Lifeline
Chapter 17

I picked Lauren up at daycare just like nothing was wrong. She gave me her normal hug and then clung to me as I carried her to the car. She was babbling a mile a minute as I strapped her into her car seat, telling me in great detail about a picture of a cat she had drawn that day.

We went to the house and went through our nightly routine. We played on the floor with her dinosaur action figures and read a story aloud. We were just sitting down to her favorite meal – fish sticks and macaroni and cheese – when the door opened and Elizabeth came in.

Lauren bolted from her chair and hugged Elizabeth's legs as my wife struggled to put down her jacket and briefcase. When she accomplished that, she bent down and hugged Lauren. I could see tears in Elizabeth's eyes when she looked up at me. I looked away, focusing on the ketchup on my plate.

"Oh, good, I didn't miss supper!" Elizabeth said in a bright voice. As I had done on the way to the car, she hoisted Lauren onto her hip to carry her back to the table.

"I didn't expect you," I said in what I hoped was a calm voice. "You can have my plate and I'll microwave a pot pie."

"That's OK," Elizabeth said. "I can do the pot pie thing. I should have known tonight would be catch as catch can and let you know. Besides, I know you love fish sticks."

I hated fish sticks. I hated macaroni and cheese. Elizabeth felt the same way about both. But Lauren loved them and she didn't like eating things that were different from everyone else at the table. We had learned that when we moved her from baby food to solid food almost three years prior.

"Let's split the fish sticks and the pot pie," I suggested.

"Compromise," Elizabeth said, offering a tired smile. "I like that."

"I want pot pie!" Lauren chimed in. She was a perceptive child and I'm certain she noticed the air of frostiness between the two people who loved her most in the world.

"Then we'll split everything into thirds," I assured the little one.

While Elizabeth worked the microwave, Lauren and I did the math. Two fish sticks and a certain amount of mac and cheese went onto three plates.

"I'm going to let you burn your hands off separating the pot pie," I told Elizabeth.

She rolled her eyes and pulled out a pot holder – something I rarely used.

We managed to keep the conversation light during dinner, easy to do because Lauren hadn't seen her mother in two days and she was eager to fill her in on all the details that had been missed. Elizabeth paid rapt attention.

Lauren headed off to grab her favorite game after we ate.

"You go ahead and play," I told Elizabeth. "I'll do the dishes and then I have a few things to do."

Elizabeth looked at me for a minute and I saw her eyes moisten again.

"I would prefer we all play together," she said. Her voice wavered – again a first, in my experience. I nodded and started to fill the sink. Elizabeth turned to Lauren when she toted the box back in the room. "Go ahead and set it up while Mommy and Daddy take care of the dishes."

Elizabeth slid in beside me at the sink. I found I was uncomfortable in proximity to the woman I loved. It was that way still when we put Lauren to bed and found ourselves alone in the living room.

"I know you're angry with me," Elizabeth began.

"It's not anger," I interrupted, the hurt evident in my voice. "It's something that I never thought I'd see. I'm disappointed in you."

Elizabeth studied the tabletop.

"I get that," she said after a long pause.

"I'm not sure you do," I said. "Look, I'm not sure I've told you this and I probably should have. You're the person I base my perception of right and wrong on. When I'm pondering a decision, I ask myself, 'What would Elizabeth think if I did this or that?' Now I found that your idea of right and wrong is far more warped than mine. You don't even have the decency to be ashamed. Your Dad said he thought you were in denial. I think it's just that you accepted that wrong works better for you in these instances."

"That's not true," Elizabeth said.

"It seems true to me," I countered.

"Let's talk about that in a minute," she said. "We have more important things to talk about. First, I want to deal with your issues with Paul Scarborough. I did not, outside of a drunken night 15 years ago, have any relationship with him beyond professional. I want you to understand that."

"Did you not think it germane to inform me that you were now in close proximity to a man you slept with?" I asked. "Particularly when that man is trying to recreate that magical night from so long ago?"

Elizabeth sighed.

"I didn't want to create a problem where none existed," she said. "Look, Paul is a nice guy. I think he's a good cop. When I was 21 years old and he was 24, I thought he was handsome and I let him pick me up at a bar. In the intervening years, before he moved to an administrative role, I have seen him perhaps 10 times and never in a situation outside of a professional, group setting. I would wager that the first time I thought about him since you and I met was when I saw his name on the witness list for Lauren Senior's preliminary hearing."

"You were very evasive when I asked you about him," I pointed out.

"It wasn't evasion," Elizabeth told me. "I didn't know much about him. He worked narcotics – outside of the Task Force – for a few years and then went undercover when he came aboard the team. I didn't follow his career. It doesn't speak highly of me, but I really wasn't positive that he was the same guy until I saw him in the courtroom that day. I knew the guy I hooked up with was a cop named Paul. There is more than one cop named Paul in the city. I'm not sure I even got his last name."

"But you said you'd been in meetings with him beforehand," I noted, spotting the inconsistency in her story – just like a good lawyer would.

"In group meetings," Elizabeth said. "He was low-level until the shakeup after the Lauren Senior fiasco."

"What shakeup?" I asked.

"Oh, that's right," Elizabeth said. "You were in the beginning stages of the Huntley thing and I probably didn't mention it. If I did, you probably didn't pay attention."

"That's not fair," I said. "I paid attention to you."

"I know and I was joking," Elizabeth said, frowning and looking down at the table again. "I don't like having to wonder how my statements are going to be construed around you. I want to get past this."

"Then be honest with me!" I said in a voice that probably a little louder than it should have been.

"I have been," Elizabeth said in exasperation.

"No, you haven't," I said. "Honesty means you tell me that you and one of your subordinates had hooked up one night while you were in college. Honesty is telling me that he is flirting with you at work. Honesty is telling me that you are feeling flattered by his attention and upset at my lack of attention. It is not parsing your words so you come out in a better light than you deserve."

Elizabeth stared at me for a moment but finally nodded.

"Yes," she said simply. "I was flattered. I knew you'd be upset if I told you. So I didn't tell you. And yes, I would be upset if CYS hired someone that you once slept with as a paralegal and she started paying too much attention to you. Yes, Ben, I screwed up. But I did not – not for a moment – consider betraying your trust."

I shook my head, seeing that she didn't get it.

"You betrayed my trust when you kept it from me," I said slowly, enunciating each word carefully. "You betrayed my trust when you broke your promise to me that you wouldn't search through the Huntley documents. You betrayed my faith in you when you set aside your principles and allowed your Task Force to present fake documents to me. You betrayed my trust again when you found out and didn't tell me. Do you understand this? It is not one thing, Elizabeth. It's an entire wave of betrayals breaking over me at one time. And every single day, I find out more and I realize that I know less about you than I thought I did. That is why we're at this point. It is a cumulative effect. Now I have to force you to even admit that you were wrong – and those admissions always come with a caveat. There is no caveat here, Elizabeth. You made the choices that put us here. You lied to me. You deceived me. You have made it clear to me that putting Tiny Huntley in prison was more important to you than keeping your family together. You've made it clear to me that keeping the Task Force out of trouble is more important to you than ensuring you are there to walk Lauren to her first day of school in a couple of years."

Elizabeth's face was pale and she was chewing on her lower lip as she tried to stem tears.

"I am fighting and scratching to hold this family together," I continued. "I am forced to work twice as hard because you seem intent upon tearing it apart with your deluded notions of right and wrong, of good and bad. I can't keep holding things together if you are intent upon pulling them apart."

"I wrote my letter of resignation today," Elizabeth said.

"I know you did," I told her. The information caused her to tilt her head inquisitively.

"How?" she asked.

"Judge Valasik paid me a visit after you left her office," I said. "She filled me in on your decision since you didn't think I should be alerted."

"I was going to see you after I talked to her!" Elizabeth said. "I wanted her to know why I was doing it. You already knew. Ben, I thought that was what you wanted!"

"It doesn't matter what I wanted since she talked you out of it," I said with a shrug.

"No!" Elizabeth said, her voice firmer now. "She did not talk me out of it. She talked me into delaying it until I could discuss it in depth with you. She thought it was important that we have a full discussion on things before I took that step. That is one of the things I want to talk you about tonight. One of many, I guess. Look, yes, the chance to put Huntley in prison skewed my judgment. I admit to that. Then I stopped to think about what I was doing – about how I was treating you. That's what made me walk out of your office the last time and never look back. I realized that I care more about you than I ever will about putting some idiot in prison."

"And yet you still didn't mention it to me," I said.

"What was I supposed to say?" Elizabeth asked sadly. "I thought it wouldn't matter."

"You thought I would never find out," I countered.

"Yes," Elizabeth admitted.

"And that simple statement is why I have trouble believing anything you tell me right now," I pointed out. "If you could hide that from me, what else are you hiding? If you were willing to let a man be murdered by the state on false evidence, what else are you willing to do?"

"Ben, it's... , " her voice trailed off and she shook her head. "I acted stupidly and I was embarrassed. I didn't want you to be mad so I pretended it didn't happen. Then a week later, I got curious again and did it again. Then the thought hit my pea brain that I could still help Huntley get what he deserves by passing some of the information on to Jane's investigators. I told you, I was getting ready to print out one of your files when I finally understood where this would lead. I knew Huntley wasn't worth that. I knew no one was worth what it would cost me to take that step. So I left the office and I have not stepped foot in there since."

"That still doesn't explain why you were willing to let the fake documents go through," I said.

"I don't have an answer for that," she admitted.

"You're going to need one," I told her. "Jane Cummings knows – and she knows that you knew. You can bet that she is going to demand an explanation. Judge Valasik has convinced me to let things play out for a while but Jane will not do that. She will go straight to the licensing board when she finds out about the warrant system you have in place."

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Story tagged with:
Fiction / Mystery / Violent /