A bailiff, with a body that cried steroids and an angry expression to match it, ushered me into the gleaming courtroom. Windows ran from midwall to ceiling, curving at the top. Pieces of stained glass were set in, reminding me of a church. Sun spilled through, warm and comforting, casting shapes of pink, blue, yellow, and green on the hardwood floor. A contrast to the scents of Pine-Sol and fear that mingled in between the seats and witness stand.
At Santa's request, I'd been allowed to change into my street clothes, but they weren't a whole lot better than the orange jumpsuit. I was dressed for a club, not a hearing, and I could feel all the eyes in the courtroom on me.
He was clean shaven, had on a fresh suit and tie, and if I got close enough probably smelled like clean laundry and subtle aftershave. I, on the other hand, smelled like a woman who hadn't showered in two days. I tried not to let that sway my confidence.
His eyes followed me through the room, the expression hooded and unreadable. Whether he was imagining a swift victory or what kind of undergarments were making the panty lines on my dress, I had no idea.
The bailiff tugged my arm, pulling me forward to the defendant's table, then removed my cuffs. I took a quick look around the courtroom.
Caleigh and Sam sat in the gallery, behind Aiden, on the prosecution's side. Santa had informed me that it was likely they would eventually be called as state witnesses due to the benefit dinner. Maya, however, was seated right behind me. She wore a long, wavy brown wig and trench coat. Way too hot for July.
If I could sing, I'd belt out "Hallelujah."
Near the back of the courtroom sat Candy and Apple, dressed in halter tops and miniskirts, along with several other dancers from The Spotted Pony. A second bailiff stood by the courtroom doors, and Derek sat in the last aisle seat.
I let out a shaky breath as I faced the front of the courtroom, pretending I wasn't aware of him or the girls.
The one person I didn't see there was Danny. I tried not to dwell on what that meant as my PD arrived, dropping a worn leather briefcase on the table in front of him.
He nodded at me, offering a reassuring smile. He looked so jolly all the time I couldn't tell if he genuinely believed in my innocence or was just passing the time until we broke for lunch.
Not that it really mattered.
I felt movement behind me and heard Maya's voice whisper. "We found Alexa White."
The name meant nothing to me. I shook my head slowly.
"She was a member of the Waterston's country club. And she was sleeping with the judge."
Santa glanced at me then Maya. His bushy white brows formed a straight line.
She cleared her throat, and I felt her lean away from me. The trench rubbed against the wooden seat, making a scratchy noise.
When Santa turned back to his briefcase full of papers again, Maya's breath tickled my shoulder. "Two days before he died they fought. He accused her of secretly taping their lovemaking. Said he received a video in the mail of the two of them. Anonymous sender."
My body tingled with where this was heading, my mind pulling pieces together as a voice boomed from the front of the room.
"All rise. The Superior Courtof Los Angeles County, State of California is now in session."
Chairs scraped across the hardwood floor, and we all stood.
When the judge's chamber door opened and the mean, old kook from the bail hearing stepped forward, I held my breath. Despite the oath of justice and defendants being innocent until proven guilty, I was certain this judge wanted to see me hung from the nearest rafter.
"The Honorable Judge Preston E. Wyatt presiding."
He settled into his chair and glanced at the two tables, then to the file he carried in his stubby fingers.
As the chairs marred the floor again, Maya tugged my shoulder, bending me back ever so slightly.
"Alexa had no idea what Waterston was talking about, told him so, and he left in a huff. She never saw him again." Maya's words tumbled out in one breath.
The judge looked to me. His dark, angry eyes threatened to nail me to the spot.
Maya feigned a sneeze, sitting quickly.
I sat as well, back upright, shoulders squared, hands folded neatly on the table like a good little girl.
The judge returned his attention to the file.
I wiped the back of my hand across my damp hairline and noticed it shook. I wasn't familiar with this kind of fear. But like everything that had been difficult in life, I pushed it away and focused. There was no room for meltdowns now.
The judge spouted legalese about the fairness of the trial, Santa responded in kind, as did Aiden. He glanced my way as he spoke. The left corner of his mouth tugged up as if to say, hang in there.
I quickly looked away.
"The prosecution calls Daniel Flynn to the stand," Aiden said.
My breath hitched and everything froze for a moment.
Danny was here. Waiting in the wings to put the final nail in my coffin.
I watched the bailiff open the courtroom door. I clenched my hands together, knuckles going white as the bailiff stepped into the hall to call Danny.
Only as the courtroom waited, a wretched moan of pain cut through the silence.
All eyes turned toward Caleigh, as she clutched her chest and fell to the floor.
Suddenly chairs scraped, people gasped, and everyone swarmed toward Caleigh.
Aiden, the front bailiff, Santa, and Maya ran toward her prone form first. Maya wore a yellow sundress and no wig. I glanced to the bench and saw the trench coat and wig on the seat.
Candy, Apple, and the other Spotted Pony girls chose that moment to squeal and run over to the other bailiff, jumping, bouncing, and generally making spectacles of themselves that were hard for any man to ignore.
I took a deep breath.
Then I reached over, grabbed Maya's getup, and quickly walked toward the center aisle.
I was near hyperventilation. My internal organs felt unattached, as if they sloshed around in my body cavity.
A beefy hand grabbed my arm, and I tensed.
"Hurry," Derek whispered, then used his body as a shield so I could slip on the disguise.
This wasn't going to work. I'd get caught and be sentenced to the lethal injection without a trial.
I repeated that negative mantra with each shaky step to the door. The three foot distance stretched for miles. When I finally reached it, I took a chance and glanced back.
Caleigh still moaned on the floor.
The dancers ran around like a circus side show.
The judge banged his gavel, shouting, "Order in the court."
Aiden looked up, and our eyes locked.
I told my feet to run, but they didn't listen. His gaze pinned me to the spot, realization dawning in his eyes.
I wasn't the only one who had been set up.
But he didn't point a finger and yell, "Fugitive." He didn't instruct the bailiffs to chase me down. He didn't say a word. Instead, he just stared.
And I ran.
Out the doors, through the stream of chaos. I almost ran into a pair of medics racing for the courtroom as I headed to the stairs. Hand gripped on the cold, metal railing, I held on for dear life while running, practically falling, down three stories. I tripped on the last step and fell forward. Landing against the door with a smack, I took several deep breaths. Shoulders back, head held high, I swung the door open and stepped into the lobby, trying to look the part of a calm, free citizen, when, in fact, every muscle ached with tension. The sun blinded me for a moment, and when I moved out of the direct glare, my step faltered. Two guards stood beside the metal detectors.
I forced a smile and decided a new mantra was in order.
"I am free. I am free. I am free." The whispered words slipped from my lips like a lover's caress.
To my amazement, they didn't give me a second glance. God bless underpaid government employees.
I pushed through the glass front doors, and sunlight heated my head, making me instantly sweat under the wig. I ran down the concrete steps, onto the sidewalk, and briskly walked to the corner.
Keeping my head down as I walked, I shoved my hands in the trench pockets. They immediately came up against something cool and metal. A set of keys with a rhinestone encrusted M dangling between them. Maya's car keys.
I turned them over in my hand and realized a Post-it was stuck to the back of the M. In blue, neat, curved letters, Maya had written: grande nonfat Caramel Macchiato.
I'll admit, I could go for one right about now.
A siren screeched through the air, and I shoved the keys back into my pocket, my steps quickening. I reached the corner and looked up and down the block. I needed somewhere to hide.
Without thinking, I turned left and crossed the intersection. A car pulled to the side of the road, to allow the sirens through. I hit the opposite curb as the vehicle came into view. It wasn't a patrol car but an ambulance.
Caleigh. It was here because of her fake attack.
I laughed out loud and sprinted down the street. The ambulance passed and stopped in front of the courthouse.
I kept my head down and kept walking.
A burly guy headed toward me, talking into his cell. As we passed one another, I got a whiff of French roast. I knew my coffee scents.
Wait, coffee. I stopped and glanced back. He held a beige cup with a green logo.
I looked ahead, and at the next corner stood the most delicious coffeehouse in the entire galaxy.
Five minutes later, I'd found Maya's car in the lot and settled inside. I untied the trench but kept on the wig, just in case. With the car in drive, I pulled onto the street and headed in the opposite direction, toward the freeway.
I drove blindly, forcing my heart rate to settle down as I went over the name Maya had given me in court.
Two weeks before the judge died, they'd fought. That was telling. Maya said she swore she didn't know what the judge was talking about when he mentioned a sex video, but women didn't always tell the truth. Especially if they were murderers. Maybe she had made the video and had planned to blackmail the judge with it. Maybe something went wrong—he wouldn't pay, threatened to prosecute her for blackmail—and she decided to get rid of him instead.
Of course, the whole theory hinged on whether or not there really was a video. The judge said yes. Alexa said no.
I merged onto the 101, heading north. I wasn't sure where I was going. The cops would be all over my familiar haunts, and it was only a matter of time before they questioned the girls and put an APB out on Maya's car. I had to get off the roads soon.
Assuming the video existed, Waterston must have had a copy of it. He'd seen it, fought with Alexa over it. Had the police gotten hold of it? Possibly, but it didn't sound like they'd been looking for it. And if Waterston had been clever, which all cheating spouses tried to be, then he wouldn't have left it lying around. He would have hidden it. Somewhere safe. Where his real wife wouldn't find it.
Lucky for me, finding things that men kept hidden from their wives was my specialty.