“Mr. Rockwell. Glad you could grace us with your presence,” said a woman with pale brown hair, pale brown skin, pale brown eyes, and a black blazer. There was a pale brown shirt under the blazer, so there was no question of her identity.
Dane glanced at the wall clock and saw that he arrived at three-thirty on the dot. These must be five-minutes-early-or-you’re-late folks. “Ms. Ingersoll? Dane Rockwell.” He extended a hand, but she looked down at it like she’d get a disease if she touched him.
“All men are the same,” she said through clenched teeth.
Well, that escalated quickly.
“They claim events are consensual. What a word. Mrs. Jackson and I call it sexual assault.”
Uh, definitely not consensual.
Great. She was turning out to be everything he’d assumed, based on Tweed’s description. Ingersoll definitely wouldn’t be giving him a come-on like her client had. Thank the heavens there’d be no riffing on Fifty Shades of Beige.
The small courtroom had a bench with three judges’ seats with microphones, two tables— prosecution and defense— and only two rows of chairs in the gallery. Its walls were painted a pinkish brown, interspersed with acoustic carpet panels, and everything else was a dull red or stained oak.
So, this was how his last moments of a lawyer would look.
Beside Ms. Ingersoll sat a sedate woman with hair pulled back into a severe bun, with no makeup on. She wore a no-nonsense high-necked blouse and long skirt, and a pair of those shoes he’d seen Brooke wear with her scrubs— clogs?
Who was she?
From a side door, three judges filed in. Dane didn’t recognize any of them. They weren’t the regulars he saw in local court in his trials for Tweed, they were from the Virginia Bar Ethics Commission.
An image of the stacks of paperwork he’d prepared for Brooke flashed into his mind. Yeah, he really should have spent more time on his own defense. The things we do for love.
All he had acquired for his own self-preservation was a single manila file folder and a jump drive of security footage, which he’d received from Vonda but which he hadn’t had time to watch.
That, and a desperate will to live.
Even though the rest of the world checked time on their phones these days, Brooke usually made use of the watch she always wore. Nurses needed a visible second hand too many times in every shift to abandon their wristwatches. Now she glanced at the hands in apprehension, wishing they would slow their rotation and give her more time.
“He’s not here.” She said this only loud enough for Olivia to hear. “I really thought he’d come.”
Stupid of her.
Olivia put a hand on Brooke’s forearm. “Quirt will be with you. And I’m here. You’re not alone.”
Yeah, and Aunt Ruth would be in the gallery, of course, since her own entire future dangled over the pit of vipers. Plus she’d said she wanted another look at the Called Shot Ball, especially if it was for the last time.
Please don’t let it be the last time.
Despite the full family turnout, without Dane, alone was how it felt.
“I swear, I thought he was just mad about seeing me talking to Ames, and he would have gotten over it by now.” She peeked into the cavernous courtroom, its ceilings stretching high, a bas relief mural in a band around the whole room above the towering windows. Naughton’s old courthouse should be on the historic register, if it wasn’t already.
Not that Brooke could appreciate its beauty. Not with the churning fear in her stomach.
“It’s going to be fine,” Olivia said, but not with conviction. After all, she knew Brooke hadn’t found a replacement lawyer at the last minute, nor had they seen Twyla Tyler. And the handwriting expert Dane had gone to visit had been bribed— if she’d understood Dane’s meaning. Not that she’d talked to him to find out the details. Remembering why made her a little sick. Her sister-in-law grimaced. “I mean, you’ll just tell the truth.”
Yeah. That would work. But it would work a whole lot better if she had any clue about judicial proceedings.
“Mrs. Tyler is coming, right?” Olivia took Brooke’s elbow to comfort her. A good sister. “She’ll back you up.”
Brooke shrugged. There wasn’t any lawyer around to call Mrs. Tyler to the stand, even if the woman did show. Was this where Brooke could just say, I’ll wing it? Hardly.
Outside the courtroom doors the hallway’s marble floors echoed with every footstep, but none belonged to Dane. Or Twyla Tyler yet. The sound bounced all the way up to the tray ceiling panels and back down inside this cavern of a room. Ominous.
“Do you have any vitamin B in your purse?” That was the anti-nausea vitamin, right? Oh, great. Even her nursing knowledge was fleeing now. Her brain was seizing up under the pressure— of the case and also these awful high heels. Olivia shot her a confused look.
Through the ornate double doors at the grand foyer, in walked red-lipped Sarge LaBarge, flanked by three men in dark suits and glasses, like he owned the place— and needed bodyguards.
“Who’s that?” Olivia elbowed Brooke.
“That? That’s my nemesis.” Three major life attacks counted to create nemesis status— first the scholarship money for college, then sabotaging her marriage, now sabotaging her entire future business plans and her savings. Yeah, it counted. “Charming, isn’t he?”
“He’s shorter than I expected.” Olivia dug a tin of mints out of her purse and offered Brooke one. “I bet he has stale breath.”
The barb popped Brooke’s balloon of fear, and she unglued herself from her spot in the hall. “We’d better go in.”
Brooke scanned this arena where the day’s bloodsport would take place. The judge— Vandalay, was it?— was already seated behind her big desk thingie. She had short, curly hair and when she lifted her hand, her fingernails flashed a blood-red color. Close, personal friend of Faro LaBarge.
Just as Brooke and Olivia found seats in the gallery of the courtroom, in walked Quirt, carrying a briefcase.
“It’s just some notes for the hearing.”
“Fifty pounds of notes?”
“More like seventy. My arm’s going to fall off.” Quirt led them into the room, where the judge was already seated on her throne. Or bench. Or whatever. See? Brooke wasn’t even equipped with the names of the furniture in the room. She was so out of her depth she couldn’t see the surface of the ocean above her with binoculars.
“Where did you— ?”
Before she could finish her question, a loud commotion sounded in the hallway and moved quickly into the courtroom where they stood in the aisle. Brooke had to dodge into one of the rows of seats to avoid getting plowed into by the man with a stack of gold chains strung across his hairy chest as he bustled in.
“Your honor?” He spoke to the judge and the room too loudly. “I request a moment of the judge’s time.”
Brooke stared at him openly— his silk shirt open halfway down, his designer jeans pulled up too high, a white belt, pointy toed shoes, gold rings on almost every finger, a pearl drop earring dangling from one ear, and then the hair. It was like somebody pulled it straight from an ’80s rock band video.
Everyone stared. Even Sarge LaBarge.
In bustled a clerk from a side door. “I’m sorry, your honor. He slipped past me.”
The judge raised an eyebrow. “It’s fine, Cecilia. I’m well aware of his skill set.”
Olivia tugged Brooke down to sit beside her. “I thought your court hearing was supposed to start at four.”
It was four now. Brooke shrugged in confusion— and stress— and the bailiff shushed the room, just as Brooke noticed Earnshaw over against the far wall. He’d come?
“Now,” the judge said to the flamboyantly-dressed man who looked about sixty, “we have a courtroom full of people ready for an important hearing, and you’re delaying it.”
“I know, your honor. I’ll make it quick. Quick like a bunny!”
Quirt sat down beside them and flipped open the briefcase, pulling out a file labeled Brooke’s Time Sheets. Another was labeled Brooke’s Medical Records. Yet another was Brooke’s Transcripts. Her jaw went slack. What was all this?
“Where did that come from?” she hissed, but the bailiff shushed her as the judge spoke with the stranger.
“We’ve been here a few times before, you and I. This had better be your fastest argument yet. Does your parole officer know you’re down here today, Mr. Rockwell?”
“Mr. Rockwell?” The ethics hearing officer addressed Dane.
“We’re here to discuss the events of the night of April eleventh. I assume you’ve been made aware of the charges against you?”
Just to be thorough, the judge recapped them, each accusation a needle in Dane’s brain. They sounded a lot worse when they were lined up like that.
“How do you plead?”
Guilty pleas went faster, Dane knew. With a guilty plea, the whole second act of the courtroom drama would drop out and cut to the sentencing; get it over with, and he could get back upstairs to help Brooke.
But, yeah. That might be flawed reasoning.
“Not guilty,” he said. Completely, a hundred percent innocent, not guilty.
“Ms. Ingersoll.” The judge turned to Her Beigeness. “We’ll begin with you and your client.”
Her client? Dane was supposed to know that woman sitting there? He’d never seen her before in his life.
With a sneer, Ingersoll stood and pointed to the dowdy woman beside her. “On the night of April eleventh, my client was leaving Tweed Law after doing routine janitorial work at her husband’s office, when that man, Dane Rockwell, assaulted her close to midnight. Isn’t that right, Mrs. Jackson?”
That was the nasty Ms. Jackson? That…mousy thing? Where were the open blouse and slingback sandals? Humph. They’d obviously gone with the drunken bravado.
“Your client’s full name for the record?”
“Galadriel Mae Jackson.”
“Galadriel!” It exploded from Dane’s mouth.
Nieve Ingersoll swooped on him. “Don’t tell me you didn’t even know her first name! This makes your guilt appear even more heinous.”
Dane had been set up. This was so bad. He looked at the three people sitting there in judgment on him: a man and two women. Two. And the one in the center, the head judge, was also a woman.
The deck was stacked against him.
Brooke started biting her fingernail as the flashy Rockwell guy kept talking.
“And then let me show yous what else, all right, Your Honor?” He pulled a keychain out of his pocket. “Do you want to see it with your own eyes, judge? I couldn’t take any pictures, but I do gots my Camaro parked downstairs. My cousin Eddie put some new rims on it that look like a peach, you know? You’d like them. It’s not exactly new, and it ain’t vintage status yet, but I gotta takes care of it, you know? It’s gonna be worth something someday. And it ain’t worth as much now that it got rammed into by Doug the Drug Dealer, which is why I’m here, as I’ve said multiple times …”
This story took so many tangents. While this Vincent Rockwell had dragged the judge up practically every garden path in the whole Chesapeake and Tidewater region, her watch’s minute hand slid southward toward four thirty, and Brooke’s tension wound tighter and tighter.
Ames had come in and sat next to Quirt, but no one was allowed to talk.
What was Ames going to say? She’d been an idiot to make that deal with him without knowing what he’d testify to.
All of this was a giant shot in the dark.
Except for these files Quirt brought— they were gold. They even had a printed outline of what order to call witnesses in. Quirt was a genius! Or, wait—
When the bailiff wasn’t looking, Brooke whispered under her breath to her brother. “Where’d you get this?”
Peeking into the stack of files, Brooke didn’t heed Quirt’s answer, because she already knew. She flipped through page after page of all kinds of information Dane must have been collecting for the past week. Her mouth dropped open. Besides the copy of the will and the subpoenaed copy of the bowling alley scorecard from good old Cloyd, Dane had even listed witnesses— like Zinnia and Chevy from work— and some guy with a New York City address. Someone from New York to testify? Brooke didn’t know anyone in New York. Maybe it was someone from Grandpa Thunder’s old employment era there. Beside that name, however, Dane had penciled in a bunch of question marks, so maybe it wasn’t really a witness they could depend on.
Boy, Dane had dug deep. He’d given her his very best. She longed to give him the best of her, as well. Brooke’s heart soared. He may have left her hanging by not sitting at her side today, but he hadn’t hung her out to dry.
What Quirt said next shocked her. “He’s downstairs in an ethics hearing fighting for his career. Say a little prayer for him. You owe him.”
Ethics hearing. Now? This minute? She gaped at her watch. No wonder he wasn’t here. No wonder he hadn’t told her. He thought that by not showing up today he was letting her down. She reflected back on the multiple times she’d inadvertently pressured him. Saying things like I know I can count on you, and I’m so glad you’ll be there for me. What she’d been referring to was his loyalty and devotion. But with this looming over him, all he’d heard was unfulfillable promises.
“Where is he?” she whispered to Quirt. “I’ll go to him.”
“Not now. You can’t. It’s too late.”
Quirt was right, of course, but Brooke’s heart both broke, even as it was still flying high from these epiphanies. Dane loved her. All his attentions had been sincere. They had to be. This wasn’t the effort of a guy who enjoyed an empty flirtation. This was real.
She loved him for it, with everything she had.
Worry for him lingering, she let her eyes stray back over to the multi-colored silk shirt of Vincent Rockwell.
“Mr. Rockwell,” the judge drenched his name with exasperation. “What exactly is your point? You’re wasting the court’s time. Or is that your point?”
Actually, the thought glimmered in Brooke’s mind, maybe it was.
“Let’s keep order here, ladies and gentlemen. No more outbursts, Mr. Rockwell. You’ll have your say.” The judge accented her demand with a knock of her gavel.
Ingersoll dragged everyone in the room through a falsified and sensationalized account of the events of that night, painting Dane with the blackest brush. Even the judges were visibly squirming during some portions.
Dane alternated between rage and horror. Bearing false witness was one of the big ten commandments for a reason. He could see that now. Destruction lay in its wake. Yowza.
And Dane had done nearly nothing to prepare to defend himself against this litany of lies.
“Thank you, Ms. Ingersoll, for your extremely thorough recitation.” The center judge, the lead, cleared her throat and shifted in her seat. She looked a little like Brooke’s mom, Mallory Chadwick, used to look. Kind eyes, patient, open to listening. That would make it all the worse when she swung the ax at Dane’s neck. The compassionate executioner. “Anything else for now?”
“No, ma’am. I think I made my client’s case very clear.” That she had. A thorough work of fiction, but clear indeed.
The lead judge turned to Dane. “Before we get to your turn, Mr. Rockwell, I have a request, even though it may be unconventional coming from a judge. However, I believe there was a security video shot that night. We’d like to see it.”
Dane pulled it out to hand to the bailiff, hating himself for not making time to watch it through, keeping himself so busy with Brooke’s case prep.
Ms. Ingersoll shot to her feet. “That— uh, no. No, your honors. That needs to be suppressed, for the privacy of my client, for her sensitivity. Please.”
“Have you seen it yourself, Ms. Ingersoll? To know how sensitive it is?”
“Of course, yes.”
“Other than those of us who will have to pass judgment, there’s no one in the room who hasn’t seen either the footage or was involved in the incident themselves. Trust me, our discretion is complete.”
This shut down Ingersoll.
Dane prayed nothing in the video feed had been doctored. If it had, this could end up moving beyond an ethics case to a criminal trial.
The judge’s patience had waned visibly by four forty-five. “Mr. Rockwell, you have been going on for thirty minutes. No, more. What exactly would you like me to do for you today? Be clear or I’m going to find you in contempt.”
“Judge. Come on. I really need you to listen to this.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Rockwell, this is going to have to be continued another day.” She banged her gavel on the desk. “Please go see my clerks and schedule a regular time to see me. And, please, bring an abridged version of your statements next time.”
The bailiff showed the man who had to be Dane’s Uncle Vinnie out of the room.
Now, all eyes were on the judge. “We’re ready to move ahead with the case of Faro LaBarge v. Brooke Chadwick.”
“Faro!” Olivia said under her breath. “Isn’t Sergeant enough? He has to be a pharaoh, too?”
Brooke couldn’t react with the same joviality. Her toes and fingers had gone numb. Her legs and hands would be next.
“Come forward, please.” The judge beckoned to Brooke, and she rose to approach the table where the lawyers should sit. Quirt stood, too. He’d be right beside her. Or at least sitting behind her, backing her up. It comforted her— a little.
Olivia, Aunt Ruth, Ames, Mrs. Tyler— thank goodness she had come— and everyone else stayed put while Brooke and her pinched feet trudged toward her doom.
“This is a ridiculous question, I know,” Judge Vandalay said while pouring herself a glass of water, “considering the extreme delay to the schedule today, but is everyone necessary for this hearing present?” The judge popped open a bottle of Tylenol and shook out a couple of tablets. “Miss Chadwick. You’re here. How about your counsel?”
Her mouth opened, but no sound came out.
Quirt piped up. “I’m not her lawyer, but I’d like to give counsel.”
“Oh, that’s nice, but if you’re not her lawyer, sir, you’ll please restrain yourself from commenting, and you’ll need to sit in the gallery.” The judge turned to LaBarge. “Mr. LaBarge, you’re slated to self-represent, as usual?”
As usual? So the judge truly did know her opponent? Was that fair? Was there bias? Should she ask for a change of judge? Brooke didn’t know.
She didn’t have any answers. She needed Dane, and he wasn’t here. Which reminded her— she sent a prayer up in his behalf. Lord, let Dane rise above. It wasn’t a well-crafted prayer, but it was from her heart and all she could concoct at the time.
And then she sent one up for herself. Lord, let me see.
“Can everyone see?” Did they want to? It wasn’t pretty. A gulp shoved down Dane’s creeping fear, and he stared alongside everyone else as the video from that night was projected onto the wall. If it was the same grainy mess Ullman Tweed had described to Dane, it wouldn’t be enough to exonerate him. It’d be like a surveillance video from a thousand feet away: blurred faces, indistinguishable intentions.
“Fast forward to the correct time, Sanders,” the male judge said to the IT assistant. “We don’t have time to watch lawyers walk back and forth or type on computers for hours.”
Nothing truer had ever been said. Dane’s eyes shot to the clock. Four minutes to five. Unless his Uncle Vinny was a miracle worker, chances were high that Brooke’s hearing was over. Whether Quirt would be able to decipher the piles of notes Dane had amassed, Dane had no idea. Likely they looked like a stack of gibberish.
I abandoned her.
Sanders the IT guy pressed play. Lo and behold, the feed wasn’t either grainy or black and white. No, it was full color and close up.
Rumors of Ullman Tweed’s paranoia and subsequent security measures had not been exaggerated. Wow. There was even audio.
This could be very good for Dane— or very bad, depending on whether these judges were watching the accurate version or a feed that had been tampered with.
A gurgle sounded from beside Ingersoll, and Nasty Ms. Jackson’s hand flew to her throat.
Not doctored, thank the heavens above. There it was in full color— Ms. Jackson’s arrival, her come-on, his rebuff, her insistence, and his flight.
Obvious. But would the judges see it that way?
Ms. Ingersoll’s face had gone from beige to flaming red. Anger burned in her eyes, and she jumped to her feet. “This is an outrage. That tape has been altered. My client is never going to stand for—”
The head judge banged a gavel, silencing Ingersoll.
“There’s nothing more for us to decide. Mr. Rockwell, we’re sorry to have wasted your time.” She looked at the judges on either side of her, and they nodded assent. “Case dismissed.”
Relief washed Dane clean. He surged to his feet and jogged from the room toward the staircase to the main floor. Over the sound of his footfalls, he heard the head judge saying, “Just a minute, Ms. Jackson. There’s another matter pending— that of your false accusations. This is the fourth time we’ve seen you here, and …”
The door shut, and Dane slammed all of it behind him as he ran at top speed toward the main courtroom upstairs.
He had a hearing to attend.