The ringing of the telephone startled me from my poolside reverie. My wife answered the phone, listened for a moment, and turned toward me.
"Ben, I think it's one of your sisters," she said with a puzzled look on her face. "She sounds upset."
I sincerely doubted any of my sisters would be calling me. I was the black sheep of the family, the youngest child by 10 years. My sisters resented the preferential treatment – real and imagined – given me as the youngest by my mother and as the lone boy by my chauvinistic father. I think they harbored a bigger resentment because I was the only one of the old man's children with enough backbone to forego the financial benefits and strike out for a life of my own instead of blindly following his wishes.
I hadn't seen my siblings or my nieces or nephews in almost 10 years. When my parents were killed three years earlier, my oldest sister waited until after the funeral to even alert me to their deaths. The old man's last will in testament widened the chasm between me and my sisters. He gave most of his assets to charity and the rest of them to me as his lone son and heir. It seemed my sisters and their husbands had counted on the old man's death to alleviate a multitude of financial sins they'd committed over the years.
They even went as far as contesting the will – conveniently forgetting that their father was the head of the state bar association at the time of his death so finding someone willing to call him incompetent would be a stretch. In the end, after almost two years of legal wrangling, my sisters were left with even less than they'd started out with.
I didn't give a crap about the money. I wanted little to do with the old man or my sisters and I was more than willing to let them be his heirs. But, in the end, their actions managed to piss me off even more than my father's had so many years before, so I stuck it to them as best I could. I didn't need the money, but I took it anyway just to spite them. After all, they'd have done it to me. I know that for a fact because they'd done many things just to spite me over the years – including notifying me of my parents' death a week after the accident that killed them.
My wife and I had been married for almost four years and she'd met not a single member of my family. So I had no reason to believe my any sister of mine would be calling me when she was in need.
The fact must have been registered on my face because my wife noticed almost immediately.
"She asked for Trey," was all she said.
That's me. Or at least it used to be when I was what everyone expected me to be. For the first 25 years of my life, everyone called me Trey. In reality, my name is Benjamin Charles Wallace III. Anyone who has met me in the last eight years knows me as Ben, a fact not lost on my wife.
I was the dutiful son for the first 22 years of my life. I excelled at sports and academics in high school and dated all the right girls and joined all the right clubs in college. I was being groomed to succeed my father – who had succeeded his father – at the helm at Wallace, Reynolds and Myers, the top law firm in the little corner of the world where I grew up.
It wasn't until my internship after my second year of law school that I looked around and figured out that I wanted no part of the life my family had set aside for me. I saw frazzled men and women in their late 20s and early 30s who'd already lost a marriage or decided against one in the name of their sacred career. I saw people working 100-hour weeks and 30-day months and 52-week years. I remembered the fact that my father had never been to a single game or play in which I'd participated. I recalled that he'd missed my graduation from high school and college, too.
So I decided to hell with it and refused to play their game any longer. I quit my internship and took my history degree and hit the work force. Not one of my brighter decisions, to be honest. A history degree, to be frank, is as worthless as the proverbial tits on a boar hog.
Another semester in college was enough to earn a criminal justice degree and a job and in the police force in an affluent town 50 miles from home. I lasted a couple of years listening to the complaints of snotty rich bitches and their upwardly mobile husbands, but it was long enough to earn the enmity of my parents and sisters forever.
I fell in love – at least in serious lust – with a teacher's aide during my two years in Edgewood. She had a troubled past and a broken marriage but I didn't let that stop me.
She also had a six-year-old daughter who was a joy to be around. Before we started to date, I would watch the little girl during the times when Pam had to be at school of the evenings and before long Lauren would be my house more often than with her mother.
I guess "dating" is a poor euphemism for what Pam and I did. Pam and I got drunk one weekend when Lauren was at her father's and wound up in bed together. We did the same thing the next couple of weekends Lauren was away, too. Then I started to spend evenings at their house and before too long we lived together. I always managed to keep a separate residence for propriety's sake, but I rarely managed to be there.
Pam's early life was a mess. Her mother had died when Pam was just a little girl and she and her brother were raised by an alcoholic father. The duo was removed by Social Services when Pam's brother almost killed their father the night the man tried to rape her when she was 12. Her brother was 16 and spent the next two years in a juvenile home.
Pam spent the next four years getting molested by her father's brother after Social Services stuck her with that family. I guess it must run in the bloodline or something. She ran away from "home" when she was 16 and was pregnant not long after. If the first 16 years of her life were a mess, the next seven were even worse.
She wound up married to Lauren's father – amazingly enough another abusive alcoholic – and spent the next few years as his punching bag and drinking partner. She didn't get the courage to leave until her husband decided to turn her into a party favor to pay off a series of debts.
The divorce was acrimonious, to say the least. Although the couple had absolutely nothing, they managed to fight about every little piece of community property they owned – right down to the sheets on the bed.
Biff, her husband (and you thought Trey was a stupid nickname), was a constant threat to any relationship Pam and I managed to forge. He accosted me outside of the school on one occasion and threatened me by telephone on several others. Every night he spent in jail allowed him to concoct even more ways to have want he wanted – namely his resident punching bag back. One weekend he fired nine shots at her unoccupied car when she went to pick up Lauren from a court-ordered visit. Pam and I were in the middle of one of our frequent fights at that time, and I was getting drunk and laid by a stripper so I was blissfully unaware of any trouble.
The news about Pam's car, coupled with the fact that I was somewhat incommunicado, left the city administration worried about my personal safety. The questions they asked the next day at station and my reaction to the news forced me to reconsider my relationship not only with Pam but with the job itself.
Pam's life had given her no idea of the proper way to have a disagreement. To her, every argument was grounds for a physical confrontation. I have absolutely no desire to physically or mentally abuse a woman. I figure the last time I struck a female I was probably 10 years old. My life had given me no indication of the proper way to deal with personal issues. In some ways, I was my father's son: If something is screwed up, figure it out and fix it.
The upshot of those revelations is this: as soon as I heard Biff was out on bail, I paid a visit to his house and beat the living f•©k out him. I took every ounce of frustration in my life out on the poor bastard – not only for Pam but for Lauren, too. I was far angrier at Biff for putting Lauren through the trauma of being forced to stand in the living room of her father's trailer while he emptied a 9mm handgun into a vehicle to keep her and her mother from leaving.
Although I didn't anticipate accolades from Pam for my actions, I didn't expect her to physically confront me over the matter, either. I came as close to hitting a woman as I ever have in my adult life my last night in Pam's life. She slapped me twice for "interfering in her business" and I let it go without incident. But when Lauren wrapped herself around my legs as I tried to leave the house and Pam ripped her away and tossed her across the floor, my hand was already raised to strike when I caught myself.
"Stay the f•©k out of my life," was the last thing she screamed at me when I left seconds afterward. I was only too happy to comply and I left without looking back. Still, all those years later, it was Pam's voice on the line that sunny afternoon.
"Trey," she said. "It's Lauren. She's in trouble. You're the only person down there I can call to help."
The "relationship" with Pam was the first I'd had as an adult. Now I recognize that it wasn't an adult relationship at all, but that is irrelevant. At the time, I thought it was. The next couple of years after our break-up were a whirlwind for me. I managed to finish up law school – without my father's money – and moved South to start my practice.
I had marginal success for the first three or four years until a case under review by the state Superior Court got dumped in my lap because I was next up on the "indigent defendant" list. The case in question, a man who served almost 15 years for a rape he didn't commit, and my defense earned me national acclaim and my requisite 15 minutes of fame.
It also earned me a reputation and a staunch defender of civil liberties – something somewhat unheard of in the South which tends to lean so far right the John Birch Society looks liberal. The South is an enigma. Most folks are law-and-order gun nuts but social democrats. In short, they prefer all the privileges and none of the responsibilities of citizenship. They want to have the government provide for their every need but they don't want Big Brother to tell them what they can and can't do. It's an awkward situation to say the least.
Over the next few years I landed a couple well-paying, high-profile cases. Unfortunately for me, the defendants were each guilty as sin and each wanted me to help him get away with his crimes. Sure, I took their money (actually their parents' money usually) but I felt myself slipping down the moral rat hole. I didn't feel good about circumventing justice for the well-heeled. I would be happy to live in poverty if I could only defend those unjustly accused.
But I had learned during my time on the job that the police do thorough work and if you're arrested, there's a pretty good chance you did it.
I closed my private practice five years after I opened it and moved to child advocacy law. It certainly wasn't a lucrative move, but at least I could get to sleep at night without drinking half a bottle of scotch. In most states, any juvenile litigant is accorded an attorney in case his or her interests diverge from those of his or her parent. It was in my role as a child advocate that I met my wife.
My wife, Elizabeth, and I have far differing views on the role of law in society. Her father was a career police officer in the city where I landed and her only goal in life was to prosecute criminals. I find this to be a worthy goal, don't get me wrong, but I also firmly believe that a life sentence is not the only way to deter crime. Elizabeth does. She is a tough-as-nails litigator who more often than not takes on the toughest drug cases the county has to offer.
About eight years earlier, I was selected to defend a 13-year-old boy accused of bringing marijuana to school. There was no doubt in anyone's mind he'd done everything the court file alleged. Elizabeth was prosecuting and was pushing for the case to be moved from juvenile court. If she had succeeded, the boy would have been sentenced under mandatory minimum guidelines for having drugs in a school zone and would have spent the better part of the next 25 years in adult prison.
I'm not a fan of drugs. I'm less of a fan of kids who sell drugs. But I somehow doubted that sentencing a boy to spending his entire young adulthood in prison for a few ounces of weed was the message the Republican state representatives were trying to send with their "Tough on Crime" campaign. Eight years later, I understand that is exactly what they were trying to say – particularly if the defendant is black or Hispanic – but at the time I guess I wasn't quite as jaded as I am now.
As it was, the boy was going to spend until at least his 18th birthday in juvenile prison – maybe as long as his 22nd birthday – and I thought that punishment fit the crime better. When I managed to convince the juvenile judge of that fact, Elizabeth stormed out of the courtroom without a word – but with a scathing glance in my direction. It wasn't until almost a year later that one of our mutual friends set up the blind date.
By that time I was a financially well-off bachelor and I'd grown tired of dating social climbers and socialites. Neither was my cup of tea. I preferred a woman I could have an intellectual conversation with and one who wasn't interested in how much money I had or what clubs I belonged to – which, in order, were "plenty" and "none." I was beginning to doubt such a woman existed, so when a friend offered to set me up with a 30-ish professional who was a friend of his wife, I didn't see the harm in accepting. If nothing else, it got me out of the house for a night – something I hadn't done in a while.
Elizabeth thought the same thing. She said she was looking for someone who respected her goals – and the hours required to achieve them – and she was tiring of the Porsche-driving, Armani-wearing lawyers who seemed to think she should fall all over herself to date them.
We didn't recognize each other at first and we warmed to each other as our conversation drifted into neutral topics, directed by my friend and his wife. I found Elizabeth had a charming sense of humor and a biting wit that I found hugely attractive. She seemed to appreciate my low-key jokes and my knowledge of Major League Baseball.
It wasn't until we started talking politics that things got touchy – as they always do – but when we agreed to disagree and didn't try to change each other's mind, the attraction (at least my attraction) deepened. By then almost an hour had passed and Elizabeth asked where I worked. When I told her, she shot an irritated glance at my friend's wife.
"You said he was a social worker," Elizabeth said.
I soon remembered that my friend had been vague about Elizabeth's profession as well, referring to her as a "government employee."
The revelation that we worked in divergent areas of the legal profession – and that our paths had crossed before – didn't derail the evening, but it certainly put a damper on it. By the time we parted company with a simple "See you around, Counselor," from her, I was certain there wouldn't be a second date with Ms. Elizabeth Vargas.
If Elizabeth's date hadn't stood her up a few months later, there probably wouldn't have been. As usual, I was having a lonely drink at the bar of a restaurant near the courthouse when Elizabeth sat down a couple of seats down from me. She was talking (loudly) on her cell phone and finished the conversation with "Well, screw you!" before she slammed the phone back into her purse and ordered a martini.
I leaned forward and tipped my glass to her when her drink arrived and she actually favored me with a smile I hadn't seen since an hour into our only date.
"Hello, Counselor," I said. "You sound like I feel. Trouble in paradise?"
Elizabeth smiled again and invited me to sit next to her at the bar – an invitation I quickly accepted – before filling me in. She told me she had behind home plate tickets for a Major League Baseball game between her hometown team and mine. She really wanted to see the game and her date just unceremoniously told her he'd decided to return to his wife.
"I don't care about the wife part," she said. "He was an ass anyway and they probably deserve the other, but he could have waited until tomorrow."
I could tell she was half-joking, so I responded with "Isn't it terrible when other people make decisions without regard to your plans?"
"Damned inconsiderate if you ask me," she said with a full laugh. "How about you? Do you feel like seeing a crappy baseball team?"
I managed to keep a straight face when I told her I could probably scare up a date and take the tickets off her hands. The look on her face was priceless, but she recovered quickly and I couldn't keep from laughing.
"First, about the only way I could scare up a date on short notice is if I paid for one and I could only imagine how much it would cost to get a hooker to watch those bums play," I said with a chuckle. "Besides, you're the most knowledgeable baseball fan I know. I'd be happy to join you but only if we can have dinner first."
Despite the fact that Elizabeth was born and raised worlds apart from me (geographically and socially), we had a great time at the game and over drinks after my team won.
"That's all right," Elizabeth told me afterward. "My NFL boys play yours in two weeks. We'll see who has the last laugh then."
I asked her if that was an invitation for another date and she responded quickly.
"Believe it or not, tonight and a few months ago are the best dates I've had in years," she said. "We might not agree on a whole lot, but it's fun to spend time with you. Why not?"
We managed a couple of normal dates in the ensuing weeks before spending a Sunday afternoon at the stadium watching her city redeem itself on the football field. A couple of weeks after that we decided to date exclusively – not that I had much choice in the matter since Elizabeth was the only woman I'd gone out with in months – and we started talking long term after a nice Thanksgiving with her family.
Our lives got much easier when I demurred from taking any cases involving drug clients. Since I hate drug cases with a passion anyway, it wasn't too much of a hardship for me. Sure, things weren't always rosy between us. We had our share of arguments over important things – and more than a few disagreements over silly things – but we developed a form of fighting that left each of us with our dignity intact and our opinions unchanged. We knew we'd never agree on some things but we respected the other's point of view enough not to try to enforce our will on him or her.
Elizabeth had valid reasons for the way she viewed things; so did I. I didn't take it personally when she wanted to put a criminal in jail for as long as she could. She didn't take it personally when I tried to get the best possible outcome for a client, be it outright acquittal or a lesser sentence. Still, we probably wouldn't have made it to the altar if I hadn't moved from the criminal section to the civil section of Child Protective Services.
The years since our marriage have been wonderful. Elizabeth was promoted to senior prosecutor and I found a nice niche representing young adults seeking emancipation from their parents and children in custody disputes or who have fallen through the cracks at Social Services. Elizabeth gifted me with a daughter three years before and our home life got even better. I couldn't come close to counting the number of times I've seen her across the room and thought to myself how lucky I am that she's my wife.
When Pam called from 600 miles to the north, Elizabeth proved again how fortunate I am to be married to her.
"Lauren's been arrested," Pam said. "The police called a few hours ago. She got picked up there yesterday and she's in the County Youth Detention Center. Can you help me? Please. They told me she was dealing drugs."
A whole host of things went through my mind when Pam told me Lauren had been arrested, none of them good.
"Pam," I said. "I'm not sure how you got my number. But I don't do drug cases. I'll try to get the number of someone who can help Lauren..."
I didn't get to finish the sentence before Elizabeth smacked me on the arm and took the phone away from me.
"Of course he'll help you," she said into the receiver. "Can I call you back in about 10 minutes? Good. Let me get your number. Ten minutes, OK? Let me get a pen."
I looked at my wife in amazement as she headed into the house still talking to Pam. I was still sitting dumbfounded when she came back out.
"Get dressed and get to the lock up," she said. "We'll drop our Lauren off at my mom's on the way. We can't leave that girl in juvie for another night."
While I was dressing, Elizabeth was making a slew of phone calls, including calling Pam back. Once my daughter was safely ensconced at her grandmother's my wife lit into me.
"What the hell were you thinking?" she asked. "You don't do drug cases? This isn't about a drug case. This is about a little girl you loved like a daughter. You don't just put that off on someone else. Jesus Christ, we named our little girl after her and you're going to let her sit in jail?
"I don't have much detail, but my office is handling the case so I'm taking a leave of absence until this is cleared up. I called a magistrate and she's going to meet us at her office in two hours for a bail hearing. Tony Baker is the prosecutor on call, so it won't be easy to get her released. He hates drug dealers and, well, he hates you even more since you married me. Pam is flying down as soon as she can get a flight. I called a travel agency and bought the ticket. I have the deed to the house in my briefcase if we need to make bond.
"I'm not going to get involved unless I absolutely have to. But I will if I need to. All right?"
Mostly I just drove quietly to the courthouse. It seemed like the best thing to do, but my mind was racing.
It likely was a scenario I'd seen play out hundreds of times during the last few years. A girl like Lauren – troubled, from a broken home – gets mixed up with a guy and runs away. The next thing she knows she's involved in drugs and other nefarious deeds so deeply she can't get out.
When the shit hits the fan, the guy dealing the drugs convinces the girl to take the blame because as a female juvenile she'll likely get a lesser sentence. Then he disappears before the girl can change her mind.
The prisons are filled with girls like that. Drug sentences are almost all mandatory minimums. You can guarantee that, once convicted, the probation the girl was expecting will turn into five years in prison. The guys know this, of course. That's why they use the girls. Since the cops have the drugs and the initial confession, the conviction rate is astronomical.
It took almost 30 minutes before I got to see Lauren and she was pretty surprised when she saw me. I truly didn't think she'd remember me. She looked like a slightly younger version of my memory of her mother.
"Trey," she said with tears in her eyes. "Oh, my God. I don't know what's going on. They said I was dealing drugs. I don't deal drugs, Trey. I don't even like drugs. Please believe me."
I smiled at her in her yellow jumpsuit.
"It's OK, pumpkin," I said. "We're going to get you out of here as quickly as we can and we'll get to the bottom of this. Trust me on this. Now, tell me what happened."
The longer Lauren recounted her tale, the angrier I got.
"My dad and I come down here a couple of times a year," she told me. "We started a few years ago. It's boring down here. Dad meets with his friends and I just hang out at the pool or at the park next to the hotel.
"Yesterday, I was at the playground just goofing off like I always do. Then a cop came and grabbed me and the next thing I know I'm in here. I tried to call Dad but his cell phone is off. I gave them Mom's number, but I don't know what she can do. Please help me."
I asked a few more questions of Lauren before the guards came to tell me her court appearance had been scheduled. When I left the visiting area, Elizabeth was standing at the exit and she didn't look happy.
"You've got real problems," she said. "Take a look at this."
The preliminary police report said they had found almost half a kilo of heroin in Lauren's suspected backpack. The fact she was past her 14th birthday coupled with the weight of the drugs meant she could be tried as an adult. If the report was accurate, Lauren could spend the rest of her natural life in the state prison system.
It sounded to me for all the world like the scenario I anticipated, but I'd never suspected a man would use his daughter as a drug courier. But then again, we were talking about Biff Wells, too, and he was a shithead of the highest magnitude.
As bad as things looked, the bail hearing was worse. Elizabeth was right: Tony Baker was a prick the whole time. It didn't help that his boss – my wife – was sitting in the room. Still, it surprised me when he asked that Lauren be remanded without bail.
"She has no roots in the state," Baker told the magistrate. "In fact, she's a resident of another state, a state with difficult extradition laws. She faces a penalty of life imprisonment."
Lauren let out a gasp at his news because I hadn't had time to inform her yet.
"There is no viable reason Ms. Wells would return to this state to face charges," Baker continued. "And numerous reasons she would flee our jurisdiction at the first opportunity."
Unfortunately, I had little to refute Baker's claims. Hell, if I were facing life in prison, I'd get the hell out of Dodge the first chance I got, too. Still, I had to try.
"The defendant is a 14-year-old girl," I said. "She has no arrest record and from all indications is a model student in school. We're prepared to post significant bail on her behalf."
It was all I had in my arsenal and the magistrate didn't seem impressed. But my wife wasn't finished.
"As officers of the court, my husband and I are prepared to assume temporary custody of the child," Elizabeth said as she moved to the defense table beside me. "We'll post a half million dollars bond personally and agree to electronic monitoring at our house. We'll further promise to keep the child in the state and available to law enforcement officials at any reasonable time."
Now that impressed the magistrate. Of course I was looking at Elizabeth like she was crazy.
"You will personally ensure Ms. Wells will appear for court proceedings, Mr. Wallace and Ms. Vargas-Wallace?" the magistrate asked.
We each nodded and Tony Baker started to commit career suicide before the magistrate shut him down.
"Well, that certainly is all I need to hear," the woman said. "There is no need to post bond, but I'm sure Mr. Baker will feel more secure with electronic monitoring. I also want to make sure an adult will be present at the home at all times. Subject to that, the defendant is released into the custody of Mr. Wallace and Ms. Vargas-Wallace."
Tony Baker was nearly apoplectic and stalked after Elizabeth as she exited the room. She spun on him quickly.
"Don't say a single word," she hissed. "I'm not your boss right now, but unless Lauren f•©ks this up I will be again soon. So you think real hard about what you want your next statement to be."
Baker looked at her for a moment, turned on his heel and left without a word. He really didn't need any; his look said it all.
Forty minutes later Elizabeth and I picked up a still shell-shocked Lauren after she was processed out of the detention center.
"You're a lawyer?" she asked me. "I thought you were a cop."
Her questions continued right up to the time we picked up our Lauren at her grandmother's house. We didn't dawdle because a probation officer was scheduled to arrive at our house to hook up the elder Lauren's home confinement monitor within the hour.
"You can't leave the property for any reason," I told the teenager when we got home. "It'll be a pain but you'll have an electronic monitor around your ankle until we get something better figured out. Once your mom gets here we'll have to sit and talk for a little while. I need to get the whole story before I visit with the drug task force Monday."
Lauren told me she didn't know anything and, surprisingly, I didn't believe her. Elizabeth, in a reversal of roles, had accepted Lauren's story without question. I'd dealt with too many troubled kids in my practice to accept their assertions at face value, I suppose. Still, I chose to proceed diplomatically.
"Pumpkin, you might not know you know something," I told her. "But you might know it once we start talking. But I don't want you talking to anyone but me about this until I tell you otherwise. OK? That means your Mom, Elizabeth or even my Lauren without me in the room. I don't want to ask you too much until your Mom is here, but for right now I need to know if you have any idea where your Dad might be. Where were you planning to go today? Did he meet his friends in the hotel room or somewhere else?
"I want you to think about that for a little while and I'll be back. I'm sure you didn't sleep very much last night, so why don't you take a little nap and we'll chat some more when you're rested."
Edited by Old Rotorhead