Thursday, August 23, 2012

Chapter 82: Hurt All Over Again

An intruder has breached the sanctity of Justin's backyard.

"What's that?" Eleanor asks, approached by Justin's new friend when she comes home from work.

"A cat," Justin answers, like it wasn't completely obvious, not looking up from the cutting board as he chops the vegetables for dinner.

"Well, yes, I can see that," Eleanor laughs lightly, "What's he doing here?"

"I found him outside, and decided to keep him. I'm calling him Heathcliff."

"After the cartoon cat?" Eleanor asks, a little dubious.

"My sister used to say that someday I'd grow up to be someone's Heathcliff," Justin answers with a shrug, "I had no idea it was a cartoon cat."

"I think she was referring to an entirely different Heathcliff," Eleanor say with a slight smile that Justin doesn't see, his attention focused on dinner preparation.

"Speaking of your sister..." Eleanor starts, taking advantage of his mention of Jeanette to broach the topic she wants to get to.

"We're not speaking of my sister," Justin says flatly.

Eleanor sighs, wishing this were easier. Though she was always an avid reader, she tore through his sister's novel in record time, searching for insight into Justin's past. Although it was a great novel to read, Eleanor found herself disappointed by the lack of information about her lover. After the opening scene, the focus of the book remained on the female protagonist who spent years trying to find her unknown father and her lost brother. And even that doesn't count as any kind of conclusive truth, for the book ends with the protagonist finding her brother on death row and witnessing his execution without his ever knowing she was there. Obviously a fictionalization, despite the very real detail of the opening scene of the prom night fight.

"What if Jeanette looked for you?" Eleanor presses, "Maybe if you could see her, talk to her..."

"What good would that do me now?" Justin asks, not turning to her at all as he speaks.

"She comes up all the time, Justin," Eleanor says, "She was obviously very important to you."

"She was important to me," Justin says, his stiff posture telling her he's about to shut her down. But after a moment, his shoulders drop and his stance becomes more relaxed, and though he still won't face her as he speaks, his voice is gentle, "Look, it took me years to get over losing her. I never trusted anyone after that. Until you. And you've more than replaced her. I don't need a sister, I have a...I have you."

When they sit down for dinner, Eleanor considers telling him about the book. If he knew Jeanette had searched for him, he might feel differently about it.

But she holds this information back, not knowing how much of the book was fictionalized. She can't say for sure that Jeanette did ever search for her brother. it might just have been a plot idea inspired by her past.

While Eleanor clears the dishes, Justin puts away the leftovers. He's had something he's wanted to talk about since she got home, and now's his chance.

"Princess, I don't need a birth certificate if we got married in Nevada," he tells her, "I looked it up online. My ID is faked, but it's good enough to pass."

"You want to get married?" she asks, surprised at the sudden turn in conversation.

"I still think the whole thing is kind of bullshit," he says, "People blow off their marriages all the time. But, you're more to me than a girlfriend, and, well..." There really aren't the words to explain how he feels about it, why this suddenly matters to him. "I just want you, as much as I can have you."

The next day in her office at the gallery, Eleanor makes a phone call to Jeanette's agent.

"My client is very reclusive, Ms. Thorne," the agent says, "I'm afraid she isn't interested in talking to anyone."

Just like her brother, Eleanor thinks with a wry smile, "Tell her I have information about Justin." In the book, Jeanette called her brother Jake and herself Jennifer, so she won't think Eleanor is some crackpot when she gets a message about Justin. "She can contact me if she's interested in that."

Eleanor hangs up, hoping she's doing the right thing. Despite his claims to be past needing his sister, the constant way she turns up in his conversation tells her otherwise. But before she lets this woman near Justin, she's going to make sure the reunion will be in his favor, that Jeanette will welcome him with an open heart, ready to forgive. If she gets even the slightest sense that Jeanette bears any anger or ill will toward her brother, she will pull out of this deal immediately. She won't see him hurt all over again.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Chapter 81: I'll Be There

"Let me take your shoes off," Rainier says as Portia stretches her leg out onto his lap.

Her shoes drop to the floor and she gives a little moan as Rainier massages her foot. She smiles, just a little, and that in turn makes him smile, because it's been days since he's seen any hint of happiness from her.

It doesn't last long, of course. They only just returned from her mother's funeral, and grief hangs in the air.

"It's like I never even knew her," Portia say, tears welling up again, her smile gone. The police reports have been made public, and Portia has had to learn more about her mother than any girl should know.  "How did this happen? What went wrong?"

There aren't any answers to questions like those, so Rainier doesn't even attempt it. All he can do is hold her as she cries, soothe her words with mean nothing, and wait for time to dull the pain.

"The public defender he's been assigned is one of the worst lawyers I've even encountered," Corrine says, "He's going down, there's no doubt about that."

Bill nods vacantly. Though Corrine has often brought his family's legal issues into bed, it only now feels wrong to talk about anything to do with his wife while he's with her. It's only a few days after Mercedes is buried that LAPD catches the prostitute she had been with on her last day of life in a sting operation. If nothing else, he'll be convicted for prostitution and drug possession, but the D.A. wants a manslaughter charge;there haven't been any high profile gang arrests lately, and elections are coming up.

"Bring your crying daughter to the witness stand, and manslaughter is a slam dunk," Corrine continues.

"Portia stays out of this," Bill says, turning to sweep Corrine down against the pillows, "If I were here to talk business," he says, "I would have met you in my office."

It's past midnight, and Rainier is working at home, trying to make up for the hours he's lost by being with Portia during this family crisis.

"My father hasn't come home yet, and his phone is kicking me straight to voice mail," Portia sobs into his phone as soon as he answers its ring. "I'm so afraid, something has happened to him. my mother."

"I'll be right there."

She greets him with a tight embrace when he arrives, crying onto his shoulder. "I called the police, but they said they can't do anything," she sobs.

"I'm sure he's fine," Rainier assures her as they sit together in Bill's office to wait. He suspects, but doesn't say, that he's probably with someone, that his phone has been turned off so he's not interrupted. "He'll be home any time now, you'll see."

Portia tries to share his optimism, but her fears won't dispel so easily, and in moments she's crying again. "What if...what if he's lying unconscious somewhere? He might die while we're just sitting here," she sobs.

"Don't do this to yourself," he says softly, caressing her neck, "This is hard for you, I know, losing your mother. And it's hard for him to, to lose his wife. He just might need some time to himself. When my father..." Rainier starts, but drops it just as quickly.

"When your father what?" she prompts him, he tears momentarily drying as her curiosity takes hold.

It's not something Rainier likes to talk about, but if it will distract her from her own fears and misery for even a moment, it's worth reliving it for her. "My father had a hard time after my mother died," he tells her, "He stopped working, stopped living, really, beyond just going through the motions. He'd disappear for days, sometimes. It got so bad, I had to go live with my aunt. He didn't like being around me, because I reminded him of what he lost."

"That's so sad," Portia whispers, "What happened to him?"

"He became ill," Rainier says vaguely, because telling her how his father drank himself to death probably isn't the best thing to help her right now.

He tilts her face toward him for a gentle kiss, "Don't worry about your father. He's a strong man, and he loves you. Everything will be all right," he promises.

He coaxes her  down to rest her head on his lap, holding her while the hours pass. With every minute that goes by, Rainier's anger grows. Though he spoke to her of patience and tolerance, Rainier has neither for a man that would leave his child sleepless with worry, without so much as calling her with some excuse for his absence.

When Portia finally drops off into sleep, Rainier carries her up to her bed.

She makes a feeble protest as he lays her down, insisting that she wants to wait for her father, but he shushes her with a kiss and a caress. "You need to sleep," he whispers, "I'll wait for your father."

It's yet another hour of waiting alone before Bill comes in. Rainier confronts him as soon as he's in the door. 

"What are you doing here?" Bill demands.

"I'm here because your daughter called me. She's been sick with worry all night, afraid you were dead in some hotel room. What were thinking, staying out all night without letting her know you'd be gone?"

"This is none of your business!" Bill yells at him.

"Anything to do with Portia is my business," Rainier answers, his voice cold, hard and edged with anger. "I don't care what you were doing, or who you were doing it with, but you can't just leave Portia here to worry about you like that."

The words cut through Bill, sharpened by his own guilt. He fell asleep with Corrine, but that's no excuse. His long standing affair surely contributed to the growing distance between himself and his wife. If he had been with her more, rather than with his lover, if he'd been paying attention to her, he might have seen the signs. The self doubt eats at him, and he knows he's in the wrong here, but he can't bring himself to admit it, and instead turns the anger outward toward the man accusing him of the crime he knows damn well he's committed.

"Get out," Bill snarls, "Out of my house. Out of my life."

"I'll go, for now," Rainier says, walking out the door, "But I'll never be out of your life. Remember this; I'm the one your daughter calls when you've failed her."

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Chapter 80: Every Dark Corner

Eleanor is awakened by a hard kick to her thigh. Justin moans and growls as he writhes in his sleep.

She shakes his shoulders, trying to free him from the nightmare's grasp. "I'm sorry, Jen," he groans, still asleep, "He was hurting you. I'm sorry."

His words...she's heard them before. Not from Justin, she's never seen him have a nightmare like this. Normally, he sleeps as peaceful and solid as a stone. Where had she heard it from then, if not him? A moment's reflection recalls it, spoken by a character in a book she just started reading, Now Return and Weep for Me, by Jayne Rivers. How would Justin know that, she wonders, he doesn't read himself, and this book was released just this month, far too recently to be one of the many novels his sister condensed for him.

Justin snaps awake, startled and confused.

"You were having a nightmare," Eleanor says gently. Even if he had read that scene in her book, why would he have such a reaction to it? Of course, if he had lived that scene himself in his youth, if the author Jayne Rivers was actually his sister Jeanette..."You were talking in your sleep," Eleanor says, "You said 'I'm sorry, Jen He was hurting you.' What were you dreaming about?"

"Nothing," Justin grunts, getting out of bed.

Switching on a lamp, Eleanor follows him across the bed, grabbing him before he can escape.

"It wasn't nothing," she says, holding him tight across his chest, "Being questioned by the police triggered something, made you remember and gave you that nightmare," she guesses, "Whatever it was, it's eating at you, has been eating at you for years. You need to talk about it, tiger. Not to satisfy my curiosity, but for your own sake."

Justin remembers a story his sister once told him, about people who lived chained up in a cave they never left. All they saw of the world were shadows on the wall. Until one day one of them was released and saw reality for the first time...he's like that man, he thinks, living his life in darkness until she came and released him. He lives in her world now, but he still carries that cave within him, and he'll never be truly free until she swept through every dark corner and illuminated it.

"It's not pretty," Justin warns her as lays back into the bed beside her,  giving her a chance to back out before he gets into it, "Are you sure you want to know?"

"I wasn't expecting it to be pretty," she soothes, "I want you to share everything with me, even the dark, ugly parts. I can only love you if I know you." 

"It was prom night," he says, and Eleanor draws in a breath. Just that much and he's confirmed her suspicion, that the book she's reading tells his story. But she says nothing, allowing him to tell it in his own words, not knowing she's read his sister's account of it already. "Not for me, I didn't bother with that crap. Plus, I was a sophmore. Jeanette was a senior, it was her prom.  While the prom was going on, I was in the school parking lot. One of the seniors had a car I'd wanted to joy ride for a long time, and this was my opportunity. I used to do that, hot wire cars and take them for rides."

"While I was working on the lock, Jeanette and her date were outside, making out against the wall."

"Then, I see her pushing him away."

"I hear her telling him no, to get off her."

"And I step in because I'm not letting this jerk ass hurt my sister."

"I'd been in fights before. Hell, my whole school experience was just a series of fights. But this time was different, This time, I lost control. I'd beaten this kid to the ground, but I just couldn't stop myself. I kept going at it. Other kids had come out by then, they were all yelling at me to stop, and Jeanette was crying, begging me to get a hold of myself."

"But I couldn't get a hold of myself. I wanted to stop, I knew I had to stop...but I had no control over it. If the cops hadn't come and pulled me off him, I would have kept going until he was dead."

"While I was being cuffed, I saw my sister, crouched up against the wall, crying. I tried to tell her I was sorry, that I was just trying to protect her."

"Our home life was messed up, to say the least. Neither of us knew our fathers, and our mother was rarely around, and when she was there physically, she was somewhere else mentally, drunk or high. Jeanette and I, we were tight, we relied on each other, understood each other, were there for each other. She was the only thing I had, the only person I could talk to. And that night, I broke her. I ruined everything. I saw it in her face while I was on the ground, the cop's knee in my back. I lost her, forever."

"They put me in some hospital or something. I had doctors asking me questions, hooking me up to machines and looking at my brain. The kid's parents wanted me to be tried as an adult. The school wanted to see me locked up in the nut house. I really didn't give a shit about what was going on, all I cared about was that Jeanette wouldn't talk to me. She refused to visit, and when they'd let me call home, she wouldn't speak to me. I was alone, really alone. I was going to be alone forever. Once I accepted that, I made an escape plan, and got the hell out of there before they locked me away for good."

"You aren't alone anymore," Eleanor says, stroking his face, "I'm with you."

"I know," Justin answers, "Don't ever leave me."

Eleanor snuggles against him, laying her head against his chest. "It's been a long time, maybe Jeanette has forgiven you," she suggests gently, not sure if she should tell him about her book, that she'd read the story of the brutal prom night beating before he revealed it to her, "Maybe you should try to contact her."

"No," he says, "I let her go a long time ago. There's no going back."

Eleanor doesn't argue or insist, but she can't let the idea go that easily.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Chapter 79: The Wall is All You Have to Cling to

"I heard what that cop said to my father; she was with another man," Portia says, tears forming again after she'd just managed to stop crying, "How could she do that?"

"Don't dwell on that now, chère," Rainier advises in a gentle whisper, "We don't know all the facts yet." It's hard for him to be anything but blunt, but he's trying to soften the harsh truth for her.

It's a lot to take in, her mother overdosed in a hotel room where she'd been sleeping with another man. A man who apparently left her for dead. Portia still clings to the hope that her mother will survive, but collapses in tears at the thought that she might not. Rainier was in that position himself, when he was much younger, and he knows what it means to grasp an irrational hope and refuse to let it go.

Won out from her emotions, she falls asleep before they've heard anything from her father.

Once she's deep into sleep, Rainier quietly slips off her bed and naps on her couch nearby, ready to come to her if she wakes and needs his shoulder to cry on. He sleeps fitfully, dreaming about his mother, the return of a recurring dream that had finally left him years ago, the one where they find a cure, just in time to save her, but when they go to give it to her, she's already gone, disappeared rather than dead, and the dream becomes a nightmare as he and his father search for her in vain.

It's Bill that wakes him in the early hours before dawn. Rainier sits up as Bill falls heavily into the seat beside him, like all the weight of the world bears down on him.

Bill doesn't say anything, he doesn't have to, Rainier can see it on his face. He wears the same expression his father wore when he came to tell his son that his mother had passed, an empty expression, like part of him had died along with his spouse.

"I'm sorry," Rainier says, because it's what you are supposed to say. He remembers people saying that to him, and he'd resented every last one of them for their clumsy sympathy. But he was a child then and didn't understand the rules of adult society, that scripts they'd memorize and perform for these situations were like walls erected to shut out their pain, to keep their carefully constructed worlds from collapsing. Children have no use for such walls, but as an adult, sometimes the wall is all you have to cling to in times of trouble.

Bill nods, an automatic response. "We have several guest rooms," he offers, "You don't have to sleep on the couch."

"I'd rather stay here. If she wakes up..."

Bill nods again, and claps a hand on Rainier's knee as he rises, "You'll tell her?" he asks in a small voice, "I don't think I can."

"I will," Rainier promises, not looking forward to the task.

He doesn't get any real sleep, and he wakes early to make breakfast for them, hoping he can get Portia to eat something before he has to tell her the bad knews. She was too upset to take any dinner the night before, and once she learns her mother has died, she won't be able to eat for the rest of the day.

"There you are," she says as she joins him in the kitchen, "You made waffles."

"You should eat something," he says gently, leading her to he breakfast table.

"Did my father come home last night?" she asks, stopping before she sits.

"He did," Rainier answers truthfully, though he wishes he could put this off until after she's eaten something.

"Did he say anything to you?' she asks, her voice quiet and trembling, "Is my mother...?" Her face falls as she reads it in his eyes, "Oh, no," she gasps.

She falls into his arms sobbing, and Rainier holds her and whispers soothing nothings as the waffles grow cold.

Chavez drops the forensics report on Ulises' desk. "Nothing," he grumbles, "Whoever she was with has no record."

Ulises leans back in his chair. The victim died during the night, making this investigation officially a homicide. And they have so little to go on; people in the adjoining rooms heard her calling the name 'Justin' and a bellboy reported seeing a man he described as muscular, brown hair, tanned and tattooed hurrying down the hallway in a suspicious manner that afternoon.

"Listen," Chavez says, his voice grown quiet, "You didn't hear this from me, but the word from IA is they're not going to investigate."

Ulises sighs in relief. Esparza and Ancelotti's deaths in his house had raised a lot of questions, questions Ulises was dong his damnedest to dodge. An Internal Affairs investigation into the real reason Esparza had targeted his family could have destroyed him, and ruined the happiness Heather had finally regained.

"You know we're all with you," Chavez says, "You took out the garbage."

As much as he hates bothering the family with his business, it has to be done. He has no leads whatsoever on the identity of Mercedes Arthag's lover, and he has no choice but to pump her husband and daughter for any clues they might have. Not that he expects much, the woman was running around behind her husband's back and it'd extremely unlikely she told her family who she was spending her afternoons with. But if her lover happened to be an acquaintance of the family...

"We don't know anyone named Justin," Bill says.

"No one at all?" Ulises presses.

"Wait, I think Justin was the name of her gallery manager's boyfriend..." Portia says, "I met him once, at a show at the gallery."

It's a slim lead, but Ulises will investigate every one that comes up, and he tracks down Mercedes' former gallery manager to question the one Justin he could find who had even the remotest connection to her.

This Justin fits the bellboy's description to a T. But then, so does Ulises himself, except for the tattoos. And in L.A., tattoos are common enough that there must be dozens of Justins that could fit the bill.  The way this one answers the door, however, his stance calculated to look casual, and at the same time territorially blocking passage, immediately raises suspicions.

"I'm investigating the death of Mercedes Arthag," Ulises explains after he introduces himself and shows his badge, "May I comein."

 "No," Justin refuses flatly, not budging from the door frame, "You don't have a warrant."

Ulises sighs; it's going to be like that. "All right,  just have a few questions about your relationship with the deceased."

"I didn't have a relationship with her," Justin says, "She was my girlfriend's boss."

"She was heard calling out your name," Ulises presses.

Justin looks surprised for a moment, then gathers himself. "I used to be a professional dom, and Mercedes was a client of mine," he says, knowing that a deeper investigation could reveal all this and it's better to get out in front of it. "I was running a perfectly legal operation, no sex, you understand? But she got a little obsessed with me and kept asking for what I wouldn't give her. Then, when Eleanor, my girlfriend, started working for her, I had to drop her. I've had no contact with her since. Whoever she was with yesterday, it wasn't me."

"Where were you yesterday?"

"Mostly at home. I picked up Eleanor's dry cleaning, and I did some shopping."

"We have DNA samples of whoever was with Mercedes yesterday," Ulises says, "If you could come in and let us take a sample..."

"No." Justin refuses.

"It's a simple procedure," Ulises explains, "And if you weren't with her, it would clear you immediately."

"Get a warrant," Justin says.

Ulises might just have to do that. But, though he may not realize it, Justin just gave him a whole new lead to follow. If Mercedes had been trying unsuccessfully to pay this Justin for sex, she might have found herself a look-alike who would do the job for her. Shaking down the gigolos in this town should be a fairly easy task; most of them advertise their services in the L.A. Weekly.

Ulises comes home to find Heather in the new nursery they've been preparing.

"Hey, beautiful," he says, sweeping her into his arms and kissing her on the cheek.

"How was your day?" she asks, like she always does.

"Better now that I'm home," he says, like he always does, never giving her details about the sordid cases he has to encounter daily.

Eleanor comes home to find Justin sitting on their bed, staring at nothing, when he;s usually got dinner on the stove.

"What's wrong, Tiger?" she asks, sitting on the edge of the bed.

"Mercedes is dead," he says, "A cop came by to question me about it."

"Why you?" Eleanor asks, "How did she die?"

"Overdose. In a hotel room. Apparently, she was with a guy...and she was calling out my name."

"That's...disturbing," Eleanor says, "But they must have found some DNA, that would clear you."

"The cop asked me to come in and give them a sample. I refused. They don't have a warrant."

"Justin, it would clear you completely. Why would you refuse?"

"They don't have enough of a case to finger me for this," Justin says, "They can take my DNA when they have enough of a case to get a warrant. Which they won't."

Eleanor lies back on the bed. "It would be a lot simpler for you to just cooperate with them."

"I have a record," he tells her, "No outstanding warrants, nothing they can get me for. But I'd like to avoid having LAPD digging into my past."

"I wonder how many skeletons would fall out if they started digging into your closet," she asks wryly. 

"That's why it's best to keep them from digging, Princess," he says.