Elizabeth Webster and the Court of Uncommon Pleas


By William Lashner

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Welcome to Elizabeth Webster’s world, where the common laws of middle school torment her days . . . and the uncommon laws of an even weirder realm govern her nights.

Elizabeth Webster is happy to stay under the radar (and under her bangs) until middle school is dead and gone. But when star swimmer Henry Harrison asks Elizabeth to tutor him in math, it’s not linear equations Henry really needs help with-it’s a flower-scented, poodle-skirt-wearing, head-tossing ghost who’s calling out Elizabeth’s name.

But why Elizabeth? Could it have something to do with her missing lawyer father? Maybe. Probably. If only she could find him. In her search, Elizabeth discovers more than she is looking for: a grandfather she never knew, a startling legacy, and the secret family law firm, Webster & Son, Attorneys for the Damned.

Elizabeth and her friends soon land in court, where demons and ghosts take the witness stand and a red-eyed judge with a ratty white wig hands out sentences like sandwiches. Will Elizabeth’s father arrive in time to save Henry Harrison-and is Henry the one who really needs saving?

Set in the historic streets of Philadelphia, this riveting middle-grade mystery from New York Times bestselling author William Lashner will have readers banging their gavels and calling for more from the incomparable Elizabeth Webster.


For my father, the senior partner of Lashner & Lashner

Sometimes it feels like a cold breath against the back of your neck. Sometimes it shakes you awake in the middle of the night. One day you’re all la-de-da, thinking you’ve got life figured out, and the next day you’re racing down a grassy hill in the dark, being chased by your own screams, because you know what is out there. And what is out there is terrifying and it is calling your name.

Welcome to my world.

My name is Elizabeth Webster and my story, like every mystifying and horror-filled story in the whole of human history, begins in a middle school cafeteria.

See me there gripping my tray, black hair falling over my eyes. Among the tables of gazelles and rhinos, I am the lost meerkat, trying to find a sheltered place to sit so I won’t get gored. Lunch at my school is like a program on Animal Planet: Wild Beasts of Suburban Phildelphia.


In the middle of the jungle I spied Natalie Delgado waving me forward like a gym teacher encouraging me to run faster, jump higher.

“Lizzie, over here!”

The louder she called my name, the more kids swiveled their heads, and the more I wanted to disappear.

Natalie had been my best friend since the first day of kindergarten—we had bonded over coloring books and the taste of glue. A seat beside her was normally a safe enough spot, but Natalie was sitting with the Frayden twins, two sixth graders who were as annoying as a cloud of gnats. Charlie was short and blond with large front teeth, wearing a red plaid shirt. Doug was short and blond with large front teeth, wearing a blue plaid shirt. They looked like a pair of chipmunks dressed for a rodeo. I glanced around quickly to see if there was anywhere else—

“Come on, Lizzie. I saved a place for you.”

I took one last look for a rock or something to hide behind and eat my gruel in peace before heading over to Natalie. Just as I was slipping between two rows of tables to the open spot, I tripped over a chair leg, rattling my silverware and spilling my apple juice.

“Squeak, squeak,” someone shouted out, followed by a chorus of laughter.

Ha-ha. We were such a happy bunch of comedians at Willing Middle School West. So here’s the sad story about that. For the winter concert last year, I was given a clarinet solo that ended with an epic squeak that froze the entire orchestra in shock. In the suddenly silent auditorium, you could hear the mice chewing on our shoelaces. Such fun.

Now, with the laughter still ringing in my ears, I hurried over and dropped into the chair next to Natalie.

“Nice landing,” said one of the Fraydens in that grating Frayden voice, like a cross between an air horn and a bumblebee.

“Be quiet, Doug,” said Natalie. “Hey, Lizzie. The twins were just trying to get me to join debate club.”

I picked at the macaroni and cheese on my plate, which looked suspiciously like chunks of rubber hose in a yellow industrial sludge.

“Both you guys should join,” said Charlie.

“Pass,” said Natalie.

“But we have so much fun,” said Doug. “We laugh and laugh.”

“Have you ever noticed that when you guys laugh you sound like hyenas?” said Natalie.

“How do hyenas sound?”

“Say something amusing, Lizzie.”

“Something amusing,” I said.

The boys snorted.

“Like that,” Natalie said.

The Fraydens were smart and cheerful and beyond my comprehension. First off, they seemed to like everyone, which made no sense to me, since I pretty much knew everyone they knew and I barely liked anyone. They were also always so excited about the most boring things, such as debate club. If instead of a debate club there had been a silent club, I would have been right on it. When the mood struck I could out-silent a rock. But the thought of standing around arguing about something with other people who were arguing back, and doing it on purpose—for fun—just seemed wrong. Like if someone told me she had joined the falling-off-the-roof club. I mean, if it wasn’t for the broken arms…

“What do you debate about?” I asked.

“It doesn’t really matter,” said Charlie. “You don’t pick your topic or your side. It’s all in how you argue.”

“That sounds like dinner at my house,” said Natalie.

“What about you, Elizabeth?” said Charlie. “We could use some brains on the team.”

“Obviously,” said Natalie.

“You mean you want me to stand in front of a bunch of people I don’t know,” I said, “and argue for something I don’t care about.”


“You see this fork?” I said, holding up a piece of silverware spearing a drippy piece of yellow macaroni. “I’d rather stick it in my eye.”

“Better yet, stick it in Charlie’s eye,” said Natalie.

“We need that aggressiveness, Elizabeth,” said Doug. “You’re a natural.”

“I have got to find something to do after school,” said Natalie. “Even debate would be better than going home on the early bus. I was thinking of trying out for cheerleading in the spring. You want to do it with me, Lizzie?”

“Give me an ‘N,’” I said. “Give me an ‘O.’”

“But they give us pom-poms,” said Natalie. “Who doesn’t like—” She stopped talking and lifted her head, before saying in a soft whisper, “Yikes alive.”

And there, right there, in Natalie’s breathless little eep, was the beginning of everything.

I searched the lunchroom for some horrible creature running loose, a wild boar, maybe, with two-foot tusks. It would take something truly awful to stop Natalie in the middle of a sentence.

“Could he get any better looking?” said Natalie when she finally caught her breath.


“Him,” said Natalie. “Henry Harrison.”

Ah yes, now I saw. Henry Harrison was walking toward our side of the lunchroom. Hooray, hooray. Everyone knew Henry Harrison, the swimming star who went through girlfriends like Natalie went through shoes, who played bongos in the talent show, and who each morning before school was already training with the high school swim team. He was almost as big as a high school kid even at thirteen, dark skin, broad shoulders, and a sharp high fade for a haircut.

“Is he looking here?” Natalie asked. “Oh my God. He’s looking here. He’s looking right at me.”

“Doesn’t he have a girlfriend?” I said.

“Debbie Benner, a tennis player. But nothing lasts with Henry Harrison. And tell me he’s not coming right here.”

As impossible as it sounded, Natalie was right—Henry Harrison was walking toward us. And what was more, he was looking right at Natalie. And it wasn’t just Natalie who noticed. The whole lunchroom hushed as Henry Harrison slowly made his way to our table.

“What did you do?” said Charlie Frayden in a nervous voice.

“Nothing,” said Doug. “I swear.”

“Did you hear what he did to Grimes?”

“They had to spread him with butter to get him out of the trash can.”

“And Grimes is a vegan! What did you do?”

“Got to go,” said Doug before he grabbed his tray and fled the table, his brother right behind him.

I lowered my head and let my hair drop over my eyes like a shield as Henry Harrison walked the final few feet to our table, sat down across from Natalie, and stared at her for a moment.

I had seen him in the halls and on the talent show stage, but being this close to him was disconcerting. As I plowed my fork through my macaroni, I could feel the force field of his athleticism and popularity.

“Hey,” said Henry Harrison.

“Hey, yourself,” peeped Natalie as she put on her most charming smile. She was trying so hard I was embarrassed for her, but I understood. In Natalie’s world, to be swooped upon by a popular eighth-grade sports star was as delicious as a chocolate Pocky—and is anything more delicious than a chocolate Pocky?

“People have been talking about you,” said Henry.

“About me?” said Natalie. “Nothing bad, I hope.”

“Nothing bad at all.”

“Then maybe you’ve been talking to the wrong people.” She laughed nervously.

“I heard you’re some kind of math genius.”

“Hardly. Math’s like way down on my list, somewhere between square dancing and hang gliding.”

“Do you hang glide?”

She shook her head. “I don’t square-dance, either.”

“So, no math?”

“No math. Pero, soy bastante buena en español. And I play guitar, if that counts.”

“I’m a little confused,” said Henry. “Aren’t you Elizabeth Webster?”

“Oh, you are confused,” said Natalie, her smile disappearing bit by bit, like the sun slowly setting below the horizon. “You don’t want me. You want her.”

Henry Harrison turned his gaze from Natalie to me. “You’re Elizabeth?”

“Since I was born,” I said in a low, embarrassed mumble.

“What do your friends call you?”


“How about Beth?”

“How about not.”

“Okay. I’ll call you Webster. So you’re the genius I’ve been hearing all about. You’re studying ninth-grade Geometry with Mr. Pepperton, right?”

“You don’t have to be a genius to learn ninth-grade Geometry. I mean, Mr. Pepperton is teaching it.”

“I don’t know, I’m having a hard enough time with linear equations.”

“Stick with it,” I said. “I’m sure you’ll get them straightened out.”

This Henry Harrison laughed a little too loudly at my joke before drumming a bit on the table. “Here’s the story,” he said. “I’m having trouble with math, and my swim coach is hassling me about my grades. I was hoping you could help me with—”


Henry jerked back at the sound as I turned to face Natalie, who had just smacked her head on the table.

“Are you okay?” said Henry.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” said Natalie, still facedown.

“Don’t worry about Natalie,” I said, having seen this act before. “You know that thing where you fall asleep in the middle of a conversation? Narco something?”


“That’s it.”

“You have narcolepsy?”

“I wish,” said Natalie.

Henry looked at me, at Natalie, back at me. “So, Webster,” he said, barreling on despite his confusion, “what do you think? Could you tutor me, just until I catch on to the basics? Please? I’ll pay you.”

Natalie’s head lifted from the table as if raised by the scent of money. “How much?” she asked. I turned and gave her a low growl.

“How about twenty bucks for the first session?”

“Twenty-five,” said Natalie.

“Done,” said Henry. “Do we have a deal, Webster?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“All right,” he said, flashing his famous smile. “Is tonight good?”

“Tonight?” I said.

“No time to waste. Eight at my house. We’re at the top of Orchard Lane. Two one three.”

“The pile of—”

“That’s the one,” he said quickly. “See you then.” And just as quickly as he had appeared he was gone, heading back across the lunchroom as if being chased by my regret.

What had just happened? One moment I was sitting peacefully, trying not to get sick at lunch, and the next moment I had been signed up to spend hours trying to explain linear equations to some jock who lived in a heap of stone high on a hill. We had all heard things about that house. And Henry Harrison seemed too anxious. The whole thing sounded way sketchy.

“I have got to get better at math,” said Natalie as she watched Henry walk away.

“Nice face-plant,” I said.

“Thanks. I’ve been working on it. You are so lucky.”

“What do you want, a commission?”

“I’m not talking about the money, silly.”

“It’s just tutoring,” I said.

“It’s never just tutoring, not with someone like Henry Harrison. He is totally hot.”

“And a zero at math.”

“Sometimes, Lizzie, you are just so dense.”

Maybe I was, because Natalie was right that this wasn’t about math. But it wasn’t about Henry Harrison and me, either. What it was about was a glimpse into another, terrifying world where my name was being tossed around like a basketball.

Shortly after my mother got remarried, she arranged for me to have a talk with a nice psychologist. At the time I didn’t understand why I needed to talk to anyone. Do you think maybe it was because of the way I acted at the wedding?

I told my mother I didn’t want to go and see the nice lady. I buried my face in a pillow and screamed when she insisted. And then, in the doctor’s office, I sat on the couch with my arms crossed for the entire “talk.”

“I feel some anger here,” said the doctor.

You think? Like I said, she was nice, and she tried really hard, but there was all this stuff swirling in my head that made dealing with her impossible. I mean, how do you put a tornado into words?

“Tell me about yourself, Elizabeth,” said the doctor.

And right there, at her very first question, I was stumped. What could I say then? What could I say now? When I thought about myself, I only thought about who I wasn’t and what I couldn’t do. I wasn’t an actor or a singer—my grandmother once described my voice as frog-like. Yes, my grandmother! My math was okay, sure, and I liked to read manga paperbacks, stories about wide-eyed girls with supernatural powers—everyone needs heroes—but I couldn’t dance or write poetry, my clarinet was a certified instrument of torture, and I certainly wasn’t a sparkling conversationalist, as my mother pointed out to me every night at dinner.

“So how was school today, Elizabeth?” she asked after dishing out the meatloaf, potatoes, and peas.


“Did anything exciting happen?”



“It’s school.”

“You must go to the most deadly dull school in America,” said my stepfather, Stephen Scali, in his slow voice. Stephen, bald and thin, suffered from an incurable disease called boringitis. “Gosh, I remember all my adventures in junior high. I might have to call the principal and tell her that they need to liven up the place.”

“Please don’t. Tell him, Mom, please.”

“Don’t get into such a huff,” said my mother. “More mashed potatoes, Peter?”

“What’s a huff?” said my little brother, Peter.

“You know the big bad wolf?” said my mother. “Well, he huffs before he puffs.”

“He smokes?” said Peter.

“No wonder he couldn’t blow down that house,” I said.

Peter laughed. Unlike me, Peter, who was in the second grade at my old elementary school, laughed a lot.

“We don’t want to embarrass you, Elizabeth,” said Stephen. “We’re just trying to be part of your life.”

“Why?” I said. “Even I don’t want to be part of my life.”

My mother looked at Stephen with that look. You know the look. I was one step away from another talk with the nice psychologist, when my brother flew to my rescue.

“We went into space today,” said Peter.

“Was it exciting?” said my mother.

“Not really, until we almost ran out of fuel and started falling back to Earth. The lights flicked on and off and some kids started shouting until Mrs. Swinton just happened to remember to fire up the booster rockets.”

“Thank goodness for Mrs. Swinton,” said Stephen.

“She sure saved the day,” said Peter, giving me a glance to let me know who was really being saved. “If she can flick the lights fast enough, next week we’re landing on the moon.”

“That sounds like fun,” I said. “I could use a few weeks on the moon myself. Can I go with?”

“You have to bring your own lunch,” said Peter. “Moon pies.”

“Yum,” I said.

“And Mrs. Swinton told us we need to bring moon boots.”

“What’s a moon boot?” I asked.

“I think it’s just a sneaker with duct tape all around it.”

“Stylish,” I said.

“I’ll ask for you, Lizzie,” said Peter, “but there might not be enough seats. And with you on board, we would need more fuel. Mrs. Swinton is a little crazy about the fuel.”

I glanced up to see my mother smiling at me, as if I had just had a breakthrough. Peter sat back with a smirk like he had arranged it all, which he had. He was a sharp little weasel, my brother.

Mom remarried two years after the divorce. Two years of it just being her and me. When Stephen appeared, I didn’t get why we needed this new guy around. I even insisted—with a series of endless arguments that my mom and Stephen still shake their heads about—that I retain my original last name. I don’t remember why I was fighting so hard, but eventually I got my way.

Since then, to be honest, I hadn’t been so nice to Stephen. At first it was to punish him for coming between me and my mom, and then later it was just out of habit. I even called him Stephen so I wouldn’t have to call him Dad. But there was no question that the greatest thing Stephen ever had done, or could do, for me was to give me Peter.

For the rest of dinner, as mom talked about this and that, and Peter laughed, and Stephen droned on about something boring that happened at work, we were almost like a happy family, the three Scalis sitting around the table, tolerating the Webster in their midst.

“More cake?” said my mother.

“Can’t,” I said. “Have to go.”

“Where to?”

“I’m tutoring some kid in math.”

“Good for you, Elizabeth,” said my mother. “Who are you tutoring?”

“No one.” I stood, grabbed my plate, and took it to the sink. “Bye.”


“It’s just some guy who asked for help with linear equations.”

“Yes. But which guy?”

“You don’t know him. Henry Harrison.”

“The swimmer?” said Stephen, suddenly alert.

“That’s the one.”

“There was a front-page article on him in the sports section. He won his age group in the state. They say he’s a potential Olympian.”

“So what?” I said. “If there’s anything I care less about than sports I haven’t found it yet.”

“What about patents?” asked Stephen, a patent lawyer to his bones.

“A close second.” A patent is like this little piece of paper that lets you build things but that keeps other people from building the same—Sorry, I have to stop. If I keep explaining this right now I’ll fall into the most boring coma of all time. “See you,” I said.

“You want a ride?” Stephen asked hopefully, as if he was anxious to meet the swimming hero. How embarrassing would that be?

“No,” I said, “absolutely not.”

“Elizabeth?” said my mother.

“I’ve been walking alone to my friends’ houses since I was nine,” I said. “This is no different.” Before either of them could say anything more I was out of the kitchen and reaching for my coat.

If I had known then what was in store for me, I wouldn’t have been in such a rush. I might have bagged on Henry Harrison completely and stayed at home. I would have planned our trip to the moon with Petey or done homework in the kitchen while my mother graded papers. It would have been a night like every other night—calm, and quiet, and eye-crossingly dull.

Instead, a few minutes later I was hurrying along the sidewalk to Henry Harrison’s house.

Henry Harrison’s house always gave me the creeps—even before Henry Harrison lived in it.

It was a stone mansion built on top of a hill a hundred or so years ago. By the time I was old enough to first notice it, the house was deserted and falling apart. A pillar was slanted, the roof was collapsing, vines were crawling everywhere.

And there were stories about it—of a teen gone missing on Halloween night, of shifting lights and eerie howls coming from the ruin. But the house didn’t need stories to make it frightening. There was just something sour about it.

And then, for some cracked reason, the Harrisons came along and bought the place.

They tried to spiff it up. The pillar was straightened, the roof was fixed, vines were chopped down. But the gloomy never went away. The pillars still looked like huge, gaping front teeth, and the shuttered windows still looked like evil eyes. At night, dimly lit, the house was the head of a giant monster with the body buried deep beneath the ground.

The sight of the monster’s head up on that hill convinced me again that I should have said no when Henry Harrison asked for math help. I actually thought I had said no. I hugged myself in the chilly fall night and headed up the long driveway. I told myself I was just there to make a quick twenty-five bucks and then run right on home.

I banged on the front door. A dog barked. There were no lights on inside. I hoped for a second that no one was inside. But then the door opened with a creak, and there he was, Henry Harrison, in jeans and stockinged feet. A little dog yapped noisily.

“You came,” he said. “I wasn’t sure you’d show.”

“You didn’t give me much choice.”

He pushed away the dog with his foot. “Don’t mind Perky. He’s still just a pup.”


“It seemed to fit.”

“I hate perk.” The dog kept jumping and yelping. “Maybe you could give it a pill.”

“Let’s work in the kitchen. My folks are out.”


  • I love this book! William Lashner delivers humor and ghost-story shivers in a mixture of wit and intensity. He creates memorable characters, at once daring and vulnerable.—Ridley Pearson, bestselling author of Lock and Key
  • A superb mystery....Elizabeth's spunky attitude and earnestness provide an emotional spine that couples with the novel's mystery, dovetailing together at the right moment, making for a very engaging read. Kirkus Reviews
  • This blend of ghost story and mystery will satisfy readers who ask for the "scary stories."School Library Journal

On Sale
Sep 15, 2020
Page Count
336 pages

William Lashner

About the Author

William Lashner is a former criminal prosecutor with the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. and a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His novels have been published worldwide and have been nominated for two Shamus Awards, a Gumshoe Award, an Edgar Award, and been selected as an Editor's Choice in the New York Times Book Review. When he was a kid, his favorite books were The Count of Monte Cristo and any comic with Batman on the cover. Elizabeth Webster is his first series for kids.

Learn more about this author