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I have often thought that my sister knew she was going to die. I don't mean that she had psychic dreams; I don't mean she was pessimistic. I think she evaluated the odds of her situation, and, in her heart and her mind, she had faced the outcome. Whitney was seven months pregnant when my ex-brother-in-law killed her, my little nephew, and, by default, my unborn niece.
Whitney always knew how dangerous Jeff was after she married him, she knew. Yet she had one child with him and conceived a second. There were times, many times, when I wanted to strangle her for this stupidity. Easy for me, on the outside looking in. When Whitney looked at Jeff, she saw the person he could be; she saw the best in him. And when she realized (finally, and much too late) that everything good about Jeff was heavily outweighed by everything bad, she cut him out of her life.
But she always knew that the odds of keeping him out weren't so very good. My sister knew that she might not win, but knowing that never seemed to make a difference. She didn't have to know that she would win before she did what she knew was right. That's brave. It's powerful, too. It means you are free and clear of the kind of manipulations that can sear your soul.
Emma Marsden was like that. She was a lot like my sister in other ways too. She had that same inner vibrancy, a tuned piano full of music. She was ready for the next thing, a wary half smile on her lips, and in her eyes you could see that she was expecting something interesting to happen.
Her likeness to my sister made me vulnerable to her, according to my one and only, Joel Mendez. It was what made me believe in her. It was what made me work for her, and stick with her, when the rest of the world was ready to burn her at the stake.
But I think Emma Marsden brought out the best in me, because to me, Emma Marsden was like that elusive Christmas back home when everything goes right. Just being around her eased the nostalgic homesickness those of us who have lost family always carry in our souls. I guess because she was so much like my sister.
It's all about taking sides. Life, I mean. That's what it comes to if you're honest. Right, wrong, revenge, forgiveness...you take a stand. That's what Emma Marsden did. She took her daughter's side. Everything she did was for Blaine, her fifteen-year-old girl. Even when Blaine lost her way. Maybe that's why women are so much better at taking sides than men are. Maybe it plays on the nurturing and mothering instinct my child first, no matter what.
Which is why, when I met her, Emma Marsden's life was a nightmare. Because she'd been accused of Munchausen by proxy, which, as you know, from watching those television movies of the week that you refuse to admit you watch, means a mother is so reprehensible, and so disturbed, that she will make her own child sick in order to get attention for herself.
I can imagine the hell a parent goes through when they lose a child. But I have no children of my own, so I can only imagine it. To be accused of killing that child, for motives of personal narcissism, was, according to Emma herself, the tenth circle of hell that is reserved for women who have the temerity to thwart the medical system.
The first time I met Emma Marsden was in the Main Street office of her attorney and ex-husband, Clayton Roubideaux. It was a small office, behind a brown door in a townhouse-style building. Roubideaux clearly kept an eye on the overhead. He may have been one of the most successful litigators in Lexington, Kentucky, but there were none of the oversized conference rooms, heavy mahogany furniture, or hushed discomfort you find in large law firms where billable hours are considered an art form.
No ankle-deep carpeting a status symbol of the past, along with the office fireplace in the center of the room. None of the shiny new hardwood floors preferred by the edgy firms in entertainment law, none of the creaky old wood floors found in the hallowed halls where the business of making money is sometimes confused with social significance.
Roubideaux's office had Berber carpet, the wealthy man's form of indoor/outdoor: practical, pricey, ugly. The front desk was small and the receptionist clearly limited to answering the telephone. Marsden worked with two other attorneys, and there were no cubicles or horseshoe work areas for legal secretaries, researchers, paralegals, or the amazing and generally underpaid legal creature who does all of the above.
There was a receptionist, aged twenty or twenty-two, and as it was five fifteen and Friday she was happily putting away the pencil that was the only clutter on the tiny oak desk behind the kind of partition one usually finds in a small doctor's office or veterinary clinic. She pointed me to a small hallway on her way out the door. I followed the sound of a man and woman who were laughing in the way people do when they are in a waiting room somewhere, anxious about the appointment ahead, and trying to keep their spirits up.
I understood from Clayton himself that he and his wife ex-wife hadn't been divorced that long. A year at most. I was wary about being in the office with the two of them, but the only tension I could sense arose when I walked through the door. I wasn't used to being dreaded.
Clayton Roubideaux stood up the minute he saw me, but the first person I noticed was Emma Marsden, who sat with her legs crossed in a high-backed maroon chair. She wore blue jeans and a black sweater and worn, dirty Nikes. We were dressed just alike, except I wore high-topped Reeboks, which were white and new. Her hair was clean, but pulled back in a rubber band, and she hadn't bothered with makeup. She looked like she hadn't had a good night's sleep since the last presidential election. Many of us hadn't.
Emma Marsden was thirty-seven years old, and her hair was already threaded with gray. Her forehead was ridged with worry wrinkles that were startling but not unattractive on such a young face. She had the look of a woman who has forgotten how to be beautiful.
She looked at me over her shoulder, steadily, without smiling. Her ex-husband, already on his feet and waiting for my attention, shook my hand across the oak veneer desk.
"Lena Padget? Clayton Roubideaux." His grip was firm, his smile toothy. "This is my wife...ex-wife, I mean. Emma."
Her hand was ice cold, fingers slim, nails cut short, a tall woman whose hand dwarfed my own.
"Please, sit down," Roubideaux said.
I took the other wingback chair and sat all the way back in the cushion so that my feet did not quite touch the floor. I didn't feel ridiculous. I'm used to my height, and the posture had exactly the effect I wanted. Emma Marsden smiled and loosened up, settling back in her own chair. She wasn't rude enough to laugh out loud, but the vision of me with my feet dangling over the edge of the seat clearly amused her.
"We appreciate you coming in after business hours," Clayton said.
I nodded. Why lose credit by explaining that I set my own business hours, that I had slept late that morning and had plenty of time to drink coffee, read USA Today, and peel the threadbare indoor/outdoor carpet away from half of the little screened-in porch in the cottage I shared with my significant other?
The old carpet had been evocative of many faded but die-hard layers of ancient cat urine, an odor that is as hard to kill as a cockroach, although it does not run away. But I had soaked in my claw-foot tub, and changed to clean jeans and another of the black sweaters that make up a significant portion of my wardrobe. I was clean and crisp and smelled only of the vanilla lotion I buy from Bath and Body Works. I was ready to go to work.
Clayton Marsden looked at his ex-wife, who looked back at him. "Emma, do you want to start, or do you just want to interrupt me later?"
"Go ahead," she said.
She had an interesting voice, a little scratchy, like she was recovering from laryngitis.
Roubideaux looked at me. "Lena, do you have any children?"
"I have a cat."
He didn't smile. Neither one of them did. Cats, clearly, did not count, although I was not being flip, and I absolutely love my cat.
"Emma and I had one child together. She also has an older daughter. Her youngest child, our son, died two years ago, while being treated by Dr. Theodore Tundridge at Fayette Hospital. Tundridge is a pediatrician and the director of the Tundridge Children's Clinic."
Clayton and Emma exchanged looks.
The faint music of "La Bamba" drifted into the room from somewhere, the hallway maybe.
"How old was your son when he died?"
"Right at two and a half."
A toddler, I thought. "What did he die of?"
Emma Marsden looked at her feet, and Clayton ran a finger along the edge of his desk. Their silence interested me.
"His liver failed," Clayton said.
Neither of them met my eyes, but pain seeped like acid through their self-containment. They weren't looking for sympathy, they were looking for help. They were looking for somebody to be on their side.
I wondered why they wanted me.
Marsden leaned back in his chair and placed his fingertips along the edge of his desk. He seemed absorbed in placing those fingertips in some kind of preordained and essential alignment, and to manage this he wasn't able to look at me while he talked.
"I don't know if you know this, Ms.... Lena. But in this day and age, if you give permission to have an autopsy performed on a family member who dies in a hospital, or if, as in the case of our son, an autopsy is required, that's pretty much license to plunder."
He looked at me.
I looked back. "What exactly do you mean by that? Plunder?"
Emma Marsden faced me. "What it means is that they stole my son's internal organs; kept some of them for research, and donated others for profit."
"Technically, it's not for profit," Clayton said.
Emma looked at him the way I had looked at the urine-scented carpet on my screened-in porch. "Their 'fee,' my dear ex-husband, is simply a non-profit way of saying profit. Creative accounting. The not-for-profit medical profession makes the corporate profiteers look like small-timers. You know this, Clayton, and she's not going to sue us, she's not wearing a wire. Stop dancing around and say what it is."
"My dear ex-wife is right," Clayton said.
I slid forward in my chair, feet on the floor. Their habit of calling each other "dear ex-whatever" was annoying; also, I didn't like being called "she" when I was actually in the room.
"Are you telling me the hospital took your son's organs without permission?" I asked. I found it hard to believe.
"Not the hospital," Clayton said. "Dr. Tundridge's clinic. They treated our son when he first got sick, and Dr. Tundridge was in charge when Ned was admitted to the hospital."
"Tundridge was head of the committee of doctors who treated my son," Emma said. "It's an assembly line these days, don't you know? Each specialist looks at one small part, and nobody's really looking at the whole."
"But...you're saying they did all of this without your permission?"
"That's what we're saying," Emma said.
Clayton made a tepee of his fingertips, which I was ready to cut off, every single one, since he paid them so much attention and refused to meet my eyes. Odd, for a courtroom litigator. Why was he so uncomfortable with me? It made me think he was up to something. Of course, Joel says I always think people are up to something.
"It's a fuzzy area," Clayton said. "There's a blanket permission form you have to sign when someone is admitted to a hospital. On the other hand, it is so broad and vague that it really doesn't stand up. In addition, because there is very little choice about signing which means, sign, or forget having your child treated it could definitely be argued that it amounts to duress."
"We shouldn't have signed it," Emma said.
"We didn't have a choice."
Clayton Roubideaux looked at Emma, and it was such a look that I was embarrassed to be in the room. He wasn't up to anything other than trying to distance himself from the pain of losing a child. I felt ashamed, because I was so judgmental. Just because I was happy these days did not give me an excuse for forgetting what it was like for people who were going through the dark times.
It's strange that happiness does that to you makes you just a little less compassionate, a little less willing to listen, because you don't want it to intrude, that darkness, you don't want it spilling over into your life and shadowing your relief and peace of heart. I think it is an instinctual and primitive reaction like a fear of infection. Sometimes it's easier to be effective in my line of work if you're depressed before you interview the client.
"How do you know?" I asked. "Or is that what you want me to do to find out?"
Emma Marsden shook her head. "We know already, believe me. We know because someone from the clinic called us and notified us that our son's heart was not buried with him, and what did we want them to do with it. It was like a...a storage issue. They let us know they were going to be billing us. And then we called back "
"I called back," Clayton said.
"Does it really matter who called back, Clayton?" Emma said.
She looked at me. I shrugged. It might or it might not, but I wasn't getting in the middle until I was ready. I was planning to take sides, I just wasn't sure how many there were. We had started with two, but watching the both of them made me wonder if there weren't going to be three. Of the two of them, Clayton Roubideaux probably had the money to pay my fee, which meant his was the most practical side to take, but that fingertip thing was putting me off.
"Okay, so you're telling me that the clinic actually informed you that they had your son's, Ned's, heart. That they'd...kept it? How did they explain that?"
"Research," Clayton said. "They explain everything with that one word. It's the medical-legal version of diminished capacity. It means they think they can do anything and everything they want, and so far, since the eighties anyway, the courts have concurred."
"So what happened when you called? Did they back down? Tell you it was all a big mistake?"
Clayton shook his head. "Not at all. They did say there was a mistake, but it wasn't that they didn't have the heart, but that they had...other things too."
Silence settled while I thought this through. I looked at Emma Marsden. "What other things?"
"Spleen. Liver. Both corneas. His...tongue."
I took a breath. "You know this for sure, or that's what they told you?"
"I went there. After they called. I went there to pick them up. I didn't know what to put them in. I just took some bags that were in the drawer in my kitchen. Sloane's bags, Sloane's Grocery? I probably should have taken a cooler, but I didn't know what the hell to do."
I nodded, chewing my bottom lip.
She looked at me, and her eyes were tight, her voice hard, but her hand, of which she seemed unaware, was clutching the neckline of her sweater and squeezing it in her fist.
"When I got there, they showed them to me. The girl who worked there...she was new, and she showed me where they were kept. Down in the clinic basement. It was very clean, very well lit, lots of fluorescent lighting. Bright white floors. Did I tell you how clean it was, Clayton? It made my shoes squeak. I was embarrassed because it...my shoes looked so worn out and dirty on that floor. And I'm standing there with my plastic grocery bags, wondering if I ought to have brought a cooler, thinking about Tupperware, for God's sake, wondering why the parts weren't being released to some...undertaker or something. And then she changed her mind. That girl. She'd left me there for twenty minutes, and she came back, and obviously she was in a lot of trouble, because she was just red in the face, like she was embarrassed or something, and she said I would have to leave and they would call me later. And so I...I asked to talk to her supervisor, some man named Mr. French, and while she went away to go get him, I put everything marked MARSDEN AGED TWENTY-NINE MONTHS in my grocery bags and ran out of the building and into the parking lot and got in my car and drove away."
She looked at Clayton, who reached across the desk and squeezed her hand. He was still in love with her, and she knew it, but she didn't care. But she felt sorry for him, and it was his eyes that filled with tears, and it was he who could not speak and finish the story.
"Forty-eight hours later I was called by Child Protective Services and informed that I was being accused of Munchausen by proxy in the death of my son Ned. They refused to give me any further information, except that the complaint had just been filed by the physician who treated my son Dr. Theodore Tundridge. They said they were investigating, and wanted to offer me the option of voluntarily releasing custody of my daughter, Blaine, to the state. That if I did so, and that if I admitted that I was guilty of the charges, of making my own son sick enough to die, they would let me have custody of my daughter back after I had taken a prescribed list of parenting classes. But that my daughter would have to be examined periodically by Dr. Tundridge, who would oversee her health care and make sure she was not suffering from any form of abuse or induced illness."
I felt it rising within me, the anger that fueled my job. Like a helium balloon in my chest. And I got that feeling that I usually get when I go to work I really wanted to help, meaning I was ready to take sides. Their side.
Clayton looked at me, eyes shrewd. "Can you imagine it? The power this doctor and this state organization have when they work together?"
"Sounds like they've done it before."
He nodded. "I thought of that. But there's legal precedent in several other states, not just here. It happens everywhere."
"You mean this kind of deal making? Pressuring mothers to back down off of medical complaints, or they lose their kids and face criminal prosecution? It goes that far?"
"Yes, it does."
"And did you agree?" I looked over at Emma Marsden.
She stared at me, hard. "No, I did not."
"Good for you," I said. Wondering how she'd found the strength to be so brave, so smart, and so wise.
Emma Marsden wiped tears out of her eyes, making them go red. "I need a minute," she said, and left the room.
Clayton Roubideaux opened his handkerchief, blew his nose, folded the handkerchief over one more time, and blew again. "This is hard," he said.
I nodded. "Clayton, do they have any reason to suspect Emma had anything to do with your son's death? You said liver failure. That's...broad."
"They don't know what killed him," Clayton said. There was no anger in his voice, just something that sounded bereft. "He was so sick. He would have these attacks, they were so...they were horrible. Pain in his stomach, high up, and vomiting, violent vomiting that went on and on and on, he just couldn't stop. We'd take him to the emergency room. They'd do blood work, and his liver enzymes would be sky high, nine hundred when they were supposed to be forty. And then they'd come back down. And they'd do all kinds of tests, and nothing made any sense. And then he'd be okay. And then it would start back up again. They'd rerun every medical test, Emma kept food diaries, we had the paint in the house analyzed, my God, we tried everything. There just didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it."
"What did the autopsy say?"
"You know, they never actually gave us all that much information. Just that the liver had lesions, but was in better shape than they thought it would be."
He nodded. "I should have asked. Asked more questions. But he was gone, and Emma and I were falling apart. Ned was my son, my only child. And Blaine she was Emma's daughter from her first marriage. I said...something I said made Blaine think that I loved Ned more than her and that the wrong kid died, and Emma asked me about it. And I told her the truth. That I'd never said anything like that to Blaine, but that Ned was my real son and...and Emma asked me to leave that day and filed divorce papers that week."
He looked at me. "I did love Blaine. I still do. Very much. And maybe I did love Ned more, but so what? It's hard to be straight about that kind of thing when you go through something like this. And Blaine she's a good kid, but she likes to play victim. Kind of an aggressive martyrdom, which is a scary thing, let me tell you.
"You know, we had a good marriage. Emma's first husband was a piece of shit. And I was good to both of them, to Emma and Blaine, and all I did was try to be the best husband and stepfather and father I could possibly be."
I wondered if he was aware that he'd separated out his role to Blaine and Ned right there. Stepfather and father. If that was his worst sin, he was probably a pretty good guy. Of course, there were two sides to every story. Two sides at least.
"Okay, then. I'm interested. But what exactly do you want me to do?"
Roubideaux's voice went crisp. "Information gathering. Take a look at this doctor. See if he has a record of any other unusual deaths on his watch. Anything that takes the blame off Emma and puts it somewhere else. Look into his clinic. See if any other parents have had him keep back, you know, parts."
"So what you're looking for is proof that Dr. Tundridge, and maybe others in the clinic, or that he associates with professionally, have accused your ex-wife of Munchausen by proxy in retaliation because she objected to, and is causing trouble over, their use of...their retention of your son's...organs."
"Yes, that's it exactly. You'll help me build a case for Emma, and against them, if it goes to court. I'm not sure it will. I honestly think our best bet is to work with them. Emma says hell no, but Child Protective Services has enormous power in this kind of case. They can take Blaine into protective custody just on the word of the doctor alone, and I think the only reason they haven't is because of how old she is."
"And how old is that?"
"She's fifteen." He drummed his fingers. "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."
I looked at him. "Trite but true. What point are you making that I'm missing?"
"About Emma. I want you to take a sort of devil's advocate role here. If you look into her side of it, and find nothing, then I can be sure the Commonwealth Attorney's Office will have nothing too."
"Are you asking me to investigate your ex-wife for her role in the death of your son?"
"In a roundabout sort of way."
"Would you have asked me this if she was still in the room?"
"No. I had planned to call you, to talk about this end of the..."
His voice trailed away because I was standing now.
"Mr. Roubideaux, I'm turning you down."
"You just said you were interested."
"I was, until you asked me to look into the possibility your ex-wife is guilty. And because you made sure she was out of the room when you asked me."
"So? I don't think she is guilty of anything but being a pretty wonderful mother, I just want it proved. Give me something I can take to court."
"Am I working for you or her?"
"Both of us. Except that I'm paying your bills."
"What you mean by that, Mr. Roubideaux, is that I'm to tell her I'm working for both of you, but in actuality I'll be working for you. That is a deceit."
"That's not a nice way to put it."
"There isn't a nice way to put it. I won't play both sides against the middle. And I think you're a shit. Good-bye, counselor."
"Good-bye." His voice was faint and the expression on his face reflected a mild shock and a deep offense.
I didn't much care.
I shut the outside door pretty hard, making the bells clatter. Emma Marsden was sitting on the hood of a battered BMW Z3 Roadster that was parked on the curb right out front. The car was a silver convertible with a black cloth roof. The driver's side had taken a hell of a blow just past the door, but it was still a BMW, and a Roadster, and a beautiful thing. The parking meter had expired, but Emma Marsden didn't have a ticket on her windshield, and it was after five now, when parking was free. She sat cross-legged, and she was smoking a slender black cigar. She couldn't have looked less like a grieving mother.
"Smoke?" she asked.
I was tempted to take one, but I shook my head. It made me like her more, though. I liked women who smoked cigars. I was smoking them some myself these days, so it made me feel validated, even though I'd come to the practice so many years after it was fashionable that it was probably unfashionable again.
"Forgive the drama back there. I don't know why it hit me like that, so hard all of a sudden, and I don't make a habit of crying in front of strangers."
"You've got reason. It must have been a nightmare, down in that basement."
She looked up at me. "It makes you want to go down there, doesn't it? To take a look?"
I rocked back and forth on my heels. Clients often unloaded their anger by being combative. It was usually best to deflect. "This sort of thing can't be legal."
"I'll think you'll find that it can be. I'm sure Clayton explained." She flicked ash onto the pavement. "Do you need anything else from me? Information or details or some kind of release form where people can talk to you about my son's medical history?"
"No, actually. I'm not taking the case."
She frowned, and rubbed a bit of bird crap off the paint job. I made a mental note not to shake her hand. She looked up at me, speculative, not particularly friendly.
"Too tough for you? Or too depressing?"
"Because I don't like clients who lie to me, and I don't get in the middle of feuding divorced people, and because I don't like being made party to a deceit."
"Wow. What the hell does all that have to do with me and Clay?"
"Pretty much everything."
"Uh...what did he say to you, anyway?"
"Why? You said he's not your client."
She had me. I looked away. The sun was waning, and sunlight striped the pavement, sending shards of blinding light into the eyes of drivers. And the temptation was more than I could resist. I didn't like the guy, and I was dying to tell her.
"He asked me to investigate you. To his credit, he said it was in the role of devil's advocate, so that he'd know the worst if things wound up in court. But he wanted me to tell you I was working for you, when I was really investigating you, and he justified it because he implied that it would be for your own good. Then he reminded me that he would be paying my bill."
She took the cigar out of her mouth and stared at me. "Would you mind very much staying right here for just five minutes?"
She handed me the keys to the car. "Get in and warm yourself up. Heater works like a little oven. I won't keep you waiting."
But she did keep me waiting.
She was right, the heater worked great, and so did the CD player. I listened to some kind of mambo dance music and tried hard not to like knowing that when people walked by they thought I owned the car. Even with a dent in the side, a BMW Roadster was impressive, at least to a poor person like me. I even smoked one of the cigars I found in the glove box. It was mild and sweet and expensive, and I didn't inhale, but I watched the people walking by on the sidewalk (there weren't many of them), and I turned heads. I looked interesting. I even felt interesting.
When Emma Marsden came out of her ex-husband's office, she slammed the door.
She motioned for me to roll down the driver's side window. "You ever been to the Atomic Café?"
"It's a personal favorite."
"Will you let me buy you an early dinner? I'd like to talk some more."
I considered turning her down. Clearly, it was good old Clayton who could afford my fee. But I didn't like good old Clayton, and I thought Munchausen by proxy had about as much merit as the old repressed-memory craze, and I figured Emma Marsden was getting screwed over from more directions than one. That, plus my talent for poverty even in economic boom times, made me say yes.
"It's just around the corner. Why don't we go in my car. You may as well drive, you're in the seat."
I didn't object.
She ordered the ropa vieja, which is a sort of Cuban pot roast, and I had the jerk chicken, with a side of black beans and rice. We drank Red Stripe beer and munched on sweet potato chips while we waited for our food. The restaurant was just this side of deserted. A guy in khakis and a black sweater read Ace Magazine, ate Jamaican pot pie, and drank something with an umbrella in it. I admired the umbrella. I admired the man for ordering something so playful when he was alone. Then I realized the man was familiar, very familiar in fact my ex-husband, Rick. Not that big a coincidence, as his office is practically next door. He looked up as a stunning blonde walked past the bar and right up to his table. She was breathless, tall and built, with enough flesh to get her through a cold winter. Her hair was short and thick, and she wore a pair of reading glasses shoved up atop her head. Her trousers were black silk and had likely cost the earth. She also wore a sweater, French blue and cashmere, and boots that made her even taller.
Rick stood up, smiled at her like he used to smile at me, except more worshipful, then bent her backward and gave her a full-on tongue kiss. Clearly he'd seen me. Little beast.
Judith took the kiss in stride and sat down across from him, then, at a word from him, looked over her shoulder at me and waved. Her eyebrows were raised, and I knew she was on the verge of inviting us to join them, but I gave them both a sort of casual but dismissive wave.
Business? Judith mouthed, and I nodded. She blew me a kiss and turned back to Rick, who was watching me a little, and Judith a lot.
"Someone you know?" Emma asked me, turning to get a look.
"Old friends." I held the squat beer bottle in my hand and took another drink, trying not to fill up on the chips. I was completely unable to resist.
"The first thing I want to tell you is that Clayton isn't my ex-husband, because we were never actually married."
I raised an eyebrow. "Then why "
"All that gag-gag 'my dear ex-wife' crap? Clayton started telling people we were married when Ned was getting so sick. He got tired of all the last-name confusion, and in spite of his many lectures on the idea that marriage 'isn't necessary to a relationship,' the truth is, that's just a load of crap. Although I think, at the time, he believed it, and so did I. It was only when things got dicey that he went traditional and felt better saying he and I were married. It smoothed things out, with the hospital and later when we went through the funeral arrangements and all that stuff."
"And you went along with it?"
She shrugged, and looked away. "I didn't like it, instinctively. But not enough to take a stand in front of people. I had to think about it to realize how mad it made me."
Our food came. Hers looked good, and made me second-guess my own order. The roast looked tender, thick with gravy over a bowl of rice, but I cut into my chicken, took a small bite, and sighed inwardly. Definitely the right choice.
"So why aren't you still together? The grief thing?"
"The grief thing? Oh, you mean how you go through the death of a child, and it screws up your marriage because you aren't the same person you were before it happened?"
I stared at her.
"Survivor group counseling. No, that wasn't it."
I ate chicken, listening to her reasons. She swore it wasn't the death of their son that had driven them finally and completely apart. She called it a three-part breakup, very analytical.
Part one was, indeed, the stress of losing their son.
Part two had come the evening Clayton Roubideaux had been foolish enough to make his true feelings known that in comparison to his love for his blood son, his feelings for her daughter, Blaine, were a poor second best.
Part three was the way he told people, while Ned was sick and even after he died, that they were married. They weren't. He was divorced, as were most men her age who were available for a committed relationship, and she could understand not wanting to get married again. But she could not understand saying you were when you weren't. So all of his crap about "not needing the paper" etc. was just that, crap. He thought marriage was important, but just didn't want to be married to her. And he had a need to legitimize his grief, his choice of mother for his son, and the time they spent together with the lie that they were, indeed, married. It was knowing how much he valued the vows, coupled with the knowledge that he did not think enough of her to commit to her and to their life together, that convinced her to end the relationship.
"Clayton and I weren't destined to make it. He didn't love me enough, you know? If I hadn't gotten pregnant with Ned, I don't think we'd have moved in together. Or, I don't know, maybe me getting pregnant made us get serious too soon. Although, sometimes I think this sloooow-drip courtship trend is an excuse for people to dawdle around in relationships. I don't know. I just screw relationships up, don't listen to me."
I laughed, trying not to sputter beer.
"But it would have been stupid to stay with a man who didn't love me enough to commit to me, even though I'd had a child with him, which, from my standpoint, means I made all the commitment and he gets off scot-free. Which is fine, because who wants a reluctant committer?"
"And what makes me actually hate him, is he told my daughter that he'd wished she had died instead of Ned. That alone "
"He actually said that to her?"
"Not in those words, but believe me, he made it clear. I was there, I saw it."
I mixed sour cream and salsa in the black beans and rice. Messy and delicious. I took a bite, thinking, as I listened to her, that there were, as always, three sides to every story. Listening to him in his office, he had been an ideal husband and father. Of course, he hadn't been a husband, which made his story suspect.
"He's not a bad guy," Emma said. "At least, not horrible. I think you've seen him at his worst."
I took another bite of beans. So far, I was reining in my opinions, at least verbally. I was thinking mean thoughts, though, as usual.
"I'd still like to hire you. To investigate the doctor, and if you want to investigate me, go ahead, I don't care. But I don't want you reporting in to Clayton. I want him out of the mix. I do want to know what those people think they have on me."
"The doctor. The Child Protective Services people. The law. Because I think the accusation is just a blackmail thing."
"Extortion. If you mean that they are threatening you with legal action if you don't back off in regard to what happened with your son and his remains."
"That's exactly what I do mean. And if you think I am guilty "
"I don't believe in it."
"In Munchausen by proxy?"
"That's right. I think it's just another way of society controlling uppity women. Why, do you?"
She held her fork, midair, head cocked to one side. "I think it's probably rare, but yeah, I believe it. I wish I didn't. But I do. But I guarantee you I'm not one of them."
"Did you ever consider the possibility your ex-husband, excuse me, ex-whatever, might be?"
"I thought it was only women."
"I'm sure that's what they'd like you to think."
She put a slice of Caribbean cornbread on her plate and broke off a piece with her fingers. She chewed, a small thread of coconut on her lips. "There's no way Clayton hurt Ned. I promise you, he didn't. I know him that well at least. He truly loved Ned more than anything in the world. He'd have laid down his life, happily and without hesitation, if it would have taken one hour of suffering from our little boy. I have no doubts about Clayton in that way. He loved Ned like he loved his life. He needs to have more children. But he'll never be the same. He wouldn't let me box up any of Ned's things until he moved out. Then he boxed them up and took them with him."
"Was that okay with you?"
"It's not like he asked." She wiped her lips and the coconut disappeared.
"Do you think he seriously suspects you of having something to do with Ned's death?"
She shook her head. "I don't think so."
"Really? Even after tonight?"
"You'd have to know the guy, Lena."
It was funny the way she said my name. It reminded me of the way my sister used to say it. Other things about her were reminding me of Whitney. Her confidence. Her air of knowing what was what.
"He's just trying to cover every base and stay in control of something that scares him shitless. I can understand it. I can let it go. But I want you to work for me. What I need to know is how much you charge. And what you think this case will cost, in the long run."
"I charge fifty-five dollars an hour and pay my own expenses unless something really unusual comes up, or we start getting into travel and airline tickets. Then I'd discuss it with you first."
"Unusual like what?"
"Usually the money starts flying out the window when you hire consultants attorneys, doctors, forensic experts. And I guess if you needed me to fly to, say, Paris, France, or something, I might need you to help out with the airline ticket. Paris, Kentucky, is on me. As to how many hours, it's hard to say. They add up pretty fast. I can always work to your budget as in, stop when the money runs out. Limit my areas of inquiry."
"I have a proposition. How about I give you my car?"
"Yep. And in return, you spend a lot of time following up every possible area of inquiry, and if the case takes weeks or months, you work it. And you take care of all expenses no matter what comes up, including Paris, France."
"You mean the BMW?"
"Yeah. I can sign it into your name tomorrow, if you want to meet me at the courthouse."
"Sounds like I'm being overpaid. Or is there a lien I have to pay off?"
"I own it free and clear. There's no way I can get a good resale value out of it with that big dent in the side. And I don't have any kind of cash available. And I expect to get a lot of work out of you. It would be nice for me to know no matter how expensive it gets, I'm paid up, and I don't need to get Clayton in the middle of it."
"What are you going to do for a car?"
"I have a '94 Jeep Wrangler I was saving for my daughter. It's paid for. I can keep banging around in that. It's what I was driving when I met Clayton. The Roadster used to be his, then he decided to get a new car and the dent took a lot out of the trade-in value so he just gave it to me. And you can sell whatever you're driving now, and keep that money to cover your expenses."
I didn't tell her that would net me about one thousand dollars, if I was lucky.
She shrugged. "Think about it. Have another attorney look over this document." She passed an envelope across the table. "There is a confidentiality thing in this agreement, wherein you agree not to divulge the gist of the conversation the two of you had. You and Clayton."
"I wouldn't do that anyway."
"You did to me."
"That's true. But I wouldn't to anyone else."
"Clayton is what you might call anal. And he can't draft an agreement where he doesn't get some kind of concession. Like you said, he's a lawyer. Also, I had to let him put that in there so he'd draw up this fee document, between you, me, and the BMW."
"I'm seriously tempted."
"I can throw in some free dance lessons, if that would help."
Copyright © 2005 by Lynn Hightower