Minneapolis Court House
September 3, 9:00 a.m.
Ben ran a hand down the lapel of his suit jacket. “I call Paige Werner to the stand.”
Putting a child on the witness stand to testify was the worst part of Ben’s job. But if a child was over the age of ten, and sometimes even younger, they were usually called to the stand. For many of these children their lives would always be a living hell. They would go from foster home to foster home until they were eighteen.
Today, Ben was representing twenty-nine-year-old Jeremy Werner. The Werner’s oldest daughter Paige had just turned ten and the oldest of three siblings. Recently divorced, both Rachel and Jeremy Werner wanted sole custody.
When Ben had deposed Rachel Werner, he’d seen through her. She wanted child support—not her children. Oh, she’d put on the drama-queen act and cried like a baby when Ben asked her questions. She’d ranted and raved hysterically about how Jeremy Werner had never been there for her or his children. But Ben had done his homework and found it had been Jeremy who’d attended his children’s school conferences, had signed Paige up for a dance classes, and enrolled his two younger boys in T-ball. It was also Jeremy who’d attended dance recitals and baseball practices. Rachel Werner had not only been a silent partner in this marriage, but as a mother.
Dressed in gray sweat pants, her ample breasts bulged inside the blue-and-white striped tank top, Rachel sat at the defense table, her right leg bouncing up and down rapidly. The stringy, unkempt hair, the sallow complexion, Ben was well aware of the signs of withdrawal. Most junkies tried to stay off dope long enough to win a custody case, and then they’d be right back at it.
The door of the courtroom opened, and a diminutive Paige Werner appeared. Wearing a navy cardigan, sundress, and sandals, she was small for her age. Staring at her fingers weaving in and out of each other, her light brown ponytail was tied with a white ribbon. Ben recognized the DHS worker who walked beside her.
“It’s okay, Paige,” Ben soothed and opened the gate. A courtroom was overwhelming for an adult, let alone a child; the judge donned in a black robe perching God-like on the bench, the twelve empty jury seats and parents sitting at opposing tables.
Paige slowly walked to the witness stand, picking up each foot as if it was too heavy to lift. Robot-like she stopped when she reached the three steps that led up to the witness stand, turned around, and faced the bailiff.
“Please raise your right hand, miss,” the sober-faced bailiff said.
Paige’s dark, doe-like eyes looked so full of pain Ben didn’t know how much more of this she could take. She raised her hand, her petite fingers curled over slightly.
“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” he asked the sad-looking child.
Her blank gaze went to Ben, and he nodded.
“Yes,” she said faintly.
“Witness may take the stand.”
Ben unbuttoned the middle button of his jacket. “Paige,” he said and took a few steps toward her, “do you know who I am?”
“My daddy’s lawyer,” she said shyly.
“That’s right,” Ben said evenly. “And do you remember what I told you?” He turned his head and briefly glanced at the defense table. “That your mommy’s lawyer and I would be asking you some questions today?”
“Please answer with a yes or a no,” a voice boomed.
Paige jerked her head toward the judge, her eyes like saucers.
“It’s okay, Paige, you didn’t do anything wrong.” The judge nodded at the court reporter. “We just have to have a yes or no, so we can write it down.”
“Okay,” the child said, barely audible.
“Let me ask this again.” Ben smiled warmly. “Do you remember I told you that both Mr. Lansky and I would be asking you some questions today?”
“Yes,” she said and looked down.
“Do you know why you’re here today?” Ben took a couple of steps to his right, blocking Paige’s view of her mother.
“Uh huh.” A panicked expression quickly came across her face. “I mean yes.”
Ben wanted to walk up the steps, wrap his arms around her, and tell her everything would be alright. But everything wasn’t going to be alright and hadn’t been since the day Paige was born.
“And as you know, Paige, we’re here today to ask which parent you feel you would like to live with.”
She wiggled anxiously in her seat. “I know.”
“Do you remember I told you that we’d be asking you one very important question?”
“’Bout whether I want to live with my mommy or daddy?” Her tone pleaded with Ben to say no.
Ben nodded. “That’s right.”
Her chin started to quiver. “But I don’t want anyone to get mad.” A crocodile tear rolled down a freckled cheek.
“I know.” Ben walked back to his table and picked up a carton of Kleenex. “This is tough, but it’s important everyone knows how you feel.” He put the box down on the ledge in front of her.
Paige pulled out a tissue and wiped her cheek. She sat up straight, her eyes focused and clear. “I want to live with my daddy.”
A high-pitched shriek of resounded through the courtroom.
Ben shot his head toward Rachel Werner, giving her an arresting look. He turned quickly back around and faced the child. “I want you to pretend it’s just you and me talking, okay?”
“I’ll try.” She gnawed on her lower lip.
“That’s good enough for me.” Ben took a few steps to the side, blocking Paige’s vision of her mother again. “Can you tell us why you would like to live with your daddy?”
“My mommy’s…” Paige paused. “She’s too tired.”
“Can you tell us why you think your mommy’s tired?”
“She…she…” Paige covered her face with her hands and shook her head.
Rachel Werner stood up so fast, her chair toppled backwards. “You’re a liar!” She pointed a shaky finger at her daughter, her face balled in anger.
Paige cowered in her seat as Rachel Werner’s state appointed attorney stood and put a hand on his client’s shoulder, but Rachel Werner shirked it off. “Leave me the hell alone, asshole.” Angry spittle sprayed out her mouth.
“Mrs. Werner.” The sound of the gavel came down hard on the bench, and the judge’s face turned an angry crimson. “Sit down.”
“Everyone knows children should be with their mother,” Rachel Werner said hysterically. “She’s a little liar and everybody,” she screamed and bent over from the waist, “everybody knows it.” Her eyes glared fiercely at Paige. “You hear me, you little liar!”
“Counselor.” The judge shook his meaty jowls angrily. “Get your client under control, or I’ll throw her in jail for contempt.”
The fresh-faced attorney leaned over and whispered something into his client’s ear. Reluctantly, the mother sat back down, her hands and legs trembling in sync.
“Mrs. Werner.” The judge looked over the top of his glasses at her. “In this day and age, the parent who will be awarded custody will be because of the best interest for the child. The rights of both parents are equal. A mother has no more rights than a father.”
Rachel Werner bowed her head, her shoulders flinching with each muffled sob.
Ben leaned over the witness stand and patted Paige’s hand. “It’s okay, honey. We’ll stop if you want.”
“I knew she was gonna get mad,” Paige sniveled. “My brothers and I want to live with my daddy.”
“And why is that?” Ben asked.
“He makes us bunny pancakes and stuff.” Paige managed a slight grin.
“So, you have breakfast before school when you stay with your daddy?”
“Weekends we get to choose what we want.” Paige changed positions and smiled at her father. “Like eggs or pancakes and I get to help.”
“And what about dinner when you’re staying with your dad?” Ben locked his hands behind his back. “What kinds of things do you eat?”
“Daddy says we need to eat good stuff.” She wrinkled up her nose. “Like broccoli and carrots.”
Ben smiled. “And when you’re with your mom what kinds of things do you have for dinner?”
“Well.” Paige looked up pensively. “Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.” Her eyes lit up. “Sometimes pizza”
“And your mom makes the pizza?” Ben probed.
Paige slapped a hand over her chest. “I’m big enough to make pizza.”
Ben swallowed a chuckle. “So, if there is one big reason why you would like to live with your daddy, what would it be?”
“He plays with us.” Paige put her hands out to the side. “Like we do dog piles and all jump on top of him. And…hide-‘n-seek.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Lots of stuff.”
Ben raised an eyebrow. “So, he plays with you?”
“Uh huh.” She stiffened. “I mean yes.”
Even though Ben wanted to ask her more questions, he knew when to stop. Attention spans were short, and sometimes children became confused and would answer the same question differently.
“No further questions.” Ben winked at Paige, walked back to his table, and sat down. He put his hand over the French knot in his tie and moved it back and forth a few times. Hopefully Paige would remember to focus on Ben and not Rachel Werner when she was being questioned by her mother’s attorney.
The judge nodded at Rachel Werner’s attorney. “Counselor?”
“Thank you, Your Honor.” The slightly built attorney with black-rimmed glasses perched on a pug nose stood and approached the witness stand.
This case was over. The lawyer would hound Paige until she cried, the judge would recess, and by the end of next week, the father would have sole custody. A mother who was a practicing addict as opposed to a father who was clean and sober with a job that would support his children was a no-brainer.
Nothing enraged Ben more than children being placed with a parent who hadn’t earned their title. Men’s rights had come a long way. Two decades ago children were almost always awarded to their mothers, no matter how bad of a parent they were.
After the judge announced he would render his decision by the end of next week, the courtroom was adjourned.
“Thanks.” Jeremy Werner’s face beamed as he shook Ben’s hand.
“Just take care of Paige.” Ben stared into the father’s tired, young eyes. “Or I will guarantee you I’ll see you on the otherside of the courtroom.”
“I will, Mr. Grable.” Jeremy grinned. “I promise.”
Ben picked up his briefcase and took a fleeting glance at Mrs. Werner. Head on the table sobbing, her right leg moving up and down rapidly, she was a mess.
He marched down the aisle and pushed the door open at the back of the courtroom. As usual, the hallways were jammed. Women in faded jeans and somber frowns sat on benches in hopes a judge would issue a restraining order against an abusive husband; young women held crying toddlers, trusting an absent father would be jailed for lack of child support; and anxious, supportive fathers sat beside teenage sons about to face their first DWI charge.
He rode the elevator to the skywalk level as it only took minutes for Ben to walk from one building to the next. From eight until four, the above ground, indoor walkways were always crowded with professionals carrying attaché cases, as well as the homeless who wandered aimlessly through the maze of heated, indoor paths. Meshed inside a faceless crowd seemed to calm Ben down, especially after an intense courtroom session. He caught the musky scent of leather when he passed Wilson’s, and next to it, the sweet, succulent aroma of Godiva chocolate. With all the boutiques along with a sundry of restaurants, the skyway was a city in itself.
Ben took an escalator up to the top floor. It was a little after eleven, but people had already started to filter into the food court. His stomach did a flip-flop when he spotted Ann at a table as she’d told him she’d try to get away and meet him for lunch. Ben was already crazy about her. It felt like they’d known each other a lot longer than two weeks.
“You made it.” He leaned over the table and gave Ann a quick hug. “You like Chinese?”
“You sure? Because there’s everything from pizza to—”
“I really, really, really want Chinese.” She flashed Ben a dimpled smile.
He snatched the Star and Tribune off another table and handed it to Ann. “Hey, do me a favor and find the New York Stock Exchange. Search for the cymbal DBS and let me know what it’s at.”
“It’s at thirty-five,” Ann informed Ben when he set a tray on the table. She folded the paper and pushed it aside. “That smells wonderful.”
“Great. Up a point.” He took the cartons off the tray and set a paper plate and plastic silverware in front of Ann.
Ann opened one of the red-and-white checked boxes and leaned over the steaming carton. “Ginger chicken?”
Ben grinned. “Ginger chicken.”
“Iced tea, too? Can you read my mind or what?” She scooped out a portion of the chicken onto her paper plate and then served Ben an ample portion. “What’s DBS?”
“A research company I invested in a couple of years ago.” Ben pulled out a chair across from her and sat down. “The research center is trying to find a cure, or at least diminish some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.”
Ann took a sip of her drink. “Do you know someone with Parkinson’s?”
Ben’s expression turned somber. “My grandmother. Watched her suffer for years before she passed. People shouldn’t have to live like that.”
“Oh, Ben,” she said sympathetically, “I’m sorry.”
They chit-chatted about their morning as they ate, Ben sharing with Ann that his heart broke every time a child had to testify in court, and Ann telling him about the newest arrivals in the nursery.
“How old are you?” Ann blurted. “Oh, sheesh”—she leaned back in her chair—“that came out of nowhere. Sorry.”
Although she had that wholesome girl-next-door look, she was beautiful, and Ben caught himself staring at her. “Older than you. I know that.” Ben scooped up the last of the chicken on his plate. “Twenty-eight.”
“When’s you’re birthday?”
Ben swiped over his mouth with a paper napkin. “Why? Wanna know what I want?”
“Maybe,” she said flirtatiously.
“You into signs and all that?”
Ann rolled her eyes. “Not at all. My father would not be proud if I were.”
“December twentieth,” Ben said. “Almost a Christmas baby. When’s yours?”
Ann’s mouth dropped open. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Why would someone lie about their birthday?” Ben closed the empty carton and put it back on the tray.
She slapped a hand over her chest. “Mine’s December twenty-first.”
“Okay, sock it to me. What year?” Ben eyed her. “Please don’t tell me I’m a cradle robber.”
She cocked her head to the side. “Same year as yours, Mister.”
Soon after Ann Ferguson and Ben Grable marry, and Ben unseals his adoption papers, their perfect life together is torn apart, sending the couple to opposite sides of the courtroom.
Representing Ann, lawyer Michael J. McConaughey (Mac) feels this is the case that could have far-reaching, judicial effects -- the one he's been waiting for.
Opposing counsel knows this high profile case happens just once in a lifetime.
And when the silent protest known as HUSH sweeps the nation, making international news, the CEO of one of the top ten pharmaceutical companies in the world plots to derail the trial that could cost his company billions.
Critically acclaimed literary thriller HUSH not only questions one of the most controversial laws that has divided the nation for over four decades, but captures a story of the far-reaching ties of family that surpasses time and distance.
*** Hush does not have political or religious content. The story is built around the emotions and thoughts of two people who differ in their beliefs.
EDITORIAL REVIEW: "Suspenseful and well-researched, this action-packed legal thriller will take readers on a journey through the trials and tribulations of one of the most controversial subjects in society today." - Katie French author of "The Breeders," "The Believer's," and "Eyes Ever To The Sky."
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Genre – Thriller
Rating – PG-13
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