Chapter Nine: If Wishes Were Horses
AN: ***There is a scene in this chapter with a secondary character recounting a violent incident which may be a trigger for some.***
Story Summary: In the aftermath of her divorce, a heartbroken Bella Swan looks for danger to give meaning to her life. If only her hot ex-husband would stay out of the picture. ExB AH
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot of the Twilight Saga are the property of its author. I am in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media. Copyright infringement is not intended, nor will I ever make a dime from this fanfiction. So there.
Many thanks to LJ Summers, prettyflour, detochkina and jmolly for the beta work.
Thanks as well to TwilightMomofTwo, EternalSummer79, Kristin Hazzard, Twilover76, pomme_de_terre, Mutt N. Feathers, and perrymaxwell for the pre-reading.
Thanks as well to everyone for the reviews, rec's, tweets, posts on FaceBook, and general hilarity.
"Hell is full of good intentions or desires." - Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
A purple bruise blossomed on Bella's temple and cheek as time passed. After she had stopped crying, she pushed me away. I stared at the love of my life as she at last sank into a drug-induced sleep.
If I took all of the bad moments in my life and added them up, the aggregated devastation I felt couldn't come close to what I experienced at this point. I writhed in useless remorse like a worm in ashes and contemplated my numerous sins. All my work to protect her, to keep her safe, had been for naught. I'd been away from her when she needed me the most, and I would never forgive myself for that. A lyric from a song I'd heard as a child came to mind, "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride." I vowed then and there that I would do everything I could to try to repair the damage that I'd wrought with the best laid plans.
The book I had been perusing for months fell open to a favorite page. It was Sun Tzu's The Art of War:"All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him." Sun Tzu had a point. I planned on following his advice to the letter.
The local police were firmly in the enemy camp. That was why I had chosen to wound Bella's attacker instead of killing him outright. They also made Barney Fife look like Einstein, and would never see this move coming.
I weighed the merits of what I was about to do. Bella would detest the attention, but it would keep her safe, and force the police to behave. I had observed that she didn't read the newspapers or watch the television so hoped she wouldn't notice. I took the film clip I'd obtained from security and emailed it to a contact at the local news station who owed me several favors.
"Holy shit! Is this for real?" came the response.
"Yes. Use it with my blessing. Please ensure the statement makes the broadcast."
"Can you two do an interview?"
"Not at this moment. She sustained injuries today in the attack. I can't leave her."
He didn't bother to hide his disappointment. "Got it. Rain check?"
"Maybe. Go with what you have."
"Will do. Thanks."
There comes a time when every man has to make a stand. Everything had gone so horribly wrong, and part of me was afraid to risk it again. Yet, upon contemplation, I realized I had no choice. Bella could not live under the conditions that the rest of us endured. She was too fragile and needed too much help.
I texted a prearranged signal, "Pax tecum" to a familiar number.
The response came quickly, "Necnon vobis."
I heard the news broadcast. "A St. Mary's Hospital spokesman said that today this man, Paul Vrabek, who is an employee of Eleazar Rodriguez," they showed a mug shot of that animal, "attacked Isabella Swan. Our local heroine managed to get him on the ground in record time and her ex-husband, Edward Cullen, in an exclusive statement released to our network, Mr. Cullen claims he shot Vrabek twice in her defense. The hospital released this tape that clearly shows Vrabek threatening her."
I'd never been so happy we'd upgraded the hospital surveillance equipment in my life. An image came on screen that clearly showed that beast looming over Bella with a snarl. No matter how many times I studied the clip, seeing the look of pure rage on her face when she tossed the coffee in his face never ceased to shock me. From the reports I'd heard, the burns on his face and eyes were severe. They were talking skin grafts. I tuned out the rest of the news report.
My fingers flew as I typed. I'd planned this for months. With a few keystrokes, I cast the dice and crossed the Rubicon. There really was no turning back now. I stared in satisfaction at the computer screen as I watched my plan unfold.
Next, I dialed a number of a person I loathed.
"You broke our deal," I said.
"What are you talking about? And watch your tone."
"You heard me, you brokeour deal. Your man confessed it today."
"That nutcase Vrabek you keep as a guard dog. He attacked Bella at the hospital today. I shot him."
"He what?" The voice on the other end rose in anger.
Like I was going to buy thatload of bullshit.
"Don't play the fool, it doesn't suit you. He confessed to attacking her last Christmas Eve. He purposely beat her until she lost the baby. I heard him admit it."
"I neverordered that." The voice sounded shaken. Like he was telling the truth. If so, I was going to press my advantage because I was out for blood.
"Doesn't matter. It happened on your watch, and your man did it. Our deal is off. You and yours murdered my aunt and uncle, my son, and nearly killed Bella."
The man on the other end said, "I will take care of Vrabek, and you have my sincere apologies for his action. I neverordered it."
I all but sang, "Oh . . . you might want to turn on the television."
"Your boy is all over the news."
"What?" He paused for a moment and then chided, "Edward, you are forgetting your place and the danger you are in."
"Buddy, the hell with you and your threats. I'm taking my family back, and avenging Bella and my son. Consider yourself warned."
"I own this town." He scoffed. "What do you think you can do to me?"
"Watch and learn, grasshopper."
Then, for the first time ever, I hung up the phone on him.
Bella curled into a ball and muttered, "Kiss." She crinkled her nose as if she smelled something peculiar. My mind took me back in time.
We were at Emma Mallory's wedding. The ceremony had just ended, and the bride's family had set up a dance floor, tent, and tables groaning under the weight of refreshments to keep the guests occupied until the Country Club opened its doors.
I passed the ice chests filled with sodas and beer and the table covered with sweating glass pitchers of sweet tea. Bella's long hair was nowhere to be seen in the crowd. I glanced at the time. She got nervous around crowds. Where could she be?
"There you are." A tall woman with a lovely face and a plunging neckline stood in my way. She pointed an index finger at my chest. She appeared to be my age, had scary long red fingernails, improbably large breasts, and wore a smile that reminded me of an alligator surveying her lunch.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am?"
Her accent made it difficult to understand her. She had what mother would call bedroom eyes. "Ah've been a'waitin' for yew ta show up. Yew owe me a dance, handsome." Then, she pounced.
Mother and Father had raised me to be a gentleman, which meant no striking women for any reason –unfortunately, in this case. The madwoman launched herself at me, climbed me like a tree, planted her wet lips on my cheek, and slid them like a slug over to my lips.
I managed to pull away.
"What are you doing?" I spluttered. "I don't even know you."
"Darlin' don't be like that. We had a great time last night, didn't we sugar?"
"You must have mistaken me for someone else. Last night I wasn't even in town."
"Neither was I, big guy." She leered at my crotch.
From the variety of exclamations I heard from around me, I was already in trouble. I couldn't let Bella find me like this. It would hurt her.
Before I could say anything, Eleazar's voice rang out. "Edward, there you are."
The woman attempted to move my hand to her breast. I pulled my fingers from her before they could make contact with her cleavage and most likely shrivel up and fall off.
"He just asked to marry me. I said yes," she lied through her teeth again as I gawped at her. I waited for lightning to burst from the heavens and incinerate her. She just prevaricated on holy ground. More than once.
I heard a woman nearby mutter, "Mmph. What trash. She picked the wrong Cullen to try and trap. Everyone knows he's courting that Bella."
A pig-tailed girl standing next to her said loudly to Uncle Eleazar, "Don't you pay her no mind. He never proposed nothing."
"Shut up, Becky Jo! Yer just jealous he asked me, not yew."
Eleazar asked the girl, "You know this person?"
Pigtails said, "She's my cousin, Chastity. She's visiting from out of town. Pay her no mind. She's country."
Eleazar turned to Miss Ironically Named and sniffed at her; he was a far braver man than I. She smelled awful: a ghastly combination of cloying perfume, cheap liquor, and sweat.
My savior said, "Chastity, by the smell of you, I think you've had too much to drink. Carmen, take her to her mama."
Aunt Carmen reached into her purse and handed me something. She took the woman in a firm grasp and led the yowling banshee away, followed by the smirking girl that had helped us. I rubbed at my cheek to get the saliva off of it once the femme fatale was out of sight, and then realized Aunt Carmen had given me a Wet One to clean the spittle off my cheek. Thank the Lord.
The people around us went back to their conversations.
Uncle Eleazar started laughing as he watched me scrub my face. For such a big guy, he had a high-pitched giggle. I felt like I needed rubbing alcohol to get clean. Scratch that. Maybe Betadine.
I could feel my cheeks turning red. "Fine, go ahead. Laugh at my expense." I kept scanning the crowd around me looking for Bella. Thank God she hadn't been present for that awkward scene.
Eleazar chortled, "I'm sorry, but the look on your face was priceless."
"Thanks for rescuing me." I must have still been in shock. I blurted to him, "I can't believe that was my first kiss." I managed to sound as revolted as I felt.
Uncle Eleazar clapped me on the shoulder. "You didn't participate in it willingly, so I say it didn't count and never happened."
"Thanks for making me feel better. I like the way you think."
"Anything for my favorite nephew." He pulled me into a one-armed hug, and pounded my back hard enough to break ribs in a manly show of affection. "I'll always be in your corner, Edward."
I caught a glimpse on the edge of the crowd of the blue dress that Bella wore.
"There you are!" I approached her and kissed her on the cheek.
I could see her trembling as she surveyed the people around us. She gave me a half-smile and seemed relieved. "I was looking for you. Thanks for finding me." Bella was back at my side, and my day was complete.
I held out my arm to her and said, "The reception starts in thirty minutes. We'd best be on our way."
She scrunched her nose and sniffed at my shirt discreetly. "We need to stop by the house."
"You need to change."
Almost an hour later, I counted the moments until Bella and I could leave. We sat at a table with mother, father, Jasper, Aunt Cicy, Uncle Aro, Aunt Carmen, and Uncle Eleazar. Jasper and Eleazar traded ribald jokes in whispered undertones, while Bella blushed because she'd never mastered the art of the blank expression. I tried to distract her by holding her hand.
The groom, Randall, walked up to the microphone to give his speech. His bride stood nearby among the wedding party, beaming at him.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I have a surprise planned for Emma because she deserves the best I have to offer."
The bridesmaids sighed in tandem.
Fred, the best man stage whispered, "Suck up!"
I could hear the women in the crowd cooing and I barely avoided rolling my eyes.
Mother said, "By the turnout, this wedding will be talked about as the wedding of the year. Everyone who mattered has come. The Mallorys must be so proud."
Aunt Carmen whispered, "Especially since that Lauren embarrassed them all by running away with her boyfriend without getting married." She sniffed. "No one has heard from her since."
Eleazar said to Carmen through a plastered on smile, "Hush," and took a drink from his sweet tea.
Randall flushed and held up his glass. "I'd like you all to reach under your chairs and take out the manila envelopes that you'll find there." People started following his directions.
"What could this be?" Mother wondered as she held her sealed envelope. We all had them in our hands and waited for his directions.
The groom said, "I want this wedding to be remembered for all time. So I've included a token of my esteem. Go ahead, y'all, and open the envelopes."
"What are you doing?" The best man asked.
Randall answered absentmindedly, "Making some memories."
I knew it was trouble when people started gasping. Mother dropped hers to the floor and turned beet red. Somehow, I don't think he included gift certificates to the local liquor store in those envelopes.
"Oh my stars!" mother fanned herself.
Bella squeaked, acted like her hand had caught fire, and stuffed whatever it was back in the envelope. She covered her cheeks with both hands.
Wondering what the big deal was, I opened mine to find pictures of a very naked and flexible-beyond-belief Emma Mallory having sexual relations with that . . . groomsman Fred– who also happened to be the groom's best friend. I wondered for a fleeting moment, what it would be like to try that with Bella and –got distracted from my prurient thoughts by caterwauling.
Randall said, "There's more on our wedding memories page online." He took a sip from his champagne and silently toasted his bride. Then he winked at her.
"The bride's mother wailed, "Emma Jean Mallory, young lady, how could you do this to us?"
Everyone knew the purpose of your middle name was to know how much trouble you were in when your parents bellowed it at you.
Emma babbled, "Momma, I don't know what you're talking about."
"Here, darling." The groom helpfully handed her an envelope - and a stack to the rest of the wedding party.
Emma ripped hers open and shrieked. She picked up her skirts and ran wailing from the room.
The best man had the grace to appear ashamed. "Sorry, man –"
The groom punched Fred so hard we could all hear his nose break.
"Save it. We're done." Rubbing his fist, Randall walked out of the Country Club without another word.
"Now that is revenge Southern Style," Carmen said with relish. "What an exit!"
"What do you mean?" Carlisle asked.
"He's ruined her reputation and that of his best man. She won't be able to date anyone from a good family in this town. Even if she marries that guy, she'll still be talked about wherever she goes."
She had a point.
Mother agreed, "Southerners never forget a juicy scandal. No one from a good family will let the best man date their daughter, either."
Bella seemed upset.
"What's going on in that mind of yours?" I asked her.
Bella whispered, "I feel bad for him."
"Everyone does. Being deceived by your fiancée and best friend. I can't even imagine that kind of pain."
She kept looking at the door that Randall passed through. "His parents didn't follow him. His entire family stayed in the room. He left alone. That's sad. Can you get me out of here?"
I knew her well enough to know she wouldn't be able to hide her distress. So I waved at our family, took her by the arm, and walked out into the sunset. We passed the "Just Married," sign on the limo as we walked to the car.
"Go fish," Bella mumbled in her sleep, garnering my attention back to the present from days gone by. She shivered as if cold, so I covered her up with another blanket. I returned to watching her, hoping that I could ascertain what was going on in her mind by the random words that fell like breadcrumbs to a beggar from her lips.
I used to think I knew her so well, but now it was as if she was a virtual stranger in some regards. Before the divorce, she had been a pack rat and never threw anything away. I'd moved into that house because we ran out of storage space in our old one. Yet, she only had one suitcase and now claimed to have no other possessions. She'd never had a temper before. I was so proud of her for standing up to that Vrabek. But had anyone asked me a year ago if I'd ever see Bella in a physical fight, I would have bet my annual salary that would never occur. I had tried to teach her some self-defense moves after she failed the class at school because she never could shout, "No!" I couldn't believe how much both our lives had changed since the day we met.
The first time I laid eyes on Bella, I was almost twelve to her five years. She was such a tiny little thing - solemn brown eyes, clutching a bedraggled teddy bear. A beam of sunlight shone down on her and made her hair kindle with gold. I knew deep down in my bones, with the certainty that I knew my name, that she was the love of my life. My entire world shifted. I had a picture in my head of her as an adult in a wedding gown holding my hand. I remember telling my bemused parents that I couldn't treat Bella like a sister because I intended to marry her. Mother recognized that I meant what I said, so she told everyone that Bella was their ward.
Bella was one of the few people who unconditionally accepted me. She did not treat me like a freak of nature because I was a nerd. When she looked at me, I felt loved. I only wanted to make her smile. The age difference between us never seemed to matter. Bella understood that when I worked sometimes reality vanished. She never held it against me on the rare occasion that I missed dinner or forgot an important date. Bella was one of the best listeners I had ever met. I loved conversing with her. She didn't talk much, but what she did say mattered. I liked the way she viewed the world. She had more hope than I did in the good nature of people. I worried about her, though. She was so shy. Sometimes, she would shake if she went into rooms with crowds and she loathed being the center of attention.
My detractors rightfully accused me of being self-absorbed. For Bella's sake, I put aside that quality to ensure her happiness and welfare. Nothing else mattered. She was the first thing I thought of when I woke up, and the last image on my mind, when I finally went to sleep. Little did I know what loving her would force me to do to keep her safe.
My mind jumped ahead in time. I remember when I sat in the courtroom, next to my lawyers, and did my best to keep my eyes off my disconsolate wife. She looked like she'd lost twenty pounds off her dainty frame. She'd startled me when her attorney had called weeks beforehand to say they would cooperate with the divorce, and that they wanted to speed the process up. My plan to drag the divorce out until I could procure evidence against Eleazar and then cancel it went up in dust. If she wanted to be free of me, then I'd do what I could to let her go. After everything I'd put her thorough it was the least I could do. With a heavy heart I signed the divorce papers.
I never thought she'd give up on us, but I hadn't left her much choice. So I had absolutely no right to feel hurt. Yet hurt I did. It felt like some Mayan priest had ripped my heart out and held it up to the overcast sky.
When Bella insisted that her last name be changed to Swan, it surprised and angered me so much I snapped my pencil in half and bit my tongue to keep from shouting. My rage was directed inward, not at her. She wasn't supposed to hate her own family. What had we done?
Never before had I felt more of an imbecile. School had been simple. I'd never faced a problem that I couldn't think my way out of, until someone I trusted decided to ruin my life. Circumstances forced me to hurt the woman I loved most in the world in order to ensure her survival. Knowing that she would live didn't make the pill any less bitter to swallow. I was under no illusion that Bella would be better off without me and the rest of her family in her life. I thought back to that awful day when my life began to spiral out of control.
As I made my way to a meeting, the rain pounded the ground so hard it looked like the raindrops bounced. Carmen had called to tell me that they had a business proposition for me. Truth be told, I didn't much like her. She seemed to be a little too sugary - something about her screamed that she didn't mean a word that came out of her mouth. We put up with her for Eleazar's sake because we all loved him. It was a good thing she and Eleazar never had children, because like an animal in the wild, I had no doubt that Carmen would eat her young.
Eleazar and Dad had been best friends since childhood: virtually inseparable. Everyone thought of them as the odd couple because their personalities were so different. I understood what Dad appreciated about him. He cared about his family and friends, and was generous with his time.
When life became confusing, I usually ran to Eleazar. He had a good head on his shoulders, and his business acumen showed. Eleazar ran a successful accounting firm and constantly traveled, so I'd seen less of him that I would have liked over the past seven years.
I came into the room and found Dad sitting there staring at the table, looking green. He had to be coming down with the flu that was going around.
"Hey, Dad, you okay?"
He shook his head, mashed his lips together, and wiped away a tear. He shook his head "no." I'd never seen my father cry. Not once. Everyone in the room ignored us.
Alarmed, I looked to Uncle Eleazar to explain what was going on. He had lost weight since the last time we spent time together, and he had this fire in his eyes I'd never seen before. When he said nothing, I turned back to my father.
"Dad, can you tell me what's–"
"So glad you could join us, Edward," Eleazar interrupted us. "Have a seat. We have much to discuss."
"Mind if I get Dad a soda? He looks like he could use one."
"Not at all. Carmen?"
Eleazar and Carmen had divorced six years back. It had to be the world's friendliest split because they still worked together every day at their accounting firm. They lived across from each other in a duplex, and still took vacations together. We did not understand it at all.
Carmen had an incongruous expression on her face as she put a can of soda and a glass with ice in it on the table in front of Dad.
"Why don't you start catching Edward up to speed, Carlisle?" Eleazar sounded friendly as usual.
Reluctantly, Dad began, "We were approached by an international consortium to help bankroll a new company that would sell drugs to third world countries."
I sat down slowly. "Okay."
Dad stared at me apologetically. "After doing some research into the matter, on behalf of our family, I declined the . . . generous offer."
Eleazar said, "I have a presentation that I set up to change your mind. I worked hard on it. Carlisle's already seen it, but you should also get your chance."
A tall broad-shouldered man hit the play button on a DVD machine. I heard what sounded like screaming. For a second, I wondered if they'd put in the wrong DVD and I was hearing a horror movie.
"No, please," Dad entreated. "Edward shouldn't –"
Eleazar barked, "He needs to see, Carlisle." I stared wide-eyed. I'd never seen either one raise a voice to the other.
"Watch the screen, Edward," Eleazar ordered. Something in his voice alarmed me.
Uncle Aro and Aunt Cicy were due to arrive tonight. I blinked in confusion when I saw them on the screen.
"They're dead," Dad muttered. "In that. He had them murdered." He inclined his head toward the screen. The short hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
Eleazar nodded his head and smiled like a carpetbagger when I looked at him in disbelief. I felt like my heart froze and cracked open in my chest.
"Don't look away. Watch it, Edward," Eleazar said.
Dad stared at his shaking hands, but I watched every frame. My aunt and uncle died painful deaths - senseless ones. I'd never seen that much blood, even in the ER.
The man who killed them stood in the room behind Uncle Eleazar, like some kind of bodyguard. He maintained a blank face as Dad cried at the loss of his friend and younger sister. I didn't know how I kept my composure, but I did. I couldn't believe that someone so close to us had orchestrated something so brutal. Our families had taken vacations together for years. Last month, they'd all played horseshoes at a party at our house. Eleazar had even gallantly teamed up with Cicy when she was losing to give her a chance to beat Dad.
Carmen simpered. "Aro and Cicy both refused to join us. Now you see what happens to those who don't cooperate." Her eyes reminded me of a viper right before it strikes.
There had to be a logical explanation for this. Eleazar had to have had some kind of psychotic break. He sounded as chipper as if he discussed last night's football game, and wore the same charming smile. I had no explanation for Carmen beyond her being a ruthless bitch.
"I've added in a further inducement." He tossed some files at us. I noticed he wobbled a bit as he walked. Was he intoxicated?
I read them quickly, with rising blood pressure, as I appreciated my predicament. This was bad. This was very bad.
Eleazar said, "I've arranged the accounts and their ownership in such a way that both you and Bella will go down for this if I turn you in."
An ordinary person would spit in his face and say, "See you in court." I didn't have that luxury. He had killed my aunt and uncle in cold blood.
He now had me by the balls and, by the sneer on his face, relished his position.
I thought back on how the trap was set.
Seven years ago, Eleazar had called me and said, "I've found a deal on a mountain cabin."
"You know I hate the mountains. Why would I buy it?"
"You can sell it for a song. I have a golf buddy that wants it but can't come up with the money for a while."
"Fine. Do it."
Fifteen months later, I'd made a nice profit. Since I hated heights, I had let Uncle Eleazar and Aunt Carmen use the property during that time. I'd never set foot on it.
He set up a system of finding us deals that we always took. The transactions typically involved less that $10,000 so the government wouldn't pay attention. I wasn't an expert on money laundering, but I was going to have to become one fast if I was going to clear my name.
Eleazar smirked almost as if he had read my mind. "I own the police, and the DA is running for office thanks to my generous campaign donation. I'll turn this over to them. You'll do hard time for it, too. So will Bella."
I could not believe that someone that we all loved could betray us like this. I should never have let Eleazar handle our money. I had walked right into his trap. I was going to have to run this by a lawyer. I had to protect Bella at all costs. Every time I thought of her, images of how Cicy had died flooded my mind.
I ran my fingers through my hair. "What do you want?"
"I want you to use your expertise to help us with the company."
Dad said, "They're dealing in black market drugs, Edward."
I felt even more confused. I said, "I'm not a chemist. Why do you need us?"
"I want more investors. As much as it pains me to say, I need you to help smooth things over with obtaining new clients. People in town listen when your family talks." Now that, unfortunately, was completely true. "I'm going to be holding some gatherings and inviting potential investors to attend. I expect you all to be there and show support."
Eleazar waved a hand towards the exit and said, "I'll leave you all to think on what I said. Let's meet again tomorrow at the same time."
Dad and I walked to our cars. We waited until the others were out of hearing range.
I threw my hands up in the air in frustration. "What the hell?" I said to my father.
He shook his head. "It's as much a mystery to me as it is to you."
"I can't have Bella implicated in this. She couldn't handle the stress in her condition. I can't take her to a gathering with Eleazar. She'll fall apart. If I leave her at home, that will raise eyebrows."
"I know." Dad looked ten years older. "I don't think I can keep it from Esme. She handles the money for the family."
"When do we have the funeral for Aro and Cicy?"
"We don't." Dad answered in a clipped voice. "He's holding their bodies hostage for good behavior on our part. My baby sister –" He wiped at his face. "She didn't deserve any of this."
We weren't a touchy family, but I broke that norm and hugged Dad. "I will find us a way out of this mess. I promise you. Go back to work."
I left my father with thoughts spinning around in my mind like enraged bees swarming a hive. I'd never failed at a single goal in my life. I had a wife and baby on the way. My father seemed shattered and incapable of acting. So I had to lead the family. There had to be a way to save us. I needed to do some research and out-think the other side. How hard could that be?
I stopped by Alistair O'Bryan's office. He had been a buddy of mine in college, one of the few that didn't treat me like a freak.
"I need a favor."
"Sure. What's up?"
I told him my story. When I was done he said, "You're right about the police. Eleazar is related to half the force. He also donates generously to their charities. We'll have to go higher up. Let me call a friend of mine who works with the FBI."
When Alistair got off the phone he said, "There's nothing more you can do today. Go home. Tell no one. We've got a meeting at seven o'clock in the morning here at my office."
I called my insurance agent. "Bobby, I need to change my coverage. I've got a baby on the way." I took out the most expensive policy on me that I could find and made sure it offered double indemnity. In the event I died a violent death, the policy would pay double. I already had a will in place that gave everything to Bella.
I went home.
Bella sat in the living room drawing. I knelt before her, kissed her lips, and kissed her abdomen. "Hello, beloved wife! Hello, precious baby!"
"You look tired." She stroked my cheek.
"Guess that means you'll have to join me in bed." I picked her up and carried my laughing bride to the bedroom. I tried to show her in every way I could how much I loved her.
That night, I held Bella close to me, trying to figure out how to protect her and my family. I never knew I could act that well. Somehow, I successfully hid my anguish, but I couldn't sleep. Instead, I watched my wife and whispered to the baby how much I loved him. I asked him to watch over his mother.
Alistair's friend at the FBI, Marcus, sent Ben Cheney, some golden child whom the agency adored, to meet us early the next morning. He was already at the office when I arrived.
"Hi," he shook hands with Alistair, "I'm your new paralegal. I've already had this place swept for bugs. We're clean."
"Okay." Alistair blinked.
"You hired me in a Skype interview last week."
"I'm sure you were marvelous," Alistair smoothly returned.
Ben said to me, "We've worked out a deal with your attorney. In exchange for your cooperation, and your testimony, you'll be given immunity. What we need is good proof of what he's done that will stand up in court."
"Understood." I gulped. "My wife and family need to be included in this."
"I can include your wife. Your father and mother and brother will have to cut their own deals."
"Fine." I sighed.
"We've had our eye on Eleazar Rodriguez for quite some time. We've never been able to find anything that stuck. We focused on him for another crime."
"What else did he do?"
"Do you know this woman?"
He placed a picture of a brunette on the table. She had a vacuous smile.
"She sort of looks familiar." I squinted at the picture, trying to place the face.
"Her name was Lauren Mallory."
"Was?" I recalled her name from the infamous wedding reception. She had run off with an older boyfriend.
"Was," Ben firmly answered. "She was strangled to death and shot in the abdomen. Her remains were found by a kudzu removal squad last year."
Alistair asked, "What does this have to do with Eleazar?"
"We think Eleazar killed her," Ben said.
I blurted, "Why?"
"We got a tip that said he was seeing her on the side. She was a minor when they started dating."
I could barely believe my ears. "How do you know all this?"
"Lauren's parents gave us her journal."
"If she's dead why did this not make the news?"
"It did. She was a one day story in another state where her body was found. Her parents don't live here anymore. They buried her quietly." Even since that wedding, her family had refrained from socializing and communicating with just about everyone. It made sense I wouldn't have heard about it. I always had my nose in a medical journal.
"We've found two other murders that we suspect him for as well." Ben placed two pictures down beside Lauren's. All the women looked eerily similar. Like Aunt Carmen, they were brunettes with long hair. I guess he was trying to find a younger version of her.
Ben continued, "Best I can guess, he loves having what others can't have. That's why when he cheated on his wife, it was always with married women. To the best of our knowledge, aside from Lauren, he's never fooled around with anyone single."
My head spun. "I don't get it. Why Lauren? The other women appear older."
"Chase Mallory's firm clashed with him. Most likely, Eleazar seduced her to get revenge when Mallory lured away some of his best clients. Based on Lauren's journal, it didn't sound like he was serious about her."
"Then how did she end up dead?"
"That, we don't know. As for the married women preference, Eleazar seems to be the type that likes rubbing it in the face of the husbands that he's slept with their wives. The more possessive the husband, the more he wants the woman."
"He couldn't get away with that for long in this town. It's too small for one thing."
Ben said, "But he has. And you were close to him and never heard a word."
My shoulders slumped.
"Look," Ben continued, "I know you're worried about your family. It's unorthodox, and my boss would kill me if he knew I suggested it, but I have a plan."
I listened and believed every word that he said. My heart broke at what he asked me to do to keep my wife and unborn child safe.
"Can't I put her in some kind of protection program?"
"The last person we tried that with – he and his family were dead within six months. I can't guarantee your safety that way. Or hers. But if you want to take that risk, it's your choice. You both qualify for the program."
Bella would never agree to leave the rest of the family. My shoulders sagged.
My cell phone rang at the end of our discussion. I looked at the screen and gulped.
I answered the call. "Yes?"
Eleazar growled, "You mind telling me what you're doing at an attorney's office?"
"He's a divorce attorney. What do you think I'm doing?" With those words, I sealed my fate.
"You're leaving Bella?"
"I'm not discussing this with you."
"Just remember I have eyes on you all the time." He hung up the phone. I went to the bathroom to lose my lunch. I was going to have to break my wife's heart tonight.
When I got out, Alistair clapped a hand on my shoulder and said, "Plan on staying with me for the next few days. I've got an extra room at my place."
"I don't know how I'm going to do this. I love her so much. She's pregnant."
"He killed your aunt and uncle without a second thought. Go with what the psych profile Ben showed us suggests. When all this is over, you can grovel on your knees for her forgiveness. Everything I know about Bella says she has a soft heart. You have to wait for a time period before you can even file. Then we'll drag out the divorce so hopefully it won't have to happen before we get evidence on Eleazar. You're not alone in this, Edward."
But she would be. I would do everything I could to make sure our family helped her.
My wife had never held a grudge against anyone in her life. I was counting on that as I approached the house to break the news to her.
An hour later, I pulled over by the side of the road and cried at the memory of Bella's devastated reaction. I took off my wedding ring and clutched it in my fist. I wasn't worried about going to hell when I died. I already was in it.
Sharp knocks upon my window startled me. Wiping at my eyes with one hand, I lowered the window to find Sheriff Remus Rey grinning at me. I kept the wedding ring hidden in my fist.
"Nice night, ain't it? Say, you okay, son? You look a little green around the gills."
Something seemed off about his expression. Then I remembered he was second cousins with Eleazar.
"I'm fine. Allergies are awful. Had to pull over to wipe my eyes," I lied.
"That's a mighty shame. Those allergies can be killers, especially this time of year. Drive safe, Edward. The roads are slick tonight. We always have someone on the road if you need anything."
He hit the top of my car with his palm twice. I drove away into the dark, feeling his eyes on me the entire time.
A car alarm going off in the distance caught my attention. I didn't want to think about what happened next after I left Bella.
Then came Christmas. What should have been a joyous holiday celebrated by my family instead proved to be a grueling affair. Eleazar had ordered us all to attend his celebration at a mountain retreat that he owned. He said he'd be entertaining new clients that he wanted us to charm. Something happened during that trip that changed the way I viewed our plight. Every time I wanted to throw my plan out the window and run home to Bella, I had only to hearken to the example of Angela Weber.
Mother, father, Jasper and I were at Eleazar's mountain hideaway for Christmas trying to negotiate our way out of this mess. We were having cocktails alone with him and Carmen before dinner was served.
Carmen stared at my bare left hand and asked, "Why is Isabella not with you?"
I took a sip of my wine and shrugged. "We separated." I acted like it didn't matter.
"I'm glad you left her at home," Eleazar said. "She is so timid. See that you stay away from her. I can't have her knowing what you are involved in." I almost spit my drink out on the beige carpet. His request seemed odd. It's not like Bella was a big mouth running around and gossiping.
My father asked, "What are you asking him to do?"
"I want all of you to stay away from Isabella. Consider it a test of your loyalty."
Esme looked aghast. "Why would you ask us to do something like that? I love my daughter. She's pregnant with our grandchild."
"Because I can." His grin made me want to knock his teeth out. "I hold all the power here, and the sooner you recognize that, the easier your life will be. I am most insistent upon this. Cut her out of your life in every way. I have eyes everywhere and will ascertain your progress."
"What do we get if we comply?" Jasper seethed.
"You get to keep your head on your shoulders, and Isabella and the child stay alive. It's simple, really."
I flexed my hands. I wanted to leap across the table and beat the life out of him.
"I've got a son on the way. What do you expect me to do when she gives birth?"
"Communicate through your attorneys like all civilized divorcees do."
We all stared at him gobsmacked. Esme pressed, "But–"
I saw a return of that wild look in Eleazar's eyes. Dad did too.
"We understand," I cut my mother off before she could vent. Father put his hand on hers to try in vain to calm her.
"Such a shame she's pregnant," Eleazar fretted in a low voice. "I find women to be . . . repulsive when they get large." He shuddered in disgust. It took everything I had to hide my reaction. I'd never seen Eleazar react that way towards someone pregnant. He'd always been considerate regarding Bella and kind to her. It was like a different person inhabited his body. Letting her think I was willingly divorcing her was bad enough. Taking away the family's support was inhumane.
He rose to his feet. "Let's dine. The room is this way." He led us to a banquet hall that was filled with people from our town. He pointed for us to take a seat at the head table.
He acted towards us like he always had. It took work to pretend to be happy. To act "normal."
An hour after the most miserable meal of my life, Eleazar went to a table on the other side of the room and started talking to Eric and Angela.
I thought I heard him say, "Eric, Angela, let's have a discussion in my office about your money's future with this company." He led them away.
Keeping composed features took most of my energy because I loathed Eleazar with a passion. I hoped Eric would tell him to go to hell and take his money elsewhere. Eric returned to the table. I didn't see Angela. My family and I retired for the night to the cabin Eleazar had given us.
Five hours later, I heard a timid knock on the door. I opened it to find a weeping Angela on the other side. She was wearing a long coat and a scarf. It had to be twenty below zero outside.
She stared at her feet.
"Angela? What's wrong?"
It struck me as peculiar that she kept her eyes on the ground.
She whispered, "Can I come in, please?" Her hoarse voice got my attention. Something was very wrong.
Mother came out of her bedroom and took one look at the poor woman and said, "Edward Anthony, where are your manners? It's freezing out there. Bring her inside and close the door before you let all the heat out."
With tears running down her face, Angela whispered, "I need help."
I said, "Of course. What is it?"
Her hands shook as she took off her coat and scarf and I did my best to keep a composed face. I'd seen all kinds of trauma in medical school, but when it's someone you know, it's hard not to let your feelings get involved. The first thing I noticed was the necklace of dark purple bruises she wore.
"Angela, can you look at me, please?"
Mother gasped. We both couldn't look away.
The poor woman's eyes – she had burst capillaries which had resulted in petechiae.
"Angela, I need to examine your eyes. Is that okay?"
"Yes," she whispered and winced. Despite the cold outside, Angela was wearing a man's black t-shirt and flannel sleep pants.
Carefully, I moved her hair out the way and lifted the fabric at the nape to look at her back. She had bruises in the shape of fists there. Dad came out of the bedroom at Mother's cry.
"I didn't know where to go." Angela wiped at her nose and sobbed.
"Who did this to you?" I asked, already guessing at the answer.
"Eleazar did. Right after dinner."
"I'm so sorry, Angela. No one deserves to be treated like that," I said.
Father asked, "Do you want me to call the police?"
"No." She sniffed. "He didn't rape me. I agreed to have sex with him, but of course I didn't consent to be beaten like this. I don't want the police involved. I don't want it getting out what I . . . did."
"I'm confused," Father said. "Can you please tell me what happened?"
I envied that quality about him. He could project compassion, and it made people want to open up to him. I'd watched him all my life.
Angela didn't hide her anger. "Eric and I have been having problems for a while. Eleazar took us in his office and showed me a tape of Eric with another woman. I was so angry and hurt. It was dumb, but I just wanted to hurt him like I was hurting. I let Eleazar talk me into bed. I slept with him because I was trying to make Eric jealous. I can't believe I cheated on him. What was I thinking?
"It was awful. I thought Eleazar was going to kill me. He kept squeezing my throat until I passed out."
"Let's get you examined," Dad said.
I envied how calm he could act in the face of this. Every time I looked at Angela's haunted eyes, I wanted to yell and throw things.
Father took her into the bedroom with Mother and said to Angela, "My wife will hold your hand."
An hour later, Angela was in one of Mother's nightgowns and resting in my room.
Father looked weary.
"How is she?"
"Multiple contusions. He wasn't gentle with her. See if you can get her to talk some more."
"Dad, has he done this before?"
"Not that I know of. I've never seen a mark on Carmen."
I brought Angela a glass of water and some pain killer and stood by her bed. Dad hovered in the doorway.
I asked, "Do you want me to call Eric?"
"No, I can't face him right now." Angela's tone was off. "Can I tell you something?"
"I'm going to leave Eric, because we have no future that I can see after tonight. I know he loves me, but I just don't respect him. I guess that makes me a horrible person after what I did tonight. I'm a hypocrite."
"No, I think it makes you human. Where are you going to go?"
"To my parents' house. They never liked Eric anyway."
"Do you need a ride?"
"If you could do that, it would be great. You want to know the worst part?"
As long as I live, I will never forget the shattered expression on her face. "When he came, Eleazar shouted someone else's name. He kept squeezing my throat and panting her name over and over again. I thought he was going to kill me."
"Whose name did he say?" I expected it to be Carmen's after what I'd seen of the women he'd allegedly killed.
Angela gave me an apologetic glance. "Bella's."
A blast of frigid air wafted across my face, dragging me out of the past back into the dark apartment. I stood up and shut a window I had cracked earlier to air out the place. I could hear a storm coming.
My laptop chimed. I checked it and found that another element of my plan had just come to fruition. I had an email that said, "Did what you asked. Later."
It didn't take long to hack into Carmen's cell phone. Her last message was the most gratifying. In the message, Eleazar bellowed, "What the fuck have you done with my money? It better all be back in the right accounts by tomorrow, Carmen, or I swear to God you're dead."
On Eleazar's phone, Carmen's vituperation at her ex made me smile. She left him a message: "Don't you dare threaten me, you asshole. You took my money, too. I want it back." I added those calls to the collection of evidence that I'd built over the past few months.
Sun-Tzu would approve of my sowing dissension through the ranks of the enemy. Neither Eleazar nor Carmen knew that within the past hour they had generously donated over forty million dollars to over two hundred charities. Ultimately, I wanted to see how much bite Eleazar had without a dime to his name. And I had only begun to make him suffer.
"Mmph," Bella said, and then she babbled some words in a language I did not recognize. I had no idea how I was going to earn back her trust and her forgiveness. I only knew I had to try, because she had my heart. I'd given it to her long ago.
Please review. More EPOV coming up.
Hot coffee really can do a lot of damage: .
Sun Tzu is fun to read: suntzu/
For more on the Witness Protection Program:
For more on crossing the Rubicon:
Kudzu is a plant well known in the South: