“And what exactly do you want from me?” said Beth as we walked toward a small row house in an old neighborhood just off the Cobbs Creek Parkway in West Philly.
“I need you to test the security arrangements put in place by McDeiss, maybe direct them away from where I intend to go.”
“So I’ll be your decoy.”
“Decoy is such a loaded term.”
“Not as loaded as their guns will be.”
“You can stay out of it if you want.”
“No, Victor. Of course I want to help. It’s just that you studiously kept me out of everything involving the Kalakos case, including the boondoggle to L.A. that left you all fat and sunburned, and suddenly you want me to run around with a target on my back.”
“I kept you out to protect you.”
“And I feel so safe now as your decoy. When are you going?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Stay by your cell and be ready to ride when I call.”
“You might have to rent a car. I’ll let you know the model as soon as I know.”
“I’m a fool.”
“That, too. Do we have to stay long?”
“No,” she said as we reached the right address. “Just go in, get a few congratulatory hurrahs, drink a beer or two.”
“I hate these things.”
“It was a big victory for Theresa. She got her daughter back in her life. Now she wants to celebrate and thank us.”
“If it wasn’t for the honor, I’d just as soon drink alone.”
We were heading up the stoop to Theresa Wellman’s new place. There was music coming through the open door, loud and rhythmic, there were people hanging out on the porch. We edged our way through the small crowd and inside.
“Hello, both of you,” said an exuberant Theresa Wellman over the pounding of the music. She was wearing a print dress and a bit too much jewelry, and she had a drink in her hand. “Thank you so much for coming. You’re the heroes of the hour.”
“Oh, we just put on the evidence,” said Beth. “The hero of the hour is you.”
“Don’t be slighting yourselves. You saved my life, got me my girl back. Thank you. Both of you.”
“What’s that you’re drinking?” I said.
She looked down at the glass, back up at me. “Ginger ale. There’s more soda in the kitchen and a cooler of beer in the dining room. Loosen up, Victor. Why are you wearing a suit to a party anyway?”
“I wear a suit to the beach,” I said.
“We’ll find the cooler, Theresa,” said Beth. “Thanks.”
“Victor, Beth. Really, I’m so glad you came. Thank you. For everything.”
She gave Beth a hug, gave me a smile. Sometimes the job almost seems worth it. Maybe clerks at 7-Eleven get paid better, but no one hugs you when you get them that pack of cigarettes from behind the counter.
It was a pretty loud and happening party. The music was ripe, there was laughter and dancing, women enough to loosen my tie. I pushed through a crowd to find the cooler. While I checked out the beers, picking out a Rolling Rock, Beth checked out the wainscoting.
“Nice,” she said. “Maybe I should get some.”
“I think wainscoting becomes you.”
“I think so, too. And look at these floors.”
“Yep, they’re floors, all right.”
“No, the wood, the finish. I think the first thing after closing on my house I’ll get the floors done. Sand them smooth, lighten them up. Maybe a nice blond.”
“Funny, I’m looking for the same thing. But I find this new-homeowner thing you have going on a bit disturbing.”
“You’re just jealous that I’m joining a club you’re not a part of.”
“The world is filled with clubs I’m not a part of. The homeowner club is the least of my worries.”
“I’m just excited. It’s like I’m ready to open a new chapter in my life.”
“We’ll entitle it ‘Thirty Years of Indebtedness for a Glimpse of Morning Light.’”
“Can’t you be excited for me?”
“Oh, I am. Really. Really.”
“I want a soda,” said Beth.
The kitchen was narrow and utilitarian but clean.
“Let’s go upstairs,” said Beth. “I wonder how many bedrooms and baths this place has.”
It’s a disease, I thought as I climbed the stairs behind Beth, this real-estate thing. Owning a house is worse than owning a boat. There’s always a boat out there that’s bigger and shinier and faster. There’s always a house with more modern appliances. That’s why I rent, to stay out of the whole thing. And I was feeling both miserable and self-satisfied when I smelled it.
Something burning, sweet and musty all at once, the scent of a college dorm on a Thursday night.
“What’s that?” I said to Beth.
“What?” she said.
“Oh,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Is it really?”
“What should we do?”
“As much as I’d like to flee, I don’t think we can.”
“It’s not her, I’m sure of it,” said Beth.
“As sure as her ginger ale was just a ginger ale?”
“We can’t just snoop around, can we?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “but I think maybe we ought to look into the bedrooms just to satisfy our real-estate lust.”
“That we can do,” said Beth.
The scent grew stronger as we climbed the stairs. There were four doors on the upper hallway, all closed. One had a sign that said Bathroom. Beside the bathroom was another door. I looked around, leaned into the wood, heard nothing. I turned the knob, peeked in. Linen closet.
“Nice storage space,” I said.
“Oh, storage space is very important.”
I leaned close to another door, listened in. There was a conversation going on, animated. An animated television conversation. I slowly twisted the knob, opened the door. No cloud of smoke billowed out. I peeked in, saw the television tuned in to some cartoon, and then the bed, and then, when I opened the door wider, a huge pair of pretty brown eyes.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hello,” said the girl.
“You must be Belle,” I said.
“Cartoon Network. Do you want to watch?”
“If you don’t mind.”
“As long as you don’t talk too much.”
“I promise,” I said.
“That’ll be a first,” said Beth.
“I have an idea,” I said to Beth. “Why don’t you check out those other bedrooms and look for Theresa. I think maybe we ought to have a talk.”
After Beth closed the door behind her, I turned to Belle and put out my hand.
“I’m Victor,” I said.
“Okay,” I said.
Isn’t it fun how clever we lawyers can be, with our clever questions and our clever tricks? We use our cleverness to spin everything on its head for the benefit of our clients, and the clever lawyer on the other side does the same, and the judge, in the middle, simply makes the decision. It’s such a clever system, because it cleanses all responsibility from the participants. We are merely cogs in the great wheel of justice. Be as clever as you can and hope for the best, that’s the job description. And just then, sitting next to Belle, now in the custody and care of her mother, I felt oh, so clever.
Two cartoon kids were being chased by some skeleton in a big black cape, and they were all singing a fun jazzy song. I had never seen it before. These are the kinds of things you miss when you don’t have cable, which was a shame, really. Although you also miss Pat Burrell swinging and missing at sliders down and away, so it evens out. I couldn’t tell if Belle was enjoying herself – she had the fixed, blank expression on her face of someone who was trying very hard not to cry. I wanted to ask her how long she’d been there, or if she missed her daddy, or what she thought about clever lawyers, but I had promised her I wouldn’t talk too much, and that was one promise I was going to keep.
About ten minutes later, Beth opened the door. She had grown suddenly pale, her jaw was locked as if some sad specter had risen from the blond wooden floors, grabbed her arms, and shaken her until her faith came loose.
“Do you know Bradley Hewitt’s telephone number?” she said.
“I can get it.”
“Then maybe you ought to give him a call.”