Beth parked her car in her assigned parking spot and climbed out of the driver’s seat. She had a momentary flashback of Jack backing her against the car, persuading her to go with him. She shook it off, not wanting to remember. Not wanting to think about how weak she’d been.
Bruce, the door attendant, saw her coming and opened the glass door that separated the parking structure from the main offices. “Morning, Bruce,” she said as she stepped through the doors.
“Morning, Ms. Reynolds.”
She hadn’t been to work in four days, and for some reason she felt awkward walking down the hall, almost as if her weakening invalidated her right to work in a legal office.
She got off to a late start that morning, not wanting to part from Timmy. They had lain in her bed well past seven o’clock when Timmy finally ended the cuddle-fest by bouncing out of bed. He had slept with her every night since Jack’s arrival. Interestingly enough, he didn’t even question why she didn’t want him to sleep in his racecar bed.
“Aw, Timmy,” she said that morning, but resignedly dragged her body from the warmth of the down comforter and into the shower.
Now, she slipped behind her desk and turned on her computer. Thirty email messages popped up in her outlook. She groaned. Hadn’t anyone even attempted to do her job for her in her absence?
As she started to go through them, she was pleased to find she could delete most of them. Seven messages about a company picnic were on the top of the list. She didn’t care in the least about those and hit the delete button without even opening them. That put a message from personnel about needing her sick leave report on the top of the list. She marked that one for follow-up the next day. “Give me a chance to settle in,” she said aloud. The second to the last message was from an email address she did not recognize: [email protected] She started to press delete, thinking it was just some spam mail when the subject line caught her attention—re: Timmy.
Her heartbeat quickened, beating so hard she felt it push against her chest. Her breath began to come in shallow gasps. Should she open it? Should she delete it? Her fingers hovered over the delete key, torn between curiosity and an underlying sense of dread.
She moved her fingers down to the enter key, closed her eyes, counted to ten, and pressed it. Nothing happened—no earth-shattering shock wave hit her, no worm virus infected her computer—but the words written there tugged at her heart.
I saw our little boy today. He is beautiful, Honey. For years, I dreamed of holding him, and there he was—so close, I could almost reach out and touch him. He looks like you. I’m so sorry about what happened at Cue’s Alley. I panicked when I saw the police officer and didn’t know what to do. I honestly didn’t expect you to take off like that. I thought I could retrieve the package before you left. I know you must think I’m a creep, and I don’t blame you, but please give me a chance, Lizzie—please.
She stared at the words, reading them over and over again. Katherine stuck her head out her door. “Beth, will you please…” She broke off at the sight of Beth staring monolithically at the computer.
She came around to look into her face. “Beth?”
Beth slowly turned toward her. “It’s Jack,” she said and looked back at the computer.
Katherine looked at the screen and read his note. “He’s messing with you. Don’t play into his game.”
Beth shook her head. “No. He means what he says.”
“Beth,” Katherine tried again, “focus on Timmy and your case. You wouldn’t even be in this predicament if Jack hadn’t messed with you.” She sighed, knowing she had no chance in hell of getting through to Beth.
Katherine hit the reply button and began to type. Beth hit her hand away, glaring angrily at her. “What are you doing?”
“Pleading with him,” Katherine said and began to type again.
You have caused Beth, a heap of trouble. Do the right thing and turn yourself into the police.
“Katherine, no!” Beth shouted just as Katherine hit the send button.
Katherine stood and looked down at Beth. “I’ll not stand by and let him drag you into the gutter again. It took you months to recover the last time.”
Beth began to cry. Katherine stooped down next to her, holding her close to her. “Let’s go into my office.”
She stood, pulling Beth up with her. Katherine led her to one of the consulting chairs, guided her down and sat beside her. “Look at me, Beth.”
Beth slowly raised her head, staring into Katherine’s eyes. She saw compassion. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to feel this way toward Jack, but I can’t help it.”
Katherine nodded. “Yes, you can. All he has ever done is made trouble for you.” She ran to Beth’s desk, grabbed a picture of it and returned to Beth. “Look at this. Look at the laughter in this little boy’s eyes. He got that from you. You are a great mother. You have always put Timmy’s welfare first. Don’t change that now.”
Beth took the picture from her. She smiled, touching his face with motherly love. She nodded. “He is happy.”
“Yes,” Katherine said, “He is happy.”
Beth sighed. “I guess you’re right.” She rose. “I guess I’ll get back to work now.”
Katherine rose to stand beside her. She pushed the photo close to Beth’s heart. Beth gave her a weak smile and went to her desk. She set the photo back down on the desk and took her seat. Her vision blurred as she wiped at her tears.
She picked up the file on Brenda Cooper. There was a message from Andrew clipped to the front. It read, Beth, call me. Beth sighed and picked up the phone, grateful for the distraction. Andrew answered on the third ring.
“Hey, how’s it going?” he asked a slight lilt to his voice.
“Fine,” Beth said. “I got a message to call you.”
“Oh, yeah.” He laughed. “I almost forgot. Where have you been?”
“Personal leave,” Beth said.
“That’s code for ‘mind your own business.’ Hey, you don’t have to tell me twice. Listen, though. I’m still here at the Cooper house, and I wanted to run something by you.”
“Are we sure Mr. Cooper’s the abuser?”
Beth felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck. “Why do you ask that?”
“She just seems a little rough with the kids. That’s all. Did you say you did some investigating on her?”
“Just surface stuff. Should I look deeper?”
He clicked his tongue. “Might not be a bad idea.”
“I’ll run it by Katherine. Thanks, Andrew.”
She hung up, stared at Brenda’s file and sighed. She carried it to Katherine’s office, knocked on the door and waited for Katherine, to invite her in.
Katherine was looking at her expectantly when she set the file down on her desk. She relayed her conversation with Andrew. “What do you think? Shall I dig deeper?”
Katherine looked concerned. “I’d feel like a fool if it turns out I’m trying the wrong Cooper.”
“The kids are more important.”
“I know. Start digging, but keep it quiet.”
“Gotcha,” Beth said. Returning to her computer, she typed in the name Brenda Cooper. The same sites popped up as had before. Tales of selfless community service, PTA events, book fairs, bake sales. She appeared to be a model mother. There was even a picture of her at last year’s groundbreaking ceremony for a new community park. Brenda Cooper—driven mother, wife, and community leader was single-handedly instrumental in raising the necessary funds to build a new park in a low-rent neighborhood, the article read.
“Excuse me, Miss. I’m looking for Beth Reynolds.”
Beth looked up, staring at a slightly familiar face, which she was unable to place. “I’m Beth Reynolds.”
The girl who stood in front of her laughed. “It’s me, Angela.”
Beth jumped to her feet. “Oh, my God, Angela!” She stepped back and looked at her, running her fingers down her braided strands of hair. Her face, previously caked with makeup, was now clean and wholesome looking. She wore a pair of faded, but clean jeans, a form-fitting tee shirt emblazoned with an emblem of a dragon, and a pair of sneakers. “I hardly recognize you.”
Angela stepped aside, revealing an older version of her. “This is my mother, Wendy.”
Beth stuck out her hand. “I’m pleased to meet you,” she said.
“We wanted to come by to thank you,” Wendy said.
“I called her, just like you said,” Angela said. She lowered her eyes. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”
Beth smiled. “I knew it would be okay. Can I get you guys something?”
Katherine came out of her office then, looking for a file. Beth introduced her visitors, explaining her connection to Angela.
Katherine extended her hand in greeting, as Beth had earlier. “It’s nice to meet both of you.”
Beth asked, “So, did you come to take me up on the offer of a lawyer?”
Angela looked anxious. Wendy looked down in embarrassment. “I’m afraid we can’t afford a lawyer. We’ll have to take our chances with a public defender.”
Beth and Katherine exchanged glances. Katherine said, “You don’t have to worry about the fees. I do a certain amount of pro-bono work. I’d be happy to help you out.”
Angela smiled. “Really?”
Wendy placed a hand on her daughter’s arm. “That’s generous, really, but we couldn’t accept.”
“I wish you would reconsider. A good representation would better serve your daughter’s interest. It can make all the difference in the world.”
They all stood there in silence. Finally, Angela looked at her mother. “Well,” she said. “Are you going to let me fry, or are you going to let the nice lady help me?”
They broke out in a round of laughter.
Wendy smiled “We’d be happy to accept your offer.”
Angela squealed with delight, hugging her mother, then hugging Beth, and finally throwing herself at Katherine. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Katherine laughed nervously and slowly patted the young girl’s head. A jolt went through Katherine at the pleasure she felt at the girl’s appreciation. She could get used to the feel of a child in her arms.
She looked down at the girl’s beaming smile. “You’re welcome.”
She stepped out of the embrace. “Let’s get started. We have a lot of ground to cover.”
Beth automatically handed her a blank file. “Right this way,” Katherine said, walking toward her office, gesturing Angela and Wendy to follow.
As Katherine was closing the office door, she caught Beth’s eyes. Beth smiled and mouthed, “Thank you.”
Katherine smiled in return, nodding her head. She closed the door and turned to her new clients. She sat behind her desk and looked at them both. “Let’s start by reviewing the situation,” she said.
Angela told her what happened with the store clerk.
“What led to that?” Katherine asked.
Wendy shook her head and pulled her eyebrows together. “What do you mean?”
“What compelled her to attack the store clerk?”
Wendy’s face turned crimson. She lowered her head and shook it. “I’m a terrible mother.” Her eyelashes dampened with tears. Katherine handed her a tissue and gave her a moment. When she looked up, she said, “She’s alone a lot. I have to work two jobs to provide for us. That means I can’t be there for Angela when she gets home.”
Katherine looked at Angie. “And your way of dealing with this is to get into trouble?”
Angie shrugged. “I guess so.”
Katherine sighed. “I’m sure we can do better than that.” She walked over to the conference table and brought back an easel. On it she wrote, things Angie can do with her time.
“What are you doing,” Angie asked.
Katherine beamed at her. “We’re going to get you out of trouble.”
Angie flashed her a smile, which Wendy matched. “We can’t thank you enough,” Wendy said.
Katherine thought about all her money sitting in the bank, about her incredible hourly rate she billed her clients, about the luxurious apartment she went home to every night. Then she thought about her mother, and about how much she missed her and wished she were here with her. “Your smiles are payment enough,” she said and meant every word.