The Last Word

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PROLOGUE:

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

           Stepping through the turnstile onto the concrete walkway, Rebecca accelerated her pace, visible puffs of exhaled breath coming faster from her lips as her pulse quickened. The look in her lawyer’s eyes at the end of court today had told her all she needed to know: it was over. They lost. Maybe she didn’t need to stick around to hear his final pitch to the jury tomorrow.  

           A candy-apple red sign with white lettering read “Pedestrians to Canada”, above an arrow pointing the way to the Rainbow Bridge. Few others had dared venture out here into the frigid darkness at this time of night, where the biting wind hit her face and snapped at the flags of the two countries tethered high overhead. She followed the thick metal guardrail that separated the walkway from the road.

           The warning signs had been everywhere on the way in: “Do Not Enter Without Your Passport or Enhanced Identification.” The court had taken her passport but overlooked that her enhanced driver’s license would suffice at the border checkpoint. She prayed the guard wouldn’t recognize her name from the slew of publicity accompanying her trial.

           She had left on a whim and arrived without a plan, driven by an uncontrollable fear inside urging her to flee. Carrying just a small backpack, she took a traditional cab instead of a rideshare, and gave an alias on the less than thirty-minute drive from her home to the US side of Niagara Falls.

            If she made it past the border, she had no idea where she would she go. Maybe she’d hop on a plane to a far-off land. Maybe she’d hitchhike to a remote village and live amongst the Inuit.  Either way she would be a fugitive on the run for the rest of her life. They would freeze her bank accounts, try to extradite her back.  They’d say it was consciousness of guilt that made her run. But it didn’t matter; anything but a lifetime in a cell. 

           The waters of the Niagara River churned some two hundred feet below the bridge. In daylight they were a vibrant turquoise, but at this hour a deep midnight blue. The bronze plate at the midpoint of the bridge marked the international boundary, and she stopped, looking over the panorama. One more step and she would technically be in Canadian territory, officially in violation of the conditions of her release. If she were caught here, her bail would be revoked and she’d be sent back to jail, lorded over by sheriff’s deputies as they transported her back and forth to the remainder of her trial in handcuffs. 

           From this vantage point she could see all the falls—the American, Bridal Veil and Horseshoe. The roaring torrent of waters caused a cool cloudy mist to billow into the atmosphere, where it was illuminated in dazzling neon pink, yellow and green. Despite the breathtaking beauty of the scene, the heavy burden weighing on Rebecca’s mind left her unable to draw even an ounce of serenity or joy from it.

           Suddenly, her cell phone buzzed in her jacket pocket. A text from her daughter Jane: “Where are you?”

           Rebecca’s lips quivered and she felt tears begin to roll down her cheeks. Jane. Her sweet Jane. How could she leave her behind? She tried to collect her frenzied thoughts, but the pounding gush of the falls grew deafening in her ears, not allowing her to focus. She should turn and run back to savor her daughter’s embrace. But no, either way, Jane would be losing her mother. At least if she continued on, maybe someday they could be reunited without the glass of a visitation booth between them.   

           She wanted to text back. To explain. To beg for forgiveness. But fear surged again inside her, reminding her of the phone’s connections to cell towers and GPS systems, and what peril those now afforded her. She looked around to make sure no one else was walking nearby, then dropped her phone over the rail. She followed the glow of the screen until it grew faint, the final sunset of her old life, before losing sight of it in the darkness, and feeling her heart sink with it into the gloom below.

           Another pedestrian now approached on the bridge. Rebecca looked quickly away. Her body began to tremble, and she tucked her arms tighter into her coat pockets. Decision made, she wiped her eyes and forged ahead.

CHAPTER 1:

Saturday, August 4, 2018

           Jack Hamilton hated these phony, mutual-admiration-society events. He wasn’t even sure why he came. Forgiveness? Absolution? If nothing else, for Simon. Whatever the case, he was completely uncomfortable, and his ill-fitting rental tux wasn’t even the half of it. The ticket in his hand read in a festive cursive: “The 10th Annual Buffalo Opioid Addiction Awareness Ball.” Jack handed it to a young woman seated at the reception table. 

           “You’re at table twelve, sir.” Her smile faded as he walked by without a word. 

           The room was flooded with beaming faces stuffed into tailored tuxes and handsome evening gowns; a gaggle of entitled posers.  But in some ways, he envied the little bubbles of happiness they floated along in. Pulling out their checkbooks to place a bid at the silent auction, then patting themselves on the back for making a difference for the cause. They had no idea how ugly the disease truly looked face-to-face. 

          Jack made his way through the ballroom, passing under modern art installation lights and floral arrangements, to a bar in the corner of the massive room. “I’ll take a bourbon. Small batch. Two cubes.”

           The bartender held up a bottle. Jack nodded his approval.  “Make it a double. Three cubes.” he said, seeing the line at the bar starting to build behind him. 

           The bartender handed him the drink and offered Jack a friendly “Cheers.” Jack nodded and swirled the glass while he threw a few bucks in the tip jar. He stepped to the side of the bar and took a long sip. The ice cooled the beverage just enough for his heart to send blood to his tongue, sweetening the taste. He exhaled deeply and surveyed the room.

           When he saw her Jack nearly dropped his glass. Rebecca Monroe. At first glance she could have been any of the other slender women parading in a ball gown, but her gait had an unmistakable grace. Her long brown hair was tied up in an elegant bun, and her form hugging sheath dress revealed that the years had been kind to her. From where he stood, Jack thought he could still see the softness of her face and the gentleness in her eyes that he had once known.

           Born into substantial wealth, Rebecca had always shown a great compassion for those less fortunate than her. She also had a fondness for the limelight which, apparently, she had not relinquished. She clung to the arm of one of the most unmistakable figures in the city—Richard Champlain—the first sitting United States Senator from Western New York in more than half a century. He was tall, trim, and striking in his own right. A dapper patrician loved by both sides of the political aisle. Quite the rare feat in this town.  

           Jack took another draw from his glass, watching the pair as if a spectator at the movies, when her eyes locked on his. He quickly averted his gaze, like he hadn’t noticed. But when he glanced back, he could see her coming towards the bar. Alone. He reminded himself of the promise he had made years ago to never again speak to Rebecca Monroe, and bolted. Jettisoning away, he nearly ran over another tuxedoed guest. 

           “Hey, watch it asshole.”

           Jack jerked his head up, then burst out laughing when he saw a friendly face holding only an expression of feigned anger. The man laughed back.  

           “Ollie.” Jack said. “How the hell have you been?” 

           Oliver Nguyen, dark-haired with a slight build and a shimmering smile, was the best real estate attorney Jack knew. There wasn’t an easement he couldn’t work in or a lien he couldn’t get off a title. He was a classmate of Jack’s from law school. 

           “No complaints here. How about you?”

           Before answering, Jack stole a glance over Ollie’s shoulder to see that Rebecca’s advance had turned to retreat now that he was engaged in conversation, and he let out a breath. “Every day in Buffalo is like a small slice of heaven.” He gave a wry grin. “How’s the practice?”

           “Business is booming. I can’t remember seeing so many cranes in the skyline. Buildings going up everywhere. That makes for a lotta paper to push around, which is good for me.” Ollie tilted his head. “So, how are things down in the criminal court trenches?”

            “Grindin’ it out day after day.” Jack deflected, not eager to discuss his middling law practice. “What brings you out to this exultant affair?”

            “Just playing the game. Trying to kiss the right ass.” Ollie smiled.  “I could ask the same of you. This doesn’t seem like an event the Jack Hamilton I know would seek out.” 

            “I have a friend on the board who sends me a ticket every year. At four hundred a plate it’s hard to turn down.” Jack paused, forcing himself not to look away. “And, you know, I’m sort of an honoree. A misery recipient.”

            Ollie grimaced and his face flushed with embarrassment. “Oh, right—Jack, I’m so sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” He reached out a hand to touch Jack’s shoulder.

            “It’s fine. Please, I don’t need any more pity. Tell me a joke or something for chrissakes.”

           Without missing a beat Ollie read the mood and changed his tone. “What happens when you give a male lawyer Viagra?”

           Jack shrugged. “I don’t know. Tell me.”

           “He gets taller.” 

           It was corny but Jack laughed anyway. “You’re the dick. You know that, right?”

           The laughter of the two old friends was interrupted by the MC’s voice booming through the PA system. “Laaadies and gentlemen, thank you all for coming to the Tenth Annual Buffalo Opioid Addiction Awareness Balllll! We have a wonderful night planned! This cause is near and dear to all our hearts. Before you put on your dancing shoes, make sure you visit the silent auction, then have some fun! But seriously, every dollar spent tonight goes to combat opioid addiction in our city, and your being here tonight means so much to the movement. We’re truly all in this together.” The MC paused for applause. “It is my distinct honor and pleasure to introduce our guest of honor tonight, District Attorney James Atlas. DA Atlas has instituted policies that try to treat this addiction crisis as a medical problem instead of throwing users in jail. He has saved countless lives in our county with his efforts. Ladies and gentlemen, please give a round of applause.”

           There was a hearty cheer from the crowd.

           “Thank you, Charlie.” James Atlas said. “Thank you for having me. It is truly a blessing to be here.”

           “Here we go.” Jack said to Ollie, rolling his eyes.  “Join me for another drink?” 

           They walked through fragrant mists of perfume to another bar set in an opposite corner of the room as Atlas’s campaign stump speech began onstage, despite his next election being more than a year away. The line at the bar receded as people turned their attention to the stage. Jack ordered another bourbon, Ollie a martini. 

           Atlas’s voice droned through the speakers. “This is a top priority of my office. Lives are at stake. I go to bed thinking about how I can help save these souls every night and I wake up wondering the same thing.”

           “Oh, please.” Jack murmured. “This guy never thought about anyone but himself.”

           Ollie laughed.  “He’s not all that bad, is he?”

           Jack studied Atlas, his onetime subordinate, on the stage, and understood why Ollie might think that. Atlas was handsome and fit, with a square jawline, close-cropped blond hair, and an All-American college wrestling pedigree. But all Jack could think of was what Ollie didn’t know. How, when Jack was at the lowest point of his life, Atlas had pounced, like a hyena taking a meal it didn’t earn, to steal the nomination for DA. The job Jack was heir-apparent to. What he believed was his destiny.

           Jack shrugged in response.

           “In a different world that might have been you up there giving this speech.”

           “I don’t know about that, Ollie.”

           “Sure, it could have. You would have made a great DA.”

           Atlas continued, full of false humility on the stage. “But I’m no hero. My wife is the real hero. Jennifer, please come join me.”

           Listening from the head table, Atlas’s wife put a hand over her mouth to feign surprise at the invitation.  Completely choreographed, Jack thought, watching her stride onto the stage with a confidence that belied her astonishment.  

           “For those of you who don’t know, my wife Jennifer runs several of the most successful addiction clinics in the city. She fights for this cause every day. She’s on the ground, trying to help people get clean, to find housing, to get out of this vicious cycle of addiction.” Atlas paused for effect. “Before they end up in court with me!”

           Jack surveyed the laughing crowd. He spotted Rebeca and her esteemed date again, mingling with the crowd but now coming towards his and Ollie’s corner bar. Their eyes connected for a second time. Jack swore under his breath. He wasn’t going back on his promise to himself if he could help it.

           “Ollie, it was great to see you, friend, but it looks like they’re getting ready to serve dinner. I have to find my table.”

           Ollie nodded in understanding. “Great to see you, Jack. Take care of yourself.”

           “Thanks, buddy.”

           They shared a hearty handshake, held each other’s gaze for a moment, then parted ways through the crowd. 

           Jack found table twelve as the MC was exhorting the guests to get out to vote for DA Atlas next year. He scanned the faces at the linen covered ten-top, not recognizing a soul. No one noticed as he sat in silence and enjoyed the remainder of his bourbon. He then turned over the wine glass and poured some of the complimentary red that had been placed on the table.

           Sipping the wine, Jack glanced through the gyrating, branched centerpiece and spied Rebecca and Senator Champlain standing near the head table congratulating Mr. and Mrs. Atlas, who had descended from the stage. They were encircled by a group of other local luminaries all doing the same.

           “Here you are, sir.” said a waiter. “Careful, the plate is hot.”

           Jack eyed the fine china plating. Surf and turf. A nice meal for a nice party, but he wasn’t hungry. He excused himself to no one in particular and stepped outside of the ballroom into the humid summer evening. He immediately began to sweat through the stupid monkey suit he’d felt compelled to wear. He lit a cigar and thought of him. Simon. The reason he was invited to this weary shindig. All the homicide scenes, suicides and gruesome car accidents he’d been called to back when he was a prosecutor hadn’t prepared him for arriving home to find his own son’s limp and lifeless body lying on his bedroom floor.

           Jack and his wife told their friends he must have been curious and tried it for the first time, got a bad batch. But Jack knew he’d missed the signs. Maybe because he wasn’t around enough to notice, chasing ever greater heights in his career. The politicking, the fundraisers, the speaking engagements. All for what? A dead son and second place. But each morning, when his senses arrived, a dull ache was there to remind him.

           Behind him Jack heard the clinking of bracelets and a voice. “Hey there.” 

           He spun. Rebecca. Standing close enough to spill her champagne down his back. Nowhere to run this time. 

           Despite his promise, Jack’s good manners won over. “Oh, hello.”

           “It’s been a long time, Jack.”

           “Yeah. What, twenty years?”

           “Something like that.” She paused. “I know it’s been forever, but first of all I want to apologize.”

           Jack shook his head. “Don’t. Please. There’s nothing to apologize for.”

            Rebecca’s shoulders slumped. “Jack, it might have been different with us—” she hesitated, “If not for…”

            “Rebecca, you don’t owe me any explanation. I remember what happened.  It’s in the distant past. So, if you’re trying to make amends for your own peace of mind, or whatever this is, I forgive you. But you don’t have to do this for me.”

           “Jack, really, I just wanted you to know—” she looked deep into his eyes. “For what it’s worth, I know our lives have branched in ways we never could have foreseen back then, but I always wanted to circle back and make things right. I just needed to find my way.”

            Jack shifted his weight on his feet, trying to think of an appropriate response.

            “There you are!” came the self-assured voice of Richard Champlain. 

           Rebecca’s face said it—the moment was gone. She turned, her professional face back on. “Hi sweetheart. I just ran into an old friend of mine. This is Jack Hamilton.” 

            Jack held out a hand. “Senator.”

           Champlain looked pleased that no introduction was necessary. He gripped Jack’s hand and greeted him with a practiced, hollow warmth, before turning to Rebecca. “Darling, our dinner is getting cold.” 

           She pursed her lips in a polite smile. “I was just coming back now.” 

           “Nice to meet you.” said Jack. 

           “The pleasure is mine, I’m sure.” said the Senator, not even glancing back.

           But Rebecca looked over her shoulder at Jack as she walked away, and it sent a shiver down his spine.

Comments

Trevor Wood Tue, 22/06/2021 - 14:06

This is a very solid start, an intriguing prologue and a good set up of the main protagonist. Using the Ball is a clever way of getting some backstory in early without slowing the pace and it introduces some interesting political angles which I'm sure will be developed later. I'd certainly read on from this point. There's the occasional bit of over-writing e.g. 'consciousness of guilt' when just 'guilt' would suffice but that's being really picky.