About The Divorcer
The Divorcer: A Novel
Episode 23: Chapters 1-7
Chapter 1: A Mutt and a Sphinx
“I’m thinking about your happiness.” He flashes a practiced smile, places a warm hand on the listener’s shoulder. “I’ve seen this a thousand times. All will be well.”
It only takes a moment for Cole Cavanaugh to reanimate a dribbling despondent into something resolute. And so it goes again. The resolute, Cole’s client, walks away with firm and free steps. Like a prisoner unshackled for the first time in years, ready to really witness a sunrise, to really breathe.
Selling futures. People futures. That was Cole’s job. The essence of it, anyway.
“Send the next one in, Clara.” One in, one out. All different and all the same. All that crap. People at the supposed nadir of their lives, whatever that life was or was meant to be.
“But maybe he’ll take me back,” the next one pleads.
“Oh, he’ll take you back, but the other girls, he’ll keep them. You deserve better. You’ve earned better.”
“My church frowns on divorce,” cries the following. Pedestrian. Always a workaround.
“Look, I’m not a member of the Cloth, but God doesn’t want you unhappy.”
He has become an institution of his own to the denizens of Fort Worth, Texas. Not that he pays a great deal of mind to their opinions. He’s been called a necessary evil, plain evil, an emotional war profiteer. Whatever.
“Isn’t it a valuable institution? Worth preserving?” asks another. The invocation of the word institution snaps him back. He’s been drifting. It can be monotonous at times.
One in, one out.
He watches another striding out of his office, scribbles a few notes, sits back in his chair. A look at the clock. It’s one of the only items on his desk. He doesn’t want people wasting time, getting distracted by a picture of him holding a fish or a keepsake from a dearly departed ancestor. Time is the regulating principle, the baseline for his business. He looks again. Almost five. A few minutes until the last consultation of the day. A moment to think. He tries not to. Overrated.
It was not always so. Fifteen years ago, Cavanaugh was fresh out of Harvard Law, wide-eyed, a champion of the downtrodden. He had a small criminal law practice, defending the innocent, protecting the rights of the proletariat from whatever overweening hand held sway. Bright, attractive, chest pushed out at the ills of society. Why not?
A woman. That’s why not.
The woman. Her name was Elise Bennett. Gorgeous, erudite, fun at parties, good with his friends. She walks down the street and guys stumble into oncoming traffic staring at her.
They date. Never an argument, never a disagreement on how many kids, where they’ll live, how big the ring should be. Nada. They get set for the big day. A marriage for the ages, to have and to hold a woman of his own.
Then it comes. He’s feeling proud. All his college buddies are patting him on the back, saying what a lucky boy he is, whispering not quite out of earshot how much they’d like to so on and so forth with her. He doesn’t mind. His thoughts are toward the altar, the launch pad into the perfect life. They walk out, a line of fresh-faced men, wait with nervous anticipation in front of eight hundred well-dressed attendees. Cole’s big brother Craig holds the ring in his sweaty hand, the trumpets blast out their march, and here she comes.
The dress is majestic. The veil is lifted. Beautiful as ever. She always will be. They come together, the preacher says whatever the preacher says: The Gospel of this, the Book of that. He can’t hear it. Then the perfect moment slows down. He says I do. Did she say I do? It’s starting to get weird. The gears of fate are grinding. She seems scared. Something stonier than mere nerves. A pall gathers over everything, from his shoulders to the balconies and right up into the vaulted ceiling. He clears his throat as moments becomes morass. To react or say anything at all would be an admission of defeat. Doesn’t matter. She never gives him the time.
Full sprint. Don’t know how much the dress cost but it’s ruined by the time she hits the door. He’s standing there, a frozen figure of fun. The consummate fool. Embarrassed isn’t the word. There is nothing in the lexicon for the utter disaster that is now his life.
Elise Bennett. The greatest thing to ever happen to him, turned Great Destroyer.
“Your last appointment is here, Mr. Cavanaugh.”
“Show him right in, Clara.”
He stands up, flattens his tie, makes the walk to the ten-foot teak double doors specially ordered from Costa Rica. Appearances. They greet. A particularly beleaguered man drags himself in. He’s short and sloppy, more than a bit off the mark. They’re always a shambles, but this guy’s raising the bar. Cole prides himself on his ability to read people from the jump. It’s a superfluous skill in this instance. The little mutt before him is in a world of pain and it doesn’t take a mind reader to figure it.
His suit is expensive, looks maybe like a Huntsman, but it’s as poorly maintained as the face sticking out the top. He’s probably not a horrible-looking fella, but he’s looking horrible right now. Older than his years. Cavanaugh almost wants to say something nice right off, but decides to stall. The guy’s not a client yet, after all.
“Why don’t we have a seat and you tell me what brought you here?”
“I’m getting divorced, that’s what. They say you’re the best. The people that know things. That’s how I heard.”
He’s been drinking. Ok. It happens.
“So you’ve talked to her about it? No going back? Because when I take a client it’s—”
“That’s the point. We can’t talk about it. Figure if the woman gave a damn, she might react when I mention splitting up. I’ve tried everything. She’s not there. A sphinx. Talking to a brick wall.”
“Sir, I’ve heard it all before. If you sign these documents we can make our relationship official and—”
“Just give me the damn papers.”
“Of course.” While the little man struggles to find the tabs, Cole takes a look at his planner. Finds the name. “Mr. Will Carson. Can I ask what line of work you’re in?”
“Oil. Like everybody else around here.”
Oil. Good. Carson, Carson. “Are you related to Grant Carson?”
“He’s my father. I’m the heir to the throne. A little prince. Yay.”
Yay indeed, Cole is thinking. Carson means serious cash. Big in crude. Now natural gas. Crumbling marriage or not, get a grip, buddy. Or don’t. Just sign right there.
“Ok, Mr. Carson. I’m going to get started on this immediately. You came to the right place. Couple more questions, then we can get you out of here. I understand this can be uncomfortable at first—my thought is to get the preliminaries done and dusted.”
“Let’s start with your family.”
“My dad, you’ve obviously heard of. Mom’s Amelia, they still live up in OKC.”
“Of course. I know it’s burdensome, but—”
“No. I just figured you knew who my sister was. Alice Carson-Petit. She’s on TV, magazines.”
“So—she’s an actress?”
“No. Alice is one of those people who’s famous for being famous. She gets married, people make a show, she gets divorced, she gets a new product line. Her husband recently died. European. It’s all quite disgusting.”
“Sounds as if it’s a pretty unique situation. She around these parts?”
“No. Overseas. Hope you’re better at law than pop culture.”
“I’m a good lawyer because I don’t pay attention to inanities. But let’s move on. Children?”
It takes Mr. Carson a moment. The reality of what he’s doing seems to sink in. “One. A daughter. She’s eleven. Almost twelve.”
“How pissed is your wife?”
“I don’t know. Who knows anything about her anymore?”
Cole’s just doing a little poking, trying to gauge how contentious the situation might be, maybe divine any escalations that could be coming down the road. It’s a money thing. Contentious means more money, escalation means even more. He’ll get back to that later. “I’m sorry to bring this up, but it seems you’re a man that cuts to it. How’s your relationship with your daughter?”
It’s the first time Mr. Carson bends another way. Cole notices a well of moisture in the eyes, a slight slumping of the shoulders. Classic heart-on-sleeve syndrome.
“Rosie. Rose.” He says the name like he’s speaking it in prayer, soft and with reverence. His eyes are looking through Cole and out into the clouds, like he half expects to see God out there giving him a thumbs-up sign past the rest of Fort Worth’s small time downtown high-rises.
The lawyer writes down the girl’s name and attempts to be unaffected. It’s not that hard. People gushing over children isn’t exactly headline news. But it does surprise Cole, maybe catches him off guard. Carson’s gruff nature and surly countenance don’t signal Dad of the Year, but people are never quite what you expect. Not quite.
Before it can get too sappy, the attorney stands up and snaps his fingers, a light clap of the hands. Tries to say we’re about done here without really saying it.
Carson notices, looks up at the handsome form of his new legal representative. The lawyer’s almost too perfect. Brown slicked back hair, somehow not oily. Lively, emerald eyes. Brawny through the shoulders but somehow lithe. Defined jawline, but not imposing. Slightly dimpled chin, semi-obscured by a layer of stubble that says I’d like to shave every day but I can’t be bothered to shave. You know, like your average lawyer. Carson can’t help but think he’s meeting with the floor model—the real guy should be cartoonish and spent, wearing suspenders, kept in the back with the hamsters and their wheels. Carson feels another light hand on his shoulder, much like the one when they met. He’s not sure if it’s a perfunctory act of comfort or one of genuine decency. The coming divorce has left him trusting nothing and no one. Including himself.
“One more thing,” Cole says. “Her name?”
“Call her what you will. But yes.”
“Elise,” Carson says. His mouth can barely form the shape of it; almost like he’s swallowed poison and he’s doing his best to soldier on. “Elise Bennett-Carson.”
Cole Cavanaugh sits back down. Did he just say Elise Bennett-Whatever? That’s most of the Great Destroyer’s name. Can’t be her. Has to be a coincidence.
It is not a coincidence. For so many reasons, it is not a coincidence.
Chapter 2: Dying of Cancer Grateful
There’s a time for everything. True enough. At the moment, it’s time to drink. As soon as the meeting with Carson is over, Cole loosens his tie, walks past inquisitive looks from Clara and the rest of his associates without so much as a wave or word.
Down the elevator, thirty-five flights to the lobby. A few stops, one person gets on, one gets off; he tries for stoicism but inside he’s a hurricane. He can’t help but feel the symbolism. The rotation of humanity entering his little space, different from before, same as before, all going down.
The doors open to the lobby, finally. He can’t hear his wingtips striking the shiny marble, can’t hear the cluttered conversations of the herd as they struggle for the doors. It’s Friday. Late afternoon. Young professionals, old professionals, all vying for the title of who can forget about work first. Cole Cavanaugh won’t be forgetting. He texts his brother, the one with the sweaty hands.
Meet me at THE BAR. Emergency.
He arrives and has a quick hello with the bartender. Her name is Jade and she’s a little too young for him, but he’s a good tipper and a better bullshitter, so there was that time or two. Not recently. She’s professional enough to be distantly polite. Pours him a double of opulent single-malt and offers a furtive smile.
It’s a dark scene. A place for people like him, a refuge of a place, down a rod-iron flight of stairs hidden away in an alley amongst the bustle of downtown Fort Worth. A few quiet conversations are underway when Craig walks in.
Craig sees his little brother and prepares for the worst. Normally he wouldn’t come, not with all the usual crap going on at home, but it must be bad. Cole isn’t exactly the reaching out type.
Craig plops down on the stool to Cole’s left, orders something less expensive, and listens to the facts.
“You’re joking, right? Dude. So sorry.” A pat on the back is all he can muster while a flood of memories come back. The event. The nonevent. Watching his little brother humiliated in front of grandma and pops and Aunt Liddie. Frigging ten on the kill-me-now scale. His own wife is forced to sit there through the disaster. It makes him grateful, in a sordid way. Hell, every person in there was grateful. There were people dying of cancer who were grateful. Cancer sucks, but public elation turned public rejection? I’ll take the cancer, please. That damn day. He tries not to make eye contact with his brother, makes a face at the preacher, waits for tears, an outpouring of sadness, the emotional outburst that Cole’s never made. Maybe it’ll come now. The text was urgent enough.
Eh. He should know better.
“Sorry for what?” Cole asks. “Raise your drink. This might be the greatest thing ever. God’s finally doing me a solid! Come on then, man.”
Their glasses clank and they drink their whiskey clean and fast, same as always. Craig’s not sure what they’re toasting but he goes along with it. “What exactly is your thinking on this? Are you after another chance with Elise? Just want to be sure I’m on the same page.”
Cole looks at him the same way he did when they were kids and Craig got the better present at Christmas. “What the h—no, shit’s sake. It’s my big opportunity. To ruin her life. The heavens have proclaimed it. I mean, what are the odds? Of all the asshole law firms in all the towns in all the world, he walks into mine.”
Craig doesn’t get the “Casablanca” thing. Doesn’t really get his brother. Hasn’t for years. It occurs to him that though he’s surprised, he shouldn’t be. The guy has his face on billboards all over town, a big white smile and a big finger pointing to the word DIVORCE!
“I don’t think—and I’m not quite as learned as you—this is the sort of thing the heavens proclaim. Is it even legal, you know, with your history?” The elder Cavanaugh scratches his thinning hair. “And how did you not know she moved back here?”
Cole charges right through. Gives his bulky older brother a one-armed hug. Craig looks a lot like him. A little grayer, a bit less maintained. A few extra years and more than a few extra pounds. “I’ve checked the books. There’s nothing that says I can’t represent him. Elise and I never entered into any legal contract. C’mon, you big softie.” Cole’s on a roll but needs a big breath and another sip. “And why would I know she was back here? I’m a big deal, things to do. You get what my schedule’s like. It’s not as if I’ve been looking her up on Facebook.”
“Just seems weird. Not hearing about her being in the area. The Carsons are some rich-ass people. You move around all those society types.”
“They do get divorced a lot.”
“So wouldn’t it be in the tabloids or something?”
“What’s the difference, bro?” Cole can see his brother is overwhelmed by the news. Craig’s an honest dude with an honest face. In fairness, he’s dumping a lot at his feet at once. Cavanaugh slows down. “Who’s the richest person in the world?”
“Not sure,” Craig says, raising a finger for another. “I run a plumbing business.”
“A successful plumbing business. You plumb well.”
“Some years are better than others.”
“Whatever. Take a guess. Richest person.”
“Uh—Bill Gates, those Koch guys. I think there’s a Mexican in there somewhere.”
“Good enough. Can you tell me the name of one of their wives? I’ll take a girlfriend.”
“The Gates woman. It’s on the tip of my tongue—can’t remember.”
“How about the richest woman?”
“The Queen of England,” Craig says, only half-joking. Whether he was trying, it makes Cole smile.
“Let’s say it is. What’s the name of the guy married to the Queen?”
Craig raises his drink. He’s got no answer. His clever little brother’s already thought this through. As usual. But has he? “Ok. But the legal thing. And even if it is, this guy’s not gonna want you involved. He can’t know you used to bone his wife.”
“Eh. You’re really kinda killing me. I’ll figure it out. Convincing people is a specialty of mine, if you haven’t noticed.”
Cole’s not wrong about the last part. He is good. The big house and the fancy lifestyle don’t tell lies. But Craig’s almost immune to his charms. A lifetime of practice and all that.
Cole comes back easier, notes that Craig is still reticent to share in his elation. “Okay, whatever you’re feeling—totally get it. This particular situation wasn’t exactly on the Bar Exam. Admitted. You got me. But it’s kosher. And still badass news.” He slams a palm on the polished bar. A little too hard. “Jade. Two more of the same. And one for you. A great day. Drink with me, buddy.”
Jade can’t help but smile while she pours. Cole’s boyish good looks are more charming (and thus frustrating) attached to this new boyish personality. “What’s going on there, big shot? Win a case or something?”
Another clank of glasses. “No, but I get to destroy someone. Someone that truly sucks. Isn’t that great?”
She doesn’t answer. Craig looks uncomfortable. Sad even. Cole doesn’t notice or care. He is too engaged, convincing himself of his own happiness. Then a thought goes through the reluctant older brother—is he glad? Craig’s always played the bigger man, but honestly, what could be bad about Cole wielding the hammer that smashes Elise Bennett’s life to smithereens? Craig likes a little poetic justice as much as the next guy.
A moderately attractive professional woman sits down on the stool to Cole’s right. Freshly sprayed perfume wafts his way. She’ll say something to me, the lawyer thinks.
“We just had one,” Craig says. He’s not one to pull the reins while drinking. His belly is proof enough. But better to walk this minefield sober.
“Jade. Another. Round for the bar on me.” Cole makes violent circles with a high held arm, as if there are hundreds of patrons in close concert, chomping at the bit. Craig shares an embarrassed gesture with the bartender. There’s maybe four other people in the place.
Jade can tell Mr. Cavanaugh is in a rarified state but he doesn’t drive and she knows it and she needs the money. The others are half-looking at Cole. It’s not unusual. He’s almost perpetually the unwanted center of attention. Jade’s checking to see if he’s okay. Craig’s checking to see through the bullshit. The new lady is checking to see if there’s a chance.
The older brother decides to play his role. “You talk to Mom and Dad?”
“C’mon, dude. Enough of this show. You need to see her more. Give something.”
“I was there a week ago. It’s just—depressing. The weakness of it.”
There’s a lot Craig wants to say, a chewing-out miles long. It’s been coming for months. Maybe even a beating. Am I a coward? He’s my little brother. Eh, we’re adults. And on and on and nothing real ever gets laid bare. He lets out a fragment and sees what happens. “She’s not going away. It’s our little sister.”
“Is that who she is?” Cole doesn’t want to talk about the anti-ballast of the family right now. Never wants to, in truth. Deflect. Or get near enough to the subject to fool Craig into thinking they dealt with it. The lady on his right is starting to look better. The darkness and the drinks and all. The thought of Elise Bennett-Carson financially and spiritually pummeled. “How old is Della now?” Cole asks.
“Thirty. Don’t set me up.”
“I’m not setting you up.”
“Yes you are. You’re always setting me up. It’s what you do.”
“Yes you did. But I wasn’t setting you up. I was trying to make a point. One I’ve made a thousand ways a thousand times.”
“So you were setting me up.”
“I know how old she is. Bet I know more than the lot of you. Her record, chapter and verse. Exactly what’s she’s done. Yeah. You know too, you and your wife, but knowing is where it stops for y’all. I’m the one that’s had to deal with it.”
“So you’re a hero now?” Craig asks, longing for a reprieve.
“The hearings. Stacks of files. Hospital records, conversations with cops, haggling with the D.A. Think favors are easy to come by in this town? You all pat yourselves on the back like we did a good thing, but she lays around all day at that house instead of a prison cell because of me. Don’t shoot me the noble face when you’ve never had a real problem in your perfect little life.” It’s starting to get loud. The woman is starting to leave. Cole changes his countenance quickly and apologizes roundly to the bar. She settles back down, wishes she had pride enough not to.
“She’s our sister,” Craig says again, this time the fragment has a weight. He seems to as well. He’s a bit bigger, straighter in his seat. “And stop being such an asshole. It may work in your creepy circles, but I know who I’m talking to.” The elder stands up and finishes his drink. He thanks Jade with a polite nod. “Be better. Go see your family tomorrow. What else you got to do?”
Cole shrugs him off as Craig walks the floor to the exit stairs. Says something under his breath that sounds like dickhead and Craig tries to ignore it like always. This time he can’t. He’s toward his little brother quickly, carried by just enough liquor and quite enough had-it-up-to-here. Pulls him off the stool. Two quick punches. Cole throws one himself but it misses badly, instead connecting with a wooden column. The lawyer laughs, but he won’t be laughing in the morning.
“I’ll call your damn driver,” Craig says. He walks briskly away and up the stairs in case the cops come in. Damn mess, he says to himself.
He’s taken with regret. Instantly it’s gone. He hears Cole continuing the laughter as he reaches the door to the alley.
Chapter 3: Counselor’s Counsel
Mid-morning, the next day. Cole’s sitting at the top of some aluminum bleachers, sweating his khaki pants through, watching a little league game. Typically, he’s a vocal supporter. It’s a matter of killing two birds. Allows him an occasion to be unnecessarily demonstrative and support his nephews at same time. Craig and his wife Brooke have four kids in all, but the eldest two are boys, starting to get old enough to be interesting to watch. Thirteen and eleven, roughly the same age difference as him and his own brother. The boys are good hitters, natural athletes. Like they were.
It’s the fourth inning. Cole’s watching Ben, the eleven-year old. Striding up to the plate, digging in his cleats. He’s squinting from the hangover and the sun through Louis Vuitton sunglasses, clapping encouragement. Feels a slap on his thigh. It’s Brooke. “Come on, Ben! This pitcher’s a bum!” The shrillness is so unappealing to the senses, it nearly knocks Cole off the back of the bleachers.
“That necessary?” he asks.
“Heard my husband beat you up last night.” She pulls down his glasses and scans the damage. A cut above the nose. Swollen eye. Those two punches went a long way.
He doesn’t try to stop her. Truth is, Brooke’s one of his favorite people. When she’s not screaming at the top of her lungs.
“Craig feels bad.”
“He at Charlie’s game?”
“Yeah. But you knew that.”
Cole smiles. She’s right. Brooke’s too smart to get over on. “Figured he wouldn’t want to see me.”
He’s there to see Ben’s game, but there’s another game going on. Brooke knows it. Knows the brothers could have a handshake and a nod and their passed down Irish aversion to all things emotional would take care of the rest. He watches Ben foul the first pitch. The passion play of parents sounds off around them. A quick look at his brother’s wife. It’s a warm, humid day, typical spring weather for Texas. She’s wearing shorts that wouldn’t work if she didn’t work out, dirty blonde hair pulled up. Long, tan neck. He steals a glimpse but nothing weird. Maybe a little weird. She’s attractive, natural, always cute, always the girl next door. He’s glad for his brother. The one that punched him last night.
“So what’d you think? My brute was going to hop aboard your flight of fancy?” Brooke and her expressions.
“Not even sure what that means.” Cole’s chewing sunflower seeds, trying to spit them efficiently and keep an aloof air. It’s a difficult combination to master.
“Craig loves you, but he isn’t dumb enough or smart enough to understand sometimes. It’s a blessing I’ve counted. Nothing as stupid as a clever man.”
“So you understand?”
“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
Indeed. Few people get him like she does.
“Don’t take the case, Cole. You want my permission, but there’s nothing there for you, my dear.”
“You could allow me some joy.” He pushes the sunglasses back up against his face to hide rolling eyes.
Ben makes solid contact, rounds first, slides into second. Safe. They stand and cheer. Mom and Uncle high-five. Mom texts Dad two-bagger. Ben doesn’t look to the bleachers for approval. He plays for himself and his team. Advice from Uncle Cole. Good boy.
The cheers die down and Cavanaugh hears Brooke tell him that’s your problem.
“What’s my problem? And don’t give me some canned line about being a grownup.”
She doesn’t say anything. She’s thinking about the days after Elise left him. Brooke and her were friends. They were. Two days after the wedding that never was. Brooke asks what the hell happened. They’re at Elise’s house. The former bride-to-be is packing, heading off to hide from inquiries like this. “Is it another guy?” No answer. “Did he do something wrong?” Nothing. Silence. They’re both in the bedroom. Dresser drawers are opened, clothes are hanging everywhere. It’s a mess. “Tell me something. He deserves—”
“Don’t start.” There’s fury in Elise’s eyes. “Don’t talk about deserves. Live your own goddamn life.”
It was the first time Brooke had ever heard her swear, first time to see her snap, last time they ever talked. Capricious bitch, she remembers thinking.
“It was a long time ago, Brolaw.” Sometimes Brooke calls him Brolaw. He’s still not sure whether it’s a reference to his profession or their familial relationship.
“I’m just gonna do my job. We’ll leave it at that.” He spits another seed, making a mess of it. “Might never even have to see her. Probably, I’ll just end up backing off the whole thing.”
“Oh, sweetie. What about the joy you want me to allow you?” Cole would have to be asleep to miss the mockery in her tone.
“Just an expression.”
“Expression my balls.”
Cole pats her on the back, looks proudly out at his nephew. “It’s why I come to you. You’re a font of wisdom and sober critical thinking. Few other things as well.”
“Remember when you weren’t an asshole?”
“I remember. Remember what happened? What was her name? Buddy of yours, if I recall.” He smiles his billboard smile. They both know the duel is over. He’s got her this time.
“Alright. Not like your life can get emptier. And go—”
“I know. I’ll go see my damn sister.”
Chapter 4: Walls
All things considered, Cole’s mood is fairly steady. Other than the fact that he’s on the way to the family home. His parents will be tacitly accepting of his presence and maintain their rugged politeness, fine. Craig’s brood is meeting him there, at least. After the boys were done with their baseball games, the brothers met and had the expected moment. Sorry dude. Yeah dude. Forget it dude. Brooke watched on, said it was a wellspring of openness and something about William Shakespeare.
Good old Brooke.
He tells his driver Bob to turn up the music as they pull away from the sports complex. Sits back in the tight leather of his Mercedes. Closes his eyes. Tries not to think, like always. It’s not working. His thoughts are of the past. In his mind he’s back at Elise’s house, looking at the clothes strewn around the room, asking the same things Brooke had asked just a few hours before. He’s angry at her and a little scared by it; it’s the first argument they’ve ever had. Argument. Nothing but one-way traffic. What was it that Carson said? A sphinx? Talking to a brick wall? Totally. He’s asking her everything, she’s telling him nothing. It’s as if he never knew her. Did you ever want to marry me—she walks by. Could you maybe have mentioned your reservations before walking down the aisle—she mumbles under her breath, looks for her keys. Cole says something horrible and punches a hole through one of the living room walls. He nicks a stud. Says some more awful things. His hand is broken. Yelling at walls. Breaking walls. She’s a suitcase on the run and he slumps down on a couch they had spent an entire weekend picking out.
He opens his eyes. Back to the present. Looks at his newly injured hand and winces. “Hey Bob. You’re more than welcome to come on in and get some food. My old man’s grilling.”
“That’s alright, Mr. Cavanaugh. You have your family time. I’ve got a good book that needs finishing.”
“Your call. Standing offer, though.”
“Thank you. You’re a good man.” Bob’s a decent guy, Cole thinks. Not because he lies to him—just very low maintenance. And he’s stopped more than a few pissed off ex-husbands and wives from clubbing him to death. Bob’s real name is Rolando Robert De La Croix, the product of a Haitian immigrant mother and an illegal Guatemalan handyman. Raised in California, Rolando found steady but humble work doing stunts for low-budget action movies in the eighties. A mid-life romance precipitated a move to Texas in the late nineties, where he eventually fell into security and small-time protection. Rolando (Bob) enjoys working for Cole. He’s no longer a spring chicken, and the gig is a lot safer than being lit on fire or thrown out of buildings for a hundred bucks a day. Mostly it’s calm and quiet. Over a year now and only a few incidents of note. A lot of sitting, but he sees it as a chance to catch up on a lifetime of not reading. Cavanaugh’s about to ask Bob what book he’s on, but his phone rings. Doesn’t recognize the number. No thanks. Puts it back in his pocket.
“Alright then, Bob. Hang out. Shouldn’t be too long.”
Cole prays he’s not a liar as he makes his way around the house to the backyard. It’s a simple home in an old part of town: two-car garage, half brick, half siding, built around the time Cole was born. The neighborhood has fallen victim to degeneration since he left, but he still feels a sense of comfort walking through the grass up to the belt-high chain fence. His father’s property is humble but immaculately kept. It’s something Cole admires or scoffs at, depending on his mood. Admires because of the old man’s attention to detail. Scoffs because daddy dearest probably could’ve done something more with that exacting nature.
He’s hardly through the gate when he hears his mother yelling. It’s bright and the freshly cut grass is making his ankles itch.
Home is more alien every time he comes back. He wonders if all bachelors feel the same way when they’re confronted with the inimitable sounds and smells and feelings of a place that is truly lived in.
“What happened to you?” Mom asks. Cole steps up onto the concrete patio, scuffs the mulch from his feet, tries to parry his mother’s overly-concerned hands. “It’s that job,” she says. “Another angry husband. When are you going to learn?”
Cole’s mother Jane is no nag. Just a mother. She’ll overreact, he’ll nod his head and pretend to consider whatever matronly advice she has to offer. Then he’ll get the hell out of there.
“Give us a hug,” Cole says, clamping his mother to his chest. Her arms are trapped against his body. She’s tiny, fit for her age, engulfed inside his embrace.
She knows what he’s doing, but she lets him do it. He’s playing a part. Playing her. But it’s her youngest boy. The troubled one. Certain concessions. Times when looking the other way is the only way. She’s still a mother, though.
“How’s life?” Cole asks, continuing to hold her, looking around at the rest of the crew. Craig’s boys are playing with the dog in the side yard. The little girls are sitting next to Brooke while she downs margaritas on a chaise lounge next to his brother. His dad’s at the grill, belly covered by a decades-old apron, probing meat, talking to himself. His cell phone rings. “Excuse me a second, Mom.” Cole looks at the number. Same as before. Nobody he knows. Presses cancel. “Sorry about that.”
“Can’t those people leave you be on the weekends?” Mom asks.
“It’s what I tell them. Your marriage is shipshape as long as it’s Saturday or Sunday. Doesn’t seem to have the desired effect.” Oh, the times he’s had this conversation. Cole kisses his mother’s forehead and treads awkwardly toward Dad. “How’s it going?”
“Should be about—five minutes.”
“I meant… yep. Sounds good.”
It’s all pretty standard fare. A bit of fencing with Mom, a few vacant mutters with Dad. He could go and seek refuge with the boys or with Brooke and Craig. He thinks it over, knowing it won’t do. Proactive is the only way. Otherwise it’s go talk to her or what’s a matter with you? He’s not in for that. Not today. Bite the bullet and all. “Gonna go get a drink. Anybody want anything?”
He makes for the sliding glass back door hearing no thanks and we’re goods. They know what he’s doing as well as he does. His duty. Only way to describe it.
The TV’s loud as he enters in through the kitchen. It’s instinct that makes him slip off his shoes, same way he has all his life. The linoleum gives a little with every step of his big body as he goes to the fridge. It’s tidy and humble. A billion memories in a couple hundred square feet. “Della? You want anything?”
No reply. Just more jingles and voices from the idiot box. He walks into the living room with trepidation but also a hint of pride. He’s drinking a Coke, for her sake. Pretty damn thoughtful. She’s sitting in their dad’s old brown La-Z-Boy, feet up. Cole notices the cane leaning on the armrest but tries not to give it power over him. He stands there by the coffee table, waiting for her to say something. She’s so damn—not him. Weird. Wearing a band t-shirt from the eighties—she was like three years old in the eighties. Different colored socks. Too skinny. A couple steaks away from being the pretty thing everybody wants to remember. All kinds of crap around her wrists, sweatbands, leather bands, metal bracelets. Long, formless shorts, something you’d see on a grandmother. A total shit-show of fashion. He sits on the lumpy couch that’s flush with the front window, to her right. “What’s on?”
It takes her maybe thirty seconds to respond. To even move. Finally she tilts her little head at him and points toward the TV with the remote. Makes a face with the part he can see. Her disheveled brown hair only allows so much to get through.
“Well, I thought you were killing time cause something else was on,” he says, defending his obvious opening question. “Who the hell watches game shows on a Saturday—you know what—makes total sense, Della.”
His snarky tone makes Della want to answer but she doesn’t. Just keeps on watching Alex deliver questions that are answers. There’s a lot of years and a lot of shit between the two of them, but it seems to be getting worse. His resentment. Her disenchantment. The things he’s never said and can’t say. If there’s a way back for the two of them, it’s a long way off.
Cole doesn’t know if it’ll ever be the same. It’s not like he wants it this way, but she can’t handle him laying all the cards on the table. Not the way she is. A nudge might send her into the stratosphere. His little sister. Damn her.
“Anything new?” she asks.
Just like that. Like the seconds haven’t felt like hours. He almost spills his soda can at the sound of her voice. It’s enough to make him launch into a full-throated earnest answer, but his mind is quick enough to stay his mouth. Della never asks something so pedantic—so regular. Either she’s being elliptical or she’s being forthright so he won’t notice when she turns elliptical. His sister would’ve been a great lawyer. A great anything. But what is she?
“Why?” He already knows why. It’s in the way she’s trying to hold fast to her stare at the TV. It’s not working. Cole can see a bit of creepy mirth bubbling to the fore under those rosy cheeks. They are siblings and at one time there were only games of fun and they know each other down to their genes. Bullshit is almost impossible. She gets it, too. Feels her big brother tightening like a spring. It’d be better to leave it alone, but it’s Saturday; her boredom is palpable and the folks mean well, but for Godssake get me the hell out of here.
“Heard about your new client. Must be weird—I mean, it’s weird.” Della stretches out her words, like lasting lumps.
She slowly turns her body toward him. It looks uncomfortable, but he knows she’d contort herself into a pretzel to enjoy a moment of his discontent. He gives her as little as possible, pleasure or otherwise.
“Just more money, D. We all have to make a living. You been keeping up with your P.O.?” Cole asks because he wants to throw his face into one of the couch’s old body-stained pillows, scream until his trachea blows. It’s obvious now that his brother went ahead and briefed the entire damn family on his situation. What the hell? If Della knows then Mom and Dad and the whole thing… Suddenly it’s older brother that needs the punch in the eye.
Should I have expected him to say something? He tells himself that Craig can be yelled at later—puts a partition around it, looks on at his sister. She’s staring like one stares at a coward, like he just went for the cheapest shot in the playbook. Maybe he did. The P.O. question was cold. Unnecessary and only meant to hurt. The dogfight is getting out of hand and he’s barely said anything. He gets up before she can answer the question. Cole knows her parole officer. There’d be a call to his office and a tirade and a succession of shit-creeks he’d have to jump if there were any new problems. No. Little sis is going to her meetings, peeing into embarrassing plastic cups, plodding through the physical therapy. He gets an update every day. It’s the reason—at least some of the reason—for his resentment. That daily gong, him half-expecting to hear about her next cliff dive, and he’s still bullied into making nice in the living room. It’s not old times. This isn’t after school when she was little and could watch the same stupid show as big brother and keep up. Della the precocious, Della the little beauty. All was true. All is gone.
“I’ll see you later, kid.” He clangs the soda can down on an old end table, strides away without the suggestion of a look or concern.
Della wants to say something caustic, but his shot across the bow came a little too close and there’s damage below her decks. God if only she could get up and whack him with her cane. Does he deserve it? How fucked up am I—enough to strike the gavel down on anyone? It’s a recliner, Della. Not the Judgment Seat.
She sinks down in the mushy chair and fumes half at herself, half at him. Cole’s shoes are back on, he’s back outside. Mom asks him how it went. She gets another kiss and Craig gets a middle finger and Dad gets a sorry I’ve got to run. Now there’s a judgment seat for all. Go on then. You wanted me here, and how did it go in your heads? Same way as the time before and the time before that? Well played then.
Apologies later. Cole doesn’t know if he’s being unfairly brusque or if they deserve it. Won’t know until he has a drink and time to ruminate from a distance. Out the gate and the Mercedes is just a few steps away. Bob will ask him how it went and he’ll lie and that’ll be that.
Opening the door, again he feels the phone buzzing in his pocket. Same damn number. Sees three new voicemails. Cole tells Bob to take him home and presses play. Unknown numbers. Maybe it’s good news. He could use some.
“Mr. Cavanaugh, please call me back.” Sounds like a little girl. What the shit? “My dad is Will Carson. He gave me your card and said I couldn’t call anyone else. He’s sick. From drinking. I said I’d call my mom. He said it would be over if I did. What’s he mean? Please call me back. This is my phone.”
“Good God,” Cole says. Bob asks if he’s okay but receives no response from his employer. He adjusts the rearview mirror to see the image of a man listening to a phone with a bruised face squinted incredulously up to one side.
“Mr. Cavanaugh? My dad is breaking things. Saying—things. Please call me. Please.” The second voicemail. The little girl is crying. Plain enough. She’s trying to hold it together but the tears are coming all the same. Sounds that way, anyhow.
“He’s passed out in his chair. I’m scared. I’m gonna call 911. He said you’d answer. I tried.”
“Shit.” Cole pulls up his missed calls and presses on the little girl’s number. In the few seconds afforded he figures it’s the only way to go. The guy’s probably on a bender. Dammit Carson. This is above and beyond. I’m not a frigging babysitter. Have I had to do worse? Well, yeah, but still.
“Hello.” The voice is little and hesitant, even more tremulous now.
Cole spares the niceties. “Who else did you call?”
“I was gonna—”
“Not your mommy? Grandma or grandpa?”
“I want to.”
“No. You did alright. Be a sport and tell me your address. I’m a friend of your dad’s. That’s why he asked to call me. Understand?”
She tells him the address and he relays it to Bob, patting the side of the front seat. Bob nods. “I’ll be there in ten minutes. Can you hold on that long?”
“What’s your name, kid?”
That’s right. Cole remembers Carson whispering it back at the office. “Okay, Rosie. Stay with him. I’m close.”
“Do you have to hang up?”
Cole looks up through the sunroof. Rolls his eyes. What a frigging day. “No, Rosie. I don’t have to hang up.”
Chapter 5: Waking Up
She snaps out of sleep. Must be the anticipation. It’s a happy day. For months now, one after another, a series of happy days. She never thought the feeling would define her, but here she is, about to team up with a guy—dare she say, a man. She used to be defined by misery and bad luck. Gone are those definitions; they’ve been ripped out of the book. She and her man are writing new pages; the wedding is only hours away. Sunlight is starting to crawl into her bedroom. About time. Who can sleep so close to the verge? It’d be like napping at the edge of the Grand Canyon. She hopes he’s feeling the same thing, the same happy restiveness. Somehow she knows he is.
To hell with it. The covers fly off and the bride-to-be is running for the shower. Get the show on the road. Onward and upward. So on and so forth. Like a kid at Christmas, she’s throwing out prudence. She trips on an upturned corner of the rug. It’s happened before. After a grunt and some time to gather herself, laughter starts pouring out.
“Get it together, a-hole.” Still laughing, looking up at the ceiling fan. “You’re unbridled,” she says, out loud and to herself. She says it again and wonders in the levity of the moment if there’s any relation between bridle and bride. A moment more and she’s thinking of something else, back to being unbridled. It’s why he fell in love, even if he doesn’t know it.
They met in an old corner of the campus library. Usually reserved for the most anal of students. Perfect place for her to stand out. He was cordoned off, poring over torts or contracts or who knows. She was with her undergrad friends cackling about some inane undergrad class they were taking. What was it? Stress and the Family? No. History of Etruscan Art? Yeah. Something useless and Harvardy like that. She’d ace the test. No need not to cackle.
He wasn’t shy about it. Imperious, stern, whatever you call it. “Would you ladies mind?”
A few of her friends were stalled by his frame. His face. Neither were something to turn away from. “You’re awfully big there, fella.”
He didn’t know what to say. “Just—I’d appreciate it.”
“It’s a simple request.”
“Let me decide that. My friends are having good time. You know, we ladies.” A whole section of the building was starting to focus on their back-and-forth. The other girls at her table were open mouths and wide eyes.
“Important. I know. Everybody at this asylum is doing something important. What are you in for?”
“Yeah? Super impressive.” She flashed just enough smile and sass to keep him tugging on the line.
By the time they were finished, three hours had gone by. The extras in the scene had gone home or melted away. His assignment was a trifle. She was surprised because he was surprising. When she’d peg him for a Texas dullard he’d give it right back to her. When she figured him for future senator or senator’s son or something else boring, he told her he was going to advocate for the disenfranchised. No politics. She liked that.
“You know, I never got your name.”
“That fits. Coe.”
“Yeah, I know, I was doing an imitation. Sounds like you’re swallowing your own name the way you say it. Can’t help yourself, I suppose.”
“And your name, Yank?”
“Very delicate, very proper—now that I think on it, that’s not you at all.” His grin was wide and crooked, like he was practicing but hadn’t quite gotten it down. It had her.
“You have no idea, cowboy.”
Elise doesn’t remember the whole conversation—they talked about everything. She did call him cowboy—not her best, but it didn’t matter. By that time they were already falling in love.
It’s morning again. She’s about to get off her back but the fan has her transfixed, eyes heavy. Maybe the wake-up was premature. Pure adrenaline. Probably what caused all the reminiscing. She sits up and undoes the knot holding up her hair. It falls past her tan shoulders just before she tousles it into a mess. Shakes out the cobwebs. Heads for the bathroom guided by the nascent sunlight. It’s still too early for the blast of 100-watt bulbs so she brushes her teeth in the darkness. Throws some water on her face. Okay, girl. Overzealous future mother-in-law and a gaggle of hens will be here for the prerequisite pregame in an hour or less. Better look at what we’re starting with. She does the anticipatory eye-squint and flips the lights on.
“So I hear you’re getting married?”
To say she’s startled would do it an injustice. She’s the unperceptive girl from a horror movie headed inexorably toward death; the pitiful soul, helpless before the Reaper and his bloody scythe. He’s sitting on the toilet, no more than five feet away. She’d scream or run, but one of his hands sports a finger over his lips. The other one is holding a chrome pistol. He’s tapping it against his leg, calm as you like. There’s no running. Not from him, at least not yet.
“No? Is that it?” he asks. “I figured the love of my life would have a little more to say than ‘no.’”
He stands up and moves toward her. Every thud of his boots on the tile makes her shrink a little more against the door.
“Need to calm down, Elise. This is just for precaution. I’ll put it away, I promise. Just needed to make sure Mr. Wonderful wasn’t lurking around somewhere. We’re in Texas, after all. Everybody’s got a gun. Only being logical. Like you always told me to be.”
He grabs Elise under the arm and pulls her into the bedroom with violent clumsiness. Throws her on the bed. He’s thinking what most men would think, but stops short. Maybe in years past, but not now. He’s changed. She’ll see it, the way he’s been evolving, filing down the jagged edges. Elise looks up through the tears. The half-light of morning somehow makes everything more terrifying.
“No? Why? Babe. I remember you being a more capable conversationalist.”
It’s impossible to hold in anymore. Somehow discernable words squirm through the fear. “What are you doing here, Nicholas?! Get out!”
She’s no threat. It’s plain enough to see. He owns her and knows it. Physically, he’s twice her weight, probably three times stronger. Mentally, she’s always been the clever one. But things have changed. Now he’s clever enough to know it. Which makes it a wash.
As he sits down on the edge of the bed and looks her over in all her apoplexy, he’s calculating what she might do and what he might do to combat it. Calm yourself, Nick. Elise is too spooked to get anywhere near a reasonable discourse. Do the talking. Play the long game. Puts the gun on safety and shoves it between his pants and backside. He lowers his voice. “They let me out, obviously.”
Elise senses new madness in the way he relaxes his expression. More light pours through. She can see he’s even bigger than before. Muscles seem to be straining to punch through his V-neck shirt. A few more tattoos. All the cliché earmarks of a man that’s done time in a real prison.
“Good behavior. And you hear how bloated the jails can be. Guess they figured on making room for the true villains and miscreants.”
Elise is plastered against the headboard, as far away as she can get at the moment. The phone is on the nightstand next to her, but she knows it’d be a vain attempt to call 911. She finds some courage. Maybe it’s resignation. Hard to tell. “So how does this go, Nick?”
There’s bile in her question. He feels it. Shakes his head a little. Runs a hand through his short-cropped hair. He speaks slowly, almost casually. She’d prefer an amped-up diatribe of aggression. At least it would be predictable. “It doesn’t have to go anywhere. I got out a few weeks ago. Ran into some people from the old neighborhood. They said you lit out and never looked back. Couple friends of your cousins said you were getting married. Figured I come see what’s what.”
“Just go. Jesus, just go. This is sick.”
“I will. I only… yeah, I’ll go.” He stands up slowly, backs away. “And I hope you have a really nice life. Proud of you, kiddo.” He lowers his voice, slows down the delivery even more. “Yeah. A really nice life.” He takes a few more steps back, out of the range of the sunlight. She hears trudging down the stairs and out the door.
He’s gone. Just like that.
Elise knows it’s only the beginning. Hell has come to fetch her and the fire doesn’t just flee at a polite request. Nick will be back. He’ll do what he’s done since they were kids. He’ll slowly cut away. The methods will vary. Sometimes the chisel, sometimes the ax. But always he’ll cut. She looks at her phone. Wants to call Cole. Every bit of her wants to call Cole. But he doesn’t know about this part of her past. He’d be angry, scared even, but he wouldn’t run. Somehow she understands exactly how it’ll play out. Her fiancé will do anything he can to protect her. But it’s not enough, never will be. The man she’s marrying is honest; the man with the gun is anything but. She’s tried to be honest, as far as she could. It’s worked for a while. It’s not working anymore.
Chapter 6: Rosie, the Prince, Etc.
Not long and they’re at the Carson house. House, ha. More like palatial estate. Mr. Carson is truly his father’s son. Cavanaugh knows the neighborhood, but wasn’t aware a property this size existed in the midst of urban Fort Worth. It’s back behind high walls and centuries-old Texas oaks. The approach up the steep cobbled driveway makes Cole’s eyes go wide. A beautiful place, in the style of something you’d come across sightseeing in Tuscany or in the wine country north of San Francisco.
When they knock on the door, Cole does his best to make himself small and unthreatening. The girl Rosie answers after a few seconds, cute but red-eyed and wearing a doleful expression. Cole says, “Hi there, youngster, I’m your dad’s friend.” Never mind the part about not being her dad’s friend, that he’s just an interloper helping to facilitate the destruction of her family. She leads them with quick staccato footsteps to her father’s study; sure enough, Carson is passed out, drooling in a leather chair with an empty glass on the floor by a lifeless, hanging hand.
“Come on, Carson. This is over and beyond.” Cole can’t tell if his words are getting through at all. He has his client with both hands. One is clutching the top of Carson’s pants, the other his neck. It takes a few minutes before they’re in the downstairs kitchen. Presumably it’s far enough away from where Bob’s got the kid so she doesn’t have to hear the proceedings. Cole’s guessing that the girl has probably seen her dad in a state like this before, but it’ll be better for Carson to hear that his lawyer was above board while he was on a bender. Cole has one sink filled with ice water, the other hot. He’s periodically dunking Carson’s head in, no particular order. There’s a trash can just to the right of the sink. Cole implores him to throw up if need be. He does, more than once. “Starting to feel better?”
A mucus-filled “who cares” is all the tragic little man can muster. Another dunk. This time in the cold. Cavanaugh holds his head under, waits a little longer than he ought to, then lets him back up to gasp and spit. More coughing and half-formed words. Cole’s hands are starting to cramp. He tells Carson to man up and hold himself over the sink. The lawyer takes the respite to look around the kitchen. It’s one of two in the house. There’s another one upstairs. This one is where the servants prepare food, he assumes. Servants. Cavanaugh’s got money of his own, but not servants kind of money.
“Carson? You have fulltime staff working here? Any of them see you like this?” His client is spitting, gagging on God knows how many days of a steady liquid diet. Enough. Cole smacks him with a flat hand across the ear, just hard enough to let self-pity give way to self-awareness.
“I don’t think so.” The diminutive prince is neither surprised or even stunned. Still drunk, but finally functioning at a limited capacity. “She took them all. Or fired them. Weeks ago. I didn’t want to be like—this isn’t me. Wasn’t me.”
Cole doesn’t know how much to believe, but he wants to. Wants to think this poor sap is just another victim, the same sap he was, victim of the same woman. Eh. Feelings later.
A slap on the back, this time he’s less aggressive with it. “You got the kid all weekend?”
“Yes. No. I don’t remember.”
“Let’s see your pockets.” Cole doesn’t give him time; he starts frisking his client for a phone. He finds it and sees a slew of missed calls and texts. The thing he wants least is staring him in the face. A text from Elise. More like ten. Along with voicemails. As he listens he wants to throw up alongside his client. Hearing her voice. Weird might be the word. Worse, she’s threatening to come and get the kid if he doesn’t answer. Cole gives Will another brief inspection. No. She can’t see him like this. If it wasn’t clear already, it is now. In his head he can hear his brother’s wife yelling at him; he’s not arguing back. She had the situation pretty much exact.
“Help me, Cavanaugh.” Is he crying? Oh God he is. What do you think I’ve been doing, asshole? “Just stay here.”
“I’ll go talk to Rosie. She’s fine. You stick as many fingers down your throat as it takes. Drink water. Focus. I’ll take care of the rest. No more bullshit, Carson. Ass in gear.”
Cole’s up the back stairwell leading to the main floor kitchen. His hand, the one holding the phone, is shaking. The above-ground surroundings are posh and freshly scented but he can’t shake the foul and fetid smell in his nose and the dirty sensation in his stomach. He sidesteps furniture and jumps over tables, through hallways and libraries and sunrooms and other useless sections of house. Normally, he has guys for this kind of thankless work. Two are on retainer with his firm. They handle problem clients and their little messes. Bob pitches in, but they’re specialists. Soldiers more than lawyers. He’s tempted to bring them in, but something tells him to leave off for the moment. Yeah, it’s personal. And high-profile as hell. The divorce will be news statewide. Son of Carson Oil? Maybe national, if only a second. And then there’s the kid. The frigging kid. He’s not sure he wants his guys around a fragile young girl. They’re not freaks or anything. Well, yeah they are. Just not like that. Not exactly warm and fuzzy types. And I am?
He comes to a drawing room and finds Bob and Rosie playing chess. She’s on her knees, hovering over the board with eyes riveted down. Bob’s across from her, sitting on a richly decorated ottoman. They’re as relaxed and focused as he and his client are frazzled. Cole takes a second to breathe, to smile, to not be overwhelming or overwhelmed.
“How we doing in here?” he asks, looking around. The room is lit orange, all lamplight, old ornamental furniture that appears less than comfortable. Heavy curtains draped everywhere with gold filigree. It makes Cole feel like he’s in an Edgar Allan Poe story, kind of creepy, kind of quirky. On the other hand, a fine place for a chess match.
“You giving Bob there a run for his money, sweetheart?”
Bob says she’s doing more than that, rubs her light brown hair like they’ve become fast friends. Cole’s glad to see the girl in a better state. Thank God for Bob. Not your typical chauffer/protector. A rare enough breed; tough and capable, but also engaged in the more high-minded—old books, foreign flicks, quiet games of strategy. Things Cole wished for, but lacking the liberality of time, let fall by the way.
He feels the phone vibrate. Another text from Elise. I’m on my way to get Rosie. What are you doing?!!
Not good. Looks like he’ll have to step in as Carson to dodge this bullet. He can’t tell if the situation is ironical or just plain nuts. Everything’s fine. We’re playing chess. I left the phone in the other room. No need to come. Rosie’s having fun. Sends the message and prays it’s enough to keep her at bay until Will sobers up. It’s not about being a good lawyer. Certainly not a symptom of altruism. Whether the matter goes to court or mediation, Cavanaugh doesn’t want drunken stupors and fatherly negligence on or anywhere near the record. This kind of thing could be used; wielded over him by a judge in the open—wielded over him through threats by the opposing counselor. It’s legal and it’s blackmail. Cole knows the law and all the dirty business that goes with it. Every law comes with a trick, a crack you can slip something through. Maybe it’s a handshake deal, maybe the judge is having a bad day or maybe it’s just a bad judge.
If you want to win you have to cheat without breaking the law. Or you break it in a way that’s impossible to prosecute. He understands the angles. It’s what one does outside the courtroom or the mediation table that matters. In this line, anyway. He balks at his own alacrity for the game at times, but not now. They’ll be no compunction in his soul for Elise Bennett.
“You’re too good for me,” he hears Bob say. Cole looks on and sees him flicking over his king in defeat. His driver plays up the emotion of the loss but not too much. Bob has an instinct with her that’s obvious. He rubs what’s left of his graying hair and looks playfully puzzled.
“I practice with my dad. He used to beat me, but not anymore.”
Cole interrupts. “You ever play chess with your mom?”
“Mom doesn’t play. She’s always busy.” The young girl starts to put the pieces back in place for another game. Always busy. Perfectly nice little kid wants to play chess, you play frigging chess. It’s your daughter. What else you have to do? Probably out screwing some brainless dude with abs while little Rosie and good old Carson are here at home having a grand old time, wondering after the absentee matriarch.
Another text from Elise. Fine. I’ll be there in two hours. Have Rose ready to go.
Cole responds immediately, says that’ll be great. He looks at a towering grandfather clock in the corner, notes the time. Two hours. Should be more than enough to get Will in a proper state. Better go check on the client. Hopefully he hasn’t drowned in the sink. What a frigging day.
“So you’re making my dad get a divorce?” It’s like Rosie can tell the tall sweating man standing by the door is ready to do an about face. She wants to get a few questions in. Cole looks at Bob, trying not to gnash his teeth. How much did you tell her? Eh.
“We don’t need to talk about that right now. Go on with your game, kiddo. I’ll go see what your dad’s up to.”
She stands up and turns like a soldier toward Cole. Rosie’s a little thing, probably eighty pounds. Slightly puffy cheeks, probably the kind that’ll flatten out when she gets a little taller. Her hair’s in a ponytail and she’s wearing her private school sweatpants and t-shirt. She crosses her arms and straightens her back. Cole’s faced some pretty tough opposition in the courtroom but he’s absolutely terrified. Save his nieces and nephews, kids aren’t his thing. “I’m not stupid,” she says.
“Did I say you were?”
“I called you.”
“Yeah. That’s why we’re here.” He’s trying to adjust his tone and manner but even he can tell it’s coming off all wrong.
“I got the number from your card. My dad gave it to me. Cole Cavanaugh, Attorney at Law.”
Cole coughs a bit. He can get around this. “So I’m an attorney. Your dad probably has lots of attorney friends.”
“The billboards.” She throws out a hand toward the window, like outside there’s miles and miles of his face plastered alongside every thoroughfare in town. He doesn’t know what to say. The kid’s got him boxed in. “Nobody tells me anything. My dad cries, my mom is so weird right now. Please?”
Please what? Tell you your pop’s a complete drunk and that you are the spawn of a devil-woman? Not my job. “It’ll be okay, Rosie. I’m gonna go check on Dad.”
Cole doesn’t give her a chance at a rejoinder. His mind is in one place: getting his client right in the head, getting the hell out of there. He mumbles past four staircases and three fireplaces, down two hallways and into the foyer. Sees a car pulling up into the circular driveway out front. What now?
“Rosie?! What kind of car does Mom drive?” He hopes she can hear him. The frigging castle.
He hears her tiny voice yell out, “BMW!”
Ah shit. What to do? By the time he convinces Rosie to say that they were never there, tells Bob to sneak out a window, makes sure Will has his crap together—it’ll never happen. He’s screwed and knows it. Seconds later he’s back down in the kitchen. Carson’s sitting under the sink, looking half-dead but somewhat sober.
“Your wife’s here, Will.”
“Relatively. Nothing left to puke.”
“Good. But you look like ass.” Cole walks over, almost kneeing him in his little face. Grabs a dishtowel. “You’re soaking wet. Take this.” Cole’s wearing two shirts; he takes them off together and sets them aside. Pulls his client’s flabby frame up by the armpits and steadies him. A couple quick shakes, then he removes Carson’s vomit and water-stained shirt and throws it in the nook under the sink. Gives him his own undershirt and puts his button-down back on. “I need you to be a cool customer. You hear me? If she starts in on you, don’t engage. No arguing, no scenes. Remember, Rosie’s up there.”
“Yeah. I get it.”
“Somehow I have my doubts.”
“I’ll just say you work for the company.” It’s a stupid idea, but at least it lets Cole know that Carson is thinking.
“And then we have to explain Bob. She’s probably up there jawing at him right now. Does your daughter get how to cover her daddy’s ass when he’s being a moron?”
“Rosie’s the best. Who’s Bob?”
They walk up the stairs, Carson first, in case he tumbles backward. The little prince’s steps are careful and wobbly; Cole’s are heavy and reluctant. This is gonna prove quite the scene. “Your wife texted she’d be here in a couple of hours. Why’s she showing up now?”
“I don’t know, man. She does stuff like that.”
And then there’s the real real problem. The man he’s representing is about to find out about the history of Cole Cavanaugh and Elise Bennett. Cole’s sweating at the prospect. Illegal? Probably not. Unethical? Probably. Insanely awkward? Unequivocally. He was harboring false hope that he might ease the ailing oil heir into that part of the dance. Should’ve listened to Brooke and Craig. The thought hits him again. They were right to tell him to stay away from this sordid business. “Whatever happens up there, just keep your cool, Carson. ‘Don’t talk’ would be my advice.”
A few more steps and they’re through the door, back into the purely decorative above-ground kitchen. Then it’s like somebody hit pause. Elise is right there, looking pissed and lovely, almost exactly the way Cole knew she would. The kid is at her side, alongside a helpless Bob. Carson is just inches next to his shoulder. The two parties stand on opposite corners of an unemployed six-figure kitchen island. What to say? Cole keeps his silver tongue on the bench and lets the chips fall. Elise starts. Not exactly a shocker.
“Will? What’s going on? Who are these men?” Fairly boilerplate, Cole thinks. She makes no mention of him, specifically. He figures it’s the low lights in the kitchen and the generally unthinkable situation of having to face the man you left at the altar and the husband that’s leaving you at the same unexpected moment. Bob obviously hasn’t said word one to Elise. Carson’s standing there, existing, trying to hold himself up. Rosie decides to intervene. She tugs on her mom’s blouse and puts the business card into her hand. Bob is right there but he doesn’t know the real story either. It’s strange. Too many secrets. Cole takes a chance. Maybe he can get out with minimal damage.
“Mrs. Bennett-Carson. I’m Will’s attorney. The man to your right is my assistant. I came here to discuss some legal matters with Mr. Carson and Rosie had a few games of chess while we talked things over. You have a lovely daughter, by the way.”
No response. Fair enough.
“It would probably be best if we all just went about our days, don’t you think?”
A couple nudges with his elbow into Carson’s back. He mumbles an order for his client to say goodbye to Rosie. It’s damn near Pavlovian the way Will responds to the mere mention of his kid.
“Come give me a huge hug, Sprout.” She runs over and slams her head into her father’s chest, barely missing his chin. Rosie’s on her way to being as tall or taller than the little prince. Will envelops her; Cole makes a note of it. Their love is reciprocal—the daughter’s got daddy’s back, adores him no matter what state or what shirt he’s wearing.
Elise isn’t watching her daughter. Since she saw the card her rapturous eyes have been fixed on Cole. He checks his watch. “Better get going,” he says.
How much time goes by? A second. Maybe less. Elise stops his exit. “Are you kidding me, Cole?”
The way she says Cole turns the room on its side. Amazing how the tone and tenor of one syllable can have so much impact. It’s familiar and practiced the moment it leaves her lips. Everybody looks at the former lovers looking at each other. “I said, are you kidding me?”
“What’s this?” Carson asks. It seems he’s reengaged with the world. Since they’ve met, it’s the first time Cole’s seen a semblance of light or intelligence behind his eyes.
“Bob, I think we can let ourselves out, don’t you?” Cavanaugh nods to the walkway leading to the corridor that leads to the next one and the one after that. Anywhere but here.
“Is this who you hired, Will?”
“What’s the difference who I hired? It’s my money.”
“Is it even legal?” she asks. Carson thinks she’s asking Carson. She’s asking Cole.
The lawyer answers. “From what I hear there are irreconcilable differences. It’s been legal to get divorced behind that for years. Legal as you like.”
“Cole?” He knows she’s smart, what she’s really mining for. Same damn question his brother and brother’s wife asked. He’s got nothing. He doesn’t feel like answering, doesn’t know if answering is legal. She’s not his client. Plus there’s the poor little kid at the center of it all, trying to piece together the madness. Add to that he’s standing in front of the love of his life, the only one he ever had, the one he’s been hating for the last fifteen years.
Elise makes a face or two, runs a manicured hand through her shampoo commercial hair. “Will. Your lawyer?”
“What about him? It’s Cole Cavanaugh. You’ve seen the signs.”
She looks over at Bob. “Mr.—”
“De La Croix.”
“Mr. De La Croix. Will you take Rosie to the other room for a second? I’ll be there very shortly.” She’s warm in the moment. Cole sees the woman that left him—before she left him.
It takes a few seconds of convincing but Rosie does as she’s bid. It’s clear the girl is perceptive, knows something extremely adult is going on. Then Elise: “Tell him, Cole.”
“I might’ve failed to mention a few things.”
“Failed to mention?”
“I know—knew your wife.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It was a long, long, really long time ago. Another life type stuff.”
“So what’s the big deal?”
She’s had enough. “We were engaged, Will. Cole and I. There was a wedding.”
“You were married?!”
“No,” Cavanaugh says. “That’s the thing, old boy. She walked out on me. No wedding. No nothing. It never happened.”
“What the shit?”
“Exactly. That’s what I said at the time. Anyway, when you came and told me you wanted a lawyer, it felt like the stars had aligned.”
“You’re sick,” Elise says.
“Get out of my house,” Carson says. It looks like he’s about to implode.
“Just wait a second.” Cole can’t believe he’s attempting to defend himself.
“Get out or I’ll have my father’s people hunt you down and kill you.”
“Fair enough. Hey Bob! Think we’re done here. Carson, keep the shirt.”
Chapter 7: Enough to Wet Your Pants
“Wow. You are an idiot.” It was the response he expected, especially from Jake. Cole spares him no details. He flops the whole bloody tapestry out for his friend to step on. “Don’t get me wrong. Totally support the instinct, dude. But not telling him—legal, ethical—some line got hopped.”
“It doesn’t matter now,” Cole says, cocks his head up at the porch ceiling. “I was officially fired. Hasn’t happened in a while.”
“I say good riddance. Enough headaches in this life. Get that son of incest out of the picture.” Jake takes a hearty pull of his beer, crunches it, throws it over the hedges and into Cavanaugh’s well-trimmed lawn. Probably some attempt at symbolism.
“Hey. This isn’t a fraternity house,” Cole says, getting up to retrieve the can from the grass. He waves apologetically at the neighbors; they’re playing some yard game with their tykes on the adjacent property. He sits back down on the porch chair, unable to stifle a laugh.
“What?” Jake is completely unaffected. By anything. Just keeps drinking, looks out at the hilly landscape and the hazy Texas sky. Cole’s neighborhood is upper-crust. There are randomly placed million-dollar custom homes laid out in no discernable order. Every residence is fixed at a different angle to the street, different styles, different lot sizes. Cavanaugh’s house is huge but its size is obscured by the odd design. It’s a cross between modern-luxury and Spanish-contemporary, resulting in a lot of weird clashes and architectural confusion. The house of a single guy with too much money and no wife to tell him he’s an idiot. The neighborhood is new, built on an undulating ranch property some rich asshole finally sold off in west Fort Worth. The Texas way. First you graze it, then you check for oil, then you wait for the city sprawl to envelop it. When there’s nothing left growing and the wells are dry, you sell at some inflated price, because hey, it’s not like it was you that killed a bunch of Indians and homesteaded the thing 160 years ago. Those were your relatives. God bless them.
“You’re the strangest person I’ve ever met,” Cole says, stares at Jake’s flabby profile. Jacob De Klerk is his real name. The De Klerk’s are one of the wealthiest families in Texas, one of the original 300 clans that came down to settle with Stephen F. Austin back in the early 1800s. Born of tough stock and not wanting to get screwed, the patriarch, Jan De Klerk, decided to screw at least twenty of those other intrepid families first. He bribed who he could, intimidated others, even formed alliances with local Native American tribes. A real go-getter, he secured vast holdings. When Stephen F. succumbed at an early age, Jan got over on his progeny, bilking some stock and land through blackmail and extortion. A half-castrated Tejano named Rueben was involved. If he had wanted, old Jan could’ve had the state capitol named Klerk—not one for fame, he settled for the land and the money.
“And I did some research on Carson last night,” Cole says. “He’s a pretty straight-laced guy, turns out. Low profile for someone with so much going. Well respected, keeping the money train rolling for the family. Lot of charities.”
“He’s a weirdo,” Jake inserts. No passion. Just words spilling out. Cole suspects that somewhere deep down, the Carson family presence in town has hurt his friend’s pride. Being the second richest is probably a blow to someone of status. It’s the kind of thing that concerns Cavanaugh not one iota. He continues.
“The kid seems to love him. He’s just bottomed out right now. All it was. That damn woman.”
“Telling you. Children of incest. You can’t trust them.”
“Stop with the incest, Jake.” It’s getting old. And he knows for a fact that Jake’s maternal and paternal grandparents were all cousins in some weird way or another.
“Alright. But the rich are weird.”
Cole starts to respond, but he sees Jake staring out, totally serious. It hardly seems worth it to point to the glaringly obvious. It’s why he likes Jake. The guy is sometimes impossible, sometimes ridiculously transparent. Hard to read, mostly. Unlike Cole, he isn’t one to let his views move him toward any sort of action or emotion. He has no causes, no real job. He liked to say he was “overseeing things.” Maybe that’s the case, and maybe he’s constantly lost in deep philosophy, but one wouldn’t know. Very few expressions ever find a home on his pale Dutch face. His thin lips barely move when he speaks; if something were to amuse or bother him you could find evidence by looking for slight angle changes in the corners of his blue eyes. De Klerk has a voice that stays at one volume and one note—flat, a voice like the Great Plains. They’d met at some country club thing at Colonial a few years back. They were the two most bored people in the room, standing by the bar. Jake was hitting on the bartender and complaining in dry tones and few words about the make-up to brain weight ratio in the room. Cole heard the commentary and laughed. After that, they would get together regularly to play golf, drink, get after women. If pushed, Cole would probably prefer to hang out with his brother, but Jake was the only other single guy nearing forty he knew. So the dude was a little weird. Not like Cole could say different.
“You banging anybody?” Jake asks. Finally. A “normal” question.
“Not really. Bit of a dry spell. There was that one for a while.”
“Yeah,” Jake says. He’s amused. Cole can tell by the microscopic twinge in his retinas. “The marriage counselor?”
“That’s the one.”
“Funny stuff. Divorce lawyer banging a marriage counselor. Didn’t she hate you?”
“Big time. Tried to run me over with her Audi. Not very professional.”
“Crazy stuff. Women our age.”
“Exactly. Women our age. Not worth it. ‘Nother beer?”
“So you left out one thing—you know, from your story.”
“And what’s that, Jake?” Cole asks, still laughing a bit about the Audi incident.
“What’d she look like?”
“Hot. But the face she made through the windshield… I’ll never get over that.”
“Not the marriage counselor. The jilter. Don’t bullshit me, Cavanaugh. Gaelic bastard.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Tell me she’s ugly. A frump. Frowsy.”
“Are you doing that vocabulary app again?”
“Sorry. I’m on F.”
“She looked older, if you want the truth.”
“You said it’s been fifteen years.”
“Fuck’s sake. I said exactly.”
“Slow down.” Jake spits tobacco juice out one corner of his mouth. Lets some beer down the other corner. “We’ve been friends—hell I don’t know. You’re crossed up by a woman. First time I’ve been witness to it. What did she look like?” Jake, knowing his buddy is hot on his heels with a litigious retort, intervenes. “You were going to marry this broad.”
“So obviously you thought she was hot, back in the day though it might’ve been.”
“Well? Has she aged well? Let it sag, let herself go, gone dry, maybe went for one too many corrective surgeries?” They stop staring out at the yard and look at each other, locking eyes for an awkward couple of seconds. Jake’s pretty much unaffected. Cavanaugh wants off the whole subject, but his friend follows up. “You know, women our age?”
Cole sinks into his porch chair and ruminates on the question. He doesn’t want to think about it, but Jake’s not letting go. “She looked good.”
“She’s mid-thirties—passing her on the street, you might say late twenties. Doesn’t need much makeup. Still in shape, hell, shapely, you know, like a real woman. Classic beauty. Has one of those full faces, big soft eyes. Full lips, kinda like wine. She was pretty made up, but you can tell she still looks good in a t-shirt.”
“So you clearly weren’t payin’ much attention,” Jake says with a puffy smile.
“Eh. Blow me.”
A moment or two passes. Cole’s head is leaning to the side. He’s got that glazed over look in his eyes. Under a rush of feelings. He hardly notices that Jake has been pouring cold beer into his crotch for the last few seconds.
“The hell, bro?”
“Hey. You were gone there. Gone.”
“I gotta change. Looks like I peed myself. For shit’s sake.”
“You got bigger problems than your pants. Well, think you know what I mean.”
Cavanaugh stands up to survey the damage, flashes another look of contempt at Jake. As he does, a car pulls up from around the corner and stops abruptly in front of the house. It’s an unmarked Crown Victoria, dodgy and used, the kind plainclothes police roll around in. Looks all wrong in Cole’s posh neighborhood. Two men clad in questionable suits step out. They’re wearing stern faces and approaching with authoritative steps.
“What’s this?” Jake asks.
“No clue.” Cole obscures the stain around his groin and moves toward the top of the steps. “Help you boys?”
The one leading is the first to speak. “Mr. Cavanaugh?”
“You know it is.” He’s seen them both before, one time or another. Maybe hanging around the court, maybe at some fundraiser for police and first responders. Can’t be sure. They look as worn down as their vehicle. Been around the block. So this isn’t some trivial errand. Uniforms and rookie detectives do errands.
“We’d like to ask you some questions.”
“Go ahead. I may even answer them. Let’s see your badges first.” He asks to establish some sort of understanding. Maybe to simply make them go through the motions.
They begrudgingly oblige. The one doing the talking is square-headed, graying around the ears. Very cliché. Looks like he’s been wearing the same coffee-stained tie since they gave him the job. The one behind is only slightly younger, slightly slimmer. Cole guesses 45-years old, a couple kids he rarely sees. Something’s bothering the guy, something from way back. He’s the next to talk. “If you’re satisfied?”
“Yeah, okay. Boys want a beer? Looks like you could use it.”
“Thanks, but no,” says the older one. He looks up at the porch, then surveys the big house with a tilted head. Gives off kind of a smirk, the kind he wants Cole to notice. Jake notices it as well. He stands up and takes position next to his friend.
“Officers,” Jake says. He spits a healthy stream of snuff juice on the steps. It lands inches away from the older one’s shoes.
He tries not to look offended. Slightly slimmer can’t hold his tongue. “Mr. Cavanaugh. You need to come down to the station.”
“Why would I do that?”
Jake echoes Cole, spits again. “Why would he do that?”
Gray hair’s about to boil over. “It’d be better if we could talk alone, is all.”
Cavanaugh is playing cool but he knows something’s not right. He’s got a crapload of “friends” on the force—hell, he’s represented half the detectives in the county. Cops are some of the most frequent divorcers out there. But they didn’t send his friends. They sent these two, guys he doesn’t really know. There’s a reason for it. He wishes they were just a couple of assholes winding him up for the fun of it, but he doesn’t buy into that police harassment crap. These boys got a job to do. Orders to do it from people more important than them. Nothing’s been stolen, no recent complaints coming through the office from any of his clients. They seem like homicide, the labored way they’re talking and carrying themselves, like the world does nothing but kick them in the nuts, so they’re ready for it. Cole’s almost sure. These are murder police.
“You guys got a warrant or something?” Jake asks.
“Shut up, De Klerk,” Cole says, still trying to puzzle through the weirdness. He looks over at the neighbors. They’ve taken their kids inside; now they’re standing in their overpriced yuppie workout clothes, watching the standoff taking place on the other side of the garden wall.
“Can I ask your names?”
“I’m Detective Chapel. The younger one here is Horace. What’s wrong with your pants, there?”
“Never mind. How ‘bout you come inside, we’ll sort this out so nobody wastes their time.”
“Afraid it’s gonna have to be a little more official than that. I know Mr. De Klerk there might try throwing his weight around, hell he could probably have me fired, eventually. But I’m just doing my job. My guess is, the only family richer than his is lighting a fire under the mayor’s ass to get me to do that job.”
Cole had a feeling it was about the Carsons. “So this is concerning my ex-client? Will Carson? He fired me yesterday. Haven’t seen him since.”
“If you say,” Chapel grunts. “But let’s go down to the station so we can confirm it. All official. All above board.”
“Just ask him… oh no.”
“What’s ‘oh no’?” Jake asks.
“They can’t ask him,” Cole whispers. “Will Carson’s dead. And these good old boys think I had something to do with it.”
“Come with us,” Horace barks. He doesn’t take kindly to waiting. It doesn’t necessarily make him an asshole, but Cavanaugh pretty much decides he is one.
“I’m gonna go,” Cole says, putting his hands up, looking back at Jake. “Call Michelle.”
“Michelle from the club? What do I say?”
“Just tell her to meet me at the station. Use my name and murder. Should do the trick.”
They escort Cole briskly and put him in the back of the car. It smells the way he expects, only worse. Jake has to watch his buddy get taken away ignominiously; he’s not the only one—half the neighborhood is out. The sun is setting and all the dog-walkers, baby-walkers, and exercisers are out in force, all kind of looking without trying to look.
One more person is on hand for the drama. He’s sitting in a late model Cadillac. It goes nicely with the surroundings. The windows are tinted but not conspicuously. No need for that yet. He’s gazing into the rearview mirror as the Crown Vic pulls away. It’s a moving work of art. A living work of art. Life and all its infinite little possibilities. He presses the button for the ignition and smiles.