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The female of the species is more deadly than the male.
Baxter Richardson pried the cork from the wine bottle and tossed it past Rena into the clear, rushing water of the narrow stream. It immediately bobbed to the surface and joined several red and orange leaves drifting unaware toward the nearby waterfall. A few feet before the waterway cascaded over the edge of the cliff a large boulder squatted in the middle of the stream and caused the water to divide in two. It then plunged over the precipice in equal explosions of foaming white that many years before had inspired the name Double-Barrel Falls. Seventy-five feet below, the stream splattered onto several large boulders before it coalesced and continued its journey through the forest toward Lake Jocassee, a cold mountain reservoir that on a clear day could be seen as a hint of blue at the edge of the horizon. Rena Richardson had visited the secluded spot many times, but it was the first trip to the area for her husband Baxter, a sandy-haired, South Carolina coast-dweller with light brown eyes and an easygoing smile.
Baxter filled two clear plastic cups with the deep red liquid and set them on a flat rock in the autumn sun. He emptied his backpack and carefully positioned the rest of the food on a paper napkin beside the wine. The bread had been sliced by a chef at an expensive bakery where they'd bought it early that morning in Greenville. A light wind stirred the air. Rena ran her fingers through her blonde hair and pushed some wayward strands away from her pale blue eyes. She was a month past her twenty-fifth birthday. Baxter, a year older, sliced the soft cheese into chunks with a small knife while Rena watched in silence.
The young couple were alone in the clearing at the top of the waterfall. It was the first hike of their marriage, and they'd not seen another person during the three-mile trek from the trailhead. Soon, as October began, the trees would fully bloom with fall colors, and the number of hikers and tourists coming to the area would increase. This afternoon Baxter and Rena had the wilderness to themselves.
"I'm sorry I didn't bring a white tablecloth or silver candlesticks," Baxter said. "Too much weight for a hike."
Rena didn't answer. She'd been quiet all day. While Baxter strolled along the well-worn path, her thoughts revisited secret images of pain more familiar to her than the bends and twists of the trail. The scars of her soul rivaled the depth of the gorge below them.
Baxter handed her a cup of wine. "What do you want to toast?" he asked.
Rena looked past her husband to the place where she and her brothers had camped with her stepfather. She spoke with an accent that revealed a hint of her Appalachian Mountain roots.
"To the death of childhood monsters."
Baxter gave her a puzzled look. "That's a strange toast. What do you mean?"
"It fits," she responded simply.
Baxter shrugged. Holding up his cup, he proclaimed, "To the death of childhood monsters. Send them over the edge, never to return."
They touched cups and each took a sip.
The bread was chewy and the cheese soft, but even average fare tastes better in the woods after a hike. Baxter quickly drank a cup of wine and poured another. Rena nibbled a piece of bread but wasn't interested in food or drink.
She stared past Baxter. Glimpses of scenes from the past demanded her attention like a pack of wild dogs.
Her stepfather, Vernon Swafford, stood at the edge of the cliff with his back toward her as the sun descended behind the distant hills. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man with black hair swept back and held in place by hair tonic that smelled like stale vinegar. The smoke from his cigarette floated up above his head and lingered for a second before being dispersed by the breeze that blew across the ridge.
Thirteen-year-old Rena crouched in the shadows, trying to find the courage in her teenage soul to leap forward and push him over the edge. She rubbed the back of her leg and felt the tender spot that remained from the last time he'd taken off his belt to teach her a lesson. Her brothers were inside the tent, arguing in loud voices. Their noise would mask her footsteps. She inched closer. Her stepfather flipped the cigarette into the gorge and then immediately took out another one. Rena waited until he lit the fresh cigarette and took a deep drag.
It was her chance. She rose to her feet and took two quick steps. It would be over in a matter of seconds, and she would be free.
"What do you think you're doing, Rena?" Vernon Swafford's low voice stopped her in her tracks. His back was still turned toward her.
"Uh, nothin'," she stammered.
He turned sideways, and Rena could see the glint of evil in his eyes.
"Come over here and don't try to run away. If'n you do, it will only be worse on you later."
Hanging her head, Rena walked slowly forward. When she was within arm's reach, he grabbed her by the back of her cotton shirt, flung her around, and held her out over the edge of the cliff. Rena looked down into the deepening shadows of the gorge and tightly closed her eyes in anticipation of the feeling of falling through the air. Her shirt began to rip. She cried out, and at the sound, her stepfather grabbed her hair with his other hand and set her back on the stony ground. Rena's knees buckled, and she almost fell forward over the edge.
"Be careful," he said with mock concern. "You don't want to fall. It would be an awful mess for someone to clean up."
"I didn't realize how hungry I was until I started eating," Baxter said, oblivious to his beautiful young wife's thoughts. "Being outdoors gives you a big appetite. Do you want any more wine or bread?"
Rena shook her head.
"What's wrong with you?" Baxter responded in frustration.
Rena turned away. "Don't ask."
Baxter reached out and grabbed her arm. "Talk to me! I brought you here because you wanted to come, and then you clam up and act weird about it!"
Rena recoiled and jerked her arm from his grasp. "Don't touch me!"
Baxter's eyes flashed with anger, and Rena saw reflected in her husband's gaze the same malevolent glare that had threatened her in the past. Too much alcohol always brought out the worst in her stepfather, and Baxter's countenance betrayed a companion darkness. Rena's eyes narrowed, and her jaw grew rigid. She was no longer a helpless child without the ability to escape and find security for the future. She stood to her feet.
"Let's go," she said.
Baxter stared at her for a few seconds before turning up his cup of wine and draining it. Any other words would only provoke a fight. He put the remains of their food and the empty wine bottle into his backpack. Rena retrieved their hiking sticks from the place they'd dropped them near the waterfall.
"I'm going to need that stick," Baxter said curtly.
"Come and get it," Rena challenged.
Baxter stood and stepped toward her. She held the stick out toward him but didn't let go when he grabbed one end.
"I'm not interested in playing tug of war," he said.
"Do you want the stick or not?" she shot back.
Baxter pulled harder, but Rena kept a firm grasp on her end of the stick. She moved away from the falls and to her right until her husband's back was toward the edge of the drop-off, his silhouette framed against the panorama of the mountains behind him.
"That's enough, Rena," Baxter said, dropping his end of the stick. "Game over. Let's go. This is not a good place."
Rena didn't answer. Channeling all her rage and misplaced revenge into the stick, she raised it like a battering ram and lunged forward. It hit Baxter squarely in the stomach. He grunted and staggered backward until he was less than two feet from the edge of the cliff. Shock and surprise flashed across his face. His eyes filled with fear.
"No!" he shouted.
Abandoning all pretense of sanity, Rena screamed at the top of her lungs and charged again. The stick glanced off Baxter's chest, moved upward, and gouged a deep swath along the side of his neck. Rena lost her balance and crashed forward into her husband as he teetered on the edge of the cliff. In a last desperate act of survival, he stretched out his right hand and scraped it down Rena's left forearm. He grasped her fingers with his hand for a split second, gave her a frantic look, then slipped over the edge into nothingness. Rena fell to her hands and knees.
Breathing heavily, she listened.
No screams. No sounds. Just the roar of the waterfall plummeting toward the rocks below.
We are betrayed by what is false within.
Dressed in a conservative blue suit with a white, silk blouse, Alexia Lindale scribbled a final note on her legal pad. Known as "Alex" since childhood, the petite attorney with short, dark hair and green eyes took a quick sip of water as she waited for Judge Garland to nod in her direction.
"Ms. Lindale, you may conduct your cross-examination of the witness."
Alex was representing Marilyn Simpson, the estranged wife of Gregory Lamar Simpson, a real-estate developer who was seated in the witness chair. Alex's shoes tapped lightly on the polished wooden floor of the courtroom as she walked slowly to a spot in front of the jury box.
"Thank you, Your Honor," she said in a high-pitched voice that was a shade girlish. She then focused her attention on her adversary.
"Mr. Simpson, how old were you when you met your wife?"
"Seventeen or eighteen."
"Had you graduated from high school?"
"No, we started dating during our senior year. "
"And you testified on direct examination that you were married in August a few months after high-school graduation. Is that correct?"
"Where did you spend the first four years of your married life?"
"In Chapel Hill, North Carolina."
"Why were you living in North Carolina?"
"I was a student at the University of North Carolina."
"Was your wife also in school?"
"No. She worked."
"What type of work?"
"Uh, she had several different jobs. Mostly clerical."
Alex retrieved a stack of papers from the corner of the table where Marilyn Simpson sat watching.
"Did she work more than one job at a time?"
"Occasionally. She liked to stay busy."
"Were you also working?"
"No, I was concentrating on my education."
Alex looked down at the top sheet of paper. "Was one of her employers a law firm in Chapel Hill-Little, Goodman, & Greer?"
"I think so. I don't remember the exact name."
"Did she also work three nights a week as a convenience store clerk?"
"Uh, yes, for a while."
Alex's eyes flashed with a hint of green fire. "Would it surprise you to know that I have employment records showing your wife worked a combined average of fifty-seven hours a week at the law firm and the convenience store for more than two years?"
The witness shifted in the chair. "That sounds like too much, but I remember we bought a new car and needed to make the payments."
Alex took a step forward. "Would you like to review the employment records for yourself?"
"No," he responded quickly. "If the records are accurate, the math should be simple. But she didn't work as much when we started our family."
"When was your first child born?"
"My junior year in college."
"And was she pregnant toward the end of your senior year?"
"Yes, with our second child."
"Did she continue working?"
"Only at the law firm."
"Forty hours a week?"
Simpson looked toward his lawyer, an older attorney named Byron Smith. Smith didn't offer any help, and the witness ran his finger along the inside of his collar.
"Whatever the records show. I don't remember if it was a full-time job or not."
"Did she work outside the home after you graduated from college?"
"Some. It took a while to get my business off the ground, and then she stopped working. Even though I've had a few tough years recently, she hasn't worked in years. I wanted her at home with our kids."
"How long has she been completely dependent on your income?"
He looked up and mentally calculated the passage of time. "About ten years."
"Have you had another child during that time?"
Alex put the employment records on the table and slid a thick folder to a place where it would be handy.
"Mr. Simpson, you testified that for the past three years you've received all of your income from Simpco, a real-estate development company. Is that correct?"
"What does Simpco do?"
"We identify locations for gas stations, obtain options on the land, and market the properties to major oil companies."
"How many parcels of land have you sold in the past three years?"
"Eight. That's why my income has only been around $40,000 a year. I gave Marilyn copies of my business tax returns and asked her to provide them to you."
Alex gave the witness a slight smile. "Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Simpson. I have carefully reviewed each one."
Alex opened the folder and took out a single sheet of paper.
"Are you familiar with a company called Nesbitt Enterprises?"
"Sure, they are a competitor of ours. They do the same thing we do except on a much bigger scale all over the country. They also develop shopping malls."
"Do you have any ownership interest in Nesbitt?"
Alex handed the sheet of paper to the court reporter who marked it as an exhibit. She then showed it to Greg Simpson's lawyer, who put on his glasses, made a few notes, and passed it back to her. Alex moved a few steps closer to Simpson but did not show him the sheet of paper.
"Are you the same G. L. Simpson who is listed as a partner with Nesbitt in an LLC developing a 200,000-square-feet shopping mall in Phoenix, Arizona?"
"That's not directly with Nesbitt."
"Is it part of Simpco?"
"What do Nesbitt's records show as the value of your interest in the LLC?"
Simpson squirmed in his seat and stared at the sheet of paper in Alex's hand before answering. "I'm not sure."
Without showing him the document, Alex returned to the folder and took out another document, which was marked as an exhibit. After showing it to Simpson's lawyer, she handed it directly to the witness.
"What does this page from the minutes of a corporate meeting of Nesbitt's directors indicate as your contribution to the Phoenix project?"
Simpson looked down at the paper and didn't answer.
"Take your time, Mr. Simpson," Alex interjected. "I want you to be sure about your answer."
Simpson cleared his throat. "Two parcels of land worth $450,000."
Alex picked up the first sheet of paper and handed it to the witness. "And what is the estimated value of your share at the beginning of this fiscal year?"
"$925,000. But that's highly speculative."
"Would you be willing to transfer your interest in the LLC to your wife as part of the property division in this case and let her bear the risk of loss?"
Simpson's face grew red. "Who told you-," he sputtered.
Byron Smith stood to his feet. "Objection, Your Honor."
"On what grounds?" the judge asked.
"May we approach the bench?" Smith requested.
Alex joined Smith in front of the judge.
In an intense whisper, the older lawyer began, "I didn't know about this-"
"Because his client didn't tell him," Alex responded dryly. "He probably didn't tell him how he was able to buy two pieces of real estate worth $450,000 on a $40,000 a year income."
"Can we take a break so I can talk to my client?" Smith asked.
The judge frowned. "Ms. Lindale has him on cross-examination."
"Then can we have a session with the court in chambers?" Smith asked.
"That's fine with me," Alex said.
The judge raised his head. "Very well. Court will be in recess for fifteen minutes while I consult with the attorneys. Mr. Simpson, you may leave the witness stand but may not consult with anyone."
Alex gathered the files from her table. Marilyn Simpson leaned forward. "What's happening?" she asked.
"They're on the run and want the judge to help them out of it. I'll be back in a few minutes."
The two lawyers followed Judge Garland from the courtroom to his chambers. The judge took off his robe and hung it on a hook behind the door.
"Alright," the judge said. "What do you want to discuss?"
Smith began, "Your Honor, Ms. Lindale's allegations regarding my client's financial status were not revealed in pretrial discovery. I need a continuance to review the records she is using to cross-examine Mr. Simpson."
"Did you ask her to provide this information?" the judge asked.
"Yes, I requested all documents supporting her client's claims for child support and alimony."
The judge looked at Alex. "Your response?"
Alex opened one of her folders. "The request for production of documents states 'all financial, personal, or business records of the party which in any way support her claims for child support and alimony.' The request is for Mrs. Simpson's records, not those of her husband. I furnished her records to Mr. Smith within the time required by the rules; Mr. Simpson's decision not to provide his attorney with his records was not my responsibility."
"Let me see," the judge responded.
Alex handed him the information. Both lawyers waited while the judge quickly read the filings.
"Very well," he said. "I'm going to allow Ms. Lindale to proceed with her questioning."
Smith hesitated and then looked at Alex.
"What do you want?" the lawyer asked.
Alex was ready. "One-half of his interest in the LLC together with another $250,000 in cash. Child support of $2,000 a month per child through college with comprehensive health insurance and payment of four years' tuition at the South Carolina average for private institutions at the time each child begins matriculation. Alimony of another $7,500 a month for five years or until my client remarries, whichever comes first, and total indemnification for any unpaid taxes on returns through the current tax year."
The older lawyer's face flushed. "My client doesn't have that kind of cash or income flow. There had better be plenty of room for negotiation."
"Not at this point." Alex patted the folder in her lap. "Tell him I know about KalGo and see if he agrees."
Forty-five minutes later the judge dismissed the jury and put the terms of the agreement on the record with the court reporter. There had been no further negotiation. Greg Simpson had raised a white surrender flag rather than face further dissection of his secret business dealings. When Simpson capitulated, Alex agreed that the court reporter need not prepare a transcript of anything except the terms of the settlement. There would be no hot trail for the IRS to follow. Alex walked triumphantly from the courtroom. Marilyn Simpson joined her.
Alex turned to her client. "I'll prepare a property settlement, alimony, and child support agreement consistent with what was stated in court and send it to your husband's lawyer by the first of next week."
"Can he back out of it?"
"Not without risking jail for contempt of court. The basic terms of the agreement are on the record in front of the judge. It's all out in the open now."
Greg Simpson and his attorney exited the courtroom and brushed past Alex and Marilyn without speaking. Her face sad, Marilyn watched her soon-to-be ex-husband as he retreated in defeat.
Alex noticed and asked, "What is it?"
"Did I do the right thing?" Marilyn asked.
"Of course," Alex responded curtly. "You're getting a good settlement for yourself and your children. Your husband made his choice when he filed for the divorce."
"I know, but it doesn't feel as satisfying as I thought it would."
Alex softened. "It's impossible to put a price tag on a broken relationship, but it will feel better when you get the checks every month and don't have to go back to work at a convenience store. I've seen too many women who didn't seize the opportunity to get what they deserved and lived to regret it."
"I'm sure you're right." Marilyn sighed. "I'm just hurt. Knowing he intended to hide all that money even when he was under oath made me wonder what else wasn't right in our marriage."
Alex didn't answer. Her private investigator was sure Greg Simpson had a mistress in Savannah but couldn't connect the dots before the case was called for trial. Without proof, Alex didn't burden Marilyn Simpson with rumors of adultery. Clients who suspected their husbands of infidelity often told Alex that not knowing the truth was worse than having their suspicions confirmed; however, when incriminating photographs left no doubt of unfaithfulness, the women's reactions to the stark reality of betrayal always exceeded their previous concerns. When fully exposed, the face of evil is always worse than imagined. In Marilyn Simpson's case, adultery wouldn't have made a difference. Alex knew modern-day divorce proceedings focused on money, not morality.
Lawyer and client parted in front of the courthouse. Marilyn walked toward a blue minivan. Alex unlocked the door of her silver BMW and put the thick folder that contained the Simpson file in the passenger seat.
The afternoon weather in Santee was the type natives loved and tourists avoided. It was cold enough that the summer's insect horde was no longer poised to feast on every inch of exposed human flesh and too cool for visitors to splash in the ocean that lay five miles to the east. Alex had a native's perspective. The death of the insects grown fat on the flesh of hundreds of thousands of people who flocked to the Grand Strand every year was a welcome event. The cooler weather also didn't keep Alex out of the water; it beckoned her to spend more time on the marsh and in the ocean.
Growing up, Alex had lived in four states and two foreign countries, but her favorite place on earth was the South Carolina coast. The five years her family lived in Charleston had been the happiest of her life. So during her second year of law school at the University of Florida, she spread out a map on the kitchen table in her tiny apartment and drew a line fifty miles up and down the East Coast with Charleston in the middle. The line became the area where she focused her job search.
Because her grades were not good enough to open the door to a prestigious Charleston law firm, she began exploring opportunities in smaller communities where female lawyers would have been an anomaly thirty years before but now occupied a recognized niche in the legal field, especially in domestic relations practice. Many women embroiled in a divorce were fed up with men in general and wanted a female attorney to represent them when litigating with deadbeat husbands. With her strong sense of justice and willingness to represent the underdog, Alex quickly developed a reputation as a divorce specialist who had a knack for ferreting out information that obtained a better result for her clients. When Marilyn Simpson's pain subsided, she would tell her friends about her lawyer's exploits, and the steady flow of clients into Alex's office would continue.
Alex had clerked for Leggitt & Freeman in Santee during the summer following her second year in law school. Pleased with her work, the firm had offered her a job before she returned to Gainesville for her final year of study. Six years later at the age of thirty-two she was on the verge of attaining partnership status. Alex's monthly draw as a partner would be less than her current salary, but she would have the opportunity to share in the larger pie of the firm's total revenue when it was divided each December. Prestige as a partner was an additional, intangible benefit.
It was a three-minute drive from the courthouse to her office. Leggitt & Freeman occupied a single-story, cream-colored stucco building set amid palmetto trees and surrounded by large clumps of dune grass. Everything about the office was designed to create an image of stability and prosperity. A branch bank stood across the street and a fancy café was a few doors down. Banks, boutiques, restaurants, and real-estate offices had proliferated in the area as development spread inland from the crowded coastal area. Santee was too far from the beach to advertise itself as an oceanside resort, but local business leaders had found a lucrative and less messy alternative to hordes of ill-tempered tourists-golfing communities.
They were everywhere. Fields that had been farmed by tenant farmers for generations now boasted million-dollar homes overlooking lush fairways. People with accents as homogenized as those of TV actors and actresses shopped at new stores owned by national chains. There were retirees from the northeast who viewed the price of large homes in South Carolina as a bargain and people from other areas of the South who had dreamed of living near the beaches where they had vacationed when their children were small. Wherever they came from, the new residents bought homes in the golfing communities. Some actually played golf, but most just wanted to live in a relaxed, upscale environment.
Alex opened the front door of the office and stepped into the reception area. Except for sea scenes on the walls, the waiting room didn't reflect anything about the coast. A deep red, oriental rug was surrounded by leather couches and chairs. On one wall hung high-quality photographs of all the partners who had worked at the firm since it was founded by Mr. Leggitt's father before World War II. Each man's name was engraved on a small brass plate on the bottom of the frame. It was an unusual feature, more suited to a boardroom than a law office, but Mr. Leggitt's father had started the tradition, and like most traditions, it had developed an inertia that perpetuated the practice. Once she became a partner, Alex's picture would join the others-the first woman on the wall.
Alex's office was on the back side of the building. Her secretary was Gwen Jones, a slightly overweight woman in her fifties who dyed her hair a reddish brown, always dressed in bright colors, and kept a perpetual tan. At the sound of Alex's footsteps, Gwen looked up in surprise.
"What happened?" she asked. "I didn't expect to see you until after the jury went home for the night."
Alex responded with a small, triumphant smile. "We settled it. Marilyn is set for life."
"Thanks. It felt good. Up to the last minute, I wondered if Greg Simpson had an escape hatch, but he was busted in open court. Do you have time to type the settlement documents if I dictate them this afternoon?"
Gwen pointed a ring-bedecked finger toward Leonard Mitchell's office. "L. M. loaded me down with paperwork for a deal he's trying to put together. I don't know when he needs it, but he acted like it was a rush job. Do you want me to talk to him?"
"No," Alex responded.
Alex often faced resistance when she asked the partner to set aside his work so Gwen could help her on an urgent matter.
"It will be easier to do it myself."
Alex went into her office and shut the door. The exposé of Greg Simpson's hidden business dealings had been one of the more dramatic triumphs of her career. It wouldn't be reported in the local newspaper, but by the end of the week the legal community would be buzzing with the result. Simpson was a sleazy cheat, but it's rarely possible to neatly unravel a web of deception. Alex didn't have a complete picture of Simpson's involvement with KalGo, but after the exposure of the Nesbitt deal, Byron Smith wasn't willing to call her bluff. The questions in court were routine; the hard work had been the behind-the-scenes investigation.
Alex had personalized her office with items collected from all over the world. It was like a mini-museum. On one end of her credenza crouched a primitive sculpture of a roaring lion she'd bought in Tanzania. On the other end rested a hand-painted tray from the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. An intricate tapestry from Greece adorned one wall, and a collage of photographs of Alex in front of famous buildings across Europe decorated another. Most of her early travels were with her mother. Lately, she'd been sojourning on her own. After the hectic pace of life at the office, she longed for times of prolonged solitude.
For more than a year, a picture of her former fiancé, Jason Favreau, had occupied the place of highest prominence on the front corner of her desk. Jason, a tall, dark-haired engineer, shared enough common denominators with Alex that most computer dating services would have predicted a storybook romance. Both had international pedigrees: Alex's mother was a Russian who defected to the United States in the 1960s and married a man from Ohio, while Jason's father was a Frenchman who married a woman from California. Jason was fluent in French, and Alex spoke passable Russian. They both loved to travel, read, swim, and listen to classical music.
Shortly after their engagement, Jason went to Marseille to supervise a large construction project. Ten weeks passed with excruciating slowness until Alex was scheduled to fly over for a five-day visit. The night before she was to leave, Jason called and told her not to come. One of his father's cousins had introduced him to a French girl, and they were in love. Two months later, they married and moved to Quebec.
After her tears dried, Alex tore up Jason's picture and scattered the pieces in the ocean, but a measure of pain remained. Having experienced betrayal and misplaced trust, her empathy for her jilted clients increased, and she poured herself more fiercely into her work. Her daily diet of divorce work soured Alex's taste for romantic relationships, and her mother was worried that she'd be an old maid. Alex deflected her comments with statements that she was too busy for men and needed time to forget what had happened. In any event, the sampling of suitable men in Santee for a woman like Alex was sparse.
She turned on her computer. A fast typist, she was almost through with the first draft of the Simpson agreement when the light for an interoffice call came on and the phone buzzed. It was Mr. Leggitt.
"Alex, I heard about your exploits in court today," the senior partner said. "Can you come to my office? I have something important to discuss with you."
"Yes, sir. I'm finishing up the agreement. I'll be there in a few minutes."
Alex smiled. Her marriage to Jason Favreau hadn't worked out, but her partnership with Leggitt & Freeman was about to be consummated.