Eva’s eyes snapped open the instant Denise turned the bedroom door handle. She was plopped on the bed with her arm draped over the duffel bag next to her.
“How did it go?” Eva asked, rubbing her eyes.
Denise made a despondent face and shook her head. “I’m grounded, of course,” she said with stinging resentment.
“How long?” Eva sat up and on her elbows.
“Six months! Did you ever!”
Eva laughed. “That won’t last,” she said. “I saw the way your dad looks at you. He’ll give in on that in no time.”
“I know,” said Denise, smirking. “He’d like to talk to you now, if you’re willing,” she added.
“Perfect,” said Eva.
“I asked if you could stay with us.” Denise wrapped her arms restfully around herself.
“And?” said Eva.
“He didn’t say no.” Denise grinned. “Come on, I’ll show you where his study is.”
Eva swung her legs off the bed while firmly gripping the handle of the duffel bag.
“You can leave that here,” said Denise. “No one will touch it.”
Eva shook her head. “No, I need to bring it with me.”
The formidable study door was closed and Eva knocked once before entering. Carrying the duffel bag, she shifted its weight to turn and close the door behind her.
Albert Bennett looked at the large duffel and raised his eyebrows. “Denise gave me the impression you wanted to remain as our guest for now.”
Eva placed the bag on the floor next to her. “I haven’t made up my mind about that yet.”
“I see.” He was clearly surprised. “Why don’t you have a seat and we can discuss that along with some other things I’d like to ask you about?” Gesturing, he invited her to choose either of the two sizeable chairs that squatted in front of his generous desk.
“First and foremost,” he said, after she’d sat and placed the duffel bag at her feet, “I want to thank you for rescuing Denny from that low-life, no-account creep. Denny makes you out to be quite a quick-witted, take-charge, think-on-your-feet kind of gal. In fact, she thinks you’re quite a cool young woman all around. I’m impressed. She’s usually more cynical about everyone—everything, for that matter.”
“Thank you,” said Eva, folding her hands on her lap. “How did Denise ever meet Jerry anyway?”
“My fault,” he said, shaking his head. “I bought her that damn car for her birthday and the next thing I know she’s sneaking out and going to nightclubs with her friends. She met this Jerry jerk at a place called The Watering Hole. Once he found out who she was, he zeroed in on her like a mosquito feeding on a beaner’s bare ass. He sweet-talked her into running away with him . . .”
“She told you they got married?”
“Ah,” he said, waving his hand, “quickie Mexican wedding—means nothing. I’ll take care of that.”
“So who was he—is he?” Eva asked. Eva thoughtfully designed her questions to draw the man out, calculating she had only minutes to decide whether or not to trust Albert Bennett with everything or walk out of his house forever.
“Some waiter at that bar,” he said. “About a month ago Denny started acting all doe eyed, if you know what I mean, and she let slip to Teresa that she was ‘in love,’ but not to tell me. Naturally, Teresa told me at once, and I had Denny followed to find out who Romeo was.”
“Couldn’t you have just asked Denny about him?” Eva posed.
He shook his head. “She would have just lied to me.”
“You found him then?” asked Eva.
“I found him all right! He’s twenty-six or something, ten years older than Denny, and, as if that weren’t bad enough, he’s got a police record for grand theft auto. He sells drugs from that club. I know Denny got drugs from him. Of course, I immediately forbade her to see him ever again, and, of course, she immediately threw one of her Texas-sized tantrums.”
“Mmm.” Eva assessed the concern in his face.
“Three nights later, she’s gone; no note, no phone call, nothing. I had no idea whether she’d run off with him, run off alone, or if the bastard kidnapped her. Worst night of my life,” he said, shaking his head, “well, second worst.”
“Yes, I know,” Eva said, easing back slightly in the generous chair. “Denny told me about what happened to your wife. I’m very sorry.”
He looked at her appreciatively and smiled.
“What?” Eva said.
“You remind me of her,” he said warmly. “I don’t know what it is, exactly—the way you wear your hair, your smile—I’m not sure, something.”
“It must have been awful losing her that way,” Eva said.
“Thank you. Long time ago, but the wounds are still raw. Only woman I ever loved,” he said plaintively. For a split second, Eva thought she detected tears in his eyes, which were quickly blinked away. “That’s enough about me,” he said abruptly, shifting to sit straighter in the sumptuous leather chair. “Let’s talk about you. Denise mentioned that you might appreciate some assistance in finding your father. Is that right?”
Eva paused and deliberately contemplated the entire room. If the man’s study was an accurate indication of the man, he was indisputably prosperous. But, was he honorable?
The room had book shelves to the ceiling on three walls, filled with thick volumes. Eva presumed they were law books. The credenza behind him held two equestrian sculptures etched in beautiful crystal and half a dozen photographs of Denny and her mother in gold-plated frames. On the wall behind him was a large oil painting of himself and his late wife. They were both smiling and dressed in formal attire as if heading for a royal ball.
The room was luxuriously large with expensive, well-appointed furniture throughout. Twenty feet from the desk where they sat was a large oak conference table with eight high-back chairs. The fourth wall was primarily a tall, wide window revealing a well-manicured lawn surrounding a creek that looked as if it had come from a picture book of fairy tales. Next to the window, a grouping of two maroon-colored sofas and two gold-leather love seats formed a conversation area.
Eva returned her attention to Albert Bennett. Do I or don’t I? It’s now or never.
With an amiable grin on his face, he stared at her, waiting.
Eva cleared her throat. “Both my parents are dead,” she said finally. “They died together in a car accident almost ten years ago now.”
Wariness immediately replaced the congeniality in his face. “I don’t understand,” he said, leaning forward on his desk. “You told my daughter that . . .”
“I lied,” Eva said, holding his gaze.
“Why, may I ask?” he said, suddenly raising his hand and adding, “although, you don’t have to tell me. Clearly your business is none of my business, so don’t feel obligated to answer if you’d rather not.”
“I’d like to answer,” Eva stated flatly, “but first I need to settle something else.”
“Yes?” he said, opening his palms.
“I’d need to hire you as my lawyer.”
He chuckled. “Why? Have you been injured?”
“No, but I read a lot of detective and mystery books, Mr. Bennett . . .”
“Call me Albert.”
“… they all mention attorney-client privilege.”
“So if I’m your client, then everything I tell you must be kept confidential, isn’t that the law?”
He leaned back in his chair studying Eva carefully. “That’s right, but only if I accept you as a client,” he said firmly.
“Why wouldn’t you accept me as a client?” Eva challenged.
“Any number of reasons,” he answered. “First off, even though you’re my daughter’s friend, I don’t generally do pro bono work. Pro bono means . . .”
“I know what it means,” Eva said, cutting him off. “I can pay you. In fact, I’d like to put you on a … a … retainer—that is the right term, isn’t it?”
He smiled. “You know your layman’s legalize pretty well. Yes, that’s the correct term, but ability to pay isn’t the only consideration I make when accepting a client.”
“What else then?” Eva raised her chin.
“Frankly,” he said, “my practice is exclusively personal injury lawsuits and as a general rule I avoid clients who are compromised by prior illegal activities or shady pasts. Not that I’m a prude; it’s just that prior crimes muddy up the waters and end up being more problematic to explain away. It’s just not worth it to me.”
“You can do other things besides lawsuits, can’t you?” Eva asked.
“I can, yes,” he said, sitting back, “but I generally don’t.”
Eva bent over, unzipped the duffel bag, and withdrew two $100 bills which she immediately placed on his desk.
Tenting his fingers, he stared at the money and smiled. “That will buy you thirty minutes,” he said.
Eva’s eyes widened. “You get $400 an hour?”
“I do,” he said smugly.
“Now I’m impressed,” she said. Reaching back into the duffel bag, Eva withdrew four $500 bills and placed those on the desk next to the other money. “Is that enough for a retainer?” she asked pointedly.
“I would have to be satisfied,” he said, examining her closely, “that this money you’re offering has not been obtained by you illegally. You’re not some kind of conniving criminal on the run, are you?”
“On the run, yes; ‘conniving criminal,’ no.”
Eva took his curious stare as a clear invitation to continue.
“This money belongs to me,” Eva said somberly. “I’m owed every dollar of this money as payment for five horrible years of enslavement, sexual abuse, humiliation, and captivity.” She stared straight into his eyes and waited for the response.
Tapping the tips of his fingers together, Bennett gazed reflectively over Eva’s head. It was obvious that he was weighing his decision. After several moments, he looked at Eva dispassionately, opened his top drawer, and withdrew a legal-sized, preprinted contract, which he pushed across the desk toward Eva.
“Read that over, Miss Lange,” he said, closing the drawer. “It’s our standard contract of retainer. If you’re satisfied; sign it and we can get started.”
Bennett’s convivial expression faded and was replaced by an inscrutable, emotionless demeanor lacking any warmth or virtue, and Eva thought: Should I be doing this? Can I trust him? Glancing over the contract, she noticed her hands were trembling slightly; she wondered if he noticed it as well.