Read The Last Thing He Told Me Online
Authors: Laura Dave
“Bailey, I love your dress,” I said.
We were in Los Angeles, having dinner at Felix, in Venice. I was working with a client on her house in the Venice Canals and Owen thought it would be a perfect opportunity for Bailey and me to spend some time together. This was probably the eighth time we'd met, but usually she tried to get out of doing more than just having a meal together. Usually, it wasn't the three of us for a whole weekend. We took her to see Dudamel at The Hollywood Bowl, which she loved. And now we were having dinner at the best Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, which she also loved. The only thing she didn't love? Doing it all with me there.
“That shade of blue looks so pretty on you,” I said.
She didn't answer, didn't even offer a rote head shrug. She ignored me, downing some of her Italian soda.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” she said.
And she was up, and gone, before Owen could answer.
Owen watched her go. When she disappeared around the corner, he turned toward me.
“I was going to surprise you,” he said. “But maybe this is a good time to tell you that I'm taking you to Big Sur next weekend.”
I was staying in Los Angeles for the week to finish work on my project in the Canals and then I was planning on flying up to Sausalito on Friday. We had talked about taking a ride down the coast to
visit cousins of Owen's. The cousins, he said, lived in Carmel-by-the-Seaâa small, touristy town on the end of the Peninsula.
“There aren't actually cousins in Carmel-by-the-Sea?” I said.
“Someone's cousins, probably,” he said.
“That's a benefit of me,” he said. “I don't really have any cousins anywhere. I don't come with family at all, except Bailey.”
“And she's a boon,” I said.
He smiled at me. “You really feel that way, don't you?”
“Of course.” I paused. “Not that the feeling is mutual.”
“It will be.”
He took a sip of his drink and moved it across the table toward me.
“Have you ever tried a bourbon Good Luck Charm?” he said. “I only drink it on special occasions. It's a mix of bourbon and lemon and spearmint. And it works. It brings luck.”
“What do you need luck for?”
“I'm going to ask you something that you're going to say is too soon to ask you,” he said. “Is that okay?”
“Is that the question?” I said.
“The question's coming,” he said. “But not like this, not when my kid's in the bathroom, so you can start breathing againâ¦”
He wasn't wrong. I hadn't taken a breath at all, worrying he was actually going to pop the question. I was terrified if he did that I wouldn't be able to say yes. And I wouldn't be able to say no.
“Maybe I'll ask you in Big Sur. We're staying on top of these cliffs, surrounded by oak trees, prettiest trees you've ever seen in your life. And you get to sleep beneath them, you sleep in yurts, which look up at all those trees, which look out on the ocean. One of them has our name on it.”
“I've never slept in a yurt,” I said.
“Well, you won't be able to say that next week.”
He took his drink back, took a long sip.
“And I know I'm getting ahead of myself, but you should probably know, I can't wait to be your husband,” he said. “Just for the record.”
“Well, I'm not going on the record,” I said. “But I feel the same.”
This is when Bailey came back to the table. She sat down and dug into her pasta, a delicious southern Italian rendition of Cacio e Pepe. It was a decadent mix of cheese and spicy pepper and salty olive oil.
Owen leaned in and took a huge bite, right off her plate.
“Dad!” She laughed.
“Sharing is caring,” he said, his mouth full. “Wanna hear something cool?”
“Sure,” she said. And she smiled at him.
“Hannah got us all tickets to see the revival of
Barefoot in the Park
tomorrow night at the Geffen,” he said. “Neil Simon is one of her favorites too. Doesn't that sound great?”
“We're seeing Hannah again tomorrow?” she said. The words were out of her mouth before she could stop herself.
“Baileyâ¦” Owen shook his head.
Then he gave me an apologetic look:
I'm sorry she's being like this.
It's really okay, however she wants to be.
I meant it. It was okay with me. She was a teenager who hadn't had a mother for most of her life. All she had was her father. I didn't expect her to be good with the prospect of sharing him with someone else. I didn't think anyone else should expect that of her either.
She looked down, embarrassed. “Sorry I justâ¦ have a lot of homework to do,” she said.
“No, please, it's fine,” I said. “I have a ton of work to do too. Why don't you two go to the play? Just you and your dad. And maybe we'll meet up back at the hotel, if you end up getting your work done?”
She looked at me, waiting for the catch. There was none. I wanted her to understand that. Regardless of what I was going to do right in terms of her, and what I was going to do wrong (and based on how things were starting, I knew I was going to do a lot that she considered wrong), there was never going to be a catch. That was a promise I could make her. As far as I was concerned, she didn't have to be nice. She didn't have to pretend. She only had to be herself.
“Honestly, Bailey. No pressure either wayâ¦” I said.
Owen reached over and took my hand. “I'd really like us to all go together,” he said.
“Next time,” I said. “We'll do it next time.”
Bailey looked up. And I saw it there before she could hide it. I saw it in her eyes, like a secret she didn't mean to let me in onâher gratitude that I had understood her. I saw how much she needed someone to understand her, someone besides her father. How she thought it for just a secondâthat just maybe that someone might turn out to be me.
“Yeah,” she said. “Next time.”
And, for the first time, she smiled at me.
We walk down the long hallway lined with those art photographs, passing by one of the California Coast. The gorgeous coast near Big Sur. The photograph is at least seven feet long, a bird's-eye view of that almost impossible stretch of road carved into the divide of steep mountain, rock, and ocean. I'm so focused on it, taking some comfort in the familiar landscape, that I almost miss it when we pass the dining room. I almost miss the dining room table inside. My dining room tableâthe one that was featured in
The table that helped launch my career.
It's my most reproduced piece. A big box store even started replicating the table after the
feature came out.
It stops me. Nicholas said his wife carefully picked every piece of furniture in this house. What if she came across the feature in
? What if that was what led her to the table? It was possible. The feature was still on their website. Enough clicks in recent years could have led her to her lost granddaughter, if she had been searching closely enough, if she had only known what to be searching for.
Enough moves, after all, led me here, to this house I don't want to be inâa piece of my past finding me here, as if I need another reminder that everything that matters in my life is at the mercy of what happens now.
Nicholas pulls open a thick, oak door and holds it for me.
I avoid looking back at Ned, who is a couple of feet behind us. I avoid looking at the drooling dogs, who stroll by his side.
I follow Nicholas into his home office and take it inâthe dark leather chairs and reading lamps, the mahogany bookshelves. Encyclopedias and classic books line the shelves. Nicholas Bell's diplomas and accolades hang on the walls. Summa cum laude. Phi Beta Kappa.
They are framed, proudly.
His office feels different from the rest of the house. It feels more personal. The room is filled with photographs of his familyâon the walls, on the credenza, on the bookshelves. The desk is devoted entirely to photographs of Bailey, though. Photographs that are framed in sterling silver, photographs that are blown up into twice their normal sizes. They are all of small Bailey with her dark eyes, wide like saucers. And her tender curlsânone of them yet purple.
Then there is her mother, Kate. She holds Bailey in nearly every photograph displayed: Bailey and Kate eating ice cream; Bailey and Kate cuddling on a park bench. I focus on one of Bailey at a few days old, in a little blue beanie. Kate lies in bed with her, her lips to Bailey's lips, her forehead against her forehead. It just about breaks my heart. And I assume that is why Nicholas keeps it in his viewâwhy he keeps all of them in viewâso every day they will just about break his.
This is the thing about good and evil. They aren't so far apartâand they often start from the same valiant place of wanting something to be different.
Ned remains in the hallway. Nicholas nods in his direction, and he closes the door. The thick, oak door. The bodyguard is in the hallway, the dogs in the hallway.
And the two of us are inside the office, alone.
Nicholas walks over to the bar and pours us each a drink. Then
he hands mine over and takes a seat behind his desk, leaving me the chair in front of itâa deep, leather chair with gold etchings.
“Make yourself comfortable,” he says.
I sit down with my drink in my hand. But I'm not happy about having my back to the door. I have the thought, for a second, that it isn't impossible someone could walk in and shoot me. One of the bodyguards could surprise me, the dogs could spring to action. Charlie himself could storm in. Maybe I have misunderstood what Owen put in his will. Maybe in this attempt to get Bailey and Owen out of what I have gotten them deeper into, I have left myself alone in the lion's den. A sacrifice. In the name of Kate. Or Owen. Or Bailey.
I remind myself that's okay. If I do what I came here to do, I'll accept that.
I put my drink down. And my eyes travel back to the photographs of baby Bailey. I notice one of her in a party dress, a bow wrapped around her head.
It provides me some comfort, which Nicholas seems to notice. He picks it up and hands it to me.
“That was Kristin's second birthday. She was already talking in full sentences. It was amazing. I took her to the park, maybe the week after that, and we ran into her pediatrician. He asked her how she was doing and she gave him a two-paragraph answer,” he says. “He couldn't believe it.”
I hold the photograph in my hands. Bailey stares back at me, those curls a prelude to her whole personality.
“I believe it,” I say.
Nicholas clears his throat. “I take it she's still like that?”
“No,” I say. “Monosyllables are more her speed these days, at least when it comes to me. But, in general, yes. In general, she is a star.”
I look up and see Nicholas's face. He looks angry. I'm not sure why. Is he mad that I have done something to make Bailey not like me the way I wish she would? Or is he mad he has never been given the chance himself?
I hand him back his photograph. He places it back on his desk, moving it obsessively to the place where it was before, keeping each piece of her that he has exactly where he can find it. It feels like a bit of magical thinking, like if he holds on to her just so, that will help him find her again.
“So, Hannah, what can I do for you, exactly?”
“Well, I am hoping we can come to an agreement, Mr. Bell.”
“Nicholas, please,” he says.
“Nicholas,” I say.
I take a breath, moving forward in my seat. “You didn't even hear what I have to say yet.”
“What I mean is no, that's not why you're here, to come to an agreement,” he says. “We both know that. You're here in the hopes that I'm not who everyone is telling you I am.”
“That's not true,” I say. “I'm not interested in who was right or who was wrong here.”
“That's good,” he says, “because I don't think you'd like the real answer. People don't tend to work that way. We have our opinion and we filter information into a paradigm that supports it.”
“Not a big believer that people can change their minds?” I say.
“Does that surprise you?”
“Not usually, but you're a lawyer,” I say. “Isn't convincing people a large part of the job?”
He smiles. “I think that you're confusing me with a prosecutor,” he says. “A defense attorney, at least a good defense attorney, never
tries to convince anyone of anything. We do the opposite. We remind everyone you can't know anything for sure.”
Nicholas reaches for the brown box on his desk, a smoke box. He opens the lid and takes out a cigarette.
“I won't ask if you want one. Disgusting habit, I know. But I started smoking when I was a teenager, there wasn't much else to do in the town I came from. And I started smoking again in prison, same issue,” he says. “Haven't been able to kick it since. When my wife was still with us, I'd try. Got those nicotine patches. Have you seen those? They help if you have the discipline, but I don't pretend to anymore. Not since I lost my wifeâ¦ What's the point? Charlie gives me grief about it, but there isn't much he can do. I figure I'm an old man. Something else will get me first.”
He puts the cigarette to his mouth, silver lighter in hand.
“I'd like to tell you a little story, if you'll indulge me,” he says. “Have you heard of Harris Gray?”
“I don't think so,” I say.
He lights up, takes a long inhale.
“No, of course not. Why would you have? He introduced me to my former employers,” he says. “He was twenty-one when I first met him and very low on the totem pole. If he had been any more senior, the gentlemen at the head of the organization would have called in one of their in-house lawyers to help him out and I wouldn't be sitting across from you now. But he wasn't. And so I was called in to defend him by the city of Austin. Random assignment sent to the public defender's office on a night I was working late. Harris was caught with some OxyContin. Not a ton, but enough. He was charged with intent to distribute. Which, needless to say, was his intent.” He takes another drag. “My point is, I did my job, maybe a little too well. Usually Harris gets locked up for a period of time, thirty-six months,
maybe seventy-two in front of the wrong judge. But I got him off.”
“How did you do that?” I ask.
“The way you do anything well,” he says. “I paid attention. And the prosecutor didn't expect that. He was sloppy. He didn't disclose some of the exculpatory evidence, so I got the case dismissed. And Harris went free. After that, his employers asked to meet me. They were impressed. They wanted to tell me so. And they wanted me to do it again for other members of their organization who found themselves in trouble.”
I don't know what he expects me to say, but he looks at me, perhaps just to make sure I'm listening.
“These gentlemen at the head of Harris's organization decided I showed the kind of prowess that was integral to keeping their workforceâ¦ working. So they flew me and my wife to South Florida on a private plane. I had never flown first class before, let alone on a private plane. But they flew me there on their plane and put us up in a waterfront hotel suite with our own butler and made me a business proposition, one that felt difficult to say no to.” He pauses. “I'm not quite sure why I mention the plane or the oceanfront butler. Maybe to suggest to you I was more than slightly out of my depth with my employers. Not that I'm saying that I didn't have a choice in working for them. I believe you always have a choice. And the choice I made was to defend people who, by law, deserve a proper defense. There's honor in that. I never lied to my family about it. I spared them some of the details, but they knew the general picture and they knew I didn't cross any lines. I did my job. I took care of my family. At the end of the day, it's not all that different from working for a tobacco company,” he says. “The same moral calculation needs to be made.”
“Except I wouldn't work for a tobacco company either,” I say.
“Well, we don't all have the luxury of your strict moral code,” he says.
There's an edge to how he says this. I'm taking a chance, arguing with him, except it occurs to me that this may be precisely why he is walking me through his history, the version of it he wants me to see. To test me. To test whether I'm going to do exactly thatâargue, engage. This has to be why he presented his story this wayâthis is the first test. He wants to see whether I'll blindly let him spin in order to ingratiate myself to him or whether I'll be human.
“It's not that my moral code is so strict, but it seems to me that your employers are causing all sorts of harm and you knew that,” I say. “And you still chose to help them.”
“Oh, is that the distinction?” he says. “Do no harm? What about the harm you do when you rip a child from her family right after she loses her mother? What about the harm you do when you deprive that child of knowing everyone who could have reminded her of her mother? Everyone who loved her?”
That stops me. And I understand it now. Nicholas didn't run me through his story to present himself in a better light or to see if I'd engage with him. He told me so I'd lead him here, exactly to this place, where he could put his fury out there. He wanted to wound me with it. He wanted to wound me with the harm Owen causedâwith the price of what he chose to do.
“I think it's his hypocrisy that I find the most staggering,” he says. “Considering that Ethan knew exactly what I was doing and what I wasn't doing for my employers. He knew more than my own children. In part because he knew about encryption and computers. In part because he and I became close and I let him in. Let's just say
he helped me do certain things. That's how he was able to cause the trouble that he did.”
I don't know how to argue with that. I don't know how to argue with Nicholas about any of this. This is how he sees himself, as a family man, as a wronged man. And he sees Owen as the man who wronged him, which makes Owen just as guilty as he is. I can't argue with something so intrinsic to his understanding of himself. So I decide not to. I decide to go another way.
“I don't think you're wrong about that,” I say.
“No?” he says.
“The one thing I know about my husband is that he would do anything for his family. And that's who you were to him, so I imagine he was quite involved with whatever you asked him to be involved with.” I pause. “Until he decided he couldn't be anymore.”
“I'd already been working for my employer for a long time when Ethan came into my daughter's life,” he says. “For other clients too, mind you. I continued to fight for people you'd approve of, I still work for those clients, though I'm sure you're less interested in my good deeds.”
I don't say anything. He isn't looking for me to say anything. He is looking to make his point, which is when he starts to get there.
“Ethan blamed me for what happened to Kate. He blamed the men I worked for when they had nothing to do with it. She was working for a Texas Supreme Court judge, a very influential Texas Supreme Court judge? Did you know that?”
I nod. “I did.”
“Did you know this judge had shifted the Texas court sharply to the left and was imminently set to cast the deciding vote against a large energy corporation, the second largest in the country? If you
want to talk about real criminals, these gentlemen were dispelling highly toxic chemicals into the atmosphere at a clip that could make your eyes swell shut.”
He watches me.
“My point is that this judge, Kate's boss, was writing a majority opinion against the corporation. It would lead to sweeping reform and cost the energy corporation close to six billion dollars in improved conservation efforts. And the day after my daughter was killed, the judge came home to a bullet in his mailbox. What does that sound like to you? A coincidence? Or a warning shot?”