In The Victim's Shadow

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Chapter 17

At 8:50 the next morning, Katherine paced impatiently, waiting for her client to arrive. She stopped, a look of panic crossing her face. She swung around to look at John. “What if she doesn’t show?” She resumed pacing.

They were sitting in conference room one, where they had told Brenda to meet them. He folded his newspaper and set it down. “She’ll show. There’s no reason for her not to.”

Katherine stopped pacing. “Did I make a mistake? Should I have called the police last night?”

They had discussed it. They were at dinner when Beth called with the news, and although while on the phone with Beth, Katherine had a mischievous glow in her eyes, reality had set in once the conversation ended. They realized they faced a serious dilemma.

“She’ll be here,” John said.

“I do so hope I did the right thing.” She picked up the pace again.

He sighed, rose to his feet and placed a hand on either of her shoulders, stopping her pacing. Their eyes met, and John wanted to take her in his arms and devour her mouth with a kiss. Fear of their client walking in was the only thing that stopped him. “Beth’s phone call left you in a quandary. On the one hand, if you had alerted the police last night, she might have gotten wind of it and taken off. This way she’ll be here, they’ll already be here, and the arrest will be simple and easy.” He grinned. “Besides, I’m looking forward to the show.”

Brenda flew through the doorway at that moment. Perfect hair and nails, makeup, was freshly done. The scent of the designer perfume she wore wafting in with her. “Whew, I made it,” she said.

Katherine looked at her watch, tapped it for effect. “Where have you been?”

Brenda gave her a tedious look. “I had to look my best.” She smiled. “I just know things are going to go my way today, and I wanted to look superb for all the cameras.”

Katherine shook her head. “Let’s go.” She held open the door as Brenda and John both left.

A flurry of camera flashes hit them as they entered the courtroom. Katherine blinked maddeningly. She hated these high-profile cases. Reporters reached out to touch Brenda, begging for a comment. Brenda flashed them her flashiest smile, posed for the camera. “My lawyer says I can’t talk to you until after the hearing. But once the hearing is over, I’ll give you the story of your life.”

“Do you think you’ll win today?” One reporter shouted.

Brenda smiled sweetly. “Sweetie, I always win.”

Katherine’s skin crawled as she pushed Brenda forward. They didn’t even have time to sit at the plaintiff’s table before the bailiff announced, “All rise for the Honorable Judge Albers.”

Katherine stood where she was. Judge Albers entered, sat, rapped her gavel, said, “Be seated,” and the entertainment began.

Katherine rushed Brenda forward and had just sat in her seat when the judge said, “Call your first witness, counselor,” she directed Katherine.

Katherine stood. “I have no witnesses to call today,” she said.

The judge looked up sharply. She looked at Katherine and then at Blair Bryant, who grinned like a satisfied cat. “No witnesses?” she questioned.

Katherine nodded. “That’s right, Your Honor, no witnesses.” Suddenly aware of how that might sound, she added, “We feel we’ve done a thorough job of establishing our client’s strong position in the community, and her commitment to her children.” In all honesty, Katherine had considered witnesses, but when it came down to the act of finding them, Brenda couldn’t come up with a single friend who might be willing to stand up for her. Apparently, she was a do-gooder citizen but made scant time for actual friends. Some of her fellow do-gooders even seemed to resent Brenda’s one-man act. They usually worked as a group. When cold calling fellow committee members, one woman had even made the comment to Beth, “It just seems as if she’s out to prove something. She makes the rest of us look bad. Am I right?” They would have to make do with the newspaper coverage.

The judge shook her head. “It’s your case,” she said. She looked at Blair. “Alright, Mr. Bryant, are you ready to begin your defense?”

He stood. “Yes, I am, Your Honor. I call Brenda Cooper as my first witness.”

There was a murmur in the courtroom as Brenda gasped. Katherine knew they expected her to object. It would look odd if she didn’t. She stood. “Objection. This request is an outrage, Your Honor. Mr. Bryant gave us no warning he intended to call my client to the stand. I’ve had no time to prepare her.”

“You mean, coerce her into lying? Please, Your Honor,” Blair said, “if the plaintiff has nothing to hide, what will it hurt?”

The judge scowled. “It’s her right not to testify on her behalf. Do I need to remind you of that? What year did you graduate law school, Mr. Bryant?” She pointed a finger at him. “And if you ever insult a fellow attorney in my courtroom again, I’ll throw you in jail for contempt.”

Katherine raised her hand, slightly. “May I have a moment to confer with my client?”

The judge nodded. “Fine, but do it quietly right where you are.”

Katherine leaned over to whisper in Brenda’s ear. She caught Beth’s eye and had to stifle a grin.

Beth had wondered what was up her sleeve when Katherine sent her a text message wondering what would happen if a certain paralegal let information about a certain escaped mental patient slip to a certain defense attorney.

Beth had grinned and, when no one was looking, she slipped a photograph with the words what do Alison Gates and Sanford Arms have in common written at the bottom, into his briefcase. She could tell the exact moment he discovered the photograph because he looked around, as if his mysterious benefactor would step forward, then he bolted for the lobby, most likely headed to call his highly skilled team of paralegals. The only hope was that they would discover the information as quickly as Beth had. At least she had given them a name.

“Is there anything that might surprise us?” Katherine asked.

Brenda shook her head. “I told you. I have a squeaky clean record. You’ve seen all the articles about me.”

Katherine nodded. “Are you opposed to taking the stand?”

The door opened, and a young woman walked in. She walked over to Blair Bryant, handed him a large envelope.

Katherine raised her eyebrows. “I advise you not to,” she said, hoping she would not heed her advice.

“No. I’ll do it. It’s my chance to let the judge see how much I love my babies, right?”

“Mr. Bryant isn’t going to go easy on you. We’ve had no time to prepare you for what questions he might ask.”

“I can handle it,” Brenda said.

“Are you sure? I can ask the judge for some time to prepare.”

Brenda shook her head. “It’s okay. I’ve got nothing to hide.”

She seemed so sure of herself that, for a moment, Katherine began to have doubts. Perhaps it had been a mistake. Perhaps Brenda Cooper only resembled this Alison Gates.

Brenda rose and walked to the witness stand. The bailiff swore her in.

From the corner of her eye, Katherine saw Blair open the envelope, scan its contents, and grin. He approached Brenda.

“Mrs. Cooper. How long have you and my client been married?”

“Ten years,” Brenda said. “Ten looong years,” she added, stretching out the word long and rolling her eyes.

Everyone in the courtroom snickered. Even Blair grinned.

“Are you saying none of those years have been happy?”

“I wouldn’t say that.” She looked at Allen. “I suppose it was nice in the beginning—before I knew what he was like.” She dabbed her eyes for show.

Katherine expected Blair to object, but he didn’t. Instead, he just smiled.

“Have you ever been known by any other names?”

Brenda flinched. She looked at Katherine, waiting for her to object. Katherine shook her head. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary with the question.

“Mrs. Cooper, please answer the question,” he said.

“No,” Brenda said. “I haven’t had any other names.”

“Nothing?” Blair asked, raising his eyebrows. “Not even a maiden name?”

Brenda smiled, relaxed a little. “Oh, well, of course, my maiden name.”

“And what was that?”

“Walls.”

He looked at the judge, then at Brenda. “Walls? You’re sure it was Walls?”

Brenda scoffed. “Of course, I’m sure. I ought to know my maiden name.”

Blair snickered. “Well, yes, I suppose you would.”

Katherine arose. “Objection, Your Honor. Is Mr. Bryant going anywhere with this line of questioning?”

The judge looked at Blair. “Well, are you?”

“Right now,” he said. He walked in front of Brenda. He stopped and focused on her. “Are you sure it wasn’t Gates?”

A small cry emitted from Brenda’s throat. She shifted in her seat. Allen leaned forward. Katherine stood again, hating to object again but knowing she must. “Your Honor. Is it Mr. Bryant’s intention to throw accusations at my client all day?”

The judge shrugged. “I’d like to hear her answer.”

Brenda looked at Katherine with something close to panic in her eyes. Katherine shook her head and nodded at Brenda, telling her to answer. Brenda looked at the judge. “I change my mind. I don’t want to testify after all.” She started to rise.

“Sit down, Mrs. Cooper and answer the question,” the judge ordered.

Brenda sat there, the wheels spinning in her head. What did this man know? How had he come across that name? She had been so careful to hide her identity.

“Would you like me to repeat the question?” Blair asked.

“No. I’m sure,” Brenda said. “My maiden name is Walls.” She jutted out her chin in defiance.

Blair stared at her, making her squirm uncomfortably in her seat. He walked over to his table, rifled through some papers, intentionally drawing out the suspense. He stared up at Brenda, who stared back. Her chin shot out in defiance.

“Your Honor,” Katherine tried again. “I don’t see where Mr. Bryant is going with this.”

“Neither do I,” the judge said. She looked at Blair. “Get to your point, Mr. Bryant.”

Blair nodded. He picked up some documents, walked over to the judge, placed them in her hands. “I’d like to submit these into evidence.”

“Objection,” Katherine said. “I haven’t had a chance to see them.”

The judge waved her away. She looked at Brenda, then at Katherine, and finally at Blair. “Where did you get these?”

“I’m not sure, Your Honor.” He shook his head. “I guess I must have a guardian angel or something.”

The audience tittered. As the intensity of the hearing grew, so did their excitement. Many of them perched themselves on the edge of their seats, eager for a little tittle-tattle.

Katherine strode over to the judge’s bench, holding out her hand. “I’d like to see the documents,” she said. “He can’t introduce something into evidence that he hasn’t disclosed to me,” she objected.

The judge chuckled. “Don’t worry, counselor. I know the rules.” She handed the documents to Katherine.

Katherine scanned them, handed them back to the judge, and walked back to her table. She sat down, remaining silent. It was over. The rest was just for show, and Blair was quite enjoying it. She felt a pang of guilt for her part, at least she did until a vision of the children flashed through her head, and that poor innocent child, lying somewhere, forever in a coma because of what this woman had done.

From the witness stand, Brenda began to fidget. “What? What do those papers say?” she asked, fear leaping into her eyes.

The judge signaled to the bailiff. When he came close, she called him closer with her finger. He leaned his ear close. Low murmurs carried through the courtroom as the judge and bailiff conferred. Then the bailiff looked at Brenda and nodded. He walked to his desk, picked up a phone and began to dial.

Brenda sat up straight. She looked at Katherine. “What are they saying?” she whined.

The judge looked at Blair. “You may continue, Mr. Bryant.”

He approached the witness stand. “Mrs. Cooper, have you ever heard of Alison Gates?”

Brenda paled. She sat in silence, not daring to speak. She looked at Katherine, willing her to object.

“We’re waiting, Mrs. Cooper,” Blair said. “Shall I repeat the question?”

She shook her head. “No. I have never heard of Alison Gates. Should I know her?” she asked, her chin stuck out again in mock defiance.

Blair laughed. He clearly was having fun with this. Katherine shifted uncomfortably. She certainly wasn’t a fan of Brenda Cooper, but neither did she like Blair’s mockery of the situation. She wished she could have handled the situation differently, but she had to think of her firm’s welfare. The last thing they needed was a malpractice suit brought against them.

“What day were you born, Mrs. Cooper?”

“December 7, 1967,” she said without hesitation.

Allen stirred, looking confused. Brenda paled again. “I mean August 6th.”

Blair grinned. “That’s interesting,” he said. “December 7, 1967, is Alison Gates’s birthday. How would you know that, Mrs. Cooper?” He took three steps back, spun on his heel, and began to walk toward his table. He took two steps, turned, held one finger up in the air, in an Aha motion, and said, “Wait, I know. You know Alison Gates’s birthday because you are Alison Gates.”

“No!” she shouted. “That’s not true. I’m Brenda Cooper.” She looked at Allen, pleading with him with saddened puppy-dog eyes. “I’m sorry, Allen. This whole thing is a terrible mess. I should never have started it. Can we just go home and makeup? I promise I’ll drop the charges.” She looked at the judge. “It was all a big misunderstanding. He didn’t hurt me. I tripped on the stairs. That’s where I got all the bruises.”

Katherine watched the onslaught and felt helpless to stop it. There was nothing she could do to save her client, not that she wanted to.

Tears came to Brenda’s eyes and then she began to cry. “I’m not Alison Gates.” She looked at the judge, got nowhere, looked at Katherine, who only stared at her.

Allen, looking confused, fidgeted in his chair. “What is going on here?” he asked.

Brenda stared at her husband, feeling trapped. “It’s not true, Allen. Tell them who I am. Tell them I’m your wife. We can work this out. I know we can. You can come back home with the kids and me. We miss you so much.”

Blair sat down next to Allen, whispered something in his ear. He paled, looked at Brenda, then at the judge. “Is this true, Brenda? Are you Alison Gates, and did you kill your husband and try to murder your baby?”

The audience gasped. Several reporters sprang from their chairs, whipping out cameras and snapping pictures as fast as they could before the judge stopped them.

The judge rapped her gavel. “Stop this circus, now!” she commanded. “Bailiff, please take this woman into custody.”

“No!” Brenda wailed.

Katherine hadn’t even noticed the two additional bailiffs enter the courtroom, but she saw them now as they stepped forward and placed handcuffs on Brenda Cooper.

“Please, Allen,” she begged. “Make them stop.”

Katherine wasn’t sure if she saw pity, concern, or contempt on Allen Cooper’s face as the bailiffs led his screaming wife from the courtroom.

She tried to break free from them, looking back over her shoulder, pleading with Allen. “Please,” she begged.

Katherine felt the stirrings of pity swell deep in her heart. On the surface, Brenda Cooper may have been a conniving witch, but deep down was the heart of a sick woman. She turned her head away, not wanting to witness the scene any further.

The door closed, and Brenda’s wailing became faint as the bailiffs led her down the corridor.

The judge rapped her gavel.

“What now?” Allen whispered.

Blair shrugged. “They’ll return her to Arizona and let them deal with her.”

“No, I meant the kids. What about the kids? Do I get them back now?”

The judge rapped her gavel again. Allen looked sharply at her. “In light of this,” she cleared her throat, “uh-hum, situation, I’m returning the children to the care of their father.” Allen sat up and grinned excitedly. “However,” she continued, narrowing her eyes at Allen, “there have been some interesting points made during this hearing, despite the outcome. Mr. Cooper, I don’t believe you would harm your children, or I wouldn’t be returning them to your care, but I do think you have some control issues that need addressing. You may be a prominent figure in this community, but that does not give you the right to push around others. Do you catch my drift?”

He nodded. “Yes, Your Honor.”

“Good, because I’m ordering social services to do random checks of your household, and I’m asking a team of auditors to monitor your business transactions over the next six months. I don’t expect to get back any negative reports.” Her look cut through him, and Katherine had to stifle a giggle at the sight of the mighty Allen Cooper chastised by the lithe female judge.

“You have nothing to worry about, Your Honor. I love my children. You rest assured they will be well-cared for.”

She nodded. “Good. Court adjourned.” She rapped her gavel again, and everyone rose as she exited the courtroom.

Katherine picked up her briefcase and started walking toward the door.

“Ms. Winters,” Allen called.

She stopped and turned.

“Somehow, I believe I have you to thank for this.”

She shook her head. “Don’t thank me,” she said. “Frankly, I don’t believe either one of you deserve those children. You use them as pawns in your game of life. They are far more precious than that.”

She pushed through the doors, leaving Allen Cooper and Blair Bryant staring after her.

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