Read The Last Thing He Told Me Online
Authors: Laura Dave
When we get back to the hotel room, I lock the dead bolt behind us.
I start looking around the room, our belongings strewn on the floor, our suitcases open.
“Start packing your stuff,” I say. “Just throw it all in the suitcase, we're out of here in the next five minutes.”
“Where are we going?”
“To rent a car and start driving home.”
“Why are we driving?” she says.
I don't want to say the rest of it. That I don't even want to go to the airport. That I'm afraid they'll be looking for us there. Whoever they are. That I don't know what her father did, but I know who he is. And anyone who reacts to him the way that Charlie reacted to him is someone we can't trust. He's someone we need to get away from.
“And why are we leaving now? We're getting closerâ¦” She pauses. “I don't want to leave until we figure this out.”
“We will, I promise you, but not here,” I say. “Not where you could be in danger.”
She starts to argue, but I put up my hand. I rarely tell her what to do, so I know it may go south starting now. But still. She has to listen. Because we have to leave. We should be leaving already.
“Bailey,” I say. “There's no choice. We're in over our heads.”
Bailey looks at me surprised. Maybe she is surprised that I tell her the truth, that I don't sugarcoat it. Maybe she just wants to be done
trying to convince me that I'm wrong to head back home. I can't read her expression. But she nods and stops arguing, so I decide to take the win.
“Okay,” she says. “I'll pack.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“Yepâ¦” she says.
She starts picking up her clothes and I walk into the bathroom, closing the door behind myself. I look into the mirror at my tired face. My eyes are bloodshot and dark, my skin pallid.
I splash water on my face and make myself take a few deep breaths in, trying to slow down my heartbeatâtrying to slow down the crazy thoughts that are plowing through my mind, one of them finding its way to the surface anyway. What have I gotten us into here?
What do I know? What do I need to know?
I reach into my pocket, palm my phone. I cut my finger on the shattered screen, the small glass shards imbedding in my skin. I pull up Jake's contact and send a text.
Pls get back to me on this ASAP. Katherine “Kate” Smith. That's her maiden name. Brother Charlie Smith. Austin, Texas. Cross-reference for birth of daughter, matching Bailey's age. Name “Kristin”. Austin, Texas. Also check for marriage certificate and death certificate. Won't be reachable on my phone.
I put the phone under my foot and get ready to smash it. Even though it is the only way Owen can find us. It's also the way anyone else can. And if my suspicions are right, I don't want that. I want to get out of Austin without that happening. I want to get away from Charlie Smith and whoever may be with him.
But there is something gnawing at me, something I want to remember before I disconnect us from the world.
What is bothering me? What do I feel like I should be finding? Not Kate Smith, not Charlie Smith. Something else.
I pick up the phone and do another search for Katherine Smith, thousands of links popping up on Google for such a common name. Some that seem like they could be leading to the right Katherine but don't: an art history professor who graduated from University of Texas at Austin; a chef born and bred on Lake Austin; an actress, who looks quite a bit like the Kate I saw in the photos at the bar. I click on the link to the actress and pull up a photograph of her in a gown.
And it comes to me in a flash: what I am trying to remember, what struck me at The Never Dry.
There was that newspaper clipping I noticed when I first arrived at the bar.
The clip included a photograph of Kate dressed in a gown. Kate in a gown, Charlie dressed in a tuxedo, the older couple bookending them. Meredith Smith. Nicholas Bell. The headline read:
NICHOLAS BELL RECEIVES THE TEXAS STAR AWARD
. His name was also beneath the clipping.
Nicholas Bell. Husband of Meredith Smith. She was in other photographs, but he wasn't. Why was he in so few photographs except for that clipping? Why did his name sound familiar?
I plug in his name and then I know.
This is how the story started.
A young, handsome El Paso, Texas, Presidential Scholar was one of the first kids from his high school to attend college, let alone the University of Texas at Austin. Let alone law school.
He came from modest means, but money wasn't his motivation for becoming a lawyer. Even after a childhood where he didn't often know where his next meal was coming from, he turned down all sorts of job offers from firms in New York and San Francisco to become a public defender for the city of Austin. He was twenty-six years old. He was young, idealistic, and newly married to his high school sweetheart, a social worker, who had aspirations for beautiful babies, but none (at the time) for fancy houses.
His name was Nicholas but he quickly earned the nickname The Good Lawyer, handling the cases no one wanted, helping out defendants who wouldn't have gotten a fair shake with someone who cared less.
It is unclear how Nicholas went from there to becoming the bad lawyer.
It is unclear how he became the most trusted adviser to one of the largest crime syndicates in North America.
The organization was based out of New York and South Florida, where their top leaders lived in places like Fisher Island and oceanfront South Beach. They played golf and wore Brioni suits and told their neighbors they worked in securities. This was how the new regime operated. Quietly. Efficiently. Brutally. Their lieutenants preserved their stronghold in several core businessesâextortion, loan-sharking, narcoticsâwhile also moving into more sophisticated revenue streams, like international online gaming and brokerage fraud on Wall Street.
Most notably, though, they bulked up their OxyContin business long before their competitors saw the opening there. And while these competitors were still primarily shilling the traditional illegals (heroin, cocaine), this organization became the largest trafficker of oxycodone in North America.
This is how Nicholas wound up in their orbit. One of the organization's young associates found himself in trouble in Austin while distributing OxyContin at UT-Austin. Nicholas managed to keep him out of prison.
Nicholas then spent the better part of the next three decades fighting on behalf of this organizationâhis work leading to acquittals or mistrials on eighteen counts of murder, twenty-eight indictments for drug trafficking, sixty-one counts of extortion and fraud.
He proved himself invaluable and got wealthy in the process. But as the DEA and the FBI kept losing case after case against him, he became a target too. He remained unafraid they'd find anything that added up to his being anything more than a devoted attorney.
Until something went wrong. His grown daughter was walking down the street on her way home from her job, her beloved job. She was a clerk for the Texas Supreme Courtâa year and change out of law school, a new mother. She was walking home, after a long week, when a car struck her.
It would have looked like any other accident, any other hit-and-run, except that she was hit on a small street near her Austin house and it was a clear day and it was a Friday afternoon. And Friday afternoons were when Nicholas spent time at his daughter's home, watching his granddaughter. Just the two of them. It was his favorite time of the weekâpicking his granddaughter up from music class and taking her to the park with the good swings, the park that was a block away from where his daughter was killed. So he'd be the one to find her. So he'd be the one to see it.
His clients said they had nothing to do with the accident, even though he had just lost a major case for them. And it seemed like the truth. They had a code. They didn't go after people's families. But someone had done it. As vengeance. As a warning shot. There was
speculation that it had been members of a different organization who were aiming to secure his services for themselves.
None of these details mattered to his daughter's husband, though, who could only blame his father-in-law. The fact that it occurred on a Friday afternoon convinced him that his father-in-law's employers were involved, one way or another. And, regardless, he blamed his father-in-law for his deep entanglement with the kind of people that made it a question in the first placeâthat could bring this kind of tragedy to a family.
Not that The Good Lawyer had wanted his daughter to be hurt. He'd always been a great father and was devastated by her death, but his son-in-law was too angry to care. And his son-in-law knew things. He knew things The Good Lawyer had trusted him not to share with anyone else.
Which was why the son-in-law was able to turn state's evidence against his father-in-law and become the lead witness in a case that put his father-in-law in jail while casting a blow to the organization itselfâeighteen members of the organization implicated in the sweep. The Good Lawyer carted off behind them.
The son-in-law and his small daughter, who would have only a couple of memories of her motherâof her grandfatherâdisappeared after the trial, never to be heard from again.
The lawyer's full name was Daniel Nicholas Bell, aka: D. Nicholas Bell.
His son-in-law went by the name of Ethan Young.
Ethan's daughter's name was Kristin.
I drop my phone to the ground and smash it. I smash it in one quick motion, kicking it hard with my foot, as hard as I've ever kicked anything.
And I open the bathroom door. I open the bathroom door to get
Bailey and grab our things and get the hell out of Austin. Not in five minutes. Not in five seconds. Now.
“Bailey, we need to get out of here right now,” I say. “Just grab what you've already packed. We're going.”
But the hotel room is empty. Bailey is no longer there.
She is gone.
My heart stars to race as I reach for my phone to call her, to text her. And I remember that I just smashed my phone. I have no phone.
So I run into the hallway, which is empty, save for a housekeeping cart. I run past it and toward the elevator bank, the staircase. She isn't there. No one is there. I take the elevator down to the hotel lobby, hoping she went to the hotel bar to get a snack. I run into the hotel restaurants, each of them, into the Starbucks. Bailey is not there either. Bailey is not anywhere.
You make a hundred decisions. You make decisions all the time. And the one you don't think of twice shouldn't get to determine what happens to her: Go into your hotel room, double bolt the door. You think you're safe. But then you head into the bathroom. You head into the bathroom and trust a sixteen-year-old to stay on the bed, stay in the room, because where is she going to go?
Except she is terrified. Except there is that. Except she told you she didn't want to leave Austin.
So why did you believe she would go without a fight?
Why did you believe she would listen to you?
I race back into the elevator, race back down the hall. I am enraged at myself that my phone is broken on the bathroom floor, that I don't have it to text her. That I don't have it to turn on locations and track her.
“Bailey, please answer me!”
I head into the hotel room and look around againâas though she will be hiding somewhere in those 580 square feet. I search the closet, search under the beds anyway, hoping to find her huddled in a ball, crying. Needing to be alone. Miserable, but safe. How quickly I would take that! Miserable, safe.
The door swings open. I feel temporary relief. It is a relief I have never felt before, thinking Bailey is back, thinking that I just missed her when I did my frantic search in the hotelâthat she did, after all, just go down the hall to get a bucket of ice or a soda. That she went to call Bobby. That she found a cigarette and went outside to smoke it. Any of it, all of it.
But Bailey isn't standing there.
Grady Bradford is.
Grady is standing there in his faded jeans and backward baseball cap. His stupid windbreaker.
He drills me with an angry look, his arms crossed over his chest. “So you certainly went and made a mess of everything now,” he says.
Rotten wood cannot be carved.
The U.S. Marshals' office in downtown Austin is on a side street, its windows peering in on other buildings, peering in on the parking garage across the street. Most of those buildings are now dark and closed for the night. The parking lot is mostly empty. But Grady's officeâand his colleagues' officesâare lit up and bustling.
“Let's walk through this again,” Grady says.
He sits on the edge of his desk as I pace back and forth. I can feel his judgment but it's unnecessary. No one is judging me more than I'm judging myself. Bailey is missing. She's missing. She is out there, alone.
“How's this helping to find Bailey?” I say. “Unless you arrest me, I'm going out there to look for her.”
I start to walk out of the office, but Grady hops down from his desk and blocks my exit.
“We have eight deputies looking for her,” he says. “What you need to do right now is go through it all again. If you want to help us find her, that's the only thing to do.”
I hold his gaze but relent, knowing he's right.
I walk back over to the windows and look outside, as though there is something I can doâas though I'll spot Bailey somewhere on the street below. I don't know who I'm looking atâthe myriad of people walking through nighttime Austin. The sliver of moon, the only light, makes it feel even more terrifying that Bailey is roaming among them.
“What if he took her?” I say.
“Nicholas?” he says.
I nod, my head starting to spin. I go obsessively over everything I know about him nowâhow dangerous he is, the heights Owen went to get away from him. To keep his daughter away from Nicholas's world. How I've brought her back.
“That's unlikely,” Grady says.
“But not impossible?”
“I guess nothing is impossible, now that you brought her to Austin.”
I try to comfort myself, something Grady apparently has no desire to do. “He couldn't have found us so quicklyâ¦” I say.
“No, probably not.”
“How did you even find us?” I ask.
“Well, your call this morning didn't help. And then I heard from your lawyer, a Jake Anderson, in New York City. He told me you were in Austin and he couldn't reach you. That you went dark and he was worried. So I put a trace on you. Clearly not soon enoughâ¦”
I turn and look at him.
“Why on earth would you come to Austin?” he says.
“You showed up at my house, for starters,” I say. “I found that suspicious.”
“Owen never told me you were a detective.”
“Owen never told me about any of this. Period.”
It seems unwise to harp on the fact that I wouldn't have come here if Grady had told me what was going on, if anyone had told me the truth about Owen and his past. Grady is too angry to care. Still, I can't stop myself. If we are pointing fingers, they shouldn't be pointed at me.
“In the last seventy-two hours, I've learned that my
isn't the person I thought he was. What was I supposed to do?”
“What I told you to do,” he says. “Lay low, get yourself a lawyer. Let me do my job.”
“And what is that exactly?”
“Owen made a decision over a decade ago to get his daughter out of a life he couldn't protect her from otherwise. To give her a clean start. I helped him do that.”
“But Jake told meâ¦ I thought Owen wasn't in the protection program.”
“Jake would have been correct that Owen wasn't in witness protection. Not exactly.”
I look at him, confused. “What the hell does that mean?”
“Owen was set to join WITSEC after he agreed to testify, but he never felt safe. Thought there were too many holes, too many people he'd have to trust. And, during the trial, there was a small leak.”
“What do you mean a small leak?”
“Someone in the New York office compromised the identities we had secured for Owen and Bailey,” he says. “Owen didn't want any part of government involvement after that.”
“Shocking,” I say.
“It wasn't typical, but I did understand why he wanted to go another route. Why he disappeared with Bailey. No one knew where they were going. No one else in the Marshals Service knew. We made sure there wasn't a line that would lead to him.”
Grady flew halfway across the country to check on Owenâto check on his family, to help Owen out of this mess.
“Except you, you mean,” I say.
“He trusted me,” he says. “Maybe because I was new here then. Maybe I earned it. You'll have to ask him why.”
“Can't really ask him much of anything at the moment,” I say.
Grady walks over to the windows, leans against them. Maybe it's
because I'm looking for it, but I see something in his eyes, something like sympathy.
“Owen and I don't talk a whole lot,” he says. “For the most part, he's just been living his life. I think the last time he reached out was when he told me he was marrying you.”
“What did he say?”
“He told me that you were a game changer,” he says. “He said he'd never been in love like that before.”
I close my eyes against it, how deeply I feel that, and how deeply I feel the same.
“Truth is, I tried to talk him out of pursuing anything with you,” Grady says. “I told him his feelings would pass.”
“Well thank you for that.”
“He wouldn't listen to me about walking away,” he says. “But he did take my advice, apparently, when I told him he couldn't tell you about his past. That it was too dangerous for you. That if he really wanted to be with you, he needed to leave his past out of it.”
I think of the two of us in bed, Owen struggling with whether to tell meâOwen wanting to tell me the entire truth of his past. Maybe Grady's warning stopped him. Maybe Grady's warning stopped Owen and me from being in a position to handle this together.
“Is this your way of telling me I should blame you instead of him?” I say. “Because I'm happy to do that.”
“This is my way of telling you we all have secrets we don't share,” he says. “Kind of like your lawyer friend Jake? He told me that you guys were engaged once upon a time.”
“That's not a secret,” I say. “Owen knew all about Jake.”
“And how do you think he'd feel about you involving him in this?” he says.
I was running out of choices,
I want to say. But I know it's a fool's errand to argue with him. Grady is intent on putting me on the defensive, as if that will make it easier for him to pry something out of meânot exactly a secret, more like my will. My will to do anything but listen to what he thinks we should do now.
“Why did Owen run, Grady?” I ask.
“He had to,” he says.
“What does that mean?”
“How many photographs have you seen of Avett in the news this week? The media would be all over Owen too. His picture would be everywhere and they'd find him again. Nicholas's employers. Even though he looks different than he did, he doesn't look that different. He couldn't risk that kind of exposure. He had to get out of there before that happened,” he says. “Before he blew up Bailey's life.”
I take that in. It makes me understand in a different way why there was no time to tell me anythingâwhy there was no time to do anything but go.
“He knew he would have been brought in,” he says. “And when he was, he would've been fingerprinted, just like Jordan Maverick was this afternoon. And that would reveal who he actually was, game over.”
“So they think Owen's guilty?” I say. “Naomi, the FBI, whoever else?”
“No. They think he has answers they need, that's a different thing,” he says. “But if you're asking me if Owen was a willing participant in the fraud? I would say not likely.”
“What's more likely?”
“That Avett knew about Owen.”
I meet his eyes.
“Not any of the specifics, Owen never would have told him, but he knew he hired someone who came out of nowhere. No references to speak of, no ties to the tech world. Owen said at the time that Avett just wanted the best coder he could find, but I think Avett was looking for an angle. He wanted someone he could control, if it turned out he needed that control. And it turned out he did.”
“You think Owen knew what was happening at The Shop but he couldn't stop it?” I say. “That he stayed there hoping he could fix it, get the software operational, before he got caught in the crosshairs.”
“I do,” he says.
“That's a pretty specific guess,” I say.
“I know your husband pretty specifically,” he says. “And he's been watching his back for such a long time that he knew if The Shop scandal touched him, he'd have to disappear all over again. Bailey would have to start over. And this time, of course, she'd have to be told the history. Not ideal to say the leastâ¦” He pauses. “Let alone what you would've had to give up, assuming you chose to go with them.”
“Assuming I chose to go?”
“Well, you couldn't really hide out as a woodturner. Even a furniture designer. Whatever you call yourself. You would have to give up everything. Your job, your livelihood. I'm sure he didn't want that for you.”
I flash to itâone of my early dates with Owen. He asked me what I would do if I hadn't become a woodturner. And I told him that it was probably because of my grandfatherâmaybe it was because I associated woodturning with the only stability I'd ever hadâbut it was all I'd ever wanted to do. I had never really imagined doing anything else.
“He didn't think I'd choose to go with them, did he?” I say, more to myself than to him.
“That doesn't matter now. I've managed to tamp it down, to keep your friends at the FBI at bayâ¦” he says. “But I won't be able to pull rank much longer unless you guys are officially being protected.”
“Yes, meaning WITSEC.”
I don't say anything, trying to take in the weight of that. I can't begin to fathom being a protected person. What will that look like? My only experience with anything close is what I've seen in the moviesâHarrison Ford hanging out with the Amish in
, Steve Martin sneaking out of town to get the good spaghetti in
My Blue Heaven
. Both of them depressed and lost. Then I think of what Jake said. How in reality it's nowhere near as good as that.
“So Bailey will have to start over?” I say. “New identity? New name? All over again?”
“Yes. And I'd take starting over for her,” he says. “I'll take it for her father too as opposed to what's happening now.”
I try to process that. Bailey no longer Bailey. Everything she has worked so hard forâher schooling, her grades, her theater, herselfâit will be erased. Will she even be allowed to perform in musicals anymore, or will that be a tell? A way to lead people to Owen. The new student at a random school in Iowa starring in the school musical. Will Grady say that's another way they can track them? That instead of pursuing her old interests, she has to take up fencing or hockey or just completely stay under the radar. Any way you shake it out, it certainly means Bailey will be asked to stop being Baileyâat the exact moment she is becoming singularly, inimitably herself. It feels like a staggering propositionâto give up your life when you're a sixteen-year-old. It's a different position than when you were just a toddler. It's a different proposition when you're forty.
But still. I know she would pay that price to be with her father. We would both gladly pay that price, again and again, if it meant we could all be together.
I try to find comfort in that. Except there is something else gnawing at meâsomething Grady is skirting around that isn't sitting rightâsomething that I can't hold in my hands just yet.
“Here's what you've got to understand,” he says. “Nicholas Bell is a bad man. Even Owen didn't want to accept how bad of a man he was, not for a long time, probably because Kate was loyal to her father. And Owen was loyal to Kate, and to Charlie, who Owen was quite close to, as well. They believed their father was a good man with some questionable clients. And they convinced Owen of that. They convinced him that Nicholas was a defense attorney, doing his job. No illegal activity of his own. They convinced him because they loved their father. They thought he was a good father, a good husband. He was a good father, a good husband. They weren't wrong. He is just other things too.”
“Like complicit in murder. And extortion. And drug trafficking,” he says. “Like completely and totally unrepentant for how many lives he helped ruin. Like how many people whose entire fucking world he helped destroy.”
I try not to show it on my face, how that gets to me.
“These men that Nicholas worked for are ruthless,” he says. “And unforgiving. There's no telling what kind of leverage they would use to get Owen to turn himself in.”
“They could go after Bailey?” I say. “That's what you're saying? That they'd go after Bailey to get to Owen?”
“I'm saying, unless we move her quickly, it's a possibility.”
That stops me, even in the heat of this. What Grady's insinuating. Bailey being in danger. Bailey, who is wandering the streets of Austin alone, potentially already in danger.
“The point is, Nicholas won't stop them,” he says. “He couldn't stop them even if he wanted to. That's why Owen had to get Bailey out. He knew Nick's hands weren't clean in any of this. And he used that information to hurt the organization. Do you understand that?”
“Maybe you should say it slower,” I say.
“Nicholas wasn't always dirty, but at some point he started passing messages for leadership, from lieutenants in prison to leadership outside of prison. Messages that couldn't be sent another way except through a lawyer. And these weren't innocent messages. These were messages like who needs to be punished, like who needs to be killed. Can you imagine knowingly passing along a message that would result in a man and his wife being killed and their two kids being left without parents?”