“Would you put your mother in peril, son? Your sister? Me?” Carl entreated Cory to see the big picture of what his doggedness about helping Spencer Harrison might lead to. “Because that is precisely what you would be doing if you insist on inserting yourself in this situation.”
“Carl…” Rachel warned, appalled at her husband and by the manipulation she realized was taking place. “Don’t.”
“The boy needs to fully understand the potential consequences of his actions,” Carl snapped, returning his cowering gaze to Cory. “I am cognizant that you mean well. Alas, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.”
“I just want to make sure Mr. Harrison is okay.”
“A fool’s errand as he is most likely dead. All your Good Samaritanism would do in this instance is make yourself a target. As well as make everyone around you targets.”
“You’d protect me. You’d protect all of us.”
“Yes, I would,” Carl nodded. “You, your sister, and your mother. I would protect the three of you to the death, about that you need not fret a moment.”
Cory frowned as he processed what his father didn’t say or rather who he didn’t include in his list. “But what about… what about everyone else? I mean… Jamie and Amanda and Matt and…”
Elizabeth snorted. “Nobody cares about them.”
“Elizabeth!” Rachel burst out, shocked.
“I didn’t mean nobody cared about them,” her daughter defended, flustered. “Not like that. I just meant that they aren’t directly connected to Father, so they’re in no danger.”
“Unless it’s the other way around,” Cory frowned. “If Jamie, Amanda, Matt and the rest aren’t important to Father, then nobody would care if they got hurt in the cross-fire. No one would be trying too hard not to hurt them, either. Collateral damage, you know?”
“No one is going to get hurt,” Rachel said firmly, willing herself to believe it.
“Someone already was,” Cory reminded his mother. “But, I guess he’s expendable.”
“I understand your frustration, darling,” Rachel looked at her son. “But you have to see what your father is trying to say. These people are unpredictable and dangerous. I don’t want you caught it the middle.”
“What if I just make an anonymous call to the police? Give them a description of the men, their car? I even got a part of the license plate!”
“Out of the question.”
“Your information would be useless, in any case,” Carl scoffed. “The car is no doubt abandoned, burned and torched to avoid identification. The men – disposable flunkies themselves, with no notion of who they work for and no pertinent information.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes,” Carl’s eyes flashed. “I do. Now immediately cease this folly of yours, and realize that the best thing for everyone involved is to keep what you have seen to yourself. This business will sort itself out without your assistance.”
“This is wrong,” Cory shook his head and turned to Rachel. “You know this is wrong.”
“Oh, stop being so dramatic,” Elizabeth sniffed.
“Cory,” Rachel blocked her son’s path as he moved to leave. “Please promise me you won’t get involved in this. You won’t call anyone or do anything…”
“Answer your mother,” Carl directed from across the room, his command immediately forcing Cory to set his jaw.
“I won’t,” the boy answered softly in defeat before wrenching away from Rachel’s attempt at a comforting embrace. “I won’t tell anybody about any of this. I’d be too ashamed to.”
“Lucas,” Alice greeted the tense, pacing man with a weary attempt at a polite hostess smile. “I’m sorry for keeping you waiting. I-I wasn’t expecting – “
Lucas tried to mirror her expression, with equally dismal results. “No. Please. I’m sorry for just barging in like this, especially now. I… I know about Spencer. About Kirkland being kidnapped and Spencer…” Lucas hesitated as he really took in Alice, her face pale, her eyes red and swollen. He felt compelled to repeat, “I’m sorry. I know how empty these words sound, but I’m… sorry for your loss.”
Alice raised an eyebrow, the corners of her mouth tightening. “Do you know something I don’t?”
“Then please try and refrain from burying my husband prematurely. As much as I’m sure it would please Carl Hutchins, Spencer may not… he might still…”
“Alice…” Lucas reached out a comforting hand, only for her to abruptly pull away, her arms coming up to wrap around herself in a protective stance.
“I’m sorry, Lucas, but I just can’t accept your condolences right now. I know you mean well, but – “
“This is an excruciating time for you,” he nodded in understanding. “And I’m probably one of the last faces you want to see right now, given that – “
“Given that you were as much a part of this mess as my husband and Carl and yet you both managed to escape unscathed while Spencer…” Alice drifted off, half turning towards the door as if remembering something, as if pulled to leave but hesitant, afraid to do so.
“I’m sorry,” Lucas could do no more than fall back on the one thought clanging through his conscience. “If I had known what Carl planned to do…”
Alice laughed brokenly. “You loathe the man and yet you still work with him. You do his bidding and play his games even though you know he would just as soon kill you as spare your life, if it suited his momentary needs. Tell me the truth, when you learned that it was Spencer Carl had decided to sacrifice for the cause, was your first instinct a sigh of relief: There but for the grace of Carl….”
“I’m…” Lucas began, cutting himself off when he realized that he was about to stupidly and impotently apologize again. “You’re right. I am ashamed to say that you’re right.”
“Thank you for that truth, at least. Now, if you’ll excuse me I…I have things to take care of.”
“Of course,” Lucas nodded, both guilty and relieved in her dismissal. Still he couldn’t help adding, “Alice, if there is anything you need, any way I can make up for…”
“Pray,” she answered him in a shuddering breath. “You can pray for my husband. That’s the least you can do.”
“Your little girlfriend on the premises?” Lila asked Grant as she blew into his house the next morning, bearing coffee and doughnuts, skidding to a stop when she took in Grant’s disheveled countenance. “You look like hell,” she offered.
He shook his head. “I-I’ll tell you another time; promise. I’m just not feeling up to it at the moment.”
“Teeny-bopper turned out to be more than you could handle?”
“This has nothing to do with Sarah,” Grant sighed tiredly. “She actually… She actually is an amazing young woman.”
“Uh-ha. Not sure how much more amazement you can handle…”
“Would you cut it out?” Grant didn’t even have the energy to shout. “Please. I told you, Sarah… this isn’t about Sarah. What are you doing here, anyway?”
Now it was Lila’s turn to deflate and deflect. She handed him the coffee and admitted, “I wanted – I needed to… talk.”
“Oh, you know… life.”
“And you came to me?” Grant asked incredulously.
“I know. Aren’t you honored?”
“Shocked is more like it. What could possibly be going on in your life, Lila, that you think advice from me, of all people, might actually be able to improve matters?”
Briefly, she filled him in on her conversation with Chase, wherein he’d admitted being attracted to her, to flirting with her, but insisted it didn’t matter in the slightest. He didn’t intend to do anything about it, so why even discuss the issue further?
“And you thought I might have something relevant to contribute to your situation?” Grant just wanted to make sure they were on the same page, here.
“When it comes to inappropriate relationships, you’re my go-to guy,” she shrugged ruefully.
“I’m sure you meant that in the nicest way possible.” Grant pondered before getting down to business. “So far, you’ve told me how Hamilton claims he feels about you – “
“You don’t believe him?”
“I don’t believe anyone. Especially not a politician.”
“The question is, how do you feel about him?”
She hesitated. “I… I don’t know. A part of me thinks I’m just intrigued by the novelty of it all. And flattered. I meant the idea of turning…. Anyway, another part thinks it’s just been so long since any respectable man has paid me any mind – “
“Thank you,” Grant repeated.
“That’s why I qualified it with the respectable part.”
“And that’s why I said thank you.”
“ – That I’m just hard up for masculine attention. Any man would do. But then, there’s this third part…”
“Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“I like him. I really do. He’s sarcastic and abrasive and pompous and condescending.”
“What’s not to like?”
“But, he’s also smart and he’s passionate and committed to the things he believes in and the people he was elected to serve. He’s loyal.”
“That last one sounds like it could be a problem?” Grant wasn’t presuming, just pointing out what he’d observed.
“He says he made a commitment to Doug, and he intends to honor that commitment, no matter what.”
Grant sighed, weighing his words carefully as he confessed to Lila, “I used to think I knew exactly what would make me happy. It’s why I campaigned so hard. It’s why I went after Vicky so hard, Kirkland, too. I thought I could chart out my life on a spreadsheet and go down the list, checking off all the major signposts. All it did was make me – and everyone else – miserable. I thought life was about making plans. Turns out it might very well be about allowing yourself get caught off-guard. Trying something you never thought you would, letting yourself be pleasantly surprised.”
“As I live and breathe,” Lila shook her head. “Your little playmate has certainly done a number on you.“
Grant ignored her to finish, “Opening another person’s eyes to what they’ve been missing – you’re giving them a gift. Even if they don’t realize it at first.”
“Do you, Donna Love, take this man, Matthew Cory, to be your lawfully wedded husband?” The clerk had skipped the Dearly Beloved part, as there were no such animals in attendance. There were only Donna, Matt, the clerk and their witnesses – a female bailiff and a security guard just getting off night duty, recruited from the hallway outside.
“I do,” Donna told him – and them – with the utmost confidence, clutching both of Matt’s hands, beaming at him.
“And do you, Matthew Cory, take this woman, Donna Love, to be your wife?”
Matt’s smile mirrored hers as he brought up both of Donna’s hands and kissed them one at a time. He swore, “I do.”
“In that case, by the power vested in me by the State of Illinois, I now pronounce you Man and Wife. You may kiss the bride.”
And the bride was more than happy to kiss him back. And then some.
The whole thing happened so quickly – another happy couple was waiting for their own ceremony, that Matt and Donna were still in a bit of shock as they stumbled out of the Bay City courthouse. Having arrived bright and early first thing in the morning, it had still been somewhat gray outside. Now they blinked in surprise at the midday sunlight, as if waking up from a barely remembered dream.
“We did it,” Matt said, trying to fully absorb the thought.
“We did it,” Donna agreed, pulling him closer, not caring about the amused looks of the passers-by.
“And here you said you’d never get married again!”
“Unless it was for a good cause,” she corrected. “Besides, I always said I enjoyed the illicit nature of our relationships. It made things more exciting. What could be more illicit than this? And the best part is, now even if Jeanne does manage to drag you to the altar, she’ll never be the legal Mrs. Matthew Cory. You’re all mine now.”
“I’m still hoping it doesn’t come to that,” Matt qualified. “I’m not particularly interested in being thrown into jail for bigamy, either.”
“That won’t happen,” Donna assured. “Just make sure whoever you hire to perform that travesty of a wedding never files the marriage certificate, and you’ll be fine.”
“I’m going to try to talk her out of it again. She – she can be reasonable.”
Donna wasn’t interested. “The most important thing is not to tip your hand. Jeanne can’t know about us until everything’s been settled in our favor. We can’t risk her going off half-cocked with that ridiculous sexual harassment suit. Or what she knows about my role in Marley and Grant’s cover up.”
“She won’t. I’ll try to appeal to her better nature, convince her that she doesn’t really want to do this. She’s not a bad person. She’s just confused about how to get the things she sees other people as having.”
Donna decided to let that one pass without comment. Though it was hardly easy for her.
“You know,” Matt teased, pulling Donna into the shade of the civic center, away from prying eyes, kissing her neck, whispering, “If you get your wish and Jeanne decides to drop the blackmail for good, you’ll still be married to me.”
“I know,” she purred, hand on the back of his head.
“Till death do us part…”
“Not even then…” Donna swore.
“God, I hate the outdoors,” Cass sneezed for what felt like the fifth time in the same number of minutes. He rolled up the windows of his car, trying to keep whatever the natural evil currently clogging up his nasal passages at bay. “Why does everyone think it’s so great, anyway? Give me air-conditioning and an antihistamine any day.”
“Less talking, more driving,” Felicia jabbed her finger into the map she’d been holding for them both to look at after the GPS gave up and decided their destination didn’t exist. “You’ll miss your exit.”
“Turn left at the rooster is hardly specific. You may have noticed there are quite a few of them around here. And,” Cass lowered his voice conspiratorially. “They’re starting to look at me funny.”
“Professional courtesy. One cock of the walk to another,” Felicia reassured him absently, peering out the window, searching desperately for any landmark to match the ones on the map before calling out, “There! There! Right there! See that mailbox? Tantalus! Turn there!”
Cass did as directed, albeit with a minimum of enthusiasm. This may have all been his idea, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.
He asked Felicia, “Is it too late to get the nuns’ habits out of storage?”
“It’s never too late,” she reassured him. “We can turn around right now, go home, never mention it again.”
“Until the next time Frankie feels the urge to Google in the middle of the night.”
“Surely you can think of something to distract her?” Felicia asked just before a bump in the dirt road sent her head smacking painfully against the car’s roof.
“That’s what you get for asking insulting questions,” Cass said, before sympathetically reaching over to rub the bump rising beneath her hair.
“It’s alright,” Felicia said. “I put on extra hairspray this morning. Nothing’s getting through there.”
“You went all out.”
“For you,” she reminded. “Anything.”
Cass pulled his car onto a stretch of land on the perimeter of what a hand-painted sign assured him was the Tantalus Cooperative Farm. He hoped he hadn’t parked on top of somebody's dinner – animal, vegetable or mineral.
He said, “Thank you. Thanks for indulging me and coming out here.”
“If this is what you need, I’ve got your back. And if it isn’t – same deal.”
“You’re that easy, huh?”
“Now who’s being insulting?” she winked, getting out of the car and following Cass up a rocky path to the main house.
They knocked on the door and after receiving a shouted, “Come in!” did as invited, stepping into what once might have been the main room, or even a parlor for receiving guests, but now seemed to serve as a make-shift office, social area and… storage? A state-of-the-art computer shared space with a full, rattling juice-maker surrounded by orange and carrot peels, several recycling bins, stacks of books – both hardback and paper, and bags of various seeds alongside a pile of gardening tools. The air smelled equal parts of dirt, freshly picked fruit and human sweat. Cass sneezed in response.
“Can I help you folks?” From out of the debris came a boy slightly older than Charlie, just out of his teen years, tall and lanky, with limbs that seemed to be only now getting used to their new, fully grown dimensions, and dark curly hair that kept falling into his equally ebony eyes.
“We’re looking for Zeno Tantalus,” Cass said quickly, before he lost his nerve.
“You’ve found him,” the boy said.
Cass and Felicia exchanged surprised glances, Felicia gathering her wits first to clarify, “I believe we mean your father.”
“Haven’t got a father,” he said easily, a piece of information the young man was obviously accustomed to sharing. “I’m the only Zeno Tantalus here. What can I do for you?”
“How is he?” After a full night of the two of them standing vigil, taking turns checking on Spencer, monitoring his vital signs and making sure he wasn’t in too much pain – they’d agreed there wasn’t much to do medically beyond make him comfortable, Alice watched as Jamie examined her husband again. She didn’t trust herself to do it. She was hardly impartial.
Jamie weighed his words carefully before answering, “The same.”
Alice nodded, absorbing the information, first mentally, then emotionally. She turned to Jamie, “How much longer do you think?”
“A couple of hours,” Jamie said. “His organs are all shutting down, add to that the blood loss and…”
“You think he might regain consciousness again?”
“It’s possible,” Jamie admitted. “Listen, Alice, I was thinking, do you think… Do you think Spencer might want a… priest?”
“The better question,” she said, ignoring the obvious implication. “Is might he want to see Grant again?”
“I thought about calling him,” Jamie admitted. “On the one hand, it would give Grant a chance to say good-bye to his father. On the other hand, they already did, once. What would be the point of upsetting either of them all over again? The situation is…”
“Inevitable?” Alice all but struck Jamie with the word.
“Yes,” he confirmed. “Then again, I’ve also been wondering whether it might be worth it to bring Kirkland here. He thinks he’s responsible for Spencer’s… for what happened to Spencer. I don’t know if it would be worse for Kirk to see him like this, or if maybe there’s something Spencer could tell him… some absolution… I was talking to Lorna earlier. About Carl playing God. How just because he can, doesn’t mean he should. I almost feel like we’re in the same position now. I’m really not sure what we should do.”
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