No one disputes that at 2 P.M. on Wed., Jan. 23, Charisse Brody, 31, went to the private Birch Wathen School on Manhattan's East 77th Street to pick up her son, Cole Brenner, then 8. Nor that she was shocked to learn the third-grader had been unexpectedly collected two hours earlier by a housekeeper and a chauffeur employed by Cole's father, comic David Brenner, 46. Brenner had broken off a two-year affair with Brody at about the time of Cole's birth; custody has since been a thorny issue (joint by Connecticut decree, solely Brody's in New York).

Brody learned of her son's fate only after an anxious four-day wait. On Sunday, a Mailgram arrived: "Let me assure you that Cole is safe, well and in excellent and caring hands." It was from Brenner.

Brenner says the anxiety was all on his side. In his first interview about the battle, Brenner tells PEOPLE that he flew Cole to his Aspen, Colo., home and enrolled him in a local school and charges that it was only after "my son requested it because of his mother's [alleged] cocaine abuse." Brenner's attorney, Robert Cinque, says there's a good reason why Cole hadn't called his mother. "Her phone was disconnected," says Cinque, "because she hadn't paid the bill."

True, admits Brody: "David has stopped paying the court-ordered child support. I'm a free-lance graphic artist, and I have had a hard time saving."

Cinque concedes Brenner recently stopped the $2,500-a-month checks. "The money certainly wasn't going toward the phone bill. We believe it is being used for a purpose David disapproves of—Charisse's chemical dependency. David welcomes her taking an independently administered substance abuse test."

Replies Brody, who has spent time at Connecticut's Silver Hill detox center, "I entered rehab voluntarily. For coke. I was extremely depressed, so I was given Prozac, which I still take. It's nothing I'm proud of, but I never did a drug until [I met] Mr. Brenner, who's been into cocaine, by his own admission."

Indeed, Brenner said in 1989, "I used to blow a lot of coke. But I know what it can do. I saw what it did to my friend Freddie Prinz." Yet he still patronizes a New York City doctor with an unorthodox way of treating back pain: He shoves swabs soaked in a 13-percent solution of liquid cocaine up each patient's nostrils.

Brenner and Brody met in 1979 at Studio 54. "David has a great side," she concedes. "He was very generous—he gave me a brand new Saab, a diamond ring, a furnished apartment. We went to places like Sri Lanka. We planned Cole, even though David would never marry me. He was married twice and said it was like jail. Later I fell in love with an acquaintance of his. Then David hated me. There's no gray in his world—you're either the love of his life or the enemy."

Brenner denies he took his son out of revenge. "This is not a story about an insane comedian," he says. His lawyer claims Brenner acted only after Brody "was just unavailable" to Cole for five straight days (three of which, she notes, were a holiday weekend the boy spent with family friends).

Three weeks after Cole was taken from school, Brody has yet to file charges. Lawyers for both hoped for a private accord. But whatever the outcome of this fray, Cole may not emerge a winner. During a 1986 custody battle in Connecticut, the court-appointed psychologist reported, "While it is always difficult to determine which parent is best equipped to be Cole's primary caretaker, the present situation [leads] me to believe neither would be my first choice."