Lots of words on what should be an image

“Murder or the attempt thereof often occurs while others sleep.”   Rod Cavanaugh was a regular guy. A criminal lawyer, he adores his girls and loves his scotch. He thought he had enough to deal with when the bottom fell out of his marriage and his family splintered   –  but that was before he became the target in a deadly game that put everyone he loved at risk.  Only Cavanaugh can stop the carnage, uncover the evil. But the price to pay may be innocence itself.

“I’ve got a job for you.” Rod put the pencil down, looked at Barry, took a few seconds to allow the tangled coils of his mind to unwind. Then he said: “Check with Tommy Edwards to see if he can join us at four today. I’ve got some trouble with a guy named Slugger.”

The rebuilt Jaguar XKE was flawless, the engine roared, and there was not a dent in a fender or a rattle in the dash. He restored it from the axles to the convertible top and repainted it in the original pale moss green, a color that understated the car’s power and grace. The Jag slipped over the pavement like a ball bearing across a concrete floor, its twelve raucous cylinders rumbling and shaking the gearbox, while he held it back. The drive home took seven minutes.

Rod timed his arrival to coincide with Natalie’s return from school. This was her early out day. Her routine had become a habit since she moved in with him nine months ago. Home after school, feed the cat, change to lounge clothes, half an hour on the phone with friends, and then lie prone with her books within reach on her bed.  Brindle, her cat, either roamed outside or slept with Nat, choosing to enter and exit from the window.

Each day after work, Rod climbed the stairs to her room, a long, narrow space cut into the attic with gable windows on both ends. If she was still studying or texting, he’d hang there, laboring to engage in small talk while she struggled to be civil with one-word replies. At times, he’d find the room empty, she had disappeared from right under his nose.   She often ignored the rule to tell him where she was going.

Today, she was in the kitchen with her cat circling her feet.  She clutched the box of Cheerios, her blonde ponytail draped over her front shoulder. When she looked up, she took his breath away. Those large oyster eyes inset with dark medallions, gemstones against flawless ivory skin. As stunning as a Norwegian princess. Stunning to her father. Each time a surprise.

“Hi, hon.”

“Dad.”

“So what’s going on . . . school OK today?”  Rod moved to the cabinet storing the canned goods.

She ignored the small talk and pinched her shoulders in a warning for him to keep his distance.

“Have you heard from your mother or Kera?” He opened a cabinet door to fish out a can of tuna.

“I suppose you want to know what Mom’s saying about you.” She dipped one narrow shoulder, and inclined her head, looking at him for a reaction, dripping with disdain.

He chose to ignore it. Struggled with the can opener. It was refusing to bite into the lid. Then a small whoosh sounded from the tin, and the smell of fish swimming into the room like cannery row when the boats come in. He flipped the tin top into the sink like a Frisbee. Brindle jumped up to the counter and put her nose in the sink, knowing when he was done she could eat what was left in the can.

He chewed the dry albacore and swallowed. “It’s been awhile since you’ve talked to her, that’s all. I was hoping you guys patched it up.”

“Patched what up, Dad? Patched up her lies about you, and everything around you—including me? Yeah, all that’s just peachy. Glad you asked.”

“Honey, I wasn’t picking a fight.”

Rod took another forkful and chewed. He had lost his appetite. The tuna can followed the Frisbee lid into the sink, clanging and startling Brindle. He sighed, reached carefully, pushing Brindle aside, and put the can on the counter under her nose. He placed the lid in the trash bag under the sink.

He didn’t have the stamina for this. And it would only get worse. Brindle ate lustily.  He nodded to Natalie and walked back to the entry hall where he grabbed his overcoat.

“I’ll be home early, by six.”

A brisk east wind whipped through the open door and forced him to dip his head and blink. “If you’d like to go out for dinner, we can do that,” he called over his shoulder.

NATALIE WAS an enigma, and then again, she wasn’t. Perhaps that’s a bit melodramatic, he thought. But she did say that he ruined her life, and she wasn’t out of the woods yet. Nat could easily slip into serious trouble again.

Before the separation, it seemed most days were sunny on Fairmount Hill. They lived a few doors down from the governor’s mansion in the quiet old-town neighborhood of the well-to-do. Unlike the hovels of his childhood, his children lived in a home that would have pleased television set designers. A Father Knows Best kind of life. He and Julianne created what they believed was a wholesome, normal home. And it worked.  Until it didn’t.

It all unraveled without warning. Kera was getting ready for college, eager to leave the nest, and excited by her prospects. Natalie was fourteen then, a straight A student, active, athletic, and thriving. But there had been an edge to Nat for a year or two. She didn’t want to go on vacation with the family, and clearly disliked it when he offered to shoot hoops with her, although she practiced for hours alone. His attempts to communicate were stalled by monosyllabic, angry responses, which he attributed to early adolescence and the changing moods of girls. Other than Natalie’s moodiness, things were fine. Even Julianne had modified her expectations of the status and money that she thought came with being an attorney’s wife. The accumulating wealth of business lawyers was never seen by criminal lawyers.

He had been at the office when Julianne called.

“Rod, you’ve got to come home. It’s Natalie,” Jules blurted out. Then she lowered her voice, conspiratorially, a whisper like sand over stone, “Rod, I came across her diary. I know what you told me, but she left it under her bed. I just couldn’t resist.”

“Under her bed? What’s irresistible about that?”

“This is urgent! Don’t go after me. She’s vomiting.”

“Huh?”

“On purpose. She puts her finger down her throat!”

“What?”

“It’s in the diary. When I confronted her, she yelled at me. Yelled and yelled. I tried to find out what’s going on, but she just wants you. This is serious.”

He was sure it wasn’t true. Not this girl. Not Natalie.

“Settle down. It’ll be OK.  I’ll be home in ten minutes. I’m on my way.”

Natalie’s bed was tucked under the low ceiling of the dormer, where she was lying on her stomach with her head buried in her pillow. Julianne leaned against the wall beside her, red-faced and alarmed, the diary still in her shaking hand. Rod took the diary and placed it on the nightstand.

“Hey, Nat. Mom tells me you want to talk. Julianne, could you please step out for a minute?” He waited for the door latch to click shut, and then sat down beside his daughter.

“OK babe, we’re alone. What’s happening here?”

Natalie turned over to face him. She wiped tears from her large, dark, beautifully sad eyes with her child-like knuckles. Then she sat up, pulling her knees to her chest, hugging them, rocking back and forth in lamentation like a woman grieving over a child. Tears freely flowing. She tried to speak, gulping short hacking breaths that racked her chest, her lovely plate-smooth cheeks against gnashed teeth. Looking into her father’s eyes, blinking long wet lashes, her lips began to quiver. And then she spoke.

“Why didn’t you know? Why didn’t you stop me?”

The Court Martial of Darren Sweet:  published in Sixfold, winter 2018
Escape from Waycross:  published in Beckoning,  NSW, Calif. Writers Club,  Spring 2018

 

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