CHAPTER FIFTEEN


At last the months of waiting were over and Gabriel's trial began. It would still be weeks, perhaps months, before Catherine was called to testify, though. Jury selection would take some time, and other witnesses were scheduled first. The thought of waiting seemed intolerable. Just knowing the trial had begun was enough to rouse the fears that never went quite dormant. Still, she had little choice. She fought a daily battle to subdue her fears and find some semblance of peace.

Two weeks into the trial, Catherine woke early and out of sorts. She'd stayed up too late the night before, watching a series of comedy movies that at first made her laugh - and later, failed to make her laugh. She had the tapes in hand as she emerged from her room, intending to drop them off at the library on her way to breakfast.

A distantly familiar female voice interrupted her thoughts. "Cathy?"

She looked up. Standing on the other side of the wide hallway, arms crossed in a way that seemed almost shy, was Jenny Aronson. Jenny Maxwell.

Videotapes tumbled from her hand to lay scattered at her feet. Catherine stood frozen, staring.

"What," Jenny asked gently, "you can't even say 'hi?'"

"Jenny!" she managed to gasp out, and flew across the hall to throw her arms around Jenny's shoulders. "I'm so glad to see you!"

"Me, too," Jenny agreed, hugging back. "I've been waiting forever for you to come out of your room."

Catherine stepped back. "What are you doing here?" she demanded.

Jenny shrugged, but Catherine thought she detected a flash of pain in her friend's dark eyes. "Protective custody," Jenny said, with forced lightness.

"Protective.... Where's Joe?"

To her horror, Jenny's smile crumpled and she began to cry.

Catherine opened her arms and gathered Jenny in. "Come in to my room," she urged gently. "We can sit down."

Jenny nodded wordlessly and pressed her hands to her face in a futile effort to stop the tears.

Catherine led Jenny to the bed, sank down beside her, and offered a box of tissues. "What happened?" she asked, when Jenny seemed more in control. "Can you tell me?"

Jenny wiped at her eyes with a wad of damp tissues. "Joe's in the hospital," she whispered. "He was shot."

It was Gabriel. Catherine never doubted it. "My God. Is he all right?" Her voice was high with anxiety and guilt.

"He'll be okay," Jenny said. Her face was etched with fear and worry, but the tears had stopped. "They let me stay until he came out of surgery. He was pretty groggy when I saw him, but the doctors say he'll make it."

"What happened?"

"We'd gone to dinner," Jenny began. "Afterwards, we were walking up Fifth, on the park side of the street. It was a nice night, so we were just strolling along, talking, laughing. And all of a sudden, a car pulled up beside us. Next thing I knew, Joe pushed me down. He carries a gun now, and I could see him reaching for it, and they shot him. The men in the car just shot him."

Catherine let out a soft gasp of horror and grasped Jenny's hands in hers.

"Joe fell almost on top of me," Jenny continued. "There was blood everywhere and he wasn't moving." She paused and swallowed hard. "Then I heard a car door open. I tried to reach into Joe's jacket, get his gun, but he was lying on it, on me, and I couldn't find it. And the man from the car was coming. I could see him, I knew he was going to kill me. Kill Joe, if he wasn't already dead."

Catherine could imagine Jenny's panic and terror.

"I was trying to scramble away, back into the park, into the bushes there. Trying to drag Joe with me." She gave a wry, hurting smile. "Not very sensible, but it was all I could think to do. Get Joe's gun, and hide."

"Yes," Catherine agreed softly.

"And then something happened. Cathy, you aren't going to believe this part. The man was coming closer; I could see the gun in his hand, and I couldn't get away. And there was this tremendous roar. Like an animal's. It terrified me even more than the man with the gun did. Must have scared him, too, and I think he saw something, as well, because the next thing I knew, he was scrambling back to the car. I heard the door slam and the tires squeal as the car sped away."

"A roar?" Catherine repeated softly.

"Yes. And then this... this person was there. I don't know where he came from, but suddenly he was kneeling beside Joe, pulling Joe's shirt open so he could see where the blood was coming from. He tore up part of Joe's shirt and made a compress, and showed me how to press on it to control the bleeding. He had on this long black thing with a hood, so I never saw his face, but his hands..."

"Vincent."

Jenny looked at her in surprise. "Yes. He said that was his name. How could you..."

"Jenny. That was my Vincent."

"Your...? I don't understand."

"Vincent. He's my... he's Nicholas's father."

Jenny's mouth opened in disbelief.

"He prowls the park sometimes, at night, and the sound of gunfire would have drawn him."

"He saved our lives," Jenny said. "If he hadn't been there, if he hadn't scared the man off..."

"I'm glad he was there," Catherine said fervently. "I'm glad Joe's going to be all right. And I'm ashamed to say it under the circumstances, but I'm so glad you're here!"

Jenny's eyes were tearing again. "Oh, Cathy, so am I. I've worried about you. It's doing me so much good to see you."

"You shouldn't feel that way," Catherine said, withdrawing her hands. "You should hate me."

"Hate you? Why?"

"Because it's my fault. What happened to Joe. If he didn't know me, if I hadn't come to him when I came back..."

It was Jenny's turn to be the comforter. She caught Catherine's arm in a fierce, hard grip.

"Don't say that. Don't even think it. Joe was honored that you trusted him after all you'd been through. He was horrified at the things that were done to you. And he doesn't forget that he was the one who gave you the black book. You only did what you had to do, Cathy, and so did Joe. He understood the risks. He chose to take them."

"You, too," Catherine said softly. "I risked you, too. I never meant to do that, Jen. But if Vincent hadn't been there, I'd have lost both of you. I couldn't have borne it."

"Yes, you could," Jenny insisted, and gave her a small shake. "I'm here now, and I'm safe. And Greg Hughs has taken personal charge of Joe's protection. I talked to him before they brought me here. He's as safe as they can make him, Cathy. I believe that. You have to believe it, too."

"I trust Greg," Catherine admitted. "As much as I trust anybody. I hope he can keep Joe safe. And you. Where will you be?"

Jenny gave a watery smile and pointed. "Right across the hall."

It was unusual, Arlen admitted when Catherine talked to her later, for someone who was not a direct witness to be protected in this particular facility. But the suspicion that the assault on Joe was connected to Catherine's upcoming testimony against Gabriel Vandt was strong enough that Arlen had decided she'd rather err on the side of caution. It had been Arlen's direct order that brought Jenny here.

For herself, Catherine was comforted to have Jenny ensconced in Malek's old room. It made her feel better to be able to offer support and sympathy when Jenny worried about Joe. In turn, Jenny was not only company, but a welcome distraction, as well.

"Tell me about your boyfriend," Jenny said one evening. She was lying on Catherine's bed toying with a pretzel she had no apparent intent of eating.

"Boyfriend?" Catherine asked, from her place on the floor. "That's an odd word."

"It is not." Jenny sat up, feigning indignation. "It's a perfectly good word." She was in good spirits. This afternoon, Joe's condition had been upgraded to 'good' and she'd gotten to speak with him on the phone.

"I mean it's an odd word to apply to Vincent," Catherine clarified. She glanced at Jenny. "We are talking about Vincent, aren't we?"

Jenny flopped onto her stomach and leaned over the edge of the bed, leering. "Unless you have other boyfriends you haven't told me about."

Catherine laughed. "No. Just Vincent."

"Just Vincent," Jenny repeated. "And he's not your boyfriend. So what is he, then?"

Catherine leaned back against the bed and pondered. "Good question."

"Lover? Paramour? Beau?" Jenny prompted.

"Beau. I like the sound of that one." She thought about it. "I don't know, Jen. He's all of those things - and none of them. If you know what I mean."

"I don't. Explain, please."

Catherine sighed. "I'm not sure I can put it into words. He loves me. More than anyone ever has, before. He cares about what's best for me, even when it hurts."

"Hurts you, or hurts him?" Jenny asked.

"Either. Both. He's always been willing to let me go, let me do the things I have to do. Even when he thinks I might not come back to him. Like me being here. He pushed me, Jen. I didn't want to come. Didn't want to face what I had to do. But he knew, before I did, that staying away, staying safe... would have destroyed me."

"He's good for you," Jenny said thoughtfully.

"He's wonderful for me," Catherine said fervently. "He brings out the best part of me."

"And you love him," Jenny said softly.

"With all my heart."

"And you'll go back to him? When all this is over?"

"Yes. I couldn't go anywhere else. Not now. Not ever again."

"I'm glad for you, Cath," Jenny offered. "I hope I can meet him one day. Nicholas too."

"I want you to," Catherine answered. "I hope you can. Only..."

"Only what?" Jenny asked gently. "His hands?"

Catherine shook her head. "No. Or at least, that's not all of it."

"What, then? Cathy, I heard him roar. I mean, I know it was him. It must have been, unless he had a lion or something back in the bushes."

She laughed, softly, sadly. "No lion. It was Vincent you heard."

"So I know he's different."

"Different, yes. But if you met him, you would see how beautiful he really is. I know you would."

"What, then?"

Catherine's voice dropped. "When I testify," she said. "I'll have to go to the courthouse. If they're going to make another attempt at me, that's when they'll do it."

"In transit? While you're vulnerable?"

Catherine nodded. "It wouldn't take much. A sniper on a nearby rooftop... A bomb..."

Jenny rolled off the bed and came to sit beside her. One slim arm circled Catherine's bowed shoulders. "Don't think like that, Cathy," she said fiercely. "Nothing's going to happen to you. Arlen Miller will see to that."

"She'll try," Catherine acknowledged. "But I know there's only so much she can do."

"You'll be fine. You'll go, you'll testify, and then it'll be all over. You can go home, then, Cathy. To Vincent, and to Nicholas."

But even that bright prospect wasn't enough to lift the mantle of dread. "But before any of that happens, I have to go into that courtroom," she whispered. "I have to face him."

Other milestones marked the wait. Joe was released from the hospital, but refused to be placed in a protective facility. Jenny fretted over that, but he'd been assigned a guard, and assured her he was careful.

Catherine's nerves wouldn't allow her to read or watch TV. Mornings she didn't go to the gym were spent with Jenny, but restless energy wouldn't let her sit still for long. She passed hours pacing aimlessly through the halls.

Twice, as she roamed the hallways, she saw Moreno near the elevators, heavily escorted on his way to or from the courthouse. In suit and tie instead of his prisoner's jumpsuit, he looked capable and self assured, like the man she remembered from the D.A.'s office. The man who had cold-bloodedly given her into Gabriel's hands. She altered course when she saw him, avoiding even the chance of a meeting.

Morris didn't offer to let her onto the roof again, and she didn't ask. Twice would have been pressing her luck. She didn't even spend much time at her window for fear a sniper might take a chance on a lucky shot piercing the heavy-duty glass. But once or twice she lingered there long enough to see a shadow across the way, marring the roofline of the gray building. And each time she saw it, it gave her strength.

At last the waiting came to an end. Catherine slept badly the night before she was to testify and rose early to spend forty-five minutes on the treadmill, trying to burn off some of the adrenaline that made her heart pound so unnaturally in her chest. She only nibbled at the breakfast Jenny brought; she was too wrought up to have any appetite. She showered and dressed carefully in a dusky rose suit. It was a good choice, she decided, examining her reflection with a prosecutor's eye. The color and style made her look small and fragile, both attributes that would draw sympathy from the jury. She brushed her hair and left it loose, aware she looked more vulnerable that way.

"You look good, Cathy," Jenny said, from her accustomed place on the bed. "Serene."

"I don't feel serene."

"Nerves," Jenny diagnosed. "You'll be fine."

But it wasn't nerves, Catherine knew. Not much, anyway. She glanced at her desk chair, and the dark object draped over the back. Arlen had sent it up, with instructions to wear it over her clothing on the way to and from the courthouse. It was a policeman's body armor. What laymen called a bulletproof vest.

Catherine tried and failed to muster a smile for her friend's benefit. "They'll be here any minute."

"Knock 'em dead," Jenny said. And winced. "Sorry."

Catherine tried to summon a scowl at the unfortunate choice of words, and failed utterly. When she laughed, so did Jenny.

"Jeez," Jenny said at last, gasping. "I can't believe I said that."

"I can't believe you said it either," Catherine answered, "but better them than me."

That set them off again, and they were still giggling when the expected knock sounded on the door. Jenny got up to answer it.

Kelly Freemont stood to one side of the opening. Beside her, looking pale and thin but grinning widely, was Joe Maxwell.

Jenny let out a little gasp and flew into his arms. By unspoken mutual consent, Kelly and Catherine looked away during what was surely a heartfelt reunion, but after a moment, Joe came into the room with an arm around Jenny's shoulders.

"Hi, kiddo," he said fondly to Catherine.

"Hi, Joe."

He grinned and held out his free arm. She glanced at Jenny, then went and put her arms around him. She remembered what Jenny had told her about his wounds, though, and tried not to squeeze too hard. "It's good to see you," she said. "But why are you here?"

He had an arm around each of them now, and looked as if he enjoyed it. He gave Jenny a little squeeze. "Partly to see my best girl," he said, and Jenny smiled. Her eyes held a radiance that had been missing before.

The look Joe turned on Catherine was suddenly solemn. "And partly because of you."

"Me?" The tension that had been dispelled by laughter and reunion returned full force.

"You don't think I'd let you go to that courthouse by yourself, do you?"

She was so grateful, she wanted to cry. But... "Oh, Joe, you can't. It's too dangerous."

"I know all about the danger," he said evenly. "I spent three weeks in the hospital, remember? I'm not letting you do this alone, Radcliffe. Don't even bother to argue with me."

She would have, though, if Jenny hadn't spoken up. "He's right, Cathy. Let him go with you."

Catherine freed herself from Joe's arm and looked at her two dearest friends. Joe looked angrily implacable. Jenny looked scared but determined. Catherine had no will to fight either of them, let alone the two put together.

"All right," she conceded wearily, and smiled. "It'll be good to have a friend along."

"You'd better finish getting ready," Kelly said, eyeing Catherine's stockinged feet. "There's a car waiting downstairs."

Catherine nodded and looked for the high-heeled pumps she'd pulled from the closet this morning. She found them beside the bed and slipped them on. They felt awkward on her feet after years of wearing running shoes or casual flats.

Jenny helped her fasten the clumsy bulletproof vest over her blouse and pull her jacket on over it. "Be careful, Cathy."

"I'll try." She glanced at Joe, who had watched the entire procedure grimly, but without comment. "If you're going to hang out with me, you should probably have one of these, too."

He tapped his side. "I do. Didn't you feel it when you hugged me?"

She smiled just a little. "I thought your ribs were taped, or something."

"Well," he admitted, "that, too." He looked at Jenny. "I'll see you tonight," he said. "When I bring Cathy back."

Jenny nodded. "I'll be waiting," she promised. "For both of you."

Jenny didn't accompany them out. Catherine's nerves stretched tight again as she accompanied Joe and Kelly to the wide hallway where the elevator and guard station were. They were waiting for the elevator when Catherine heard voices approaching behind her. She turned, and froze.

John Moreno, clad once more in prisoner's blue, rounded the corner, accompanied by a guard.

"Cathy," he said. "I want to talk to you."

Catherine took a step back and bumped into Joe, who hovered protectively. "I have nothing to say to you," she all but hissed.

"Please, Cathy. In a few minutes, they're taking me off to begin serving my sentence."

"Good."

He flinched. "I deserve that."

"And worse," Joe said harshly.

Moreno absorbed the abuse stolidly. "I know."

Catherine could hear the sigh as the elevator doors slid open behind her. She wanted to get on the elevator and leave Moreno behind, but couldn't bring herself to ignore the abject pleading in his eyes. "What?" It was more demand than question.

"I want to apologize. For all I did to you. When he said he wanted you... it was horrible."

For an instant she was back in that bleak, featureless room, waiting without hope for an inevitable end. "Worse for me," she answered. Her voice was flat and toneless.

"I know," he said, and now there was no mistaking the misery in his voice. "I just... I couldn't think what else to do. I didn't know how to help you. I was in so deep by then and I knew he'd have me killed... it was almost a relief when Joe had the charges brought against me." He made a small pleading gesture with his hands. "What I've done to you is unforgivable... but I want to ask your forgiveness."

"What?" That was Joe, pushing himself past her, all righteous indignation. "You take nearly five years of her life, she almost dies because of you, and you want her to forgive you?" His voice rose on the last word and for a moment Catherine thought he might try to hit Moreno.

None of the watching guards moved to interfere.

She put a hand on his arm to restrain him. "Joe. It's all right. Please."

Reluctantly he stepped back, but she could feel him taut and hostile beside her, ready to do battle on her behalf.

She studied Moreno with a critical eye. The trial had taken its toll on him. What hair he had left was graying fast, and there were new lines around his mouth. His eyes looked hollow and bruised.

She could understand fear of Gabriel. He'd had the power, even when he didn't know where to find her, to affect the way she lived. Even now the thought of facing him quickened the beat of her heart and made her throat dry and her palms wet. What might she have done if he had offered to harness that fear in exchange for a favor? What might she have done to protect Nicholas? Moreno had a family, she remembered. A wife, and a son who'd been in high school when she was with the D.A. And his remorse, now, looked genuine.

She worried at her lower lip and reached back with her hand, seeking the reassurance of Joe's presence. He gave her fingers a comforting squeeze.

Moreno's shoulders slumped and he began to turn away.

Catherine had to try twice to force the word past her dry lips. "John."

He turned.

"I understand what you did. Why you did it."

He nodded briefly, but his hunted eyes still searched hers.

She couldn't say the words unless she meant them, but there was so much to forgive. The kidnapping. The days afterwards, with the drugs that made her sick. The terror for her baby, for what the drugs might do to the tiny new life inside her. The long months of imprisonment when she'd nearly lost hope. The years of running.

Vincent.

She thought of him suddenly, of the compassion always present in his blue eyes. Vincent could do it, she thought. But can I?

And then, as if thought of Vincent opened a door to a source deep inside, came the feeling she needed to give voice to what Moreno wanted to hear. She wasn't angry with him any more. She no longer hated him. "It's all right," she said softly. "I forgive you."

Relief and gratitude flooded his face. "Thank you."

She stepped onto the elevator, and Joe pushed the button to take them down.

They changed elevators on the thirty-fifth floor; the new one took them to a basement parking garage, where a car waited. Catherine was hustled inside; the moment the door closed behind her and Joe, the car careened out of the garage and onto the street.

Her heart thudded against her ribs with such force that she thought Joe must surely hear the sound. He didn't seem to notice, though, staring out the darkened window at the streets beyond.

A man in the front passenger seat twisted around to face them. "I'm Agent Mulgrew," he said brusquely. "When we reach the courthouse, Miss Chandler, we'll pull up to a side entrance. I'll get out first. I want you to follow as soon as I signal you and head straight for the door. Keep your head down and don't stop for anything. Do you understand me?"

"What about Joe?" Her voice trembled.

"Don't worry about me, Cathy," Joe answered. "I'll be right behind you."

"Here we go," said Mulgrew as the car turned a final corner and eased toward the curb. "Be ready." He launched himself from the car and poised a moment, surveying the sidewalk.

Catherine peered past Joe at the passersby. "Seems crowded for this time of morning," she said nervously.

"Some of them are FBI," Joe informed her. "Security. Keeping an eye on the rest." He waved at the imposing structure of the federal courthouse. "Whole place is crawling with them. Uh-oh," he said, as Mulgrew gave a terse wave. "We're on."

He threw open the door and slid out to stand by the trunk, shielding her with his body. Catherine froze for an instant in the opening. Any of the people moving along the sidewalk between her and the courthouse door could be planning to kill her. Any of them.

She took a deep breath. "I love you, Vincent," she whispered softly, and plunged forward. Joe's hand at her elbow steadied her and a moment later they were through the door.

The illusion of safety didn't last long. The courtroom hallways were even more crowded than the sidewalk.

Agent Mulgrew came up on her other side. "This way."

She followed him through a doorway and into another, narrower passage where a uniformed bailiff waited.

"Here she is," Mulgrew said. "We'll be back for her when her testimony's through."

"Right." The bailiff nodded, and gestured to Catherine and Joe to follow him. He kept to the narrow back corridor, avoiding the crowded main hallways, and took them to a small witness room. "You can wait here until they call you," he said.

"All the comforts of home," Joe tried to joke, pointing at a coffee machine. "Want some?"

Catherine's nerves were already drawn to the breaking point. Caffeine would be a big mistake. She shook her head.

Joe shrugged and poured himself a styrofoam cupful. "Made it, huh, Radcliffe?" he asked.

She made a helpless little motion. "To the courthouse, maybe."

He raised an eyebrow. "What's that supposed to mean?"

She paced raggedly from one end of the waiting room to the other. "I don't know, Joe. I've been a witness before. I've tried big cases. So why should I be so scared to do this?"

"Nerves," he suggested, just as Jenny had earlier.

"Terror," she countered. Bantering with Joe eased the pressure in her chest and throat.

"You're not really that scared, are you, Radcliffe?" he asked softly.

"Pretty scared," she admitted. "All I want is to be away from here. Away from him. Far, far away, so he can never touch me again." She gave a small, bitter laugh. "Except that I know there is no such place. He can find me wherever I am, haunt my dreams no matter where I go. No place is safe from him, Joe. No place."

"That's why you've got to do this, Cathy. So there will be safe places. For you and me and Jenny and even Nicholas."

She looked at him, and nodded. "I know, Joe. But I'm still so frightened."

The door swung open and the bailiff beckoned. It was time.

Panic seized her and for an instant she couldn't move. She forced herself to take one small step, and another. In the doorway, she looked back at Joe, who produced a grin and gave her a thumbs-up that was meant to be encouraging.

The door closed between them, and she was alone except for the silent bailiff. Who, she thought with sudden terror, could be one of them. He never looked back, though. Instead, he patiently escorted her through a narrow, private hallway, his pace attuned to her halting one, and opened a wide, heavy door.

Beyond the opening, she could hear the murmur of dozens of voices, the rustle of feet and papers and clothing. Heart pounding, she braced herself and stepped through.


Continued in Chapter 16