Lifeline
Chapter 1

The ringing 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 and 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 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.

Trey.

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 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 in the evenings and before long Lauren would be at 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 being 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 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 what 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 the 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 hell 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 hell 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 provided 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.

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