Tank could read the turmoil in the other man’s face, he knew as with any witness, he needed to ease Kyle into the story. “Tell me what happened that day. Just talk it out.”
Kyle eyed him suspiciously.
Tank just shrugged, “In my line of work, I tend to find the parties involved both see the worst side of it and not what really happened. I know her side, tell me yours. I want to help you.”
Tank drew a long slow breath, “Because I think a man ought to know his children, for better or worse. It is one of the few things Ice Cold Coach Wally and I don’t agree on.”
“Ice cold?” Kyle raised an eyebrow, “Mina always called her Hurricane Camille.
“That suits her too,” Tank snorted amused, “Her temper is vicious.”
They sat quietly for a few minutes, just sipping their whiskey.
“So, those pictures were something, huh?” Tank asked.
Kyle looked at him startled, but Tank shook his head, “No, I haven’t seen them, Hightower, but she said they left nothing to the imagination. She also said they were the 320 odd reasons the girls’ fathers were not in their lives. She implied you and your brother wanted good times, instead of family. I always assumed you knew about the girls and had decided you’d rather that life over fatherhood.”
“Who would do that?” Kyle growled. “All Kent or I ever wanted was a big family.”
Tank shrugged, “I knew a lot of players who did. They walked away from women who loved them for good times and arm candy. There were a few others who fought for their families with all they had. They got looked down on, taunted, and I wish I had been one of them. I picked to wrong team in that bowl game.” He looked down at the ice in his glass, something like regret passed over his features then he seemed to remember himself and looked expectantly at Kyle.
“Sooo, tell me your side about the pictures.”
Kyle sipped more burning amber, sighing. “Kris insisted we have a traditional bachelor party in Vegas, he planned the whole thing so we obliged him. We didn’t know that it was all a set-up to try and get his share of dad’s estate before he turned 25. We knew Kris had a gambling problem that dad had been covering. Kent had bailed him out with a few casinos we didn’t know he gotten into his Vegas bookie almost half a million dollars since dad died. The bookie hired some prostitutes that looked like Cami and Mina. They met Kris at this exclusive gentleman’s club called The Velvet Rope. The plan was to drug us, get some compromising pictures, and he gets his money and pay his debt. It didn’t quite work out that way, and well, one thing led to the obvious other.” Talking about the events of that night still made his stomach turn.
“Kris’ bookie had taken his phone so he used Kent’s to take the pictures he was going to blackmail us with. Kris figured we’d give him his share of the company in cash to keep the pictures from Mina and Cami. He didn’t know it was set up with cloud sharing, it was a brand new thing back then. At the same time, Mina was trying to send Cami a picture of her pregnancy test and that’s how they found out. They literally watched Kent and I screwing around on them with two women made up to look just like them. Kris had gotten drunk too, liquid courage as my father used to call it, and just kept taking pictures, 328 pictures. I can’t even imagine how they felt. We were so stoned, we didn’t remember. I thought it was a dream the next morning; that I had dreamed about making love to Camille.” He took another gulp of his whiskey, his head was starting to spin but he didn’t care, he had to be numb when he talked about it.
“Kris’ bookie decided he didn’t want to wait for the money and showed up at our hotel suite. Kent paid him off but said we’d never cover Kris’ nut again. On the way home, I saw the text message. "We can see you boys." But it didn’t make sense at the time. In one of the pictures, I was looking at my phone. I got the message and I was so far gone to realize what it meant. I didn’t stop what was happening. Cami refused to see me the next day after we flew home, saying she was with her sister and it was bad luck for the groom to see the bride and all.” He could almost fell the velvet box he had in his pocket that day and the next.
“Their wedding day came and the limo was an hour late getting us to the wedding. Instead of the chapel, we were led to the reception hall, and Hurricane Camille dropped a bomb into our world. She had a whole video presentation that she showed our whole family, our friends and business partners, every guest we invited. She had just gotten to their engagement, as soon as she saw us, the image of the pregnancy test appeared behind her. She told everyone looking online to share the pregnancy test photo was how she and Mina had ‘learned the truth about the devotion of the Hightower men’.” Kyle chuckled ruefully, swirling the whiskey and ice, remembering how ‘devoted’ he had been to ‘her’ two nights before and how disgusted with himself it made him feel after he found out the truth.
He almost groaned at the heartburn that wasn’t just from the whiskey, all these years and it hadn’t gotten any easier. “She showed some of the less racy pictures from the bachelor party, and then closed with a news report on the accident that killed Mina and Cam saying Mina was dead. She looked at me in a way that I had never imagined when she gave me back our grandmother’s ring. She’d had it cut off Mina. It was charred from the accident. Kent just dropped to his knees and began throwing up. I tried to stop her from going but she threw the pictures in my face with some flippant remark about them being worth a thousand words, and then said she was going to make arrangements to bury her sister.”
His regret rose like bile in his throat, “The whole time, her ring, the one I had made to propose to her with, was in my pocket. Her little show ruined the reputation of my father’s company and ours. And to this day I believed Mina and the baby died in the accident. I can’t believe she lied to me, to us.”
Tank eyed his glass, “Perhaps not. Camille is a terrible liar. Do you remember exactly what she said?”
Kyle scowled he actually remembered every word she said that day. “She said that Mina and the baby never made it to the airport. And that she had to go make arrangements for her and we weren’t invited.” He was silent for a moment, thinking about her exact wording.
“So she technically didn’t lie, but she knew what we would believe by withholding the information about Mina surviving. If she had just told us Mina was still alive, Kent wouldn’t have killed himself,” Kyle finished bitterly.
“Kent committed suicide? Aww, man that’s rough. Did you remember any more or did Kris tell you?” Tank’s genuine sounding concern kept Kyle talking.
“Not right away. When we got up the next morning, I found Kent sitting on his bed with a gun. I took it away from him and we decided that we needed to figure out what the girls saw and it was bad. Really bad. We had sex with those women after hours of lap dances and foreplay. They just kept giving us drinks and teasing us until we screwed them. I mean I knew she wasn’t Cami because her tattoo was in the wrong place, but Kris was there and calling her Camille and my brain on whatever they had drugged us with... I don’t even know what happened, I just remember being balls deep in and hallucinating that Cami’s butterfly was crawling around on her body.” Kyle felt the emptiness of his shame less keenly than he had at first, but it was still there.
“After the wedding fiasco and checking the cloud pictures, I figured out that Kris had set us up and I wanted to know why. Kent and I were three bottles of scotch down at noon, when he came in and made some snarky comment about how we both dodged a bullet. Kent walked out while I confronted Kris. He confessed to everything. I had just told him I never wanted to see him again when we heard the gunshot. A clip of the accident had come on the news, I guess between his guilt and his grief, Kent couldn’t handle it. Mina was his world; she was everything beautiful to him. He just didn’t want to live without her, he told me that and I thought he was just grieving. I never thought he’d... I did CPR till the paramedics arrived, but he was declared DOA. After Kent’s funeral, Kris took off. I never saw him again. Two years later, Kris killed himself in a single car DUI, or so the police report said.”
Kyle poured himself a third glass, “I made it a month after Kent’s death before I went to Cami’s house the first time. I waited there every day for a week and she never came home, she never went back to her job, it was like she just vanished. Her house went up for sale and I bought it, hoping to see her at the closing. But her grandmother came instead, signed everything and told me among other things that Kent and I needed to think hard about the kind of men we were. Camille seemed to vanish until the Olympics.” He stood up and walked unsteadily to the window, the stars looked like diamonds in the black velvet sky.
Closing his eyes, he could still see her falling toward the water, slipping under the surface with barely a splash and the bubbles fanning out around her like wings. His memories playing out like media clips. Cami standing on the podium, Bronze medal around her neck and her hand swiping away a tear as the Australian National anthem played. The deep V-neck blue to turquoise ombre dress she wore to the team banquet before the closing ceremony had every one of the single males and half the married ones eyeing her, and quite a few females too. How she had sat aloof and serene, like a queen, while speeches and toast were made.
As a team sponsor, he had gotten to attend and it had driven him crazy to watch those boys hovering around her, but he didn’t fail to notice she rebuffed all of them with frigid looks and sharp comments that had their fellows laughing at their wounded egos. He could see how agitated she had become when she walked out with an icy poise before the after-party had really begun. One of the water polo team had tried to touch her butterfly and she had threatened to break his wrist for touching her without her permission. After the scuffle, he overheard one of the other female athletes commenting that if she had been paid to wear that dress, she should put up with a little fawning from the well known playboy.
Tank’s voice drew him back, “Kyle?”
“Sorry, just remembering. I don’t drink much anymore... I saw her on ESPN going to next Olympics, so I flew over there to watch her dive, but she looked different. Smiling for photo after photo but after the cameras were gone, she always had the same cold and weary look. I couldn’t make myself talk to her because I did that to her. The girl I met in Mexico, the one who had fought her way back after the worst thing a man could do to a woman, to laugh again, to love unconditionally. She was gone and I had done that. I left like the coward I was. Just to read or watch her interviews after, she never mentioned her life beyond diving, then she retired and that was it until today.”
“All this time, things could have been so different. If I had known Mina was alive, even after Kent’s death, I’d have paid for everything. If I had known, I would have been there for Cami’s pregnancy. I would have done the right thing even if she never forgave me. Kris caused all this for money, but I am the one who cheated.” His guilt throbbed painfully in the place where love had once bloomed.
Tank shook his head, “It wasn’t your fault, you were drugged. The evidence looked bad, but there were extenuating circumstances. If you told her...”
Kyle cut him off, “I appreciate your opinion Tanner, but I knew it wasn’t Cami and I did it anyway. And now my daughter and niece hate me.”
“They don’t know you enough to hate you. I don’t think they even know your last name. And Cam, well... if you tell her what you told me, she might forgive you,” Tank said softly. “She has a soft heart under that tough coach exterior.”
“Why are you doing this? Why help me?” Kyle asked without turning around.
“Because when I was a young man in the NFL, I listened to the wrong people and made a stupid, arrogant mistake. It cost me everything of real value. I spent the next 12 years seeing my son for one week twice a year. His mother eventually forgave me and we became friends again. She even invited me to her wedding, I was proud to go and watch our son walk her down the aisle. He graduated from high school, all honors, and goes to the Air Force Academy. I make the drive to every home game I can. I got lucky, I had someone sit down with me, keep me level when I was broken and angry at the world. I guess I am just paying it forward.”
Tank went to the door, “Remember she didn’t want the man she saw in those pictures near her daughters, and neither would you. She is mama bear protective of those girls, and I mean grizzly level. You have to convince her you’re not that man and never were before she’ll let you close to them. Camille usually goes to the pool at 6AM to dive; she’s given the kids the weekend off so she’ll be there alone tomorrow.”
Kyle chuckled mirthlessly, remembering what the girls had said to him, “The girls told me if I bothered Camille, they would drown me and you’d cover it up for them because you wanted to be their stepdad.”
Tank belly laughed, “They would. Gawd, I love those girls. But like I told you, Wally and I are just gossip and wishful thinking. I advise you to try to catch Wally without them around. I’d hate to bag you for the county coroner. Good luck, Hightower. I gotta get back.”
Kyle watched Tank Tanner drive off and wondered slightly at what providence had led him to this town and left this man here to help him.