was unlikely Constantine had heard of Hayley Burkhart, a lovely, talented performance studies student with a smile so grand it could be seen from the balcony. Her suicide had come the same night the Harwood Hornets had won the national championship in basketball. Atlanta’s media, focused on the celebration, had relegated Hayley’s story to less than an afterthought.
Though she’d known all along Celia Perone was a woman, Theo was stunned by the transformation when she removed her meager disguise. There was something familiar about her face… the sparkling green eyes and dainty, round lips. However, the name didn’t ring a bell. She certainly would have remembered a woman so attractive.
“One of my students killed herself last week. They found her in the bathroom of her sorority house the night Harwood won the basketball championship. She’d slit her wrists and bled to death. Hayley Burkhart was her name. I don’t suppose you read anything about that?”
Theo had been in Tampa taking depositions from BoRegards executives for the wage theft case. She’d watched the game in the hotel bar with Kendra and several of the paralegals, some of whom were loyal alums. “No, I’m so sorry to hear that. I was in Florida last week. It’s difficult to keep up with local news when I’m on the road.”
“Not that you’d have noticed. Or that anyone else would,” Celia added bitterly. “Harwood obviously cares more about sports than the lives of its female students. Hayley came to me for help after she was raped.”
The mention of rape caused Theo’s light demeanor to shift. “Tell me what you know about the details.”
Celia visibly relaxed as she fell into her story, as though relieved to get it off her chest. “It happened a couple of months ago at Henderson Hall on campus. That’s the jock dorm. There was this big party after the Vanderbilt game, and Hayley went with one of her friends. Michael Fitzpatrick’s his name…he’s one of my students too.”
A story so profound surely had many layers. While Theo wasn’t concerned at the moment with specific details, she noted the degree to which Celia remembered them.
“The last thing she remembered from the party was running into a couple of her sorority sisters. She woke up the next morning in one of the common areas on the third floor. Her panties were gone, and she could feel that she’d been violated.” Her expression hardened to a snarl. “When she turned on her phone, the bastards had taken a picture of her half naked, sprawled out on the couch. She showed it to me.”
Cases like this one sparked a deep rage in Theo. Nonetheless, they were criminal matters for the prosecutor’s office. There was little—if anything—her firm could do. “Did she go to the police?”
“Yeah, but as soon as she told them where it happened, they backed off…said they couldn’t do anything without proof.” She drew a thumb drive from the pocket of her blazer. “So about a week later, her friend Michael got hold of a video from a secret list only the basketball team could see. It shows exactly what happened. It was three players. You can see them plain as day— Matt Frazier, D’Anthony Caldwell and Tanner Watson.”
Theo recognized all three names as stars on the Hornets’ national championship team. She took the drive and walked around her desk to insert it into the USB port on her laptop. “Is it possible this video is ambiguous? Or that it’s been edited in any way…perhaps to remove a segment where Ms. Burkhart suggested consent?”
“Just look at it!” Celia said sharply. Then with obvious contrition, she added, “No way she consented to this.”
The video, a mere twenty-three seconds long, was sickening, one of the starkest pieces of criminal evidence Theo had ever seen. A young woman lay prone on a couch—her eyes closed, mouth open and one arm hanging limply to the floor. There was no question she was completely out of it, incapable of consent.
A young man grunted and laughed as he hunched over her. From his distinctive shaggy red hair, this indeed was Matt Frazier, Harwood’s All-American point guard. The others— Caldwell and Watson—jostled in front of the camera arguing playfully over who was next.
“Hayley took this to the campus police as proof. You know what they said? That they talked to the players and all of them said she was into it, that she came on to them. That’s a bunch of bullshit. I knew her and it’s not who she was.”
As far as Theo was concerned, the video was damning proof of sexual assault. Someone in authority at the university needed to step in and force the campus police into action.
“Dr. Perone, you need to take this to the administration at Harwood. All the way to—”
“I did that. I thought they’d listen because they all know me from the faculty senate. We see each other at cocktail parties, for Christ’s sake.” She shook her head with disgust. “They wouldn’t touch it. As far as they’re concerned, the police looked into it and the case is closed. That’s why I came to you. You have to do something.”
Though she roiled at the desperation in Celia’s voice, Theo’s legal mind shot through several alleys of dead ends. With the young woman now deceased, it was difficult to imagine a legal cause of action.
“Look, Ms. Constantine. Hayley killed herself because of what they did—the guys who raped her, the cops who looked the other way…and then the assholes in the administration who wanted to make sure they got their basketball trophy.” Her voice shook with fury as her face reddened. “They threw her out like garbage. Until somebody makes them pay, no woman is safe at Harwood.”
“I get it,” Theo said, nodding pensively as she recognized the potential impact of this particular case. Coddling athletes who committed sexual assault was a national problem, its ramifications serious enough to warrant at least an assessment from her firm.
Wrongful death was difficult, if not impossible, to prove after suicide. From a financial standpoint though, they could inflict some damage. Frazier and Caldwell were projected as first-round picks in the upcoming NBA draft, and on the cusp of becoming multimillionaires. They’d probably settle quickly to avoid a high-publicity civil trial.
“It’s possible we could file a case against the individuals in this video…maybe get a settlement for Ms. Burkhart’s family. The administration though…that’s a much tougher case.”
“Even if they intimidated people into keeping quiet?”
“Hayley said somebody called her…warned her she could be expelled for making false allegations. And when I went to see Earl Gupton—he’s the chancellor—he’d called in Harwood’s attorney and the chairman of the board of trustees. I got freaked out so I recorded the whole thing on my cell phone, which was probably illegal.” She nodded toward Theo’s computer. “It’s on there too, that second file.”
Considering she’d come to the office in disguise, it wasn’t surprising she’d also made a surreptitious recording. “Actually, you’re in the clear. Georgia’s a one-party permission state. As long as you’re a participant in the discussion, you’re entitled to record it. You don’t need anyone else’s permission.”
“So you should listen to it. I’m telling you, it felt like an ambush. Once I realized they weren’t going to do anything about it, I mentioned maybe talking to Jack Trendall, the basketball coach. But they told me the attorney for the players was threatening a defamation suit, that I could be sued for telling anybody what Hayley said happened to her. They said I’d be personally responsible, that the university wouldn’t support me because they’d determined there was no wrongdoing.”
Theo was familiar with the tactic—a SLAPP suit, short for strategic lawsuit against public participation. Aggressive parties used them to compel someone’s silence under threat of a defamation suit.
“I can assure you their threats don’t legally bind you from talking about the allegations unless you know for certain they’re false,” she said, leaving her desk to return to the chair next to Celia’s. “Unfortunately, rape often comes down to ‘he said, she said.’ That’s a problem here because you have a group of men willing to back up each other’s claims that the sex was consensual against a woman who’s no longer here to speak for herself.”
“But it wasn’t consensual!” Celia’s knuckles turned white as she gripped the arm of her chair. “And now a girl’s dead!”
Theo recognized the righteous indignation. She saw it in the mirror every time she found herself up against a force that wouldn’t move. And it always made her more determined to push harder.
The problems with this case were practical—she had a weak cause of action and virtually no leverage within the jurisdiction. The insular nature of a university campus created barriers at every turn. Any campus police department could deliberately reject criminal complaints, thereby holding its crime rates artificially low so parents would believe their kids were safe. Harwood’s motive in this case was even more suspect—they may have deprived Hayley Burkhart of due process in order to ensure their players would be allowed to compete for a basketball trophy. Now they were protecting not only their reputation but their financial windfall from the championship.
“I get why you’re so angry at the system, Dr. Perone. It seems obvious a young woman you cared about was treated horribly. But I have to ask you…if everything were proven to have occurred exactly as you’ve described it, what would you like to see happen next?”
“I want the rapists in jail. I want the chancellor fired. And the chief of police too.” She pounded out her demands in the palm of her hand. “The chairman of the board of trustees too. They’re animals, every last one. And I want a promise from Harwood University that this will never happen again, that every girl who reports a sexual assault gets a fair hearing with the presumption that she’s telling the truth.”
In other words, she wanted to lay waste to the system and everyone responsible for it—a scorched earth approach. That happened to be Theo’s favorite strategy too, especially when she allowed herself to get emotionally involved in a case.
After a measured silence, she leaned forward and pressed her fingertips together. “I need to be honest with you here. Unless the university changes its position on investigating, I’m afraid it’s doubtful anyone will go to jail. It’s a question of jurisdiction.” With shared frustration, she presented their legal dilemma, which she drew from having represented a group of women two years ago who were arrested during a protest of Harwood’s decision to invite a misogynistic radio personality to speak on campus.
Celia threw up her hands. “But Harwood’s in the city limits of Atlanta. If the campus police won’t do anything, can’t the Atlanta Police Department step in?”
“Technically yes, but they probably won’t. It’s a professional courtesy. Harwood operates under a memorandum of understanding with the city and the county—any crime on campus falls under the university’s domain. If they don’t press charges, the criminal case usually dies there because nobody wants to come in and step on their toes.”
“Their own little fiefdom,” Celia groused.
“I’m afraid so. While we can’t force the police to take action, you could always try your luck with the district attorney’s office.” Though Theo seriously doubted the DA would risk alienating Harwood’s fan base during an election year. “I should warn you however…I believe she too will be reluctant to claim jurisdiction at Harwood unless she’s invited in by law enforcement or the board of trustees.”
The desolation on Celia’s face was crushing.
“As far as the administration goes,” Theo continued, “I’m not sure anyone can legally force a private university to fire its chancellor and board chair. Only the trustees have that power. It just isn’t something we can sue them for.”
“So that’s it? These players lie through their teeth and get away with rape? Those bastards are responsible for her death. All of them.” Celia abruptly collected her belongings as if to storm out.
“No, that doesn’t have to be the end of it,” Theo said, catching her arm and urging her back to her chair. For a case as egregious as this one, she was willing to dig deeper to explore what avenues of retribution might exist. “The video is compelling. It’s difficult to believe anyone could see it and not conclude Hayley was assaulted. But right now we have more questions than answers. I need to have my staff look into it to see what we can do.”
“Does that mean you’re going to take the case?”
There was no case. But Theo couldn’t bear to turn away someone as passionate as Celia Perone. A kindred spirit in the fight for justice and equality.
“Our practice is about women’s civil rights, Dr. Perone. We have experts who can turn this case inside out, people who can get to the bottom of what happened and find a way forward. We can’t make this right for Hayley Burkhart, but if we decide there’s a victory to be won for other women like her, we’ll take your case.”
Want to keep reading? Download it now from Bella Books.