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About The Divorcer (Added Content)

About The Divorcer (Added Content)

Post 665:

The Divorcer: A Novel

Added Content


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.

The woman.

            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.”

            “Prenuptial agreement?”

            “No. Dammit.”

            “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?”

            “My wife?”

            “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?”

            “About what?”

            “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.”

            “How old?”

            “I already—”

            “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?”

            “Just you.”

            “No cops?”

            “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?”

            “I think.”

            “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.”

            “That’s 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.

            “Look it’s—”

            “Important. I know. Everybody at this asylum is doing something important. What are you in for?”

            “Law School.”

            “Last year?”

            “Yes ma’am.”

            “Law Review?”

            “You bet.”

            “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.”

            “No. Cole.”

            “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?”


            “That fits.”

            “That right?”

            “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.”

            “My wife?”

            “You straight?”

            “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?”

            Oh God.

            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?”

            “You bet.”

            “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.”

            “True enough.”

            “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.


Chapter 8: The Station


            It’s a game. Tricks of procedure, things they can and can’t ask, ways to get at you before they make an arrest. Cole knows the lines and where they’re blurred—he was a criminal lawyer, after all. But it’s different when you’re in the hot seat, no matter how spurious the suspicions. Cavanaugh’s not happy, so he’s trying his best to pass the time. There’s a lot of ways to mess with cops. So far it’s them asking questions, but he hasn’t uttered a word. It’s really starting to piss them off. Horace especially, Chapel a little less, and then there’s the woman they just brought in. Kind of a detached, attractive woman. Presumably the boss. Maybe she’s the hot shit interrogator. It’s not working. He hasn’t been charged, but it’s obvious they’re chomping at it. Why?

            The room is small and drab, whitewashed cinderblock walls made gray by years of poor souls smoking and generally poor upkeep. The table is wood, something you’d find in an old public library, only heavier. Bolted to the floor. One of those little hooks mounted in the middle to put the cuffs through. He’s not in cuffs. Not yet, anyway.

            Horace gets in his face. “Cut the crap. We know about your history with the woman. Needed him out of the way, I suppose. Couldn’t hold your wad.” Horace is the younger of the male detectives, but apparently he went to the 1940s school of interrogative vernacular.

            Cole answers in the same manner he’s been answering for the last fifteen minutes. Felt tip pen and legal pad. He shows his response to Horace. Do you think I need to lose a few pounds?

            Chapel moves Horace out of the way with a hairy hand and sits down in the chair across the table. “Personally, I think this is ridiculous. Just tell us where you were last night and you’re out of here. You know how this works. You did criminal law back in the day—how many years before you started breaking up families?”

            Cole writes. What are you, Catholic? Sometimes I wish I’d gone into Marine Biology. I like dolphins.

            His answers have been getting more and more ridiculous. But every question he makes them ask is an answer for him. He’s either learning what they know or what they want him to think they know. But it can only go on so long. Especially with Detective Horace. He’s a ratty little guy with a temper. Cole lets out a breath, starts to whistle. His lawyer should be there any minute. She should be there already.

            The guys take a break. Ah. The lady’s turn. Cole smiles, gives her the old up and down. She unbuttons her suit top, reveals a low-cut white blouse. He notices, likes what he sees, pretends not to.

“My name’s Letterer,” she says. “Transferred from Houston a few years back. They let me at the tough ones.”

            More writing. Have you tried that Rosetta Stone thing? Feel like I should learn Portuguese.

            “Yeah, so here’s the lay of the land.” Letterer does the bit where she shows the suspect the crime scene photos. After she’s done dealing, there’s six high resolution shots of the little prince. His head’s near cut off, looks like someone slit his throat to the bone. Deep stab wounds across the face and arms. It’s horror movie stuff. Cole tries to act like he’s seen a million of these things but he gives away a bit of the game; he hasn’t dealt with anything like this in over a decade, if ever. He stops whistling. His shoulders go tight. He wants to write another smug retort but there’s no way. His hand is temporarily atrophied. The gruesome scene before him is not his doing, but hell, he knew the guy. Frigging yesterday. “We have a witness that saw a new Mercedes sedan pulling up to the Carson residence last night. Obviously someone with the six-digit code. Those numbers change every couple days. But you had the code. And the Mercedes. You drive one, don’t you? Matter of fact you were there. Or am I missing something?”

            Cavanaugh does his best not to fidget. They must be aware that he doesn’t do his own driving. Do they? Bob will testify to it. But Bob parks the car at Cole’s house every night, then drives his own ride home. Breathe, Cole. They probably don’t have a definite time of death yet. That right there could clear you. That or a million other things. Let her have the car for now.

            “Then there’s your hand. And your face.” Letterer points at one of the pictures with a ballpoint pen. Does she think she’s got something? Maybe she doesn’t know what she has; could be a running it up the flagpole type situation. “You see here? Mr. Carson has defense wounds on his hands. Kind of like he hit somebody. The forensics folks say he was struck a few times with a right hand.” She takes a breath, sits back in her chair. “What happened to left side of your face, Mr. Cavanaugh? And your hand? Maybe it’s just one of those things, but there’s a little bit of symmetry between the pictures and the guy sitting right in front of me.”

            Cole officially doesn’t feel like writing anymore. He flops the legal pad down on top of the macabre photos. He wants to say something. It’s all circumstantial, all this evidence they’ve parceled together. Don’t talk. Practice what you’d preach if you had a client in this jam. He can’t help himself by talking. Then again, he can’t help himself.

“Are you good at this, Detective?” The question comes out broken, laced with phlegm. Partially because he hasn’t talked in a while, partially because he’s reeling. There’s three options, far as he can tell. Could be the cops are under a lot of pressure, simple as that, so they go after the first and most obvious guy, looking for a break. Could be this whole thing is a frame-up, in which case he has no idea what else they think they have. That would be bad. Then again, Letterer could just be a shitty cop. Affirmative action hire, maybe.

            “I’d like to think so,” she says, crossing her arms. There’s no pretense in her manner, no false bravado. A cool customer. Cole rules out the shitty cop theory. Bummer.

            “So what do you think? I killed poor Carson and went home the next day, put my feet up, waited for you guys to come interrupt beers on the porch? Motive is weak if not completely nonexistent. And I’m pretty sure you lot know I’m not stupid.”

            She leans forward. “I’ve seen smarter people do dumber things.”

            “Really? I’ve a hard time believing that. It’s pretty damn stupid, your so-called thesis.”

            “Been doing homicide eleven years now. People lose it, Mr. Cavanaugh. There’s no rhyme or reason to it most times. Just takes one simple, insane choice.”

            “You trying to get me going down that route? Insanity?”

            “Of course not. Like you said, you’re a smart man. A successful man. No criminal record. A lifetime of reasoned choices, I imagine.” She taps the pen on the table, real casual. Looks over at the corner of the room. The dated little camera. “But that’s the thing. That’s why I have a job. How many choices in a life, reasoned or otherwise? Millions? Billions? It only takes one bad one. Occasion comes, special circumstances, a confluence, pressure or passion or whatever bullshit you want to call it. Like I said—why I have a job.”

            “Very philosophical. Ever think there’s something wrong with you? Who chooses to be around this stuff? We talking choices? You get up every day, I’m guessing to nobody, maybe a dog, you go to work, one dead body after another. It’s a bit strange—your choices. Of all the things in the world…”

            “Okay. Let’s not compare merits. You’re not winning any plaudits yourself.”

            He gives Letterer a hard look. Something’s not right. Her whole bit is too casual. She’s sitting on something, probably something that looks way worse than the conjecture she’s been throwing his way. Or she’s outthinking him. He really needs to shut up.

“Think I’m done talking, Detective. Truth is you’ve pissed me off. I liked old Carson. Thought I’d go out on one, you know, disabuse you and all that. Maybe get you bums hunting the guy that really did this. Whatever. Where’s my lawyer?”

            Letterer doesn’t respond. Checks her watch, puts the pen in her pocket, goes for the door without another word. Cole notices everything about her as she walks by. Well put together, in shape. Short brown hair, cute, not butch. Too young to be in Homicide eleven years. Either she knew somebody, banged somebody, or maybe she’s just that good. The door opens. Cole can hear mumbling outside in the corridor. What the hell is going on? There’s no real reason to panic, but he’s panicking. Sweating. Did she get to him? How do you get an innocent man to feel guilty? A lawyer, no less. Suddenly it’s clear what a low-stakes player he’s been all these years.

            “Get out of my way!” Cole hears. Letterer swings the door wide and lets the screamer in. “Get up. What is this? Are you talking to these clowns? What are you thinking?”

            His lawyer.

            “Hi, Michelle,” he says, standing up to block the pictures and the legal pad. She’s not going for it.

            “Do you want to let these people lynch you? What did you say? I want everything, every syllable. This is some amateur behavior, Cavanaugh.”

            “Fine. Here are my initial responses.” He gives her the legal pad. She flips through them. It seems to calm her down, if only for a moment. He can tell she’s fighting a smile.

            “Okay. Then what?” Michelle asks, throwing the pad onto the table. A few of the pictures fall off and on the floor at her feet. “Jesus.”

            “I know.”       

            “Jesus. You’re getting out of here. I don’t want you looking at pictures, I don’t want you answering questions. You better listen to me, Cole.”

            He knows he better. Michelle Kress is the most able defense attorney in the county, maybe the state. A former A.D.A. with an almost perfect conviction rate before she started playing for the other side.

“You weren’t here,” he says. “It got boring. Thought I’d try to suss out what they knew.”

            “No sussing. No anything, unless I say, from here on out. Otherwise get yourself somebody else.”

            “Loud and clear, Counselor. It’s just—you weren’t here.”

            “It’s Sunday night. I had to leave church and drop the kids off at their dad’s. You know I hate doing that.” She looks typically unadorned. Wearing a skirt and a monotone blouse that hangs where it should fit. Hair not quite curly but certainly not straight. Chapstick and no makeup. Not one for affectations. Never that pretty, past the point of trying to make improvements.

            “Yeah. Sorry.”

            “We’ll talk in the car. I’ll get the blow-by-blow once we’re out of here.”

            “Blow-by-blow? Nice choice of words.”


            They exit the interrogation room and walk through blandly colored hallways toward the front of the building. Rounding the final corner, they see media vans and camera lights humming outside the glass doors, ready to capture footage of the suspect. Cole checks his pants. The stain has gone away, but he still looks stepped on. Michelle grabs him by the arm, tells him to stop. “The backdoor,” she says.

            “The front ain’t exactly copacetic,” Cole says, peering around the corner with half an eye.

            “More like worst case scenario.”

            “You have your phone?”

            He grabs it from her, makes a quick call to Bob. Tells him to drive to the rear entrance. “Make sure he’s in his own car,” she whispers. Uniforms and detectives are streaming by them, acting like they’re not paying attention.

            “Bob. Use your ride. We need a quick out. Thanks.” Cole hands the phone to his lawyer as they make their way back toward the interrogation room. Letterer is leaning up against the wall, muttering with Chapel the old and Horace the ratty. Their hands are covering their mouths. It looks like a pitcher discussing the next batter with his catcher and shortstop.

            Michelle goes at the triumvirate quickly, slaps Horace on the arm. “Who told the media?”

            “No idea,” Chapel grumbles. “You be on your way.”

            Michelle’s quick to respond. She knows the cops hate her. Typical anti-defense lawyer bigotry. “Show us the back way out.”

            The detectives don’t want to respond. Finally Horace flexes at Michelle. “I suggest you and your client go out the f—”

            “That’s fine,” Letterer says, calmly cutting off her subordinate. “Follow me.”

As they shuffle by, Michelle sneers at Horace and brushes Chapel aside. Cole smiles at them in self-defense, holding his head high. He’s at least four inches taller than either of the detectives.

“It’s just down here and to the left,” Letterer says. “It’s an emergency exit but I’ll disable the alarm.” She peers through a window next to the door. “Looks like you’ll be unnoticed.” The young detective starts to walk off, twirling her pen in her fingers.

            “Guess she’s playing good cop,” Michelle says, looking up at Cole.

            “Think there’s more to it than that,” he whispers.

            Staring out the window they hear Letterer calling out from down the hall. “And, Mr. Cavanaugh. I told your lawyer, but—just don’t leave town. You know the drill.” Her delivery is one part smug and two parts ominous. Cavanaugh’s lawyer lets out a coarse sigh, gives her client another sideways look.

            “So how was your weekend?” Cole asks.

Chapter 9: The Score


            Cole’s surrounded by newspapers on his kitchen counter. They’re all screaming at him in slightly different ways, all making the same point. The local rags have little else to say. The national papers are just starting to set their hooks in. Murder in Cowtown. Real creative. Heir’s Life Cut Short. Cole can’t tell if the headline is a pun on Carson’s height or on the near decapitation. Either way, a touch cynical. Cavanaugh’s mentioned as a person of interest in every article. Somehow a history that’s been buried for fifteen years is on full display for every person with fifty cents at a newsstand or an internet connection. He’s just off the phone with Clara at the office. After listening to her cry for about five minutes and explaining that no, he didn’t brutally murder a guy, he informed her that he wouldn’t be coming in and to delegate his caseload to the rest of his underlings. Clara told him that it wouldn’t be a problem; most of their clients had already jumped ship for non-murder-suspect representation. He reassured her and made some calls to a few of his senior associates. They seemed to believe him and agreed to ride out the bad press as long as possible. From the sound of their voices, Cole estimated their loyalty at a week. After that—money, marketability, careers, clients would win out—he’d be just some guy they used to work for.

            Ten miles away Elise Bennett-Carson is poring over the same headlines. She takes a drink of coffee and calls out to Rosie from a couch in the living room. Covers up the papers with a blanket. They’re staying at a home owned by the Carson family. It’s on loan from Grant, Will’s father and founder of the empire. She and her daughter are there at his insistence. Insistence. Elise wants to run away from everything but it’s not the time. Will’s dead and somebody’s going to pay for it, one way or another. Her life has never been easy, one hurdle after another; right now she knows the thing that matters is the red-faced little girl running at her to cry into her arms.

            “Aren’t you sad, Mom?”

            “Of course, darling.”

            “Have you been crying?”

            “Yes, Rosie. I’ve been crying.”

            “Nothing. Never. What are we doing? Why is this happening? Daddy never hurt anyone.”

            “No he didn’t. Daddy was a wonderful man. And he loved you more than anything in the world. I’m sure he’s watching you right now, darling.”

            “Why aren’t you sad?”

            “What do you mean? Why do you keep saying that?”

            “You were getting a divorce.”

            “We would’ve worked it out. We would’ve. Don’t think about that now,” Elise whispers, shedding her first tear of the morning into the nest of her daughter’s hair. “Don’t think about it ever again. Come here.” Elise wants to squeeze her mourning child impossibly close, to never let her go. She’s been aloof and distant these last months and knows it. They sit intertwined on the couch and wade through the weight of the moment in silence. Elise is grateful for it. No more questions. Not from her father-in-law, not from Rosie. Not like last night. Rosie’s inquiries weren’t all that different from the police. Especially the Letterer woman. Elise can’t help it; she drifts into yesterday, perhaps to trade the miserable present for the miserable past.

            “The last time I saw him was Saturday, late afternoon,” she says.

            “When you went to pick up your daughter?” Letterer asks, not making eye contact. It’s not an interrogation room but Elise is more than aware that it might as well be.

            “And that’s when you saw Mr. Cavanaugh?”

            “That’s correct. And his man. Bob something or other.” There’s nothing to do but tell the truth. Any obfuscation will shine the light of suspicion directly on her. She doesn’t care for Letterer. There’s something about her eyes. They’re big and inviting, out of place on a cop’s face. Elise feels like she’s being conned somehow.

            “Seems strange.”

            “Which part?”

            “You running into the man you left at the altar. Him representing your husband. And then of course—”

            “My husband ending up dead. Why don’t you ask what you want?”

            Letterer finally looks at Elise. “Maybe later. But you can tell me one thing.”

            “I’ll do anything I can to help.”

            “You don’t seem that upset. Separated or not, it seems like—”

            “You just came by and told me the father of my child is dead. Do you have any family?”

            “Not much.”

             “Maybe—if I have more than a moment—leave my house, now. This is ridiculous.”

            “Of course, ma’am.” Letterer shows her hands, a gesture of surrender. She starts to walk away but stops herself. “One more thing.”


            “This house belongs to Grant Carson. Is that correct?”

            “Yes. Either in his name or the company’s. Does it really matter?” Whatever face Elise is trying to put on is starting to fall to pieces.

            “Probably not, ma’am. I’m sorry for your loss. We’ll let you know if we find anything.”

            Elise pushes the door closed hard, knows full well it’s not the last she’ll see of the detective. Even if she was the prototypical dutiful wife, the cops would be having a go at her. Spousal murder is hardly an anomalous situation. Especially when the relationship is earmarked for divorce.

            Rosie squeezes her hand tight enough to hurt. It has the effect of bringing Elise back to the present. “Darling?”


            “Do you think you might want to take a bath, get cleaned up a little?” The mid-morning sun is starting to creep through the little openings of the curtains. It’s not a day that either of them want to face, but face it they must.

            “Can’t we just stay here?”

            “I wish we could.”

            “Let’s stay then.”

            “Your grandparents will be over soon.”

            Sharply Rosie pulls away from her mother’s arms. “The rest of them, too?”

            “The whole clan, I imagine. They just want to make sure we’re okay.”

            “We’re not okay.”

            “I know, darling. I know.”

            Rose can barely stand, but she wills herself down the hall and starts to run a bath. Elise closes her eyes and lets out an exasperated breath. She’s been holding it in unconsciously, afraid of breaking from what’s happened or what’s to come.

            Five minutes away, Grant Carson and his wife are headed toward the house, an armada of security and company cars to the fore and aft of their limousine. Grant’s wife Amelia is crying quietly next to him, holding his age-spotted hand.

She’s predictably stricken at the loss of her only son, trying in vain to fend off the agony eating away at her guts. As the limo weaves its way through the winding residential streets, their bodies slide and bend at every turn.

Grant looks over at her, not knowing what to say. He only knows what he can’t say.

            Fifty years ago, Grant Carson and Amelia Winthrop were two kids meeting at a chaperoned prep school dance. It was a quick but controversial romance. Amelia’s parents were eager to step in. Theirs was a family of vaunted New England Puritan stock. It would be below her station to step out with the son of an upstart clan of wildcatters like the Carsons. Typical new money/old money story. She was delicate and pretty and he was strong and iron-jawed, determined to take his father’s million and make billions. After his service in Vietnam, it’s exactly what he did. Carson waded through the jungles for two years, killing whoever needed killing so he could get back to forge his empire. The senselessness of the war turned his ambition into steel. He was wounded four times, including an instance where he was bayoneted in the chest by a fourteen-year-old while napping. Fully hardened and mad from the endless attrition, he pulled the blade out and with two bloody hands caved in the child-soldier’s head with the butt of his M-16. While the gore and brains spattered about the rain-soaked ground he thought of the money to be made when he got home. When they finally took him to the hospital, he thought of Amelia. A letter was sent the next day back to the states.


            Dearest Amelia,

            I miss you dreadfully. The war has been a valuable learning experience. Tell your tuxedo-wearing father to try to stop me from marrying you when I get back. I’ll be in my uniform. Soon my love,

            Capt. Grant Carson, USMC


            Finally discharged, Carson proceeded to make his way out to the Winthrop’s summer house on Long Island, cursing her family’s soft pomposity the whole way there. Amelia’s father, butler, and draft-dodging brothers tried to stop him from absconding with her, but he was having none of it. The brothers ran, the father suffered three broken bones, the butler a shattered jaw. Carson took Amelia by the hand and said, “See?” If she had reservations about her feral suitor she was too terrified to voice them. They were married within a week. In the end it all worked out. Carson was able to quench his bloodlust with money lust and Amelia traded her self-righteous family for a self-righteous husband. With his ideal wife in tow, the impetuous young man was unstoppable. He acquired leases and lands, investors and equipment, stone upon stone. Off-shore drilling was his specialty until the craze of horizontal shale fracking became the newest thing. He was there before anyone. The ground floor, as they say. Carson Oil turned into one of the biggest operations based in the United States. A true mogul. His son, though comparatively soft, had a good sense for the business. Smart where he was weak. Will could’ve carried the family dynasty for another generation. That part of it was now over.

            “We’ve arrived, Mr. Carson,” the driver says.

            “Alright. You ready, Meelie?”

            “Poor little thing. To have no father...”

            Carson takes out his silk handkerchief and dabs at his wife’s eyes. “I know. You go and give her the biggest hug she’s ever had.”

            “What about you? She needs to see you, Grant.”

            “Of course, Meelie. I’m going to check on Elise first. See how she’s coping.”

            “How she’s coping?”

            There’s a tap on Grant’s window. It’s one of his assistants. He puts a hand up and looks icily at his wife. His eyes are foreboding pits, almost all pupils.

            “I’m sorry. Yes. See how she’s doing.”

            Amelia’s shaking as she pulls the handle to open the door. Mr. Carson rolls down the window and bristles at the lackey sweating in the suit next to the limo.

            “I’m sorry, Mr. Carson. It’s your private cell, again. The same text message over and over. 5 this time. Call me. I don’t know what it means. It’s from an unknown number.”

            “It’s not your job to know. Give me the stupid phone. And get in there, see if my wife needs anything. That means all of you.”

            Carson wipes his eyes and steps out. Wonders how the person sending the texts even acquired the number. The damn phone is brand new. He dials and leans against the limo. The black paint is already 100 degrees under the Texas sun. The oil tycoon lets it sear through his designer suit, into his leathery skin. Three rings and he hears a click.

            “There you are.”

            “When I find you—”

            “Oh. Maybe you didn’t read the text. Lost your reading glasses?”

            “What do you want?”

            “Truly reprehensible, what happened to your son.”

            “Do you think this will end well? The resources at my disposal? You’ll be running for the rest of your life.”

            “I don’t mind. You think because you went to war you’re tough, old man? Maybe you are. Judging isn’t my thing. But my whole life’s been a war. Save the threats. I want five.”

            “Nothing. You get nothing. There was a deal and you broke… what the hell are you playing at?”

            “OK. I’m gonna give you time to cool off, Mr. Carson. Consider your options, let that brain sort itself out.”

            “I should’ve killed you the day we met.”

            “We’ve been down that path. I’ll say it again. Five million. I get this is a fresh wound, but I know you’ll do what’s best for both of us. Can already see you’re helping, pushing the cops toward the lawyer guy. Now you understand why I recommended you have your son hire him. Between that and your good instincts—you needed someone to take the fall—Cole Cavanaugh is as good a person as any. Maybe the best person, in fact.”

            “What else was I supposed to do? I’m dealing with fucking Texas mayors and district attorneys. These aren’t my people,” Carson says, grinding his teeth with every word. “I will kill—”

            “Of course, the lawyer might be clever. That could be a small problem, but best case, nonetheless. In the end, you managed to do well with your feet to the fire. Quite a boon, quite lucky, Cavanaugh being around.”

            “Is he part of this in any other way? What you’re up to?” Mr. Carson is trying with everything in his body to keep his voice down. His insides feel like a singularity.

            “Less you know, the better.”

            “You won’t win. My son’s life? You’ve killed the wrong person. My boy!”

            “I won the day you let me go, Mr. Carson. Faster you figure that out, the better. You’ve had years. What do they say? You know what I’m capable of. If you didn’t before, you certainly do now. As far as winning, look at the scoreboard. Seems you’re down the heir to your throne. We’ll be in touch.”


Chapter 10: The Other End of the Line


            He ends the call with cautious satisfaction, setting the phone down gently. It’s all about pace. Something learned in prison and honed by years of being on the fringes and near the void. As far as criminals go, he’s an outlier. Ruthless patience, philosophical detachment. In his youth, he let goals box out methodology. Passion and a lot of upstart nonsense. Not anymore. Being locked up was the best thing for him and the worst thing for society; from a cell he learned everything books could teach, and most importantly, learned that he was smarter than the men he was confined with. Jail converted his DNA. He went in an impetuous thug and came out with a mind that could subjugate another’s soul. Pace. Strategy. Thought. These are his gods. Many have been sacrificed at their altars.

            Nicholas Rhine. Prisoner 35286. He calls it his approach. Hard living and introspection, mostly. It tells him that his desires are the same as anybody’s. All have greed. All want what they want. From attainment and freedom to failure and capture—it can be boiled down to that one thing. Approach. Nothing that complicated about it. And it’s always evolving. Process.

            “Please. P-please lemme out.” The plea is coming from a skinny, bearded young man named Josh. He’s not getting out.

            “Shh.” Nicholas raises a plaster-colored finger up to his lips, slowly. Like calming an overactive child in a movie theater. “Shh.”         

            “So what? Are you going to kill me?” It’s a valid enough question. The young man is chained to a fireplace grate in a derelict house teeming with rot and foreboding. He doesn’t know why or how he’s there. On a good day, Josh is feeble and sallow-skinned. Today is not a good day. He closes his eyes and searches the recesses of his memory. Flashes of the night before, walking to the car after a long shift tending bar in a seedy corner of town. Then he wakes up, shackled, watching an imperturbable figure moving around him as if he’s not there. It’s steaming in the house. Sweat has turned his cheap white dress shirt yellow. There’s no air conditioning and the moldy carpet is soaking up the heat and throwing it against his body. The walls are laden with half-covered graffiti, as if someone thought about fixing the place up and abandoned the project to nature.

            Nicholas begins by saying what is on his mind. It’s not always wise, but this situation is fairly stable, for him. He pulls a folding chair close to the fireplace the young man is chained to. Sits a few feet away at an angle. “I don’t kill a lot of people. That may shock you. Sometimes, when I think about it, it shocks me. Then again, what’s a lot? There’s not exactly a governing body deciding whether or not you’ve killed a lot of people. Suppose some would say I have, some wouldn’t. It’s relative.”

He stops, truly lost down his own rabbit hole of thought. Wipes the back of his neck and face with a dirty bandana. He opens his eyes and sees the prisoner shivering despite the heat. Shivering at the sight of him. He understands. A good portion of his body is scarred from burns—the rest is tattoos of this or that, things that mattered but are trivial now. Most of his face is unmarked, but there’s a river of red skin rising out of his shirt and up his neck, all the way to his chin. It looks fresh and oozing with pain. It’s looked that way for years now. He wipes his brow once more and stuffs the bandana back in his pocket.

“Then again, I hate that word. Relative. A bit of a pussy’s word, a word for pussy philosophers.” He looks hard at his captive. “Not that being a philosopher makes you a pussy. Just in case you’re aspiring. I meant to say it’s one of those words that people use to get out of defining their terms. And that’s what it’s all about. Defining your terms. Hitler killed a lot of people. Stalin killed a lot of people. Genghis Khan. No way to pussy your way out of that one. Believe it or not, I’ve heard people try it. Heard people say Hitler didn’t physically kill anybody, just ordered it. Stupid, right? Heard people say that Harry Truman was a big killer, green lighting the nukes. At first I want to say stupid to that one, but it’s not. He’s a big killer. Nothing relative about it. Huh. The point is not how many, but if it was for a good cause. Only way to look at it. Not really sure what any of that means for me. No easy answers. Whether you’re talking death or life, no easy answers. Unless you want to be a pussy and say it’s all relative.”

He does a few circles with his head. Josh can see the muscles bulging from his neck as he goes through the motions.

“Anyway, I would prefer not to kill you.”

            A long pause follows. Josh goes ahead like he wasn’t listening to a thing that was just said. “What is this? Are you some mental patient? What did you do to me?”

            “I need you.”

            “Need me? Fuck you, man! Lemme out!” He fights against the restraints, inflating muscle against metal. There’s no give. His situation is intractable, like the figure seated in front of him.

            A gun emerges from the waistline of Nicholas’ pants. He stands and holds the weapon firm, but doesn’t point it at anything in particular. Somehow it’s just another part of a scary whole. His other hand is occupied with a photograph. He leans over, shows it to the floundering younger man. “No loud noises. The neighbors will hear. And then it will be bad.”

            “Where are we?”

            “Your hometown, Josh.”

            “We’re still in Fort Worth?”

            “Yes, but I have a feeling you didn’t grow up around here. A little too pale to fit in with the local—color. What can you tell me about this little lady?”

            Josh ignores the picture and starts to scream for help. His cries change from words to syllables quickly, however—the man with the gun reaches behind and snaps two of his fingers at the mid-bone. “I’ll give you a second. Think about your situation. And don’t yell out again.”

            In truth, he’s not worried about the kid’s screaming. The neighborhood is rough, six miles southeast of the downtown area. It’s a mixture of stash houses and old, sagging wood-framed duplexes, occupied by minorities too old or poor to get out. Vacant lots on either side. The windows are boarded with heavy plywood to be safe, but it’s the kind of area where you expect to hear bad things. Nobody’s coming. The house is a rental. He paid a guy five hundred dollars to pay the owner five hundred dollars for three months. For someone unafraid, armed, and possessing the skills to defend himself, it’s perfect. “Ready to go again, Josh? I’ve got time.”

            The picture is on the carpet next to Josh’s leg. He looks at it for a second and shakes his head wildly, still fledgling from the pain. “I don’t know her. Please—”

            “Okay. You know what, this is unnecessary. I can see you’re overwhelmed. Probably need a drink?”


            “I assumed something stronger.”


            “Interesting. Water it is. Be right back. Just need to pop away for a second.” Josh watches the man get up and head to the kitchen. He tries to rally his fingers and almost screams again. Tries to move his body. It’s ineffectual, just like last time. Why does he want to know about her? I thought this was behind me. Who is this frigging psycho? Just play along. He’s crazy but you can’t lose your head. You’ve been in trouble before. He wants something. Negotiate. Yeah. Leverage. It’s your only chance. Chance. What the hell is this?

            It takes several minutes for him to return. A rush of light enters first; Nicholas has an electric lantern slung over his shoulder and a steaming cooking pot in both hands. For the second time Josh gets a good look at his captor. Somehow he’s gotten more menacing. Nicholas is mostly bald and appears to be one giant muscle underneath all that damaged dermis. Josh doesn’t realize it but subconsciously he’s affected by the fact that his abductor carries himself in a rather relaxed way, incongruous with his meathead-like physique. It goes to the wickedly enigmatic nature of the man. For Josh, all those clever thoughts of negotiation and manipulation are gone in an instant. A naked who are you? is the only thing he can summon.

            Setting the pot down in front of Josh’s outstretched feet, he answers. “Sorry. My name is Nicholas Rhine. Call me Nick if it makes you happy.”


            “Apologies for all this, by the way,” Nick says. “It couldn’t be helped, if you want to know the long and short.” He begins to unlace Josh’s boots slowly, methodically. “The girl could prove important, so I’m going to need your assistance with her. Now please stop kicking. It won’t help.”

            “What are you going to do?”

            “It’s rather obvious. You’re not too quick are you?”


            “Why wouldn’t I? You gave me the idea, asking for water. I’m not trying to be cute or clever—direct is my preferred method. Though sometimes you don’t get what you want.”

            “But the picture. Everything about her. Anything. Just ask. She’s—”

            “Please,” Nick says, tossing the last boot into the corner. “First thing’s first.”

            “But I’ll tell you. Just don’t. Don’t.”

            “Be afraid if it helps. My experience, it doesn’t.”

            Josh moves his feet the little he can but it’s no use. The chains have his legs pinned together tightly at the calves. Nick lifts his feet, slides the pot underneath, then pushes down. Expected thrashing and screams follow. The smell of cooked flesh fills the already fetid air. Nick’s expression doesn’t change. Before Josh passes out from the agony, he bellows the name of the girl in the picture, once again promising to divulge whatever is required. A few more violent seconds pass and he goes limp.

            “Of course you will,” Nick says, pulling the scalded feet out of the pot. They singe the carpet as he sets them down. He looks at his work, thinks about it for a few moments. It’ll be a while before the kid’s awake again, before there’s anyone to talk to. He notes the smell, inspects his prisoner for a pulse, stares into that drooping, tear-stained face. He didn’t plan on burning the kid. He was being honest. It just occurred. Who was he to argue with himself? He checks his own pulse and drags in few quiet breaths. No excitement. No enjoyment. Only pace, only control. In the end they will all suffer under his will. This is just practice.


Chapter 11: Lying Low


            It’s been a few days now. A lot of drinking. Cavanaugh’s well-defined face is turning puffy and red from the booze. It’s a great deal of sitting around in his underwear, blinds drawn, watching daytime TV. The it’ll probably blow over thing Cole kept telling himself is looking ever more the pipedream. Cabin fever is starting to set in; it’s been impossible to leave—walking outside would introduce him to a legion of reporters and unanswerable questions. He’s on the phone with his mother. Again. It’s the same story at the family house. He’s briefed on all the important matters: They’re running out of milk. People keep calling at all hours. Dad can’t even go in the backyard to cook. What are they going to say at church group? Something’s bothering your sister, even more than usual. She won’t come out of her room. Whatever progress Della was making seems to have stalled completely.

            It’s all very interesting. Cole tells her not to worry, tells her he loves her and to say nothing, no comment, no comment. He’ll figure it out. There’s a way to make this all go away.


            The next call is to Bob. He answers quickly and asks the boss how he’s doing.

            “I’ve got to get out of here. Without being seen. The cops aren’t talking. There’s got to be—I don’t know, we have to do something.”


            Cole’s stunned. He’s been assuming Bob would stay loyal. There’s silence while he tries to find the right words.


            “Yeah. I’m here.”

            “Just kidding. Sorry. Probably not the time for jokes.”

            “Probably not, Bob.” Cole runs a hand through his hair, annoyed but relieved. Chalks it up to his man being almost as nervous as him. It gives Cavanaugh time for another thought to creep in. Does he even believe me? Does anyone? “Don’t worry. You’ll get a big raise.” It’s an awkward thing to say. Cole can’t figure out if it rings polite or guilty.

            “Okay,” Bob says.

            “Think it’s time to give your buddy a shout.”

            “You talking about Big Frank?”

            “Yes,” Cole says, rolling his eyes. Has it really come to this? “Big Frank. We need someone like him. The more the better. Anybody else come to mind?”

            “He’s a—Frank’s pretty much got his own niche.”

            “My point.”

            “I’ll get on it. Figure a way to get you out of there. Today, tomorrow at the latest. Sit tight. Don’t forget. They’re waiting to pounce out there.”

            Cole looks out the peephole of his front door. Sighs at the conclave of vehicles boxing him in. “Don’t think that’ll be a problem.”

            He ends the call and forces one foot in front of the other toward the living room. Nothing to do. There’s a bottle of 18-year old scotch on the end table. Never mind a glass. He turns it on its end and opens his throat. Switches on the TV and slumps into the sofa. It’s three in the afternoon and there’s nothing on worth watching. The local networks are talking about the Carson murder, no big surprise. As his eyes start to droop a festival of swishing sounds and breaking story alerts start emanating from the screen. Cole opens an eye and sees a familiar sight. The sound is low but it’s clear enough that they’re taking live footage of his neighborhood. A sea of reporters poking at someone with their directional microphones, prodding their prey toward his front walkway. He takes another drink and sets the bottle down haphazardly, spilling it all over the upholstery. He’s trying to listen and handle the bottle but ends up draining it on his underwear. There’s a knock on the door. More like a crunch. It sounds like someone’s trying to breach a castle. He’s thirty feet from the scene, ten feet away from the screen. Forty people are yelling just outside the threshold, hurling questions and snapping pictures. Sensory overload. He hears everything twice due to the broadcast time delay. What now?

            More pounding on the door. The wolves are at the gate. One voice is audible above the rest, making its way from the entranceway and down the hall. Cole isn’t exactly on his game; he rushes toward the foyer, tripping on one of the steps. The empty bottle he’s been holding breaks on the marble floor, sending whisky-scented shards everywhere. There’s enough liquor in his system not to notice the cut on his chin or the glass slicing his feet as he gets up to reconnoiter the situation. The pounding continues.

            “Get off my property!” he screams. Cole thinks about lawsuits and trespassing laws, taking tentative steps toward the door. He’s a lawyer, after all. “Go away, you bastards!”

            It has no effect. The thumping—“Enough of this shit.” He throws himself against the door and plants an eye flush to the peephole. “What the—”

            “Hey! Let me in! For God’s sake I’m being crushed!”

            No. It can’t be. What have I done to deserve this? Tell me this is a dream, the bender’s just catching up. I’ll wake up any minute. Stupor be gone.


            Okay. Not waking up. The noise is unrelenting. It’s all too hard to process; fortunately the TV’s providing overbearing commentary:

            Elise Bennett-Carson is here at the Cavanaugh residence. She’s fervently attempting to gain entrance. As you may well know, these two have a history that has thrown some suspicion their way in the wake of the brutal murder at the Carson mansion. Wait. It appears he is at the door. It’s hard to make out through the glass, but he looks to be holding something in his hand, perhaps a weapon of some sort.

            Cole glances at his hand. It’s the top of the bottle that he broke. He hadn’t even noticed. There’s too much going on to be this drunk.

            “Would you let me in? I can’t breathe.”

            “Uh. No. You can’t be here. Take it down the road.”

            “I’m trapped.”

            “Tell me about it.”

            Behind the scrum, Fort Worth’s finest are watching, mostly laughing, mostly arms folded. Pure spectators. Among them is Detective Letterer. She had arrived a few minutes previous, wanting to do some follow up with Cavanaugh. Not anymore. Not now, anyway. Being the ranking officer on the scene, she could order her men to go in and provide relief to the widow Carson. Probably the right thing to do. But this is darn interesting. She’s got ideas, expectations, the way a detective has with every case. This was not something she saw coming.

            “Cole. I can’t breathe. I’m about to pass out.”

            Why is she here? Man, whatever she says, you can’t trust her. This is your home. She walked out of your home years ago, left you broken and alone. One in, one out. Fine. But not the same one. Thinks she can just waltz back in? What an asshole.

            Two more thuds from the gang of reporters repel his head away from the door. He hears Elise starting to whimper and cry out, not for Cole, but for mercy. Oh for the love.

            It seems Elise Bennett-Carson is completely unwilling to talk to the media at this point. Mr. Cavanaugh seems inclined not to let her in. This is very dramatic, folks. We can only speculate as to what is really going on here.

            “Ah, shut up,” Cole says, throwing the rest of the bottle at the wall. He cracks open the door. Elise slips through and falls to the floor, hair tousled, eyes red and wild. Cole yells at the reporters, pushing all his weight against the advancing horde. The blood from his bare feet doesn’t allow for much traction, but eventually he’s able to heave it closed. After securing the locks, he slides down to the floor, back buffeted by the relentless throng.

            “So you needed to see me?” he asks.

            Elise sits up, surveys the damage done to her body. She’s still trying to catch her breath. Where to begin? So many conflicting emotions. But first thing’s first. “Did you piss yourself?”

            He looks down and starts to laugh. “No. There was the drinking and the bottle and then you came and with the television and everything… it was a spill, not a piss.”

            “Put some pants on. Maybe a shirt. Please?”

            Mrs. Bennett-Carson is now inside the Cavanaugh residence. I’m told from my colleagues near the door that they are conversing at this very moment. One can only imagine what their dialogue consists of.

            “Your TV on loud enough?” Elise asks, examining her arms and neck for bruises and scrapes.

            “That’s what you’ve got to say?”

            “What’s the right thing to say?” She pulls back her auburn hair and lowers her mystically dark eyebrows for effect. Only a few seconds and her countenance is controlled and lovely. He’s reminded of their first meeting at Harvard; it’s the same look that turned his steady heart to fluttering. Only now it’s more practiced. A few more wrinkles, more wisdom, more sophistication. She’s not in a loose sweatshirt anymore. Elise is wearing an elegant but tight black dress, cut just low enough to make one aware. Always expressive with her attire, always a reason for everything. It’s what makes it so vexing to see her in his house.

            “How about explaining—you knew what was out there, what you’d be walking into. I’m trying to lie low, dammit,” Cole says, still feeling the thumps on his back.

            I’m guessing that the police investigators will be looking at this reunion with keen eyes. Some of the pressure was seemingly starting to lift off of Cole Cavanaugh. Now we can only assume that it will be back on the successful divorce lawyer in full force. We’ll keep you updated, of course. Back to the studio.

            “Afraid hiding isn’t going to make this go away,” she says, rubbing her neck. There will be bruising—she suffered more than a few stinging forearms and shoulders on her journey through that gauntlet of inhumane humanity.

            “Vicious sons of bitches,” Cole says, tapping the back of his head against the door.

            “Unremitting,” she answers.





            “That one’s a stretch. But I like it. Anyway. They’re an inconvenient bunch.”

            “Chalk incommodious up to creative license.”

            “My friend De Klerk would appreciate you. But he wouldn’t understand. He’s only at F.” Cavanaugh produces a small but wry smile as the noise outside starts to fade. Apparently the reporters have their A-roll, B-roll, sound bites and the whatnot. Finally, a moment to think. It’s hard. He’s still drunk. The chaos outside is ebbing enough for him to notice the spinning in his head. And she is right there, the leviathan, the only love of his life. “I’m sorry about your husband.” It has to be said eventually. Off with the fencing. “That your daughter lost her father. It’s awful. No other way to put it.”

            “No. Suppose not.” Elise isn’t looking at him anymore. She’s pretending to notice the décor, like she’s come over for a casual reunion, hankering to give herself a visual tour. Cole’s brain is booze-soaked but he’s not stupid. He knows that it’s deflection. Either a defense against crying or something else. He does his best to presume nothing. Remember, Cole. It’s been fifteen years.

            “Elise? What are we doing here? By we I mean you, of course.”

            Her emotions are becoming untethered from her will. They’re starting to seep through. She yells, it feels a bit out of nowhere, like they’d moved to calmer waters. “For the love of Jesus! Would you put some pants on?”

            “In a minute.” Cole doesn’t move a muscle, just stays splayed out before her, package on full display. “Hey. Look at me—at least my face. Will seemed like a good guy. Never got to see him at his best, but—I could tell. He loved your daughter, loved you. I didn’t have anything to do with his death. Still not sure if that’s what you came to hear, but if so, there it is.”

            Elise seems ambivalent, like she just accepted bits and pieces of what she just heard. “You obviously didn’t kill him.”

            “Ok,” Cole says. “Wish it was that cut and dry for everybody else.”

            “This thing is far from cut and dry.”

            “What aren’t you telling me? Volumes, I’m sure. Start with what you know and what precipitated your little walk of atonement out there.”

            Still outside is Detective Letterer. The sun is beginning to go down and the media vultures are starting to return to their nests. She’s a little at odds about what to do next. As cool as the young investigator is playing it, the situation is prime for a fuck up. All the uniforms around her are salivating for it, another chance to tell their buddies at the bar about the girl upstart who couldn’t get the job done. As she stares at Cavanaugh’s big, weird house, the scroll of shit unconsciously unfurls in her mind. Why would she catch this case? It’s possibly the highest profile murder in Fort Worth history. They put their youngest murder cop on it, as lead investigator? Could be that the mayor’s trying to score political points by being all progressive and girl equals boy, but Letterer’s too smart to buy it. Add to her plight one of the richest men in America, breathing down the PD’s neck for swift and total justice, damn the procedure, damn the law. Perhaps it’s as simple as the press and Carson and the public want it to be: might be that at least one of her murderers is inside that house right now, laughing it up. It might be. But something is keeping her from going in. She’ll catch hell from the brass, but she’s going to stay right there. Watch. Wait. Cavanaugh’s not going anywhere.

            “Hey Letterer, it’s shift change. Want to come have a drink? Looks like you could use a little stress relief?” It’s one of the younger ones, figuring he’ll take a shot. She doesn’t blame him. It’s hot as hell and her shirt is sweating through, highlighting her breasts.

            “Walk on, soldier,” she says, still staring at the house. “Maybe if you weren’t such a shitty cop I’d oblige.”

            “What’s she mean?” asks the youngster, turning to his partner.

            “The detective likes girls, dickhead.”

            “What a waste.”

            What a waste. You don’t know what you’re missing. Stop playing for the other team. It’s a daily thing. She takes no offense. Men and their libidos are about the least mysterious thing on the planet. And she’s got a real mystery on her hands.

            Cole’s catching up on lucidity. The novelty of the situation will wear off and he’ll be left with his temper. It’s coming to the fore, he knows. Soon the fact that the world has taught him since birth to pretend be a gentleman and the fact that a woman freshly widowed is his guest will not matter.

            “I came here for help,” Elise says, walking to the kitchen. She returns with a dishtowel and starts picking up the pieces of glass from the marble entranceway. Wiping away the blood.

            Cole tries not to get distracted by cleavage as Elise bends over. “Seems like the last place on earth to come for help. You’re not exactly cracking my top five people in the world list. Sure, I’m being all noble at the moment, but I hate your guts.”

            “Still pissed?”


            “We were kids. Figured you’d let it go by now.”

            “No you didn’t. Why else would I take your husband’s case? Nobody lets things go.”

            “Guess that’s true,” she whispers, focusing on the floor.

            “Is it?”

            “Is what?”

            “Is it true, or just true for me?” Cole asks. You let go with both hands—let right go. But maybe I’m extrapolating. From the whole running out on me and never contacting me again series of events. It was kind of a big deal. Left a mark.”

            “I guess it did.” Elise stops wiping and trains her deep brown eyes on Cole. He looks ridiculous, like a handsome man-baby that’s just run through the thorns. “I know it was a shit deal,” she says. “And it’s not over.”

            “What does that mean?” Cavanaugh really doesn’t know what she means.

            “I mean the reason I left you that day is the reason I’m here now.” There’s silence. The ex-lovers leave the world on standby, trying to get a fix on each other and themselves.

            Cole closes one eye for focus and says the only thing he can think of. “Yeah. I have no idea what you’re talking about. Give me specifics. Take your time. I’ve waited fifteen years—probably can wait a few seconds longer.”


Chapter 12: Bad Calls


            “Hang up the phone,” Nick whispers, looking stony-eyed at Josh Ratliff. His captive is as good as housebroken. Starting out, Josh was a feeble-minded, translucent-skinned loser in his late twenties. It’s been days and he’s acquitting himself about how Nick expects. He complains, says he’s starving for a minute, then pleads, then begs, then offers to do whatever for whatever. Sometimes he moves straight to the offering. A little intimidation, a bit of torture, anything is possible. The sound of gunfire goes off somewhere not too far from their location. Josh quakes as much as the chains will allow. Nick breathes through it, unmoved, uninterrupted. Takes the phone from young Josh. “Thanks for making the call.”

            “What are you doing this for?”

            “Options. I have a partner going off book. Needs keeping in line. It’s rather complicated.”

            “Why did you make me say those things? I didn’t do that.”

            “You did. God’s honest.”


            “God’s honest can be hard to hear…”

About What You're Expecting

About What You're Expecting

About Sherlock Holmes and Worthy Sacrifice

About Sherlock Holmes and Worthy Sacrifice