8 (rough draft)
In the shadow of New York City, on a warm September morning in Morristown, New Jersey, four people gathered in a nondescript home.
“I’m not sure,” she started, hesitating. “We’re not sure how this works.” The we she referred to were three women, all in the forties, all with busy, unsettled eyes.
Mr. Carpenter, the lean side of fifty, tall, lanky, Eastern European features, penetrating eyes of indeterminate color changing with the light, shared a funeral director smile. “Like any transaction. You tell me what you wish, I do it.”
“And the payment.”
“Of course. There’s a payment for everything.”
“Are you sure I can’t take your hat and coat?”
“I won’t be here that long.”
He shook his head.
“You’ll want to see these.” Leaning forward, the woman spread dozens of newspaper clippings on the coffee table. With a finger on an article as proof, she proclaimed, “He was not acquitted.”
Not my concern, Mr. Carpenter thought. “I’ve looked over the case. I’m familiar with the details.”
“Then you’ll do it?”
For the set payment, your reasons don’t matter to me. “You’ve made a compelling argument. The three of you have no direct connection to the case or the child?”
“We’ve been very careful.”
One woman, quiet, let out a sigh. “Audrey is my great-niece.”
Mr. Carpenter narrowed his eyes, not surprised at the confession, the woman providing information he already knew. “That should not be a problem.”
A yellow plastic ShopRite bag came to the coffee table. “$50,000.”
Hat in hand, Mr. Carpenter took the top of the bag with the other hand and rose, placing his derby on his head. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.” He bowed slightly. “Ladies.” He left without invitation.
The story was a local sensation, not going national. Audrey, her name never appearing in the coverage, had an affair with Joseph Sampler, a man more than twice her age. Audrey was an old fourteen when she met Sampler in a New York City pub where Sampler worked tending bar.
Sampler was married at the time, his wife pregnant.
What began as a one-night stand became a short-term relationship. Sampler testified he broke off the relationship when he learned Audrey’s age. Refusing to end the relationship, Audrey went on a rampage of vandalism, getting arrested for setting the Sampler home on fire. Sampler’s wife survived with superficial burns, the marriage did not.
In a rage, Sampler beat Audrey almost to death. Judgments on either side were often prefaced with “Given the circumstances.”
The prosecution was able to convincingly paint Sampler the perpetrator, Audrey the victim. The defense was able to paint Audrey as the perpetrator, Sampler the victim. The law was black and white, the jury not, unable to acquit or convict.
Mr. Carpenter stayed close to the case, but never close enough to be seen. When the outcome came as he hoped, all he had to do was whisper in the right places, knowing someone, or a small group would be willing to buy what they would see as justice.
Revenge is never justice, Mr. Carpenter thought, looking over his notes, notes he would burn leaving no paper trail. He didn’t care about justice or revenge. It was a job.
Even as the judge was saying, “Mr. Sampler, you are free to go,” Sampler was out the courthouse door, heading for parts unknown, disappearing like mist over the grass on a summer morning.
Sampler left everything he owned, walking away. For $10.00, the genealogy showed an uninteresting tree, a distant relative owning a bar, an apartment building and an Ocean City rental property. “Whitman,” Mr. Carpenter said, looking over the quarterly employment records. “Joseph Sampler, you have no imagination.”
George Howell did not love Ellen Abbott. To Howell, she was palatable enough, not repulsive. A man without chains to another would find her attractive, desirable. As a partner in the Philadelphia law firm of Smith, Smith and Howell, he required roots, the image of a family man. Ellen Abbott and her two children, Candice and Maynard, would serve well. Howell found Candice a princess, pure, innocent to the point of being incorruptible.
He had clandestine plans for Candice.
Howell knew at age twelve he wanted to be a lawyer. Either that, or he wanted to be a salesman, which he saw as the same. He could talk his way out of or into anything. He liked the law over sales because there was more money in it. Winning Ellen Abbott over was child’s play, Abbott a widow with two children, Howell with captivating eyes and buckets of charisma. He just needed to meet her.
For the summer break from college, at his father’s suggestion, instead of walking the beaches of Big Sur in the day and passing his nights with friends at drunken parties in Monterey where he grew up, Howell flew to Ohio, working fourteen hour days in a volunteer farm program. “It might be humbling for you to see where your food comes from,” his father said.
“Next summer, a shrimp boat! I love shrimp scampi!”
There, on eighty-six acres under the hot summer sun just south of Fredericktown, digging trenches for drainage piles, Howell met sixteen-year-old Christina Ellington, a child from New Jersey enrolled in the same summer program.
Ellington was an earthy child radiating innocence like Howell radiated charisma, her hands in the dirt, a smudge on her cheek, her hair the color of the amber Ohio clay. Eyes dark like a shadowed cedar lake, her eyes laid him bare, reading his soul.
For George Howell and Christina Ellington, it was love at first sight and a love that would never fade, not in a summer and not in a lifetime. “We will marry,” Howell promised as they parted at the end of summer.
The bond they forged that summer would endure the college years and the long distant relationship. Ellington’s family didn’t like Howell first because he was so much older, then because he was a West Coast snob. At eighteen years old, Ellington’s family gave her a choice. She chose Howell, moving across the country to Monterey, where she was welcomed with open arms.
When Howell graduated college and passed the bar, they married, Howell taking an entry level job in the family law firm, a firm dealing in corporate law. Ellington pushed her new husband to take on volunteer work with the needy, Ellington doing the same.
Six years after Arial was born, Ellington made the decision to break the long drought with her family, to mend fences. As much as she loved her husband and his family, she missed her family, mostly her mother, her mother stubborn like Howell.
“Come with me,” she implored.
“As much as I’d like to, I’d like to avoid the yelling, Jersey.”
With a smile and a nod, she agreed. “We’re going to have some of that, to let the poison out.”
“I had Sandy draw up an itinerary for you.”
“Don’t let your father find out you’re using office resources.” Ellington accepted the map and outline. “I think I’ll just follow my nose, take my time. I spent so much time on airplanes, I’d like to see what I flew over.”
Under a cloudless sky on a beautiful June day, Ellington hugged his daughter, belting her in, then held his wife, a tear in his eye. “Have fun, enjoy the trip.”
“I’ll be calling you to come join us before you know it.”
“It will only seem like forever.”
He stood in the street until the blue Mercedes-Benz GLK disappeared around the corner.
Howell’s mind broke when he got the call four weeks after he watched the SUV disappear. “There’s been an accident.” When someone leads with that, nothing good follows. The family rallied but nothing could push back the pain, nothing, Howell hospitalized.
Difficult decisions were made, Sandy, Howell’s executive assistant, sent to New Jersey to make arraignments for a local burial. Sandy was an emotionless woman, practical, in her late twenties, earthen hair cropped short, little makeup if any, burning crystal blue eyes that missed little.
“George would be torn,” Sandy told Howell’s father. “I think he’d want her taxidermied and propped up in the living room. If we bring Christina back here, he’ll pitch a tent at the grave and live there like a homeless man. On the other hand, he’d want her buried in her native soil, soil she spent so much time tilling, hands in the dirt.”
Almost fifteen years would pass, Howell mourning everyday, pushing through work and depression. Finally, he had to do something, anything. He put out feelers, looking for a law firm in trouble, a law firm that would gladly take his partnership buy-in.
“Jersey,” Howell said, his right knee on the grass. Cold granite mocked him. Christina Ellington Devoted wife and mother. “I’m pleased you kept your name, that we were that comfortable in our self, that we’d never need to live in the shadow of the other.” He smiled bitterly. “You shown so bright, I would have stood in your shadow, gladly. You were, after all, my soul, my humanity.”
He worked to his feet, looking down on the other grave, a smaller stone. Arial Ellington Daughter. “You are the most beautiful thing ever created.” The two graves were the best kept in the whole of Bethel Cemetery, reminding Howell to find the grounds keeper, William, a large, slow man, quick with a smile and tip him for his good services.
Mr. Carpenter, gray trench coat over his arm, stood with three teachers across the street from the main entrance of the Edgewood Junior Senior Regional High School, Mr. Carpenter invisible, blending in as if with the three adults hurrying their last cigarette for a couple hours. “Back in my day, we just had Edgewood,” Mr. Carpenter said to no one.
“Back in my day, we had a smoking lounge in the school,” someone answered.
Cars and buses came, stopped, deposited children, moving on. Children swarmed the sidewalks like ants at a picnic, spilling in the street.
Across the street on the wide concrete approach, a spry pixie of a girl, red hair ablaze in the sun, hurried.
Mr. Carpenter wondered, just for a moment, about her haste. Then, he saw a chubby child in pursuit. “Shouldn’t you –” he began a suggestion for a teacher to cut his smoking short and stop the harassment when he saw another child, quick, light on his feet, drop the chubby child belly flopping to the concrete tangling up his feet. Mr. Carpenter smiled softly as the light-on-his-feet child stooped, obviously doing some needed coaching.
That used to be me, Mr. Carpenter thought. He tried to follow light-on-his-feet, losing him to the crowd off to Mr. Carpenter’s right. He’d puzzled whether he’d recognize her, the years melting by so quickly.
His heart leapt, he flushed. He got only a glimpse of her face, then the back of her head, her and three other girls alone in the crowd. He let out a long sigh, moving off and away.
Nothing much has changed, Mr. Carpenter mused, piloting his black Malibu over familiar streets. “Except for that monster they call a school.” Sold as a method to save money, the five districts were combined into one school system. “It’s a social experiment.” He imagined all the trials she would face in a culturally, racially and income level mixed environment. “I should send you to a private school, maybe in Switzerland.” He knew the choice was not his.
“Mr. Hunter, Mrs. Hunter,” Mr. Carpenter addressed the storeowners by name as he looked around.
They stared at him.
“Relax. I just happened to be in town for a little while.”
The Hunters began to breath again. “How about one of those egg sandwiches you like, with the bacon. Mrs. will cook it right up.”
“And, a cup of coffee.” He took a stool. “Slow.”
“High school is good for business.”
Mr. Carpenter smiled. “I can imagine with – sandwiches – like you provide.”
Mr. Hunter put a finger to the side of his nose. “Yes.”
“Lawn needs proper edging, the flower beds are gone,” Mr. Carpenter noted, coming up the walk. He promised himself not to mention either, hand poised to knock.
The door swung inward, Carol Ferguson holding the knob with her left hand, stepping into the opening, mouth wide open, eyes on fire, looking up. She froze, joy filling her breast, smile hurting her face. Tears welled. “God-dammit.” She released the door, placing her left foot between his feet, rolling up, putting her hands to either side of his face, pulling him down, her forehead on his. “I’m missed you,” she moaned.
“I’ve missed you, too.”
Deep breath. “Have you come home?”
She nodded, kissing him on the lips slowly. “Staying?”
“For the morning.”
“October’s in school.”
“You saw her?”
“Did she take your breath away?”
“Like you do.”
She released him, turning. He followed her to the living room, dropping his coat and hat on a chair, falling on the sofa. “New Furniture.”
She cuddled under his arm. “A few years back.”
“Sorry. I’ll call this afternoon. I’ll get bulbs put in for spring.”
“Yes, and no before you suggest it.”
“There are many good schools.”
“October has forged bonds the likes of which take my breath away. I’d never even suggest to her I take that away. Besides, if it were just about learning facts and processes, I wouldn’t send her to school at all.”
“A chance to be a normal human being.”
“If such things exist.”
She snuggled in. “Not at the moment. My last relationship was exhausting.”
“I really thought you were going to marry Alan.”
She rolled her eyes, not surprised he knew. “We were close. Couple of years ago. October was ten, I guess, getting those pre-pubic breasts some girls get.”
“Like you did.”
“I guess. Something Alan said, I forget exactly, but it wasn’t so much the words, but how he said it and how he looked at October. I didn’t want to give him access.”
“As much as any of my soul mates, maybe more. Certainly not like you. Doesn’t matter. As much as I loved him and as nice a guy he was, I got that glimpse of Mr. Hyde and no way was I allowing Hyde anywhere near my daughter.”
“Maybe there’s a little Mr. Hyde in all people.”
“Maybe the vast majority hold reign over their Mr. Hyde.”
He chuckled. “You forget: I am Mr. Hyde.”
“You just want to think you are. You forget: I hold your face, look in your eyes. I know your soul better than you do.”
“I’d really like October to meet you,” Carol said. “She often asks about you.”
A bit surprised, he raised an eyebrow. “What have you told her?”
“Nothing. I’ve told her nothing. She’s getting older, going to want to know who her father is.”
“Make something up.”
“I’d rather tell her nothing, than tell her a lie.”
“Lying’s not easy for most people.”
He nodded, presenting a white envelope. “Give her this, on her birthday, next month.”
She fanned the bills. “$1000.00 is a lot of money to give a twelve-year-old.”
“I would hope she’d spend the money on herself, buying nothing useful.”
“She’ll put it in her bank account.”
“I know. I’ve added to it.”
“Not easy for me to explain.”
He shrugged. “For her birthday. I wanted to put something in her hand this year.”
“A teddy bear would have been nice.”
“For a twelve-year-old?”
“A twelve-year-old girl.” She watched his back, Mr. Carpenter moving off swiftly, she knew, to his car parked around the corner. “Twelve years old, going on sixty.”