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Authors: Steve Martini

Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller, #Crime

Undue Influence

BOOK: Undue Influence
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There is a special clarity of thought, an unclouded focus which is granted to those who shed all fear and panic, who in the end stare death in the eye, and who leave this world on their own terms. It was this clarity of mind that, in those final days, gave Nikki a superiority of will that I could not resist. Lingering as she was on the edge of death, I found myself unable to refuse her a thing. She would merely ask, and it would be as if she had cast some indefinable spell. All I could say was yes. Floating on an ether of immeasurable courage in a sea of white sheets and pillows, in her last days Nikki finally found her own form of
UNDUE
INFLUENCE
over me. Nikki’s doctors said she had a virulent strain. They called it “small oat cell cancer.” Before they could move, it had metastasized, migrating from the lungs to a dozen other organs. In those weeks after the funeral, when I finally came to dodge my own self-pity, I dwelled most on the irony. That Nikki, who had never touched a cigarette in her life, who on sensing any negligible odor of smoke would turn on her heels and walk from the most crowded restaurant, who swore off as the foulest of vices all forms of tobacco that Nikki should die of lung cancer. It was just eleven months from diagnosis to death. It has become the mirror image of a nightmare where sanctuary is found in the wakened mind. My only peace with Nikki’s death now comes when I can sleep. And it seems I am condemned to insomnia. The lawyer in me demands some explanation, some cause to which I can affix blame not for the usual reasons of money damages, but to make sense of this, to give our existence symmetry, some rational design. My lawyer’s mind turns, even in its rare moments of sleep, searching for some reason, a logical accounting for this loss, this deprivation now shared with my daughter, Sarah, who is seven. But as to the question of why, there seems no answer. When I told them Nikki never smoked, our family doctor and the oncologist both looked at me skeptically. This was the classic case of smoker’s cancer, they told me. And by their looks, the expressions they flashed to each other, lighted by the muted glow of backlit X rays, they squeezed out and conferred their benefit of doubt on me, meager as it was. Our eighteen years had been a rocky marriage at best, more my fault than hers. An affair during our separation, now some years ago, the constant strain of my law practice the eternal jealous mistress. Each of these brought their own form of anguish to Nikki. Now I read with increased emphasis articles in popular literature linking cancer to stress, and wonder to what degree Nikki’s life was shortened by me. The therapist to whom I trekked for weeks after Nikki’s death a referral from my physician told me this was normal, the phase of guilt. He tells me disdain for my dead wife will come next, a loathing that she has left me behind to struggle alone. Each, he says, is an aspect through which I must pass, like the portals of life. Before, when I shared the trauma of her looming death with Nikki, it was always easier. When diagnosed, we entered the phase of denial together. The tests were wrong. She was healthy and young. The doctors, with all of their science, after all, could not test or measure her will to live. We would beat this thing together, subdue the demon inside her body by sheer force of will if necessary. My conversations with Nikki were laced with bravado, though to my own ear my words too often resonated with fear. In the end it was Nikki who accepted the truth first, leaving me behind to grasp at the haggard images of naked hope, my dreams of last-minute miracle cures from the shelves of science. Toward the end I found myself in silent bargains with a higher being with whom over the years I have not been on familiar terms. When I finally subdued my panic, I caught up to Nikki in the serenity of her own acceptance. One afternoon she took my hand, and in the dappled sunlight of our yard, she told me that she had two wishes: to die quietly with her family in her own home, free from the contraptions of modern medicine, and another more personal request that I now fulfill.

“Bottom line, she was an unfit mother.” Melanie Vega, Jack’s new wife, speaks of Laurel in the past tense as if she were dead.

In this, I suspect, is some inkling of how Jack and Melanie see their case, like blue chips in a bull market. For two days their lawyer has chewed on Laurel’s past. He’s had her fricasseed and fried, spiced with indiscretions, and served always in the same way, marinated in liquor.

In the valleys that have been Laurel’s life, this is a common theme, though I’ve seen no hint of the bottle through all of this. “Move to strike. Not responsive.” Gail Hemple, Laurel’s lawyer, is on Melanie in the witness box like mustard on rye. The judge tells the court reporter to strike the witness’s last statement. Alex Hastings, up on the bench, has the look of perpetual irritation carved on his face like a death mask. This is taking far too long. Laurel is Jack Vega’s former wife, Nikki’s sister, and the reason I am here, a blood oath that I would look after Laurel. It was Nikki’s last request, for a lot of reasons. Our children are close. While Sarah is younger, she dotes on her two cousins, Laurel’s teenagers. But in the end, for Nikki, I think it came down to a more basic denominator of nature, an older sibling’s watchful eye over her little sister. Nikki was three years older than Laurel.

Though initially I thought I might grow to regret my involvement here, the fact is that Laurel’s cause has grown on me. This may be for no other reason than that Jack, my former brother-in-law, is a jerk of the first water. That his experts and lawyers have Laurel on the run merely proves the adage that there is no such thing as justice either in or out of court. I’ve spent this time here in Family Court as a kibitzer in Laurel’s corner, for support. Another lawyer is doing her case. Laurel is thirty-six, an inch taller than I, a sandy blonde with green eyes and dimples that look like they’ve been press-punched beneath high cheekbones. When she cares for herself she’s an attractive woman. In the years when our families spent time together for holidays, and one brief vacation, Laurel always wore the look of leisured money. But the two-hour facials are now faded memories like her leached-out salon-driven tan. In recent months she has been forced to fend for herself and her children. With a college degree in the arts, when the divorce came Laurel had no immediately marketable skills or experience. To fill in around the ragged edges of support, which comes hit-and-miss from Jack, she has taken a job at the health club where she used to be a member, teaching aerobics and swimming. At night she chases a teaching credential at the university something with a better future. Laurel’s fall from affluence can be measured with the precision of the Pearl Harbor bombing. It came one morning with the service of process, divorce papers on the front steps of the family home, and like an iron bomb in a powder magazine it has scattered the pieces of her life. A rational person might not call this a sneak attack. Over the years Laurel has either known or suspected of Jack’s infidelities. They came with the regularity of the seasons, as predictable as blossoms in the spring.

Like Ferdinand the Bull, Jack’s testosterone level always elevated along with the length of skirts in warm weather. And Jack did little to conceal these moments of misdirected passion. If it weren’t so painful, I’m certain he would have carved notches in his dick to commemorate the conquests. Jack adhered to the lofty view that adultery was merely the application of democracy to love. He saw it as simply another act of statecraft. Some might call this the culture of politics in the state capital, where Jack has held a seat in lower house for twelve years.

Still, Laurel was dazed when the marriage ended, in the same way one is stunned when a graceless pickpocket murders his victim. Today her face is a map of tension. It is this look that forms the greatest resemblance to Nikki. She and Laurel were not just siblings, but novitiates of that common order the Sisters of Worry. Laurel’s two kids, Danny, fifteen, and his younger sister, Julie, wander in the hallway outside like the walking wounded, shell-shocked and numb, excluded from this family boneyard by the court’s Solomon-like wisdom. During Nikki’s illness and later, after her death, Laurel’s children have spent a good deal of time at my house. It has been a place to go while their mother is trying to get their lives together. Laurel sits directly in front of me, just beyond the railing, at the counsel table. “The witness will answer the question,” says Hastings. “Do you understand?”

Melanie nods.

“Speak up,” says the judge.

“Yes.”

Melanie Vega is a woman who thrives in the eye of a storm, a personality that grows on animus like a reactor with its carbon rods removed.

She gives the judge a smile, something between coy and confused, as if it were possible to forget Hemple’s last query whether she was screwing Jack when he was still married to Laurel. The subtleties of Family Court. One of the reasons I do not practice here. “You don’t remember the question, Mrs. Vega?” The judge looks down at her in the box. She makes a face, a wan smile, like maybe with repetition it will get better. “Perhaps counsel can repeat it,” says the judge.

Hemple nods, only too happy to oblige.

“I asked you whether you had carnal relations with Jack Vega during the time that he was married to, and living with, Laurel Vega.” With the term “carnal relations,” Melanie’s eyebrows are halfway to the crown of her head. It is an expression that says it all, like leave it to lawyers to reserve the “f” word for what they do to each other and their own clients. “Carnal relations?” she says.

“Fine,” says Hemple. “Sexual relations. Is that better?”

From Melanie’s perspective, a woman on the make with another lady’s husband, she’s not so sure. “I might have,” she says.

“Yes or no? We’re you sleeping with the Petitioner while he was married and living with the Respondent?” Hemple is tiring of the mind games. A slight shrug, a concession by the witness. “What if we were? Consenting adults,” she says. She looks up at the judge and smiles. Cute but still adultery. Hemple moves squarely in front of the witness box, still far enough away not to be seen as coercive. “While you were doing all this consenting,” she says, “with Mr. Vega did you ever happen to do any of it at the Vega family home maybe during periods when Laurel Vega was away?”

“We might have. I didn’t keep a calendar,” she says.

“Might have?”

“Once or twice,” says Melanie. A grudging point. She looks the judge square in the eye, brazen, and shrugs as if to say, since his wife wasn’t using Jack’s bed, somebody else might as well. All she gets back from Hastings are deep furrows above bushy eyebrows.

“I see. So you were just doing your duty, servicing another woman’s husband?”

“Objection.” Jack’s lawyer is on his feet.

“Withdrawn,” says Hemple.

Hastings is shaking his head as if to say that having scored her point, Hemple is now screwing it up. “Then let me ask you another question,” says Hemple. “Were the Vega children in the home when you were sleeping with their father during the time their mother was away?” Melanie’s eyes dart. She swallows a little saliva. She finally gets the point, but a little late. Hemple’s not interested in Melanie’s sexual conquests, but in Jack’s poor judgment as a father. I look at Laurel, now sitting a little sideways in her chair, eyeing me for effect, to assess the impact of this latest dirt. I can guess where this information comes from. The kids have talked, lucie and Danny Vega. It is the single consolation for Laurel in an otherwise disastrous custody battle, that the children have taken their mother’s side in this brawl. Their father, Jack, is of that political ilk from the southern part of the state who has lived for a decade like one of the barons of yore, members of a political class who believe they invented privilege and still hold the patent. If money is the mother’s milk of politics, Jack has nursed his lips to a purple hue.

According to election records he’s tickled the udders of various special interests for more than a half million dollars in the last six months.

This is money no doubt he intends to put in his pocket. Term limits in this state now have politicians eating their elders. Jack must either run for Congress against another prince of patronage more encrusted with incumbency than himself or find another job. He now talks of “the people” with acid bitterness for their stunted vision in derailing his gravy train. Now I hear he is making plans to peddle
INFLUENCE
as a lobbyist in D.C., where many of his legislative cronies have gone, to the great political Valhalla on the Potomac. What motivates Jack’s action here in court is not entirely clear. But then most legal family disputes are more a matter of venom than reason. He has unleashed a colony of highly paid investigators and therapists, like carpenter ants, to chew on the dry rot of Laurel’s character, to show that she is unfit to raise her own children. My own thinking is that Jack is at a crossroads. If he moves east he must either seize custody and take the children or continue to pay child support to Laurel. This has been drawing down his legislative paycheck in a major way, a terminal hemorrhage for a man who likes to drink lunch at the Sutter Club and vacation at Cabo San Lucas. Several months ago Jack fell in arrears on support. Laurel, through her lawyer, brought contempt proceedings, and then stuck a lance a little deeper by sending copies of her legal papers to the media in Jack’s district. It was just before the last election, a press release with a suggested headline:
DEADBEAT
LAWMAKER
DITCHES
FAMILY
. In the end, Jack was forced to muster a loan from his political slush fund to come current, or go to jail. He won the election based on a handful of absentee ballots cast before Laurel punctured him with her journalist’s javelin. But Jack has never been one to miss an opportunity for revenge. It came three months ago when Danny, who is fifteen, was picked up on juvenile charges that raised questions of parental neglect and seemed to undercut Laurel’s continued custody of the children. The kid was caught joyriding with three friends in a stolen car. One of the other boys had a juvenile record longer than Melanie’s face up on the stand. “It’s a simple question,” says Hemple. “Did you sleep with Mr. Vega in the family home when the children were present?”

BOOK: Undue Influence
9.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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